Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pesach with Post-Nasal Complications

Poor little Smiley has a terrible cold. His nose has been running like crazy for two days.

My family has enjoyed two nice mini-seders on these first two nights of Pesach, but just the three of us. We had to tell the friends we invited to our house to stay away to avoid getting sick.

Smiley has been trying to dutifully blow his nose enough, but his nose is too runny for his efforts. Having mucus in his stomach is making it difficult to keep food down, or nap for more than 90 minutes. He is seldom in the mood to eat, and is emotionally clingy and fragile.

Poor kid. When he doesn't want frozen blueberries or hot chocolate, we know he's really out of it.

The only silver lining on this cloud is that we got more of his videos processed and put online. (When he's sick I am more willing to let him watch little movies on the computer.)

Happy Pesach! May you and yours be enjoying both holiday and health!

Favorite Chocolate

Earlier this month I wrote about my favorite flowery teas. Time for chocolate!

I'm almost done eating my Valentine's Day chocolate. This year my wife got me 14 different chocolate bars, one for each year we have been married.

This gift surprised me, since I'm quite happy with one kind of chocolate. My habit is to fill a pretty tea cup on Sunday with Ambrosia brand chocolate chips from CostCo. I snack on them throughout the week, and on Shabbat I get to splurge and finish the bowl.

Having more chocolate around did increase how much of it I ate. Poor me!

Most of the different kinds of chocolate bars were interesting but nothing special. But two of them were utterly amazing, with a fruity aftertaste that complimented the dark chocolate intensity.

The first was a single-origin bar from the Dominican Republic made by Dagoba chocolates, the conacado.

The second was a single-origin bar from Columbia made by Santander chocolates, their 65% Dark. It was amazingly fruity for unflavored dark chocolate, almost like drinking wine.

UPDATE: I don't usually finish the bowl of chocolate.  If I did, that would be about 120 grams--560 calories per week.  However, I do eat a little bit of other junk food, so overall it is probably about 600 calories per week.

Five Species Forever

Nathen poses the Five Species Food Game.

If you could eat only five species for the rest of your life, which would they be?

The rules are a bit vague. For example, do I need to personally prepare everything I eat from the raw food? Must the five foods cover all nutritional needs, or do they automatically and magically become nutritionally sound? Free to all diets are water, salt, and spices: should I assume neither tea nor chocolate count as spices?

I'll answer as best I can, using the "strict" rules (the answers to my three questions above are all "yes").

My five are goat, quinoa, mangoes, spinach, and Cucurbita pepo.

That fifth species includes zucchini and summer squash, my favorite storage squash (acorn, delicata, and spaghetti), and some pumpkins.

Choosing goat gives me milk cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream, as well as my favorite meat.

Quinoa works as a rice replacement, for both a dinner grain and a breakfast porridge. I could also make a pie crust with a slightly nutty flavor or decent pasta. Unlike most grains, it has a complete protein profile.

(If I get bored of quinoa as a dinner base, I can switch for a few days to stuffed zucchini, spaghetti squash “noodles”, or spinach salad as alternate bases.)

Mangoes are very healthy. I get fruit in my porridge or on my salad, my favorite flavor of fruit smoothies and lassi drinks, and my favorite flavor of fruit ice cream.

Spinach is healthy. It is my favorite among the greens, especially as a salad with some goat milk feta.

Chgowiz's Blog is Mostly Dead

One of my favorite RPG bloggers, Michael, Shorten of the oldguyrpg blog, has stopped blogging.

He also took down his blog (archive.org has none of his posts!) and removed the items he was selling from rpgnow.com and lulu.com.

Great sadness!

Readers of his blog know that the past year has been difficult for him in many ways. If you enjoyed his blog and want to send him a note of well-wishes, you can visit the blog's Google cache and from there get to his PayPal donation page.

The classy thing to do is to send him a "thank you for all the nice blogging" farewell present. Less classy would be to notice and use his e-mail address, which he avoided putting on his blog. Even less classy (but probably most popular) would be to chime in on other blogs.

Michael has not entirely disappeared from online discussions of old school gaming. (I am unsure if he will continue his occasional guest-posting on other blogs.) It is nice to see that he and his wife continue to enjoy their hobby!

UPDATE: He's back!

Monday, March 29, 2010

March Milestones

I have not written about how Smiley is doing developmentally since December.

Here is a summary, for family and friends who have not been keeping up to date on our photos. (Sadly, I am behind in processing videos, and only at the end of February.)


His sentences now use most parts of speech. For example yesterday as we went to the car he wanted to sit on the front steps and watch me unlock the doors and open his so he could climb in. He said, "Me watch daddy open our car."

He enjoys mimicking words, just to hear the sounds. For example, he will echo when my wife counts (one day as far as 36).

