Friday, January 31, 2014

Fine Country

Tonight's letter comes to us from a rainy Tuesday night in 1932.

Elma, Wash., Feb. the 23, 1932

Well, little Fannie, I will write you a short letter; this
leaves me just able to work. Hoping this finds you all O.K.

Well, it is raining here now. If Frank was here he could be
working every day. If you and Frank will come, I will make my
home with you. Me and Frank working. we could soon get O.K., go
to the beach on Sundays and catch sea perch. You could bring
all your bedding and dishes in the cars with you two and I can
fix the rest so we can live. You don't know how glad I would
be to have you come. We can go to the woods and get all the
meat we want. If Frank and you would come and stay one summer
you would never go back to W. Va. [Probably true, but they never came]

The first day I get off, I am going to make garden for you, and
this spring would be a good time to come. It won't cost over
$100 to get here. There is no snakes here but little garters.
You don't know how bad I want you to come. If a man gets hurt
here he gets money enough to keep his family in good shape. If
a man gets killed, his wife gets a pension that keeps the
family long as she is single. You get lots of good [things]
here that you don't there. I think this a great country. [meaning Washington state]  I
have been all over [that is putting it mildly] and this [is] the best country I ever found.
If they keep on logging, I soon can help you some. If I keep
able to work, I will get all my bills paid next month if
nothing happens. I would not want you to come if [I] didn't
know it's the best for you both. Good schools and the kids are
hauled to and from school 9 months here.

Give Droddys my best regards. Is "Oat" living?

[He was! Ota Droddy (1871-1949) introduced my grandparents to each other.
He was a logger who had known J.R. Edwards and my great-grandmother
when they were still together.  A few years later he quit logging and took a job as a checkweighman at the coal mine where my grandpa's father (Mr. Henson, not his 'real' father Bill Conley) was the general foreman. Got all that straight?]

If you think of anything that I have not wrote about this country that
you want to know, ask me and I will tell you. The nights is
too cool to raise corn (anything but sweet corn). Potatoes and
everything else grow fine. I seen potatoes here that weighed
six pounds, and the finest fruit country I ever saw. Well, I
guess you are tired of reading my mistakes. Write soon, kiss
baby for Granddad. I love your letters so well.

Your poor old lonely Dad, [He really lays it on thick, doesn't he?]

J.R. Edwards.

I only met Aunt Fannie once, a few months before she died in 1974. I don't have a lot of pictures of her, but here's one:

Aunt Fannie on the left, Cousin Nita on the right

On the back is written, "You and your mom. The only picture I have of her." Most likely my grandmother wrote that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why Do I Have To Learn This Crap?

If you don't use math, you can skip this one. When I took calculus I always wondered about the choice of topics. For example, they would teach us obscure tricks for integrating weird-looking functions that obviously had some kind of significance, but they never explained what it was.

As it turned out, I do use calculus all the time, so I feel as qualified as anyone to give some perspective on the "why?" of the table of contents. So here goes. This is Finney and Thomas, 7th edition (1988).

Before I get rolling, I've heard some people say calculus is old-fashioned and should be de-emphasized in favor of "finite math", which is a catch-all of linear algebra, probability, finite differences - anything but calculus. Yes, calculus is increasingly irrelevant and only of interest in case you want to learn the laws of physics, and who cares about those any more? If you just want to throw around Greek letters to put a gloss of credibility on your ravings, you can skip the calculus and make a fine living as an economist.

1. The Rate of Change of a Function. Provides the entire motivation for differential calculus. A whole chapter just to beat the notion into you that a curve has a different slope at every point. They have to do this because you've just spent two years or more studying linear functions that have the same slope everywhere. Chapter finishes up with a little bit of theory about continuity. But aren't all functions of any interest continuous? What possible application could there be for a function with jumps or holes in it? Well, it turns out, a lot. The boundary between two materials, a shock wave, a piecewise interpolation - discontinuous and you had better understand what it means.It would help if they explained this.

2. Derivatives. Differentiation is so easy that it takes maybe a week to learn, but what does it mean? There are functions like polynomials that, if you keep taking the derivative, eventually give you zero. Then there are other functions like sines and cosines that you can keep differentiating and they just sort of cycle. You use the two in different ways.

3. Applications of Derivatives. This chapter is all context, so no more explanation is needed.

4. Integration. The integral of a function is both the area under the curve, and the inverse of differentiation. If that doesn't blow your mind, you're not paying attention.

