Friday, June 28, 2019

This generation will not pass away

Even if Abdul hadn’t been violently sick with the flu, he could not have come with me to survey the new dig site. His daughter Rebeka was just back from St. Pricilla’s, and needed a ride to St. Anne’s orphanage, where she was to take her final vows with the Sisters of St. Veronica.

I agreed to drive his wife and daughter to the orphanage, while the five younger children took care of him. His wife introduced me to Rebeka, who looked every bit the nun in her black and grey habit, quietly reading the breviary. “I’ve always wanted to help lonely children,” Rebeka told me. “And I love quiet and I love prayer.”

Her mother Sara wore the sturdy frame of a woman who had coped with nearly everything. She chattered away as though words kept the world in its place—which perhaps they do.

Rebeka got in back and Sara sat beside me. The road jarred my teeth. Archaeologists get used to that, but I had to apologize to my passengers every few minutes during our two-hour drive. I wondered about the wisdom of siting an orphanage out in this dry landscape.

The dell with the orphanage turned out to have spots of green in a little garden. I guessed they must have a spring inside the compound. Walls of 20 feet of windowless brown stonework protected the nuns and children inside.

I parked next to a decrepit Accord and wondered who the other visitor might be. We left the windows down. It might invite flies, but at least we wouldn’t roast on the return trip. You haven’t a choice about windows in the city.

As we walked to the door, a bell rang somewhere and the sound of children’s voices spread. The words in blue above the door were Greek: “IDOU SOU METER,” “behold your mother.” That’s a nice motto for an orphanage.

Sara swung the weathered knocker with loud bangs. The doorkeeper arrived. We identified ourselves to her, and she opened the heavy old slab. The walls were nearly three feet thick, and some of the masonry was seventh century. On the inside the words above the door read “IDOU SOU HUIOS,” “behold your son.”

About 20 children from three to fourteen ran around the courtyard as two nuns watched them from the shade. The doorkeeper guided us to a pair of worn wooden benches, and then ushered Rebeka into a room by the chapel. Her mother fell silent. The smell of clean water from the brick wellspring by the wall was delightful.

We waited and watched the children play. The doors were arched high, with a cross on the left top and an empty tomb on the right. I wanted to get a closer look at the arch for one of the doors, and at the painting over the chapel door, but I didn’t want to disturb the children’s play. The littlest ones ran about shrieking, and the older ones played some complicated game of catch with two balls.

A bell rang twice, and the nuns retrieved the balls and shepherded the youngsters into the classrooms, singing a catchy song in Arabic about addition facts. A middle-aged nun came out to us with a tray and teacups.

By the time we finished the tea Father Jacob and a surprisingly spritely old nun came out of the chapel. I hadn’t expected to see Jacob here. He is Orthodox and the nuns are Catholic.

Sara and I rose, and the old nun quickly made for us and introduced “This is my son Jacob. And this is my son …” she looked at me expectantly.

Father Jacob broke in: “I know your son Steven already, and this must be your daughter Sara, Rebeka’s mother.”

“I know you must leave now,” the old nun said to Father Jakob, “But can you give them your blessing first?”

I’m Methodist, and had never received an Orthodox blessing before. Neither had Sara, who didn’t understand Greek. But her suspicion faded and she smiled. At the end of it the nun turned and startled us with “Your turn.” I helped Sara start off and she remembered the words from there. The nun hugged Father Jakob and he left.

The old nun, whose name turned out to be Miriam, invited us to visit a classroom. The ceilings were high and decorated with scenes from the Gospels, and the rooms were kept cool and well-lit by their tall windows. (The curious feature of the arch turned out to be merely an 18’th century repair.) Rebeka sat in the corner with one of the children, facing away from the door, quietly re-explaining the lesson.

We waited while Miriam watched her intently for a minute, and then motioned us on. Before I knew what was happening the three of us were in the orphanage’s crowded kitchen, chopping vegetables. A nun kneading dough suggested that I chop a bit finer, but applauded Sara’s work.

One nun stirred a large kettle with one hand and fingered a rosary with the other. We were close enough that I could hear that she wasn’t reciting the usual prayers. Each bead took a long time. I looked at Miriam, who spoke before I asked: “We use the old style here. Each bead is a psalm.”

Sara looked askance at that, but I explained that this really did predate the modern usage. She replied that she, for one, would keep on saying “Hail Mary.” Miriam seemed amused. I couldn’t quite hear the prayers she was whispering.

The doorkeeper of the day came in with the news that “Father Benedict is here with the new boy.”
Miriam set down her knife and left, and, after filling the pot with the vegetables, so did we. The cooks thanked us, and asked us to take a tray of tea to the guest. Helping prepare food has always felt satisfying.

I stared over my shoulder as we walked out of the kitchen. The image over the chapel door turned out to be Jesus with sheep. The figure of Jesus was unusually lifelike.

Miriam and another nun sat beside the young boy on a bench by the chapel. He squeezed a red ball as he answered their questions. We took the tray across the courtyard to Father Benedict. He is the priest of Sara’s parish.

“How do you like being called “Son,” Father?” Sara asked

Benedict laughed. “It never bothers me. She says it and it is true. She’s old enough to be my mother—no, my grandmother. But everybody she meets is her son or daughter.”

