Sunday, May 31, 2015


Monticello felt weird. You would have walked about in halls and garden walks and promenades with slaves literally hidden beneath your feet. Even the slave quarters on the hill would have been hard to spot from the mansion. Jefferson seems to have fallen in love with French fashions, and the only way to blend them into the American scene was to hide away the dark details.

If the Smithsonian article is accurate he seems to have reconciled himself to slavery sometime around 1790. Maybe it was economic considerations: you can't have the French style and enlightenment facilities without money, after all. Maybe it was personal interactions that soured him. UPDATE I forgot about Haiti and 1791. That might have reconciled a man to trying to hold on to the wolf's ears a little longer.

Given what I'd heard of him before, and noticing the prominence of Voltaire in his pantheon, I predicted that he would have engaged in some enlightened patriarchy like Voltaire's to ameliorate the lot of his slaves. Unless introducing a merit-based hierarchy with better trained slaves at the top (literally at the top of the hill too) counts, apparently he didn't.

In some ways Jefferson was an early version of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a self taught and careful architect. But... The dome he designed was uninhabitably hot. The rainwater catchers on the promenades, thanks to ill-chosen cement, never provided usable water. He was pretty much always building with borrowed money. At least he didn't try to build a house with a living tree in the middle of it.

Some evil fruit and some excellent. A little more wisdom would have changed a lot, but that's true of us all.

Revisiting history

The weather in Urbana was blustery and wet as we waited in the restaurant, and there were 4 more hours to go. We decided to skip visiting our old stomping grounds and just drive straight home.

And, after all, the not-very-old apartment of 30 years ago has been filled with probably at least a dozen other families in the meantime; the Baskin Robbins nearby is gone; the church moved to a place with more space (and there are houses there now). The apartment won't look at all the same: if not maintained it will be a dump, and if maintained most stuff will have been replaced/remodeled. I still have some shelving I built to fit under the window there.

A place may be home for a while, but you leave and then it's somebody else's turn. You can start the story over and read the beginning, or look at the pictures in a scrapbook and see where you used to live, but that's somebody else's place now.

That might seem an ironic conclusion for a trip that included history in Jamestown and Williamsburg and Monticello and Gettysburg, but Jamestown was somewhere else, Williamsburg was radically modified, and Gettysburg was then and now filled with private homes and farms. When the first colonists died, their successors revised things to suit or decided the whole business was ill-conceived and re-started elsewhere. We wanted to see one "snapshot" of a place, but that's just one snapshot of many.

I don't mind at all that the reconstruction of Jamestown isn't on the site. It makes archaeology easier, of course, but since it isn't real (the urgencies and bustle are irretrievable), being exactly there doesn't matter so much.

In fact, sometimes it is better. I'd rather have a re-enactment at Oberammergau than at Golgotha.

The place of an event can be important, but usually not enough to seize the meaning from all other uses of the place.

Sing for your supper

Focus group testing (my wife and two of my daughters) suggests that this might be better as a weekend special theme and not a permanent theme.

Inspired by hearing of colonial-era taverns (an era when everyone was supposed to be able to sing for himself if he wanted music), I wondered how features of that could be brought over into modern dining.

Consider a restaurant with basic pub food. Its target is singles less than about 30-35; definitely not families.

Patrons pay for food and drink before getting it--to make it convenient prices should round to even dollars after taxes.

The central idea is to sing together with "strangers".

  • The patrons fill up tables for 6--a seventh seat to be squeezed in if a couple arrives. No new tables are used until the earlier ones are full. You would likely be seated with at least one stranger. At staff discretion, large parties might be split up between tables to mix them up.
  • There is no canned music of any kind, and both players and recordings are forbidden. Patrons are expected to sing. If you sing for 2 minutes for your table, a dollar is knocked off the price of your entree--$2 if all 6 join in. Repeated songs don't count.
  • Staff can veto a song (no Horst Wessel or other vile stuff please--looking for good fun).
  • Patrons can play piano as long as at least 3 people sing along, or if the staff agree.
  • Table singing competitions are encouraged, and prizes awarded. Outstanding performance is decided by acclaim or by staff pick. Prizes could be a bowl of house specialty snack, bubble mix and wands--whatever the market might like.

