log (2003/05/23 to 2003/05/29)

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Around the campfire:
Thursday, May 29, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

So does anyone out there know how charities (libraries and so on) set up Wish Lists on Amazon (or elsewhere for that matter) so that people can buy them the stuff they need? Is it just a matter of signing up for a normal Amazon account and giving your name as "Finogaville Public Library" rather than "J. Fred Shirley-Harold"? Or is there something more to it than that?


The world's oldest multiple-page book - in the lost Etruscan language - has gone on display in Bulgaria's National History Museum in Sofia.

Today's assignment: Require Accuracy for Nation's Largest Criminal Justice Database!

On yesterday's biosociological insight, a reader writes:

Hey, *I* sit with my armpits out in meetings, and I'm female. Does that say something profound?

It's a good data point. Not entirely surprising; females have them apocrine sweat glands, too, although I'd guess they secrete somewhat different scents. It'd be interesting to do a study of comparative armpit-waving behavior among males, females, the young, the old, the dominant, the underdog, etc. (Although since that may be the knowledge that got Certain People where they are today, actually doing such a study might just get one a visit from the Men in Black.)

Another reader writes:

Are you a gay sociobiologist?

Pretty cheerful, thanks. I don't take the "sociobiologist" label, though, as that's been pretty well scent-marked by E. O. Wilson and while I think he knows some clever things about ants and stuff, I have deep disagreements with him about humans. At least last time I looked.

An Italian (I think it was) spammer writes in part (after being run through babelfish):

I thought: "In bottom, I would have spold the same figure if this evening you had carried my family to the cinema, or if you had bought 2 tickets of the lotteria, where the vincita percentage of is of 1 on 25 million!!!". After neanche 10 days I began to receive "tons" of letters of persons who demanded me the 5 report that I had previously acquired for $25 dollars: my moglie churches what was happening to me. I opened letters one to and began to count the moneies. I could not believe it: what it said the system was true, I had entered in the vortex of a turn of players incalliti Americans!!! The same week was one of the many special ones on one of the national television news, and spoke about all these new miliardari that had made fortune thanks to Internet (email) and a system the simple but most effective multilevel: and I was one of they!!! After some month, decided that I would have tried of new (since the system he is without aim and he is based also on the fact that nearly every winner re-enters in the turn).

My moglie churches!

I suspect I may have logged this before (but can't be bothered to check!): the Invisible Library of fictional books.

From Sylloge to Hilary Putnam on why we can't really be brains in vats. This is the kind of essay I loved in college, and still do to some extent. That part of the essay boils down to "we can't be brains in vats in the senses that we mean 'brains' and 'vats', since those senses involve this universe, and if the hypothesis is true then it's true only in the next universe out, and those words don't apply there", which is pretty silly; but figuring out that that's what he's saying is good intellectual exercise (and writing down a more rigorous rebuttal than "when you figure out what it's really saying it's pretty silly" would also be good exercise, but would take more time than I have).

Quote o' the Day:

SCO's complaint, in all its brazen mendacity, is the last gasp of proprietary Unix. We in the open-source community (and our allies) are more than competent to carry forward the Unix tradition we founded so many years ago. We pray that all assertions of exclusive corporate ownership over this tradition be given a swift and definitive end.

(Disclaimer: I work for IBM, who SCO is suing in this suit, and therefore have a vested interest in them being wrong. But I think I'd have the same opinion on the subject even if I worked for someone else, or they were suing someone else in the same way.)

And that's all!

Wednesday, May 28, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

So yeah, it was in fact pretty cool that they were sitting around the fire singing "The Christians and the Pagans" at a camp with such deep Christian roots. I'll bet that's not part of the repertoire at your Oral Roberts, your Pat Robertson, your George Bush summer camps. So there's hope even for Christianity, the poor abused thing.

The one bible verse that came up in the hour of sitting for worship was this rather odd one that I hadn't encountered before; Mark 7:24-30:

24: And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid.

25: For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet:

26: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.

27: But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.

28: And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.

29: And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.

30: And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

Paints Jesus as a bit of a jerk (quite a bit of a jerk), calling the poor lady a dog because she wasn't of Israel or something. But we all have our off days. The woman that brought it up at Meeting brought it up to talk about how important it is to learn from people who are different, from people from whom one wouldn't normally expect to be learning.

(There are on the Web various attempts to interpret the passage otherwise; see for instance this very amusing one ("heck, it's not so bad to be a dog under God's table").)

