Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Some people seem to naturally feel entitled to the sun, moon, and seven stars. Some of us just act like it because we don't know any better.

Psalm 59:11 Do not slay them, or my people will forget; Scatter them by Your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield. I remember wondering about that verse. He's not asking for Divine mercy for his foes (he explicitly asks that they be punished!), but he's asking that they be kept around--presumably as foes still, just not powerful.

History books aren't very powerful reminders. Movies can be, but over time the hunger for new stuff changes the focus. Mad studied this a while back:

WWII then and now, and future.

And after a while you get a generation that does not know Joseph, or in our case doesn't know much about war or freedom or have much idea how hard it was to produce their inheritance.

Asking forgiveness

"Is my gluttony a sin? I'm sorry, and I'll show it by ... giving up broccoli!"

Left to ourselves I don't think we're very good at repentance.

We don't get to prescribe how we "make the first move" in repentance. Voltaire said "God will forgive; it is His job." On the contrary, Jesus mentioned one rather large restriction in a prayer everybody probably knows. The law of Moses specified certain rules for showing repentance and for thanking or preparing yourself for God. There were more convenient things to do than going to the tabernacle/temple, and more dramatic things, and I gather the ancient Jews did both--baking cakes at home for the Queen of Heaven, or burning the odd child for Moloch.

"It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins," but it was the prescribed work to show penitence and faith that God would find a way to forgive. He did.

Slow quakes

It makes sense that the faults slip slowly as well as quickly, but this is something I hadn't heard of before--an intermediate speed slipping, where a change can happen over "days, months, sometimes even years." We can detect some of these now. The really deep ones are, as usual, harder.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Internet of things

At the IT lunch Friday during a conversation about connectedness our "PoleMaster"(*) mentioned bluetooth connected toothbrushes. We laughed, but he said it was real, and so it was. He said his smart-TV was immune from hacking, being on the far side of a firewall that blocked all packets, and we laughed at that too.

We're not black-hat guys, and I don't know how to hack into your home router. I could probably find out how to crack simple system w/o too much trouble, and I know there's a network of folks who share more sophisticated info (but I'm not known to them, or they to me, so I can't get in). I assume the big agencies know most of the tricks.

So don't worry, I won't be trying to figure out if you brush your teeth thoroughly. Or perusing your song playlist. Or listening to your baby monitor. I'm a nice guy.

Feel better?

(*) He's responsible for our South Pole computer systems, and for training winter-overs.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


Go read the article on the placebo effect. I have trouble remembering names, but even I'd heard of Beecher's study
Beecher concluded that, overall, in 35 percent of cases the condition was "satisfactorily relieved by a placebo," which he took to be evidence of therapeutic effectiveness.

It wasn't my field, but I figured the folks in the field had vetted it and it could be relied on--though I wondered about placebo in animals.

There turn out to be some issues with the study, and with others following it. One obvious problem is that there's no control to study placebos. You can treat a patient, fake-treat a patient, or not treat a patient. The author calls for such studies. One of these things is not like the other things--and a lack of treatment is not exactly comforting. (Comforting can be a big deal in helping. Feeling like you've been rejected may cause problems.)

Plus, a lot of people just get better with or without treatment. The body is designed to try to repair itself, and often it succeeds.

There are fluctuations in severity of a disease or of pain. If you have a threshold (the patient has to be worse than X to start my study), there's a chance that there'll be a fluctuation below the threshold later--briefly feeling better. Or briefly feeling worse--some studies didn't take "getting worse" into account properly.

I'll not say there's no such thing as a placebo effect (and the author is careful not to say that either), but the situation is certainly much fuzzier than popularly believed.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A word to the wise

When the label of a can of foaming insulation says wear gloves, do. It also splatters surprisingly far, so goggles are a wise choice also. I was foresighted enough to wear clothes I didn't care about, but I thought I had the adapter secured on the nozzle well enough. It surprised me with a handful of foam. Even acetone (suggested on the label) doesn't get all the stuff off, so I have an extra layer of skin for a while. With glued-in grime.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fields of study

BS King has a nice post up. Before settling on a major/career, sometimes you look through many fields: she likens this to dating.

