Category Archives: Logic and Reasoning

#207: The Gender Identity Trap

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #207, on the subject of The Gender Identity Trap.

What if it were really true,
Most girls like pink, most boys like blue?
Just what would color mean to you?

We live in a world filled with gender expectations.  Call them stereotypes if you like, but it goes deeper than that.  We have persuaded ourselves that girls, and women, have a certain inherent character that causes them to be interested in specific kinds of things, and that boys, and men, are similarly innately interested in a different set of things.

We can explore these with what we might call common sense wisdom and observation.  Boys tend to be athletic, and competitive.  We want to prove ourselves the strongest, fastest, toughest.  We communicate with our fists, and the emotions we are willing to show are all what might be called “hard” emotions–anger, jealousy, pride.  Girls, meanwhile, tend to be nurturing, interested in exploring relationships, in caring for those younger or weaker than themselves.  They are articulate creatures, talking even when no one listens, and they display the “soft” emotions–sympathy, affection, sadness.


I don’t want to argue against the scientific work that has been done in this area.  Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson and his ilk make a potent argument for an evolutionary basis for gender differences, that women favor those qualities that enable them to manage child care and foraging while the men are better suited to hunting.  One does not need to be a religious person to believe that we are male and female, and that these are different.  However, I raise two objections to this concept.

The first can be stated as that generalizations are always false (including this one).  There are many men who have never been interested in sports, who have never been physically competitive or athletic, who have abandoned physical violence as a means of conflict resolution, and who are willing to let their softer emotions show and who are nurturing and caring.  There are similarly many women who are athletic and competitive, sometimes violent, sometimes violently angry.  When we identify traits as specifically masculine or specifically feminine, we are making a generalization, drawing conclusions from what we might call the “center of the bell curve”–most men have this trait, more or less, although some have it to an extreme while others seem to be lacking it entirely.  You will find men who are not at all “manly” in the stereotypical sense, and women who similarly break the mold that defines the feminine.

The second objection, though, is that these cannot truly be used to define what it is to be male or female, a man or a woman, and for a very simple reason:  we do not really know which ones are innate, or to what degree, versus which ones are learned, and to what degree.  Some little girls easily learn to play with guns and toy soldiers, while others put the guns aside and treat the soldiers like children in a schoolroom or nursery.  Some boys have no trouble playing with dolls or appreciating cute figurines, while others are ready to turn even Precious Moments figurines into combat-ready mechas.  When we have a quality that is generally true of a group, we always find that it is not universally true of the group, and even among those for whom it is true, it is true to varying degrees.  No quality is universally true of any group, unless it is itself a mandatory definitional quality of that group.  Not all those of African descent have dark skin–there are negro albinos born in some families.

We opened this with a question of color preferences–pink or blue.  Through most of the twentieth century, blue was the color for boys and pink for girls.  We might think that inherent in gender identity, as it was so common and still is generally thought to be the preference.  However, in the late nineteenth century it was quite opposite.  Blue was considered a pacifistic color, appropriate for girls, while pink was aggressive, the right color for the nursery of a male infant to encourage his masculine aggressiveness.  The matter of the right color for girls or boys proves to be entirely cultural.  We only think it innate, because it is our culture, and we are immersed in it.

Herein lies the problem of gender identity.  We have become persuaded that it is possible, first, for someone who is really, personality-wise, one gender to be born in a body exhibiting the opposite sex.  However, our conception of what constitutes the appropriate personality for a gender is constructed entirely of generalizations and cultural notions.  A boy who does not like sports is not internally a girl, any more than a girl who does like them must be internally a boy.  Whether boys play with dolls or girls with guns is in part innate, but it is also culturally learned to some degree, and a child who exhibits culturally opposite gender preferences in play is not the opposite gender, but a unique individual with unusual interests.

When people come to believe that they are the wrong sex on the outside for their gender on the inside, it is because they have been persecuted into thinking that if they really were a person of the sex they appear to be then they would have different preferences, different abilities, different qualities than they do.  We are taught, incorrectly, to think that the generalities are the definition, and that those who do not fit into the cultural expectations are aberrant.

So be aberrant.  Buck the expectations.  Be yourself, and embrace who you are as a whole person, inside and out.  I am a man.  That I raise my children and do the cooking and a certain amount of the housework and sewing and such, and that I disdain sports and physical competition, does not make me less a man or more a woman; it makes me a unique individual.  The girl who is an Olympic track star, who is competitive at the highest level of athleticism, is not therefore less a girl, less a woman; she is a unique individual, a woman with qualities that are less common in women.  Be who you are, inside and out, and don’t let anyone persuade you that anything about you was made wrong.  No one is the wrong sex on the outside for their gender on the inside, except those who foolishly let popular culture dictate who they should be instead of simply being who they are.

#204: When the Brakes Fail

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #204, on the subject of When the Brakes Fail.

It happens all the time in movies and television shows:  someone is driving, and someone has sabotaged the car so that the brakes don’t work, and frequently, too, the accelerator gets stuck so that the car is now out of control and headed for a major accident.  I have seen it enough times that what bothers me is the number of ways of slowing or stopping a car that they don’t try.  I have not been in the kind of situation portrayed in these fictions, but I have had brake trouble and have given thought to how to address the kinds of problems so portrayed.  Maybe if those people had considered the possible solutions to the problems before they happened, they would have avoided the life-threatening accident–and perhaps if we talk about the options, you will know what to do if it happens to you.

First, let’s get a few assumptions here.  First, it is unlikely that you will completely lose your brakes without warning, and similarly unlikely that your accelerator will jam; it is thus unlikely, barring sabotage, that both will ever happen at the same time.  Second, you are very unlikely to be the sort of person whom someone would attempt to kill by sabotaging your car.  That’s not to say that no reader of mine is such a person, but it’s a very unlikely sort of way to try to kill someone, and a very small percentage of the population are actually targets of killers, and even fewer of careful conniving killers with clever assassination plans and the mechanical knowledge to so rig a vehicle.  So you should probably assume that if either of these problems ever occurs to you, it is random mechanical failure, not an assassination attempt (don’t be paranoid, and don’t panic).  If both happen together, that’s a different matter, but let’s start with the assumption that only one happens.

Brakes once failed when they got wet.  Modern brakes generally don’t.  However, the regular driving brake on most vehicles is hydraulic (except for large trucks, which use pneumatic brakes because they work better with the trailers).  That means that there is a fluid, a hydraulic oil, in the lines, and pressing the brake pedal compresses the fluid which closes the brake pad creating the friction which slows the car.  Modern anti-lock brakes have a sensing system to prevent wheel lock skidding, but otherwise work much the same.  If air gets in the line, as from a leak, this can malfunction.  For both of these conditions, wet brakes and air in the lines, the first line of defense is to “pump the brakes”, that is, to press and release repeatedly over perhaps ten to fifteen seconds.  This will help dry wet brakes; it will help compress the fluid in hydraulic lines forcing the air out of the system otherwise.

