Tuesday, October 31, 2023

ancient magic

I was curious about a reference of Grim's: an ancient Icelandic spell book.

From the Galdrabok: Spell #8. To win a girl’s love

"Likewise, you should, while fasting, make the second helm of awe with your saliva in your palm when you greet the girl who you want to have; in such a case it should be in your right hand."

Does one shake hands afterwards?

It includes a psalm, and incantations which mix Christian, gnostic, demonic, and scandanavian god names.

This one seems untestable--who'd have time to do it? "31. Against troll-shot: If any kind of shot flies toward you, then read this verse right away: BUMEN SITTIMUS CALECTIMUS ME TASUS ELI ELOI SIEBAHOT ELEM VEAO NAJ" (or is is "ELOE SIEBAHAT" (spell 39)?

I picked up some history, and I took away a few things for a story I'm working on.

Sunday, October 29, 2023


The name Matthew Perry sounded vaguely familiar, so I indulged the first article on BBC to figure out who this was. I'd never seen Friends.

The article described the familiar "clown with a broken heart" and "trapped by drugs" themes that seem to haunt entertainers--possibly because we know their stories better than that of the fellow on the next block. He seemed t have a hopeless view of himself. I don't say "low self-esteem," which is too much of a protean phrase.

One phrase stood out: "a string of glamorous girlfriends." That word glamorous--glamour means illusion, trickery, unreal.

After a few such friends, I'd think he'd notice that something was wrong, but perhaps he blamed himself. I wonder who the glamour is supposed to fool--the mate, or the rest of the world (arm candy)?

The glamourous are an extreme case--the pros--at something we all try to do at some level. I want to be better than I am, and I start by trying to look better than I am.

"Ginger or MaryAnn?" If somebody had asked me at the time the show aired, my answer would have been "Yes." The characters are fictional and incapable of surprising you, but sticking to the rules of the question, my adult answer is "No to illusions; no to high maintenance."

Cultural Imperialism

There's a difference between the confidence that our culture is the best, and the hubris to believe that our culture will and must dominate the world. The Almighty didn't make our culture.

Friday, October 27, 2023

True riches

"Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?"

The verse always seemed a little odd--don't you generally earn the wealth, whether unrighteous wealth or other? We went over the section this week, and a couple of more or less ordinary examples came to mind. In Luke this comes after the parable of the prodigal son--aha. A son who isn't trustworthy with a little won't be given a lot, and a son or daughter fills the bill for someone to whom "wealth" (relative to the parent's means) is given.

Another is dating. The woman might ask of the prospect "Is this guy faithful in the little things, or does he trade on his money/good looks/audacity? Is he worthy of the gift of me? (Do I want the gift of him?)"

Or promotions. Or. The "true riches" are responsibilities, not merely resources.

I don't know how I missed that. Maybe the contrast with the parable of the unjust steward overshadowed it.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Face to face

Our zoom-life made it pretty clear that face-to-face interactions communicate more than electronically mediated ones (or interactions mediated by letters, if you want to go back that far).

Doing something yourself involves more of you than hiring it done, or pressing keys to trigger it.

It involves more of yourself to bayonet a prisoner than to pull the lanyard on a big gun. The latter might kill more people, but the killers are disconnected from the dead. They pretty much never see them.

The artilleryman is a bad example, since most of the time he's shooting at people who are trying to kill him or his friends. It may not be easy, but it is self-defense. Instead of him, think of men who plant bombs to kill random people who are not trying to kill them. In this particular case the brothers hung around to enjoy the carnage, so their victims were people bleeding in front of them, not abstractions. But some stay away from the scene, presumably for safety's sake.

I can see an argument that remote murder, especially random remote murder, could be more heinous, in that it makes murder easier by removing the need to think of the other as subhuman, and in that it makes it impossible for victims to do anything differently to avoid being murdered, and so is a crime against the whole society.

But whether that is true or not, to murder a man face to face is going to stain more of you in the process. When you went into the house you had murder in your heart, which God already judges, but when you cut off the baby's head you put thorough-going murder in your hands and arms and eyes and ears. It will take a miracle to cleanse you; you are stained in a way the distanced killer is not.