He memorizes more from his books and the songs we sing. The book he has memorized most is Inside, Outside, Upside Down. He counts to six or seven as a sing-song, not knowing what it means.

He has become a Skype maniac. He loves interacting with his relatives on the computer. (This is a big step because for most of his life he would become silent when given the phone even if he had been chattering a moment before.)


He understands the concepts of one and two. Three confuses him. Sometimes he calls three objects "two"; other times he stops and says nothing, realizing he is confused but unsure what to say.

He can nest his set of stacking cups. He cannot stack them yet; learning the size pattern is hindered by his habit when stacking of randomly placing them upside-down or right-side-up.

He can do simple puzzles (one piece per hole), but seldom wants to.

He treats his baby doll even more as a child: not only feeding it or taking it for a stroller walk (as in December) but showing it things, reading to it, etc.

He enjoys when I talk to or for his dolls, and participates in the pretending by replying, but never does such pretending alone. (He does not speak on its behalf, and only speaks to a doll in reply to what I have the doll say).


He jumps well with two feet, both on a flat floor or off a curb or low step.

He can put his duplo people in the duplo vehicles driver's seats. (These are tricky: the figure does not stick as well as most duplo piece connections. In February he began putting the duplo people in vehicles in other ways.)

He sometimes builds duplo walls, not just a tower of one block size footprint. But mostly, when he builds with blocks, he just makes towers of duplos or wooden blocks.

He hangs from his trapeze really well. (We took down the swing, which was seldom used for more than a moment. But he loves hanging from the trapeze.)

He can take off his pants, coat, and some of his shoes. He can unzip and remove one-piece pajamas. Any shirt with a neck hole is too difficult: he cannot take his arms out of the sleeves, but can take off the shirt once his arms are out.

He has switched how he shows tiredness. Instead of wanting to be upside down, he now uses the more traditional behaviors of rubbing his eyes and lying down while playing with toys.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Planes and Helicopers

Here is part one of March's update about YouTube videos safe for Smiley. (February's post is here.)

Smiley is very much into airplanes and helicopters (panes and haipos). Here are more videos about those.

Airplanes: the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and an Airbus 320 with a landing problem.

Helicopters: one landing on truck, a Huey Helicopter taking off at an airshow, and an EC120 Helicopter taking off.

UPDATE: another nice video of an airplane landing, and a seaplane landing with only a few camera changes

UPDATE: a fun Chinook helicopter video

UPDATE: a nice video about a four-propeller plane, which is okay if we start in the middle

American Loyalty?

Mark Krikorian suggested writing Other: American for your race on the census form. I decided to do so.

I felt a bit guilty about filling out the form before the proper day (April 1st), until I received a postcard from the Census Bureau that thanked me for doing so.

I briefly considered writing "Voting American Taxpayer". But I hope my descendants, 72 years from now when the information becomes public, would understand that humor. (Americans now pay State taxes primarily by shopping. The country is rapidly approaching half of its citizens paying no income tax.)

What tyrannies of the majority will appear before the Entitlement Crisis bursts? How will these effects redefine what it means to be an American?

After March 21st

The economist Greg Mankiw writes calmly about "communitarianism" versus "libertarianism" to discuss the passing of the House Heath Care Bill.

His use of those words is non mainstream: I am not sure if his approach to their definitions is something he coined himself or is part of the academic economist's vocabulary. Anyway, his blog post is a good read if you have been hearing or reading only heated and impassioned words for the past few weeks.

Brad Warbiany writes about the bill's immediate effects. It appears that during the rest of 2010, the major impact will have nothing to do with either "communitarianism" nor "libertarianism" but instead be complications for insurance companies.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Cougars are Closing In

Three of them.


My wife works curating zebrafish genetics research.

This morning she did a work-related search for "zebrafish tongue", searching for papers written about that part of zebrafish research, and found that Twilight fan-fiction now extends even into the world of zebrafish.

Grading on a Curve

This is the second post of two about grading issues.

The phrase "grading on a curve" has become meaningless because it is so often misused to mean all sorts of things by people ignorant of what they are trying to discuss.

Here is how it works according to the real, statistical definition.

Picture test scores on a histogram picture. Here is a histogram of a recent test I gave.

Now, my tests are designed to put students into clumps corresponding to letter grades. In the histogram above you can see the A clump (13 to 15), the B clump (10 to 12), the C clump (7 to 9.5), and the students below that. My tests are designed to compare students to the test's difficulty and questions are carefully picked so these clumps will happen.

A well-written test intended for grading on a curve works differently. It groups students in one clump, centered around the average. This is a bell curve.

