put not your trust in princes 5 November 2008Posted by DSM in politics.
The quote is usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck, though it has the hallmarks of being apocryphal. Lots of variants, some pithier than others; assignments to other famous people; all the usual signs.
Still, the reason it’s survived is because it captures a profound truth: “A special Providence protects fools, drunkards, small children, and the United States of America.”
The workings of such providence aren’t always easy to understand.
In this election there were no conservatives running, merely an idiosyncratic but admirable maverick and the most liberal member of the the US Senate. Not theology but natural law suggests that isn’t going to end well.
The more so because of the bizarre cult surrounding Obama.
The human impulse to be religious is universal, though it varies in strength, and is independent of belief in the supernatural. Many so-called “nonreligious” people have trouble recognizing this and therefore misunderstand their own actions. For my part I think of “religiousness” as the degree to which you incorporate your view of your activities into a larger story of cosmic significance. People who don’t accept the supernatural but who still were born pretty high on the “religiousness” scale wind up separating their papers from their plastics with impressive if misguided devotion, and complaining about people who don’t, independent of actual calculations of the energy budget of the process but because they believe it’s helping save the Earth. They simply transfer their worship elsewhere.
Broadly speaking, liberalism is secular and conservatism is religious; this isn’t because of any greatness or holiness of conservatives, but because the Right’s philosophy — being necessarily tragic and constrained (in Tom Sowell’s “Clash of Visions” sense) — leaves space for the divine in a way that the closed and self-contained unconstrained vision of the Left doesn’t. When man is silent, God will speak.
Which means, in short, that I don’t need to vote for a Messiah. I already have one. Investing such dreams in any man for me would be blasphemy. I understand they call it hope.
Those who seek salvation — even purely secular salvation — in politics are doomed to disappointment, and I’m a little worried about what will happen when the absurdly unrealistic expectations of many of Obama’s followers aren’t met. Given the opportunity for painful self-criticism or for doublethink and accusations of conspiracy by the wreckers, most of us have a preference.
The next few years are going to be interesting ones, in the ancient curse sense of interesting. The many blessings God has given the Americans don’t include freedom from consequence.
Foreigner that I am, my greatest concerns at the moment aren’t for the Americans, who always seem to muddle through, but for the Israelis, who will lose their greatest friend ever to hold the office for a man with decidedly moral-equivalence tendencies — and in a world where they’re so hated, that’s a considerable problem — and the Iraqis, as Obama may find it politically difficult to respond to changes in the situation if things take a turn for the worse. Obama could suddenly reveal such courage, of course, but it would be somewhat unprecedented, to put it charitably.
Senator McCain once said, regarding Iraq, that he would rather lose an election than lose the war. He has done the first, but his lonely support of the surge — his keeping his head when all about were losing theirs — may have prevented the latter. I’ve always found it difficult to forget his terrible “campaign finance reform” (read: “Incumbent Protection Act”) which made hash of the First Amendment, but I will never forget his unwillingness to lose a nation to terror and hatred when it didn’t have to happen.
Congratulations to President-elect Obama, and — especially? — to Senator McCain. May God continue to watch over the Americans, and shower them with mercies as He has done for centuries.
I had a dryly witty conclusion in mind for this point, with just the right helping of sophisticated and detached cynicism, but: No.
God bless America, and the Americans.
vegetables and enlightenment 20 October 2008Posted by DSM in daily life.
I’m currently struggling to overcome a mysterious energy-sapping will-to-live-destroying illness which makes it hard to eat, lie down, stand, sit, walk, sleep, and so on.
You know, I’ve never been as sick in my life as I’ve been since I came to London; I suspect it’s all the weird European bugs meeting my spleenless immune system. Timing couldn’t be worse, as the last few weeks have been very busy. The brats are back in full, and I have to cover a friend’s tutoring duties while he’s off serving a mandatory three-week stint in the Turkish army, of all things. Never rains but it pours!
So I’m trying to think of happier times, and one was a few weeks ago when I managed to drift into some weird perfectly awake and lucid but somehow not-quite-there state.
