Mind fun

I've been treating myself lately to a set of lectures on tape.  At first I stuck with pure audio tapes, because they're so much faster to download, and until a few weeks ago, we were stuck with a HughesNet account that was subject to severe daily download limits.  Thirty-minute lectures are about 20MB, but a 30-video is more like 300MB.  Also, I wanted something to listen to while I did handwork, either crochet or painting a series of large signs I've taken on.

(Here's the picture part of the sign I've just done for the State Park, by the way.  That's what we call locally "The Big Tree," and a whooping crane.  You can listen to a lot of lectures while you paint all that detail, but of course long car trips are a good opportunity for listening, too.)

Anyway, how that we finally have a better internet connection, I broke down a ordered a handful of lectures that were available only in the video format.  The really critical images are few and far between, so I can still get my crochet work done, just stopping now and then to stare at the screen.  These are courses from "The Great Courses," and they're uniformly wonderful.  This week, though, I've stumbled on my favorite so far:  a series on how to solve mathematical puzzles.  The lecturer gives me the leap of joy I used to feel only in talking to my father.  He talks about an article  he read in an educational journal, which he admits is the only article in such a publication he ever managed to read from beginning to end (so right away he won my heart).  It described the experience of posing the same problem to a set of gifted kids and a bunch of kids on the vocational track:  how do you weigh a giraffe?

The gifted kids, the article said, were used to looking the answers up and pleasing their teacher.  They couldn't come up with an approach and quickly became anxious and discouraged.  One of the vocational kids suggested, "Let's get a chain saw and cut the giraffe up, then weigh the chunks."  The approach appealed to him, the lecturer said, because it's wrong, it's criminal, it's breaking all the rules.  The good news is, it's a metaphor for math puzzles, where there's nothing really wrong or criminal about breaking the rules.  In fact, "chainsawing the giraffe" is his new expression for the humdrum "thinking outside the box."  He lays great stress on mental tricks to avoid discouragement or anxiety, which will only tend to keep us in a mental rut.  Remember, he advises, that all of us are relatively stupid individually, because we weren't evolved to solve difficult mathematical problems.  Luckily, we're part of a civilization that can amass and transmit an enormous body of knowledge and technical skill, and we should steal ideas whenever possible -- giving credit where due, of course; he's not advocating plagiarism.

Here's one of his first puzzles.  A patient has to take one pill from Bottle A and another pill, identical in appearance, from Bottle B, every day.  Failure to take both pills is fatal, as is doubling up on either pill. The patient pours one pill out of Bottle A, but then carelessly pours two pills out of Bottle B while looking away for a moment.  Now he has three pills in his hand.  He knows that one is an A pill and two are B pills, but he can't tell by looking at them which is which.  How does he take the right dose for that day?  (Update:  And to make the problem harder for Grim:  if you don't take the entire course you'll die, and the pills aren't being made any more, so you can't just throw the three you've got away.)

A Good Translation

Thanks to Dad29's pointer, this feels right to me.
I have great wealth—a spear and a sword
and the good shield of animal hide, skin's protector;
for with this I plough, with this I reap,
with this I tread the sweet wine from the grape-vine,
with this I am named master of vassals.

Those who dare not wield a spear and a sword
and the good shield of animal hide, skin's protector:
all these men, falling around my knee,
worship me, calling me
master and great king.
He offers several other translations that have been given over the years, as well as the original Greek to compare, if you have the tongue yourself. 'Yeoman,' one says! Well, Sam Aylward, perhaps; but I think the concept is out of place even there.

"Vassal" is a little out of place, too, though there is a predecessor concept that is more applicable. Witness Homer, speaking of the warriors who were sworn to Achilles (from the Fitzgerald):
...Like wolves,
Carnivorous and fierce and tireless,
who rend a great stag on a mountainside,
and feed on him, their jaws reddened with blood,
loping in a pack to drink springwater,
their chops a-drip with fresh blood, their hearts
unshaken ever, and their bellies glutted:
such were the Myrmidons and their officers,
running to form up round Akhilleus' brave

And like the god of war
among them was Akhilleus: he stood tall
and sped the chariots and shieldmen onward.
Even Fitzgerald is not quite right here. Ares is not properly "the god of war." He is rightly named: 'The god, War.'

I Did Not Know That

It is highly likely that, had the President not visited Iowa today, I would never have known that the airport code for Sioux City is SUX.
The FedEx lady brought us a new Hav-a-Hart trap just now in the supermegagigantanormous size.  The regular size worked for the first three days, yielding a small possum and two medium-sized raccoons.  Clearly, however, the mother-ship raccoon is big and smart enough to leave her butt in the door while grabbing the apples at the far end, then backing out, because we kept finding the trap in the morning with the bait gone and the trapdoor sprung, but no raccoon.  The new, longer trap should ensure that she goes all the way in before the door springs shut on her.

