Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cracker Frisbee

Yesterday I went to the Greenville Zoo with a friend.  When you buy your ticket, you can buy a packet of crackers to feed the animals.  I was feeling playful, so I got one.  It was worth it, but only because I figured out what to do with them.  Most people seem to use the crackers to feed the farm animals at the end.  This is a mistake.  People are constantly trying to feed them the crackers, so they don't care.  The proper targets for the crackers are the elephants, giraffes, and giant tortoises.

Feeding the tortoises is easy, but it takes a bit of skill to successfully launch a cracker over the retaining pit and into the enclosures for the large animals.  You have to break it in half and use your fingers to flick it like a little frisbee, with the dimpled side of the crackers up in order to maintain stability and lift.  After one or two practice shots, I achieved surprisingly good range and accuracy with the crackers.  Most kids, and many adults, do not have the mental or physical skill to manage this feat, so it is fairly rare for a cracker to actually land where an elephant or giraffe can reach it.  So they are happy for the treat.

It also helps that I sent them in at the right time, when the animals were munching on hay or leaves.  The animal is thinking about food, and it knows that the crackers taste better than what it is munching on at the moment.  If you tried to feed them when they were doing something else, they probably wouldn't notice.  But I got the timing right, so I got to watch the big animals grabbing and munching on something I had fed them.  It was fun.

The zoo was fairly good overall, but it is a city zoo so it is quite small compared to the other zoos I have been to.  The elephant enclosure is, frankly, not up to the standards of modern animal care, and the first time I saw them they were rocking back and forth in the manner of animals who live in an environment that is too small or boring.  But they seemed better the second time I saw them, when they were eating and bathing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mythbusters Fail

I just finished watching the new episode of Mythbusters.  They burned a pail of thermite on top of some block of ice, and it exploded.  Then they said that 'nobody knows why the explosion happens' and gave a couple of crazy theories.  But the truth is very obvious and very simple:

1) Thermite is very hot.
2) The thermite turns the ice into steam the instant it hits.
3) At normal atmospheric pressure, steam occupies a much greater volume than the same amount of water in the form of ice.
3) The hot steam steam expands very rapidly, causing the explosion.

Steam causes explosions.  It happens in all kinds of situations.  'Explosion' is just a shorthand way of saying 'gas expanding very rapidly' and it is obvious that ice turned into steam will generate a lot of gas in a very small space.  I cannot believe that they missed this simple and obvious fact.

Blackberry Smoothie

Our chest freezer broke, so we need to eat up frozen stuff.  The freezer contained mostly bags of frozen fruit picked last summer.  Given that we will soon be harvesting a whole new crop of fruit, I had two reasons to consume as much of the stuff as possible.

So I made a smoothie out of half of a gallon bag of blackberries.  Well, it wasn't technically a smoothie, because I threw in a couple scoops of ice cream.  I also added milk, sugar, and flaxseed.  The result was a big vat of awesomeness that was so thick it had to be eaten with a spoon.

If you think about how much it would cost to buy that many blackberries, it was probably the most expensive meal I have ever eaten in my life.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Real Work

I don't have anything to write, so I'll just link to an excellent article.

It talks about the mistake that our society makes in pushing people into higher education and paper-shuffling jobs that have almost no connection to reality.  Working with real things usually makes people happier with their job.


My brother and I I got my mom a food dehydrator last Christmas.  Now that fruits are starting to come in, she is experimenting with it and learning how to use it.  One of the biggest successes was something that she had never planned on or thought about drying: mulberries.

We have several mulberry trees in your yard.  They came with the house.  Aside from taking out nests of tent caterpillars, we don't do anything to maintain them.  I will sometimes eat the mulberries when they are fresh, but nobody else likes them.  So all the fruit simply serves to feed a massive flock of cedar waxwings.

But when my mom saw the birds feasting on the fruit, she decided to pick some and dry them.  It worked out really well.  Mulberries are very easy to pick and dry, and when dried they have a great taste and texture.  They are also a really healthy fruit.  So I am now picking all that I can, and drying them.

I've never seen mulberries, fresh or dried, for sale anywhere.  This is probably because they are difficult to store and transport.  I'm sure that there are hundreds of great foods that never appear in supermarkets because of things that have nothing do do with taste or nutritional value.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Training Camp Day 3

Training camp is just about over.  Today I took a good yoga class, and then an excellent self defense class.  They worked to make us feel like we would feel if we were attacked suddenly, by having partners act angry and mean while launching fake attacks. It is amazing how the sight of a scowling angry face, coupled with aggressive body movements, can change your attitude and mental processes.  By artificially generating and adrenaline rush and fight-or-flight response, they helped us train our mind to act properly. At the end of the class, we were attacked by guys in body armor, and had to fight our way loose.  They were god actors, so the experience was different than standard sparring. They made it feel real, teaching us how to work through the adrenaline rush.

Then there were demos. Mostly it is black belts doing kata, pre-arranged sequences of attacks, blocks, and moves designed for practice.  There were not as many this year.  One of them was a sensei swinging around a Klingon sword.  I had seen the sword lying around earlier, and had correctly guessed its owner.  Earlier, I had heard this sensei talking shamelessly about the Dungeons and Dragons rules for throwing spears, and how his spear throwing ability compared to the rules.

He is not the only geek in the style. I saw plenty of geeky t-shirts, with things like comic bookcharacters, worn by a lot of different of people.  Few people realize that martial arts tends to attract a lot of geeks, and our style attracts more than most because we are friendly, fun, and accepting of all kinds of people.

Then there was skit night, where we compete to see who can make fun of other people in the most clever fashion.  If any black belt does or says something that can be mocked, it will be mocked.  This is a great addition to our style; it helps remind everyone that we are here to have fun, and prevents egosfrom building up.  And yes, the klingon sword sensei got mocked.  It was all in good fun; the person doing the mocking knew the exact Klingon name for the style of sword he was using.

There is a big party upstairs; I will go up and see how loud the music is. If it isn't too bad, I'll stay.  If it is too obnoxious, I'll come bck to my room and go to sleep.

Training Camp Day 2

The classes I took today were Judo, massage, and sparring.  You might be wondering about the massage.  It was meant to teach us how to loosen the muscles that often get stiff as a result of martial arts training. It was something that I have been interested in learning about, and it was a good way to breakup the workouts with something relaxing.

I ended up falling asleep after supper.  I only meant to lie down for a few minutes, but I guess I was tired from the sparring session.

The food this time is really good.  People complained about the lack of vegan options last time, so the cafeteria went to some trouble to get good vegan ingredients and learn how to cook it.  There have been several excellent dishes, mostly involving tofu.  The non-vegan stuff, by contrast, is fairly cafeteria stuff.  This isn't bad, mainly because I know what kinds of things to avoid.

