Friday, December 28, 2012

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today, December 28, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  It commemorates the slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem aged two and under at the order of King Herod as recorded in Matthew 2:16.  These children are considered martyrs. 

It's hard not to see the parallels with today.  I don't mean the shootings in Connecticut.  Those were the actions of a single madman on the fringes of society, a madman who has surrendered forever the capacity to threaten us or to be (in any meaningful sense) judged by us.  Herod was certainly mad, episodically if not continuously, but he was not on the fringes of society.  He was the king, and he employed the mechanisms reserved to the State to carry out his murders -- at no risk to his person or his position.  

The same spirit (I do not use the term lightly) is illustrated in these passage's from G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man -- which was written in 1925, so there can be no claim that this was inspired by any loyalty to one of today's political parties.
But without dwelling much longer in these dark corners, it may be noted as not irrelevant here that certain anti-human antagonisms seem to recur in this tradition of black magic. There may be suspected as running through it everywhere, for instance, a mystical hatred of the idea of childhood. People would understand better the popular fury against the witches, if they remembered that the malice most commonly attributed to them was preventing the birth of children....
The civilization that centered in Tyre and Sidon was above all things practical. It has left little in the way of art and nothing in the way of poetry. But it prided itself upon being very efficient; and it followed in its philosophy and religion that strange and sometimes secret train of thought which we have already noted in those who look for immediate effects. There is always in such a mentality an idea that there is a short cut to the secret of all success; something that would shock the world by this sort of shameless thoroughness. They believed, in the appropriate modern phrase, in people who delivered the goods. In their dealings with their god Moloch, they themselves were always careful to deliver the goods. It was an interesting transaction, upon which we shall have to touch more in the rest of the narrative; it is enough to say here than once that it involved the theory I have suggested, about a certain attitude towards children.
If you've been paying any attention to the news, you know exactly what I mean.  This "certain attitude towards children" and the belief "in people who deliver the goods" are in complete ascendancy in politics, in society, in business, in academia, and in most of the religious institutions. 

May God have mercy on us.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Date of Christmas (2)

A few days ago I wrote a post arguing for the traditional date of Christmas.  I am pleased to see that very similar arguments, but with stronger support, are available on Taylor Marshall's blog.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Date of Christmas

This is the time of year when one can expect to find any number of stories claiming that although we cannot be exactly sure on what day Jesus was born, we can be absolutely certain that He was not born on December 25.  This is due to the trendy certitude that Christmas, and indeed just about everything in Christianity, is the worst of all possible religions.  Thus we hear that we must say "B.C.E." instead of "B.C." and "C.E." instead of "A.D." to avoid being offensive, yet no one claims to be offended at, for example, January, named after the pagan god Janus, or Thursday, named after the pagan god Thor.  Moderns are quite sympathetic to paganism; they only take offense at the one true God.  But even at my most skeptical regarding such things, it always seemed to me that December 25 has at least a 1/365 chance of being the correct date.  

Bramantino - De aanbidding der herders

In fact, the chances are considerably better than that.  Several years ago I stumbled across Luke 1:26 out of context and really noticed for the first time what it might be saying:
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth....
That is the Douay-Rheims version, and it is rather literal, but several modern translations tell you not what the text actually says, but what the translators think it means.  For example, the New Living Translation starts with, "In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy...", the International Standard Version begins with, "Now in the sixth month of her pregnancy...", and the God's Word Translation has, "Six months after Elizabeth had become pregnant...."  What if, though, the "sixth month" does not refer (or does not exclusively refer) to Elizabeth's pregnancy, but (also) to the Jewish calendar?

Today we have several different calendar years; we have civil years, fiscal years, and academic years, and in the Catholic Church the year starts with the first Sunday of Advent, not January 1.  In the same way the Jews of the first century had both a civil year (that begins with Rosh Hashanah) and a religious year, but the default meaning for "Jewish New Year" seems to be Rosh Hashanah.  If we take six months from Rosh Hashanah, then add nine more for Mary's pregnancy, we get three synodic months of 29.5 days from the end of Rosh Hashanah for the date of Christmas.  The actual date fluctuates because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, but Rosh Hashanah tends to be in mid-to-late September, yielding dates for Christmas that are within a couple of weeks of December 25.  

More importantly, this same trend works for the first few years B.C..  To get the Julian date of Christmas we have to subtract 4 days due to the difference between a synodic month and our months of September, October, and November, and another two days from the Rosh Hashanah date to convert to the Julian date from the Gregorian date.  This means that the earliest possible Christmas dates by this method are as follows:  1 A.D. -- December 10; 1 B.C. -- November 21; 2 B.C. -- December 2; 3 B.C. -- December 14; 4 B.C. -- November 24; 5 B.C. -- December 5.  This covers at least the years when most people think Jesus may have actually been born.

Does this idea have any ancient support?  Well, I have found nothing relating Christmas to Rosh Hashanah.  However, St. Bede claimed (I have lost the precise reference!) that when Zachary went into the Temple to offer incense it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  That would push the "earliest dates for Christmas" back about 10 days, making for an even better fit with our December 25 observation of Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Star of Bethlehem

A few years ago, I was preparing to teach an honors course that was meant to cover not only highlights from modern astronomy, but also various stories associated with stars from different cultures.  This required me to review a number of books in an attempt to find a few that would be suitable either as texts or as background material for me.  

One book I reviewed was Babylonian Star-lore. An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia by Gavin White.  This was an interesting book, and it makes the (apparently controversial) claim that Mesopotamian astronomers/astrologers (back then there was no difference) discovered the precession of the equinoxes.  I have no special knowledge of the history of astronomy, but prima facie this seems plausible, since they had been recording astrological observations for thousands of years -- plenty enough time for the difference to become apparent.  

Why then do all the history books say that the precession of the equinoxes was first noticed by Hipparchus a little more than a century before Christ?  Being an astrologer was a good livelihood back then, and the methods used to make their important predictions -- for kings and rich men -- would have no doubt been an ancient example of a trade secret.  (How to make Damascus steel and Greek fire were somewhat later examples of such trade secrets; they were kept so secret that the knowledge eventually died out.)  

