A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Context of Bitten Sound

In this era, when the thoughts even of politicians do not run much past 140 characters, the sound bite reigns supreme. The Federalist Papers? Fuggedabouddit. The Communist Manifesto? Too long. Context? What are you talking about?

In the past couple of days several sound bites have reached apocalyptic status as our Besserwissers tell us what to think about them. They accomplish this by not telling us very much. Even on "longer" stories (which in TV newsland are not very long at all) the Incomparable Marge and TOF will often exchange puzzled glances because the "story" omitted one or more key points.

In fact, a few days ago the newsreaders actually commented on whether one of the two major disasters candidates had enough empathy to be prexy. After all, one of his Constitutional duties was to appear at disasters and show how much he cares by comforting Victims. Today one of the talking heads reported on his own feelings of indignation as if they were news. A companion head then said something about "our president, on the other hand..." Don't need no Wikileaks for that email! We got the message.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

While googling around....

....on the question of quantum hylomorphism, TOF encountered this remarkable comment on another blog in a comment section now closed:
My problem with the Scholastic view of matter is that substance and form, as understood by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, doesn’t seem to be reconcilable with atomic theory...
... An element is what it is because of the number of protons in each atom (and to a lesser extent, the number of neutrons, which affects the behavior of certain isotopes). The number of protons determines the number of electrons; this determines the number of valence electrons; and these determine how the atoms combine with others to make compounds, what wavelengths of light they reflect (and thus color), and pretty much every other property except for mass. 
Translating this a bit, it amounts to:
My problem with the Scholastic view of matter is that substance and form, as understood by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, doesn’t seem to be reconcilable with atomic theory...
An element is what it is because of the form of its atoms; that is, the number and arrangement of its parts.
So what's his problem?

He also says:

Without our current understanding of atomic theory, there isn’t really any difference between substantial and accidental forms.
So he does not believe he can distinguish between the substantial form of a human being and the accidental form of his skin color? These are dangerous waters.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Clinton, Trump, and interval Estimates

Or subtitled:
3% margin of error? We don' need no steenking margin of error

This morning brought to TOF's attention the following factoids regarding recent polls taken in three "battleground states." Apparently, a "battleground" state is one in which the media in their anointed role as declarer of winners -- it's in the Constitution, right? -- cannot bring themselves to declare a winner just yet.

Here is the info from the story:
Donald Trump enters the Republican convention on a small roll in the three most important swing states in the country.

Clinton's biggest drop was in Florida, where last month she led Trump by 8 points. In Wednesday's poll of the state, Trump garnered 42% support to Clinton's 39% — within the poll's 3.1% margin of error.

Wednesday's poll of Pennsylvania voters, meanwhile, found Trump with 43% support to Clinton's 41%, a slight change from last month's poll which found the former secretary of state leading Trump by one point.

Ohio's race remained unchanged, as both candidates remained tied for the second month in a row.
How an unchanged tie in a sample is part of a "roll" is unexplained. The print media is more careful than broadcast, and the pollsters themselves are more careful than the media. In broadcast, we often hear that this candidate or that is "gaining" or "losing" from one month to the next when in fact we are only seeing noise in the sampling. The reason why Trump appears to lead by 3 points this month while Clinton appeared to lead by 8 points last month is that the pollsters talked to a different 1000 voters¹ this month than last, and they had different preferences than the last bunch.
Note: 1. The sample sizes in this case were 1025 for FL, 955 for Ohio, and 982 for Pennsylvania. The differences are likely due to the number of people randomly called who hung up or otherwise refused to participate. It is dangerous to assume that the uncooperative will have the same opinions as the cooperative.
Furthermore, a sample is only a part of a population and unless it is taken in a random fashion -- and this is so incredibly hard to do that most pollsters don't bother doing it -- it is unlikely to peg the actual preferences of the population of which it is a part. The sample may for example haul in more Democrats this month than last or more older people or more of the well-to-do. If the preferences differ between clusters in the population, this will affect the sample percentages in ways that are not accounted for by the so-called margin of error. The Quinnipiac sample does make adjustments for the proportions of age groups, sexes, races, counties, party affiliations, etc. harvested by the sample versus the same groups' proportions in the population from Census and other sources. There does not seem to have been an adjustment for non-response. Care was taken to correct for multiple voters using the same land line and for voters having more than one phone.

That margin of error is calculated on the assumption of a simple randomly collected sample. In a randomly collected sample, each member of the population has an equal (or at least a known) probability of entering the sample. In practice, this is seldom the case and political polls are taken with little care for good sample planning. Unlike market surveys, on which $much$ often rides, political polls are as effervescent as the bubbles in your beer. In two months, no one will care. More to the point, no one will know if you ever got it right. Except for that very last one the day before the actual vote when snarky statisticians can actually compare polls to actual election results. 

