Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Believing headlines makes you stupid

The headline in the Telegraph reads "Attending meetings lowers IQ: research".

That seems obvious enough, as witness any number of meetings I have attended.

But you have to look beyond the headline. The description in the story doesn't talk about meetings as such. Read Montegue, the lead author, was quoted as deprecating meetings but the rest of the details didn't match.

I got suspicious, and looked up the original paper in the Royal Society Bulletin. What they really studied was what happens when a small group is told your IQ. People did better on the tests when they worked alone than when they were in a group with everybody knowing everything at once.

So people get worse at IQ tests if they think that other people are judging them along the way. Not a huge surprise, but nothing like the headline. (BTW, truncated graphs like Figure 2(c) aren't a very honest way of expressing the data; they make the differences look larger than they are.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Print yourself a dinosaur

Too bad the printed plastics I've seen aren't that strong. Drexel University is planning to scan and 3-D print dinosaur bones. They'll be able to fiddle with the design to undo the crushing and compression and create copies that are very similar to the originals.

At first this has to be single bones or skulls (everybody like T-Rex), but one goal is to create a complete model. Since skeletons aren't complete, that means rescaling bones from one to match another--which should be straightforward.

Clothing the bones is another matter entirely. Even assembling them is a project. Bone is pretty strong for its size, and assembling these 3-D models would create something heavy but not strong. I think you'd need some internal "skeleton" for the bones to support the weight. Maybe mock up something that looks like the connective tissue to hide the joints. That would tend to look more creepy than fascinating, so perhaps not; and in any event we don't know how big their tendons were.

And if I recall correctly, there are still arguments about the stance of the Tricerotops.

So maybe they'll spin off a firm to make velociraptor skulls. (Didn't Newt have a T-Rex model skull in his office back in the day?)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Changing personalities?

A story in a journal that unfortunately I have no access to is reported to claim that military service makes, on average, a slight but permanent change in one's "agreeableness." This was a longitudinal study in Germany of 1300 young men, 250 of whom joined the military at one point. Longitudinal studies are a good thing, but those numbers worry me a little: a slight effect in only 250 men is a bit hard to measure.

But imagine for the moment that their numbers are OK. It could be that the intense nature of military training does what you might naively expect, and makes men more aggressive. (I don't think that would be quite as useful as training them to obey orders and how to react under fire. Just being more aggressive seems like a bad thing for discipline.) Or it could be that the military, which attracts more aggressive men in the first place, gives them life-or-death training that leaves them less interested in little white lies; and they fill out the questionnaires more accurately.

The report's author draws a different conclusion from the one you expect:

It’s striking that military service can have this long-lasting effect on people. But, on the other hand, this research also underscores that it’s really difficult to change a person’s personality. If military service is one of the most intensive experiences imaginable, and the best the military can do is a modest change on the one dimension of agreeableness, what does that say about our individual prospects for becoming, say, more outgoing, or to exercise more regularly, or to finally quit smoking?

"It kind of flies in the face," Jackson said, "of how some people wish that they had more control over changing just who they are."

How outgoing you are is personality-based, and likewise how self-controlled you are, but habits are sometimes amenable to preparation, so I'm not sure his examples are good.

Inspector, what are you doing with that cell phone?

UCLA engineers devised a way of using a cell phone's camera as part of a portable e coli test rig. It is pretty small, but from the description it sounds like a one-shot deal: once the "antibody functionalized glass capillaries with quantum dots as signal reporters" have gotten their load of contaminated water for the camera to inspect, you either need to get fresh tubes or autoclave the old ones. Maybe they could devise a portable autoclave running off the cell-phone battery? Or maybe just rinsing thoroughly with distilled water is enough.

The general idea is nice, and the format is certainly extremely compact. I suppose a jewelers loupe would work as well for seeing the dots, but a cell phone camera is better for detailed inspection and for sending the image to somebody else. And if the resetting problem (cleaning it up after a use) is solved, it would be very handy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What Would Orwell Think?

Big Think has a report on a curious finding that language influences behavior, in particular that languages that do not crisply distinguish between present and future (not strongly "future time referencing"=FTR) have speakers who tend to save more for a rainy day. English (and Greek) maintain strong distinctions between present and future, not like German or Chinese.
Being clear about the timing of your topic turns out to be one of the areas where grammars differ. Some tongues, including English, are strong future-time-reference, or FTR, languages: If Chen, a professor at Yale's School of Management, wants to say he can't meet you tomorrow because he has a seminar, he has to say "I am going to listen to a seminar." On the other hand, others are weak FTR languages. In Mandarin, Chen would say Wˇo qù t ̄ıng jiˇangzuo ("I go listen seminar," where "go" just means that he's heading over, nothing to do with when).

Chen theorized that weak-FTR languages would be more conducive to future-oriented behavior because, in those grammars, the future feels the same as the present. Linguists have mapped strong and weak FTR languages in Europe, so Chen correlated that information with data on behaviors that sacrifice present pleasures for the future self, like saving, exercising and avoiding tobacco (culled from the World Values Survey, the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, and the OECD's trove of reports on economic behavior since 1970).

His results are rather mind-boggling: In Europe, speakers of weak-FTR languages (German, Finnish and Estonian are examples) were 30 percent more likely to have saved money in a given year than were equivalent speakers of a strong-FTR language (English, Spanish or Greek, for instance). (To put that in perspective, according to Chen's analysis, speaking a strong-FTR language is as a big a risk-factor for not-saving as unemployment.) Weak-FTR language-speakers have piled up an average of 170,000 more euros per person for their retirement than strong-FTR speakers, and are 24 percent less likely to have smoked heavily, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese.

I'd like to see that verified before I try to draw conclusions from it, but it reminds me a little of NewSpeak: a language designed to make some kinds of thoughts impossible to think. That, given human nature, seems to me to be impossible; but we easily see that a culture's vocabulary (catch phrases and connotations for key words) can make some kinds of thoughts easy to express, and others harder. Members of different subcultures in our own land talk past each other, unable to communicate the wealth of nuance one side or the other vests in words like "fairness." Perhaps a grammar can have a similar influence.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Second Sleep

The subject of "second sleep" came up a few weeks ago. Pre-17’th century they figure that people had "segmented sleep" with one or more wakeful and even busy periods during the night.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

His book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern - in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

Much like the experience of Wehr's subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.

I’ve not read the book yet (not till March at the earliest—too busy). I’d think camping experiences wouldn’t tell you much, because we have the habits of the rest of the year to guide us. But what with going to bed early and overly wobbly air mattresses, I frequently do find myself waking up in the night.

And we all know the 3am wakeup. You can't get back to sleep for an hour, or maybe two.

I was perhaps too young to wake up easily at the time, but we lived only a few hundred yards from an African village for a time. I remember roosters crowing at all hours of the night (not just in the morning), and some loud celebrations that went on until whenever, but I don’t remember any other middle-of-the-night noises. Without electricity they didn’t stay up watching TV or listening to the radio much. On the other hand, wandering about at night when you can't see the snakes easily is contra-indicated, so maybe they stayed quietly at home.

It is already too late for me to go to bed early to test it out...

Interference time

This story isn’t new, but it’s kind of cool. Everybody knows about double slit interference with light: since light is waves you get interference if it can go through two openings. Electron can do the same sort of thing; they behave both as particles and as waves. And there are some non-intuitive features of measurement.

You can get interference fringes in space with electrons, which is how we know they can act like waves and where quantum mechanics comes from. It turns out there can be interference in time too.

The idea was clever, though the implementation was tricky. The team had to generate laser pulses so short that there were only a few wavelengths. (There are some ambiguities about defining the wavelength when the train is that short, but that doesn’t matter for the purpose.) In particular they could reproducibly generate wave trains about 1 1/2 wavelengths long, and for a given polarization direction have 2 peaks or 2 valleys.

The team was able to control the output of the laser so that all the pulses were identical. The researchers could, for example, ensure that each pulse contained two maxima of the electric field (that is, two peaks with large positive values) and one minimum (a peak with a large negative value). There was a small probability that an atom would be ionized by one or other of the maxima, which therefore played the role of the slits, with the resulting electron being accelerated towards a detector. If the atom was ionized by the minimum, the electron traveled in the opposite direction towards a second detector.

The team registered the arrival times of the electrons at both detectors and then plotted the number of electrons as a function of energy. The researchers observed interference fringes at the first detector because it was impossible to know if an electron counted by the detector was produced during the first or second maximum.

There was no interference pattern at the second detector because all the electrons were produced at the same time at the minimum. However, when the phase of the laser was changed so that there was one maximum and two minima, interference fringes were seen at the second detector but not at the first.

So with two different "time apertures" you get interference too.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

As expected

Opera found a problem: It looks like a bad cable. Even if this is the answer, it still has to be checked, of course.

UPDATE: This morning's report says they found a problem in an oscillator (that "clock tick" I wrote about earlier) that would make the effect go in the other direction: faster. The report doesn't estimate the size of the effect, leading me to suspect that it is small and has probably been known about for some time. It lets them balance the report, though. But I could easily be wrong; it is hard to keep a secret in this field. (Scientists like to find out new things and then tell everybody about them; it's one of their big motivators.)

I recognize those

Tom and Charley and I, and Tom's half-dachshund Barney were exploring in the jungle down by the creek. Barney came out of the water shaking, and a 16" long bright blue snaky thing was whipping around him. He shook it off quickly and we had at it with a machete and some cudgels until the remains were safely hammered out of sight in the mud. We kept a close eye on Barney but he suffered no ill effects. I'd gotten a couple of good glimpses of the thing: it was too fast for any worm, but it was rounded on both ends--not like any snake I'd ever seen. And bright blue...

We tried to find it in the book of Liberian snakes, but never did.

We didn't have a book on amphibians.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Little touches of irony

Detroit is restricting ownership of some toy guns. Brandishing a toy gun is already assault, IIRC, if it looks enough like a real one to deceive a reasonable person.

Some Chinese citizens in Zimbabwe are being deported for eating endangered tortoises. I wonder if there is something else going on here; I'd have expected them to treat the Chinese with kid gloves--not like they treat their own people.

The EU is drafting legislation to declare Canadian oil sand oil to be more polluting than other kinds. It has to be true if a legislature said so, right? Makes science easy: just pass a bill declaring the Higgs to be a spin-2 boson of mass 625 GeV/c^2 and we're done, right?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hitler's son?

The Telegraph reports on a story from Le Point about the son from an affair Hitler had during WW-I with a French teenager.
Jean-Marie Loret, who died in 1985 aged 67, never met his father, but went on to fight Nazi forces during the Second World War.

Apparently Hitler was already bent early on in his life:

Miss Lobjoie later told Jean-Marie: "When your father was around, which was very rarely, he liked to take me for walks in the countryside.

"But these walks usually ended badly. In fact, your father, inspired by nature, launched into speeches which I did not really understand.

"He did not speak French, but solely ranted in German, talking to an imaginary audience

Of course Hitler-iana is a popular field for hoaxes, and this may not be true. (Remember the diaries?)

But if the story is true, his mother gave him up for adoption, and only told him about his father shortly before she died in the 50's. Jean-Marie Loret had fought the Germans during WW-II, and even joined the resistance, so this was a bit of a blow.

Mr Loret said: "In order not to get depressed, I worked non-stop, never took a holiday, and had no hobbies. For twenty years I didn't even go to the cinema."

But leave it to a lawyer to notice that:

Mr Gibault said that Mr Loret's own children might now be in a position to claim royalties from Mein Kampf ('My Struggle'), Hitler's famous book which has sold millions of copies around the world.

Targeting nanotube drug delivery

The headline reads: Exploding Carbon Nanotubes Could Work as Drug-Based Delivery Devices. The idea is that sealed carbon nanotubes can serve to deliver tiny amounts of drugs to cells, and instead of expecting the drugs to slowly leak out (rather randomly), you can raise the local temperature with a laser (or I suppose a probe of some kind for spots deep inside the body) and make water in the little tubes pop them like popcorn.

Cute idea, though I wonder about the fragments. They admit that shock waves from the pop might be problematic. They'd be weak, but so is some of the cellular machinery.

Apparently water confined in a nanotube exhibits somewhat different characteristics, behaving a little more like a gas while well below the usual boiling point. I'm not sure why this would be so. Perhaps the geometry is too one-dimensional to permit the full range of motions that let attracted molecules dance around each other, though I'd naively expect that to increase viscosity. Maybe some of the nanotubes have enough conductivity (it varies) that interference from induced charges reduces how well the real molecules attract each other. I'll look into that

Test tube meat

BBC reports that "Dutch scientists have used stem cells to create strips of muscle tissue with the aim of producing the first lab-grown hamburger later this year."
Professor Post's group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2cm long, 1cm wide and about a mm thick.

I predict that

  • The taste will be awful
  • The universal reaction will be "yuck"
  • If they do make a hamburger by the end of the year it will be small, and, as they indicate have to have blood and fat mixed in
  • If they make a go of it the price (currently £200,000/hamburger) will in fact come down as they predict
  • The price will never be competitive, because it will never be as efficient at turning grain into protein (15%) as natural means, unless they use sleight of hand accounting.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Clinging to walls

Many people have been trying to figure out how to duplicate a gecko's ability to cling to a sheet of smooth glass, and a U-M Amherst group claims to have done it. Sort of.
Previous efforts to synthesize the tremendous adhesive power of gecko feet and pads were based on the qualities of microscopic hairs on their toes called setae, but efforts to translate them to larger scales were unsuccessful, in part because the complexity of the entire gecko foot was not taken into account. As Irschick explains, a gecko’s foot has several interacting elements, including tendons, bones and skin, that work together to produce easily reversible adhesion.


The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create an integrated adhesive with a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric, which allows the pad to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. Further, as in natural gecko feet, the skin is woven into a synthetic “tendon,” yielding a design that plays a key role in maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom, the researchers explain.

Importantly, the Geckskin’s adhesive pad uses simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which holds promise for developing an inexpensive, strong and durable dry adhesive.

That "simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane" struck me as a little odd, but it turns out that it is one of the silicones used as an antifoaming agent and is allowed in a startling array of food products from beer to chewing gum and canned fruit.

I don't know that this is exactly what the gecko does when it clings tightly enough that it could hold 9 pounds up, but if it works as advertised--16 square inches maxes out at load of 700 pounds in a removable/reusable pad--that's not bad at all. For comparison, the adhesive picture hangers are typically rated for about 5 pounds for a surface area that would support 45 with this system.

  • You obviously wouldn't want to trust this kind of support in an earthquake. Wall vibration would probably pull it off. Don't bump into it either.
  • It is only as strong as the underlying surface. If the paint starts to de-adhere, that TV starts tumbling down.
  • Will the pad start creeping with time?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

. . . this little piggy blew up.

Paging Dave Barry:

Something, probably a new variety of microorganism, is foaming up in hog manure pits. It won't surprise you to learn that decomposing hog manure generates methane, and that methane, trapped in the foam bubbles, explodes, sometimes destroying hog barns and killing pigs. The foam can reach 4 feet in thickness, which would be quite a bomb.

The researchers still aren’t sure what causes the foam. But they have noticed a correlation between adding dried distillers grains in soluble — a product of the ethanol production process increasingly used in livestock diets — to the hogs’ diets and the foam, although that solution is too simplistic, Jacobson said.

I'm quite fond of bacon, but I'll be the first to admit that large scale hog farms are very bad neighbors. True, business may be booming, but the side effects are dangerous and sometimes lethal.

But this foam problem should be a reminder that those invisible little creatures have interesting potential. Maybe we can breed something to live in those giant manure pools that can reduce their stench and toxicity.

Pigeon shoot

If you squint, I suppose this drone looks like an oddly noisy pigeon. Of course if your eyesight is that bad you probably shouldn't be shooting.

SHARK promises to press charges against somebody if they can find out whodunnit, but I have the funny feeling that a jury might not convict. I gather from other sources that Americans aren't that keen on having government drones watching us (this isn't a war zone, thank you very kindly), and private ones are probably fair game.

Solar "tornado"

Ever wonder what was happening in those giant looping solar prominences? has a story and a little video from NASA. Glowing gas is swirling around at the base like a vast magnetic tornado.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bacteria against the tsetse fly?

BBC has a story about research on using modified tsetse fly gut bacteria against it. There were 7000 new cases in 2010, making it one of the smaller killers—but nasty nonetheless; the disease is fatal and so are O(5-20%) of the cures.

A few small details: It is a plan but not a procedure. How do you infect the flies? If they die they may not be able to infect each other or the next generation. And do those gut bacteria get into people?

HHS rules and religious institutions

My first reaction to the "compromise" was "I say it's spinnage, and I say the hell with it!"

It turns out that it wasn’t even a change; the original proposal stands. The promise was even more deceitful than it appeared to be.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, ...

I almost missed it: the 50'th anniversary of John Glenn's flight.

I did countdowns at the drop of a hat, with sound effects to match. Shepard was first, and a great thrill for a young boy; but I picked up that Glenn's flight was going to be special.

Of course I wanted to go to space, didn't everybody? Maybe the powers-that-be had their own agenda, but the program spoke to a real and innocent love of adventure; and that "giant leap" we really meant to be for all mankind. At least most of us did.

I didn't understand quite what the problem was that threatened the return; that the re-entry was hot I had to take on faith. (I get it now; and also why keeping the pack in place wasn't the no-brainer I thought then.) But he made it back safely and we all celebrated. I guess we weren't afraid to have heroes then.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I'll take the last chocolate (and the first, and...)

Some researchers at the University of Michigan say if you know it is the last piece of chocolate, you tend to think it tastes better than the rest.

Ed O'Brien, who led the study, said "It is something motivational. You think 'I might as well reap the benefits of this experience even though it is going to end' or 'I want to get something good out of this while I still can'. " That sounds like a good guess.

If it was a matter of attention, you'd expect the first and known-to-be-last to focus the most attention. In this case they were explicitly asking people to evaluate the taste, so the loss of excitement from doing something over and over shouldn't be quite as big a factor. But they found 2/3 of the people who knew one piece was the last picked it; out of 5 choices. If they didn't know it would be the last they picked the last as the favorite 1/5 of the time.

The sample size isn't huge (52; I assume 26/26 for each group), so it needs a little followup. And of course if they'd gotten a null result this would never have hit the bits at the Telegraph, so there's a built-in bias.

After verifying this result, the obvious next class of tests is "What is the worst?"

Kitty kitty kitty!

An article in the Atlantic follows up on research about Toxoplasma gondii. You probably read the stories some years ago about the infected mice that stopped being afraid of cats, that followed up with heavy hints about crazy cat ladies.

Jaroslav Flegr’s research suggests that the protozoan does have an effect on human behavior, though it is generally minor.

Webster is more circumspect, if not downright troubled. "I don’t want to cause any panic," she tells me. "In the vast majority of people, there will be no ill effects, and those who are affected will mostly demonstrate subtle shifts of behavior. But in a small number of cases, [Toxo infection] may be linked to schizophrenia and other disturbances associated with altered dopamine levels—for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and mood disorders. The rat may live two or three years, while humans can be infected for many decades, which is why we may be seeing these severe side effects in people. We should be cautious of dismissing such a prevalent parasite."

The psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey agrees—though he came to this viewpoint from a completely different angle than either Webster or Flegr. His opinion stems from decades of research into the root causes of schizophrenia. "Textbooks today still make silly statements that schizophrenia has always been around, it’s about the same incidence all over the world, and it’s existed since time immemorial," he says. "The epidemiology literature contradicts that completely." In fact, he says, schizophrenia did not rise in prevalence until the latter half of the 18th century, when for the first time people in Paris and London started keeping cats as pets. The so-called cat craze began among "poets and left-wing avant-garde Greenwich Village types," says Torrey, but the trend spread rapidly—and coinciding with that development, the incidence of schizophrenia soared.

… Torrey and Yolken found that the mental illness is two to three times as common in people who have the parasite as in controls from the same region.

Human-genome studies, both scientists believe, are also in keeping with that finding—and might explain why schizophrenia runs in families. The most replicated result from that line of investigation, they say, suggests that the genes most commonly associated with schizophrenia relate to the immune system and how it reacts to infectious agents. So in many cases where the disease appears to be hereditary, they theorize, what may in fact be passed down is an aberrant or deficient immune response to invaders like T. gondii.

The tails of the distribution rise to bite you. The number above a distant threshold can jump by large factors with only a small shift in the position of the peak of the distribution, or a small change of its σ.

Flegr has kids and cats, and isn’t worried. He takes precautions. Cats are only one source of the parasite:

Indoor cats pose no threat, he says, because they don’t carry the parasite. As for outdoor cats, they shed the parasite for only three weeks of their life, typically when they’re young and have just begun hunting. During that brief period, Flegr simply recommends taking care to keep kitchen counters and tables wiped clean. (He practices what he preaches: he and his wife have two school-age children, and two outdoor cats that have free roam of their home.) Much more important for preventing exposure, he says, is to scrub vegetables thoroughly and avoid drinking water that has not been properly purified, especially in the developing world, where infection rates can reach 95 percent in some places. Also, he advises eating meat on the well-done side—or, if that’s not to your taste, freezing it before cooking, to kill the cysts.

So the "crazy cat lady" with her army of indoor cats may not be able to blame the parasite after all.

One little detail I didn't quite understand was how encysted parasites (which is what the latent infection consists of) are able to modulate dopamine levels. If the cyst is sturdy enough to keep antibiotics out, doesn't it block other chemicals too? And if the cysts break open regularly wouldn't that result in a reinfection and recurrent illness?

What have we got to lose?

Several cities are playing classical music in rail stations to try to reduce crime. There aren't definitive results on how well this works. It doesn't worsen crime, and anecdotal-level analysis suggests that there's some improvement.

Suppose it works. Two theories are that most petty criminals are young and don't like hanging around the music, and that "music has charms to soothe the savage breast."

It doesn't cost a lot to implement, and what downside is there? Unless, as one commenter wrote, it turns out to be all Vivaldi. And I've seen a few farewells that might take the wrong hint from a background of the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Will Stanton

We're going through filing cabinets, and rather than sort I started reading. One little item was a Saturday Review clipping about packaging by Will Stanton, available online as a scan here.

So once I sorted out the correspondence into a half-dozen folders, I googled for the author, and found the above link and that he and I share a similar memory problem.

On the other hand, I have the knack of remembering—or rather being unable to forget a considerable body of
assorted knowledge. I know, for example, that one of the plurals of cherub is cherubim. These are a lot of small angels a couple of rungs down the ladder from seraphim. This is a piece of information a lot of people don't have, and yet it is surprisingly hard to work into a conversation.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Blue Stragglers

Some old globular clusters have a few hot blue stars in the mix, which isn't quite what you'd expect. Most easily condensable gas should have been "boiled" off long ago, so either the cluster scooped them up when moving through another part of the galactic cluster, or they were somehow created out of violent interactions between the (extremely crowded) stars in the core of the cluster.

Apparently some of those hot blue stars have a surprisingly fast rotation rate: 75 times faster than the sun. That strongly suggests some kind of collision or very near miss, which would certainly stir things up in a star. What that would do to the internal workings of the star would be the subject of a research project and not a blog post, but anybody can see it would shine quite a bit hotter, if only because internal convection is faster for a while.

But that rotation speed--3 revolutions per day--would have other interesting effects. If the star is about the same size as the Sun the equator would be moving at 305km/hour. Coriolis effects would make for some large storms, and the storms would pull deeper and hotter gas up. I don't know if these would be visible at the surface, but the side effects ought to be. The polar regions should be less effected, and so have less of the hotter gas welling up, and so be cooler. That suggests a kind of bulk flow of hot gas from the equatorial regions to the pole, which would tend to disrupt the natural banding (like Jupiter's) you ought to get.

If you could see it in the appropriate wavelengths, it should be a lively show, and you could almost watch it spinning.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


At the Internet Monk Chaplain Mike posted a fleeting thought questioning the sincerity of the checkout girl's farewell.

Maybe her job requires her to say those words, which means they aren't authentic. I think perhaps authenticity is overrated. Fashionable, but not that good for us.

Courtesy is a kind of attenuated love. We treat others as we'd wish to be treated, as though we cared for them in the same sort of way we care for ourselves. That isn't as good as love, but it isn't nothing either.

A "thank you" to the bus driver is a reminder to him and to me that he isn't serving me because he's inferior. He is a peer, and if I speak as though his service is a gift, even if I'm on autopilot at the time, I'm acknowledging that relationship.

Paul warned that all kinds of works, without love, "profit me nothing." On the other hand, James points out that love without works isn't very useful either (and extends the analogy to faith). Of the two, I think that suppressing the moment's grouchiness to extend a little courtesy shows at least a little love of the right thing and of a proper relationship between us. It isn't love of the person (I don't always know him from Adam's off ox), but it is related to it; a reaching towards it. So long as he's not actively trying to deceive, there's more hope for the apathetic person who acts rightly than for the benign person who doesn't act.

True, each culture has its own norms of courtesy, which can make interactions unpleasant. Most of us leave the road uncluttered for cars and bicycles, but some walk in the street by preference: That's what everybody does back home where cars are infrequent. OK, some do it to annoy the man...

Sometimes little courtesies can have surprising impact. A recent news story about Mandela told of a time when a white clergyman was visiting Nelson's mother and doffed his hat to her--a white man showing courtesy to a black woman. It made an impression on the little boy.

I vote for courtesy: for a smile when you don't feel like it and for letting the weaker go first and for leaving the pennies on the sidewalk for the children to pick up. If you don't want attenuated love, but only authentic emotion, then beware of my sore shoulder. I'm feeling grouchy.

Don't irritate the coral

Granted, this isn't a typical coral. It is much fleshier, and turns out to be somewhat mobile. But still, the time-lapse movie of it pulsing out from under a sprinkling of sand is eerie;
more like what you might expect of an anemone or a jellyfish.

Amazing what things we can't see because we see too quickly or too slowly.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A place for not quite everything

They replaced the billboard last Friday, probably because the lease was up instead of because the subject was unendurably silly. A 20-something woman used to sit yoga-like beside some boxy shelving full of clothes and fabrics and oddments with the overall title "California Closets Will Make You Happy."

I rarely see an ad fatuous enough to make its buried assumption explicit: "X will make you happy." Being that clear gives the suckers a chance to decide whether the proposition is really true; hide the hook and they may not notice.

And then they made the mistake of showing a sample closet. In winter. In Wisconsin. Maybe in LA you can get away with such miniscule hanger space, but in places where you get a little weather it is nice to have space to hang up your coat and some heavy shirts. Those tend to hang a little wider than silk blouses.

And then I noticed that the closet wasn’t shared. The woman was all alone in the picture.