There are a few details that would need to be worked out. Enforcing rules about songs might get hard, but without something in place the restaurant might get a name as a place where, for example, women aren't comfortable.

The menu should be short or it would be too taxing for the staff to sing it out...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


After years of pointing too late or turning my head too late too look at plumages that don't match the book with unfamiliar and irreproducible calls, I am starting to suspect there is a Heisenberg Uncertainty about birds. If you can see them nobody else can, and if you know where they are you don't know exactly what they are.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On the road

Coffee-spew of the morning: Courier-Journal headline: "KFC revives Col Sanders"

Charleston's capitol rotunda is beautiful, and the cultural center fun. I notice that there are very few lobbyist restaurants near the capitol.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Light posting

Packing is almost done. Thanks for the advice on directions!

Friday, May 15, 2015

In the details...

First sentence of the news story:
The entire delegation, with one exception, of at least 18 Liberian artists that were due to perform at this year’s Liberian Musical Awards next month in the United States of America (USA), has been denied visas by the Consular Section at the US Embassy near Monrovia, an LMA official has said.

Sounds pretty dramatic. But the devil's in the details: last year 12 artists came to the US and 10 of them jumped their visas. Most of the candidates this year didn't have enough money to sustain themselves during the duration of the trip.

cosmic rays

This is a nice intro. It gives a clear explanation of some of the outstanding puzzles.

You might wonder why there's a requirement of 5σ (standard deviations away from the expected value) for a discovery--you don't require that sort of extreme deviation in ordinary life, right? If you flip a coin 10 times and it comes up heads every time, you wonder if the coin is doctored; that's a 1 in a thousand chance, but less than 5σ. But if you're flipping a thousand coins at once and you want to know if one is doctored, you have to flip for a long time. After all, with a thousand choices, you expect at least one to show up all heads.

It's the same way with looking at the sky. You don't know where to look for a signal, so it has to be a pretty dramatic one to rise above random fluctuations. (My advisor used to say "Prior knowledge is worth 3σ.")

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Perhaps you haven't seen the story about measles' effect on the immune system. If their interpretation is correct, measles not only knocks down the immune system, but partly erases "prior knowledge" of previously beaten infections, so that you are more readily re-infected with things you should be at least partly immune to.

I wonder what it does to adults. I wonder how much the immune system destroys and how much is simply suppresses (i.e. what sorts of pathogens are hiding out in odd corners inside us).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I had only minor musical training (my own fault--I wasn't keen on piano practice, and so I never quite got what was important about key signatures), and my memory for names of songs (names of nearly anything, actually) is exceptionally mediocre.

So when I hear something like this, I know I've heard things very much like different patterns in the piece before, but I can't place them. I think part of the problem is that I tend to just absorb music, and don't listen carefully for what each instrument is doing and listen for the composer et al's names afterwards.

I'll bet that's not the only thing I only give half an ear to in my life (so to speak). My Better Half sometimes describes things that I missed in a scene; though sometimes I see things she doesn't. When we look at the back of the house we each ignore some things and focus on others. Ideally that means we rely on each other's strengths, in practice it often means we miss beauties in front of us. Or at least I do.

What brought this on was listening to the Empire Brass tonight describe "The Art of the Fugue" and then trying to hear the various parts. I had trouble--not enough practice. Or maybe my ear never was good at distinguishing. Maybe I can blame genetics?

While we waited in the Overture Center, across State Street people were lined up to see Marilyn Manson at the Orpheum. Except that the line would have cut across a restaurant's access to its outdoor tables, so the pillars and rope were actually halfway down the block at the corner, with a long gap to reach the theater. Young Manson fans were politely lined up behind it. (There were demonstrators marching around the Capitol at the same time.)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Tax collectors and sinners

"Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

We know Jesus' reply. But the Pharisee's question seems quite reasonable. They didn't have the whole story, of course, but it isn't crazy to question the company you keep. I can think of three ways they might be viewing this.