No raccoons are being harmed in the crafting of this weeklong drama.  We turn them loose in the state park, where they can torment campers.  We wouldn't even bother doing that if they'd learn some restraint:  they could wait until the fruit trees get fairly large, for instance, and then take some of the fruit, instead of climbing in the little saplings and breaking of all their branches, if not outright killing the trees.  They're cold, fish-eyed chicken murderers, too, showing no moderation in their destruction of the entire flock.

Raccoons are fiendishly smart.  Tonight we'll find out if Big-Butt Mama can say, "Hey, you hold the door open while I grab the apples."  Clever girl.

We're also ramping up into hummingbird season, with eight feeders that have to be changed more than once a day.  Soon we'll have 24 feeders up and still have to change them every few hours.  See, you can safely feed hummingbirds without their destroying anything.  They've got this human-interaction thing down.

Mr. Mazetti and the CIA

Just for the record, on the subject of the paper of record.

The so-called thought process

The Guardian is running a piece suggesting that the improved federal levee system protecting the city of New Orleans may have exacerbated problems downstream in Plaquemines Parish.  No one seems to have any data, so the story mostly quotes people speculating according to their own predilections:  the problem is those rich people upstream, who don't care about us down here, or the problem is that city folks are doing the usual dirty on the rurals, or the problem is that those uncoordinated local hicks refuse to get with the centrally planned federal system.

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the concept of building at or below sea level in one of the world's great deltas without going up on stilts, and then deciding to ride out a direct hit by a hurricane.  On the news they were reporting that after landfall the authorities were just getting around to issuing a mandatory evacuation in affected areas.  That included the evacuation of a nursing home, if you can believe it.  Can you imagine waiting around for local officials to tell you to get out?  When you've got bedridden patients on your hands?  The ambulances couldn't even get in there by the time someone hit the panic button.  There were people interviewed on camera who couldn't swim.

A man, a plan

The five-point plan featured in Mr. Romney's acceptance speech tonight has one point I'm fuzzy about (the trade agreements) and four that are persuasive.  That is, they are within the reasonable competency of a Congress working with a White House, unlike, say, a plan to lower the oceans.  They are likely to produce the results claimed, unlike, say, quantitative easement and stimulus spending on public projects.  And they are unlikely to be attempted by the present administration.  i score that a win:
And unlike the president, I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs. It has 5 steps. 
First, by 2020, North America will be energy independent by taking full advantage of our oil and coal and gas and nuclear and renewables. 
Second, we will give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow. When it comes to the school your child will attend, every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance. 
Third, we will make trade work for America by forging new trade agreements. And when nations cheat in trade, there will be unmistakable consequences. 
Fourth, to assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish as have those in Greece, we will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget. 
And fifth, we will champion small businesses, America’s engine of job growth. That means reducing taxes on business, not raising them. It means simplifying and modernizing the regulations that hurt small business the most. And it means that we must rein in the skyrocketing cost of healthcare by repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Clerics v. Tories

There are some competing historical analogies for the position of Democratic leaders today. Dr. Mead and Mr. Sullivan think that Obama is a Tory.

Meanwhile, another analogy is a bit more medieval: it sees the struggle as a fight between the clerics and the yeomen.

The latter opinion makes a little more sense to me. I always thought that the new Robin Hood was the most politically relevant movie of recent years.

If you haven't watched it in a while, now's a good time.


So, just for fun, give your best deciphering of the following sentence. Yes, it's one sentence.
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

--Judith Butler, a Guggenheim Fellowship-winning professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley
Via D29. If you want to check your answer against mine, read the comments there.

Equal Pay for Monkeys

Apparently this works with dogs, too.


Not a bad bit of work, and they even got the color right.  It's an amusing story, how Sleipnir came to be born; Njörðr mocks Loki over it in the Lokasenna.

News you can use

Unless you speak Japanese (and perhaps even if you do), you can just skip to 0:50 on this video, since it's hard to imagine the narration is adding anything.


Headline:  "School asks deaf preschooler to change his sign language name."

Why?  Because weapons are forbidden at school.

US Special Forces Unhappy with CJSOTF CONOP Process

There's a lot of cursing in this one, even for a Hitler Downfall video.

If it is in fact true that an ODA -- that is, a Special Forces A-team -- cannot leave the wire without filing a 45-slide Powerpoint presentation explaining their mission.... I don't even know how to finish that sentence.  The first part of the sentence is so unbelievable that no concluding remarks really make sense.

It's as if I were trying to finish a sentence that began, "If it is in fact true that monkey-shaped leprechauns have begun to sprout from the acorns of hickory trees..."  Yes, I could append some more words, but no set of words can repair the nonsense embedded in the opening assumption.  Hickory trees don't have acorns, and ODAs don't have to file lengthy permission slips with a Combined-Joint-level headquarters in order to go outside the wire.  The monkey-shaped leprechauns, however, may be real.

