Monday, June 30, 2008

On This Date, Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

Well! Here's something that anyone will find interesting, who's interested in astronomy, or earth science, or just likes things that make a really loud boom.

It was one hundred years ago today that the Tunguska Event happened.

For those of you who haven't yet been introduced to this happening, here's a brief description: One hundred years ago today, way off in the wilds of Siberia, some kind of meteor (most likely; although there are those who think it was a comet nucleus) came streaking down, exploding as it entered the lower atmosphere. The meteor itself was probably about sixty meters across, according to the best modern estimates--think that it was about the height of a fifteen-story building. The explosion probably would have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale, except that this scale hadn't been invented yet. Measured in terms of nuclear weapons, Wikipedia reports that it had a blast most likely similar to a 15 or 20 Megaton bomb--about a thousand times more energetic than the one we dropped on Hiroshima, and roughly a third as powerful as the biggest three-stage thermonuclear warhead tested by the Soviet Union. The blast knocked down trees for several tens of miles from the blast point; it broke windows for hundreds of miles around; and, according to one school of thought, it produced an impact crater which is now a lake.

It was very fortunate that the blast was in such a remote location; but there were eyewitnesses who survived to tell the tale. Also from Wikipedia:
"We had a hut by the river with my brother Chekaren. We were sleeping. Suddenly we both woke up at the same time. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Chekaren said, 'Can you hear all those birds flying overhead?' We were both in the hut, couldn't see what was going on outside. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. I got scared. Chekaren got scared too. We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered. There was noise beyond the hut, we could hear trees falling down. Chekaren and I got out of our sleeping bags and wanted to run out, but then the thunder struck. This was the first thunder. The Earth began to move and rock, wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright, how can I say this, as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting, I even closed them. It was like what the Russians call lightning. And immediately there was a loud thunderclap. This was the second thunder. The morning was sunny, there were no clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one! "Chekaren and I had some difficulty getting out from under the remains of our hut. Then we saw that above, but in a different place, there was another flash, and loud thunder came. This was the third thunder strike. Wind came again, knocked us off our feet, struck against the fallen trees. "We looked at the fallen trees, watched the tree tops get snapped off, watched the fires. Suddenly Chekaren yelled 'Look up' and pointed with his hand. I looked there and saw another flash, and it made another thunder. But the noise was less than before. This was the fourth strike, like normal thunder. "Now I remember well there was also one more thunder strike, but it was small, and somewhere far away, where the Sun goes to sleep."
Anyway, this event has become somewhat legendary among certain nerd circles. It's not something that happens every day, after all! And that's a good thing. The trouble is, if this had happened--say--thirty years ago instead, it would have been mistaken for a nuclear first strike, and the results would likely have been very, very bad.

But this is nevertheless a totally natural occurrence, and it's going to happen again at some point. While a space rock sixty meters across seems pretty big to us--especially when compared against human-sized structures--it really is too small for our astronomers to reliably detect and track. We can detect much bigger objects, and there are a bunch of these in Earth-crossing orbits; judging from how many of those we know about, it's likely there are many, many more out there of the Tunguska-sized variety.

But! Despite the depressing and dangerous nature of this threat to our comfortable existence, this event still rates really, really high on the "That's just freakin' cool" meter. At least it does for me, and I suspect I'm not the only one. "The universe is throwing really big rocks at us? That is just totally freakin' awesome!"

I'm not the only one who thinks this, right?

Anyway, happy Tunguska Day. Many happy returns. Or not, as the case may be.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Thoughts On Those Really Annoying Tunes You Get Stuck In Your Head

Ok, now this is the three-hundredth post on this blog. Woohoo!

Back to business.

Ok, now I've done a whole lot of really cool choral work in my day. I was in the Choraliers at San Jose State University, under Dr. Charlene Archibeque, and we did some kicking stuff. I've been in the Chorus of Beethoven's 9th Symphony under Maestro George Cleve, San Jose Symphony. I've been in Mahler's Second. I've done the magnificent Durufle Requiem. I've done liturgical works by Anton Bruckner. I've done stuff by Palestrina, and Orlando di Lasso, and Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Pergolesi; I've done stuff by Bach and Handel. I've done the Rutter Gloria.

And that's just the pure choral works; I've also been in Opera, and I've done operas by Mozart, Bizet, Strauss (the Austrian one--not the German one), Verdi, Puccini, and Tschaikovsky.

All told, I've done some of the most magnificent choral and vocal music ever composed by the human mind.

So, then, why is it that I get stuff like this stuck in my head:
There was an old man called Michael Finnegan.
He grew whiskers on his chin again.
The wind came up and blew them in again,
Poor old Michael Finnegan!

(Peanut gallery:) Begin Again!

There was an old man called Michael Finnegan....
Ad nauseum.

I mean, this would be really, really annoying for anyone, even if they hadn't spent their college years absorbing the musical corpus of Western Civilization. For someone who styles himself a musician, however, this challenges one's sanity.

Geez, I'm starting to sound like Sam the American Eagle.


So anyway, I was on our church's Praise Team this morning. Now, among other things, that meant that I had to do a whole lot of singing this morning. We all had to show up at 7:30 to run through the music for the service, then we had to sing during First Service, then (a bit later) we had to sing for Second Service. All told, that's an awful lot of singing to do, lasting from really early when the voice is not yet awake, until a few minutes after noon.

So we're singing those songs over and over and over again.

Now, the thing about church music is that it's never possible to please everyone. There are people in this world who like the old high-church hymns; there are those who like the Stamps-Baxter stuff that embodies much of the American Evangelical musical traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; there are those who like the modern Christian music, like what comes over the radio these days; and there are those who like the really old-school stuff, much of which is in Latin.

Me, I'm not too keen on the modern Christian-radio music genre. I like the Latin stuff. Trouble is, if you sing the Latin stuff in a typical Church of Christ, people look at you funny and warn you to stop speaking in tongues.

Alas, when you have unusual musical tastes, it's likely that your church isn't going to cater to them. Most of the songs we sang this morning were of the genres that I don't particularly care for. And I had to sing them over, and over, and over. That's ok, and all; but it does mean that I wind up with really annoying songs stuck in my head.

And then my wife started making fun of me! As if I actually deserved it or something. ;-)

So she blithely started giving me advice for getting these really annoying songs out of my head. Here's how you do it (says she):
  1. Think of an even more annoying song than the one you can't get rid of.
  2. Start humming it to yourself on an endless loop.
  3. Voila!
You'll banish the song you had going right quick. Of course, there is one little drawback to this method, which becomes obvious on a moment's reflection....

So we started trying it. She suggested I start with:
One, two, three four five,
Once I caught a fish alive,
Six, seven, eight nine ten,
Then I let it go again....
You know, it's a little depressing when one realizes just how many of these insipid little ditties one knows. I suspect it comes from having children.

And I said, "Nooooooooo!" That one was just too annoying. So I tried the Michael Finnegan song:
There was an old man called Michael Finnegan.
He grew whiskers on his chin again....
And sure enough, in no time I'd happened to banish all that annoying church music from my head. Success! Except that, now I had to share my head with Michael Finnegan.

So my wife helpfully suggested that, would I like to try the most annoying song she can think of?

With great trepidation, I asked: "Which one is that?"
(Happily): Fish heads, fish heads...
Stop. Right now. No more. This is evil.

So I decided to try something else. If you're going to have a really annoying song stuck in your head, you might as well pick one that at least has a little culture behind it. So I tried a little Bach, and started singing the melody from Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, but a little like one was playing a '45 at '78:
DA duh duh DA duh DAH DAH duh DAH DAH dum da DEE dum duh dum dah duh....
Yeah, that can get a little annoying, if you do it enough. Alas, it wasn't enough. A minute or so after I stopped, the guy with the Sisyphean dermatological problems was back:
There was an old man called Michael Finnegan...
Ok, is there anyone else in the Classical Repertoire that I could use to cleanse my brain? Well, at first I thought I'd try Handel, but I very, very quickly decided not to. I mean, have you ever gotten the Hallelujah Chorus stuck in your head?
Haaaaaa-lelujah! Haaaaaaa-lelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Halleeeeeluuuuuujah!
Haaaaaa-lelujah! Haaaaaaa-lelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Halleeeeeluuuuuujah!
It sounds great if you're hearing it once. Once. If you get it on an endlessly repeating soundtrack, pretty soon you'd kill to hear anything else. Even Pomp and Circumstance.