I wanted to be a fireman, then I wanted to be an archaeologist. (Or maybe a paleontologist--dinosaurs were cool. But no, ruins and bones and mysterious people were cooler.) Then a nuclear physicist. Then a particle physicist--that was in high school; Feynman sounded cool. I didn't look back. (Funding ran low, and I'm in IT now.)

My dating career was similarly circumscribed.

I think of fields of study as more like places you go.

In some places you are just a tourist--you go look because it's beautiful. Others are familiar vacation spots--you have some emotional investment too, and you put in the work of camping. Others are places you live for a while and actually help out with something--they require a lot more investment of time and understanding what to do.

I'm a tourist in a lot of different fields--I try to learn enough to get the beauty of them. (I get pushback from some members of the family when I assert that mathematics is an art form too.) Others I know well enough to be able to ask useful questions--generally questions that were posed and solved a century ago--but that’s a camper for you, discovering a "new" trail. In a couple of fields I spent the time to actually find new things--but it does take time. (Oh look, a squirrel!)

Monday, August 22, 2016

A toast?

Ars Technica has a light article about alcohol and astronauts. They include Aldrin's communion wine, though that doesn't seem in the same category as Christmas bottles of Coronet for Apollo 8.
In particular, carbonated options like champagne, beer, or a Tom Collins likely wouldn't be viable.

"Aesthetically, bubbles don't work the same," Stephenson said. "When prepared on Earth, bubbles are more buoyant, and they travel up. In space, there is no up, and they clump in the middle until disturbed. It kind of looks like a congealed mess.”

Beyond looks, the bigger issue would be how those bubbles work within astronauts. On Earth, as Stephenson pointed out, gravity helps keep what we ingest down. Gases then separate and rise, leading to burps. But in space, gases, solids, and liquids can intertwine without gravity to separate them. "You can't burp in space," he said. "Well, you can, but you'd probably throw up at the same time."

A cola would be equally unappetizing.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Science, Part 1

Science is dissection. And reassembly.

The world is obviously quite complicated, often almost hopelessly so.

If you want to understand how things work, you look for patterns. You find many classes of such patterns—some involving complex interactions behind the scenes.

Ask where ice cream comes from. One child will explain the pattern he has found: put 3 quarters in a vending machine and an ice cream cup falls into a tray at the bottom.

That answer may not entirely satisfy you. If you dissect the vending machine you find a finite stack of ice cream cups, and will discover that these need to be replenished.

The origin of the ice cream turns out to be a delivery truck. Or maybe not—on dissecting the truck and tracking its operation you find that the real origin is in a factory.

Dissect the factory and you find you have to start making some distinctions. What you choose to call ice cream has its origin in a vat—and it is made of other ingredients that are not ice cream themselves, and which come from elsewhere.

Looking closely into that vat you learn what mix of air and cream and sugar and flavorings and cold makes the ice cream.

Now you have an explanation that should satisfy you, and answer your initial question.

You can dissect further, but at the price of no longer talking exactly about ice cream. For example you can ask why fats congeal this way, and study that aspect of chemistry, or how the flavors effect the tongue, or how the textures effect the tongue, or how the cold effects the mouth. You could even try to learn if people have genetic predispositions to prefer one flavor over another.

All these represent aspects of ice cream, but no longer represent the totality of it. That doesn’t make them valueless--quite the contrary--but they are no longer big picture studies. Maybe they’ll help improve ice cream, but there’s work to be done putting the pieces together first.

Suppose we take a more traditional example from elementary physics class—the famous soporific inclined plane that trips up so many with its force decomposition diagrams.

Before you place the block on the slope you have to make sure of Rule 0:

"One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you're going to wind up with an ear full of cider."

Rule 0: Make sure nobody is doing something else with your apparatus. If you put a toy car on an inclined plane you don’t expect it to roll uphill—but it might. Think “wind-up car.” If somebody else has plans for your apparatus, you won’t be able to measure what you want to.

This means that you cannot directly study intentions with science. You have to exclude them as a complicating factor—you can’t do experiments unless the materials involved operate through their own motions with no human, angelic, or divine intervention. Or … “There's a story about a psychologist who was studying the intelligence of a chimpanzee. He led the chimp into a room full of toys, went out, closed the door and put his eye to the keyhole to see what the chimp was doing. He found himself gazing into a glittering interested brown eye only inches from his own. The chimp was looking through the keyhole to see what the psychologist was doing."