Descending into blatantly partisan politics: see this very sad and/or funny resume for Dubya, and this perfect image of a peeping Ashcroft.

Power play

Ascending again into woolgathering: have you noticed how, at certain meetings and perhaps other gatherings, some people (invariably men, in my memory) sit leaning back in their chairs, with their hands clasped behind their necks and their elbows splayed upward and out?

It occurred to me one day, sitting bored in a meeting, that these men are clearly exposing their armpits to each other, and that it was most likely some kind of competitive signal, probably involving odor. Sure enough, the armpit is where the apocrine glands live, and the apocrine glands produce scents associated with various things, most commonly sexual arousal, but also broader categories of non-verbal communication.

So next time you're in a meeting and see all the snazzily-dressed executive types smiling confidently at each other and leaning back and waving their armpits around, just think of a bunch of primates in a tree somewhere, making a group decision based on who smells the toughest.

Which is probably about how it happens now, come to think of it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

bzz bzz

Some minor notes to yesterday's entry (which you really must read, since it's all about me, and if you weren't fascinated by me you wouldn't be here reading this now would you?):

  • "I know a song that gets on ev'rybody's nerves" is to be sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (and "John Brown's Body").
  • "A is the first letter of anNOYING" is to be sung to no tune in particular, but "NOYING" has to be really loud and discordant. (Also, the little daughter says that it's "in", not "of"; it does sound better that way.)
  • Probably because I signed up for heavy-lifting projects, everyone I was shoveling mud or hauling lumber with over the weekend (including the naked Quakers on the dock) were grownups. The little daughter did weeding, planting, putting up frost-tents, making up first-aid kits, feeding chickens, admiring piglets, and so on, while I was out playing in the mud.
  • When I get bitten by blackflies, I get little round lumps the next day that itch a little, but that I can ignore and not scratch with only a little exercise of willpower. Other people aren't so lucky; one woman on the lumber-hauling team instantly develops round bright-red dots that are apparently distressing, and hang around for some time; ick! ("In Praise of Blackflies")

Still hope to:

Spell "Thursday" correctly.

Good luck with that; it's "Thusrday".

finish installing matlab on this 2x cdrom
catch up.   (fat chance)
find the answer
meet you someday and have a beer. Hands across the internets!
fly to the moon someday
Qux qux qux qux qux = Qux qux qux qux qux
... walk the length of the Appalachian Trail some year.

I'd also like to catch up, and to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail (oh, yes). I'd like to meet you, too, and maybe even have a beer if it (the beer) is very cold. I tend to think I'm pretty boring in person, but I'm willing to take the risk.

Work the ridge lift up to about 8,000 feet and tootle off in search of that little green gem of a grass airstrip, tucked away between the pasture and the brook. And land to look.

That does sound like fun! Whatever it means.

...close the cover before striking. If you ever find a way to close an iBook without suspending it, please blog it in h2 tags. We had decided to use our iBook for music and audio bookishness on a road trip, and it was quite the hassle.

I don't hold out much hope for that one, I'm afraid; I asked in the Apple support forums, and the answer I got was that you officially can't do it. The reason (possibly an urban legend) is that the iBook sheds significant heat through the keyboard while operating, and would overheat if operated while closed. Heh.

An ingenious reader, on the subject of that patent we were wondering about the other day, writes:

I think the key in claim 1 of the linked patent is that it is a claim to an isolated nucleic acid molecule, that is, it's there all by itself; whereas, when the same sequence occurs in nature, it's part of a much larger nucleic acid. (Not that I'm defending a patent system which allows this, only explaining.)

Interesting explanation! The isolated form takes effort and doesn't occur In Nature, so can be patented. Could be.

Your question about meme complexes and how it's possible that a meme complex might exist whose effects were debilitating to the point of danger to those obtaining such complexes provokes an immediate and obvious analogy - which was probably your intent, I guess... That of addictive drugs who, over time, may produce effects in those obtaining them which cause danger to those around them, or to themselves. The primary difference being that one is tangiable and one is not, I guess.

A second thought occurs... Say that those around you are advocating an action that you wouldn't normally consider but would seem to be rationally supported. Having been supported as reasonable, you believe it to be correct. Thus your boundaries of what is acceptable have been pushed very slightly. A tightly knit group of individuals with similar initial beliefs may tend increasingly toward beliefs which were initially extreme by virtue of proximity to those who tend towards that extreme. The boundaries of those individuals acceptance of actions become erroded in little pieces. Whether that's a meme effect or not is something I couldn't answer having not thought too much about it. Such acceptable behaviour errosion can be seen typically in close groups which exclude external input - playground gangs, corporate boards, musical representatives and governments immediately spring to mind... Sorry, something of a random ramble...

