Monday, March 28, 2011

It is hard to find topics nobody has thought of before

In the men's room someone shook his hands dry rather than using the hot air dryer, and the drops spread out flat clinging to the floor smoothly with surface tension. On the griddle at pancake temperature water drops ball up and dance around as though the surface was hydrophobic. So the train of thought stops at a question: does water evaporate more quickly on a hydrophobic surface or a hydrophilic one? With hydrophilic surfaces you'd expect the last water molecules to cling tighter, but the exposed surface could be larger (the surface tucks under in a tight corner at contact with a hydrophobic surface, and the air in that crevice probably saturates easily--not much continuous evaporation there).

I wondered if anybody has looked at that before. The first qoogle query finds: Yes, apparently for years.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Uh oh

I succumbed to culpable curiosity, and discovered that A Wrinkle in Time was made into a movie. Remember Digory and the bell in The Magician' Nephew? Let's fortify ourselves with this:

L'Engle said of the film "I have glimpsed it... I expected it to be bad, and it is." and 'Mrs. Whatsit asks Charles Wallace to translate the song of the centaur-like creatures on Uriel (which in the book is essentially a psalm), he simply says "it's about joy"'

Mutter "Disney strikes again" and put it out of your mind. And don't think about a hippopotamus.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fittingness and Heaven

I’m not happy with the way I am constituted. Part of me wants destruction, part comfort, and part wants what is fitting and good.

Every now and then I look back on something we just did and think "that was perfect." Some word, some act, some silence was as fitting as the skipping stone hitting the pond just right, or getting the second wind running, or the right key turning the lock.

Now that I think of it, those kind of moments never seem to happen when I’m alone.

Those (all too rare) little moments tell me it is possible for righteousness to be unselfconscious joy. And I feel very far from it, living in leaden months of "me me me." And I think that to live like that, with every act fitting the picture perfectly, would be heaven. But it would only be the start, if we could hear someone with the power and right to say it say "well done."

Posted elsewhere first

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Youngest Son passed his road test yesterday, and so tonight he drove to youth group alone (about 7 miles). And back--which was a little more fraught, since we had a spot of freezing rain in the meantime. He walked in and tossed me the key a few minutes ago.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

God's Battalions

The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

As usual, Rodney Stark wrote a quite readable book which I recommend.

The modern textbook pieties about the Crusades are by and large false.

  • The Crusades were not unprovoked invasions; quite the contrary
  • They were not driven by trying to find occupations for otherwise troublesome younger sons; they were often staffed by families.
  • They were not an attempt to enrich the West; they were a serious ongoing resource drain on an already well-off West.
  • They were, contra the textbooks but in line with the older story tales, really inspired by religious fervor.
  • The Byzantines, not the Muslims, ruled the seas. Their armies, on the other hand, were generally mediocre or worse.
  • Thanks to superior weapons and armor the Western knights, while not invincible, could in fact win against overwhelming odds and did so frequently. Though most of the Crusader forces died before they reached their destination, and most of the rest were not knights, the remaining knights were seasoned, committed, and formidable.
  • Large chunks of the Crusader armies went home before they reached their destinations.

What else? The Byzantine empire was luckless enough to be governed by incompetents without much integrity, and the Crusaders learned the hard way that they were not to be trusted. The Crusader's plans originally called for Byzantine forces to hold restored territories, but the Byzantine rulers had insufficient confidence in either the staying power of the Crusaders or the capacities of their own armies, and declined to make the effort--and later emperors actually made treaties with Muslim leaders to combat the Crusaders. The infamous 4'th Crusade wasn't the unprovoked slaughter and rampage that it is usually depicted.

The often beatified Saladin was not a paragon of chivalry--by and large he adhered to the same rules of war as the Crusaders--if a city surrenders before the final assault give reasonable terms, but if it holds out until you have to scale the walls (as Jerusalem did) kill punitively.

The role of the Catholic church was both inspiring (providing the religious fervor that launched the Crusades) and disastrous (trying to suppress Orthodox rites in favor of Roman ones was no way to win friends). And when religious leaders directed military strategy the result was uniformly ruinous.

Muslim testimony says that Muslims under Crusader rule were generally better off than in neighboring areas--possibly because the Crusaders weren't interested in imposing religion and weren't involved in Sunni/Shiite conflicts.

Jerusalem was not defensible, since the Crusader strongholds had to be sustained by sea.

The wars ran on money, and required lots of it. The Crusades started to become unpopular when kings started getting involved, and raising taxes for the expeditions.

Original sources for some things are readily available online: this is a translation of Memoirs of the 4'th Crusade.

The Crusader kingdoms lasted about as long as the USA has been a country.

Arab history in subsequent centuries didn't really care much about the Crusades (they were seen more as attacks on the hated Turks) until the West started making a big deal of it in the 19'th century.

And there's more. Read it.

My thoughts (not Stark's):

That the West should react against the perpetual attacks and raiding is nothing to apologize for; and even if it were blameworthy this ended in defeat centuries ago and has nothing to do with us or them today. Scenes of Western leaders abjectly apologizing for the Crusades are distasteful and counterproductive.

