Friday, July 31, 2015

Like Tolkien's elves?

Set aside for the moment the flawed assumption underlying this study: namely that one would want to eat less chocolate. They claim that "habituation" caused by imagining eating chocolates can reduce the actual hunger for them. It sounds as though replaying memories is like, maybe comparable to, experiencing something. Maybe there's an increment of pleasure we want, and the taste of the 9'th bite is linked to the memory of the first--and if so why not to the memory of last week's?

"Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves."

Slow down

The radio show on the drive to work this morning encouraged observing sabbaths and taking time to slow down now and then. We all know that's good advice, and we don't take it any more than we take Kipling's suggestion "If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds full of distance run." Electronic media are like an itch we have to keep scratching, and we're never quite satiated or balanced.

Going slow for balance is kind of a big deal during the icy season of the frozen northlands, but somehow we don't apply the hint to the rest of our lives.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


I picked up a copy of the “Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.” It had been a long time since I read anything by him. A couple of excellent stories, a number of pleasantly weird imaginings, a number of “that was a waste of my time,” and rounding the collection off, some stuff too chaotic to bother with (“The Atrocity Exhibition”).

If you’re not familiar with his work, he had a profound allergy to “happy endings” and a love of situations involving relics of war, disease, overpopulation, and advertising/control. And of madness, or at least a layman’s idea of madness, as either a result or cause of the mess.

In The Wind from Nowhere a wind springs up and grows until it destroys every human structure. IIRC in Passport to Eternity a man’s wife buys them tickets on a spacecraft that will travel forever with no destination. (Neither is in this collection.)

Very creative, but good only in small doses, and then only some of his work. An example of one clever idea (not really feasible, unfortunately) is to use gliders spraying silver iodide dust to create localized rain and as a result sculpt clouds. Nice idea, but the short story wasn't engaging.

I looked at the dates of the chaotic works, and remember how drab or depressing the movies were then (remember Silent Running?). I seem to recall having been infected by the mood of the era too: you felt superior if you could show how everything shiny was really dooming us. Plus: Overpopulation was going to kill us all. Pollution was going to kill us all. Nuclear winter was going to kill us all. I was into understanding things, not chaotic non-stories, so that didn't effect me much. I wasn't big into solutions; which is just as well. That path gets ugly in a hurry--you know so much better than hoi polloi that you must have the right to direct them. But I did like being more knowing, and a gotterdammerung makes a nice bang.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

So now I'm 10

(in the Babylonian number system, of course. Try doing your times tables in that!)

Milestones are a bit arbitrary, of course, but they're handy sometimes. New Year's resolutions, anyone? I need to prioritize and prune a bit: There are things I won't live long enough to do.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Crime and benefits

Are Jefferson and Jackson unpersons now? I link an approving article, but I smell rank self-righteousness. If you measure worth by how much someone contributes to human well-being or good character, those who voted to disapprove of the two probably aren’t worthy to clean Jefferson’s latrines. “Our catches will be ever more numerous; but they will consist increasingly of trash — trash which we should once have thrown to Cerberus and the hellhounds as unfit for diabolical consumption.” Jefferson developed some serious problems in his attitude towards slavery, but he also did vast good in his work to institutionalize the ideals that (among other things) opposed it. God is entitled to demand absolute perfection, but it reeks when we demand it of others.

Even the well-respected hold close the secrets of their sinful hearts. (Some of us seem to succeed in hiding from even ourselves, crafting a twisted imitation of honesty.) Sometimes those secrets are merely shameful, and sometimes illegal, but all our heroes have feet of (at best) clay. If the offenses are fashionable we overlook them, and if unfashionable we tut-tut or else shift the hero to the “evil man” category.

You’re not supposed to notice things, but compare Roman Polanski with Bill Cosby. Same offenses, same Hollywood tribe, wildly different reactions by said Hollywood tribe.

Things aren’t always wonderfully obvious. François Villon is perhaps a better test case than the living entertainers above, since we have a little distance and no emotional involvement. He was a great and transformative poet, and also a robber and a member of a criminal gang. How much of the latter are you willing to forgive for the former? Up the scale a bit, you can probably think of several writers or painters who lived by mooching or who were abusive to their families. How much do you forgive, especially if you know one of the injured parties? (It is easy to forgive injuries to people you don’t know—and also easy to refuse to forgive, exactly as you please…) In an era when many considered drunkenness (especially of someone in authority) to be offensive, Lincoln replied to a claim that Grant was indulging: “Find out what brand he drinks and send some to the rest of my generals.” We snicker a bit at that one, because we don’t take drunkenness quite as seriously, unless the miscreant was driving. Fashion strikes again.

If the villain is on our side, we generally minimize his crimes. That complicates evaluation even more—are you too eager to forgive?

We’re eager to depose heroes—or anybody else--for heresy. Heresy we think worse than ordinary crime because it attacks the standard of morality; actions don’t matter as much as respect for right belief. (What God thinks of that approach remains unclear, but there’s some suggestion that He cares about actions.)

I think that to say that benefit A justifies offense B is a bit presumptuous. But we can try to recognize and be grateful for benefits: let the good that men do live after them, as much as we can. Even if we have to punish them for some heinous crime. In Ninety Three by Victor Hugo, a sailor was awarded a medal for valor for saving the ship by stopping a loose cannon whose uncontrolled sliding was smashing the ship’s frame, and then was executed for being the one who let it get loose in the first place.

Keep the names. Certainly Jefferson's, at least. (And quit trying to make out that Lee was a dishonorable man.)

Kitchen paint?

I was talking with a professor from India about cooking, and he told me that in cold climates (e.g. Wisconsin) where one couldn't always cook outdoors they found it advisable to cook in a garage or other outbuilding, because the oils and spices that smell so good at first tend to adhere to the walls and become rancid over time. I know that some apartment hallways tend to smell pretty rank, and the apartments can be even worse inside.

San Francisco is experimenting with pee-proof paints that are hydrophobic enough to bounce urine (and other water-based fluids) back from the surface. I wonder what sort of surface you would need to keep oily droplets from sticking. Tile is easy enough to clean (but not the grout!) but oil still sticks. We don't tile ceilings (and they're hard to reach to clean), and cabinets and handles get begrimed and so probably a source of odor as well. We try to keep things clean enough in our house to forestall that, so I can't be sure about the source of the odor, but the surfaces seem the most likely candidate.

If the surface was oil repellant, it would be easier to keep clean--and maybe not wind up as rancid. If oil droplets wouldn't stick to the ceiling they'd drift down. It's easier to clean the counter and the floor than the cabinets and the ceiling...

Of course the devil is in the details. Would water droplets adhere better or worse to the new surface? How do you put on a second coat of paint later?

UPDATE: Oh, and is it food safe?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bomb bag

FlyBag is basically a kind of kevlar bag holding part of the luggage in an airplane hold, designed to contain the worst effects of an explosion. Nice idea. You can always defeat it by adding more bang, and I suspect the pressure differential on the compartment walls when at cruising altitude might make them more vulnerable, but it's a nice bit of engineering. Any volunteers to test it in flight?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Did you think mathematicians were boring?

Cassels asked him, “What have you done about a job?”

“Er, nothing,” replied Conway.

“There’s a position opening here, why don’t you apply?”

“How do I go about it?”

“You write me a letter.”

“What should I say?”

Cassels took pity. He offered to write the letter for Conway. He sat down at the side of the road on a stone wall in front of King’s College, rummaged through his briefcase, found a pen, pulled out a piece of paper, and began, “Dear Professor Cassels, I wish to apply for …”

and later

For one student, Edward Welbourne, now a software engineer in Oslo, the most memorable was Conway’s linear algebra course – specifically, a session wherein Conway proved that for two symmetric quadratic forms, both can be simultaneously diagonalised (no small feat). “Doing each takes a moderately tricky piece of computation,” said Welbourne. “To do two at the same time is thus doubly tricky, like balancing a broom by its handle on one’s chin while juggling.” This is exactly what Conway did, while concluding the proof.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Proverbs image

The group going over Proverbs 7 came up with an image to go with "Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart." Imagine you're alone in Egypt and you only know a couple of words. That small phrase book in your pocket will be at your fingertips constantly.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Harmonizing languages

One of the songs in church this morning had a phrase about peoples and languages in harmony. Thinking of Gilbert and Sullivan's trios with different songs harmonizing, I wondered how difficult it would be to write a work (e.g. a quintet) of different languages singing at the same time. Somebody has probably done something like this before with two languages, though I don't have the breadth of experience to guess who. I'm curious how this could be made beautiful(*) with more than two or three. Anybody know?

(*) I don't find Aaron Copeland's blendings all that beautiful. Maybe that's my loss.

Iran deal

I worry about the Iran deal, but not as though it were a bad idea in itself.

What friends do we have in the area? Among the people, just the Israelis and the Kurds. The Saudi royal family is more or less friendly, but the population is hostile--when the house of Saud goes away you'll see the difference.

Among the Sunnis elite you can find a number of allies of convenience, and sometimes even of temperament, but not so much on the ground. Insofar as people care about us, they don't care for us. I described why, with suggestions, some years ago.

My takeaway is that the MidEast is full of divisions, some of which are religious and some tribal. The largest attacks against us have come from the largest religious group: the Sunnis.

It makes sense to keep in touch with all the major parties, so that you can play one against the others when possible. Iran was going to get nukes unless somebody used force--the Saudis already bought theirs via Pakistan.

It doesn't make a lot of sense to trumpet this sort of bargaining, though. You always want the biggest pressures to be applied quietly, because in a couple of years you may be trying to wheedle favors and you don't want too much public shame to get in the way.

And this kind of tribe vs tribe diplomacy isn't something the US is used to. We tend to like nice black and white conflicts and don't have a lot of patience for the Great Game. I think our leaders and administrators often suffer from the same tendency.

The real problem is that Obama is provably incompetent in international affairs; and arguably almost as dishonest as incompetent. The only thread of hope I have in this agreement is that the French signed off on it, and they've tended to have a sharp eye for French interests, which while they don't overlap with American ones, probably aren't served by nukes flying about.

Several people have claimed that this treaty guarantees war. So it does: X implies "there will be war in the MidEast" is a true statement for all values of X short of "sun goes supernova."

Unclean touch

I didn't notice until yesterday the role ritual cleanliness plays in Mark 5.

Jesus touches the dead body, which in the eyes of the Law made Him unclean. Burying the dead was a good deed, and so there were things that justified becoming unclean. And of course His touch is more powerful than death and its defiling power. But it would be rather startling to Jairus to have a stranger touch his dead.

The woman with the hemorrhage is ritually unclean. How does she dare touch Jesus' clothes--she would make them unclean, and by contagion him also? She knows He can do miracles, but that means He's holy.

When Jesus asks who touched Him, she has to admit this before everybody. Of course, instead of chewing her out He told her that her faith had made her whole and that she should go in peace. But why did He ask her to fess up? Maybe to heal her guilty conscience too? Or was He making a point about the cleansing He provided?

War train

My first question was "Have any model train enthusiasts made a working model of this?" The answer seems to be Maybe, for some definition of working. I'm not aware of any 1mm guns, which is what you'd need for HO scale.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ice mountains

So far they say that the mountains on Pluto are probably made of ice. And yet given the lack of craters, they're estimated to be quite young.

I wonder why things should be so active. There are lots of moons around, suggesting lots more traffic in the area than my naive expectations, so maybe Pluto took a big hit not too long ago and it's still relatively warm inside. Maybe it managed to grow around a core with some heavy metals, and the thorium is keeping things moderately toasty. And maybe there's some squishy ice clathrates that can be toothpasted around a little easier than the usual rocks--though I'd expect that they'd fall down quicker too, so maybe not.

It's a shame the probe couldn't have carried the extra weight of fuel to slow down and orbit a while. I hope some of those images due back in the next year carry enough information to get some spectral analysis of the surface rocks. (Reflection only tells about the very top layer, but that's better than nothing.)

Going in-depth on the important things

The Capitol Times newspaper in Madison caters to a strongly leftwing audience, while the Wisconsin State Journal aims at a center-left audience. Several years ago the Cap Times found its subscriber base was too small to sustain it any longer, so it merged with the Journal, splitting up the editorial section on Sunday and producing its own Thursday section. And having a distinct web presence as well.

Which article on the local production of the Mikado is from which?

But Cain noted the opera “has seen some backlash in recent years for using the traditional staging,” said Cain, who also is artistic director of Madison’s Fresco Opera Theatre, a company known for staging classic opera in unconventional ways.

“For this ‘Mikado,’ I decided to use a current art form rising out of Japan — animé or manga,” a style of animation that can be hand-drawn or computer-generated, Cain said.


It's a redesign rooted in more than just creativity. The change was important because, in recent years, traditional productions of "The Mikado" in Seattle and Providence, Rhode Island have drawn negative attention. The racism, use of "yellowface" and orientalism in such a staging, detractors say, make it offensive.

"The use of yellowface has been defended as loving homage or harmless parody," wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang, responding to the Seattle production in summer 2014.

"Each time, when Asian-Americans have pointed out that we don't find the wearing of cosmetics and wardrobe to simulate Asian appearance to be 'loving' or 'harmless,' our concerns have been dismissed. "Which is why, despite my deep personal love of musical theater, I think these 'traditional' productions — yellowface productions — of 'The Mikado' have to end," Yang wrote.

Melanie Cain, directing for the Savoyards for the first time, got the message. As a founder of the freewheeling, irreverent Fresco Opera Theatre, she was uniquely positioned to take the Savoyards in a different direction.

The first article gives a thumbnail description of the opera (which was fun, BTW--if you're local go see it) and mentions a couple of the performers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Disbelieving authorities

I'm a physicist (albeit working in IT these days) and I keep up with a pretty broad range of science doings. So when my vocation comes up in conversations, people will often mention some new discovery they read about in the news and ask for my opinion.

If I can, I oblige, but as I've mentioned before the news reports are often extremely misleading and there's a lot of science fiction mixed with science fact in popular ideas.

When I contradict the narrative, it seems as though about 2/3 of the time people thank me for clarifying the matter, and about 1/3 of the time they disbelieve me.

I'm not sure how this 1/3 breaks down: how much is a healthy disrespect for credentialism, how much is "I trust whoever I heard first," and how much is "You're harshing my mellow."

I need to keep some notes.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Microlensing a blazar

This is cool. Microlensing constraint on the size of the gamma-ray emission region in blazar B0218+357

Everybody has heard of Einstein lensing: a galaxy in between you and some bright object in back of it will bend the light from that object, sometimes into a ring shape. Note that the light you see didn’t come “straight” from the object—the path is quite a bit longer than it would have been without the intervening galaxy in the way. In the image shown at that second link the light probably took a thousand years longer than it would if the near galaxy weren’t there.

That’s one key to the story at the first link. The other key is that just as a galaxy can bend light a lot, a large star or black hole in the galaxy can bend it a little. Maybe just a day’s worth.

That’s what the authors looked for in studying blazars. There were only a couple of candidates, but as one of them flashes in different wavelengths (gamma rays, radio waves, etc) they found that there was an echo for the gamma rays, of about 10 days. This is presumably from “microlensing” by something almost in the line of sight between us and the blazar. That’s cool by itself, but from the estimated size of the “microlenser” you can estimate how big the region was that the gamma rays came from. This is impossible with normal telescopes and utterly impossible with gamma ray telescopes—they just don’t have the angular resolution. But working back from the “microlenser” size they estimate that the gamma ray creation region is of order 10^14 cm or less. If it were igger you wouldn’t get a nice “echo”.

It is a bit like the way stars seem to twinkle in the night sky but planets don’t—the planets subtend a larger solid angle than the almost point-like stars do, and so our atmospheric variations don’t change the apparent direction much. In this case the gamma rays get lensed into an echo/flicker, but the radio waves, coming from a bigger area, don’t.

This isn’t exactly a surprise, as most models predict that gamma rays would be produced near the base of the jet from a black hole, but it is a clever analysis.

Monday, July 06, 2015

An unstained escutcheon

I’m instructed that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, and that being white means being heir to a history of racism, conquest, oppression, cultural appropriation, and microaggression. If, as with Elizabeth Warren, you have a family tradition of a drop or two of the proper ancestry, you’re home free.(*)

Not much wiggle room there, since that is part of the story, and pointing out the rest of the story just makes you sound like "Nya! You're another!"

There’s another solution, proposed 136 years ago:

GENERAL: Why do I sit here? To escape from the pirates' clutches, I described myself as an orphan; and, heaven help me, I am no orphan! I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

FREDERIC: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry.

GENERAL: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

(*) We had such a tradition ourselves until somebody spoiled it by doing a genealogical search. Irish, not Cherokee.

Weird. The embedding video starts at the beginning, rather than the moment (?t=3801) that I quote. The link should work, though.

The child as father of the man

I was a very shy boy, and the other day I noticed that I still tend not to look people in the eye very much. Sometimes not even my children. My Better Half, yes--fortunately. Odd that the habit persist so long.


David Warren is not a democrat, which lets him light up some corners the rest of us sometimes miss. From today's:
It is conventional, for politicians upon winning elections, to declare that they are “humbled” by the experience. There you see a fruit.

No one who felt genuinely humbled would say this. He might show it, quite subtly perhaps, in how he behaved; it does not and cannot go into words, without becoming boastful. I use this example with something approaching warmth, for I have developed an allergy or aversion — a rash of the sort that comes from passing through brambles — when men in public positions make a show of their “humility.” It is invariably pharisaic; it is a warning that one is dealing with profound arrogance, and a vanity that is out of control. He speaks with crowds, but cannot keep his virtue.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Drone attacks

I get the idea of trying to target your strikes to do the most damage and confusion. Fine and dandy. But if you use them in a steady-state "attrition" mode (almost as a standalone tool), the enemy adapts, and you have an updated version of Vietnam body counts. Probably about as valuable. Does anybody in authority have any clear idea of what we're trying to accomplish?

Winter Journey

Colleagues on IceCube circulated the link to these volumes: I only read Winter Journey. Embryology always seemed to me to be a rather quiet field, not like volcanology.
As we rested my mind went back to a dusty, dingy office in Victoria Street some fifteen months ago. "I want you to come," said Wilson to me, and then, "I want to go to Cape Crozier in the winter and work out the embryology of the Emperor penguins, but I'm not saying much about it—it might never come off." Well! this was better than Victoria Street, where the doctors had nearly refused to let me go because I could only see the people across the road as vague blobs walking. Then Bill went and had a talk with Scott about it, and they said I might come if I was prepared to take the additional risk. At that time I would have taken anything.
A little traveling later:
Then came seven shivering hours and first thing on getting out of our sleeping-bags in the morning we stuffed our personal gear into the mouth of the bag before it could freeze: this made a plug which when removed formed a frozen hole for us to push into as a start in the evening.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Litter on the park trails

My Better Half and I hiked part of Devil's Lake and Parfrey's Glen as a belated 35'th anniversary celebration. Part of the path by the lake is asphalt and wheelchair accessible, but after a very short distance there's no chance of getting a wheelchair through.

I wondered if it would make sense to rent a litter so that friends of a wheelchair-bound person could bring them along. You'd need a team of 3, more likely 4, as a minimum, and some way to retrieve people if a carrier sprains something along the way.

Wikipedia says these are used for tourists in the Huangshan Mountains, so there's some precedent--though there the pros carry people. Liability issues would preclude that here.

Some of those steps are pretty steep.