Thursday, February 11, 2016

Conspiracy Theories

Is it paranoia if they're really out to get you?
Harry A. Greaves Jr., former Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refinery Corporation (LPRC), whose naked body was found behind the old Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs in Monrovia, died of drowning, according to the just completed autopsy performed by two pathologists from the U.S.-based Nebraska Institute of Forensic Science.

A more recent report says the marks on the body and condition of it were normal for someone tossed about in the surf. The ocean currents indeed are quite treacherous. The owner of Thinker's Village told us he tended to lose a guest a year to accidental drownings.

So nothing to see here, right? He'd been making waves complaining about a privatization deal and what the National Oil Company had been doing with all the money they spent, but it's just a drowning. (So far nobody has discovered any oil, but it isn't just the oil companies spending money.)

Funny thing. Liberians aren't big on swimming. An alleged girlfriend said she was with him when he decided to go swimming, so maybe the object wasn't the backstroke. Or maybe the tale involving the mysterious car and the second body is accurate. Or maybe none of them.

The truth often shows a certain elasticity there. (A little like the internet) Government officials sometimes indulge in extra-legal action, and a matter has to be obviously far removed from any personal or financial interests of theirs for there to be a presumption that they tell the truth. And you don't always know what their financial interests are.

Under the circumstances, conspiracy theories seem reasonable. Even if almost all of them are wrong.


Those of us who weren't in the Supernova room watching the feed were probably watching at their desks. There were some funny moments: "This isn't a Hollywood movie, this is a real simulation!" got a lot of laughs around the room. So did the banter about theorists as they introduced Thorne (and a book of his I'd never heard of, though we all read Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler). And we enjoyed the Russian reporter playing to stereotype by claiming that LIGO was invented in 1962 in Russia.
Sorry, I can't resist this oldie. "What is a theoretical physicist? That is a kind of physicist presumed to exist but which has never been seen in the lab."

The big news was the chirp. I was startled at how clear it looked. Look for yourself at what the two detectors saw. You can see the backgrounds that each detector found, and then the signal. I won't try to duplicate the references and animations.

Yes, I read the paper, but most of the details that need explaining are in other papers (like what they mean by "resonant optical cavity, formed by its two test mass mirrors, that multiplies the effect of a gravitational wave on the light phase by a factor of 300". I think it means the light bounces back and forth 300 times but I'm not sure.) Noise is the big issue: reducing it and trying to measure what they can't reduce.

A few details from the paper:

  1. There were 2 events that might be interesting, one much less clear
  2. The data was from a 16-day period, not the whole 4 month time. I don't know if they only used part for analysis convenience or because of detector issues. Can we expect 20x this per year? I hope this wasn't just beginner's luck.
  3. The event was from just before the official start of the run!
  4. They aren't up to full sensitivity yet. They expect another factor of three, which would expand the volume they're sensitive to by a factor of 27
  5. Similar systems are coming online shortly. It might be possible to pinpoint (for some definitions of pinpoint) the source, and if it is close enough maybe use optical telescopes to find out exactly where.
  6. With the festivities 1.3 billion light-years away, and from a merger of black holes at that, IceCube wasn't likely to find any neutrinos from it, and we didn't. (If we had, we'd have probably had a representative at the announcement ourselves.)
  7. "Each test mass is suspended as the final stage of a quadruple-pendulum system, supported by an active seismic isolation platform." That last bit means the platform moved its top to try to compensate for seismic movements of its bottom. The first part means they hung a pendulum from a pendulum from a pendulum from a pendulum.
  8. Did you notice what they estimated from the before/after fits? 3 solar masses turned into gravitational wave energy! (plus or minus half a solar mass) I wonder what it would have been like to view it from a few light-years away...

