A day that will live in infamy

Seventy-two years ago, a surprise attack came.

It can be argued that the attack should not have surprised naval strategists, or military leaders of that day.  However, it did.

There is even evidence that the Japanese diplomats in Washington, DC did not know that their nation was shifting from negotiations into armed conflict.

Pearl Harbor is at the edge of living memory now. (Last year at this time, I had five relative alive who could remember that day. Now, only three are alive...) Soon, it will pass beyond living memory.

Even so, the lesson that could be learned has probably not been learned.

Jim Miller has said a little more than I have, and probably more cogently.

His main point is cultural difference. That, blended with an ongoing simmering of preparation-for-possible-war and lack of clarity on the target chosen for military attack, kept American leaders from understanding that an attack might come in Hawaii. Worse, technological advances (some less than a few months old) gave the Japanese naval forces an edge.

The war that shaped a generation, and turned America into a dominant power on Earth, had started years earlier.  But the United States was brought into that war by surprise attack.

UPDATE: like every day in history, there are many important details...and there are also interesting trivia


Rest in Peace

I saw in the news last night that Nelson Mandela has passed away.

This man has a good recounting of Mandela's interaction with Communists. I trust his opinion, mostly because of his personal knowledge of South Africa and his ability to connect that knowledge to his studies of history.

It's an open question whether Mandela's jail time (and his involvement in terrorist-style attacks) are absolved by his later deeds. I can't say much on that. I hope that Mandela's death does not portend a change for the worse in South Africa.

Another comment which I found enlightening is in this comment-thread on Mandela's death.

In part:
The South African struggle against apartheid was seen in this country through the lens of our own Civil Rights struggle.

It was much different. ... it was also the rise from utter disaster of the Xhosa people, of which Nelson Mandela was one.


South Africa didn't have two imperial powers --- the British & the Dutch --- it had three --- the Zulu. The Zulu Empire at its 19th century height had an estimated 14 million subjects. All three imperial powers shared one thing in common: the Xhosa were to be a subject people. Under apartheid, the Zulus had, then as now, much self-determination in KwaZulu, and they often backed the apartheid regime.

The rise of the Xhosa under the ANC was not just a white vs black or an anti-imperialist struggle. It was the story of a broken & despised tribal people rising to power from the ashes. It's a story that is much more interesting in its own terms than in the terms that the rest of the world uses to it.

It appears few outsiders understand the differences between various tribes present in that part of Africa.

And it is easy to forget the racial and tribal animosity, as well as imperial aggression, can be found between those African tribes.


Return to blog

After a hiatus, I wonder what I should post about.

A big problem with a train running faster than safe through a tight turn. Was it operator error? Equipment error? Both in concert?

A murder case in a University town is solved after going cold for a month. A computer was stolen from a neighboring house at the time of the murder. That computer, resold over Craig's List, reported itself when used. Does this mean that Craig's List helps find criminals, or that Craig's List helps criminals resell stolen goods? Much more importantly, how often does solving small crimes lead to criminals guilty of more heinous crimes?

Lastly, just today a Federal judge made a ruling allowing a major American city to enter bankruptcy. That major city is the core of the Metro Area I currently live in.

There's an odd feeling to the area. The Tri-County region has approximately 4 million people. Detroit currently has about 750,000 residents, in a region that used to have nearly 2 million residents. A person can travel a route some 40 or 50 miles long around the edge of Detroit. In many places, they will see a a suburb on one side, visibly nicer than Detroit on the other. In some places, they will look South across the river into Canada.

The area is not doing well, though it is not doing extremely badly. A combination of factors led to noticeable flow of residents leaving the Metro Area shortly before the national housing market boom turned into a bust. Population hasn't shrunk much for the Metro Area, but it hasn't grown either.

The auto business hit a sharp downturn in 2008. Many companies involved in that business have since recovered to their pre-downturn business levels. But some haven't. And not many are doing better.

I wonder what this bankruptcy will do to the local political and business climate...


A little scary

In news that touches on the industry I work in, a pair of computer programmers show what a knowledgeable person can do to a modern car.

Of course, the methods shown in that article require a physical, wired connection to the CAN bus on the car. (CAN is the usual abbreviation for Controller Area Network, the most common architecture used to connect micro-controllers in automotives.)

Most cars have one such connection, the ODB-II port. Usually, this can be found in the driver-side footwell.

However, many cars also have a Bluetooth-enabled entertainment unit, which is connected (often via a subsidiary microprocessor) to the car's CAN bus. I don't know how easy it is to trick the BT-processor into feeding unintended signals onto the CAN. In theory, it is possible. In practice, this likely requires a great deal of inside-industry knowledge, and access to a Bluetooth device that is already, or will be, paired with the car's electronics.

