Saturday, February 27, 2016


I suppose it makes sense--sort of--but it still seems weird to me that used razor blades were just shoved through a hole in the cabinet to fall inside the wall. That way there were no sharp surprises in the trash, and the blades were gone forever. Sort of.

The bathroom cabinet looks like an old style, but it must be a new one because it doesn't have the razor blade slot.

The razor blades were in the wall, though: O(50) of them. How do I know? It turns out copper pipe can develop pinhole leaks, especially if the plumber was a little careless with the flux.

Drywall cutters look nice and low tech, but they work like a champ on drywall--and on fingers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Atlas Shrugging?

The video is nicely plotted. At the end, a much-poked and shoved robot flees outside. (Well, actually just goes through a door using the crash bar, but the visual narrative suggests escape.)

Anyone who spends much time with computers immediately wonders: "How many bugs are in the code for the three laws?

If you haven't thought of that before, try the exercise: a robot is in the kitchen with you. How do you implement the First Law: no action or inaction will allow a human to be harmed? What does the robot do with you and the stove, or the grater? Your fork? How does it know what is likely to represent harm?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Looking for attention?

Most physics professors are not in the habit of stripping during lectures.

A few years ago there seemed to be a rash of female violinists and cellists circulating publicity photos with strategically posed instruments. I think that died out, but it suggested there was fierce competition somewhere.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Distractions in Church

I alternate weeks handling the sound system and slides with a young fellow--8'th grade, I was told. This is the hymn-based service, with no drums or amplified strings. The sound settings are pretty much "Set it and forget it" during rehearsal, and all you have to worry about is keeping the slides in sync.

He has had some issues keeping the slides in sync with the music, and with keeping the right mikes on. One person suggested that I train him a bit, but I declined. There's nothing much to learn here except to be attentive to what's going on.

I just wrote "what's going on," but the whole service is about "who's going on."

I recall one service in which I was running monitors. The singers needed monitors rather badly, because the drums and electric guitars make it impossible to hear yourself, even 20 rows back, let alone on the platform.

All monitors were muted while the minister led us in the introduction to the Lord's Supper, and then while the elements were being handed out the musicians were supposed to sing. The minister said "Let us bow and pray." I did. That's what the moment is about.

The musicians started up, but turned uncertain pretty quickly. After a few moments I figured out what what I'd forgotten and lit them up again.

Maybe the youngster is spacing out. That is easy to do. I've done it myself many times. Or maybe he's "spacing in" to the meaning and the who, and is distracted from the world and the machinery of the service.

The more complicated we make the service, the more workers there must be and the more the workers have to pay attention to the timing instead of the word.

Reading in bed

Someone described the condition of a friend in the hospital as being not even able to read. That brought the following to mind. Unfortunately he is not in good shape. Maintaining concentration is probably impossible when he'd not in the induced coma, so the following would be useless for him.

When you're flat on your back after (e.g. shoulder) surgery and you'd like to do something more than watch the boob tube, it is frustrating to realize you can't hold a book in position. E-books might change that.

There are several possibilities. You can mount a flatscreen monitor on the ceiling, and use a tablet at your hand with some kind of bluetooth interface to the monitor pickup, which would then control the monitor. This would allow other things besides just books, of course. You could fumble through your email, browse the web, or setup your own boob tube feed. However, room lighting might make it less than ideal. Room lighting (and the greater expense!) make projection on a screen on the ceiling even less attractive.

It would be easier to mount a swing-arm type of holder (with stiff springs!) to the headboard, for your e-reader or tablet. If you can lift your arm, it should be fairly easy to control. If you can't, a tablet should be within easy bluetooth range of a corresponding device you could have at your side. You'd need help with the orientation in that case, but since you'd probably also need help getting out of bed that's likely available.


Friday, February 19, 2016

Day without Latinos

A couple of bills before the legislature were the reason for a large rally yesterday. It was billed as the "Day without Latinos and Immigrants."

I gather one bill forbade local officials from giving drivers licenses or other state documents to undocumented aliens, and the other prohibited cities from prohibiting questions about citizenship.

The police said 20,000. I only saw about a thousand heading there, but I only see one side of one street. I could hear the rally loud but not clear. Loudspeaker distortion makes speakers unclear even when they're using English. There were lots of families with little kids, a few American flags, even fewer Mexican flags.

Going to school in the capitol city has its advantages. If there's some kind of protest the teachers feel they must sympathize with, you can get a day off school, and with luck you don't have to bother with the protest.

BTW, if you're here legally, the bills don't effect you at all. I assume the idea was to show solidarity with the tribe, try to build some political muscle, and because your cousins are all here illegally.

We ate at the Great Dane today. They had a nice slick poster in the window explaining how they stood in solidarity with their Latino employees. I looked around--maybe they were the cooks. Definitely not the waitresses, bartenders, bus-boys...

