Saturday, June 15, 2019

Declaring life bankruptcy

The United States was for a long time a frontier culture. I'm told, and it seems plausible, that it wasn't only people looking for a better life who emigrated, but also people who had managed to make themselves odious in their neighbor's eyes. If you can't stand it where you are, move elsewhere, change your name, and try a new start.

This is golden for men who want to ditch their families, or other criminals looking to escape punishment and find new targets.

On the other hand, it could also be a refuge for people who had made an injudicious choice and have had second, wiser, thoughts. It might be easier to reform in a place where nobody knows your name (maybe).

One of my wife's ancestors was apprenticed, in what's now Germany, to an abusive master. The lad, pushed too far, rammed the master into a horse-trough and took a boat to the USA to avoid the harsh penalties inflicted on insubordinate apprentices.

My cousin's geneological research suggests that a not-too-distant ancestor of ours was not born with the name he died with.

The option of "starting over" is an alluring one. Part of the legend of the French Foreign Legion was that you could join under an assumed name, and earn the new name and a new life in the Legion. They actually did some background checks--at least some of the time.. A stint in the Legion would "pay for" your crime--at least in the great myth of the Legion.

Suppose you're not a crook looking for new victims.

Maybe you have some obligations that would make "declaring my old life bankrupt" a grave offense. Then running away is obviously evil. Or perhaps you're a teenage who thinks home is horrible and you'd be ever so much better treated in the big city. Maybe you're right, but more likely you're a fool who is about to find out what predation means. But maybe the environment really is oppressive and unjust, and the whole community's disapproving eyes are on you, and you need to get out from under them. Probably you won't ever cut and run, but I think I understand the appeal of having the option.

Having a national ID makes this escape a lot harder. You can easily understand the appeal of having such a thing--it makes catching deadbeat dads (and moms) easier, and makes it easy to tell who is a citizen entitled to benefits and who is not. And, in case of war, it makes it easier to spot enemy infiltrators. (We're at war now and probably will be for the rest of my lifetime. Lots of wars have taken decades or centuries--the Spanish Reconquista took 500 years.)

But a universal ID lets the powers-that-be apply the small-town's lack of privacy without any sense of small-town community. If you're the wrong flavor of citizen, the nation's disapproving eyes are on you, without any mitigation or any escape or possibility of starting over. China is our current bad example--it maintains a database of all its residents with the possibility, and already the beginnings, of a system to track everyone and punish the smallest deviations from the will of the powers-that-be.

One of the prices of liberty is insecurity. It shouldn't be easy to duck and run, but it seems to me that it should be possible. For criminals with connections, it always will be.


The discerning reader will be gratified to learn that Dr. Boli is back after his long hiatus.

Charlie Gould

I had never heard of him before. He was the first Union soldier to breach the Confederate works at Petersburg. "if he had only had his revolver he could have held the fort alone."

I read of an "English" fighter about a thousand years ago fighting on with an arrow through his jaw and into his neck, and going on to live a long life afterwards.

I dislike the jab for testing blood sugar.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Imposter Syndrome

Talk about Imposter Syndrome is making the rounds. The journal club addressed it recently, on a day I was absent. Since they're about to look at mental illness and stress among grad students, I thought I should try to catch up, and went to the workshop on I.S. at the conference last Thursday.

Thumbnail: You feel as though you have your position or fame purely due to luck, and worry that you will be found out and humiliated.

Wikipedia suggests that people started talking about this in the late 70's, but that the effect (not a mental illness) is quite common.

It has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life. This can be a result of a new setting, academic or professional. Research shows that impostor phenomenon is not uncommon for students when entering a new academic environment. Feelings of insecurity can come as a result to an unknown, new environment. This can lead to lower self-confidence and belief in their own abilities.

Wikipedia also says this especially impacts "women of color" in academia, and attributes this to "hideous forms of racism and sexism." That hypothesis isn't necessary (and anecdotal observations contradict it). The effect was predicted long before. Although "affirmative action" goes by many different names these days, it still exists, and the recipient cannot be sure that the thumb was not on the scales--"Hello self-doubt!"

My observations are mostly of grad students and post-docs and engineers and scientists and profs. By this level, there's no question that the student has intellectual horsepower. Maybe there was a thumb on the scales early on, but that won't carry you far. I haven't met a mediocre student yet on any of the teams I've been on. Some are sharp, and some are super-sharp, but they all "belong here." OK, I lie, there was one student who could not seem to follow instructions. I'm pretty sure the student was clever, but something about taking notes and asking questions and re-organizing the analysis seemed to be outside this student's world.

They don't always feel that that they belong. I empathisize. Been there, done that.

Being a perfectionist, or feeling as though you have to be Superman, having lots of other people's expectations on your shoulders, or being in a new environment can help bring this on. Those all seem to be obvious contributors.

Two other things strike me as very important.

  1. When your job is to solve abstract problems, you quickly find out that there are two kinds of problems. Problems you have solved already are easy, almost trivial. If you think of them at all you probably grudge the time you spent on blind alleys for something so obvious. You pay them no more mind than you do the light traffic on your way to work. Problems you have not solved yet are hard. They occupy your mind they way the heavy traffic does. There's a sampling bias: you see things you can't do, and ignore things you can.

    Since nobody is a super-polymath (despite your ambition), you have colleagues who have solved some of the problems you haven't. Therefore they are smart and you are dumb. If you can't solve the kinds of problems they can, why are you here?

    I'm not sure this translates so well into careers in which problems with physical dimensions have to be solved over and over (you have to kill another deer every couple of weeks if you want to keep eating). But in academia it can be pretty dramatic.

  2. The other thing that jumps out at me is that you regard yourself and your worthiness entirely on the basis of accomplishment--not relationship. And, only on the basis of accomplishment in this particular environment.

    I am a son, brother, husband, and a father, and a Christian (another relationship). If they decide tomorrow that my work is unacceptable and escort me out of the building, that'll hurt, but it isn't the entirety of who I am. Looking around the room at the journal club, I see plenty of grad students who know more astrophysics than I do, but it doesn't phase me the way it once would have.

I'm not sure how to translate these into effective ways to help people. Recognizing the sampling bias is one thing, internalizing that observation is another. And it isn't terribly helpful to say "cultivate relationships and skills outside your work." Doing that, especially for a time-crunched grad student, isn't always easy.

Of the things mentioned in wikipedia, having mentor seems most likely to be helpful (preferably not your advisor!). Understanding the whys may help, and regular reminders probably would too.

I figured that the folks who hired me decided I was OK, and I would do my best. If they miscalculated, that was their hard luck.

My thesis advisor Lee Holloway tried to set his students a good example by asking the elementary questions at seminars. "What do you mean by X?"

Fishers of men

I hoped that God would give me the gift of such forceful brilliance that when talking with unbelievers I would "knock-em-dead." Unfortunately the Lord does not seem to approve of fishing with dynamite. Probably this is because people wind up more impressed by the action than the Lord.

"Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!" He didn't. It would have been dynamite to see...

There's an old rhyme "Confess a man against his will, he's of the same opinion still." I mondegreened it into "Convince a man against his will, he's of the same opinion still." I think my mistake is also true. The most thorough proofs don't sink in and make a change unless the hearer wants them to. Parents will have noticed this. And of course, sometimes people hold conflicting "truths" for a lifetime. And for the honor of truth, I have exemplified this also: after I was convinced of the truth of Christianity it was another two weeks before I finally converted. (One afternoon, with a clarity I never had before or since, I realized that everything made sense in Jesus. How can you do more than a supernatural persuasion?--and even then I procrastinated.)

Father Simon says that when Jesus called people to be "fishers of men" he expects them to be tasty bait. I'd not quite say that--the attraction is supposed to be Jesus--but it does seem as though the call is almost always one by one by one.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Headline complaints

The headline reads "Metal Foam Stops .50 Caliber Rounds as Well as Steel – At Less Than Half the Weight". If you read the article, "stops" isn't quite the right word to use. The composite armor "was able to absorb 72-75% of the kinetic energy of the ball rounds." That's more than ok for something light, but the headline is misleading. I presume that the impact turns into many collapses and spallations inside the "bubbles" and helps dissipate the energy--a bit like crunchable bumpers, but at higher energy.

In addition, "CMFs, in addition to being lightweight, are very effective at shielding X-rays, gamma rays and neutron radiation" is misleading, and so is the article it links to. Steel is better than aluminum, and not so good as lead is the right answer--and one of the commenters pointed that out, noting that the researcher's real abstract didn't claim otherwise. Radiation gets stopped by stuff, not structure.

Keystone Kriminals

If this weren't so close to my daily orbit I'd be laughing.
Two assailants stole money from a pizza delivery man but he got their keys in an attempted Downtown Madison robbery early Saturday morning, with both items switching back to their respective parties by the end of the incident

Friday, June 07, 2019


Thursday was my first day back from vacation, and also the day of the IT Professionals conference. They pay me for it, so I suppose I'm a professional.

After registration, on the way to the coffee and bagels (tea and an apple), was a table with a couple making "pronoun preference" buttons--"he/him" or "she/her" or you could write in your own.(*) In the end, I only saw a handful of people wearing them. I flatter myself that it's always been easy to tell what sex I am--especially now with a dad-bod and extensive male pattern baldness. I wonder how many people viewed the idea of an explicit id as faintly insulting.

If I have to register a pronoun, I think I'll pick "Mar".(**) ( ܡܪܝ ) I admit that this is purely aspirational, but would serve as a good reminder.

(*)I saw only one man with the write-in button. His print was so small I couldn't make it out. As usual, the conference was mostly men.

(**) "Mor" would also work, except that it would be confused with "more."

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Qui bono?

Quite a few states are legalizing or looking at legalizing marijuana. From my vantage the process looks coordinated. Perhaps this is purely grass-roots (if you'll pardon the pun), but I suspect the lobbying groups' funding might bear inspection. Is this "big tobacco" or some other group?

Is it a coincidence that the CBD oil hype hit about the same time?

My take on legalization is that we have more than enough problems with alcohol abuse; we don't need a new crop of addicts--even if (as is loudly asserted) its addiction is less destructive than alcohol's.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Golden rice

I hadn't heard much about it for years. It turns out there's a good reason for that. It took a while get get the bugs worked out of it.
The initial version of the crop actually put very low amounts of the desired nutrient in the edible portions of rice. Switching to another form of the gene (one from corn) solved that, but the new version ended up with the added gene inserted in the middle of a gene essential for the activity of a plant growth-regulating hormone. Switching to a different version of the same plant solved that but delayed the process. Once field trials were finally ready to start in 2013, anti-GMO activists destroyed the plantings, setting everything back again.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Stand on Zanzibar

I read Brunner's book decades ago, and haven't been particularly interested in re-reading it. It had some memorable moments. The BBC decided to highlight it as almost prophetic. Well, compare that with a more detailed listing of predictions/realities.. He didn't do badly. For example, he predicted widespread genetic engineering, but not the public reaction to it.

The BBC story describes how he tried to do his "predictions." I like his approach.

So how did Brunner do it? To start with, he spent nearly three years reading up on topics from the role of genetic inheritance in disease to links between population spurts and urban violence. He also spent a month in the US in 1966, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Then, breaking with his usual work routine, instead of outlining his plot, he filled 60 pages with thoughts before hammering out a first draft.

As he went, he devised a series of ‘parallel thought exercises’ to generate ideas. As Smith describes it, he imagined a Victorian time-traveller pitching up in the 1960s, and then pondered how he’d go about explaining to them everything from the telephone to the sexual revolution. The first was relatively simple, but accounting for the vast differences in cultural mores required him to examine countless cultural assumptions. “Then, he reversed the process, asking himself what those assumptions might mean for the future, how present environments might already be making us aware of those to come”, Smith explains. For instance, the ‘hobby-type saboteurs’ that pop up throughout the novel, getting their kicks through recreational violence, came to Brunner after he clocked the prevalence of Peter Pan syndrome on both sides of the Atlantic, and then read about kids vandalising public transport for fun.

The blogger's link claims that amateur saboteurs are under-reported. I've heard some hair-curling descriptions of infrastructure vulnerabilities, and I suspect that if the Internet weren't such an effective opiate we'd see more damage.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Teller Light

This post has pictures.

