Saturday, January 30, 2021

Moments that take forever

I loved my weekly chore of burning the garbage. The mission generated enough waste paper so that I could always get it started with one match--unless it broke, of course. You needed to fan out the paper to let the individual pieces get air--and make sure it was in a dry part of the barrel, so you could get a nice blaze going before it reached the kitchen garbage. An alkaline battery burned nicely, up to the point where it became a mini-rocket. Carbon paper in the flame went whiff and was gone. Waxed cartons sizzled a while and then blazed high.

The afternoon was dry. I pocketed the matches, left the carport walking by the sort-of fig tree (never knew what it was), went past the palm trees, and out through the "garden" we didn't do much with, the one with the yucca-like plant.

The ground wobbled under me.

I froze.

Squarely pinned under my foot was an oval-coiled yard long mamba.

I remember thinking both "I have to run" and "If I take my foot off he'll strike." I hesitated. In retrospect it seems like I took a long time, but I hope I decided quicker than that.

I pushed off the soft serpent and ran, screaming the well-understood warning call "Snake! Snake!"

The workmen waiting for Dad's instructions didn't hesitate, but instantly came running with sticks and a shovel. The snake, finally moving, thrashed under the attack, even flying through the air after trying to cling to a stick, and finally decided it was calmer to lie on the ground in several peices. They proudly displayed the relics to Dad, and the snake wound up in the headman's pot.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Knock wood

I never learned this. I'd heard that it had to do with invoking spirits of the wood, and dated back to when dryads inhabited trees. But something about that doesn't ring right. Maybe a Greek woodcutter would do some ceremonies before cutting down a tree. The connection to modern knocking on wood seems tenuous. After all, most of the wood went into fires, and I've never heard of anybody "knocking" firewood before tossing it in the stove.

According to the font of occasional knowledge sometimes this is to ward off some negative statement, and sometimes (Vietnam) to invoke something positive. Most of the examples are from Euro-MidEast culture--which if the tradition is old enough we can consider as a single thing.

Wikipedia cites as "unreliable" an Italian tradition of "touching iron" instead, though it's no hardship to find other sources testifying to it. I had a vague notion about how that might tie in with "touch wood", but the alternatives for touching that the article cites don't quite fit the notion.

Some rituals are complex (pull earlobe and knock twice), but most are perfectly simple.

Some of the ritual's meaning probably comes from the senses--how does it feel to touch wood after hearing something you fear? It's a contrast with the words--you feel something solid and different. It takes your attention away from the words of fear. Knocking, if not touching, makes noise too--a counter-sound?. It feels like you are doing something for yourself and the others, even if only symbolically, against the fearsome words.

Maybe consistency is a bridge too far in superstitions. Still, why not use stone? Reasons for: Stone is solid and strong, in contrast to our fuzzy words and flimsy hopes. Stones could be sacred too. Reasons against: Chthonic spirits seem more alien, maybe less friendly, than trees. It makes little noise. It probaby hurts more to knock stone.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Poisonous food

Cassava was developed in South America, and introduced to Africa by the Portuguese. What wasn't introduced were the native South American methods of processing it to make it safe. Some were locally developed anyway--but not generally as thorough as the original versions. There were consequences.

An important public health problem arises from heavy dietary reliance on incompletely detoxified cassava among protein-poor populations, particularly in western and southern Africa (Rosling and Tylleskar, 2000). In Nigeria, for example, cassava root (48 mb HCN /100g) is eaten as gari (1.1 mg HCN/100g) and purupuru (4-6 mg HCN/100g) in amounts up to 750 g/day, which corresponds to 8mg and 32-48 mg HCN, respectively (Osuntokun, 1981). The minimal lethal HCN does in humans in 35 mg. "Epidemics of cassava-associated paraparesis (konzo and mantakassa) arising from degeneration of motor nerve cells in the cerebral cortex are reported from cassava-reliant regions of Mozambique, Zaire, and the CAR, among others."

Details about cassav in Burkina Faso. "Cassava contributes greatly to household food security during food shortage period. It sustains families for weeks as food and is also exchanged with other foods or sold to buy food or meet household needs."

Cassava meets a serious need. This is one place eduction can help a lot. "One Congolese researcher who trained with Rosling, Desire Tshala, now at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, travels for days on dirt roads to teach communities how important it is to soak cassava before consumption.

Nobody knows how the South Americans figured it out, or how the Yandruwandha figured out how to eat nardoo. It may have been a brave man that first ate an oyster, but if you're hungry enough... But who thought of mixing the nardoo with ashes? (Corn needs nixtamalization too, to get full benefit.) It isn't immediately poisonous if you don't, so how do you notice? It isn't as though mixing ashes is an obvious way to spice food--or maybe it is. How does wood ashes compare with, say, pepper? (You first.)

Three Minute Thesis

Three Minute Thesis® (3MT®) is an international competition in which graduate students explain their research to a general audience in three minutes or less.
Founded by the University of Queensland.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021


I received a form letter asking if I wanted to take part in a study: "We are studying how a certain diet that is low in certain kinds of amino acids, called branched-chain amino acids, changes body weight and blood sugar."

OK, that sounds perfectly safe, right? They forgot to put in anything about necessary/unnecessary...

"you would replace two meals per day with protein shakes that are either missing the low branched-chain amino acids or protein shakes that have normal amounts of amino acids. You would drink these shakes for about 60 days." That's quite a commitment. I assume it's ok to celebrate somebody's birthday in there. Well, two birthdays, and maybe Easter too. And a few dinners with some friends. And I'll be _really_ hungry, so snacks in moderation are OK too, for some definition of moderation, right?

You see, the study is looking for male volunteers who are overweight.

I'm glad I'm not expected to analyze the results.

Sunday, January 24, 2021


Very interesting. I should try to verify this myself:
It turned out that there were ten times as many troy ounces of nominal gold, stored away in the world’s safest places, than there was solid gold to be found — on the same planet. Ninety percent of this gold was paper, then, and would be electrons today, on some leftist creep’s fickle server.

Labor saving ideas

"I'm quite proud of these. I bred them to spin 5-fold instead of 6-fold symmetry."

"Amazing. Can they do the whole pentacle too?"

"I've tried, but the spiders die first. I think they live out part of the summoning spell. Best they don't try—fewer dangerous interruptions while I'm working."

Plotters and Pantsers

You may have heard of these approaches to writing novels: the plotter meticulously plans what happens and then fills it in. The pantser writes a scene and figures out what happens next.

Those are extremes, of course. I just finished the first draft of a book, and am afraid that however much I want to be a plotter, I keep winding up a pantser. I plan out what comes next, and then find when it comes down to the details of the moment, character X would logically do something completely different. I'm careful to foreshadow plot point Z, and it turns out not very important.

I tried an experiment this time: a "clothesline outline." Know what you want to start with--the people, setting, and problem. Know what you want to end with--the people, setting, resolution and finale. "Hang scenes on the clothesline" in between them. Then fill in the steps in between.

It helped. I still had a awful lot of "seat of the pants" stuff to try to keep corralled, though.

Next: go through with a checklist--Is the action still all in my head? Is the voice consistent? And make a "page timeline" so I can visually check the rising/falling action.

When I was in school we were all told, many many times, "Make your outline, and turn that in with your report." I always wrote the report first, and the outline second. A report's structure was too simple; it wasn't worth worrying about. If I had to turn the outline in first, I wrote the report early, wrote and turned in the outline, and turned the original report later. The problem was that writing the thing itself sometimes brought to mind details I'd forgotten but which changed the relative importance of parts of the essay.

Maybe if we'd been asked to stand at the board and scribble an outline on the fly...

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Kendi, DiAngelo, et al

Why bother with derivative works when you can read the original for free?

Friday, January 22, 2021


Apparently the effects of vegan diets on children haven't been studied much. My take-away: the vegan diet, especially for children, needs supplements. My thought: if your diet plan needs vitamin supplements, something's wrong. (Iodine: you need to eat seafood and dairy. Or maybe lots and lots of prunes.) Maybe you as an individual need supplements, but a generic diet plan should stand alone as much as possible.

