Sunday, February 23, 2020


Althouse has a post up on the "subject." I don't know if this approach is strictly relevant, but in case you aren't familiar with the story...

Laura Fermi wrote:

Leo Szilard stayed several years with the phage group between two periods of intense political activity. Before revealing his interest in the phage, Szilard had visited Luria's laboratory at the University of Indiana. 'Doctor Szilard, I don't know how much to explain,' said Luria, embarrassed by the presence of the great nuclear physicist. 'I don't know what to assume ...' 'You may assume,' Szilard replied promptly, 'infinite ignorance and unlimited intelligence.'


A slogan has to be pithy. Quite a few have a bit of Motte and bailey to go along, and once that hook is set, the rest of attitude should come along.

I posted a piece on deniability a while back, looking at "Black Lives Matter "as much as anyone else's""(*) and "We should have picked out own cotton "instead of bringing in slaves"" as examples. They seem undeniable statements (at least to a modern American), but the subtexts that come along with them, and the political attitudes that come with the subtexts, are other things entirely.

Another slogan came to mind recently: "God is still speaking." This means something within a Christian context--it isn't aimed at other religions. It seems straightforward enough--God is still calling, still disclosing to each individual what others may have already heard. It isn't simple to deny this.

The subtext is "God is revealing new things to us." That's a lot more controversial. Some with inadequate knowledge of history will argue that "Christianity used to approve of slavery; now it doesn't--see, God has revealed something new!" And it is true that the Western churches (not excluding Catholics--remember the filioque!) have indulged in some innovations.

But if you go along with that, the attitude that comes with it is (at least today): "The voice of fashion is the voice of God." I'm sorry if that seems unkind, but the way I've seen people "evolve" does not at all suggest careful thought or Divine revelation. On the contrary; oversimplifications and straw men abound, and herds rather than pilgrims.

Another (used to veto adding "and God" to a phrase about "Christ our Savior"!) is "Unity, not uniformity." That seems nice enough--so long as you're talking about non-essentials. The subtext is "Your concerns are inconsequential."

The unasked question is "In what sphere is this unity to be? If we're not just a social club, who are we worshiping?"

From the more conservative side, I can't think of many such slogans--some name-calling, but not slogans. I'm probably forgetting something.

Of course there are the aspirational slogans "Each one win one" or "Fifty-four forty or fight," where there's not a lot of hidden subtext ("Learn to evangelize!" or "We want that land!").

How about "No king but Jesus!" from the Revolutionary War? Some of that was from people who were serious about not wanting kings (1 Samuel 8). Maybe part of the support from that came from people whose religion might be forbidden if the king revoked their charter. But I'd bet a lot came from people who wanted to sound holier than they were.

(*) I haven't heard much from BLM in our area recently--possibly because the local organization wound up headed by intersectional types, who probably aren't quite as popular with the rank and file.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

For all your werewolf-defense needs

Silver bullets.

If you want to take up a career as a Lone Ranger you need these. And a loyal sidekick, though those aren't available through this vendor.

Sighting-in might be a little pricey, though if you just use them as calling cards you probably wouldn't have to fire any.

No, I'm not on their mailing list--this link was circulating

Friday, February 21, 2020


How particle physics could prevent financial fraud
Most transactions, or collisions, show no anomalies. But when they do, this may lead to new ground-breaking insights for both economists and physicists.

>Hence this new collaboration plans to combat fluctuations in markets caused by anomalies, by combining the unique commodity and financial market data and understanding from CORMEC and WUR with CERN’s ROOT data analysis expertise and techniques.

Forgive me for snickering.

The story isn't about any breakthrough--just the announcement of a research partnership. Maybe they'll come up with something useful, but I'd bet on more false positives than detections of nefarious activity. (How do you detect insider trading?)

ROOT is a kitchen-sink tool. It allows you to structure and manipulate your data, manage I/O, and provides huge number of tools for fitting, analysis, plotting, and various other goodies as well. About a decade ago they did a static analysis of the code and found all sorts of problems that I hope they've fixed. If you restricted yourself to the high level routines you were pretty much OK, but if you had something more complex (e.g. an event display, or low level I/O), it was an uphill climb to migrate to new versions of ROOT. Been there, done that.

For "finding anomalies," though, it is far from the only framework available--and the critical bit isn't the building blocks but the structure you build with it.