(Pro tip: if your car comes with a mechanically-operated clutch or emergency brake, you can stop it from moving even if a hacker has control of steering, throttle, and ignition. However, a mechanically-operated clutch is usually only found on manual transmissions. And a mechanical emergency brake is usually seen on vehicle with drum brakes. If your car has disc brakes on all four wheels, you may have an emergency brake that depends on the electronic controllers in your car to activate. An emergency brake that is electronically-controlled may be vulnerable to a hacker. My currently daily drive has a mechanical emergency brake, but an automatic transmission. However, it is old enough to have no wireless-connection-capable electronics on-board.)

The potential danger from this kind of hacking is frightening.

One note: among the top 6 car manufacturers in the world, I am not aware of any two that use the same definitions for data and instructions on their CAN bus. (The design for CAN separates the data definitions from the transmission protocols, and allows any manufacturer to write their own data set and instruction set.) But I might not be well-informed; my specialty doesn't require me to know those details.

However, any hack against one car manufactured by one company will likely work against most vehicles offered by that company. And once that hack is publicly-available, it will be very hard for the affected company to recall and fix every affected vehicle.

Electronic security on cars is a new thing, and is currently in its infancy. I hope that it will improve faster than the security in Windows-branded Operating Systems did...


Motown Madness

I'm from Detroit. Except I'm not.

(Cue a line of regional humor: You know you live in Michigan when: half the people you know grew up in Detroit, but you don't know anyone who currently lives in Detroit.)

You see, I've never resided in (and only occasionally set foot in) the City of Detroit. But for most of my life, I've lived in the suburban cities that surround the City of Detroit.

It's an odd dichotomy. All that time, I've lived in areas that are generally violence-free. Crime is known to happen, but not in significant amounts. The local schools are respectable. Local Police usually respond in good time, and rarely see things more heinous than property theft and DUI cases.

Three miles away from my current abode, across the political barrier between City and Suburb, is an area where crime is common, the school system is broken, and violence seems to be part of the background noise in the neighborhood. Murder is shockingly common.

Detroit was by turns a river fort, a trade center, Underground Railroad terminus, industrial city, Arsenal of Democracy, and one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S. Eventually, it became a notoriously crime-ridden city, a place of racial tension, a City whose primary businesses struggled against rising overseas competition...
And now, an example of the potential financial collapse of city governments that make promises that can't be kept.

I never knew the glory days of Detroit. I don't know what will arise from the ashes.

Indeed, I don't even know if the self-immolation of the City is complete. It is sad, and strange. So far, the suburbs have managed to not share in the ruin of the CIty. I don't know if that will be the case in the future...



Spent some time overseas for a vacation, in an unusual place: South Africa. The plane flights were a little long, but I had a good reason to take the long flight to Johannesburg.

The visit was the result of a developing relationship with a woman. She was visiting her hometown, seeing family, and helping an elderly relative celebrate a birthday. I was offered an opportunity to travel to see the relatives and the homeland.

A few odd details stick out in my mind:
  • The countryside is a mix of beautiful vista and small towns. The small towns range from cute to poverty-stricken.
  • Everyone is friendly.
    This goes double if the person thinks they can sell you something.
  • The big cities aren't much different from big cities in the U.S.
    Except that all houses in the middle-class neighborhoods are behind walls, and electric wires are not uncommon on top of the walls.
  • Almost everyone I met had at least one dog, but dogs are considered outside animals. Cats were allowed inside the house, though.
  • Traveling to visit a game-preserve in the bush can get a little...interesting when the directions weren't perfectly clear, and phone service is spotty.
  • The game preserve is peaceful. The guys who were there with me hunted some, but seemed more intent on having fun than on getting game.
  • It seemed that every tree or bush in the preserve had thorns on it.
  • Everything looked cheap, after I did the SouthAfricanRand-to-USD conversion in my head
  • The old gold mine is interesting, but the ratio of mined-rock to extracted-gold is mind-bogglingly-large.
  • Descending 220 meters (~740 ft) in a caged elevator can be a little scary, even though the tour guide entered the lift cage with us.
The experience was good. I like visiting the area. I could probably live there short-term, but I'm not sure I could settle permanently.


Had a blast

Last night was the fireworks celebration in downtown Detroit.

For many reasons, Detroit and Windsor have had a common celebration a week (or week and a half) before the 4th of July. The celebration is centered around a huge fireworks display launched from three barges in the Detroit River. It it intended to cover both Independence Day and Canada Day. But being so early, it seems more like a pre-celebration than a celebration.

I and a couple of friends found a location to park about a mile from Hart Plaza in the downtown area. It seemed easier to park there, for free, than to drive closer to the event and pay to park. This meant that we had to traverse a good deal of the downtown area on foot...but it also meant that we were not going to be idling in traffic on the freeway out of the downtown area at the end of the night.

(I think the part of the parking plan was that the chosen parking location is next to a building that is heavily-used by City Police. A pleasant surprise ensued when we arrived. The Police were using the site as a staging area. The staging area was cleverly supported by an afternoon cook-out. Several dozen officers were milling around the site when we arrived, and a handful looked to be tasked with keeping an eye on the cook-out and the staging area all night long. Teams of alert-but-slightly-bored Policemen were at many intersections and road blocks near the Downtown area. That sight was also encouraging...as was the short chat about Police motorcycles with the team stationed in front of the Cobo Center.)

