Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dreamy slogan

On the Square sits "Dream Bank" whose slogan, posted word by word over its windows on East Washington, is "Your dream is the most valuable thing you'll ever own."

I've been trying to decipher that.

  • "When you finally reach your dream, we'll hold the mortgage and you won't really own it."
  • "Reality will harsh your mellow."
  • "You're broke, and you'll stay that way."
  • "All is illusion: desire leads to suffering."
  • "Come join the Matrix!"
  • "We had to hire the owner's nephew, and he imagines himself as an ad man."


A banging screen door garbled the request and as a result I thought I heard my Better Half ask Youngest Daughter to make an ice cream salad.

That opened culinary vistas that I didn't want to shutter with mundane accuracy.

Before I google let me guess: A melon baller (maybe we should get one?) would make reasonably-sized scoops of ice cream. Add sliced strawberries and blueberries, and maybe slivers of apple or pear, garnish with some shredded mint and use a drizzle of chocolate sauce for a dressing? Or maybe salted peanuts and skip the mint?

Yep, other people thought of it already. I don't think I'd like this cream cheese type. But this strawberry version looks interesting and everybody likes this.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Perhaps I haven't read enough of Machen's work, but the BBC magazine article about him doesn't seem to quite match my take.
It's true that many of Machen's stories are about unwise explorations of a world beyond the one that's revealed to the senses. But like Walter de La Mare, it wasn't so much the supernatural as the mysterious qualities inherent in what we think of as our everyday environment that fascinated Machen. He had a life-long interest in esoteric traditions,


Machen's fictions aren't intended to persuade the reader that events of the kind he describes could actually happen. He thought of the world as a kind of text in invisible writing, a cipher pointing to another order of things - but you needn't accept anything of this occult philosophy to find his stories more than just entertaining. What they deal with is the nature of human perception.

Instead I read Hill of Dreams as the story of a young man's journey into self-deception and madness. It began with a vision of a magic beyond the world through the ruins of a Roman fort, but in clinging to his dream and his contemptuous reaction to the world of yahoos, he contracts within himself and loses all sense of proportion in a solipsistic haze. Not quite what you'd hope for from a vision of realities beyond the world. The key section stuck with me for years:

Here, he thought, he had discovered one of the secrets of true magic; this was the key to the symbolic transmutations of the Eastern tales. The adept could, in truth, change those who were obnoxious to him into harmless and unimportant shapes, not as in the letter of the old stories, by transforming the enemy, but by transforming himself. The magician puts men below him by going up higher, as one looks down on a mountain city from a loftier crag.

In other words, defeat your enemies and destroy their evil by imagining yourself as more glorious and above it all. I wish that attitude was only found in literature.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


The shortcut for depicting superior aliens is to give them a giant head. Giant head means giant brains; giant brains means giant intelligence; giant intelligence means superior.

Never mind that there are many uninspected assumptions in that chain. Think about that last link. We know that high intelligence tends to correlate with more successes, higher income, better health, lower crime rates, and so on. That's all good, but you don't necessarily get those kinds of benefits unless you have a civilization around you that gives you enough leisure to develop some of that skill. "Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap." You're better off if you plant intelligently, but if you don't yet know what you should be looking for the price for spending time observing may be higher than you and your family can afford. There's an upfront cost to making use of intelligence.

The greatest benefits don't appear until you can take the time to specialize a little, and there is enough of a framework of reliable rules to be rewarded for it. Or in other words, a little civilization. The more, the better, I presume, but some minimum is essential.

But lots of people live without that minimum. For them the best program is to mature quickly and work hard, and not be too trusting of outsiders. And history is crammed to overflowing with tribes who liked to prey on their neighbors; having a berserker temper might be useful in helping the neighbors deal with their tormenters. In a civilized society that kind of temper would lead to crime, but elsewhere it might help you fend off the Vikings.

Superiority seems to be relative to the situation. And if the question is not simply what's best for you, but what's best for your family, things look a little muddier. We ask the intelligent among us to spend so much time in school without marrying that their families have to be smaller--there are only a few years to spend. And for a lot of us the reply the the question is "What family?" Unless you have the rest of the world for your family and serve them somehow (I'm thinking of nuns in a hospital, or explorers out finding new islands), it seems as though creation trails off with you--not a sign of obvious superiority. Something should pass on to the future.

Civilization is obviously superior to chaos. But it doesn't immediately follow that the people who do best in some instance of civilization are therefore superior to the others: think monarchy. I don't know that we have a clear instance of a meritocracy: the machinery we have might have been designed around a slightly different set of values and resulted in a different set of "meriting ones". For example, we value entertainment very highly, and reward some entertainers better than surgeons. We don't value farming as much: too hard; though we do value adventure camping which is even harder. Similarly with attitudes: fidelity and honor don't get as much notice as in other eras, so someone who is loyal but not clever is honored/rewarded only on the basis of the revenue his cleverness produces.

As a Christian I believe that intelligence is a gift that brings obligation and does not make one man superior to another. A civilization needs to have honorable room for those who aren't as sharp. But even from a purely secular system of values a civilization that does not provide a space for them will find them making a space for themselves. And I suspect that it will be less resiliant as well. (Our society feels brittle. I haven't traced out why it seems so, but too many things rely on "And tomorrow will be like today, or even far better," with no obvious fallbacks.)

Big Bang Testing

Inexperienced programmers will sometimes code up the component parts of a big program and then bundle them together for the testing. If you don't know much about programming, that link is very clear about why it is a bad idea. Changing programs late in development is extremely complicated and expensive.

Now imagine someone trying to "big bang test" a new program when they haven't clearly outlined what the specifications are. (Danger, flee!)

If you don't clearly know what each part of the system is supposed to do, and haven't made sure (by testing it first!) that it will in fact do the proper job, you are begging for failure, and the bigger the project the more spectacular the disaster that will follow. Your best bet is to be very much elsewhere when everything hits the fan.

Instead of "programmer" read "legislator," instead of "program" read "suite of laws," and instead of "big bang testing" read "we have to pass it to find out what's in it."

I like AVI's rule that "When you hear the word "comprehensive," zip in the phrase "cocaine-based" instead." Step after step wins more races than a giant leap. The problem is that when it all fails the politicians are nicely retired elsewhere, and we are the ones flat on our backs.

A few flakes of Brann

Years ago H Allen Smith included a bit of William Brann's (1855-1898) work in a humor anthology. He wrote a journal called The Iconoclast and did his best to live up to its name. The first article in the linked compilation sympathetically revisits the story of Potiphar's wife--he thinks her unfairly maligned.

From the linked bio: "Mainly because of Brann's jaundiced view of the Negro race (altogether too forthrightly expressed by the Iconoclast), he is considered far too politically incorrect for contemporary Americans to gracefully handle. Thus, in spite of the richness of his wit and wisdom on a vast array of other subjects, he is considered by many best forgotten."

Which is a pity, because he had a lively sense of language and much wider interests; you can pick and choose. Had he met Condoleezza Rice he might have had the iconoclastic urge to resist the attitudes of his time.

A quick sampling to show his wordsmithing skill:

St. Paul SAYS: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And tho' I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

So it appears that chin-music without charity is not calculated to pay very large dividends in the interesting ultimate; that a man may be full of faith, and pregnant with prophecy, and chock-a-block with knowledge and redolent of religious mystery,—that he may leak sanctification in the musical accents of an angel and still be "nothing"—a pitiful hole in the atmosphere, a chimera circulating in a vacuum and foolishly imagining itself a man.

But what is charity? You people who have prayers and Bible readings before breakfast, while your hearts vibrate between holiness and hash—between Christ and the cook— should know; but it's dollars to doughnuts you don't. You probably imagine that when you present your out-of-fashion finery to your poor relations, then wait for a vote of thanks or a resolution of respect; that when you permit a tramp to fill a long-felt want with the cold victuals in your cupboard, which even your pug dog disdains, that the Recording Angel wipes the tears of joy from his eyes with his wing- feathers and gives you a page, while all Heaven gets gay because of your excessive goodness. That's because your religious education has been sadly neglected. If you would read the Bible—and the ICONOCLAST—with more care you couldn't make such mistakes. St. Paul says (and, as the country preacher remarked, I fully agree with him):

"And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing."

