Friday, December 30, 2022

Hard times

"Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times..." Bret Deveraux decided to have at that trope about 3 years ago. He looked at the civilized/"barbarian" conflicts in general and then with specific reference to Rome, in a 6-part series, and concluded that the "trope" of the upright outsider destroying the decadent empire was pretty much worthless. Sometimes the "barbarians" won; more often they got whipped. Western Rome was finally knocked out by "barbarians" who had picked up Roman ways.

In particular, some of the more famous "Rome is decadent and about to be destroyed" complaints came just as Rome entered several centuries of expansion and power.

I don't know what the history field is like these days, but his "we don't believe those evil things anymore" asides get annoying after a while, especially when he touches on live issues. Maybe he has to lard descriptions of the past with disclaimers to ward off the evil eye, or maybe he really believes that we're superior now.

Anyhow, he holds that the trope isn't really about the "poorer, harder" people, it's a critique of decadence in the rich society. The poor "Fremen" cultures live in hard lands because they've no choice--they generally can't fight their way into richer lands, or they would have already.

OK, fair enough. Why has this critique been so popular--for thousands of years?

There seem to be two different paths. Consider a family instead of a nation--I'll get into why in a bit. A family can become so rich that they distort the economy and politics of a region, and their wealth becomes self-sustaining, requiring only modest intelligence to manage. Outsiders find it lucrative to participate, and thanks to the political distortions, competitors are suppressed. These can endure for a long time.

Another path is that described by the Chinese proverb that “You can only keep wealth in the family for three generations.” The first makes the business, the second runs it, and the third ruins it. According to the Conway Center for Family Business, 12 percent of all family businesses make it past the second generation, and only 3 percent make it to the fourth generation. That sounds like pretty substantial attrition, though perhaps changing environments plays at least as big a role as deteriorating management.

At any rate, on the micro scale we see something happening that at least superficially seems to deserve the critique--"shape up and get hungry again or the outsiders will eat your lunch." You can probably think of several businesses that were at the top of the world just a couple of decades ago, and just weren't flexible enough to make it.

Of course just being hungry isn't enough to fit you for beating the fat and lazy--it's a necessary but not sufficient condition. But it's easy to see why the trope/critique is popular. It fits, at least if you ignore the hungry failures.

I haven't done a systematic survey, but the "decadence leads to decay" trope seems to fit the smaller upstarts better than the big empires--at least in the histories I've read. Perhaps they're too small to attract outsiders to support them.

I surmise that one reason the "decadent empires" last longer than the three generations is because the empire isn't a single family, but a collection of competitors working within the framework of empire. When one crime family gets sloppy, another starts encroaching on their turf, and the overall structure doesn't change. As long as they don't start dismantling the machinery, if it's big enough it keeps going until bureaucratic friction burns out the bearings.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

These didn't demand a lot of comment

The video Chernobyl mentioned "beta tan", which I'd heard of years ago--beta particles (electrons and positrons) don't penetrate far at nuclear energies, so they give something like a sunburn. Naturally, the first thing that google serves up is a cough remedy.

Supply chain issues get magnified in poorer countries: "the company disclosed that the arrival of jet fuel in Liberia will be delayed as a result of the shortage on the global market." ... "The vessel should have arrived on December 14, 2022. We are now being informed that the vessel will not be in Liberia until January 13, 2023."

Customs change. Used to be that beggars got a Christmas gift from the President. (One year they banded together to buy a goat in thanks, and the donation was reduced!) Now: "Zogos took to the streets after being denied their routine Christmas packages from Finda Bondo, the Chief of Protocol to President George Weah." With cutlasses. Bystanders handled two of them.

Do not get arrested in third world countries

The Baptist War ... Also known as the Christmas Rebellion, it was an eleven-day rebellion that started on Christmas Day 1831 in Jamaica. The harsh repression of it became so notorious that it helped fuel the banning of slavery in England.

