Monday, July 06, 2015

An unstained escutcheon

I’m instructed that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, and that being white means being heir to a history of racism, conquest, oppression, cultural appropriation, and microaggression. If, as with Elizabeth Warren, you have a family tradition of a drop or two of the proper ancestry, you’re home free.(*)

Not much wiggle room there, since that is part of the story, and pointing out the rest of the story just makes you sound like "Nya! You're another!"

There’s another solution, proposed 136 years ago:

GENERAL: Why do I sit here? To escape from the pirates' clutches, I described myself as an orphan; and, heaven help me, I am no orphan! I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

FREDERIC: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry.

GENERAL: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

(*) We had such a tradition ourselves until somebody spoiled it by doing a genealogical search. Irish, not Cherokee.

Weird. The embedding video starts at the beginning, rather than the moment (?t=3801) that I quote. The link should work, though.

The child as father of the man

I was a very shy boy, and the other day I noticed that I still tend not to look people in the eye very much. Sometimes not even my children. My Better Half, yes--fortunately. Odd that the habit persist so long.


David Warren is not a democrat, which lets him light up some corners the rest of us sometimes miss. From today's:
It is conventional, for politicians upon winning elections, to declare that they are “humbled” by the experience. There you see a fruit.

No one who felt genuinely humbled would say this. He might show it, quite subtly perhaps, in how he behaved; it does not and cannot go into words, without becoming boastful. I use this example with something approaching warmth, for I have developed an allergy or aversion — a rash of the sort that comes from passing through brambles — when men in public positions make a show of their “humility.” It is invariably pharisaic; it is a warning that one is dealing with profound arrogance, and a vanity that is out of control. He speaks with crowds, but cannot keep his virtue.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Drone attacks

I get the idea of trying to target your strikes to do the most damage and confusion. Fine and dandy. But if you use them in a steady-state "attrition" mode (almost as a standalone tool), the enemy adapts, and you have an updated version of Vietnam body counts. Probably about as valuable. Does anybody in authority have any clear idea of what we're trying to accomplish?

Winter Journey

Colleagues on IceCube circulated the link to these volumes: I only read Winter Journey. Embryology always seemed to me to be a rather quiet field, not like volcanology.
As we rested my mind went back to a dusty, dingy office in Victoria Street some fifteen months ago. "I want you to come," said Wilson to me, and then, "I want to go to Cape Crozier in the winter and work out the embryology of the Emperor penguins, but I'm not saying much about it—it might never come off." Well! this was better than Victoria Street, where the doctors had nearly refused to let me go because I could only see the people across the road as vague blobs walking. Then Bill went and had a talk with Scott about it, and they said I might come if I was prepared to take the additional risk. At that time I would have taken anything.
A little traveling later:
Then came seven shivering hours and first thing on getting out of our sleeping-bags in the morning we stuffed our personal gear into the mouth of the bag before it could freeze: this made a plug which when removed formed a frozen hole for us to push into as a start in the evening.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Litter on the park trails

My Better Half and I hiked part of Devil's Lake and Parfrey's Glen as a belated 35'th anniversary celebration. Part of the path by the lake is asphalt and wheelchair accessible, but after a very short distance there's no chance of getting a wheelchair through.

I wondered if it would make sense to rent a litter so that friends of a wheelchair-bound person could bring them along. You'd need a team of 3, more likely 4, as a minimum, and some way to retrieve people if a carrier sprains something along the way.

Wikipedia says these are used for tourists in the Huangshan Mountains, so there's some precedent--though there the pros carry people. Liability issues would preclude that here.

Some of those steps are pretty steep.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Masons and Liberia and Conspiracies

"Masonic craft must lead new Liberia".
Mr. Urey, who is a strong ally of former President Charles Taylor, indicated that the Free Masons must produce the next president that will build a new Liberian. sic

"We must build a new Liberia because there is a need to improve the Masonic craft and our country," he said.


He also noted that in the 2017 elections, members of the society will get involved to ensure that the right people are elected.