The question of whether the Church was wrong to sanction a religious war is a different matter, of course. Certainly it was far out of line to assert that there'd be divine pardon for sin or penalties of sin for fighting for Jerusalem; that's hardly debatable. For the Church to positively endorse a war at all stretches its mandate considerably.

An era and culture that prizes ambiguity will have a hard time understanding one built on the confident call that "Paiens ont tort et Chretiens ont droit." But it is worth the effort to understand, even if you, as I, would never think of going on a old-style Crusade.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I'm not quite clear exactly what we're trying to do there. I have no overwhelming objection to dropping some loud stuff on our old enemy and perennial trouble-maker, but I want us to have some clear objectives.

A no-fly zone is a dumb idea--it annoys without much effect. I read that the French had shot at an armored vehicle; and using air power to suppress Libyan government troop movements would certainly aid the rebels more than just a "no fly zone." Daffy's loyalists/mercenaries don't need warplanes.

But who in the world are the rebels? Getting rid of Daffy in favor of Daffy II isn't an obviously useful thing to do. In Iraq we had some notion of who was who and what might be the long-term outcome if all went well; and as I noted years ago it is strategically important and Saddam was a significant threat because of that. Here I haven't a clue who is who, or whether anybody is even potentially friendly. (Though we know that Daffy is a malicious enemy.)

So what are our plans?

  • Tear up Libyan air defense, crater up the runways, take out C&C from the top down, and then let the rebels fight it out themselves?
  • Pick a faction and support/arm them to take over the whole mess? Years of mess; I gather the place is deeply tribal.
  • Pick a faction or two and partition the country? Messy; who gets the big oil fields?
  • Hammer away at the air defense and C&C and let the French decide the rest?
  • Fire away dramatically but without any followup that would impede Daffy? (If his troops get into a city there's not much we can do remotely.) Sound and fury signifying nothing is a really dumb idea...

What do we want the end game to look like? (And if we don't care, why do we care enough to shoot?) ABD (Anybody But Daffy)? ABJ (Anybody But Jihadists)? ABD-or-J? (and what are we willing to commit to make that happen?) Friendly Tribe X (lots of luck with that)? French Protectorate (anybody but us stuck with it)?

I wonder if Sarkozy forced Obama's hand here. The French have had issues with Daffy for years via Chad and others.

UPDATE 20-Mar: From the BBC: "I think there is a sensitivity on the part of the Arab League to being seen to be operating under a Nato umbrella," Mr Gates said. "And so the question is if there is a way we can work out Nato's command and control machinery without it being a Nato mission and without a Nato flag, and so on."

Crud. This looks muddy as all getout. Nobody would trust the Arab League to coordinate an escape from a wet paper bag, much less direct Nato troops; was this supposed to be a pro-forma Arab League mission with Nato doing the quiet deciding about whether something was useful or not? If so the Arab League is already undercutting it--they don't want to be blamed for anything at all, even if nobody could possibly believe they were in charge. CYA.

Not quite like this anymore

I said I was working on IceCube now. Luckily even the winter-over crew is better staffed than it used to be.

Official State this-n-that

BBC reports that Utah is honoring a favorite son. Well, that's not exactly what BBC reported; they said that Utah was defining the M1911 as the official state firearm. I didn't see the NYT story on the matter, but I predict they wouldn't get it either.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Careless Translation and Biased Reporting

There are half a million Japanese in shelters, said one source. That's a lot--nearly 1/2%. This fellow has an interesting take on the situation. Not an especially gentle one, and quite angry at foreign media.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Interesting and even promising if this holds up: A study using sterile mice given different diets and transplants of gut bacteria from children with and without kwashiorkor suggests that the presence of some bacteria, or (more promisingly) the absence of others, has a strong effect on how well nutrients are absorbed from food. The ones given the bacteria from kwashiorkor children lost more weight on a low nutrition diet of corn flour and a few veggies, and gained it faster on a high nutrition one based on peanut butter. To try to control some of the variables, the children selected were siblings, one of whom got kwashiorkor and the other who did not on the same diet.

The possibility is obvious, and stated in the article--perhaps kwashiorkor can some day be prevented with an innoculating pill.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Monopoly can be a fun game, but it isn't such fun in real life. A drug company acquired approval to be the sole manufacturer for Makena, used for preventing premature birth, and has now jacked the price up from \$10-\$20 to \$1500/dose. The March of Dimes originally supported the move, on the grounds that the quality of the medicine would now become consistent and the source reliable (it was a boutique mixture), but I suspect they're starting to regret that. "Reliable source" but unaffordable--not a good tradeoff.

The parties in question here are KV Pharmaceutical of suburban St.Louis and the federal government, in its role as bestower of largesse on the anointed few. We seem to have neither a free market, a sanely regulated market, or a state-run medical system; but instead a hybrid with a berth for corruption. Says here their CEO pled guilty to misbranding drugs last year (drug was correct, dose was wrong). Hat tip to The Anchoress.


I watched one video, of the water overwhelming the farms beside the canal, taken from a helicopter.

