Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking backwards, guessing forwards

Years ago I was so furious with the insanity in DC that I could not sleep (being 6 hours out of sync didn't help any). I knelt and prayed for a quiet heart. To that end I decided to cut out most political blogging. The anger wasn't good for my soul, and even if you are measurably smarter than the fatheads we generally elect and appoint, it isn't good to dwell on that too much.

In any event, most posts on politics are elaborations on what Sir Walter Raleigh said better:

Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate:
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

I was tempted to make an illustrated version of this verse, including some familiar faces for each section, but no; the motions in my own mind weren't very edifying.

By the time I get home to read all the news (I still have a little delicacy about blogging during work hours), other people have said pretty much what I meant to say; why pile on? And who wants to read "ditto?" My Facebook status doesn't get updated much either.

I could write on personal matters, but I try not to embarrass the kids. That cut out a lot of amusing anecdotes. Trust me.

I tried the discipline of reviewing one science story a day, but that often took a couple of hours to go through the background material, and it was discouraging to see how far the final headline was from the real work.

I think I'll continue doing more of the same next year, and try to add more science reviews since that's something I can do better than the average blogger.


At Bible study breakfast the question came up: "What would you like your epitaph to be?"

We came up with several answers, but it occurred to me later that you might want several different ones. How would you want to be known in your family, in your church, and in the world? They aren't necessarily the same. Yes, ideally they should all revolve around service, but that's generic: what service in particular?

At home there are so many that perhaps the generic is the only way to go. "He loved them" would be a good way to be remembered. Hmm. Not sure my actions always emphasize that ...

In the church "He helped them see" describes what I want. So I'm doing sound and video--not entirely related...

In the world ... I'd like to figure out what dark matter is, but I suspect that's not going to happen. Maybe "He helped them see" works best there too.

Come to think of it, that's probably the ambition of lots of bloggers.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Picking leaders

A nice algorithm found on the net:

Call a meeting. Ask who wants to be a leader. Ban the volunteers from leadership roles. Adjourn the meeting. The people who stay to clean up are the ones you pick to be the leaders.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas-tide

I hope this story proves true.


Youngest Daughter is fond of the opera Carmen, and we've had several discussions about which interpretation is the true picture of Carmen. It's a testimony to Bizet's skill that her character will bear so many interpretations. Perhaps our explanations of why the opera is so popular are a kind of Rorschach test of our own characters. (Aside from it having great music, of course.)

I think Carmen is a fool. She knows the life she leads will destroy her, but she goes ahead anyway. Don Jose is a different kind of fool. He refuses to see what is in front of him and believes a lie that destroys them both.

The two of them are Everyman; we recognize ourselves in one or both and empathize accordingly.

I wonder what that interpretation says about my character.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Science reporting

Just a quick reminder about those science headlines: They are several stages removed from the real work.

The scientist reports on his work. There's a natural tendency to point up the promising aspects, and what it might lead to.

The reporter writes a story about the story. With rare exceptions, the reporter knows little about the topic (or any topic, for that matter), but does know how to quickly write an interesting narrative, and will seize on those aspects that make for a good story.

The editor decides on a headline. The editor has never met the scientist, and probably doesn't know statistics from library paste. The editor looks for something eye-catching in the story, even if meanings have to be contorted a bit and possibilities magnified still more.

Think of it as a game of telephone in which each player has to restate the message in a more dramatic way.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Science stories

Bethany has begun her series on Internet Science with a post on "how they reel you in," about how "Look, shiny!" stories and images catch your attention and play on your biases. I look forward to the rest.

There are a few things that raise red flags when I see them in headlines. Some of them are easy to describe.

  1. History: I'm old enough to have seen a dozen breathless headlines about how some new scrolls and "suppressed gospels" may overturn our understanding of Christian history. Same old, same old. Whether it's because reporters have no knowledge of history or because editors think we don't, the same old discoveries and breakthroughs appear year after year. Sometimes a quick googling shows that the same researcher issued an almost identical claim 5 years ago, and 4 years before that and... Unfortunately familiarity with the history isn't something you can pick up in five minutes
  2. Paradigm-changing breakthroughs are very rare. Incremental progress is the rule. If it sounds too dramatic, somebody is probably pulling your leg or trying to make a quick buck. This is especially true in attention-grabbing fields: anything to do with weight loss or aging or sex or politics.

    The IceCube experiment announced that they had probably discovered extra-galactic neutrinos, some of which were puzzlingly higher energy than expected. Did you notice the little word "expected" in there? To have spotted them at all is a tour de force, but pretty much everyone in the field expected there to be neutrinos, some from other galaxies. The general public didn't know anything about them, and the news (I hope) unveiled a new part of the world for them. But these are a tool for further research, not a paradigm-shifting breakthrough by themselves. A milestone.

  3. Herding cats has nothing on coordinating scientists. "Every French soldier carries in his cartridge-pouch the baton of a marshal of France." Every scientist seems to have a place on the shelf for a Nobel Prize. If you're head of the team doing the cutting edge research, you are helping shape the culture of the field, but everybody else harbors a "but what if it were like this" question that they'd like to put to the test.

    If the question is simple (special relativity) there's virtual unanimity, but even there you find scientists saying "Have we proved it for every case yet?" If the question is complicated and simulations are hard to do, you should find plenty of discord in the wings. If unanimity is claimed for a difficult problem, be skeptical. Anthropogenic climate change is one good example: the problem is very hard, proxy measurements are not easy to define, and the climate models are hard to test. (They're no good for year-to-year variation, and as for predicting the far future... the Sun monkeys with medium term results, and I'll most likely not be alive in a century.)

    If at all possible, compare the story with what the received explanation is in the field. This is no guarantee (see Lysenko, AGW, etc), but it is generally a good rule that Newton stood on the shoulders of giants and so ought the scientists in the report.

  4. Does the story have some political implications? If it purports to show that Your Team ™ is smarter than the rest, or that some resource is effectively infinite or on the contrary almost exhausted--qui bono?
  5. Is it sociology? Or drug related? Wait for verification. Then wait some more. Sociologists tend to study WEIRD people and have sample sizes that are way too small. Drug test results are very heavily biased in favor of positive results--negative ones typically don't get published. When you only look at the right side of the distribution of results from small effects, things look much better than they really are. Plus, it turns out that lots of promising drugs to treat X wind up causing Y, and are quietly dropped from view.

    Sociological studies that show that people are happier if they are virtuous just aren't sexy; discovering that "Good things come to those who wait" is a sound rule doesn't get publicity or grant money.

  6. Will the world be destroyed? Check to see if the scientist has just published a book--and needs publicity
  7. Take a quick gander at the story itself, which often has a family resemblance to the headline but doesn't support it very well.
  8. If it talks about other universes, read the funnies instead.

Read How to Lie With Statistics.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Driverless cars are getting into accidents faster than human-driven ones. The controlling programs obey the traffic laws, and, for example, get rear-ended when trying to merge on a freeway. Human drivers regard the speed limit as more of a guideline than an absolute law--who knew?

It turns out driving is a social activity.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cargo Cult

The Chicago Sun Times editorial board had the power to choose the headline, so I assume they meant it when they titled the editorial on the school board "Emanuel's pressing CPS task: Ensure diversity on Board".

The problems are well known--bloated administration, students not learning, junk bond status for borrowing, some schools are dangerous... But plainly those are not the central problems--you have to look elsewhere for the root causes and possible cures. It is simple-minded to think that you can improve administration by firing the incompetent and corrupt (in Chicago the replacements would probably be just as bad). Putting people in right relationships is key, and that has to start with personal virtue, systematic review of goals and means, proper ratios of skin color on the nominal governing board. Only a Hispanic on the school board can provide the magic that will make the Black Disciples and the Gangster Disciples make peace with each other.

First Impressions

I was waiting at the bus stop and a jalopy pulled into the strip mall's parking lot. A small grubby man rolled down the window and opened the car door from the outside. His pants sagged a little, and he held an extinguished cigarette in his hand as he limped slowly past with a weary air like that of many of the homeless guys on the Square--he'd have fit in fine. He slowly walked over to the door of the auto repair shop and unlocked it--and two tall men with full tool belts quickly stepped up and followed him in.

Oops. But if he's bumming rides from a friend, hasn't he offered to fix his car door?


Wolfram went through documents by and about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and tells their story.

Short version: Charles Babbage, after years of struggling to build an analog computer, designed an Analytical Engine (never built) which would have been numerical. He was not a good explainer and was difficult to get along with. Lord Byron's daughter, in the process of writing up an explanation of the Analytical Engine, saw aspects to how it would work (programming loops, etc) that Babbage either didn't see or couldn't articulate.

They communicated largely by mail, but with 5 times daily delivery that wasn't nearly as slow as you might think.

