Are Republican insurgents reactionary?

To the contrary, Richard Fernandez argues that they're the only ones looking forward:
The elite can only continue to sustain itself by borrowing.   That was what the crisis was about, borrowing. Obama’s basic demand was simple:  let me borrow and borrow without limit.  His ‘victory’, if so it can be called, is the victory of a bankrupt who has compelled his relatives to mortgage the farm so he can return to his losing streak at the casino.

. . . It has been argued and proved by natural disasters that the entire fabric of civilization is but nine meals from anarchy.  After 3 days without food most people are willing to do anything to anybody to get a meal.  The hard reality is that the current deficit system will inexorably create a situation when the grub literally runs out. 
. . . [William Galston's OpEd at the WSJ] argues that the conservative insurgency is rooted in some kind of atavism; that it arises from a nostalgic hankering after an America long past in the face of new demography.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The hell with demography.  People would be just fine with changes in demography if only times were good.  When times are bad homogeneity is irrelevant.  Rats of the exact same breed will fight to the death over the last piece of cheese. 
It’s the cheese that matters.  The conservative insurgency is rooted in a lack of money.  And so will the coming liberal one.  The unrest is not driven by a desire to return to the past.  On the contrary it is propelled almost entirely by the growing belief that there is no future.

Government work in its purest form

More on yesterday's subject of how the executive training for President that consists of running a successful campaign doesn't necessarily translate into the expertise needed to run the nation's healthcare system:
Complex regulations, the flexibility of peanut brittle, and a system that rewards rule-followers and connections, not ability to do good work?  Now that the problem has been identified, we learn that it couldn’t be fixed because of fear of transparency and political liability, and that no one will be held accountable for it.  That’s not an isolated problem of government function.  That’s a distillation of government function, a metaphor for the entire thing, and again, it was faith in this entity that animated Obamacare.

The budget that isn't

Peter Schiff nails it:  "Whatever the crisis, the real one will be much worse because we did raise the debt ceiling. . . . The debt ceiling is not a ceiling.  We should just call it the debt sky!"   I'm increasingly impatient with stories about the cost of the government shutdown, the danger of default, the "gridlock" in Washington, and all the rest of it.   Yes, it's all unappealing, but it pales in comparison with the alternative, which is a cheerful, cooperative status quo. When a boat is about to go over the falls, a snag in the river is the least of its worries.  I feel more like Michael Walsh at PJ Media:
The GOP is not, in any meaningful sense, a conservative, first-principles, Constitutionalist party — and unless it’s subsumed by the Tea Party, it never will be.  Rather, it’s content to be the lesser half of the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party as long as it can collect some of the pork scraps from underneath the table of the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Government.  No wonder they keep losing — they like it.
Update:  While Fitch generated some spookified coverage earlier this week by putting the U.S. credit rating on a downgrade watch, the Chinese rating agency Dagong went ahead and made it official.  One big difference between the two, besides decisiveness, is that Fitch blamed its action on "political brinksmanship," as if a soothing compromise could fix the problem.  Dagong, for its part, issued the downgrade after everyone got chummy on a compromise:
[T]he temporary fix of the debt issue would not defuse the fundamental conundrum of the U.S. fiscal deficit or improve repayment ability in the long-term, but could trigger defaults at any time in the future. 
"The deal means only an escape from a debt default for the time being, but hasn't changed the fact that the growth of government borrowing has largely outpaced overall economic growth and fiscal revenues". . . .
Who care what China thinks?   Admittedly I don't look to a Communist regime for economic wisdom.   On the other hand,
Dagong estimated that the U.S.'s foreign creditors could have suffered an estimated loss of $628.5 billion between 2008 and 2012 due to a weakening of the U.S. dollar. 
China, sitting on the largest stockpile of foreign exchange reserves in the world, is the biggest holder of U.S. treasuries.
For now, China seems not to have much choice but to invest in U.S. treasuries.  It will be interesting to find out what happens when that changes.

