Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sundry Quotes and Comments

Columbia’s New Student Orientation Program tells every fresh arrival on campus, “Consent is Sexy.  Does this mean that incoming freshmen are being told that in order to be "sexy" (Late Modern society's ultimate good) you darned well ought to give consent when that randy guy demands the deed?  After all, "is" is commutative, isn't it? 
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A big part of the appeal [of transhumanism] is a yearning to become extraordinary—without actually having to work for it. Why spend years honing one’s musical talent if it can be technically engineered into the package? 
-- Wesley J. Smith, "The Materialists’ Rapture"
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 Evil is not imaginative. It inspires the same transgressions over and over again, with such infinitesimal variation that only the weak-minded are not quickly bored by that way of living. It seeks to destroy, and destruction takes no imagination. Creation takes true imagination, the making of something new and wondrous, whether it’s a song or an iPad, a novel or a new cooking surface more durable than Teflon, a new flavor of ice cream or spacecraft that can travel to the moon.
-- Odd Thomas in Dean Koontz, Deeply Odd
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Transhumanism aims at overcoming the distinction between man and machine pretty much on the machine’s terms.
-- Peter Augustine Lawler, “Defending the Humanities:”
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"In Berlin things are serious but not hopeless; in Vienna they are hopeless but not serious."
-- Viennese aphorism
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The only thing saving us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.
-- Eugene McCarthy, Time magazine, Feb. 12, 1979
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On the one hand, a human being is essentially a physical organism, an animal. This point is shown (though the full argument would require more space than we have here) by the fact that you and I—not any entities which we merely possess or inhabit—perform and undergo bodily actions. Sensation and perception are clearly bodily activities: they are performed with bodily organs such as the senses and parts of the brain. So the subject that does the sensing and perceiving is a bodily entity, an animal organism. But it must be the same subject, the same “I,” that senses or perceives and that engages in conceptual thought (though conceptual thought is not itself a bodily action). For it must be the same subject that perceives the ink marks on a page, for example, and that understands the intelligible message signified by them.
-- Patrick Lee & Robert P. George, "Dualistic Delusions," First Things (February 2005).
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There is a curious evasiveness about modern thought...  [A] man educated in modern philosophy will never admit is that his thoughts are the conclusions of his axioms: he will point to any and every cause, from brain molecules to class interests, that gives rise to his thought except prior thought.
-- John C. Wright
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Given the failure of the Enlightenment project and the disturbing phenomena of today’s shrill, incommensurate, and emotivist moral discourse, Alisdair MacIntyre has argued that we face one of two options: return to a teleological account of the order of natures or embrace the inherent nihilism of enlightenment anthropology. The choice is between Nietzsche and Aristotle. Which will we choose?
-- Dominic Verner OP
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Flynnterview
at Raygun Revival
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"Where... the performers [of the oral tradition] intend to stick as closely as possible to the message related and to avoid lapses of memory or distortion, the pace of change can almost be stopped.  In some cases controls over the faithfulness of performance were set up and sanctions or rewards meted out to the performers...  In Polynesia ritual sanctions were brought to bear in the case of failure to be word-perfect.  When bystanders perceived a mistake the ceremony was abandoned.  In New Zealand it was believed that a single mistake in performance was enough to strike the performer dead. Similar sanctions were found in Hawaii...  Such... beliefs had visible effects.  Thus in Hawaii a hymn of 618 lines was recorded which was identical with a version collected on the neighboring island of Oahu...  Sometimes controllers were appointed to check important performances.  In Rwanda the controllers of ubwiiru esoteric liturgical texts were the other performers entitled to recite it." 
-- Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press) pp. 41-42
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At that point, instead of dying of starvation, societies with high fertility grew in strength and number and began menacing those with lower fertility. In more and more places in the world, fast-breeding tribes morphed into nations and empires and swept away any remaining, slow-breeding hunters and gatherers. It mattered that your warriors were fierce and valiant in battle; it mattered more that there were lots of them.
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3376&page=0
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To free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.
-- Roger Scruton

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Happy Birthday!