People are complicated.. "While the low-fat, plant-based diet helps curb appetite, the animal-based, low-carb diet resulted in lower and more steady insulin and glucose levels,"

“Despite eating food with an abundance of high glycemic carbohydrates that resulted in pronounced swings in blood glucose and insulin, people eating the plant-based, low-fat diet showed a significant reduction in calorie intake and loss of body fat, which challenges the idea that high-carb diets per se lead people to overeat. On the other hand, the animal-based, low-carb diet did not result in weight gain despite being high in fat,” said Hall.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021


Spare a moment to think of the problems in a cash economy with a cash shortage. (Don't joke about digital money. Please. Just don't.)

Liberia has a shortage of cash. Within living memory people have made change by tearing a bill into pieces. When banks dispense cash, they often hand out those mutilated banknotes, which are worth ... what?

But there's more. The banks are complaining of a nonperforming loan rate of 56%, which of course means that when someone comes to get money out it puts a strain on the bank. A few years ago several banks started repaying deposits made in US dollars in a mix of US and Liberian dollars. That caused quite a stir at the hospital when payday came.

They are also complaining that:

Governor Tarlue named several reasons behind the money shortage which he said was exacerbated by COVID-19, the high demand of money during the festive seasons (July 26 and December 25), the limited ATM machines in the country (157) and the December 8 Special Senatorial Elections. Chief among them, he said, include the circulation of huge quantity of money outside of the banking sector. As of December 2020, he said L\$25.3 billion was in circulation in the Liberian economy, and of that amount, the currency outside of the banking sector was L\$22.5 billion, representing 89.4 percent of the money in circulation.

Except where is the money? Hiding under mattresses? You'd think that some of it would have to creep out from time to time to buy groceries and cell phone minutes and fabric and other everyday items. How actively is money really circulating in the markets? I can't find out, but reports say business is bad.

The government bought some fresh bills last year--or maybe they didn't--at any rate there weren't any fresh bills when they went looking. They want to print 27 billion new L\$, but they don't have the money to do it (about \$21 million).

The exchange rate isn't helping--imports cost more.

I can't speculate with any certainty, because news is unreliable at best. I doubt that foreign speculators have been buying up Liberian dollars (as one rumor has it)--I haven't thought of a way they'd make money that way. Maybe I don't have a dishonest enough mind. Probably this is an unintended consequence of something else.

Lockdowns haven't helped cash flow. FWIW, Liberia has had 84 deaths attributed to coronavirus--malaria dwarfs this by orders of magnitude.

Monday, January 18, 2021


I was checking some old posts to make sure I wasn't repeating myself, and grew annoyed at the number of broken links I found.

The Wayback Machine has gotten better at re-writing internal links. I'll see if, for links in future posts, I can find a Wayback link too. This probably won't work for this-very-morning links, but maybe after a few days I can revisit posts and update. If I remember.

I once thought of scripting a search for broken links, but sorting through blogger's internal web code is messy, and may not be robust against their changes.

Anyhow, as a demonstration: A vanished website a with couple of stories about Ranger training in Panama.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Crystal Ball

The word from on high is that we should be careful this weekend thanks to armed protests downtown. Governors all over the place are reported to be putting things on alert thanks to armed protests. I gather there are more National Guard in DC than we have soldiers in Afghanistan.

I predict that, so far as those Trump supporters go, the weekend will be peaceful: With or without National Guard.

Saturday, January 16, 2021


Big Tech-er is watching us. Small towns don't have much privacy either. But the lack of privacy in the small town is symmetric. You know the snoop's business too, and where he lives. You have no idea who is drilling down in the databases to look for dirt on you.

I don't know how to rebalance this.

Thursday, January 14, 2021


I have tried to always remember that the internet is forever. I declined to post hilarious anecdotes about the children when they were too young to read them, since one day they would be old enough to be embarrassed. I've tried to be very careful to not disparage my colleagues at work--which fortunately is easy. Now and then I tried a cheap joke on some other sites that I'd not do today, and some comments need context, but on the whole I don't think I've been unfair, or written much that I wouldn't mind my name being on. Which is not to say a few colleagues might be horrified at even mild objections to their worldview.