The vertical lines mark "standard deviations", which is a topic we'll skip for now. But do notice the percentages of students in each section of the histogram. These percentages are the same for any bell curve, whether it measures people's heights or weights or test scores.

When grading to the curve, students are graded compared to each other. On tests like
the SAT, where thousands of students take it, this becomes the same as comparing the students to the test's difficulty. But for a small group of students it might not work, just like for a large group of men we can predict that 10% will be taller than 6' 1", but many small groups of 10 guys have zero guys or have more than one guy taller than 6' 1".

Traditionally, those vertical lines and percentage categories are used "as is" for letter grades when grading on a curve. So on the right hand side of average:
  • 34% get C's (the right side of the center area)
  • 13.6% get B's (the next area to the right)
  • 2.4% get A's (the two farthest right areas)

On the left hand side of average:
  • 34% get D's (the left side of the center area)
  • 16% get F's (the three farthest left areas)

Because deciding before a class even starts that only 2.4% of the students will get A's is harsh by today's standards, many instructors change shift the vertical lines and percentage categories. But there is rarely a logical and defensible pedagogical reason for doing so in any particular way, besides the ever-popular "because I'm the teacher and I said so." (Nevertheless, a syllabus that describes how grading happens is a binding agreement that should be respected.)

Many teachers do a sloppy thing they mistakenly name "grading on a curve" by boosting everyone's grades by the amount the highest student was below 100. This is a symptom of poor test-writing. Boosting scores might prevent grumbling, but the boosted test neither compares students to the test's difficulty nor to each other. If the student with the highest failing grade complained, how would the instructor defend this grading plan? "I'm not good at math and I've always done it this way," is a terrible reason to assign someone a failing grade! (And a syllabus rarely describes how each test is graded.)

For students, there are two lessons to take with you and make use of...

First, ask your next term's instructors to describe in detail how they assign grades. Don't trust that they mean the same thing if they say they "curve grades". It might be worth switching to a different section of a class, or waiting until another term, if an instructor grades haphazardly and your schedule is so busy that you are aiming for a C.

Similarly, do not trust quiz grades to predict overall grades until you've talked to the instructor about his or her grading plan. Many instructors grade quizzes in a straightforward manner (70% = C, 80% = B, etc.) and then do something totally different for overall grades. For example, quizzes might compare your knowledge to the quiz difficulty, but overall grades might compare you to your classmates.

Second, if on a test you are borderline pass/fail but fail, ask to see the instructor's grading histograms. You might be able to argue with calm logic that you should be in the passing clump--or that the test failed to clump students, showing it was poorly written, so you should be able to take another version of the test.

Weighted Grading

This is the first post of two about grading issues.

I use weighted grades when teaching Math 20. Most confusing to students is that there are two midterms, and for each student the midterm they do worse on is worth 10% of their overall grade but their better midterm is worth 20%. How does the math work?

Imagine a student who scores 12 out of 15 on the first midterm, and 9 out of 15 on the second midterm.

First, change the scores to percentages. The student got 80% correct on the first midterm and 60% correct on the second midterm.

Next, separately multiply those percentages by their appropriate overall "weight". For the worse midterm we get 0.60 × 10 = 6 overall points. For the better midterm we get 0.80 × 20 = 16 overall points.

Finally, add the results. This student earned 6 + 16 = 24 overall points (out of 30 possible) from midterms.

Note that some instructors use a simple version of weighted grading that simply assigns more points to more important items. For example, maybe the final is graded out of 50 points, the midterm out of 30, and homework out of 20.

This is indeed simpler, but cannot create my "your better midterm should count more" situation.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Term of E-mail

Today is the last class day of Winter Term 2010.

I'm sure I will have a few more work-related e-mails as this week ends and finals week begins. But I was curious how many work-related e-mails I receive and send each term. So far this term: 421 "real" e-mails that I actually dealt with.

(There were far more sent by the college or math department that I could delete without reading or with only a quick glance at the contents.)

If each represents only 3 minutes of reading, thinking, and reply then they would represent 21 hours of my time. Of course, some are quicker and some required much more time.

UPDATE: For the sake of comparison, I teach two classes, each of which meets twice per week for 90 minutes. I also have a half-hour "office hour" before each class. So I am personally with students 8 hours per week, so 80 hours per ten-week term. Phone calls with students happen, but rarely, even though my students have my cell phone number. So the above estimate means that I spend one-fifth of my official work hours doing e-mail (as opposed to my unofficial work, such as preparing my lecture slides).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Question About Website Readibility

A question for folks...

Currently the pages of my website describe the fantasy setting I am prayerfully creating are few and long. For example, all eight of the intelligent races are on one page.

I am about to make all sorts of updates, because the setting has evolved during January and February even though I lacked time then to put those changes online. Before I do lots of typing, I'll ask...