Or take these:

"I came very near being a Baptist... but reneged when an attempt was made to baptize me in cracked ice on a winter's day."


"When Rome began to mock her gods, she found the barbarians thundering at her gates. When France insulted her priesthood and crowned a courtesan as Goddess of Reason in Notre Dame, Paris was a maelstrom and the nation a chaos in which Murder raged and Discord shrieked..."

"Character no longer counts for aught unless reinforced by a bank account... Men are sent to Congress whom God intended for the gallows, while those he ticketed for the penitentiary sprout inanities in fashionable pulpits. The merchant who pays his debts in full when he might settle for ten cents on the dollar is considered deficient in common sense... Why is this? It is because the old religious spirit is dormant if not dead; it is because when people consider themselves but as the beasts that perish, they can make no spiritual progress, but imitate their supposed ancestors..."


"No man can be either a patriot or a consistent Christian on an empty stomach—he's merely a savage animal, a dangerous beast."

"The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and the impoverishment of the common people... has ever been the herald of moral decay and of national death... Shall the average American Citizen be a Slave or a Sovereign?"

and this set

"We're governed entirely too much—Officialism is becoming a veritable Old Man of the Sea on the neck of Labor's Sinbad. About every fifth man you meet is a public servant of some sort, and you cannot get married or buried, purchase a drink or own a dog except with a by-your-leave to the all-pervading law of the land... and if the police don't cut you down in time to put you in jail the preachers will send you to hell. ...We have so many laws and so much legal machinery that when you throw a man into the judicial hopper not even an astrologer can tell whether he'll come out a horse-thief or only a homicide..."

"I admit that I haven't much respect for the law—there's so much of it that when I come to spread my respect over the entire lot it's about as thin as one of Sam Jones's sermons...

"We are bowing down before various pie-hunting political gods and electing men to Congress who couldn't tell the Federal Constitution from Calvin's Confession of Faith...

"Our patriotism has been supplanted by partisanship, and now all are for a party and none are for the state. On July 4 we shout for the old flag and all the rest of the year we clamor for an appropriation..."

(I purloin selections freely from the bio page.)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Near extinction

The Scottish wildcat is near extinction, with estimates from 300 to 35 left.

Their kittens look very much like the cute little kittens we play with, but I gather these will attempt to take your face off given half a chance. The people who lived in close proximity to wildcats did not acquire the same love for the creatures that people at a safe distance feel for such rare animals.

People have been trying to exterminate them for over a thousand years, without much success, but now they finally seem seem to be going under.

The secret weapon? Undiscriminating sex.

They look like housecats, and it turns out they successfully breed with housecats, and as a result there are plenty of hybrids but not so many pureblood wildcats. One group of researchers was proposing to capture wildcats and isolate them in a breeding colony, but a) he's going to find it hard to keep volunteers intact and b) the population would have to be forever captive unless he can figure a way to explain to the wildcats that they should only have sex with other wildcats.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Plasmas are hard

A passerby saw a man frantically looking for his lost keys under a lamp post and asked him if he could help. After a fruitless few minutes he asked for the man to point out where he lost them and was told that he actually lost them in the bushes - but he was looking for the keys under the lamp because the light there was brighter.

That's not really fair to researchers--they have to start in the light and work their way outward. But it does feel frustrating sometimes. It works like this:

Even the simplest models of physical systems are often intractably hard to solve. One of the standard tools in the physicist's box is to consider the system at some kind of equilibrium or simple early state and then do a formal expansion of the true (but unknown) solution as the initial state plus some linear variation plus a second order variation plus etc--and then argue that the variation is small and solve the linear equation. (If you can't argue that, then you try to find some remapping of the problem that will make it small, and if you can't do that -- so much for this tool.) The procedure doesn't seem quite fair, but it works very well a lot of the time.