The martial metaphor

Jonah Goldberg takes on the question of how government can be so good at somethings and so inept at others.
Whenever I make the argument that government is very bad at doing things like Obamacare, the liberal response is invariably to offer counter-examples.  "The military is awesome! . . . "We sent a man to the moon!" 
What liberals never appreciate is that in all of these counter-examples there's something else going on.  The institutional cultures that won World War II or put a man on the moon or that discover some new protein are not strictly speaking government cultures.  While none of them are immune from bureaucratic stupidity and inefficiency, ultimately higher motivations win out. 
How the Marines' esprit de corps differs from the post office's esprit de corps should be pretty obvious.  But even in the other examples, the cultural core of excellent government institutions is driven by something greater than a mere paycheck and significantly different from simple "public service."  The NASA that sent men to the moon was imbued with a culture not just of excellence and patriotism but the kind of awe and wonder that cannot be replicated by the Department of Health and Human Services.  Moreover, for scientists passionate about space and the race to get there, there was simply no place else to be.  That meant the very best people were attracted to NASA.  Even if, for some strange reason, you're passionate about writing billions of lines of code for a website and managing health-insurance data, there are still better things to do with your time than work on Obamacare. 
I want to be fair to government workers.  Many individuals who work for government are dedicated to doing excellent work for the public good.  But I'm talking about culture here.  President Obama talks as if, absent a war or other national crisis, the entire government can still be imbued with the spirit of sacrifice and excellence that won World War II or put a man on the moon.  And that's just crazy talk. 
Obama, the permanent campaigner, believes that governing should be more like campaigning.  Everyone unified towards a single -- Obamacentric -- purpose.  Everyone loyal to his needs.  Everyone in agreement with his agenda.  In 2008, when asked what management experience he had, he said that running his campaign proved he was ready for the presidency.  That should have been the moment when we all heard the record-scratch sound effect and said "What's that now!?"  Even if Obama deserved all of the credit for his campaign's successes, campaigning and governing are fundamentally different things.  Campaign culture allows for people to be fired.  It also rewards excellence, which is why some very young people rise very quickly in the campaign world, while it's far more rare in civil service.  Campaigns have a deadline-driven, crisis-junky energy and sense of team loyalty that is at least somewhat analogous to a war or some other crisis.  That's why the Obama campaign website was great.  It's also why the Obamacare website's error page has an error page.


It's funny how much easier it is to talk about this kind of thing as long as we call it "probiotics."

Not fit to print

The L.A. Times isn't in the least embarrassed to admit that it censors all letters to the editor that challenge climate-change orthodoxy.  You might wonder if that's not even more extraordinary in light of the recently updated IPCC climate-change report, which nearly comes right out and admits that the evidence for recent warming isn't there and that something is drastically wrong with the models.  Not so.  The only important part of the new IPCC report apparently is the conclusory statement that scientists are 95% certain that they're right about at least half of climate change.  So what should we think about the fact that the IPCC's third, fourth and fifth assessment reports, with their increasingly strident warnings, were published against a background of rising CO2 levels combined with a complete absence of detectable warming?  Shut up, the L.A. Times editorial staff explains. This isn't politics. This is science. Everything else is conspiracist ideation of the sort that you might expect from free-market enthusiasts.

Consensus is a great thing when you can screen out all the dissenting voices.  What do they know, anyway?  Are they on the approved government-funded commissions?  No?  Then they're politically suspect anarchists, and it's a shame that the First Amendment can't be revised to shut them up.  Speaking of consensus, if we get to use that as a substitute for logic and evidence, Anthony Watts helpfully compares his traffic against anti-denier sites like Real Climate and Skeptical Science.   Presto!   He wins, so he must be right.

What do these people want?

