Saturday, March 31, 2012

Breaking a promise

I've found that political discourse, and politicians generally, tend to leave me dividing politicians into two groups: those I disdain and those I despise.

This isn't perfectly fair; I've known a couple of people who held office and considered one a friend. And the attitude isn't good for my soul. So I decided to lay off reading about or commenting about politics for Lent.

I forgot about the election next Tuesday.

I had a look at the ballot the other day, and there aren't a lot of contests in our district. The school board should be fairly straightforward to study. The others I figured would be obfuscated a bit.

Wisconsin is an open-primary state, and so I have the choice of voting in either the Democratic or Republican presidential primary. The Democratic side is boring (the incumbent or a write-in). I figured I should research the Republicans. I haven't watched or read any of the debates, which I gather were somewhat better than the usually scripted affairs we've been offered before. Online is faster anyway.

I notice that when an organization evaluates a candidate, what they say they dislike often tells more than what they say they like. Trying to figure out why a senator would vote for X one month and oppose X' the next month, even though it seems very similar, suggests that there's a devil in the details; and sometimes I find out what it was and learn something of the nuances in the candidates views. (I throw out fliers and hang up on robo-calls--they convey no useful information.)

The TV hasn't worked since broadcasts went digital, and in any event I found long ago that avoiding TV news of any description left me better informed. The impressions I got from the newspapers and radio seem somewhat at odds with what the candidate's records tell me. That's not a big surprise, since by and large the big media reporting on Republicans is like the Muslim Brotherhood reporting on Jewish Defense League elections. No, the Fox channel never came in clearly. Why do you ask?

One area of overlap is in foreign affairs: the media impression and my review agree that the four don't seem very proficient--though only Ron Paul seems as poor as the incumbent. Granted, if there are grand strategic plans you don't always want them bruited about, but there are ways to talk knowingly without threatening.

So, let's see. A pity we can't mix qualities from each.

Ron Paul seems to actually understand that we have an economic crisis and wants to do something about it. Unfortunately he's a Libertarian and quite a few of his prescriptions can't come within miles of flying. (Gold standard? That boat sailed, and we're stuck with fiat currency with all the temptations that offers governments.)

Newt seems to relish fighting. That can be useful, but I'm not sure he keeps his eye on the ball.

Santorum isn't as far afield as he is painted; either by the newspapers or by his opponents. Mostly he seems pretty sound.

Mitt seems to have been all over the map on several hot-button issues, and his plan was the inspiration for Pelosi-Care. His version doesn't seem to have worked very well in Mass. Has Mitt changed, or is he just talking? On the plus side he seems to have been a pretty good manager--and that's nothing to sneeze at when electing a chief administrator.

I wish I had some sense for what politicians believe and what is just fashionable. I think it blindingly obvious that a line-item veto would, as a moral hazard, make the bills coming from the Federal Legislature far worse than they already are. Do the candidates support that because they think it would help, or because it is in the air?

That's two hours trying to do my civic duty. Now for the school board.

But first I have to ask whether I was able to review the candidates dispassionately and without feeling superior... Not quite. Mostly I disliked reporters, but ...

Heart attack vaccines?

While trying to find the original article for the Telegraph article announcing a possible heart attack vaccine I found another article that suggests that smallpox vaccine can increase the likelihood of heart attacks.

The Telegraph reports that

A vaccine delivered in an injection or nasal spray to prevent heart attacks could be available within five years.

Scientists have discovered that the drug stimulates the body's immune system to produce antibodies which prevent heart disease by stopping fat building up in the arteries.

The CDC reports that

Careful monitoring of smallpox vaccinations given over recent months has suggested that the vaccine may cause heart inflammation (myocarditis), inflammation of the membrane covering the heart (pericarditis), and/or a combination of these two problems (myopericarditis). Experts are exploring this more in depth.

Heart pain (angina) and heart attack also have been reported following smallpox vaccination. However, it is not known at this time if smallpox vaccination caused these problems or if they occurred by chance.

Interesting. We learned a few years back that many ulcers were caused, not directly by stress, but by an infectious organism; and there are known correlations between gum disease and heart attacks. Wild surmise time...

My first thought was that they'd located the connection, but apparently they're working along another front. It sounds (I wish I could find the report--I don't have easy access to medical scholarly reports and I don't read Swedish) as though they encourage antibodies that attack either the fat buildup or the precursors to it. Either approach sounds like it would have side effects somewhere. I'm guessing that the fat buildup is an exaggeration of some normal function in the body.

Jan Nilsson: 'phase 2' studies are about to begin...
In cooperation with the Swedish biotechnology company Bioinvent from Lund and the American company Genentech.

What compromises are lawful?

There's been a bit of to and fro about Bible translations for Muslims which replace "Son of God" with some other phrase, such as "spiritual Son of God," "beloved Son who comes from God," or "Beloved of God." The justifications for such replacement include "Muslims will avoid anything with such a blasphemous phrase" and "the phrase had messianic meaning to the Jews so a dynamic equivalent is appropriate." The opposition is that "Jesus made sure people understood it in the more literal sense and we dare not hide that" and "what's the use of a watered-down gospel?" With elaboration and variations, of course.

Grim's Hall quoted from another site about a version of the gospel translated into Saxon about AD 800-850. (Or at any rate that site says it was a translation. The Wikipedia article the site itself points to says it was a poem based on several sources; scholars seem to disagree. If your Saxon is up to the job read it yourself.) It allegedly celebrates the warrior spirit in its retelling. Judge for yourself, and see if the modern problems with translation compromises are new. This is from Humphrey's post on the Quodlibeta site. You will note substantial points of difference with the original...

