Monday, December 30, 2019


The only true traveller is the business traveller. Like Marco Polo, he travels with a purpose.


Most travel writing is bogus, unreal and superficial. It is bogus because it pretends adventure which, as Admundsen said, is simply bad organization. Wandering around the Hindu Kush is nothing to fighting your way around the Tokyo underground in the rush hour. Rafting down the Brahma Putra is a piece of cake compared with trying to sign a deal with a government minister on his knees in the middle of a mosque during Tabaski.


Business travellers ... hit the ground staggering. But immediately they hit the ground, they are part of the history and culture of the country. As soon as he arrives, the business traveller is absorbing and mastering the customs of the country, because if he doesn't he won't do any business. He also has to learn how to survive riots, curfews, coup attempts and management reshuffles back home.

Peter Biddlecombe Travels with my Briefcase

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Simplifying too soon

I got halfway through The Righteous Mind by Haidt before duty called me away.

My first reaction is that the philosophical systematizers (e.g. Kant with his categorical imperative, or Bentham with maximized happiness, or Thales and his water all were missing the forest for the trees. They wound up indulging in what computer programmers call "premature optimization."

You've got part of the problem, wring it for all it's worth and hope that solves the whole thing. Hammer on that screw; it'll go in somehow!

Even the three commandments (Micah 6:8) or the two commandments (Matthew 22:36-40), though they seem simple distillations, do not tell the whole story unless you know the shape of love, and the 10 commandments help reveal the shape.

In physics, it turns out that instead of simply the electromagnetic force as the Victorian sci-fi writers knew, we have at least 3 (gravity, electro-weak, and strong). As noted (disparagingly) before, it isn't just philosophers trying to oversimplify--so do some physicists. And politicians. God preserve us from planners with their "simple, obvious, and wrong" solutions. I include self-driving car designers here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


Yes, I remember the journey well. Messengers from their king got home before we did, and the Sah was not happy with us. And if it weren't for Jaspar's silver tongue the college would have thrown us out too. He was wonderful that way. When we were stopped at Tiberias, he talked us out of trouble--told the decurion his horoscope, blamed the miscommunication on a thieving courier--Jaspar lied like a Greek! The horsemen were looking for a baby, so the family must have gotten away too.

Jaspar died eight years ago. He didn't remember me, but at the end he opened his eyes and saw me and said, "He smiled at us."

For over forty years people have come to me to learn what the stars tell them, but the stars don't whisper to me anymore. I look up the positions and the meanings and assemble the oracle--and sometimes include wisdom from the Hebrew prophets as well. My customers find them exotic, and like those oracles better. It seems wrong, but the oracles seem so empty otherwise.

The rest of the time I comb rumors for news, and wait.

I have to keep a fire going day and night to keep warm, so I'll not be traveling anymore. My last trip into Rome was sixteen years ago to Damascus. That was a good trip. I bought a dozen manuscripts and even met Gamaliel. He didn't want to talk about prophecies or kings, just Torah family applications and a youngster he had met.

The stars never lie, and the prophets don't either, but we misunderstand sometimes. But not this time. For 29 years there's been no word, but there must be. There can't not be.

And it shouldn't matter--babies smile sometimes--but he smiled at us, and the stars didn't matter anymore.

Sunday, December 22, 2019


"Blessed are all thy Saints, O God and King, who have travelled over the tempestuous sea of this mortal life, and have made the harbor of peace and felicity. Watch over us who are still in our dangerous voyage; and remember such as lie exposed to the rough seas of trouble and temptations. Frail is our vessel, and the ocean is wide; but as in thy mercy thou has set our course, so steer the vessel of our life toward the everlasting shore of peace, and bring us at length to the quiet haven of our heart's desire, where thou, O our God, are blessed, and livest and reignest for ever and ever."

St. Augustine

"Dear God, be good to me; the sea is so wide, and my boat is so small."

Breton fishermen's prayer

Saturday, December 21, 2019


It's been suggested that Biden was far from the only one with his snout in the Ukranian trough. That might help explain a curious aspect or two of the impeachment. Much though the media dislike revealing things that would taint their heroes(*), Trump is capable of making sure that details come out anyway. This could bring several influential Democrats down--and probably several Republicans as well. That creates vacancy and opportunity for ambitious young Democrats. The impeachment was something none of the Democrats could oppose, but perhaps the Ukrainian connection means some of the older ones would not be averse to delay or a rapid, skeleton-free, acquittal that they could blame on Republican partisanship. Conviction was never in the cards.

(*) This "selective honesty" isn't a recent failing--newspapers have been deeply partisan for all our history.

Missing the point

Student calls on Oregon School District to end calorie tracking assignment
The assignment has Oregon Middle School students track their eating habits using a smartphone app to analyze their nutritional intake and reflect on any dietary changes they might consider as part of an eighth-grade health class,


it was a “dreadful” experience, because she was already suffering from depression and anxiety before doing the assignment.

“Young people do not need more reason to feel that their bodies are inadequate,” Becker, 15, wrote in her petition. “This assignment is a breeding ground for low self-esteem students to develop unhealthy relationships with food.”

Over 400 signatures are on the petition.

“We never want a young person to feel uncomfortable with a piece of our curriculum in school,” Superintendent Busler said. “We’re very proud of the fact she brought this up, she took an advocacy stance.”

According to the report, the student kept using the app after the assignment ended, and "started to obsess over what she was eating and the number of calories she was consuming."

Perhaps the teacher did not make clear that there is no one-size-fits-all for diet, and explain properly the use of such logging. From the photo, Becker is not obese--the app should have encouraged her that she was just fine. Maybe the teacher didn't get it across, or maybe Becker isn't able to listen on this topic.

Or maybe the app is incompetently designed. Designing an algorithm for teens isn't easy--what with growth spurts and slowdowns, medication interactions, etc. Adults would be easier: "fine", "probably fine", "you can't keep this up for too long", "butter would be good for you."

Tip for Introverts

If you find the ThanksChristmEve crowds a bit draining, you can arrange for privacy by opening a jar of kimchee.

Thursday, December 19, 2019


In Lord of Light Zelazny has Yama say "None sing hymns to breath. But, oh to be without it!"

A spot of pneumonia can cure that bit of ingratitude, at least for a while.

Looking at the scrapes on the car reminds me that we take healing for granted. A scratch in the paint will be there until it rusts through, but you expect a scratch on your arm to be gone in a few days. (more days as you get older, unfortunately) That's a huge gift--most injuries are temporary. Thank God.


Our Wednesday Bible study is finally done with Ezekiel. We started back in April, I think. The last few chapters beg for symbolic or allegorical interpretation. The river grows from a trickle to unfordable in less than 2 miles, with no tributaries mentioned. That's not a river.

The temple has an odd rule: go out by a different door than you go in. It isn't hard to come up with symbolic/allegorical reasons, and even practical ones: a trip to the temple is whole-hearted with no turning back; you come out different; etc--and you come in contact with people other than the ones you went in with. Etc.

But it isn't hard to find people who believe this is the literal description of a temple to be built and used during the "millennial reign of Christ." Even positing that the 1000-years is literal, assuming that the abrogated sacrifices would be acceptable in the new era, with Jesus on hand to boot, just seems incoherent, and I said so. They pity me.

I can live with that.

While some argue that the rituals commanded in the Old Testament are arbitrary, the author of Hebrews implies that they have meanings. So, what is the meaning of holding festivals at the new moon? These days they treat the new moon as the birth of a new month--maybe it had that meaning back then too. Passover is a full moon (no eclipse possible at the Crucifixion), and as a memorial of liberation, maybe having light day and night is a good symbol.


IceCube's budget is tight. So whoever taped bananas to walls and even printers(*) must have been trying to help us bring in a little extra auction cash.

\$120,000. I have a vision of those rich San Francisco kids sitting on the beach last century taking turns throwing gold coins into the bay until one gave up.

(*)The "Help Desk" was very unhappy as he tried to get the stickum off them.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019


Does anyone else remember this radio show?

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Extreme noise

Richard Fernandez suggests, hopefully, that People are filtering political noise out. People keep going to work, inventing new things and going about their business despite the apocalyptic political talk. "Noise reduction is the process of removing noise from a signal." ... While the workaday world continues to regard the political system as important, it no longer treats it as supremely important.'

Perhaps the workaday world never did regard the political as supremely important. That's why they do and build things. Those who think politics is supreme generally wind up destroying things. Idols like human sacrifices.

Saturday, December 14, 2019


A re-run from 2006:

Think about Joseph. We slide over him--the shepherds get more air time than he does in the Christmas plays. Of course he wasn't the father, and wasn't the husband--yet. Either would have been a position of authority--everybody knew to look first to the father in the family. But he was only a stand-in.

