Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Filling in the context

We're all seen the picture of the man with the AR and the woman holding the pistol, in front of a huge home.

The viewer can see fear, and weapons, and a big house (and the woman's finger on the trigger). The photograph was a little window, in one direction.

Is that enough information to know what's going on?

I know a few people for whom the mere presence of weapons meant the figures in the picture were bad people.

I wonder how much of the current animus towards policemen is the knee-jerk "only bad people have weapons."

The unseen people were described as demonstrators or protestors. I saw no photos of the group. You get to fill in whatever you want. If they're protesting in a good cause, they must be good people and you can fill in peaceful images of chanting or kneeling marchers. If you are more concerned with the riots that sometime accompany the demonstrations, you can fill in the rock-throwers and molotov-cocktail throwers. We had some of both kinds of marchers in Madison.

Once you've filled in your background, you re-interpret everybody in the scene. If you have populated the invisible side with peaceful black marchers for justice, the pair you see must be motivated by more than just fear--there must be some bigotry too.

If you've filled in your background with a wild-eyed mob, the pair must feel they're in mortal danger.

If you insert yourself into your imagined scene, you get to feel morally superior or smarter than the pair.

Inserting yourself into the real scene takes a little more work, and maybe more humility.

I wasn't there, I hadn't seen pictures of the marchers, and by now you can guess how reliable I find reporters. But I gather there were about 100+ people, who'd torn down an iron gate, and were marching past the couple to the mayor's home to threaten her. The couple yelled at the crowd to get out, and came back outside with guns.

Hmm. That's not a peaceful march. Maybe some members were, but their intention wasn't. On the other hand, there was not (yet) a direct threat to the couple.

(The mayor may have crossed a line, but that's outside the scope of this scene.)

What would a "reasonable man" have done? I have some ideas of what I would have done in their shoes, but there's been some dispute over whether I'm a reasonable man, since I differ politically from my betters. But of course I wasn't there.

Sunday, June 28, 2020


The topic of potlucks vs "the lord of the manor's great hall" came up at dinner the other night.

So, of course you look it up, right?

The selection of sources seemed to agree that the name came from "luck of the pot:" whatever leftovers were kept simmering to keep from spoiling, that an unexpected guest would be offered. (The "keep from spoiling" is my interpolation: it seems pretty obvious.) It didn't come from the Indian "potlatch."

I'd never heard of Jacob's Join as a synonym for it, though. I haven't quite figured out how to get the Biblical Jacob as inspiration for a potluck. Maybe there was a local Jacob somewhen in Lancashire whose parties inspired it.

Wikipedia cites a Chicago writer to suggest that potlucks were a Depression-era innovation, but given that barn raising seems to have involved communal meals, I'm guessing reporters found imagination easier than legwork back then too.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A reminder

As the next generation has learned: If your kid wakes you up in the morning saying "I don't feel good," you have about 30 seconds to get them to the sink before the trouble starts.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Jogging memory

When I was working on my PhD at UofI Urbana, our data lived at Fermilab, and that's where most of the processing had to be too. To communicate with the computers BI (Before Internet) we used several modems (mostly 300 baud, but one was 110 and the prized one was 1200!), and, to save on long distance charges, a special telephone line that made our terminal room appear to be an Aurora location. Thus phone calls through it to Batavia were all local. We didn't use it for phone service, just computer connections--except once when there was some kind of outage and a PI had to be on the line for hours.

It wasn't an ordinary line, and it wasn't protected by the usual features. In particular, the line did not register as "busy" when we were using it. UPDATE: It's called a "leased line"

Somewhere in Aurora or Batavia, a woman had written her doctor's number on her refridgerator. Sometimes she needed to call him. There was a typo in the number. Our terminals would suddenly all freeze as the sessions died, and the phone in the corner would ring.

She apologized, and promised to correct the number, but perhaps she was distracted talking to her doctor, and we'd get a call again a few weeks later.

I decided to make the call memorable. On the next call, I grabbed the reciever first. "North American Casket Insurance: You can rest in peace when your tomb's insured. How may I help you?"

