Sunday, January 28, 2018


I got to thinking about one of those recurring dreams this morning--the one where I'm lost in a strange city. In the dreams, I'm not trying to get home. I'm trying to find my "home away from home," the place where I'm stationed and supposed to be.

Maybe thinking of home would be too real, and things that are too real don't work in that type of dreaming (unlike the vividly near-real ones that leave you wondering for a few moments how you are ever going to get yourself out of trouble).

Or maybe the dreams are a good description.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Forgetting books

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read
Surely some people can read a book or watch a movie once and retain the plot perfectly. But for many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.


"Reading is a nuanced word," she writes, "but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption: where we read, especially on the internet, merely to acquire information. Information that stands no chance of becoming knowledge unless it 'sticks.'"

I've had the experience of reading a book, understanding the details and the mechanisms and the argument, and then after a while had it drift out of mind. (I looked up an old blog post. It was next to a review of a book that I barely remember.) Nevertheless, for me the book doesn't go entirely away. The residuum, in my mind at least, is the connections. I don't remember names very well, but I remember principles and mechanisms. Why did the Spanish Armada fail? I don't recall the details, but do recall some of the reasons.

That can be dangerous if the books are misleading. If all you have left is the impressions, and whatever backed them up is gone, you have unsupported confidence, with no pesky details to be contradicted. You are persuaded that the CIA killed JFK, but you can't think of a single reason why--you just know that they did.

So how do you make it stick? One approach is to read (or watch) slower--not binge-watching. Implicit in one of their descriptions is that you take the time to make notes and ask questions about or of the work.

BTW, it takes many years for me to forget enough to re-read most mystery novels--unless there's some additional attraction in the story that keeps me going even when I know the outcome.

Sunday, January 21, 2018


For those who remember Madison, Ella's Deli closed today. It was a great place to bring kids. In season, there was a merry-go-round ride outside (and a miniature of it on display inside), and every portion of the ceiling and quite a bit of the walls was devoted to toys--mostly moving, very many vintage. The tables with glass tops had small toys under glass--a different theme for each table. the picture here doesn't do justice to how full it was of attractions, or how animated it was.

Since the kids are grown, we haven't been back in a long time. The owners want to retire, and nobody has stepped up to buy the place. Yet. Maybe there are overdue repairs that scared off buyers, or maybe they're playing chicken, or maybe it is just fiendishly expensive to keep everything maintained. The place turns up on travel guides, but google only turned up 30,000 references. Odd.

This link is from the Wayback Machine, so it may keep for a little longer than the original web page.

Fish allergy

In the process of doing a little research about fish allergies, I ran across this unpleasant little surprise: "Also, its potency as a food allergen was shown in a case report of severe anaphylaxis upon ingestion of sweets containing several grams of fish gelatin." and "Fish gelatin is commonly used in food and pharmaceutical products replacing mammalian gelatins."

Unfortunately, it looks like there hasn't been a lot of progress in trying to prevent/mitigate fish allergies.

Friday, January 19, 2018

And now for something completely different

Don't try this at home.

I'd always wondered... It's about what you expect.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dogs and Babies

A friend said this morning that one wonderful thing about dogs was that you always knew what would delight them.

True. We don't have a dog, but those I've known don’t seem to tire of going out in the morning to run, or out to fetch in the afternoon. Each time is fresh.

Babies are like that too. They don’t get jaded nearly as easily as us old and sinful sorts. It takes time to develop an attitude of ingratitude.

For an adult, this moment connects with the memories of other moments, so we're not "in the moment" in exactly the same way as a baby. But if we can enjoy the gift of another beautiful sunset, remembering other gifts before, and not pick flaws, we have one more bright stone in the mosaic. If not: "the view from the Sears Tower was better" makes this moment worth less. (*)

Our more typical approach is to go looking for something new, to try to get the old sense of wonder and refreshment. Adventure and curiosity are good, but they don't take the place of enjoying what you have.

It is almost always fun to be around someone who really enjoys what they’re doing and seeing. Unless, perhaps, what they're doing is watching you chase your hat down the sidewalk. Even then, sometimes the giggles from the sidelines help.

... we try to imitate the joy of gratitude with the pleasure of novelty ...

(*) On the other hand, a sunset is better watched together than alone, and "I wish she could see this" is a good kind of "I wish this were better."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Songs in translation again

The Russian Dorogoi dlinnoyu is the original, and Those Were the Days the translation. Since I don't speak Russian, I miss the poetry, but for a change, I like the sound of the translation better. The Russian sounds like stuffing a quart of frogs into a pint jar.

The translation into French (words here) of the English works pretty well, and seems faithful to the mood. I suppose French is a little more supple tool to translate into.

I'd not realized that Aguas de Março was the end of the warm season in Brazil, so Waters of March means something much different in the USA. Winter's coming vs winter's over. He modified the English lyrics to accommodate that...


"German troops did not conquer Poland and Czechoslovakia thanks to a pill called Pervitin;" nevertheless it may have played a role. About Blitzed, from the LA Review of Books.

It was almost as easy to obtain after the war.

I wonder what social effects were associated with widespread use of meth. Alcohol, khat, marijuana, meth... Thought experiment: these have different psychological effects when you abuse them; if even only 10% of the population abuses one, that should have some cultural effects--even if only in stereotypes and expectations, but surely in things like the associations you have with ideal recreations. That would be very hard to tease out of other effects. Availability depends on where you are, and your neighboring cultures influence your culture too. And your culture will effect what drugs are more popular. You probably can't find causation.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


Mark 8:15 "And He was giving orders to them, saying, "Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.""

The leaven of the Pharisees I think we know about: the sense that our works or our position make us holier that other people. The effect isn't limited to Christians or Jews, I can easily name atheists who are holier-than-thou--for their definition of holy. It is an easy sense to acquire--we have to try to be holy, and be alert about problems, and you notice pretty quickly that some people aren't.

I looked around for what people though the leaven of Herod might be.

Mark 6:20 "Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him."

Luke 23:8 "Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him." (Jesus refused to say a word to him.)

Ezekiel 33:32 "Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them."

Jesus referred to Herod as a fox, and I gather that the fox was not a symbol of cunning in that place and era. One thinks of Laodacea.

The descriptions aren't very detailed, but I get the impression of a man who liked to hear the word of God. Maybe even loved it, but didn't love it enough to do anything about it.

So, maybe He meant the leaven of connoisseur-ship?

Saturday, January 13, 2018


Let me guess: The alert was not an accident.

I'm assuming that the systems and procedures have been in place since the 60's. If the system were that subject to false alarms, we'd have had a few other alerts by now. If the system is reliable, then the probability is high that this was deliberate. Whodunit?

  1. Some Hawaiian official, trying to make a point? Unlikely; it would require amazing stupidity not to realize that people could get hurt, and that this would be at best career-ending and more likely incarceration-beginning. (Hmm. We hear about people like that regularly...)
  2. China or NKorea hacking the system, probing to see what our response is like? If so, then they trust Trump a lot--that's kind of risky business.
  3. Anonymous or a script kiddie with a malicious streak? I'd vote for this one. I can very easily believe that the Hawaii government computer/network security is no good.

On the other hand, maybe Hawaii was trying to re-implement the old systems, and has a terrible test environment. That's really easy to believe too.

UPDATE: The story now is that during a shift change someone pushed the wrong button. From the rest of the story I get the impression that they hadn't been doing this very long. So, not software, but a klutzy system with no cross-checks. It was the second option, and they were trying to resurrect the system rather than re-implement it.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Speaking of the obvious

Proverbs 13:20 says roughly that you should hang out with the wise, and that way you will become wise.

Turn that on its head. Why should the wise want to hang out with you?

Maybe because wanting wisdom is already a part of wisdom, and those who hunger and thirst (and ask God) for it are the ones who get filled with it. The other "wise" recognize a kindred spirit even in a beginner, and they know how far they are from wisdom themselves.

Or maybe because you're persistent.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


The story on the hypatia meteorite surprised me. (full paper here)

A meteorite picked up in Egypt (in the Libyan Desert Glass area) contains an unusual amount of carbon, and some odd chemicals (silver iodine phosphide), and metallic aluminum.

I'm trying to imagine just how such a thing would form. If stuff is condensing out of a cold cloud, I can imagine how you could get metallic crystals of aluminum, but if the cloud components are reactive enough to produce iodine compounds, why didn't the iodine react with the aluminum too? The C13 balance suggests that it isn't some kind of terrestrial artifact.


There's an interesting take on polygamy in The Economist. The thesis is that polygamy spurs inequality and war in societies that have a lot of it. If the numbers are accurate, Guinea's situation is scary: 50% of women are part of polygamous households. Because the population is growing, that doesn't mean 50% of men will never marry, but the rate of never-marrying will still be very high. (The quote below is therefore not completely accurate.)
By contrast, every time a rich man takes an extra wife, another poor man must remain single. If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have, say, four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this state.

This is one of the reasons why the Arab Spring erupted, why the jihadists of Boko Haram and Islamic State were able to conquer swathes of Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, and why the polygamous parts of Indonesia and Haiti are so turbulent. Polygamous societies are bloodier, more likely to invade their neighbours and more prone to collapse than others are. The taking of multiple wives is a feature of life in all of the 20 most unstable countries on the Fragile States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace, an NGO


By increasing the bride price, polygamy tends to raise the age at which young men get married; it takes a long time to save enough money. At the same time, it lowers the age at which women get married. All but the wealthiest families need to "sell" their daughters before they can afford to "buy" wives for their sons; they also want the wives they shell out for to be young and fertile. In South Sudan "a girl is called an old lady at age 20 because she cannot bear many children after that," a local man told Marc Sommers of Boston University and Stephanie Schwartz of Columbia University. A tribal elder spelled out the maths of the situation. "When you have 10 daughters, each one will give you 30 cows, and they are all for [the father]. So then you have 300 cows." If a patriarch sells his daughters at 15 and does not let his sons marry until they are 30, he has 15 years to enjoy the returns on the assets he gained from brideprice. That’s a lot of milk.

I wonder what the rates are elsewhere: for example, China. Another article claims In 19th-century China, where as many as 25 percent of men were unable to marry, "these young men became natural recruits for bandit gangs and local militia," which nearly toppled the government. In what is now Taiwan, unattached males fomented regular revolts and became "entrepreneurs of violence."

(Since polygamy is almost entirely polygyny, I use the more familiar blanket term.)

The Economist article touches briefly on how women in polygamous marriages fare (and, for fairness, cites defenders), and you can draw your own conclusions, but other sources agree that the answer is: very often badly. A book (name eludes me) about women in Chinese households was particularly grim: the mother-in-law or the chief wife could abuse the rest, and in the book that was quite common. Statistics may be a bit hard to come by, though--the book was anecdotal, with all that implies.

Genesis and Samuel describe a few polygamous families--I don't recall any that seemed happy.

Polygamy seems to be becoming a hot topic recently, though--I gather there was even a TV series that critics said we should learn from.

How about we don't go there? Yes, no doubt it is terribly unfair to the already-married who try to come here to live. Still, no.

Monday, January 08, 2018


This is from last week. It got a little cool around here, and the furnace exhaust decorated everything handy. You can't quite see the icicle hanging from the pipe.


Somewhere along I-74 east of Urbana there must be some open water, despite the cold. It's quite a bit south for Fermilab's cooling ponds, and a bit far east for the Clinton Power Station. There was a solitary Canada goose flying over the highway, presumably looking for a place to land and eat. Must have missed the memo about migration...

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Cancer in animals

It says here that 1 in 2 in the UK will get some form of cancer during their lifetime, and from the graph it looks like almost all of that is post-60 years old.

It says here that 1 in 2 dogs over 10 years old will have cancer of some kind (varies wildly by breed--smaller have much lower rates).

I'm trying to figure out how to compare those numbers. Two factors that come to mind are 1) senescence of the system as a whole and 2) the number of cell divisions that have taken place (more means more random accumulated errors). The replication rate varies a lot in humans depending on what kind of cell you're talking about--and since the faster replicating ones aren't necessarily the ones that have the most frequent cancers, I suspect that's not the biggest factor. I didn't find anything about cell division rates in dogs that I could use to compare with humans, but it probably doesn't matter anyway.

So maybe 10 dog years are like 60 human years, and the system isn't able to smack down failures as well? (On average--I know young ones can get cancer too.) Does the cancer rate with age normalized to the lifetime follow the same sort of trend with various breeds, or with other animals? Does anybody know?

Monday, January 01, 2018

Happy New Year!

We decided to try New Years's Resolutions this time, but with a slight twist--you assign one from a list to someone else. For example, "I will write a sonnet on chicken farming," "I will rewrite a verse from We Three Kings to be grammatical, singable, and retain the meaning," "I will prepare and eat a chocolate-covered dill pickle," "I will sing the Star Spangled Banner backwards," and so on.

We all contributed to the list, too.

I have some writing to do.