Thursday, December 18, 2014


We’re still going through his boxes of papers and tools and memorabilia. I found his notes for his first book, which was never completed. It is just as well--Blame it on Venus would have been a Velikovskian tract. I read over his page complaining about the foolishness of astronomers who claimed to have seen silicate dust around one star. I could have taken him to the physics museum and showed him emission spectra and explained absorption spectra, and I think he’d have gotten the picture—he used to look at electron scattering spectra to identify minerals. Never happened, though.

He praised Velikovsky a time or two to me, and I complained about orbital dynamics. I guess he decided I was one of the lock-step establishment and didn't want to waste time arguing.

As I filed the papers in a box, I wondered if my own efforts were just as ridiculous. I devised a preon model that didn’t work, though the symmetries were unexpected. A BFI approach to studying those symmetries ran aground on tensor transformations that I couldn’t solve. I played around with generalized lines in metric space—which is probably a special case of a much more general approach that I don’t know anything about. I tried to get limits on dark matter interactions with neutrinos, and they’re terribly loose—work from a half dozen other groups is orders of magnitude better. No breakthroughs here.

Oh well. Do what is in front of me faithfully...

He didn’t finish his second book either, but I think we can make it happen anyway.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Unsung heroes of faith

John Horden is in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church, as I found from Mission St. Clare's site. He was initially a missionary to Moose Factory, and from then on to preach to the Cree and translate the Bible and Book of Common Prayer into Cree and Ojibwe.
On May 10, 1851, Hordern received a letter from them, informing him that the Bishop of Rupert's Land had made a request for a schoolmaster at Moose Factory, Ontario and that he had been appointed to fill the position. They also told him to prepare to leave within a month and indicated that they desired that he marry and take his wife out to assist him in his missionary work. Although he was less than enthused about the appointment, he immediately prepared for his new position. He contacted the woman of his choice, a young woman who herself had missionary inclinations, and she agreed to marry him. On June 8, 1851, they set sail for Canada.


Then in 1865, Horden and his family, which now included five children that he and his wife had had in Canada, sailed back to England so that his children could be educated.

Yes, he was an obedient servant of the gospel. But I'm really impressed by the faith and dedication of someone not named in the article--his wife Elizabeth Oke mentioned but not described here.

"Hello. I'm going next month to be a missionary in the wilds of Canada. Want to get married and come along?"

OK, it wasn't quite like that. From a history

On May 24, Horden left his work at school ; on May 25, he was married ; on May 28, he left for London on the way to his post in the mission-field.

Horden had not to choose a wife with the haste which this statement might suggest. At the time
when he first offered himself to the Church Missionary Society he became engaged to Miss Elizabeth Oke, who was not only a member of the same congregation as himself, but was filled with the same desire to be a missionary. She, too, had prepared for the foreign field by working at home. When the call to Moosonee came, the decision rested with her. With out hesitation she resolved to go, and the hasty wedding began a married life of singular happiness and of long duration.

I'll be interested to hear her story.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Diet and health

Atherosclerosis seems to have been just as common (after accounting for age) in ancient Egypt as in modern Egypt. (HT to Archaeoblog) Lifestyles may be different (though I wonder if the expense of mummification would skew the distribution to the richer folks)--but certainly Osti wasn't leading a life of ease and he was getting calcification too. So maybe "lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet, and smoking" really don't matter as much as choosing your ancestors correctly after all.

"Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside." Mark Twain

Looks longingly at the bread and wishes that heart disease were the only worry. . .

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Behind the decline

I indulged in the usual kvetching about songs (at greater length here, with some rare comments by my Better Half).

But it's a good exercise to see where maybe I'm contributing to the problem.

I don't sing them myself. That follows immediately from the broader statement that I don't sing much at all, except in church or on the way, or sometimes during long distance driving. Nor do many people I know. In fact we have a rule: "no singing at the table." At this late date I don't remember why we instituted it, but it probably had to do with one or two dominating the table with irrelevancies.