During our walk into Downtown, we saw many buildings that were faded relics of the former days of Detroit. The Grand Army of the Republic Building was a surprise to me.  (It was built in the 1890s, and was used by the Grand Army of the Republic until the 1930s.) The building looks like a castle, and it nestled on a triangular lot edged by Grand River Ave, Cass Ave, and West Adams Rd. Currently, the building is surrounded by scaffolding (at the sidewalk level) indicating some sort of renovation project.

We also saw the Michigan Building (once a theater, now a parking garage), the empty Book Tower, and the in-use Book-Cadillac Hotel. Once we arrived at Hart Plaza, we had a very good view of the Rennaisance Center, One Detroit Center, and the Madden Building.

About 5 minutes into the fireworks display, there was a rush of people trying to leave Hart Plaza. And there were rumors of shots fired and people wounded. So far, those rumors have not been confirmed. This disturbance did, however, make the event more stressful than it should have been.

The thunderous booming of the fireworks rose and fell many times during a 20-minute period. It turned into an accelerating, staccato drumbeat during the closing.

This would have also provided great cover for the sound of gunshots. The heavy Police presence was successful at putting a damper on low-level crime (theft, mugging, fighting, and juveniles disobeying a City curfew). And this likely discouraged shootings.

All told, the night was enjoyable. Though I wish that the potential for an ill-timed panic had been less.


Making, or Fixing

Admittedly, when I read a story that starts with this statement, my first response is to cringe.
 [She] cracks open a toaster oven, jams her hand inside, then turns on the power. It looks like she’s about to electrocute herself, but she seems unfazed. “Thermostat or heating element?” [She] mutters, yanking on wires and poking around with a multimeter.
It's an article about fixing things, rather than replacing them.

My first thoughts about fixing toaster ovens involve not putting my hand inside it while plugging things in and turning them on. But the person was probably careful not to place her hand onto a live heating element, or uninsulated wire.

The skills necessary to diagnose a toaster are useful skills. And they are skills that I have always thought were just part of life. Sometimes, the cost of repair exceeds the cost of replacement. Other times--many other times, in my experience--the cost of repair is much less than the cost of replacement.

However, I realize that many people don't have those skills. They will throw away vacuum cleaners, toaster, and microwave ovens that can be repaired easily.

It's a good idea, and a return to something that has long been part of the American tradition, to attempt to repair an item rather than purchase a replacement.


Motorcycle Safety

I ride a motorcycle (when the weather is good). Among other things, this means that motorcycle riding is seasonal for me. It also means that I have to make decisions about safety equipment I wear when traveling.*

About a year ago, the government of my home State changed the requirements for wearing helmets on motorcycles. Some details are available here. I notice that most news stories on the subject seem to think that helmet laws are, in general, a good idea. They generally carry along the implication that relaxing laws about helmet use is a bad idea.

As I scanned that local news source, I found a few stories of motorcycle accidents. On a whim, I decided to search for as many as I could find, and see if there was any correlation between helmet use and fatalities. While the stories were common, they weren't common enough to generate more than 40 stories over a period of 4 years. Only half of the news stories in that time period mention whether the riders and/or passengers wore helmets.

At least once, a pair of riders on the same motorcycle suffered an accident. The helmet-wearing rider survived her session of highway-speed slip-and-slide on the pavement; her non-helmeted companion did not. Another time, the passenger who was wearing a helmet died when thrown off the cycle; the rider not wearing a helmet was also thrown off, and survived.  This second instance was in a round-about, and likely at surface-street speeds.

Was the deciding factor the helmet, the speed, or the kind of accident? Were any of these riders wearing leather jackets along with their helmets?

I couldn't find enough data to decide that, but I did arrive at these conclusions while trawling the news archive.
  • Late-night and early-morning riding is dangerous
  • Running red lights or stop signs is also dangerous
  • Weaving through heavy traffic at high speeds is dangerous
  • Cars that left-turn across the motorcycle's path are dangerous.
  • Riding across the center line into oncoming traffic usually produces at least one fatality
  • High-speed runs away from Police are dangerous, and often fatal
  • Combining more than one "dangerous" category above is often fatal
In the realm of safety, I arrived at these conclusions:
  • Helmets may help when something goes wrong. 
  • However, helmets do not guarantee safety for the rider. 
  • Many of the accidents appeared to be the fault of the rider.
  • Some accidents were the fault of other drivers.
All told, I'm not sure that these statistics contain enough data to produce a usable conclusion. One news story linked above says that the State's base rate of fatalities in motorcycle accidents is barely over 100 per year.

How hard is it to distinguish meaningful changes in that rate from statistical noise? None of the studies seem to answer that question.

That leads me to disbelieve that any of the studies has arrived at a usable conclusion. But I'll still wear a helmet when I ride. And a jacket designed to aid survival while sliding along the road surface.


