Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The end of an era

Fermilab tore down the old CDF trailers.

I remember being grumpy about having to move from the 15'th floor of the high rise where I shared half a desk. True, there was more room in the trailers and one could be much closer to the experiment, but all the meeting rooms were in the high rise, and so was the cafeteria and the main computing center (ie where you could pick up your printouts). I was doing software instead of hardware, so it didn't matter how close I was to the scopes. After a short while it didn't matter at all since I was transferred back to Madison and no longer had a permanent desk at Fermilab anyway.

The floors gave underfoot, and one window in the Wisconsin trailer (we had 2 rooms of about 6 in the trailer) never did work right, and the heat wasn't great in the winter and a couple of the grad students were less than neat. But what the heck, it was home away from home--if I could land an open desk. A couple of the students adopted some stray kittens for a couple of months--until they grew big enough to climb over the barricades.

People would tack up some memento of a party, or a cartoon that struck their fancy, and those would fade on the bulletin board years after the student graduated or the postdoc was teaching far away. Phone numbers decades out of date and a fortune cookie strip--we never got around to cleaning things up. When I emptied out my stuff (what little there was) a few years ago I took down the pictures of the older kids holding our new baby that I'd put up. Said baby was now 15.

The trailers were expanded, and then expanded again, and then a second row of trailers was added, and in the end somebody built a permanent building (you can see it at the bottom) with cubicles and a large meeting room. The trailers saw dumb terminals (with terminal servers down the hall), and then some printers, and then a few workstations, and one day flat screen monitors (awful resolution, but you could actually fit around a desk again!). And then the experiment was over, and I changed to IceCube, and I haven't been back to the trailers since. (The last things I was doing in the trailers had to do with corralling a grad student who'd failed but couldn't contemplate leaving--and somehow had managed to squirrel away quite a lot of personal property in odd corners. Wisconsin was dropping out and everything must go--and that meant him and his stuff too.)

I'm not sure who took the pictures.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Instead of a comb-over

Perhaps a "California lawn" approach to hair loss could be popular. Henna tattoo some curls in that empty patch!

Cultural continuity

Albion’s Seed (I may be digesting this for a bit) argues successfully for overall cultural continuity in groups that settled the USA. After all, why should a culture change in fundamental ways? Minor adaptations, sure, no problem. Major changes in outlook on life—there needs to be a reason.

You’ve maybe heard someone say "I opened my mouth and my mother spoke out of it." Home attitudes and young peer attitudes are the big forges.

But I wonder how much uniformity arises from popular amusements? Everybody has a TV and almost everybody has cable, and the kids grow up acquiring at least some common residuum of shared values. I’m not arguing that the shared values are noble or useful, or have redeeming qualities; but they’re shared and should to some extent dilute the folkways they were born to. Do we see this? Can we distinguish folk-way trends between those who spent a lot of boob-tube time before they were 7 and those who didn't (within the same area, of course)?

Lest Darkness Fall on a Connecticut Yankee

Stackexchange is a collection of different question/advice groups, some extremely technical and some speculative fandom. Lazy students sometimes try to get the pros to do their homework for them; they rarely succeed. (Pros can recognize homework-caliber problems.)

While trying to discover the source of an obscure mysql error(*), I looked at the sidebar on stackexchange and saw What could an average modern human achieve in medieval times? Those kinds of stories can be fun, but...

The advice was a crazy mixed bag. Your hero will probably die of dysentery within a month if he doesn’t starve (no immediate skills, foreigner w/out a family). Best bet is probably to get to a monastery where they are required to show some hospitality, and then try to show them something about printing or some such skill.

Quite a few commenters had very odd ideas about witches and heresy and technology, and a surprising number didn’t seem to realize that the natives would be quite skillful with their own technologies. You’re not going to make a better arrow or crossbow, or even a lighter, than they would. Given time and an adequate budget you could work up some improvements, but first you have to earn those.

Even printing. Yes, with a printer you can turn out books or pamphlets cheaper per unit, but the upfront cost is high, and they wouldn’t look as pretty—and the market you’d be starting with wanted good looking books. (Why else would monks spend so much time on fancy illustration?)