Instead I generally listen to other people sing. Now though the tune does sometimes slosh out of the bucket when I hit the achievable note rather than the one the composer had in mind, I have a good time sense and keep the rhythm OK (can't manage the chorus of Grazing in the Grass, though). True, Youngest Daughter winces audibly.

I notice that if I pick a song to sing, I don't get bored with it and demand new variations. I may play with it a bit, but most of the time I sing it straight without irritability. Hearing the same Rudolph 4 times in a day became wearing, but singing Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel 3 times was fine. OK, that's not a fair comparison: marshmallows and steak; but that's the freshest example in my mind. I seem to recall the same effect with standard carols in past years, though.

Is singing in public too intimate? (Whistling might be more acceptable, but I only have about 3 notes and they aren't consecutive.) Perhaps we're too crowded for it not to be invasive, though given how many people have their ears plugged perhaps we're more isolated than we appear.

Cleaning up

The apartment was his junk drawer.

He’d been through the Great Depression, and done all the usual things—hauled bottle caps for trade-in for metal value, fished for the family dinner, and on and on. He decided to try to live off as little as he could. Every year of the past dozen he gardened in a city plot, and canned the results. He hunted up remainder bargains, and canned or froze those. He had a freezer set to max in his apartment, and it was chock full of mostly unidentifiable plastic bags of food. (The only way to figure out what something is is to thaw it, and then you’re stuck with it. I used a rod and mallet to knock packages loose from the bed of frost.) Between the 600 odd cans of food he’d made and the contents of the freezers, he could have fed himself for a year given only water and electricity to run the freezer and his hot plate. Yes, he told other people he was expecting the food supply to collapse. He was generous with his produce, encouraging one neighbor with ankle pain to eat lots of pickled jalapenos to mitigate the pain (she liked jalapenos and thought he was funny), and handing out jars of other confections freely.

Some of the dates on the jars are from 2006, but mostly the things are fairly current, so I think he was eating his own preparations all these years. We’d never visited his apartment before, because he told us his enemies were watching him and he wanted to keep us safe.

We ate his cooking once at his sister’s home when she was out. I suppose it had nutrition. Even my weirdest bachelor culinary experiments tasted better. His version was kin to the Asterix the Legionary “legionary’s rations”: “Corn, cheese, and bacon, all cooked together to save time.”

He didn’t have enough shelving for the store-canned goods he bought, so he created a narrow shelving unit tied to the wall by picture hangers. The 7x3 unit used nails to hold the bottom together, but he wasted no nails in the rest—it was held together by the weight of the canned goods. When we disconnected it from the wall the shelves fell like dominoes. Jars held up shelves which held up other shelves. Ceiling tiles nailed to the walls became cork-boards, and in lieu of a queen-size mattress he used a twin mattress and strips of foam wrapped in a blanket. When we entered to begin the cleanup, there was a 1-foot wide path to the bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen. Part of the bath stall was set up with plant lights for seed starting.

He was one of the quartermasters on the Finback, and was brilliant at squirreling away bits and pieces of things in original places and creating ways to house more. That carried over into civilian life (at least when I knew him), and his van and apartment were wondrous things. He bought gear he’d never use, but could trade for things he could use if things went south. But as he got older I think he started to lose track of what he’d hidden where.

He always laid down rolls of paper to protect the carpet or counter from his superstructures, and when these were removed the original surfaces were generally immaculate.

I found a children’s guide to a museum screwed up inside an otherwise empty spice jar. I suspect it was meant for a hide-and-seek game that never happened—he had just the offbeat sense of humor for that. He kept that sense of humor to the end.

Next to his Bible was his “second Bible”—the CRC handbook, worn to a frazzle.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Prospero trilogy by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The thesis of the trilogy (Prospero Lost, Prospero in Hell, Prospero Regained) is that Shakespeare’s Prospero from The Tempest was a real person, as was his daughter Miranda (the narrator) and other children Shakespeare didn’t know about. If there are in fact spirits of the air (and presumably other elements), what keeps them from making mischief? Prospero, Inc.

