Monday, July 06, 2020

What's in a name

Dr Boli discovered a Macedonian work on linguistics that sheds some light on an old political dispute with Greece.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Civil war

Our youngest daughter has had a tradition of watching the '93 movie Gettysburg on the anniversary of the battle, and this year she persuaded us to watch it too. It seemed like a fine movie, though perhaps relying a bit heavily on Longstreet.

The first question that comes to mind is: Will we have another civil war?

The answer, of course, is yes. We're not immune to history. Will one happen in my lifetime? I don't know.

All my news-reading life I've heard of people who want us to have another one. Remember Charles Manson, who wanted to jump-start a race war and piggy-back on it to start a new society? Apparently he has company again.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

In the voids

How do you see magnetic fields when they're too far away to stick a probe in, and too weak to polarize light? Like, for example, the magnetic fields in the voids between clusters of galaxies...

One thing you can look for is gamma rays from blazars.

It turns out that light can scatter from charged particles, but it can also scatter off other light particles. The effect isn't nearly so strong, but it's there. And if a gamma ray of sufficient energy collides with one of the background microwaves, it can "pair-produce". It might just simply scatter, of course, in which case it loses energy and the microwave photon gains it. But pair-production contributes quite a bit. Now, a positron from that pair-production will often interact with an electron to produce a pair of photons, and the electron scatter off other matter and result in a photon too.

The first thing to notice here is that these new photons have lower energy than the original gamma ray (conservation of energy). The second thing to notice is that they'll be going in more or less the same direction as the electron or positron.

Now in the absence of a magnetic field, those electrons and positrons would keep going in pretty much the same direction as the original high-energy gamma ray. But if there is such a field, it will bend the particles into new directions, and the gamma rays that result from their interactions won't point back to that blazar.

Quanta has a description and picture.

So, when you look at the spectrum of gamma rays from a blazar, some of the low energy gamma rays shouldn't be there. The model say there should be more than we see.

Arguing from an absence isn't very robust--there might be some other reason for the missing gamma rays. The models can be wrong.

But if you look near a blazar, maybe you can see an excess of low energy gamma rays there, bent off into a halo around the star. It looks like you can.

The intergalactic magnetic fields they infer are tiny: of the order 10^-17 to 10^-15 Gauss. That turns out to be big enough to solve another: the universe seems to have expanded faster than you'd expect (this has nothing to do with inflation, which I don't want to try to defend).

So, a little halo of light (well, gamma-ray light) may be telling us something about a region we'll never be able to visit.

"Coconut-picking machines"

"Supermarkets snub coconut goods picked by monkeys"

BBC reported that several British companies, panicked by PETA, have "vowed to stop selling" "any products sourced from monkey labour."

Male monkeys are able to pick up to 1,000 coconuts a day, Peta says. It's thought that a human can pick about 80.

It said it also discovered "monkey schools", where the animals were trained to pick fruit, as well as ride bikes or play basketball for the entertainment of tourists.

As usual, PETA describes the worst case as normative. That's when they don't outright lie: I read what they wrote of treatment of cows in Wisconsin--did they think we who live here don't have eyes?

I gather that the companies are perfectly happy to have humans do this harvesting instead--which is much more difficult and dangerous for a human than for a monkey. Priorities, you understand...

Wasn't there once an advertising slogan "Untouched by human hands?"

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Defunding police

What do people want with the slogan "Defund the Police?"

I'm told this really means taking money from enforcement and putting it into prophylatic social services.

That would be a more plausible claim if it were what marchers were saying, but "No more cops" suggests that they mean what they say, and that those "more sophisticated people" who want to be the spokesmen are merely saying what they think would be appropriate.

I am perfectly sure that some voices are not being heard. The previous Madison police chief kept a blog of the most significant police interactions of the previous day, and in response to pressures to monitor police/minority interactions, he included the ethicity and sex of the criminals and the victims. Most of the violent "suspects" were black. So were most of the victims, and entertainments like "beating up your ex" featured prominently. It wasn't white eavesdroppers who called the cops; it was the battered black woman. I don't remember hearing a lot from those like her.

