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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.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Path to CItizenship for Superman?

After all, he was not born in America, and he did not pass through all the proper immigration channels when he arrived.  He is, in fact, an illegal alien.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Most Holy Trinity and Self-Similar Fractals

One morning a few days ago, while I was still half awake, I found myself imagining a discussion of the Most Holy Trinity with a (rather rude) skeptic, and I thought of an analogy in terms of self-similar fractals, in particular the Mandelbrot set.

Notice that you see the same pattern at the very beginning (at 0:08) and three more times in this video (at 1:15, 2:29, and 5:03).  Note there  are other repetitions:  we zoom past the same pattern repeated many times before diving into it at 0:46, only to see yet more copies of it on the inside immediately thereafter.  At 1:27, we are once again zooming past more copies of this same pattern.  There is also a 4-armed pattern that we see several times, at 1:01, 1:38, 2:52, 3:11, and 3:48.  Each of these patterns is contained within the others and also contains the others, so whenever you see one, you know the others are also there.

My analogy is that these patterns are "like" the Divine Persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost); the patterns are never really separated from each other, as the Divine Persons are not separated from each other.  Yet these patterns together form a unity, as there is only one God in three Persons.  Also, presumably the first pattern would correspond by analogy to God the Father, because although the other two Persons are co-eternal with Him, the Father is in some sense their origin, as He is neither begotten nor proceeding.

There are two other nice things about this analogy.  Firstly, the Mandelbrot set is beautiful, which is one of the reasons videos like the one above are produced.  Likewise, God is beautiful, or if you prefer, God is the ultimate perfection of beauty.  Secondly, although the Mandelbrot set seems infinitely complicated in such a video, in fact it is actually quite simple in its definition.  This might make philosophical statements about the simplicity of God a bit easier to accept.

Please understand that this is only an analogy, and all analogies have their limitations.  A much more careful explanation of what the Church actually teaches about the Trinity can be found in the Athanasian Creed.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Red Storm Rising

A week ago I finished re-reading Red Storm Rising.  I first read it during the summer of 1989.  The book is now 28 years old, so it should not really be necessary for me to say this, but SPOILER ALERT.

The book holds up better over time than I had expected.  A few things are pretty obvious from the beginning, since this is (after all) a popular American novel from the Cold War.
  1. The USA wins.  Actually, it's more of a combined NATO "win", and "winning" mostly means "surviving".  That said, the Soviet Union took much more serious casualties and is economically and politically in tatters at the end of the book, so in a real (though not ultimate) sense they "lose".
  2. NATO are the good guys.  One of the book's heroes does something that is probably technically illegal, but it is not (under the circumstances) immoral.  All of the real crimes and unquestionably immoral acts are committed by not just Warsaw Pact personnel, but in fact Soviets.
  1. The conclusion of the war is not really a decisive "win", and the course of the war is very much an evenly-matched back-and-forth.  Part of this can be attributed to the need to tell a compelling tale, and part of it to contemporary estimates.  It is still refreshing, though, as compared to revisionist estimates after Desert Storm that assume that the Red Army is just the Iraqi Army scaled up and that a conventional World War III would have been a cakewalk for the USA, that the book assumes that the country that has produced so many world chess grand champions would not behave as complete strategic and tactical dunces.
  2. A number of "main characters" are introduced who are Soviets.  These are characters that still (for the most part) know right from wrong and generally choose to do what is right, and the reader is correctly expected to sympathize with them.  As with the NATO characters, these are ultimately survivors of the war.

Of course with hindsight it is clear that Clancy got many of the little details wrong, such as the appearance and capabilities of the (still classified at the time) F-117.  Much more striking, and in some cases more troubling, are the big things he got wrong, things that cast doubt on the USA and NATO actually being the "good guys".  Here are some of those things.
  • In Red Storm Rising, neither the USA nor its NATO allies are ever presented as torturing prisoners.  They do make use of psychological tricks, and they do make use of drugs (in one case, alcohol which the prisoners willingly "self-administer", and in two cases they exploit powerful pain-killers -- though in both cases, the prisoner had sustained injuries that required medical attention, which was the primary reason the pain-killers had been administered.