And as many noted, modern technology demands modern technological infrastructure too—you’re not going to build a useful steam engine. Toys engines you can make, if you can raise the money for them. Reliable motors, no. Remember the story about the pencil, which no single person knows how to make?

Somebody suggested "healer." Not hardly. In Africa even real doctors, who know how to set fractures and other little things our putative hero doesn’t, tend to get called on only after the local village healer fails.

If you knew how to grind smoothly you could try to make magnifiers—if you knew how to make clear glass. If you had some ham you could have some ham and eggs if you had some eggs. You could do a few interesting and useful things if you could demonstrate your bona fides and persuade them to follow you.

(*) It turned out that a newly minted administrator had created a special job to kill off processes that were abusing the database, and his code mistook the nightly backup dump for a rogue user process.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer

One of the minor consolations of being sick is, once you have a little energy again, you have the time to catch up on reading.

Everybody seems to be saying of Albion's Seed: "You have to read this book." They're right.

He does a parallel analysis of 4 "folkways" in the US, explaining where they come from and how they changed from their origins (which he roughly traces--all were blends but with a dominant feature and region). These are the New England Puritan, Virginia Cavalier, Delaware Quaker, and "back country" Scots-Irish. I get the distinct impression that Fischer intensely disliked the Virginia environment--I would have probably hated it too.(*) The groups have, on balance, certain distinctive traits that still emerge in political and social conflicts in the country.

There was lots of history I wasn't aware of, and origins of ideas and words, and some corrections to things I'd been taught over the years. The American Revolution had arisen from a background of greatly increased royal meddling, for example. Histories that made it sound like a simple anti-"help pay for your defence"-tax are way too simple. From Quakers arguing over what to do about a river pirate to the backwoods pankration--lots of interesting background. I'll not hear the phrase "rough and ready" in quite the same way again.

The cultural distinctions survive into modern politics, and he tries to show how events and parties were driven by conflict and cooperation between the groups. I wonder what the cultural background of the Tea Party (our most recent populist social justice movement) has been. I know the usual suspects automatically despised it, which suggests the presence of one of the old tribal/cultural divisions Fischer wrote about.

When this was written in 1989 Fischer promised an upcoming book American Plantation to show how the Virginia culture demanded slavery; unfortunately that seems not to have materialized.

Yes, read it.

(*) I think, though my background is predominantly Scots-Irish, that on the whole I'd have preferred New England. They'd probably not have liked me much, though. The Virginia culture required too much kow-towing to rank and was rank with slavery (and malaria), the Delaware religion wasn't that congenial, they weren't that keen on higher learning, and at the time there was still slavery, and the back-country was way too violent for my liking (and with little respect for study). The Puritans were pretty restrictive, but mostly about things that don't skin my nose (unlike their descendants, who are just as far-reaching in their drive for control).

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Neolithic Italians

A couple of things about this story seem odd.
The cave—sealed off until its discovery in 1931—was uniquely able to preserve the human remains, which were mixed randomly with animal bones, broken pottery, and stone tools.

The human bones weren't the whole set, and they'd been defleshed--easily, without heavy scraping. "Some of the bones had light cut marks, suggesting that only residual muscle tissue needed to be removed by the time of defleshing. That meant the remains were likely deposited as much as a year after death." Or maybe they'd been boiled?

But what was the significance of the cave? Robb and his team further hypothesize that due to the similarity in appearance, bones might have been regarded as equivalent to stalactites. Indeed, noticing the connection between water dripping from the cave ceiling and stalactite formation, the Neolithic Italians had placed vessels beneath the falling liquid to collect it; as the substance that created "stone bones," it likely had a spiritual power. It’s thus possible, the team says, that the cleaning process and deposition in the cave was a way for the living to return the bones to their stonelike origins, both in appearance and location, completing a cycle of incarnation.

