Monday, July 30, 2018

Between the Kola Forest & the Salty Sea by C. Patrick Burrowes

Between the Kola Forest & the Salty Sea by C. Patrick Burrowes: A History of the Liberian People before 1800

At one point, he cites an author who gave a detailed and accurate description of elephants--and who then went on to claim that dragons liked to catch and eat them. This book appears to collect very interesting and new-to-me information about the history of the tribes that make up modern Liberia. Unfortunately, when he writes about things I do know about, I find startling errors.

The core, and most important part of the book, is the use of oral histories of Liberian tribes, tribes in other countries, and linguistic analysis to map out the tribal migrations. He contends that much of the region near the coast was very sparsely populated, and that groups squeezed out of more inland regions could find places to live. Their traditions preserve some information about where they came from--though identification is sometimes tricky. In a few cases he mentions a language vanishing from a region, which makes me suspect there were some forgotten exterminations.

Pressures from rising and falling empires shifted populations around West Africa, Muslim pressures did too, and when long droughts shrunk the range of the tsetse fly, horse-borne raiders came farther south and west--until the climate changed again.

My complaint about his overlooking Moslem slavers was premature--he gives a pretty thorough description later on of what's known. (It was larger and longer than the European slave trade in Africa, and to this day Mauritania still has slaves.)

Some details clarify: wrt Dan and Krahn wooden carvings--"in none of the figures is any stress laid on likeness to the original [human model]; but it is essential that the pattern of the cicatrization works on the body and face should be followed exactly. The mode of dressing the hair must also be reproduced accurately. Any ornaments worn must be copied, and the very common umbilical hernias are faithfully reproduced also. In the case of women, stress is also laid on a faithful representation of the breast."

I get the impression that the carvings are to represent you as you are represented in relation to your tribe (scars, ornaments and hair) and your family (umbilicus, breast). Representing you might be problematic: perhaps because you are not so easily knowable as your representation, or perhaps because a representation of you might be used against you. Or maybe the solitary you doesn't matter as much as the you in relation. I may seem to be drawing too many conclusions from a small detail, but this ties in with other things.

The European description of the Poro society back in 1616 mentions male circumcision, but that of the Sande omits female clitoridectomy. He thinks that means the latter is a relatively recent innovation, though it could be that men talked about different things and what happened to the women wasn't so obvious. It certainly wasn't obvious to me when I lived there.

My copy of the book has a number of corrections scribbled in it--and he would have done well to have an editor look it over to get rid of some typos. And he would have done well to put in some modern maps. Some fact checking would have been nice--a funeral feast isn't uniquely African, for example. And claiming that iron working was independently invented in Africa is kind of ludicrous.

If you are interested in what can be learned about history before the official histories, by all means read it. But don't trust everything. I'm glad I bought it.

Saturday, July 28, 2018


I wish I still had a copy of the cartoon I saw decades ago. It was of a baseball field with the stands full, and in the field all the players were taking off their uniforms and exchanging them with the opposing team, while the announcer exclaimed "That's the biggest trade I've ever seen!"

It's an amusing jab at sports loyalties.

Anybody old enough, who was paying attention, sees the same thing in politics too.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Yokes still in use?

I have heard it claimed that Justin Martyr wrote that Jesus made plows and yokes, and that during Justin's life some of these were still in use. I heard this again recently, with a gloss about how good the quality must have been, and wondered where I'd missed that--I'd thought I'd read all of Justin Martyr's surviving work.

Google pointed me to many references, of which the oldest I found (sorry, I didn't wander through them all) was The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 7, 1916, which reads

"It it known that he earned his living by his father's trade, that of a carpenter; according to Justin Martyr, plows and yokes made by Jesus were still in existence at his (Justin's) time, about the year 120 ("Dial. cum Tryph. %88)."

The reader is invited to read that passage from the Dialogs, but the relevant portion is

And when Jesus came to the Jordan, He was considered to be the son of Joseph the carpenter; and He appeared without comeliness, as the Scriptures declared; and He was deemed a carpenter (for He was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes; by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life)

If you want to search the whole list of Justin's works in one chunk, this OCR version is available, warts and all.

My best guess is that somebody quoted some lost works of Justin. Or perhaps one of the falsely attributed ones that isn't part of the current list. Or possibly one of the scholars contributing to the Encyclopedia screwed up, and the error has persisted via unquestioning quotation. Or perhaps both my memory and my keyword-fu failed me.

I have asked a couple of real patristics scholars to help out, and will update this with any more expert answers.

UPDATE: Or maybe the Latin translation they worked from was ambiguous?

Monday, July 16, 2018


Youngest Daughter is very fond of Eugene Onegin (the opera and the book), and the subject of duels came up at the table.

My Better Half noticed that the same phenomenon of looking for revenge for insults is alive and well today, and producing a regular supply of corpses and bullet holes in bystanders. But there's no formality or structure to the modern dissing revenge--the old style duelists would have thought them not worth dueling, and not just because the modern fighters are mostly black.

My first thought was that the duelists were embedded in their community to such degree that they drew their identity from how they were viewed, and that perhaps the decline of the duel went together with a rise in individualism. But the duelists didn't represent everyone of their era--just the upper echelons of a particular culture. Lower class folk weren't expected to duel the same way, though I gather they could be just as touchy about their public perception as the elite.

But if everybody is touchy, and not just the elite... Noblesse oblige--perhaps you have to take the risks of following the rules when you avenge your honor, to show that you are worth your rank?

The vices of that sort of "you are as you are viewed" are vivid to us--what about the virtues? Did they go in more for public acts of virtue (e.g. courage)? (in contrast to our preference for virtue signaling with trivial symbols) I don't know how to evaluate cultures like that in a systematic way, but I'd bet there were things they did better than we.

Revenge for insults is everywhere, of course.

Are there added virtues alongside the dissing revenge vices? I haven't seen any, but perhaps they are most visible in the upper echelons. These things vary; sometimes there aren't duels in the usual sense at all.

What the Spanish description fails to express for the Japanese is the old Confucian idea that a man cannot live under the same heaven as his father's enemies. This leads to a proliferation of revenge plays in Japan in which the hero sacrifices himself for his father or for his lord. There are fewer plays in which a man is dishonored personally by insult or adultery and wipes out his shame in blood; most often he acts on behalf of a superior.


D.E. Mills outlines the rules and describes the documentation that was required for anyone to carry out an official blood revenge. If the avenger wanted to escape punishment for slaying his enemy it was requisite that he first make application at his local government offices, and this was then recorded and passed on to the central government. Normally he was given permission and a document that he could present to the official of the province where he finally caught up with his enemy.

That last is so very not Scottish...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Explosion followup

The explosion downtown came from a gas leak that started about about 6:20. The gas wasn't completely shut off until 9:30. Why?

The first response gas fitter (presumably tasked with turning it off) was caught in the explosion. Word on the street is that he has a severe concussion and no hearing. The explosion damaged a network of pipes and required a dozen valves be shut off.

2500 attended fireman Barr's funeral. That's over 7% of the population of the town. Our next door neighbor's son is in the volunteer fire department, and was on the scene. Barr had initially asked him to walk with him over near the intersection, and then changed his mind and told him to stay by the truck while Barr went on alone.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sports beverages

I've always had an intuitive sense that chocolate milk was good for you--certainly it is good for morale, and that has to have an impact on your physical state, right? People were looking at it years ago to see if it was better than recovery drinks like Gatorade.

A newer study bears that out. Alas, there are caveats.

Even though this analysis pooled data from several smaller studies to get more robust results, it still included less than 150 people. Results from running or cycling exercise tests also might not reflect how chocolate milk would impact recovery from other sports.

"Any food that provides carbohydrate, protein, fluid and electrolytes and is well-tolerated will help promote recovery," Spaccarotella said by email. "In addition to chocolate milk, other popular choices are cereal with milk, smoothies, sandwiches or soup. A small meal will even work, if the athlete is feeling hungry."

I'll chance it. Although they probably weren't studying people with my level of inactivity.

And given a choice between coffee and cocoa on a cold day, I'll go with cocoa.

You can probably see a pattern here.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Live Press Conference on Astrophysics Breakthrough

Live for now, will link the record later.

Recorded version. They fixed the dead time problem

The NSF representative bobbled some of her statements, but largely got things right. Halzen has a good sense of humor and of proportion--I like him. Some of the animations the presenters used make things much clearer.

This has been in the works for months, as people tried to make sure all the eyes were dotted and teas crossed.

Executive summary: For the first time we were able to tell where an extra-solar neutrino came from, and it pointed back to a flaring blazar. (That tells us something about blazars, too.) IceCube saw a neutrino, told the rest of the world, and fast telescopes looked to see if they could see it too. Fermi and Magic did, and said it was associated with a blazar that flares now and then, and was flaring right now. IceCube went back to the last time it flared and looked for an excess of energetic neutrinos coming from that region, and found them.

The old excess wasn't something to write home about by itself, anymore than seeing plants chewed down inside your garden fence tells you there's a deer. But if your neighbor says there's a deer around, and you see a deer track in the front yard, the chewed-down plants mean something.

Since only about 1 in a hundred thousand neutrinos at that energy will interact in IceCube, that means there were an awful lot of neutrinos coming from that blazar.


We can tell from what direction gamma rays come, but most of the cosmic rays that hit us are nuclei, and charged. The magnetic fields of galaxies are weak but gigantic, and bend the cosmic rays this way and that. A proton from SagA* might wind up hitting the Earth from the opposite direction.

Gamma and X rays can come from two different sorts of processes--one which involves nuclei interacting with things and one which is pretty much entirely electron-in-magnetic-field-based.

Neutrinos come almost entirely from the first class of processes, as nuclei interact with stuff (e.g. other nuclei or the background light around the galaxy) to produce pions that decay to neutrinos.

Sighting this means that we have

  1. The first extra-galactic neutrino with an understood origin
  2. That source produces jets of nuclei, not just electrons
  3. Blazars (actually, any active galaxy--blazars are just active galaxies whose jets point at us) can produce the cosmic rays we've been trying to understand the origin of for a long time.

I haven't seen estimates for the numbers yet--they'll be pretty rough because we haven't seen very many neutrinos yet--but maybe we can get some idea of what fraction of cosmic rays come from active galaxies.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

One problem with explosions

You can't always estimate them well.

When we heard it, I said to the neighbor boy who was helping us garden, "Sounds like a power transformer. I'll bet some neighborhood doesn't have power anymore." It wasn't the crisp bang of fireworks, or the bang of a shotgun or a rifle, and it wasn't dynamite--the noise had a gentler "attack."

Or it could have been a lot farther away--like a mile. I heard they evacuated the building after they smelled gas, but sirens have been going to and fro, and the smoke is darker and still rising after 2 hours.

I hope the neighboring buildings and businesses and residences were well insured. I like The Chocolate Caper.

The Barr House's previous tenant had put up amusing messages about the bar business, and kept it up even after they moved. Google street has "Life is not a fairy tale. If you lose your shoe at midnight, you're drunk."

FWIW, first reports got one of the streets wrong. You'd think that was pretty easy to get right, but I guess somebody got the landmark "Old City Hall" and turned it into "City Hall."

And they are evacuating around the area as well, so they must worry about the gas lines too.

UPDATE: A contractor hit a gas line.

UPDATE2: So far 2 firemen hurt and a cop had minor injuries. Sirens go to and fro.

UPDATE3: One fireman dead, 2 hurt. Part of the street flew in the air, according to a fellow I know who was driving in the area.

UPDATE4: When they write that a restaurant was "heavily damaged" they mean that the foundation still looks good. And maybe some of the walls. The volunteer fire captain who died owned the Barr House.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Mazon update

I mentioned a detour to Mazon a few months ago, and said we collected some discarded concretions, one of which had an obvious fossil.

Instead of using a hammer and chisel, I soaked the concretions in water and then froze them. Repeatedly.

After about 20 iterations, during which little chips spalled off here and there, one that had an OK jellyfish opened up to show a fragment of a leaf on the other side. There's probably more, but I'm not sure how to peel back the rest of that layer. Yesterday, after a dozen more iterations, a little crack opened in another, and when I pried the thing apart it looks like a twig was inside. Not as exciting as a TullyMonster, but discovery is fun.

Ring neck doves

In Sheridan, Wyoming we heard a curious creature. When we got binoculars on the bird it was plainly a ring neck dove. But, contrary to the bird books, its call sounded like it was taking cooing lessons from crows. OK, sometimes it cooed, but sometimes made a sound halfway between a coo and a caw. Yes, there were several of them, so it wasn't a weird individual.

Has anybody else heard this?


One does not sleep in as long when tent camping.

"He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, It will be reckoned a curse to him."

Although, to be fair, one does feel better waking up in the woods early after watching a fire until 10 than one does waking up at an ordinary time after working on a computer until 10.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Spiders soaring

Some spiders are light enough, and can spread their silk far enough, that electrostatic fields can levitate them. Go have a read
Bristol’s researchers exposed Linyphiid spiders to lab-controlled e-fields that were quantitatively equivalent to those found in the atmosphere. They noticed that switching the e-field on and off caused the spider to move upwards (on) or downwards (off), proving that spiders can become airborne in the absence of wind when subjected to electric fields.

"bumblebees can detect e-fields arising between themselves and flowers"

I suppose if you worry about spiders rising to meet you, this might not be pleasant news.

Vortex collisions

This is cool. Colliding vortices, when exactly balanced, spread out in a ring into smaller vortices at right angles to the original ones. Have a look. They did this in an aquarium so the speeds would be low enough to film easily, and without the complications of compression that you get in air.

Mammoth trap

One of the places we visited in the Black Hills was the Mammoth Site, a sinkhole that trapped a number of mammoths over the years. This has the largest concentration of mammoths in the world, and they think they've only dug about a third of the way down. Pay them a visit if you're in the area.

The mammoths seem to have fallen in and drowned, so the scientists think the sides were steep and covered with vegetation, making them a little more enticing in the winter. So far every last mammoth has been male. Maybe, as with elephants, the young males are chased out of the herd to fend on their own and find their own females. And, all alone, you don't get the benefit of other's experience or much help when you get stuck.

Right now they think the sinkhole (spring-fed) is about 140,000 years old, and only finished filling in relatively recently. During our wandering about the pit, I looked at the layers in the sediment and did some back of the envelope estimations. There aren't enough layers for 140,000 individual years, but if the layers represent extra wash from El Nino's (or Nina's, dunno which would send extra water to South Dakota during the various glacial periods), it kind of works out if the average time between Nino's is about 5 years.

It sounds like the place must have been a terrible trap, but if the number of mammoths yet undiscovered is proportional to the number found so far, the hole claimed only about 1 mammoth per thousand years or so. (And a few other critters as well.) So it didn't make much of a dent in mammoth numbers. Could be that most of the time there was an easy way out.

They found a few tiny fish bones--those probably don't preserve very well. The mammoth bones aren't fossils, and all DNA was washed out of them ages ago. Look but don't touch.

Dogs 2

Earlier I wondered about American dogs--among other things, where they went.

If this story is correct, even what I thought were native breeds (Chihuahuas) actually aren't.

Comparison of ancient and modern American dog genomes revealed that these unique, pre-contact American dogs rapidly disappeared following the arrival of European settlers and left little to no trace in modern American dogs. This disappearance was most likely due to a combination of factors, including new diseases, cultural preferences for European breeds, and extermination of native dogs.

I'd think that exterminating local breeds would rank extremely low on the to-do list of European settlers--but if the reports that European dogs hated the American breeds, it might be something they wanted to attend to. And if we tried to defend our dogs...

‘In fact, we now know that the modern American dogs beloved worldwide, such as Labradors, Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dogs), and Chihuahuas, are largely descended from Eurasian breeds, introduced to the Americas between the 15th and 20th centuries.’

