Sunday, October 28, 2012

Summarizing marriage advice

Eldest Daughter and Maggie’s Farm both recommended 16 Ways I Blew My Marriage (two of them). His advice: Don’t stop holding her hand; don’t call names; don’t stop being attractive; don’t stop having fun together; don’t stop kissing her, and so on.

Quite a few of these are consequences of some simple principles.

  1. You don’t know when you are going to die. What do you want her last memory of you to be? A kiss, maybe? Not being a slob or of angry words?
  2. She wants to feel she can trust you. Around other women, dealing with the children, etc.
  3. She likes to feel wanted. Though I’m given to understand that proving this can be overdone.
  4. Try to keep alert to what she needs. "But the game is on!" or "I’m posting on the blog" don’t quite cut it
  5. If you give up a sense of entitlement, everything is a gift. Best if both of you feel that way; something to figure out before you get married

For better or for worse, an adventure, with surprise traveling companions along the way.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Common culture (low)

I decided to address From Dawn to Decadence again when I heard that Barzun died.

He has some lively lines, and interesting asides.

When secularism came to prevail, Bible reading disappeared among the majority, and with it the background of ideas and allusion common to all. In this role, the only ecumenical replacement one can think of is the daily newspaper's comic strip.

That's a bit dated. The daily newspaper is a little less common than it used to be, and I'm not sure what TV shows everybody watches. I'm told that for news it is FOX vs the rest (except for those of us who get news online), but once the news is over what I don't know what people look at.

We've managed to get political divides, racial divides, language divides--lots of AVI's tribes. I wonder what bits of culture they have in common. I guess some sports bridge the divides, but they provide a rather limited common language.

Language divides aside, do the groups even tend to like the same comics? Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore play to different political affiliations. I found Boondocks pretty obscure, but I suspect I wasn't the target audience. Did anybody not like Calvin and Hobbs? (You're not limited to what your newspaper has; literally thousands of different strips are online and those who've invested in a smartphone can read their favorites after reviewing facebook.)

There's a topic for some sociology students (if they can resist the temptation to survey only college students!): figure out the favorite comic strips past and present as a function of age, political affiliation, race, religion and religiosity, educational attainment...

Although it's a scary thought that perhaps the only things our tribes have in common are a liking for football and Fox Trot. There's not enough for a common language there.

Polls on racism

Althouse has a post linking the AP-sponsored study on politics and racism. From the AP story:
Overall, the survey found that by virtue of racial prejudice, Obama could lose 5 percentage points off his share of the popular vote in his Nov. 6 contest against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But Obama also stands to benefit from a 3 percentage point gain due to pro-black sentiment, researchers said. Overall, that means an estimated net loss of 2 percentage points due to anti-black attitudes.

"Racial prejudice" vs "pro-black sentiment" Are these things different somehow?

The survey questions are also available, and they include gems like:

RAC11. How well does each of these 
           words describe most blacks?
   Extremely well
   Very well
   Moderately well
   Slightly well
   Not at all
   Refused/Not answered

How is a rational and honest person supposed to answer that? "I know a few friendly and a few non-friendly and quite a few I've never gotten to know, with more being X than Y" doesn't fit in their grid anywhere.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More CO2

I just thought of another source of CO2: soda. The information below is matched in other places, but I don't have a definitive reference.
The normal human body breathes to eliminate CO2, producing 200cc per minute that has to be eliminated at the same rate.

One can of soda contains up to 1000cc of dissolved CO2, most of which is absorbed into the blood stream by the intestines.

The Lungs are presented with the extra CO2 to eliminate by increased minute volume leading to increased respiratory effort.

A normal individual won't have a problem with this extra CO2, as the extra CO2 absorbed via the intestinal track will signal the central chemoreceptors to "immediately" increase the respiratory rate.

Hmm. If the CO2 is quickly absorbed then as a wild guess that would mean 10 minutes or so of increased CO2 blood levels. Does that mean 10 minutes of reduced initiative? Don't let Bloomberg hear about this aspect of "Demon Sprite!"

It wouldn't be hard to repeat their experiment with the subjects constantly sipping soda, provided the tests didn't last a long time. Blood tests of CO2 level are apparently not that easy, and drinking doesn't play well with wearing a mask to measure breath CO2 levels.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Smoke-filled rooms

Some of those smoke-filled rooms wound up nominating better candidates than the primary system. Whether this is random chance, or a defect in the primary system, or a deterioration in the quality of candidates over the years is an interesting question that I won't attempt to answer. It doesn't appear that the primary system removes the influence of special interests.

