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31 March 2005

What's going on in your surgeon's brain?

I guess eventually I'll get over the Imax Crisis, and go back to blogging about my kitty-cat Snuffles, and why relationships are so difficult, but I got to tell this True Story first.

I used to be a newspaper reporter in Miami, and the reporter who sat next to me was this really nice, smart, funny older lady who was suing the paper for employment discrimination, so the paper was punishing her by making her the Religion Reporter. (She liked fires and hurricanes and corpses and cocaine smugglers and other ghastly disruptions of civic life just like I did.)

At just about this time, Creationism started rearing its questionable head in the public dialogue. Alice liked that, because unlike most Religion Stories, this one had strife and anger and bitterness and controversy, and Holy People cursing and damning members of the school board and accusing them of being Heathen Atheists. Creationism was bumping her stories off the Religion Page (Saturday Page 12, surrounded by all the Sunday church service ads) and right onto Page One, Above The Fold, on Tuesday or Thursday or any damn day they happened. Creationism was making Religion Fun for Alice -- a genuine miracle on that beat.

But Creationism was very new and just beginning to get organized, and the only Creationism Spokesperson Alice could find to interview was out in Southern Califormia. He was thrilled to talk to her, and the paper was delighted to pay the long-distance phone bill for these hot, controversial stories.

But the stories would be much better for our readers if Alice could find a Local Hook, somebody who actually lived in South Florida who was trying to shove Creationism up the asses of Florida school systems, some nearby Floridian who was trying to delete all references to that vile and blasphemous Evolution falsehood from the Dade and Broward County kiddies' textbooks.

Meanwhile, one of Alice's knees was starting to give out. Eventually she was referred to an M.D. orthopedic surgeon, and he slapped her into the hospital, put her under, carved on her and replaced her old bum knee with a new artificial titanium knee. A month later she was getting around pretty well, another satisfied new knee customer. And back sitting next to me on the Religion Beat, and back on the phone with Creationism Guy out in Southern California.

Finally she told Creationism Guy, "I really appreciate all the help you've given me, but is there anyone in Florida who I can talk to about what's going on locally with your movement?"

"Why, yes!" Creationism Guy said. And he proceeded to give her the name and phone number of the doctor who had just carved on her knee while she was under anesthesia for an hour. Her very own surgeon, who had been messing around inside her body, believed that God made every creature in the sea and the air and the land in five days, on the sixth he made Adam, and because Adam was lonely, He made Eve out of one of his ribs, and then on the seventh day He rested. That's how we all got here, believed the leading-edge state-of-the-art Medical Scientist who'd just replaced her knee.

I'm almost back to the Imax censorship crisis

Somewhere in an earlier post (when my Free Software let me post images) there's a homemade picture of the mysterious ghostly phenomenon in which supercold liquid Helium II creeps up and out of its glass tube to rejoin and equalize a lower level of He II. I mention it because I saw photos of it in a fancy Time/Life science book an aunt bought for me when I was 12, and it made lightning in my brain for the rest of my life. Forty years later I actually met a physics grad student (Helium Boy) who messed with the supercold goop, and he verified that I'd remembered this weird phenomenon accurately, just from seeing it once back in the days when I was a member of the Alice Deal Jr. High Duck & Cover Club (more about which coming soon).

Andrew Wiles, the Princeton mathematician who finally proved Fermat's Last Theorem, first got the bug when he read about FLT -- the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics for centuries -- in a recreational Boys' Math Book when he was about 12. (He later forgot the title of the book.) Okay, you know this, right? There are gazillions of all-whole-number solutions to the old Pythagorean thing

x² + y² = z²

... the most famous one being

3² + 4² = 5²

but can you find just one solution in all whole numbers to

x³ + y³ = z³

or in any higher whole-number exponent 4 or 5 or ... ?

And if you can't, can you prove that there are no whole-number solutions for any integer exponent greater than 2?

The real tease that drove the world nuts (and attracted droves of the world's nuts) for 300 years is that Fermat wrote: "I have discovered a truly remarkable proof which this margin is too small to contain." Nobody's sure if he did or not, the "proof" was never found anywhere else in his papers ... but with Fermat's Really Big Math Brain, he could have found a proof!

When Wiles first ran across this nifty puzzle (the question is South Park Simple ... but the answer is Cambridge Senior Wrangler Much Less Simple), he was 12 and didn't have the math skills to even try to solve FLT. But he stuck with it for 29 years. He did the work without a computer, just pencil and paper, in an attic room without a phone. And in secret, because FLT had acquired a bad rep among frustrated professional mathematicians that only lunatics tried to solve it.

Einstein began wondering what the world would look like if he could fly as fast as light when he was about 14.

Helium II, Fermat's Last Theorem, Relativity ... things in Science, Nature and Mathematics have the power to electrify the minds of children, and the spark illuminates their imaginations forever. One picture in a science book, one field trip to an Imax movie about the oceans can create Jonas Salk (the polio vaccine guy) or Banting and Best (the Canadian insulin guys), or Einstein, or Rosalind Franklin (who took the x-rays that revealed the structure of DNA) -- or the little girl who's growing up right now to discover the cure for AIDS. She could be on the school field trip bus to the Imax science center right now.

But we're all shit out of luck if the 6-story-tall documentary she was supposed to see was cancelled, because the narrator said living species evolved from earlier species over millions and billions of years.

These electric childhood conversions are also common in music, but music prodigies are luckier ... they can get up to speed and make world-recognized achievements, like Mozart or Glenn Gould, when they're still South Parkies. The ear and brain do the math automatically for gifted musicians.

But it's really artificial and misleading to separate the Little Mozarts from the Little Einsteins (he played the fiddle). In their little brains, it's the same stuff. The most talented soloists in my high school orchestra were also the school's top math and science students. Two of them are symphony conductors now, and the brilliant boy pianist who couldn't make a living at it became a biochemist. (Edward Teller, the Father of the H-Bomb, played Bach sublimely. I always thought he was Kubrick's model for Doctor Strangelove, but my Nephew Kwak says it's another Hungarian supergenius, John von Neumann.)

Sir William Herschel was the organist, composer and conductor for the English royal court, and his sister Caroline the choir soloist. They had a nighttime hobby, astronomy, built their own backyard telescope, and discovered the planet Uranus, a couple of its moons, new comets ... so the court musicians ended up as The King's Astronomer, and Assistant to the King's Astronomer (with life pensions). Herschel's position eventually morphed to the title of Astronomer Royal; there's still one of those today. (I'd kill for that job, and I think the AR's office is in Christopher Wren's Old Royal Observatory at Greenwich.)

Since Kepler became transfixed, mathematically and mystically, with The Music of the Spheres, the mathematics of the planets and the mathematics of music have been largely indistinguishable. You just need more math to compute comet orbits than you do to play Bix Beiderbecke's "In a Mist," but it's the same math, been the same since Pythagoras discovered its laws around 550 BC. (A fabulous new recording of Beiderbecke's dreamy jazz compositions is called "Private Astronomy.")

Wiles was an English clergyman's son when Fermat's little puzzle first teased him. From centuries before the Enlightenment to the Victorian Age, British science is lousy with Christian divines sticking their noses, often brilliantly, into science; and on the Continent, Catholic priests and friars (Mersenne, Clavius, Copernicus et al.) were also outstanding figures in the development of math and science. Charles Darwin was heading toward a career as an Anglican clergyman when the talented geology student was invited aboard the round-the-world voyage of HMS Beagle as its naturalist.

The Rev. Thomas Malthus must have suspected that his amateur scientific inquiries might get him into a bit of professional trouble with Organized Christianity, because he published his "Essay on the Principle of Population" anonymously in 1798. You only need simple junior-high algebra to understand his troubling conclusion.

At its most optimistic, food production can only grow arithmetically: a constantly steep up-ramp with time. But human population always increases geometrically or exponentially: an increasingly steep exponential curve with time. No matter how few people you start with, and how efficient your farmers are, eventually population will overtake and outstrip food production. (Because of Malthus, economics is nicknamed "the Dismal Science.")

Malthus said so (but didn't want to sign his name to it). Eventually there's going to be a food shortage, crisis, or famine.

If you disagree, please explain your disagreement in a Comment, I want to see that. Please use at least as much algebra as Malthus did.

Or, if you like, ignore arithmetic entirely and argue that we'll never run out of food because God or Jesus will never let that happen. (This argument relies on Faith.) What the hell, argue whatever you want.

* * *

Okay, now I have to go to the Recycling Center. Hang with me and eventually we'll get back to the Imax Censorship Crisis, which sucks, it really sucks, and it's really going to get us all into very big trouble. It's poisoning the minds of our South Park kids.

We were sort of hoping a few of them would grow up to cure cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Disease, spinal cord injuries, figure out how to get limitless non-polluting electricity from seawater, and prove the Riemann Hypothesis.

But because of this Fundie faith-based creation-science intelligent-design crap going on down at the Imax, we are shit out of luck, they're going to grow up to be Fundie Bushie Moral Majority 700 Club politicians who will get down on their knees and pray while they forbid stem cell research and all sorts of other divinely-inspired holy junk science laws and government policies.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste down at the Imax.

30 March 2005

Imax crap and South Parkies

SteveHeath commented:

If they outlaw IMAX films about evolution, only Outlaws will be in IMAX films abo---no wait...That's not how it goes...

