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.

Saturday, October 07, 2017


My flight was delayed into O'Hare. I suspect luggage is loaded in alphabetical order, and unloaded in reverse alphabetical order.

When I finally got my suitcase I got into the line for customs (*), and observed my first bust. I don't know if it was the same little beagle I've seen before or if they have a family of them. The dog had identified a suspect. The agent on the other end of the leash was confiscating ...

Bananas. This was a fruit-sniffing dog.

(*) I dutifully filled out the card on the plane, but you use kiosk questionnaires now and give the customs agent the receipt.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Day 5

The weather forecast on predicted wind gusts of up to hurricane strength this afternoon. Looking at the trees in the protected courtyard, I can believe it. It's supposed to keep up for another 3 hours. I wonder what that will do to the double-decker buses? I'm supposed to take one (the 100 line) this evening to get to the dinner... UPDATE Buses are not running, neither is sBahn (trees across the tracks), and some uBahn are closed too.

Just for laughs I went by the Pergamon--long long lines that weren't moving. (Ditto for the others) I had other things to do anyway.

There are still a lot of bullet marks in the older buildings around here, and the train support. (I'm not sure what you call the brick and stone buildings the tracks are built on. At the stations these are filled with shops and food places.)

It is sub-50, damp with occasional rain, and quite windy. At least the weather should be OK for the flight out tomorrow. Staying put for now.

UPDATE: Xavier did a lot of damage. We walked to the banquet aside from one last O(60mph) gust it wasn't bad anymore, but branches were down everywhere and the hooded crows were angry as all getout. Monbijou Theater had boarded up their bar, but their signs and banners were gone and most stuff was knocked down. Even fence sections weighted with 200lb of concrete were knocked over. But the giant banners for the museum across the Spree were still there.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Day 4

Planning meetings today. My todo list expanded, with documentation rising higher on the list. That is to say, prying loose documentation about the data-files various groups created. If you want somebody to be able to replicate your study with more data, or even know whether your data-files are relevant to their work . . . please tell us what software you used, and what cuts are on the data.

This part of Berlin is a tourist area, with lots of people from all over--including lots of Germans visiting too. Lots of restaurants with tables outdoors--which would be much more enticing if it weren't 50 and gloomy with scattered showers. Now if I just had time to go see the Ishtar Gate...

Food may be good, but alone you are just eating: dining needs friends.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Day 3

German Unification Day. Most shops are closed, and there are more children about than there were yesterday.

I went hunting for a grocery store, but didn't recognize it at all--looked more like a bakery than a place to buy turnips. And it was closed.

A block away is the original Weber office, with a giant round grill out in front.

Lots of talks. More when I wake up.

The Neue Synagoge is just down the street from me. Yes, there's a chain, and yes, those are policemen. At night too.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Old story

Every weekday a man would walk to the news stand to buy a paper, and then stand at the bus stop reading it.

The vendor didn't like him, and wasn't shy about it.

One day another man waiting there too said "Excuse me, but you know there's another news stand across the street. You don't have to buy from that guy."

The man with the paper replied "I'm not letting that insulting SOB decide where I buy my newspapers."

Some people want everything to be political.

Berlin Day 2

The hotel corner is a hub for several trams, and the sBahn is half a block away. The rooms face the courtyard, so the noise doesn't bother people--or at least doesn't bother me. On the other hand, the room we met in parallels the tracks, so every subway or commuter train distracts a bit.

My talk went well, the others were interesting, though I wonder about the Markov Chain Monte Carlo(*) approach to scattering. As one of the attendees pointed out, there is no theoretical reason why the approximation he was testing should work, and in the end you have to rely on "Well, the distributions look OK in this case"--and the only way to know that they "look ok in this case" is . . . to do the usual estimation, with all the CPU time expense that entails.

I forgot to mention one nice feature of the airport: when we got off the plane, the baggage pickup was right there. No heading down to a common pool of baggage carousels and scouting about for the right one--or what will be the right one when the current deposit is done. Security is probably much better, too.

The Grand Bar served up food very quickly, and with much nicer presentation and ambience than you expect from a "bar." If you eat equal volumes of broccoli and potatoes, they cancel out, right?

I was curious if the simple pre-pay cards would let me make calls from here to the US, but O2 says no. Oh well.

I've never seen Cabaret. I suppose I should, one of these days. There are plenty of posters and graffiti up condemning the AfD as nazis: I don't think nazis will make any kind of comeback in my lifetime, or my children's lifetimes. Not with that name anyway, whether chosen or imposed.

Tour boats on the Spree at night are lit up with bright lights, and they sometimes use searchlights on the clouds as well. Tried to take a picture, but the contrast was terrible. There's nothing like the dynamic range of the human eye.

(*) No, I'd never heard of it before, but Jakob said he and some others had brainstormed it for a while and concluded that it was semi-impossible. I really really want a Journal of Stuff That Doesn't Work.

Sunday, October 01, 2017


I wonder how seriously the powers-that-be are taking EMP risks.

We hear how EMP would fry computers, sensitive electronics, fancy auto ignition systems I wonder about how likely that is if you're not at ground 0, and mess up the power grid. Bye bye water supply, communications, etc.

Despite the CNN rant we were subjected to this morning(*) about Puerto Rico, you can't pre-position enough supplies with only a couple of day's notice, and when the storm takes out everything you can't wave a magic wand and have a hundred thousand generators instantly materialize. And figuring out what to do in what order isn't trivial.

If we wanted less exposure to EMP, how would we design things? The national power grid needs work; some robustness might be designed into it. (Please?!) Do we have ways to hack and slash local chunks back together again (chucking out all the smart power stuff, and maybe not even hanging power lines high in the air the first month)?

Lightning strikes cause bad transients--can we look at how to isolate buildings from them? That might carry over into EMP hardening too.

We're doing a lot of alternative energy stuff: there's no way that wind could replace coal, but the tie-ins that make wind's variable supply feed into the grid might be extended to pre-positioned backup generators.

We can't move as much stuff as efficiently without fast computer communication. Do we still have fall-back approaches?

Are backup generators standard for water towers?

(*) The admin spokesman didn't seem to understand the situation either.

Disconnected notes from Berlin Day 1

Around the corner from the Monbijou Hotel is "Flakes and Shakes." They claim to have over 100 types of American breakfast cereal for sale. I didn't go in to see if Bruce Jenner is still on Wheaties.

Along Monbijoustrasse, on the other side of the Spree, is a block of vendor stands. At the end of the block is an elevated trash bin with the label "Museum of Contemporary Trash" likely a dig at Museum Island across the street.

The whole area is redolent of sewer: one of those little things that didn't get updated at reunion time. Hackescher Markt is what you'd get if you put high end boutique stores in mini-plazas made of old buildings and then glued them together. The layout is straightforward but that doesn't matter, you get turned around anyway.

Berlin is a graffiti city. Some is coarse and stupid, some is gang related, some political, but there seems to be a fair amount that relates to the art community. (I will give the benefit of the doubt for the word "art.")

When you look down a random street in this area you're apt to see a building or three older than a century, and street names and sometimes monuments for famous Germans. And tourists taking pictures of the same. Museum Island is here--lots of good art and significant reminders. I can imagine if I were a musical Berliner who wanted to make a name for myself and was faced daily with reminders that I'm not even remotely a new Beethoven, I'd be tempted to use novelty as a shortcut to innovation, or maybe just as a primal scream. "I can't paint like Durer or write like Goethe or study and think like Humboldt but I am a painter/writer/'thinker'!" OK, primal scream and thinking don't go very well together.

The Berlin Wall was graffiti-ed up as a protest--that would tend to make a big mental link to graffiti and liberty.

At any rate, it is a bit disconcerting to see an area painted up like a disputed territory in Chicago.

Restaurants all over the place too. I decided to try curry-wurst. Once is plenty--it tasted ok but I've still got a cannonball in my tum.

