Sunday, December 29, 2013

Could there be mental clinics too? Nah.

A little discussion over at AVI's got me wondering: what would the mental health equivalent of a clinic be? I like "what if" thought experiments. I often leave out something important, though.

I'll define a clinic as where you go for regular checkups and minor ailments.

For checkups: A few quick measurements can tell if something is wrong now, and putting them in context of your history can tell is something is starting to go wrong. And that's before the quick talk to see if there's anything obvious going on. If you can't remember anything apropos, you're good to go for another couple of years (barring slips on the ice).

If something is amiss, chances are you notice and complain about something related to it. You may not know why your hands are swelling, but you're pretty sure they didn't do that last year. You have a construct for how your body is supposed to work and you can recognize deviations.

Mental health seems intrinsically more complicated. I gather there are some simple things that let experienced psychiatrists spot some kinds of major problems, but I suspect that if they were as widely recognized as high blood pressure is, a lot of patients would hide them. They'd be "symptoms" relative to a culture, too, and not universal like mm of Hg.

But let's stipulate that some well-advanced problems are readily detectable, and others can be determined with some effort using interviews with the patient and with friends/family. What about the rest?

Over the years a number of acquaintances have surprised me when they suddenly left a spouse or quit a job. I do not say friends but acquaintances, because the mental clinician will be in pretty much the same situation. He is not a close friend of the patient, does not get to see him react to everyday stress, and only knows what the patient choses to tell him.

What will the patient tell him?

Maybe the patient will be worried: "My hands are raw because I keep washing them." Or "I can't seem to make friends."

If the mental problem is one of perception, he may think the problem is with someone else. Or that there is no problem; what he is doing is quite reasonable under the circumstances. Only talking with family and friends will tell the clinician that something is wrong; our hero won't know. And if he knows and is ashamed he may not want to tell anybody. When your perspective is distorted, your model of what is normal operations doesn't do you as much good.

And, of course, our hero may not have any local family and no friends either. Which might be a warning sign. Or not.(*)

Some people will come to the clinic but many, likely some of the ones who need it most, will not.

You can't compel ordinary people to go for a mental checkup. Or perhaps more accurately, I don't see any good ways to do that which aren't open to abuse. If Joe has a history of problems, yes. Otherwise, MYOB.

If the services are subsidized, the clinic will have a waiting list of lonely people who just want to talk. I've never manned a suicide hotline or a late-night DJ slot, but the received wisdom is that both get a lot of phone calls from lonely people.

I have a little suspicion, from dealing with some counselors over the years, that much of the "treatment" for many of the "clinic-level" problems involves simple advice consistently applied. The consistency is the hard part; somebody has to be there to observe and remind the patient (who will need to be very patient with the reminders!). When we're all urged to leave home and have our own apartments, that's problematic and pricey.

All in all, it doesn't look like there's a close analog of the physical medicine clinic in the mental health field.

However, that doesn't mean there might not be resources. Maybe not so many for Americans, living alone and not talking to the deacons much. But if you talk to your grandmother regularly, and to your cousin's friends when they come over, and look for some spiritual direction--I'd think some of the smaller problems could be dealt with and large ones spotted. Not that they'd know what to do with big problems; just know that something's wrong.

UPDATE It was pointed out in a private communication that there are clinics that serve existing patients, presumably relatively inexpensively.

Not everybody who sits like a lump at the party has some mental disorder.

And then suddenly the goblets leapt and rattled on the board and the great table shook, for the friar had brought down his huge fist like a club of stone, with a crash that startled everyone like an explosion; and had cried out in a strong voice, but like a man in the grip of a dream, "And that will settle the Manichees!"

Review problem

No doubt it proves I'm déclassé, but I enjoy Dave Barry's year in review columns. I like running into lines like: "Also stepping down is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, after decades of public service, resigns as secretary of state so she will finally have a chance to spend some personal quality time with her team of campaign advisers."

He likes to take a target (e.g. Lance Armstrong), expand his list of misdemeanors to include something absurd, and add follow-up adventures based on that absurdity. Sometimes the result is chuckle-worthy and sometimes not; I won't spoil your joy of discovering which is which.

Except that he seems nonplussed by Pope Francis. "College of Cardinals, apparently seeking to move the church in a new direction, chooses, as the first non-European pope in over a thousand years, a retired New Jersey tax accountant named Harvey Schwartz. Appearing before a massive crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square, the new pontiff vows to, quote, “give it a shot.”" The follow-up references are just as off target.

I wonder if he was afraid that he couldn't exaggerate enough. If Dave wrote that Francis "sold the Vatican and donated the proceeds to the Salvation Army," that would be over-the-top enough for Dave's style, an amusing extrapolation of Francis' attitudes, and impossible enough that it wouldn't happen, but pretty much anything less might happen. Sell off some art to fund catholic charities? He might. Tell priests to go live with the poor? He did already.

Dave "gets" plenty of other subjects well enough to parody them. I wonder if 1) he doesn't "get" Francis or 2) his editors told him to back off or 3) he couldn't work him in without putting in too much reality and jarring the rest of the parody.

I'm leaning toward 3).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Suffering and union

One time her saddle slipped, and she found herself head down under the belly of a donkey as she crossed a stream. Complaining to the Lord of her treatment, she heard him reply, “Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends.” She replied tartly, “No wonder you have so few!”(*)

"Blessed are you among women" to have an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in a land where such things mattered, to be in labor in a stable, to have to leave your homeland because the king wants to kill your son, to have a "sword pierce your own soul also."

Joseph gets to raise somebody else's son, be regarded as not quite self-controlled, run to Egypt (so much for getting rich off that gold and spices--they go to pay expenses), and never see the son become the Messiah.

If we're going to be like God, do we have to suffer as He does?

Even the Nativity has some Calvary in it. Childbirth seems to be hard on the baby too, and that new baby you see--cells are growing, but others are dying. Even a newborn is dying a little. To go from being the author of life to being a contingent being that is always dying has to be a painful change--and we're supposed to want to unite with God.

There's no escaping pain anyway (Gautama to the contrary), so it might as well have a meaning and a purpose. But it doesn't make "take up your cross daily" any easier.

(*)There are several versions of the story.

Wii conductor

Suppose you recorded an orchestra, carefully separating the instrument classes: brasses, strings, etc., and then used a Wii (together with a fairly nice sound system) to mix the streams using instrumented gloves as the control. You give the beat, and the sound streams run fast or slow according to your beat. Gesture at the image of the brass section for a little more brass, and that gets amplified in the mix. Stretch out a phrase... if there's a standardized gesture for it you could program it.