“Did the bishop give the order dispensation to use the old prayers?” I asked.

“They’ve been doing things their way time out of mind,” he said. “She says the Emperor Mauritius was too much of an innovator. Besides, I don’t think the Bishop could tell his mother “no.” And the bishop before him was her son too, you know.”

“And so is Father Jakob.”

Benedict shrugged. “Of course.”

Sara looked puzzled. “Mauritius? Who?”

“He was fifth century. They don’t celebrate the Feast of the Dormition here. Their rites are very old,” Benedict explained. “The bishop told us that when we’re here, we do things their way.”

Across the courtyard the new boy seemed to have lost his shyness and bounced on his toes with excitement. The nuns stood, and the boy raced to the kitchen, followed by the younger nun. Miriam went to the classroom where Rebeka sat and beckoned to her. Rebeka came out and followed Miriam to where we were sitting. We rose for them, and I dragged the benches to face each other.

When we all sat down again, Miriam faced Rebeka and said “Dear daughter, God has a hard job for you.”

“Yes, mother, I understand. Protecting and teaching orphans will be hard, and they are not always grateful.”

“No, dear child, harder than that. You will have to serve and learn to be holy in the world, not the convent. You will still take care of strangers, but also your own children too.”

“But mother,” Rebeka protested, “This is what I’ve wanted, and felt called to, and vowed—how can I be pure in the middle of an unholy world? It’s impossible! Do you know what it’s like out there?”

Father Benedict wore a wry smile, but did not interrupt.

“Daughter, _I_ did. I had a husband once. And a son.”

Father Benedict started. “I didn’t know you were married!”

“Yes, son.” She kept her eyes on Rebeka. “My husband died long, long ago. My son is alive.”

Rebeka ventured, “I can be like you—even with feuding families whose boys pull knives on each other? And who say such things to Christians?”

“I had to endure just as bad as that, and more. It is hard, but that is what Christ wants of you. I’ve had to run for my life many times, and only the help of angels keeps this shelter safe from the serpent.”

Rebeka bent her head and started to cry.

Miriam lifted Rebeka’s chin up with a finger. “Save the tears for the real heartaches, daughter,” she said softly.

Rebeka wiped her face and said “I … I obey.”

“Good. There are joys too, don’t forget, and a crown. God bless you, daughter.”

We stood. Sara hugged her daughter.

Benedict looked at Miriam with an eyebrow cocked to silently ask “How could you tell that quickly?” Miriam just smiled—a very young smile with very old joy.

The doorkeeper let us out through the tunnel in the wall. I turned back and asked Miriam a question that had exercised some of us for a while. “Did you know?”

“Did not our hearts burn within us?” she answered. “You are in my prayers.” The ancient door softly closed as we left.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

More than one

I was meant to take
 our little Jenny to the lake
 and bring her back to Gramma's home
 with wonder in her eyes about the dawn
 showing you the string of fish
 she caught all by herself--almost.

And John was meant to help you 
 plant and weed and reap your gardens
 the summer that you broke your leg
 and couldn't kneel beside him
 while you taught the budding engineer
 how to care for growing things.

And Betty Lou was meant to learn your stuffing
 as she cooked with you our first Thanksgiving,
 and then let the dishes wait;
 the two of you stay up till four
 while she put music to the verses
 that you never told the rest of us about.

Will you sing your songs with Betty Lou?
 Or she and I smile for the baby kicks?
  Will I live to share that English class with her?
   Or bring you spring bouquets of dandelions?
    You tell them you're not ready yet to be a mother.
It won't be only me that dies today.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Making people

AI is still a hot topic, with lots of advances and almost advances. Robots look almost human and almost do human things.

At the art museum we saw amazingly complex cabinetry.

Despite these wonderful things, the most amazing and complex things you are likely to see are other human beings. Complicated, creative, fascinating, hopefully loveable, unique--works of art. And we get to make more.

The winds of the age tell us no, there are too many people ("I love mankind, it's people I can't stand"), or disparage parents as lower class ("breeders" or "popping out babies"). The voices of the age love to abstract people into faceless groups for easier manipulation. What they're not so good at is noticing that the man in front of you is irreplaceable, and wouldn't be here if other people hadn't engendered and raised him.

We see so many people that we take them for granted, as most people take sparrows for granted and don't appreciate their design and individuality. And we take the parents for granted. "Being a parent isn't real work, it's common, and it's less important than my work."

I've heard the phrase "making babies," but that's only the start. We're "making people," in miracles so common they're invisible. Except perhaps to the new parents.


Rev 1:9 "I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus."

I don't generally like to think of tribulation and perseverance as being necessary parts of a being a partaker in a kingdom. Not much choice, is there?


Pride is traditionally the primal sin.

I think lying gives it a run for the money.

They're related. A lie can be a refusal to submit to reality, or an attempt to make my word a "fiat" like God's, making or remaking the universe to my will.

Pride of the "I'm superior" flavor is founded on lies. Either form of lies has a clear relationship to pride.

Some things about the two are similar, but not all.

Everybody hates the proud--but we don't mind being proud.