I'm trying to stay awake long enough to start the time shift. Gets dark earlier here than at home...

I got off at the wrong stop from the TXL bus, but still had time on the ticket so took the S42 loop on the sBahn (the S41 going the opposite direction is under construction--you've got to either take the bus or go the loonnnngg way around the loop) and asked a friendly native which direction I wanted to take. Trains often get names from the last stop, which may be off the map and is in tiny print anyway. Which direction you get depends on which platform you're on.

Bridge technology

The compilation is available online in a scan of a copy--a few pages are not readable and many are hard on the eyes.


L. Nelson (Legends of Liberia)

Long before white men were known in the land there lived a rich woman by the name of Sagba Massa. Sagba possessed a certain magic ring which she always wore on her hand; with this ring she could summon and control the power of spirits and forest devils, and her clan, whom she rules, prospered accordingly. Her lands yielded abundant crops, rain fell when rain was needed, and evil beings who walked in the night left her people alone.

The Chief of Sagba's tribe, a wise old man called Mana Kpaka, sent messages through the land requiring lesser chiefs and clan leaders to assemble at his town for a converence concerning tribal warfare. Sagba Massa set out on her journey to this town, and on the way she was obliged to cross the Yanjah River. While crossing in a canoe she saw a beautiful woman sitting on a rock, and wondered who she was. A moment later the woman disappeared, and Sagba, whose hand was trailing lightly in the water, suddently felt her magic ring drawn gently from her finger.

She cried out in alarm and peered down into the shining water, but saw nothing there. The beautiful woman who sat on the rock had been a water spirit, and doubtless it was she who had stolen the precious ring. Sagba made camp on the river bank and called up her best diviners to discover what she must do: the diviners read their sands and gave her their advice.

Three men were brought from distant places. One of them had power over water. The second had power over light and could see into the very heart of mountains. The third had power over earth, and could crush the biggest rocks to powder in his hands. Sagba Massa paid them well and commanded them to find her ring.

The first man tipped the river on its side.

The second man saw the ring hidden inside a rock which lay in the river bed.

The third man lifted the rock and broke it, and having found the ring he gave it back to Sagba. She went to the conference called by Mana Kpaka, and when returning she decided to build a bridge across the Yaajah river, a bridge which would nowhere touch the water.

With the aid of her ring a number of spirits were summoned and they were told to build a bridge from bank to bank in such a way that men who crossed might be beyond the reach of mischievous river spirits. The spirits said they would work by night, but men must work by day. Trusted men were called upon to build the bridge by day; and the spirits threw building medicine on them so they would build well and make no error. The spirits selected two large trees on opposite banks, and swung stout lines of cane and vines across the river from tree to tree; but they only worked by night, when no one was about. The men used secret knots and the cunning of their medicine to weave a slender footwalk between the hangling lines; they worked only by day, and no man who was not one of them was permitted to be there.

Thus the first suspension bridge was built, and now the manner of this work is a closely guarded secret handed on from father to son. The secret is known only to spirits and selected groups of men, and anyone who tries to watch is killed.

Strictly speaking this isn't an explanation of why the spirits wanted everything to be secret, but never mind that.

You would think that the people walking over it every day would be able to look at the knots and reverse engineer the method, but I'll bet there are some non-obvious tools involved. Think patent enforcement.

I couldn't figure it out, but I'm no good with visualizing, or successfully tying, any but the simplest knots.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Under the counter

One of the businesses along my route to work had a little shooting: An employee at an East Side gyros carryout shop, upset that a man tried to run off with “a kilo” of his cocaine without paying for it, shot the man in the back Monday. (He survived.)
The man said the incident had started in a back room, where Howard had retrieved the cocaine from a cabinet or small refrigerator. He said Howard weighed the cocaine on a scale in front of him.

Police executed a search warrant later at Spartan, where a bag of cocaine was found inside of another bag, which also contained a document confirming that Howard was a patient of a local medical clinic. The bag was found stashed above a refrigerator in the food preparation area at Spartan.

Along with cocaine, police found a digital scale and two 9mm handguns and ammunition for the guns.

I ran the story by Youngest Daughter, who graduated from a culinary arts program. She wondered about food safety there. What sorts of mistakes might be made?

FWIW, the company announced that the actions of “temporary employee” Eric C. Howard, ... “in no way approved or allowed by our corporation in anyway.” And that they'd never seen any cocaine. No word on whether they ever tried to use small bags of flour...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


"It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped and whirrr when it stood still."

An hour of 1950's sci-fi effects, with aching neck (though the improvised pad helped) and back. What freedom it is to scratch my nose again! And rest on a mattress.

And know that the doctor's worry was groundless.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Attitudes towards authority

AVI's parable reminded me of a couple of anecdotes.

About 40 years ago I was listening to a preacher who was talking about the calling of God. He described the last question the ordination committee put to him: "If we decide not to ordain you, what will you do?" He said (I paraphrase) "I gave them the only answer I could--
'Whether you ordain me or not, I must preach because God calls me to.' It was the answer they wanted to hear."

Simon Stylites chose a curious approach to austerity--living on top of a 6 or 8 foot high (but the Egyptians built them wide!) pillar. Instead of finding himself alone, thousands flocked to hear him and ask for advice. Church elders weren't sure what to make of him.

Elders living in the desert heard about Saint Simeon, who had chosen a new and strange form of ascetic striving. Wanting to test the new ascetic and determine whether his extreme ascetic feats were pleasing to God, they sent messengers to him, who in the name of these desert fathers were to bid Saint Simeon to come down from the pillar.

In the case of disobedience they were to forcibly drag him to the ground. But if he was willing to submit, they were to leave him on his pillar. Saint Simeon displayed complete obedience and deep Christian humility. The monks told him to stay where he was, asking God to be his helper.

Of course in Simon's case obedience meant he wasn't crazy, so the cases differ there. But in both cases they asked the same question: are you willing to accept the judgment of your elders that you are mistaken about your calling? The great difference is in the expected right answer.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Truth being said

From Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Some nights, abed, Will put his ear to the wall to listen, and if his folks talked things that were right, he stayed, and if not right he turned away. If it was about time and passing years or himself or town or just the general inconclusive way God ran the world, he listened warmly, comfortably, secretly, for it was usually Dad talking. He could not often speak with Dad anywhere in the world, inside or out, but this was different. There was a thing in Dad's voice, up, over, down, easy as a hand winging soft in the air like a white bird describing flight pattern, made the ear want to follow and the mind's eye to see.

And the odd thing in Dad's voice was the sound truth makes being said. The sound of truth, in a wild roving land of city or plain country lies, will spell any boy. Many nights Will drowsed this way, his senses like stopped clocks long before that half-singing voice was still. Dad's voice
was a midnight school, teaching deep fathom hours, and the subject was life.

It is different when you're being addressed directly, for then you have to react (and maybe repent) and can't muse.

Mr Weston's Good Wine

I don’t remember where I read about Mr. Weston’s Good Wine, by Theodore Powys, but it was just a couple of days ago. The idea intrigued me (and the book was in the library): a traveling wine merchant comes to the village of Folly Down and time stops. The wine merchant turns out to be God.

His assistant’s name is Michael. They purvey vintages new and old—the very oldest and darkest are cash-only sales—no credit.

The book is supposed to be T.F. Powys’s masterpiece. The setting and characters are well-drawn, the story ambles along nicely, and there’s redemption and damnation. There are predators and innocents, dark secrets, a local version of St. Francis and a priest who doesn't believe in God, and a girl who fell in love with a picture of an angel and won’t be satisfied with a mere man. What else could you wish for?

Well, a story with God incognito should have Him display—not gravitas exactly, the incognito forbids that--fittingness. Weston is at pains to distance himself from organized religion (he’s never been to church before) and he didn’t really mean for people to take the Bible seriously. Author’s privilege so far. But most of the resolutions involve (perhaps not surprisingly, given the book’s title) Cana in one form or another—as though there were no other loves than the sexual. Maybe Powys wanted to use marriage to stand in for other things (as Paul did), but if so I missed it. Powys and his wife did have children, so he knew there were other varieties of love.