More fun as Ivy Leaguers try to come to grips with a Tea Party that won't go away.  We have the classic Yalie approach in the post below.  For another view of Tea Partiers, equally distorted by a prism of malice but not so ignorant, try Harvard professor Theda Skocpol's interview at Salon.  To an impressive degree, she's allowing data about Tea Partiers to moderate her knee-jerk assumptions.  For instance, while she spouts the usual line that a streak of racist xenophobia infects the movement, she also acknowledges that the more powerful meaning of symbols like the Confederate Flag is "regional resistance to federal power" and nullification.  She also doesn't buy the usual accusation that the movement is Astroturfed, though she's alarmed by the big-money organization that allows a group like Jim DeMint's Heritage Foundation to scare the pants off of squishy Republicans who are thinking of caving on a vote, because the legislators know what's coming at them in the next primary if they do.  (The TPs may not have the big numbers, but they're ferociously active in primaries.)  Skocpol would like to think that moderate Republicans are going to start pouring money and organization into counterattacks at the primary level, but she's not fooling herself enough to predict it yet.  She also warns that it's a mistake to predict a Democratic or moderate-Republican sweep in 2014, because mid-term behavior traditionally favors highly engaged activists.

There's an amusing section in which she struggles to understand what's got everyone's dress up over his head about a benevolent and moderate law like Obamacare.  On that subject, she hasn't quite brought herself to look honestly at what motivates her opponents.  To her credit, she's gone as far as to understand that the law is fundamentally redistributionist, and that some people don't much care for that aspect.  Otherwise she's drawing a blank.

Skocpol closes with a doleful (and slightly sour-grapes) view of the Left's ability to go toe-to-toe with extremist Republicans:
There’s also a whole series of reasons why older conservative voters, backed by ideologues, have this combination of apocalyptic moral certitude with organization that really gets results.  Especially in obstructing things in American politics. 
I don’t happen to think that the left and the center-left could imitate this.  For one thing, they don’t have the presence across as many states and districts.  But it’s also not clear it’s a model worth imitating.  I think the real problem that you’ve got right now on the left is how to defeat this stuff, how to contain it, how to beat it — given the permeability of American political institutions to this kind of thing.  And I don’t think it’s clear what’s going to happen.

Those people

Yale's Daniel Kahan doesn't know any Tea Partiers, but disapproves of them heartily, so he was shocked to discover that there is a slight statistical correlation between Tea Party beliefs and scientific comprehension.  Not that he lets this get in the way of his abiding faith in the inferiority of their beliefs:
Of course, I still subscribe to my various political and moral assessments--all very negative-- of what I understand the "Tea Party movement" to stand for.  I just no longer assume that the people who happen to hold those values are less likely than people who share my political outlooks to have acquired the sorts of knowledge and dispositions that a decent science comprehension scale measures. 
I'll now be much less surprised, too, if it turns out that someone I meet at, say, the Museum of Science in Boston, or the Chabot Space and Science Museum in Oakland, or the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is part of the 20% (geez-- I must know some of them) who would answer "yes" when asked if he or she identifies with the Tea Party.    If the person is there, then it will almost certainly be the case that that he or she [and] I will agree on how cool the stuff is at the museum, even if we don't agree about many other matters of consequence.
But, as Bookworm Room points out, it doesn't even occur to him that this means he might want to look more carefully at the basis for the political views of these people who, to his surprise, turn out not to be ignorant fools.   The comments on Kahan's blogpost are brutal; apparently he got linked by Politico, Watts Up with That, and Ace of Spades.  As one commenter said:
And they said George Bush [w]as incurious.   If my business was studying the intelligence of the population, I'd be embarrassed admitting I hadn't met such a large swath of the population.  Yet, this author takes joy in the fact.  Or else he's just laying the groundwork to defend his findings from his peers.  Either way, such a shame there's so little curiousity in academia these days.