  1. Hanging out with unrepentant sinners drains away the power of shaming to bring home to them the gravity of their offenses. If their consciences are already seared by lives of sin, what other way do you have to get through to them except social sanction? We can easily see what happens when you lose those social sanctions.
  2. Hanging out with unrepentant sinners sends a confused message to third parties, especially children. Is their sin really sin or not--do you approve of it? If it's OK for him to hang out with bad companions, why can't I?
  3. Hanging out with unrepentant or only-just-starting-to-repent sinners immerses you in their attitudes. That will effect you. You expose yourself to temptation, and you'd better not be too proud to admit you can be tempted. Bad companions ruin good morals.

OK, Jesus is the healer, you won't successfully tempt Him to sin, and the Pharisees were making assumptions about the whether all the other guests were repentant or not (probably not without some warrant). In any event, Jesus is a special case.

Paul's pastoral rules suggest that the problem with bad companions remains for Christians. How do we reconcile the differences between the Pharisees' rules and Jesus'?

Two things strike me; one more obvious. In the stories of the sheep and the coin, the lost was something that belonged. The parable of the prodigal is about a member of the family. These tax collectors and sinners aren't supposed to be "other", they're supposed to be part of us.

The other is that Jesus' life was evidently such that no claim of sin would stick. Our lives should be too, so that we could sit down with the greedy rich and there be no suspicion that we're looking to benefit or think it a good alternative life style. I have a hint or two about how to do this, but it looks uncomfortable. Mea culpa.

Saturday, May 09, 2015


There’s something solemn in an estate sale or in wandering through the home someone left behind. Everything I look at represented time and choices in someone’s life. The choice and the investment of hours had some eternal consequences. This worn saw or travel souvenir is the relic of something that judgment day will call profound.

The promise in Isaiah 65:22 was that "My chosen ones will wear out the work of their hands." Here that didn’t happen—the woman is gone but her things remain; it is backwards. We only imagine the fears and thrills in the blood that she knew; all we have left are like ghosts of her presence.

I wonder how much of that attitude comes from a sense that the person is in some way still around? If you think the person’s spirit remains behind, it is like a haunting—and people around the world hold haunted places in awe. If you think the person’s spirit is gone but that their existence meant something that you may one day discover, these are important relics. If you think the person’s spirit is gone and you’ll never know anything more, then what remains behind is free picking.

Things are a little different if these are your ancestors. That sewing machine of your grandmother’s sewed your Halloween vampire costume; these bits and pieces are part of your history.

But if they’re not. . .

The Chinese studied the culture of their ancestors, but it isn’t obvious that they invested time in recovering the history of other people. That seems to be a Western invention. I gather that Daesh was, at least in part, trying to drive up the cost of antiquities by its sledge-hammering and bulldozing, but the Taliban was quite serious about Bamiyan. I don’t know if they’d have cared as much if the West hadn’t cared so much. We wanted to, in a sense, resurrect their ancestors, and the Taliban (and to some extent Daesh) wanted to obliterate even the memory of them, to try to destroy the dead even further.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Just a new name

Most mathematicians are platonists; they typically believe they were discovering mathematics rather than creating it. Math exists whether the mathematician finds it or not. That's been my experience, anyway, and I'm told that an overwhelming fraction of mathematicians say the same.

If I mention Plato's Forms to people they generally react along the lines of "They used to believe weird stuff back then."

But ever since Emmy Noether at least, studying symmetries and invariants has been one of the keys to theoretical physics. I recently read a take-down of the purported EM drive that relied almost entirely on the equations and the symmetries.

The equations are seen as the important thing, the fundamental thing. The individual instances of atoms aren't as important as the Form behind them. Abstractions matter more to us.

That's not obviously either good or bad. Certainly it's bad if it's wrong and the Form is central to your life (an idol).

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Go-to Representatives

We're still waiting for decisions about charges in our local "policeman kills black youth" incident. We were told there'd be two days warning.