Bud seriously, they can intimidate the IMAX owners I guess ("It's not going to draw crowds and it's controversial..") but they can't shut down the Net.

All in all it's just another attempted Brick in the Wall, but it's too late. Not enough Puritan Thumbs to plug the Dike which is now beginning to resemble Swiss cheese. Besides, many of them keep their thumbs reserved for other pleasu---errrr, activities, so I think we'll make it.

* * *

I've been playing fast and loose and playful with religion and theology, but the censorship of Imax movies finally moves these posts into Serious Business. It's not a direct attack by Organized Religion against Organized Science. It's something a lot creepier and more worrisome. It's part of an aggressive trend to go after children and form their attitudes about these ideas and debates.

One thing we notice in the Terri Schiavo unhappiness is that children are being pushed to the fore in the protests in the street in front of her hospice. I like children a lot, and I have pretty crisp memories of myself as a child, of the way I thought and saw the world.

But there's a question (not easy to answer): When Mom and Dad have issues with the Government, is it appropriate to encourage Sis and Junior to march with them?

I personally love to drive past a rally and see 10-year-olds among the throng calling for an immediate end to the war in Iraq. But I'm not happy to see 10-year-olds demanding the governor of Florida and the Supreme Court intervene -- almost no kids I've seen (two or three have been arrested) called for the government to stay out of this mess. All the kids' signs call on the government to re-insert the feeding and hydration tube.

It's not unfair or unreasonable to conclude that I think it's appropriate for a 10-year-old to publicly protest when he/she reflects my opinions, and I think it's troublesome and worrisome and bad parenting when a 10-year-old challenges cops and gets all CNN and Fox for opinions I diametrically oppose.

I really don't know how to resolve this paradox so cleverly that all 10-year-olds have equal rights to passionately express the full spectrum of controversial opinions. And if I can get busted down at the Air Force Base to protest Desert Storm (but they dropped the charges, myuhahahaha, one arrest, no convictions, aaaaargh!), why must we forbid minors from crossing the line into civil disobedience to express their passionate beliefs?

Remember yourself back to your Youth, and see how this massages your ears: "I'm sorry, we feel you're too young to make that kind of decision, so you can't go downtown to protest [insert terrible thing here]."

One difference between Terrible Things is that some passionate beliefs about some Terrible Things just tend to appeal to the South Park crew, while their opposing beliefs tend to be beliefs that slowly come into focus in one's 20s or 30s or even worsely superannuated.

Back during the Hot Years of our military adventure in Vietnam, "End The Draft Right Now" tended to be highly age-specific and gender-specific. But not exclusively. College women were purposely getting low grades to skew the GPA curve so guys had a better chance of keeping their student draft deferments.

In a little hilltown-farmtown about 15 miles from me, an entire elementary school class (at the helpful suggestion of their teacher) went down to Town Hall with homemade signs which said: PLEASE DON'T KILL OUR BEAVERS. (Farmers hate beavers -- that's probably an unfair stereotype, but if you lived in New England farm country, you'd reach that stereotype, too.) Their protest against Town Hall's beavercide plan made the morning news show on ABC-TV, it went nationwide, the Good Morning America hosts were holding live interviews with the adorable elementary school kids about why they wanted to save the adorable beavers.

After the Town Council backed down from their plan to exterminate every goddam beaver they could find, and chose humane relocation instead, a few Selectmen hinted to the teacher that if she ever pulled a stunt like that again with their adorable kids, she would be out of a job. They not only disagreed with her feelings about beavers, but felt it was inappropriate to conduct town business in an environment of adorable elementary school kids, particularly their own adorable kids. They were getting Crayola hate mail from Colorado.

Actually, because I like beavers and don't want them shot or poisoned, I thought the inclusion of adorable schoolkids was perfectly appropriate (because it worked bigtime and saved the beavers).

Well, just because this is complicated doesn't mean it's not a problem, or doesn't need some work to find a solution.

The notion that we have so many Imax patrons who'd be offended by references to Evolution in "World of the Giant Squid" that more and more Imax theaters won't book "World of the Giant Squid" just scares the shit out of me.

I happen to be a Big Fan of Evolution. I have Darwin posters on my bedroom wall. Actually no, but I have read "Voyage of the Beagle" and big chunks of "Descent of Man" and "The Origin of Species," and I think they're all pips. I've also read a lot by and about Alfred Wallace, who came up with the theory of Natural Selection independently of and around the same time as Darwin -- it was such a tie (like Napier and Bürgi)
that Darwin never tried to claim that he was first; Darwin and Wallace published a joint paper and shared the credit.

Darwin also has great papers about earthworms and racing pigeons, and Wallace has a scream of a kitschy long epic poem about naked aborigines cavorting and gamboling wild and free as Nature intended on the banks of the Amazon.

I actually did have to spend several years in Religious School (gazing out the window wishing I could cavort and gambol in Rock Creek Park), so I was, as a child, told by very serious adults that, according to the Word of God, the World was created in six days, and on the seventh day, He rested. (Before they let me escape, I had to learn to read that very Book in Hebrew. My brain was bleeding. But as lingos go, Biblical Hebrew is quite easy to learn, its rules are simple and rational. The Massachusetts Pilgrim Fathers kept their official colony journal in Hebrew.)

So why didn't it take? Why am I screaming about this attack against Evolution down at the Imax, and not rejoicing that the godless atheist bio-scientists and their giant-screen documentary-producing minions have been kicked in the economic and political tolchocks, and been dealt a crippling defeat during the Bush-era Fundie Culture Wars? What happened to my Faith, which was fed to me when I was a little South Parkie (because Faith is not instinctive, as the term-paper for sale said Luther said)?

If I got a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Oxford, and spent a year underwater in SCUBA gear with an Imax camera documenting the goings-on of the Squid, I would be one very annoyed scientist to find that The Houston Science Center refused to show my masterpiece because my narrator had mumbled stuff about how millions of years of Natural Selection had created these amazingly well-suited creatures. If my producer phoned and asked me to substitute some narration about how it was equally likely that God created the Squid on the Fourth Day, I'd go ballistic.

Did I mention the new buzzword? First the Fundies tried to put "Creation Science" in the public-school textbooks, and that worked pretty well, it sounded suffiently scientific to persuade most Texas schools (the biggest single textbook market in the USA) and school systems all over the Sun Belt. But in the last two or three years, they push "intelligent design" -- in other words, how could you possibly end up with so perfect a creature as a Squid unless some great intelligence was behind it? Compelling logic, if at the end of the day you want to convince schoolkids that God made the Squid, right there, all at once.

This Imax stuff is scandalous, but it ain't new. Public-school textbooks have been Dummying Down, and bleaching all the Evolution out of them, and substituting blatant versions of Genesis, for at least the last decade. Pizza slices for anybody who can research the recent American history of these creepy science textbook changes.

Of course this is just the latest development in an ancient and fierce fight. In Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, a high school teacher named John T. Scopes was arrested on a criminal charge of teaching a theory of the origin of living species that contradicted the Bible's Genesis account, and it's high on the list of loud ballyhoo scandals that the media dubbed "The Trial of the Century." (It's usually abbreviated as "The Scopes Monkey Trial.")

Actually Scopes agreed in advance to set himself up to be busted for lecturing his class about Evolution so the ACLU could challenge the Tennessee law. Two historical giants served as the opposing lawyers, Clarence Darrow for Scopes, and William Jennings Bryan (thrice Democratic candidate for president). But it's frequently been against USA state laws to contradict Genesis in a classroom, or within earshot of Youth. They don't come down on your head the way they do for selling drugs to Youth, but they have a mugshot and handcuffs and an overnight cell for you anyway.

More soon, I have to pick up the Chinese food from Tong Sing (highly recommended).

29 March 2005

e-mail from Switzerland!

I am in receipt of an e-mail from my Swiss pal Pat Z. asking me to blog more math stuff. This is like asking me to please eat more chocolates, drink more champagne, and spend more afternoons watching ecdysiasts at The Whately Ballet; as they say down at the substance-abuse clinic, Pat is enabling me.

Pat is a fellow member of the Glenn Gould Kult, whose Internet code name is f_minor (Glenn's favorite musical key).

The very first thing I want to do for Pat Z. is to apologize for all the recent posts ballyhooing the Scottish loony John Napier as the discoverer of those swell logarithms that gave all us Kinder a week of bad migraines when we studied algebra.

Napier is actually in a Tie for First Place with the Swiss guy Jost or Joost Bürgi (1552 - 1632). When not discovering logarithms, he was Europe's best clockmaker. He and Johannes Kepler were pen pals, Kepler was very impressed with Bürgi's logarithms, and pursuaded him to publish the nifty little things.

Kepler had been assistant to the Danish astronomer and loony nobleman Tycho Brahe. Brahe (whose very handsome tin nose was 2nd Prize in a youthful swordfight) spent decades in his little island kingdom of Uraniborg (dedicated to Urania, muse of astronomy) very precisely tracking the movements of the visible planets in the era before the invention of the telescope. (Okay, he used verrrrrrry long sighting tubes that rotated on verrrrry big circles.)

When Brahe died, Kepler inherited his planetary tables -- the best in the world. Brahe had never been able to make much sense out of the movements of the planets, but he and Kepler suspected that somehow, these volumes and volumes of numbers (called the Rudolphine Tables, after the prince who paid to have them published) concealed deep and important secrets about How the Solar System Worked, and why the planets careened and staggered around the night skies in such screwy ways. (From time to time they like to reverse direction and go backwards for a few weeks, then forward again -- retrograde motion.)