    Sadly, in the real world the USA has openly embraced "enhanced interrogation".  All manner of mental gymnastics are used in an attempt to justify this practice -- well, at least when the subject of the "enhanced interrogation" is not an American.  If he were an American, such actions would be torture, of course, just like when we capture someone, he is a "detainee" (not a prisoner of war, which would give him some rights, and not an accused criminal, which would give him some rights, but an Untermensch, with all that that word implies), but when our foes capture a uniformed American serviceman, he is always a "hostage".  These, at any rate, are the cases we know about and that are publicly defended; but given the culture and practice of secrecy that has come to surround the detention and interrogation of enemies of the state, it is doubtful we will ever know all that has been done.

    The situation is not improved by the knowledge of what happened at Abu Ghraib.  Supposedly, only low-ranking minions were involved in this, and supposedly, this did not represent the will of the US government.  As our British cousins would say, bollocks.  Senior members of the Bush administration (the same people who defended waterboarding) had given speeches (to rounds of applause) about how it was time for the US to "get tough" or "remove the kid gloves".  Only a moron could fail to see that this created an environment that encouraged such abuses, however much they later claimed never to have intended them.  There is, to be sure, a well-established practice of people in authority carefully avoiding all specifics, so that if there is negative fallout, they can claim that they did not authorize or even know about misdeeds carried out by their underlings.  The proverbial "wink and a nod" has been around for a long time!  Even Hitler had minimal contact with the details of the "Final Solution" -- but no one ever doubted that the Holocaust was a direct expression of the Führer's will.
  • The American intelligence community is beginning to resemble too closely institutions like the KGB and the East German Stasi.  I know too many silly people who, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, were instantly willing to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.  Actually, it was worse than that:  a mess of pottage is at least a concrete good, but all they got was an unsubstantiated, and highly questionable, claim that in some way they had a little more physical safety.  For that they were willing to spit on the grave of every serviceman who died in the hope that we would be free of secret police.

  • We used to hear that the Soviet Union was a nation of godless atheists, but now the US has become a nation of godless nones.  Or, if you prefer, the Soviet Union was full of people who practiced no religion and called themselves atheists, but now the USA is full of people who practice no religion and call themselves Christians.

    Yes, the trend towards a more godless nation is reflected in polls of religious affiliation, but it is reflected even more in the atmosphere of everyday life.  

    Let me first get out of the way two comparatively minor examples: the coarsening of the language and the ubiquity of tattoos.  By "coarsening of the language", I do not simply mean the use of crude and vulgar words; I also mean the glib discussion of crude and vulgar subjects with no consideration of whether they are appropriate for the time, place, and audience.  As for tattoos, I suspect that when they are used excessively it indicates a non-Christian attitude in which the body is regarded as clothing for the soul rather than as an integral part of the person.

    Perhaps an extreme example of what I mean happened in 2010, when a stalker posted to the web nude videos which he had surreptitiously taken of ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews.  This was discussed at length by a number of male ESPN employees on ESPN's national radio programs; many of these employees casually mentioned having seen the video.  (a)  Of course, these men should not have viewed the video.  (b)  If they did view it, they should have at least realized it was something they should feel ashamed for having done.  (c)  Even if they viewed the video and felt no shame, they should have realized that by flippantly discussing on air having viewed the video, they were creating a very uncomfortable, even hostile work environment for Ms. Andrews.  The really amazing thing was that there was absolutely no sense of shame, nor even any sense that there was a need to rationalize (probably on the basis of "we are journalists") what they had done.  There was no objection from anyone in the studio, and, at least during the time it took me to drive in to work, no objection from any guest or caller.

    (Two years later, Erin Andrews switched to Fox Sports.  Perhaps this was a contributing reason, though Fox Sports radio personalities seem to be cut from the same cloth as their ESPN counterparts.)

    I'll give just one more example of the change I am describing in the overall approach to life.  A few years ago, I was the principal investigator in a summer research program for college undergraduates.  Part of the program was an ethics component, which we satisfied by reading and discussing Fundamentals of Ethics for Scientists and Engineers by Edmund G. Seebauer (which I like because of its Aristotelian approach).  We ran into trouble at the very beginning:  at the point where it must be mentioned that we take for granted that there is something for ethics to study.  That is, ethics is the study of what ought to be done by a particular person in a particular set of circumstances, not a study of what people actually do (which is arguably history), nor what they say they should do (which is arguably cultural anthropology), nor how people feel about what they and others do (which is arguably psychology).  One student would have none of that; this student had a family member who was a philosophy grad student, and so knew that ethics is only what people actually do.  Most of the other students were noncommittal.  They have all grown up in a system that now teaches children that right and wrong are not concrete realities.  Of course their indoctrination is not consistent; I think they would all agree that James Earl Ray really ought not to have assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., even though that is what he actually did, even though subcultures like the Ku Klux Klan would have said he did what he ought to have done, and even if the assassination made James Earl Ray feel better in some way.  They would "feel" that the assassination was in some way wrong, but they have been taught that there is no objective reality behind this feeling.  The Abolition of Man is nearly complete.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Controversy over the Confederate Flag