The Mesopotamian astrologers certainly took some simpler steps to confuse the uninitiated, creating a system of multiple meanings in which a planet might be called by the name of a constellation, for example.  Other differences in their terminology appear to be due to more fundamental cultural differences.  For them, a star was any noteworthy phenomenon in the heavens, rather than our modern idea of a huge ball of gas kept glowing hot by nuclear fusion -- just like the word "fish" used to mean any animal that spent its whole life in water, including whales, shellfish, jellyfish, starfish, etc., but today we use "fish" in a much narrower sense.  White's book particularly mentions halos around the moon as phenomena that the Mesopotamians considered "stars".  

This has to be kept in mind when reading the account of the Star of Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi.  It is a strange story for several reasons.

For one, St. Matthew's Gospel is notably oriented towards a Jewish audience.  In fact, ancient sources tell us he wrote both the Greek version we have today and another version (now lost) in Aramaic.  Astrology was much less acceptable among the Jews (due to numerous Old Testament warnings) than among the Gentiles, yet it is only in St. Matthew's Gospel that we read of the Magi.

For another, no one else seems to have seen anything particularly out of the ordinary, and certainly no one else seems to have drawn the same conclusions about whatever was seen as the Magi drew.  On the other hand, Herod and his court seem to find the account of the "star" believable -- though the court shows no sign of having believed the conclusions of the Magi, only of being (rightly) "troubled" by Herod's possible reaction.  

This makes it seem likely that one of the points made in the video below is correct:  many people likely saw the same thing the Magi did, but did not find it striking, let alone attribute much importance to it.  

Finally, one of the strangest parts of the whole story is Matthew 2:9:
Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the East, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.
This is easy to understand if the "star" was within 500 feet of the ground, as is often shown in art, but it makes no sense whatsoever for a supernova, a comet, or a planetary conjunction -- so either the star must not have been any such thing, or we have to understand "stood over where the Child was" in some different sense.  For example, there is a star cluster in the constellation Cancer that was known to the Greeks as "The Manger" -- maybe the "Star" of Bethlehem appeared near "The Manger", so the Magi, combining this with what Herod's court had told them, looked for any baby in a manger in Bethlehem?  (This could be if the "Star" first appeared to them much earlier, giving them time to travel.  I like to think that the "Star" actually first appeared at the Annunciation, so they would have had nine months to make it to Bethlehem.)

In the end, all this is empty speculation.  We do not know what astrological system the Magi were using.  It may have been closely related to Greek and Roman astrology -- but again, it may not. 

One last speculation.  There are very few passages in the Old Testament that might give a hint regarding the timing of the birth of Christ, but one that sounds promising to me is Psalm 109/110: 3, which says (Douay-Rheims translation), "... from the womb before the day-star I begot thee."  This is a messianic passage, and the day-star (the sun, or in at least one other translation, the morning star) is, in a narrow, literal sense astronomical.  The Fathers of the Church did discuss this passage, but to the best of my knowledge they never linked it to what the Magi saw -- but maybe, just maybe, there is a connection here, somehow passed on through the Jewish exile into Babylon.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


This question is simply tiresome:  "Why were geoglyphs made so that they can only be seen from the sky?"  Well, from what vantage point would you expect them to be visible?  

Honestly, designing a figure so that it looks right from the sky is pretty easy.  What would be much harder would be to draw a figure so that it looks right from one and only one spot -- from the top of a nearby hill, for example.  This would require a very sophisticated use of perspective, especially if the figure were carved on uneven ground.  In that case, the easiest way to lay it out would be to use a strong projector to cast the image on the ground during a dark night and mark where the light fell.

Since suspicion always falls on aliens being behind all of man's early accomplishments, ask yourself -- if they wanted to leave a sign of their presence for future generations, wouldn't they have done something harder, something that would better show off their technical expertise?

Mark Shea on a Different Kind of Scandal

I actually agree with Mark Shea on almost everything, but he can be abrasive and unreasonable at times.  This turns out to be due to the fact that he deals with abusive lunatics who leave comments on his blog -- seriously, you'll see just the ones I mean if you read his blog for a week or so -- so he deserves to be cut some slack.  But however frustrating I have sometimes found him in the past, he is dead on in this post about  some of the reactions to the shootings at Sandy Hook

The English

I have to agree with Strong Bad in his overall opinion of the English.  This is no doubt an over-reaction:  I started off as an anglophile, but the more I learned of history, the more my estimation of the English eroded.  Current trends in the UK are not helping, either.

That said, I like to imagine sitting in a corner and listening to a conversation between G. K. Chesterton, Dr. Johnson, and William Cobbett.  St. Thomas More should probably be there, too.

Monday, December 17, 2012

And God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good.

I don't think we really appreciate how nearly perfect the world is.  We lose sight of this because we have to concentrate on fixing the things that are wrong, or at least limiting or avoiding them.

Procaccini, Carlo Antonio - Garden of Eden - 16th century

What grounds are there for maintaining that the world is "nearly perfect"?

Consider the attempts to describe Heaven.  They tend to be shallow and saccharine -- so much so that a fairly common theme in modern stories is an apparent Heaven that turns out to be a kind of Hell.

Related to the above are the many plausible-sounding stories about the terrible side effects of trying to make major changes.  Examples include the stories of evil genies that grant wishes literally but with devastating effect, "The Monkey Paw", the story of King Midas, the real-life stories of many lottery winners whose lives are turned upside down by their very success, and the horrible results that historically attend Utopian regimes.

In contrast, we are pretty good at imagining Hells.  Most such imagined Hells are, of course, about as shallow as the imaginary Heavens, since they are the products of people who have a poor understanding of human beings and concentrate entirely on physical pain, but there are others that incorporate psychological and even spiritual horrors. 

If all our attempts to imagine a world significantly better fail, but our attempts to imagine a world that is much worse succeed, this is evidence that we live in an exceptionally good world.  This in turn is evidence of God. 

Notice that the few things that really would make the world a better place -- an end to violence, disease, and poverty -- are the kinds of things that would be straightforward to fix if we were all really willing to stop doing the things we shouldn't and start doing the things we should.  This is evidence of the Fall -- of the fact that our own misbehavior is responsible for the most serious defects in the world we live in.  (However, as noted above, Utopian schemes that try to eliminate the consequences of the Fall by pretending it never happened inevitably come to grief.)

