Saturday, February 29, 2020

Haiku month

February has been "Write a haiku a day" month. Why not?

I did it: at least one per day. I picked a topic: archaeology, in honor of the Time Team videos my wife has been watching. (I wanted to be an archeologist when I was 7. And a paleontologist. And maybe a fireman. I've always maintained an interest.)

There are 6 pages worth; some trying for the spirit of the form and others "just following the form."

It was a fun exercise. But the result is an offense against the spirit of the haiku--because it is 6 pages worth.

I should have foreseen that.

UPDATE: Given the underwhelming popular demand:

The careless and slobs
Left great archaeology.
Tidy people don't.

Priestess of Mehyet
Makes a hardened dry grimace
In a library

Thursday, February 27, 2020

My Diary North and South wrapup

I used this as bus reading, so it took a little longer than usual. BTW, 4 pages in that are unreadably blurry. And the ocr scan is nightmarish. The book's pages were a little browned and spotted, and the ocr software frequently went nuts.

Read My Diary North and South for a more-or-less neutral take on the run-up to and beginnings of the Civil War.

Russell is not terribly fond of Americans in general, or American cities in general, or American attitudes in general, though he finds a number of pleasant people and places anyhow. For that matter, you or I probably wouldn't care for the streets in Washington DC at the time--nor those of London.

The newspapers of that day were even greater fabulists than those of today, and every bit as partisan. Wild boasting by officials and common citizens alike ("England will come crawling to our support; cotton is king!" "We can whip the Sesseshers and England and France as well if they get in our way!") tried Russell's patience.

The next-to-the-last straw was his honest report of the retreat from Bull Run. As the (English) bearer of bad news he was blamed for it as though he had caused it. And, though the generals didn't mind his traveling with the army, in the end as the war progressed, he was unable to get permission from the high-ups, and gave up and went home. He was there as a war correspondent, not for amusement.

In the South he observed that, at least publicly, everyone was vehemently for secession, and despised the North and especially New Englanders. The New York elite was, at least until Fort Sumter was shelled, in support of anything that that opposed the hated Republicans (some things don't change much, do they?). He didn't seem to have much conversation with lower classes in either region. He doesn't dwell on it much, but he saw egregious favoritism in army supply, and in which officers got promoted and why. He was not impressed with McClellan, or with the Union armies he saw.

Interestingly, in both North and South, women were more strongly partisan than the men.

He touched on the violence of Southern society, and prevalence of duels (at least one Northern officer died in a duel, so it wasn't limited to the South). I've heard "an armed society is a polite society," but I'm not quite sure about that. If you restrict "society" to a class, perhaps it is. Or perhaps if the society stays relatively sober, it might be.

He arrived after passions were already flaring. He watched as the anger grew after Sumter. I wonder if some of that, in the mouths of former Northern supporters of secession, was from a sense of betrayal.

I think it useful to read of a time when hatreds were even worse than now.

And, given those hatreds, I think we can be grateful for men who were magnanimous in victory, and magnanimous in defeat.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


When I was about 11 or so, I was given an illustrated (with color photos of the artifacts!) novel about Egypt, which followed the transformation of a young "grave robber" into a young archaelogist. Though it probably wasn't great literature, I liked it.

I'm not sure I'd re-read it if I found it again, but the fact that it was part of my life for a while and I haven't a clue where it is or what the title or author was, can feel like an itch.

"It was part of your life, why don't you still have it?"

On the sofa is a children's book, "Into the Mummy's Tomb," that reminded me of that itch, and of the irony of it. The pharoah's thought they were gods, and tried to take all the treasures of their lives with them.

But only God, for whom all time is now, can preserve all our treasures. We use them up or lose them, and can't even step into the same stream twice for a treasured experience. The second kiss doesn't have the same surprise as the first one: better or worse, it's different.

The bookshelves, despite some culling, still have some things that I enjoyed once. I mustn't try to be pharaoh. I read something about "the one who tries to save his life will lose it." Souvenirs can clog as well as encourage.

