Tuesday, September 28, 2021


You've seen the stories suggesting that an meteor air-burst destroyed Tel el-Hammam, which might have been Sodom, as well as trashing Jericho--though less emphatically. The combination of shattering, intense heat, and traces of odd minerals does seem to suggest something not within the military technology of the age. Pottery doesn't melt very easily--but have a look at what confined heat can do. People do worry about fire damage in tunnels and how to avoid/repair damage.

Tunguska would have been unpleasant to be underneath too. "Recent estimates place Tunguska-sized events at about one every thousand years." Um. The statistics are low, but spotting 2 in 4000 years, subject to a) not happening over the ocean and b) happening where people would notice, suggests to me a rate at least 10 times higher.


Via comments at Chicago Boyz: a CIA-written parody of The Hunt for Red October. No doubt I missed a number of in-jokes, but I got the gist.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Educational software in Africa

While looking up Ricks Institute info, I found that they're using an African-sourced software platform for e-learning. Ashcon turns out to be an extension of Wordpress and Buddypress which serves a customized set of free instructional videos, pre-downloaded. This is organized to match the school's (Ricks' here) curriculum. The history of installing their software at Ricks is interesting. Try to buy a server and find that unless you wait (too long!) you have to buy local at 2x the normal price. A large fraction of the downloaded demonstrations demand java or flash--problematic. Iowa State warned them that some of the simulations might have minor flaws, but they worked. Khan Academy has lots of material they could use.

All of this educational material is easy to find and use--if you have good internet connectivity. The value-added with Ashcon is pre-downloading the material to a local server and simplifying the access. It developed thus:

"Whilst in my first semester in Ashesi, I developed a simple website with educational videos from Khan Academy and hosted it on my laptop. This was in response to the many requests I received from fellow students to copy the videos for them onto their flash drives. These were videos teaching topics related to the introductory courses we were taking that semester. Students who had seen me watching Khan Academy videos wanted to use them to revise for the upcoming mid-semester exam. Over that weekend, my classmates downloaded about a thousand videos, which motivated me to develop the site further. This gave birth to AshCon."

A little good news in the world...

Children's games

AVI has a post about children's games in England and the US.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but at Ricks I remember boys playing soccer--with a ball if they had one, with an orange if they didn't--and I remember the jump-rope games as girls' games. I could be mistaken there, though. The jump-rope games were quite complicated, resembling "Chinese" jump rope. I'd bet the Liberian versions were independently developed.

Me? I tripped.

There were also some catch games, but I don't recall that they were especially different from "catch" anywhere else.

These days: You recognize some of these games as imports, and some as adaptations. FWIW, in the "hoop game" you guided the hoop--you don't "follow it" unless it got away from you. Or at least, that's what I saw. I remembered "na-foo" but didn't remember that it was "knock foot" or how it was played.

"Kickball" demanded a big soft ball (pitch is a roll, hit is a kick, otherwise just like softball), and so was more of an organized sport than a pick-up game.

The school had a basketball court too, which saw some action.

FWIW, Ricks has a policy that students are forbidden to bring cell phones or tablets onto campus. It's a boarding school.

Should have known

I've written before on how, after the fact, we can see that God always was a suffering servant in some sense.

If love means willing the good of another, and if existence, as such, is good, then at least to that degree of willing something to exist, a Creator is loving.

John makes the degree clear.

Joseph and Potiphar's wife

I'd heard that the Koran(*) had a different version. Muhammad's version describes 2 attempts, the second a fairly public challenge with her lady friends present, after Potiphar has already determined Joseph's innocence.

I'd also heard that Muhammad borrowed heavily from local Jews and some Christian monks (he seems to have had very friendly relations with some of them), so I looked for a midrash on Potiphar's wife. It includes several different speculations to flesh out the narrative: Joseph is about to succumb when interrupted by a vision of his father, Joseph discourses on death with Potiphar's wife Zulycah to discourage her, Potiphar was homosexual... And the little detail I'd always missed, that Pharaoh gave him "Asenath daughter of Poti-phera" who may or may not have been the same as Potiphar.

If the same, that would seem to make for extremely awkward in-law relations, though the rabbis worried more about Joseph marrying a non-Israelite, in violation of the (much later) Sinai law. In one "explanation" Asenath is Joseph's neice in what strikes me as a very unpleasant story. In another analysis, Joseph realizes that he is still technically a slave, and he has seen Pharaoh's favor turn on a dime. If he marries Potiphar's daughter, his children will be Potiphar's grandchildren--and Potiphar would never enslave his own grandchildren, so they'd be safe, even if Joseph winds up enslaved again.

