Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Un-drowned forest

A just-uncovered buried forest in Wales would be fun to wander through. The article asks if it is or inspired the stories about the city of Cantre'r Gwaelod. Since the forest's burial under a peat bog is only about 5-6000 years ago it isn't entirely impossible that there used to be something nearby, though:
There is no scientific evidence for any of this. Signs of physical habitation have never been found near Borth.

I really wish people wouldn't abuse the word scientific this way. "Researchers have found no relics of human habitation near Borth" would have been a lot more accurate. Who knows what will turn up next Thursday? And failing to find something on high ground doesn't mean there isn't something a little farther out, now underwater. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Remember that silly report earlier this month that allegedly "rocked the Bible" because they hadn't found camel bits until O(1000BC) in Israel? Camels were known to have been in use in the East 1500 years before that, and the Genesis references are to people either from or with connections to Mesopotamia. Sheesh.

A walkway made of sticks and branches was also discovered. It's 3,000 to 4,000 years old and was built, it is believed, to cope with rising sea levels back then.

If I were to bet I'd bet that the forest, or something like it, inspired the stories, but wasn't the source. Though some literature is very old, and probably some stories are older.

However the legends ran, the place looks fun to visit.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Questions about family and property and Infernal Revenue etc

Maybe somebody else knows.

When I start digging around in "family law" I get swamped. What I’m looking for is family law (probably common law as opposed to statutory) regarding non-nuclear families; in particular mutual support in a single home of brothers and sisters.

You’d think precedents would be easy to find for extended family households: they've been around for longer than countries have. I’m thinking of mutual dependency based on sharing the same household and pooling the incomes. Adam and Becky are married with daughter Cindy and they share the house with Becky’s sister Denise and her son Eustace. Together they pool the incomes of Adam and Denise for infrastructure and emergency support, though some of the money stays nuclear.

In google and the law help sites I find lots of stuff about divorce, and the latest fashionable topics, but so far no sign of what I’m looking for. Domestic partnership laws are new, and aren't designed for the kind of layered authority and responsibility the situation demands.

There are options, of course, if you can squeeze into one of the state’s categories. The state wants to define everything in terms of individuals or corporations, fragmenting things as fine as possible for best definition and control. And then to prevent one kind of abuse they change the rules around willy-nilly.

There’s the non-stock non-profit corporation: a nice simple form. You need a registered agent and three directors, and the last time I was involved in one, the directors had to have different addresses. Ummm....

This is probably as simple as tying your shoes (though do you remember how long it took to teach the kids that?), but unless you know the right jargon google is not your friend. And if I sit down with a lawyer’s meter running I don’t want to waste time figuring out what I’m talking about.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

This one is a science fiction mystery/adventure, and because it is a mystery motives matter a lot. So what are the motives of a beautiful but injured soldier who, thanks to special relativity, is 20 years younger than her lawyer husband? Or the manipulative dead woman whose mind was superimposed on another woman's wiped brain? Who is on this cruise ship?

Since the book is layers of surprises, I find it a bit hard to write a review without spoilers. So I'll cut to the chase and say that the book is fun, but not bubble-gum--you need to pay attention.

You always do with Gene Wolfe's books. I got stuck in There Are Doors (I suppose I should start it again), but I've liked all the rest I've read. He stretches your mind a little, and there are often things you only notice on re-reading.

UPDATE: Yes, after I slept on it I recalled two more points that hadn't been explicitly solved, and which change the nature of the ending somewhat.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"Disenchantment in advance"

"I should begin my sermon by telling people not to enjoy themselves. I should tell them to enjoy dances and theatres and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; to enjoy jazz and cocktails if they can enjoy nothing better; to enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to this other alternative; but never to learn to enjoy themselves. Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside. So long as they have this they have, as the greatest minds have always declared, a something that is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfills all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and despair."

Chesterton, from The Comman Man

Friday, February 21, 2014


One of those things you learn in E&M is that you don’t have static electric fields inside a conductor. That is easy enough to understand when you’re dealing with chunks of copper (though the exercise of figuring out the surface charge densities required for that were sometimes a bit painful). What isn’t quite so obvious is what happens when you move a conductor into a magnetic field: as it goes in, induced currents in the conductor push on the existing field. But you can try the experiment and feel for yourself that it works, so all’s well.

But out there in the vacuum of space, where do you find conductors?

Turns out that vacuum does have some stuff in it: not much, and mostly not ionized, but enough. Enough that on really big (astronomical) scales of space and time, that extremely dilute gas is enough of a conducting plasma to move magnetic fields around.