Interventions, motives, and goals are not part of the field of view of science by construction. Some careless folk claim that since science doesn’t study them, they don’t exist. Chess doesn’t include the concept of a full house, but poker exists anyway.

When you let the block slide down the slope to try to study gravity and force balancing, you try to keep friction to a minimum, air resistance to a minimum, and don’t use wheels. Once you understand sliding you can study friction; once you know both you can study rolling; once you understand those you can study friction in the axles; then go on to air resistance, and so on.

Study the properties of springs in isolation, of gears in isolation, and ratchets, and so on.

Once you understand these in isolation you can model their combinations, and try to understand the operation of a wind-up toy car. That’s the “integration” part of science and technology. The final system is very complex, but each of the dissected forces is easy enough to understand in isolation. The science lies in the dissection and modeling of the simple aspects. The engineering art lies in assembling these into a design.

Technologies take models—usually fairly high level models—and design ways to use these. Typically an engineer does not care about the crystal structure of a steel beam when he is designing a bridge—unless he cares about the limits of his model and what the effects of metal fatigue and creep are likely to be. Then he does need a deeper, more fundamental, model of matter.

A structural engineer won’t need to worry about quantum effects, but an electronics engineer probably will, if only to understand the limits of his tools.

Remember—you don’t understand your measurement until you understand the limits of your measurement.

Can Kant?

Did Kant like people at all? If his analysis of marriage and sex
In this relation the human individual makes himself into a thing, which is contrary to the right of humanity in his own person. This, however, is only possible under the one condition, that as the one person is acquired by the other as a thing, that same person also equally acquires the other reciprocally, and thus regains and reestablishes the rational personality.
is what he actually thought, then perhaps it is good that he never married. Wikipedia says he did have friends, though. Schiller wrote "Problem: Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure. Hence I am plagued with doubts that I am not a virtuous person. Reply: Sure, your only resource is to try to despise them entirely. And then with aversion to do what your duty enjoins you."

From what I read his "Pure Reason" seems to treat man as a kind of abstract geometry; a formless point with no shape.

Using that kind of model of people as the foundation for morality and duty is an absolute minimum. A morality that deals with real people cannot help but include other rules suitable to the details of the nature of real people.

For starters: "It is not good for man to be alone." Experience with solitary confinement in prison shows that being alone can have horrible effects on people. You can think of others.

Even for the point-like rational beings, when he wrote that one should act according to rules that one would be willing to see as universal rules, he required what is not completely possible. Said "point-like rational beings" have finite intelligence. By Godel, when they devise a set of guidelines for determining the value of rules they cannot prove the correctness of every possible rule governing all the permutations of PLRB interactions. There will always be some interaction that the PLRB's rules won't cover. His prescription is incomplete: both on the face of it and because it doesn't address details of the nature of humans.

Home is the sailor

Or something like that. Canoeing and riding the Badger ferry count as sailing, right? We did a lot of tacking at first on the canoe--going in a straight line requires a bit of paddling coordination--but after a while Hamlin lake beckoned us out of Lost Lake. A local told us later that the lake, deeded to the state by a lumber baron, is required to be lowered a couple of feet in late fall to make lumbering easier--but frogs and turtles tend to freeze out when the water levels drop so far. (Word to the wise--double check that your hand doesn't run dry of sunscreen when prepping.)

Abend Brothers Collision seemed like a nice pun-ny name. Harrisville and Alpena were pretty quiet (and the glass boat tour of shipwrecks was fun), but Ludington was awash with visitors--luckily we motel-ed 30 minutes away, out past Walhalla (we didn't notice any fighting there).

The weather largely cooperated with us. We found that cots are OK for bad backs, but that the tent is too small for cots in wet weather. (It was dry, but I know from bitter experience that pushing against the tent is a good way to get wet in the rain.) No mosquitoes, either.

You don't want to know how many emails were waiting for me this evening.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

I never thought I'd see that language in a theorem

In connection with an earlier post, I started reading a paper titled On the Stability of Geodesics in the Brownian Map(*) On page 2, after their first Definition came "Theorem 1. Almost surely, for all x,y etc."

