Sunday, July 31, 2011

Greek Fest 2011

We spent an hour and a half at this year's Greek Fest at Assumption Church. It was too hot for Youngest Son to have much appetite, but the tour was fascinating. It was given by the man who painted the icons, and he discussed church history and ethnic churches and the structure of the layout from the point of view of the icons. Christ Pancrator is at the top of the dome (symbolizing heaven), and Old Testament figures are in the barrel of the dome. The gospel writers are in the pendulants, and Mary in the front arch. But the saints on the walls at ground level are commissioned by members of the congregation, and will be different from church to church. The iconostasis is a reflection of the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies--and so on.

Very interesting--I'm sorry my better half (and Oldest Daughter) weren't there; they'd have enjoyed it.

The food was good, and spelling turns out to be important--there's quite a difference in edibility between a balaclava and baklava.

Austerity Budgets

The UK prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple tells about what austerity budgets look like in Britain. He knows the health service best, and explains the counter-intuitive effects.

Unfortunately, it does not follow from the existence of immense waste in the public sector that budget cuts will target that waste. After all, most of the excess is in wages, precisely the element of government spending that those in charge of proposed reductions will be most anxious to preserve. It is therefore in their interest that any budget reduction should affect disproportionately the service that it is their purpose to provide

This is not mere theory; he describes the practice too:

I have seen it all before, whenever cuts became necessary in the NHS budget, as periodically they did. Wards closed, but the savings achieved were minimal because labor legislation required the staff—the major cost of the system—to be retained. Surgical operations were likewise canceled, though again, the staff was kept on. To effect any savings in this manner, it was necessary for the system to become more and more inefficient and unproductive. It was as if the bureaucracy had reversed the cry of the people at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, "More bread! Less taxes!," replacing it with "More taxes! Less bread!"

The implications are obvious.

Parenthetically, kudos to a man who can cite Sylvie and Bruno. It is not as good as the "Alice" books, but it is worth reading nonetheless.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Earplugs aren't the answer

Since Youngest Daughter works Sunday morning she wants to go to the Saturday evening service, which is "Contemporary:" aka ear-ringingly overamped.

Aha I thought--just pop in earplugs the way I do when I run monitors! No more pain!

When I run monitors I keep my mouth shut. True, the earplugs brought the guitar and drums down to reasonable levels, but I forgot that the sound of my own voice was going to be entirely bone conduction, and trying to sing was an exercise in "can I guess the notes I'm straddling?"

Friday, July 29, 2011

Debt Ceiling Kabuki

I recommend Elizabeth Scalia on the subject. The other day she quoted Day as saying we love God only as much as the person we love least, and concluded from that that politics was poisonous to the soul, since she found she didn't like anybody in politics.

Yes, I read Friedman's column decrying "equal blame." I can't be bothered to fisk it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


I can't resist this quote. Peter Berger says that Bernard Lewis wants to write an essay on economics, starting thusly:

"In the history of human thought science has often come out of superstition. Astronomy came out of astrology. Chemistry came out of alchemy. What will come out of economics?"

When you consider that Keynes is still taken seriously, you have to wonder if there ever will be a real science there. A graffiti on a warehouse in Madison claims that "Debt = Money." (All you need is the Philosopher's Stone.)

Where is King Canute when you need him?
"What we’re trying to do is save the world from the Republican budget. We’re trying to save life on this planet as we know it today."

Nancy Pelosi, 28-July-2011

And lest we forget: "this is the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow"

For those who forgot, King Cnut was mocking his flatterers when he commanded the tide to halt.

Social Acumen and Spatial Skill?

A study by Johns Hopkins seems to suggest that social skills (being able to put yourself in the Other's shoes) correlates with accuracy in predicting another's physical perspective. (Hat tip to Terri)

There are obvious questions about causation here, and whether there's some kind of feedback between the skills.

My observations tell me that one can have poor social skills and superlative map skills, though.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Doers and not hearers only

Ruminations chapter 2:17-23

Now you, if you call yourself a Christian; if you rely on the gospel and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the gospel; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the gospel the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the gospel, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

and on worship

Butter and Margarine

You may know that Wisconsin used to ban margarine. It is the Dairy State and protecting its citizens from evil imitations was a live issue. In the debates back in '65, a blindfolded State Senator was unable to tell the difference between butter and oleomargarine. I can. You probably can too. Read the link and find out the rest of the story.