Cat music

Should vets play "cat music" when they want to handle cats?

Yours truly believes the devil is in the details (were the handlers listening too?), but if you want to see the research, the paper is here.

Snowdon and Teie recently concluded that cats listening to music in their homes prefer music that was specially made with cat vocalizations, with preferred tempos and with normal vocal frequencies as the primary considerations. Cats responded to music positively by orienting and approaching speakers playing cat music more often and quicker than to speakers playing classical music. The cat music played contained melodic lines based on affiliative vocalizations and rewarding sounds. These melodies are interpreted as more likely to be effective if the goal is to calm an agitated cat. The thought and musical design behind composing cat-specific music was based on the idea that the development of the emotional centers in the brain of the cat occur shortly after birth, during the nursing stage. Because purring and suckling sounds are common in this developmental stage, these sounds are layered into tempos and frequencies used in feline vocalization to create cat specific music.

And yes, the students were in the room for part of the "treatment"

After that, two veterinary students proficient in physical examination and venipuncture and trained in the study’s methodology, performed full physical examinations, including turgor test, mucous membrane examination, capillary refill time, oral examination, body condition assessment, abdominal palpation, pulse and heart rate, respiratory rate, cardiopulmonary auscultation and rectal temperature, all while the auditory stimuli continued.

And blood tests for stress didn't show any effect from different types of music.

And--they used 25 cats. Look at the overlap...

Want to have a listen? There's a snippet on this page. I checked YouTube, and a random sampling of "cat music" doesn't sound a lot like that, it's more human-soothing. Though I suppose if you are hyper, your cat(s) might pick up on that.

My take? "Cat music" sounds like it might be real, and it probably doesn't hurt at the vets, but getting hoisted and jabbed by strangers is always going to be stressful.

Monday, February 24, 2020

You Asked For It

Somebody called it the YouTube of the 50's. We watched it a time or two in "reruns" in Liberia. This was the first one that came up in a search--it was new to me, and a seriously mixed bag. It's good to remember that sometimes there are good reasons that some things aren't made anymore. Although-- quite a bit of YouTube (including professional performers' work) is in execrable taste too, so there's no evidence for moral improvement and uplift.

People wrote in to ask for a wrestling chimp, Ivory Joe Hunter's TV debut, a magician demonstrating card shark tricks, a William Tell shot, and a blackface song with one of the Jolsons.

I remember one episode which demonstrated the power of human temperature management through sweating. A man and a pan of brownie batter went into an oven (wooden seats for the man) for 15 minutes at (I don't remember) degrees. The brownies came out at least superficially cooked, and the man came out a bit dehydrated but OK.

Sunday, February 23, 2020


Althouse has a post up on the "subject." I don't know if this approach is strictly relevant, but in case you aren't familiar with the story...

Laura Fermi wrote:

Leo Szilard stayed several years with the phage group between two periods of intense political activity. Before revealing his interest in the phage, Szilard had visited Luria's laboratory at the University of Indiana. 'Doctor Szilard, I don't know how much to explain,' said Luria, embarrassed by the presence of the great nuclear physicist. 'I don't know what to assume ...' 'You may assume,' Szilard replied promptly, 'infinite ignorance and unlimited intelligence.'


A slogan has to be pithy. Quite a few have a bit of Motte and bailey to go along, and once that hook is set, the rest of attitude should come along.

I posted a piece on deniability a while back, looking at "Black Lives Matter "as much as anyone else's""(*) and "We should have picked out own cotton "instead of bringing in slaves"" as examples. They seem undeniable statements (at least to a modern American), but the subtexts that come along with them, and the political attitudes that come with the subtexts, are other things entirely.

Another slogan came to mind recently: "God is still speaking." This means something within a Christian context--it isn't aimed at other religions. It seems straightforward enough--God is still calling, still disclosing to each individual what others may have already heard. It isn't simple to deny this.