Pausing and restarting from some defined time points have to be integrated into the system somehow, and you need a set of different symphonies to play with, but it would seem possible that a Wii could be used for "Conductor Hero." It might not have the horsepower itself, and a bolt-on sound mixing processor might be a bit pricy--I don't have the intimate knowledge of the hardware needed to guess.

This is similar to, but a little more complex than, Wii Maestro, which I just learned about after googling to see if any was already doing this already. It doesn't seem to do any mixing, just speed and volume control, though that's quite a bit. Maybe the next release...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Computer/RFID implants

With the prospect of instrumenting people with electronic implants or tattoos, the usual suspects emerge to extol the prospect of unlocking your car by waving your hand (and dream of communicating with your computer by thinking), or alternatively to warn of the number of the beast.

Suppose you have such an RFID tattoo to identify you. You could unlock your car, walk through airport security, purchase without having to bring a wallet--all the things that make life worth living, right?

But if you slip on the stairs and slice through one of the wires, it may not work so well; similarly if you gain a lot of weight and change the shape of the antenna. And when somebody compromises the system you've got to get a new tattoo. And don't even dream of getting an MRI unless you are fond of burns.

Implants have mostly the same problems (barring the getting fat issue), plus the more invasive surgery, the chance of your body reacting to the implant, and the possibility that your body may migrate it out over time.

The implant security is only as good as the security the firms keep over the key codes they put in the devices. I predict that "master keys" would quickly appear in certain highly placed hands (Hi, NSA!), and after few years and a few bribed techs, devices to fake the implant signals would become fairly common. Time for new algorithms, new implants, new car locks...

The "communicating with computers by thinking" seems even more unlikely. Computers like nice crisp commands and most of us are fairly fuzzy thinkers who need the crutch of writing our thoughts down to be sure we know what we are saying. For simple stuff such as Google search, you can live with "fuzzy," but if you want the machine to do something you need to frame it precisely--save this file as draftlettertotheboss--and don't think about a hippopotamus.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Puck's voice

The Met broadcast Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream yesterday.

Puck never does sound quite right to me--nor Ariel. They sound too human. (The animated Shakespeare version of Tempest tinkered with Ariel's voice but didn't do a good job.)

It would probably annoy a opera singer to digitally manipulate his voice(*), but for some special characters the effect might be worth it. Suppose you distort Puck's voice in the direction of pure tones--but not too much or you lose the syllables. It would, if not overindulged, make it sound more alien but still recognizable.

Puck and Ariel are dangerous. You might want to add a fainter parallel version of the speech dropped a couple/three octaves. (faint enough to add flavor without interfering or distracting)

Why yes, I think opera lends itself very well to the movie screen, if the sound system is good enough. When the music is continuous you can't split the scene into multiple takes, but everybody can get a good rest in before the next section, the viewer can be in the action much more deeply, and you can do more thorough miking. Plus you won't giggle at Siegfried's dragon.

(*) Pop singers must not care so much, if I can take the widespread use of autotuning as an indicator.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

John Birch

If you don't read the Friday history posts over at ChicagoBoyz you're missing some fun. Trent has been doing a series on WWII-in-the-Pacific history that got left out of the official histories, and Sgt. Mom one on Texas.

Trent's latest is on the secret intelligence network set up in China to monitor Japanese movements--doubly secret because it had to be kept secret not just from the Japanese but also from Gen. Stilwell who had forbidden it. (Sometimes internal service politics took precedence over defeating the enemy. Kenneth Roberts described the same me-first attitude during the American Revolution, and it is visible to this day in DC.)

And who should turn up in Chennault's network but a fellow named John Birch. I'm not sure why I never bothered to look him up before. Probably it was prejudice; all right-thinking people ignore the John Birch Society, therefore his name does not come to mind: crimestop. (Funny how the anti-fluoridation movement is coming back again, from the other direction this time.) That was silly of me--they could just as easily pick a genuine hero as an ideological hero, and apparently they did.

For me he's a slightly ambiguous hero, though. He was a Baptist missionary in China who fled the Japanese invasion and worked establishing missions well in the interior. After he rescued some downed Americans he was recruited to spy on the Japanese, which he agreed to do provided he could continue his mission work. He did both, and apparently was courageous enough with the missions work to worry his supervisors.

In his travels (he was skilled enough to pass through Japanese lines as an ordinary farmer) he relied heavily on a network of fellow Christians, and recruited many to monitor Japanese troop, air, and other movements. At war's end the Japanese had to surrender control to the Nationalists, even in areas where the Communists had effective control, and as he went to receive surrender of a Japanese post for the Nationalists, he was intercepted and killed by Communists.

What sounds a little iffy to me is the use of Christian groups for military ends. It was probably inevitable (who could he trust?), and the Maoists already hated religions so it wouldn't have made any difference in how Christians were treated afterwards. But it makes me a little itchy.

I know there is precedent for Christian fighters and I am not pacifist myself, but still... Would I have done the same? If I had the courage, I think yes--who else could I trust? And if I cared at all about the people I was working with I'd want them free from the enslaving aliens.

Go look him up.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Decline of writing?

At Forbes Leef complains the K-12 fails to teach reading/writing very well, and universities don't do it at all. I have no reason to believe he is wrong, but several things complicate my view.
  • It is no secret that lots of people graduate from college who wouldn't have been admitted had they been born 60 years ago. And plenty of people graduate from high school who'd have dropped out in years past. So making sure you are comparing apples to apples is tougher than it seems.
  • I'm not a teacher. If something is badly written, I generally don't have to read it. I can simply marvel at the editor's incompetence and move on to the next story. I generally only get mad when the school principal's letter to the parents is ungrammatical. Government forms are a different kind of nightmare--idiosyncratic jargon trips me up.
  • I'm a forgiving sort. If I can understand what you're trying to say, I'll try to concentrate on that. I work with quite a few people for whom English is not the first language. I've helped my Better Half raise several kids. Being the grammar policeman squelches otherwise good conversations.
  • Most of the people I work with have excellent math and very good verbal skills. I don't run into much bad grammar or spelling at work, except from people whose English is far better than my German or (non-existent) Swedish.
  • I sometimes write sloppily myself, as a careful inspection of this blog will show.

On the other hand, social interactions with college kids and recent graduates (excluding the physics students) often leave me wondering what other gaps in their education one might find.

And whatever benefits there may be to electronic entertainment, sharpening writing skills cannot be one of them. I offer Facebook in evidence. Twitter may be good at training headline writers, but I don't use it and can't say for sure.

