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Popular topics on this page:
What will Mars do on August 27, 2010?
Inflation-adjusted stock market graph
How to find lost objects
Objectivity makes disagreement possible, and safe
Did Magellan believe a shadow rather than the Church?

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More research...

I have yet another research project starting. The principal investigator (project leader) for this one is Dr. Stefaan Van Liefferinge of the Lamar Dodd School of Art. Don Potter and I are in it on the software and AI side.

(Melody designed the logo.)

The name is Architecture Represented Computationally and the goal is to model how a human being understands a description of a building. Specifically, we're working with Gothic cathedrals; they have definite parts, and there is a detailed language for describing them. The idea is ultimately to have the computer take a verbal description of a cathedral, complete or incomplete, and generate a drawing of how it should look.

Impractical? Maybe not. Think about the amount of real estate that is listed on line, and how often the verbal description doesn't match the picture. Wouldn't it be handy for a computer to be able to catch these? That's not what we're working on right now, but it's the same general technology.

For now, we're doing cathedrals rather than bungalows because they have been analyzed so carefully and there's a relatively limited number of them.


Did Magellan say he had more confidence in a shadow than in the Church?


No; and this fact is not even controversial; but lately, people have been wanting to argue with me about it.

Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) was the first man to lead a fleet of ships around the world (relying on the fact that the earth is round). Recently, the following quote, attributed to him, has become popular:

"The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church."

I've seen this on Facebook several times recently, but I think I also heard it in elementary school, long, long ago.

One thing is clear: That quote is fake. How do we know it's fake?

First, there is no record of Magellan ever saying or writing such a thing. Nobody will tell us where or when he said it. Nobody quotes it until more than 300 years after Magellan's time.

Second, as far as I can determine, the Church never taught that the earth is flat. For a while the Church taught that the earth is stationary (does not orbit the sun), which is a different thing entirely. The fact that the earth is round has been known — to educated people — since before the time of Christ. William of Conches was drawing accurate diagrams of eclipses in the eleventh century (I've seen one).

How do we know the Church never taught the earth is flat? Because there are written records. The doctrines of the Catholic Church have always been written down. And if that were not enough, there are plenty of writings by people criticizing the Catholic Church in Magellan's time, and that's not one of the things they criticize it for. Neither Martin Luther nor Nicholas Copernicus mentions any dispute about whether the earth is flat.

The only thing unclear is who faked the quote. It may have been Robert Ingersoll, an outspoken, abrasive atheist in the early 1800s. For more about this, click here.

Please note that nothing that I've said so far is the least bit controversial. I was therefore startled by the way some people recently wanted to argue with me, on Facebook, when I started pointing out these uncontroversial facts. You'd think advocates of science would want to be faithful to confirmed facts. No such luck, in my recent experience.

It may be that some "scientific" people don't know what history is. Some of my antagonists seemed to imagine that history is just legends passed down from one history book to another. No; history doesn't come from history books; it comes from actual records and artifacts left behind by the people who made it. If you want to know who shot President Kennedy, you go to Dallas and Washington. If you want to know what Copernicus had to say about the shape of the earth, you go to one of hundreds of libraries that have copies of his 1543 book. (It's in Latin; I've seen one of the originals, own a facsimile reprint, and have read it.) For Magellan, you can look at books written by people who knew him, and even a surviving logbook from his voyage.

There may be those who feel that the year 1521 was so long ago that nobody really knows anything about it and we can just make up guesses. That is not the case.


Another unexpected farewell

Quoting what Melody has just posted on Facebook:

Sad news tonight — an old friend from my childhood has died. She was just two days younger than me. We were in Church Choir together at Tucker [Ga.] First Baptist, we played softball together, went to Girl Scouts together, we had tons of sleep-overs and spend-the-night parties, even saw the First Man on the Moon together. God bless you and your family, Karen!

Karen McLean Crump
October 7, 1958 — August 26, 2010


The end of management?

Read this. A columnist in The Wall Street Journal opines that corporate management as we know it is almost obsolete.

To put it bluntly, we're moving back into an era of small businesses and independent contractors. The great 20th-century invention — the corporation, with expertise distributed among huge numbers of "knowledge workers" — was an artifact of limited communication. You had to bring all these people together to get anything done.

Not any more. Individuals and small groups linked by rapid communication and an efficient market may replace corporations, or reduce corporations to skeletons of what they once were.

The corporate career is certainly already dead. If you're any good, nowadays you jump around. Old-fashioned paternalistic employment, with generous benefits and pension, is almost gone.


