Monday, October 20, 2014

Marshmallows

I'm on the wrong side of the paywall to read the original, but description of Mischel's experiments with kids and marshmallows was new to me.
By now you've probably heard the summary: At the Stanford University laboratory of a psychologist named Walter Mischel, preschool-age children were left alone in a room after having been told they could get a small treat (a marshmallow or pretzel) by ringing a bell at any time to summon the experimenter. But if they held out until he returned on his own, they could have a bigger treat (two marshmallows or pretzels). The outcome, as it's usually represented, is that the children who were able to wait for an extra treat scored better on measures of cognitive and social skills many years later and had higher SAT scores. Thus, if we teach kids to put off the payoff as long as possible, they'll be more successful.

But that simplistic conclusion misrepresents, in several ways, what the research actually found.

1. What mostly interested Mischel wasn't whether children could wait for a bigger treat—which, by the way, most of them could. It wasn't even whether those who waited fared better in life than those who didn't. Rather, the central question was how children go about trying to wait and which strategies help. It turned out that kids waited longer when they were distracted by a toy. What worked best wasn't (in Mischel's words) "self-denial and grim determination," but doing something enjoyable while waiting so that self-control wasn't needed at all.

If you, like me, got the standard line, go read the rest of the article. Or if you can get by the paywall, read the journal article.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bucket list

I'm reading a book called Sabbath(*) in which at one point the hypothetical question is asked "What do you most want to be, to do, to know, and to give away in the last third of your life?"

Aside from the unwelcome thought that I've probably less than a third to go if family history is any guide, the question seems not quite right somehow. I know that "If you don't have a dream how you gonna have a dream come true?" but something's missing.

I think part of it is the "you ... want" bit. If you had told me before I walked into the church that I'd be up close and personal with autism spectrum, I'd have dropped the ring and run like a gazelle with its tail on fire. But in the end I don't think I'd trade my life with my kids for anything. (and with my wife, of course)

So what I want isn't always a good estimator of what will turn out to be good.

Without some kind of plan and structure, nothing happens, and that's not good at all (see what happens to the fellow with one talent). But the details of how it turns out aren't in our control, only how we respond to the surprises. So I don't think I should have a bucket list so much as bucket principles--that I will do things virtuously, gratefully and with intelligence, so long as that is given to me.

Although I would like a trip to the space station.


(*) By Dan B. Allender. So far it reads like he was getting paid by the word, and I'm not sure he understands who his audience is. Most people I know aren't in danger of taking the Sabbath too strictly.

Simple explanations

I read an article about personal space today, that referenced a study about men and women in airplane seats. It found that men hogged the armrests 5 to 1 over women.

Perhaps this is sexist domineering. Or perhaps men have, on the average, wider shoulders than women. Airline seats are not notorious for roominess either at shoulder height or at the seat. I don't sit widely but some of my neighbors have.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dieting

"Reach for your mate instead of a plate".

Though I don't think you can reliably extrapolate from C. elegans...

Missed the bulls-eye

The comet is going to miss Mars. I still wish it would have, though I grant that it would have made existence difficult for our probes (which will apparently be on the far side of Mars for about 20 minutes when the high-speed comet tail whips through, and thus be relatively shielded from sand-blasting).

I'm not sure if liking explosions is a feature or a bug. I harbored a secret hope that the Scottish vote would be for independence, because of the chaos that would ensue--though if I were voting on the measure myself I'd have picked the less catastrophic option.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Epidemics

I thought one of the great benefits of literacy was that you could learn from the experience of people far away or long dead. You needn't live through a tornado yourself in order to learn how to prepare for one. Of course you can probably ask a friend who has sheltered when one went by--tornadoes are fairly common.

Stock market crashes happen too, but it seemed as though we had a generation of brokers who had not seen one in their working lives, and apparently (one may infer from their advice) believed that such things were now impossible.

The Spanish Flu was about a hundred years ago, and there aren't a lot of people left we can ask about it. But we can read about epidemics and quarantines, and figure out why people did things the way they did in the past.

But if each generation considers itself sui generis, I wonder what the point of writing is.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Graves in Liberia

One of the things that makes ebola hard in Liberia is that the dead cannot be honored. Granted, that seems like a minor detail compared to the death and fear, but people have risked death themselves to honor their dead.

There isn’t a lot we can do about this: those dead of ebola cannot be touched, and would most safely be cremated--not exactly a customary way of honoring the dead. But I wonder if we can do something. If the burial teams have the names (and parents) of the dead, could someone carve the names into a stones to stand by a mass grave? Quite a few would be "woman known only to God."

I don’t know if anybody there could do it, and the lag time in getting something made elsewhere and then shipped there is large, so this probably wouldn’t be much use anyway, but if people knew their family members were being commemorated, it might be a little comfort.