I know a few of the local black leaders by name (used to work with one lady who died a few years ago) but I noticed that a new group kept showing up in the news stories more frequently than they did: Young Gifted and Black. They were reported as saying some rather stupid things (the prisons should release 350 black prisoners), and I wondered if they were being picked for quotes just because they were noisier and more dramatic than preachers. Then I saw a headline in The Daily Cardinal saying that violence against blacks was a queer issue. I didn't read the story (busy at the time), but thought that somebody was being pretty tasteless in trying to garner support for their pet cause at the expense of Tony Robinson's legacy.

A couple of days later I picked up The Isthmus and discovered that this wasn't an aberration: the leadership of YGaB seems to be almost as heavily into homosexual politics as into black politics.

That left me wondering how they got to be picked as spokesmen so frequently. Most of the black communities I've heard of don't invest a lot of enthusiasm in homosexual issues. The local media do, though. Do I have to wonder who decides who represents who?


Everybody has heard about the jihadi attack on the Muhammad cartoon symposium in Texas, which unfortunately resulted in an injury to a security guard.

One reaction is: Why deliberately stir up anger with what some people consider to be blasphemy? There's merit in that, and I gather the Mayor was pretty annoyed at having trouble show up on his watch. I don't generally go out of my way to provoke people. It doesn't change any minds, and generally doesn't do anything else useful either.

Another way of looking at the conference is that it was intended to be provoking, but not principally provoking Muhammadans. I haven't heard that they are particularly plentiful in that neck of the woods. The target of provocation could easily have been the powers-that-be in the USA which are widely viewed (perhaps not by coasties) as compromising American values in deference to alien sensitivities. The obvious rejoinder is that our rulers don't have the luxury of getting angry over small things; they have to keep our allies happy in order to preserve our options and interests in the world. This is a logical claim and would be believable if there were a shred of evidence to support it.

Yet another way of looking at it is that the provocation was successful in removing two enemies and helping identify others.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

How does this disturb the powerful?

The Guardian wants some science to be political:
But there is a problem, revealed most clearly in the entries for the Association of British Science Writers’ (ABSW) annual awards.

Too few of them, in every category from TV programmes to news stories, tell a tale that someone in a position of power would prefer not to see published. Plenty of good science journalism is entered, but too little of it involves controversy. And while we have a “best investigative journalism” category, the entries for it have not been as strong or as many as we would wish.

This must mean that important stories are being missed, whether they relate to the content of scientific research, the behaviour of individual scientists, or the big decisions about policy and funding that set the direction of the scientific enterprise. So we have decided to do something about it.

I am trying to figure out who is supposed to be worried about whether we can identify sources for cosmogenic neutrinos. I can imagine that some drug firms might be worried if someone found that dilute infusions of Camellia sinensis were just as good as fluoxetine for treating depression. I don't have to imagine what would happen if the president of Harvard were to suggest avenues for research into why women weren't as common as men in the top tenured research positions--the powerful did not want to see that addressed.

But grab a research journal and try to imagine who, besides their competitors, would be upset about the articles published there.

We know there are systemic problems with drug research (negative results tend not to be published). That's not a conspiracy so much as a structural bias. There are fads in research direction, and that has a way of skewing things for a while, but generally the diminishing returns force people to look elsewhere. Eventually.

Friday, May 01, 2015


I'd noticed a headline a day or two ago about "gravity changing with time" but I was a bit too busy to have a look, so I won't afflict you with the popularization. This is the paper they were talking about.

The idea is that since the measurements of the gravitational constant G haven't all been the same, perhaps one can find that G is a function of time. The plot that tells it all is below:

The first reaction should be "Ack!" As somebody pointed out today, if you take just about any set of points you can fit them with a sinusoid if you make the frequency high enough. And, of course, the points represent measurements taken over a non-trivial length of time that may not be closely related to the publication date.

But Lorenzo Iorio decided to take the question seriously. He predicted the orbit of Saturn (no, I don't know why Saturn, maybe he had the data handy) and compared what you expect if G was constant with what you should get if G varied the way the first paper intimated. With G constant he can extrapolate from older observations and predict the position of Saturn to 0.1km. If G varied as mentioned above, the displacement would be O(100,000km). Good for him. Raspberries for JD Anderson et al.

FWIW, it isn't insane to think that G might be changing, but I'd expect an exponential or an inverse power of time, not a wiggle. "Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself."