Sunday, December 31, 2017

Chronicles of Matthew Paris

The edition I have only goes up through 1250, where he lays down his pen. And later picks it up for another 9 years.

Early on he describes a painting of Christ in Majesty with the Church and Synagogue. Near the end he describes Henry III's extortion of money from the Jews, whom he accused of fraud--to Matthew's satisfaction but modern suspicion.

In the last year or two he describes wild weather, earthquakes, and tsunamis, and he describes the destruction of the 7'th Crusade. (St. Louis was unable to keep the competing egos in check, didn't have good planning or support, and seriously overreached.) Some people "took the cross" in order to collect donations, but without any serious intention of going to fight.

This bit of description has an interesting assumption built into it... Matthew is being a bit snarky.

The above-mentioned special clerk of the lord king, whose wealth attained to episcopal heights ...

An empty church is one without a priest or bishop to receive the income from it, and the king, except when there was a special exemption, had veto power over who got appointed. Unless he decided to ignore the exemption. And Innocent IV never had enough money either,, and any appointments or other requests had to be well-lubricated. Quite a bit of the chronicles describe one or the other kind of novel extortion and waste. Innocent and Frederick were at war, and fortunes of war meant that large amounts of extorted money wound up lost.

He doesn't describe traditional exactions, unfortunately.

This was an era in which the barons fought the crown from time to time, and we, from the perspective of the heirs of the winners, think the dominance of the crown was the right goal--centralize the rule of law. But at the time, it wasn't quite so obvious, and the crown was exceedingly arbitrary--and stupid. Some themes seem quite familiar: in order to maintain a reputation for generosity to the poor, despite his lack of liquidity, Henry III visited London and told Londoners that their traditional New Years' presents would be given to him this year.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Random notes

Walgreens has Marvel Fantastic Four Body Wash for sale. I suppose the target group is young kids, though I wasn't aware that young comic fans went in for body wash in a big way. What does this team's endorsement convey to an adult? Will you have skin that looks like Thing or that feels like Human Torch?

Eldest Son told me that one of the fragmentary plays from ancient Greece had been "completed" by a modern writer. I asked him if this qualified as "fan fiction." He said he'd already thought of that, and asked for a verdict on the matter from the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. (They said it was a middle ground; probably have to look at it.) I gather from him that reworkings of old plays are often seriously anachronistic.

The Milwaukee Public Museum had an exhibit on weapons, and one of the last displays held a wheel-lock pistol with 2 wheels on one barrel. I didn't remember hearing of such a Roman-candle-esque device, but there it was, and it shows up in the history of firearms. I wonder how often the first charge over-compressed and went off spontaneously after the outer charge was fired.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


It looks like George Weah will be the next Liberian president. He'll be called a footballer (or soccer player), and there'll probably be some obsolete mention of his lack of formal education (he got a business degree from DeVry U in Florida(*) in 2011). But if I read the numbers right, he's been in politics for a dozen years now--not quite as long as his football career, but comparable.

It looks as though 60% wanted Weah rather than the existing Vice President Boakai. There have been charges of nepotism and corruption for several years aimed at Ellen and Boakai--possibly they stuck and people wanted a clean house. Maybe 12 years in politics honed Weah's skills a bit. Maybe there aren't enough Kissi and related tribes for Boakai to match the Kru and supporting tribes for Weah.

Or all of the above to some degree. Pretty much all the information I get is filtered by the Liberian media or through fairly well-off Liberians in the US.

Both men had joined the Poro : Weah in 2005 and Boakai in 2017 (or very early in life if a spokesman told the truth). That's an aspect of the Liberian political scene that I have no way of analyzing. Even if I were on the scene in Liberia, the Poro is a secret society. How do the leaders of the Poro exert influence and for what purposes? No clue.

Weah converted from Christianity to Islam, and then back again, if Wikipedia may be believed. I'm not sure what to make of that, either.

It looks like a simple headline--Former footballer elected President--but things are much more curious when you look closer.

At any rate, I wish him and Liberia the best. He'll have an interesting term--the UN will probably withdraw its peacekeeping troops during his tenure, and that will have an unhappy effect on the economy. For which he'll probably be blamed. It's traditional.

(*) It is in the top 35% of business programs in the US.

The photo of him in the first link shows microphones labled "UNMIL Radio." I didn't realize that the UN military ran a radio station. I'm really out of the loop...

Monday, December 25, 2017

Love of things

Faithful stuffed rabbit
No longer shares his dreaming
His baby love grew

But it was real love. Though the rabbit could not love him back, it had been a token of love for him, and so in a way it did, and it was fitting that he find it lovable too. And not just of our love, but of the love of the One who planned that the things of the world serve as instruments of love.

A blanket, meant to comfort, stands in for deeper comfort in a new role as companion. I smiled, and tried to remember--there are pictures, after all...

Bunny is worn. He was set aside, and inherited for a while by his sister in the same role, and set aside again. But love is never lost to God.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Why Bethlehem

The prim live in a world of illusion. Not just the prim; many of the comfortable and the confident too.

Farrar said

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

O Holy Night

I wrote before that you could usually tell which version of a song was the original language, although sometimes the results were equally good.

I heard a little history of O Holy Night the other day, and decided to look up the French Minuit, chrétiens. "Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight" did a superlative translation: it is almost seamless, and "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices" is a marvelously evocative line. And Cappeau did wonders in the original.

The US wiki says "the parish priest asked Cappeau, a native of the town, to write a Christmas poem, even though the latter never showed any interest in religion, and Cappeau obliged." The French wiki says "Placide Cappeau, un négociant en vin qui était républicain, socialiste et anticlérical, prétendit lui-même l'avoir écrit ... dans la diligence qui le conduisait à Paris ..." (Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant who was republican, socialist, and anti-clerical, claimed to have written it on a trip to Paris) and goes on to explain the actual shared credit and where it was written. Interesting choice of writer, but clearly Maurice Gilles knew his man.

The guest on the program said abolitionists made the song popular in the US.

UPDATE: Fixed the "translation."

Boredom again

Always check to see if someone said it better, before clicking "Publish" ...
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Tolerance for Boredom

We took some Chinese students to the "traveler's Christmas Eve service" tonight. The music was the old carols put to a slightly different tempo. Everybody caught on pretty quickly.

At the end of one song the lead singer took the last two words very slowly. Everybody else sang at the expected speed. Mismatch, and not in a good way...

I propose that one of the characteristics churches should look for in music leaders is a vast tolerance for boredom.

You, and all the popular singers of the past decades who cut Christmas albums, are able to jazz up the old familiar tune with some new musical twists. That's nice. If you plan to involve the congregation in singing, you have to let them know what to sing and when. You've heard that version of that song hundreds of times; you probably feel like WalMart employees hearing the music loop for the 325'th time today. I'll bet you're bored.

I know what boredom can do. I remember planning a Bible study by collecting all the obscure details around a passage. That was cute, but what I thought was illustration was just clutter unless the point of the passage came first. We'd all read it before, but it doesn't hurt to cover the basics again.

"But what's the point of all my training if all I do is the same old stuff?" It's not about you; not about me.

If we're going to serve at all, we have to be willing to be bored.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Same coin

I'm not up to speed on Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and when I saw Althouse's post I figured I should get some notion of what those ideologues were up to these days. One of the comments led me to a NYT article explaining how Coates and Richard Spencer both believe in the primal importance of race and the overwhelming power of whiteness, and where Williams quotes Spencer as saying "This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist. This is why I'm actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip." I suspect that his confidence is not altogether unjustified, btw--fashions can turn on a dime and the people noisiest about being allies typically don't seem to be investing any of their effort or money in helping individuals. Maybe they hide it very well, not letting the left hand know what the right is doing?(*)

I wrote about the same sort of thing years ago: both right and left in Madison shared a belief in the omnipotence of the USA. If you point out that problem X is beyond our capacity to solve, you get called defeatist or a tool of the oppressors.

"We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth." (On Reading Old Books, C.S. Lewis)

(*)"Christ did not love humanity, He never said He loved humanity; He loved men. Neither He nor anyone else can love humanity; it is like loving a gigantic centipede." Chesterton

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Defined by relationships?

I noticed that behind the scenes most math is defined in terms of relationships, operations, mapping, and interaction. Even things like the ordinary counting numbers—you can find a definition of a non-negative integer in terms of the characteristic unique to all sets that have that many elements. (That sounds a bit circular, doesn't it?) One hot topic tries to treat vast swaths of math in terms of objects and morphisms.

This has been extremely fruitful.

The same sort of approach of defining things in terms of their operations seems to be able to produce quite complex machines, whether physical or organizational. It is very convenient to define people-roles in terms of their interactions and operations: "We need N of type AAZ and M of type CBZ." The more interchangeable the components are, the more efficiently you can feed and run the system—at least in theory. If everyone is identical except for minor education and training differences, you can feed as many of each people-role as you need into the hopper, and shift them around like checkers. (It helps if they have no personal attachments, so you can ship the components around the world at will.)