Now here's the dirty little secret: you can have a 3.1% margin of error as these polls claim bracketing a completely wrong value! Let's have fun with comparisons!

The Quinnipiac poll above sampled 982 PA voters between June 30-July 11, 2016 and found

Clinton...........41% interval estimate (38%-44%)
When folks were reminded that there are other candidates running, the percentages change:
Johnson (Lib)......9
Stein (Green)......3
Faced with two additional candidates, 10% jumped ship and 3rd party picked up 12%, but "someone else" dropped by only 1%, "wouldn't vote" dropped from 7% to 3%, and "don't know" increased from 6% to 8%. Go figure. Remember, the same people answered both questions.

Now here's something curious. During the same time frame, NBC/WSJ sampled 829 PA voters between July 5-10, 2016 and found the following percentages in their sample.
Clinton..........45%...interval estimate....(42%-48%)

For Clinton, the minimum and maximum likely percentages estimated by the samples were
Q,#1..............(38....xx....44) (Clinton v. Trump)
Q,#2(31....xx....37)  (Clinton v. Trump v. Johnson v. Stein)

For Trump, the minimum and maximum likely percentages estimated by the samples were
Q,#1...................(40....xx....46) (Clinton v. Trump)
Q,#2.............(37....xx....43)  (Clinton v. Trump v. Johnson v. Stein)

So the 3% margin of error is 3% around estimates that sometimes differ by more than 3% even when sampling the same population at the same time. Quinnipiac talked to a different group of people than did NBC/WSJ and so got different results. The 3% precision is trivial next to the vaster question of accuracy. In fact, given the two questions on the Quinnipiac poll, the way the question is asked makes a difference.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Dept. of Some Things Never Change

Over at Siris, Brandon Watson is doing series on the Maronite year. The other day he had the following post:

July 10 is the Feast of the Blessed Massabki Brothers, Abdel Mooti Massabki, Francis Massabki, Raphael Massabki. They lived in Damascus during a time when tensions were very high in the Ottoman Empire. A great civil war broke out in the region of Mount Lebanon and Syria in 1860 between Maronites and their Druze governors. The fighting was fierce, and the Maronites at an inevitable disadvantage against Druze forces backed by Ottoman troops. In July 1860, the fighting came to Damascus, and the results were brutal as much of the relatively peaceful Christian population was slaughtered by Druze and Muslim paramilitary groups while the government looked the other way -- thousands of Christians died in the Damascus Massacre, perhaps as many as ten thousand, and the Christian quarter of the city was almost entirely destroyed. The massacre might well have been total had it not been for cases of Christians being saved by their Muslim neighbors, especially in poor areas around the city. Of note as well was the work of Abdelkader El Djezairi, an Algerian Sufi freedom fighter who was living in exile in Damascus at the time; having forewarning of the trouble, he and his fellow Algerians sheltered hundreds of Christians in his house and sent his sons out into danger in order to bring Christians to safety.
But there were many who had no such protection, and no recourse but to pray. The Massabki brothers, prominent Maronites in the city, were praying in a Franciscan church on July 9, 1860 and given the choice to die or convert to Islam. They were beatified in 1926 by Pius XI.

Civil war in Syria? Whole populations massacred? Christians persecuted and driven out? Streams of refugees fleeing? Thank goodness those days are over with.

James Hannam

comments on Brexit from the perspective of a Brit:
Readers of [Quodlibeta] come from all over the world and they may have heard some surprising tidings from the United Kingdom over the last few weeks. As most of international news reporting has painted events as either a revolt by xenophobic peasants or just complete chaos, I [James] thought it was worth setting down what has really happened and the reasons behind it.

First, my biases. Although I am, I suppose, a member of the globalised neo-liberal order, I campaigned hard in my local area for a vote to leave the European Union, commonly called the EU, at the referendum on 23 June. I have been a sceptic of the EU since 16 September 1992, ‘black Wednesday’ when the German central bank provoked the markets to devalue the British pound against the will of the British Government. In the meantime, we have seen the EU bring in the single currency that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 has turned into a rack upon which the economies of many of its members are slowly being broken. In essence, the EU has become an oligarchy, and not even a very effective one.
More at the link.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Muse Speaks

An Ode to a Broken Arm
or The Physical Therapy Fight Song

You slide your right arm out
You pull your right arm in.
You swing it back and forth
And give it a li'l spin.
Oh it won't do no harm
To your achey, breaky arm.
No, it don't do no harm
To your achey, breaky arm. 

You stretch your right arm here;
You stretch your right arm there.
Make a spider with your fingers
And climb the wall of stairs.
Oh it won't do no harm
To your achey, breaky arm.
No, it don't do no harm
To your achey, breaky arm.