On the third hand, I find unexpected gaps in my own knowledge. Yet aside from verb disagreements (usually from incomplete sentence revisions), overuse of parenthesis, and innovative use of semicolons I generally write competently. So my observations of conversations may not be relevant to whether the youngsters can write.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Freely stealing material:
An unfortunate man broke the law and went to prison. He was feeling very scared his first night alone in his cell.

After the lights went out he heard one of the other inmates in a cell quite a long way off shout out "32". Then all the prisoners burst out laughing. When the laughter subsided he heard another inmate call out "66". Once again followed by a burst of laughter. This went on for some time before they all fell to sleep.

The man was intrigued by this behavior.

The next morning during breakfast in the eating area the man gathered up his courage and spoke to one of the older prisoners and asked him what was going on.

The older inmate said, "Many of us have been in here for a long time. There's not much you can do when the lights go out. So, to amuse ourselves we tell jokes. But after a while we all seemed to know all the jokes, so it became easier to just give the jokes a number and just shout out the number rather than taking all that time to tell the joke."

Ahhh. Now it all made sense.

So, for the next few weeks, the man listened to the numbers and found out what joke corresponded to what number and which numbers got the biggest laughs.

Finally, one night he decided to join in. After about five or six jokes had been told "by the numbers". He shouted out "22!" Nothing happened? Dead silence. He thought that maybe the others didn't hear him. So, he waited till a few more jokes were numbered and shouted out, as loud as he could, "66!" Again, just silence? This happened to him about five times.

The next morning he just had to find out why no one laughed at his numbers. He went to the old man again and asked him. "Why does no one laugh at my jokes?"

The old man replied, "Ahhh, it's the way you tell them."

I noticed that somebody is thinking of making a Gilligan’s Island movie. No doubt they are short of ideas, but never mind that for now. I got to wondering why it seems like such a bad idea.

I’ve never tried to cast a play, and suspect one might do a better job by having the candidates draw straws. But I’ve been in groups that just seemed to click—the conversations were lively and kept everybody involved. Replace a person, and it wasn’t quite the same—maybe nothing happened at all. Some people seem to have a knack for figuring out what sorts of groups will work (or maybe that’s just selection bias—we only remember the ones that did work).

I doubt the original show would get any traction today (that’s a whole other topic), but at the time the combination of the mannerisms of the cast and the writers writing to match the team gave a particular and very popular flavor to the humor. With a different Ginger and her slightly different tone, MaryAnn has to react a little differently, and so on. The flavor has to be different. And it might or might not catch the public fancy the same way.

That’s not a bad thing, of course. But I suspect that trying to recapture a flavor is a fool’s errand. In one Newton’s Apple episode the host was offered an ice cream cone, and gagged a little to discover it was filled with mashed potato instead of ice cream. He probably liked potatoes just fine, but his palate was set for something sweet.

I don’t watch enough movies to be able to say for sure, but from the reviews I read I gather that sequels sometimes hit the same sort of problem when the cast has to change: the chemistry is a little different, and the flavor isn’t quite the same.

I can think of a few exceptions in the serial/sequel line. The Avengers had several different female sidekicks, and the series seemed to go on anyway; though not for long after Diana Rigg left. Dr. Who seems to have survived a dozen actors.(*)

I suppose the producers wouldn’t come up with remakes if they didn’t make at least some money—nostalgia viewers if nothing else. Still, on the whole it seems like a bad idea to try to remake a show. Inspired-by, maybe. Remake—please don’t.

(*) I saw Dr. Who in the dorms at Fermilab in WTTW’s weekly BBC-fest. It exasperates the younger fans in my household that I still think Tom Baker is Dr. Who.

Monday, December 16, 2013


I began using the arm too soon. There seems to be a little conflict between acquiring range of motion and healing. Or something.

So Youngest Son and Youngest Daughter were sawing the wood for the turtle basking ramp,(*) and doing most of the drilling and screwing. And I'm not driving anymore, and I'm practicing doing lots of things left-handed.

Such is the price of impatience. The land is going to have its Sabbaths one way or another...

(*)The turtle is now in an aquarium significantly deeper than the horse trough. But the glass sides seem to be weirding him out.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Intense world"

The idea that some autistic behavior is due to hypersensitivity is a little older than the story suggests. Youngest Daughter had "Auditory Training", which seemed to help for a while, but then after a couple of weeks there was no further improvement. (The music in the headphones had random glitches, with the intention of desensitizing the hearer to noise.)

I've met more people on the autism spectrum than average, and am comfortable with the notion that there are many causes--there are certainly many presentations. The causes might hit the same general machinery, though.

If the thesis above is correct, and autistic children have sensory overload with consequent fear and defensive behaviors, then it might, as they also suggest, be possible to reduce its severity with very early intervention. Except that another study suggests that it is hard to distinguish it before about 3 months.

A couple of things don't seem to quite fit their model, though. One is the deficit in "cognitive empathy" (not "affective"--autistic children do like people):

In a now famous experiment, children watched two puppets, “Sally” and “Anne.” Sally has a marble, which she places in a basket and then leaves. While she’s gone, Anne moves Sally’s marble into a box. By age four or five, normal children can predict that Sally will look for the marble in the basket first because she doesn’t know that Anne moved it. But until they are much older, most autistic children say that Sally will look in the box because they know it’s there. While typical children automatically adopt Sally’s point of view and know she was out of the room when Anne hid the marble, autistic children have much more difficulty thinking this way.

The other is: if life is so overwhelming, how can they maintain focus so well? I suppose if it is life or death to learn to focus, you do.

Lyric meanings then and now

At the semester's end recital, a young fellow without quite enough breath support sang "For the Longest Time." I didn't grow up with this one; we already had our eldest when it was released. But it will do as a stand-in for the ones I did hear.

It almost seemed written in a foreign language.

"For the longest" time (never mind that it seems funny coming from a 16-year-old) almost doesn't seem to apply. The time before my wife isn't so much "a long time" ago as a different life entirely.

"But I've come this far and it's more than I hoped for" seems apropos, but I'd have to qualify it with with "so much different than I hoped for." Much of my early hope was short-sighted, with no glimmering of all that a life together would mean. So even "hope" doesn't mean the same thing anymore; it is a less focussed thing.

"Now I know the woman that you are": hardly, you're just beginning to. And you don't know the woman she will grow to be, together with you--not yet. The knowing and growing go together.

"I don't care what consequence it brings" is almost right, but not quite. I do care, but was willing to take the bad with the good, so long as we could avoid the evil. And I'm slowly learning what grace can come with the troubles. So in one understanding (which I have not achieved) I don't have to worry.

"Romance" doesn't seem to mean the same thing: for the singer it is the two together, but after a few years of growing together and links to places and new family and new friends and even new links to old family, it seems to be a bigger concept than at first.

