Friday, April 19, 2019


Driving back tonight with my eyes on the road and the sillouette of the steering wheel before me, the lights of the instrument clusters seemed to be dancing around. My first thought was: oh, crud--are my eyes starting to get old and lose their muscle speed?

I figured it out eventually--the instrument cluster was dancing around, as was the rest of the car--but the seat cushioning meant that I wasn't getting bounced as much, and since I was focussing on the distant road, my eyes weren't trying to follow the dancing instrument lights. Not going blind yet.

Car seat cushioning is a wonderful thing that we often take for granted.

Thursday, April 18, 2019


Large physics experiments are expensive. But if you find a "gold-plated toilet" in the budget, closer inspection will show that there's a really good reason for it--nothing else will work.

In fact, recycling and scrounging are important traditions. I knew some of the stories at the link--that CMS, needing brass for the material of an endcap, recycled Russian artillery shells. When an experiment ends, parts of the apparatus and the electronics become available--and some people are quite creative in repurposing detectors for new experiments.

I had not heard this story before:

Kephart recalled Lederman acquiring a 16-inch battleship gun to filter out particles traveling at the wrong angles. One of Lederman’s grad students was just small enough to slip inside.

“I’ll never have a grad student of that caliber again,” Lederman would joke.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Notre Dame

Other people have already said everything reasonable to say (and a lot of unreasonable things as well), and all I can add is that I hope they can rebuild it. The amount of volunteered money is encouraging, but a few noises suggest that jockeying for control has already started. The usual winners of these artistic contests seem not to have any great interest in beauty, much less Christianity.

If you haven't seen the robot Colossus, watch it. It could go where people couldn't, and keep watching, and keep the water flowing. And the Paris Fire Brigade borrowed some drones, and got the "geofencing functions" bypassed so the drones could fly within the city limits. Apparently the French bureaucracy can move quickly when it wants to.

The cathedral has been modified before. I think this time maybe they shouldn't go with oak timbers. Steel. And since the upper stone is probably weakened, maybe some additional framework on the outside. It won't look the same--but then it didn't look quite the same after each earlier remodeling.

But first and foremost, if they want to rebuild it with any meaning, it must be a church.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


People spend billions on advertisements in the belief that they change people's attitudes. They seem to work. The shows must have an impact too.

To film a TV show you need to have room for the cameras and the lights and for characters to come in and out dramatically. The room being filmed is therefore necessarily large. So when you watch, you see something larger than life--or at least your life. How come the people like me have bigger houses and more stuff? And they don't have much work to do, either income-generating or household maintenance.

A play now and again might give you a sense of things you could aspire to. A steady diet of amusements in which everyone has plenty of stuff without obvious effort has got to effect you too. I'd think it would redefine what "normal" is. Work 9to5 isn't normal on TV, and even on shows where a character's job is significant, the work doesn't usually seem to be the center. I can think of exceptions, and you can probably think of many more, but on the whole that seems to be the rule.

A fantasy now and then is harmless, and probably good. We want something different from everyday life, with a little drama and conflict, or silliness that we wouldn't care for in real life. I don't want to watch an assembly line, or a man writing code, or another planning meeting.

I don't see how a steady diet of entertainments can avoid shaping your attitudes about what "normal" life is like--and not in a good way. A steady diet of "entertainments" that were "realistic" sounds cruel and unusual. It seems as though many of us grew up with one foot in a land where problems are solved and there are no trade-offs and everyone seems wealthy without effort. One candy bar is good, but a box of them...

Since we are, by and large, rich enough that existential problems are rare, we don't have as many reminders that the magic land isn't real.

A lot of the action in society happens from the tails of the distributions in attitudes. It doesn't take a very large change in the average to make major changes in the proportions of the political players, or the cultural players. Can you imagine someone 50 years ago offering to "celebrate her abortion?" That fringe wasn't nearly big enough. They were there, but didn't seem to be applauded by very many.

It hasn't been hard to find people in every era who believed that the vague "rich" were responsible for our woes, and that if they were found and properly shaken down all would be well. We have a significant number of them today among the nominally educated.(*) Open a newspaper Click a news-site and find what used to be fringe personality problems staking out self-important claims to be society leaders. Most of us don't care, but the tails of the distributions have shifted a lot, and that's where the cultural action is. And the political action.

Don Quixote lost his mind from over-indulging in heroic romances. At least he got a sense of duty out of them. Us--not quite so noble.

(*) Perhaps I am unduly snarky here, but most of these people I've met seem not to have spent much study in "subjects where there is a right answer or the bridge falls down" or in "subjects where there is perennial debate and good arguments all around."

Monday, April 15, 2019

Gene Wolfe

Died at age 87. The obituary says his wife died a few years ago of Alzheimers. That's a lot to endure, and to be kind through it all...

