Friday, August 31, 2018

Equations That Rhyme?

This space recently reviewed a book by a German physicist who spends a lot of time on issues connected to the concept of mathematical beauty. Most of us didn't encounter that idea when we took math, unless we really got into the subject. A mathematician has a slightly different view of beauty when he or she refers to an equation instead of a painting, natural scenic view or a person.

Turns out math can do a lot of things, like be a limerick. Math blogger "zorn-lemon" created the following equation:

The equation, when read in words, can be made into a limerick poem:
The integral of inverse two z
Taken over a circle, size e
Divided by i
Times square root of pi
Gives you gamma of one-sixth times three
My appreciation for this particular move does not mean I in any way understand the equation in either format.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Target Acquired

New Horizons, the unmanned spacecraft that gave us our best look at Pluto, took a look at its next target, a small body nicknamed Ultima Thule, in preparation for a flyby at the first of the year.

Because New Horizons is moving pretty lickety-darn-split out there, the course has to be the next best thing to perfect or better. If it's off, there's no chance to steer it quickly enough to adjust before the probe is well beyond the missed target.

Ultima Thule is what's called a Kuiper Belt Object -- a small body that's part of the Kuiper Belt of faraway solar system objects. In order to determine exactly where it is, observatories have to watch it pass in front of a star and block out the star's light. It wasn't actually discovered until 2014, eight years after New Horizons was launched.

So in other words, scientists are aiming a tiny probe flying at 29,000 miles an hour at a small piece of rock more than 46 times as far from the sun as we are. That's some precision work, I believe.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Getting Into the Music

The above pic is one taken by photographer Adrian Borda and while it might look like it's the first steps inside some centuries-hidden catacomb, it's actually from the inside of a cello. Some more images can be found here at Twisted Sifter.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Say Goodnight, Gracie

And then came the day that The Babylon Bee had to shut down because there was no room left for satire:

"Pope Says He Will Address Sex Abuse Scandal Once He’s Finished Talking About Climate Change"

-- Babylon Bee satire site

"'The Pope Has a Bigger Agenda': Cardinal Cupich"

-- NBCChicago

Monday, August 27, 2018

Worth Pondering

I had thought of digging through some internet news to make a post like this, but since Jim Geraghty gets paid and has more time for research, I'll just link to this piece by him on what he calls "the fair-weather admiration of John McCain."

The senator, who died Saturday, is being lionized by many who, at different points during his career, said other kinds of things about him. Some of that may be a case of people deciding to pay proper respect to someone who has passed so as not to add to the family's grief, which is an honorable choice. And I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to many who now praise Sen. McCain after  damning him when it was more convenient to do so. I think they mean their condolences and tributes to his courage and decency.

Which would lead me to suggest they didn't mean their comparisons to fascism and jabs at his supposed wealth and insinuations he had an affair and hints that he had anger-management issues and questions about whether or not he would survive his term if he had won the White House, and so on. That's the kind of thing that should make one upset with those folks, but they had shouted, "Monster!" so many times at so many different people who weren't monstrous that when the real monster showed up with his bizarre hair and minimal depth and lack of character, people no longer listened. They now live and work in the situation they warned against, largely due to their own efforts. That's revenge enough.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Baby Numbers

The Teaching Company is the organization that sells video and audio lecture series called "The Great Courses." They're lectures by university professors based on courses that the professors may teach during the year. The lectures are usually altered a little bit to make up for the fact that there's rarely any supplemental reading material and certainly no assignments or exams, but most of the content is the same that they would teach a regular classroom of students.

I'm a customer, finding among the many and varied course offerings something now and again that's worth the cost of the download (The DVD's are often quite pricey). One was Dr. Dennis Kung's How Music and Mathematics Relate, which showed exactly that: The many ways in which things we see in music represent mathematical concepts and relationships. It didn't require expert level knowledge of either field, which is good because I have neither.

But the knowledge that I do have may have come hard-wired into my brain, or at least picked up at a very early age. This excerpt from one of Dr. Kung's lectures in the course describes experiments in which babies were shown to grasp simple arithmetical relationships like addition. Babies as young as five months showed they knew what should happen when they saw a second object added to a first object: they should see two objects. If they didn't, they stared longer trying to figure out what went wrong (I have had the same response when listening to elected officials describe how they will offer free stuff. And sometimes even other responses common to babies, such as shrieking and throwing things).

Dr. Kung also notes that experiments showed babies understood music as more than a string of random noises, well before they had begun to process the idea that certain sounds represent certain things. If they turned their heads one way, they heard one song, but if they turned their heads the other direction they heard a different song, and they were able to exhibit preferences early on. If they spit up, they heard Nickelback, and if they had filled their diapers they heard Kanye West. That last phase of the experiment was canceled when the babies in the tests developed constipation.

The temptation, of course, is to ask why elected officials seem unable to grasp certain things about math that are evident to us at the earliest stages of our development, such as what happens when numbers are added together and what happens when they are subtracted. But they understand it quite well: They take your money and my money, and then add it together and call it their money. It's not math they don't get; it's pronouns.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mutually Assured Ick!

In today's reprint, Calvin demonstrates to Hobbes the perils of conflict escalation.

A lesson unheeded by the current administration and by too many of those who cover it professionally.

Friday, August 24, 2018


The good folk at Mental Floss have assembled some interesting ancient Latin curses that writer Kristina Killgrove suggests we should find ways to adapt today. A couple sound like they would be fun to say -- it might be worth learning them in Latin so you could add confusion to the ill will that you wished upon your opponent.