If within ten seconds this is not showing any sign of improvement, the obvious second line of defense which is almost never used in the movies is what is properly called the parking brake but often identified as the emergency brake and in some vehicles the hand brake.  In cars with a center console it is frequently there as a lever that can be pulled up; in other cars, it is often a pedal by the driver’s door.  In both cases the control is ratcheted so that when pulled or pushed it locks into place until the release is pressed or pulled or otherwise activated.  The proper intended use of this brake is to lock the car in place when parked, particularly on slopes.  However, it serves as a secondary brake in an emergency situation.  It uses the same brake pads as the hydraulic brakes (although frequently only the rear brakes), but is connected to them by a cable, not a hydraulic system, and so is effectively a secondary but more direct method of applying the brakes.

There are other ways to slow a vehicle if the brakes are not working, but first we should consider the problem of the accelerator jamming.  The problem here is generally that the engine is being given gasoline and so increasing in revolutions per minute (RPM on the tachometer if you have one), and correspondingly increasing the vehicle speed.  The obvious first answer to this, in addition to applying the brakes, is gently to drop the transmission into neutral.  (With a standard transmission this can be accomplished simply by depressing the clutch, but standard transmissions are no longer standard on most cars.)  The engine will roar as it no longer has the burden of pushing the vehicle, but you will cease accelerating and unless you are pointed down a steep slope you will begin to decelerate.

The transmission can also be used to slow the car if the brakes are not responding, by downshifting.  If you do this at too high a velocity, you are likely to destroy your transmission and/or damage your engine, but if it’s a choice between thousands of dollars of damage to the vehicle and a fatal crash, that’s probably not a difficult choice to make.  This is less likely to be helpful if your accelerator is stuck, but it is an option that might reduce your rate of acceleration.  The objective is to let the engine be a drag on the velocity, although it works considerably better with manual transmissions than with automatic ones.

If you have put the vehicle in neutral but the brakes are not working and you are headed down a slope, if possible consider getting off the road.  Roads are generally designed to be smooth and provide the right kind of friction for rolling vehicles.  Shoulders are usually rougher and will slow the vehicle more, and if the ground beyond the shoulder looks flat and level it will probably slow the vehicle more.  There is the danger of hitting a hole that will damage an axle, but this will at least stop the vehicle and cost considerably less than a transmission or an engine.

You might also consider aiming for objects that will slow your car but neither stop it completely nor flip it.  Hitting a tree at high velocity is a bad choice, but a bush will collapse under the impact and slow or possibly stop the car less abruptly.  Sideswiping a tree, if you can control the vehicle well enough to do so, will also slow the car.  New Jersey Dividers–those perhaps three foot tall concrete walls with the half-parabola curved sides that often line highways–are designed to slow a vehicle and press it back into the lane from which it is coming.  In recent years, large usually orange plastic barrels have been placed in hazard locations along highways, such as construction areas; these are generally filled with water, and as such are designed to collapse when hit, providing a less than solid impact surface.

One other method of slowing an out-of-control car should be mentioned:  shut off the ignition.  If the car is in gear, the engine will immediately become a drag on the car, and in most modern cars the fuel pump will stop providing gasoline to the cylinders.  If you have power steering, it will immediately become much more difficult–but not impossible–to control the direction of the vehicle, somewhat worse than standard manual steering.  It will not affect the parking/emergency brake, and will have only minimal effect on the operating brake.

I have also considered the option of pushing the vehicle into reverse or park.  This requires overriding safeties on the transmission (it will require you to press or maneuver something to shift out of neutral in that direction), and will probably destroy it and damage the engine, but again if you are worried about dying versus destroying your car, that’s an easy choice.

So now if the thing that probably never will happen to you does, you’ve got some ideas about how to handle it.  I would like to say that I have tested them, but I am more pleased to say that apart from pumping the brakes I have never needed to, although I have tested the idea of pushing the car into neutral while driving, so that also works.  Oh, and once when I was teaching someone how to drive I had to use the parking brake to stop the vehicle before he drove in front of a rapidly oncoming car at an intersection, so that works, too.

#197: Launching the mark Joseph “young” Forums

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #197, on the subject of Launching the mark Joseph “young” Forums.

Once upon a time, what now seems a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there were forums at Gaming Outpost.

Well, there were forums almost everywhere, but the ones at Gaming Outpost were significant, big deal forums in the gaming world for a while, and then not so much but still important to me and to many of those who read my work and played Multiverser.  They were probably then the most reliable way to reach me, and there were plenty of discussions, not to mention quite a few games played, on those forums.

Then they crashed, and all of that was lost.

I can’t promise that this won’t happen to these new forums, but we’re going to make an effort, with the help of our Patreon and supporters, to keep them up and running, and to pay attention to what is posted here.

I arranged the forums in alphabetical order; I was going to arrange them in reverse alphabetical order, because I have always hated being the last in line for everything, but as I installed them the software put the next one on top, and although I could see how to resequence them, I realized that that would put Bible and Theology on the bottom, and while I’m not a stickler for silly formalities I could see that some people would object to that, more so than anyone would object to any other forum being at the bottom.  It is probably appropriate that it is on top.  The forum categories correspond roughly to the web log main topics, with a few tweaks and additions.

I long wished for a place to discuss time travel and time travel movies, and that’s there now.  I don’t expect most of the discussions will wind up here, but perhaps at least some will, and that will make it worthwhile.  I’ve also made a home for discussions of the Christian Gamers Guild Faith and Gaming series, and for the upcoming (this December) Faith in Play and RPG-ology series there.  There are music and ministry sections, space for logic problems discussions, law and politics pages, space for games, and a place to discuss my books, if anyone is interested in any of those topics.

I have also added a Multiverser game play forum.  I have in the past been overwhelmed by the number of players who wanted to play, even with my rule that I would only post one time per day to any game thread and expected players to observe the same courtesy (except for obvious correction posts).  Please do not presume that because you want to play Multiverser you can just start a thread and I’ll pick up your game.  I will give first priority to people who have played the game with me before, whether live or online, picking up where we were; I will also open the door on an individual basis to people who have wanted to play for a long time but for various reasons have not been able to do so (such as Andrew in South Africa).  Beyond that, well, talk to me and I’ll see what kind of time I have–after all, I have no idea how many of my previous players will return, or how much work it’s going to be to get back up to speed on their long-interrupted games.

My thanks to Kyler and Nikolaj, who have already helped me track down some of the bugs and fix them.  I’m told that if you are not registered, the link on the top left corner of the page will work, but the one on the top right corner will not–unfortunately, I can neither see either link while logged into the site, nor find how to fix a lot of those problems.  But I am working on it, and there is a forum specifically for contacting me about problems, and a link to my Facebook page if you can’t even get as far as that.

I look forward to seeing you.

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#195: Probabilities in Dishwashing

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #195, on the subject of Probabilities in Dishwashing.

I was going to call this, What Are the Odds?, but that’s too useful a title to use for this.  Actually, almost every time my bill rings up to an exact dollar amount, ending “.00”, I say that to the cashier, and usually they have no idea, so usually I tell them.  But I’m a game master–I’ve been running Multiverser™ for over twenty years, and Dungeons & Dragons™ for nearly as long before that.  I have to know these things.  After all, whenever a player says to me, “What do I have to roll?”, he really means “What are the odds that this will work?”  Then, usually very quickly by the seat of my pants, I have to estimate what chance there is that something will happen the way the player wants it.  So I find myself wondering about the odds frequently–and in an appendix in the back of the Multiverser rule book, there were a number of tools provided to help figure out the odds in a lot of situations.