Bridge safety

What happens when a component fails on a bridge? What if the design of the bridge makes a single failure more likely to bring the entire structure down?

These questions could be asked after the collapse of a bridge on the Interstate-5 freeway in the State of Washington.

Jim Miller (who writes extensively about National politics, and somewhat about local politics) notes that regional authorities had a process for testing and licensing for carrying oversized loads across bridges.

He also links to an article which has a very useful diagram about the bridge failure.

I've copied the image below.

Interestingly, it also appears that the inside lanes had more clearance than the outside lanes. That may have contributed to the loss, also...


In Memoriam

The history of the United States has many wars, and the wars have produced many tales of honor, courage, and bravery.

And many men were buried when the action of the day was done.

This day is set aside as a day of memorial.


Unexpected article

Not unexpected information, but at an unexpected place.

Instapundit references Mother Jones, which published an article about building an AK-style rifle.

The author gives a short description of a build-party he attended, and mentions some details of the process. But he doesn't mention enough to allow many readers to reproduce the process themselves. However, it's not as if such info is hard to find.

It's a process I've heard about, and may do myself one of these years. The weird part is that the market for AK parts-kits (plus barrels) clears at roughly the same price as professionally-manufactured AK rifles. Thus, I pay the same cost either way.

However, if I were to build my own rifle, it would be mine in a way that a purchased rifle would not be.

There was a lot of attention given, recently, to the concept of building a home-made firearm from a 3D-printer. While such things may be of interest, it is worth remembering that expensive, computer-controlled tools are not necessary to build an AK-47 rifle from a parts-kit.

I strongly doubt that either process is likely to see much use by criminals in America. There is apparently a large number of firearms already in the black and gray markets. From data gathered by the Dept. of Justice, most of those firearms are pistols. Many were stolen, or purchased through intermediaries who don't mind re-selling to prohibited persons.

The article at Mother Jones was informative, though I doubt the wisdom of the man destroying his firearms so soon after building it. He should spend time learning the strengths and limitations of the tool.


Urban farming, blood and guts

I've got a relative who is engaged in urban farming. It feels odd, but a combination of factors make it easy for him to engage in small-scale farming.

Part of the venture involves chickens. This is something new, and he is still learning about the chickens and their handling.

Last time I visited, I walked into the chicken area to view a site of frightening carnage. A varmint (likely a raccoon) had discovered the chickens, and harmed many of them while reaching through the chicken wire.

A disturbingly high number were dead from blood loss, and a few more were wounded yet still breathing. Some chickens had been gutted, a trail of intestines and blood was on the floor of the chicken-pen.

The sight was shocking, but not gut-wrenching. (At least, not to me...) I cared enough about the farming project to pitch in with cleanup. I also helped acquire better wire-mesh for the chicken area.

Much later in the day, after acquiring and deploying a live-trap, we found the masked bandit. It was a raccoon, as expected.

We tried dispatching it with a pellet-gun, but the projectiles didn't carry enough momentum to harm the animal.  It was still in the cage of the live-trap, and we wished to dispatch him before nightfall. For several unrelated reasons, I was left with the task.

I decided to carry the cage down to the nearby river. Some cable was used to make lowering the cage into the water easier. A brick, tied to the apparatus, enabled me to be sure the cage would stay under the water. After enough time had passed, I lifted the cage back out. The carcass of the mischievous rodent was dumped back into the river.

I've done a little hunting in my time. This was a little different, but not overly so. That creature had done damage; there was no easy way to send it away and keep it from returning. The kill itself was easy, after a little preparation.

So far, the better wire-mesh has kept the remaining chickens from harm. This little episode reminded me that every form of farming deals with varmints who enjoy some free food. Even varmints that can't eat what they kill, but will keep attacking in an effort to find something it can eat.

Though I think I'm happy that I'm not depending directly on a single urban farm...


The sound of spring

I've heard spring sounds in the air on and off. Seen robins, blue jays, and red-winged blackbirds.

In my area, April often brings a collection of heavy rainshowers, sometimes with thunder. Those sounds have not been missing.

And last weekend, I heard what I think is the definitive sound of spring. The sound of a motorcycle engine* running. In this case, the first time it ran since last October.

Almost 100 miles of riding later, I was convinced that the cycle was running fine.

The shakedown cruise was a pleasant 20 miles or so on Hines Drive. Thanks to Ed Hines and Henry Ford for setting up that park, and its pleasant path through central-and-Western-Wayne county suburbia...

The rest of the days travel were to visit a friend, and later attend a small party hosted by a different friend.

*the engine in question is a 30-year-old Honda inline-4, 750cc displacement. It has a pleasant rumble at idle, and a medium-high roar at high RPM values. Maybe next year I'll get a machine that is less than 20 years old...this one has some signs of age, but the engine, controls, and frame are in good shape.


Explosive events

Over the weekend, a pair of explosives went off near the endpoint of the Boston Marathon.