Some little time back there was a supernova in our neck of the woods, with the usual blast of hot gas following “slowly” behind the xrays and other zippy energy release. That expanding cloud of gas is still partly ionized, and acted like that copper plate you held in the lab demonstration to push the existing magnetic fields away. In fact, the existing galactic fields were sort of stretched around the expanding bubble of gas. The fields at the edge are pretty much tangent to the bubble; at right angles to the direction of the old supernova.

Our sun recently moved into the bubble.

Now if you look really closely at that copper plate you see that the electric fields don’t stop exactly at the edge—they fall off quickly though. When you’re talking about the rarified plasma that makes up the edge of the bubble around the old supernova, that fall-off isn’t small the way we think of small. So if you were floating all by your lonesome here without a star nearby, you’d still see some magnetic field—and it would be roughly at right angles to the direction of the old supernova.

Of course you’re on the Earth, which has a magnetic field of its own far more intense than the local galactic one. And the Earth is inside the heliosphere—the Sun blows its own bubble of charge particles. So we have a bubble inside a bubble in the galaxy, and we’re sitting on a planet with an even more intense field. How can we possibly measure the galactic field?

You can launch a probe or two and wait 40-50 years. That works.

You can also launch a probe to look at energetic neutral particles. Paulo Desiati had worked on IBEX earlier, and he explained the paper to the IceCube journal club Wednesday (he’s on IceCube now). I’ll pass over some of the gorier details, but the general approach is this:

A neutral particle doesn’t really notice magnetic fields much. If it is a dipole the field will twist its orientation, but it won’t change the direction. A charged particle does notice the fields, and its motion is a trifle complicated.

  • It doesn’t slow down or speed up
  • The component of its velocity parallel to the magnetic field doesn’t change. If it happens to be traveling completely parallel to the magnetic field, nothing happens.
  • The component of its velocity perpendicular to the magnetic field is shifted by a change which is perpendicular to both the magnetic field and the current direction of the particle. If the particle happens to be traveling completely perpendicular to a uniform magnetic field, it goes in circles.

In the general case, in a uniform magnetic field, charged particles move in spirals. If the fields are bent a little (as with the Earth’s fields), the spirals follow the bend of the field (not true mathematical spirals, but close enough).

So at the “edge” of the heliosphere, the bubble our Sun blew, charged particles are spiraling around along the field lines of the magnetic fields in the bubble the supernova blew. As they go on their merry ways, every now and then one of the protons will catch up with an electron and form hydrogen. The hydrogen is neutral: the magnetic field doesn’t bother it any more. Whichever direction it was heading at the time, it keeps on going: it breaks out of the spiral like a stone from a sling. If it hits IBEX, we can tell the direction it came from. The chances that any one particle will do this is very small, but the distances are so large that the number of particles available is very large.

And IBEX sees extra neutral particles coming from a band in the sky. That band is therefore like a kind of equator that tells us where the bent galactic magnetic field is most tangent to a sphere around us, and therefore mostly in its original direction. (Modulo distortions from the supernova bubble, of course. The original original field would have been somewhere in the plane defined by the current field and the direction to the old supernova.)

The abstract of their paper says that their result is consistent with anisotropies at higher energies, which is kind of odd when I think about it. They are indirectly measuring quite small fields using low energy neutral particles, but the sky map differences are most noticeable at very high energies, where these fields wouldn’t matter so much.

Very nice work. (Theirs, not my scribble-scrabble artwork)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How does a star blow up?

Apparently the supernova simulation folks have been having some problems getting the simulations to go bang reliably: "the main shock wave often stalls out and the star fails to shatter."

I wasn't aware of that little problem, and my reaction is "OK, something is missing in your model."

Maybe what was missing was simple. The NuSTAR telescope was designed to distinguish the X-rays associated with the decay of radioactive elements. Since radioactive elements are largely produced in the hot cores of stars, not the outer layers, the distribution of elements around a relatively recent supernova should tell something about what the core looked like as it went bang. For example, are there jets coming out of the top and bottom?

“Stars are spherical balls of gas, and so you might think that when they end their lives and explode, that explosion would look like a uniform ball expanding out with great power,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. “Our new results show how the explosion’s heart, or engine, is distorted, possibly because the inner regions literally slosh around before detonating.”

Go look at the pictures showing the distributions of different isotopes. They aren't very uniform.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Opera musings

My Better Half got us tickets to a concert for last night, but couldn't go, so Eldest Daughter went. Finlandia, Hayden, Dr Atomic, Arutiunian, and Der Rosenkavalier, and a trumpet encore by Tine Helsing of a hilarious trumpet fanfare by somebody whose name I didn't catch. As advertised, she is able to play very well and to take the harsh edge out of the trumpet sound. All excellent, except for Dr. Atomic--which was interesting. In a century orchestras will still be playing Hayden.

The Dr Atomic sections were "In the Laboratory," "Panic," and "Trinity." I gather Adams was trying to reproduce some of the sounds and impressions of labs he'd either been in or watched in movies. I've worked in quite a few labs over the years, and usually the dominant
noises are from the air handling, vacuum pumps, and grad students trying to find the right connectors. And from yelling back and forth between the guy in the lift-a-loft and the fellow on the ground with the scope. (There's no way the big boom was going to be reproducible by an
orchestra.) I think Adams would have done better to provide an actual melody for the leitmotif of nuclear fission, though. Something that gets truncated by more chaotic sounds, but lasts longer and longer with each try until you get to hear it all.

Which left me wondering: who would have done Oppenheimer's story better as an opera? For some reason I can't imagine Bizet being interested in trying the project. In fact I think most of the classical era composers wouldn't be too excited about a "am I doing the right thing?" kind of story. A race to succeed against a human or supernatural villain, sure. Some might go for ending with a "What have we done?" moment. If the composer had the chops the result could be great. But a story of weather details or a story of self-doubt? They'd round file it.

So imagine you've given Wagner the general outline and a free hand (including permission to find a role for his favorite lady). Or Beethoven (assuming he ever finished it...).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Chesterton whiffed a few

Chesterton sometimes misfired. He wasn't terribly fond of Prohibition, and in one response penned the poem starting thusly:
Feast on wine or fast on water
And your honour shall stand sure.
God Almighty's son and daughter
He the valiant, she the pure;
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you something else to drink
Thank him for his kind attentions,
Go and pour them down the sink.
The omission of beer from the list wouldn't endear him to most Wisconsinites(*), but more dramatically in another stanza he wrote "Cocoa is a cad and coward, Cocoa is a vulgar beast."

He must never have spent an afternoon sledding and come home to thaw out with a mug of hot cocoa. You may argue in his favor that he didn't grow up with such things--but neither did I. It isn't necessary to have been born to something to recognize a perfect fit when it is handed to you.

I gather he held a grudge against Cadbury for the Cadbury newspaper's role in convicting Chesterton's brother of libel. Still, he was a man of enough humility that I believe he would have dropped his bias if given a cup and a seat by the fire.

(*) Although I would omit it too. Beer is fine for baiting garden slugs but it seems inhumane to inflict it on people.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Hotel California

France and Germany are grieved that non-EU-member Switzerland doesn't want to use EU immigration rules. "foreigners now make up 23% of the population. It is the continent's second highest foreign population after Luxembourg." I gather that even if you don't enter the Hotel EU you are never allowed to leave anyway.

So far I've read attributions of the (very slim) majority vote to anger at being priced out of metro areas, anger at the Germans, racism, boneheadedness, not being exposed to enough immigrants(*)--everybody has a theory, and most of them consider the Swiss dead wrong.

But although my French is pretty miserable and my German non-existent I did try to read the newspapers while I was over there, and I think the commentators are too simple. I'm not going to propose reasons myself because I'm tolerably sure that the reasons vary a lot from place to place. (We sometimes forget how federal Switzerland still is, and that there are some regional disagreements shading into animosities.) I'm waiting for somebody to ask the Swiss why--and I'm rooting for them to tell the pollsters to take a long walk off a short pier. I generally root for that anyway.

(*) This was a conclusion based on noticing that the vote was more anti-further-immigration in cantons that had less immigrant fraction. Possibly it didn't occur to the writer that there was more than one interpretation of that observation.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Brave News World

At after-dinner conversation tonight (Youngest Son is taking a course in writing screen plays) it occurred to us that Brave New World missed a bet.

The Ministry of Truth from 1984 changes all copies of newspapers so that the current party line has always been the party line, and unpersons never existed. But in a society as immersed in amusement as Brave New World, or the USA, one of the amusements can be the news, and only the trending news matters. What happened last year is essentially forgotten, except by people who don't matter.

UPDATE: Now that I think of it, isn't that a theme in Fahrenheit 451?

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Calcutta and love

If you have not seen David Warren's most recent column, read it. You will probably not find entertainments so amusing for a while, though.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The woman captured in adultery

I read John's account of the woman caught in adultery again this morning, and noticed something for the first time after more than mumble mumble years of hearing it.

Jesus was in temple courts at the time. You'd not find loose stones on those pavements; they'd have had to drag her outside someplace for execution. And the temple was the place of reconciliation and forgiveness. Her accusers just had to look around to remember sacrificing to find God's forgiveness for themselves. True, the temple was also the place for religious teaching and study, but its primary function was reconciliation and meeting with God. They unwittingly brought her to the right place.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Idea of Nature by R.G. Collingwood

A few weeks back I asked about Babylonian mathematics on Grim's Hall, in reply to a post there. I'd only read (in a book comparing Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek mathematics) that the Babylonians had found ways to solve certain classes of quadratic equations, but not the general case. Grim recommended The Idea of Nature as a start.