Ok, maybe not that.

Well, wise as my wife is, I think her method of banishing an unwanted song is ultimately self-defeating. I think the only way to do it is to find something to do that engages the brain so fully that it crowds any other music out.

My wife's own personal strategy is to embrace the annoyance: instead of letting herself be annoyed by the song in question, she chooses to Let it be and allow the song to luxuriate in its exquisite annoyingness; she chooses to enjoy the annoy. (Incidentally, Let It Be is an appropriate song for this sort of thing, too.) The trouble is when she's doing it around other people, she becomes contagious.

Me? I think that it's appropriate to spank anyone who intentionally puts one of those songs in there....

Saturday, June 28, 2008

I Should Have Known

A few weeks back, I posted about how I made some stuff in the backyard with duct tape and sticks. I, rather facetiously, entitled that post Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Can I Have the Duct Tape?

Well, that'll teach me to be facetious about anything.

It's started. Just about every time we're out there, the Adrenaline Junkie now asks for the duct tape. Unfortunately it's rarely a good time for the Tape to come out; it requires a lot of supervision from me, and usually I'm either watching the Omnivore or doing garden work instead. (And besides, with all the wildfires around here, coupled with the hot and humid weather, the air quality has been so bad lately that it's been physically uncomfortable to be outside very long.) If I let the Adrenaline Junkie use the Duct Tape by herself, either she'd be unable to pull it off the roll in the first place, or she would wind up accidentally taping herself to the wood pile, or the pole for the basketball hoop, or her little brother....

Of course, I'm not unhappy that she's asking to use it. It's just that, when I showed them the wonderful things you can do with Duct Tape, I was just asking for it, now, wasn't I? In fact, this was exactly what I was hoping they'd do, right? Instead, I keep hearing myself say, "Not today, dearie...."

Sigh. Life is so complicated sometimes. And it only becomes more so, the more mature and independent they become.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Loser Letter number 7

Apropos of nothing: Ok, I've discovered the source of the mystery from yesterday: I truly only have 297 posts (now 298), so maybe I popped the cork a little early. It turns out that for some reason, I had three unpublished "drafts" that Blogger has been tracking--and that these are duplicate posts to ones that are already out there, so they don't count. Bummer. But that means I get to celebrate again in a couple of days, right? I mean, I'll take all the excuses to celebrate that I can.

Anyway, Mary Eberstadt continues with her "Loser Letter" series at National Review, which are written by a hypothetical former Christian who's converted to Atheism, but (in Screwtape Letters fashion) is warning all the current crop of Atheist writers why their arguments and approaches aren't likely to be making too many more such converts.

I missed writing about Letter 6 from last week, so here it is: Do Atheists Know Any Human Women, Human Children, or Human Families?

Letter 7 is here: The Unbelievably Annoying Problem of Christian Moral High Ground, which is primarily about the Abortion Issue, and how that is playing out among the youth of America--in ways that don't necessarily result in advantage for the Atheist side of the culture wars.

Anyway. As far as the backstory on these letters is proceeding, I'm getting a little suspicious. The writer keeps dropping hints about herself, a little in each letter. We've learned that she's in some kind of weird rehab center, with a Director who's a midget who wears a red cape; we know she's learning German; we know she became an atheist after dating one named Lobo, who she also met in rehab and now considers a loser... and she hasn't explained any of this. And she keeps saying that she's almost done with her critiques, and that she's almost ready to explain what it was that convinced her to leave her faith and become an Atheist, but she never quite gets around to it. Now, she says in the current letter that she'll eventually get to all this in the last three letters, that all our questions about her weird circumstances will eventually be answered... but I'm becoming increasingly skeptical, and think this is some kind of lead-on that will take a weird turn at the end.

Have any of you been reading these things? What is your take on all this? You think my suspicions are justified? Just a thought....

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Brace of Posts From My Lovely Bride

This is indeed a banner day.

Not only is this the three-hundredth post on Sometimes I'm Actually Coherent* (woohoo!), but my lovely bride has done two--count 'em, two--posts tonight. Now, occasionally I'll do two when I'm trying to make up my self-imposed quota. Tonya, on the other hand, is more sensible and only blogs when she thinks she has something worthwhile to say.

So, tonight I'm the proud husband of a woman who has two worthwhile things to say.

First, there's Teaching to the Test. She and I tend to be a bit down on the whole test-taking business. Yes, some kind of objective evaluation is needed in a traditional classroom setting to indicate (to the teachers, students, parents, and schools) how well the students are doing--and for that matter, how well the schools are doing, too. But in a one-on-one learning environment, most tests lose a great deal of their utility--most testing can be dispensed with.

However, there still occasionally are those circumstances where the kids will be evaluated by outsiders, and they need to prepare for those evaluations. Now, the Pillowfight Fairy isn't studying for the SAT or anything. Not for another year or so, anyway. ;-) But our church does have a game-show-format "Bible Challenge" once a year, and the Fairy wants to clean up. So, we've obtained the official list of questions (yes, it's that kind of game-show-format), and we're doing the kill-and-drill thing on them. We're not to keen on this, but the Fairy really wants that trophy, so she's motivated to learn.

Charlotte Mason would be appalled.

Anyway, Tonya then wrote the post When Should the School Year Start? Turns out, academic years are highly artificial constructs, much like all those tests: they have use in institutions where you have to teach a whole lot of kids at the same time, but the utility tends to go way down in one-on-one settings. This is especially true when the parents are making an effort at an age-integrated lifestyle, one in which kids aren't separated from adults or from kids of other age ranges. Nevertheless, it is necessary to be able to answer the question, "What grade is your kid in?" in a single sentence, without having to give four minutes worth of additional qualifications. (It's a little like trying to fill out a form when you don't have a middle name or initial. You often still have to put something in that spot, or the computer reading the form will choke.) Anyway, Tonya takes a crack at answering the question of what artificial date we should use when describing which artificial grade our flesh-and-blood kid belongs in.

Check it out. Show her some love.

*Ok. The sidebar is only showing 297. But blogger said this is my 300th. What gives? Unsure....

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Various Links

So there were a number of things I found online recently that I thought I'd share.

First up, the Carnival of Homeschooling for this week is up at Dewey's Treehouse. I didn't have anything in it this week, but I did see this post, which is about methods for homeschooling when you've got ankle-biters underfoot. This is highly relevant in our household, needless to say.

Next up: Via Henry Cate at Why Homeschool, we have this post. The California Homeschooling case, In Re: Rachel L., had its rehearing on Monday, and from this eyewitness account by a homeschooling advocate, it appears that the hearing went reasonably well for our side, although it's never a good idea to try to read the tea leaves too closely in this sort of thing.

Third, on a completely different note, I found this link (hat tip to National Review's The Corner) to an essay that I found highly interesting. It has to do with the theological ramifications, within Islam, of external struggle--and with social unrest and division within the world of Islam. Islam is not merely a set of beliefs about spiritual things; it is highly prescriptive, with plenty of rules for the ordering of society--and for what kinds of relationship the world of Islam should have with the rest of the world. Because of this, social unrest and division within Islam take on ominous theological meanings that they do not necessarily have in other religions. And as regards military struggle against non-Muslims--well, if you believe that God has fated you to win, and then you actually lose, that tends to take on ominous theological meanings as well. All of this is discussed at the link above, in the context of explaining what a hudna--a truce, or cease-fire--actually is within Islam, and why so many cease-fires have come and gone in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turns out, the hudna has an Islamic theological context in which it has to be understood, as well.

Deformed Man Lavatory

Update: I realized, as I re-read this thing, that I'd accidentally typed Subject-Object-Verb, when I'd meant to write Subject-Verb-Object. That's the difference between "I the dog kicked," and "I kicked the dog." I have corrected it in the post below.

Ok, in order to understand the title of this post, you'll have to read this. Or, at any rate, the first paragraph or so.

There is of course a rich vein of humor to be mined in the way that non-native speakers of a given language butcher it. If I were to try to learn any dialect of Chinese, I suspect all those tones and contextual clues and evidentiary markers would drive me bananas--and would induce native speakers into paroxysms of laughter.

I seem to remember reading somewhere--but don't quote me on this--that one dialect's word tea, if you change the tone, becomes the word inferior; and that mother-in-law, if you change the tone, becomes horse. If I tried to learn any of the Chinese dialects and converse with the natives, I'd wind up forgetting which tone is which, and regale my hosts with tales of having inferior ceremonies with my horse.