One of them, on the other hand, sounds pretty modern. Number four, "be struck dumb," is the kind of thing people might easily say today. In many ways, though, it is the cruelest one of all, because of the false hope it engenders. I can think of few things meaner than to have the hope that nearly everyone in politics and media becomes silent and watch it be dashed so completely.

Thursday, August 23, 2018


On Nov. 8, 2016, I did something I had not done before: I did not cast my ballot for either a Democrat or a Republican in the national presidential election.

Now, it's not as though I voted for a candidate I liked all that much, or that I expected all that much out of on the off-chance that he won. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson offered little to love on areas that matter to me, such as religious freedom or a foreign policy that recognizes it's not 1898 anymore. He probably would have dismantled some of the power the executive branch has accumulated over the past century, even though it's doubtful a modern Congress would have either the knowledge or fortitude to reclaim the responsibilities that are of right its to exercise. So that could have been only a temporary help.

And its likely that he would have sailed against strong winds from members of both political parties that like to embrace the parts of libertarianism with which they agree and discard those they don't. Sure, if nobody likes you that might mean you're right but it also probably means you don't get much done.

Still, there was my vote, and I cast it as I thought best.

Nothing in the last week makes me think I should have done any differently.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been saying things recently, and some of them are really dumb.

In an interview yesterday, she was asked about the person charged with the murder of Iowa college sophomore Mollie Tibbetts. The man charged seems, at this point, to have been in the United States illegally. Sen. Warren first expressed sympathy for the Tibbetts family, who until the discovery this week had been holding out hope the young woman was still alive. She then pivoted to critiquing immigration policies that had resulted in family separations.

Now, I linked the above source because it included the senator's entire quote and more or less correctly characterized it. Waaaay too many other sites that reported on her interview did so in such a way as to make it look like Sen. Warren had directed her remarks about "the real problems" to the Tibbetts family as well, which is at best a very loose reading of her actual quote and can easily be considered flat-out false.

Yes, as the Legal Insurrection writer notes, Sen. Warren's statement is kind of an own-goal -- she had a solid place to stop but didn't and wound up saying something that when accurately quoted is tone-deaf and when inaccurately quoted is fodder for her many detractors. So although she shanked this putt, this was really not the dumb thing she said.

In a radio interview, Sen. Warren would not commit to serving out her full Senate term if she is re-elected this year. A lot of people think it's because she plans to run for President herself in 2020, but if she commits to the full six years in the Senate and then switches, she will get grief from other candidates, including President Trump if she wins the primaries and then becomes the Democratic nominee.

It's kind of hard to imagine that President Trump, if he runs again, at a lack for things to say against Sen. Warren, which means she might not have thought about this all that deeply. One solution would be for her to say, "I'm running to win the Senate in 2018, and I'm giving strong consideration to running in 2020 although I haven't completely made up my mind." But that would be close to the truth, and elected officials often get cooties when they are brought too close to that substance. It's not really the dumb thing that Sen. Warren said recently.

No, the real dumb thing was her proposed "Accountable Capitalism Act," a bill she introduced that would place the operation of any business with more than $1 billion in revnue under the direct control of the federal government. Kevin Williamson at National Review outlines some of the reasons the idea is, in his words, "utterly bonkers." He also points out the cynical nature of Sen. Warren's proposal, suggesting that she knows the legislation wouldn't pass nor, if it somehow did, would it survive a court challenge. She may like the idea, but she knows it's not happening and is just trying to win some points with the leftier elements of her party. Another NR writer, lawyer David French, notes that the statute is written vaguely enough to mean nothing, reinforcing the idea that it's much more ploy than proposal.

It's dumb because, in the end, no one would be persuaded to vote for Sen. Warren based on this proposal. People who like the idea would be predisposed to vote for her anyway, and people who would vote against her don't need new reasons to do so when she's offered us lots of them already. It's dumb because while it might win her a nomination, it's ready-made GOP campaign commercial fodder. Remember, Sen. Warren. While Massachusetts voters were indeed dumb enough to send Ted Kennedy back to the Senate year after year, most of the rest of the country's Democrats, when given a choice between him and then-President Jimmy Carter, picked Carter.

So even voter cluelessness has a bottom -- which would be a good thing to remember also.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Baseball's Got It All

Bases loaded. Two outs in the ninth. Two strikes on the batter. You're up 6-4, so you've got a cushion but you want this guy out for the win. Throw...swing and a miss! You win!

Except the pitch is wild, your catcher drops it and that means it's a live ball and it's squirted away from him. If he doesn't throw the runner out at first, runs will score. He doesn't, and in fact throws it past the first baseman into right field. Two runs score easily and the third beats the throw in from the outfield, and you lose.

Sometimes it really isn't over until it's over.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Unclear on the Concept

What makes a university? I've attended two and worked at another, but I don't know if I could say.

That's OK. Neither can the University of Akron.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Thor Very Angry!

Stuff like the above picture makes me very glad I live in the modern world. Because I can find out it's a known, if somewhat unstudied, occurrence called "asperitas clouds," and understand it's simply a meteorological phenomenon that doesn't mean the end of the world is nigh.

Had I lived some hundreds of years ago, however, I would have been convinced that Ragnarok had come and it was time to kiss my lowly human behind goodbye.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Don't Care So There

Writing at The Public Discourse, Paul Rowan Brian and Ben Sixsmith sketch an outline of the more problematic of the foes Christianity and other religions face in the U.S. today. It's not atheism, but something they call "apatheism."