On the other hand, some of us are fine with being told lies. Politicians who tell the truth tend not to get elected. Politicians who lie destroy us. Take Illinois. A couple of generations of state employees were told that they had pensions, but as far as I can tell the legislators never intended to fund the pensions. To put the best spin on it, they seem to have hoped that money would be raised in the future--which means they were lying to themselves too. Illinois is broke, and a huge part of that is those pensions they lied about.

Lies break us apart from community.

Among the Gbandes: "He who steals is one who is also capable of killing and lying." Lying breaks the trust that binds the tribe together, and lost trust is potentially lethal when you live close to the margin.

We probably know a few Christians who drifted away from the faith when they were promised (perhaps as children, and they never learned the adult faith?) a happy life instead of a sacrificial one. The prosperity gospel is a cruel lie, though the consequences of it aren't always visible here; they lose the greater community, though.

Jesus called the devil "father of lies." That and "murderer" seem to be the important characteristics He wants us to remember about the devil.

I'm not going to say that I'm wiser than 2000 years of church theologians and give lying pride of place among the sins. But it is a fundamental one.

Vanity Fair

Bunyan is tough to imitate. I was told that he wrote the best and the second-best allegories in the English language (The Holy War), and his images enriched English literature amazingly.

Nevertheless I think Hawthorne did a worth job re-describing Vanity Fair in "The Celestial Railroad". A snippet:

There was a sort of stock or scrip, called Conscience, which seemed to be in great demand, and would purchase almost anything. Indeed, few rich commodities were to be obtained without paying a heavy sum in this particular stock, and a man's business was seldom very lucrative unless he knew precisely when and how to throw his hoard of conscience into the market. Yet as this stock was the only thing of permanent value, whoever parted with it was sure to find himself a loser in the long run.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

DNA dating

Japan has lots of fads: DNA dating caught the Telegraph's eye.
Its concept is simple: based on the survivalist scientific theory that people with the most diverse DNA are the most attracted to one another, participants are required to simply provide a saliva swab.

This is then analysed by scientists, with a particular focus on HLA, a gene complex with more than 16,000 variations which are commonly associated with immune system regulation and are also believed play a key role in attraction levels between humans.

The company is then able to match up potential couples based on how similar or different their HLA genes are – with 100 per cent compatibility issued to couples who have a zero HLA match, while the compatibility figure shrinks when there are higher rates of HLA similarities.

I wonder. The more different they are, the more likely there are going to be DNA-linked personality differences. "Opposites attract:" sometimes: so do similar people.

Most fads don't have staying power. I suspect this one won't either; and it focusses on dating, not on children. When the Chinese work up a version of it, it might be mandatory.

No specialists

The Navy is supposedly taking to the Silicon Valley idea that experts are passe, at least for a number of occupations on the sea. A sailor must be able to do several different jobs, not just one.
The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.


On the bridge, five crew members do the jobs usually done by 12, thanks to high-tech display screens and the ship’s several thousand remote sensors. And belowdecks, once-distinct engineering roles—electrician’s mate, engine man, machinist, gas-turbine technician—fall to the same handful of sailors.

I don't know about now, but back in WW-II submariners had specialties, but were supposed to be able to handle any job on the boat--in an emergency you might have to run whatever you were near. Of course, submarine school was tough and most applicants washed out.

I'm not sure if the Navy is trying to make a virtue of necessity. Understaffing was one of the contributing factors in the Fitzgerald crash. So was lack of maintenance, and I'm not quite clear how having fewer sailors makes that easier.

My wife has just finished the first draft of a novel about a submariner in WW-II. Reading about the real stories reminds you that the enemy gets a vote on your staffing. The Navy had lots of sailors on those boats for three very good reasons.

  1. Men get killed. You need "spares" to keep fighting, or just to keep the boat from sinking.
  2. When you're exhausted, frightened, or surprised, practice and habit make the difference. You know how to handle the shells because you practice all the time. If you have to bring in an inexperienced sailor, somebody has to spend the time and attention to keep them doing the right thing--assuming there's somebody left in his corner.
  3. Flexible thinkers/learners aren't the majority. When you start losing boats and sailors, you need to be a little less picky about who you draft. Simple jobs may be boring, but you can train most anybody to do them.

Maybe the Navy brass think the next war will go all our way, with no jamming of the inter-ship ethernet, no scrambling of our sensors, and all our wonderful defensive hardware working just as advertised: "fire the cruise missiles and go down to the mess for a beer."

I doubt that's true for near-peer opponent, and it sure isn't true for a peer enemy.

I'm guessing this is another exercise in make-believe, betting the sailors' lives, and ultimately ours, that their powerpoint models work.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Sprung door

If anybody out there knows what could cause this, I'd be gratified to hear about it--and Russ Darrow repair might be too.

At the end of an hour-long trip with grandkids, a manual(*) sliding door on a 2015 Dodge Caravan wouldn't open. I wasn't present for the festivities, but when I inspected it the top roller, attached to the front of the door on a 3" not-very-bendable bar, was no longer in the channel attached to the body. As far as I could see the middle roller was in its slot, and the bottom was attached just fine.

I could slide the door back about an inch. The roller bar was bolted tightly to the door, and I couldn't get it to flex significantly.

