Sunday, March 29, 2009

Quite a reach

The US Treasury (aka Geithner) is proposing legislation with an extremely broad reach. The devil is in the details as usual, and the details won't be there until Congress gets its collective mitts on the work; but even so treating insurance companies (or holding firms for same) like banks seems a little over the top.

If people quit trusting banks and start stuffing money under the mattress again, will the race to the National Bank of Mattress "have the potential to pose systemic risks to our economy but that are not currently subject to the resolution authority of the FDIC?"

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

In 1976 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote an updated version of Dante's Inferno called Inferno. In it an atheist science fiction writer finds himself in hell, and learns of a way out. It is a very fine book, and I recommend it.

This year the pair published a sequel: Escape From Hell.

The original book did not invite a sequel, and Larry Niven's track record with sequels isn't as stellar as one might hope—he has an unhappy tendency to try to fill in logical holes, which tends to detract from telling a clean story. (I refer you to the Ringworld series for some examples.)

That's two strikes against it, but I felt that the original was good enough that I owed the new book a try.

Since you already know the overall themes from Inferno, the new book lacks some of the drama of the original, but it actually works well as a sequel. Carpenter is on an errand of mercy—and so are others. And there are reorganizations afoot, and of course famous characters appear: Sylvia Plath and Oppenheimer and some politicians you'll recognize. Carpenter struggles too much with doubts for full believability. The book expands on Inferno's themes, and is full of quotations (what you get when you travel with a poet)--though it never actually cites Matthew 16:18.

If you liked the original book you will probably like this.

If you haven't read Inferno, go do that first.

Ignore the blurbs on the cover and flyleaf.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Credit where due

I was glad to see Obama opposing the House bill, and he got a nice spin on it about "not governing from anger." I hope that means he is listening to some smarter advisers now.


There are so many euphemisms in this story that I hardly know where to begin.

A District Court judge ordered the FDA to "reconsider" its restrictions on sale of the abortificient called Plan B, and ordered it to allow sales to 17-year-olds without prescription. "Reconsider?" "You will decide what we tell you."

FDA officials in 2006 allowed easier, "behind-the-counter" sales to those age 18 and older who show proof of age while still requiring a prescription for women 17 and younger. Its maker, Barr Pharmaceuticals, had originally sought over-the-counter access without any age requirements.

In other words the product was available, and the action of the judge is to demand that girls get non-prescription access to an extra-strength version of a drug for which women need a prescription to get in normal doses. That doesn't make much medical sense. And Barr's initial request is horrifyingly cavalier about the mother's health--but given that the idea is to kill the baby I suppose you have to expect a certain coarsening of ethics from them.

This is all in the name of "science."

The incoming leadership of FDA ... are committed to making sure that FDA gets back on track. I think that leadership will really make sure that the agency is making its decisions that are based on science," Wood, now a research professor at George Washington University, told reporters.

"Science?" That word doesn't mean what you think it means. Questions about the utility of drugs or the morality of actions are not science questions. Some are economic questions, some involve risk trade-offs, and some, such as this, have moral problems associated with them.

I suppose I should be glad that they still feel the need to lie about what they're doing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Having had to wait for lost luggage during or after about a third of all the trips in which I checked luggage, I decided to carry a backpack and laptop and forgo the suitcase.

Of course the backpack is a little thicker than the luggage gauge the airports have, but it doesn't matter since it crushes down easily and fits anyway. The thing is just a little puffy, not densely packed.

Not so some of the items brought on board--at least a third of the semi-hard-sided wheeled packs were never put inside that gauge--they'd never have fit, even empty. On board their proprietors shove and slam and push and twist their packs with reckless disregard for their neighbor's smaller packs and laptops (and then half the time they stand in the aisle to remove coats which they stuff in to take up even more room in the ceiling).

Some items almost fit.

I wonder if there's room on the jetway for a luggage compacter. An aide checks suspiciously large items, and puts them in the compacter for testing and turns it on. If the item is too large in one dimension, it is squeezed down until it fits. If it springs back--no problem, it'll squeeze in place in the luggage rack. If it stays crushed--no problem, now it will fit. If the passenger worries about it being crushed, maybe he should gate-check it...


I suspect one of the reasons AIG got so much bailout money was because, not in spite of, its international obligations: that this was a way to keep some major European players from crashing when the system locked up last year. Of course, if it had been advertised that way, the taxpayers would have invited Congress to take a long walk off a short pier. Erroneously, I think.

The current sound and fury over the bonuses is disgusting.

I understand the reasons why Congress explicitly agreed to keep the bonuses in place: that's what the contracts said, it would be virtually impossible to find anybody to manage the place without them, and, most importantly, because AIG had contributed heavily to Obama and Dodd.

