Saturday, June 30, 2012

Student Research Progress

Uniform tiling 37-t0  
Once again this summer, I am working with three students in Marshall University's Research Experience for Undergraduates to study the Ising Model on the hyperbolic plane, especially the {3,7} regular tiling shown above.  In the hyperbolic plane, all these triangles are identical, equilateral triangles with straight sides; the Poincare disk model, shown above, maps the entire infinite hyperbolic plane into a finite circle at the expense of severe distortion. The same thing happens when we try to represent the spherical Earth on a flat map. 

The severe distortion can be postponed by allowing the "map" to curl up.  The animation below was created by one of my students, Jesse Raffield, to represent a part of the hyperbolic plane.  He used simulated annealing to try to keep the edges of the triangles as nearly as possible equal.  The result is quite pleasing, and reminiscent of some biological shapes. 

In a few weeks we should be able to use this or similar figures to visualize the processes we will be simulating on the hyperbolic plane.

Congrats to the Chinese Space Program!

I have not heard much about them since they put their first man in orbit several years ago, so I assumed that they were not making much progress.  Apparently they are moving along at a decent clip; they have a space station I had not heard about until just now.  I'd be happy for them to make it to the moon, but I think the clock is ticking for them.  Eventually China's one-child policy is going to create a huge drain on their economy and they won't be able to afford an expensive luxury like a manned space program.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Cheap -- REALLY CHEAP -- Disney Vacation

For all the complaints* I have against the changes to Walt Disney Corporation since Walt died -- and they are many -- there theme parks are still a blast.  To give the Devil his due, I've been told by a friend with a disabled child that they really go out of their way for children with disabilities.  And besides, the two or three trips we took to Disney World when I was a child were a really big deal at the time.  

OK, so I've decided it would be fun to have a vacation at a Disney theme park.  There are several problems.
  1. The parks are expensive. 
  2. The travel is a hassle.
  3. The lines are long.
  4. Some of my favorite attractions are either gone or fundamentally changed.
The solution?  YouTube!  (and similar online video)  It's free, there is no travel, there are no lines, and I get to see both many of the old attractions I loved and some of the new ones, too.

So for example, one of my favorite attractions is the Haunted Mansion.  
This video is from the Disneyland Version, not the Disney World version I saw as a child, but they're not really that different.  The best things about this production are that
  • there are no distracting sounds from other tourists and
  • the whole soundtrack is played -- on any given visit, you are only likely to hear two or three of Madame Leota's incantations, for example.
Another favorite is the Jungle Cruise.  

One of our favorites when I was a child was the Tiki Room.  We actually went into this backwards; we were caught in a torrential downpour and took shelter at the exit, along with about 50 other people. The employees in the Tiki Room tried to clear us away, since the show inside was finishing, but no one wanted to go out into that thunderstorm.  In the end they let us just trade places with those who were inside -- no guests were standing in the downpour on the other side waiting to get in. 

More than a decade ago they changed the show.  If you want to hear the old show, videos like this are all that is left of it. 

Another family favorite, which is now entirely gone, was "If You Had Wings."  In retrospect it was not much more than a blatant commercial for Eastern Airlines, but this was certainly lost on us kids.  Back in those days, air travel was a rare luxury.  I don't think anyone in my family had ever flown, except maybe some servicemen in a military transport.

For this next event I can find nothing comparable on YouTube.  Sometime in the 1970's (the Bicentennial?) we went to Disney World and were in just the right place at the right time.  I also know we were there on July 4 some year in the 1970's, but I don't think it was 1976.A performer in Revolutionary War dress asked my parents if my brother and I could be part of a parade.  There was a fife and drum parade of a few feet, then he made some sort of speech and presented us each with a small medal and a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  This video from Epcot is the closest I can find; there was no Epcot when we were there. 

You get the idea.  It would not be hard to find other videos from favorite rides, especially the newer ones I have never seen in person.  (I last went in 1985.)

My last example was, again, a favorite:  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

So there you have it.  A thoroughly pleasant stroll down memory lane, and you can't beat the price!

* My complaints started when Michael Eisner took control of Disney and right away started finding ways for Disney to produce movies not suitable for children.  This is how Touchstone Pictures came to be.  The situation is worse today, with much of the  objectionable content being distributed under the ABC and ESPN brands.  (Yes, ESPN.  As much as I like their sports coverage, for some reason it has come to be expected that a certain degree of raunchiness should be a part of sports talk shows.  On top of that, the employees they let near a microphone invariably echo a company line that is very adverse to culture as a whole and to healthy family life in particular.)

Why am I singling out Disney when all the other studios do the same thing?  Because Disney is still cashing in on a reputation it no longer deserves, and in so doing it has betrayed those who came to trust the company to produce nothing but wholesome material suitable for everyone.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

CNN Story on Baby Boomer Divorce Rate

When Tom Brokow called the generation that fought in World War II "the Greatest Generation," it was a silly exaggeration.  I am strongly tempted to call the Baby Boomers (the children raised by "the Greatest Generation") the worst generation, the generation that will destroy this country before passing into history, which would also be an exaggeration -- but not sillier than Brokaw's exaggeration.  I won't go into details right now, because if I start, I'll go on a rant for pages and pages; besides, you either see what I mean in every news broadcast, or you would never see it even after my rant.

So why bring this up now?  The story from CNN about Baby Boomer divorce rates is just too emblematic.  During 37 years of marriage, the couple highlighted in the story "slowly grew apart."  That's a poor excuse even for couples in their twenties, but for a couple to have been married for 37 years and still not realize that marriage is about sacrificial love really demonstrates that they haven't "grown" at all: they are still adolescents.  It is no longer cute to be an adolescent when you're in your sixties!

When the generation that refused to grow up finally passes away, they're going to leave behind a huge mess for their grandkids and great-grandkids to clean up.  Those generations will need to grow up fast -- but without the benefit of adult role models.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

Does This Change How You Feel About Lebron?

That is the question already being asked on sports talk radio, of course, after last night's win by Miami.  It is -- or at least it should be -- a really stupid question. 

Lebron James had been unquestionably popular until he made "The Decision," a bizarre, narcissistic television event that seemed almost calculated to maximize the pain felt by Cleveland fans.  No doubt they would have been hurt by his decision to leave no matter how it had been handled, but this seemed to give that special, extra twist to the dagger.  To many people, including those like me who are not especially fans of Cleveland or even the NBA, this seemed emblematic of so much that is wrong with professional sports today.  Lebron's popularity took a big hit; he was no longer the good guy of the NBA, he was the villain.

Two things need to be stated right away at this point. The first is that although he looked like a royal jerk in the way he treated his former hometown, he is by no means one of the worst guys in the NBA, let alone sports.  What he did was not a misdemeanor, let alone a felony; unlike the well-known actions of several other athletes, this wasn't a crime at all.  Nor was it cheating, like the use of performance-enhancing drugs (or for that matter, a pitcher putting pine tar on the baseball).  By these more serious standards, he's still one of the league's "good guys."

The other is that some people have been critical of his play, particularly late in playoff games.  On the other hand, he has been the league MVP 3 times.  He isn't "the next Michael Jordan," but then nobody is.  What he is is a future Hall of Famer, and everyone knows it.

With all that in mind, exactly how should the fact that he has won a championship change people's minds about him?  Are those who thought him a narcissistic jerk supposed to think the ring makes him a class act?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Two Common Scientific Misconceptions

1.  Surprisingly many people think that the rubber in tires will insulate your car, and this will protect you from lightning.

Lightnings sequence 2 animation

Come on!  That electric spark has just jumped across a mile or more of air, and you think that 4 or 5 inches of tire are going to stop it?  Besides which the tire is usually wet, and water, of course, conducts electricity just fine.

Cars actually still do a good job of protecting people from lightning, but for a different reason.  Most cars still have a metal frame, and that metal frame is a great conductor of electricity.  As a result, almost all the current is conducted away from the people in the car, although some current can still go through them.

All this assumes that the car has a metal frame.  In cars with less metal, so they will be lighter and more fuel efficient, lightning is a more significant risk. 

2. Many people also think that hot water kills germs.  Actually, many germs love warm temperatures.  They might be killed by being held for a while at temperatures at or above boiling, which is how surgical instruments are sterilized in an autoclave and part of the reason we cook food. Think about it, though:  If you put a raw egg into a sink full of "hot water" like you use to do dishes, then remove it after 10 minutes, what do you have?  A wet, warm, raw egg.  Water you can put your hands in will not kill germs. 

Is there a reason for using hot water, then?  Yes!  Hot water makes it easier for the detergent to help dissolve the dirt (or food particles, or whatever).  This is like what happens when you try to dissolve a spoonful of sugar in a drink:  it dissolves much better in hot coffee than in iced tea.  So hot water helps you get things clean, and if they're clean, they should not have anything for the germs to grow on.  If you want them really sterile, though, you have to add something like bleach that will kill the germs.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Writing and Agriculture: A Puzzle Solved?

Ayyab letter mp3h8880

Paleontologists tell us that modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for something like 200,000 years, and that evidence of "behavioral modernity" goes back at least 50,000 years. OK, no problem.  Archaeologists tell us that writing was invented independently several times (at least in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Central America) and that agriculture was invented independently at least twice (in Eurasia and in the Americas).  Both kinds of inventions took place within the past 10,000 years.  Archaeologists believe that these had to be independent events, since the ancestors of the American Indians arrived millenia before the invention of agriculture and there is no strong evidence for genetically or culturally significant contact with the "Old World" from that time until the arrival of Columbus.

Does this seem odd to anyone else?  

I can understand that the invention of writing should follow, probably "fairly quickly", the invention of agriculture, but....  For no one to think of agriculture anywhere for at least 40,000 years and then almost simultaneously invent it in several regions all isolated from each other sounds ... fishy.  

This, of course, gives rise to all manner of wild ideas:
  • Maybe the human species really isn't that old, just like young-Earth creationists say!
  • Maybe ideas like agriculture and writing were remembered from some much earlier civilization -- like Atlantis!  Who knows how advanced this lost civilization might have been?
  • Maybe space aliens brought this knowledge to primitive man?

Let's dispose of these quickly.
  • Young-Earth creationism has so much scientific evidence stacked against it that accounting for it would require either that God directly put lying fossils into the rocks, or that He permitted the Devil to do this.  Such an assertion might be plausible of a pagan god like Loki, but it is simply blasphemous when applied to the Christian God.
  • Societies present during and before the Ice Age may have had poetry and art, and many of their settlements may have been flooded when the ice sheets retreated.  They could not have had a technically advanced civilization like ours, though, or they would have produced much more garbage, like we do.  We would have found their dumps.  They would probably have also taken all the easily available mineral resources. Likewise, they could not have had agriculture.  Archaeology and genetics can trace the domestication of plants.
  • Quite aside from the trouble they would have had getting here, if aliens brought our ancestors technology and science, they did such a really crappy job of it that it boggles the mind.  Agriculture, writing, and technology do not show signs of having sprung up instantly in mature form, they way they do when outsiders bring a fully-formed civilization to the natives.
Other people suggest the Ice Ages themselves may have prevented civilization from arriving.  I don't buy that argument.  Sure, harsh conditions would have made it impossible to have civilization in Ice Age Europe or Canada, but other places, like the location of today's Sahara Desert, were much more hospitable then than now.  Civilization could have potentially taken hold there.

How can we explain the synchronicity, then? 

Here's an idea that just occurred to me today:  Maybe we owe it all to dogs.  Dogs were apparently the first animals to be domesticated, and their domestication began before the ancestors of the American Indians crossed the Bering Land Bridge.  If a society already has the idea of domesticating animals, it can only be so long before they get the idea of domesticating plants, too, and agriculture can support the population density necessary for ideas like writing to be needed.

So thanks, Elvis!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft

I finally made it to the end of The Mountains of Madness, leading to two final observations about the art of H.P. Lovecraft.  

1.  He really seems to have had some sort of deep-seated fear of the sea life.  Most of his monsters live in the sea or have physical characteristics that seem to be inspired by sea creatures.  Cthulhu and Dagon may be the most "human-like" of his monsters, but Cthulhu has tentacles and Dagon is explicitly "half-fish". The "Old Ones" of The Mountains of Madness sound basically like sea cucumbers stood upright and provided with wings and (again) tentacles, and the shoggoth sound vaguely like box jellies -- which, oddly enough, have true eyes.

Avispa marina cropped

Most people, however, would not react in a Lovecraftian way.  We may fear jellyfish, but only because they may sting us; we are not driven insane by the mere fact of their existence.  If we could go back in time a half billion years, we would find creatures in the sea that would look to anyone but a specialist like some of the jellyfish found today -- but this inspires only mild curiosity, not existential despair. 

2. In addition to his odd hang-up with sea life, Lovecraft seems to have been completely unaware of what really does make for an unsettling image.  Of course, he can't really be blamed for not having a fully developed idea of the "Uncanny Valley", but even before that name was coined many artists and writers had a strong intuitive feel for it. 

So, for example, look at these dolls.  They're pretty, charming, and, at least to me, kind of creepy.

Elisa galea doll

Storytellers have known this for years; it's why there are so many stories about haunted dolls, some of which are claimed to be true.  No, I am not saying that these claims really are true, but the fact that they can be presented as such with the expectation that they will be believed and the fact that they in fact are accepted by a number of people are indications that these are touching on something in our common psychological make-up. No doubt magical dolls, like the ones famous from Voodoo, have a similar origin. 

So what kind of monsters does Lovecraft give us?  Are they soulless parodies of human beings?  Are they manlike enough to make us first think they really are human, only some indefinable property is vaguely wrong, hinting that the spirit animating them is not, after all, human?  Nope; they're more likely to be colossal (and aeons-old!) shucked oysters, with all their sliminess and seeming formlessness, or perhaps a scallop without its shell, as implied by the presence of odd eyes.


A real monster shouldn't make you think, "That wouldn't be bad fried and served with sides of cole slaw and cheese grits."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

H.G. Wells, The Outer Limits, and Contemporary Culture

War of the Worlds pg 59

Several years ago I bought a collection of all the short stories written by H.G. Wells.  They were entertaining, of course, but aside from the ridiculous caricatures of scientists (particularly in "The First Men in the Moon"), a serious flaw became obvious as essentially the only theme explored in his stories:  the denial that man has a nature that sets him apart from the rest of the animals.  G.K. Chesterton dealt with this flaw much more charity than I am inclined to show, noting, "His philosophy in some sense amounts to a denial of the possibility of philosophy itself. At least, he maintains that there are no secure and reliable ideas upon which we can rest with a final mental satisfaction."

The same thing was evident when I saw The Outer Limits, particularly the new incarnation of that series.  Once again, every episode seemed to be about how human beings aren't at all special, we're just like dogs and cats, or maybe cattle, or maybe mosquitoes.  The writers somehow failed to pick up on the fact that this makes for really uninteresting stories.  It may be true that in an episode of Gunsmoke one could always be sure that Marshall Dillon would come out on top, the only question being how, but at least one got the feeling that both Marshall Dillon and the ideas he represented really mattered.  The Outer Limits was just as predictable, only the human protagonist was guaranteed to fail, and the "moral of the story" was that none of the characters or ideas mattered a whit.  If that's the case, why should anyone bother watching?  The ideas that all life on earth is doomed to extinction, that the earth itself will be vaporized in a few billion years when the sun goes through its giant phase just before its fires are extinguished and it begins the slow process of cooling to absolute zero, and eventually the Heat Death of the Universe will destroy all matter and meaning -- all these ideas can suit a certain mopey blue mood, but they don't make for gripping drama. 