I've been having fun with the ice cream.  Most people eat it with the stupid little cones or styrofoam cups they have near the ice cream, but I will make an applesauce float in a coffee mug, or a banana split in a small plate.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Training Camp Day 1

I just finished my first day of Cuong Nhu International Annual Training Camp.  For an overview of this event, see this post I wrote last year.

I decided to do grappling training for the first two sessions. Grappling is best done when you are fresh, and as someone pointed out, grappling on the first session is best because nobody's gi has had the time to get really sweaty and nasty.  At the end of the second session, we did free wrestling and the instructor ran the gauntlet of four students who were once high school wrestlers. He defeated all of them, but was barely able to move afterwards.

In the evening, we watched the tests for upper rank black belts.  The main parts of the test are board breaking and a demonstration.  A good demonstration is like a fight scene in a martial arts movie, and people always like watching them.  Board breaking requires the candidate to break five or six sets of boards in a short period of time, and is equally impressive to watch.  There is a lot of audience participation on these, because each set of boards requires two to four people to hold them. Knowing how to hold the boards properly is a skill in and of itself, and I am pretty good at it, so I ended up holding boards for most of the candidates.

Two of my teachers were testing for higher ranks, and both of them did extremely well on the demo and breaks.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Book Review: The Star Beast

This is another one of Heinlein's 'juvenile' books.  While is has some good sci-fi concepts, it is overall one of the lower quality Heinlein books of the early period.  It would not make much sense unless you already knew a lot about science fiction writing in general and Heinlein specifically.

There are a few redeeming features.  The passages written from the point of view of the alien 'Lummox' are well-written.  The portrayal of humans dealing with truly alien cultures is good and thought-provoking.  But the book overall has a lot of problems.

The teenage boy who is supposed to be the main character is a non-entity.  He is fairly clueless, and incapable of logic, thought, or planning. He doesn't really do anything except follow the orders of other people, and occasionally give into an irrational impulse that leads him to defy that authority.  His girlfriend, by contrast, is extremely intelligent and competent, and a far more lively and heroic character.  I have no idea what she sees in him; their relationship is just assumed, like a fact of nature.  He certainly doesn't do anything to earn her love or respect.

This kind of thing is disturbingly common in Heinlein books.  He makes female characters who are smart, intelligent, capable, etc., but who have absolutely no ability to apply their intelligence to their personal life, and fall in love with random people for reasons that are never explained.  He may think that he is making progressive female characters, but all he is really doing is creating a fantasy girlfriend for the hero.

Or maybe this is just another symptom of the fact that Heinlein always had a strange and insidious view of love.  It is always portrayed as some kind of irresistible destiny that operates independently of what people do.  In his first published book, one of the characters said something like "If you ever really had a chance with her, she isn't going to let a little thing like you trying to shoot her get in the way."  That's just outrageous.  It basically implies that women are idiots who will forgive any kind of bad behavior if they love you.  Heinlein often seems to imply that the love of a women is something random, not something you earn.

Setting that aside, the actual main characters of the book are not the two teenagers.  A pair of government agents who are dealing with an alien negotiator get more words written about them, and are also far more important to the plot.  This part of the book actually makes a decent story.  It is almost as if Heinlein had a good idea for a story, but had a contract to write a juvenile book, so he had to add in the two teenagers as an afterthought to satisfy the publisher.

The book does have interesting little hints about a different social order.  I suspect that the book was censored in some way, or that Heinlein wrote it carefully to try to get messages across while avoiding censorship.  It is strongly implied that gender roles have reversed.  For example, if a boy and a girl go out without a chaperone, then it is the boy's reputation that is put at risk.  But even this breaks down at the end.  As events unfold and it is revealed that the two kids will get married, the girl's primary ambition is to secure a job for her husband that has the status and pay artifiially inflated.  She, despite being more qualified in every possible way, does not seem to get or want a job.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wolfram Alpha: Nutrition Calculations

I've been testing Wolfram Alpha over the past couple days. As a general purpose search engine or tool of knowledge, it is a complete failure. It relies on customized, proprietary databases, which are full of gaps. For almost everything I wanted to find out or calculate, it was clueless.

However, there are a few things it does very well. Most of these are things that ordinary people would never care about, but one thing is useful for everybody. That is the nutritional information.

You can type in a food, with any unit of measurement, and it will give you all the nutrition information for that amount of food. Even better, you can also add together different ingredients with a plus sign. So if you have a simple recipe and you want to figure out what the nutrition label would look like, you can do so rather easily.

For example, type '8 oz yogurt + .5 cup strawberry' into Wolfram Alpha and you will get the familiar nutrition label for a dish that combines these two ingredients. It will also helpfully give you the option of choosing other types of yogurt, if you want to be more specific.

One word of warning, however: if you type '1/2 cup' instead, it will get confused and list the ingredients separately. You can fix this by putting the fraction in parentheses, like '(1/2)'. You don't need these if you are only listing one type of food.

Also, you are out of luck with exotic foods. It does not know the nutrition information for, for example, mangoes.

That is the easy part. I wanted to see how far I could push it, so I tried to get an entire recipe into the computational engine. It took some work, but I finally got it to calculate a full bread machine recipe. Here is the recipe, gotten at random from a Google search:

* 1 1/3 cups water
* 1 1/2 tablespoons dry milk powder
* 1 tablespoon molasses
* 1 tablespoon honey
* 3 tablespoons margarine
* 1 teaspoon white sugar
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 cup rye flour
* 2 cups whole wheat flour
* 1 cup bread flour
* 2 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

I had to convert the fractions to decimals, as mentioned earlier. I had to use abbreviations to avoid a limit on input characters. I had to drop ingredients like yeast and water with no nutritional value. I learned that the machine gets very confused by 'whole wheat flour' so I had to change it to 'whole-grain flour'. I also learned that it chokes and dies if you attempt to feed it more than eight ingredients. So I left out the sugar and replaced it with a bit more honey, which is what I would probably do in reality if I was using the recipe. After all that, this is what the recipe look like when I input it into Wolfram Alpha:

1.5 tbsp dry milk
+ 1 tbsp molasses
+ 1.5 tbsp honey
+ 3 tbsp margarine
+ 1 tsp salt
+ .5 cup rye flour
+ 2 cups whole-grain flour
+ 1 cup bread flour

Of course, this produces nutrition information for the entire loaf of bread. That's not too useful. You can fix this by dividing all the ingredients by the same number. Let's say you are planning on cutting the loaf into twelve slices and eating one slice. So I divided each amount by twelve, and re-entered it. But for some reason, it could not process this. It could only process seven ingredients when I made it do the division. So I replaced the molasses with more honey:

(1.5/12) tbsp dry milk
+ (2.5/12) tbsp honey
+ (3/12) tbsp margarine
+ (1/12) tsp salt
+ (.5/12) cup rye flour
+ (2/12) cups whole-grain flour
+ (1/12) cup bread flour

and it worked: (click on the link to go to the full Wolfram Alpha output, or click on the image to enlarge it and read the information)
One thing is different than the standard labels in the store. For really small quantities, it will give actual numbers, with a smaller prefix. Look at the amount of cholesterol. It is telling us that each serving has 287 micrograms of cholesterol. A normal label would report that as zero milligrams. And it lists 590 milligrams of saturated fat, where a normal label would list 0.5 grams.

