Sunday, March 31, 2019

Very free translations

The lyrics of the most common English version of Desafinado had nagged at me over the years. The singer seems pretty self-centered--and insulting as well: "what good's a heart that's slightly out of tune. Tune your heart to mine the way it used to be." The original is pretty much 180 degrees different. Don't blame me for not satisfying your perfect ear, "In the chest of those who sing out of tune, A heart is beating as well."

History notes

History is interesting, and sometimes instructive. I'm not sure whether to classify these as lessons learned, or rules to apply. "Embrace the power of and."
  1. "Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." People are screwed up everywhere.
  2. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's a really good rule, but you can find exceptions. There are people with the integrity to handle power. I say nothing about their personal lives; some of them have been seriously unpleasant. But they managed their public responsibilities correctly. The problem for the rest of us has been that there's no way to accurately identify these people--volunteers should be instantly disqualified--and as sure as Absalom this kind of integrity isn't a hereditary trait. (Possibly this is because because their screwed-up-ness can manifest in family relationships, or possibly because noblesse oblige is wildly unpopular among the entitled.)
  3. Maslow to the contrary, the most powerful human need is for self-justification. This means histories need to be read carefully. I tend to trust warts-and-all histories a little more. Sometimes. I'm not sure how far I trust Procopius.
  4. The virtues and skills that successfully build a tribe or an empire aren't the same as the ones that successfully maintain it. Sometimes they militate against stability--think of Alexander the Great.
  5. In a related feature, the virtues and skills needed to attain power are not at all the same as those needed to use it well, or even necessarily to hold on to it.
  6. Corollary: wisdom is not needed to attain power. It might even be a liability.
  7. Some people hunger and thirst for power. They make it an end in itself, and are very dangerous.
  8. In dangerous times, people will put up with evil characters, provided those evil characters are on their side. They will make tradeoffs--"We'll forgive those crimes and give you X amount of land if you'll stop the invaders from killing/enslaving us." It is very easy to judge their decisions from a point of safety.
  9. "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time..." A lot depends on how long you need to fool them.
  10. People love magic words. By and large they don't think too hard about what they mean.
  11. After a generation, nobody remembers benefits, but everybody remembers injuries. Generally the forgetfulness is faster than that.
  12. Mobs are fickle. Rulers are even more so. Don't even ask about courtiers.
  13. Rulers can't trust anybody. Nobody should trust them.
  14. One goodie today is worth ten tomorrow.
  15. Tribalism is the default setting for human relationships.
  16. People are pretty much the same mix everywhere, but different cultures value wildly different things. Lots of groups have (and some still do) valued "killing non-persons and taking their stuff." As a more innocuous example, Western individualism isn't that common around the world. If you don't appreciate that, you'll never understand them.
  17. Some cultures are worse than others. Even the bad ones have some virtues anyway. They wouldn't survive if they didn't. It is stupid not to recognize those.
  18. History is a wonderful opportunity to look at your own culture's values.
  19. What the rulers want doesn't always match what the common folk want. One famous example is the US Civil War. The leaders of the South were explicit about what they wanted. What they urged the common folk to fight for was something different.
  20. Religion is extremely important. It is the center of a civilization. Rulers find some religions easier to turn to violence than others, but they usually find a way. Atheism has been even easier to manipulate.
  21. In dangerous times, it is not fun to be a woman. And often in non-dangerous times too--it depends very strongly on the culture.
  22. Sometimes providing an option to your enemy to let him back down and still save face works. Sometimes it doesn't.
  23. UPDATE: Even slaves have to be taken into account. If there's nothing in it for them, you have to spend lots of effort to keep the oppressed oppressed.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The day the Cretaceous died

"this whole site is the KT boundary!"

An amazing find, if it pans out.

Yes, it sounds too good to be true.

Taboo breaking

Someone who posts under the name of "Sophia's Favorite," (?probably the same person) who knows a lot more about anthropology and comparative religion than I do, pointed out an interesting connection: "limit experiences" ("He went on to challenge surrealism with a kind of anti-idealism searching for what he called the impossible by breaking rules until you reached something beyond all rules.") are exactly parallel with witchcraft ("In contradistinction to "sympathetic magic," these opposite manifestations of magic may fitfully be described as "transgressive magic," because they are based on the violation of fundamental taboos. ... taboos are sometimes deliberately violated by individuals with the intention of thereby obtaining certain benefits.").

Foucault (the subject of the first quotation) wanted to break rules--break taboos--in the hope that somewhere at the end of all the broken laws would be something superior to all the laws. That it is called "experience" is telling--it is something for him or his emulators, not for the rest of us. It is something which obviously makes him superior to the law, and presumably to the rest of us as well. The classic witch wants power, and will violate any law to get it--notably including human sacrifice. (Leopard Societies are still active.)

S.F. calls Foucault a "skinwalker." We're not talking about a Stephen Schwartz witch here. More like this.

In fact, one of the sources of a witch's power is the fact that the witch refuses to recognize boundaries, and thereby terrorizes others. Still better is if the witch can persuade you that he is superior because he breaks taboos. An "unshockable" person is obviously more cosmopolitan and experienced than the rest of us, right? Or else his heart is more deadened and his conscience more seared--pick one.

I leave the application of this observation to modern arts as an exercise for the reader.

Updates for (I hope) more clarity).