Burros in wells

Wired explores child-directed education.  I never know what to think of these proposals, which sometimes sound like such obvious good sense and at other times degenerate into stupid chaos.  If the article is at all accurate, though, one dirt-poor school in Matamoros stumbled onto a winning formula.  The class did have the advantage of one clearly exceptional student:
To test her limits, [the teacher] challenged the class with a problem he was sure would stump her.  He told the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the famous German mathematician, who was born in 1777. 
When Gauss was a schoolboy, one of his teachers asked the class to add up every number between 1 and 100. It was supposed to take an hour, but Gauss had the answer almost instantly. 
“Does anyone know how he did this?” Juárez Correa asked. 
A few students started trying to add up the numbers and soon realized it would take a long time.  Paloma, working with her group, carefully wrote out a few sequences and looked at them for a moment.  Then she raised her hand. 
“The answer is 5,050,” she said. “There are 50 pairs of 101.”
Not only this budding little Gauss but the whole class responded well to the teacher's style of provoking their curiosity and then making them figure things out on their own.  After a year of his approach, standardized tests showed a decrease in failing math scores from 45% to 7%, and in failing language skills from 31% to 3.5%.  Excellent scores increased from 0% to 63%. Paloma's score was the highest in Mexico.  I liked this story, which the teacher told his class:
One day, a burro fell into a well, Juárez Correa began.  It wasn’t hurt, but it couldn’t get out.  The burro’s owner decided that the aged beast wasn’t worth saving, and since the well was dry, he would just bury both.  He began to shovel clods of earth into the well.  The burro cried out, but the man kept shoveling.  Eventually, the burro fell silent.  The man assumed the animal was dead, so he was amazed when, after a lot of shoveling, the burro leaped out of the well.  It had shaken off each clump of dirt and stepped up the steadily rising mound until it was able to jump out. 
Juárez Correa looked at his class.  “We are like that burro,” he said.  “Everything that is thrown at us is an opportunity to rise out of the well we are in.”

"What am I missing?"

It's a minor improvement, surely, that this poor child posting at the Daily Kos is confronting the painful task of reconciling data with mental models.  He's discovering to his horror that, although he was promised that Obamacare would reduce his health insurance costs, in fact his premiums are about to double.  How can this be, he wails?

He should start with the understanding that all that business about lowering premiums was complete balderdash intended to tamp down the fires of resistance long enough to get through a couple of election cycles.  It's impossible to believe anyone was serious about floating those claims.  Then our callow young poster should consider the real aim of collectivized medicine, considered in the most favorable light to its proponents, which is to even out the good and bad luck of a population with a mix of sicker, healthier, younger, and older members, some of whom are exposed to the expense of pregnancy (their own or a dependent's), or heart disease, or cancer, and some of whom are less so.  If such a motive is confronted honestly, it should be blindingly obvious that young, healthy people are going to take it in the shorts in terms of increased costs.  How else could it work?

But as usual, this young fellow was hoping that things could get cheaper for all those unlucky people without getting more expensive for people in his relatively fortunate position.  His consent was bought cheap, without his ever having to consider the cost.  Now he has to think about what it's worth to him to be compassionate.

Lately, I'm noticing something else odd.  A lot of the outrage over the newly-rolled-out premiums is over the horrifying discovery that the only way to keep premiums down is to have high deductibles and co-pays.  As my husband noted, all you have to do is add in health-savings accounts and you get a proposal that W might have floated.  Maybe my high-deductible, low-premium policy is going to survive this debacle after all.  What's more, maybe a lot more people are going to get used to the idea of buying insurance for cash, rather than having their employer purchase it for them with invisible money.  Maybe they're also going to get used to buying most of their medical care with cash (in all but the most medically disastrous years), so that they start noticing price signals again.  Heck, maybe we'll even start getting price signals again.

Wouldn't it be ironic if Obamacare didn't destroy the American health system, after all, but avoided doing so only by destroying what collectivists imagined were the functional bits?