5. Applications of Definite Integrals. All context.

6. Transcendental Functions. It's all about the weird little function exp(x) and its inverse, ln(x). A whole chapter just to talk about one function? Yes; it's only the most important function in math. A function that is its own derivative? Doesn't seem that big a deal until you realize that the laws of physics are differential equations, and solving differential equations using functions that stay the same when you differentiate is so easy it's fun. It's so easy that even when we can't do it, we do it anyway. That is a math joke.

7. Methods of Integration. This is the "long division" of calculus, a chapter I think could be scrapped, except for integration by parts, which is never explained well. All it is is the integral of the product rule of differentiation. The rest of the chapter is integrating those weird functions like even powers of sine and cosine, and rational functions. Those would be a lot easier to take if they'd just explain that the powers of sine come about when you do Fourier series, and the rational functions come about when you do Laplace transforms. They could also explain that nobody does that stuff by hand any more, but then the kids wouldn't study.

8. Conic sections. Pointless unless you're planning on becoming a 17th-century astronomer.

9. Hyperbolic functions. Why? They're less useful than, say, Bessel functions, which they would never think of covering in a freshman course.

10. Polar coordinates. There's no point in covering this until the student is ready for vectors in polar coordinates. Trying to discuss the topic without vectors is a waste of time and should be skipped.

11. Infinite series. Fascinating, but only mathematicians ever worry about whether a series converges. When we use series solutions in the sciences, we say they converge if the first few terms get smaller and smaller, which is a totally different concept from what they're talking about in this chapter. Plus, we use series that in fact don't converge (asymptotic series), so why worry about convergence? I am not sure I want to say it should be left out. It really is a fascinating topic, with some wildly counterintuitive results and crazy stuff like

 π = 4-4/3+4/5-4/7+...

12. Power series. Just do Taylor series, which are undeniably vital, and skip the business about indeterminate forms and such.

The rest of the book is vector calculus and differential equations. It's funny that the much-feared course Differential Equations is just one chapter at the back of the freshman calculus book. I was so scared I got a C+ in it, but it's just linear, ordinary differential equations and once you start using the ideas it's trivial. What is really funny is that they actually introduce series solutions of differential equations. In a freshman calculus book. That people like pre-med majors are going to use. What do they think, a cardiologist is going to use a series approximation to your EKG trace? They should leave it until the real differential equations course.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Guru Shot

I work with a bunch of big-shot PhD's. We are extremely civilized and sophisticated, although not quite as civilized as humanities PhD's or as high-class as professors. I mean, we conduct ourselves with restraint, we act in accordance with modern concepts of scientific detachment, and we would never be snobby or cliquish. Everyone's standing is based on individual intellectual merit. This is why the greatest scientists have awful haircuts and do not play sports. The lesser among us may indulge in individual sports like tennis or cycling. You proles can amuse yourselves with bowling leagues and baseball.    

So why was it I felt compelled to send a "guru shot" when invited to submit a photo along with a recent journal article I wrote? What possible difference could my physical appearance make in the world of science? Oh, you don't know what a guru shot is? Let me explain.

You've seen the little headshot photos that accompany blogs and Facebook accounts. Most of them are just regular old pictures with whatever background you happened to be standing in front of when the picture was taken. A guru shot is like that, but the photo is very carefully staged to include certain items that have nothing directly to do with science, yet signal I am a scientist. Guru shots aren't limited to actual scientists, though; they can be used by non-scientists who want to look scientific, sort of like that lab coat you see the cosmetics lady at Macy's wearing.

Here are some of the signifying items:

- Facial hair (men only please)
- A big grin. I'm a scientist! What's not to be happy about?
- If you are like me and can't muster a grin, you put on a "deep thought" expression  
- A grayscale photo or better yet some kind of subtle Photoshop effect like pixelation
- Gaze directed away from the viewer
- Lab equipment or some sort of scientific chart behind you
- T-shirt of your alma mater or current university, if it's good enough. MIT or Cal will do nicely.
- The flip side of this is that if you went somewhere pedestrian like I did, you must take extreme care not to accidentally have on your Ohio State sweatshirt. What are you, some kind of football fan?
- An outdoor background involving mountains, ocean or a stream. If you go this route you need to have your brightly colored hiking or cross-country skiing gear on. We scientists love a walk in the woods.
- Other popular background items are: the Golden Gate Bridge (lots of scientists in the Bay Area), a famous beach, and European or East Asian landmarks (which you probably visited while at an international conference.) Tourist destinations are totally unacceptable except for pyramids, and the more steppy and "meso-American" the pyramid, the better. Do not stand in front of the castle at Disney World.