The title of the second volume gives away what has become of him, but Miranda isn’t sure of much of anything along the way. The environment is a blend of Greek mythology, Norse mythology, English legends, Christianity, and logical conclusions drawn therefrom, together with a dose of Dante and Niven/Pournelle. The history of who was moving behind the scenes over the centuries is fun. The plot and twists move rapidly.

It is a fun read, though I wasn’t so fond of the battles in Hell; and there were some inconsistencies in how the living manage there and how much the demons know. But all in all, fun.

The framework reminds me very strongly of John C Wright’s Chronicles of Chaos and War of the Dreaming series—almost as though they discussed ideas over the dinner table. Which they probably do.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Christmas songs

This is the time of year for kvetching about Christmas songs. In our errands today we heard a lot of songs--not so many of them carols, but a couple. Most were pretty heavy on the nostalgia, as in AVI's post about NPR Christmas. Some of the songs feel attenuated--a nostalgia for the old nostalgia for a time somebody used to know.

When the carols play, I'm reminded of:

They come to you as people come, and sit before you as My people and hear your words, but they do not do them, for they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain. Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them.

Variants of autism

Some researchers are using genetic analysis to find out what the different kinds of autism come from. That there are different kinds seems almost obvious if you hang around with a number of them (e.g. the AUsome Social Group, though you could argue that the main effect is from one broken gene and the variations come from other broken genes. (Simplifying a bit) But their work suggests that there are different mutations, each of which can cause symptoms in the autism spectrum.

I hope the work pans out.

Corporate Conspiracies

It isn't a for-profit corporation, but ... draw your own conclusions about who is gaming science for political ends. The link has a copy of a plan in which "peer reviewed papers" are planned for highest impact, including an ideal author list count, before the paper even exists, much less has been "peer reviewed."

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


My wife's father died this afternoon, listening to his youngest grand-daughter read the 23'rd Psalm while the hospice nurse made him comfortable. My wife and her cousin were called back in time to be with him.

He'd served as quartermaster on a submarine in World War II, sailed on the Great Lakes, been a wrestler in school, learned electron microscopy back in the day and worked as a geologist. And he ran a ceramics business, worked as maintenance everything for a youth campground, and gardened and canned at every opportunity. He turned his attitudes around after becoming a Christian, and the "scrimp and save" approach to life he learned from the Great Depression became a means to maximize what he could give.

He could be a little suspicious and a little Aspergery, but his neighbors said he was a sweet old guy.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Not ready for diagnostic prime time, but interesting.

Is autism diagnosable by fMRI? According to the headline, maybe...but there were 34 (17+17) participants, all adult, all willing to get inside a fMRI machine and be scanned while listening to various words: notably the word "hug".
Whereas the control subjects showed activity in the part of the brain associated with self-representation, the subjects with autism did not. This means that the autistic individuals envisioned the words and actions being told to them (actually they read the words on a screen) without themselves as a participant in defining the scenario, while the control group saw themselves being hugged, complimented, kicked, and insulted when thinking about these concepts.

The article itself is on PLOS.

That there are only 17 neurotypical participants means there is no good estimate for the number of false positives, since autism shows up at the 1% level. And quite a few participants had to be removed from the study:

The data from the 25 excluded participants (12 with autism and 13 controls) had been affected by either excessive (above 3.5 mm) head motion (6 with autism and 3 controls) or lack of attention to the stimulus in a substantial number of trials (6 with autism and 10 controls). Participants in such studies comment that occasionally their mind wanders when processing some items, and we have previously found such inattention to be characterized by an abnormal occipital activation time course.

The effect is certainly dramatic, and it may be real, but this needs a lot more study before we can talk about "diagnosis", especially diagnosis of children young enough that intervention might help. Can you imagine a 2-year old inside a noisy machine lying quietly and listening to Mommy say "hug!"?

The data they are dealing with is somewhat fuzzy, so they use what we call a "neural net" to try to analyze the results. It works something like this: for a given event (a particular patient i, for example), you have several different measurements on channels A, B, C: values A_i, B_i, C_i. If you know in advance that the first 10 events are from bald Martians and the rest are from hairy Venusians, and if you "notice" that in the first 10 cases A_i=B_i but in the rest of them A_i=-B_i, you can generate a "bald Martian" formula (A_i+B_i). When this is 0 you probably have a hairy Venusian, otherwise you have a bald Martian.

The "noticing" is the secret to making the process work. You can use algorithms to combine the data with weights based on the a priori known type of the event, and after a few iterations get a formula (generally linear in the variables) that gives you a kind of probability that a event is one type or the other. There's typically a spectrum, but everybody hopes there will be a nice sharp peak at 1 or 0.

With enough variables you can easily "over train", and the usual procedure is to train on either simulations (risky) or part of the dataset, and then apply the formula to the rest of the data. The experimenters here did something like the latter. If I read the article correctly, they did 34 different neural net training exercises, each time omitting one event and then trying out the resulting formula on the omitted event. They got accurate predictions 33 times out of 34--which is quite good.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Related but not the same

Next to a car dealership on East Washington Avenue sits an enterprise whose sign sports scissors and the name "Lust BeautyWorks".

Am I alone in thinking this a trifle muddled?

There seem to be at least three attributes that get confused: sexy, attractive, beautiful. A few minutes thought should bring to mind women who are clearly more of one of the three but not so much of the other two. (I'm a man. Women can probably find men that fit similar categories, but I won't try to predict how that would work out.)

"What does he see in her?"

You know what I mean, I hope. A woman who doesn't seem to be particularly beautiful but people like to be around her--she's attractive. Another seems to radiate sex appeal, but seems unable to hold onto conquests reliably. And there's glamorous types who excite admiration and envy but aren't the first choice for dreams.

I'm thinking here of public attributes. Plenty of women and men who don't stop traffic are more than adequately sexy behind closed doors. If not there'd be many fewer children born. And the old husband who says his old wife is beautiful isn't kidding--he sees better than the simpleminded public eye does.

Maybe magazine covers(*) make it clearer. (Since Borders closed I don't see magazine stands so often, so I'm not up to date.) Playboy's covers, at least the ones I remember, featured beautiful women with an air of "You're here. Dinner can wait." The beauty was from a rather restricted palette, but was always beauty. It was always on the far side of the line, into erotica, but with enough plausible deniability that you could, for a moment, kid yourself that it was mostly about beauty. Other mags posed their models in postures designed to emphasize secondary sexual characteristics, regardless of whether this was a beautiful pose or not. Sex appeal was the goal, though it sometimes looked too silly to be appealing. But when Jackie Kennedy was on a cover, she was always made to look glamorous: beautiful but not sexy, and not very approachable either--except when the image made her seem helpless and in need of a defender.

If that's not clear, how about Ginger or Mary Ann? Mary Ann was played to appear approachable and attractive, not just beautiful; Ginger played to appear beautiful and slightly artificial, and not approachable and attractive. (And beside me is a Dominican University alumni magazine featuring an airbrushed young nurse with an attractive friendly smile.)

If you are young and healthy it is probably easier to take shortcuts with clothing and styles to appear sexy than it is to try to look beautiful. Teens in particular seem prone to taking these shortcuts. (Compare high school pictures today with those from 80 years ago.) But I suspect that the women who frequent Lust BeautyWorks would prefer to excite admiration for their beauty rather than lust, at least from the general population. Though I could be wrong again.

(*) "magazine covers" = superficiality squared

Showing my age

The pharmacy changed its hours last month. I couldn't remember whether it opened at 8:30 or 9:00, so I looked up its web page and was gratified that 8:30 fit my errand schedule so well.

When it finally opened at 9:00, I inquired about the web pages and was told that they still did not have control over those pages, but were trying to get them changed. "But our Facebook and Yelp pages are correct!" I told her I was "old school," the kind who looked for the business' web pages.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The attention track

An inescapable celebrity(*) apparently tried to "break the internet" recently by posting pictures of herself. The cropped thumbnails are ubiquitous. I understand this is not the first time bare buttocks have appeared on the net; that in fact the competition for attention is fairly intense in that genre. This approach seems a kind of dead end attempt for attention (what do you do for an encore? Get photographed having sex on the Capitol steps?). I suppose with a creative-enough team of consultants you can go on for several years Gaga-style wearing a chain mail veil this week and a feather duster up the rump the next.