In other words, there’s a whiff of ground axe and most of the denouements seem a bit of a single-note. (Love or death--or both) The miracle is telegraphed, but the judgment and punishment comes out of nowhere—I can think of several authors who’d have done that scene better, though perhaps with less elegant prose. When you write an allegory, the core needs to hold up better than that.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Error rates

I'm often asked for my email address. I try to partition my internet interactions, and in consequence use 5 gmail accounts. I know that PayPal will never email me at address X, or amazon at address Y--it helps with the signal to noise ratio.

One address was a complete dummy, used to test the integrity of a Saudi-backed group (they proved trustworthy, btw). The dummy account was idle for several years, until a 1-byte message appeared, which showed whoever was probing that the address was real. The amount of spam has been rising fairly steadily since then. And the rate of real messages. That dummy account got email from a woman wanting to talk about vacation pictures (I set her straight), and then nothing but spam until a few months ago, when somebody accidentally set it as the account reset location for his membership in some Belgian porn site. (I gather he got things straightened out, since the reset messages only showed up for a week.)

On another account, for the past year, I've been getting messages inviting some woman I've never heard of (and whose name bears no resemblance whatever to the account name!) to visit one or the other college. There's typically no place to ask to be removed from such lists. On another account, which I use for Craigslist, I just got Verizon's billing information for somebody in New England with a new cell phone. I spent a quarter hour on the phone being a good citizen about that one.

There were two other similar errors that I can't recall the details of. In sum, over the past 3 years, on 5 accounts, I've found 6 errors. Last year Google said there were over a billion accounts. Shall I extrapolate that and say there are of order 400 million errors per year? (plus or minus 160 million :-) ).(*) Not google's errors, of course--typos or misunderstandings or made-up addresses. At Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, they used to have a demonstration of phone number reverse lookup--type in a number and it would give the address. Pick a random number, and the chances were it was a real phone number...

(*) I know, the look-elsewhere effect--I wouldn't be posting if there hadn't been something recent--the real error rate is lower, of course.

Monday, September 18, 2017


We had to miss Mark's funeral because of my wife's surgery today.(*) The bio doesn't mention that he was also active in church. He was very alert and creative and a joy to be around.

The large photo of him, in among the flowers at the visitation, showed him looking dignified and happy in his lab coat--with a little chick on his shoulder.

He arranged for a few of our kids to do job shadows with him: one was startled to find that part of the day's duties involved blenderizing chicks.

(*)It looks like the surgery went OK, but of course the first day or two feels worse than before.

Friday, September 15, 2017


I remember a TV game show called "Name That Tune." Contestants were given a clue, and then a bidding war ensued starting at 7 notes: "I can name that tune in 4 notes." When one conceded, the piano player played the winning number of notes (sometimes only 1!), and the other tried to guess the name of the tune.

I don't know why I remembered that show yesterday, but I wondered: how well can you identify a tune from the last notes?

Friday, September 08, 2017


Crowley seems to have won the field. "Do what you will" seems to be the dominant touchstone for ethics. He meant, or at least professed to mean, that your true self would make appropriate decisions, but the simpler way (and I hope I may be forgiven for thinking it Crowley's true meaning) is to follow your impulses. We measure how strong we are by how strong our feelings and impulses are.

And in the society that resulted, the most valuable things are experiences. To see the Shire in New Zealand, or ride a hot-air balloon, or free climb El Capitan--OK, most of us aren't eager to take on the years of discipline to manage El Capitan, but watching the GoPro video is almost as good. Right?

A cruise in the Bahamas, see the pyramids of Egypt, a trip to Machu Picchu--what is on the usual bucket list? For that matter, what's on the unofficial bucket list--the things you want to experience but would be embarrassed to tell your friends?

The most valuable experiences are those that demand training and skill. The pinnacles of experience would be free-climbing K2, surfing a tsunami, sky-diving from orbit. Most settle for less. But after you've sky-dived, you will have to try to sky-dive while balancing on a skate-board, or while playing the accordion, or while trying to have sex.

Lots of people covet celebrity, which can be very decoupled from any accomplishment.

"Getting stuff" doesn't seem quite so fashionable, but I suspect that's because we're rich, we have most of the stuff we want anyhow, and we noticed that it wasn't making us happy enough. But next year's iPhone--that'll be the ultimate!

What doesn't seem to be so popular is writing a symphony or the next Moby Dick, or building cabinets that the Smithsonian displays. (Or becoming a saint, but that's never been popular) Accomplishment is harder than simple experience--is it also less popular? Accomplishment may be "what you will" but it involves a lot of grunt work or doing what other people want. And following rules--which conflicts with the "what you will" theme.

Maybe you can keep experiences longer than stuff, though dementia can steal those too, but at the end of the day you don't get to keep anything, unless you've invested with Someone in the resurrection business.

Can you tell I read Ecclesiastes recently?


The 'Internet of Things' Is Sending Us Back to the Middle Ages

What Joshua means by that is that more and more in our lives is not owned but rented/licensed, and therefore controlled by someone else. The most dramatic example he gives is John Deere farm equipment--the embedded software is owned by them, and therefore the whole system must be repaired by them alone.

Yet the expansion of the internet of things seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law – intended to protect ideas – to control physical objects consumers think they own.

My phone is a Samsung Galaxy. Google controls the operating system and the Google Apps that make an Android smartphone work well. Google licenses them to Samsung, which makes its own modification to the Android interface, and sublicenses the right to use my own phone to me – or at least that is the argument that Google and Samsung make. Samsung cuts deals with lots of software providers which want to take my data for their own use.

Have you noticed an uptick in businesses cutting customers off for their political persuasions? I get a whiff of Hell's Pavement (wikipedia) too. "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that. You bought a Thermolux heater, and you know you're only supposed to buy P&D."

And everybody wants a revenue stream, not just a sale. Office 365 comes to mind here: You don't own it, you rent it. We use an older (licensed) version of Office on one machine, and LibreOffice on the rest.

Sunday, September 03, 2017


AVI is musing about measures of worth past and present. And future.

I was sure there was a chair behind me when I sat down. I trusted that bench to carry my weight. I trust that the gas station will take my cash in payment. I trust that if I push this button, the elevator will go up.

I trust that stores will be open when they say they will, and that the food inspectors keep the suppliers honest. I trust that the bus will go where the timetable says it will. I trust I don’t have to watch my back because my immediate neighbors will not try to kill me. (*)

These are important things for me.

For myself, I like "flexibility." There've been plenty of days when it would have been tempting to call in sick. And I have more interesting projects to work on than those I get paid to do.

We care a lot about faithfulness—in other people. Glen Campbell’s signature song Gentle on My Mind celebrated his lady’s faithfulness and his own "flexibility."

Not very fair, is it?

Some select people have succeeded in getting acclaim for their "flexibility," though usually under the name of "being true to him/her/itself." It seems that most of us just lose people's trust, though.

(*)About 2 blocks away I’m not so sure. If neighborhood and police reports are anything to go by.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The ENArchs

Class stratification in France: the ENA-rchs and French unions:
For all what the history books show, the French never actually had a Revolution. It is possible to go to Russia, and live there for years, and never see a trace of the old aristocracy in the state institutions or companies. There is a definite hierarchy in place, but it is not one based on class. In France, by contrast, it doesn’t take one long to figure out that the entire government and major corporations are dominated by an elite consisting of the old French aristocratic families (take a look at the names, and see how many have de in them) and the cream of the crop of the French grandes écoles:


And as with the government and the electorate, stuffing the upper echelons full of well-connected elites results in a huge disconnect between the management and the workers. For it is largely true that, no matter how hard one works and how brilliant one is, you will never surpass the chosen few from the grandes écoles in terms of promotion and prestige. For sure, many try, and considerable efforts are made by the company management to convince the ordinary folk that if they show sufficient compliance, obedience, and work themselves to death they will be admitted to the hallowed ranks of the chosen few. But in reality, they are being sold an absolute lie.