Friday, March 29, 2019


Real Clear Science has a brief overview of the spread of the use of the metal tin.
The first known tin bronzes seem to have appeared in the Caucasus region of Eurasia in about 5800 to 4600 BCE. That these very scarce early examples of tin bronze may have been accidentally made from rather rare ores that naturally contained both copper and tin simultaneously.

There is abundant evidence that by about 3000 BCE, tin bronzes were being made in the Aegean and Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran) by deliberately alloying tin and copper, with the ores being obtained from separate sources.

I'm trying to imagine what the smelters/blacksmiths would have been doing.

They need surplus. If every bit of your product is in high demand, you don't have time/resources to tinker. But if you have some spare time, and your stock in trade is the (sometimes literally considered magical) transformation of rock into shiny metal, you're going to try other rocks to see what you get. Just a guess, but probably most of the tinkerers would be young men trying to prove for themselves what would work and what wouldn't. More experienced smiths would probably have developed rules of thumb about which rocks work and which don't--and the rules of thumb only worked for a subset of the ores they handled.

If you have a surplus, you can afford to "waste" a batch by mixing metals together. Maybe it will be just as good, probably it will be worse, every now and then it will be better.

But, and I'm guessing here, it doesn't seem likely that there would be a trade in rocks as such. So if you didn't have tin ore nearby, you would never try it for yourself.

One possibility is that a local smith who made stuff out of tin was given some trade copper whats-it to repair, and, not having enough copper left, filled up the lack with tin--and it worked. There was trade in copper ingots back in Greek times--that had to start somewhere.

Another is that the blacksmiths who learned to use the "joint" ore were recruited elsewhere, and finding the local ore only had part of what they needed, recruited traders to prospect around looking for the kind of rocks they thought they needed. ("Take this along with you, and if you find something that looks like it, bring back a vat's worth for me.") Once a good source was found... it was rare and valuable. "Evidence of tin trade in the Mediterranean can be seen in a number of Bronze Age shipwrecks containing tin ingots such as the Uluburun off the coast of Turkey dated 1300 BC which carried over 300 copper bars weighing 10 tons, and approximately 40 tin bars weighing 1 ton"--though that was almost a thousand years after that area had started exporting tin.

Once knowledge of tin's utility spread, it would spread faster within a civilization, but outside of a society it probably only spread by slow migration of blacksmiths who learned from blacksmiths. Especially in areas where the blacksmith was thought to be a magical person... Guessing.

It says here that copper smelting (as opposed to use of raw copper) appeared in South America circa 500-800 BC, but making tools didn't seem to be a priority and though there was a little arsenic bronze, there wasn't much bronze until about the time Cortez showed up. In North America raw copper was straightforward to come by, and smelting wasn't economical, so no sophisticated metallurgy developed. (Curiously, the Pacific NorthWest had iron--salvaged from wrecked Japanese ships.)

If most of the metal was ornamental, and the color was the most important aspect, it isn't obvious to me that the useful aspects of bronze would have been as obvious to the American smelters as it was to the Eurasian smelters.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

"The slowest of the performing arts"

Plant Breeding: Prof Irwin Goldman

RR Lyrae stars

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is of globular cluster M15.

The variable stars are easy to spot in the animated gif, and there are a lot of them. Go watch it for a minute.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Michel Bacos

He was the leader, but there were 11 others to salute as well. I haven't found their names yet.

There's a bit more of the rescue story here.

For staying with the passengers and urging other crew members to do likewise instead of accepting release, Bacos was reprimanded and suspended from duty by Air France.

Reading between the lines

Overture panel on 'Miss Saigon' postponed
A panel discussion about the musical "Miss Saigon" scheduled for Overture Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday has been postponed indefinitely because of a misunderstanding among the participants about the goal of the discussion, according to a press release from the arts center.

"...It appears that we were not all on the same page as to our goals, objectives and the purpose for tonight's event," said a statement in the press release

Just an educated guess here, but I'd bet that somebody wanted to grandstand a protest, and made the mistake of tipping his hand. Or guessed that the others would feel compelled to go along anyway.

UPDATE: It looks like I was right. Overture Center worried about the bad press and is rescheduling the panel--well after the show is over. I suspect it won't have had any impact on ticket sales one way or the other.

NASA space suits

A "first" spacewalk with two women was cancelled because NASA didn't have 2 space suits available.

Never mind the desperate scratching about for newsworthy activities; think about that space suit issue. It turns out to be just a symptom.

Did you miss this story too? A space suit almost drowned an astronaut back in 2014. Once back inside the airlock, Parmitano and the other space station crewmembers found that about 1.5 liters of water filled the helmet.

The space suits are kind of old.

A 2017 NASA report on space suits

The spacesuits NASA astronauts currently use on the International Space Station (ISS or Station) – known as Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) – were developed more than 40 years ago and have far outlasted their original 15-year design life.

NASA continues to manage an array of design and health risks associated with the EMUs used by ISS crew. In addition, only 11 of the 18 original EMU Primary Life Support System units – a backpack-like structure that performs a variety of functions required to keep an astronaut alive during a spacewalk – are still in use, raising concerns that the inventory may not be adequate to last through the planned retirement of the ISS.

The Martian rovers lasted well past their promised lifespan (though I understand that the engineers low-balled their lifetime estimates to be on the safe side), but there were plenty of glitches along the way that needed to be fixed remotely. "Hey Dan, can you hang on to the strut for a bit while we download a firmware fix for your propulsion control unit?"