Our regular repair firm was too busy, so we took it to the dealer. They unbolted the bar and re-assembled the door, and found no obvious reason why the roller would have come out--no damage, clogging--nothing.

OK, all's well--except that I've no idea whether the problem will recur.

Did they miss something when inspecting the middle roller assembly? Has anybody else had this problem?

(*) The van we bought before had power sliding doors, which are nice until they aren't and a short in the wire harness drains the battery every night. Fixed by pulling the fuses.

Thursday, June 20, 2019


I hold no brief for Biden--he seems the very model of a glad-hander with no intelligence or convictions. But I understood what he was saying about dealing with people he didn't agree with. His job was to deal with the world as it was rather than as his modern accusers want it to be.

Cory Booker claimed "in a time of racism, it is not enough to say that 'I'm not a racist'; you need to be anti-racist."

Who died and made Cory Booker God?

No human being has the right to tell me, or anybody else, "If you're not with me, you're against me." I have my own problems to deal with, and so does my neighbor down the hill. Cory Booker did not make us, and we don't answer to him.

Sure there's racism. There's also greed, and a whole list of other deadly sins. If you're called to work on addressing one, feel free, but don't try to play God and demand that the rest of us drop what we're called to do and toe your line.


We're planning to go to the Milwaukee Art Museum tomorrow, so I looked up the temporary exhibits. First on the list was Sara Cwynar, whose work was described as exploring "through film and photography the subjects of color and design, the ways that they operate politically, socially, and historically, particularly in the context of how we conceptualize beauty."

I don't really have to look at the examples: the supposedly enticing keywords "politically" and "conceptualize" warn me of a lack of beauty in the work. And so it proves, if google images gives a representative sampling.

Wikipedia's description might give an explanation "Cwynar’s understanding of Kundera’s definition of “kitsch” as images that we are drawn to in order to escape from all that is aesthetically unpleasant in life"

If I follow that correctly, Kundera and she think beauty and efforts at beauty are kitsch. That seems like a bad philosophy, and bad philosophy can poison life.

It seems to be a popular attitude among recent artists. That and making everything the servant of politics.

What's the opposite of click-bait?

"In case you missed it: Scenes from Saturday's World Naked Bike Ride in Madison"

Or anything to do with the Kardashians.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Pardoning criminals

Nash’s criminal record reached back to 1913, when he was sentenced to life at the State Penitentiary, McAlester, Oklahoma for murder. He was later pardoned. In 1920, he was given a 25-year sentence at the same penitentiary for burglary with explosives and later pardoned. On March 3, 1924, Nash began a 25-year sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth for assaulting a mail custodian. He escaped on October 19, 1930.

According to Wikipedia, Frank Nash got off the first time because "On March 28, 1918, Nash's sentence was reduced to ten years after he convinced the warden he wanted to join the army and fight in World War I. Nash signed his military registration card on June 12, 1918, and was released on August 16, 1918. Nash saw action in Belleau Wood, France, before the end of the war."

The second time he was pardoned for good behavior. The third time he escaped: he "was appointed the deputy warden's chef and general handyman, a position that brought privileges" and he walked away one day.

He also had 3 wives. He must have been quite a convincing scoundrel. He was killed by friendly fire in a rescue attempt.

It seems to be somewhat easier to be released these days. (Don't worry, there'll be a story about it shortly.) And maybe even put on a California jury.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Declaring life bankruptcy

The United States was for a long time a frontier culture. I'm told, and it seems plausible, that it wasn't only people looking for a better life who emigrated, but also people who had managed to make themselves odious in their neighbor's eyes. If you can't stand it where you are, move elsewhere, change your name, and try a new start.

This is golden for men who want to ditch their families, or other criminals looking to escape punishment and find new targets.

On the other hand, it could also be a refuge for people who had made an injudicious choice and have had second, wiser, thoughts. It might be easier to reform in a place where nobody knows your name (maybe).

One of my wife's ancestors was apprenticed, in what's now Germany, to an abusive master. The lad, pushed too far, rammed the master into a horse-trough and took a boat to the USA to avoid the harsh penalties inflicted on insubordinate apprentices.

My cousin's geneological research suggests that a not-too-distant ancestor of ours was not born with the name he died with.

The option of "starting over" is an alluring one. Part of the legend of the French Foreign Legion was that you could join under an assumed name, and earn the new name and a new life in the Legion. They actually did some background checks--at least some of the time.. A stint in the Legion would "pay for" your crime--at least in the great myth of the Legion.

Suppose you're not a crook looking for new victims.

Maybe you have some obligations that would make "declaring my old life bankrupt" a grave offense. Then running away is obviously evil. Or perhaps you're a teenage who thinks home is horrible and you'd be ever so much better treated in the big city. Maybe you're right, but more likely you're a fool who is about to find out what predation means. But maybe the environment really is oppressive and unjust, and the whole community's disapproving eyes are on you, and you need to get out from under them. Probably you won't ever cut and run, but I think I understand the appeal of having the option.

Having a national ID makes this escape a lot harder. You can easily understand the appeal of having such a thing--it makes catching deadbeat dads (and moms) easier, and makes it easy to tell who is a citizen entitled to benefits and who is not. And, in case of war, it makes it easier to spot enemy infiltrators. (We're at war now and probably will be for the rest of my lifetime. Lots of wars have taken decades or centuries--the Spanish Reconquista took 500 years.)