Here are some random guru shots I've collected from the Web. If you see yourself here, I don't mean to pick on you. We all do it.

That's the Golden Gate Bridge back there; you can tell from the color
Grayscale + facial hair
This is the famous computer scientist and fisherman Marvin Minsky

Prof. Gil Chu
Grin and lab bench in background

The more prestigious a person in, the less likely he is to use a guru shot. But when you get to the very upper reaches of science, there tends to be a split, because at that level some people get to be actual celebrities and then they have to really amp up the guru factor. I'm talking about your Carl Sagans and your Neil DeGrasse Tysons

Sagan. To be fair, this is a still from Cosmos.

What's that? You wanted to see my guru shot? This is embarrassing, but here goes. To my relief, although the journal asked for a picture, they did not print this.  

Here's a more restrained one I use when I teach for Embry-Riddle.
In the background that's a little desk statue of a Titan 4A rocket, which I never even actually worked on. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lonesome Christmas

This letter is one of the best. But it's interesting that in a letter dated December 23, he doesn't say anything about Christmas except to acknowledge the gifts. Maybe it wasn't as big a deal back then.

Elma, Wash, Dec. 23, 1931

Dear little Fannie,

I would [have] answered sooner. This is the third letter I
commenced to write you. My eyes filled with tears till I could
not write, to think they all don't write me. If they all knew
everything like I do, they would not scorn me so. [I sure wish he had seen fit to explain himself. I can only guess that he was unjustly accused of something and had to take it on the lam.] I received
your presents. I cried over them till I was sick. I lay and
cry for you at night. I am sending you one of my pictures; it
is no good. I went to Aberdeen today and had some more made. I
hope they will be better. I will send you some more.

I got a piece of kippered salmon to send you so you can see
what they are like. It is already cooked, ready to eat. I
will ship it Monday. Fannie, you don't know how much I love
you because you don't hate me. It breaks my heart when I think
the way the rest feel towards me. I hope they get over it. [They did not.]

Well, Fannie, I [am] going to [work] Monday. They are going to
[start] logging again. If times get good here, I want you and
Frank and baby to come. I will help you after you get here.
Everything is on a credit system here and my credit is good
here; if it was not we would get hungry. I wore the tie you
sent me today but I am going to keep it good and have it put on
me when I take my long sleep...

It is a poor idea for anyone to think where they live is the
only place. [Amen to that.] When you start [going to] any place, ask if there
is anyone there. If yes, you can live there too. If I work
steady till spring I will have money enough that you and Frank
can [come] to this country. This is the most healthful country
I ever saw and I know if you would be here one summer you would
never leave. Fish are coming up the river now that weigh 30 to
40 pounds. Tell Nitie [Fannie's girl Nita, four years old at the time] I would like to take her to the sea and
let her see the big pond and big ships.

O, if I could see you and tell all [about] my life you would
wonder [why] I am living and have sense enough to go around
alone. [I wish he would have told more.] I have a picture here that was taken when I was a
[young] man. They will send [it to] you after I am gone. Well,
God bless you and all. I love them all. I wish they would all
write me. Well, I guess that [is] all I think now. I hope we
will meet next spring. Write all the [?] and often as I love
you so much.

Your old dad, J.R. Edwards (XXX)

Friday, January 24, 2014

The List

A philosophy professor once defined absolute morality to me as a list of fixed-weight moral rules. There's no point in arguing with someone who adheres to such a system, because compromise is out of the question.

Most people do believe that good people adhere to a list of rules. Even if they don't agree on what should be on the list, they think the list itself is evidence of good intentions. This is why Christians like Muslims better than they like atheists. They don't agree with the Muslim list but they think atheists don't have a list at all.

(The situation is flipped in East Asia. Most East Asians don't have a list and are uncomfortable dealing with people who do. It comes from Buddhism.)

What bugs me is that much of public debate these days isn't really debate at all, it's sort of a meta-debate about what should be on the list. For example, if some big shot is accused of sexual harassment, the debate is never whether what he did was wrong, the debate is whether it meets some (conveniently unassailable) definition of harassment, which as we all know can never be tolerated, no matter what. It doesn't matter whether the guy gives a million dollars a year to charity; if he pinched someone's rear end, he's a Bad Man.