Kepler faced a monstrous task of number-crunching, but just at that moment, Bürgi came along with his logarithms. Logs turned every multiplication problem into a far quicker and simpler addition problem, and every division problem into a far easier subtraction problem. And logs were the first tool which could quickly take square roots, cube roots, any roots. Logs cut an hour of excruciating manual computation down to five minutes.

So Bürghi's logs allowed Kepler to discover his Three Laws of Planetary Motion -- the Instruction Manual for how the planets fly around the Sun. And that's a Good Thing.

And that's a Swiss Thing. So Swiss Things are Good Things. Other Good Swiss Things: Friederich Durrenmatt, and (the Swiss side of) C.E.R.N.

Cold War musical interlude

I've already posted the lyrics to "Be Prepared," Tom Lehrer's depraved Boy (and Girl) Scout song from around 1957. In the 1950s, Lehrer, a Harvard math professor, seemed to have no respect or reverence for patriotism, sexual mores, religion, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, our heroin and marihuana laws -- Jesus, I'm telling you, Tenure Is Powerful.

This guy would get up on stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people, and eventually was a regular on network prime-time television, and sing original songs about the most forbidden, lewd, blasphemous and perverted goings-on, and always smiling, or leering. His singing voice was what you'd expect a singing math professor to sound like.

It's not hard to find his mp3s. Although everything he released was in vinyl, affacianadi obsessively transferred his oeuvre to every new storage medium; I used to hang on the original anarchic Napster, and there was a very brisk trade in Lehrer songs. Napster was much more than Green Day and NIN and Phish and Prince.

Here, from smack dab in the middle of the Cold War, is Lehrer's World War III pop song. He figured the war was going to be so brief -- see the Fargo-Moscow ICBM flight time calculations in previous post -- that if it was going to have any songs at all, we'd better start writing and singing them before the war started.

There are some notes about geezersjit at the end.


So Long, Mom (a Song for World War III)

by Tom Lehrer (1965)
(guitar chords)

LEHRER: This year we've been celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War and the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of World War I and the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II. So all in all, it's been a good year for the war buffs. And a number of LPs and television specials have come out capitalizing on all this nostalgia, with particular emphasis on the songs of the various wars.

I feel that if any songs are gonna come out of World War III, we'd better start writing them now. I have one here. Might call it a bit of pre-nostalgia.

This is the song that some of the boys sang as they went bravely off to World War III:*

So long, mom,
I'm off to drop the bomb,
So don't wait up for me.
But while you swelter
Down there in your shelter
You can see me
On your TV.

While we're attacking frontally
Watch Brinkally and Huntally**
Describing contrapuntally
The cities we have lost.
No need for you to miss a minute of the agonizing holocaust. Yeah!

Little Johnny Jones, he was a US pilot,
And no shrinking violet was he.
He was mighty proud when World War III was declared.
He wasn't scared, no siree!

And this is what he said on
His way to Armageddon:

So long, mom,
I'm off to drop the bomb,
So don't wait up for me.
But though I may roam,
I'll come back to my home
Although it may be
A pile of debris.

Remember, mommy,
I'm off to get a commie,
So send me a salami
And try to smile somehow.
I'll look for you when the war is over,
An hour and a half from now!


* In World War II, there was a popular song called Goodbye Momma, I'm Off to Yokahama. Alas, I haven't yet found the lyrics.

** Chet Huntley (1911-1974) and David Brinkley (1920-2003), co-anchors of famed "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" [NBC evening news] which ran from 1956-1970, and won Emmies in 1959 and 1960.

28 March 2005

The Duck & Cover Club, Alice Deal JHS Chapter

If I go to my nth high school reunion this summer (see earlier simple quadratic equation to learn my age), there are going to be human beings there (I suspect all female) who will squeal, "Those were the best times of my life!" (Think: cheerleaders.)

Is that scary or what? Either they were abducted by pirates and sold into the Sultan's hareem the year after they graduated, or else something was happening to them in high school which sure wasn't happening to me. Maybe sex -- AIDS hadn't been invented yet, but neither had birth control pills. Well, they're as old as I am, so maybe the Sultan finally let them out of the seraglio in time to make it to their nth high school reunion.

But last post I mentioned that I went to the Washington DC public schools and was a charter member of The Duck & Cover Club. Perhaps you are way youther than I am, and I am way geezer than you are, and I am talking about stuff sooooo 1960 that you're a little hazy about the details, or maybe weren't even born yet.

How long ago are we talking? Well, fasten your seatbelts: We bought recorded music in the form of vinyl analog discs, the big long ones revolved at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, the small short ones at 45 revolutions per minute. You could see the metal needle that followed the groove and electromechanically turned the wiggles into the music.

If you want to touch and examine some of these amazing artifacts, tag sale season is just now starting in the northern hemisphere, lots of us geezers didn't make it through the winter, their heirs no longer own phonograph turntables, so they're getting rid of the Led Zeppelin and Perry Como vinyl records. (While you're at the tag sale, don't forget to buy me all the old slide rules.)

Here's the Scoop

Back in them times, there used to be this Real Big Geopolitical Entity called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was The Other Superpower. Its English acronym was the USSR. In its own Cyrillic alphabet it called itself CCCP (pronounced Es Es Es Air), that's what they used to stencil on its bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, like we stenciled USA on ours.

A lot, maybe most Americans, just called it Russia, and that's what it had been before 1917, when the Commies overthrew the Tsar and took him and his family for a long ride into the country and snuffed him and the Tsarina and the Tsareyevitch and a lot of potential heirs and heiresses.

The capital of the USSR was Moscow, and the center of its streamlined decision-making apparatus was a government compound called the Kremlin. Their combined version of our FBI and CIA was the KGB, or the NKVD, and you didn't want to mess with them; they had a streamlined criminal-justice system, too. Vladimir Putin, who now runs Russia, used to run the KGB. (President Bush I used to run the CIA.)

For what it's worth, in its heyday under Lenin and Stalin, the USSR snuffed a very equivalent number of people to the ones Nazi Germany snuffed, and the USSR's Gulag system was every bit as big and nasty as the Nazi concentration camps. It's not worth debating here which Axis was more Evil -- suffice it to say you wouldn't have wanted to be Officially Designated Unpopular under either regime, you would have been equally unhappy, uncomfortable, hungry, vanished, or equally dead. If you were Jewish and managed to escape from Nazi Germany, it was a mistake to flee to the Soviet Union, that was pretty much always the wrong direction.

But for us little boys and girls at Ben Murch Elementary, Alice Deal Junior High School and finally Woodrow Wilson High in Washington DC, history, ideology, economics and politics weren't important. The only things that were important was that the USA and the USSR

1. were very pissed off at and scared to death of one another

2. both had thermonuclear bombs

3. both had missiles, bombers and nuclear submarines to deliver their thermonuclear bombs to the other superpower's cities.

By the time we were in junior high school, the standard American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM -- everybody knew that acronym) with a thermonuclear bomb in its nose (actually several of them) was the Minuteman. Its stats were more or less public, as were the shape and size of the Earth, and the latitudes and longitudes of and Great Circle distances between places like Fargo, North Dakota, Washington DC, and Moscow, either the one in Idaho or the one in Russia. The Minuteman was typically stored in hardened concrete silos in the northern states of the American West, because this region was closest, via the North Pole, to the Soviet Union. They were solid fueled, so they were always ready to launch at the press of a button.

Practical Algebra and Trigonometry

We studied Algebra by the end of junior high and took Trig in high school. Everything that follows doesn't need a home computer, or even a scientific calculator, neither of which existed yet. If you were a total nerd and really wanted to work this out precisely, the most high-tek gizmo you needed was a slide rule, but you didn't even need one of those. Every trig textbook had a crude table of trigonometric functions and a crude logarithm table in the back, and you could get crude but sufficiently accurate answers with pencil and paper. The World Almanac or the Information Please Almanac had tables of latitudes and longitudes of the world's biggest cities, and tables of air distances between them.

The Minuteman went into service in 1962. A Minuteman flies a bit faster than 15,000 (statute) miles per hour and has a range of 6,300 miles. The airline flying distance between Fargo, North Dakota and Moscow, Russia is 4,885 miles.

If we keep the argument just this crude, then the flight time from launch to kaboom is 19 minutes 33 seconds.

But actually it takes considerably longer. An ICBM doesn't fly two or three miles above the Earth like an airplane. The Minuteman has a maximum altitude of 700 miles, and the whole path probably resembles a steep parabola high into space. Perhaps a more realistic flight time from angry button push to city vaporization is the better part of one hour.

I'm sure we liked to flatter ourselves that our ICBMs were faster and more accurate than the USSR's, and the nukes in our Minuteman's nose packed more whollop, and I don't mind patriotically signing off on those assumptions. But what we just computed about sending a Minuteman from North Dakota to Moscow -- that's roughly the same story for a Soviet ICBM dispatched from the USSR, over the Arctic Ocean, to the playground of Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington DC.

And accuracy doesn't matter very much in a thermonuclear ICBM competition. If the Evil Godless Commies were aiming for Washington DC, but their k-Mart gyros screwed up and they only hit Baltimore or Richmond -- well, that still would have been very lousy picnic weather in DC that week.


