Saturday, April 30, 2016

Evolution and Holiness

Among the places where theism and non-theism rub against each other is the idea of altruism -- of doing good for someone when there is no perceived benefit for yourself. We theists, when you can make us stop preening about how good we are, will give credit to God's influence in our lives. We Christian theists will usually point to what Jesus referred to as the second greatest commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves. We might also point to other places where Jesus directed us to help one another as well as anyone we encounter who might be in need -- if we have the means to do so.

Many non-theists consider helping others just as important as theists do -- some of them are better at it than some of us. They have a more difficult time saying why they do so, since they generally have neither law nor law-giver around to credit. It's certainly not impossible to ground altruistic behavior in a non-theistic worldview, but the case is usually more complex, subtle and sometimes not nearly so clear as "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Some non-theists would say that the influence of the best of religious teaching, like that commandment, has proven its worth even if its origins are not at all supernatural. But some see no positives in religion whatsoever and want to explain altruistic behavior solely through natural means. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is the model for this kind of idea.

Spring Arbor University professor Matthew Nelson Hill examines the "selfish gene" model and a number of other biologically deterministic explanations for altruism and tries to see how John Wesley's model of holy living and thoughts about Christian perfection might interact with them in his first book, Evolution and Holiness.

The first section of the book surveys those deterministic explanations for altruism. Hill then sketches Wesley's model of holy living, outlined among the early Methodists in England in the 1700s, and his concept of "Christian perfection" or "being made perfect in love." Without digging into either too much here, the model of holy living relies heavily on meeting with other Christians to study, share, pray, serve and be held accountable. "Christian perfection" has little to do with flawlessness and a lot to do with being led by God instead of one's own desires and understandings. Hill finishes the book by discussing whether accepting evolutionary theory as true mandates rejecting the idea of becoming more and more altruistic and loving. He thinks it can, and isn't convinced by a lot of the deterministic explanations, seeing quite a few of them as prone to vague language and some imprecision n defining their concepts.

Evolution and Holiness is not a popular explanation or polemic, but pretty academic text with loads of footnotes and a straighforward and rather plain style. The section covering the non-theistic explanations of altruism is well-researched and densely footnoted, making it some work to get through. The sketches of Wesleyan holy living and Christian perfection aren't quite as extensively documented but explain their different subjects adequately, even if the one concerning the concept of perfection could use some fleshing out. The conclusion is interesting but seems presented in a slightly rushed and almost facile way. Evolution and Holiness is a great grapple with a couple of ideas not generally combined and offers a lot of food for thought, but it's not something that you can toss off in a couple of afternoons. Investing the time it does demand will pay off, though.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Not Helping

The clock radio is set to a local country station not because it plays a lot of good country music -- it's hit and miss -- but because it has local news and sports segments in the morning.

Today it introduced me to Lee Brice's 2015 single "That Don't Sound Like You," from his third album, I Don't Dance. In it, Brice receives a call from an ex-girlfriend who is apparently struggling in her current relationship. They parted on good terms, it seems, because she calls him in her troubles. Brice notes several things about her that have changed: She has moved to a new town and has a new job, and has cut her hair, all in response to pressure from her new man. Even her voice has changed:
Girl, I'm glad you called, first heard you talk
Took me a second cause I couldn't hear your drawl
Brice laments these changes, as they go against the grain of who his ex really was, which was what she was like when she was him. We can give him the benefit of the doubt on that and not think that he's just wishing she was more like she was when she was with him in the same way the current fellow wants her to be more like what he wants. But there is a problem.

Obviously, the sympathetic Brice intends his ex to recall how she expresses herself and enjoys what she enjoys, rather than what some paramour or other wants her to enjoy. He is hoping to help her feel better by recalling those days. Thus, the verses end with the same line, leading into the chorus that describes what the ex was like when she was with Brice: "'Cause you don't sound like you anymore." So the next line, the first line of the chorus, tells us what she sounded like when she was with Brice, which is what the real her sounds like: "Truck tires on a gravel road."

Lee, you're not helping.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hidden Causes?

At The Verge, Casey Newton writes about the problems Twitter the company is having -- it's not making as much money as it predicted it would and it's not really gaining users. Newton explores several corporate structure and environmental possibilities for the problem, focusing on the business angle.