Israel sowed the wind and reaped a whirlwind, but Hamas has sown the whirlwind.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

What was physics like?

When I started there were about 24 people on my thesis experiment. It was a follow-on experiment, using almost entirely apparatus from an earlier one. I didn't do any experiment or detector design, though I helped build drift chambers. A lot of the software was there already, but needed redoing, so I worked on simulation and analysis; and of course running the system, where I wound up having to do some data-acquisition development too.

When I ended my career I'd drifted into IT (funding issues) for a big collaboration, but I'd spent most of the intervening time on really big collaborations--so big that the people who designed CMS weren't always still around when it started taking data. There were information silos all over the place--and management knew about that and was trying to make more connections. (It wasn't quite an N! problem, since some of the silos were related and had some communication with each other.)

A much younger researcher got burned by this.

The process of doing research, getting his PhD, and doing more research, was so organized and regimented that he missed out on practice in "ask a question", "talk it out with colleagues", "design a way to answer the question". I'm old enough that I got a little of that, and I've had the opportunity to hang out around some people who were really good at it. This guy felt like he was a cog in the machine: "We want to look at this, so you go run those programs." I grumped that a lot of LHC grad students never got to do anything except develop and run simulations, since the machine wasn't even going to run for a few more years. It hadn't occurred to me that analysis might wind up being plug and play for the students, after the initial development.

He was on Atlas, and I on CMS, so I probably didn't meet him the times I was over there.

Friday, October 20, 2023


Costco has been selling gold. The story says the bars generally sell out within 2 hours of each online announcement. I'm not a member--perhaps this isn't out of the ordinary for them and I just didn't know it. I was surprised.
"As soon as you purchase these gold ingots. You're already down 5, 6, 7, percent, which is the cost you pay over this the fair value, the spot price of gold. And then, if you have to go sell later on, then you're going to lose a similar percentage."

That doesn't make it sound like a great investment when the economy is more or less OK. After a crash, do you propose to buy eggs and milk with a bar of gold? Not quite as versatile as cheaper precious metals...

OTOH, their expert's advice seems risky. "If you want to invest in gold, Royal suggests buying into a fund that owns physical gold instead." If the economy is more or less OK, that might be an OK investment, and of course after a crash your peices of paper are worthless. But: Who guarantees that the fund actually has the gold it claims to? And even if there hasn't been double-counting between firms, recall Executive Order 6102.

Gold seems like a bet that the economy is going to go poorly, but not really all that badly. Gold funds seem like the same bet, with the additional requirement that there's no funny business with the funds.

If you gave me some, I wouldn't turn it down. I just wouldn't buy it as an investment.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Unexpected harvest

For the curious: the giant puffball is edible when its flesh is white, before it reaches the gills and spores and fun stage. We were given a 15" wide one the other day. They do not keep long, so you have to deal with them quickly.

Basting a slab with olive oil and garlic and a few other seasonings and grilling it like a steak works ok, though the result is much like eating tofu. I would think sauteeing thin slabs in butter will be good, but it's a bit late to try since we dehydrated the rest already, resulting in several quarts of mushroom powder. I'm told the powder works very well as an ingredient for stock.

Our neighbor's parent's farm produced a lot of them this year.

UPDATE: A word to the wise: my daughter put the dehydrator in their garage for this exercise, since the mushroom aroma was intense.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

"If that's real, I want one"

After a fall-colors visit to Horicon(*) and Kettle Moraine we went to Hamburger Haus in Campbellsport for burgers and icecream. For desert I had their single cone: three stacked large scoops of vanilla sticking 5" above a waffle cone (about a pint's worth). The toddler in a family coming a bit later watched me receive what must have looked like the archtype of icecream cones, and the wide-eyed expression on his face was wonderful as he inarticulately but whole-heartedly requested his own. I don't think he'd ever seen one that large before.

It's an outdoor restaurant, and they close for the season this Sunday. The cone pictured at the link is their "baby cone."

