Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What if: painting

On the way back from the Milwaukee Museum exhibit of Glasgow's Italian paintings we improved the shining hour with a what-if.

If you had a time machine (and an interpreter) and a supply of gold and silver, which ancient or modern painter would you commission, and what would you have him (or her) create?

Proposed answers:

  • Titian, to paint some ordinary people that struck his eye (instead of the models and the rich patrons).
  • Bosch, to paint Times Square (who else could do it justice?).
  • Somebody like Zampieri Domenico (we couldn't remember the name of the one we really wanted) to do the Grand Canyon: give him a really wild landscape to paint.

The better ideas come when you're not on the spot, of course: how about one of the Lascaux cave painters painting the village and people in it? Dunno if they'd care for gold...

Or Bruegel painting a legislature? Or Titian to redo the woman taken in adultery without anachronisms. (Notice the prominent codpiece on her captor; a nice touch illustrating hypocrisy...)

I'm not skilled enough to appreciate the finer points distinguishing painters of the same genre and era, nor so fond of my own features as to be interested in a portrait of myself. But maybe you have other ideas?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Wouldn't it have been so much easier if Jesus had said "Take up your empty tomb every day and follow Me"? The "name it and claim it" crowd?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Firing at the enemy

Remember that statistic that only 15-25% of the soldiers in WWII fired at the enemy? Seems to be garbage. Funny, because the Army seemed to believe it, and that sort of question is the sort of life-or-death question they're supposed to try to get right. Supposed to, anyway.

The summary is that Marshall seems to have made up the statistics about the Malkin Island fight: he didn't have time to do the number of interviews he claimed, soldiers had to be told to hold their fire when they were blazing away at enemies that weren't there (rumor), and it isn't clear if he drew any distinction between soldiers in reserve and those at the point. It took delving into archives and a number of interviews to find this out--not the sort of thing an armchair analyst can take on.

What's really annoying is to find out that he'd been known to be full of it since 1989! But the numbers still circulate. I suppose that's nothing new for made-up numbers, but usually those keep zombie-ing around because somebody has a political agenda or iron rice bowl they need to protect.

Grossman relied on Marshall's numbers, but tried to supplement them with other estimates, so I'm not sure his conclusions are seriously undercut, such as "It is a lot easier to kill a fleeing enemy." Hat tip to West Hunter

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Food stamp variation

Eldest Daughter suggested that surplus or in-season food could be made into 2-fer or discounted deals for food stamp use. It seemed to her a non-paternalist way to encourage healthier eating, since currently the cheapest calories per buck tend to be "junk food." "Junk food" isn't so great if you're susceptible to type 2 diabetes, as it turns out a surprising number of us are.

A quick survey didn't show that anybody tries this, which is a bit surprising. Maybe it's a problem of coordination between federal funding and the states: the state may have in-season foods that other states don't and the feds are one size fits all?


I ran across a little clarification tonight. On its trip from Nazi Germany to Imperial Japan U-234 was carrying technical drawings, templates and forms and a couple of engineers, not broken-down ME262 jets. It also had 560kg of uranium oxide, which no doubt the Japanese scientists were eager to get ahold of (when they heard of Hiroshima they knew exactly what had happened because they were trying to build the same kind of weapon).

It makes more sense to provide the drawings--though they'd have been unbeatable while they lasted the jets themselves wouldn't have lasted long before they needed maintenance. Of course the Japanese weren't going to have the time to tool up a new factory.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"We are able"

"James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You." ... "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to Him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized."

James was the first to be martyred. John died last of all, of a natural death. So the "cup" wasn't martyrdom as we think of it, though that's the hymn suggests . I wonder which of the two had the harder row to hoe.

Christmas Day

From David Warren: "The city for its part remains unearthly quiet, the usual crash of traffic damped below nature’s breathing. It is the sound that cars make when they are parked; of a million cars not driving to church on Christmas Day." He's carelessly rough on the lonely in that essay: a rare misfire. But ...

Our church had 9 Christmas Eve services at 3 venues, including the 23:00 service that ends as Christmas Day begins. But they've nothing on Christmas Day. Which is kind of odd, given the day's name: the Christ Mass. I get it that lots of people want to stay home with their families. Still, an hour for a Christmas service seems like a small price for recognition of a holy day.

We end the Christmas Eve services with Silent Night and the shared candle-lighting (amazing how bright the place gets so quickly). It isn't easy to hold a candle in one hand and manage the phone to snap a picture of yourself and your husband with the other, but she managed. I don't think she was trying to show off; she was just uninhibitedly enthusiastic about lots of things--like the baby she carried after the service.