We now know God was turning the old order on its head, and now the ruler was helpless and God's power shone in weakness. But even so, Joseph wasn't even the worldly family ruler yet. He hadn't married Mary yet--accepted and acknowledged, but not married.

Why not marry her and forestall the odd looks? There might have been some prosaic problem like a lack of funds to pay the expenses, but my guess is that he was too awed to marry yet. Something holy was happening, and he had to wait. So he had reverence and practical (maybe even emotional) patience.

We're told he was just (or righteous--the word's the same). When he found that Mary was pregnant, which meant she had been unfaithful/impure, he remembered his duty to God's justice. There's a punishment for lawlessness, even for those dear to you. He tempered this with mercy--not Divine gracious mercy that shares the punishment, but the honorable mercy of a man who tries to mitigate the punishment. But he listened when God told him what was really about to happen.

What would that message have meant to Joseph? In his home the Savior would grow up. He was a poor man--how could he possibly prepare things correctly for the Savior? Would the Savior need to go study under the greatest rabbi?

If the mother governs the nest, representing the welcome and nurture and growth, the father is the guardian of the threshold, looking both ways and representing the claims of the family to the world and of the world to the family. He must be both just and loyal, and in some way justice must come first. He has the responsibility of the sword to fight for his family, and it is evil to do that without justice. Joseph was just.

He took on the responsibilities of being the husband without being the husband yet. He took on the responsibilities of being the father, without being the father--yet. He unexpectedly took on the ludicrous role of protector of God.

In the great drama he was not going to be a central character. He probably expected to be important, and didn't know he would completely vanish from the scene--Mary was to be the archetypal Christian. Joseph was more like John the Baptist: she must increase and I must decrease. Or perhaps like Martha, with the necessary lesser duties.

I imagine Joseph outside the stable with the livestock, keeping an eye on the displaced beasts that panic at the smell of blood, waiting and hearing the pain he cannot protect Mary from. Wondering how he was going to try to raise a prophet and Savior. And now and then wondering how he was going to pay the midwife. For he was a just man.

Jumping the gun

Quanta posted an article claiming that all the laws of physics could be derived from symmetries surrounding particles of different spin angular momentum.

Except that if you read the article carefully you find that there are different possible spin-0 elementary bosons, and the spin-2 that is supposed to give general relativity (the graviton) has never actually been discovered--and last time I heard there were some issues with calculating its interactions. I don't think the cancellation they refer to is the one I heard of. And no spin-3/2 particles either. And the "case where there are multiple types of the same massless spin-1 particle" isn't constrained, as far as I've heard--there might be other options than SU(3) in theory.

It has been a "holy grail" in some circles to try to show that the laws of physics are inevitable--that this is the best of all only possible worlds. The article's claim seems premature.

It would be fun if it were true, of course. We've got dark matter and maybe dark energy that need some explanation.

UPDATE: Some writers are much harsher than I

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Panspermia followup

A few years back I mused a bit about life from Earth seeding other planets. You'd need speeds of order 27km/sec to get to Mars, because it is uphill from the Sun. That's pretty fast, and unless a chunk was entrained in a lot of other stuff going the same way, the heating you get from compressing the atmosphere on the way out would tend to melt it. But maybe...

I thought I should follow up on that. O'Keefe and Ahrens modeled impacts on Mars and the Moon, and write that "In addition, we have calculated the internal energy of ejecta versus ejecta velocity. The internal energy of fragments having velocities exceeding the escape velocity of the moon (∼2.4 km/sec) will exceed the energy required for incipient melting for solid silicates and thus, the fragments ejected from Mars and the Earth would be melted."

This is already at quite a bit lower energy than that required to ship chunks away from the Earth.

You might get some extra (not quite so shock-y) speedup from turbulent interactions in the debris cloud, but I don't think you can get another order of magnitude.

Poor fried spores--not much chance for a new home.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Peace and the internal combustion engine

When I was a baby sometimes my father would take me out for a drive around the block in LA to put me to sleep.

On long trips across Texas to Glorieta, I would sometimes drift off in the back seat after lunch, only waking up when we stopped for gas.

When the car is running smoothly and the road is even, highway driving is comfortable, even pleasant. The car is doing its proper car function, and all is well--provided the other drivers are courteous--as they ought to be.

Thousands of little explosions each minute, under perfect control, purr. Bearings run silently. Even the wheels only make a gentle roar. The car, moving faster than the wind, is peaceful. The road is peaceful--and so are the other drivers. Even the wheels only make a gentle roar.

And this kind of peace would have scared an ancient Roman out of his hobnailed shoes.

Sunday, December 08, 2019


Does the simplicity of God bear on the Incarnation?

Start with something easier.

In some ways a man is like a wave. The matter that makes up a man is ephemeral; it is constantly being replaced. A wave's energy and organization stay more or less the same, but on different matter all the time. In both cases it is the "form"(*) acting on matter that makes the thing. Without matter there is no wave. Without matter we have no body, and we have no evidence for human life without a body. Orthodox doctrine tells of a resurrection of the body--reconstituting with new matter. Ghosts I do not understand--the evidence is unclear, though they are pretty universally testified to. (including by my wife)

Cast-off matter is no longer carried along with the "wave" or "form". Though some may keep a lock of hair as a souvenir most of us don't care about such things. Waste of course we put behind us. The final state of the body we honor for the sake of the one whose it was.

The matter of the body affects the "form" of the man--it isn't a one-way "ghost in the machine" procession. The combination is what makes the man. But it is a combination--a man has parts--and not just the different parts of the body.

When Jesus became a man, He took this kind of nature also. So He had godhead, the "form" of a man, and the body united with that 'form.'

But if God has no "parts" (simplicity), then this union also presumably has no part or divisions. We can, and probably should, say that when Jesus emptied Himself and took the form of a bond-servant, He took up non-simplicity with that. That's fair.

But I'd like to puzzle this a little further. The perfect unity of godhead and human 'form' is Chalcedonian, which most Christians accept. But what about the matter? That is inseparable from the 'form' of a man, but is clearly also a distinct part. (Also--2 hands, 2 feet, etc) Unless this particular matter, united with the One who made and sustains all matter, is united with all matter everywhere, it is hard to see how to make this "partless" or "simple." That seems uncomfortably close to pantheism. Perhaps the doctrine of theosis shows an orthodox way.

Theosis is God bringing us into union with Him.

"because Christ united the human and divine natures in Jesus' person, it is now possible for someone to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden, and that people can become more like God than Adam and Eve were at that time. Some Eastern Christian theologians say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned."

And, if this union involves the matter of our bodies, matter too might be drawn into that union, though obviously not in nearly as deep a way--and I suppose it involves everything else which can be purified to which we are connected as well.

The nature of the Eucharist seems to be related to this kind of simplicity--it is "one loaf" in every time and place, from Calvary to modern Japan. Certainly it is a form of union, and Jesus said it was His body and blood--matter again.

I really need to keep Psalm 131 in mind and remember the rule: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Albert Einstein

(*) I am not using "form" in Plato's sense here, but in the sense of the combination of soul and mind and organizational rules for the matter of this body. It is unique to the individual.


"Peace on Earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled."

The rhythm and rhyme work, but "mild" doesn't seem quite the right word for God's mercy. Nor "wild"--I'm afraid the rhyme will have to be lost.

I've been meaning to read "A Severe Mercy." That seems closer--though maybe "uncompromising" is better.

Saturday, December 07, 2019


Youngest Son and I decided we needed a new word to describe rule by the dead hand of computer algorithms. Some sci-Fi, and some modern political jawing, posit the use of automatically enforced rules. The matter is starting to become more relevant with auto-driving autos and the question "In crashing, what/who do you sacrifice?"

Have any of us not had the frustration of speaking with a bureaucrat whose reply to our problem is "Those are the rules" or "That's what the computer tells me"? Or, worse yet, hitting a "call tree" that doesn't include our option and has no operator?

In an older example, quite a few cities quit sponsoring 4'th of July fireworks shows--not because of any new laws, but because the insurance company algorithms decided it was risky and therefore to be punished with extra fees.

Friday, December 06, 2019


"Our house is empty save only myself and the rats and mice who nibble in solitary hunger. There is no voice in the hall, no footstep on the stairs .... I sit here with no company but books, dipping into dainty honeycombs of literature. All minds in the world's literature are concentrated in a library. This is the pinnacle of the temple from which we may see all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. I keep Egypt and the Holy Land in the closet next to the window. On the side of them are Athens and the empire of Rome. Never was such an army mustered as I have here. No general ever had such soldiers as I have. No kingdom ever had half such illustrious subjects as mine or subjects half as well disciplined. I can put my haughtiest subjects up or down as it pleases me .... I call Plato and he answers "here,"—a noble and sturdy soldier; "Aristotle," "here,"—a host in himself. Demosthenes, Pliny, Cicero, Tacitus, Caesar. "Here," they answer, and they smile at me in their immortality of youth. Modest all, they never speak unless spoken to. Bountiful all, they never refuse to answer. And they are all at peace together .... All the world is around me, all that ever stirred human hearts or fired the imagination is harmlessly here. My library cases are the avenues of time. Ages have wrought, generations grown, and all their blossoms are cast down here. It is the garden of immortal fruits without dog or dragon."