Anybody with experience in France care to comment?

Found via White Sun of the Desert

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Actions and words

"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go work today in the vineyard.' "And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he regretted it and went. "The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, 'I will, sir'; but he did not go. "Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first."

If you haven't read Shannon Burns' essay on language and violence, do. Near the end is the story of Ricky at the recycling center.

Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ancient wars

A review of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede wound up on my radar. The author (Aisha Harris) introduces it by comparing it to Medieval Times. I've been to the latter once: romanticized medieval culture, combat, and dining--not very closely related to anything SCA would put on. The real era often treated classes of luckless people very badly, and sometimes the conflicts involved things just as horrible as anything the 19'th century saw. But that was all 7-900 years ago, and the quarrels quit mattering long ago. Nobody but historians cares who was Duke of York in 1232, and we're apt to laugh at the differences between the warring sides--when we understand them at all. Not our oxen getting gored here...

In the American Civil War the North won, and by and large most folks in the North that I know don't give it a second thought anymore. Badger football is in Camp Randall stadium, and I doubt many fans realize the park memorializes a Union encampment/training ground. And when they do, they don't care. It's an ancient war. There are some customary attitudes one is supposed to have about it ("If this show were being performed in New York, he said, he’d think it was weird."), but little more. I can't speak for the South--I gather the hostility diminished over the years, and that in some circles there are customary attitudes one is supposed to have about it ("War was really about state's rights"--likely a big part of it for the rank and file, but definitely not true for the leaders). I've no idea how much emotion is invested in the war anymore.

But if the Dixie Stampede is any indication, where one of the pigs in the pig race is named for the iconic Lee, I suspect that there's a fair bit of "it's an ancient war" in the South too. What makes a glamorized Medieval Times-type amusement possible is that nobody deeply cares about the contest.

Aisha came to it as one for whom the themes of the Civil War were not ancient history. She found parts very awkward, sometimes tasteless or tone-deaf, and generally felt out of place. And she's right, of course(*). But I hope her children will be able to say "it's an ancient war." That might be a lot to hope for--maybe I should say her grandchildren.

The alternative to "it's an ancient war" is that new wars refer to the old in their laundry list of grievances. (Not that the old grievances matter as much as the new, but you want to show continuity in the villainy of your enemies.) That's not the road I want us going down.

(*) Although sometimes ... She complained that the "southerners" door label was light tan and the "northerners" was dark blue; this was tone-deaf. Um. If it had been reversed, would that have been better? I'd have thought the colors were a reference to the uniforms, not demography.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Babylonian "trig"

"Plimpton 322 predates Hipparchus by more than 1000 years," says Dr Wildberger. "It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education. With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own."

When I read "However unlike today’s trigonometry, Babylonian mathematics used a base 60, or sexagesimal system, rather than the 10 which is used today. Because 60 is far easier to divide by three, experts studying the tablet, found that the calculations are far more accurate." I surmised that Sarah Knapton (Science Editor for the Telegraph) probably wouldn't know a sine if it hung blinking above the highway.

And it turns out the good Dr. Wildberger has a book to hawk. Said book is supposedly going to revolutionize the teaching of trig, apparently by using rational numbers and limits. (Don't reporters do any background checking anymore?)

Want a different view of the Plimpton tablet? It looks like a table of Pythagorean triples. Pythagorean triples are a fun topic that mathematicians have been working on for several thousand years now. I've played with them myself. The simplest one is the (3, 4, 5) triangle. The next is (5, 12, 13). There are an infinite number of them, and if it amused you (and apparently it amuses Dr Wildberger) you can get arbitrarily close to the shape of any right triangle with a Pythagorean triple triangle.

The traditional approach to trig links neatly with complex numbers and turns up smoothly in various branches of math. His scheme avoids some ambiguities with orientation, just as he claims, but also misses out on the connections. Poor choice.

In India, 1400 years ago, sine and cosine were approximated with parabolas, and I vaguely remember the idea being considerably older than that; so I'm not saying the Babylonians didn't do any trig. But this is not it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

But what if the cause is not entirely worthy, or what if the man in the arena has some vices?

We, the pinnacle of moral development and the epitome of all virtues, weigh those vices and decide whether to acknowledge the other's achievements. We must not celebrate the poetry of this man because he was a thief and murderer, or the scientific achievements of that man because he wore the shirt his girlfriend gave him, or the courage and skill of a defeated enemy because you must have truth but never reconciliation. You can't celebrate a man who helped design a great experiment in liberty because he wasn't consistent.(*)

You've heard the complaints in the other direction too, haven't you? "You can't honor that Communist terrorist Nelson Mandela."

I don't fly a Confederate flag, nor want a statue of Lee in our neighborhood park. I get it that some people don't feel as though they were involved in any historical reconciliation. What gets up my nose is the envious insistence on our superiority and right to demand obedience to every single detail of today's rules.

Who died and made us God?

(*) You may have to fight the enemy because of his vices, but acknowledge his virtues--they probably make him a more dangerous enemy. You might even learn something from him.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017


I sometimes overlook the most obvious things, for the longest time. I must have read Voyage of the Dawn Treader fifty years ago, and I only just realized the sly title Lewis gave the Governor of the Lone Islands: "His Sufficiency." No majesty or excellence is claimed or aspired to; just "sufficient." Beautiful bureaucrat-ese.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cat videos

In my youth I was a last-picked non-athlete, and I never got much into sports personally. In between other interests and a tendency to deprecate whatever was popular, I never got into sports vicariously.

And so, as a young adult, I didn't see much use in professional sports, and thought investing in a city team a terrible waste of money. Over time I started to notice that watching sports was one of the few civic bonding activities we had. Oh. Maybe this kind of entertainment serves a useful function after all...

Cat videos are a byword for triviality. But in seas of rancid virtue-signalling, perhaps they represent something we can bond on--at least a little. They aren't much at all, but every little bit helps. I won't sneer.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The marchers

It was predictable, and I'm not happy to have been right. We've had one flavor of political shock troops for a couple of years--pretty soon we'll have another; maybe more than two. I'd hoped we could keep it all in the past.

I wonder whose side the driver was on. As of this time I have to take every report with a helping of salt. I can think of four different scenarios for the driver without breaking a sweat--three of them fairly likely. All I know is that somebody is supposed to have been arrested. Update: He's alleged to have been seen with the first group of marchers. As feared.

One picture showed a close group of marchers, probably the same team, carrying confederate and nazi flags. (The old Confederacy lands supplied a lot of volunteers to fight the original Nazis.) I've no reason to doubt that "heritage not hate" is a real description of the motives of a lot of confederate flag wavers--and the combination of a symbol of resistance to central control carried with a symbol of totalitarian rule is more than a little ironic. Probably the pictured group were all nazis, and used the confederate flag as the symbol of racial supremacy it is for some people. Some of the other marchers were said to be racial separatists (not the same thing as supremacists, of course), and I've no notion yet of who the rest were, or even if they knew who all the other groups were. Somebody thought it was OK to have nazis tag along, though. Or wanna-be nazis.

Words are supposed to mean something. I've always been interested in history, and WWII was not that long ago when I was young. Nazis were still the symbol of the enemy, and everybody knew why. I hear horror stories that substantial fractions of today's graduates unable to tell what side England was on during WWII (or else who are pulling the pollster's leg--but I observe a fair amount of ignorance myself). What does "nazi" mean to them? Generic bad group? "I know, teacher! I know! It means Trump and anyone who voted for him!" Similarly, racist means you wonder out loud why we import foreigners to cheaply do the jobs you can't find anymore. It isn't even so much "May as well be hanged for sheep as for lamb" as that the distinctions are blurred.

