Hey! Randy

Archive for June, 2008

Across the Ocean on a Wire Came a War

Posted by heyrandy on June 27, 2008

The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman, Ballantine Books, New York: 1958, 1966. 195 pages, index, end notes.

There is no modern method of communication more obsolete than the telegraph.  It is difficult for most modern minds to even conceive of such a slow and clumsy system.  Yet the telegraph provided the first high speed, world wide communications.  The telegraph cut transatlantic communication time from days to mere hours, minutes for those who had private lines. (Remember this when you think that dial up Internet service is slow.)  Today the telegraph is a museum piece, replaced by the telephone and the Internet.  But in the early 20th century the telegraph was indispensable, especially to the world powers.

For all its benefits, the telegraph was the instrument of doom for Imperial Germany.  It was through the telegraph that an injudicious message was sent by Germany’s foreign minister to its ambassador in the United States.  It was this coded message that provided the final force the United States needed to enter the Great War on the side of England.

As the book’s title claims, the telegram was from Zimmerman, then German foreign minister.  The telegram, intercepted and decoded by the British and later given to the Americans, outlined a plan that Germany hoped would keep the Americans out of the war in Europe.  The plan called for the fomenting of a war between the U.S. and Mexico with Japan joining the Mexicans.

The German hope was that this fight along the southern U.S. border and in the Pacific would keep the America out of Europe should the U.S. ever give up its neutrality and side with the English and the French.  The plan, if enacted, would also require Mexico to cut off its oil shipments to England.  The prize for the Mexicans would be the regaining of the territory they lost in the Mexican-American war.  The Japanese would get all they could grab in the Pacific without the Americans to stop them.

The plan was bold, audacious; some may say reckless, but Germany was desperate.  The telegram, once exposed, had the opposite effect; it caused the Mexicans and the Japanese to deny any such offer had been made to them.  It caused an explosion of outrage throughout the U.S., especially in Texas.

Germany thought that America’s entry into the war would be of little consequence since she could not train, equip and transport enough troops to Europe in time to make a difference.  Germany was relying on its submarines to strangle England and France in to peace talks favorable to Germany.  If the Americans were too busy fighting the Japanese and the Mexicans there would be little chance of the American Army coming to Europe.

Had the submarine strategy been the only element of this plan, it is probable that the English and the French, especially after the withdrawal of the Russians, would have capitulated.  Both nations were destitute and worn down by the fighting.  Both nations had spent themselves into bankruptcy and suffered horrendous losses but obtained very little gain.

It was the telegram that made the difference.  Once America entered the war the Germans were doomed.

Along the way to this the author reveals the perfidy, schemes, ploys, deceptions and foibles that accompany statecraft.  It is a case of personalities, egos, pride, and stupidity versus cunning and skill.  Without the blunders the successes would have been less significant.  Without the pride, even racism, the stupid mistakes would have been avoided.  It was Germany’s sense of superiority that blinded her to the possibility that her code had been broken by the British.  If the Germans had given the matter some thought, they would have realized or suspected how the Americans got the telegram. They may have changed codes.  If the message had been sent by another means not subject to British spying, the scandal would might never have occurred.  If Zimmerman had not publicly admitted that the telegram was genuine, the effect of its revelation would have been muted.

It is really these types of things that make the book worth reading.  It delves into the behind the scenes events that so affect the way thing are done in public.

The telegraph is history.  So is the War to End All Wars to Make the World Safe for Democracy.  What continues, unabated, is the machinations, and blunders, of the powerful that seek more power.

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Solve It

Posted by heyrandy on June 10, 2008

How to Solve It, G. Polya. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1957 (1985).  253pp. footnotes, no index

Troubled by some intractable puzzle?  Mystified by a quandry?  Then this is the book for you.  Polya (1887-1985), Professor of Mathematics at Stanford University, has written a book to help you figure it out.

Do not be afraid of Polya job description.  The mathematically underequipped will not be overwhelmed by a barrage of numbers and symbols.  There are numbers and symbols in the book, but there are also examples of non-mathematical problems such a crossword puzzle clues and the color of bears.

Polya begins the book with a detailed outline of the system he sets forth.  The text of the book is exposition and application of the outline’s details.  Along the way Polya gives some instruction to teachers on how to help the less than bright student.

Polya’s method is spelled out in four steps: Understand the problem, Devise a plan, Carry out the plan, and Test the solution.  These all seem so self-evident that you may wonder why a book had to be written to explain them and why such a book would become a classic.  The answer is that we are all a little dumb and often more than a little lazy.

Even those exceptional people that were born with the brains I lack need to have their minds trained to make maximum use of what God gave them.  The book is a manual for such training.  Work through some of his examples and you may call it a manual for rigorous training.

The book is an example of heuristic thinking.  Heuristic thinking is not as exact as what Polya call rigorous proof, but it is what is often need to get the problem solving process started and what is required step into the more rigorous methods.  Polya states that he wrote this book to revive heuristic thinking.

Polya’s work is not one of profound research; he give few footnotes.  It is a work that will enable you to be equipped to do profound research.  Learning usually does not come easy.  It takes work.  Usually lots of hard work.  Polya gives a method that will make that work effective and effecient.