She hung up, and we were never interrupted again.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Pundits, problems, prescriptions

When pundits make claims and prescriptions, it's useful to parse out the components of the problem.
  1. Is is a problem? If you worry that most Americans do not go to college, stop a minute and ask why everybody should. If you think everybody would benefit, you should get out more.
  2. Is it a new problem? Remember the epidemic of burning of black churches a few decades ago? When somebody bothered to look at the statistics, it turned out that this happened at the same rate it always had--and most of the fires were and are due to poor maintenance, not anger.
  3. Is the description of the problem accurate? Activists typically have tunnel vision, to put it kindly.
  4. Is the prescription relevant? "End capitalism" is a popular magic cure-all. The dark font in the human soul that pours out hatred and greed and lust is supposedly entirely due to private property.
  5. What side effects does the prescription entail? "Defund the police" and then what happens? I used to wonder if people got their ideas of problem solving from 25-minute TV shows and 20-second commercials, but I'm coming around to the conclusion that a lot of people are neither very bright nor very experienced. But they have certificates.

I'm going to be a bit cold-blooded here.

About 6 black people hung themselves outdoors in the past month

Yes, of course that's a problem. Any suicide is. Or any murder, if that's what it is. (In one of the cases someone allegedly has video evidence that it was murder.)

Is it a new problem? Is the rate higher than it used to be? That might indicate dangerously greater stress, if it is suicide, or an extremely ugly revival of old styles of murder if it isn't.

Let's see. I don't have statistics broken out exactly, but if the suicide rate among blacks is 40% that among whites (from the article), and there were about 48,000 suicides in the USA (2018), there would have been about 2500 black suicides. If the rate of hanging is about 1/4 the total, then in a month you'd expect about 52 deaths by hanging, concentrated in areas with larger black populations. (and in places with higher rates of addiction and mental illness--like homeless camps) I'd expect some fraction of those to take place indoors: maybe 3/4 if one UK survey is applicable. So, 13 outdoors--or more, if the homeless camps contribute a lot to the numbers.

A count of "6" isn't exactly a smoking gun. It tells me that either the estimate for the rate of hanging relative to other methods is off by quite a bit (quite possible--the article didn't break that down by ethnicity) or that most of the incidents haven't been reported on here. In neither case is there evidence for a "new" or resurgent problem. An old one, yes--though one we prefer not to think about.

Maybe there will be. I would not be surprised. Until then..

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fossils and Indians

Native peoples were the first discoverers of the remains and tracks of dinosaurs on this continent and, in some instances, it was they who brought the bones, teeth, and tracks to the attention of people of European descent living here.
Edward Taylor, a minister and poet from Westfield, Massachusetts, recalled stories told to him by local Native people of these monsters but he didn’t believe the stories until 1705, when he was privileged to see the huge teeth, most likely of a mastodon, that had been found along with skeletal remains protruding from the banks of the Hudson River in Claverack, New York. Various Iroquoian and Algonquian groups believed these bones and teeth were from giant naked or hairless bears with huge heads. The Abenaki referred to them as “Gici Awas” (also here) and they were called “Nyah-Gwaheh”, among other names, by the Iroquoian peoples.

Friday, June 19, 2020


"Politicians have to be progressive; that is, they have to live in the future, because they know that they have done nothing but evil in the past."
He also wrote: "Long ago, before the Balkan Wars or the Russo-Japanese War, I remember writing in this general sense: that there were two forces in the world threatening its peace, because of their history, their philosophy and their externality to the ethics of Christendom; and they were Prussia and Japan. I remember horrifying all my Liberal friends, when I wrote for the Daily News in the days of my youth, by saying this about Japan. I did not, however, modify my view then. I am certainly not likely to modify it now."

Immunity reminder

Most of my readers know it already, but in case you don't: Even for diseases for which you can acquire an immunity, a sufficiently large dose of the infectious agent can overwhelm the immunity. That's been known for over a century. And some immunities are only temporary.

Thursday, June 18, 2020


If I, with no accomplishments to my credit, nevertheless have the moral authority to pass judgment on and condemn the greatest heroes of the past, what a superior person I must be!

You who used to honor those heroes, bow before me, the breaker of statues!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020


Just a heads-up about their press conference: folks here are watching it live and reading their paper and going "You don't have constraints on your tritium contamination and you're talking about axions??"

Of course they would want to talk about what they were looking for in the first place. See this video for a little background on their result.