For reasons it would take too long to get into, I was reading about various controversies involving Stuart Kirkpatrick, son of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN. He’s also known as Traktung Rinpoche, and some believe him the reincarnation of Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje, a nineteenth-century mystic.
I don’t believe in any kind of Buddhism. I don’t think the meaning of life is escape from suffering (“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was buried”), but instead the presence of love (“Love one another as I have loved you”); I don’t believe in reincarnation or karma, and reject the idea that if something bad happens to you it could be because you’ve done something bad in a past life (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. This happened so that the works of God might be revealed in him”); and I don’t believe that the universe is any kind of illusion (“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”).
For what it’s worth, Traktung Rinpoche’s answers to comments and questions generally run like this [typos in original corrected]:
Q. But “you” are sitting here talking to us.
Traktung Rinpoche: No, I am not. It seems that way to you because you insist on the narrow “point of view” implied by the uninspected tendency of awareness to identify with consciousness, Beingness and body mind. All these arise co-emergently. Bam! All at once, consciousness, Beingness, and world arise as a single whole. The result of a little mistake in awareness. If you take the trouble to inspect, perhaps you will have to first strengthen the tool of inspection – that is all the spiritual path is, strengthening the tool of inspection – then you will discover something most amazing and all of your comparative competitiveness will dissolve.
In any case, I was learning about the complex relationships between various streams of Buddhism in the Tibetan community and their counterparts in the West, especially some movements which take different attitudes to “form” than I’ve always associated with Buddhism.
And while I was doing this, I was listening repeatedly to a terrible earbug of a song called “Hip Hop Vegetable“, which is honestly about vegetables. If I believed in meditative states I’d swear it drove me into one. Really, I’m sure the song is just very relaxing, with warm, friendly lyrics and a catchy tune; but it felt very, very strange.
So if you find yourself about to read up on Vajrayana Buddhism while listening to soft J-pop about produce, don’t say you weren’t warned!
natural problems 29 September 2008Posted by DSM in astronomy.
So on Friday we had Leslie Sage visit, who works for Nature (the massive science publishing giant) and is the point man for astronomy. I learned a fair bit about the way their process works, much of which surprised me, and left me thinking less of the journal than I’d thought beforehand, which wasn’t much. This is a bit of a problem, as Nature gets a fair amount of the most interesting science, and the boss and I were toying with aiming one of our ongoing projects in its direction.
(1) Sage explained that Nature only publishes 7% of submitted papers, and roughly 12% of the astronomy-related submitted papers, because they’re looking for only the best papers. This isn’t true, though: they don’t publish the best papers. Not even close. The articles in astronomy in Nature are usually pretty terrible as papers. For example, in theory, it’s almost impossible to figure out what the authors have actually done from their description in Nature. The articles are so compressed that there’s little room for the details which are necessary to reproduce a simulation. It’s not the authors’ fault at all, or at least not most of the time; page budgets are very tightly controlled, often to the point of absurdity.
There are papers, and there are “Nature papers”. It’s not uncommon to be searching the literature, find out that a result you need to understand was published in Nature, and then find yourself desperately hoping they published something real on it somewhere useful.
Sage argued in Nature’s defence that they allow online “supplemental information”, but that’s more suited for data tables. To suggest putting necessary information in a supplement is merely another way of admitting that they don’t publish science papers but press releases/extended abstracts with graphs.
Nature isn’t trying to get the best papers, but the sexiest results. And this they often succeed at, but I don’t see why it’s in the community’s interest to have our most important results written up in a deliberately inferior format — “defective by design”, as they say.
(2) I’d always assumed that there was some team of notable astrophysicists who reviewed the submissions and decided if they were Nature-worthy results, independent of the refereeing process. It turns out that said team consists of Leslie Sage. (Plus cameo appearances by people he sometimes consults.) I’m sure he’s a decent enough guy, but I don’t like single-point-of-failure arrangements, and with all due respect to Dr Sage, “capturing Leslie Sage’s interest” doesn’t strike me as all that prestigious. Moreover, what if you manage to incur Dr Sage’s wrath? Then what?
In the end I suspect that we would all be better served simply by not sending our results to Nature, breaking the cycle of dependency. For various reasons people are taking a long, hard look at the way we do science publication at the moment, and it’s not at all clear how the landscape is going to look in ten years, but we can start by imagining one in which Nature doesn’t play a role.
of hatred and love 25 September 2008Posted by DSM in politics.
The inimitable Jay Nordlinger writes at the Corner of a friend of his:
[..] she said to me, out of the blue, “What do you think of Sarah Palin?” And while I was drawing breath to answer, she said, “I hate her.”
That kind of took my breath away — because this friend of mine is no hater. But she said it with firm, horrible conviction. She said it with true emotion in her eyes.
I have similar stories. I’m reminded of my very first CASCA meeting at Vancouver (the main Canadian astronomy association), at which a very famous astronomer — a genuinely friendly guy — went into a long spit-filled rant about how much he hated Christians. It was so over-the-top that I actually found myself somewhat amused, both at the impressive degree of malice and the fact his prejudices completely blinded him to the possibility that the person he was talking to was one of the Dreaded.
We wound up having lunch together the following day, and as is my wont I crossed myself before eating. He noticed, and spoke about it quite civilly, apparently having completely forgotten who he’d been speaking to the night before when he was revealing his true feelings. It was all I could do not to break out laughing: in vino veritas.
Contempt such as he had poisons everything you do. You can get away with it to some degree in science, but it’s much harder in the arts. Orson Scott Card says it well in a recent review of a movie that left him unimpressed with the scriptwriters, to put it mildly:
We blame the writers and only the writers [for the movie not being funny].
Here’s why: They hated every major character in the movie. All the comedy depended on our seeing these characters with the amused contempt that the writers had for them.
The trouble is, the actors were too good. They kept inviting us to see these people, not as cardboard cutouts the way the writers did, but as living breathing people.
The directing style was hyper-realistic, in a sort of art-house movie way. The acting was low-key and frightfully earnest. […] So we had these earnest people trying to be likeable, and everything they had to say and do made them stupid and vile. The kind of people who, if they were sitting at the next table, you’d leave the restaurant without finishing your meal.
When I said the writer hated all the characters, that was not strictly speaking true. There is a blip of a character — the reviewer for the high school paper. This reviewer wrote an intellectually pretentious, sneering, savage review of the main character’s production of a play version of Erin Brockovich.
It was obvious that this was the one character the writers had respect for. The superior, condescending tone of his review was identical with the superior, condescending tone the writers have toward everyone in the movie.
Mr. Nordlinger is wrong on one point, though; his friend *is* a hater, as proved by the fact she hates. Sweet tea doesn’t become bitter if its cup is knocked over, much less merely because someone else is drinking coffee. Unfortunately, that doesn’t distinguish her from any of us.
There but for the grace of God go we. I think if you genuinely find yourself hating complete strangers on account of, well, practically nothing, it’s time to spend less time following politics and more time at prayer.
truth without hope 22 September 2008Posted by DSM in QOTD.
In the genre of true crime, the facts always seem to have a strange, half-religious light cast on them, as though, in the end, original sin alone provides much explanation of crime. If fiction is the great humanistic endeavor, seeking human reasons for human behavior, then true crime is not an art form but a sort of low-rent theology. In its American form, at least, it offers little more than a Christian worldview—or what the Christian worldview would be without the possibility of Christ: sin without redemption; the Fall without the Resurrection; justice, sometimes, but never mercy.
Ain’t nothing, really, but a meanness in this world.
no thanks, I already have plans 17 September 2008Posted by DSM in politics.
The school term is starting again here at Queen Mary, which means it’s time for the usual “Grants Not Fees” booths advocating the idea that students should not have to pay to spend time reading books in these buildings, but other people who don’t get to read what they want to should pay for it instead. I certainly understand why that appeals to them; I’ve never quite understood why they think others should work and they should eat (as it were), or why this should appeal to the workers, or why it’s in the workers’ interest. By “workers” here I mean the people who are actually working, not those students who seem to think they shouldn’t have to on account of their intellectual prowess but call themselves the working class anyway.
I did get a kick out of the poster sales, though: on the same billboard, there were two communism-related posters, one above the other. I guess the poster company had put them together because they were both “progressive” or something.
The one on top read “Welcome to the Party” and had various famous socialist thinkers. Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Marx, and of course Mao Zedong. (One can only imagine Hitler’s annoyance; how many millions of people do you have to kill in the name of socialism to get some respect? That Marx guy was all talk!)
And underneath it? A poster saying “Free Tibet“.
Ah, the Left.
second act 10 September 2008Posted by DSM in astronomy, travel.
Yep, back. The last few months have been incredibly hectic but great fun. During that time I visited Vienna, which was my first trip ever to the continent, for the annual meeting of the European Geophysical Union (of which I’m a member); beautiful, beautiful city. After I got over the unnerving feelings induced by being given commands over loudspeaker in German (too many WWII movies as a kid, I guess), I settled in nicely and got some sightseeing done.
Almost immediately after that I went to Japan for several weeks by the kind invitation of Nagasawa Makiko and fell completely in love with the place. I felt more comfortable in Tokyo than I had in Vienna, even though very few people there spoke English but most everyone I came across in Vienna did. I considered blogging the trip, but frankly I was having way too much fun to stop to type, and too much to describe in any case. I have to get back as soon as I can.
There’s some discussion here of bringing Nagasawa-sama over here, which would be really cool. I’m too junior to have the budget to do it myself but some of our mutual friends do! I think I embarrassed her slightly by insisting on the -sama honourific: she complained that the grad students asked her if she’d told me to call her that. (-sama’s a little above what one would ordinarily use in that context.) But she was my host, and genuine gratitude + major teasing = WIN!
For anyone who was wondering, the introduction to my talk (which I gave in Japanese– the introduction, not the talk) went very well. Everyone laughed at the right spots, and not just because of my accent, I think. So that was good.
After Japan it was off to Victoria for CASCA, which was enjoyable though I have to admit not as much fun as usual. Not sure why, although I suspect it was because not all of the usual suspects were there, including some of my favourites. Then a few weeks in Red Deer visiting the family, and then back to London!
Never done so much travelling in my life.
One mildly irritating thing happened while I was in Japan, though: I got the referee’s report back on my last paper, a report which was quite snarky. It was anonymous, as these things usually are, but from the use of idiosyncratic terminology used only bay a certain author and the fact that a considerable fraction of the report was devoted to asking why I didn’t refer to/do things the same way as said author, it’s obvious who it was. Certainly he knows a considerable amount about the subject matter, and once you correct for the steel-wool tone the report is thorough and detailed.
But surely a professor at [very famous American university –redacted] has better things to do with his time than COMPLAIN ABOUT THE NAME OF MY CODE?! Good grief.
(“Naoko”, for the record. “New Adaptive Orthochronous Kepler Orbiter”. Any relation to Yamada Naoko, the character who helps out physicist Ueda Jiro in the brilliant “Trick” series, is too much fun for the referee and so should probably be kept hush-hush.)
In any case, last Friday I fired off the revised version on which I’ve been working since my return to England, and so my promise to myself to stay away from the blog until it was done has been kept. Harsh mistress, astronomy.
unintended consequences, example umptillion 26 March 2008Posted by DSM in science.
I like the idea of saving the Earth. I grew up in a town with lots of parkland and I’ve never quite adjusted to the more urban environments I’ve lived in since.
Unfortunately I’m a natural sceptic, and so when people tell me that separating my papers from my plastics helps I can’t suppress the impulse to ask “how, exactly?” And when you start thinking about the energy budget involved in recycling, you rapidly come to the conclusion that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
So when I read this article describing how an envirofriendly Toyota Prius was crushed in a miles-per-gallon test by a BMW 520d (!) I wasn’t entirely shocked. Sure, it wasn’t a scientific test, one data point doesn’t prove anything, and so on. I know. Still funny, and probably right.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I understand that it’s not fair that a bunch of science geeks and engineers sitting in offices playing networked FPS games and reading slashdot have done, and will do, more to save the environment than anything you can do, and that a lot of the things you’re encouraged to do are either useless or counterproductive. (Don’t forget: you can join the Hour of Power response to Earth Hour. Tim Blair assembles a helpful list of things you can do to participate!) That they’re going to do it for a paycheque from greedy capitalist exploiters is just the icing on the cake..
Genuine environmental protection requires honest and complete consideration of the tradeoffs involved. If that means recognizing the silliness of many of our secular sacraments, so be it.
darker than words 21 March 2008Posted by DSM in faith.
On this day — the darkest of all days, darker even than the Last Day — it’s hard to find words appropriate. And that difficulty is only fitting: for today is the death of the Word.
One temptation should be resisted, though, and not every priest is up to the challenge.
The Cross isn’t God showing us how much He loves us; or showing us that we should renew our efforts to help the poor. It’s not God suffering to teach us how to sympathize by offering an example of an innocent being killed– if anything it’s an identification not with those who suffer but with those who cause it. The Cross is not a lesson that some people learn and others merely admire and some reject.
It’s an action. It’s an event. And it changes everything whether you’re sleeping in class or not.
The Cross has more in common with a hurricane or a supernova than it does the philosophizing of Socrates before his death.
We try to water it down and replace it by Hallmark sentiments. We try to escape by treating it as merely a dramatic example of a teacher who threatened the social order being suppressed.
For there He hangs, and for this was He born, and from the effect of His death there is no hiding place.
Kneel, sons of men.
he’s right! give us hell, Quimby! 16 March 2008Posted by DSM in faith.
As they approached Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples, and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here.
“If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ you say, ‘The Lord has need of it’; and immediately he will send it back here.”
They went away and found a colt tied at the door, outside in the street; and they untied it. Some of the bystanders were saying to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They spoke to them just as Jesus had told them, and they gave them permission.
They brought the colt to Jesus and put their coats on it; and He sat on it. And many spread their coats in the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields.
Those who went in front and those who followed were shouting:
BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD;
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David;
Hosanna in the highest!”
Jesus entered Jerusalem and came into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany with the twelve, since it was already late.
The Gospel According to St Mark: XI
dear Lost writers 12 March 2008Posted by DSM in television.
Hi. It’s me again.
I know it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, but that’s because I’ve been generally happy with your work. I even enjoyed the plot arcs that no one else did– although I would have handled Eko’s differently. It’s okay to have him discover that he couldn’t be who he was pretending to be, that deep in his heart he didn’t believe; or that he believed, but he couldn’t love. That works just fine dramatically. But the whole “first I’m going to build a church but then I’m going to change my mind” turn only works if his changing his mind becomes important.. and it wasn’t treated that way at all. It just looked random and pointless.
I was very happy to see your recent Juliet-centric episode, because I’m on record as having a crush on her. She’s been one of my favourite characters ever since she was introduced.
Did you really need to bring an adultery plotline in to add a source of conflict, though? Again? I appreciate the fig leaf you offered, as you always do, that the couple was having marriage problems already, and that Juliet was lonely. Well, that’s not enough. And you know it, though characters in the Lost universe seem to have trouble with the idea.
Even if you hadn’t bothered to come up with a more creative idea for motivation than an affair, you could have kept the same storyline — and by Lost standards been refreshingly original — without the affair actually happening. All you’d need is for Juliet to be happy to have found a friend on the island to spend time with, and you could still keep the jealousy of Ben and the wife and the resulting consequences intact. You’d also have been far more faithful to the character of Juliet as portrayed to date.
I remain convinced that Jack & Juliet make a much better couple than Jack & Kate, and I’ve grown to like Kate & Sawyer. So choose the right ending, not the one you seem to be aiming at to bring the story full circle in some not-as-poetic-as-you-think fashion. This isn’t some harem anime where by tradition the hero has to end up with his childhood friend, or the one he met first, or whatever. You can improvise.
It’s not too late. I’m happy to tie things together for the finale if you’d like.
One final point. If you’re hinting at something by showing a flashback instead of a flashforward for Juliet, then you, sirs, should choose your seconds promptly, and we shall meet at dawn.
Yours very truly,
PS: More Juliet fan service ktxbye.
Bach on harpsichord 28 February 2008Posted by DSM in Uncategorized.
WFB, as quoted by Norman Podhoretz:
.. if there were nothing to complain about, there would be no post-Adamite mankind. But complaint is profanation in the absence of gratitude. There is much to complain about in America, but that awful keening noise one unhappily gets so used to makes no way for the bells, and these have rung for America, are still ringing for America, and for this we are obliged to be grateful. To be otherwise is wrong reason, and a poetical invitation to true national tribulation. I must remember to pray more often, because providence has given us the means to make the struggle, and in this respect we are singularly blessed in this country, and in this room.
And on what WFB considered above all:
I am programmed to love God and to seek, however vainly, to obey him, and to trust that the course he laid out for me in the grandest voyage, through time and space, and uncertainty, to infinity and transfiguration, and resolution, is as certainly charted as the toyland course that will lead me from Miami to the Rock of Gibraltar.
I shall follow the star of Bethlehem, waywardly; and if I fail to reach it, I shall be guilty of every delinquency save that I ever doubted it was there.
William F. Buckley, 1925-2008. Requiescat in pacem.
it takes an IT department of millions to keep me down 27 February 2008Posted by DSM in astronomy, Uncategorized.
New methods for large dynamic range problems in planetary formation
D.S. McNeil and R.P. Nelson
Modern N-body techniques for planetary dynamics are generally based on symplectic algorithms specially adapted to the Kepler problem. These methods have proven very useful in studying planet formation, but typically require the timestep for all objects to be set to a small fraction of the orbital period of the innermost body. This computational expense can be prohibitive for even moderate particle number for many physically-interesting scenarios, such as recent models of the formation of hot exoplanets, in which the semimajor axis of possible progenitors can vary by orders of magnitude. We present new methods which retain most of the benefits of the standard symplectic integrators but allow for radial zones with distinct timesteps. These approaches should make simulations of planetary accretion with large dynamic range tractable. As proof-of-concept we present preliminary science results from an implementation of the algorithm as applied to an oligarchic migration scenario for forming hot Neptunes.
The Man tried to bring me down, and destroyed hundreds of gigabytes of my work, but he’ll have to do better than that.. if all goes well I’ll submit the above paper next week and the first science paper in April!
I named the new method Naoko, after the beautiful supermagician Yamada Naoko. But if anyone asks, I’m going to say it stands for New Adaptive Orthochronous Kepler Orbiter..
a matter of scale 13 February 2008Posted by DSM in daily life.
I’m still recovering from the disaster of last week. It turns out that I may have gotten off lightly, compared to one of the students about to defend his PhD, or so I’ve just heard. Hopefully the rumour’s mistaken.
In happier news, there’s a story floating that Mossad — possibly with American support — finally killed Imad Mughniyeh, one of the most dangerous men on Earth. He does (did?) operations for Hezbollah. With most people, you don’t have to worry that they might fake their own deaths, but with Mughniyeh it’s not impossible. Hopefully this rumour is true.
An early Valentine’s day present to the world. Thanks, Israel! Kosher pizza for everyone.
victory and loss 6 February 2008Posted by DSM in daily life.
On the one hand, the Giants defeated the Patriots in a glorious game in which God restored balance to the football universe.
On the other hand, several hundred gigabytes of my work over the past year and a half was lost when the raid array on which the data was stored died on Monday. A loss which was entirely avoidable granted even minimal competence on the part of those responsible for maintaining the server.
So I’m not sure how to feel, exactly.
Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.
Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
for the next Voyager 3 February 2008Posted by DSM in music.
In a beautiful piece celebrating the tricentennial of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, WFB once wrote that “[i]f a human being exists who is unmoved by the B-minor Mass, it should not surprise that human beings exist who are unmoved by democracy, or freedom, or peace.”
This doesn’t quite rise to that level. But I genuinely believe that if you don’t find the opening sequence to Moyashimon one of the most charming things you’ve ever seen then something is profoundly wrong with you.
When I first heard the theme — Curriculum, by Ifu Sarasa — I had it on repeat for far, far too long. It’s just too cute and fits university life perfectly.
[P.S.: Think microbiology.]