Diophantine equations are hard

There's a solution to x^3 + y^3 +z^3 =33 for x, y, z all integers. 29 is a pretty trivial target. 32 is impossible (as are "all whole numbers that leave behind a remainder of 4 or 5 when divided by 9").

"Until Booker found his solution, it was one of only two integers left below 100 (excluding the ones for which solutions definitely don’t exist) that still couldn’t be expressed as a sum of three cubes. With 33 out of the way, the only one left is 42."

What is “sufficiently interesting,” Booker explained, is that each newfound solution is “a tool for helping you decide what’s true” about the sum-of-three-cubes problem itself. That problem, stated as k = x³ + y³ + z³, is what number theorists call a Diophantine equation — a kind of algebraic structure whose properties have fascinated mathematicians for millennia. “They’re rich enough to encode [other mathematical] statements that have nothing to do with Diophantine equations,” said Browning. “They’re rich enough to simulate computers.”

Monday, March 25, 2019

Money and choice

When you don't have the money for either, there's no question of whether the cooking knife or the axe should be replaced first. I'm not thinking of the feckless poor here, but those who have so little that they can't make choices about what to do. Their only choices are how they choose to think about necessity.

If you do have the money for painting the house, you can choose whether you want to spend the next couple of decades looking at green or blue. Choices are possible, and they shape your life because you can't undo them easily. You've saved up, and finally this year you can take a big family vacation. Just the one, though. Do you want the kids to have memories of the West, or of the East, or maybe New Orleans?

If you're rich, the only choices you have to make have to do with your time. You can have somebody repaint, have one of every kind of kitchen knife just in case, visit a dozen countries in a whirlwind tour. It almost doesn't matter what choices you make, because you have the resources to undo it and make others.

Except, of course, that your time is a finite resource. Turns out money doesn't buy more time.
But it buys a lot of "looking the other way" about any vices you may indulge in.(*) "The rich man's wealth is his fortress, The ruin of the poor is their poverty."

Perhaps that's part of why Jesus wanted the rich young ruler to divest himself of his fortune. It can shield you from a lot of consequences. "The vices of the rich and great are mistaken for error; and those of the poor and lowly, for crimes." The disaster comes when you believe that sort of thing yourself.

We all have to decide about time, and about our attitudes. But I suspect we are able to make a clearer choices about the rest of our life from the middle ground--not so poor as to have no choice and not so rich that choices don't matter.

"Give me neither poverty nor riches"

(*) The rich can afford their vices, for a time anyway; the poor have no such margin for comfort. They are, in fact, endangered by the vices of the rich. I don’t simply mean that the rich man can extort his will from the poor, or wield the law as a club to keep the poor man in his place. He can do worse: He can infect the poor man with his vice, and that may be the quicker way to destroy him."

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Debatable matters

Not everything is equally important. Jesus said so. See Matthew 23:23

You can roughly divide doctrines up into those that

  1. Are vital to knowing God at all
  2. Are important for worshipping Him properly
  3. Have application to our conduct
  4. Don't have any bearing on worship or application

Unfortunately there are disagreements about the divisions.

In fact, some denominations would say I am wrong, and deny that we are capable of making such distinctions. They say that we have to regard everything as important, because we don’t know what small detail may make a big difference. For example, Jesus mentioned a minor but unusual incident from David’s life to draw a conclusion about the Sabbath. Jesus also said that not even the tiniest pen-stroke of the law would be removed until all was fulfilled.

I noticed from Romans passage that Paul tried to stand things on their heads, and said that those with the most detailed regulations about eating and drinking and special days were the ones with weak faith. I suspect that he meant that we should all think of ourselves as the ones with strong faith, and therefore the ones to bend.

Saturday, March 23, 2019


I'd been keeping half an ear tuned to news from France, and the Yellow Jackets are getting to be kind of a big deal there. But since everything I get is from BBC, I haven't been able to de-convolute the filtering bias they use. It helps to have other sources of information, and the protests just haven't been considered very newsworthy here.

I should have been more observant--there's an interesting detail in the Wikipedia link, brought out in the article by Sara Hoyt that's getting attention now.

Friends in France tell me that the Yellow Jackets are mostly middle class and middle aged, people who never even joined in the perennial French sport of striking; people who have jobs, bills, families. My corroborative evidence for this is that the protests happen mostly on the weekend. These people are busy the rest of the time, and can’t afford to lose their jobs.

"On the weekend." That was something I should have noticed. Yes, this could become a very big deal--if there are enough middle-class left in France.

Achievement gap

I've been hearing for several years how the achievement gap in Madison between black and white students is one of the worst in the nation. What could we be doing so badly? We try hard. Very hard.

Madison schools achievement gap driven by higher-than-average white test performance.

Madison students include a larger than average number of children of professors and higher level government workers.

This was the first thing I thought of when I heard of the devastating achievement gap, but nobody seemed to have the numbers in hand.

Friday, March 22, 2019


If the devil is in the details, what happens when the interview is summarized after the fact, and the summary relied on for the details? If you haven't read about how the FBI reports on interrogations, read the story.

Neutrino masses

I'm going to try something a little different this time, and address the report in reverse.

When I was in school I remember the math class made sure, for no apparent reason, that we knew what "COMMUTATIVE" meant. A+B=B+A That seems pretty banal. Of course A-B isn't B-A, but that difference didn't seem worth making up a new word for.

That was the fault of the textbooks. Easy exercise. Take 2 dollar bills and spread them out beside each other so George is looking at you. You will do the same 2 rotations on each one, but in a different order. Rotate the first clockwise by 90 degrees. This rotates around a vertical axis. Then pick up the far end and bring it towards you, turning the bill over in the process. This rotates around an axis that goes left-to-right.

