Saturday, December 30, 2017

Win Bigly with Donald Trump

Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter by Scott Adams (Penguin, 2017) is a tribute to Donald Trump. It is also a tribute to Scott Adams. The author of Dilbert has been popular online for decades; and he had tens of thousands of readers when, back on August 13, 2015, he began predicting Donald Trump’s victory. Throughout the book, Adams gives himself a lot of credit for that. Adams calls Trump a Master Persuader (in capitals). Trump won because facts do not matter. People make up their minds based on emotion and then cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias provide them with “reasons” to justify their choices. Adams says that Trump could have run on any platform, even Bernie Sanders’.
Image of cartoon dog, Dogbert belonging to cartoon engineer Dilbert, wearing a wig to look like Donald Trump
Many of my conservative comrades on the “Objectivish” message boards,, and are enthusiastic Trump supporters. They stand up for his immigration policies, and just about everything else. But it is important to understand that Trump was only selling to them. He is an entrepreneur. I believe that Donald Trump sized up the markets and the demands within them and chose to tap the buyers (voters) along the right wing populist spectrum. Toward the end of the campaign, Michael Moore gave a speech that identified this and seemed to support it right up until the close. So, I agree that Donald Trump could have said almost the very same things and won as a Democrat. But that market was already dominated by Hillary Clinton. So, he played to a market with weaker competition. He also brought in more votes by selling to consumers who otherwise would not have bought any of the existing products. But I believe that Donald Trump is no more emotionally tied to immigration or national defense or global warming than he is to a particular hotel or golf course.

According to Scott Adams, one of Trump’s most successful tactics as a Master Persuader is intentional wrongness. He makes a grandiose claim, such as building a wall along the border. People point out the errors. He might modify his position – he does that often – but it remains that he has framed the discussion, defined the terms, tilted the debate in his favor. Everyone talks about what he wants them to talk about. The border wall, banning Muslims, global warming, Syria, North Korea, whatever the issue of the moment, Trump made huge statements that grabbed headlines, then slowly shifted away from the hardline stance, often to no specific proposals at all. All the while, everyone talked about what Donald Trump told them to talk about.

Adams says that another way that Trump achieves that control and neutralizes his opponents is by flooding the news. He issues so many statements in so many media and so often provocative that news agencies can only report them all and yet be unable to actually focus on any one or a few of them. He did this in the campaign and it made him the most newsworthy candidate in the race.

According to Doug Adams among the many failed strategies of the Democrats was their campaign called “Imagine President Trump...” It was supposed to turn people against him, of course. People who consumed news were supposed to be shocked and disgusted by the picture and thereby vote for Hillary Clinton. In fact, all the Democrats achieved was to plant the vision of President Trump in millions of people. The Democrats did Trump’s selling for him. “Love Trumps hate” was another failed campaign slogan. All it said was “Love Trump…” And apparently, very many people do.

I grant that Donald Trump is a Master Persuader, as our culture accepts that. He can really negotiate a deal. However, I believe that in some of the upcoming engagements, the paradigm the defines the context comes from one of our favorite Christmas movies, Die Hard:  Harry Ellis negotiating with Hans Gruber.

Harry Ellis : Yeah. Now listen, John, they're giving me a few minutes to try to talk some sense into you. I know you think you're doing your job, John, and I can appreciate that, but, you're just dragging this thing out. Now look, no one gets outta here until these guys can talk to the *LA* police, and that just ain't gonna happen until you stop messin' up the works, capisci? 
John McClane : Ellis, what have you told them? 
Harry Ellis : I told 'em we were old friends and you were my guest at the party. 
John McClane : Ellis, you shouldn't be doin' this. 
Harry Ellis : Tell me about it. Alright, John, listen. They want you to tell them where the detonators are. They know people are listening. They want the detonators or they're gonna kill me.  (from "Harry Ellis" character )

The difference is that with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, it is not the negotiator who gets shot.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Christmas Star

For about 1500 years, the story of the Star of Bethlehem was accepted as historically accurate because it was divine truth. Miracles were not questioned. With the Renaissance, a new way of looking at the world evolved. Over the centuries, the Christmas Star has been explained as a comet, a meteor or meteor shower, but the conjunction theory has been the most popular. 

