Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir by Wayetu Moore

She was a little girl in Liberia; one of the daughters of a university teacher and a mother studying in the US on a scholarship.

Civil war came to Caldwell and the father, three daughters, and two grandparents fled on foot for weeks until they reached an isolated village where they had family. Because the last leg was by boat, it was inconvenient for the war to reach the village--but if they needed medicine the war could still touch them.

The back cover tells you that she survived, and came to the US, and went back again--to find an angel. (Not her words.)

The first part is a child's eye view of life in Liberia, and worth reading just for that. Just a hint--her father doesn't want to tell her about gunfire, and so she uses the word "drums" because that's what she thought it was.

She describes her teenage self as painfully aware of being black and different in the USA: trying to "find herself" and trying to "fit in"--not an easy circle to square.

She dreams of Satta, the rescuing rebel soldier, over and over, and finally decides to go back to Liberia to find the rest of her family again. The last part of the memoir belongs to her mother, telling her part of the story.

The Dragon is legion: a prince who tries to chase the monsters out of the forest becomes a dragon in his turn, to be chased by others later. Doe, Prince Johnson, Charles Taylor--and others. She finds racist dragons in the US too. The women are the women she knew, and perhaps herself as well. The Giant--I'll let you learn that yourself.

The memoir speaks of great losses and confusion, and hard choices, and confesses to some stupidity. But courage and love move through it.

Thank you, Ann

Sunday, August 22, 2021

With months to plan...

We have a history of trying to use the military for "social goals". (*) I gather that the social goals of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity are in the running for our militaries' the highest priority--perhaps not officially, but effectively.

I have no proof that DIE-based promotion priority had a bearing on the magical thinking Afghan withdrawal plans. (We've seen years of magical thinking in military planning--the LCS, Zumwalt-class destroyer, etc--and plenty of specialized trade-offs that assume that you can know which cave to shoot a small missile into.) But it seems at least possible.

In an environment where politics matters most--well, CYA killed a lot of people at Chernobyl. I suspect that we'll soon suffer worse things than the Afghan debacle, even if we try to flush the brass and suits tomorrow morning. There are undoubtedly plenty of other places where our plans have little to do with reality.

In our less powerful future, how can we train and promote people who'll keep their eyes on the ball and test their theories? Who won't believe every "transformative technology" pitch that comes their way? Of course there's the reverse problem--fighting the last war and believing bigger battleships will always win in the end is a way to lose. Still, things like the Zumwalt suggest that we don't have enough believers in iterative improvements. Maybe a machine shop course in which officer candidates make improvised weapons, repeating with improvements during the course. And maybe another to focus on the dangers of using stupid metrics (McNamara again). Find a way to honor the men who find the flaws in the plans in time to fix them.(**)

(*)"The poor of America have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this nation's abundance. They can be given the opportunity to return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes which will reverse the downward spiral of human decay". The book says McNamara was pushing this before the recruiting crunch, so he may actually have believed it.

(**)That may be impossible. There's a bias that regards coders as productive for a company's bottom line and testers as a sometimes necessary evil.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Speaking of luxury beliefs

Who Will Save Us From Racist AI?

Machine learning can find patterns (although not meanings!) in data, and often improve the accuracy of a diagnosis, and sometimes its precision (as the article says). A paper stirred up a lot of controversy when it found that from chest x-rays, computed tomography, and mammograms the AI program could very accurately predict a patient's self-reported race. I'd heard that a forensic pathologist could identify a corpse's race from the long bones with about 80% accuracy (or was it 90%?) (at least in the USA), but chest bones are new.

This instantly provoked angry complaints that "AI Has the Worst Superpower…Medical Racism."

One of the methods used to test a patient’s kidney function measures glomerular filtration rate (GFR). However, several studies have found that blacks have higher baseline GFRs than whites, so the test has to adjust for this factor depending upon the race of the patient. Graduate student activism led to several institutions removing the racial adjustment or replacing it with a different lab test, ostensibly in the name of addressing “systemic racism.”