I've been looking off and on at radiation tolerance studies: there's a new report about bank voles "Chernobyl fibroblasts had higher total antioxidant capacity than the control cells and were less sensitive to DNA damage induced lethality, both of which processes may explain their increased resistance against radiation."

Patience and encouragement, ok, but what else?

We smile when a toddler walks, and when he falls. He's trying to figure out how his body works. And how language works --we encourage him and try to peice out what what exactly he's trying to tell us ("Ro ae cae!" .... Rover ... ate ... the cake!??)

We're not so patient with clumsy teenagers, who are also trying to figure out how their new body works, and their new roles, and who sometimes find it quite hard to say what they intended to. They have tantrums too, and seem to get more annoyed than toddlers do when we laugh at them.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

I like this one


Eliot probably did it better, but if I'm supposed to worry that others say things better, would I ever say anything at all?

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Various quotes

From a link from AVI's post:
(wrt British Sunday laws) I should have some sympathy with the Jewish Sabbath, if it were a Jewish Sabbath, and that for three reasons; first, that religion is an intrinsically sympathetic thing; second, that I cannot conceive any religion worth calling a religion without a fixed and material observance; and third, that the particular observance of sitting still and doing no work is one that suits my temperament down to the ground.

about pockets

I suppose that the things that I have dropped into my pockets are still there; the same presumption applies to the things that I have dropped into the sea. But I regard the riches stored in both these bottomless chasms with the same reverent ignorance. They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead; and I suppose that on the same occasion long strings of extraordinary things will come running out of my pockets.


Now it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

When his cab crashed

But in those few moments, while my cab was tearing towards the traffic of the Strand, I discovered that there is a truth behind this phrase, as there is behind all popular phrases. I did really have, in that short and shrieking period, a rapid succession of a number of fundamental points of view. I had, so to speak, about five religions in almost as many seconds. My first religion was pure Paganism, which among sincere men is more shortly described as extreme fear. Then there succeeded a state of mind which is quite real, but for which no proper name has ever been found. The ancients called it Stoicism, and I think it must be what some German lunatics mean (if they mean anything) when they talk about Pessimism. It was an empty and open acceptance of the thing that happens—as if one had got beyond the value of it. And then, curiously enough, came a very strong contrary feeling—that things mattered very much indeed, and yet that they were something more than tragic. It was a feeling, not that life was unimportant, but that life was much too important ever to be anything but life. I hope that this was Christianity. At any rate, it occurred at the moment when we went crash into the omnibus.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Measurement and management

It seems the famous Deming quote about measurement and management reverses meaning when you include the rest of the sentence: "It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth." (The New Economics)

That's encouraging--the commonly quoted sub-phrase is pretty silly, and it seemed odd that somebody so smart would get it so wrong.

The most common enterprise in the world is families, which are almost invariably managed without statistical analyses. The parents may (should) keep track of the finances, but education and discipline and most of the rest are administered without recourse to spreadsheets.


I have heard several preachers/priests asserting that "there is no such thing as race" and therefore we ought not be racist, because it makes no sense.

There are different families, different tribes, and unless eyes and DNA lie, different races, both in the old "lots of different big tribes" and the more recent "a few really big groups" senses. And it turns out there are some related differences in susceptibility to disease and whatnot that go along with. I'm told even skeletons can sometimes show differences. (No, I'm not bothering about the fuzzy boundaries around the groups.)

The assertion therefore isn't true, and there are plenty of differences between people.

What's the meaning of the differences? The doctors and scientists and technicians can't tell you--"meaning" isn't measurable.

The preacher/priest is the one to tell you that we're all made in the image of God, and that that is more fundamental than family or tribe or race. Or politics or strength or wealth or IQ or empathy. That's not always a welcome message, but trying to hand off the heavy lifting to somebody else is wrong.


First there were a wealth of heresies, some quite weird, others more ordinary-looking--the Arians have counterparts to this day. But one of the big divisions was Christology: what is the nature of Christ? Divisions linger, even after Chaldecon (451).

