Wednesday, November 16, 2011

German anecdotes - and a marriage due to penmanship

A friend on a Fulbright Fellowship in France asked me if I had heard about the Malmedy Massacre.  Yes, I had, I said - I had described (with a map) a little bit here:

As the Battle of the Bulge unfolded quickly in late December 1944 in the Ardennes Forest region of Belgium, the German Army captured quite a number of American soldiers, including my Uncle James. Eighty-four surrendered American soldiers were murdered nearby at Malmedy, somehow missing Uncle James.  The massacre was perpetrated by Lt. Col. Joachim Pieper's infamous Waffen SS troops, the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. Including Malmedy, Kampfegruppe Pieper murdered more than 500 POWs and civilians at more than ten different locations in Belgium. Pieper was sentenced to death for this in 1946, but the sentence was commuted. After he got out of prison in 1956, he emigrated to Italy to work as a manager in a Porsche factory, but was forced to leave amid accusations of atrocities that his Kampfgruppe Pieper had committed in Italy. In 1976 Pieper was shot during a fire-fight at his home in France, and his house set afire by unknown assailants.

You can find Malmedy on the map vis-a-vis the Battle of the Bulge frontlines at the web-page I built for my Uncle (link above).  It appears possible that the officers and noncoms who abandoned him and his platoon of privates - basically as a sacrificial rear-guard – may have been killed at Malmedy and paid for their sins, but I have no way of knowing for sure.

Follow the link above and you can scroll down to see the maps. Uncle James’ 1944 Christmas dinner - his first meal in 6 days after being captured - was a 50-gallon bucket of sauerkraut and pork fat shared with about 500 American POWs. This was the same kind of food he had grown up with – and that I grew up with, as we were both raised by the same great lady, Anna Josephine Schneider Wynn, his mother and my grandmother. I called Uncle James on Veteran's day and talked with him; he's a remarkably gentle-souled, forgiving, and ethical individual considering what was done to him. He was born in 1926, drafted in January 1944 despite being married.  The criteria then was you were deferred if you had a child already born, but imminently draftable if you were just newly married... this same thing happened to one of Louise's uncles, who sadly didn't survive an incompetent American doctor while on the European front.

During an extended series of interviews, it became clear that my Uncle James' entire experience in the US Army consisted of being treated like crap - worse than a slave. The only difference after he was captured was that he was also starved, and forced to bury gruesome war remains. He went from 180 lbs to 95 lbs in about 6 months - Red Cross rations sent for the prisoners were confiscated by their German jailers and sold on the black market. The photo you will see at the top of the webpage shows him clean-shaven... but he had not shaved in six months.  Neither hair nor fingernails grew during that time, they were starved so completely. After he got back, the Army refused to acknowledge that he had ever even BEEN in the Army until he could provide Red Cross letters and his American and German-POW dog-tags. He was still awarded a Bronze Star 57 years after the fact.


Another German anecdote: I was trying to trace my Grandmother's ancestry; she had been born in Neu-Ulm, Bavaria, in 1885 and emigrated with her family when she was 9 months old to Louisville, KY. I sent a letter to the Neu-Ulm clerk-record-keeper, who sent a letter back saying all records had been destroyed by "war events."

Then out of the blue a letter came to me from a lady I had never heard of, the widow of a great-uncle and brother of my grandmother. This widow was living in a rest-home in Compton, CA, and said in the letter she had heard I had interest in the German part of the family. 

In the letter she enclosed an original birth certificate for this great uncle - already dark brown with acid damage from the poor manufacture of the paper. However, it had a recognizable official stamp on it. At the time there was a German post-doc in our high-pressure physics lab at the University of Illinois. Helmuth Moller got very interested in this goal of mine, but said that there were a number of towns called "Goggingen" in Germany, and asked me to send a Xerox copy of the certificate to him after he returned to Frankfurt. I did, and he got back to me saying the stamp was from Goggingen-Augsburg, and provided an address for the equivalent of city hall. I sent a letter there asking for information, and didn't get anything back for 6 months.

Then a package nearly a centimeter thick arrived, with birth, marriage, and death certificates extending my family lines all the way back to a Donat Stegmann in the 1790's. It turns out that the recipient of the letter had spent hours researching, tracked one line to Hiltenfingen, and forwarded my letter there. The package I received included results from both sides of my Grandmother's genealogical line. I was absolutely amazed.  