When the powers-that-be claim that noticing certain problems makes you a swamp-dweller, some proportion of you will join the swamp-dwellers. Think of labor relations early last century. Publicly noticing problems got you called communist, and a lot of noticers joined the communist swamp-creatures.(*)

I suspect that too many people have long memories for the nazis to become a significant force again--certainly not under that name. But the attitudes may come back. We had those attitudes before, and though we've had a few generations in which white racism was suppressed, anything can happen--especially when the elite are alien and arbitrary. "Cling to those you can trust"--and you can't trust Pichai, or the Mizzou administration, or HR.

I used "you," but I, and I suspect most of my readers, are in the happy situation of having skills and education that mean we can comfortably ignore some of the problems, and that, knowing the history, we know the boundaries between the ordinary and the vile. I don't worry about the swamp-creatures--there usually aren't a lot of them. We protect free speech for good reason. I worry when people stop noticing the differences. God help us.

(*) National socialism is congruent to international socialism: totalitarian, the party is the most important thing, violent expansion, have to break a few eggs to create utopia... I regard Che Guevara shirts the same way I think of Martin Bormann shirts.

Blue and Green

I remember wondering once upon a time how it was that the Blue and Green parties got to be so all-encompassing: Religion, class, politics, sports--and probably other things the histories didn't record.

I think I get it now. If I were to find a MAGA hat and pay a visit to a few selected restaurants in Madison, I suspect service would be quite slow, and I might be rebuked for producing a "hostile environment." Virtue signaling your politics or social views in your business isn't ubiquitous, but is still very common. The new restaurant in the building we rent office space from made a point of emphasizing how much they supported Planned Parenthood--even before they opened. I think you can still eat at McD's without implicitly supporting any party, but stories about restaurants refusing to serve cops keep cropping up. Typically corporate comes down hard on the offenders, but clearly the impulse is there.

Has it always been like that? I seem to recall more overlap in interests when I was younger--but the Cubs and the Sox had (overall) different classes for fan bases(*), and my Better Half remembers a visit to Finn McCools to find the band was playing "If you hate the Queen of England clap your hands." (She got by with a visit to the ladies' room and some fractured German to a belligerent inquisitor.)

(*) It was explained to me that the class difference was a side effect of being located in different neighborhoods

Thursday, August 10, 2017


In the Atlantic we find: "Pets don’t actually make people healthier, according to a new analysis. Ability to own a pet does." "The cat owners appeared healthier than people without pets, but the difference went away when the researchers factored in that the cat owners were likely to be healthy for other reasons, mostly bearing on socioeconomic status."

Of course, we want to keep an eye on this to make sure that the result is true. But if it is, what's going to happen to the Emotional Support Animal industry? I haven't seen their reaction yet, but let me guess: "The study doesn't address emotional issues, only deals with children ..."

Monday, August 07, 2017

Chastity of the Mind

It is tempting to embrace every story that comes along that flatters your tribe or besmirches your opponents. After all, the stories generally fit with what you know; build on knowledge you already have.

When you know the CIA is evil and has done unforgiveable things, stories of how they engineered Tolbert’s assassination or plotted 9/11 dovetail nicely with their record of villainy. Racists abound, so when 3 black churches burn in 2 weeks you know it means racist activity is on the rise. When you know the Clintons are corrupt and ruthless, the story that a man killed himself just before he was due to testify about them obviously tells of just another rub-out among many.

Be realistic. Soldiers won’t die if you don’t retweet that bon mot immediately, or repost that quotation of uncertain provenance. You’re not really in a hurry. You may like to think that hearts and minds wait trembling for your imprimatur on the news, but people who know you can probably already predict what you plan to say.

Instantly reposting stories that go down like such sweet morsels is just virtue signaling: your judgment must be profound since you have such noble friends and recognize such a vile and deceptive enemy!

Two words: Richard Jewell. Three words: Duke lacrosse case. Four words: Day care satanic abuse.

A good scientist looks at data that supports his model, and also looks for data that would contradict it. Until it is studied carefully, it is not good for either purpose.

The first reports are usually wrong. (Sometimes later ones are a cover-up, but not so often.) Let your conclusions be tentative, if you must draw any--wait a while and see what else develops.

Yes, I’ve been bitten by that kind of mistake too. It takes practice to reserve judgment.

“There’s a Bene Gesserit saying,” she said. “You have sayings for everything!” he protested. “You’ll like this one,” she said. “It goes: 'Do not count a human dead until you’ve seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake.'” From Dune by Frank Herbert

"Do you read the papers? Of course, you do. But do you read them as I read them? I rather doubt that you have come upon my system. ... I remember once when I lived in the Capital for a month and bought the paper fresh each day. I went wild with love, anger, irritation, frustration; all of the passions boiled in me. I was young. I exploded at everything I saw. But then I saw what I was doing: I was believing what I read. Have you noticed? You believe a paper printed on the very day you buy it? This has happened but only an hour ago, you think! It must be true... So I learned to stand back away and let the paper age and mellow. Back here, in Colonia, I saw the headlines diminish into nothing. The week-old paper - why, you can spit on it, if you wish.” From “And the rock cried out” by Ray Bradbury

“[John]: 'But I must think it is one or the other.'

[Reason]: 'By my father's soul, you must not - until you have some evidence. Can you not remain in doubt?'

[John]: 'I don't know that I have ever tried.'

[Reason]: '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.” From The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

Monday, July 31, 2017

Old stories

Ngimun, Yidyam, and Barany are crater lakes in Australia. There's a story of how they came to be:

It is said that two newly-initiated men broke a taboo and angered the rainbow serpent Yamany, major spirit of the area ... As a result 'the camping-place began to change, the earth under the camp roaring like thunder. The wind started to blow down, as if a cyclone were coming. The camping-place began to twist and crack. While this was happening there was in the sky a red cloud, of a hue never seen before. The people tried to run from side to side but were swallowed by a crack which opened in the ground'....
.. After telling the myth, in 1964, the storyteller remarked that when this happened the country round the lakes was 'not jungle - just open scrub'. In 1968, a dated pollen diagram from the organic sediments of Lake Euramoo [Ngimun] by Peter Kershaw (1970) showed, rather surprisingly, that the rain forest in that area is only about 7,600 years old.

Some other stories refer to places that haven't been above water in 9000 years. "The stories tell of a river that entered the sea at what is now Fitzroy Island. The great gulf between today’s shoreline and the reef suggests that the stories tell of a time when seas were more than 200 feet lower than they are today, placing the story’s roots at as many as 12,600 years ago."

"In one of their stories, Ngurunderi chased his wives until they sought refuge by fleeing to Kangaroo Island—which they could do mostly by foot. Ngurunderi angrily rose the seas, turning the women into rocks that now jut out of the water between the island and the mainland. ... a time when seas were about 100 feet lower than they are today, which would date the story at 9,800 to 10,650 years ago."

The Aborigines apparently have some careful crosschecks to make sure stories don't change: some stories are sacred and must not be adapted by the storyteller. Some of these stories match the ancient landscape nicely--the settings match.

What doesn't quite match is the action. OK, the volcano erupting is a pretty good description of what you might see. But the ocean levels weren't supposed to rise that fast. Stories of a woman crawling along dragging the water after her, or of Ngurunderi angrily raising the sea, are dramatic. That's either something that happens within a human lifetime, or something made dramatic by foreshortening. I'm not sure what would jump a shoreline 20 meters in a human lifetime: Lake Missoula draining won't do it (I estimated about 1mm rise from that). That amount of water draining off the glaciers that fast ought to have done dramatic erosion which we don't see. Great glaciers deciding to up stakes and slip-n-slide to the ocean would have turned the southern US into a Canadian Shield. Could 20 meters happen in a hundred years? My geologic skills aren't good enough for me to say.

That leaves foreshortening. What does that mean in practice? Cast back a few millennia. Stories from 1000, 200, 100 years ago illustrated landscape changes that needed to be explained. Assuming the rock formations were already regarded as women, somebody then synthesized the revised story from the old ones. Although this isn't the sort of thing they do, remember? Otherwise how would the details have stayed intact? Which leaves the option that the story was created at that time. It had to start sometime, of course. But the faster the sea level rise was, the less time was required to keep the stories intact, and the if they didn't need to keep them intact long, the more flexibility ancient the story-tellers/memorisers could have had compared to the modern ones.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity by Mark A Noll

Executive summary: The before and after for a baker's dozen important moments in Christian history. Read it.

  1. The Church Pushed Out On Its Own: The Fall of Jerusalem (70)
  2. Realities of Empire: The Council of Nicaea (325)
  3. Doctrine, Politics, and Life in the Word: The Council of Chalcedon (451)
  4. The Monastic Rescue of the Church: Benedict’s Rule (530)
  5. The Culmination of Christendom: The Coronation of Charlemagne (800)
  6. Division between East and West: The Great Schism (1054)
  7. The Beginnings of Protestantism: The Diet of Worms (1521)
  8. A New Europe: The English Act of Supremacy (1534)
  9. Catholic Reform and Worldwide Outreach: The Founding of the Jesuits (1540)
  10. The New Piety: The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738)
  11. Discontents of the Modern West: The French Revolution (1789)
  12. A Faith for All the World: The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910)
  13. Mobilizing for the Future: The Second Vatican Council and the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (1965, 1974)

Obviously many of these (e.g. The Great Schism) are merely marker dates for larger and longer events. And sometimes the motivating events (e.g. The French Revolution) are external to the Church, but have an impact on it.

The approach gives a convenient framework for covering almost all of Church history. Each chapter's introduction includes a characteristic hymn from the era, and ends with a characteristic prayer. The book is quite readable. The author does his level best to be accurate and empathetic.

Read it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


I wonder if there is a market for a journal reporting "the rest of the story?"

The news feed tells you what is supposedly happening right now, but anybody with an attention span longer than a day knows that those stories are almost invariably incomplete at best, and often simply wrong. I exclude celebrity gossip stories from "news."

Call it The Follow-up Gazette with the motto All the things we found out later.

  • After the drive-by shooting the police woke up everybody on the block to find out if you had heard anything: One kid was playing with his parent's revolver and accidentally shot his buddy, and they made up the "drive-by" story to try to deflect blame. You didn't hear anything because the shot was indoors.
  • The man who claimed he "just said hello to the sleeping homeless man" when suddenly the homeless man attacked him: He is sticking to his story, but nobody believes that was all he said. The homeless man was charged with battery.
  • A report that claimed that the brains of men and women are indistinguishable received a lot of admiring attention. Peers believe the authors should not be allowed out in public without a minder.
  • The Badger Ammunition facility was declared excess and slated, with great fanfare, for cleanup and transfer to other agencies. This is still going on. Cleanup takes years, and so do negotiations. Ho Chunk wants part of the land but the BIA is not on the same page with them.
  • A was standing in front of his house in his underwear when B walked up to him and shot him dead. B was charged with murder. At the trial he was found not guilty. The defense had argued that he shot A because he had reason to fear for his life.
  • Yesterday we reported that Vlad won a blue Lada in a lottery on Tuesday. We have some minor corrections: It was not blue it was green; it was not Vlad but Oleg; it was not a Lada but a bicycle; it was not Tuesday but Thursday; and he did not win it, he stole it. Aside from that the story is substantially correct. Purloined from You Call This Living?

I took a little liberty with one of the above stories, in which I don't know the complete outcome.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Making of the news

ChicagoBoyz referred readers to a story about the next stage up from press releases: story generators for hire.
On Wednesday, three major news organization published variations of the same story—about the line of succession to the Saudi throne. It seems that in June the son of King Salman, Mohammed Bin Salman, muscled his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef out of the way to become the Crown Prince and next in line.

It’s a juicy narrative with lots of insider-y details about Saudi power politics, drug addiction, and the ambitions of a large and very wealthy family, but the most salient fact is that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Reuters published what was essentially the same story, with minor variations, on the same day—not a breaking news story, but an investigative feature.

In other words, these media organizations were used as part of an information campaign targeting Riyadh, for as yet unknown reasons.


On Wednesday, the Times reported that Gen. Abdulaziz al-Huwairini had been put under house arrest by a faction loyal to Mohammed Bin Salman. On Thursday, the Times reported that he was in fact named head of a government body overseeing domestic security and counterterrorism issues.

We've known for years that some reporters simply regurgitate press releases, and that said press releases are often heavily spun ("I say it's spinnage, and I say the hell with it!"). This sounds like a simple expansion of the process.

I've no reason to doubt that there are still plenty of investigators out there--though not nearly as many professionals as there used to be. Unfortunately there's not always an easy way to tell an amateur investigator from a spinner, or worse, a fabricator. And not always an easy way to tell whether the professionals are on the mark either--except by waiting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Crime stories and otherwise

Naked Manitowoc man catches fire after being tased. OK, it was just his beard and chest hair: the taser hit a lighter he was carrying.

Man Who Pushed Stranger in Path of Train Acquitted of Murder. Sounds pretty dreadful, on the face of it: one man pushed another off the platform and then ran, while people stood around and took movies of them both (a tabloid journalist claimed he was using his flash to warn the oncoming train--and a Nigerian prince wants me to handle his finances). Those people taking movies were the reason Davis was acquitted: the movies proved he pushed Han in self defense. Han was drunk and belligerent--I'd guess nobody helped him out because nobody wanted him attacking them and dragging them onto the tracks with him. With a train coming, you aren't going to get much enthusiasm for collecting a group to join him down there and lift him out.

Funny how much stories can differ from the headlines when you get more of the facts.

Have you seen this warning?

Proposition 65 WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

I remember buying some textured paint and discovering that sand was supposed to cause cancer. I assume they meant if I sanded the dry paint off without using a breathing mask then maybe some of the silica would find its way into my lungs along with all the other paint crud.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


You can't pin down where an electron is around an atom. You can say where it probably is, but no more. But it is a predictable "chaos:" random but reliable.

In a cloud of molecules some collide, and perhaps interact. Their trajectories are impossible to calculate, and you can't say which oxygen will combine with which hydrogen. It may take a lot of bouncing around to get all the bits combined. But looking at the bigger picture, you can say the oxygen and hydrogen reliably burn to form water.

There are so many molecules in a single cc of air that all the computers on Earth can't predict the trajectories in detail. It looks wild and chaotic on the microscopic scale, but on our scale PV=nRT is a very simple and useful equation.

Inside an amoeba complicated molecules move this way and that with no obvious pattern, but widen the view a bit and you see them breaking down the lump the amoeba engulfed. Widen the view some more and you see an active creature moving about and eating and reproducing.

The plant scatters seeds randomly, and hundreds of other plants compete for the same space. A cow mashes some into the mud. A falling tree obliterates another region. But the big picture shows a green meadow--with its own kind of order. And it's a robust order--or antifragile, if you prefer.

Economies seem to work similarly: disorder at one level, smoothed out to much more orderly at larger scales.

Sometimes my life seems to consist of reacting to one chaotic crisis after another, but at the end of the year it has had a flavor different from somebody else's reacting to chaotic crises.

A crystal is very orderly. Kind of limited, though. Chaos--the building material for order?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Names In Memoriam

Sometimes a place gets a name because of something that happened there, or that used to be there.

We haven't heard the spring frogs since Nature's Preserve Office Park was built, and it looks like they cut down the trees and scraped off the topsoil to build the Wood Farm development.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Venus atmosphere

"The measurements showed that the temperature near the surface was hot compared to the temperature at an altitude of seven kilometers," Schubert said. "The atmosphere shouldn't have been in that state; it was highly unstable. Whenever you have very hot material underlying a layer of fluid, the fluid tends to turn over." If you have access, the paper is here.