The story goes on to suggest that the only trace of the old American breed is from a transmissible cancer that presumably originated in an American dog and infected the European dogs. Nice and weird.

People talk about trying to restore mammoths from DNA. I'd think dogs would be easier. If there were enough DNA samples. Maybe there are some frozen in the tundra?

Tuesday, July 03, 2018


AVI wonders how deep the differences are between generations. AVI thinks not deep, though he suspects that cars and teenage personal money made changes starting in the 50's and 60's.

Cultural fashions come and go, of course, and what is passe now may revive later. Permanent cultural changes (the spread of a new religion) or technological changes might have clearer consequences.

I wonder how much "use it or lose it" plays a role in shaping the way we think and solve problems. I've done some DAQ work, in which I had to care about what bits were on which traces in the interface card, and had to track down odd program problems with strace. I've also had to use icon-based administration. You think about problems in different ways, approach problems differently. Allegedly the latter approach lets you think "big picture," but corner cases pop up, and you wind up having to know some details anyway. I think about problems a little differently from most of the rest of my family; I suspect because I trained as a scientist.

We have our "go to" toolkit for meeting new problems. Sometimes this is disastrous--think of the folks who use the "nice doggy, here, have a treat" approach to Yellowstone bison. That toolkit is part of our culture. Our urban/suburban toolkit doesn't include anything dealing with edible animals. If it did, I suspect we'd have fewer vegan restaurants. It does include tools for giving the appearance of independence (your own apartment, etc), and the more popular philosophies magnify the importance of independence. I don't see the latter changing without a change in the toolkit, whether that is economic/technological (e.g. apartments get too dear) or religious (e.g. like the Beguines).

FWIW, we use Slack at work. One of the channels is titled "First World Problems." Those are the kind of things that the young and lucky(*) get worked up over. Do we have more of them than earlier generations? That'll certainly make a generational change.

(*) Luck includes wealth.

A garden in East Berlin

If you haven't read the story about the garden that was technically in East Berlin, though the wall was built on a shortcut that put it on the West side, go read it.
The East Berlin guards watched this exchange from a nearby watchtower. They could see he was really annoying the West Berlin authorities - so to annoy them even more, the East Berlin authorities made sure that Kalin had free and full use of the land.

The little glowing screen

When I look around the bus, about half the people are deeply involved with their cell phones. I'd think this was a new distraction, but I'm old enough to remember people deeply involved with their newspapers. And doing crosswords when not reading the stories.

When I rode the Chicago L some people still read newspapers, but if I recall correctly a goodly fraction kept their eyes peeled for tottering strap-hangers. Some of the turns rattled us around a bit. I don't remember having to keep an eye on dicey passengers--not much at rush hour, anyway. At 10pm, somewhat, but the platform seemed riskier, and the entrance still more. The cars themselves were well lit and you could easily see through one to the next.

After running a few numbers, I conclude that the monthly price for a smartphone (over and above the dumb-phone price) is probably comparable to the price of the newspaper--which has been going up lately. Hmm. Have to cough up something for the online access too, so it doesn't quite balance. I don't play candy crunch or whatever it is, I read Facebook maybe twice a month and am not going to display personal stuff to seatmates on the bus, a little bitty screen is hard to read books on, and I don't want to be accessible by email wherever I go. (Contrariwise, I sometimes do want to be able to email somebody else.)

Frequently I solve a thorny problem when I get on the bus and am far away from anything but pen and paper. Maybe that has to do with changing the scene or changing the mode I'm thinking in--and I might prevent that if I brought along a little computer to look at.

Monday, July 02, 2018


When in Caspar we drove by Christ Convergence Church several times. The name didn't seem auspicious. In math-land convergence has a clear and common meaning, but the plurality of popular uses I see are associated with New Age stuff. I looked up the church.

They say they are evangelical, liturgical, and charismatic. I don't know how they square that circle, but if that's what they mean by "convergence," God bless them and I hope it works out.