Sunday, December 25, 2011

Changing churches

Several years ago I started worrying about the striking ignorance of the church youth, who seemed to be graduating and heading out into the world with only a superficial understanding of what the faith was about. (On closer inspection, it wasn’t just the youth.) So, finding nothing handy to address the issue, I started writing a book. I am not a theologian or historian, but I figured something was better than nothing—we could work out details later.

The church was going in for the current fads: small groups would handle teaching and pasturing and outreach, the service would be seeker-friendly and accessible, and the focus would be on addressing felt needs. The usual suspects.

It won’t surprise you to learn that the church started imploding: 2/3 left in a few years, and an intervention with the leadership didn’t seem to help. The last straw was when a friend with a wonderful servant attitude was told to keep his objections to himself or leave; he left. So did I. I’d stayed out of a quixotic idea that I could help, but forgot that I was obligated to try to give my children a worshipful place to meet God.

We found a new church, but I’d started asking questions about what had gone wrong. The old church wasn’t doing the right things, obviously; but what were the right things to be doing? Come to think of it, this church wasn’t all that much like the Baptist churches I’d grown up in, either in the US or in Africa. I’d not been a Christian in those early years, and so wasn’t tuned to the inwardness of what was going on there, but the external forms had certainly changed a lot over the years.

Questions have a way of ballooning into unexpected regions. Whether I took the humble approach of looking at what churches through the ages have done, or the ab initio analysis from the Bible myself, it was clear that a lot was missing, and some claims that at first seemed perfectly reasonable were flat wrong. The Lord’s Supper, the purposes of teaching in the church, the role of the congregation in worship, the structure of the service, the role of scripture in the service—quite a few things didn’t seem to line up.

Take teaching, for example. The mega-church wannabe didn’t want to spend resources on adult education, and not all that much on youth either. It is easy to see why: the adults were a mix of levels—some quite familiar with the Bible and the faith, and others not sure if Romans was a book or a TV show. One class doesn’t suit all, and we weren’t so huge to be able to have classes for all. So the compromise was to drop official church education and rely on small groups to handle it. Which they didn’t and don’t, of course; you need to plan that sort of thing. So the result was that the church’s intellectual depth was about an inch shallow. Never mind that their heritage was rich and deep—there was no contact with that, except for the few who took courses at Bible colleges.

But on reflection, on reading a bit in Paul’s letters, and on watching some of the people in our group, I realized that education was not only shallow, it was restricted. I said church education ought to cover the three T’s: charity, clarity, and purity. Being able to tell Azarias from Abednego didn’t seem to correlate with living a holy and loving life. Both ought to be teachable, though the latter might be better thought of as an apprenticeship than a classroom course.

So we were missing catechesis, missing connection with Christian history and thought, and missing apprenticeships in living well. (Remember that book I mentioned in the first paragraph? The chapters on history and different denominations just keep growing and growing.) And that’s just in the teaching ministry of the church.

Worshipers were supposed to be doing something besides sitting on their duffs listening to a sermon illustrated with pop movie clips, and trying to sing now and then in the teeth of an over-amplified band. But what? Either we needed a more liturgical format, with the service having a well-defined shape and roles, or else something Pentecostal and spontaneous (but even they have an implicit form to the service). And my experience with Pentecostal services was less than inspiring; they didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for clarity or connection to the main stream of Christianity. So structure is the way to go. Does a liturgy need a priest? So far I don’t see it—so I’m not converting to Eastern Orthodoxy anytime soon.

But about the time that I’m pretty sure I have a few good answers and am ready to make suggestions, I tend to run into one of those old saints and remember how much I have to learn about the things that matter most.

I’m still working on that book, and a couple of us are planning a short series on church history, with an emphasis on understanding why Christians did things they way they did. We’ll see what happens.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

Tonight I remember something I wrote 5 years ago, about Joseph:

He took on the responsibilities of being the husband without being the husband yet. He took on the responsibilities of being the father, without being the father--yet. He unexpectedly took on the ludicrous role of protector of God.

In the great drama he was not going to be a central character, though he probably expected to be important, and didn't know he would completely vanish from the scene. Mary was to be the archetypal Christian. Joseph was more like John the Baptist: she must increase and I must decrease. Or perhaps like Martha, with the necessary lesser duties.

I imagine Joseph outside the stable with the livestock, keeping an eye on the displaced beasts that panic at the smell of blood, waiting and hearing the pain he cannot protect Mary from. Wondering how he's going to try to raise a prophet and Savior. And now and then wondering how he's going to pay the midwife. For he was a just man.

How would you try to raise a boy you'd been promised was going to "save his people from their sins" ? How do you teach him and what do you have him practice? And can you keep the vision alive through the ordinary years, or will you forget in the daily urgency of making a living, regretting that you had to spend that windfall on an unexpected trip to Egypt?

I was given no such promises about our children, and I'd do many things differently if I had the chance--those daily crises took front and center too often. (I don't know if it would turn out any better, though.) I imagine Joseph at night, remembering the angel and wishing he'd been more patient that afternoon--and wondering how just long it was going to be before his son began to save the people.

Imprecatory Psalms

CS Lewis confessed that he had some problems with the imprecatory Psalms. It was jarring to him (and to others like Kathleen Norris) to be asking God to destroy enemies instead of forgiving them. Lewis admitted, IIRC, that he was not one of the oppressed and that for them the matter might look different.

But horrors like this are right under the surface, and not just in distant dictatorships; the cannibal view of humans as useful meat appears in editorial pages and research labs in this land too, masquerading as medicine as easily here as there.

We’re told to pray for healing; disease wasn’t part of the plan. Jesus wept at the death of his friend; death wasn’t part of the plan. Cruelty wasn’t part of the plan either; may we pray for justice as freely as we pray for healing, so long as we understand that God may have a better idea and find a way to reconcile? Put down the mighty from their seat and send the rich empty away; but not my will but thine be done?

Of course it is very easy to conflate justice with "prosperity for us", and I hardly think God honors that.

Perhaps there is a balance, but I don't know how to define it. Jesus was quite clear about forgiving enemies (do it or you won't be forgiven yourself), but he was also quite clear about judgment and punishment; and we pray that he will return soon, bringing reward and punishment. Traditional worship keeps both in a kind of tension, regularly reminding ourselves to pray for our enemies, and now and then praying the psalms to remind us of justice; and that is probably wisest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Iranian Schindler

If the news and pop "news" the past week has left a bad taste, refresh yourself with the BBC's story about Abdol-Hossein Sardari. A sample:

The story he spinned to the Nazis, in a series of letters and reports, was that the Persian Emperor Cyrus had freed Jewish exiles in Babylon in 538 BC and they had returned to their homes.

However, he told the Nazis, at some later point a small number of Iranians began to find the teachings of the Prophet Moses attractive - and these Mousaique, or Iranian Followers of Moses, which he dubbed "Djuguten," were not part of the Jewish race.

Using all of his lawyer's skill, he exploited the internal contradictions and idiocies of the Nazis' ideology to gain special treatment for the "Djuguten", as the archive material published in Mr Mokhtari's new book shows.

High-level investigations were launched in Berlin, with "experts" on racial purity drafted in to give an opinion on whether this Iranian sect - which the book suggests may well have been Sardari's own invention - were Jewish or not.

The experts were non-committal and suggested that more funding was needed for research.

I love that last sentence, btw.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Animate and the Inanimate by William James Sidis

AVI asked me to have a look at this work by an alleged genius.

He starts by devising the thought experiment of a universe where time goes backwards. Naturally it follows the same sorts of rules as our own, modulo the sign change in time. If you imagine that it is an identical copy, even things like the forces will be the same (a little dimensional analysis: time appears squared in force, so the sign stays the same).

What doesn’t stay the same is entropy—the second law of thermodynamics. A famous illustration of this (not his) is of a movie of a man eating a steak. Run the movie backwards and the steak is un-swallowed, un-chewed, removed to the plate and assembled into a whole hunk of beef, un-cooked, un-butchered, and eventually un-slaughtered into a live cow. This is fairly old news, of course; people have been arguing about what makes time special for quite a while.

The author is a bit careless in his description of heat, but we understand what he means anyway. However, consider this section, which is the heart of his argument:

Tracing backwards, we find that, in the past, the farther back we go, the more we get a larger percentage of available energy in the universe, increasing at an ever greater rate. Therefore it follows that we must arrive at some definite time in the past—and that not at an infinite time back—when the available energy was 100% of the total energy of the universe. At a time probably not much farther back, all the motion in the universe must have consisted of molar motion of masses which, as we go back, must have increased in size till we arrive at a time when all the energy must have consisted of the energy of two halves of the universe moving together, each half of the universe being at a temperature of absolute zero and all its parts moving side by side at exactly the same velocity. This possibility, it is true, is somewhat corroborated by the fact that at present the stars are moving in two opposite directions, in two opposite currents, as it were, which may be supposed to be the remnants of the two original large groups of stars whose collision formed the present universe according to this hypothesis.

First, the stars don’t act like that today. Second, there is no reason to assume this sort of initial symmetry—there are other possibilities, with internal energy states. Kinetic energy isn't the only kind there is.