Also this week, a large explosion happened at a fertilizer factory in Texas. This blast had more fatalities, and apparently a larger blast radius.

(Educational note: ammonium-nitrate compounds, in truck-sized quantities, pack a big punch. Much bigger than portable quantities of black powder. But I think that's old news...)

Attacks like those in Boston are rare in the U.S. So are industrial accidents involving large amounts of explosives.

Yet they are just common enough to remind me that death and harm can come unexpectedly, and in many forms. I pray that these events don't become more common.


And old book, revisited

A couple of decades ago, I read a novel about the news business.

This novel had a TV News anchor as a central character. It includes lots of vignettes about life inside a TV News room, interactions between politicians and reporters, and the interactions between political power-brokers and low-level criminals.*

In an early scene, the anchorman sees his father preaching against abortion at a political rally. The Governor is conspicuously pro-abortion. Somehow, the event turns from a disturbance into a fight. And the TV News anchor has to watch his own father apprehended and escorted away by police while he reports the event...


Feel kind of sheepish

I had a great post planned for Easter Sunday, and I lost track of it.

Easter is a surprise ending; the kind of surprise ending that shocks and amazes. Yet it has become such a part of our culture that the surprise has died out. (This author at PJ Media does a better job than I in discussing Easter.)

I spent most of the weekend traveling (which might account for lack of sunrise-Easter blogging). One pair of grand-parents live separately, due to the stress of dealing with Grandfather's deteriorating mind. It is sad to see in action.

It is also encouraging to realize that the stories I now hear about his life are ones that he would never tell about himself. He was a minister, but tried not to bring much attention to how his ministry affected others.

Partly because of the things that other ministers of Christ's Gospel have taught to me, and partly in memory of the hope and consolation that one old minister has brought to many others...

Happy Easter.


Crime and Punishment.

It is the most-remembered execution in history. And the date that it happened isn't well known.

Except that it coincided with Passover; the religious holiday of the Jewish people.

The victim was a rabbi. He was at odds with the Sanhedrin, the religious council that governed worship in the Temple. He attracted many crowds of people. Stories of miracles followed in his wake. His teachings caused a great stir.

Were the religious leaders afraid of his popularity and his strange teaching?

Or were they afraid that he would try to turn his popularity into a popular revolt against the Roman imperial power?

Whatever the explanation, an innocent man was railroaded into a death sentence.

Strangely, the man seemed to intend to meet this end.

Even more strangely, His closest followers claimed that their lives were forever altered by what happened three days later...


Math puzzle

Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy posts something very non-legal.

It's a challenging math question. I wish I could say that I had figured out the answer already, but I haven't. And, having seen the answer, I'm not sure I can try it without pushing my attempt towards the already-known result.

The problem is still very interesting, though it is deep in the realm of math-problems-without-an-obvious-real-world-use.


Douglas Adams (a few days late)

This past Monday marked a point when a certain insignificant planet had circled its primary star some 61 times since the date on which a particular novelist had been born.

Douglas Adams sense of humor was uniquely zany and pointed. Amusingly, I found this quote of his to be on-point for a discussion at my job a month back.
A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wave bands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive--you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.
Zaphod waved a hand and the channel switched again.
So, when the manager was talking about the gesture-controlled radio system (for automobiles) that he had seen at the Consumer Electronics Showcase, I asked if they would require the user to sit perfectly still...


Approximate Pi Day

I'm not sure how to get an exact version of Pi Day, but 3.14 is pretty close.*

I think this approach is pretty good. Though maybe I'll find a way to bake a pie today, also.

*For people who use Month.Day notation for expressing dates. At least it's a shortened form of an official pattern. But I notice that the official pattern uses a "-" separator, not a "." separator...


Interesting Conversation

Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time at a church building in my area. It's not my usual place of religious attendance, but I know several of the members.

And on the events-for-the-body-of-believers bulletin board, I saw a note about a Ladies Gun Club.

This led me to some conversation with one of the women at the church. The conversation went more in the direction of "I have my rights, and I don't want to lose them" than self-preservation. (We all live in the Detroit Metro Area. The suburbs and exurbs of Detroit are usually pleasant and safe. Unlike the City of Detroit, which is notoriously dangerous.) The conversation also detoured around the differences between State laws on firearm purchasing, and current/future purchases.

I was surprised, in a pleasant way. These are conversations that I might have had at work a few years ago, but hadn't expected to have at a church.

While I didn't try to convert the woman to gun-nuttery, I did give what has become my standard reminder. Guns don't provide safety, nor are one-shot stops guaranteed. Tragedies are not averted by going about armed.

However, every person is their own first-responder. Police and ambulances take time to arrive. Even if people don't want to be armed, they should practise the mindset of awareness and being ready for trouble.



Some discussion of textbooks has been seen over at Grim's Hall and at the lodging of the Assistant Village Idiot.

Grim's associate Tex99 goes on at length about education, mentioning textbooks along the way. AVI has a pity comment that links to Richard Feynman's thoughts about the process of textbook selection.