Today is the 45th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  In it, Pope Paul made four predictions consequent to artificial contraception:
  1. a general lowering of moral standards; 
  2. increased marital infidelity; 
  3. the reduction of women to instruments for the fulfillment of male desire; and 
  4. public authorities engaging in coercive population planning programs. 
In the realm of Science! the validity of a theory is judged by how many of its predictions prove factual.  We will leave the application of scientific reasoning to Humanae Vitae as an exercise to the Faithful Reader.  How many of the four predictions do you see today?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

And We All See How Well That Worked Out

The same August 29 1966 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel that carried the stories on the picketing at Judge Cannon's house had a story in Part 2, p. 11, quoted the new leader of the Church Music Association of America regarding a papal commission that had proposed banning "imitation folk songs," "hootenanny masses," etc. from Catholic rites.  "Let the musicians themselves outlaw the music."  The Church's top musicians know good from bad and, like a doctor, should have the final say.  If musical experimentation is given a chance, he said, the good music will eventually win out over the bad. He was supported in this by the outgoing president Archabbot Rembert G. Weakland OSB, whom some may remember as the later-disgraced Archbishop of Milwaukee, so perhaps his tastes in music were no better than his tastes in other matters. 

TOF's Rule for Church Music:
If you can imagine the hymn being sung by a Disney Princess (Pocahontas, Ariel, et al.) then it is not a good hymn.
Corollary: if you can imagine it being sung on a Broadway stage, likewise.  
One song:

An older song:


And.... an even older song:



Unrelated Items

Bending the Aether

Space is full of lines.
NASA has discovered that Einstein was right, again. 
Time and space, according to Einstein's theories of relativity, are woven together, forming a four-dimensional fabric called "space-time." The mass of Earth dimples this fabric, much like a heavy person sitting in the middle of a trampoline. Gravity, says Einstein, is simply the motion of objects following the curvaceous [sic] lines of the dimple. 
This is what Einstein in his 1920 speech in Leyden called the "relativistic ether." 
If Earth were stationary, that would be the end of the story. But Earth is not stationary. Our planet spins, and the spin should twist the dimple, slightly, pulling it around into a 4-dimensional swirl. This is what GP-B went to space in 2004 to check. 
There is something that seems vaguely Michelson-Hale-ish about the business.
Put a spinning gyroscope into orbit around the Earth, with the spin axis pointed toward some distant star as a fixed reference point. Free from external forces, the gyroscope's axis should continue pointing at the star--forever. But if space is twisted, the direction of the gyroscope's axis should drift over time. By noting this change in direction relative to the star, the twists of space-time could be measured. 
So apparently the aether does spin with the earth, which may be why the Michelson-Morley experiment failed. 

Uncertainty About Uncertainty

Some physicists are questioning the ontological status of the Uncertainty Principle and questioning the received wisdom of Bohr and Heisenberg.  Now, Wolfgang Smith once wrote that a physical theory that results in singularities and paradoxes is probably a sign of a faulty metaphysics behind the theory, but one does wonder if the Name of Prof. Callender is whispered in the same halls as those of Bohr and Heisenberg. 

Away with that Pagan Nonsense!

Last week (19 July) was the feast of St. Macrina the Younger, described by Brandon at Siris.  On her deathbed, Macrina maintained a Platonic dialogue with her kid brother St. Gregory of Nyssa.  Some folks in that day and age were saying that because automata - clever machines devised for the emperor - seemed to work on their own, there was no need for the God hypothesis.  Macrina showed him how automata supported the argument for God.  That's right.  Those folks have always been with us. 



Monday, July 22, 2013

The Shipwrecks of Time -- and a new excerpt

Frank Bacon
"Antiquities," wrote Francis Bacon in one of his more lucid moments, "are remnants of history which have casually escaped the shipwrecks of time."

To  put  matters more statistically, as TOF knew you would expect, the objects and documents of the past are not a random sample, but a haphazard congeries and there is room in the gaps for all sorts of startling things to happen.

A commentator elsewhere wonders why there is no document in the "Egyptian records" that mentions the escape of the Hebrew slaves in the Exodus.  This tellingly reveals the Late Modern mindset, which cunningly expects the bureaucratic paperwork regime of the Modern scientific State to be replicated in earlier ages.  It so happens that for the reign suspected of including the Exodus, there are only three inscriptions that have survived to the present day.  Whatever else may have been written down has perished in the shipwrecks of time.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Math Is Hard

Teresa Ghilarducci, at the New School for Social Research, describes a trip to North Carolina, which left a colleague "shell shocked." The colleague asked: "How can it be legal to have so much poverty in such a wealthy state?"