Gilbert de la Porree, Archbishop of Poictiers, 1142

Sunday, December 01, 2019


Lots of people like to visit ruins. I'm one.

Someone put part of their life into building those walls, and others into living there, and these relics are a connection to those lives. Perhaps even haunted by them--though I never noticed any ghosts.

There's mystery if we don't know the people who lived there, and old memories if we do.

We can fill the missing space with our own imagination, without any inconveniences like odors or beggars or unfriendly guards. What would they have been like? Can we tell what they loved from what remains?

We see the power of nature overwhelming human effort--which is either humbling or grand depending on how you feel about nature. (Or it's a testimony to high speed lead and high explosive--depends on the ruin.)

There's a reminder that sometimes something lasts past ourselves, even if it isn't the whole. We don't always get to choose which things are going to last.

We get a sense of how little our plans mean in the big picture. We do tend to take ourselves rather seriously, don't we?

They remind us of our own mortality and the failure of all our plans. It doesn't hurt (Ecclesiastes suggests we make it a priority) to remember that we're going to die.

They remind us that our own lives--right now--are generally ruins already, fragments of what ought to and might have been.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Fresnel X-rays

You've all seen an ordinary magnifying glass--it looks like a section of a glass sphere, maybe flat on one side, or maybe with both sides curved. Since all the bending of light happens at the surface, what happens if you cut out the excess and just use hundreds or thousands of little (disjoint) sections? Augustin-Jean Fresnel thought of it, and developed the lenses that bear his name. His thought was for lighthouses to be more powerful by capturing and focussing more of the light, and it worked very well. There's graininess in the image you get when using these things, but that's the price you pay for compactness.

How do you focus X-rays? They can be scattered in coherent ways by crystals--suppose you used little slices of crystals tilted at increasing angles and stacked in rings?

Turns out somebody else thought of the idea first. The Laue lens uses crystals in concentric rings. You can get pretty decent focus, too: 8.4nm × 6.8nm .

Sunday, November 24, 2019


The sermon today used the parable of the rich fool to discuss greed. "Build bigger barns"... I was measuring the old 6x6 bookcase I built O(33) years ago and wondering where I would put the books displaced by the shelf redesign.

Possessions aren't just things, of course. We can collect experiences, or knowledge. Those are all good things too. I've not been one to try all sorts of new experiences unless they are somehow integrated into my life (and don't unduly risk said life or involve heights). Adventures? "Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" I loved walking the jungle as a kid, though, and wandering is still a joy, albeit sometimes knee-limited and mosquito-haunted. Knowledge, though--yes, I've been pretty greedy for that. Luckily it isn't a limited resource--nobody loses if I gain.

I wonder--how many of these things are paying returns for the God who entrusted them to me? "Love, joy, peace, patience etc..." I try to distill what I've learned and explain, and point people to useful or interesting things, but I'm not sure the ROI has been that large.

A giant scam

BBC has an interesting story about OneCoin--how it started out as a blockchain currency without a blockchain, got hyped by a multilevel marketer, and is still selling despite the disappearance of the founder.
Bjercke would get an apartment and a car - and an attractive annual salary of about £250,000.

"I was thinking: 'What is my job going to be? What are the things that I'm going to have to do for this company?'" he recalls.

"And he said: 'Well, first of all, they need a blockchain. They don't have a blockchain today.'

"I said: 'What? You told me it was a cryptocurrency company.'"

The agent replied that this was correct. It was a cryptocurrency company, and it had been running for a while - but it didn't have a blockchain. "So we need you to build a blockchain," he went on.

and then

In May 2015, already a very successful MLM seller, Igor Alberts was invited to a OneCoin event in Dubai, where he met lots of people, all apparently making fortunes with this new currency. Dr Ruja herself made a powerful impression too, with her "princess's dresses" and her vision of a financial revolution. Igor returned with a new mission - and gave new instructions to all the salespeople in his downline: stop whatever you're doing, and start selling OneCoin. "We gathered the teams together and we started to work like crazy," he says. "We made in our first month almost €90,000 out of nothing. Bang!"

After Ruja disappeared, people started trying to track the money

I went to see Oliver Bullough, an expert on what he calls Moneyland - the shadowy parallel world where criminals and the super-rich hide their wealth. The problem, he explains, is that following the money isn't as easy as it sounds, because criminals structure their companies and bank accounts in such a way that their assets seem to disappear. "They still exist", he says, in his garden near the village of Hay-on-Wye. "You can still use them to buy things, you can still use them to buy political influence and nice houses and yachts. But when it comes to someone trying to find them - whether that's a journalist or a police officer - they are invisible."


Ruja bought a very large property in central Sofia. Technically it was owned by a company called One Property. One Property was owned by another company called Risk Ltd. Risk Ltd was owned by Ruja, but was then transferred to some unnamed Panamanians, but it was still managed by another company called Peragon. And Peragon was owned by another company called Artefix, which was owned by Ruja's mother, Veska. And then in 2017, the ownership of Artefix was sold to an unknown man in his 20s.


I show his results to Bullough, who immediately notices how many British companies there are. "British companies are the companies of choice," he comments. "They're very easy to set up and they look legitimate."


"This is supposed to mean that you can no longer use a British company to hide behind," he says, as he scrolls down the page. "Oh, hey presto, they haven't filed a person with significant control. That's illegal… That is an anonymous shell company, as anonymous as anything that you can buy anywhere in the Seychelles or Nevis or the Marshall Islands or Vanuatu."

So much for following the money. In an interconnected global economy, assets can simply vanish, and you end up chasing shadows.

And there are some hints that some Eastern European crime mobs got involved too. And several billions went astray--and not just from first-world investors. It turns out that multi-level marketing reaches all the way to poor farmers in Uganda.

Saturday, November 23, 2019


I assume everybody here has read The Pilgrim's Progress. If not, go do it. And read the second part, which is in here, partway down. Search for "CHRISTIANA is here". The Christian's Progress describes the individual's journey, and part two is more of the journey together with others.

The second best allegory in English, after Pilgrim's Progress, is acclaimed to be The Holy War>, aka Mansoul, aka much longer titles--also by Bunyan.

The type of story is much different, of course, but it is still good reading. And worth thinking about. As Kipling noted, some things don't change much

The craft that we call modern,
  The crimes that we call new,
John Bunyan had 'em typed and filed
  In Sixteen Eighty-two.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Tame fear

In comments on a recent post, AVI wrote "courage involved embracing reality not adding in risks."

Which points to an interesting (to me) question I hadn't started researching properly yet. Pick rich countries in history. How many of them developed something like the roller coaster--an amusement that provides a safe experience of fear?

Maybe the Roman animal show counts--in theory the tiger could leap up into the stands, though I doubt they ever did.

And maybe ghost stories are related, though I don't know if other cultures treated them the same way we do. I suspect they were often more for warning than amusement--they certainly don't read like entertainment to me.

It's no trick to find people (mostly young men) engaging in risky behavior--a Maasai lad isn't a man until he kills a lion. But the danger is real, and is the point--it isn't safe.

Nothing comes to mind. Are we the only culture to provide tame fear?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Devil in the details

In the story about new monetary policy of the Central Bank of Liberia you find these two comments:
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for a cash based economy to contribute on a cash based. the sooner we put that in the back of our minds and look for options using electronic works, using other digital financial tools, increasing the numbers of ATMs and increasing the numbers of points of sales, the better it becomes for all of us,” he said.


“Whenever we go the bank, they give us tear (torn) money. And when we want our money, they will say system down. It should not be like that. The system should not be down for us because when we go there to deposit our money, they can’t (never) tell us system down. This system down English (talk, excuses) is not doing well for the marketers. Let the system be up for us this holiday season,” she said.

Universal electronic transactions when the bank's systems are either down or lied about? That has got to inspire confidence.

One little change was that for the month of December, they are suspending the 25% policy--25% of all remittences into Liberia have to be converted into Liberian dollars, but for December you can keep your hard currency. A little something for their 25'th.

Monday, November 18, 2019


I skimmed the first part of a story in the paper this morning noting that there were partisan differences in how the census should be performed in towns with prisons: count the prisoners with the town where they happen to be living, or with the town they were taken from to go to prison? Or if they have no fixed address, then what?

I get it that the prison towns want the population count, since state funding often flows on the basis of population. And since crime is higher in the large urban areas, that means the political clout of the already powerful cities becomes even greater. On the other hand, the place that is likely to need the additional funding is the town the prisoner came from--where there may be dependents without support, for example. The prisoners don't contribute much wear and tear on the roads, or use the schools much. And the prisoner's home town could probably use a little help after the damage the criminal did.