UPDATE: Maybe it would help with the problem of bribing of burial teams.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Astroguesser

My officemate, on hearing that he missed the eclipse this morning, mentioned a “Virtual Planetarium” called Stellarium, which is quite good. It even allows views from other planets. The stock background is rather amusing when the location is the South Pole (he suggested to the authors that they take some images from IceCube): trees and houses. You can pick a date, or do a Time Traveler scene with the months whipping by too.

We decided that a world with only Geoguesser is incomplete. What we need is a 3-D version, using the stars in our local area. If you need help, you can cheat by asking for the constellation lines to be drawn. When Orion looks like scrambled eggs, where in space are you? He suggested the name.

I’m not quite sure how the user picks a location in a sphere, though...

Stuff and Nonsense

Moseying through Wikiquotes after the Supreme's recent “non-decision…”
Nor do the gods appear in warrior's armour clad
To strike them down with sword and spear
Those whom they would destroy
They first make mad.

Bhartá¹›hari, 7th c. AD; as quoted in John Brough,Poems from the Sanskrit, (1968), p, 67


If there are certain pages of Mr Bertrand Russell's book, Power, which seem rather empty, that is merely to say that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

George Orwell, Review of Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell in The Adelphi (January 1939)


At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

George Orwell, The Freedom of the Press", unused preface to Animal Farm


. The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed — at least not yet.

George Orwell, Review of The Civilization of France by Ernst Robert Curtius; translated by Olive Wyon, in The Adelphi (May 1932):


If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be conducted successfully.

Confucius, Analects


To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.

George Orwell, "In Front of Your Nose," Tribune (22 March 1946)


"One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism


And don’t forget Kipling

This isn't just about the latest folly endorsing the contradiction "homosexual marriage"--there are plenty of wads of nonsense we solemnly tip the hat to.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Fermions and Bosons

It occurred to me that I should maybe define some terms, especially when they represent such curious features of the world.

It all goes back to the photoelectric effect. It turns out that light comes in little “chunks” (photons). These have different energies, which correspond to different frequencies. The higher the energy, the higher the frequency; they’re directly proportional. But there’s another little detail about them that emerges: they have angular momentum.

That’s kind of weird at first glance, but electromagnetic fields can have momentum and angular momentum, so we can live with that. It turns out that not just photons have angular momentum but also other elementary particles, including the electron. Since as far as we can measure it doesn’t seem to have any size, it is hard to imagine how an electron could have angular momentum, which is the product of the radius and the component of momentum perpendicular to the radius. Radius=0 means angular momentum is 0, right? Except that it isn’t, here. There’s some intrinsic angular momentum to the electron. And the proton. And the photon.

And that the angular momentum comes in units, it isn’t continuous. Each photon has the same total angular momentum. It can point in different directions, but it is always the same total. So if a particle emits a photon, that particle’s intrinsic angular momentum has to change by one unit.

That unit is, of course h, Planck’s Constant, the pivot of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You might think that this just applied to photons, since that was where it was discovered, but it turns out to be more universal than that: gluons too, and the W/Z of the weak interaction--all have 1 unit of angular momentum.

So if something has an intrinsic angular momentum, what sizes can it be?

You can guess right off the bat: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 ... units of h. If these are elementary particles we call them bosons. If they are composite (like a Helium atom), we generally still call them bosons but with the caveat that they are complicated.

But, there’s another possibility. 1/2 h. If something with that angular momentum emits a photon, you get (1/2-1)=-1/2: the same size, just pointing in the opposite direction. Particles with spins 1/2, 3/2, 5/2 etc. we call fermions.

That different spin might not seem to matter much, but it turns out to be very important. Each electron is exactly like every other electron. If you have two, their joint wave function has to be anti-symmetric. In other words, if you swap their positions, directions and their spins, you get the opposite sign. So what happens if they’re both at the same place with the same spin? When a function is equal to its negative, it has to be 0. So you can’t have two fermions in exactly the same state. Which is fortunate, or else atoms would collapse as all the electrons emitted photons and fell into the nucleus.

So if angular momentum comes in discrete chunks, does that mean that the angular momentum of a spinning wheel is a finite (but large) number of those chunks instead of a continuum? Or that your angular momentum relative to the door knob as you walk down the hall is limited to particular values? Probably. And if you try to wrap your mind head around how that works, you begin to see why some researchers are working with models of spacetime/momentum space that use a grid rather than the old faithful number lines. In everyday life you can't tell the difference between a quadrillion h and a quadrillion and one, so it looks continuous to you. But things look different in the small world when the lumps become obvious.

Capital city problems

Fortunately I can do most of my work remotely. The First Lady is visiting the Overture Center tomorrow morning, which will tie up traffic abominably. The square is pretty sluggish at the best of times, and when security (the center is less than 500 feet away from my office) gets involved there's not much point in trying to come in. The airport is between my home and the square, so to go around I'd be circling half the city.