That doesn't sound much like your old geometry course, does it? "Almost surely" is a phrase I'd never seen before. In context, it makes sense. In good old ordinary Euclidean geometry, if you pick any point and any distance R > 0 (no matter how small), you can, guaranteed, find an infinite number of points closer to the first point than R. In the systems they're writing about, though, it's not quite the same--distances are random. For example, if the Euclidean distance between two points is ρ, a random distance might be ρ times a random scale--which could be bigger than 1 or less; it just can't be 0.

In that case, for some given point, it is possible that the scale factor is big enough that the distance is now bigger than R. It is even possible, though infinitely unlikely, that all new distances are bigger than R.

So "almost surely" means something like "it is infinitely unlikely that this is false, but not a mathematical certainty. There might be a finite number of exceptions compared to the infinite number that are true."

Learn something new every day. There's a lot to learn.

(*)Sounds impressive, doesn't it? I wish I understood it. Some good advice I ran across once said to read a paper all the way through to get what sense you can, no matter what seems to be missing. Then go back and read it again and identify the parts you need to know and don't, and then look those up, and then read it a third time, trying to work through the proofs. One of these days I should take that advice.

Defining sides

A few years ago I was in LA for a conference, and one evening was eating pizza across from a theater which sported a great temporary awning over the sidewalk and some tents beside it. It turned out to be the premier of a movie, and actors were showing up in grand style.

Last night's dreams reminded me of that, and of fresh reason to be grateful that my parents decided to move us to Africa.

When celebrity culture is in the air, it is a hard discipline to not care.

Some want to be a star and stand in front of the photographers, others want to be bigger than movie stars in their favorite career. And there's the "At least I don't care about such triviality"--but you can hear the frisson of superiority that betrays the fact that they really do care, even if negatively. Their ways of thinking and imagining are shaped by the celebration of the stars.

Perhaps "nothing human is alien to me," but most things have no bearing on my life and don't shape my thinking, and shouldn't. It's the same with you, no doubt--you probably would have to try hard to care about the Blues and Greens whose quarrels afflicted Justinian--you probably not even care enough issue "A plague o' both your houses."

Just because something is current doesn't make it important, and though it is probably against the Blogger's Code, I don't see a good reason to have an opinion on everything. Or even most things. Or even, often, important things.

My challenge is to find those things that I inhaled along the years, and evaluate them in more eternal terms. Everybody wants to say "whoever is not with me is against me," but only God can make that overwhelming claim.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Leaning tower

Fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "Some accuse Burland et al of sterilising their tower - for, part of its old mystique had been the possibility it might collapse at any moment, the frisson that a voyeuristic visitor might witness such a fall. ‘You can’t please all of the people all of the time,’ Burland shrugs."

Saturday, August 06, 2016


Ricks Institute was one of the 35 schools with "“100 percent pass rate.” In order words, every student from these 35 schools who sat the WAEC for 2016 made a successful pass." They should have had a Ricks grad proofread.

The Liberian Observer had that as its first story, only following later with the more dismal (but expected--ebola closed schools for quite a while) "Worst Results since 2013" story (35% passed, 48% failed, 17% were caught cheating).

One bright spot from the earlier story is that not only did the usual schools do well in preparing their students, so did some remote schools new to the list. So somebody is learning how to do the job right.

The definition of censorship

The chancellor at UW-Stout in Menomonie said Friday he decided to move two large paintings dating to 1936 from hallways in a much-traveled campus building because they “stood in the way of an effort to create an inclusive and comfortable environment for everyone.”
The chancellor said in his statement that “despite opinions to the contrary, it was never my intent to ‘censor’ these paintings or remove them from public view. I simply wanted to get them into situations where we had some control over who would view them.

The painting reproduced in the newspaper shows 4 canoes on a river: two with French trappers and two with Indians. "Meyer provided quotes from two Native American students who said the paintings “like those in Harvey Hall keep us in the past” and present Native Americans as stereotypes." I gather some people don't care for history. OR else they're trying to see what they can get away with. It seems ironic: the Indians are all reasonably sitting and paddling, but one of the trappers is standing in the bow of his canoe--not, in my experience, the most sensible thing to attempt.