From the comments:

Waeyea R. Gogbeh ·( University of Liberia )
Mr. Urey don't remind Liberians of the TWP (True Whig Party) era when the government was primarily operated from "Up the Hill"! Do you want for citizens, especially children, to again see anyone in a "black car" as a "society man" and start fleeing? I'm sure you also heard that Careysburg was considered as a place not suitable to be stranded after 10:00pm those days because you would definitely disappear!

I think it was AVI who wrote that conspiracy theories are popular because conspiracies are even more popular--though most conspiracies fail.

BTW, a "society man" would have been a "Leopard Society" man, or something similar, who used body parts in ceremonies to ensure wealth or power. How many of these there ever actually were I can't guess, but rumors popped up all the time. Always from somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who saw the remains... Sometimes they made the newspapers. For what that's worth.

I'm fascinated by Urey's priorities, btw: "improve the craft" comes first.

By their fruits

One group tries to help outcasts, and another group deliberately kills them.

David Cline

I learned today that he died not long ago. He hired me after I graduated: my adviser and he were riding in the same elevator and Cline asked if he knew any candidates for a job. I've been at UW ever since.

He was not a good manager. He traveled a great deal and so his sessions for direction were rather short. In 5 minutes one day he gave me no less than 3 absolute number 1 top priority jobs. Little details like "I can't go to that conference because my wife is due then" didn't seem to register. I learned later that the proper thing to do was say "yes" and then find something related and productive to do; he sometimes forgot in between visits. (Not always!)

He was extremely ambitious, and wanted a Nobel more than anything. He was bitterly disappointed when Fermilab elected to continue fixed target work instead of trying to build a collider. His friend Carlo Rubbia shared the Nobel instead of Dave. Thomasso has another anecdote about him. When Fermilab did build a collider he was on CDF, and I was working with Atac's forward tracking chamber for Dave. The noise rates were much higher than expected and the wire crimping tool seems to have silently worn out during construction, so the detector had to be abandoned.

He also wanted to do liquid argon based astronomy; and I spent time on liquid argon time projection studies too. He wasn't happy with all of our conclusions...

I declined to follow him to UCLA--the cost of living would have been way too high. He spent some of his time there working with new accelerator technologies--plasma wake field in particular.

I eavesdropped on a conversation between him and Rubbio at lunch once. It was delightful--two brilliant and innovative people bouncing ideas off each other--most of them no good, but so many that some were...

He was enthusiastic. He often jumped the gun--once he grabbed a slide from an absent grad student's desk and wound up presenting a simulation as though it were actual results. The rule of thumb is a slide per minute: his rate was 10x that fast. And he could spot the critical features of a plot quickly too--much faster than I did. And Bob reminded me today that when Cline was still at Madison he arranged for at least one major conference a year to be held there--kept the place on the map.

He will be missed. Probably has been already--at his age he wasn't very active any more.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Dante and Pharisees

AVI posted a note including the line "Jesus never called anyone out for racism or our other popular sins. He did call people out for self-righteousness"

Dante has space for all the popular sins too, but I'm not sure where he'd stick the self-righteous. Maybe the 8'th with the liars? How would you slot them in? (Niven/Pournelle created a new area for the solipsists, and found space for polluters...)

FWIW my pet detestation is liars. This makes reading the news something of a "near occasion of sin."

I suppose Jesus didn't have to call people out for the usual sins. John the Baptist did that already, and "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."


The book of Proverbs is quite a mix. Some of it sounds like thumbnail analyses of the day's court cases. Some of it seems pretty obvious:
My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them.

If they say, “Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for innocent blood, let’s ambush some harmless soul;


These men lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush only themselves!

Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it.

In fact you wonder in what sort of society that advice would be necessary.

Maybe I haven't been reading enough commentaries, but it only just occurred to me the other day that this is explicitly addressed to "my son." A king isn't likely to join a common bandit gang--he's more likely to join other kings in ganging up on a land that seems worth conquering. OK, so if I treat this as a parable of wider application than just street gangs to whom else does it apply? Somebody with some power (more of us than we like to think, but not all).

Friday, June 26, 2015

High Tide at Gettysburg

by Glen Tucker.

I asked our guide at Gettysburg if The Killer Angels was a good intro. He vehemently rejected it, saying it relied too much on (Longstreet's ? memory glitch memoirs). He recommended this instead. I concur.