My German language skills are rudimentary – they consist of one summer-school session while in physics grad school at the University of Illinois. My grandmother (who raised me after my Dad abandoned my Mom) never taught either my Dad nor me any German, though that was all she spoke until she was 7 years old and entered elementary school in Louisville. Her maiden name was Schneider (Tailor). My grandfather, George A. Wynn, Sr., worked in a railroad shipping office in Somerset, on the opposite side of Kentucky. He saw her handwriting on a number of packages and was enthralled by it. He traveled all the way up to Louisville to meet the 17-yr-old lady who wrote like that. He courted her and they were married.

True stories.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Not even close: 6 vs. 1,657,100,000,000

Genesis 1 lays out in a poetic manner a six-day sequence for the creation of the Earth. It's very simple, something I imagine an unschooled shepherd could easily deal with. 

19th Century geologists in Europe (especially England - the British Geologists Association formed in 1858) had watched as sediments accumulated in basins and puddles. They realized that they could rather easily calculate the rate of sediment accumulation. They also had seen and mapped huge stacks of similar, consolidated sediments in many places - and had even begun to correlate some distinctive bedding sequences in one place with bedding sequences a long ways away. This permitted British geologists, blessed with pretty much the fullrange of geologic ages on one small island, to figure out which layer sat on top of another layer, which must be older, and that units below these were older still.  By the turn of the 20th Century, even conservative geologists looking at their numbers had concluded that the Earth had to be many millions of years old. 

Geologists could also see another kind of time-line: progressively more sophisticated fossils, remains of ancient life forms not currently found walking or swimming the Earth, as the sediments got younger - more towards the "top" or modern day of the stratigraphic stack. A curator at the BYU Geology Museum once walked me through a series of dinosaur vertebrae, showing me how with time the vertebrae became lighter but at the same time structurally stronger. This meant they could run faster. Evolution.

Then Pierre and MarieCurieBecquerel, and others discovered radioactive decay. They could measure a decay rate for a given amount of a particular element, and they could see the daughter products forming as a result of that decay. It's an easy step to measure the ratio of radioisotope to its daughter products (uranium-lead, for example, and of course there are intermediate steps) and so you should be able to figure how long that particular crystal (a zircon, for example, containing uranium and lead) has been sitting there since it solidified out of a magma somewhere.  

WhoaGeochronologists started coming up with HUGE numbers. As more and more rock units were sampled and dated, the push-back for an oldest rock - homing in on an origin of the Earth - passed into the hundreds of millions of years, and then billions of years. 

Radiometric dating currently suggests that the age of the Earth is 4.54 +/- 0.01 years. 

Times 365 days per year, this is 1,657,100,000,000 days, at least, that this rock has been orbiting what is now our Sun.  This number is not really comprehensible to people who count on their fingers. "...7, 8, 9, 10!" Can you count higher than that? "Sure, (raises both hands overhead) "1, 2, 3, 4...".

However, as you consider the actual processes involved, as we understand them from geology and astronomy, it certainly can't be this precise. There was a protoplanetary disk, gravitational clustering, segregation, a crust formed, modified repeatedly by continued heavy early bombardment, and then later in the game there was an impact of another protoplanet that led to the formation of the Moon. So it's unrealistic to place such a precise three-decimal-point age as a "start" - better to point at the oldest piece of unmelted material ever found. The current record-holder comes from the Jack Hills of Western Australia, at 4.4 By.  If you compare the mass and luminosity of the Sun to other stars, and age-date meteorites, it is apparent that the Solar System can't be much older than that

Certainly there are complications with radiometric dating; the Carbon-14 creation rate in the atmosphere varies over time depending on cosmic ray flux, for instance. You can calibrate for this using tree-rings, however. Radiometric dating also must necessarily make some assumptions, among them that the decaying radioisotope and its daughter products remain together for the entire time that the age is calculated for (no remelting), and also that the decay rate today is the same now as it was when the original material solidified out of a melt. It's more complicated than that, even, but at this point we're only quibbling about small plus-and-minus stuff.

Science writing being as persistent as it is, rather few people take the Six Days of Genesis as literal truth these days. Genesis IS, after all, a translation of a translation, and the original writer had rather little experience with orbital mechanics, conservation of angular momentum, and the weak nuclear force. This is to say, he had a limited vocabulary to work with. 
In this context, I found some interesting things in the writings of Latter-Day Saint apostles who were also scholars: 

John A. Widtsoe wrote about the "vast periods of time" required for each class of animal to rise, dominate the Earth, and then become extinct. (Joseph Smith as Scientist, manual distributed by the General Board of the YMMIA, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1908).

Here's something even more specific, unlike anything I've seen in any other church doxology: "What is a day? It is a specified time period; it is an age, an eon, a division of eternity; it is the time between two identifiable events. And each day, of whatever length, has the duration needed for its purposes." --Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Church Apostle, during General Conference, 1982. 