I used parts of ROOT in building a data acquisition system--I needed to fit for the center of a laser beam. I used different parts of it to create a tool for studying data provided in text format--a fancier version of TOPDRAWER. (All the cool kids are using jupyter these days, but there's a lot of overhead getting it started. I like lightweight and quick.) Some of the analyses were physics, some were sysadmin stuff (which systems are causing grief when), and I used it for looking at baseball statistics too.

More interesting would be a story about who was teaming up with the econ people, and which directions they were going to take--boosted decision tree, maybe?

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A British reporter in the South during the Civil War

From My Diary North and South
We visited an old negro, called "Boatswain," who lives with his old wife in a wooden hut close by the margin of the Mississippi. His business is to go to Donaldsonville for letters, or meat, or ice for the house--a tough row for the withered old man. He is an African born, and he just remembers being carried on board ship and taken to some big city before he came upon the plantation.

"Do you remember nothing of the country you came from, Boatswain?" "Yes, sir. Jist remember trees and sweet things my mother gave me, and much hot sand I put my feet in, and big leaves that we play with -- all us little children -- plenty to eat, and big birds and shells." "Would you like to go back, Boatswain?" "What for, sir? no one know old Boatswain there. My old missus Sally inside." "Are you quite happy, Boatswain?" "I'm getting very old, massa. Massa Burnside very good to Boatswain, but who care for such a dam old nigger? Golla Mighty gave me fourteen children, but he took them all away again from Sally and me. No budy care much for dam old nigger like me."

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Helmets old and new

Shock wave effects on the brain are getting more attention these past few years, which may be why some Duke University researchers thought to compare WW-I helmets with a modern one.

The details (and more graphs and pictures) are here.

Executive summary: they tested the "shell burst above the head" (as would have happened a bit more frequently for trench tenants) using a shock wave generator (pressurized helium bursting a membrane) and measured pressures in various places in the dummy's "head." The best was an old French helmet with a metal ridge down the middle, showing slightly lower pressures than even the modern Advanced Combat Helmet.

Ah, but. The differences weren't huge (they didn't plot error bars, but the scatter of points is telling), the configuration was very specific (they didn't look at shocks from the side, as you'd get with IEDs), and the bottom line was that anything was far better than nothing. The plot below is the most dramatic result--other sensor positions seem less so.

Evildoers and art

Over at First Things, Peter Hitchens has an essay about "Evildoers and their art." He cites Polanski and an artist I'd never heard of: Gill. It's worth a read.

Things aren't perfectly cut and dried here. On the one extreme, would you go to, much less pay to see, an exhibition of Hitler's paintings? And if he were still alive and benefiting from the show--no way. On the other hand, we're all sinners--do you want to avoid all human art?

I'm told Renaissance painter's models were usually prostitutes with whom the painters were familiar. If you told me they were abused I'd not be greatly astonished. From another discipline, Francois Villon was plausibly charged with murder. Ancient misdemeanors don't bother us much, though. Maybe "but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead" governs.

More recent ne'er do wells--maybe not so much.

I was never a huge Marion Zimmer Bradley fan (I know, there's no accounting for taste), but someone who had been said that after the abuse revelations, certain details in Bradley's fiction now read completely differently, and she could no longer enjoy the work. I can think of one or two authors whose work reads more like self-justification now that I know more about them. (Maybe I should avoid learning about the authors?)

The more the artist's offense is part of his work, the easier you find it to avoid for cause. But in Hitchens' essay above, one of the things the daughter-molesting Gill made was typefonts--which are about as abstract an art form as they come. Contrast with Bradley, for example.

Another factor in approaching an artist's work is to what extent you want to immerse yourself in it. There are a number of fine paintings and sculptures in the art museum that my wife and I can appreciate together, but which she would strenuously object to in our living room. Once in a while is fine, but a diet of such things?

I had trouble getting exercised about Weinstein. He's clearly a creep, abusing his ability to make or ruin careers, and if he ends up paying his fortune out in reparations, I will not be shedding any tears. But who didn't know this kind of extortion was the rule in Hollywood?

Maybe one thing that keeps me from anger is distance. This involves nobody I know, and the odds are excellent that I haven't seen any of his movies. It's a similar kind of distance to that I have to Villon.

If I were induced to be angry about every injustice--if everything were present and there was no distance in my life--aside from being miserable I'd be spread too thin and useless. And easily manipulated.

