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...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Paradox Men by Charles Harness

When I was about 8 or 9 I discovered Dad's Ace Double science fiction books. He left a lot of books behind, but one of those he took with us looked fascinating, and I liked Dome Around America. The book on the other side looked a lot harder to get into, and I didn't actually read it for a few more years.

When I did tackle Charles Harness' The Paradox Men, I loved it. Williamson's Dome I reread once, but it wasn't his best work by a long shot. Paradox Men, on the other hand...

I re-read Paradox this evening, and know enough physics and physiology now to have to force a lot of suspension of disbelief, but the liberties taken aren't for scenery--they drive the plot, which is fast and neatly concluded and as enjoyable as I remembered. Who, and what, is Alar? BTW, the later slightly edited edition is cleaner than the version I remember from 40+ years ago.

Other people have done similar things since (and Frank Herbert borrowed his shields for Dune), but it's a nice un-ironic read.

So if you're willing to forget real physics and physiology for a spell, read it.

Elk learning

Elk learn not just hunting season, but what kinds of weapons they're being hunted with--and adjust accordingly.
During bow season, they used difficult terrain more – making things tricky for bow hunters, who need to get much closer to their prey than those who use rifles. And during rifle season, the elk stayed further away from roads, where hunters might spot them.

The article ends with a suggestion that this might be useful in land management--a little hunting close by farms might encourage elk to take their custom elsewhere.

I wonder if this works for deer.

Monday, June 12, 2017

ViewMaster question

Mattel has contracted out production of this classic to The Bridge Direct, which presumably means their research budget is $0.00. Unfortunately.

I sent the firm an email, but wonder if anybody has seen ViewMaster reels made of plastic instead of cardboard?

Humidity and termites are not nice to cardboard, and it turns out these things are common in some parts of Africa which might benefit from having cheap tools for displaying images of geological features (and meteorological, etc) to children who don't have access to TV or travel. (The students would have to share, obviously.)

So: has anybody seen more durable reels than the ones I remember from childhood? Or from 25 years ago when I asked them for information as part of an outreach proposal for Fermilab. It never got off the ground.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Education in Africa, one data point

I'm doing a bit of research on tools for science education in elementary school in Africa.

From the Guardian, 2012

The hypothesis In the 1990s, a Dutch development charity called International Christelijk Steunfonds decided to fund a programme to support education in Kenya. Previous research had suggested that providing African children with textbooks that they could not normally afford might improve their exam results, so the charity paid for 25 schools to receive sets of English, science and maths books. The charity, however, didn't just provide the books. It decided to run an experiment.

The experiment As Tim Harford describes in his book Adapt, ICS asked the Kenyan government not to select 25 schools that would receive the books, but to identify 100 schools that would be equally suitable. From these, 25 were selected at random. The books were delivered and exam results at the 25 intervention schools compared with those from the 75 similar schools without the extra teaching resources.

The textbooks, it turned out, made very little difference. ICS then tried another intervention – illustrated teaching flip-charts – in a similar randomised trial. Again, there was no significant effect.

=So the charity tried a third approach, funding treatment for intestinal worms. This time, the trial followed a staggered design: 25 random schools received the treatment immediately, 25 after two years, and another 25 two years after that. This time, there was clear evidence: de-worming children unequivocally improved their learning, probably thanks to improved nutrition.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The more things change

I don't believe I can describe political discourse better than Twain.

Thursday, June 08, 2017


I caught part of an interview with a chaplain who wrote about hospice chaplains. I didn't expect the emphasis on silence.

She seemed to be saying that guests who were silent could give the patient permission to be silent also--to be silent with God and their life.

There's a time for goodbyes and making sure things aren't forgotten, and especially for trying to mend fences before it is too late.

Dave Barry wrote a moving column about his father's death, and his disappointment that the last words seemed so trivial. In the nature of things, the time of dying is generally not suited for long deep talks.

But silence means something. On the one hand we know of "the silent treatment" and the "I'm too busy to be bothered," but on the other hand there's the "The words have all been said already, and we can let their meaning echo through our time together."

It's easy to think of silence as like the empty spaces in one of the old Japanese prints. The emptiness has a shape and a meaning there,, given it by the lines. But perhaps silence can also be a positive thing in its own right, a sign of a different kind of communication. "Be still and know ...?"

It turns out silence is hard to come by. Over the years I've met several people who talked as though they feared that they would stop existing if they stopped talking. As I sit here I hear the highway, the turtle tank filter, a ball game broadcast in another room--but all these are easier to quiet than the "drunken monkey." One has to try. "Be still and know ..."

Blast from the past

I don't know why I thought of Bernard Goetz this evening, but the next thing that came to mind was "What happened to the four?"

Fortunately somebody else asked that question already, and the answer in this article matches other stories elsewhere.

Apparently the NYT report about sharpened screwdrivers was wrong--they had some for a planned theft, but not sharpened. And the claim that they were innocent panhandlers was contradicted by one of the four, who said they thought he was easy prey. And the attitude of Ramseur at the trial was so nasty that his testimony was stricken, and some think that Goetz was acquitted of most charges because of Ramseur. And though Goetz shot 5 times, one bullet missed, which was the basis for a reckless endangerment charge.

Cabey was partly paralyzed and possibly brain damaged--his family won a $43M judgment against Goetz which they have yet to collect. Ramseur went to prison for 25 years for a vicious rape, and apparently killed himself a year after getting out (on the anniversary of the shooting). Allen went to prison for a couple of robberies, and there's nothing that comes up since 1995. Canty indulged in a number of minor offenses, and was arrested but not charged for robbery and assault of his common-law wife in 1996.

I assume that Allen and Canty are still alive--either's death would be an instant and easy news story, and I didn't find one. If so, the 20 years since the last reported interaction with the law is a good sign.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

How the mighty are fallen!

Scientific American published an article on plans to recall the brain-dead to life.
First there’s the injection of stem cells isolated from the individual’s own fat or blood. Second, there’s a peptide formula injected into the spinal cord, purported to help nurture new neurons’ growth. ... Third, there’s a regimen of nerve stimulation and laser therapy over 15 days to spur the neurons to form connections. Researchers will look to behavior and EEG for signs that the treatment is working.

The article gives voice to a number of skeptics. Count me among their number. This is too silly for words--"Your laptop's hard drive isn't working? I'll fix it with superglue!"

This isn't the same Scientific American magazine I grew up with.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Featherless biped

Oops. T Rex skin seems cheerfully feather-free. Ditto other tyrannosaurs. They argue that large dinosaurs would, like large mammals, have lost any extra covering that might make them overheat. Or, maybe they never had any? Maybe the putative feathery ancestors were weird uncles and not grandfathers of the T Rex line.
None of the scales are as big as what you see on the back of a crocodile, but they are similar to the scales along a croc’s flank. I suppose tyrannosaur hide would make for a nice set of luggage.