Christ’s warrior companions saw warriors coming up the mountain making a great din
Angry armed men. Judas the hate filled man was showing them the way.
The enemy clan, the Jews, were marching behind.
The warriors marched forward, the grim Jewish army, until they had come to the Christ.
There he stood, the famous chieftain.
Christ’s followers, wise men deeply distressed by this hostile action
Held their position in front.
They spoke to their chieftain, 'My Lord chieftain', they said, 'if it should now
Be your will that we be impaled here under spear points
Wounded by their weapons then nothing would be so good to us as to die here
Pale from mortal wounds for our chieftain'.

Then he got really angry
Simon Peter, the mighty, noble swordman flew into a rage.
His mind was in such turmoil he could not speak a single word.
His heart became intensely bitter because they wanted to tie up his Lord there.
So he strode over angrily, that very daring Thane, to stand in front of his commander
Right in front of his Lord.

No doubting in his mind, no fearful hesitation in his chest he drew his blade
And struck straight ahead at the first man of the enemy with all the strength in his hands
So that Malchus was cut and wounded on the right side by the sword.
His ear was chopped off.
He was so badly wounded in the head that his cheek and ear burst open with the mortal wound
Blood gushed out, pouring from the wound.
The men stood back; they were afraid of the slash of the sword.

If this, as some scholars seem to claim, is a poem designed to celebrate Jesus but not profess to be a reliable translation, I think it is in dubious taste. If it is supposed to be a representation of the gospel, it goes too far in trying to meet the biases of the Saxons. Can you tell where I come down on the Muslim Bible question? No? Good.

Friday, March 30, 2012


After seeing more stories on the subject ofsolar tornadoes (which I noted a little while back) I was going to try a post on magnetic reconnection: what you can get when you twist plasma around like that. Turns out that Wikipedia does a good enough job already, so I'll point you there and save the electrons. There are still mysteries: "A current problem in plasma physics is that observed reconnection happens much faster than predicted by MHD in high Lundquist number plasmas: solar flares, for example, proceed 13-14 orders of magnitude faster than a naive calculation would suggest, and several orders of magnitude faster than current theoretical models that include turbulence and kinetic effects."

Reconnections can produce intense electric fields thanks to the rapidly varying magnetic fields, and these electric fields accelerate electrons and protons to relatively high energies--much higher you'd estimate from their kinetic energy in the hot plasma. The magnetic fields of collapsed stars, and of supernovae, may do the same thing, but with much higher intensity; and that's been proposed as the source of some of the cosmic rays that bombard us. We can't track the cosmic rays back to their progenitor stars (if that is really the source) because the galactic magnetic fields, weak though they are, act over large enough distances to bend charged particles this way and that.

When I saw that solar tornado I thought "particle accelerator."

Apollo 11 relic

You've probably read that Amazon founder Bezos has located at least one of the Apollo 11 mission main booster engines and is talking with NASA about retrieving it(them). (NASA claims ownership of all of its spacecraft or parts thereof.) He wants to put it in a local museum. It has been under sea water for a long time, but he says they're made of tough stuff and it might be in good enough condition to display.

For some years the Louisville Science Center had one of the Apollo capsules (sealed) and a Gemini trainer you could climb into--they may still have the trainer but I didn't see it last time I was there. NASA needs to spread those sorts of things far and wide, where children can get their hands on them, and some of us can remember. They seem too bureaucratic and distant from where I sit. They provide wonderful space photos, no question about that, but I don't think they engage the kids enough with an "I can be part of that" feeling. Pretty much all of us would like to be "up there" but every astronaut needs hundreds of people who like to design and build cool things.

I wonder... I read that Newt, when he was Speaker, had a replica T-Rex skull in his office. A replica main engine booster is perhaps a little much (it is bigger than some offices I've worked in), but maybe scaled replicas? Building new is probably too dear for museums, and NASA is persistently short of money, so maybe not. Though if they reduced the number of bureaucrats to equal the number of engineers...

Somehow I missed this story: Liberty Bell 7 was retrieved. It was cleaned up (which took quite a while) and went on display in 2004. "As they were taking apart the Liberty Bell 7, the museum crew came across cigarette butts, a disposable plastic cup, a motel-sized bar of Dial soap and $10.20 in cash. The cash included five $1 silver certificates, some signed by members of the original assembly crew. The remaining $5.20 was in Mercury dimes, with still-unidentified initials and symbols scratched into many of the coins."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Then what?

At the Anchoress go read about Katie Davis.
Saint Philip Neri used to listen to the dreams of those around him, and ask, "and then what?" If someone mentioned a lofty ambition, Philip would tease them about what comes next: "you become rich and successful, and then what?"

"And then I marry a beautiful woman and we travel and enjoy life!"

"And then, what?" Philip would gently ask, over and over, until the dreamer was forced to acknowledge that beyond their dreams lay only death, and an eternity reflecting the values and choices of their relatively short blip of a life.

"And when shall we begin to do good?"

A few arresting stories:

From SciTech, a few headlines:
  • quantum-interference-pattern Quantum Interference Shown Experimentally in Larger Molecules: A perfectly accurate headline over a sloppy story. (The double slit experiment is explained by a purely wave description of matter: but that's not the only experiment in town. And there is no such thing as "the exact transition between macroscopic physics and quantum physics".) This sort of thing was already done with smaller particles; these are pretty big.
  • Antimagnet Cloak Hides Objects from Static Magnetic Fields is a good enough description of a really cool story: layers of superconductor with a ferrite magnet on the outside keep the field inside zero (or close, for this experiment), and don't perturb the field outside (at least not much). The writer suggested that the technology might let someone "hide metallic weapons from security portals" but given that so far all superconductors demand aggressive cooling, and that one could defeat the "static magnetic field" aspect by pulsing the system, I don't think terrorists will be helped much. (Imagine trying to conceal a knife in a dewar of liquid nitrogen.)
  • Runaway Planets at 30 Million MPH is written as though astronomers had actually seen such beasts. Not so. They calculate that if a binary star system with a planet falls into a black hole, there's a chance that, just as one of the stars could be kicked out at high speed (actually seen), any loose planets could also take a fast ride (not seen, nor likely to be).
  • Crab Nebula Emits Pulses at Unexplainable Levels is about the surprisingly high energies gamma rays from the pulsar attain: up to 400 GeV. For comparison, gamma rays from nuclear decays are typically in the range 100keV to 10MeV. Nobody is sure why they can range so high, but we're not perfectly sure about the mechanism for high energy gammas from the sun either (magnetic field twist and reconnection is the top theory).
  • Rational Thinking Ruled Out as Reason for Children’s Selective Imitation. The headline, and the conclusion, are deeply overwrought and not justified by the story itself.
    In the experiment, a child would observe an adult performing the unconventional action of illuminating a lamp by touching it with the head. Being presented with the lamp later on, 70 percent of the children would copy this curious behavior – but only if the hands of the person were free during the observed action. If the hands were occupied by holding a blanket wrapped around the body, which was before worn loosely over the shoulders, imitation rates dropped to around 20 percent.
    The new results are from revisiting the experiment, after noticing that the sight of an adult wrapped in a blanket was going to be distracting to an infant.
    One alteration underlined how much eye- catching distractions influenced the children’s response: When two red Smileys were put on the table before the experiment, imitation of the “hands-free”-condition dropped considerably. In order to reduce distraction during the second condition, the children were given time to familiarize themselves with the sight of the blanket in a five-minute warm-up phase, which preceded the demonstration of the head touch action. The imitation rate went up to around 70 percent, showing that it made no actual difference whether the model person’s hands were free or not.

    This contradicts the earlier claim that infants were concluding that an adult must have had a good reason for not using his hands. But that doesn't mean infants can't think rationally.

  • I decided not to comment on the article claiming that women could reach orgasm from exercise.

A number of interesting stories, but with a fair bit of chaff and nonsense to weed through...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef

Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a devout imam, was one of the seven founders of Hamas. He was, apparently, spiritual inspiration and not operations or strategy; and remained so.

One of his sons became the Green Prince who spied for Shin Bet; and eventually became a Christian. This is his story.

That story is of a son devoted to his father and what his father stands for, who comes to realize through gruesome experiences in a prison camp that his father’s organization, and through slow experience with Christians that his father’s religion, are neither fit representations of his father’s character.

To join the fight he promises himself that he will deceive the Israelis, and become a double agent. When he sees how Hamas treats other Palestinians in the prison camp, he starts to realize that he wants the cleaner side.

He tells what events look like beyond the headlines, and of some lively adventures and close calls. Alas, the style is not compelling—I blame Ron Brackin. And I wonder how accurate it is--if people’s lives were at risk I’d leave out details and replace them with plausible fictions.

The big story should have been how he changed, but it stutters and parts seem abbreviated. He is never very comfortable with being a part of killing and becomes more and more averse as time goes on. And the stress builds over years (as other spies testify as well), but it is only mentioned and not described. And something about the story of Jesus keeps at him.

After hearing Zakaria Botros he realized that Islam is mere rags, and that he needed to be baptized. But how?

And when he wants no part of war any longer, how can he get free?

The book had its unsatisfactory parts, but you won’t find this perspective, or this inside story, anywhere else. Read it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I will be the first to admit that I do not understand Senegalese politics. I have not the slightest notion who would do the best job in the office, nor how to work around the entrenched powers in the land. But when somebody revises the constitution to allow extra terms, and then runs for a newly allowed third term, even a non-expert can smell a rat. Wade lost the runoff election for president, and that's a good thing. I have no idea whether the victory of Sall is going to be a good thing or not. He promised to reduce the presidential terms (good, though he can't do that alone), and to "bring in measures to reduce the price of basic foodstuffs." I wonder what that means. If some of the entrenched powers are profiteering, that task is hard but probably doable. If the prices are high because of the inflation the rich governments of the world have cultivated to reduce the value of their debts, then I don't know if he will be able to keep that promise.

Our neighborhood

I wanted to find out the relative location of SN1987A, which is in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which turns out to be on the opposite side of the galaxy from us. If you haven't had a look yetto see where our neighbors are (to my shame I admit I had not), look at some of the links above, especially the Chandra illustrations.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Toasty times in the thermosphere

I have to admit that I'd not heard of the thermosphere of Earth's atmosphere before. That's up with the auroras and the Space Station, with a lower end driven by atmospheric tides and middle and upper too thin to support bulk gas motion on this kind of distance scale. The last solar flare dumped 26 billion KWhr of energy into the atmosphere at that level. Which sounds kind of huge, though it turns out to be about 0.1Watt-hr per square meter. Over a three day period. But it is quite a bit more than usually gets absorbed at that level.

Funny how that works. The Earth gets about 1.7E17 Watts from the Sun, or about a billion times more--but apparently most doesn't effect this layer of the atmosphere. Solar flares can change a lot of pictures, though.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Writing with a map

The wikipedia entry on Terry Pratchett cites him thus:
Pratchett resisted mapping the Discworld for quite some time, noting that a firmly designed map restricts narrative possibility (i.e., with a map, fans will complain if he places a building on the wrong street, but without one, he can adjust the geography to fit the story).

Pratchett's stories do tend to be take new paths, though they keep to the logic of the characters and institutions. I hadn't thought of it before, but he's somewhat like Vance that way--delighting in coming up with new environments and making the weird work. By now, of course, Pratchett has written so much about Diskworld that new paths tend to intersect old ones and solutions to one book's problem wave their hands wildly from the back of the room in newer books.

Tolkien, on the other hand, created backstories and maps galore. They seem to have given him a framework to build his story around. So when he told his story it had a sense of depth; there were things he knew about in each odd corner that didn't come into this story, and you could tell. Unfortunately the backstories were rarely anywhere near as good as the ones he published.

