Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Mark 13:33-37 and Luke 12:40 always struck me as a little curious.
33 Be on guard! Be alert[e]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

40 You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Why are we supposed to watch? So we can always be on our toes? I'd have thought calls for faithfulness would be more necessary, but there's good authority to suggest that I'm wrong.

The passage came up in my reading today, and for the first time I made a connection:

Matthew 25:40

40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

I find it is very easy to serve in my favorite comfortable capacities, but every now and then somebody comes along that needs something I find awkward or unpleasant. I'm apt to forget who the "least of these brothers" is. Not watching very well...

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Backstories are evil, and so are their cousins, prequels. And the worst of the lot are the "The Droids of Star Wars" type of volumes that pair ill-suited art with "backstory" info and masquerade as books.

I'll admit exceptions to the backstory claim: I enjoyed the appendices to Lord of the Rings just fine. But Tolkien was a good enough story-teller to make decent stories out most of them, and still leave plenty of mystery for flavor. 99.999% of the rest of us aren't and don't--the result is at best mediocre, and typically just bad.

There is no discipline in backstories. Got an idea? Chuck it in. No need to worry about pacing. And if there's a minor inconsistency in the real story, don't worry about it; a little creativity here and there in the backstory will make the inconsistency go away and leave the story utterly logical with all puzzles solved.

Suppose the secretary at the agency is a blonde when the PI arrives and a redhead when he leaves. This glitch is no mystery to the backstory writer: it is because she made a quick dash to the hairdresser in the meantime, which she could do because the company pioneered ultra-flex time, which the young heir pushed for, because he could not abide the regimentation of his childhood, which had been a family tradition since the Norman Conquest, which ... has nothing to do with the missing wife the PI was there to learn about. In the real story.

Niven's Ringworld series suffered badly from this. They aren't really backstories, but that's what drives them. Niven typically writes science fiction mysteries, where there's a puzzle that needs to be solved. Fine. But the puzzles get pretty cramped when you have to stack them inside fixes for mistakes in earlier stories, and feel you have to tie loose ends together everywhere. It turned out that a bare ringworld is unstable. That has implications for the design, and the tragedy of the commons means that that design feature will be misappropriated--all quite logical, but it feels forced.

Remember Dune and its (often iffy) sequels? OK, now do you remember the dreadful prequels? Prequels typically read as though the author is coloring in the lines rather than adventuring. Granted, there are sometimes irresistible possibilities: a minor character fit for a different set of adventures, but in those that come to mind the story was the better the farther away it was from the original. Zelazny didn't do too badly with Dilvish, for example. But Haggard's Ancient Allen (and apparently a lot of his similar works) was cookie-cutter.

Is it fair to say that a backstory is to a story like a blog is to a book? A story usually takes a lot more work...

Monday, January 28, 2013


From Larry Niven's Ringworld: "If the Patriarchy tried to force such a law on kzinti, we would exterminate the Patriarchy for its insolence."

The context was a discussion of human "Fertility Laws" which (in Niven's universe) people put up with but which startled the alien.

It brings to mind an interesting question: Is there a law that would make Americans rise up more or less as one and summarily remove the lawmakers? (Tar and feathers are traditional.)

I'm trying to think of some usurpation that would simultaneously gore enough people's oxen to get a majority angry. The only thing I've come up with so far is banning cars, and even that issue has a powerful constituency supporting it (for the peons, of course). First amendment, second amendment, 4'th, 5'th amendment, 6'th? Nah. Spending money without budget, oversight, or limit? Nah. You only get half the people interested, if that much.


Apparently the UW hired a consultant again.

This time we're migrating everybody's email to Microsoft 365. I understand the HIPPA requirements are tough to satisfy, but the last time I checked the hospital ≠ the whole university.

This part is risible:

Additionally, the adoption of a single calendaring solution would drastically reduce the time spent on scheduling and confirming meetings, creating approximately 130,000 hours of freed-up employee capacity to campus units per year.

One's first impulse is to suggest that they pulled the numbers from a place the sun does not usually shine. But let's see: 130,000 divided by 5000 staff (roughly) divided by 52 weeks gives a half-hour a week wasted futzing to coordinate electronic calendars. That's probably not too crazy an estimate for the secretaries of the higher-ups. So I'd guess they took the worst case and multiplied it by the number of staff. That's not exactly honest, but it isn't random either.

I don't spend more than 5 minutes every other week with calendars of any description, now that I'm no longer on two experiments at once.

So they'll be wasting time and money on a service I'll not be using--nor will any of the rest of our team.

But this also is supposed to borg-up all the different campus email servers. That's a problem. We use email to schlep around larger files and send mail much more rapidly than the UW is licensed for. (For one thing, email is used to notify when farm jobs complete, so there can be tens of thousands of messages from the condor server every day.) And many faculty and staff and institutions have already established identities on the web; to preserve those means the central IT will have to maintain maybe a hundred email domains, plus multiple identities for some of these people, plus expand their support staff. I don't see how this is going to save anybody any money.

About 18 years ago the state decided it was going to centralize all computing purchasing and management under the Department of Administration. The outcry was big enough that they backed off. I wish I knew who had the clout then. (One of the side effects of such centralization is a loss of accountability. If Prof Jones decides things are screwed up he can walk downstairs and collar somebody, but if it is all handled by a phone bank in another town he's out of luck.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Variations and diet

I'm now measuring things I never did before and finding that food X, though nominally the same as food Y, doesn't have quite the same effects.