There are no dark secrets or thrilling escapades, but it is interesting, and Wolfram tries to imagine what might have been if Babbage hadn't been so prickly and if Ada hadn't died so young.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Rumor of Angels by Peter L. Berger

A Rumor of Angels Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural by Peter L Berger reminds me of the classic cartoon:

The book has nothing to do with angels. He has some interesting insights and some contradictory foolishness bound up the same volume. He critiques modernist critiques of religion, and notices the contradiction in the sociologist’s presumption that his reference frame is the pinnacle of knowledge.

He takes a whack at explaining why one finds so much detachment in the modern viewpoint. The disciplined detachment of someone trying to analyze impartially is difficult and rare; he sees a more culturally driven detachment:

As I have tried to show, world view remain firmly anchored in subjective certainty to the degree that they are supported by consistent and continuous plausibility structures. In the case of optimal consistency and continuity they attain the character of unquestioned and unquestionable certitudes. Societies vary greatly in their capacity to provide such firm plausibility structures. As a general rule of thumb, one can say that the capacity steadily diminishes as one gets closer to modern industrial societies. A primitive tribe does much better than an ancient city. The latter, however, is still far better equipped to produce certitudes than our own social formations. Modern societies are, by their very nature, highly differentiated and segmented, while at the same time allowing for a high degree of communication between their segmented subsocieties.

The reasons for this, while complex, are not at all mysterious. They result from the division of labor brought about by industrial forms of production, and from the patterns of settlement, social stratification, and communications engendered by industrialism. The individual experiences these patterns in terms of differentiated and segmented processes of socialization, which in most cases begin in early childhood. As he grows older he finds he must play many different roles, sometimes quite discrepant ones, and must segregate some of these roles from each other, since they are not all equally appropriate to the different parts of his social life. And, as a result of all this, he comes to maintain an inner detachment or distance with regard to some of these roles—that is, he plays some of them tongue in cheek. … If he identifies his “real” self with his family, he will “only superficially” conform to the mores of his contemporaries; if, as is more likely, he more fully identifies with the latter, he will “only play along” with his family. In either case there will be some roles that are performed tongue in cheek, “insincerely,” “superficially”—that is, with inner detachment.

Most individuals in primitive or archaic societies lived in social institutions (such as tribe, clan, or even polis) that embraced just about all the significant relationships they had with other people. The modern individual exists in a plurality of worlds, migrating back and forth between competing and often contradictory plausibility structures, each of which is weakened by the simple fact of its involuntary coexistence with other plausibility structures. In addition to the reality-confirming significant others, there are always and everywhere “those others,” annoying discomfirmers, disbelievers—perhaps the modern nuisance par excellence.

And there are some nice snippets: “Intellectuals are notoriously haunted by boredom (they call this “alienation” nowadays).” “The denial of metaphysics may here be identified with the triumph of triviality.” “Dialogue can be an alibi for charlatanism, in which everybody talks to everybody and nobody has anything to say.”

The most interesting chapter is the third, in which he looks for signs of the transcendent in human behavior—not in the ecstatics and mystics, but in the common humanity. The first is the belief in order, as exemplified in a mother comforting her child who has had a nightmare. “It’s all right.” You may say that this isn’t true—the world isn’t all right—but this is a universal testimony that we act as though, in the end, it is. In play we make new rules, transcending the here and now, with the goal of joy. Though the guns may shake the building, people still find ways to play. Hope is another universal—even when everything seems to be coming to an end (including one’s own life), we are still oriented to the future—and a better future. Someone who is, for a time, hopeless, is someone we feel sorry for. He invokes damnation rather than justice to avoid the extensive complications of the latter concept—the testimony being that there are some things that, no matter what the excuse, are without excuse, and for which no punishment seems adequate. In a purely materialist universe there can be no such thing—in affirming it we deny that the universe is only matter. And, of course, we have humor; our reaction to discrepancy, and in his view most dramatically our discrepancy with the universe.

Berger wrote that this was an incomplete selection. If I may quote Chesterton, in The Secret of the Train:

"Excuse me, sir," said the stoker, "but I think, perhaps--well, perhaps you ought to know-- there's a dead man in this train."
. . . . .
Had I been a true artist, a person of exquisite susceptibilities and nothing else, I should have been bound, no doubt, to be finally overwhelmed with this sensational touch, and to have insisted on getting out and walking. As it was, I regret to say, I expressed myself politely, but firmly, to the effect that I didn't care particularly if the train took me to Paddington. But when the train had started with its unknown burden I did do one thing, and do it quite instinctively, without stopping to think, or to think more than a flash. I threw away my cigar. Something that is as old as man and has to do with all mourning and ceremonial told me to do it. There was something unnecessarily horrible, it seemed to me, in the idea of there being only two men in that train, and one of them dead and the other smoking a cigar. And as the red and gold of the butt end of it faded like a funeral torch trampled out at some symbolic moment of a procession, I realised how immortal ritual is. I realised (what is the origin and essence of all ritual) that in the presence of those sacred riddles about which we can say nothing it is more decent merely to do something. And I realised that ritual will always mean throwing away something; DESTROYING our corn or wine upon the altar of our gods.

Unfortunately, Berger’s plan involves a kind of ecumenical analysis which, though he professed to admire the incarnational aspects of Christian life, explicitly denies any incarnational aspect to Christ himself. He, in the same deference to modern sociology that he mocks earlier in the book, expects to reject testimony about revelation in a religion based on revelation, and still find important truth in the residuum.

This world is not my home

a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.

Best Buy:

Win the Holidays

No matter how I parse that slogan, it comes out ugly.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mount Horeb

A Mount Horeb school board had a little problem on its hands:
The issue surfaced late last month when staff members at a district elementary school scheduled a reading of "I Am Jazz," a children's book about a transgender child. The staff members said they sought to support a 6-year-old student who had just transitioned from a boy to a girl, and to help the girl's classmates better understand what was happening.

This was met with opposition and threat of a lawsuit. Then the powers-that-be fought back.

I'm told almost all these dysphorias resolve without any problem by the mid teens. Those that don't--I gather the suicide rate is quite high, and that surgery/hormones don't improve the outlook. Statistically speaking--you can always find anecdotes to the contrary, and they'll get full "human interest" coverage. I have some strong suspicions about the character of the boy's mother which I won't darken the blog with. (No father mentioned in the news, for what that's worth.)

So there was a community reading of the book: "The centerpiece of the library program was the reading of “I Am Jazz” by its co-author Jessica Herthel, who flew in from California to support the family." The organizers were stunned, stunned! to find 600 people show up when they expected 15. Of course they paid for the plane ticket, and for 40 books to circulate to the kids, and probably did all the calling to bring people in... Did I mention that Mount Horeb is not far from Madison?

This had the desired effect on the school board. "The new measures grant transgender students access to the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their new gender identities." Not single user facilities...

You can make a case that the ADA requires accommodations, but it isn't obvious that the effect is neutral. It would seem likely to make the normal cases harder to resolve. Does anybody know of any work to distinguish the ordinary cases from the high risk ones?

Monday, December 07, 2015

Perpetual adolescence

From Chesterton:
They are not crying for the moon, which is a definite and therefore a defensible desire. They are crying for the world; and when they had it, they would want another one. In the last resort they would like to try every situation, not in fancy but in fact, but they cannot refuse any and therefore cannot resolve on any. In so far as this is the modern mood, it is a thing so deadly as to be already dead. What is vitally needed everywhere, in art as much as in ethics, in poetry as much as in politics, is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind. Without that self-limitation of somebody, nothing living will ever see the light.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Laquan MacDonald

No, I haven't watched the video of the shooting. I'll take the descriptions as given: the Chicago policeman shot him to the ground, and then kept on shooting. There's no question about MacDonald having a suicide vest that would justify that kind of continuing fire.

"Gangland killing" was what jumped to my mind immediately. Why spend the extra rounds on a dead man unless you're trying to make a point? But why would a cop need to make a point to MacDonald's gang? (I assume he was in one--probabilities point that way.) Was the cop acting as a cop, or as an enforcer for the mob or another gang?

If I'm right, I wonder if we'll ever find out?

Saturday, December 05, 2015


Just... wild.

My intuition was all wrong. I'd have thought it too cold for that kind of geology.

And this looks sort of like what I'd have expected if Shoemaker-Levy had hit something solid. Who knew it would be so lively out on the fringes?

Friday, December 04, 2015

Turning someone in

It is possible that there's plenty of reporting of Muslim bad apples, but that it is carefully and properly kept quiet. I hope so, though it suggests better skill at keeping secrets than I've come to expect. Perhaps the lower echelons are better at it--keeping certain top people in dark, maybe? Would you tell Biden anything you didn't want to see in the newspaper?

