Sunday, May 31, 2020


I was introduced to D&D back in college. Some friends played regularly and invited us, and once circumstances converged to allow it.

There were a couple of things that didn't quite add up in the description. One was the notion that a section, once cleared of monsters, would stay cleared. That wasn't plausible at all--wait a while and it would fill up again, albeit with less dangerous critters (if they were more dangerous, they'd have pushed out the original occupants before you got there). That would include your victorious return journey--you'd have to fight your way back out too.

But it was the cleric that bothered me. True, these were based on pagan gods, which have consistency problems of their own. But as a rule a priest doesn't get to tell the gods what to do (although the Egyptian spell books might suggest otherwise); his god tells him what to do. And he might.

So, if a cleric can get a divine command at any time to leave and do something else, what would induce the party to invite him aboard? The team could get divine graces for a while, but they couldn't rely on him to stick around for the whole adventure.

My solution was the "geas-ite." If your cleric got a command to head somewhere, he had to light out right then, but he got divine protection along the shortest way out--and so would his companions so long as they didn't try side-trips. "In a jam and want to bail? Have the cleric check his mail." Would that be "d-mail" for "divine-mail" or "g-mail" for god-mail?"

I never got far enough to figure out which game-play mechanism would work with that concept--D&D play was far too time-consuming and I only lasted the one session. As a scheme for letting (most of) a team get a second try at a dungeon it seemed plausible, and it seemed more faithful to the nature of a cleric, but whether it would actually be playable I couldn't begin to guess. I haven't checked the rules in more than 40 years.

(The DM would, of course, repopulate the parts of the dungeon you'd already visited, thanks to the ecological principle I mentioned at the start.)

Friday, May 29, 2020

A little reminder

When you read about tests for the Wuhan virus, and grand conclusions about them, bear in mind what Beveridge said:
No one believes an hypothesis except its originator but everyone believes an experiment except the experimenter. Most people are ready to believe something based on experiment but the experimenter knows the many little things that could have gone wrong in the experiment. For this reason the discoverer of a new fact seldom feels quite so confident of it as others do. On the other hand other people are usually critical of an hypothesis, whereas the originator identifies himself with it and is liable to become devoted to it.

The technology for those tests comes from experiments, and if you collared the developers (not the marketers), you'd get some insight into the limits of knowledge, limits that reporters rarely recognize. Those of us who don't do or actively use research might be surprised.

I remember hearing an engineer's slogan to the effect that "Every bridge will fail eventually, but I pray mine doesn't fall down yet." It turns out that in the non-virtual world, even things as simple as identical I-beams aren't exactly the same.

(And, thanks to my usual rabbit-tracking, remember The Wonderful One-Host-Shay)? "Logic is logic."


I chuckled when I read about the Visions decision, but on reflection I wonder: are the rules so byzantine that you can overlook fees for a core feature of your business? (They'd not paid their adult entertainment license for half a year.)

The same committee also rejected an alcohol license for a hotel: "the hotel’s license is void because the company is not registered with the state, so there was no license to renew."

The hotel also owes more than \$200,000 to the city in room tax fees, is delinquent in property taxes and has not honored payment plans, Zilavy said.

Verveer said Howard Johnson is one of the hotels that is partnering with the city and Dane county to provide housing for the homeless during the COVID-19 crisis. He said that partnership shouldn’t be impacted if the council decides not to renew the hotel’s alcohol license.

If the bit about unpaid fees and taxes is true, I wonder what that conversation was like in which the hotel agreed to "partner with the city."

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Anything you want to be

It's an article of faith in our new religion that you have no necessary nature; you can be anything you want to be. Quite a few of the powerful join in the chorus, including groups you'd think would be more bottom-line focussed. And the HR departments sing along.

I remember hearing "you can be anything you want to be" long ago. Back then it was a statement of pride in the USA, and an invitation to hope. It really meant "You may be anything you want to be," of course: I could no more play professional basketball than I could swim the Atlantic.

The "can" is deceptive. We've heard the claim that "10,000 hours of practice" will make you excel, and some people seem to believe it.

One group that seems pre-disposed to believe it are the gifted. I became a scientist. I could have become a lawyer. I could have become a second-tier mathematician, I think. (I'm not sure I could have become a doctor--too much memorization.) I had a lot of options, and many things came easy. And I suspect I inherited some predispositions along with the gifts, so I ignored some options. Surely other people could do the same, right? Because I was taking the "gifted track" most of the people I hung out with were likewise gifted; I came from a gifted family--you can see the sampling bias. If you didn't excel, it was because you hadn't chosen to, or because you didn't have good schools, or something else in society got in your way.