The book ends with a set of sample problems, along with hints and the solutions.  So you will have some practice using his teachings.  I have worked though some of the samples, and I find them a challenge.  But this is what you get in life, except for the explicit hints and easy answers.

Read this book, and then you can SOLVE IT.

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As the Garden Goes

Posted by heyrandy on June 9, 2008

My garden is on the move.  No, I am not relocating it to another plot of ground.  It would certainly do better somewhere else, but that is not going to happen.

I shared some plants with someone else.  Last week after the evening  worship service at my church, a couple we know invited us to their newly purchased house. They had just moved in the previous week, and we were the first family they had over.

As they showed us around, we went into the backyard.  I noticed some chives growing in a little area beside the wall.  I pointed out the plant, and they said that they thought that the plant could be chives but were not sure.  A quick smell and taste test confirmed that they were indeed chives and not belladonna.

They also had some mint.  My mint, a gift, I assume, of a providential wind which blew in a seed, was once quite prolific and widespread through out my yard.  I even helped the matter by trying to establish it in the lawn, but the seeds never sprouted.  My goal was to at least get a pleasant smell when I mowed the lawn.

The mint is now all gone.  Mint usually is quite invasive; if you don’t keep it in check, it spreads everywhere.  I had hoped to establish at least one area with a lot of mint plants.  It is a testimony to my gardening prowess that I can not even get mint to take root.

Later in the week I began to think that there was something missing from their garden.  Then it occurred to me:  oregano!  Yes, oregano.  That favorite of Italian cooking.  The essential herb that without which I am not sure what would happen.  But they had to have oregano.  Not just oregano, but they had to have too much excessive oregano.

This was a job for me.

A couple of years ago we bought from a local big box home parts store a small pot of oregano. The store was one that sells lots of things that you think you could actually install and make work for almost less that twice what a professional would charge to do it.  Transplanting the oregano didn’t appear to be too difficult.  Besides, the store offered professional installation services. I figured if I couldn’t get the job done, I would call in the cavalry.  (I forgot John Wayne was already dead.)

The oregano has spread where the mint didn’t fear me enough to go.  The plant reseeds itself easily and has spread to the front yard.  Some may even be on its way back to Italy.  (You never know about foreigners.)  Since the plant has passed the “Hey! Randy can’t kill it, so it must be easy to grow” test, it was an ideal give away.  (It was also free, which made it THE ideal give away.)

Giving away oregano was not a new experience.  Last year I gave some to my pastor for his garden.  His yard is not as big as mine, but he does a better job of gardening.  His success with the oregano was assured.  His wife later told me how wonderful the stuff is when you run the leaves through a blender to release all of the oils: you get a lot of flavor.

Saturday I dug up some of my front yard supply, and put it in to an old plastic pot.  This pot still had the label from the store where we bought the original oregano.  It may have been the original pot.  As the day passed, I thought that the plants were too few.  If they were to have too much excessive oregano, a more drastic measure was needed.

I got the big shovel and went to the backyard, to the scene of the original plant.  I dug out a shovel full and put it into a large pot.  This pot had no sticker.  I do not know if it was the original of anything.  I watered the pot and set it by the car.  All I had to do was wait for Sunday morning.  Time was on my side; the trap was set!

Transporting the plant encountered a difficulty.  While it is not a yet felony to possess, store, use, traffic in, buy, sell, own, rent, or mortgage oregano, nor is it heavily taxed (a rarity in New York state), there was to be a dinner after the morning worship service on this particular Sunday.  This meant that the car trunk would be filled with various containers of comestibles.  The oregano would feel at home among friends.  This would reduce plant stress, but the ride would be crowded.  However, since nothing in the trunk spoke Italian, if the plant were to complain, it would not be understood.

After the dinner, I gave the plant (and pot) to the wife in question.  I explained that there may be some dandelions in the pot, but that she should not worry: I don’t charge extra.

Many people spray their lawns to get rid of the dandelions, but I am not that type.  You can eat the dandelions, so they are not dangerous.  They also do a good job of covering where the weeds won’t grow.  Besides, I have always thought it silly to pay to get rid of lawn problems when you can give them away.

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The Average Thoughts Averaged to Be Correct

Posted by heyrandy on June 7, 2008

The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecke.  Doubleday, New York, 2004.  296pp., end notes, no index.

In contrast to what is thought to be the case, the collective intelligence of the group is lower than the sum of the members, Surowiecke argues that the group is actually smarter than the individual members.  He cites the group’s estimation of the dressed weight of a slaughtered ox in an experiment run by Francis Galton at a fair in England.  The group, largely non-expert average fair goers, gave an estimate that was off by one pound from the actual weight.  No one guess of the more than 800 estimates submitted was that close.  But when the guesses were averaged the result was amazingly accurate.

In more recent times the same type of experiment was conducted in a college class room using a jar of jelly beans.  Once again the average of the guesses was more accurate than any single guess.  Other examples, these from the real world, would be the stock market reaction to the space shuttle Challenger disaster and, oddly, the finding of the wreckage of the lost U.S. Navy submarine Scorpion in the Atlantic Ocean.

