Friday Roundup

Contrary to the above title, I will not be deploying a chemical solution to the weeds of the Internet, but rather plucking a few flowers:

First, David Warren talks about the history of health and medical care. He is the son of a mother who spent her career in healthcare, and so has perhaps a different perspective than most. Much of what he says is news to me: that the adoption of anesthetics, which make life easier on the doctor, was all but instantaneous across the Western world once demonstrated in Boston in 1846, but that the effectiveness of sterile surgery in preventing infections and increasing patient survival chances was demonstrated in 1865 in Glasgow – but was not universally adopted until well into the 20th century – soldiers by the thousands were dying of easily preventable infections in WWI, half a century after it had demonstrated that such deaths were easily preventable. If you sedate patients, you can more easily perform surgery and people will more easily submit to it (that anyone submitted to significant surgery without being anesthetized is frankly amazing) – and that’s good for business. But someone with a bullet wound is in no condition to complain about filthy conditions in your operating room. He’ll be in no condition to complain about much of anything soon enough, most likely.

His point is that what history shows is that doctors are all over changes that make their lives easier, and less ready to adopt changes that impose work on them – while simple enough, it is a lot of work to keep things sterile – even when it benefits the patients greatly. I think it’s fair to say Warren isn’t picking on doctors uniquely here, but rather pointing out how things work among us fallen people.

Image result for surgery
Hardworking, dedicated people. But people, nonetheless, subject to the same foibles and temptations as anyone else.

One of his main points is also one of my main points, made occasionally here: you want to improve people’s health? Sanitation and clean water get you most of the benefits. The formula I usually use: Sanitation, clean water, plenty of calories on a regular basis and political stability.  These cover by far the lion’s share of the improvement in life expectancy that the modern world has experienced.

Then, for medicine, it’s the cheap basic stuff that provides almost all of the benefits: antibiotics, vaccines, and a sterile environment for medical care. Now, I am personally very grateful for some of the more fancy stuff – blood pressure meds, various straight-forward surgeries, and – very big one, this – modern dental care (people died from infections around impacted teeth and dental abscesses, or had their health greatly compromised).

I’ve now made it to 60, which means, historically, I’m playing with house money from here on out.  Life expectancy for an American male in 1900 was 49. While there are many cases like me, of people whose comparative longevity and vigor have resulted from some more advanced medical care, the overall increase is due almost entirely to simple, cheap, proven practices.

Lots more good stuff in that essay – you’d do better reading it than hanging out here, that’s for sure.

Next, some Feynman quotations, in honor of his 100th birthday (he didn’t make it to the celebration). These are not my personal favorites, except for these:

2. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

As Feynman said in The Character of Physical Law, many people understand other sophisticated physical theories, including Einstein’s relativity. But quantum mechanics resists an equivalent depth of understanding. Some disagree, proclaiming that they understand quantum mechanics perfectly well. But their understanding disagrees with the supposed understanding of others, equally knowledgeable. Perhaps Feynman’s sentiment might better be expressed by saying that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics, doesn’t.

I find this comforting, somehow, as I certainly don’t understand it. Also, it illustrates something that would fall out from the assumption that the mind – oops, the brain, which is assumed to be the mind and not merely the organ of the mind – resulted from Natural Selection: we would not expect anything in nature that falls outside the realm of things that affect our survival chances to be understandable by a brain designed by exactly those things which affect our survival chances. Quantum mechanics cannot have had any role in our ancestors’ environment of evolutionary adaptation. They did not shape spears or hunt warthogs better based on their understanding of Heisenberg, with those with a better understanding somehow, all other things being equal, killing more warthogs.

The more interesting question: how is it, under Natural Selection, that anybody cares about quantum mechanics at all? Or about any of the other millions of things humans have been interested in, obsessed over, even, that have no effect on our survival chances? I think the claim that, somehow, understanding quantum mechanics, however imperfectly, or art or music or philosophy and so on falls out from evolutionary theory should be accompanied by evidence that masters of such fields have comparatively many and vigorous children. Otherwise, it is a just so story in the face of contrary evidence.

Natural Selection, while beautiful in its way, cannot be the whole story.

1. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The best Feynman quote of all (from a 1974 address), and the best advice to scientists and anybody else who seeks the truth about the world. The truth may not be what you’d like it to be, or what would be best for you, or what your preconceived philosophy tells you that it is. Unless you recognize how easily you can be fooled, you will be.

This idea is unknown to most people, it seems, and applied to others first by most who do know it – that guy over there is fooling himself. Rare is the man who consistently applies this to himself first. I aspire to this, but it is hard.