In other words, for the sake of their luxury beliefs, the grad students pushed to reduce the quality of care for African Americans.

"One thing we noticed when we were working on this research was that there was a clear divide in our team. The more clinical and safety/bias related researchers were shocked, confused, and frankly horrified by the results we were getting. Some of the computer scientists and the more junior researchers on the other hand were surprised by our reaction. They didn’t really understand why we were concerned."

"You've got to be carefully taught..."

When I first heard of "Marxist-Leninist Physics" I thought the notion obscene. I still do. And my opinion of those administrators and grad students is not printable.

It's quite easy to screw up machine learning, and train it on the wrong things, as with the infamous case of the "horse recognition" algorithm that was trained on pictures of horses taken from an organization's portfolio. The alborithm trained not on the horse but on the logo. A medical algorithm trained only on whites may not do as well on blacks. Looking for skin cancer precursors with a system trained on brunettes may not work so well with freckled red-heads. And it is harder to get a comparable training set with a minority than with a more common group. E.g train on 10,000, test on 10,000. It's easy to find those numbers when the population is a million, but if there are only 5000 to begin with? You can't get statistics as good.

Those are real problems. But that's not the complaint here--the ideologues want to squelch real findings in favor of their beliefs.

I know some people who believe the Earth is less than 7000 years old. Let's squelch carbon-14 dating in favor of something that lets dates fall within that window--just to keep them happy.

That isn't quite a fair comparison. The Young Earth Creationists generally have a lot more redeeming features than the Social Justice Warriors--they've been much more eager to help their neighbors, for one thing; even neighbors who don't agree with them. And their belief is harmless.

Ignorant, Dumb, Stupid

Why some of the smartest people can be so very stupid

The essay distinguishes between “dumbness” and “stupidity.” The former is lack of intellectual horsepower (and not the same as ignorance, which is the universal human default, though curable). The stupid apply the wrong model to the problem at hand—and don’t learn better.

Sometimes this is because the old model used to work, and the new problem sort-of looks like the old. He uses the example of Gen. Haig in WW-I:

British high command during the First World War frequently understood trench warfare using concepts and strategies from the cavalry battles of their youth. As one of Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s subordinates later remarked, they thought of the trenches as ‘mobile operations at the halt’: ie, as fluid battle lines with the simple caveat that nothing in fact budged for years. Unsurprisingly, this did not serve them well in formulating a strategy: they were hampered, beyond the shortage of material resources, by a kind of ‘conceptual obsolescence’, a failure to update their cognitive tools to fit the task in hand.

Stupidity needn’t just come from obsolete models “that used to work”; it can also come from adopting fashionable models from another context. His example is the currently fashionable “social justice” models from the US, which are being adopted in lands whose history isn’t remotely like ours—and whose social problems have different sources.

Education as such won’t fix “stupid,” since one of its attributes is unwillingness to change models even after painful experience. It might make the stupid worse, since the subject will now think himself more clever than usual. Stupid might even spread: “There are some things so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.” And they do.

Another essayist more charitably calls these “luxury belief systems.”

“Once upon a time, it was more advantageous to know the facts of the world than not to, so we developed science. Today, our beliefs are less a reflection of our reality than a means of identifying our respective political tribes and negotiating our status within them.”

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

I’d not read his last Diskworld novel yet, and figured a little light reading was what the doctor ordered.

Creative but uncontrolled—I’m afraid he was slipping. Characters get preachy, and inconsistent, and Pratchett tried to explain too much. It violates the Chekhov’s Gun principle “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.” Don’t bother.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Gamma gardening

When I was little I read about using radiation to try to induce useful mutations. I heard nothing more for decades. They're still doing it.
Modern genetic engineering has replaced the need for atomic gardening, but the legacy is still carried forward by the Institute of Radiation Breeding in Japan, which currently owns the largest, and possibly the only surviving gamma garden in the world, at Hitachiƍmiya in Ibaraki Prefecture. The circular garden measures 100 meters in radius, and enclosed by an 8-meter high shielding dike wall. Species within are irradiated with gamma rays from a cobalt-60 source placed inside a central pole.

