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.