The subtext is "God is revealing new things to us." That's a lot more controversial. Some with inadequate knowledge of history will argue that "Christianity used to approve of slavery; now it doesn't--see, God has revealed something new!" And it is true that the Western churches (not excluding Catholics--remember the filioque!) have indulged in some innovations.

But if you go along with that, the attitude that comes with it is (at least today): "The voice of fashion is the voice of God." I'm sorry if that seems unkind, but the way I've seen people "evolve" does not at all suggest careful thought or Divine revelation. On the contrary; oversimplifications and straw men abound, and herds rather than pilgrims.

Another (used to veto adding "and God" to a phrase about "Christ our Savior"!) is "Unity, not uniformity." That seems nice enough--so long as you're talking about non-essentials. The subtext is "Your concerns are inconsequential."

The unasked question is "In what sphere is this unity to be? If we're not just a social club, who are we worshiping?"

From the more conservative side, I can't think of many such slogans--some name-calling, but not slogans. I'm probably forgetting something.

Of course there are the aspirational slogans "Each one win one" or "Fifty-four forty or fight," where there's not a lot of hidden subtext ("Learn to evangelize!" or "We want that land!").

How about "No king but Jesus!" from the Revolutionary War? Some of that was from people who were serious about not wanting kings (1 Samuel 8). Maybe part of the support from that came from people whose religion might be forbidden if the king revoked their charter. But I'd bet a lot came from people who wanted to sound holier than they were.

(*) I haven't heard much from BLM in our area recently--possibly because the local organization wound up headed by intersectional types, who probably aren't quite as popular with the rank and file.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

For all your werewolf-defense needs

Silver bullets.

If you want to take up a career as a Lone Ranger you need these. And a loyal sidekick, though those aren't available through this vendor.

Sighting-in might be a little pricey, though if you just use them as calling cards you probably wouldn't have to fire any.

No, I'm not on their mailing list--this link was circulating

Friday, February 21, 2020


How particle physics could prevent financial fraud
Most transactions, or collisions, show no anomalies. But when they do, this may lead to new ground-breaking insights for both economists and physicists.

>Hence this new collaboration plans to combat fluctuations in markets caused by anomalies, by combining the unique commodity and financial market data and understanding from CORMEC and WUR with CERN’s ROOT data analysis expertise and techniques.

Forgive me for snickering.

The story isn't about any breakthrough--just the announcement of a research partnership. Maybe they'll come up with something useful, but I'd bet on more false positives than detections of nefarious activity. (How do you detect insider trading?)

ROOT is a kitchen-sink tool. It allows you to structure and manipulate your data, manage I/O, and provides huge number of tools for fitting, analysis, plotting, and various other goodies as well. About a decade ago they did a static analysis of the code and found all sorts of problems that I hope they've fixed. If you restricted yourself to the high level routines you were pretty much OK, but if you had something more complex (e.g. an event display, or low level I/O), it was an uphill climb to migrate to new versions of ROOT. Been there, done that.

For "finding anomalies," though, it is far from the only framework available--and the critical bit isn't the building blocks but the structure you build with it.

I used parts of ROOT in building a data acquisition system--I needed to fit for the center of a laser beam. I used different parts of it to create a tool for studying data provided in text format--a fancier version of TOPDRAWER. (All the cool kids are using jupyter these days, but there's a lot of overhead getting it started. I like lightweight and quick.) Some of the analyses were physics, some were sysadmin stuff (which systems are causing grief when), and I used it for looking at baseball statistics too.

More interesting would be a story about who was teaming up with the econ people, and which directions they were going to take--boosted decision tree, maybe?

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A British reporter in the South during the Civil War

From My Diary North and South
We visited an old negro, called "Boatswain," who lives with his old wife in a wooden hut close by the margin of the Mississippi. His business is to go to Donaldsonville for letters, or meat, or ice for the house--a tough row for the withered old man. He is an African born, and he just remembers being carried on board ship and taken to some big city before he came upon the plantation.