On the other hand, it's my job to manage my own attitude to the day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Lizzie Wade looks at a couple of papers about spongy bone
The hunter-gatherers’ hip joints were about as strong as those of the apes, whereas the ancient farmers’ hips showed a significant loss of spongy bone. The researchers conclude that a lack of rigorous exercise, rather than any evolutionary pressure toward lighter skeletons, is the reason for modern human’s weak bones. So if you want a stronger skeleton, start exercising like a hunter-gatherer.

Hmm. They looked at the hip joint, which you'd expect to get more of a workout in humans chasing after critters, though maybe not quite so much if the hunter-gatherer spends time setting traps or doing ambush hunting. I wonder how they distinguish those. A farmer probably gets more upper body exercise than a hunter--how do the arm bones compare? Or the hip joints of a racer? Or of a slave? (The "helmsman" found by the older! boat in Herculaneum had bone changes from his work.)

It is a bit surprising that some bones would be as strong as an ape's. How dense are the rest of an ape's bones? (quite a bit denser than human)


I always loved the chorus to Angels We Have Heard On High: The syllables flow so perfectly in the music. "Gloria in excelsis Deo"

I remember hearing it, and thinking it magnificent, when I was young enough that I didn't understand why I didn't understand it. (When I heard the explanation I would have sympathized with Jim: "Is a Frenchman a man?" "Yes." "WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he TALK like a man?") Even when I was an atheist I liked to listen to it (shades of Herod?). In church choir we were told to approximate it with "een eggshells ees," which provoked some snickers later when explained to someone who actually knew a little latin.

I ran the sound system tonight from the back of the chapel. It was glorious to hear the congregation gathering into that chorus; even facing away from me they drowned out all but a bit of the brass in joyful salute to God. It felt almost as though there were others singing along with us.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Hosen and shoon

I tend to find it a relief when the beggars aren't hanging around the Philosopher's Stones. That's not quite the right attitude. I should be unhappy that I can't help (which I mostly can't anyway, since handing out money isn't good for anybody).

Taking a few liberties:

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’

“Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, but we voted for people who promised to take care of the poor and reduce recidivism. And we paid taxes too.’

And He will say to them, `You wanted other people to take care of the poor, but would not do it yourself.’

Well, Teddywedgers is open again; though that's probably everybody else's first idea too.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


We’re still going through his boxes of papers and tools and memorabilia. I found his notes for his first book, which was never completed. It is just as well--Blame it on Venus would have been a Velikovskian tract. I read over his page complaining about the foolishness of astronomers who claimed to have seen silicate dust around one star. I could have taken him to the physics museum and showed him emission spectra and explained absorption spectra, and I think he’d have gotten the picture—he used to look at electron scattering spectra to identify minerals. Never happened, though.

He praised Velikovsky a time or two to me, and I complained about orbital dynamics. I guess he decided I was one of the lock-step establishment and didn't want to waste time arguing.

As I filed the papers in a box, I wondered if my own efforts were just as ridiculous. I devised a preon model that didn’t work, though the symmetries were unexpected. A BFI approach to studying those symmetries ran aground on tensor transformations that I couldn’t solve. I played around with generalized lines in metric space—which is probably a special case of a much more general approach that I don’t know anything about. I tried to get limits on dark matter interactions with neutrinos, and they’re terribly loose—work from a half dozen other groups is orders of magnitude better. No breakthroughs here.

Oh well. Do what is in front of me faithfully...

He didn’t finish his second book either, but I think we can make it happen anyway.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Unsung heroes of faith

John Horden is in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church, as I found from Mission St. Clare's site. He was initially a missionary to Moose Factory, and from then on to preach to the Cree and translate the Bible and Book of Common Prayer into Cree and Ojibwe.
On May 10, 1851, Hordern received a letter from them, informing him that the Bishop of Rupert's Land had made a request for a schoolmaster at Moose Factory, Ontario and that he had been appointed to fill the position. They also told him to prepare to leave within a month and indicated that they desired that he marry and take his wife out to assist him in his missionary work. Although he was less than enthused about the appointment, he immediately prepared for his new position. He contacted the woman of his choice, a young woman who herself had missionary inclinations, and she agreed to marry him. On June 8, 1851, they set sail for Canada.


Then in 1865, Horden and his family, which now included five children that he and his wife had had in Canada, sailed back to England so that his children could be educated.

Yes, he was an obedient servant of the gospel. But I'm really impressed by the faith and dedication of someone not named in the article--his wife Elizabeth Oke mentioned but not described here.

"Hello. I'm going next month to be a missionary in the wilds of Canada. Want to get married and come along?"

OK, it wasn't quite like that. From a history

On May 24, Horden left his work at school ; on May 25, he was married ; on May 28, he left for London on the way to his post in the mission-field.

Horden had not to choose a wife with the haste which this statement might suggest. At the time
when he first offered himself to the Church Missionary Society he became engaged to Miss Elizabeth Oke, who was not only a member of the same congregation as himself, but was filled with the same desire to be a missionary. She, too, had prepared for the foreign field by working at home. When the call to Moosonee came, the decision rested with her. With out hesitation she resolved to go, and the hasty wedding began a married life of singular happiness and of long duration.

I'll be interested to hear her story.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Diet and health

Atherosclerosis seems to have been just as common (after accounting for age) in ancient Egypt as in modern Egypt. (HT to Archaeoblog) Lifestyles may be different (though I wonder if the expense of mummification would skew the distribution to the richer folks)--but certainly Osti wasn't leading a life of ease and he was getting calcification too. So maybe "lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet, and smoking" really don't matter as much as choosing your ancestors correctly after all.

"Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside." Mark Twain

Looks longingly at the bread and wishes that heart disease were the only worry. . .

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Behind the decline

I indulged in the usual kvetching about songs (at greater length here, with some rare comments by my Better Half).

But it's a good exercise to see where maybe I'm contributing to the problem.

I don't sing them myself. That follows immediately from the broader statement that I don't sing much at all, except in church or on the way, or sometimes during long distance driving. Nor do many people I know. In fact we have a rule: "no singing at the table." At this late date I don't remember why we instituted it, but it probably had to do with one or two dominating the table with irrelevancies.

Instead I generally listen to other people sing. Now though the tune does sometimes slosh out of the bucket when I hit the achievable note rather than the one the composer had in mind, I have a good time sense and keep the rhythm OK (can't manage the chorus of Grazing in the Grass, though). True, Youngest Daughter winces audibly.

I notice that if I pick a song to sing, I don't get bored with it and demand new variations. I may play with it a bit, but most of the time I sing it straight without irritability. Hearing the same Rudolph 4 times in a day became wearing, but singing Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel 3 times was fine. OK, that's not a fair comparison: marshmallows and steak; but that's the freshest example in my mind. I seem to recall the same effect with standard carols in past years, though.

Is singing in public too intimate? (Whistling might be more acceptable, but I only have about 3 notes and they aren't consecutive.) Perhaps we're too crowded for it not to be invasive, though given how many people have their ears plugged perhaps we're more isolated than we appear.

Cleaning up

The apartment was his junk drawer.

He’d been through the Great Depression, and done all the usual things—hauled bottle caps for trade-in for metal value, fished for the family dinner, and on and on. He decided to try to live off as little as he could. Every year of the past dozen he gardened in a city plot, and canned the results. He hunted up remainder bargains, and canned or froze those. He had a freezer set to max in his apartment, and it was chock full of mostly unidentifiable plastic bags of food. (The only way to figure out what something is is to thaw it, and then you’re stuck with it. I used a rod and mallet to knock packages loose from the bed of frost.) Between the 600 odd cans of food he’d made and the contents of the freezers, he could have fed himself for a year given only water and electricity to run the freezer and his hot plate. Yes, he told other people he was expecting the food supply to collapse. He was generous with his produce, encouraging one neighbor with ankle pain to eat lots of pickled jalapenos to mitigate the pain (she liked jalapenos and thought he was funny), and handing out jars of other confections freely.

Some of the dates on the jars are from 2006, but mostly the things are fairly current, so I think he was eating his own preparations all these years. We’d never visited his apartment before, because he told us his enemies were watching him and he wanted to keep us safe.

We ate his cooking once at his sister’s home when she was out. I suppose it had nutrition. Even my weirdest bachelor culinary experiments tasted better. His version was kin to the Asterix the Legionary “legionary’s rations”: “Corn, cheese, and bacon, all cooked together to save time.”

He didn’t have enough shelving for the store-canned goods he bought, so he created a narrow shelving unit tied to the wall by picture hangers. The 7x3 unit used nails to hold the bottom together, but he wasted no nails in the rest—it was held together by the weight of the canned goods. When we disconnected it from the wall the shelves fell like dominoes. Jars held up shelves which held up other shelves. Ceiling tiles nailed to the walls became cork-boards, and in lieu of a queen-size mattress he used a twin mattress and strips of foam wrapped in a blanket. When we entered to begin the cleanup, there was a 1-foot wide path to the bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen. Part of the bath stall was set up with plant lights for seed starting.

He was one of the quartermasters on the Finback, and was brilliant at squirreling away bits and pieces of things in original places and creating ways to house more. That carried over into civilian life (at least when I knew him), and his van and apartment were wondrous things. He bought gear he’d never use, but could trade for things he could use if things went south. But as he got older I think he started to lose track of what he’d hidden where.

He always laid down rolls of paper to protect the carpet or counter from his superstructures, and when these were removed the original surfaces were generally immaculate.

I found a children’s guide to a museum screwed up inside an otherwise empty spice jar. I suspect it was meant for a hide-and-seek game that never happened—he had just the offbeat sense of humor for that. He kept that sense of humor to the end.

Next to his Bible was his “second Bible”—the CRC handbook, worn to a frazzle.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Prospero trilogy by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The thesis of the trilogy (Prospero Lost, Prospero in Hell, Prospero Regained) is that Shakespeare’s Prospero from The Tempest was a real person, as was his daughter Miranda (the narrator) and other children Shakespeare didn’t know about. If there are in fact spirits of the air (and presumably other elements), what keeps them from making mischief? Prospero, Inc.

The title of the second volume gives away what has become of him, but Miranda isn’t sure of much of anything along the way. The environment is a blend of Greek mythology, Norse mythology, English legends, Christianity, and logical conclusions drawn therefrom, together with a dose of Dante and Niven/Pournelle. The history of who was moving behind the scenes over the centuries is fun. The plot and twists move rapidly.

It is a fun read, though I wasn’t so fond of the battles in Hell; and there were some inconsistencies in how the living manage there and how much the demons know. But all in all, fun.

The framework reminds me very strongly of John C Wright’s Chronicles of Chaos and War of the Dreaming series—almost as though they discussed ideas over the dinner table. Which they probably do.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Christmas songs

This is the time of year for kvetching about Christmas songs. In our errands today we heard a lot of songs--not so many of them carols, but a couple. Most were pretty heavy on the nostalgia, as in AVI's post about NPR Christmas. Some of the songs feel attenuated--a nostalgia for the old nostalgia for a time somebody used to know.

When the carols play, I'm reminded of:

They come to you as people come, and sit before you as My people and hear your words, but they do not do them, for they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain. Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them.

Variants of autism

Some researchers are using genetic analysis to find out what the different kinds of autism come from. That there are different kinds seems almost obvious if you hang around with a number of them (e.g. the AUsome Social Group, though you could argue that the main effect is from one broken gene and the variations come from other broken genes. (Simplifying a bit) But their work suggests that there are different mutations, each of which can cause symptoms in the autism spectrum.

I hope the work pans out.

Corporate Conspiracies

It isn't a for-profit corporation, but ... draw your own conclusions about who is gaming science for political ends. The link has a copy of a plan in which "peer reviewed papers" are planned for highest impact, including an ideal author list count, before the paper even exists, much less has been "peer reviewed."

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


My wife's father died this afternoon, listening to his youngest grand-daughter read the 23'rd Psalm while the hospice nurse made him comfortable. My wife and her cousin were called back in time to be with him.

He'd served as quartermaster on a submarine in World War II, sailed on the Great Lakes, been a wrestler in school, learned electron microscopy back in the day and worked as a geologist. And he ran a ceramics business, worked as maintenance everything for a youth campground, and gardened and canned at every opportunity. He turned his attitudes around after becoming a Christian, and the "scrimp and save" approach to life he learned from the Great Depression became a means to maximize what he could give.

He could be a little suspicious and a little Aspergery, but his neighbors said he was a sweet old guy.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Not ready for diagnostic prime time, but interesting.

Is autism diagnosable by fMRI? According to the headline, maybe...but there were 34 (17+17) participants, all adult, all willing to get inside a fMRI machine and be scanned while listening to various words: notably the word "hug".
Whereas the control subjects showed activity in the part of the brain associated with self-representation, the subjects with autism did not. This means that the autistic individuals envisioned the words and actions being told to them (actually they read the words on a screen) without themselves as a participant in defining the scenario, while the control group saw themselves being hugged, complimented, kicked, and insulted when thinking about these concepts.

The article itself is on PLOS.

That there are only 17 neurotypical participants means there is no good estimate for the number of false positives, since autism shows up at the 1% level. And quite a few participants had to be removed from the study:

The data from the 25 excluded participants (12 with autism and 13 controls) had been affected by either excessive (above 3.5 mm) head motion (6 with autism and 3 controls) or lack of attention to the stimulus in a substantial number of trials (6 with autism and 10 controls). Participants in such studies comment that occasionally their mind wanders when processing some items, and we have previously found such inattention to be characterized by an abnormal occipital activation time course.

The effect is certainly dramatic, and it may be real, but this needs a lot more study before we can talk about "diagnosis", especially diagnosis of children young enough that intervention might help. Can you imagine a 2-year old inside a noisy machine lying quietly and listening to Mommy say "hug!"?

The data they are dealing with is somewhat fuzzy, so they use what we call a "neural net" to try to analyze the results. It works something like this: for a given event (a particular patient i, for example), you have several different measurements on channels A, B, C: values A_i, B_i, C_i. If you know in advance that the first 10 events are from bald Martians and the rest are from hairy Venusians, and if you "notice" that in the first 10 cases A_i=B_i but in the rest of them A_i=-B_i, you can generate a "bald Martian" formula (A_i+B_i). When this is 0 you probably have a hairy Venusian, otherwise you have a bald Martian.

The "noticing" is the secret to making the process work. You can use algorithms to combine the data with weights based on the a priori known type of the event, and after a few iterations get a formula (generally linear in the variables) that gives you a kind of probability that a event is one type or the other. There's typically a spectrum, but everybody hopes there will be a nice sharp peak at 1 or 0.

With enough variables you can easily "over train", and the usual procedure is to train on either simulations (risky) or part of the dataset, and then apply the formula to the rest of the data. The experimenters here did something like the latter. If I read the article correctly, they did 34 different neural net training exercises, each time omitting one event and then trying out the resulting formula on the omitted event. They got accurate predictions 33 times out of 34--which is quite good.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Related but not the same

Next to a car dealership on East Washington Avenue sits an enterprise whose sign sports scissors and the name "Lust BeautyWorks".

Am I alone in thinking this a trifle muddled?

There seem to be at least three attributes that get confused: sexy, attractive, beautiful. A few minutes thought should bring to mind women who are clearly more of one of the three but not so much of the other two. (I'm a man. Women can probably find men that fit similar categories, but I won't try to predict how that would work out.)

"What does he see in her?"

You know what I mean, I hope. A woman who doesn't seem to be particularly beautiful but people like to be around her--she's attractive. Another seems to radiate sex appeal, but seems unable to hold onto conquests reliably. And there's glamorous types who excite admiration and envy but aren't the first choice for dreams.

I'm thinking here of public attributes. Plenty of women and men who don't stop traffic are more than adequately sexy behind closed doors. If not there'd be many fewer children born. And the old husband who says his old wife is beautiful isn't kidding--he sees better than the simpleminded public eye does.

Maybe magazine covers(*) make it clearer. (Since Borders closed I don't see magazine stands so often, so I'm not up to date.) Playboy's covers, at least the ones I remember, featured beautiful women with an air of "You're here. Dinner can wait." The beauty was from a rather restricted palette, but was always beauty. It was always on the far side of the line, into erotica, but with enough plausible deniability that you could, for a moment, kid yourself that it was mostly about beauty. Other mags posed their models in postures designed to emphasize secondary sexual characteristics, regardless of whether this was a beautiful pose or not. Sex appeal was the goal, though it sometimes looked too silly to be appealing. But when Jackie Kennedy was on a cover, she was always made to look glamorous: beautiful but not sexy, and not very approachable either--except when the image made her seem helpless and in need of a defender.

If that's not clear, how about Ginger or Mary Ann? Mary Ann was played to appear approachable and attractive, not just beautiful; Ginger played to appear beautiful and slightly artificial, and not approachable and attractive. (And beside me is a Dominican University alumni magazine featuring an airbrushed young nurse with an attractive friendly smile.)

If you are young and healthy it is probably easier to take shortcuts with clothing and styles to appear sexy than it is to try to look beautiful. Teens in particular seem prone to taking these shortcuts. (Compare high school pictures today with those from 80 years ago.) But I suspect that the women who frequent Lust BeautyWorks would prefer to excite admiration for their beauty rather than lust, at least from the general population. Though I could be wrong again.

(*) "magazine covers" = superficiality squared

Showing my age

The pharmacy changed its hours last month. I couldn't remember whether it opened at 8:30 or 9:00, so I looked up its web page and was gratified that 8:30 fit my errand schedule so well.

When it finally opened at 9:00, I inquired about the web pages and was told that they still did not have control over those pages, but were trying to get them changed. "But our Facebook and Yelp pages are correct!" I told her I was "old school," the kind who looked for the business' web pages.