Tom Pittman's WebLog

Earlier this year / Next year

2018 December 31 -- Digital Forms and "Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?"

Twice in the same day, I had to fill out those digital questionaires. I cannot blame them for wanting to save labor costs by forcing the extra burden on the respondent, but they save too much. That's why I usually refuse to do this.

The problem is, the digital forms force on you an all-or-nothing dichotomy. The real world doesn't do that. On a paper form, if you don't want to answer a question, you skip over it and do the next. Or you write in a clarification (which nobody will read, but at least you told the truth). The computer won't let you do that. Why is that important?

Suppose the question is a lie, such as "Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?" Unless you really are a wife-beater -- I guess there are more such villains than there were before they took the Ten out of the schools where they trained young people that Some things are Wrong -- but if you never did such Wrong things, then the question is a lie, because none of the answers you are given to choose from are true. To choose one of their given answers is a lie, but the real liar is the person who made up the questionaire, and it is immoral to force on you such a question.

When I get to one of these, I simply quit out, and they get no answers at all. I don't know if that's worse than getting Wrong answers, but it's Not My Problem. Maybe they don't care either, they have Numbers, and that's all they want.

In these two cases, there weren't any lie questions I noticed, but many of the questions in one of them asked me to agree or disagree with some statement about which I have no opinion, so I clicked the middle "Neither agree nor disagree" option. Then at the end they offered me a text panel to explain why I didn't strongly agree to all of them. I didn't strongly agree to any of them. Would I shop at their store again? Probably, but not if I get hit by a truck between now and next month. That's not a "strongly agree." Would I prefer their store over the competition? Sometimes. Sometimes their products are cheaper than WalMart, mostly more expensive. Sometimes their produce is better quality, mostly it doesn't matter. Sometimes they have it when WalMart does not (like the day that triggered this survey). I clicked "Neither agree nor disagree." I told them that I mostly had no opinion, which is pretty close. You can do that when they give you a choice.

The first questionaire gave me no such option. They did have a panel for me to provide a signature. Y'all know I don't "digitally sign" anything. When presented with a digital tablet to scribble my name on, I usually refuse -- which is why any more I pay cash most everywhere -- or if that's not possible, I carefully add in a digital number that encrypts something unique about that occasion, so if they try to reproduce that signature for a different transaction, I can prove it's forged (copied, which is easy to do electronically). But this was a text panel, not pixels. I don't know what they expected me to put there, but it wouldn't be a "signature." I typed in "I don't know how to digitally sign electronic docu" then it stopped accepting input before I could finish the word. Apparently they accepted it.

When doctor's offices require me to sign a medical release form granting them complete freedom to do anything they want to (they all do), I always add in "to which I have given informed consent" and the nurse or clerk I hand it back to never objects. Once they did some procedure I did not authorize (and which did not have the requested effect) and they later tried to charge me $125 more than the agreed price I already paid at the time, and when I refused to pay more, they threatened to send it up for collection. "Go ahead," I told them. I figured no honest judge would decide in their favor. Actually no collection agency would accept the altered agreement form, so the next month they "waived" the charges. But you see, I can do that on paper, it can't be done on the digital screen. It's an abusive power. People love power.

So I sign paper, or not at all. It used to be that stores, if you refused to sign their tablet, they'd print out a ticket so I could sign paper, but I guess not enough people insisted so as to make it worth putting the extra option in. When the Post Office wants a signature on their tablet, I tell them "On paper, or you cannot deliver it." They say "We'll just scan it in," but that's their problem, not mine. It has the date in my handwriting, and not enough to credibly forge a different date. The last couple certified mails that came to me, I didn't recognize the sender, so I simply refused them, no signature needed. Nothing Bad Happened, far as I can tell.

2018 December 28 -- AI (NNs) as Religion

Last summer it dawned on me that the nature and function of religion is to define for the believer what is True despite any contrary evidence. We all have our own religion(s), mostly different, so for the rest of us (other than the person under discussion), religion becomes "Believing what you know ain't so," because of course the rest of us have a different religion, and we know those things that person believes have no factual basis.

Case in point, two of them, both come to light in last month's issue of Computing Edge, one of two rags I get for free from the IEEE, of which I have been a member some forty years now. Usually the pages are filled with selected items reprinted from the various journals published by the IEEE, mostly meaningless froth put together by academics who are required to "publish or perish" but have nothing significant to say. This issue has seven of those too, beginning with "Scientific Computing on Turing Machines" which appears to be an April Fool's joke discussing how to do significant computation on the overly simplified abstract computer Alan Turing invented to analyze the mathematical properties of computers. Pretty much every computer capable of being programmed is a TM, and I almost wrote him to say so, before I realized his whole piece is a joke. The next page a couple DoD (military) academics define "computational engineering," which seems to be little more than using computer simulation to study the physical properties of what engineers used to do with slide rules and calculators. "Cyberthreats under the Bed" looks at the hazards of internet-connected toys. Duh. Anything connected to the internet has security problems, it's the nature of the internet. Don't put your credit card numbers into the kids' toys. Really, it shouldn't even be possible, but many Americans have more dollars than sense. And so on.

The last two, which are the subject of this posting, are more of the same, but they expose a particular kind of goofiness that seems to be on the rise in the computing industry as people come into it without even second-generation exposure to what really is true. The religion, as I pointed out last summer, is Darwinism, the nonsensical notion that millions of years -- or in the case of the computational version of it, thousands or even hundreds of random test data -- will overcome what is provably contrary to nature. Neural Nets (NNs) are still a well-funded research project in most academic circles, but people are beginning to see the cracks around the edges. Just not these two instances.


Bruce Schneier is probably the world's most well-known expert on computer security. I mentioned him in a previous posting. But as I mentioned then, he doesn't even take his own advice. Artificial Intelligence -- especially the Darwinistic unintelligent variety (NNs) people usually mean when they mention AI any time in the last decade or so -- are not his area of expertise, he just believes the religious mumbo-jumbo people tell him. Maybe it's professional courtesy. Whatever. His one-page paper is titled "Artificial Intelligence and the Attack/Defense Balance" on page 42. He says,
You can divide Internet security tasks into two sets: what humans do well and what computers do well. Traditionally computers excel at speed, scale, and scope...

Humans, conversely, excel at thinking and reasoning... They can find new sorts of vulnerabilities in systems...

Computers -- so far, at least -- are bad at what humans do well.They're not creative or adaptive. They don't understand context...

Humans are slow, and get bored at repetitive tasks. They're terrible at big data analysis...

This is all true. He is the expert. But then he forgets it in the next paragraph. He seems to believe, against all the evidence he is professionally very familiar with, that computers will suddenly become human. It's fun sci-fi, but lousy science. He says:
...Here are possible AI capabilities:

* Discovering new vulnerabilities -- and more importantly, new types of vulnerabilities...

That's what he said humans do. Computers do repetitive things, like finding the same vulnerabilities. How is AI going to find new things unless it has been trained to find those new things -- but then they wouldn't be new, would they?
* Reacting and adapting to an adversary's actions... This includes reasoning about those actions and what they mean in the context of the attack and the environment.
That may have been true in the old-school AI thinking that was prevalent when Schneier and I were in school, but nobody does AI that way any more, it's all Skinnerian conditioned response (see "The End of Code" and "The Problem with 21st Century AI"). Either Bruce Schneier is getting too old to do his job and is fixing to retire (so he doesn't care if he's wrong, like the French king just before the Revolution, "Apres moi le deluge" = it all happens after I'm gone), or else he's in for a big surprise. The Bad Guys are humans, they will be discovering new types of vulnerabilities that the NNs have not been trained for, and the security people coming to Schneier for advice will be screwed. Their problem, not mine (I'm with the French king).


The next page begins a long (9-page) piece titled "Visual Analytics for Explainable Deep Learning" written by True Believers. The title premise is a good start, because the rest of the world -- think: lawyers and juries, and eventually legislators -- are going to insist on knowing how the NNs came to their conclusions, and in the present technology that's a black box, not even the experts (if there be any such thing in the case of NNs) understand what's going on. In the first paragraph these authors admitted that "Gender and racial biases learnt by artificial intelligence programs recently emerged as a serious issue" -- and that's a discrimination that's really there; what's going to happen when they succeed on programming their NNs with true religion (believing what the rest of us know ain't so)? What makes this article so interesting are the subtle admissions mostly at the end of each section otherwise devoted to pie in the sky bye and bye.

In the first subtitled section, "Why Explainable Deep Learning?" the authors show that they understand the difficulty selling their religion to the unwashed masses: "...the end-to-end learning paradigm hides the entire decision process behind the complicated inner-workings of deep-learning models." It's not that the models are complicated -- they are not -- but that the decision process is utterly illogical, depending purely and only on the luck of similar features being detected in the learning process, and those similarities being rewarded by the training data. Because it's luck and not algorithmic (logical), the practitioners themselves cannot explain it, so they assume an intelligent complexity which they personally have not yet penetrated. It is human nature to find order and logic where none exists.

In their first explanatory section, "Educational Use and Intuitive Understanding with Interactive Visualization" they offer a three-dimensional visualization, where the third dimension on a flat display is color, then conclude:

These tools and systems provide effective interactive visualization for interpreting deep learning models, but most of them are limited to simple models and basic applications, and thus their applicability remains far from real-world problems.

Did you catch that? These people really believe that like the assumed success of the failed Darwinian hypothesis which is its theoretical foundation, vast numbers of random events in NNs will overcome the failures demonstrated by small numbers of them. They know they cannot humanly understand the vast numbers, and the visual analytics they offer cannot make it any better. But somehow they still believe. It's religion. It's faith. The example in their image shows their data for the handwritten numeral recognition example that convinced me of the utter failure of the NN methodology last year -- including the failure points clearly visible in the image, heavy overlap between the "2"s (red) and the "7"s (pale blue), and between the "3"s (lavender), "5"s and "6"s (two shades of light blue), with a dozen more "2"s and "8"s (green) and others scattered among the other numeral clusters. Real people have no trouble telling these numerals apart, and with enough tweaking of the initial synapse weights and/or the training data, NNs can be trained to tell them apart too, but apparently not very well. Just look at those scattered wrong numbers. Yes, the colors do show the problem, that much they got right. And they admit that the coloring will not help for big complicated models, but they still have faith.