I'm not exactly sure what one pound of TNT will do, but I am sure that I'd like to be very far away when it went off -- just guessing, I'd like to be in a ditch about a football field away.

Here is a very information-packed nostalgia site about the nuclear weapons that the Strategic Air Command used to carry in their inventory. TNT (trinitrotoluene) is the conventional explosive that's used to measure the destructive power of conventional, fission and fusion bombs. By my junior high years, SAC was prepared to lob fusion bombs on the Godless Commies measured in megatons -- millions of tons of TNT. One model, suitable for dropping from a bomber like the B1 Stealth, is the Mk-53, with a yield of 9,000,000 tons of TNT. Even though there's no SAC anymore, there are still fifty Mk-53 hydrogen bombs ready to rock n roll in the USA's inventory.

The SAC site is a little less public about missile warhead yields, but you seen one hydrogen bomb, you pretty much seen 'em all. Think: megatons.

So far, the only nuclear weapons that have been used against fellow human beings are Little Boy, the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and Fat Man, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945. Little Boy had a yield of 12,500 tons of TNT, and Fat Man had a yield of 22,000 tons of TNT.

These TNT comparisons are concerned only with immediate blast effects, and don't take into account the major qualitative difference between nuclear and conventional explosives: ionizing radiation, immediate, lingering, and drifting. In "On the Beach" (1959), nobody dies from blast effects; all the architecture is unharmed and quite beautiful all the way to the title that says "The End"; the superpowers don't waste their missiles on out-of-the-way Australia.

Well -- I hate to reveal surprise endings, so rent the video with Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire.


Okay, now I have errands to run. Actually, I'm quite excited -- I'm cooking Hashed Brown Potatoes, or Home Fries, whatever you call them, for about twenty people for tonight's dinner at our town's winter homeless shelter. They're delicious! Let me know if you want the recipe!

But I have lots more to say about The Duck & Cover Club of Alice Deal Junior High School. All I've written about so far is Cold War Doom & Gloom -- what a bummer!

But there WAS something us elementary school kids could do to protect ourselves from a falling hydrogen bomb! And we did it very often! We practiced! And I remember how! I can still do it! And I'll tell you youngsters how!

26 March 2005

Napier's Magicke Black Rooster

You may have suspected from the last post that I'm a Boffin, which is UK-ish for scientist, usually of the mad or addled variety.

No I am not -- but I just always wanted to be a mad scientist.

Most of what I saw as a child urged me to become a cowboy or a fireman or a spaceman or a policeman, and then when my folks started nudging me with their unsolicited opinions, the Medical Arts were recommended very strongly. (My mom bought me The Visible Man for my birthday, and I performed many really pointless surgical procedures on it. I pioneered the Spleen Relocation. I don't recall my rents ever suggesting I become a Beatnik or a Beat Poet or a Jazz Musician.)

But somewhere I must have seen a Boffin. Superman was always flying to Metropolis Observatory and getting advice or warnings from the scientists there. Superman was the strongest man on Earth, but he needed the boffins to tell him what needed to be pushed around, or fetched from Dwingeloo 2, or flown to the middle of the Sun. To Boffins, Superman was just a guy who was useful for heavy lifting, or for rides.

I loved the way Boffins dressed and wore their hair -- as if their moms had abruptly stopped dressing them and combing their hair. And I got the definite impression that Cactus Junction would get by without the Lone Ranger, but Metropolis, or the Earth, was Up Shit's Creek without its boffins and their advice and gizmos.

Albert Einstein died when I was eight, and I remember seeing lots of photos and film on TV all weekend (it interrupted my cartoons and pre-empted "Captain Video"), and getting the distinct impression from the hushed tones of the news announcers that this screwy-looking guy who hadn't combed his hair since around 1900 was the reason World War II ended so suddenly, and also why all the adults were so worried and nervous. (Cf. "On the Beach" by Neville Shute, or better yet, rent the video starring Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, but don't expect dancing or Gershwin tunes.)

Right about then, doctors began prescribing the first anti-unhappiness pill, Milltown (Meprobamate), and it was an instant smash, it was bigger than Kate Smith. I don't remember anyone calling it Einstein Candy, but that might have been a good nickname for it.

I am a charter member of The Duck and Cover Club. I went to the Washington DC public schools in the 1950s, and we understood very clearly that the playground of Alice Deal Junior High School had a big bullseye painted on it; we weren't stoopid.

Cowboys and firemen had nothing on this guy. Superman was ringing Einstein's doorbell. In "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a Visitor fom Outer Space lands his way rad phat bitchin awesome flying saucer in (my!) Washington DC (notice that he did not land in Omaha or Wilmington, Delaware), and while he's sneaking around my neighborhood (he steals a suit from the dry cleaners at Walter Reed because he looks out of place in his aluminum foil soot), he goes straight to visit The Guy Who's Supposed to Be Einstein (Sam Jaffe). Einstein isn't home, so the Space Guy fixes Einstein's blackboard equations.

Tell me you've seen this movie. Klaatu barada nikto. Okay, so it's in black and white, so you're getting ripped off, but it has lots of sound, and it has a REALLY COOL ... oh, just rent the goddam thing tonight, okay? You can see Little Bobby in short pants picking my nose down by the Washington Monument, gawking at the flying saucer. Bernard Herrmann wrote the score. Three words: theremin! theremin! theremin!

(Back before I married SWMBO, I dated a woman who refused to watch any movies that didn't have sound or color. She was convinced there was something very creepy and defective about a movie that had no color or sound. Who the hell am I? Maybe she was right. Maybe it's time to re-make "Citizen Kane" with Keanu Reeves. And he's always on the cell phone. And Rosebud was his snowboard.)

Anyway, remember John Napier from the last post? He discovered logarithms, which were followed in very short order by the invention of The Slide Rule. He was a Scots baron, 8th Laird of Merchiston, and lived in a medieval castle in Edinburgh. This was around 1600, and Scotland was not exactly an educationally or scientifically advanced or sophisticated neighborhood. (No place was, but Scotland considerably less so.)

The best explanation the people of Scotland could make of Napier was that he was a dangerous magical wizard, a thaumaturge, and a practitioner of ye Blacke Artes. He found this consensus to be personally convenient, as very few people tried to fuck with him or thwart him, because they didn't want their cows to die or their scrotums to shrivel up.

One persistent fable about him is that he figured out a way to vaporize a flock of sheep from a mile away, with some kind of ray, but after this successful demonstration, he refused to reveal how he'd done it, and never repeated it. Like Paganini's violin-playing arrangement with the Devil, this rumor did nothing but make Napier's life easier and smoother.

Napier suspected that somebody on the Castle staff was stealing the silver, but he had no suspects. He summoned every one of his employees (serfs, peasants, ghillies) to a small outbuilding, and explained that there was a Magic Black Rooster inside the shed, and the Magic Black Rooster would magically and immediately know who the thief was. One at a time, each employee was ordered to enter the dark shed by himself, place his hands on the Magic Rooster, and swear that he had not stolen the castle silver. When the last employee re-emerged from the shed, Napier went into the shed, chatted with the rooster, and then came out and pointed right at the thief, who immediately confessed.

How did he do it? If you don't cheat and try to hunt up the story, if you just think and guess and adhere strictly to The Vleeptron PizzaQ Honor System, this one's worth 1 Vleeptron Pizza Slice (or a nice fat Belgian endive) credited to your account.

grandma's virtual Java slipstick & see a mob of boffins

Click here and leap merrily backwards, decades, centuries, to a wonderful, innocent time before scientific calculators, four-bangers, or desktop or laptop computers.

But those were by no means computationally weeny times. Most of the number-crunching that got twelve human beings to leap around on the reduced-gravity surface of the Moon was done with one of these gizmos, which trace their invention to the Scottish laird and loony John Napier's discovery of logarithms in 1614.

An Anglican minister, William Oughtred, invented the first gizmo you could call a slide rule in 1622, and European instrument-makers followed by selling all sorts of "Napier's Bones" -- sliding physical versions of log tables, which multiplied (by physical addition) and divided (by physical subtraction) and could also extract square, cube and nth roots, lickety-split.

And lots more. With these gizmos, the Enlightenment instantly acquired its computational punch, and the Industrial Revolution was born. By our lifetimes, a hundred bucks could buy an engineer or physicist or chemist or architect one very dynamite complicated slide rule, which could furp back answers pronto with enough precision to build the Brooklyn Bridge, set an accurate course across any ocean, or send a rocket to Mars (or, unhappily, London).

Einstein worked out the math of Relativity on his Nestler. The Apollo astronauts carried trusty Pickett N600-ES slide rules for backup, in case the power went out on their new-fangled on-board digital computer. And the power went out on Apollo 13.

(The modern home computer -- a computer on a single chip -- traces to a NASA contract for a computer small enough to fly on a spacecraft. The chip, designed in 1969, was the Intel 8008. NASA didn't buy it, but computer hobbyists did, as the brain inside the first kit computers.)

The explosive birth of slide rules was wrapped in a new word, rhabdology -- knowledge acquired from the use of rods or sticks. The Middle Ages were still going strong (Napier's neighbors were convinced he was a dangerous and powerful wizard, and he liked that just fine), and the word was modified from rhabdomancy -- divination, magic and spells using rods or sticks.

Computers are way cool, but for most big, impressive things, largely unecessary; the analog computer known as The Slide Rule could always reliably get you by.