Hmm. If there's no home or other fixed address, then sure, stick the count in the prison town. Otherwise, put the count in their home town. It's probably too complicated to keep 2 census counts--one of nominal residents and one of voters.

I wonder which party that aligns me with? I should go read the rest of the story to find out. Democrat.

Another argument for homeschooling

In an effort to keep students who fail early in their high school careers from falling completely out of school, ninth-grade teachers at Madison's West High School are planning to give classroom grades of no lower than 40%, eliminate extra credit and allow up to 90% credit for late work in required classes.

"mean no assignment could receive less than 40%, regardless of whether it is completed. A 40% would still result in a failing grade"

The alleged motive is that a super-F (i.e. a 0%) is almost impossible to recover from, while a 40% you can, at least in theory, make up for. The fact that they plan to get rid of extra credit tells me that isn't anywhere near the whole story.

This is sympathetic magic: if you get a grade of 40%, you must have learned 40% of the material, right? And no extra credit means nobody gets to be outstanding, so nobody gets embarrassed by being outclassed.

"In Memphis, though, the use of grading floors was banned by the superintendent in 2017 after an investigation found the practice was used to make unwarranted grade changes."

Del Underbakke seems to have some common sense: "a grading floor could result in moving under-prepared students through ninth grade. By definition, at-risk students may require more than four years to complete high school." On the other side, I have to conclude that Boran and Hernandez care more about "equity" than educating students.

So long as the grade is a measure of what the student is learning, use it. If you want to experiment with retaking tests or other approaches, fine--the goal is supposed to be that the students learn--but please don't give up trying to figure out if the student is actually learning.

I wonder how much of the recent educational innovation is driven by fear of being accused of bias.

Singing from pain

Years ago I carpooled with a woman who worked for the State. Now and then we'd pick up her daughter, who was due to be married shortly. Her favorite song on the radio was "Sweet Dreams" (Eurythmics). I kept my opinions to myself, but could not help wondering what kind of marriage this was going to turn out to be. I hoped they weren't secretly wanting to abuse each other... or openly either.

The song isn't good by any stretch, but I didn't want to include it among the evil ones because it seemed to me more like a cry of despair more than anything else. Job 6:26 seems apropos (at least the NASB translation) "The words of one in despair belong to the wind" Unless they insist on despair, I cut a little slack.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Power centers

It may not be an official founding document of the USA as the Constitution is, but the Declaration of Independence lurks behind the institutions to remind our legislators, judges, and governors that the framework which their power comes from can be revised at the people's displeasure.

Of course the last couple of times this was tried there was a war, with the losers forcibly constrained to stay with the country, or mostly emigrating to what became Canada and Louisiana.

Similar principles were applied in a slightly different field. When economies of scale made is profitable for business owners to systematically squeeze their workers, many of them did. For a long time governments sided with private power, but eventually unions succeeded and grew to have political power of their own. I'm not concerned with subsequent history, but with noting that there's precedent for collective efforts to oppose private oppression, and against alliances between the government and private firms. It took a while, with some violence along the way, but for a while we achieved a balance of powers (both sides need each other). (The industrial union adversarial model is problematic for public-sector workers--the result is inevitably adversarial, inescapably political, and as experience shows, often becomes a Praetorian Guard.)

One route for dealing with oppressive private firms, frequently tried elsewhere, has been to put the government in control of the private firms--with predictably miserable results.

Our federal government is not attempting censorship, or harassment and firing of people high officials disagree with. Private firms are, and are attempting to enforce conformity with their socio-political views. But since they're private, the Constitution says nothing about them. That does not mean they are not power centers. They are.

Curiously enough, even totalitarian governments don't actually need to do this sort of thing themselves. The real power wasn't vested in the official channels or the Soviet constitution.

You can take a light-hearted view of the system we are being constrained to live under, but we are concentrating a great deal of political and social power in the hands of a few people who answer to nobody I know of. Given how frequently firms ignore the empirical "go woke go broke" rule, I wonder if they are even answerable to shareholders anymore.

I wonder how this is going to evolve. I don't want the government taking sides--that almost always turns out badly. And, as we saw before with industrial labor unions, collective action will probably be prosecuted as "restraint of trade." And there will, as always, be some nasty characters on both sides. This time, though, the power of the controllers is much more far-reaching--you can't just leave town and find another job elsewhere.

I'm afraid I don't have good answers or compromises in my back pocket. We're told "just create your own competitor," but that's not very practical. Boycotts? Hard to do, as Dr. Boli points out. AVI has a thought.

Every society has ways of trying to ensure conformity. That's not objectionable by itself--but the unaccountable imbalance of power is.

I was reading about Innocent III yesterday. Who knows, maybe the church will become a secular power center again. That's not a pleasant prospect.

Friday, November 15, 2019

All over the map

Middle Daughter spent a year studying abroad in Senegal. One of the things she noticed was that the American and Senegalese students both bought the same kind of sandals, but the Americans wore through theirs much more rapidly. She attributed this to a difference in walking stride--the Senegalese women tended to walk with the foot more flat, so that it landed more on the ball, or even evenly, while Americans tended to hit heel first.

Since knee problems have been a live issue in our home, I wondered if one's stride had something to do with stress on one's knees.

The first question is epidemiological: Is cartilage deterioration more common here than there? Unfortunately that's not easy to answer, thanks to radically different health care systems and reporting. The rate of meniscus repairs will be a lot lower there, no matter the relative need.

So, off to sports medicine. You name it, somebody claims it. Heel-first is 6% more energy efficient, and early hominid footprints tell us they did it too. Ground force vs time plots are distinguishable, but the curves don't show (for me, anyway) a true winner. Runners run using the front of their feet because the angle of a runner's body wrt the ground demands it.

Barefoot is better. Or maybe it doesn't make any difference. Or it depends on the footwear.

You'd think intuitively that the stress on your knee would be less when your foot flexes with impact rather than when you strike hard with your heel. But it seems that the heel pad cushions the blow well enough to make it pretty much a wash. Unless it doesn't. Running is good for your joints, possibly simply because it keeps you leaner and stronger. (Apples to apples comparisons are hard here.)

Combing out the folks who want to sell you something or make a name for themselves, and just looking at the studies, is taking more time than I thought it would.

I think I'll try to take a walk using a different stride and see how it feels. I predict "awkward." Maybe it's all cultural, and all a wash--just so you don't overdo or underdo things.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


"To take advantage of the opportunities provided by built-in sensors, the Pre-Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued new mandates for cell phone apps and for voice messages in cars."

Social Media App: "You have been reading Facebook for 30 minutes. Did you forget the brownies?"

Car: "Look at oncoming traffic instead of your date's tanktop."

Car: "Despite what you hear, the children in back are not murdalizing each other. However, you are about to run a stop sign."

Music App: "You play a mean air guitar, but did you notice that two men have been following you for three blocks?"

Ebook: "Before we start the next chapter of Treasure Island, finish your algebra homework."

Nuclear bombing

I knew that the Japanese recognized the weapon immediately.

I hadn't heard that their intelligence was adept enough that they knew about the Trinity test, and knew that and when B29s of a special task force were coming. Both times.

Assuming this documentary is true, of course... I speak no Japanese and am not expert on their WWII history. (As far as I know this could be the product of the Japanese equivalent of The History Channel.)

It might be simply the usual hindsight, where the one guy turns out to be right after all.

Friday, November 08, 2019


Consider the sequence
  • 0
  • 1
  • 0.1
  • 1.1
  • 0.01
  • 1.01
  • 0.11
  • 1.11
  • 0.001
  • ...etc...

The pattern is easy to see and extrapolate.

What's the most compact way you can describe this?

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Interesting take on "Pious"

Whereas under the Merovingians a monastery might be considered a royal monastery if it enjoyed special privileges from the kinds and queens, in the Carolingian era the giving of gifts went the other way: monasteries were expected to make gifts to the kings. This expectation was spelled out at Aachen in 819, when Louis the Pious ordered twenty-five Frankish monasteries to give him dona--an order also extended to dozens more monasteries in the Midi and east of the Rhine. For each Louis indicated whether each owed him dona, dona plus military service, or merely prayers for the royal family. Even here it was clear: those prayers were owed, not just something the monks were glad to offer.

The military service was indeed expected not just of monasteries but of bishoprics. A generation later Hincmar or Reims tried to justify churches' property holdings--which he recognized was contrary to the New Testament account of early Christians getting rid of all their possessions--in part by noting that Frankish churches were obligated to provide military service to the state. This obligation cost a church, he estimated, a fifth of its income to pay for its soldiers, because they were not given a stipend "from public resources." Such military service seemed perfectly normal to Hincmar; it was what the Carolingians required.