A chain of links lead to a Scientific American blog post about digestion. Processing food makes it easier to digest (which is part of the purpose of processing).

In general, it seems that the more processed foods are the more they actually give us the number of calories we see on the box, bag or other sort of label. This applies not just to cooking and pounding but also to industrial processing. A recent study found that individual humans who ate, as part of an experiment, 600 or 800 calorie portions of whole wheat bread (with nuts and seeds on it) and cheddar cheese actually expended twice as much energy, yes twice, in digesting that food as did individuals who consumed the same quantity of white bread and "processed cheese product." As a consequence, the net number of calories the whole food eaters received was ten percent less than the number received by the processed food eaters (because they spent some of their calories during digestion).

Interesting. And people and their responses vary too--though I'd love to know where the author got this tidbit:

Back when it was the craze to measure such variety European scientists discovered that Russian intestines are about five feet longer than those of, say, Italians. This means that those Russians eating the same amount of food as the Italians likely get more out of it. Just why the Russians had (or have) longer intestines is an open question.

And of course there's a lot of variation in gut bacteria do a lot of the heavy lifting when you digest food. Hmm. How many antibiotics did you have to take, and what other effects did they have?

So there's no substitute for carefully monitoring how food, exercise, etc effects you, trying to control one variable at a time. The problem is there are so many variables: time of day, amount of exercise, variety of foods ...

Limits to Imagination and Analysis

"Those like myself whose imagination exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have really reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe we have really been there." C.S. Lewis The Four Loves

I've been thinking about the church in the US recently; comparing what was done in earlier ages and how that maps into things can be done today. Some of those things I find I'm not too eager to try, with endless good reasons why not.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Military training

I gather that the US military chiefs have a childlike faith in the power of education to mold recruits into paladins in loyal miltary orders. Witness the confession of mistakes in training Malian troops:
Gen Carter Ham of United States Africa Command (Africom) said its forces had failed to train Malian troops on "values, ethics and a military ethos".

If they raised the troops from infancy, they might have a chance at instilling such an ethos, but by the time they were recruited? Hardly.

And of course we learn that women are to be admitted as combat fighters. There will be no macho showing off, or instinctive defense of the women: all will form high performing cohesive units because such is the power of training.

Never mind that the Navy has to airlift out pregnant sailors (15% per year, I'm told). Or that the Israelis, who dare not limit their military capacity, decided that women in combat weren't a great idea. Or that only the extreme tail of the distribution of women are capable of the rigors the male soldiers are required to endure. Or all the worries about unit cohesion when sex enters the picture.

It is possible for the brass to ignore all these things, for such is the power of an idea.

I'm not quite sure whether that powerful idea is the idea that women are the same as men modulo social influences, or the idea that prestige and influence accrue to those who cheerlead whatever is in vogue politically. Neither inspires me with the confidence that our armed forces are led intelligently. Of course I knew that already about leadership at the strategic level. (Michael Yon quoted a Marine who warned others not to re-up for Afghanistan, on the grounds that there was no point in volunteering to fight if we weren't serious about winning.)

I'm not saying we don't train our fighters well. I gather that by and large they perform well and generally behave as well as can be expected. But a sense of proportion is a nice thing to have, and telling the truth is a useful discipline.

You might try to give the benefit of the doubt, and claim that the brass have no choice and must do as they're told or lose support. Perhaps. Perhaps.

Crocodile hunters

Floods though Rakwena Crocodile Farm , usually home to 15,000 crocodiles, liberated 10,000 of them. Only 2,000 have been retrieved so far (earlier reports said 1/2).

They are being hunted at night!

"At night time we have more success and we can see their red eyes - it's much easier to see them. They are reasonably active so you have to jump on them and catch them," he told ECNA.


The crocodiles on the Rakwena Farm are mostly bred for their skin, which is exported to Europe and parts of Asia to make shoes, jackets and handbags.

Villagers have been urged not to try to capture animals themselves.

And I thought the meth lab on the corner was a sinister neighbor. We didn't learn about it until it was busted.

Pulsing pulsars

How do pulsars switch behavior?

The best model we have for pulsars is that they are collapsed stars with intense magnetic fields, spinning rapidly. The magnetic poles don't have to be aligned with the axis of rotation. The magnetic fields shape the direction of the ejected plasma: it tends to shoot out at the magnetic poles. Sort of the reverse of the way the Earth's field channels low energy particles in to make auroras at the poles.

So this tiny remnant has the equivalent of two flashlights beaming into space, and if you are in more or less the direction one of them points, you'll see something blinking at you. The star keeps much of its angular momentum when it collapses, so the rotation speed can be dramatic: as much as many times per second.

The pulsars can slow down: spinning that fast, according to General Relativity, should produce gravitational waves, which carry away energy and angular momentum. And the rate of slowing seems to match the theory.

But the pulsar described in the article is weird. It regularly switches the kind of pulsing it does, changing the ratio of radio waves to X-rays, and then changing back.