The initial question is poorly framed. Different people want different things.

  1. Some believe that policing and punishment cause crime. There are some things so stupid only an intellectual can believe them. Some of the leadership are that kind of intellectual.
  2. Some don't care, they just want the power the slogan gives them. If they got control, just like their ilk elsewhere, they'd re-create a police force under their direct control, and use it to solidify their power. We've seen it happen many times before.
  3. Some don't think about it at all. "Smart people say it's OK, so let's go with it. No punishment, no crime; win/win!"
  4. Some undoubtedly are criminals themselves, or friends with them, or just want to cause mischief, and hope for a freer hand. Yes, it isn't that hard to find people who think uppity girlfriends deserve a beating.
  5. But I hear some of them saying that they consider the police to be aliens.

    There is precedent for having different ethnic groups police themselves. In the USA, the Indian nations could have, at some level, their own laws and enforcement. The Ottoman empire used the millet system to manage a multi-confessional land. Each group had its own responsible officials and internal rules and taxes, and in case of conflict the laws of the injured party's millet applied--unless it involved Muhammadans, in which case sharia applied.

    The alien-averse might think some laws unfair (e.g. drug laws), but most of the time they'd create pretty much the same laws themselves: don't steal, don't beat people up, etc. Their objection is not to the enforcement but to the enforcers. "They aren't our laws, they're theirs:" even if the laws are the same.

    This denies "We're all in this together." It's a call for separation; and separation along racial lines. Keep calling it millet even though it isn't confessional; we want to avoid Godwin's Law short circuits.

    We've seen the "We're not the same" attitude before, most memorably in the early 1860's, but it's been part of the mix all along. So long as there was some kind of frontier we could manage that more or less peacefully. Mormonism was a bridge too far, but they managed to go it alone for a while. The more central control we have, the fewer opportunities for being separate there are--and one of our parties is OK with growing central control and the other is enthusiastically in favor of it. I don't think "benign neglect" is going to work.

    If we're going to accomodate the ones who want a millet (and who has demonstrated that they are even a plurality of the black population?), we'd have to be explicit about it.

    And law enforcement gets to be really complicated.

    911 gets a call: "My boyfriend strangled me!" "Are you black or white? I have to know which policeman to send."

    Cleanly separated enforcement doesn't seem to be very possible unless there's some pre-determined clarity about who has jurisdiction where. That suggests that you'd need a clearly defined place where the millet applies, and that for the millet to be effective, those belonging to it should move to that place, and those not belonging to it move out.

    I don't like this solution--even without the inevitable historical comparisons. And there'd be a butcher's bill eventually from the arguments over who got what.

    But I wonder if some of those who've jumped to support the BLM demands have though it through too, and do.

UPDATE: Example added for #4

Barn swallow

While resting on the pier by the marina on the harborwalk at Port Washington, we watched the barn swallows perching on the wires. One of them seemed to have acquired a 2" fluffy gull feather behind its feet that it could not dislodge, despite about half an hour's effort.

The feather didn't seem to seriously impair flying.

A second barn swallow kept coming back to this one. At one point it looked like there was an attempt to mate, chased off by the first.

I wondered if the feather made the first bird look receptive. "Barn swallows prefer mates with long tail feathers. In general, it is the females that do the selecting in pairing and they prefer younger, more fertile males." So, unless that was two females, with the feather making the first bird look hyper-masculine, probably not.

But the second bird wasn't usually doing anything that might look agressive, so the feather wasn't making it look like a "chase it away" alien.

Has anybody seen this sort of thing before?

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Lighter side

In Port Washington you may find a business called "Wholistic Dentistry."

I did not investigate closely: they were closed and I had places to be.

Your everyday non-wholistic dentist will urge you to make the lifesytle changes of eating less sugar and starch and flossing more often. Presumably "wholistic" adds new dimensions beyond these: perhaps a modified version of a Miskito smoke therapy that requires that the patient use cigars--that would probably be popular. Or perhaps they inject novacain into the left big toe instead of the jaw. Or they teach patients to transcend dental medication.