Now take the other bill. Pick up the far end and bring it towards you, turning the bill over in the process. Then rotate it clockwise by 90 degrees.

A lot of things in life are more like those rotations than like grade-school addition--you have to get the order right. You can't put on shoes and socks and expect the same result as if you put on socks and shoes.

Most operations you can do to an object don't commute.

Suppose we have a function that describes the state of a brick. (Humor me) You can look at that function and say: "The brick is in this spot." Now suppose we have a "do-something-to-the-function" thing-a-mabob that we call an operator. The "operator" that I am thinking of right now changes the function so that the position of the brick is "over there." In the real world we call that "shifting the brick." The mathematical description involves an "operator."

That seems a little odd at first glance, but it is very handy for describing elementary particles. (You know that you can't tell one electron from another one, right? That has profound implications for descriptions.)

The model reflects the real world: operators do not always "commute." The order matters.

Some kinds of operators turn the simple function into a more complicated one: sort of like an operator that turns a function about the state of a brick into a function about the state of two half-bricks. I leave the physical interpretation of this as an exercise for the reader.

You can think of a measurement as a kind of operator that multiplies the function by some number characteristic of the thing it is describing--like the mass. Or the color. (Humor me.)

Quantum mechanics was designed to account for the observed fact that some measurements interfere with each other. You can't measure both the x-position and the x-momentum of a particle perfectly simultaneously. (Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) Quantum mechanics reflects this: the operators that measure those things do not commute. The descriptions match--I won't go into the math.(*). Quantum mechanics also relies on the observation that particles are waves.

Different forces involve different operators. So does identification; operators which measure "What kind of neutrino is this?" for example.

We've 3 kinds of free elementary charged particles: electrons, muons, and taus. (4 if you count the W-boson, which I'm not going to worry about here.) The only things that seem to be fundamentally different between them are their masses and their "identity." "Identity" is conserved, btw. A muon and antimuon together add up to 0 muon-ness. You may ask what happened to protons and the rest of the zoo--they're composed of quarks, which can't move around freely like electrons.

Neutrinos seem to match 1:1 with those 3 particle types: electron neutrino, muon neutrino, tau neutrino. They partake of the same "identity" as the 3 also. An electron and an anti-electron-neutrino together have 0 electron-ness.

Here's the weird bit. You can't measure the mass and the "electron-ness" of a neutrino perfectly at the same time. With an electron, you can. With a neutrino, no.

The neutrino is created from some interaction, perhaps radioactive decay of a nucleus. That would give us an unambiguous electron neutrino. But that electron neutrino is a combination of three possible different mass states (alternatively, each mass state is a combination of electron, muon, and tau neutrino), and different masses with the same energy don't move at quite the same rates.

So what started out with unambiguous "electron-ness" will, over time, wind up having "muon-ness" and "tau-ness" too. The operators for measuring the mass don't commute with the operators for measuring the identity.

This results in what's called neutrino oscillation.

The title of The 'True' Neutrino is therefore a bit of a misnomer. Either way of looking at the neutrinos is perfectly fine--in its place. The neutrinos we interact with interact using an identity, and so will always be a blend of the mass states. But we'd really like to know what those masses are. They're small... And you'll notice that I lied up above when I said that "identity is conserved." Because the neutrinos can change, "lepton" number can change too. Just not during an interaction.

The report linked above explains a recent IceCube result in which it seems as though those unobserved mass states have their masses lining up in the expected order--though it's too soon to be sure. The community has had bounds on their size of their mass differences, but that doesn't tell you which is bigger.

(*) Lubos Motl is quite a bit smarter than I, but he keeps mistaking the map for the territory and describing quantum mechanics operators as fundamental. The observations are fundamental and quantum mechanics is the simplest description.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Guinea worms

I hope you consider it good news that the guinea worm is almost extinct.. It's a bright spot in the gloomy headlines--and the Carter Center was a big help.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

More Baltimore, not so deadly

(I can't resist this story, sorry)

Baltimore mayor, when a senator, succeeded in selling a lot of her children's books to the University of Maryland Medical System. Google images of the contents seem rather banal. I wonder how much of the attraction was due to the office? And somehow she is also on their board of directors?

Healthy Holly

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s book company has given \$7,040 in political contributions over the past three years — including a \$5,000 gift to her own campaign.

Healthy Holly LLC also gave \$1,000 through a ticket purchase to Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s campaign, as well as \$1,000 to state Sen. Jill Carter. The Olszewski campaign said Tuesday it would return the money.

Pugh resigned this week from the University of Maryland Medical System’s board of directors after coming under fire for failing to fully disclose the \$500,000 business relationship she had with the system, which bought 100,000 copies of her self-published children’s book series, “Healthy Holly.”

More Healthy Holly

While school officials say they still have no documentation on the 100,000 copies of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s self-published children’s books that were reportedly donated to the school system, there was some late-breaking news on the Healthy Holly front:

“We can confirm that approximately 8,700 copies of ‘Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow’ are currently located in a district warehouse,”


After today’s sighting of warehoused and apparently untouched books, 71,300 more still remain unaccounted for.

Business as usual, I suppose. I wonder if Baltimore has somebody like Mike Royko? He'd have had fun with the story.