When I was in high school, nerds wore little functional slide-rule necktie clasps. It's not too hard to still find slide rules, but those tie clasps -- they're really extinct. An uncle might buy you one for a birthday gift as a sort of magical wish to guide your future toward science, a little nerd's amulet.

(The high school war between nerds and bullies is really unfair. The bully beats up the nerd, and then ten years later, the nerd vaporizes the bully and the 7500 bullies standing closest to him.)

You think I'm bullshitting you about these slide-rule tie clasps? Well

(1.) I am not bullshitting you, and

(2.) They're Back!!! Want one? Got money?

And slide rules don't need batteries! They always work when you need them!

Anyway, I guessed right -- my dream to write a Java applet for a virtual slide rule is a Web cliché. I think this is a pretty nifty one.

It's astonishing to realize that these devices, which were plenty good enough for the Panama Canal, the Ford Tri-Motor Airplane, the atomic and hydrogen bomb, and the Empire State Building, are no longer manufactured, and are even becoming rare to find at tag sales.

If you've never used or touched or had an algebra class about slide rules, just start by dragging the vertical cursor to the right and left. With a real slide rule, you could squint to about 3 or 4 decimal places of precision; this Java baby very thoughtfully (and ridiculously) displays 16 digits.

Please get very lost clicking around the links in Old Slide Rule World; I find it not just nostalgic, but incredibly seductive and mesmerizing.

And these websites reek with LOVE. Maybe the love of gizmos is silly or tacky or strange or perverted ... but it sure is love. Is it sane to spend $5000 on a tiny speck of sparkly carbon for a human (usually purchased by a male for a female)? Does that make perfect sense to you? So why is it insane to spend $5000 on a slide rule manufactured in Hamburg in 1845? (The carbon speck cannot tell you the fifth root of 9833. But it can scratch windows.)

Particularly impressive and authentically beautiful is The Oughtred Society, "Dedicated to the Preservation and History of Slide Rules and Mechanical Calculators." I can guarantee you a memorable day of remarkable antique gizmos, and a mob of authentic boffins here:

The 11th International Meeting
of Slide Rule and Calculating Machine Collectors
will be held in Cambridge, UK
October 21 and 22, 2005.

Hmmm in fact I think I'm already scheming ... and Cambridge, you bet, is The Perfect Place for it. When you get bored with the ancient slide rules, you can stroll over to Newton's old apartment at Trinity -- Newton's credited with inventing the slide rule's cursor -- or the Cavendish Institute where they worked out the structure of DNA, or ...

25 March 2005

theological censorship down at the Imax

So, uh, like, we've been blogging about the Devil, and Faith vs. Good Works, and theology, and heaven and hell, and those kinds of things. Real way-out stuff ... but it doesn't really affect anything in the real world, right? I mean, nobody takes this stuff seriously, right?

When it comes to teaching our kids about science, they're not all confused about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, right? Our kids don't think God made the universe in six days, and all species on Earth in the same week. They understand about Natural Selection, right?

Please read, and then I would soooooooooo much appreciate your Comments.


The New York Times
Saturday 19 March 2005

A New Screen Test for Imax:
It's the Bible vs. the Volcano


The fight over evolution has reached the big, big screen.

Several Imax theaters, including some in science museums, are refusing to show movies that mention the subject -- or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth -- fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures.

The number of theaters rejecting such films is small, people in the industry say -- perhaps a dozen or fewer, most in the South. But because only a few dozen Imax theaters routinely show science documentaries, the decisions of a few can have a big impact on a film's bottom line -- or a producer's decision to make a documentary in the first place.

People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theaters say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including "Cosmic Voyage," which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; "Galápagos," about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor.

"Volcanoes," released in 2003 and sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University, has been turned down at about a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, said Dr. Richard Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer who was chief scientist for the film. He said theater officials rejected the film because of its brief references to evolution, in particular to the possibility that life on Earth originated at the undersea vents.

Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said the museum decided not to offer the movie after showing it to a sample audience, a practice often followed by managers of Imax theaters. Ms. Murray said 137 people participated in the survey, and while some thought it was well done, "some people said it was blasphemous."

In their written comments, she explained, they made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence."

On other criteria, like narration and music, the film did not score as well as other films, Ms. Murray said, and over all, it did not receive high marks, so she recommended that the museum pass.

"If it's not going to draw a crowd and it is going to create controversy," she said, "from a marketing standpoint I cannot make a recommendation" to show it.

In interviews, officials at other Imax theaters said they had similarly decided against the film for fear of offending some audiences.

"We have definitely a lot more creation public than evolution public," said Lisa Buzzelli, who directs the Charleston Imax Theater in South Carolina, a commercial theater next to the Charleston Aquarium. Her theater had not ruled out ever showing "Volcanoes," Ms. Buzzelli said, "but being in the Bible Belt, the movie does have a lot to do with evolution, and we weigh that carefully."

Pietro Serapiglia, who handles distribution for the producer Stephen Low of Montreal, whose company made the film, said officials at other theaters told him they could not book the movie "for religious reasons," because it had "evolutionary overtones" or "would not go well with the Christian community" or because "the evolution stuff is a problem."

Hyman Field, who as a science foundation official had a role in the financing of "Volcanoes," said he understood that theaters must be responsive to their audiences. But Dr. Field he said he was "furious" that a science museum would decide not to show a scientifically accurate documentary like "Volcanoes" because it mentioned evolution.

"It's very alarming," he said, "all of this pressure being put on a lot of the public institutions by the fundamentalists."

People who follow the issue say it is more likely to arise at science centers and other public institutions than at commercial theaters. The filmmaker James Cameron, who was a producer on "Volcanoes," said the commercial film he made on the same topic, "Aliens of the Deep," had not encountered opposition, except during post-production, when "it was requested from some theaters that we change a line of dialogue" relating to sun worship by ancient Egyptians. The line remained, he said.

Mr. Cameron said he was "surprised and somewhat offended" that people were sensitive to the references to evolution in "Volcanoes."

"It seems to be a new phenomenon," he said, "obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science."

Some in the industry say they fear that documentary filmmakers will steer clear of science topics likely to offend religious fundamentalists.

Large-format science documentaries "are generally not big moneymakers," said Joe DeAmicis, vice president for marketing at the California Science Center in Los Angeles and formerly the director of its Imax theater. "It's going to be hard for our filmmakers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know going in that 10 percent of the market" will reject them.

Others who follow the issue say many institutions are not able to resist such pressure.

"They have to be extremely careful as to how they present anything relating to evolution," said Bayley Silleck, who wrote and directed "Cosmic Voyage." Mr. Silleck said he confronted religious objections to that film and predicted he would face them again with a project he is working on now, about dinosaurs.

Of course, a number of factors affect a theater manager's decision about a movie. Mr. Silleck said an Imax documentary about oil fires in Kuwait "never reached its distribution potential" because it had shots of the first Persian Gulf war. "The theaters decided their patrons would be upset at seeing the bodies," he said.

"We all have to make films for an audience that is a family audience," he went on, "when you are talking about Imax, because they are in science centers and museums."

He added, however, "there are a number of us who are concerned that there is a kind of tacit overcaution, overprotectedness of the audience on the part of theater operators."

In any event, censoring films like "Volcanoes" is not an option, said Dr. Field, who said Mr. Low, the film's producer, got in touch with him when the evolution issue arose to ask whether the film should be altered.

"I said absolutely not," recalled Dr. Field, who retired from the National Science Foundation last year.

Mr. Low said that arguments over religion and science disturbed him because of his own religious faith. In his view, he said, science is "a celebration of what nature or God has done. So for me, there's no conflict."

Dr. Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer, recalled a showing of "Volcanoes" he and Mr. Low attended at the New England Aquarium. When the movie ended, a little girl stood in the audience to challenge Mr. Low on the film's suggestion that Earth might have formed billions of years ago in the explosion of a star. "I thought God created the Earth," she said.

He replied, "Maybe that's how God did it."

- 30 -

24 March 2005


Thursday 24 March 2005 14:49
The Age (Australia)

Japan frees
Bobby Fischer for
refuge in Iceland

Australian Associated Press -- Japan has released American chess legend Bobby Fischer and allowed him to leave for Iceland following an eight-month detention in Japan over an alleged passport violation and a fight against deportation to the United States.

Fischer, 62, who has been granted Icelandic citizenship by a special act of Iceland's parliament, is scheduled to head to Iceland on a flight from Narita airport later on Thursday.

"I'm not free until I get out of Japan," Fischer told reporters at Narita airport.

Commenting on the detention, he also said it was not "an arrest" but a "kidnapping".

Fischer, accompanied by staff of the Icelandic Embassy, headed for the airport from an immigration detention facility in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture,in an embassy car.

Fischer has been wanted by the United States since 1992 when he won about $US3 million ($A3.89 million) in a chess match against his Soviet rival Boris Spassky.

The match was held in the former Yugoslavia, where Fischer played and won the money in defiance of Washington's order barring its nationals from economic activity there.

Japan's change of heart over Fischer's deportation destination came after Iceland on Monday passed a law granting him Icelandic citizenship. The legislation came into force on Tuesday.

Fischer's lawyers and supporters have seen the citizenship issue as the last hurdle against his departure for Iceland - where he played a landmark match against Spassky in 1972 - after Japanese officials said it was legally possible for Fischer to be deported to Iceland if he had citizenship there.