As to my original question, the Jewish versions I read don't match Muhammad's, so he either invented it or those monks had a freewheeling attitude towards Genesis.

(*)I've tried reading the Koran a couple of times, but never succeeded in getting very far.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Parkinson's Law: Injelititis

Have I recommended this before? Never mind, I recommend it again. Each chapter is a tongue-in-cheek but insightful look at organizations and how they fuddle things. The first is a famous observation about the growth of management.

From Parkinson's Law, Chapter 8: Injelititis, or Palsied Parlysis:

If the head of the organization is second-rate, he will see to it that his immediate staff are all third-rate; and they will, in turn, see to it that their subordinates are fourth-rate. There will soon be an actual competition in stupidity, people pretending to be even more brainless than they are.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Lies, Damned lies,..

"Junk DNA" has a purpose, something most of us probably guessed was true from first principles, though we couldn't predict what it would be. The link tells of some progress they're making on figuring out what its roles are.

But one sentence jumped out at me:

“If you look at the chimpanzee genome and the human genome, the protein coding regions are, like, 98 percent, 99 percent identical,” she says. “But the junk DNA part is very, very different.”

You've heard that 98% stat over and over again, haven't you? But unless you dig into the details, you never learn that said "98%" covers only 1.5% of the DNA. I'd never dug into it before myself. I need to be more suspicious--I figured it was just a matter of complexity. Nope, hubris: "If we don't understand it, it doesn't matter."

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

What David did...

Matthew 12:3-4 "Have you not read what David did ... entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat..." It seemed an odd reference--to history rather than the law, and to an incident in which David, on the run from Saul, lies to Ahimelech the priest at the tabernacle about his errand. That's a pretty odd precedent to rely on.

I think I get it now, though. Ahimelech gave him permission, and Jesus was affirming that. Jesus' next example is also about the priests in the temple, who do work (and hard work it was) on the Sabbath--unlike everybody else. Jesus then claims to be superior to the temple, which the priests serve, so if a priest can intepret, even more He can specify the applications of the law.

Monday, September 20, 2021

If you have time on your hands.

The "Great Books of the Western World" is prefaced with a volume describing "The Great Conversation." Some of the writers are arguing with each other and coming up with better ideas (and worse ones), others descibe people using plays or novels (and what they regard as important to explain varies a lot over time), and others come up with new approaches to science. One of the things their approach emphasizes is that while math may have a right answer, what makes a good king?

Or a good writer of constitutions? FWIW, they've had arguments about what should go in the list of Great Books too, and made changes.

There's an ancient parallel tradition of debate. The section linked is 8 chapters discussing the ramifications and limits of the rule that one must leave the corners of your field ungleaned so that the poor can harvest something. (The corner is the "peah".) The first teacher says:

These are the things that have no definite quantity: The corners [of the field]. First-fruits; [The offerings brought] on appearing [at the Temple on the three pilgrimage festivals]. The performance of righteous deeds; And the study of the torah. The following are the things for which a man enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains for him in the world to come: Honoring one’s father and mother; The performance of righteous deeds; And the making of peace between a person and his friend; And the study of the torah is equal to them all.

"No definite quantity" The very next teacher wrote:

They should not leave peah of less than one-sixtieth [of the field]. But even though they said, “there is no measure for peah,” everything depends upon the size of the field, the number of poor people, and the extent of the yield.

"Great Conversations" involve a lot of "wait a minute, you forgot about X," don't they?

Another text, a midrash on Genesis, interpolates a great deal of speculation into the sacred text about Abraham and Isaac and Mt. Moriah. Perhaps this is "what if" to illustrate different possible ways to interpret the simple text. Another set of analyses on the creation of man has Adam naming God!

Just a note: the formatting at sefaria.org is not always ideal. In the same paragraph you can find an opinion, and then another author citing the opinion in order to clarify it--without indentation or different fonts to help guide the eye.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Surely they didn't look quite like that...

I grew up thinking Greek and Roman statues were mostly plain white, though even back then they knew some had been painted. We now know most of them were painted, and this is a nice collection of examples. But the reconstructions, pretty much one and all, looked like cartoons. Some of those statues have amazing detail and texture--would the sculpter have been satisfied with the flat colors we've tried to slap on? Granted, those flat colors are the color of the residues we found, but I'd bet that at least some of the more realistic statues got additional detailing and shading on top of that base. The author of that peice agrees with me.

John Deandrea does painted sculpture now. I'd bet the Greeks, trying to immortalize (almost literally--e.g. an Olympic winner carved to look like Zeus) their model, would have gone in for all the detail they could.

Of course, over time the detail would fade or erode, and maybe some of them planned for that.

