Friday, July 30, 2021

 Nature and Nature

By Bobby Neal Winters

Have you ever considered how odd it is that we have zoos?  Cattle ranches, I can understand; hunting ranches somewhat; but zoos?  

We rip wild animals out of their natural environments, and put them into enclosures so that we may see them safely. The more “realistic” it is, the better we feel about it.  We pay money for the privilege in most cases, and we believe it is important for our children to see them.  We believe it’s very important.

We do this because we enjoy seeing the animals and our children enjoy seeing the animals.  We like the feeling we get ourselves and we like the vicarious feeling we get from our children.  I enjoy zoos too.  Given a choice between going to a zoo for a few hours and sitting through a sporting event for an equal amount of time, I would choose the zoo every time.

I enjoy it; we enjoy it.  The question is why.

My answer is that it is natural for us to like animals, to like to see animals, to like to be around animals.

This raises (not begs!) another question: Why?  Why is it natural for us to like to be around animals?

One answer would be that we evolved as animals.  If there are other animals around, that means there is water somewhere around.  There are sources of food for the other animals, so there must be a source of food for us, and, of course, the other animals are a source of food for us.  If the other animals are predators, then seeing those predators trapped within a zoo’s enclosure gives us a safe adrenaline rush.

That all sounds quite reasonable, but let's try another.

We were created after all the other animals and given dominion over them.  This dominion is not to be the dominion of a despot over slaves, but it is to be a dominion modeled after the Loving God who created us.  We are to be caretakers rather than despots.  This is built into us.  This is why we have zoos; this is why we have pets.  We have a built-in need to nurture not only our own children, but the animals of the world as well.

First appearances aside, these two characterizations are not really at odds with each other.  They are just written in different languages, in different alphabets, by different typewriters.  Both explain, one gives meaning.

We’ve got raccoons in the neighborhood.  Jean and I walked past the old Methodist parsonage one day and saw a pair of yearlings in the garbage which had been dutifully set out on the curb.  We saw one the size of a full kitchen garbage bag stealing food from our cats as the cats looked on in terror and disgust.  While we were on vacation, a raccoon broke out of the vent on our roof like the Kool-Aid Man. 

Foxes roam around town in the twilight. There are squirrels in every tree.

All of this wildlife around us, but we don’t kill it. (Though that one raccoon is skating on thin ice!) Indeed, it is a subject for conversation and often delight.  We love the animals as long as they don’t encroach too far upon us.  We love seeing them; be love being around them.

It is the way we were made.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )


Saturday, July 24, 2021

Some boring details about an exciting age

 Some boring details about an exciting age

By Bobby Neal Winters

One of the hats that I wear at the university is that I am the Director of the Polymer Chemistry Initiative.  I’m not a chemist, but don’t let that confuse you, because I am an administrator.  We specialize in directing things about which we know zip.  Sometimes it's easier to do if you don’t know anything about it. One of the issues we have is that not many of the general population know much about polymers.  What are they good for?

I recently purchased a 3-D printer.  I say recently, but I’ve had it since mid-June.  It came with some assembly required, and I was able to do that over the course of a Sunday with time enough for Bible Study in between.

The big issue with these devices is getting the bed correctly calibrated.  That took me the better part of a week.  The nozzle kept knocking whatever I was printing off the bed.  I was ever so patient in going through the procedures to calibrate.  Then I noticed a wire that was unplugged from a connector. (For those of you who are familiar with such things, it was the connector to my z-axis stepper.) I astutely plugged the wire back in, and, voila, it works.

I’ve been learning how to use the printer now and a whole new world has opened.

I am using it on my current project.  I want to make a weather station in my backyard.  As I am reaching a certain age, one of my duties will soon include talking about the weather in a level of detail that younger minds are not able to comprehend.  They don’t get how it was possible for us to walk to school twelve miles in the snow, uphill both ways. They will soon enough, but in the meantime, I will be up to me and others like me to fill them in.

I want to be able to tell them about the wind, the humidity, the dew point, how much rain we got last night and when it started.