The next section, "Model Debugging Through Visualization Toolkits" they conclude:

Although these visualization toolkits offer an intuitive presentation of the low-level information directly provided by deep learning models, it remains difficult for humans to understand the behaviors of these models at a semantically meaningful level.
That says it. They do not understand what's going on, let alone explain it. There's more. In the next section, "Computational Methods for Interpretation and Explanation" they conclude:
In fact, the integration of these advanced computational methods with an interactive visualization ... remains a major challenge in real-world applications.
and then in "Visual Analytics for In-Depth Understanding and Model Refinement"
...research issues on how to effectively loop human into the analysis process and how to increase applicability of explainable deep learning techniques have not been fully investigated.

... However, little effort has been made in tightly integrating state-of-the-art deep learning models/methods with interactive visualizations to maximize the value of both. Based on this gap and our understanding of current practices, we identify the following research opportunities.

That means they need more money -- lots more money, because they will not succeed.
Opportunity 1: Injecting external human knowledge
The title says it all. Basically, all successful artificial intelligence consists in human intelligence being injected into the machines. I have said this for a number of years, it follows from the Entropy law. They repeat that idea in a later "Opportunity":
Opportunity 4: Improving the robustness of deep learning for secure artificial intelligence

Deep learning models are generally vulnerable to adversarial perturbations, where adversarial examples are maliciously generated to mislead the model to output wrong predictions. An adversarial example is modified very slightly, and thus in many cases these modifications can be so subtle that a human observer cannot even notice the modification at all, yet the model still makes a mistake. These adversarial examples are often used to attack a deep learning model.

... Accordingly, one research opportunity concerning explainable deep learning is to incorporate human knowledge to improve the robustness of deep learning models.

As Schneier pointed out in the previous article, humans can do that, and the machines have no defense against it. Humans might be able to defend their machines, but to do so they need to understand what the machines are doing. These authors see the problem, but they are looking in the wrong place for solutions, as they conclude:
We hope that these proposed directions will inspire new research that can improve the current state of the art in deep learning toward accurate, interpretable, efficient, and secure artificial intelligence.

They know and see the evidence, but they believe otherwise. It's religion.


2018 December 24 -- Why Religion Matters

After slogging through several more novels in the cesspool of modern sci-fi and abandonning yet another non-sci-fi that also should be flushed, I (almost) reluctantly went back to the rest of Herbert's Hellhole trilogy. You may recall from last month that I didn't think I wanted to, but the more active of his squabbling teenage "noble" planet lords grew up into honestly wicked villains, and the rest were replaced by villainous squabbling aliens intent on either destroying the world our hero lived on, or else the universe itself.

A year or two ago -- I can't find any reference to it in my blog -- I read a story about human interaction with an alien race, in which the older human patriarch repeated a line of advice that sci-fi authors everywhere ought to take to heart: "The thing to remember about aliens is that they are alien" [his emphasis]. Like the nobility in this American author's imagined stratified society, because he has drunk what I call "the American kool-aide" -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [now read as 'people'] are created [now nonsensically read as 'evolved'] equal..." -- so that he cannot even imagine how a stratified society can logically continue to exist for hundreds of years, he also describes his alien species as human with a different body shape and some X-men powers. Yes, his science is pretty bad: near the end one of the lead characters sees a distant spaceship approaching, but can clearly hear the sonic boom of its approach... What nonsense! Aircraft create sonic booms by flying faster than sound, the noise of their travel piles up in front of them (hence the the boom caused by the passing shock wave), but cannot lead them; the boom can only be heard to the side long after the plane has passed. There were other mistakes. As with the description of his anti-heroic son of a famous military commander, the guy writes what he knows, and it ain't science.

It's not morality, either. The American established religion holds that there's no such thing as moral absolutes, but (as I pointed out elsewhere) it is not possible for them to live that way. If a superior alien species should be discovered in outer space somewhere, then they must necessarily also have a superior morality. Otherwise they will have killed each other off long before they became "superior" just as the nihilist authors and filmmakers in the black era of the Cold War imagined we and the Soviets would do to each other. Furthermore, as Nancy Pearcey's classic Soul of Science shows so clearly, advanced science never happened in any human culture except the period surrounding the Protestant Reformation and in the nations where it took root. There's a reason for that: modern science is based on moral absolutes, and you must believe in them to realize that there can be such a thing as physical laws to be discovered. Of course the atheists neither know nor believe that, and they control the educational institutions of our country and the world, so nobody else does either. That's the reason why interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education has declined in the last half-century (after they removed the Ten Commandments from classrooms across America).

And when science is no longer taught as a moral absolute, then people no longer have any reason to believe in scientific laws of nature, and you get silly ideas like alternative parallel universes where anything can happen -- and that's what the modern "speculative fiction" authors focus their imaginations on. As one author's memorable line put it:

That's one of the wonderful things about sci-fi is that there are no guidelines, or like structures that you get stuck into, it's sci-fi, it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?

It is a necessary requirement of advanced science, that it can only develop for the first time in a culture that strongly believes in moral absolutes. Once the rest of the world sees what science can do, they are motivated to get their share of the pie -- which requires conformance to moral absolutes (at least when they do science) -- but science builds on science. It requires a critical mass. Advanced electronics happened in Silicon Valley because there were tens of thousands scientifically trained people to help each other. Science can be exported outside its nurturing culture, but it cannot be grown there.

Herbert's aliens -- even the ones trying to save the universe from the others -- were evil and selfish. It doesn't happen that way in real life. The Soviet Union imploded because all their science was imported (stolen) from nations with a deep Christian heritage. If the Chinese ever beat the Americans in technology, it will not be because they have more people or a bigger economy, but because the Americans have actively self-destructed before the Chinese had a chance to do it to themselves. Like the Soviets, all their technology is stolen, only the Americans are still creating new stuff. But Herbert could not know that, because the foundation of civilization was removed from the public schools before he was born. He can't even get simple things like the speed of sound correct.

2018 December 18 -- Liars Lie

I have a pretty robust BS Detector: if you are willing to lie to me once, then nothing you say can be trusted -- unless you admit that lying is Wrong and promise not to do it again. Jesus insists on the exception, but nobody ever invokes it.

I get a lot of spam from liars and thieves. Mostly I don't even read it, the subject line (or female sender's name with no surname) betrays the lie. This one was different, but not very much. Anything with my domain name or (obsolete) email ID in the subject or sender slot is automatically spam, because real people identify themselves and use a reasonable subject line.

But I was waiting on a long run in the computer, and this email announced a security problem. It was a lie, of course, he obviously knew nothing at all about my computer or router or browsing habits. Therefore there's no way he really could lock up my computer or send damning porn to the contacts in my address book. Or maybe he could, but the effort to pull it off is not worth the ransom he was demanding.

What he did not and cannot know, is that I am a Professional. If he had downloaded my entire hard drive, it would have taken three days on this very slow cable modem, and I would have seen the continuous blinking lights on the modem and pulled the plug. That didn't happen.

If he knew anything at all about my computer, he would know that you cannot infect it with a virus without my permission. It can be done (and I know how), but you must gain access first, and THIS IS NOT UNIX, I must invite you in for you to get that access. I don't do that. In fact, I do not even open uninvited email (like his) with my computer online. I know when it's trying to do Bad Things, and I know how to kill it. Nobody -- especially not this liar -- can prevent me from killing the malware and erasing it from my hard drive.

If he knew anything at all about me (like from stealing my files and address book) he would know that I do not look at porn. Liars and thieves (like him, only less clever) try to send me porn, but it gets deleted immediately. There is none on my computer for a hijacker to steal and incriminate me with. It was a bluff, a lie. Everything he said was a lie.

If he really had access to my computer, he would not be bragging about access to my email account, because that's on a server in another state. The server is unix, so I can't say he didn't hack it, but that's not what he said. It was all a bluff, a lie. Everything he said was a lie.

Crime is really stupid, and this guy is no exception. Maybe some ignorant people might become fearful of his threats and pay up, but I'm not among them. I'm a Professional: God protects me. If you don't waste time on porn, then liars like this idiot cannot use it to intimidate you. I wouldn't waste time writing this up, but I'm waiting on a long computer run. If he were telling the truth, he could read this and see that his fraud has been exposed. But he's not, he's only a stupid liar and a thief. You know who you are, get an honest job.

2018 December 15 -- Progress

Perhaps you recall a couple months ago, I wanted a phone smarter that the Low Grade model I have been carrying around for the last ten or fifteen years. As stupid as that Last Gasp phone is, nobody makes anything smarter. Last month I finally needed to do something or get off the pot. I could keep the Largely Garbage and pay $40/month, or buy a new phone at a pretty low price and pay only $25/month. I would say you get what you pay for, but they are all Chinese Junk, no matter what you pay for them.

The WalMart special had no alarms -- 90% of what I use my phone for is timekeeping -- and no distinct ringtones. The AARP Jitterbug was the same pile of junk. I refuse to subsidize AARP anti-social politics, but they had nothing to offer to convince me otherwise so it was not a problem. Both basically non-starters. I was steeling myself to just not telling anybody the phone number, so the lack of distinguished tones became irrelevant. I don't know what I planned to do about the lack of alarms (but I know now). Then a family member mentioned the Cricket phone. I downloaded their Pretty Darn Foolish user manual, and it had vague instructions for setting alarms and for choosing ringtones, so I went in and bought it. It will take six months to amortize the startup costs.

They say "No contract" but that's a lie. The contract is long and verbose and designed to promise you absolutely nothing -- except that they will pay the cost of the arbitration that they made me agree to (I suspect the AAA or whoever they mentioned insisted on the wording in that paragraph, because I recently saw the same wording in another contract in another context) -- but they did insist that I agree not to use the phone in other than human-to-human communication. Which they immediately violated by sending me a robot-generated text message: "Would you recommend Cricket to your family and friends?" My policy is, if you want the answer today, the answer is always "No."

Bye and bye, I discovered that all their ringtones are the usual collection of indistinguishable beeps and boops -- I knew that, nobody does real ringtones any more -- but they had a way to turn the default off. Yay! Lowest Grade couldn't do that. That at least keeps me in compliance with the contract they made me agree to: the liars and thieves started up immediately, but I never hear them, and I didn't even set up voice mail, so they get nothing. They cannot even annoy me. That's an improvement. They also use real zeros for time and phone numbers.