The blurb for the Rio Red grapefruit somehow doesn't mention exactly how "scientists tried to breed" it, but wikipedia says they used thermal neutrons instead of gammas (as the first link says--though maybe the gamma source is just the last one running).

I wonder why the USCitrus site is cagey about that... It couldn't be because some people freak out when they hear the word "radiation", could it? "Frankenfood" ... "Godzilla in your juice glass" I wonder how Godzilla would taste sauteed in olive oil with a little pepper and garlic.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Pagan ritual

What was it with beans in the ancient world? From Ovid's Fasti:
 This day they call the Feralia because they bear (ferunt)
Offerings to the dead: the last day to propitiate the shades.

See, an old woman sitting amongst the girls performs the rites
Of Tacita, the Silent (though she herself is not silent),
With three fingers, she sets three lumps of incense
Under the sill, where the little mouse makes its secret path:

Then she fastens enchanted threads together with dark lead,
And turns seven black beans over and over in her mouth,
And bakes the head of a sprat in the fire, mouth sewn up
With pitch, pierced right through with a bronze needle.

She drops wine on it too, and she or her friends
Drink the wine that’s left, though she gets most.

On leaving she says: ‘We have sealed up hostile mouths
And unfriendly tongues’: and the old woman exits drunk. 

(I wonder if by Ovid's time anybody remembered the "why" for any part of that ritual.)

Pythagoras had odd beliefs about fava beans. Romans had an odd anti-ghost ritual that involved black beans:

When midnight comes, lending silence to sleep,
And all the dogs and hedgerow birds are quiet,
He who remembers ancient rites, and fears the gods,
Rises (no fetters binding his two feet)
And makes the sign with thumb and closed fingers,
Lest an insubstantial shade meets him in the silence.

After cleansing his hands in spring water,
He turns and first taking some black beans,
Throws them with averted face: saying, while throwing:
‘With these beans I throw I redeem me and mine.’
He says this nine times without looking back: the shade
Is thought to gather the beans, and follow behind, unseen.
Again he touches water, and sounds the Temesan bronze,

And asks the spirit to leave his house.
When nine times he’s cried: ‘Ancestral spirit, depart,’
He looks back, and believes the sacred rite’s fulfilled.
Why the day’s so called, and the origin of the name,
Escapes me: that’s for some god to discover.

Compare and contrast neo-pagan ritual.

I think Wright spotted a couple of contradictions in neopagan thought:

Two major paradoxes loomed in their worship. The first was that real pagans honored and obeyed their fathers, and revered the household gods, and worshipped the gods of the city and the marketplace, and respected their ancestors and founders. The poor neopagans were the children of evangelicals, so the gods of city and agora were Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and the ancestors and founders of THIS nation were monotheists, all stout Christians with an odd Deist, Jew, or Freemason thrown in for flavor.

This places the diligent neopagan in the odd position of being obligated by ritual and tradition to offer due reverence and worship to the altars of his fathers and the temples of his gods, but those altars are Christian, and those temples are cathedrals.

Related to this was the problem of the Asatru — the True Men — who were allegedly worshippers of Odin and Thor, but only one of them volunteered for service in the military, which, alas, he survived intact. Those not falling in battle were doomed to the “straw death” and an afterlife in Folkvangr rather than Valhalla, hence not to stand with the gods at the Last Battle.

The second paradox was that the Old Gods were actually quite strict about sexual morality. A Vestal Virgin caught coupling with a man was buried alive. To the North, the adulterers were sent to Nastrond at death, not Valhalla.

Lewis did a fine takedown of ignorant admirers of the pagan. "You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune)."