Not everybody keeps away from personalities, though, and Second City Cop seems to have been forced off the air. I presume from that statement that Google was about to breach anonymity of the commenters, who would doubtless have been forced out of work. (Legal, shmegal, it's Chicago, and the FOP probably wouldn't be any help.) Something similar happened to Star Slate Codex--the author's name was revealed and his livelihood threatened.

Other web authors have gotten death threats.

Don't take being able to write freely, or read freely, for granted.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021


A spray bottle of tile-cleaner has one of those rotating nozzle controls. Of the four possible nozzle positions, 2 are ON and 2 are OFF. It is pointed at me, and from this direction the nozzle reads NO. Good advice.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Quantum mechanics explained

Dr. Morales tries to explain quantum mechanices without math. This article--supposed to be the first of several--is about the basic experiments. I'll add more to this post as I find them.
(*)"This is basically just magic, isn’t it? I found this a very funny question. Then I started wondering how I could test whether science is magic? At least in popular culture magic is: arcane knowledge (✓) learned through many years of arduous study (✓) by pouring through old books filled with cryptic runes (✓) apprenticed to temperamental sages (✓) while living on scraps in a tower or dungeon (✓). And one must always be careful when performing major feats of magic/science, as the results are never quite what you hoped (✓). So I guess the answer is, experimentally at least, that yes it’s magic."

Penguins and Golden Calves

Madeleine L'Engle wrote these meditations on the difference between icons and idols in life. For her a penguin is an icon, and too funny to be an idol--but other things (e.g. the stars) can be dangerously close to idols. Some of the meditations are very moving. Unfortunately one of her icons for evil seems to be "fundelits," who don't closely resemble the people I know--but then a famous writer attracts strange creatures intent on correction.

Worth reading.

UPDATE: No, I do not endorse all of her scriptural speculations.

Sunday, January 10, 2021


Do those going nuclear with canceling attacks remember the saying "You might as well be hanged for sheep as for lamb"?

Maybe not. Quite a few of them seem unwilling to believe that unintended consequences are possible--certainly never in their socio-political plans.

Search engines

I was looking for permabond ET5401 (heat resistant epoxy). This was on the first page at amazon.

Perhps the connecting theme is that one can maintain a youthful look forever with a clear epoxy coating?

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Conflicting press releases

A weird story: The Liberian Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention denies that they are trying to reclaim land from the Jamaica Resorts (including some owned by President Weah. "the four lots ... have never at any time been part of the Seminary's property. The seminary is on the peninsula in the middle right below. (My father is buried there.) The original claim came from the "Baptist Transitional Committee" (never heard of it before)

Thinker's Village is over on the left hand side of the picture. I can't find "Jamaica Resorts", but since Weah hosted a post-Ramadan fast-breaking for 400 there, it can't be small. From the looks of the ruins on the shore, I don't think the ocean side of the lagoon was ever part of LBMEC's land. So what the BTC was talking about I do not know.

Of course, one always finds oddities in the corners. SNAFU is a place.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Gender Studies

Gender (from genus, kind) is weird. Given that most applications of it have nothing whatever to do with sex, it might be less confusing for grammarians to refer to A and B rather than masculine and feminine. Or neuter. Or common. Or animate/inanimate.

My original question had to do with whether languages from the same family tend to give the same genders to nouns (not always), but found deep rabbit holes when I left Indo-European: noun classifiers in Chinese etc (which includes some "counting" classifiers) and the more general noun class which seems to be a generalization of gender.

Oh joy. How are these assigned; and whodunit? From the "noun class" article:

  • according to similarities in their meaning (semantic criterion)
  • by grouping them with other nouns that have similar form (morphology)
  • through an arbitrary convention.

I get the impression that some of the rules can arise or change when two different languages meet. Old English had three genders, as German does, but modern English has only a handful of relic gendered nouns. Maybe the parallel language use played some role--though I can't quite visualize (auralize?) how.

Why would these arise in the first place? All I can think of is that somehow, at some time, a word just sounded more pleasant or more appropriate with a le instead of a la, and the nouns that sounded better got the characteristic. Of course animate/inanimate seems pretty clear.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Yellowstone antiquities

Archaeologists are studying the Indian use of Yellowstone.. Apparently it was quite popular with various tribes in antiquity, and also up until the point they were driven out.
There is no truth to the idea that Native Americans were afraid of the geysers and thermal features.