The way this works deal with group dynamics and the way individuals think.  To be effective, the individuals in the group must be independent of each other, a diverse lot, and each possess a different set of what Surowiecki calls, “private knowledge.”

The author survey the literature in the field of the social sciences to glean insights into the ways groups from committees to juries form opinions and conclusions.  It is when the principles are violated or are absent that the groups are subject to the herd mentality.  This, Surowiecki says, explains fads and bubbles.

In this age of the expert, yet the experts are usually wrong.  We tend to lean to their advice because of the technological nature of our modern lives.  But the experts never agree with each other; opinions are in perpetual conflict.  The distrust of experts in not new; Surowiecki cites Thomas Jefferson in preferring the opinion of a plowman to that of a professor on moral issues.

This is such to give us pause that the opinions of the elite in government and industry are not as brilliant as we are given to believe.  In fact, if we look at the evidence, when the elite get it right, it is often the case of pure luck.

A more realistic view of the professional managers would be to look to the space shuttle Columbia disaster.  Here the managers on the ground thought they had a problem with the heat shield on the shuttle when on take off the tiles were struck by a piece of foam that had fallen off the fuel tank.

In the meeting to discuss the problem, there was no dissent by any of the members of the committees.  This is largely due to the homogeneous nature of the members: they were all veteran NASA employees that came to the agency directly from college.  They were all working with the exact same information and with the same presuppositions.  The exchange of ideas was discouraged,  and the group leader expressed the idea that nothing could be done anyway.  No new information was sought.  It turns out that NASA did not even know the extent of the damage.  So nothing was done.

When done correctly, the average of the group can do very well, better than any expert.  When done the way it is usually done, the result is a burst bubble, or a destroyed shuttle and dead crew.

The book is worth the effort to read.  The writing is passable in the most part, a bit dry in others. The end notes an abomination.  First they are end notes.  But worse of all there is no note reference on the pages of the text.  One must get the idea that there is a note from the quotation marks.  I hope this was a decision by an expert.

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In the Garden It Grows

Posted by heyrandy on June 5, 2008

I planted a garden this year.  I have done this in previous years, but last year I gave up and did not plant anything.  But the weeds did alright.

Planting a garden in a suburban backyard is not usually a big deal, but it is in my yard.  My soil is lously: it is heavy with clay.  This is about as bad as it can be.  I have tried to remedy the problem by adding organic matter, i.e., my yearly crop of mostly maple tree leaves.  I have some tall, old maples that produce an abundance of leaves.  This does not seem to have much helped.

My backyard is also heavly shaded.  It is those maple trees.  They both help and hurt the garden effort.  I am not about to have the trees cut down: I keep the dog tied to one of them.

I really don’t have a lot of space, but I don’t have a lot of enthusasim for the whole garden gambit.  I admit I am a bit lazy when it comes to gardening.  I would like to spend more time and money on the project, but I am usually short of both.  So the garden just grows by itself once I have done the preleminary work.

I would not have bothered to do anything this year in the garden, but a woman in my church asked if I would like some heirloom tomato seeds.  It seems that she bought too many different kinds.  Those seed catalogues can be dangerously seductive.  I said, “Yes,” and I started on another yearly effort at the unlikely to be successful endeavor of The Garden.

I started the seeds in Styrofoam cups.  I was going to buy those peat pots they sell to start seeds, but I just never got to the store.  Besides, the Styrofoam cups were here, and that meant that they were free, my kind of price!

The seeds eventually sprouted, and I transplanted them to the garden patch I had prepared.  I had to dig out the weeds.  With the wet clay soil and the tangled roots of the weeds it was not an easy task, but we gardeners are tough.  I persevered.  (It is the Calvinist in me! Remember, this site is also about Reformed theology.)

I had also thinned out the chives.  I had inherited some of these and had bough some others.  Over the years they just kept growing and spreading.  We have eaten some of them, but we usually ignore them.  If you can’t grow anything else, try chives.  They keep on coming back.  I mow them in the fall during my last mowing of the year, and they come back afresh in the spring.

I also planted some potatoes.  I wanted to plant some of those Yukon Gold variety, but the store I went to said that they transfered all their seed potatoes to another store because they potatoes were not selling at my local store.  I then went to the grocery stores and tried to find Yukon Gold, but both stores did not carry them.  I settled for Russets.

I bought two potatoes.  I chose the ones with the most eyes.  You just have to cut out the eyes and plant that piece, so it did not make any sense to buy a lot of potatoes.  (Did I tell you I was cheap?)

I learned this from my uncle.  He was a really serious gardener. (I don’t know if he was cheap.)  His garden was the size of my entire yard, front and rear plus both sides.

Now I just have to wait.  I am the only one in the house that will eat fresh tomatoes.  This means more for me, if we get any.

The potatoes are enjoyed by everyone.  In the past the crop has been a small number of small potatoes, but the real fun was that they produced anything.  This is the real joy of gardening.

Since I am growing only tomatoes, potatoes, and chives, I do not have to put up the fence to keep out the wildlife.  Potato greens are poisonous, and the the animals do not like the tomatoes.  The chives give them bad breath.

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