Unfortunately my memory for names is a bit on the foggy side, and there were times I wished the names were color-coded so I could tell who was who, but within a couple of paragraphs I had the scene correct anyway.

FWIW Tucker concludes that the biggest contribution to the Confederate loss was Lee's microscopic staff, which left him unable to keep on top of what his subordinates were actually doing. I've heard it said that victory goes to the side that makes the fewest stupid blunders; there were plenty to go around at Gettysburg.


So now we have π=3. Even the Indiana legislature didn't quite manage that. Is there anything our courts can't do?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Is leftover shrimp fermenting somewhere?

Responsible Innovation: "Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present." Something about the phrase "collective stewardship of science" rings wrong. Probably somebody tried to be aphoristic and misfired. But my spider sense says "Pournelle's Iron Law" would have the "workers for the organization" in the driver's seat from the get-go. If only because the scientists and engineers would be more interested in doing real work than in running the meetings--if the folks I know are any guide.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


AVI has a post on how the focus fell on the flag at the state house.

Confederate flags do not inspire me. I don't want one about my house and they're too tied together with defence of slavery for me to honor them anywhere else. Despite having been born in New Orleans, I'm pretty much a Yankee in these matters.

I'm repeatedly told that I do not have standing to decide whether a school name or logo is offensive to local tribes or what they regard as sacred--fair enough. But by symmetry, that suggests that non-Southerners don't have standing to tell Southerners what they mean by the flag symbol. Hmm.

I've been reading a bit about the Civil War off and on the past few years, and it is abundantly clear that most of the Confederate volunteers were not inspired to fight by the defence of slavery. The powers-that-be had their own interests, but the average soldier (who owned no slaves) would more likely be inspired to fight by his understanding of liberty. That's what they often said, and one should consider the testimony of eyewitnesses over that of theory. I strongly suspect that a fear that the "meddling feds" would inspire an indescriminate slave revolt was an additional motive, but there's no reason to doubt that their understanding of liberty at the local level was a huge motivator. "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends..." I gather that quite a few people see Lee's battle flag as a symbol of that attitude. That attitude is well-hated in the centers of power (government, media, etc) if their vitriol is any guide--not surprisingly.

My own take on this is by anology. The swastika is a symbol estimated to be at least 5000 years old, meaning good fortune. But it has been so thoroughly tainted by Nazism that the old meaning is lost--whether the Hindus like it or not.


David Warren wrote a column on design that is worth reading. Thesis: quite a few old-time building (and other) designs were more robustly efficient at managing such things as heating and cooling than the one-size-fits-all with high tech that we often use. He uses air conditioning as an example--traditional home designs in Bangkok were designed to handle hot weather well, but the boxy units that replaced them had no natural ventilation and demanded extra cooling. I think he exaggerates somewhat: I revisited a home where I used to live in Liberia, and found it considerably hotter in my late middle age than I did when a teenager. But the point is real.

Suppose we built homes with high ceilings to handle summer heat. I don't know what it is like where you are, but around here in addition to summer we also get something called winter, and it isn't nice to warm a wad of air and have it waft away above your head. So suppose your rooms had a removable lower ceiling. (Yes, with some ventilation, with one panel carrying the power, etc, etc) In winter you heat the smaller volume and in summer you take advantage of the high ceiling.

Lay out streets so you can build homes that take advantage of prevailing winds. Ours doesn't--the winds tend to blow against the garage rather than the front or back.

Homes aren't designed to be easy to expand (granted there are insulation and roofing issues that make expansion complicated). Not all of us have 2.3 children; how do you take in an ailing parent?

Thursday, June 18, 2015


I've seen a number of images recently of theropods with feathers, often fairly flamboyantly colored.

Somehow or another the creature has to keep feathers clean. Try to imagine a T-Rex preening feathers with that jaw. Even with some extra "beak" there's too much that's unreachable. The forelimbs aren't much use either. What's left?

Rolling in the dust might work if the tail was flexible enough to right himself afterwards, and it would probably have to be (everybody falls down sometime).

The forelimbs might work OK for preening another T-Rex's feathers.

If the T-Rex had significant feather-ation, I suspect he'd have to roll or else groom in groups.