I'm missing a phrase here to describe the difference between the two extremes of story-telling; but I flatter myself that I can tell the difference.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett wrote this book about Vimes going on vacation at his country manor. Naturally he doesn't want to be there, and naturally there is no vacation (or there'd be no book).

I'm afraid I like books about the Unreal Unseen Academy better, and I'm also afraid that this one is looser than it ought to have been. I suppose a deus ex machina is nothing surprising in Diskworld--but some points seem contrived, the colonel's behavior isn't in character (either before or after the story begins--pick one), and the "All God's Creatures Together" theme is getting a little tired. Too many things are telegraphed ahead of time.

But, I like what he does with Nobby, the Vimes and the young noble maidens scene works well, and his wit is often in evidence. If you like Diskworld, you'll enjoy this book--but I wish he'd run it by a few people before giving it to the publisher.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gamma rays from the unknown

We've known for a while that you can find gamma rays in space. The Sun is usually pretty quiet, but when it decide to flare a bit it can become pretty bright. We understand some of the sources: a pulsar is very bright in the link above.

The orbiting Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope scans the sky in more detail. A lot of them come from understood sources, but quite a few-- the article says about 1/3--aren't understood at all.

It can't detect the really high-energy photons. Researchers have a trick to spot those: when a gamma ray showers in Earth's atmosphere there's a lot of Cerencov light emitted, and a large farm of mirrors and phototubes looking at the night sky can spot them. From the timing and the amount of light collected and the pattern researchers can sometimes figure out about how energetic the original was and roughly which direction it came from.

For example, when they account for the brightness of the galactic plane (sort of like shading your eyes from the sun to look for the fly ball), they find there are gigantic "bubbles" above and below the galactic core that shine in gamma rays, apparently in a spectrum of energies.

This is odd. OK, we've got a black hole at the core, and it probably blasts the occasional jets out along its axis. But I'd expect most of the energy to be going away from us. I can't think of very many mechanisms in which we'd get very high energy backscattering where we wouldn't also be getting a lot of X-rays and UV and visible light as well.

Here's one WAG. If the magnetic fields were very strong in those bubble regions, with a large component parallel to the plane of the galaxy, then some of the particles in the (presumed) high energy jets could be bent back around and slam into some of the galaxy's gas. That gives you pi-zeros, which decay into two photons each. The photons wouldn't be bent by the magnetic fields in between here and there, and so would point back to their origins. Bingo. Everything else eventually decays down to electrons, neutrinos, and protons; and both the electrons and protons bend in the apparently random galactic magnetic fields, and wind up coming at us from all directions. Although there are oddities, there's no obvious source of cosmic protons from any "bubbles" above/below the galaxy. Maybe ultra-high energy cosmic rays might point better, but they're rare and it will take a long time to make a sky map of them.

At any rate, this guess assumes that there's a source of high energy protons or iron nuclei or what have you emitting along our pet black hole's axis. There are models that predict that. But it also assumes that there exist strong magnetic fields in that "bubble" region that bend the cosmic rays back at us. That I don't know of a good model for. I could try to cheap out and say that nobody has good models for galactic magnetic fields anyway, but there's a difference between not being able a priori to say how plasmas will interact, and claiming that there are strong fields in a strange direction.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fruit flies and booze

The headline seems perfect: Sex Deprived Fruit Flies Consume More Alcohol. But a closer look at the story suggests alternatives.
Flies in the laboratory will normally drink to intoxication if given the choice, but this behavior is altered when neuropeptide F levels are altered in their brains because of their sexual experiences. Mated flies are less likely to seek out such rewarding experiences.
Activating the production of neuropeptide F in the brains of virgin males flies made them act as if they were sexually satisfied, and they voluntarily curtailed their drinking.

Lowering the levels of the neuropeptide F receptor made flies that were completely sexually satisfied act as if they were rejected, inciting them to drink more.

Earlier on one finds this: "

The rejected males then gave up trying to mate altogether. Even when placed in the same cage as virgin flies, they were not as keen to have sex. Their drinking behavior also changed.

I hope it was the reporter who muddled this up. When I consolidate what is reported, it sounds more as though the mated males reduced their alcohol intake relative to the normal behavior of fruit flies, not that the rejected ones increased it.

I'm not sure the phrase "rewarding experiences" is relevant to fruit flies. If alcohol is easy to metabolize, then perhaps the flies aren't looking for intoxication but energy.

One interesting aspect is the "discouragement" of unmated male flies. This is relative to what--their eagerness at an earlier stage in their life span, or to unmated flies without spiked food of the same age?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch

The book came to my attention because of the chapter on "first sleep" and "second sleep," and I’m afraid there’s not a lot more information on that particular topic that wasn’t already brought out. However…

The book is a systematic look at night-time, with each section devoted to one particular aspect of it, liberally loaded with quotations and with quite a few evocative illustrations. One section is about the natural dangers of the dark, another about criminals at night, another about how families buttoned up the premises, about meditation at night, and another about how and why people got together at night. If you sense contradictions between hiding at home from the dangers of the dark and socializing with the neighbors, remind yourself that life is complicated.

Evil spirits and criminal gangs and drunken drownings on the one side, and talking with friends after a long day’s work (or working late, if you were a tailor or baker) and evening trysts on the other make for a complex mosaic.

I learned quite a lot: I’d never known what a bed-stave (though I used something like it a few times) was or tried to make a pine-knot candle.

Warning: the thorough approach makes the book seem to jump around. But it was interesting, and worth the read. The last lines are:

With darkness diminished, opportunities for privacy, intimacy, and self-reflection will grow more scarce. Should that luminous day arrive, we stand to lose a vital element of our humanity--one as precious as it is timeless. That, in the depths of a dark night, should be a bracing prospect for any spent soul to contemplate.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Silent treatment

As long as I'm on the subject of environmental effects on people, what about the noise level that saturates our ears? I live not far from a highway, so it is never very quiet, but you have to get very far from a city to avoid electric hums and noise from cars and radios.
Camping is not always an improvement. For some reason mosquitoes seem exceptionally loud in your tent, and if your camping trip turns out to be in the middle of a 13-year cicada eruption you might as well be listening to trucks on the other side of the fence. (And that amorous couple made themselves heard afar, at intervals.)

A quick search doesn't turn up anything obvious about the effects of low levels of noise on behavior. Moderate levels (80 or 103dB) on mouse neurons, yes, but I suspect low level effects would be small enough to require a large population study=$$ and a lot of measuring small behavior differences=$$$. (If low noise level effects were large, we'd have noticed it quickly.) There's a JAMA article that I can't get at in the first hundred references, but nothing else that seemed relevant to the question. And is white noise the same as distant machine noise, or a 3600Hz hum from bad fluorescents, or noise in the same frequencies as communication? (A fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer...)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Microwaves on the brain

"Experimental Evidence that Fetal Exposure to Cell Phones Affects Behavior" runs the headline. It sounds scary enough, especially with the pregnant mother balancing a laptop above her tummy.

The report turns out to be about mice. Hmmm. Mice have a shorter gestation than humans, and therefore less time for microwaves to injure the developing brain. But they are also carried much closer to the surface. If I use sea-water as an approximation to human tissue (blood is pretty close to that) the attenuation length for microwaves in the 1GHz region is about 1.3cm. At the earliest, and most sensitive stages of human growth, the child is protected by about 7/1.3 =O(5) radiation lengths, suppressing the radiation by a factor of 200 or so, or about 50 times the protection a mouse would have at early stages.

I wish I could get at the report; I'd love to see what the significance of the effect was. The plots I can see look impressive at first glance--but why is the error bar so large at 0-exposure? Something's odd here.

I probably sound very skeptical above--and I am. But the effect isn't impossible. And we live in a sea of radio waves--the Earth is quite bright now--and even if the average effect is small, small changes in the mean cause dramatic changes in the number of people in the tails of the distribution. And here we get into territory people don't like to talk about much. Do you try to restrict cell phone use to the rich and to public safety officers, because of the risk of a few birth defects, or do you allow them because they save lives for people in trouble? (We like to think there's a perfect solution to every problem, when often there's only tradeoffs.)

The stars like dust

When I look out in the city-dimmed sky at night I can see Jupiter and Venus leaving conjunction, and maybe 60 stars.

It is hard to remember how thickly spread the sky is with not just stars, but galaxies: so thickly spread that there are even some galaxies behind quasars.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey sounds almost a little dull: catalog the stars and then, masking them off, systematically look for galaxies. But it has been a hugely powerful tool for discovery.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Homeschooling growth

I think it is fair to generalize that parents care more about their kids than teachers do.

Yes, there are exceptions, and I could probably point at a few. But on the whole, bet on the parents.

Some parents won't be good teachers. Among them are the nut cases (white or black supremacists "Ancient Egypt was black"), the criminal (we already see 2'nd generation gangsters, and some 3'rd), and the feckless and stoners. But their kids will suffer whether or not their parents are the primary teachers, so concentrating on the minority is a waste of time.

Instead look at the big picture in this story: well-educated youngsters freed from the dangerous environment of the typically miserable black neighborhood schools.

The BBC reports that black parents in the US are turning to homeschooling. The reporter trots out the usual complaint that the public schools will suffer because of the loss of motivated parents, as though it were a parent's duty to sacrifice their children in the faint hope of improving things for somebody else's children in the distant future.

The black families tend to be more single-mother, which is a serious hardship for teaching, but cooperatives will help. This looks positive, and I'm a little surprised it hasn't been a bigger movement before.

Was Darth Vader in China?

This skull of one of the "Red Deer People" from Southern China is evocative.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pi day

"Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum."

Lest we forget Pi day!

I'm old enough to remember when dropping the deck was a horrible thing to contemplate, and punched cards are easier to deal with than little bits of lead type.

Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

I read this as it came out (or rather, as the library had copies available) back between 1981 and 1984. Wolfe is a famously intricate writer whose books demand re-reading. I didn't oblige. I knew it to be a little too weird for the kids, and too creepy for my better half, so I didn't bring it back into the house.

I re-read The Fifth Head of Cerberus and discovered that what I'd thought was the story was only the first section. And that I'd either forgotten or missed a lot. So...

Reading the New Sun again was like reading it for the first time (except for a bare handful of scenes I remembered). I suppose in my defense reading volume 1 one year and volume 2 a year later isn't conducive to making connections, and by the time the 4'th book came out the first was pretty hazy. Especially when distracted by grad school and babies.

It was weirder than I remembered, creepier than I'd remembered, and with more layers in it than I thought. It follows the story of Severian, a journeyman in the Guild of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, told from his own (not perfectly forthcoming) point of view as the eventual Autarch; set in a very distant future with a failing Sun and cooling Urth. I have not read the "coda" that ends the series.

The series is, of course, a science fiction adventure, but with so much allusion and mystery and even allegory that it is challenging to read. Which isn't quite the right way to describe it--you can read it straight through without bothering about the details or the inconsistencies, and follow it OK. Except that what you think was happening wasn't always quite what was really happening. Mystery writers drop in little details that you should pay attention to--so does Wolfe.

It is well written--far better than much of the modern fiction I've read--but I won't say "read it." Some friends would be put off by the unpleasant nature of the protagonist, or by his dealings with women, or by who his companions turn out to be; and I can't fault them for that. If (Heaven help us) someone ever tied to make a movie of this it would be a horror movie.

Not reported correctly, but interesting

Before you read the SciTech story about "designer electrons", be aware that the reporter is pretty confused. The electrons in one configuration do not have mass 0 and move at the speed of light. A waveform does. The electrons in another are squeezed around "as if they had been exposed to a real field" which is not terribly startling since the configuration was designed to squeeze them, just as we can build a truss that looks like it has been bent.

What the researchers from Stanford and SLAC did was interesting enough without the hyperbole and mis-statement. On a smooth copper surface they used a scanning electron microscope to position carbon monoxide molecules in a pattern that mimicked the holes in a graphene lattice. Electrons in the copper surface avoid the CO molecules on the surface, and so behave as though they were really in a graphene lattice. But more than that, when the researchers put the CO molecules on in a distorted pattern, the electrons behaved as though the lattice was distorted e.g. by a magnetic field. And all worked out as calculated.

So this might be a test-bed for predicting how materials behave in strong magnetic fields--up to the point where real fields would start causing substantial distortions in real molecules. Then the model would fall down.

The drawback is the rather tedious placement of the molecules. I find it amazing that we can do that at all, much less plant so many, but they do it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


That's not what I would have expected. The ESA's Goce satellite is mapping the depth of the Moho boundary", the transition between crust and mantle. Some of the features seem to agree well with what we know: mid-ocean ridges and the Himalayas, for example. Also the Andes mountains: as they are higher above the surface, so also the depth below is deeper. But not the Rockies; the boundary there is normal. The deepest North American Moho boundaries are under the Great Plains instead. I can't quite figure out why the continental plates should ride differently in South America and North--I thought both were subducting the ocean plates. And possibly the glaciers planed off elevations in the Plains.

In any event, the effects in the Himalayas are quite dramatic: Everest is about 9km high, but the Moho boundary is pressed 30km deeper below the Himalayas than below the surrounding land; and similarly under the Andes.

You can't expect perfect equilibrium--for the weight of rock above to equal the weight of rock pushed down. Spalling and erosion will remove a lot of the excess above, and on a timescale much faster than continental drift. Still, that's a lot of rock "under water".

Of course there may be some biases in their reconstruction; they can't measure the depth directly, and there could be some error in the correction terms they use to account for the continental rock.

Something else to keep an eye on.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Texas99 has sparked some interesting discussion of real-life wireheads in two posts over at Grimm's Hall.

Dawa Bay

I have been remiss. The Dawa Bay experiments have found that the "mixing angle" between electron neutrinos and other varieties was surprisingly large. (I interviewed to work on that experiment, but they weren’t hiring right then.)

Before you click Back, or even click on the link, I should explain a few things.

The first is that the “nature” of a particle not does not predict its mass. In fact, if you try to find the mass of a quark, you discover you aren’t so sure what kind it is, and if you are sure what kind it is you can’t be sure of the mass. The same is true for neutrinos, though at very much smaller masses.

So you have to think of an electron neutrino as being made up of a little of mass type I, a little of mass type II, and a little of mass type III—in a quantum-mechanical way, of course. You don’t chop a little of this and a little of that into a lumpy neutrino salad. You have a blend that will appear to be either type I or II or III, with some probability for each. Likewise a type I will, if you poke at it, be an electron, muon, or tau neutrino with some probability for each.

A neutrino (or anti-neutrino) flying away from the reaction that generated it has to, in some sense, find which mass type it is going to be as it flies. And as it travels through matter, it is in some weak sense poked a little. So the picture is of an electron anti-neutrino that finds itself as a mass type I anti-neutrino as it flies through air and rock, but when it interacts with the detector far away it turns out to be a muon anti-neutrino. It "oscillated" from being one type to another (and it can do that even without matter around.)

Those mixing proportions involve the "mixing angles." The handiest way to describe this sort of relationship between types of neutrinos is with vectors and matrices, which are just ways of bundling lots of detailed equations into something simple to handle. (Trust me, it makes things much easier to keep track of. Remember solving linear equations back in high school algebra? A pain. But a lot easier when you use matrices.) And it turns out to be handy to describe the various components of the matrix in terms of some angles.

We don’t know if there are only 3 types of neutrinos (and their anti-particles, of course): a fellow named Majorana developed a theory with a different kind 70 years ago, and nobody has been able to prove him wrong.

His neutrinos were their own anti-particles, just like photons are anti-particles for photons. He disappeared mysteriously—perhaps he was his own anti-Majorana.

If you know the components of the mixing matrix, you can tell if there’s something missing; some new type of neutrino we haven’t seen yet. That’s why people are especially interested in these details. At any rate, two of these angles are quite small, and this is rather large: about 6 degrees. At Dawa Bay that means that some electron anti-neutrinos coming from the reactors were detected as electron anti-neutrinos at the close detector but a measurable proportion were missed at the far detector. They had "oscillated" into muon anti-neutrinos, but they didn’t have the kinetic energy to generate a muon in the detector, so the detector couldn’t see them. I suppose if we had detectors where muons instead of electrons orbited the nuclei, that might have spotted some of those missing neutrinos. Of course muons decay quickly, so we can’t build any such detectors. Phooey.

Ok, now try the link. (Dawa Bay is in China. There are several reactors there, and an international physics neutrino experiment. The area is high security, of course, and since the French built some of the facilities I understand the the restaurants are very good. They'd better be--you don't get to get out much.)

Update: changed 4'th paragraph to be more precise. If you "poke at" a neutrino, you are probing it with matter and will find out its "flavor" or electron/muon/tau neutrino type. A moving neutrino, though, has to be within shouting distance of being of mass type I, II, or III.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Caring intensely

Assistant Village Idiot has an interesting observation about assisted suicide: Christians often do not show that they seriously care about moral issues. "I don't think we actually do care very deeply about the moral issues we get exercised about. We care deeply enough to want someone else to do something, and are willing to help out in some small way, such as voting for them or signing something, or occasionally making a call."

