Sunday, November 30, 2014

The attention track

An inescapable celebrity(*) apparently tried to "break the internet" recently by posting pictures of herself. The cropped thumbnails are ubiquitous. I understand this is not the first time bare buttocks have appeared on the net; that in fact the competition for attention is fairly intense in that genre. This approach seems a kind of dead end attempt for attention (what do you do for an encore? Get photographed having sex on the Capitol steps?). I suppose with a creative-enough team of consultants you can go on for several years Gaga-style wearing a chain mail veil this week and a feather duster up the rump the next.

It smells like desperation. The next step, IIRC, is either to go to Africa and adopt a child or else go the sex-tape/rehab–stay route.

Is this scripted, or should her family put her on suicide watch?

(*) I still don’t have a good handle on why she or her kin are famous. Bread and circuses? Circuses being an endless parade of lunatic celebrities and movies and empty scandals and twits and cat videos... And bloggers, I suppose—mea culpa.

Friday, November 28, 2014

LED bulbs and unintended consequences

Part 1. When our camera decided to take time off during our vacation north a few years ago I bought a Fuji JZ100.

Part 2. We replaced the rather inadequate lights in the living room with track lighting. The regular bulbs burned out so fast that I decided to invest in LED bulbs instead. With my rock solid or rocky memory skills I wound up mixing both warm and cool light bulbs in the replacements. Of three bulbs in a row, the ones on the end are more yellow and the one in the middle is bluish (which I think is the one called "Natural daylight").

Part 3. Our "international student" guests wanted some pictures from our Thanksgiving dinner. I offered to use our camera; set it on a tripod and pushed the button.

The images were washed out in blue glare. Repeatedly, even with the flash going. Nothing worked until we turned out all the LED lights in the living room and used the flash.

I surmise that the Fuji uses one particular frequency to adjust its exposure setting and that the LED bulb's collection of frequencies omits that one. Result: the room is estimated to be much darker than it really is, the automated exposure is therefore too long, and everything gets washed out.

Maybe I was taking a nap when the memo about LED bulbs went around, but just in case it isn't widely known--watch out when taking pictures under LED lights.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Guess what this means

From the sys-ops chat this morning:
Joseph_Schlitz_rc1 has become a Jedi release that has killed sndaq Beer_Trooper ... The force is so strong that there is not even data showing up at 2ndbuild at all unfortunately that seems to be a more serious thing

Is there anyone in @channel that can look into this? Otherwise I would ask WO's for rollback

A clue:

XXX yes, but for some reason, there were no alerts

YYY run was taken as "TestData"

XXX ah, ok

YYY 8 doesn't that mean online alert systems ignore it?

XXX AM yes
this is a precaution
ok, so everything is fine

YYY well, outside the SNDaq mysteries

I'll look up the details and post the answers later.


As I wrote earlier, IceCube found it useful to give each DOM a unique name; not just a number. Numbers are too easy to transpose. The DOMs are programmed with data acquisition software, which is rarely perfect, and updated from time to time. New software releases are also given names, and by tradition these are named after bars. SNDAQ stands for a special piece of software: SuperNova Data AcQuisition. It works by looking not for individual neutrinos, which from a supernova are plentiful but of too low an energy to stand out, but for a general brightening of all the DOMs by thousands and thousands of small interactions.

The "_rc1" means that this is test release 1.

"@channel" is, of course, the tag for the chat software being used for this conversation. "WO" stands for Winter Overs--a pair who work on our experiment during the antarctic winter (11 month tours--they get started now).

Not all data acquisition taking is for physics: some of the "runs" are tests; hence the TestData run.

A supernova is a very interesting thing to observe, and since SN1987A we now know that neutrinos escape the blast well before the visible light is finally generated. Therefore there is a communications network designed to alert all the participating systems to look out if one of them detects something that might be a supernova. Obviously you don't want the alert to go out if you're just running a test.

A "DOM" is a "Digital Optical Module" with a large phototube, a couple of small computers and a couple of fast signal converters (one less sensitive so it can see large signals), which transmits its measurement of light received to collection computers at the surface. These are all carefully coordinated so we can tell what time light arrived at a DOM on one "string" relative to the time it arrived on another, so we can tell what direction the original particle came from.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I've never quite understood the appeal of criminals, but I gather that there is a population of women who become their pen pals (so to speak) and even offer to marry them. I don't believe they really think they can reform them, but I've been wrong before.

Charles Manson can "marry" someone. The lady in question this time around seems assured but vacant to me, and her father suggests she is creative with history. Another article says prisoners have the constitutional right to marry (and tries to show what some of the motivations are(*)), but Manson is in for life and nobody is going to parole him--there is no question of making a life together. Even Manson admits this is a fake, and it is not the first prison pseudo marriage for him either. Why cooperate? A minister who thinks a couple isn't serious or isn't ready can refuse to conduct their ceremony. Make them rely on Flying Spaghetti Monster or Universal Light mail-order ministers.

(*) Apparently different criminals attract different sorts of fans. And having a "wife"/"girlfriend" is a status thing inside.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Native ebola control

The conference call with Dr. Mosoka Fallah had a few enlightening notes. I've been deeply suspicious of the claim that ebola is declining in Liberia, but he said it was because local communities had finally gotten the picture, and were being proactive about control. They find a place to isolate the sick, bring food/water to the boundary, and let nobody in or out. Newcomers to a village have to stay in isolation (quarantine) for three weeks, since they are assumed to be infected.

In other words, the simple social tools work. Compare and contrast with Nurse Ebola and the federal refusal to use the same common sense. (Yes, I've heard the hyperbolic claims that quarantines would cripple provision of medical care to the afflicted areas. We can fast-track tests for medicals professionals on a new registry and reduce their quarantine time. Voila. In computer networking you put up a firewall and only punch holes for the protocols and systems you know you want to let through.)

Friday, November 21, 2014


Very good. The only misfire was Floristan's rather too well-fed appearance--in the story he had been on starvation rations for a couple of months.

A grand celebration of love, courage, and knowing which is the pointy end of a pistol. And some nice light bits as well. And the prisoners chorus, which I'd never heard before, believe it or not. It is easier for me to follow the sense of the music when I have the meaning of the words--probably a defect in my music appreciation department.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Still topical

    And they, sweet soul, that most impute a crime
    Are pronest to it, and impute themselves,
    Wanting the mental range; or low desire
    Not to feel lowest makes them level all;
    Yea, they would pare the mountain to the plain,
    To leave an equal baseness; and in this
    Are harlots like the crowd, that if they find
    Some stain or blemish in a name of note,
    Not grieving that their greatest are so small,
    Inflate themselves with some insane delight,
    And judge all nature from her feet of clay,
    Without the will to lift their eyes, and see
    Her godlike head crowned with spiritual fire,
    And touching other worlds.

Idylls of the King, Tennyson

A Western Paradigm

South Africa's President Zuma's take on corruption allegations is fascinating.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ancient Practices Series

I read a set of books entitled “The Ancient Practices Series”—well, a fair chunk of them. I don’t have The Pilgrimage or Tithing available and. . . I’ll explain.

Brian McLaren wrote the intro: Finding Our Way Again. He has some annoying bees in his bonnet. Careful analysis is not his strong suit, and phrases like “the Abrahamic faiths” do not inspire confidence in his powers of observation. Nevertheless this is the best written of the set, and has some worthwhile material: such as the breakdown of the purposes of disciplines into katharsis/via purgative (purification from evil), fotosis/via illuminativa (receiving God’s truth and light), and theosis/via unitiva (unification with God). The three themes sometimes go together, but often one prepares the way for others.

Scott McKnight wrote Fasting, in which he says “Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life.” He’s not so keen on instrumental fasting, except when he is. It turns out that instrumental fasting (to seek more intense prayer, discipline the body, etc) has long roots in tradition. Chapters are “Fasting as” “Body Talk”, “Body Turning”, “Body Grief”, etc; but these metaphors didn’t seem all that useful. He distinguishes between fasting (food/water) and abstinence (everything else). Important point: don’t be an idiot about fasting.

Dan B Allender wrote Sabbath. Feast day, day of delight, but not a day of amusement. This is an impressionist-style book, and I think he was paid by the word.

Joan Chittister wrote The Liturgical Year. Short version: it’s a good thing, and the calendar isn’t about us but about worship and growing in worship. (Another paid by the word.)

Robert Benson wrote In Constant Prayer. Short version: Praying the Office is good prayer in itself, good for corporate worship, and also good training in prayer. My late brother-in-law recommended that decades ago; I’ve been kind of spotty in practicing it. Making sure there’s time is the hard part of any discipline.

Nora Gallagher wrote The Sacred Meal. I randomly opened to a page where she equated the Eucharist and feeding the homeless. I checked another and she was approvingly citing Bishop Spong. I didn’t think I’d learn much about orthodox tradition from Spong, and set the book aside.

I should see if the book about pilgrimage is handy somewhere--that's one discipline I haven't learned much about.

Getting in the way of celebration

In Victor Hugo's book 93 is a scene in which a warship is in deadly danger from a loose cannon. It has come free, and the half ton of iron slides back and forth with each wave, breaking bulkheads and crushing everything in its path and threatening to breach the hull and sink the ship. One man risks his life to jump in its path to ram wedges in place to stop it--and succeeds. The commander rewards such bravery with a medal--and then has the man shot because he was the one whose carelessness let the cannon come loose.

Perhaps that is logical, but it seems less than justice.

A few real-life people with accomplishments:

Alexander Grothendieck died quite recently. He was one of the top mathematicians of the 20'th century, ground-breaking in several fields. The link is a bio of him with thumbnail descriptions of his work (and I need to look up some terms before I will understand the thumbnails). He assembled and inspired a wonderful team, and then his own inner struggles led him to tear the group apart and hide as an unpleasant hermit for the rest of his life.

Feynman was a ground-breaking physicist. He had such an appetite for the ladies that the story goes that undergraduate girls found they could get easy money by telling him that they were pregnant by him and needed to get an abortion. (He apparently stood up for a woman physicist who was being belittled for her sex, so his attitude wasn't purely utilitilitarian.) Martin Luther King Jr. allegedly had an eye for the ladies too. Nelson Mandela started off as a hard-line Marxist, and never quite abjured that murderous faith, though his later words and deeds were more peaceful.

Paladins are a little thin on the ground, and even though the US tries to hold its military men to Knights Templar-like vows of poverty, chastity(*) and obedience, they often seem to have the usual collection of vices--though with fewer cowards than the rest of us.

We celebrate what we can. And try to let the accomplishment atone for the failures, when we can.

And then...

A project director celebrating landing a probe on a comet (a huge accomplishment for European Space Agency) wore a tacky Hawaiian shirt, and several ladies got a case of the vapors. (The response of Nancy Hopkins is beyond parody.) Ho hum. Except that shortly thereafter the accused director apologized in tears. Wait, what? That doesn't happen, even with Aspie folks, unless somebody has taken them out back and threatened them.

Who are these people in the back room who have given the professionally aggrieved the power to become harpies and defecate all over the feast?

I think I understand why they enable the harpies--keeping people worried and off-balance helps keep them in line. But who are they, and how do we depose them?

(*) According to my dictionary that includes fidelity in marriage.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Dental plans

I asked an insurance man why dental plans weren't integrated into general medical plans. He said that most dental costs were predictable--there wasn't much difference between paying premiums and paying cash--unless you had soft teeth and had to have lots of crowns and whatnot. If you were normal it was a wash.

My experience has been a little different--but I have enough crowns to suggest that my experience isn't average. I wonder what the distribution of costs looks like. Anybody know, or is that proprietary information?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dueling hymn versions

Though perhaps that's too violent a description ...

We attended a hymn sing with organ at Overture Center. One of the pieces was "We praise you O God." Deborah Smith said this was composed as a replacement for a militaristic version. The only other version I know is "We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing." Hmm. It would seem a trifle hypersensitive to object to this:

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens his will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side; all glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
And pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

"We praise thee O God" goes like this:

We praise thee, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
In grateful devotion our tribute we bring;
We lay it before you; we kneel and adore you;
We bless your holy name: glad praises we sing.

We worship thee, God of our fathers, we bless thee;
Through life's storm and tempest our guide hast thou been;
When perils o'ertake us, escape thou wilt make us,
And with thy help, O Lord, our battles we win.

With voices united our praises we offer,
To thee, great Jehovah, glad anthems we raise;
Your strong arm will guide us, our God is beside us,
To you, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!

A little misunderstanding, perhaps: Hymn Lore suggests that "We Praise Thee" was an independent replacement for the Dutch original:

The hymn is a truly noble utterance of praise. Its dominant note is joy, and this is expressed in a quick-moving meter that makes the singing of it worshipful and jubilant. Because the life of young people is usually joyous, the hymn appeals to them. They respond to it with enthusiasm.

That this should be the character of the text can be partly accounted for by the fact that the author, Mrs. Julia Cady Cory, was born and reared in one of the happiest Christian homes in New York City. Her father, J. Cleveland Cady, an architect of national reputation, is remembered for his devotion to boys and girls, and as the one man in the city who was superintendent of the same Sunday School for fifty-five years.

As for the genesis of the hymn, the author writes as follows : "Years before I was married (in 1902), the organist of the Brick Presbyterian Church of New York City, knowing of my interest in hymnology, came to me and told me that he had a very fine Netherlands melody associated with most militaristic and unchristian words. He lamented the fact, and requested me to write more suitable words, which could be used for the Thanksgiving Day service at the Brick Church. The hymn, as you see it to-day, was the result.

OK, fair enough. Wikipedia carries the original dutch song, but google-translate throws up its bits in despair trying to translate it--the Dutch must be way too old. Someone who knows the language (Mysha) rendered a few verses without rhyme:

Let us now come forward for God, our Lord
Praise him above all, with all of our heart
And exult everywhere the honour of his name,
Who there now beats down our enemy.

For the honour of our Lord, in all your days
Commemorate especially this miracle
For God, oh human, make you well behaved,
Do justice to all, and heed treachery!

Pray, wake and make, that to temptation
And evil with downfall, you will not yield.
Your piety will disturb the enemy,
However strong the walls of his realm might be!

OK, I gather this was written (on an older tune) to commemorate a victory, but what’s translated here still doesn’t seem very harsh. When separated from the incident, the sense is much more generic. Maybe the other verses matter... (The German version, as run through google-translate, is also pretty mild.)

Sunday, November 09, 2014

I tell you once, I tell you twice.

The gospels emphasize different things about Jesus' life on earth. One day I wondered what their overlap looked like, and decided this morning to try to piece it out. Of course the synoptics overlap a lot, but John's is different enough that the overall overlap isn't quite as huge as you might expect.

I did a quick-and-dirty review and got this list, though I probably missed a detail or three.

  1. This is about Jesus
  2. John says someone more important is coming
  3. John baptizes Jesus (implicit in John's)
  4. The Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus
  5. Some of the apostles are named
  6. Jesus cleanses the temple (non-linear narrative in John's?)
  7. 5000 are fed from a small lunch
  8. Jesus walks on water
  9. Jesus heals people (not the same list in each)
  10. Jesus teaches (not quite the same material quoted in each)
  11. Jesus says he's going to die
  12. Leaders plot against him
  13. Jesus and his disciples have a meal together with last instructions
  14. Peter boasts of loyalty, but then denies Jesus
  15. Judas betrays Jesus
  16. Jesus is tried before a Jewish assembly
  17. Jesus is tried before Pilate
  18. Pilate doesn't want to kill him
  19. Barabbas is released instead by popular acclaim
  20. Jesus is crucified along with a couple of criminals
  21. Women are present (Mary of Magdala, another Mary, others(*))
  22. Jesus quotes scripture on the cross
  23. Jesus dies
  24. Joseph of Arimathea takes custody of the body and buries it in his own tomb
  25. There is a stone in front of the tomb
  26. On Sunday the women (Mary of Magdala and others) find the empty tomb
  27. Jesus appears alive to the disciples

If overlap is there for emphasis, then what is emphasized?

1,2,3,4 testify that Jesus is going to be the one from God. 6 say he cleanses worship; 7,8,9 say he can control the world; 10 shows that he wants to teach us, 11 says he knows what’s about to happen.

The rest of the later ones are the outline of the plot to destroy him and its unexpected result.

The Jewish leaders plot against him and try him in their own court (his own people). The Roman leader can't be bothered to administer justice (their claim to fame). A criminal goes free (like us).

Jesus is crucified. (This is a curse for both Jews and Romans.)

Judas is a traitor (like plenty of others ever since). Peter is a failure (the only good argument I know for assigning him a "first among equals" position).

Women are essential witnesses (seriously counter cultural).

A rich man you never heard of before (or afterwards) takes the risk of burying Jesus--and in his own tomb at that.

After the Sabbath the tomb is empty, and Jesus shows himself alive.

For full instruction you want the union of the gospels, but I think I like the intersection too. Some things to meditate on.

(*) When I was little I was terribly confused by all the different Marys, Herods, and Johns. It still doesn't help that "Mary the mother of Joses" / "Mary the mother of James and Joseph" and Mary the mother of Jesus may or may not be the same person.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Wild-eyed conspiracy theory

You have probably heard of the Lone Star tick whose bite makes you allergic to red meat.

Last Friday somebody brought up the subject at our team lunch, and the Ukrainian groaned that that would be a fate worse than death. I noticed that it seemed to be a new problem, and asked what PETA's genetic research budget was. My office mate pointed out that India's budget was much bigger. It is a land where people regularly refuse to rent to non-vegetarians (sometimes refusing Americans sight unseen on the expectation that they won't be vegetarians). He used to live there.

No, we were not serious. But I had a little sinking feeling when I remembered the BJP. Were we giving them ideas?

Friday, November 07, 2014

The will of the people

The BBC reports about the Pakistani couple (and unborn child) martyred by a mob. It ends with this:
Pakistan is a long way from changing or repealing its notorious blasphemy laws.

At best, the only thing the country's vulnerable and at risk communities can really hope for now is that the authorities will treat this case seriously and possibly deter similar gruesome crimes from happening again.

What this conclusion skims over is the implications of this:

Clerics from local mosques used loud speakers to incite violence. Soon, hundreds of angry people converged on the brick kiln looking for the Christian couple.

This didn't happen because of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The blasphemy laws happened because this is the attitude of the people. You know and I know that burning harmless people alive is unjust and vile. But it is also perfectly democratic--this is what they want; or at least what a large number want while the rest are willing to go along with it.

Is "free and fair elections" a sufficiently powerful incantation to purify the vices of a people and automatically produce good government?

Most important

A colleague told me this week of a Psych professor he had who told the class that self-justification was more important than sex. The class of college students was duly startled, and he followed it with "Try to go a day without self-justification."

Trying to do without self-justification seems like a mandatory discipline for a Christian, but I'm still not very good at it.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

It isn't just ebola

Malaria is still a killer. The news story reported that MSF was distributing malaria meds in some of the poor neighborhoods. That's not quite right: they're distributing tickets to be used to get the meds, and doing followup to make sure the households use them properly. In town, that's the right way to do it. Out in the field, where you don't have the staff to go door to door, I still think trusting people with meds is the way to go--with a phone bank to help them with diagnoses.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Timing is all

A man got on the bus today wearing a coat sporting a sticker that read "I voted today."

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

How the mighty have fallen

Within living memory a murder was a newspaper story, but a suicide wasn't. Even today, the Surgeon General urges that reporters avoid glamorizing suicides. But one suicide over the weekend, who I leave nameless and unlinked-to, is being widely hyped as saintly. From the similarity of statements on Facebook I gather people are quoting approved talking points: "a moral choice", "a good person", "brave". Other people with cancer aren't so happy about it: it devalues their lives in others' eyes.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the hype is powered by a blend of "Please don't be a bother to us" and "I can't conceive of anything more to life than experience", with maybe more than just a touch of "Don't be an expense to us." Not that this is the attitude of the people commenting on Facebook, but . . .

“Why you fool, it's the educated reader who CAN be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they're all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything.”
― C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Ancient mathematics

I was pointed to David Mumford, who reviewed a book about the history of mathematics in "India". They got pretty far along, though the paradigm was different and the exposition is tough to follow. By that I mean that they were much more strongly application-oriented (not proof-based) and a lot of the literature was written in terse verse to make it easier for students to memorize. Have a look. He also has a history of What's so Baffling About Negative Numbers--why did it take so long for the West to pick up on them when the Chinese and Indians had a handle on them long before.

I've said before that math isn't actually done in the abstract formal proofs you find in papers. A mathematician will noodle around with some models (often inspired by some application!) until some problem finally yields, and then he rewrites the result in a formal style that makes it sound like he was following a straight logical path to the answer all along. There's probably no help for that, but filling out papers with some more examples would help understanding. Certainly help me, anyway.

If his posts are any guide, Mumford seems to like examples. The most recent (as of today) is "An Easy Case of Feynman's Path Integrals." "Easy" is perhaps a bit relative, but I like the step-by-step way he evolved his model. Good writer.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Bad science reporting

You may have noticed that I indulge a hobby of looking up the actual journal articles behind some science headlines to see what's really happening. This tends to leave one frustrated with the "oh look a squirrel" reporting culture, and with a strong suspicion that most reporters not only don't know anything, but they don't have a clue how to investigate a story either. On the other hand, the net makes it relatively easy to discover the truth about claims that in earlier decades would have simply gone unchallenged: "Cronkite said it so it must be gospel."

A Czech named Lubos Motl does the same in a much more dramatic way from time to time: here he takes apart sloppy reports about an experiment in quantum mechanical effects in helium bubbles. Motl is a colorful (some say infamous) string theorist with strong opinions about Russia (he likes it), climate change (the current fashion is a con), political correctness (hates it), and string theory (only fools doubt it). Since academia tends to be leftist, he rubs some people the wrong way.

I'm an experimentalist, btw, and I think a reasonable test of the string theory paradigm is to let a bunch of very smart people have at it for about 20 years and see if they come up with any predictions. So far, zip--so I respectfully suggest that the test has failed, though it has resulted in some great advances in math that I don't understand. Yes, I understand that it predicts supersymmetry, which gets rid of some nasty theoretical issues in a very simple way--but decades of searching for SUSY particles only found limits. That's nice for giving grad students a thesis, but after a while you start to wonder if there's really a pony in there.