UPDATE: As of 26-Mar, people are searching hard to see if they can find any more of the books. The suspicion is spreading that most were never printed.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A little more of the rest of the story in Baltimore

From RealClearInvestigations: how a more-or-less working crime reduction effort went down the toilet. I'd heard a number of early reports, this includes some followup.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Thunderstorms and cosmic rays

Noodling around to learn more from the previous post, I discovered that folks have already observed lightning triggered by cosmic ray showers. Details in the preprint here; the final paper is behind a paywall.

We already know that the electric fields in a thunderstorm can exceed 1-1.5KVolt/cm--that's why you get lightning. One electron knocked loose is accelerated in that field and knocks loose others, and others, and pretty soon you have a nice flash in the sky.

The cosmic rays we see at sea level are mostly just muons left over from more extensive showers of particles high in the atmosphere that came about when some cosmic proton or helium nucleus (or oxygen or iron or) hit a nucleus in our atmosphere. A charged particle flying though the air at high speeds is going to ionize some molecules along the way--providing the electrons needed to start a local cascade.

The experimenters looked for "Extensive Atmospheric Showers:" muons reaching the earth over a wide area and Cerencov radiation from the high altitude particles flying through the upper atmosphere but not reaching the ground. And they looked at lightning flashes, and found some coincidences. Cosmic ray showers can trigger lightning.

They also estimated the energy of the original cosmic ray for an "EAS", and looked at the energy of the radio pulse from it, and estimate that the radio pulse resulting from a cosmic ray shower going through a thunderstorm is many times larger--the thunderstorm amplified it.

FWIW, other work has suggested that the ionization trails from cosmic rays can form "seeds" for water droplets to begin forming, which could have an effect on cloud formation. There is no good reason why cosmic ray rates should be constant over the long term, and some good reasons why they should change--nearby supernovae, for example, could kick the rate way up--and presumably cloud formation rate as well. The atmosphere might be more reflective and the Earth correspondingly cooler.

Thunderstorm electric fields

The Tata Institute, using GRAPES-3 claims to have measured the electric fields in a thunderstorm to be of order 1 gigaVolt.

Their detector measures mostly positively charged antimuons, and the electric field in a thunderstorm would tend to slow them down and reduce their energy--by of order 1GeV. This would cut down the rate considerably. High energy muons would make it without trouble, but fewer of the much more numerous lower energy ones would.

This is a clever measurement.


I can't read the original paper yet, but Whitehorn pointed out that in a thunderstorm there's a gigantic updraft, so the density at high altitudes (10km and more) is a lot higher than before. That slows down muons too, and would likewise reduce the rates. I'm not sure how much.

Hariharan et al could well be right. There's a puzzle--we see anti-electrons from thunderstorms. That speaks of very large energies, which means very large accelerations, which means very large potential differences, and gigaVolt differences are about right.

Trying to import wars

I have ignored Chelsea Clinton, on the grounds that politician's children should not be blamed (or praised) for their parents' policies. OTOH, she has apparently eagerly gotten involved in political punditry, so she's on her own now. And getting slimed. "The 49 people died because of the rhetoric you put out there." What was the inflamatory rhetoric? "We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism." Dweik's response: "People haven’t forgotten the Islamophobic mob she incited against @IlhanMN. There is no sense of responsibility."

So not hating Jews is supposed to encite hatred of Moslems?

I don't want Dweik's home country's wars here. She is here at our sufferance, and she might want to take that to heart.. Don't make me try to take sides in your war.

Popularity downsides

Models, like actors, can do anything, until they get too popular.

The Hungarian government bought some stock images for use in an ad campaign.

The government of Viktor Orban is bringing in a "family protection action plan", which includes tax breaks for mothers of multiple children.

Eagle-eyed Hungarians, however, noticed something familiar about the models on posters that went up in Budapest.

The poster uses a stock image featuring the "distracted boyfriend" meme star and his partner.

They are even wearing the same outfits in both images. Hilarity ensued.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Zero-tolerance rules

The Madison teachers' union claims that teachers who were disciplined for using the n-epithet were not intending to demean students.
The Madison School District's teachers union said Friday that none of six teachers who used the N-word in front of students this school year directed the slur at students or used it in a manner meant to be derogatory.

All of the teachers were removed from their positions shortly after the incidents, and all later resigned.

Writing in the Monday edition of its weekly Solidarity! newsletter, posted online Friday, Madison Teachers Inc. says "some instances have involved staff citing this word as an example of inappropriate language," while "other instances have involved staff repeating offensive comments made by students which included the word."

I gather that simply reporting a class incident may run afoul of this rule.

Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, ... declined to say whether if what the union says is true, the six teachers should have been able to keep their jobs.

I gather that school administrators aren't selected on the basis of common sense. And I'm afraid that Ruben Anthony has safely ensconced himself on my "Political-advantage is more important than truth" list.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

"Time Travel" clickbait

I won't link the clickbait sites that claimed that physicists had reversed time, against the laws of physics.

A better story is here. You know that billiard balls bouncing off each other would look the same if time were reversed, but a video of a dropped egg would look exceedingly strange. The reason has to do with entropy, and the dissipation of structure.

If you take a particle whose position and momentum are known as well as they can be (Heisenberg Uncertainty forbids both being known simultaneously), and let it evolve over time, the waveform describing it will smear out over time. Is that the same thing as the dissipation of structure you get with an egg? Not really, but it looks kind of like it.

They modeled this quantum-mechanical state with quantum-mechanical q-bits.