I suspect industry and media leaders see the same sort of sampling bias, for the same reasons.

If you don't feel good blaming people, then the reasons for failure to excel must be accidental or structural--nurture, not nature; and not choice.

And there's another deception in the claim: "be." I wrote that I "became" a scientist. That's not quite right. I trained as one, developed the habits of thought needed for one, worked as one--but I did not change my nature: It's still me in here. With enough free time I could study law and "become" a lawyer--and still be me.

That careless "be" can turn very expansive. It needn't just refer to professions.

The interior "me" is invisible to everyone but me and God. Since the "me" can choose, the "me" is a kind of creator, with all the power that implies. If my desires become changes in the world, how powerful my desires must be! (Just don't look too closely at the pattern of limitations here; close your eyes and blame them on society.)

Suppose I understand the "me" not in terms of some given nature, or even in terms of capabilities, but in terms of desires. That has several advantages: Nobody is in a position to contradict me, which magnifies my power vis-a-vis everybody else. I can blame any lack of changes in the world commensurate with my desires on society. I can change if I find my current definition inconvenient. I am not responsible to anyone for my desires, and if I can pull it off, not for actions either. I can be anything I want to be. Maybe I can do anything I want to do, too.(*)

This treats choice incoherently, of course.

I suspected the "I identify as a dragon" character at google was pulling somebody's leg. But I could be wrong, some people take this very seriously.

I have no idea how to communicate with someone like that. I don't see any common language anymore. "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."

(*) We were well on our way to worshipping desire when we decided that the measure of a person's character was not in their control of their desires but in the strength of their desires.


In the half-asleep time an odd question came to me. We all know the song "Oh how I love Jesus". Would we recognize Him if we met Him on the street? One short answer is in Matthew 25, of course. The longer answer delves into how abstract or personal that love is.

Friday, May 22, 2020


We watched Met's Turandot this afternoon; the version Zeffirelli designed the set for. Being able to see what's going on makes a huge difference in understanding the music when you don't speak the language.

It opens pretty grimly--and not just because of the crowd's bloodlust and the execution offstage. The slave girl Liu says she has been caring for Calaf's father because Calaf had smiled at her. Shortly thereafter, Calaf falls in love at first sight with Turandot. Despite pleas from all around him, he rings the gong to take the deadly riddle challenge.

From a practical point of view (which everybody urges on him) this makes no sense. The risk is very high, and the reward would be to marry a princess who's been trying to get vengeance on all men because of something that happened to an ancestress of hers. That kind of wedded life hardly entices, and given what he is just learning about Liu's feelings for him, he looks cruel as well as crazy.

But he's a prince, and that makes the slave Liu a tragic but impossible lover, and Turandot a worthwhile conquest--princes have to take risks sometimes; perhaps for their kingdom's sake or to prove they're worthy of the job.

And he's also (at least according to Turandot) a hero, and mythic heroes are supposed to accomplish the impossible, like solving impossible riddles and melting the ice princess.

The little problem is that neither aspect is played up at the beginning. He comes across as an ordinary Cal, and USians are not heavily into royalty or mythic heroes much. You've got to cue us. Even our superhero stories seem to prefer clay feet these days. Also the transformation of Turandot needed a little more work--but Puccini died before finishing it. Apparently he was stalled on the transformation problem himself.

Liu is an excellently drawn character, though, and the music is gorgeous. And the set was something to see. Thanks to the Met for making these available!

Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor by Anthony Daniels

You may know him under his pen name of Theodore Dalrymple. He wasn't keen on becoming a doctor; he wanted to be a philosopher. He started out quite naive about medicine, society, and himself.

He tried for a warts and all narrative, and some of his mistakes leave you wincing. He was not satisfied with any place for long, and picked exotic places to travel, sometimes with no job lined up but confident that a doctor can always find work. Somehow (he doesn't go into his motives for moving much), he kept coming back to situations that were hard. At the end he is back at a psychiatric hospital.

The Amazon site has a good anecdote from the book; here's how it starts.

‘I only had ten cans yesterday, doc,’ he said. ‘And today I haven’t had any. I just don’t feel like it. Today’s the first day in ten years I haven’t had a drink.’

I looked at him. He was yellow; he had hepatitis.

I envy him his memory for names and people. I gather he doesn't like missionaries much. And I'm glad I didn't try to become a doctor.

Read it.