At any rate, the observation about the smoky rooms is a bit ironic in light of some recent research on the effect of CO2 levels on judgment. (Yes, they worried about impurities in the CO2 they added to the room's atmosphere.) Received wisdom said there was no impact of CO2 concentration on human performance, but there'd been a partial study that suggested maybe there really was.

At LBNL researchers asked volunteers to take tests in a room that had three possible levels of CO2 concentration: 600, 1000, and 2500 ppm (human contribution is not substantial). They were tested on:

  • Basic Activity Level (number of actions taken)
  • Applied Activity (opportunistic actions)
  • Focused Activity (strategic actions in a narrow endeavor)
  • Task Orientation (focus on concurrent task demands)
  • Initiative (development of new/creative activities)
  • Information search (openness to, and search for information)
  • Information usage (ability to utilize information effectively)
  • Breadth of Approach (flexibility in approach to the task)
  • Basic Strategy (number of strategic actions)

The results? Some things (Information Search) showed no particular effect. Others (Initiative) showed pretty dramatic changes.

Image above is taken from the paper by U Satish et al. "Funding for this research was provided by Collaborative Activities for Research and Technology Innovation (CARTI), which supports research in the areas of air quality and water resource management. CARTI, part of the Syracuse Center of Excellence located in Syracuse, New York, is supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under award EM-83340401-0." Or in other words, they get the credit for this and not me.

There is strong evidence that in schools, CO2 concentrations are frequently near or above the levels associated in this study with significant reductions in decision-making performance. In surveys of elementary school classrooms in California and Texas, average CO2 concentrations were above 1,000 ppm, a substantial proportion exceeded 2,000 ppm, and in 21% of Texas classrooms peak CO2 concentration exceeded 3,000 ppm (Corsi et al. 2002; Whitmore et al. 2003). Given these concentrations, we must consider the possibility that some students in high-CO2 classrooms are disadvantaged in learning or test taking.

In eight studies within commercial aircraft, mean CO2 concentrations in the passenger cabins were generally above 1,000 ppm and ranged as high as 1,756 ppm, and maximum concentrations were as high as 4,200 ppm (Committee on Air Quality in Passenger Cabins of Commercial Aircraft 2002).

They worried about people wearing respirators, though other work suggests that blood CO2 levels don't change much. Car and pickup atmospheres are hard to predict (vent open, window open a crack, smoking, bad exhaust--who knows?) but they suggest that there might be some effects.

I suggested to my supervisor that our next meeting be on the Memorial Union terrace, to make sure we were as alert and productive as possible.

Italian disasters

As could have been readily predicted, Italian scientists on their disaster body are quitting. That was an easier prediction than earthquakes.

An Italian court had found the six scientists and government official guilty of manslaughter for saying there was little risk.

The devil is in the details. The situation was that there'd been some minor quakes, and an amateur whose earlier predictions had all failed had managed to get attention and was warning everybody that disaster was at hand. By tradition people lived outdoors for a while to avoid aftershocks or the big tremor the small ones were leading up to. The panel assessed the risks and found them small, and apparently insisted on this extra hard because of the amateur. Some people who usually camped in the streets at such times decided to stay home, and got crushed when the quake hit after all.

Nature reports in considerable detail, and describes the famous evaluation meeting. Even Boschi now says that "the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn't understand that until later on."

In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L'Aquila was "certainly normal" and posed "no danger", adding that "the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy". When prompted by a journalist who said, "So we should have a nice glass of wine," De Bernardinis replied "Absolutely", and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.


Two of the committee members — Selvaggi and Eva — later told prosecutors that they "strongly dissented" from such an assertion, and Jordan later characterized it as "not a correct view of things". (De Bernardinis declined a request for an interview through his lawyer, Dinacci, who insisted that De Bernardinis's public comments reflected only what the commission scientists had told him. There is no mention of the discharge idea in the official minutes, Picuti says, and several of the indicted scientists point out that De Bernardinis made these remarks before the actual meeting.)

It sounds to me as though scapegoats were sought. And found. And convicted. There's an automatic appeal, but at this point I would not offer the Italian government my expert opinion on the time of day. Too risky.

Monday, October 22, 2012

I can run but not hide

I had no intention of "live-blogging" the debate. I still don't.

But I heard part of it (Afghanistan, Israel phone call, Iran) while waiting for my better half.