But a universal ID lets the powers-that-be apply the small-town's lack of privacy without any sense of small-town community. If you're the wrong flavor of citizen, the nation's disapproving eyes are on you, without any mitigation or any escape or possibility of starting over. China is our current bad example--it maintains a database of all its residents with the possibility, and already the beginnings, of a system to track everyone and punish the smallest deviations from the will of the powers-that-be.

One of the prices of liberty is insecurity. It shouldn't be easy to duck and run, but it seems to me that it should be possible. For criminals with connections, it always will be.


The discerning reader will be gratified to learn that Dr. Boli is back after his long hiatus.

Charlie Gould

I had never heard of him before. He was the first Union soldier to breach the Confederate works at Petersburg. "if he had only had his revolver he could have held the fort alone."

I read of an "English" fighter about a thousand years ago fighting on with an arrow through his jaw and into his neck, and going on to live a long life afterwards.

I dislike the jab for testing blood sugar.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Imposter Syndrome

Talk about Imposter Syndrome is making the rounds. The journal club addressed it recently, on a day I was absent. Since they're about to look at mental illness and stress among grad students, I thought I should try to catch up, and went to the workshop on I.S. at the conference last Thursday.

Thumbnail: You feel as though you have your position or fame purely due to luck, and worry that you will be found out and humiliated.

Wikipedia suggests that people started talking about this in the late 70's, but that the effect (not a mental illness) is quite common.

It has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life. This can be a result of a new setting, academic or professional. Research shows that impostor phenomenon is not uncommon for students when entering a new academic environment. Feelings of insecurity can come as a result to an unknown, new environment. This can lead to lower self-confidence and belief in their own abilities.

Wikipedia also says this especially impacts "women of color" in academia, and attributes this to "hideous forms of racism and sexism." That hypothesis isn't necessary (and anecdotal observations contradict it). The effect was predicted long before. Although "affirmative action" goes by many different names these days, it still exists, and the recipient cannot be sure that the thumb was not on the scales--"Hello self-doubt!"

My observations are mostly of grad students and post-docs and engineers and scientists and profs. By this level, there's no question that the student has intellectual horsepower. Maybe there was a thumb on the scales early on, but that won't carry you far. I haven't met a mediocre student yet on any of the teams I've been on. Some are sharp, and some are super-sharp, but they all "belong here." OK, I lie, there was one student who could not seem to follow instructions. I'm pretty sure the student was clever, but something about taking notes and asking questions and re-organizing the analysis seemed to be outside this student's world.

They don't always feel that that they belong. I empathisize. Been there, done that.

Being a perfectionist, or feeling as though you have to be Superman, having lots of other people's expectations on your shoulders, or being in a new environment can help bring this on. Those all seem to be obvious contributors.

Two other things strike me as very important.

  1. When your job is to solve abstract problems, you quickly find out that there are two kinds of problems. Problems you have solved already are easy, almost trivial. If you think of them at all you probably grudge the time you spent on blind alleys for something so obvious. You pay them no more mind than you do the light traffic on your way to work. Problems you have not solved yet are hard. They occupy your mind they way the heavy traffic does. There's a sampling bias: you see things you can't do, and ignore things you can.

    Since nobody is a super-polymath (despite your ambition), you have colleagues who have solved some of the problems you haven't. Therefore they are smart and you are dumb. If you can't solve the kinds of problems they can, why are you here?

    I'm not sure this translates so well into careers in which problems with physical dimensions have to be solved over and over (you have to kill another deer every couple of weeks if you want to keep eating). But in academia it can be pretty dramatic.

  2. The other thing that jumps out at me is that you regard yourself and your worthiness entirely on the basis of accomplishment--not relationship. And, only on the basis of accomplishment in this particular environment.

    I am a son, brother, husband, and a father, and a Christian (another relationship). If they decide tomorrow that my work is unacceptable and escort me out of the building, that'll hurt, but it isn't the entirety of who I am. Looking around the room at the journal club, I see plenty of grad students who know more astrophysics than I do, but it doesn't phase me the way it once would have.

I'm not sure how to translate these into effective ways to help people. Recognizing the sampling bias is one thing, internalizing that observation is another. And it isn't terribly helpful to say "cultivate relationships and skills outside your work." Doing that, especially for a time-crunched grad student, isn't always easy.

Of the things mentioned in wikipedia, having mentor seems most likely to be helpful (preferably not your advisor!). Understanding the whys may help, and regular reminders probably would too.

I figured that the folks who hired me decided I was OK, and I would do my best. If they miscalculated, that was their hard luck.

My thesis advisor Lee Holloway tried to set his students a good example by asking the elementary questions at seminars. "What do you mean by X?"

Fishers of men

I hoped that God would give me the gift of such forceful brilliance that when talking with unbelievers I would "knock-em-dead." Unfortunately the Lord does not seem to approve of fishing with dynamite. Probably this is because people wind up more impressed by the action than the Lord.

"Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!" He didn't. It would have been dynamite to see...