Aside from the intriguing notion of ending  poverty by simply passing a law making it illegal -- what an idea!  We could do the same with gun violence -- there is the following observation. 
According to Kids Count, New Hampshire has the lowest rate of child poverty, at 11 percent. Ranked worst is Mississippi, where a third of children are poor. But Mississippi is poor over all; it has the lowest median income in the nation. And New Hampshire is rich; its median income is the third highest. I get that. So the child poverty numbers may say more about income than about the management of the state budgets.
But let's look at North Carolina. It is the 39th richest state, and yet it ranks 12th for the percentage of children living in poverty--only 11 states fare worse.

Friday, July 19, 2013

TOF Off-Line

A bit of a cable problem has prevented TOF from bedeviling the intertubes with his maunderings.  But the problem is now fixed (or relapsed, depending on one's point of view).  One feels like those movie characters who are constantly returning from the void.  Like Godzilla, for example. 

Be that as it may, TOF has not been idle.  Indeed, he has learned several new forms of solitaire from a program he downloaded shortly before the fritz: to wit, Napoleon, Little Billy, and Montana.  Self improvement is our constant guiding light.  But, wait.  Can a guiding light be inconstant?  This is profound and must be considered.  Meanwhile, the tabs have been accumulated, and now we will work them off. 
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Hard of Hearing

Here is a site that has 11 Sounds Your Kids Have Probably Never Heard.  Maybe TOF sounds like a stuck record, or intends to dial a phone. 
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A Flare for Radioactive Decay

It seems as if the rate of radioactive decay, long thought to be constant, is not so much.  It seems to fluctuate with solar activity.  In particular, it may provide what economists call a leading indicator for solar flares, to the benefit of satellite communications and astronaut safety. 
The new detection technique is based on a hypothesis that radioactive decay rates are influenced by solar activity, possibly streams of subatomic particles called solar neutrinos. This influence can wax and wane due to seasonal changes in the Earth's distance from the sun and also during solar flares, according to the hypothesis, which is supported with data published in a dozen research papers since it was proposed in 2006, said Ephraim Fischbach, a Purdue University professor of physics.
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The Thing

A cuputer
From TOF's office window in a former house, he could see a tree.  (His present office is deep underground, in a sort of bunker and a window, should one exist, would provide a view only of the subsoil in which his present home nestles.)  Back to the tree.  Why did TOF see a tree?  Could it not equally well be said that he saw the bark of the lower trunk of a gum tree (that being the particular sensation)?  Could it not also be said with justice that TOF saw an ecosystem?  A nice discussion of Aristotelian forms is found here, including a short discussion in simple terms of III. Things

So why did he see "a tree"?  What makes a tree the thing and not bark or an ecosystem?  Better yet, why is my tea cup a thing and my computer a thing, but the mererological sum of the cup and computer (we will call it a cuputer) is not a thing?  Why do we ask how a tea cup is made, and how a computer is made, but show no interest in how a cuputer is made? 

(Is a tea cup also a computer?  A limited purpose one, running the single program instruction: "sit there and hold tea.")

The Magnificent Seven
If an apple, a peach, and a pear sit on the table why are there not seven things on the table? {apple, peach, pear, appleach, pearapple, peareach, pearappleach}  But we instinctively regard an apple as a thing and pearappleach as a not-thing; and we can legitimately ask what causes the apple to exist and not what causes the pearappleach to exist. 

And what does this say about what causes the universe to exist?  Is the universe a thing in the first place?
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Wiki-wiki

TOF has discovered he is quoted on WikiQuotes by several lines from Eifelheim.  While flattered, he wonders if there might be other worthwhile quotes in his other books.  Wikimavens are welcome to quote mine from Razor's Edge, River of Stars, and other succulents. 
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Higgs

Physicist Stephen Barr has an old article (2008) and a more recent follow-up (2013) on the Large Hadron Collider and why the multiverse is unsatisfactory in more than an etymological sense.  The articles are eminently readable, especially the conceptualization of the Higgs as the "Higgs field" rather than as a particle.  One's anxiety regarding the source of the Higgs' mass if the Higgs is itself the giver-of-mass to other particles is now salved.  Perhaps the Higgs was called the God particle because in the essential causal chain it prevents an infinite regress of mass-givers? 
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Primary Causation

Speaking of which, a short essay on primary causation in contrast to secondary (or instrumental) causation.
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Silence is Disapproval

The DoJ "tip sheet" for LGTB inclusion at work has the following tip:
7. Know How to Respond
If an Employee Comes
Out to You