"Isochoric" freezing

Have you ever thawed out some frozen tomatoes for use in a recipe? Freezing messes up the texture--you wind up with tomato juice and some skin and a little thin pulp. Suppose you could freeze the tomato--or at least get it down below freezing to preserve it--without freezing it solid?

It can be done. (The article is about energy savings thereby) I'd forgotten about the consequences of this graph. That line from the upper left, between the I and the Liquid shows how.

Some of us remember what happened when you left a full pop bottle outside in the winter. If you were lucky, it popped the cap and produced a pillar of frozen pop. If not so lucky, you had to pick broken glass out of the yard. Water expands when it freezes, so the pressure goes way up if you try to keep it confined. It'll just bulge a pop can, but if you use a nice strong cannister, the contents will partly freeze and partly not. That line I mentioned shows the temperature and pressure at which both ice (ice-I, to be picky about it) and water coexist. If your tomatoes happen to be the in the part that doesn't freeze, they get to stay freezer-cold without the unhappy side effects of water crystal growth shattering cells and generally munging up the texture.

Don't try this at home. If you eyeball the numbers on that graph, you'll see that to keep your goodies at -2C your cannister will have to stand of the order of 3000 pounds persquare inch, and at -20 30,000 psi. Even if your freezer survived the burst, opening the cannister too soon could be problematic. This seems to yours truly more of an industrial-scale job. Scuba tanks use about 1/4 inch of metal to hold 3000 psi, and the pressure here could easily go over that with a small temperature drop. I'd prefer the pressure tank to be below ground level.

This isn't new. Some places use this method to supercool food. When the pressure is released, the water in the food freezes, of course--but so quickly that the crystals are small, and less damaging. But you need strong systems to do it.

Isochoric means "constant volume." No, I didn't know that either.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Drugs against COVID

I've read that Chloroquine and Ivermectin are used in tropical areas, and that the rate of COVID is significantly lower in sub-Saharan Africa. This correlation could be indicative of something, if the disease rates were accurately reported. I'll stipulate for the moment that the per cohort rate is lower, but you may color me very dubious.

"Used" is a tricky word. How often are they used?

Anti-malarials aren't part of the normal weekly regimin in the malarial parts of Africa--and chloroquine isn't as useful as it once was. The link is to a study proposing monthly doses for children. When we lived there, we took one weekly.

Also, this meta-study of regular antihelmenthics on schoolchildren implies that these are not given what I'd call very regularly. Some of the studies used quarterly doses, some bi-annually. WHO advocated annual dosing.

It would seem likely that the anti-malarials or antihelmintics are only present in sub-Saharan Africans' blood periodically--probably on an as-needed basis. It isn't obvious that even if chloroquine or ivermectin provided prophylactic protection against COVID, that the residue from months before would make any difference. Desethylchloroquine has a half-life in the bloodstream of about 4 days. I'll take that as a proxy for the oral varieties. Ivermectin, per Merck, has a half-life of about 18 hours.

Maybe they help, but the correlation doesn't seem to help prove it.

On the other hand, I heard of one clinic that somebody who came in sick with anything remotely resembling malaria was automatically given an anti-malarial, on the grounds that they probably had that too. If that protocol is widely used, there could still be a relationship.

The devil is in the details--including the details of your assumptions.

Sunday, September 12, 2021


Scorned wife raids ex-husband’s cryogenics lab stealing frozen brains of people who hoped to be brought back to life

I don't particularly care that the corpses and brains of the people (and pets--lots of pets) were thawing out. They'll rise in the general resurrection or not at all; the business is a scam. But this is scary: "“While attempting to steal our dewars, this nitrogen was spilled, most of the nitrogen was poured onto the ground,” added Aleksey Potapov, an expert with KrioRus." If you look at the size of those dewars, that's a lot of spilled liquid nitrogen, which would quickly boil off and change the proportion of oxygen in the air. I wonder what precautions they took to keep from suffocating themselves.

Saturday, September 11, 2021


I arrived at work thinking nothing amiss. Matt passed me in the hall and said "It's your fault!" He always had a cockeyed sense of humor, but this was even odder than usual. I turned on the radio for some music, and it wasn't. The BBC web site was snowed under, as was the NYT. I kept trying, but one thing was clear through the conflicting reports. This was war.

The bulk of my adult life the country had been at peace, modulo a skirmish here and there--and the skirmishes were far afield.

I knew history well enough to know that state couldn't last; wouldn't last. It hadn't. I tried to imagine my 8-year old son going off to war in ten years. It wasn't easy. 20 years later, it still isn't.

I didn't like seeing the flags at half staff. It was war--fly it high.

It still is. The war is cold for now, but that won't last.

Future plans

The Milwaukee Public Museum wrote to remind us that our subscription had expired, and they were grateful for our support before which, among other things, enabled them to "make progress on our future plans."

It would be cool to have a museum that worked backwards, that preserved knowledge of the future for us. I'd like to have an idea of what I'll be planning in the future.

Friday, September 10, 2021

You always wondered, didn't you?

Do the chemicals in your breath vary depending on what kind of movie you are watching? Does sex clear up nasal congestion? Do beards help protect your jaw in a fight?

For answers to these, and many other questions, refer to this year's igNobel Prizes.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Sitting by the fire

The Bear stretches out a claw; the Swan turns its head; the Archer's arrow flies skew. The great ones of the sky are reshaped for a time--not by the proud building a new tower to heaven, but by the humble safety lights of lonely travelers.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Is a pandemic like a war?

I may update this list from time to time as I think of (or am instructed about) new aspects.


  1. You have an identifiable enemy that is killing you.
  2. You have reasonably clear and achievable objectives. To be accurate, the USA has not fought with clear and achievable objectives for several wars now, but that’s because we’ve been idiots.
  3. You need collective action to achieve those objectives.
  4. Some of your people are going to die, and a lot are going to suffer, and the means you devise for the “fight” will cause some suffering, lots of opportunity costs, and probably some deaths.
  5. Reaching your objectives requires money. The more your economy is crippled, the harder it will be to reach your goal—and you will have additional deaths because people rely on that economy. For the USA that can mean crippled transportation systems that don’t provide cities the food/fuel/medicines they need; for a poorer country that can mean that farmers starve because the army has confiscated their crops.
  6. ”The enemy gets a vote.” You have to be ready to adjust your plans.
  7. You will do unhappy and unjust things: seizing goods, locking people up ("quarantine" comes from a 40-day detention)--and in war killing people.
  8. Your means need to be commensurate with the threat. Scorched-earth may be an appropriate tactic when Germans are invading the USSR, but it wouldn’t be appropriate if Mexico were invading the USA.
  9. Some people will get rich off the new requirements, whether drug or ammo manufacturers. You may have to intervene to keep this from getting out of hand, but you need them to benefit to keep supplies coming. “Useful profiteers.”
  10. Some people will try to use emergency powers to enrich themselves or entrench themselves in control. “Evil profiteers.” The tools and restrictions intended for defeating the enemy can be turned against your own people.
  11. Internecine quarrels about means and promotions and whatnot will be ugly, cause a great deal of damage, perhaps lose you your war—and are unavoidable.
  12. You need accountability for the results. If marching men out of the trenches into no-mans-land just gets them machine-gunned, somebody needs to be told to stop that.
  13. Wars are full of lies trying to nudge the population, cover up screwups, and prevent panic.
  14. You have to make decisions without enough information.
  15. You are afraid. Too much fear is bad--you lynch Germans during WW-I or fail to press on against the Confederates at Yorktown. Too little and the Barbarossa plan catches you by surprise.

  1. There is nobody who can surrender. You can kill enough human enemies to make them stop whatever they were doing. You can’t kill all the viruses. Smallpox was an exception—it was easy. Ebola is hard.
  2. As a consequence of the above, either the infectious agent or the treatment will keep on killing some number of your people forever. If you can reduce the rate to something small, your emergency is over. 0 deaths is not possible with dangerous disease.
  3. Everybody dies. You can defeat one foreign enemy, but one of the domestic ones (cancer, heart disease, murder) is going to get you sooner or later. The temptation for mission creep and battling the next disease ("it's almost as dangerous!") will probably be overwhelming.
  4. In a war, if you didn’t have a dedicated enemy when you started, you do now—you can’t just say “Oopsies” and stop. If you find a pandemic to be less of a problem than you thought, you can “just stop.” The hard problem will be getting the powers-that-be to admit they were wrong.
  5. Against an epidemic, your tactics will always partake of "scorched earth," damaging your economy and future. In wars, that's only sometimes true.

Yes and No
  1. It depends on the intensity. A mild disease is more like the random Muhammadans going on solo jihads in London. You can let the existing systems (police in one case, medical in the other) take care of the problem. A more dangerous disease is comparable to them being organized and funded, as with 9/11. You need to bring new tools to bear on the problem. Ebola would be like an invasion.

Obviously the tools differ: chemicals, quarantines, research, crash programs to redo HVAC (for airborne pathogens) vs the familiar trucks, bullets, and bombs. But they’re both expensive and have huge opportunity costs.