If you're going to take the risk of reporting someone suspicious, you want some confidence that the report will be taken seriously. Fecklessness at the top (so Iraqis think we're supporting Daesh? I can see why they'd think so), and CYA cultures all over the place--I'd wonder if a tip would go in the file and forget bin. But maybe this agency is different this time.

Someone suggested that a reason more US Muslims don't report suspicious behavior (at least that we hear about) is fear of retaliation--one thing jihadists hate more than non-Muslims is "bad Muslims," and contrary to the party line it smells like quite a few of these lone wolves aren't that alone. (I also see polls claiming that a non-negligible fraction support the jihadis, but I've no idea how accurate they are.) I doubt that most jihadis stand up in the mosque and call for war--unless the whole mosque does; suspicion rises on more subtle criteria: non-actionable criteria.

So we're going to keep getting "yes, they were on a list" after-the-fact. And no doubt CAIR has a press release warning against a backlash after next Wednesday's attack.


I have never played Call of Cthulhu, but I've heard its reputation. Typically players lose sanity and die. "To gain the tools they need to defeat the horrors – mystic knowledge and magic – the characters may end up losing some of their sanity,"

Trading sanity for arcane knowledge--that reminds me of something. It'll come to me--I should google for a while...

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Curious sequence of jobs

The Liberia Marine Training Institute intended to train people to serve as sailors, but after about a year or so the school closed for Christmas 2013 and never reopened. Goodbye school fees, goodbye personal possessions left behind. 4 cadets had drowned the previous year--I couldn't find any clear explanation of how (the school said they weren't supposed to be in the water yet). The erstwhile students have been complaining and writing letters to their representatives (and getting blown off, sounds like).

The training seemed like a reasonable idea--lots of ships fly the Liberian flag but few have any Liberian sailors. But according to Rev. Dr. Lincoln Brownell "a test was given to the cadets, saying it was an international assessment team that came on maritime education that was responsible for the test and not the LMA. Dr. Brownell said the cadets took the test and none of them passed the test, something that prompted the international team to move to Stella Maris."

This was pre-ebola, but the claim that everybody failed is quite plausible. Of course the counter-claim, that the LMTI only wanted commissions, is also plausible.

The Rev. Dr. Lincoln Brownell was once president of the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary, and was ejected from his post for reasons never clear to outsiders. He sued for back pay, and eventually got a judgement that closed the school for three weeks. In the mean time, he apparently worked as a bodyguard for the Maritime Commissioner. Now he's Director of the Liberia Maritime Institute, though it isn't obvious to me that it functions. And he's leader of Go Ye Ministries(*) Liberia. When we were there one of his hats seemed to be "hotel manager." (We were grateful.) Hmm. From bodyguard to director... Executive factotum?

(*)Looking for the parent organization turns up several different groups with that name.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Blowing smoke

The same article says, without noticing the contradiction, both that "But there is no such thing as a female or male brain, according to the first search for sex differences across the entire human brain. It reveals that most people have a mix of male and female brain features" and "If a neuroscientist was given someone’s brain without their body or any additional information, they would still probably be able to guess if it had belonged to a man or a woman. Men’s brains are larger, for example, and are likely to have a larger number of “male” features overall."

I tag this as sloppy science because of the conclusions they try to draw. The research itself may be fine (I haven't read it), but this doesn't support the far-reaching claim of "non-binary gender."

Phrenology is still not a very exact science.

Leftover turkey, anyone?

Poisons Chemists Hate, But You Just Ate:
So, I thought I'd give a chemist's perspective on four of the many chemicals you just ate. They range from "Yo- Steve, toss me a bottle of acetone," to "Uh-oh. Chemist X is using chemical Y. Run:" Where X = the incompetent imbecile who is most likely to blow up the building, and Y = some nasty-ass stuff. There are far more X's out there than you'd think. Even more Y's.

Example: "Pyridine- Found in coffee. Pretty decent poison if you breathe too much, but this is unlikely to happen because it smells horrible."

Monday, November 30, 2015


The USSR had its imposing aspects, though behind the curtain one could find some sloppiness. But if the NYT article on red mercury is correct in its surmise, this scam was pure genius. A miracle material, vouched to draw on the same energies as ordinary nuclear materials but which doesn't require large teams of engineers and scientists and machinists to make a bomb out of--what's not to like? And so those looking for WMDs go haring after red mercury instead of trying to break/buy their way into the not-always perfectly guarded nuclear facilities.

Of course the story expanded with time: "‘‘Red mercury has a red color, and there is mercury that has the color of dark blood,’’ he said. ‘‘And there is green mercury, which is used for sexual enhancement, and silver mercury is used for medical purposes. The most expensive type is called Blood of the Slaves, which is the darkest type. Magicians use it to summon jinni.’’ And who knows how this one developed:

"According to a regional and especially cruel variation of the legend, the substance is found in conventional military munitions, particularly land mines, there to be claimed by anyone daring enough to take them apart and extract the goods."

Sunday, November 29, 2015


Language gets fuzzy sometimes; the literal form of a statement can be perfectly true, but the subtext is objectionable. Take the "Black Lives Matter" slogan. Yep, how can you doubt it? And it references a real problem with policing. But what a lot of us hear is an unspoken "no matter what we do." When Michael Brown is the poster child for BLM, how could it be otherwise?

Another slogan circulating is "We should have picked our own cotton." On the face of it, how can you doubt it? It would have avoided centuries of oppression and injustice, or at any rate changed the oppressions to more tractable versions. But the subtext is the unspoken "and then you wouldn't be here to bother us." Not exactly a peace-making gesture...

Slogans with magic words like "equality" usually have unexamined subtexts--and often, thanks to the power of magic words, unexamined face meanings as well.

I believe sloganeers intend the subtexts; they loudly object to anybody trying to parse their meanings. I'm not sure the crowd of slogan repeaters always does; perhaps they would listen to discussion if phrases like "subtext" didn't sound so academic and speculative. Subtext matters just like tone of voice does, and we all know how you can say all the right words with a tone that contradicts the words. The phrase just sounds wishy-washy, as though you're trying to avoid the issues. Does anybody have a beefier way to say "subtext" or "implied meaning?" Besides the usual way of asserting that anybody who seems to disagree with you is a despicable villain, that is.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Winning and losing

I notice that some of the Facebook crowd have a rather simple-minded notion of what constitutes winning a war. Maybe that’s because WW-II was so clear-cut. IIRC the British did not overwhelm all the various kingdoms in India with British soldiers, but in the end they controlled the place. Allies and proxies and taking sides in somebody else’s civil war can magnify your power (if you choose well), and you can wind up ruling another country with virtually none of your people involved.

But ruling isn’t the only possible goal. You could intend to destroy the military/economic/social structure of another people. Terrorism is a cheap way of degrading these things. Every extra security guard you hire, and every set of metal detectors and explosive sniffers, represents money you can’t spend on things people need. When you can trust people you don’t have to build in the reinforcements. Travel doesn’t have to demand extra hours going through checkpoints and searches when people can be, generally, trusted. Soldiers cost a lot, but so do guards. There seems to be an irreducible minimum of predators (O(2%) who are dangerous?) in any society, but you can always create or import more.

I don’t think Muhammadan migrants are going to start ruling France anytime in the next century or so. But I do think they can (the imported labor from earlier decades already does) degrade the trust in the society and raise the unproductive expenses higher and higher. After a while the margin runs out and the real productivity drops and social fabric unravels. After a while the country is poorer and has less capacity to build or to trust. The first trust to go is between the natives and the newcomers, followed quickly by that between the natives and the old elite. But it doesn’t stop there; the new elite aren't generally terribly trusting of each other either. The circle of trust shrinks to those you know.

Without trust you don’t have a nation. An empire, maybe, but not something people will risk themselves for.

FWIW, I agree with David Warren that angry natives will typically attack nearby newcomers (a sample enriched in those trying to assimilate), rather than risking the strongholds of the real trouble-makers or doing the painstaking research to find out who are the hidden foes. This will have a readily predictable effect.

42 days is not long enough

Dr. Mosoka Fallah, the leader of the outbreak response who traced most of the cases through Monrovia and Liberia during the heat of the outbreak, said there was an overreliance in medical facilities on fever being an indicator of possible infection. “There should be a high level of suspicion because 90 percent of the patients lie,” said Fallah. In other words, Gbotoe should never have slipped through the cracks.

The boy's mother may have been an ebola survivor herself.

The 42 days number came, if I recall correctly, from a survey of patients who had been exposed, and represented the largest time known between exposure and showing symptoms. I think it should be revisited. And we know now of reservoirs of live virus in survivors lasting months after they are nominally cured, in semen and the fluid of the eye and who knows where else. If it got into those spots, it can get back out again. How long are antibodies good for? Can a milder infection produce "Typhoid Marys?"