Algebra and Geometry

From a post in honor of Fr Koterski:
“Do you prefer geometry or algebra? You can tell a lot about someone based on whether they prefer geometry or algebra.” ... He had noticed that there was a difference between people who work backward from the answer and people who seek the unknown.

I don't think he was right. High-school algebra was a set of tools for manipulating unknowns to try to learn their values. Geometry was a different set of tools, coupled with some disciplines for proving that statements you think are true actually are true--in this case about geometry, but the same disciplines appear repeatedly through the rest of math.

In math quite a bit of progress happens when someone is noodling around on a set of problems, finds something that looks like a useful pattern, and then sets out to try to prove the relationship.

Problem is, it might not be as universal a relationship as he thought. He winds up "proving it" in the old sense--testing it. Unknowns abound.

FWIW, both courses were straightforward and fun.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Fans in the stands

"Playing professional football games in empty stadiums had a hugely negative effect on the success of home teams, with home advantage almost halved, new research shows."

Is anybody surprised? Stage fright's a real thing, and so is getting "energized" by a friendly crowd. It makes a difference in how you play if Dad is watching the softball game. Or your girlfriend. How could a crowd not have some effect? Well, maybe...

Sunday, August 15, 2021


I haven't written much about Afghanistan and the war there. I've thought that Afghans would be foolish to help us: we don't keep secrets and we leave without keeping promises. I've thought that "take revenge and leave" would have been a good strategy, especially since we couldn't/wouldn't deal with the Taliban financiers in Pakistan. Yes, I know that doesn't satisfy the criteria for a "Just War." It would still have been better than what we did.

Our policy makers were so willfully blind on so many fronts and for so long that it hurts to think about it. Other people have already gone into aspects of it in detail. We were fighting a religious war without admitting it or planning accordingly. We were trying to build an Afghanistan where there never has been a "nation"-loyalty. We weren't willing to tear Pakistan a new rectum for ISI's support of Taliban/AlQaida. We never looked closely at how reliable our local allies really were. And on and on, down to details about tactics that I can't comment on.

We are rich enough to trade money for blood. We use expensive technology to magnify the power of our soldiers. That's good, but it seems to have shaped our thinking into technology-based paradigms (by, as Commander Salamander likes to point out, influencing which people get promoted). Train and drill the Afghans with the best stuff and best ways of thinking about countries and their armies, and they'll be a cohesive force for stability. That just costs money and time. But it didn't address their tribalism. Very little could; that's a core human value.

A generation of planners seem to have just doubled-down on "more of the same." Whenever we had talk of leaving, we got stories about the people who worked with us and would be abandoned, and what would happen to all the schools and girls under Taliban, and "never tell the day you're going to pull out" (excellent advice, of course; pity we didn't take it).

Iraq was different--they had at least some history of nationhood, and it was at least theoretically possible to hope for a not-unfriendly government there at the end of the day. We didn't keep our eye on the ball, and in retrospect I'm not sure the hope was possible after all. But Afghanistan?

I can see why some people think in terms of conspiracies and war profiteers. 19 years of stupidity is hard to believe in. (I'm leaving out the first few months of the war--those didn't seem outrageous.) But there it is.

It wasn't just that the war took so long--long wars seem to be pretty common.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Conservation of Complexity

Software always involves abstraction. I'd be happy to hear clarification from genuine information theorists, but I think there's a "convervation of complexity" in using a toolset. (Or in trying to solve a problem with laws and regulations.)

For instance, if you have a server farm of identical systems, it's nice to have some simple procedures for standing up a new system automatically, or wiping one whose system disks failed and reinstalling. There are lots of tools for that.

Such a tool will let you collect all the common stuff together, and let you customize the details for different servers with different purposes. Compute servers, disk servers, DNS, wiki, database servers--we have patterns for them, and customizations for the patterns. The same database server software, loaded in the same place, with the same admin--and each instance adds different users and tunings and backup times.