Instead of an electron, they observed the state of a quantum computer made of two and later three basic elements called superconducting qubits.

The researchers found that in 85 percent of the cases the two-qubit quantum computer indeed returned back into the initial state. When three qubits were involved, more errors happened, resulting in a roughly 50 percent success rate. According to the authors, these errors are due to imperfections in the actual quantum computer.

Or in other words, they modeled the system with something which they were able to reverse (most of the time), just as though time were reversed. Except, of course, that time wasn't reversed, just the structure of the system.

I don't know how the rest of the community is taking this, but it doesn't seem like a surprise to me. The smearing of such a simple system seems very much like a quantum-mechanical analog of those billiards--just the sort of simple thing that could be reversible. I haven't read the paper, so I'm taking them at their word--and it sounds clever. But no, it isn't time reversal.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

School discipline

Does the teacher need it, or the student, or both? There's blurry footage of the teacher and the student and a third party in a conflict in the hall, but nothing from the classroom where it started. District Attorney Ozanne isn't pressing charges: "some members of our community have coupled this information with their own experiences, drawing conclusions that are simply wrong." I only know what I read in the papers about the incident.

The mother of the girl who supposedly had braids pulled out is a special education assistant at MMSD.

"I have been in several situations where students have kicked me, spit on me, broke my ankle, and I still did not conduct myself in that kind of manner," Price said, noting that she believes Mueller-Owens lost his cool and snapped.

"Broke my ankle." I don't believe it is reasonable or right to expect teachers to endure that level of violence from students, no matter how young the students are. I suspect Price exaggerates her experiences, or minimizes her responses. But other reports tell me that many schools do have startling levels of violence, and not just in the inner cities. Teachers aren't the only targets, of course.

I'm well aware, more so than most, that some children have special needs. But when the problems reach the furniture-throwing level,(*) mainstreaming is not a good option any more. Separate classes, extremely tight discipline--maybe those will help. It should help the other students. Maybe there'd be a stigma associated with attending special schools, but there's a stigma associated with throwing furniture too.

(*) Not this case, but others I've heard of. I don't have details and couldn't share them if I did.


I hear that some are advocating military intervention.

If someone will explain what our strategic interest is, and why this would demand our boots on their ground, I'm all ears.

IIRC the Monroe Doctrine was simply that outsiders weren't allowed to intervene, not that we would.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Magnetic monopoles

Mining the CMS beam pipe for monopoles: The old section of beam pipe from the collision region in the CMS experiment (at the Large Hadron Collider) is going to be ground up and fed through superconducting loops, probably with a SQUID.

Good old Maxwell's Equations say that if you have a perfectly conducting loop and you shoot a charged particle through it, there will start to be a current in one direction, which will rise, fall, and die away as the particle passes through and away from the loop.

But if you shoot a magnetic monopole through such a loop, there will start to be a current in one direction which will rise and level off, leaving a constant current flowing through the loop where there was none before.

Nobody knows if there are magnetic monopoles. A bar magnet has North and South poles, and by no contortions can you split or twist it to get an isolated North pole. It would be nice to have some, but despite years of looking nobody has found any.

But maybe, just maybe, some heavy monopoles were made during the years of high energy particle bombardment during the first CMS run. (They didn't see any clear evidence for candidates during the analysis of their detector.)

If monopoles were heavy enough, they might have been stopped inside the 1/10 inch thick material of the beam pipe. If you grind up the material (it is toxic, btw, and was probably radioactive too) and feed it through the loops, maybe you'll see the current rise and not fall again.

That would be, if I may put it mildly, very exciting.

Picture taken from Dzhordzhadze et al. The upper plot simulates the way a current would change with an ordinary charged particle and a monopole. Arbitrary units, and without pesky background noise.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Two views of preparedness

"In our games, when we fight Russia and China, blue gets its ass handed to it" RAND analyst David Ochmanek said Thursday.

Smarter Every Day interviews a 4-star about multi-domain operations.

One detail from each. In the war games, "the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers." In the video, propaganda is a vital part of operations. In the first link, the complexity makes things more fragile; in the second it makes them more powerful. You pick.

Our Achilles heel in some recent conflicts seems to be an absence of clear achievable goals. Neither link deals with that problem.

Risks of the approaching spring

The thaw that makes flowers start to bloom in time to wilt in the next deep freeze may be what gardeners fear, but the former puddles are my bane.

I did the Wisconsin ice dance(*) in the parking lot this morning, and my knee has been getting steadily worse all day. I suppose I'm getting more skillful: I've never before flailed so far without falling down.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Rectification of names

The last post got me thinking about the word "racist." I've said that I didn't think the word had much meaning any more, but that isn't strictly true. Two major factions use the word differently.

One faction uses it in the classical sense of regarding other races as intrinsically unworthy of respect, an attitude generally reflected in actions to demean or exclude or impoverish the others. Among the enlightened, this is a character flaw, and 1) the person with the attitude should learn better and 2) the rest of society should discourage malicious actions. By and large, unexpressed personal attitudes are between you and God and not the business of the rest of us.

The other faction uses it largely in the sense of political systems designed to demean or exclude or impoverish those of some race. The existence of differences is taken as proof positive that such malicious systems exist. Among the enlightened, this is a social menace and 1) the rest of society must change the system(s) to eliminate the menace.

For the latter group, opposition to their changes is racist by definition. It is, using their definition, reasonable for them to say that anyone who disagrees with one of their political proposals is racist.

There is no necessary reason that such opposition should be taken to represent a character flaw. In fact, supporting some of their proposals requires a kind of willful blindness that is a character flaw.

Other word usages seem to need rectification too. "Ally" is a symmetric relationship; what is usually meant by the word is "satellite." And "woke" clearly means "fashionably angry."

Portland update

I promised myself I'd check back later, and almost forgot.

In October 2017, to great fanfare, Portand announced that they'd get rid of their gang database. The database seemed to be heavily loaded with minorities, and therefore by Portland logic it had to be racist.

An audit six months later showed that the police weren't entirely gormless: they kept an informal list of who's who. The usual suspects harrumphed frowningly, of course. One difference between the old and the new was that there was a clear record of why someone went on the old list--not so much for the new one.

Police said the list is no different from fliers that narcotics enforcement officers develop identifying suspects in drug trafficking cases. It's simply a synthesis of police reports and compiled for officer safety, they said.

They distinguish it from the long-standing past practice of designating gang members, which sometimes rested on a suspect's admission of ties to a particular gang, the presence of a gang tattoo or the flashing of a gang sign in a photo.

How discriminatory can you get, that you use a lad's own admission of gang affiliation to put him in a gang-member database? Can't have that. And so he winds up on a different "suspect list" because of "mere conversations" which don't need to be recorded. Either way, everybody knows he's a gang member--probably including the usual suspects. The latter strongly remind me of "Big Tim" Sullivan, who pushed through gun control in New York to protect his street thugs from getting shot by their victims. Am I unfair? I doubt it very strongly. I read history and what I see in modern politics looks very much like ancient politics.

FWIW, homicides went up slightly in 2018 in Portland, but the increase wasn't statistically significant.


I'm not keen on yogurt (how can you tell when it spoils?), but apparently the same sorts of benefits can be had by eating kimchi. Don't overdo it, as the article points out--it has lots of salt and too-great an indulgence increases the risk of stomach cancer. But the magazine Health listed kimchi among the world's 5 healthiest foods. Take all such magazines with a grain of salt, of course.

It is also good to eat when you want to be alone for a while.

Head to head snake charmers

Do you recall a video game called "Snake?" It looks like it resembled an earlier arcade game called "Centipede," which I saw emulated on a terminal on a VAX. A "snake" goes back and forth across the screen, and you control it to try to achieve some goal.

Why use joysticks or keyboard arrows? Play while you play! (I never got the fingering quite right for a recorder. Piano keys are logical.)

Saturday, March 09, 2019

The Three Temptations

A play for radio, by Charles Williams
CLAUDIA. Judgement. It is finished. Now all we,
all we who are here, have what we chose.
This for some of you was your last chance; now
the path is straight; now the love and the wrath
come on a straight path. Once there was a voice crying
in the wilderness, now there is only dark in the wilderness
and a dying everlastingly, a slow perishing
and less and less cherishing of comfort; at last
the stress of the glory is past; this is hell.
I am sent to say softly to anyone who hears—
you would have it; have it then; hell
is always there for the craving, and the having is easy.
For me, the peace of the sword in the heart drives me
out among other lives. Time was; time is past.
Farewell; no prophet shall ever disturb you again,
nor ever the pain of other hearts trouble you.
You wanted your own; have your own; farewell.

Friday, March 08, 2019


Walkers started appearing in the early 1950s. The first US patent was awarded in 1953 to William Cribbes Robb.

It seems, in retrospect, like an obvious device to make. Crutches have been around nearly forever, but the idea of a light wrap-around frame is new. We could have built such things of light wood easily enough--but nobody did.

I suppose one thing that militated against their invention earlier was rutted roads and uneven ground. It helps to be able to set the gadget down and have it stay straight, so you can push down on both sides and keep your balance. We have sidewalks now. Still, even in a plowed field it would be less tiring than a pair of crutches.


I missed hearing about this when it was first dug up. I don't know why the reconstructed spines have those ripples. One thing I'm pretty sure of--they didn't use those spines for sparring with each other--snag and tangle. Since their fronts were so spiky, I wonder what protections they had on the other end?

I love what Google translate did with the last phrase: "les épines devaient être protégées par une corne ou de la peau pour ne pas se casser." ==> "They are devaient because they are protected by a cornea or by a surgeon." (the spines were protected reinforced? by horn or skin to keep them from breaking)

Thursday, March 07, 2019


Harry Harlow ran a famous experiment with rhesus monkeys, in which young ones were put in a cage with both a wire mesh "mother" that gave milk and a cloth "mother." The monkeys preferred to cling to the cloth mother monkey--except to eat. He drew conclusions, which are probably correct, about the need for comfort as well as food.

I have no documentation for the following story!

On my thesis experiment, the spokesman's wife had a friend (I repeat: third-hand story going on here) who had studied at UW during Harlow's work, and whose job involved cleaning his lab after hours. She thought the baby monkeys looked lonely, and she would take some of them out and cuddle them.

In my not-so-humble estimation, this wouldn't change the results significantly. But it is good to remember that experimenters don't always control the variables as tightly as they think they do.

Travel speed

The anniversary of the Concorde reminded me of arguments about it from back in the day. It got you from airport A to airport B twice as fast (provided you were flying over the ocean), but you really wanted to get from home a to meeting b, and the overhead of getting to and from and through airports (and customs) would seem to make the difference less significant.

Let's see.

  • Getting to the local airport: 1/2 hour, including parking
  • Getting checked in: 1/2-1 hour
  • Waiting for the local flight: 1/2 -1 hour.
  • Local flight to Chicago: 40 minutes
  • At this point you might wonder if the bus is faster. Well: 1/2 hour to bus stop, 1/4 hour wait, 3 hour drive, 1 -1 1/2 hour checkin at Chicago. O'Hare's TSA is slower than Madison's and generally less courteous. No, unless the local plane is late, the bus is a bit slower.
  • Wait for Brussels flight: 1-2 hours. Just boarding takes about 1/2 hour.
  • Brussels flight: 8 hours
  • Customs: varies. 1/2 - 1 hour
  • Waiting for Geneva flight: 1-2 hours (you weren't planning to risk missing the next flight on a trans-Atlantic trip, were you?)
  • Geneva flight: 1 1/2 hours
  • Getting out of the airport and to my destination: 1 -1 1/2 hours

So about 15-18 hours, of which only 8 could have been that supersonic flight. So, joy joy! If I could have taken the Concorde, it would have only been 11-14 hours! Even with teleportation from Chicago to Brussels, it would still take 7-10 hours. It beats taking 3 months. Gotta remember to be grateful!

Now, teleportation from Madison to Geneva would be cool, and worth a premium. There are several reasons why that won't happen, so I'll sigh and pass by. Pity.

We're easily willing to invest an hour in getting to someplace interesting. An hour there, spend half the day, come back. My rule of thumb is that if I spend less time there than the trip takes, it is probably not worth it. What if everything were an hour away, though?

Sounds like old sci-fi: "Honey, let's superdrive over and see the pyramids of Egypt today!" The devil's in the details--they're all closed for the evening now; You'd have to get up at midnight to make a day of it.

Details, details. I'm not sure travel speed matters so much for long journeys anymore. The overheads are as large as the travel times. Although bullet trains would be nice. If they weren't more expensive than air travel.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Service nature

It isn’t fashionable to assert that human beings have a nature. Certainly the best circles frown on drawing the obvious conclusions about that nature from observing that we come in two sexes.

Be that as it may, suppose we take a slightly less obvious fact about our nature: we are made to serve each other. You can take a shortcut and borrow that from Christianity, or spend the time watching others and yourself to discover when people seem to be the most satisfied and joyful. It certainly seems to me to be those times when people find themselves useful and are able to help. One way of trying to make a friend in a new situation is to ask for help.

But, thanks to human cussedness, we don’t automatically learn how to be our best selves, and we’re good at doubling down on stupid.

It doesn’t seem to be quite the same when one is compelled to help—if my observations of myself and a number of children are any guide. Parents have the responsibility to compel, for a few years. The children learn, or not. In the meantime, the parents serve the children and each other—and sometimes their infirm parents at the same time.

If this is part of our nature, then it would seem that if a society wants to encourage human flourishing it should try (however incompletely) to help people make themselves useful. In an economy like ours that is usually taken to mean paying jobs.

We could naively say that an authority needs to tell people what to do to make themselves useful. You can easily find volunteers for that position, each eagerly claiming that this is the way they best serve other people. But as already noted, compulsion doesn’t encourage flourishing, and rather few of those volunteers seem plausible as servant-leaders.

Of course sometimes there needs to be compulsion—in wartime. But the habit of compulsion is hard to shake—Great Britain after World War II being a good example. The powers-that-be were addicted to managing the economy and declined to stop. The roles of master and slave are bad for both parties—even though the master may seem to have nice stuff.

We’ve got a problem with employment: higher skilled people are in demand, but there are fewer and fewer positions for low-skilled people. “Positions” aren’t the only way to serve others, but that’s the way we’ve geared things.

I can’t say what plans or policies would make it easier for people with few talents to find ways to serve. Top-down plans haven’t worked, and seem unlikely to ever work. Grassroots plans only seem to appear at very small scales, when everybody knows each other and tries to accommodate the less fortunate. And personality conflicts can wreck those plans too. Some people don’t want to cooperate—sometimes for good reasons, but usually from human cussedness.

On the other hand, a Universal Base Income not only doesn’t address the problem of finding ways for people to serve each other, it undercuts even the simplest incentives to serve.

We may not have a solution, but we can exclude some answers.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


On BBC: "An advert designed to run on the London Underground was rejected because it contained bacon, butter, eggs and jam, an online supermarket said."

Have a look at that picture. Unless you've religious objections to pork (I'm tempted to include vegans in that category), nothing screams "unhealthy!" Just the opposite--it is a collection of foods with which to make other things. The food collection and poses of the people suggest that a home-made family dinner will soon appear.

Somebody decided that the advertisement violated a rule that "Foods found to be high in fat, sugar and salt are now not allowed to feature in advertisements on public transport." Somebody not only decided that this spread was unhealthy, somebody else had to approve it for publication.

We'll never know who. A bureaucrat.

There's good reason for protecting bureaucrats from outside pressure. If you knew who made the decisions about toy safety, you could bribe or intimidate them into going after your competitors' products. (From time to time I wonder if this does happen. The FBI hasn't proved immune to influence.)

On the other hand, some things are so egregiously stupid (I'm thinking of several school boards that got themselves in the news this last year), that some kind of unveiling or impeachment seems appropriate.

Of course such a process could be abused in its turn when something happens that the deep pocketed or well-connected don't care for.

So perhaps it is best to leave things as they are. Though the prospect of consigning the idiots (Hanlon's Razor) to a harmless post counting sand is a pleasant one.