(*) Horicon is more famous for the birds: sandhills, geese, a cormorant, a heron, grebes, swans, pelicans, and gadwells today.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Election Shenanigans

They can look different in other places. "Polling staffs and poll watchers from different political parties including other NEC officials fled the scene abandoning ballot boxes when series of controversies ensued, especially after the appearance of a ‘Country Devil’."

upshot: "We call on NEC to continue the process in a transparent manner and to ensure that incidents like the incident in Nimba where the Country Devil came out and ballot boxes were missing, then retrieved with 1 box still reported missing"

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Creating the Qur'an

A Historical-Critical Study by Stephen J Shoemaker.

I've reported on books by Shoemaker before: early Dormition traditions, early Marian devotion, and the death of Mohammed.

The subtitle tells what he's doing. The official Muslim story is that Abu Bakr (1st of the rightly guided caliphs) noticed that lots of the people who knew what Mohammed had said were dying, and so he had Zayd assemble from recordings on palm branches, stones, camel bones, and "the hearts of men" a version of the Qur'an. Uthman (3rd of the rightly guided caliphs), noticed that different versions of the Qur'an were circulating, so he had the versions reviewed and a definitive version circulated and other versions destroyed.

Modern research into Islam generally accepts this as correct--though Shoemaker points out that this is thanks more to political correctness than to scholarship, since there are a number of equally ancient stories of how it was created, which differ substantially from the canonical version.

Shoemaker offers as evidence for his theory that Ad al-Malik was the definer of the Qur'an:

  • Uthman, who died in a revolt against him, wasn't in a position to enforce a uniform Qur'an, whereas Ad al-Malik was--though not being one of the rightly guided caliphs it wouldn't do for him to try to define the Qur'an, hence suggesting that Uthman did it/started it.
  • During al-Malik's reign references to Muhammed and the Qur'an start becoming common.
  • Earlier non-Muslim descriptions of Islam don't mention Muhammed or any holy book
  • Early Shi'ite sources claimed that Ali had first collected the Qur'an (in a longer version)
  • Early (short) citations, as in the Dome of the Rock, differ slightly from the received Qur'an.
  • John of Damascus, who as a civil servant for the caliph (as part of a family of such), would have been quite familiar with Muslim documents, shows familiarity with the sura Cow, but claims familiarity with another called The Camel of which no trace survives.

That seems pretty plausible to me. And I don't think it treads heavily on Muslim toes if it was al-Malik rather than Uthman.

But wait; there's more!

Shoemaker contends that the evidence says that oral cultures, such as the LoDagaa of Ghana, do not treat even sacred texts as immutable. The Bagre "is an extended religious poem that is recited in rhythmic speech primarily in a liturgical context and the contents of which provide the basic structure of the LoDagaa's social and religious practices." Goody found out that there were not only significant variations between different speakers, but even by the same speaker at different times. "Goody found that some of the elements that he initially considered most essential to the narrative were simply dropped from other versions." The claim is that, as far as we can tell (since except for studies like that of the Bagra, there's no way to know what was told the previous generation), oral cultures are worse at transmitting exact information than literate ones--and may not even value exactness much. Often, he claims, even the gist is lost.

This unreliability agrees with claims I mentioned about effigy mounds: elders claimed that they were recent, carbon dating says they aren't. OTOH, sometimes the gist is transmitted well enough to be verified by archaeology.

He relies on Close's work to say that Mecca wasn't a major trading center (other people assert that it was a cross-roads of trade routes), since, among other things, at the time much of the traffic would have gone by the far-away sea. Therefore Mecca was a small and rather simple town, with essentially no literacy. Muhammed is traditionally believed to have been illiterate.

Without literacy, he predicts, given the limitations of human memory (he devotes a chapter to research on this), that the stories people remembered Muhammed telling would have been retold with subtle and then less subtle variations, until a majority of the story was inaccurate. At best, the gist would remain, but not always that.