Or perhaps they really mean "hole-istic" dentistry.

I was accused of making Dad-jokes when I referred to Ouroboros butterflies.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Filling in the context

We're all seen the picture of the man with the AR and the woman holding the pistol, in front of a huge home.

The viewer can see fear, and weapons, and a big house (and the woman's finger on the trigger). The photograph was a little window, in one direction.

Is that enough information to know what's going on?

I know a few people for whom the mere presence of weapons meant the figures in the picture were bad people.

I wonder how much of the current animus towards policemen is the knee-jerk "only bad people have weapons."

The unseen people were described as demonstrators or protestors. I saw no photos of the group. You get to fill in whatever you want. If they're protesting in a good cause, they must be good people and you can fill in peaceful images of chanting or kneeling marchers. If you are more concerned with the riots that sometime accompany the demonstrations, you can fill in the rock-throwers and molotov-cocktail throwers. We had some of both kinds of marchers in Madison.

Once you've filled in your background, you re-interpret everybody in the scene. If you have populated the invisible side with peaceful black marchers for justice, the pair you see must be motivated by more than just fear--there must be some bigotry too.

If you've filled in your background with a wild-eyed mob, the pair must feel they're in mortal danger.

If you insert yourself into your imagined scene, you get to feel morally superior or smarter than the pair.

Inserting yourself into the real scene takes a little more work, and maybe more humility.

I wasn't there, I hadn't seen pictures of the marchers, and by now you can guess how reliable I find reporters. But I gather there were about 100+ people, who'd torn down an iron gate, and were marching past the couple to the mayor's home to threaten her. The couple yelled at the crowd to get out, and came back outside with guns.

Hmm. That's not a peaceful march. Maybe some members were, but their intention wasn't. On the other hand, there was not (yet) a direct threat to the couple.

(The mayor may have crossed a line, but that's outside the scope of this scene.)

What would a "reasonable man" have done? I have some ideas of what I would have done in their shoes, but there's been some dispute over whether I'm a reasonable man, since I differ politically from my betters. But of course I wasn't there.

Sunday, June 28, 2020


The topic of potlucks vs "the lord of the manor's great hall" came up at dinner the other night.

So, of course you look it up, right?

The selection of sources seemed to agree that the name came from "luck of the pot:" whatever leftovers were kept simmering to keep from spoiling, that an unexpected guest would be offered. (The "keep from spoiling" is my interpolation: it seems pretty obvious.) It didn't come from the Indian "potlatch."

I'd never heard of Jacob's Join as a synonym for it, though. I haven't quite figured out how to get the Biblical Jacob as inspiration for a potluck. Maybe there was a local Jacob somewhen in Lancashire whose parties inspired it.

Wikipedia cites a Chicago writer to suggest that potlucks were a Depression-era innovation, but given that barn raising seems to have involved communal meals, I'm guessing reporters found imagination easier than legwork back then too.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A reminder

As the next generation has learned: If your kid wakes you up in the morning saying "I don't feel good," you have about 30 seconds to get them to the sink before the trouble starts.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Jogging memory

When I was working on my PhD at UofI Urbana, our data lived at Fermilab, and that's where most of the processing had to be too. To communicate with the computers BI (Before Internet) we used several modems (mostly 300 baud, but one was 110 and the prized one was 1200!), and, to save on long distance charges, a special telephone line that made our terminal room appear to be an Aurora location. Thus phone calls through it to Batavia were all local. We didn't use it for phone service, just computer connections--except once when there was some kind of outage and a PI had to be on the line for hours.

It wasn't an ordinary line, and it wasn't protected by the usual features. In particular, the line did not register as "busy" when we were using it.

Somewhere in Aurora or Batavia, a woman had written her doctor's number on her refridgerator. Sometimes she needed to call him. There was a typo in the number. Our terminals would suddenly all freeze as the sessions died, and the phone in the corner would ring.

She apologized, and promised to correct the number, but perhaps she was distracted talking to her doctor, and we'd get a call again a few weeks later.