Obviously this is a generalization; we’re all over the map. But it does seem to describe quite a few of us. Several things seem to feed into this effect.


I don’t know how many people spell it out this way, but we generally act as though we have a small set of roles and outside those roles we have the experts (or "those called and gifted") do whatever needs doing. This helps make the economic machinery go, albeit somewhat expensively (replace your own toilet if you’re strong enough to lift it, and don’t call the plumber). Unfortunately that tends to reduce us to cogs in the machine. And while maybe your preacher can explain the gospel very clearly, the fellow down the hall isn’t going to accept your invitation to go to church; if he’s going to hear the gospel you have to tell it.

Similarly, in the public square we tend to want the more articulate to do the speaking, because we mumble too much and can’t keep all the details straight. It can take a long time to become thoroughly informed about even as simple a topic as assisted suicide.

I don’t know if they still do Town Hall meetings in New Hampshire where everybody in town is invited to pipe up about town business. In this neck of the woods when I hear of a Town Hall meeting I know that a politician wants photo-ops with friendlies; uncomfortable questions aren’t welcome. We don’t practice democratic debate much.


Tied in with this is the problem that the washing won’t get done if we don’t do it; and the homework won’t be done if we don’t supervise it. We can spend 15 minutes writing a letter that a clerk will read, check a counter for, and discard. Or we can spend several hours going to an evening meeting where no one will listen to us. Or we can take a day off work to go to a protest and not get paid.

So the upshot is that I should tend my own affairs, for which there is little enough time already.


I want to say that we imbibe the Zeitgeist with our mother’s milk, but it happens with adults too, and remarkably quickly. It is hard to avoid following the fashions.

The received wisdom is that because religious conflicts are so intractable, one should at all costs avoid stirring these up. And for some reason all moral questions are assumed to be religious. So you should avoid talking about moral questions outside of your tribe.

We also have an ambivalent attitude to choice. Sometimes we are determined to protect people from themselves (drug use: prescription or illegal) and sometimes we revere the individual’s perceived right to "do what he wants with his own life." Where the distinctions are to be made between "protection" and "liberation" is never made clear; it is part of the atmosphere. True, the atmosphere differs between tribes, but I never hear any first-principle discussion of this apart from libertarians.

If the moral question can be phrased in a way that makes it sound like a right, large numbers of us, even those who disagree, find it hard to object to someone else’s rights. This is, in part, because few of us have ever learned anything about the philosophical concepts involved.

Rocking the boat

I remember the calls for revolution from the 60’s and 70’s. Except for some few holdouts most people seem to have decided that the price was too high for the possible benefit. We have a very complex society; if a revolution disrupted it plenty of innocent bystanders would starve; an ironic effect for revolutions supposed to benefit the poor. We owe it to those in precarious circumstances to think of the consequences of our dramatic changes. (And of our less dramatic proposals and their unintended consequences)

I think we have an instinctive sense that our social environment is equally delicate, and that our social compacts can disintegrate if we press secondary issues too hard. In the conflict over each small hill we ask: "Is this little thing worth dying for?" and typically decide not. Only the really big things tend to rouse us.


Arguing in the public square demands time and effort that we could devote to more clearly spiritual work: prayer, helping our neighbors, and so on. Any government is made by men, not God, and tends to be directed by the prince of this world. Making the compromises to achieve some good tends to involve approving some evil. How can any of this be perfect or pure? Best to stay home or in church or someplace where you can work on trying to live a holy life.


I cannot speak for all of us, but quite a few worship in ways that require nothing much beyond showing up most of the time and tossing a regular check in the basket. The band, or the priest, handle all the details. Whether this is acceptable to God is beyond my competence to decide, but it doesn’t encourage cultivation of the spiritual disciplines of insight and humility needed to engage fruitfully in the public square.

That makes it very easy to be appropriately angry or worried (within our tribe) and not feel as though anything is demanded of me.

The upshot is that we typically don’t get involved: Sometimes for excellent reasons. Often that’s exactly what we should be doing, and I don’t like seeing churches in lock step with political parties.

I’d be more specific, but I’m trying to give up politics for Lent. I reckon that this is big-picture environment stuff and not advocacy. Even this annoyed me some; and trying for a more peaceful spirit was one of the goals.

Friday, March 09, 2012


I shouldn't read First Things. I find out about things like a website called Letters of Note where you find a letter of congratulations to NASA and a letter from black Union soldier to his former owner, who still had possession of his children.

And enough others to keep me from my chores for quite a while.

Dust Devils

The Mars Orbiter caught a nice shot of a dust devil in action. I wonder what speeds they achieve--pretty fast, I'd guess, since the air density is low.

I remember on the playground in California there'd sometimes be great whirls of wind, and we'd try to dash into them before they dissipated. We were pretty sure they weren't tornadoes, though we called them that out loud, and we'd have been terribly disappointed to learn they weren't even dust devils; just vortices from the wind whipping around the buildings.

I gather that even dust devils can be destructive and even dangerous sometimes.

I think I'll pass. If I can. Last Friday I got about a 15minute late start, and took the wrong turn in Rockford (something I've never done before) to blow another 15 minutes, and went for a leisurely lunch instead of a McD's fly in and out. So we were stuck in traffic north of Henryville for two hours instead of being a part of the event. Glad to be late.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

What does a molecule look like?

The headline is wrong . This is not "real time;" they are looking at diffraction patterns which are by nature statistical.

What they are probing is what an average N2 molecule looks like at a particular time relative to the impulse of an ultra-short laser pulse. The laser pulse ionizes the molecule and then, under the influence of the electric field of the laser pulse, the electron returns and scatters off the ion.

