Thursday, July 31, 2014

Science behind the scenes

Correcting the quote:
'No one trusts a model except the man who wrote it; everyone trusts an observation, except the man who made it.' Harlow Shapley

I heard a variant of this saying (model=>theory, observation=>experiment) which was attributed to Einstein, but this one seems more common. I can't find the original source, though.

"A hypothesis or theory is clear, decisive, and positive, but it is believed by no one but the person who created it. Experimental findings, on the other hand, are messy, inexact things, which are believed by everyone except the person who did that work."

Harlow Shapley Through Rugged Ways to the Stars

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ebola continues

The lead doctor at JFK hospital in Liberia died of it, and a Liberian flew to Lagos and died of it there. Two Samaritan's Purse missionaries have caught it. In Liberia they're taking some actions:

All borders of Liberia will be closed with the exception of major entry points including the Roberts International Airport, James Spriggs Payne Airport, Foya Crossing, Bo Waterside Crossing, Ganta Crossing. At these entry points, preventive and testing centers will be established, and stringent preventive measures to be announced will be scrupulously adhered to;

A new travel policy by the Liberia Airport Authority covering inspection and testing of all outgoing and incoming passengers will be strictly observed;

Restrictions on public gatherings such as solidarity marches, demonstrations, promotional advertisement are to be restricted;

Hotels, restaurants, entertainment centers and video clubs are to play five-minute film on Ebola awareness and prevention;

Government vehicles will be commandeered, as appropriate, to provide needed logistics support to the health delivery system;

Without those kinds of border assurances I'd bet that within a week or two EU or US airports would stop admitting Liberians/Sierra Leoneans/etc from anywhere. Even with border checks, they'll probably stop soon anyway, or only allow in after a week's observation. The Xray machine at the Roberts airport didn't work and the baggage search wasn't particularly efficient; will medical checks be any better?

Sierra Leone's Sheik Umar Khan treated over 100 ebola patients before contracting the disease himself. That suggests a 1% failure rate of the systems they have in place: bleed-through, airborne spittle, a stray fly that got past the screens, needle sticks, sloppy laundry--something. The safety suits are horribly hot: you last 40 minutes or so in the tropics, and I assume getting them off and on is tricky. (BTW, if you look at the pictures of the isolation units you see open concrete block, but you don't see the screen over the holes. They're not crazy, it's a camera lighting problem. And even with the "window" blocks, it gets hot and stuffy indoors.)

I'd put trying to understand how the system failed as one of the top medical priorities; something the US/EU should throw effort into ASAP for their own self-interest. That 1% doesn't seem high, but with hundreds of patient contacts the probabilities start to look ugly--and you lose your doctors and nurses. Top priority is border control testing, of course, and third would be trying to get tribal-custom friendly protocols for caring for the sick and dead back in the villages.

That last idea is scary. Just suppose that they worked up some cheap and easy protocols like my WAGs about making an isolation hut of mats, some sort of easily draining "bed" of rags and leaves, soaking all rags (and the deceased's body later) in bleach, and setting fire to the isolation hut afterwards and burying the ashes. Some such protocols might help reduce the transmission rate, and if they were custom-friendly and in the native languages and if you had teams go out to explain how to do it and distribute bleach...

Now your team visits a village where it turns out somebody has ebola right now. You have to demonstrate the procedures that you know aren't nearly as effective as the hospital's. They're better than what the villagers will do otherwise, but will they believe you if you refuse to do them yourself? That's going to take some courage.

UPDATE: It looks like Canada is not taking this seriously.

Friday, July 25, 2014

At least better than X?

Matthew is good at making me uncomfortable. In chapter 23 Jesus lays into the Pharisees: “For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.” I don’t go in for robbery, though I’ve some extra pounds that testify to two of my self-indulgences. Some translations have extortion instead of robbery—I don’t go in for that either. I don’t quite understand the reason for the accusation—perhaps some of them were taking advantage of their reputation to supplement income with fees for blessings or fees for intercessions for other people’s shortcomings. I don’t go in for that either. So I’m half home free here. But half clean isn’t clean, is it?

Widows and orphans, the destitute, the ill and the mad—even a slight familiarity with church history rings up countless examples of giving and exhortations to give up lots of our own stuff to help these others. Not so much in the churches I’ve been in, though. “Give ‘till it hurts, and then give ‘till it feels good”, yes; be one of the poor yourself, no.

From time to time I wonder what Jesus would say to us (evangelicals). I have the nagging sense that He would think we weren’t taking the faith very seriously. As a group we’re OK at evangelizing, but not always so hot on other sorts of spiritual disciplines, which are enjoined on us in order that we be fruitful. And God takes fruit rather seriously.

Standing up to say “Hey, at least I’m not like them” probably doesn’t cut much ice; unless it happens that it does.

It is a bit more comfortable to puzzle out how the problems and twistings in the early church map into modern groups. Bishop Spong seems to meet John’s criteria for an anti-christ, for example, and there is no shortage of people accumulating ear-ticklers as teachers, especially on issues of sex and mammon. There’s no point in naming names here: the devotees will just get huffy and claim fidelity to a purer gospel, and everybody else knows who they are anyway. Paul is pretty down on them. At what point do they “go too far and … not abide in the teaching of Christ,” though?

Precise examples are a bit hard to find. Trying to buy the gifts of God is clearly past the line. Beyond that...

The Nicolaitans aren’t easy to find reliable information on. Ephiphanius is nice and dramatic, though a little late and apparently getting his information second hand at best. He reports that Nicolaus was one of the 7 deacons, who decided to try and achieve purity by abstaining from sex with his wife—unsuccessfully. In reaction to his failure he announced that one could not have eternal life without having sex every day. Apparently he or his followers went on to honor gnostic emanations of some degree whose nature exemplified and whose service demanded sexual acts of one kind or another. Ephiphanius delays the description of their “mass” until his section on gnostics; it is blasphemous enough for a Black Mass and you’ll sleep better without reading it.

No group I know has gone quite that far in practice, though several elevate sexual expression to almost the holiest category they have, and seem to consider abortion one of the highest human rights.

So though it isn’t hard to spot anti-christs and false teaching (at least the kind that doesn’t happen to tickle my ears), I can’t safely say “denomination X is like the Nicolaitans and at least I hate their practices."

So I’m not going to get any compliments for being better than denomination X. Still on the hook…

Ephiphanius includes a version of the Blood Libel. That’s been used for false accusations for thousands of years—but I’m not sure that its inclusion makes the report less credible. The claim that Jews used the blood of Christian babies is an obvious lie. That some individual with a taste for the diabolic would go in for something like this is believable—we’ve seen similar things in our own crime reports. The exact expression of this hunger for wickedness will depend on the culture, but the overall shape will probably be much the same. I don’t believe all the Nicolaitans went in for this sort of thing: it is a bit too far out. That some did, maybe even an entire inner circle, isn’t incredible. Some inner circles are pretty horrible.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Serendipitous wording

I'm fond of puns, especially accidental ones. I picked up a book by Deimling(*) at Half Price Books in an effort to try to keep my mind sharp, and discovered that the store tag gave it the name "Nonlinear Fun"

The first example that comes to mind...

  1. lonely lad sitting on the porch swing
  2. lad and lass cuddled on the porch swing
  3. lad and lass drumming fingers on the arm rests as her young brother regales them with his day's adventures

Or if you are a devotee of that esoteric art of bridge:

  1. 1 person drumming his fingers
  2. 2 people drumming fingers
  3. 3 people drumming fingers
  4. 4 people in a lively game kicking each other under the table

The change in fun is not proportional to the change in the number of people.

On the serious side: somehow the third helping doesn't give quite the same satisfaction that the first did. We're not very fond of temperance; we even have an industry set up to try to drive it out of us. ("It's OK to go a little wild" sponsored by Ho Chunk Casinos) But fun isn't linear...

(*)I'm only on page 13. He seems to be working to prove fairly obvious things, and letting knottier things slide, and all without examples. I like examples. He probably does too, but the traditions must be upheld, I guess.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Long Defeat

There are some interesting meditations on Tolkien's description of history here and a follow-up here. The Cross doesn't seem quite as central as it ought to be to the kind of Christian spirituality I usually run into.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Rubber Duckie

I hope you've seen the video of the "rubber duck" comet.

I can't imagine that being the result of two random comets colliding: they'd blast each other to bits unless their relative motion was very small. Some suggest it used to be much bigger and blew out stuff on an earlier pass by the Sun, excavating odd shapes (and a waistline) in the process. Could be. The thing shows divots that might be the effects of an earlier fly-by.

I wonder how much bigger it used to be. Suppose a big soft blobby pre-comet swung by something heavy fast enough for tidal effects to break it up. Quite a bit would be lost, but some of the residue might coalesce again, maybe into a couple/three clumps. Say 3. They orbit each other, and the "chaotic" motions of the 3 bodies bring two close enough to impact. I'd naively think it wouldn't be a harsh impact--the bits might stick together. Then swing it by the Sun a time or ten and it might look a lot like the duck.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


A Texan99 post at Grim’s Hall led me to look up Ecocriticism. “Ecocriticism is the study of literature and environment from an interdisciplinary point of view where all sciences come together to analyze the environment and brainstorm possible solutions for the correction of the contemporary environmental situation.” I’d never contemplated the notion that string theory might have something relevant to say about the relationship of Tom Sawyer to the Saharan deforestation. There's a word for that.

Going on:

Such anthropocentrism is identified in the tragic conception of a hero whose moral struggles are more important than mere biological survival, whereas the science of animal ethology, Meeker asserts, shows that a "comic mode" of muddling through and "making love not war" has superior ecological value.

From this I gather that Meeker holds that mere biological survival is more important than any moral struggles (but isn’t that a moral statement?), and that “making love” has “superior ecological value.” I thought these folks didn’t like babies very much, though. (Bumper sticker seen yesterday: “I hope we live long and die out”)

Some are—let me just quote again: “All ecocritics share an environmentalist motivation of some sort, but whereas the majority are 'nature endorsing', some are 'nature sceptical'. In part this entails a shared sense of the ways in which 'nature' has been used to legitimise gender, sexual and racial norms” So if nature tramples on other PC pieties, even nature has to be deprecated. There's a hierarchy to be maintained.

To be accurate, the article does not mention string theory, though they take on the mantle of "the sciences", nor does it mention the ongoing ecological problems resulting from Saharan deforestation. But if they can read in meanings the author never intended, so can I.

Ministry to sex offenders

I was stunned to see this story:
here or here: a pastor tried to set up a ministry to sex offenders with a shelter for them. The state said no.

I gather he strongly believes in ministering to the rejected, and in the healing power of God. Yes, but… Maybe I’m missing something, but this doesn’t seem to be in line with the injunction to be “as wise as serpents.” I didn’t see anything in these stories (or a third story I can’t find the link to) that suggested that he had collared experienced people to guide his planning.

I have no experience in this field, but my “prior” in predicting the results is that people with problems this deep will reinforce each other—and probably cover for each other. (The reports mention some abusers—I don’t think this is talking about guys nailed with “sex offender” for public urination.)

There were no reports of problems over several years, which is good. I hope.

Is this as crazy as I think it is?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Font question

Everybody knows that spending hours in front of a computer screen gives you eyestrain, enough that although sitting down to a printed paper is a welcome relief, my eyes still tend to glaze over at the columns of text. Equations catch the eye well enough, but the actual definition of ω is buried somewhere in that uniform sea of letters.

I remember the Liberian Star (circa 1964) and its mixed fonts without fondness (I think they used one set of letter bins for headlines and another set for text body, regardless of size): I prefer the simplicity of having a single font on the page. It does make the page easier to read.

However. Suppose one allowed a tiny amount of "hair" in the font--the length of the serif, its exact angle, that sort of thing. Not so much that it wouldn't be obviously the same letter from the same font, but enough that the eye could catch the difference. There might be 5 very close versions of the letter t, which the display engine uses alternately in the body of the text.

Would that make the sea of letters less uniform, and easier to navigate?

Creating a new font for this sort of thing would be pretty easy (creating a good one is quite a bit harder!); the hairy part is the display engine that picks which version of k to use. A unicode test page wouldn't be too hard for a pro to whip up, but it would probably take a pro to evaluate it quickly--otherwise you'd need a lot of pages and a lot of amateur eyeballs. I don't know what to look for: I only tend to notice that I get tired reading something, and not notice the fonts or lighting.

UPDATE: See Grey-Text for another description of the problem.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


I gather there's been a little excitement recently in Brazil.

My Better Half grew up a Cubs fan (one with 90% scar tissue, as George Will said), though she's learned to root for the Brewers. Some of the rest of the clan work up some desultory enthusiasm for the Packers if they do well, but mostly wait until SuperBowl parties to watch anything. Middle Daughter has been watching events from Brazil, though.

I didn't grow up in the US, but I think my lack of connection to sports is more temperament than environment. I can get involved enough in a softball or basketball or football or ultimate Frisbee game if I'm playing (Less than mediocre in all of them, though), or stay interested if I know somebody on the field, but otherwise I have to work to pay attention. I've a vague home team loyalty, of the "I hope the team my friends like wins" sort.

I used to have a kind of snobbish superiority about that: "I'm above such trivia." "I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me."

But sports enthusiasm gets people involved with each other, cheering for something together, joining in some facsimile of community. That's not a trivial thing when almost all other amusements isolate/atomize us: slouching in a seat watching cat videos or playing Angry Bird, or headphone-isolated into your own playlist. And we move around so much that no place is quite home (cosmopolitan=homeless); except for the place the home team has in the heart. We need something to bond us--sports are better than nothing (at least until we go all Blues and Greens). Not a very profound bond, but not nothing, mixing the generations in a way that even churches often don't.

I don't disparage sports anymore (I try not to, anyway), though I haven't tried to work up an interest in them yet.

Friday, July 11, 2014

One of those headlines I can't quite believe

"Liberia: JFK Nurses Abandon JFK ER Ward Over Suspected Ebola Death"

And you shouldn't either, once you read the story, which refers to the ER staff, but doesn't actually go into any detail about how many left or where they went. It does say that a "case management" team went to handle matters. I suspect that most of the staff have a better idea of what the risks are than your average reporter. Quite probably some left in haste, but I'd guess that most didn't. I admit that panic can be contagious, but I'd still bet most people stayed around, though maybe not in the ER. ("We should sanitize the place." "Great idea! You go first.")

Back in the villages they have been hiding people with Ebola. There's a long tradition of kidnapping people to use body parts in magic. It didn't happen often--there was much more fear of it than actual instances--but it happened often enough to keep the fear alive. So if people in scary garments take your cousin away and you never see her again--what do you suspect, and what do you warn people about? It doesn't matter if the people telling you about the risks are important people--a Senator was caught trying to cement his power with some human sacrifice magic a few decades back.

So nobody really knows how many are sick.

A more pleasant trip

Researchers at Yahoo have developed a GPS algorithm that allows users to choose a route between two points based on beauty rather than the time or distance it takes.


In order to determine the most "beautiful, quiet, and happy" journeys researchers used UrbanGems, a website that asks users to pick between photos of areas in London and Boston that they found to be the most aesthetically pleasing.

Very interesting idea. My better half prefers driving the less boring routes, and such a system would make her journeys more fun. Need more gasoline, though.

And if this was tied to police databases (even incomplete ones like Chicago's), it could help you pick a safer route. Although IIRC somebody got in trouble with a smartphone app that did that--some spokesmen were afraid visitors would avoid large chunks of town. Of course if visitors wanted to buy drugs it might bring them in.

I assume there already exist path-finders that minimize trips that include particular landmarks. (Maybe not always absolute minimum; the traveling salesman problem can be hard if there are a lot of points) If you weight the connecting roads by beauty (which is seasonal), you could have a very nice trip planner.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


"Why Germans don't play Scrabble"

Actually I'd think it would make it easier: just slap another word on the end of the existing string. Of course you'd need extension boards...

Monday, July 07, 2014

Drug delivery

Bill Gates helped fund a "programmable contraceptive delivery chip", BBC reports. My office mate noticed the story, and suspected that the claim that "Communication with the implant has to occur at skin contact level distance," might not be strictly accurate--and that going into a nightclub with the equivalent of a TV-B-Gone would appeal to certain types of people.

The obvious next step is to use this sort of design to keep the bipolar and schizophrenics on their meds. I don't know the legal details, but suspect that the rules might be modified if there were some track record of success. And if the rules are modified with our legislators' customary brilliance, then things would start to get messy: for ADD, maybe? I can't wait to see what'll be in DSM-6... Of course the devil is in the details--in particular in the volume of medicine required. Insulin pumps need to be recharged regularly, I hear.

The programmable feature is dangerous, but I can imagine that fixed dosages might be a problem too--illness and medication interactions. For some people I suppose it is probably worth the risks, but I've no experience. I can imagine somebody trying to gouge out implants.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Workers in the vineyard

The parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 makes no economic sense, and it would tend to annoy the people you would want to have working for you tomorrow. Jesus used it to emphasize “The last shall be first and the first last,” but in what seems to be a rather trivial way. I suppose it is a good rule that if Jesus says something that looks trivial or nonsensical, I should try to figure out what I’m missing.

In Matthew 19:21 He tells a man “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Sounds like leaving everything behind to become an apostle is the epitome of completion (also see Mary and Martha and dinner prep). In Luke 9:59-62 He calls people to ignore burial responsibilities and not look back for anything.

On the other hand, in Mark 5:18-20 the previously possessed man who begs to follow Jesus is told no: his job is to stay where he is and tell his story.

Further, in Matthew 10:40-42 Jesus says that merely receiving a prophet as such will receive a prophet’s reward. That starts to sound a lot like the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Perhaps 1 Corinthians 12 ties it together: “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” The reward of the apostle John is also the reward of the healed demoniac, not because each is given the same thing, but because they share together in the same body. Which leads to interesting possibilities with "On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary."

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The 10,000 Year Explosion

The 10,000 Year Explosion How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending

The authors’ thesis is that things changed people in the last few thousand years. The invention of agriculture, with its increased human and population densities, increased the disease load and selected for disease resistance: not immunity, but relative resistance. When Europeans met isolated tribes (e.g. the Americas) the difference in disease resistance was illustrated dramatically. On the other hand, sub-Saharan Africa has an even vaster disease load, and most Europeans succumbed pretty quickly before modern medicines.

They note that racial differences are not just skin deep (the pros can tell the race of a skeleton with pretty decent accuracy), and that these differences have to have happened in the fairly recent past, implying fairly rapid evolution.

They go into detail about the Ashkenazi with their genetic diseases and higher IQ (IQ measurement seems, at least in recent years, to be pretty reliable) and their possible connection. I’m not sure they have adequate historical documentation—I recall reading a few years ago that most Jews in England about the time of Shaftesbury were poor: not middle-class or well-off lenders with lots of children (selecting for smarter people). So I'm a bit dubious about their model. But, there it is: an endogenous population that started out not obviously smarter than anybody else in that era, and now they provide a disproportionate number of Nobel winners and other geniuses.

The book is informative, though I have a few nits to pick: Southern AmerIndians developed agriculture (and the implied agricultural science/technology) quite early—why didn’t they have commensurate disease loads? Because of a lack of animals? Other things I know to be a little oversimplified, though that may be for lack of space.

The painful part was the “might have” and “could have” throughout. Still, if you're not familiar with human genetics, give it a read.