Random but good. I wasn't actually thinking about addictive drugs (even those don't turn all their users into rabid axe-murderers, government reports to the contrary notwithstanding, and they don't actively spread from person to person), but it's not a terrible analogy. The question (still) being exactly how our belief in a right to freedom of idea-expression behaves in cases where idea-expression and action in the world overlap. (Those cases existing because in this messy world we're in you can't express an idea without taking an action.)

This just in: today in Nevada v. Hibbs (which I haven't actually read yet), the Supremes found that a person can sue a state for violating a Federal law. This is in contrast to a number of decisions in recent years that found that a person can't sue a state for violating a Federal law. It might be interesting to try to figure out just what was different this time (seems likely the decision itself will talk about this some).

Monday, May 26, 2003  permanent URL for this entry

I know a song that gets on ev'rybody's nerves!
  Ev'rybody's nerves!
  Ev'rybody's nerves!
I know a song that gets on ev'rybody's nerves!
And this is how it goes:
I know a song that gets on ev'rybody's nerves!
  Ev'rybody's nerves!
  Ev'rybody's nerves!

Long-time readers of this log will recall our theory about how the world is run by pretty high-school girls (pretty in the "right there behind their eyes" sort of sense). This space has been silent for the last few days because we were at a training camp (no) school (no) breeding ground (definitely not) place where the future pretty world-runners are formed and molded, or at least where some of them sometimes congregate.

It was great.

The little daughter is probably going there for a few weeks this summer, and she and I went up on Friday for Spring Work Weekend. We got back this afternoon, somewhat grubby and somewhat exhausted, but with whole new vistas open in our minds. Here are a few snapshots, or fragments, or perhaps perspectives on, the weekend. Centered around me, of course, since this is my log, even though the weekend was really about the little daughter. But if she wants her inner thoughts blabbed on the Web, she'll have to do it herself. *8)

What the fuck do you think you're doing?

The little daugther and one of her friends (the one that's been to the camp once before) went up together, in the car driven by the friend's Mom. So here I am, driving up along the eastern edge of New York and the western edge of Vermont, all by myself in the big car (so as to have room for both girls on the way back), watching the lovely wet green coutryside and admirably small towns flowing past (or watching the mist and rain slowly and cautiously rolling past, on that ridgeback where the road rose into the cloud for a mile or two), and listening to the two-CD set of remixes of Madonna's "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" on the car stereo just for surreality's sake.

Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray:
See thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow three more nearly, Lord
Day by day.

I'm glad to have the chance here to establish my spiritual bona fides, despite my tendency (which I have no intention of repudiating here) to blame many of the ills of the world on people's belief in various Imaginary Friends in the Sky (IFITS).

The camp is a Quaker camp, and they do the Quaker things and then some; so I spent an hour at mostly-silent Meeting, and before every meal there was a holding of hands in a circle and a saying of one Grace or another ("Does anyone have a Grace they'd like us to say tonight?"), and when there was singing around the fireplace and at the Sing-Down on Sunday night there were a non-trivial number of IFITS references.

And I didn't mind a bit.

The Quaker IFITS is one that I can heartily subscribe to; entirely (or sufficiently) compatible with my own imaginary friend. The Goddess Ariadne and the God of the Quakers would have no quarrel, and each would gladly accept the other as an avatar or an alias. These Quakers, anyway.

This is the good kind of IFITS, the kind that you can't talk about for awhile, and then in the same breath say "and so because Ralphie here is a heretic, we'll be burning him at the stake next Wednesday".

Unlike some IFITS I could name.

A is the first letter of aNNOYING!
N is the second letter of aNNOYING!
N is the third letter of aNNOYING!

This being a Work Weekend, we worked. On arrival, everyone had to sign up for at least three meal and cleanup related tasks on Saturday or Sunday (I signed up for lots of floor-sweeping and table-moving, as appropriate to my skill-level where atoms are concerned) and one more for final cleanup on Monday (more floor-sweeping).

And then on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the various Crew folks (roughly the people who take care of the camp, as opposed to the Staff folks who are roughly the ones who take care of the campers, unless I have it backwards or entirely wrong) would announce (standing on the raised brick hearth in front of the fireplace in the extremely neat lodge to which I will not nearly do justice in this log entry) the various Projects available that day, and we attendees (a handful of prospective campers, a handful of parents and siblings and friends, a triple handful of Staff and Crew and friends and relations and extended camp family) would sign up for Projects, gather in various places with our work-gloves and bug-spray and heavy boots, and set off across the n-thousand acres on foot or in various interesting and useful vehicles for our places of employment.