And so when I saw an improbable circumstance, I immediately wondered what the odds were, and then I wondered how I would calculate them, and then I had the answer.  It has something in common with the way I cracked the probabilities of dice pools decades back (that’s in the book), but has more to do with card probabilities, as we examined in web log post #1:  Probabilities and Solitaire, than with dice.

So here’s the puzzle.

At some point I bought a set of four drinking cups in four distinct colors.  I think technically the colors were orange, green, cyan, and magenta, although we call the cyan one blue and the magenta one red, and for our purposes all that matters is that there are four colors, A, B, C, and D.  We liked them enough, and they were cheap enough, that on my next trip to that store I bought another identical set.  That means that there are two tumblers of each color.

I was washing dishes, and I realized that among those dishes were exactly four of these cups, one of each of the four colors.  I wondered immediately what the odds were, and rapidly determined how to calculate them.  I did not finish the calculation while I was washing dishes, for reasons that will become apparent, but thought I’d share the process here, to help other game masters estimate odds.  This is a problem in the probabilities of non-occurrence, that is, what are the odds of not drawing a pair.

The color of the first cup does not matter, because when you have none and you draw one, it is guaranteed not to match any previously drawn cup, because there aren’t any.  Thus there is a one hundred percent chance that the first cup will be one that you need and not one that you don’t want.  Whatever color it is, it is our color A.

In drawing the second cup, what you know is that there are now seven cups that you do not have, one of which will be a match.  That means there is one chance in seven of a match, six chances in seven of not matching.  This is where I stopped the math, because I hate sevenths.  I know that they create a six-digit repeating decimal that shifts its position–1/7th is 0.1̅4̅2̅8̅5̅7̅, and 2/7ths is 0.2̅8̅5̅7̅1̅4̅, and in each case the digits are in the same sequence, but I can never remember that sequence (I don’t use it frequently enough to matter, and I can look it up on the table in the back of the Multiverser book as I just did here, or plug it into a calculator to get it).  So the probability of the second cup matching the first–of drawing the other A–is 14.2̅8̅5̅7̅1̅4̅%, and the probability of not drawing a match is 85.7̅1̅4̅2̅8̅5̅%.

So with a roughly 86% chance we have two cups that do not match, colors A and B, and we are drawing the third from a pool of six cups, of which there are one A, one B, two Cs and two Ds.  That means there are two chances that our draw will match one of the two cups we already have, against four chances that we will get a new color.  There is thus a 33.3̅3̅% chance of a match, a 66.6̅6̅% chance that we will not get a match.

We thus have a roughly 67% chance of drawing color C, but that assumes that we have already drawn colors A and B.  We had a 100% chance of drawing color A, and an 86% chance of drawing color B.  That means our current probability of having three differently-colored cups is 67% of 86% of 100%, a simple multiplication problem which yields about 58%.  Odds slightly favor getting three different colors.

As we go for the fourth, though, our chances drop significantly.  There are now three colors to match, and five cups in the deck three of which match–three chances in five, or 60%, to match, which means two in five, or 40%, to get the fourth color.  That’s 40% of 67% of 86% of 100%, and that comes to, roughly, a 23% chance.  That’s closer to 3/13ths (according to my chart), but close enough to one chance in four, 25%.

A quicker way to do it in game, though, would be to assign each of the eight cups a number, and roll four eight-sided dice to see which four of the cups were drawn.  You don’t have to know the probabilities to do it that way, but if you had any matching rolls you would have to re-roll them (one of any pair), because it would not be possible to select the same cup twice.  In that sense, it would be easier to do it with eight cards, assigning each to a cup.

I should note that this math fails to address the more difficult questions–first, what are the odds that exactly four of the eight cups would be waiting to be washed, as opposed to three or five or some other number; second, how likely is it that someone has absconded with one of the cups of a particular color because he likes that color and is keeping it in his car or his room or elsewhere.  However, the first question is an assumption made in posing the problem, and the second question is presumably equally likely to apply to any one of the four color cups (even if I can’t imagine someone taking a liking to the orange one, someone in the house does like orange).  However, it should give you a bit of a better understanding on how to figure out the odds of something happening.

For what it’s worth, the probability of the cost of the purchase coming to an even dollar amount, assuming random values and numbers of items purchased, is one chance in one hundred.  That, of course, assumes that the sales tax scheme in the jurisdiction doesn’t skew the odds.

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#188: Downward Upgrades

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #188, on the subject of Downward Upgrades.

I have been playing a game on a “smart” cellular phone for the past few months–obviously not constantly, but in spare moments when I am stuck somewhere like waiting for the washer to finish or for the dog to decide to come back inside.  I’m going to name it, because this complaint is in some sense specifically their fault, although they are certainly far from unique in this.  The game is called My Singing Monsters, and it’s a sort of time-eating building game with some interesting twists, the best of which was that eventually I got to create my own songs using their tools.  I reached something around level forty-three or forty-four, which was far above anyone else I ever saw playing the game, the best of whom stopped playing around level thirty.

Then the game stopped working, and I know exactly why it stopped working, and in a very real sense it is the fault of the designer, and in another sense the designer is just doing what everyone does:  I was forbidden to continue playing unless I installed the latest upgrade, but the latest upgrade was too big for the memory space on my phone.

It’s not as if my phone is filled with junk.  I have seven “apps” (that’s short for “applications” but it means “programs”) that did not come as part of the original software–Netflix, but no saved video, Kindle with only two books at a time saved locally, a remote control for my bedroom television, my bank’s access program, a voice recorder for making quick reminder notes, a program that cleans junk off the phone and monitors its functionality, and a very small program that tells me what my phone number is when I look.  I had a couple other games, but I deleted them, and very much for the reason that I just deleted this one:  without me adding any new functions to my phone, the existing functions kept using up more and more resources.

This has been a habit of the software industry for a generation (well, in software terms that’s probably twenty generations, but it’s only a few decades).  Once upon a time making a program “better” involved writing it such that it used less space, had fewer command lines, and did as much with less resources.  Now it seems that making a program “better” means bloating it with more code to provide features the user never requested–if I’m using my phone for directions and I plug it into the power supply, that cleaner program shuts down the running map program and locks the screen; it did not do that when I first installed it, but included that “feature” which I consider a “bug” in one of the upgrades (and there is no option to disable it).

Of course, the hardware manufacturers are even more supportive of this practice in connection with phones than they were with computers.  At one time when the resource demand grew too great you could upgrade the computer–install a larger hard drive, more on board RAM, faster processor, better sound or video card.  With a cell phone, you can’t even add memory–oh, you can put in an SD card, but the system is designed to prevent you from running programs from it, so you can only store media there (I have a thirty-two megabyte card hosting a dozen photographs and a lot of empty space).  Ultimately if you run out of room on the phone you either have to delete programs or you have to buy another phone.  Industry hardware executives are of course hoping ultimately you will be forced to the latter.