Thursday, May 21, 2020


The BBC has a story on Covid in Dagestan. Tests are short, equipment is scarce, and the disease hit hard.
He says seven colleagues in his town have now died, including nurses, orderlies and laboratory staff, according to a count kept by local medics themselves.

"All three doctors on my team got sick. We were replaced by dentists until we recovered," Dr Yevtemirov told the BBC


The minister told a blogger that 40 medics had died in the republic: more than the total, official number of Covid-19 fatalities.

The story of one village is encouraging.

The village of Gurbuki was better served than others to cope.

A brand new hospital was opened in December to great fanfare. But when in April suspected Covid-19 cases began filling up beds, a staggering 50% of medical personnel fell ill.

Locals didn't wait for government help to take action.

Volunteers, mainly young men, began helping out on the wards; others stepped in to set up checkpoints at the village entrance to try to control the infection's spread.

And when the hospital began running dangerously low on oxygen, it was volunteers who travelled the 120km (75-mile) round trip to the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, to refill all the gas canisters they'd begged and borrowed off villagers.

The worst seems to be over, but Eid is coming up.

People have been crowding local markets, he says, despite imams sending WhatsApp warnings not to lay on food to share with neighbours.

"I think they'll gather together less, but it won't stop totally," the doctor worries, ahead of another shift on the Covid ward. "People are a little bit undisciplined.

"Locals didn't wait for government help to take action." I'll bet nobody had authorization for any of that. Perhaps "undisciplined" can be a good thing sometimes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020



Parallel universes

No. The story is all garbled, IceCube has nothing to do with it, and the ANITA people are probably tearing their hair out. One of our people was misquoted; unhappiness abounds.

What evidence IceCube does have apparently rules out the claim. (I don't have a link for that, unfortunately.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Debugging and emigration

What was wrong with the SM-1800?

That was a Soviet clone of the PDP-11 (Yes, I remember the PDP-11: we used it and a smaller LSI-11 for data acquisition.). It was routing trains and cargo, and was crashing at night.

Read the story.

I'm a little puzzled--perhaps they cloned a version of the PDP-11 that didn't use parity memory.


A recent post of AVI's--The Truths We Use to Lie With brought to mind the "Twain" quote: "If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed."

So, of course, I have to check that he actually wrote that. Luckily we've got the net: Quote Investigator already did the legwork. One of Twain's genuine lines matches AVI's post: "Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth. —Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar"

And, also from the linked article from Quote Investigator:

In 1955 Orville Hubbard who was the controversial mayor of Dearborn, Michigan was quoted in an article titled “How to Play Politics and Keep Out of Jail” published in “The Detroit Reporter”:
Hubbard also had an opinion on Detroit’s strike-bound newspapers.

“I haven’t missed them myself,” he said. “It’s better to be uninformed than misinformed. I even doubt some of the pictures I see in the papers.”

Saturday, May 16, 2020


I was looking up Hungarian composers, and got distracted by Bakfark "While Bakfark almost certainly wrote an enormous amount of music, very little was printed: a commonly given reason was that it was simply too difficult for others to play." and "As was common practice at the time, all the possessions of plague victims were destroyed by fire, so most of his manuscript music was lost."

Plagues cause irretrievable losses.

I leave it to lutists to say how complicated the surviving works are.

Poetry with a purpose

In the comments to AVI's post on poetry at ChicagoBoyz, I read a reference to "rollicking stanzas about judgement day by Wigglesworth."

I had to look it up. It is exceedingly Calvinist: single-predestinarian. The book isn't only the one poem; there are several others as well. When you read them, remember that the '-ed' ending is sometimes a separate syllable and you'll find it scans much better.

The last poem in the collection is headed thus:


A SONG of EMPTINESS, to fill up the Empty Pages following.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Virus question

I know that some bacteria present very different diseases if they enter through the lungs, intestines, or into the blood directly.

What about viruses? Can some of them result in different diseases, or do they just not infect at all if they don't come through the favored pathway?

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

"Backed by science"

I don't remember ever hearing a scientist use that phrase.

I think I've heard "the science shows", but far far more often I've heard "the data show."

When I hear "backed by science," I want count the spoons.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Ah, yes, that's why

I watched a video of a whale breaching, and heard it was to help get rid of whale lice.

OK, whales don't have hands to groom the way monkeys do in the ubiquitous monkey-grooming videos, but they could still brush up against each other and help brush crud off, couldn't they?

It turns out the lice like to hang out around barnacles on the whales; the water moves slower there.