Some cities are girding themselves to ban margarine again--this time because of the demon trans-fats. The more things change...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prayers for Norway

Horrible crimes. Pray for comfort for the wounded and the families of the dead, and for God's mercy on the dead.

When I heard of this, the first thing I wondered was "Why the youth camp?" If he's bombing government offices, wouldn't the more logical targets be racing out of the buildings nearby? A second bomb, or a rooftop sniper post would seem more in line with an anti-government attack. What sort of twisted man goes over an hour out of his way out to shoot kids afterward?

Later reports seem to explain it. The youth camp was an organ of the Labor party--sort of as though the Democrats ran a Boy Scouts. Government ministers spoke at the camp, and I gather some of the youth were interns. So he must have thought of it as a target composed of the political elite, not a "terrorize the people" target.

I suppose I could check this by reading his manifesto, but I don't want to give him that much honor. He showed himself vile; I don't want to hear his excuses.

Update: People who were nearby helped the swimmers despite the gunman.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

About that Higgs result

You could easily see exclusions in the final plots (called "Brazil" plots because they reminded somebody of the flag), and some limits, but there was also what looked like a little spike on the low mass side in one class of analyses, for both CMS and Atlas. The quiet mutter was "2.8σ, imagine if CMS and Atlas were able to present a joint result, maybe we're starting to find the Higgs?"

Well... If you look at some of the distributions that went into the final result, you can see nice looking colored histograms that come from the monte carlo, and little black crosses representing the data. And one of those little black crosses is on the left hand side of the peak representing background expectations. That means in the lower mass region, where we tend to have lots more data. Let me emphasize that again: until you start applying cuts on the data (muon isolation, jet Et > some value, and so on), that region of the mass plot has many orders of magnitude more data than the right hand side (high mass). The plot doesn't look like a hill in the middle of a field, but like an insane ski slope falling from left to right.

The monte carlo (random number estimators of the background, in this case) distribution we show rises very sharply on the left and falls more slowly on the right, and that lonesome data point is sitting where you don't expect much of anything--hence you get a spike in the final plot. The "gentle" slope is on the right and the cliff is on the left--and there's a datapoint out past the edge of the cliff. 10 events when you expect 8 is a yawner, but 1 when you expect 0 seems dramatic.

But this is very sensitive to how well you modeled your background. Suppose you goofed, and that sharply rising left side should really rise more slowly--meaning you expect more events at the low mass end. Now you see 1 event when you expect 1/3 (for example), which is nothing to write home about.

Expecting 1/3 of an event means something like this: If you triple the beam time you expect 1 event, or if you do the same experiment 3 times you expect to see 1 event--at some confidence level. Taking such small probabilities into account is important. Suppose there's a lottery drawing with 100 tickets. You have 1, Joe has 10, Ann has 15, and so on. Your chance of winning is 1/100 (pretty small), Ann's is 3/20 (not huge), and so on. But when you add up all those small probabilities you get 1--which in this case means somebody will win. (The experiment has no such guarantee, of course.)

So what could go wrong in the background modeling? All sorts of things, many of which are shared between CMS and Atlas, such as the parton distribution functions. "Partons" are the generic name given to quarks and gluons inside a nucleon. They appear and annihilate with amazing ease, and the fraction each one is likely to carry of the total proton momentum is the distribution function.

Little things can make a large difference when modeling large backgrounds. Recently CDF announced an anomalous peak where nobody was expecting one. D0 said they didn't see it, and a joint team is working on reconciling the difference. Rumor has it that the issue may be a difference in "jet energy corrections" for quark jets and gluon jets, and that the peak gets a lot smaller if you re-estimate the corrections.

Jets from an energetic gluon tend to be a little wider than those for quarks of the same energy, and since we use the same cone size for all kinds of jets (we don't a priori know which is which) the gluon jet will be measured slightly low. The corrections are needed because jets are extremely messy things. The E/M (electron and gamma) energy is typically measured very well in the E/M calorimetry and not so well in the hadronic calorimetry, so you need to correct the hadronic energy component a bit to get the correct total energy. There are also losses due to neutrons escaping from the hadronic calorimeter--you don't know what they are so you have to include some kind of average correction term. And there's random energy from other stuff in the cone that you have to subtract out.

Update: I added some plots that I swiped the links for from Dorigo's site, which actually come from his work area. He's a very good source about CDF and CMS work.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Edging ahead

CMS is reporting results on the Higgs search and Bs and a number of other topics. For some searches the Tevatron is now officially in the dust behind them (not for all studies: qqbar initial states are much easier with proton on antiproton). Lots of hard work went into this race.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Last US manned flight?