Nobody has a good model for this yet. They suspect that the magnetic field is reconfiguring itself in a periodic way, but exactly how isn't obvious. The magnetic field associated with the pulsar has roughly the same order of magnitude energy as the original star's magnetic field, but compressed into a very much smaller volume, so the field intensities are astronomical (so to speak). Is something happening on the star's surface that moves the magnetic pole back and forth? Is the magnetic field interacting with something else out there? (It would have to be pretty close.) Is the field pinning inside the star changing with movements of material inside the star? (That would be pretty dramatic: pulsars are presumed to be neutron stars, and convection of "neutronium" would have to involve truly gargantuan forces.)


I wondered why the French seemed to have waited so long before agreeing to intervene. I seem to recall them being a bit more rapid in other countries. From the little bit I've read I suspect it was because the Malian army is both inadequately provisioned and incompetent.

The reports don't seem to fit together well. That's not surprising: none of the sides have any interest in telegraphing their plans or positions. I hear of action in Diabaly--bombing, French arriving, Malian army arriving, everything under control, still Islamists in the area.

Oh, and one rebel group wants to detach from the others and negotiate. And the French say that rebel fighters are better armed and trained than they expected. And Malian army units are killing suspected Islamists and dumping the bodies down wells.

And the Islamists are smuggling cocaine. And the Algerians and US conspired to provoke the Islamists.

Forgive my skepticism. Even simple verifiable things like "bombing in Diabaly" can be exagerated, suppressed, or misinterpreted. And did the French really expect the rebels to be undisciplined, or is that just the line they take to explain why things aren't happening instantly? (Logistics have to be a problem in a place like Mali; even a non-military person like me can see that.)

Qaddafi bought a lot of weapons. They haven't stayed in Libya. (I assume the administration's lies about Benghazi are trying to cover up some kind of deals with loose Libyan weapons. Possibly reasonably.) Mali won't be the last place Islamists surface with Libyan hardware.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Black holes and assumptions

The headline reads New Study Suggests that Black Holes are Growing Faster than Previously Thought.
"The smaller the galaxy, the greater the fraction of stars in these dense, compact clusters," Swinburne researcher Dr Nicholas Scott said. "In the lower mass galaxies the star clusters, which can contain up to millions of stars, really dominate over the black holes."

Previously it was thought that the star clusters contained a constant 0.2 per cent of the galaxy mass.

If you look at the paper in arXiv things look a little different. The first section is devoted to explaining the background for the report--namely that it was well known that there were inconsistencies and different models, and that therefore it was reasonable to revisit the black hole mass to galaxy mass for a particular class of galaxy I'd not heard of before.

It is nice to see science results out there in the news, but one of the things we give up along the way is a sense of proportion. Reporters don't have it for science issues (not for very much else either, if my eyes do not deceive me). For example, how did we wind up with that "0.2 per cent?"

The answer turns out to rely on estimates for the mass of black holes. Astronomers estimated the mass of black holes in different galaxies, noted a pattern, and came up with a model that would explain the pattern. That's the way it is supposed to work; no problems.

Something comes along that deviates from the pattern: Why? If the model is good, maybe something dramatic happened in that galaxy and they can speculate about what (merging galaxies?). Nobody knows better than the astronomers themselves what the hidden assumptions are, and how often the dramatic deviation melts away when the underlying model is tuned up.

But your average--or even above-average--reporter doesn't have the domain knowledge to be able to guess at what's an incipient paradigm shift and what's a wonky assumption in astronomy. I don't, and I'm in an allied field. I kept hearing that there was a deficit of medium-sized black holes, and all I was thinking was "OK, that's odd."

What I should have thought is "How do they measure how big the black holes are; how many medium sizers do they expect; and why do they expect that many?"

That first question is pretty important. How do you estimate a black hole's size, given that we're typically millions of light years away? What other things could be happening that might upset the measurement?

That's what those pesky error bars are there for: the ones that never seem to show up in the news reports. The ones that take as long to calculate as the measurements themselves. The ones that turn an "Oh Wow!" headline into a "Let's Check it Again" one.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Eagle Days

We picked up three Chinese students and the six of us went to Sauk Prairie, where we arrived too late for the first bus tour--and too late to sign up for the second one too.

I brought 3 binoculars (should have taken care to clean the eyepieces of one), and we tried to see the eagles along the river, but so many other people had shown up by 10 that the eagles were staying safely far on the other side of the river. Even the gulls weren't all that close.

But back at the high school (the center of activities) Eldest Son and I took in a talk on "Digiscope photography" (get the best scope you can and even a point-and-shoot can work well), and a lively raptor show by a fellow from the University of Minnesota . When the eagle started flapping the tarp protecting the stage floor started to fly away.

But the highlight was the eagle release at the beach by the VFW. Some birds were injured by attacking cars which challenged their right to road kill, others got lead poisoning (extra-strong stomach acids plus low body weight mean tiny bullet fragments turn toxic), another got tangled in a rabbit snare and nearly starved. About half survive and are released.

The eagles were carried (without raptor gauntlets!) one by one to a viewing stand by the shore. The lady carried each like a baby, on its back with the talons held at the "wrist", and they seemed remarkably docile faced with such a huge crowd of potential predators.

An Indian with an eagle wing fan delivered a blessing for each eagle. Perhaps next year they can rope in a Franciscan for the job.