It isn't easy to study Venus. The hot acid atmosphere dissolves space probes. Only one probe's temperature gauges survived all the way to the surface, and even that probe didn't last long. The article says that the pressure, temperature, and composition of the Venusian atmosphere could make it a supercritical fluid, acting like both a gas and a liquid. I don't know if it could act like either alternately, though that would be cool. Did anybody else read Close to Critical?

A terrestrial measurement at much lower temperatures suggests that the gases in the atmosphere might separate out under those conditions, leaving more of the dense CO2 at the bottom, even if the bottom level is at higher temperature. (The calculation of what sort of temperature distribution Venus should have is hard, and I won't attempt it.) Extrapolating to conditions on Venus is . . . um . . . speculative. As the article says, they've two choices: try another Venus probe or try to reproduce Venus conditions in the lab. The lab is probably cheaper.

Why would this be important enough to sort out? The paper notes that there would be much less nitrogen in the atmosphere of Venus if it were excluded from the lowest, most dense layer. And that could influence how we understand both the formation and evolution of the planet. It could also inform our understanding of a variety of other planets, where gases exist under similarly extreme conditions.

That's the sort of stuff that goes in the grant proposal. What's the real reason for trying to study it? It's weird and cool.

Plus, let's face it—it would be pretty cool to have something so bizarre happening on a planet that could be Earth's twin if it were elsewhere in the Solar System.

Yes, I know it is odd to think of Venus' atmosphere as "cool."

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Gain the whole world and lose his own soul

Does it strike you as odd that solipsism is so popular these days? References to "my truth" or the assertion (usually only implicit) that "How I perceive myself is who I am" turn up with disconcerting frequency.

I wonder if part of this is a reaction to "scientific claims" about human nature. When you're told that you do X because of Y, or think Z because of T, you start to feel like a puppet. If your mind is just rationalizing what you've already chosen, you're kidding yourself, so how can you communicate with anyone else? Or can I even cogito?

If you try to shoehorn human experience and communication inside the universe bounded by sense perception and what can be tangibly measured, there's not much room for a "you," and still less for communion. In a way you "gain the whole world" in terms of what power the approach can give, but you lose your soul. That's not universally popular—even Faust regretted the bargain.

Of course you know better, but the these days default parameters of the debate are Descartes': even if you're not a puppet, you still wind up with an incommunicable reality.

There’s another way, of course—or two, or three. One way says that statements about our nature refer to things that "ought" or "ought not." "Ought" is not something you can derive from science, and if you propose to think only in categories of sense-perception and tangible measurements, you're cut off from that. You may find the oughts inconvenient sometimes (like me), but you are free to do the oughts or not. This leaves room for "you," for communion, and purpose—and a creator.

That last item can be frightening. Suppose my creator has different priorities and different ideas about my nature. Will conforming to my creator lose me myself?

Christianity says "just the opposite," but you can see how the prospect would look to someone who believes their nature is their perception of it, malleable by their choice.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

A History of 50 Years of Independence

The book treats all of Africa, including Arab and Egyptian regions. It’s about a dozen years old now, and things have not gotten better. It is too early to say if the partition of Sudan will help—I hope so. Not every place went to hell, but enough did to show patterns.

Some stories differ dramatically from the others. The history of Algeria makes grim reading. South Africa seemed to show a spot of hope, but the intervening years since the book was published brought little encouragement.

Iron smelting and forging technology spread through Africa long ago, but the various industrial revolutions passed by Sub-Saharan Africa—until the last one, which spread imperial Europe everywhere. (It seems odd, because fairly simple constructions like water mills can send your iron smelting temperatures much higher, to give you more iron at once, and of better quality. Persian windmills ground grain easily—it wouldn’t have been hard to duplicate. There was trade across the Sahara, and across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. A puzzlement. But perhaps the crops in some areas aren’t as suited to grinding. At any rate...)

What happened after independence?

The imperial powers infamously divided everything up with little regard for tribal or language affinities, except insofar as they helped them govern. Since they preferred to concentrate trade and industry in their own hands (and all the good land), at independence there weren’t many paths to success. “Forced labor” shows up repeatedly in the history—and that doesn’t mean desk jobs or entrepreneurs.

Though Africa has had large kingdoms and even empires before, recent history was all about the European nation-state model—and each new country needed its own government. Participation in which would represent one of the very few paths to success. Moslems often talk about the Ummah and deprecate nations, but in practice they like running the local show themselves just as much as the infidels do. So, the areas had themselves nation-states.

The imperial/global economy defined success and wealth in terms of consumption of Western goods, and offered tantalizing stuff to consume. More temptation, that you need a revenue stream to participate in.

Despite an initial bonding of “us against the imperials” a man’s loyalty was not to a country but to his family, tribe, and hangers-on. And you cannot rely on the support of your tribe if you are stingy.

What followed from this was: mismanagement from the get-go thanks to a lack of managers; concentration of power and ambition in the central government—universal control nominally to have disparate tribes work together for a common goal but in practice for rent-seeking; pretty much universal corruption; “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—just from a neighboring black tribe instead of a white one. Making a nation a “democracy” merely changed the emphases, and didn’t generally have any effect on the “my tribe in power” corruption.

Some leaders took the European ideologies of socialism and Marxism seriously, as opposed to as bargaining chips in getting aid. Their subjects generally paid dearly for the experiments.

A lot of the details in The Fate of Africa weren’t covered in the news of the day: sometimes out of fear, sometimes because of entrenched lies (e.g. Rwanda genocide), and sometimes because Western news teams couldn’t be bothered. Quite a few people look very different (some worse, quite a few better) than they were originally reported. Lots of heroes had feet of clay, and unfortunately circumstances often brought out the flaws in a big way.

Read the book if you’ve any interest in Africa.

Because there is rarely a sense of nationhood, the obvious path to organic development and to reducing friction would seem to be through a different model of government, with federated statelets based on tribal affiliation, with a relatively weak central government. (Sort of Swiss style) Unfortunately this tends to leave you at the mercy of neighbors that cultivate a large army (African leaders are no more moral than those anywhere else when it comes to a neighbor’s easily stolen stuff). The only way to guarantee the integrity of such federations, at least at first, is for external parties to guarantee them. France has a record of this, and it usually works OK, though there’s a price to pay and they sometimes misfire very badly (e.g. Rwanda).

But—how do you get there from here? You don’t. The local powers-that-be aren’t going to give up their power and iron rice bowls, and (e.g.) European powers have no great interest in enforcing somebody else’s borders for no benefit to themselves.

What could help? The author suggests that industrial countries could cut back on farm supports, and let African exporters sell renewable crops and not just raw materials. That seems reasonable, though politically complicated. The Cold War is mostly over, and the proxy conflicts are done--that helps too.

I’d suggest learning a little more about the full situation before we try to throw food aid at a famine—often that makes the long-term situation worse as it ruins local farmers who tried to produce a surplus, and famines tend to be political creations anyway. And funding tiny projects, not big tempting cash cows (though lots of tiny projects get to be very expensive, since you need more people on the ground to investigate). The expectation is that if you get a degree you deserve to get a government job—that expectation has to change. Define educational objectives and focus on those, with the goal that the farmer will be a citizen farmer, the clerk a citizen clerk, and that education will not be a job training program.

All easier to say than do... The book does not depict Africans as puppets, but as their own agents, working with the environment they found themselves in, or which they helped create. The important changes have to come from the African groups; they can't be imposed. And some will turn out better than others.