They measure the distribution of the scattered electrons in both position and energy, and from that reconstruct the shape and momentum of the thing they scattered off.

In addition, the time at which the electric field of the laser pulse pulls the electron back towards the ion will vary depending on the wavelength of the laser light, so by varying the wavelength they can bounce the electron off the ion at slightly different times. This can give them an image of what the ion looks like at different times.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Breeding for radiation tolerance?

The Economist reports that a team compared birds found in a radiation area (0.5-35 microsieverts/hour) near Fukushima and those found in similar areas near Chernobyl. The drop in bird numbers was twice as large at Fukushima. While they admit that this might be because different isotopes could, by being absorbed into the body differently, deliver different doses, they attribute this to birds having adapted to the radiation environment at Chernobyl. Not perfectly--there's still a decrease in number relative to low-radiation areas.

This is something I've been watching--birds having 5% smaller brains in the radiation area, and mice that tolerate radiation better than outsiders.

I still think it would be easy to compare growth rates of the offspring of captured mice to those found nearby. It should be slower.

Libya partition?

I predicted that that the Libyan revolt would tend to partition the country. Looks like I was close. The country is not an organic construct, and the tribes don't always get along well--especially when one is sitting on oil. They're calling for federalism at the moment, and the powers-that-sort-of-be reject that in favor of continued central control. If they "deter them, even with force," from a federal plan I'd bet the East will start fighting for partition. I wonder what the Italians think.

Higgs one more time

The CDF and D0 experiments reported "final" results on the Higgs search. I’m not sure about D0, but the CDF result used all the available data, which made the limits better than before. But so also did the combination of many different analyses, some of them only improving the limits by a fraction of a percent, and each one of which took man-years of effort. Many of these (I was keeping posted on one of them that took, if I have have the details right, 4 months for a student to just re-run an existing analysis on the final data set) would, by themselves, give lousy limits, but when carefully combined they helped squeeze the limits tighter.

It can get a little frustrating to look at the "Brazil plots" (so called because they look sort of like the flag of Brazil) at update after update and not see any dramatic changes, but the walls of the valley creep outward bit by bit and the peak of the hill rises little by little.

Unfortunately, unless we come up with some amazing new methods, I think CDF and D0 are about tapped out here. They won’t be getting any more data.

And I'm working on a different experiment now, so I won't have a lot of Higgs updates in the future.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Would-be animators cheer

Max Planck Institute developed software to automate creating the "bones" of a new animation; letting you easily define how the thing is to move. This has been a complicated job. It will still require a certain artistry to make it look good.

I think I know what will became of Youngest Son's spare time...

Monday, March 05, 2012

X ray spikes from neutron stars

Gas falling into a neutron star ought to land hard and fast enough to cause sort-of-periodic nuclear explosions. In systems with more gas flowing, the bursts should come faster, and in others they should be continuous. Except that they aren't. (There are lots of oddities and unknowns about neutron stars.)

A team using Rossi x-ray satellite data (first link) found one neutron star that seems to have the long-expected behavior; and maybe a clue as to why that behavior might actually be rare. This neutron star spins at only about 11Hz, compared to the O(200-600Hz) that seems to be more typical. The story says one possibility is that there is friction between the fast-moving star surface and the in-falling plasma that could change the way the plasma heats up.

The plasma is swept towards the magnetic poles, resulting in large local currents whose own magnetic fields interact with the current and the existing field of the star to produce pinches and reconnections and similar chaotic effects. (Visualize the lively nature of the corona of our sun.) You expect the in-falling plasma to still have considerable angular momentum, so it should be whirling down to the poles very fast, perhaps rotating faster than the star itself. (In fact the star is expected to slowly speed up thanks to the gas from the accretion disk falling on it.)

The picture in my mind is of a tornado of plasma and magnetic fields; and I'd expect that while some energy will be radiated away in reconnection radiation (X-rays, highly accelerated particles, and the like), much of the rest will be imparted to the plasma long before it hits the surface: arriving already hot and not moving as fast as the naive calculation would expect. This should be a bigger deal for the slow-rotating star with a larger difference between its own rotation and the tornado rotation. Unfortunately I'm not sure whether pressure or temperature matters more for this kind of nuclear ignition, so I can't predict whether the fast-rotating star's faster impacts or the slow-rotating star's higher temperatures would cause more frequent bangs.

Rare Earths

Bio-accumulation is a pretty hot topic, especially in trying to clean up heavy metal contamination. I haven't heard much lately about de-salinization of soils, but that sounded interesting too.

China is 95% of the rare earth supply these days--processing is hard and dirty. Turns out they have some other ideas about that: a kind of fern accumulates some of the lighter rare earths; up to 1/1000 of the dry leaf weight. It isn't fast, but it doesn't require a lot of energy beyond grinding up the ore and spreading it around. If the pathway can be bred to be more efficient that could cut out some of the work involved.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Winds of Venus

The Daily Mail reports, in a remarkably confused article (I'll spare them the embarrassment of a link), that the Venus Express orbiter finds that Venus' rotation period has slowed by 6.5 minutes since the last time it was measured 20 years ago.

That certainly sounds like a lot, until you realize that Venus' rotation period is 243 days. That's still a big change, but not as proportionately huge as you might at first think. And Venus' atmosphere is fiendishly thick and heavy and moving very fast--at speeds up to 100m/sec. If Wikipedia can be believed, the mass of Venus' atmosphere amounts to 1/10,000 of the total mass of the planet, and is moving far faster than the surface; up to 60x faster.

A back of the envelope calculation says that about a 10% increase in wind speed would decrease the planet's contribution to the total angular momentum enough to account for the slowdown.

Why would winds speed up? Maybe they didn't speed up, they just changed direction so that they were less cyclonic and more circum-planetary. If so, you'd expect them to change again down the line, and let poor Venus speed up a smidgeon again.