So basically, you can calculate the full nutrition label for each serving size of any recipe with seven or fewer non-exotic ingredients. That's really cool. If you are really watching your diet, or you want to make a bake sale or something look really professional, you should learn how to use this tool. It hardly takes any time at all, once you learn how to use it and what its limitations are.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Central Railroad Festival

Yesterday the town of Central, where I live, had its first 'Railroad Festival' to celebrate the opening of the railroad museum.

The newly opened railroad museum is mainly a massive model train set, still under construction. It should be interesting when they get it all done, but that will take a year or more. Basically it is being built by a club of old men who accumulated a huge stock of model train equipment from various donations. The town leased them an old house for practically nothing, on the grounds that they fix it up and make it a museum.

The town of Central basically owes its existence to the fact that it used to be an important train stop. It is halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte on the rail line. After the line was built, the town was renamed from 'Centre' to 'Central' because of this fact. The passenger train would stop at Central and everyone would eat lunch at the hotel while the engines were being maintained and refueled.

They had a few other interesting things at the museum. The had old pictures, and stock certificates from all the rail companies that had owned the rail line through Central. They also had a display case with some more interesting stuff, including stock certificates from the three named railroads named on the Monopoly game (Short Line is not an actual railroad, it is a class of railroads.)

They had a finished model train setup in an basement on the town square, one that included a partial replica of the town of Central.

They also opened up the caboose that sits off the street, with people inside to talk about it. One of them was a switchman on the railroad when he was younger. Back in the old days, there were no electric switches and the trains ran at about five miles an hour. It was his job to hop out of the engine, run ahead of the train to the switch, and throw it. Then he would hop back in. After the train passed, the guy in the caboose would hop out, throw the switch again, and run to catch up with the train.

The caboose had an empty rack with various stencils: 'Fusees', 'Torpdoes', and 'Flags'. Yes, they were spelled like that; the person who made the stencils had moved an 'e' from one word to another. I had to ask what they meant by 'torpedo'; it is an old term for flare. If there was any trouble and the train had to stop, the guy would light the flare and toss it on the track, to tell any other trains that they would have to stop too.

They also had the fire department out with its equipment, including a big ladder truck with a fully extended ladder. It may seem senseless for a tiny town fire department to have a ladder truck, but the Central fire department is responsible for responding to calls at SWU, where there are dorms, and they are also the backup responders for C---, where there are more and bigger dorms.

I heard the firemen chatting about how they had good equipment because they had a good grant writer. That's how government works; resources are allocated on the basis of paperwork. But they also get rated by insurance firms and other independent agencies, and Central ranks highly on these standards too, or so the Chief claimed.

The festival was filled out by a lot of the local craft vendors that flock to such things. Some of them were decent, and some were junk, as usual.

Overall, the festival was a fun time, and a good look into history.

Fun with Language

I have never seen anyone push an expression so far:

"Did you hear? Ruger's gone carbon-neutral. Yup, they've wrapped ol' Bill "No Honest Man Needs A Handgun Smaller Than A Canned Ham" Ruger Sr.'s corpse in copper wire and lined the coffin with magnets, and now the whole plant is off the grid."

Not even P.J. O'Rourke was so bold in stretching language in the service of humor.  This is a fascinating bit of literary inventiveness.  Take a common expression, interpret it literally, think like an engineer, and explore the potential.

Now I am having visions of a mad science/magic/steampunk work actually using this as a power source.  I also wonder where the expression 'spinning in his grave' came from and how it got started.  I tried to look it up, but found nothing useful.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Evil Credit Card Companies

Normally I am a laissez-faire capitalist. Most of the time, I am happy to let businesses to things without regulation or control, because political controls have a habit of causing very nasty side effects. But I draw the line at deliberate, premeditated emotional manipulation:

"...Tiff recalled. “And then we talked for over an hour about my problems and raising kids. She was amazing. She was so similar to me. She gave me her direct number and said that I should call her directly anytime I had any questions or just needed to talk about what was going on.”

Over the next three years, Tiff paid off the entire $28,000 she owed Bank of America and spoke regularly with Tracey, she said. ...

One Bank of America executive acknowledged that Tiff ... probably could have cut her debt in half just by asking. Much of what they’re paying, after all, is fees and interest that Bank of America itself tacked on.

“Some cardholders are not as savvy as others,” said Tony Allen, a company spokesman, ...

I asked Tiff if she ever asked Tracey to write off the late fees and the interest charges.

“Oh, no,” she told me. “She was so kind to me. How could I ask her for something like that?”"

Everyone but the most rabid Libertarians agree that government needs to prevent fraud. This is worse than fraud. It is, like fraud, an insidious alteration of people's minds, getting them to agree to something that they would clearly not do if they were well-informed. But when people have been a victim of fraud, they learn from the experience and they can use the court system to recover their losses. When people are the victim of this kind of thing, the never learn how they have been abused and they could never recover any damages in court.

I feel the same way about most kinds of advertising, but that's a topic for another day.

How can we prevent this? I don't know. Direct regulation or oversight would be very difficult and expensive, and would be bitterly opposed by the industry. Ideally, people would be smart enough so that this kind of thing wouldn't work, but that will never happen. But there has to be some way to stop these kinds of shenanigans. If you routinely suck money away from people who are trusting and emotionally open, then society will become a much nastier place.

Read the whole article if you have time. It has lots of interesting facts about how credit card companies know about and manipulate people. For example, their data show that that the purchase of premium bird seed is one of the most reliable indicators of creditworthiness.

I actually have no complaint about building up profiles of people like this. They have a right to judge you based on the things you purchase. When their credit decisions are more accurate, it means that good people get to borrow more cheaply and less money is wasted on deadbeats. That is efficient, and good for society.

Friday, May 15, 2009

History Lesson: Industrial Revolution

This is a good economic history article about the Industrial Revolution, and why it happened in Britain.  The short version is that energy (coal) was really really cheap in Britain, while labor was expensive, so it paid to develop technologies that used energy to replace labor.  For example:

"The French government sponsored the construction of an English style iron works (including four coke blast furnaces) in Burgundy in the 1780s. The raw materials were adequate, the enterprise was well capitalised, and they hired outstanding and experienced English engineers to oversee the project. Yet it was a commercial flop because coal was too expensive in France."