Some of us can tell stories wonderfully well--I wish I could write half as well as he did. Some of us compose great melodies--I'm listening to Strauss as I write this.

We all live a story. We all live a song. Sometimes we're too close to hear it.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

For those who like building stuff

This is her latest.
You see, way back in 2011, when CDs were maybe(?) still a thing and Blackberries still thought maybe they could make a go of it, I decided to build a computer. Usually when I tell people I built a computer, they think I went and bought a power supply and an ATX motherboard and some silly neon lights and whatever else the kids do to play Crysis these days. Then I have to explain that, no, I mean I built a computer.

In this episode she starts trying to use a GPU. Recent posts have involved repairing a pinball machine and building a steam motor. ("I was completely unprepared for how much steam was released, and the force with which it comes out. Everything in a six foot area was completely soaked, I dropped the camera, and it took me some time to gather myself back up. The good news is, the blow-off valve worked perfectly! All in all, it was a great success and I learned more respect for 60psi of live steam."). That's the last of a long series of posts, btw.

Sometimes I wish I had a small machine shop too. Investing in the parts to repair my own brakes is probably more in line with my budget, though.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Black hole data

It turns out there's actually an IceCube connection to the black hole picture story.

The data had to be shipped back to the analysis center by freight, not by internet. If you look closely at the side of the box he's resting the server on, that's got a penguin in a tux and A-379-S on the side; it's one of our crates.(*)

The data transfer rate of a jet loaded with disks is very good. The transfer rate from the Pole by satellite is pretty slow, though between some US sites it can be much better. For example from NERSC to Madison it would take a little less than 6 months do move 5 PB. And 5TB is supposedly the total data set from all sites, not the amount of data each one sent.

If you remember your galaxy positions better than I do, you might wonder how it is that the South Pole Telescope managed to help image M87. (The EHT telescopes are in blue on that image.) After all, there's a planet in the way.

I haven't read half of their papers yet, but I know how I'd use the station. When you want to understand your detector, you need to know what it sees when part of it isn't working, and you want to know what it looks like if there is extra information. You can't bring Palomar along with you on a trip, but you can compare what your telescope sees with what Palomar sees when you are looking at the same thing, and that tells you something about what your scope can see by itself.

I'll bet they tried to use the telescopes to look at several nearby sources, and analyzed the data with and without the ones that couldn't see M87. That would have helped them calibrate their system--and it would have been even more fun if the source was near enough that they could have an optical comparison as well. That way they could get an estimate for what the resolution was--and you don't have a measurement if all you have is a number. You also need to know the uncertainty on that number. I gather that they deliberately blurred the image they reconstructed to match the actual resolution, so that people wouldn't think they saw structure in what were accidental artifacts of reconstruction. (People translate noisy pictures into "aliens on Mars" all the time.)

(*) Actually, I suspect that the photographer wanted a picture of him beside an Antarctic box, any box. The story just talks about shipping packs disk drives around, not servers--not even disk servers. (We also used Cabbage Cases). We ship our data on disks also, in two copies in case one disk fails (and they do). The summarized stuff we beam back by satellite, but sometimes you need the gory details.

Friday, April 12, 2019

A letter out of retirement

Benedict's letter seems to be causing a bit of a stir. The usual suspects hate it ("divisive!"), but there was enough fuzziness in reporting about it (*) that I decided to read it myself.

The translation isn't ideal, and there are clearly some philosophical terms in play that don't get clear explanation--I'm coming in on a conversation where I don't know all of the background, where a trial is described in terms of competing goods.

Aside from that, if the translator hasn't left things out, then I think Benedict is very tired. It reads as though sections were written separately, and some connective bits were left out. The reader can figure out what they are, if he makes the effort to understand Benedict.

He tries to remind us of one of those ugly little secrets from '68--the sexual revolution proponents were often very much ok with pedophilia. The collapse of sexual morality was dramatic. It had been in the works for a while, of course, as he mentions. Whether the antinomianism derived from the sexual greed or the other way round, or both developed together, is a point he should have tried to address--it would have tied his essay together better.

He touches on the rise of homosexual cliques which came to dominate some seminaries.

He describes the revolt against absolute truth, and links it to an abandonment of the use of "natural law." He seems to support the claim that a complete moral system can't be based exclusively on the Bible. The Bible doesn't address every single issue in that kind of detail, and a substantial amount of "common sense" is needed to deal with the rest. I admit I haven't considered the matter in that kind of detail, but it's a plausible claim.

He goes on in a long parenthesis to explain how the procedures and structures of church discipline made it difficult to convict/defrock an abuser. I don't know if the translation got in the way, or if I'm missing some important details about procedures here.

One victim of the failure to deal with abuse is the Church, in the sense of the body of the faithful who were scandalized and betrayed. Several news stories are deliberately obtuse about this point.