And when it comes to vile artists (or vile scientists, or vile presidents) I'm going to have to make judgment calls on the fly, without benefit of a clear framework. That's apt to bias decisions in favor of what I happen to like and what doesn't gore my oxen. But notice that the "purists" are every bit as selective in who they accuse--I don't think professing an absolute rule is going to preserve me from potential bias.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Face masks

I am informed that ordinary face masks are of little use against the coronavirus. The pores are too large; the masks too leaky, and they do not stand off from the nose and mouth enough.

Nevertheless, I see some potential value in them.

They remind you not to touch your face.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Brothers 4

A couple of days ago a song I remembered from long ago opened a radio ad for a concert by The Brothers Four (today, BTW). They can't still be around, can they?

The group has had various members, but Bob Flick still seems to be playing--after 61 years!


Is it the same group?

If they sing the same songs in the same ways, with the same sound, I suppose they are the same--in a kind of utilitarian way. They have the legal imprimatur, which a tribute group that sounded the same wouldn't, but it is circular to rely on legal details to decide the question.

But... if you define the group in terms of what they do, the same people experimenting with new genres would be a different group. That seems silly.

If musicians are interchangeable, replacing one with another might mean the group remains the same. It isn't like a marriage. However, the musicians I've known don't think of themselves as interchangeable. And what do you get if the group disbands, and then reforms into two, both claiming the same name (as happens)?

I don't want to go all Heraclitus with this, but after so long it seemed a reasonable question.

I liked them then; probably still would. I'm listening to Manon at home.

FWIW: I liked the Kingston Trio too. "The Kingston Trio continues to tour as of 2020 with musicians who licensed the name and trademark in 2017."

Click bait

What it's like to be Democrat in Trump Country ... Apparently there aren't a lot of problems living in Fulton, except that your candidates didn't win. The article suggests that "many Fulton County residents traditionally registered as Democrats to gain and keep state jobs." One interviewee suspects he lost his job because of politics, but no evidence is proffered.

I know something about living in a strongly leftist area; I was curious if the mirror image was similar. Who knows? Not I, after reading the article.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Crannog detail

I watched a Time Team episode in which they "excavate" a crannog.

That's a small artificial island, close to shore, with typically a securable "causeway." Larger ones might be for several families, but most were smaller. Wood and stones and packed earth could make a fairly solid place to live.

Life on a small island could be convenient if you and your neighbors traveled by boat a lot. Drinking water is right there. Food you can grow on land and store, or fish for. Wood--presumably the forests were more extensive then.

Storms would be a lot more troublesome than on land, though.

And sewage--oops. Unless there's a good current to move stuff away from your home, you have a problem. Wind-driven currents might help save your health, provided you remembered to dump waste downstream.

I wonder what the currents are like around the craggnogs? I'd guess the builders were smart enough to take note of that detail, but I'd also guess that if current patterns changed they'd not abandon all that effort until it got a reputation as an unlucky home. Or until the extra security of life on the lake didn't matter so much.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

DAMA explanation?

You may have heard of the DAMA dark matter search experiment. In the Grand Sasso lab they put 100kg of extremely pure scintillator, and looked for annual variations in the rate of signals.

The basic idea is: assume the dark matter in the galaxy is more or less like a fog that the orbiting stars sweep through. We know the direction our Sun is going, and we know the Earth's orbit. At one point in the orbit we're heading in the same direction as the Sun's motion, and at the opposite point we're heading away. Dark matter particles scattering off nuclei when we're going faster should involve a bigger kick than those when we're going slower--and that bigger kick should appear as more light. (Of course, if the dark matter is orbiting the galactic center at about the same speed as the Sun, you won't see much energy from the collisions--but you might still see a little variation.)

So, if on the average they see more light (energy deposited) at the times of the year when the Earth is moving faster wrt the galactic center, that might be evidence for dark matter.

They claim to see that. They've been more than a little reluctant to show their raw data, though, and the backgrounds must be huge (cosmic rays, radioactivity in the rock, residual impurities, etc).

The plots look great though. The problem is that they suggest interaction rates so high that other experiments should be able to see it too--and they don't.

There's an interesting paper from INFN (Buttazzo et al) that suggests that the annual variation (this story has some nice explanatory plots) is an artifact of the way they analyze their data. The background rate is too high to see anything clearly, so they average the background year by year, subtract that from the data on a every-few-months binning, and accumulate those residuals for a bunch of different years.