There, that's the sum total of all the things this phone does better than Lousy Goober. Everything else is worse, in spades.

It's incredibly slow, slower even than unix, if that were possible. Everybody knows that eunuchs are missing a vital organ so they cannot perform; the system is aptly named. It claims to be "KaiOS" but I'd never heard of it. Google tells me it's a variant of Linux. What did I tell you? Completely castrated. Unix programmers are either idiots, or else they are intentionally trying to make their products unusable. When the Lazy Goose alarm goes off, just open the clamshell and close it again. That simple act turns everything off except the power. That's what you buy a clamshell for, simply open and close it, and it reverts to a known state. Not this bugger. No, you must open it, waaaiit for it to power up, try and read the miniscule caption on the screen then try even harder to find the tiny button the caption belongs to.

It looks like they have big buttons on this device, but that's also a lie. The actual active button is about 3mm wide (0.1") and it's not where the label is. At least I can feel it not taking, so I can keep poking around at it until it goes pop. Most unix operating systems give you no clue whether you activated a command or not (and this is no different), so sometimes I need to keep poking at a button until it figures out what I want it to do. The contact bounce on this button pad is terrible: half the time it treats the release of a button as another button press. I spent a large part of my career doing hardware control, and debouncing noisy switches is not hard, just too heavy for unixy programmers. They are completely ignorant of real-time systems, so if you want to do real-time control of things like driving a car or operating a phone, you need a more powerful OS like Windoze, but that's another story, another day.

It has a micro-USB connector for charging and presumably for transferring data from a computer -- since I'm not paying for data, that's the only way to install ringtones, or so I was told -- but no cable. WalMart sells cables like that for $5 and $9, but I could have saved my money. USB is non-functional on this device. They had a setting for Wi-Fi, but of the 30+ Wi-Fi nodes Windoze can find popping in and out in this oversaturated bandwith area, this phone can only find three, none of them the node on my cable box a foot away. That's the fault of limited spectrum and stupid Oregon politics, probably not unix. Or maybe it's unix's fault too: Windows found my node easily enough.

Eventually I tried BlueTooth, which seems to be another unixy disaster. I never use wireless anything if there's a hard-wired alternative, because of the lack of security, so this was my first experience with BlueTooth. Hopefully my last. The OSX computer I tried it on (unix under the hood, the letters in the name are an acronym for "Old Stupid former as in eX-wife") did not know how to mount the phone as a separate drive for copying files to, you had to type them in. Blech. Eventually I found a way to 2-click the tiny fragment of a file name, and it would send one file. None of this DragonDrop that made the Mac computer so much faster than all of its successors (including OSX). Did I mention that unixies don't know about real-time? If you tried to start another transfer while the current one is in progress -- no way to tell: the typical unix face is catatonic, like that police comedy TV show of a couple decades ago, which poked racist fun at all their diverse characters. So some guy makes a jab at the oriental guy for "squinting." Without moving a muscle, he retorts, "I was not squinting. This is a squint." Absolutely no change to his face. That's unix. "This is a squint. You can't tell? Tough."

I found some classical music ringtones -- not by Googling "classical music ringtones" which only brings up modern radio songs -- but by asking for a particular song I used on my old Lumpy Gravy when I ran out of good tunes, and the site also offered a classical section with maybe a dozen or so tunes, many of them recognizable. They downloaded, and I got some of them transferred, and connected to the three people in my contacts list. They are not very loud (no obvious way to increase the volume) and the process was such a burden, that I would give that a wash, not much worse than the retired phone, but certainly not an improvement.

I still need a cell phone for the ocassional (once every month or two) need to make a call when I'm not home. This one is too big for an easy access pocket, so it's not much help as a timepiece. I decided to continue carrying the old phone for timekeeping: it seems to be connected to the towers and keeping good time, it just refuses to make or receive any calls.

I still would like a decent phone, but this isn't it. Would I recommend it to family and friends? No way. But the liars and thieves no longer bother me. Unlike the old phone, I can't give incoming text messages a distinctive "Ding" tone for only the one or two people I'm willing to be interrupted for, so if you text me, I probably won't see it for several days. I'm not getting as much spam text messages as Verizon constantly sent, but getting rid of the quiet stuff is waaaay harder than it needs to be. Every couple days or a week, I might notice that there are missed calls and/or texts, and go through the rigamarole to delete them What a pain!

2018 December 8 -- Atheist Pseudo-Science

The first-person hero of the story is a forensic anthropologist professor at a university in Tennessee, and the author is a made-up name from the names of a professional writer and a forensic anthropologist professor at the University of Tennessee, so both he's writing what he knows and it reads well. Until chapter 8.

He (the author, and by extension his semi-autobiographical hero) may be an expert at forensic anthropology, but he doesn't know much about his own accepted religion -- few people do: because religion defines what is non-negotiably True, it's not important to understand why or how, it just is -- nor has he bothered to understand the opposing religion (after all, it's by definition False), he just repeats the dogma he hears from the Darwinist priests. Chapter 8 has our not-quite fictional hero getting all up in a huff over the Kansas Board of Education requirement to teach also the alternatives to Darwin. How foolish is that? NOBODY wants to be required to teach False religion in their classroom, nor even to allow it to be taught in the classroom where their kids and neighbors go, and that's certainly how the Darwinists (including this author) saw it. But his argumentation was just as nonsensical as most Christians -- including the semi-fictitious student who objected to his professor's religion in class -- explain their side of the issue.

He started off calling his own position "unintelligent design" (his italics). That much is correct, his explanation was definitely not intelligent. It was almost entirely circular, and he knew what that meant because he accused the flustered student in his story of circular argumentation (which it was: we Christians have fallen down on the job ): most of his argumentation depended on millions of years of Darwinsitic evolution being true apriori: because we know evolution happened for millions of years, therefore we know evolution happened for millions of years. Yup, that's how they frame it, but not so succinctly, lest you notice.

The only historical argument he offered referred to some 2500 human skulls (mostly in the Smithsonian, but some at UT) spanning two centuries, in which the skulls were getting statistically larger over the years, but the jaws smaller. He didn't say what that was supposed to prove or disprove, and did not really answer his token Christian student, but if I were there and properly prepared -- like maybe the following week -- and were of a mind to ridicule him as he did that student (which we Christians are taught by Jesus not to do), I might put it to him like this:

So what does the larger cranium mean? That the person is "more evolved" or smarter? Would you say that an elephant cranium is more evolved or smarter than a human? No? Of course not, the whole skeleton is larger, and proportionately the elephant cranium is actually smaller. So how do these larger skulls compare to the rest of their skeletons? Oh wait, they didn't preserve the whole skeletons, only the skulls, so we don't know, do we? Well, actually, we do know:
Human height has steadily increased over the past two centuries across the globe. This trend is in line with general improvements in health and nutrition during this period.
So the skulls are larger because the whole skeletons are larger, and it has nothing to do with so-called "evolution" but only an improvement in diet (as is easily seen in the charts on that website), where the nutritional benefits of the USA result in generally taller people than regions where the nutrition is not so good -- until recently, like western Europe turning upward to catch up with the USA.

Now what about the jaw size? Are you prepared to tell this class that even though the cranium size is obviously related to diet, the jaw is not? Two hundred years ago people had to chew through tough steaks, but today most of them eat pre-masticated hamburgers. Today most of the food people eat is highly processed and refined, needing little or no heavy jaw work, so the bones probably atrophied from disuse over the years. Or does your research have a control group that eliminates diet and chewing effort as a possible cause for jaw atrophy?

What you have given us, Dr.Brockton, is not science based on careful research, but religion, something you know to be true, even if the facts don't support it, "because God [in your case Darwin] said so." Stick to what you know because you personally have seen it happen in your laboratory, and leave religion -- both Darwinist and the other kind -- to the philosophers and theologians.

For more information, see my essay "Biological Evolution: Did It Happen?"


2018 December 3 -- It's Not About Love

There is only one thing I look forward to every Christmas season, and it happened here yesterday: the annual Messiah sing-along. They didn't have these anywhere near where I was in the State of Misery, but I found one in Dallas when I was there, and before I left California I went every year. I think one year somebody did a Messiah marathon -- the whole thing, not just the Christmas parts, every two hours for 24 hours -- and I signed up for (I think it was) the 2am run.

These kinds of things happen in big cities. Grants Pass is not a big city, so the soloists they bring in -- I think most of them are music students at the local community college, which they rotate up to a dozen singers through the various solo parts -- are not the highest quality, better singers than me, but with a couple exceptions, not by much. One older bass guy comes back every year (the three years I have done it here) is quite good, and yesterday a soprano had a nice high A that she was very proud of: she added a couple more into her presentation that were not in the score, although I suppose Handel himself would have altered the score to let her do that (he did those kinds of things, the EmCee said in explaining why they used the Schirmer edition, which is why there are so many different editions). In classical music concerts, male musicians all wear black suits or tuxedos, and women in the orchestra all wear long black dresses (or perhaps pantsuits, I didn't take time to notice this year); women singer soloists generally are allowed muted colors in their long dresses, but this one soprano wore a party dress over black tights. Maybe she didn't have a gown. I think the dress code is so that the audience can focus on the music, not the appearance. Whatever.

Music is one of those things people do for fun, like sports. A few people are good enough to get paid for it, and the rest of us are not, we only do it because we like the challenge -- or maybe like one of the people putting on the event yesterday said, "I figure if I got the last four notes right, that's good enough," we only like to think we are doing what sounds good. She ran around during the performance snapping pictures on her phone, and stood near me during one of the choruses. She mostly sang the alto part, but sometimes slipped into the tenor part, and sometimes didn't sing at all. Maybe she got the last four notes, maybe not, I was too busy trying to get my own notes right.

One of the directors where I did it in California, in his little speech introducing the music at the beginning of the community chorus rehearsals -- I'm not a very good singer, so I needed the rehearsals back then (probably still do, but I only had time for a couple runs through each of the last couple years, plus a little piano time on two of the harder numbers) -- anyway, he said Bach wrote the world's greatest music, but Handel wrote great music to great words, all Scripture. It's true! Curiously, unlike what you hear in every Evangelical church in the USA, the word "love" does not appear in the whole oratorio. God's message to us is about Jesus the Messiah, not "love."