You can get angry about it or you can just laugh at it. For celebrities, there is a multi-level system: "personalities" like news anchors or sports announcers have a very strict list, heavily influenced by advertisers, of principles they are allowed to state. For example, they can't say fat people should eat less, even though everyone knows it's true, fat people most of all. Then there's another level of celebrity, like comedians and athletes, who get looser treatment. A sitcom star can say Rush Limbaugh should lay off the double cheeseburgers. But there's still a list. A sitcom star can't refer to the Pope as the head child-molester, but an "adult" comedian can. [Note: I would never refer to the Pope in this way. This is just an example of something a comedian might say.]

The funny thing about the Paula Deen debacle was that nobody seriously took offense to her for having called the guy who mugged her a nigger [terrible word, but just a word] 27 years ago. Even the mugger himself said he understood. What she got nailed for was being ignorant of the list, because she admitted having said it after she was already a celebrity chef, and part of being a celebrity chef is understanding the list. A person who is that careless about the list is a person advertisers will not touch with a 10-foot pole.

Celebrities can move from one level to another. Howard Stern once said that Hispanics had worse taste in music than Alvin and the Chipmunks. That was OK, because it was back when he was a "shock jock". He'd never get away with that today, because he's a respectable judge on some kind of TV contest show. The same thing happened to Ice-T and Cheech.  I bet you forgot that Ice-T first became famous for singing about killing cops. Now he plays one on TV. Maybe the existence of different lists for different groups of people is a step toward finally acknowledging how silly the lists are.

Once upon a time, conservatives and especially the religious right sided with absolute morality. I won't lie to you, I think progressives own it today. Fracking is on their list. You can't be pro-fracking and be a progressive; they just won't let you in the club. There is no notion that fracking (or any other energy source) has both bad and good aspects and that it could be right in certain situations and wrong in others. The mere fact that companies engage in tradeoffs; for example a car company with a fixed pot of money deciding to spend it on airbags instead of rev limiters, is taken not as evidence of rational decision-making but of the moral degeneracy of capitalism. Progressives want all the money to be spent on every conceivable safety device, because safety is good, end of story.

The "list" denies the fact that we are all three-dimensional human beings. It's a substitute for moral reasoning used by people who can't be bothered to think for themselves. Did Grandma once use the word "jigaboo"? Sorry, but you must denounce her, just like students denounced their teachers during the Cultural Revolution. It's how we all reinforce and uphold the list, because without it, how will we know how to act?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shocking Details Revealed!

Now that I have your attention, it's time for another couple of J.R. Edwards letters. These were written in late 1931. I only have a fragment of the first one:

I been here 23 years. I [have not] heard of any flux or
typhoid fever. Tell Pearl to [take] fern root and make a tea
for baby - the kind that grow up on dry hills with three prongs
on it. Tell her Dad said so.

This was a very, very bad time. Pearl is my grandmother and her baby is sick with the "flux," i.e. diarrhea probably brought on by dysentery. The next letter came soon after:

Well, little Fannie I just received your much welcome letter.
Was more than glad to hear from you, and sorry for Pearl. If
she had been here would not [have] lost her baby, as there is
no flux here.

The baby died on November 20 at a little over a year old. He is buried in Chambers Cemetery near Orville, W.Va. in an unmarked grave. Our family and Uncle Frank's lived on the same run at this time, and of four children born between 1928 and 1930, my father was the only one who lived past two years old. It was the Depression and they hardly had food, let alone medicine.

You wanted to know about the kids here ... The oldest [is]
Gary, [He must have liked the name Gary because he used the same name for two different sons] next Gene, next Josephine, [next] Teddy Ralph is his
name; they call him Teddy, Bill the baby [?] years old. Tell
your girl she can call Mintie ``Grandma" if she likes. [Fannie's girl was my dad's favorite cousin, Nita Hall. Mintie is Arminta, the girl J.R. took off with.]

Well, the coldest spell in years just now broke up. Everything
is dead here now but the soup [superintendent?] told me this
[mor]ning that by spring we would have the best times we ever
had. If that is so we will [?] again and I hope it is [?].

Well, Gene was smoking some salmon and left them too long
without fire and they spoiled. I can't send one now. When the
steelhead run I will send you a whole fish if the railroad is
close to you so I can send it by express.

Well, I am not working any now, don't know when I will be, but
I get groceries laid down in the house every day. It don't
take long to get in debt or out when times is good here. If
you and Frank don't come here in the spring I will come and see
you if I live till then, and I will tell you all. If they knew
everything they would [not] be so hard on [me], but they never
will. [But he never told all.] If I could see you I would do you like you did me when
you was a tiny girl. I would kiss you all over the face. If
my mind don't change I will send you my picture, enlarged, that
was made 22 years ago but it don't look like I do now. I am
getting very gray, too gray to suit some people. [He was 25 years older than his wife.] Don't say
anything about it in your letters as [?] them all. I am just
waiting to see what turns up. I will tell you all later. I
got a good rep[utation] in this country...get anything I and I will do that, and they are going to build a
lot of railroad soon but that is [the] lowest pay of anything
here. But I will get something better when they ... logging. I
work in the shop when they are logging. Well, I will have to
close as this is all the paper I have. Well, God bless you
all, write [soon],

Your poor old dad, J.R. Edwards, Elma, Washington, Schafer's Camp.

I have to say that the self-pity in this letter bugs me. Did he forget that he opened the letter remarking on his grandson's death?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

J.R. Edwards Letter

By popular demand, I will post the transcribed letters of my great-grandfather, J.R. Edwards. These are corrected for spelling and punctuation but I left the wording as-is. First some background.

Jacob Robillard Edwards was born in Yancey County, NC in 1865. He went by the name "Billard" or "Bill" and as a result many people (including some of his own children) thought his given name was William. By 1900 he was a 35-year-old farmer with a wife and five kids between six and fifteen. That year, for reasons he never explained, he left his family and traveled north into Tennessee, working as a logger. There he met Nancy Jane Thomas who he married (probably bigamously), and they proceeded farther north to the logging region outside Charleston, WV. There, J.R. and Nancy had four children, including Pearl (my grandmother), Fannie, Gary and Roe. In 1909, he got a neighbor girl pregnant, and was evidently in more trouble than that, because he and the girl ran and didn't stop until they got to Bellingham, Washington, seemingly as far as they could get from West Virginia without leaving the country. Back in West Virginia, Nancy Jane scratched out a living by taking in laundry, but she died in 1914, leaving the four children without parents. They were taken in by a friend, Mrs. Georgia Gillam, but the children had trouble with Mr. Gillam.

Except for Fannie, the children never forgave J.R. Edwards for leaving them high and dry. Seventy years after he left, my grandmother wouldn't speak the man's name.  In the 1930s he wrote them all, but only Fannie answered the letters. The rest of the story is best filled in by the letters themselves.

Unfortunately, these letters are unsatisfying. At this stage in his life, J.R. Edwards was wallowing in regret. He says he had reasons for doing these things that led to such regret, but frustratingly, never tells what the reasons were. But at least he wrote something, and more importantly, Aunt Fannie saved them, so he now lives while others of his time are gone like leaves in November.

These letters are in chronological order as closely as I could determine it. These are all addressed to Mrs. Fannie Henson, Macbeth, W.Va. You won't find Macbeth on Google Maps, but it was adjacent to Hutchinson, Logan County, WV.

The first letter is just a fragment...

Dear little Fannie I received your letter today, was more than glad to hear from you and know you are all well. I got rheumatics bad in my left hip. I am not working now. They had a strike in the mill here. [He was working for the Schafer Brothers Lumber Company near Elma, Washington.] They cut them down to $1.50 a day and they had to pay $2.50 to get them to go back.

You ask me what kind of work there is here. It is lumbering and farming lots of railroad work will be when they start the company I work for has 9 locomotives and 23 donkeys [a donkey is a steam-powered winch used to move logs] and over 100 miles of steel [track], three sawmills and two shingle mills. There is lots of work here Frank [Fannie's husband, Frank Henson] could do. He could do no farm work here unless...

and since it was so short I'll add the next one

Elma, Wash, Friday night.

Well, little Fannie, this leaves me awful tired. Wishing you all well.

You asked me about your mother's [Nancy Jane's] people. Don't ask me too much. They was at Green Springs, Virginia when I left there. Her sister's name was Bet[t]y Mays. Don't write to them; they are not worth a stamp. I will tell you all when I see you, and I hope that will be soon.   [He never did.] You asked me about Robert Edwards: he was my father. He died in Lexington, Kentucky. My folks is all in North Carolina. [meaning his first family] I have not heard from them in 20 years. They think I am dead and I would be better off if I was, I think. I got nothing to live for, only to slave as long as I am able to work, then go to the county Farm, which I will have to do if times don't get better so I can get you and Frank out here so we can make a little stake.

