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One time several years ago in graduate school, I simply could not remember the word "syrup", so I called it "pancake gravy". That title was already taken(!), so I added "cane" because when I was a child in the Panhandle of Florida (aka Lower Alabama), my family grew sugar cane and made our own cane syrup.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thinking in Dreams

Like most people, I suspect, my dreams come in different kinds.  Some of them are like short stories, and if I remember enough details these can be quite interesting.  Many are like a confused movie, except that the confusion is usually not noticed until I wake up.  In yet other dreams the main character really does seem to be much more identifiable as "me", partly because the people with whom the character interacts are often family or friends, or because the places the character visits are places I have been, and partly because he thinks much the same way my waking self thinks. 

The fact that this dream self thinks so much like me makes the differences all the more interesting.

One thing that stands out is that at some level -- something like the subconscious of my dreaming self -- I know that I am dreaming.  I do not have lucid dreams, but in some cases I end up debating with myself whether I can disregard an unpleasant event because it is just a dream or whether I am just in denial.  This happened twice over the past week:  in one dream I had accidentally backed my truck into a car behind me, and in another I was hunting with a friend (not anyone my waking self recognizes) and got into trouble both for shooting a moose on private property without the landowner's permission and for discharging a firearm too close to the road.  The fact that I have never hunted nor lived in a place with moose makes that second dream particularly strange.  I tend to wake up shortly after beginning to suspect that I am dreaming.

Geography is very confused in my dreams.  I know the layout of the US states pretty well -- the main mistake I am likely to make is confusing Vermont and New Hampshire.  Maps in my dreams are horribly confused.  The distances are much reduced, with the cities that are landmarks on my drives all lying about one hour or less from its neighbor, and the roads are much more north/south and east/west than in reality.  In my dreams, a good day's road trip would be from Tuscaloosa up into Indiana, then over to New Jersey and down to Philadelphia.  In the real world this would be a trip of about 1300 miles; in my dreams it is more like 250 miles, and I seem to have made many such trips just of the heck of it.

When I was a student I used to dream that I was studying for the test that was (in the real world) coming up the next day.  I would try to read from my textbook, but it was impossible to focus on it, either visually or mentally.  This usually happened just as it was time to get up, and eventually I realized I needed to wake up because the fuzziness of the textbook was a dead giveaway.

Something similar happens when I try to do math in my dreams.  For instance, just last night I dreamed I was talking to someone about the manganese nodules on the seafloor (why we would be talking about this, I have no idea), and he suggested that there were only a few thousand of them.  I knew that was much too small a number, but all my efforts to make an order-of-magnitude estimate were frustrated, even though I used dream paper to try writing it out.  I made all kinds of mistakes:  I mixed up the formula for the volume with the formula for the area, even though I knew I was doing something wrong; I estimated the oceans to cover half the earth, rather than 70%; and I used 4000 km as the radius of the earth, when it is 4000 miles.  I also estimated on nodule per square kilometer of ocean, but I knew that would be a generous lower bound.  I can do a calculation like this in my head in just a few seconds while awake, but it was quite beyond me while asleep.

The weird thing is that once, back in high school, I went to bed knowing there was a serious problem with the proof for a theorem I was trying to prove.  At about 3 am, I woke up knowing what the solution was to my difficulty, so I got up and wrote it down.  Somehow I had solved the problem in my sleep.  Sadly, this seems to have been a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is My Office Haunted?

Well, no.  This is just a stupid trick of the light on some blank DVDs I had on my much-too-messy desk.  Still, I can kind of make out two eyes and a nose. 

What's really sad/funny is that this is actually as good as or better than many of the "ghost photos" one can find on the Internet.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Unconditional Surrender and a False Dilemma

"HiroshimaGembakuDome6705". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday will mark the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which, together with the bombing of Nagasaki, killed well over a hundred thousand civilians.  That was according to plan; the bombings were intended to make it blatantly obvious to the Japanese that the war was unwinnable and the cost was unthinkable, so that they would promptly surrender.  If this was not terrorism, nothing is terrorism.  Please do not pretend that the target was a ball-bearings plant.

This much is generally conceded, but it is argued that it was the better of only two alternatives.  The other possibility was a D-Day-style invasion that was expected to result in a million American casualties, with even larger numbers of Japanese military and civilians killed.  It is easy to say that we must not do evil that good may result, it is argued, but if doing evil saves over three million lives, then the evil must be done. 

But were these the only two possible alternatives?  Actually, there was another choice available -- one that is so much more shocking than the deliberate slaughter of 100,000 civilians that it is overlooked:    admit that the president of the United States had made a mistake.

Franklin Roosevelt had insisted that the surrender of the Axis powers must be unconditional, and Churchill and Stalin had agreed.  This was in no small part bravado, which was necessary in the early part of the war, but it was also intended to make sure that the defeat of the Axis would be unambiguous.  The Allies did not want a repeat of the claim that Germany had not lost the First World War in the field, but rather was betrayed by cowards well behind the front.

Look at this from the perspective of the Japanese, though.  What could unconditional surrender mean, other than that if they knew what the Allies had in mind they would never surrender?  It would have been easy for them to imagine atrocities; all they had to do was remember how they had treated China and Korea.  The Japanese tendency to commit suicide rather than surrender was only partly a matter of honor; there was also a very practical fear of how the defeated were made to suffer.  What terrible things could the Allies have in mind that they were not willing to declare?

Of course, the reality was far milder than anyone, Japanese or American, could have imagined.  Tojo was hanged, as were a few others, but Japanese war criminals were pursued with nothing of the gusto applied to the hunt for German war criminals.  Japan surrendered the right to wage war, but a small self-defense force was retained.  Hirohito abandoned the claim to divinity, but both his life and his office were spared.  The occupation forces were well-disciplined, and Japan was welcomed as a trading partner and ally, leading to greater prosperity than at any earlier point in Japanese history.

What if the Japanese had been told what lay in store for them?  Would they have stubbornly insisted on continuing to fight, regardless of the costs?  Probably not: even before the atomic bombs were dropped, about half the Japanese cabinet favored surrender.

Would this have allowed Japanese militarists to insist that Japan had not "really" been beaten?  Possibly, but that kind of person will make outrageous claims no matter what the facts may be.  The German perception that their armies had not lost World War I in the field had less to do with the rise of the Nazis than the terms of surrender and (above all) the Great Depression.

Americans have always had too great a tendency to deify our presidents, and FDR was an extreme example.  This often comes at a cost.  Let us pray that we never again consider the reputation of a president to be worth more than a hundred thousand civilian lives.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hidden Bloodlines

I just stumbled across a rather interesting documentary that argues that Edward IV of England was illegitimate, and then proceeds to track down the "real" king of England, who was (he seems to have passed away, if the YouTube comments are to be trusted) "real people", as my family would say. 

I think this sort of thing must be very common.  After all, St. Joseph was a direct descendant of King David, yet he was a carpenter with no apparent social or political significance.  More generally, although a tiny percentage of people descended from prominent families are able to trace one line of ancestors back two thousand years or so, I suppose no one can trace back all his ancestors that far.

In my case, I know I have ancestors from France, England, Ireland, and Germany -- presumably, then, basically the whole of northwestern Medieval Europe.  But what about before then?  Could one of my ancestors have been a Roman legionnaire recruited in Egypt and settling in Gaul, but descended from one of Ramses the Great's 96 sons?  Who knows?  Going back that far, we all have a lot of ancestors, and with all that has happened since then, just about anything is possible.

All this is well and good, but arguably of only trivial interest.  Things get more interesting, though much more controversial, when we get to the question of who may be descended from ancient Israel and Judah, and what that means.  An unbelievable amount of nonsense, much of it highly offensive to any thinking person, has been written on such topics.  Let me be clear from the outset that I am not in any way endorsing either the anti-Semitic pseudoscience that led to the Nazis and their successors, nor the comparatively quaint fantasy of British Israelism.

Instead, I want to focus primarily on Christian (and especially Catholic) writers who tend to take a few verses from Scripture (in particular, John 4:22 and Romans chapter 3) use them to draw unwarranted conclusions regarding the relationship of the Catholic Church to "the Jews".  (Quotation marks are actually necessary here, because the passages would have had a somewhat different meaning in the First Century than in the Twenty-first Century.)  The motivations of these authors are no doubt good; they seems to be a combination of curiosity about these particular verses, a wish to counteract the history of Antisemitism, and a desire to make the Gospel more palatable to their Jewish friends, but there are problems with their results.

First of all, in John 4:22, when Jesus said, "Salvation is from the Jews," He was kind of obviously talking about what was happening that very decade -- a time when there was not much mystery to the question of who is a Jew.  He was also building up to the very next two verses, which were about the end of Temple Judaism and the admission of non-Jews to proper worship:
But the hour cometh and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him.  God is a spirit: and they that adore him must adore him in spirit and in truth.
As for the advantages St. Paul lists for being a Jew, they appear to fall into three categories. 

  1. Some advantages are apparently due to some spiritual aspect of biological descent.  Some societies vastly overestimate the importance of such a dimension -- in particular, caste-based and eugenic societies.  Today's society tends to deny any possibility of such a dimension, in part due to its materialist philosophy, and in part due to the outrages committed by caste-based and eugenic societies.  However, it is important to remember that the doctrine of Original Sin means that biological descent does have certain real spiritual consequences, even though they are not as extreme as some have believed.

    Also, every human being whatsoever has both good and bad in his ancestry.  The Hebrews accepted the Law at the foot of Mount Sinai; they also worshiped the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai.  The prophets came from and to them, and they are the ones who murdered the prophets.  This does not make them especially bad or especially good; it makes them a fitting representative for all of humanity.  (In fact, I suspect part of the reason God called the Hebrews is precisely because there was nothing very special about them.  If He had called the Egyptians, people might have thought it was because of their science or architecture.  If He had called the Greeks, it might have been thought to be because of Greek philosophy or art.  For a long time, though, the Hebrews had no very distinctive worldly success.)

    The main problem, though, is clear in Romans 3:3.  "For what if some of them have not believed?"  Because, of course, some of them did believe, and those who did entered the Christian community and no longer identified themselves as Jews.  At this point, only God knows who is actually descended from the Patriarch Jacob, just as only God knows who is actually descended from Ramses the Great.  I suppose that there are very few people in Europe with no Jewish ancestry at all, but there is apparently no way of knowing in this life.
  2. Other advantages listed by St. Paul were due to the fact that Jewish culture going back to Abraham had been shaped by the worship of the One True God for nearly two thousand years.  This is not such an advantage today, when modern Judaism has explicitly rejected the Christian Gospel for two thousand years but several national cultures have been shaped by the Gospel for up to the same length of time.
  3. Finally, at the time of St. Paul, only Jews would have been raised since childhood in the worship of the True God.  By the time he was martyred, though, he would already have known Gentile converts whose children had been raised in the Faith from childhood.
So two of the kinds of advantage really do not apply any more, whereas the third is a mixed blessing that might apply to just about anyone of European or Near Eastern descent.  This, to say nothing of the explicit statements of Scripture in precisely the passages that are cited, makes it perfectly clear that a recent convert from Judaism does not become a First Class Christian, with everyone else a Second Class Christian, which sadly is the implication of many of these books.

As regards ranking individuals or nations or cultures, I think the problem comes with assuming that there is one universal ranking, and everyone ranked "better" is better in every way.  This certainly creeps into much that has been written about the nine choirs of angels.  We know, though, that the Blessed Virgin Mary occupies a position in Heaven higher than that of any angel or any other mere human, and we also know that she was not eligible to become a priest or bishop.  We know that she comes first among created beings by order of grace, but that Lucifer came first by order of nature.  We even know that it is meaningless to ask if an oboist "outranks" a cellist, because there are both oboe concertos and cello concertos.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Contemplate this.

This is the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1:  perhaps a fitting time for our collective stupidity to rear its head again.

Many people alive today have never experienced the Cold War, and so have no memory of this fear.  John McCain has no such excuse.

That's even before any consideration of whether Putin or Obama (or McCain) is more untrustworthy.

Update:  Maybe someone can correct me on this, but my recollection is it took longer for the US to confirm that the USS Vincennes had shot down Iran Air Flight 655 than it took the US to declare that a missile downed Malaysia Airlines MH17.  But that's due to improved technology, right?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Can Buddha Be Baptized?

Can Buddha be baptized?  That is, could some modern-day Aquinas do for the philosophies of the East what St. Thomas did for the philosophy of Aristotle -- strip off those elements that are incompatible with established Catholic doctrine, yet still find a substantial core remaining that the Church could use?  It's an appealing thought for at least three reasons.

  1. Plato enabled the Church Fathers to make a great deal of progress in understanding and developing Christian theology, and Aristotle likewise enabled the blossoming of scholasticism.  The prospect of another surge forward in understanding is very attractive.
  2. The use of Plato to explain Christian doctrine played a role (though not the decisive one) in converting the Greco-Roman world to Christianity.  Maybe the use of elements of Eastern philosophies could lead to the conversion of much of Asia.
  3. Finally, it would fit in with the egalitarian view of the humanity that is so pervasive at present.
Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by italian Rafael
This painting of Plato and Aristotle adorns the Pope's official residence, 
the Palace of Sixtus V.