In the comments section to an earlier post I gave my initial guess about how a helicopter must work. The part about each rotor blade acting like a fixed wing in terms of the general Bernoulli lift principle was right. The guess about the tail rotor counteracting the spin that the main rotor otherwise would put on the body was right.  There are other ways to skin that cat, such as mounting two counterrotating main rotors.  Sometimes those are fore-and-aft, or side-by-side, but they can also be mounted on the same axle, one over the other.  They can even be side by side and so close that they must be carefully timed to avoid collision between the intermeshed blades.  Yikes.

But my intuition about how the main rotor could be made to tilt the body (to go forward/backwards/right/left) was completely wrong.  It turns out each rotor blade can tilt on its long axis, in two ways.  They can be tilted all in lockstep, which affects their general lifting power.  But what's really nifty, and what I never would have guessed, is that the machine will automatically cause each rotor to tilt individually just as it reaches the point in its cycle that's in the direction the pilot wants to go, and then flip back when it passes that point.  Now that's a fast adjustment!   I had vaguely in mind that the whole rotor system, including its axis, must be tiltable, but then on reflection that couldn't have been right.  Tilt each rotor blade one at a time as it reaches a particular point in its superfast rotation!  Very clever.  No wonder helicopters need such obsessive levels of maintenance.

And now for Bernoulli, and my indistinct memory of reading a quibble about the explanation for lift that we carry around in our heads:  the wing is shaped with a big curve on top and a much flatter one below, so when air passes it must go faster on top in order to traverse the same distance, resulting in higher pressure below the wing and lower pressure above, ergo lift.  But, you ask, who says the the air on top has to get to the back of the wing at the same time as the air below? And in fact it doesn't:  it gets there a lot faster; the air on the bottom never catches up.  Hmm.


The Wiki lift article claims that the Bernoulli equation itself just describes what will happen if you assume a speed differential above and below the wing, which can be observed experimentally.  In order to explain and predict the observed speed differential, you need a more involved treatment of conservation of momentum, mass, and energy, and Navier-Stokes equations that can't readily be solved, and simplifying assumptions about viscosity that allow them to be approximated for some conditions.  I'll just have to take their word for it:  experimentation tells us that if you mold a proper wing shape and use the right angle of attack at a good speed, you'll get an airspeed differential and lift.  In my brain, that gets filed under "magic."


The alleged facts of the case are unpleasantly familiar, though that in itself can lead to misjudgment. There will be no trial, though the accused allegedly admitted the rape. He is a popular football player, a relative of an influential politician. The family claims to have been driven out of town by the community because they wouldn't let it drop. The mother lost her job, and the charges were dropped in spite of the confessions and the conviction of the sheriff that the crime had occurred.

The American way is to move on. Let it go, as the sheriff says. There will be no trial, so there can be no overcoming of the presumption of innocence.

It's interesting that Anonymous is making these kinds of rape cases one of its forefront issues. In a way that's praiseworthy, but it's worth remembering that the KKK did just the same thing. Vigilante groups that hunt down and destroy alleged rapists often come to enjoy huge community support, as the Klan did during the height of its lynching program.

That's not to say that Anonymous are the same as the Klan. They certainly aren't. They aren't going to turn up at this kid's door and hang him. They aren't motivated by racism, but somewhat more purely by outrage over the repeated failure of the American system to address this kind of rape case.

It's an interesting problem. The system certainly has failed, repeatedly and consistently, in cases like this.

Sometimes I think vigilantes are really the answer to the failures of the system. Sometimes -- as in the case of the Klan -- they're a worse problem. Where are we here, I wonder?

Bored on a plane

I loved these.  My husband sent them to me, knowing they'd punch my buttons.


It's only just beginning to get cool enough that it's pleasant to work in the garden again.  That leaves me with an impressive stand of weeds four feet high and sunflowers twelve feet high in many areas of the garden.  I'm chipping away at them, but it's slow going.

I blame the government shutdown.

Price signal opacity & third-party payors

Louisiana WalMart shoppers go feral when the food-stamp computer shuts down, stores become unable to verify whether any benefits are left on EBT cards, and one store decides to put its shoppers on the honor system for the duration.  It was looting without guns.

