Sunday, November 29, 2015

Coy About Motives, Giving Time for Alibis

Vixen Strangely has a great post up about the Planned Parenthood shootiings in Colorado Springs. Yesterday, I had to turn off the news on the radio because the mainstream media was tying itself in knots to avoid saying the obvious- the shooting was motivated by anti-reproductive self-determination extremism. Every news report was careful to characterize the shooting as a mysterious, context-free occurrence:

Authorities weren't ready to discuss a possible motive Saturday after interviewing 57-year-old suspect Robert Lewis Dear, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said.

Even though the motive was apparent to anyone with two brain cells to rub together:

However, people can make "inferences from where it took place," said Suthers, a former state attorney general who also suggested Dear's mental health was part of the investigation.

This reluctance to call out this right-wing terrorism allowed the wingnut Wurlitzer to begin cranking out conspiracy theories to obscure the true motive for the shootings. The original 'cover story' was that the shootings were a bank robbery gone awry, but the right-wingers have morphed the story into something much stranger- the allegation that the shooter was, get this, a transgendered leftist activist.

I have to confess that I would not have guessed that this particular 'theory' would be the one to gain enough traction to be repeated by Ted Cruz. Personally, my prediction would have been that the right-wing would have claimed that the shooter was a patsy set up by Planned Parenthood to derail upcoming congressional hearings. I also figured that, because a police officer was killed in the attack, the right-wingers would claim that the #blacklivesmatter movement was somehow culpable. Frankly, I'm a bit confused that the 'transgendered activist' narrative, based on a typo, is what they are running with.

At any rate, I blame the mainstream media for being unwilling to call right-wing extremism for what it is, giving enough breathing room to the right-wingers so they could start spinning.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

An Experiment which Far Exceeded Expectations

Before heading down to mom's house in Virginia, I packed the car with some contributions to the holiday culinary efforts, primarily a couple of bottles of homemade booze:

On the right is a bottle of my typical homemade limoncello, a strong, clean citrus liqueur made with pure grain alcohol, lemon zest, and sugar, diluted to proper drinking strength, approximately 50% alcohol by volume. That bottle of light pink liquid on the left is a new thing for me, my take on a not-too-well-defined folk liqueur known as cherry bounce. There are recipes for bounce made with bourbon, brandy, vodka... a whole plethora of different base alcohols. For my first batch, I used rum, which was suggested for bringing out the fruitiness of the cherries, and added a pound of sugar to counteract the tartness of the cherries. As far as the cherries are concerned, I picked two gallons of cherries on the job, the first of which I used to make homemade maraschino cherries, the second of which went into a gallon jar to be macerated in rum.

I wasn't sure how well the experiment would turn out, but I have to say that it was an unqualified success. Next year, I plan on repeating it, and using other cherries to make different variants- using whisky, brandy, and the like. This experiment far exceeded my expectations, but that doesn't preclude further experimentation.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Who Needs a Doorbuster?

I finally returned to New York, driving straight from mom's house to work. Whiskey Joe, one of my brother Vincenzo's old army buddies, a guy who was a fixture at our house when he had a precious bit of leavetime (to the extent that he knew where the spare housekey was hidden- when there are five kids in a family, what's a dozen, or a hundred more?) stopped by around 1PM in order to hang out for a bit, and we had a good laugh and some catching up. I had to leave after a half hour, and it was a bit melancholy bidding farewell to the kids, Vin and his wife, mom and Joe, but I'll see everybody again around Christmas.

When I got to work, I called mom to tell her that I got home, and there was the sound of kids laughing in the background. Slade, another of my brother's old army buddies, had come over with his kids. One of my brother's eight-year old twins had been daunted by the prospect of a bunch of boys, including (horrors!) a teenager, coming over, but judging from the general aura of hilarity audible on the other end of the connection, she was holding her own rather well.