He wraps up with a call to focus on the Eucharist and not to think of the church as a mere political institution.

Franz Böckle, ... announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal.


Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence. The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated by Böckle and many others shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.


Above all, a criterion for the appointment of new bishops was now their "conciliarity," which of course could be understood to mean rather different things.

Indeed, in many parts of the Church, conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world. One bishop, who had previously been seminary rector, had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith.

There were — not only in the United States of America — individual bishops who rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern "Catholicity" in their dioceses. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.

(*) Mainstream reporting about religion is always at least incomplete, and often completely wrong. It's like they're trying to report on a news story written in Chinese, by looking at the pictures.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Black hole image

Kudos to the team! I'm still reading the papers linked to here, and don't have anything to comment so far. This was a tough analysis.

They had 4 independent teams, blinded to each other's work, using different approaches, so that they could be sure they were doing it right. And, FYI, that ring you see? The light doesn't come straight. Photon paths are strongly bent around the black hole. And light coming from the side of the plasma disk that is headed our way has a huge Doppler boost compared to light from the receding side.

UPDATE: At the journal club today, Halzen said that one of the journalists at the press conference asked why the picture was so blurry. We got a good laugh out of that. If I understand correctly, this is the highest resolution image ever taken.

Information control

Satellites don't carry most of our communications between continents. Submarine cables do.
While people tend think of satellites and cell towers as the heart of the internet, the most vital component is the 380 submerged cables that carry more than 95 percent of all data and voice traffic between the continents. They were built largely by the U.S. and its allies, ensuring that (from a Western perspective, at least) they were “cleanly” installed without built-in espionage capability available to our opponents.


But now the Chinese conglomerate Huawei Technologies, the leading firm working to deliver 5G telephony networks globally, has gone to sea. Under its Huawei Marine Networks component, it is constructing or improving nearly 100 submarine cables around the world.


Naturally, Huawei denies any manipulation of the cable sets it is constructing, even though the U.S. and other nations say it is obligated by Chinese law to hand over network data to the government.

Bearing in mind that satellites are fragile and EMP isn't that hard to arrange (seriously, our infrastructure is horribly fragile!), what happens to communications when the cables work only at someone else's pleasure? Not to mention tapping, since the author already did.

On a related note, my wife is reading a lot about WWII as she writes a book set during the war. We didn't win because we were smarter. We won because a) we were able to read some of our enemies' secret messages and b) we were rich enough to be able to crank out lots of airplanes and tanks and warships. Without those things we wouldn't have gotten close enough to use an atomic bomb. Or been able to develop the better planes and radar-controlled artillery and other goodies. Right now I suspect our adversaries read pretty much all our secret messages (sometimes on the front page), and I'm not sure how fast we could ramp up production of our super-expensive weapons systems.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019


I don't have the skill to do justice to Jesus' Incarnation, nor even to the distant echo of it that is my own.

I'll limit myself to the shoe and the bookcase and hope I can manage those and not ramble too much.

I'm facing three large bookcases--2 of them 6' x 6'. I built them back when money was a lot tighter, and they've made several moves with us. I spent quite a bit of time measuring and drilling freehand, and learning the hard way about decorative brackets (an invention of the devil), and realizing after a few years that I had to bite the bullet and unload and varnish them.

My time and effort went into them, and if my time and effort are part of my life there's something of my life there. Ever since I made them they've been part of the background and tools of my life, and of my children's lives, and of my wife's life (sometimes to her chagrin, for I was far from an expert carpenter). Although it isn't good to be overly attached to things of this world, when we use something it leaves a mark on our lives and we leave a mark on it.

A shoe is almost silly. There's this reflection of my foot sunk into the material. If another one of those accidents at 1st and Washington takes me out, there'll still be this ghost of me in the shoe. It isn't an important thing, but it illustrates.

When our time ends, I suspect we bring into eternity what we put our selves into. Keeping the home clean is an action and not a thing; that comes with us too. My body has some trivial little quirks that don't seem important--the remaining hair keeps growing and needs to be cut now and then. Care for those trivial things is part of my life anyway. So is digging in the garden, an easy job that leaves a useful mark on the world. (but what inertia I have to overcome to do it!) So, I'm afraid, is procrastinating--and an absence of action is a very strange thing to bring into eternity.

The things we do and care for don't last in this world. The board is erased and the next boy steps up to the chalk. But I was put here to invest myself in work and people, for God. One way and another I've done that; put myself into things and people. This seems almost like a kind of incarnation of me in the things around me. I wonder what that will look like from eternity.

Opportunities for fraud

New ballot found in McFarland village president race decided by one vote.
McFarland Village staff found the unopened absentee ballot Monday morning in a bin used to store and transfer absentee ballots in last week's election and subsequent recount, Village Administrator Matthew Schuenke said.