My thought is that for every new person who tries to express coherent thoughts in bursts of 140 characters or less, at least one current user discovers that even when it can be done no one is interested and quits. Apparently there is a limit to the number of people who figure the best response to a watered-down oversimplified knee-jerk reaction to an event or statement is to squawk out another one. I have to confess that surprises me.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Response

As a United Methodist, I am all in favor of my coreligionist Harriet Tubman taking her place as someone honored on our nation's currency. She is more than worthy of the honor, and she replaces a man whose record carries some considerable baggage. However, this appeared in my inbox recently:

"Spectral communication with Andrew Jackson from the great beyond was able to record his reaction to being replaced on the $20 bill. The shade of late president said, 'You've got the likely nominee from my party being investigated for conducting top-secret national communications on a machine in her basement and the likely nominee from the other party facing a lawsuit for scamming people with a fake "university." I really don't want to be anywhere near your money.'"

All in the Words

I ain't no geek. I'm "fantasy augmented," and I've got some pretty good company down through the years.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hello From Back Then

A link here shows the methods and results that came from developing more than 30 rolls of film an unidentified American soldier shot but never developed during World War II. Although obviously a little worse for the wear after their long time hidden away, they developed into a number of clear images that can be seen in a slideshow lower on the page.

Photos like this are interesting -- not because we don't have pretty extensive catalogs of images from just about everyplace connected to WWII. Or even because they're just an ordinary grunt's snapshots of things he saw while he was serving, since we have many of those as well. But they make up a kind of message from the past, one not before known, that shows us once again how many things have changed and how many of them stayed the same. We pay tribute to what Tom Brokaw first called the Greatest Generation because they answered the call to help, well, save the world.

But when we see how everyday they were, we can understand how greatness can come from ordinary men and women -- and that maybe, if we wanted to, we could be great as well.

Or I might be reading too closely and it's just a bunch of cool photos from a day gone by. Either way, take a look.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Records By the Book Revisited

Touching on something posted five years or so ago, because the artist has been doing more "What if your favorite album was a book" pieces and because they've moved to a different site than the one linked in the original. Of the new ones, I like the Born to Run and the timely Purple Rain entries. Looks like he hasn't yet run out of ideas!

(H/T Mother Jones)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Well, That Adds Up

There's a neat article in Scientific American that relates some research into whether or not the brains of scientists who grasp complex mathematical concepts easily -- Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, and so on -- differ from the brains of the people who could not grasp them were their metaphorical hands covered in Gorilla glue -- me. Although Scientific American did not mention me by name, I am well aware of who they are looking at when they draw the distinction.

The study took a look at brain activity of non-mathematicians who are tops in their own fields -- meaning professors and researchers, as well as the brain activity of some folks who were lights-out smart with their sums and gozintas. They found that the level of brain activity was comparable, although it centered on different areas of the brain depending on whether the subject was a mathematician or not.

I really liked the article, but it does seem to me that the upshot of the study is that what's different about people who understand math really well is that they have brains that understand math really well, and of course by "really well" I know that Scientific American actually means "better than you, Friar." Which, come to think of it, I already knew, so I may be smarter than I thought I was.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

No, I Really Did Know Him Well...

On the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, let us pause to note that there is an odd kind of competition for even a non-speaking role in one of his most famous plays: That of Yorick in Hamlet.

It's kind of tough, since Yorick appears only as a skull in Hamlet's hands during one of the Danish prince's soliloquies. But any number of people have included in their final wishes the desire to have their skulls removed from their bodies and properly processed so as to be used in performances of Hamlet.

The story at the link notes that some productions of the play aren't able to use an actual human skull because their particular conception and staging affords it some rough treatment, and human bone absent a living body can become rather brittle. And an untimely "Ooops!" can really ruin the mood.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bic Pen Optional

There's probably a reason why the audio cassette won't die. But I can't figure out what it is. And I don't know if this is supposed to signal an end to the resurgence of vinyl that will resurge again once the cassette resurgence dies off, or if it will wait for a return of 8-tracks.

Or maybe we'll go back to the original format of the album, a booklet of sleeves holding several discs that each contain a song or two. Whichever is the most obscure and difficult method available to play the music, I expect, will wind up being the ultimate favorite of the people who are cooler than me.

Yeah, I know. Doesn't narrow the field much, does it.

Oh, the Bic Pen reference is to a method of rewinding your cassettes if they're not in the player. You're welcome, I guess.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

His Royal Badness, RIP

I am sure that many will be involved in planning and conducting the funeral of one Prince Rogers Nelson, dead far too young at 57. The default mode for transportation might be a posh and purple Cadillac hearse, reflecting both Prince's love of the color and the occasion. But if it could be made to serve, the following vehicle would obviously make an excellent choice as well:

Little Red Corvette

Prince was a diligent seeker and halter of versions of his copyrighted work appearing online; the above is the best I could find.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Booked!