I also was pointed at an interesting quote from the (atheist) astronomer Carl Sagan:

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater  than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, No, No! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." - Carl Sagan, "Pale Blue Dot:A Vision of the Human Future in Space" (1994).
I think that religion has emerged, actually. 

But let's put this all in perspective. Can you count to a million? Neither can I, so the difference between a million years and a billion years seems somewhat irrelevant - unless you are a geochronologist. I once poured over $250,000 into instrumentation for a rock-dating laboratory - because it was important to know how long ago a volcanic eruption had taken place, in order to get a sense of how dangerous that particular volcano was. That can be important, right? Especially if you live in, say Seattle, or Tokyo... or anywhere in the Mediterranean or Pacific Rim.

But consider this: allow for a minute the possibility that there is life after life. I have agnostic friends, even atheist friends, who go back and forth on this one. I myself have a number of strong experiential reasons for no longer questioning this. If you are an atheist, then the Age of the Earth doesn't matter. If you are faith-based, then... it doesn't really matter either. It's sort of like Pascal's Wager

When we die and make that transition, cross the Veil, I think there may be some questions asked of us. Like: Where is your family? What did you do to help others? 

Somehow I don't think that Someone is going to ask me "While you were in your mortal state, what was your opinion about the age of the Earth?"


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Brother Remy

The previous post reminded me of another incident, this time from the 8th Grade at Garces Junior High in Bakersfield, California. I it with Louise, and she said it had to go here.

I must first share with you the fact that the Garces school colors were... green. Just green. Our boys uniforms were salt-and-pepper corduroy pants and white shirts, but the girls had green plaid skirts and wore green sweaters over white blouses. As part of this exercise in mindless loyalty, we were all issued little ink pots that fit into a well at the top of our desks. The teacher would fill these periodically from a big bottle of green ink, and all of us were expected to bring pull-the-lever-and-squeeze-to-fill fountain pens. All homework had to be done in green ink or it was down-graded: an A became a B, a B became a C, etc. As you might expect, there was green ink on our fingers, and sometimes our white uniform shirts, all the time.

Our teacher that year was a tall, thin, austere man named Brother Remy. He never smiled.

"You mean Remigious, don't you?" I asked brightly and cleverly when he first introduced himself.

He turned slowly toward me.

"It's Brother Remy to you," he replied slowly, with a dark look on his face. No other explanation was forthcoming, and his countenance made clear that a follow-up question would be asking for trouble. Not very bright, not even remotely clever.

One day several of us asked if we could skip the stupid run-around-kill-the-man-with-the-ball lunchtime activity, and just stay in the classroom to study? He looked at us suspiciously, but agreed. He turned out the lights so we only had sunlight through the windows, and locked the classroom door behind him as he departed at noon for the monks' residence.

Of course there was rather little studying going on after he left. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. We froze, but it was only George. George had failed several years of classes by this point in time, so he was quite a bit older than any of us, and in fact had a noticeable 5 o'clock shadow rather early in the day. What George was missing in gray matter he made up for with enormous physical strength and ferocity. If you made him mad, George would get even. It might take awhile, since most of us could outrun him despite his tendency to bolt suddenly, but he would eventually catch one of  us. He would then crush your hand with his incredible grip, or pound you in the side of the head til your ears rang.

"Let me in!" said George.

"Not anytime soon," said Neville, one of the other guys in the room with me, and flipped him a bird.

"I'll GET you!" snarled George.

"Not anytime soon," repeated Neville with a sneer.

Now I've already hinted that George wasn't the brightest bulb in the room - he was from the "other" of the two classes that had been divided by IQ testing the previous year. He glared at us for a long time through the window filling the upper half of the classroom door. Then he looked to his right, looked back and past Neville, then allowed an evil grin to slowly form on his face - and bolted to the right.

Neville was on the other side of the room in a flash. It had slant-open windows, and one was open. Suddenly George's triumphant face appeared through that window.

"Ah-HAH!" George exulted.

"Ah-HAH," said Neville, and with a "spoosh" he emptied one of the green ink-pots on George's upturned face. As George jerked back, Neville slammed the window shut - right into George's nose. George glared murderously, flexing claw-like fingers like a cartoon character, then bolted away.

At that moment, we heard the door lock click, and in walked Brother Remy. By the time he entered and could clearly see us in the gloom, we were all buried in our books. He peered at us for a long moment with an inscrutable look, but didn't say anything. After a moment he turned, and opened the door and...

"Ah-HAH!" shouted George, complete with hands raised to claws, a green-splotched face, and a maniacal grin as he leaped into the doorway.

As Brother Remy stared at this apparition, it finally registered on George that this wasn't Neville.