After show and Q&A around the crowd, "He sees the water and wants to be there!" and as the bird opened his wings a bit he was given a little toss, and then he really unfurled--an amazing amount of wing for a 10-pound package. The first eagle perched on the other side of the river and watched us for about 15 minutes, and then flew down into the river for his first bath in over a year.

The last bird was a little dubious about heading back into the wild again (he'd been found by an airport; possibly looking for a little assistance?), but after about 5 minutes decided to lift up his head and stare out over the river. He was the only one to fly back to our shore, and circle overhead for a while--maybe he likes people?

We were standing near the van that brought the eagles, so we got to see them up close (but no touching).

Gorgeous birds, wonderful flying--and talons of steel and beaks to rip with. I think about Isaiah 65:25 sometimes. Fill the earth and subdue it; take a wild and dangerous world and tame it. Let wolves become dogs which are wolves and more than wolves. Was 65:25 supposed to have been our job?

Other little tidbits: to treat lead poisoning cost $2K for the meds along (not including rehab). The little tracking transmitters cost $5K (we got a little squib about the effects of lowering taxes at that point) so they don't typically equip birds with them--which is perhaps just as well, given the results of the penguin study! They've a male eagle which has helped care for over 32 young rescue eagles. Eagles at the wintering site aren't territorial--at the nesting sites they are.

I wonder if we've studied falcon form and feather structure when they stoop, since I suspect they'd be pretty optimized for minimal air resistance.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stages of perfection

I'm trying to get another set of lessons prepared, this time on the 3'rd 500 years of church history. Along the way I learned of Neander, who wrote his history by focusing on biographies. Luckily a translation into English has been scanned. Unluckily the text generator goes absolutely nuts when it hits Greek, and makes random changes in spelling and punctuation. (And the page headers!).(*)

So I was tooling along and ran into Bernard of Clairvaux.

In the first place, as it respects Bernard, it will be necessary
here to refer back to what we observed in the history of monasticism, concerning his religious position. We saw that the
experience of the heart, growing out of faith, was with him
the main thing ; that he allowed that sort of knowledge in religion alone to be the right one which leads man back into the
recesses of his own heart, and teaches him to be humble.

The man whose entire life belonged to monasticism, and that
mode of intuition which lies at the bottom of it, contemplating the matter from this point of view, did not consider
the highest aim of the Christian life as genuine Christians
required that he should do, the humanization of the divine, the
ennobling of all that is human by a divine principle of life,
but a stage of Christian perfection above the purely human, a
soaring upward of the contemplative spirit that leaves all that
is human behind it. The highest, to his apprehension, is not
that which is to be reached by the harmonious development
of all the powers of man's nature ; but it is the rapture of inspiration, which, overleaping all intermediate stages, antedates the intuition of the life eternal.

" The greatest man," says Bernard, " is he who, despising the use of things and of sense,
so far as human frailty may be permitted to do so, not by a
slowly ascending progression, but by a sudden spring, is
sometimes wont to reach in contemplation those lofty heights."

To this kind he reckons the account of St. Paul, how he was
caught up to the third heaven. He distinguishes three dif-
ferent stages or positions: "That of a practically pious life,
maintained amidst the relations of civil society, where sense
and the things of sense are used in a sober and orderly manner,
according to the will of God ; second, where one rises by
a gradually progressive knowledge from the revelation of
God's invisible essence in creation, to that essence itself; third
and highest, where the spirit collects its energies within itself,
and, so far as it is divinely sustained, divests itself of things
human, to rise to the contemplation of God.
if At this last
stage the man attains immediately to that which is the aim of
all aims, the experience of the divine. To the same point the
other two stages also tend, but by a longer way. That which
is highest cannot be taught by words, but only revealed through the Spirit. No language can explain it ; but we may by prayer
and purity of heart attain to it, after we have prepared our-
selves for it by a worthy life."

I highlighted a little chunk (and put in some paragraph breaks) that sounded very familiar. The last time I checked the theme that the most "evolved" state of any species was a disembodied mind was all over the place in science fiction. I'd bet you could trace the theme back to the platonists if you were willing to work at it.

The problem is that this isn't at all obviously a Christian theme. That the "highest cannot be taught by words" is well known apophatic theology; indeed it is well known in other religions as well. But that the greatest union with God is only possible when we have divested ourselves of "things human" seems to this observer to conflict with the claim that the most perfect union with God was in the person of a Jewish peasant.

That seems to imply that there is no necessary limit on the perfection of a union between the human nature and the divine. If our natures were changed (when we try that we typically botch it), the nature of that union would change too, but infinity isn't necessarily bigger than infinity.

(*) Looking at the PDF I now understand why: some pages of the book were used to identify the book as library property by having the name of the library punched through them. I can figure out the letters, but I wouldn't expect an OCR program to manage.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Short links

Cost of Singleness: The report that being single is more expensive than being married, partly due to tax law and partly a host of other things, is all over the news today. bs-king at Bad Data, Bad takes on the mechanics of the study, and finds it seriously defective. In addition, I gather the study ignores the extra contributions families make; kids don't seem to enter a lot of economic calculus.

From the BBC: "Where vegetarianism is an exotic illness" (Bologna and the surrounding lands).

"Gabriella," I smiled, "I do not eat meat, remember?" She looked at me genuinely nonplussed: "But it is not meat, it is prosciutto cotto."