But this kind of abstraction is well known to induce some push-back from the unique individuals who find themselves thus categorized. And, funny thing, there turn out to be irreducible differences that make people non-interchangeable for some of those people-roles.

And the apparent circularity of some definitions strongly suggests to me that there needs to be some room for some fundamental objects in mathematics. I haven't run across a good definition of a "geometric point" that isn't circular in some way.

And if you only think of defining things by their transformations and mappings, you don't have much mental space for thinking about things like Forms or aseity. (Does that mindset account for the rise of process theology?) People and things are contingent and largely defined by relationships (just don’t try to abstract too much away!), but that doesn't prove everything is.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Shortcuts to forgetfulness

'All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.' Blaise Pascal If you've electronic media, you're not quite alone--imagine sitting quietly in a room without them, and without books or anything to write on or play with. Just being alone--can you do it?

This morning in Bible study one man cited the received wisdom that "You have to love yourself before you can love others." I wondered at the group if that was 100% true. It seemed sometimes as though what was really needed was self-forgetfulness in admiration of the beloved. We didn't come to a conclusion on my counter proposal.

I'm convinced that a certain kind of self-forgetfulness can be a good thing. If your life and loves are not ordered properly and you don't do a little self-reflection/self-examination, you won't get out of your trouble; you'll just dig yourself in deeper. I don't mean we should be feckless.

"Drunken monkeys" or an incessant judgmental narrative isn't the way our lives are supposed to work. Our motors are misfiring badly, and it is painful to listen to ourselves sometimes. Or perhaps the observing swamps the doing or the being, and we get into trouble. Ask a player to explain how he is catching the ball, and watch his performance crumble. When you're in the groove, you don't think about how you feel.

Achieving "the groove" is hard, and so is quieting drunken monkeys. There has to be an easier way.

Amusements: a-"muse"-ments--things to keep us from thinking (e.g. about ourselves) for a while. "Drown his sorrows in a bottle" is a cliche--and therefore likely true of a lot of people, who I guess are looking for self-forgetfulness. Or something magnificently exciting--sex, or (for some of us) sports.

We can't sit still. So--Netflix. Or chemicals to force us to be mellow about ourselves.

Friday, December 15, 2017


The National Interest story on the Kugelpanzer assumes that this one-man "tank" was supposed to be--well--a tank. (The picture for the story is completely irrelevant.)

"Thus, the Kugelpanzer was likely designed with some other purpose in mind." I can take a guess.

They didn't have the technology to build exoskeletons, so they made up a kind of personal armor instead. I think that instead of Iron Man flying through the air, they wanted supermen rolling around the battlefield. 5mm of armor isn't a lot, but I'm imagining a whole bunch of these coming over the hill at once...

Yes, you're right--a maintenance nightmare and expensive as all get-out.

Monday, December 11, 2017


Over a dozen years ago I wrote about diversity in a university setting. If I were writing it today I might revisit some of the things I wrote about learning styles.

My bottom line was that "diversity" is not a goal but a means to an end.

Note carefully: I am not saying that invidious discrimination is justifiable. That is a different issue. I am saying that "diversity" as such ought not be made into a goal.

Can you think of a single case in which diversity is not merely a means?

  • A diversity of ethnic restaurants : stimulate a jaded palate.
  • A diversity of research groups in a university department : sometimes you get cross-fertilization. Such groups have finite lifetimes, and if there’s only one group incoming students have no research to join when it dies.
  • A diversity of viewpoints on the jury : look at the question from as many sides as possible to arrive at the truth
  • A diversity of ethnicities in kindergarten : if that's what the neighborhood is—you want everyone to have a basic education
  • A diversity of ethnicities in a church : the church is catholic—everyone God made is called
  • A diversity of peoples on Earth : OK, this one is above my pay grade, but I suspect the reason was to have as many ways to display and share facets of God’s goodness as possible. We've messed the goodness part up.
  • Mandated diversity : full employment for the diversity professionals

Because it is a means and not an end, diversity can fail to accomplish the end, or even prevent it. For example, a completely diverse jury would include Mafiosi, and if you have too many research groups in a department they are too small to do any work.

When you confuse means and ends, you distort the ends and don't do a good job with the means. If "Diversity is one of our goals" in a research group, that tells me that they no longer care wholeheartedly about truth, but want to employ people on the basis of something other than understanding they bring to the table. They try to become a "full employment agency."

Sunday, December 10, 2017


I need to keep an eye out for Pie: A History. From BBC:
The cases, which could be several inches thick, according to Janet Clarkson, author of Pie: A History, were perhaps not even intended to be edible. Even once fat had begun to be added to the dough, bringing us into the realm of modern pastry, a pie crust was still sometimes considered more as a kind of primitive Tupperware.

A well-baked meat pie, with liquid fat poured into any steam holes left open and left to solidify, might even be kept for up to a year, with the crust apparently keeping out air and spoilage. It seems difficult to fathom today, but as Clarkson reflects, "it was such a common practice that we have to assume that most of the time consumers survived the experience".

Saturday, December 09, 2017

I Sleep in Hitler's Room, by Tuvia Tenenbom

I’m glad I read The Lies They Tell first.

I wish Tenenbom had tried to use different fonts to distinguish observations, fantasies, and questions. Other people's responses are in quotations, but he mixes then and later musings together freely.

Early on in I Sleep in Hitler's Room he meets a friendly hardline Nazi in Club 88, who thinks he’s a fellow-traveler. He is appalling. So are the friendly Turks and other Muslims who also hate Jews. So is the willful blindness of the other Germans and the media to the Muslim hatred of Jews. Thus far there's nothing terribly controversial in the book—if you look hard enough you can find Nazis, Muslim attitudes towards Jews are well known, and so is the make-believe about those attitudes.

He "discovers" the equally-well-known connection between leftist politics and detestation of Israel. Since German politics tends left—surprise! Disproportionate condemnation of Israel. (When challenged about Chechnya or other problems, most of those he talks to seem to have no notion of what he's talking about.)

Having read The Lies first, I’m a bit suspicious of his sampling for this book. He claims in the preface that it is representative, and tells the story of how his publisher screamed at him and refused to publish the book without multiple changes and deletions. (The publisher tells a different story.)

This is important, because one claim that crops up over and over is that the Jews run finance and governments. Is the attitude really that widespread?

Tenenbom makes numerous wry references to how he ought to spend his share of this vast wealth Jews allegedly control. It is humorous at first, but after a while I noticed how much he was spending. No, he doesn’t run Goldman Sachs, but a New York theater director doesn't seem to have to make the same hard financial choices as most of the rest of us.

That Jews are disproportionately represented in such positions is well known. It is perhaps less well remembered that they are also disproportionately represented among Nobel Prize winners and other measures of accomplishment (as opposed to control). So perhaps the attitude is widespread. It doesn't appear in the circles I frequent. It does show up in online comment sections--but I've no way to estimate how common it is in the general public.

One scene, in which a family invites him to dinner, ends with him leaving the man crying. Tuvia doesn't come across as the most pleasant of guests.

He finds a staggering number of Germans who allege a Jewish grandparent, and pretty much everybody asserts that either their parents 1) had no idea what was going on or 2) never talked about it. He also finds references to Israel or the Holocaust everywhere, and professes to be annoyed with it.

Two of his favorite opening questions are "Are you proud to be a German?" and "What does it mean to be German?" The latter is probably not answerable, and the former isn't much better.

IIRC, after WWII, the Allied powers had a problem: they could assert (with some accuracy) that the bulk of the Germans were complicit in crimes, and try to punish accordingly. Or they could distinguish Nazis from normal Germans, and blame the Nazis—who were plainly more guilty. What eventually resulted seems to have been a hybrid: officially the Nazis are blamed and ordinary Germans absolved, but unofficially everybody equates WWII Germans and Nazis, and blames Germans in general. The former seems like a recipe for encouraging people to try to hide everything, pretend it didn't happen, and try not to draw attention to themselves—and maybe the poison would decay away with the next generation. In practice it seems to me as though people were asked to take a kind of attenuated blame for something they felt officially absolved for. I wonder if that would encourage ways of "baming the victim." Mix that (especially among the guiltless second and third generations!) with the popular leftist rule of "blame the powerful," and concentrating on Israeli villainy seems to follow naturally.