Things have been worse from time to time.

How did it start?

"A Merovingian king was concerned about the "illegal attacks by evil men" on
a monastery and placed it under the protection of his mayor of the palace, sub mundeburde del defnsione. ... The concept that mayors of the palace would exercise such "protection" was immediately taken up, even without an illegal attack by evil men."

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

On reflection, that's hard

"Try to acquire the virtues you believe lacking in your brothers" Augustine

Monday, November 04, 2019

European culture

The book The Search for Europe, Contrasting Approaches was sitting begging for a home. I'm not planning to give it one, but nobody else wanted it, and there was one essay, in amongst the economic and foreign policy blah blah blah, that addressed a question I've had for a while: Julie Kristen, Home Europeus: Does a European Culture Exist?

The headline rule applies, I'm afraid. If the headline is a question, the answer is "no."

She's hopeful, and convinced that multilingualism will be its foundation ("calls upon the French to become polyglot").

"But tolerance is only the zero degree of questioning; when not reduced to simply welcoming others, it invites them to question themselves and to carry the culture of questioning and dialogue into encounters that problematize all participants. This reciprocating questioning produces and endless lucidity that provides the sole condition for "living together." Identity thus understood can move us towards a plural identity and the multilingualism of the new European citizen."

Like hell it will.

Endless questioning produces endless fuzz, and there's no mention of any positive statement; no central value or belief. Everything she describes is process.(*)

In a footnote she cites Augustine as saying that "in via in patria": "there is only one homeland, which is the voyage itself." I can't find that, though I do find that he said the exact opposite: "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee." I suspect she doesn't understand him.

(*) People often write about democracy being an American value. I'm not persuaded that's right. Liberty is an American value, and the democracy is a procedural tool that follows from, and is supposed to help ensure that.

Berlin Wall

A little discussion on whether the Berlin Wall was "breached based on an erroneous declaration.". Short answer: sort of--but the official who made the critical announcement wasn't a lower-level bureaucrat, but he #2 guy in charge of the business.

There are lots of interesting details at the link. (I don't put a lot of trust in the "German Punk movement" answer, though.) I'd heard almost none of this before.

Sunday, November 03, 2019


Calvin or Arminius both believed in "total depravity. (I've been reading church history ( *) --the topic has come up from time to time, and still turns out to be a live issue.) I think I get the hang of it, but I would say things rather differently.

All humans have partly corrupted wills, so that just about everything we do is from mixed motives. We sell land and give the proceeds to the church, but hold something back. If we persist in trying to do right, and hold our evil passions in check, we will become better--though only relatively so. We ought to applaud those who try for virtue, even though we know they can't perfectly succeed, as inspirations to each other. God will be the final judge, and none of our tainted righteousness is of any value before Him. There may be a lot of good drink in our punchbowl, but there's still a turd floating in it--even if it's just a little one.

When faced with our shortcomings, we can try harder (albeit never perfectly), or double down on evil (again, not perfectly). If we were simple creatures, our striving to be better would bring us closer and closer to perfection -- exponentially close -- but never quite there. We're not simple creatures; we have "islands" of greater or lesser self-awareness and obedience, and we have active enemies (world and the devil, as well as the flesh). So more realistically, we'd never get close. We need God's grace.

Given the opportunity to accept grace, we can accept (with caveats we never mention to ourselves). To those who have a little obedience, more opportunity for obedience will be given. Those who have not lose what they have as they turn farther and farther away. Given those unmentioned caveats we(**) use, it doesn't seem that we hang onto grace by our own good will alone.

(*) There is a lot of it. I'm digging in a little more before calling my chapter done.

(**) Me and those I've had opportunity to observe closely enough. I extrapolate from there.

Living virtuously

My wife told me of a click-bait item she just looked at, which I won't bother offering a link to. "How can I get plastics out of my life?"

Suggestions included "buy silk!" Buying in bulk sounds like a plan too. And other things that demand a fair chunk of up-front money.

If virtue was a thing that money could buy...

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Essence and operations

I was reading about the Monothelitism vs Dyothelitism dispute, and was strongly reminded of a joke from last century.
And Jesus said unto them, 'Who do you say that I am?'

And they replied, 'You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationships.'

And Jesus said: 'What?'

We've moved away from trying to define things in terms of essence, and tried to define things operationally instead. Ask a scientist what's an electron, and you'll get what boils down to "something that acts like thus and so, with a negative charge, mass of 511KeV/c^2, etc." If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, its a duck.

Studying operations has been very fruitful in mathematics; ditto mappings. Turning from "what is it" to "what does it do" is what much of science is about. i.e. "Shut up and compute." That's helpful in designing systems, and it helps avoid arguments about a whether will is associated with a person or a nature.

Seriously--when you talk about Jesus' nature as human and divine, you have to remember that "nature" doesn't have quite the same meaning when referring to the Origin of all nature. I suppose I should spend a little time researching whether Divine Simplicity shows up in Christological analysis. The first pages didn't turn anything up, but google is hardly ideal for that sort of research.

And yet... We easily take "operationalism" too far. Twins may look and act alike, but they are different people. There's an essence-ial difference.

I don't know where it is proved that we can only know things by comparison with other things. The claim that all knowledge comes through the senses presumes that there is no intrinsic knowledge, it doesn't prove it. I think there is such a thing. So long as we are careful to understand the limits of our words (another thing philosophers love to squabble over) we should be able to say true things about essentials, and not just interactions.

You'd think this would be a more popular notion, given the current "trans" fashion that claims that their essence doesn't match their bodies, and that a little cargo-cult magic will make everything right.

Notes on a Reformation Day

I don't believe in ghosts.

I don't disbelieve in ghosts.

I hate the adult-oriented ghoulishness. It races to maximize ugliness and hatred. Even if the hatred is just make-believe, it still feels like hatred.

Do adults try to take over kid-holidays because they want to be kids, or because there aren't enough kids?

Most costumes are pre-made. Some of the home-brew ones are quite clever. Either way they are way fancier than those of my youth, but the kids are still all excited about TrickOrTreating--except the very little ones.

Decisions, decisions--do I give out plenty and risk running out, or just a few and wind up having to eat the leftovers?

I learned my lesson years ago about answering the door in costume. I tried wearing an African robe and authentic mask. The young lad shrieked and hid--I had to take off the mask and give extra, while his mother glowered at me.

One of my friends in Bible study said he would take a fire pit and grill to the front of his driveway and serve hotdogs to the parents. I don't know if making s'mores would be appropriate when people are wearing complex costumes.

The sidewalks are mostly clear, and the lawn has only a couple of inches of wet snow, but the table on the deck has 8" of snow on it.

I've been looking into Better Angels--and find that some of their techniques are ones I've been using already--not in politics, but in religious discussions. We commemorate the start of the 3rd great schism today. "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

You should read David Warren's dream today. No, it wasn't a happy dream.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Evil songs

A comment in AVI's repost got me wondering about evil songs.

I don't mean songs that have been used for evil purposes, or which have evil connotations now. Dixie's lyrics aren't exactly wicked. Nor, curiously enough, are Deutschlandlied's.

And I think for the moment I'll classify those that go out of their way to praise evil as "explicitly evil." I'd lump the "I'm so bad" rap songs in here too.

I'm wondering now about the "seductively evil;" songs that seem innocent but aren't.

"Imagine" is pretty obviously a wicked song, cloaked in apparent kindness. Another that jumps to mind is "Gentle on my Mind:" abandoning the lady and expecting her to wait for you is made to seem so natural. "Different drum" has always seemed to corrode the possibility of any relationships--not just romantic.

My impression is that there are a lot of songs designed to aid in seduction; playing up the urgency of the moment and playing down conscience. And I hear of (but don't make a habit of listening to) a number of nihilist songs, many of which seem to be not-so-seductive cries of pain.

I'm not sure searching out and ranking "seductively evil" songs would be good for the soul. But maybe recognizing them is a good way to resist them. What you immerse yourself in effects you.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Forgotten Liberian by Teah Wulah

Subtitle: History of Indigenous Tribes

The cover art was not promising--it is a map of Liberia divided into regions with tribe names scattered about--many in the wrong places. The internal map is better, though.


  1. there's history here that's hard to find elsewhere, including the causes of some of the inter-tribal wars. As a for-instance, the chapter "Bah Mu Joboe Bo"--The Adventure of the Tartweh Clan of Sinoe is about a dispute between the Tartweh and the Weoh. The Tartweh would send men to the coast to earn money from "kwi" trade and buy stuff to bring back, but after a while the Weoh who lived along the way started charging higher and higher "customs" ("spread your stuff out and we'll take what looks good") from village after village along their journey. The Tartweh got vexed, and decided to go to war--but were disuaded. The journey would be too long, and they'd arrive exhausted. Instead, they decided to move closer to the Weoh, so that they'd be in a better position to start a war later. After treating and trading and a battle or so, they joined forces with the Weoh to put down their joint neighbors.