A drug that reduces 80% of "senile plaques" in mice sounds interesting. 80% is a lot, but Alzheimer's isn't obviously the same thing as mouse brain plaques.

The team led by Dr. Serge Rivest, professor at UniversitĂ© Laval's Faculty of Medicine and researcher at the CHU de QuĂ©bec research center, identified a molecule that stimulates the activity of the brain’s immune cells. The molecule, known as MPL (monophosphoryl lipid A), has been used extensively as a vaccine adjuvant by GSK for many years, and its safety is well established.

In mice with Alzheimer’s symptoms, weekly injections of MPL over a twelve-week period eliminated up to 80% of senile plaques. In addition, tests measuring the mice's ability to learn new tasks showed significant improvement in cognitive function over the same period.

Surprise! "Whole grain" on the label doesn't always make it better for you. I'm shocked! Shocked!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Head Start again

Let's revisit the Head Start results with a different approach.

They claim the program does produce improvements, but that these seem to go away with time. Clearly there are no differences by 3rd grade.

I didn't look at the claim of early improvements, and it is hard to know what they'd be comparing with, but let's assume that it was true; that Head Start 5-year-olds were better off than identical demographic 5-year-olds without it.

It is possible that these good effects were always going to be transient. I gather that many of the effects of parenting are (extremely bad excluded) generally washed out by the time kids reach their 20's.

It is possible that the good effects were attenuated by clumsy schooling. If the school system is less than ideal for students eligible for Head Start (with and without had the same outcomes), it is not outlandish to worry that traditional schooling might be less than ideal for other classes of students as well.

For example, perhaps boys do less well than girls?

I can think of a lot of things that could be better in school. One is that the kids spend some of the pre-teen time doing non-arbitrary work--paid or volunteer, and preferably not "saving the planet," but rendering services people actually want.

UPDATE: to clarify, I want them interacting with adults and not merely picking up trash or lobbying.

Feeling young again

Tis the time of year to think about college planning, and my "unique educational needs" clearly demand some "assistance in making crucial decisions."

One of the useful features of modern information technology is the precision with which they can comb through databases to target exactly the people who need your company's services. There need be no wasted postage, no wasted effort. I read of a firm that, based on an analysis of a young lady's department store purchases, sent her offers for diapers and baby magazines before her parents knew she was pregnant.

I wonder how I should take advantage of this scam opportunity. I don't think I have quite enough years left to get much useful work done after earning an MD, and I'm no good at languages so that rules out a MDiv.(*)

I think I'll worry along learning dCache and enstore without benefit of college planning.

(*)The title of MDiv reminds me of the spells on Egyptian coffins that seemed calculated to make the occupant a Master of divinities.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Head Start Program

HHS released their followup report on the Head Start Program this past December (some cynical sorts noticed that this was 2 months after completion and safely after the elections). This has been a longitudinal study. The first report, in 2010, apparently didn't show that Head Start had much effect. This report isn't much different.
There is clear evidence that Head Start had a statistically significant impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, were found for both age cohorts during their first year of admission to the Head Start program. However, these early effects dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children in each age cohort: a favorable impact for the 4-year-old cohort (ECLS-K Reading) and an unfavorable impact for the 3-year-old cohort (grade promotion).

They easily defined a control group (though this probably biased the sample toward intensely needy areas):

Selected Head Start grantees and centers had to have a sufficient number of applicants for the 2002-2003 program year to allow for the creation of a control group without requiring Head Start slots to go unfilled. As a consequence, the study was conducted in communities that had more children eligible for Head Start than could be served with the existing number of funded slots.

So what were the results?

Consider 3'rd graders who had been in the program in 4'th grade. Compare them to a similarly selected group of kids (same kind of family condition, race, family income, etc) who hadn't been in Head Start. They say:

4-Year-Old Cohort
  • There were no significant differences between the Head Start group and the control group on any measures of social-emotional development during the Head Start year or during kindergarten.
  • At the end of 1st grade, impacts on social-emotional development were few and mixed.
    • There were two unfavorable findings based on teacher reports of children’s behavior: (1) children in the Head Start group demonstrated moderate evidence of more socially reticent behavior (i.e., shy and hesitant behavior) as reported by teachers, and (2) there was suggestive evidence of more problematic student-teacher interactions.
    • In contrast, there was suggestive evidence of less withdrawn behavior for children in the Head Start group as reported by their parents.
  • At the end of 3rd grade, parents reported less aggressive and total problem behaviors for the Head Start group children. However, teachers reported unfavorable impacts with a higher incidence of children’s emotional symptoms, less closeness, and a less positive relationship with the Head Start children. Finally, Head Start children in the 4-year-old cohort reported less positive peer relations at school compared to the control group.

Hey, they found that it improved at least in one category of social skills, right?

I took the liberty of changing the sign of the statistical "effect" to positive for good trends and negative for bad ones--their tables are a little hard to interpret otherwise.

There's a slight shift, but nothing to write home about, and the effects look pretty random. Some will be extra high, some extra low--that's the luck of the draw. Nothing much to see here.

Let me emphasize that. If you pick enough different things to compare, you will wind up with some random difference which looks "statistically signficant." But it isn't. My advisor used to say that if you look at 100 histograms, one of them will have a 3-σ peak in it.