Return to New York

Some months ago, Cassandra (and others) took sharp issue with Grim and me over the striking down of New York's stop'n'frisk laws, on the ground that we were blithely underestimating those laws' effectiveness in making many areas of New York fit to live in.  This article very much takes her side of the argument, attributing the recent uptick in horrific Big Apple crime to the "ongoing dialog between police and criminals" that sends a clear message about what will be tolerated.  I'd still like to see cops exercise their discretion without using racial rules of thumb, but there probably is a lot to be said for not requiring them to explain too much about their gut hunches, and especially for not dragging them into endless racial-grievance tribunals over it.

H/t Maggie's Farm.


Part four:  in which it becomes clear why I've never learned to pick a lock.  Nearly all the locks I encounter in daily life are some form of a cylinder within a cylinder.  The outer cylinder (green in the diagram below) is attached to a fixed door, while the inner cylinder (yellow) is meant to rotate freely within the door when unlocked.

[Corrected per Doug's comment:]  When locked, the inner cylinder is prevented from rotating past the outer cylinder by little "driver pins" (blue) protruding radially through the boundary between the two cylinders.  The driver pins are lined up in a row along the shared axle of the cylinders.  There is some kind of spring mechanism that snaps the driver pins into place, each being brought up snug up against a "plug pin" (red).  The driver- and plug-pins together make a smooth shape that exactly fits a shaft that's radial to the axle shared by the cylinders.

When each red plug pin is pushed just far enough, the point where it meets the blue driver pin will line up exactly with the "shear" boundary between the yellow inner cylinder and the green outer cylinder, at which point the blue driver pin can slide sideways past the red plug pin, and the yellow inner cylinder can rotate past the green outer cylinder.  But each red plug pin must be pushed a slightly different distance in order to make it line up properly, and the cylinder will not move unless all of the plug pins are lined up at the same moment.

A key typically takes the form of a rod intended to be inserted along the shared axle of the two cylinders, one edge of which is notched up and down in a pattern that, when fully inserted, will push each spring-loaded plug pin just far enough to move it out of the way and let the inner cylinder rotate with the twisting action of the key.  This rotation is connected in a variety of ways with a lever or cam that retracts a bolt out of the doorframe and back into the door lock.

If a cylinder lock is not constructed carefully, its plug pins can be pushed back one at a time until they're just at the release point.  The cylinder will then turn just enough to keep that pin from slipping back, while the other pins continue to obstruct rotation.  A lock picker exploits this weakness to push each pin back one at a time until all are released, using a variety of springy bent wires and a delicate sense of touch to detect when each pin has been pushed into the right position.

I tried to find information on how fast professionals can really pick locks, but it's hard to sort through the anecdotal evidence and casual bragging on the Internet.  On TV, the pros from Dover can do it in just a few seconds.


Part three:  being an examination of the many parts of my piano's action that I never gave any thought to.  Here's something that seems obvious in retrospect:  the piano has to be constructed so that depressing a key makes a hammer not just land on a string but strike it and immediately rebound; otherwise all that happens is a dull thud.  At the moment of the "strike" the hammer has become a free projectile.

At about the turn of the 18th century, a bright fellow named Bartolomeo Cristofori worked out the piano action that allowed musicians to produce both soft (piano) and loud (forte) notes by striking strings instead of plucking them harpsichord-style.  His early model embodied many principles still in use, such as the interaction of levers to translate a small finger motion into a larger percussive impact on a string some distance away, and a mechanism to keep the hammer from bouncing and restriking, called an "escapement."  The original single-escapement device was improved by the nineteenth-century double-escapement, which allowed the musician to repeat notes very quickly without waiting for the key to come fully back to its resting position.

Among the prized characteristics of a good piano action are the immediacy of the connection between the key and the string (no simple matter considering the Rube-Goldberg intervening mechanism), the smoothness of the action throughout the range of motion of the key, and the responsiveness of the key to the whole range of volume from piano to forte.