But if the site was so powerful, why toss the broken pottery and leftover scraps there too? It's possible that broken pottery was special (maybe single-use stuff for a ritual), and maybe the (not described) animal bones were part of some sacrifice, but it still sounds as much like a midden as a burial. Though maybe Haggard knew of something I haven't heard of.


When I was teaching Ecclesiastes some years ago I considered playing a little of Peggy Lee's Is That All There Is? as an illustration. Decided against it as taking too much time; referred to it instead. Her attitude isn't exactly the same as the Preacher's: she sees everything as futility but is both completely materialist and completely misses the joys of work and the possibility of gladness. She's desperate for something transcendental. But our culture is extremely reductionist; maybe that was part of the problem for her. It is hard to enjoy beauty and think about meaning when people keep nagging you that this is all merely chemical reactions. It short-circuits any search for transcendentals.

It feels like Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now is a reply to Peggy. Joni sings that what she thought she knew then wasn't the whole story, and each example ends in a kind of calm despair of knowledge--sort of like the Preacher's.

I've always been kind of fond of Ecclesiastes. I wonder how much overlap there is between fans of Is That All There Is, Both Sides Now, and Ecclesiastes?

Who titles these things?

For First Time, Researchers Demonstrate Heat and Sound Are Magnetic. No no no no no. I expected better from IEEE.

What the researchers actually showed was that heat transmission rates could be changed with a magnetic field. That manipulates the response of the material to vibrations--not the same thing at all as showing that vibrations are magnetic.

Incidentally, the article cites an earlier finding that in graphene (effectively a 2-D material) sound propagated as phonons instead of random vibrations. Of course phonons are a form of vibration, and you could at least theoretically decompose any vibration into a large enough collection of phonons going different directions with different amplitudes and phases. That in a highly structured 2-D material like graphene the vibrations of heat can show up in a more structured way is a nice result, but not exactly earth-shattering news.

Their result is actually kind of fun. At nearly absolute zero, and in extremely small and uniform materials, the size and shape of the materials matters more. And then turning a 7 tesla field on dropped heat flow rate by about 12%.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why is Klondike solitaire so popular?

When I was in middle school I was trying to play Solitaire when Dad took the deck from me and showed me what the casinos did. You paid so many dollars for the deck, you got to play through just once, and they paid you a dollar for every exposed card. I looked at those numbers and figured I wanted no part of that game. I don't recall the initial cost anymore, and it doesn't matter for my life anyway.

I needed some practice with object-oriented aspects of python, so I set myself the task of writing that Klondike solitaire player I threatened. Some of what I found is about what you'd expect to see. I don't claim my algorithm is the best; one could be more strategic, especially as you learn what's in the deck. But it's an OK first approximation.

Yes, of course I wrote it so you can vary the number of ranks, number of piles, number of suits, and so on. Why bother otherwise?

I ran 10000 games with the different parameters. I kept 4 suits and 2 colors, but had 13 ranks and 7 piles (standard) and also 13 ranks with 6 piles, and 3 variants of 14 ranks (Tarot deck): 6, 7 and 8 piles. You expect that the more piles there are, the more cards are buried and the more will be left unplayed at the end of the game. And so it was.

With the usual game it looks like you win about 1 time in 20. (BTW, these are from random number generators, and are not exact.)

TypeTimes you winTime < 5 cards

That's the easy part. What's a bit harder is quantifying the "frustration factor": how close you feel you got to winning. I figure the oftener you feel like you almost won, the more likely you are to start a new game--provided you actually do win from time to time. And the game can't be too easy. I'm not sure how to quantify that either. But from the fact that the standard game uses 7 piles instead of 6, I suspect that 6 makes the game feel too easy.

Notice the spike near 0 for the standard game. Most of the time you lose by a significant amount, but you come close oftener. I list the numbers in the table above, but I show the plots below.

For what it's worth, even a game with 2 suits and 3 ranks (and 2 piles) doesn't always wind up with every card face up. And the game above goes through the deck repeatedly.

Details, details

My Better Half likes In My Life; I wasn't so fond of the song. It was one of the last set at the acapella fundraiser last week, and I decided to go look up the words. They're clear enough, so I'd never bothered before.