(And in the evenings everyone gathered again and had announcements again, and each team announced all the useful things it'd done, and we all clapped and made silly jokes.)

Did I mention it was great?

I been workin' on the rail-road,
All the live-long day...

On Saturday (after getting the little daughter's blithe assurance that I could be gone all day for all she cared) I signed up for dock-deployment and pond-repair with the chief of Maintenance Crew, and we (four Crew and me) spent an idyllic hour paddling some floating docks from one place to another on the lake and fastening them with the right fasteners to the shore, and then climbed into The Egg (a utilitarian and clearly much-loved white van), which our leader expertly piloted up an incredibly bumpy mountain road ("you might want to brace yourself against the ceiling for a minute here") to Flying Cloud camp, where a pond needed repairing (as I explained it to the admiring crowds later: "there was this pipe underground that broke, and we had to dig it up and fix it and bury it again").

The broken pipe was about four feet down in the wettest, heaviest, slipperiest brown clay you can imagine, at the edge of a pond, or the couple of feet of cold brown water that remained of the pond after the pipe broke. The work was exhausting and messy, and that was just the "shovelling mud" part that I did; other folks did things like sliding into the water in a wetsuit to move large rocks around, stomping out into the water in bare feet, shorts, and a t-shirt to get to a particularly stubborn piece of clay ("there's some lovely filth over here!"), and so on.

The person in the pond in the shorts and t-shirt with the mud up to her bare ankles was one of those pretty world-runners that I very much like the idea of the little daughter hanging around for a month.

Here I am later in the day, on the way down the mountain, my boots and pants cuffs crusted with drying clay, in the front of a green pickup truck ("The Pickle"; best to start it in second gear, not first), talking to that woman and to another (the driver), while we wait for someone to show up in the Egg and unlock this gate blocking the road in front of us. They're talking about their various exploits, snorkeling in Hawai'i, rock-climbing in Oregon, third-mating on ships between San Diego and the islands.

These are amazing people. I'm mostly just admiring their faces as they talk.

Step back, Sally,
  make a little alley,
Step back, Sally
  all night long.

Since everyone was exhausted and chilled and dirty and generally worn-out from their projects on Saturday, there was, naturally, a contra-dance in the lodge on Saturday night, so everyone would relax and rest by swinging each other in the air, doing hay-for-fours, turning cartwheels during "Zodiac", and otherwise taking it easy.

That was immense fun, too. Contra-dancing is just like square dancing, only almost entirely different. I could talk about that whole thing for a long time, too, but I think I won't, right now.

Sunday morning (taking as given the meals, the circles, Grace, the moments of silence, the warmly-shared chores) I sat for an hour at Meeting, which was wonderful. Everybody in general was called in for the first fifteen minutes and after that could leave for various Activities, but sitting there mostly silent in the remaining group of warm strangers, in front of the crackling fire, was all the Activity I wanted.

On Sunday afternoon (let's see, shall we continue the ironic tone? Sure, why not) in order to rest up after shovelling heavy clay the day before, I signed up to haul lumber up a steep muddy slope on top of a mountain, while being eaten alive by black flies (blackflies?). We had another bumpy and harrowing trip up a narrow mountain road, hauled lots of lumber, and were eaten alive by lots of black flies for a few hours, and then people started talking about it being "time for a dip in the lake."

Now the lake (Lake Ninevah, Vermont: said to be shallow enough that you have to walk ten minutes to get in over your head) was very pretty and I was very hot (the rain, which was so ubiquitous that I haven't mentioned it much, having let up long enough to let the flies out), but it seemed to me that [a] this being a mountain lake in Vermont in May, the water temperature was probably down somewhere around Instant Death, and [b] no one seemed to have either a swimsuit or a towel. But when a subset of the group headed for the dock at lakeside I followed along.

When they started taking off their clothes, I thought "cool, they're taking off their clothes", and I started taking off my clothes too. When we were all about half-naked someone from the camp said "oh, whoops, I should ask and make sure no one is uncomfortable with nudity or anything", and all of us who were sitting there disrobing laughed.