At the same time the two original halves of the universe cannot have been altogether mutually impenetrable, for in that case the result of the collision would but have made them rebound, though producing a great amount of internal heat-energy in each, and possibly breaking some small pieces off each. It would seem, then, as though the original halves of the universe must have consisted of separate dark stars, with a structure somewhat similar to the present universe. At the time of the collision, all the stars, even all the particles, in each semi-universe must all be moving together at the same speed and in the same direction.

He has to posit dark stars because emitting light is going to increase entropy. Once again he is assuming a symmetry that is one of many possibilities.

The second law of thermodynamics, then, must date from some sort of Great Collision out of which the present universe evolved. But what happened before this Great Collision? The answer would have to be, everything was at a temperature of absolute zero, there were two semi-universes which were moving towards each other, in each of which there was not even a trace of relative motion. Although each of the two semi-universes were in motion, yet within each there was no motion, no internal energy.

Once again, why this? Why not internal energy? It is reasonable to ask what happens before the "Big Bang," but not reasonable to demand an answer from physics.

But if such was the situation at the time of the Great Collision, it cannot have been so for an eternity past, unless we conceive of the law of gravitational attraction not to have been true in those times. Taking each semi-universe by itself, its reverse universe will also show the same conditions as we have already described, except that the semi-universes are moving away from each other, so that we can proceed in peace without danger from the impending Great Collision. Each semi-universe may, for the purpose of internal occurrences, be regarded as at rest. Gravitation will then draw all the stars of each semi-universe towards its center of gravity, till all of them fall in there. Reversing once more, so as to obtain the process as it must have been supposed to happen, we get the following result: Each semi-universe originally consisted of one great body; suddenly, somehow, that body exploded into pieces, which formed stars, each piece, though, remaining at a temperature of absolute zero. Finally, in each semi-universe. mutual gravitation of the stars slowed them down to relative rest. Just when this relative rest was reached, the two semi-universes collided, and out of this collision came our present universe. Thus we trace a little farther back to the Great Explosions; but these explosions cannot possibly be traced back any farther according to the known physical laws without violating the second law of thermodynamics. In consequence, if we wish to preserve the second law of thermodynamics, we must either dispense with some of the other physical laws, or as some physicists have done, intersperse a creation. In other words, the second law of thermodynamics cannot have been true for an eternity past, though it may be true for on eternity in the future. And even the assumption of a creation would be assuming a process different from the processes coming under the ordinary physical laws.

The model is goofy. The conclusion is fine. One way or another, the physical laws were different in the past. It is actually rather hard to avoid the conclusion that there was a creation—multiverses only shift the problem of where the rules of the game came from.

In other words, we come to the inevitable conclusion that the subsistence of the irreversible second law of thermodynamics in the same universe as the reversible laws concerning the motion of particles is a paradox, both from that point of view and from the fact that this second law, pushed to its logical conclusion, leads back to a mysterious creation which denies all physical laws whatever.

No. He did not show entropy to be a paradox "from that point of view," and pushed to its logical conclusion it shows not paradox but incompleteness.

You can think of entropy in terms of the number of possible states for a system of particles in a closed system. (The log of the number, if you want to get technical.) If you have many particle states with equivalent energy, a little interaction will share out the particles in lots of those different equivalent states. Why we experience time the way we do is not known, of course, but it agrees nicely with the "arrow of time" defined by increasing entropy, which has led some to speculate that this is the reason we see time happening as we do.

In Chapter V he asserts that

To help us towards a solution of this paradox, we must first find out what the probabilities actually lead us to conclude. We have already seen that, in a given case, the chances are even as to whether energy will run down or build up. There are also small chances of a neutral condition, in which energy remains, on the whole, at the same difference of concentration as before. But the probability of this neutrality is negligible, and we may say that the probabilities are, that in 50% of the cases the second law of thermodynamics will be obeyed, and in 50% of the cases it will be reversed. If such is the case, the universe as a whole will be neutral; that is, taking all the occurrences over all of time and space, there will be no tendency in one direction or the other.

We have not "seen that … the chances are even as to whether energy will run down or build up." On the contrary, we simply have a risible model and some bald assertions. He may claim this as a possible model, but he may not claim that he has proved that this is possible, or even likely.

In chapter VI he asks how we would observe pockets of 2nd Law reversal, and concludes there are two: regions where effects seem to precede causes in a teleological way (does he really mean that entropy is reversed if there seems to be purpose in events?!!) or if "small causes" produce big events (because energy would be gathered rather than dissipated).

In short, we may say that, in general, events in the reverse universe appear as though they were living phenomena; and the general events of the reverse universe may be taken as the type of negative phenomena, of the reversal of the second law of thermodynamics. … We may therefore conclude: first, that inanimate phenomena, when reversed, become animate: second, that animate phenomena, when reversed, lose the appearance of animation; and third, that animate phenomena, when reversed, lose this appearance because, when reversed, they tend to follow the second law of thermodynamics. The logical conclusion from these would be: that inanimate phenomena are positive tendencies, and follow the second law of thermodynamics, while animate phenomena, on the contrary, are negative tendencies and tend to reverse that law. Thus we have found where our part of the universe contains reversals, and come to a solution of our paradox.

OK, full stop. Sorry, but this is weirdo land.

UPDATE: I should be more specific. First, a "reversal of entropy" is perfectly possible if the system is not closed; and a living organism typically acquires energy from outside in the form of food. This is elementary, and has been understood for a long time. Second, he uses the completely undefined weasel word "tendency" which leaves you with no way to quantify what he is talking about, and therefore no way to physically test to see if what he is saying is true. If he were talking about love or philosophy I'd use different criteria for evaluating what he says, but he claims to be talking physics; and we're all about measuring physical things in this part of the campus.

Chapter 8 shows no particular understanding of nuclear fusion or nuclear stability. The date of the book being 1920, perhaps this is not so surprising.

Chapter 11 discusses theories of the origin of life on Earth, without a hint of a suspicion that both the theories he favors and those he doesn’t alike fail to explain the origin of the life ours is supposed to have come from. The panspermia="cosmozoa" is particularly silly in this respect: how is "life on Earth comes from meteors from Mars" an explanation?.

The online copy is defective: Chapter 12 points to Chapter 11.

Chapter 13 is about astronomy, and includes howlers such as that a nova comes from nowhere with no pre-existing star. He apparently knows better, as his description of a 1902 nova shows, but he concludes that the star "had all the necessary heat, but that, until that day, the second law of thermodynamics was, for some reason, not operative on it." To be fair, Eddington's work on stellar fusion wasn't until later that decade.

Later chapters are predicated on the assumption that life is a reversal of the 2nd law. How exactly this is to be arranged on a local scale he never explains.

In the Conclusion he admits that "I may also state that I cannot supply any satisfactory answer to most of the objections stated in Chapter XVIII." That is an understatement.

My conclusion is that he knows how to use big words and namedrop, but his arguments are lacking, there's no effort to translate generic concepts into testable math, and he gets into crank-land when he starts in on the nature of life. I'll forgive his not knowing future details about stars and quantum mechanics, since I suspect his memory, like mine, only works one way in time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Alternative (s to) Medicine

Retriever has a daunting list of sites on her sidebar, and I cannot find time to follow them all. But there I found this article from the British Medical Journal on alternative medicine, which is definitely worth your time. It describes a novel but fundamental approach to reflexology.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Higgs or no?

Other people have already commented on yesterday's CERN announcement of Higgs exclusions, and argued about whether the look-elsewhere-effect is correctly applied.
If you have enough random distributions based on the same underlying probability distribution, you will find 3-σ "bumps" (or dips!) in one or more distributions--that is, a change big enough to make you think "There's something there!" So to understand the true significance of a "bump" in the (eg) mass distribution, you have to do some statistical analysis that takes into account how big the region is that might have a random bump, and de-weight the significance of your distribution accordingly. The broader the range, the more likely you are to find a meaningless statistical fluctuation that gives you a nice-looking peak, and therefore the less meaningful your bump is. This is the Look-Elsewhere-Effect.

We saw a "more significant" peak than this melt away already this year, and so aren't claiming anything yet. And the fact that both CMS and Atlas, after each excluding a large swath of possible masses, see a small bump in about the same spot lends a lot of weight to it--it reduces the look-elsewhere issue. But...

The only channel that shows it is the gamma-gamma decay mode--there's nothing much in b-bbar. That's not unexpected; the background is higher for b-bbar, making the signal muddier and harder to see. But there could be something else happening in gamma-gamma that we haven't accounted for correctly, that gives both groups a bump in the mass plot. Of course that would be something new also, and good to learn about; perhaps new physics and perhaps better models of the old. So we'll keep at it, waiting for both a better gamma-gamma peak and some verification in another channel.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another one bites the dust

Oh well, so much for that idea.

Resizing a ring to be larger isn’t too hard—you’re basically stretching it, tapping it down over a long iron cone. Resizing it smaller is harder—they cut out a chunk and solder it back together. Why not squeeze it? Wild idea: use a hot mold with a hole for the ring; the cold ring snugly fit in the hole; the mold cools and squeezes the ring. Bingo, smaller ring. Except…

Unless the shape of the mold matched the shape of the outside of the ring, you’d tend to flatten it, which is probably not what you want. And it turns out that the squeezing is really rather small: you’d need about 10 differently sized molds to reduce a 20mm ring by 0.5mm.

So: this is doable with latch-able molds, provided you have a small furnace and that all the rings you deal with are the same shape; but it’s labor-intensive and you’d need a lot of molds.

Yes, I finally lost some of the weight. Why do you ask?

Atlanta 1

Traveling again, this time to the sunny South.

I found that a Kindle (el cheapo model with ads) in horizontal mode works very nicely in an airport if you can get away from the distractingly loud CNN semi-news loop. The cover is ugly as homemade sin (guilty—I’ve better ideas now, but no way was I going to fork over $40 for one) but I only look at the screen; other people have to look at the cover.

The Delta seat was somewhat less comfortable than some planks I’ve been on, but my luggage arrived with me, which is more than other airlines have accomplished. I was feeling under-exercised, so I walked instead of taking the train; and just barely caught my luggage as the assistant was wheeling it away from the carousel. They charged me for a full tank of gas the last time I used the pre-pay option, so I declined, but I hadn’t realized how awkward roads are near the airport. Saturday is going to be complicated.

25 miles to the hotel, and the training center is just walking distance away. Maybe I should have gone with a taxi instead. (Or MARTA? That’s pretty close too.)

The woman in the adjoining room is a bit vocal in her afternoon bedrocking. Absolutely quiet all night, though

I found where the center is, and padded about a little looking for restaurants. I get a better feel for where I am on foot than trying to watch cars and road and points of interest while driving an unfamiliar car. It isn’t even 7 my time, and I’m already beat.

But it’s nice to be above freezing for a change.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Hypocrisy and repentence

"Hypocrisy is an homage that vice renders to virtue." François, Duc De La Rochefoucauld

"If you say a modern celebrity is an adulterer, a pervert and a drug addict, all it means is that you've read their autobiography" P. J. O'Rourke

From Pippa Passes by Browning:

Your friends, Natalia said they were your friends

And meant you well, because, I doubted it,

Observing (what was very strange to see)

On every face, so different in all else,

The same smile girls like us are used to bear,

But never men, men cannot stoop so low ;

Yet your friends, speaking of you, used that smile,

That hateful smirk of boundless self-conceit

Which seems to take possession of this world

And make of God their tame confederate,

Purveyor to their appetites . . . you know !

Can we long for a little hypocrisy? OWS incoherently protests the shameless greed and cronyism of the banks (and prescribes the hair of the dog, but that’s another issue). The paper carried an interview with John Waters today, in which he shamelessly calls himself a purveyor of filth. We seem to find no shame in abandoning family to "find yourself," or in any excess or perversion, or in drugging yourself into soggy rubble with chemicals or games. Call it "self medication" and people nod tolerantly, or say "it’s just the way I am" and they’ll indulge—unless you tromp on their toes. No shame means no blame, right? That hateful smirk of boundless self-conceit...

We all have our problems, and mine are as damaging to my soul as anybody else’s sins, but the special curse of the serpent in our time tries to barricade us from that morning when we look in the mirror at the wreckage that should have been a man and weep: and start to hunger to change.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Sometimes it is personal

At dinner I brought up the subject of the bomb in the Rhine because an amusing error found one US newspaper reporting it as a 1.8 ton bomb (clearly they'd just read the wire story and "corrected" the spelling). But my better half actually knew the place: her high school orchestra tour had boarded a Rhine tour boat there, and had unknowingly chugged over the old bomb on the trip. She remembered best from the excursion seeing a Japanese man in full kimono spending the entire boat ride with his camera at his face--always photographing and never watching. (So, of course, she took a picture of him.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Happy New Year!

It is that time of year again.

Youngest Son made it quite clear that he didn't like reading the same sections every year, so I've shuffled things around a bit. Youngest Daughter tends to pick songs that are a little hard for un-voice-trained me. And the candles are always a bit of a distraction: the flickering, the "who gets to blow them out" and anticipating playing with the wax afterward--but that's all part of it, I suppose.

When you've lived in relative comfort and liberty all your life, and not seen oppression up close, it isn't easy to appreciate how people could look forward to an apocalyptic end to the world, as they do in the usual readings. I've tried to explain it the past few years, but the immediacy of the images of destruction weighs more heavily on some sensitive souls. Had I known they were going to show "end of the world" movies I'd not have let the kids go...

At any rate: Happy new year to all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Somebody here has a tin ear, and I don't think it's me

What hath Lego wrought? And with an exclusive Yoda-dressed-as-Santa figure! (adding a little more confusion to the Advent theme)

It could be worse. Remember the year Walgreens carried those foot-tall angel-in-bikini figures? Or the Japanese toy engineer who couldn't understand why he was asked to suppress his designs for a new Transformer model (Jesus on the cross turns into killer robot)?

Of course this is just toys, and not life or death--but the song they sing is of a sad disconnect from what people cared, and still care, about.

"Is this a dagger that I see before me?"

BBC reports that researchers are making progress on "bionic contact lenses" which could, for example, float email or GPS directions right in front of your eyeballs. No doubt some people would find this useful, but think how inescapable advertisements would become. (There are also little power issues--it uses a wireless supply and although the power transmitted is low I'd get a little nervous about eye damage over time.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

If the European doomsayers are right

High officials have said that peace is not a foregone conclusion. I wonder what Europe will be doing 5 years from now. With armies drawn down so far, I don't see war--at least not right away. Certainly not full scale wars of the type we're used to seeing over there.

Assume the gloomy outlook is correct, and that sometime in the not-too-distant future there will be riots killing foreign nationals, and counter riots, and demands for revenge against the thieves and killers. (From over here I don't see that degree of demonization yet. But I have to rely on reporters who speak the local languages--I've no clue what the man in the coffee-shop thinks.)

Neighbors might go to war in the classical way again. But non-neighboring countries might go with different models--attacks in third countries or on the sea, rocket attacks from throw-aways, or borrow from the midEast model and use terror bombings.

What would we expect to see on the road to classical war, given that the armies aren't that large yet?

They'd be expanding the forces under cover, or arranging so they can expand quickly. Rifles and uniforms are cheap, experienced drill sergeants a little less so, trucks and depots and artillery and aircraft still less--is anybody trying to buy back stuff they sold to third world countries? They'd start collecting dual use vehicles, and rehabbing boats as mine sweepers, and hiring vets from other countries.

Governments might start trying to be best pals with Turkey and Russia. Greece vs Germany wouldn't be much of a contest unless Greece had a powerful ally. (Hmm. Probably wouldn't be Turkey...)

The shape of trade wars will depend on how things settle out from the breakdown, and I can't make a decent stab at guessing that, and suspect that very few could.

I'll keep my eyes peeled. We have enough of our own troubles here. Mexico is coming apart at the seams already. The breakdown will be demagogue fertilizer all over; I could easily foresee states offering to secede. Texas isn't Germany, nor California Greece, but there are enough parallels to shape the same kind of conflict.

Parkinson's and trichloroethylene

BBC reports on a report in Annals of Neurology claiming an estimated 6-fold increase in Parkinson's risk in those exposed to the chemical, albeit with a lag time of 40 years.

Two things jump out at me in this: the long lag time and the low statistics (99 twin pairs: 1 with Parkinson's, 1 without). Two others seemed to be associated with somewhat higher risk: perchloroethylene and carbon tetrachloride. They find "No statistical link was found with the other three solvents examined in the study - toluene, xylene and n-hexane."

I don't trust that 6x number. Some increase in risk is plausible, but ...

The sample size is small enough that the uncertainty on the ratio is going to be a substantial fraction of that number 6. I can't get at the original article, but be generous and assume that almost all the participants were able to accurately self-report (warning! uncertainties here!) exposure to the chemicals: 94; 12 with exposure and 82 without. An ordinary 1-sigma fluctuation reduces that to less than 5, or more than 10. The article undoubtedly reports the error estimates, but your typical reporter is statistic illiterate and omits them. Systematic errors add to the uncertainty--remember that this is self-reported exposure.

Another factor to consider is the surprising result bias. Suppose for the sake of argument (PLEASE DON'T USE THESE NUMBERS! I JUST MADE THEM UP.) that half the solvents gave a 50% increase in risk of developing the disease. If the report had found that 50% increase in risk, that would have been an important finding, but it would not have gotten the attention of BBC. An accidental fluctuation that gives one of the ratios a value of 6 rather than 1.5 would be dramatic and make news. An accidental fluctuation that gives one of the ratios a value of 0.1 (reduces risk) would also make the news, and no doubt lead to people trying to drink xylene to treat Parkinson's. An accidental fluctuation of the 1.5 to 1 (no change in risk) would not get any attention at all, and might not even be published--which is pretty scary, when you think about it.

The thing to keep in mind here is that if there's a 5% chance that testing one chemical on a sample this small gives a crazy result, if you are looking at 6 different ones (and the reported exposures are not correlated), you've got about a 26% chance that at least one of the comparisons will be crazy. That's why you want large sample sizes, and to repeat experiments. And why scientists, as opposed to reporters and politicians, report not just the result, but what their uncertainty is.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Paterno and who else?

Plenty of others have already noted that college football is an ugly mess, with the joke (?) that some colleges can only field a team on parole. And that the culture of winning uber alles produces a demand for unquestioning loyalty only suitable for the heat of life or death battles, not the day to day management of a game. And that McQueary is going to have trouble living with himself. And that the Penn state students are insane (though somebody pointed out that riots are a dime a dozen there).