Hunger Games / Sandy Hook

There is a real difference between a story with an evil character and an evil story.  A story can tell of terrible wrongs as long as they take place within a morally sane universe.  This usually means some sort of comeuppance for the wrongdoers, and the greater the atrocity, or the more graphically it is displayed, the more essential it is for the story to end with a proportionate recompense.  I have certainly read some evil stories that fail in this regard -- describing gruesome crimes that have no consequences; these stories leave me feeling dirty and wishing I could bleach the memories from my brain.  

I admit that I have not read the book The Hunger Games, nor have I seen the movie.  My first impression was that it might be an athletic equivalent of the Live Aid concert in 1985, but to be sure I looked up a synopsis and discovered that it is a story about children being forced to murder other children for the entertainment of others.  It is hard to conceive of a more hideous evil.  Surely the story ends with the overthrow of this evil system and the just punishment of those most responsible for it?  Nope. 

Here's the thing:  The bad guys in this movie were being entertained by watching children murder each other, and the millions of Americans who watched the movie for entertainment were ... well, doing exactly the same thing.  Otherwise they would have been outraged to have the film end without things being set right.  Just think how wrong Schindler's List would have been if it had ended in 1944, before the camp was liberated and Goeth was hanged -- especially if the audience did not know how the war ended.

It's hard to take seriously the expressions of shock, anger, and remorse at the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School when they come from a country that bought 3.8 million videos of the Hunger Games on the first weekend it was available

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I Do Not Understand Spies

-- at least the kind who do it for money.  Setting aside for a moment the moral issues, it comes down to risk and reward.  

On the risk side, if you are caught you can expect to die in prison, whether by execution or by simply never being released.  There is also the real prospect of torture, a prospect not made more pleasant by the euphemisms (such as "enhanced interrogation") that may be used for it.  These are some large risks, folks. 

On the rewards side, I can't help notice that most people (like, for instance, the Walker family) who spy for money seem to do it for a tiny amount not at all in proportion to the risks they take, not least because after even the first instance, the spy is already vulnerable to the above-mentioned risks.  In most cases that have come to light, the spies seem to be paid a few thousand dollars per job.  Wouldn't it be safer to steal a car or burglarize a house for jewels? 

On the other hand, if a spy were to make an extravagant demand for money, wouldn't the spymaster simply find it easier to kill him at the end rather than pay him?  The whole business was already secret and illegal, so as long as the spy's death did not generate too many questions that might eventually lead back to the spymaster, there would not seem to be much obstacle to this.

The upshot of all this is that it seems unlikely that a meaningful percentage of spies really are motivated by the money; like a gambling addict, the money is a secondary consideration after the thrill of taking an insane risk.  Presumably such things are taken into account when security clearances are granted; someone who enjoys free-climbing rock faces, for example, may require a second look.

So my conclusion is that "normal" people don't become spies.  This seems to be confirmed by the descriptions of double agents in Ben Macintyre's book Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which I started listening to as an audio book on my drive back from visiting my dad for Thanksgiving.  To be fair, the double agents described in the book opposed the Nazis on principle, but they were still an odd group.

To the best of my knowledge, no country makes much distinction between a foreigner loyal to his country who spies on them and a citizen who betrays his homeland, but it seems there must be both a moral and a psychological difference between the two.  Macintyre's book mentions other German agents -- at least some of whom were also in fact Germans -- who were captured in the UK but refused to turn double agent; they were sent to prison or executed.  In fact, although all the German spies in the UK were apprehended, only a small percentage of them were turned, since some honestly refused and others were obviously untrustworthy.  Were the Germans who refused to turn less ... eccentric than the high-profile double agents that are the main subject of the book?  Probably; which is not to say that they would have been exactly ordinary people, though.

Friday, December 14, 2012


A few days ago I mocked the idea that we are all just objects in a computer simulation by comparing it with the idea that we are just characters in a book, but those who know me may remember that I have stated that I am a character in a Dostoevsky novel -- probably Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky.  Of course, the difference is that I am using a metaphor, just like when we say that an acquaintance's life is a soap opera.  The poor, silly philosopher was in dead earnest.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Television and Peer Pressure

One of the real problems with modern society is made clear whenever the star of a popular TV series dies -- for example, Lucille Ball. People inevitably say, "We felt like she was part of the family."

Early portable tv

The problem is that in a real family, there is real interaction and real conversation.  Thoughts flow both ways, and each member of the family influences each of the others.  This is obviously not the case with our "TV family"; the thoughts and influence flow from them to us.  The viewer can, and in most cases should, refuse to watch, but no more subtle form of correction is available.  In spite of this, because the TV characters are so familiar, and because we may be spending almost as much time with them as with our real families, they influence us the way our friends and families do:  they exert peer pressure on us.

What about radio?  After all, radio dramas came before TV.  Radio engages the imagination, not just the senses, and any use of the brain is the deadly enemy of peer pressure.  This is even more the case with books.  We think about what a character in a book does -- sometimes, more, sometimes, less, but unavoidably.  With television and movies, though, we simply experience what is shown to us.  (Movies give a similar sensory experience to TV, but because they do present us -- these days, anyhow -- with the same characters on a weekly basis, I don't think they are as influential.)

This, I think, goes a long way toward explaining the change in morals since the development of the television. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Philosophers Can Be So Stupid

Let me paraphrase this, only dialing it back by about 4000 years:

  • The human species is likely to go extinct before reaching a "literate" stage. 
  • Any literate civilization is very unlikely to write a significant number of books about its preliterate history. 
  • We are almost certainly just characters in a book.
Presumably Nick Bostrom would reject that idea, saying that characters in a book are, well, just characters in a book, not at all capable of having a consciousness that can be deceived into thinking themselves to be real.  But computers, well, they're a different story! 

No, they're not.  Computers are just recent technology, whereas writing is an old technology.  In fact, there's not much difference between artificial intelligence and a "choose your own adventure" book.  People today dramatically overestimate what computers can do -- and in the same way, people used to dramatically overestimate what writing can do.  That is, after all, exactly the belief manifested in any number of written curses and spells, the most well-known of which is, "Death will slay with its wings whoever disturbs the rest of the Pharaoh."