Sometimes, the Muse speaks. This time when the Muse spoke, she slapped me upside the head and said, don't do that again.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Glorious Eighth

The 8th of July comes on the 10th this year, in line with the modern custom of pushing celebrations off onto the nearest weekend in order to increase revenues. One cannot expect people to take time off from work simply to celebrate, let alone for employers to give people the day off. This isn't the Middle Ages, after all, when half the year was taken up with holy days and festivals. (They may up for it in the other half. In an agricultural society the work has to be done when it has to be done.)

The Easton Flag
8 July 1776 was the date when the Declaration of Independence was read in public in Philadelphia, Trenton NJ, and Easton PA. In Easton there was a public celebration with a fife and drum corps and the local militia. Robert Levers, Chairman of the Committee of Safety, read the declaration from the steps of the courthouse, which was then in Centre Square, and the crowd gave three huzzahs for the United States and unfurled of a flag bearing a representation of the thirteen colonies.

Back for the bicentennial the city tracked down a descendant of Robert Levers and flew him out to re-enact the reading wearing colonial togs. The courthouse was elsewhere and Centre Square is occupied by a Civil War monument, but a) it's location, location, location and b) the present courthouse has no steps and being situated beside the county prison attracts few tourists.

They also invited Lord and Lady Pomfret, after whose estate of Easton-Neston in Northamptonshire, the Penns named both the city and the county. They presented them with the rose rent, which I understand had been in arrears for two centuries. Perhaps they presented an entire bouquet. Such an act was at odds with the revolutionary fervor that had actuated the original events, but there were no hard feelings. Perhaps the took milord and milady to dinner at the Pomfret Club, a dining club so exclusive that it lets my dad in.

The city has repeated Heritage Days ever since, though without the descendants or Lords. It has expanded to include an encampment of Lenape Indians and (anachronistically enough) civil war re-enactors; as well as fun and games for kiddies, fireworks off a barge in the river, and so on. Driving past the Square today after breakfast with Pere today, we saw a food truck on South Third at Ferry that announced "genuine Egyptian food." Plus ca change, and all that.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Gnome Ann

Saw this on Siris. Still laughing.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Robbing Hood

from an old Wizard of Id strip at Imho, it was drawn with greater panache and edgier humor in the old days than these degenerate times. Commentaries on current politics and economic policies are all in your head. Right.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

OK, Put it Back! Right Now!

Dr. Robert Scherrer at Cosmic Yarns makes an interesting observation about a lack observation....

Suppose there were amazingly advanced alien civilizations out there -- aliens capable of harnessing the energy of entire galaxies. (These are the Kardashev Type III civilizations). Surely such a civilization would easy to spot?
I've noticed a surprisingly large number of serious astronomy papers on this subject recently. As you might imagine, nobody has seen any evidence for such a civilization -- if they had seen something, you probably would have heard about it by now. But here's a fun new idea from Beatriz Villarroel and collaborators at Uppsala University: searching for disappearing stars. These scientists compared two surveys of sky -- one from the US Naval Observatory, based on observations of the sky between 1950 and 1999, and the more recent Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They examined 10 million objects, and found exactly one object in the first survey that seems to have disappeared in the later survey.

Does this mean that an advanced civilization has caused a star to vanish?

Probably not, and the authors of the paper don't make such a claim. Maybe the star was simply much brighter in the past and then dimmed rapidly. On the other hand, it's a rather intriguing observation.... 

You might expect that the USNO survey might have missed objects picked up by the Sloan; but this says that something spotted previously hasn't been seen again. Where'd it go? Has it been enclosed in a Dyson Sphere since the last time it was spotted? Or perhaps it was the exhaust of a starship that is now  coasting? 

Lighting up the Brain

Hey, ya ever see those brain image scans where they pretend they took snapshots of actual brain activity (rather than say model outputs of oxygen consumption is various regions)? Turns out there may be a slight problem:

Saturday, July 2, 2016


In response to the recent jihadi attack in Istanbul, one presidential candidate responded with bluster and promises to flail around at random and the other responded with bromides and boilerplate. What a wondrous age we live in.

The Turks responded by rounding up dozens of suspected terrorists and bombing the crap out of ISIS camps in Syria. They reopened the airport the very next day and as far as US news reporting went, held no group hugs or candlelight vigils.

I once heard the following story about the Turks from a US soldier assigned to NATO. Turkish border guards on the border with Russia back in Soviet/NATO days used to draw straws. The winner would strip to his shorts, pull out a Sykes knife, and walk to the border. There, he would urinate onto Russian soil and, brandishing the knife, dare the Russian border guards to do something about it.

There were a similar stories told of Turks in the Korean war. Along with the Ethiopians, the Turks were the UN contingent the Chinese and North Koreans most feared falling into their hands.