For anybody who knows anything about doings in the area, it was painful to listen to. The best you could hear was half-truths. On the Afghan forces question both men pretended the real question didn't exist and lied about the Afghan military's ability. Obama had to defend his record, so he told most of the lies.

I know there are things you can't say when you're president (Afghanistan is really two or three countries, not one.) And you can't expose fallback negotiating positions (though I remember that happening a few election debates ago(*)!). But why not use the opportunity to show your understanding of the complexity of events?

(*)Though I can't recall who did it. I think it was Reagan, but I can't swear to that.

UPDATE: After sleeping on it: it was a newspaper that uncovered and published our negotiating strategy. Reagan was the one who said "The Shah did our bidding," which has to rank as one of the most horrible blunders in any debate I've heard.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues by Robert J Spitzer

As the subtitle says, this is a survey with particular emphasis on life issues: euthanasia and abortion.

I've been appalled at the sloppy thinking pervading our culture, and have been trying to put together some things to try to help at least the church kids to think clearly through the noise. I heard about this book and figured "Why re-invent the wheel?" (Executive summary: I think it needs tweaking for my target audience.)

The 10 principles are

  1. Complete Explanation. The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data.
  2. Noncontradiction. Valid opinions or theories have no internal contractions. A real being cannot both be and not be the same thing, in the same respect, at the same place and time.
  3. Objective Evidence. Nonarbitrary opinions or theories are based on publicly verifiable evidence.
  4. Nonmaleficence. Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. Avoid unnecessary harms; if a harm is unavoidable, minimize it.
  5. Consistent Means and Ends. The end does not justify the means.
  6. Full Human Potential. Every human being (or group of human beings) deserves to be valued according to the full level of human development, not according to the level of development already achieved.
  7. Natural Rights. All human beings possess in themselves (by virtue of their existence alone) the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property ownership; no government gives these rights and no government can take them away.
  8. Fundamentality of Rights. The more fundamental right is the one which is necessary for the possibility of the other; where there is a conflict, we should resolve in favor of the more fundamental right.
  9. Limits to Freedom. One person's (or group's) freedoms cannot impose undue burdens upon other persons (or groups).
  10. Beneficence. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

One common thread is that most societies get around applying inconvenient principles by redefining people. A slave is not a full human, savages are primitive and therefore not as valuable as we sophisticates, the peasant is an Epsilon and the magistrate an Alpha, the unborn baby is a lump of cells, and so on. If you insist that a human is a human whether awake or asleep (first few principles) then Roe v Wade is unconscionable, violating pretty much all the above principles, as well as being based on bad science and as far a prior law goes, on nothing but eagerness to permit abortion. Althouse learned that it was also guided by a fear of overpopulation!

He doesn't address the point that Principle 7 (Natural Rights) is in fact denied by many states and political parties. Some people believe that all rights do come from the state/collective, and the observation that this attitude leads to innumerable evils does not dissuade them.

I'm afraid I'm not terribly patient, and I began to get a little tired of seeing the same example each time, but it is useful to see what a train wreck Roe was and how disastrous its implications are.

After running through these principles Spitzer addresses himself to why dialog about this sort of thing has been problematic. He suggests a classification by how people define happiness for themselves, a four levels of happiness scheme that is quite old.

  • Level 1: desire for externally stimulated or physical pleasures and possessions
  • Level 2: desire for ego gratification and control
  • Level 3: desire for other's good, making a difference for good
  • Level 4: desire for the ultimate or perfect.

Needless to say, the values of one level aren't going to make a lot of sense to the others and what persuades one won’t persuade others.

Spitzer has a side note here on how to try to guide yourself up to Level 3: think carefully about what is important, and write a "personal creed" explaining why you are here and what you intend to accomplish, and review it daily.

He ends the book with proofs for the existence of the transmaterial, starting with one that begins from the nature of doubt. It requires careful attention. He references but doesn’t address Godel's discoveries here. The others are based on the nature of various desires (for beauty, justice, love, etc), all of which demand a transmaterial touchstone.

The book is short (134 pages) and clearly written. It requires a little concentration, and I'm still puzzling over whether it all works for high-school age kids. (Some can easily master all; most will easily master some.)

Cold clouds for missing mass?

I like to go to the Cosmology Journal Club when I can. They discuss papers (mostly the profs talking, I notice) that are in the news. Somebody reads it and presents a summary and attempts to field questions about it (but since he’s not the author, "I don’t know" is a legitimate answer). (I sit quietly at the side and listen and try to figure out what they're talking about.)