In retrospect, the one thing that I'm most thankful for is the fact that my mom raised us in a tradition of hospitality, so that we have an extended family of thousands of people who have found a place to stay and a decent meal over the years. Many of them are still coming by. Who needs a Black Friday doorbuster, when there's a place with an open door?

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Thanksgiving is drawing to a close, and I'm thankful. The turkey turned out perfectly, moist and flavorful. The gravy was silken smooth, the side dishes fantastic. It was a splendid meal, and my mother's cheesecake wasn't even cut until a couple of hours after dinner.

More importantly, we had fun all day. In the early afternoon, my brother and I were teaching his daughters how to throw a classic spiral pass with a Nerf football. Now, we're coaching them in a chess game. All day long, they were entertaining us with extemporaneous songs and funny stories. Tomorrow, they will put on a show of songs that they have been writing. They are lovely kids, smart, funny, and creative. As soon as I post this, it's back to the chess game.

I am thankful for my great family... even better, we'll all be together for Christmas. I'm also thankful for my friends, including my beloved readers.

I'm going to leave you with a story about a plan I've made with my nieces for next summer. There's a pond near there house, in which there lives a huge catfish, a big sucker who has already broken one fishing line. The catfish was dubbed "Big Ugly". Our plan for next summer is to catch Big Ugly and give it a makeover, starting by putting lipstick on its mouth. When we release the fish, it'll have to be called Big Pretty. Did I mention that they are gifted comediennes? I'm thankful for comedy too.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Smashing!

On Monday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring physicist Dr Kyle Cranmer of NYU's Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics and NYU's Center for Data Science. Dr Cranmer was a member of the Large Hadron Collider team which discovered the Higgs boson.

Dr Cranmer began his lecture by displaying an image of a snowflake, which he prized for its beauty and symmetry. While noting that symmetry is not often observed in 'normal' life, as things get smaller, symmetry becomes more common- objects (at this stage, he displayed a scanning electron microscope image of pollen) become more austere, cleaner, more symmetrical. The fundamental particle that makes up 'normal' matter is the atom- each atom is composed of electrons and a nucleus that is made of protons and neutrons, which are made out of quarks, both up quarks and down quarks. Electrons belong to a class of particles known as leptons. Dr Cranmer drolly noted, "Everything you touch is made out of down quarks, up quarks, and electrons.

He then displayed the 'classic' image of an atom, and noted that electrons don't orbit the nucleus of an atom like planets orbit around their sun- a better model for their movement is a cloud probability model. He then displayed a gorgeous image of the hydrogen wave function:

The talk then shifted to the subject of the four fundamental forces of nature... Electromagnetic force, the interaction between magnetism and positive and negative charges- opposite charges attract and same charges repel. The strong force, which holds identically charged protons together in the nucleus of the atom, is stronger than electromagnetic force. The weak force is involved in the interaction between quarks and leptons. Gravity is an attraction between and among masses. Dr Cranmer also delved briefly into Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, mentioning the central importance of an equation:

The universe can be broken down into four forces, one equation, and twelve particles:

One problem that was encountered early on in particle physics is that the equations only worked if the fundamental particles were massless, though it was known that the particles had mass. Physicist Peter Higgs theorized that there was an energy field that permeates the universe (the Higgs field) which every particle 'feels'- different particles are effected in different ways, particles which interact strongly have a lot of mass while particles which are hardly effect have little mass. Dr Cranmer illustrated this principle with a cartoon. The interaction of the particles with the Higgs field gain inertial mass.

Why do particles interact differently with the Higgs field? Fundamental particles can act as waves, the most commonly known example of this being light waves, which are composed of photons. Peter Higgs proposed that there was a particle manifestation of the field, which was dubbed the Higgs boson. In order to test this theory, and to discover whether or not there was a Higgs boson, the biggest particle accelerator in the world was needed. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has as its centerpiece a 17 mile long particle accelerator three-hundred feet below ground spanning the Swiss-French border. The ATLAS detectors measure the paths, momentum, and energy of particles, allowing identification to be made. The CMS detector uses a solenoid magnet to bend the paths of particles. Among the gorgeous visuals Dr Cranmer presented was a picture of beautiful transparent lead tungstate.

