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.