Category Archives: Logic and Reasoning

#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 PayPal.me 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.

#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.

#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.

#187: Sacrificing Sola Fide

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

img0187Luther

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.

#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.

img0182Baby

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.

#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.

img0169Diary

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.

#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.

img0167Game

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.

#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.

img0155Snowstorm

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.

#154: The Danger of Cruise Control

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #154, on the subject of The Danger of Cruise Control.

You may have seen an e-mail or similar communication warning of a danger connected to using cruise control.  It generally tells a story of a driver, usually a woman, traveling with cruise control who hits a puddle, loses control of the vehicle, and crashes, only to be informed by the police that it happens all the time.  There actually is a danger with cruise control, but it is considerably less severe than that story suggests, and if you understand a bit abount how it works, it’s not a problem.

img0154cruise

There is a story of the early days in which this was a new feature.  It is said that a man was driving a new Winnebago™, set the cruise control, and went into the back to make himself a sandwich.  Cruise control is not autopilot, and even autopilot (on airplanes) requires someone to monitor it.  We know that now, and since most of us are using cruise control in automobiles where we really can’t leave the seat while the car is moving it’s not likely to recur.  Self-driving vehicles are on the horizon, but already states are passing laws to require that a licensed operator be in the vehicle at all times when it is moving.

The disaster described in the story is simple to understand if you grasp how cruise control works.  It in essence reads the speedometer and adjusts the throttle.  If the signal to the speedometer decreases, indicating a reduction in speed, it increases the fuel supply to the engine, in essence opening the throttle an appropriate amount to compensate; if the signal indicates an increase in speed over the set value, it reduces the fuel supply.  Ultimately it balances such that the speed remains constant, the system responding to any changes in velocity more quickly than the driver can notice them.

The speedometer does not actually tell you how fast the car is going.  It tells you how fast the front axle is spinning, converted into miles (or kilometers) per hour based on the measured circumference of the recommended tires fully inflated.  That is, it takes the revolutions per minute of the wheel times the distance the car moves per revolution, and multiplies it out to get the velocity displayed.

The important part of that, for our purposes, is that what the speedometer is measuring, and thus that to which the cruise control is responding, is not your speed but the rotational speed of your front axle.

This matters because there are times when you are driving during which the rotational speed of the front axle is disconnected from the actual speed of the car.  It happens because the tires lose contact with the road.  It can happen on ice, on oily patches (including leaf oil from wet dead leaves), on sand or loose gravel, and most notoriously on water.  That is so common we have a name for it:  we call it hydroplaning.

One of the reasons tires have tread is to prevent hydroplaning.  There are other reasons; tread gives more traction on many surfaces, and allows the tire to form to the road better.  However, when you are driving on water on tires with good tread, the weight of the car pushes the tire to the road surface, squeezing the water into the tread so that you are making contact with the road and getting the water out of the way.  However, if the tread is bad or the water is deeper than the tread can handle, the water has nowhere to go, and the tire simply rides atop it.  When it does so, it is no longer making contact with the road, and the speed indicated by the speedometer (and read by the cruise control) has no relationship to your actual velocity.

At this point what happens is very much dependent on whether you have front wheel drive or rear wheel drive.

If you have front wheel drive, the cruise control is interested in maintaining the rotational velocity of the front axle by adjusting the throttle to maintain that velocity consistently.  At this point, the tires are still spinning at the same speed.  The resistance is probably lower, because they are spinning freely and not pulling the weight of the vehicle, so the engine speed (RPM, revolutions per minute) is likely to decrease and the transmission might downshift, but the vehicle will be slowing in actual forward velocity.  There is likely to be an abrupt jerk, even several such jerks, as the slower car drops through the water to make contact with the road surface and pushes itself forward, possibly again to begin hydroplaning.  However, since the cruise control is working from the rotational velocity of the front axle by adjusting the rotational velocity of the front axle, it will not exceed the set speed.

A problem arises if you have rear wheel drive.  The cruise control is getting its velocity information from the front axle, but controling the speed of the vehicle via the rear axle.  When the front wheels lose contact with the road, they slow–and when they do so by hitting water, they frequently slow abruptly.  The cruise control reads this as the vehicle suddenly slowing, as perhaps from a hill or severe headwind, and compensates by increasing the fuel to the engine and so increasing the velocity of the rear axle, propelling the car forward rapidly.  This is the situation in which the woman in the story loses control of her car, as it moves madly, being driven forward with no ability to steer (because the same factor that prevents the front wheels from providing accurate velocity information also disables their ability to control direction) and what seems the inevitable crash.

Yet it is not entirely the fault of the cruise control or the design.  It is also the fault of the driver.