Mental Resource: Self-Control

This article relates to my post yesterday about the Aristocracy of Morality.  It discusses a famous experiment run several decades ago.  They found out what treat children liked the most, and then they put them in a room with that treat.  They told the children that, if they waited long enough without eating the treat, they would get two of them.  They measured how long the kids could last without eating the treat in front of them.  Some ate it immediately.  Most held out for a minute or two.  A few managed to wait the whole fifteen minutes and got the second treat.

Then, a couple decades later, they looked at all kinds of life outcomes for the children.  The ability to delay gratification at four years old was strongly correlated to all kinds of measures of success.  The patient children did better in school, they had fewer problems with drugs and obesity, they maintained more and better friendships, and they were generally less stressed and happier.  The kids were all part of a 'Mental Overclass' and would probably remain so for the rest of their lives, no matter what happened to them, what life path they chose, or how much money they ended up making.

Most of the trends in modern behavior research are towards Situationism: looking at how people's actions are affected by the environment rather than innate character traits.  So it is always notable when they find some innate trait with such a clear impact on behavior.  People have known for a long time that the ability to control your impulses and delay gratification is essential for a good life.  But this trait, unlike IQ, has hardly been studied by science.  We don't know how much of it is genetic, and how much if it is learned.  Either way, your parents will have a big impact on it.

My father taught me a key lesson in this when I was young.  I've mentioned it to him before, and he doesn't even remember doing it, but I do.  I used to enjoy collecting baseball cards.  I would go to the baseball card shop and buy packs of cards.  My dad told me that it would be a lot cheaper to buy a whole box of cards all at once.  But I never saved up enough money to do so.  So he bought the box of cards, and then sold me the packs at the proper fraction of the box cost, without the extra retail markup.  They ended up being a lot cheaper, and I got more cards for my money.  In this way, he demonstrated to me the value of evaluating various options, saving, and long-term planning.  From then on, I started to buy the boxes myself, and eventually applied these skills to other purchases.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Aristocracy of Morality

I am rich.  My parents are rich.  We are members of the upper class.  My memories may be wrong, but I recall that I realized this before they did, and that it took me a little time to convince my parents that we were rich and not middle-class.

Their reluctance to face this fact was understandable.  We are not made of money.  My father is a teacher and my mother is a nurse.  We live a modest lifestyle in a small house.  We routinely shop at thrift stores and discount stores.  We drive unpretentious economy cars.  We do not purchase any luxury goods, with the possible exceptions of health food and craft items from local artists.

When I was young, we were certainly not rich.  But over the years, something happened.  Habits of industry, frugality, and thrift began to pay their rewards.  My parents paid off the mortgage and all of their debts, and accumulated enough savings to be secure against anything short of a catastrophic medical crisis.  They started buying their cars by writing checks instead of signing up for payment plans.

I have picked up these good habits.  I have not inherited any substantial amount of money, but I have worked and saved, and learned how to live a good life without spending money.  The interesting paradox of money is that once you get in the habit of not spending it, once you train your mind to be thrifty, you quickly end up with so much money that you do not have to worry about it at all.  But the habits remain, and the savings accumulates.  I bought my first car by swiping my debit card, and I have never paid any interest in my life.  I earn more in interest on my assets each month than I spend on food.

In the past, being a member of the aristocracy was based on the financial wealth of your ancestors.  Nowadays, inheritance of physical wealth means less than it used to.  It is easier than ever before to build a fortune, or to dissipate one.  By historical standards, ownership of physical wealth is now very fleeting and tenuous.

But we are beginning to see the emergence of a new kind of aristocracy, one defined by the new constraint of our age.  Physical resources are not the constraint on the good life that they once were.  You can be poor and happy, or rich and miserable.  The ability to live a flourishing life now depends almost entirely on your attitudes, beliefs, character, wisdom, and morality.  In the past, these kinds of standards were much more uniform, with minimal standards enforced by both physical necessity and social norms.

But today, in a land of vast wealth and social permissiveness, new divisions are emerging in society.  Education and culture no longer unify our character traits, and the laws of natural selection have been superseded by our system of social welfare.  In the absence of these unifying constraints, character traits like self-control and long-term planning are determined mainly by parents and peer groups, and your parents usually determine your peers.

It is a well-known fact that there exists a 'permanent underclass' of people born into poverty and bad social conditions, who them go on to have more children in the same conditions.  But I have seen very few people comment or speculate on a 'permanent overclass' of people who are born into emotionally and financially secure households, and go on to create the same kinds of families.  Their children will be in the upper class not because they inherited physical assets, but because they inherited the beneficial character traits of their parents.  Call them the 'Aristocracy of Morality'.

The Aristocracy of Morality will continue to dominate the world, or at least live a good life, and its existence will become more and more obvious over time.  This is because they posess something that, unlike money, cannot be transferred.  As the behavioral standards of the rest of society decay, they will remain, growing ever more rare but wielding ever more wealth and power in consequence of the rarity of their character.  Many members will drop out of the Aristocracy, and a few will manage to join it, but membership will be based mainly on the accident of birth.

This article illustrates what I am talking about, and it was the inspiration for this post.  I will quote the relevant facts:

"The illegitimacy ratio for the white underclass is probably now in the region of 70 percent. I think that the proportion for the white working class may be above 40 percent. The white middle class is approaching 20 percent—a scarily high figure when you think about all the ways that the middle class has been the spine of the nation.

The white overclass? They're still living in the 1950s—their ratio is probably about 4 or 5 percent tops."

Their definition of class depends entirely on education and money*, because that is what is easiest to measure.  The study shows a very strong correlation between money and behavior standards.  Correlation is not causation, of course, and we cannot be sure if the money leads to good families, or if good families lead to wealth.  My life experience seems to suggest the latter.  Numerous studies show that being born into a wealthy family improves life outcomes, and they conclude that wealth leads to good families.  I argue that that good character leads to good character directly, and that wealth is just a symptom.  The recurring failure of wealth transfer programs to improve social conditions supports this claim.

It is theoretically possible to greatly expand the membership of the Aristocracy of Morality, so that most of society could gain the benefits of membership.  A few changes to our education system, cultural messages, and legal institutions could work wonders.  But I do not see this ever happening.  For various reasons, our society has lost the ability and/or willingness to attack self-destructive behavior patterns.

This is understandable.  It is not fair to punish people for failing to follow rules they never learned and never had a chance to learn.  I would never support such harshness; I am not nearly as cruel as Nature.  It is also true that people sometimes fail for reasons that have nothing to do with their actions or character.  But there must be some way to maintain a social safety net without allowing moral standards to fall so far that only a small Overclass retains the character traits that generate wealth, success, and the ability to live a good, flourishing life.

However, I do not think that this trick will ever be accomplished.  It is a sad fact of history that societies will always purchase as much decadence as they can possibly afford.  And our society can afford a lot.