The empty nest

Tonight (August 23-24) Melody and I are officially empty-nesters: for the first time, both daughters are away at college. Sharon is starting her senior year at Emory, and Cathy is starting law school at the University of Kentucky. Daughters, may God bless the path you have before you.

And we are doing a major clean-up and rearrangement of the whole house. This will probably be a ten-year project...


Objectivity makes disagreement possible — and safe

(Also posted on Facebook.)

The reason I can be friends with people with whom I disagree about important things is that we believe in objective facts. The truth is out there, and we can improve our grasp on it by debating it.

Some people do not believe in objective facts, and for them, all debates are power struggles or popularity contests, and all disagreements are personal rejections.



To write convincing political essays (whether in newspapers or anywhere else) — at least to be convincing to me — you have to understand other people's positions, not just your own. You have to know where you stand on the spectrum, and what the alternatives are, and which alternatives you want to reject.

Yesterday I saw a newspaper column supposedly warning us about "anarchy" but actually advocating anarchism (referring to all taxes as confiscations and all government actions as power grabs). He didn't know he was an anarchist.

Likewise, many people have thought, mistakenly, that George W. Bush was a conservative.

A word to the wise: For a student to harass a faculty member on Facebook is just as bad as if it's done anywhere else.

And here is a good critique of Kurzweil's science-fiction approach to AI. If you come to study AI with me, it won't be anything like that.



I just realized that I have been several days with no cash in my pockets at all — and haven't missed it. I use credit cards for everything (and collect the rebate, and pay them off monthly), and in the University's vending machines I use "Bulldog Bucks," a slightly annoying micropayment system (I wish they just took credit cards or dollar bills).



Spelling error of the day: "Dodge Intrepment" (in a car ad, meaning Dodge Intrepid).

Funniest picture I've seen in a newspaper (unfortunately I can't find a good direct link to an online copy): A contestant in the Miss Universe pageant dressed up as the Great Seal of the United States. That's right: Small girl bedecked with huge fake eagle wings, a five-foot-diameter circle of stars...

Does faute de mieux mean "the cat is being quiet"?


How to find lost objects

In our household, ever since the girls were little, I have been the Finder. I find lost things, even when other people have given up.

I can't claim 100% success, of course, but I'm pretty good. I follow two rules:

(1) Disbelieve anybody who tells you the object is not in a particular place. Look with your own eyes. If people's beliefs about its location were true, it would not be lost.

(2) Lost objects are usually close to their proper place (or close to one of several reasonable places), just hidden from view. You have to think like a policeman doing a search. Account for space, cubic foot by cubic foot, no matter how unlikely it seems that the object went somewhere unusual. If it hadn't gone somewhere unusual, it wouldn't be lost.

On Sunday evening I triumphed again, finding a lost checkbook, right in the very basket where it should have been. Somehow, some other papers and envelopes managed to hide it until I took everything out, one sheet of paper at a time.

But that's not much, compared to the research my colleague David Stooksbury has done on how to find lost people, especially Alzheimer's patients and small children. They tend to travel in straight lines, sticking to roads or going downhill; to slow down markedly when they realize they're lost; and to stop at natural obstacles such as streams and thickets.



I'm trying not to let this turn into an economics blog, but here's an interesting statistic — the average American FICO credit score is rising rapidly. People really are paying off their debts. We've already heard that the level of consumer debt has been going down, but that was partly due to lenders writing off debts. The rising FICO score is definitely due to pay-downs, not write-offs.

Copyright infringement is the sincerest form of flattery — someone has redistributed one of my PowerPoint presentations (in unfinished form, yet) without my permission. All I'm going to ask them to do is replace it with the finished version, which includes the copyright notice. And I'm going to have to start including copyright notices on every presentation I ever make!

One of the most intelligent writers I've come across is my daughter Cathy. Click on the link to see some opinion pieces that she wrote back in 2007.



This fellow posed for me, apparently wanting to investigate the blob of red paint in front of him. Canon 40D, 18-55 zoom lens zoomed out to 55 and stopped down to f/32, image stabilized at about 1/40 second.


Inflation-adjusted stock market graph

Here is my inflation-adjusted stock market graph from October 2008, updated to include current data. (The old version left off before the Panic of 2008 had bottomed out.)

This is a chart of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, and then plotted on a logarithmic scale so that equal percentages show up as equal distances vertically.

Lesson #1: We've been in a bear market for a long time, not just since 2008.

Lesson #2: The stock market did not keep up with the Great Inflation of the 1970s. If you ignore inflation, you'll think the market did pretty well then. But it didn't.

Who benefited from the Great Inflation? Real estate investors, especially private homeowners with mortgages. Real estate usually keeps up with inflation quite reliably. The recent bubble, with real estate going up more than inflation, was anomalous.

Lesson #3: The 1990s were abnormal. I get tired of hearing financial pundits talk about how the stock market can be expected to yield 12% per year. It is not a low-risk investment.


Weird world of finance: HELOC madness

I was gratified recently to find a financial expert who said the same thing I said a while back about home equity loans: they're not unduly dangerous. Indeed, they're one of the great bargains in modern banking, with interest rates currently around 3.25%. (Borrow only for things of lasting value, such as major home repairs, not for luxuries, daily expenses, or risky investments.)

Media pundits were warning everyone off of them because "you're gonna lose your house." To which I reply: "Only if you don't make the payments. You are planning (and able) to make the payments, aren't you?"

But just as this much good sense was breaking out, I learned that now the Bright Young Things are deliberately defaulting on home equity loans. I wonder what they're thinking. (Indeed, I wonder if they're thinking.)

What I'm thinking is, "They're going to ruin it for the rest of us."


Link: "Pound wise and penny foolish"

Here is an interesting essay about why it's better to be frugal on big things and extravagant on small things rather than the other way around.

You can certainly have a dull life if you have Too Much House and Too Much Car and can't afford to have any hobbies or entertainment.

Also, there is a lot of silly, ostentatious frugality whose purpose is to impress people (maybe oneself) rather than actually to save money.


Astronomy and chemistry

Enjoy Brian Combs' amazing animation of the rotation of Jupiter. These are amateur images with (if I'm not mistaken) a 12.5-inch telescope. They are better than any earth-based images of Jupiter from before the Hubble Space Telescope and the advent of video astronomy. Brian's home page is here.

Quaint old science book of the day: A Chymical Catechism, written for young readers in the early 19th Century. Read it on line and enjoy. ("Caloric" means "heat energy," and "alkali" means "hydroxide" exclusively; figuring out the terminology is part of the entertainment.)

See also this magazine article and this picture gallery of chemistry sets. From about 1800 to 1965, there was a progression from books with published lists of supplies and equipment, to prepackaged kits for university students and adult hobbyists, to chemistry sets for youngsters. Then toy-safety legislation — combined with the notion that Americans should be trained to be "managers," not scientists — more or less killed them off. That is a pity, because quite a bit of chemistry is both safe and fascinating, and in the absence of scientific knowledge, superstition takes over (just listen to extreme but naive environmentalists or health-food enthusiasts).

(I also think part of the problem was that the target age range went lower and lower — in the 1930s, chemical kits were marketed to adult experimenters and workshop enthusiasts.)

Our dog, Babbage, has become a scanner-radio hobbyist. I turned on the scanner (police radio receiver) yesterday and he was fascinated. Today he wants to spend the whole day listening to it. Apparently, the pace of the conversations and the variety of voices are just right for him. What's more, on rare occasions one can hear a dog.



Tomorrow (August 9), the last major load of Cathy's possessions will go to Kentucky. Cathy has come and gone many times, but the departure of her things is what really makes it hit us that she out of the nest. Cathy, may God bless the journey you have before you!

If you've never heard any Sacred Harp singing (early American hymnody), here is a good place to start. This is what evangelical churchgoers sang before the 19th-century revivalist movement came along and (in my opinion, misguidedly) put the emphasis on personal feelings. (If you can't understand the words at the beginning of each song, it's because they're rehearsing the notes — fa, so, la, etc. — using a system a bit different than what we're used to.)

Thanks to a generous benefactor, I have a third Selectric typewriter in my (unintentional) collection. This one is in excellent shape except for one minor problem which will be easy to fix. I also have a lot of Selectric III elements but only Selectric II typewriters. Hmmm...



When a university identifies its public image too closely with its football program, and its football program too closely with its drunken fans, and also throws in a party-school culture and ten years of faculty salaries declining relative to inflation, it can end up with a real public-image problem. Who could ever have foreseen this? (Apart from twenty million of its closest friends?) As an alumnus and faculty member, I'm sad.

The whole idea of going to college is becoming sharply less popular anyway. Partly, this is just stupidity on the part of the public, but it's also that colleges may be overpricing themselves, and student loans are oversold.

For a long time I've relied on Dell Latitude laptops (solidly built), but lately, Sharon points out that Asus laptops are looking very good. I'm certainly enjoying my Asus desktop, and I've had other desktops with Asus hardware inside. And this laptop has a couple of nice physical attributes: the hinges are sturdy, and the keyboard has a plastic shield between the keys (like a Macbook, so hairs and trash won't fall in). I'm not buying one just at the moment, but consider it recommended. (Anyhow, it is widely reported that Asus manufactures the Macbook for Apple.)



I just heard a brief radio show on the subject of "communication" and "how to be a better listener."

What it amounted to is that, to the two women on the show, "listening" meant "chattering with occasional attention to the other person's thoughts, not just your own."

Their theory of "listening" apparently did not include closing one's own mouth.

(Some people can't think with their mouths closed. It's a terrible handicap to have. I'm the opposite; I almost can't think with my mouth open. If people ask me a hard question, I go away and think for 15 minutes, then e-mail them the answer.)

There was also the obligatory remark that "men are poor listeners." This was combined with another complaint, which is that men are too eager act on the things women say, rather than just encouraging the chatter and ignoring it.

(OK, now, does "listening" mean "encouraging chatter and ignoring it"? That's not what I would call communication. Hmmm...)



Two things that I like, the C# programming language and low-cost microcontroller programming, have met. I haven't gotten my hands on one of these yet...

What will Mars do on August 27?

What will Mars do on August 27? Nothing. It's on the other side of the Solar System.

On August 27, 2003, Mars was slightly closer to the earth than it had been for a long time, and it would look as big in a 75× telescope as the moon would look with the unaided eye. (Which is not uncommon.) But somehow, the story has kept circulating and growing, and people are now getting e-mails saying there will be two moons in the sky on August 27, one of which is Mars!


What are we to make of the Amish?

The Amish — the people, mostly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, who cling to an early-19th-century lifetyle — are a revered part of the American landscape. We instinctively give them the honor that is due to our own 19th-century forebears. They're still living the same way, piously and austerely, without automobiles, electricity, or indoor plumbing. They're a living history museum.

In an interview I heard on the radio this morning, Mary Schrock, an ex-Amish author, confirmed a couple of things I had already begun to be concerned about:

  • Many of those people aren't there voluntarily. Peer pressure and their lack of education confine them to the Amish setting whether or not they want to be there. They simply aren't equipped to function on the outside. They are not individuals who chose asceticism as a personal lifestyle.
  • Arguably, the Amish are not Christians, though they think they are. (I was wondering why other Christian groups never hear from them.) The Amish reportedly lack the basic Christian belief that salvation comes from trusting God. Instead, they are trying to earn God's favor by living a "sacrificial life." This is something they made up on their own — it is not Biblical.

Ms. Schrock in fact leads a ministry to the Amish people whose goal is not to wipe out the Amish lifestyle, but simply to give people alternatives, not only information about biblical Christianity, but also practical assistance overcoming Amish-imposed handicaps, such as help getting birth certificates, driving lessons, and education.

The present-day Amish are not our 19th-century forebears, and we don't owe them the respect due to our ancestors and pioneers. Frankly, if their sect were springing up new today, we would probably all view it as rather dangerous and oppressive. Do parents have a right to forbid their children to go to high school? The Amish get away with it, and we confused but respectful Americans give them our approval. Perhaps that is a mistake. We don't let parents or religious groups impose that much oppression on anybody else, anywhere else.

I realize a certain kind of person will classify me as unpatriotic or intolerant for saying what I've just said. But please, as C. S. Lewis used to say, "think what you're thinking" before you jump to conclusions.


Are coupon claims bogus?

Part of the new culture of personal finance includes people claming to save hundreds of dollars per month, or buy full baskets of groceries for just a few dollars, by using coupons.

I wonder.

I don't have any empirical data on this, but I'm skeptical, simply because coupon issuers aren't in business to lose money. I think somebody may be overlooking something.

A coupon only saves you X dollars if:

  • The item is something you would have certainly bought anyway.
  • By getting you into the store, the coupon didn't cause you to buy anything else that you would not have bought anyway.
  • The coupon saved you X dollars, not compared to the list price for the item you bought, but compared to the lowest-priced item available anywhere that would have met your needs.

I would wager that the people who issue coupons are betting that at least one of the three is false most of the time. (Not all the time; sometimes they simply want you to try a new brand. But then you have to deal with the risk that the new brand won't suit you.)

Data, anyone?


A welcome breath of financial skepticism

Today I'm going to resort to the lowest form of blogging, i.e., merely referring you to another blog.

That blog is badmoneyadvice.com, and the author, a trained financier, hits many of the same economic topics that I've been mentioning, but has greater expertise.

Basically, he's an incisive critic of many of the silly ideas that are circulating as part of the Panic of 2008 and the new culture of thrift.

Some high points:

Browse through his well-indexed blog pages and read on. I am gratified to see him defending things I've thought or done in the past, which I thought were good ideas at the time, and which the new culture now deplores. Maybe I'm smarter than I thought. Or maybe I've found someone else who makes the same mistakes.

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