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.