Pictured below is a grand-piano action.  For some reason, it never occurred to me before this instant that a grand piano hammer strikes from below the string, even though that should have been clearly visible to me all along; it's right out there in the open.  The link above at "double-escarpment" provides the key for all the little parts as well as helpful animations.

What should piano actions be made of?  Some experts are coming around to the acceptance of composite materials instead of wood.  In that connection, I was surprised to read this expert's glowing praise of a brand I've never heard of:  the Fazioli piano, apparently outstanding for all of its sound qualities, not just the superb responsiveness of its action.

Siphon power

Part two of my exploration of things I thought I understood but didn't, really:  the water closet or flush toilet.  Even before looking it up to write this piece, I guess I had a fairly decent understanding of the easily accessible drain-and-refill mechanisms located under the lid of the toilet tank.  It's a big tank with small, straightforward moving parts whose function is easily observed and understood.  The flush handle pulls a "piston" out of position at the bottom of the tank, allowing gravity to drain several gallons of tank water quickly through a large opening at the bottom.  As the water level falls, a float valve drops, operating another lever that opens a refill valve connected to the house's water supply.  (This resupply valve being a very small opening, the refill takes a minute or so while the draining operation takes only a few seconds.)  When the tank is full again, the float-ball lever should come back into position and shut off the refill valve.  Just in case, there's a little overflow pipe that lets excess refill water drain harmlessly down the drain, so that the worst that can happen is that you hear the refill water continue to run long after the flush cycle should have been completed.  That's called "The toilet won't stop running" or "why is the water bill so high this month?"

What was a little more mysterious to me was the bowl mechanism, which has no moving parts except water.  This part is a clever use of the siphon principle to provide waste-moving power with a built-in gas-trap seal.  While some commercial toilets use the building's water pressure to compress air gradually between flushes so that it can be used for moving power, most domestic water closets rely entirely on the potential energy stored in the raised water tank.  The clever part is the sideways-S-shaped wiggle built into the bottom of the bowl, which for some reason is called a "P-trap."  The S-shaped drain goes down from the bottom of the bowl, then up a few inches higher than the bottom of the bowl, then down again into the drainage system.  The high point of the bump-up is called a "weir," just like the dam-like affair that allows a pond to overflow when it reaches a certain level.  When the bowl is in stable "ready" mode, its water level is just high enough to fill the P-trap to the level of the weir, thus forming the gas seal that so contributes to our domestic comfort.  (Our sinks have P-traps for the same reason.)  If, at this point, we spill small amounts of liquid into the bowl, they will simply rise slowly over the weir and drain rather than flood the bathroom floor.  But if instead we dump several gallons quickly into the bowl, we activate a siphon that exerts a strong pull on the contents of bowl for several seconds until the siphon is broken again.  Assuming the drainpipe isn't clogged, we would be hard-pressed to pour enough water into the bowl quickly enough to make it overflow; it's a robust failsafe device.

No doubt many of us have learned that, when the water supply is temporarily off, the toilet can be made to flush pretty well simply by pouring a two-gallon bucket of water into it.  The bucket substitutes for the capacitor action normally performed by the water tank.  In normal action, though, a well-designed toilet tank adds two mechanisms that the emergency bucket does not duplicate:  it sends part of the water through "rim holes" near the top of the bowl, which wash down the sides, and it sends the rest through a siphon-jet hole near the bottom of the bowl, in order to jump-start the siphon mechanism.  Either way, unless the drainpipe is clogged (a melancholy prospect), all it takes to complete a flush is to introduce a couple of gallons of water quickly into the bowl.  To get this done in a pinch, we don't need water pressure, let alone a gas or electrical connection.  It's one of the things that works well in post-hurricane/zombie apocalypse conditions, if you've remembered to fill some bathtubs with water and the floodwaters outside remain lower than your bowl's weir.