Sometimes, books everyone pays attention to wind up causing as many problems as they are meant to correct. Author Benjamin Wiker offers a list of 10 that should be read, he believes -- so that the ideas in them can be recognized as folly and avoided. His 2008 10 Books that Screwed Up the World offers a brief sketch of the offenders and what's come about as people accepted their messages and thoughts uncritically.

For example, Machiavelli's The Prince suggested adapting evil's methods to achieve good's ends, Wiker says. That's not so bad at low levels, but follow the logic to the end and you get concentration camps, gulags and Mao Zedong's deadly Cultural Revolution. All of those are bad. Other books on his list also offered ideas that may have been relatively beneficial in the small doses or on the small scales which concerned their authors, but which when carried forward to their conclusions can result in sometimes monstrous evils. And of course some books, like Karl Marx and Friederich Engels' The Manifesto of the Communist Party, wind up wrong-headed because they start out that way.

Again, Wiker doesn't suggest these books should be banned or even that they should be avoided. Reading them is the only way to know what's in them and counter their harmful influence. His tone isn't always as temperate as you might wish for a scholarly evaluation, but he's not doing one of those as much as he is a highbrow polemic. Whether or not that makes 10 Books that Screwed Up the World a candidate for someone else's list of such books is up to the reader to determine.
According to what most soldiers say about service in a war zone, all of the time that you're not being shot at is as boring as could possibly be, except for the fact that you're thinking about being shot at. Soldiers in World War II, facing the bloodiest conflict imaginable up to that point in history, had the same problem.

So local libraries and communities got together to get donated books to send to soldiers at the front. This worked fairly well, except that not every donated book was something young men wanted to read. And some of those interesting books, being hardcovers, weren't the lightest additions to a field kit.  Some folks got in contact with publishers, who worked out a system of releasing both classic and current novels in lightweight paperback format, giving rise to the Armed Services Editions in 1943 and continuing until close to modern times. Molly Guptill Manning, in the 2015 book When Books Went to War, offers a history of the program and some of its impact.

The ASE editions were well-received -- traded, re-traded and passed around units until they were sometimes just collections of unattached pages. Manning points out the difference between the two sides in WWII -- while the Axis powers had built their expanding empire on an ideology that burned books, the Allies handed out free ones to everyday soldiers. That connection is interesting but probably doesn't prove as much as she thinks it does.

She's on firmer ground, though, that the availability of books as the only pastime for the millions of deployed soldiers probably contributed to the creation of a reading culture. And that culture outlasted their military service and carried over to the hundreds of thousands of former soldiers entering college and earning degrees. Not all of the ASE editions were popular pulp novels like Louis L'Amour or detective mysteries. Some were pretty deep novels and some were historic works of philosophy, all of which took time to process -- which the men serving in the theater had aplenty. ASE editions introduced the idea of the life of the mind to young men who might not have otherwise considered such matters.

When Books Went to War is a brisk survey of a fascinating dimension of military history, and even if it doesn't always justify Manning's conclusions, it's certainly worth having on the shelf of anyone who'd like to learn some more about it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cold Pole

On its way out the door, the European Space Agency's Venus Express probe discovered that Venus isn't's weirder.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Wot's All This, Then, Pilgrim?

Wild West reenactment towns are widespread in this part of the country. But I bet you probably wouldn't have expected one in England.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


Suspense thriller writers walk a fine line as they navigate their characters through potentially world-shattering events -- even when they've saved the day, there may still be significant consequences to the baddie's thwarted plot. The world in which our heroes have saved the day can start to diverge from the one in which we live, adding a degree of difficulty to maintaining plausibility and reader interest. Over the course of three novels, Mike Maden's Troy Pearce has been fighting that battle as well as the ones that threaten his country.

By 2015's Drone Command, the gap is widening at the same time that the novels are becoming less and less interesting. The first novel in the series offered several members of Pearce's team, deployed for private intelligence operations along with the high-tech unmanned vehicles of the title. But the follow-up starting trimming the cast and Command pares it down some more, tightening the focus on Pearce and his unofficial partner, former U.S. President Margaret Myers. Confrontation between Japan and China threatens to become full-out war, but the current president has sent Pearce and Myers into the mix with a plan to defuse the situation and covertly take out the Chinese technological edge that makes the situation so dangerous. But the stakes may be high enough that the players will risk the diplomatic disaster that would follow harm to Pearce or Myers.