Both reminded me of an educational and textbook environment that I grew up in. My parents skirted the law at the time they began educating children at home. (There was a court case ongoing. Within a few years, the State Supreme Court decided that people with strong religious convictions could be exempt from compulsory attendance.)

Anyway, I've had distant contact with lots of different theories of education. And I've seen parents choose books. I've also seen what the market for textbooks looks like, from the perspective of a home-schooled high schooler, and from the perspective of an adult helping my parent run a regional curriculum fair.

The market for homeschool textbooks quickly sorts out ideas that work from ideas that don't. It also managed, once the movement was above a minimum size, to promote several trends.

One thing that disturbs me about Feynman's comments are the ways in which bureaucrats and textbook publishers conspire to produce books that appear good on the surface, respond to fads in educational theory, and put them through as little rigorous analysis as possible before the final selection is done. The tale of a book full of blank pages getting good marks from the committee is disturbing and amusing.

It is hard for a governing body to design a process by which textbooks are selected by experts in the field. Yet it is easy for said body to turn the process into a bunch of make-work. And easier still for everyone to assume that the committee is making a smart decision by averaging the value of many non-smart decisions.

I have several reasons for being against large institutions and bureaucracies, where smaller operations can serve the purpose. This is one of them. Bureaucracies make decisions that affect many; the people who make the decision can often ignore the results of their decision. Especially results that are less-than-optimal. Even results that are harmful.


Asteroids, fiction and reality

Just last week, Planet Earth had a close call.

The asteroid was seen coming, and predicted to fly by (at breathtaking speed) on a path that was only 17000 miles away from Earth's surface. If the path of the asteroid had been slightly different, things might have gotten very bad very rapidly. Another, smaller one, left a streak of light across the sky and caused much damage in a city in Russia. (Russia as a nation has bad luck for such things...the last such hit was a century ago.)

Weirdly, I had just begun reading a book on that subject.

I'd call it science-fiction, but it isn't the usual kind of science fiction. No futuristic technology or travel to the stars.

Instead, it's a book about a heavenly object falling to Earth; causing lots of destruction and chaos. The book is titled Lucifer's Hammer, written by a pair of authors who usually write science-fiction together.

Feels kind of weird, reading a book written in the 70s. NASA astronauts talk about the Space Shuttle as a coming attraction. There are no cell phones.  The Internet isn't discussed, either as a research project or a potential society-changing technology. The American Space Program has to cooperate with the Soviet Space Program...

The description of what one piece of God's creation—a comet—can do to Earth is frightening. It brings to mind several things; among them the world-ending catastrophes of the book of Revelation.

Or possibly the questions by geologists and historians as to whether a comet or asteroid struck Earth before the extremely cold years of 535-536.

The 1970s-era U.S.A of the novel could not mount any attempt to keep Earth safe from such an impact. In the novel, they barely got a team of American and Russian astronauts into Earth orbit to see a comet fly-by. These astronauts saw the prediction of impact go from 1-in-a-million to 1-in-ten-thousand to 1-in-a-thousand to oh-crap-it's-going-to-hit.

There are many frightening things that might happen to Earth's climate, but few of them would be as catastrophic as a really big asteroid-strike.

As several commentators have pointed out, near-misses by asteroids are also one way of asking about how various space programs are doing.



Should I care about this event? There's a big retirement that's been announced. But the direct impact on my life will likely be as small as the impact of the last Royal wedding in Britain.

Protestant that I am, I like to pay attention to the Catholic church and its teachings. The teachings of the Catholic church are the result of two millennia of apostles, philosophers, scholars, and priests dealing with the questions of sin, forgiveness, repentance, and living a faithful life in a fallen world. It is rather hard to understand Protestant thought without gaining at least a sketch of Catholic though.

I also pay attention to the kind of people who run the church. The Catholic organization attempts to select men who exhibit a combination of spiritual insightfulness, organizational ability, and scholarly minds. The leaders of the church try to keep all three traits in balance as they select the men who sit in the College of Cardinals, and in the Papal seat. 

Not all the leaders of the Catholic church are saints. Nor even perfect.  (I've seen some scathing commentary from a retired priest about the organizational and structural problems that led to the blackest moment in the past century of the Catholic church. I cannot deny that evil things were done, and that punishment was delayed far beyond its proper time. God has His judgement of the matter; He is better-placed than I to deliver both justice and mercy.)

I don't know if I am sad to see Pope Benedict leave the office. There's evidence he's been contemplating retirement for some time. Like his predecessor, he will be missed. However, he appears to think that his role is not to gain fame or exert influence, but to continue a life of prayer.

I also pray; partly that the Catholic church finds the right replacement for the office of Pope. Partly that believers in Christ worldwide will be able to join into more unity than they currently have.

Partly that the sages and scholars of the present age will be drawn to the eternal wisdom that is available from God.


Long night

Spent last afternoon and evening with most of my time and energy focused on one thing.

