Sunday, November 27, 2011

Happy New Year!

It is that time of year again.

Youngest Son made it quite clear that he didn't like reading the same sections every year, so I've shuffled things around a bit. Youngest Daughter tends to pick songs that are a little hard for un-voice-trained me. And the candles are always a bit of a distraction: the flickering, the "who gets to blow them out" and anticipating playing with the wax afterward--but that's all part of it, I suppose.

When you've lived in relative comfort and liberty all your life, and not seen oppression up close, it isn't easy to appreciate how people could look forward to an apocalyptic end to the world, as they do in the usual readings. I've tried to explain it the past few years, but the immediacy of the images of destruction weighs more heavily on some sensitive souls. Had I known they were going to show "end of the world" movies I'd not have let the kids go...

At any rate: Happy new year to all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Somebody here has a tin ear, and I don't think it's me

What hath Lego wrought? And with an exclusive Yoda-dressed-as-Santa figure! (adding a little more confusion to the Advent theme)

It could be worse. Remember the year Walgreens carried those foot-tall angel-in-bikini figures? Or the Japanese toy engineer who couldn't understand why he was asked to suppress his designs for a new Transformer model (Jesus on the cross turns into killer robot)?

Of course this is just toys, and not life or death--but the song they sing is of a sad disconnect from what people cared, and still care, about.

"Is this a dagger that I see before me?"

BBC reports that researchers are making progress on "bionic contact lenses" which could, for example, float email or GPS directions right in front of your eyeballs. No doubt some people would find this useful, but think how inescapable advertisements would become. (There are also little power issues--it uses a wireless supply and although the power transmitted is low I'd get a little nervous about eye damage over time.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

If the European doomsayers are right

High officials have said that peace is not a foregone conclusion. I wonder what Europe will be doing 5 years from now. With armies drawn down so far, I don't see war--at least not right away. Certainly not full scale wars of the type we're used to seeing over there.

Assume the gloomy outlook is correct, and that sometime in the not-too-distant future there will be riots killing foreign nationals, and counter riots, and demands for revenge against the thieves and killers. (From over here I don't see that degree of demonization yet. But I have to rely on reporters who speak the local languages--I've no clue what the man in the coffee-shop thinks.)

Neighbors might go to war in the classical way again. But non-neighboring countries might go with different models--attacks in third countries or on the sea, rocket attacks from throw-aways, or borrow from the midEast model and use terror bombings.

What would we expect to see on the road to classical war, given that the armies aren't that large yet?

They'd be expanding the forces under cover, or arranging so they can expand quickly. Rifles and uniforms are cheap, experienced drill sergeants a little less so, trucks and depots and artillery and aircraft still less--is anybody trying to buy back stuff they sold to third world countries? They'd start collecting dual use vehicles, and rehabbing boats as mine sweepers, and hiring vets from other countries.

Governments might start trying to be best pals with Turkey and Russia. Greece vs Germany wouldn't be much of a contest unless Greece had a powerful ally. (Hmm. Probably wouldn't be Turkey...)

The shape of trade wars will depend on how things settle out from the breakdown, and I can't make a decent stab at guessing that, and suspect that very few could.

I'll keep my eyes peeled. We have enough of our own troubles here. Mexico is coming apart at the seams already. The breakdown will be demagogue fertilizer all over; I could easily foresee states offering to secede. Texas isn't Germany, nor California Greece, but there are enough parallels to shape the same kind of conflict.

Parkinson's and trichloroethylene

BBC reports on a report in Annals of Neurology claiming an estimated 6-fold increase in Parkinson's risk in those exposed to the chemical, albeit with a lag time of 40 years.

Two things jump out at me in this: the long lag time and the low statistics (99 twin pairs: 1 with Parkinson's, 1 without). Two others seemed to be associated with somewhat higher risk: perchloroethylene and carbon tetrachloride. They find "No statistical link was found with the other three solvents examined in the study - toluene, xylene and n-hexane."

I don't trust that 6x number. Some increase in risk is plausible, but ...

The sample size is small enough that the uncertainty on the ratio is going to be a substantial fraction of that number 6. I can't get at the original article, but be generous and assume that almost all the participants were able to accurately self-report (warning! uncertainties here!) exposure to the chemicals: 94; 12 with exposure and 82 without. An ordinary 1-sigma fluctuation reduces that to less than 5, or more than 10. The article undoubtedly reports the error estimates, but your typical reporter is statistic illiterate and omits them. Systematic errors add to the uncertainty--remember that this is self-reported exposure.