Anyway, the linked article caught my eye, given my amateur interest in the subject of language change. The article makes the case that the English language, which has been accepted as a lingua franca over much of the world, is changing as a result of this fact. That is, since there are now many more non-native speakers of English than native speakers, the former are starting to have a big impact on the development of the language.

This theory isn't entirely off-base, I might add. There are examples of pidgin-like constructions that have worked their way into mainstream usage. Wikipedia mentions that certain phrases in common use today, such as "Long time no see," "look-see", "no can do", "no-go", and "where to?" originated in the usage of Chinese English Pidgin, and then worked their way into common parlance. So it certainly doesn't seem completely unreasonable to expect that certain pidgin-like constructs could make their way into regular usage, even if as nothing more than humorous catch-phrases.

All your base are belong to us!

Anyway, from the Wired article:

It's not merely that English will be salted with Chinese vocabulary for local cuisine, bon mots, and curses or that speakers will peel off words from local dialects. The Chinese and other Asians already pronounce English differently — in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, in various parts of the region they tend not to turn vowels in unstressed syllables into neutral vowels. Instead of "har-muh-nee," it's "har-moh-nee." And the sounds that begin words like this and thing are often enunciated as the letters f, v, t, or d. In Singaporean English (known as Singlish), think is pronounced "tink," and theories is "tee-oh-rees."

English will become more like Chinese in other ways, too. Some grammatical appendages unique to English (such as adding do or did to questions) will drop away, and our practice of not turning certain nouns into plurals will be ignored. Expect to be asked: "How many informations can your flash drive hold?" In Mandarin, Cantonese, and other tongues, sentences don't require subjects, which leads to phrases like this: "Our goalie not here yet, so give chance, can or not?"

And yes, these phrases are understandable by native speakers of English, even if they are grammatically weird.

Now, I'm not so sure that this article gets all its terms right. I'm no expert, so take this with a dose of healthy skepticism, but here are the definitions of some relevant terms, as I understand them:

A pidgin is a mode of communication that exists between two groups of people whose languages are mutually incomprehensible. This mode of communication consists of vocabulary words drawn from one or both languages, with one language usually dominating. Grammar is very, very simple: usually not much more than Subject-Verb-Object, with very little in the way of adjectives, adverbs, or other descriptors. More highly developed pidgins have a few hundred words of vocabulary, which is enough to conduct simple business transactions, but not to express complex thoughts. One key feature of a pidgin is that it is, by definition, not spoken at home--no one is a native speaker of a pidgin.

A creole is a true language that developed from a pidgin. Occasionally in situations where people from two or more cultures are permanently thrown together, and the pidgin is the only means they have of communicating, the pidgin begins to develop beyond its use as a business lingo--especially as it starts getting used in homes, like when a man from one culture and a woman from another get married and have kids. In these circumstances, this rudimentary pidgin talk rapidly grammaticalizes and adds new vocabulary, changing--often in less than a generation--into a fully functional language. Now, it is a common misconception (even expressed in the Wired article) that creoles are merely "mixes" of two or more languages, but this is not true. Rather, creoles are made up from the wreckage of one or more languages, if you will; that is, the pieces of a mother tongue (or two) are taken apart and put together in ways that are completely new, and often incomprehensible to speakers of the original languages.

Here's a hypothetical example: suppose that a pidgin has no word for "goose". They might get around this problem with a circumlocution, by calling it a "big water bird". But that's a bit of a mouthful. After a generation of calling it that, the words might get mashed together into "Bigwatahbuhd". Then unaccented syllables and difficult sounds get smoothed away, and over the next generation or so, it becomes a "Gwatub". And this doesn't just happen for words, it happens for grammatical structures as well. Now one can say that this creole language may have begun as English, but it clearly isn't English anymore.

The third term is lingua franca. Originally this term meant "Frankish Tongue", even though it wasn't actually based on Frankish. Apparently the medieval Arabs called any Europeans "Franks", and the coinage just stuck. Anyway, a lingua franca is a real language (unlike a pidgin) which is used as an international language. Most people who speak a lingua franca don't use it at home, or among their compatriots (although some may); it's mainly used when communicating with outsiders.

Now, one pattern that shows up in linguistics is that the complexity of a language is inversely proportional to how much exposure the language gets to outsiders. It's generally much, much easier to learn a language as a child than it is as an adult. If a culture is isolated from the outside world for a long time, the only people to learn it do so as children, when they can absorb all the complexities; such a language tends over time to become complex to the point of weirdness. But when a culture is in constant contact with the outside world, if it is constantly trading, invading, being invaded, and so forth, there tend to be a lot of adults learning the language. This tends to keep languages simple as time progresses--or at any rate, simpler than they would be if the culture was isolated. So when a linguist comes across a language with few (or no) verb cases, no weird endings, no tones, no evidentiary markings, and a simple, regular structure, the linguist can guess that the culture has probably had regular contact with outsiders, who have been learning the language as adults.

Given this, it isn't surprising that creole languages tend to be grammatically simpler than their mother tongues. And linguae franca tend to become simpler than the native languages that everyone speaks at home. For example, I understand that Swahili, which is lingua franca in much of Africa, is much, much easier to learn than all the other Bantu languages.

Now, at first glance, English doesn't appear to be a good candidate for a lingua franca, because it's so durn hard to learn. Quick: can you explain the difference in meaning between the phrases "I walk my dog" and "I am walking my dog"? There is a difference, but it's really hard to explain what it is. Both phrases are grammatically correct, and we sense that there are times to use one and not the other, but the difference in tense is very subtle. Foreigners who try to learn English tear their hair out when they try to wrap their heads around stuff like this.

Or, they ignore the subtleties and just say "I walk my dog."
White guy: "Hey, neighbor! What're you up to this morning?"

Immigrant: "I walk my dog."
And for that matter, there actually aren't that many people around the world who can produce a convincing "th" sound--either voiced or unvoiced. And we have an "r" sound that is as unpronounceable to other people as the German rolled-guttural "r" sound is to us.

You see the way this works. Anyway, what the Wired article is alleging, is that as English increasingly becomes an international language, some of these subtleties are starting to get eroded. The rest of the world will start speaking a simpler version of English that doesn't sound like what we're used to. In fact, this simpler version of English will, bit by bit, start to infect our own speech--especially as it works its way into movies and TV shows, and as more and more Americans interact with immigrants and foreign businessmen.

Anyway, check out the article. I thought it was interesting.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Solutions Tuesday!

So about a week ago, one of my co-workers walked into the office. And--most unusually--no one immediately tackled him, saying, "Ken! Ken! I need your help on this right now!"

He was commenting on this fact, loudly enough so all of us cube-dwellers could hear it. Which isn't actually very loud, as our cubes are all pretty close together.

"I was wondering where everybody is. No one jumped me looking for my immediate attention."

After some inter-cube conferring, we decided that we had a reason: it was "Solutions Tuesday." We have now designated Tuesdays as the day where we will have no problems, only Solutions.

You know, this is a great idea. Why couldn't we have thought of this months ago? It would have saved us so much trouble.

So here's how it worked. My co-worker Ernest popped into my cube about lunchtime, and said, "Uh, Tim...."

"Now hold on. Before you say anything else, remember that this is Solutions Tuesday. Only Solutions today!"

"Well, then. I have a Solution!"


"It involves kicking you off the Oracle server and reinstalling everything."

Hmm. Maybe the idea still has a few kinks to work out. Still, I think it's a wonderful idea. On Solutions Tuesday, we have no problems, only Solutions. And once we get the hang of it, we can (in the spirit of Christmas) start treating every day as Solutions Tuesday.

Pride Leavened With Shame

So this last Friday, while my eldest daughter was off at day camp, my wife and I took the Adrenaline Junkie and the Omnivore to a couple of shops. One of them was a toy store. We looked around at the stuff.

We didn't get anything for the kids.

I, on the other hand, saw something that I just had to have.

What? I can hear you say. You just had to have that? That's, like, soooo early Eighties.

Yes, it is. And I wasn't even a teenager yet when the Rubik's Cube came out. And by the time my mental powers had matured to the point where I could really have taken it on and won, the craze had passed and there was no more glory to be had in the struggle.

So, to my shame, I had to admit to myself: I had never solved the Rubik's Cube.