For this, I need a weather station.  True, our local treasures Doug Heady and Mike Hayslip do give us great information, but they have to cover from Chanute to Bela Vista.  I want the lowdown on the southwest quadrant of Pittsburg.

Yes, you can buy weather stations, and ones that are probably better than what I am going to make.  Yes, they would probably cost less than what I am going to spend on building one.

But what is the fun in that?

For my project, I need a computer controller.  This will either be a Raspberry Pi computer or an Arduino controller.  I am sort of leaning toward the latter right now.  They will need a source of power.  I will be using a 12-volt marine battery.  I need a box to house it all in.  

As I don’t want to be having to interrupt my data to change or charge the battery, I want to have a solar panel to keep the battery charged.

My first priority is to get the power situation in order.  I bought a plastic storage box from Home Despot [sic] to mount everything to and in.  I want the battery and the controller (eventually) to be in the box, but the solar panel will have to be on the outside.  

In order to get the most out of the sunshine, I need to keep the solar panel angled to the south.  To do this, I 3-D printed some brackets to hold it at that angle.  Of course the first solar panel I got didn’t work (I don’t buy  the most expensive kind) and I had made my brackets specifically for that type, so when I bought my second solar panel it, quite naturally, didn’t fit.  As I type this, I am printing out an addition to my original brackets to make them work.

When I am done, I am going to mount my system on the top of a landscaping timber that is planted vertically like a fencepost in my backyard.  I printed a bracket that will hold it to the top of that poll.  I’ve also printed a variety of brackets to hold the battery and wires in place.  Believe me, there are a lot of wires.

If you’ve made it this far, you are probably thinking to yourself, he doesn’t have to have a weather station to become a bore, he’s there on several other fronts already.

I know it and I am okay with that.

But the point of this is the plastic filament that I am printing all this stuff with is a polymer.  These polymers can be created with different properties for different applications.  There is a lot of stuff that is coming together.  It is an exciting age.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )




Saturday, July 17, 2021

Back from Virginia

 Back from Virginia

By Bobby Neal Winters

I recently got back from a trip to Virginia.  We visited Jamestown, Yorktown, and Monticello. (And they pronounce it Mont-i-CHEL-lo.)  We just soaked in history for three days.  The details presented clarified some perspectives which I think we need to think about as a nation.

Jamestown provides a nice place to look because in those early years we have three big influences on what it means to be an American already present: The English Settlers, the Indigenous Peoples, and the Enslaved Africans.  Yes, while the original colonists Jamestown didn’t have slaves, they did enter into the picture very shortly after the colony was established. 

This has all been swimming through my head for days now.  I’ve been waiting for it to jell so that I could write about it.  Here goes.

There’s been some nasty complicated stuff that those of us who are of English heritage really need to ruminate on.  I would have to include myself in that because as far as I’ve been able to discern, I don’t have a single ancestor who came from anywhere but England.  At various times, I thought there was some Cherokee ancestry; at others, I thought there was some Irish.  But with every DNA test, with every internet ancestry search, it’s just English, English, English.

That is so boring.

The previous sentence would so confuse my colonist ancestors because it was very important to them that they were English.  This seems to have been one of the bones of contention leading up to the American Revolution.  They didn’t feel like they were being treated as Englishmen. Then the Revolution was like a bad divorce. They didn’t want anything to do with England anymore.  

If you look at surveys of ethnicity, you will see a big stripe of “American” there.  Likely as not, the bulk of those are of English ancestry.  They say “American” instead of “English” because it had been so important for their ancestors to be English, but then they felt betrayed.

We need to pay close attention to that because this could happen again.

Here I am getting into dangerous ground and some of you might be mad at me.  The English, the Indigenous people, and the Enslaved Africans all had descendents who are now American.  (Yes, there are others and we love you too.) It is very important to all of these people that they be American.

But there are problems.  The descendents of the Enslaved Africans have problems.  It came to be currently encoded in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”  There are those who say “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter,” and these are all true too.  (I am not responsible for this nomenclature, but there it is.)

I would like to characterize the situation a little differently.