This week they finally discussed Do the Herschel cold clouds in the Galactic halo embody its dark matter?. I read the article and sensed some plausibility, but I couldn’t tell if the methods the authors were using were appropriate.

The idea is simple: there are clouds of something emitting light at about 250microns wavelength, which implies (very) cold temperatures, in the view when the Herschel-SPIRE system tried to look at the Magellanic Clouds. Careful analysis shows that they're actually in our galaxy, and a study of their angular sizes suggests a simple distribution radius from the center of the galaxy. We haven't seen things like this before because we haven’t had the instruments to look for such cold clouds.

If they are in fact distributed spherically about the galaxy and if the clouds have about 15,000 times the mass of the Sun then the amount of cold matter is enough to account for the previously unseen mass in our galaxy. An astrophysicist almost a hundred years ago predicted that gas clouds would spontaneously tend to break up into clumps of about 40,000 solar masses, which is comparable to what would be needed here. So maybe the missing matter is solved: Do we need dark matter theories?

Well, the devil is in the details. (I thank the Journal Club for the details; I didn't know any of this except that he was guessing about the mass.)

For starters, the Herschel-SPIRE system looked in a few other directions, and at several other wavelengths—and none of that appears here. Maybe it is too early, since it takes time to do the studies, or maybe he wants that study to be an independent analysis

The astute reader will have noticed that the mass is a guess. The equations in the paper have the proper scale factor in there, but that scale factor can be pretty much anything less than 1—there is no proof that the clouds are anything like that massive.

UPDATE from comments:

He figured out what average mass the clouds needed to completely account for missing mass, and called it M (actually with a bar over the top but I can't do that easily in html). Then in the equations describing galactic gravitation he wrote c*M. "c" is the scale factor here. He doesn't know the real mass of the clouds, which I'll call "m". You can always find "c" so that m=cM (c=m/M). That's the scale factor here; instead of using "m" (the real-but-unknown mass) he uses "c*M" (an unknown fraction of his favorite guess for the mass).

We know the clouds aren't going to be more massive than M--by construction that would make the galaxy too massive. So c<=1. And they aren't empty, so c>0. But whether they mass fifteen thousand suns or a sand-box worth isn't obvious. It is legitimate to do such mathematical maneuvering if you're trying to illustrate some important connections. Unfortunately his important connection is purely hypothetical.

Another question that arose was what the clouds are supposed to be made of: cold gas isn’t going to radiate; you need dust.

UPDATE from comments:
One of the profs reminded us that cold gas won't be ionized, and neutral atoms only absorb and radiate in particular characteristic wavelengths. Only much more complicated (dust-sized) particles can radiate in a spectrum when they're that cold.

Another question is when such clouds form. If after the transition from which we get the cosmic microwave background (when the universe cooled enough to turn transparent to light(*)), then there are some technical questions about how uniform the gas can be, since structures are already starting to coalesce.

In the main author's pet theory the Jeans clouds should further condense into clouds with embedded "micro brown dwarfs" of about Earth's mass, consisting of about 14 degree blobs of hydrogen at nearly the triple point (solid, liquid, and gas happily coexisting). (They’d be too small to search for with "microlensing", since the radius at which their gravity would cause interesting curvature of distant stars would actually be inside the liquid blob. So you’d not see any strange "jumps" when a star passed near one.)

The upshot: interesting observation, but the model proposed has problems and isn’t near explaining the missing matter problem.

(*) When you have a dense plasma, light doesn’t go very far. Only when things cool down enough so that nuclei get their full complement of electrons, and neutral atoms form, does light get a chance to shine.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mali's Salafists

I was curious what the Malian government would do when the Salafists started destroying shrines in Timbuktu. The answer seems to have been ... nothing. Possibly because the government doesn't care that much, or possibly because the army couldn't get its act together and they know it--the rebels beat them once already.

But the acts aroused a lot of outcry outside Mali. Most of what I heard was from the US, of course, though I suspect any complaint from Saudi Arabia would be muted. The Mali rebels are their kind of people.

This time around I expect to hear serious outrage now that the Salafists have taken to obliterating 8000-year old petroglyphs. I predict that the outrage will be considerably louder than before.

The Salafists will no doubt conclude that we empathize more with stone-age pagans than with medieval "heretic" Muslims, and there's something to that. SWPL said that any religion but Christianity was cool, but any ethical monotheism is going to be less cool to the SWPL crowd than shamans or mantras.