AVI had a question. This may or may not be an answer.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Wishful thinking

Doubting at Grim's Hall links to a Foreign Policy article suggesting that Catholic France was likely to rise up in a new crusade.

I don't believe it.

I've read people claiming that an attempt to confiscate guns in the USA would result in a revolution. I doubt it.

I use a popcorn model for most revolts. When the popper really gets going the noise fills the house and the corn overflows the bowl and it's all very dramatic. But it starts out with one lonesome pop. And then another, and then a few more, and then more.

Some revolts are sudden--everybody lives in fear of Ceaușescu until the day when they don't. I can easily see a revolt against political correctness on the same lines: we all hunker down because of the SJWs until a child points out that they have no clothes. They certainly do not have superior morals.

But violent popular revolts generally have to cross a major barrier: the threat of repercussions to me and mine. When enough people cross that line you have the revolt, but before that happens there'll be one guy (an oddball) who snaps, then another, and then a few more, and then people start organizing to protect themselves and the revolt starts to begin. (Civil wars driven by powerful players can play out differently.)

That's what I'm not seeing. There are a few videos of people venting(*), but almost all the violence I hear of in France comes from one side only. Unless the news is censored (and I can't put that past the ENArchs), there are no harbingers of revolt in France.

And in this country, I get the strong impression that lots of people like to sound big, with vague threats of possible disasters. But I haven't heard that legislators or judges are meeting untimely ends at a rate higher than normal.

You can argue that things are going bad, and that we cannot go on forever without chaos. That's true enough, but I think Isaiah and Jeremiah might be more relevant than bloggers writing about guns or what happens when the descendants of the Vikings get mad.

(*) And if you equate venting from one side with throat cutting from the other, I'm afraid we have no language in common. God may view things that way from His standard of absolute perfection; you may not.


This article on tools for studying randomness is cool. I remember doodling huge curves during boring classes--now I can call them "SLE curves" and pretend I was doing research. (SLE curves=random curves that never cross themselves) Actually the Brownian maps, in which distances between points become random, seems like something I should have a closer look at. I've been playing with an alternative definition of straight lines, and it might be fun to see what happens in Brownian maps.

And a link from that page is about an atypical mathematician and his work on both "stochastic partial differential equations" and a sound editing program for DJs. I'd no notion that anybody was looking at PDEs with a random coefficient, but I guess I don't get out much--I think I can see how they'd come up in music amplification problems. (stochastic means random, in a precise sense) An interesting character, and interesting work--but I'm kind of reluctant to tackle his magnum opus right now. I think I get the idea of the shape of his project, but the abstract had about 8 terms I didn't understand and the table of contents was worse.

UPDATE The Brownian maps don't seem to be metric spaces, exactly, though their "geodesics" get as weird as my "lines" sometimes. Interesting, but it would take quite a bit of study to get up to speed on the subject.

Creepy concrete

I hadn't realized it before, but concrete bends or creeps under stress, albeit slowly. At least when it is outdoors.

The summary I linked is about a study looking at the effect of stress on calcium-silicate-hydrates. You can think of concrete as grains held together by calcium-silicate-hydrates. Put the whole thing under stress, and nearby grains will be pushed in slightly different directions, producing a force on the "glue joint." Add water ("aqueous solvent") and tiny amounts of the calcium-silicate-hydrates will dissolve.(*) Of course they'll precipitate out again too, but they will dissolve more readily from a stressed area, and precipitate out elsewhere. In effect, the grains and the matrix they are embedded in will slowly change shape--to a configuration with less relative force. Creep.

The stuff isn't very water soluble, so the change happens slowly. They still have to measure other factors--this might account for the known effects, or perhaps other things are going on too.

(*) You knew that glass was water soluble too, right? And quartz too--just not very. In some studies that matters. And it matters for growing agates.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

I wonder what's going on

My stats show that Russians have been reading a lot of my pages in the past few days--and the browser claims to be Internet Explorer. I gather other people have seen a big spike in Russian readership. Maybe there's a search spider that pretends to be IE, and somebody is trying to create a new Google (Lipkiy-gle?).

Or maybe one of their teams of trolls is casting about to find places that need to hear the Party line, or looking for stuff to quote. I've had my material used without acknowledgment before, though not from this site.