As a thought experiment, imagine a disease spread by contact, with a week-long incubation period during the last three days of which the victim is contagious, with a 40% death rate.

The disease appears in Sao Paulo, spreads quickly, and is quickly identified.

You’re the director of Epidemic Security. Congress has just voted a (possibly merely the first) 30-day state of emergency. The country is going to be “invaded.” What do you do?

Just a few quick ideas: shut down the borders and all international travel until quarantine centers are built. Plan for 2+ week quarantines—1-week is the average incubation period, not an exact one. Unauthorized border crossing is an existential threat, and met with deadly force. Ration bleach, alcohol, peroxide, etc. Begin construction on inter-“zone” quarantine stations designed for isolation and disinfection. With luck you won’t need them, but you probably won’t have any luck.

Does that sound Chinese to you? It should also sound Italian, and French, and so on—people take deadly epidemics deadly seriously.

Once the disease appears inside the country, you have to become radical—otherwise 40% means a lot of people die. Isolate infected zones. Within the zones, nobody goes outside for a week or so. (This will kill some people—not enough food, not enough meds, uncooperative.)

The economy takes a huge hit. Even after it’s all over, lots of jobs will be gone forever, and you’ll have more poverty. But then, 40% death rate would do even worse.

Now modify the situation. (Parallel extreme cases sometimes help illustrate principles.) Suppose the death rate is 99%.

Borders close. No admittance, whether or not you’re a citizen. Civilian monitors augment the Coast Guard watching the coast. Preemptive inter-“zone” traffic stops at boundaries for 20-day quarantines. Civilian monitors watch back roads. People starve. Measures get even harsher if the disease gets a foothold in the country.

Now modify the situation to its opposite. Suppose the plague will only kill everyone over 100 with heart disease.

Would you do anything at all? Maybe invite the likely victims to live in bubbles, if that. This doesn’t qualify as a public emergency.

The typical year's annual flus don't meet the threshold for an emergency. We're fortunate that the medical system has vaccines that help, but even without them it hadn't been a disaster-level problem. That's not comforting to my friend's wife--he died from the flu a few years ago.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Some thoughts about surviving when things go south

from LawDog, a former lawman who spent some of his youth in Africa. It is not wise to wait for the US Embassy to help you.

On a closely related topic, reports say 112000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan. I don't know how many were US, other NATO, Afghan, or what. Using the news reports, I'm estimating 15 days. I don't know what the average capacity of the planes leaving was: 300 might be a bit high. You can squeeze a lot of people in a cargo plane, but I presume they had smaller ones too. If the rate was steady, and the operation took 15 days, that comes out to a minimum of a plane every hour. Scale for different estimates: 100/plane gives a plane every 20 minutes. 7 days for the push (assuming it took a while to ramp up capacity) and 100/plane gives a plane every 10 minutes--which I'm not sure is plausible.

I wonder how many of the evacuations were land-based, and what it took to get them through.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Persistence of vision

I remember reading decades ago that dogs didn't seem very interested in movies. They were alert to sounds, but the motion on the screen meant nothing to them.

On the other hand, dogs can watch TV and cats can too. From the latter: "Yes, cats can watch TV but process images differently than humans. TV images are tougher for cats to identify to see because they process at a rate of 70 – 80 Hz; faster than what TV’s show. Cats can see many of the same colors although some red colors are desaturated." Dogs do not see as well, and have fewer colors.

There's a difference between modern TVs and old projection movies. The movies projected images one after another and relied on human persistence of vision to have the images blend together rather than flicker. Nobody likes to watch flicker, and dogs and cats seem to need higher frame rates than people do (predator eyes?). So movies wouldn't be so attractive.

But old-style TV's used glowing phosphors--would their fading overlap the next image? Not really. Different colors have different fading times, but they're generally less than 1/1000 second. The monitors I used to use at work had refresh rates of 60-80 Hz: good enough for me, but maybe marginal for a cat. LCD displays can have refresh rates of over 5/1000 second. That's plenty fast enough to keep it from flickering for a cat.

Of course the pixel colors are designed to look realistic for human eyes. I don't know exactly how to map that for cat vision. If cats are nearsighted (per the link), then the "everything-in-focus" world of a nearby TV screen might be especially fascinating.

Parasite on a parasite

I missed this story when it first came out: the zombie-ant fungus has a parasite of its own.

You probably know of the fungus that infects some ants, scrambling the ant's brain so that it wanders out to die and grow a mushroom out of its body. The ants try to defend against it by grooming each other, but it turns out that another fungus in turn infects the first one, cripling its fruiting body and making the resulting mushroom less contagious to ants.

I wonder if this new parasite is in some way cultivated by the ant colonies.