When a nuke explodes, x-rays escape the container long before the container itself is destroyed--for some definitions of "long before." They ionize air outside, and when the air de-excites it glows. The post shows 2 pictures taken a millionth of a second apart, with air glowing outside the bomb's casing.

The next post on that blog consists of only a title, "It's Late," with a number of comments by his wife added in the months and years after the author's death shortly after that last post.

A blog is a curious sort of legacy. It may be a collection of (maybe) interesting tidbits, old news, a diary, one part of a long conversation, maybe a few analyses mixed in that might be useful standalone...

I started writing this one intending to follow the denBeste model--concentrating on original content, and not so much the Instapundit model of links with brief comments. You can see for yourself how that worked out. I wonder how long it would take to sift through and collect those things I think might be useful for a longer while. I spent time on analyses that subsequent events have rendered moot. Was it worth doing? Maybe only for my own effort to be "an exact man" ...

Lessons learned

Driving down Bird I saw for sale what I thought was a great idea: modular garden fence panels. I pulled over to look. Put stakes in the ground and run them through screw-eyes in the ends of each panel. When you want to trim the weeds, or need access with a tiller, just lift the panel from the stakes and walk on in. I figured the price was too high, and made my own.

A pneumatic staple gun is great for attaching the screening. I got that one right the first time. (Lesson 0)

I tried using 2x4 for the frame--just once. I didn't want to waste the materials, or else that monstrosity would be long gone. Ever after I used 2x2, and when I couldn't find decent ones, split 2x4's on my table saw. (Lesson 1)

I used wall plates to assemble the frames. That was tedious, painful, and pricy. The next time I made panels I clamped the 2x2 together and bored holes for glued dowels. That was much cheaper, was about the same amount of effort, and seems to be just as robust--maybe a little more so. (Lesson 2)

Over time chicken-wire rusts rather badly, and results in unexpected personal perforations. Next time I'm using hardware cloth. It's more expensive and harder to work with, but looks more rugged. (Lesson 3). (For the garden door itself I had the wit to staple lath overlapping the edge of the chicken-wire so the ends don't bite.)

Round stakes wobble. You need to secure each panel to the next with cable ties. In fact, buying the steel rods may not have been entirely necessary, and later efforts just use cable ties and a few plastic garden rods. (Lesson 4)

Weeds will have their way. They penetrate black mulch, old rugs, and weave their way around pavers. Every year, pull out each panel and clean out the weeds and whatnot from the landing zone, and then reassemble the thing. Budget several hours. (Lesson 5)

Now I'm wondering what I'll learn next year.

UPDATE: I forgot lesson 6: A garden gate needs a sill!

Saturday, June 01, 2019


It is worth visiting

Infrastructure question

I asked how Cahokia got its water, and how did it dispose of sewage. "Haul water by pot from the river" was the suggestion for input--though enough to supply 10-20,000 people is a lot of haulage. Nobody knew about output. It may have been the same. Dumping waste in the borrow pits (where they dug the dirt to build the mounds) would have been an easy but stinking idea. So, since there was no obvious drainage, they probably used night soil luggers hauling to the river--or maybe the farms, though quick googling doesn't show any references to Amerindians doing that. Maybe urine lugging too, but maybe not--also stinky, but less of a health hazard. Still, they planned a lot of the city, so probably they planned something.

Engineering issue 1

Hauling water from one of the network of nearby channels would have been tedious but doable--and if they had "rain barrels" that would have reduced the need. (No malaria yet, though mosquitoes are always annoying.). However, the channels changed over time. This could be problematic for both the water supply and for trade, since quite a lot would have been water borne.

I noticed one figure that appeared twice--a swimming beaver with a stick in his mouth and front paws. If, from time to time, they had to do some dam-work of their own to make sure the river channels they wanted didn't dry up, they beaver would have been an important icon. Of course any dam-work would have rotted away a thousand years ago. But they did a lot of palisade-work, so they had access to lots of logs. This is just a hint; and I'm not sure where, if anywhere, you could look to find out whether they dammed or not.