There's an old rhyme "Confess a man against his will, he's of the same opinion still." I mondegreened it into "Convince a man against his will, he's of the same opinion still." I think my mistake is also true. The most thorough proofs don't sink in and make a change unless the hearer wants them to. Parents will have noticed this. And of course, sometimes people hold conflicting "truths" for a lifetime. And for the honor of truth, I have exemplified this also: after I was convinced of the truth of Christianity it was another two weeks before I finally converted. (One afternoon, with a clarity I never had before or since, I realized that everything made sense in Jesus. How can you do more than a supernatural persuasion?--and even then I procrastinated.)

Father Simon says that when Jesus called people to be "fishers of men" he expects them to be tasty bait. I'd not quite say that--the attraction is supposed to be Jesus--but it does seem as though the call is almost always one by one by one.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Headline complaints

The headline reads "Metal Foam Stops .50 Caliber Rounds as Well as Steel – At Less Than Half the Weight". If you read the article, "stops" isn't quite the right word to use. The composite armor "was able to absorb 72-75% of the kinetic energy of the ball rounds." That's more than ok for something light, but the headline is misleading. I presume that the impact turns into many collapses and spallations inside the "bubbles" and helps dissipate the energy--a bit like crunchable bumpers, but at higher energy.

In addition, "CMFs, in addition to being lightweight, are very effective at shielding X-rays, gamma rays and neutron radiation" is misleading, and so is the article it links to. Steel is better than aluminum, and not so good as lead is the right answer--and one of the commenters pointed that out, noting that the researcher's real abstract didn't claim otherwise. Radiation gets stopped by stuff, not structure.

Keystone Kriminals

If this weren't so close to my daily orbit I'd be laughing.
Two assailants stole money from a pizza delivery man but he got their keys in an attempted Downtown Madison robbery early Saturday morning, with both items switching back to their respective parties by the end of the incident

Friday, June 07, 2019


Thursday was my first day back from vacation, and also the day of the IT Professionals conference. They pay me for it, so I suppose I'm a professional.

After registration, on the way to the coffee and bagels (tea and an apple), was a table with a couple making "pronoun preference" buttons--"he/him" or "she/her" or you could write in your own.(*) In the end, I only saw a handful of people wearing them. I flatter myself that it's always been easy to tell what sex I am--especially now with a dad-bod and extensive male pattern baldness. I wonder how many people viewed the idea of an explicit id as faintly insulting.

If I have to register a pronoun, I think I'll pick "Mar".(**) ( ܡܪܝ ) I admit that this is purely aspirational, but would serve as a good reminder.

(*)I saw only one man with the write-in button. His print was so small I couldn't make it out. As usual, the conference was mostly men.

(**) "Mor" would also work, except that it would be confused with "more."

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Qui bono?

Quite a few states are legalizing or looking at legalizing marijuana. From my vantage the process looks coordinated. Perhaps this is purely grass-roots (if you'll pardon the pun), but I suspect the lobbying groups' funding might bear inspection. Is this "big tobacco" or some other group?

Is it a coincidence that the CBD oil hype hit about the same time?

My take on legalization is that we have more than enough problems with alcohol abuse; we don't need a new crop of addicts--even if (as is loudly asserted) its addiction is less destructive than alcohol's.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Golden rice

I hadn't heard much about it for years. It turns out there's a good reason for that. It took a while get get the bugs worked out of it.
The initial version of the crop actually put very low amounts of the desired nutrient in the edible portions of rice. Switching to another form of the gene (one from corn) solved that, but the new version ended up with the added gene inserted in the middle of a gene essential for the activity of a plant growth-regulating hormone. Switching to a different version of the same plant solved that but delayed the process. Once field trials were finally ready to start in 2013, anti-GMO activists destroyed the plantings, setting everything back again.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Stand on Zanzibar

I read Brunner's book decades ago, and haven't been particularly interested in re-reading it. It had some memorable moments. The BBC decided to highlight it as almost prophetic. Well, compare that with a more detailed listing of predictions/realities.. He didn't do badly. For example, he predicted widespread genetic engineering, but not the public reaction to it.

The BBC story describes how he tried to do his "predictions." I like his approach.

So how did Brunner do it? To start with, he spent nearly three years reading up on topics from the role of genetic inheritance in disease to links between population spurts and urban violence. He also spent a month in the US in 1966, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Then, breaking with his usual work routine, instead of outlining his plot, he filled 60 pages with thoughts before hammering out a first draft.

As he went, he devised a series of ‘parallel thought exercises’ to generate ideas. As Smith describes it, he imagined a Victorian time-traveller pitching up in the 1960s, and then pondered how he’d go about explaining to them everything from the telephone to the sexual revolution. The first was relatively simple, but accounting for the vast differences in cultural mores required him to examine countless cultural assumptions. “Then, he reversed the process, asking himself what those assumptions might mean for the future, how present environments might already be making us aware of those to come”, Smith explains. For instance, the ‘hobby-type saboteurs’ that pop up throughout the novel, getting their kicks through recreational violence, came to Brunner after he clocked the prevalence of Peter Pan syndrome on both sides of the Atlantic, and then read about kids vandalising public transport for fun.