All the finicky stuff inside the tank is just a much more convenient way of schlepping a couple of gallons of water into the bathroom for each flush, dumping it into the bowl quickly and without splashing when we want it to happen and not otherwise, and then refilling the tank slowly (while we leave the room and go on about our day) without much risk of overfilling the tank and flooding the floor.  Modern toilets do have extra wrinkles mandated by code, such as anti-siphon devices built into the refill water supply.  We're more careful now than we used to be about preventing back-flow from faucets or toilets into the house's clean water supply.  It's true that we're still using the potable water supply to transport our sewage, which is pretty primitive and wasteful, but that's another subject.

This video isn't bad except for its annoying sound effects; I recommend watching it with the sound off.

Exaggerated confidence

My newly purchased book, "The Invisible Gorilla," discusses how we over-estimate our mental powers. Tests like the "gorilla on the basketball court" show not only that people fail to see the gorilla (because they're concentrating on adding up the number of passes made by players), but also that they are terrible at predicting how well they'd be likely to do on this and many other cognitive/attention tests. The section I'm reading now asks how well we think we understand seven basic gadgets: (1) a bicycle, (2) a zipper, (3) a flush toilet, (4) a cylinder lock, (5) a car speedometer, (6) a piano key, and (7) a helicopter.

Now, that gives me pause!  I'm pretty confident of my understanding of a bicycle.  The author claims that people challenged to make a sketch of its workings do things like omit the chain, or connect the chain to both wheels, or draw the pedals outside the chain, but I don't believe I'd make any of those mistakes.  On the other hand, if zipper technology were erased tomorrow, the world would be using buttons and hooks for a long time if they were relying on me to re-invent that mainstay of modern fashion.  I know a flush toilet has something to do with siphon power, but that's about where I quit.   Years of dusting the perfectly visible workings of the hammers in my piano have left me a bit vague about how all the levers fit together, though I do understand generally that the key tilts on a lever and that eventually translates that motion to a final hinged piece that strikes a string.  All I really know about speedometers is that they know what fraction of a mile represents one revolution of my tire; years ago I was warned that putting the wrong size of tire on your car will make your speedometer mislead you about your speed.   Helicopters and cylinder locks might as well be black magic.

So perhaps some education is in order, beginning with the onomatopoetic zzzzzzzipper.  

The basic idea is a row of interlocking teeth that fit tight when in a straight line but loosely when bent into an arc.   If the row is in a spiral shape, it generally is made of polyester, while "ladder-type" arrangements typically are made of metal.  According to Wikipedia, "A special type of metal zipper is made from pre-formed wire, usually brass but sometimes other metals too.  Only a few companies in the world have the technology."  This is the sort of thing that sets one's conspiracy-detectors buzzing, but a helpful Forbes article explains how one Japanese firm came to dominate the zipper business by the early years of this century, including a charming anecdote about growing pains as an Asian company attempts to expand overseas:
Yoshida told the employees he sent abroad to melt into the local population as much as possible.  In one incident an employee sent to Holland spent months studying Dutch so that he could make an opening day speech to his employees in their own language.  After his speech the workers are reported to have said, “Wow, Japanese sure sounds a lot like Dutch.”
Of course, no sooner had Japanese entrepreneurs sewed up the zipper market than China began to give them a run for their money.

Here are some do-it-yourself repair guides for a broken zipper, which should be easy to complete with our newfound understanding of the mysterious mechanism.

DNA molecules operate very much like a zipper.  In fact, all enzymes employ the trick of opening up a clasp so that an interlocking shape can be inserted or removed before the clasp springs back.

Return to sender

Barrycades are being carried across town and dumped at the White House.

One of the Zero Hedge commenters adds: "BREAKING: Washington Redskins drop "Washington" from their name because it's embarrassing." Ross Douthat, on the other hand, probably would say their methods are unsound. And Glenn Beck organizes volunteers to clean the Mall up, because the National Park Service has been too busy harassing veterans to do its job.