Back to Tuvia: He concludes that German anti-Semitism has "to do more with the psychological history of the German than with thought-out anti-Semitism." "Polish anti-Semitism, as far as I can tell, is grounded in religion. Germany’s is grounded in psychology and narcissism." (ditto for Islamic anti-Semitism) "It will be much easier to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Arabs and Jews in general, than to uproot the Jew hate of the German. The first two are on the table, no surprises; the third is wrapped in heavy brainy arguments and eye-blinding magical color shows in addition to being hidden behind the many masks so common to our present-day Western culture."

Hold the phone. Jew-hatred grounded in religion is "on the table?" Tuvia was raised Orthodox, but is no longer religious, and it shows.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Tuvia Tenenbom

AVI pointed out a link about antisemitism in Germany. The source for the article is a book by Tuvia Tenenbom, a journalist writing about people he talked to in Germany. I Sleep in Hitler's Room hasn't arrived at the local library yet, but The Lies They Tell was handy.

Tuvia is Jewish, but usually pretends to be German in this picaresque tale of his experiences during a 6-month tour of the US. He likes to go to the strange or dangerous places. And he wants, in particular, to find out how/why people like or dislike Jews. (And why Jews seem to detest Jews.) And whether belief in climate change correlates with dislike for Israel.

He tells the stories well, and professes to have discovered unexpected delight in the American landscape, in driving, and even in shooting. In the end, he determines that Americans are afraid to speak, racist, and rather hypocritical--and, as one rarely finds in the world, ashamed of being tribal.

The problem with his conclusions is that he picked and chose the people he wrote about in depth. I don't believe he met that few people on his trip. Drama and contrast he wanted--that's what he put in.

He might object that the majority of the people along the way were busy with their phones or their netflix and weren't available to interact with him. But seriously--what fraction of the people in the USA own 100 guns? And I generally don't have any difficulty in learning who people voted for--they often volunteer that. (Whatever became of secret ballots?)

In one chapter he interviews Untermeyer, who was unaware of the depth of Jew-hatred in officialdom of Qatar and Saudi Arabia--ambassadors get escorted in, and don't see their documents rewritten to have a birthplace of New York rather than Tel Aviv.

What seems to leave him most aghast is the way people fret over Palestinians without a care for the homeless a few blocks away. That seems a bit overdrawn to me--I know people who are somewhat like that, but there's a little nuance in their attitudes that Tuvia didn't see, or didn't report.

He understands enough to know that you have to visit churches if you want to know the people here, but he's pretty tone-deaf. His "superiority" grates after a while.

Yes, read it--people like them are out there--but don't trust his conclusions.

And when the book on Germany arrives, I'll try to calibrate his reporting on Germany accordingly.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Showing love

Love came to Earth as someone who needed to be loved. His first gift was an opportunity for us (in the persons of Mary and Joseph) to love.

Citizen science

A writer for Aeon is deeply suspicious of "citizen science", judging it to be a scam to get free labor for big businesses.
The very label ‘citizen science’ (as opposed to, say, ‘amateur’ or ‘extramural’) carries the unsubtle suggestion that science should be a participatory democracy, not an unpalatable, autocratic regime. Proponents claim that it has all manner of salutary side-effects. People will get the knowledge they want through direct action, it’s argued, instead of having it shoved down their throats by some Ivy-league elitist. Getting a hands-on appreciation for research will help to dispel the worrisome doubts that certain citizens now possess about the legitimacy of scientific authority. And when it comes to medicine, discoveries of novel therapies are increasingly rare, despite the desperate manoeuvres of the pharmaceuticals industry; citizen participation should speed up research and make it much easier to replicate results. Finally, the retraction and replication crises that have besieged academic journals suggest that ‘proper’ science might not be so proper, anyway. Perhaps it’s time to consider alternatives.

(There are several straw men in that passage. Can you count them?)


But things lose their lustre when you look a little closer. It’s not a coincidence that citizen science lowers the cost of research that requires lots of routinised labour. Thankfully, we’re flush with design tools that manage to transform repetitive, mindless behaviour into something strangely fun and addictive: games. Galaxy Zoo, a non-profit, amateur astronomy project initially set up with data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, asks participants to scan millions of celestial images for common galactic morphologies; to keep their attention, players can spell out words with constellations, or win points for certain cute galactic structures. Smartfin, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, gets surfers to attach a sensor to their boards and collect data on salinity, temperature and the like, all of which is pinged back to Scripps once the surfer makes it back to the beach and hooks up the fin to a smartphone. Hundreds of ‘camera traps’, scattered around the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, capture images of creatures that can then be identified by users at Snapshot Serengeti, thus keeping track of animal populations; to amuse themselves, people can attach comments to their favourite photographs (lolgoats, perhaps, rather than lolcats).

And he goes on from there to find what he considers dubious funding sources and worry at length about who benefits from all this.

Do people who participate in these things consider themselves scientists? Or do they think of themselves as assistants? Collecting data is one thing, figuring out how to use it is another.

NSF-funded experiments such as IceCube are required to make their data public, but to get something meaningful out of it requires some disciplines that most people don't pick up on automatically. We're very good at pattern recognition, but sometimes the first pattern you see doesn't actually tell you what you want to know.

A for-instance: you can use the IceCube data to discover that there are seasonal changes in the number of cosmic rays you see. The effect is easy to spot, and someone naively looking at plots might think they'd discovered something new and mysterious. What happens is that at ground level you see the remnants of cosmic ray showers that begin in the upper atmosphere. When the air is warmer (summer), it expands higher, and the cosmic ray showers start higher up. (We keep track of best estimates of upper atmosphere air temperature to go along with our data.)

Or you could use something like those population density maps in the cartoon above to discover that there are more crimes where there are more people. Not a surprise: if you look instead at the number of crimes divided by the number of people (the rate), you'd find that the distribution doesn't look the same--some places with more people have higher crime rates, others not so much. You could see how the violent crime rate varies with the rate of car ownership, or density of bars, or rate of single parent households. It isn't hard to think of things to compare it with, and with a little training you can figure out how to study the problem in one variable. I was going to say "It isn't rocket science," but maybe that's misleading. Keeping track of multiple variable is harder, and figuring out which are correlated with which takes quite a bit of care. (Quiz--if you use the number of schools in an area as one variable, should you also use the number of children as a variable at the same time?)

The basic disciplines that science requires are things I think most people can acquire at some level: how to think about analyzing a problem into its "moving parts," to be strictly honest and willing to challenge your own hypotheses, and so on. Those are good disciplines to have. But studying complex problems is hard enough that most people don't care to invest the time--and some can't manage the math that usually turns up. But so long as I don't delude myself into thinking I'm Rembrandt, I think doing a little drawing myself is good. It can help you see. Likewise, learning to do a little scientific analysis can help you see.

Justin Vandenbroucke developed a cool cosmic ray detector that anyone can carry with them. If enough people use it, the distributed data collected might be useful in discovering patterns in cosmic ray fluxes in the Earth's magnetic field (for example). Right now it is mostly just educational. And most of the people running the app are concentrated in a few places in the US and Europe, so the detectors don't have a lot of planetary coverage.

Spencer Axani designed a little box muon detector that lights up when a charged particle goes through. He had a stack of these in the lab across from my office, and you could sometimes see where several lit up in a line. One of these boxes is a toy. A stack of them is a demonstration system. If there were a way to collect data from them remotely, a hundred thousand spread around would be a cosmic shower detector.

Having a cosmic ray detection app, or a box, doesn't teach me much about science, or how it works. That's a shame. But it helps teach about what's around us that we don't notice--just like the people counting moth populations.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Susu club

I ran across the phrase in Liberia news and looked it up. A Susu club (non-profit variety) is a group with an agreement to bank with a trusted member a certain amount each month, on the understanding that each member receives the total amount one month. (Or week, or whatever.) For example, 12 people get together and each chips in $10. The first month A gets $120, the second month B does, and so on.

So what's the difference between doing this and saving money in a bank or putting it in a mattress? First, there's the chance that you might get the lump payout before the year is out. That's an attractive feature. Second: well, read the complaint in that link: "So, the main reason for paying into a Susu is that the members lack fiscal discipline, and spend whatever money they have on their hands."

That's not a nice way of describing the situation. True, many people are no good at planning for the future. But in Liberia, and many other places, it isn't just you who determines how your paycheck is spent. And family obligations are extremely elastic. If you have $10 extra, your third cousin will explain to you that his child needs school fees. It is very bad form to stiff your family. But if the money is in a susu, it is out of your hands. When the $120 finally comes around to you--well, that's enough to replace the roof, which is what you needed the money for in the first place.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

You got it right

We were reading over Isaiah 54 this morning, and one verse stood out for me: "In righteousness you will be established." You don't commonly run across "righteousness" outside of religious discussion, but think about it a moment. People sometimes literally prefer to die rather than admit they did wrong, or even that they were wrong. Confront them with evidence that they've screwed up, or been a jerk, and they double-down on self-justification. There is no way they can not have been in the right all along. (AVI noticed the same thing in an acquaintance). We hunger and thirst to consider ourselves righteous.