According to Hunts to Die, in his interview with the photographer-ethnographer Edward Curtis, the spirits in the geysers were afraid of people, rather than the other way around.

That sounds exactly right. They seem supernatural, check. They don't hurt you unless you monkey with them, check. But if you watch them, nothing happens. And then, ten minutes after you've left, you hear the geyser again. What else can you conclude?

Wednesday, January 06, 2021


"for a man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God"

Was the election stolen? Maybe; it depends on what you mean.

Were there clear cases of classic fraud? Sure looks like it--I'm pretty sure that Georgia election official was lying. Were those enough to tip the balance? Nobody knows, and they've been very careful not to find out. Were all the suspicious cases fraud? I very much doubt it. Trump is wildly unpopular in some circles. Was there unprovable chicanery with the mail-in ballots? I'll bet there was. Will even legal mail-in ballots skew in favor of densely populated cities? Obviously. Is this unprecedented? Read about Tammany Hall.

Is this kind of invasive protest going to do anything useful at all? Hardly. Maybe it'll scare a few senators, but I'll bet they're more likely to be vengeful than penitent. And it's very much like complaining about the barn door when the horse got through it half a year before.

Why wasn't the National Guard there, and why did the police let demonstrators through the barricade? Maybe that was after the legistlators were evacuated from the hall? Who did they think they were letting through? When I was there, the capitol police took the inner sanctum pretty seriously.

Without a tried finding to the contrary, Pence et al have to presume that the election results were valid. Imagine if that weren't true and elections could be blocked on suspicion. It's bad enough right now, with automatic impeachment proceedings as a precedent (chatter started even before Trump was sworn in--though Biden is probably immunized against impeachment).

UPDATE: I see. The perimeter had already been breached elsewhere, so the cops were retreating to regroup.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

I hadn't thought of that

BBC: "South Africa ... armed robbers stormed a production facility and stole thousands of bottle caps."

"believes the stolen bottle caps could be used to reseal branded bottles with counterfeit home-made alcohol and sold to the public."

If you've got lots of empties... It's probably easier than taking old bottle caps and trying to hammer them so they look new.

Chamberlin Rock

In the continuing saga of Chamberlin Rock, "Chancellor Rebecca Blank has approved a committee’s recommendation that the boulder be relocated off university property. Private or gift funds, not taxpayer money, will cover the cost."

Quick recap: a glacial erratic named for a scientist is being moved because a Black Student Union president did enough in-depth research to find that it was once given an offensive name, albeit not within the lifetime of pretty much anybody still living.

Here I rely on the dog that didn't bark. Newspapers have an interest in scandal. If the stone still had the name by snickering word-of-mouth, the paper would have gleefully reported on how racist UW students were, and the UW Flagelants would have done loud mea culpas. Crickets.

The press release was careful to assure us that "private or gift funds" are used. If this means non-earmarked or endowment fund money, that's a distinction without a difference, since that and tax money is one big pot. If this is earmarked money--who is paying for this? It might be interesting to ask them why.

On another UW story, the paper reports that UW has gotten 1000 doses of vaccine to start immunizing students and employees. Baldly stated like that it sound like somebody is cutting in line. It isn't until paragraph 3 that you learn that this is for UW-Hospital.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Upside-down winter morning

The frost-fluffed tree branches are rooting themselves in the bright grey sky.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Iran and aircraft carriers

AP says "US to move aircraft carrier out of Mideast amid Iran tension". Chris Miller decided to "send it home" a day after we sent some B-52's overhead. AP says "Sending the aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, home to the U.S. West Coast would seem at odds with the idea that a show of force is needed to deter Iran."

I wonder if it means the opposite. Sitting in the Persian Gulf makes it a target for missiles. We have anti-missile capability, but I'd bet they have enough missiles to overwhelm it. They have some proxies they could use for implausible deniability, though I don't think it would phase our leadership much. And we demonstrated the day before that we don't need to have equipment right on site to do them damage.

If my speculation is right, pulling it out means we expect war, and don't want to lose a lot of assets in the first round.

Since it takes away a juicy target, it might reduce the odds of hot war too. I don't know anything about internal Iranian politics.