The blogger's link claims that amateur saboteurs are under-reported. I've heard some hair-curling descriptions of infrastructure vulnerabilities, and I suspect that if the Internet weren't such an effective opiate we'd see more damage.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Teller Light

This post has pictures.

When a nuke explodes, x-rays escape the container long before the container itself is destroyed--for some definitions of "long before." They ionize air outside, and when the air de-excites it glows. The post shows 2 pictures taken a millionth of a second apart, with air glowing outside the bomb's casing.

The next post on that blog consists of only a title, "It's Late," with a number of comments by his wife added in the months and years after the author's death shortly after that last post.

A blog is a curious sort of legacy. It may be a collection of (maybe) interesting tidbits, old news, a diary, one part of a long conversation, maybe a few analyses mixed in that might be useful standalone...

I started writing this one intending to follow the denBeste model--concentrating on original content, and not so much the Instapundit model of links with brief comments. You can see for yourself how that worked out. I wonder how long it would take to sift through and collect those things I think might be useful for a longer while. I spent time on analyses that subsequent events have rendered moot. Was it worth doing? Maybe only for my own effort to be "an exact man" ...

Lessons learned

Driving down Bird I saw for sale what I thought was a great idea: modular garden fence panels. I pulled over to look. Put stakes in the ground and run them through screw-eyes in the ends of each panel. When you want to trim the weeds, or need access with a tiller, just lift the panel from the stakes and walk on in. I figured the price was too high, and made my own.

A pneumatic staple gun is great for attaching the screening. I got that one right the first time. (Lesson 0)

I tried using 2x4 for the frame--just once. I didn't want to waste the materials, or else that monstrosity would be long gone. Ever after I used 2x2, and when I couldn't find decent ones, split 2x4's on my table saw. (Lesson 1)

I used wall plates to assemble the frames. That was tedious, painful, and pricy. The next time I made panels I clamped the 2x2 together and bored holes for glued dowels. That was much cheaper, was about the same amount of effort, and seems to be just as robust--maybe a little more so. (Lesson 2)

Over time chicken-wire rusts rather badly, and results in unexpected personal perforations. Next time I'm using hardware cloth. It's more expensive and harder to work with, but looks more rugged. (Lesson 3). (For the garden door itself I had the wit to staple lath overlapping the edge of the chicken-wire so the ends don't bite.)

Round stakes wobble. You need to secure each panel to the next with cable ties. In fact, buying the steel rods may not have been entirely necessary, and later efforts just use cable ties and a few plastic garden rods. (Lesson 4)

Weeds will have their way. They penetrate black mulch, old rugs, and weave their way around pavers. Every year, pull out each panel and clean out the weeds and whatnot from the landing zone, and then reassemble the thing. Budget several hours. (Lesson 5)

Now I'm wondering what I'll learn next year.

UPDATE: I forgot lesson 6: A garden gate needs a sill!

Saturday, June 01, 2019


It is worth visiting

Infrastructure question

I asked how Cahokia got its water, and how did it dispose of sewage. "Haul water by pot from the river" was the suggestion for input--though enough to supply 10-20,000 people is a lot of haulage. Nobody knew about output. It may have been the same. Dumping waste in the borrow pits (where they dug the dirt to build the mounds) would have been an easy but stinking idea. So, since there was no obvious drainage, they probably used night soil luggers hauling to the river--or maybe the farms, though quick googling doesn't show any references to Amerindians doing that. Maybe urine lugging too, but maybe not--also stinky, but less of a health hazard. Still, they planned a lot of the city, so probably they planned something.

Engineering issue 1

Hauling water from one of the network of nearby channels would have been tedious but doable--and if they had "rain barrels" that would have reduced the need. (No malaria yet, though mosquitoes are always annoying.). However, the channels changed over time. This could be problematic for both the water supply and for trade, since quite a lot would have been water borne.

I noticed one figure that appeared twice--a swimming beaver with a stick in his mouth and front paws. If, from time to time, they had to do some dam-work of their own to make sure the river channels they wanted didn't dry up, they beaver would have been an important icon. Of course any dam-work would have rotted away a thousand years ago. But they did a lot of palisade-work, so they had access to lots of logs. This is just a hint; and I'm not sure where, if anywhere, you could look to find out whether they dammed or not.

Engineering issue 2

Monk's Mound has had a number of cores taken, and it looks like it has suffered from several major slumps over the past thousand years. We were told that the Mississippians tried different combinations of soils and clays and internal structures to try to maximize stability. In one place researchers found a layer of cobbles, with no obvious purpose. Maybe this was to help with drainage in an earlier iteration of the mound? The mound was built in stages, with what seem to my untrained eyes to be different layouts, though maybe there was some unifying principle. I gather that sections started slumping while it was still being built.


On Monk's Mound, the top level supposedly held a huge fence, a 40-50' high building for the chief, and an even taller pole in front of the building in the courtyard. This would have been the tallest thing for miles in any direction. We get thunderstorms in this part of the world--frequently.

That tall pole would have gotten plenty of strikes. I suppose they must have had to replace it regularly. However, it might have helped protect the great house. For a while.

I wonder how the Mississippians would have interpreted that. Perhaps one of the functions of the Supreme Leader was to take all the lightning strikes for the city onto himself.