From so high the crawling chaos seemed almost slow as it slid from side to side swallowing neat farms and gardens and stacked hay into a black stew littered with shattered buildings. But it wasn't slow, as you can see from the cars speeding away on roads that (God help them) did not lead straight away from death.

You see all human order lost in nightmare, with nothing you can do to turn it aside.

And to add to the mess of shattered buildings and drowned land, a little blast at a power plant. They had previously detected cesium and iodine, so the core had been breached somewhere. Hot uranium plus water = uranium oxide plus hydrogen, leading to a little boom? That'll be messy to deal with. And one report said they were only now getting the last reactors back online after Kobe.

Update They use uranium oxide, so it was likely steam interacting with other structural elements.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Wisconsin statehouse

The Senate voted to split off the public employee union part of the budget repair bill, and passed that part. Ignore the comments, but read Althouse. Her husband Meade has been reporting on events at her site for days. As of about 8 the statehouse was full of protesters, some of whom barred some of the doors.

So far it is plenty noisy and angry, but from the sound of it (I picked up a nearly live feed) I'd rather be stuck there than in a (for example) Greek riot. But of course there's a sampling bias--parts of a crowd where you don't feel comfortable filming might be considerably less polite.

I said to several people over the past few days that I thought the politicians were in better communication than the media knew; and the paper reported this morning that I was right. Chalk one up for having read history and watched goings-on for decades...

It'd be nice if people had paid a little more attention to the "what do you replace it with" question. Who knows, it might even have defused some anger.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Youngest Son coined the word, and said it was the study of people who give money away. I countered that it was the study of how to help people without causing more problems than you started with--like giving booze money to beggars. Vote?

Beware the mortgage service

Even, or perhaps especially, the big firms aren't honest.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


I gather that there was a little controversy in Baptist circles about some comments on yoga by somebody-or-other. I missed those. (Some of you are no doubt green with envy at this mark of a well-lived life.)

Apparently it is controversial from the other direction as well--the HUG apparently claims that American yoga instruction is a "rape" of Hindu spirituality. If this author is correct yoga has essentially nothing to do with the Vedas, being a 19'th century innovation based on 10'th century exercises devised by sadhus trying for magical powers, mixed together with European ideas about fitness.

Go back and click that link and see what you think. It sounds plausible, and if correct is a curious history. (Hat tip to Joe Carter)

Friday, March 04, 2011


So as of Tuesday I’m half-time on the Ice Cube experiment. The first couple of weeks I’m devoting to getting up to speed on Ice Cube; and later weeks will be sorted out by project.

There wasn’t room in the Physics Department, so they rented a suite downtown; which puts me only a block from the protests (which seem to be a boon for the local restaurants). The undergrads are mostly gone from their IceCube offices right now, and many people are taking vacations after a strenuous (and successful, and enough under budget to leave some of the contingency available for other necessities) summer of installations at the South Pole. The floor is pretty quiet, except for the tape label printer (sounds like a coffee grinder) and the video conference room. And the Help Desk, which is the other side of the cabinet from me.

I’m trying hard to understand the workings of the FileTek storage system and work out a model for how to best store the data: 90GB/day coming in from the Pole. The original plan was simple, but not very convenient for long term data access, since it blended raw data and processed data in the same storage medium—which means you can’t easily archive the raw data to shelving to make room for new tapes. I think I’ve already solved one of the outstanding problems.

The StorHouse software was evidently written by VMS veterans (ask me how I can tell!), but it looks like their main platforms were Windows and MVS, with a smattering of SunOS and AIX. Linux seems rather an afterthought, and the documentation doesn’t always closely match the installed system.

Very high energy neutrinos can pass through the Earth and interact to produce upward-moving muons. In the very clear ice of Antarctica you can detect the shock-wave (Cerenkov) light with phototubes. Processing the results and making sure you understand the calibration and backgrounds is what takes the manpower and the computing power. They have to design a system that works robustly with as little attention as possible—there’s no way to bring spare parts down during the winter. Challenging engineering, challenging maintenance, challenging data management, and challenging analysis—sounds like a dream.

There are no penguins within hundreds of miles of the South Pole, but they’re all over the suite—in form if not in person. I’m using a MacBook, which is pretty confusing: window management icons on the other side, cut/paste using the wrong mouse buttons, ubiquitous apple-key shortcuts and such like things. But I manage. I learned those goofy Windows operating systems, I’ll learn this one.

Winter and summer have different meanings around here...

Thursday, March 03, 2011


The rehearsal kept going over and over one song, making more and more "energetic" a fairly pastoral song about "though I walk through valleys low I fear no evil" and quiet waters. The lead singer thought she should put a prayer in between the last verse and the chorus, and then have the drums really hammer the "Though I walk;" and so it was tried. The director said it didn't work--the contrast was too great. He suggested "an energetic prayer."

I stopped laughing long enough to come out and interject that the idea was more than a little weird--who was she supposed to be talking too, after all? (I held my tongue on comparisons with the prophets of Baal.) The suggestion was dropped; and the bass player started quietly chortling.

The directory can sing and play and understands music better than I ever will. But he's young, and too focused on the mechanics.

I was too late to catch him afterwards.