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November 2010

How Cats Drink

With great precision and no mess. Perhaps you've already seen this; if not, you should. Be sure to watch the video.

The natural world is full of astonishing things. And the more closely we look at them the more astonishing they seem. I recall watching my little dog Andy one night as he considered whether or not to jump from the chair he was in to the chair I was in, or to jump down to the floor, then back up to my chair. It was not so close that he could simply do it, nor so far that it was obviously hopeless. Also the angle was a little awkward--the chairs were at right angles to each other, which would make the takeoff and landing a little more difficult.  He sat there and fretted for a bit, indecisive, and it occurred to me that an enormous work of analysis was going on in his brain: all sorts of computations involving distance, velocity, mass, and energy, which I'm sure would be difficult to replicate, and even more so to replicate in a machine that could do similar work in any situation in which a dog might find himself. And then there was the fact that he somehow knew that the jump was risky but not impossible. These things only fail to impress us most of the time because we're surrounded by them. (Andy finally decided to try the jump: he made it.)

Mid-Week Miscellany

Just a few quick notes--I had sort of wanted to comment at more length on these but ran short of time:

The Future of Social Democracy: English (Telegraph) columnist wonders why the U.S. is starting down the path that Europe seems to be coming to the end of.

Related sentiments from Germany: "The US has lived on borrowed money for too long." Amen to that. But it isn't going to change, short of a complete crash-and-burn of some kind, without causing us a fair amount of pain, and I don't know that we have what it takes to make sacrifices anymore.


Some conservatives, emboldened by last week's electoral victories and annoyed by NPR's firing of Juan Williams, have decided that now is the time to press on with a truly terrible idea: de-funding public broadcasting. Ok, in the abstract there is a good case to be made for getting the government out of that business. But apparently government is only a small part of their budget. And despite my disagreement with NPR's politics, they do a huge amount of really excellent work which is not dominated by politics: for instance, Terry Gross's Fresh Air. If I should ever be in a position to be interviewed, I want the operation to be performed by Terry Gross.  Let's cut out some of the actively harmful and/or really expensive things the government does before getting all puritanical about the few tax dollars that go to public broadcasting.

And anyway,  an all-out attack on NPR/PBS would be a huge gift to the Democrats.


Those crafty racist conservatives are attempting to mislead the public by electing non-white candidates. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi can attempt to put a stop to this while she's still Speaker. It would be a fitting legacy for her--remember her call for the Tea Party to be "investigated."  (By the way, if you click on the word "seriously" at the end of that post, beware: it takes you to an anti-conservative screech by someone amusingly named Tim Wise.)

Speaking of race-obsessed liberals/leftists: "Whiter than a Stewart-Colbert rally." Heh. Turnabout etc. 


Mist on the delta early last Saturday morning, taken with my phone through the car window, so not very good, but still, sort of nice, I thought:


I may lose it if I hear the word "iconic" many more times in trivial contexts such as "the iconic Thanksgiving dinner."

What Happened at Cana

Sunday Night Journal — November 7, 2010

(This will be brief, as I was out of town all weekend.)

I went to a wedding this weekend. As is often (or is it always?) the case at a Catholic wedding, one of the readings was the story of the wedding at Cana. I’ve always thought there was something odd about this story—I mean, apart from the fact that it is hardly normal for water to become wine so quickly, and with no grapes involved.

In the King James version:
And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.

In the New American version:
When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (And) Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”

“How does your concern affect me?” has always struck me as one of the low points in a translation which rarely rises to beauty. But no matter how it’s translated, there is an element of rebuff in Jesus’s reply, a bit short of “Go away and leave me alone,” but not very far short.

But that’s not the odd thing, or at least not the oddest. I realized, hearing this passage yesterday, that what’s always bothered me slightly about it is that it seems disconnected. There seems to be some missing dialog between what Jesus says and Mary’s response. He suggests pretty strongly, though not quite saying explicitly, that he doesn’t intend to do anything to help her. And her response? Not a word to him, just an order to the servants. She doesn’t answer him, he doesn’t seem to change his mind, and she tells the servants to do whatever he tells them without giving any indication that she knows what, if anything, he is going to do.

Something must have passed between them in the silence between his question and her response. What was what, and how was it conveyed? What changed his mind—if that’s what happened, if he wasn’t simply challenging her? Did he communicate to her that he would provide the wine, or simply that she should trust him? The latter seems a bit more likely to me, though of course one can only speculate—but it seems as if her instructions to the servants would have been more specific if she had known exactly what was going to happen. Did the look on his face tell her something, or did they have some means of reading each other that was more acute than the normal human ability to guess what someone whom we know well is thinking—something perhaps closer to telepathy?