"Oh $#!*!" said George, a look of horror coming over his face, and he bolted out of sight to the right.

Brother Remy just stood there, staring straight ahead for a long moment.

Then he slowly turned and looked at us. Our heads were buried in our books, as if nothing had happened.

He said not a word, but I swear that I saw a twitch of a suppressed smile on his face as he turned and left, locking the door behind him before he strode away.

I think I actually fell out of my chair onto the floor at that point, I was laughing so hard.

It took awhile, but George eventually laid hands on Neville and pounded him something fierce. The rest of us - maybe Neville too - thought it was worth it.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Christian Brothers

All right, you asked for it. Here are two stories from my time at Garces Junior High School.

After I "graduated" from St Josephs elementary school, the next two years were spent at Garces, in north Bakersfield. At this time the girls were rigidly separated from the boys; though on the same property, the nuns and the girls they taught were rarely visible to us, almost like they didn't exist. The boys used the huge, expansive lawns to play Kill the Man with the Ball before school and during recess and lunch. I have no idea where this game came from - it was something like home-grown Rugby, where the objective was to pile on the guy who had picked up and started running with the ball, and there were no goals or teams or objectives beyond that. In addition, the boys had exclusive access to the football and baseball fields.

At induction into Garces, we were given what I later learned was an IQ test, and separated and seated according to the results. I ended up in the class of about 40 boys taught by Brother Gerald. He was one of about 8 members of a Catholic monk order called the Christian Brothers. The same people who make the wine also taught Junior High. They had no interest in the priesthood, or perhaps didn't qualify for some reason - they would never answer our questions about this directly. They wore cassocks - long shirts reaching to the ankles - like a priest, but did not have the white-notched Roman Collar.

Sometime in that first year, Brother Gerald came into the classroom one morning lugging a huge TV. He set it on his desk, fiddled with the rabbit-ears antenna, and we spent most of the next week watching the Baseball World Series. I still recall that it was the Dodgers vs. the Braves. Why he did this was transparent: he avidly followed each game, and displayed the most emotion (which is to say very little) that we ever saw in him. I have no idea where permission to just ditch a week's worth of Latin, grammar, and math classes came from, but we certainly didn't complain. This was the first time in my life that I ever recall seeing a sport actually played - there was only a rudimentary PE class intermittently taught at St Josephs elementary by the Mexican bus driver, Jesse, when he didn't have other day-work.

Brother Gerald was a large man - probably over 225 lbs( 110 kg) at that time. He towered over us, and the total lack of emotion that he evinced made us all a bit nervous in his presence. I suppose each teacher has different ways of commanding attention and respect.

One day Brother Gerald was lecturing about how to decline Latin verbs. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. I love, you (singular) love, he loves, we love, you (plural) love, they love. I recall my friend Marcus Espitia lifted the lid of his modular desk as if to reach for a book, but really to hide what he was doing. He was shooting spit-wads at the guy in the desk to his left. Marcus was near the bottom of the academic ranking for that 6-week period, so his desk was about mid-way down the row on the extreme right side of the classroom. Brother Gerald was pacing back and forth in the front of the room, lecturing in his emotionless, sonorous voice. Unseen by Espitia, he moved from his back-and-forth pacing down the aisle between the two boys.

Suddenly, his heavy hand came down on the wooden lid of Espitia's desk-top, catching his head like a clam snapping its shell shut. I remember Espitia's hands and legs flailing all over the place while his head and neck were trapped under Brother Gerald's full weight. He held the lid hard down on Espitia's head for a full 20 seconds.

Still lecturing without any interruption, Brother Gerald then lifted the lid with his left hand and with his right hand gave Espitia's just-released head a ferocious upper-cut, open-handed slap. The force was such that it lifted Espitia physically out of his chair and threw his entire body against the far right wall. I remember it seemed like he hung there for a moment, before he slid down to the floor.

STILL without breaking the train of his lecture, Brother Gerald began pulling books from Espitia's desk and throwing them at his head as hard as he could. We could hear him grunt from the effort as he continued the lecture. It was terrifying and surreal. After being hit in the face and head several times with hard-edged books, Espitia bolted for the door, fortuitously at the right front of the room. Flying books followed him the entire way, not one ever missing. Baseball player, I thought. We must have each had at least 10 books in our desks, and Espitia caught every one with his head or back.

Having with this effort turned himself towards the front of the classroom as his right arm followed Espitia to the door, Brother Gerald paced slowly back to the front and continued his back-and-forth pacing. There was no expression of emotion, nor any break in the lecture on Latin during this entire episode. We all sat frozen in place, eyes fixed on Brother Gerald.

