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2020 January 10 -- Sci-Fi Decameron

The science in this novel is pretty weak -- like there isn't enough gravity on this chunk of rock (in orbit as part of the rings around a planet) to hold the damsel in distress who landed on it, but "so long as she stayed on the front end of it, she wasn't going to get thrown off." Except the physics doesn't work that way. If the rock is moving toward her, when they collide, she will bounce off; if they are going the same speed and she reaches out and touches the rock with a hand or foot or the seat of her space suit, she will bounce off slower. It's not like the rock is being independently accelerated in the direction of its "front end," she and it are both subject to the same inertial and gravitational forces, so there is nothing holding her there except the micro-gravity of the rock.

But it's definitely a guy book: lots of references to "naked ladies" (not "women" and never any "naked guys") and bosoms (spelled "Bazooms" when it's in the chapter title), and most of the women in the story seem to be either currently or previously in the business of prostitution (with no regrets, unlike the Real World), but the foul language is mostly (except near the end) toned down, and there are no explicit sex scenes. It wouldn't be worth a mention here but for the focus on religion.

I think the author Resnick thought he was writing a modern Decameron or Canterbury Tales, because the entire book consists of nothing but a collection of stories offered by the various characters in this tavern off on some distant planet, plus their interactions between the stories. The author is himself in the story business, so he is at pains to distinguish his author character's "embellishment" of the tales for some forthcoming "history" book from the painter character's doing the same thing in his art. Resnick clearly understands the hypocrisy (pointed out by another character in the discussion), which makes his treatment of religion so much more devious, or maybe just ignorant

With the possible exception of Orson Scott Card (and my own unpublished and unpublishable efforts, like Lazir), all sci-fi treats religion with hostility, either great (from a militant atheist perspective) or mild (accepting it as a tolerable opinion not shared by the author). This guy is in the latter category, most obviously from a state of ignorance. His preacher character carries a Bible and refers to it frequently, most often inaccurately. The author's opinion is summed up dismissively 12 pages from the end, where the author character Bard defends his own "embellishment" of the facts:

The greatest history of all is the Good Book that the Reverend Billy Karma totes around in his pocket," answered the Bard. "How accurate do you think it is?"

"So much for setting down the facts," said Max.

The preacher did not dispute this analysis as he did anti-religion remarks by other characters in the room. In another place, Billy Karma states "God is a mighty understanding critter." You need to understand that "critter" is the hillbilly pronunciation of "creature" = created being. No honest preacher worth his salt (except the Mormons, who carry their own Book around instead of the Bible) would claim that God is created. Not that Resnick portrayed Billy Karma as either particularly honest or worth his salt, but people who are not themselves Christians -- that is, they never gave it an honest evaluation -- tend to think of all preachers as slightly more despicable than used car salesmen.

But then Resnick portrayed almost all his characters as dishonest to a greater or lesser degree. Not all of them, because everybody (including Resnick) really in their heart of hearts believes in moral absolutes, of which Truth is a prime example. But most such people want to make exceptions for themselves and their personal heroes.

The religious bigotry that really got me was fairly early in the book, where one of the (non-human) characters was telling about himself and how he got a super-smart computer to answer his hard questions -- like "I'm not even a mammal, and my race has three sexes, so why am I attracted to big-breasted women?" (The computer answered that it was a universal constant he shouldn't lose sleep over.) -- The important question being: "If God made me, who made God?" It's really a good question, which neither the fictional computer nor Resnick himself knew the answer to, but he couldn't let it lie, so he decided to refute the "First Cause Argument" instead, in the words of this computer:

"To disprove it one need merely show that not everything has a first cause...

Consider the set of all negative integers. The last cause, the highest number, is minus one. The next-to-last cause is minus two. And the first cause, minus infinity, cannot exist."