In the particle accelerator, particles collide and 'lots of stuff' flies off and interacts with the various sensors. Interesting particles show up at the point of collision and decay immediately. The energy of the particle beam, which is steered by electromagnets, rivals that produced by a jumbo jet- it's sufficient to melt copper. Dr Cranmer dryly noted, "You don't want to put your hand in there." Mass and energy being equivalent, new particles are created in collisions. While this occurs rarely, there are forty-million collisions per second. In the quadrillions of collisions which have occurred in the LHC, a few Higgs bosons have been detected. Dr Cranmer compared the search to painting one thousand grains of sand red and then putting them in an Olympic-sized swimming pull filled with sand and then trying to find the red ones. The Higgs boson quickly decays, often into two Z bosons which decay into four leptons. After a statistical 'spike' in the CMS data suggested the existence of the Higgs boson, the discovery of the Higgs was announced on 7/4/2012. In 2013, Peter Higgs and Belgian physicist François Englert won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Dr Cranmer quipped that it's hard to overstate the importance of the discovery of the Higgs boson, but it is possible. He then presented us with a diagram of the standard model of particle physics originally done by David Kaplan- from Dr Cranmer's blog:

The model is self-consistent, but Dr Cranmer noted that there is a problem with the "complete theory of everything", namely it looks like we're done. He then posed the question, "Where do we go now?" His answer, we go from small to large, from the subatomic level to the macro level. He then showed a familiar picture, an image of a galaxy cluster characterized by distorted images caused by light being bent by mass... gravitational lensing. The amount of bending allows us to measure the mass which is causing the bending, and there is a lot more mass than is present in the stars alone. The existence of dark matter can be inferred by its gravitational effects. There is evidence that dark matter forms a 'cosmic web', a scaffolding for the universe in which galaxies and clusters are seeded. Dark matter is not part of the standard model of particle physics.

After the Big Bang, there was a period of inflation, in which the young universe was a hot 'soup' of quarks and gluons. This young, hot, soupy universe was opaque- when it cooled down, atoms began to form and the universe became transparent- this occurred at approximately 13.7 billion years ago as evidenced by cosmic microwave background radiation. Currently, the universe is composed of about 26.8% dark matter, 4.9% 'mundane' matter, and 68.3% dark energy. While telescopes like the Hubble can look farther out and farther back in time, the Primordial Era of the hot, dense, opaque early universe cannot be observed. The LHC probes what the universe was like under those conditions, and the search is on for dark matter, supersymmetry, and extra dimensions.

Dr Cranmer then asked, can we trust extrapolations from the earthly observations to the universe at large? Out conceptual framework is derived from the Theory of General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Field Theory... a combination that can be called 'Relativistic Quantum Field Theory'. Relativity describes the symmetry of space and time. Field theory describes how fields interact with matter. Quantum mechanics describe the wave/particle duality- particles can act as waves, light waves are composed of photons, the Higgs boson is a particle which acts as a wave field.

Dr Cranmer then went on a digression about antimatter- if there are particles, there should be antiparticles. Similarly, if the supersymmetry theory of space and time is correct, there should be superparticles- in theory, one of these 'sparticles' has the properties of dark matter.

The success of the Relativistic Quantum Field Theory is related to spin- particles have spin, which receives a quantum correction- the quantum corrections are expressed in Feynman diagrams. Dr Cranmer described the success of experiments in quantum corrections as 'hitting a hole in one from New York to China. The Higgs boson also receives quantum corrections- corrections which are a quadrillion times the mass of the boson- this is known as the naturalness problem. Questions remain: Why is the Higgs boson so small? Are we missing something? What is the energy scale at which the problem occurs? This renormalization process is akin to adjusting for inflation? The underlying principle to balance the "budget" is supersymmetry- for every boson there's a fermion.