*Technically, the linked study would not classify my family as 'Overclass' because my parents have no postsecondary education.  But we do fit the household income requirement, and we certainly have the morality and worldview that the study identifies as 'Overclass'.

Movie Review: A Beautiful Mind

This post will have a spoiler, but the movie has been out a long time and it is impossible to talk about it any other way.

I had often heard that 'A Beautiful Mind' was a good movie, but I didn't know anything about it except the identity of the subject, John Nash.  The movie opens with a scene in Princeton university in 1947, and one of the characters is wearing a tie that features a double helix pattern.  Given that the structure of DNA was not actually found until 1953, there should be no reason for this pattern to be on a tie in 1947, so I assumed that this was a historical error in the movie.  This primed me to expect further errors.  So when more errors and strange occurrences started popping up, I assumed that it was just more Hollywood inaccuracy.  Just when I was thinking that the movie was a piece of stupid Hollywood junk, it was revealed that none of these things were real; they were all Nash's delusions.

The movie is not about Nash*.  It is about schizophrenia.  And it is indeed a good movie, if for no other reason than it manages to force the audience to accept the reality of the delusions, which start small and keep growing, so that we understand the confusion of the main character as he must confront the fact that what he sees is not real.  After I finished the movie, I semi-seriously ran an inventory of the people I know, to make sure that I had some proof that they were real: Had they been acknowledged by other humans, or interacted with physical objects, or otherwise shown that they had an actual connection with reality?

The movie also hints at how bad the state of mental illness treatment was in the 50's and 60's.  The hospitals, treatments, and medicines were crude and barbaric.  As the movie demonstrates, the best and perhaps only way of dealing with a mental illness is to really confront the problem yourself, aided by people who are close to you and love you.  The real Nash stopped all medical intervention and medications in 1970, and learned to deal with the problems.  The movie, however, says that he started taking 'newer medications' which was a lie put in for political reasons.

Even today, people have a lot of confusion about mental illness.  The simple fact is that mental illness is whatever society says it is.  Any behavior that makes you different, or less able to 'function properly' in our society, will be classified as mental illness.  Behaviors that previous societies would consider normal, acceptable, or even admirable are now classified as mental illness.

The only strict biological definition of mental illness that makes any sense is 'any behavior that reduces the number of surviving, viable offspring' and by that criterion anyone who has sufficient resources to raise a child, and uses birth control or remains chaste, is insane.

At this point, you may be thinking, "Surely it must be mental illness if you accept as true something that is not found in reality."  But this definition fails to exclude the majority of humanity.  People's memories of events is almost always different from the literal truth.  People lie to themselves all the time, inventing stories about events and motivations in order to fit their own narrative of the world.  This is a standard psychological coping mechanism, we would not be able to function well without it.  At some point, acceptance of unreal things becomes a problem, but that point is determined mainly by social convention.

I know a person, X, who sees fairies and ghosts, as well as a 'guardian angel' who talks to X and acts as an adviser.  X knows that nobody else sees these things, and that most people react negatively when they are discussed.  But X firmly believes that they are real, and considers the ability to see these things in general, and the angel in particular, to be a special gift from God.  Because X trusted me, we were able to discuss these things.  I asked a lot of questions, without making assumptions, and learned a lot. 

X would almost certainly be diagnosed with schizophrenia, and possibly several other mental illnesses as well, but I do not consider X insane.  The angel never tells X to do bad things, in fact the advice of the angel is always do things that are more rational and/or more moral than X would normally do.  These visions do not cause any problems, and they may in fact help X function better.  They are simply the way that X's mind perceives and deals with the world. 

Neither I nor anyone else has any right to say that it is 'wrong' to see these things, and any medicine, even modern ones, would cause X far more problems than these visions.  In another time or culture, X might easily be honored as a seer or prophet.

*There are a ton of inaccuracies; the person in the movie has almost nothing to do with the read Nash.

Liberal Media

This blogger makes a good point:

"the press will always have liberal bias, because liberalism will always be defined as representing what reporters happen to believe at any point in time."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The credit crunch of 1294

This is fascinating.

Basically, there was an incident in the Middle Ages that closely matches the current banking crisis.  The article is easy to read, and I;d recommend it to anyone interested in history.

The story also shows why the Italians were able to become so wealthy and powerful.  They, like the Dutch, English, and modern USA, basically built an empire on the basis on financial shenanigans*.  Anyone who claims that finance does not generate real wealth is ignorant of both history and economics.  Yes, it is possible for the process to get corrupted, but a healthy financial sector is a huge asset for any country.

*Yes, this is a simplification.  Lots of things are needed to make a world power.  But knowing, as a society, how to manage money is right at the top of the list.

Today In History: Mexican War

On May 13, 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico.  This war was an important milestone in our history; it was the first time we kicked around a modern nation-state.  Before that point, our military adventures were limited to trying not to get invaded, and kicking around aboriginal tribes.

We actually tried to be peaceful and play by the rules.  Texas had a right to declare independence, and we had a right to add new states to our commonwealth.  In 1845, we sent an ambassador to Mexico with an offer to pay them a ton of money for Texas, California, and all the areas in between.  The Mexican president was willing to negotiate with us.  But then the Mexicans accused this president of treason and deposed him, and kicked out our ambassador.  The USA said, "Fine, be that way" and sent in the troops. 

Two years later, we owned everything we wanted.  We were extraordinarily generous with the peace terms.  Despite the fact that we had crushed all military opposition and occupied their capital, we only took what we had originally wanted to buy, and we actually paid them about half of our original offer.  There was a political faction in our government that wanted to claim the entire place, but that idea never got any real support.

The war was actually rather controversial.  The southerners supported it but the northerners generally opposed it, because it added more slave territory to the Union.  Ulysses S Grant famously said "I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

Of course, it was not immediately apparent at the beginning of the war that Mexico was the weaker nation.  They certainly thought that they had a fighting chance; we did not have any obvious military superiority at the beginning.  Our nation had almost no standing army, and no experience with waging large-scale aggressive wars.

This war was a milestone in military history for several reasons.  It was the first time that reporters were on the scene of the battles, and able to send rapid reports back home.  It was also a clear demonstration of how rapidly military technology was evolving.  The Mexican army was using weapons that had been the state of the art 40 years earlier, but our infantry weapons and artillery were far superior, due to recent advancements in firearm design.  They had muzzle-loading muskets, while we had breech-loading rifles and revolvers.

This advance of technology would continue to dominate the face of war.  With every war since this one, new technology had some big impact on either the outcome or the casualties.  Old thinking could not keep up, which inevitably led to led to disasters in military strategy all the way from Fredericksburg to the occupation of Iraq.

Monday, May 11, 2009

This Is Not Another Great Depression

The nice thing about being an economist is that you have numbers to tell you about history, so you don't have to rely only on people's subjective impressions.