Another festered for centuries, culminating in 1054, about the locus of authority in the church. Was it the Bishop of Rome or the bishops together? The filioque didn't help, and usages diverged because of the authority question. And, as usual, politics reared its head.

A third biggie was about role of faith and the nature of the church, which we generally date from about 1517, though it began before and lasted long after. The resulting lamentable fragmentation hasn't stopped.

We're about due, I suppose. We had a century or so of schisming over the nature and authority of the Bible, and right now we're dividing over "What is the nature of man?"--possibly as a corollary of the first one. The breakaway faction's stance seems to be that man is whatever he wants to be.

Interesting times. I suppose they always are.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Learning a new instrument

She figured one of the prima domra models had the same fingering as a violin, which she already knew how to play. Her last finger has to strech quite a bit farther, but it works.

Some of the musicians and friends/family went to lunch at Petra afterwards. The restaurant was short-staffed, which meant lots of time for fun conversation around the table. (The food was excellent too.)

UPDATE: The first work was full of crackling from some source--I think a bad cable connector. I reset it to start with a later peice.

Friday, December 16, 2022

I've been urging students do things like this

but can't take credit for this: "My Thesis in Pictures" "Search for Neutrinos from Gamma-ray Bursts using the IceCube Neutrino Observatory" by Kunal Deoskar, Stockholm University.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Apropos of nothing urgent

Breadmaker half whole-wheat bread seems to come out somewhat differently from batch to batch, with the same ingredients from the same bag/bottle/can. Last time's batch was dark and hard-crusted and tasted of molasses (which I use instead of honey), and this time's was light without that molasses taste. KitchenPro. I wonder if maybe the different cook settings are getting confused.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Voices from Chernobyl

by Svetlana Alexievich After watching the series, one has to read the book, right? This is a translation of Tchernobylskaia Molitiva (1997) done by Keith Gessen (2005). It is made of the answers given to interview questions (usually not quoted) by a variety of people: some who never left the exclusion zone, some who have fled to it from war zones, widows, engineers who were set to shoveling, defenders of the establishment, and children.

Don't expect happy endings. If there were some, they probably wouldn't have been included. Most of the people telling their stories don't have clear understandings of the physics or biology of radiation, and neither the author nor the translator interrupts their narration to correct them. If you want details about radiation then and now, look here.

One of the things brought out in the book, though not the movie, is the amount of theft--both of the aid and of the contaminated durable goods. I had forgotten that alcohol was alleged to be prophylactic against radiation poisoning (it is only at a trivial level, and the slowdown in your decision-making would tend to increase your dose). "Liquidators" show up among the dead and sickened more often than I would have expected--maybe a sampling issue. (UPDATE: actually, there were a lot of them) Most of the workers recruited from the army seem not to have been kept track of--I'd expect higher cancer rates for many of them.

At the end of one tour, a man burned the clothes he wore, except for his cap, which his son dearly wanted, and then wore every day. Two years later the son needed surgery for a brain tumor.

Not a happy book, but worth reading.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Price of lies

I don't watch movies alone much anymore, so it took a while to get around to the HBO Chernobyl miniseries youngest son loaned me. It is well made and moving, but is not for someone who'd be too horrified at depictions of radiation poisoning. It made a few concessions to drama that klunked for me: I don't know how reactor workers in the USSR were trained, but to work in much less dangerous environments we were told to plan our work and get it done briskly, not hang around for dramatic effect. And an impossibly supercompetent woman was created to stand in for a large team of scientists and engineers--no single human being has that many details at his fingertips. But all in all, a good depiction.

The overdue safety test (signed off on at the reactor's commissioning but not yet done) was designed without a critical bit of information about a design flaw in the control rods. Because the state could not make mistakes, the control rods had no flaw, right?

We go a bundle on lies in this country too. Article XIII Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution: "Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired."

They promised that pensions would be paid, but never set aside money for it. They lied.

Is there any difference in nature between claiming that the soviet control rods are good because they represent the People's Will, and saying that "indigenous ways of knowledge are as good as colonialist science?"

Many fashionable claims seem like ventures in "How far can we go before they stop believing us?"