But to be fair to us, part of the matter is that we love a mystery and the petroglyph meanings are a mystery and who the heirs of the makers are is a mystery. Timbuktu's shrines are, to us, merely obscure. You can find out who was who, and what was in the ancient books if you want to.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

T.S. Eliot nailed it

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

From "Choruses from 'The Rock'"

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I _can_ blame headline writers for this

The BBC made as the off-page headline for this story about creativity and mental illness this monstrosity: "Creativity 'a mental illness'". The actual story headline was "Creativity 'closely entwined with mental illness'"

Anyhow... after saying that writers were at risk for anxiety and bipolar and depression and substance abuse (and photographers and dancers to be bipolar), they report Swedish researchers as concluding

As a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people.

But they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.

And the article includes the usual celebration:

Similarly, the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece.

Only if the writer has the discipline to whip it back into order. Otherwise you don't get originality but randomness. I can't recall who pointed out that thousands of poets used laudanum or the like, but only one wrote Kubla Khan.

Beth Murphy (at Mind) pleads for a little sense of proportion:

It is important that we do not romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses.

Too late for this article...


You can't blame the headline writer for "The Scientific Cause of Near Death Experiences" this time. The authors of the paper in question have startling chutzpah: "Only then will discussion of near-death experiences move beyond theological dialogue and into the lawful realm of empirical neurobiology."

But if you look more closely at their paper they have a lot of A is like B therefore A may be B. They do not have a "scientific cause", they have an untested hypothesis in which some of the effects (such as the bright tunnel) are like known effects that might be associated with dying, and others are associated with "brain pathologies" (no explanation of how these brain pathologies arise when the brain is shutting down). "For example, dopamine and opioid systems become
active when an animal is under predatory attack." is invoked to explain a feeling of peace. The UK Medical Council did not get their money's worth.

About the only thing that seems to be new is a breakdown showing ratios of near-death experiences: those who didn't get them, those who did, and those who did even though they weren't at risk.

Check it yourself if you like.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Congratulations to Baumgartner! You couldn't get me in the balloon, much less stepping out of it; and there's no way I'd have broken out of the tumble--that demanded experience.

Before the kvetchers start in complaining that this was a dangerous waste of money just to satisfy ego, let me counter-assert that we'd never have gotten anywhere if it weren't for people who wanted to do useless things; things like paddle a log upstream or fiddle with electric tubes that glow in the dark.

Maybe nothing will ever come of learning how to jump from space, but I celebrate the urge to explore the limits. And give a thought for the ones who died trying.

BTW, this isn't quite the same thing as teenagers tightrope walking on a bridge cable. Baumgartner planned.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is the Internet undermining print and radio?

According to Pew more people read news online than read the newspaper for news. I've worried before about how reporting is supposed to be funded if everybody gets news for free, but that's a side issue here.

The received wisdom is that people quit reading papers because the newspaper cost money, but online news is free.

This image is from Pew Research Center.

They don't show numbers from before 2004 for online news, but two things jump out at me here. Rates of reliance on newspaper and radio news are almost the same, and show a long steady drop that began well before there was much in the way of internet news. And the rate of increase of internet news use grew faster than the newspaper use dropped.

I can guess why TV news didn't fall that rapidly: they have the tools to jazz it up and make entertainment of it in ways radio doesn't. Reading about an attack isn't as gripping as seeing the blood, and though you don't actually learn anything new watching a reporter standing in the hurricane you get the race-car thrill of wondering if something will blow him away.

Radio news is succinct: so much so that there's neither depth nor breadth. All Some Things Considered is a bit of an exception to the depth, if you make proper allowances for their bias in material to report on.

But the newspaper allows quite a bit of detail. True, most of the stories tend to be thumbnail reports, and important local trends are sometimes covered up.

Why both newspaper and radio track each other so closely puzzles me. Perhaps both were found wanting and people gave up on news? Since the trend is independent of internet developments I don't see how the net is responsible for their losses.

The rapid rise of internet news readers shows there is a market for news. There's no breakdown for how many different sources or aggregators people used. I'd like to see that, and also what sources they used.

For example, if John Doe watches MSNBC his iPhone, is that TV or Internet? If it is the same program? If it is the same style of infotainment even if it isn't the same program?

Is it news if it is about celebrities trying to get attention?

