Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Different reactions

When I was at SIU we had Iranian student groups. I think I counted 5, each of which denounced all the rest as agents of SAVAK. I suspect they were all correct--all infiltrated, at any rate. They were all angry and all militant and, at least officially, not happy with America or Americans. Which made them uncomfortable guests.

The BSU had a reputation of being friendly to international students, and there were one or two Iranians on my floor. My roommate and I were able to freak them out a bit by posting notes to each other on our door written in runes. Yeah, paranoid.

They weren't as bad as they'd been on another campus, though, if testimony of a friend at the time may be believed. He told me that at that school the Iranian student marches had progressed to the point of harassing other students. (Sorry, I don't recall the institution.)

After a few weeks some Iranians made a serious strategic blunder, and harassed a black woman. Two nights later a number of cars came full of black men not seen before on campus, and the next day the Iranians were quiet as mice, and my friend said they remained so.

To every thing there is a season.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Why would they think of that?

Mealworms can eat styrofoam? (As always, verify that this is true and repeatable.)

What comes immediately to mind is an elementary school project with mealworms that starts leaking mealworms out the bottom of the cup--and a parent investigates. I wonder what really happened.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Come quickly, Lord

Your will is definitely not being done on earth as in heaven.


If Jesus endured the horrors of our world for us, I suppose we can endure its horrors a while ourselves for the sake of the saints yet to be born.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Spotting spies

Does anybody know if this is true? The article claims that CIA spies were readily identified because of the different ways agents and normal State Department personnel were treated: for example, agent positions never changed in local embassy reorganizations, their recruitment age ranges differed, and agency officers could come and go as they pleased. The story claims that Yuri Totrov figured this out, and as a result the KGB regularly identified agents around the world.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Word meanings

AVI reminds us that we have no right to happiness What the word "happiness" means isn't fixed, of course. One writer whose work I can't quickly locate said the Declaration of Independence's "pursuit of happiness" clause meant something more like "trying to find your role in the world" to the signers than "trying to find pleasure." I suppose you can't sell as many vacation timeshares to people who look for satisfying duties as you can to those who measure happiness by a "goodies count."

Somehow happiness, in the sense of pleasure, is now an expectation. Pleasures are so common in our wealthy land that it seems they're taken for granted. And as Screwtape notes, "love" is warrant for any sexual conduct and any broken promises. If you remonstrate you're accused of opposing love. Of course no society regulates love, but all regulate sex (even ours still regulates some). But that's an inconvenient observation.

Part of the shift lies in the connotations of words. Take the word "heterosexual." It is generic--there's no connotation of monogamy. Instead the sense is of willingness to have sex with any receptive woman. Male point of view here, reflect as needed "Bisexual" is similar, but the connotation of action pretty much guarantees infidelity. If such terms are the only ones in the discourse, there's a bias against considering fidelity.

I propose a modification of the weaker Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.(*) Language shapes our thinking, but we spontaneously modify the language to suit our needs, so the shaping need not be overwhelming or permanent--unless someone is able to keep pushing the desired usages.

If I and my friends compose a nuanced phrasing that defines something precisely, we can communicate accurately with each other, but if this usage isn't shared by the popular media we're immersed in, it won't spread. As a trivial example I give you Blackacre, about which many precise things are said that are unintelligible to non-lawyers--though they're not hard to understand. True, nobody pushes the standard fuzzy meanings about ownership, but nobody tries very hard to teach them either and they're not matters of our usual daily round.

Less benignly, think of the campaign to replace the word "gambling" and its connotations of risk with the word "gaming" and its connotations of innocent fun. In Wisconsin, at least, the latter seems to have pretty much displaced the former, and one finds it harder to find people who object to gambling in principle. Whether there are fewer who object to gambling as a form of fleecing the poor I can't tell; I wasn't paying a lot of attention years ago.

(*) Should we call it the Sapir-Whorf-Confucius Hypothesis? "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 carried on to success."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Does cancer have a double whammy? They claim that the "wasting" aspect of cancer is or can be independent of effects due to tumor growth and associated tissue damage (such as bone destruction next to growing tumors). If this pans out it could be very interesting:
Cachexia affects up to 80% of cancer patients. It is estimated to cause one in four cancer deaths, primarily when their diaphragm muscle becomes some wasted and weak they can no longer breathe. Doctors try to fight cachexia by feeding the patient up, but this approach rarely works.


When Hoogenraad’s team implanted mice with cancer cells genetically engineered to lack the Fn14 protein, the tumours grew almost as aggressively as a regular tumour. Yet the mice remained bafflingly fit, strong and healthy.
This adult male cachexia patient has suffered extreme muscle and fat loss.

“We scratched our head and thought, ‘What the hell have we done?’” Hoogenraad says. Then they realised they had switched off the cachexia.

The team moved quickly, making antibodies that block Fn14. A mouse with a normal, Fn14-producing tumour will start to lose weight and sicken within eight days. But when mice with Fn14-expressing tumours were injected with the antibody, the weight loss never materialised.

I assume that if the lack of this doesn't change the tumor growth, then cancers could appear without it. One thing to try to learn is whether different cancers produce this protein. This article suggests to me a list of candidates: gastric, lung, prostate. Pancreatic is on the list of frequent cachexia, but I think it might be hard to distinguish the effects of the destruction from those of any additional mechanism in that case.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Negative interest

Sweden has been using negative interest rates.
Cut rates too deeply, and savers would end up facing negative returns. In that case, this could encourage people to take their savings out of the bank and hoard them in cash. This could slow, rather than boost, the economy.

What is happening now should not – according to conventional thinking – be possible.

As central bank rates have turned negative, the rates offered on bank deposits have followed. Yet rather than stuffing cash under mattresses, people have left their money in the bank or spent it.

Later on the article says

Pension funds might be among the first to abandon banks if things get too painful, because of what in effect can look like a tax on holding money.

One solution is to give savers nowhere else to go. This idea was floated by the Bank of England’s chief economist in recent weeks, who made the case that sub-zero rates will be needed in the near future.

Andy Haldane, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), the UK’s equivalent of the FOMC suggested that to achieve properly negative rates, the abolition of cash itself might be necessary.

The first point about negative interest rates is that they've been tried in Japan and Sweden, two countries with strong social cohesion and trust. The second:

I find it useful to translate proposals into simple models. It gets around a lot of obfuscation.

I put my paycheck in the bank. The bank takes some of it away. I automatically lose money.

I'm not allowed to not put money in the bank.

The only way the bank doesn't get my money is if I spend it right away.

If everybody knows I have to spend money right away, they will raise prices.

No matter what I do, I get less for my hours of work.

Cui bono?

  1. The State. They overspend and need to borrow. Negative interest rates force us to subsidize their borrowing: they benefit. I notice that all the happy-joy talk about this comes from government types, who grimly warn that cash is used for drug deals and other evil trades. Like paying the kid next door to mow the lawn while I'm on vacation.
  2. The bank, as long as they can make sure my rate is worse than theirs

I conclude that this is, at minimum, a disingenuous way of raising taxes.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Bee careful reporting

An alderman proposed a revision to city ordinances to allow beekeeping. I agreed to speak in favor, and went to the planning committee meeting Tuesday night at 7. The first item on the agenda was a zoning change and waiver application, and the next 3 hours were filled with justified worries about traffic. The waiver application lost. Then several experts on beekeeping explained its safety and practicality. I had plenty of time to hone my presentation. You might be amused to compare what I actually said with what the paper said I spoke into the microphone.
I am James living at YYY, and I speak for myself and for my daughter who owns the other half of our duplex at ZZZ. I am not an expert, so I can be brief. My wife says a garden is the best way to show the connection between hard work and eating. Over the years we have made the gardens an integral part of our children’s education, and now that my daughter has children of her own she is doing the same. If you drive by our homes you can see the gardens: lots of flowers and vegetables. She wants to add beekeeping to what she is doing and teaching, and to help increase her family’s resources. This may not be the way other families live, but this is ours.

OK, I should have written it down--I had plenty of time. The last sentence was brain freeze on my part; I'd forgotten to devise a wrap-up sentence. And for the honor of truth, I stuttered and started with “I am an expert” before correcting myself. Still, my address was easily the shortest of the night by a factor of at least 5. You'd think it would be easy to keep track of.

..., a Juniper Lane (Street!) resident, told commissioners his daughter was in the process of growing a garden and wanted to add a bee hive. He would like the city to change the ordinance to allow it so he can tell her she can put one in and continue to teach her self-sustaining agricultural practices.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


In Romans 1:29-32 the list of sins deserving death includes slander. It might seem disproportionate at first, but go read these stories about how Tim Hunt was forced to resign because of lies by Connie St. Louis, Deborah Blum, and Ivan Oransky, about a Florida man who incited attacks on strangers from his parent's basement and how Pakistan's rent-a-mobs let you deniably kill your enemy for a few bucks with just an accusation.

Maybe slander isn't so supportable after all. A penalty proportional to the injury, perhaps?


I haven't paid much attention to the Common Core debates. The idea of having some minimum standards has its appeal, but the devil is in the details, and if we get more teaching to the test we're going to get less education.

BBC has a story about misfeatures in Indian textbooks, some of which are simple misspellings and some are--well, did you know Japan launched a nuclear strike against the USA during WW-II? I know they wanted to, and didn't know how to make a bomb yet, but ...

OK, the USA has a more consistent market for textbooks, they'll be better, right? Feynman found otherwise:

Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That's only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity!

(The essay goes on to explain how a blank book got a positive review.)

The math books I dissected for the local middle school (without any response to my evaluation, I might add) weren't quite that bad, but there were quite a few misfeatures. Probably some errors, too, but I didn't work all the exercises. I noticed that the "author list" included a lot of names, but very few of them had any background in anything but education. No "domain knowledge"

The kids' high school books were by and large somewhat better, though I hear some schools teach history out of Zinn. (I get it that this was supposed to be a corrective book to the old 50's-60's baseline histories, but if that's to be the new baseline you desperately need a corrective to it.)

I am perfectly willing to believe that the Common Core textbooks will be crud. It is a tradition.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Suppose momentum weren’t conserved. Or angular momentum. You can make up science fiction scenarios, but if you think them out thoroughly you find that your imaginary universe is extremely strange.

It turns out that if it doesn’t matter where you measure from—if one part of space is just like any other part and you can move anywhere and have it look the same—you get conservation of momentum. If one direction is like any other and you can turn in any direction you like and it still looks the same, you get conservation of angular momentum. Those symmetries have important consequences. Other less obvious symmetries result in forces: “… physicists gradually realized that all forces (fundamental interactions) arise from the constraints imposed by local gauge symmetries, in which case the transformations vary from point to point in space and time.” Invisible symmetries.

Or to put it another way, if you had different symmetries, you’d have a different universe with different forces.

So far so good.

Quantum Mechanics

In quantum mechanics you find the consequences of not being able to measure two quantities at the same time: e.g. momentum and position in the x-direction (whichever that happens to be for you).

One way of picturing this is to think of an arrow that points up, down, or sideways when you want to measure its direction, but is spinning either left or right. And you’re in the dark, so the only way to measure it is to grab it. Now that you’ve grabbed at it, you know which direction it pointed, but you’ve no clue which direction you knocked it spinning. not an exact analogy, but easier to visualize

So if you measure one quantity you know that the object is in state A instead of B or C, but you are unsure if its other quantity is in state X, Y, or Z.

As a result when you find that you must describe a system as being in potentially many different states at once, until you actually measure which. (Yep, sounds weird, but it works. More intuitive approaches don’t.) You have to “add up” the probabilities that it is in each of the different states to get the full description. I oversimplify.

So far: symmetries are closely related to forces, and things are described by waves with various properties that you can’t simultaneously measure perfectly. Even mass: it turns out that you can’t know both the type and mass of a neutrino simultaneously.

And so…

Physicists get used to calculating with ensembles and also with trying to figure out the rules of the game from the structure of symmetries. Classical physics has long used the “least action” principle—an object follows a path that minimized the ”action”. Why not calculate the behavior of a particle by adding up every single path it could have taken, each path weighted by a handy quantity related to the action? Making it crazy complicated turned out to be very useful.

Physicists don’t like arbitrariness in a theory. They generally feel that if there is a constant in the equation, there should be an explanation for it. If the ratio of several constants were a little different, the Sun wouldn’t shine very usefully. Why is the ratio what it is? There’s got to be some reason, maybe based on the structure of the universe—some structure that has to be there.

In other words, this isn’t “the best of all possible worlds”, they expect it to be “the only possible world.”

But suppose it isn’t. Suppose there were many different “universes” in the grand ensemble UNIVERSE. (No, you couldn’t manage to get from one to another. You can’t even get to Proxima Centauri.)

Maybe there are an infinite number of universes with slightly different physical constants, or maybe the initial “inflation” of our universe was so fast that parts effectively separated from each other and became effectively disconnected universes.

Oh, I didn’t mention cosmic inflation?

A simple “Big Bang” with the universe expanding outwards, the expansion slowing down due to gravity, seems to predict certain things about the distribution of matter that don’t match observation. There should be much bigger correlations between distant parts of the universe that weren’t so distant when the universe was just born. If you posit an extremely rapid inflation of the universe for about 10^-32 seconds after the Big Bang (for unknown reasons), the observations match the predictions—different parts of the universe are appropriately uncorrelated from each other. In other words, it is crazy but it seems to work.
Hold it

A multiverse is a bridge too far. Even if using it in models gave some sort of calculational simplification, you’ve no way of interacting with these alternate universes, no way to know which, if any exist, and no way to test anything. Any trace of them has to drop out of your final answer—they’d be simply an unreal convenience.

You can use complex numbers instead of real ones sometimes, as an "unreal convenience"; it just turns things a little sideways for a while but in the end the predicted measurement is real. There’s a connection all the way.

To say that a particle can move through two different slits at once because it is also a wave is, by contrast to a multiverse, easy to test. You can point to the different locations, do the experiments, and infer the proposition. All you have to understand is that a particle isn’t quite as simple a beast as your old mental model of it.

So how come the Universe is like this?

In a multiverse, there are an enormous number of possibilities for us to be in. How come we’re in this one?

One vexed answer: The Anthropic Principle. We’re in this sub universe because we wouldn’t be here if the fundamental constants were different, so we’re not in the other ones, where maybe the W mass is different and so nuclear decay is different and stars aren’t as bright and light is different. And you don't need to worry about purpose, which you do if there's a Creator.

Put another way: Let there be US! And there was light.

If you’re going to be that arbitrary about how to get the fine-tuning needed for our universe, you might as well go whole hog. However, the mere suggestion of a Creator makes some famous physicists shudder. not all And a lot of them shudder at the multiverse too, and wonder why it and the anthropic principle get so much press.

It isn’t that hard to see why they get press. The ideas seem wild and exciting and just the thing for click-bait. There’s no need for the hard questions about how and why things work the way they do; just punt and say they’re the way they are because that’s the way they are here, and things are different next door. Just the ticket for journalism majors and the average reader.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ledge Park

We picnicked in what seems just a small county park at the end of the Niagara escarpment, but the cracks and gaps in the boulder field look ideal for youngsters to hide and scramble and scrape knees in. (Not too young, though.) Only got to some of it--it was a bit too rugged for my knee--but what we reached was fun.
Image from here.

Just for fun

There's a site devoted to Walt Kelly that's worth taking a look at. You could probably guess that I use Howland as picture/avatar when one seems required...

Sunday, September 13, 2015

On the scene reporters

From David Warren:
In a previous generation there were foreign correspondents who stayed in one place long enough to acquire some idea of what was going on there.


The contemporary journalist is voyeur to a “crisis.” He has been flown in, with a crew. He does not arrive knowing the way from the airport. He is taken for a fool by every interested party he encounters, and manipulated accordingly. He is like a rich hunter on safari who must employ beaters to drive a few game animals into his way. He has limited time, before his audience has lost interest in the latest crisis, and he is himself air-freighted to the next one. The result is reportage not quite so good as no information at all.

I suppose our familiarity with (but not actually knowledge of) a reporter whom we've seen before at other locations is supposed to be a proxy for the reporter's knowledge of the situation.

The essay ends with a novel suggestion for dealing with the army of would-be immigrants (aka refugees) in Europe.