Thursday, August 30, 2012

An old Chinese political theory

"Early in the Qin dynasty, the man perhaps most responsible for the creation of singular Chinese state, Lord Shang, wrote:"
"To club together and keep your mouth shut is to be good; to be alienated from and spy on each other is to be a scoundrel. If you glorify the good, errors will be hidden; if you put scoundrels in charge, crime will be punished."

Of course the problem is to pick the right kind of scoundrels. We've not always been very good at that; quite a few of them club together and are alienated from everybody else.

It takes a thief to catch a thief?

From RollRollRun, which I found by looking for the source of a quote in another article.


The BBC bobbled the subhead ("A space telescope has added to its list of spectacular finds, spotting millions of supermassive black holes and blisteringly hot, "extreme" galaxies."), but the WISE telescope seems to have found some interesting things anyway--and I couldn't resist the jargon. HOT Dust Obscured Galaxies. (Yes, scientists generally have a sense of humor.)

The report references 3 papers at arxiv, one of which describes the discovery of a hyperluminous (3x10^13 times the luminosity of the sun) infrared galaxy. There are some assumptions about the spectrum that may not be quite right, but they won't be wrong by more than a factor of a few: that thing emits a lot of energy. They estimate that this red-shifted (2.4= very distant) galaxy was generated new stars at a rate of 300million/year, or 200 times the rate in our galaxy. I wonder what the night sky would look like.

A second paper follows up with some other hyperluminous galaxies, and concludes that they don't seem to fit well "with existing galaxy templates, suggesting they are a new population with very high luminosity and hot dust. They are likely among the most luminous galaxies in the Universe. We argue that they are extreme cases of luminous, hot dust-obscured galaxies (DOGs), possibly representing a short evolutionary phase during galaxy merging and evolution".

The third paper describes how they use the spectra to try to tell which spots are Active Galactic Nuclei. The paper goes into gory detail about how they decided on the spectral selection rules. "Selecting sources with W1 − W2 ≥ 0.8 identifies 61.9 ± 5.4 AGN candidates per deg^2 at the 10σ". That 61.9 per square degree translates to about 2.5 million AGN they may see when they finish the scan.

Twinkle twinkle, little star, if you're so hot I'm glad you're far.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Lightning is tough to model, impossible to predict, and only partly seen. For example, look at red sprites in action: They form above the cloud and go up. There are blue jets as well. Nobody seems to understand how either one works yet.

"When all of these factors are taken together it is not surprising that sprites have been so elusive. However, they can be seen with the unaided human eye." The area around us isn't very suitable for watching for them, but I'll have to try next time I'm out in open land. What you want is dark, dark-adjusted eyes, clear skies to a distant (200 mile) thunderstorm, and something (paper or whatever) to block out the dazzle from the bright lower lightening. Watch above the storm for faint flashes.

There are still lots of hidden and unexpected things not far away.


The Anchoress opened a post for comments a few days ago with the provocative title "I expect the crowd in power to destroy everything...".

The majority of the comments spoke of generators or "I have never owned a gun, but a recent incident has changed my mind" or of how they had already stockpiled food and ammunition.

One person more calmly wrote "Don’t look to the doomsday shows on Discovery to emulate – go talk to your Grandparents and great Grandparents. They are the role-models for getting-bye in the upheaval that’s coming."

I know the sampling is not random, but the overall tone was depressing. It isn’t just about Obama; he’s almost irrelevant to their sense that the powers-that-be are feckless at best. Of course the math is undeniable: we’re headed for inflation(=theft) or default, and a resulting deep economic shock, even if we actually try to implement honest budgets. The endgame gets worse the more monkeying we do with money.

And we’ve spent the past few decades carefully segmenting the population into grievance groups. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for mutual "we’re all in this together" aid. Blame fests seem more likely, and we know what happens when those are organized. Marriages redefined into self-fulfillment contracts don’t sound like a way to organize uncles and cousins into mutual aid either.

So, trouble, and long-lasting trouble at that. In the short term stockpiling for short interruptions or longish power outages is a no-brainer. (Even if you don’t believe in economic forecasts, believe in bad weather.) Long term you can’t plan for reliably.

But isn’t there something else we can do besides prepare ourselves? Some way of being examples and making neighbors neighbors? I’d hoped the Anchoress’ commenters would have had more ideas.

My gut feeling is that whatever it is, any changes in the larger society’s attitudes are going to be a by-product and not the goal.

Antarctic methane?

"Large volumes of methane - a potent greenhouse gas - could be locked beneath the ice-covered regions of Antarctica, according to a new study."

That sounded interesting. I was astonished to learn just how high energy costs are at the South Pole (high enough that we’re looking at whether SSD are cheaper overall than hard drives!), and immediately wondered if it was possible to harvest some of that methane.

The findings indicate that ancient deposits of organic matter may have been converted to methane by microbes under the ice.

Or in other words if the glaciers simply squashed the ancient green grass then its decay and subsequent transformation might produce clathrates or dissolved methane at the bottom. If the ice sheets scraped the land bare underneath (like the Canadian Shield), then there’s nothing much there.

So, is there anything under the sheets? They tried to look at the bottom of the sheets entering the ocean, and didn’t get very far—too much gravel and other clutter diluting the mix. So the paper is based on

Large sedimentary basins containing marine sequences up to 14 kilometres thick and an estimated 21,000 petagrams (1 Pg equals 10^15 g) of organic carbon are buried beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. No data exist for rates of methanogenesis in sub-Antarctic marine sediments. Here we present experimental data from other subglacial environments that demonstrate the potential for overridden organic matter beneath glacial systems to produce methane. We also numerically simulate the accumulation of methane in Antarctic sedimentary basins using an established one-dimensional hydrate model...

A cool idea, but coal mining would be a better bet.

Is a Senate needed?

Senegal's President Macky Sall doesn't think so. He'd rather use the money spent on running the Senate on flood control for Dakar. It sounds very caring; he's putting the people first.

Except that if he succeeds I believe he will find that the lower house is also a superfluous expense, compared to some other obviously compassionate cause.

To be fair, he's right--neither legislative house matters as much as the marabouts. But we know where this attitude leads, no matter whether it is baited with "we must be decisive" or "we must be caring."

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Without comment

I run across things I don’t plan to comment on (I can't improve on them!), but want to share.

If you like Tolkien’s work, here’s a discussion of who wrote like or not like Tolkien and why. And some recommendations. From John Wright

Understand how laws work. Or else! ( You may as well come along quietly, you’re guilty anyhow. ) From The Criminal Lawyer

British Intelligence told the Germans about the Dieppe raid! From Donald Sensing

Russian style protests

Apparently the "Pussy Riot" protest has aspects that aren't obvious to the non-Russian Orthodox. Their positioning in front of the royal gates facing the congregation was taken to be, and presumably intended to be, somewhat sacrilegious. They could have been a lot more provocative just by walking through the "royal gates" but they must not have wanted to go that far.

They complained about Orthodox leaders being joined at the hip with the government. That's a long-standing problem with Eastern Orthodoxy; a side-effect of their doctrine of the nature of the state.

Something else that's of long standing is the tradition of the holy fool. From the article cited:

Indeed, the patron saint of holy fools is St. Simeon Salos of Emress. He retreated to the Syrian desert in the 6th century to devote his life to prayer, living on nothing but lentils. A few decades later, Simeon returned to town a completely different man. He tied a dead dog to his waist and entered town dragging the carcass. Simeon would throw nuts at the priests during worship services and publicly ate sausage on Good Friday. The seemingly nutty monk also helped people in the town, though never when someone else might notice and never taking credit. Simeon’s saintly deeds were done in secret. And no one could dispute that Simeon was very holy person, even the priests he pelted with nuts on Sunday. Simeon just poked fun at every attempt people made to feel themselves "holier than thou."

In Russian history the greatest of the "holy fools" was Basil the Blessed, a man so revered that the famous Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square next to the Kremlin was named in his honor. Basil walked through Moscow wearing nothing more than a long beard. He threw rocks at wealthy people’s houses and stole from dishonest traders in Red Square.

Few doubted Basil’s holiness. Tsar Ivan the Terrible feared no one but Basil. Basil was also given to eating meat on Good Friday. Once he went to Ivan’s palace in the Kremlin and forced the tsar to eat raw meat during the fast saying, "Why abstain from eating meat when you murder men?" Countless Russians died for much less but Ivan was afraid to let any harm come to the saintly Basil.

I'm not claiming that Pussy Riot is holy in any way, shape, or form. But I wonder if they think of themselves as working in the holy fool tradition. (If so I think they left out a few bits. Celebrity ≠ holiness)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

I remember the landing. I remember the dreams. He got to be there for all of us, and we thank him for that.

I've wondered what his life was like afterwards. After all, "What do you do for an encore?" I hope he was able to enjoy faithfully doing whatever was needed each day without comparing it to his moment in the limelight.

The stories will say that he'll be remembered forever, but forever is a long time--only One remembers that long, and He has somewhat different standards than we do. We'll do our best, though.

Rest in peace, and may the Lord receive you to himself.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Magic Numbers

Nuclear physics researchers at the Max Planck Institute have methodically been studying the mass of nuclei with atomic numbers 102 and 103 and varying numbers of neutrons, and they predict a new “magic number” for nuclei based on the result.

Atoms have a nucleus with electrons around it. Patterns of atomic behavior emerged pretty early on. For example, atoms with 2, 10, 18, 36, and 54 electrons were remarkably stable and nonreactive. This turned out to reflect some fundamental symmetries of the atom. The factor two came from the number of spin states of an electron (+1/2 and -1/2). Then the pattern looks like

  • 2*1
  • 2*(1+2*2)
  • 2*(1+2*2+2*2)
  • 2*(1+2*2+2*2+3*3)

The magic became clearer when looking at the higher energy states of hydrogen: the simplest representations of the groups of rotations, together with the two electron states, had numbers of states that corresponded to the numbers of electron states possible. This pattern showed why oxygen would have two “bonds” and what the excited states would be. 2, 8, 18, 32, 50; easy new magic numbers, and the numbers of electrons in a "shell": all side effects of that rotational symmetry.

The nice simple bond predictions come apart at the seams when the atoms become very big: all the other electrons interacting with each other make the system much blurrier. The nice simple "outer shell" we learned about in chemistry isn’t always quite on the "outside" of the atom, and counting bonds doesn’t make nearly so much sense when the atom can have 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 bonds without breaking a sweat. Still, the pattern works OK for small atoms, and the symmetry is a fundamental law for all of them.

Nuclei are more of a mess. The protons and neutrons interact with strong forces, exchange identities, the protons repel electromagnetically, and they all barge around with startlingly high energies. This is thanks to Heisenberg’s principle: Δp Δx ≥ h means that when the nucleon is constrained to lie somewhere in a space the size of a nucleus, the uncertainty in its energy is of the order of 30MeV, or more than a million times the energy required to ionize most atoms.

It doesn’t help that heavier nuclei are less stable overall than lighter ones (on the average), and by analogy with the electrons around an atom you expect any patterns to be less clear. Even so, there are some patterns. Most nuclei are unstable and decay to stable nuclei. If either the number of protons or the number of neutrons is 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, or 126 the nucleus is much more likely to be stable, and is more stable still if the number of protons and number of neutrons are both one of these magic numbers. For example He_4 has 2 protons and 2 neutrons and is extremely stable: it not only doesn’t decay but it isn’t that easy to disrupt.

2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126. That pattern isn’t so easy to figure out an origin for. A factor of 2 we understand: protons have two spin states also. But beyond that the sequence looks rather peculiar. At this point, the student is apt to beg: can you please tell me the next number in the sequence?

The answer, according to Blaum et al, is 156.

Have fun! A Nobel may have your name on it.

corrected a number

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Green" aphids

Back in 2010 a study appeared suggesting that aphids were a little different (emphases are mine):
From the abstract: "Unexpectedly, we found that the aphid genome itself encodes multiple enzymes for carotenoid biosynthesis. Phylogenetic analyses show that these aphid genes are derived from fungal genes, which have been integrated into the genome and duplicated. Red individuals have a 30-kilobase region, encoding a single carotenoid desaturase that is absent from green individuals. A mutation causing an amino acid replacement in this desaturase results in loss of torulene and of red body color. Thus, aphids are animals that make their own carotenoids."

This would have flown right by my radar if I’d heard of it at the time. Carotenoids? OK, the root word is carrots, right. And they're important why?
Carotenoids are used in more than the eyes.

From the abstract: "The abundant carotenoid synthesis in aphids suggests strongly that a major and unknown physiological role is related to these compounds beyond their canonical anti-oxidant properties. We report here that the capture of light energy in living aphids results in the photo induced electron transfer from excited chromophores to acceptor molecules. ... This appears as an archaic photosynthetic system consisting of photo-emitted electrons that are in fine funnelled into the mitochondrial reducing power in order to synthesize ATP molecules."

No other animal makes its own carotenoids, much less uses them in photosynthesis. They studied ATP production in green, orange, and white aphids (with respectively smaller amounts of carotenoid pigment), and found that more carotenoid meant more ATP if an orange aphid was in light, not so much if not.

BTW, the green aphids were the orange ones bred at low temperature! The green ones didn’t show a drop in their (larger) ATP dosage in darkness. Which is odd. Apparently low (non-ideal) temperatures turn on extra carotenoid synthesis, which makes a kind of sense. It is expensive to make the chemicals: more of a strain in non-ideal circumstances, but it means a little more free energy in leaner times, provided they survive that long. In good times they just suck plant sap to their hearts' content. There's a little difference between the two studies that I'd like clarified: the first one found green aphids lacked a particular carotenoid that the red ones had. Maybe there are two different strains of aphids, or of green aphids.

If they are running a primitive photosynthesis system, it clearly doesn’t provide enough juice to keep them from attacking the garden.

Orwell statue

According to the Telegraph, the BBC does not want a statue of George Orwell, a former BBC journalist, outside because "It's far too Left-wing an idea." That's kind of hilarious by itself, but this bit was wonderful:
His experience at the BBC became unlikely source material for Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is said to have based Room 101 on a conference room at Broadcasting House where he attended staff meetings.

We understand.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Micro thrusters

A couple of years ago Paulo Lozano came up with a single-power supply method of accelerating ions for a micro-satellite propulsion system. A liquid salt seeps through porous metal to the tips of tiny needles where an electric field sprays them away. Last week he announced progress with a postage-stamp sized system that generates 50 microNewtons of force from 500 needles fed from a reservoir. The idea is to have a simple (no piping) system capable of adjusting micro-satellites' (1kg!) orbits. You can't use such tiny thrusters to land, or make big changes; just small adjustments.

The press release is exasperatingly vague on the details, such as how fast the ions are emitted, whether the polarity is reversed from time to time to avoid static charge buildup(*), and how long the thrusters can currently operate. And the release says things like "The researchers envision a small satellite with several microthrusters, possibly oriented in different directions." "Possibly?" You mean "obviously" Ack. I haven’t been able to get at the conference proceedings for details.

50 microNewtons isn’t a lot, but if you’re patient it can do quite a bit for you. For a 1kg micro-satellite, in a day it would change the speed by 4.3m/sec. In 20 days it could change the orbital speed by 1%, which can make interesting differences in the orbit. Or it could rotate the satellite to a new angle, provided there were counter-thrusters to stop the rotation. See "obviously" above.

Of course sooner or later you run out of fuel, but in the meantime you have an uncomplicated rocket. I look forward to hearing more about that.

(*) "Reverse the polarity" sounds like Star Trek technobabble, but suppose you're firing off the positive ions. Your craft will gain a net negative charge, which has two bad effects: it pulls you backwards towards that positively charged cloud and thus reduces the thrust, and it adds some sideways complications as you travel through the Earth's magnetic field. Neither are huge effects here, but then neither is the thrust. So it would make sense to change the polarity of your needles and eject the negative ions for a while, and use the whole fuel supply. The reports were cagy about the nature of the salt, but probably the negative and positive ions are different enough that you could only optimize for good thrust with one variety and the other wouldn’t be quite as useful.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Songs and marriage

At the Corn Fest a local choral group sang, among other things, a medley of tunes from "South Pacific."

I first saw that back in my early teens, on TV. Listening to its songs now reminded me of how much music defines our categories for understanding life and love. Back then I was pretty sure I understood "I am in a conventional dither, With a conventional star in my eye." I thought lines like "Younger than springtime, are you … Angel and lover, heaven and earth, Are you to me" were a little over the top--they didn’t match anything in my experience, obviously.

Fast forward a few decades, and I know what they were singing about: it was true—and misleading. There was something of being in love that touched the eternal (younger than springtime, or older), and of not something entirely earthly incarnate beside you. Charles Williams wrote of one of his characters seeing another as "bright as if mortal flesh had indeed become what all lovers know it to be." And why not, for God is love, and if you are in love you must in some degree be touching God(*)?

But the sense was always fleeting, and other things appeared in its place. Not loss of love, but other ways, quieter, plain, sometimes painful. Union with God as suffering servant isn’t nearly as merry as other kinds of love. It isn’t joy you feel as you try to pry open your eyes at 2am when you hear the baby sick. Faithfulness plays out in lots of boring ways too: another day, another brick on the wall, and you don’t notice (nobody notices) until the building is built.

There’s probably a little bias here because country/western wasn’t really on the dial much, but radio and movie music concentrated on the romance—just the two of you. Kids weren’t exactly on the radar, and the only stress was the possibility of falling out of love or in love with somebody else.

Kids weren’t on mine when we married.

OK, two. OK, three. You know we run out of hands after four? Looking back I wish we could have had more than our five. I grew up in the era of Population Bomb and breathed the attitudes about children that were in the air; and those concentrated on the burdens and not the joys. When I look around at other families it seems people aren’t good at balance: if contraception is hard couples sometimes wind up with too many kids, but if it is easy they seem to wind up with way too few and they don’t seem ... stretched enough, blessed enough? And if our attitudes toward marriage are shaped to think of it in terms of romance, children wind up only second thoughts—and something is lost.

It gets worse when marriage is defined in terms of personal fulfillment. Looking back I can safely say that I didn’t know what was good for me, and that I am a better man, with a better character, than I would have been if I'd lived my life by my notions then of the good life. a long way to go yet

(*) But love also has a shape and we have a nature. See Dante for a classic example of what can happen with: Love Excessive, Love Defective, Love Perverted. Just saying "it is love" isn’t good enough.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A picture worth several words...

Our town's "community guide" describes the various businesses and events one can find here, filled out with lots of ads. The usual thing...

I did a double-take with the ad on the back.

"Dedicated to helping you reach your financial goals through results based redacted" OK, fine. But that chess layout is impossible to achieve without cheating. The picture presumably has something to do with how the company gets results. So is the picture supposed to illustrate the impossibility or the cheating?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Honor and Slavery by Kenneth S. Greenberg

On the suggestion of Grim I picked this short book out of the library. The subhead is "Lies, duels, noses, masks, dressing as a woman, gifts, strangers, humanitarianism, death, slave rebellions, the pro-slavery argument, baseball, hunting, and gambling in the Old South." That’s quite a mouthful, and a pretty good list of what the book talks about.

According to Greenberg the core of honor is the South was how you were perceived. To insinuate that someone was a liar was an invitation to a duel—if you were a peer, or a horsewhipping if you weren’t. The concept of "to give the lie to" was critical: a lie didn’t matter unless someone accused you of it. He cites one Southern gentleman who forgot about an invitation and met the unwanted guest with the statement "I am not at home."

The "language of honor" included many symbols: you demonstrated superiority by giving gifts, demonstrated your indifference to petty things like death or loss by willingness to duel or gamble, and your courage by standing up in battle (or in the hunt) in the face of attack and not running or dodging. (Which seems to have made baseball unpopular: run from a ball???)

To wear a mask was no shame for a man of honor; the horror was to be unmasked... A Southern gentleman could wear anything—even a dress or a lie—as long as he could prevent it from being removed.

A gentleman’s word was expected to be honored; a slave’s to be disbelieved. A gentleman was expected to be courageous and a slave a coward. A stranger didn’t fit in, and despite celebration of "Southern hospitality" was apt to find himself houseless. I wish Greenberg had gone farther describing the stranger’s role, and addressing the middle class and honor. Probably they shared the same values as the aristocracy, but it would be nice to have that explicit.

Gift-giving was very important, especially if you didn't limit the concept of gift to money or things. They regarded the food and clothing they gave the slaves as benevolent care: gifts.

You don’t have to admire the Southern aristocracy, but if you want to understand the past at all, you should understand them. Read the book.

Thursday, August 09, 2012


I knew already that the Dodd-Frank bill compelled banks to make high risk home loans in the hopes that cause and effect could be magically reversed. I remembered that it had some internationally intrusive features too. The scope is startling broad. Any company that deals in the US at any level is at risk from US regulators at any level.
Not only will they have to comply with the rules of federal bodies such as the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, there are also state bodies, such as The New York State Department of Financial Services, which is the regulator that accused Standard Chartered.

It is 10 months old and supervises some 4,500 institutions with assets of about $6.2 trillion.

Yet many had not even heard of it until this week.

I should probably give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they mean well, though I'm extremely skeptical of that titular pair. Still, it takes a certain deliberate blindness to forget the "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" rule, especially given how many Americans have wound up in hot water for exercising free speech in lands that don't allow it.

And to be fair, Berlin and Brussels are no slouches at "These are our rules so they're your rules too."

But there's a bit of difference between requiring transparency in accounting and demanding boycotts of Iran. If money is flowing through the US it should flow honestly, and if goods are sold here they shouldn't be unexpectedly poisonous; but dealings outside the US aren't under our authority.

Some things companies/countries do are utterly vile: Chinese organ harvesting, for example. Boycotts there sound like an excellent idea: but not enforced by the state. Others are a lot more ambiguous: child labor, for instance. No question that it can be terribly abusive, but it can also be life-saving. So how do we get the right to regulate them?

But they're our laws (written by staffers) passed by our representatives (who don't pay us any mind, but never mind that--they don't generally read the laws anymore either) and interpreted and enforced by our bureaucrats (who might as well be on the moon for all the input they ask from us): they must be good for us and for all the world as well.

Priorities and sleep

BBC reports a study in Science asserting that among pectoral sandpipers
male pectoral sandpipers ... are able to maintain high neurobehavioral performance despite greatly reducing their time spent sleeping during a 3-week period of intense male-male competition for access to fertile females. Males that slept the least sired the most offspring. Our results challenge the view that decreased performance is an inescapable outcome of sleep loss.

Or to put it another way, males that slept as little as possible sired more chicks and didn't seem more unhealthy than the others. Which you'd think would tend to breed populations where the males didn't sleep much during the three week breeding season, but apparently some do anyway.

From the report I learn that the males do display flights and ground displays to impress reluctant females, sometimes chasing them in flight in competition with other males, and try to maintain territory in the breeding grounds. And they squabble and fight. Sounds pretty energetic. My first thought on reading the BBC story was: their courtship displays must be low-energy, but apparently it isn't so.

The team wired up bird so they could monitor them 24/7 in their breeding area in Alaska. The study lasted 6 years, and they found only 13 out of 640 males returned to the breeding site, but the more-successful low-sleep males weren't less likely to return (they said 10% more likely, but with numbers that low...). The number of female encounters (monitored by telemetry) was proportional to the time spent awake (moving): which doesn't seem unlikely. And they sired more chicks.

Yep, they thought of the sleep quality issue:

"Short-sleeping males should show greater SWE than long-sleeping males if they compensated completely for sleep loss by sleeping deeper; however, we did not find an inverse correlation between sleep duration and SWE (r=0.22, t9=0.70, P=0.50). Consequently, short-sleeping males still experienced a deficit in sleep."

So the birds don't sleep better, they sleep less, chase more females, sire more chicks and still seem healthy enough to return next year at the same rate as sleepy-heads.

Moreover, the increase in sleep intensity in shortsleeping
males suggests that sleep serves a restorative function. In this case, long-sleeping males may lack genetic traits that enable shortsleeping males to maintain high performance on little sleep. Indeed, inter-individual variation in neurobehavioral vulnerability to sleep loss was recently linked to genetic polymorphisms in humans V. Bachmann et al., Functional ADA polymorphism increases sleep depth and reduces vigilant attention in humans. Cereb. Cortex 22, 962 (2012).

Or in summary:
"Late to bed and late to rise and you rub your bloodshot eyes. Early to bed and early to rise and your girl goes out with other guys."

When you want the beary best

Trust the discerning nose of a bear to help you pick.

Although I wonder: Pooh's favorite food was honey, and Paddington's was marmalade. Perhaps British bears are trained differently? Phil Frank's bears preferred salmon and ball-park hotdogs.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Auto (and other) testing

Sitting in the dealership looking at the spiffy new cars in the showroom (we bought used), I got to thinking what a Wisconsin winter would do to the finish and all the shiny bits in the engine. (We get salt in the winter.)

Of course that leads to: manufacturers have to test their cars to see how they hold up against that kind of abuse. Which means somebody has to do it, and it is a skilled task to do it quickly, so there must be a car torture engineer.

Which sounds like a cool job: you get to try to trash cars for a living.

Firms do have testing labs and are happy to boast about them. GM has a facility for generating dust and rain, and some sites for winter testing. Volkswagen has some video of how you know your teenager drives when you're not looking.

"Reliability engineer": most of the time they'll be measuring tolerances on parts and making notes and trying to find out what broke, but some of them get to use fun gadgets like an electrostatic gun at HP.

That must make for some interesting party conversations.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Red Crosse Knight by Spenser

I’d heard of Fairie Queene for as long as I can remember, but never buckled down to read it. It turned up in a collection I downloaded to the Kindle, so I decided to have at it, and read the first book: the Red Crosse Knight.

The spelling is egregiously bad, of course, with U and V scrambled and apparently some randomness in the rest. The effusive dedication to Queen Elizabeth was pretty off-putting too. And I’m not about to try to address the symbolism on the first go-through: just getting the language straight is enough for now.

Once you get into the rhythm it flows very well, except for dramatic scenes. The suspension in that 9’th line trips up battle descriptions. The scene with Despair persuading the knight is powerful, and the overall tone--almost nobody is trusty--is striking. Many of the descriptions show good attention to detail while remaining clear and flowing. I prefer Bunyan’s "Palace Beautiful" to the "House of Holinesse" and its rather extreme ascetic drills in purification: the forthright allegory in that section begs for the comparison, and Bunyan wins. Though having "Charity" be married with many children is a good touch. Spenser isn't shy about what the usual benefits of the conquering knight are with his late opponent's lady.

Spoiler alert: The Red Crosse Knight is told he is going to be St. George, which jars rather amusingly with the history of the real one.

The Kindle version I have is defective: the original and annotated versions are intermingled, which in the original format were fine but makes this one rough sledding--and there are enough obscurities that I need the annotation. I'm not quite in the swing of language yet either, though no doubt it gets easier as you go along. So, bottom line: I'm glad I read this, but I'm not sure I've got the time to address the other 5 books.

Your mileage may vary.

To illustrate: The Red Crosse knight defeated the Saracen Sans-foy and acquired Duessa (a dubious reward), and on reaching Duessa's beautiful but malignant castle finds himself challenged by Sans-foy's brother. The Queen here is not the titular queen but Pluto's daughter.

At last forth comes that far renowmed Queene,

With royall pomp and Princely maiestie;

She is ybrought vnto a paled greene,

And placed vnder stately canapee,

The warlike feates of both those knights to see.

On th'other side in all mens open vew

Duessa placed is, and on a tree

Sans-foy his shield is hangd with bloudy hew:

Both those the lawrell girlonds to the victor dew.


A report from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle finds a way in which normal cells (fibroblasts) "rally to the defense" of damaged neighbor cells that just happen to be cancerous. They produce a special protein that is known to help cancer cells spread. The result is that in some people cancers develop a resistance to chemotherapy.

I haven't reviewed the report, but it sounds plausible that tissues in the body respond to injury by trying to help the damaged area grow back, even if the damaged area is cancerous--figuring that trickery out is beyond the pay grade of your average fibroblast.

vanGulik didn't mention this

"Replacement convicts" are not new. For centuries, the use of criminal substitutes was among the first things Westerners would mention when discussing China’s legal system. Missionary and traveler Karl Gützlaff in 1834, French legal scholar Édouard Louis Joseph Bonnier in 1862, and American scholar Owen Lattimore in the 1930s wrote about the practice. In 1895, Taiwan missionary George Mackay described witnessing these replacement convicts: "It was an open secret that these men had nothing to do with the case, but were bribed to wear the cangue for six weeks." In 1899, Ernest Alabaster, a scholar of Chinese criminal law, wrote that courts "permitted" the real offenders to hire substitutes, and that such things "frequently happen, have for long happened, and—notwithstanding Imperial decrees to the contrary—will, under the system, always happen." Supposedly, the going rate in 1848 for a replacement convict was 17 pounds, which would come to roughly $2,000 in present-day dollars."

Slate has an article about some Chinese rich and powerful who, in the unlikely event that they wind up being prosecuted, hire stand-ins to appear in court and if necessary serve the sentence. Even at less elevated levels of society, sober passengers may confess to reckless driving to save their drunk relative from severe penalties.

Apparently the practice has a long history, though how long would take a little skilled research to discover (I can't read Chinese). It was condoned because the culprit had to pay (literally) for his crime and the fact of punishing somebody served as a warning to others. (You thought the weregild was bad?)

I've groused before about "Do you know who I am" and our legal system, but I'm aware that other places are much worse, and this is a reminder that things can get worse still.

Hat tip to Maggie's Farm

A Martian beginning

"Celebrations by the mission team were so joyous over the next hour that JPL Director Charles Elachi had to plead for calm in order to hold a post-landing press conference."

Being lowered at 2mph by cables from a rocket-levitating platform: I understand the importance of that to preserve the delicate drives (otherwise they have to be much more rugged and heavy), but I can't help feeling that somebody thought it would be really cool to try. First pix

I was glad to find some good news after the evil from Milwaukee last night.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

How to improve blogging

David Foster over at Chicago Boyz announced that August was going to be re-run month because the journal format of a blog is just not suitable for keeping track of essays of long-term relevance. Reading a blog focuses on whatever is most recent. Using tags doesn't help a great deal, since they are also ordered by time.

There's no automatic way to turn daily entries into a coherent whole. That is going to take effort by the author, and possibly quite a lot of effort; including rewriting to join essays together.

Using a "Best-of" tag is too coarse a division, unless the blog is laser-focused on only one topic.

I broach the subject with fear and trembling, because "new feature" is equivalent to "lots of new bugs and instability."

But... There are some things that would make connecting essays easier.

For example, suppose there was an option to order the presentation of essay in a category by rank. The most useful ranking is the author's (unless readership is static a Facebook-like "like" won't reflect real reader approval). The author then can put essays in some category in a "read this before that" order, deprecate things he changed his mind on, and so forth. Ranking in one category doesn't reflect ranking in other categories. This changes the "tag" structure associated with posts, but shouldn't be too hard to implement.

Simplicio: "But can't we do the same thing with meta-posts that consist of links to the others?"

Salviati: "Yes, but it is taxing for the reader to be perpetually jumping back and forth rather than reading longer blocks of related prose. In addition, it compels the author to edit old posts. Granted, there can be more connective detail between the links with the special-post format, but I think the user-interface argument is compelling.

Another thing that could make the user's experience easier is a way to use multiple tags in a single search: "Tribes" and "Geeks" for example. That requires a change in the generic user interface.

And one more thing: you create a structure consisting of different posts without bothering with tags, and tag the whole structure as a "book." A "book" might even include posts from other blogs, provided the authors of that blog all agreed to the inclusion (revocable at any time) and the outside posts were clearly formatted.

And if posts had version control available to the author and the reader--a "book"s version of a post could leave out duplicate introductory material (but still available for other views of the post).

Organizing the material is still going to be hard work.

Friday, August 03, 2012

UHE neutrinos

Truth to tell, I had been getting a little worried, but back in June they came through, and IceCube announced two neutrinos with energies above 1 PeV. It isn't perfectly certain that they are electron neutrinos--they might be a flavor-changing interaction--but they dump quite a lot of energy (which we see as light) in a small area. Some of the light manages to travel quite a way in the ice, as you can see from the pictures in the lower right and lower left.

To get an idea of the scale, the chains of sensors are 1 km high and spread
across 800m, so the light went quite a long way. The size of the blobs tell how much energy that sensor saw, and the color tells about the time the light arrived. (The size of the blob has nothing to do with distance.) The other pictures show different projections, with histograms of how much energy was dumped. The center pictures are of a monte carlo simulation of an electron neutrino interaction and a cartoon of what happens at the center. You'll probably have to click on the image to get a decent view.

The lower corner pictures look a little like the old nuclear tests, though of course the energy dumped in the ice is far less; only like converting a million protons into energy. I know that would violate all kinds of conservation rules: humor me. But whatever made those particles would make our biggest nukes look like damp splashes by comparison.

This is from Aya Ishihara's talk at Neutrino 2012. I wasn't there, and I didn't help with the analysis--but the pictures are too cool not to show.