Is it better to have fewer but longer pages, or more short pages?

For example, should I break up that page about the eight races so that each race has its own page?
I know short pages are easier for readers.

I also know fewer pages allows all pages to have top-level site navigation (right now I do not need a table of contents or index for the fantasy setting).

Which is more important?
I suspect that short pages are becoming more important as netbooks and tablets become more popular. Clicking to follow an link from an index page is easy on a small screen, but long pages are bothersome.

Target Number versus Difficulty Die

Back in August I mentioned that the first person to use a set of different polyhedral dice for a role-playing game was David Wesely.

Most RPG systems measure the difficulty of a skill attempt with a number. The player rolls dice (usually modified by some character sheet bonus) and attempts to roll higher or lower than that target number. I mentioned two examples recently.

I have long wanted to create a workable rules system in which character skill was measured by polyhedral die type, not a numerical rating. I pictured the character sheet having a row of little check-boxes for each skill (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) that would get shaded in as the character increased in skill.

However, this simply does not work well when the difficulty of an attempted action is rated with a target number. There is too much difference between a d4 and d20.

Last December I finally realized what needed to be done. Instead of target numbers, rate the difficulty of an attempted action with the same set of six polyhedral die types. For example, a very easy task would have d4 difficulty and a nearly impossible task would have d20 difficulty.

The success of the skill attempt is thus the amount by which the skill's die exceeds the difficulty's die. The gulf between the d4 and the d20 is pleasantly bridged. Someone with minimal skill attempting something nearly impossible could get lucky and roll higher on the skill's d4 than the difficulty's d20, but it would be appropriately rare.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Overly Sensitive to Art?

In the Where the Wild Things Are book, when Max begins his dream the moon is three-quarters full. At the end of his back, when his supper is still hot, the moon is full. Am I the only one disturbed by this? (Is he still partly daydreaming? Was his trip real?)

Also, the line of dogs in cars in Go, Dogs, Go change colors. Just so you know.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


I recently linked to a story from Time about changes in foxes that happened during only a few generations.

Last week, at the allergist's office, I read a related article, again from Time, about epigenetics. The topic may be the most significant medical issue most people have never heard of. Here's the "money quote":
In other words, you can change your epigenetics even when you make a dumb decision at 10 years old. If you start smoking then, you may have made not only a medical mistake but a catastrophic genetic mistake.
Of course, in these early days of research into epigenetics the studies are looking for consequences of behaviors established as unhealthy for other medical reasons. The Time article has an ongoing tone of "making unhealthy choices is worse than you thought!". Even if true, this focus neglects the frightening possibility that all sorts of behaviors we currently view as healthy might also affect epigenetics negatively.

(The Time article is much more accessible than Wikipedia's article.)

Using Blades Backwards

Last year I needed to cut plexiglass. The standard technique of mounting a circular saw blade backwards worked great.

Today I needed to put grommets in thick canvas. The grommet kit came with a "cutter" to hammer through the cloth but it did not work at all. I experimented with a few ideas, and found that a spade bit worked great: normally until the point went through the fabric, then backwards to widen the hole without the fabric catching.

Zombie Snails

Is it just me, or are creatures like the Leucochloridium paradoxum inherently theological?

Look what they do to snails!

Either nature is mercilessly impersonal, God is a twisted bastard, or the world is corrupted from an ideal.

(I'll pick the latter, of course, adding that the ideal will one day be restored.)

Friends in the Local News

Recently our friend Annette Pershern of River Bend Farm was in the local paper. We do our main-season CSA with her farm since it offer more fruit, and a late-season CSA with Winter Green Farm to get squash and other "storage vegetables". During the off-season she has been successfully been experimenting with adding baked goods and other options to her farm's repertoire.

Last weekend we purchased some hellebores from Northwest Garden Nursery, which as also in the local paper. Mariette O'Byrne is quite a character. She is the country's foremost hellebore breeder and she loves her plants like babies. She was flooded with business after the article was published. She normally only sells plants that have bloomed, so customers know exactly what they are purchasing and will never have complaints. Thus it was a new and unwanted experience for her to have a weekend wave of customers who just wanted some hellebores, and were eager to purchase even plants that had not yet bloomed (the flower's color and single/double nature would be a surprise). She delayed this as long as she could, not wanting anyone dissatisfied with their purchase, but eventually gave in when she saw how much her refusing was also causing dissatisfaction. Poor her! In her mind it was like sending foster children randomly to desperate homes.

Running in the Science News

When I wrote about running and posture last month, I linked to an interesting article about when running burns muscle instead of fat.
When the exercise load exceeds a critical level, which is different for each person, the adrenal cortex secrets a massive amount of cortisol. It is not a one-shot secretion. The longer the level is sustained, the more cortisol is released.