Both ideas are wrong, but both have a certain seductive appeal to them because they encapsulate an idea that would merely be scoffed at by the official academic world today:  We and all our world are, in fact, the creations of a superior Intelligence, and at some level, we each know this.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Blaming the Victim

It is a terrible thing that Dallas Cowboy Jerry Brown died as the result of his friend Josh Brent's drunken crash, but it is very wrong to pretend that blame only attaches to Brent.  True, Brent was foolish, irresponsible, and dangerous in getting behind the wheel while drunk, but Brown was equally foolish and irresponsible in letting his drunken friend drive.  Brown was not an innocent bystander; he was a participant in this very stupid crime.  We can only be grateful that an innocent bystander was not killed, as is so often the case.

It's time that we face the reality that "victim" status does not automatically make one blameless.  Often there is more than enough blame to go around.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Put Not Your Trust in Princes

Put not your trust in princes:  In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.  His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return into his earth: in that day all their thoughts shall perish.

Two thoughts:

  1. The plans of most princes, like those of most of us, perish long before the die. 
  2. This works both ways.  Our hope does not lie in princes -- or Founding Fathers -- because they inevitably die and cannot make their good visions permanent.  On the other hand, although it may often feel that an oppressing tyrant's reign will never end, or that a bad trend will keep getting worse forever, mortality touches them, too.

Congratulations to Johnny Manziel

... a.k.a. "Freddy the Freshman", who won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night, in no small part based on his remarkable performance against the Crimson Tide on November 10.  Texas A&M made a promotional video based on that game, which you can see below. 

Please note that the false start at 4:57 was not called!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Interstellar Rockets

Some time ago I commented on how it is really impossible to get a "feeling" for the distance to even nearby stars.  Where our imagination becomes unreliable, we have to use mathematics. 

One way to bring these distances into a form we really can imagine is to perform some basic calculations for the relationship between the size of a rocket and how long it would take to get there.  By "rocket" I do not necessarily mean a chemical rocket of the type we're familiar with, just something in which mass is pushed out the back at some specified exhaust velocity, so that conservation of momentum pushes the rocket forward.  Conservation of momentum is a fundamental fact of all physics -- one that is routinely ignored in science fiction.

So let's assume you want to send a probe to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star (other than the sun) aside from Proxima Centauri, which is about the same distance but much less likely to be interesting.  Alpha Centauri is 4.27 light-years away, so under the assumption that you don't want to wait longer than 42.7 years for the probe to arrive (not counting the time spent accelerating), the probe must reach a speed of 10% the speed of light.  Perhaps surprisingly, this is still not a relativistic speed, so we can continue to use standard Newtonian physics.

We can take 1000 kg for the mass of the probe.  That's still rather light, given that we would at least want readings or pictures to be transmitted back to Earth, but perhaps with a more advanced technology it's not unreasonable.  

The most important factor determining whether or not the rocket will be feasible is the effective exhaust velocity, vE.  For now let us assume that the exhaust velocity is given by the thermal velocity of hydrogen at the temperature of the center of the sun, which is perhaps a reasonable choice because

  1. the energy source would probably be fusion, and
  2. at any fixed temperature, the thermal velocity of a light particle is smaller than the thermal velocity of a heavy particle.
The thermal velocity can be calculated from the Equipartition Theorem, which states that the (average) energy in each degree of freedom is (1/2) kBT, where T is the absolute temperature (Kelvin scale, where 0 K is absolute zero) and kB is Boltzmann's constant. The temperature at the center of the sun is somewhere between 15 million and 20 million K; let's say 20,000,000 K. The contribution to the kinetic energy of a proton from motion out the nozzle is (1/2) mp vE2, yielding an exhaust velocity of vE = 4.06310 x 105 m/s.  Please note that this is still much slower than the speed of light, so we are justified in using classical, Newtonian physics.

Not only is it slower than light, it is slower than the desired final velocity -- and that is a big problem.  Starting from rest, the rocket equation indicates that the final velocity is given by

vf = vE ln (mi / mf),
where mi is the initial mass and mf is the final mass (1000 kg in our case).  This means that 
mi = mf exp (vf / vE) = 1.10673 x 1035 kg = 55.64 x msun.

That is, to put it mildly, a discouraging result, yet it makes the assumption that everything except the final payload mass is used as propellant. It gets worse, though. What if you you want the probe to slow back down to a stop when it reaches its destination? Then the initial mass you need is
mi = mf exp (2vf / vE) = 1.2249 x 1067 kg 
= 6.158 x 1036msun = 1 x 1025 mgalaxy
To put this in perspective, the mass of the known universe, including dark matter, is estimated to be about 1053 kg, so the initial mass would have to be about one hundred trillion times the estimated mass of the universe.

There are only two known ways to get around this.  One is to let the probe take a much longer time to get to the star.  Say you were willing to let this take 427 years to get to Alpha Centauri -- then the initial mass would only need to be 1600 metric tons with no slowing down and 2.56 million tons (about 3 times the mass of the Golden Gate Bridge) to stop when it gets there.  These are numbers are not outrageous, but they do put travel to another star beyond the limits of a single (human) lifetime.

The other way is to increase the exhaust velocity.  This would be difficult to justify if we are using thermal velocities, but maybe we could use a particle accelerator to accelerate the reaction mass to near the speed of light.  Such ion drives have already been used to limited extent.  In order for an ion drive to actually improve on our generous previous estimates, it would be necessary to significantly increase the speed of the ions, but a multi-century probe using ion propulsion would be a good objective for later in this century. 

What about warp drives?  It must be understood that there is no evidence for anything in nature moving faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, let alone anything we have been able to build.  Even when we had no airplanes or balloons, we still saw birds and insects fly, and before we could pilot an airplane past the speed of sound, rifle bullets were breaking the sound barrier.  There have been some theoretical attempts to develop a warp drive that is consistent with existing theory (even if it requires "exotic matter"), but these attempts have yet to overcome some serious problems.  For the time being, warp drives seem less likely to work than outright magic.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Der Lindenbaum

The well-known German poem and song Der Lindenbaum ("Am Brunnen vor dem Tore ...") can be sung to the tune Yellow Rose of Texas. I discovered this at random a year or two ago, in the shower if I remember correctly. 

On one of my drives back home to the Florida Panhandle from Tuscaloosa when I was an undergrad, I discovered that the poem Vergißmeinnicht can also be sung to the same tune.

The Death Penalty: Some Prudent Considerations

It was in the news Sunday that so far this year there have been 11 Texas inmates murdered by other prisoners. During the same period of time, there have been 15 legal executions in Texas. This just goes to further show that capital punishment in the US is already "very rare, if not practically nonexistent" if the practical purpose is to deter crime; a criminal faces risks as daunting or more daunting than the prospect of being apprehended, convicted, sentenced to death, and exhausting his appeals.

It might also be pointed out that eliminating capital punishment does nothing to eliminate "extrajudicial killings" or "justified homicide" by police. If you think that in today's post-9/11 environment no death penalty would not be a word game meaning no trial before the killing, with quite probably more killing actually being done than in the old days of the death penalty, you're fooling yourself.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Maximum Block

Over my home desk, I have a copy of the Daniel Moore print "Maximum Block".  It depicts this moment, when Alabama nose guard Terrence Cody blocked a very makeable field goal attempt by Tennessee.  

Some people may think this is just about a meaningless sports play and wonder why any sane person would want such a picture. The reason comes from the context.

First of all, I identify very strongly with the University of Alabama for two very good reasons.
  • It was my first experience as a young adult living away from home -- the place where I really grew up, in fact. Most people feel very strong attachments to the place where they first became independent of their parents.
  • It was a community that I genuinely became a part of. Dorm life is a very mixed bag, but it does give the opportunity to really make friends people with different backgrounds and talents.
I understood very little of football when I first came to Alabama, and I became a fan of Alabama football only after becoming a fan of Alabama.

Secondly, the game in which this play took place was a part of a run at a perfect season and a national championship, which the Tide eventually won. Tennessee is one of our most important traditional rivals -- in some ways, this is a bigger rivalry than Auburn, partly because it has been uninterrupted, and partly because Tennessee has the second most conference championships. As a result, this game was important both in itself and as a game that could make or break a championship season.

Because of this context, I was very anxious as the game unfolded, until finally it looked like Tennessee would certainly kick the winning field goal, giving them bragging rights over us and ruining our hopes for a national championship. I prepared to receive the final blow.

And then ... the kick was blocked. We still had bragging rights over our rival, and we were sill on track for a championship. New life was breathed into the team and the University.

As a result, this picture is not just about football. It's about not giving in just because the odds are against you. It's about refusing to accept failure as inevitable. It's about continuing to fight for as long as you can.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Baseball Hall of Fame

Just moments ago, the guest host on the Jim Rome Show returned to the issue of whether known or "known" steroid users should be included in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I'm not sure why; maybe he really can't think of anything new to talk about. 

At any rate, by this point I have already passed judgment on the steroids era in baseball.  So has everyone who actually cares, no matter how little.  The decision of the Hall of Fame voters will not affect my judgment. 

The only thing they might affect is my judgment on the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Forget "Merry Christmas"

Our culture is almost too far gone for "Merry Christmas" to be meaningful.  In the public mind, Christmas has morphed into Decemberween, and "Decemberween is not about getting people presents. It's about getting people good presents!"  So when the clerk at a store, or the HR department at work, wishes you "Happy Hollowdays," there is no point in in asking which hollow day they mean; they mean Decemberween. 

Those of us who observe the Feast of the Nativity on December 25 should probably stick with the Eastern traditional greeting, "Christ is born!", to which the correct response is, "Glorify Him!"  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Minimum Size of Mars Colony

The exploration of space is often compared with the Age of Exploration on earth; it is no coincidence that we have had space probes named Pioneer and Magellan.
Thor-Able IV Pioneer 5 3

Unfortunately, that analogy has a very limited range of validity, and it is frequently deceptive. A pioneer on earth does not have to bring his own air; he may have to dig for water, but that is usually readily available; and there is always a source of food (or else he will not settle there!). As a result, the minimum size of a successful colonization on earth -- in Polynesia, for example -- is determined by the minimum population needed to avoid disastrous inbreeding.  

A self-supporting colony on Mars will be different, though. It will have to make its own air and make soil suitable for agriculture; it will have to provide pressurized enclosures where people can live; it will have to make potable water from dirty ice or brine. All these will require lots of machinery, which the colony will have to be able to build and repair; that means making lot of tools. That will require mining and refining iron, copper, tin, and zinc; it will also require making glass, ceramics, and of course silicon wafers. And, naturally, the tools needed for all these operations!

With a population this large, there will be a need for doctors, police, teachers, and clergy. It will not be possible to live on Mars as hunter-gatherers, because there is nothing to hunt or gather. In short, a city of tens of thousands would be required. My guess is that a population of at least 50,000 would be required.

This should be kept in mind when folks talk about colonizing Mars. The first colony will either be hugely dependent on expensive support from earth, or we will have to build and land a mothership. Neither one will be feasible until we come up with a cheap, safe, and practically unlimited energy supply -- probably fusion. That means neither will be doable until the end of this century at least.

By the way, I also wonder what size population would be needed to maintain a modern, technological society. The TV show Battlestar Galactica dealt with just such a situation; they seemed to have some hope of rebuilding their civilization on New Caprica from an initial 50,000 or so. Once again, that strikes me as a minimum size. When they went to (our) earth and split up, they really should have tried to lay the groundwork for falling no farther back than the iron age. (They fell back all the way to the paleolithic!)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Parody Lab Song

This video was made by students here at Marshall for a competition.

Any resemblance of the supporting singers to my photo is purely a coincidence. Disturbing, but only a coincidence.

Unaccreditited "Degrees" and "Gay Marriage"

One of the most controversial issues today is whether or not the government in particular and society in general should recognize the "marriage" between two people of the same sex.  A question that is often asked of those who answer "no" -- particularly, those who answer "no" and are married -- is, "What harm could it do?  How could it possibly damage your marriage if gay marriages were allowed?"

That is a fair question, but it takes too narrow a perspective.  The issue is not whether the recognition of "gay marriages" will affect the internal dynamics of marriage as traditionally understood, but whether such recognition would affect the role of marriage in society. 

As is so often the case, an analogy is the best way to proceed, and the analogy in this case is with college degrees.  A college degree carries with it a number of benefits for the degree holder:  the prospect of better-paying jobs, greater respect from society, and self confidence.  Wouldn't it be great to extend these benefits to everyone?

Sure, no problem; let them earn the degrees. Of course, that presents a serious obstacle.  Some people, due to circumstances beyond their control, are unable to earn college degrees.  Maybe there is a way to still be more inclusive, though.  There are businesses that will sell degrees "based on your life experience".  Presently these are almost all considered worthless, if not fraudulent, but what if we passed laws saying that these degrees had to be treated as fully equivalent to traditional degrees by both the government and the private sector?

The first people to complain would be those who have earned degrees through traditional coursework.  Well, what of it? The State has no compelling interest in propping up their snobbish feelings of superiority. 

But the State does have a compelling interest in insuring that engineers, doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers have the education necessary to perform their respective roles in society.  The fact that those who have earned accredited degrees can make more money serves as an incentive for individuals to fill this role; the status accorded degree holders in society is something the State cannot effectively control and should not even try to, but again it serves as a useful incentive.  Yet it has been appreciated for millenia that education has worth in itself, aside from its applications and rewards.

The analogy, like all analogies, is imperfect, but it is also obvious.  Just as a declaration by a court, legislature, or even the electorate as a whole can call someone educated without this magically becoming true, no similar declaration can make something that is not marriage into marriage.  That is because both education and marriage are more than titles, more than the recognition of society, and more than economic opportunity; otherwise, the State really could award them at will.  Both education and marriage have value in themselves, but they also provide important benefits to society, which is why the State has an interest in promoting them and distinguishing the real thing from lookalikes.  The benefit provided by marriage is a wholesome environment for the begetting and rearing of children -- the sorry state of many marriages and families and the defects in existing marriage law notwithstanding. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tiresome Cliches

I just heard someone on ESPN say, as he was looking forward to the big rivalry match-ups today, "Well, the Iron Bowl -- you can just throw out the records."  Well, the record shows that over the past 2 years, Alabama has lost 2 games, and that Alabama stands in good shape to repeat as national champions, while at the same time Auburn is having their worst season in at least 60 years.  Guess what:  I'm not going to throw out those records.  Maybe Auburn plays better than they have all season, but they have too many problems and too much is going right for Alabama for it to be an upset.  Last I checked, the line was Alabama by more  than 30 points.  I feel comfortable in saying Alabama by more than 2 touchdowns, anyhow -- because I'm not throwing out the records.

Update:  At halftime, it is Alabama 42, Auburn 0.

Update 2:  After playing a bunch of 2nd and 3rd stringers, the final score is 
Alabama 49, Overused Cliche 0

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No, This Is Not Why We See Ghosts

Yesterday I stumbled across a posting suggesting that ghosts drain power from flashlight batteries to make mass, which is the visible part of the ghost.  I left a comment there, but it seems not to have been approved, so I'll repeat my statements here.  Assuming the flashlight is powered by two alkaline long-life D cells, it has at most about 150,000 J of energy stored in its batteries.  Converted to mass, this is about 1.7 nanograms, or about the mass of a grain of fine silt 9 microns wide -- about 1/20th the width of a human hair.  Whatever someone may be seeing when he reports a ghost, this is clearly not it.

I dealt with similar topics here and here.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Leon Sinks Geological Area

Today I finally had the opportunity to return to the Leon Sinks Geological Area and walk the nature trail.  I walked it a couple of times when I was in graduate school at Florida State; I surely would have gone there more often, but I only found out about it in the last year or so I was in Tallahassee.  At about 3 miles long for the circuit, it's a good length -- not too long, not too short -- and it takes in a surprising diversity in such a short distance.  

I finally took the plunge and bought a smart phone Thursday, so this gave me an opportunity to try out the camera.  To my surprise, I took about 60 pictures.  I'll restrict myself to a few of the best.

There were a handful of spots along the trail where there were viewing platforms.  This one was near Hammock Sink.  There were several signs like this giving information about the geology and wildlife.

The trail was easy hiking.About the only worry was that I started too late -- about 3:15. When I finished around 5,it was already dusk.

It was a beautiful day.

This one is called Big Dismal.

Another view of Big Dismal Sink.

Some of the sinkholes were dry.  This is Magnolia Sink.  Unfortunately, it's not easy to see the scale.  This was a pretty big sinkhole.

This was part of a "disappearing creek overlook".  There used to be a bridge, as you can see the trail resuming on the other side.  I wonder whether the bridge was deliberately taken out or if it collapsed and was just not replaced.

I did not go on the Gum Swamp Trail, but there was still a bit of swamp at the end.  I did NOT want to find myself here after dark!

Another view of the swamp.  This is the only place where mosquitoes were a problem, at least this time of year.

Several years ago, when my friend Nothy Lane was planning a visit, I had hoped that she would also enjoy this trail.  Unfortunately a family medical crisis made that impossible.  Just for reference, though, pets are permitted on the trail as long as they stay on the leash and everything they leave behind is packed out.  On the other hand, it might not be a good idea to take a pet to some of these areas (such as the swamp).

Politics Is Tackle Football ...

... yet pro-lifers, and social conservatives more generally, have been playing touch footballThe consequences are predictable.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Interesting Fortune Cookie

Fortune cookie broken 20040628 223252 1
Today I opened a fortune cookie and read, "Only by acceptance of the past, can you alter it."  This has me thinking:
  1. I didn't know that the past could be altered.  Maybe, though, I can change the result of last night's football game!
  2. This seems to mean that the past can be changed, but only if you don't want to (because you've accepted it).  Or, in other words, if the past was not so bad you can't accept it, it will change until it is.  This sounds like the premise of a bad science fiction movie.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Do We Need New Words for Marriage?

As courts, state legislatures, and most recently ballot initiatives have moved the definition of marriage which is legally recognized by governments farther and farther from the traditional definition, which is derived from Natural Law and used by the Church, a number of people have suggested that we simply come up with a new word for "Church marriages" as opposed to "state marriages".  This really would not work, for at least 2 reasons. 

First of all, there are more than two kinds of alleged marriage.  
  • There is the sacramental marriage between two baptized Christians, which cannot be undone except by the death of one of the spouses.
  • There is the non-sacramental marriage in which at least one spouse is not a baptized Christian.  These are real marriages, but they can be dissolved by divorce. 
  • There are "irregular" marriages, which resemble real marriages (and are usually recognized by the state) but have some sort of impediment.  Most often, this involves a pre-existing sacramental marriage or occasionally a "lack of canonical form" when one spouse is Catholic but the marriage takes place without the recognition of the Church.
  • There are unnatural unions.
It is not really possible to devise 4 different words with distinct, obvious meanings to cover these 4 categories.

Secondly, even a sacramental marriage is a case of "grace perfecting nature"; it starts with nature and builds on it. We have to acknowledge the value of those real marriages which are not sacramental, but only natural.

A good analogy would be a Church funeral and burial in consecrated ground.  Burying the dead is entirely natural -- our own species does not seem to be the first to do this, as it was apparently done by Homo heidelbergensis.  Certainly something needs to be done with the dead; it is a health hazard, if nothing else, to simply allow them to rot where they fall.  Neither a Church funeral nor burial in consecrated soil is a sacrament, but they do involve grace for both the deceased and the living in addition to serving the essential, natural function.

Thoughts After Obama's Re-Election

I was disappointed after the election on Tuesday, but that's no surprise; I was disappointed long before the election, when it was clear that neither party had any intention of fielding a remotely acceptable candidate.  I'm convinced that the "greater evil" won, but it would not be really possible to celebrate the victory of a "lesser evil" -- and at this stage, even a genuinely good president would be able to do very little to reverse several long-term trends, each of which seems to be heading toward a crisis.  Our national situation is fast approaching (or already at) the situation of California:  Does anyone think that any governor, Republican or Democrat, can fix the problems of that state?  Regardless, here are a few thoughts, not necessarily the most important ones, in the aftermath of the 2012 election.

  1. Although certain cores of both Obama's support and opposition were motivated for or against him on the basis of race, this time it is not possible to dismiss his election as merely a reaction to the novelty of the first black president.  That barrier was already broken, and in this election he was no longer a virtual unknown into whom voters could pour wildly inconsistent hopes.
  2. Romney's showing was pathetic; he did not carry a single "swing state".  I didn't think he would win, but I did think he would carry Virginia and Florida.  This is what happens when a candidate is fielded who has the charisma of a bowl of cold oatmeal.  I don't think Obama is especially charismatic -- nothing on the scale of Reagan or Clinton -- but he's got more personal appeal than Romney.  Taken together with a cautious campaign set up (like McCain's) to be good losers rather than winners and that was only able to motivate its base through fear, this was a recipe for disaster.
  3. The Republicans will almost certainly win in 2016 -- well, unless they run a complete loser of a candidate, a possibility that cannot be dismissed.  There are reasons for thinking this.
    • We seem to have moved past the era when presidents groomed their successors.  Biden has no chance of winning the presidency at the head of the ticket; he's too goofy, and in 2016 he'll be too old.  Hillary Clinton perhaps could win, but she will be 69 in 2016; she lost her one real chance in 2008.
    • There seems to be a pattern in which voters become so disgusted at each party in turn that it takes them 2 terms from the other party to switch them back.  Clinton fatigue was real and contributed to both of Bush's wins; Bush's unpopular mistakes have a lot to do with Obama's successes; and in 4 more years, people will be fed up with Obama's failings, too.
  4. Speaking of complete losers of candidates, can we put to bed the idea that a candidate deserves the nomination just because "it's his turn"?  That was most prominently the case with Bob Dole.  Clinton had vulnerabilities in 1996, but Dole was a terrible candidate (and the worst speaker I have ever heard at that level of politics) and was unable to exploit those vulnerabilities.  McCain and Romney seem to have also been given the nomination as a kind of "lifetime achievement award".  The really successful candidates from either side seem to never be familiar party hacks.
  5. You would think that at this point the spell-checker for Google Blogger would recognize the name Biden and the possessive "Obama's".  Nope.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


When I was a child, I would sometimes lie on my back and look straight up at the clouds, imagining that instead of looking up at clouds I was looking down on a landscape far below.

The idea was to give myself the thrill of vertigo safely, sort of like what we do on roller coasters.  Altocumulus clouds seemed to work best -- they were distant and fairly flat-looking, but not featureless.

Have you ever done this?

Monday, November 5, 2012

It Takes More Than One

I heard someone on NPR say this evening that "Superstorm Sandy" is "the new normal".  

Here's a modest suggestion:  Don't declare something to be "the new normal" until it happens more than once.  I would suggest 5 times in a 9 year span.

And while we're at it, does anyone remember those people saying back in 2005 that New Orleans should simply be abandoned?  I know I heard that suggested.  Where are they now?  I don't hear anyone calling for New York City to be abandoned.

Today's Atheists Are Pantheists

I just read a review of an interesting book by Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  I know I will not get around to reading the book myself -- there are too many better books still screaming for my limited time -- but this appears to support a contention of mine, that what passes for atheism these days is more accurately a kind of irreligious pantheism.  This certainly seems to be the case with Nagel. 'He thinks this “nonpurposive teleology” is different from the other alternatives: “chance, creationism, and directionless physical law.” Naturalistic teleology means that there are organizational and developmental principles that are irreducible parts of the natural order, yet “not the result of intentional or purposive influence by anyone.”'  It appears that Nagel's objection to "Theism" is to the idea of a God who is a Person (or, as Christians believe, a Trinity of Persons) that is not a part of the universe itself, while his "nonpurposive teleology" sounds very much like the World Soul about which philosophers in the late ancient world speculated.  No doubt some philosopher will want to quibble over the details, but to me all this sounds like a flavor of pantheism.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rammer Jammer

Once again we hear "The Ole Miss Cheer" (as it was called when I was a student) used the wrong way. The correct way is (for LSU; substitute in the team nickname or mascot as appropriate)
[buh Buh buh] Hey Tigers!
[buh Buh buh] Hey Tigers!
[Buh BUH Buh] Hey Tigers!
We're gonna beat the hell outa you!
Rammer jammer, yellow hammer, give 'em hell Alabama!
You can hear the current version in the following clip.