As they note, high-profile atheists ran rampant (not really, but they were well-publicized) through media and culture through the late Oughts and early Teens of this century. They kind of took the handoff from some of the militant demythologizers of the 1990s, such as the Jesus Seminar and other media-friendly redressings of Rudolf Bultmann's work. Religious people didn't just get Jesus wrong, they said, religious people started from the wrong place because there was nothing "out there" to begin with.

The larger lights of that scene have faded. Of the names Brian and Sixsmith mention, Christopher Hitchens has passed away (and was a lot fairer-minded than even he liked to think), Richard Dawkins has decided to say some things that make people a lot less disposed to listening to his other ideas and Sam Harris finds himself sometimes defended by religious liberty and free speech supporters because he's not always willing to agree with everything folks purportedly on his side say.

But far more of a problem in any event is this "apatheism," which you might see this way. If a religious person says, "I believe," then a polite atheist might ask why. A less-polite one might roll his or her eyes and say, "Idiot." An apatheist shrugs and says, "So what?"

The problem this poses for Christians -- and since that's what I am, that's how I'll argue; I can't speak for people of other faiths -- is that much of our apologetic work over the last century and a half has been lined up to "prove" the reality of God. Faithful folks saw this as a goal as they encountered other cultures where people had not heard the gospel message, as well as the way to rebut those who used things like modern cosmology and evolutionary theory to "prove" God was not real. Some success certainly came from this model, but it proved inadequate to counter, "So what?"

A world in which the idea of any absolute truth is rejected a priori is a world in which supposedly rational proofs for a matter of faith are far less likely to move someone who disagrees. For these folks, the fact that I have proved God's existence to my own satisfaction may be swell for me but has no bearing on their lives -- because all of our viewpoints are valid since there is no one absolute truth. You might ask how we can say there is no absolute truth when it seems like that statement is itself proclaiming an absolute, but then you would be a big spoilsport and a ninny who just won't get with the program.

Anyway, as Brian and Sexsmith note, "meh" is a lot harder position to fight than "bah!" Much of our modern Western Christianity takes away some of our weaponry in that fight. So much of our gospel message has been tweaked and modified for palability's sake that it doesn't proclaim anything that merits a "bah!" in any event. How can we proclaim we share a life-changing message we ourselves heard when we don't show much change in our lives?

This may not have been a good article to read the night before Sunday morning worship, where a goodly percentage of the people I'm supposed to talk to will have treated Sunday just like any other day with soccer tournaments, dance recitals, music shows and what have you. But I've got several hours to get over it, at least.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Local Color

Sean Duffy is a Catholic police officer in a heavily Protestant section of Belfast -- which means no one he knows likes him all that much. In Northern Ireland in the 1980s, some of the violence of "The Troubles" has been muted. But only some, and only muted -- it's waiting to break forth with any excuse.

But Duffy doesn't much care, because he wants to do one thing: solve crimes and help those who've been wronged by lawbreakers. He'll drink too much, smoke more weed than he should and even indulge in that great 1980s pastime, cocaine, but he has before him finding out who killed a wealthy husband and wife and why. At first their son's death, complete with suicide note, seems to close the case. But then the son's girlfriend also appears to take her own life and that doesn't add up for Duffy, despite pressure from his superiors to mark the matter closed. The threads he follows will lead him to and through layers of conspiracy that will brush up against some well-known real-life incidents and people.

Adrian McKinty had originally intended on just a trilogy of Duffy novels, but found himself persuaded to continue them as a series. Writing about his own hometown and situations which he witnessed himself more than once, he can set the scene with precision and flair. Duffy is bleakly droll, as you might imagine for a man who never starts his car without checking for a mercury switch bomb attached underneath.

He makes Belfast -- specifically the mid-80s Belfast where The Troubles were metastasizing in connection with Middle Eastern terrorism to make a devil's brew of violence and death -- a character in the story. Duffy's mordant view of his own life and woes mirrors the way that many folks in Belfast found themselves living, where they did not know if the next trip to the pub or the store or church might bring them in contact with a bomb or murder squad. The hopelessness that permeates this life extends into the hopelessness he and many of his fellow officers feel about whether or not they can solve these murders -- or any crimes, when the only group that's hated more than the criminals are those out to catch them. Even though it all seems to be shades of dismal gray, McKinty uses the local color of the places he knows to strengthen his story and multiply its impact.
Ed James, who seems well on his way to becoming the Ed McBain of English and Scottish police procedurals, relies on color differently as he opens a new  character series, following Police Constable Craig Hunter as he investigates crimes in Edinburgh. Hunter connects with one of James' other character series, featuring a higher-ranking officer named Scott Cullen, but Hunter's work is much more on the street level than Cullen's detective casework.

In 2016's Missing, we meet Hunter just before he begins the case hinted at by the title, as he engages in one of the many tasks people seem to expect of uniformed police officers -- rescuing an animal. But before he and his partner Finlay Sinclair can finish their shift, they are called to a domestic disturbance that will soon spiral out of control due to the secrets being kept by the family and some incompetence on the part of his fellow officers. Douglas Ferguson has been shut out of his house by his wife following an accusation of sexual abuse by her daughter Stephanie. Stephanie seems uncooperative and her mother is even less help, so when the girl goes missing Hunter and a superior officer, Detective Sergeant Chantal Jain, face enormous pressure to find her and avoid the hailstorm of condemnation the department has coming for losing Stephanie in the first place.

James paints most of his color in his dialogue, peppering it heavily with expressions and lingo common to Edinburgh and other idioms used by their law enforcement. The dogged police work is the same as might be found in any precinct anywhere, but the different words and the ubiquitous closed-circuit television surveillance available to the officers sets these flatfeet apart from their stateside counterparts.