When you're dealing with mostly homogenous things (empty space with a few balls in it, water, etc) with a few simple boundary conditions, you can often exactly solve the equations describing the system. Even when the boundary conditions get too hairy, you can usually manage excellent approximations with simple computer programs, and have a general notion of what the solution will look like before you start.

The equations describing simple plasmas start to get very hairy, because energy moves through the system both as kinetic energy (motion of the particles) and electromagnetic field energy--and each influences the other. It isn't easy to linearize these in real-life kinds of problems. (Classroom exercises have all sorts of simplifying assumptions to keep the problems simple enough for students to solve.)

That means that not only is there not a "formal" exact solution, but that computer solutions are going to be very sensitive to the initial conditions and round-off, and be apt to give misleading answers. (Chaos, anyone?) Worst of all, you typically don't have a good general notion of what the solution should look like.

All this is preface to explain why it has taken so long to get explanations of things we've known about for years, such as why solar flares change so fast or how they manage to accelerate electrons to such high energies.

The problem this group tried to solve is why "flux pinning" sometimes fails.

Have you ever tried to open a breaker on a high-current line? If not, have you noticed that they tend to have very long handles? It is almost as though the current wants to keep flowing, and is willing to jump long arcs to do it. That effect is related to "flux pinning". If you have a magnetic field inside a conducting medium (like a plasma), if the field starts to change that will (by Maxwell's equations) create an electric field, which then moves the charged particles in the plasma, and the resulting current creates a magnetic field that tends to sustain the existing magnetic field. So if there's a magnetic field (e.g. the Sun's) in the middle of a chunk of plasma (e.g. something ejected in a solar flare), it should stay with it as the chunk of plasma moves. That's "pinning".

Except that sometimes it very spectacularly doesn't stay pinned, but jumps over and reconnects with other magnetic fields and releases large amounts of energy.

This team modeled a way that could work when there is a certain kind of turbulence. Without turbulence of some kind, the fields stay pinned.

I have to think about this paper a while, and would have to do quite a bit of literature review (and refresh my memory--I haven't studied plasmas since a class back in '81) to make sure what they're doing covers the bases. But it is encouraging to see progress.

This is the sort of problem that could not have been solved without computers. It is too complex for pencil and paper.

But of course small scale effects, though they are critical and sometimes dramatic, aren't the whole story. Another group studied how "shear waves" smooth out the small variations to leave behind large collective effects.

Unfortunately it is hard to stick probes in the Sun to measure these shear waves. For that matter, it isn't easy to put probes in a rotating globe of molten sodium either, but they're trying, and maybe the results can shed some light on the Sun. So to speak.

There are lots of collective electromagnetic/plasma phenomena that we don't quite understand yet. Describe, yes. But why do they take the form they do?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Proxy effort

Posters from WW-II urge civilians to save oil and buy bonds, but draw distinction between "Go across" and "come across". The fighters are still the fighters; the civilians are supporting them. More recent campaigns urge us to "fight" by giving to this effort or that. We "fight a war on poverty" with taxes. The language makes us front line fighters now.

For those of us old enough to remember, when our proxies landed on the Moon it felt as though a little bit of us was there with them. And I not infrequently hear people talk of some scientific discovery as something "we" have learned. I don't object at all--they pay us to explore on their behalf and I'm glad for the opportunity. But what here is a harmless expression of solidarity seems more like an excuse for not committing elsewhere.

OK, Louis XIV said that "it is the last piece of gold that wins" a war, but there's still no equivalence in effort between giving up new shoes to provide that last piece of gold and marching out to get shot at.

Rachel Jones said about caring people:

"A significant challenge for nonprofits and ministries remains recruiting people who will commit to serve long-term outside the United States."

"I know there are a plethora of good reasons that concerned American Christians can't just uproot and leave the States, from family to health to finances. I know I simplify. But I have a theory about what is partly contributing to the dearth of young Americans willing to spend their lives on behalf of others."

"They think they already are."