The next question Dr Cranmer posed was, "Does the Higgs boson spell the death of the universe?" The stability of the universe correlates to the ratio of the top mass of the universe and the mass of the Higgs:

As the mass of the universe and the mass of the Higgs increase, the universe could enter a different state, perhaps a state in which atoms cannot exist. The timeframe of this is probably 'kajillions' of years, but it could happen tomorrow. It's possible that this change could result in a 'bubble' universe branching off. It's possible that there is a series of nested universes popping off, a multiverse in which different pockets are connected, but conditions could be radically different. The naturalness problem could be explained by different conditions in different 'pockets'- we can only observe universes which can support life, the anthropic principle. While a lot of physicists are displeased with this model, it's not necessarily wrong. Dr Cranmer likened this to Kepler's nested platonic solids model of the solar system, while it wasn't correct, it wasn't necessarily dumb according to the standards of Kepler's time.

Dr Cranmer ended the LHC portion of the talk by likening CERN's experiments to a menu, with the Higgs boson being an appetizer and Supersymmetry with Dark Matter or Extra Dimensions with Black Holes being the main course. He then briefly touched on extremely energetic particles from space (jokingly referred to as the "Oh My God!" particle) detected by the Fly's Eye Detector. The source of these superenergetic particles can't be too far away, but it is a mystery. In the fluxes of cosmic rays, one of these particles, which typically have the energy of a fastball, per billion square kilometers may hit the earth's surface in a year. The Pierre Auger detector is designed to detect these ultrahigh energy particles. Dr Cranmer then noted that apps could be developed so that every cell phone could be a particle detector, one such app is CRAYFIS.

In the Q&A, the topic of the different interactions with the Higgs field came up- the reason for this is unknown, but there are lots of theories. Some bastard in the audience asked about the implications of the LHC experimental results for quantum entanglement, the so-called 'spooky action at a distance'. When a particle decays, two particles 'fly off', but the angular momentum is conserved. Measuring one of the particles, one can know the state of the other. This doesn't impact the results in the LHC- it's a subtle effect, but it's real. It doesn't drastically change what the particles do, though. Dr Cranmer then riffed on this by mentioning the Black Hole Information Paradox- if something falls into a black hole, what happens to the 'information' that results from its entanglement with another particle? Also in the Q&A, Dr Cranmer talked about the role of dark energy in the expansion of the universe- dark energy 'makes matter allergic to itself'.

Once again, the Secret Science Club dished out another fantastic lecture- kudos to Dr Cranmer, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. Here's a special pre-Thanksgiving thanks to everyone.

Monday, November 23, 2015


The Western media has taken to using the term 'DAESH' to refer to the group formerly known as ISIS/ISIL. 'DAESH' is an acronym for the Arabic term Dawlat al-Islāmiyya fī al-Irāq wa s-Shām, but it has a couple of homonyms which are less than flattering:

Daesh also sounds similar to the Arabic words daes — which means someone who crushes something underfoot - and also dahes — which is someone who sows discord.

Recently, a group of armed thugs have taken to intimidating the congregation of a mosque in Texas- substitute a trucker's cap for an Afghan pakol, and there's not much of a difference in the look of these asses and ISIS.

I have decided to refer to these homegrown extremists by the acronym 'DOUCHE': Destroying Our Usual Comity for Hateful Extremism.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jolly Diwali, then Melancholy

This afternoon, after a morning spent coaching, I went to a local Indian restaurant for their Diwali buffet. Needless to say, having not eaten breakfast and having spent a couple of hours teaching children how to fight (and having a good friendly brawl with my friend Gentle Jimmy G. and a nice fight with technical tips for one of the teenage counselors who chaperone the smaller kids), I was ravenous, so I descended on the sumptuous spread of dishes like a newly awakened Kumbakharna. The buffet presented a great selection of dishes from throughout the Indian subcontinent, from Southern iddli with sambar and coconut chutney and goat jalfrezi to Northern saag paneer and Chinese-Indian delicacies like gobi Manchurian and diaspora dishes such as chicken tikka masala. To finish the meal, there were Diwali sweets, and those addictive fried-milk balls, gulab jamun... a former co-worker of mine, a Trinidadian woman of Indian descent, would make a beeline for the gulab jamun whenever she went to an Indian restaurant. At any rate, I staggered out of the restaurant, contemplating how gauche it would be to unbutton my pants... Diwali mission accomplished!

Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights- one of its origins lies in the celebration of the return of Rama, his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshmana to the city of Ayodhya after years of exile and war, as recounted in the Ramayana. While exiled, Sita was abducted by the ten-headed rakshasa king Ravana, who ruled the island nation of Lanka. In their invasion of Lanka, Rama and Lakshmana are aided by an army of monkeys, led by the divine Hanuman and the king Sugriva.

A good single-volume introduction to the Ramayana is a gloriously written 'retelling' of the epic by William S. Buck. Here is how Buck describes the sacrifices that Ravana performed in order to force the god Brahma to grant him a boon:

And at the end of every thousand years, Ravana cut off one of his heads and threw it into the fire as a sacrifice, until nine heads were gone and but one day remained before he would cut the last one. That day was passing. Ten thousand years and Ravana's life were about to end together.

Ravana held the knife to his throat, when Brahma appeared and said,"Stop! Ask me a boon at once!"

"I am glad that I please you," said Ravana.

"Please me!" said Brahma. "Your will is dreadful, too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!"

"May I be unslayable and never defeated by the gods or any one from any heaven, by Hell's devils or Asuras or demon spirits, by underworld serpents or Yakshas or Rakshasas."

After defeating several gods in battle and forcing them into servitude, the thunder god Indra approaches Vishnu/Narayana, the Preserver of the Universe, for advice:

"How shall we bring down Ravana?" asked Indra. "Because of Brahma's boon is the Demon King strong, and for no other cause of his own. Help me, you are my only refuge, there is no other for me. I will gather my storms again and attack Lanka, give me your permission to fight Ravana once more!"

"Never!" said Narayana. "Don't you understand that Brahma's words are always true? Do not falsify the three spheres of life. I would not have let you fight in the first place, though you were right to resist and Ravana was wrong. Ravana asked Brahma
- Let me be unslayable by every creature of Heaven and of the underworlds. And Brahma promised-So be it. That boon is unbreakable, yet will I cause Ravana's death. That is the truth. Only ask me...."

"Ah," said Indra, "from disdain Ravana did not mention men or animals and took no safeguard against them. He eats men; they are his food and why should he fear them? Lord, on Earth, life resembles Hell again. We need you again. Look at us, see us, and bless us. For the good of all the worlds, Lord Narayana, accept birth as a man."

"I already have."

Spoiler alert, the man in whom Vishnu manifests as an avatar has his wife abducted, and just happens to assemble an army of monkeys and bears...

Buck's Ramayana is beautifully told, it's the sort of book that I have inserted numerous tiny bookmarks in to mark particularly felicitous passages... I can't recommend it highly enough. Buck also wrote an equally gorgeous retelling of the epic Mahabharata, which also occupies a position of prominence on one of my bookshelves.

I promised melancholy, and not just in order to rhyme with jolly and Diwali. William Buck died at the age of thirty-five, and the world was deprived of further interpretations of Indian myth from the man. This webpage and its comment thread shed some light on the life and career of William Buck, including the possibility that he used his family's considerable wealth to hire Sanskrit translators, but I fully believe that he was the one who interpreted the translations in a particularly pleasing prose.

As a simple postscript, I think Smut and zrm would disown me if I didn't insert a reference to Buck Dharma somewhere.