Note that the Michelson-Morley technique that was used to prove there was no ether, which was the starting point for Einstein's Special Relativity, turns up again in a verification of Einstein's General Relativity. This time they used lasers ( and Einstein wondered if stimulated emission were possible. He just keeps turning up...)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


I've never been to the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans--and from the pictures I don't think I'd enjoy it that much. not terribly fond of crowds, don't go for alcohol But the food is a different matter. Red beans and rice, etouffe yikes goes the blood sugar...

When I was a kid beignets were a rare Sunday treat. They require a fair bit of minding if you want to make enough for everybody. (I've never quite figured out how to get them to puff up hollow reliably--that was always great for scooping up extra powered sugar.)

Last night I figured we should do something for Mardi Gras for a change. I now know that a gas burner works very much better than an electric burner for cooking beignets, that you have to roll and cut very quickly to keep up with your frying, and that you and everything else will wind up thoroughly garnished with powered sugar. I'm still not sure how it got in the bedroom rug.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Basis Faces

"Eigenface" is more euphonious, but I like basis faces better. It seems clearer. But people would giggle, so maybe Sirovich and Kirby had the right idea.

They are used in face recognition. The idea is that these represent patterns you can build an image of a face out of: 0.15 FaceType_1 + .36 FaceType_4 + .06 FaceType_17 + ... gives a pretty good approximation of the original face.

Some patterns have asymmetries of one kind or another. Look at the lower right face below.

You need that sort of thing for real faces. Abe Lincoln was kicked by a horse and his face was never quite symmetric afterwards.

The "Eigen" in eigenface comes from a German word meaning self or own or characteristic. Transformations that shift and twist will generally turn a vector in one direction into one of a different size pointing a different direction. Some vectors are left pointing the same way, though--and they're obviously special. For linear transformations these vectors are called eigenvectors. For each untwisting vector, the ratio its size changes is the eigenvalue.

If you are using tiny images (100x100 pixels), you have "only" 10,000 pixels to compare. When you are looking for patterns among these, the number of combinations is pretty large: 10,000 x 10,000 for starters. Manipulating vectors 10,000 elements long and a matrix 100,000,000 elements big isn't entirely trivial. The two teams mentioned in the article came up with some clever ways to deal with the problem to make it tractable.

And it turns out that many faces can be described with only a few "basis faces". Wikipedia links to the FaceMachine java applet which generates faces with only a few (I think 6) bases, but unfortunately the java is old enough that my browser won't let it run. YMMV.

My office mate took linear algebra over a decade after I did; this was one of the things developed in the meantime, so his class learned it and mine didn't.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Homeless court

Not a peripatetic court, one for the homeless.
The man, longtime homeless, has amassed roughly $30,000 worth of citations in Madison Municipal Court in a cycle of repeated tickets, arrest warrants and jail.

We design a lot of our punishments for a rooted citizen, not for someone who can keep neither job nor home. "In 2015, 18 homeless people were issued a combined 119 arrest warrants and owed a total of $254,148." These offenses included "public intoxication, trespass, public urination, retail theft."

By "public intoxication" they don't mean just being quietly drunk--they mean being obnoxious or disruptive while drunk. The police aren't hanging around looking for reasons to arrest people. I've waited for a bus in the middle of some noisy conflicts with no squad cars summoned. The homeless get cut a lot of slack, no matter what the advocates say.

But the statutory fines are meaningless to a homeless man, unless you seize whatever cash he has on hand to pay part of it. (I wonder if "Can you spare a couple bucks to help pay my fines?" would collect more than the traditional "Can you spare a couple of bucks for lunch"(*) or "Bus fare?")

But now, due to the efforts of Municipal Court Judge Dan Koval and nonprofits Dane County TimeBank, YWCA Madison and Operation Welcome Home and other partners, the man and others are getting a chance to get court fines reduced or dismissed through a pilot “homeless court” if they stay out of trouble and get help improving their lives.

Last year, Koval had an idea for a restorative justice court that would concentrate on issues confronting people who had a lot of cases in Municipal Court. The concept, he said, is similar to such courts for juveniles, drunken driving, drug offenses and veterans.