From the lack of effect on other media I tentatively guess that a goodly part of the rise in internet news is really a rise in TV-affiliated infotainment.

We have no TV (years ago I learned that the information density in TV news was very low). We subscribe to two newspapers: a county daily and a local weekly. I listen to the radio for about 30 minutes a day (15minutes to and 15minutes from work), only about 2-4 minutes of which is news. The vast majority of news I find online, because it is there and not available in the paper or the radio.

Nature imitates art; or funny honey

Yellow/orange is so last year.

You've probably seen the pictures of the French blue and green honey produced when bees dumpster-dived M&M residue at a factory that reprocesses waste from a Mars chocolate factory. If these were clean candies and dyes that might be fine, but this is undefined waste and who knows why any particular batch was chucked. So the beekeepers can't sell the honey.

Different pollens give slightly different flavors, though it looks as though, contrary to popular myth, bees don't make intoxicating marijuana honey. Apparently the pollen doesn't have any THC, and bees allegedly don't pollinate it anyhow.

If the truth be known, I can't always easily distinguish one variety of honey from another. The note of sugar tends to overwhelm my palate. (Not that that's a bad thing...) There are subtle differences, but perhaps the fact that I don't have words or images for them makes it harder to recognize them and file them in memory.

But I think I could tell blue from red.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sanity in Falun

By now everybody has heard of the school Swedish chef Annika Eriksson and Katarina Lindberg, the bureaucrat responsible for telling her to make the kids' food worse. In trying to follow up on this I found stories from France to Indonesia: all sourcing the same news story above.

And then what? There was a storm of unhappy comments on the news site above and presumably elsewhere as well, and Katarina was forced to back down, though she is, naturally enough, trying to spin it as a misunderstanding. Figuring out the real issue isn't rocket science, though: the Swedish students put together a Facebook page in support of the cook which referenced

Sweden's "Jantelagen" ('Jante Law'), the name for a typically Scandinavian value system which emphasizes the collective over the individual, sometimes resulting in the devaluation of success or achievement.

BTW, I got nowhere trying to google the story until I tried the bureaucrat's name. It turns out the chef's real name is "Britannica Eriksson." Modulo some c/k spelling shifts.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Tagging art

A man scrawled a slogan on a Rothko painting at the Tate museum. He claims to have "added value," presumably because even if the painting is restored his actions add a bit of extra history to the piece. His explanation involves something incomprehensible about "yellowism" about which the less said the more sane we all are.

Over at Althouse several of the comments have pointed out that it is difficult to ruin a Rothko painting because it never had any artistry to begin with. (I summarize.)

It is hard to contradict them. From an artistic viewpoint, this is no worse than the tagging on an alley wall.

Probably the painting's dollar value was nothing more than a counter in the "what can I invest in" game played by the ultra-rich. But a lot of sheep have persuaded themselves that the painting was wonderful, and he was trying to slime what they valued--not to demolish idols and save souls (or at least the soul of the art world), but to make himself look important. I don't know what he thinks in his heart of hearts; I only know what he is reported to have said.

I think I could face a major collapse in art prices with equanimity.(*) I have my own "Rothko" in the garage where I wipe the paint out of brushes before soaking them. But this fellow is vile. Maybe he is crazy too. It is possible to be both.

(*)Our holdings are quite small and represent things in the heavens above or the earth below or the waters under the earth. Or dragons painted by EldestDaughter.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Punishment and society's scale

While driving away from MiddleDaughter's neighborhood the other day I was relieved to note that the four main drug dealer families(*) in the cul-de-sac were gone. But I couldn't let well enough alone and took to wondering: what became of them? They're not in prison, just evicted. So some other unhappy neighborhood has to deal with them. It's a game of musical houses; who gets stuck with the crooks when the music stops? Or like Greyhound therapy for the mentally ill street people who won't cooperate.

In theory the crooks will eventually make a mistake and wind up in prison, though if assault isn't good enough to do the trick I don't know what will be. Then they will be safely tucked away where they can't harm the general public. Penitentiary was supposed to give them a place to be sorry for their crimes, though in practice it seems to work best as a "keep them away from us for a while" facility.

I'm not going to try to figure out what's ideal.

But centuries ago punishments were much more draconian. There wasn't any prison in the villages, so you were fined or whipped or modified or executed; no sitting in prison for 10 years. You stayed locked up until you were punished. A criminal could run away to another village to escape punishment, and that's presumably one of the reasons people didn't trust strangers very much. (Without someone to vouch for you you might not be permitted to stay in town. An innkeeper might do that for you, if he liked your looks and cash up front.)