"Do you remember nothing of the country you came from, Boatswain?" "Yes, sir. Jist remember trees and sweet things my mother gave me, and much hot sand I put my feet in, and big leaves that we play with -- all us little children -- plenty to eat, and big birds and shells." "Would you like to go back, Boatswain?" "What for, sir? no one know old Boatswain there. My old missus Sally inside." "Are you quite happy, Boatswain?" "I'm getting very old, massa. Massa Burnside very good to Boatswain, but who care for such a dam old nigger? Golla Mighty gave me fourteen children, but he took them all away again from Sally and me. No budy care much for dam old nigger like me."

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Helmets old and new

Shock wave effects on the brain are getting more attention these past few years, which may be why some Duke University researchers thought to compare WW-I helmets with a modern one.

The details (and more graphs and pictures) are here.

Executive summary: they tested the "shell burst above the head" (as would have happened a bit more frequently for trench tenants) using a shock wave generator (pressurized helium bursting a membrane) and measured pressures in various places in the dummy's "head." The best was an old French helmet with a metal ridge down the middle, showing slightly lower pressures than even the modern Advanced Combat Helmet.

Ah, but. The differences weren't huge (they didn't plot error bars, but the scatter of points is telling), the configuration was very specific (they didn't look at shocks from the side, as you'd get with IEDs), and the bottom line was that anything was far better than nothing. The plot below is the most dramatic result--other sensor positions seem less so.

UPDATE: The army says the study is faulty, mostly for the same reasons I did--but also something I hadn't realized: "Inside five meters is well inside the kill range of that artillery shell," DiLalla said. "It's not even in range where the protective equipment could actually do something."

Evildoers and art

Over at First Things, Peter Hitchens has an essay about "Evildoers and their art." He cites Polanski and an artist I'd never heard of: Gill. It's worth a read.

Things aren't perfectly cut and dried here. On the one extreme, would you go to, much less pay to see, an exhibition of Hitler's paintings? And if he were still alive and benefiting from the show--no way. On the other hand, we're all sinners--do you want to avoid all human art?

I'm told Renaissance painter's models were usually prostitutes with whom the painters were familiar. If you told me they were abused I'd not be greatly astonished. From another discipline, Francois Villon was plausibly charged with murder. Ancient misdemeanors don't bother us much, though. Maybe "but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead" governs.

More recent ne'er do wells--maybe not so much.

I was never a huge Marion Zimmer Bradley fan (I know, there's no accounting for taste), but someone who had been said that after the abuse revelations, certain details in Bradley's fiction now read completely differently, and she could no longer enjoy the work. I can think of one or two authors whose work reads more like self-justification now that I know more about them. (Maybe I should avoid learning about the authors?)

The more the artist's offense is part of his work, the easier you find it to avoid for cause. But in Hitchens' essay above, one of the things the daughter-molesting Gill made was typefonts--which are about as abstract an art form as they come. Contrast with Bradley, for example.

Another factor in approaching an artist's work is to what extent you want to immerse yourself in it. There are a number of fine paintings and sculptures in the art museum that my wife and I can appreciate together, but which she would strenuously object to in our living room. Once in a while is fine, but a diet of such things?

I had trouble getting exercised about Weinstein. He's clearly a creep, abusing his ability to make or ruin careers, and if he ends up paying his fortune out in reparations, I will not be shedding any tears. But who didn't know this kind of extortion was the rule in Hollywood?

Maybe one thing that keeps me from anger is distance. This involves nobody I know, and the odds are excellent that I haven't seen any of his movies. It's a similar kind of distance to that I have to Villon.

If I were induced to be angry about every injustice--if everything were present and there was no distance in my life--aside from being miserable I'd be spread too thin and useless. And easily manipulated.