Under Japanese immigration law, Fischer must be deported either to his country of national origin -- the United States -- or another country where he has citizenship.

Fischer was detained on July 13 at Narita airport for allegedly carrying an invalid US passport while trying to leave Japan on a flight bound for the Philippines. He has argued his passport was illegally revoked.

In Washington on Wednesday, a US State Department spokesman repeated an American request that Japan hand over Fischer to the United States.

"There are outstanding charges against Mr Fischer that we believe should be addressed in the United States," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

- 30 -

22 March 2005

today's theology lesson: Does the Devil Exist?

Okay, we're climbing up out of the Comments again, because I'm having Too Much Fun again.

But please read my Sermon on Faith vs. Good Works (with the great recipe at the end), and these Comments to bring yourselves up to speed. And don't forget the mushrooms and the scallions.

Some Efficient Person may remark that, in this otherwise highly streamlined easy-to-make recipe, the fresh garlic will require a lot of manual labor, so we should use the church's humungous old plastic jar of McCormick Garlic Powder (purchased in 1977) instead. Or one of those quasi-gourmet glass jars of crushed wet garlic.

Efficient you may be, but you are No Friend of Mine, and you are certainly an enemy of my Sausage Stew. I suspect you are in League with the Devil, who tempts us all to be Lazy and use Garlic Powder.

If the Lord's Spirit is truly in us, we will use fresh garlic. Crush each clove and bulb by smashing it with the flat of a big-ass heavy kitchen knife. After that, the skins come off quick and easy. After that, chop the meat a little more.

Did you wash your hands when you came into the kitchen? You really should do this whole thing wearing those clumsy but necessary plastic disposable gloves. There's a box of them to the left of the large refrigerator.

* * *

Does the Devil Exist? Is he over our shoulder all the time, whispering in our ear, providing clear, easy, convenient driving directions to the Castaways Exotic Lounge on Route 5 in Whately, Massachusetts? (Local guys refer to it over the phone as "The Whately Ballet.")

Well, if you thought you were going to get the Final Theological Scoop on the Existence of the Devil here, for free, you got another think coming. Not happening today.


But I do know a nifty True Story About The Devil.

The violinist Niccolo Paganini (1782 - 1840) died well before Edison invented the phonograph, so we don't even have hints about how he actually played the violin. Except that everyone who ever heard him play reported that he was wonderful, magnificent, thrilling, amazing, supercallifragialisticexpialidocious, A No. 1, The Best. Nobody ever played the violin like him before, and it's very doubtful if any fiddler has done it better since. That's the most expert historical and musical buzz about Paganini.

He didn't start world-famous, of course. He began in Italy, probably as a three-year-old boy who made just horrible screaming shrieking discordant noises like fingernails on a blackboard for hours every day.

(My mother achieved that stage of violin mastery, refused to touch the thing ever again, and for the rest of her life never wanted to hear the noise of a solo violin again, she didn't care if Niccolo Paganini had come back to life just to play if for her. When one of her own children was, briefly, afflicted with violin lessons, she came close to going Schoolyard with the music teacher.)

But Paganini (unlike my mom) stuck with it and kept practicing. He had a lot of natural talent, and he got a lot better, very young.

But still, decades before the phonograph and radio, nobody had ever heard him play outside of Italy; he'd never been out of Italy.

In London, he was unknown, just whispers, mostly in Italian, from a few tavelling musical cognoscenti. Barely a ripple in the newspapers when it was announced Sgr. Paganini would play his first concert in London in a month.

But lots of people had heard him play, and were authentically a-buzz and a-twitter about the amazing things he did with his fiddle. They'd never heard anything like it before.

And then a little rumor started, nobody knows where -- just like a Web rumor, impossible to verify or track down the source.

Paganini could play the violin like that because he had sold his soul to the Devil!

This was the original rumor made of kerosene improperly stored next to oily rags in a dark corner of Uncle Tyler's illegal homemade fireworks barn. Surely this was The Mother Of All Rumors.
(And don't call me Shirley.) This rumor raced around London, Paris, Brussels, Manchester, Edinburgh, Hollyhead and Dublin in eight languages, including Cockney, Yiddish and Mandarin, within 48 hours. It took a little longer to reach Oslo, but not much.

By the time tickets went on sale, there were lines thrice around the theater.

Well. As you can imagine, it was a huge embarrassment to The Artist himself -- a perfectly respectable, unimpeachable, unblemished, certifiably baptized, and highly spiritual creative artist who had never before been accused of having had any dealings or contractual arrangements written in blood with the Prince of Darkness.

He had just wanted to take his first trip to the famous city of London which he had heard so many nice things about, and play a few tunes on his fiddle, and entertain a few thousand music-lovers. And make a reasonable profit, and cover his hotel and travel expenses, and then go back to his modest little home in Italy. He never wanted or anticipated anything like this.

So what could he do? He took out full-page advertisements in all the major London newspapers:

the celebrated Italian violinist
Sgr. Niccolo Paganini
wishes to state publicly
in the form of a solemn oath

that he has Never sold his Immortal Soul
to the Devil
contrary to false and malicious rumors
now circulating

This just made things much worse. Now the lines wound around the hall nine times, and the promoters had to schedule six extra concerts to handle the unanticipated, undesired and unprecedented demand to hear the Italian fiddler who swore he never sold his Immortal Soul to the Devil.

Assuming there is no Devil, then Paganini must have been telling the Gospel Truth, and he paid to tell it out of his own pocket with expensive full-page ads. Was the big panic and riot for tickets somehow his fault?

Terri Schiavo

If I am to fulfill my obligations and responsibilities as a blogger, I need to say some stuff here about Terri Schiavo.

If everybody dies (Freud said no one really believes that he or she will actually really die), then sooner or later, hovering around each of us, our family will have to figure out how to steward our final days.

I understand why everyone puts up such a fuss at each of these transitions. It's a very good instinct. Not Ever wanting to die, or not wanting to die Yet, is very life-affirming. I like that about human beings, and someone being really opposed to Dying Yet forms the plot of at least forty percent of all movies.

There are Artificial Deaths -- executions, genocides, unnatural deaths usually of Political Origins. Resisting them, fighting them, trying to survive through them is a hugely wonderful and fascinating human instinct. Some Bad Person says you'll be dead in a couple of days, even when you're feeling fine and in pretty good health, and you decide to see if you can Not Die -- and a thrilling story, true or fictional, is born. And my favorite ending for all of these stories is that the Bad Person's scheme is thrwarted, and the hero or heroine doesn't die. I love movies that end that way.

If you read an accurate translation of "The Arabian Nights," a lot of the stories end this way:

"And they lived happily ever after, until there came to them the Destroyer of delights, and the Severer of friendships ..."

So it is good that people Object to Death, often strenuously and vigorously. We look for Loopholes, Exemptions, Miracle Cures. The more desperate the situation, the more desperately we look for a Way Out. Sometimes it even pays off, sometimes it works out, sometimes we Don't Die.

But, in the end, for every goddam one of us, will come the Severer of friendships. We don't have to Get With That. We don't have to surrender, we don't have to quit, we don't have to make it easy for Death.

Death will win eventually whether we cooperate or put up a big huge fuss.

One thing I like or admire about the system is that so far, extra money has only very limited purchasing power to postpone Death. I don't mean this as any kind of threat or assault, only a Truism, a reassurance for the impatient: Donald Trump will die. Very egalitarian. Death tells The Donald: "Your money's no good here."

I don't know if that's always going to be a truism. People really hate to die, and rich people will try anything to avoid dying, and maybe, around 2061, some clever biotech researcher in the pharmaceutical industry will figure out how to Sell Something that's really effective at postponing death for previously unimagined decades. Maybe by 2070, rich people will talk about Death the way we talk about arthritis now -- a painful, debilitating annoyance that requires expensive drugs for which nobody sells generics. Poor people will continue to talk about Death as always.

But as things stand now, no matter how we try to wriggle out of it, each and every one of us will die. Precise date uncertain, but it's coming our way.

And typically, our immediate family will be stewarding us through the final week, month, or year. By the teenage years, they begin letting young people close to these gatherings; at that age, the Secret Details and Negotiations and Rituals of the Transition begin to be revealed.

It makes you wonder why anyone tried to keep it a secret. There's an inevitability to it, in every single case of Natural Death. It seems to me the sooner you see it fairly up close and become acquainted with its practical details, the better off the rest of us will be later down the road.

But yes, if there's any choice, you certainly don't want to go any sooner than you have to.

Although that's not the only consideration. There's also shrieking torment and pain. There's also horrible indignity. There's a big selection of Bad Deaths you can be unlucky enough to get smacked with.

How about we let each family, with the help of competent doctors, and (hopefully) competent clergy members, work each Death out for themselves, in private?

Unhappily there is a very big disagreement between Terri Schiavo's husband and her parents. That's not unique among family members at the end of a life. One way or another, sooner or later, this will be the family's last controversy, the family's last disagreement, their final chance to try to struggle and get their own way. For a lot of human beings, that's a last chance they just can't pass up. And everyone's offering advice generously, for free.

When it leaves the little family room in the hospital, and moves out into all the TV networks, and both houses of Congress, and the president flying in for a special bill-signing, when it hits the front pages of every American and most of the planet's newspapers, the good free advice takes a new twist.

Some of the advice, like all the private family advice, is the best advice well-intentioned people can offer for what to do for Terri Schiavo and, at most, six or seven other people who have big natural human needs around her circumstances.