Next, on Twitter, which I use to publicize posts here and follow writers, Catholics, scientists and the various combinations of those traits the real world provides, I’m conducting a whimsical experiment. 20 years ago, I wrote a bunch of jokes for a defunct humor list. No money involved, mostly just the honor of amusing the other writers. While obviously I’m not great at it – I’m working a desk job, and have been for almost 40 years now – I did make the honorary Hall of Fame and have a small pile of fan letters from readers. So, no great shakes, but not totally worthless either.

So I’ve taken to posting a recycled joke or 2 each day, to see what happens. Note: I think I understand Twitter about as well as I understand quantum mechanics. ‘Impressions’ is twitterese for eyeballs (well, eyeballs divided by roughly 2) in front of which pass your tweet. I have a bit over 200 ‘followers’ who, if they all checked their feed every day, should result in about 200 ‘impressions’ per tweet as a baseline.

Some followers are just people trying to sell stuff – they come and go, and at any rate are not checking their twitter feeds every day. The reality is that I’ll get around 100 ‘impressions’ for just some random tweet.  But if people ‘like’ or better ‘retweet’ a tweet of mine, I’ll get well over 100, since the tweet is now exposed to the eyeballs on the likers or retweeters tweets.

Clear?

Once, I tweeted some insults at Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and that Tyson fellow. These resulted in over 100,000 impressions a day for a few days. People took sides, tempers flared, people insulted me back. Good times. Otherwise, I’ll post from 0 to 2 tweets and get 250 impressions on a typical day.  Days go by without me tweeting or even looking. I really have no idea what to make of Twitter.

Anyway, back to my research. What I’ve discovered: using ‘impressions’ as a surrogate for ‘funny’, I have no idea what other people think is funny.  What I mean: if people ‘like’ and retweet a joke, more eyeballs hit it. If they don’t, fewer. So the number of eyeballs could be a measure of how funny a joke is. Maybe. It’s a stretch, but – maybe.

Back when I was writing these jokes, this one, that I tossed off as a ‘meh’ joke, was my most admired quip based on largely anecdotal evidence, for reasons that escape me:

People often wonder what it is that makes the Beatles so great. I think it is probably their songs.

That got a fairly decent response on Twitter. I have no idea why. I’ve only been doing this for a week, but so far, my ‘best’ joke by far based on Twitter metrics is:

The tiny fish gets eaten by the little fish, which gets eaten by the big fish, which gets eaten by the bigger fish, which gets put into a can and fed to my cat.  Personally, I’m holding off marveling at the grandeur of Nature at least until the cat can use the can opener.

Ok, I guess. Over 700 sets of eyeballs have seen this in the couple hours since I threw it up there.

For comparison, here are two of my favorites that still crack me up, in the form of headlines – haven’t tweeted them yet:

Child Development Center Releases Prototype

and

Phlogiston Blamed in Antique Shop Fire

My understanding of humor is, um, idiosyncratic? Is that too nice a way to put it?

 

 

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“Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow”

Shafts of light pierced the swirling snow, revealing the wolf hides draped over the massive thighs of the two stern warriors at whose feet she lay prostrate. The sun descended below the clouds, filling the huge stone form they flanked with an eerie inner light. The warriors pounded the mountaintop with the butts of their bronze spears. The crouching idol spoke:

“Type, worm, and I may judge your vow fulfilled!”

(from my comment here.)

Random Writing: One Day…

Image result for 1953 indian motorcycle“He was heading down to Success when he tried to moon that trucker.”

“Hogs. Hauling hogs. And he weren’t trying nothin – he mooned him good.”

“Well, I suppose,” Bill looked up from his coffee, “However righteously you moon somebody, I think you lose points if you die.”

Edgar folded his large hands on the formica table top. “Nobody knows he died.” He squinted at Bill. “Folks in Biloxi say they saw him just last month.”

I interrupted. “So, let me get this straight. Caleb Jones may or may not have died mooning a trucker?”

“Hauling hogs.” Edgar squinted at me, the wrinkles around his eyes disappearing under his ball cap. “Musta cut him off. Caleb was a bit militant ’bout the need to share the road.”

“Nice bike,” Bill added.

“Indian. Somebody ought to drag the river.”

A lone fly was playing chicken with the ceiling fan. Edgar had finished the scrambled eggs he’d topped with an alarming volume of hot sauce. Bill nursed a coffee. I was having orange juice.