Roman cement

Why modern mortar crumbles, but Roman concrete lasts millennia:
Al-tobermorite, long known to give Roman concrete its strength, can be made in the lab, but it’s very difficult to incorporate it in concrete. But the researchers found that when seawater percolates through a cement matrix, it reacts with volcanic ash and crystals to form Al-tobermorite and a porous mineral called phillipsite, they write today in American Mineralogist. So will you be seeing stronger piers and breakwaters anytime soon? Because both minerals take centuries to strengthen concrete, modern scientists are still working on recreating a modern version of Roman cement.

An older view article said:

It's the reaction that occurs between the lime and the volcanic material that produces the stronger concrete, the researchers found. As the concrete hardened, strätlingite crystals formed in spaces around the sand and the volcanic gravel, making the structure stronger.

Can we do the same? Apparently some varieties of fly ash have similar composition to volcanic ash. Maybe the Three Gorges Dam will luck out.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dana Loesch

I don't keep up with these things, but a recent NRA ad was pointed out to me. I gather that Dana Loesch is or was a NRA representative. "I'm freedom's safest place." Urk.

Not quite.

Some of the things in the ad refer to significant problems. The brownshirts of anti-fa have had malign impact in places like Berkeley, and even here in Madison they allegedly ambushed and attacked a man coming out of a restaurant a block away from me, presumably "pour encourager les autres" (I've eaten at that restaurant a number of times). BLM has participated in and inspired some violent riots. Here in Madison their protest was peaceful. A startling proportion of the movers and shakers in media and arts seem to have started believing their own press releases, and consider Trump a racist and fascist and nazi and what-all else: and the rhetoric is often explicitly violent. But aside from Hodgkinson I don't see a lot of action based on it.

The dangers tend to be concentrated in a few places (I'm not forgetting that attack a block away!), and the rest of the country is calmer. The NRA has always been a bit on the shrill side, (like all such political organizations) but this is over the top. The violence problem in this town isn't from the political street thugs, but the Milwaukee and Chicago gangsters.

I've been predicting that if the existing political street thugs weren't dealt with, we'd start to get right- and center- political gangs as well, and that that wasn't going to end well. It sounds as though the NRA isn't waiting, but the call isn't explicit--plausible deniability. I'd be interested in seeing if Dana is still a representative next week. I hope not.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Heisenberg's chimps

"Chimpanzees in Uganda may have changed their hunting strategy in response to being watched by scientists."
"Sonso" chimps hunt in small groups for colobus monkeys, while those from the "Waibira" troop hunt solo and catch "whatever they can get their hands on".


Biologists who have followed and studied these animals for years think that work may have disturbed the group hunting that seems key to chasing and catching colobus monkeys.

I trust nobody is surprised. You'd probably change your hunting methods if you were being watched by chimps. And I've a strong suspicion that the spear-wielding chimps learned from watching people.

Research can be tough sometimes. And that's when you're not dealing with people. (The author of the latter was one of the Unibomber's targets. "McConnell originally published satirical articles alongside serious scientific articles in the Journal of Biological Psychology but received complaints that it was difficult if not impossible to tell which was which.")

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Stowing wheelchairs

I was talking this morning with a man who’d sustained a temporary injury that meant that although he could walk a little, and drive, he had to use a wheelchair most of the time. He’d fallen. He fell again while trying to store his wheelchair, and in consequence had to rely on other people to help him drive around.

Perhaps that’s actually a good thing, but I wondered if there were ways to make it possible for someone semi-wheelchair bound to drive by themselves.

If he uses a collapsible wheelchair, it might be.

The most obvious approach is to have a four-door sedan in which the front door is hinged, as usual, on the front, and the rear door hinged on the rear. Wheel up, open both doors, sit in the driver’s seat, fold the wheelchair and shove it into the back seat area, then close the doors and drive away. Reverse the procedure to get out.

The problem with that is that remounting a car door would take fairly massive and expensive modifications—probably of order of the cost of a used wheelchair van. (Which aren’t cheap.)

Another possibility is a roof-mounted mechanism using a swing-out arm. It would probably have to be motorized, but that could be arranged.

  1. Wheel up to car, open door, and have swing-out arm open out
  2. Sit in car and fold up wheelchair
  3. Lower and attach the upper attachment cables to the wheelchair.
  4. Raise the wheelchair to mid-station, and lower and attach the lower attachment cables to it
  5. Raise the wheelchair the rest of the way
  6. Have the mechanism turn the wheelchair sideways
  7. Rotate the swing-arm back over the car

Reverse this to get out of the car.

This doesn’t sound like a very cheap prospect either, and mounting it solidly to the roof of a car sounds difficult—though easier than trying to change the frame. It doesn’t sound like something you would rent for a few months.

Or you could strap a walker to the back of the wheelchair, and unlimber that when you need to store the wheelchair. You might need a hooked rod as well to help you get the wheelchair in and out, of course. A lot cheaper...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mismatch somehow

I've always liked climbing on things (Right knee registers a dissenting opinion), but never liked heights. A very early memory is of happily clambering partway up a slide and then realizing "Oh crud." (FWIW airplane travel doesn't bother me, and it doesn't matter much whether it is me or someone dear to me near the edge. Or near the foreshortened slope.)

I'm not sure how to square that circle.

Devil's Lake is a beautiful park, even with ominous clouds heading over the bluffs in your direction. We figured that it was going to be super-crowded and so parked at Steinke Basin and took a long access road into the park, which brought us in at the top of the bluff without having to climb or fight traffic. I'm starting to get better at tunnel vision, though that defeats the purpose of taking the bluff trails. (When I walk and stare at something off to one side, I drift.)

When we got to the Devil's Doorway trail we rested and watched our guests, teens, families with little kids, and a one-eyed lady with a cane climb down to see the Devil's Doorway. Felt a little silly.

Further along the path, a Spanish family said someone had fallen. None of us was trained or equipped, so we stayed away to give the pros room, and about 20 minutes later a couple of fire rescue vehicles appeared, and some time later an ambulance showed up at Steinke--it couldn't navigate the paths and waited for the call that the others were bringing the patient. We didn't learn any details, but fallers are usually the cliff-climbers, not the average path-walkers.

Physics and econ

RCS has a link today to a Guardian story: "Why I left physics for economics. I recently decided to abandon the rules that govern nature for the rules that govern people and markets: economics. Why would I do such a thing?"

Short version: work in physics is hard to find and unstable (which means jerking your family around--some of us value stability, contra Zuckerberg's values). Econ has interesting patterns and rules to be discovered, just like plasma physics.

Do other people remember quants on Wall Street? True, that was GIGO and most of the blame lies with screwed-up economic models the quants were given. Still, I'd look twice. Maybe three times.

It seems that the quant jobs weren't all they were cracked up to be. (One of the warnings in that last link is that living near the super-rich and seeing shops devoted to things you'll never afford makes even well-off people feel poor. Wealth is relative--who knew?)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Baseball matches for charity

I hadn't known that there was a charity baseball game between legislators in DC. Nice idea.

I wonder if one could promote a little more amity with similar baseball charity competitions among the three letter agencies. True, some of them are large enough to support whole farm systems as well.

Can you find fitting names?

The FDA Stoners, the CIA Moles, the Dept of Education Hickory Sticks, the HUD Trogolodytes, the NSF Perpetual Motioneers, the Dept of Energy Alchemists, the DOD Atlatls, the DOJ Yardbirds, the DOS Woosters ...

Monday, June 19, 2017


We were retracing our steps along the lower level of the Lime Kiln trail at High Cliff State Park, about ready to head home for the day. (It isn't that high a cliff, but it is part of the Niagara escarpment.) We started hearing a crackling and crashing, as though rocks were starting to break loose on the slope above us. After a second or two we saw that a large tree was falling towards us--maybe a little ahead, maybe not. We went elsewhere quickly.

The falling tree snapped off another tree on the way down, and made quite a crash when it hit.

The crown sat six inches from the edge of the path.

It saps a little of the drama of the incident to realize that we could have just kept strolling along and been perfectly safe...