    He ends the chapter with "It is the duty of every Liberian of the hinterland to fight for what their ancestors tried to achieve by sacrificing their blood for what the Kru termed "mu joboe bo." The world should be the limit. There should be no country on earth of which a Liberian is not a citizen." mu joboe bo means to go toward the sea, in context meaning to migrate for opportunity.

  2. He gives a decent shot at describing as many tribes as he can. He doesn't sugar-coat things. Slavery was part of the indigenous justice system. (Prisons? In a village?)


  1. The book could have stood some editing. "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.". Sometimes a sentence contradicts the rest of the passage, and you have to reverse engineer it to figure out what he really meant to say.
  2. He gets some things wildly wrong (e.g. that slavery in the US only got really bad on the rise of abolitionism, or his history of early Christianity), but at least, though he says the West African tribes came from Egypt, he doesn't claim they were Egyptian (a welcome change).
  3. The history is, unfortunately, almost entirely history after the settlers came from the USA. There's not much record of things before that, and going through oral histories and legends would be a lifetime's work for somebody.

After giving a list of different cults (Leopard society, Water Leopard and Crocodile society, Bush Hog and Weaver Bird associations, etc), he wrote "It is not in the best interest of the reader to know the details or which tribes practice the various cults but suffice it to say that they exist in Liberia."

The meat of the book is about how the tribes and the "Americo's" got along, and how lies and oppression (including slavery) won out. Sort of. The Vai appealed to the British for protection, and so large chunks of what might have been Liberia wound up part of Sierra Leone. (This, though the author doesn't mention it, include some diamond mining areas--the Blood Diamonds might have been set in Liberia instead.). He describes several of the rebellions against the Americo's and includes a chapter of Albert Porte's description of the rice riots in April 1979 that eventually led to the coup against Tolbert.

Interestingly, Wulah sides with Tolbert about the rice price rise--in general. Tolbert had a rice farm business that would have benefitted greatly and thus a vested interest in a price rise, but there was really no other way to encourage self-sufficiency in rice, except by letting the price rise.

The tribes might have been integrated into the nation, but even if the Americo-Liberians had been interested in sharing power, the paradigm of government was wrong--you would need a model more like the Swiss than the US; very strongly federal. But given how often the tribes fought each other, it isn't obvious that even a very federal system would have worked.

Other little bits along the way: the hinterland tribes believed in reincarnation--but only about a dozen times or so.

On the issue of marriage, there is a misconception that Liberian tribes are polygamous. Accordingly, we are constantly told that at one time our ancestors had only one wife. In Liberia, as well as the United States and elsewhere, polygamy is the privilege of the well-to-do. Because of a taboo in Africa against sexual intercourse between the parents of a nursing child, polygamy is an institution that is absolutely necessary.

It may be something of a specialty interest, but it is worth reading if you have the interest.

Sunday, October 27, 2019


"There's no use going to school unless your final destination is the library. ― Ray Bradbury

I was looking for a passage from one of his short stories. An American couple is traveling in Mexico after an unspecified disaster has struck the US, and one of the men they meet explains that when he was young and stupid and lived in the city, he read the papers every day and went wild with anger. Today he lives in the country, and only reads newspapers that are 2 weeks old, and now is amused at the stupidity on display rather than impotently furious. I've remembered the gist of the passage, but not the wording, and goodreads has 82 pages of quotes from him. A few:

"Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all." - "Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher." - "You can’t learn to write in college." - "They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressure; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves."


I should always let the news age a few days, but the noise today is that Baghdadi, ISIS' nominal current leader, killed himself and 3 of his children when trapped by American forces. In Idlib. The news adds that the Russians were notified to stay out of the way.

But the area is also under Turkish control, and nothing has yet showed up about them being notified. "Age the news;" the whole story isn't out yet, and maybe never will be if the Turks did give permission for the operation. They've seemed to be pretty chummy with ISIS.

I'm trying to figure out what sorts of people will be likely to advance to be the new #1. People who unabashedly love power might think twice if they have reason to worry that US special forces will eventually find them--unless they have guarantees of protection from some powerful nation. Otherwise I think the candidates would be true believers, who don't worry so much about death--and would be less interested in negotiations with impure apostates and infidels.

Maybe we're all better off if, as seems likely to me, Turkey replaces Baghdadi with somebody of their own.

But "age the news."

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Soviet Atomic Project by Lee G Pondrom

How the Soviet Union Obtained the Atomic Bomb I knew that Prof (emeritus, U. Wisconsin-Madison) Pondrom knew Ukrainian, but apparently he also reads Russian, and was able to go through a number of documents himself.

The book is just what the subtitle says. He describes the people involved, and cites memoirs and declassified documents and puts it all together with a explanations of what the engineering and physics involved looked like.

In one episode, Soviet scientists in Leningrad buried their cyclotron to keep it from being stolen or damaged when the Germans approached (the Soviet war effort would have snaffled up the parts too). While the city was still under siege, a group of scientists had to come back into the city, dig it up, and ship the parts out--to a background noise of incoming artillery. You never knew physics could be so exciting.

Stalin was, of course, very well informed about the Manhattan Project thanks to spies, and to a somewhat open environment behind-the-wire in which American scientists were encouraged to share what they were doing with each other. And he really wanted the bomb. Beria was tasked with getting one built.

As plenty of others have noted, the biggest secret was that the bomb could work at all. After reading the book, I have a much better appreciation for how hard it was, and how many details the devil hid in. And why, even after many years, our military still wanted to do nuclear tests. (It isn't to show off.)

Prof Pondrom uses a number of back-of-the-envelope calculations along the way, but you won't hit any serious math until the appendices, and even there it is just linear differential equations. That matches what the bomb-makers had--you need computers to solve the big hairy hydrodynamic equations, and nobody had them.

Some things are still classified, but there's a lot of detail here.

From Appendix F: "This presentation has been at the level of an undergraduate physics course. If the reader works through this Appendix, and follows the arguments, it does not mean that he/she can build a nuclear weapon in the basement. Weapons design drawings require much more careful analysis than is presented here."

In case you were worried...

Yes, read it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


"It is funnier to bend things than to break them- bend the fenders on a car in a comedy wreck, don’t tear them off. In my golf game, which I have been doing for years, at first I swung at the ball and broke the club. Now I bend it at a right angle. If one comedian hits another over the head with a crowbar, the crowbar should bend, not break. In legitimate drama, the hero breaks his sword, and it is dramatic. In comedy, the sword bends, and stays bent."

The site is "animation resources" and I just spent more time there than I ought.

I'm not sure I like their phrase "golden age." There was some great stuff last century, and some great stuff this. And lots of dreck in both.

"Artificial leaf"

Powered by Sunlight, ‘Artificial Leaf’ Successfully Produces Clean Gas From CO2 and Water says
A widely-used gas that is currently produced from fossil fuels can instead be made by an ‘artificial leaf’ that uses only sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water, and which could eventually be used to develop a sustainable liquid fuel alternative to petrol.


Syngas is currently made from a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and is used to produce a range of commodities, such as fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics and fertilizers.

OK, sounds interesting. I've been wondering what we're going to make plastics out of when we run out of oil...

The article in Nature says:

The perovskite photocathodes maintain selective aqueous CO2 reduction for one day at light intensities as low as 0.1 sun, which provides pathways to maximize daylight utilization by operating even under low solar irradiance. Under 1 sun irradiation, the perovskite–BiVO4 PEC tandems sustain bias-free syngas production coupled to water oxidation for three days. The devices present solar-to-H2 and solar-to-CO conversion efficiencies of 0.06 and 0.02%, respectively, and are able to operate as standalone artificial leaves in neutral pH solution.

It seems the perovskite cathodes can be sensitive to moisture, and have to be protected. Very much not quite ready, but interesting. The process does not produce CO2, which I gather is why the headline writer though it was "Clean Gas." Whether this is because CO2 is evil, or because the result is supposedly entirely syngas (betcha there's a lot of water vapor in there too..) I can't say. FWIW, the energy efficiency of photosynthesis is of order less than 1%, though that isn't usually achieved because plants aren't interested in overproducing. (Sugar cane is 3.5%) I'm not sure if that's the same efficiency as quoted in the abstract.

Vacation spots

Lonely Planet put Liberia out there as their Number 8 travel destination for 2020, along with places like Aruba and England.
Chaotic Waterside Market offers almost everything for sale, including colourful textiles, shoes, leather goods and pottery, all with a dose of foul smells and lots of noise. Haggle hard, smile, and embrace raw Monrovia to its fullest.


This lighthouse can be climbed for an outstanding panoramic view of the cape. Although no longer functional, it's on a UN base, so get permission first, and don't attempt to scale the small, slippery steps during the rainy season. Don't miss the stunning, palm-lined beach at nearby Fish Town (not to be confused with the larger town of the same name), but take care with the currents if you swim.