I’d heard the name Paterno somewhere before: I’m not tuned into college football. But given the way colleges try to sweep athlete crime under the rug, it is no huge surprise to find they do the same for coaches. A recent report had NY cops demonstrating against a prosecutor trying some others for fixing tickets; which they considered a perk of the job.

What else is going on? Chicago we know about; New Orleans and DC we know about. Where else is this happening?

A Short History of England by GK Chesterton

As you no doubt expect, this is not a list of names and dates and battles. In fact a number of references will be unintelligible without such preexisting knowledge. He would probably have enjoyed the irony.

Instead he wrote a thematic history, looking at the great movements and their consequences today. It is like pulling teeth to get him to admit that the Catholic Church had major problems, and his view of the guilds is more rosy-colored than dispassionate analysis allows. (I took the opportunity to try to learn about them—interesting constellation of institutions.)

One of his theses is that kings are often good.

It is "the little tyrant of the fields" that poisons human life. The thesis involved the truism that a good king is not only a good thing, but perhaps the best thing. But it also involved the paradox that even a bad king is a good king, for his oppression weakens the nobility and relieves the pressure on the populace. If he is a tyrant he chiefly tortures the torturers; and though Nero's murder of his own mother was hardly perhaps a gain to his soul, it was no great loss to his empire.

I should point out that Chesterton died before WWII, and this book was written before WWI was ended. He did not yet have a full picture of what a modern dictatorship was capable. He knew it was bad, but didn’t know how bad.

He spends much time on legends, on the perfectly legitimate grounds that these represent what people were thinking. But statements like "But the paradox remains that Arthur is more real than Alfred" are excessively post-modernist. Nevertheless:

The nineteenth-century historians went on the curious principle of dismissing all people of whom tales are told, and concentrating upon people of whom nothing is told. Thus, Arthur is made utterly impersonal because all legends are lies, but somebody of the type of Hengist is made quite an important personality, merely because nobody thought him important enough to lie about. Now this is to reverse all common sense. A great many witty sayings are attributed to Talleyrand which were really said by somebody else. But they would not be so attributed if Talleyrand had been a fool, still less if he had been a fable. That fictitious stories are told about a person is, nine times out of ten, extremely good evidence that there was somebody to tell them about.

The first great villain is Henry VIII, and quite reasonably so. His effort to make sure that there were no institutions not chartered by the state in some way--whether church or local government or guild--is mirrored in the great totalitarian states of today, and is explicit in the platform of many progressive parties (who actually go farther and presume to redefine family relations as well).

Chesterton excoriates the squires, and the poor laws, and capitalism in general, and argues that Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews was popular, if not justified. His ending, written in the middle of WWI, is worth contemplating, considering the history of the island after WWII:

At least, if there be anything valid in my own vision of these things, we have returned to an origin and we are back in the war with the barbarians. It falls as naturally for me that the Englishman and the Frenchman should be on the same side as that Alfred and Abbo should be on the same side, in that black century when the barbarians wasted Wessex and besieged Paris. But there are now, perhaps, less certain tests of the spiritual as distinct from the material victory of civilization. Ideas are more mixed, are complicated by fine shades or covered by fine names. And whether the retreating savage leaves behind him the soul of savagery, like a sickness in the air, I myself should judge primarily by one political and moral test. The soul of savagery is slavery. Under all its mask of machinery and instruction, the German regimentation of the poor was the relapse of barbarians into slavery. I can see no escape from it for ourselves in the ruts of our present reforms, but only by doing what the mediævals did after the other barbarian defeat: beginning, by guilds and small independent groups, gradually to restore the personal property of the poor and the personal freedom of the family. If the English really attempt that, the English have at least shown in the war, to any one who doubted it, that they have not lost the courage and capacity of their fathers, and can carry it through if they will. If they do not do so, if they continue to move only with the dead momentum of the social discipline which we learnt from Germany, there is nothing before us but what Mr. Belloc, the discoverer of this great sociological drift, has called the Servile State. And there are moods in which a man, considering that conclusion of our story, is half inclined to wish that the wave of Teutonic barbarism had washed out us and our armies together; and that the world should never know anything more of the last of the English, except that they died for liberty.

Read it. You won’t agree with all of it (I don’t: Edward was wrong), and it is not the best example of his wonderful style, but worth reading. With a reference to hand …

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Crazy garden year

The front yard looked like mostly garden this year, with tomatoes and a beanpole and zucchini and squash that tried to take over, and sunflowers and waves of different kinds of flowers that despite the efforts of my better half I have never mastered the names of. OK, I can worry out which are the roses--and we still have some blossoms, frost-wilted though they are. And last weekend there was one last strawberry. The birds loved the sunflowers. And the rabbits weren't phased by the gladiolas (or whatever they were--the beasts allegedly don't like the smell).

Some things grew strong all the way into November, but we must have lost 20 pounds of cherry tomatoes that never ripened enough to pick--they stayed hard and green for months. (And for some reason some of the small tomatoes tasted vile; but others on the same plant were delicious. By their fruits you will ... um ...) The hot peppers finally made their red crown above the green, and those we didn't give away are now drying in the kitchen.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

What can they do?

The Wisconsin State Journal reported that the city objected to bar owners demanding drivers' licenses for admission. State ID's were not allowed. Obviously the state loses face if the ID they tout as an alternative to a drivers' license isn't accepted, but that wasn't the complaint.

"It's been clearly documented who does and doesn't have driver's licenses in the state of Wisconsin," said Mark Woulf, alcohol policy coordinator for Madison, citing a vast divide between blacks and whites. "That alone raises eyebrows and could easily be determined to be discriminatory."

Bar owners were under pressure to come up with ways to reduce violence in their establishments, and apparently this has in fact worked:

Bouncer Glenn Galetka has mixed feelings about the policy. He called requiring a driver's license "bogus," as he doesn't have a license himself after accumulating too many speeding tickets. But he said he appreciated the policy's safety effect after a summer in which he was in the middle of frequent violence including two brawls.

"It was a way to get a certain crowd out," he said, describing that crowd as primarily young African-American men who mostly had state identification cards instead of driver's licenses. "It makes my job easier."

And there's the rub. Suppose one had a dowsing rod that could point out the people who would cause trouble if admitted that night, whether because the candidate had a violent character or because an ex's new beau was already there. It would disproportionately turn away young black males, who disproportionately caused fights in and outside the bars. Whatever you use as a proxy for violent propensity, the more accurate it is the more discriminatory it will be. (At least in this decade and this culture--the troublesome group isn't always the same.)

So what does the city value most? Public safety or guarantees of equality? Problem is, if a group feels discriminated against it may lash out and "degrade public safety," though one might legitimately ask how that would be worse that the existing level of violence. I don't think there's a simple "solution" but we might at least speak honestly about the problems.

Mysteries of Windows XP: user directory spontaneously renamed

In case somebody else has the problem:

I was silly enough to leave checked the "compress files" radio button when asking for a disk cleanup last night. I don't know if that was what did the damage, or if it was the system updates, but this morning when Youngest Son logged in all his files were gone, ditto his desktop, etc. Nobody else seems to have been bothered.

His login directory had apparently changed from his name to "TEMP".

A quick googling to learn why found nothing, but told how to identify the account (which has a non-intuitive numeric string in the Registry), and how to rename directories. Ah...

Using regedit I discovered that YS now had 2 accounts: one with his old account_number and one with account_number.bak . The latter had the proper directory, and the former had a directory defined by his name with the name of the computer tacked on at the end!

This was in "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE \ SOFTWARE\ Microsoft\ Windows NT \ CurrentVersion \ ProfileList", but undoubtedly you Windows experts knew that already. I fixed the ProfileImagePath and rebooted and it seems OK now.

I still have no idea how things went wrong. I've been responsible for managing computers at work for over 26 years (mostly Unix/Linux and VMS), and I've not seen anything quite like this before. I won't delete the .bak account if I can help it--I should change its Path to point at something harmless just in case the system decided to clean things up behind my back.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Reformation Day

The sound of a seminar notice
Tacked onto the Wittenberg door
Was the hammer of God for repentance,
And the hammer of Hell into war.

One like a prophet decrying
Truths barnacled into lies
Spoke into a land of oppression
Echoing unforeseen cries.

Some men worshiped their models
And others scrambled for sway
As old light again cut through smother
And men searched about for God’s way.

With Orthodox chained to their countries,
And Church of the East beyond ken:
Divisions were old in the body
And here rode division again

Are there things worse than disunion
With brotherly quarrel and hate?
Was this merely permitted, or needed
To wake us to our dying state?

"The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord … mid toil and tribulation and tumult of her war, she waits the consummation of peace forevermore"

Ponzi Suburbs?

The article linked here from Business Insider reports on a report by "Strong Towns" claiming that suburban growth has the marks of a Ponzi scheme. Why? Maintenance is only affordable if there is growth in the tax base. They illustrate with a simple model and a number of case studies.
Case Study: Minnesota property taxes are not remotely sufficient to pay for road maintenance

A small, rural Minnesota road is paved, with the costs of the surfacing project split evenly between the property owners and the city.

Strong Towns asked: Based on the taxes being paid by the property owners along this road, how long will it take the city to recoup its 50% contribution.

The answer: 37 years. The road is only expected to last 20 to 25 years.

Or, in another town:

Because of this, over the estimated life of the new street, the City expects to collect a total of $27/foot for road repairs. The cost for repairs will run between $80 and $100 per foot.

(Repair or replacement of a sewer is more expensive than laying one in when a subdivision is built.)

As long as the town keeps growing, you can pay for repair of old roads with property taxes from new homes, and kick the can down the road awhile. But if you have to are going to properly include maintenance and replacement costs you have a few choices:

  1. Crank up property taxes by a large factor. This would make a number of people I know homeless: low income and fixed income. Don't bother talking about renting instead of owning: rents will have to rise too.
  2. Let roads deteriorate a lot farther before repairing them. There are secondary costs in damage to city vehicles, etc with this.
  3. Focus on only a core of the city for maintenance and repair, and let the rest go to hell. There won't be a lot a lot of happy campers in this case, except for the lucky cronies who own rental property in the center.
  4. Change the methods and standards for road building and construction to use cheaper or longer-lived materials. There's a huge investment in research and new machines here, and it may not actually work.

Having the state or feds take over merely moves the taxes to a different category, but doesn't decrease the cost. (In fact having the feds fund it is probably more costly, when you take administrative overhead and long term money costs into account.)

I'd vote for investing in #4 ... I can point to some Madisonians who love the idea of option 3.

Of course, this assumes "Strong Towns" is telling the truth.

One of the comments described a city's offer of land and a tax-free decade to a business, which promptly relocated at the end of ten years. I've never heard of an offer like this that turned out well. I'm speaking as one on the pointy end of the taxes--it may turn out ok for the business or for somebody who got a tax-subsidized job for those few years, but not for the rest of us. (I'd be glad to hear of examples where it worked)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dark matter in dwarf galaxies

Now we find that the dark matter in dwarf galaxies aound the Milky Way seem to have distributions inconsistent with dark matter being cold. Cold dark matter,
if it doesn't interact with normal matter much, would tend to cluster near the center of a star cluster. OK, maybe not cluster as much as the normal matter does, but you don't expect a uniform distribution.

I didn't read the paper, and would have to read several to make sure I understood the details well enough. So I'm going by what the reporters at Space say. But...

"Either normal matter affects dark matter more than scientists thought, or it isn't cold and slow-moving, the researchers said.

Or the dwarf galaxies get churned up from time to time, and the relaxation time for normal matter is shorter than for dark matter.

So far we know very little about dark matter, including how many different kinds there are or how it interacts with itself. It might prove to have interactions as complicated as normal matter, with its atoms and molecules and structures.

Paging science fiction writers, your premise is calling...

Trying to figure out events

Recently I haven't had much to say that I thought the world was entitled to know, and less that seemed to merit a full posting.

But from the swirl of events:

I was not a Jobs devotee. His devotion to his aesthetic and view of how things should work (inconsistent though it might be: think of the NeXT!) certainly changed the world. But one size doesn't fit all and "God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world." Those who knew him better should write the eulogies.

I still do not understand exactly what we were doing in Libya. Tiny hints poped up along the way suggesting that something was afoot in the nuclear supplies line, but nothing solid enough to conclude that the powers that be had serious issues on their minds. The official line was nonsense; and were they kidding themselves about what the likely heirs of Gadhafi would be like? Not that Gadhafi didn't richly deserve toppling--the world would be a happier place if he'd gone years ago. I'm surprised he didn't flee. I guess he had succeeded in fooling himself too about how much his subjects loved him.

I confess that sending troops to help find/destroy the LRA puzzled me: why? Obvious after someone pointed it out: it's a quid pro quo for permission to establish bases in Uganda. I suspect the troops won't do much good, though. If Ugandan troops and government officials are like those elsewhere on the continent, their main objectives have little to do with engaging the enemy.

I gather today is UN Day. It has some notable victories to its credit: standardizing air traffic control, control of some diseases, and so on. And it has some truly foul corruption and offenses to its discredit, which I won't darken the day with. And it is a wonderful place to find sinecures for cousins. And from time to time the peacekeeping troops do something useful--such as in Liberia. In Lebanon they were merely targets who had to pretend Hezbullah wasn't installing missile launchers; worse than useless. "Shake Hands with the Devil" anyone?

Is the UW discriminating on the basis of race? I don't know. Probably, but from looking at the student body it would be hard to tell: Wisconsin is very much a white state (Milwaukee excepted), and the University, as a state school, has an obligation to provide for the residents of the state. I wish the various parties would use the word "diversity" honestly and consistently. Sometimes it means something the dictionary would recognize: a mix of students from different backgrounds and with different perspectives (such as from China, India, Korea, Japan, Canada, Germany, etc); and sometimes it means with a proportionate mix of students from disadvantaged groups. (Bureaucrats like things they can count, never mind whether the program targets the right subgroup or not.)

Saturday, October 08, 2011


“Hiphil –[deleted]—Beelzebub!” The book warned you could only do this once, and I hoped I had it right.

The pentagram at my feet glowed orange through the smoke, and slowly the view of an ordinary office desk appeared—a desk with a computer monitor on it and a figure seated behind it. I didn’t like to look at the figure’s face. The alien room appeared at right angles to the floor, and it felt like I was supine at the feet of the creature rather than it resting in the pentagram at my feet.

“Baalzebub’s office. He is not in the office today.”

“I thought the summons brought Beelzebub here to do my will, like it says in the grimoire!” I blurted.

“Hardly,” laughed the figure. “For that you have to have the sacrifice and the standard contract on your part, and in any event the proposal has to be reviewed. The likes of you don’t get to tell him what to do. Your incantation just entitles you to 7 answers, one of which, at our discretion, can be a lie.”

I thought that over for a minute. At least the failure wasn’t going to cost anything irrevocable. I’d have to think fast—the incense would dissipate soon. But how could I be sure of the answer?

“What I tell you three times is true,” I ventured.

“That is your call. You only get 7 answers. If you want to spend 3 on the same question, feel free to do so.”

His chuckle was fingernails on a blackboard, and the look on his face—or whatever it was—showed he knew it. I collected myself.

“OK, I want to be rich … umm … to have available a million dollars a year.”

“OK,” he started—too quickly.

“That’s 1950 constant dollar equivalent,” I interrupted.

“Ah.” The demon clicked on the keys for a while, stared at the screen, typed some more, and then looked at me again. “That cannot happen. You could try upgrading to the full contract,” he added.

“What? You mean there’s no way I can get rich? Why not?”

“That is question 2. The future holds a severe collapse, and the only ones to be rich are already in the oligarchic circle—and it is too late for you to insinuate yourself. That’s why I suggest the upgrade, which makes some supernatural interventions possible.”

“I’m starting to wonder how useful your answers are going to be.”

“That depends on your questions.”

I glanced at the incense burner—still going. “OK, how about power? How can I become powerful?”

“Do you mean political power?”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

More typing ensued, and then: “This one you can achieve. Go to Chicago and find –[deleted]—. Butter him up, be his goto man. Cover for him—he has a taste for young ones—and become good at watching poll numbers and tailoring his speeches for audiences. Backstab as needed to keep anybody else from taking your place. You will be gatekeeper for access to –[deleted]— and thus the power behind the throne—and there will be a lot of power, with people lining up to get the chance to meet you. Do not take a wife or girlfriend—that will distract you and he will drop you from the inner circle. He will have about an 18-year run, and if you time it right you can expose him yourself and get clear before it all hits the fan. Paraguay would be a good choice.”

“That sounds like a lot of pressure for not much fun.”

“That is up to you. You ask me and I answer.”

“I see. Maybe I’m mixing up means and ends.”

He sat there waiting.

“I like women. How can I sleep with lots and lots of willing women?”

Tap tap tap. “There are several ways. One simple way is to take your money and move to Sierra Leone. You can rent women very inexpensively, and your money will last for quite a few years. Make a deal with Saad in three years to be liaison for supplying visiting Europeans and it will last even longer. Take lots of penicillin and learn about the AIDS cocktail.

Or if that is not quite what you had in mind, up until you are about 35 you can use the How to Get Laid book’s techniques. At almost any medium sized gathering there is at least one needy girl, and when you learn how to identify her and manipulate her you can reliably bed her. Keep current with penicillin and you will need the AIDS cocktail too. Go easy on the scotch.”

“Wow. Are those my only options?” Supernatural information sources weren’t turning out to be what they were cracked up to be.

“Without a lot more money, yes. Or you can get an upgrade.”

“I’m not sure I can afford the upgrade. How can I have a long and healthy life?”

“What do you mean by healthy? Not growing old is an upgrade-only option,” he countered.

“Umm. Live to at least 90, always be able to walk and talk and hear and taste. Eat whatever I like, no cancer. Ah... No broken bones, no other big diseases.”

“This is question 5.” Tap tap click click tap tap tap click. “Odd. You are already sicker than you think. Your gut flora are all wrong and there’s considerable chemical damage already. Age 90 is a few years longer than you have. Your basic rules are: exercise every other day for 20 minutes, never eat broccoli or chocolate, stay away from the beach, do not take the hiking trails in Yellowstone next year, never drive on January 18, stay away from alleys, see a doctor every 6 months—but never see a Dr. Wesley. Wash your hands after touching public objects. To get your gut flora straightened out—in three months take a course of 13 days of amoxicillin, and two days later eat a quart of fresh yogurt from the Whole Foods market and one tablespoon of the feces of Jason Smiley on Simpson Street. That should re-inoculate you with a better colony.”

The book had intimated something magical; not at all like this. Wash my hands and eat what?! This had to be the lie he warned about. Didn’t it?

“I think I got that.” The incense burner was about done. Think quickly! “How about a good wife? Where can I find a good wife?”

“What were you looking for? There are lots of women in the world. Sexy, obedient, good cook—what do you want?”

“How about somebody who’d be a heavenly match for me? My one and only?”

“That is not exactly our office’s job, you understand. We are a little more specific and practical down here.”

“So you can’t answer the question?” I was starting to feel good about this for the first time.

“If you insist. Question 6 I will forward to another office. This may take a few minutes, though.” He tapped away and then sat back twiddling his claws. I started to get nervous again.

After about 3 minutes the machine beeped. “They sent us a list of 6 top candidates, all equally good. There is Panesh Mura, studying French literature in New Delhi. Bessy Kaunda in Nairobi. Manu Pau in southern Rengat in Sumatra. Maria Calla in San Ignacio in Bolivia—but you will have to move quickly, since she is thinking of becoming a nun. Jing Pao in Ertong Park in Shanghai. And another Maria, Fuentes, this time, in the Bario Santa Anita in San Salvador.”

I scribbled furiously. “Fuentes in San Salvador. Got it.” The incense was starting to dissipate. “OK, let’s try fame. What is dark matter?”

The demon clicked his claws against the keyboard for a few strokes and spun the monitor around. I bent down to read it. Underneath “Powered by Google” was a table of ordinary and Greek letters in different colors; and a diagram with some squiggly lines, and an equation with symbols they didn’t tell us about in Algebra II. I started to scribble but the vista vanished with the incense. I tried to finish it from memory, but I didn’t think I’d gotten it all and I’d no idea what any of it meant.

A new pagelet sat in the open grimoire on the floor beside me, bearing the bold title “UPGRADE NOW!”

Friday, October 07, 2011

Nobel and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

She can talk nonsense like any other politician. “President Johnson Sirleaf, who read the platform, said her administration will build structures to host government ministries currently housed in private buildings, and relocate the political capital from Monrovia to Zekapa, a town situated at the border with three counties.” and “Speaking in the two counties when the governing Unity Party unveiled its Platform for the country, President Sirleaf promised that the government would create no fewer than 20,000 jobs annually, on a short- and long-term basis for the next six years.”

But she's been worth a billion dollars to Liberia, and I mean that literally: She wangled debt relief to the tune of about a billion dollars. And because she isn't a warlord, she's gotten a lot of independent support. When she started out, I was worried that the situation needed somebody to keep a lid on the unrepentant warlords, and she had nobody. I'd not thought the UN troops would still be there. There will be problems when they leave. Guaranteed. They're spending money, and when that dries up there'll be an economic downturn at minimum; and I have no faith whatever in the patriotism of the warlords. But because they've been there, and because she's charted an impartial course, and because she canned the Truth and Reconciliation committee's proposals, it has been quiet. And if it is quiet long enough, there may be peace.

She has done well. I congratulate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on her Nobel prize. The peace prize has been a bad joke as often as not, but they did it right for her.

UPDATE: More recent numbers suggest something between 4 and 5 billion dollars in debt relief. Even better. And of course there's the money flow from the UN troops in the country, though relying on that is dangerous.

And for Leymah Gbowee. She worked hard to try to bring peace in Liberia. I wasn't on the ground there so I can't say how much depended on her, but every bit helped, and she was a symbol to a lot of people. Congratulations.

Tawakul Karman won too. I wonder. Within my memory Yemen was more than one country, with warring tribes, and I wonder if it is in the process of returning to that condition. I hope not. Good luck, and I hope they haven't painted a target on your back with this prize.

Mexican Marriage?

Leonel Luna either doesn't have a clue about marriage, or doesn't want to know. Mandatory pre-nup with a 2-year renewable term? That's not a marriage, that's prostitution; for a longer term than a night, true, but it will be a financial quid-pro-quo within months. Call it concubinage if you want a milder term, but it is not a marriage.

It is hard to make things better, but easy to make them worse, and this “solution” to unstable marriages cannot help but make the ones that still actually occur less stable, and discourage people from actually marrying. Think “the marginal case.” What has this sort of scheme to do with loving union and commitment, with children, with fidelity?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Self Help

From an email circulated today to UW-Madison employees:

Although UW-Madison faces stiff budgetary challenges, Interim Chancellor
David Ward told the Faculty Senate Monday that avenues of "self-help"
can lighten their impact.

*Related*: Employees would be barred from carrying concealed weapons
while in the course or scope of their employment, under a policy
approved by the Senate

UPDATE: Yes, this is an unedited quote from the email. I put a paragraph marker in to make sure the formatting would stay the same.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Urban OS?

Somebody has delusions of grandeur. McLaren Electronic Systems is dreaming of automated cities, where an overarching OS handles I/O and cities can plan resource use and messaging to have warnings and activities coordinated.

What are the problems with this? First, the model of the city and its functions is necessarily schematic, and hasn't the details or the friction of real life. The sensors measuring traffic flow will read differently after a snowfall, the fire sensor in building X will be vandalized, the email server will be clogged with spam--you name it. Simple management programs will give results as blithely out of touch with reality as any Soviet 5-year plan.

So the beautiful monitoring program will have to include crosschecks and validations and authentications until it is bloated and untestable. The system will have a "HACK ME" sign pasted on it the size of the moon.

Need firemen? Think "Blue screen of death." Or that OS stands for "Oh &%$!"

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Archaeology and children

Pyramids and such are obviously adult work, but there are a lot of small relics that I've wondered about over the years. That reputed "mother goddess" the Willendorf Venus always looked a little more like a doll to me.

Do you remember your childhood? If you had any access to the outdoors at all, chances are you collected some interesting items on your adventures and maybe made a secret cache with your friends. Why a broken doll and an old bottle needed to be cached behind a rock wall is a mystery you probably can't fathom today, but it made sense at the time.

The BBC reports that at least some of the cave paintings in Rouffignac were made by children's hands. Makes sense to me--if we'd had access to caves in my youth I'm pretty sure we'd have left many markings suitable for confusing future archaeologists. I know in Africa I left behind a few things inside a wall, or buried as a geological erratic.

Of course, some voodoo/Mami Wata shrines look very much like the things children sometimes accumulate, only larger and more extensive. Life isn't easy for archaeologists...

Outwitting the "crazy hairy ants"

The AP reported on a plague of fast-moving ants that were starting to infest the south. They short out wires, kill bees, and leave no room for fire ants (so they're not all bad). Kill one and chemical cues quickly bring the others in swarms.

If one gets electrocuted, its death releases a chemical cue to attack a threat to the colony, said Roger Gold, an entomology professor at Texas A&M.

"The other ants rush in. Before long, you have a ball of ants," he said.


"I did a test site with a product early on and applied the product to a half-acre ... In 30 days I had two inches of dead ants covering the entire half-acre," Rasberry said. "It looked like the top of the dead ants was just total movement from all the live ants on top of the dead ants."

Perhaps we can finesse this defense so that it turns into a weakness.

Study the critters until you find out what that chemical cue is. Synthesize it.

Now dig a ditch near the infested area and spray it with this stuff and kerosene. After a few hours, ignite. Lather, rinse, repeat. I'd think that after maybe a week or so you'd start to exhaust the number of ants who respond to the cues. From the description above it sounds like they'll come from a couple hundred yards away.

Friday, September 30, 2011


I first worked on a CDF project back in about 1981, years before the Tevatron turned on. The University of Illinois wanted to make the central muon detectors, and Lee thought we could use a simplified version of the Aachen tubes built for UA1. I fiddled around with some extrusions and learned how to make a cosmic ray telescope to trigger the readout and discovered that electrolytic capacitors could sometimes explode (a CAMAC-based prototype TDC we borrowed went fiss/bang and caught fire). At the end of it all I didn't get really good results, and the design was eventually chucked anyway because the drift time was too long. The beam bunch crossing time was going to be longer than the drift time, which would mean we'd have mixed in hits from muons from different collisions, which confuses the reconstruction.

Later on the Tevatron went to more frequent bunch crossings, and as we went up and up in luminosity we started getting multiple interactions per bunch crossing, not nearly as many as at the LHC, but still a lot. So we wound up with hits from different events anyway, but by then we had a much better handle on how to reconstruct tracks and stubs.

I took a break from the drift chamber work to work on my thesis experiment, and then went to Wisconsin as a post-doc. There I worked on UA1 and CDF again: not monogamous, as Carlo Rubia complained about my boss and his team. Since then I've been either full or part time on CDF--1985 to 2011. Funding for my part of the project ends this year along with the beam.

The beam is off, and it is the end of an era--but the data processing goes on, and student analyses and theses will keep going for several more years after that. And some profs will decide to have a look at something they never got a chance to finish; something that the LHC can't do as well. My group was charged with providing software releases to last another 5 years; that are supposed to be robust enough to be ported to the next generation OS with minimal labor. I think we're getting it.

I still have some directories with software for the online system--something to monitor the HV for the Wisconsin muon detectors which I was delegated the job of maintaining after the author left, and so on. Time to clean up.

I worked a little on a few analyses, but kept getting pulled off to fix something, so I didn't actually contribute a lot to the physics. Some, yes; but not a lot. Kind of a gloomy thought to end on, but that's life--I spent time keeping things running and helping people get their jobs going and keeping the data running. And writing code to help make it work, online and offline. It's my fault if I didn't push harder to do the interesting stuff. (OK, some of it is interesting. The W-mass work is useful but not wildly exciting.)

I took shifts back when we had a walk-through that checked the voltages on the HV supply panels and the gas percentages in the mixer in the gas rack (had to climb down into it) and that got you back to the control room in time to do it again. And I took shifts when almost everything was automated, with software to diagnose what was wrong and blink warnings at you (I wrote some of it), and the biggest headache was going through the run validation checklist. VAXes and terminals tuned into Linux and multiple displays. Back in the day dumb terminals were so expensive that Fermilab bought Macintosh computers and ran terminal emulators (the old Macs).

Meetings in the pump room were awful--the pumps downstairs made it very hard to hear anybody. A new room was built later--and still called the pump room. The old one turned into offices which had enough cubicle walls to muffle the noise.

Fermilab got larger, and more and more bureaucratic and rules-bound. Some of the stuff turned out, on inquiry, to be implementing Federally mandated rules, which seemed to appear in new crops every year. Three years ago it seemed as though somebody had gone training-happy and was designing mandatory training courses for everything up to and including garbage disposal (I'm not kidding). It has been quieter since--perhaps the users rose in wrath.

The trailers where almost everybody worked have gotten shabbier and emptier, and nobody is replacing the computers anymore--which is kind of a hassle when you are required by Fermilab policy to upgrade to a new OS that maxes out the memory in the old machines.

I didn't go to the party--there were some family things to do, and I've not been a huge fan of big parties anyway.

Store 9158 was the last, and run 312510. Final total: CDF acquired 9.977 fb-1. Also see the Fermilab Tevatron timeline.

It is funny that one of the milestones is listed as "First 8mm tape used to record data from a high energy physics experiment." I was somewhat involved in that, agitating for their use. I started a discussion group on the main VAX cluster about the subject, and after a few months the computing division took ownership of it away from me. I don't know if it was because it was getting large and they wanted to manage large discussions, or because there were some rather frank comments about the computing division on it. A few months later they started introducing the tapes


Zen novices live in a monastary to meditate on questions like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or of Gutei's finger or "What is Buddha? Three pounds of flax." This they hope to bring them to enlightenment.

Down a different road one finds other koans: "Does this dress make me look fat?" and "Surprise me" and the child playing with the emptiness of the box instead of the toy. The patient student finds enlightenment there.

Light Notes on Opera

Theory papers are popping up already about Opera. This is the first I've read, and they note the same problem with tachyon-type neutrinos I did (the energy dependence of the speed is wrong), and then add a pion decay issue to the mix as well. The Opera "tachyon mass" is too big and the beam energy is wrong for pion decay with these masses, and the amount of energy available for the electron neutrino in muon decay would be so restricted that an effect should have been seen decades ago. (Muon decay is one type of beta decay. Nuclear beta decay has been studied very carefully in an effort to determine the electron neutrino mass.)

They bring up a modification I'd not heard of before: Coleman/Glashow superluminal particles, where every particle has its own mass and its own light-speed. Weird, but not inconsistent with the data--but neutrino oscillations are very hard to account for in that model.

Naturally IceCube collaborators are hard at work trying to figure out what they can do to confirm/disprove the effect. I am not at liberty to describe this.

That might seem a little rude, but there's good reason for keeping quiet.

The first iterations of the discussions involve a lot of brainstorming and the discussions have to be frank. People have to be willing to say things that eventually turn out to be wrong, or not even wrong. If I were to announce their ideas prematurely, they might be deeply embarrassed by a calculation error that was caught after I announced their ideas; and outsiders who rely on the integrity of our results could be mislead into thinking that wild ideas are what we have actually discovered.

If I suppress names, then it looks like I came up with all sorts of wonderful ideas, and that's not quite honest.

So, I'll mention what I think and what other people have published, but I won't talk about the internal discussions.

Before I posted this, another paper popped up, this one claiming that superluminal neutrinos would brem off electron positron pairs so fast that they'd slow down to low energies long before reaching the Opera targets.

UPDATE: Halzen pointed out that IceCube/AMANDA already excluded differences in speeds of different masses of neutrinos down to a fraction of E-27 for neutrinos in the 10GeV and higher range. So my guess last week about different neutrinos having different speed limits is probably ruled out. I have to puzzle out the paper and see.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

If the OPERA result were true

If you were wondering why the Italian(*) OPERA collaboration announced a finding that will almost certainly be proved wrong, wonder no more. They almost certainly don't believe it themselves, but their experiment relies on the techniques that gave the anomalous result. If they are making a mistake somewhere, they badly want to know where it is. If they aren't--they're happy.

I read their paper (arXiv:1109.4897) and don't see where the problem is, but I'd hardly expect to with the level of detail provided in the paper. You need to get deep into the details; testing the cables and the timing every way you can--and I can't do that. I still think there's a mistake somewhere.

But just for fun, suppose there isn't. Suppose that muon and tau neutrinos of > 5 GeV moving through rock in the Earth's gravity do in fact more faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. What could the reason be, and what might happen next?

Before I mention options, bear in mind that we have several outstanding puzzles in physics:

  1. Reconciling General Relativity (gravity) and the Standard Model (strong and electro/weak forces in a Quantum Mechanical framework). There is no unified model. String theory has been popular for 20 years because it offered a framework for doing this, but so far it hasn't worked. At all.
  2. Dark matter. Nobody knows what it is, though it pretty plainly seems to be there. Maybe it is particles and DAMA saw it. Maybe not.
  3. Dark energy aka acceleration of the universe's expansion. It seems as though the universe's expansion is speeding up, and you can account for that and make some models of the history of the universe work if you throw some "dark energy" into the picture. There's no other evidence for it though, so we should really call this the expansion acceleration mystery.
  4. There are a few little fringe items like the Pioneer probe acceleration, where the devil is in the details: is this the effect of known physics or something new?

OK, let's see, suppose OPERA's result is correct:

  1. All neutrinos go faster than light

    We know from SN1987A that O(10MeV) electron neutrinos and anti-neutrinos move at very nearly lightspeed (within a fraction of 2E-9 of the speed of light)--they arrived only hours before the light arrived. However, the muon and tau neutrinos only a thousand times more energetic move at a fraction of 2.5E-5 faster than light.

    This isn't like the tachyon model, where the speed decreases with energy. Nor does it look like special relativity with a different value for C. Maybe something like v=c+ε E or +ε E^2 might describe it. It is pretty hard to motivate something like that from either classical or relativistic physics. But if it is, it is, and there's something very different about neutrinos.

  2. Only μ and τ neutrinos go faster than light

    This is really weird; just like the previous approach but with electrons and electron neutrinos different from other flavors. The elementary particle hierarchy is now tied into the structure of spacetime and superspacetime. This would be wild.

  3. Neutrinos speed up in a gravity well

    They'd have sped up in SN1987A too, but once flying free they'd be back near C again, so there wouldn't be a huge effect.

    In this case some particles (neutrinos) see a different spacetime structure than other particles do. Once again we have a new link between particle type and gravity. The hot dark matter models have to be redone--I'd think it would make the halos larger and less dense, so you'd need more cold dark matter.

  4. Neutrinos have access to extra time dimensions

    I tried to figure out the consequences of multiple time dimensions some years ago, but I assumed that the observer would never see anything faster than light. If that assumption was wrong, this is exactly the sort of thing you would see: the particle follows a world-line where it moves at lightspeed (or nearly; neutrinos turn out to have mass after all), but we only see one component of the time, so it seems to be going faster than light. I'll have to go back and rework that analysis, just for laughs.

  5. Neutrinos interact with rock to "go faster than light"

    I have no good model for how this would work, but with time we could come up with some sort of phase velocity description of the neutrino that might allow such an interaction. Beta decay starts to look very strange--we'd have to go back to square one for a new model. UPDATE There's a paper on this option now:, and a hat tip to Dorigo.

But is probably some boring clock problem.

(*)Yes, it has collaborators from Croatia to Korea, but it is sited in Italy and Youngest Daughter loves Rossini, so what else can I call it?

UPDATE: It used to be said that every French soldier had a field-marshal's baton in his knapsack. Something similar is true of physicists...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Death Penalty

Wisconsin has no death penalty. I’m not going to agitate to change that. Texas has one. I’m not going to agitate to change that either.

Some things about the death penalty are revolting; all the more so when we try to pretty it up and make it look easy. The guillotine or the firing squad are ugly but fast. We wanted high tech so we went with electrocution, and the clumsy way we do it is not fast and from all reports is often torture.

That’s not allowed. No cruel or unusual punishments, period. Unusual is not a particularly precise word, but we can all understand that torture is cruel. I’m not saying that it might not be appropriate in some cases (if it were true that the CIA was responsible for initiating the crack trade in US cities, the old hang, draw, and quartering might not be adequate punishment), but that doesn’t matter. Under the rules we made, we don’t do it. I don’t know whether we wrote it that way to protect the accused or the souls of the jailers, but we did and there’s an end to the argument.

Lethal injection is even more horrible. Not so much because it is torture (I gather that is usually isn’t), but because we pervert the healing profession into killers. Would you want your ambulance staffed with EMTs who moonlight at the prison execution room? I want a bright line in the sand: the doctor’s profession does not involve killing. Do something else, something fast, something that doesn't involve doctors.

The human body is resilient, with fall-back mechanisms and a reluctance to quit working. There really isn’t a nice way to make it stop.

That said, the death penalty takes crime seriously in a way other penalties don’t. I hear the call for “life without parole” thrown around by people who don’t work in prisons. Is putting murderers with no incentive for good behavior in with the rest of the inmates really such a grand idea? And the call doesn’t take into account an innocent desire for justice expressed in a punishment that fits the crime.

The “I’m more moral than you because I oppose the death penalty” attitude is pretty revolting too. Mercy is a great thing, but there’s something obnoxious about the uninjured brushing aside the blood of the victims to extend a mercy that costs them nothing. If the victims call for clemency, they shall be called the Sons of God. But the self-satisfied outsiders shall be called presumptuous.

I gather Scalia caused a stir with this:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

I won’t say this is a no-brainer, but it isn’t far from it. The Constitution defines the rules for the procedures of government. They won’t always work; nothing ever always works. As long as there’s no improper bias in the procedures, the Supreme Court assumes the outcome is correct. Weighing evidence is for other courts, not the Supreme Court; they are not supposed to second-guess decisions.

Was Troy Davis guilty of this particular murder? I’ve not a clue. A jury said yes. I don’t know how to weight recanted testimony in that culture and environment, and I don’t think his being a gangster was in dispute. The governor must not have wanted to do anything about him; possibly for political reasons, maybe because he thought the original case was good (though I doubt the governor became an expert on the case for the occasion).

May the Lord have mercy on his soul; and on the souls of the executioners. And on us all, trying to find the best way we can in a broken and violent world.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


What we immerse ourselves in effects us. Bathe in misogynist music all day and your attitude to the woman next door won’t be as polite. Violent movies and games are known to desensitize us to violence. A diet of hagiography won’t make you a saint, but it will make saintly reactions come to mind more easily; though you may do the opposite out of spite or habit.

I’ve been trying to think of any entertainments or amusements that encourage us in perseverance. It is hard. Almost everything seems to be aimed at distraction and short attention spans. Even ball games are interspersed with ads (if listening on the radio) or gimmicks at the park. With one partial exception, nothing is designed to hold your attention and enthusiasm for more than a few hours at most. That’s probably deliberate, since it means we have to buy more amusements if we want to stay entertained.

If most problems are solved in an hour or half an hour, and there’s always another entertainment just around the corner, we are training ourselves in habits of inconstancy.

The partial exception seems to be video games. I’m an outsider looking in, but some games want you to keep leveling up with harder and harder puzzles. At the end of the game there’s not a lot of tangible reward, and there seems to be a lot of flash and bang to keep the player from drifting off.

I’m not going to say that I want Youngest Son to spend his hours playing video games: I’d much rather he were reading or building or figuring out things in the real world. But perhaps they have their uses.

Faster than Light

The various articles on the subject emphasize that the researchers are having trouble believing the result--and rightly so.

A 60-nanosecond increase over a 730km trip is, if I have the numbers correct, an increase of a factor of .000025. That's pretty huge. For example, consider supernova SN 1987a. The distance to that beast was about 170,000 light years, or about 62050000 light days. .000025 of that distance is about 1500 days. Neutrinos from the supernova were detected a few hours before the light brightening was observed (which is consistent with popular models of supernova explosion, but that's a side issue). Note that: a few hours, not 4 years. That's close enough to simultaneous that I think we can safely peg neutrinos and anti-neutrinos of nuclear energy as moving at very nearly the speed of light.

The only way to make the Opera result work is if higher energy neutrinos move faster, or if neutrinos move faster in matter.

My guess is that this is a clock issue. Somewhere a clock's heartbeat is counting on the voltage upswing and something else is assuming the count is on the downswing, or something of that nature.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Another one bites the dust

This hasn't been a good season for bookstores. Borders went under (to tell the truth their selection hadn't been stellar the past few years) and this morning's paper said that Avols is merging/going online only. Avols has been a star among the second-hand book dealers in town for decades, and I've spent more than I ought there. They moved to a new and for me less convenient location, and their stock seemed spread thin in the large space.

But when Shakespeare's Books was forced off the square to become Browzers on State Street, I guess it came too close to Avols.

The report said Avols was merging facilities with A Room of One's Own and switching to online sales. A Room of One's Own is a feminist bookstore--sort of like a porn shop in that it sells creepy and soul-rotting stuff to a specialized clientelle. (Visiting it once was plenty.)

One less place to browse and discover...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Win a hand grenade for memorizing the Koran!

When I saw the BBC story telling that al-Shabab in Somalia gave AK-47's and hand grenades and cash as prizes in a regional contest of "Koran-recitation and general knowledge", my first inclination was to make some snarky remark wondering about connections between Islam and violence. But after thinking about it for 5 seconds I reconsidered.

This is Somalia. A machine gun for a 16-year-old would be a little weird in the USA, but not there. Here we'd offer a bike or a car as a prize--it is both useful and a status symbol. There, the AK-47 is the useful tool. I'd not care to wander Somalia without a selection of weapons, a flack jacket, and several people to watch my back. ("In previous years, when the competition was organized in the southern port of Kismayo, the first prize included an RPG.")

As the article also mentions in an afterthought, the winners also received religious books as part of the prize. So the prize for religious memorization was cash, religious books, and a handy local tool. Doesn't sound too crazy, does it? Although I'm not so sure about the hand grenades for third prize...

FWIW, The organizer made the Islam/violence connection themselves

"Youths should use one hand for education and the other for a gun to defend Islam," senior al-Shabab official Mukhtar Robow told the prize-giving ceremony in Elasha.

Lightly edited

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Orphans/Refugees/Titans of Chaos by J.C.Wright

On the strength of the earlier books I tried this trilogy.

Central issue: 5 youths of uncertain age in a mysterious magical/mechanical boarding school discover that they are not only not really human, but that they are effectively hostages in a universe in which the Greek gods are dominant. Sort of. The covers provide at least that much spoiler.

Wright has very effective descriptions of the gods and demi-gods, and a partitioning of the universes of magic that forms the background for the story. (Mechanical, shamanist, warlock, and multi-dimensional)

In the three volumes the youths grow into their suppressed natures--though they alternately act mature and immature in a sometimes inconsistent way. You'd expect people whose lives are in danger to stick together a little more...

Anyone with a modicum of classical education (as they have) would know not to attempt one of their escapades. It advances the plot, but left me with "who'd be dumb enough to go there?"

Their romantic entanglements are no doubt realistic enough, but I found it a bit annoying, and Colin is a bit much. And the penultimate battle felt a little over-the-top.

Parts of it are excellent. On the whole, I give it a "read it."


I heard the clip of his infamous remarks, with the context: a man whose wife had Alzheimer's was stepping out on her; a friend was calling for advice.

I typically ignore Robertson. He takes it on himself to explain what God means by current events, which is a prophet's office, without any credentials for the job.

This is a little hard to ignore. He sounded very passionate about the matter--as though he had some recent personal involvement with the disease. "gone, gone, gone!" Still, empathy is no excuse for jettisoning the truth and trying to void "better or worse" vows.

I don't know if this is something he's held all along, or if personal issues have clouded his judgment, or if perhaps his mind is failing too. His advice was incoherent enough that it may be the latter. Divorce but still provide for care?

I wonder how isolated he is in his organization. I pray he has a friend who can take him aside and tell him that's he's failing as a teacher, and has some public repentance to attend to.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"From a certain point of view"

Liberia recently scored unpleasantly high in the competition for "most corrupt country" (Somalia won the palm) and the President had some words to say about it. I know of no substantiated allegations against her, but her campaign to eliminate corruption apparently has only moved the country a few ranks better. From "All Africa's" report of a press release:

The President asserted that the maintenance of safe havens in Europe and the Americas where stolen resources are stashed need to be addressed by international partners. Bribery, she observed continues to be a menace because international corporations and private sector entities exploit the weakness of public officials.

Perhaps from a certain point of view the last sentence makes sense: suppose a waste disposal firm wants a place to dump stuff without question or oversight. But for the bulk of the people trying to work in Liberia, the statement seems a little backwards. I also rather doubt that most of the police or revenue agents maintain Swiss bank accounts.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Let's see: 447E9$ divided by 287E3$/job is 1.55M jobs for a year. And the cost is 447E9$ divided by 50E3$/job means 8.94M jobs unfunded for lack of money. Assuming the thing is paid for. ($50,000 was the median household income in 2006)

I ignore second-order effects, which are typically smaller. And I ignore the government overhead in the "job creation," which typically produces nothing but friction--no goods, no services, no security, no knowledge.