DON’T judge or remain silent. Silence
will be interpreted as disapproval.
So you better damn well speak up in approval.  If you know what's good for you.
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Adam and Ish

Ish and Ishshah
On a site calling itself Big C Catholic, the following etymological nugget was noticed:
The Hebrew word for Adam in the Bible before the arrival of Eve is man meaning mankind. Adam before Eve is genderless. Only later does Adam the male appear with the first woman Eve. The Theology of the Body puts it this way:
The Bible calls the first human being "man" ('adam), but from the moment of the creation of the first woman, it begins to call him "man" (ish), in relation to ishshah ("woman," because she was taken from the man—ish).
Our personhood - being a subject before God - is more fundamental to who we are than even our gender. In the Bible our personhood, our dignity before God, comes before gender differentiation.
Aside from the confusion of grammatical gender with biological sex now endemic in Late Modern discourse, it was an interesting insight.  TOF knew that in Arabic, the word adam mean "man" in the sense of a "human being" and not in the sense of a "male."  TOF had not known that in the Hebrew, the man is called adam only up to the appearance of the woman, after which he is called ish.  The choice was evidently deliberate to making a point. 
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Matisse and the Medieval

Awkward and clumsy, per Renaissance
In her book Those Terrible Middle Ages! Regine Pernoud mentions that
"Artists like Monet and Cezanne were much closer to the painters of Saint-Savin or Berzé-la-Ville than to Poussin or Greuze; artists like Matisse lived long enough to become aware of this: "If I had been familiar with them, it would have saved me twenty years of work," he said when leaving the first exposition of Roman[esque] frescoes given in France, shortly after the war of 1940."  
It was not that the so-called modern artists slavishly imitated medieval art the way the artists of the Modern Ages slavishly imitated Greek and Roman art.  It was rather more a sensibility that they shared that they were not "locked in."

So Matisse was not the only one to notice this linkage between Late Modern/Post Modern art and Medieval art. 
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Summer reading assignment

An Unreadable Book

The Voynich Manuscript, unlike the fictional Peruzzi Manuscript of The Shipwrecks of Time, is not lost, or at least not precisely lost.  It exists in the rare-book library at Yale University and is "written in a cramped but punctilious script and illustrated with lively line drawings that have been painted over, at times crudely, with washes of color."

Problem is, no one can read it.  The writing is in an unknown script and many of the plants and such illustrated are of no known species.  But a close study of the script reveals a natural language behind it.  The book is divided into sections judged by the illustrations, and the words - symbol sequences - used in the section on plants differ from the words used in the section on the heavens.   Likewise, the distribution of words and letters is just what one would expect of a natural language. 

Where did it come from?  Who wrote it?  (There is more than one handwriting.)  TOF's guess: it was written in Krenkish by shipwrecked travelers in the village of Oberhochwald/Eifelheim, perhaps as an encyclopedia, but others may not take that suggestion seriously. 
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Defending the Rights of the Rich

The recent Windsor decision of SCOTUS has been hailed as a victory for something called "gay marriage."  ("Marriage" is from L. maritas, "a man who has been provided with a young woman," from PIE *-mari, "a young woman," so you see there are definitional problems.)  However, it was actually a victory for the rich to keep more of their riches by ducking what Republicans have called the "death tax.

The Democrats used to claim this was overblown and really only the Very Wealthy™ were subjected to it.  Yet in the Windsor case, a multimillionaire got to keep $3.5 million instead of a measly $3.1 million.  TOF would be exuberantly happy to keep just the part that was tax: $363,053. 
Here are the facts of the case: Edith Windsor inherited an estate of $3.5 million from her partner, Thea Spyer. Windsor had “married” Spyer in Canada, but—according to the provisions of DOMA, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for the purposes of federal law (such as determining who is and who is not subject to provisions of inheritance laws)—she was not exempted from inheritance taxes, as would be a legally recognized spouse. Thus Windsor owed estate taxes totaling $363,053.
The whole hoo-hah seems to focus almost exclusively on the availability of federal government benefits and tax breaks, that is "upon benefits that would advantage two childless adults (and wealthy ones at that)," rather than upon the formation of a stable environment for the raising of children.  Of course, folks go to great lengths these days to avoid children, so it is hardly any wonder than no one seems to mention such things.  It is part and parcel of the governmental takeover of people's lives.  Marriage is now seen as a government-defined benefit rather than as a natural biological process that long pre-dated the formation of the State. 