The city allotted $10K last year and $10K this year, and expects "three people to move through the court process in the first six months of this year." Law is expensive, I guess, at $1400/case. I wonder what will characterize the people who do stay out of trouble. And what we can do about the rest. And if anything will "work."

(*)I've been giving out coupons for half-pies at Teddywedger's, but only one on one. I need to ask the owner how they've been coming back. As an experiment I gave 2 a few times, with the suggestion "bring a friend," and I wonder whether they went twice or sold them or actually had breakfast with a friend.

Not always happy-clappy

As she founded and visited convents, Teresa often traveled the rugged roads of Spain. One time her saddle slipped, and she found herself head down under the belly of a donkey as she crossed a stream. Complaining to the Lord of her treatment, she heard him reply, "Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends." She replied tartly, "No wonder you have so few!"

I haven't heard of many youth retreats that deal with St. John of the Cross, have you? Generally the kids come back all excited and enthusiastic; not many come back quiet and thoughtful.

People come with so many problems--you need to comfort them and not scare them away. But the big picture does include Gethsemane. We don't escape the world's pains.

The friend who had a house fall on him in New Orleans two weeks ago is still in the ICU, and may soon be healthy enough for a tracheotomy. (The rest of the church team that were inside the house were pretty much OK; he was standing outside.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Appendix D.13

Could we have saved Columbia?

Well, not the Columbia itself, but maybe the astronauts? Read the article. My guess--probably not, or not all. The initial planning itself would have taken a day or so, and changes in plans add extra delays. If we'd tried, it would have been one of the great "wing it"s, and it would have seriously pushed the limits of how long the Columbia crew could stay alive.

Too soon old, too late smart

The unshoveled slush at the side of the driveway froze, and so I took the bag of salt out and started sprinkling salt. There wasn't much left, and I gave up on the scoop and started reaching in the bag and grabbing handfuls. When the bag was empty, I realized my hand was filthy with salt--not what you want on doorknobs and such.

So I reached over and scrubbed it a bit in the snow.

Anybody remember enough chemistry to know what happened next?

Yep. There was enough salt still there to melt the snow on my hand--but the heat to do that had to come from somewhere and the handiest source was me. My hand hurt so badly from the cold I was afraid I'd done it some injury, and I probably would have if I hadn't gotten to warm water at the sink very quickly thereafter.

A word to the wise...

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


The buzz last week was Barna group: Porn perceived as "'Being less risky than actual sex' ... among both teens and older adults". Creating your own reality?
He shook his head. "No," he said, "our handicaps are all different, and the race is equal. The Pharisees can even catch up the woman with the mites. Those who do not insist on Gomorrah."

She said: "Gomorrah?" and the chill of the word struck even through her contemplation. She remembered the unanswered question of her vision: What of them that have not? As if the answer had been reserved for these lower circles, he gave it. He said: "The Lord's glory fell on the cities of the plain, of Sodom and another. We know all about Sodom nowadays, but perhaps we know the other even better. Men can be in love with men, and women with women, and still be in love and make sounds and speeches, but don't you know how quiet the streets of Gomorrah are? Haven't you seen the pools that everlastingly reflect the faces of those who walk with their own phantasms, but the phantasms aren't reflected, and can't be? The lovers of Gomorrah are quite contented, Periel; they don't have to put up with our difficulties. They aren't bothered by alteration, at least till the rain of the fire of the Glory at the end, for they lose the capacity for change, except for the fear of hell. They're monogamous enough! and they've no children--no cherubim breaking into being or babies as tiresome as ours; there's no birth there, and only the second death. There's no distinction between lover and beloved; they beget themselves on their adoration of themselves, and they live and feed and starve on themselves, and by themselves too, for creation, as my predecessor said, is the mercy of God, and they won't have the facts of creation. No, we don't talk much of Gomorrah, and perhaps it's as well and perhaps not."