Think of the descendents in America of the English, the Indigenous, the African, the Irish, the Italian, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, etc as all being organs in the body.  They are all part of one thing: America. (The Apostle Paul does a nice riff on something similar in one of his epistles.) 

So think of your body.  Suppose you get an x-ray and there is a spot on your liver.  Would you react by saying, “All organs matter” and ignore the spot on your liver?  I don’t think so.  I think that you’d see about getting your liver fixed.

Not only is it a vital part of your body, but the spot might very well spread.

This is an analogy and arguing by analogy is always dangerous. It depends upon everyone realizing that we are all part of the same body.  But I believe it is good because it catches the fact that I am actually helping myself when I help someone else because we are all Americans and America is healthy to the extent its “members” are. 

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )



Friday, July 09, 2021

Jamestown, Pocahontas, and Disney

 Jamestown, Pocahontas, and Disney

By Bobby Neal Winters

In sixteen hundred seven
We sail the open sea
For glory, God, and gold
And The Virginia Company
--Alan Menken

I am in an AirBnB in Virginia as I write this.  It is located on the peninsula between the James and York rivers.  It is the location of the first successful English settlement in the New World.  If the family tree app that I have is right, some of my mother’s people lived here nigh on to 400 years ago.

Nobody’s told me that I look familiar.

We’ve literally spent days in museums.  We’ve talked to the docents who are knowledgeable, patient people.  We’ve seen the movies.  We looked at the exhibits.  We’ve tread the ancient ground.  We’ve learned a few things.

They’ve done a good bit of work to flesh out the roles of the indigenous peoples and Africans at various points.  I am not saying it is perfect, but they’ve moved it beyond Disney.  They’ve put enough details in to give me a feeling that there were real people involved. It seems to me to be closer to the truth.

There, I’ve said it.  I would like to know the truth about things.  The truth is often buried beneath a ton of sugar. The story of Pocahontas is a nice example here. 

The Disney movie Pocahontas came out when my girls were little, and we did watch it and enjoy it. We still have it on VHS somewhere.  Quite frankly, I have to admit that throughout the day we spent at Jamestown I had the tune “The Virginia Company” from that movie running through my head.  The only thing true about it is there is a place called Virginia.

 First of all, Pocahontas wasn’t her real name.  It was her nickname.  I don’t remember her real name, and in fact she had a couple of those: the one they called her and her secret name.  On top of those names she had her Christian name Rebecca Rolfe because she was a baptised Christian.

Even that isn’t the whole story.  The English had kidnapped her and were trying to use her to make her father, the leader of her tribe, see things their way.  This was actually a thing that the indigenous peoples were familiar with because they did it to each other.  There was a way you were supposed to act as a prisoner of another tribe: you changed your name and you worshipped the way they did.

Pocahontas/Rebecca bore a son to John Rolfe and died in England after having been there a year.  She was 20 years old.  Everything we know of her makes me think that she was a remarkable individual.  She’s buried at Saint George’s Church in Gravesend, Kent, United Kingdom.  Her grave is not far from the Thames.

It is a tragic story.  It is a human story.  It is the human story.

I mean to say the human story is a tragedy with elements of romance, farce, and true crime.  If it were a movie, they wouldn’t know how to market it, but they don’t have to because you are in the theater already with the doors locked behind you and there is only one exit.  

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )





Sunday, July 04, 2021

Building Bridges

 Building Bridges

By Bobby Neal Winters

Social media has supercharged our discourse.  I don’t use the word “supercharged” lightly because there are sparks flying off everything.  Recently this phenomenon has manifested itself in yours truly being tagged in a post of an article that conveyed a charge: Mathematics is racist.

So this was on Facebook. The article was written by a journalist who was writing about something a scholar had said.  I don’t even know if the journalist was writing for a right-wing rag or a left-wing rag.  There are plenty of both, each specializes in making things the other side says sound stupid and the stupid things they say sound even stupider.  They are people who are trying to build walls rather than bridges.

I’ve not read the words of the scholar.  I’ve not followed up on their research.  I’ve done no due diligence in this.

I will, regardless, use this as an opportunity to defend mathematics. I do this because mathematics has provided a bridge for me to a different sort of world than I grew up in.

As much as I was able to discern, there are those who claim that mathematics is racist because it says there is only one right answer.  Here I need to make a correction of fact; mathematics does not claim there is only one right answer. This might shock some of the right wingers who are waving this as a bloody shirt. 

In mathematics there are times when we can show--with a level of certainty that is not approached in any other area of human endeavor--there are infinitely many solutions to a given problem and we can describe exactly what they are.

This being said, mathematics specializes in being careful.  We teach processes.  The processes have multiple steps.  In each of these steps there is a possibility of going wrong, but typically we set the processes up so that at the end there is one correct answer that everyone should get to.  This makes homework easier to check.  In that way, mathematics is rigid.  

We get into trouble with this.  I wish I had a nickel for everytime I heard: “I got the right answer, but I didn’t do it the way the teacher said, so they counted it wrong.  I think the teacher is a jerk.  I hate math.”

This usually comes from the brighter students who are mistaken in what they think their teacher is teaching.  In the basic mathematics courses--and I am talking up to calculus and even beyond--we are not teaching problem solving, at least not in its full glory. We are teaching methods of problem solving.  

The methods we teach are tools, so when you get the right answer by using a method other than what the teacher was using, that’s like when you use a pair of pliers to tighten a nut when the shop teacher was trying to teach you how to use a socket wrench. Yes, I have no doubt that’s the way you will do it in real life, but you have just cheated yourself out of learning how to use a socket wrench.  Don’t expect to get credit for it.

The set of methods learned in math class form a toolbox.  I personally love to see students come up with ways I’ve not seen provided they are true methods and not just accidents.  

There is such a thing as mathematical truth. Here I will sound more like a theologian than a mathematician.  Mathematical truth is eternal: It is true yesterday, today, and forever.

Let me illustrate this with one of my favorite stories about spherical trigonometry.  Trigonometry is about triangles; spherical trigonometry is about triangles on the surfaces of spheres.  If a triangle on the surface of a sphere is bothersome to you, suck it up and push past it.  

Anyway, there was some wonderful work done on spherical trigonometry by the muslims in Persia.  They did the math so they would know the right direction to Mecca as an aid to them in prayer. It was brilliant work, then hundreds of years later, spherical trigonometry was used in navigation to aid in the exploration of the world.  

This spherical trigonometry--in tandem with mathematical development in astronomy and improved time-keeping devices--allowed sailors who were thousands of miles away from home to know where they were with incredible precision.  This kept them from getting lost and running up on shoals or getting lost and dying of scurvy or getting lost and having any number of other untoward things happen to them.

We need mathematics--and its incredible unforgiving precision--because sometimes it is the difference between life and death.

We can also do a better job of teaching it.  This goes for most subjects.  There are young people who don’t have the advantages of middle-class, suburban youths.  As teachers we will have to build our metaphorical bridges to the students.  At the end, those students are going to be building real bridges that we hope won’t give way.  In the end, the student will have a mathematical bridge that will take them to a new world.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )




Friday, June 25, 2021

The Flight of the Phoenix


By Bobby Neal Winters

Going back to revisit the movies of your youth is a dangerous pastime. Sometimes you discover that a movie that you loved wasn’t actually very good.  But there are other times too.

I’d remembered The Flight of the Phoenix with James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Christian Marquand, Ernest Borgnine, and Hardy Kruger as just another desert survival movie.  It is a desert survival movie, but there is something else there that I see now but had missed as a youth. It is not just a man versus nature story, but a man versus man story in a more subtle way.

As the movie is from 1965, I will not worry about spoilers.  A plane crashes in the desert; the survivors build a new plane from the wreckage of the old (hence the name Phoenix); they fly it to safety.

That paragraph describes the movie exactly as I remembered it.  The fact that it was a story inhabited by well-drawn characters eluded me.

The thread that unites them is they are all flawed, broken men.  Richard Attenborough plays the alcoholic navigator of the doomed plan.  Ernest Borgnine is suffering from what we would now call PTSD.  Jimmy Stewart is a burned out pilot whose best days are behind him.  Hardy Kruger is an arrogant engineer.

The movie begins on the ill-fated plane.  The pilot (played by Stewart) has not done due diligence in the aircraft’s upkeep and neither has the alcohol navigator.  They are taken off course by a dust storm, but as the radio is broken--and had been broken at the time of take-off--and are forced down hundreds of miles from even the tiniest outpost of civilization. 

They wait for rescue but that is for nought as they are too far off course.

Then the engineer announces they can build a plane from the parts of their craft that are still salvageable. 

This is not met by as much enthusiasm as one might expect.  It may be because the engineer is German; the rest of the survivors are American, British, and French; and the second world war is less than two decades in the past.

Or it may be because it wasn’t the pilot’s idea.

This was a surprise to me.  I’d remembered Stewart as someone who played the same sort of affable character over and over.  As the pilot of the downed plane, he’s not particularly affable; he’s not positive; he’s not nurturing; he’s not supportive.  He’s not even a good man, much less a hero.

And the engineer doesn’t make it easy either.  He’s arrogant, impatient, and hard-driving.  He and the pilot don’t like each other at all.

The only thing that keeps the tenuous project alive is the desire to survive and the efforts of the alcoholic navigator as a diplomat.

In the end, they survive, but only after the blood sacrifice of two of the more virtuous characters.

It’s been two weeks since I rewatched it, but it has been on my mind often during those two weeks.  The image it presents of broken people who don’t like each other being forced to work together to survive strikes me as a model we should examine.  

Maybe we should make them watch it in Washington.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )



Friday, June 18, 2021

The God of tiny little things

The God of tiny little things

By Bobby Neal Winters

When my kids were young and my wife was teaching Sunday School, they taught the kids a new song.  It was supposed to go, “My God is a great big God / Big enough to save me / Big enough to keep me.”  I had some reservations because the last line seemed to deny free will.  I needn’t have worried.  The children learned the final couplet as “Big enough to save me / Big enough to eat me.”

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, they say.

Perhaps the quasi-Calvanistic turn of the last line shouldn’t’ve bothered me as much on the emphasis on “Bigness.”  God is big in whatever sense that is meaningful for God, but God is also small.  While a God that is big enough to save us is comforting to a small child who feels so vulnerable in the world, the world is saved by small things.

This morning I am sitting on my new patio.  My wife and I build it one paver at a time.  It is sitting on a bed of sand.  I am sitting under an oak tree that my middle daughter brought home in a plastic cup from the second or third grade.  It is shading me with its leaves, each of which only measures a few square inches.  The tree itself grew to its current height bit by bit over the course of two decades.  Each of its cells is a tiny universe unto itself that we are only beginning to understand.

Without the tiny cells, the tree is nothing and I am being burned to a crisp in the mid-morning sun.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about my landscaping.  My latest efforts have been built over the moldering remains of what I attempted 20 or more years ago.  The results are much better this time.  What has happened?

Well, I’ve gotten better at landscaping.

This is not because I’ve laid a lot of pavers over the decades.  I have not.  My early efforts at shaping the earth into a place more agreeable to me were not so successful as to encourage practice.  Instead, years of frustration combined with prayer (and I consider writing to be a form of prayer) have created a certain reserve of patience within me.  

Patience is the reins upon our spirit that keeps us from rushing ahead too fast.  Patience allows us to map out paths within our world.

And patience, as is fitting, is not built overnight.  Patience is built tiny bit by tiny bit as we receive God’s grace through the things we do.  God exists within the tiny things.

We have the means of grace that the church has mapped out, and I am not for a moment saying anyone should abandon those. But through prayer and the tiny things you do during the day every day, God’s grace can change you.

Neither am I saying that God isn’t as big as the largest supercluster of galaxies.  He is big enough to save you; He’s even big enough to eat you.  But He’s also small enough to do what needs to be done.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )