Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Superior, we're coming your way.

No ethernet, only rare cell phone reception, and a hike to the campsite: we won't have to pay attention to what passes for news.

Take care of yourselves while we're gone.

Monday, June 18, 2012

How scientists relax

The IceCube boot camp group had a chance to go sailing on Mendota yesterday, and most went to a barbecue that afternoon (leftovers served for lunch today). I decided to attend a Father's Day/Daughter Birthday/Wedding Anniversary celebration instead, but I gather that Swedes and Germans were introduced to BBQ chicken and brats and the apartment complex pool was full of scientists.

This morning after a fast-paced introduction to supernova neutrino theory (and an admittedly rather optimistic plan for studying neutrino oscillations), a discussion broke out at lunch break about soft drinks. Challenge and response; and a modified "Pepsi challenge" ensued. Greg prepared 8 cups of random beverage (he rejected my suggestion to mix a few) and those who claimed to be able to tell the difference poured samples, and guessed. 4/8, 4/8 and 3/8 correct. Heh.

A rematch at 4:00 attracted more grad students and some secretaries, and we histogrammed the results, which turned out to be surprisingly flat, suggesting that perhaps two distributions were represented: those who could tell the difference but weren't always calibrated correctly, and those who couldn't tell the difference. (A secretary scored 8/8 and a grad student 1/8.) A large group said that you could tell the difference for the first swig, but after that your taste buds were a little shocked by the acid and one was like the other.

Doesn't your office spend free time analyzing experiments?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Zombies revisited

A couple years ago I puzzled a bit over the meaning of "The Zombie Apocalypse", and along the way I discounted the interpretation of it as a race war as not being the whole story. It is hard to put a finger on this quotation or that shrug of the shoulders that leads me to reconsider, but I'm not sure I'd be quite so quick to discount that translation these days. I've heard too many people talking about being ready for it with an immediacy more pressing than "a collapse next year."

Several cities are now afflicted with "flash mob" gangs that use electronic media to coordinate maneuvers to converge and attack stores or people in overwhelming numbers and then fade away. It isn't difficult to find out that most of the mobs are young black men.

It does have something of the unexpected character of zombie attacks, doesn't it? Maybe I was naive in 2010, or maybe the zombie fad is morphing a bit, but I now think the racial aspect is larger than I did then.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Neighborhoods in college

A few years ago a late-middle-aged man lived in our neighborhood who I never knew to talk to anyone, and who walked with a loose slapping of the feet that I’m told is characteristic of neurological damage from syphilis. A late friend had abused drugs in his youth, and ended up with tremors and tics. I could point you to more than a few people whose love lives left them hurt, broke, even homeless.

While time and accident bring these kinds of troubles to us all, we can bring thing on a lot faster with stupidity and abuse. And while teenagers generally feel immortal, they can look around the neighborhood and conclude that a pack-a-day might be uglifying.

College is not a typical neighborhood. You find three groups: the old rulers and maintainers, overworked apprentices, and the bulk of the rest are the undergraduates, who are always young.

They are always young because they’re always being replaced; and they disappear either because they graduated or failed. Never mind those who failed academically (or because they ran out of money)—some fail because they did something stupid.

If the effects of some abuse (alcohol, promiscuity, what have you) don’t manifest right away, they won’t appear. If the effects are severe, they typically won’t linger because the students will fail or be asked to leave. Maybe some are shocked for a few weeks, but they pass on in a few years and nobody remembers—because there’s nobody to remind them. A new class comes, and there is always youth and opportunity and no sign of any consequences.

They get lectures about drug abuse and sex safety (like the "always get consent" mantra; as though consent were the sole criteria of goodness), but the community of the undergrads has no integral adults or living warnings and the lectures’ effects seem to last about as long as those of Algebra I.

They form a kind of standing wave of youth and sunlight with "Do as you please" as their motto, without Rabelais’ assumption of honor or Augustine’s “Love God” prefix.

Luckily some of them please to volunteer and spend part of their life out in the rest of the world, and some please to become deeply involved in the life of the mind and find a new community of all ages in some field of study.

But not for all.

How many other social environments do we have where people are induced to behave badly and when problems arise the problem people are "sanitized" away?

Thursday, June 14, 2012


It is "boot camp" season and I'm trying to master a lot of interconnected software systems. And still keep the other things running, of course... And strip and re-stain the deck.

The glue that holds the chunks together is python. I'd never gotten around to doing much more than "Hello world" in it, but the past few days have been fairly intense and I'm starting to see why people like it. It seems to be built to be glue. It is easy to include other language's modules (you can even include a java environment to run java--kludgy but it works) and create new interfaces on the fly. I finally learned what the "lambda" was good for in function definition. And it looks like there's one approach to strings (C is full of traps for the unwary or fumble-fingered).

Nothing is perfect, though. Logical blocks are defined using indentation, and if you cut and paste from somebody else's program you're apt to wind up mixing tabs and spaces--and your program will mysteriously quit working. And I'm finding myself swamped in possibilities: which package do I import to make histograms again? And the expert chatter in the background suggests that programs that work in one release don't work in another...

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Fun with mirrors

Once again something obvious that everybody has probably mused about briefly, but one man decided to study: wide angle mirrors with little distortion was patented.

R. Andrew Hicks (Optics Letters Vol 33 Number 15 page 1672, 1-Oct-2008) wrote up the requirements for calculating the curved surface needed to project a fan of light 45 degrees wide into a driver's eye without a great deal of distortion.

Hicks can customize his creations with exquisite precision. He achieves the desired effect first by characterizing the problem with sophisticated equations. He then programs a computer to spit out the coordinates for tens of thousands of points on the mirror's surface - each one tilted differently to reflect light in just the right way.

The data are then sent to B-Con Engineering, a Canadian firm that uses a milling machine to make the mirrors out of aluminum. The metal is ground and polished with a diamond bit until the smooth, curvy surfaces emerge - a process that takes up to a day for Hicks' unusual free-form designs, company president Brian Creber says.

Like Perline's bike mirror and the mirrors of ancient Turkey, Hicks' new automotive mirror is convex. This provides a wide, 45-degree field of view, instead of the narrow 15 or 20 degrees afforded by a typical flat driver-side mirror.

Objects in the prototype mirror also appear to be farther away; if more things are crammed into the picture, obviously, they have to appear smaller.

US law allows curved mirrors (with a warning) on the passenger's side but not the driver's side, so this will probably wind up being a popular add-on item. If I can figure some way of attaching it I'll invest in one. Or two. Though I don't think I can use his "vampire mirror."

One good reason people haven't worked much with this before is that shaping mirrors isn't trivial. You can get flat, parabolic, or spherical surfaces pretty easily. But other shapes need special grinding, as described above--and that is only really feasible with modern computer-controlled milling machines. Once you have the shape you can make a die or mold and make new ones much more easily, but the prototypes are very difficult. Notice that "up to a day" and imagine how much that costs.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Youth Group Leaders

Our church introduced a new youth (OK, high school and college) minister.

Do I need to tell you he's newlywed?

Pretty much everywhere I've gone, if the church had a minister for youth, that minister was a young recently married man.

Why so young? Imagine a grandfather as youth leader.

Reasons for a young youth leader:

  • Stamina. Kids are exhausting, and a lot of young kids are even more exhausting
  • Knows the au courant lingo; or at least a version only a few years old
  • Can "relate" to kid's problems because he's been through them recently
  • The kids can relate to him because he's an upper-level peer

Reasons for a grandpa:

  • Knows a lot more about the problems of life
  • Better perspective
  • Can understand kid's problems because he's raised some
  • The kids can respect him because he's an elder and not a peer

Thought experiment: imagine a one-on-one "Ask the answer man" time for a youth group. Ask the Answer Man anything, get an honest explanation. Who would you, as adults in the church, rather have doing that with the youth? Who do you think the youth would rather ask: a near-peer or somebody who's been through a few fires?

I've heard the claim that youth will only relate to peers or near peers, and so we need to "interface" them to the church using young leaders. It isn't obvious whether we are reacting to this narrowing of relationships or helping feed it, but I strongly suspect the latter.

I'm not getting into debates about women ministers. Similar dynamics would apply there too, and that's what I'm questioning.

UPDATE: My better half pointed out that our current church alternates large and small groups, and the small group leaders can be older.

"And the odd thing in Dad’s voice was the sound truth makes being said. The sound of truth, in a wild roving land of city or plain country lies, will spell any boy." Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked this Way Comes)

Foregone conclusion

The UW is reviewing their HR design, and the committee has allegedly been soliciting comments.
They've posted their final recommendations. I recognize an item or two in their comment vs answer section as a twisted truncation of my comments, and conclude that the compiler was stupid or stubborn and possibly both. There's no way to go from meaning A to meaning B. The answers to my and other complaints suggest that only trivial changes to their plan were ever likely to be considered, which in turn suggests that the plan was mandated, not developed. Square peg, meet round hole--all you need is a little hammering. (Does that sounds like HR around the world?) Update: fixed typo

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Boating life

Though I was born in N.O. and lived in L.A. I don’t remember ever going on the ocean, or lake, or stream in any kind of boat until I was 8, when we boarded a freighter for Africa. (My father had been in the Navy—I’m told he was the one who got seasick.) In Liberia the shoreline drops quickly and the current is bad, so you don’t want to go swimming at the beach, and you really don’t want to go swimming in the creek. We lived where there were roads and (narrow) bridges, so there wasn’t much call for ferries.

Naturally I heard the song as "Michael rode the boat ashore" and figured he must be a passenger since everybody else was working.

Until I was into my late twenties I could count the number of times I’d been on a boat on the fingers of one hand, despite having spent about 15 years within 10 miles of the ocean. (We swamped an overloaded motorboat in a lagoon and spent the next half hour trying to find the tools that went overboard, and some relatives down in Mississippi took us fishing once. That’s about it.) So we moved to Madison where water sports are huge. Odd ducks we were, still not taking to the water.

At Devil’s Lake I was impressed into taking some kids out for a turn in a canoe. I had a theoretical notion of how to use the paddle, and I succeeded in not accidentally beaning any of the kids along the way. Though I dripped a lot of water on them, and we wound up pointed in odd directions.

A generous co-worker loaned the use of his cabin-on-the-lake, and now once you pry me out of the chair it is fun to pilot small boats around a quiet lake (not so sure about places with big waves). Wish I didn’t swim like a brick, though.

Soda jerks

I'm curious what audience Bloomberg is playing to with his proposed ban on big soda drinks. Grant that obesity is a growing problem. Are the rest of the city's problems so intractable that there is nothing better to do than try to tweak people's diets? That's scary.

In any event, restaurants and gas stations will simply install little refrigerators stocked with 2-liter soda bottles, just like the supermarkets sell. Just for convenience, of course: maybe with quarts of milk and juice alongside for verisimilitude. And give out a free foot-long fun-straw with each purchase.

FWIW, while there've been a few hot afternoons helping somebody move when I went through about a half gallon of soda, I rarely drink more than a quart in three months. A big-gulp seems grotesque.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Issues of scale

If I choose to be the only Republican in our neighborhood, my neighbors know who I am and I know who they are. If there is shunning, it is shunning with a face to it, and if somebody is going to yell at me he knows I can yell back. All the players have skin in the game.

If I create and fund a black propaganda campaign that purports to be on behalf of one of our senators, the public interest in honest debate demands that I be forced to come clean and admit my contribution. And the public interest in knowing who is buying influence requires that we know who the big contributors are to campaigns—whether as direct contributors or auxiliary supporters.

But in between those scales is a region where vulnerability meets anonymity. If, not my immediate neighbors, but a wider circle are notified of my political contributions there’s no face-to-face anymore, and I am vulnerable to organized intimidators. Yard signs are stolen all the time, and sometimes tires are slashed and windows broken. (typically those of republicans)

It isn’t legal to take my religious or political views into account when hiring me, but there’s no way to prevent searching contribution databases to look for who I might have preferred.

There are going to be tradeoffs in whatever election system we design, but right now we’re looking at a known problem--hidden influence buyers—which we can deal with by open records, and a growing problem with intimidation of small supporters, which open records makes worse.

I know that the link above is about studying how to suppress contributions, not intimidation, but California had plenty of examples of intimidation and vengeance recently after the big referendum.

The above does not accurately reflect either my neighborhood or my finances or my political party.