FWIW, apparently the level of axion appearance or neutrino magnetic moment descrepancy that would be needed to explain the excess they find are ruled out by other experiments.

It's an honest paper--it tells the warts and all, and isn't claiming a discovery. "The excess can also be explained by β decays of tritium, which was initially not considered" But I doubt the media will get the story right.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear

An excellent example is the BBC story on an Arizona protest and shooting: "The paper says a man was pushed to the ground and started shooting when protesters moved towards him, "some threatening him"." "Police later said in a statement that one man arrested in connection with the shooting, 31-year-old Stephen Ray Baca, had been detained on suspicion of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon."

Sounds like a hair-trigger kind of guy. But perhaps you want to see for yourself.

The video shows a man remonstrating with the demonstrators, who is attacked, who runs away, who is chased down and attacked again--and at that point he shoots.

Figure it out for yourself.

Job's wife

When Job got hit with disease on top of all his other losses, his wife said "Curse God and die!"

When I was O(8 years old) I wondered what kind of phrasing was involved in that curse--after all, he went on to complain at length, including coming very close to calling God unjust. What was the boundary between kvetching and a final sort of curse?

The other day I was reminded of Chesterton's "The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world." Perhaps that's what she meant. Perhaps it was an idiom for suicide: trying to wipe out God and all His works--from Job's point of view.

That would be futile, of course--and I think Job knew it.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Loan misunderstanding?

When I read of President Roye years ago his fate seemed goofy: He took out a loan on behalf of the country for $1M, but the terms were that the country got $900,000 and had to pay back $1M. Riots ensued, on the assumption that he had eaten the $100,000, and he died fleeing the country.

Or maybe it wasn't quite that way.

There was more to his story than that one incident. A newspaper article gives some of his background, and says it was a $500,000 loan with only $90,000 cash and the rest bonds (and 7%). The revolt started when he "tried to extend his 2-year term of president by edict." This site doesn't mention the sums but says that he may have drowned thanks to the money belt he wore, or may have been dragged naked through the streets of Monrovia to be beated to death (the latter was designated the official version when Tubman named the True Whig Party building after Roye. Or maybe he was shot after escaping from prison. (He was there for several months.)

He was a free black man of Ibo descent living in Ohio, who learned how precarious life was for even free black men. He inherited his father's wealth, and went to Liberia in 1846, where he became a very prosperous merchant. When he was elected president he had a plan to build railroads to link the hinterland with the coast for trade, and to build new schools. But... That takes money, and the terms of the 100,000 pound loan were harsh. And the restrictions on trade weren't calculated to spur the economy (in fact, the restrictions sparked wars with tribes whose traditional trade was squelched: including slave trade, btw).

In October 1871 the dispute over this issue and the dissatisfaction with his handling of the financial affairs of the country resulted in riots, street fights between supporters of the two rival political parties, the Republican Party and the True Whig Party, and the shelling of the President's residence. Reportedly, President Roye himself started the actual fighting by flinging hand grenades to the crowds in the streets of Monrovia.

In fact, the underlying cause of the fighting was the "colour-conflict", the struggle for political power between the mulattoes and the people of darker complexion.

Roye was pure Ibo, while the ruling elite were "mulatto." Many of the settlers were more dark-skinned--they were lower caste than the elite. Lower than they were the "Congos" who were those liberated from slave ships and dumped in the country. Lowest of all were the indigenous tribes. So Roye was rich and of the second tier caste. He'd just borrowed a huge amount with at best a very long term return (assuming the money was spent wisely and honestly) and a great deal of short-term pain. Declaring that an election had just been held to change the constitution to allow 4-year terms was the last straw.

My memory may have turned 100K pounds to 1M dollars, but I'm pretty sure most of the rest of this wasn't in the textbook I read.

This was in it, though: One of the things Liberia was dealing with was encroachments by the English and French. The Liberians still remember.

Monday, June 08, 2020


The topic of racial justice and reconciliation comes up in church events: sermons, prayer meetings, etc. It also has come up in the physics department, and the invective-loaded Particles for Justice group is quite influential. I have griped about the latter.

I wonder if the former isn't sometimes a little backwards too.