So I hope that the My Singing Monsters designers hear that they lost a player because they upgraded beyond his phone’s capacity, and give some thought to whether it’s really worth making the program bigger to add features no one requested, and also that the rest of the cell phone software industry might take to heart the idea that in many cases the best way to improve a program is to make it smaller, remove worthless code and features, and have it accomplish what it is essentially made to do with a much lower use of system resources.

I’m also hoping for world peace, the brotherhood of all mankind, and a perfect hot fudge peanut butter sundae.  I might get one of those.

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#187: Sacrificing Sola Fide

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #187, on the subject of Sacrificing Sola Fide.


My Gordon College friend Walter Bjorck has apparently been posting a series of suggestions concerning how to create a genuinely Christian genuinely non-denominational fellowship.  He has been doing this via Facebook–which I find a particularly poor medium for that kind of thing, both because it is challenging to find all the posts in the series and because it provides a rather limited opportunity to respond and discuss.  To the former, I have no easy answer for him (try a web log, or possibly start a Facebook group?), but for the latter I have removed a piece of the discussion hither.  It happens that shortly after he posted this it was his birthday, so I was alerted to visit his page and saw this, and was prompted to respond here:

6. Justification by faith. All Christians believe in justification by faith, but Protestants went a step beyond by saying justification by faith alone. Both views must be allowed, understanding that all viewpoints have usually agreed that true faith produces godly works. We should also understand that Christians have agreed that fallen human beings cannot produce good works apart from the grace of God in Christ. Christians agree that Christ alone lived a sinless life and fulfilled the mission that Adam and his descendants have failed to fulfill.

Let me mention that Walter is one of those people whose intellect impressed me.  In our collegiate days he would visit meetings of various unorthodox groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science) and discuss with them how their views differed from Evangelical Christianity, and why the latter was more likely true.  That he was able to do this at all impressed me; that he did it in an open and friendly non-confrontational way which created dialogue and got people listening even more so.  So as I come to his ideas here, I think it important to express my admiration of his ideas and his efforts.

I must also mention that this is the only item on the list I found, but I found part of the list (without links) and recognize that there are some other issues on it I would find problematic and might eventually address if I manage to locate his comments on them.  Overall, I think C. S. Lewis was right when he somewhere said that what divides Christians is not that we disagree about the important things but that we disagree as to what the important things are.  I have a wonderful example of this, reported to me by Presbyterian Reverend John Highberger who said that an Episcopalian priest commented to him that Episcopalians and Presbyterians would never get together because Episcopalians go forward to receive communion and Presbyterians have it delivered to them in their pews.  It sounds silly to the Presbyterian that this would be an issue, but that specific act conveys a tremendous amount about the beliefs of the two denominations:

  • To the Episcopalian, the priest is a representative of Christ and God, and so standing as Christ gives the bread and wine to the individual individually, an act of communion between the individual worshipper and God.
  • To the Presbyterian, the minister is an officiant, a servant performing the ritual, which partly for convenience is done all at once by everyone so that everyone is involved in the service continuously (i.e., no one is sitting awaiting his turn to be involved again) and which incidentally connects the worshippers to each other as they take the bread and then the wine simultaneously, corporately as one body.

The form of the act itself expresses the theology behind it.  In this case, Episcopalians go forward because the act of going forward matters to them; Presbyterians remain in their pews because it does not matter.  I am disinclined to believe that either represents first century practice or the origin of the ritual, but on some level that’s not the point.

There is a degree then to which Sola Fide, “Faith Alone”, matters to Protestants.  Yet the deeper question is, should it?  Should we be willing in the name of Christian unity to sacrifice this doctrine, one of the defining identifiers of Protestantism, or should we maintain it?

I think there is a problem with the Reformation doctrine of faith, but I do not think it is in this aspect of Sola Fide.  For those who do not understand it, Sola Fide means that faith is the only means of obtaining grace and thus the only way to obtain salvation, and specifically justification.  Nothing else matters but that you have faith in Christ.  If you do not have faith in Christ, nothing else will ever be sufficient to earn God’s forgiveness; if you do have faith, nothing else will ever add anything to that salvation or reduce it in any way.

For those for whom Sola Fide is not a correct doctrine, there must of course be some alternate means of justification.  Two candidates are commonly mentioned.  Walter references one, good works.  The other is technically known as “means of grace”, which we will explain in a moment.

In regard to faith and works, I am going to mention Dr. J. Edwin Orr, who visited us at Gordon College and addressed us on this subject (among quite a few others).  I will be citing some of his statements on it.  The issues are, can one obtain justification by doing good works without faith, and if one has obtained justification by faith can that be improved by works?

The first question suffers from the issue of the perfect score, the 4.0 grade average, “batting a thousand”.  To be “justified”, as in the colloquial definition “just as if I’d never sinned,” you have to be perfect.  Doing good works doesn’t earn you points because that’s the default–you lose points every time you fail to do good works.  As Dr. Orr suggests, if you think that doing good works will make up for bad ones, ask your local police chief whether it would be all right for you to murder your spouse if you build a clinic first.  To earn justification by good works you would need to be perfect every minute of your entire life–including all that time before you realized that you needed to be perfect.  That not being humanly possible, you are going to need grace, and thus presumably faith, and you are now looking for justification based on works plus faith–not much different from justification based on faith plus works, addition being commutative.

So the other side of the question is if you are justified by faith, what can works add to this? Can you then be more justified?  If being justified means being treated as if one is sinlessly perfect, without flaw or blemish, what can be added to that?  Or are those justified soley by faith somehow less justified, regarded as less perfect, than those who are justified by faith plus works?

Certainly works are part of our salvation.  However, as Dr. Orr put it, we are saved by “the faith that works”, that is, faith that inspires us to act differently–and at this point maybe we should stop and identify what “faith” actually is.

One of the complications is that the New Testament has only two words for the concept we call “faith”, a noun and a verb–which would not be problem but that we recognize that there is a range of meaning in those words which we then attempt to capture by rendering the word to different English words in different contexts.  We take the one verb and make it “have faith”, or “believe”, or “trust”, or “be faithful”, all of which are valid senses of the word–but then we think that because the English words are different the meaning is different.  We do much the same with the noun.  Fundamentally the sense of the verb is to trust, and the noun then refers to that trust.  Being justified by faith means that by placing our trust in Christ we are treated as if we had never failed, never done anything wrong.

It is that aspect of complete justification that becomes the problem for any doctrine of “faith plus”.  If we say that those who add works to their faith are “more justified” than others, then we have unquestionably said that those others are “less justified”.  However, in all of Jesus’ parables about judgement, the outcome is always black and white–no one is told, I’m sorry, you can come to the party after we clean you up a bit.  Either you are completely justified and “in”, or you are not completely justified and “out”.

Arguably, in quite a few different senses some are “more saved” than others.  The penitent thief on the cross had enough time to make a confession of his own sin and his trust in Christ, and received a promise of salvation without anything else (and it is difficult to imagine that he had no ill thoughts toward those who would be watching him struggle for life and then breaking his legs so he could no longer do so).  Of some we might recognize that they went through far more trials and struggles toward a life of devotion to Christ than most of us; for others, we might recognize that they seem closer to God, more changed, more loving, than most people.  Some people clearly are able to trust God through far worse challenges than others, and so seem to have–and to need–more faith.  Grace expresses itself differently for each individual it touches.