A welcome we want to hear from the One who can judge is "Well done!" I think another is "You were right."

Monday, November 27, 2017

Matthew Paris

I'm reading Chronicles of Matthew Paris edited and translated by Richard Vaughan.

It has fascinating details and hints of completely different systems. E.g. "In the time of this abbot the church of Norton was granted to us. Its rector, Lawrence the Clerk, resigned it with spontaneous devotion for the improvement of our beer and to provide supplies for the guests additional to what the abbot had been used to distributing."

Sunday, November 26, 2017


Clubs that play HipHop in Madison tend to have lots more police calls than other clubs. I wondered if the music itself inspired violence, so I went to MetroLyrics for the top twenty HipHop songs. That's not a reliable indicator of what's in the clubs, but it might be indicative.
1Big Shaq Man's not hotUnfamiliar jargon, gun violence, superiority of men, humorous?
2Lil Pump Gucci GangConspicuous consumption, women are disposable toys, sexual dominance, drug use
3CupkKake DeepThroat I do felatio and rough sex
4Jake Paul It's Everyday Bro I'm getting rich and famous
5Quest Walang Hanggan In Tagalog. Why don't you love me anymore?
6T-Pain Apple Bottom Jeans Saw a sexy dancer, threw money at her and had sex with her
7Don Omar Danza Kuduro In Spanish. Dance and move for me
8Eminem Rap GodI'm a way better rapper than you, don't criticize me.
9Post Malone Rockstar I'm living like a rockstar, with disposable women and drugs and fame and people I can call on to kill you.
10Eminem Lose YourselfLive in the music and go for the glory and use the hate, and superstardom isn't so great.
11Cardi B Bodak Yellow I'm rich now, not a stripper anymore, and you women are inferior. Sexual dominance too.
12Snoop Dogg Smoke Weed Everyday I use drugs, hang out with drug dealers, and persuaded my woman to smuggle a 44 into the event.
1350 Cent In Da Club Party in the club, sex with disposable women, I've a small army of fighters with me, survived gunshots, I'm rich, rich.
14Chris Brown Look at Me Now I'm rich now, your women want me, and I will be the top. References to dominance and murder.
15Yo Gotti Rack it Up I'm rich with lots of women.
16Sir Mixalot Baby Got Back I want women with big bottoms.
17Yicki Yohe Because of Who You Are. Worshiping God. Not HipHop as I understood it, but somehow on the Metrolyrics list.
18Miguel Echame A Mi La Culpa In Spanish. You deserted me, but I loved you and hope you will be happy. Blame me if you must.
19Baby K Voglio ballare con te In Italian. I want to dance with you again, till the sunrise.
20Lil Peep Benz Truck Conspicuous consumption, getting closer to dominance, fresh women. Lots of Russia references, possibly because of a large audience there.

Quite a mixed bag: No one club will run all of these. Despising/using women is pretty common in the English works, and lots of "look at how rich I am," but not quite as much implicit violence as I expected. True, a lot of the songs challenge other performers: do their respective fans quarrel about that? I've no clue. But I can easily see expressions of those attitudes towards women evoking both violently possessive and violently protective reactions.

Are there checklists in American HipHop like the stereotypical pickup/booze/jail/dog in country music? Some of the lyrics suggest it...

Friday, November 24, 2017


When I see a persistent problem, I often try to look for what reasonable things might be being twisted to feed it.

I suspect that if you surround a man with deferential women with no other attachments visible, over time the man will tend to gravitate to either the father or the husband model--it's hard to be friends when you're the boss. And if it's the husband model, it may be hard to avoid feeling entitled to take liberties with your "harem" to which you are not actually entitled. The boss chasing the secretary around the desk has been a staple figure for ages.

It gets complicated becuase if the man's position is powerful it is no trick to find women who "will to greatness dedicate themselves." Of course consent by itself doesn't confer entitlement, despite the current philosophical fashion.

Interlude: exhaustive list of observations at work.

The man I ended up working for after Prof. Cline left had a disproportionate number of women as grad students. My memory is iffy, but I know he had three and may have had four. Given how low the fraction of women in particle physics in the US was at the time, this was pretty dramatic. They were all at about the same point in their studies, so I figured they knew each other before, and when one decided they all joined with her. I didn't worry about it--not my business. I was not then, or for most of the rest of my career, involved with mentoring or advising students.

Several years later I learned third hand that two of the profs (since retired and/or died) had been notorious womanizers until some unspecified event (intervention?), and that the prof I worked for had a reputation for treating women well. Another prof (since died) seemed to treat everyone well--seemed to treat students like family--but wasn't on one of the most famous experiments. A few other profs were on experiments that were winding down (and therefore less attractive) or perhaps had less good people skills.

One attractive woman (actually, they all were) set off my "risk, flee" alarms for reasons I never quite pinned down. She ended up suing one of the profs, but I never learned the details.

Once I found myself in a lab with three other men (two senior to me) and a secretary. The conversation was benign, but the vibes were all wrong. It felt like a dominance scenario, and the secretary looked a bit like a deer in the headlights. I figured the best way to break the spell was to announce that I had work to get back to and leave. Dunno if it worked, or if it needed to--maybe my vibe-meter was out of calibration that day.

As a student, and grad student, and post doc, I was on the "less socially ept" end of things--and to this day find parties hard to enjoy. I've not found an unambiguous way to convey a compliment or that I admire someone--and have pretty much given up any efforts in that line unless it is very straightforward.

That's probably a shame. (I do compliment X's work to Y when I can, and try to keep "gossip" positive.)

Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems to me now that many women dress to excite admiration but not lust, attention but not interaction. As long as isn't overdone, that seems innocent and proper all around--try to be admirable, and have the good character to recognize and admire the good in others. In a less socially chaotic society there can be rules to buffer the reciprocal contact, which could convey the respect or admiration without requiring commitment. Think of "a tip of the hat"--no demand for a response: unless the tipper happens to be the someone she wants to address.

That's a corner example and not enough even for this simple case--they say women dress for other women, and men certainly want to be admired by men as well as women. But you get the idea, I trust. It represents a more formal society, with more social rules--but who proved that was a bad thing? I've been around Aspies long enough to think it would be a huge improvement.

Some of the harassment and molestation stories say the bosses do more than just take liberties--some of them are into seriously weird dominance patterns. This isn't a kiss or a squeeze he's not entitled to, but things done to prove that you are inferior. I've heard that President Johnson used to have talks with people while he was sitting on the toilet--and probably not because he was so terribly busy that every second counted. The only recent example that seems printable is Franken's mock groping picture. He was pretending to molest his "toy," not for any pleasure he could get out of it but so people could see what he could get away with. I'm not familiar with his humor style, but if that's an example I don't want to be.

Are things better than they were fifty years ago? It's hard to be sure, but I'd guess in some ways yes. It hasn't been socially acceptable to "chase the secretary" and I'd bet that's had at least some impact, though not much at higher levels of money and power. At those levels I'd bet things are worse. And the word I hear is that BFI HR policies tend to hammer the less powerful men who run afoul of someone's ire. It is gratifying to see some of the high and mighty being addressed for the first time.

I've a simple touchstone for what I judge acceptable: How would I want my daughters to be treated in this position?

Permit me to doubt that the solution is to have women as managers. Women are not more virtuous than men and they go in for dominance patterns too. If you haven't seen it already, you probably will.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Notes from Isaiah and Ezekiel

Reading in Isaiah and Ezekiel this week and a few things struck me. “And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.” Suppose He had argued?

What happened when He answered Pilate? Or when he confronted those ready to stone the woman? (He wasn’t trying to defend Himself when He spoke to the Sanhedrin, and He didn’t give the entertainment-hungry Herod the time of day.)

Why not speak? The usual explanation is so that what needed to happen would happen, but when God’s involved I look for multiple reasons.

Given what He’d shown He could do with just words or writing in the dust, I suspect He could have argued Himself free from His captors. But would that have changed any hearts? Pilate decided Jesus was innocent, and tried to free Him, but lacked the courage to defend “Roman Justice;” and reports about his later life suggest that there was no conversion. If words were enough, words would have been used instead.

Alternatively, perhaps He had said all that He needed to, and they could pay attention to it or not.

Ezekiel 20 has the well-known warning that God “will not be inquired of” by the idolaters who sacrifice their children, presumably because they justify themselves instead of turning back. It also has the evocative phrase which I’d never noticed before: “and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples.” That’s a good description of the 1900-year diaspora. (It also describes how I feel in great city crowds.) Lots of people, but wild and unfriendly.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Neutrino cross sections

It turns out to be very convenient to describe the rate at which particles interact with each other with an "effective area". Think about it a moment--if you two rocks at each other, the wider the target rock is, the more likely they'll hit. And when you work out the dimensions for particle interaction rates, area=="cross section" is what you wind up with.