I should have. One slight issue with enunciation had changed the whole song for me: I heard "love you more" as "loved you more" and thought it was a goodbye song.

Eh youngster? Speak up!


"Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’"

"And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing."

"Now after this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come. ... The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.”"

Miracles got to be an expectation among the disciples: "When He came into the house, His disciples began questioning Him privately, “Why could we not drive it out?”"

"And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself."

I wonder what miracles Judas did, and who he paired with for the journey (maybe Matthew?). When you can heal the sick, what's 30 peices of silver more or less? You could get those easily enough (maybe). What would turn you from healer to betrayer?


Nice to see Nigeria's finally taking Boko Haram seriously. No doubt there's a lot of pride-swallowing involved. I don't entirely believe the disclaimer about no contacts between them and Nigeria security officials--there have to be some if only so they don't shoot each other. But EO has done some good work in the past. Until the government was pressured to fire them, they were keeping things quiet in Sierra Leone. Bad mistake.

Saturday, March 21, 2015


We went to a fundraiser at Cave of the Mounds this evening. A woman with huge chemo bills is part of a women's acapella group (greenTones). That group, and a girl's high school group, and the men's acapella group from Oberlin (obertones?) sang standing on steps out of the main cavern to an audience assembled tightly below.

They were all skillful, though I think the acoustics were better suited to the men's group.

The fact that they assembled on steps, with each song's soloist on the walk in front, meant that each of the chorus members was heard at full power instead of partly blocked by the singers in front. The soloists usually wound up overpowered--especially the high school girls. A little detail they should bear in mind for the future...

We had a good time.

The ceiling drips, of course, and I was strongly reminded of the scene from King Solomon's Mines where the heroes are shown where the dead kings of the Kukuana reside.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Nova sweeping clean

Over 13 years the blast from GK Persei shows an oddity or two. And "As the shock wave expanded and heated an increasing amount of matter, the temperature behind the wave of energy should have decreased. The observed fading and constant temperature suggests that the wave of energy has swept up a negligible amount of gas in the environment around the star over the past 13 years. This suggests that the wave must currently be expanding into a region of much lower density than before, giving clues to stellar neighborhood in which GK Persei resides."

Maybe that's not so surprising. The current model for novas is that one of a binary star pair becomes a neutron star, and slowly accumulates matter from its companion until enough collects to spark a humongous nuclear explosion. I don't know how long this process would take--that would depend on how close the companion was, among other things. If the cycle is only a few million years, we'd not see the repetition rate (yet), but the blasts would come frequently enough to sweep out a lot of local gas. I think. If the pair is "swimming upstream" in the local galactic gas fresh stuff would blow in pretty quickly. "Quickly" being a relative term...


I gather that they can figure out from the spine and the front legs (too weak) that carnufex walked on two legs. They don't have the whole skeleton. I wonder how the thing would have run. I wonder if Kelly's image of carrying the tail high might give a faster gait.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland

It was a matter of opinion whether Yusuf was on the side of the angels or the demons; but neither Jews nor Christians had any doubt that what had happened had derived ultimately from God. This was the core presumption of the age; and a history of late antiquity that neglects to pay due acknowledgement to it is a history that has failed.

And so Holland does. In order to tell his story of Islam he begins with the history of its environment; so I learned some of Persian history and culture of the era (I didn’t know all that much about Zoroastrianism, for instance). He also introduces Eastern Roman history and a description of what was happening with Jews (e.g. compiling the Talmud—most Jews hadn’t returned to Israel but had stayed in Persia), and Jewish-Christian relations. Then the role of the Arabs (hired gun clients for both Romans and Persians) becomes clearer, and why they were able to roll over their enemies so easily. (Plague took out O(1/3) of the city-dwelling Romans and Persians, but left semi-nomadic Arabs mostly alone; also the Romans and Persians had fought each other to a standstill and were pretty depleted.)

Arabs weren’t just found in the desert.

