Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Won't They Try Next?

I Have an Alternate Plan

Berkeley High May Cut Out Science Labs 
The proposal would trade labs seen as benefiting white students for resources to help struggling students.

"Paul Gibson, an alternate parent representative on the School Governance Council, said that information presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students."
+ + +

The problem in Berkeley is that there is too wide a gap between the grades of white students and the grades of others.  The solution is to change the mix of classes that are offered so as to eliminate those in which the gap is widest.  This would be like solving the "basketball scoring inequality" problem by making the baskets wider or lower. 

We may offer a modest proposal.  Teach science to minorities. 

Crazy, I know.  But the notion that "science labs are largely classes for white students" strikes me as insidiously racist.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Abbott and Costello Meet the Middle Ages

A Sidenote

An alert reader notes this:

I found this quote
“[God] is the author of all things, evil excepted. But the natures with which He endowed His creatures accomplish a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created these very natures.”
very interesting: did they not read Isaiah 45:7, when he said "I form the light and create the darkness; I make peace and create evil; I am the LORD who does this"?

The medieval church did not insist on what was termed historico-literal readings of every passage.  Many were recognized as poetical, and they looked for the truth in whole sense rather than the word-for-word.  This was especially so when certain reason showed that the literal sense was impossible.  For example: what does "evening and morning the nth day" mean on a sphere like the earth? 

In this case, the problem is "evil."  In the Isaiah passage we have some poetic parallel: light/darkness and peace/evil.  But the parallelism leads me to suspect the word translated as "evil" may likely mean something like "strife" or "war" rather than what we moderns mean by "evil."  That is, Freddy Krueger with a hockey mask. 

Evil does not exist per se.  Evil is defectus boni, a defect or lacking in a good.  As such, it is parasitical on the good.  For example, "life" is a good.  "Death" is an evil.  But death cannot be conceived without life.  We can easily conceive of life without death, but not of death without life, since death is defined in terms of life.  Similarly, there can be health without sickness, but not sickness without  health becasue "sickness" just is an impairment in heath.  There can be truth without falsity, but you cannot be false without some truth to be false to.  Likewise, theft depends on property, error on correctness, and so on and so forth for any evils we care to name

Since evils are not things-in-themselves, they are not created.  Hence, William of Conches little aside.   

In this sense "evil" really is analogous to "darkness" in the Isaiah passage.  Darkness is not a thing-in-itself, either, but is simply the absence of light.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Return of the Age of Unreason - Part II

This is a continuation of this: and/or the preceding post here. 

In this part, we will take up two questions rather than pick over this or that misconception in Mr. Walker's essay.  Instead, we will make the positive case.  And because the case is medieval and I just plain feel like it, I will cast them in the form of the medieval Question genre.  The format runs as follows: 
  1. The Question to be answered; sometimes broken down into separate articles. 
  2. The principles Objections (Antitheses) or arguments against the questions.  (It would seem not, because...)
  3. The principle argument in favor of the question (the Thesis)   (On the contrary...)
  4. The determination of the question (Synthesis)  (I answer that...)
  5. The specific rebuttals of the Antitheses. 

The arguments are typically in abbreviated form, as writing materials were expensive and the medieval student was assumed to be familiar with the required readings and would recognize an entire argument from a "key phrase."  To the modern ear, Questions seem oddly verbose -and- curt.  In those days, texts did not have standard pagination, so the "key" phrases were the way they "referenced" or "footnoted."  The necessary texts are listed at the end of the Questions. 

Question I.  The nature of the Scientific Revolution. 
Article 1.  Whether there was in fact a Scientific Revolution.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Return of the Age of Unreason - Part I

Returning from a trip one day and noodling in re medieval science led me to an astonishing web-essay by someone calling himself Jim Walker on a religious belief site called for Freethinkers.

Being trip-weary and in a curmudgeonly mood, I commented on the irony of someone denouncing religious belief while believing in so many myths and legends of his own at The Age of Unreason: or Pfui

Now, thanks to the Galileo Effect -- there is always someone willing to point out an affront to another -- we have a response from Mr. Walker.

He writes that he is "not a Middle Age scholar" and then sets about proving it. 

Being a free-thinker, all his thoughts are free and apparently worth the price paid.  The response generally repeats well-worn fundamentalist tropes long adopted by atheists, misses the point of several things I said.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it also leaves one open to being misconstrued.  In places, he mistook my intention, and in some places noted incompleteness or omission. 

Naturally, being a freethinker, Mr. Walker makes no provision for comment [let alone disagreement] on his site, and so we must once more make do here, where comment [as well as thinking] really is free -- and freely debated. 

A Message to the Anonymoi:

As usual, I ask only that non-members identify themselves in some way in their comments, lest we confuse one Anonymous with another.  Use whatever screen name you please.  Those responding over on   m-francis.livejournal, the same rule applies.

1. A Few Preliminary Comments
Mr. Walker has a marvelous technique for assigning things to the Medieval Period [bad] or to the Renaissance [good].  Namely, whenever he encounters something he considers good in the Medieval Period, he declares that to have really been the Renaissance.  He also uses the term "Dark Ages" to refer not only to the actual Dark Age, but to the entire Medieval period up to the point where he wishes the Renaissance had begun.  It never seems to occur to him that people whose beliefs he does not share could ever have accomplished anything of which he approves.  The cognitive dissonance must at times be painful.   

Another marvelous tool is to construe any glimmering, hint, or lucky guess in antiquity, China, Islam -- anywhere but in Europe! -- as the really-truly beginning of something, while dismissing any development during the Middle Ages as mere glimmerings, hints, or lucky guesses.  Now, it is true that the Victorian Triumphalism of the Age of Science and Industry needed to be tempered.  The Old Europeans tended to dismiss everything done by non-Europeans.  However, the post-modern impulse to dismiss everything done by Europeans is equally wrong-headed. 

A third technique he uses is a sort of guilt-by-association.  The debate Question is the origin of modern science.    However, Mr. Walker also brings up the crusades, the inquisition, the execution of Bruno, the trial of Galileo, the murder of Hypatia by a mob of Greco-Egyptians, even the sale of indulgences (I kid you not).  Now, he shows no actual knowledge of most of that stuff; but even if we grant him the premise, good science can be done by bad people.  The best science of the early 20th century came out of militaristic, jingoistic Wilhelmine Germany and its national socialist successor.  But we don't say that rocket ships or jet airplanes are bad because they were invented by Nazis or that the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis is wrong because the Kaiser invaded Belgium.  So these arguments are mere red herrings.  If I have time, I may come back to them later. 

Related to number three is number four.  And that is the association of one innovation with another on not better basis than a chance correlation.  For example, in his anxiety to show that medievals never did nothing nohow he equates pickled herring with the fish relish used for οπσον by the ancient Greeks.  Apparently, since both involve fish....  Of course, the technological innovation of pickling enabled Baltic fishermen to preserve and ship their catches over longer distances, and opened a source of protein and omega-3 oils to vast numbers of people.  Greek fish relish was an appetizer for meals. 

Mr. Walker is entirely correct to say that historical period-names are arbitrary.  This goes double for self-congratulatory names like "Renaissance" or "Age of Reason" as well as for deliberately-chosen derogatory names like "Dark Age."  Mr. Walker takes this as permission to name the historical periods as he damn well wishes.  Modern historians prefer objective descriptions like "early 14th century Burgundy" to tendentious labels from propaganda mills.  I find that some of the names are useful, because there really are sea-changes in people's mental picture of the world.  The ancient world really did end, so did the medieval world, and so is the modern world even as we speak.  That the changes were gradual and seamless does not change matters.  The existence of dawn and dusk does not invalidate the distinction between night and day. 

2. A Note on the Dark Age
The dates are conventionally taken to run from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to the Carolingian Ascendancy, roughly AD 500-800.  Two good histories covering the run-up to and most of the Dark Age is Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700 by Randers-Pehrson and The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750, by Peter Brown. 

The age was dark because a lot of barbarians burned down a lot of stuff, and a lot of documentation went up in smoke.  It is a Dark Age because we "see" by documentation, and very little has survived "the shipwrecks of time."  It is not called "dark" because the people in it suddenly became stupid. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Belly Dancing at Phoenicia

My brother took this picture.  That's another brother on the right. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On the Unprefixable

If It Ain't Yet Broke, Don't Prefix It

L. Sprague deCamp once wrote a story called "The Hibited Man" in which he played with the idea that there is a word for 'inhibited' and 'uninhibited' but what meaning would the root word have?  Hibited?  How does exhibited fit into this continuum? 

There are other words that seem to exist only in their prefixtual form or only with certain prefixes. 

This being Christmas season, one such word is "redeem."  What does it mean to be "deemed" and is "redeemed" to be read as "deemed again"?  What of "predeemed" - perhaps to indicate the Elect of Calvinism.  Exdeem, undeem, subdeem, the possibilities are endless. 

We can postpone a matter, but can we prepone it?  Repone it?  For that matter can we pone it? 

We can presume, subsume, assume.  Can we ever actually sume?  What about postsume or supersume?  Should Stanley have said, after the identity had been verified, "Dr. Livingstone, I postsume"?

Any more examples, folks?

Echoed on

Monday, December 21, 2009

Stats on Parade

The Gallup Poll published the following statistics which show the percentage of Catholics in a sample taken at ten-year increments in the -5 year of each decade who claimed to have attended mass in that particular week previous to the poll.  This is thought to estimate something called "regular church attendance," although it really only tracks attendance in particular weeks.  Whether those weeks are typical or not may depend on whether there was a big snowstorm or that the person was traveling or something.  But let us take the data "as given."  

Now the interesting thing to notice is that the big drop occurred after Vatican II, when the Church tried to change a variety of liturgical practices to make herself "more relevant" to young people.  This included such relevant things as bad music.  The 20-somethings were dropping off even beforehand, but notice that the other age groups (except for the 60+-ers) also show a marked drop-off after the switch to bad music and other novelties. 

Or does it?  Maybe so.  But obscured in this presentation is that the 20-somethings of 1965 are not the 20-somethings of 1975.  They are the 30-somethings of 1975.  If you follow the age-cohort as you go through each decade, the percentages actually don't vary much. 

Twenty-somethings who rarely attend mature into 30-somethings who attend more often, and then seldom vary by much as they age.  E.g. 35% of the 20-somethings of 1975 attended mass in the previous week.  Ten years later, that same cohort, now 30-something, had about a 55% attendance, eyeballing the chart.  And this percentage was pretty much the same for the 40-somethings of 1995 and the 50-somethings of 2005.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Global Warming
Global warming has caused the frozen waters of the Firmament to melt and fall as snow on the Riviera on 19 December

Sat Dec 19, 8:19 AM ET. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

And who was the light bulb who decided to hold the big global warming conference in Scandinavia at the start of winter?  That was like asking for the Gore Effect to manifest itself. 

A Gathering of the Clan

Yesterday, Bro Kevin flew in from the Mile High City, along with his three young 'uns, the youngest of which is now 21.  Margie went down to the airport to pick them up and drove them to Pere's house, where they are all dossing for the weekend.  Cousin Jimmy came over from next door and hung for a while.  When school let out, Bro Sèan drove up.  That evening, the three brothers, together with Kevin's three offspring and my daughter went to dinner at a new Lebanese restaurant that had opened in town, to wit: Phoenicia. 
Sara was able to give us a running commentary on the menu; and of course Kevin's kids have Lebanese ancestry. I had the baked kibbi. Brian had raw kibbi, which I called kibbles and bits; Brendan (who recently joined the army) went with shrimp scampi, Elisabeth had a Lebanese baked haddock which we inspected for signs that Jonah had been swallowed thereby, so large it was. Sara went for the chicken kabob and contrary to to most kabobs was more chicken than peppers and onions. Kevin went for beef kabob; Sèan had something else which now escapes me. It was all very good. The owners are a couple of Jabbour brothers and I wondered if they were related to the Jabbours I went to high school with.
Then there was the belly dancer.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

This Day in History

The Wright Stuff
Today, 106 years ago, a couple of bicycle mechanics from Ohio took their motorized kite to North Carolina to test their new "wing warping" idea. It worked pretty well. Thanks, guys!

My grandfather was almost 4 when that happened. Before he died, he watched men walk on the moon. From his living room.

The First Birthday Alone

I never has a birthday of my own until late in high school. The reason for this is simple. My brother Dennis was born on this day, a full 362 days after I was born. He was already there when I had my first birthday. The way I heard the story, my mother was ironing. By government definitions today, we were "homeless," but back then, we were just "living with my mother's parents." My father was trying to build a house on his GI Bill benefits. (It would eventually culminate in a bureaucrat demanding to know how many rings were in the shower curtain and my father answering how the heck would he know as he hadn't started building yet. It took an intervention by the VFW and the then-senior US Congressman to get things moving. The Iron Law of Bureaucracy, indeed.)

So my mother was ironing and she turns to her mother and says, "That's funny. I feel like I did just before Michael was born." Her mother - whom we called Big Mom, a direct translation of Grossmut[ter] - says, "Ach!" And all were bundled into the car and driven to the hospital. This was a private hospital run by a doctor named Betts; and therefore called [but you guessed it] Betts' Hospital. My dad drove to the emergency exit, dropped off my mother and grandmother, went to find a parking place, parked, walked back to the entrance, and was met by a nurse who said, "Congratulations, it's a boy."

That was the last thing he ever did that was so easy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Der Untergang des Abendlandes

The Loss of Reason and the Triumph of the Will

Regarding Sherlock Holmes and Pelham 1-2-3.....

The Age of Reason reached its zenith in the Middle Ages, when logic and reason became virtually the only genre of serious writing, The Question format was the dialectic: once one had decided a question, the write up would be formatted as follows:
1. The Question to be demonstrated. "Whether X....."
2. Antitheses: The principle Objections against the question. "It would seem not because...." (No "straw men" allowed.)
3. Thesis: "On the contrary...." The argument in favor of the question. Often a single one, but see below.
4. Synthesis: "Wherefore, I say..." The writer's resolution, weighing each of the arguments and drawing a conclusion.
5. The Responses: Specific rebuttals to each of the Objections.

The important thing was to consider the best arguments on either side of the question. The medievals not only applied this method to natural philosophy, but also even to theology, which, when you think on't showed a remarkable confidence in human reason. When a medieval held an opinion, it was arrived at in this manner: a considered opinion, not simply a whim accepted on faith.

One such opinion was the primacy of the intellect. The intellect was held to be prior to the will. Logically prior in the sense that you cannot desire something unless you first know it. How can you want what you don't know? But also in the sense of governing the will. We can decide not to act on a desire. We can know beauty, and desire beauty, but not grope the waitress.

The Wurst is Yet To Come

Salami battle in supermarket leaves Germans in hospital -- Headline, The Telegraph (UK)

I guess they sell some pretty mean salamis over there in Germany. But the use of a Parmesan cheese as a shield is novel.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Wonderful World of Stats, redux

Job Creation

"President Barack Obama's clean-energy initiatives will help create more than 700,000 jobs and allow the U.S. to double its renewable-power generation in three years, according to a report by Vice President Joe Biden," Bloomberg reports.

All of the job estimates used in this document correspond to jobs that last for one year. Of course, some jobs could last longer--in this case the number of distinct jobs would be reduced proportionately. For example, a project that employs one person for two years would count as creating two jobs.

-- footnote 3 on page 2 of the Biden memo

What a great way to "create" jobs! If one person employed for two years counts as two jobs, imagine how many jobs could be created by employing one person for four years! Biden alone, by dint of his election, has created four jobs! And his boss, too. And if one person is hired for a year, then fired and another person hired in his place, why that is still two jobs! This gives new meaning to words like "hope" and "change."

"Obama Administration Aims for High School Financial Literacy." -- Reuters headline

We can only hope the Administration achieves this level.

The Wonderful World of Stats

Beware of Television

It not only destroys the mind, it can kill a child.

Now we are talking about 180 deaths per year, each one a tragedy.
A similar report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission last year estimated 42,700 injuries and 180 deaths associated with appliance, furniture and television instability and tip-overs from 2000 to 2006; 87 of the deaths involved televisions. The number rose from seven in 2000 to 23 in 2006.

It was unclear from the article whether the "100 emergency rooms" were nation-wide or State of Ohio only.

It is unclear why 1990 was chosen as the initial year. It is also unclear why they think there is a trend. The eyeball thinks it looks like a step shift in 2000, no doubt due to W. being elected president that year. That is, it was relatively flat, a stationary series, prior to 2000 and likewise flat from 2000 on, but with different medians.

How can you tell a shift from a trend? Find the median of all the data shown. It's hard to read off the chart, but it seems as if all eight points from 2000 on are above the median, while eight of the nine points before 2000 are below the median. (The ninth point in '96 seems to be the median.) If it were a trend, there would be a steady increase in the number of points above the median if we broke the chart into quarters.

A trend means that a cause was operating continuously throughout a period of time. A shift means that a cause operated at a particular point in time and has continued since. This suggests that something happened in 2000 (or in 1999) to increase the number of reported falling furniture injuries.

Perhaps a difference in the reporting methods or a greater awareness of focus on the problem? Always check the measurement system first. I don't know the answer. I do know the article is overwrought. In 2006 the Statistical Abstracts of the US, 2009, Table #117 (a pdf file) counts 3868 deaths "by accident" for children 4 and under. It is not clear that the 23 deaths ascribed to TV in that year makes it the number one priority in reducing child deaths-by-accident, not to mention all child deaths.

The media gets very excited over small numbers of exotic deaths. Remember the panic a number of years back about Shark Attacks? The Year of the Shark sorta disappeared after 9/11, but each month there were more and more news stories about sharks. This, for a total of about four actual attacks. This article suggests your child would be in more danger watching Jaws on TV than swimming in the ocean.

Today's Comics

Learning to Play the Game

One of Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" is to force your enemies to play by their own rules. Danae knows how to make the teacher feel guilty.

OTOH, adverbs really are to be avoided in writing. "The verb should be sufficient unto the task," he said softly.
Nay! To whisper is better said than to say softly!

On Cultural Literacy, Part II

It occurs to me that a large number of people today won't "get" this one unless they know what a pair of Wellingtons are.

New Story from Michael F. Flynn

 Greetings All.    Mike (Dad) has a new story in the July/August edition of Analog . I know Analog is available on Kindle store and Analog ...