"Ebola-free" is too strong a claim. Unfortunately.

Home from the hill

I'm told that hunters generally see only 1 of every 20 deer in the area they survey. We saw fewer, though I gather from the cannons to the right of us, cannons to the left of us, and cannons behind us that others were more observant. We saw birds, and a couple of bird hunters and their energetic dog, and the moonrise over the trees. And the sunrise through the fog, and a small bird pecking at a dead tree (not a woodpecker). We got in a lot of tramping, and a lot of sitting, and a lot of getting snowed on. But it was a nice time outdoors.

The ER found no obvious problems, and I'm tentatively blaming a combination of dehydration and a new medicine which the nurse warned I might be sensitive to.

One more try this weekend.

UPDATE: Nothing on Saturday morning either. The nearest thing to a prey animal we saw was a horse in a blaze orange blanket.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


If you haven't seen this picture of halos in New Mexico, go look at it. They form from refraction in different kinds/orientations of ice crystals: supralateral arcs from rod-shaped ice crystals that thanks to local conditions in the sky are horizontal. Go look.


Paul Preston for the BBC reviews Franco's legacy, and as will not come as any surprise, thinks it was bleak. Wikipedia's article on the Spanish Civil War (at least the one in the 20'th century) notes but doesn't dwell on some details that suggest that the opponents were at least as vicious and tyrannical, especially after the Soviets got through with them. The Germans who had helped Franco and who had powerful armies close by wanted support in return--the surprising thing to me is how little they got from Franco. They got a list of Jews in Spain, and laws against admitting Jews--laws that apparently were ignored. And some minerals, and a few volunteers.
Hitler would famously tell Mussolini, "I prefer to have three or four of my own teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again!" It is subject to historical debate whether Franco overplayed his hand by demanding too much from Hitler for Spanish entry into the war, or if he deliberately stymied the German dictator by setting the price for his alliance unrealistically high, knowing that Hitler would refuse his demands and thus save Spain from entering another devastating war.

Suppose Franco had lost and the Republicans had won? The era leading up to WW-II as they consolidated their power would have been even bloodier than it was under Franco--almost as bloody as the civil war itself--since the Soviets were determined to control the regime; and the regime was already extremely brutal.

Not too long after the fall of France, Germany would have found some good reason to overrun Spain. A cursory search(*) didn't show me any special National Socialist attitudes towards Spanish heritage, but given the admixture of Moorish ancestors in Spain I'd bet they'd have come up with some reasons to claim radical inferiority for the Spanish once the Germans took over the place. (The whole course of the war would have been very different if the Germans had controlled access to the Mediterranean. Germans or Soviets--which would have won?)

Preston, though admitting that corruption in Spain pre-dated Franco, says Franco's regime was corrupt and "In general, the idea that public service exists for private benefit is one of the principal legacies of his regime." Umm. No. That's pretty much the description of political corruption; as it was before, during, and after Franco in Spain and in Chicago.

Sometimes there aren't any good guys in view; this seems like one of those cases. The Spanish could have had it a lot worse, though.

(*)Forgive me for not delving deeply into that kind of stuff.


David Warren, writing about a CT essay on the temptation to respectability, said:
Even in death, we want to make a show, so that even if we failed to make tenure, we might still be respectable in the eye of Fame. Guelzo here cites Thomas of Canterbury, in T.S. Eliot’s play, who is surprised by his final temptation — which is to Martyrdom itself. We want a crowd when they carry us away; we want to know our last words will be recorded; so people may finally learn that we were right all along. We hardly want to go through all this, and not get credit. Not with our reputation at stake.

Ouch. I know that one very well. "So people may finally learn that we were right all along:" Most especially when we are right. I may justify the hunger (and possible even partly be serious saying) by saying that they will be better for knowing the truth, but the imp chanting "See! SEE!" tells me I want me to be exalted.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


A little reminder:
There is something we all know which can only be rendered, in an appropriate language, as realpolitik. As a matter of fact, it is an almost insanely unreal politik. It is always stubbornly and stupidly repeating that men fight for material ends, without reflecting for a moment that the material ends are hardly ever material to the men who fight. In any case no man will die for practical politics, just as no man will die for pay. Nero could not hire a hundred Christians to be eaten by lions at a shilling an hour; for men will not be martyred for money. But the vision called up by real politik, or realistic politics, is beyond example crazy and incredible. Does anybody in the world believe that a soldier says, 'My leg is nearly dropping off, but I shall go on till it drops; for after all I shall enjoy all the advantages of my government obtaining a warm-water port in the Gulf of Finland.' Can anybody suppose that a clerk turned conscript says, 'If I am gassed I shall probably die in torments, but it is a comfort to reflect that should I ever decide to become a pearl-diver in the South Seas, that career is now open to me and my countrymen.'

Materialist history is the most madly incredible of all histories, or even of all romances. Whatever starts wars, the thing that sustains wars is something in the soul; that is something akin to religion. It is what men feel about life and about death. A man near to death is dealing directly with an absolute; it is nonsense to say he is concerned only with relative and remote complications that death in any case will end. If he is sustained by certain loyalties, they must be loyalties as simple as death. They are generally two ideas, which are only two sides of one idea. The first is the love of something said to be threatened, if it be only vaguely known as home; the second is dislike and defiance of some strange thing that threatens it. The first is far more philosophical than it sounds, though we need not discuss it here. A man does not want his national home destroyed or even changed, because he cannot even remember all the good things that go with it; just as he does not want his house burnt down, because he can hardly count all the things he would miss. Therefore he fights for what sounds like a hazy abstraction, but is really a house. But the negative side of it is quite as noble as well as quite as strong. Men fight hardest when they feel that the foe is at once an old enemy and an eternal stranger, that his atmosphere is alien and antagonistic, as the French feel about the Prussian or the Eastern Christians about the Turk. If we say it is a difference of religion, people will drift into dreary bickerings about sects and dogmas. We will pity them and say it is a difference about death and daylight; a difference that does really come like a dark shadow between our eyes and the day. Men can think of this difference even at the point of death; for it is a difference about the meaning of life.

Update: I should be clearer.

Will a cosmopolitan fight to defend his "home?" Will a man be willing to risk his life to protect an economic union?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


The French, contrary to the "white flag" jokes, have quite a reputation for hard-nosed intervention when their interests seem threatened, or when client allies are. Unfortunately this tends to be on a small scale. Daesh would require more manpower, more money, and more time. Will they have the tenacity to keep up the fight? And on top of that there's the homegrown jihad culture which supplied much of the manpower for this assault...

Does this image seem represent determination to resist the enemy?

I don't think so either. The USA has been very good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when the task takes too long, and what I see reported of the French attitudes suggests that they are very like us that way.

But I don't know for sure, because of selection bias in reporting. Paris isn't all of France, and I don't hear much from people who aren't of the cosmopolitan elite. One news story said a mosque had been attacked--the story deprecated the violence. For all I know the attack may have accurately targeted one of the enemy recruitment centers--or it may have been a relatively harmless group after all. I have a funny feeling that people living nearby might have a pretty good idea about the character of a mosque, developed from interactions with the people who go there. Unless, of course, there are no longer any non-Muhammadans living nearby.

I'd feel more sanguine about French future if I heard of more violence and not less. One can redirect inchoate anger into more disciplined action, but I don't know you can turn quietism and decadence into anything useful.

Is anybody going to start asking the big questions, like "What makes a nation" and "Are there incompatible cultures spoiler: yes, if so what do we do with each other in a single country?"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

Riskless science

Information costs money. Groups that fund research sometimes go for radical projects, but generally they play it safe.

There are some good reasons for this. The article says

That leads to a large duplication of research and makes it slower for the whole field to move forward.
Evans and his colleagues looked at the networks of knowledge in biomedical medicine papers and 30,000 patents spanning more than 30 years. They analyzed the relationships between medically useful molecules and found that as a field matures, scientists are more likely to study closely related molecules rather than distantly related ones.
"You'd expect them go the opposite direction: At first, picking important things but then there are diminishing returns in those experiments, so over time they'd shift to more risky experiments, choosing things further from each other in the network," said Evans. But that's not what happened.

Duplication of experiments helps keep science correct, and looking at related topics helps cross-check too. "If you look at 100 histograms, generally one of them will have a 3-sigma peak somewhere," just from random variations. If you publish the 3-sigma excess, you've screwed up. Further studies are needed. Also, at some point you are the expert on the research, and people expect you to be able to answer the questions about it. You've a good track record of finding things out, and so are a better candidate for scarce research dollars.