When the lunch bell rang, Brother Gerald retreated, as was his custom, to the Christian Brothers residential building on the west side of the Garces campus. Espitia found us out on the lawn and asked if it was OK to go back into class after lunch? None of us had any idea. We each thought to ourselves: There but for the Grace of God go I. Each of us was just glad we weren't the poor sucker who had been nailed.

When lunch was over Espitia nervously filed in with the rest of us and took his seat. People in the row in front of him shoved and slid his books down the far aisle floor to him, and he picked them up and put them back in his desk. Brother Gerald began the afternoon lessons as if nothing had happened, starting us on doing English grammar diagrams using sentences: where is the predicate? Where is the nominative? Where do they go in this diagram? Where do you place the adjective, and where do you place the adverb?  He treated Espitia with the aloof, distant and calm disdain that he afforded all of us.

However, he had our full and undivided attention.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Sisters of Mercy

This is a true story from the 5th grade at St. Josephs elementary school in Bakersfield, California, many long years ago:

The nuns who taught us were the Order of the Sisters of Mercy. Each had a binary hermaphroditic name like Sister Mary Sylvester, Sister Mary Nicholas, Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Mary Anthony. Don't ask me why.

There was one student in my class named Steve Kelvey. He was bigger than most, and a real bully to a much smaller friend of mine named John Killeen. One day I arrived at school on my bike and showed Killeen some monster thorns in my bar-bags, from a date-palm tree I had passed on the way home the previous evening. These were easily two hand-spans long. They were green, but the last several centimeters were black and evil-looking.

"Can I borrow one?" asked Killeen.

Sure. What for?

"Watch!" said Killeen with an insane-looking smile. So I followed him across the school yard, where girls were talking, and boys were swinging from the monkey-bars or shooting marbles in the dirt, as we waited for the nuns to open the building so we could all file in. No, they definitely didn't trust us to go in on our own and behave until they finished their morning ablutions, or whatever it was that they did before school began.

Kelvey was leaning on the chain-link fence, talking to Elena Bonaventura, the sweet, chubby daughter of the wealthiest family in the parish. A chauffeur had just driven her to the school, and she was stepping out onto the sidewalk as Kelvey made smiley-face at her.

Killeen quite literally pranced up to him from behind, and with a deranged smile rammed the date-palm thorn several inches into Kelvey's glute.

With a loud bellow and several very bad words, Kelvey went up and forward, and hung himself on the chain-link fence. When he could free himself, and had yanked the thorn out, he set off after Killeen.

I remember being stunned at the courage - or insanity - that this act required.

Perhaps this was actually thought out ahead of time, but I doubt it: Kelvey would normally be able to outrun the shorter Killeen and beat him to a pulp - he had often done this for far less reason - but because of the deep puncture I suppose he couldn't catch Killeen after two complete circles of the city block that the red-brick, two-story school building sat on. Around and around they went, and I noticed that Killeen was cackling in a weird way, the whole way. Kelvey said nothing, but pursued him furiously.

The bell went off and Killeen darted into the school with marvelous timing, hoping, I suppose, that Kelvey couldn't do anything under the eye of the murderous nuns.

(ASIDE: Oh yes, we truly feared them. I have personally been slapped and beaten with a ruler more times than I could count - and the nuns were all so much bigger than we were. They could and did frequently knock us down. The habits that the Sisters of Mercy wore included all-black robes, with a white wimple and a black veil over that. Around their waists were (a) a 5-cm-wide black leather belt that ran through a large black metal ring and down to the ankles, and (b) a black rosary with huge beads that ran around the waist and all the way down to a black metal cross, also at ankle-level. We have all been whipped with one or both. The nuns who taught my cousins in LA were from a different order called the "Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary". They would sign letters to parents with "Sister so-and-so, B.V.M." My cousins assured me that this really stood for "Black Veiled Monsters").

Despite this huge danger, Kelvey kept trying to work his way around the 5th grade classroom to get at Killeen, as Sister Mary Nicholas flowed into the room. "Flowed" is really the most accurate word I could use to describe her dramatic entries. Sister Mary Nicholas was a prim Boston lady of Irish descent, the school Principal, and she had a strong sense of dignity, and I now realize, command theatrics. She swept into the room with eyes alert, books in one hand and a ruler in another. Believe me, I never once saw a nun use a ruler to measure the length of anything.

"What is going on here?" demanded Sister Mary Nicholas.

Never being shy to open my mouth, I yelled "Killeen stabbed Kelvey in the butt with a huge thorn!"

Taken aback momentarily, Sister Mary Nicholas (to this day I must reflexively say the entire name. I can never abbreviate it. This has been beaten into me down to the genetic level.) paused, and somehow forgot that HUGELY BAD WORD I HAD USED.

"Steven, is this true?" she asked Kelvey.

"He stabbed me in the butt and I'm gonna kill him!" snarled Kelvey.

The second use of that HUGELY BAD WORD definitely got Sister Mary Nicholas' attention this time.

"Steven! Come into my office right this minute! This wound must be treated with merthiolate immediately!"

Momentarily forgetting where he was, Kelvey yelled "No damn nun is gonna doctor up MY ass!"

I had never heard that word used in the remote vicinity of a nun before. Holy Mother of God, I thought (as the nuns frequently would say).

To put things in perspective, Sister Mary Nicholas's Principals Office was a dreaded place for all of us. It was close nearby, it was small, and it was where vicious corporal punishment was always administered - at least to boys. And small was especially bad: you couldn't dodge the blows because you would be immediately cornered, and then really beaten for not standing up and taking it.

Sister Mary Nicholas shrieked at that point, a truly terrifying sound, and that brought the rest of the hornets. I have to say, this shrieking noise was always truly terrifying to us students - it seemed to say that the jailers had gone off the edge, gone berserk. It was certainly more effective than the loud school bell for drawing all the rest of the nuns on the ground floor. In nothing flat, Kelvey was muscled by four huge women into the Principal's Office.

In the classroom, we all sat frozen, enthralled and terrified at the same time, as the yelling and shrieking continued from the other room. Then: silence. Long moments of silence. Our silly grins quickly disappeared as Sister Mary Nicholas, eyes flashing, flowed back into the classroom, followed by a sullen and red-faced Kelvey, still buckling his belt. He was followed by two other nuns (one of them, Sister Mary Anthony, always wore dark aviator glasses so you couldn't see where she was looking. She was especially intimidating). The other two nuns followed Kelvey to his desk, and stood on both sides of him for several minutes as Sister Mary Nicholas glared at him, then glared around the room at no one in particular, then glared at Kelvey again. It seemed like this tableau continued for a long time, but it was probably only 15 seconds.

Killeen and I both slowly started to un-hunch our shoulders as it became apparent that our individual offenses had been forgotten in the (literally unspeakable) event.

I have no idea what transpired in class the rest of that school day, but I do remember that Killeen asked if he could stay in the classroom during lunch time, and with a long and pregnant glare first, Sister Mary Nicholas granted that request with a curt nod.

Killeen was a hero in St. Josephs from that day forth. He had stood up to the bully, and very strategically had won. I always admire people who finally screw up their courage and confront a bully.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Noan gwine uherstah

Louise and I were in Gammarth, Tripoli, after escaping Saudi Arabia after a harrowing (but utterly fascinating) four-year-long residence in Jeddah. The reason? Something there was destroying Louise's health, but the excuse was that I had been ordered to stop practicing my religion. The long version of that story is here.

We spent a week on the southern shore of the Mediterranean... which was beautiful to look upon, but when we swam briefly in it we realized was quite polluted. There are very few seafood restaurants lining this sea, and if you want fish in a regular restaurant, you must request it days ahead.

We took long walks along the beach, and at one point saw four men throwing a football around. An American football? In Gammarth? One of them homed in on my belt buckle, something normally worn by US Marines as part of their non-dress uniform. We learned that they were Marine guards at the Tunisian US Embassy in nearby Tripoli - and they invited us to a party in their compound the next day. We took them up on it, and they made us feel very welcome, indeed: Americans tend to bond while living in foreign countries.  They even taught us what Armchair Quarterbacking is: you sit in a ratty, old, over-stuffed, discarded arm-chair in the backyard of their compound, and throw a football through a tire-on-a-rope swinging (and spinning) from a tree. Like the ancient Olympics, the winner earned only the respect of his peers.

The day after that we took a tour of ancient Carthage. We were shown the ancient city with multi-story houses that seemed like modern condos... and where running water and a managed sewer system predated anything like this anywhere else in the world. We were also shown a sewer where archaeologists had excavated several hundred infant skeletons... human sacrifices. This was one of several reasons why the Romans detested the Carthaginians, and eventually destroyed the greatest ocean-commerce civilization in the Mediterranean Sea during the Punic Wars about 2,250 years ago...

Louise and I were in a minivan with several other tourist couples. At one point we started talking privately (we thought) about our various kids scattered all over several continents. I noticed that the couple behind and to our right had stopped talking and were listening. We switched from English to Spanish, and then noticed that a couple in front of us stopped talking and tilted their heads in listening mode. Um. We tried French, and noticed that yet another couple stopped talking... then we even tried our rudimentary Arabic. I noticed that the driver looked up at us in the rear-view mirror. I was amazed.

I sat for a moment, then recalled a friend from the hills of western North Carolina, and how hard it had been for me to understand him years earlier.

"Mon. We gonna try wesrn nor C'lina, K? Noan gwine uherstah' a thang we'un palaverin'. Foo on theysefs, silly snoops."

The effect was satisfying, as people all around the minivan looked quizically at each other. In several languages I heard the muttered equivalent of "What the heck are they speaking, anyway?"

If you were born and raised in the United States, and especially if you ever knew someone from Appalachia, I won't need to explain what that sentence - of course spoken very fast - really means.

A week or so later when we landed at Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. I knelt down on the asphalt and kissed the good ol' U-S of A, whar ah come from.

I love being an American.


Monday, November 7, 2011

A Farewell to Arms

A book recently published by Steven Pinker, called The Better Angels of Our Nature, makes an interesting claim:

Violence has declined through history and still is dropping today.

Wait a minute. What about the First World War? The Second World War? The deaths of 20,000,000 people during Stalin's purges in the 1930's in between? The Crack epidemic of the 1980's? Two million people in American jails? What about 9/11? The Iraq and Afghanistan and Libyan Wars?

In fact, this is how proximity weight-loads the history that WE remember. It is dramatically amplified by the rise of the 24-hour news cycle since the advent of CNN. This is called a "bias towards recency." A careful statistical and historical analysis makes a compelling case that in fact violence has declined throughout history.

Put another way: the actual likelihood of being assaulted or killed has been falling for centuries.

How could this possibly be?  

Pinker's book moves through the historical record first (Hey! Ever hear of the Hundred Years War? This represents a century of continual European warfare, famine, and death). It then addresses the intellectual revolutions of the last several centuries, and even delves into modern studies on the human mind and human behavior. Pinker's lasting achievement is that his intellectual quest really knew no bounds: he covers the gamut from psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, history, and social science.

He didn't operate in a vacuum, however. Pinker homes in on, and give full credit to, a particular inspiration. He calls Norbert Elias, a German-born scholar who wrote during Hitler's 1930's, "the most important thinker you have never heard of."

Elias proposed that the growth of the nation-state all over the world in the past several millennia has had profound effects (described in Thomas Hobbes, 1651 book Leviathan) on stabilizing human behavior. It created physical boundaries, it established bahavioral norms with consequences. The consequences were profound, too: outlaw behavior drew out the posse - stirred up the hornet's nest - and sociopaths were removed from the gene pool. In the United States, we incarcerate more than 2,000,000 people, mostly men, but in past centuries there weren't resources to hold people in jail. Beheading, hanging, and feathering with arrows accomplished the same goal much less expensively. With time, violent tendencies have been steadily filtered out of the human race, and all of this stemmed from the establishment of nation-states.

The other thing that Elias and Pinker noted was the rise of commerce. Mutual gains from trade created a common purpose, and raised most of humanity above the tribal state. The xenophobia common throughout the world earlier became progressively more untenable - xenophobia interfered with the common gain, and has been increasingly less tolerated by the majority of humanity.

There has also been a "rights revolution" in the past century: women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, animal rights... with the accompanying increase in sensitivity that goes with these. There is also a somewhat more controversial idea: that there has been a rise in human reasoning ability. However, it's hard to separate this from evolving culture. Pinker also tends to dismiss income inequality. However, numerous studies have shown that income inequality correlates closely with homicide rates in country after country, and areas within countries. If you wish to see low rates of violence (the anomalous Breivik massacre last summer notwithstanding) go to Norway. Norway has an income disparity range far smaller than the United States or even many other countries in Europe - and is one of the most peaceful nations on the planet.

Something neither Elias nor Pinker noted was an additional factor that I have noticed: the establishment of sports as a normative social activity. Sports in aggregate constitute a legally-sanctioned opportunity to compete with others without loss of life or limb (Rugby or Hockey or Lacrosse notwithstanding). Sports are a way to release pent-up energy and frustration; they are also a means for organizing small armies and using strategies to win... and gain fame and riches at the same time.

I may have come up with this sports issue on my own because it seems an odd part of our culture. I (and several of my children) have never been able to see any point to golf, baseball, or football. The potential aerobic benefits of basketball and soccer seem counterbalanced by the risk (some say inevitability) of knee and spinal injury. In fairness, people look at me as someone in his '60's practicing Jujitsu and think I'm crazy. In my defense, it makes me more flexible/younger, and gives me a means to perform community service outside the range of Church opportunities.

The bottom line: the Angels in our natures seem to be winning the battle for the soul of humanity.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's the DATA, Stupid! - The Fourth Paradigm

This is a shorthand way of describing the life-work of a visionary Microsoft research scientist named Jim Gray. A few weeks after he gave a talk on the subject in 2007, he was lost at sea off the coast of California.

Gray was proposing the Fourth Paradigm: a quasi-new scientific approach that says insight can be gathered from manipulating large amounts of data. Manipulating, sorting, and graphically expressing relationships in very large data sets: new stuff pops out. You can apply statistics to very large data sets and have far greater confidence in the results.

The First Paradigm is sometimes called empirical science - observational or descriptive science. This is the science carried out by interested folk like you and me over the past several thousand years. That, for instance, is Drosophila Melanogaster... what you've been calling the Fruit Fly. You named it, classified it as a fly of the fruit-eating variety.

The Second Paradigm is analytic science: analysis of scientific observations that leads to an understanding of electricity and magnetism, for example. By careful experiment and observation, Michael Faraday was able to connect electricity with magnetism. From this work, James Clerk Maxwell developed... yep, the famous Maxwell's Equations. I'm not making this up: Maxwell built on the scientific experiments and papers of Faraday to develop a working theory of electromagnetism, complete with an elegant mathematical formalism that haunts undergrad physics students to this day.  Actually, these guys are heroes to physicists as much as Fermi, Bohr, and Einstein are.

An Example: In 1994 I was working in northern Saudi Arabia on a phosphate project.  A monster sandstorm beginning in the Sahara far to the west engulfed us, and for a day it was very hard to work. For the next several days the dust haze hung in the air and I realized that each afternoon I could look directly at the Sun without a filter - with my naked eyes and without injury. I noticed a huge Sunspot cluster in the upper left quadrant, and was so impressed that I could actually see this without instrumentation that I sketched it into my field notebook. The next day I could see it again... and it had migrated downward and right. By the fourth day I had a complete sketch of the movement of this Sunspot cluster.  That is an example of First Paradigm science: observation. FROM those observations, I could deduce (a) that the Sun rotated, (b) where the axis of that rotation was (upper right of the observed disk), and (c) how FAST it rotated (I figured roughly 10 days would bring that cluster if it still existed to the same initial point). That part is the Second Paradigm: I analyzed the data and drew some conclusions from them. (PS: Data are always plural - there is always more than one number).

The Third Paradigm is sometimes called computational science; sometimes it's called simulation science. Think ever larger computers, calculating results from ever finer grids of models of the galaxy, models of a complex earth being deformed by stress leading to an earthquake, giant models used to predict weather.  More or less.

An Example of this is my use of a powerful software package called Geosoft Oasis Montaj: this software allows me to bring in vast amounts of data from any source and process the entire mess. It's generally known among geophysicists that you can only "see" about 15% of the content of magnetic data by hand-contouring many measurements on paper. If I pass frequency filters through the data, I can separate the deep sources from the shallow sources. If I pass derivative filters through it I can find the edges of those sources of magnetic anomalies. If I then do two-dimensional (or higher dimensional) modeling, I can obtain a probable shape of the source(s) of the anomaly(s). Say, an electric pig in a magnetic bathtub. This is computational or simulation science.

The Fourth Paradigm is a step beyond this. Grey's point was that hey!*  We are collecting vast amounts of data - more data in seconds now than in all previous history before 1950. There MUST be some relationships, connections, new things in all that mess. If we don't DO something with all these numbers, then what is the point in COLLECTING them?

Data mining is an obvious outcome of this sort of work. Clever digital types can use many different sources of data, search for links - relationships or connections - and from all this can pretty much tell some company what you are going to buy this Christmas, where, and how much money you will spend. That is valuable to a company - it allows the company to save money on inventory and helps them set up displays that will get even MORE money out of you. That's a good thing, right? Maybe.

It's already well-established that corporate recruiters need little training in data mining to find out how you party, what you really do, who your friends are, and how honest you are... no matter what your resume may say. A good thing for the HR people, a bad thing for the careless and dishonest job-hunter.

This same data mining can have unequivocally terrible consequences: people supporting the revolutions in Iran and Syria using Twitter, Facebook, and Anonymizer have died because regime agents have connected different sources of data and figured out who was trashing their regimes... and people have been found, arrested, and have died as a consequence of this kind of data mining.

For better or worse, we have all reached - and fallen into - the ocean of data lying at the end of our continent of former human interaction. Our lives will never be the same again. The Internet is self-healing and in effect self-replicating.

Big Brother is Skynet, and it has found us. 
You may run, but you cannot hide.


* No pun intended, but a book has been published online by T.S. Hey and others (2009) that assembles all the ideas Jim Gray was promoting.