Thunder, to Honor the Storm


The most disturbing part of this story is the unit the men came from:  4/3 BCT.  It's a relatively new Brigade Combat Team, stood up to help handle the rotation issues of the recent war, but that's a minor point.  The main point is that this is a unit of regulars, part of a division that is as regular as any in the Army.

Hopefully the future reporting on this issue, and the trial itself, will reveal details that make this less damning than it initially appears.  Bombing the fountain at Forsyth Park?  There's no political purpose to such a thing; almost all you'd be killing is innocent children.

One of the Big Questions

Bill Nye 'The Science Guy' wants you to know that evolution is a fact, and anyone who dissents is holding us all back. I'm going to argue that opposition to evolution in its standard form has a very respectable standing, and that in fact it continues to be popular because the argument against it points to a real weakness in the theory. A successful synthesis of the theory with the objection is necessary, but it requires a better understanding of what I take to be one of the biggest, and hardest, problems in science: how, and exactly why, order arises from chaos.*


It seems to be a law of nature that order does arise from chaos. In fact, I might propose that it is one of only two things I can think of right now that really are laws of nature,** in the sense of universal truths that we see ordering creation. Both of them are strangely linked to scale. One of them is the law of non-contradiction, which applies with iron force at levels above the quantum, but seems subject to looseness in the absence of observers at the smaller levels. The other is that irreducibly probabilistic features at this smaller level prove to give rise to remarkable order at the highest scales.

But let's start with the objection. One of the things that 'everybody knows' about evolution (and the closely allied theory of natural selection) is that Darwin is the starting point for it. This well known fact, however, is not at all true. The theory that the vast profusion of strange forms in nature arose accidentally over time is one that Aristotle argues against in the Physics II, in a context that makes it clear that it was popularly held among some Greek thinkers. Let's look at the argument, because it's actually a pretty plausible one. He is arguing that Nature acts for a cause, and he treats the counterargument:
A difficulty presents itself: why should not nature work, not for the sake of something, nor because it is better so, but just as the sky rains, not in order to make the corn grow, but of necessity? What is drawn up must cool, and what has been cooled must become water and descend, the result of this being that the corn grows. Similarly if a man's crop is spoiled on the threshing-floor, the rain did not fall for the sake of this-in order that the crop might be spoiled-but that result just followed. Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g. that our teeth should come up of necessity-the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food-since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his 'man-faced ox-progeny' did.

Such are the arguments (and others of the kind) which may cause difficulty on this point. Yet it is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true.
This argument should make clear that our modern deniers of evolutionary theory -- though many of them do not know it -- are inheritors of Aristotle's view. This is not a surprise, since most of them are devout Christians, and Aristotle's view was brought into the Catholic doctrine before the Reformation.

Still, we now know that Aristotle is just wrong about this, right? That's the point we started with. Things that come about by chance do exhibit extraordinary order, at least when viewed at the proper scale. Far from being evidence of purpose in Nature, this is simply a law of nature. Wait, what? Read that again: why should a purposeless nature have laws? Because it does, that's all, goes the argument. We observe them, and we aren't going to deny the plain evidence of our eyes.


There is another problem, though, which is that evolutionary theorists still need purpose in nature. It is, in fact, their explanations of this sort that strike us as least plausible -- but they are indispensable. Observe:
Once upon a time, there was an ape that stood up. Why it stood up nobody knows, but once upright it found it could use its hands to fashion tools from sticks and stones. So it stayed standing up. And once it decided to stay standing up, its brain started to grow. Why its brain started to grow nobody knows, but with a bigger brain the ape, which was by now an ape-man, could make better tools and even speak. Why it started to speak nobody knows. And by then it wasn’t an ape-man any more, but a human. And those humans with the most developed brains – Homo sapiens – used their cunning to spread throughout the world. All the many other kinds of human and ape-man died. Why they died nobody knows. When the Homo sapiens were lords of all, some of them became curious about where they had come from. Having a poor collective memory, they at first thought the world had simply been handed to them by a god who happened to look just like they did. But a few began using their inflated brains to try to piece together a story about how it had all begun with an ape that had once stood up....

There remains something about the evolutionary account of our origins that sounds a little like a just-so story.
This is the very problem Aristotle was pointing out as a proof that this kind of explanation could not be correct. His example is your teeth: your mouth is very well ordered for the kind of food you need to eat. Things that happen randomly do not give rise to such perfect order: it would be like a rockslide just happening to give rise to a perfectly-formed house, and not once, but over and over. If we observed such rockslides making houses for men, we would have to say that there was some reason for it -- something informing the process that was directed at house-building.