I wish you was here now. You said you wrote Gary and Roe. [His sons. They had moved to Winchester, Indiana.]  If they got work, tell them to stay to it till we see how times get. You know I want to see [you] all. If I could, I would be willing to die. God bless [you] all, you don't know how much I want to see [you] all.

Well, it is quite rainy here yet, more rain than ever was known in one winter. The days is long here now; you can read a paper from four in the morning till nine at night. Long days, from
half after three till nine at night. Grass is a foot high along the roads here now and [there is] lots of snow on the mountains. I hope you get here before the salmon run. You can see a ton at a time. I have seen them so thick I could take a pitchfork and load a wagon in one hour. I want you to see them so you won't think I lie to you. Some of them weigh over fifty pounds. If times get so there is work for everybody, then have the boys [Gary and Roe] to come if they will. I wish they would write me [they never did]; it would do me so much good to get a letter from them. I guess I would faint. Well, I guess you are tired [of] reading junk. God bless you all; write me long letters. I will send you some more stamps. J.R.E.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

From Me to Old King Cole

I got bitten badly by the genealogy bug a few years ago, but got it mostly out of my system by writing up my findings and calling it a finished project in 2010. Once in a while I have a relapse, though. The hot thing today is genetic genealogy. You may have seen on PBS or in commercials that you can now get your DNA sequenced cheaply and enter the results into a database that will match you up with "genetic cousins."

It's not as straightforward as it sounds, because DNA base pairs change at rates that are not very accurately known. Also, if you don't sequence enough markers, you could get a false match just by random chance. So if two people match on 45 out of 50 markers, it's pretty clear they're related, but you can't really say whether they are third cousins or 10th cousins. Still, it's a good adjunct to traditional documentary genealogy. If anything, it's a reliable way to prove two people do not have a common ancestor.

I did have a great success with DNA testing, almost too good to be true. My grandfather was adopted by Mr. Henson as an infant, but the real father was known to the family. They said his name was Conley. He was supposedly a "deputy sheriff." After years of research, at the beginning of which I didn't even know which state my grandfather was born in, I discovered in the 1910 Census a Conley who was the marshal of a town near the rural area of Kentucky where Grandpa was born. Miraculously, I was able to make contact with a descendant of his on a message board, and even more miraculously, this contact turned out to be a direct male descendant of Conley who was willing to compare DNA with me. It matched!

So, genetically I am a Conley. Stories vary about whether Mr. Conley was an honorable man, but I'm stuck with his genes. This has led to some very interesting speculation. A couple years after I did the testing (my results were in a public database), some old retired guys who have time for this sort of thing emailed me out of the blue saying that my DNA was a match to a cluster of families whose names were found in an ancient Irish genealogy. The old genealogy said these names were descendants of the Three Collas, kingly conquerors of part of Ireland in the fourth century AD. A lot of genealogies, especially ones involving European royalty, are malarkey, so it was significant that many of the names really did turn out to have a common ancestor. The overlap isn't perfect - some names on the list turned out not to be related, while other people who were related had names not on the list.  But it's shaping up to be a pretty solid story. The clustering is significant, and stands out distinctly from other groups that have been in the same area for centuries but whose DNA is far different.

Because it now appears that the Three Collas were real people and not just made up like King Arthur, people have become interested in where they came from. The account that seems to make the most sense to me is that they were Romano-British mercenaries brought in by one Irish king to help fight another Irish king (in those days, if you ruled over even one crummy little county, you were a king.) The legends are sketchy but they all seem to contain the element of the Collas being mercenaries. Get this:

The three sons of Eochaidh, great their fame,
The three Collas we have heard of;
Colla Meann, Colla fo Chri,
And Colla Uais the high king.

The names of the three I know,
And they slew the high king
On yon wide bright plain,
Aodh Muireadhach and Cairioll.

Cairioll, Colla Uais the king,
Muireadhach, Colla fo Chri,
Aodh, Colla Meann, great his fame;
These three were mighty beyond all strength.

Geoffrey Keating (1569-1644), The History of Ireland, 1634, translated from Irish in 1902 by David Comyn and Patrick S. Dinneen, Vol. II, page 359. Quoted by DNA of the Three Collas. 