But when it goes Public Big, half the advice, maybe most of the advice, is about what's best not for Terri Schiavo and these seven closest relatives, but for millions of people. What's the best thing to do for all Americans? What's the best thing to do for the next generation? What's the best thing to do for every American older than 60?

That's advice, and it might be needed, and some of it might be helpful under certain civic and political circumstances.

But it cannot help one family figure out what to do about the difficult final stage of one human being's life.

What would I do? I would throw every creep in jail who had any conscious, intentional thing to do with taking this decision out of the hands of Terri Schiavo's immediate family, and turning it into a World Media Circus.

I don't mean her parents. Whether or not they have actual or sufficient legal standing in the matter, they're just doing what comes naturally under those circumstances.

Particularly for Death Amateurs. So far, I'm a Death Amateur. And it looks like I'm not going to medical school, and I'm not going to seminary, and I'm not starting a funeral home, so I'll probably always be a Death Amateur. I've tried to pay attention, and listen carefully, and read a lot, so if Death Hovers now and then, I won't be a complete useless gibbering fool, I can aspire to be more help than hindrance in the things that have to be done, and the things that are coming no matter how hard or successfully anyone fights them.

Amateurs are always going to be prone to being clumsy and making mistakes under that special and miserable and terrifying kind of unfamiliar pressure.

But anyone who convenes a special session of Congress over this kind of situation -- well, this is a Political Pervert, no matter what Holy Suit such a person wraps himself up in, no matter what Holy Blather issues from this politician's mouth, this person has the morals and ethics of a turd. This person is taking the most excruciating human pain and fear and misery, and using it to squeeze votes from the rubes who are watching the mess on Fox News.

Each of us should very specifically and clearly see what this entails. From now on, when our loved one's final stage arrives, at the whim of the majority of 535 partisan politicians who are constantly and perpetually obsessed with getting re-elected, our loved one's final days may become a political, public, federal tug-of-war and entertainment circus, featuring scores of lawyers, including government lawyers. Your Aunt Maude when her time comes. Your great-grandmother. Your Cousin Nina. Your Uncle Jimmy. This is a precedent that means their final days, their final torments will all be played out on the Jerry Springer Show, and CNN, and C-SPAN, and MSNBC, and The 700 Club.

That might be a good thing, that might be a social improvement, if it means we would get smarter, wiser, more humane, more moral, more ethical decisions when every natural or inevitable death becomes a federal case and national carnival. Look at the fine decision-making Congress is universally noted for now, including its universally recognized high ethical standards. Our loved ones, in their final days, will be in fine, loving, trustworthy hands with these 535 professional politicians and their staff and agents and political party agencies and institutions.

As for the religious dimension, most of them go to church every Sunday, they have the deep religious and spiritual concerns covered.

Everyone who voted to make a unique, unprecedented federal case of Terri Schiavo's life-and-death crisis needs to resign from Congress immediately, or be impeached or voted out as quickly as possible. These are sickos who threw a big noisy Savage Vote Candy Party at the expense of Terri Schiavo and the people who love her most.

When the carnival ends and moves on to the next fairground, this family will have been violated and degraded beyond imagining. People die. Families grieve. With the blessed grace of family privacy, they find a way to go on through the land of the living. I can't imagine how this family will ever achieve that after this political violation.

20 March 2005

and don't peek into the next student's soul, either

In the previous post, I suggested you Google keywords "faith" and "good works" for an introduction to this theological controversy, and I predicted Google would spew back something on the order of 112,321

Wrong. Google spewed back 419,000 hits.

The top hit was a college term paper for sale, and Martin Luther's resolution of the Controversy is thoughtfully provided:


Academic Term Papers Catalog


13778. FAITH, GOOD WORKS AND LUTHERAN TEACHING. Based on a review of the theological literature and the teachings of Martin Luther, this paper seeks to answer two questions:

1) can faith be taught according to Martin Luther or is it instinctive; and

2) should faith come before good works or vice versa?

Answers that faith is not instinctive and that good works are meaningless in the absence of faith. Written 1992. 5 pages, 27 footnotes, 6 bibliographic sources. $35

Copyright 1998 - 2003 Academic Term Papers. All rights reserved.


If you want to learn more about the Faith vs. Good Works controversy from this source, you need to buy the $35 term paper.

I don't recommend you buy the paper, sign your name to it, and turn it in for your homework while you're a student at a theological seminary. If I Googled it, maybe your professor will, too. And God certainly knows it's not your original work.

Secrets of Religion Revealed, Controversies Resolved (& a recipe)

Boy, this really got away from me. But if you stick with it all the way to the end, there's a really great recipe.

* * *

I hang around this church, well, not much, but a lot more than I hang around most other churches.

I'm not much of a Team Player, and I've never been very good at pursuing spirituality in large, choreographed groups, sometimes in a rented stadium, with scripts.

If this sort of thing needs doing at all, my style is more the Alone in a Dark Cave Model, that's how I see me processing the largest volume and best quality of spiritual stuff.

Which I guess is the point, isn't it? Any jerk can make Holy Crap, or Substandard Walmart Brand Spirituality, spirituality that breaks easily, doesn't work very well, and provides many wrong and potentially dangerous answers. But if you're going to do the Spiritual Thing at all, don't you want it to be The Best? I tend to do my Holy Best alone in a dark cave.

I acknowledge that others like to process their spirituality in large groups where everyone tries to stay on the same page (and sometimes everybody shows up wearing the same color). History and the world don't seem to take much notice of or have much use for Bob's One-Guy Cave Cult. But that's the one I'm most comfortable belonging to most of the time.

In some models, you careen fastest to the Godhead with One Guy in charge. He calls all the shots, and what he says goes, and there's an end to it. This structural model also I have lifelong difficulties with. I didn't like it or admire it much in the Army, and it doesn't impress me any more as a model to move hundreds of thousands or millions farther up the path to spiritual perfection.

Well, actually, I like the megalomaniacal autocratic my-word-is-law model of achieving spirituality -- but hold the Followers, just One Boss, me, and nobody running around obeying me. All theological controversies are promptly resolved in a way that makes the most sense to me. A cult of one -- a monocult -- there, that's how I like my organized religion.

* * *

So why am I hanging around this church? It has a couple of thousand members, I'm guessing, has been in business continuously since around 1650, and I think their Major Mission through all these years has been to help the folks get closer to God, and Listen More Carefully to God, and Do What God Wants Everybody to Do.

I'm not the minister, not even a deacon -- heck, not even a member -- and I've never gone to Special Holy School for this sort of thing, so I can misdescribe every aspect of this church and get lots of stuff wrong if I want. I've tried to pay lots of attention to everything I've seen going on at this church, and I'm doing the best I can right now to explain what I think goes on in there, and why they do it.

I do have All The Answers about spirituality! I do! I know all the answers!

But unfortunately, and very inconveniently, several of those Answers require a lot of tables and chairs, and a big kitchen and dining hall, and clean bed linen regularly, and a hefty phone bill, and the use of a truck, and a furnace to keep a lot of people reasonably warm during the bitter New England winter. At various times our community has tried various arrangements to provide these needed sets of 300 plates, bowls and glasses, and the winter heat, and some clothes, and army cots, to the people who clearly need them badly.

But the arrangement that has always been there, since 1650, when people need food, clothing, shelter, some semblence of minimal doctoring, and so on, has been this church, and the churches that followed it and started setting up around town in the 17th century, and the churches that have followed those in more modern times.

Whenever I worked in the church's kitchen and dining room, I was always mesmerized by the palpable, tangible history of the forty salt and pepper shaker sets, how somebody exactly like me had taken them out of the exact same painted wooden cabinet and put them all out on the same tables on a night exactly like this one twenty or thirty or eighty or a hundred years earlier.

It is beyond any archivist's power now to know the name of the woman or man who set up for dinner at the church on that night so long before I was born, and equally lost is the occasion or the need. But every night and every day when the members of the church perceived a need, a church volunteer, or a half-dozen of them, showed up around the hour they'd agreed to show up, and without expecting a penny of recompense, worked for hours so twenty or fifty or a hundred people who needed things could have them, in a dependable, orderly, practiced, effective fashion.

That doesn't seem to have very much to do with spirituality. How the Nightly Dance of the Salt and Pepper Shakers and Plates and Soup Bowls gets us all nearer to God -- there's something not very clear or obvious about how that works, about its ancient holy theology. A woman will park her old beater car and enter the side door of the church, and emerge homeward five or six hours later, without once having mentioned the name of Jesus, or quoting a single word He ever said. She cooks and serves chicken or stew or spagthetti and meatballs and wipes down tables and does the dishes, and then turns out all the lights and locks up the side door of the church, and goes home.

A great deal of my most intimate contact with and understanding of this church -- I would describe my particular theological activities this way: "Here is how God wants us to make thirty gallons of coffee." Since they built the first meeting house in the wilderness -- at that time, the church and the town government were identical, you paid your property taxes to this church -- my guess is about sixty percent of everything this congregation has done has fallen into the Make the Coffee and then Serve the Stew category.

They have had more than their share of noisy, even bitter theological controversies about who God is, what He expects of us, and under what circumstances He will let some of us into Heaven and fling the others into Hell. Over the centuries, sometimes the church has even fractured over these theological controversies.