The last shuttle landed safely, and there's nothing planned, and given the NASA culture and funding profiles, there's not likely to be. That leaves the Russians and perhaps the Chinese, neither entirely stable and neither friendly. The EU has no interest, and Spaceship 1's children have a long way to go--and would you invest in a venture that relied on NASA's funding to buy your flights?

Perhaps it was inevitable--space is a hostile environment, expensive to get to, and there are fewer projects that require human intervention. With the economic doldrums ahead I suspect that resources for innovation and exploration will be hard to find even for the robotics, and nearly impossible for human flight. And if you wait long enough the experts die and you have to start from scratch, if you can.

There are worse legacies than a history of explorations and the knowledge they brought. They won't make tourists gasp a thousand years from now like the pyramids do, but maybe they'll make schoolchildren dream.

"I always knew I would see the first man on the moon. I never dreamed I would see the last." --Jerry Pournelle

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

For Youngest Daughter

If a chia horse dries up and turns brown, do you have a Botany Bay?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Do they pay attention at all?

The Sun Prairie farmer's market is rather small--typically less than 30 stands. One stand in the far row offered "Free Range Eggs" for $4.50/dozen. I'm still trying to figure out how that works: it sounds rather Sisyphusian and suggests extreme negligence on the part of the hens. The claim they really meant to make is quite unverifiable, but never mind that and take a look in the near row. Two stands less than 20 feet apart offered "Organic Eggs", one for $3.50/dozen and the other for $2.50/dozen. The stands were on opposite sides of the row, so each could see what the other advertised. Decisions, decisions. Should we ask if they'll match a competitor's price?

We went with "None of the Above" because we'd already bought some from a farming friend for $2.25/dozen.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Canadian Mark Steyn writes lively and lucid articles. He writes on politics, culture, and music; and is always interesting. His home page is here

Nothing good is going to come from these ludicrously protracted negotiations over laughably meaningless accounting sleights-of-hand scheduled to kick in circa 2020. All the charade does is confirm to prudent analysts around the world that the depraved ruling class of the United States cannot self-correct, and, indeed, has no desire to.

Friday, July 15, 2011

How to stop an elephant

If he's raiding your crops: try beehives built into the fences. I like it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I would be a poorer Christian, or perhaps not a Christian at all, if I had limited my contacts and reading to purely Christian influences. Lewis Carroll played a major role in my conversion with a stray couplet in a poem you’ve never read (because it isn’t very good ).

In fact I was somewhat allergic to "Christian books." I remember getting a book for my birthday that seemed like a fine enough story about a boy's adventures, but then in the last few chapters he was convicted of his sin and became a Christian. The terrible let-down and the ulterior motive to the story left me far too suspicious—when my father brought home a trilogy about The Lord of the Rings I immediately suspected similar chicanery and didn’t read it for many months.

The trilogy was immediately glommed by Dad, Mom, and one of my sisters. Dad got to read the books in order.

Over the years I’ve run across many illustrations about the importance of faithfulness and leaving the results to God. You’ve heard the story of the monk planting fruit trees who was asked "What would you do if you knew Jesus was returning tomorrow?" He answered that he would keep planting trees. Isaac dug wells that kept getting stolen, and Kipling lauded the man who could "watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools." It isn’t dramatic, and nobody sees except God. Time and chance happen to all rewards on the earth, and we don’t see the judgment of the Eternal One yet.

But this perseverance without tangible reward is hard to picture and even harder to value. I had trouble with it: I wanted just endings. I might read some dark stories for fun, but in real life I wanted the blameless to be vindicated and rewarded before the world.

At some celebration a few years back on the Capitol Square there was a trio of Buddhist monks taking turns making a sand mandala. It is fascinating to watch, and many of us watched for a long time and came back and watched and came back. They use long metal funnels with little corrugations, filled with colored sand, and rub a rod over the corrugations to slowly spill sand out the tiny end. The 20 inch mandala took, I am told, more than a day. They meticulously dripped sand here and there according to the pattern, and when they were done—I was told they dumped the whole thing. They believed that the making of it was the "prayer" (or Buddhist equivalent), and that once it was done the image was of no importance.

I hold no brief for mandalas and do not believe one earns merit by making them. But it remains for me a vivid image of obedience and faithfulness. Keep planting trees, keep digging wells, keep doing what you’ve been called to do no matter how ordinary or unapplauded or unrewarded it seems; because the reward comes from the One who sees the faithful doing and not from the lackeys of fashion who throw some bones your way, or the small group clapping for the completed image.