Command dials back the he-man grunt-grunt overload that hobbled Blue Warrior, the second novel in the series. But it adds in plenty of character speeches that tell us exactly what author Maden thinks is wrong with the world today, as well as the backstory that tells us how Troy came to be the fellow he is today. Agree or not with the first, they drag the pace to a crawl too many times. And while the second could definitely have its place, there's nothing about the main storyline of Command that connects to it. Those problems, combined with mostly cameo roles for the rest of Pearce's team and a distinct dearth of actual drones, push Drone Command a lot closer to other meanings of the word -- like "a monotonous low humming sound," emphasis on the "monotonous."
Ernest Cline's 2011 debut, Ready Player One, sold as a movie the same day he finalized his publishing contract. A unique setting, elements of the hot trend of teen dystopic fiction and painstakingly detailed '80s pop culture nostalgia intrigued publishers and movie studios alike. Cline's reputation in gaming and nerd culture also helped generate significant buzz for his story of a young man in an impoverished mid-21st century United States who takes on the world's greatest secret and treasure hunt.

Wade Watts lives on the outskirts of Oklahoma City in a trailer park "stack" that's not too many steps above homelessness. The virtual reality OASIS provides his schooling and socialization, but his approaching graduation is going to dump him into a real world where no sensible person would want to say. But there's a chance for escape: Solve the mystery of the OASIS creator's hidden "Easter Egg" and gain control of his fortune and OASIS itself. Wade is one of the serious remaining Easter Egg hunters or "gunters," and when one day he uncovers a clue that starts him on a legitimate trail for the prize, his future might become a whole lot brighter. If he has one, that is. Because the real-world implications of controlling OASIS and its creator's fortune mean some folks will play a much more permanent game to gain them.

Cline has a great handle on the world of early computer gaming, in which well-designed text-based "y/n" adventures might hold as honored a place as the finest 8-bit graphics at the arcade. He also writes the in-narrative game adventures in styles that match their various atmospheres while never entirely abandoning the "real-world" voice of Wade and his friends. But his story really spends too much time on its gaming and nostalgia dimensions, robbing it of focus. It also front-loads the character development and world-building, meaning that once the Hunt starts in earnest, the gaming dimension begins to smother the story.

Cline has a couple of interesting things to say about what might happen in a world where virtual reality becomes cheap and easy for anyone to access. But the fuzziness of his story and over-indulgence of his gaming jones mean it's tough to pick them out of the background noise.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Qualified Candidate Will Possess...

From our vantage point in history it's hard to remember that great names didn't start out so great -- that in the beginning, they had to achieve something and often had to seek out the chance to achive something before they built the reputations by which we know them today.

Which means Leonardo da Vinci tried to get a job in 1482 with Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, and in order to secure work as an armorer and creator of weapons, he submitted a resumé.

He might have wished to have lived a little closer to Venice or Bologna; the printing press was introduced in those cities about 10 years before it became widespread in Milan and would have made creating copies of his resumé a lot easier.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Cool Defined

"Cool" has always been a kind of tough quality to pin down. Those who have it obviously have it, but describing it takes more work. Is it an attribute? An attitude? A combination?

Deference is often given to the young in clarifying what is and isn't cool, but that may not be the wisest thing in the world to do when you look at what makes a successful and well-adjusted life. So we're still without a clear answer.

Ah, but we aren't! Dave Brubeck, composer Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello explain it perfectly in the last five minutes and twenty-four seconds of side A of their 1959 album Time Out. Careful and attentive listening of "Take Five" will explain everything you need to know about "cool."

And if for some reason it doesn't, knowing that Paul Desmond left the rights to peformance royalties of "Take Five" and his other compositions to the American Red Cross should help clear it all up.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Crunched by Numbers

So the National Collegiate Athletic Association extended its TV deal for its annual men's basketball tournament with the CBS/Turner broadcasting companies. The networks will pay the NCAA $8.8 billion to air the games for the next eight years.

Coincidentally, 8.8 is the exact number that describes the amount of this revenue that will go to the athletes who enable everyone to make it. But instead of "billion" and shift-4, people typing the figure need to instead hit shift-5, because that's the key for "percent," and 8.8 percent of the total will benefit the students with whose sweat it is generated.

Exactly how that's anything other than grossly unfair is apparently not on the NCAA's class schedule this semester. But one of these days there's going to be a test over this material, and they'd better have come up with an answer by then.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Class in Session?

The latest development in the ongoing educational funding crisis facing our fair state is a slew of educators filing for seats in the state legislature. News stories have highlighted a "teacher caucus" of folks signing up to run, most with the idea of using the authority of the state legislature to bring about changes in our public education system.