Of course, I have to qualify that statement. I had been able to solve one side. And I had been able, on one occasion, to solve two sides at the same time, which startled me, as it was quite unexpected. Beyond that, I did figure out how to "solve" it the same way Alexander the Great "solved" the problem of the Gordian Knot: I popped the cube apart and put it back together the right way.

But I'd never actually done the cube myself, the way that smart people are supposed to do it.

And it has haunted me, through the years....

And you know what really chaps my hide? My wife and her best friend growing up had managed to figure it out. She says she had it down to within a minute, of which I'm pretty skeptical.

So this weekend I got myself a cube, and started messing with it. I actually managed to figure out a couple of cool algorithms on my own. For those of you who are uninitiated, Rubik's cube "algorithms" are sequences of moves that produce a predictable shift in the cubes. For example, if there is a side piece in the top layer which you'd like shifted down to the middle layer, without disturbing anything in the lower layer, you can use a specific, pre-planned series of moves to accomplish this. Generally, solutions to the Cube can be thought of as a series of the right algorithms. One common solution is:
  1. Pick one face, and solve a solid-colored cross in this face, with the edge pieces at the ends of the cross matching the colors of their adjacent sides.
  2. Solve the corner pieces on this side, so that it matches the colors of the adjacent sides.
  3. Orient the cube so the now-solved side is downward. Now, find the four edge pieces that belong in the middle row, and solve them, thus leaving the bottom and middle layers solved.
  4. Solve the "cross" on the top layer.
  5. Use the right algorithm to rotate the arms of the top-layer cross, until they match colors with the adjacent sides.
  6. Rotate the top corners until they each match the three colors of their adjacent sides (albeit perhaps in the wrong orientations)
  7. Get the top corners twisted into the right orientations.
Well, although I could figure out a few good algorithms, I couldn't come up with enough to solve the cube, and after twenty-five years, I was impatient. So I grabbed the little solution booklet that came with the cube.

Thus, even more shame.

But! But but but! Now I, too, can finally solve the cube. Give me a messed-up Rubik's Cube, and I can now get it back into its all-solid-color original state. I have the knowledge. I have the power. And I don't even have to pop the thing apart, although I still remember how to do it.

I have to say, when I first followed all those directions correctly, and the cube magically turned into solid colors in my hands, before my very eyes, it was almost like a religious experience; it was almost like Sir Percival finding the Grail. (Or was it Galahad? Depends on the version you read, I think). The thing I have been hunting for all my life is here! This is The Moment.

Now what do I do?

Went to College... Got the T-Shirt...

(My wife just piped up: "No you didn't." About the T-Shirt, that is....)

I saw a very interesting article by Steve Sailer that I thought I'd point out, entitled The College Paradox: Not Everyone Gains By Higher Education. Hat tip goes to John Derbyshire, via this post.

I'm not sure I agree with the whole thing; I'd put my level of agreement at somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters. Sailer's thesis is that not all kids are college material, and society has to find a place for them. He argues that the American K-12 school system doesn't actually handle this reality well.

He argues, ironically, that this problem comes from the magnificence of our system of upper education. By just about any measure, the elite American colleges are the best in the world. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, and so forth, have reputations as being unmatched by pretty much any other universities in the world, with the possible exceptions of Oxford and Cambridge. But precisely because these schools are so dominant in our academic system, the wordviews popular at these schools--including attitudes about the purpose of learning, and the proper structures and methods of educational institutions--have permeated our entire academic system, all the way from Kindergarten (and even earlier, I'd add) on up. This hasn't happened to the same degree elsewhere in the developed world, in part because the universities in other nations don't have the same cultural prestige.

The trouble is, the worldviews and attitudes that one finds at these elite institutions can be pretty self-serving.

Consider the institutions of vocational training: apprenticeships, trade schools, and the like. How are these institutions seen by people who live and breathe the academic life at our elite universities? Frequently, you'll get the attitude expressed that, "Well, these are acceptable options for those unfortunates who can't cut it in a real academic setting...."

This is how Sailer's article expresses this attitude (facetiously):
"How can you permanently crush a 10-year-old's self-esteem, indeed, his very reason for existence, by telling him that he isn't smart enough to graduate from college? How can any child survive the ignominy of hearing that he will soon be able to put his books aside and start learning from master craftsmen how to build mighty machines? What kind of boy could tolerate being told that while the smarter children will be spending another decade or two huddled in the library, he will be getting paid to make Porsches?"
Furthermore, there exists the egalitarian idea that everyone should ultimately be able to find a place at a college somewhere. The idea is out there that only college can truly provide a well-rounded educational experience; that those who learn their trades in anything less may have low-level skills, but have missed out on all the culture, on all the art, on all the exposure to the great ideas that float through the air in institutions when large numbers of smart people come together with the goal of learning. And it is especially seen as the case that the most intelligent people in society would be absolutely wasted if they were to go into the trades; that the smartest should get the best education possible so they can make the best of their gifts, and that education invariably comes from the universities.

The results, when this kind of thinking is diffused throughout our educational system, is that vocational opportunities become few and far between. It is viewed as somewhat unseemly that high-schoolers might want to go work at a for-profit company, or in a small business or partnership, when they should be concentrating on finishing their studies. After all, their futures depend on it....

Sailer points out that not all kids are cut out for the academic life. For many people (and I've increasingly been seeing myself in this group), desk work is not particularly satisfying. And it's important to note, this is not just true of those on the low end of the I.Q. scale; I'm sure most of us have known people who were very smart, but who simply rebelled against the demands of their academics and just checked out.

For that matter, there have been plenty of major figures in the history of our country who never went to what we would recognize as a university, who were instead in the trades. Benjamin Franklin, who is widely recognized as a genius, was a printer by trade--and by choice. George Washington was a planter and a land surveyor. Paul Revere was a metalworker. (In fact, the modern company Revere Copper Products, Inc., is a direct descendant of the company he founded).

I'm not all that certain that it's a good idea to take all the smartest people out of the trades. For that matter, I'm not all that certain that we've actually succeeded in taking all the smartest people out of the trades, despite our best efforts. There are plenty of people out there in jobs we consider low-prestige who are really smart, and plenty of people who went to the universities who, um.... aren't.


So I said that I agreed with between two-thirds and three-quarters of the article. What about that last bit?

Well, I guess I'm still a bit more egalitarian than Sailer is. I do not see the "elite" universities as being "above" the rest of us, actually. True, they can produce great scientists and scholars; but they can also produce a lot of wasted academic effort, and scholars who are self-deluded into thinking they understand the real world better than those who actually work in it. And as far as actual education goes, often the less-elite universities put more effort into educating the undergraduates. I attended San Jose State University, which is considered a mid-level college. I had the opportunity to visit Berkeley on occasion. I would much rather enroll in a beginning physics lecture in the former rather than the latter, because at San Jose, it's actually taught by the Professor (instead of an aide), and the classes are smaller--allowing for more questions and answers, and more one-on-one time as needed.

Furthermore, I see "education" and "schooling" as being two completely different phenomena, which usually overlap--but not as much as they are purported to. If any literate person has a desire to learn and know, that person can take the time to become an expert on his or her own initiative--classrooms optional. This being so, it's not necessarily the case that people who attend vocational schools wind up merely "trained" as opposed to "educated". I myself have previously written about how I started reading the great literary works of Western Civ on my own time, only after I was out of school.

And while I think there's something to be said about the Realschule/Gymnasium tracking system in use in Germany (which Sailer appears to approve of), I do rather like the fact that in America, those people who have the gumption and will to do the work can change the direction of their lives. That is, if someone was raised by a blue-collar family and trained into a blue-collar career, if that person (as an adult) so desires, he or she can often--through hard work and sacrifice--change careers, change social standing, change "class" (if you don't mind the term). One of my former co-workers started work at the company as a janitor, then got transferred to be a security guard, then got transferred to work on Software Configuration Management (which involves making sure code changes are properly tracked and documented), then got his degree in computer science and got a job as a software engineer. None too shabby, I say. And I like that these kinds of things can happen in this country.

Nevertheless, I think that Mr. Sailer's argument should be taken seriously. I think the trend toward getting everyone in college is not necessarily good. And I say this not because I think people aren't "good enough" for college--I happen to think that college isn't always what it's cracked up to be, and that the trades are more valuable to society than we often acknowledge. (And their wages seem to reflect this fact--have you seen what self-employed plumbers and electricians make?) I think we should be putting more resources into making vocational opportunities for high-school-age kids, like long-term apprenticeships starting from younger ages, internships, and trade schools. And yes, that will occasionally mean getting young people out from behind their desks and into environments where they can start making stuff.