Want to astonish your friends and neighbors?  Remind them that not until the 1870s did National Governments begin instituting civil marriages.  (This was about the same time that Fichtean public schools were taking over the education of the young.)  Revolutionary France, where you could be guillotined for having your child baptized, was an early forerunner of the trend; but many States of the USA did not even start registering marriages until 1900.  Naturally, when governments begin micromanaging something, they usually start to fiddle with it until they break it.  NASA started off well, too.  
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The Shipwrecks of Time

Work is now proceeding apace, and a progress report shall be posted shortly.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The A-Team

A is for Astronomy


When TOF was just a whippersnapper, he had a telescope.  Didn't everyone?  It was, if memory serves, a 2" reflector and with it, TOF discovered the mountains and craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and one memorable night Uranus (still in those benighted times pronounced scatalogically).  Oh, and Mars was a distinct disc, though his moons were invisible.  Single stars were revealed as doubles; the Milky Way comprised uncounted individual stars.  The night sky was very dark, and hereabouts still largely is. 

Harriot, who could have been
Galileo if he had only
published
his freaking notebook!
We have to learn to see.  What the eye takes in is two-dimensional: the surface of the retina.  Depth is something we make up.  TOF, who had learned from his readings that there were indeed mountains on the Moon, saw them instantly and in stunning clarity; but Harriot -- who saw them before Galileo and sketched them in his notebook -- did not immediately recognize them as such.  Galileo, who had trained as an artist and was accustomed to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional field, did and got famous.  The telescopes used by Harriot and Galileo (and Scheiner and Grassi and Marius and the Fabricii and...) gave low resolution, a restricted field, and (due to impurities in 17th century glassmaking) a slightly greenish tinge.  (Hence, the old saw about the moon being made of green cheese.  That's how it looked.)  And they were refractor telescopes with images that were at first upside down.  (It was not mere bull-headedness that led many natural philosophers to wonder is telescopes gave true images of reality.)  Galileo could not even see the entire Moon at once, just slices of it, and he had to prove that the light and dark spots resolved as mountains (and craters).  So a tip of the hat to the Tuscan mathematicus

A while back, Br. Guy Consolmagno blogged a photograph of a 1957 astronomy conference at the Vatican observatory.  TOF thought his Faithful Reader would find the photo striking.
Here is the person-locator:
And Br. Guy researched the names:
a. Daniel O'Connell (1896 - 1982) director of the Vatican Observatory 1952 - 1970
b. Giuseppi Armellini (1887 - 1958) Studied planetary formation, head of Campidoglio/Monte Mario observatory
c. Walter Baade: (1893-1960) By observing stars in the Andromeda Galaxy he invented our present Population I and II system; his observations of Cepheid variables there recalibrated our understanding of the size of the universe
d. Adriaan Blaauw (1914 -2010) Founder and first director of European Southern Observatory; studied high velocity stars
e. Hermann Brück (1905 - 2000) Refounder of Dunksink Observatory, Ireland; Astronomer Royal for Scotland 1957 - 1975. (He fled Nazi Germany to work at the Vatican Observatory in 1936)
f. Daniel Chalonge (1895 - 1977) A founder of the Institut d'astrophysique de Paris, studied stellar photometry, inventor of the Chalonge microphotometer
g. William Fowler: (1911-1995) Won the Nobel prize in Physics in 1983 for his theories of how elements are made by nuclear reactions inside stars
h. Otto Heckmann (1901 - 1983) First director of the European Southern Observatory; expert in cosmology
i. George Herbig: (1920 -  ) Discoverer of "Herbig-Haro" objects, a particular type of young star
j. Fred Hoyle: (1915-2001) Worked with Fowler on theories of how elements are formed in stars; invented the term “Big Bang”
l. Georges Lemaître: (1894-1966) In 1928, Fr. Lemaître proposed the cosmological theory that has come to be known as the “Big Bang”
m. Bertil Lindblad: (1895-1965) Explained certain orbital resonances (“Lindblad resonances”) and details of the rotation of galaxies; such work has ultimately led to the detection of “dark matter”
n. William Morgan (1906-1994) Developed stellar classification system, proved the existence of spiral arms in the Milky Way
o. Jason Nassau (1893 - 1965) Expert in galactic structure.
p. Jan Oort (1900 - 1992) Determined the existence of a distant cloud of comets now called the Oort Cloud
q. Ed Salpeter: (1924-2008) Applied nuclear theory to the formation of elements in stars; described how black holes provide the energy of active galactic nuclei
r. Allan Sandage (1926 - 2010) First accurate measurement of Hubble Constant, discoverer of quasars
s. Martin Schwarzschild: (1912-1997) The Scharzschild radius derived by him indicates the “event horizon” of a Black Hole
t. Lyman Spitzer: (1914-1997) An expert on interstellar dust, he first proposed telescopes in space; the Spitzer Space Telescope is named for him
u. Bengt Strömgren: (1908-1987) Determined relative abundances of helium and other elements in stars; devised the Strömgren system of photometric filters
v. A. David Thackeray (1910 - 1978) Estimated size and age of universe via variables in Magellanic Clouds; discovered Thackeray's Globules (stellar formation region)
w. Patrick Treanor (1920 - 1978) Director of the Vatican Observatory, 1970-1978
x. Pietro Salviucci (1936 - 1973) Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
z. V. Préobrajenski, secretary of the Pontifical Adacemy
A fascinating number of these scientists are "names" -- e.g. Schwarzschild and his radius, Oort and his cloud, Lindblad and his resonances, Herbig and his -Haro objects, Chalonge and his microphotometer, Thackeray and his Globules, Strömgren and his photometric filters -- or the progenitor of an important feature of modern astronomy -- e.g., Lemaître and his Big Bang, Baade and Population I & II, Fowler and Hoyle and their stellar fusion producing the elements, Morgan and his stellar classification system (OBAFGKM) -- or have had things named for him -- e.g., Spitzer and his eponymous space telescope. 