With every cruise control system since they first appeared, if you as much as brush the brake pedal with your foot the cruise control disengages instantly.  That means that if your car suddenly lurches forward, and you as a seasoned driver instinctively apply the brake, you’ve stopped the acceleration and are now in a position to control the velocity of the vehicle.  Sure, it’s a scare, a shock–but not more so than having a deer run in front of your car.  Yes, stopping fast on slick roads, whether icy, oily, or wet, can be challenging, but it is something drivers learn to do.

It should also be noted that many cars with cruise control also have an automatic shutoff built into this that reacts to puddles:  if you hit something like water, it will recognize the abrupt change in road surface and interrupt the speed control.  Also, anecdotally, I was told by a mechanic some years back that the number of new cars with rear wheel drive had fallen so significantly that he knew mechanics who didn’t know how to work on them.  So the probability is fairly high that your car doesn’t have the serious problem, unless you drive a truck.  (If your car has that “hump” down the middle, that’s the space for the drive shaft, so you have either rear-wheel or four-wheel drive.)

It’s probably safer not to use cruise control in heavy rain or on icy roads, but that’s something of a judgment call.  For some drivers, cruise control is dangerous simply because they expect to be able to slow the car going into curves by releasing the accelerator and are not accustomed to tapping the brake to get that outcome.  For some drivers it is more dangerous to drive without cruise control, because the tendency to accelerate can put a car well over the safe speed limit before the driver realizes that his heavy foot is getting him into trouble.  You can disable the cruise control as quickly as you can slow the car without it, so, to use the expression where it is almost appropriate, “your mileage may vary”.  Just be aware of what the system is likely to do under slippery road conditions, and be ready for it.

#153: What Are Ghosts?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #153, on the subject of What Are Ghosts?

I do believe in ghosts, I do believe in ghosts, I do, I do, I do….

Thus spoke the Cowardly Lion (in The Wizard of Oz, of course)–but that which caused him to believe in ghosts was not a ghost, but a meddling witch.  This came back to me as I listened to a syndicated radio host (The Wally Show) saying that he did not believe in ghosts, but if he was in the real estate market and someone told him that a particular house was haunted, he would not buy it.  We will get back to that.  He also admitted that as Christians we believe in some kind of spirit realm–but that the idea of ghosts was still not something he could accept.

I’m going to say that I believe in ghosts in the sense that I believe there are real phenomena which have not been materialistically explained which at least appear to be manifestations of spirits.

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That said, though, just because I believe in “ghosts” does not mean I have any clue as to exactly what they are.  That might be overstating it–I have many clues, but nothing sufficient to achieve certainty.  Thus in the interest of making it clear just how unclear the matter actually is, here are a few of the possibilities, as I understand them.

  • It is certainly not impossible that these are spirits of the dead, people whose inner selves have been separated from their bodies who somehow are maintaining an earthly existence.  Most Christians don’t like this, because we are told that it is appointed to men to die once, and after this comes judgment, and from this we conclude that immediately upon dying we are consigned to heaven or hell for eternity.  (There are some who believe in something called “purgatory”, a place for souls who are in the process of being saved but are not yet pure enough for heaven; it is based on texts that are controversial, not accepted as canon by Protestants because they are not so recognized by Jews.  It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the essence of it.  Besides, having one more place for the afterlife does not release spirits to be here.)  However, we debate exactly how that happens, because our heavenly afterlife is intimately connected with the resurrection of the body.  Thus some think that we go to heaven as “unclothed” spirits and there await the resurrection, and some that we experience (or do not experience) “soul sleep”, such that we know nothing until the return of Christ revives us.  Other possible solutions to this include that we immediately receive resurrection bodies which, unlike Christ’s, are not dependent upon our natural bodies, or that we leap across time to eternity such that at the moment of our death we are at the moment of the resurrection.

    Given that we are in disagreement (I won’t say uncertain, because some of us are quite certain of one position or another as the “obvious” one), it is entirely possible that spirits of at least some of the dead manifest in the mortal realm.  We have the account of Saul visiting the witch at Endor and asking to speak with the departed spirit of the prophet Samuel, in which we are given the rather clear understanding that that spirit responded (and rebuked him for calling).  Some argue that this is because it was before the resurrection of Christ, but we are never told this, and so we just simply don’t know and cannot say that this answer is impossible.

    However, neither is it certain–which is the point here.