Another factor to consider is the surprising result bias. Suppose for the sake of argument (PLEASE DON'T USE THESE NUMBERS! I JUST MADE THEM UP.) that half the solvents gave a 50% increase in risk of developing the disease. If the report had found that 50% increase in risk, that would have been an important finding, but it would not have gotten the attention of BBC. An accidental fluctuation that gives one of the ratios a value of 6 rather than 1.5 would be dramatic and make news. An accidental fluctuation that gives one of the ratios a value of 0.1 (reduces risk) would also make the news, and no doubt lead to people trying to drink xylene to treat Parkinson's. An accidental fluctuation of the 1.5 to 1 (no change in risk) would not get any attention at all, and might not even be published--which is pretty scary, when you think about it.

The thing to keep in mind here is that if there's a 5% chance that testing one chemical on a sample this small gives a crazy result, if you are looking at 6 different ones (and the reported exposures are not correlated), you've got about a 26% chance that at least one of the comparisons will be crazy. That's why you want large sample sizes, and to repeat experiments. And why scientists, as opposed to reporters and politicians, report not just the result, but what their uncertainty is.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Paterno and who else?

Plenty of others have already noted that college football is an ugly mess, with the joke (?) that some colleges can only field a team on parole. And that the culture of winning uber alles produces a demand for unquestioning loyalty only suitable for the heat of life or death battles, not the day to day management of a game. And that McQueary is going to have trouble living with himself. And that the Penn state students are insane (though somebody pointed out that riots are a dime a dozen there).

I’d heard the name Paterno somewhere before: I’m not tuned into college football. But given the way colleges try to sweep athlete crime under the rug, it is no huge surprise to find they do the same for coaches. A recent report had NY cops demonstrating against a prosecutor trying some others for fixing tickets; which they considered a perk of the job.

What else is going on? Chicago we know about; New Orleans and DC we know about. Where else is this happening?

A Short History of England by GK Chesterton

As you no doubt expect, this is not a list of names and dates and battles. In fact a number of references will be unintelligible without such preexisting knowledge. He would probably have enjoyed the irony.

Instead he wrote a thematic history, looking at the great movements and their consequences today. It is like pulling teeth to get him to admit that the Catholic Church had major problems, and his view of the guilds is more rosy-colored than dispassionate analysis allows. (I took the opportunity to try to learn about them—interesting constellation of institutions.)

One of his theses is that kings are often good.

It is "the little tyrant of the fields" that poisons human life. The thesis involved the truism that a good king is not only a good thing, but perhaps the best thing. But it also involved the paradox that even a bad king is a good king, for his oppression weakens the nobility and relieves the pressure on the populace. If he is a tyrant he chiefly tortures the torturers; and though Nero's murder of his own mother was hardly perhaps a gain to his soul, it was no great loss to his empire.

I should point out that Chesterton died before WWII, and this book was written before WWI was ended. He did not yet have a full picture of what a modern dictatorship was capable. He knew it was bad, but didn’t know how bad.

He spends much time on legends, on the perfectly legitimate grounds that these represent what people were thinking. But statements like "But the paradox remains that Arthur is more real than Alfred" are excessively post-modernist. Nevertheless:

The nineteenth-century historians went on the curious principle of dismissing all people of whom tales are told, and concentrating upon people of whom nothing is told. Thus, Arthur is made utterly impersonal because all legends are lies, but somebody of the type of Hengist is made quite an important personality, merely because nobody thought him important enough to lie about. Now this is to reverse all common sense. A great many witty sayings are attributed to Talleyrand which were really said by somebody else. But they would not be so attributed if Talleyrand had been a fool, still less if he had been a fable. That fictitious stories are told about a person is, nine times out of ten, extremely good evidence that there was somebody to tell them about.

The first great villain is Henry VIII, and quite reasonably so. His effort to make sure that there were no institutions not chartered by the state in some way--whether church or local government or guild--is mirrored in the great totalitarian states of today, and is explicit in the platform of many progressive parties (who actually go farther and presume to redefine family relations as well).

Chesterton excoriates the squires, and the poor laws, and capitalism in general, and argues that Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews was popular, if not justified. His ending, written in the middle of WWI, is worth contemplating, considering the history of the island after WWII:

At least, if there be anything valid in my own vision of these things, we have returned to an origin and we are back in the war with the barbarians. It falls as naturally for me that the Englishman and the Frenchman should be on the same side as that Alfred and Abbo should be on the same side, in that black century when the barbarians wasted Wessex and besieged Paris. But there are now, perhaps, less certain tests of the spiritual as distinct from the material victory of civilization. Ideas are more mixed, are complicated by fine shades or covered by fine names. And whether the retreating savage leaves behind him the soul of savagery, like a sickness in the air, I myself should judge primarily by one political and moral test. The soul of savagery is slavery. Under all its mask of machinery and instruction, the German regimentation of the poor was the relapse of barbarians into slavery. I can see no escape from it for ourselves in the ruts of our present reforms, but only by doing what the mediƦvals did after the other barbarian defeat: beginning, by guilds and small independent groups, gradually to restore the personal property of the poor and the personal freedom of the family. If the English really attempt that, the English have at least shown in the war, to any one who doubted it, that they have not lost the courage and capacity of their fathers, and can carry it through if they will. If they do not do so, if they continue to move only with the dead momentum of the social discipline which we learnt from Germany, there is nothing before us but what Mr. Belloc, the discoverer of this great sociological drift, has called the Servile State. And there are moods in which a man, considering that conclusion of our story, is half inclined to wish that the wave of Teutonic barbarism had washed out us and our armies together; and that the world should never know anything more of the last of the English, except that they died for liberty.

Read it. You won’t agree with all of it (I don’t: Edward was wrong), and it is not the best example of his wonderful style, but worth reading. With a reference to hand …

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Crazy garden year

The front yard looked like mostly garden this year, with tomatoes and a beanpole and zucchini and squash that tried to take over, and sunflowers and waves of different kinds of flowers that despite the efforts of my better half I have never mastered the names of. OK, I can worry out which are the roses--and we still have some blossoms, frost-wilted though they are. And last weekend there was one last strawberry. The birds loved the sunflowers. And the rabbits weren't phased by the gladiolas (or whatever they were--the beasts allegedly don't like the smell).

Some things grew strong all the way into November, but we must have lost 20 pounds of cherry tomatoes that never ripened enough to pick--they stayed hard and green for months. (And for some reason some of the small tomatoes tasted vile; but others on the same plant were delicious. By their fruits you will ... um ...) The hot peppers finally made their red crown above the green, and those we didn't give away are now drying in the kitchen.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

What can they do?

The Wisconsin State Journal reported that the city objected to bar owners demanding drivers' licenses for admission. State ID's were not allowed. Obviously the state loses face if the ID they tout as an alternative to a drivers' license isn't accepted, but that wasn't the complaint.

"It's been clearly documented who does and doesn't have driver's licenses in the state of Wisconsin," said Mark Woulf, alcohol policy coordinator for Madison, citing a vast divide between blacks and whites. "That alone raises eyebrows and could easily be determined to be discriminatory."

Bar owners were under pressure to come up with ways to reduce violence in their establishments, and apparently this has in fact worked:

Bouncer Glenn Galetka has mixed feelings about the policy. He called requiring a driver's license "bogus," as he doesn't have a license himself after accumulating too many speeding tickets. But he said he appreciated the policy's safety effect after a summer in which he was in the middle of frequent violence including two brawls.

"It was a way to get a certain crowd out," he said, describing that crowd as primarily young African-American men who mostly had state identification cards instead of driver's licenses. "It makes my job easier."

And there's the rub. Suppose one had a dowsing rod that could point out the people who would cause trouble if admitted that night, whether because the candidate had a violent character or because an ex's new beau was already there. It would disproportionately turn away young black males, who disproportionately caused fights in and outside the bars. Whatever you use as a proxy for violent propensity, the more accurate it is the more discriminatory it will be. (At least in this decade and this culture--the troublesome group isn't always the same.)

So what does the city value most? Public safety or guarantees of equality? Problem is, if a group feels discriminated against it may lash out and "degrade public safety," though one might legitimately ask how that would be worse that the existing level of violence. I don't think there's a simple "solution" but we might at least speak honestly about the problems.

Mysteries of Windows XP: user directory spontaneously renamed

In case somebody else has the problem:

I was silly enough to leave checked the "compress files" radio button when asking for a disk cleanup last night. I don't know if that was what did the damage, or if it was the system updates, but this morning when Youngest Son logged in all his files were gone, ditto his desktop, etc. Nobody else seems to have been bothered.

His login directory had apparently changed from his name to "TEMP".

A quick googling to learn why found nothing, but told how to identify the account (which has a non-intuitive numeric string in the Registry), and how to rename directories. Ah...

Using regedit I discovered that YS now had 2 accounts: one with his old account_number and one with account_number.bak . The latter had the proper directory, and the former had a directory defined by his name with the name of the computer tacked on at the end!

This was in "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE \ SOFTWARE\ Microsoft\ Windows NT \ CurrentVersion \ ProfileList", but undoubtedly you Windows experts knew that already. I fixed the ProfileImagePath and rebooted and it seems OK now.

I still have no idea how things went wrong. I've been responsible for managing computers at work for over 26 years (mostly Unix/Linux and VMS), and I've not seen anything quite like this before. I won't delete the .bak account if I can help it--I should change its Path to point at something harmless just in case the system decided to clean things up behind my back.