The final resolution of the mystery is a little convoluted and some mighty big coincidences link our characters to the case and to each other, but Missing still manages to open up a case so that the readers who look in can follow along despite some of the strange Scottish sayings he or she may encounter, and the characters draw enough interest to prompt some return visits.
Ace Atkins also relies on local color in telling The Sinners, the eighth story of former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson. Colson is supposed to be getting ready for his wedding, but a gruesome discovery in a nearby waterway threatens to derail his plans, if not flat-out get him killed. Evidence points him at the Pritchards, two back-country race car drivers whose main business is selling pot and whose uncle just came home after a long and not very rehabilitative stretch in prison. His friend and best man Boom Kimbrough has uncovered some shenanigans with the trucking company for which he drives. And lurking in the background are brothel owner Fannie Hathcock and her shady connections to a "Dixie Mafia" of organized crime.

Atkins' roots in the South have helped some earlier books establish themselves with their authentic dialogue and atmosphere. But over the past two or three Colson books, he's let his local color setting run amok, dumping load after load of redneck lingo, vulgarity and unsophistication onto every page. The "local color" smothers, suffocates and drowns the tissue-thin Dukes of Hazzard rip-off plot until it falls apart like a cheap paper plate holding too much cobbler. Almost every character is a fount of backwoods -- and backwards -- simile, metaphor and vulgarisms that exhaust the reader and his or her patience long before we get anywhere close to a resolution of this padded and stretched-out narrative.

The Colson series didn't start like this, and Atkins seems to be able to avoid the pitfall in his continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. So I suppose the real mystery is why these last few books have gone so far overboard. Maybe Atkins feels like he needs to prove his grits-n-gravy bona fides after writing books set in Boston. Maybe he read some fan mail that approved of the style and took it too much to heart -- or maybe some that hated it and he decided to be ornery.

It's hard to say, and I don't really know. I'm starting to suspect that despite his rural Southern roots, Atkins has grown to dislike the region and its people, and is using this overlarded affectation of regional style to highlight that. Or perhaps he feels that they've gotten a little too much of a sympathetic hearing in recent years and figures folks should know what they're really like. A few characters seem to escape the flood and remain sympathetically realistic and free from Atkins' heavy hand of cornpone cussery. But they appear far too little and the relief is far too infrequent to save The Sinners.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


I don't always agree with economist Tyler Cowan, principal blogger at Marginal Revolution. And I'm also not always a big fan of reading books about economics, as important as it is to understand the subject since few elected officials seem to have any hankerin' to.

But I may buy his new book Stubborn Attachments anyway, as Cowan decided he would donate his entire share of the book's earnings to a man he met in Ethiopia who wants to start his own business. The main idea of Stubborn Attachments, according to a couple of blurbs that I've read, is that our reason and common sense can help us get rid of concepts and ideas that hold our entire society back, and that we can improve things through cooperation and relationships. The choice to donate his profits to the man who helped guide him around a village in Ethiopia, he said, is a way to live out what the book argues we should be doing.

Now, as to whether or not I read it is another matter entirely, of course. Thomas Sowell helped me understand economics as a discipline. But even he couldn't get me to enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


It seems that every now and again elected officials will actually go out on a limb and perform duties their founding documents suggest they do.

West Virginia's House of Delegates, analogous to the U.S. House of Representatives, passed 11 articles of impeachment against the remaining justices on its state Supreme Court. The articles charge the justices with abusing their authority and using taxpayer money for personal gain. Most of the allegations center on extravagant spending by the justices, on their own offices and perks as well as on semi-retired colleagues for their limited work.

The matter is now in the hands of the West Virginia Senate, which will hear testimony and then vote to convict or not. Some political shenanigans worked their way into the mess, mostly involving the timing of the votes relative to deadlines for elections.

Some might suggest that West Virginians have shown their federal counterparts what they should do with President Trump. Many might certainly wish for that to come to pass. But unfortunately, while the president is guilty of boorishness, childish pettiness, incompetence and a complete lack of good character, none of those are impeachable offenses.

Monday, August 13, 2018

I Say Nay!

Over at Dustbury, Charles offers an opinion on an item he read about the way that modern writing tends to aim lower,  reading-level wise, than it did once upon a time. The item he quotes is right on: The best response to a first encounter with a new word is a dictionary (or, in emergencies, Google).

Charles is also right on -- we can't be too far from the day when the choice to write above someone's head will be taken away from us on the basis of vocabulary privilege or some similar nonsense.

I say nonsense because I have never in my life experienced any benefits from having a strong vocabulary. During the school years, polysyllables attracted "donees" for my lunch money but repelled the chicks en masse. When writing for the newspaper, they earned me significant editing. While they were useful in seminary, that's still a form of academia and is therefore of no value to the real world. In fact, seminary gave me an entirely new realm of vocabulary I can't use in real life, such as "hypostatic union." The phrase refers to the Christian understanding of how the divine and human natures of Christ co-relate within one person, but I'm never going to say it in a sermon. Not because other people can't understand it -- but because if I do use it I'll have to explain it and I'm lazy.

But I have one issue of strong disagreement with Charles' piece, and if you look at the comments you'll see it's shared by some other of his readers as well. We reject utterly his opening contention that he is not a writer and I personally would sentence him to reading non-gender and inclusive re-workings of Strunk and White.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Bloop Fly

Poor Charlie Brown -- his teammates know him too well.