So there I was standing on a dock on a lake in Vermont, stark naked with five stark naked Quakers (well, one of them was wearing a hat, and I didn't actually check to make sure they were all Quakers, but you get the idea), and it was amazingly wonderful, both because it validated that bit of my own self-image that says I'd be perfectly comfortable in such a situation (since I was) and because of the general sense of warmth and fellow-feeling associated with the other fuzzy pink blobs on the dock there (stark naked means no glasses, too, after all).

(I will freely admit to finding the two female fuzzy pink blobs even lovelier than the three male ones; no sense pretending to be any more abstract than I am.)

But there were still issues. Arguments on the "not getting into the water" side included the prospect of Instant Death; but one fuzzy pink blob had waded out to shoulder depth, and another one had just jumped in with a woop, and both seem to have survived. On the "get into the water quick" side were the blackflies, and the prospect of itchy little bites in unusual places.

If you've never screamed at the top of your lungs after lowering yourself naked into 47°F water in a mountain lake in Vermont, to the appreciative laughter of five naked Quakers, I highly recommend it.

They should bottle the stuff.

I stayed in, treading water, for a few seconds, then climbed out and plopped down on the dock. I jumped back in a minute or two later as the flies began to gather again, and found that I could in fact stand on the bottom (once I found a couple of rocks poking out of the leaf-muck).

And then I stood there in the lake, in the coldest water I've ever been in, talking to my new friends until we decided that we'd been decadent long enough, and got out and (the towel problem having resolved itself through the apparently well-known phrase "we were all wearing towels") and got in the truck and picked up the non-swimmers and bounced back down the mountain.

I doubt I've conveyed how utterly heavenly that was, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Cold, too. Although the forty or fifty degrees of this water didn't actually feel much colder than the sixty or sixty five in the bay in Maine.

And where does magic come from?
I think magic's in the learning.
'Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans
Only pumpkin pies are burning.

Okay, one more sappy story from the weekend. That durn Dar Williams' fault again. You may remember how "Honesty Room" has brought tears to my eyes in the past. Sometime over the weekend this lodge full of happy strangers was sitting around the fireplace singing songs off of big handwritten laminated poster boards (the place has a deep and rich culture of objects and traditions and names that I'm just barely hinting at here), and one of the songs was "The Christians and the Pagans".

Now this is a cute little Dar Williams song, with a nice human touch, an obvious moral, nothing amazing. I've heard it on the CD a dozen times with no ill effects. But that night, hearing that room full of little girls and people who care deeply about little girls singing it, I suddenly had to turn my back on the room and put my arms on the windowsill and put my face in my arms, so that my sobbing wouldn't disrupt the singing.

Bizarre, eh?

There's a system of bells, rung on the big rusty metal disc hanging on the lodge porch, to mark mealtimes and stuff. Three-bell (bong, bong, bong, pause, bong, bong, bong, pause...) sounds thirty minutes before the meal, two-bell (bong, bong, pause...) fifteen minutes before, and one-bell (bong bong bong bong...) when it's time to eat. The little daugther got to sound one-bell for Sunday dinner ("Is there anyone who'd like to ring one-bell who hasn't done it yet?").

The bell is loud. Hanging beside the bell, for the benefit of the bell-ringer, is a pair of red ear-protectors.

The Jensens opened a Root Beer Drive In on North Bennington Road in 1961, next to the popular Dairy Queen. They served root beer at 5 cents and 10 cents in a frosted mug.

Well, if I'm ever going to get to bed tonight I should fast-forward. Sunday night was a Sing-Down, a complicated game that involves thinking of and sometimes singing songs containing a certain word, and laughing and clapping alot, and sometimes scoring points according to rules I never did figure out. Then staying up much too late in the lodge with the last stragglers playing (well, not playing, but playing with) Trivial Pursuit. Monday was a bleary-eyed waking up (three-bell for breakfast is also the alarm clock), hot food, rain, cleaning up the lodge and the cabins (I haven't even told you about the cabins, have I?), lots of good-byes and see-yous, and driving home.

We (the little daughter, her friend, and me) drove for a long time, had lunch at Jensen's Restaurant in Bennington, and then drove and drove and drove and drove (the girls reading and dozing and sometimes talking) until we got to the friend's house to drop her off, and finally home.

The places to excrete at the camp are kybos, little mostly-open outhouses that you keep fresh by dropping a handfull of sawdust down after excreting. (The stories say that the name "kybo" means "keep your bowels open", or that it's the brand of coffee that provided the tins to keep the lime in, back when they used lime instead of sawdust).

After we got home I called out from the bathroom, "hey, where's the sawdust?"


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