This was indeed the A-Team of astronomy in their day. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How True, How True

h/t Wm. Briggs, Statistician to the Stars

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Twinkle, Twinkle


It seems that the rate of supernova occurrence (black line) is pretty much a dead match for biodiversity -- the normalized marine invertebrate genera count (blue line).  The gray is the error band around the biodiversity count. 



When Sagan said we were made of star-stuff, he had only half the picture.  Apparently, the stars really do affect life on earth.  The Permian extinction falls right in:
Svensmark notes that the Late Permian saw the largest fall in the local supernova rate seen in the past 500 million years. This was when the Solar System had left the hyperactive Norma Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy behind it and entered the quiet space beyond.
Through a variety of mechanisms, too few supernovae resulted in warmer air, reduced circulation, poor nutrient mixing, ending with a shortage of oxygen in the atmosphere.  Nearly all life on earth went extinct.
But once upon a time an abundance of nearby supernovae chilled the earth so badly it kicked into Snowball Earth.   So, Goldilocks, human life arose in a period of "just right" insofar as supernovae are concerned. 





Friday, July 5, 2013

ISMism

Back in the Olde Days, when TOF was a practicing Quality Engineer, there was a popular three-step process for implementing the techniques known as "statistical process control" -- or better yet: SPC.  (The benefit of TLAs is that you don't have to think about what the words mean.)  The three steps were:
  1. The massive training of everyone in sight
  2. The great control chart race
  3. Beating up the vendors
SPC, Science™, and other panaceae
Of special interest are the first two steps.  Statistical process control -- which meant only that one should take account of the variable nature of manufacturing processes and not make adjustments unless there are reasonably certain evidences that the process has actually shifted -- was seen by some as a panacea.  Convinced of the great value of this technique, they would go hog-wild and start hanging charts everywhere.  Management would mandate that everyone would have charts; departments vied to see how many charts they had hung.  Yee-haw! 

It was belief in magic.  It was "control chart-ism."  If only we hang these Shewhart charts, magic will happen.  Magic did happen.  Whoever hung the charts eventually disappeared.

The Allegory of the VCD Machine

Once upon a time, TOF had the occasion to visit a computer assembly plant.  He was proudly shown the Great Wall of Charts.  See how many charts we have!  It is only a matter of time before our problems go away.  Huzzah!

TOF examined one of the charts.  It was replete with signals of assignable causes: that is, causes not normally part of the cause-system.  What was the assignable cause of this pattern?  Blank looks.  Did you investigate to discover the causes?  Investigate?

These were not foolish people.  They were quite bright.  But they had forgotten that the operative word in "control chart" was "control," not "chart."  They had confused the instrument with the objective.

