Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Gardener

Jesus told the parable of the gardener: “But the gardener answered, ‘Leave it alone sir, for this year too; until I dig around it and put in fertilizer, and if it bears fruit …’ “

I’ve heard it used to explain God’s patience with us, and that’s certainly part of it. But it also warns against inferring things from prosperity. Maybe if everything’s coming up roses for you, it isn’t because God’s so happy with you, it’s because the gardener is giving you one last chance.

Monday, September 25, 2023


There seems to have been a little teapot tempest about how much men (compared to women) think about ancient Rome(*). I haven't bothered to investigate (life is short and I've been busy with non-Rome related things) but in order to make up your quota here is a video on the 1'st Punic War, which includes some surprising strategic implications of the economics of their warships, and a series from A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry starting here on the subject of the Middle Roman Republic. Yes, I learned a lot, though as usual I will promptly forget all the names.

(*) I almost wrote "how much men think about ancient Rome compared to women," which wouldn't quite be the same thing. Word order matters in English--not quite like Latin. Oops, there goes the Ancient Rome bit again...

Models and meaning

I was in a little discussion at Grim's Hall about mathematical models of the physical world, and asserted that in a good model, aspects of the mathematics related to aspects of the physical world.

For the honor of truth, I must admit that in quantum mechanics, the physical meaning of the wave function is a bit hard to pin down. If it were easy, there wouldn't be so much disagreement among very smart characters. Follow the link for discussion.

I'm not fond of "shut up and calculate", and I hanker for a clearer theory (although quantum mechanics works extremely well), but possibly the world is a bit stranger than my mind. If an electron slung out of Alpha Centauri interacts with an apparatus in Earth orbit designed to react differently if the electron's spin is + or -, is that apparatus part of the boundary conditions for the electron's wave function and if so, what does that mean for it's state however many years ago when it was created?

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Were those really part of the shipment?

The Customs Department of the Liberia Revenue Authority has seized and transferred three boxes of confiscated narcotics drugs and 13 pieces of guns to the appropriate government entities.

Those look like home-made shotgun-shell-shooting pistols. The contents of the plastic bags in the right side of the picture seem fibrous--marijuana or khat? But those pistols: it looks likes there's a cottage industry churning them out. I wonder what the trigger mechanism looks like. I also wonder if those are the pistols that LRA found in the shipment, or something LRA already had on hand. If I had the money to smuggle lots of drugs, I'd smuggle some better weapons along with them.

UPDATE: not-homemade, Grim identified them. Still, they look like substitutes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023


An ELCA priest confessed his infidelity to a fellow priest, who promptly told his bishop, who called the fellow's wife. I do not know the details well enough to know if there were any loopholes in the definitions or procedures that would authorize those reactions, but on the face of it they seem deeply improper.

The original priest betrayed his promise to his wife (the story says they are reconciling). If the story is true the second priest, and the bishop, betrayed their duties to the whole church--who will ever trust them, or possibly any priest, to hear a confession again?

Monday, September 18, 2023

Devil in the details, milk jug edition

For those gardeners who make their own manure tea, the obvious thing to decant your 5-gallon pails into is old plastic milk jugs. They're free and easy to store, pour from, and cap off.


Look closely at the jug. Is it made from two peices of plastic sealed together? Remember, your garage will get hot and the pressure inside the jug will rise. If there's a weakness in the seams anywhere, the liquid will find it. Half the jugs sprang leaks. This isn't a dry ice bomb class failure, fortunately. But it is a mess.

I'm trying some old injection-molded round gallon jugs--no seams.

FWIW, for homeschool science class I'd made a couple of robust screens of different mesh sizes to illustrate sorting by "particle size" in soil. They've been kicking around unused for a while, until I needed something for making the "tea."

Sunday, September 17, 2023

neutrino interactions

I saw article claiming that low energy neutrinos (low is a relative term here--these are nuclear energy level neutrinos) could have large interaction rates in a magnetized plasma. I have to--rather grumpily--admit that I'm having a bit of trouble following the paper and won't have an immediate critique ready. X is true therefore we can assume Y--wait, what? And the coupling constant is proportional to 1/B?

Neutrinos at low energy are tough to spot. I tried to figure a way to use a cold crystal and detect phonons from neutrinos collectively scattering from the array of nuclei (instead of from a single nucleus), but it would have been extremely wavelength specific and since the neutrino wavelength wouldn't match the atomic spacing (it would only be commensurate) the result would have been pretty muddy at best, and likely not much more sensitive than the detectors we already have. Oh well.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Weapon efficiency

In terms of energy delivered to Japanese cities as a fraction of the energy put into the devices, the atomic bombs were about a few percent efficient. True, there was lots of energy available in the uranium, but it was hard to purify the isotope they needed. (It's easier now.) For the energy in the device to go bang there, you have to pour even more energy into it here--true for chemical explosives as well.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023


When monarch butterflies leave Wisconsin, they fly to a valley they have never seen before in Mexico. They were born in the USA. There seems to be some kind of hereditary memory involved. I've no idea how this works.

I wonder how long it takes for such a hereditary memory to develop.