Sadly, I don't think this is at all likely. 

To be clear, there is much of value in Eastern culture generally.  That is obvious -- any society that endures long enough to produce an actual culture must be doing some things right, and any culture large enough to produce an actual culture must contain some of the best (along with some of the worst) of mankind.  Asian accomplishments in the fine arts and the practical arts are too obvious to require further elaboration, and of course Christians can make as much use of these as of their Western counterparts.  Why should philosophy be any different?

One of the interesting things about Greek philosophy is that, although it spoke of the gods or even in fact of God, it had next to nothing to do with Greek religion.  Greek religion did not dictate Greek philosophy, and Greek philosophy did not dictate Greek religion.  Chesterton discusses this somewhat in The Everlasting Man:
Aristotle, with his colossal common sense, was perhaps the greatest of all philosophers; certainly the most practical of all philosophers. But Aristotle would no more have set up the Absolute side by side with the Apollo of Delphi, as a similar or rival religion, than Archimedes would have thought of setting up the Lever as a sort of idol or fetish to be substituted for the Palladium of the city. Or we might as well imagine Euclid building an altar to an isosceles triangle, or offering sacrifices to the square of the hypotenuse. 
In almost every other time and place, either philosophy has been the handmaiden of theology, or theology has been the handmaiden of philosophy.  In fact, there was some of that in ancient Greece, too, with the weird cult of Pythagoras, which seems to have more-or-less worshiped the natural numbers, and again in the late Roman Empire with the neo-Platonists.  Even the main tradition of the Golden Age of Greece -- Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle -- contains elements at odds with Christianity, such as the idea of the transmigration of souls in Plato and an eternal, essentially static universe in Aristotle.  

Nevertheless, it is possible to remove those elements from classical Greek philosophy while still having something that is recognizably the work of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  In contrast, it would not be possible to remove the specifically Christian aspects of the philosophies of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas without shredding and twisting them.  My impression is that the same is true of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy; the religion is thoroughly integrated into the philosophy, so that the philosophy would be distorted beyond recognition if the religion were removed.

After all, the main part of what is left when Plato or Aristotle is "baptized" is a mostly empty framework on which a pervasively Christian philosophy can be constructed.  This framework includes a technical vocabulary and rules of inference.  Some of the biggest philosophical mistakes in the Church's history have involved using Greek philosophy as something more than an empty framework -- in trying to hold on to Aristotle's physics, for example.  Even if Buddhist or Hindu philosophy could be "emptied out" to produce a bare framework, would the new framework be compatible with the old one?  If so, would it add to the old framework?  If not, would it have any advantage over the old one?  The prospects are suddenly much less encouraging.

The impulse, now stronger than ever before, to see all times, places, and persons as fundamentally equal does echo some genuinely Christian themes.  For example, 
And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."Acts 10:34,35 (RSVCE)
But that does not mean that God distributes His blessings equally, a fact obvious to every child, only denied by adult ideologues, and dealt with explicitly in I Corinthians 12.

Jesus was born in a specific place at a specific time.  It is sometimes pointed out how the world was prepared for the Incarnation and the spread of the Gospel -- in particular, the Pax Romana had just begun and piracy was mostly eliminated.  Perhaps the blossoming of Greek philosophy a few centuries earlier should also be added to the list of preparations.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Science Documentaries

Once, when the secrets of science were the jealously guarded property of a small priesthood, the common man had no hope of mastering their arcane complexities. Years of study in musty classrooms were prerequisite to obtaining even a dim, incoherent knowledge of science.
Today, all that has changed: a dim, incoherent knowledge of science is available to anyone.

-- Science Made Stupid
A couple of weeks ago, a reader posted a comment on my post regarding the "Axis of Evil" as allegedly supporting geocentrism.  The comment was in fact very sparse:  it consisted of nothing more than this link to an article that is shocked! that scientists are dismissive of a documentary that some have never seen and in which others actually participated.  In reality, this is not shocking at all -- and I am not making a cynical statement about scientists in saying that.  Instead, my response is due to three facts:
  1. details are not always necessary to make a sound judgment;
  2. form matters; and 
  3. appearing in a documentary does not mean a person endorses the claims of the documentary.

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map edit

1.  Documentary shows, whether good, bad, or indifferent, really don't bury the lede; they almost always let you know from the beginning what kind of conclusion they are promoting.  Regardless of format, anyone who knows that conclusion to be bunkum does not really need to see the evidence presented in favor of the bunkum.

Maybe the best example would be "documentaries" (many of which can still be found on YouTube) claiming that something really profound, probably the end of the world as we know it, was going to happen precisely on December 21, 2012.  If somehow you had been living under a rock and had seen none of this, would you really think there was still any point in watching the documentary now?

The scientific community is actually quite small, and the community of scientists engaged in research on cosmology is a very small part of it.  Any professional cosmologist will be aware of the current state of cosmological research, the controversies within the field, and the arguments for and against the proposed resolutions to those controversies.   That means he will be particularly good at sniffing out bunkum in his own field.

2.  Form matters:  sometimes the manner in which a claim is presented destroys its credibility.  Legitimate business opportunities do not come in unsolicited emails from strangers.  A man who interviews for a job as a bank manager while dressed as a chicken does not seriously want the job.  Presidents almost never announce anything that is both new and important in State of the Union Addresses because they want to guarantee that the speech is a "success".  No Bigfoot program will make the announcement of proof that Bigfoot is real -- in the highly unlikely event that such proof emerges, probably in the form of a real body found by a hunter or motorist, every network will cut into its programming to announce the discovery immediately. 

There is a hierarchy of credibility when it comes to the forms in which scientific claims are released.  At the top are claims released through a peer-reviewed journal with a good reputation.  Below that are claims released at scientific conventions attended by the leaders of the field in question; they will not be able to carefully check the claim, but at least they will be able to point out obvious flaws on the spot.  Then come press releases.  Generally speaking, the press has no idea what scientists are talking about, but at least the release might have been written by a scientist.  Documentaries actually are near the bottom, mostly because they are either produced by the "edutainment" industry, which is more interested in telling a story the public will enjoy than the truth, or by advocates of fringe ideas who knew (either from experience or from a sound intuition) that they would not be taken seriously if they tried presenting their ideas in any of the above forums.

There are still worse ways to release a claim -- for example, one could do like Melba Ketchum and buy a small and insignificant journal so that it will publish one's paper.  She still maintains that the paper was "really" peer-reviewed, but not many people, let alone scientists, take her seriously.  Her paper is still the only one published by that journal in the year or so since she bought it.  The has got to be just about the worst possible way to present a claim without actually breaking the law.
By the way, the insistence on real peer review may seem like snobbery, but it isn't; it's a necessary step given the number of claims made and the limited amount of time available.  The truth is that it is not even possible for any one person to keep up with all the peer-reviewed articles published in any of the larger sub-fields of a basic scientific discipline (for example, condensed matter physics as a subfield of physics).  Besides that, most of the really interesting conjectures based on the current observations and experiments will inevitably turn out, on the basis of further observation or experiment (or sometimes for theories, more careful math or better computer simulations) to be wrong.  Filters are necessary so that time is spent mostly on ideas that are at least plausibly correct.

3.  I remember some TV show from the '80's or early '90's about a Weekly World News-type newspaper that wanted to run with a headline that maybe Elvis was an alien.  Someone thought that Carl Sagan would be a fantastic source for a comment.  So they phoned him.  "Dr. Sagan," said the reporter on the phone, "what do you have to say about the theory that Elvis was an alien? ... Oh. ... I see."  (He hung up.)  "Well, what did he say?"  "He said, 'I am absolutely astonished that you would have the audacity to ask me such a ludicrous question.'"  Everyone looked glum, until someone came up with the headline.  "I've got it!" he said, "Elvis an Alien?  Carl Sagan Says, 'I'm Absolutely Astonished!'"  (If anyone remembers this show, please remind me of its name.  I've been looking for it off-and-on for several years.)

Unfortunately, similar stunts by TV shows do not seem to be limited to fiction.  One scientist describes the way he was misled and his words twisted by a "documentary" here.  A similar account comes from an advocate of ideas as near the fringe as is geocentrism.  In fact, I've heard similar stories often enough to conclude that if someone comes asking for your comments in a "documentary", unless you have a preexisting relationship of long standing so that you really have a reason to trust the producers, it is essential to retain the power to veto the use of your name, image, and words in the final production -- a demand that the producers will almost certainly not agree to.