The preacher at church yesterday morning has drunk the Kool-Aid, but he also reads his Bible. His sermon title was "How to Say I Love You Without Using Words," and he pointed out that we look in vain to find in the Bible where Jesus said "I love you," because the words are not there. It's true! It's not about love. But the preachers cannot give up their drug of choice.

The problem is that "love" in modern English means something very different from what the Greek word usually translated by it meant in the first century. I was going to say "American English," but I recently saw an obscure British movie (with a title something about weather for a wedding), which made no sense at all, but in the "Featurette" included in the DVD, the various actors and other people involved in making the movie explained what they thought the story was, basically a young woman getting married to someone other than the guy she loved, but in the long run it was the right choice. They never actually said so, but this explanation makes no sense unless you understand that "love" in modern English is a selfish thing, gratifying our own short-lived passions, whereas marriage is something two people work together at for the long run. God is not into gratifying our passions -- nor really His own -- God is into Doing The Right Thing, first for us, and then He wants us to Do The Right Thing to each other and back to God. How you feel about it is irrelevant. It probably helps if you enjoy Doing The Right Thing, because that makes it easier, but the essence of the Golden Rule (Jesus called it The Second Great Commandment) is that we want other people to Do The Right Thing to us even when it isn't "fun," so that's what we need to do to them. And if we do as Jesus commanded us, then (and only then, nevermind what the preachers tell you, it's conditional) God will love us. Jesus said so. But that's "love" in the sense of Doing The Right Thing, which in this case means our prayers get answered and we get to go to Heaven when it's over.

Not only is it unBiblical when we preach "God loves you unconditionally" from the pulpits, we also do the people a disservice. Like the Roman Church which so annoyed Martin Luther that he started the Protestant Reformation to cure it, this message encourages people to continue in sin, because "God forgives all sins, past, present and future," both in 1517 in Wittenberg by the payment of monetary indulgences, and now today for free, no repentance needed now or ever.  I don't think so, and I suspect a careful reading of the Bible will show that God doesn't either. Furthermore, thinking people will see such a message as the fraud that it is, and stay away. Increasingly in our lifetime, they do that. It's the preachers' fault, and they will be held accountable for their fraud. God said so [Exek.3:18].

Like I said, this preacher reads his Bible, and his sermon was about ways to Do The Right Thing to each other. He called it "love" but it isn't, not in the sense that we Americans and English-speaking people everywhere understand the word. That's too bad. Every preacher in every Protestant denomination is taught to drink the Kool-Aid. It's not about love. It's about Jesus, and how he erased our karma so that we can Do The Right Thing. But Doing The Right Thing is The Right Thing. At least he got that part right.

PermaLink (with links to related posts)

2018 November 28 -- Unclean Lips

"Woe is me," said the prophet Isaiah, "...for I live among a people of unclean lips." Me too. (Most Sundays) I walk to this small church about a mile away. There's an even smaller church on the same block around the corner from where I live, but they turned me away. Whatever.

The better church I settled on has young people. It's a good sign that they are doing something Right, because kids tend to reject hypocrisy, which usually means they reject the Truth behind the hypocrites. It's too bad. Some of them come back -- usually to a different denomination or at least a different leadership, where the hypocrisy is less -- when they have kids of their own and realize they don't know how to do it. Most of them never come back, and the churches (especially the leadership) are to blame. This church is different. The pastor is not a controller. He only preaches once a month.

The music at this church is entirely in the hands of 20-somethings and younger. They mostly choose "I worship Me" songs I don't know and don't want to learn, but this last week included two hymnbook songs (one of them a traditional Christmas carol) and another song that I recognized as almost exactly the words of a Psalm. Or maybe that was last week. The tune wasn't particularly memorable, and the words were not among those Psalms that match my own life, but Scripture is good, at least better than singing about galaxies and trees and wind.

Anyway, one of the young guys is not into singing or playing music, so his job has been to click through the projection software so the congregation can see the words of the songs being sung. It's not a hard job, just click when they get to the last word of this screen, so the next line will be there in time for the people to read it and sing along. Maybe he got a job that takes him away on Sundays (nobody told me why he's not there, and I didn't ask), but they started inviting me to be the clicker when the guy is gone. The first two or three times I could see the next slide on the computer screen before I click it on, but the last couple weeks the computer is out of sight and all I get is the mouse and the big screen everybody is looking at. I can hear when they get to the last word, and click then, but they have these interludes when the musicians play but nobody sings and the screen is blank. I don't know these songs, so I can only guess if there's another stanza coming up that I need to click into view before they start to sing it, or if the song is ending, and I should wait until they start the intro to the next song. I got it wrong once this week, and once several weeks ago, but this week I got flustered and it took me several clicks to rectify the problem.

When I had the same job in a church two states and half a decade ago, I thought to myself that I'm doing the job best when nobody notices that I'm doing it. I'm OK with that, I'm not a Feeler who needs constant unearned affirmation, if they ask me to do the job, that is appreciation enough. Here, the two times I screwed up, those were the only two times somebody came up to me afterward and said "Good job!" It was a lie, I'm doing the job best when nobody notices that I'm doing it. That really offended me this week. Unearned affirmation is their religion, they're only doing what they believe, but I have a hard time finding it in the Bible. It's the kind of hypocrisy that drives kids away. This pastor doesn't preach it, but others do. I think you can encourage people without lying to them, but it's much harder. I live among a people of unclean lips.

The rest of the week for the last couple months I'm trying to write support software for the summer program I'm mentoring. It's not going well. Part of that is simple Pride: "I can do this," I tell myself, but it's a bigger job than most teams of a dozen people can do in longer time than I give myself. No I can't, I don't have the computational equivalent of blue tights with a red "S" on the front. Part of it might be that I'm not as young as I used to be, so I make more mistakes -- mostly forgetting what I'm doing, unfinished edits, stuff like that. Or maybe in this case, God is intentionally slowing me down. He can do that.

Yesterday the program director was telling me about his plans for the hardware, how he was talking to one of the vendors and encouraging them to use the Arduino computer for the timing-sensitive hardware control. Arduino is one of the computers I'm having so much trouble with. It's no different from when microprocessors first came out 46 years ago, and you had to debug your code on an oscilloscope because there was no debugger software, not even an operating system to print out lines of diagnostics. The timing is critical, so you can't even take the computational time to make those lines of diagnostics.

Anyway he wanted me to confirm that the vendor could be told to use Firmata, a so-called "open source" (OS) program for Arduino that does the kinds of control that we need for this computer-controlled car. It's what we started out with two years ago, before he got the idea that the Arduino could also replace the hardware "DeadMan" switch we were using. One of the kids rewrote the Arduino code and also got the DeadMan function working. I was impressed. But he didn't use the more robust Firmata protocol for communicating with the host computer. I'm trying to do that.

You need to understand that the "open" in the term "open source software" is a lie. Yes, you can look at the source code, but it's necessarily and completely opaque and hard to use.  It's a requirement of the OS business model. They tell you it's "free software" where it's said to be "free as in free speech" not like in "free beer," but that's another lie. They really do want it to be free like in free beer in the failed Marxist economy where you work when you want to (and not otherwise), and eat what you want to (even if you did not earn it). There's no money in giving away software (or food) for free, and to eat we still and really do need money, so therefore OS software is necessarily and completely obfuscated in every way, so that you must pay for consultants to tell you how to use it. Firmata fits the model.

The "free as in free speech" part of the OS mantra is also a lie. As I pointed out elsewhere (see my essay "Free Speech"), compelled speech is not free speech. The Supreme Court usually (but this year only barely) consistently takes this position. The Gnu Public License favored by the OS community makes particular and rather draconian requirements on what you can and cannot do with with their "free" software. So I am not modifying (copying) the Firmata code -- how could I? It's completely opaque and unintelligible -- but doing a complete rewrite from scratch. I was going to post it online truly free (as in "free speech" with no restrictions), but the director told me not to. When the vendor he's working with tries to use Firmata, he will discover that (like all OS software) it's not even free as in free beer, he needs to pay for somebody to make it work in his machine, and that somebody could be me -- but only if I have not posted my truly free version. I'm only paid for my four weeks with the kids in summer, not for the months of preparation I do ahead of it, but the director seems inclined to want to fix that inequity, and I am disinclined to dissuade him. So my rewrite isn't free after all. Not only do I live among a people of unclean lips, but like Isaiah himself, or as cartoonist Walt Kelly put it, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

2018 November 19 -- Guliuzza (sort of) Repents

Seven years is a long time to wait for somebody to come around to the Truth. God is far more patient than I am. I just forgot the matter and moved on. Well, you can't exactly forget the guy who gets a major (multi-page) column every month in the house organ of the organization he works for. Usually I skim over his contribution and move on, but this month, right there on his first page,
"machines need the logic-based capability to select appropriate responses..."
(my emphasis added). This from the guy who made himself look silly seven years ago by insisting that only thinking persons (specifically including God and excluding nature) can "select". I work all day long on machines that "select" -- that's what computers (and even stupid machines like card sorters, on which I distinguished myself at the very first full-time job I ever held) that's what they are designed to do -- so I called him on it (see my blog post "Guliuzza's Scared Poster"), and he dug himself in.

He didn't actually say he'd gotten that one wrong -- Judgers never apologize -- but his tune is different, and that kind of change is closer to Biblical repentance than most American Christians ever get when they insist that God forgives all sins (past, present, and future), no personal reform needed.

Anyway, I thought it remarkable. So I remarked.

2018 November 12 -- Whence Dystopia

Y'all probably remember my (not very) high opinion of dystopia from a couple years ago. The movie cover didn't use the word, and the hints were subtle. I really enjoyed the explanation of the technology required to do very long takes inside a car without even green-screen for the exterior action, but that was after the movie was over. The flick itself was describing the slow death of humanity in a dingy gray world with no hope. This is all that the atheists of our era can see, because the human heart is desperately wicked, and apart from the redemption that can only come from God, there is no hope. It was an honest portrayal of what the filmmaker sees. And very depressing.

He cannot live that way. Nobody can. So he fabricated Deus ex machina some hope for the human race, a baby born whom the hero now has something to live for as he rescues the mother and her baby from the hopeless wretches trying to kidnap them. Of course they escape -- nobody would watch a movie that didn't mitigate the hopelessness -- but only by pure luck with no real promise for more children to replace the aging population. It's all they have, like the lottery which has terrible odds, but it's all the poor have to hope for.