This is philosophical nonsense, about on the same logical level with his physics, but it's the kind of pseudo-logic atheists use to convince themselves of a position they have chosen for reasons other than logic. There are several problems with it, the first being that numbers are not physical objects or energy that can exist or be caused, they are merely abstractions for describing and arranging the things that can be caused. The first cause of any number is the person who wants to count things. And the first cause of negative numbers is the perverse person (we call them mathematicians) who wants to count the things he does not have. So in that sense the first cause of negative numbers -- if it is a number at all -- is (positive) one, not some abstract minus infinity. Mathematicians all know this, because any proof by induction (which mathematical principle Resnick, in the words of his fictional computer, is actually but ignorantly using) they start at zero, and then go in any direction they choose from there. And the principle of mathematical induction does not prove there is no such thing as minus infinity (or plus infinity), because those are valid mathematical concepts just like ordinary numbers, and (like ordinary numbers) they exist only in the minds of the mathematicians and the computers they program, and as ink on paper -- oh wait, it's the ink that exists and has a cause, but the ink is not a number, it only represents a number. Then he repeats the same silly argument with fractions, to show it's not "just a fluke." Hey, if you want to prove there are no such things as solid foods by demonstrating that tea is a liquid (which does not prove anything about solid foods), then it's not just a fluke when coffee is also a liquid, you still have not proved anything.

The stories are moderately entertaining, more so to average guys than feminist women, and certainly less entertaining to people who care about math and science and God. The first page, where most authors list their previous books, has several with "Future" in the title and a few that are obviously fantasy (like "Unicorn" in the title). My policy is to avoid all books by authors with works classified as fantasy, so I probably will not be taking any more of his books home from the library. Oh well.

2020 January 9 -- Explore-A-Nation

I read magazines in the Reading Room. When I was younger I worked longer hours, so when I got around to eating, I was too tired to eat much, so I spent less time in the RR. I think things are slowing down for me, both my ability to sustain a productive work regimen far into the night -- it still happens, but more like once every month or two instead of every day -- and also the biological processes for dealing with the larger amount of food ingested because I'm too tired to work. In the Goode Olde Dayes I got my news from "news" magazines, but they stoppped printing news, and I stopped reading them. Now I wait for somebody to mention it in church, then go home and look it up on Google. That happens once every month or three, and doesn't seem worth any more time than I spend on it. Which leaves tech magazines for the RR. The binding on the WIRED mag -- neither news nor tech, but it's something to read -- makes it very difficult to read while holding it in one hand: they used to be a quarter inch thick, which made the paperback binding necessary, but those days are gone and they don't have the sense to revert to the simple staple-based binding. Whatever. So I read freebie mags from the IEEE (which used to get stacked up unread) and from some nonprofits I send occasional donations to. I tried ConsumerReports, but they are aimed at people with more dollars than sense, and I don't like their politics, so I let the trial subscription lapse.

So the IEEE Computer Society, of which I have been a member for 40+ years, sends out this freebie compendium of stuff gathered from their other rags, most of it not worth spending productive time on, but here I am in the RR, so whatever. I mentioned here in my blog a few things worth commenting on (see for example "The Edge of Computers" and "STEAM" and "The Emperor's New Naked" last year). Today the title topic in an issue devoted to data visualization is "Exploranation" which title looks like it should be about getting on a bus or train (or car) and travelling around the country to see things, but they rather thoughtlessly put together the two words "exploration" and "explanation" to come up with something they hoped reflected on their government-funded research -- is there any other kind? Especially as foolish as this? -- into data visualization tools. As I got farther into this vague generalized description, it began to look like getting on the bus was a good metaphor for what they are trying to do.

At first they made out like they were trying to organize the data so that clients could explore the data and see whatever there is to see in it. But they kept using the word "story" like they were trying to build a pre-masticated pablum with a consistent "fake news" back-story. They even suggested that their product worked better at promoting the deception (not their word) if they used live "guides" (their word). You get on this electronic tour bus and it goes where the promoters decided to go, and you see what they arranged for you to see, and you pay a ton of money for the priviledge.