I suspect there are a lot of kids who would go for that in a heartbeat.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Economics, As Understood By This Layman

  • the fact that we have an election coming up, and the two political parties are each trying to convince everyone that the other party has no clue about economics;
  • the fact that gasoline prices are double what they were a year ago; and
  • the fact that my doppelganger recently posted about economics (and he's not the only one),
...I've decided to jump into the fray, myself. And, as I like to do in when puzzling out a situation--and to avoid the charge that I'm being political, because I really do want to keep this blog from becoming a political blog--I figured I'd start by going back to first principles.

When considering economics and economic policy, there's a fact that we need to keep in mind, bind upon our hands and foreheads, shave onto our scalps or chests or wherever:

Economic growth is inherently, unavoidably painful.

This assertion, which I will attempt to elucidate below, explains a lot, actually: it explains why there's so little agreement between economists or politicians regarding the proper policy to pursue (as one is focused on growth, or future wealth; while another is focused on alleviating the short-term pain caused by this growth); it explains why there's so much economic snake-oil being peddled by economists, politicians, and assorted demagogues; and it explains why such a big chunk of the population is willing to buy said snake-oil.

Ok, here's my proof.


I'll start with a hypothetical example, and then broaden it to a general case.

Let's say we have a nation (call it Lower Slobovia) that's pre-industrial, and thus dirt-poor. And to keep everything simple, let's not consider the complications that international trade bring to the picture. Everything that gets consumed in Lower Slobovia, must first be produced in Lower Slobovia.

And further, let's say that the primary occupation in pre-industrual Lower Slobovia is subsistence agriculture. In fact, to feed the entire population, fully three quarters of the workforce have to be farmers. So the workforce breakdown might look something like this:
Of course, this is much simpler than any real economy would be. Bear with me; this is just a model, for illustrative purposes only.

The first thing to note is this: In order to keep everyone fed, people working in agriculture must produce a surplus of one third over and above what they consume themselves. That is, since farmers make up three-quarters of the workforce, each farmer must produce four-thirds of what he needs for himself and his family. It is this surplus that keeps the non-ag workers fed.

Or put another way, each non-ag family must consume the surplus production of three farming families to have enough to eat. Or to put it another way, the annual food bill of the typical non-ag family is three times the annual income of the typical farming family.

Any way you slice it, those farmers are going to be dirt poor.

Furthermore, notice how thin those non-ag slices are on the chart above. Given how many farmers are needed, there just aren't that many workers left over to produce the manufactured goods, or to build houses, or to provide health care. As a result, the product of these industries will be very scarce, and thus very expensive; your typical farming families aren't going to be able to afford much beyond what they can make or scrounge up themselves.

Clearly something must be done to improve this situation!

Ok, so let's say that someone comes along with some good ideas about intensive agriculture techniques. And let's say that these techniques allow a typical farming family to triple its agricultural output. Well, this means that once knowledge and implementation of these techniques become widespread enough, you won't need three-quarters of your workforce farming anymore--you can get by with only one-quarter in ag, and the rest can be redistributed to work in other industries. We can triple the number of workers in the other industries. The Lower Slobovian workforce will then look something like this:

Now this looks much better than before. Even if there are no productivity increases in the other industries--that is, a typical construction worker builds just as much each year after the Ag revolution as before--the fact is, now there are three times as many construction workers than there were earlier, meaning that three times as much construction can occur. And there is three times the manufacturing capability as before. And there is three times as much health care available as before. These things are much more available to the wider population, because much more of these things are being produced. The population represented by the second graph is likely, on the whole, to be a lot wealthier than the population represented by the first graph.


So... how exactly do we get from the situation in the first diagram to the situation in the second? What's the mechanism for redirecting all of that labor?

Ay, therein lies the rub....

Here's the way this transition happens under free market conditions:
  1. Farmers start learning about the new intensive farming techniques, and their yields go up.
  2. This causes a glut of food on the market,
  3. Which causes prices to crash. (Basic supply-and-demand there.)
  4. Collapsing prices cause those farmers who haven't adopted the new techniques--as well as some of those farming on marginal land, and who can't boost their own productivity--to go into deep poverty--worse than they were before.
  5. Eventually some of these less productive farms shut down, and the displaced workers go to the cities looking for work. (This ultimately reduces overcapacity in the agricultural sector, and is known as a "Recession".)
  6. All these new workers looking for work drive down the wages for unskilled labor. (Again, supply-and-demand: there's more labor than work available, so the price of labor drops.)
  7. But, meanwhile, the "haves" are doing well; the low food prices have helped their budgets, and they have extra cash to spend. So....
  8. Some entrepreneurs figure out that when you have low labor costs, and rich people with money to burn, that there is an opportunity there. New businesses start to spring up to absorb the demand, utilizing the excess labor. And existing businesses start to expand their operations.
  9. Things start to stabilize: as the excess labor gets hired up, wages start to rise again. As the food situation stabilizes, the rate at which farms go under drops and reaches a new equilibrium; food prices stabilize, and even rise a bit as the system finishes working its way through the glut.
  10. Eventually, a new equilibrium is reached. But it's not the same as the old equilibrium; as mentioned above, there's a whole lot more being produced by the other industries, meaning there's a whole lot more to go around.
Note that there's a whole lot of suffering contained in this sequence. Hopefully, by the time a generation has passed, the youth of Lower Slobovia know enough of their history that they are appreciative of the sacrifices their parents made to give them a more prosperous life.

Now, that's what happens when a free market economy has this kind of transition to go through. For the record, in Communism, the transition is a bit different, and is not infrequently marked by mass starvation.


This example needs to be generalized. Lower Slobovia is an extreme hypothetical example, but the mechanism of economic growth in the real world--and the sequence it follows--is very similar to the sequence I gave above. I give two real-world examples here.

The first one (which, alas, I have no links for): It is my understanding that in 1900, the U.S. had about forty percent of its workforce in agriculture. It is also my understanding that today, the U.S. has less than two percent of its workforce in agriculture.

We've been hemorrhaging Ag jobs! Soon we won't be able to feed ourselves!

Well, not really. Turns out that this two percent, today, not only produces enough food to feed the U.S., we feed much of the rest of the world as well. Since the turn of the twentieth century, our farms have adopted the use of mechanized tractors and harvesters (instead of labor-intensive animal teams), newer strains of higher-yield crops, improved irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers, refrigeration and mechanized transport. Put together, this allows us to grow much more food on an acre of land, with far fewer actual laborers, and with much less spoilage. We no longer need forty percent of our workforce in agriculture to feed us all; we can get by with less than two.

Of course, this transition has been really, really hard on all those old homesteading families that first settled the land. The family farms have been disappearing, and there have been some tough times for those families who stuck it out. And one can certainly argue that America has lost something valuable with the vanishing of the independent farming family; I'm certainly not disputing that case. All I'm arguing is that the Lower Slobovia sequence I mentioned above happens in America, too.

Now, this sequence doesn't just happen in the field of Agriculture--it happens in every segment of our economy, and it can happen to all economic segments at the same time--a situation we refer to as a recession. And during a particularly severe recession, jobs can go away that never come back.

Here's the other example: This is the Wikipedia page on trends in employment in the steel industry. Note in particular:
During the period 1974 to 1999, the steel industry had drastically reduced manpower all around the world. In USA, it was down from 521,000 to 153,000.
So our steel industry has been absolutely decimated, right?

Well, there's no question that it's less dominant than it was after, say, World War II. And it has to compete against low-cost imports, including highly-subsidized Chinese product.

However, even though the industry lost nearly three quarters of its workforce over the years in question, that doesn't mean our actual production went down by a similar amount. According to this report (see Table 2), our actual annual steel output at the end of the time period was pretty close to where it was at the beginning. There were some major ups and downs in the industry between those two dates, including the slaughter-fest of the early eighties that saw huge layoffs, but our industry adapted to the low-cost imports by becoming really, really efficient, and U.S. steel production is still the third-highest on earth. That's nothing to sneeze at.