Maybe it could be a two-fer--whales could maybe rub off barnacles too. They do against beaches and boats.

I forgot. Barnacles are kind of pointy at that end. The whales would scratch each other--not quite what the doctor ordered. Brushing might be useful prophylactically, to keep barnacles from getting ahold in the first place, but not once they get started. And most whales don't seem to be very cuddly creatures--though some dolphins swim very close together.

If sharks were more social, they might get rid of remoras fairly easily that way--sand them off each other.

Cats and chickens and words

I figured cats were introduced to the Americas by Europeans, and so it was. A post here discusses names for cat in different Amerindian languages. Generally these are borrow words.

How quickly did the Amerindians start keeping cats once they showed up?

I didn't find anything old, but "Prior to Columbus we kept domestic dogs, but according to the stories told by my great grandmother we Comanches also kept tamed birds, opossums (she had one as a girl), and tarantulas. We acquired cats at the same time we acquired horses. I have seen old pictures of relatives of mine riding horseback with a cat on one shoulder. We kept all these animals despite being nomadic. I imagine sedentary tribes kept even more animals."

At a guess, such useful creatures were adopted very quickly.

Did Polynesians bring chickes to South America before Columbus? Hard to be sure--one study doesn't quite convince me. A linguistic study suggests chickens showed up very early--this one presumes the Europeans brought them, but it's consistent with earlier arrivals too. The study finds almost no borrow words--so the tribes acquired them before the arrival of a lot of Europeans. That would be either very quick dissemination of escapees, or the birds were there well before.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Trireme question

When I see pictures of a trireme (and most other similar boats) I see a sharply up-peaked stern--and usually it curved back over the body of the boat.

In the images, there's nothing tied to it, so I assume during normal sailing nothing was.

I know they had a tensioning rope running down the middle to hold the planks tightly together from end to end, and I know the boats had to be dragged ashore for refitting very regularly--and they were light enough that it wasn't a big deal.

I'm puzzled why the Greeks and the Carthaginians (very different cultures) both used that same curved-back peak. (The Romans did too, but I gather they borrowed Greek technology here.). I figure there had to be some good reason for the curve-back. It's quite an extra complication to be simple decoration, though it did get decorated frequently.

A high peak might be easier to sling ropes around to drag it in/out of the sea, and maybe a little back-curving would be helpful for when the stern's peak bent under the force of the ropes. But that much?

Alternatively, maybe they hung ropes on it when refitting, when trying to release the tensioning rope, or for strapping other things in place when replacing planks.

My preliminary search didn't find out anything conclusive. I vaguely remember reading something about it decades ago, but my memory fails me here.

Does anybody know?

UPDATE: maybe a bit of an answer?

Friday, May 08, 2020

Remote learning

What would a university look like in a time of social distancing, but with high tech? Or better, since the current era of social distancing is not sustainable for very much longer, remote learning?

The first question is: What is the purpose of the university? From history, and from observation:

  1. Providing bodies of specialized knowledge, a set of skills, ways of thinking, and (although these are pretty well obsolete by now) breadth of understanding and a baseline body of cultural knowledge.
  2. Verification/credentialing--the student did learn this, and was very good/ok/mediocre
  3. The "University Experience"
  4. Job training (engineers, lawyers, teachers, etc)
  5. Teaching proper social attitudes
  6. Research (and apprenticeship for aspiring researchers)
  7. Helping students make social connections into society or future employment
  8. Providing an opportunity to find a mate (The University doesn't do matchmaking, but that's where a lot of selection happens.)

Ignore C, E, F, G, and H for this exercise. (You'd think that the internet would allow an inexpensive equivalent of the "Grand Tour," but it seems not to happen much.)
With few exceptions, research is hands-on. Even IceCube, despite being super-remote from the physical detector, works better when people can communicate with fewer barriers. One of the communication tools is the "Don't bother me, I'm in the zone" vibe which you can read from a quiet peek through the office door--but when you're in the zone you don't pay attention to distractions like changing your Slack(*) setting. I'm not sure how you can do poultry nutrition research without actually spooning out the feed.

Job training for engineers and teachers in particular is hands-on. (True, teachers have--or did when my wife got her degree--a lot of theory mush to get through, but class management needs to be practiced.) We used to have "reading for the law," and I think law might lend itself to remote learning.

Lab courses: I despise "simulation" experiments, and demonstrations are all very well but not a substitute for practicing slapping a scope on a circuit and trying to find the problem. If nothing else, it drives home the role of measurement error and how much you can control this with care.