"I intend to hold you for the longest time." Intermittently. It turns out to interfere with fixing the car and cooking and getting the kids ready for school.

"I have been a fool for lesser things." OK, that's still true. I wasn't a fool to marry her, though.


Lovecraft would have enjoyed oobleck in space.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Who you know

Of the stories I've read about the sign-language interpreter at the funeral, nobody seems to have touched on what looks like the obvious conclusion. That he was unqualified, with a history of violence, and was close to the most carefully guarded man in the world, everybody notices, but there's something else too. Look at him

Look at Zuma

Now ask why he was hired, and why his criminal record is so hard to find, and why the complaints about earlier signing work don't seem to have mattered. Just from looking at them, I'd bet the two are the same tribe--maybe not close family, but the same tribe. And though it didn't stand front and center in the Mandela funeral coverage, South Africa has huge issues with corruption and tribal conflict.

I wonder if the proximity issue will prompt the American media to follow up, or if they'll worry that digging into this would dirty Mandela's memory.

I'll try to keep my ears open on this, and see if I'm right.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Protein origami master?

This story puzzles me. Allegedly the protein Hsp90 keeps other proteins from mis-folding even when there are minor defects in the protein due to minor mutations. Too little Hsp90 and the little changes tend to be expressed (almost always as defective systems) rather than suppressed.

That's a nice method for achieving largish jumps in characteristics. Stress a population of organisms, reducing the Hsp90 or demanding so much protein creation that you outrun your supply (I wonder about radiation environments?) You get lots more previously hidden mutations expressed, almost all of which are damaging (but we take it on faith that some can be pathways to beneficial changes). The only real example of a successful change is fish whose eyes change size (smaller or larger) under Hsp90-blocking, which might emulate the stress in the slightly too non-conductive water of the dark cave some of them live in. If you are already halfway there you should show a more rapid tendency to lose the genes for eyes.

Except--how does this wonder protein know how each protein is supposed to fold? If there were a general folding pattern common to all proteins, then the normally suppressed deviants would always be abnormal and not the wave of the future. For if some deviant folding were a new pattern for future proteins, then from then on there would not be a general pattern common to all proteins. If there are no general folding patterns, then how in the world would Hsp90 do its hypothesized job?

Interesting work, but I think something is wrong with the model of what Hsp90 does.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Somebody was playing "Cross of Gold" and I got to thinking about Bryan. Some things don't seem to change much.

Faced with powerful rent-seekers, the populist answer was to steal from everybody else using inflation: in Bryan's day by expanding the money supply with an arbitrary linkage to silver, in ours by printing money with no revenue to back it up. These days, because we've got the strongest economy in the world, we've been successful at exporting some of the inflation--which means exporting the theft into poorer countries. So the price of cooking fuel in Africa goes up because our politicians don't like to make hard choices.

I'm trying to understand how this readily predictable side effect fits in with straight-faced progressive talk of "economic justice". One obvious answer is that only the people in their field of view are real, and the those out of the focus--well, that group includes some of the villains(*), so maybe it is easier to discount them. And their favored tools cannot possibly have bad side effects--you must be an evil person for suggesting that The Law of Unintended Consequences trumps their good intentions (an attitude common between groups that bitterly disagree on the tools). And the retired couple down the street whose savings are eaten away--we'll devise plans that help them so they don't need to worry, just have faith in our good intentions.

Something similar appeared in some of the defenders of the Second Iraq campaign(**). There could not possibly be any serious consequences, because the cause was right. Well yes, but... What makes us expect perfection from "least-bad" choices?

(*)I am perfectly willing to stipulate that some of the accused villains actually are predatory. Not all, though. And I notice that some of those genuinely predatory sorts (one such is Soros) are quite cozy with the populist leaders. And often with the not-so-populist leaders too.

(**) I'm a defender too, though I think I had a better idea of the downsides than some of the commentariat, and believe we blundered away and threw away all the strategic possibilities and arguably leave the situation worse than before.

Healthy eating

The Mediterranean diet is all the rage these days, and it doesn't look too bad--though I'm more of a fish in moderation sort. Beans and nuts are some of the basics of the diet. I'm not sure which category Theobroma cacao falls in but it has to be one or the other--and thus should be a staple.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Does not commute"

I sometimes talk about science and models of reality. The math may be as precise as you like, but if the application of it isn't right it doesn't help much.

One thing that surprises people from time to time is that the math that best describes the real world doesn't always have A+B=B+A. I like to remind them that putting on your socks and shoes isn't the same as putting on your shoes and socks--the order makes a little difference.

Typically they are unconvinced. So if they are rich enough to wave about two dollar bills, I suggest the standard example.

Lay two dollars bill in front of you face up, each with George's head oriented up as he sadly contemplates the state of the nation. You will apply the same kinds of rotations to both. On the left, rotate the bill 90 degrees clockwise. Then flip it over far end to near and near end to far. Take the other bill and flip it far end to near and near end to far. Then rotate it 90 degrees clockwise. Notice the difference.

What happens if you rotate by 180 degrees instead of 90?

In a closely related example, suppose you start at Indianapolis and travel 100 miles due south, ignoring roads and construction. Then travel 100 miles due east, then 100 miles due north, then 100 miles due west. As we all know, you are not back where you started from; you overshoot because the Earth is round.

In fact the effect is fairly common. Do A, then do B, then do the opposite of A, then do the opposite of B. It isn't always the same as doing nothing. Sometimes you are not back where you started. The difference between where you started and where you wind up tells you something about the kind of space you are in (which needn't be a space with the usual distance dimensions--it can be a space of momenta or something else).

If you have points in a plane represented by (x,y) you can rotate clockwise by θ about the origin with a simple matrix (quick reminder about matrix multiplication)


Suppose θ is vanishingly small. Then cos(θ) ≈ 1 and sin(θ) ≈ θ . So you can write the tiny rotation as the identity plus the first order rotation plus higher order terms:

+ higher order terms

So far this is nothing particularly startling. A small rotation mostly leaves the situation the same (that's the identity matrix with 1's in the diagonal), but there's a tiny set of first order changes and even tinier higher order. (If you think .001 is small, how about .001 squared: .000001?)

In 3D, with rotations about the x, y, and z axes, when you play the same game you have 3 tiny rotation matrices, which I'll call A, B, and C, with extremely tiny angles a, b, and c. You start with the identity matrix (1's down the diagnonal) and







Notice that AB is not BA, and AB-BA is not a zero matrix.

In fact, if we just look at the unscaled base matrices, setting a=b=c=1, we see the following:

  • AB-BA=-C
  • BC-CB=-A
  • CA-AC=-B

It isn't as simple as 1+2=2+1, but the structure gives you some interesting symmetries you wouldn't have seen otherwise. Or to put it in layman's terms, that's kind of cool. And if you have a mathematical bone anywhere in your body you'll ask: "what happens if..." (if rotations are in 4 dimensions, if you have 4 similar cycling equations in ABCD, if AB-BA=-C+A, etc, etc).

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hard problems

The headline says "Researchers Reveal How an Expanding Universe Can Emerge Without a “Big Bang”". The team figured a way of having an emergent expanding universe without a singularity. They start with a flat spacetime that is rotating, and small phase transitions can occur which act a little like expanding bubbles. OK, cool. But in the fine print:
In a first step, a spacetime with only two spatial dimensions was considered. “But there is no reason why the same should not be true for a universe with three spatial dimensions”, says Grumiller.

Our own universe does not seem to have come into existence this way. The phase-transition model is not meant to replace the theory of the Big Bang.

Or in other words, the model they show is a 2D+time model instead of the 3D+time world we live in. So you'd think that this is not a huge deal, call back when they get to 3 dimensions. Fair enough.

The linked article tries to explain why this is interesting--the short version is that there's been an influential theory that links quantum field theory to gravity in a "holographic" way. One example given to explain the conjecture was that if it were true, then a solution of the equations on the boundary would define everything inside; sort of like a hologram (2D) that reconstructs to something 3D. Which seems to kind of flatten us out a bit, but it isn't as bad as it sounds.

But: problems that are OK in 2D can be fiendishly hard in 3D. I've been fiddling with a little problem and wondered if hyperdeterminants would help (and if you understand that link on the first read-through you're doing better than I did). There is a closed form expression for the 2x2x2 tensor, but 3x3x3? To quote a paper from arxiv: "The classical case p = 1 is much easier than the case p>=2 mainly because there are only finitely many orbits for the action of GL(V0) x GL(V1)". (I'm calling this a dead end: using their notation I have p=2.)

Or the 2-body problem. The Earth and Moon, in isolation, form a very easy dynamical system; closed form solution, all is well. Including the effects of tides muddies it a lot. Add a third body and not only is there no closed form solution, the system may or may not be stable depending on small changes in the initial conditions--good old chaos.

So I'm not as sanguine about possible solutions as Dr. Grumiller. There are too many surprises.

Of course, once they have a solution, then they have to compare the predictions of that with what we actually see. This has been done (with resulting retuning) for the standard cosmological models, and it has taken many man-years to do the computations and comparisons. Even the unsatisfactory current theories satisfy a lot of constraints that a new model will also have to prove itself against. If we had the accurate Theory of Everything handed to us tomorrow morning, it would still take years--maybe even decades--before we could be sure that it was even as good as what we already have.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Gaming on company time

And getting paid for it. The NSA (and apparently other agencies) found that persons of possible interest (e.g. embassy drivers) played things like World of Warcraft, and so in their search for terrorist communication channels the agency sucked up huge swaths of chat information--which is probably not that informative without an intimate knowledge of the games. I gather that some poor souls had the crushing burden of having to get deeply involved in the games.

WoW et al seem roughly as interesting as watching paint dry, but if that's your enthusiasm perhaps you should consider a career change.

Overoptimistic headlines, CCXXIII

"Study Shows Oxytocin Improves Brain Function in Children with Autism". Giving oxytocin to ASD children 8-16 seems to change what lights up in the brain. OK, so it does--maybe: 17 is a small sample. But if you read the full study you find this problem:
Overall, behavioral accuracy and reaction times on the RMET did not differ for OT (oxytocin) vs. Placebo visits ( Fig. S3). This is consistent with the empirical record, which shows improvements only on some items from the RMET, according to difficulty level, but not overall (11, 22)

So the brain lights up differently, but there was no change in ability to guess someone's mood looking at just the eyes.

"Our results are particularly important considering the urgent need for treatments to target social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders," Gordon added.

I think that translates as "we know something else that doesn't work, but it was worth a try."

But who knows, maybe high doses with early intervention might have some effect, though it'd be a while before we found out. Be nice if there were a silver bullet or two.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

St. Isaac

The writings of the second St Isaac of Syria don't seem to be online (at least not in English), but there are quotations. He was an ascetic, and some of his suggestions illustrate that focus.
  • Ease and idleness are the destruction of the soul and they can injure her more than the demons.
  • A small but persistent discipline is a great force; for a soft drop tailing persistently, hollows out hard rock.
  • Dispassion does not mean that a man feels no passions, but that he does not accept any of them.
  • The key to Divine gifts is given to the heart by love of neighbor, and, in proportion to the heart's freedom from the bonds of the flesh, the door of knowledge begins to open before it.
  • Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.
  • Before you stumble, call out and plead; before you make a vow, have ready what things you promise, for they are your provisions afterwards.
  • If you compel your body when it is weak to labors that exceed its strength, you will instill darkness upon darkness into your soul and bring greater confusion upon her.
  • Mercy and legality in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house.
  • If you cannot be merciful, at least speak as though you are a sinner. If you are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker. If you cannot be assiduous, at least in your thought be like a sluggard (?typo for "not like"?). If you are not (typo?) victorious, do not exalt yourself over the vanquished. If you cannot close the mouth of a man who disparages his companion, at least refrain from joining him in this.
  • A gift free of trials is a disaster to those who receive it.
  • Not every quiet man is humble, but every humble man is quiet.
  • Flee from discussions of dogma as from an unruly lion; and never embark upon them yourself, either with those raised in the Church, or with strangers.
  • The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its charm.

I am quite far from being an ascetic, as a slight pudge quickly testifies and 33 years of marriage would strongly suggest. I did not imbibe any appreciation for monastic life, and nor was it obvious why asceticism would be attractive enough that brothers and sisters would drop everything and head for the desert.

But I think I'm starting to get a glimmering. Imagine an era swarming with luxuries that turn tasteless with indulgence, with entertainments that alternate between the cruel and the lascivious, with the public sphere monopolized by the power hungry and greedy, with intrusive bureaucracies, and seemingly everything designed to manipulate you to utterly worldly ends. Now imagine yourself swimming in this, and starting to realize that these temptations and evils already have a home in your own soul. You too sometimes hunger to chase the banner, or to buy the toy that your neighbors esteem, or collect the hoard that will protect you from the rapacious, or try a taste of your neighbor's mistress.

You hear of a man who was able to put all these things aside with self-disciplines no worse than those imposed on wrong-doers. The life in the world is so obviously vile that this alternative, for souls hungering for nobility, looks wise and right.

And, in that era, maybe it is.