What happened to all those workers who were laid off? Well, many of them are retired by now. Others eventually migrated to other industries. And the truth is, we've got whole new industries today that didn't even exist as recently as the early eighties. All those workers in the internet-related industries had to come from somewhere, you know.

That's the Sequence at work. We're wealthier now than we would have been; but there's no question that it was painful while it was happening.


Thus my statement: economic growth is inherently, unavoidably painful.

Now here's where it gets a little tricky. One can argue that the above sequence will, in the long term, bring a higher level of prosperity to the economy than existed before. But as economist John Maynard Keynes once put it, In the long term, we're all dead.

There are lots of unpleasant things in the Sequence. There are all those workers descending into deep poverty, and losing their livelihoods; there's the recession; there's the drop in wages; there's the expanding difference between wealth levels of the "haves" and "have-nots" (which this small-l libertarian isn't personally concerned about, so long as the absolute wealth levels for the less-wealthy keep increasing; but the wealth differences are a big deal to many people).

It is rightly the case that civilized people dislike seeing suffering in their fellow men--especially when those fellow men have done nothing wrong. It's one thing to reason out that in the long run, it will all work out for the better; but on the other hand, this line of reasoning doesn't answer the fact that this real, flesh-and-blood man standing in front of me has a family to feed and no way to do it. Our compassion demands that we do something about this.

Enter the "economic populists"--which, in this case, is the same thing as saying "socialists".

Their solutions generally involve direct governmental action to mitigate the worst of the suffering. Economic populists usually advocate things like:
  • Unemployment insurance, to make sure people have an income when they lose their jobs.
  • Minimum wage laws, to make sure that economic forces don't destroy the wages of the working poor.
  • Unionization, to give workers some leverage over the employers who set their wages and hours.
  • "Job Security", which usually means rules to prevent firings and layoffs.
  • Reduced work hours, to encourage companies to hire more. If you have a French-style 35-hour work week, it takes 8 workers to do the job that 7 workers could do on a 40-hour week.
  • Taxes on the wealthy, intended to reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots. Some of this is used for wealth-redistribution schemes, or to pay for the unemployment insurance.
  • Price supports for industries that are facing job losses. If the prices can be kept high, perhaps some of those jobs can be retained....
  • Tariffs against imports, that compete with industries facing job losses.
This is pretty standard stuff for economic populist parties and for socialists. I don't think you'll find a socialist party platform without these things on them.

But notice what effect these measures have on the Sequence:
  • The minimum wage laws tend to keep wages higher, which tends to undermine step 8: new businesses thrive on lower wages. Raise them too high, and new businesses have a hard time getting started. The presence of unions, additionally, tends to raise employment costs and discourage company expansion.
  • Rules on "Job Security" tend to block step 5, in which workers lose their jobs. This tends to hinder the flow of labor from unproductive companies to productive ones, or from over-producing industries to potentially-growing ones.
  • Reduced work hours artificially lower worker productivity, measured on an output per man-week basis. This tends to undermine the productivity gains at Step 1 that started this whole sequence.
  • The taxes on the wealthy tend to undermine step 7, which means the demand for new goods that drives the rest of the process never shows up.
  • Price supports and tariffs tend to stop the sequence at step 3. The prices can't drop, and this prevents anything else on the list from happening.
  • Unemployment insurance has an unfortunate way of reducing the demand for jobs (and thus the supply of labor), blocking the sequence at step 6. With unemployment insurance, workers can survive longer without jobs; this causes some unemployed workers to wait longer to start looking, or to not look as hard, or (in some cases) to give up and join the ranks of the discouraged workers.
In summary, just about every socialistic solution to the problems raised in The Sequence has a way of short-circuiting the Sequence. The process of redistribution of labor, which is an inherent and needed part of economic growth--gets blocked, or at any rate greatly delayed.

The trouble is, these solutions are quite popular, precisely because they are intended to alleviate suffering. Politicians win elections by running on platforms containing these solutions. It is probably to be expected then, that long-term, continuous, unimpeded economic growth is likely to be rare in human affairs; there are too many incentives for people in power to do precisely those things that derail the train.

It's late, so I'm going to stop here. More to come....

Thursday, June 19, 2008

One Day's Haul

You know what I like about this time of year?

Ok, ok. Back up. I like something about every time of year. If life were perfect, I would be living in a place with no fewer than four honest-to-goodness, well-delineated seasons. I think there's something gorgeous about a white winter, about new-fallen snow; I love seeing the first leaves of spring and the first birds returned from their winter migration; I love the warmth and alive-ness of summer; and I love the colors and smells of fall. And while life in California has much to offer, you typically don't get four distinct seasons unless you live up in the mountains. Here there really are just two seasons: there's the long, dry, hot one, and there's the damp, chilly, windy one. In between these two there's generally about a two-to-four-week transition period in October, and another one in April or May. And that's the extent of our seasons. It gets old after a while, I'm afraid. What I wouldn't give to see six inches of snow around here, just once....

But I digress.

You know what I like about this time of year?
This picture shows today's haul of produce that we picked in our backyard. Note that this is one day's haul; we get at least this much every day, or at least every other day.

In case you aren't able to tell from the picture, we have (clockwise from upper left): strawberries, blueberries, green beans, one yellow banana pepper, plums, more strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.

A few notes:
  • We've been harvesting strawberries at this rate for the last few months. For my birthday in April, my wife was able to make strawberry shortcake; and we've had at least a couple cups' worth every day.
  • The blueberries have only really started to come in, en masse, in the last two weeks or so. There are a lot on the bushes that aren't yet ripe; we'll be harvesting for at least a month.
  • The green beans only started within the last two weeks, as well. We expect them to keep going all summer.
  • What you see here is just the advance vanguard of the plums. The tree is loaded almost to the breaking point. Within a month, we will have bags and bags of plums.
  • The blackberry bush and raspberry bush will devour our neighbors if we aren't careful. They're covered with not-yet-ripe berries, and this is after we've been collecting them for a month, after we've already made one "bumbleberry" pie (made from a mix of whatever kinds of berry you have on hand), and we've got more than enough for another pie or two.
And none of this counts the other stuff we have that hasn't become ripe yet: the peaches, nectarines, golden plums, pears and Asian pears--or the pumpkins, Brussels sprouts, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, serranos, crookneck squash, or zucchini.

Yes, I really like this time of year. :-)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

This Week's Carnival of Homeschooling is Up

This week's Carnival of Homeschooling is up over at Apollos Academy. There's a lot of good stuff there, including my post Minds Like Steel Traps--For the Wrong Stuff, in which I gripe and moan about the annoying-ness of contemporary TV educational programming.

But there are several more posts that I particularly liked:

There's this one by a Mommy who recently tried to explain supply-and-demand (relating to gasoline prices) to her kindergartener. I can definitely relate to this sort of thing. ;-)

(And in fact, I've been tossing around the idea of writing an economics post on this subject, myself. Watch this space....)

Then there's this post, about everyone's most favorite subject--or rather, everyone's least favorite part of everyone's most favorite subject. She wrote about how to get prepared for the talk. Now, my oldest kid is five, so we (hopefully) still have a little time before we confront this problem head on; but you never know when your kid is going to come up with some question absolutely out of the blue. ChristineMM advises that we think about all these questions well in advance, so that we can be prepared with whatever answer is needed when these unexpected questions arise. She has a bunch of other observations and bits of advice as well.

This one gives strategies for homeschooling a houseful of kids of different ages, as delivered by a seminar speaker who developed these strategies while raising twelve of her own kids.

You know, on the one hand, there's a temptation to think that people with twelve kids are a little out there. But on the other hand, they give us hope: The fact that they figured out how to keep order with twelve bodes well for us who only have to deal with three....


And then, because I didn't blog about it when it came out this weekend, Mary Eberstadt over at National Review has up her latest in her Loser Letters series.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Can I Have the Duct Tape?

One of the things that frustrated me no end when I was a kid was that I didn't often have the chance to work with real stuff.

Here's what I mean: we always had lots of typing paper around, and glue, and tape, and even string; and we had crayons and pencils. And you can make some craft projects out of those things.

And we had Legos. Now those are cool--especially when you have the sets with the gears and pulleys and motors and things, and they did have a few of those on the market when I was in late elementary school in the early eighties.

And we had Tinkertoys, and you can occasionally craft something cool out of those. I actually managed once to get a working catapult built out of Tinkertoys and a rubber band.