I'm told that the surfing is amazing. But do take care with the currents--at Thinker's Village (good food) we were told that drownings are fairly common--a few tourists a year in the country.

Ebola is gone for now, and I don't hear any murmurings about civil war these days. So, do you want to take Lonely Planet's advice?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Bears in the Bee

The Babylon Bee generally has excellent headlines, and usually has good stories, or at least mediocre stories--very rarely bad ones.
True, they may be obscure, but when you know the background, they're not bad.

Not so for "MLB To Speed Up Games By Replacing Umpires With Bears". The headline is promising, but the story is lousy. Let me do it right. Or at least better.

In response to long standing fan complaints that the game has grown far too slow, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced today that home plate umpires will be replaced with brown bears, and pitchers will be required to wear a vest festooned with fresh trout.

So long as the recently fed bear is entertained by throwing and swinging, it will usually sit watching contentedly, but if it becomes bored, or the game lasts long enough for it to become hungry again, the bear will head for the trout. The pitcher has a 70 foot head start, but the bear runs 30 miles an hour.

During face-to-face negotiations, the Major League Umpires Association voiced no objections.

Hot dog vendors will be issued Tazers.

Several stadiums are planning to expand the program and use bears to enforce their "No bringing food into the stadium" rule.

UPDATE: If the Bee wants to borrow this, they may.

Thursday, October 17, 2019


Trofim Lysenko was a deadly protege of Stalin's, with widespread influence. (I'd guess that his impact on the Great Leap Forward was minor compared to the other insanities, though.)

He believed in nurture above nature. Newly acquired traits would be passed on to offspring. His supporters claimed to be able to transform rye into wheat.

Stalin liked him. "Criticism of Lysenko was denounced as "bourgeois" or "fascist"." Scientific evidence was not a defense. Critics were considered elitist opponents of the wisdom of the peasants. Many opponents were fired, some imprisoned, some executed. Wikipedia says the ban on criticism of Lysenkoism was only lifted in the 60's.

I am informed that apparently substantive differences between people can be made to vanish if the right words and role models are invoked. I am informed that punishment causes crime. I am informed that math is racist and that the experiences of the disadvantaged should play a role in math. I am informed that speech is impermissible violence and violence is protected speech. I am informed that a man is not a man and a woman is not a woman. I am informed that people are harassed and fired and fined for denying these things.

So far no executions, though.

After Lysenko's rise, a similar attack was made on the "idealist" and "bourgeois" theories of quantum mechanics and special relativity. Luckily for the physicists, Stalin wanted a nuclear bomb very badly. Kurchatov warned that the bomb could not be made without scientists who knew these theories, and when Stalin was appraised of a meeting of Lysenko-types to challenge the scientists, he famously said "Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later." For some reason the meeting never happened. (Lee Pondrom, The Soviet Atomic Project)

Augustine and sex

I forgot one comment I'd meant to make on City of God and remembered it today.

Of the Shame Which Attends All Sexual Intercourse. Augustine never married. He had a concubine that he loved, and had to give up for his engagement, and another while waiting for his fiancee to come of age. He eventually broke off the engagement and sent away the other concubine. I wonder if that may have skewed his description of sex. "This right action seeks the light, in so far as it seeks to be known, but yet dreads being seen. And why so, if not because that which is by nature fitting and decent is so done as to be accompanied with a shame-begetting penalty of sin?"

I think he suffered a failure of the imagination here--perhaps he should have asked some married friends about the matter. Wanting Privacy ≠ Shame. For that matter, Embarrassment ≠ Shame. Even something as simple as writing poetry suffers tremendously when other people hang around--in fact it can feel embarrassing for others to see it "half-done" and "in process."

Of course there can be plenty of reason for shame if those involved are not entitled to be involved, or are indulging cruelty or vice. But the basic marital act is a husband and wife giving themselves to each other, not to kibitzers.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


The orthodox view is that I am a soul-and-body unity, not a soul-haunted body. A jargon-heavy explanation... Theologians call Jesus' incarnation a hypostatic union, which is just technical shorthand for a longer description that means something similar, except with God and man instead of soul and body.

What is involved in being an incarnation? That's a union of different natures--which isn't a very useful definition. Maybe something operational...

The actions of the body have a purpose that isn't determined by the body's environment and reactions. The body expresses some aspects of the soul--and makes that expression possible.

Clearly this expression can happen through actions. But can the body express purpose or meaning through inaction? Through "just being," or "just being" in a way that is apparently determined by the body's environment and reactions?

That sounds kind of Zen, doesn't it? "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.". Undoubtedly the body is having an effect on the soul, but it isn't obviously an expression of the soul through the body.

Despite a more amazing incarnation, Jesus had about 20 "dark years" about which we know nothing directly, though we can infer from his townsfolk's reactions that nothing dramatic happened. Of course, people can get used to pretty nearly anything, and a perfect carpenter who doesn't preach might be easy to get used to and ignore. Or maybe not--but their reaction tells me they weren't expecting anything unusual.

"Do little things with great love?" Maybe that's the answer to the "just being" question: doing the "reactive" ordinary thing consciously with love. Who sees the difference? Maybe just God.

Trying to be intentional about each action tends to pull my attention away from God, so I'm not persuaded that that is a useful exercise by itself.

If I have the Holy Spirit in me, what I do and am needs to somehow incarnate that. Pew-warming is probably not the most expressive way. Study ought to reshape my mind and heart, but somehow that still doesn't quite seem fully expressive either. Maybe the best approach is concentrating on doing one thing (with love) at a time, and letting everything else be reactive. Start small. As distractible as I am, that's hard enough.

Sometimes very true

You probably know someone for whom this typo is actually true: "For Elvis, high achievements have always marred his life."

I omit the link to protect the guilty--spell-check is not your friend.

"Meat for to eat"

"The critics are, predictably, from my Who's Who Of Epidemiological Woo list above, Marion Nestle and Harvard School of Public Health, who charge that the meat paper is not valid because one of the authors got funding in the past from a group that was founded by a person who once worked at ... Coca-Cola."

One of these days I need to assemble a fecal roster of fake experts, whose use in a news story suggests that the reporter isn't doing his job. And organizations. It could get pretty long.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Laying hedges

The Internet lets me chase rabbits longer and farther. I went to look up more about cubits, and found a beautiful engineer's ruler from 3300 years ago:

That promptly led to hedgelaying.. (They apparently use the "cubit" to describe an elbow-to-finger measurement.)

I remember Tolkien writing about elves creating things out of living plants--like homes out of trees--and was pleased at his imagination.

It looks like he was expanding on familiar practices from the English countryside. You cut and bend stems of young trees to grow horizontally so they can be woven together to make a sturdy live fence. "The theory behind laying a hedge is easy. The practice is much harder, requiring skill and experience."

If you don't maintain them, they eventually grow into a messy line of trees.

There are some nice how-to pictures here.

Want to get involved? Oops, it's in the UK. Some US suggestions include: "American Hazel, Black Chokecherry, Chokeberry, and fragrant Sumac"


Some books I read once and liked but never cared to read again. Some I've gone back to several times--not always the ones I thought I liked the best, either.

Somebody is always putting out lists--The Classics of Science Fiction V5 is available. They're ranked by "citations" here. As usual, their ranking bears no relationship to how I judge the books, and there's a cutoff--I stopped having so much time to read, and I didn't spend as much time browsing the SciFi shelves of the bookstore. I never heard of a lot of their titles before.

Of their 108, I read 36 that I don't care to read again. The Left Hand of Darkness was well-thought-out and well-written and it will never again bubble up to the top of my reading list. Frankenstein was fun, but once was enough. On the other hand, Childhood's End struck a kind of mythic chord--I'll never read it again (I've had kids since then, and grown somewhat myself, and I no longer like it) but I read it more than once when I was younger. 22 of them (e.g. Canticle for Leibowitz) are on that "I read it several times" list. 6 are in the never-read-and-never-will, 25 are maybe-if-it-was-handy, and the other 19 I don't know enough about--most of them are recently published, of course.

So, about 2/3 once to 1/3 many.

"Have I wanted to re-read it?" is a slippery measure for how good I think a book is. I see different things in Canticle each time I read it, but I've re-read others simply because I was in the mood for the experience I knew the book was competent to provide. (I'm thinking of H Rider Haggard here, but there are plenty of other moods.)

Now and then I have admonished some of our kids to "Read something different!" But I get it.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The simplest thing

"For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? If then you cannot do even a very little thing, why are you anxious about other matters?"

That bolded bit jumped out at me tonight. Being generous, I pick the long cubit, which was about 52 cm, or 1.7 nanoseconds. In one sense it is indeed a "very little thing."

