Thursday, June 30, 2016

We need some new ideas

Sabine Hossenfelder writes
At the end of the LHC’s first run at high energies, both the CMS and ATLAS collaborations reported a particularly interesting “bump” in the diphoton channel. ... a bump of a particular size, width and energy could either indicate a completely new, fundamental, beyond-the-standard-model particle, the first of its kind – or a new standard model feature — or it could simply be statistical noise. Despite the fact that it would be the nightmare of most of my colleagues, I’m hoping the diphoton bump turns out to be nothing more than noise.
Since I entered physics, I’ve seen grand unified models proposed and falsified. I’ve seen loads of dark matter candidates not being found, followed by a ritual parameter adjustment to explain the lack of detection. I’ve seen supersymmetric particles being “predicted” with constantly increasing masses, from some GeV to some 100 GeV to LHC energies of some TeV. And now that it looks like the LHC isn’t going to see any superpartners either, my colleagues in particle physicists are more than willing to once again move the goalposts.

Yep. What she said. SuperSymmetry is a way to get the equations to please not give infinity as an answer, but somehow the predicted particles (one for each of the known particles) just never turn up. SuperCemetery of effort.

Perhaps more dramatically, Adam Frank wants to drag some theorists out of Laputa with a few postulates that used to be pretty standard wisdom: "There is only one universe." (a bas le multiverse!) "Time is real" (not emergent), and "Mathematics is selectively real" (the real world doesn't care how beautifully symmetric your equations are).

Two big complaints about string theory are that there's been no convergence on an actual theory that makes testable predictions within its framework(*), and that it predicts SuperSymmetry--which doesn't seem to exist.

I'll add my complaint that when you have to renormalize to get your sums to shake the infinities out of them, there's something seriously wrong with the paradigm of your calculation. I don't know how to fix it. (**)

And in a related vein, I'm pretty dubious of early Universe inflation: the universe expanded extra fast for a while just after the Big Bang. Why? Ummm.. Well, if it did expand that way then observations match theory, so let's assume it did and try to figure out how. And Dark Energy to make the Universe's expansion accelerate.

We need some new ideas.

(*)The assumptions that make up the framework seemed quite nice, though.

(**) UPDATE: I think what I want is a way of finding a problem dual to the type of things we do now, but that is more tractable even if it is less obvious how it connects to the physics.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In amber

A bird lost a wing-tip in amber. I've nothing to say, just go look. I didn't know amber sometimes had feathers, but this isn't the only sample.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

More proverbs

I spent a good chunk of the day resting my newly wrenched back(*) and reading the Expositors commentary on Ecclesiastes. (Wordy, and I think he missed fire a few times.) He cited some proverbs from the Talmud, and I looked them up. Some of the proverbs are familiar, and I gather they were a little reluctant to cite one source, but others aren't. Have a look.
The house which opens not to the poor will open to the physician.

Hospitality is an expression of Divine worship.

Truth is heavy, therefore few care to carry it.

The soldiers fight, and the kings are heroes.

Commit a sin twice and it will not seem to thee a crime.

Hold no man responsible for his utterances in times of grief.

All the blessings of a household come through the wife, therefore should her husband honour her.

(*) and walking around too, the way you're supposed to--but it's hard to read then.

Friday, June 24, 2016


BBC has a puff piece on youth response to the Brexit.
Other than anger, a common theme was frustration among 16- and 17-year-olds, who were not allowed to vote in the poll. Last year an initiative backed by Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP proposed lowering the voting age. However the government rejected the idea on the grounds of cost, and it was voted down.

"I love waking up to be completely terrified about something that's going to affect me yet i had no say in it," mused one teenager.

I completely forgot about that bit of nonsense: 16-year-old voters. Yikes.

I've a better idea: raise the voting age to 30, younger if you serve a couple of years in the military.

FWIW, I'm not British, and can really only guess at how I would have voted if I was. As an American, I'd vote for Brexit and damn the torpedoes. But I've no feel for what the problems and benefits and loyalties really would be like there, and apparently a lot of people there thought differently; Brexit won by only a small margin.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Can you detect magnetic fields?

Kirschvink thinks he's shown that they can. With a rig that produces (or not, double-blind) a magnetic field around the head:
It was a small sample—just two dozen human subjects—but his basement apparatus had yielded a consistent, repeatable effect. When the magnetic field was rotated counterclockwise—the equivalent of the subject looking to the right—there was sharp drop in α waves. The suppression of α waves, in the EEG world, is associated with brain processing: A set of neurons were firing in response to the magnetic field, the only changing variable. The neural response was delayed by a few hundred milliseconds, and Kirschvink says the lag suggests an active brain response. A magnetic field can induce electric currents in the brain that could mimic an EEG signal—but they would show up immediately.

OK, small sample. Also, if we did have such a field-sensitive organ, would it necessarily be in the head? And lying in an MRI system should overload such an organ. Maybe that would make it numb (negative result), or make the person uncomfortable or slightly disoriented (natural enough in a cramped and noisy system).

He needs to test with stronger fields.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Virtual Doctors

I suggested a framework for "distributed doctoring" for Liberia a few years ago.
Huw Jones organized "Virtual Doctors" in which clinics in Zambia can consult volunteer doctors in the UK, sometimes even sending xrays for analysis. Kudos to them!

That's one piece of the puzzle I was dreaming of.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


I heard a quote today from a book I've never read Eat Pray Love: "Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it."

I googled the author and book. She had the resources to travel the world looking for herself. In context her advice (not just the quote above) seemed to me ... well, C.S. Lewis described it:

‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said Vertue. ‘I had not seen it in that light. I will certainly act as your servant for a day or so if you wish it. I had not understood that it would be such a burden to you to cook for yourself. I don’t remember that you said anything about servants when you were outlining the good life last night.’

‘Why, sir, said Mr Sensible. ‘When I outline the principles of the steam engine I do not explicitly state that I expect fire to burn or the laws of gravity to operate. There are certain things that one always takes for granted. When I speak of the art of life I presuppose the ordinary conditions of life which that art utilises.’

‘Such as wealth,’ said Vertue.

‘A competence, a competence,’ said Mr Sensible.

‘And health, too?’ said Vertue.

‘Moderate health,’ said Mr Sensible.

‘Your art, then,’ said Vertue, ‘seems to teach men that the best way of being happy is to enjoy unbroken good fortune in every respect. They would not all find the advice helpful.’

Music tech question

I probably shouldn't mention this at all.

I was listening to Rachmaninoff's Vocalise the other day. There are some passages that expect a pause--room for the singer to take a breath--and others that would sound just a trifle smoother if there were no pause. I couldn't find any references to "fill-in" in autotune, but I assume the technology is either there already or easy.

Does somebody do this on a regular basis?

Friday, June 17, 2016

Wait until the later reports come out

Reporters have to get the story out fast and punchy. Hence "at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ... the left wing was gutted by fire". President Ellen Sirleaf was in her 6'th floor office at the time. The Executive Mansion was fire-damaged a few years ago and has not been completely repaired.

The next day's story: Lonestar cell phone's server room started the fire. And contained it. The picture shows the "gutting." It looks to me like there would have been plenty of acrid smoke, though.

I leave comparisons with American news to the reader. Barrel, bass, blunderbuss...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Health and work

Has your boss actually been looking out for your health all along?

I want to see this verified. I'll bet it assumes no on-the-job injuries. (From another source "The greatest risks of job-related injury were among 1) construction workers in evening shifts, 2) professional, technical, and managerial personnel working overtime schedules, and 3) employees working overtime shifts in the business and repair services sectors.")

Hmm. There's been a link change--I'll have to find the right off-campus link page tomorrow to look at the paper itself.

25 propositions

From CTC via David Warren: 25 Propositions on a 75th Birthday, an article from 1978 in the NYT by Malcolm Muggeridge.


3. Accumulating knowledge is form of avarice, and lends itself to another version of the Midas story. This time, of a man so avid for knowledge that everything he touches turns to facts.

10. Mystical ecstasy and laughter are the two great delights of living, and saints and clowns, their purveyors, the only two categories of human beings who can be relied on to tell the truth. Hence, steeples and gargoyles side by side on the great cathedrals.

24. A truly peaceful day from beginning to end is a great rarity in this world.

Go read it. I don't think I can improve on it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


We have gophers in the front lawn/garden. We've seen them and found two of their holes. Well, maybe 4, but the other two holes never seemed to be used again. I decided to try to make things uncomfortable for them and ran a hose to the one by the front door. After 10 minutes a wet gopher emerged and headed next door.

I borrowed a few gopher traps, and over the next couple of weeks the population of hole-dwellers was reduced by 5: 3 gophers and two chipmunks.

Yes, the chipmunks came out of the same hole the gophers did.

So either they shared lodging, which I've never heard of before, or the chipmunks went in opportunistically and got whacked on the way out (the traps are one-directional). Either way it seems very odd.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mefistofel is a little more faithful to Goethe's Faust in this aria:

Lyrics and translation.

After the encounter with the demon, Faust is still curious, and fascinated enough to want to do a deal with him.

I'd like to say that this kind of encounter would scare me too much to contemplate trying to deal with Mephistopheles. But less dramatic denials might be enticing, and denials snowball to the point that you can deny what is in front of your eyes, even when it threatens to kill you.

Where the action is

AVI writes of New York and why some people love it.
One thing that jumped out at me was that few of the listed attractions of the city have to do with family. The list has things you can do together, but most of my evenings are spent at home, not going out to eat or listen to a concert. I don't go "down to (cafe I didn't recognize) and have a coffee and a bagel" every morning--I eat with my family. Many of the attractions are consumer attractions.

History: I can see the attraction of living in a place that has a little history behind it, but the history is more important if the place is also home. I visited the little church where the Red Cross was founded. No, I worshiped there, attending English language services when I was in town. There's something different about how the history feels when the history is not the reason you go there.

"Where the action is," though--that does make a big difference.

I work at UW-Madison. It isn't one of the great physics centers like CERN or Fermilab, but it is one of the big ones, and there's a lot going on. Day to day stuff for any given project is typically pretty boring, but with enough projects around something interesting gets announced pretty often.

This is even more dramatic at CERN. There is always something new being reported (hmm), and people making plans and freewheeling ideas. It is exhilarating, and you can learn a lot, and sometimes find a way to make a contribution yourself.

A place with a similar critical mass of dance academies and venues would no doubt be just as exciting--but I'd be at sea. Ballet is fairly opaque to me. It might be a good status inflator--I live in Danceville--but I'd get no other benefit, not even as a consumer.

"The best is here." My palate cannot reliably distinguish the best chocolate in the world from Lindt. (I can tell Hershey's from the good stuff easily enough.) The top tier opera baritones sound very much like the third tier--in some cases it seems to have been luck that made the difference in reputation. In fact, as I've said before, technology (simulcasts etc) make it harder and harder for performers not in the A-list to have scope to show their skill. Do you go to a movie palace for a simulcast of the NY Met Opera or to the theater for a local performance of the same thing?

I'm unlikely to ever spend much time in NY. I think I'll live.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Bearing False Witness and How the West Won by Rodney Stark

Bearing False Witness Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History is pretty much what the subtitle says it is. The sections in this book (Sins of Anti-Semitism, The Suppressed Gospels, Crusading for Land, Loot, and Converts, and so on) often overlap substantially with sections of other books of his. However, it is nice to have all this related work in one place.

Rodney Stark is a sociology professor at Baylor (a Baptist university In the past he said he was agnostic and now considers himself an "independent Christian"), who has written a number of books on religion and sociology and history.

In any era, you can find a distribution of attitudes. It isn't hard to construct any narrative you please by selecting the appropriate examples from each succeeding era. Your reader isn't likely to know whether your examples are typical, or are pivotal characters. That's bad enough. What makes some of the narratives about the Catholic church still worse is the use of outright lies. Many of these are known to scholars, but still show up in textbooks. Stark savages them.

How the West Won The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

Stark has an amusing thesis that the Roman Empire was an unfortunate hiatus between the era of quarrelsome and competitive Greeks and the quarrelsome and competitive Western European tribes. I wasn't aware that the barbarian German tribes had industries and trade that reached almost as far as the Romans did. (The Romans did manage some interesting mass production, which he doesn't describe, though I wonder how much of those technologies were inherited from the Hellenist culture.)

(Spoiler alert: he thinks the West is by and large a good thing, and judges that Christianity and freedom and free enterprise are pillars in it.) He noticed that in major conflicts, typically the Western groups outfought the others. You could argue that that's banal--if they'd lost the big battles there wouldn't have been a West to write about, so of course they won. However, they tended to win the small ones too: their technology and tactics were generally better. Of course, other factors come into play--Spain fell to the Moors because of their internal problems: being quarrelsome doesn't always pay off. (I seem to recall reading that the Crusaders brought home superior castle technology--but Stark is correct that small numbers of Crusaders had outsized impact--they were better fighters.)

Spain didn't decline after the Age of Exploration, the Spanish Empire did--Spain never rose. (The Spanish Armada had to rely on non-Spanish sources for their ships, and even their cannon balls.) Queen Elizabeth is The Pirate Queen.

And so on. Fun reads, slightly polemical--but the polemics are generally justified.

One problem with a Kindle is that while you're reading one book, your Better Half cannot read the other.

Saturday, June 04, 2016


When I was about 20 my father gave me a Norelco electric, and it lasted, with a few repairs, for 30 years until parts got scarce. The heads were small, and the well behind them for shavings was shallow. When my grandfather visited he borrowed it, and I remember wondering why the shavings seemed so much whiter than his hair.

Maybe beards grey earlier than heads? (*)

The replacement is larger, with a deeper well that doesn't clog so easily, and I confess to not always emptying it after every shave. The other day I looked at the shavings in the trash and wondered why they looked so much greyer than the remaining hair on my head.

Maybe ground-up stuff just looks greyer, because light bounces off more different surfaces? But there are plenty of colorful powders, so that can't be the whole story.

When in doubt, grab the microscope. Unfortunately, colors tend to be washed out and hair is somewhat translucent to boot. But I could easily see that the hair wasn't cut cleanly, and the ragged edges extended farther along the hair than I'd have expected, and a lot was tatters. Hmm. I probably need new shaving heads.

I should probably make a jig to hold a cell-phone in place on a microscope. Pressing a button would probably joggle it a little bit, so the picture wouldn't be ideal.

One oddity jumped out at me. Many of the fragments were clearly the same thick size you expect from beard hair, but there were some finer fibers too. What were they? Vellus hair? If so, why so relatively long?

Googling brought up the disconcerting subject of mites and their presence in beard shavings, which brought to mind the thought of spiders to eat them. Hmm. Anything small enough to catch mites won't use webs, so those are probably vellus hairs. Still...

I clean out the well after each shave now.

(*) It apparently does-beard hair grows faster than hair head, and several people suggested that as pigment production slows, the beard hair shows bleaching sooner.

Japanese Christians

Apparently during the persecutions, some of the samurai were hidden Christians, confirming a rumor I wasn't familiar with. One of the sword guards is pretty obvious, others much less so. Time to bone up on some more history.

Rome life

A translation of an Italian story about analysis of skeletons in Rome finds a brutal and short life for "Roman working class." Hmm. How do they know these were Romans and not slaves? And did the translator really mean "osteopath?" I'll assume the latter was a translation error and the dead were slaves. Pretty grim.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Truth in advertising

For a 13-year-old Impala:

(Ours is holding up mostly OK, though.)

Thursday, June 02, 2016


How many things are wrong with this situation?
Residents of Kuwah Town located in Kpatolie Clan, Salala District, Lower Bong, are still drinking from streams and nearby creeks because they lack a source of safe drinking water in the area. The residents are appealing to the government to provide them with at least a hand pump that
will provide them with safe drinking water ...

Kuwah Town Chief Bigboy George told LINA that his town not only lacks access to safe drinking water, but also good roads, clinics and schools which, he said, subjects the inhabitants to severe hardships.

Town Chief George said the only hand pump in town, installed long ago by a local non-governmental organization, has since broken leaving the over 500 households compelled to draw a bucket of drinking water every day from nearby streams.

Yes, those nearby streams are polluted.

That nameless NGO seems to have overlooked maintenance and ownership: who maintains the well, and who replaces it? In my not so humble judgment the town should have gotten an up-front warning: we'll put it in, but you need to save some taxes to pay for maintenance and replacement. Google suggests that a pump of this kind costs about $60: triple that for import costs and duties (WAG), and call it $200. Triple that again for installation. That comes to $1.20 per household--a not entirely trivial expense, but over a few years it wouldn't pinch hard.

Would the chief "eat the money?" I wonder. I'd not bet that he wouldn't, but Liberia has surprised me before and possibly the family ties in the village would be strong enough to keep him honest.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Just saying...

I see headlines about polls saying Trump can beat Hillary, and about polls saying he can't. I read others explaining how he appeals to the alienated, and how this is either good or bad, depending on the political persuasion of the writer.

I noticed that none of these folks predicted his success. Given their typical topics and persuasions, I'd bet that they personally know very few of the people they attempt to psychoanalyze, even though there must be quite a few Trump supporters around the country.

Why exactly am I to consider them experts? I suppose newspaper pundits don't get paid unless they say something, but random opining gives no reliable enlightenment.

'Can you not remain in doubt?'

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

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

There are people who know what they talk about--finding them is the hard part. And there's no good reason why they should have something significant to say each and every morning.

I figure there's a good chance I can learn some things from someone who predicted World War T a few years before the deluge. There are plenty of genuine experts who can explain happenings in their respective fields. Curious and even-handed bloggers can be treasures.

But I have no idea where to look to find a Trump expert. I'll try to ignore what I read about his popularity--especially when it seems probable, since I don't know any of them myself and any priors I have will also be random.