A visit was paid to the process, which was currently rejecting many circuit boards.  It was a VCD machine (variable-center distancing).  The jaws plucked a component off a paper strip, inserted the leads through the holes in the circuit board, and crimped them on the other side.  Then the circuit board re-centered two other holes under the jaws, ready for the next component off the tape.  Behold its majestic glory:

(Geez, you really can find everything on the intertubes.)

TOF noticed a peculiar thing.  As each board was stuffed, the operator would remove the board, place a yellow sticky arrow on it, then inspect the board.  Sometimes he saw a smashed component (or whatever) and he placed a second sticky-arrow pointing to this.  The number of defects was counted and plotted on a u-chart as defects per 100,000 insertions. 

A question formed in the brain of TOF.  Neurons crackled.  Why did the operator place the first arrow before he inspected the board?

I don't know, the Host of TOF replied.

Shall we ask the operator?  The Host was reluctant that he, an Engineer, should ask a lowly Machine Operator, but his curiosity eventually triumphed.  The Operator pointed to the first marked component.  That's the wrong component, he said.  Design Engineering revised the board layout and changed the component to a different rating.  But no one reprogrammed the Sequencer that tacks the components in order on the paper tape, so we're still inserting the old component here.

Every time they ran that board, 100% of them had to be reworked.  Reprogramming the Sequencer was boring, and so after the excitement of board re-design and Engineering Change Orders and all the rest of the foo-foo, it fell between the cracks.  The Solution?  Reprogram the freaking Sequencer so it plucks the right component out of the bins.  Duh?  Additional solution: prepare a checklist for board re-design to flag all equipments and documentation that are to be revised or adjusted or reprogrammed as a result of the change. 

Despite all the charts, they had not had statistical process control, but statistical wallpaper.

Yet their enthusiasm had been undoubted.  Like the person who worships the intellect instead of using it, they admired the control charts without using them for actual, you know, control.  Like cargo-cultists, they thought that by replicating the outward forms and rituals they could achieve the same results achieved by those who had mastered the substance. In effect, although the charts were crying out to them, things the chart did not show -- the specific defects involved, the lack of configuration control at the Sequencer, etc. -- had become invisible.  They thought the answers were statistical!  But a thermometer only tells you you're sick.  It doesn't cure the sickness.  Instruments do not act on their own.
For those who might want to noodle the substance of the SPC methodology, TOF recommends the classic work: The Western Electric Company SQC Handbook, by a writing committee headed by the revered Bonnie Small, who once received a standing ovation at a conference of the American Society for Quality Control, when a speaker noticed her in the audience and pointed her out.  SQC was what SPC was called in its early days, but that word "quality" kind of spooked the turkey herd. 
TOF also modestly notes that when he worked summers at Mack Printing Company, this was one of the many technical publications that were then printed there.  TOF's father was pressroom superintendent, but this was not, repeat not, of any benefit to TOF, who received what we might call "character-building" work assignments, many of them involving steel wool and kerosene. 

Which leads us to today's topic. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Glorious Fourth

Denn du sollst es haben!

On this day in history, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant and Lee retreated from Gettysburg.

On 2 July 1863, the Confederate attack on Culp's Hill drove the defending German-Americans back until one Louisiana soldier put his hand on a gun of the Pennsylvania artillery, crying "I claim this gun!"
The German gunner replied laconically, "Denn du sollst es haben!" (Then you shall have it!) and pulled the lanyard, blowing Louisiana away.  

The 153rd Pennsylvania, "Northampton's Own"
on Barlow's Knoll, Gettysburg, July 1
on Culp's Hill, Gettysburg, July 2-3
  And just so the Irish don't feel left out:



And lastly, a rousing patriotic song, once an unofficial anthem of the USA, containing the immortal words: "Thy banners make tyranny tremble..."  Something that ought to be remembered now and then by those who would rather make us tremble.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Return of the Shipwrecks!

After several months in which the sciatica was too distracting for serious writing, TOF has returned to the WIP; viz., The Shipwrecks of Time.  Presently, plans are underway by the Youth Council to picket at Judge Cannon's house in Wauwatosa, and Frank has written a letter of apology to Sorgensson for lying to him during his visit. 

But for our excerpt, we are dipping back into the narrative to late February 1966, when Frank asks Carol to go to a movie with him.  It introduces a background note to the narrative.  Two earlier scenes I may also post later on: the premiere of Batman on TV, and the parade honoring native son Jim Lovell, who had spent more time in space (with Frank Borman) than anyone else.