However, people noticed the bonuses and thought it bizarre to reward incompetence; and rather than explain themselves Dodd et al decided to try to lead a charge to punish the bankers who dared accept what Congress had permitted.

So we have what is arguably an “ex post facto” law, and inarguably a “bill of attainder.”

Possibly these Representatives never bothered to read the Constitution, and didn't realize what they were doing. Possibly they don't care. But there isn't any ambiguity about this bill. This isn't a matter of deciding whether phone calls overseas are private or not. The Constitution's language is pretty specific.

We should arrange the recall of 243 Democrats and 85 Republicans as rapidly as possible.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Beautiful day

Of course I spent most of it indoors, but that's life at CERN. I use the hostel "office" heavily when not in meetings: the rooms have fast wifi and a power socket, while the speed in the cafeteria and building 40 atrium is slower (congested!) and with very few power sockets available. The window faces east. The sun shines on the screen in mid-morning, but in exchange I get a nice view of the eastern mountains.

The Wisconsin meeting had all 4 profs present, and almost everybody either there or remotely connected. I didn't bring my laptop, since I was going to have to leave after an hour and didn't need to worry about not wasting three hours. 15 people, 12 laptops, 9 power sockets. Some people use Euro-style adapters, which waste at least two spigots on the Swiss fanouts, and some have those silly Apple power bricks that can only plug on the far end of the fanout (or else it presses on the power switch!). Apple's vaunted design team was a complete failure this time.

I've learned quite a few unexpected things while here--some of which I might have picked up earlier if I attended more UW meetings. So the Missing Et trigger is problematic... Oops. I assume somebody is working on fixes for that--that's too important a handle on events to lose.

At about 6:30 I decided to take a break and a walk. The temperature dropped rapidly when the sun went behind the Juras, and I was tired (and dizzy?) when I got back, but the view from the back road was great--shadowy mountains all around, with only a break to the north; a bowl around the land. Once I got away from the Centre Sportif it was quiet, with only a few joggers and cyclists (and the occasional car). The main road is crowded and construction-congested, but it is peaceful elsewhere.

So now I'm sitting at the desk in my room reviewing compact spaces and listening to Ancient Faith Radio and wondering what went wrong with the fit calculation I ran this morning.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Another day, more talks

I headed off to the grocery store to get some soap (and a battery for the clock, and candy for the kids). Route Pauli was blocked, with security men routing traffic away from between building 300 and 11. Street parking was roped off, and a forklift was removing cars. CERN seems to take parking enforcement seriously though perhaps only when the Princess of Thailand is coming.

The bus route was seriously munged--the pedestrian overpass and underpass are gone, and you have to walk east and north around the intersection and construction, and then detour up hill and down dale through parking lots and fences past other construction before you get to the west-bound bus stop. The Route de Meyrin is torn up through Meyrin, and the bus had to reverse course to reach one of the standard stops.

A few statistics from the CMS plenary session: The first two talks were about general status, and something like 320 people (that I could see to count) showed up. Of them 50 had laptops running. The third talk was Safety ("You are deemed to have listened to this session"). Now there were only 220 people left. By the time of the Physics talk, 100 laptops lit up the auditorium (every other listener). BTW, Virdee got a phone call partway through his talk on CMS status saying that the aforementioned princess had arrived, but he finished his talk anyway.

CERN offers a 3-day course (soon to be condensed to 3 hours) to allow you to work near electrical equipment. Since most of us work with said equipment, can tell an HV cable from an ethernet cable and know which one to stick in your ear (*), this is a fairly stupid prerequisite. I suppose this is CYA with focus on outside contractors, but it might be good to be discriminating...

Perhaps I should be fair to the folks sleeping through the talks last evening: many of them suffered jet lag (like me), and the AC in the room sounds like rain; gentle rain; peaceful rain, "those histograms all look the same" rain; "you are getting very sleepy" rain. (*)Answer: C, none of the above

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Flying curiosities

On the flight from Madison to Chicago somebody in the front seat was explaining the route to the stewardess—how it would be so much faster if they could use a south-bound runway and land from the north at O’Hare rather than circling round. Either the stewardess was new to the route or very kind…

My seatmate from Chicago to Brussels was a man who works localizing Microsoft products for Caribbean and South American customers. There’s more to it than the language: the idioms and emblems and pictures differ. He said that on one Caribbean island the translation in the Bible for “will be white as snow” was “will be white as coconut milk.” They’ve heard of, but never seen snow. Because of the huge number of Hispanics in the USA (speaking a more generic form of Spanish than their native countries do), Microsoft will be coming out with a US-Spanish version too. (I hadn’t realized there were more Puerto Ricans on the continent than on the island!)