You can get some huge gains in productivity at first. Then those pesky corner cases bedevil you. E.g. a new software version isn't backwards compatible with the old. You need both old and new. Do you break commonality and add a new class to your management tool, or add lots of "if"s into your scripts? The former means you have to manage changes in two places at once; the latter makes the code complex and bug-prone. You get complexity either way.

Containers and clouds are all the rage in computing, and something like Kubernetes is wonderful for making certain classes of service resilient and easy to scale. Not everything fits in that model. I've listened to the people trying to make that work. I think I'll be retired by the time disillusion with that magic bullet sets in. I also noticed that the big clouds aren't 100% reliable in availability or in integrity (parler). It's nice to have hardware of your own in the back room, and a manager you can collar without waiting for the ticketing system.

I've heard stories of corporate deciding to use a new wonder-software that requires redoing workflow, and losing all the putative productivity savings in the expense of the changeover.

Abstractions always leave out bits of the real world. When you try to stretch it too far the real world always wins. sometimes people die

Thursday, August 12, 2021

"Prestige" and "Colloquial"

The author of this short peice explains why rhetorical language exists (hint--it isn't for prestige).

"Spending eternity"

"For $2 Million, a Chance to Spend Eternity Next to Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Hefner" I'll skip that, if I may. The only thing "next to" both Circle 7.2 and Circle 8.1 is Geryon. (or perhaps Circle 7 Ring 3)

I wonder who writes these headlines...

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Culture-wide cognitive distortions

This is way outside my zone of expertise: an attempt to use cognitive distortion phrases in books to see if there can be society-wide patterns. Apparently "I am a" is a phrase that doesn't occur much in normal conversation, but appears much more frequently in the speach or writings of someone with depression. (That makes sense--how often do you think about yourself? Even Walter Mitty thought about himself in action, and let his imagined audience be the judge.)

The authors use a set of phrases which I gather are well-known in the field, and prepared similar sets for German and for Spanish (which they meant to use as a control). They were looking for (A) catastrophizing, (B) dichotomous reasoning, (C) disqualifying the positive, (D) emotional reasoning, (E) fortune telling, (F) labeling and mislabeling, (G) magnification and minimization, (H) mental filtering, (I) mindreading, (J) overgeneralizing, (K) personalizing, and (L) should statements.

They used "the third version 2019 release of the Google Books n-gram data" and the google tools, and prepared plots of 125 years of frequency of these classes of phrases appearing in books, by year.

They see a spike in German starting in about 1943, which sort of makes sense--it was starting to become clear that the thousand-years was likely to be quite a bit shorter, so you might see more people expressing "cognitive distortions." -- Although I'd have guessed that the full-court press of Nazi propoganda starting in the 30's might have appeared in some of their categories. That's probably a naive view, though.

Anyhow, Spanish was meant to be a control because it is so wide-spread that one single culture shouldn't dominate. That may not have been a good guess.

Never mind WWII, though. Almost every category except the "Should statements" shows a dramatic spike in the rate starting in the late 90's. That's a curious change in style--and it's found in all 3 languages.

The obvious question is "Can a culture experience cognitive distortions?" My intuitive answer is "Sure, cultures can go mad," and I could proffer the daily news as proof. Are they seeing a culture of twisted thinking in our printed media?

I'd like to hear what real experts think.

Monday, August 09, 2021

The last trump

Watchman Nee has an interesting take on reconciling Luke 21:27-34 (and Mark 14: "Stay alert!") and 1 Thes 4:16-18 about being caught up in the clouds. Will we welcome the moment, or be too caught up in the world to answer the call?

The trumpet shall sound, and "I purchased a field and I need to go out to look at it" or "I just got married" or "Let me finish my comment on this post."