Minor financial adjustments such as buying fair trade coffee, and writing letters about safe working conditions at supplier factories are considered "being part of the fight": Words, and relatively painless giving will do the job. Maybe changes in fashion and minor financial pressures will translate into big social changes somewhere across the world. Maybe. We should do what good we can. But I think Jones may be right that we delude ourselves into thinking we're doing something important for the poor when most of us aren't. I'm not doing anything important. We give to a few charities and the church, and now and then I split half a sandwich with one of the beggars at the capitol square, but that doesn't make me one of the "poverty fighters." It isn't much help at all.

I'm starting to converge on a theory that helping the homeless is more a matter of relationships: community to individual, with expectations and a completely new environment. Change in the hat is symbolic at best, but if we think we're "fighting poverty" we may be satisfied with that. More thought and research needed... First approximation model for caring for the homeless looked like "spending a couple of months in a monastery", which isn't very practical.

We're pretty good at befuddling ourselves with words. Back in the early 70's a member of a Dutch squatter group proudly announced that he was a productive member of society: he kept tabs on police malfeasance (as defined by him). Maybe the role is necessary (though given the benign reputation of the Dutch police I suspect he was deluding himself), but it isn't productive. We probably all saw the full-page ad in which Cindy Crawford told us she was fighting some disease or another just by posing there. (I can't find the image.) Who knew disease research was that easy?

Not all of us, or perhaps even many of us, are called to dramatic work. If we tell ourselves that we're heroes for buying more expensive coffee it can't make it easier to hear the call to do something serious.

"Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good"

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


The Dalai Lama was in town again today. People paid up to $75 for tickets to hear him speak (I gather receipts over expenses go to charity). He's a regular to the area, since the Deer Park center is just down the road in Oregon, and he's quite popular. By all reports he's a good man, with wide curiosity. Less commonly known is that he's ... (surprise!) ... Buddhist, and holds to some unpopular doctrines about sexual morals, and unless I misunderstand has some uncomfortable ideas about greed. These aren't the same as the Christian doctrines, because of radically different understandings of the nature of man, but the practical applications of those doctrines look pretty much the same. Not so with others; the religions are not equivalent.

I'm rehashing the old complaint that he's admired as a symbol of something most people never bother to understand. They're satisfied with a pop Buddhism that makes no difficult demands and requires no self-discipline. Meditate for an hour a week and sign petitions against the death penalty and order the hummus plate in front of your friends. No need to understand the pantheon or the rules or the calendar.

I commented on the previous post that an American Indian could probably satisfy the hunger of the Newtown parents to have the Newtown school purified, by chanting and waving eagle wings and blowing tobacco and sage smoke against the walls. But they wouldn't really understand either with heart or mind. Tony Hillerman's best efforts can't give the full meaning of what the Navaho life is like, and the bystanders at Eagle Days (myself included) only understood a simple cartoon of what the blessing of the eagles was supposed to be doing. It was exotic and mysterious. A Newtown purifier like that would likewise be exotic and mysterious, and that would probably be good enough.

Imagine a Catholic priest sprinkling holy water in the building. The devout Catholic would have the sense of the church brought to heal the place--he's used holy water himself. The Protestant wouldn't see that--it would be a ritual disconnected from the rest of his life and faith.

We need the holy to transform and purify, but in lieu of that we'll take the mysterious.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Solutions for the rich

The Newtown school board wants to tear down the building and replace it. There is precedent:
The panel did have something of a road map. Columbine High School in Colorado, where 12 students and one teacher were killed by gunmen 1999, removed the library where most of the victims died and replaced it with an atrium. Virginia Tech "converted a classroom building where a student gunman killed 32 people in 2007 into a peace studies and violence prevention center," the AP said. At West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, officials built a new school several hundred yards away after a gunman killed five girls there in 2006.

And at California's Oikos University, where seven people were killed in 2012, the classroom where they were slain is now "used only for theology classes," NBC News noted.

The reason why is obvious:

Brian Engel, whose 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, died in the shootings, told the task force he didn't want Olivia's younger brother to have to walk into the building where the massacre took place: "We do want him to go to Sandy Hook School, but at an alternate location—not where his sister died."