Evolutionary theory argues that there is something directing the process: survival. Most of the random mutations prove not to be any good, and are discarded via the simple means of death. Some of them are -- so the theory goes -- and by providing an evolutionary advantage, they are sometimes retained and forwarded. At the proper scale, it ends up looking like excellent design, but the only purpose directing the order was survival.

But this is inadequate, and not merely for the reasons that our feminist readers keep mentioning (i.e., that most of these arguments for why a given natural quality is 'advantageous' could just as easily be built out the other way). It's not just that the explanations read like 'just so stories' that are demonstrably inadequate. It's also that we see similar patters of order arising from chaos in things that are inorganic, and not at all motivated by survival.

That suggests that there is something else at work -- something that (if we view the scale in a way that favors the large scale) appears to be an ordering principle in Nature itself. It could be a unifying principle that explains the rise of life, as well as why the survival principle falls in so nicely with the inorganic ordering principles. That's just what Aristotle was talking about, and it's what our modern Christian objectors see also.

Alternatively, it could prove to be multiple causes that happen to align in effect. In any case, we ought not to shove aside the objection as meaningless or empty. There is a problem there, and it's based on a very old argument with a very respectable pedigree. I think it deserves to be considered more carefully, even if its principle proponents don't always quite know why they object as they do.

*  Why "chaos" when there seems to be some level of order, i.e., probabilistic order?  I'm using the term to indicate where even orderly behavior is nevertheless irreducibly contaminated with randomness:  the best we can do is to provide a waveform of possibilities, but any of these can be realized.  As D. M. Armstrong points out, a probabilistic "law" permits even the most improbable outcome -- in theory, in fact, it does so infinitely, so that every single case ordered by the law could turn out to be the most improbable outcome.  That's a pretty chaotic kind of law!

** One might argue for things like the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the law of gravity, but these cases are more problematic than they appear. In addition to a certain odd paradox of observations, a law that implies increasing order on higher levels of scale is not necessarily compatible with the Second Law; it may be that the appearance of increasing entropy is related to the scale of observations. In terms of gravity, the proponents of the Higgs field argue that it is not a law of nature, but a function of the existence of the Higgs Boson, which particle physicists think they have demonstrated. If that is the case, gravity arose shortly after the Big Bang, and is not a product of "Nature" on the grand scale, except insofar as nature is permeated by the Higgs field.

Of course, much of this is quite speculative physics. I don't take a firm position on any of it, because my training is in philosophy and history; there is always more to learn.

Maps online

Not Google Maps to find your way somewhere, but a nice collection of historical maps, available by click.

Say what?

I was casually reading an article describing the pain of a Ron Paul supporter who doesn't want to throw her vote away writing in her favorite candidate, but feels that otherwise she's got only a choice between "welfare and warfare."  Then she remarked, to illustrate that there's nothing to choose:  "One wants the fishing pole, the other wants the shoe."  I'm stumped, even after some search-engine work.  Does anyone here know the joke or story she's referring to?

All Good Things...

It was very pleasant not thinking about politics for a few days. However, the good citizen cannot leave his duties for long, nor entrust them to others.
Police: All Empire State shooting victims were wounded by officers

...The officers unloaded 16 rounds in the shadow of the Empire State Building at a disgruntled former apparel designer, killing him after he engaged in a gunbattle with police, authorities said.

Three passersby sustained direct gunshot wounds, while the remaining six were hit by fragments, according to New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. All injuries were caused by police, he said Saturday.
The last time I was in New York, the police I saw were carrying automatic rifles. Maybe semi-automatic ones would be a better choice for them than handguns: a single shot is both more accurate, and more likely to drop the target, so that fewer rounds are necessary.

Either that, or -- crazy talk, I know -- you could allow other citizens to be prepared to do their duty to assist.
The FBI reports that in 2010, 19 police officers were slain while alone on patrol. Seven officers were killed with their own weapons. Of 56 officers killed, 16 had fired their own weapons, as Harrison did.... FBI Supplemental Homicide Reports show that private citizens killed police attackers only three times annually since 2000. Yet an unusual and compelling story of self-defense by a concealed carry licensee gets mentioned only by local media.
"Only three times a year" is a much larger figure when the total number of officers killed is below 60. Those three would nearly round it out to sixty -- except five percent of the time, an ordinary citizen stepped up and saved the cop.

If you view this as something that occurs with statistical regularity, we might start to ask, "What can we do to raise this figure?" Quite a lot of things, if you wanted to do so: especially in places like Chicago and New York, a robust police and private partnership could be highly effective. Consider the benefits of offering free training to citizens, helping them to understand how to report and how to assist, and making sure the police understood to expect and and how to respond to the assistance they were getting.

I would think you could move a substantial number of those officers out of the "killed in the line of duty" column, and over to the "saved by citizen assistance" column. Is that worth doing?