Engineering issue 2

Monk's Mound has had a number of cores taken, and it looks like it has suffered from several major slumps over the past thousand years. We were told that the Mississippians tried different combinations of soils and clays and internal structures to try to maximize stability. In one place researchers found a layer of cobbles, with no obvious purpose. Maybe this was to help with drainage in an earlier iteration of the mound? The mound was built in stages, with what seem to my untrained eyes to be different layouts, though maybe there was some unifying principle. I gather that sections started slumping while it was still being built.


On Monk's Mound, the top level supposedly held a huge fence, a 40-50' high building for the chief, and an even taller pole in front of the building in the courtyard. This would have been the tallest thing for miles in any direction. We get thunderstorms in this part of the world--frequently.

That tall pole would have gotten plenty of strikes. I suppose they must have had to replace it regularly. However, it might have helped protect the great house. For a while.

I wonder how the Mississippians would have interpreted that. Perhaps one of the functions of the Supreme Leader was to take all the lightning strikes for the city onto himself.

We were told that Natchez tribe had characteristics most like the Mississippians, and so their customs are used as models. In the link, lightning set fire to one of their temples and the distraught citizens went so far as to throw children into the flames to try to get the gods to put out the fire. I'm not sure what that means about what they thought of lightning, but it does suggest that fire prevention wasn't perceived as high on their priority list and lightning wasn't one of the great worries.


They flattened out the surface of the Grand Plaza--an undertaking as massive as the construction of the Monk's Mound itself--though needing less dirt from elsewhere. I wonder why. Maybe for massive games that needed flat surfaces, or maybe the Supreme Ruler got tired of ruts and mandated smoothness?


They dug all this dirt with stone tools. A stone hoe looks stupidly dull, and would have been painful to dig with--except in mud, and that would have been painful to lug around. And a stone axe looks like it would do more crushing than cutting.

I used to wonder why they didn't sharpen the stone axe more, until I watched the center's video of knapping. I think I get it now. Stone can be pretty brittle, and sharper stones would chip and snap rather quickly. Maybe you could get more done with a sharp axe before it chipped too badly and you had to get a new stone, but they weren't easy to make as it was. Dull and strong was probably a decent compromise.


The palisades around the Grand Plaza were built/rebuilt 4 times in a century, with plenty of bastions. Clearly they had enemies--bastions like that look silly if for a purely ritual formation.

The bastion/entry pair scheme doesn't make much sense unless the rest of the common folk of the city could gather inside, so they must have had grain and water storage inside the Plaza--not huge, since there don't seem to have been many other towns of size big enough to man a siege. Maybe the sister St. Louis and East St. Louis settlements provided the raiders. Civil wars are always "a thing" in history. The palisades would need of order 100,000 trees each time. I wonder if they dragged them from nearby or floated them downstream from logging elsewhere? (There's that beaver motif again.)


They had galena for ornaments, but not lead. I wondered about that, but it turns out you have to pre-roast the ground-up ore to burn off the sulfide and make an oxide--and that's a noxious step with not immediate payoff. Only after roasting the oxide with charcoal do you get lead.


As noted above, the Natchez are supposed to have been the most similar of the surviving tribes to the Mississippians. A burial in mound 72 had a few men, one with a huge pile of expensive grave goods, and over a hundred women.

They had a legend of a founding leader who taught them and directed them to a new country. They also had (as is almost universal) a story of a great flood which some escaped on a high mountain. Cahokia had suffered a great flood, and Monk's Mound would have been a possible refuge--but perhaps the story inspired the mound?


For some reason the bird man image struck me as Mayan, but I can't think why because the styles are quite different. Maybe the feathers and the over-drawn nose?

Many figures are depicted kneeling. Maybe this was to show proper subservience, but maybe it was a stylistic convention designed to let you make a human figure as large as possible for a given chunk of rock. If you carved a standing figure from a 5" rock, the head and torso would be 2 1/2 inches high, but if the figure is kneeling you can make them almost 4" high.


Several mounds were excavated, and then rebuilt. Even the Monk's Mound has been partly rebuilt, but I gather they haven't tried to restore it to original (pre 1250) form.


St Louis was clear in the distance. The new city has a dozen times the area, a hundred times the population, and thousands of times the wealth of the old city. Although, as Merlin pointed out, how can you be really rich without servants? And the Birdman might have added, without a hundred wives?

Professions and mental illness

Folklore says that mathematicians and grandmaster chess players peak early and have a greater-than-average chance of going mad.

I'm not sure if that's true, nor what exactly is meant by "madness" here, but suppose there is really a correlation. In both "professions" there's a very high bar to entry, so we can immediately rule out the hypothesis that people with a tendency to (e.g) schizophrenia gravitate to those jobs. It would be like saying people with a tendency to fallen arches tend to become basketball players--not unless they're 6'7" or so. I'm not so sure about other professions--lawyer, for instance. They need some intellectual horsepower, but it isn't as exclusive a group.

Some professions (police, surgeon) are obviously extremely high stress, to a degree that I doubt most mathematicians or engineers see. Maybe leaving out those would clarify the question.

Is there a pattern to the incidence of mental illness in the professions? I'm not thinking of a scientist with a bee in his bonnet about 9/11 conspiracies OK, I lie--I am, but I don't include conspiracy theory addiction unless it is a debilitating illness

If there is such a pattern, does it reflect a selection bias? (I was told that many speech therapists became interested in the profession because they needed that help in childhood.) Or does a raw talent set correlate with a weakness? Or is the way we teach some professions all screwed up? (horse whisperer in Columbia vs the horse breakers, or medical interns)

I have known of, though not personally, a few physics students who have had a "breakdown" of some kind, but I did not have the need to know the details and was not told. (And a few who washed out or decided they liked other things better--not the same thing.). So, less than a percent had a mental problem, plus or minus, and that may have been stress-related. One of the professors in the two universities I am most familiar with committed suicide, but again I have no details, except that there were no obvious problems beforehand. About 1 percent, plus or minus. That seems a trifle high. If one uses suicide rate as a proxy for the rate of all mental health problems then farmers and mechanics are at greater risk than policemen.

This looks complicated.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Poetry and music

I hesitate to call something so short a dream, but I had a dream that I was sitting next to a country music composer of patriotic songs and handing him Kipling's Et Dona ferentes and suggesting that he might find it inspiring. I suppose I had been slightly irritated sometime the previous day...

On waking, I thought the notion rather fitting. Perhaps not that work in particular (a nice idea, but a trifle clunky), but honor and common sense and place matter in his work--and I can't imagine pop singers touching Danny Deever with a barge pole, though a few country singers might. On the other hand, Pete Seeger or Joan Baez might have done something with Birds of Prey March. Kipling often uses a much longer line than most songs do, so quotation probably won't fly.

If you could find an American idiom for the phrase Gods of the Copybook Headings, that one might almost write itself--but not by Taylor Swift.

UPDATE: Spell-check turned "ferentes" into "ferments"

Spectra of meteors

I forgot the charger for the laptop, so I had to try to think things out instead of looking them up.

What would meteors made of chunks of stuff like Bennu seems to be do when they hit the atmosphere? The soft conglomeration stuff should shatter easily and vaporize quickly, while the denser rock should punch through deeper. If the soft and hard stuff are made of different minerals, you should see different spectra at different points along the trail.

I tried to come up with a design to collect lots of data quickly, by having the telescope direction follow the radiant point, using a "cone" of mirrors inside to reflect concentric circles of light onto collector mirrors (of truly weird shape) and then onto diffraction gratings for on-line analysis. You'd get fairly coarse track resolution, of course. The whole business could be triggered by sensing whether there was a flash of light or not. (Too long a flash is an airplane or firefly, too short is an artifact or a coincidence. No flash means no meteor--just background.)

It could work. I think. There might be too much smearing of the image, though.

It turns out that this sort of analysis has already been done. If you shine the light on a diffraction grating, instead of getting a line in the sky you get a wide spectral smear, sort of like a feather--if you are lucky and the meteor's track is parallel to your grating. All it needs is lots of pictures and lots of patience and careful study of photographs of the steaks.

And different meteor showers do have different compositions. And there can be a difference in what appears at higher altitudes, as shown in the last image on that page.

Of course the atmosphere glows too when it gets hot, and there's black body radiation as well as the spectral lines, so it isn't trivial to parse out the details.

Travel notes: gaming and casinos

Gaming and casinos blight towns. They suck up the money and the hope. Who hopes to start an auto repair shop when a winning tickets seems so much easier?

Within a hundred yards--a gaming parlor and two pawn shops.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Revelation 21-22

"There will no longer be any night." Two meanings come to mind: no more night in the sense of danger and evil ("So after receiving the morsel he went out immediately, and it was night."), and also in the sense of "party's over, go home."

On thing that has always annoyed me about large parties is that you can't be with everyone you want to. Somebody is always at the far end of the table--you can only talk with the 2 to 4 people next to you. That is the sad consequence of a table's geometry.

The New Jerusalem has some curious features--there's a river through a cubical city 1500 miles on a side (the Earth was known to be round) with the same tree on both sides of the river. I get the impression that this isn't a literal image but an impression. Lovecraft was enamored with the idea of non-Euclidean geometry to evoke alien dangers. I wonder if a different geometry might have its wonderful aspects.

Friday, May 24, 2019


The Astronomy Picture of the Day of Bennu is very curious. It looks like a scree field, and it probably is scree all the way down. But the rocks are interesting. Much of the stuff lying around is clearly pitted and "space-weathered" and looks like concretions of smaller bits of stuff--the sort of thing you might expect from gentle gravity pulling dust and stuff together. But some show clean cleavage, as though a hard rock was cracked. If asteroids were built of accumulated cruft, like comets are supposed to be, all of it should be rough-looking.

Meteorites tell us that there are some hard bits in the asteroids--indeed some theories hold that a planetoid, big enough to have the heat and pressure to make rocks, broke up to make the asteroid belt--and all that frail-looking stuff suggests that a lot of the meteor gets splattered away high up in the atmosphere.

The meteor trail in the air is mostly glow from heated oxygen and nitrogen, but I'd expect some amount of light from the frying meteor as well. If (That's a big if. As it says at the link, usually you don't have a spectrometer pointed at the meteor trail.) you could compare the spectrum at the start and at the end, and subtract off the atmospheric contribution, you might be able to tell the difference between the composition of the soft cruft and the harder bits.

An amateur spy

Yesterday the BBC posted a story about a young Ghana lad who wanted to be a spy.
He was supposed to follow his father into the police, but Azeteng dreamed of being a spy. He spent his pocket money on James Bond films and low-budget CIA thrillers, burned on to blank DVDs by traders at the local market. On the weekends, when his father sent him to cut grass for the family’s livestock in a garden behind the police station, Azeteng would pretend he was on a mission, and tiptoe up to the door to listen in.

What he heard on those weekends killed off what little ambition he had to join the police. He heard poor women come to the office to report that their husbands had beaten them, only to be told they would have to pay for a pen to take their statement, or for petrol to drive to make arrests. The tricks were cheap, and the sums pitifully small, but they had an outsized impact on young Azeteng. When he saw prisoners whipped with sticks in their cells, he knew for sure he would not be a policeman after all.

He scraped money together, bought some camera glasses, and went to find out the truth behind the migrant transport chain. He took pictures, notes, and what documents he could find (a dead man's ID)--and nearly died. He saw a lot of death. And you don't want to take that journey if you're a woman.

He says he wrote things down. Presumably he memorized them first and then wrote them when he could be unobserved. Which isn't easy to arrange in a crowded vehicle, or an area guarded by suspicious gunmen.

Then three months later, in February 2018, Azeteng got a call asking him to come back to the NCA offices. They told him that parts of his evidence had been sent to law enforcement in Mali and used in operations in Gao that resulted in the arrests of suspected people-smugglers.


The technical language masked something that had meant the world to Azeteng — his journey had not been in vain. He had gone undercover, and contributed in some way to fighting crimes against migrants.

Quick clarification

The long and complex works (symphonies or novels) aren't by those qualities alone better than shorter and simpler works (song or short story). Some tunes are meant to be short and focussed, just as some stories are gems when short and flabby when expanded. I didn't intend to disparage any country genre or performer.

There are some books I've re-read several times (off the top of my head: Treasure Island, Screwtape Letters, Lord of the Rings, Descent Into Hell, The Longest Day, Dinosaur Beach, and others). But there are short stories I've re-read many times too. Don't ask me which is better.