And when it comes to vile artists (or vile scientists, or vile presidents) I'm going to have to make judgment calls on the fly, without benefit of a clear framework. That's apt to bias decisions in favor of what I happen to like and what doesn't gore my oxen. But notice that the "purists" are every bit as selective in who they accuse--I don't think professing an absolute rule is going to preserve me from potential bias.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Face masks

I am informed that ordinary face masks are of little use against the coronavirus. The pores are too large; the masks too leaky, and they do not stand off from the nose and mouth enough.

Nevertheless, I see some potential value in them.

They remind you not to touch your face.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Brothers 4

A couple of days ago a song I remembered from long ago opened a radio ad for a concert by The Brothers Four (today, BTW). They can't still be around, can they?

The group has had various members, but Bob Flick still seems to be playing--after 61 years!


Is it the same group?

If they sing the same songs in the same ways, with the same sound, I suppose they are the same--in a kind of utilitarian way. They have the legal imprimatur, which a tribute group that sounded the same wouldn't, but it is circular to rely on legal details to decide the question.

But... if you define the group in terms of what they do, the same people experimenting with new genres would be a different group. That seems silly.

If musicians are interchangeable, replacing one with another might mean the group remains the same. It isn't like a marriage. However, the musicians I've known don't think of themselves as interchangeable. And what do you get if the group disbands, and then reforms into two, both claiming the same name (as happens)?

I don't want to go all Heraclitus with this, but after so long it seemed a reasonable question.

I liked them then; probably still would. I'm listening to Manon at home.

FWIW: I liked the Kingston Trio too. "The Kingston Trio continues to tour as of 2020 with musicians who licensed the name and trademark in 2017."

Click bait

What it's like to be Democrat in Trump Country ... Apparently there aren't a lot of problems living in Fulton, except that your candidates didn't win. The article suggests that "many Fulton County residents traditionally registered as Democrats to gain and keep state jobs." One interviewee suspects he lost his job because of politics, but no evidence is proffered.

I know something about living in a strongly leftist area; I was curious if the mirror image was similar. Who knows? Not I, after reading the article.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Crannog detail

I watched a Time Team episode in which they "excavate" a crannog.

That's a small artificial island, close to shore, with typically a securable "causeway." Larger ones might be for several families, but most were smaller. Wood and stones and packed earth could make a fairly solid place to live.

Life on a small island could be convenient if you and your neighbors traveled by boat a lot. Drinking water is right there. Food you can grow on land and store, or fish for. Wood--presumably the forests were more extensive then.

Storms would be a lot more troublesome than on land, though.

And sewage--oops. Unless there's a good current to move stuff away from your home, you have a problem. Wind-driven currents might help save your health, provided you remembered to dump waste downstream.

I wonder what the currents are like around the craggnogs? I'd guess the builders were smart enough to take note of that detail, but I'd also guess that if current patterns changed they'd not abandon all that effort until it got a reputation as an unlucky home. Or until the extra security of life on the lake didn't matter so much.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

DAMA explanation?

You may have heard of the DAMA dark matter search experiment. In the Grand Sasso lab they put 100kg of extremely pure scintillator, and looked for annual variations in the rate of signals.

The basic idea is: assume the dark matter in the galaxy is more or less like a fog that the orbiting stars sweep through. We know the direction our Sun is going, and we know the Earth's orbit. At one point in the orbit we're heading in the same direction as the Sun's motion, and at the opposite point we're heading away. Dark matter particles scattering off nuclei when we're going faster should involve a bigger kick than those when we're going slower--and that bigger kick should appear as more light. (Of course, if the dark matter is orbiting the galactic center at about the same speed as the Sun, you won't see much energy from the collisions--but you might still see a little variation.)

So, if on the average they see more light (energy deposited) at the times of the year when the Earth is moving faster wrt the galactic center, that might be evidence for dark matter.

They claim to see that. They've been more than a little reluctant to show their raw data, though, and the backgrounds must be huge (cosmic rays, radioactivity in the rock, residual impurities, etc).

The plots look great though. The problem is that they suggest interaction rates so high that other experiments should be able to see it too--and they don't.

There's an interesting paper from INFN (Buttazzo et al) that suggests that the annual variation (this story has some nice explanatory plots) is an artifact of the way they analyze their data. The background rate is too high to see anything clearly, so they average the background year by year, subtract that from the data on a every-few-months binning, and accumulate those residuals for a bunch of different years.

That seems OK, but what happens if the background rate grows with time? (e.g. impurities on the surface of the crystals migrate into the bulk volume, or helium migrating into the phototubes causing more after-pulsing)

Answer: you get residuals that look like a sawtooth: negative at the start of the reference period and positive at the end. If you use the DAMA start and end points and fit with a sinusoid, you get a peak at about the same place DAMA does.

Since we've never seen their raw data, or their analysis chain in any detail, we've no idea whether their background rate does grow over time.

There should be a simple check that lets them keep their data secret--use different start and end reference months, or accumulate over 2 years instead of 1 (you'll get worse statistics that way, but the sawtooth would then have a period of 2 years instead of 1. If the sinusoid remained with a period of 1 year and the same peak, even if it looked muddier than it does now, they might have something. If it had a 2-year variation (in the second case) or the peak appeared in a different month (for the first cross-check), they have zip.

I look forward to hearing what DAMA has to say.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Military hardware

Years ago I had it carefully explained to me that the most important things about military hardware were not superior quality or efficiency, but reliability, ruggedness, and ease of repair in the field. You wouldn't repair the jet's engine, but yank it and stuff a new one in to get the thing back in the air quickly. The sine qua non--can you use it for its job? If not, you don't really have it. By that rule our navy is quite a bit smaller than we say it is.

Cheaper things than jets--jeeps, guns, radios--were supposed to be easy to get back in working order while in the field.

I was never in the military, much less in combat, but the priority makes sense to me--even when you have to pay a premium for the product as a result.

It seems that principle is no longer a priority: "Increasingly, Captain Ekman argues, the Department of Defense is signing procurement contracts for equipment from generators to trucks to MRAPs that not only cover the purchase of the vehicle but strict maintenance regimens as well. These contracts often place restrictions on the maintenance of the equipment, requiring manufacturer-affiliated contractors to perform maintenance and repair instead of enlisted Soldiers."

Apparently we have no "right to repair" important chunks of gear. I'm trying to imagine the "return-to-factory." Or will Oshkosh field its own armed repair teams? I remember some sci-fi positing that corporations would field their own armies. This wasn't the way they described it.

Probably rules about repairs and warranties get waived in combat zones. But in the meantime our mechanics have no experience on the equipment. They'd be learning on the fly.

If the Pentagon decides to change course and force a "right to repair" in the contracts, maybe some of the rest of us can get it too--a lot of farmers are unhappy with John Deere.


I've heard the Iowa debacle blamed on the incompetence of the app writers, and of whoever failed to test the system, and of whoever chose this team (selected for party loyalty, perhaps?). I've heard it blamed on malfeasance of Party Members trying to cover up their favorites' poor showings.

New Hampshire is now voting, and will be effectively voting first in the nation--as they used to have the honor of doing. We wonders, aye, we wonders.

Saturday, February 08, 2020


Who remembers Mad Mike? The former mercenary died Sunday at the age of 100, in a "care facility" in South Africa. He'd been released from prison by amnesty in 1985

I have to admit I knew little of him beyond the bizarre Seychelles fiasco, but the Congo story of the Wild Geese is worth reading. The full story puts him and his men's crimes in better perspective. Read it.

He hated communism. I wonder whether he expressed his opinions much about the new South Africa. He was in France researching books on (e.g.) the Cathars for about 20 years up to 2009, so he wasn't around for a lot of the transition. He was about 90 when he came back home--and maybe not as fiery as he used to be.

“The mystique is unexplainable — the mystique about soldiering with strong men,” he told The Post in 1978. “It’s something more than just soldiering for money. The moment of truth comes at 3 a.m. in a hole. Your buddy’s been killed or wounded, and no money can compensate . . . But there’s an indescribable exhilaration being part of a well-disciplined unit that holds its position.”

I'm not sure the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers was exactly "well-disciplined," though.

Attention to detail

Thousands of little engineering details sit just behind the facades of our gear. You don't notice them unless they're missing.

When you heat a cup of water or re-heat the coffee, you punch the button for 1 minute or 30 seconds. Did you notice that despite the rotation of the turntable while the microwave runs, the handle of the cup is pretty much in the same position as when you put it in?

There's a ten second rotation period on the turntables I've checked. A nice little detail--my thanks to whoever figured that one out.

Friday, February 07, 2020


The news circulated today that the UW System's security group proposed (deadline for comments was also today) that there be an annual inventory of software assets and IT hardware assets, including such things as IP addresses and associated MAC addresses. Not that all of our network hardware has a MAC address: in particular the readout boards that are currently buried in ice at the South Pole. I can sort of see a relevance, though "university-owned" software is kind of ambiguous. For example, security wants to know if you're running a vulnerable version of apache (I think they all are, but for some versions the vulnerabilities are known.). It constitutes a possible weakness for everything on that subnet.

I'm not quite so sure about the hardware. Why do they care where it is? Property control might care, of course, but this was supposed to be related to cybersecurity. I suppose they've made common cause for a gigantic Database Of Everything the Universities lay claim to. (Fortunately I haven't heard them claim that "Our people are our greatest assets." So no inventory stickers for me. Yet.)

Property management no doubt would love to have everything documented down to the last chassis screw in the last drawer, and as long as it is our time they're spending they probably don't care about expense. Sure there are some sticky-fingered sorts: students who make a grab for something unattended, custodial who snarf a laptop (not realizing that it was being monitored and that its disappearance from the network could be pinpointed to a time the custodian was there!), and staff who regard equipment and office supplies as perks of the job. But we don't have anything like the loss levels of Walmart or stores in San Francisco. In our group I think we lose more to breakage than "misappropriation."

How much are you willing to spend to identify the residuum of losses? I strongly suspect there's an inverse relationship between cost and "loss uncertainty"--probably worse than linearly inverse, since there could be loss or wastage in the inventorying process too. On a national scale, nobody doubts that there's some welfare fraud, but the cost of trying to reduce it to 0 is probably orders of magnitude higher than the loss. (Send out investigators to verify every applicant?)

Hmm. (Cost of monitoring) * (Uncertainty in inventory) >= constant ?

It's probably not universal enough--the constant would depend on the industry. For UW it's probably small, for the military large (and really large in wartime), for aid to Ukraine or Puerto Rico pretty high too. For Walmart, in between.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

My diary North and South

By William Howard Russell. I haven't read much of it yet. I was pointed to it by Sgt Mom. He seems to have employed a wicked sense of humor as he reported on the USA during the Civil War.

"Had the pages been literally transcribed, without omitting a word, the fate of one whose task it was to sift the true from the false and to avoid error in statements of fact, in a country remarkable for the extraordinary fertility with which the unreal is produced, would have excited much commiseration;"

Some things haven't changed much.


"The swarming communities and happy homes of the New England States -- the most complete exhibition of the best results of the American system -- it was denied me to witness; but if I was deprived of the gratification of worshiping the frigid intellectualism of Boston, I saw the effects in the field, among the men I met, of the teachings and theories of the political, moral and religious professors, who are the chiefs of that universal Yankee nation, as they delight to call themselves, and there recognized the radical differences which must sever them forever from a true union with the Southern States."

I think some of us have a slightly different take on this description than he may have intended.

You can find it online.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Waste products

When bacteria decompose sugars they leave some toxins behind--ethyl alcohol being the most famous.