I've claimed, and still believe, that the rule that "You don't get what you want unless you want something else more" has wide application. If the church puts "welcoming all races" as top priority, I think they miss out. If we get the "in Christ Jesus" part first, I think we'll have a better shot at the "neither Jew nor Greek."

Of course it's very easy to kid ourselves about how well we apply the gospel. Suppose the claim that "the biggest factor in whether someone attends a church is whether they were invited" is true. Then the question is not "Is the church environment friendly and inviting to visitors?" but "Am I friendly and inviting out there in the world?"

When reviewing Purpose Driven Church I noticed that the result was segregated by design. The church plan tried to reach particular groups--and if it succeeded, it wouldn't be diverse. The language of the service matters--I'd attend a Coptic service in English more often than an evangelical service in Tagalog. The music matters, the idiom matters. I don't know how you design a service that's supposed to be equally welcome to everyone--except perhaps by being equally obscure to everyone (latin).

It comes back to us in the world.

Saturday, June 06, 2020


AVI is planning a post on listening and asking us to think about the topic beforehand.

UPDATE: What kind of listening and Random Thoughts on Listening


I've an analytical bent, and I try to find solutions. This is famously not always what the situation requires.

Usually finding a solution demands finding out what's real, not merely what's perceived. I've noticed that exploring to find the real sources of the problems sparks explosions faster than almost anything else.(*)

So, "just listen." (which isn't the same as the "humble listening" and "humble questioning" discussed in a session Thursday about getting along with problematic colleagues)

But to listen, I have to ignore or reject a lot of nonsense. When protest leaders (e.g. Freedom Inc.) demand an end to the police it's hard to take them seriously, and hard to give them the benefit of the doubt wrt the looting.

I wind up suspecting that I'm not hearing all the voices; only the connected ones.

And some of what I hear is perception, and not objective statements about the justice system. I don't like lies.

Politics is perception, and perhaps pretending to share perceptions is the proper plan. Join some marches, say some words, give some activists sinecures, and let everything settle back down again. After all, it's a fallen world and there will always be problems and it isn't really so bad in America.

That's not exactly listening, of course, or being particularly honest. I understand there are situations where calming is more important than being accurate (e.g. with delirium), but that seems like a pretty insulting way to deal with a group. On the third hand, an organization isn't a person and doesn't deserve the same kind of respect.

I don't know about other people, but I prefer not to affirm something unless I've good reason to believe it. And "I hear how you see things" doesn't seem to satisfy--I'm expected to affirm that the justice system is structurally racist, and similar things.

I think my form of listening/evaluating is listening. I'm not sure everybody agrees about that.

FWIW, I am trying the exercise of taking Freedom Inc seriously and trying to figure out what sort of society they realistically could get--if they successfully avoided chaos and totalitarianism. If I succeed I'll make a post of it.

(*) I'm accused of having "white privilege." OK, great! How can that be more widely shared?

Friday, June 05, 2020

Edited video

A news story showed protest marchers marching and armed civilians standing by the side of the road. The video cuts back and forth showed peaceful marchers in a business district, but the men with the AR pattern rifles were standing in front of houses.

The reporter deprecated the implicit threat from the civilians, of course.


A march is always an implicit threat itself: even at its most peaceful it is a reminder that "Hey, there are a lot of us and this issue matters to us!" Most protests don't turn violent--though one can discern some patterns in those that do. When it goes to the centers of government, everybody figures this is trying to get the powers-that-be to do something. When it marches down a business street, it threatens (and, in the recent marches, not infrequently actually damages) businesses. The wise generally get out of the way. (Which is not easy if you live upstairs from the business and somebody is experimenting with Molotov cocktails.)

But when you march by people's homes, you're not threatening their livelihood, but their families. That changes the dynamics.

I'm afraid I cannot trust the video to tell me what the marchers or the civilians were actually doing. Or the reporter to tell me what people were saying. I want raw footage to see for myself.

And given the track record of the protests, if one went by my home, I'd want some firepower at hand too. And some friends beside me. Maybe all would be perfectly peaceful--the march in Sun Prairie was quite calm. But do I want to take that risk, in light of recent experiences?

FWIW, several Chicago street gangs got their start as neighborhood protection groups. They didn't stay benign. Although word is that some of the looter/"protests" this week were beaten back from various Chicago neighborhoods by the local gangs.