The library copy was originally stamped "3 hour loan," which is a bit humiliating since it took me a bit longer than that to read it.

It is a history of the philosophical idea of nature from the pre-Socratic Greeks to Whitehead. He admits it isn't thorough, only touching on representative (i.e. well known by the author (That's what he says)) philosophers in three main categories: ancient Greek, Renaissance to 18'th century, and modern.

Rude and crude thumbnail of the imaginative environment in which philosophers worked in each era: Greeks thought of the world as alive and that motion was a sign of life and acting toward some purpose. The Renaissance brought in a materialist and mechanistic idea of the world, including a mechanistic idea of biology. Modern philosophers hear of relativity and quantum mechanics and the resulting fuzziness and duality.

I'm afraid that when the author began his admittedly amateur explanation of modern physics I was tearing what little hair remains and scribbling in the margins. (If the librarian does not approve of the value added, the additions are in pencil...)

From the get-go people were trying to figure out thorny questions like why is there miscellaneous but similar stuff, where did it come from, what is the relationship of mind to matter, and where do the non-material things fit into the scheme of things. Some of the goofy-sounding ideas (everything comes from water) turn out to be less loony than meets the eye. What was meant by "water" wasn't really H2O but unknown primordial material that needed a handy name.

With (probably) Pythagoras proposing that what made matter and things from the primordial whatever was geometry came some new trends. FWIW, mathematical symmetries are all the rage among physicists today--searching for them and their consequences has been very fruitful.

The author skips over Christian philosophy and finds Renaissance philosophers in reaction to Christianity proposing a materialist universe.

Scientifically speaking, on the other hand, materialism was from first to last an aspiration rather than an achievement. Its God was always a miracle-working God whose mysterious ways were past finding out. The hope was always cherished that with the advance of science we should find them out some day; so the scientific credit of materialism was maintained by drawing very large cheques in its own favor on assets not yet to hand. ... a statement such as this, that the brain secretes thought in exactly the same way in which the gall-bladder secretes gall, might pass as a dogma of religion, but scientifically speaking was simple bluff.

From within that kind of framework it is hard to find an origin for mind, and there seems to have been a lot of ink wasted on worries about how much of the world is created by the observer.

With Darwinian ideas about evolution the older ideas about the striving of organisms to reach their full nature (bud into leaf, etc) fell out of fashion in favor of mechanical models.

Most of the modern philosophers he discusses are more interested in matter as activity, which is more in line with the approach of the physicists.

None of the philosophers satisfy the author, and he ends with a suggestion that they are starting with too small a base of suppositions. To understand science, you need to understand history, because science is based on history. Nobody does every single experiment; they rely on records.

I found it quite interesting and learned a lot--though not about Babylonian math.

It may have been the author's intent to convey that impression, but I got the sense that people were mixing up categories rather badly. Science works by creating models of how parts of the world works, abstracting away those things that clutter the measurements to be made. That "clutter" is absolutely essential in understanding everyday life; which is complex. Because it is outward focused and abstracting, it does not address the obvious questions involved with "whence came this I that is observing?"

Anybody who's had a pet dog or cat has had the opportunity to discover that they don't act like machines. Some in the AI crowd have been claiming that human intelligence emerged spontaneously from complexity, but that doesn't address the I. In any event, making a model of human reactions may look convincing, but so is a life-size photograph. The map is not the territory.

I haven't thought it all through, but just because I have a sense-based model of the operations of the world (that seems reliable enough to trust with my life) does not mean that the only kind of knowledge I can have is sensory. That living things can sometimes be modeled as machinery doesn't mean they don't have some telos. Where I come from complexity generally results in fragility, not robustness, and a small change in a program can sometimes change the output completely. That mental activity can be imitated by other intellects doesn't explain where it came from originally. And the moral realm is a whole other story.

I think our design is irreducibly complex.

Read the book.

Electronic and in-person revisited

We all know how abstract online communications can be: no gestures, inflection, wink in the eye, no touch or sight or smell. Being there in person is completely different, and it isn't hard to see why.

But there's another aspect of the abstract communication channels that only just occurred to me. Phone, email, text, Facebook, blogs only touch me if I choose. I don't have to answer the phone or log in. But in person communications are not under my control.

If the neighbors are having a quarrel when the weather is warm, I hear it. If one of the kids needs a bucket quickly, I learn about it whether or not I'd rather read the paper. I am not entirely master of all I survey when other people are nearby. Online I am. Milton's Satan would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. (Insert your own comparisons between Hell and Facebook.) Now and then I feel like that too.