In another sense, it is much easier to figure out how to lay hands on some food than to figure out how grab ahold of some new time. It turns out to be tough to postpone dying when you're in the middle of it, or have the sun stand still for a bit to keep the afternoon going a little longer. We're not designed to manipulate time that way; we are designed to manipulate stuff like fruit and fibers.

In God's eternal Now a million years is a very little thing, and He can manipulate time as He sees fit. Not me: and unless I in some way join Him in that Now, I don't see how time can ever can be little for me.


I used to wonder why rivers in Liberia weren't more often used for transport and trade. It would have to be cheaper than building roads. Wouldn't it?

It turns out lot of places along the rivers look like this. I didn't see much of that near the coast.

Want to try a portage?. Or, if you're more ambitious, here...

Too Late to Turn Back by Barbara Greene

Graham Green decided to explore Liberia--in particular an area for which there literally were no accurate maps at all, just blanks.

He wrote Journey Without Maps about his trip, on which he nearly died.

He brought along his 23-year-old cousin. She wrote Too Late to Turn Back about the trip. She viewed things a little differently, of course.

One of the surprises she found was that it was not an "adventure"--except perhaps in the sense of being a nasty uncomfortable thing that made you late for dinner. It was tedious, and the heat and monotony drained body and mind. At the end of it all, she said it was worth it.

I spent almost all my time in the developed area on the coast, and what wasn't there was spent close to main roads and extractive industries. I never saw what she did in the interior. And the Monrovia I saw was a much bigger and richer (relatively) city than the one she saw.

Read it. And Graham's too. They each see Dr. Harley differently.

UPDATE: The waterfall they each describe can be partially seen illustrating this BBC story.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

On the City of God Against the Pagans by Augustine

This has been on my list for quite a while, and now that the bus from Sun Prairie to downtown Madison is running, I've had leisure to wrap it up.

Augustine covers Heaven and Earth, and has to pull himself back on track sometimes.

To counter people who claim that miracles ceased, he describes some he saw, and others he heard from sources he trusted--and the list is quite long.

He sometimes uses close reading of Scripture, and sometimes explains passages metaphorically. Some of the passages he closely read were ones I considered metaphorical ("Not a hair of your head shall perish"), and he used a version of the Septuagint that seems not quite precise. He knows Jerome's "new" Latin version, and cites it a time or three, but doesn't rely on it much. When his close reading hits a passage that was ill-translated, it's a bit jarring.

He cites books no longer extant--which is frustrating, since I'd really like to have learned more, but most of (e.g.) Varro's work is lost.

The earlier chapters describe details of Roman religion that didn't show up in Bulfinch's Mythology. It's a good reminder of what real pagans are like.

He chews up the pagan philosophers. That isn't hard to do--and they did it to each other with gleeful abandon too.

He has a large chunk of parallel histories of Israel and the rest of the world (Assyria is his generic term for all the empires of that region, fyi), which is interesting, even if his chronology is not 100%. OK, quite a bit less than 100%. Some things he gets wrong--I suppose nobody could read cuneiform by then, and not much hieroglyphic text either, so maybe some of the histories had been lost. I had thought that the claim that all (or almost all) the pagan gods were deified heroes was a late notion, but Augustine cites Roman authors explaining that Mercury and Isis and many others were deified after their deaths. (Isis taught agriculture to the Egyptians?)

He's eager to explain how everything in Israel's history and scripture points to Jesus, and stretches some points way beyond reasonable limits.

When he discusses prodigies, I felt a sharp wish to be able to sit him down and explain a little chemistry and physics. Yes, he mentions the salamander, and a worm that lives in boiling water--and of course the latter does exist though he couldn't know it. And on several other points (predestination) I didn't think he had a solid handle on all aspects of what he was discussing.

Nevertheless, it is interesting.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

New powers

When Herod heard of Jesus' miracles, he (or "people") said "John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him."

Of course, while he was alive, John never did any miracles. John 10:41.

So for Herod (or "people") to think John would start now says something interesting about how they viewed resurrection.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

How do you keep control of your car?

Maybe a "kill-switch" for the network is overkill, but I'd be inclined to use it. Last time I checked I wasn't into deplorable deeds of darkness that required me to keep my location secret, but on general principles I don't want other people monkeying with my stuff without my knowledge.

We bought a van without the extra bells and whistles. A backup camera would be very nice to have, but I don't like power doors (untraceable short circuits drain the battery very quickly--I learned that the hard way) and the temperature sensors get scraped off in snow banks, and I think I'd rather drive than fiddle with getting bluetooth synced at highway speeds.

Monday, October 07, 2019

It can't go on, or can it?

I got to thinking about the last post--how long before people rise up in wrath?

You'd think sooner or later people will either vote with the ballot or their feet or with surreptitious bear spray to deal with the problem. But I remembered India's sacred monkeys. They get to run wild, and even run violent, because they're sacred.(*) Our priests define vagrants as victims, and therefore also sacred.

You'd think people would notice the difference between the generic and innocuous "homeless" and the disreputable "vagabond" or "vagrant," but our priests insist on blurring the language to keep the rest of us from noticing. I'm not writing about the generically homeless here.

There seem to be Indians here and there who are fed up with being harassed, but the risks of offending the believers are high. Likewise here.

(*) Although sometimes they destroy enough crops that the governments take notice. The story is about a matching fund to save monkeys. "Killing monkeys is a sin. Those killing monkeys would invite the wrath of god and to save people from calamities, a balancing act of saving monkeys is required."

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Changing direction

It has been obvious for a while that when you try to treat homelessness as a cause rather than a symptom, especially when you couple this with very permissive attitudes towards drug use, you get an evil mess. The homeless suffer more, the rest of society pays a high price for nothing useful, and the only ones that benefit seem to be the experts-for-hire paid to fix hangovers with the hair of the dog.

We got wedged into this situation by politics, and we'll have to get out by politics.

One obvious solution is to replace the people who are busy wedging us ever harder into this mess. That's been tried--it isn't easy at all, and hasn't seemed to happen yet.

Another is to find a way for the existing elite to save face in a flip-flop. If they can find someone to blame they can change course without endangering their hold on power. They could, for example, find a crying need for mental health care among the homeless, a need that was thwarted by the callous closing of mental health hospitals by Reagan and the other evil money-hungry sorts. (That particular claim wouldn't be true, of course, but that's no bar in politics--truth seems to be an impediment to be avoided at all costs.) The homeless need hospitals, and the progressives are just the people to help them!

Of course, there would have to be something in it for the well-connected. And the existing experts-for-hire would scream unless you found ways to work them into the plan. And the elites would still be the kind of people who double-down on craziness. And they'd still need to find a way of enforcing drug restrictions without harshing the mellow of an important subset of the San Francisco voters. But if a sacrificial lamb can be procured...

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Castles in China

I was starting some research on weapon technology transfer, and found this on castles in China, and decided not to wait for my final essay.

Many Chinese cities were walled and fortified, and some of the fortifications were quite large. Pingyao's city wall approached Ninevah's in height. The Forbidden City is effectively a large castle.

But since China usually succeeded in centralizing power, it didn't need as many non-frontier fortifications as the European patchwork of mini-states did--in fact, they would be a risk to the central state. I suspect I'll learn that warlords' castles were dismantled when the new Emperor conquered them.

But there were families with fortified compounds too. There's probably a lot of history in there.

High tech and crime prevention

A man was accused of entering a North Side house earlier this week and stealing guns and a computer while holding a woman at gunpoint was being monitored through GPS and out on bond for another break-in in which he’s accused of raping a woman." ... " George L. Goins, 37, no permanent address ... "According to the complaint, he broke into a woman’s house and raped her, saying the police “can’t stop me.”"

In the earlier case "Goins was initially held on a \$10,000 cash bond, which was reduced in May to a signature bond with GPS monitoring." Now "Judge Ramona Gonzalez ordered a \$25,000 cash bond Friday, saying if he posts the cash bond he will be required to have no weapons and comply with GPS monitoring and house arrest."

I'm kind of puzzled. Isn't there enough evidence to give him a permanent address, pending trial? The GPS bracelet says he was on the woman's block then.

One thing is clear--he was telling the truth when he said the police couldn't stop him. Neither does GPS. It just makes it easier to tie the criminal to the crime after the fact. It does nothing for crimes of poor impulse control, or crimes where the criminal doesn't think he has anything to lose, or is simply feckless, or thinks himself invulnerable. A catch-and-release police/prosecute policy will cultivate that attitude in people.

I'd think that GPS monitoring would deter people from further crimes who have good impulse control, are forward-thinking, and feel they have something to lose by getting re-arrested for a new crime. I suspect those folks commit some, but nowhere near most, of the crimes.

And GPS doesn't deter fraud, or other crimes that don't necessarily require physical presence.

But hey, we've got some nice high-tech toys--they have to be useful!