When I saw the baby born on-screen and held up so we could see its spindly arms purposefully thrashing about, I thought I'd never seen a newborn so scrawny (the mother was well-fed) and yet so active. Later I learned that it was created by computer graphics. Otherwise, how could they hire an actress pregnant and willing to give birth in front of the camera? Besides, the pregnant bulge of her abdomen did not sag down as the kid who was presumably pushing it out left the premises. They tried so hard, yet it was so fake.

We Christians are to blame. God gave us the responsibility to make disciples everywhere we go [Matt.28:19, my translation], and we failed. There were loads of Christians in the birth of the USA, so this country is filled with eagerness and hope -- even while our own social leaders deny all basis for that hope. But my generation hosted the last of the great missionaries. Mostly the churches now are social clubs whose inward focus generates few or no disciples. England, where this movie was set, fell off the wagon a hundred years ago. How could things get better 20 years into the future? The novel I was reading credibly paints the same gray environment of violence and poverty and hopelessness, but 200 years in the past of France. And like the flick, he could not end his story that way, but dropped into total anachronism and post-modern Deus ex machina -- that's a literary term for rescuing a failed plot by pulling some miracle (God=Deus) out of the machinery, with no proper basis for it in the story leading up to that point.

The second flick was very different with bright, almost gaudy colors, yet so much alike in its gray hopelessness. The guy is boringly faithful to his wife yet some tart manages to convince her that he's been cheating. In his efforts to prove his innocence he learns that he's been sterile since birth and could not have fathered their young daughter. And this is supposed to be entertaining? Only in a world where true virtue does not exist except in silly dreams.

2018 November 10 -- Phonetics and Copy Accuracy

More than a thousand years ago the Massoretic scribes entrusted with copying the Hebrew (Old Testament) Scriptures noticed that errors had been creeping in, so they adopted a policy of Zero Tolerance: If any error is ever discovered in the copy, they destroy it and start over. One of the effects of that policy is that when a copy became so bedraggled that you could not accurately read some part of it, the whole copy was destroyed. As a result, we have no Massoretic copies more than a thousand years old. There are still obvious (and not-so-obvious) grammatical errors in the Hebrew text -- I think I counted 1009 (marked by scholars but preserved in the text) when I was preparing the text for my Android app -- but we do not know whether they were misspellings in the original text or subsequent copy errors (before the Massoretes took over), which is why they are preserved. One of the texts I used in preparing my app gave both the original form thought to be in error, and the presumed correction. There were additional copying errors in the electronic files I used, so I compared two different sources against my printed text to find the best version; I also had most of the presumed spelling errors called out in my Lexicon. It took a long time to go through the whole Bible that way. I'd done the same thing with the Greek a decade earlier.

Now I'm reading the Psalms through in Hebrew -- mostly I look at the interlinear English gloss, because Hebrew poetry (like English) is a lot harder to read than plain narrative, but today I knew many of the words, so I tried harder -- and today's Psalm 100 is a hymn of praise to the LORD. Verse 3 is interesting:

(Y'all) know that LORD he is God He made us and not we (ourselves), his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Most Hebrew texts intended to be read by real people who do not know the text very well, they added accent marks and exactly one comma in the middle of the verse (shown here), along with the vowels not in the original text. The Jay Green edition I read most of the time is rather poor quality, and often the vowel points are completely illegible, so I'm getting used to reading the text without them. It's not hard once you know the language. Modern Hebrew (like Israeli newspapers and street signs) doesn't even bother to add the vowel points.

Anyway, I hilighted my translation in red here, because the Hebrew text there is the two-letter word meaning "not" but it is marked as a spelling error and corrected to read "to him" (preposition "to" which in this context would be translated "belonging to," followed by the pronoun suffix "him" or "us" depending on the vowel, which is usually inferred by context). So the interlinear translation accepts the emendation as "and we are his." It makes a little more sense when you consider the rest of the verse, three Hebrew words after the comma (eight words in my English translation here), "we, who are His, are also his people and the sheep of his pasture," as opposed those three words standing alone unconnected. Either way is consistent with other teachings of Scripture, so no theological error is involved.

So here comes the phonetics part. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, is a consonent (called "glottal stop") pronounced by stopping the flow of air in your throat. We have the same sound in English, but it is not considered significant -- except in distinguishing the two spoken (never written) words "hu'uh" ("no") from "'uhuh" ("yes") where I wrote the stop in your throat as an apostrophe. Note that the negative starts with a restrictive flow of air in the throat ("h") and divides the syllables with a stop, and the positive starts with the glottal stop and divides the syllables with the H. Cockney (Brittish street) English often replaces an initial H in words with a glottal stop (also written with an apostrophe) as in "I sleep at 'ome."

There are several Hebrew words translated "not" with slightly different nuances of meaning, but the most common is two letters, lamed ("L") followed by aleph, with an implied vowel "oh" added to the text as a raised dot over and between the letters. It is correctly pronounced "lo'" with the glottal stop at the end. The word translated "to him" or "his" is the same lamed followed by the semi-vowel waw (which is usually pronounced with rounded lips "oo" or "oh" like our 'u' or 'w') so the word is "low" (with no glottal stop) like the same English word. They sounded different to an original Hebrew speaker, and they were written as they sound. Because all accented English vowels are diphthongs (start in one sound, then change to another, like "eye" starts "ah" and ends "ee") and we mostly don't hear glottal stops at all, it's harder for us to tell the difference. Perhaps a medieval scribe couldn't hear the difference either (Hebrew already being a dead language for hundreds of years), so the mistake was easy. I guess the scholars who offer us the emendation thought so.

Me, I like the way the uncorrected text reads: There is no such thing as a self-made person, every good and perfect gift comes from God, and if we are successful in life, yes, we need to work at it, but millions of people around the world work just as hard and harder, but are not successful -- because they live in a country where virtue is not rewarded, where "infidels" are killed and not allowed to grow old and repent (as God commands us Christians to do), or where greed and corruption grow into guerrilla or tribal warfare that destroys wealth, or where greed and corruption in a small number of people result in their amassing to themselves the resources that could make their country wealthy if more people had access -- those hard-working people are not always personally at fault for their failure. God teaches us to "love your neighbor" (the Golden Rule) which when practiced makes everybody more wealthy, and because so many of the Founders of this country believed it and acted accordingly, the USA is now the wealthiest country in the whole world and probably in all time. Other countries (notably England and Germany) with a strong (Protestant) national religion in the past were similarly wealthy and powerful in their time. God did it, and not we ourselves. All we can do is refuse His benevolence. More and more, Americans are doing that, and the poverty will follow.

I'm reading this historical novel. Unlike most historical fiction, this one feels like post-revolutionary France, complete with all the poverty inflicted on the people by greedy and heartless kings and revolutionaries alike, people who refused to do things God's way, and everybody suffers. That's why France has never been a first-tier superpower. Neither was Russia (nor the now-former Soviet Union), but they didn't know it. Now we do.

2018 November 9 -- Voters Want Gridlock

I couldn't think of any time in the last half century that the American people didn't vote for gridlock, so I looked. Every President (except Carter, who was himself thrown out before his second term) ended his stay in the White House with one or both houses of Congress held by the other party. We Americans are a hopeful lot, so a new President is often given a matching Congress, but we are easily disappointed too.

"T'row da bums out."

In principle, Trump had a matching Congress so he could make America a better place, but the Reps hated him almost as much as the Dems. Obama had the same advantage without the disadvantage, and -- except for the ObamaCare fiasco -- he squandered it too. "The government is best that governs the least" (attributed to various people, most often Thoreau) is most easily achieved by gridlock. So that's what the voters want, and that's what they got. Not a bad plan, if you ask me.

2018 November 8 -- More Fiction Failures

Like my young author friend's work, this novelist is very readable, almost a page-turner, very little (in her case, no) foul language. But also like her, this guy seems to have a romantic notion of "epic" multi-volume tales. Set in the distant future like Drake's RCN series, he seems to think a stratified society (nobility vs commoners) is more interesting to read about. I think it's probably at least easier to write about, because privileged people have more access to resources so they have more options and opportunities to do interesting things than us boring commoners. Make no mistake, real people in a flat society lead boring lives -- I think it was Thoreau who called it "quiet desperation." That's why sometimes the most exciting things I can think of to write about here in my blog are the books I read; the rest of my life -- endless hours struggling with recalcitrant software, interspersed (this month) with the legal vicissitudes of taking up guardianship on my late sister's adopted son -- is just plain boring.

I don't know if the library has the rest of this trilogy, and maybe I don't care. When I picked this book off the shelf, the back-cover endorsements seemed to imply that this was more of the same guy who wrote the well-acclaimed Dune novel a few decades ago, but after reading for a while and seeing the adolescent squabbling between factions of the nobility that I found so annoying in my young author friend's work, I scrutinized the cover blurb more carefully and discovered it was his father who wrote Dune, and the son is only out try to earn his own respect despite that the publisher is only too eager to let him ride on his father's coattails. He seems to be aware of the problem, and two (maybe three) of his principal characters are explicitly trying to do the same thing. It is, as I pointed out elsewhere, writing what you know.

The guy is obviously American and knows nothing about stratified society. One of the ways nobility preserve their standing is to act nobly, to behave more virtuously (at least in public) than the commoners, and this guy's nobility squabble like pre-teen brothers and sisters. He has them talk of honor, but there's no honor in that kind of bickering. It's counter-productive, and one cannot preserve a position of high standing unless one contributes to the common good in fact, not merely in word (like the principals in his novel). If he'd grown up in a country with a king and lords and dukes, he would know that. His religion is also post-Christian American, in other words, completely ignorant. One of the traditional functions of religion -- even non-Christian religions -- is to promote what is Good and Honorable, but his religious people are merely duped followers of JimJones-like deceivers. Basically it's how all the self-identified elite in America see religion. So if I don't get around to reading the rest of the trilogy, I probably won't feel too sad about it. (I did go back and read the rest of the trilogy, see "Why Religion Matters" next month).