Bacteria are developing to devour plastics. What do they leave behind?

For the PET family, Ideonella sakaiensis is here. Some details are here. The answer seems to be that different colonies of bacteria can eat most stuff all the way down to CO2 and water, but some intermediate compounds are terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. At least the former isn't very toxic, and since it is solid at room temperatures won't migrate far.

Maybe plastic mines aren't such a wild idea, though purification seems like it would be hard. I don't think I want to be downstream of the ethylene glycol though.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Centrifugal rocketry

This story about a "centrifuge" for launching rockets seems not to be an April Fools joke. The idea is to spin a rocket (and counterweight, of course) in a vacuum centrifuge with arms 100m long until they reach about 30 revs/second, and then let go the rocket and counterweight--opening the vacuum doors at the same time. The rocket starts off with O(3000m/sec) speed, which gives it a good start and means it doesn't need nearly as much fuel. That sounds nice. Sort of.

Of course the G-forces are about 10,000G. Your support arms are going to stretch. The rocket will presumably sit in a drop-away cradle to keep it from breaking to bits. I imagine the rocket nozzle would be squashed or smashed unless the cradle somehow supported it too.

When the newly released system hits air like a brick wall, what sorts of turbulence will it get, and how badly will it get knocked about? And the air will hit those spinning arms pretty hard once it gets inside the chamber.

Let's see. I want the rocket to go up. That means the counterweight has to be released down, so you need a tunnel--and a pretty deep one--to let the counterweight fly far enough away that when it hits the side of the tunnel and skitters in a different direction, the back-spray doesn't injure anything. I think that problem is solvable, albeit with the odd re-digging of the bending tunnel.

I don't want to think of what a liquid fuel rocket (think of all the tiny valves!) would look like after getting squashed by 10,000G sideways (not the direction rockets are usually required to be strong in), and I would want to be far away from a solid fuel rocket at release time. Or during spin-up, for that matter.

And I'm not sure how you'd release the thing--maybe explosive bolts? I don't think a magnetic system would hold, and if you have metal to metal you might get cold spot-welding and an unpredictable release.

One comment I saw suggested that this could be a weapon. I don't see how it would be useful. If you spin it up and release solid projectiles, they'll land pretty hard--but you have a relatively slow rate of fire and a known and fixed position you're firing from. And uncertainties in the initial direction thanks to eddies in the air outside will make tiny changes in the projectile's trajectory which would be magnified into big misses at long range. The "rods from God" start out with little interference, and would only hit large resistance as they near the target: exactly the opposite.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Computer hacking

Hacking that saved the Apollo 14 mission.

Stuck bits are bad things. Stuck bits that are the "Abort" button are very bad things. Stuck bits that are the "Abort" button command that are intermittent are even worse. (Best guess is a solder blob was floating around inside the button contact.)

Read about how they fixed it, with a software hack.

BTW, the radar flaked out too, which also made landing problematic: "Using Mark 1 Eyeballs to accurately judge altitude and velocity during a lunar landing is not realistic given the sharply limited amount of fuel the LM carried."

Mississippi indian population

Near Cahokia, researchers looked through mud cores to find evidence of human feces in the area. They conclude that although the population around Cahokia Mounds never got back to its AD 1100 levels, there was a rebuilding of the population around 1600-1700. Since there weren't a lot Europeans in the area at the time, that was AmerIndian.

Eyeballing the plot suggests that the population in the area--not necessarily the Mounds proper (in fact probably not)--reached a density a bit over half that during the Mounds era. There might be some biases in my estimates here--the samples were taken from the lake, and it might be that the Mounds' sewage was mostly routed to the river. That would make the relative population estimate less. Or the mix of activities between 1400 and 1800 might have changed to more agricultural and lake-based, which might change the fecal impact on the lake without a population increase.

In any event, "This is significant because researchers have previously suggested that indigenous populations were in decline during this period from Old World diseases that spread across North America in advance of European colonists."