According the University of New Mexico’s Len Kravitz the critical level that results in excess cortisol secretion occurs after about 45 minutes of exercise--some people hit the critical level earlier, others later depending on variety of genetic and other variables.

Two of the effects of excess cortisol are fat retention, it makes your body want to hold on to fat instead of burn it, and muscle catabolism, it makes you body use skeletal muscle for energy...
More about that topic is here.

I have continued to pay attention to my posture when I run.

Although there is no official distinction between jogging and running, in my mind the difference is clear: I naturally keep my center of gravity over the balls of my feet, which in my mind is "jogging". When I concentrate it is easy to shift my center of gravity farther forward, past the balls of my feet: this feel much different and in my mind is "running".

"Jogging" is more comfortable. But it is poor posture. It is less efficient and slower, because less of my strides' energy propels me forward. "Jogging" also allows me to sometimes land on a heel instead of the center or balls of my feet, which is so harmful there is new fad of running barefoot.

It takes quite a bit of concentration to have my center of gravity forward and also keep my lower back in proper posture instead of lordosis. But when and where I run nothing else demands my attention. It is a great way to start the day.

With math lecture slides done, and most of the early Spring rush of yard work complete, I also have time to use my dumbbells and weight bench again. Here is an interesting article about weight lifting for runners. (Since I do not run enough to be a "runner" it only partly applies to me.)

Grade Inflation?

It has been over a year since I have written about LCC's budget woes. I don't have more to say about that topic directly. The administration's most nonsensical ideas about trimming costs have been abandoned. (For example, no longer must each division initiate its annual budget proposals with a draft that features across-the-board cuts of a certain percentage of classes, ignoring which classes are profitable.)

Although LCC's president, Mary Spilde, has not led the college out of its budget problems, her diplomacy and leadership have been capable, skilled, and moderately effective. She recently became chair of the board of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Yet I am surprised that last year Mary Spilde received her eighth straight outstanding annual performance evaluation from the college’s Board of Education. It might well be that no one else in Lane County could do a better job. But still, "outstanding" seems an exaggeration after eight years of financial crisis.

Perhaps I'm just too picky about adjectives.

Using Skype Again

Years ago I used Skype. But my sister was the only family member who used it, and when she stopped so did I.

Smiley is finally talking when on the phone, to the delight of our relatives. For so many months he would immediately go quiet when a voice on the phone talked to him--too entranced to respond.

So this weekend was time to try Skype again. There is a version for Linux which works well with Ubuntu. (It is also in the Synaptic package manager.)

If I remember to plug in the webcam and switch sound input to the webcam before starting Skype it works well. Smiley had a nice chat with family in California and Colorado.

If any other family or friends want to chat with Smiley using Skype, send us an e-mail to let us know.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Beren and Lúthien

Of all that Tolkien wrote, perhaps his own favorite story was the Tale of Beren and Lúthien. Scholars certainly view it as the foundational core of his development of Middle Earth.

From the Wikipedia article:
The Tale of Beren and Lúthien was regarded as the central part of his legendarium by Tolkien. The story and the characters reflect the love of Tolkien and his wife Edith. Particularly, the event when Edith danced for him in a glade with flowering hemlocks seems to have inspired his vision of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien. Also some sources indicate that Edith's family disapproved of Tolkien originally, due to his being a Catholic. On Tolkien's grave, J. R. R. Tolkien is referred to as Beren and Edith is referred to as Lúthien.
It's an amazing story, and a true pleasure to hear as an audiobook.

I really enjoyed listening to the Silmarillion as an audiobook, in part because someone else was pronouncing all those dreadful Elvish names.

At the moment I don't have the Silmarillion on my MP3 player, and am enjoying Pilgrim's Progress as my bedtime story. But I did keep the Tale of Beren and Lúthien on the MP3 story, and will surely want to listen to it again before I want to revisit all of the Silmarillion.

LCC Now Has Free e-Books

The LCC Bookstore now has free e-books on their website.

Are audiobooks next?

Jewish Culture as a Response to Seeking Truth

Back in January I wrote about the Biblical Hebrew concept of "truth".
Biblical Hebrew has no word for truth. Instead there are four concepts:
  1. Reliable and faithful (emet)
  2. Straight, in other words it "lines up" (yashar)
  3. Righteous and having integrity (tzaddik)
  4. Set apart by God's ways (kadosh)
I later realized that much of Jewish culture is a development of this dynamic. A culture that seeks "truth" as defined above would have certain characteristics.

To discern if an idea is reliable and faithful requires education. So the culture would value education. An idea proven to be reliable and faithful should be acted upon, so the culture would develop traditions teaching how to live out those ideas.