…Arab tribes eager to set their fortunes on a firmer footing. Some, like the Nabateans… had exploited their position between the trade routes of the desert and Mediterranean to create a fabulously wealthy commercial hub, centred on their pink-hued capital of Petra. Others, looking to take a short cut to power, had aimed to infiltrate the cities of other people and then seize their commanding heights: a policy of playing cuckoo in the nest that explained why the kings of Edessa had been of Arab descent.

And the Roman clients and the Persian clients had their own territories handy to the larger struggles (and sometimes fought each other even when the Romans and Persians were at peace).

Confession time: I’ve never succeeded in plowing through the Koran, and I’m informed that large chunks are not really decipherable anyway. So I was not aware that the Koran had essentially no datable references, though Holland points to one reference to current Roman events that would have happened during Muhammad’s lifetime. I also wasn’t aware that the Koran specified 3 prayers and not 5, only mentioned hell as the punishment for apostates, and said 100 lashes (and not execution) was correct punishment for adultery.

The Kharijites sound quite familiar, by the way: this pure sect of Islam might “go out with their swords into the markets while people would stand around not realizing what was happening; they would shout ‘no judgment except God!’ and plunge their blades into whomever they could reach, and go on killing until they themselves were killed.” Their heirs are still about this work, though with Western-invented tools instead of simple swords.

The Koran tells of Christians that they worship three gods, a father, son, and mother. Orthodox Christianity doesn’t resemble this at all, of course, but Nazoreans believed the Holy Spirit to be female, and apparently so did Mani and the Manicheans. These were made seriously unwelcome in the Roman and Persian empires, and the survivors tended to make their way to the fringes. Like the edges of Arabia.

Maybe even deep into Arabia (there were monks), but maybe they didn’t need to be.

Holland tries to advance two theses:

  • Mecca was not Muhammad’s center for worship; he lived and worked much further north; he dealt not with pagans (who hardly get a mention in the Koran) but with other monotheists.
  • Many of the hadith (known even by Muslims to be almost entirely bunk, created to support some political view or another) were created by former Zoroastrian scholars who were trying to modify doctrine so that they would not be second-class Moslems. The Arabs at first tended to put obstacles in their path: non-Muslims had to pay extra taxes and the Arabs naturally enough didn’t want to have to treat other tribes as their equals.

To address these points he considers internal evidence in the Koran and in descriptions of what some of his allies did (like buy land in the area now part of Israel). That would be extremely speculative for someone living in Mecca, but reasonable enough if they lived in the north not far away. Mecca gets hardly any mention in the Koran, and at least one Muslim worship center shows reorientation from one direction to another further south at Mecca. And during a civil war one of the Companions holed up in a shrine somewhere obscure (but in the northern regions) which Muslims valued but which was utterly destroyed in the siege. Shortly thereafter the victorious Abd al-Malik made a pilgrimage to Arabia and ordered “renovations” in Mecca. Some writers called him the man who had “destroyed the sacred House of God”, and another wrote “At the time of the Prophet, may God save him and give him peace, our faces were all turned in one direction—but after the death of the Prophet, we turned ourselves hither and thither.” And Holland notes that there were plenty of “ka’ba” in Arabia—lots of sacred cubes.

As to the hadith, Holland notes the region where many were “discovered”, notes that the political conditions there would favor making changes, and notes further that some of the differences (praying 5 times a day, death for apostasy, stoning for adultery) were long-standing tenets of Zoroastrians. Zoroastrian priests were supposed to brush their teeth every day too, and lo and behold a hadith was found announcing that Muhammad did too. The rulers of the Muslims started concentrating on the unifying nature of the religion, and discovered that this meant that the religious scholars necessarily assumed a much greater prominence than before—sharing power.

Proof of anything like this is quite hard to come by, especially where someone had things to hide. Surviving biographies of Muhammad are more than 200 years later than his death, and the earliest known was written in the same era as a flourishing hadith creation industry.

Certain of the details he brings up are certainly suspicious, but I’m not quite convinced that such large changes in practice could be made undetected. Perhaps they were, and the chaos of civil war and widespread illiteracy among the Arabs made it easier to carry off. If you only have word-of-mouth about what the Koran and Muhammad said, and you were told by powerful scholars that Muhammad had actually said something different, I suppose you’d go along and not talk about it too much.