This is not to deny that there is a role for stories that, for example, rebuke mankind for being less faithful than a loyal hound, or for the heart-rending stories of elephants clearly grieving for their dead.  However, far from dismissing the importance of loyalty or the loss of death, they reinforce it; they do not suppress human nature, they elevate the nature of certain animals.  There is a qualitative difference. 

It seems to me that the preoccupation with denying the reality and importance of human nature can be explained in large part by the desire to reject our natures and re-invent ourselves.  This is what I meant in my earlier post about Psalm 100:3.  This is evident not only in the "gay marriage" movement -- the number of active homosexuals, let alone those who wish to enter into some kind of "gay marriage", is far too small to explain the changing political environment unless this has something to do with the desires of those who are not homosexual -- it is also visible in the push for using human embryos as experimental matter.  Modern man is like Brother Cavil from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, unhappy and angry at the fact of his own creation and willing to do terrible things as a result.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Crystal Cathedral

Last Saturday Bishop Tod Brown renamed the Crystal Cathedral, the well-known location of the "Hour of Power" televangelism program, to Christ Cathedral.

Because the design of the building is quite different from that of a traditional Catholic Church, and because the cost of maintenance will be so high, at first I was quite skeptical of the wisdom of this purchase.  Last night, though, I chanced across a passage in Chesteron's The Catholic Church and Conversion which presents the situation in a different, and more poetic light:

Crystal Palace - interior

Now conversion consists very largely, on its intellectual side, in the discovery that all that picture of equal creeds inside an indifferent cosmos is quite false. It is not a question of comparing the merits and defects of the Quaker meeting-house set beside the Catholic cathedral. It is the Quaker meeting-house that is inside the Catholic cathedral; it is the Catholic cathedral that covers everything like the vault of the Crystal Palace; and it is when we look up at the vast distant dome covering all the exhibits that we trace the Gothic roof and the pointed windows.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Wild Animals in the Apocalypse

I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
-- Revelation 6:8 (NASB)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vasili Koren'

Setting aside for a moment the fact that most of Revelation is obviously highly symbolical, the question might naturally arise whether wild beasts are really the threat.  After all, the European Cave Lion is now extinct, and we have hunted most of the big predators to the point where they are endangered species in very real risk of extinction. The idea of thousands of grizzly bears descending on New York City, or of thousands of leopards chasing people through the streets of Paris, or of thousands of crocodiles making the streets of Sidney run red sounds like a really bad movie, not a serious possibility.

But then, the text does not say bears or leopards or crocodiles, only "wild beasts".  If we back away from our preconceptions just a bit, it is easy to see that "wild beasts" can still pose a problem today.  Feral dogs have posed a problem throughout history, and coyotes are expanding in North America.  Rats have carried the fleas that brought the Black Death, bats can carry rabies, and armadillos -- also spreading in North America -- can spread leprosy to humans.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Misquoting Pascal

The heart has its own checking account, that reason still knows nothing about.

Friday, June 8, 2012

NPR to Lose One of Its Few Reasons to Exist

If tomorrow National Public Radio depended on a $10 donation from me to stay in business, I would not give it.  Too often NPR has exasperated me with their liberal bias, which is so uniform that it has presumably become unconscious.  It is extremely offensive to have tax money (or, if you prefer, public debt) used to cheerlead for evil ideas.