“Vicksburg Bridge.” Edgar continued. “Caleb took that big beautiful Indian, think it was a ’53, on his business trips.”

“And like Ed says, trucker hauling hogs must of cut ’em off.” Bill continued.

“So Caleb, who always was a bit of a hothead…”

“And more than a bit of a showoff…”

“Pulls in front of the trucker…”

“Stands up on the saddle of his Indian…”

“Nice bike,” Edgar mused.

Bill, warming, soldiered on, “Stands on the saddle, going 50…”

“60!”

“And dropped trou!”

Edgar and Bill shook their heads in amazed, admiring tandem.

I was trying to follow. “So a man in his 70s riding a classic motorcycle traveling at high speed on the Vicksburg Bridge, stands on the saddle and drops his pants because a trucker cut him off?”

“Hauling hogs,” added Edgar.

“Indian. Nice bike,” said Bill.

“Damn racoon,” Edgar muttered.

“Now Ed, what the hell would a racoon be doing out in the middle of the Vicksburg Bridge?”

“Who the hell knows why a coon does anything? I saw him!”

Bill shook his head. “Next thing you know, Caleb and that beautiful bike of his are spiraling off down toward the muddy Mississippi.”

“Pants around his ankles. Head over heels.”

“Missed all the stanchions.”

“Always was a lucky sumbitch.”

“Don’t know where this supposed racoon got to. Just disappear?”

“They do that.”

Silence fell. Edgar and Bill glared at each other.

“So, you both saw this? Why didn’t it make the news? Why is there no police report?”

“Ed and me was working on an engineering study,” Bill began.

“Infrastructure. Deferred maintenance.”

“We was in one of those painter car things, hanging off the north side of the bridge.”

“Perfect view.”

“Happened pretty quick.”

“Dunno if anybody else saw it.”

“The trucker, for one.”

“Hauling hogs.”

“Probably thought he was hallucinating.”

“Yep. And anyhow, tell that story, and they pull your license.”

Success MS
The Ghost Town of Success, MS. 3 hours southeast of the Vicksburg Bridge. In case you were wondering. 

These Chairs Offend Me

Descending from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous, consider:

IMG_4887

With my squirrel-level ability to focus and Golden Retriever capacity for distraction, I have been driven nuts for, I dunno, a couple decades by the chairs shown above, a set of which infests the lovely Lady Chapel at a local church.

You must be joking, I hear, from way over here, your generous brains thinking a little too loudly. Could there be anything more innocuous than these bland church chairs? He must be kidding.

Image result for Peet's coffee chairs
For comparison, here is a perfectly bland and functional chair, spotted at a Peet’s Coffee. It does not offend.

You wish.

For a couple decades now, whenever we go to this church, I think to myself EVERY SINGLE TIME ‘what dumb chairs. What a waste of perfectly good wood. They’re so doomed.”  Then my tiny brain, which should be directed at, oh, say, the Mass or God or something along those lines, is instead imagining how I would have designed those chairs, or what could be done to fix them, until somebody launches into a agnus or rings a bell or otherwise brings my attention back to what I’m supposedly doing. For about 0.75 seconds. Then it’s back to chairs.

Why do these chairs so offend? That would take an entire blog post to expla – Oh.

Let me count the ways:

  1. The seat frames are squares of boards joined with finger joints – sturdy enough, but structurally independent of the legs.
  2. the front legs are two straight board simply bolted to the seat. The bolts and maybe some glue are the only thing holding them on.
  3. The back legs are two longer straight boards joined to a curved and padded plywood seat back and also simply bolted onto the seat frame.
  4. All legs are set perfectly perpendicular to the seat and floor.

And? Well, within short order once put into use, those leg joints are going to loosen up, especially the back ones. If you look at the Peet’s chair pictured above, you can note that the back legs are *curved*, integrated into the seat frame, and set at a slightly less than right angle both to the floor and seat. The back leans away to a similar degree.

If you do something crazy in that Peet’s chair, like sitting in it or – heaven forbid! – leaning back in it, the legs are designed to absorb that kind of stress: they are not perfect little levers to transfer all the force of your sitting or leaning directly into the single point where a bolt attaches them to the seat frame. The legs are designed, in other words, to incorporate best chair design practices from at least the last 1,000 years or so of people building chairs.

The church chairs – wow, profound metaphor time! – are built as if all that history never happened, that we clearly superior moderns don’t need to pay no mind to those old dead guys and their perfectly functional chairs.

IMG_4888
Front legs. Oh, the humanity!

The front legs suffer the same flaw: perfectly straight up and down and simply bolted on. Front leg get less of the leaning/sitting/sliding stress than the back legs, but they get some, and over time, loosen up as well.

When one sits in these chairs, there is a wobble ranging from disconcerting to scary.  Many of the chairs have been ‘repaired’.  (I didn’t get pictures. A somewhat crazed-looking old guy with a phone camera taking pictures of chairs in the chapel while the little old ladies are trying to pray: a talk with Father, or possible Officer, O’Reilly gets more likely by the minute.) The repairs are obvious and obviously doomed (not that I blame the repairman – worth a shot): drill a hole or two and stick a couple more bolts through, lather on some more glue, or both.

Ugly. And doomed – such repairs simply invite additional structural failure, and make splitting the wood more likely. I’ve never witnessed some poor soul sitting on the ground in the wreckage of one of these chairs, but I’d be surprised if it had not happened more than once.

For the defense: as designed, these chairs have lasted (with repairs) about 2 decades. How bad can they be? Also, although I’ve never seen them stacked, it’s possible they were designed to be stacking chairs and what I perceive as flaws are there to allow better stacking.

I answer that plenty of stacking chairs aren’t this bad. Further, stacking chairs offend all sound liturgical sentiment: in the same way that paper missilettes embody the ‘disposable Word of God’ sentiment, stacking chairs convey a ‘we haven’t made up our minds what this church building is really *for*’ concept.

How would I have fixed this design?

  1. Integrate the legs into the seat frame, so that stresses are distributed over multiple wood-to-wood contacts (you know, like how every decent wooden chair has been designed for centuries).
Image result for chair joints
A Sam Maloof joint joining the rear leg of a chair to the seat. Functional and beautiful – everything the Chairs That Shall Not Be Named lack! One needn’t go to this level of art, although Maloof cut and fitted these legs mostly using a table saw, a router and a rasp. Just do it like everyone has been doing it for centuries.

2. Curve the back legs so that in the inevitable event that somebody leans back in the chair, the stress is better distributed.

Chair back legs
A lame drawing illustrating the point. Yes, I’m a LITTLE COMPULSIVE. Why do you ask?

Deep breaths. Exhale. Ah, all better now.

 

Boodog!

Y’all probably thought I was making this up, right? You thought my efforts to popularize ‘throwing down the boodog’ as an idiom for vigorous partying was just some random emission from my overheated brain.

Well, well, well – here’s a little video, from some Mongolian university no less, that will show you just how wrong you are! (Or probably or possibly wrong, to cover all the bases.)

Ha!

(Darn it! Can’t get the video to start at the #6 at 3:44 in, which is boodog. So skip ahead if that’s all you want to see.)

Boodog (which I admit I am disappointed to learn is pronounced more like ‘buhdig’ than BOO-DOG! Mongolians don’t know the opportunity they’ve let slip away here) is in fact what any solid Mongolian throws down at a party. Just watch the video!

That is all. Except I ate a bunch of gator bits (that’s what the sign near the dish called it) with a slightly spicy sauce here at this convention I’m attending in St. Petersburg, FL. I had them with a nice Merlot, if you must know.  And yes, it did taste somewhat like slightly chewy chicken. So I would myself have some boodog if anyone were throwing some down in my presence. I’m that kind of guy.

Merry Christmas! 

May God bless you and yours with good cheer and peace on this holy day! 

Preparing a feast for 35-odd people (insert obligatory in laws joke here) and, having been on my feet for pretty much 3 days straight of shopping, prepping and cooking (40 lbs of pork butt and about 60-70 ciabatta rolls for pulled pork sandwiches, among other things), taking a break before rallying once more into the breach. 

Something like that. 

So, midnight mass, then Home to put the pork in the oven and bake the last couple batches of rolls, and in bed by 3:00. My beloved, who is part vampire or at least can get by on remarkably small amounts of sleep, maybe came to bed later – I wouldn’t know, as I was out cold and she was already up by the time I woke. 

We made coffee and tea, and the 8 of us – 4 kids, g-ma, aunt Clare in from Baltimore, my wife and I – gathered round the table to see what we got in our stockings.

My beloved commanded that I take pictures. She wasn’t any more specific. 

A rag I grabbed to wipe up some coffee I’d spilt on my laptop and shirt. It’s kind of like shorthand for all of Dickens
A close up of the water picture immediately in front of me. What may at first appear to be a lack of focus is, instead, an ironic existential cry of terminal ennui. That’s my story.
Still life with butter knives.

Some people are so hard to please.