I suspect that in the past four years the butterflies have learned that wherever you see this sign, someone with white fluff on a long stick is going to snare you, grab you, and poke a sticker on your wing, and then all the other butterflies will laugh at you.

They have been extremely skittish this year.

UPDATE: But seriously: "When applied as directed, the tags do not interfere with flight or otherwise harm the butterflies." But if mates are looking for symmetrical wings, the tagged ones (the not-so skittish ones) may not mate as often.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Lanchester's Law

I learn something new every day. I wasn't familiar with Lanchester's Law: the relative capability of two forces attriting each other during combat goes as the difference of the squares of their numbers. With, of course, some caveats--it doesn't take mechanized systems into account (machine guns, artillary, gas, disease, etc).

Sometimes it works. Sometimes--"Attempts have been made to apply Lanchester's laws to conflicts ... with chimpanzees and fire ants. The chimpanzee application was relatively successful; the fire ant application did not confirm that the square law applied."

The quality of the forces matters and is included--though how this gets "measured" isn't obvious.

"The Helmbold Parameters provide quick, concise, exact numerical indices, soundly based on historical data, for comparing battles with respect to their bitterness and the degree to which side had the advantage." One of the results of that approach is an estimate of the "defender's advantage", which "While the defender's advantage varies widely from one battle to the next, on average it has been practically constant since 1600AD" I wonder if that date is because earlier data is less trustworthy. The Helmbold source isn't in the UW library.

Of course there are cases where the square isn't the best model. Mechanization, terrain, etc, etc.

It's easy to guess how seductive a simple model could be. But your mileage will vary.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Great antiquity

It's straightforward to try to evoke antiquity in a story--describe the ruins of something majestic. Ruin and decay are pretty straightforward--the trick is getting across the majesty. You can throw canned phrases at the problem, like Lovecraft at his worst (which was all too often), but try to do better.

The subject of Bombadil came up at the table (wrt movies), and what use he was to the story. I hadn't known where Bombadil came from--AVI notes that Tolkien was good at revising and repurposing.

Bombadil may be the clearest example. Suppose you think that the oldest thing in the universe isn't majesty but joy. That's not the way most of us think, though there's warrant for thinking so. How do you convey that sense of joy so old and strong that the moment's circumstances don't dent it? Tolkien tried hard--maybe the text was more compelling for him than for us. (Some things I've written have turned out that way.)

I'm glad Jackson didn't try to put Bombadil in--I don't think he'd have caught the sense at all. (Not to mention time constraints.)

Thursday, September 07, 2023

"I'm not myself"

In a writer's group meeting tonight, one member shared a journal entry she made during chemo. The key for her was the sense that "I'm not myself." I'll not share details of the situation or her interpretation; that's for her to do. But the sentence says something important. I've been there a few times. (luckily not right now)

When the body won't work right and the mind won't work the way it used to and the emotions are random or out of control, it seems to hammer home just how contingent we are. I might not have existed at all, and I might be very different than I am (or seem to be). "Nice mind you have there. Are you sure you'll get to keep it?" "This must be somebody else; I don't react this way."

The "First Things" for me in the morning is "me waking up", aka "Everywhere I go, there I am." If the fundamental pillar of my world--me--is shaky, my whole universe is.

Some change we're made for, and prompted about, and sometimes supported in--puberty, for example. We're not doing well with the support part lately, but that's another story. But when you can't seem to even think anymore--it's easy to say that the fundamental pillar of your world ought to be God, but it turns out to be hard to make that happen. Your habits are against you. Maybe sometimes we need a shakeup.

Of course in another sense I'm already not myself. There's human nature as designed and human nature as found, and restoration to "factory defaults" is hard and costly. Fortunately most of the cost is borne by someone else.


I suppose the obscured headline on the magazine in the rack was supposed to read "Greatest of All Time". Those who know me can predict that I would take it as "Latest of All Time."

I hate the breathless narrators who puff up this critical event or that as something that "changed history forever." (or "changed his life forever")

Ok. Name three monarchs from the Indus Valley civilization. Just the names; I don't need to know what their great accomplishments were.

Yeah. Forever turns out to be a pretty long time, and even whole civilizations that are only 5 thousand years old can vanish from memory. Western Civ will leave a lot more relics than the Harappans did, but given enough time it could fade. True, we leave lots of writing around, but how many civilizations have cared to try to understand the history of other people's ancestors? Yep, Western Civ. With no Western Civ, who will care?

Half the time I've seen "Greatest of All Time" the writer's scope was pretty limited--"one of the best known recently" would have been more accurate. Most of the rest of the time the comparison is tricky: was Euler a greater mathematician than Erdos? (How would I know--they went after different problems in different eras and they're both way out of my league?)

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

A pier collapsed at UW-Madison Union Terrace

I've never seen it that crowded. I'm not a big "crowd" fan--the only time I've been on that thing school was out and the pier was empty. I was curious what the view was like. No risk of losing a cell phone that long ago--long enough ago that the pier was wood. And none of those kids was even born yet.

UPDATE: FWIW the pier was scheduled to be removed the next day. I wonder if the students knew that and were either a) taking one last stand on it or b) trying to help with dismantling.