Notice in the last stanza how each Colla brother has three names. This was the clue that led Donald Schlegel to theorize that they were Romanized Britons, because the triple name (praenomen, nomen, cognomen) is a convention found in Rome and nowhere else. The nomen, Colla, has the root col- and was found in Colchester, the oldest Roman settlement in Britain.

It's unlikely we will ever know whether there were really three Collas, because they all would have had the same genes. Their descendants would be genetically indistinguishable. Donald Schlegel suggests they were of the tribe called the Trinovantes, but not because of the legend of three brothers. The prefix tri- doesn't mean three; it's Celtic for "very". But it is true that the ancient symbol of Colchester contains three crowns.

My favorite part is that the pre-Roman ruler of the Colchester area is said to have been a King Coel, who was legendarily the grandfather of the Emperor Constantine (this cannot possibly have been true as Constantine wasn't born anywhere near Britain.) But, reputable historians assert, Old King Coel was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he. Furthermore, some scholars claim that he called for his pipe, he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Our New Computer Overlords?

Blogger's Note: Understand that I am not saying revolutionary inventors were merely accused of being crazy fools but then were proven right by time. That's a boring and unoriginal claim. I'm saying they actually were crazy fools, only different from ordinary fools by their ability to bring their crazy visions to fruition.  

Some people think the day is not far off when computers will "wake up," start developing technologies on their own initiative, and refashion society to their own benefit and not necessarily mankind's.

I think this is off-base for many reasons but will go into just one. It has to do with a misconception about how technological progress occurs. Most people think it is driven by a rational process of matching necessities with inventions, a process computers could and are programmed to do. But history doesn't support this naive viewpoint and it is not too hard to understand why.

First, the history. The big technical leaps are almost always driven by a person who mysteriously develops a vision of a new machine or process, and literally cannot rest until it is brought to fruition. Charles Goodyear was laid low by stomach trouble, then inexplicably became obsessed with gum rubber in the early 1830s. He spent the next eight or so poverty-stricken years inventing vulcanization.

Wilbur Wright got whacked in the face by a hockey stick and couldn't go to Yale, so he had to stay home and take care of his mother while she died of TB. In his boredom he designed and built printing presses, bicycles, and gliders. By the time the establishment realized an airplane might be useful, Wright was already years ahead, and got his in the air while theirs sunk to the bottom of a river.

Steve Wozniak wanted a computer really badly (why?!), but they cost $50,000 and he was just a college dropout. So he built his own computer from spare parts. His employer, Hewlett-Packard, knew a lot about electronics and rationally determined that there was no market for a home computer, so they declined any interest in the invention. Wozniak was ready to give away the plans to his friends, when Steve Jobs, out of his mind on LSD, said we should manufacture and sell this thing.

I could go on. A critic will say: all of these people were immersed in the technology of their time and were personally faced by the need for an advance, so it is quite rational that, for instance, Ford built an economical automobile. My answer is that thousands of other people were situated similarly to Ford, so this can't explain why Ford (and a few others) made the great leap but others didn't. There has to be another reason and I would argue that it was an irrational streak deep down in Henry Ford's mind and character.

Why has it happened this way time and again? It's simple statistics. In every large group of people who are technically capable of inventing the Next Big Thing, a few will be dumb or crazy enough to actually do it before it makes sense to. Because they jump the gun, often they end up broke, ripped-off or laughed at. But by the time the money starts rolling in, it'll be too late for the rational, rule-following engineer. We're really talking about two completely different kinds of personalities when we talk about the true revolutionaries and the merely competent. I'm no revolutionary and don't want to be; most people don't. Some days I even wonder about the competence!

Finding out what people want first, and then inventing it, can only generate more of the same. It can never create really revolutionary technologies. If you had asked someone in 1985 whether he would be willing to pay $100 a month for a combination phone, Walkman and camera, the answer would have been, "I wouldn't pay $10 a month for one. I don't know what I'd do with it." People had to see smartphones before they realized they wanted one. You have to see it before you can believe it. And you have to be crazy to see it before it exists. Computers aren't crazy.

The thing about computers is they can only follow understood processes that can be broken down into logical steps. But the really big inventions didn't happen this way. In fact, we don't know how they happened. So I don't lose much sleep worrying about computers inventing anything. Only a buggy or haywire computer would invent a way to protect yourself from disease by...injecting yourself with a disease.