Now he is stomping on Muslim toes, hard. He brings historical-critical discussions of the Bible up as evidence for his assertions, together with the claim that the gospels were written late. This is a rather feeble reed: literacy among first century Jews was relatively high (I presume at least the tax collector Matthew could read/write), and literary evidence dates the synoptics earlier than the destruction of the temple. (Can you imagine someone quoting Jesus predicting the temple destruction without at least interjecting a hint about its demise? Unless you are forging the whole thing, it just isn't happening. And yes, interjections exist)

At any rate, he doesn't bring this part off well--too many assertions.

He addresses the radiocarbon dating of some early copies of the Qur'an that were recently found, which seem to predate al-Malik. Radiocarbon dating is good for the century, but the error bars are too large to date something to a few decades--so most of them could actually be later. He points out that some manuscripts predated Muhammed! Either the parchments were kept around for up to a century before being used (imaginable, if not probable), or there are systematic errors in the carbon dating. Dating methods were recalibrated back in 2020, and he notes that there are known to be northern/southern hemisphere differences and that there are alleged to be differences from zone to zone as well.

The Qur'an references things like fishing on the Sabbath, which isn't something you'd expect residents of Mecca to relate to very well. It offers a nativity story of Jesus that reflects the rituals of the Kathisma church, with details not found elsewhere. The Qur'an is described as being "in dialog" with Christianity at a level not to be expected in an illiterate backwater town in a region with no known Christian activity. (Christianity was found around the edges of the penninsula, but isn't recorded in the interior this early.)

So, maybe it was partly written in the Levant. The references to Christianity seem to have Syrian Christian details. (I go by what Shoemaker wrote here; I haven't looked this up.)

On the other hand, the Qur'an claims that some Christians were early converts. (Shoemaker thinks that's a later addition since Mecca wasn't a big or important place and there wouldn't have been any Christians there.) So knowledge of Christianity might have come from them.

On the third hand, militating against significant knowledge of Christianity (certainly not "in dialog" with it), is the howler in Sura 5:116, in which the Trinity is supposed to be the Father, Jesus, and Mary. There's an ancient Eastern Chuch document reference to an extinct group that thought this, but the chances that any survived to talk to Muhammed seem negligable. It's the kind of misunderstanding you'd get if you looked at the icons in a church without actually talking to any of the Christians.

With respect to literacy: There are references in the early stories claiming that several different people had copies of Muhammed's addresses, including one of his wives and Ali. There were scribes in the era. Also, one of the points he brings up to assert lack of literacy is primitive graffiti--he says it represents people learning by imitation but not able to write much. I think it suggests that even the illiterate wanted to show off what knowledge they had, which meant literacy was honored.

Other little details: there are parts of the Qur'an which early commenters couldn't figure out--words that they didn't know the meaning of, and even suras that couldn't quite be nailed down. The most probable of the options he suggests is that these are pre-Muhammed quotations.

Some parts are repeated, with slightly different wording. This is something a compiler might do when faced with two different versions and no clear way to pick one. He didn't give examples of repetitions that change the gist, but says they're there.

Overall, his model is that the Koran is composed of reconstructed versions of more or less what Muhammed said, sometimes with adaptations to the local Levant culture. He doesn't go so far as to say the latter are what Muhammed "would have said if he'd been in Syria", but he hints at it.

Over and over he says that texts are fluid--to the point of annoyance. When the texts have similar themes, I don't think they're as fluid as all that. The variants he lists side-by-side are in different order but are otherwise pretty much the same.

Each chapter is argued separately, but they often refer to the same things, which adds a degree of repetition to the text. He argues that the historical-critical approach is separate from but not antithetical to the traditional Muslim approach of believing the text--but it isn't true here any more than it is when applied to the Bible.

I learned a few things. I think he's right about al-Malik being the standarizer. I think some things were transmitted accurately--like the howler. I satisfied my " 'satiable curtiosity" to some degree, but I'm not convinced of his model. If this sort of historical argument intrigues you, read it, otherwise I hope my summary gives the gist.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Early version

Back in the 80's, we had occasion to visit a friend of my wife's in Milwaukee. Elis was revamping an old meatpacker's mansion that had seen better decades and many students when it was divvied up into small apartments. (An owner had painted over marble.) He was a skeletal type already, and sometimes had fun standing by the highway from Illinois at night in a black cloak with a scythe--Illinois had a higher drinking age at the time.