So, what's wrong with that?  It was played after the game.  And we did not "beat the Hell outa" them.  It was a good win, but it would be more accurate to describe this as a narrow escape than a beating.

Think about the legend of Babe Ruth calling his home run.

It doesn't even really matter if this is what happened or not; it makes a great story, and we want it to have happened.  But what makes it a great story?

  1. He called it first and then did it.  If a baseball player hit a home run, then pointed in the direction the ball had gone to clear the wall, he would be a jerk, the benches would clear in a brawl, and the next time he appeared at the plate the pitcher would throw at his head.
  2. He didn't call a bunt by pointing at the ground, or a sacrifice fly by pointing at an outfielder.  He set himself up to succeed or fail according to the standard of the most any batter can do:  a home run.
  3. He did this in the World Series.  Doing it against a last-place team in the regular season just would not be the same. 
Along the same lines, I propose the following rules for the Ole Miss Cheer.
  1. It should never be played when Alabama is ahead on the scoreboard, nor at any time during the fourth quarter.  Our opponents should have ample opportunity to shove those words back down our throats, or it isn't much of a boast.
  2. It should only be played against 
    • serious conference rivals -- Tennessee and Auburn any year, Florida and LSU lately;
    • teams that are ranked ahead of us in the polls;
    • teams that are ranked in the top 10, even if they are ranked behind Alabama; and
    • teams that are rivals in the record books, such as Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, even if they are not ranked (these teams will have the chance for revenge later, trust me).

Do We Have Daylight Savings Backwards?

To be sure, I am not a fan of faking time.  If we all want to go into work an hour early during the summer, we should just be honest and say we are going in an hour early.  After all, many businesses already keep seasonally-adjusted hours.  Besides, there is nothing magical about 8 a.m. as a starting time for business; in fact, all clocks in China are set to Beijing time, which does not prevent those living far from Beijing opening office from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Beijing time).  

Daylight savings is no different than the trick some people use of setting their alarm clocks 10 minutes ahead -- a trick that really should not work, since they know it is 10 minutes fast.  The trick does work, though; the government has rightly judged that we are too lazy to come up with one set of work hours for the winter and another for the morning. 

Yet it does work.  We sheepishly submit to this foolishness, even though many people seem to dislike it and there are real questions about whether it really saves energy.

OK, then, but does it do for us what we want?  I don't think so.  We like our long summer afternoons, and we don't like having to wake up before dawn -- but most of us have to do that in the winter, even after Daylight Savings has ended.  We wake up and shower before dawn, drive to work as dawn is breaking, and by the time we get home again it's already dark.

Here's what I suggest:  Go back to standard time during the summer, but set your business hours as 7-4 instead of 8-5.  During the winter, fall forward to preserve a little bit of sunlight at the end of the day; in the spring we can spring back again. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Bird Is Not A Dinosaur, And A Dinosaur Is Not A Fish

Colibrí Cola de Oro (Golden-tailed Sapphire Hummingbird) Bigger File

At least not always; it depends on what one means by "bird" and "fish".  Some people forget that they do not have unilateral and binding authority to define words, especially words that have already been in usage for centuries.  This can particularly be a problem in the sciences, where we appropriate words and give them meanings that have, at most, a dimly suggestive connection to the original, everyday word.  

For example, in physics, "force" is the rate of change of momentum, "work" is force times distance, "power" is work per unit time, and "action" is the time integral of the Lagrangian.  None of these meanings corresponds very exactly to what you learned when you first encountered the words in elementary school, but that doesn't mean that either definition is wrong -- only it is important to recognize the context to get the meaning right.  In a similar way, "gift" means something that is given in English, "gift" means married in Danish, and "Gift" means poison in German.

At the risk of seeming to contradict myself, though, I really do not like hearing the Ghost Hunters and others say that "spirits are energy" or earlier Spiritualists refer to anything mysterious as "magnetic".  It might seem that they are doing the same thing as physicists and recycling a word for a technical meaning, but I don't think that's really what they are doing; especially in the case of "energy", it seems that they are really confusing the physics concept with the metaphysical concept of spirits, as is shown when they try to invoke the Law of Conservation of Energy.  Physically speaking, what really happens to our energy when we die?  Our thermal energy is lost to our surroundings, and our chemical energy is released when our bodies break down -- usually under the action of bacteria and fugi.  Conservation of energy has nothing whatsoever to do with the survival of the soul.  Metaphysics already has a well-developed vocabulary for dealing with such matters, and that is the vocabulary that should be used.

But back to birds, dinosaurs, and fish.  Some biologists are so obsessed with kinship and descent that they want general animal names, like dinosaur, fish, or reptile to mean a group of every species that descends from a common ancestor.  Since our ancestors a few million years back were apes, we are apes; since the ancestors of mammals were reptiles, we are reptiles; and since the ancestors of reptiles were fish, we are fish.  It's certainly OK for them to use this kind of language among those who know what they mean, but it is wrong to pretend that any other usage is a mistake.  Most people mean by "fish" a vertebrate that breathes water through its entire life cycle; this is a perfectly valid definition that excludes humans.  Most people also expect a "dinosaur" to be something that is, at least in some sense, a "terrible lizard" -- and a hummingbird simply does not fit in with this definition at all.

While we're at it, there is the occasional objection to the creature that swallowed Jonah being called a "fish" in one passage and a "whale" in another -- isn't that a contradiction?  There are several issues with this. 

  • The words translated "fish" and "whale" come from different languages (Hebrew and Greek).
  • The word translated "whale" did attach itself to whales, but more generally it meant a sea-monster.
  • The English word "fish" only took on its modern meaning fairly recently.  It used to mean any animal that lives in water, which is how we get words like "jellyfish", "shellfish", and "starfish".