Sort of--as the article says. After a while you get diminishing returns, and the question is do the grant agencies get more bang for the buck funding a sure thing with tiny payback, or a long shot with a bigger payback? The author thinks the agencies and the gatekeepers skew too conservative.

In my field the experiments are very expensive, and a proposal can go through many years of review before the funders that be are satisfied you can deliver something new and interesting. And they check the budget too: Will we get more from this $1,000,000 project or from 5 $200,000 ones? One recent proposal some colleagues submitted was agreed to be novel and useful, but the main result was limited, and funding it would exclude other excellent proposals. That's the way it goes... the overall science budget isn't going to grow while there's a war on.

A better way to fund science might be giving money to investigators instead of projects, as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute does, Evans said. In the heyday of Bell Labs, funding was given to groups rather than individual scientists – and efforts like these move some of the incentives to let scientists take on riskier experiments.

That might work in biomedical, but when an experiment takes 8 years and requires a few hundred people...

When I first started exploring an interesting symmetry, I would have guessed it was 10 to 1 against it having physics relevance. Now I'd guess 100 to 1 against. Unfortunately, the odds of it being a usefully fundamental mathematical breakthrough are also probably 100:1 against, so this is probably just an odd corner that I work on in my "copious free time." At those odds, would you fund my salary for half a year to explore it? ... Didn't think so. But so long as I'm willing to take decades to solve a problem that an intense year would solve, I can take whatever risks I please. Just don't ask for answers this year.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Thinking about risks

Several months ago the UW gave our group a talk on what to do with an active shooter. The IT and management team had gone over this as part of a ContinuityOfOperationsPlan exercise earlier. Escape, Hide, Fight. If there's just one that sort of works, but several of us thought over tactics and risk later. The degree of risk depended on who was the gunner(s).
  • A student? Somebody failing in life and blames it on the teachers? Lots of people can escape, though the prof he goes after may not.
  • Politically motivated? There are law offices on the top floors that work with Republicans, and most of the unhinged attackers have been leftists, so that's not impossible. They're hard to get at, though, and the easiest ways to attack are indiscriminate--firebombs, fire alarm and shoot people coming out of the stairways--that sort of thing.
  • Attack on police office? There's a new Federal office above us. I've no idea what their security is like, but I'd guess the easy ways mentioned above would be the methods of choice.
  • Terrorists looking for big name targets? Yeah, we qualify--sort of. Known around the world, soft target--two guys could kill a few dozen people quickly and encourage a reputation for their group's ruthlessness. Recon wouldn't be too hard, though strangers would stand out. We have a little sign forbidding guns and knives, of course. We're not on 5'th, and we figured a couple of ways to escape.

But all in all, an attack doesn't seem very likely. Terrorists will attack somebody, but I can think of a half a dozen more dramatic targets without scratching my head.

I wonder if the kind of student protests we're seen this past week are cathartic for the unhinged, or inspire them to attack? Attacks are rare enough that I don't think we'll get good statistics on the question. Fortunately.

Is the posting rate inversely proportional to busy-ness?

'Tis the season to dig the peat and manure into the directed spots (but don't dig up the ?? plants Those plants there up, and any bulbs you dig up replant 6" deep). And braving the rose bush to pick the last Romano beans from a bean plant that latched onto a climbing rose 6' away and dared us to harvest the beans. And griping about how much of a laptop you have to disassemble to get at the power port (all of it). And trying to get a story polished in time for the deadline. And trying to see if I can hit the relevant part of the target at 100 yards. (Not while standing.)

First time deer hunting starting this weekend. I wish we could have found some private land, but I gather farmers have gotten fed up with idiots. We'll see if snow develops (I hope so, it might cut down the number of hunters a bit).

Some days studying puppet for a project I could have set up in half an hour without it--but then of course nobody else would know how to rebuild it in a pinch if I wasn't there.

There Are Doors kept me up too late. I find from The God of Hope and the End of the World that I need to read A Rumor of Angels and probably The Spiritual Nature of Man too. Isn't that usually the way of it--read one, find two or three more you ought to read too?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A theme for our era

How do you prove your superiority to the rest of the crowd? Hans Christian Anderson wrote our era's answer in 1835.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Puzzling proverb

A young man tried to supplement his income by hooking extra connections onto a power pole, and this time he failed. Two other onlookers, who claimed to be long time acquaintances of the deceased, said his death justifies the maxim: “99 days for rogue, one day for master.” I understand the proverb "They say a leaf that is sweet in a billy-goat’s mouth can runs its stomach;" that's easy in this context. And I know "rogue" means thief or robber. But I don't understand what is meant by "99 days." Days of trouble, maybe?

An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

It must be annoying to have readers parse your work so closely that on the basis of a single phrase they conclude that several of the characters have been traveling in time. If you're Gene Wolfe, I suppose you've gotten used to it. He is so careful to make the details matter than an occasional bobble sends some fans off into the tall weeds. He's a master of telling several stories at once--don't just listen to the magician's patter; watch his hands. In one book the introductory sentence ties in with a promise on page two hundred something, to clearly show that the narrator has been dead for many years. And if you know the symbolism of it (I didn't) the introductory incident suggests an important reason why the narrator is telling the story. I've run across convoluted explanations that try to preserve continuity in some Star Wars or Star Trek series, and the straining at gnats always had an "infinite mirrors" feel to it. But Wolfe deliberate puts in tiny clues, and yes, some of his character travel in time. Two explicitly. That I know of.

I didn't have time to read An Evil Guest twice, which is what's usually needed for one of Wolfe's books, so I cheated and went online to look up a puzzling question. Yep, I'd missed quite a few details, details which put a different light on Cassie's nature.

I didn't like this one quite as much as others. The review I read suggested that might be because Wolfe was trying for some humor here and there, and not quite succeeding. Now that I think of it, yep, that sounds right. Irony he can do, but I haven't read anything I'd call funny. Werewolves and R'lyeh and aliens with unclear technologies and a mysterious billionaire and a theater musical and a wizard who can make you a star, and does. Fun.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Leviticus 23:22

When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

I know this helped provide for the poor, and gave them the dignity of at least partly providing for themselves.

It also is a reminder that in the final analysis we don't own the fields or their produce, God does--and not claiming it all for ourselves drives that home.

I think some of us might find it usefully applied to their time as well. Kipling wrote "If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds full of distance run..." That phrasing has always had an unpleasant kick to me, and properly so, but some of us plan out our days without margin, and where then is the room for someone who needs some of their time?

I'm afraid I have more waste in my time than I should, and don't need to put in more--though maybe I should resist the tight timing of buses and not hurry so much. It is often "hurry up and wait" anyway, and there are generally plenty of people on the street.

Friday, October 30, 2015

School conflicts

What happens when the country school schedules conflict with the grade school schedules? The country devils have been coming out, and clinic staff are disconcerted. "According to traditional elders, when a Country Devil comes out of the bush, non-members of either the Poro or Sande societies hide to avoid being forcibly initiated into one of the societies for a period of three to six months." I gather that not all staff members have been initiated--and hiding makes operating the clinic difficult.

Things get more complicated during the school year. So the government came up with some rules.

In June 2014, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) reviewed the licenses of Poro and Sande societies, with the involvement of elders and chiefs and stated that violators would bear the full penalty of the law.

The Bureau of Customs and Cultural Affairs of the MIA in collaboration with the National Council of Chiefs, Elders and Zoes urged their council members throughout the country to carry out their functions within the confines of traditional laws and guidelines governing the practices of Poro and Sande societies.

However, the MIA reiterated that no Poro, Sande or Zoe conductor shall initiate any child or any student into a grove during the normal school year.

I suspect that the thousand-year-old Poro (for boys) and Sande (for girls) society leaders consider the MIA to be upstarts. I'd be almost sympathetic--but both societies have some ugly practices; for example the Sande is reported to be heavily into FGM.

Three years ago there was talk of banning the Sande, but as that article says:

But some town elders say the government’s efforts to suspend Sande are just “mouth talk” and there is a way around everything in Liberia.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

The title turns out to have several meanings, one rather ironic.

In the prologue the priest explains to the penitent that he also was a murderer. The rest of the book is the priest's autobiography, and no, that particular crime isn't the climax of the story. The beginning of the story is set in a monastery in Cuba a few years from now, and from the fact that the cover shows a pirate at the helm of a sailing ship you can guess where the rest of it is set. Don't look for an explanation of the transition. After all, it might all be just his imagination, right?

Wolfe did a lot of research when he wrote the book, and it flows quickly and cleanly. A lad alone in that environment wouldn't have many options, and after a mischance or two his direction is fixed. On the other hand it isn't at all obvious how he's going to become a priest at the end of it--until the end.

Read it. Maybe you'll find it for a penny plus shipping at Amazon too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

School breaking the rules?