A couple of months ago I noted one of the sillier responses to this serious problem, the meme snarking on the relative rankings of how much teachers and legislators in Oklahoma are paid compared to other states. I offered my own superficial tuppence on the problem, which I said probably wasn't going to be solved by most of the solutions that involve dumping a big bucket of money into a flawed and outdated system. I was also clear that I am the Mondayest of Monday morning quarterbacks, not having followed these policy debates very closely for many years and lacking any plan of my own. So on the one hand, kudos to those folks who decided that they'd solve little from the sidelines.

The lists I've seen don't make this "caucus" as solid as the headlines do. Some are listed as "public education advocate," which is a pretty nebulous term that a lot of people would apply to themselves whether educators agreed with them or not. Others are "public school parents," which includes a whole lot of currently serving legislators who are seen as the cause of the problem. Some are retired educators, some are school board members and some are currently working teachers. They'll have to contend with the view that they're running for office to vote themselves a pay raise -- a statement that's probably unfair but will get made plenty of times anyway and believed enough to cause them problems.

But on the other hand, it's unlikely that this slate of filers will make it intact into the legislature, and those who do will find their plans obstructed by some of the same realities that hamstring current legislators who try to change the system.

The story at the Tulsa World lists several of the filers but doesn't note their party affiliation. Some will run as Democrats, some as Republicans and some as independents.The independents are almost guaranteed to be toast. Without a party structure to connect to, they will have to find and raise their own resources in their races. The natural source of funds, volunteers and so on would be educators' associations and teachers' unions -- in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Educator's Association or OEA. Unfortunately for those people, if they are running in a race with a Democratic candidate they will find the OEA is already likely to have committed its support to that person. The association and state Democratic party have a long relationship and OEA leaders would have to see a very weak Democratic candidate, a very strong independent candidate, a combination of the two or some other set of unlikely circumstances to risk that bond. Such instances will be rare if they exist.

Many will file as Democrats. Public school educators remain one of the strongest blocs of support for the state party, but it has been in disarray for many years. Dozens of Republican legislators gained their seats without Democratic opposition when their races drew not even token opposition. GOP State Rep. Sally Kern has been one of the Democratic party's least-liked legislators for years, but in the 2014 elections no Democrat filed against her. This new potential caucus may have significant educational connections and credibility, but in the eyes of many people who vote a straight party ticket, they will be Democrats before they are anything else. The likelihood of the national Democratic ticket being led by someone extremely unpopular among Oklahomans will not help the local candidates' causes.

Some candidates will file as Republicans. GOP leadership of the state legislature has led many people to lay the blame for the current problems at its door and rank-and-file party members who think smarter choices could definitely have fixed this problem aren't shy about their opinions. Republicans who file against incumbent Republicans while lambasting the party leadership will find little help coming their way. If they win primary elections they might get some more support in general elections, but they will take back seats to candidates who are less vocal in their disapproval.

Plus, the educators' associations and groups still lean towards Democrats. They were able to push challenger Joy Hofmeister over incumbent Janet Barresi in the 2014 GOP primary race for state superintendent, but that was a statewide post and Barresi was uniquely hated. The full-throated roar backing Hofmeister in the primary was much more muted come November. Either way the winners will find that getting elected was the easy job.

They will still have to contend with the absence of money. They will still have to work around the restrictions on state tax increases which require either a 75% supermajority of legislative approval or approval on a statewide ballot. They will have to contend with a less-than-stellar executive who may not be interested in helping them -- and almost certainly isn't likely to be all that helpful even if she is. They will discover they are not the only state agency that doesn't want to be cut and can make a good case to the voters that they shouldn't be. They may have to make compromises in order to get some of what they want and have to settle for not getting all of it.

They'll probably find out that making laws may be a lot like making sausage in that no one wants to watch it happening, but also in that being the ones who make it happen isn't all roses and daffodils either. Which may be a pretty useful lesson.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

More Powerful Than A...

Some newly developed body armor, made out of a metal construction that's actually called foam, is strong enough that bullets don't bounce off of it or stick in it -- they shatter when they hit. The "foam" is made of tiny hollow steel spheres embedded in a steel matrix or framework. It absorbs the impact energy of the bullet while an outer layer is hard enough so that the remaining energy of the projectile shatters it. The construction is also supposed to offer significant protection against heat.

Clark Kent, please call your office...

Monday, April 11, 2016

Well Now There's Something You Don't See Every Day

White dwarf stars are usually what's left over after middle-sized stars burn out. Our sun is likely destined for white dwarf status several billion years from now.

Stars burn through nuclear fusion and although they are massive, after a long enough time they run out of the elements they fuse for fuel. Big stars blow up in a nova or supernova. Medium-sized stars flare up into a planetary nebula as they expel their outer layers (for the curious, this event is what will probably destroy the Earth or at least render it unlivable). The leftover interior core is made up of much heavier elements than the hydrogen and helium the star has been burning, and those elements are now affected by gravity since there's no longer any expansion pressure from fusion energy. They collapse, squeezing the mass of half the sun into a sphere the size of the earth. Most of the time, their remaining cores are made up of the elements oxygen, neon and magnesium. The little hydrogen or helium that's left forms a thin atmosphere.

Except for a white dwarf known as SDSS J124043.01+671034.68. About 1200 light-years from Earth, its atmosphere is almost entirely oxygen. Normally, the heavier oxygen atoms are compressed by the white dwarf's gravity so that they are trapped in the core, but not for this particular white dwarf, and astronomers don't know how it happened. Carbon fusion could produce an oxygen atmosphere -- the star could have burnt carbon in its last days before collapsing, in other words. But white dwarfs of SDSS J124043.01+671034.68's size don't undergo carbon fusion as it's currently understood. In fact, white dwarfs that size usually don't have oxygen at all.

It's all very head-scratchy for astronomers and physicists, and the ones quoted in the story sound like they're having all kinds of fun trying to figure out just exactly how SDSS J124043.01+671034.68 is going to mess up the way we have understood some things about fusion and star structures. But then, nothing makes a scientist giggle like discovering something that kicks over a bunch of theoretical applecarts.

Even though it's got an oxygen atmosphere, you should put aside ideas about vacationing on this particular spot. Since the surface gravity on a white dwarf is about 100,000 times that of Earth, you wouldn't even have the strength to inflate your lungs to inhale in the milliseconds you'd have before your body compressed like one of those vacuum storage bags you see on TV. Plus, the temperature may be less than a regular star, but it's still around 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So any attempt to visit SDSS J124043.01+671034.68 would indeed leave you a hot mess.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Picture of the Moment

I've gotten into the habit of doing my Sunday treadmill work late at night -- it doesn't keep me awake, and it gives me a chance for a post-service nap earlier in the day when one seems advisable.

It's a curious atmosphere. The other folks at the fitness center aren't ones I see during the week, and there's an odd sense of temporal displacement. The combination of the "end" of my work week and the late hour feels like I'm in a pocket of unchanged time. Like I'm sitting in a room with green shag carpet and furniture decorated with macrame throws, listening to side 2 of a Steely Dan album spin down towards the fadeout groove...

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Forget Sharks

If you're hanging out on a beach on the Netherlands and you suddenly see one of these babies coming towards you, then you may never worry about another Great White again:

Artist Theo Jansen makes his stalking wind-driven critters from plastic pipes and bottles. He's made some that don't just use the wind for motive power -- the wind itself drives pumps that the creatures can use to move forward if the breeze dies down. Jansen says he would like to try to find a way to give them an artificial intelligence so they wouldn't always walk straight into the water and get stranded or drown.

Yup. Nothing I'd like to see more than something like this coming after me and knowing it could think for itself about what's the best way to deal with small, lumpy pink sacks of meat. That's bound to end well.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Relative Merits

You know, if the only good thing that the Star Wars not-in-the-main-continuity movie Rogue One produces is the below art from top comic book illustrator Phil Noto, then it will already be better than all three prequels put together.

I found this item at The Mary Sue; they saw it on Noto's Twitter feed.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Window to What Was

I always love little projects like this, where a photographer will take images of certain sites dating from many years ago and somehow combine them with current photographs.

Even though the modern shots are in color and the older ones usually black and white, it offers a neat perspective on history. There were people who stood, walked or sat in those spaces before we were born -- seeing them not as historical artifacts but as their own current scenery.

We sometimes seem to think that because we can capture such detail of this or that scene that we are unique, but the juxtaposition shows us that our place in the world is no more or less temporally privileged than any other.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Merle Haggard Wouldn't Let You Down

The bottle may have let him down, but the Hag never let anyone down who was looking for sincere and unadorned storytelling in their country music. He passed today, on his 79th birthday, after a months-long battle with pneumonia.

Although he often sang of the down side of life and referenced some of his own past -- he was in the audience when Johnny Cash played San Quentin, and not as a guard -- Haggard's songs almost always had an easy swinging feel to them. He managed to somehow use that mid-level sweet spot to temper his happy songs with a tinge of sadness and ease the blow when he sang about tragedy and loss.

Although usually looking a little dour when he sang, Haggard did have a sense of humor and could also do credible impressions of several of his fellow country artists. Here Glen Campbell coaxes a few from him, helped by a couple of friends:

Haggard kept performing almost until the very end of his days, even though modern country radio seemed to have little use for him except as a name-check a current singer would use in a song to try to establish twang bona fides. Most of those are silly. When Gretchen Wilson proclaims she's among the few women left who "eat fried chicken and dirty dance to Merle" you have to scratch your head. Because if there's a Merle Haggard song that can be used for "dirty dancing," I can't for the life of me figure out which one it's supposed to be.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Full Experience

Villanova University canceled classes today, the day after a thrilling buzzer-beater gave it the championship of the 2016 NCAA Men's Division 1 Basketball Tournament.

Many folks said it just made sense -- students celebrating the victory into the not-so-wee hours of the morning probably would have skipped class anyway. Or at the very least displayed limited functionality. It's possible some professors might have been in the same fix.

Personally, I think the administration decided to allow the entire student body to get a brief taste of what life is like for many student-athletes. They're in school to service the school's entertainment division and make it a bunch of money. Class takes second place to that need and is important only as much as it contributes to it. Now all of the kids can feel that way, at least for a day.

Monday, April 4, 2016

When the Moon is in the Laffer Curve...

James Madison University philosophy professor Alan Jay Levinovitz might be a curious choice as an author of an Aeon article about why so much modern economic analysis -- to put it plainly -- goofs.

But as he notes in his article, his expertise in Chinese religion has given him a better than passing acquaintance with ancient Chinese astrology. And the way that discipline used rigorous attention to mathematical detail to obscure the wildest guesses calls to his mind the way a whole lot of modern economists seem to work as they try to predict things that will happen.

Economics is harder than some of the so-called "soft sciences" because it deals with things that can actually be measured. If a sociologist wants to measure what kind of family arrangement is best for children, there are a whole lot of fuzzy terms that she will have to contend with to get any kind of result. And even if she can come to some agreed-upon definition of her terms, she's still stuck with the reality that people are different and that a family situation onerous to some might be perfect for others. Certain situations are obviously bad, such as ones where children are neglected or abused. But what about, say, a family of athletes surrounding a child not all that strong, fast or coordinated? Would that child fare "better" in a studious family? Does the difference of interests really make a family a better or worse fit for its members? Hard to say, but the sociologist who wants to make claims about such things has to figure out ways to say them.

Economics, on the other hand, uses real data and outcomes. Prices go up, prices go down. Hedge funds earn money, banks collapse. Actual results can be pointed out. But economics doesn't step all the way into the hard science category because it's difficult to repeat its experiments as exactly as a physicist or chemist can. The same conditions can be set up, but even if the experiment uses the exact same people there will be differences that could affect the outcome of the experiment. Water's always going to boil at 100º C, but the same person is not going to approach the same question about how to best spend $50 the exact same way.

At some basic levels, economics does seem to say things that are pretty solid. Price really is a function of supply and demand, and changes in any of those terms will affect the others in some generally predictable ways. More complex situations, though, are not nearly as clear-cut and really can't be treated as if they are. Too many variables can shift the outcomes so drastically that prediction really is off the table.

But the advent of super-fast number crunching means that seriously complex formulas can be created that are supposed to account for all of the variables.  Levinovitz points out that astrologers developed their own complex math to try to account for the different variables in their systems as well. They could run some blindingly complicated formulas and come up with precise answers. All the while they overlooked that while their math was nice and precise, it didn't make a lick of difference because the stars and heavenly bodies' only influence on human beings' daily lives is the miniscule amounts of radiation we receive from them and the tiny pull of gravity they may have. And those, governed by the inverse-sqare law, are so small they might as well not even exist. All the math in the world can't actually tell you how Mars being in your house made you lip off to the officer who was only going to give you a warning for your broken tail light. Mostly because Mars was in its orbit and nowhere near your house or your car.

Highly detailed and specific math formulas don't help whiz-bang economics do any better, Levinovitz says, because they're still dealing with the randomness of human nature and other factors that can't be predicted.

It's a great article. I kind of wish Levinovitz had pointed out something that could help rein in the ridiculous claims -- a recognition that they're guesses. Some of them are better guesses than others, but guesses are still guesses and sometimes they're wrong. The little of my science classes that I remember seems to have suggested to me that one of the things scientists did was to test their guesses about why things behaved the way they did. Good guesses got looked at more closely, and bad guesses got pushed aside. A bad guess dressed up in good math isn't any better of a guess than it was before it got all tarted up with formulae.

But getting a Ph.D. confess that he or she might be wrong about a prediction is probably harder than figuring out why Mars has it in for you. So change may be awhile coming.