Holland tells the upshot of the investigations into those ancient Koranic fragments found in a Yemeni mosque. One of the two researchers said that the verses had changed over time: as Holland puts it “words, spellings, and even the order of verses in the Qur’an were perfectly capable of being misread and miscopied, it is apparent as well that these were only ever involuntary errors. There is not a hint of deliberate fabrication”. Naturally the Yemeni leaders went wild and forbade further access.

An interesting book, though I am nowhere near expert enough to tell whether the theses are supportable. Worth reading for the background even if they aren't.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


If you get tired of memorizing digits, just remember:


Just don't try to calculate 410 in base π

Friday, March 13, 2015

Drug question

The other day a fellow I know had a life-threatening psychotic episode when what he thought was simple marijuana turned out to have been souped up with PCP, which interacted very badly with the meds he was taking. His family restrained him and got him to ER, and he recovered OK. You might build that into a case for legalization, on the grounds that it would allow quality control regulation, but I have an ugly suspicion that there'd still be a black market in the "wild" stuff.

A friend called the police about Tony Robinson because he was worried about Tony; another said he wasn't acting like himself.

I haven't heard any toxicology reports yet, but I wonder.

I gather the "bath salts" are designer drugs, though I've no good idea who designed them. I presume they were designed to create a powerful or long-lasting "high." If I were the chemist I'd be pretty nervous about using trial and error on myself with such things, so probably the alpha testers are unsuspecting addicts.

There've been some odd deaths popping up in the news, some suicides, some unexpectedly crazy behavior, and a convenient murder now and then.

I started wondering if somebody had designed drugs to induce overwhelming depression.

There will always be hidden suicidal problems in some percentage of the population, and it is possible--arguably likely--that the semi-prominent include a higher percentage. And, to complicate matters, cultural pressures aren't the same now as 30 years ago, so it isn't easy to compare statistics from different eras. I conclude that it wouldn't be easy to figure out if someone was weaponizing such drugs.

Where would you look to find out? Russia might be a good place to start. They've the resources to develop the tools, and an adequate supply of ruthlessness. I don't know if the extra level of deniability outweighs the salutary terrorizing effect for Putin, though, so maybe for domestic dissidents he'd still use thugs. But overseas would be a different matter. If Russian opponents overseas started killing themselves at a surprising rate that might be a clue. Or high suicide rates in Chechnya.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


I hope this story is true, though I'd think the effort involved in making the smelter would take quite a chunk out of his writing time. It is the sort of thing he'd think of--making his own sword with meteorite iron. (And then having to hide it from the authorities...)

From the BBC (you have to click the picture to see it; it is too small for the page):

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hillary and the private server

So Hillary Clinton had her own private email server set up. As plenty of others already noticed, to run a hardened server takes expertise and maintenance, and this little box would have been easy pickings for the Russians.

However, the State Department networks are such an obvious target that I would be shocked to find that their IT groups were completely free of Chinese/Russian/Israeli agents. Would you be willing to bet that the Italians didn't have somebody snooping on SoS messages too?

Security by obscurity: set up your own server that they don't know about. (Although after the first few messages somebody will figure it out...) It is just lagniappe that the records are under your control and any dicey quid pro quo agreements can be kept out of the public eye.

I wonder how many others do the same.


There were two very similar stories in the newspaper Saturday morning.

Nobody was hurt

A man was killed. (not, despite what some of the protesters said, a "boy")

A trifle of perspective: Madison police aren't racists, or the stats would look quite different. But: "While whites seem to await the emerging facts, the first thing African-Americans see is an unarmed black youth killed by a white cop." That's the editor's summary of a more nuanced column--but did the editor have any notion what he was implying?

I can't say the usual suspects were out: you've probably never heard of the Young Gifted And Black group in Madison before. I last heard from them a few weeks ago bitterly complaining about the police presence in black neighborhoods (which, if I recall my oh-so-ancient history correctly, was in response to complaints about crime by the residents a few years back). And at least a third of the people marching down the street past my window were high-school kids, backpacks and all. We'll see if that changes.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Warm enough for yard work.