I was thinking about blogging on recent developments, but it turns out that I made all of the important points three years ago, so I will just provide a link to that post.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Chinese Proverb

Cheap shrimp cocktail and beef stew went into business together.
It was a disaster.  Everyone died.
-- Quoted by a character in a dream

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"Conservative Catholic" Bloggers and the Pope

Before I even begin, let me explain that the reason I do not here take liberals to task is because, even before I was old enough to know what the words "liberal" and "conservative" mean, the liberal movement had wedded itself to unquestionable evils, such as abortion, and for that marriage at least they actually do believe in permanence.
I had expected more from people who call themselves not only conservatives, but conservative Catholics.  These are people with whom I would expect to be in agreement, but as several recent posts have revealed, the frequency with which that expectation is frustrated the source of a great deal of irritation to me.

The most recent example comes from the hubbub surrounding an encyclical which the Pope has not yet even released [a draft has been leaked as I write this, but even that was not available when I started this post], but which is said to deal with our responsibility to look after the environment.  That, in itself, is not very new; it was Adam's first job, as described in Genesis 2:15.  

Unfortunately, most of these "conservative Catholics" seem to be infested by a form of Gnosticism (as are so many in today's society).  Gnostics thought that matter, including the body, was at best of no importance, and at worst somewhat evil, as it functions (in their opinions) as a prison for spirits.  Some Gnostics concluded that even marital intercourse is wrong, since it leads to more spirits being trapped in matter (i.e., children); others concluded that because the body is of no importance, no sex act performed by the body could possibly be sinful.

Something of these attitudes was revived during the Enlightenment, particularly in the dualism of René Descartes.  A hint of the confusion caused by this can be found in modern science fiction, which on the one hand will happily deny that there is such a thing as a soul -- only the body is important -- and then in the next episode the mind or "essence" of a character is uploaded into a computer or downloaded into another body -- the body is of no importance.  

The aroma of Gnosticism is also particularly to be found in any modern discussion of nature and/or nonhuman animals and plants.  Like a drunk wandering home late at night, most people end up in either the ditch on the right or the ditch on the left.  The ditch on the left is the idea that animals and plants are of equal if not superior worth compared to a human.  These are the people who will protest in favor of abortion but against the cutting down of a 300 year old oak.  The ditch on the right is that the only value nature has is as raw material for industry.  Ironically, both sides end up enthroning Industry as a god, the only difference being whether they regard it as a good god or an evil god.  (This, by the way, is one key difference between modern pagans and ancient pagans: ancient pagans new that nature could kill them if they weren't careful, whereas modern pagans are afraid that if we are not careful, we might destroy nature.)

A particularly common "defense" given in anticipation of this encyclical is that the Pope is only infallible when talking about Faith and Morals (and even then only under specific circumstances), with the very strong implication that anything else can simply be ignored.  The error is in the implication.  

Statements may be classified by their credibility.
  1. Infallible statements are, of course, the gold standard.  The problem is that whenever an infallible statement is explained, or paraphrased, or applied, the infallibility does not transfer to the explanation, paraphrase, or application.  Since explanations and applications are necessary for any practical use to be made of these statements, infallible statements are not enough.
  2. Some statements are not infallible, but they are thoroughly trustworthy.  The theory of quantum mechanics is a particularly strong example, because (a) it is something no sane person would really want  to believe, so it has been thoroughly tested in hopes of debunking it, and (b) none of these experiments have shown quantum mechanics to be wrong.  Honestly, though, almost all "facts" fall into this category:  "The earth is round," "China is a real place," "Rats do not spontaneously generate from old rags," "Millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust," etc.
  3. Some statements may not be as certain as those discussed above, but they are still worthy of the benefit of the doubt.  Advice from your doctor falls into this category; you can get a second opinion, but you should not simply disregard what your doctor says.  Likewise with weather forecasts: they are often wrong, but it is foolish to ignore the forecast of a major storm.
  4. Some statements have neutral credibility.  If I say, "Baylor will win the Big 12 football championship in 2015," a proper response would be, "Maybe; we'll see."
  5. Finally, there are statements which should be met with varying degrees of suspicion, but which should be regarded as either most likely to be false or to be so cunningly deceptive that the only safe thing is to ignore them entirely.

It may well be true -- it is almost certainly true -- that the bulk of what is in the upcoming encyclical does not belong in the first category, infallible statements.  That is true of any encyclical, really.  When St. John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, "Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform," this evaluation of the prison system is not infallible.  When Popes have written encyclicals condemning Socialism, the moral principles in them may be infallible, but the application to self-described Socialist leaders, parties, or nations is not infallible.  However, a Catholic aiming to cultivate the proper virtue of docility will still regard them as trustworthy, or at least worthy of the benefit of the doubt.

The problem, of course, comes when the statements of the Pope clash with a preexisting religious commitment:   the devotion to the god Industry mentioned above.  That's it.  They are afraid that the Pope will find the projections of anthropogenic climate change credible, and that will be bad for "bidness", be bad for their side in politics, and give aid and comfort to their political rivals.

To the best of my knowledge, neither the bloggers nor the people supplying comments on the blogs are climatologists, or even have the necessary background to make a professional evaluation of the science.  Without such a background, and when dealing with a process expected to take a century or more to unfold, they really have no excuse for looking for an excuse to disregard the Pope before he has even published his encyclical.  (Sure, there are a handful of climatologists who think absolutely nothing will happen.  There are also a handful of biologists who think Bigfoot is probably a real, bipedal, hairy ape.  There were quite a few biologists who were willing to argue that smoking cigarettes is totally healthy.  If you are willing to cherry pick your experts, you can always find at least one expert who will back up any idea.)

As for what I think about anthropogenic climate change, that's a topic for a later post.  For here, it is sufficient to say that Catholics should not dismiss the Pope out of hand.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Before We Go to Mars ...

Our experiences with manned space flight so far have been analogous to the quest to be the first to the North and South Poles, or the race to be the first to climb the Matterhorn or Everest:  they have been displays of cleverness and machismo with nationalist overtones, but they have not been practical.  (Yes, the shuttle allowed us to repair the Hubble, but if we had not been flying the shuttle we could have used the savings to launch several more Hubbles and still had money left over.)  It is time for this phase to be winding down.  It may be cool and fun for anyone to go up to the ISS, or for that matter to climb Everest, but the public has long ceased to pay attention to either.  We need a better goal for manned space flight now, and the obvious choice is the establishment of permanent and self-sufficient colonies.  The only place in the solar system where that has a reasonable chance of success is Mars. 

There are some things we must do before we make an attempt on Mars, though.
  1. We need to make sure there is no life already on Mars.  Once we start sending human beings to Mars, it will be impossible to prevent some microbes from making it to the surface, and there is every chance that some of them would find niches on Mars in which they could survive.  Their presence could mask the presence of any native microbes.  It's not likely that there is any life native to Mars, but we have to be sure; this could be our only chance to study them.  Any Mars life would probably lie deep underground, so we will have to find a way to drill robotically and explore aquifers and the sites of ancient hot springs.  This will take decades.
  2. We need to make sure humans can live on Mars long-term.  The gravity on Mars is only about 1/3 what it is on Earth.  Microgravity (the weightlessness experienced by astronauts in orbit) is known to have bad health consequences.  Can we adapt to the low gravity of Mars, or will Mars always remain a place where we can visit, but not settle?

    The best way to find out would be to establish a permanent station on the Moon.  The Moon's gravity is even weaker than that of Mars, and it's conveniently nearby in case there is a medical problem.  Presumably the first team on the Moon would stay for 2 years, the next for 4, the next for 6, etc., until we could be sure people could survive with no serious health problems for at least a decade.  We would also bring some animals to see if low gravity affects the development of young -- we must not let the first families on Mars be guinea pigs.
  3. We need to solve the problem of energy generation by fusion so that energy constraints will no longer limit us.  This will make it at least conceivable that we could move spacecraft with the massive (probably lead) shielding necessary to spend several months in space unprotected by the Earth's magnetic field, to send enough people and machinery to Mars to make a small city, and eventually to begin terraforming Mars to a less deadly environment.  People are working on fusion now, but we are still decades away from it becoming a practical power supply.

Taking all these considerations into account, it is hard to know what to make of NASA's plans to go to Mars in the 2030s.  It may be naive, it may be dishonest, or they may have goals entirely different from those I have laid out.