(ETA: I should point out, that as someone who holds a master's degree, I am only slightly less likely than a Ph.D. to confess that I am wrong.)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Seasonal Start

As happens every year about this point, time begins. With, I will admit, a sudden renewal of interest on my part.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


In the blogroll you will find the Big Think site, which has interesting or quirky stories about scientific discoveries, history, the arts and whatnot. Not all of its articles are any good, though. Sometimes they represent dumb to a degree unimaginable to an everyday person.

Such an article is this, by one Paul Ratner, who says that since the name "America" is full of icky bad history, we should change the name of our country. We can leave aside the reality that none of Mr. Ratner's c.v. indicates he has made any study of history. We can leave aside the fact that the name of the country is technically "The United States of America," because it is only one country on one of two continents with "America" in its name. We are in the minority of nations on our very own continent, let alone the entire hemisphere, and unless we were to persuade these other nations to also agree to rename these continents, our own name change would mean little.

We can leave aside the fact that if we were to do as Mr. Ratner suggests and change our name, we could very well be seen as forcing our identity on other nations not as powerful as we. This is the kind of behavior to which Mr. Ratner seems to object, except, it appears, when he suggests it.

It was at first in my mind to be angry at Mr. Ratner for writing his article, given that reading it took up four or five minutes of my life which I shall never get back. Then I realized that he probably spent much longer than that writing it, which is time he shall never get back, and my lust for vengeance was sated.

Friday, April 1, 2016


Characters in a Harlen Coben novel should never ever use any kind of photographic equipment. Nothing good ever comes of it. From mysterious pictures stuck inside a photo pickup order to the ghostly images on a digital picture frame/nanny cam in this year's Fool Me Once, the message is clear: photography kills.

Or at the very least messes up your life even more, which is the last thing that Maya Stern Burkett needs right now. Disgraced and discharged from the Army after a tragic incident in combat, grieving the loss of her sister, she's now facing life without her husband -- killed in a Central Park mugging that she barely escaped. When a friend brings her a hidden nanny cam disguised as a digital picture frame, she sets it up to watch as her nanny Isabella plays with her two-year-old daughter Lilly -- who is later joined by Maya's murdered husband Joe, seeming very much un-murdered. Worried that any revelation of this might cause people already worried about her post-war stress to think she's completely flipped, Maya starts to look into the matter herself. She finds that there are even more things that are not what they seemed than she could have ever imagined, and that the mysteries go back decades.

Fool Me Once is easily among Coben's least substantial work. He's made a theme of visiting strange trauma and tragedy on placid suburbia, with the only difference here being that Maya carries a goodly amount of her own trauma into the situation herself before things start to fall apart. The only thing not telegraphed in the book is the final "twist" of the ending, and it's a lot more neck-snapping corkscrew crash than it is twist.

The author is reportedly at work on another book featuring Myron Bolitar, his sports-agent crime-stopper mainstay character; perhaps a return to a familiar set of characters will offer more evidence of creativity and effort than we find in Fool Me Once. If not, then it may be time to invoke the second half of that old saying and cease letting Coben fool us at all.
Mike Erikson seems like an ordinary, well-liked high school English teacher. But he has a secret. He never forgets. Anything. And he has a friend who works in government who's dealing with a group of scientists that seem to have created a method of instant teleportation, called the "Albuquerque Door" after Bugs Bunny's old directional mistake.

But the scientists are being closed-mouthed about their discovery, as well as dragging their feet on expanding their tests. Mike's friend wants to know why, so he convinces his friend with the flawless memory to hire on and investigate the project and see if everything is as above-board as the team claims it to be. In 2015's The Fold, he learns that very little about the Albuquerque Door is as it seems, and the project team may be hiding not secrets, but ignorance about what they're doing. Their ignorance could have serious consequences for themselves, Mike, national defense and the entire world with everyone in it.

Previously best-known as the author of the "Ex-" series, a group of not particularly distinguished novels in the less-than-inventive genre of zombie apocalypti, Clines has a good storytelling ear and an excellent handle on giving his characters a wry, smartass tone. These scientists are funny and offer him a chance to poke a little fun at some science-fiction standbys. He helps make the science of the door sound plausible and also offers a good image to describe how Mike's memory works. Although some of his action scenes are a little chaotic, the features of the narrative that surround them make that plausible.

The Fold starts limping when Clines veers into some Lovecraft pastiche and wrangles his finale to tie it in with an earlier novel, 14. It didn't need to chase those rabbits in order to be fun, and would almost certainly be stronger without them.