I’m trying to put together a (highly condensed!) set of lectures on church history. My organizing image was going to be a tree, with branches here and there for the different groups. I wanted to show where churches came from and how we were related, but the theme of faithfulness thrust itself on me. There were centuries without new guidance, centuries of trouble, when the best you could do was keep trudging on. Moses tried to start a private revolt, and had to high-tail it out of town. And out of town he stayed for 40 years: 40 more years in which the Israelites had to keep enduring slavery. Why? Unless the faithfulness itself is of value, it seems wasted time, or worse. The church endured long stretches of persecution and disdain, and long stretches of chaos around it or decay within. There were times of renewal and growth too, when it was easy to see God at work. Does that make the people living during the other times less valuable? Perhaps the image of the tree is good in another way: you’d just have a pile of leaves on the ground if not for the unglamorous faithful trunk and branches. That trunk is what makes a tree a tree. Perhaps the years of endurance are like the strong wood that holds the unity of the body together.

We love the fruit and the laurel wreath, but we also love the beautiful wood.

That’s not altogether comfortable. I like the flowering and the excitement and I want the vision, and I want people to start saying "well done" now. (Jesus warned us about that last bit.) But I start to see, thanks to a sand mandala, the glory of faithfulness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Iron Law

Don't ask what brought it to mind, but if you've never read it go read Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy. 7 sentences, and obvious when you think about it.

Buried landscape?

Oil prospectors sonar-searching the sea bottom may have found an ancient landscape buried 2km below the seabed. Have a look at it yourself. The color scheme guides the eye--perhaps too much; I get a little suspicious when things look this good. But they've taken core samples and found pollen in the layer, which is suggestive. The story didn't say what the density difference was, or what was supposed to make the different rock textures show up. I'll have to get ahold of Nature Geoscience somehow.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reading faces?

This article on use of machinery to pick up on non-verbal facial cues and tone changes, and whisper warnings in your ear. ("He is bored and confused"; "she is angry")

See what you think.

Opera or Musical

Youngest Daughter and I have a running (lighthearted) argument about whether Rogers and Hammerstein wrote operas. She claims they are not, and now she has the weight of a New York Times writer behind her, claiming that musicals are focused on the lyric and operas on the music. You would never bother to listen to "Anything Goes" if you didn't speak the language, but would happily listen to opera in Italian even if you only knew the word "ravioli."

Anthony Thomson is partly correct, but I wonder how he would classify Gilbert and Sullivan? Wild guess: "Despite tradition, it isn't real opera ™".

Saturday, July 09, 2011


Sound recording and reproduction and duplications technologies are amazing. An artist can provide the 32'nd run through that turned out perfect, and let that represent his work forever. A poor child from Middleofnowhere can hear the greatest performance ever of Aida, even if the singers died before she was born. Never mind the dreck--great stuff is available cheaply almost anywhere.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that each new musician competes not just with the others in his town, but with musicians around the world and for decades before. Should I listen to the Sun Prairie outdoor concert's rendition of part of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or hear the definitive performance (with no dog barking) from the finest orchestra? Maybe I'll buy the CD of a friend, but am I going to hear about the wonderful singer in Eau Claire? More likely I'll hear about the national names, even if they're only marginally better.

The stars, be they lucky or just a hair better than the rest (or puffed to prominence) have global scope for their talent, but the less celebrated are much more confined. A singer who a century ago would have been a star in her state is probably only known in her own hometown now.

The stars can rake in bucks from sales (not as largely as the distributors, of course), but the "almost as good" bands make what living they can from gigs--everybody else needs day jobs. The star's global scope is "nice work if you can get it" but it takes the oxygen out for everybody else. (It isn't like that in all fields: Starbucks innovation and global scope opened the field for plenty of competitors.)

I can sigh and count it as the cost of bringing high culture to the millions (and low culture and pure puff), or I can agitate for local music, or I can try to come up with some government scheme to enforce on everybody. Just for laughs, let's think about the latter.

Practical government schemes are those that benefit either big contributors, big voting blocks, or bureaucrats. The only big contributors in this mix are the music distributors, so you'd want some regulation that compelled the purchase of a lesser-known group's CD every time you bought a Lady Gaga CD. That's intrusive, benefits the powers that be, lets the enforcers feel like they're doing good, and requires an additional bureaucracy--win win win win. But it would probably accelerate the growth of MP3 pirating, and so might not be all that helpful.