It smells like desperation. The next step, IIRC, is either to go to Africa and adopt a child or else go the sex-tape/rehab–stay route.

Is this scripted, or should her family put her on suicide watch?

(*) I still don’t have a good handle on why she or her kin are famous. Bread and circuses? Circuses being an endless parade of lunatic celebrities and movies and empty scandals and twits and cat videos... And bloggers, I suppose—mea culpa.

Friday, November 28, 2014

LED bulbs and unintended consequences

Part 1. When our camera decided to take time off during our vacation north a few years ago I bought a Fuji JZ100.

Part 2. We replaced the rather inadequate lights in the living room with track lighting. The regular bulbs burned out so fast that I decided to invest in LED bulbs instead. With my rock solid or rocky memory skills I wound up mixing both warm and cool light bulbs in the replacements. Of three bulbs in a row, the ones on the end are more yellow and the one in the middle is bluish (which I think is the one called "Natural daylight").

Part 3. Our "international student" guests wanted some pictures from our Thanksgiving dinner. I offered to use our camera; set it on a tripod and pushed the button.

The images were washed out in blue glare. Repeatedly, even with the flash going. Nothing worked until we turned out all the LED lights in the living room and used the flash.

I surmise that the Fuji uses one particular frequency to adjust its exposure setting and that the LED bulb's collection of frequencies omits that one. Result: the room is estimated to be much darker than it really is, the automated exposure is therefore too long, and everything gets washed out.

Maybe I was taking a nap when the memo about LED bulbs went around, but just in case it isn't widely known--watch out when taking pictures under LED lights.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Guess what this means

From the sys-ops chat this morning:
Joseph_Schlitz_rc1 has become a Jedi release that has killed sndaq Beer_Trooper ... The force is so strong that there is not even data showing up at 2ndbuild at all unfortunately that seems to be a more serious thing

Is there anyone in @channel that can look into this? Otherwise I would ask WO's for rollback

A clue:

XXX yes, but for some reason, there were no alerts

YYY run was taken as "TestData"

XXX ah, ok

YYY 8 doesn't that mean online alert systems ignore it?

XXX AM yes
this is a precaution
ok, so everything is fine

YYY well, outside the SNDaq mysteries

I'll look up the details and post the answers later.


As I wrote earlier, IceCube found it useful to give each DOM a unique name; not just a number. Numbers are too easy to transpose. The DOMs are programmed with data acquisition software, which is rarely perfect, and updated from time to time. New software releases are also given names, and by tradition these are named after bars. SNDAQ stands for a special piece of software: SuperNova Data AcQuisition. It works by looking not for individual neutrinos, which from a supernova are plentiful but of too low an energy to stand out, but for a general brightening of all the DOMs by thousands and thousands of small interactions.

The "_rc1" means that this is test release 1.

"@channel" is, of course, the tag for the chat software being used for this conversation. "WO" stands for Winter Overs--a pair who work on our experiment during the antarctic winter (11 month tours--they get started now).

Not all data acquisition taking is for physics: some of the "runs" are tests; hence the TestData run.

A supernova is a very interesting thing to observe, and since SN1987A we now know that neutrinos escape the blast well before the visible light is finally generated. Therefore there is a communications network designed to alert all the participating systems to look out if one of them detects something that might be a supernova. Obviously you don't want the alert to go out if you're just running a test.

A "DOM" is a "Digital Optical Module" with a large phototube, a couple of small computers and a couple of fast signal converters (one less sensitive so it can see large signals), which transmits its measurement of light received to collection computers at the surface. These are all carefully coordinated so we can tell what time light arrived at a DOM on one "string" relative to the time it arrived on another, so we can tell what direction the original particle came from.