FWIW, everybody showed up to work yesterday. Americans, Germans, Belgians, Chinese, Spaniards and all.


A firm brought by some replacement disks for a disk array yesterday, and wanted to meet with our new filesystem manager. It turned out to be a sales pitch. I didn't attend.

At conventions sales teams hand out swag at their booths; something to remember them by. They don't always get the memo that folks working for the University or gov't have some rules about accepting gifts. They sort of get it--the stuff they hand out when they come by isn't such expensive gear that anybody would benefit financially: pens, coffee holders, t-shirts and whatnot with their name on it. But we have had offers to go to Super-bowl parties, or to have them pay for lunch. Nobody takes them up on it, but I assume it must happen in the business world.

This group left behind a t-shirt and a little ring-notebook, both emblazoned with the company name (it's only a year old). I'm a troglodyte who uses paper and pen sometimes, so I looked at the notebook after the meeting broke up. It featured trendy "green" recycled paper, but I think the recycling must have been somewhat deeper than just the pages. The calendar in the back was for the years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


The Wednesday morning study is going through the book of Proverbs. Proverbs has a number of warnings about what happens to people in general, and especially to rulers who try to get rich unscrupulously.

It struck me as a bit ironic. Money is a promise that somebody will give you something when you ask for it--in other words it represents trust. So the villain, untrustworthy himself, wants to reliably trust other people. Why shouldn't they reciprocate?

The picture doesn't change much if the villain collects stuff instead of money. He can't maintain it all, and has to trust other people not to make off with stuff when his back is turned, or be ready to penalize others who do.

When Ceausescu's minions didn't trust that bad things would happen to them if they stepped out of line, they got into a firing line.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The cross

"And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself."

Not just to him, but to a cross. Our cross. The only gateway for us.

I'm not sure we have any choice about pain: Just in where it leads us.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Conspiracy Theories

Is it paranoia if they're really out to get you?
Harry A. Greaves Jr., former Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refinery Corporation (LPRC), whose naked body was found behind the old Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs in Monrovia, died of drowning, according to the just completed autopsy performed by two pathologists from the U.S.-based Nebraska Institute of Forensic Science.

A more recent report says the marks on the body and condition of it were normal for someone tossed about in the surf. The ocean currents indeed are quite treacherous. The owner of Thinker's Village told us he tended to lose a guest a year to accidental drownings.

So nothing to see here, right? He'd been making waves complaining about a privatization deal and what the National Oil Company had been doing with all the money they spent, but it's just a drowning. (So far nobody has discovered any oil, but it isn't just the oil companies spending money.)

Funny thing. Liberians aren't big on swimming. An alleged girlfriend said she was with him when he decided to go swimming, so maybe the object wasn't the backstroke. Or maybe the tale involving the mysterious car and the second body is accurate. Or maybe none of them.

The truth often shows a certain elasticity there. (A little like the internet) Government officials sometimes indulge in extra-legal action, and a matter has to be obviously far removed from any personal or financial interests of theirs for there to be a presumption that they tell the truth. And you don't always know what their financial interests are.

Under the circumstances, conspiracy theories seem reasonable. Even if almost all of them are wrong.


Those of us who weren't in the Supernova room watching the feed were probably watching at their desks. There were some funny moments: "This isn't a Hollywood movie, this is a real simulation!" got a lot of laughs around the room. So did the banter about theorists as they introduced Thorne (and a book of his I'd never heard of, though we all read Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler). And we enjoyed the Russian reporter playing to stereotype by claiming that LIGO was invented in 1962 in Russia.
Sorry, I can't resist this oldie. "What is a theoretical physicist? That is a kind of physicist presumed to exist but which has never been seen in the lab."

The big news was the chirp. I was startled at how clear it looked. Look for yourself at what the two detectors saw. You can see the backgrounds that each detector found, and then the signal. I won't try to duplicate the references and animations.

Yes, I read the paper, but most of the details that need explaining are in other papers (like what they mean by "resonant optical cavity, formed by its two test mass mirrors, that multiplies the effect of a gravitational wave on the light phase by a factor of 300". I think it means the light bounces back and forth 300 times but I'm not sure.) Noise is the big issue: reducing it and trying to measure what they can't reduce.

A few details from the paper:

  1. There were 2 events that might be interesting, one much less clear
  2. The data was from a 16-day period, not the whole 4 month time. I don't know if they only used part for analysis convenience or because of detector issues. Can we expect 20x this per year? I hope this wasn't just beginner's luck.
  3. The event was from just before the official start of the run!
  4. They aren't up to full sensitivity yet. They expect another factor of three, which would expand the volume they're sensitive to by a factor of 27
  5. Similar systems are coming online shortly. It might be possible to pinpoint (for some definitions of pinpoint) the source, and if it is close enough maybe use optical telescopes to find out exactly where.
  6. With the festivities 1.3 billion light-years away, and from a merger of black holes at that, IceCube wasn't likely to find any neutrinos from it, and we didn't. (If we had, we'd have probably had a representative at the announcement ourselves.)
  7. "Each test mass is suspended as the final stage of a quadruple-pendulum system, supported by an active seismic isolation platform." That last bit means the platform moved its top to try to compensate for seismic movements of its bottom. The first part means they hung a pendulum from a pendulum from a pendulum from a pendulum.
  8. Did you notice what they estimated from the before/after fits? 3 solar masses turned into gravitational wave energy! (plus or minus half a solar mass) I wonder what it would have been like to view it from a few light-years away...

Note that the Michelson-Morley technique that was used to prove there was no ether, which was the starting point for Einstein's Special Relativity, turns up again in a verification of Einstein's General Relativity. This time they used lasers ( and Einstein wondered if stimulated emission were possible. He just keeps turning up...)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


I've never been to the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans--and from the pictures I don't think I'd enjoy it that much. not terribly fond of crowds, don't go for alcohol But the food is a different matter. Red beans and rice, etouffe yikes goes the blood sugar...

When I was a kid beignets were a rare Sunday treat. They require a fair bit of minding if you want to make enough for everybody. (I've never quite figured out how to get them to puff up hollow reliably--that was always great for scooping up extra powered sugar.)

Last night I figured we should do something for Mardi Gras for a change. I now know that a gas burner works very much better than an electric burner for cooking beignets, that you have to roll and cut very quickly to keep up with your frying, and that you and everything else will wind up thoroughly garnished with powered sugar. I'm still not sure how it got in the bedroom rug.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Basis Faces

"Eigenface" is more euphonious, but I like basis faces better. It seems clearer. But people would giggle, so maybe Sirovich and Kirby had the right idea.

They are used in face recognition. The idea is that these represent patterns you can build an image of a face out of: 0.15 FaceType_1 + .36 FaceType_4 + .06 FaceType_17 + ... gives a pretty good approximation of the original face.

Some patterns have asymmetries of one kind or another. Look at the lower right face below.

You need that sort of thing for real faces. Abe Lincoln was kicked by a horse and his face was never quite symmetric afterwards.

The "Eigen" in eigenface comes from a German word meaning self or own or characteristic. Transformations that shift and twist will generally turn a vector in one direction into one of a different size pointing a different direction. Some vectors are left pointing the same way, though--and they're obviously special. For linear transformations these vectors are called eigenvectors. For each untwisting vector, the ratio its size changes is the eigenvalue.

If you are using tiny images (100x100 pixels), you have "only" 10,000 pixels to compare. When you are looking for patterns among these, the number of combinations is pretty large: 10,000 x 10,000 for starters. Manipulating vectors 10,000 elements long and a matrix 100,000,000 elements big isn't entirely trivial. The two teams mentioned in the article came up with some clever ways to deal with the problem to make it tractable.

And it turns out that many faces can be described with only a few "basis faces". Wikipedia links to the FaceMachine java applet which generates faces with only a few (I think 6) bases, but unfortunately the java is old enough that my browser won't let it run. YMMV.

My office mate took linear algebra over a decade after I did; this was one of the things developed in the meantime, so his class learned it and mine didn't.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Homeless court

Not a peripatetic court, one for the homeless.
The man, longtime homeless, has amassed roughly $30,000 worth of citations in Madison Municipal Court in a cycle of repeated tickets, arrest warrants and jail.

We design a lot of our punishments for a rooted citizen, not for someone who can keep neither job nor home. "In 2015, 18 homeless people were issued a combined 119 arrest warrants and owed a total of $254,148." These offenses included "public intoxication, trespass, public urination, retail theft."

By "public intoxication" they don't mean just being quietly drunk--they mean being obnoxious or disruptive while drunk. The police aren't hanging around looking for reasons to arrest people. I've waited for a bus in the middle of some noisy conflicts with no squad cars summoned. The homeless get cut a lot of slack, no matter what the advocates say.

But the statutory fines are meaningless to a homeless man, unless you seize whatever cash he has on hand to pay part of it. (I wonder if "Can you spare a couple bucks to help pay my fines?" would collect more than the traditional "Can you spare a couple of bucks for lunch"(*) or "Bus fare?")

But now, due to the efforts of Municipal Court Judge Dan Koval and nonprofits Dane County TimeBank, YWCA Madison and Operation Welcome Home and other partners, the man and others are getting a chance to get court fines reduced or dismissed through a pilot “homeless court” if they stay out of trouble and get help improving their lives.

Last year, Koval had an idea for a restorative justice court that would concentrate on issues confronting people who had a lot of cases in Municipal Court. The concept, he said, is similar to such courts for juveniles, drunken driving, drug offenses and veterans.

The city allotted $10K last year and $10K this year, and expects "three people to move through the court process in the first six months of this year." Law is expensive, I guess, at $1400/case. I wonder what will characterize the people who do stay out of trouble. And what we can do about the rest. And if anything will "work."

(*)I've been giving out coupons for half-pies at Teddywedger's, but only one on one. I need to ask the owner how they've been coming back. As an experiment I gave 2 a few times, with the suggestion "bring a friend," and I wonder whether they went twice or sold them or actually had breakfast with a friend.

Not always happy-clappy

As she founded and visited convents, Teresa often traveled the rugged roads of Spain. One time her saddle slipped, and she found herself head down under the belly of a donkey as she crossed a stream. Complaining to the Lord of her treatment, she heard him reply, "Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends." She replied tartly, "No wonder you have so few!"

I haven't heard of many youth retreats that deal with St. John of the Cross, have you? Generally the kids come back all excited and enthusiastic; not many come back quiet and thoughtful.

People come with so many problems--you need to comfort them and not scare them away. But the big picture does include Gethsemane. We don't escape the world's pains.

The friend who had a house fall on him in New Orleans two weeks ago is still in the ICU, and may soon be healthy enough for a tracheotomy. (The rest of the church team that were inside the house were pretty much OK; he was standing outside.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Appendix D.13

Could we have saved Columbia?

Well, not the Columbia itself, but maybe the astronauts? Read the article. My guess--probably not, or not all. The initial planning itself would have taken a day or so, and changes in plans add extra delays. If we'd tried, it would have been one of the great "wing it"s, and it would have seriously pushed the limits of how long the Columbia crew could stay alive.

Too soon old, too late smart

The unshoveled slush at the side of the driveway froze, and so I took the bag of salt out and started sprinkling salt. There wasn't much left, and I gave up on the scoop and started reaching in the bag and grabbing handfuls. When the bag was empty, I realized my hand was filthy with salt--not what you want on doorknobs and such.

So I reached over and scrubbed it a bit in the snow.

Anybody remember enough chemistry to know what happened next?

Yep. There was enough salt still there to melt the snow on my hand--but the heat to do that had to come from somewhere and the handiest source was me. My hand hurt so badly from the cold I was afraid I'd done it some injury, and I probably would have if I hadn't gotten to warm water at the sink very quickly thereafter.

A word to the wise...

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


The buzz last week was Barna group: Porn perceived as "'Being less risky than actual sex' ... among both teens and older adults". Creating your own reality?
He shook his head. "No," he said, "our handicaps are all different, and the race is equal. The Pharisees can even catch up the woman with the mites. Those who do not insist on Gomorrah."

She said: "Gomorrah?" and the chill of the word struck even through her contemplation. She remembered the unanswered question of her vision: What of them that have not? As if the answer had been reserved for these lower circles, he gave it. He said: "The Lord's glory fell on the cities of the plain, of Sodom and another. We know all about Sodom nowadays, but perhaps we know the other even better. Men can be in love with men, and women with women, and still be in love and make sounds and speeches, but don't you know how quiet the streets of Gomorrah are? Haven't you seen the pools that everlastingly reflect the faces of those who walk with their own phantasms, but the phantasms aren't reflected, and can't be? The lovers of Gomorrah are quite contented, Periel; they don't have to put up with our difficulties. They aren't bothered by alteration, at least till the rain of the fire of the Glory at the end, for they lose the capacity for change, except for the fear of hell. They're monogamous enough! and they've no children--no cherubim breaking into being or babies as tiresome as ours; there's no birth there, and only the second death. There's no distinction between lover and beloved; they beget themselves on their adoration of themselves, and they live and feed and starve on themselves, and by themselves too, for creation, as my predecessor said, is the mercy of God, and they won't have the facts of creation. No, we don't talk much of Gomorrah, and perhaps it's as well and perhaps not."

Monday, February 01, 2016


The NSA admitted to recording phone metadata on a vast number of people. Not the phone calls themselves--that would be a gigantic heap to try to filter--but the "who contacted who" and when. That can give an outline of a network, and if one person in that network is of interest you can identify others in that subnet that are also of interest. Then you can drill down and try to tap the phones.

One pundit brought up the old problem that security and encryption have generally been add-on afterthoughts, and opined that from now on encryption should be the default. OK, cool--though there might be a few gotchas with unpacking things later if the file undergoes a little bit rot. At least in theory it should be possible to ship email around with public key encryption, handle payments with the same key, and generally be able to identify yourself with the same password everywhere. It makes life a little simpler, no?

At some point the secret part of the key has to be validated. There are ways to manage chains of trusted keys. But I wonder about the round-trip for validating a password. What sort of metadata can you collect? Financial transaction information wouldn't be part of the query, only who you were dealing with.