OK, how about scholastic measures? Consider 3'rd graders who'd been in the program at age 3, and compare them to a control group. They say:

3-Year-Old Cohort
  • At the end of the Head Start year, children in the Head Start group showed strong evidence of less hyperactive behavior and fewer overall problem behaviors as reported by their parents.
  • At the end of the age 4 year and the end of kindergarten, children in the Head Start group demonstrated suggestive evidence of better social skills and positive approaches to learning as reported by their parents. Further, children in the Head Start group also continued to show moderate evidence of less hyperactive behavior at the end of kindergarten.
  • By the end of 1st grade, parents of Head Start group children reported moderate evidence of a closer relationship with their child than parents of control group children. At the same time, parents of Head Start group children reported (suggestive evidence) a more positive overall relationship with their child than parents of children in the control group.
  • There were no impacts on teacher-reported measures of social-emotional development for the 3-year-old cohort in either the kindergarten or 1st grade year.
  • For this age cohort, there was only a single statistically significant social-emotional impact at the end of 3rd grade. Children in the Head Start group demonstrated better social skills and positive approaches to learning as reported by their parents, compared with the non-Head Start group.

Zero, zilch, nada. No sign of anything good or bad.

Everybody loves the idea of Head Start, but the HHS numbers suggest that it isn't doing anything except wasting money and talent.

Does anybody have any ideas for something that does work for these kids? If so, let's do a U-turn at Head Start. If not, let's wrap it up as a bad job.

"Effect" is taken from their tables; I didn't try to recalculate it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Bow of Achilles by James Froude

AVI recently pointed to the Froude Society, which suggested that people become acquainted with Victorian thinkers, starting with The English in the West Indies, or The Bow of Ulysses by James Anthony Froude (1888).

OK, I'm game. I'm not that up on Victorian-era thought; let me fill in the gap a bit. I found the suggested book on and plowed through it.

Short version: he combines a good and erudite style with interesting observations and a generally humane openness to new views, but includes a startling and repeated insistence on the inferiority of Africans. This he claims is visible in intelligence, in morals, and in culture; and he prophesied disaster if the West Indies were made truly democratic immediately. He claimed that only with years of guidance and uplift could blacks be made capable of participation in government.

I gather that somebody agreed with him at least in part: Jamaica was a Crown Colony until 1957.

He claimed that in the well-governed colonies all the blacks he saw were happy , submoral, content and hardworking when they either were working on their own land or working for a benevolent master (reliable, not stingy, friendly) and lazy otherwise. I hope I may be forgiven for not fully trusting his observations. To the blacks and mulattos and Chinese he was an outsider with none of the letters of introduction he used elsewhere, and I suspect he saw little besides the "happy slave face" that deflects suspicion. (OK, he admits that one of the Jamaican Barbadoes blacks was a Justice and as able a man as you could wish for.)

He was pleased to see how well-educated and disciplined the new British soldiers were, but repeatedly wondered if they were the equals of the old privateer fighters. Over and over he stresses the heroism of the British fighters who won the Indies, and bemoans the drift of the Indies to independence (or the USA).

When he reports on matters of fact, he is probably accurate (although he seems not to believe that a chunk of Port Royals was permanently submerged in the catastrophe), so if he says that quarrels among the blacks were usually verbal while those among the Asians were frequently violent--he's probably right.

But in matters of political theory he is "close but no cigar," hampered as he is by a steadfast racism and an unquestioning hero-worship of the British governors and heroes of old. He is revolted by the stupidity of the current government. (For example, putting a garrison on the steep side of a mountain to get it above the malarial swamp sounded reasonable but it was such a hardship post that they lost soldiers to desertion all the time. ) It doesn't seem to occur to him that earlier administrations were equally stupid, but in different matters.

But the fundamental questions are important and still lively: What are the prerequisites for a democratic government? And if those prerequisites are not there, what sort of government should you install?

On the one side, let Chesterton be the spokesman:

Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.


This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves -- the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

As spokesmen for the other side consider

John Adams: "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

or "The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If "Thou shalt not covet," and "Thou shalt not steal," were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free."

Samuel Adams: "[N]either the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt."

Benjamin Franklin: "[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

Unknown (deToqueville?): "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy. "

Edward Djerejian (about Algeria): "One man, one vote, one time. "

We haven't solved this puzzle yet, and I hear a lot of confusion between means and ends, especially among high officials. Good government and freedom are (usually) the desired ends. Democracy is a means.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Bias in grading

From this document on approaches to learning, consider the following:
The parent indicated how frequently the child exhibited the following behaviors or characteristics. The response scale included four points ranging from "1 = never" to "4 = very often."

This subscale is composed of the following items:

10. Keep working at something until {he/she} is finished?

13. Show interest in a variety of things?

15. Concentrate on a task and ignore distractions?

18. Help with chores?

22. Eager to learn new things?

24. Creative in work or in play?

The above factors, averaged together, form (if I have not misread the documentation) the Approaches To Learning scale.

I'm not sure that item 18 really belongs here. It makes life much nicer for teachers, but says nothing whatever about how well someone will learn.

And items 10 and 15 don't address multitasking. There are times when I bear down, get in the zone, and do one task until it is done. There are others in which I pump until the well runs dry, switch to another task to refresh for a while, and come back to the original one later. But they sure make a teacher's life easier.

So one of the items doesn't deal directly with learning, and two others only partly do--but all three of them make a good impression on the teacher.