  • Many theologians who believe that there are such spirit manifestations believe that these are manifestations of what we might call opportunistic spirits.  They would use the words “demons” and “devils”, but I find that our understandings of those words, as our understanding of “angels”, seems very narrow and simultaneously inconsistent with some of what we know from the Bible.  One would think from what is said that the God who has made more kinds of insects than most of us can imagine could only make one kind of spirit being which divided itself into two parties.  I suspect that there are more kinds of spirit beings than there are kinds of lifeforms in the world–but that’s a digression.  What matters is that it is entirely possible that these spirits have almost nothing to do with the departed, but know enough about them to masquerade as them, possibly just to frighten people, possibly to cause them to doubt their understanding of spiritual matters, possibly to deliver deceptive messages.  The problem here is that we have no way to test this.  Houdini, for example, agreed with his wife on a secret password that he would use if he were ever contacted by a medium and she was present, to prove that it was him.  Although many mediums claimed to have contacted him, none were able to produce the password–but had they done so, would it have proved that this was indeed Houdini, or merely that spirits who masquerade as people might have been privy to many of their intimate secrets in life?  My problem with distinguishing departed spirits from opportunistic spirits is similar to my problem with other gods:  we are ill-equipped to know what is really happening in the spirit realm, and cannot know the origins or motivations of any particular spirit we might encounter.

  • Some people looking for an answer that is almost naturalistic speak of psychic residue, that people suffering particularly traumatic events project mental energy into the surrounding objects which can be sensed by others.  I have elsewhere written (Faith and Gaming:  Mind Powers, at the Christian Gamers Guild) that it seems to me at least reasonably plausible that people could in the future develop mental powers we do not presently have, and indeed it is a small step from that to suggesting that we might have mental powers of which we are unaware.  There is nothing necessarily evil or Satanic about that as a concept.  It might be that stressed brains leave some kind of wave pattern in surrounding matter which can be perceived by other brains attuned to this, and it might be that those patterns manifest as replays of events causing the stress–which would explain why so many claimed ghost sightings are frightening, particularly if the emotion is included in the projection.

  • Most Christians oppose the concept of animism–the idea that there are spirits in inanimate objects.  I am less persuaded.  There is sound scriptural support for the notion that animals, at least, have spirits, and it does not take much to extend that to cover plants, since the distinctions between these two categories of life forms are more scientific than spiritual.  (That’s bad news for vegans, really.)  I do not think that rocks and planks of dead wood and other non-living objects have spirits–it is, if I understand aright, the spirit that gives life to the body, whether that of a person or an animal or plausibly even a plant.  Therefore I think objects that do not have life in any sense do not have spirits–but I can’t say that I know this.  After all, God doesn’t tell us much that we do not need to know, and so most of what He tells us is about ourselves.  It is not impossible that, contrary to my belief, stones have spirits.  If so, it is possible that the torment of one spirit–that of a person–in the vicinity of another spirit–that of the supposed inanimate object–would leave an impression on that other spirit.  We might then be encountering the spirits of non-living matter reliving the suffering of living spirits that had been there.

  • Many of the stories I have heard of supposed hauntings include the fact that someone died in a particular place, and that this was known to the person who experienced the haunting.  Nurses often believe that certain rooms in hospitals are sometimes haunted by former patients, and will sometimes tell this to incoming nurses.  Ghosts are seen in castles that are famously said to be haunted.  It could be that at least some of these are projections of the expectations of the observer–that is, an unexpected glimmer of light, a stray noise, a chill breeze, and the imagination supposes that for just a moment there was something there.  Our minds are already designed to provide details for many things we see.  If something moves in your peripheral vision and you have every reason to believe it to be a person, your mind tells you it is a person; in fact, if you believe it to be a specific person, your mind will put that person in that position.  Sometimes we are startled because the person we saw was not the person we thought we saw.  There is no particular reason why the mind could not provide the image of a ghost where we were anticipating the possibility that we might see a ghost, and the moreso if that makes us nervous.

From this it is evident that assuming the phenomena to be real there are still a great many plausible explanations for it.  None of these explanations covers every detail of every supposed encounter, but then, none of them is the only possible explanation for any reported encounter.  There might be ghosts; there might be something that tricks us, intentionally or accidentally, into believing that we have seen ghosts.  As with Unidentified Flying Objects, it might be that different explanations apply in different cases, and some of them are real departed spirits, but others are not.

I am not afraid of ghosts, but I have never had an encounter.  I don’t know that I would be uncomfortable living in a supposedly haunted house.  However, there is good reason to be reluctant to buy a house that is said to be haunted:  such rumors will impact its market value.  There are always stories attached to houses, but when the stories have a negative emotional impact–previous home of serial killer, house in which entire family died mysteriously–it makes the property less desirable.  “Haunted” is exactly such a story.  If a house is thought to be haunted, you can probably buy it for very little money, and sell it for less.  It becomes a bad financial decision.  So of course I would be hesitant to buy a house I had been told was haunted, not because I necessarily believe that, but because when the time comes to sell my potential buyers are likely to believe it.

So I do believe that there might be something like ghosts out there, but I don’t believe we either do or can know exactly what they are.  We are not equipped to deal with objects in the spirit realm, or indeed even to know with certainty whether that is what we are encountering.