No need to thank me for the mental images...

Yes, I know that T-Rex would be too heavy to roll on feathers, exactly--thrash around would be more like it. And unless you're a pack hunter that herds prey into a trap, flamboyant colors on a predator seem like a recipe for fasting.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Homelessness again

When I was in high school we read Bartleby the Scrivener. I was in an international school--mostly Americans, but all of us were children of working and motivated families. The poor I saw in Liberia were either working, looking, or disabled. I don't know what families did behind the scenes with members who didn't want to work. There were undoubtedly some of them--they show up in stories--because of the rule that if someone has a good job he is obligated to provide for as many of his extended family as would fit. (One firm provided very tiny houses for employees to forestall this.) Even little children have tasks.

With that background, I though Bartleby was written as a kind of abstract thought experiment.

I know better now.

The question of the story--What do we owe a man who does not give?--is too general: Why matters. Cannot (physical/mental breakdown) ≠ Will not ("let him not eat") ≠ moral issues with available tasks

I don't have general answers, of course. I haven't seen "studies" on the subject, but I'm more and more convinced that while congregating the homeless is efficient, it is bad for many of them. I probably don't see those it benefits, but the descriptions of the social environments aren't pretty and I suspect congregation with other homeless helps very few. Congregation certainly forces distance between them and the rest of us.

That, if true as I think it is, leads to a conundrum. If we want to help, we must welcome at most N people, and then be unwelcoming to number N+1. To act lovingly (and protect from predation) we have to act unlovingly.

Even saying "N" homeless is oversimple. Different issues need to be dealt with differently: two addicts might be too many, assuming your team can even work with one.

The matter is one of live interest in Madison, where the "Red Mayor"'s attempt to institute sanity in the use of the City-County building was overridden by the city council.

In randomly perusing books and posts on the web about the poor in England, I get the impression that there was supposedly a change in attitudes toward the poor after the Black Death; where before they had a role in the community with religious approval, afterwards they were often blamed for idleness. This is blamed on economic pressures and laws criminalizing conduct. But looking at some of the details, I doubt the direction of causation. Even before the Black Death people distinguished between the able-bodied and needy poor, and afterward they still took care to be generous to the disabled. What looks different is the mention of migratory workers and beggars. If they were then pretty much the same as they are now (modulo different substances to be addicted to) perhaps the laws were a reaction.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Odd question time.

I've heard of people training dogs, cats, mice, some birds, pigs, goats ... quite a list of creatures that are at least clever enough to come when called.

But I've not heard of anybody domesticating bats.

Luckily the weather has not been kind to mosquitoes so far this year, but there've been years when having a pet bat to take out the flies and mosquitoes would have been welcome. (Yes, I know there are all sorts of regulations about wildlife, but last time I checked US law didn't apply to the rest of the world.) Bat boxes outside, yes. Domestic or even semi-domestic, no. I'm not sure what they'd eat during the winter, come to think of it--but down South that wouldn't be a big issue.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Chardin's Omega Point and its poor relation The Singularity both predict a super-human future which naturally evolves. The Omega Point is pull-organized (the Omega Point pulls evolution to itself), and the Singularity evolves in a self-organizing fashion. This strikes me as like a building reaching up to heaven--not a physical thing but an intellectual/mathematical/programmed construct that grows of itself to infinite scope.

But as my office-mate mentioned about the Singularity, Godel plays a role.

A finite self-organizing system isn't going to be complete. Anything physical in our universe is going to be finite in construction and finite in the number of operations it can perform. Any finite mathematical construct which is trying to show new things can't be complete; there will be propositions within the system, really true or really false, which cannot be proven true or false from within the system. You can add more propositions, and create a larger construct, and face the same problem again. And again. But because time is also finite, the number of new propositions it can add is finite. The system will always be finite, and incomplete.

Notice something odd here. The best possible system organized in this universe, whether Omega or Singularity, is incomplete, which means that something exists which does not exist within that system. This means there are different kinds of existence, one of which--existence as an instance--can be found in our Omega/Singularity at the end of the universe (the highest form of whatever-it-is) and another of which need not.

A bottom-up tower isn't going to reach completeness.