Yet even though I would not save NPR, I would miss some of its programming.  Maybe the program I would miss most is Car Talk, at least as much for Tom and Ray's sense of humor as for the practical advice they give.  I remember being astonished years ago when I first heard the show -- surely these were not typical mechanics!  No, they are not.  They both went to MIT, though neither is an engineer -- Tom got his bachelor's degree in Management (and later a Ph.D. in marketing from Boston University), and Ray got his bachelor's in "Humanities and Science".

Their last live program will be this September.  Sure, reruns will still be played for years to come, but it won't be the same.  

I'm going to miss them.

We Are All Positive Barbarians Now

Norsemen Landing in Iceland

The IEEE has a good article questioning the wisdom of the US deploying cyberweapons like the Flame virus.  The main rationalizations seem to be
  • we really don't like the people against whom we use them, and 
  • no one is able to stop us.
Such a position is indistinguishable from "might makes right," an idea that has appealed to nations through the ages when they believed themselves to be the mightiest.  

We can do better than that.  The concept of America has always been about more than just the narrow interests of the US citizens currently alive, or even the interests of future generations; it has also included a belief that the really important differences between people are not the country or caste into which they are born, but what they make of themselves through their choices.

In contrast with that is an attitude that Chesterton identified in The Barbarism of Berlin as that of a barbarian:
There is another idea in human arrangements so fundamental as to be forgotten; but now for the first time denied. It may be called the idea of reciprocity; or, in better English, of give and take. The Prussian appears to be quite intellectually incapable of this thought. He cannot, I think, conceive the idea that is the foundation of all comedy; that, in the eyes of the other man, he is only the other man. And if we carry this clue through the institutions of Prussianised Germany, we shall find how curiously his mind has been limited in the matter. The German differs from other patriots in the inability to understand patriotism. Other European peoples pity the Poles or the Welsh for their violated borders; but Germans only pity themselves. They might take forcible possession of the Severn or the Danube, of the Thames or the Tiber, of the Garry or the Garonne--and they would still be singing sadly about how fast and true stands the watch on Rhine; and what a shame it would be if anyone took their own little river away from them. That is what I mean by not being reciprocal: and you will find it in all that they do: as in all that is done by savages.

So if we are going to engage in cyberwarfare, we cannot call it cyberterrorism if the same weapons are turned against us -- unless we are barbarians, which requires turning our backs on the founding and sustaining principles of this country.

Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case, and not just in a cyberwarfare context.  When the US captures and holds a foreign national without trial, we say he is "detained", as if he has been held up by traffic.  When a foreign nation does the same thing to a US national, he is said to be a "hostage".  When the US bombed bridges in Serbia, we were told that these were legitimate military targets; at the same time, we were told that a watch was being kept on certain US bridges, lest Serbians bomb them in an act of terrorism.

It would be naive to believe that refusing to engage in cyberwarfare would prevent others from using computer viruses to attack us.  It might be a little easier to get treaty cooperation discouraging such actions if we were not already engaged in them, but treaties and other social pressure might be of limited effectiveness in containing untraceable attacks.  Still, we can no longer howl about how unfair such attacks are when we are on the receiving end.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Rococo Basilicas

When I look at cumulus clouds, 

I like to imagine them as vast, floating, Rococo basilicas covered with ivory and gilded with gold, with thousands of niches for saints both familiar and unknown.

0842 - Siracusa - Chiesa del collegio dei Gesuiti - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 22-May-2008

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Which Is More Likely / Which Will Happen First?

C G-K - DSC 0442 (by)
  1. Life is discovered on Mars, or definitive proof is found that Bigfoot is real?
  2. SETI detects a signal unambiguously from an alien civilization, or it is definitively proved that ghosts are real?
  3. A third-party candidate wins the presidential election, or the whole electoral system is cast aside by a dictator / coup / foreign invasion?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Shopping Carts

Photo by w:nl:Gebruiker:Michiel1972; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by w:nl:Gebruiker:Michiel1972, Wikimedia Commons

This isn't the most profound problem, but still...

We have no hope as a nation if people are truly too lazy to push the shopping cart 30 feet to the nearest corral.