He had gone to a con dressed in one of his inimitable outfits, but his prop was his pride. He'd programmed a chip to generate random numbers, which induced switches to turn on different colored lights in the top of what he called his "Arcturian stop light." It was simple, so in a few hours the patterns would repeat. Apparently people had fun with it.

Pity he didn't try to patent the idea. We went to this year's Gleam show at Olbrich Gardens, and random light changes were everywhere there--everybody does them now. Some of the best exhibits were simple: firework-style lights over a reflecting pool, or color changing floods on flowers in the conservatory.

Elis' housemate was wrapping up a degree in herpetology, and had several snakes (some hot) and a large snapper in the basement, together with a most-of-the-time secure mouse colony to supply them with food.

We lost track of Elis some years back. Kids' needs and activities tend to fill the calendar.


We were getting 100% coverage by clouds today, but a few minutes ago there came a brightness outside while I sat at the kitchen table. A break in the clouds? I'd mislaid my "eclipse glasses" but figured I could improvise something, and maybe wake up my wife if it worked.

No, it was a break in the lower cloud deck only. I squinted, but the sun was too bright even through the upper cloud deck.

I watched the reflection of the eclipse in the bird bath. I could make out the gnawed shape just fine, in between wind gusts that rippled the water, for the 30 seconds that the lower clouds parted.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

And after victory, what?

Psalm 59 (or Psalm 58 in the DR) seems straightforward enough, except for verse 11. "Do not slay them, or my people will forget;"

He's talking about his enemies: "God will let me look triumphantly upon my foes." And the reason he doesn't ask God to slay his enemies for him isn't because he is merciful and hopes for reconciliation. There's no hint of that. It's so that "my people" don't forget.

Forget what? I'm not perfectly sure, but easily forgotten things in time of peace are that a) you had and have enemies and b) God delivered you. Having weeping scattered enemies around might help remind people. Or not, if the enemies were thoroughly beaten enough.

Jesus warned that there would be wars and rumors of war, and also that there'd always be poor with us. Wars too, it looks like.

Maybe, in the background, the verse also recognizes that wars are rarely over forever. Sometimes the best a victory will do is kick the can down the road for a few years.

Sometimes, for instance if they're allies against a common enemy, you can get reconciliation--for a while. We have had the good fortune to live through a time when most of Western Europe was at peace, even trying to form a kind of union. But sooner or later you get a new king who doesn't know Joseph, and the interests of the nations (aka the interests of the powerful) diverge.

Sometimes the differences are irreconcilable, and you'll fight the same war again and again. Sounds futile--but there's no earthly way around it.

And victories can be odd things sometimes:

This is one of history’s delightful little jokes: about fifteen minutes before the Arab conquest, the Eastern Roman Empire had finally and utterly destroyed the power of Persia, after seven centuries of constant rivalry and war. It was really the Empire’s most magnificent single accomplishment, but no one remembers it, because the Byzantine conquest of Persia lasted for about as much time as it takes oatmeal cookies to bake. Then the Arab conquerors swept into the defenseless, demoralized, and disorganized Persian Empire and made themselves at home.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

War Objectives

And Israel goes to war again. I wonder if Hamas expected that.

I wonder what Israel's objective will be this time? I don't think they'll reciprocate Hamas' goal of extermination.

Short of that, three other goals come to mind; maybe four. None of them are more than short-term solutions, of course. It is pointless for the Israelis to worry about PR downsides, but they probably will anyway.

  • Wipe out all of Hamas' leadership and capability and withdraw. Two problems jump up from this: Knowing who's who, and the fact that to do this you have to occupy the place, which lets the locals get up close with "lone wolf" attacks.
  • "Rip them a new asshole" and back off. This could be done without occupation. It could be modified by seizing a few miles of border and fortifying/mining it. Cue the chorus of "proportionality." I know proportionality is part of Catholic just war theory, but I'm not sure that it was entirely thought out.(*)
  • Occupy and govern. This one has a lot of long-term pain as the Gazans do the "lone wolf" thing. The Gazans would no doubt be materially better off, but still feel themselves second-class, and they take their religion seriously; I don't think they'd all let themselves be seduced by the secularism of the Little Satan or the Great Satan.
  • Occupy and expel. This has a lot of short-term pain, and really bad optics, and nobody wants the Gazans. The only place that would seem to be a plausible relocation spot is the West Bank. I doubt that Jordan would be happy with that, and it would probably just make the problem bigger down the road.

At least, I hope they have a goal. It's kind of hard to win a war without one. Just ask the USA.

(*) UPDATE: The comments pointed out that I used an interpretation of the theory rather than a reference to the theory itself--mea culpa. The statement from the Catechism is reasonable--though still subject to subjective interpretation: how heavily does one weight potential woes? Still, I should have checked the original before publishing.

Lost sheep

I remember thinking about the parable of the lost sheep that it didn't seem quite right. Why should there be more rejoicing in heaven about a rescue? It seems like an all-too-human fascination with drama.

It's because it's a bigger miracle than a creation. It's a resurrection.

“Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.” — Robert Farrar Capon

It's spelled out in the prodigal son parable--"He was dead and is alive." (And a son that treated his father that way would probably have been considered dead to his family...)

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Entertainment or Exercise?

I remember hearing some mild grumbling when "The Passion of the Christ" won no Oscars: "Hollywood hates Christian things." The complaints seemed muted, possibly because tainted awards are hardly things to covet.

I thought at the time that although Hollywood undoubtedly does loathe Christian themes, they were right to give the movie a pass, despite its huge box office. Many of the attendees weren't going to be entertained, but to use it as part of a religious exercise.

Since then, I've wondered a bit about whether I was right. Are there other movies (or books, or songs) to which we go in order to "afflict ourselves" to prepare ourselves for communion with something greater than us?

People sometimes go to movies to "cheer themselves up" being reminded that there are good things despite the disappointments of the day--entertainment with a psychological purpose; utilitarian art.

Others seem to want to go to be reminded of how patriarchal and white and bad they are and how good they are to have noticed this--which seems like a gnostic religious exercise.

It's not as crisp a distinction as I thought.

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Tribal land

"John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" Attributed to Andrew Jackson, who may not have actually said it, though in a letter he says something similar. The decision was Worcester v Georgia. Oddly enough, given Jackson's record in the subsequent Cherokee eviction, the matter at issue was "Did a State have the right to pass a law requiring that a non-Indian visiting tribal land had to get a permit from the State first?" The law aimed at protecting the Indian tribes' rights, and the Supreme Court ruling removed that protection.

The Court's decision was almost certainly right--relations between nations are what the Constitution envisioned, and a State doesn't function as a nation. The Feds didn't prove more honorable than Georgia, though.

Friday, October 06, 2023

I get it now

A recent post of Dr. Boli's included "City police remind residents that tap-dancing lessons are now mandatory for all citizens between the ages of 10 and 65". The spotted lanternflies show up everywhere, sometimes in dramatic numbers. And they're sensitive little beasts. If you're tentative about your smash, they'll be elsewhere with a click.

We took the car for a wash after leaving Pittsburgh. No doubt the lanternfly will reach Wisconsin eventually, but not because of us. Though since they are especially fond of tree of heaven, maybe they would kill the neighbor's stand of them. Tree of heaven turns out to be toxic.

We're putting my national parks pass to use this year: Indiana Dunes National Park and Cuyahoga National Park for a few hours each. Maybe next year we'll get farther afield.

Sunday, October 01, 2023


The USS Cod is interesting. Each sub is restored slightly differently. This one doesn't have big cutouts for tourists to walk in conveniently. You have to climb in the way the sailors did. Don't slip; you can wrench your shoulder. Don't ask how we know.

Ice cream machines were a much-coveted item. This one apparently was acquired through proper channels back in the day, and not via "midnight acquisition."

See it if you're in the area, but beware: Cleveland drivers seem to include as high a proportion of rude drivers as Chicago does.