We were told that Natchez tribe had characteristics most like the Mississippians, and so their customs are used as models. In the link, lightning set fire to one of their temples and the distraught citizens went so far as to throw children into the flames to try to get the gods to put out the fire. I'm not sure what that means about what they thought of lightning, but it does suggest that fire prevention wasn't perceived as high on their priority list and lightning wasn't one of the great worries.


They flattened out the surface of the Grand Plaza--an undertaking as massive as the construction of the Monk's Mound itself--though needing less dirt from elsewhere. I wonder why. Maybe for massive games that needed flat surfaces, or maybe the Supreme Ruler got tired of ruts and mandated smoothness?


They dug all this dirt with stone tools. A stone hoe looks stupidly dull, and would have been painful to dig with--except in mud, and that would have been painful to lug around. And a stone axe looks like it would do more crushing than cutting.

I used to wonder why they didn't sharpen the stone axe more, until I watched the center's video of knapping. I think I get it now. Stone can be pretty brittle, and sharper stones would chip and snap rather quickly. Maybe you could get more done with a sharp axe before it chipped too badly and you had to get a new stone, but they weren't easy to make as it was. Dull and strong was probably a decent compromise.


The palisades around the Grand Plaza were built/rebuilt 4 times in a century, with plenty of bastions. Clearly they had enemies--bastions like that look silly if for a purely ritual formation.

The bastion/entry pair scheme doesn't make much sense unless the rest of the common folk of the city could gather inside, so they must have had grain and water storage inside the Plaza--not huge, since there don't seem to have been many other towns of size big enough to man a siege. Maybe the sister St. Louis and East St. Louis settlements provided the raiders. Civil wars are always "a thing" in history. The palisades would need of order 100,000 trees each time. I wonder if they dragged them from nearby or floated them downstream from logging elsewhere? (There's that beaver motif again.)


They had galena for ornaments, but not lead. I wondered about that, but it turns out you have to pre-roast the ground-up ore to burn off the sulfide and make an oxide--and that's a noxious step with not immediate payoff. Only after roasting the oxide with charcoal do you get lead.


As noted above, the Natchez are supposed to have been the most similar of the surviving tribes to the Mississippians. A burial in mound 72 had a few men, one with a huge pile of expensive grave goods, and over a hundred women.

They had a legend of a founding leader who taught them and directed them to a new country. They also had (as is almost universal) a story of a great flood which some escaped on a high mountain. Cahokia had suffered a great flood, and Monk's Mound would have been a possible refuge--but perhaps the story inspired the mound?


For some reason the bird man image struck me as Mayan, but I can't think why because the styles are quite different. Maybe the feathers and the over-drawn nose?

Many figures are depicted kneeling. Maybe this was to show proper subservience, but maybe it was a stylistic convention designed to let you make a human figure as large as possible for a given chunk of rock. If you carved a standing figure from a 5" rock, the head and torso would be 2 1/2 inches high, but if the figure is kneeling you can make them almost 4" high.


Several mounds were excavated, and then rebuilt. Even the Monk's Mound has been partly rebuilt, but I gather they haven't tried to restore it to original (pre 1250) form.


St Louis was clear in the distance. The new city has a dozen times the area, a hundred times the population, and thousands of times the wealth of the old city. Although, as Merlin pointed out, how can you be really rich without servants? And the Birdman might have added, without a hundred wives?

Professions and mental illness

Folklore says that mathematicians and grandmaster chess players peak early and have a greater-than-average chance of going mad.

I'm not sure if that's true, nor what exactly is meant by "madness" here, but suppose there is really a correlation. In both "professions" there's a very high bar to entry, so we can immediately rule out the hypothesis that people with a tendency to (e.g) schizophrenia gravitate to those jobs. It would be like saying people with a tendency to fallen arches tend to become basketball players--not unless they're 6'7" or so. I'm not so sure about other professions--lawyer, for instance. They need some intellectual horsepower, but it isn't as exclusive a group.

Some professions (police, surgeon) are obviously extremely high stress, to a degree that I doubt most mathematicians or engineers see. Maybe leaving out those would clarify the question.

Is there a pattern to the incidence of mental illness in the professions? I'm not thinking of a scientist with a bee in his bonnet about 9/11 conspiracies OK, I lie--I am, but I don't include conspiracy theory addiction unless it is a debilitating illness

If there is such a pattern, does it reflect a selection bias? (I was told that many speech therapists became interested in the profession because they needed that help in childhood.) Or does a raw talent set correlate with a weakness? Or is the way we teach some professions all screwed up? (horse whisperer in Columbia vs the horse breakers, or medical interns)

I have known of, though not personally, a few physics students who have had a "breakdown" of some kind, but I did not have the need to know the details and was not told. (And a few who washed out or decided they liked other things better--not the same thing.). So, less than a percent had a mental problem, plus or minus, and that may have been stress-related. One of the professors in the two universities I am most familiar with committed suicide, but again I have no details, except that there were no obvious problems beforehand. About 1 percent, plus or minus. That seems a trifle high. If one uses suicide rate as a proxy for the rate of all mental health problems then farmers and mechanics are at greater risk than policemen.

This looks complicated.