But, it wasn't really enough. I wanted to be able to build real stuff. I wanted to work with metal! I wanted to work with wood! I wanted to work with glass, and fabric, and stone, and ceramic! But, no. We didn't have much in the way of scrap materials hanging around the house just waiting to be turned by curious young boys into world-conquering robots. For the most part, we had to content ourselves to using typing paper. And if we were really lucky and or obsequious, we might be able to scam some construction paper.

Well. As regular readers know, my eldest daughter (and to an increasing degree, her three-year-old sister) is quite the master of making things out of printer paper. There was the transmogrifier of a couple days ago that I wrote about; there was also recently a three-dimensional dollhouse (with roof! Although it was a flat roof, and it sagged a bit. I haven't taught her the secret of triangles yet) that I didn't blog about. She has also been making decorations, cutting them out, and taping them all over the house. Mainly, these are Halloween decorations; she's been really impatient for Halloween to come lately, for some reason. You know how everyone starts selling Christmas stuff four months out? Well, the Fairy is like that for Halloween.

So I've been trying to figure out how to create a stash of real materials that can be used in random craft products, as my kids are moved by the Spirit. I'm curious to see what kinds of things they would come up with if they had access to fabric, or wood. I'm thinking that what I read here sounds like a good idea. (Scroll down to Item #6, Arts and Crafts; then specifically, the paragraph that begins: "One of the most useful things I ever purchased....")

And I've also been trying to implant the idea in their heads that they can use their imaginations to figure out how to use the stuff lying around them, in new and interesting ways. And to that end, I did something a little interesting yesterday and today, which is the subject of this post.


Last Sunday, our church served dinner for the congregation on site, and we had an outdoor game night. One of the games available was called Blongoball. In this game, you are supposed to throw a bolo, consisting of two tethered golf balls, toward a target consisting of several horizontal rods. The goal is to get the thrown bolo to hang on one of these rods, and points are scored based on which rod gets caught. (Apparently, some of the rods are harder to catch than others.)

The Pillowfight Fairy loved this game, and couldn't stop talking about it when we got home. She's been talking about it all week.

Now, I don't want to be the kind of Daddy that spoils his kids--that any time they get a toy on the brain, I go out and get it for them. I'd much rather they learn how to entertain themselves with whatever toys (and non-toys) they find on hand. So I figured I'd give them an example of how this sort of thing is done, and see if any of this kind of thinking rubs off on them.

So last night, while we were all playing outside after dinner, I went and got the duct tape.

Now, we have a wood pile in our backyard. It was there when we moved in (although in a different spot in the yard), and it's gotten much bigger as most of the older trees on the property have died off and been cut up in the interim. We've been trying to think of how to get rid of all that dead wood, frankly. But last night, I went to this pile, and pulled out a dozen or so long, likely-looking sticks, and I started taping.

The girls were entranced. The Omnivore (formerly Happy Boy) was entranced too; he wanted to be right there in the middle of things, which made things rather hard.

So I set the girls to work. "Could you hold this for me?" "Can you hold this piece to that one until I've had a chance to tape it?" "Oh, don't drop that; I need that so it can hold up this thing over here." "Could you go tackle [the Omnivore] before he breaks that thing?" And so forth. And as I said, they were fascinated, and kept saying: "What are you doing?" and "What are you making?" and "Don't tape my fingers! Don't tape my fingers!"

When I was done, this was what I hath wrought:
No, not the boy. My wife and I wrought him some time ago. It's that thing of beauty he's sitting in front of.

Ok, so it's not a thing of beauty. It's ugly as sin. But! It was perfect. I told my daughters that it was a structure with which we could play "Boing Ball" (which was the Pillowfight Fairy's preferred name for Blongo Ball). And then this morning, I cut a few pieces of wood of the right size, tied them together into a bolo (partially hidden behind the Omnivore, not far from the unripe nectarine), and we had it. We played a fair amount of Boing Ball this evening.

And we didn't even have to spend any money. All it took was a bunch of scrap wood, some duct tape, some string, and some elementary engineering knowledge.


So: the next question this Daddy wanted to know was: did the intended lesson penetrate? Did the girls get the idea into their heads that they could make things using somewhat more exotic, more real materials than they were accustomed to using?

Well, it seems that the lesson at least partly penetrated the brain of the Adrenaline Junkie (age three). This morning as I was mowing the yard, she was trying to stick some wooden sticks onto our pomegranate tree. She said she was "making a treehouse", and to do this, she needed some duct tape. I smiled to myself, but tried to direct her attention elsewhere. My attempts at distraction only lasted a little while, however.

So when I was done with my morning chores, the Junkie announced that she wanted to make a castle, and she wanted me to help her. She then started pulling random sticks out of the wood pile, and she directed me to go get the duct tape. I rolled my eyes and complied.

I took the sticks she'd picked out, and built a three-sided pyramid, braced with three pieces so that each side of the pyramid looked like the capital letter A. It stood! It was stable! It was done!

Not so fast.

She wanted a real castle. She went back for more sticks. Bigger ones.

Uh-oh, I thought. She's wanting me to build her something along the lines of Linderhof. Ok, so at this point, I figured: I'd better get her to take ownership of this construction project, or she's going to get disillusioned by her Daddy's insufficiency pretty darn quickly. So I told her to pick out the sticks she wanted, and I had her show me exactly where on the "castle" she wanted them. And then I would tape them exactly where she was holding them.

"Don't tape my fingers!"

So we finally got up to ten or eleven pieces of wood, at which point I said, "I think that's enough for one day." She seemed satisfied by this point, and started crawling under the sticky-outy-thing on the right in the picture below. I think it's supposed to be a drawbridge. If I'd gone on long enough, she would have started having me do towers and dungeons and underground grottoes and stuff.

Of course, the Omnivore has been absolutely fascinated by these new additions to our RV pad, and he wanted to bless them in his own special way.

Now, the Omnivore has been quite taken lately by all the fruit trees in the back corner of our yard. We planted these things two summers ago, and several of them are getting quite large--and are so full of fruit that many of their branches have been weighted down to the ground. This is perfect for him: it provides several hiding places that only he can get into. And he loves to pull off the unripe fruit (which we can't get him to stop doing, short of taking him back inside) and perform experiments on it. How does it taste? How hard is it? How many can you put in a pile before it falls over? If I dump it on the ground, and forget about it for three days, what does it look like when I find it again? What does this shriveled brown thing taste like now? And so forth.

Well, today he decided that his sister's castle needed a little garnish, so he started balancing unripe nectarines atop it.

The Adrenaline Junkie was, for some reason, quite perturbed by this. "He's putting fruit on my castle! Nooooooo!"


So yes, these constructions look like horrible mutated insects--or like the Shadows from the TV show Babylon 5. They're not pretty.


But my girls now have a bit better of an understanding of how things get made. They know that there's more to making stuff than printer paper and tape. I'm hoping that this experience helps them, in some little way, to start thinking about making their creations a little bit bigger, a little more elaborate, a little more exotic. I hope someday that they won't be afraid to jump into the world of pottery or the world of woodworking or the world of metal casting.

And to judge from the Adrenaline Junkie's "castle", she's well on her way to mastering the art of Expressionistic Bronze Sculpture.

Heard of XKCD?

Before yesterday, me neither. But then my dear sister-in-law put up a post, introducing all her readers to it. Some of the ones she linked to were very funny--I particularly liked the one about the centrifuge.

I wound up reading through pretty much their entire collection.

It's a fairly simply-drawn comic, with most of the people being stick-figures, but a surprisingly high number of the strips induced full-body belly-laughs in me. Some of the strips are poignant, some are creepy, many are vulgar; but they tap the vein of nerd-humor very, very well.

Here are some samples that I liked.

Click on this one to go see it in full size.

This one is really funny to me, precisely because I have written in both Scheme (which is one dialect of Lisp) and in Perl. This comic is so, so true.

Yup. 100% right.

Now, for those of you who aren't hip to your physicists, Richard Feynman is widely recognized as a genius. I like this line from Wikipedia: "Freeman Dyson once wrote that Feynman was "half-genius, half-buffoon", but later revised this to 'all-genius, all-buffoon'." He was involved on the Manhattan project as a young man. Later, he was a professor at Caltech, with numerous discoveries and advances to his name. And shortly before he died in 1988, he was on the panel investigating the Challenger disaster. He was widely seen as a maverick, even as a troublemaker; He was certainly a colorful character. Also from the Wikipedia page: "In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he gives advice on the best way to pick up a girl in a hostess bar. At Caltech, he used a nude/topless bar as an office away from his usual office, making sketches or writing physics equations on paper placemats."