The principal of Ricks Institute (Dr Olu Menjay) complained about comments by the Minister of Education who claimed that Ricks wasn't abiding by the rules and regs : "Minster Werner made three allegations on ELBC Radio insinuating that the motives of the parents of Ricks students were not clear; that “one or two” students at Ricks have been abused; and that Ricks receives significant government money and, therefore, should be in compliance with every mandate from the Ministry of Education (MOE)."

Yes, I gather it does receive significant government money: the Ministry of Gender and Social Welfare coughed up a goodly chunk of change to educate 30 girls for 5 years, though when I looked up Rick's fee schedule it looks like the amount is less than the full rate. (When I was last there the school had just started allowing children of the village on-site to attend for free. Menjay doesn't mention that in challenging the claim of elitism--I wonder if they still do it.)

The article above gives the Ricks side of the story. That isn't quite fair; even a Minister of Education deserves to have his side heard. This one gives both. "Minister Werner said although stakeholders at the last consultative meeting agreed for schools to promote 9th and 12th graders, but should not have graduation ceremony; however, Ricks chose to violate and charged students US$200.00 as graduation fee." That sort of shenanigans is par for the course in Liberia, though I'd be disappointed in Menjay if he was extorting money. But the report also says "Commenting on Ricks' recent graduation ceremony, Minister Werner said the school acted the way it acted because of the support of parents currently working in government."

So at least some of the parents wanted a graduation. Or maybe the school went in for extra work to make up for the Ebola hiatus: the usual end of the school year is in June. This year all schools were supposed to close 31-July; the graduation seems to have been 18-October.

Ricks used to (and may still) be one of the best schools in Liberia, and did have children of government figures attending. In between school pride and pressure from well-connected parents (and a dislike of centralized mandates), I think I might have poked the MoE in the eye too. I lived on the campus for a while but I didn't attend Ricks: it was good wrt Liberia but not wrt USA standards. I went to ACS.

Sleep differences

Black and white sleep patterns differ? "Whites in the study slept an average of 6.85 hours; blacks slept an average of 6.05 hours." and "“Notably,” the study reads, “these associations remained evident after adjustment for sex, age, study site, and [body mass index].”" and of course "(It should be noted, however, that researchers concede their attempts to control for economic indicators are far from perfect. “We know our measures for adjusting for socioeconomic status are still somewhat limited,” says Redline. “Sometimes the variation isn’t great enough.”)"

Not everything is well thought-out: can you say "a proxy for race?" Also notice that "There is a consensus" drops in without any reasons why.

ON THE QUESTION of how to explain the black-white sleep gap itself, researchers have a number of related theories. (There is a consensus that innate biological differences between blacks and whites are not a factor.) The stress caused by discrimination is one strong possibility. In the San Diego sleep study, Tomfohr’s team knew, going in, that slow-wave sleep is very sensitive to stress—which is, in turn, our body’s signal to remain vigilant against perceived threats, including discrimination. “That was our thought: If people are feeling really discriminated against, then of course they are not going to want to get into a really deep stage of sleep,” she says.

On the grimmer side of things, sleep apnea is more common, 12.8 vs 7.4% This is comparable to the obesity rate difference, and might be due to it, but it seems to be less frequently treated than among whites--and sleep apnea leads to lots of problems.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Star Destroyer

It is about 290 million light-years away, so we don't get a very detailed look at the proceedings, but it looks like a black hole just destroyed a star.

A suspicious hand goes up in the back row: "How do you know that? It is so far away you can't see anything but a dot."

Good question. What do you expect to see if a star gets too close to a black hole? Tidal forces would stretch it out--and do you wonder what you get when the pressure on the core gets smaller? That burst probably pales in comparison with the energy released as the plasma gets squeezed into new shapes around the black hole--some flying off and away and some falling in and some twisting into orbit.

You get a flash of light; visible, UV, X-ray. Where there was nothing much before--just an ordinary start--now there's a burst across the spectrum. Of course this doesn't matter at all if the black hole is very active and blowing jets; you only notice if it has been lonely and quiet up till now.

But there's more. Some of the plasma winds up in rapid orbit around the black hole, and doppler shifts turn some of the light bluer and some redder depending on whether the plasma in question is moving towards us or away. From the blue-shift you can estimate speeds, and from the time it takes for changes to happen you can estimate how big the distances are. (You can estimate blue shifts because light is absorbed by gas at certain frequencies {or emitted}, and from the spectrum you can see how much these gaps or bumps have shifted.)

Unfortunately, they noticed a flash and then turned the scopes on the spot, so all they saw was the cooling down of the plasma: it would have been cool to see the whole process.

Variability within the absorption-dominated spectra indicates that the gas is relatively close to the black hole. Narrow line widths indicate that the gas does not stretch over a large range of radii, giving a low volume filling factor. Modest outflow speeds of a few hundred kilometers per second are observed, significantly below the escape speed from the radius set by variability. The gas flow is consistent with a rotating wind from the inner, super-Eddington region of a nascent accretion disk, or with a filament of disrupted stellar gas near to the apocenter of an elliptical orbit.

"Relatively close" is an interesting phrase: they estimate 17 million km at the "innermost stable circular orbit." That's closer than Mercury is to the Sun.

(One of the experiments studying the star is called ASASSN: All-Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Everything old is new again

I remember when the late Prof. Cline wanted to loft liquid argon time projection chambers in balloons to look for quark nuggets, a hypothetical kind of quark matter with a large fraction of strange quarks in addition to the usual up and down. That's "bare" strange quarks, not the strange/anti-strange pairs that you get all the time in nuclei. I thought the idea was insufficiently motivated to dedicate money to, and so apparently did the funding agencies. (I did some simple simulations/visualizations of a liquid argon TPC for the Icarus experiment, but one kindly scientist pointed out that the program I was using didn't handle slow μ- interactions with nuclei correctly, so I'm not sure how useful it all was.)

At any rate, there had been a fire in the balloon making factory, and so NASA wasn't going to be lofting any balloons for a year or so, so Cline decided to see if he could loft liquid argon detectors in satellites, and maybe piggyback a search for quark nuggets on top of a SDIO project to distinguish (hold your hat) incoming Soviet nuclear missiles from dummy missiles by the prompt radiation you'd get from neutrons emitted by your own nuclear blast in space.

In other words, his SDIO proposal was: you see incoming missiles; fire off your own nuke in space; the neutrons from it make uranium emit gamma rays; you detect the gamma rays in your own detector system in the few milliseconds before the neutrons hit your detector system and blind it; you compute where the gamma rays all come from and tell your anti-missile system which are the real warheads. (Never mind that the EMP pulse knocks our your own communications satellites, the Soviets probably already did that to you anyway.) Ummmm. No. No on several levels: I noticed that the gamma ray pulse from your own nuke would create some slow-decaying atomic states in the argon that would still be glowing like one of those green stickers just at the time when you needed the system to be sensitive.

So much for quark nugget detection.

They're back. This time as dark matter candidates. And, of course, the first thing you ask is how do you detect these quark nugget "macros"? If they're big enough (still way smaller than anything telescopes can see), you could see them streaking through the sky like other meteors or making odd craters--and we don't see anything really anomalous. Yes, if you don't know where you dropped them, you start looking for your missing keys under the lamppost. You ask about big things first. Then you try to figure out how to look for small blobs.

I haven't studied quark nuggets. If wikipedia is an accurate guide (cue the snickering) one theory holds them to have equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks--which would make them neutral. That would be kind of weird stuff--the normal electromagnetic force fields that make regular matter bounce off other stuff (and that hold you up in the chair) wouldn't be as much of a factor. A macroscopic chunk would act a little like a conductive surface as far as charges are concerned--attractive, but since an electron would be trying to push quarks around (much more massive), the attractive force would be small. I don't know which way W/Z exchange would push--an interesting problem, and one that's actually worth looking at. Somebody must have solved that already for the ordinary nuclear case. The nucleus/chunk bounce is even more complicated: W/Z exchange and pion exchange and maybe a splatter or merge. If I was reasonably familiar with the models I'd guess it would take at least a year to work up a model of the interactions. A year to figure out the interactions of a hypothetical particle that I have no reason to believe exists? Not happening.

Though maybe that's a bit hypocritical--I've spent a lot of odd hours on the mathematical aspects of a model I'm pretty sure isn't useful. The math is kind of interesting, though, and tantalizing--there has to be a pattern in the symmetries.

Honesty and faithfulness

From Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes by Kenneth E. Baily p143:
First, biblical languages (and modern Arabic) have no word for honesty. Honesty is a Roman concept, and the word has roots in Latin, Old French, Italian, and Spanish. It has to do with commitment to an impersonal ideal. The biblical word is faithful, which requires a person to whom one is faithful.