UPDATE: Here's a favorite example of the manipulation mentioned:

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Mental illness in the village

One of many things I don't know is how mental medicine works in simpler cultures.

Liberian native physical medical treatments, according to Dr. George Harley, could be roughly divided into 3 groups: "it helps," "it does nothing" (a lot of magical stuff was here), and "it causes damage." I don't have the book any more (I read it 40 years ago), but I vaguely recall that he thought the number of treatments in the 3 groups were roughly equal. The snake society (to which most hunters belonged) had a few rituals and a magic preparation that involved powdered snake heads rubbed into scratches. Harley didn't attempt to test this, but as the link suggests it isn't obviously wrong.

We have quite a few people searching through primitive pharmacopeia for useful drugs.

Mental illness is a bit harder. I see things like "mental illness was thought to be caused by evil spirits," but that doesn't tell me much about treatments. "Magic(*)" OK, but suppose instead of trying to lump treatments we get more specific. Did they distinguish different classes of problems and do their categories correspond to ours at all? What exactly did they do to try to help, and did it help?

I assume they had the pragmatic triage categories: "You are a witch and dangerous to the rest of us. Die.", "We cannot live with you. Go away.", and "Nobody minds Ben Gunn." We, with more resources, institutionalize the first, expel the second (modulo homeless shelters), and try to help (sometimes stupidly) the third group.

Were there any other distinctions?

What did the witch doctors do to help the third group (and those in the other groups prior to the tribe's judgment)? How did they decide on treatments? And most importantly--did the treatments ever help? Figuring that out takes a lot longer than grabbing a handful of bark and flying back to the lab, unfortunately. It means somebody has to spend a long time in the village.

Dalrymple says that unhappiness is being medicalized into "depression," with the obvious consequences that unhappiness is not properly addressed and depression is trivialized. But the description from India of How to Treat Depression When Psychiatrists Are Scarce leaves me wondering if palliation for both can be similar (I am not a psychiatrist!), at least for mild depression. See AVI comment below

I can easily imagine treatments that only work within the psychological environment of the village with its network of obligations and meanings. Even something as simple as a cola nut has a set of uses in a Liberian village having to do with relaxation, welcome, and worship, that would not translate well to anything I can think of in the US--and I only know a little from the outside. So a treatment that works there might not work here.

But if something does work, it would be good to know how and why.

Probably there's already a treatise or three on the subject and I just haven't found it.

(*) Our categories are also apt to square-peg round-holers. Practitioners can give examples, but any framework trying to describe the borderlands of personal responsibility is going to have misfeatures.

Thursday, December 05, 2013


To be the right man at the right time is more than most of us can expect. Mandela, one-time commander of the armed wing of the ANC, wasn't exactly a saint, and some of the things he said in recent years were sad to hear. But he and his brave colleague de Klerk sponsored a transformation I didn't believe was possible: a peaceful power transition after oppression. And the Truth and Reconciliation committees worked wonders--though the model has failed in other countries. There are still huge divisions and poisons at work in South Africa, notably the totalitarian wing of the ANC, but just to have solved the apartheid problem was a huge accomplishment. Other knots were for the later generations (who have unfortunately not distinguished themselves as well).

He had the endurance and commitment and the drive to peaceful resolution they needed.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Pneumonia is a drag

I'd have been back to work a week ago if not for this stupid bug. Time to go lie down again...

Imitating a style

A year and a half ago Ray Bradbury died. I grew up with his wonderful stories, though I lost track of his newer work about 20 years ago. He could conjure deeply memorable scenes, and his style was clear and easy. Easy to read, that is. About a month after he died I thought I should try to write something in his style, as a kind of private homage. I had a setting and characters that seemed in keeping with his style, and an offbeat ghost problem that I think he'd have enjoyed playing with. I immersed myself in his stories for a while, and then ... getting the balance right is hard.

He varied his style depending on the mood, so maybe that was OK. But I couldn't make the prose go the direction I wanted--as though the style had a mind of its own. Which is probably another way of saying my handwriting looks much the same in small and on the blackboard, even though the muscles are different. Better not to push it too hard.

I don't know how many years of practice it would take to imitate his style well--probably far more than just to get my own to be good. "Imitate the best" was the advice, but it was for learning the details of the craft, not for turning into an imitation Hemingway.

It's better for a story to gather electronic dust than turn out like this Wodehouse imitation, which sounds so obviously bad I wonder how it found a publisher.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


While mulling over some questions about what society owes the knives in the drawer who aren't as sharp, I started chasing down proverbs. One handy collection (*) ranges from Solomon to Kipling but includes a lot of what we think of as traditional rustic proverbs. Many deal with working hard and hopefully, using resources wisely, and the effects of companions. In other words, a lot of simple rule-of-thumb advice that even someone a little slow on the uptake can internalize. (Though I remember several folk-tales about simple lads who took things too literally.)

Just for comparison, have a look at this (shorter) list from China. (At least one of the proverbs is the same: Teach a man to fish...) This is much more heavily flavored with respect for study and suggests a somewhat more involved social structure ("Do not employ handsome servants"). This list feels more rustic, and includes some pretty obscure admonition.

I have to include some from Liberia. Liberian proverbs are a little different; much more fluid and often requiring explanation for outsiders. From that last link:

African proverbs usually have two meanings: the literal or primary meaning, and the deeper or real meaning. The real meaning of African proverbs is not always apparent. This is precisely why they are called proverbs. For instance, the Ghanaian Akan, Dangme and Ga expressions for "to cite a proverb," bu abe, means "to bend," "curve," or "twist words," to make them complicated (Yankah 1986). Similarly, the Lugbara (Uganda) term that is used to designate proverbs, e'yo obeza, literally means "mixed words," "twisted speech" or "indirect talk" (Dalfovo 1997). The meaning of a proverb is not fixed, and so it can be modified. The user is free to reconstruct a proverb in order to make it appropriate in the particular context in which it is being used. To modify a proverb, one may delete, paraphrase, elaborate or transfer elements in it. The hearer must be witty to interpret and grasp the meaning of a proverb.

Compare the flavors yourself. I can't describe the differences in single phrases. All represent a useful body of wisdom--including the contradictions that describe life ("Look before you leap", "He who hesitates is lost"). I don't hear these much, though perhaps I don't travel in the right circles, and I suspect we suffer for it.

(*)It has odd comments sometimes, almost as though the author didn't realize that the Bible was known the whole time English was developing as a language.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Hellenized Jews

I was taught early on that Alexander the Great wanted to spread Greek culture to everybody, and that as a result Greek language and Greek amphitheaters and Greek sports spread all over the Middle East. I learned later that some Greeks had colonized Italy, so that explained Greek influence there.