"Since the start of the recession in late 2007, the monthly unemployment rate has risen from 4.9 percent to 7.6 percent in January 2009. Before thinking about the Great Depression, realize that unemployment rates have exceeded 7 percent in 139 months since World War II. This includes 32 months between 1974 and 1977, 76 months between 1980 and 1986, and 21 more between 1991 and 1993. The Great Depression was far more disastrous. One year after the stock market crash of 1929, the unemployment rate had risen from 2 percent to 10.8 percent. The next year it was 16.8 percent. Then unemployment rates rose above 20 percent for four straight years! "

from Freakonomics

It is also important to note that most households in the 30's relied on a single income, and that there were almost no social welfare systems, which means that about one fifth of all Americans basically had no means of support.  Nowadays, unemployment usually means that a household goes from two incomes to one income plus government benefits.

So from an objective standpoint, the pain today is nothing like it was back then.

Of course, any philosopher or biologist will tell you than pain is an entirely subjective experience.  It may well be true that the amount of pain and suffering that people are experiencing today is as great as it was back in the 30's.  People used to be a lot tougher.

Book Review: Double Star

This Heinlein novel, published in 1956, is one of the better ones I have read.  I'm not the only one who thinks so; this is one of the books that earned a Hugo Award.  It is one of his earlier novels, but not one of the ones sold as 'juvenile fiction', so it may have escaped some editing as a result.

I like the first-person narration style, and how it reveals the character's view of the world.  It does a good job of actually making the political and social content part of the plot.  It avoids going into too many technical details, with the result that it has aged better than many stories of the time period.

The only real howlers, from a scientific point of view, are the existence of Martians and the assumption that a human could walk around on Mars with nothing more than an oxygen mask.  But this book was written nine years before the Mariner 4 probe flew past Mars and collected the first close-range data on the place.  The situations presented in the book were perfectly plausible, given the scientific data of the time.  It is easy to forget how much we have learned about the universe in the past several decades.

Overall, I would say that this is my second or third favorite Heinlein book, behind 'Starship Troopers' and about tied with 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Book Review: Rocket Ship Galileo

Heinlein's first published novel, published in 1947, was 'Rocket Ship Galileo'.  It, like many of his earlier novels, is often put in the 'juvenile' section of the library.  This is not really accurate; the book is far closer to 'Harry Potter' than 'Hardy Boys'.

The science involved is almost as laughable as the science in the Jules Verne story 'From the Earth to the Moon'.  One professor and three teenagers throw together an atomic rocket on a shoestring budget, and it works perfectly, taking them all the way to the moon on the first attempt.  In order to enjoy it, you must forget everything you know about modern science as it relates to space travel and nuclear reactors.  But if you think of it as a fantasy book, you can have a lot of fun reading it.

Actually, Heinlein really did try to get the science right.  There are several good passages about the scientific method and the philosophy of science and mathematics.  He does make an attempt to show the radiation dangers of a nuclear reactor.  The problem is that very few people really knew the proper science back then.  At the time, no author really understood just how difficult and expensive it would be to escape the Earth's gravity well and make a working space suit.

As in many Heinlein books, there is a big plot twist.  The plot twist is ridiculous, incredible, laughable, pure pulp sci-fi, and exactly what the story needed.  It basically forces you to shut off your critical analysis of the book and just go along for the ride.

This book is definitely a product of its time, and it is not for everyone.  Still, I can think of much worse things to hand to a teenager who is interested in science and fun stories.

Webcomic Review: Lackadaisy

There are two general types of webcomics.  One type is modeled on newspaper comics; the artwork is simple sketches and they have new comics every day or several times a week  These are the comics you read regularly.  The other type is full of beautiful, detailed, lavish artwork, and new comics appear basically at random, whenever the artist gets around to it.  These are the comics you read once, like a library book, and then wait about a year before checking the site again to see what has been added.

A friend pointed me toward a webcomic called Lackadaisy that definitely fits into the latter category.  It is about bootleggers and gangsters in St. Louis during Prohibition.  But everybody is an anthropomorphized cat.  It sounds silly, but it works incredibly well.  It is the only really good period piece I have ever seen in the webcomics world.  It is incredibly well-drawn and well-written; each page is a work of art.

The artist really knows her stuff.  With a few minor exceptions, the language, clothing, and culture are true to history.  There are a ton of little details that show that she has really done the research.  For example, one sketch page shows a gangster using a sawed-off M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle.

If you have any interest in this time period of history, you should definitely take some time to read this comic from the beginning.  It is lots of fun, and a great way to spend a few hours.  Be sure to go to the gallery and look at the 'Preview Comics' as well as the sketches and illustrations.

Be warned, though, that things can get rather violent.  Don't let the cuteness of the cats fool you; this would be R-Rated if it was a movie.  Of course, anyone who has ever owned cats knows that this level of predatory violence is entirely appropriate.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Economic Freedom

"Moreover, the notion that Bush was a big deregulator is false. Contrary to public perception, Bush increased government control of the economy. The Fraser Index shows that economic freedom in the U.S. began to increase under Reagan then peaked in 2000 after eight years of Clinton. Since 2000, economic freedom in the U.S. has decreased, such that the U.S. had less economic freedom in 2006 (the latest year for which data is available) than in 1980; we had more economic freedom under Carter than we did under Bush. The handful of other nations that lost economic freedom during that period includes Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Myanmar."

from this article (emphasis mine)

I have said before that, from the perspective of a Libertarian, the Obama presidency will probably not be any worse than the Bush presidency.


If you know about aid and development, you know that one of the big success stories is microfinance, giving small loans to poor people so they can start businesses.  One of the leaders is this field is the Grameen bank.  One thing I didn't know is that Grameen has a branch in the USA.  And it is doing quite well.  Almost all of the loans are being repaid, even with the current crisis.  And most importantly, most of the people they lend to have better lives as a result of their loans, because they were financing investment rather than consumption.

Economists know that one of the most important functions of capital markets is to provide finance to businesses so they can start and grow.  This is one of the fundamental engines of economic growth.  It is a powerful indictment of our current financial system, indeed our entire society, that it has failed in this basic task.  Our business and governmetn leaders corrupted the primary purpose of finance, pushing all kinds of worthless loans and accounting shenanigans that brought the entire world to the brink of disaster.  Meanwhile, an aid program designed to help people in Third World is doing the job, in our country, that capitalists should have been doing, and making a profit while doing it.

Book Review: Farnham's Freehold

'Farnham's Freehold' is a book from the middle of Heinlein's career, which means that it is in that transition period between good science fiction and meaningless mystical junk.  It is a fairly good book overall, with lots of interesting characters and thought-provoking situations, but it is still more fantasy than science and has plenty of plot holes.  But you can see the start of the downward trend of making the plot simply a vehicle for author filibusters on social and moral issues.

The main character, Hugh Farnham, is clearly an idealized representation of the author, just like Dagny Taggart is for Ayn Rand.  This, in combination with Heinlein's taste for unconventional sexual morality, leads to several 'squick' moments.  These are annoying mainly because of their gratuitous pointlessness.

Most of the meat of the book comes after the unexpected and bizarre plot twist at the middle of the book.  I won't spoil it, except to say that the main antagonist, Ponse, is the most interesting, well-developed, complex character in the entire book.

Heinlein has been accused of racism for writing this book, but I believe that the opposite is true.  The whole point of the book is to show how people are corrupted by both unjust power and improper subjugation.  If you know anything about Heinlein, you know that his entire philosophy is about personal freedom and responsibility, and he fights anything that opposes those beliefs.  This is one of the best treatments of racism that I have ever seen, and I highly recommend it if you like challenging and thought-provoking books.


The college had a big reception today for undergraduate seniors who are graduating tomorrow.  About eight minutes after it was over, I wandered down to see if I could grab some leftovers.

I walked into a feeding frenzy.  About half a dozen people, many of them department secretaries, were helping themselves to piles of food.  There were a lot of leftovers, and it was all kinds of good stuff: piles of cherry tomatoes, meatballs, chicken, quiche, taco dip, and good desserts with lots of pecans.  They were racing against the bemused catering staff, who were cleaning up the stuff and preparing to throw it away.

I got three plates of food, then left, then came back with a plastic container that I keep in my office for occasions just like this one.  I was filling it with chicken when one of the secretaries said, "Do you want more?  We have bags in the other room."

So now I have a one-gallon Ziplok bag stuffed with chicken and quiche in my office fridge, and I am currently working my way through a nice lunch.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reader Survey

Edited for clarity, edits in italics:

I'd like to know who reads this blog. If you are reading this, and you are one of my friends or family members, please leave a comment on this post with your name. Even if you know I know you read it, please leave a comment anyway. Even if you read this a long time after it was posted, please reply with a comment. If you are reading this on Facebook, add a note to the Facebook post. If you don't want to list your name, use a nickname or description I would recognize. In order to leave a comment, click on the title of this post, and then scroll down the link that says, "Post a Comment".

Also, if I know you, please sign your comments to other posts in some way. If this was a purely professional blog, with commenters talking about science stuff, I wouldn't care who was talking. But most of the comments seem to be in response to personal or family posts, so I'd like to know who is saying what, and other family members probably would too.

If you were the person who I had the long conversation with in response to the Confusing Primates post, please let me know. I thought I knew who it was, but I was wrong. Then I tried the next two likely people, and it wasn't them either.

PS: The Test: Unit Analysis post I put up earlier was also meant to be a survey, in addition to an experiment to test how my class compared to my family and friends. But apparently people really hate math; I know that I have more than three readers. If you did reply to that, thank you. Both of the answers were about right. I don't know who the first post was from, but I assume that it was my engineer cousin.

Surreal Image

Maybe it's just me, but I find the following image to be brain-bendingly alien and surreal. It makes me laugh and shake my head in confusion at the same time:

There's just something about that surgical mask, in combination with the medieval imagery...

From this article

Book review: Lando Calrissian and the ...

A long time ago, three Star Wars books featuring Lando Calrissian were published.  They were some of the first licensed Star Wars books ever written.  I had often seen them mentioned, but I had never gotten a chance to read them until recently, when a friend loaned them to me.

The books were published in July, October, and December of 1983.  The titles were 'Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu', 'Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon', and 'Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBaka'. The aithor is L. Neil Smith.

Based on the rapidity with which they were produced, the obscurity of the author, and the titles, you are probably assuming that they were hastily-produced pulp-quality hack jobs.  If so, you are right, but that does not change the fact that they were a ton of fun to read.

I'll go ahead and list all the problems first.  There are plenty of flaws and anachronisms, things that do not fit in the Star Wars universe.  For example, things like bicycles and dinosaurs are mentioned.  And despite the fact that the rules of Sabacc are covered in detail, the phrase 'inside straight' is mentioned twice, as if Lando was playing poker.

In fact, aside from the name of the main character and his ship, there is practically no connection to the Star Wars universe.  There are none of the aliens or places we know, the technology works slightly differently, and the bad guys are not even Imperials.  Lots of strange new aliens, items, and concepts are mentioned that have no place in the Star Wars universe that we know and love.  It is entirely possible that the author took some existing plots he was working on and hastily retro-fitted them.

But none of that matters.  The books are a joy.  They are well-paced sci-fi adventures, with lots of good ideas, characters, settings, and action.  They are my favorite kind of science fiction, and they are far superior to a lot of other stuff that has come out with the Star Wars name attached to it.

The author got the character of Lando just right.  The character is not a superhuman; he has some skills and a quick wit but is not an action hero at all.  He grows and develops over the course of the books.

Lando's droid companion, Vuffi Raa, is another great character, and their interaction helps drive the books.  The droid is something of a magic Swiss army knife, but no more so than R2-D2, and it has a backstory to explain its range of powers.

I even like the titles.  I've always had a fondness for titles of the form '[Person you know] and the [interesting thing]'.  These kinds of titles are a signal of simple fun, and I much prefer that to the kind of short or cryptic titles that are popular nowadays.

A lot of differences between these books and the normal Star Wars universe are not the author's fault.  When these books were written, the universe was ill-defined.  I've seen some of the old comic books from that period, and they too had a lot of strange, one-off things.  And the author did make a good-faith effort to include the Sabacc rules, which were invented by the author of the first Han Solo books.

The main problem is that the overall feel is different from the feel that the Star Wars universe later evolved.  The best way to explain this is by referencing the three masters of sci-fi: Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.  The following explanation is greatly simplified, but it helps explain the science fiction genre.

Asimov's stories are about technology, robots, massive human galactic civilizations, and human social phenomena.  Clarke's stories are about strange, powerful, highly advanced aliens, their artifacts, and what happens when different races meet.  Heinlein's books focus on rugged individuals fighting things that threaten their lives or the things they value.

Almost all science fiction draws from these three sources of inspiration.  For example, the Stargate series is mostly Clarke and Heinlein, with almost no Asimov.

Stories in the Star Wars universe are usually a mix of Asimov and Heinlein, with very little Clarke.  The galaxy is basically dominated by a high-tech human civilization, there are almost no encounters with aliens that are very different than humans, and the plots focus on militaristic action heroes fighting for freedom and justice.

These Lando books, by contrast, show a lot of Clarke influence.  The plot of the first book is entirely driven by strange artifacts from a super-advanced ancient civilization.  The main antagonist is a semi-mystical enigma with access to unexplained powers and technology.  The plot of the third book is based on a different set of alien life-forms.

These differences in style, and not any flaws in the writing, are probably the reason why these books, and a lot of other early Star Wars stuff, are not really included in the Expanded Universe canon.  It just doesn't fit with the way the franchise evolved.

