Friday, May 31, 2019

Poetry and music

I hesitate to call something so short a dream, but I had a dream that I was sitting next to a country music composer of patriotic songs and handing him Kipling's Et Dona ferentes and suggesting that he might find it inspiring. I suppose I had been slightly irritated sometime the previous day...

On waking, I thought the notion rather fitting. Perhaps not that work in particular (a nice idea, but a trifle clunky), but honor and common sense and place matter in his work--and I can't imagine pop singers touching Danny Deever with a barge pole, though a few country singers might. On the other hand, Pete Seeger or Joan Baez might have done something with Birds of Prey March. Kipling often uses a much longer line than most songs do, so quotation probably won't fly.

If you could find an American idiom for the phrase Gods of the Copybook Headings, that one might almost write itself--but not by Taylor Swift.

UPDATE: Spell-check turned "ferentes" into "ferments"

Spectra of meteors

I forgot the charger for the laptop, so I had to try to think things out instead of looking them up.

What would meteors made of chunks of stuff like Bennu seems to be do when they hit the atmosphere? The soft conglomeration stuff should shatter easily and vaporize quickly, while the denser rock should punch through deeper. If the soft and hard stuff are made of different minerals, you should see different spectra at different points along the trail.

I tried to come up with a design to collect lots of data quickly, by having the telescope direction follow the radiant point, using a "cone" of mirrors inside to reflect concentric circles of light onto collector mirrors (of truly weird shape) and then onto diffraction gratings for on-line analysis. You'd get fairly coarse track resolution, of course. The whole business could be triggered by sensing whether there was a flash of light or not. (Too long a flash is an airplane or firefly, too short is an artifact or a coincidence. No flash means no meteor--just background.)

It could work. I think. There might be too much smearing of the image, though.

It turns out that this sort of analysis has already been done. If you shine the light on a diffraction grating, instead of getting a line in the sky you get a wide spectral smear, sort of like a feather--if you are lucky and the meteor's track is parallel to your grating. All it needs is lots of pictures and lots of patience and careful study of photographs of the steaks.

And different meteor showers do have different compositions. And there can be a difference in what appears at higher altitudes, as shown in the last image on that page.

Of course the atmosphere glows too when it gets hot, and there's black body radiation as well as the spectral lines, so it isn't trivial to parse out the details.

Travel notes: gaming and casinos

Gaming and casinos blight towns. They suck up the money and the hope. Who hopes to start an auto repair shop when a winning tickets seems so much easier?

Within a hundred yards--a gaming parlor and two pawn shops.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Revelation 21-22

"There will no longer be any night." Two meanings come to mind: no more night in the sense of danger and evil ("So after receiving the morsel he went out immediately, and it was night."), and also in the sense of "party's over, go home."

On thing that has always annoyed me about large parties is that you can't be with everyone you want to. Somebody is always at the far end of the table--you can only talk with the 2 to 4 people next to you. That is the sad consequence of a table's geometry.

The New Jerusalem has some curious features--there's a river through a cubical city 1500 miles on a side (the Earth was known to be round) with the same tree on both sides of the river. I get the impression that this isn't a literal image but an impression. Lovecraft was enamored with the idea of non-Euclidean geometry to evoke alien dangers. I wonder if a different geometry might have its wonderful aspects.

Friday, May 24, 2019


The Astronomy Picture of the Day of Bennu is very curious. It looks like a scree field, and it probably is scree all the way down. But the rocks are interesting. Much of the stuff lying around is clearly pitted and "space-weathered" and looks like concretions of smaller bits of stuff--the sort of thing you might expect from gentle gravity pulling dust and stuff together. But some show clean cleavage, as though a hard rock was cracked. If asteroids were built of accumulated cruft, like comets are supposed to be, all of it should be rough-looking.

Meteorites tell us that there are some hard bits in the asteroids--indeed some theories hold that a planetoid, big enough to have the heat and pressure to make rocks, broke up to make the asteroid belt--and all that frail-looking stuff suggests that a lot of the meteor gets splattered away high up in the atmosphere.

The meteor trail in the air is mostly glow from heated oxygen and nitrogen, but I'd expect some amount of light from the frying meteor as well. If (That's a big if. As it says at the link, usually you don't have a spectrometer pointed at the meteor trail.) you could compare the spectrum at the start and at the end, and subtract off the atmospheric contribution, you might be able to tell the difference between the composition of the soft cruft and the harder bits.