Yet there is a sense in which that is an illusion.  If I ask whether you have faith, I must mean do you trust God completely.  That faith might be more or less tested, and all of us will fail on one point or another during life, but that trust means that we also trust He forgives our failures, and that the tests we fail were there to make us stronger.  Trusting God completely is in that sense a yes/no proposition–either you do or you don’t.  Trusting Him enough for the problems that come in life is different, but only in the sense that the problems come to teach us to trust Him completely.

What, though, of “means of grace”?  These are often called “sacraments”.  The Roman Catholic Church has at least a half dozen of these; the Baptists as a rule have none.  Lutherans have a couple, and it is more difficult to tell exactly what things are and are not sacraments in other denominations.  Baptism and that bread-and-wine ritual for which we have at least four distinct names (Mass, Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Supper) and many times as many theologies are the two most commonly recognized.  I have never been a “means of grace” person, so I am sure to misrepresent this, but the theory seems to be that you use up the grace you were given in the past and have to replenish it, and that the performance of these rituals by authorized persons delivers more of God’s grace to you.  It is the difference between the belief that justification by faith at a specific point in your life forgives you for all the wrongs you have not yet committed and the belief that you have been forgiven for everything you have done so far but need more grace for those wrongs which you continue doing.  However, it also involves the recognition of a priesthood as a conduit of grace–you do not receive forgiveness by confessing your sins, exactly, but by being given forgiveness by God’s representative.  It again suggests that the grace of initial total justification is less than total, and needs to be supplemented if you are to have any hope of heaven.

Yet to some degree this might be less egregious than faith plus works, because it seems fundamentally to be faith plus faith.  That has not always been so, or at least, not everyone has so understood it–stories of Spanish conquerors in the New World having priests throw water at Native Americans and pronounce the ritual words so that when the Spanish armies slaughtered them they would go to heaven suggest a mechanical magical process by which the power of the ritual releases grace even on those who do not have faith, but this is still based on the theory that someone else has faith by proxy, that the faith of the one performing the ritual releases grace on the unbeliever.  So “means of grace” are fundamentally about faith, faith in God through a ritual believed to have been instituted by Him for the purpose of conferring grace on His people.  I don’t believe in the ritual delivery of grace; I do believe in grace through confession and prayer and other aspects of a personal relationship with God, though, and accept that for some people, at least, those personal aspects might include rituals which have no meaning to me.

Ultimately, then, it seems that justification must be by faith only, or it fails to be justification at all.

On the issue of the relationship between faith and works, I recommend my Parable of the Boiler, elsewhere on this site.

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#182: Emotionalism and Science

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #182, on the subject of Emotionalism and Science.

This recounts a true story told me decades ago which it occurs to me has relevance to our present situation.


It occurs to me that at least one of my readers might remember Mr. Ernest “Ernie” Larrat, whose lifetime of involvement with the Boy Scouts of America has impacted many lives of which mine is perhaps a drop in the bucket.  You will be pleased to hear that I saw him last year, at my mother’s ninetieth birthday party, and he looked well, not much different than I remembered from the two hundred mile canoe trip for which he and I were leaders forty years previously (although I doubt either of us could make that Bicentenial Delaware River trek today), and was still involved in the Ramapo Council.  He also had a day job, somewhere in the chemical industry, from which he recounted this story.

It takes place in the late nineteen-sixties.  An issue had been raised concerning children’s pajamas.  Someone had realized that clothing made of natural fibers such as cotton and wool burned, and so did clothing made of modern synthetics such as polyester.  Infants and toddlers dressed in such clothing who were caught in house fires were frequently burned alive when their clothing caught fire, and sometimes fires started when such clothing came in contact with high heat sources such as candle flames.  Somehow the concern reached the ears of our elected officials, and they held a Congressional hearing on the matter.

The first presenters at this hearing were connected to Ralph Nader’s group of consumer advocates.  I do not intend to denigrate them; they have done much good over the decades.  They presented the problem, with graphic images and details of children burned alive by pajamas catching fire.  It was a horrid thought, a very moving and emotionally gripping presentation.  By the time the presentation was completed, our lawmakers were ready to take action–so ready, in fact, that they ended the hearings immediately and drafted and passed legislation requiring that all child and infant sleepwear be treated with flame-retardant chemicals so as not to ignite when exposed to flame.

They never heard any presentations from the chemical industry or the garment manufacturers.  After all, what could they possibly have to say, other than suggesting that the costs of such treatment would reduce their profits?  It was clear that something had to be done, and Congress was going to do it.

What the chemical industry was prepared to explain, had anyone cared to listen, was that there was only one known chemical that could be used to make such cloth permanently flame retardant.  It was known as Tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate, or just Tris for short.  (There is another chemical, Tris(2-chloroethyl) phosphate, more recently used as a flame retardant, more commonly known as TCEP.)  It had not been used in children’s garments, though, because of other properties.  It was known that when exposed to elevated temperatures not high enough to cause ignition of common fabrics, Tris would begin to break down and release a noxious gas rapidly and painfully fatal if inhaled.  I don’t know, but I suspect that this is at least part of why it was flame retardant:  as it heated, it robbed the fire of oxygen, preventing ignition.

However, its use was at the time the only way to comply with the law, so the chemical industry began providing large quantities of Tris to be used by the garment industry in the manufacture of children’s clothing.  Now fewer children were burned alive, because many more were killed by the gas released by treated clothing heated by the fire long before the clothing itself would have ignited without such treatment.

Over a very brief period of years, it was also determined that the chemical was a carcinogen when absorbed through the skin.  In 1977 the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned its use in children’s clothing, and clothes went back to being untreated cloth for lack of an alternative.

The lesson to be learned is that it is important in addressing a problem to research the potential consequences of any proposed solution.  Congressmen who voted in favor of flame-retardant treatment of children’s clothing knew they were addressing a serious problem.  They did not know that they were creating a more serious problem.  Within the narrow confines of the problem, indeed mandating flame-retardant chemicals in children’s clothing seems the ideal solution–but it is magical thinking, it is believing that direct solutions to problems do not have effects that might cause other problems.

And that is what is happening in the climate change hysteria today.

No one doubts that there are environmental problems that must continue to be addressed.  No one wants to undo the progress that has been made since the nineteen sixties.  Those of us who have lived so long can attest that conditions are better now than then, and that much more is being done to protect the environment now than then.  However, environmental extremists are drawing pictures of burned babies to provoke an emotional reaction and induce us to take extreme measures to protect the environment before this happens–and in this case, they are theoretical pictures, descriptions of what might happen if current trends go unchecked.  We have no burned babies, no real cases of environmental disaster causing or caused by climate change.  We have educated guesses–educated guesses on which many scientists disagreed until they were pressured by threats of funding cuts or ostracization or banishment from publication venues, to bring them into the fold.  We are supposed to react to these images by taking immediate action to protect the metaphoric babies, passing the legislation that metaphorically protects them by treating their clothing with a carcinogenic poisonous chemical that prevents ignition.

We should not move so quickly on this.  We should attend to the fact that every action has consequences, and extreme and hasty actions usually have severe consequences.  There are many problems that have nothing to do with the environment, and indeed even our supposed efforts to repair the environment may have unanticipated environmental consequences.

This has all been said before.  It was not so long ago that I wrote #175:  Climage Change Skepticism, and only about a year ago that I wrote #80:  Environmental Blackmail.  Before that, though, I gave you #10:  The Unimportance of Facts, suggesting that to many in the political world the truth does not matter, only the victory.  Let’s try to get back to learning the truth, instead of trying to use scare tactics to get our preferred outcomes.

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#169: Do Web Logs Lower the Bar?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #169, on the subject of Do Web Logs Lower the Bar?.

I noticed something.


I don’t know whether any of you noticed it, and there is an aspect to it that causes me to hope you did not, to suspect some of you did, and to think that I ought not be calling it to the attention of the rest.  But it is worth recognizing, I suppose, even if it is at my own expense to some degree.

What I noticed was that some of the web log posts I publish are not up the the same standard I would expect of my web pages.

Certainly it is the case that some of the web log subjects are what might be called transient.  I was quite surprised to see in my stats recently that someone visited the page that covered the 2015 election results for New Jersey.  I’m thinking it must have been a mistake.  Yet at the time it was important information, even if in another year it won’t even tell you who is in the Assembly, because we’ll have had another election.

It is also the case that being an eclectic sort of web log it is going to have pages that do not appeal to everyone–indeed, probably there are no pages that appeal to everyone.  I recently lost one of my Patreon supporters, and that saddens me, but he was the only person contributing as a time travel fan, and was not contributing enough to pay for one DVD per year; I’m sure he is disappointed that I haven’t done more time travel pages, but there has not been that much available to me and the budget has been particularly tight.  With pages about law, politics, music, Bible, games, logic problems, and other miscellany, there will certainly be pages that any particular reader would not read.  Yet that has always been true of the web site, and although the web log is not quite as conveniently divided into sections it does have navigation aids to help people find what they want.

What I mean, though, is that I don’t seem to apply the same standard to web log pages as I would to web pages.

I suppose that’s to be expected.  As I think about it, I recognize that I put a lot more time and thought into articles I am writing for e-zines and web sites that are not my own.  I expect more of myself, hold myself to a higher standard, when I am writing such pieces.  For one thing, I can’t go back and edit them later–which on my own site I will only do for obvious errors, never for content.  For another, something of mine published by someone else should represent the best that I can offer, both for my own reputation and for that of the publisher.  If you’re reading my work at RPGNet, or the Christian Gamers Guild, or The Learning Fountain, or any of the many other sites for which I’ve written over the decades, you might not know any more about me than what you find there.

It’s also the case that, frankly, anyone can set up his own web site, fairly cheaply and easily, write his own articles, and publish them for the world to ignore.  There is a limited number of opportunities for someone to write for someone else’s site, and to be asked to do so, or permitted to do so, is something of a recognition above the ordinary.

Of course, there are even fewer opportunities to write for print, and fewer now than there once were.  Not that you can’t publish your own printed books and comics and magazines, but that those that exist are selective in what they will print, and so the bar is higher.

The web log system makes it quicker and easier to write and publish something.  I suspect that there are many bloggers out there who open the software, start typing what they want to say, and hit publish, as if it were an e-mail.  I maintain a higher standard than that–all of my web log posts are composed offline, and with the only exceptions being the “breaking news” sort (like the aforementioned election results page) they all get held at least overnight, usually several days, reread and edited and tweaked until I am happy with them.  (As I write this, there are two web log posts awaiting publication which have been pending for two days, and I will review this one several times over the time that they go to press.)  But even so, the standard of what I will publish as a web log post is considerably lower than that which I will publish as a web page.

In that sense, the web log becomes more like diary, something in which you compose your thoughts and then ignore them–except that this diary is open to the world.  I think–I hope–all bloggers put more thought and care into their web log posts than they do into forum conversations and Tweets and Facebook posts.  However, while I have read some web log posts that were excellent, I have also read a few that caused me to wonder whether the author was thinking.  I try to keep some standard here, but I admit that sometimes I wonder whether I posted something because I thought it was worth posting or because I wanted to keep the blog living and active.

In any case, if you read something here and wonder why I bothered to post it, perhaps now you have a better idea of that.

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#167: Cybergame Timing

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #167, on the subject of Cybergame Timing.

I’ve played a few games which I am calling “cybergames”.  “Computer games” would suggest they are considerably bigger than they are.  These are “Facebook games” and cellphone games.  What usually happens is a close friend or family member will be playing a game and will “need” another player in order to get certain in-game benefits (a recruitment tool used by the game designers to get people who are playing to coerce their friends to play), so I will join the game and become involved, and then they will stop playing and I’ll realize, gradually, that I’m the only one I know playing this game, and eventually will realize that I’m wasting a lot of time on something that was supposed to be a way of interacting, in some small way, with this other person, and now is about interacting with a central processing unit somewhere.  However, along the way, being a game designer and gamer from way back, I notice things about these games, and one of them has begun to bother me.


Many of these games have timed processes.  That is, for example, you’ll say “build this here”, and it will tell you that it has started building it and the building will be complete in exactly this period of time, a countdown timer beginning.  That sometimes limits what else you can do (or requires you to spend resources to do some other things you normally would be able to do “free”), but its primary function seems to be to induce you to return to continue playing the game later.  The time units are often intuitively logical–for example, it is often the case that these will be twenty-four hours, or twelve or eight or six, fractions of a day.  With the twenty-four hour unit, you think that means you can play the game once a day and hit the button to restart this for the next day–but therein lies the rub.

Assume that you are playing such a game, and there is one task that can be done every twenty-four hours–collect a specific resource.  Let’s assume you are playing this game every morning before work and again twelve hours later in the evening after supper.  Both of those times are going to have a bit of fluctuation to them, of course, and that’s part–but not all–of the problem.  So at seven o’clock Monday evening you collect the resource, and that restarts the clock.  Of course, there are other things to do in the game–you don’t just collect the resource, you do other game play things at the same time.  So on Tuesday at seven the flag pops up to say that you can collect the resource.  Odds are against the notion that you are simply waiting for that flag to appear and immediately hit the button, so it will be at least a few seconds–let’s say a minute–before you do.  Sure, some days you are going to hit that resource in the same second, but those are the very rare ones.  By the end of a week, you are going to have shifted the time that the twenty-four hour resource renews by several minutes–so the next Monday you come to play at seven, but the flag doesn’t appear until five after, or ten after, or some time after the hour.  That’s not a problem–presumably you are playing the game for more than ten minutes at a shot, or it wouldn’t be much of a game.  However, you can’t make that clock go backwards–by the next week it will be quarter after, or possibly half past, before the flag appears.

Probably it’s not a game that you play for half an hour, at least not every night.  At some point, you give up waiting for that flag, and it “appears” in the program after you’ve shut down the game.  When you restart the game at seven in the morning, there it is.  And now you repeat the same process in the morning, until you have to quit the game and leave for work before the flag appears.  You lose a day of resource generation, and it returns to an evening task.

Not a big deal?  However, this same problem affects all tasks of length, whether twelve, eight, six, four, or even three hours:  no matter how frequently you play the game during the day, eventually the task will be unfinished twenty minutes before you are going to bed, and you will have to choose whether to stay up and hit the button late or go to bed and pick it up in the morning.  What seems like a game mechanic that pushes you toward a regular play schedule actually prevents a regular play schedule, because it shifts against the clock slightly each time.

The obvious solution to this problem is a game design correction:  replace those seemingly intuitive chunks of turnover time with rather unintuitive shorter ones.  Have the resource renew in twenty-three hours, eleven and a half, eight and two thirds, six and a three quarters, four and five sixths, three and seven eighths hours.  This lets the player show at a regular time and find the task complete and waiting for replay.  It avoids the frustration of having to wait until tomorrow morning simply because it’s not worth waiting another twenty minutes tonight.  It’s a better game design.

Anyway, that’s my suggestion.  I would probably find these games a bit less frustrating (and really, do you want your game to be frustrating?) if that were fixed.

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#155: Driving on Ice and Snow

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #155, on the subject of Driving on Ice and Snow.

Let’s start with the obvious disclaimers.

I am not what is normally termed a professional driver, although I have had a few jobs in which I was paid to do work that included driving as part of the job and have worked with professional drivers.  I am not one of those “ice truckers”, and I have no particular qualifications for this.

However, I grew up in that part of northern New Jersey, in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, where there is a lot of snow in the winter, and I “cut my teeth” driving in Massachusetts during two of the worst winters on record (1978-79), so I have significant experience driving in and on snow and ice.  More to the point, I am not afraid of the stuff, and although I have been in several automotive accidents over the decades, the only one which involved snow or ice at all was a slide into a drift that did no damage to anything.  So I am going to be presumptive enough here to suggest that I know something about how to do this.


There are, I suppose, some obvious points that should be made.  You can’t force a vehicle through snow that the undercarriage does not clear–you’ll simply raise the car to the point that the tires have no traction.  With enough forward momentum you might force your way through, but everything is against you in this.  That’s why trucks with large tires do better than low-slung sports cars, or at least, that’s one reason.  (The weight also helps.)  Traction matters.  As we noted in web log post #154:  The Danger of Cruise Control, having good tread on your tires helps.  They still make studded tires for winter use, and they make chains, and these increase your traction, the degree to which you grip the road, and so the control you have over the vehicle.  They are not necessities; they are helpful particularly if you are doing a great deal of winter driving on packed snow or ice.  Some states have laws concerning when these are permitted to be on a vehicle on the road, because they provide significant traction by digging into the road surface.  My assumptions here are that you have ordinary radial tires, hopefully in decent shape.

The essential rule of driving in snow and ice can be summarized as avoid jerk.

That is not “avoid jerks”, although that is also an important point, and you want to give them plenty of space and be sure that you are not one of them.  However, jerk is a technical term in physics which refers to abrupt changes in acceleration, and acceleration means any change in any vector of motion, and a vector of motion means the velocity and direction of movement of an object.  Thus hitting the gas to propel yourself forward is jerk, but so is abruptly slowing or stopping, and indeed turning sharply and suddenly is also jerk.  These are all to be avoided.  Nearly everything else is a detail of that.

One of those details is try to avoid coming to a complete stop on ice.  Dump trucks have a first gear that is only ever used to get a fully-loaded stationary vehicle moving at one to two miles per hour so that second gear can take over.  The problem with being stopped is that the amount of push needed to get out of stationary momentum is significantly greater than the amount needed to change that rate of motion otherwise, and on ice you might not have the traction to get that push.  Of course, you have to stop at traffic lights if they are red–but you can anticipate this.  If you see that a light is red, or about to turn red, and you are some distance from it, decelerate and let it cycle back to green while you approach it more slowly.  You might not have to stop if it turns green before you reach it.  If you do find yourself stopped on a slick surface, remember that the only way to start moving is to do so extremely gradually, because your tires will spin if you push too hard, and in spinning they will make the surface slicker (for reasons we will cover).

Similarly, stay well behind the car in front of you, and particularly if it is moving considerably more slowly than the speed at which you feel comfortable.  Slow moving vehicles operated by nervous drivers are one of the biggest hazards on frozen roads, so although you should not drive faster than the speed at which you are comfortable, you should not go too slowly, either, as it increases the probability that you will become stuck in deeper snow if you hit a patch that slows the vehicle–having some momentum will keep you out of many problems.  If you are behind a slower vehicle, it is unlikely in the extreme that the conditions will be conducive to passing, so there’s no point crowding while awaiting that opportunity.  The closer you are, the less chance you have to react safely to any mistake the other driver makes, and honestly with you on his bumper he is going to be more nervous and more prone to making one of those mistakes.

There is another reason why you want to be particularly attentive to the car in front of you:  his motions will help you predict road conditions ahead.  If he swerves or fishtails, or abruptly slows, odds are good that there is something in the road at that point that caused him to do so.  It’s possible that he’s just distracted, or drunk, or otherwise impaired, but if he has been driving well to this point and suddenly makes an unexpected movement, you should be wary for trouble of some sort.  His movements will also indicate where he believes the road is going in poor visibility conditions, giving you time to anticipate curves.  Just don’t follow him into a driveway–or a snowbank.

Keep your attention focused not only on the other vehicles, from which you are trying to maintain a more than safe distance, but also on the road surface ahead.  At night (if there is no fog) use your high beams whenever there is no oncoming traffic and you are far enough behind any vehicle in front of you.  If there is a change in the road’s appearance, begin reducing your speed before you reach it.  Once you know what kind of traction you have on the new surface you can resume your previous speed if appropriate.  Do this even if the change appears to be for the better, because the appearance of the road from a distance might not accurately reflect the actual conditions.

As to road surfaces, a clean dry surface is your best friend.  Sand atop snow is usually next, or sand atop ice; dry sand on a dry road creates its own sliding problems, but of a different sort.  A thin layer of loose snow will give better traction than either packed snow or roughened ice, which are nearly the same.  However, loose snow can obscure potholes and other road hazards.  Slush also can obscure potholes, and is considerably less predictable.  A bit of dryer slush can give you traction similar to loose snow.  Wet slush on a road surface is more akin to driving through puddles, with the hazards of hydroplaning but reasonable traction when you are moving slowly enough to grip the road.  Slush atop ice is slicker than simple packed ice.  This is important partly because you want to know what kind of traction you are going to have on the road ahead so as to adjust your speed accordingly, and because it is often the case that you can position your wheels on one type of surface or another.  For example, if traffic has caused there to be a pair packed smooth ice pathways along the usual tire paths but there is loose snow down the center and to the edges, you can shift slightly toward one edge and take advantage of the better traction of the snow.

Let me mention so-called “black ice”, mostly because if I don’t someone will note that I didn’t.  This is in essence a very thin layer of smooth ice which occurs when melt refreezes, usually in situations in which a warm day or intense sunlight has warmed the road slightly and the cooling of evening or night has refrozen it.  It is essentially driving on ice, but it more difficult to spot as it is thin enough to see the road surface through it and so looks very like a simple wet road, if a bit more shiny.  It does not usually form on very busy roads because the constant warming from traffic disperses and evaporates it.