Politics is awash with lies--it is harder to find someone telling "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" than the reverse. And since, as usual, the media are involved in politics...

And ever since "You will be like gods" it has been deadly, in the end, to believe them.

“It is not within the power of practitioners of demonstrative sciences to change opinion at will, choosing now this and now that one; there is a great difference between giving orders to a mathematician or a philosopher and giving them to a merchant or a lawyer; and demonstrated conclusions about natural and celestial phenomena cannot be changed with the same ease as opinions about what is or is not legitimate in a contract, in a rental, or in commerce.” — Galileo Galilei

"reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” — Richard Feynman, in the report on the Challenger disaster.

Wednesday, December 07, 2022


They're big, easy to store, not terribly expensive (more than I care to spend, but that's just me)--what's not to like?

The creepy looking puddle in the lawn you get when the power's off, that's what. The Wicked Witch of the West has plenty of siblings--steam-rolled minions, smashed santas, collapsed chimneys, melted snowmen, godzilla-ed reindeer. When the power's on--green grow the grinches, oh!--but when it's off, what a sad flabby mess litters the yard.

The only upside is that there aren't any inflatable nativity scenes. At least around here.

Uh oh. The grim news from google is that they exist, and somebody buys them. I hope they run them 24/7. It defeats the point of displaying one to leave it empty.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Invisible fouls

Soccer and intersectionality: awash with subjective injuries.

Thursday, December 01, 2022


On the brighter side of the news some tests of an antibody look promising: 54% effective over 24 weeks, or another that can be done with an injection rather than an infusion for 88% over 21 days. There are some questions yet, such as how long the effect lasts, and whether injections can be made effective enough. Infusions are out of the question for the general population.


UN Women made a big push to try to get rid of the traditional practice in Liberia "Liberia is one of just three countries in West Africa not to have made the practice illegal."
Massa Kandakai, the head of over three hundred FGM practitioners in Montserrado County, says she along with her women have fulfilled their part of the bargain with UN Women by closing all bush schools in Sonkay Town and Todee in Montserrado. Kandakai says UN Women should uphold the agreement by continually supporting them – with monthly salaries, access to cell phone networks, fishponds and processors for making Farina or flour from cassava and potatoes. The women say they will revert to the practice if their requests are not met.

“What all they told us, we heard it but what they supposed to do for us, they are not doing it for us,” says Kandakai. “What I want from them to get rid of this thing here is: firstly, my women, let them put my women on payroll, let my women be taking pay.”

Kandakai is also calling for logistical support to enable her to travel to villages where she says the act is still being practiced, to ensure Bush schools there are shut down.

“My women can understand me, I Massa Kandakai, your support me let me go from bush to bush and put stop to them because they can understand me.”

The Poro Society leaders are powerful in Liberia--there's some overlap with government leadership. I gather that the Sande Society leaders are also quite powerful, in less easily visible ways. Legislation keeps getting proposed, but somehow the legislators (almost all men) keep getting persuaded to leave FGM be.

Lethal injection

I have long hated the practice of lethal injection--not because I have an intrinsic objection to the death sentence, but because it demands that healers stand ready to kill on command. A doctor who kills in self-defense or serves in the army is one thing, but to use healing skills to kill is another.

I would not trust a doctor or nurse who did the injections, any more that I would care to get sick in the Netherlands. (Or Oregon)

We don't like mess, and quick kills--thorough ones--are apt to be messy. The injection looks tidy (the link says it isn't as painless as it appears), and Sparky leaves a few burn marks. "The Barber" or a firing squad leaves a mess. Our convenience can be cruel.

Sleeping too much

Is it a cause or effect of dementia? "During an average follow-up of 3.7 years, 97 individuals in a study of 1,982 older adults in China who were dementia-free at the beginning of the study developed dementia."

I'm told that dementia symptoms begin to show up many years before it starts to become incapacitating. I'm not persuaded that 4 years before represents a symptom-free era of life. I will continue my efforts to get a little more sleep.