An amateur spy

Yesterday the BBC posted a story about a young Ghana lad who wanted to be a spy.
He was supposed to follow his father into the police, but Azeteng dreamed of being a spy. He spent his pocket money on James Bond films and low-budget CIA thrillers, burned on to blank DVDs by traders at the local market. On the weekends, when his father sent him to cut grass for the family’s livestock in a garden behind the police station, Azeteng would pretend he was on a mission, and tiptoe up to the door to listen in.

What he heard on those weekends killed off what little ambition he had to join the police. He heard poor women come to the office to report that their husbands had beaten them, only to be told they would have to pay for a pen to take their statement, or for petrol to drive to make arrests. The tricks were cheap, and the sums pitifully small, but they had an outsized impact on young Azeteng. When he saw prisoners whipped with sticks in their cells, he knew for sure he would not be a policeman after all.

He scraped money together, bought some camera glasses, and went to find out the truth behind the migrant transport chain. He took pictures, notes, and what documents he could find (a dead man's ID)--and nearly died. He saw a lot of death. And you don't want to take that journey if you're a woman.

He says he wrote things down. Presumably he memorized them first and then wrote them when he could be unobserved. Which isn't easy to arrange in a crowded vehicle, or an area guarded by suspicious gunmen.

Then three months later, in February 2018, Azeteng got a call asking him to come back to the NCA offices. They told him that parts of his evidence had been sent to law enforcement in Mali and used in operations in Gao that resulted in the arrests of suspected people-smugglers.


The technical language masked something that had meant the world to Azeteng — his journey had not been in vain. He had gone undercover, and contributed in some way to fighting crimes against migrants.

Quick clarification

The long and complex works (symphonies or novels) aren't by those qualities alone better than shorter and simpler works (song or short story). Some tunes are meant to be short and focussed, just as some stories are gems when short and flabby when expanded. I didn't intend to disparage any country genre or performer.

There are some books I've re-read several times (off the top of my head: Treasure Island, Screwtape Letters, Lord of the Rings, Descent Into Hell, The Longest Day, Dinosaur Beach, and others). But there are short stories I've re-read many times too. Don't ask me which is better.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Country Classics

I heard the phrase after listening to Rachmaninoff’s 2nd, and so naturally it made me think of crossovers and fusion.

I tried to imagine Dolly Parton singing Vocalise. She undoubtedly has heard it, and could probably do a fine job with it. I’d guess most big-name singers were introduced to, and probably trained on, some of the classical composers. I suspect her fan base would be respectful, admire the result, and maybe even ask for it now and then.

How about the reverse? The themes are often similar. Consider Drinkin’ Problem vs Carmina Burana. And quite a few composers were inspired by folk tunes. For American tunes, think of Copland. I have to confess I’m not terribly fond of his work.

For apples to apples, and maybe some actual fusion works, you’d have to look at short pieces. Ballads can run on for a while, but I haven’t heard many that were musically complex, though some short country songs are. So "short" is mandatory. The most famous compositions by the big name classical and romantic composers are far longer than your average song, and generally quite complex, but they wrote plenty of shorter ones too, and modern songwriters borrow from sections of longer works. (a partial list) And besides tunes, country composers can borrow what melodic tools they please from the common heritage.

You shouldn't need a steel guitar or a fiddle to reproduce the country musical idioms.

I don’t see why this couldn’t work. Which probably means somebody did it 70 years ago and I never got the memo. I try to research posts, but there's a lot I don't know. I never got very far in music theory. There's probably some key word of jargon that would have made google tell me all.

A story not told

There's a story I look forward to hearing someday. In Mark 16 we read about the angel saying to the women to "tell his disciples and tell Peter." In Luke we read about the Eleven saying "It is true! The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon." And in John we read the touching story of Jesus meeting Peter and several others, and asking if Peter loves Him.

John is famously not entirely chronological, but he specifies that the latter scene is "after" appearing to the other eleven, and therefore presumably well after the Emmaus trip. And Peter is with other disciples, and not separate, as is implied in the Mark passage.

So I'm guessing there was another meeting, in between Luke 24:12 and Luke 24:34, in which Jesus appeared to Peter. I wonder what was spoken, and what was communicated. It brought Peter back to the rest.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Doris Day

I saw most of a couple of her movies on TV, but her career arc and my access to media didn't mesh well--and I was more of a Night Gallery than romantic comedy fan.

I read a smattering of retrospectives of her life. They discussed the popularity of her personna. They shared a very odd assumption--that a virginal girl-next-door can't be intensely sexy.

Hospitality for Taliban talks

The BBC reports that the Pentagon wanted to pay for Taliban representatives while they were at peace talks.

This turns out to be forbidden, thanks to a clause inserted by Rep Visclosky:

None of the funds made available by the bill may be used "to pay for the expenses of any member of the Taliban to participate in any meeting that does not include the participation of members of the Government of Afghanistan or that restricts the participation of women", the legislation said.

"Mr Visclosky included the provision because the request for funding would violate laws concerning material support for terrorist groups, said Mr Spicer."

"Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said it was like "life imitating The Onion"."

I agree, but not for the reason Ellis thinks. I can see worrying that we might give up on the GofA and cut them out of the negotiating loop--and Visclosky might be worried about that. After watching the GoA for some years now I don't share that concern for the GoA. But "restricts the participation of women?" This is the Taliban you're trying to talk to. We're not in a position to dictate surrender terms.

Straight out of the Onion...

Monday, May 13, 2019

Why God? by Rodney Stark

His introduction eviscerates the conventional wisdom about religions and religious organizations in sociology. Is religion the way the oppressed cope? Nope--the elites tend to be more religious than the masses. Were religions designed as means of social control? Hardly. Do primitive tribes have primitive concepts of God(s)? Nope--There's a High God tradition almost everywhere. Many popular attempts to define religion and its role in society and personal life use name-calling rather than analysis, and lots of non-falsifiable definitions. (In a later chapter he apologizes for and then demolishes one of his own early works.)

He says he will do it differently--and he does. He lays out proposition and definition after proposition and definition, with explanations for why along the way.

Jesus is one of his examples of religious founders, of course, and Stark is so dubious about his details that I wonder if he felt he had to act more cynical than the facts actually warrant. Mohammad's life is attested only quite late, but he cites it without much caveat.

At any rate, he builds his theories on an entirely humanist and economic model. He is aware of The Idea of the Holy but rejects the principle for his purposes. That makes his framework shaky, because insofar as a human actually is in contact with the transcendent, the usual economic concerns no longer work the same way--and feedback can shape the nature of the beliefs and organizations that result.

On the other hand, the framework fits the way religions work around the world, how they evolve and fission--and sometimes merge. One set of his propositions (illustrated by examples) hold that it is the ecclesiastics, and not the average church-goer, who tries to move a church from a "high tension" relationship to the rest of society to a "lower tension" relationship. The clerics are more likely to turn atheist than the congregants. And one of his final conclusions is that some form of religion is a rational position.

One of the things that people have noticed for thousands of years is that women are more religious than men. He looks at that a little closely, and connects it with another way men differ, on the average, from women--much greater risk-taking, especially in youth. "Research on 1,148 newly ordained clergy in the Church of England found that their average score was well below the national average for English men on a scale of risk taking. Finally, the gender difference in religiousness is very large among Orthodox Jews but is nonexistent among Jews who do not believe in life after death and who therefore percieve no risk in being irreligious."

I'd like to see those distributions myself before I sign onto that hypothesis. For example, what is the distribution of religiousness among those Jews who don't believe in life after death? Is it skewed so low that male/female differences are no longer significant? Does male/female religiousness equalize with age, or is set early on and stable thereafter?

One of his observations is that the rich and powerful are more likely to get involved in a new religion, or more deeply in an old one--so presumably they feel a spiritual lack--presumably because they have the leisure to feel it and do try to do something about it. The poor have lots of this-world existential worries.

He insists on a definition of religion in which there is a supernatural, which excludes quasi-religions like worship of the state or political party or the glorious leader. While this is fitting and proper, the erzatz religions need to be accounted for somehow, since they fill the same sort of role. I suspect they follow the same sorts of principles too, and will, over time, evolve in the same sorts of ways. Devout environmentalists don't seem to come from the poorer classes (match)--are there splits in groups as "high tension" devotees become dissatisified with the "medium tension" big tent organization? (If so, another match)

Read it.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Experts sometimes see things differently

The Chicago Tribune reported "A judge allowed a 14-year-old boy to go home and come back Monday after he was accused of opening fire at the CTA’s Argyle station in Uptown this week." ... "the judge found that under the law he must be released because he was held in custody for 42 hours by the police and was not brought before a judicial office within 24 hours," (The "kid" targeted 2 men at the station--one is in serious condition.) The police said they feared for his safety. via Second City Cop

My first reaction was "What about the safety of everybody else?" But I read further, and got the picture. The "kid"s face was published. The gang he was attacking knows who he is, and the guy who assigned him the failed kill might worry about getting ratted out. I wonder where he is now.

UPDATE: He remained in custody because his mother never showed up.

On Monday, the boy’s mother told Cook County Juvenile Division Judge Linda Pauel that she was hesitant to take custody of him because of concerns about a retaliatory attack against her son.

“I am not a police officer to guide or protect him,” she said. “If I came to pick him up, they might see me with him and attack me, how would I handle that?”

Flu shots

You should probably get them, but I can testify that they aren't 100% effective. I've been downed by worse stuff, though.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


I noticed a discussion on Althouse about California and "cool." There's an attempt to define "cool." A way I heard it described makes sense to me.

Up until age 7 to 9, you're cool automatically. You're you, and your interests are organic. When you're an adult, survival responsibilities push "cool" off the radar. The in-between adolescent years, when you and your interests are often heavily peer-shaped, is the only time you care about "cool." Of course some people never grow up...

That's a bit oversimple, since adults generally want to be accepted as much adolescents, and shape their clothing and language and political dialog accordingly. That adjustment doesn't seem to have that "fringe of stardom" aspect that "cool" does, though.

Thursday, May 09, 2019


Super-compressed water seems to form a new state of matter in which the oxygen atoms form a lattice and the protons migrate around within it. That's not quite what you think of as a solid, nor what you think of as a liquid. It was proposed years ago, and appears to be verified by some new experiments. Powerful lasers blast diamond anvils, and the resulting explosion propels them into each other, compressing the bit of water in between them. Another set of lasers vaporizes iron at the side, letting the experimenters do X-ray crystallography.

Maybe Uranus and Neptune have some of this in their cores--or a mix of this and some other stuff. It might explain their weird magnetic fields.

I wonder what other bulk properties you could get?

Wednesday, May 08, 2019


Tracking down references from The Subtle Art of the Mathematical Conjecture, I ran across Art of Problem Solving, which bills itself as providing online courses ranging from "Introductory Math (Prealgebra to Geometry)" to "Advanced Math (Calculus to Olympiad Geometry)". It looks like an interesting resource: Twin Primes Conjecture, which leads to Brun's Constant (≈ 1.90216058) which might be a little heavy going for most advanced high schoolers. After the fact you can follow the proof, but coming up with it yourself would be challenging.

Anyhow, the Quanta link at the top is worth reading.

Mathematicians noodle around and find some pattern that looks interesting, and might be generally true. Then--you make a conjecture: X is true. Try to see if it is. If it is, publish. Or not, when the reviewer reminds you that it is a simple corollary of Bzirp's Theorem, published in 1905 in a Czech-language journal. (You have to know the jargon well to do a thorough literature search, and I'm not as well-versed as the pros. No, that didn't happen to me.)

Sometimes I've found my conjecture to be false, sometimes true and trivial, and most frequently I can't figure it out. The interesting conjectures are the ones that are simple, seem to be pretty easy, and take years--because the problem is really deep. Fermat's famous theorem was finally proved, but IIRC the journey there involved details about properties of elliptic curves and ran to hundreds of pages and several branches of math. I'm not sure he could have put it in the margin even with microfilm.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Swimming upstream

AVI wrote a series of posts exploring the essay "Who goes Nazi": here, continued, and
the original Harper's article. (alternative link) The thesis of the original article was that certain temperments and life-styles were especially susceptible to the appeal of a tribal and dictatorial philosophy. I use the word "tribal" rather than racist to generalize the claim. AVI noted that many of the "expected resisters" had already resisted groupthink in small ways.

We could distinguish the early embracers from the go-alongs. From You Call This Living?: "Comrade, I heard that you are a Christian" "A believer, but not practicing." "But you are a party member?" "Practicing, but not a believer."

If "everybody" else is doing it, well, "it is not good for man to be alone" and we're made for community--we're apt to adjust ourselves to that community. In the short term this can happen pretty quickly if your job prospects depend on not noticing that there are 2 sexes, or on not noticing that the Party can make mistakes. The next generation grows up with a new normal.

I spent my junior year bused to Little Rock Central High School. An experimental class on film-making called Project Tiger wrote and produced a movie on the famous integration of LRCHS in '57. I applied and got in on the script-writing team. We went through the archives, and were duly horrified at the racist calling cards and speeches; but we also watched some footage of protestors and I had a little epiphany of sorts. The folks I was watching were no better, and no worse, than the folks I saw on the streets outside. The only real difference was what sorts of evils were fashionable and accepted. Overt racism of that '57 sort (from whites anyway) was almost unthinkable in '72. But in '57 it was almost unremarkable in that town.

Were they hard-core racists? That depends on what you mean. They acted the part quite well, and got angry at the appropriate moments, and said the correct vile things. But some of those same people were alive in '72. I never tried to find and question any of them, which probably showed uncharacteristic wisdom on my part. But given how widespread the protests were, I undoubtedly knew some people who had supported the protesters. I'd bet that if pressed they would say that those were different times and they know better now. "Different times" = "different fashions" If you worked hard enough, and earned their trust, you would find a few that would say things in private that they wouldn't say in public. But most, unless I completely misunderstood the people I knew, wouldn't say such things even in private. (Some say that American society is and always has been irredeemably racist. Either they never learned what actually happened then, or they live in an echo chamber today--or they are lying for advantage.)

Could those attitudes come back? Sure. Similarly tribal attitudes are deeply entrenched in academia--not on the basis of skin color, but just as "othering" and angry. I've heard quite a bit of venom attached to the phrase "red-neck." Anything can happen. Who resists those attitudes? That's like the "Who Goes Nazi" question, but harder--since it isn't just a matter of rejecting the blandishments of a rising power. It's trying to swim upstream; the ideology is already in power.

It is harder than it seems to think outside the Zeitgeist. Orwell wasn't entirely right, but it is hard to think different thoughts when the language categories don't make it convenient. Suppose the category of "rights" wasn't part of the way people talked. "Duties" and "traditions" and "appropriate" and "outsider" and "family" and "clan" and "ruler" and "subject" ... how do you talk about "human rights" in that environment? If we're cut off from the thoughts of the past, we're especially vulnerable. And if we're cut off from God...

"The modern boy might think he too would stand nobly aloof from a degraded age as Columbus set out from Palos, refusing to participate in the expulsion of Jews, or going along with the Spanish version of the Inquisition, or watching slaves be sold in the market. But he would. Nearly all of us would, or would put up with it." America is claimed to be a Christian nation, but I don't think it would take twenty years for a shift to Chinese or Henry VIII-type state-approved churches to become the norm, and the members thereof be ready to complacently watch the punishment or even execution of the orthodox Christians. I'm not predicting this, but it is possible, and my point is that I judge that the change could happen very quickly. So could civil war, or a number of other bad things. But good changes can happen too. The Spirit of the Age has an opponent.

Other info: dutch and obit

Saturday, May 04, 2019

If it's broke but it doesn't matter

The collaboration week (longer than a week if you include the pre-meetings) is finally over--perhaps now the lustre filesystem will quit wedging. I spent some good sleep time trying to get it back after the evening crashes, and our expert spent a fair bit of morning time on the morning crashes (and my typo). The talks were interesting, and so were the discussions offline--and the rule about experiments being believed by everybody except the experimenter is apt.

One researcher found a problem with how we unpack the waveform from the raw data. It's a real bug, and could conceivably have a detectable impact on low energy analysis and on analysis of events with very many signals. We have been gearing up to re-process all of our data and put the fix into the software running at the Pole.

Except: it doesn't seem to have any impact on any of the analyses! They look the same with and without the fix. We haven't heard from the low energy folks yet--they should have the answer next week. Or maybe later, thanks to the filesystem crashes. I suspect that we won't be implementing the fix anytime soon, and certainly not reprocessing the raw data. Not until the next big bug is found--provided that bug actually makes a difference. Then we'll lump all the fixes together.

FWIW, lustre is free (except for our time), and the rest of the pack is either not quite what we need, less mature, or eye-wateringly expensive.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Life's little joys

This evening while my son-in-law and I were talking outside beside the garden where we had been putting up a hardware cloth garden fence, a rabbit attempted to jump through the fence and bounced off. It took a while to stop laughing.

Thursday, May 02, 2019


Off to the Smithsonian: one of our optical sensors will go on display at the Smithsonian--but probably won't see the public until 2026. That's probably appropriate, nobody is going to see the bulk of the installed DOMs for millennia--when the glacier reaches the ocean.

The article does have a howler: "The sensors, about \$5,500 each, must weather the extreme cold and pressure of the frozen tundra." No, the South Pole is a glacier; no tundra anywhere nearby. Over a mile of ice, yes--that's a lot of pressure.

The next stage of research for IceCube is burying more sensors to increase tenfold the amount of space able to be detected, according to IceCube lead investigator Francis Halzen.

The project, which will begin sometime after 2022, is called Gentoo, a nod to a penguin species living on Antarctica.

“That’s as close as physicists get to a sense of humor,” Halzen joked.

In case you missed it, Generation-2 = Gen-2 = gentoo

BTW, the next stage isn't Gentoo, but an upgrade project that is a proof of principle--a few more strings with different types of sensors.
The schedule is going to be very tight. Some systems are supposed to be ready by next March, but funds to start ordering boards haven't been released by NSF yet. Some people are going to be very very busy in the next few weeks.