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".