However the two are mixed, there seems to be, on Mary’s part, some combination of trust and understanding, or perhaps I should say she understands that she must trust. Even if he told her what he was going to do, this is, as far as we know, his first miracle: she would have to trust that he could do it. At a minimum, she understands that she is to turn the matter over to him. The lesson for us is obvious, but maybe there’s something else here which is not quite so obvious: a glimpse of how accurate and intimate and beyond words may be the communication between two unfallen people. Unfallen, or redeemed.

I was pretty sure Einstein never said that

I just saw, for the 20th or so time this week, that annoying pseudo-adage: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Generally it's accompanied by the claim that Einstein said it.

I think it was around the 300th time I heard it that I thought wait a second--that doesn't even especially make sense. A lot of doing the same thing over and over is involved in the acquisition of most extremely refined skills, e.g. playing  a musical instrument. You do the same thing over and over and gradually you do get different results.  Of course you don't in fact do exactly the same thing, but that's what you're trying to do: to get this one thing just right. Obviously there are situations in which doing the same thing over and over is clearly a mistake, but hardly "the definition of insanity."

And then I thought what's more, I don't believe Einstein said it. Apart from the fact that it isn't all that clever, it doesn't sound like him. Apparently I'm right.

The original of which this phrase is a variant makes much more sense: "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes but expecting different results."

Ike and Tina Turner: River Deep, Mountain High

Weekend Music

I usually don't get around to posting these until Saturday morning, but I'm going to be out of town this weekend.

Years ago, when I started hearing people refer to this as one of the greatest rock-and-roll singles ever recorded, I couldn't understand why I had never heard it. I certainly heard plenty of top-40 radio in the mid-'60s, when it was released. I just found out, by way of the All Music Guide entry on the Turners (not a happy story), that it was a huge hit in the UK but flopped over here. I am in fact hearing the original for the first time today, having heard several covers over the years. I must say it deserves its reputation.


Here's a very shall we say dynamic live performance. I don't know where they are--it almost looks like some kind of tunnel or something.


About the election

I've been thinking all day (I've had a day off from work) that I should sit down and write something about the election. (Perhaps some outside the U.S. haven't noticed: we just had an election in which a great conservative wave washed over the government.) But I haven't been able to make myself do it. It's not that I don't care, but it seems so...tiresome to put much effort into commenting on politics. 

For the record, then: I'm pleased that the Democrats lost, less so that the Republicans won. As I've noted before, I have a certain degree of sympathy for the Tea Party, and I think by and large they're right to oppose the Democrats' agenda. I don't know that I would want them running the country entirely according to their wishes, but maybe they can exert some meaningful counterforce to the increasing centralization in Washington of more and more aspects of life. One of the ironies of our political life these days is that the party of "diversity' is pretty much dedicated to stamping out diversity in some very important ways.

I hope a serious effort will be made to repeal the Obama health care law. We desperately need reform of our crazy health insurance system, but what the Democrats gave us appears to be even crazier. And if the Republicans in the House do come up with a more sensible approach they probably won't be able to get it past the Senate and Obama. So that situation will probably continue to slowly deteriorate. 

I'm sorry Harry Reid won. He seems an odious fellow. I'm glad Nancy Pelosi won't be Speaker of the House. The degree to which the two of them are disliked around the country is really pretty striking.

I hear that the odd "Rally for Sanity" last weekend ended with a genuinely conciliatory speech by Jon Stewart, though I haven't listened to it. (I have trouble sitting through long videos on the computer--it does something to my attention span.) In particular, I've read that he suggested that people quit dismissing the Tea Party as racist. Good for him. I hope people heed him. As I know I've said before, the promiscuous and reflexive accusation of racism against any person or movement of somewhat conservative bent is a poisonous and dangerous tactic that needs to stop.

Ok, well, I'm already tired of trying to write about this. It strikes me now that the reason I find it tiresome is not that I don't have anything to say, but that I have too much, and I don't have time to say it all, and the attempt to pick just a few points to remark upon is oddly aggravating.


I should say something about the election, but I don't really want to bother...maybe tomorrow.

I don't know why, but I've gotten very interested in the birds I see on my daily walks with the dogs. I find myself really wanting to know their names, what song goes with what bird, and so forth.  I'm having trouble identifying them because I rarely get a view that's clear and close enough. I know this is a kingfisher, though. 

I want a new camera, one that will let me zoom in much closer.