That's one of the perks of being the conqueror, I guess. Except that the conquered lands were split among warring dynasties, so it isn't quite so easy to see how Greek-ism would be easy to push on the conquered peoples--if you annoy them too much they might defect to the other guys. In your own heartland strongholds, sure, but in the middle of it all? (Antiochus IV was a nutcase.)

So what was so enticing that there would be a significant body of Hellenized Jews?

The previous post may explain some of the enticement. This wasn't an empty "wear the robes of the rulers" fashion trend. The Hellenist culture was high-tech too. The tech was maybe not affordable for everybody, but there were real secrets to be learned, with practical uses as in agriculture and medicine that could help everybody. Some of the rest of Greek culture would come along for the ride, so to speak, and for the Jews that could be problematic: idolatry and immorality.

There are some seriously problematic aspects to modern Western culture too, and some of them seem to spread along with the more technical goodies. That may give a parallel with the past.

Sheer, unmitigated speculation by an amateur. Maybe no secret to the pros.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Forgotten Revolution by Lucio Russo

The history of science in the West, as those few of us who remember it goes, has the ancient Egyptians inventing some primitive technology, the ancient Greeks inventing math and science but scorning technology as not fit for truly noble thinkers, Romans who developed civil engineering and sanitation, and then a lot of barbarians who wrecked everything until math started being rediscovered and science and technology re-invented and went on to exceed anything mankind had ever seen before.

Name an ancient Greek scientist? Archimedes, Aristarchus, Aristotle, Ptolemy? (Aristotle does not really count, btw) Check the dates. That's quite a range of time.

It turns out that there's quite a bit missing, and some of what we know isn't quite true.

We tend to telescope everything from 1000BC to 400AD as "ancient," giving the illusion that everything happened more or less at once.

The Forgotten Revolution goes in depth to try to find out what happened: how high the Greek science and math rose, and why things starting falling apart.

The answer is very high indeed. Pick those famous "epicycles" that Ptolemy introduced to explain the motion of planets in the sky.

  • Ptolemy didn't invent them, some other Hellenists had done so centuries before. (He died in 168AD)
  • Hellenist math was constructive, and required straight-edge and compass. For anything not perfectly circular, epicycles were inevitable.
  • Look at this picture and tell me what you see. These are dates of astronomical measurements that went into the Almagest.

There's a nice spike at times close to Ptolemy, and a long list before--with a 2 century-long gap in the middle. Ptolemy wasn't developing something new, he was trying to retrieve something old. And since little details like known heliocentric theories were left out of the Almagest, it wasn't a thorough review.

Hint. Ptolemy was from the Imperial Roman era.

What sorts of things did the Hellenists have? Lenses, steam engines, gears and (one infers) metal screws, first principles shipbuilding design (so much for a disdain for technology), hydrostatics for pipe design, gigantic lighthouses (probably with a parabolic mirror--hard to be certain), timing of systolic and diastolic pulses of the blood, watermills, and of course differential gearing in the Antikythera mechanism. And mechanical puppets, and something that sounds like silent movies.


Russo is a physicist, and also versed in classical literature. This is rare. Most classicists don't know much math or science, and most scientists aren't familiar with old forms of Greek. So things like this slip by (p106)

The common idea is that Aristarchus was too far ahead of his time to have had a lasting influence on the course of science, and support for it is generally found in the accusation of impiety supposedly leveled against him because of his heliocentrism. The belief that Aristarchus was accused of impiety originates with the seventeen century philologist Gilles Menage who … changed a passage in Plutarch by amending an accusative into a nominative and vice versa.

Russo points out that planetaria were well known, and that Cicero's description of Archimedes' version is consistent with a heliocentric mechanism--not so much with a geocentric one. (Another advantage of having somebody with a technical background peering at the language details.)

More astronomy: Geminus (about 50BC) compiles a list of star positions and "warning the reader not to suppose it ("sphere of fixed stars") to have a physical existence, since the stars are at different distances from us." And "According to Pliny, Hipparchus (died 120BC) compiled his catalog of stars precisely so that later generations might deduce from it the displacements of stars and the possible existence of novae." (Talk about a long-term research program! Halley (1718 AD) recorded differences with Sirius, Arcturus, and Aldebaran.)

AristarchusEratosthenes famously measured the circumference of the Earth. From textual evidence and some references to the verticality of the sun in a band of about 200 miles, Russo strongly suspects that AristarchusEratosthenes (head of library of Alexandria too) had a team dig the famous well in a more accurate spot than merely a handy town, and went on to define his own version of the stadia, linked to the Earth's circumference. This suggests a little funding...

Technology, travel, engineering

How about military technology? The torsion catapult (about the middle of the 3rd century BC) was more powerful and faster to use than the trebuchet of western medieval times more than a millennium later. There's some evidence that a repeating catapult was used, and according to Philo of Byzantium, air piston catapults (thanks to Ctesibius, died 222BC).

Travel? Pytheas (late 4'th century BC) traveled direct to India from the Gulf of Aden--no sticking solely to the coastline; that's high seas navigation. He also got far enough north that the sun stayed up all summer, and even saw the polar pack ice. Herodotus preserves (and disdains) a report suggesting a circumnavigation of Africa.

Civil engineering? Canals, a blossoming of irrigation methods used from that day to this, aqueducts, and so on. Remember the Roman aqueduct system?

Vitruvius' regard for the role of applied science is the greatest of any Latin author. He enumerates the fields of knowledge required by a good architect … writing, drawing, geometry, arithmetic, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law, and astronomy. But consider the ensuing explanation of the uses of this knowledge: astronomy is regarded as necessary, in essence, for determining the four points of the compass, and geometry for understanding the uses of squares and levels….

Vitruvius' work represents the highest level achieved by a Roman technical treatise. As for the rest, Frontinus, the author of the main Latin work on aqueducts, systematically mixes up the flow rate of a pipe with its cross section, thus ignoring, in particular, the role of the slope. The high technological level of Roman aqueducts seems hard to reconcile with such incompetence, but we should not forget that Frontinus was not an engineer but the bureaucrat in charge of Rome's water supply, … whereas the actual designers, builders and maintainers of the aqueducts were slaves, who of course were not in a position to write books.

In the same way we find that, for all productive activities with technological content, Rome had to import either finished goods or workers from the East.


The installation of the Pharos was considered so useful that other pharoi were erected at every important port of the Hellenized Mediterranean. But Greek sources contain no overall description or a single technological detail relative to the Pharos, even though it was regarded in its own time as one of the seven wonders of the world. This confirms how reticent our sources are about technological products, in a case where the product itself is not in doubt. Because the only extant descriptions of the Pharos are by Arab historians, who visited it long after it had ceased to function, we know very little of its technology. Yet some conjectures can be made on the basis of its purpose and contemporary knowledge. First, we can imagine that the reflector consisted, as it would today, of a parabolic mirror, all the more so because the relevant theory arose precisely around the time of the construction of the Pharos.

At this point Russo starts to stretch things a bit for my tastes--but maybe he is right:

It should be stressed that modern steam engines are not at all, as is often implicitly assumed, an invention independent of the Hellenist engines; there is a continuous line of descent. Heron's expositions were studied carefully by Leonardo da Vinci, among others.

Apparently Leonardo drew pictures based on the old books, including a picture or so that aren't found in any of the known old books. Heron (1st century AD) seems to have been a compiler rather than a scientist or engineer himself. The dioptera Heron describes used small screws, but Heron's description of how to make screws only works well for big ones, and in his Automata he never uses gears in the descriptions at all, only friction devices. But gears would have worked better in some cases, and we know that centuries before there were precision gears.

This implies that by Heron's time there had been a significant technology loss. There was still a lot to see. Heron says that an early automatic play "merely showed, by way of motion, a face with blinking eyes. … Heron also says that with "still" automata, one can either show a character in motion, or a character appearing and disappearing."

There is some suggestion of the use of acids in mining, and we know they had pumps to raise water 30 meters out of an underground mine; some of the hardware is still there.


Apparently Galen was not the pinnacle of "ancient" medicine. Herophilus, for example, had "a water "stopwatch" built that could be adjusted for the age of the patient." He described some mental illnesses, studied the circulatory system (with terms still used), studied the eye with great care, discovered the nerves (sensory and motor both!), and "For some diseases, such as the cholera, it is recorded that Herophilus handed down no treatment: this is perhaps the best proof of how serious he was in his medicine."

Science as such

Russo goes to considerable pains to define a scientific attitude as abstracting details from reality to create models of more or less validity--and making clear that the models are not the reality. It seems fairly clear that this attitude was gone by Imperial Roman times. He argues for its presence in Hellenist times. This is a little tricky, since most of the Hellenist scientist are known only by later references; not much is left.

Russo also complains that a reliance on "homogeneity" undermines science, but another word for that in context is "dimensional analysis." Things like x^2+x^3 were allegedly not dealt with by Greek mathematicians (not clear that this is true, BTW). If x is a distance, the expression as it stands does not seem to make any sense. Given how important constructive techniques were for the Greeks (They didn't have computers, OK? And you can try mapping the measurements from a small construction to a big one by hand, but I'll bet you make mistakes.), it isn't too surprising that these wouldn't have been high priority.

Did Newton base his work on gravitation on old Greek manuscripts? That seems likely to Russo and extremely unlikely to me. Some extraordinarily muddled Roman descriptions of Greek astronomy have triangles emanating from the Sun to move the planets. This, to Russo, looks a lot like Newton's geometric explanation of step-by-step motions of the planets under the Sun's gravitation, and Russo's explanation of how the language could have been garbled is quite plausible. However, untangling that rubbish is harder than figuring it out in the first place, and I think Newton's work was independent.

Newton acknowledges his debt in optics to the Archbishop de Dominis, who used Greek terminology and borrowed from Arabs.

It seems that the development of optics was plagued by amazing bad luck: The "Ancients" knew how to make good lenses but did not know what to make of them and kept them as baubles, later intellectuals--not just Leonardo and Fracastoro, but also Roger Bacon and Gosseteste centuries earlier--knew many uses for them, yet could not build them and had never seen such things. Some medieval manuscripts even show astronomers looking at the sky through long tubes; the incongruity has been addressed by postulating that these were empty sighting-tubes!

Consider that Bacon, in the fifth book of the Opus maius, waxed enthusiastic about the Ancient's ability to enlarge small objects and to bring faraway ones close, using appropriate configurations of lenses and mirrors

What happened?

Disasters piled on limited knowledge pools seems the likely culprit. Quite a bit of this is my interpretation of his data. He doesn't devote as much time as I'd like to seeing what went wrong.

Thebes had the death penalty for spying on their shipyards. No technology spread if they could help it. I don't know if I'm reading between the lines, but the complete absence of details about lighthouse construction sounds as though it was better for your health not to be too specific.

If you have many small pools of knowledge trading finished goods, if not the technology proper, with a big pool of talent at Alexandria, you can keep developing sciences and skills and reverse engineering things for quite a while provided there's peace.

There wasn't. Rome was expanding. Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, and Syracuse wasn't the last place; the Romans kept on.

Euergetes II (Ptolemy VIII) perhaps decided that the Romans would like him better if he moved against Greeks, so he persecuted the Greek population of Alexandria--including the ones from the library. Almost nobody was left, and some of the survivors from the library seem to have headed East far out of Roman reach; some suggest all the way to India.

Do I need to say more? Even if the books survive, explaining what exactly what the most advanced treatises mean demands some humans who still understand. Lose continuity, and the most advanced material is now unreadable--or if readable, not understood. Tell me what the average news reporter would make of the phrase fiber bundle, and compare it to the link. And any complicated technology demands the work of different kinds of experts. Lose any of them, and you can't repair it anymore.

So the Roman predilection for encyclopedic works rather than deep analysis makes sense--they don't understand the hard stuff. Nobody did anymore. And you can only coast so long on an encyclopedia, especially when it get corrupted and larded with superstition.

Can it happen again?

Of course. The barbarians are always with us, both outside and inside. We spread our knowledge far more widely today, so the catastrophe would have to be much greater to hit it all, but the same problem of transmission of the hard details remains. Don't count on Wikipedia being there after a disaster; think in terms of what books the local library kept from the great starving seventy years ago when the burners went through.

Word problems

On another blog I mentioned a method of trying to parse word problems I'd used with several of our kids, and from the dead silence that ensued I conclude that people are too embarrassed to ask what it was. Or something.

Blogger is not terribly friendly when I want to use and re-use many small images, so I stashed the whole thing on another web site. The idea is quite simple: look for key words and keep careful track of your units.

Resisting "Columnist Disease"

'But I must think it one or the other.'

'By my father's soul, you must not--until you have some evidence. Can you not remain in doubt?'

'I don't know that I have ever tried.'

'You must learn to, if you are to come far with me. It is not hard to do it. In Eschropolis, indeed, it is impossible, for the people who live there have to give an opinion once a week or once per day, or else Mr. Mammon would soon cut off their food. But out here in the country you can walk all day and all the next day with an unanswered question in your head: you need never speak until you have made up your mind.'

The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S.Lewis, Book 4 Chapter 3