I just hope she doesn't go after my lunches.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Left off preaching and gone to meddling...

I hadn't noticed before, but the Bible addresses government deficit spending: "The wicked borrows and does not pay back." (Psalm 37:21)

I noticed that while I was slogging through The Life and Death of Mr Badman, Bunyan's originally planned sequel to The Pilgrim's Progress. He wrote the book as a counterpoint to Pilgrim, but when someone published a fake sequel, Bunyan wrote a real Part II to the Pilgrim's Progress, concerning the adventures of Christiana, his wife. Part II isn't as dramatic a read as the more familiar Part I, since it is more of an allegory of the Christian life in community, but it is well worth reading. And some call The Holy War the second best allegory in English, with Pilgrim's Progress being the best.

Mr Badman, on the other hand, is a dialog between two people who pretty much entirely agree with each other, and consequently it lacks almost all dramatic interest. It includes thumbnails of real people's stories, which of course I've never heard of but were probably of lively interest to his readers. I'm about halfway through, and within an inch of just jumping to the end to see how Mr Badman meets his maker. It does provide an view of what life was like then, with Masters over apprentices rather than students in schools, and informers getting an extra revenue stream by spying on their neighbor's transgressions (especially the neighbors stepping out on their spouses).

I bought an inexpensive tablet to see how the pocket appliance world works, and loaded FBReader and some kindle-style books from Gutenberg on it. Works OK; I can read and listen to music easily enough, though a more expensive model would have better sound and wireless reception. Miserable for anything involving typing, though, and speech recognition is more amusing than useful. Oddly enough the Kindle app doesn't seem very useful.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

No, please, read the paper!

"Meet the Majorana fermion", the particle predicted 80 years ago.

Except it isn't an elementary particle at all. If you take the trouble to read just the abstract of the article, it is clear enough that what was observed wasn't a Majorana neutrino, but a collective state in a superconductor. That's cool, and it was quite challenging to create such a composite system that models a Majorana fermion, and it probably satisfies the equations to first order, but it isn't a new particle in the standard sense. Not in the sense that a proton or a tau is a particle (and a fermion).

If neutrinos are Majorana particles, then they are their own anti-particles. Since they're so hard to detect, it hasn't been actually proven that the neutrino and the anti-neutrino are distinct, so Majorana's proposition is still an open question. Despite what Jessica Orwig at Business Insider implies in the rather muddled article.

To be fair, the experimenters probably made the comparison themselves, and expected that other people would know the difference.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Secret Service

I know the rule: "never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity." But when the disastrous choice is made time after time, with virtually no intervening successes, even the most generous soul starts to wonder if there's malice behind the smiles.

The latest Secret Service fiascoes are reassuring. Despots are typically careful of their safety. Turning off alarms, dialing down the rules of engagement to gentle/delicate, and installing guards on the basis of political correctness rather than competence have predictable consequences—predictable to any but the terminally stupid. Even if someone besides the President is calling the shots, that person would have to be foolish to forget that their access to the throne depends on the safety of the king. So: stupidity.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Patient confidentiality

Patient X in Dallas went to a hospital on the 27'th with a fever and was sent home. He's back, with ebola. If I understand ebola correctly, he was contagious on the 27'th. I gather the authorities are trying to trace his contacts, but apparently the public isn't allowed to help. Remember the Boston bomber search, with the police wanting everybody behind doors to avoid danger? Eyes on the street was what spotted him, not door-to-door police.

I wonder how long it will be before parts of patient confidentiality get waived. We paid a pretty high price for not being more aggressive with quarantine (and closing the bathhouses) with AIDS. It wouldn't have solved the problem then, but it would have made it smaller.

I think the authorities are going to need help. At some point we're going to have to ditch confidentiality in favor of public health for some diseases--this would be a good time before things really get started.

How closely does the appearance of the virus correlate with fever? When exactly do you start to become contagious?

They can quarantine the family in the hospital and monitor them through all the stages of the disease. Maybe that's why the CDC team flew out there.

We talked about this at the table this evening, and it occurred to us that he might have picked it up riding in a taxi. Think sweaty seats--very sweaty seats.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Very different values

We generally try to make sure disagreements don't inflate into violent disputes (despite the revolutionary origin of the country). Editorials cluck-cluck about the partisan divide we have, though they celebrate it quietly: "our party is principled, theirs is obstructive." "Moderate" is a nice label to wear.

I started reading The Constitution of Athens, and in Chapter 8 find this about the rules confected by the famous Solon:

And seeing that the state was often torn by faction, and that some of the citizens from indifference stood aloof, of his own motion he passed a law specially directed against them as follows—that anyone who, when the state was divided into parties, did not take up arms and side with one or the other, should be deprived of his political rights, and have no part in the state.