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.