"It was found sealed within an envelope used for absentee voting and it is not open," he said. "The contents are presently unknown, but it does appear to contain a ballot."

No. Just no. There is no clear chain of possession. Absentee ballots in general have that problem and in my not-so-humble judgment should not be widely encouraged. But this is just crazy.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

At the cross

Isaac Watts' hymn "At the cross" is wonderful, but the refrain is marred by a ... um ... a lie? At best it's aspirational, or using the word "happy" in a deeply non-standard way. "At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light, And the burden of my heart rolled away, It was there by faith I received my sight, And now I am happy all the day!"(*)

The music directory's wife has Alzheimers. The pastor's wife has cancer. "Happy" just isn't the right word. It has bothered me as long as I can remember.

We can do better. Even I can do better. "And now you walk beside me every day." "And now joy in Jesus lifts each day." "; Jesus' love sustains me all my way." "And His love sustains me every day." There are lots of variations that don't mar the meaning or the meter, and that's just tweaking one line.

Maybe you've a better replacement--great!

We've seen some demi-competent attempts to make lyrics more inclusive, sometimes OK and frequently clunky. Surely we can get a grass-roots "theological" fix in place. Can I get an Amen?

(*) I wasn't familiar with the Campmeeting refrain. It's OK, but it's kind of passive, and doesn't have the same movement as the Hudson refrain, or the rest of the song.

Friday, April 05, 2019


Sometimes you almost want to cry for the wasted opportunities.

Today was Engineering Expo day for school-kids, and I was helping chaperone. It was too cold for the IceCube T-shirt, so I didn't do a lot of IceCube PR.

The first thing the 6 under our care were curious about was a talk called "Changing the Universe." I will omit the man's name. He was a relatively slow speaker, which was a bad sign, but introduced himself as having worked on the ISS from the inside, and also on the IceCube experiment, which were good signs.

He started by introducing Ptolemy's model using an old illustrated picture that nobody could read, said things about planets going backwards, and then introduced Copernicus using a similarly old drawing and mentioned Kepler's contribution. Then he started explaining the 1/R^2 rule by describing a candle inside a sphere.

By that time 3 of the 6 kids were nodding off. We bundled them out.

Even for adults the lecture would have been slow and unclear. For 5'th graders it was awful. I later explained why the 1/R^2 rule made sense, by talking to them about lawn sprinklers, and getting more or less wet the closer or farther you were from it.

You may ask if I could have done better.


He was using Powerpoint. That supports animations.

OK, show what people observed in the night sky. Animate it. Start with the Sun and Moon, which are nice and simple. People figured out those patterns early on, and it is easy to illustrate those with easy animations of the Moon's position against the "fixed stars." Yes, that requires a bit of animation-fu, but it isn't rocket science. I'm fairly sure there is educational software that does that sort of thing already.

Then show the planets, and how they move against the "fixed stars." That's a little trickier to animate if you want to do it right, but I assume you want to do it right. A little patter to point up "What the heck are those lights in the sky doing?" doesn't have to take very long, and you get to start out with a simple puzzle to try to catch their interest.

Illustrate Ptolemy's model with a clear animated cartoon, not a thousand-year-old illumination. Then remind them of the weird epicycle clunkiness of the model, and show them Copernicus's animated cartoon. It isn't hard to show, with a couple of lines drawn on that cartoon, that a Sun-centered model doesn't need epicycles.

Then, instead of saying that the Milky Way is made of lots of stars, show it. Zoom.

Instead of starting with 1/R^2, start with the question--how far away are these stars--and then talk about how you start with the simplest assumption: the stars are the same brightness (not true, but you have to start somewhere), and then you need a relationship between apparent brightness and distance.

You introduce the 1/R^2 relationship by talking about things from their experience. Parallax you introduce with cartoon illustrations (I've seen plenty of these), instead of the eventual trig problem. If the kids know trig they'll figure the connection out themselves, and if they don't there's no point in it. A cartoon gets the idea across just fine.

That's where we left.

I figure working up the slides to get this far would take several weeks. There's a lot of stuff to get looking right, and PowerPoint presentations always take me forever even without animations.

But afterwards even 5'th graders could walk out understanding how and why our picture of the universe has changed. You'd even have time to point out the shock a non-Earth-centered description was to naive thinking about our position in the Universe.

... Deep breath ...

On the other hand, the kids seemed to enjoy some of the other demonstrations, and making catapults, and directing robots, and making vacuum-formed plastic, and so on. Yours truly thought that making marshmallow towers would be a terribly frustrating exercise, but since you get to eat your failures I suppose it has its attractions. There was even a Candy Crusher, in which a machine used to test the strength and resilience of materials was used on different varieties of candy. "This springs right back after being squeezed, while this never does quite recover..." The reactor wasn't open this time.