Does this have Sapir-Whorf-like consequences?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Sci Fi Aliens

In the previous post I linked to a story The Man too Lazy to Fail from Heinlein's Time Enough For Love. I think it was in reading that book that I started to realize that Heinlein wasn't writing about human beings. His heroes/heroines had a sense of duty and street smarts and courage when they needed it--cool, you probably know people like that. But when it came to sex, they were never possessive, never jealous, mentioned taboos only to break them--in TEFL the main character beds himself and his mother--no, as attractive to a young mind as the notion of easy sex was, this book wasn't talking about the kind of people I knew or even that I heard about. (Margaret Mead was fooled.) You'd have to sort of cross your eyes and pretend a lot.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hunter/gatherer sleep

Research unveiled on Thursday showed that people in isolated and technologically primitive African and South American cultures get no more slumber than the rest of us. Average of 6:25. Apparently they stay up "late" (after the mosquitoes go to bed?) and wake up early. The environments vary a bit, so that source of bias should be missing, but none are of latitude high enough to have radically different winter and summer hours. That'd be an interesting effect.

If this pans out--or even if it doesn't, I expect to hear lots of new experts explaining how much sleep we really need. What with waking up an unreasonable hours, their average is probably close to mine...

One advantage of civilization is that you don't have to worry about so many different things, and usually don't have to work quite so hard.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

In case you were wondering how these things worked

Poro Devil Wanted for Alleged Torture, Murder.
It all began when the late Samuel Mansuo’s son, Nentor Mansuo, got into a dispute with one of his friends in Zuaplay over a parcel of land which he (Nentor) accused his friend of illegally taking.

During the dispute, Nentor vandalized the house his friend was building on said land.

Based on that report, the citizens of the town held a traditional trial. Samuel stood trial for his son Nentor, who by then had absconded. He was found guilty of violating the town’s rule against fighting and violence and ordered to pay a fine of a pan filled with rice along with cattle.

According to the police, the man begged for time to allow him find the items with which to pay, but some members of the town refused and demanded that the man pay the fine at once or be arrested by the devil.

It was based on this demand that the devil’s chairman, Saturday Womengbah, ordered the arrest of the man, tied and tortured him until he died.

It had earlier been reported that 27 persons were arrested in connection with the killing, but police later confirmed that 24 were arrested, of which 14 were charged and 10 set free.

The devil remains at large.

Ain't it the truth.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Different reactions

When I was at SIU we had Iranian student groups. I think I counted 5, each of which denounced all the rest as agents of SAVAK. I suspect they were all correct--all infiltrated, at any rate. They were all angry and all militant and, at least officially, not happy with America or Americans. Which made them uncomfortable guests.

The BSU had a reputation of being friendly to international students, and there were one or two Iranians on my floor. My roommate and I were able to freak them out a bit by posting notes to each other on our door written in runes. Yeah, paranoid.

They weren't as bad as they'd been on another campus, though, if testimony of a friend at the time may be believed. He told me that at that school the Iranian student marches had progressed to the point of harassing other students. (Sorry, I don't recall the institution.)

After a few weeks some Iranians made a serious strategic blunder, and harassed a black woman. Two nights later a number of cars came full of black men not seen before on campus, and the next day the Iranians were quiet as mice, and my friend said they remained so.

To every thing there is a season.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Why would they think of that?

Mealworms can eat styrofoam? (As always, verify that this is true and repeatable.)

What comes immediately to mind is an elementary school project with mealworms that starts leaking mealworms out the bottom of the cup--and a parent investigates. I wonder what really happened.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Come quickly, Lord

Your will is definitely not being done on earth as in heaven.


If Jesus endured the horrors of our world for us, I suppose we can endure its horrors a while ourselves for the sake of the saints yet to be born.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Spotting spies

Does anybody know if this is true? The article claims that CIA spies were readily identified because of the different ways agents and normal State Department personnel were treated: for example, agent positions never changed in local embassy reorganizations, their recruitment age ranges differed, and agency officers could come and go as they pleased. The story claims that Yuri Totrov figured this out, and as a result the KGB regularly identified agents around the world.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Word meanings

AVI reminds us that we have no right to happiness What the word "happiness" means isn't fixed, of course. One writer whose work I can't quickly locate said the Declaration of Independence's "pursuit of happiness" clause meant something more like "trying to find your role in the world" to the signers than "trying to find pleasure." I suppose you can't sell as many vacation timeshares to people who look for satisfying duties as you can to those who measure happiness by a "goodies count."

Somehow happiness, in the sense of pleasure, is now an expectation. Pleasures are so common in our wealthy land that it seems they're taken for granted. And as Screwtape notes, "love" is warrant for any sexual conduct and any broken promises. If you remonstrate you're accused of opposing love. Of course no society regulates love, but all regulate sex (even ours still regulates some). But that's an inconvenient observation.

Part of the shift lies in the connotations of words. Take the word "heterosexual." It is generic--there's no connotation of monogamy. Instead the sense is of willingness to have sex with any receptive woman. Male point of view here, reflect as needed "Bisexual" is similar, but the connotation of action pretty much guarantees infidelity. If such terms are the only ones in the discourse, there's a bias against considering fidelity.

I propose a modification of the weaker Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.(*) Language shapes our thinking, but we spontaneously modify the language to suit our needs, so the shaping need not be overwhelming or permanent--unless someone is able to keep pushing the desired usages.

If I and my friends compose a nuanced phrasing that defines something precisely, we can communicate accurately with each other, but if this usage isn't shared by the popular media we're immersed in, it won't spread. As a trivial example I give you Blackacre, about which many precise things are said that are unintelligible to non-lawyers--though they're not hard to understand. True, nobody pushes the standard fuzzy meanings about ownership, but nobody tries very hard to teach them either and they're not matters of our usual daily round.

Less benignly, think of the campaign to replace the word "gambling" and its connotations of risk with the word "gaming" and its connotations of innocent fun. In Wisconsin, at least, the latter seems to have pretty much displaced the former, and one finds it harder to find people who object to gambling in principle. Whether there are fewer who object to gambling as a form of fleecing the poor I can't tell; I wasn't paying a lot of attention years ago.

(*) Should we call it the Sapir-Whorf-Confucius Hypothesis? "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Does cancer have a double whammy? They claim that the "wasting" aspect of cancer is or can be independent of effects due to tumor growth and associated tissue damage (such as bone destruction next to growing tumors). If this pans out it could be very interesting:
Cachexia affects up to 80% of cancer patients. It is estimated to cause one in four cancer deaths, primarily when their diaphragm muscle becomes some wasted and weak they can no longer breathe. Doctors try to fight cachexia by feeding the patient up, but this approach rarely works.


When Hoogenraad’s team implanted mice with cancer cells genetically engineered to lack the Fn14 protein, the tumours grew almost as aggressively as a regular tumour. Yet the mice remained bafflingly fit, strong and healthy.
This adult male cachexia patient has suffered extreme muscle and fat loss.

“We scratched our head and thought, ‘What the hell have we done?’” Hoogenraad says. Then they realised they had switched off the cachexia.

The team moved quickly, making antibodies that block Fn14. A mouse with a normal, Fn14-producing tumour will start to lose weight and sicken within eight days. But when mice with Fn14-expressing tumours were injected with the antibody, the weight loss never materialised.

I assume that if the lack of this doesn't change the tumor growth, then cancers could appear without it. One thing to try to learn is whether different cancers produce this protein. This article suggests to me a list of candidates: gastric, lung, prostate. Pancreatic is on the list of frequent cachexia, but I think it might be hard to distinguish the effects of the destruction from those of any additional mechanism in that case.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Negative interest

Sweden has been using negative interest rates.
Cut rates too deeply, and savers would end up facing negative returns. In that case, this could encourage people to take their savings out of the bank and hoard them in cash. This could slow, rather than boost, the economy.

What is happening now should not – according to conventional thinking – be possible.

As central bank rates have turned negative, the rates offered on bank deposits have followed. Yet rather than stuffing cash under mattresses, people have left their money in the bank or spent it.

Later on the article says

Pension funds might be among the first to abandon banks if things get too painful, because of what in effect can look like a tax on holding money.

One solution is to give savers nowhere else to go. This idea was floated by the Bank of England’s chief economist in recent weeks, who made the case that sub-zero rates will be needed in the near future.

Andy Haldane, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), the UK’s equivalent of the FOMC suggested that to achieve properly negative rates, the abolition of cash itself might be necessary.

The first point about negative interest rates is that they've been tried in Japan and Sweden, two countries with strong social cohesion and trust. The second:

I find it useful to translate proposals into simple models. It gets around a lot of obfuscation.

I put my paycheck in the bank. The bank takes some of it away. I automatically lose money.

I'm not allowed to not put money in the bank.