Monday, February 01, 2016


The NSA admitted to recording phone metadata on a vast number of people. Not the phone calls themselves--that would be a gigantic heap to try to filter--but the "who contacted who" and when. That can give an outline of a network, and if one person in that network is of interest you can identify others in that subnet that are also of interest. Then you can drill down and try to tap the phones.

One pundit brought up the old problem that security and encryption have generally been add-on afterthoughts, and opined that from now on encryption should be the default. OK, cool--though there might be a few gotchas with unpacking things later if the file undergoes a little bit rot. At least in theory it should be possible to ship email around with public key encryption, handle payments with the same key, and generally be able to identify yourself with the same password everywhere. It makes life a little simpler, no?

At some point the secret part of the key has to be validated. There are ways to manage chains of trusted keys. But I wonder about the round-trip for validating a password. What sort of metadata can you collect? Financial transaction information wouldn't be part of the query, only who you were dealing with.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Friday, January 29, 2016


Long range ICBM interceptors are still being tested.


Do you see the little problem here? You are notoriously trying to hit a bullet with a bullet, and relying on guidance to fine tune the intercept trajectory. From whence comes that guidance?

The B in ICBM is "Ballistic:" the warheads fly like a rock. They get their direction in the boost phase (which for fast solid state boosters is 90 seconds). That part of the trajectory shows up like a searchlight, but it is kind of hard to triangulate from above and is invisible around the curvature of the earth if you're too far away. From then until near the end of its journey it is just a warmish object sailing along like any harmless low speed meteor.

Aha, you say: Just locate its orbit, and those of its comrades, with radar and send the adjustments to our defense missiles to home in on them. Problem is that countermeasures are pretty easy: lots of lightweight decoys to confuse you, or just let one of the warheads go off in space and mess up radar for several minutes. (Or just time your launch for a solar flare.)

Wikipedia has a little history of this sort of thing. Boost phase interception might work against North Korea, but not China.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Peaceful coexistence

A message from the UW Urban Canid Project.

I gather that we are supposed to enjoy the view of coyotes in the neighborhood, but haze them anyway. Hazing doesn't work unless the whole neighborhood undertakes to haze them: yell, throw sticks (but not directly at them?), spray them with a hose (this here is winter, son), keep your large dogs close to you and pick up the punt-ables.

My inclination is to grab the pitchfork and advance. If something way bigger than a coyote comes towards it, that should make it feel uncomfortable, and the pitchfork is handy if it decides to return the favor. And if I'm going to hurl something in the direction of a predator I think the fire pit poker is a better bet than an old branch. (Blazing away is inadvisable when there's a daycare in the background.)

I gather they tend only to be problems when they get used to being around people. Around people you find stray food, rabbits and squirrels taking advantage of bird feeders, small pets, and idiots who feed them. I assume familiarity breeds contempt after a while...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The usual suspects are usually a good bet

Two stories, a little over a month apart. Robbery with use of force while armed (the gun wasn't used in the robbery) and second degree reckless endangering (he threatened a woman with his handgun).

I wonder if he'll get bail this time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

How do you draw a volcano?

Carve sprays into cave rock? Look at their image below:

There's a little heat crack over one of the "spray" lines, so they think they can date it. There were volcanoes roughly around that period. But...

I'd expect the spray to be more uniformly spread around. Unless it came out of two opposite cracks in the volcano? Lots of lines went into each of the sprays, so the artist (if so) could have spread them around without much more effort. (I'm assuming that the lines originated near the animal head instead of farther out--easier to start more or less uniform than end up that way. They could look at the grooves and be sure.)

But just to be cantankerous, what else could the spray lines have been?

  1. Erasure. Somebody didn't like what was put there before, and scratched it out violently. &$#! graffiti kids
  2. Illustrating which ways this kind of critter tends to use in escaping, to class after class of newbie hunters
  3. Magical summons--follow the path to our hunters
  4. Somebody tried to draw geysers

The lower image is a volcano image from Turkey. The article claims this cave thing is older, which it probably is. What do you think it is?