Because people naturally make excuses and engage in self-deception when alone judging which ideas "line up", the culture would require groups of educated and wise people to discuss what ideas "lines up". Group study and group interpretation of law would become normal.

Integrity would be valued. A lifestyle that displays lived-out truth is difficult to master but easy to see in other people.

Because God's ways are valued, the culture would use interpretations of scripture and folk stories to elevate new values to the status of potential-and-reasonable ways of God. History is important, but when faced with a troubling situation the culture's leaders would ponder "What would God do about this?" instead of asking "What do historical events teach about this?"

The 2010 One Page Dungeon Contest

I've twice mentioned the 2009 One Page Dungeon Contest.

The 2010 One Page Dungeon Contest happened recently, and the winners have not yet been announced.

I was planning to submit something, but was too busy with my math lectures. Oh well.

Symptom Comparisons

If your kid (or you) is not feeling well, what might be wrong?

During the past six months I've unfortunately had reason to find websites comparing ear problems and cold versus flu.

Anyone know of other good charts of this nature?

Anathem, Omnipresence, Omnipotence, and Friendship

Now the finale: part three (1, 2) of my Anathem posts for today. Spoilers ahead...

(If you have not read the book, then I recommend Kaedrin's nice review before proceeding.)

The setting is a very rich world. You can use it as a springboard to discuss all sorts of real-life issues. But not recipes. Although math appears in abundance, that would lead to dreadfully long and boring blog essays that few readers would enjoy. So I turn to theology.

Recall from my previous blog post that the setting includes a polycosmic "multiverse". The individual timeline a normal individual experiences is nicknamed a Narrative.

One character, Fraa Jad, can manipulate Narratives. He does this by chanting to entering a trance that allows him to be commonly self-aware more than one Narrative. (Using the novel's own vocabulary, he can extend his consciousness to view the polycosm with more than one flashlight.)

For example, imagine Jad was leading a group hiking. But they got lost. Now their trail forks but they do not know which way to go. Jad could use his trance state to experience living out the first few minutes or hours along both alternatives. Then he would return to a moment shortly after he entered the trance to give advice to his companions.

Actually, that last, italicized sentence is a lie. How Jad "uses" his ability to expand his consciousness is too complicated to summarize. But it will be a useful enough understanding to continue this discussion.

Once we understand Jad's ability, it's a short thought experiment step to think about God.

In particular, in the Anathem understanding of a configuration space polycosm, being omnipresent means being self-aware everywhere: experiencing all the polycosm instead of using one or more flashlights. Yet being omnipotent means precisely the same thing.

Within the novel, the characters debate whether God exists. But the theors among them would all agree that if an omnipresent being exists it must be a one-and-only God.

Astute readers will have noticed that I've skipped all analysis about why Jad's effort matters, considering all futures are equally and inevitably "real" within the polycosm. The answer is about friendship: Jad wants the people he cares about to have a good future together; their bodies will progress through the configuration space in prescribed ways, but for each person the consciousness (flashlight) is not part of the configuration space! In a similar way, within the novel if God exists he must value relationships, for these alone make choices matter.

Anathem Quotations

Below are three quotations from Anathem, to refer to in a future blog post.

These quotations are the main places that characters explain the polycosmic interpretation of quantum events and parallel universes. They are certainly "spoilers" if you have not read the book.

Most anyone familiar with comic books and science fiction stories has read some flavors of "alternate futures". The idea is that each time an event could resolve in multiple ways the world branches to follow each possibility. For example, each time Superman fights Lex Luthor there are futures in which Superman wins or Luther wins, and we perceive the former as "real" simply because that's the brach in which we also live.

In Anathem this idea is extended. Because of quantum mechanics, everything is branching continually. The result is not shaped like a tree, but an infinite-dimensional configuration space.

"Yes," Orolo said, "and can you guess which model, which terminology, I am partial to?"

"The more polycosmic the better, I assume."

"Of course! So, whenever I hear you talking of quantum phenomena using the old terminology--"

"The fid version?"

"Yes, I must mentally translate what you're saying into polycosmic terms. For example, the simple case of a particle that is either spin up or spin down--"

"You would say that, at the moment, when the spin is observed--the moment when its spin has an effect on the rest of the cosmos--the cosmos bifurcates into to complete, separate, causually independent cosmi that then go their separate ways."

"You've almost got it. But it's better to say that those two cosmi exist before the measurement is made, and that they interfere with each other--there is a little bit of crosstalk between them--until the observation is made. And then they go their separate ways."

"And here," I aid, "we could talk about how crazy this sounds to many people--"

Orolo shrugged. "Yet it is a model that a great many theors come to believe in sooner or later, because the alternatives turn out to be even crazier in the end."

"All right. So, I think I know what comes next. You want me to restate your theory of what the brain does in terms of the polycosmic interpretation of quantum theorics."

"If you would so indulge me," Orolo said, with a suggestion of a bow.

"Okay. Here goes," I said. "The premise, here, is that the brain is loaded up with a pretty accurate model of the cosmos that it lives in."

"At least, the local part of it," Orolo said. "It needn't have a good model of other galaxies, for example."

"Right. And to state it in the terminology of the old interpretation that fids are taught, the state of that model is a superposition of many possible present and future states of the cosmos--or at least of the model."

He held up a finger. "Not of the cosmost, but--?"

"But of a hypothetical alternate cosmi differing slightly from the cosmos."

"Very good. Now, this generalized cosmos-model that each person carries around in his or her brain--do you have any ida how it would work? What it would look like?"

"Not in the slightest!" I said. "I don't know the first thing about the nerve cells and so on. How they could be rigged together to create such a model. How the model could be reconfigured, from moment to moment, to represent hypothetical scenarios."

"Fair enough," Orolo said, holding up his hands to placate me. "Let's leave nerve cells out of the discussion, then. The important thing about the model, though, is what?"

"That it can exist in many states at once, and that its wavefunction collapses from time to time to give a useful result."

"Yes. Now, in the polycosmic intepretation of how quantum theorics works, what does all of this look like."

"There is no longer superposition. No wavefunction collapse. Just a lot of different copies of me--of my brain--each really existing in a different parallel cosmos. The cosmos model residing in each of those parallel brains is really, definitely in one state or another. And they interfere with one another."

He let me stew on that for a few moments. And then it came to me. Just like those ideas we had spoken of earlier--suddenly there in my head. "You don't even need the model any more, do you?"

Orolo just nodded, smiled, egged me on with little beckoning gestures."

I went on--seing it as I was saying it. "It is so much simpler this way! My brain doesn't have to support this hugely detailed, accurate, configurable, quantum-superposition-supporting model of the cosmos any more! All it needs to do is to perceive--to reflect--the cosmos that it's really in, as it really is."

"The variations--the myriad possible alternative scenarios--have been moved out of your brain," Orolo said, rapping on his skull with his knuckles, "and out int the polycosm, which is where they all exist anyway!" He opened up his hand and extended it to the sky, as if releasing a bird. "All you have to do is perceive them."

"But each variant of me doesn't exist in perfect isolation from the others," I said, "or else it wouldn't work."

Orolo nodded. "Quantum interference--the crosstalk among similar quantum states--knits the different versions of your brain together."

"You're saying that my consciousness extends across multiple cosmi," I said. "That's a pretty wild statement."

"I'm saying that all things do," Orolo said. "That comes with the polycosmic interpretation. The only thing exceptional about the brain is that it has found a way to use this."

(Pages 546-548)

And that was how I came to spend the entire main course recounting my two Ecba dialogs with Orolo: the first about how, according to him, consciousness was all about hte rapid and fluent creation of counterfactual worlds inside the brain, and the second in which he argued that this was not merely possible, not merely plausible, but in fact easy, if one thought of consciousness as spanning an ensemble of slightly different versions of the brain, each keeping track of a slightly different cosmos. Paphlagon ended up saying it better: "If Hemn space is the landscape, and one cosmos is a single geometric point in it, then a given consciousness is a spot of light moving, like a searchlight beam, over that landscape--brightly illuminaiting a set of points--of cosmi--that are close together, with a penumbra that rapidly feathers away to darkness at the edges. In the bright center of the beam, crosstalk occurs among many variants of the brain. Fewer contributions come in from the half-lit periphery, and none from the shadows beyond."

(Page 695)

Fraa Jad threw his napkin on the table and said: "Consciousness amplifies the weak signals that, like cobwebs spun between trees, web Narratives together. Moreover, it amplifies them selectively and in that way creates feedback loops that steer the Narratives."

(Page 701)

"So the feedback pulls worldtracks close to one another as time goes on?" Ignetha Foral asked. "Is this the explanation we've been looking for of why the Geometers look like us?"

"Not only that," put in Suur Asquin, "but of cnoöns and the HTW and all the rest, if I'm not mistaken."


"So if is true that the PAQD share the Adrakhonic Theorem and other such theorical concepts with us," said Fraa Lodoghir, "those might be nothing more than attractors in the feedback system we have been describing."

"Or nothing less," said Fraa Jad.

We all let that one resonate for a minute. Lodoghir and Jad were staring at each other across the table; we all thought something was about to happen.

A Procian and a Halikaarnian were about to agree with each other.

(Pages 704-705)

UPDATE: Here is a related article, about how our brains really do blend past memories and present input.

Anathem Simpler Aloud

I've finished listening to Anathem as an audiobook, which I've mentioned twice so far.

After finishing it, I checked out the paper copy from the local library to read the glossary at the end. As I expected, I had not missed out on anything by not having this feature with the audiobook. Neal Stephenson does a great job using made-up words in such a way that the listener/reader gradually makes sense of them without missing anything important.

Listening to Anathem was a pleasure. Reading it would have been less of a pleasure, because Stephenson deliberately spells proper names funky to emphasize how the world of Arbe is not our own yet quite similar.

So I listened to a story about Leo, Arcibald, Orlo, Saman, Lodigir, and Yule Esatar Crede. Only when I looked in the paper copy did I encounter the less melodious names Lio, Arsibalt, Orolo, Sammann, Lodoghir, and Yulassetar Crade.

Similarly, I heard about the sensibly named know-ons, never realizing there was a slightly hidden pun with the made-up word cnoön. And I heard about the Pageant Drums and the Pact, not the panjandrums and the PAQD.

(There were probably many more of these obfuscations that I missed but did not notice as I glanced at the paper copy of the book.)

Favorite Flowery Teas

I've long known I like oolong teas, as well as tea with a hint of floral (jasmine or osmanthus). Only recently have I discovered teas that do both!

Last August my wife got me as a present some Gui Hua Dan Chong (osmanthus oolong) from a local fancy tea store. For a long time this was my favorite tea. Now it has a rival: Stash's new Magnolia Oolong Tea.

Both look pricey, but floral oolongs are so strongly flavored that I can steep each use of tea leaves at least twice. So per cup they are no more than less schmancy loose tea.

My favorite tea is floral but not oolong: Stash's Che Sen Lotus green tea. I would probably like a lotus oolong even better, but have not found any for sale.

(Tangent: Firefox's spell checker does not know oolong or schmancy? Poor Mozilla crew!)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Doggy Foxes

Here is a fun article from Time about dogs and doggy foxes. I read it several months ago, in the waiting room during a car appointment.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Weaning from the Mouse

Popsci had an interesting article about the iPad.

The thesis is that, similarly to how Macintosh computers taught people to use the mouse, the next similar step in evolving how the majority of people interact with computers will again be pioneered by Apple, and is hinted at through novel ways the iPad escapes from having a mouse.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Flying Robot Penguins

In January I blogged about a clever April Fool's Day advertisement featuring flying penguins.

YouTube has flying robot penguins too!

Desktop Backgrounds

Today I made a new desktop background.

Smiley really likes looking at the moon. He enjoys reading Goodnight Moon and Moon Mouse often. Since I could not find a photograph I liked of the moon above the horizon, I'm using the famous photogram Earthrise from this site. On one side I put the Kaddish, from here.

My previous desktop background was the Ground Squirrel Praying photograph here.

In Like a Lamb: Trees and Sunny Plans

Eugene has been having delightful weather for the past month.

The fruit trees are convinced the false Spring is the real thing, and are waking a month ahead of schedule. The cherry trees are in full blooming, and some are already losing petals. Peaches are newly blooming. Pears are about to break bud. Apples are starting to bud.

Fortunately, the bees are also awake. If there is no late freeze then the fruit trees should be okay.

I spent much of the past weekend gardening. It was both the optimal weekend for spraying fruit trees with sulfur (to prevent rust) and cutting back ferns.

Saturday night I also finished my Math 20 Lecture Slides! The final two are here. Woo hoo! I did very little blogging in February because this project ate all of my computer time. But they are finally done.

Now all my Math 20 pedagogy is in the slides that form the incomplete drafts of lecture notes. All the techniques I normally use to explain the math topics are there for students to see. All of my commentary is there: I've put down in text my collection of thing I've found I say each term. The problem solving process is emphasized in each chapter. Now each lecture ends with a discussion of a useful study skill.

Henceforth I can teach Math 20 without worrying about neglecting something I once learned was helpful in teaching but forgot during one of the terms I teach Math 25 instead of Math 20.

I plan to do more blogging in March. I have computer time once again!

Newest Audiobook for Bedtime

In February I mentioned some free H.P. Lovecraft audiobooks. I enjoyed the five I downloaded.

My favorite was one version of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Partly I enjoyed it because is it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories (I enjoy his suspenseful chases more than his foreboding descriptions). Mostly it was my favorite because it was useful: unlike this other version, the first version was narrated by someone who did a substandard job with no animation in his voice at all. That made it perfect for helping me fall asleep: within ten minutes I was missing sentences, and a few minutes later I was asleep.

This was my first experience with a poorly narrated audiobook. Since I did not really want to listen to Innsmouth again I tried to find another of monotonous caliber.

My new bedtime story is The Pilgrim's Progress. It's a delightful story yet also perfect for the desired job.