You should also be aware of changing road circumstances.  There are several ways in which the lay of the road, the construction of it, can impact driving conditions.  The best known of these is bridges, but you should also be wary of causeways and open fields.

We have all seen the signs which incorrectly read “Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface”.  The correction of “Freezes” to “Ices” helps, but it is more helpful to understand what is happening.  Roads absorb heat, particularly from the sun and even on sub-freezing days.  Dark macadam roads absorb more than lighter-colored more reflective concrete ones.  That heat is transfered into the ground below, which acts as ballast.  When the temperature starts dropping and the sun vanishes, the road starts surrendering its heat, but sub-freezing atmosphere will not create ice so quickly on a warmed road surface until the road itself nears the freezing mark after having drawn the stored heat from below.  However, with a bridge there is a thin layer of paving over a thin support structure, and a large space beneath through which air moves, drawing the heat out of the road from all sides.  Thus the road surface on the bridge will reach the icing point sooner than the road surface elsewhere.  Of course, if the air has not reached the freezing mark the water on the bridge won’t freeze.  In fact, when the world starts warming the reverse effect occurs:  the bridge de-ices before the road surface, as it will warm through quickly while the heat hitting the road elsewhere will take time to penetrate.

This is also important, because although we say that we slip on the ice, it’s not exactly correct.  We actually slip on the water.  Skiers, ice skaters, and bobsledders all understand that what makes them move is the fact that the friction between their blades and the frozen surface creates a thin sheen of water between the blade and the ice, and the blade floats atop this bit of water.  (There was a horrible accident in Lake Placid in the early 1970s when one international bobsled team decided to apply a blowtorch to the runners on their sled before making the run.  They exceeded all previous speeds, were unable to slow themselves, and sailed off the track into the trees at a tight turn.  If memory serves, they had exceeded eighty miles per hour.)  That means that icy roads are most dangerous when they are just freezing or just thawing, considerably less so when the ice is so frozen that the heat of the tires has minimal effect.

Causeways and open fields have a similar, but less marked, effect because they are open to the wind, and so wind chill is a significant factor.  Again, wind chill does not mean that the air is colder.  It means that the air warmed by a warm object is being replaced faster than the object can warm it, with the result that the warm object cools more quickly.  A strong wind two degrees above freezing will rapidly chill anything warmer than that until it is two degrees above freezing; it won’t freeze anything.  It is bad for you because your body is working to keep warm, so it makes you feel colder and uses more of your energy.  (Technically that “cooling breeze” on a hot summer day is wind chill; we just don’t call it that because we welcome it.)  It is similarly bad for your house, because the heating system has to work harder, and for the interior of your car if you are trying to stay warm in it.  However, that same wind just above freezing will more rapidly melt ice and snow on an open road, because it is warming it more quickly, replacing the chilled air immediately above the surface with slightly warmer air (the reason we can cool hot food by blowing on it with our breath despite the fact that the air coming out of our mouth is warmer than the room temperature air).  Because causeways and fields are open to the wind, they are more susceptible to changes from wind chill and warming.

Open fields also present a hazard from drifts.  Of course, if the drifts are deep they may become an impassable obstacle; but the more dangerous drift problem is the repeated dusting of powder which coats the road and becomes ice on top of previously placed sand or salt.  Many locales erect snow fences along the edges of fields to collect blowing snow before it reaches the road, but these are never completely effective.

Knowing what the road ahead is like is a very valuable asset in negotiating snow and ice.

It is advice so commonly repeated that you have almost certainly heard it:  if you are sliding or skidding on any surface, turn in the direction of the skid.  That, though, is just what, not why, and it is so counter-intuitive that most people do not grasp even that it works.  After all, if you are sliding in a direction you don’t want to go, the natural reaction is to try to steer in the direction you do want to go, and when that doesn’t work you panic trying to get the car to go a different way; why would you tell it to go the way it is already going?  However, when you are sliding or skidding, your front tires are not more than two blunt feet, and you can turn them any way you like but they will keep sliding just like blunt feet–unless you manage to get them rolling in harmony with your actual movement.  The only way to get them rolling is to align them with that movement, and then–again remembering to avoid sudden changes in direction–ease the new direction on the front end of the car by turning gradually in a better direction.  That is how you recover control of the car.

If you have been stuck in snow, you have undoubtedy noticed that one wheel will spin rapidly while the other does nothing at all.  This is a significant effect of an important design feature of the car.  Whenever you drive around a turn, the wheels toward the outside of the curve trace a longer arc than those to the inside.  That means that one of your wheels is moving farther than the other and has to turn faster.  If the drive wheels (whether rear wheel or front wheel drive) were linked absolutely, one or the other would have to slip on the surface, which means it would necessarily require the ability to slip against the road and would wear down the tires much more quickly.  To avoid this, the vehicle has a piece in the drive called a differential, the function of which is to shift the majority of the power to the wheel that is spinning faster.  The downside of this is that if one tire starts to slip, it will spin, and the other will be given a negligible amount of push, and you will be stuck.

That spinning tire is a problem for more reason than that it isn’t gripping and is wasting all your motive power.  The friction of the spin, even on ice, makes the tire itself hotter, and the hotter tire melts the ice more quickly, creating that layer of water that impedes grip and which quickly refreezes into a smoother, slicker surface.  Many people carry something in their cars to put under such tires to increase traction–salt, sand, and cat litter are probably the favorites, and all are good, but just about anything rough you can put under the spinning tire–pine needles, small branches, leaves, boards, clothing, floor mats, confetti, rice, birdseed–will increase the traction and help get you out of the hole the tire is digging.

It often happens that the spinning tire will create a ridge in front of itself that is increasingly more difficult for it to surmount, particularly if there was snow piled in front of the tire initially.  One very good way to free such a tire is to dig out the space immediately in front of it so that when it starts moving forward it will be moving downward, giving it momentum to continue beyond that.  It also sometimes helps to “rock” the car, that is, back it slightly then move it forward repeatedly, as if you can get the car to move a little you can in essence extend the rut and give yourself something of a “runway” to get the needed momentum.

If you find that the conditions in which you are driving have you frequently getting stuck in snow, you should give serious consideration to snow tires, studded tires, or chains for the winter months.

All of these have to become automatic for you–particularly pulling out of a skid.  You often do not have time to think about what the right response to the situation is.  It has to be your first reaction.  That means you have to practice, and become accustomed to the right responses.  You don’t just have to know that you should turn into the direction of the skid when you are sliding, but you have to do it automatically, feel that you have regained rolling motion, and pull out of it without losing that control, all before you have skidded too far.  You have to slow down, automatically, when you observe anything ahead that is likely to be a hazard.  You have to be aware of the kind of traction you have, and the kind of traction that you are likely to have on the road ahead, and keep a good distance from anyone else on the road to the degree that it is your choice.  Just as you have learned how to steer, how to slow and stop, how to use your turn signals and dim your brights all without stopping to think about it, you have to use these safety techniques as part of “this is how you drive”.  So you have to get out on the ice, in the snow, and learn to do it.

Incidentally, I know from experience that old tire chains in good repair make excellent ladders for tree forts.

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