The building has been contaminated, and they know of no way to purify it, no rite to exorcise it.

But this is a rich man's solution to the problem of "psychic pollution." And we aren't very consistent about it. If a child is stabbed to death waiting for the subway, we don't pour concrete in the station and call it a monument.

I don't recall many of these sorts of solutions in the histories of eras when death wasn't so isolated from normal life. I have no desire to go back to those days of deadly medicine and high infant mortality. (I suspect we will, but that's another issue.) But the effort we spent on hiding death seems disproportionate. We are all going to die, and what place can you go that has not seen death, even early and tragic death?

It seems cruel to bring a 6-year old boy into the class where his sister was murdered. But you can't hide the murder from him, and to put the facade of a new building over it won't conceal the crime. Maybe it is kinder to have him face the place, and let him promise that he is going to live.

Is there any sort of purification people can recognize outside of razing and starting over?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Jargon and the long road to a paper

I should maybe explain what the "burn sample" is.

There's a world of difference between the meaning of looking at a histogram, seeing a medium sized bump at point A, and saying "I wonder what's there?" and the meaning of puzzling through the theory to figure that there might be a bump at point B, and then looking at the histogram and finding a small bump there.


In a few hundred random histograms, there will typically be a 3-σ bump--that is to say a bump that will only occur 1/300 times. Random stuff will sometimes look like a real signal of some kind; that's life. So if you have a sky map of where neutrinos came from, and one 5 degree wide spot looks like it has extra neutrinos coming from it, that doesn't mean much of anything. Looking through the sky catalogs for some sort of match is likely to be a fool's errand. You'll probably find something: there'll be dozens of possible candidates. The chances that you have a coincidence are high.

If you look along a tide-washed beach for charred wood, and find a few extra sticks together, it might be the site of a fire or it might merely be where an eddy deposited some debris washed from a mile away.

But if you know you saw a light on the left side of the bay last night and this morning you find the charred wood there--but not much anywhere else--you can surmise with some confidence that the light was from the campfire. If theory says there should be a bump at point B and you see a smallish sort of bump there, you start to feel confident that you are seeing something real.

To keep from "bump hunting" and losing the significance of other analyses to trial factors when you reveal that there's something signal-like in region X, the experiments try to coordinate analyses. (This also makes sure there are enough thesis topics to go around.)

The first step is to figure out a question and then "back of the envelope" it to see if your experiment's data has a snowball's chance in hell of answering it. Usually it doesn't.

If it does, the next step is to create as accurate a model as you can and use the data simulation system to create signal and background data, and try to refine an analysis that can tell the difference between them. You then have to estimate two things: the "discovery potential" and the "limit potential" of your analysis. BTW, you have to give reports on this in your working group, and learn from the comments and suggestions. "Discovery potential" is usually described by a set of curves. If the signal exceeds the 5-σ curve you can announce a discovery, if 3-σ you have "evidence", if below 1-σ you grump, and see if you can publish a limit. "Limit potential" is similar, but in the opposite direction--how strongly can you rule out a signal.

So far so good, but simulated data is never quite the same as real. There are several things one can do at this stage. You can scramble the data, mixing bits from this event and that one together, and use that as a new simulation. Or you can run your analysis on a small part of the dataset and tune your analysis to address the problems you find from the real noise rates. This is the "burn sample". Typically you are allowed to only look at certain quantities that measure the quality, and not on those that display a signal.

Then you present your results again, and the collaborators argue, and give you the go-ahead to run on the whole dataset.

Then you present your results from that, and they argue a while about what you should do instead. At some point they agree to the "unblinding" and the results you really wanted to see are finally produced and presented.

Usually by this time there's some general idea of whether this is going to be discovery or limit, but there are sometimes surprises. Bert and Ernie were surprises--two neutrinos at such high energy in only 1 year's running isn't easy to explain with existing models (in fact a talk this morning ruled out the top 5 models, with nothing left).