IceCube just announced its measurement of cross sections for high energy neutrinos interacting with ordinary nucleons. Nobody has been able to measure the rate for energies this high before--and the result looks pretty consistent with predictions.

That rules out some oddball theories--like leptoquark models. Leptoquarks turn up as a consequence of some theoretical models, and every now and then some unexpected signal excess spurs new interest.

You will probably have heard that neutrinos zip right through you without interacting--that you never notice them and never will. That's true for the most common varieties from ordinary radioactive decay. But higher energy neutrinos (very rare) interact more strongly, until at the level discussed in this paper, it is possible to tell the shadow of the Earth's core from the shadow of its mantle--with enough events. They're not quite so "ghostly" at these energies.

No, I am not on the author list

Monday, November 20, 2017


Granted that Western harmony is one of the great accomplishments of Western Civ: you can't please everybody at the same time.

(bass-baritone who does OK if somebody else sets the key and the music doesn't go too high)
I don't think I want to be a cello. Even though they do sound very nice.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Side note on a grim story

Indonesia is forcing pagan tribes to convert to Muhammadanism. The excuse is that they can't get birth certificates (and therefore schooling), unless they adhere to one of the recognized religions. They're not happy about it. "There is no compulsion in religion" is once again more honored in the breech than the observance.

One novel bit about the story was the relationships of the tribesmen to their Muslim neighbors. The tribe described is nomadic:

"We have no space to live. We are always told we are nomadic people with no religion, no culture," he told me.

"Our religion is not respected. The government is always insisting that we convert and live in houses in one place. We can't do that. Our way of life is not like that."

And there are sources of friction:

The officer, Budi Jayapura, took me aside to check my documents and said: "We need to watch over them.

"They don't understand the concept of stealing. They say the fruit grew by itself on the tree so it can be taken, but it was planted by someone. Maybe in their belief system it is OK, but not in our society."

The fact that they hunt and eat wild pigs also creates social tensions, he added.

"This is a Muslim community. If they see the pig's blood and the leftover bits, they are disturbed," the officer explained.

What is taboo, or haram, for the Orang Rimba directly contrasts with what Muslims eat, explains Mr Manurung.

"Orang Rimba will not eat domesticated animals such as chickens, cows or sheep. They think it's a form of betrayal. You feed the animal, and when it gets fat you eat it. The fair thing to do is to fight. Whoever wins can eat the loser."

I read of a visit to an Amazon tribe, where people hunted and ate every sort of animal, but if somebody brought it into the village and treated it like a pet, nobody would harm it.


Guy Middleton wrote: Do civilisations collapse? I suppose he wants to invoke Betteridge's law of headlines, and the thrust of his essay is "no." A lot of things remained after the "collapse," not least of which are the people and many aspects of the culture.

It's worth having a look at, for reminders of how complicated changes can actually be. But he overstates things. If you lose the "critical mass" of engineers and craftmen, certain things that once were part of the culture decay and a society may never get them back again. OK, cool--you still speak sort of latin and like garum. But the aqueducts in your valley broke and you don't have running water anymore--no more socializing in bathhouses. Your culture changes.

Minting money

This morning an amusing little report circulated that one can buy a cypto-currency mining system that doubles as a space heater. Clever--take a feature that tends to be a nuisance, especially in consumer-grade computers--the high power requirements of the GPU(*)s used in the calculations that go into "crypto-currency mining," and spin it as a feature--the waste heat can heat your room! With 8 GPUs packed into that small a volume the water heat transfer system had better work well or you can set things on fire. That happened with some collaborators of ours in Maryland.

The whole crypto-currency business reminds me of the gold-rush folks. They looked to get rich by increasing the quantity of symbols of value--but not creating anything particularly valuable themselves. Thought experiment: suppose your country found boatloads of silver and gold (we won't go into details about how they collected it), and brought it back. Now you have the wherewithal to import more stuff, and you need to import--because, funny thing, having twice as many doubloons doesn't automatically double the size of your local industry. In fact it's simply apt to double the prices. Lots more gold, but not necessarily more stuff.

In Dawn Treader Lewis never bothered to explain why a lake that turned things to gold would be bad--except that people got greedy. Too bad, it would have been a one-liner.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


One of the comments at Maggie's Farm reminded me of some experiments Richard Feynman did with himself: he could count and read, but not count and talk. "... when Feynman told mathematician John Tukey about this, Tukey could do the reverse — talk but not read. The reason was that Feynman would talk to himself in his head, while Tukey would see an image of a clock ticking over. Feynmann suggests this could be because people think differently".

The author of the article suggests that the brain has "modules" like a "sketch pad" or a "phonological module" for words and sounds.

I don't know about how other people use visual thinking in math, but I find that I often do. For example, matrix multiplication I visualize as an action. (I should redo this to slow it down). When I try to figure out the framework for a problem I draw pictures. Equations are partly sentences and partly blocks like pictures.

FWIW, I generally read by "see and say" because I'm already trained to spot the blocks in English words. Sometimes I scan too quickly, and hilarity usually ensues. But I learned phonetically. And when I hit non-English words, I work phonetically. If I have time. Train stops in Germany were a nuisance. The name was often half a block long, and I couldn't read it fast enough--so I read the first and last chunks of the name and hoped that was unique. Problem is, the last chunk was usually "strasse."

Crab bucket

"Deaf singer Mandy Harvey made headlines around the world after being put straight through to the finals of America's Got Talent. But when she first took to the stage, she received death threats from within the deaf community for promoting a "hearing" activity."

I've heard unpleasant things about Gallaudet University too. There's something very nasty about denying reality for the sake of your pride. They pay a weird homage to the very thing they ought to fight--the notion that someone with fewer skills is inferior. Instead of denying that lie, they implicitly accept it and claim that their skills and culture are equal.

"You are not your disability!" I've preached that, though I try not to be explicit about it. People get tired of hearing the same things. But it sure beats "I am my disability, and you are too, and you'd better get with my program."

New wine in classic wineskins

I understand Amazon wants to make more Lord of the Rings-based movies: prequels, I gather.

If they use existing characters, even peripheral, in a prequel, the story gets cramped. If they use new ones, it is more of a "in the universe of LoTR story," but likely without an equivalent story-teller behind them. I haven't heard any enthusiasm for working from the Silmarilion.

I suspect I won’t be investing in downloads.

But... Do you remember the stir when HarperCollins announced the plan to create new Narnia novels?

I’d pretty much forgotten about that—the article above, and several like it, date to 2001. I thought I’d heard a peep or two more recently than 16 years ago, but that may have been temporal foreshortening again.

They have coloring books, and shortened versions: told for younger audiences, and this: ”Based on characters originally featured in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, The Giant Surprise is a brand new Narnia adventure story about Marshwiggles, giants, and mice for young children. Lally, a small wigglet, and her Uncle Puddleglum undertake a hair-raising rescue of their mice friends, before they become a giant’s supper.”

I wonder if HarperCollins quietly shelved the “new novels.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


We've had quite the uptick in drive-by shootings in the Madison area--mostly non-fatal, fortunately. Today's battle between two cars hit a third car and a nearby house.

I've noticed a lot of defaced license plates lately. Not weathering and fading (as in the last Wisconsin plate design fiasco), but scraped and dented. O(1%) of the cars I see are hard to read the plates on.

Maybe this is a new vandalism fad. That would be the best possibility.

UPDATE. O(1%) means of the order of 1%. Give or take a little.

The pilot in our Wednesday Bible study suggested that the defacement might be to foil the toll cameras.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I'm a bit conflicted. Nobody believes the casting couch ever went away, and I'm content to believe that the overwhelming majority of the accusations are true, or at least largely so. What facts do manage to leak out past the PR over the years don't inspire confidence in the moral fiber of Hollywood folks, and sometimes the PR itself is telling.

But I have to give the devil his due. It is easy to make an accusation in this atmosphere, especially if it is old enough or vague enough to be un-actionable. After all, if your accusation goes to court, you might get cross-examined. Hollywood is a famously backstabbing place, and if a friend of a friend puts your competitor in a bad light, you might be generously grateful.

So while I hope this shakes out some "bad actors" who think fame or power entitles them, I also hope we take care to vet the accusers too.

Defending churches

Several local worship centers (including a Sikh temple) have decided to have guards. Attacks happen from time to time, and threats sometimes look serious.

Guards or not? I figure I'd rather die in church than in a hospital, but when you recall that the children are at risk too the picture changes a bit--we have an obligation to protect.

So far the odds are pretty good, and I'm not concerned.