Taxes. I juggled W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, property tax records, mortgage records, IRAs, charity-donation reports, and a 1040. And I won, I think. (With the help of a computer program called TurboTax*. )

More than a year ago, I put a plan in place to reduce the taxes that are deducted from my paycheck. The goal was to reduce the amount overpaid to the government. That amount is basically an interest-free loan to the U.S. Dept. of Treasury, repaid after taxes are filed.

This appeared to work. However, I will be refunded approximately a week of pay. So there was still a small loan. Still, I note that the default level of taxation would result in nearly 3 weeks pay being refunded to me at tax time.

The same effect occurred with taxes for the State of Michigan. The scale is smaller; approximately 1 day's pay will be refunded to me.

Total tax rate was in the realm of 10% (Fed) and 3% (State). I think that the deduction rate on Federal tax was ~20%. As in, the income line after Itemized Deductions as ~80% of income. Three things accounted for this: regular tithing to a church, interest on a home mortgage, and payments made into a traditional IRA.

Afterwards, I went to a friend's house to watch a football game. Which wasn't really interesting until the stadium had an electrical problem which caused an unexpected delay in play. After this was repaired, the teams both played hard. Victory wasn't certain until the last few seconds were showing on the game clock...

*I paid money to use TurboTax, so this comment should not be construed as a commercial advertisement. Though Intuit seems pretty successful at both product quality and advertisement without the help of any bloggers...


Surprising story

Not sure why it is getting play now.

Here is an article about a family that moved out into the Siberian wilderness after pressure from the Soviet regime proved too much for them. They remained out of touch for nearly 40 years, until they were discovered by geologists. (The geologists were prospecting for mining locations.)

The family is an extreme case of isolated community. Their history also has several stories of near-extinction. Like the time a late frost left them with only one plant bearing a few grains of rye. And the long years in which they had no access to salt.

There was also a boy in the family who became an expert hunter. Without a bow, he hunted animals by trapping them. Or chasing them for days, until they collapsed.

Talk about returning to eons-old methods of survival...

It's also a little shocking to hear what a real survivalist may have to do, when trying to live alone in a vast wilderness.

History may be full of such strange things, which are only remembered if they are retold to people who spread the story.


A Police Official speaks

Commissioner of the New York Police, that is.

While attempting to make a point about various firearms laws and the use of firearms in crime, Commissioner Raymond Kelly noted that handguns are used in crimes many more times than rifles are used for criminal purposes.

If that is the case, then why the focus on AR-15 rifles, and other military-style weapons?

Somehow, Commissioner Kelly also considers that the legal sale of firearms outside of the State of New York is a large part of the supply of guns used by criminals inside the State.

The ATF and FBI try to collate data about guns recovered from criminals. They warn that the data isn't representative of guns used in crime. However, I do notice one thing: those firearms tend to have long histories between the original purchase and their discovery by Police. It's not often clear how the firearm ended up making that trip. Also, a large majority of those recovered had been originally purchased inside the State of New York.

I would think that if the Commissioner of the New York City Police wants to blame purchases in other jurisdictions for the prevalence of firearms inside the city, he should be able to bring better data to the table.


A consensual, private activity

Instapundit notices that modern secularism seems to take the attitude that religious behavior is a private thing, done with consenting fellows.

Does this mean that religious pride marches are in order?

Or is it the reverse kind of private activity, the kind of activity...er, love...that dare not mention its name in public?



So, I take a week or two off of blogging. Is that a hiatus, or a slow start?

Anyway, I noticed today that I use a tool that is likely not widely known. That tool is PasswordSafe, originally produced by Bruce Schneier. (Downloads available here.)

Once upon a time, I had picked a password that was relatively easy to type. It was also (in my opinion) hard to guess. Then I started to get multiple accounts for online email, Bulletin Boards, school email, email at work, access codes at work, login for the work computer, etc.

And I realized that some of these password lived on databases that are well-protected, and others on databases that are poorly-protected. But if an attacker/hacker/internet-bad-guy was able to get into one of the badly-protected databases, he might be able to see the password, and my email account. If both were the same, then the attacker might have access to my email.

And anyone with access to my email can discover most of my online accounts, and likely change the password to something I don't know.

This realization led me to a different pattern. It was now a cluster of passwords. Different types for different situations. But I also had to keep a list somewhere of passwords that I didn't use very often. And things got cumbersome when the cluster had hard-to-remember variations. (Site A will let me mix upper-case, lower-case, and numbers. Site B requires at least one non-alphanumeric symbol. Site C wants three of those four categories...)

PasswordSafe provides a better way to handle multiple passwords. It can use databases that are easily transferred between my home computer (running Linux) and my work computer (running Windows). It can live on a USB drive, so that I can take the program and the database to any computer.

It can also generate a unique password for each site. The passwords are all random gibberish. More importantly, the password database requires a single password/key to open. Thus, I only have to remember one password.