Sunday, August 08, 2021

The 3D Gospel by Jayson Georges

The premise of this short book (hat tip to AVI is that there are three main approaches to "transgressions": fear (vs power), shame (vs honor) and guilt (vs innocence). The guilt/innocence paradigm dominates the West, shame/honor the MidEast and East, and fear/power is typical of animist cultures.

The thesis is that although the gospel addresses the needs and fears of each of these, the typical Western apologetic around individual sin and satisfaction of justice doesn't fully reach people whose paradigm is different.

He cites Ephesians to illustrate the gospel confronting the different culture types: sin and punishment: Eph 7:1, 2:5; honor within a new family: 1:5, 2:19 (vs 2:12-13); and power against evil spirits: 1:19-21 etc. I leave as an exercise finding references to sins forgiven, welcome at the banquet of God, and power over evil spirits in the gospels.

On the whole I thought the little book useful, though two things bothered me a little.

I'm a Westerner, and not a member of an "honor culture," so I almost certainly don't have a good feel for how the gospel can be taught most effectively in one. I suspect that would come through people from within those cultures, and I, and Georges, are second-guessing. It feels that way, anyhow.

The bad news that comes before the good news is that we're sinners, and the implication for a family-honor based culture is much more dramatic than for a guilt/innocence based one. It isn't merely you who are shamed by sin, but your family, no matter how they may have hidden their shame before. It isn't just what the rest of the society sees that matters, but what God sees.

It would seem (to this outsider) to be a very great wrench to accept the claim that your clan has been living in shame. On the other hand, once you accept that, it is a very great incentive to redeem your clan's honor by turning to God.

But as I said, I'm an outsider.

The other itch was that when addressing fear/power animist societies he seems to be saying that the charismatics and pentacostals speak their language better than other denominations. The Orthodox and Catholics do exorcisms and blessed icons too.

And yes, he does explain that all instances of cultures are blends of these principles.

Have a read. What do you think?

Saturday, August 07, 2021


Hank Campbell writes about the "new european colonialism. "NGOs in rich western countries are creating financial dependency while evoking claims of 'food sovereignty', but that is leaving out the desires of farmers and people, who very much want to not have the boom and bust of fickle nature." ... "Europe has made it plain that they want European laws to be earth's laws. If a developing nation uses a safe pesticide that Europe has still chosen to ban, Europe will put them in their economic ghetto, along with imports from Israel." This has the possibly unintended side effect of making them dependent on European products. No doubt the rank and file are well-intentioned.

Hank's claim that "NGOs exist to do one thing only - stay in existence" is a bit overstated--he doesn't discuss the religious ones--but someone who went to study abroad for a year who wanted to work with NGO's upon graduation returned with what seemed a much less idealistic attitude towards them and a different career plan. (Still donates to carefully selected NGOs)

Friday, August 06, 2021

Disposing of a frightening reminder

Photo of Chamberlin Rock, KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL

"an object ... also served as a daily reminder of a more recent troubling past". It is indeed troubling to be reminded of the mile-thick ice which aggressively invaded from Canada, forcing out the native inhabitants and thrusting pre-Cambrian intruders into the peaceful land.

Earlier posts: Post 1 and Post 2 and Post 3

"The rock will be placed on publicly accessible university-owned land southeast of Madison near Lake Kegonsa, where it will continue to be used for educational purposes by the geoscience department." Thanks to the Wisconsin State Journal for the photo and story.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Mishearing it better

Sometimes I misremembered a song or slogan, and my version made better sense. To me, anyway.

"Imagine" is back in my news feed again. I dislike the song, but I admit that the lyrics are pretty clear. Nevertheless, I always mis-remember the line as "Nothing to live or die for And no religion too."

I think my version describes the outcome of his imagination better: anomie.

Diagnosis by pop checklists

Just now "Diagnosing autism by tiktok" from Quilette is on AVI's sidebar.

I'm not sure which is more risky--making illness trendy instead of treating it seriously, or encouraging the hypochondriacs to self-treat. Or excusing behavior that's actually something they can control--unlike the truly impaired.