2018 October 29 -- Feminazi Backfires (Again)

If I'd looked at the copyright date (this year) I probably would have read the cover blurb more carefully and never brought the book home. If the previous book in my stack hadn't been so filled with gutter language that I added it to the return stack after only a couple pages, I would have given up on this one and gone on to the next. But there was no next in my stack, and the overall plot sounded moderately interesting. I suspect a binary pair of planets as close as these had to be would quickly succumb to tidal forces, and his methane-breathing, ice-dwelling aliens seemed too energetic to survive so long in the cold vacuum of space without breathing, and his ice tower would melt and/or crumble from its own weight like a glacier, but otherwise his science was credible.

Unrelated to the story line, this guy bought into the Feminazi agenda in spades: the only sapient creatures were all female, who dominated the mindless oversexed and bellicose males of their species by keeping them inside their sister's body for egress only to reproduce. But -- whether intentionally, like Drake's sociopathic lead female, or merely out of ignorance, I do not know -- the effect is to utterly demolish the primary feminist claim, that women are essentially [equal or] superior to men, and they only occupy presumed inferior social position because of male aggression. True, this is an alien species, not really human, except in every way other than sex and the air they breathe (or don't). Nobody writes [sci-fi] stories about weird people (or aliens) unless they expect their readers to see themselves in those caricatures. The author really did intend us to understand these females to be humanity, except that gender dominance is reversed.

And what do we learn from his implications? That the dominant sex really is superior to their subjugated partners, that subjugation is inherent in gender, and not an accident of power. Like I said, I don't know if that was his intended implication, or if (like his science) he simply didn't think it through. As I told my author friend (the one who got me thinking about the absurdity of Christian fantasy as an art form), it's much easier to invent alternate-universe worlds where physics doesn't work, because you expect that in fantasy, than to do hard sci-fi or science in other genres of fiction, where you need to do all the math, because (as I pointed out elsewhere) the readers are there to say it doesn't work.

2018 October 26 -- Vicissitudes

One hundred years ago today my father was born. He died a month before his 85th birthday (so did my mother, before hers), so I think of that as my expected life: about ten more years, give or take. I have two younger sisters, the older one already in a nursing home with a medical problem the docs can't figure out. Just now found out, she's back in the ER. The LORD giveth, and the LORD taketh away (including life). Maybe she will recover again, or maybe I'll take a sudden trip to Iowa.

I learned the word vicissitudes from the associate pastor of the last church where I was a member -- that was before I did the research to learn that local church membership is not Biblical: it is at best a convenience like pews and hymnals and pianos and sound systems, but my membership there was in fact a convenience, a way to detach myself from the previous church where I could no longer respect the pastor. Anyway this pastor used the word to bemoan what I suppose was his mid-life crisis, his discovery that life had not turned out as well as he'd hoped. Me, I have no complaints. I might have preferred lots of things to turn out other than they did, but I have a firm grip on the Sovereignty of God, and God is Good, so what's there to complain about? Besides, I am far better off materially than maybe 90-95% of the people in the world. Spiritually, I would take my faith over everybody else I know -- obviously, or I would change it -- but God makes those decisions, not I. I gave -- am still giving -- it my best shot, based on the best quality evidence available (and I did look), with due and careful diligence to what God has given us for our instruction...

The formerly news magazine I am about to stop reading (see "Subscription not Membership" last month) mentions some famous big-church pastor who is teaching that we Christians should abandon the Old Testament as not relevant to us in the church, but to do that we must also discard 10% or more of the New Testament which (directly or indirectly) quotes it, and especially we would need to throw out the authority of the great Apostle Paul, who insisted that ALL Scripture (in context, specifically the Old Testament) is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness," and abandon the ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ himself, who based his entire authority of the Old Testament. No, Stanley got it wrong. At least the magazine agrees. As C.S.Lewis reportedly said (but I cannot find the reference) "The truth is so big, it's hard to miss all of it."

I've been working my way through the sci-fi collection at the local library, and some time back (see "Only Evil Continually" earlier this year) I noticed that the books are mis-catalogued more often than other libraries. I was starting to think this was one of them: almost 3/4 of the way through, it's still nothing but the inner turmoil diary of the female protagonist -- I should have read the cover blurb more carefully -- set 130 years ago, no sci in the fi at all! There were hints about something in the future, but I haven't got to it. So in disgust, I looked forward. A few pages past where I was reading last night there is a note to the woman announcing the death of her son and lover, but in the last chapter I see that she and the guy are getting married. Still no science in this fantasy. Maybe I'll finish the last 70 pages, maybe not, but I sure won't be getting any more of this author. I'd never heard of Joe Haldeman before this month, perhaps now I know why.

I finished the book, and Haldeman was right: he doesn't always write from personal experience. He obviously has never been an abused wife and mother fleeing for her life from a cruel husband -- it came across like a cheap plastic imitation, not the real thing -- and he most certainly never flew to other worlds and universes with a shape-shifting raven. I too was right, and I remain convinced that writers who don't write from personal experience aren't worth reading. Perhaps, being a university town, Bolivar had better quality cast-off books and a better quality librarian than this run-down corner of Ore-gone. Vicissitudes.

2018 October 23 -- I Want a Smart Phone

I have a stupid phone. I probably told you about it, it's made by that Least Good, Largely Garbage far-east company trying hard to be Chinese junk but not quite succeeding. My friend tells me the cell phone people are planning on discontinuing the tower service for this model of phone, so they can go to pure internet -- Voice Over IP, the same crummy service I have on this cable-hosted landline: it's like when they threw away the high-quality analog TV transmission and replaced it with low-quality ("quality" being defined as "conformance to specifications" which in the case of TV means that you get to see the picture and listen to the sound) frozen 1" square blobs of color and stuttering sound, compared to a snowy but watchable picture and a hiss over the sound that covered whispers but everything else was understandable.

So I need a smart phone that is at least as smart as the Low Grade model I have. Like high-quality digital TV and high-quality blue-ray players, such things don't exist. But I'd prefer to be positively surprised.

On this phone, when I close the lid, it turns off. Sometimes it beeps at me when it rolls around in my pocket -- I used to have a belt clip, but it wore out -- I think the beeps are intended to mean it didn't do whatever it thought I was pushing the buttons for -- which was nothing. The glass brick phones I looked at do not have a robust way to turn the bugger off between calls.

This phone, when I push a button, I can feel it pop, and it knows I pushed the button. The glass bricks, they are supposed to be touch sensitive -- which means if you wave your hand somewhere near the screen trying to find where the icon is that you want, it activates some other icon that you never touched, but when you tap the screen it goes into what I call "Unix mode" where it does nothing at all, no beep, no button pop, no nothing. I found I was banging away on the icon five or six times before it would take, then it would think "Oh, he wants another one," and convert my tap into something else. One of the guys at church, he has a stylus to tap on his phone screen. If it works, that would be almost as good as a real, high-quality physical button.

This phone, all the people I want to allow to disturb me I have programmed a distinctive recognizable tune for their ring tone. The tunes came with it, about a half-dozen songs I recognize, and another dozen or so that all sound the same. The last so-called "smart phone" I looked at had no recognizable ring tones, they were all undifferentiated noise. Apple seems to be the worst, everybody's iPhone has only one ring, so you can't even know if it's your own phone ringing. They tell me you can download ring tunes, but I couldn't find any worth paying for, and nothing but more noise for "free".

The Last Gasp phone did some things wrong. If you want to look at the time, it's wrong: what kind of time is 18:88 in the morning? Unix programmers (are there any others -- besides me -- any more?) are idiots. When I'm looking at numbers, I need to see the difference between zeroes and eights. Zero has a hole in the middle, eight does not (actually two holes, with a bar across the middle separating them), so they are easily distinguished except in computers programmed by idiots. I almost never need to tell the difference between the letter Oh and zero, so that can be more subtle, like the letter can be fatter or slightly square. My first pocket timing device was a calculator. Mostly I don't need a calculator, but it's nice when I do. I think this phone can do that, but I don't know how. Alarms are nice: this phone has three and a half, but more would be better. This phone came with a belt clip so I could read the time with one hand, but the clip broke. 90% of what I do with this phone is read the time, and I want it to be easy, which pulling it out of a pocket and pressing buttons or flipping it open is not. I wouldn't mind upgrading this defective Lost Gambol to something smarter, but not at the cost of everything else.

I spent most of the last 30+ years avoiding the Unix operating system, and failing often enough to remind me why I should avoid it. So the primary requirement when I bought my first eunuchs-only computer was that it can be sandboxed, a third-party product called DeepFreeze that locks the hard drive, so that when you reboot it -- that needs to happen more often in unix than other systems I experienced -- all the viruses, all the mistakes, all the wrong commands, everything that wasn't there when you locked it -- goes away. It worked great for a while, but one of the most significant features of unix is that it's unstable, always changing. Google no longer works on it. The system cannot be upgraded without losing the protection. So it's a doorstop. My Lumpy Grumpy phone cannot be upgraded, so it never breaks -- it did once, when the lawn sprinkler got into its battery connector, but after a month or so it dried out and works again. Everything I know how to do with on this phone today, I will still be able to do it tomorrow -- except when they shut down the cell towers. Give me a phone that is smarter than that, if you can!

There is no right to "privacy" in the original Constitution, but as long as King Scotus wants to tell us it's there I plan to make use of it. When I seek out a medical provider, I always look for one who is not going to enter all my private information into some national database (as mandated by ObamaCare) where every liar (or politician, same thing) and thief in the whole world has access. Yes, I know about Hippa, but that just keeps the honest people out; the only way to keep the liars and thieves out is for it not to be there where they can find it, and those are the people you don't want to have access. Anyway, one of the requirements I gave the system integrator who sold me the Old Stupid Former (Oh-Ess-eX) computer is that nobody ever phones home without my permission. He still left a couple trapdoors in, but mostly nobody phones home. Google asked from time to time, and I always said no. So-called "smart phones" all have unix under the hood, and those are the thugs you don't want phoning home. I want that all turned off. Except the browser sometimes. The browser on my work computer never phones home, no viruses (aka JavaScript), no cookies, no nothing. Nobody is willing to sell you anything these days that doesn't phone home and steal your data unannounced, but my Less Great phone is at least smart enough to know that *I* make the decisions about what goes or comes over the air, not some unknown villains in Redmond or Cupertino or Moscow. Can you get me a phone that smart? I didn't think so.