Currently, the only place where I do not use the PaswordSafe program is my Smart Phone. Which doesn't mean that it's impossible. It just means that it's not convenient enough for me, yet.


Religion and Faith

I had originally thought I would spend more time thinking and writing about religion than about guns. (There are many people out on the internet writing about guns. A few even know what they are talking about.)

Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about religion and faith. These thoughts start with some thought about the meaning of the words.

A man who does something religiously may be doing it because he thinks it is necessary to placate the Universe, or the Creator. Or he may do so because he has noted that his life will be much easier in some way if he does that certain thing carefully and regularly.

If he religiously tracks of his expenditures by credit-card is not likely to have problems with his credit-line being maxed out. Nor is he likely to have problems with interest-payments becoming larger than his salary.

Such usage is rarer now than it once was; but it does point to a core meaning. A practice done religiously is something more than a habit, it is often a conscious choice that affects all of a person's life in some way.

Working backwards from the adverb to the noun: a religion is a set of practices that have been chosen. It is the framework for a lifestyle. It reflects a set of values chosen. Often, there is a story that supports or clarifies these values.

This blends over into another usage of the word religion. It is often used to describe a group of people who remember (and re-tell) a specific group of stories. These stories aid in describing the meaning of life, and support actions which seem nonsensical (or counter-productive) to non-members. After all, many Americans tell stories about the King, his life, death, and many devoted followers. But Elvis doesn't have much in the way of moral teaching to follow. Is that a religion, or is it an obsessive fan-base? (Considering the etymology of fan from fanatic, that distinction may not have much value...)

Religion is sometimes used to describe any such group of believers, often with the overt assertion that religion is irrational, meaningless, or actively antagonistic to the good life. A person giving this description will tell a story about good people, evil influence, rescuing the gullible (or the Fallen) from bad influence, and bringing about a better world. If these people weren't so antagonistic to traditional religion, I'd call them religious. (For example, I will mention a biologist named Dawkins.)

Then there's the word faith. In the pejorative, it is often joined with the word blind. In the affirmative, faith is often described in terms of wondrous joy and miraculous power.

And in the descriptive, faith is part of phrases like "full faith and credit." In that sense, it describes a level of trust that is very high, joined with an extension of credit. (Does this make the use of a plastic card issued by Visa as a form of payment an act of blind faith? What about the use of custom-printed cloth notes, endorsed as legal tender by the U.S. Dept. of Treasury?)

I find that religion is common even among the irreligious, and faith is important for a society to function.

Religions remember stories that attempt to explain what the good life is, and the why/how of attaining it. Faith is a kind of trust; it points towards a thing/object/person/idea which is considered helpful, powerful, or useful.


Purchasing a gun

So, I purchased a gun right after Christmas.

It wasn't a snap decision. I had intended to purchase in December. Sometime last fall, I thought that I wanted a Ruger 10/22 with a scope. (Got one with iron sights already.)

Anyway, after I found a store (which I'll call Mountain of Goose) that allowed me to pre-order online, I did the order. And I waited for the phone call.

After the rifle showed up at the store, I got the call. When I arrived at the firearms-counter in the rear of the store, I had to take a number. Then I had to wait 10 minutes.

Once I began the pick-up process, I had to hand ID and my credit card to the store employee. Then I had to fill out a form. Name, address/city/county/state of residence, SSN, place of birth, ID number from State-issued ID, race, Hispanic-ethnicity status, height/weight, gender, birth-date.

Then I had to answer questions about myself. Yes, I am purchasing this for myself. No, I'm not under indictment for a crime on the Bad Boy list, never been convicted of such a crime, not a fugitive from the law, don't do drugs, never been adjudicated mentally defective, never had a dishonorable discharge from the US Military, not under a Court restraining order, never been convicted of a crime of domestic violence, never renounced citizenship, not an illegal alien, not an alien on a visa. And no, I didn't lie to any of the above questions.

The employee that handed me the form took it back, and spent 5 minutes checking every line on the form.

Then the guy behind the counter offered me a 1-year extended warranty. That's not really a surprise; I suspect the gun-counter earns more money on warranties than on gun sales. Mountain of Goose wants repeat customers, so they offer things like warranties to bring people back.

Shortly after the warranty offer, the employee handed the form (plus my ID) to another store employee. That person did the same 5-minute check. He compared all the data on my ID to the things I'd written out, then certified that I'd answered the "Yes" question properly, and answered "No" to all the others.

Finally, they submitted my name to the Federally-mandated background check process. (Another customer at the store that day got a "delay" response on their background check. Something about them being honorably-discharged from the military, but not keeping their Security Clearance after discharge. Any person who has ever had that status down-graded, for any reason, gets yellow-flagged for gun purchases.)

Lastly, I got to put my signature on the credit-card receipt, picked up the gun in the box, and walked out of the store.

Who says gun purchases aren't regulated?

At least I didn't have to go through a waiting period. Certain States of the Union require a wait before every firearms purchase. (Among them, the state of CT, as cited in these Wiki articles.)