When young and naive we planted a winter-hardy grootendorst rose. We were unaware of its affectionate nature, and set it about a meter from the sidewalk.

Since today the weather is sunny and pleasant (about 45F) I decided to dispose of it before it succeeded in snaring unsuspecting school children.

One youngster came up to ask if he could help, and was disappointed when I explained that gloves were not much use with this beast--I had to grasp the branches with the clippers. You can't find a square cm without a couple/ten inward-pointing thorns, and some are nearly 2cm long.

The roses were pretty, the scent was nice, it bloomed half the year long, and robins could nest inside safely. But I shudder to think what would have happened if a cyclist took a spill there.

It was taller than I, and quite a bit wider, with the longest branches looming towards the sidewalk. When you clip a stem it typically clings in place, entangled to the rest, and must be dragged out to its destiny in the trash barrel. To keep from having lancets climb out of the barrel, I clip and reclip until the chunks are less than a foot long, then lop the next stem. That took a bit over an hour; next comes the hard part. Last time I dug up a rose root I nearly broke the shovel.

Friday, March 06, 2015

1177 B.C.

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History) by Eric H Cline advances the thesis that the roughly simultaneous collapse of the Assyrian, Hittite, Mycenaean, Minoan, and even the Egyptian empires wasn’t due to invasions by the Sea Peoples after all, but to systemic failure of their complex trade networks.

Good points: I learned a lot about what people have learned about these groups; my knowledge of the era was over 50 years out of date. I had no idea so many letters had been found, or how far afield various goods were traded. I had no notion that everything went to pot within less than a few decades. It does sound like the Sea Peoples can’t be blamed for the whole mess.

Bad points: He doesn’t actually demonstrate his thesis. In fact, he admits there’s some evidence against it: evidence of active interaction all the way up to the end in some places. (One letter wrote for help against invaders approaching the harbor but was never sent because the city was sacked and burnt first.)

Within a few decades civil war, Sea Peoples, massive earthquakes and a major drought hit the region. Empires can survive any one of these, but the whole lot? Cline admits that it could be cumulative damage that did everybody in.

The problem is that very little is known in sufficient detail to be certain of what happened where.

The book is advertised as having relevance to our interconnected world today and what might happen to it. That our current system is rather brittle I take to be fairly obvious. One can guess that the ancient systems were too.

I found it interesting, though I didn’t find the style quite as “gripping” as the Amazon review says, and “Bringing to life the vibrant multicultural world of these great civilizations, he draws a sweeping panorama of the empires and globalized peoples of the Late Bronze Age and shows that it was their very interdependence that hastened their dramatic collapse and ushered in a dark age that lasted centuries.” overstates the drama quite a bit. Worth reading, though.

I'll look about for other books in the series.

Unexpected Enlightenment, and The Raven, the Elf

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin and The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel by L. Jagi Lamplighter are the first two books of a series. The rest haven’t been published yet. They’re aimed at youth--the Harry Potter market, if you like. Instead of a boy you have a girl, instead of a well-defined enemy with many allies you have unknown enemies with possibly very extensive backing, and there are hints (so far) at mysteries behind mysteries. The adults she expects to be allies prove singularly uninterested and useless, even friends can be sometimes geas-ed--can she have been wrong in trusting her father? Chaos erupts in the wizarding school.

So far so good. The characters have nice balances of strengths and weaknesses.

I found Rachel’s confusion about her love life to be off-putting, but the rest was interesting enough to carry the story. If you liked the Harry Potter books (I did, but am unlikely to ever re-read them) and can put up with occasional “do I love him or not” passages, you'll probably like this too.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

What odors do we have?

I keep reading stories of dogs being trained to try to sniff out different cancers. That’s pretty dramatic. (Though the fact that I keep hearing stories about how they're trying suggests that it isn't reliable yet.)

What gases do humans emit? Yes, I know about H2O and CO2 and methane, I want to know what else is in the mix.