And when I looked at this comic I realized I had missed the 50th anniversary of the debut of Franklin in the strip. One of the ways that the simple funny pictures Charles Schulz drew struck out in some bold directions that more supposedly avant-garde artists didn't try.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Check Yourself

The last couple of trips to Wal-Mart have featured cashiers with shorter lines, of which I took advantage.

Our nearest store is a large one and features a number of the self-scanning stations that have been cropping up in a wide range of stores in recent years. Now, I mostly like interacting with people, so if the lines at those lanes are reasonable, I'll use them. But if they're clogged, then it's self-scanning for me.

I've read some people say that we should all use the human-staffed lanes all the time in order to save cashier jobs, and force stores to keep them on the payroll. Maybe. But I'm pretty sure the stores can outlast us. If there are six cashier lanes open at midnight, then it's a simple choice. But if there are six open at 5 PM, it's also a simple choice, because everyone in those lanes has carts holding the product of a small nation-state and it will be midnight before they're all checked out.

Another gripe has been that the stores are making us do their work for them. It seems running a purchase in from of a laser scanner is a burden most onerous, one that we customers are far too refined and important to carry for ourselves. This idea is used to justify theft, as I have seen a number of posts in different news stories and Facebook threads that scanning our own items makes us store employees and so we are entitled to take our wages in trade. I look for these people next to figure they can walk their restaurant tickets if the server doesn't cut up their meat for them and dab their faces after every bite.

Moreover, the loss-prevention officer, who will be watching you "stealthily" move an item past the scanner without actually scanning it via the camera mounted on every register, will also be unconvinced.

Either way, the idea that the store owes me either someone to scan my items for me or it owes me some of those items for free is more or less understandable unless the person expounding it is two digits in age.

Here's what a store owes you for your money: The item you give them money for. Sure, stores do thing like clean up and arrange stock attractively and have clerks who answer your questions about where things are, but they do those things in addition to stocking the goods you want to buy. I don't go to stores so people will do things for me. I go to stores to buy things. If the store operates in a manner I don't like, I decide whether or not the shortfall outweighs my desire to buy that item, and if it does I buy from another store.

And I know I will; I've seen me do it. I kind of hope these folks who believe they're entitled to freebies will shop somewhere else -- them being arrested holds up the line.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Hint of Tint

I'm a sucker for these, pictures which a skilled artist has used Photoshop to offer a view of what some old black-and-white photos would have looked like in color.

Of course the color is an interpretation in most instances, but Marina Amaral seems to have a pretty good handle on making her work realistic. It's a good reminder that the world didn't really used to be black and white, even if all the photography was.

Some more of the pictures are here at Neatorama, along with the black and white originals.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Figuring Out the World

You don't have to study too much modern science before you figure out the world is weird. Realizing that most of what we see in the objects around us is actually empty space, learning that at its most basic level matter has an uncertainty about it that can't be overcome, and so on and so on.

Scientists have operated under the idea that this weird world is understandable and that even if language can't explain it, math can. As our knowledge of the universe expands past the limits of what scientific instruments can detect, that math becomes more and more important. A theory about what matter is like at its most fundamental level may not be experimentally provable because it deals with forces or particles beyond our ability to detect. But it can make some predictions about things which are observable that, if true, would point in that theory's direction, putting a more solid foundation under the esoteric math and conjecture presented. If the experiments don't pan out, then that math may need to be discarded in favor of other possible explanations.

Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist and research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advance Studies, wonders if physicists and researchers have gotten a little too dependent on certain kinds of math or math with certain features. She wonders if that dependence has made it difficult for them to continue to explore the universe around us because they are looking for answers only in places that will confirm what they have already suggested is true. The math they follow seems to have congealed around the ideas of "naturalness" and "beauty," leaving whole areas of inquiry unexplored if they lack those two qualities. In Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Hossenfelder explores how those ideas came to hold the power they do and why, exactly, that may be a problem.

"Naturalness" roughly means that scientists prefer certain kinds of answers to questions and certain measurements. For example, if two different experiments on related matters produce very long answers that are only different in their smallest digits, scientists are uneasy. Pi, for example, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It's a never-repeating, never ending number. If some other geometric ratio were found that matched pi almost exactly, not deviating until the 20th decimal place then scientists would be suspicious of the similarity, which they call "fine-tuning." Either there is a connection that they missed or there is another principle more basic than the two being considered. In the interests of full-disclosure: A person such as myself, mired in my traditional Christian theism, has much less of a problem with a fine-tuned universe than do most scientists.

Scientists are also suspicious of numerical solutions to natural equations and ratios that are very large or very small. If an equation describes a natural process, like the force of gravity, then the solution when some of the variables are replaced with real values needs to be an ordinary kind of number rather than 47 quintillion or so.

The preference for naturalness combines with another scientific preference when it comes to equations, which scientists often call "beauty." That word is often a short-hand for equations that are simply written, symmetrical in appearance, and significant in describing the world. Equations that have values which can't themselves be reduced into other equations are simple. Ones which involve basic rather than complex math on either side of an equals sign are more symmetrical. And ones that describe the actual world around us are significant.

Hossenfelder has no real problem with either of these concepts, noting that they have sometimes functioned as good criteria for evaluating scientific hypotheses. Her first few chapters outline how the concepts developed and how they have been used to advance knowledge. The problem comes when naturalness and beauty become the gatekeepers that decide which theories will be tested by experiment and which ones won't.

She says this has been especially true as scientists explore what is called the Standard Model of Physics. It's successfully described much of the real world on the very smallest scales and offered predictions which later tested out to be true. But it has some gaps and as scientists try to rope the force of gravity in with the other three fundamental forces of the universe, those gaps loom large.

One of the theories that would help bridge the gap is super-symmetry. It has, Hossenfelder says, elegant equations and avoids the perception of fine-tuning. Without going into detail I certainly don't understand, one thing super-symmetry has predicted are certain subatomic particles which have never yet been observed. Even more and more powerful experiments at the Large Hadron Collider have failed to show any confirmable evidence the particles exist. Hossenfelder wonders why that fact has spawned more doubling down on confirming super-symmetry through more expensive and elaborate experiments instead of a flurry of, "Well, what else might be true?"

On the one hand Lost in Math could be seen as a book-length gripe about confirmation bias. Scientists have become so certain that the best and truest descriptions of the universe have more naturalness and beauty that they now assume that situation to be true instead of question whether or not it is.

But Hossenfelder's explorations of exactly how these two concepts came to carry such weight are great studies in the history of science, and show just why many scientists hold to them. She also has clear explanations of a lot of the ideas about the universe that get batted around in the media, mostly it seems by people who could stand to read her explanations. Her writing is clear and a lot of fun, and all the more impressive when you realize she's doing it in another language than her everyday one. Each chapter ends with a list of summary bullet-points that help a reader keep the big ideas in mind before forging ahead.

Hossenfelder includes her interviews with a number of physicists, and a couple of them hint that some of those physicists probably consider her something of a grind when it comes to these ideas. But that's probably a good description of how scientists do their best work: They keep asking questions about stuff, especially the stuff everyone thinks is most certainly true.

Lost in Math has the rare and enjoyable quality of explaining a current scientific situation and what leads to it, as well as the underlying concepts, in layperson's terms while still communicating some of the complicated concepts underneath. Despite the title, it's a book that does not automatically leave a non-scientist reader lost, either in math or theoretical physics.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Go Home, Oscar. You're Drunk

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to add a new category for the 2019 awards show: Best Popular Film.

I am sure the Academy hopes that this will get more people to watch the show, since over the last 10 to 15 years they have been handing out statues to movies that not very many people watch at all, with a couple of exceptions now and then. It turns out that not many people are interested in whether or not a movie they've never heard of wins an award.

Left unaddressed is the fact that the Academy puts together a slate of 10 American-made movies for its "Best Picture" category but relegates every other movie in the world to a limited "Best Foreign Film" category even though some of those entries make the Best Picture nominees look like student films.

Also left unaddressed is how the Academy plans to honor good performances in popular movies, but that's probably a question that will have to be answered by someone who pays attention to the Oscars.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Seeing Stars

Recently a vandal smashed President Donald Trump's star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. The city of West Hollywood has voted to ask the star be removed entirely, citing the president's poor treatment of women as a reason. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce released a statement saying they would review the request.

This piece at The Daily Wire notes some of those who would still have stars even if Trump's was removed, such as Kevin Spacey and convicted sex offender Bill Cosby. In fact, the then-CEO of the Hollywood Chamber said in 2015 that Cosby's star would not be removed, in response to requests for it be done.

Star Wars star Mark Hamill has suggested that Trump's star should be replaced with one for his late co-star Carrie Fisher, who has yet to be so honored. Hamill is right that Fisher deserves a star, but he could probably do more to get her one by nominating her to the Hollywood Chamber and writing a $40,000 check.

The whole kerfluffle is one of the sillier sideshows that's come to town with the Trump presidency. Trump has a star because of his time on NBC's The Apprentice, a reality TV show that elevated his profile significantly beyond the New York tabloid scene. It's hard to argue that's worth any special recognition, since Trump didn't create the show or do anything much but sit behind a table and say, "You're fired."

Show business would love to memory-hole its role in creating Trump as a national figure. It's not hard to make a case that had he never been on The Apprentice, the rest of the country would know him mostly as the guy who cheated on his wife with Marla Maples and then divorced her to marry a model. And media loved playing him up through the 2016 campaign because he drew ratings -- as CBS CEO Les Moonves said in February of that year, Trump's campaign "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." The hundreds of hours of free airtime the networks devoted to Trump every time he said or tweeted something stupid or provocative played a significant role in helping him raise his profile and cast himself as an "underdog" against the media industry and Clinton campaign.

I have to wonder if the showbiz folks who want to remove Trump's star, whether they replace it or not, understand the irony of their position. Sure, they won't have to look at his name anymore as they walk down the street, but they've put another arrow in his quiver when it comes time to take shots at "Hollywood elites," all for the fleeting "victory" of taking Trump's name off something nobody but them cares all that much about anyway.

We're really going to be stuck with this meathead until 2024, aren't we?

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sleuth of the Shelves

Most of the librarians I remember, at school and otherwise, were pretty cool people (a couple in the research room at the old public library were a little eccentric and kind of aloof, if I remember). But none of them were as cool as the Sherlock Holmes of librarians who helped a young student discover who had altered her English paper to insert some highly problematic language.

Writer and librarian Jennifer Iacopelli used her library's security camera, computer login data and sign-in sheets to learn who inserted the off-color statements and words into an online document that the student had left open when she walked away from the computer. Those three earned some in-school suspension time while the innocent student's penalty at home was lifted.

Iacopelli said that the lesson to be learned was that the librarian is better at technology than you are and will figure out who you are if you did something wrong. I agree, but I would add that the other lesson learned is you always log out of everything when you leave a public computer.

Boldly Going Back

ETA: This did not post yesterday evening; either through author error or internet whatsis. I leave you to decide which seems more likely

Star Trek fandom buzzed enthusiastically with the news that Patrick Stewart would return to the franchise as Jean-Luc Picard in a new series.  In a statement, Stewart labeled the discovery of new possibilities for the character a "delightful surprise." Despite what one might think based on his extensive experience as a "high culture" stage actor, Stewart has always embraced the fandom of what is not always a high-culture television series. He repeated that in the statement, saying that the response of people who drew inspiration, leadership understanding and sometimes comfort from his role as Picard was "humbling."

The series is said to be dealing with "the next chapters" of Picard's life, which on the one hand makes sense; Stewart is 78 years old rather than the 47 he was when his series, Star Trek: The Next Generation began. Even though he played a more cerebral captain than William Shatner did in the original Star Trek series, a show that failed to acknowledge that Picard was more than 40 years older would face significant credibility hurdles.

But while that showrunning decision makes sense, it also offers a reason to wait and see. Next Generation was definitely a product of its times and often reflected too many of creator Gene Roddenberry's less creative ideas (*cough* Wesley Crusher *cough*). It lasted long enough to wear thin several of its ideas and storytelling conventions. Many of its episodes have not aged well. Burdening Picard with a backstory that carries too much of that baggage could easily make the new series just as boring as Random Mediocre Season Five Episode (or pick your own).

On the other hand, trying to shoehorn the dignified Picard into a modern Star Trek concept that includes the awful Discovery and a forecast Trek movie from Quentin Tarantino will be complete mismatch.

Stewart's full statement can offer a reason for pause as well -- "I feel I'm ready to return to him (Picard) for the same reason - to research and experience what comforting and reforming light he might shine on these often very dark times." It's next to impossible to read anything from someone in show business today that references dark times and not hear hints of plans to comment on our current president. It's hard not to be nervous about that.

Not because I have any love for President Trump, who continues to be a man without character even if he has achieved some things I agree with. And not because I expect episode after episode of something like Robert De Niro's embarrassing tantrum at the Tony Awards; Stewart's politics may be liberal but I've never read a hint of him being anything other than a polite and gracious person in his public comments or interactions with fans. At the very least he'd be a lot funnier than De Niro was.

I'm nervous about the implications of Stewart's words because I'd like to have five minutes of a movie, book or television show that doesn't talk about Donald Trump. I'd like to have my escapist idealistic space opera be escapist and idealistic instead of telling me what I already know about Trump and how showbiz folks see him. I'd like for my entertainment that comments on the human condition to comment on the condition of all humans instead of just one of them.

However, all of this is speculation about a television show that hasn't even begun being written or filmed yet, so I suppose the proper attitude is wait and see.

Except that the as-yet untitled new series will be shown on CBS All Access, the network's subscription streaming service. So my actual course of action, it seems, will be wait and don't see.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Cipherin' Champs!

This entry at Curiosa Mathematica offers a list of the winners of some of mathematics top awards for 2018, including four people who won the Fields Medal, sometimes labeled the Nobel Prize of math. Fields Medal recipients probably like to phrase that the other way around, but the Nobel came first so it gets the notoriety.

University of Cambridge professor Caucher Birkar had to be awarded a replacement medal; the briefcase containing his original one was stolen just minutes after it had been given to him, while pictures were being taken. Given that Birkar is an Iranian Kurd who applied for and received asylum in England while studying at Tehran, he will probably take the theft in stride.

The likelihood that the thief or thieves will recognize much profit from their action is small -- although there's about $4,000 worth of gold in the medal it will probably have to be melted down in order to be sold and one art theft expert estimates it will wind up bringing in only about a quarter of that value.

Friday, August 3, 2018


Every long book series has its ups and downs, and even the better ones sometimes load up some dead solid stinkers. Here are three of them.

Beginning in 2013, Mark Dawson began telling the story of John Milton, an assassin for British intelligence who finally saw one body too many and decided to retire. His agency prefers to dictate the terms of his retirement, however, and their vision is a much more final one. The first several volumes of the series dealt with Milton on the run, with the situation eventually shifting to leave him on his own as long as he stays quiet.

For his part, Milton just wants a simple and quiet life, spending his time living out Step Nine of the Alcoholics Anonymous "12 Steps," about making amends. He can't make amends to the people he's killed, so he resolves to help people out when they need it, especially if they need the kind of help a ruthless former assassin can provide. The idea is very much like the 1980s television show (and Denzel Washington movies) The Equalizer.

In the 11th book Blackout, Milton's "client," so to speak, is himself. He wakes up in a motel room in the Philippines, reeking of alcohol and unable to remember the previous night. Falling off the wagon would be bad enough, but he soon finds that there's a dead body in the room, and the police have just shown up. Is he a murderer as well? He can't remember, and soon the stakes get higher when he's transferred to a brutal prison with almost every hand raised against him. Without freedom, allies or memories Milton will have to find a way to learn the answers to his questions, if he can survive long enough to ask them.

Dawson has used Milton's AA experiences as more than a convenient plot hook -- his regular attendance at meetings helps him but also constantly reminds him of the destruction he's caused, taunting him with an absolution that can't really be his since he can't show the complete honesty the program demands and tell the story of his wrongs. That dimension has made for interesting layers to the character and offers not only a reason for his decisions to help people but also a logical space for self-reflection on Milton's part.

Unfortunately, little of that is on display in Blackout. Dawson opens by setting the scene in the motel room but then flashes back to show us how we got here, a plot device that often signals an author doesn't have a lot of confidence in his story's power to hook a reader. If so, the lack of confidence is not misplaced, since Blackout just throws together a bunch of scenes of Milton getting beaten up while telegraphing the villain at the center of his troubles and introducing a female character from his past in order to fridge her and yet another flashback sequence. Whether it's because it focuses on Milton's own life rather than his self-chosen mission to help others or some other reason, Blackout is hands down the worst book in this otherwise fast-paced, well-written series that centers on an intriguingly layered character and features top-level action writing.
If you were to say that on some level, Terry Brooks dislikes the world of Shannara that propelled him to a multi-decade career as a best-selling author, The Skaar Invasion would not be a good rebuttal witness. The second in a four-volume series that is supposed to provide the chronological end of the Shannara books, Invasion highlights why these multi-volume chronicles of this magical world are so much weaker than the stand-alone or more loosely-connected book groups like the first three.

The mysterious invaders first glimpsed in The Black Elfstone have shown themselves as they use traitors among the Druid Order to defeat that group of magic users and seal away Paranor, the seat of their power. The invaders, called the Skaar, are a vanguard of a larger army that itself plans to carve out a new homeland for their people as their current one withers and dies from drought and disease. Dar Leah, a guardian of the Druids, finds himself strangely connected to the invading force's commander, a woman named Ajin d'Amphere. Drisker Arc, one of the last remaining druids, must find a way to reverse the spell that seals Paranor away from the world and move against the traitors who trapped him there. Tarsha Kaynin seeks signs of her brother Tavo, and learns that he has not fared well in their time apart, even while his terrifying power has grown.

Then there's another couple of arcs as the leaders of the human Federation finally meet the Skaar and a mysterious man named Rocun Arneas enlists a young ne'er-do-well to help him -- a ne'er-do-well with a very weighty name in Shannara history -- Shea Ohmsford.

Invasion labors under several burdens: Brooks has told us before about a greedy, expansionist Federation, about a Final Druid who will have to thwart the great enemies, about seemingly unstoppable forces arrayed against our heroes, and so on. Plus, the fact that this is one story spread out over four books makes for glacial plot development, for one space-filling internal monologue or digression after another and for enough red herrings to dam a river. Ajin is intrigued by Dar and plagued by dissent within her own ranks, but given the treachery and innocent blood she has shed herself or caused to be shed it's hard to feel any sympathy for her. A strange non-relationship between her and her chief spy -- who is given the adolescently snicker-worthy title of Penetrator -- just generates more fog.

Shannara has often been dismissed as a poor man's Middle Earth, usually without justification. Brooks is writing his own stories, for all that he began the series with a tale that owed quite a bit to Frodo & Co. When he's written books that stand alone or just loosely link with others, like the original trilogy and the recent "Defenders of Shannara" series, he produces some solid, well-done fantasy that's worth the read even if it's not as highbrow as some might like. But when the books are part of one longer story, split apart by ridiculously contrived cliff-hangers, they're a trial and a chore to get through.
Hostage rescue expert and sometime secret operative Jonathan "Digger" Grave is trying to relax on an exclusive island resort, taking some well-earned time off to see what might come of his relationship with Gail Bonneville.

So naturally terrorists attack.

Grave and Bonneville manage to elude being herded together with the resort's other guests, but they had to leave behind some bodies and that will give the bad guys certain knowledge that they've got a formidable enemy lurking around outside their tightly-controlled group of hostages. Although they don't know how formidable, they will learn when Grave lives up to his code name and the title of the 10th Grave book, Scorpion Strike.

Although author John Gilstrap is a good hand at an action scene and gives our team of heroes some good wise-cracking chemistry, the series has been uneven. Final Target offered some more nuance to Grave as he and his partner Boxers had to escort a group of children out of the jungle ahead of a ruthless crime lord. But Strike doesn't build on that quality, stitching together a series of set pieces that never gel and demonstrating clearly the truth of playwright Anton Chekhov's statement about how a gun shown in the first act needs to go off in the third or the audience will wonder why. Gilstrap serves up at least two different characters among the hostages who foreshadow events that never come to pass. The terrorists' reason for acting are murky and buried under two or three conspiracy layers, and their chief lacks consistent definition: Is he just brutal? Is he sadistic? Is he motivated by something else? Who knows, and as far as Strike shows us, who cares?

Other hostages, as well as the rescuers Boxers recruits to storm the island and save Grave and Bonneville, are ciphers for most of their time on stage, with clunky internal dialogue introduced now and again to show us why we are supposed to care about them or what happens to them. In what's been a sort of middling-to-fair series, Strike does manage to stand out, but probably not in the way that Gilstrap or his publisher would want.

Thursday, August 2, 2018


No words. Just wow.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Welcome Extinction

A map at Our World in Data shows in what decade a nation eliminated smallpox. The disease was considered eradicated in 1977.

As you would expect, nations with more advanced medical knowledge wiped the bug out first. Iceland, apparently, bid smallpox sjáumst síðar before the 20th century even started. Some other Nordic countries followed soon after, as did the island nations of Australia and Madagascar. The disease probably didn't have much of a hold in those areas, and their isolation made the eradication simpler.

From those places, the virus was rolled up through the 1970s until that final erasure in 1977.  Of course, that's supposing that smallpox doesn't linger hidden in the nations of Mongolia, Cuba, Greenland or Papua New Guinea. The map says there's no data for those places. It may never have actually taken hold in Greenland and it could just be that Papua New Guinea doesn't have any collected data. Mongolia has a lot of remote areas that no outsiders visit, and it wouldn't really matter what Cuba says because dictatorships lie.