Verification and credentialling I don't see as very difficult problems to solve. Oral exams are still possible, and test validation seems readily do-able. It's harder to exclude ringers, of course.

The second question is: What are teachers supposed to do?

For example, if you could get a video series of Shakespeare explaining his plays, a lot of lectures would never have to be given again. You'd maybe have Q&A breakouts after showing each video. The mass learning lectures can be "one and done"--and I don't see any good reason why such things couldn't be subsidized to be free for the general good. Let anyone who wants to learn, learn. The value-added is in the interactive part--answering questions.

I think that for the liberal arts this brings us close to the "Oxford Model" of education. A student is associated with a tutor. The tutor assigns readings (or viewings) and after a week or so the student presents and defends a paper written about the readings. Sometimes there might be several students at the same time, but only if they all interact with each other; there are not necessarily any classes as such. (I've heard Oxford has abandoned the model in favor of the American class-based model.)

STEM is harder. I think math classes, once you get out of the big lectures, could be fairly interactive--though maybe cameras should be pointed at the pad of paper instead of the student's face. Engineering I mentioned--design is all very well, but unless you're "bending tin" I doubt that you'll be very grounded. Do I have to talk about medicine?

The more I think of it, the more it seems as though something like Oxford is likely. After creating a lecture once, the teacher doesn't have to spend time doing that in the future--watching that is the student's reponsibility--and so has more time to spend interacting with small groups of students.

If a teacher can handle a maximum of 3 students during a single hour subsession, and has perhaps 5 hours per day of time he can usefully spend with students, that's 75 student-hours per week. For 3 meeting/week, that's only 25 students per class. That's pretty low, especially if you have a lot of infrastructure that needs to be paid for. Simply counting teacher salary, with 4 quarters, that's \$1000/course.

I guess that number has to be doubled, at least. And then, if you have 44,411 students each taking 3 courses per quarter, the university will need 6660 teachers; 2 1/2 times what we have.

If you change the numbers to 1 meeting per week, the numbers start to add up better. Whether this works well or not is something for study. Somebody has probably done that already--I know that group discussion sessions are popular tools (and they're cheaper).

Of course, if the student isn't very motivated, remote learning isn't going to educate them in very much. I'm not sure that's the university's responsibility.

(*) Web-based Slack changes the tab's icon when your name is mentioned in a conversation in one of the channels you connect to. I assume it wouldn't be hard to set, for each channel you want, a set of key words which would also flag an "alert." This would be the online equivalent of hearing somebody down the hall talking about something that might need your attention.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020


Codevilla wrote a little reminder of the history of fascism, with comments on the ubiquity of its methods in modern governments.

Sunday, May 03, 2020


We all know (or I trust we do) the story of Zaccheus: "Today salvation has come to this house."

At the Bible study this morning, the point came up: was Zaccheus repentant? Giving half away, and offering to restore 4-fold (Moses' law only demanded 2-fold) would seem like good faith repentence. On the other hand, "if I have defrauded anyone of anything" seems a little conditional, compared to "where I have defrauded." Maybe he couldn't admit to it publically--that might be dangerous. Or maybe even partial repentence is a good-enough start. (Or both)

Friday, May 01, 2020

Looking for meaning in a bit of art

The other night I watched the New York Metropolitan Opera's stream of The Tales of Hoffmann.

I'd heard it before, but being able to see what was going on made a huge difference.

Two of my daughters had discussed what the meaning of what some of the characters was (the opera is somewhat surreal). I had opined that Coppélius, Dr Miracle, and Dapertutto were all Hoffmann's dark side. After seeing the peice, I still think so, but I'm strongly reminded of the rock band who's members were asked what one especially obscure song meant. They admitted that they didn't know--it just sounded good so they went with it.

Your muse isn't always consistent. Sometimes I start in on something, and throw in what sounds good, and at the end there's a nice logic and flow; something I didn't plan. Sometimes not. This includes blog posts, in case you hadn't noticed.

You could claim the opera shows how dangerous a muse is. At the start Hoffmann's muse explains that she wants him devoted to her only, and hang the rest of his relationships. Antonia's muse is the ghost of her mother (from whom she inherited a beautiful voice and a bad ticker), and even Spalanzani serves his muse (in this case a muse of technology) to the point of committing fraud and bringing disaster on himself. The third act doesn't fit the theme well, but who promised us that Offenbach was going to be consistent?

It's another form of "fans proposing complicated theories that make different episodes consistent." (star-dates, anyone?)