Now that I think about it, a similar thing happened with Star Trek.  The original series had a lot of encounters with powerful and truly alien beings.  Most of the modern stuff involves aliens that are at, below, or only slightly above the tech level of the protagonists.  That franchise also traded away the Clarke elements in order to gain more Asimov and Heinlein.  If you grew up watching the newer series, and then went back and watched an original series episode with hyper-advanced aliens, you would think it odd and out of place even if it was a good episode.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book review: Three By Heinlein

Some time ago, I read a library book that had three short Heinlein novels: Puppet Masters, Waldo, and Magic Inc.
Puppet Masters was good sci-fi, and one of the best Heinlein books I have read.  It is a fun and fast-paced story of alien invasion.  There was one glaring plot hole, however.  The society has a recreational drug that vasty slows down the human perception of time, allowing one to experience a lot more ina short period of time.  As written, people who are on the drug actually move much faster than normal.  However, despite the obvious possibilities, this drug is never used for working, combat, missions, or any practical reasons.  The reason why the speed-drug is unsuitable for anything other than recreation is never given.  This trhing is annoying, because it shows that the author hasn;t really thought about the world.  It is just lazy writing.
Waldo was interesting but disappointing, mainly because the plot ends up relying on mysticism.  I don't mind when a story is about mysticism and fantasy right from the start, but Heinlein has a bad habit of pulling a bait-and-switch where a sci-fi story turns into a fantasy story halfway through.  I also think that this is lazy writing.  I also didn't like what happened to the main character.  he started as an interesting, well-rounded character, but at the end of the story he had 'cured' himself and turned into a nobody who was not doing anything useful for humanity.
Magic Inc was fun.  Magic is part of the plot right from the start, and it talks about all the ways that this would affect society.  It spent a little too much time tlaking politics, but was a good story overall.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Security Essay

This is a long but very good essay on how the human mind makes judgments about security.  It includes an excellent overview of the research that has been done on human decision making.

Book Review: Rendezvous With Rama

Two weekends ago, I read Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction classic 'Rendezvous With Rama'. 

It was well-written and easy to read, with decent characters, plot, and action.  It accomplished the very rare feat of being a well-paced novel-length description of exploration, adventure, and problem-solving, without any violence or direct conflict.  I can see why it became a classic, and I am glad I read it.

But it, like most Clarke stories, fits solidly in the theme of 'mysterious and really powerful aliens with unknowable motives'.  I don't really like that sub-field of sci-fi.  I know it's just a personal preference, but it is not what I want in my stories.  I like my sci-fi to be about human progress and overcoming challenges, pulling ourselves up to a better type of existence and/or solving problems with science, bravery, and ingenuity.  But none of that happens in this book.  Sure, a lot of people do a lot of clever things, but it is all in an artificial environment.  It was closer to archaeology than physics.  Nothing has changed at the end of the book, except that a few guys have some semi-religious mystical experiences.

The book reminded me more of an H.P. Lovecraft work than a work of classic science fiction.  That's not a bad thing, but it was not what I was expecting.  And I was slightly annoyed with the assumption about the fragility of the human mind.  It was repeatedly stated that experienced astronauts might be driven to madness by the unusual directions and perspectives of what they were encountering.  That's just hogwash in my opinion.

Still, it is good to expand one's horizons.  Clarke is a top-notch sci-fi author, and it was, overall, a fun read.

Deep South Wedding

'Deep South' is one of those phrases that mean different things to different people.  Before last weekend, I connected the phrase with images of bayous, mangrove swamps, and Spanish moss.  But after attending my cousin's wedding, I learned that there is a region that does not contain any of these features but can only be described as Deep South.

Here are some possible definitions:
1) Any place where the roads are lined with both trees and dead armadillos.
2) Any place where there is only one Mexican restaurant in the entire county.
3) Any place where I feel like a Yankee.

Of course, it is not sufficient to describe 'Deep South' in terms of location.  It is a also thing of culture, a state of mind.  I currently live in South Carolina, on a college that was once a plantation and still has the manor house in the middle of campus.  Yet I do not think of it as 'Deep South'  I think of plantation areas as 'Antebellum', while 'Deep South' describes those wild and lonely places of freeholding farmers that never had the decadent pretense of civilization or culture that the slave-masters built for themselves.

Here are a few random things to mention:
1) At the dinner the night before the wedding, the pastor was talking with a man who was either a pastor or the guy in charge of church music.  Within the space of two minutes, the conversation went from the pros and cons of various hymnals to AR-15 stocks.
2) My uncle, who is a coal mining engineer living in what I previously thought of as rural Alabama, complained about the lack of pawn shops, gun shops, or other window-shopping opportunities in the area.
3) Many of the graves in the church were covered with sand.  Apparently they have a tradition of removing all plants from the grave and spreading new sand once a year.  There was a big pile of sand in the graveyard for this purpose.

Because it was the wedding of a cousin, the family that I knew was one forth of the family there.  Half of them were the groom's family, and one forth were the family of my uncle, who I had sometimes heard about but had never seen.

My cousin is a great person, and I was impressed with the man she chose to marry.  I know that they will have a good future.  I do not mean any of what follows to be insulting.  If anything, it shows how strange and different I and my family are.  I have my prejudices, and my opinions on what makes a good life, and I understand that other people think differently.  I mention these things to show that I was experiencing a kind of culture shock.

The wedding was perhaps the greatest concentration of smokers that I have been exposed to in over a decade.  The reception was like traveling several decades back in time.  None of the sodas were diet, and most of the bread was lily white.  The 'groom's cake' was a tower of ten dozen Krispy Kreme donuts.  The other attendees of the wedding made everyone on my side of the family look like a health fanatic.  I was not the only one who commented on this.

After eating like them for two days, I felt slightly ill.  Partly this was my own fault; I made very little effort to keep to my normal diet and I usually have a 'When in Rome' attitude to joining festivities.  After the wedding, everyone from my side of the family went to my grandmother's house to relax and socialize.  My aunt and uncle went to the Whole Foods Market, bought a lot of fancy veggies, feta cheese, and olives, and made a big salad for dinner.  It was exactly what we all needed, and I felt a lot better the next day.

Many of the people at that wedding probably have no idea what it is like to feel healthy or be healthy.  They cannot understand just how much better and more alive you feel after eating a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, and nuts, getting yourself to your proper Body Mass Index.  Healthy living is simply not a priority, or part of the culture.

But if I ever got in a fight, I would want them on my side.  And if I ever got in trouble, I know that I could count on their help.  If civilization ever collapsed, they would have a much better chance of surviving than most people.  Different people, indeed different cultures, have their strengths and weaknesses.  Being good at one thing does not imply being good at other things.  The structure of our modern world rewards a certain kind of thinking, but that does not imply that this kind of thinking is superior.