But the details of most of these ugly theological dustups have been long forgotten. Now their minister and my church's minister chat cordially when they run into one another on Main Street, and work together on all sorts of cooperative church alliance projects. Neither has threatened the other with Damnation for centuries.

But tonight or tomorrow night, thirty of our neighbors, and a few folks just passing through, need some stuff badly. And that is this church's unbroken thread of service, that's what their Holy Mission looks like most of the time when you peek through the side door and look inside.

I'm sure I'm getting this all wrong, and reaching all the wrong conclusions about this church, what it's there for, what the most important things it does are, and what it hopes it will accomplish this week, this year, and on the road to Eternity. I'm sure I've been bumping into so many big trees that I'm completely missing the forest.

But I've reached the conclusion, erroneously, that 92 percent of The Finest Spirituality involves making gallons of stew and washing the bed linen and airing the blankets.

* * *

How I ended up hanging around this particular church was entirely an accident; there were about a dozen churches involved in this program, and someone (a professional social-service provider) told me to go to This One tomorrow night.

It certainly wasn't the theology, because I wasn't even raised a Christian or Sunday-Schooled in any church, so I was wholly oblivious of this church's theology and beliefs.

It's a Protestant church, and I knew a few crude details about the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther, but nothing more detailed or expert than what might get me a B on a high school test on the textbook's Reformation chapter. (Something about indulgences, and he nailed 95 Theses to the church door, right?)

Okay, well, so now, several years later, I've myopically and ignorantly concluded that It's All About the Stew, and this church has a very important and sacred relationship with its ancient furnace, and the boiler room is about the most important room in the whole edifice, especially when the boiler is on the fritz. All other times, the Central Soul of this church is the kitchen, and if I'd ever bothered to read this church's detailed theology, I wouldn't be shocked to find lots of recipes that serve 25.

What astonished and flabberghasted me was that while I was setting up the dining room tables, I actually had stumbled onto a Central Theological Controversy which, in times past, had authentically led to lots of hard feelings, violence, wars, riots, executions, and locking neighbors' ankles in the stocks on the Common. I was just entirely clueless about it, I'd never heard of it before.

It's the controversy between Good Works, and Faith.

The first time someone (who had gone to Sunday School) told me about this raging, ancient theological controversy, I replied, "Oh, well, that's obvious! Good Works!"

Then he had to explain that if I'd blurted that out in 1530 or 1630, in lots of large zones in Europe and the Americas, I'd likely have been stoned, or imprisoned, or hanged, or burned at the stake, and certainly damned all to Hell. And even today, probably at one of several other churches in town, I can get my face punched for saying: Good Works! This controversy is anything but resolved, tempers are still hot, and the boards of trustees of huge, prestigious theological seminaries are regularly embroiled in nasty fights for seeming to be too Good Workish, and not being Faithish enough.

Color me Stupid (I've been painted this hue before, you won't be the first), but it seems to me that if you want to put this theological controversy to a test, just serve thirty real hungry, cold people a big heaping bowl of Faith when they show up at the shelter tonight, see how that works out.

I am being thick. Ten years ago a pal of mine went off to seminary, and I spent his Divine-in-Training years relentlessly pestering him with all kinds of nosy questions about the Revealed Truths of His and Everybody Else's Religion. I know a little bit about the internal combustion engine, and some calculus, but this was the first time I'd had a chance to ask anybody in a position to know lots of Nuts and Bolts stuff about Theology. (God has tens of thousands of little details and specifics and characteristics, half of them were Settled by violent wars, aren't you at all curious about them?)

The ease with which I came up with The Answer to the Faith-v.-Good Works controversy rests on a common and gaping fallacy called the Tuesday Night Fallacy.

It's Tuesday night and there are thirty hungry people, and they obviously need Stew. (Also a tooth brush, and a shower, and fresh socks and underwear, and a cot and clean linen.)

But I'm cluelessly fallacious, and Doomed to boot, because It's Not About Tuesday Night. Everybody screams loudest about what everybody needs on Tuesday night. But that's only an Illusion (sometimes attributed to the Devil, it's a trick of the Devil) that these Tuesday Night Needs are what's most important.

It's really about Forever, it's really about Eternity.

And for Eternity, and any hope of Salvation, Stew is completely beside the point. You need Faith. And if you get too myopic, or if the Devil fools you into thinking it's about Stew (a.k.a. Good Works), so that you don't give Faith its theological priority -- well, it's Hell Everlasting and boiling sulfur for you, Boyo.

If that's how I do indeed end up, boy, will I be surprised, and pretty pissed off. I cleaned the tabletops with a weak Clorox solution, I did the dishes, I made sure the furnace stayed warm, I made a couple of phone calls and found a free dentist for the woman with the tooth problem.

And Hell is my reward? How fair is that?

But roughly one half of Christendom believes, and demands everybody believe, exactly that. Stew is nice on Tuesday Night, but it's totally The Wrong Answer for Eternity. This is what the seminary student, now an authentic certified Divine in charge of actual peoples' Souls, had to patiently explain to me.

This is all new to you? Well, do what I always do when I have profound theological questions: Google "Faith" and "Good Works" and then stand back. Prepare for 112,321 hits which predict Hell in your future for cooking the Stew but skipping the Faith. And another few hundred thousand websites which guarantee you Heaven because you cooked the Stew on Tuesday night, and pretty darned good rib-sticking Stew it was.

Boy, this has gotten Large. Well, maybe it should be. Hashing out this theological controversy has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and it's still not resolved, so if I'm going to tackle it at all, it should take a few dozen paragraphs.

But here's a little bit of Original Theology from Bob. Okay, so it ain't Reinhold Neibuhr. This is a damn blog written by a Certified Heathen with a Toyota pickup truck, this ain't Union Theological Seminary. But it's the best I got and it's the best you're going to find in this blog for now.

I used to have keys to the church and I was in and out of it and through all its ancient labyrinthine rabbit-warrens all the time. When I'd have to go into the pitch-dark, empty, cavernous sanctuary ... well, yes, I'd be tempted to climb into the pulpit and "preach."

Oh, like you never? You're not tempted by an unoccupied pulpit and an empty sanctuary? Not when you were twelve in Sunday School? An empty pulpit is the spiritual equivalent of an unoccupied fire truck cab.

But anyway, settle down, put your hymnals away, and here's today's Sermon:

* * *

Our Faith is facing a crisis. The crisis will be upon us tonight, starting around 5 pm. It involves a lot of cold, hungry, exhausted, chronically sick people. One of us must serve them a lot of food.

But it is late in the winter, and they are very tired of spaghetti and meatballs. They have grown weary of the same three or four dishes night after night after night. Even beef stew -- if they see beef stew again, they will scream and begin to cry. They have eaten so much baked chicken that some of them are beginning to resemble baked chickens.

But what else can we serve them? We cannot serve really unusual or goofy foods, or foods with French names, because they are suspicious of unusual foods, even fancy foods, and they will not eat these foods.

We can't serve fish, half the guests will not touch fish. It smells fishy.

If we surprise them with a healthful, goody-goody vegetarian meal, if we leap upon them with Tofu Delight, there will be a riot, and they will curse us, and they will not eat the Tofu.

But Lo! I bring you a New Recipe for the shelter! We will serve them Sausage Stew.

We will go down to the SuperColossalMart, and go to the sausage section.

From it, we will pick every crazy kind of different ethnic sausage they sell. Linguica. Hot dogs, regular size and foot-longs. Bratwurst and Knackwurst and Weiswurst. Cheddarwurst. Irish bangers. Kielbasa. Italian sausage. At least ten different kinds of crude, blunt, savory peasant ethnic sausages.

Back at the church kitchen,
we will slice each sausage into two or three pieces, and begin gently frying this big-ass mess of sausages over medium-low heat in the bottom of the church's biggest stew cauldron.

The bubbling juices and fats erupting out of the lightly browning sausages will be the grease in which to sautee a half-dozen colossal yellow onions, coarsely chopped up.

After the onions,
we will smash and chop a half-dozen big bulbs of garlic. You cannot have too much onions or garlic. The sulfur compounds in the garlic and onions lower the blood pressure.

We want to arrive at the church in time to assemble this amazing stew and let it simmer gently for at least an hour.

NO TOMATO SAUCE! No extra sauce at all! All the juice and gravy and all the spices in this Wonderful Stew will come from within the wonderful sausages themselves. You don't even have to add any salt, and certainly no pepper.

Separately cook up a huge pot of canned beans, a half-dozen different kinds -- dark red kidney beans, fava beans, butter beans, black-eyed peas, frijoles negros. You will know these beans when you see their cans on the shelves. They will tell you which cans to pick. Some of them will speak their names in Spanish, in the Goya section.

Fancy rice packages are cheap. Fill up a big electric rice cooker, if you have one, with Latin-style packages of rice, or rice and dry beans. Try to have the canned beans, the rice, and the sausage stew ready at about the same time: dinnertime. Six big loaves of French bread, for ripping and dipping up the goop.

As each guest pokes his fork through his stew bowl, he spears and recognizes grandma's favorite ethnic sausage from childhood, and whispers: Linguica! She smiles. Chorizo! He eats grandma's sausage, which he hasn't tasted for decades, sausage he had almost forgotten.

Someone's bringing a few gallons of store-brand ice cream for desert.

That is what the Lord wishes us to do tonight. This is what should be going on inside the House of the Lord. Serves twenty-five or thirty.