Now comes a lot of argument over what you really should have done to make the analysis better. And over the interpretation, and how it should be presented to the world. Sometimes personalities clash. (Funny, that.)

In a big group there is usually a team to help shepherd the paper and guide the analysis, especially if the researcher is a grad student. Anybody can make a typo in their code; it is good to have extra eyes.

If the working group approves it, and the physics coordinator approves it, and the collaboration approves it, off it goes to arXiv and the journals. Usually it gets past the reviewers with only minor changes, and several months later it is printed. And nobody reads it, because if they were really interested they already read it on arXiv. Or it was leaked at a conference. Scientists are generally lousy at keeping secrets.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Education and Outreach

This morning was the education and outreach plenary, with descriptions of how the group is engaging undergrads and even high school students. I emailed along a proposal of my own (grad students create a web-based "poster session" describing their thesis, aimed at a high-school physics level) which met with initial enthusiasm (the coordinator is not a grad student :-) ).

The last talk of the morning session was "ArtScience in the Development of Quasar (an interactive sound and light sculpture)". Quasar is some kind of art installation next door made of optical strands and ... well, they said "The main body of a Quasar installation is designed as an immersive landscape that forms a visually striking array of crystalline elements and fibre optic strands, which are supported by an intricate metallic substructure inspired by quantum loops." Hosale and Crettaz began by "explaining" how they integrated the universes of art, science, and philosophy. I thought science was natural philosophy using the art of mathematics, but maybe I'm naive. Crettaz (?) told us of how one of his heroes worked with Le Corbusier, which I suppose is a recommendation in some circles. He said the curves of Quasar were inspired by gravity bending light. They showed photos of it, but I suppose you have to be there. At night.

An "Imax"-type movie should be out in September, and the representative from the Milwaukee Public Museum showed some raw footage. We all sincerely hope that the name will not be "Ghost Catchers".

The science parallel sessions mixed the dull and the interesting, often in the same talk. There was a lot going on I hadn't heard about.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


After the IT meeting I stared at the listings for the Online and the rest of the WIMP breakout sessions. I'd been to part of the WIMP talks, and learned quite a bit--but the afternoon sessions seemed to be "limit" sessions, and I was getting a little weary of new limit papers. That's a bad character trait for a scientist, who is supposed to be happy to learn anything, but some of these are exercises; excluding models I don't believe while waiting for the statistics to address more reasonable models.

And Powerpoint is hypnotic. Zzzz. (Here's a conspiracy theory for you: Powerpoint is for sales presentations, designed to hypnotize the audience so the salesman can press his pitch on a helpless group.)

So I went with the Online processing group, with talks about software trigger upgrades and plans. And a talk I didn't expect to be encouraging, but was. IceCube was designed as a neutrino telescope, and one obvious thing to try to do is coordinate with optical or radio or gamma-ray telescopes to look for neutrinos associated with their spectacular events, or for them to scan for where we say there was something exciting happening in the sky. Universit├Ąt Bonn should have an interesting result released soon. Nice to see we can do it. Now if something lets loose in our galaxy...

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


Earlier I said Bert and Ernie were the highest energy IceCube events. It seems that the analysis had a few surprises. The "burn sample" (a set of data you try to tune your analysis on and develop the selection criteria) turns out to have contained Big Bird, with maybe as much energy as Bert and Ernie together. If this was the only high energy case we'd be worried--you don't want to "draw the target around the bullet hole"--but since there are others outside the burn sample it is probably OK. There'll be arguments, though. (In fact a recent evaluation complained that the collaboration was too slow to release results, due to what insiders think of as interminable arguments(*).)

The results are preliminary, and unreleased, so I'm protected from making the obvious (and probably foolish, given the poor statistics) comments about the energy distribution.

(*)Reporters want the story this minute, never mind how accurate. Scientists want it accurate, and if there's no competitor they can take a long time refining the analysis--to the despair of grad students who want to graduate.