One "impractical" scheme is local, as befits the problem. Require that dance halls and bars beyond some size provide 14 hours of live music per week (no karaoke) to keep their liquor license. Gigs for locals aren't as good as million seller recordings, but it keeps locals working. It is also intrusive, raises costs of visiting the establishments, and who knows, maybe some people don't want live music at a bar, because they can ignore canned music but have to acknowledge a band in some way. (I want to keep talking and not have to stop to clap when the song is over.)

I don't really recommend either approach, of course. If tastes change to more public music local groups will benefit. If the economic equation changes due to new technology who knows what will happen--but music is already dirt cheap and people feel entitled to get it that way. It is very hard to ratchet back a sense of entitlement.

I've heard Verdi's Requiem on LP, CD, and live. Live was much better. But I've only heard it once that way, and that will probably be the only time I ever do.


Lessons learned:

  1. The temperature rises fastest on days set aside for gardening
  2. "One for the cutworm, and one for the crow; one for the taxman, and one to grow"
  3. Plants have amazingly creative names, none remotely descriptive
  4. Everything looks alike
  5. To tell a vegetable from a weed--give it a yank. If it breaks or comes up easily, it is a vegetable

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Black Widow Males

This BBC post on black widow spiders has the headline: "Male black widow spiders sniff out cannibal females." I don't know if the headline is due to the author (Victoria Gill). (The science page headline is "Black widows sniff out cannibals") I hate this kind of juicing-up of stories. What the researchers found is that male black widow spiders, by tasting a female's web with their feet, can tell roughly how well-fed the female is by some chemical quality in the silk she spins. They were more interested in the well-fed ladies.

Well-fed has two effects--the female is less likely to want to eat him (hence the headline), and she is also likely to produce better eggs (not mentioned in the story). He wants a good quality mate, right? That's the theme in when researchers describe other creature's mating habits. But the reporter wanted an angle...

Monday, July 04, 2011


We took some Chinese students to see the Token Creek parade: "The biggest little parade in the world." It is about 3 blocks long. They started with the pledge, and then America the Beautiful, and then the Star Spangled Banner. It struck me how much of "America" is prayer. The unsung punctuation makes it hard to hear, but each verse ends with a petition. Except for the dangerously impossible "alabaster cities" (not possible in this vale of tears, and those who've believed in secular utopias have proved to be the bloodiest enemies of mankind the world has seen), the song is a humble one. "Lest we forget, lest we forget..."

True, this was not designed as a Christian nation (and union of church and state corrupts both). But without that underpinning it will not be a nation at all--but an empire instead. We are too diverse to be held together by tribal bonds.

Saturday, July 02, 2011


I hear some of the French are cheering that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is free, and likely won't be charged at all. As soon as he was safely in trouble, women came out of the woodwork in France to accuse him, suggesting a significant lack of innocence on his part. And now the woman turns out to be a liar (about her asylum application, about events of the day, etc) and likely a prostitute as well. We heard a bit of soul-searching from France about how men in power behave. I think it is now time to ask some hard questions about Sofitel, and about Local 6, and about the professional asylum scammers.

Friday, July 01, 2011

One of these things is not like the other thing

On the Amsterdam to Detroit leg of the return trip, our seats were fitted with personal entertainment systems: watch your own movies. I had earplugs in. I've tried to watch movies before, but you lose so much of the quiet moments thanks to engine roar that it has never been worthwhile. But, just to see what was there, I flipped through the menu and shut it off. About 4 hours later, something nagged at me: one of those was one I'd wanted to see: "Of Gods and Men." The menu offered details: French with English subtitles. That could work....

I fiddled with an earbud and started it up. 8 French monks in Algeria discover that the brutal Islamist revolt is likely to target them. Should they accept a government guard? Should they leave, "fleeing to the next town?" Should they stay and accept the same dangers their neighbors do? Martyrdom isn't high on their list of preferences, but the village needs the medic monk, and they've been part of the community for decades: invited to parties and helped out when things break down. And the government is corrupt and almost as brutal as the Islamists.

The movie takes you through their debates and worries, up to the end that we all know because we read about it, because it is a true story. It is a captivating and moving work (see it if you can--one scene is pretty graphic though).

At the end I was reflecting on the real pain and real uncertainty they and their friends endured, when I saw the title of the book one woman on the plane was reading: Things are Going Great in my Absence, How To Let Go And Let The Divine Do The Heavy Lifting; a pop-Hindu self-help book. No pain or hard decisions, just fluff... God preserve us from drowning in fluff.