Two of the magazines I have consistently read over the decades are Biblical Archaeology Review -- (BAR) you've seen my comments from time to time, most recently on the passing of the editorial torch from the founder to an academic who does not understand how the Real World works (see frex "The Gender Divide" and "BAR's Women Issue" last year) -- and ChristianityToday (fewer blog comments, probably because they are not so stupid). Anyway, because Christian values drive the wealth production in this country, there are a lot of "Visit Bible Lands" tours advertized in the pages of these two mags for the people with more dollars than sense. I don't consider myself to be one of them, but visiting the Holy Land was high on my bucket list, so I went on the cheap and mostly just wandered around. But I did sign up for one tour bus to do Qumran, En-Gedi, and Masada, none of which were on my original list of things to see. It gave me a basis for comparing the tour bus mode of operation to just walking around and looking at things.

So ComputingEdge and WIRED are the tour buses of what's happening in computers; "just walking around" is more like what I got paid for. ChristianityToday and BAR are the tour buses of what's happening in things Biblical; "just walking around" is what I do every morning -- and for the last dozen years or so, in the original languages. It goes a lot slower than reading in a language I'm comfortable with (English), and one of the results is that I see things from a different perspective than one gets while whizzing by on a tour bus. I tell my computational students that OOPS ("Object Oriented" programming systems) has the same effect on their programming quality. The Real World is not "object oriented" so they must work harder to fit their problems into that way of thinking, and the harder work (not OOPS itself) helps them to think more clearly and deliver a product with fewer bugs than if they used an easy language like C.

So I'm reading in Isaiah, and yesterday it was chapter 4. It's a short chapter, six verses, and I read the whole chapter, but the first verse really got me:

In that day seven women will take hold of one man and say, "We will eat our own food and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name. Take away our disgrace!" [oNIV]
The (old) NIV translation tones down some of the anti-feminism that is so startlingly clear in the original Hebrew. "In that day," the Prophet says, there will be no feminazis. Sure, they will work to earn their own food and clothing, but that's not what matters. First off, there are vastly more women than men (seven to one is probably a poetical ratio reflecting a large discrepancy), sort of the reverse of what is happening in China today because of their own self-genocidal efforts. But the women are not the top of the power structure! They are clinging to men to get legitimacy they cannot achieve on their own. Where did the men go? It doesn't say, but I would guess, probably to war. Despite the fantasies of mythical legends like Amazon and a few goofy places like modern Israel, women are not warriors. The women themselves mostly know it (and say so, even the feminists among them). "In that day," feminism will be dead.

So what day is "that day"? Isaiah has been using that term frequently in these early chapters as a reference to some future time of reckoning and justice. Chapter 4 goes on to tell us some of the other things that will happen "in that day," for example, the pillar of cloud (smoke) by day and the pillar of fire by night -- probably the same thing, but you could see the light from the fire in the dark, but only its white smoke in daylight -- which led the Israelis through the desert and away from Egypt how many thousand years ago, will be reinstated over Jerusalem. That has never happened. Yet. The smoke filled Solomon's temple so the priests were unable to enter, but it was contained. "In that day," it will be over the whole city, and so hot (we are told in the last verse of the chapter) that people will need "booths" to protect them from its heat. The column of heat will have meteorological effects, so that those booths also protect from the "storm."

My friend subsequently reminded me that there also are women in the final verses of the previous chapter, which I had neglected to see as linked. There were no chapter divisions when this was written, so Isaiah may indeed have been thinking of these women (in both chapters) as the same group of people, "daughters of Zion," but I'm inclined to think the wicked women in chapter 3 might be different from the women in this verse. If I'm wrong about that, then the Israeli women in particular will have abandonned their feminism "in that day," which seems to me unlikely unless the whole secular world culture goes that way. At least (I now see) chapter 3 does confirm my previously unsupported supposition that their men had been killed off in battle.

I started chapter 5 today, and it begins with a parable about God's vineyard, which He did eveerything possible to make it productive and profitable, but it only produced rotten grapes. So God gives up on it, breaks down its protective walls and even stops the pleasant weather (God can do that). Jesus retold the same story in Luke 20, but he blamed the tenants. Bad Things Happen -- or rather, Bad Things are caused by Bad People -- but God is a God of Justice. Either you get with His program, or you are in deep doodoo. I have been stewing longer than I ought over the horrible phone Cricket sold me (see "Worse than a Cricket" last week), but that phone is like God's vineyard: Bad Things are caused by Bad People, but God is a God of Justice. Not my problem. Well, the phone is, but not really: I only need to make and receive calls away from home one month out of the year, and rarely otherwise. I don't need to text people. Many -- make that most -- people of the world have far worse problems than a phone made by Bad People. They will get their Just reward, but it's not my place to give it to them (the Bible teaches that too, just not here).