UPDATE: Actually Bert and Ernie were from the 2011 season, and Big Bird from the burn sample for the 2012 season.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The joys of going with the low bid

I don't know if the
situation is as dire as they make out
, but giving China the ability to turn off some of our military communications seems strangely trusting. We've never been entirely self-sufficient, but how do we build avionics if parts can't arrive through an embattled South China Sea?

One obvious side effect of outsourcing so much of our supply is that our critical interests spread more widely than otherwise, demanding greater hegemony and involving us in more disputes. Which requires a bigger and more expensive army, which seems to militate against any cost savings.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Making sure of anti-matter

Einstein's theory of General Relativity (aka gravitation) has been so successful that you'd think there's not much left that needs demonstrating. Everything pulls everything else; even light takes a curved path around a star. Not very curved, but measurably so.

What about anti-matter? Does that have "anti-gravity?"

We've made plenty of anti-matter, surely we'd have noticed by now.

It turns out to be a little less than obvious. We load anti-protons in an accelerator and store them in orbit for hours. They don't behave differently (except for the sign of their charge) than the protons do. But they're confined in orbit by strong magnetic fields, and if they start to fall down (or fall up) the field bends their paths back to where they belong. Protons don't fall out. Neither do anti-protons.

We get anti-electrons from nuclear decay all the time. They come out of the nucleus with energies high enough to give them speeds that are an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, and then they start playing pachinko with other electrons along the way. The effects of gravity get lost in the noise.

Trying to hold onto anti-matter is a bit fraught. It won't sit politely in your test tube.

So the ALPHA collaboration has tried to make a little magnetic bottle to hold atoms of anti-hydrogen. When they turn off the magnetic field, the atoms fly around, hit the sides of the detector, and start annihilating with ordinary matter. If more of them hit the top than the bottom, does that mean they feel anti-gravity?

The devil is in the details. The anti-atoms aren't perfectly cold, so they have a distribution of velocities that sends them in all directions. The effect might be small. Also, the field doesn't turn off instantly, as Nature explains. That might bias the directions they fly in. The fast atoms escape quickly, and the slow ones--the ones you might expect 9.8m/sec^2 to matter for--trail out later.

The collaboration is building a better detector, so they can cool the anti-atoms further, and make better estimates. Right now their limits are not very good--but it says something about the difficulty of studying antimatter when you learn that their limits are the best direct limits so far. "If an antihydrogen atom falls downward, its gravitational mass is no more than 110 times greater than its inertial mass. If it falls upward, its gravitational mass is at most 65 times greater." That's the problem when you've only got 23 events to play with.

Reloading memory

Time to review the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. We believe a newspaper when it writes of things we don't know about, even though when it touches on stories we are familiar with it generally makes a botch of them. Why?

Perhaps we recognize and respect the confidence of the writers. They even put in background information sometimes, to make sure we understand the context. Good teachers make the explanations as simple as possible, bad ones rely on $50 jargon. Perhaps they are the only designated authorities left, so we overlook their occasional failings.

Or maybe we've gotten so used to getting our external information from the paper or the TV that we reload our memory every day from them. The stuff we live with day in and out--work, hobby, whatever--that stuff we remember from month to month. But if it isn't sports or celebrity gossip or other hobby we can just listen to the TV explain how Senator Q supports this policy; and not recall that he opposed it last year.


I remembered the code word wrong: I thought it was "impishness;" must have merged the warning keyword and the retraction word. Remember when the Emergency Broadcast System warned of the end of the world? conelrad.blogspot has the 1971 war scare story.

A lot of radio stations ignored the warning, because even though it had the right codeword it was at the time scheduled for a test. And there was nothing (they knew of) on the international scene to merit worry of nuclear war. One of the commenters claims only 20 stations did what they were supposed to during the 40-minute mixup.

I'm not sure which is scarier: the far-reaching consequences of a small government screwup or the station managers who assumed that who assumed (correctly, this time) that the world would go on as usual because the news they had didn't include anything scary. We've started to learn about the close calls that officials kept secret. If something had slipped that EBS signal would have been the station managers' first warning that something was wrong. But the echo-chamber news business blanks out more and more, to the point where I wonder how many TV newsdesks really know what dangers there are.