Am I naive? I'm not in administration, and I don't see the threats. Our church has a volunteer team keeping an eye on things, but not armed with anything more lethal than a cell phone. We put that in place a few years ago when a nut case interrupted a service. High Point's board is going to vote on whether to have undercover guards--I'm curious about what they'll decide.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Peaceable kingdom

England in the 1600's isn't famous for being a nice time and place to live. But the article says it wasn't as bad as we think. "but the state was not simply stringing people up for occasional acts of petty theft. Quite often, judges and juries deliberately perjured themselves to ensure convicted thieves escaped the noose, usually by undervaluing goods stolen."

Homicide rates dropped over the century (in Kent from 5-6 per 100,000 to 3.6; in from 8-12 to 2 per 100,000). Pinker likes the idea that a strong central government means lower homicide rates--I suspect that you don't get a strong central government if the crime rate is too high.

Selfishness and Charity

David Warren starts off with: "I think that if the “natural man” would vote consistently in his own interest, and by extension in that of his close family, the world would get along tickety-boo."

He doesn't expand much on that, unfortunately. I've suspected for some time that if groups were a little clearer about their interests, there might be fewer and not more conflicts. Proving that would take a lot of study and work with counter-factuals, and I've not world enough or time. But it doesn't take much effort to think of conflicts that started with exaggerated claims and fears. Others were and are unavoidable.

His main point is about spite and charity: charity deals with specifics. "The point I make is on behalf of reality. One’s neighbour — and even in this last instance a brute animal, who could have eaten me were she much larger and in better shape — is a real thing. Insofar as our charity is real, it is directed to real things. Insofar as we are “friends to humanity,” or “friends to the poor,” or “social justice warriors,” we are putting on a ludicrous show, in which spite adopts a pretence of charity."

Tuesday, November 07, 2017


Lubos Motl has a post about the naivete of physicists:
Nima Arkani-Hamed, a top Western official in the Mao collider, sort of "courageously" says that if the tanks came to the Chinese streets again, he would probably join some local protests. His father had some "disagreement" with the Khomeini regime in Iran but Nima himself doesn't really get the evil of totalitarian systems, I think after many discussions with him. As Cheng nicely says about Nima's superficial response:
But his hypothesis, well-intentioned as it was, reveals a deeply simplistic, caricatured understanding of state oppression. True terror and totalitarian control come after the tanks have left the square, when blood is wiped off the streets, the history books, and the people’s collective consciousness, when a date becomes taboo, and when a simple question confirming the existence of the Party office exposes the Achilles’ heel of a grand project.
Exactly. Totalitarianism isn't about some cool scenes with tanks and blood in the street – and Nima's cool but totally superficial and symbolic "no" to such spectacular events. The true muscles of the totalitarian machinery only start to act after the tanks and blood are removed from the sidewalks (the same is true for the German and Soviet tanks in Prague in 1939 and 1968, too). The employees are being ideologically filtered, fired, or arrested, the history is often being rewritten..
Many of my colleagues, Western or Chinese, asked me about my priorities and whether I cared more about physics or human rights, as if these pursuits are mutually exclusive.
And that question is easily used to dispose of the "incorrect" people. If you say rights matter more, you aren't dedicated enough, and if you say physics--don't complain. You are there to be used.

(Lubos is Czech, and grew up under Communism.)


I've heard quite a bit about fan disgust and lower sales and so forth, with counter arguments that there are too many broadcast games, which saturated the market. I'm not plugged into the fan zone, and in any event my observations wouldn't be representative of the broader market.

I thought one simple way to test for fan annoyance is to monitor season ticket sales. But if this article is correct, brokers buy a huge fraction of the season tickets, so any measurement will be indirect. Better than nothing, though.

Computers make it all better

The Navy issued its report the the McCain collision.
Commander Alfredo J. Sanchez, "noticed the Helmsman having difficulty maintaining course while also adjusting the throttles for speed control." Sanchez ordered the watch team to split the responsibilities for steering and speed control, shifting control of the throttle to another watchstander's station. ...

However, instead of switching just throttle control to the Lee Helm station, the Helmsman accidentally switched all control to the Lee Helm station. When that happened, the ship's rudder automatically moved to its default position (centerline). The helmsman had been steering slightly to the right. ...

At this point, everyone on the bridge thought there had been a loss of steering. In the commotion that ensued, the commanding officer and bridge crew lost track of what was going on around them.

And there's more.

I suppose that sort of SNAFU is the default for militaries. If I read my history correctly.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

A newsreel from the other side.

You're probably seen "The Longest Day." The Germans made their own newsreel of the activities. They had a smaller pool of actions to draw from--and I think I see the same tank a couple of times.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Tired of your sin?

I found this cover of "The Church of Your Choice" by Dan McBride. The sound quality is quite mediocre.
Church of Your Choice: (Some of us are old enough to remember the slogan.)

"If you're tired of your sin, then we'll welcome you in. If you're not, you'll still feel right at home."

We'd all love for evangelism to mean just being winsome and attracting people to Christ. I'm perhaps a bit curmudgeonly to be adequately winsome, but it's still an easier goal than trying to be prophetic. And it's more pleasant to think we're all "close enough."

But we know what Jesus said about division, and about the world hating him and therefore hating his followers. And it isn't hard to recall people whose sins are pretty dramatic in our eyes, and who really ought to repent.

So how does one manage to be both accurate and winsome? Jesus said to welcome the children, who generally aren't motivated by a hunger for forgiveness. But he discouraged people who weren't "counting the cost."

Nobody said it was easy... Probably one big first step is not to act as though we've "arrived." (There are two kinds of Christians: those who struggle with besetting sins and those who've given up.)

Thursday, November 02, 2017


I don't remember where I read the rule that "A free man is one who can bind himself." He can bind himself to a wife and to the still unknown children who follow. He can promise to work for someone. He can make an implicit commitment to tend his farm; feed and care for his livestock. Or he commits to solve a problem or write a book. Some commitments are short term, others life-long and extremely open-ended.

Freedom seems less like a status and more like a coin to invest. The one who never binds himself never shows fruit.

Lone wolves

It seems popular to describe Islamist terrorists as "lone wolves," even when there's evidence for a network.

Perhaps the spokescritters-that-be have been sternly told not to divulge anything that might reveal how much we know about those networks. That seems the nicer hypothesis. Maybe it's true.

Alternatively, they may be trying hard to keep Americans from blaming Muslims in general for the incidents of fourth generation warfare. If so, I believe they are mistaken.

If the terrorists are guided by a network, the network can be tracked, understood, and selectively attacked. Lone wolves who spontaneously decide to become enemies can't be tracked. Dealing with them involves much less selective means.

A network is separable from the Muslim community: Muslim with associations = enemy, Muslim without = ordinary. If the model is "spontaneous conversion to enemy," this changes the mapping: Muslim=x% chance of being an enemy simply because he/she is Muslim. Maybe that's actually true, but there are some hints that it isn't.

If the folks in charge want Americans to not blame Muslims, I think they should steer away from the lone wolf narrative, and concentrate on the associations. (Unless they're trying to hide how much we do know.)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Dark Matter Day

I have been informed that today is Dark Matter Day, and that I am to circulate these videos:

We search for Dark Matter in IceCube on the assumption that it is made of particles that interact with neutrinos.

It doesn't interact with photons (dark matter particles have no charge: that's what makes them dark) nor with baryonic matter (nuclei), and all we seem to get are limits on its interaction with W and Z (weak interaction--related to radioactive nuclear decay). Since it seems much too odd that we should get two completely non-interacting types of matter in a Big Bang, that just leaves neutrinos for them to interact with. And maybe dark matter interacts with W and Z after all, which would give particles that would decay in turn, which should also give some neutrinos.

Anyhow, if the dark matter particle is unstable, it can decay into a couple of neutrinos. If there are several species of dark matter particle, heavier ones might decay into a couple of neutrinos and a lighter type of dark matter particle. Or they could fuse to make neutrinos. Anyhow, look for neutrinos. Which, happily enough, is what IceCube is designed to do.

So if you see an extra number of high energy neutrinos coming from places where you expect dark matter to accumulate--inside stars, or at the center of galaxies--you might be seeing neutrinos from dark matter particles decaying/fusing. That would be very interesting, and could give you some estimate of just how massive these dark matter particles might be.

Of course if the dark matter particles are very light, they won't accumulate in stars the way you expect(*), plus the number of low energy neutrinos from cosmic ray showers in Earth's atmosphere will probably drown out your signal. (Low mass dark matter would decay to low energy neutrinos.) So the assumptions matter.

Also have a look at the search for sterile neutrinos video. Neutrinos are hard to study...

(*) The cloud of dark matter particles would be much more spread out. It's kind of intuitive that "heavy stuff sinks to the bottom," but it's a little more complicated because the dark matter particles don't bump into things very much--they don't interact and slow down in ways you're used to.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reconstructing history

There’s not a lot of written history about the area that is now Liberia before the American settlers came.

To know what happened, you have to piece together strands of evidence from widely separated records, and from traditions, language families, and genetic families across a fairly large area of Africa—and I am not in any position to do that myself.

I greeted the appearance of Between the Kola Forest and the Salty Sea with enthusiasm, and bought a copy. After reading the introduction, I'm starting to wonder. He seems to have his references to Ham a little mixed (may not be entirely his fault--references are inconsistent), doesn't seem to have a good handle on the history of slavery in Africa (all European and uniquely evil), conflates "blue-eyed Aryans" with all Europeans, and approvingly cites the "black Egyptian" claims. Sorry, I read Herodotus too, and can look at the pictures the Egyptians painted, and read some of their folk-tales—ancient Egyptians were not of sub-Saharan descent. Recent DNA studies bear out the obvious—modern Egyptians have more sub-Sarahan ancestry than ancient ones. That Nubia conquered the north a time or three I can believe--I'd be surprised if they didn't. That Nubians were the ancient Egyptians isn't possible.

If he can't get the well-documented stuff right, I wonder what admixture of imagination is going into the less-documented material? I shall continue—I expect to learn something—but I am less happy.

Reference missing

There's a story about a faculty party at some university, during which the topic of Velikovsky came up. An astronomer said to the MidEast historian "His ideas about the planets are complete rubbish, but he makes interesting points about the Egyptian historical record." The historian replied that "That's funny—I thought his astronomical ideas were interesting, but his dynastic chronology was junk."

I paraphrase, and I think there were three involved. Does anybody know the original?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Anonymous calls

In the released Kennedy files there's a report about an anonymous phone call 25 minutes before the assassination. I begin to see one reason why so much was filed away for years.

The more notorious the crime, the more rubbish the investigators have to sort through.

Just for fun, how many explanations of that memo can you come up with in 10 seconds?


New Jersey Officials Warn About Marijuana Edibles Being Given Out As Halloween Candy Treats.

One commenter wrote: "Yes, lots of people will be handing out $20 gummy bears."

I've read elsewhere (sorry, my interest in research only goes so far--I'm not checking it for myself) that marijuana tastes dreadful; suggesting that it would take a fairly determined glutton to finish one when tastier things are in the bag. Processed oils--that might escape detection. If the price is as high as quoted, though...

We've been hearing warnings like these for decades. No question, there are some pretty vicious people out there. But given the ease of identification, the lurking parents, and the kid eye for creepy people, I'd think the odds are against getting tampered candy.

If somebody want to tamper with stuff and put it back in the stores--most candies are double-wrapped. It could be done, but it would be hard to do in a way that didn't arouse suspicion. Candy would be the least of our worries from terrorists like that.

UPDATE: Crud. It looks as though either the stuff in the store was cruddy or somebody tampered with it there.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Jobs again

I'm back on the same puzzle: in a high-tech society, what can people who aren't cut out for the high tech actually do?

I hear the "guaranteed income" proposal over and over. That feeds somebody, but doesn't give him anything useful to do. A job may not give meaning to your life, but it at least can make you feel part of the group. I know some people who can and do used enforced idleness for creative work, but I also have seen others who live for sports or video games. I don't hang around the folks who go in for mischief and drugs.

Guaranteed jobs defined by central planners haven't worked very well, though.

Any job that has very strict protocols in a tightly controlled environment will be done by a robot. Assembly line, order taking, some kinds of driving, and rewriting press releases to look like news stories. A carefully designed warehouse can be made very automatic. But things go wrong, and even the automated warehouse will need humans to clean up when a robot springs a leak or the crate of molasses gets crushed. Or the sewer backs up. Been there, done that. A factory floor can accumulate a lot of water.

People are still good at the very creative things, in chaotic situations (think walking dogs in a park), in situations where the protocols aren't always clear. I suspect that driverless cars are going to be farther away than people hope. The basics are simple, but the special cases--the corner cases--are what complicate things, and often city driving is nothing but corner cases. Only when the environment can be tightly controlled does programming become easy and easily verified. Think tunnels or elevated tracks, not streets with dogs and schoolkids and potholes. And snow.

People are also very good for personalized service. An automatic clerk that instantly googles for your preferences may make (creepy) customized "small talk," but a human can be more pleasant to interact with. (Yes, I know of exceptions.)

Skilled people can customize things. This may compete with canned customization schemes using programmable machine tools, but retrofitting stuff you already bought is always likely to be manual.

Servants are always a popular way to show off wealth. I gather servants used to be common even among middle class families in England. The ill effects of this are well known, but I notice that nominally egalitarian folks still manage to cherish implicit feelings of superiority to "those people," even without an explicit master/servant hierarchy. Would I trust my daughter to be treated well as a servant in a wealthy household? Not really. If I knew them well, maybe.

Two large problems bar the way to "jobs per tutti." The first, of course, is "what are they, and who will be willing to pay for them?" As you can see, I'm not overburdened with breakthrough ideas here. The other is "how do you get there from here?" Skipping for now the folks who disdain "menial" jobs, how do you organize a wage to live on from tasks here and there?

One thing we may have to give up is the goal that a person be independent on his own. As I've written before, I don't think that's realistic for a lot of people, who can be jointly independent in a family or friend group--but there needs to be some legal machinery to fit this into our simple-minded income tax and insurance/retirement systems. (Which will vary by state...)

My notion (it is perhaps too vague to call it a plan) is that some churches attempt to first find a few unemployed people whose prospects seem dim, and then try to match them with some perceived needs. The candidates would effectively be self-employed; the church would assist with legal i's and t's that need to be crossed and dotted, and in looking for new tasks as the old ones are completed, and in matching them to tutors as appropriate. The churches would have to keep each other abreast of what is working and why. There might need to be several iterations for a single person while they try to get the fit right--it could easily take several years to converge on something that works for that person.

If all goes well, you would have some people who now have something useful to do, and the churches would have collected a set of schemes that worked. No one plan can do everything--you need a lot of options to match the variety of gifts and limitations people bring to the table. And what works well in one subculture may be a disaster in another.

And, people being fallen, there would be occasional failures due to screw-ups or ill-will. But that's true of any enterprise at all.

Gang database

I have to keep an eye out for follow-up on the Portland police department: "Portland police next month will end their more than 20-year-old practice of designating people as gang members or gang associates in response to strong community concerns about the labels that have disproportionately affected minorities."
The Police Bureau recognizes that the gang designations have led to "unintended consequences" and served as lifelong barriers for those who have shunned the gang lifestyle and tried to get jobs, said Acting Tactical Operations Capt. Andy Shearer.

It wasn't actually that easy to get into that exclusive list:

The Oregonian/OregonLive review of the controversial gang affiliation database showed that police labeled someone a "criminal gang affiliate" more than 100 times each year, without a conviction, without an arrest. Police were able to add someone to the list if the person self-identified as a member of a gang, participated in a gang initiation ritual, committed a gang-related crime or displayed two or more observable signs of gang membership.

The article pats them on the back repeatedly:

Choo Fair, who works as a mentor for Multnomah County probation and parole and is a former Bloods gang member, praised the move.

"It's a beautiful thing. They can no longer label anybody," he said.

He expects it also will affect county parole and probation officers, who sometimes find an offender in violation of their probation because they continued to hang out with known gang members.

Note to self: check crime stats and status of the database next October.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A feast

I had leftover Hunan chicken tonight, and got to thinking of some of the meals we've had with Chinese friends. I don't have a vocabulary to describe the differences, but one dramatic difference was that the sauces our friends used weren't thick or sweet--and often not very salty, either. Later in the evening I was reading about travel in China shortly after the Boxer rebellion, and ran across the author's listing of the contents of a feast set out by a local magistrate:
  1. Small cakes (five kinds), sliced pears, candied peanuts, raw water-chestnuts, cooked water-chestnuts, hard-boiled ducks' eggs (cut into small pieces), candied walnuts, honied walnuts, shredded chicken, apricot seeds, sliced pickled plums, sliced dried smoked ham (cut into tiny pieces), shredded sea moss, watermelon seeds, shrimps, bamboo sprouts, jellied haws. All the above dishes were cold. Then followed hot:
  2. Shrimps served in the shell with vinegar, sea-slugs with shredded chicken, bits of sweetened pork and shredded dough --the pork and sea-slugs being cooked and served in fragrant oil.
  3. Bamboo sprouts, stewed chicken kidneys.
  4. Spring chicken cooked crisp in oil.
  5. Stewed sea-slugs with ginger root and bean curd, stewed fungus with reed roots and ginger tops (all hot).
  6. Tarts with candied jelly, sugar dumplings with dates.
  7. Hot pudding made of "the eight precious vegetables," consisting of dates, watermelon seeds, chopped walnuts, chopped chestnuts, preserved oranges, lotus seeds, and two kinds of rice, all mixed and served in syrup--a delicious dish.
  8. Shelled shrimps with roots of reeds and bits of hard-boiled eggs, all in one bowl with fragrant oil, biscuits coated with sweet seeds.
  9. Glutinous rice in little layers with browned sugar between, minced pork dumplings, steamed biscuits.
  10. Omelette with sea-slugs and bamboo sprouts, all in oil, bits of chicken stewed in oil, pork with small dumplings of flour and starch.
  11. Stewed pigs' kidneys, shrimps stewed in oil, date pie.
  12. Vermicelli and egg soup.
  13. Stewed pork balls, reed roots, bits of hard-boiled yolks of eggs, all in oil.
  14. Birds' nest soup.
  15. The appetite being pretty well sated by this time, the following delicacies were served to taper off with:
  16. Chicken boiled in oil, pork swimming in a great bowl of its own fat, stewed fish stomachs, egg soup.
  17. Steamed biscuit.
Tea was served from the beginning and throughout the feast. It was made on the table by pouring hot water into a small pot half full of tea leaves, the pot being refilled as needed. The tea was served without cream or sugar, and was mild and delicious. Rice whiskey in tiny cups is usually served at feasts, though it was often omitted from the feasts given to us. The Chinese assert that the alcohol is necessary "to cut the grease."

Probably etiquette presumed small portions, not American-style ones. The menu differs substantially from both those of the restaurants and the dishes our friends made. I suspect the latter prepared dishes that were more "home-style" than those an official would set out to impress dignitaries.

I wonder if any of the local restaurants offer such 3 hour, 16 remove banquets. (It would take me at least three hours for an adventure like that. Especially since I'm only very mediocre with chopsticks.) My curiosity might exceed my palate, though. I had goat soup in Liberia--excessively spicy, with broken bones and some unidentifiable organs in it, and a very powerful taste of something strange--not liver, probably not kidney. Couldn't finish it. Across the dining room were a couple of European men pretending to be hard-nosed arms dealers. Odd clientele.

Hear from a Chinese tourist of the same era who visited Europe and America: "Nor do they eat their meat cooked in small pieces. It is carried into the room in large chunks, often half raw, and they cut and slash and tear it apart. They eat with knives and prongs. It makes a civilized being perfectly nervous. One fancies himself in the presence of sword-swallowers."

Friday, October 20, 2017

Gentlemen, this is a football

The first time I heard that this was how Lombardi introduced training sessions, I thought it was pretty insulting and useless. Were football players really that dense?

I just read another state of the university "press release" to the staff. I learned about our priorities.


Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a University.

Over there are the students.

Over here are curricula representing bodies of knowledge the students need to learn.

In between them we have teachers.

Our job is to ...

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dan McBride

I found some Dan McBride songs on YouTube. He was a Baptist preacher who composed and sang a number of songs poking fun at various things about the church.

Tiptoe through the tithers


Staff Notes

Organizational Highlights

Beautiful Dreamer (wake unto me! I'm speaking to you there on pew number three.)

Enough value?

AVI linked to a review of How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain. The last line is "but we can forgive a man a multitude of sins for giving us Huck and Jim."

And that's the issue these days, isn't it? If you value what the person did enough, you overlook the minor faults. And the major ones.

Literary critics born late enough to run no risk of being robbed by him applaud François Villon. Hollywood still loves Roman Polanski--some possibly because they're like him, but I'd guess more value his work enough to overlook his "failings." Similarly with Weinstein: until his habits became too public to ignore, his colleagues valued the work he did more than his "failings." Thomas Jefferson's work is no longer valued by many people (some of whom don't seem to understand it at all) enough to overlook his failings. (From the layout and operations of Monticello I suspect he had enough of a conscience that he wanted to look at his slaves as little as he could--beyond the crest of the hill, under the floor, behind a revolving serving door.)

The French Foreign Legion doesn't officially admit criminals, but the legend says it was an unofficial way to expunge your record by becoming a new and valuable person. How many times did a village put up with a jerk because he was invaluable in combat? On a more intimate note: "Why does she stay with him/he stay with her?"

God judges with perfect precision. We tend to put our thumbs on the scales when balancing value and failings. A few years ago the subject of OJ Simpson came up in a conversation I was eavesdropping on, and the older black man chid the younger ones--"We all know he did it." Maybe he didn't do much that's valuable, but he's our tribe.

Some of those Confederate statues were put up to honor the qualities the men (nominally) exemplified. (Some I gather were put up as warnings...) Quite a few people today look at the statue and say "I don't value anything he did." They do not honor courageous enemies, especially when the quarrel has been dead for generations. They have no reason to forgive anything. Not that they have much to forgive, since injuries were done to remote ancestors and not to them.

"Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" When to judge, and when to let slide? I tend to put the bar far into the "actual harm" range, but that's a tendency and not an absolute rule...

Friday, October 13, 2017

Marie Curie

Everybody has heard of her and radium and her Nobel Prize (actually 2), but I don't remember reading about her devising portable X-ray machines during WW-I.

And it may have been the X-rays that gave her cancer.


I can't remember when I last saw the old large dollar or half dollar coins, and I haven't seen any of the new dollar coins in several years. With half-cent coins gone the way of the passenger pigeon, that leaves a very simple mix in the pocket--quarter, dime, nickel, penny--and loose cough drop. I can shuffle around for a moment or two and bring up what's need for change, plus maybe a little bit extra that came out in the same grab.

Now double the number of coins.

It is much faster to pull out my wallet for some paper than to try to get my fingers to remember what those odd sizes mean. I think that was about $19 worth of change there.


We all know (or I hope we do) that Wikipedia is very unreliable on any subject that involves politics or disputed social issues.

My experience with the science articles has been that they're not always very clear. The math sections, on the other hand, have been, on the whole very useful and complete. I often have to chase through a list of definitions, and I wish wish wish more mathematicians would use examples in their communications (they use plenty in their research!).

The Motherboard article on the subject is a bit over the top. OK, way over the top. I know plenty of practicing scientists, and I can't think of one who wants knowledge restricted to an elite, and on the contrary, quite a few who volunteer in gigs to explain things to youngsters.

The problem isn't that "you can imagine impenetrable writing as a defensive strategy wielded to scare off editor-meddlers." The problem is that the science writers a) don't have huge wads of time and b) don't really know their audiences. And c) want things to be accurate--the imprecision of everyday language can be terrible. (Think of all the different meanings of "energy" you find in popular language--from heat to personal vivacity to obscure mystical flow up through your lung when somebody pokes your foot with a needle.)

FWIW, years ago I proposed that our grad students be required to prepare a web "poster session" of their theses, with a target audience of high school seniors who have at least algebra and some physical science background. Somebody would have to create a network of web pages to explain the background, of course, which their thesis-pages would reference. Crickets

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Mine! Mine!

AVI illustrates an application of Acton's Law, with treatment beds.


This week is full of phone conferences. We issued a bulletin announcing a nice very high energy "track-like" event, and this events seems to coincide in direction and time with a gamma ray blazar.

It would be wonderful to be able to associate a neutrino with a known source (it turns out to be rather hard), and the presence of two kinds of messengers (neutrinos and gamma rays) would give hard evidence for some classes of models of what's going on there, and serious challenges to others.

Scuttlebutt holds that the recalculated direction doesn't point as cleanly at the blazar as the first estimates said, but we'll see--probably by the end of the week.

BTW, a muon neutrino produces a muon through a charged current interaction, and that muon track points back pretty well to where the muon neutrino came from. An electron neutrino produces an electron, and that showers very quickly--you get a dramatic amount of light but not much of a track to point with. A tau neutrino--we've apparently had some taus, but it has proved rather hard to distinguish them from the electrons. Some of the time the tau track should shower quickly like an electron, but sometimes we should get a "double bang:" an interaction and shower, followed by a short track and another shower--sort of like a dumb-bell. So far we've not seen the double bang.

Speed limits

John Lower wants to redo our speed limits, based on measurements by smart sensors in traffic control systems. He thinks that might make a lot of speed limits slower.

Redoing the old studies from the 50's and 60's makes sense. Adjustable speed limits does not: keep the number of driving variables small if you want minimum confusion. For example, reversible lanes are OK if there are physical barriers that shift, but if they are controlled by overhead X or O symbols you are asking for accidents. "Motor memory" of how fast I am supposed to be going along street-type X plays a role in my driving style, and I suspect I'm not alone.

And if photographic speed limit enforcement starts to become ubiquitous, I expect a significant rise in vandalism. Air rifles and slingshots and paintball guns would probably be useful for the purpose.

Mike Royko had something to say about speed limits.

UPDATE: "Unknown" points out in the comments that the variable speeds can work.