Suppose you made a bare room with nothing but a metal chair in it; sealed so that you control what gas goes in and you control where the gas goes afterwards. Douse the place with 30% peroxide, bake the whole thing for a few hours--make sure anything that could outgas already has. Use an airlock to get in and out.

The gas that goes in is as pure a mix of O2 and N2 as you can manage. Chill the gas down until nearly liquefied to fractionate all impurities, and then warm up what’s left so you don’t freeze the volunteers; adding a little pure H2O so they don’t dry out. Gas flowing out of the room is also chilled to nearly the boiling point, except that you try to capture all the stuff that condenses out.

Put a man in there for a few hours. What will turn up in the pool of condensate? Whatever it is (aside from the obvious), there won’t be much and so studying it will be tricky.

Cleaning up after a volunteer wouldn’t be trivial--we shed skin, which will presumably continue to outgas long after we’ve left the area. (Who knows what the mites will do.) That’s why I suggested making the chamber a bake-able facility.

I could tell pretty easily on Monday when Richard had made himself a garlic pizza on Saturday. If I use a volume of air 2mx2mx2m, and the garlic smell chemical was 1ppm, then there’s about .03% of a mole of the stuff. If the molecular weight is O(100g/mole), and the density of the liquid is about 1g/cm^3, then I expect about .03cc of the goo to condense on the chilling system. That’s going to be hard to scrape together, but I don’t think it would be impossible.

Things that show up at the ppb level or smaller (still sometimes detectable by dogs, I’m told) are obviously going to require heroic collection measures. (I'm thinking of a cyclonic gas flow inside a super-chilled pipe--have to worry about lubricant contamination too.)

Do people outgas differently when sick or when well? Does a woman have a different chemical mix at different points in her period? Is a baby’s scent the same as an adults?

What comes out through the breath, what through the skin? And how much of it depends on the bacteria on the skin?

Blogging and news sites

Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new. Acts 17:21

Monday, March 02, 2015

Scott Walker and evolution

Some British reporters asked our governor whether he believed in evolution, and he punted the question. Since this isn’t, as far as I know, relevant to British politics, it must be part of their suite of tribal-identification questions for Americans.

The problem is that the term “evolution” is overloaded--it includes several meanings, only one of which is ever talked about. Everybody knows the young earth vs old earth faceoff, but the other divide is the important one. (A claim which will no doubt catch me the usual flak from the “don’t undermine the Bible’s accuracy” crew)

That divide is between those who believe things like love, justice, beauty, and so on are built into the nature of the universe, and those who think they are “emergent” qualities. The first camp holds a motley crew: Christians, Muslims, Confucians, Hindus (think of karma), and so on.

The second camp holds figures like Kant (Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will) and Bentham (greatest aggregate happiness principle) who appeared well before Darwin (“I have so lately endeavoured to shew that the social instincts,--the prime principle of man’s moral constitution-with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule”) and the Just-So stories of evolutionary sociology. The problem is the arbitrariness in these formulations—justice could have been something different, love is a chemical illusion, and so on. It isn’t easy to live that way consistently, and it is odd to read someone claiming that his argument is a transcendent truth and an emergent effect at the same time. (Not in so many words, of course)

Trying to explain with as few principles as possible has been extremely fruitful in natural philosophy, with things that can be measured. Thales tried to make water the origin of everything--a bit too simple, but you can see that the drive to have a single equation for it all is old. But there’s that caveat: “things that can be measured.” When a field of ripe wheat and a battered branch of driftwood are both beautiful, we’re not talking about something measured in terms of utility.

Granted, you can go too far the other direction and inshallah everything. Some say Muslim science went to dust after the victory of the philosophers who held that nothing, not even reason, constrained God. Probably an oversimplification, but probably contributing.

The reporter’s question was really “Are you a member of a tribe we despise?” What they said confused the two questions “Do you believe species changed over time?” and “Do you believe in a moral universe?” I wonder how those reporters would have answered. Probably punted the question—they’re busy people, with deadlines to meet, and no time to talk with Socrates.