PermaLink (longer version)

2018 October 9 -- Writing What You know

I can't say I ever heard of Joe Haldeman before, but there he was on the sci-fi shelf in the library. It was a collection of short stories, some of them reasonably good, at least one, maybe two (I can't remember, and I don't want to remind myself) so bad I abandonned it without finishing. The remarkable thing about this collection is the author's introduction in which he disparages the notion that you (should or do) write what you know -- and then spends the rest of the book proving what he tried so hard to dissuade you of.

The cover blurb mentions that he's a Vietnam veteran, but it's totally unnecessary, because most of the stories make it an integral part of the story. It got tiresome. "Cussing like a sailor" is a well-known extreme, and it figured in my abandonment of one of them. But it was an important -- and evidently unhappy -- part of his life, and he wrote what he knew. He's an author and teaches writing, and several of the stories centered on the arts, often other than writing, but certainly with the focus on the common elements.

Obviously Haldeman invented most of the stuff he wote -- and more than once admitted to stealing it -- but it wasn't like he wrote about the details of a domain he understood as little as Michael Crichton understood computers (most notably Prey, see "Artificial Life" ten years ago) or law (see my collected comments on Crichton). Michael Crichton wrote best when he wrote what he knew. So did Joe Haldeman and every other author I have read and enjoyed. My regular readers know how many times I have said that.

2018 September 26 -- Subscription not Membership

Some four years ago the church I went to hired a new pastor, who seemed to have a higher opinion of formal membership than his predecessor. I had political reasons for not joining the church at that time, but I decided to give the topic due diligence in case God taught otherwise. I found God gave no such teaching, and I wrote my findings up in an essay "Local Church Membership: Is It Biblical?" -- and (because I have a long-standing policy not to fight the pastor in his own church) I eventually left that church.

But one result of that study is a heightened awareness of the significance of membership. The next three churches I was there only on a temporary basis, but after coming to Ore-gone and doing the church-shopping thing (see "Choosing a Church" last year), it was a significant part of my selection criteria. Asking the question seems to predispose the pastor to be more open and accepting than his otherwise inclination. At least that was my experience.

Anyway, in the mail yesterday was the subscription renewal form for the one remaining magazine that formerly carried news worth reading, but which I still read, and it vigorously promoted "membership" not subscription. I complained the previous time (on the renewal form) to no effect, so this time I emailed the "CEO" and a couple other email address that seemed relevant, and he said they use the word "member" because their readers are much more active than the average subscriber. Most of the magazines I subscribe to have very vocal readers, so this is not really true. Worse: however much I react to this (or any other) magazine, they print one or two letters, and then never again. I'm a zero. No "rights and privileges" such as true membership in any honest club or organization confers, not even a vote, I'm just a zero, a nothing. They want my money, but not enough to alter anything they do to get it.

The last time I objected to being called a "member" when all I wanted was to read their periodical was with a Darwinist rag -- I no longer remember the name, they're probably defunct now -- and I certainly did not want them telling people I was a "member" in their church. So I didn't renew. Maybe that will happen again. sigh

But I'm a zero. Nobody cares what I think. Except one month this year and last year, somebody cares enough about what I think to pay me for it. I'm not a "member" of his organization -- I don't think even he is -- but I'm not a zero to him. Nor to the kids in his summer program: they listened and they delivered a knock-your-socks-off product in four weeks. Twice.

I moved to Ore-gone for no other reason than I have a nephew (and mostly his wife) who do a good imitation of esteeming me more than a zero. Not much more, but they invite me to celebrations, and took me to the airport and back last week, and this week I get to do the same for her when she takes her vehicle in for service. It's more than zero. She let me help her study her math in the job retraining program she's in at the local Community College, but I think she preferred the help she got from her Dearly Beloved. That's OK, I can accept being a zero. I hope, when I reach the John 21:18 stage in my life, not to be totally abandonned, but I have no kids of my own, so this was my best shot. So I'm a "member" of my family. But mostly they live their lives and I live mine. Two ships passing in the night.

But the pretense of "membership" where there is none at all offends me. It's a lie, and I do not take kindly to lies.

2018 September 22 -- Travel Is Broadening

I'm home again, only three or four pounds heavier than when I left, not all of it swag. The show put out a steam table with good European (Belgian, but not unlike French) cooking for lunch the two official days of the show, and fruit salad with awesome pastries at break times. Some of the people I was with talked about Belgian waffles, but the only waffles I ever saw were cookie-sized, put out at break time a couple times at the show (along with tiny muffins and raisin snails and croissants etc., once even almond macaroons).

I often tell people "I drink my coffee cold and bubbly," but the only carbonated caffeinated beverage I ever saw (both on the airline and at the show, also in vending machines and a few fast-food places) was Coke. I normally buy other things than Coke, but I drank a lot on this trip to stave off jet-lag.

We walked around the center of Brussels the first day (Monday), but one of the people I was with seems to have a blood-sugar problem or something, so he needs to eat on a schedule (not me: I tell my body when I will eat, not the other way around). As a result, my first meal in Brussels was a middle-eastern fast-food joint with a menu not unlike the food carts across the street from the Portland State campus where we ran the summer program. I was with the same guy the next evening walking back from the show venue to our lodgings, and we found an authentic Belgian "charcouterie" (which I translated as "steak place" although the menu also had other things). I like my meat dead, but if you ask for it that way, the cook gets offended and makes a mess of it, so I usually don't order beef. Good thing, too: my companion ordered some kind of steak thing that wasn't hot yet in the middle. He suggested the Belgian fish soup, but the waiter said they were out, so I got shrimp in garlic, which was pretty OK and not very filling (which suited me fine, I was already eating too much). The next two evenings I ate their lunch and snacks and didn't need supper.

I walked a lot more than I'm used to. I sit down in front of the computer all day, sometimes get up and pace to think through hard problems, but the most I walk is a mile to church (and usually another mile back). We probably walked a mile that first day, and then a mile from the hotel where one of the parents stayed (we were driven there in the vans from the airport) to the youth hostel where the rest of us stayed. From the hostel to the show venue was a couple miles, and we went in cabs each day, but walked back twice. Plus probably a couple or three miles total between terminals at the various airports carrying a heavy suitcase. So I guess I walked maybe eight or nine miles this week, more than four times my weekly habit. There was nowhere to sit near our display area at the show, so most of the day I was standing up or walking around near the exhibit, perhaps the equivalent of walking another five miles each of three days. My feet still hurt.

Youth hostels offer low rates to their patrons, in part because they are government-funded (which means little or no oversight, the same way industry in socialist countries are more polluting and produce inferior products compared to their capitalist equivalents) and partly because they keep the costs down (less maintenance). The room I was in was one of the few with a private bath, but the water flow in the shower was exceedingly slow, probably less than a pint per minute; one of the other rooms had a shower down the hall but the faucet handle was broken. They're kids, maybe they didn't shower at all. Posters on the walls encouraged conserving water, and I guess they also encouraged it the way abusive (leftist) governments everywhere do things, by compelling compliance using counter-productive measures such as low- or non-flow faucets (see "Low-Flow Taps Waste Water"). Or maybe it's nothing more than lack of maintenance with no oversight to compel minimum standards of quality, like my kitchen faucet at home, perhaps both due to the accumulation of corrosion inside the pipes over the years. It's not in my budget to bring in a plumber to fix the water flow, and probably not in theirs either.

I watched two and a half movies (the first was a dud, which I abandonned in the middle) on the flight eastward across the Atlantic (seven hours). The flight back was nine hours, and I barely squoze in two flicks because I couldn't stay awake. Considering that I had to be up at 5am (Belgian time), and arrived home after midnight (Pacific time, which is nine hours later than Belgium), I was (except for sleeping on the plane) up (one "day") more than 28 hours.

The last leg of the flight back was memorable. It's a commuter flight from Portland to Medford, usually about an hour. Five minutes into the air, still on the edge of Portland metro area, the seatbelt signs just got turned off and the beverage cart is pushed up past me to the front of the plane, and I started smelling smoke, and a shrill alarm began sounding beep-beep-beep-beep. The stewardess immediately told the guy pushing the beverage cart to take it back and stow it right now. Then she hustled the guy in the rest room out and back to his seat, then immediately sat down and buckled into her own seat. She was talking on the intercom phone to the cockpit and I looked around to see if I could see the source of the smoke. Nothing inside, but out the window, I saw the left propeller was stopped (but no flames I could see). I figured these planes are designed to fly on one engine, and the pilots are trained to land on one engine, so no big deal, he was probably looking for a nearby airport to land in. The captain came on the speaker and said the oil temperature in the left engine was high, so he had shut the engine down, and would soon be returning us to Portland. As we landed, there was a row of fire engines next to the terminal building with red lights blinking, and we taxied to the fartherst pad in the terminal, a good hundred yards from the terminal building itself. A couple hours later they'd commandeered another plane (I think they cancelled their flight to Seattle and shuffled its passengers off to other airlines), and we were back in the air for the usual uneventful trip to Medford. I've been on a lot of planes flying to many different places, but never before with take-us-back-and-start-over engine trouble.

2018 September 20 -- Knocking It Out of the Park (Again)

Maybe I earned my fare from the director's perspective. The kids programmed these cars (see "Was It Fun?", only one car in August, the second car was identical, used as a spare for this trip) to drive around a track taped up with masking tape on the carpet, but only one of them actually ran when we arrived. As the senior tech expert, I was able to give some clues as to what the problem was, and they got the second car going (but poorly, probably a programming error in the code written by one of the guys who didn't come). They improved the performance of the first car so that it could turn around in the space we had been assigned for our track, and then ran it pretty much continuously the two days of the show.

I stood around, and when one of the show attendees paused to look, the director engaged him. When another came by, I took him on and promoted the program as if I were being paid to be there. The kids could explain their own work, so as soon as I could, I handed the attendee off to a kid to do that, then sought out another fish to hook. The kids were less agressive at snaring the passers-by, but I'd had a lot of trade show experience when hawking my own software. I knew how to do this, and I did it. The director was looking for donors; I don't know if I know how to sell that, but I gave it my best shot.

The main purpose of the show, as near as I could tell, was to give a venue to venders of the peripheral sensors that the (still future) autonomous car industry needs to detect their surroundings; inviting the kids to show their car was more fluff than anything else, but at the awards dinner, we won the Best of the Show trophy. Today one of the kids represented the group in a 20-minute slot in the final session of the program. I took it upon myself to coach him and work with him to make it a good presentation. I was his "audience" for several run-throughs, and I tried diligently to boost his confidence so he wouldn't freeze up at the mike. Some of his run-throughs were more polished than the actual presentation, but basically he did well, and was well received.

During the Q&A at the end of his formal presentation, one guy in the audience -- I was later told it was one of the show execs -- asked if their experience in this project would encourage them to consider a career in the automotive industry, and the guy who took the question said that before the summer the answer would have been "No," but now he would consider it. It seems that the best tech people coming out of the colleges want to work for start-ups or famous tech giants like Google, and one of the automotive industry execs confessed to the show guy, "We can't attract good tech recruits." Just that one kid's answer might free up some industry donations for the program. Or not.

Another questioner asked each kid in the lineup to give a single word expressing their perception of the summer program. I don't remember the specifics [when the video comes out in a couple weeks I can refresh my memory] but the kids chose words like "challenging" and "complex". One of the attendees later remarked to me that none of them said "fun." I allowed as maybe they were thinking forward to linking to the video in their college applications, and "fun" would be less impressive there. I asked one of them later about it, and he said it was definitely fun, but he couldn't tell me why he didn't say so.

On August 11 I couldn't say this was a "knock it out out of the park" presentation like last year, but AutoSens made up for that.

2018 September 17 -- Brussels

You recall (see "Cognitive Burden" a couple years ago) I have not flown much in the last decade or two. So here I am flying to Portland again. I look out the window at the clouds below, and it looks to me like there are straight cuts in the cloud cover, not all the way through to the ground, but like the clouds are following the contours of the ground beneath: sort of lumpy-flat like a forest top, with these clear-cut highways criss-crossing the landscape. I can't see through the clouds to see if there really are roads beneath the notches in the clouds, but that's what it looks like. Maybe the forest (if that's what's below most of the clouds here in this part of Oregon) produces more moisture or coolness than the clearings for the roads, resulting in deeper clouds. It would be interesting to know, but there are a lot of things I'll probably never know. That's OK, I have no "bucket list" like Morgan Freeman's character in the eponymous movie -- or maybe I did, and I already did all those things.

Travelling and seeing some of the world was one of the things I sort of wanted to do, and I did that. I really wanted to see Israel "from Dan to Beersheba," and I did that too. Brussels and Belgium were never on the list. But here I am flying off to Brussels with the same guy who made Israel possible for me. I got my first taste of Belgium on this commuter plane to Portland: The beverage service included a couple of cookies in a foil wrap, and the fine print declared them "imported from Belgium."

We met up with the summer program director and about two thirds of the kids in the program (all whose parents were willing to pop for the air fare and lodging) and flew from Portland to Brussels, where they are scheduled to present their autonomous car project to the international AutoSens conference. The airline gave us a meal, a choice of "chicken or pasta." I overheard one of the other attendants say the pasta was a veggie meal, so I chose chicken. The inkjet label printed on the cover of the hot dish said "Chicken Tao" and it looked vaguely oriental, four finger-sized blobs of something that tasted ever so slightly more like chicken than beef or fish, but with a consistency more closely resembling pudding.

They speak French and Flemish (like Dutch, which is like German) in Belgium, apparently mostly French here in Brussels. I took two years of French in high school, then switched to German as soon as it became available, because my father had told me that German was the language of science. Maybe it was when he studied to be a chemist, but now English is the international language of the whole world, and the language that any significant scientific research is published in. But that was long long ago, and although I spent a spring term in France in an overseas study program sponsored by the seminary I went to, I have forgotten more than I remember. Even with dictionary in hand, I stumbled badly. Many people spoke English; many more only French and/or Flemish. I could pick out a word or three when I heard them speak French, and nothing at all from the Flemish, but seeing signs or menus in the two languages, the French words I did not recognize, I often could make out the sense from the Flemish which vaguely resembled German.

I don't know why I'm here, maybe (like the trip to Israel) the guy thinks he owes me a favor. I've always been goal-oriented ("purpose driven" long before Rick Warren ever thought of his book title), and while Israel was a goal, Belgium never was. But he is my only significant source of income right now, so if he wants me to go, I go. It's not like it's costing me anything more than my time, and time I seem to have a lot of. So here I am.

2018 September 15 -- Thinking: Work or Audacity

A couple years ago I started reading Moby Dick. It was heavy going, so I'd read a couple chapters, then read something else -- mostly library books -- for a while. Some library books are real page-turners, and I stay awake late and finish them in a couple days. Others are so full of gutter language or inner turmoil they just are no fun to read, so I don't finish them, but most of the books I bring home take up to a week to read. You never know, so lately I've been piling up a stack of four books, so I won't find myself out of reading material before the next weekly trip to the library. Last week there were two duds and two fast reads, so I took the time to finish Moby Dick, and was impressed by this odd remark eight pages from the end:
Here's food for though, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels, that's tingling enough for mortal man! to think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and out poor brains beat too much for that.
I see it the other way around. God certainly was the first to think, and the image of God created in Adam conferred that ability on all of us, but it's hard work, and not many people want to put the effort into it. At the end of the day, even I get too tired to think, and must set my work aside and take it up again the next day. I used to be able to work longer hours, but part of that was a sense of purpose, which -- except these last few months -- is largely gone. So I do more brainless reading. Moby Dick was not an example of brainless reading.

One of the books I picked up this week similarly was heavy, partly the same reason as Melville: this author invented a lot of strange terms for commonplace ideas to make it feel alien and other-worldly, where Melville used 170-year-old terminology (and not a few words no longer in the English language nor my vocabulary). So when it became obvious that the author praised on the cover for his military prose was actually planning to do the feminazi thing, I didn't feel bad about putting it down after only two chapters. If reading a novel is not "a coolness and a calmness," why bother?

I mentioned space-op novelist David Drake earlier this year, because he's a fun read. He thumbs his nose at the establishment. He also evokes the feeling of cultural difference between the warring empires in his RCN series, not by inventing odd terminology, but by the judicious switching off between metric and English units of measure, both familiar to his readers, which he is ever at pains to explain is in both cases a translation of whatever units a far future culture actually would use. So he gets the feeling of alienness without making us work to read it. The best of both worlds.

2018 September 11 -- My "Religion"

Last month I mentioned a magazine editor's comment -- which I took as a confession -- that "humans decisively prefer to spread lies over truth." It's a disease that seems to afflict pretty much the whole nation, perhaps even the whole world but I have less access to observe it. I try not to let that include me, but it makes for awkward moments.

I mentored this computer summer program for high-school students, and we recently finished the second year. The director likes to promote it as "the kids do everything," but the real world does not work that way. We need tools to make things happen, and he says "Let the kids do it," except they don't do the kind of quality work you need in tools. How can they? They're just kids. You need experience using the kinds of tools you want to make, before you can make them do what needs to be done. But it's my job to help them do as much as possible. I'm a tool maker. It worked out that way.

This year, one of the things the kids were supposed to be doing is building a model for their program that can be exported to other venues across the country and around the world. We got invited to an international conference to tell them what we are doing -- the fact that it's high school kids makes it look impressive, which probably figured in the motivation for the invitation -- but the nature of scheduling is that we had to commit to going and presenting before we knew whether we had anything to show.

The director has spent a lifetime creating companies that produce quality commercial products, so he knows how to do these kinds of things. Instead of the plastic vacuum-formed body that comes with the radio-control cars we are taking over by computer, he went out and engaged professional designers to make it look industrial. It looks fabulous, but the kids didn't do it. No big deal, they are designing software, not hardware. The director had two cars made up, but they were a little behind schedule: the second one was not fully functional until after the summer program ended. No big deal, we had one to run on.

Getting the software to take the car around the track was a bigger deal, they almost didn't finish. Well-run companies have experienced people in management positions -- or in his case, at least a cultural heritage of doing things Right. These are kids, and they don't have that same heritage. I'm not particularly good at that kind of management either (I told him that up front). At least I know it's not something God made me good at. 55 years ago (at their age) I didn't have a clue, but nobody tried to lay on me that kind of responsibility. In reality, the director was doing it to me, not to the kids.

Here comes the "religion" part... "Religion," you will recall from a couple months ago, is the set of things we know to be true despite any evidence to the contrary. I know I have crummy management skills, and I have lots of experience proving it. That's not religion. The kids are not much better (if any), and I know that too. I do not deceive myself. The director is something else. He has more religion than I do.

I am not completely irreligious, I don't think anybody is -- certainly not the self-confessed atheists: they have much more religion than I ever will. They know about the laws of physics and the entropy law (things get worse over time, not better) in particular, but they prefer to believe that things are getting better, that "people are more likely to be incompetent than dishonest," as one of them recently put it to me. But the evidence supports Virginia Heffernan, that "humans decisively prefer lies over truth."

So I got to thinking, what do I believe as true despite any apparent evidence to the contrary? Not that there is a God, the evidence firmly supports that (see "What's Really Important"), but what kind of God is He? The Bible tells me "God is Good." The existence of calamity and just plain Bad People seems to convince a lot of people that God is either not good or else incompetent. I'm willing to defer judgment, based on the fact that I'm not any kind of god, I'm lucky if I can get my computer programs right, let alone the whole universe, so I have no problem accepting that God can be and is in control. That's the logical difference between a god and us mere mortals.

What about the calamities? Is God Good? The evidence isn't particularly impressive on that, certainly not like the evidence that God is there and running things, nor even as good as the evidence that the Bible is God's work, not mere humans. So really that's all I have: the Bible says so. It's religion. It's not really illogical, God cannot give us free will and at the same time restrain the Bad Guys from doing harm. Free will is good, I wouldn't want to be a robot with no choice. So there are broken eggs. Dostoyevsky gives us a clue to the way out of this: "if there's no immortality of the soul, then there's no virtue, and everything is lawful" (see my blog post "Incomplete Christianity" five years ago). Virtue is rewarded in the future, and the rewards are so much bigger than the calamities, but you can't see that from here. That's why it's religion. Unlike Darwinism, and unlike the notion that people are basically generous and unselfish and giving, it's not contrary to the available facts, but the supporting facts are pretty slim.


The Job Affair -- He didn't have to wait until eternity, he got paid back double his losses in this life
Biological Evolution: Did It Happen? -- Darwinism is more religious than the Christian origins story
What's Really Important -- Why (most) Christian teaching is evidence-based, not religion

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