A tipsy lady who apparently knew him from somewhere came to talk with him for an hour. She never spilled a drop of wine despite her sweeping gestures—I was under her and I‘d have noticed. He made sure the conversation stayed on the topics of food (he hates food from “stupid animals” like chicken and tilapia).

She noticed that one of the boys behind us was playing with a plastic bag over his face, and corrected him. After she left he took up a different hobby—drumming on the back of the chair in front of him (mine).

The Brussels airport was its usual mixture of exotic, flashy, and ugly. I guess Manchester is unpopular: people waited until the last minute and beyond before approaching the gate for the flight there. The first call for boarding brought only 3 customers—and one kept sitting across from us for another 15 minutes (“waiting for friends” he said).

Near one gate were 4 from an Indian family (they looked similar), all in wheelchairs. There were no other Indians around. The eldest looked frail, two others were late middle aged and possibly ill, but the youngest was a peppy looking lady. I suspect somebody is gaming the system in order to board first.

On the Geneva leg I was startled by the appearance of a trim older woman with bright blond hair, bottle-tanned face, botox-smooth cheeks—and the rest of her face looking like that of a shrunken head. I never saw her smile.

The Geneva immigrations officers have started stamping American passports and asking where you came from. Is somebody unhappy about the US suit against UBS? (I still don’t quite see how we have standing to sue…)

I arrived OK, and coherent enough to cover all the bases in my talk. By the time I and Jim spoke, several EMU scientists were fast asleep in their chairs. My presentation wasn’t dramatic enough to rouse them.

Tomorrow morning I’ll oversleep as usual, but I succeeded in staying up until 10 so “now I lay me down to sleep.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Health Care Analysis

An interesting analysis suggests that much of the received wisdom about health care is inaccurate.

I have to admit that I haven't looked at the statistics bandied about, but I know how easy it is to get completely idiotic results if you don't take all your variables into account correctly. "Dewey beats Truman," anybody? The infant mortality statistics obviously need to be sent back for more work. Maybe the conclusions would be the same in the end, but it is either incompetent or dishonest to compare apples to oranges the way the OECD report is used.


My better half went to Texas last week, and returned with a few samples of chert and pictures of Indian arrowheads (and a picture of a stone axe head). It occurred to me that making the spear points must have taken hours, and the arrowheads couldn't have been trivial to make either. But it only takes a second, and a slight gust of wind, to lose it.

After a while I suppose you'd get used to spotting arrows in the underbrush, but I wonder if they were painted to make them easier to find? Later Indians had personal and tribal markings on theirs.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Shoveling and rabbits

Branches are falling. The day-long rain began freezing, and now we've got snow.

My approach to cleanup in these conditions is to scrape off all the snow and water I can and salt the pavement, so that the remaining snow lands on salt water instead of freezing to the sidewalk. That makes it a lot easier to finish scraping off in the morning. The driveway was slippery underfoot already.

When I came back inside, I noticed that the very mild exertion left me with pneumonia-like symptoms. I've had it often enough to recognize them. That hour in the rabbit hall this morning must have seriously dusted up my lungs.

Jefferson Rabbit Show

I took Youngest Son to the Jefferson Rabbit Show this morning. He'd shown his rabbit at the Dane County Fair, but "pet" is not the same as "breed." None of our rabbits are "show quality." His assignment was to listen to a judge and learn what judges look for, and look over the various breeds and get an idea of what people wanted in a rabbit (and a rabbit show).

There were about 6 judges, all rather soft spoken and in the middle of crowds. About 2000 rabbits sat in tiny cages--a vast fraction of them for sale. The cages are only for transport--they have much more space back home There was a raffle, Klubertanz was selling rabbit cages and books, an elderly lady was knitting angora scarves using a wide-toothed jig held close to her eyes, and all ages and sizes alternately thronged and waited and sat and groomed rabbits.

I'm not allergic to rabbit dander, but with that many shedding in one place I started to have trouble breathing. It was my first rabbit show, and I think my last.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Gift exchange

The Daily Mail reported on the Brown/Obama meeting. I admit that I'm not always good at figuring out what someone would like as a gift, but I'd have figured that when heads of state are involved you go ask one of the protocol experts over at the State Department. It isn't rocket science: there's a guy whose job is to answer that question, ask him.

There seem to be three possibilities: Obama couldn't be bothered to ask, somebody at State was about to retire and decided to cause trouble, or Obama wanted to snub Brown.

I try to keep to my old rule about "Don't attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity." It is getting hard, though--I'd have thought that after declining to meet with him (and blaming it on snow??) at the start he'd have realized there shouldn't be any more mistakes.

Update: As usual Mark Steyn describes things lucidly.