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 Fran├žois 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.