All this from "exploring a nation," walking slowly through the text, rather than riding the pre-packaged tour bus on Sunday morning.

2020 January 2 -- Worse than a Cricket

You know what is worse than a Cricket (phone)? A newer Cricket! Recall a year ago I had to get a new clamshell phone to replace the account I used to have, and Cricket was cheaper (per month) and waaay cheaper (hardware/software, but that's quality, not in price) than the competition. Did I mention the quality was low? It was so hard to use -- as a result I now tell people that if there are two ways to do something, and one of them is user friendly, the unix (=Linux, =KaiOS, the software on the Cricket disaster, see also my essay "Why No Smart Phone" a couple years ago)) programmer will invariably do it the other way; and if there's only one way to do it and it's easy to use, the unix programmer will still choose the other way -- so I mostly kept this turkey turned off. It broke anyway (I didn't drop it, it just crumbled in my hand!) and could not be taped back together. I was disinclined to give the failed Chinese Junk manufacturer any more of my money, but after thinking about it a few days, I realized that the $75 price of another of the same device amortized over its one-year life is still cheaper than paying $40/month at every other carrier, even assuming their Chinese Junk products don't break. Which is probably a bad assumption. DON'T BUY CHINESE. I will pay extra for products made anywhere but China, but mostly I don't get the choice.

All the things that were wrong with last year's model are still wrong with this new one, PLUS a bunch of new things are broken in the software. What can I say? It's unix under the hood. I couldn't find a way to set the speed-dial for the one person I need to call (once every two or three months), but there was this new "Favorites" thing that I wondered if it might be it. DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL, it's irreversible and clutters up what little screen space this thing offers, and makes dialing that person SLOWER, not faster. I called the Cricket customer support number, but the guy had such a thick India accent I couldn't understand him. He told me where the Speed-dial option was to be found, but he didn't know about "Favorites" and gave me the Alcatel (manufacturer) phone number. Their robot wanted a whole bunch of numbers, which when I keyed them in, he went back to the top of his script (but softer, so I could barely hear him). Maybe hitting the "Factory Reset" option will clear it out -- along with everything else I already put in. Maybe some other time, if I'm sitting somewhere with nothing to do. That's not today.

It turns out there is a way to remove somebody from the Favorites category -- and as I later found out, when the last is removed, the category disappears -- they offer you the opportunity to delete the contact. Although you got there from inside the Favorites category, they listed everybody in the whole Contacts list, so I guessed that the only way is to delete that person from the whole phone and resisted the temptation. So I was whining about this [expletive deleted] phone to my niece, so she fiddled around with it and and deleted her own number from Favorites -- and, as I guessed, from the whole phone. Then she put her entry back in. I guess the horrible, counter-intuitive text entry mode does not annoy her like it does me.

Every other electronic device, you hold the power button down for five seconds, and it goes OFF, but not this turkey: all it does is pop up another menu where "Power Down" is the farthest choice away from the current selection. You can't get to it, because the contact bounce on the navigation ring is so bad, it just skips over the power-off option. If you are lucky enough to land on the power-down option, you must mover your finger to a different button to complete the task. Unlike the saner products we are all used to, it's not something you can do in a hurry. If you just stay on the off button, it reboots the system and puts up a silly smiley with the label "something to smile about" (all lower case, the way the unix programmers write). Maybe so, but definitely not this phone. I thought it might be faster to just pop the battery out, but I think somebody else thought of it first, so they made the battery cover exceedingly hard to pop off.

The contact bounce on that navigation ring also makes it really hard to use the phone for what you want to use the phone for, it keeps popping up "Apps" that do nothing useful. Oh well, it just gives me one more reason to not turn the bugger on.

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