That seems OK, but what happens if the background rate grows with time? (e.g. impurities on the surface of the crystals migrate into the bulk volume, or helium migrating into the phototubes causing more after-pulsing)

Answer: you get residuals that look like a sawtooth: negative at the start of the reference period and positive at the end. If you use the DAMA start and end points and fit with a sinusoid, you get a peak at about the same place DAMA does.

Since we've never seen their raw data, or their analysis chain in any detail, we've no idea whether their background rate does grow over time.

There should be a simple check that lets them keep their data secret--use different start and end reference months, or accumulate over 2 years instead of 1 (you'll get worse statistics that way, but the sawtooth would then have a period of 2 years instead of 1. If the sinusoid remained with a period of 1 year and the same peak, even if it looked muddier than it does now, they might have something. If it had a 2-year variation (in the second case) or the peak appeared in a different month (for the first cross-check), they have zip.

I look forward to hearing what DAMA has to say.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Military hardware

Years ago I had it carefully explained to me that the most important things about military hardware were not superior quality or efficiency, but reliability, ruggedness, and ease of repair in the field. You wouldn't repair the jet's engine, but yank it and stuff a new one in to get the thing back in the air quickly. The sine qua non--can you use it for its job? If not, you don't really have it. By that rule our navy is quite a bit smaller than we say it is.

Cheaper things than jets--jeeps, guns, radios--were supposed to be easy to get back in working order while in the field.

I was never in the military, much less in combat, but the priority makes sense to me--even when you have to pay a premium for the product as a result.

It seems that principle is no longer a priority: "Increasingly, Captain Ekman argues, the Department of Defense is signing procurement contracts for equipment from generators to trucks to MRAPs that not only cover the purchase of the vehicle but strict maintenance regimens as well. These contracts often place restrictions on the maintenance of the equipment, requiring manufacturer-affiliated contractors to perform maintenance and repair instead of enlisted Soldiers."

Apparently we have no "right to repair" important chunks of gear. I'm trying to imagine the "return-to-factory." Or will Oshkosh field its own armed repair teams? I remember some sci-fi positing that corporations would field their own armies. This wasn't the way they described it.

Probably rules about repairs and warranties get waived in combat zones. But in the meantime our mechanics have no experience on the equipment. They'd be learning on the fly.

If the Pentagon decides to change course and force a "right to repair" in the contracts, maybe some of the rest of us can get it too--a lot of farmers are unhappy with John Deere.


I've heard the Iowa debacle blamed on the incompetence of the app writers, and of whoever failed to test the system, and of whoever chose this team (selected for party loyalty, perhaps?). I've heard it blamed on malfeasance of Party Members trying to cover up their favorites' poor showings.

New Hampshire is now voting, and will be effectively voting first in the nation--as they used to have the honor of doing. We wonders, aye, we wonders.

Saturday, February 08, 2020


Who remembers Mad Mike? The former mercenary died Sunday at the age of 100, in a "care facility" in South Africa. He'd been released from prison by amnesty in 1985

I have to admit I knew little of him beyond the bizarre Seychelles fiasco, but the Congo story of the Wild Geese is worth reading. The full story puts him and his men's crimes in better perspective. Read it.

He hated communism. I wonder whether he expressed his opinions much about the new South Africa. He was in France researching books on (e.g.) the Cathars for about 20 years up to 2009, so he wasn't around for a lot of the transition. He was about 90 when he came back home--and maybe not as fiery as he used to be.

“The mystique is unexplainable — the mystique about soldiering with strong men,” he told The Post in 1978. “It’s something more than just soldiering for money. The moment of truth comes at 3 a.m. in a hole. Your buddy’s been killed or wounded, and no money can compensate . . . But there’s an indescribable exhilaration being part of a well-disciplined unit that holds its position.”

I'm not sure the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers was exactly "well-disciplined," though.

Attention to detail

Thousands of little engineering details sit just behind the facades of our gear. You don't notice them unless they're missing.

When you heat a cup of water or re-heat the coffee, you punch the button for 1 minute or 30 seconds. Did you notice that despite the rotation of the turntable while the microwave runs, the handle of the cup is pretty much in the same position as when you put it in?

There's a ten second rotation period on the turntables I've checked. A nice little detail--my thanks to whoever figured that one out.