I decided to make the call memorable. On the next call, I grabbed the reciever first. "North American Casket Insurance: You can rest in peace when your tomb's insured. How may I help you?"

She hung up, and we were never interrupted again.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Pundits, problems, prescriptions

When pundits make claims and prescriptions, it's useful to parse out the components of the problem.
  1. Is is a problem? If you worry that most Americans do not go to college, stop a minute and ask why everybody should. If you think everybody would benefit, you should get out more.
  2. Is it a new problem? Remember the epidemic of burning of black churches a few decades ago? When somebody bothered to look at the statistics, it turned out that this happened at the same rate it always had--and most of the fires were and are due to poor maintenance, not anger.
  3. Is the description of the problem accurate? Activists typically have tunnel vision, to put it kindly.
  4. Is the prescription relevant? "End capitalism" is a popular magic cure-all. The dark font in the human soul that pours out hatred and greed and lust is supposedly entirely due to private property.
  5. What side effects does the prescription entail? "Defund the police" and then what happens? I used to wonder if people got their ideas of problem solving from 25-minute TV shows and 20-second commercials, but I'm coming around to the conclusion that a lot of people are neither very bright nor very experienced. But they have certificates.

I'm going to be a bit cold-blooded here.

About 6 black people hung themselves outdoors in the past month

Yes, of course that's a problem. Any suicide is. Or any murder, if that's what it is. (In one of the cases someone allegedly has video evidence that it was murder.)

Is it a new problem? Is the rate higher than it used to be? That might indicate dangerously greater stress, if it is suicide, or an extremely ugly revival of old styles of murder if it isn't.

Let's see. I don't have statistics broken out exactly, but if the suicide rate among blacks is 40% that among whites (from the article), and there were about 48,000 suicides in the USA (2018), there would have been about 2500 black suicides. If the rate of hanging is about 1/4 the total, then in a month you'd expect about 52 deaths by hanging, concentrated in areas with larger black populations. (and in places with higher rates of addiction and mental illness--like homeless camps) I'd expect some fraction of those to take place indoors: maybe 3/4 if one UK survey is applicable. So, 13 outdoors--or more, if the homeless camps contribute a lot to the numbers.

A count of "6" isn't exactly a smoking gun. It tells me that either the estimate for the rate of hanging relative to other methods is off by quite a bit (quite possible--the article didn't break that down by ethnicity) or that most of the incidents haven't been reported on here. In neither case is there evidence for a "new" or resurgent problem. An old one, yes--though one we prefer not to think about.

Maybe there will be. I would not be surprised. Until then..

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fossils and Indians

Native peoples were the first discoverers of the remains and tracks of dinosaurs on this continent and, in some instances, it was they who brought the bones, teeth, and tracks to the attention of people of European descent living here.
Edward Taylor, a minister and poet from Westfield, Massachusetts, recalled stories told to him by local Native people of these monsters but he didn’t believe the stories until 1705, when he was privileged to see the huge teeth, most likely of a mastodon, that had been found along with skeletal remains protruding from the banks of the Hudson River in Claverack, New York. Various Iroquoian and Algonquian groups believed these bones and teeth were from giant naked or hairless bears with huge heads. The Abenaki referred to them as “Gici Awas” (also here) and they were called “Nyah-Gwaheh”, among other names, by the Iroquoian peoples.

Friday, June 19, 2020


"Politicians have to be progressive; that is, they have to live in the future, because they know that they have done nothing but evil in the past."
He also wrote: "Long ago, before the Balkan Wars or the Russo-Japanese War, I remember writing in this general sense: that there were two forces in the world threatening its peace, because of their history, their philosophy and their externality to the ethics of Christendom; and they were Prussia and Japan. I remember horrifying all my Liberal friends, when I wrote for the Daily News in the days of my youth, by saying this about Japan. I did not, however, modify my view then. I am certainly not likely to modify it now."

Immunity reminder

Most of my readers know it already, but in case you don't: Even for diseases for which you can acquire an immunity, a sufficiently large dose of the infectious agent can overwhelm the immunity. That's been known for over a century. And some immunities are only temporary.