Street gangs and politics

When Shirer wrote of the Collapse of the Third Republic he described a political culture where gangs of thugs protected your own rallies and disrupted your opponents, and sometimes clashed on their own account. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. 'the inquiring candidates wanted to know: "Who do I need to be talking to so I can get the gangs on board?" ' Alliances between politicians and gangsters go back a long way in Chicago.

And in other places too. If you don’t have the power of the government to do your political enforcement, you either have to persuade or buy or enforce. Buying support is expensive and means actually paying attention to your constituents, and persuasion is difficult and never quite permanent. So…

It has always been a problem. Some of us remember reading about the Sons of Liberty. "Frequently, cooperation with undisciplined and extralegal groups (city gangs) set off violent actions. Even though the Sons seldom looked for violent solutions and eruptions, they did continue to elicit and promote political upheaval that tended to favor crowd action."

We've been fortunate to have so little of this sort of thing, so far. But it does crop up. Then what should the rest of us do?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Gene jumping: by contact!

Graft a branch of one plant onto another, and at the contact point at minimum chloroplast genes can move from one to the other, even if they are different species.

I remember wondering as a lad, rather innocent of the details of agriculture, if it were possible to somehow mix sugarcane and lime trees so that the fruit would provide pre-sweetened lime juice. I discovered later how silly that was, but apparently there can be some transfers anyway. Although the gene mix might result in sour woody stalks instead of sweet fruit...

Hmm. "You are what you eat." Our bodies are quite good at digestion and most of our food is thoroughly broken down, but we have gut bacteria that seem to play unexpected roles outside the gut thanks to chemical cues, we have skin in contact with thousands more kinds and with the occasional ornaments and perforations, and maybe some of that food makes contact for long enough to gene-jump.

How much of our environment changes us?

One of the symbols in The Pilgrim's Regress by Lewis was of an addictive plant that the tenants grafted into everything they could find. Everything was more or less tainted, and the only way to avoid the worst-tainted foods was with a complicated dietary scheme.

I don't want to go there. I like Twain's "eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."

Cleopatra at Milwaukee

The Cleopatra exhibit came to the Milwaukee Public Museum, and for irrelevant family scheduling reasons this weekend was the best time to go. Tickets proved more expensive than expected (a good thing we brought our own lunch!), but the next opening had slots and we sailed right in.

Bad stuff first. The audio tour is "Cleopatra" telling her life story in an excessively breathless tone, and without always clear connection to the exhibits. The wonderful "naos" is covered with hieroglyphs, but there’s no translation. Even I could see that there was a lot of repetition, but still… There was too much hype about the possibilities of the new site where they’re searching for her tomb. Some detailed maps explaining what was found where in the harbor would have been very good. So would a ground plan showing more or less where a naos fit in the temple. A few more useful details of Cleopatra’s life would have been nice—such as how her panicked retreat at Actium led to the destruction of Antony’s fleet. (Malaria didn’t help him much either.)

Good stuff: you can see a naos (inner shrine, where the god’s statue sat) up close; and the video with it explains a lot of points we non-hieroglyph-fluent miss. The naos was broken apart: the cap went to a museum long ago and the rest was recently fished out of the harbor, and now they’re together again. The colossi are very impressive, and videos show how they were retrieved from the harbor. (The queen’s right side is still missing.) You can see how the sculptors worked their tricks to make the figures seem dynamic. They’re supposed to have Hellenic features on standard Egyptian styles, but I couldn’t quite tell. The sphinx of Ateles the Flute Player (Cleopatra’s dad) was quite different—the face was very clearly classical and lively Greek on a standard Egyptian sphinx.

Cleopatra had coins made with her head in the classic Isis style, but that has little or nothing to do with her real appearance. What remains of statues may or may not have anything to do with her either. At the end of the exhibit they displayed copies of famous paintings of her, with a rather amusing variety of imagined attitudes and styles, from a Medieval image of her with serpents hanging off each breast to a neoClassical painting of her lounging while a recently poisoned slave is dragged away. Conclusion—we still have no idea what she looked like.

She and Antony professed to be gods (Isis and Serapis) in the usual pharonic tradition, but if one source can be believed they also went in for nights on the town of revelry and pranks. Egypt was rich from food exports, and ostentatious consumption went with being a Ptolomaic pharaoh—like dissolving pearls in wine to impress the Romans guests.

IIRC, someone found that that actually takes more than a few minutes, even if you use a very vinegary wine. The meal must have been a long one.

There’s a beautiful sculpture of a shaved priest carrying an Osirian canopic jar with his hands wrapped in his robe so they don’t touch it directly. He is not looking at the jar, but his cheek is pressed against it. This was hauled in from the harbor at Cleopatra’s palace, like many of the exhibits, so she undoubtedly knew what it meant.

Alexandria was a port in an earthquake zone, and a major quake dropped the ground level and drowned the area with a tsunami, so her palace is now under the harbor. This is on top of any normal subsidence of the coast. It makes archaeology harder, but more rewarding, because things weren’t dragged off in the intervening centuries. Vandalized by clams, yes, by people no. And a surprising amount of gold showed up, presumably because people fleeing the tsunami didn’t take time to empty their jewelry drawers.

A headless statue of a queen was dressed in a fetching outfit with an "Isis-knot." (The costume was not on offer in the gift shop.) Given Cleopatra’s self-identification with Isis it might be of her. After her defeat and death there was a campaign to obliterate her name and face—which might explain the missing head. The outfit was carved to be diaphanous in front but heavier in back, which might be the sculptor’s shortcut or might be a real feature of clothing meant to be worn in hot weather while seated on cold stones.

A papyrus under glass (or copy—a sign said they rotated the two because the original was so fragile) was an edict in Greek waiving taxes and import duties for a friend, signed with a "make it happen" by Cleopatra. That little mangled document says a lot about Egypt: not just that cronies got favors from the government then as in Chicago/DC today. The document was not dramatic; there were no seals or other official marks. It looked easy to forge, and that wouldn’t be good for revenues. So there must have been multiple copies filed in different places, with some kind of referencing system, so that the merchant, coming into port, could proffer his document and have it verified in a reasonable amount of time. I wonder what the filing scheme was—I didn’t see a date or a code. (But I don’t read Greek either.)

Friday, February 03, 2012

Are sports fans always sports fans?

I'm not particularly interested in sports. I didn't grow up with them, was never very good at them, and never acquired the taste. I've said before that they can be a very good thing--cheering is one of the few major activities shared between generations.

But Egyptian sports fans seem to be having a riotous time. I don't think this is entirely about the game and lousy crowd management and general bad tempers. The Blues and the Greens in Constantinople were fans of their respective chariot race teams, but their battles weren't just about which racer was going to win. It wasn't safe to complain openly about politics, so if Justinian was a Blue, you could be a Green to show opposition.

I don't think that politics explains the violence of British soccer fans, though.

Maple tree sanitation

Apparently if maple tree tappers try to keep their equipment clean and avoid getting bacteria in the tree, the tree produces more sap.
Of course this remains to be verified over time. Producing too much sap might weaken the tree as much as bacteria does. Still...

I wonder if rubber trees behave similarly. IIRC they were good for about 10 years, with new sets of cuts each year, and that was about it. Maybe the tree was reacting to sap loss: the claim of 10 years suggests something like that. I
f it were disease you'd expect the failures to be a little more random. Wikipedia says 25 years, so either I misunderstood or the local conditions and trees were less productive. If the latter, there's room for improvement. I wonder how many free-lance tappers there still are.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Oxygen deficiency

The IBEX detector has been sampling the extra-solar wind, and finds that it doesn't have as much oxygen (atomic, that is) as the solar wind. They look at the oxygen/neon ratio, and find the solar wind has about 5.6 oxygen to each neon while the extra-solar wind has 3.7. So either the extra-solar wind comes from somewhere else than the sun did (not hard to accomplish in a rotating galaxy, BTW), or oxygen is tied up in dust outside the system. Or in the process of forming a star the magnetic fields somehow segregates heavier ions away from the star.

An old letter?

If this is a hoax, it's an old one (or else somebody is very good at Photoshopping old newspapers).

A slave freed after the Civil War replied to a request from his former master to come back and work for him, and his answering letter was printed in the paper.

It is worth reading as a grimly humorous reminder of what used to be.

But something about it doesn't read quite right to me, as though somebody else, without a strong personal involvement in the matter, either re-wrote it or composed it from scratch. I can't quite put my finger on all the reasons why, but one odd note is the worry he expresses about the safety of his daughters. It seems too light. And would any decent man of the era (or any era, for that matter), so readily tell the world about shameful injuries to his family?

This is cool

OK, relatively cool.

The idea is that a relatively cool spot can form molecular hydrogen on the Sun (most of it is atomic: not bound in a molecule). That reduces the pressure of the plasma locally, which pulls the magnetic fields tighter. It doesn't take much--they estimate only a few percent combining could cause significant intensification of the solar field in the vicinity of the sunspot.

They couldn't search directly for H2 ion spectral lines, so they used OH ions as a stand-in. If the model holds up and we can get some more experimental verification, that helps solve a long-standing mystery: why do these cool regions (only 5700 degrees K) have strong magnetic fields?