In science, a good problem takes us far beyond the results of a single observation. The Christmas Star has been debated on many levels. The International Planetarium Society website ( lists over 100 citations to the Star of Bethlehem. Some of those articles and letters were part of a multifaceted decades-long argument among at least five astronomers and one editor. Writing in Archaeology Vol. 51, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 1998), Anthony F. Aveni cited 250 “major scholarly articles” about the Star of Bethlehem.

The scholarly tradition of explaining the Star of Bethlehem with scientific evidence apparently began with Johannes Kepler who identified a triple conjunction as the likely event.

In 1604, he published The New Star in the Foot of the Serpent (De stella nova in pede serpentarii: et qui sub ejus exortum de novo iniit, trigono igneo…). In that tract, he examined a triple conjunction, as well as a nova, which he identified as the cause of the conjunction. He was not alone in that kind of a belief. Others expected the conjunction to cause a comet. Reviewing the facts in 1614, Kepler said that the Star of Bethlehem was a nova in 4 BCE caused by a triple conjunction in 7 BCE. (See “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows,” by John Mosley, The Planetarian, Third Quarter 1981.)
“On August 1, 3 B.C., Jupiter became visible above the predawn eastern horizon as the ‘morning star.’ Twelve days later, at about 4:00 a.m., a very close conjunction occurred between Jupiter and Venus, the space between them narrowing to only 0.23 degrees. Five days later Mercury emerged from the glare of the sun and came into conjunction with Venus on the morning of September 1, their minimum separation being only 0.36 degrees.
 “The fact that Jupiter became stationary among the stars on December 25 (and, by the way, directly midbodied to Virgo the Virgin) may well explain what Matthew meant in his Gospel when he said that the star came to a halt over the village Bethlehem…” (“The Star of Bethlehem Reconsidered: An Historical Approach,” John Mosley, IPS Planetarian Vol. 9 No. 2, Summer, 1980.)
According to Michael Walter Burke-Gaffney of the Royal Astronomical Society (also of the Society of Jesus), the popular tradition began with one Bishop Münter in 1831. It was Münter who first cited Kepler (wrongly), claiming a triple conjunction. The assertion lived on. Burke-Gaffney claimed that the popularizer Münter was widely read, though Kepler himself was not. (“Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem,” Burke-Gaffney, W., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 31, p.417.)  Personally, I am not sure who did and did not read Kepler. As far as I know, unlike Shakespeare and Bach, Kepler’s writing never suffered a hiatus.

In 1999, Rutgers Press published The Star of Bethlehem: the Legacy of the Magi by Dr. Michael R. Molnar. In addition to his achievements as an astronomer, Molnar is a numismatist. He was attracted to a series of coins from Antioch in the first century of the present era. They show a star, a crescent moon, and a Ram, among other symbols and legends.

Jupiter underwent two occultations (“eclipses”) by the Moon in Aries in 6 BC. Jupiter was the regal “star” that conferred kingships a power that was amplified when Jupiter was in close conjunctions with the Moon. The second occultation on April 17 coincided precisely when Jupiter was “in the east,” a condition mentioned twice in the biblical account about the Star of Bethlehem. In August of that year Jupiter became stationary and then "went before" through Aries where it became stationary again on December 19, 6 BC. This is when the regal planet “stood over.” A secondary royal portent also described in the Bible. In particular, there is confirmation from a Roman astrologer that the conditions of April 17, 6 BC were believed to herald the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person born under the sign of the Jews, which we now know was Aries the Ram. Furthermore, the coins of Antioch and ancient astrological documents show that there was indeed a Star of Bethlehem as reported in the biblical account of Matthew.”,1998.aspx and

A triple conjunction in 7 BCE occurred in Pisces. Some astrological lore identified that constellation with Judaea. Other traditions give Pisces to the Libyans, among others. However, back in the 1960s, at the Cleveland Museum of Science, planetarium director Dan Snow, told us of the connection between Pisces and Judea. So, for me, the Wise Men traveled to Judaea because of a rare conjunction in Pisces. 

Also, answering Molnar, as the precession of the vernal equinox - the peripoint of Aries - moved through the zodiac, the next sign would have been Pisces. This correlates to the coming of a new age, and the equivalency of the "sign of the fish" with the Greek initialization IXTHEOS: Jesus Christ Son of God Our Savior. And just to note, the first day of Spring is moving from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius. Make of that whatever you want. 

It is important to note that Jesus was not the only king, and his reign was not the only new age. Julius Caesar was assassinated March 15, 44 BCE. In May through July, a comet appeared, a singular event, not Halley’s or any other recurring comet. The people of Rome accepted it as obvious fact that the soul of Julius Caesar had ascended to the heavens. Julius Caesar was the first historical Roman deified by the Senate. His adopted heir, Gaius Octavius, became at once Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, and also Divi Filius.

Moreover, although he was born 23 September and therefore a Libra, Octavian Augustus took Capricorn as his personal symbol. Capricorn is the zodiacal sign of the winter solstice, of course, and therefore the symbol of the new year – ultimately, a new age.

Molnar’s book offers images of the Caesar Comet coin and Augustus’s Capricorn on a coin. The centerpieces, however, are the coins of Antioch (the Roman mint closest to Judaea) and the astronomical interpretation of them. It is important to understand that while some were struck during the accepted lifetime of Jesus, the series is broader than that. What was meant at the detail level to the people of the time must remain at least somewhat conjectural. They comprehended the images and inscriptions on coins the way we view headline news.

Ultimately, it may best to accept or reject the story of the Christmas Star as a matter of faith. Even the relationship between faith and scripture is not as clear as many seem to believe (on faith). The literal truth of the Bible depends on which Bible you read. The “received text” of Christianity was never one set of books unerringly copied and preserved. Editions of the New Testament in Koine Greek are modern re-creations.

No thinking believer is bothered by the fact that Jesus was not born on December 25. No thoughtful atheist hesitates to use Christmas as a good enough reason to give a present to a friend.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Reminders of Newtonmas Past

Newtonmas 2011
Today, we ignore his religious writings, the extent of which actually eclipsed his scientific production.  His heretical Arian beliefs foreshadowed modern Unitarianism, but he swore under oath to be a Trinitarian so that he could teach at Cambridge. 

Newton’s colleagues called him fearful, cautious, suspicious, insidious, ambitious, excessively covetous of praise, and impatient of contradiction. Even his relatives and his true friends were modest in their praise of Newton. Physically sound in his life, he died at 84. He had lost only one tooth, still had much of his hair, and read without glasses. Yet, he was a hypochondriac, suffering from illnesses and diseases that he treated with medicines he made for himself.  

Newtonmas 2012
The English crown turned to him to save the Royal Mint. Even when they were not corrupt - which they usually were - the Mint officials were unable to solve the basic problem of creating and maintaining a system of money that worked. A stern Protestant, deeply religious, and moralistic in the extreme, Newton cleared out the criminal element and gave England a reliable monetary system.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) is intended for a general readership, yet rests on an extraordinary foundation of careful scholarship.  Thomas Levenson teaches science journalism at MIT.  He has been granted several awards for his PBS documentaries. Levenson delivers to print the videographer’s impact of sight and sound.  You walk down the alleys and into the pubs where Isaac Newton investigated crimes against the Mint of which he served as warden and later master.

Newtonmas 2013
Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, 'Let Newton be'  and all was light.
Alexander Pope

Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, the year that Galileo died.  For most people, Newton is famous for his Three Laws of Motion.  Beyond that, those with additional education know him for creating the Calculus to prove his theories of celestial and terrestrial mechanics. In addition, Newton invented the reflecting telescope as a result of his experiments with light.  And he also proved the general case for the Binomial Theorem (“Pascal's Triangle”). He served in Parliament, representing Cambridge, where he had been a professor of mathematics.  He served as president of the Royal Society of scientists. Few people except numismatists know him to have been the Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint for thirty years.  He had himself sworn as a justice of the peace so that he could pursue and prosecute counterfeiters.  Any one of those achievements would have made important to us today. That he accomplished all of that - and more - set Sir Isaac Newton apart even from the geniuses and polymaths recorded by history.

Newtonmas 2014
I offered Newtonmas in a radio script for WKAR-FM East Lansing in the early 1980s (1982-1984).  In that script, I built up the imagery of a little boy born in a small village across the sea who would grow up to bring light to the world.  When I cited the poet, I emphasized the word Pope – and then announced that Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642, the same year that Galileo died. 

Over the years, I sometimes sent out "Newtonmas cards" to our friends, most of whom we knew from college classes in computer science and related fields.  Our physics professor, Alan Saaf, occasionally called the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder a “Newton Burger” (1.0 N ~ .224 lb-f). I do not recall Dr. Saaf ever saying “Newtonmas” but he could have.

Newtonmas 2015
We commonly call the Nativity scene “the first Christmas” though it was not. The first Christ Mass could not have been celebrated before the Church existed. So, too, did the first Newtonmas not come until 248 years after his birth.
It seems that three students at Tokyo University started Newtonmas in their dormitory sometime before 1890.  As the undergraduates developed into graduates and assistants, their professors were drawn into the celebration, and a more suitable assembly hall was found in the University Observatory.  By 1890, they called themselves the Newtonkai  (Newton Association;  = kai = “all”) and moved to the Physical Laboratory. There, they played games symbolic of great mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers: Newton’s apple, Franklin’s kite, a naked doll for Archimedes … 

That story comes from “A New Sect of Hero-Worshippers” published in Nature, Vol. 46, No. 1193, p. 459, 8 September 1892. It available from the publisher for $18 if you are not a member, or it can be found online at Google Books.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Merry Newtonmas 2017

Celebrating Newtonmas off and on since 1984, this year I honored Sir Isaac by buying myself one of the commemorative 50p coins from the British Royal Mint. 

"Near the end of  his life, Newton described  himself to  his nephew and biographer,  John Conduitt, in these pleasant words: 'I do  not know what I may appear to the  world, but to myself I seem  to have been  only  boy, playing on  the seashore, and  diverting myself in  now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell  than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.'

"Two hundred years later, biographer Milo Keynes wrote: 'This  life of apparent serenity was, however, far  from the  truth, for Newton is known to have  had most complex and difficult  personality.' His colleagues described  him variously as  fearful, cautious, suspicious, insidious, ambitious, excessively covetous of  praise and impatient of  contradiction. Even his closest relatives and true friends were modest  in their praise." -- "Sir Isaac Newton: Warden and Master of the Mint," by Michael E. Marotta, The Numismatist, November 2001. (George Heath Literary Award, 2nd Place, 2002.)

19 LIMIT= .0001
56 XN = X/2
60 R1 = (XN + X/XN)/2
75 XN = R1
76 GOTO 60

Newton versus the Counterfeiter
Fig Newtons and Leibniz Biscuits
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Feynman's Rainbow

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Origins of Technical Writing

I never thought that technical writing had a special origin. I recognized the genre within non-fiction, because it is not history, for instance. If I had given it any thought earlier, I would have looked to the industrial revolution and to the explosion in science in the 19th century. But I did not. Only last week, writing a memorandum on the tasks I proposed to take on, it occurred to me that there must be some seminal book(s) that launched the study and practice as a distinct program. No surprise, a few online searches led to some good resources and to some authoritative nonsense.
"The Surveyor's Transit" Appendix I in
Theory and Practice of Technical Writing
by Samuel Chandler Earle

The best old book that I found was Theory and Practice of Technical Writing by Samuel Chandler Earle, New York: MacMillan Company, 1911 (301 + vi pages). I borrowed it from the UT Library. It was still catalogued under the old Dewey Decimal system and stacked in a section that smelled more like a library than the library. After an introduction of three chapters in 49 pages on basic principles of good writing, Earle gives criticisms of 24 examples, from the surveyor’s transit to the involute gear. The examples are informative on their own merits, fascinating examples of machines and methods of a century ago; and Earle’s commentaries are positive.  

Not so good was Technical Writing, Second Edition, by T. A. Rickard, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1923 (337 + xii pages). (The first edition was 1920.) Rickard just gives examples of bad writing and explains why they are bad. He natters. He is not wrong, but neither is he helpful.

Technical Writing by
Sajitha Jayaprakash,
Himilaya Pub., 2008.
Both of those came up on an Internet search that pointed to an article on the history of technical writing from the website of Sajitha Jayaprakash (here). She is the author of several textbooks on the subject. She cites Rickard as the author of a previous work from 1908. I found a listing in  Rickard, T.A. (Thomas Arthur), 1864- Guide to technical writing. San Francisco, Mining and Scientific Pr., 1910. However, curiously perhaps, Jayaprakash says without further clarification: “Samuel Earle is hence considered to be the father of technical writing.” I agree that Earle does the better job, but Rickard preceded him. And I have no way to judge that first effort, though the second edition to the later publication does not hold much promise. I do believe that Rickard would have had harsh words for Jayaprakash who wrote: “Technical writing, as you know is systematic writing of instruction for the users to perform a given task. It is also about documenting information that users can use.”

The problem of when technical writing began as a separate classification rests on the fact that for 2500 years, just about all writing was technical. The Gilgamesh and Argonautica and other myths stood apart from the vast body of philosophy for which there was no clear distinction between living the good life and discovering the mating habits of cetaceans. It was all knowledge. It was presented as fact, or at least as argument, and there was no doubt that it was all intended to inform the reader about the world and their place in it.

What changed?

The Wikipedia article on Technical Writing points out: However, unlike the past, where skills were handed down through oral traditions, no one besides the inventors knew how to use these new devices. Writing thus became the fastest and most effective way to disseminate information, and writers who could document these devices were desired.”

That claim is supported by an excellent article, “Constructing a Contextual History of English Language Technical Writing,” by Stephen Crabbe, Journal of Translation and Technical Communication Research, (Published by Leona Van Vaerenbergh and Klaus Schubert), Vol. 5. Nu. 1. (2012) Page 40, online here.)

Crabbe differentiates scientific writing from technical writing. The distinction is subtle. Aristotle on the parts of animals and Aristarchus on the motions of the planets were for the privileged few. More deeply, writing about the work of Eratosthenes of Cyrene in Circumference (reviewed here), Nicolas Nicastro asserted that as insightful as the ancient sages were, science was a modern invention. In that same context, Crabbe claims that technical writing originated with the Industrial Revolution.   

“However, it is generally accepted that the transition to factory-based, machine-powered industry can be traced to Britain during this period. The new machines could be invented, but workers with experience of constructing, operating and maintaining them did not exist. As a result, the pre-industrial oral tradition of passing technical knowledge from one generation to the next became less effective and relevant.
The Mechanics Institute was established in Glasgow in 1821, and its success resulted in the establishment of new institutes in rapid succession in towns and cities across Britain. Many leading manufacturers during the industrial revolution such as the Eastern Counties Railway, Royal Arsenal and George Stephenson and Company established new institutes. However, the purpose of much of this technical knowledge dissemination was not necessarily altruistic. Workers required instruction on how to operate the new mechanical inventions not for their protection, but for the protection of what were often expensive and complicated machines.
Manufacturers also needed workers who could construct and maintain the new mechanical inventions. Mokyr (2006) describes these workers as tens of thousands of literate mechanics and craftsmen who were able to understand technical writing and illustrations. The greater complexity of the new machines meant that oral descriptions of their parts were increasingly insufficient to enable mechanics and craftsmen to construct and maintain them.”

Be warned, though: That same Wikipedia article on Technical Writing also cites "A Brief History of Technical Communication" by Frederick M. O’Hara, Jr., of the Montana State University (Billings) College of Technology online here. That work is flawed by ideological and philosophical problems, but just empirically, O’Hara claims: 
“A case can be made that the first software documentation writer was Muhammad ibn Musa Al’Khowarizmi, a twelfth- century Tashkent cleric who developed the concept of writing a detailed process to be followed to achieve some goal, a technique employed in virtually all computer- programming languages today. He published a book about his approach and named his process the algorithm, a name that even today is used to refer to the mathematical application of this method.”

The truth is that the scholar did not give his own name to his method. The word “algorithm” comes from a Latinization of Al-Khwarizmi’s name. He may well have come from what we call Uzbekistan, but no source indicates that his family originated in Tashkent, an old city in eastern Uzbekistan that is the modern capital. Indeed, his origins were probably at the western margin in the place called Khiva (Xorasm; Khorasan). All we know is that he did truly work in Baghdad and lived about 780 to 850 CE (162 to 236 AH). And he wrote a book that we call The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing that was first translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in 1145. So, the book came into the West in the 12th century, but contrary to O'Hara's claim, the author lived some 350 years earlier.

Another common and erroneous assertion is that technical writing as we understand it began with us.  “However, most experts would agree that the golden age of technical writing started with the invention of the computer.
“1986: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) released the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which became the basis of several subset markup languages, including HTML.” From “History of Technical Writing” by ProEdit, a contract and direct hire placement firm. The truth is that ANSI SGML was based on Donald Knuth’s TeX invented ten years earlier and enthusiastically adopted.  (See TUG the TeX User Group here.)

As noted at the opening, the earliest textbooks on technical writing apparently go back only to the beginning of the 20th century. But Scientific American was founded in 1845, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) changes in ownership, it has remained the longest-running periodical in America.