Well, XKCD has a couple of Feynman jokes, which I found very funny. Click on them to go to the pages that have them full size.

And, of course, there's this:

Hope you like these. I intend to go to XKCD on a regular basis from here on....

I Don't Think That Will Help Any

So, upon seeing what she was to be fed for dinner tonight, the Pillowfight Fairy declared:

"I'm going to run away to Utah."

Umm, Dearie--I don't think that will help any. I suspect the Mormons eat this kind of stuff too.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Transmogrifier Has Transmogrified

So it appears that, sometime within the last 24 hours, the transmogrifier that my daughter constructed yesterday has sprouted an important health and safety warning label.

Happy Boy, since you can't read the label yet, this apparently refers to you. It hasn't gone through all its Phase I trials yet. There's no telling what you'll transmogrify into. So use of this device is clearly contraindicated in your case.

Besides, you might try to lick the Electron Baffler Coils or something, and you'd short the whole thing out....

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Me? Martha Stewart?

So my wife overheard an interesting little exchange with my sister-in-law two weeks back that stuck in her head.

(Ok, here's a question: if by "sister-in-law" I'm referring to my brother's wife, then what is the official term for the relationship between my wife and this woman? Is that still just a "sister-in-law", or is that a sister-in-law-in-law or something more exotic? Just curious....)


So my wife overheard an interesting little exchange with this relation-by-marriage.

Tonya had earlier been explaining to my aunt about our recent experiments in making butter. Now, it's not as complicated or as exotic or as ambitious as it sounds; basically, you just pour some heavy whipping cream into a chilled jar, tighten the lid, then shake the jar for thirty minutes, or until your arms fall off, whichever comes first. Then you decant the liquid (which has now become buttermilk), you carefully rinse any extra buttermilk off the lump of butter which has formed, add a pinch of salt (optional), and voilá.

Well, later on, my aunt was having a conversation with my sister-in-law that Tonya just happened to overhear. She had just described Tonya's butter-making experiments, when my sister-in-law declared: "That's too Martha Stewart for me..."

(Ironically, this was not long before she presented us all with sealed ziplocs filled with Amish Friendship Bread starter....)


Now, we don't watch a whole lot of Martha Stewart. In no small part this is because we don't have a TV (see three posts back), but as Tonya just said, "I wouldn't watch it even if we did have a TV." Tonya sees herself in many ways as the polar opposite of Martha Stewart: when Tonya sets a table, it's all business: Fork if necessary, spoon if necessary, napkin if necessary--and this is just a folded paper towel, so we have one fewer thing to put on our grocery list. None of this fish fork v. salad fork v. dessert fork; our centerpiece is a box of Kleenexes, which gets used frequently during meals. (You can't do that with gardenias....) Tonya was raised by a mother who, while possessing a definite artistic streak, was similarly no-nonsense when it came to the necessities of life. Simple meals, simple settings, clean decor (to the point of being stark), and she hated to have to entertain. If Tonya and Martha Stewart entered the same room, they would mutually annihilate in a burst of gamma rays.

So why did my lovely bride suddenly get the bug to make her own butter?


Despite the romantic notions it inspires about healthful living and sustainability and whatnot, it actually has nothing to do with anything being wrong with the butter you get in the supermarket, which Tonya is just fine with using.

It's pretty complicated, but I think it comes down to one part survivalist complex and one part understanding one's roots.

I touched briefly on this back in February, after we visited the Carding/Spinning/Weaving show. I wrote at the time:
You know, I think that most of us guys, deep down, are closet survivalists. We enjoy knowing how things work because in the back of our minds, we're fantasizing about the fact that civilization is really fragile, and when the whole thing falls apart, I need to be prepared. While spinning and weaving aren't normally considered mannish things, having been to this kind of show still gooses the survivalist in me. After all, when the big one comes and we have to go to the hills, I now know just a wee little bit more of what I'll need to know to keep my family alive. All I have to do now is figure out how to chase down the wild alpaca, wrassle it to the ground, and shear it; but for the rest of the process, I'm down with that.
And about the same time, my wife wrote:
The people among whom my parents were around as children worked hard providing many basic items for themselves. These days, we have a multitude of labor saving devices to make our lives easier and a huge marketplace to shop for everything else. But are we better off? Materially, yes. But, we have lost something in the process. We saved our labor so that we could do lots of other things that our forebears never did or perhaps never wanted to do. We are just as busy, but don't really have that much more to show for it. Most of us have no idea how to make the things we use in our everyday lives.

There is part of me that wants to turn the clock back in some ways. If only we could keep the best parts of both worlds...
At the time I termed this as "the feminine side of the survivalist complex". It embodies the sense that our ancestors had to put up with a whole lot more than we did, and in some cases, not so very long ago. They worked hard to keep themselves fed, and to provide a better future for their kids. Now, we moderns, if we're reflective enough, note their hard work and are thankful that we don't have to get up at 0-dark-30 to go milk the cows; and at the same time, we occasionally wonder, could we be tough enough if we had to be? Could we measure up to the standards set by our ancestors? And, as my wife mused, could there be some personal value in the hard work that our ancestors did--some benefit to virtue and character that accrued to our forebears--because they had to do this hard work to survive?

So Tonya decided to make butter. This wasn't because she wanted to press it into little, pretty butter molds that could make individualized pats that she could put out on the good china in the morning while we fed crêpes to our many overnight houseguests. In a way, it was to try to get a little understanding, just an inkling, of what her grandparents and great-grandparents went through every day, just to survive. (And even her parents. Tonya is only one generation removed from her farmers' roots.) Tonya has always been fascinated by history and geneaology, particularly the history of the common man, and the stories of how our ancestors lived: how did people live then? What were their challenges? What were their hopes, dreams, fears? What kept them going? What got them up out of bed in the morning?

(Probable answer: really cold feet. Someone let the fire go out during the night....)


So Tonya makes her own butter for one reason, and it appears to be quite different from the reason Ms. Stewart might have. But it seems to me that these two completely different reasons extend far beyond dairy products, and permeate entire worldviews.

Take the craft of quilting (and, for that matter, this is true of many, many crafts). Nowadays, quilts are generally seen as a labor of love. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that. And I and my wife have been in quilt museums, and seen the beautiful specimens on display at various county fairs and trade shows. Some of these can get very artsy--to the point that they are utterly inappropriate for use on an actual bed.

But the reason that patchwork quilting became such a big thing in America, originally, was so that some very poor but industrious people could make something useful, and even crucial for their survival, from scrap material. Say you've made a bunch of clothes, in some cases using the burlap from your feed sacks as the fabric. You don't have any money for any other fabric. So now what? If you're industrious and frugal, you take all those scraps left over from the making of the clothes, and you sew them together into a big patchwork; then, when you have two of these big patchwork pieces, you put a whole bunch of loose cotton (or loose wool, or old threadbare blankets) in between them, and sew the whole sandwich together. There you have it: a big, thick, warm bed covering, obtained while spending the absolute minimum of cash, meaning that you can actually survive on your own homestead through your own work.

And the fact that these quilts over time became things of great beauty and complexity, if anything, shows us the resilient spirits of the women (and men!) who made them. You must make something warm to sleep under; but for people sometimes living on the edge of survival, to take the time to make these things absolutely lovely--well, that takes sheer audacity, sheer pluck, sheer gumption. You really have to admire the spirit of people like that. And that by itself is enough to earn their quilting work more admiration than even the most elaborate modern non-functional art-quilt hanging in a gallery somewhere.


So Tonya has a desire (not all that different, in its own way, from Mr. Derbyshire's desire to walk thirty miles to see if he could do it) to understand something of the way people used to live--to feel it a little deeper than she would if she merely read it on a page--and perhaps, just a little, to live up to her heritage, if that makes any sense. And I completely understand the feeling, because I feel it too--yet another reason that Tonya and I are made for each other. This isn't about making our house sparkle to the outsider's eye or to score points or bragging rights. And heaven knows, it's been a long, long time since our house has had any sparkle at all....


Well, just for the fun of it: because I've recently blogged about Sesame Street, and because this post mentions Martha Stewart, I thought I'd post this little video clip that combines them. Enjoy!