So to first order a village had two choices in dealing with a bad actor: expel him and hope he goes somewhere else, or apply some fairly dramatic punishment to encourage him to stop being such a villain. If nothing worked and his actions were still intolerable, you can see that there might be a groundswell of support for a permanent solution. If you can't persuade the guy to stop stealing, make it impossible for him to steal. (IIRC small villages weren't typically authorized to hang or whack off hands. I'm just saying they wouldn't necessarily find the punishment disproportionate.)

Of course if the punishment for theft is loss of hand, that's the punishment, and it is apt to apply to the fellow stealing from hunger as well as the fellow who steals because he won't work. So that punishment's going to be seriously unjust sometimes, as well as cruel. Yes, cruel--would you want to be the man who does the whacking? If so be prepared, nobody wants to be around you except the seriously creepy.

(The rich expanded the number of capital offenses if it suited them.)

In England things started changing around 1800. (Follow the link; a sentence of death didn't mean you died.) England had quite a large list of capital offenses, some of which (as linked earlier) weren't that serious. So they started reforming the laws.

There's a chicken and egg question here that I don't know enough details about to guess the answer to. Did there grow a moral revulsion to having so many death sentences, or was the society large enough that it was now possible to "keep them away from us" and reduce the sense of urgency for harsh punishment? Or was there a bit of both? It might be possible to get some idea by looking at opposition to the reforms as a function of community isolation.

If today every neighborhood was stuck with the handling of its own petty and not-so-petty criminals, what would the punishments look like?

(*) No, we didn't see drugs change hands. But at all hours, she saw "friends" of the four stop over briefly with a bag from MacDonalds and share "food."

Corrected which daughter

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Hungering for potential

Let me insert a short preface on sex, to make sure we're talking the same language. We understand that because something is popular or common doesn’t automatically make it natural, though it will only take its power from some urge that is natural.

When a woman's eyes and body say "You could have me" she typically isn’t just communicating that she wants a romp in the hay. That's part of the message but trying to spell the rest out in words sounds clunky. Better go with Shakespeare, who wrote (Macbeth: Malcolm is being persuaded to be a king) about the many women who "will to greatness dedicate themselves." Twain complained that most women would rather have a fraction of a great man than a mediocre man all to themselves. The word "have" is key, and it isn’t symmetric.

The man's standard role in that relationship is partly that of protector/provider, which in our twisted-up world means women flock to the rich and powerful. But it also involves expressing something great: women notoriously flock to rock stars too, and to a lesser degree to other artists. (I've not noticed a lot of groupies around mathematicians, though. Perhaps those who can appreciate the more austere arts are more astute, and the more astute women look for great character.) The "you could have me" message is therefore very powerful, since it signals that I am great. Perhaps I'm great enough to have more than one!

I'm a little reluctant to try to describe what the woman's side is like ("sexist pig!") since I'm not a woman. Both sexes serve each other, so it isn't "service", 50 Shades of Grey's popularity to the contrary. FWIW the only people I've seen reading that book are women, so there's some female attraction to it; portraying some natural urge buried in the weeds somewhere that is distantly related to the attitude of the heroine to her master.

There are a lot of things in this world whose explanations don't speak of the power and nuance in the things. The word "home" could be explained as "the place I eat and sleep and am used to being comfortable" but think how much the explanation leaves out! So forgive me if I don't try to tease out a description of what that natural urge will be: it would mislead at best. Here be traps and monsters.

As "Shades of Grey" and the whole rest of the industry of porn prove, the natural can be buried far enough to be unrecognizable, especially when dressed in symbolism. For example if you know of pole dances, they're more symbolic than erotic--those aren't the gestures of a woman reaching for her man. (If you don't, don't go looking: you'll either be perplexed/revolted or enticed, and perhaps both--and you can't un-see a picture.)

End of preface.

We're in love with potential.

I don't just mean the way everybody loves babies. Babies have lots of potential, but they're also innocent people interacting here and now. I mean money. I mean hatred of commitment. And more.

Money is nothing but potential. Unless it gets used for something in the future it does nothing for me except serve as a scorecard for competition. It is important to have around: you want to be able to buy food tomorrow, and save a little potential so you can get more food when you're temporarily out of work. But we love some of that potential, don’t we?