The only way the bank doesn't get my money is if I spend it right away.

If everybody knows I have to spend money right away, they will raise prices.

No matter what I do, I get less for my hours of work.

Cui bono?

  1. The State. They overspend and need to borrow. Negative interest rates force us to subsidize their borrowing: they benefit. I notice that all the happy-joy talk about this comes from government types, who grimly warn that cash is used for drug deals and other evil trades. Like paying the kid next door to mow the lawn while I'm on vacation.
  2. The bank, as long as they can make sure my rate is worse than theirs

I conclude that this is, at minimum, a disingenuous way of raising taxes.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Bee careful reporting

An alderman proposed a revision to city ordinances to allow beekeeping. I agreed to speak in favor, and went to the planning committee meeting Tuesday night at 7. The first item on the agenda was a zoning change and waiver application, and the next 3 hours were filled with justified worries about traffic. The waiver application lost. Then several experts on beekeeping explained its safety and practicality. I had plenty of time to hone my presentation. You might be amused to compare what I actually said with what the paper said I spoke into the microphone.
I am James living at YYY, and I speak for myself and for my daughter who owns the other half of our duplex at ZZZ. I am not an expert, so I can be brief. My wife says a garden is the best way to show the connection between hard work and eating. Over the years we have made the gardens an integral part of our children’s education, and now that my daughter has children of her own she is doing the same. If you drive by our homes you can see the gardens: lots of flowers and vegetables. She wants to add beekeeping to what she is doing and teaching, and to help increase her family’s resources. This may not be the way other families live, but this is ours.

OK, I should have written it down--I had plenty of time. The last sentence was brain freeze on my part; I'd forgotten to devise a wrap-up sentence. And for the honor of truth, I stuttered and started with “I am an expert” before correcting myself. Still, my address was easily the shortest of the night by a factor of at least 5. You'd think it would be easy to keep track of.

..., a Juniper Lane (Street!) resident, told commissioners his daughter was in the process of growing a garden and wanted to add a bee hive. He would like the city to change the ordinance to allow it so he can tell her she can put one in and continue to teach her self-sustaining agricultural practices.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


In Romans 1:29-32 the list of sins deserving death includes slander. It might seem disproportionate at first, but go read these stories about how Tim Hunt was forced to resign because of lies by Connie St. Louis, Deborah Blum, and Ivan Oransky, about a Florida man who incited attacks on strangers from his parent's basement and how Pakistan's rent-a-mobs let you deniably kill your enemy for a few bucks with just an accusation.

Maybe slander isn't so supportable after all. A penalty proportional to the injury, perhaps?


I haven't paid much attention to the Common Core debates. The idea of having some minimum standards has its appeal, but the devil is in the details, and if we get more teaching to the test we're going to get less education.

BBC has a story about misfeatures in Indian textbooks, some of which are simple misspellings and some are--well, did you know Japan launched a nuclear strike against the USA during WW-II? I know they wanted to, and didn't know how to make a bomb yet, but ...

OK, the USA has a more consistent market for textbooks, they'll be better, right? Feynman found otherwise:

Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That's only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity!

(The essay goes on to explain how a blank book got a positive review.)

The math books I dissected for the local middle school (without any response to my evaluation, I might add) weren't quite that bad, but there were quite a few misfeatures. Probably some errors, too, but I didn't work all the exercises. I noticed that the "author list" included a lot of names, but very few of them had any background in anything but education. No "domain knowledge"

The kids' high school books were by and large somewhat better, though I hear some schools teach history out of Zinn. (I get it that this was supposed to be a corrective book to the old 50's-60's baseline histories, but if that's to be the new baseline you desperately need a corrective to it.)

I am perfectly willing to believe that the Common Core textbooks will be crud. It is a tradition.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Suppose momentum weren’t conserved. Or angular momentum. You can make up science fiction scenarios, but if you think them out thoroughly you find that your imaginary universe is extremely strange.

It turns out that if it doesn’t matter where you measure from—if one part of space is just like any other part and you can move anywhere and have it look the same—you get conservation of momentum. If one direction is like any other and you can turn in any direction you like and it still looks the same, you get conservation of angular momentum. Those symmetries have important consequences. Other less obvious symmetries result in forces: “… physicists gradually realized that all forces (fundamental interactions) arise from the constraints imposed by local gauge symmetries, in which case the transformations vary from point to point in space and time.” Invisible symmetries.

Or to put it another way, if you had different symmetries, you’d have a different universe with different forces.

So far so good.

Quantum Mechanics

In quantum mechanics you find the consequences of not being able to measure two quantities at the same time: e.g. momentum and position in the x-direction (whichever that happens to be for you).

One way of picturing this is to think of an arrow that points up, down, or sideways when you want to measure its direction, but is spinning either left or right. And you’re in the dark, so the only way to measure it is to grab it. Now that you’ve grabbed at it, you know which direction it pointed, but you’ve no clue which direction you knocked it spinning. not an exact analogy, but easier to visualize

So if you measure one quantity you know that the object is in state A instead of B or C, but you are unsure if its other quantity is in state X, Y, or Z.

As a result when you find that you must describe a system as being in potentially many different states at once, until you actually measure which. (Yep, sounds weird, but it works. More intuitive approaches don’t.) You have to “add up” the probabilities that it is in each of the different states to get the full description. I oversimplify.

So far: symmetries are closely related to forces, and things are described by waves with various properties that you can’t simultaneously measure perfectly. Even mass: it turns out that you can’t know both the type and mass of a neutrino simultaneously.

And so…

Physicists get used to calculating with ensembles and also with trying to figure out the rules of the game from the structure of symmetries. Classical physics has long used the “least action” principle—an object follows a path that minimized the ”action”. Why not calculate the behavior of a particle by adding up every single path it could have taken, each path weighted by a handy quantity related to the action? Making it crazy complicated turned out to be very useful.

Physicists don’t like arbitrariness in a theory. They generally feel that if there is a constant in the equation, there should be an explanation for it. If the ratio of several constants were a little different, the Sun wouldn’t shine very usefully. Why is the ratio what it is? There’s got to be some reason, maybe based on the structure of the universe—some structure that has to be there.

In other words, this isn’t “the best of all possible worlds”, they expect it to be “the only possible world.”

But suppose it isn’t. Suppose there were many different “universes” in the grand ensemble UNIVERSE. (No, you couldn’t manage to get from one to another. You can’t even get to Proxima Centauri.)

Maybe there are an infinite number of universes with slightly different physical constants, or maybe the initial “inflation” of our universe was so fast that parts effectively separated from each other and became effectively disconnected universes.

Oh, I didn’t mention cosmic inflation?

A simple “Big Bang” with the universe expanding outwards, the expansion slowing down due to gravity, seems to predict certain things about the distribution of matter that don’t match observation. There should be much bigger correlations between distant parts of the universe that weren’t so distant when the universe was just born. If you posit an extremely rapid inflation of the universe for about 10^-32 seconds after the Big Bang (for unknown reasons), the observations match the predictions—different parts of the universe are appropriately uncorrelated from each other. In other words, it is crazy but it seems to work.
Hold it

A multiverse is a bridge too far. Even if using it in models gave some sort of calculational simplification, you’ve no way of interacting with these alternate universes, no way to know which, if any exist, and no way to test anything. Any trace of them has to drop out of your final answer—they’d be simply an unreal convenience.

You can use complex numbers instead of real ones sometimes, as an "unreal convenience"; it just turns things a little sideways for a while but in the end the predicted measurement is real. There’s a connection all the way.

To say that a particle can move through two different slits at once because it is also a wave is, by contrast to a multiverse, easy to test. You can point to the different locations, do the experiments, and infer the proposition. All you have to understand is that a particle isn’t quite as simple a beast as your old mental model of it.

So how come the Universe is like this?

In a multiverse, there are an enormous number of possibilities for us to be in. How come we’re in this one?

One vexed answer: The Anthropic Principle. We’re in this sub universe because we wouldn’t be here if the fundamental constants were different, so we’re not in the other ones, where maybe the W mass is different and so nuclear decay is different and stars aren’t as bright and light is different. And you don't need to worry about purpose, which you do if there's a Creator.

Put another way: Let there be US! And there was light.

If you’re going to be that arbitrary about how to get the fine-tuning needed for our universe, you might as well go whole hog. However, the mere suggestion of a Creator makes some famous physicists shudder. not all And a lot of them shudder at the multiverse too, and wonder why it and the anthropic principle get so much press.

It isn’t that hard to see why they get press. The ideas seem wild and exciting and just the thing for click-bait. There’s no need for the hard questions about how and why things work the way they do; just punt and say they’re the way they are because that’s the way they are here, and things are different next door. Just the ticket for journalism majors and the average reader.