OK, look at a different set; these the teacher is supposed to evaluate:

11. Keeps belongings organized.

14. Shows eagerness to learn new things.

15. Works independently.

21. Easily adapts to changes in routine.

23. Persists in completing tasks.

24. Pays attention well.

In third and fifth grade, the following item was added to the SRS and added to the Approaches to Learning subscale:
26. Following classroom rules.

Here too: 21 is a problem. If I'm in the zone, I don't want distractions thank you very much, school bell or no. And if I'm multitasking--I mentioned that before. And I have somewhat different ideas about what constitutes "organized." Granted, disorganization can rise to a level that seriously interferes with getting things done, but below that it isn't obvious that it matters much. And 15: I've taught students who almost refused to work independently, but who mastered the subject just fine. And do I need to mention #26?

Once again the list includes things that make the teacher's life easier but don't necessarily effect learning.

This may seem a bit banal, but it turns out to make a difference.

A longitudinal study (I didn't see anything obviously wrong with it, BTW) of K-5 grade students found that teachers, unaware of their students' standardized test scores, assigned grades to boys significantly lower than those they gave girls with the same test scores. This was true in every case where there were adequate statistics (black 5'th graders were lower statistics--more had moved out of the study areas).

Girls were better than boys at reading skills on tests, but the spread in grades was bigger. Boys were slightly better at math tests, but their grades were worse; similarly with science.

Grades did not reflect mastery.

Since grades are a large factor in admission to higher education, this can have fairly far-reaching consequences.

So, why did the (mostly female) teachers grade girls higher than boys?

The researchers found that if they included the ATL score in their analysis, the differences almost vanished; in fact sometimes boys were graded slightly above the girls. Girls had significantly higher ATL scores than boys. (To try to take into account any bias due to the teacher producing both grades and ATL scores, they used ATL scores from 2 years earlier, presumably from a different teacher.)

The obvious conclusion is that teachers were including social factors in their grading.

That seems inappropriate. You can argue that these social factors will contribute to better performance in academic settings later, but AFAIK that claim is unproven, and in any event doesn't address the problem that the grade is not a clear measure of mastery. Splitting out attitudes from academic skills gives more information than blending them.

And as noticed earlier, those attitudes combine factors relevant to learning and factors relevant to class maintenance.

So, what can we do about this? Let's assume this is verified by other work.

  • The default approach is to circle the wagons, defend the institutions, pretend nothing is wrong and that mastery really entails social skills and we should leave the experts alone. This is probably what will happen.
  • We could try to ask teachers to split out ATL sorts of things in the hope that they'd create academic grades that better reflected mastery. I don't believe this will work at all.
  • We could try to find some new (or old) approaches to teaching that take squirrely boys into account better. This isn't easy to do in an industrial setting like a classroom. Home schoolers have an overwhelming advantage here.
  • We could have same-sex classes. I keep hearing rumors that these have academic advantages and I suppose I should poke around and find out the facts sometime. But I can hear the screams now. This one is political ebola.
  • We can use more and more standardized tests. I'm not thrilled about this option. It invites cheating (as seen already), teaching to the test, and generally locking everybody into the same one-size fits all mold.

I wonder if this happens with male teachers? Not that there are very many of them at that level. And I wonder if it carries over into high school and college?

just for fun

Have a look at this list of lesser known quotations. Some of them are quite fun. A few follow:

"There's too many strong to do nothing wrong and not enough strong to do right." -Dave Gordon, "Slip of the Hand" Matt 12:43-45

"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Martin Luther King, Jr. stubborn ignorance ranks up there too

"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." -Clay Shirky

"I've never seen turkey being sold as imitation tofu." -Lorrie B. Potters

"Some paintings would be easier to appreciate if the artists were hung next to them." -Lorrie B. Potters

"The heavens may fall, the earth may be consumed, but the right of a congressman to lie and defame remains inviolate." -George Creel, 1920

"If a pen is lost, a certificate to that effect must be furnished...and filed with the custodian. This certificate must give in detail specific circumstances attending the loss." -U.S. Geological Survey memo, 1913

"I do not need wireless access to Wikipedia. I would prefer to stir-fry my own small intestines than to have continual access to a site where the entry for Klingon is longer than the entry for Latin." - Tara Brabazon

"Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by packrats and vandalized nightly." -Roger Ebert

"I have my own army in the NYPD." - Mayor Michael Bloomberg, November 2011.

"If a man stopped me in the street and demanded of me my watch, I should refuse to give it to him. If he threatened to take it by force, I feel I should, though not a fighting man, do my best to protect it. If, on the other hand, he should assert his intention of trying to obtain it by means of an action in any court of law, I should take it out of my pocket and hand it to him, and think I had got off cheaply." -Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men On The Bummel

"It was not the most intelligible piece ever written, but it had words in it." -H. Allen Smith Believe it or not, this was before blogging.

"The government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the n-th power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn pleases." - an anonymous English judge, quoted by Sir Josiah Stamp, 1929 Ditto newspapers and NGOs

"There may be aliens visiting Earth, but I can't figure out why they only seem to abduct the schizophrenics." -Martha A. Churchill

"The creditors are a superstitious sect, great observers of set days and times." -Benjamin Franklin This one I'd heard before

Dangerous advice

Donald Sensing wrote about the Professional Poor, and his decisions about how to deal with them. (Professional=beggar, Idle=professionally idle, Working=the ones we usually think of as poor) He refuses to give to the Professional Poor. He recognizes that there are very good arguments against his position.

There's a men's homeless shelter right off the Capitol Square, and we have a population of beggars and loungers. I've been a bit conflicted about helping--I never give cash, but I'll buy the newspaper and I've given Subway sandwiches. But it always feels "off."

Perhaps I overthink things sometimes, but I probed my reaction to Sensing's post and found relief instead of disappointment. I find it too easy to pass by on the other side. Sensing's approach, though wise, is dangerous advice for me.

I know the general shape of what I should be doing, but not how to get started on it. I need to start much closer to home than the beggars.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

What to do with "hot" water

It might be a bit pricey to decontaminate this way. Still, it is interesting to find that graphene oxide seems to like to suck up some of the heavy (and often radioactive) elements, and works better than some of the standards like activated carbon.

Mix graphene oxide atom-wide sheets with water contaminated with Uranium, and it clumps in minutes: can be strained and removed.

The devil is in the details, of course. The cost is kind of interesting: $200/gram, which when you are talking about tons to clean up a big mess starts to turn into serious money. (Although there may be economies of scale eventually) And different elements are "sorped" differently at different pH: Tc is better sorped in acid (1.5!), but Sr better in neutral or basic solutions, and Uranium between 4 and 8. But it seems to work pretty well. In the lab. Even with contaminants put in to slow it down.

Forecast is hot and windy

This looks fun. Astronomers pointed the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes at a brown dwarf and looked at the infrared emission over time. It varied with about a 90-minute period, so the star rotates in something like 90 minutes. But... the period wasn't the same in different wavelengths.

If you assume that different substances are radiating at different wavelengths, the obvious conclusion is that some of these substances are moving faster (or slower) than the rotation of the star: in other words, winds. Think of the stripes on Jupiter. Or perhaps these are different layers within the atmosphere:

These variations are the result of different layers or patches of material swirling around the brown dwarf in windy storms as large as Earth itself. Spitzer and Hubble see different atmospheric layers because certain infrared wavelengths are blocked by vapors of water and methane high up, while other infrared wavelengths emerge from much deeper layers.

"Unlike the water clouds of Earth or the ammonia clouds of Jupiter, clouds on brown dwarfs are composed of hot grains of sand, liquid drops of iron, and other exotic compounds," said Mark Marley, research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and co-author of the paper. "So this large atmospheric disturbance found by Spitzer and Hubble gives a new meaning to the concept of extreme weather."

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Fruit flies

Bateman studied fruit flies.

He proved that males tried to fertilize as many females as possible, but the females were more heavily invested in their offspring and didn't mate as often.

Or did he?

Gowaty, Kim, and Anderson tried to replicate his experiment. Oops. (They didn't completely succeed in a perfect replication: one of the mutant strains Bateman used is no longer available; but still...)

Back in the day Bateman didn't have DNA testing, so he used fruit flies with various easily visible mutations and looked at the offspring. The repeated experiment looked a little more closely at the numbers, and concluded that combined mutations appeared less often than they should have. In addition mothers were identified less often than fathers, which makes no sense. Implication: the numbers were skewed, and it isn't possible to estimate sex selection rates from them.

Other analyses found further problems. For instance he ran 3-4 day studies when males mature in 1 day and females in 4. And it looks as though he made a calculational error, and some of his results aren't significant.

Why did it take 64 years before somebody replicated the experiment? The experiment was tedious and labor intensive. It wasn't an LHC or IceCube size experiment, but it was hard enough to do right to dissuade people.

The good news is that DNA testing can make the test more accurate. It'll still be tedious, though. And a bit pricy: it is more expensive to DNA-analyze a fruit fly than to eyeball it for twisted wings.


You remember the winter games of running a comb through your hair and using it to pick up tiny scraps of tissue, or rubbing a balloon on your shirt and letting it stick to the ceiling?

An electric field (as from a charged object) polarizes other matter in its vicinity, resulting in a force attracting the charged object and the surface. To think of it in detail, if I have a positively charged comb, the molecules in the tissue see an electric field nearby. The electrons in the molecules are attracted towards the comb, and the nuclei repelled. They move a little bit apart--not much, but the result is that the like charge is farther away from the comb than the unlike charge. Since the electric field is stronger for the nearer unlike charge (attracting) than for the farther like charge (repulsive), the net effect is an attractive force.

This attraction is even stronger when the surface is a conductor: the comb seems to see a reflection: an oppositely charged comb.

That's electrostatics, though. Which means the motion of the objects (even the little bits of tissue jumping in the air to meet the comb) is much smaller than the speed at which charges reorganize themselves.

A recent study asks what happens when the external charges are moving so fast that the charges in the surface can’t keep up. For instance, what happens if the external charges are moving faster than the speed of light in the wall medium. The author claims that this results in interactions similar to Cerenkov radiation and gives a repulsive force: provided the charges are in a line and the line is going sideways. Or at least roughly so. Points are always attracted.

I don't think this will have much impact on accelerator design, since typically the lines of charge are moving in the same direction they point, so the effect should be minimal. Still, if he hasn't made a mistake, interactions at high speeds start to look quite different from those at low speeds. They do in other cases too.