A college freshman has the choice of many majors: lots of potential. You may have known someone who kept changing majors; never quite satisfied or perhaps afraid to commit the effort to succeed. After graduation, there's a wide choice of careers—and surely you know/knew someone who waited for the right job.

Can you point to someone who is waiting for "the perfect mate" and can't seem to choose anybody who is preferable to their current life of "potential?" Who's afraid to marry because somebody better might come along? Me too: not in my circle of friends but among my children's generation.

The young lady posing on the dock with the come-hither look communicates potential--a potential the wife fulfills; but the young lady catches the eye and the imagination anyway. (Not that the husband is dissatisfied; the attraction appeals, as pointed out in the preface, to masculine pride. And to possibilities.)

The "new and improved" calls out "potential!" This cereal might really be satisfying!

I wonder if those of us who have trouble starting (or perhaps finishing) projects have a similar niggling in the back of the mind: right now it is still full of potential, but when the paint is dry the blobs and nicks may not look so good.

Pop songs rejoice in young love. Lots of potential there. Some country songs speak of family and growing, but pop is pretty firmly in love with potential, and has been so for decades. ("With pen in hand," "Isn't she lovely," and "Tea for two" come to mind quickly as exceptions; so this isn’t 100%--but nearly. If the song isn't about new love it's about breakup; kids don't enter the picture.)

The fall TV lineups used to evoke excitement. The new shows sounded like they’d be wonderful. I remember that the anticipation was generally much better than the real shows. It is probably still the same but I'm out of touch.

Results take work and time, but potential is right there and we can dream of it any time--at least until it ages away.

Flowers for potential, fruit for fulfillment: we're a flower culture. Or at least we've a very large (and barren) flower sub-culture.

My eyes hurt.

Now yours will too.

Dream of how shockingly senseless and alien today's fashions will be in 40 years.

Lovecraft could do it justice

The image changed under me, so I uploaded a new one

Letting campaigning pass by

Fortunately this isn't New Hampshire where one is obligated to meet a dozen presidential candidates every four years.

I was able to work from home, and am grateful for the opportunity. The traffic tie-ups when a president comes to town are miserable--not as disastrous as in L.A., but hard to avoid in a city caught between lakes.

The threatened rain never became a serious downpour, so the thousands that went to do darshan probably had their desire. I had to pick up YoungestSon from MATC, and saw state troopers blocking off access to the interstate as I drove by: we'd left just in time. 10 minutes more and the turn lanes would have been backed up half a mile and started blocking a lane in the construction zone. I guess they wanted the interstate empty for when AirForce 1 flew over it.

"Make way for your betters!"

No, I didn't watch the debate. I know only a little about Romney (not all good), but by now I know more than enough about Obama.

UPDATE: This morning I found out the SS was randomizing the route, and the motorcade took the Beltline to the Interstate. A long route, but I guess they like to change things up.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

I'm not a luddite, but

The Navaho and Hopi and a dozen other tribes are ticked with Arizona Snowbowl, which plans to use effluent (somewhat treated) to create snow this year. We
are assured that "the treated water meets the highest standards — just below drinking water" and some reports suggest that the snow machines will use a mix of treated and fresh water instead of 100% treated. The story emerged last year but this Feb a judge said it was OK to go ahead with using the treated water in the snow mix.

I tend to de-weight Indian claims of sacred territory. Treat that as a moral failing if you like. Nevertheless I think I'm on their side this time, even if it is the losing side again.

There's no research I know of showing effects on humans, but various studies show deleterious effects on fish and roaches from estrogenic chemicals. What the effects of elavil and darvon residues are is anybody's guess at this point. One also finds caffeine at rates up to micrograms/liter. Those are small concentrations, but when the organism is young small concentrations matter. Slosh the mix on the mountains, pour it down the streams: we're conducting a grand experiment on the waterways; and on ourselves for that matter. I won't go so far as the say the mountains are especially sacred, but I do think this isn't wise.

Does anybody know what work is being done to clean these things out of the water?

Apparently one can even measure drug abuse rates in a city by measuring residues in treated sewage.

Winners by proxy

The past few weeks I've seen a number of fresh(wo)men (for the first month you can usually tell who's new) wearing Wisconsin Rose Bowl shirts. The last win was in 2000, when the freshmen were 6 years old and probably not following college football closely. Naturally the team that won is long gone. Nevertheless a sense of continuity, or at least the desire for continuity, is strong enough to induce freshmen to part with a few extra bucks to co-celebrate a distant victory.