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Odd Lots

Short items presented without much discussion, generally links to other Web items

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • I’ve mentioned this before in several places, but I will mention it again here and probably more than once again before it happens: On December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will be only one tenth of a degree apart. That’s one fifth the diameter of the full Moon. I’ve never seen two planets that close, and I’ve been looking at the sky now for 63 years.
  • As I mentioned in a recent entry, I’m putting my big 10″ Newtonian scope back together for the first time in close to 20 years. Most of the work lay in building a new base. (Termites ate the original, which I cobbled together out of scrap wood when I was 16.) The base is finished. The rest should be easy. With some luck I’ll get it all together and do a star test tonight. If my stars are in alignment, it’ll work. But hey, all stars are my stars, so I can’t lose!
  • While listening to Peter Hollens songs on YouTube, I stumbled across a remarkable women’s vocal ensemble: Brigham Young University’s Noteworthy. They’ve posted a number of videos, and all of them are amazing in terms of pure vocal harmony. Nothing I’ve seen tops their cover of “When You Believe” from the animated film Prince of Egypt. It’s the best song out of a very good bunch, and those ladies nailed it for all time.
  • I suspect that by now you’ve probably heard, but SF legend and former Analog editor Ben Bova died on November 30, of COVID-19 complications. He was 88. Ben taught for a week when I attended Clarion East 1973, and he was spectacular.
  • And as though that weren’t bad enough, Chuck Yaeger died this past Monday, December 7. Yaeger, to me, almost defines the word “badass.” He shot down 13 German warcraft during WW2, five of them on one mission. He rode the Bell X-1 to the sound barrier and beyond, and piloted the X-15 to the edge of space. He fought Death to a draw that lasted 97 years. Godspeed, General Yaeger.
  • Watch for Northern Lights from Thursday sunset to Friday dawn. (H/T to Hans Schantz.)

Odd Lots

  • Wow. The magazine that gave us “The Case for Killing Granny” is now saying that our public health officials have overcounted COVID-19 deaths by counting any person dying with COVID-19 as dying of it–including suicides and, sheesh, car accident victims. This has been known for some time, but I give the otherwise dopey Newsweek credit for admitting that government isn’t always right.
  • More on how we count COVID-19 deaths: Johns Hopkins published a paper suggesting that we are overcounting COVID deaths and undercounting deaths from other causes like heart disease. By misclassifying deaths as from COVID, we undercount deaths from other causes. The authors of the paper suggest that this means COVID-19’s impact on US deaths is far less than commonly stated. Johns Hopkins has predictably deleted the article, but there’s an archived copy on The Wayback Machine. Well worth a read–and possibly worth saving the original Johns Hopkins article to local disk in case threats of legal action force Wayback to take their copy down.
  • A new paper posits that UVB in sunlight stimulates the production of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) in the skin, especially cathelicidin (LL-37). LL-37 has several roles, but it has been shown to inhibit the action of the influenza virus in humans. AMP action involves Vitamin D, but the D3 found in OTC supplements does not appear to work with it. My serum D3 tested toward the top of the recommended level several months ago, but it’s hard to know how much of that was produced in my skin in this (outrageously) sunny place, and how much came to me in pills.
  • David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars movies, died yesterday, at 85. He was 6’6″ and was given the choice of playing either Vader or Chewbacca. He chose Vader because “you always remember the bad guy.” (Well, true. But nobody’s going to forget Chewie, either.) Click through to it: The photo of gentle giant Prowse with six little girls in a UK safety program is priceless.
  • Somebody did a test on the startup time required for programs written in various languages, including nearly all of the ones I’m familiar with. (At least those that weren’t Xerox in-house experiments.) FreePascal 3.0.2 and 3.0.4 beat all the others, hands down, not even close. I don’t know enough about compiler internals to tell how one gets that kind of startup performance, but you sure as hell do not get it with C# or Java.
  • I should add that if you’re on Twitter and work in Pascal, you must follow @SciPasTips.
  • Bummer: The Arecibo radio telescope will be scrapped. Stuff is breaking in the basic structure of the mechanism that just can’t be swapped in without rebuilding practically the whole thing. That reflector comprises eighteen acres. It’s been in operation for 57 years. Wait! I have an idea! Let’s build an even bigger one…in space! (Yes, I’m pretty sure Heinlein thought of it first.)
  • As far as I’m concerned, this kid wins the Best Halloween Costume Award not only for 2020, but for the rest of time.

Odd Lots

Three Coins 9-20-2020 - 500 Wide.jpg

  • The old pennies appear to be back. (See my entry for November 7, 2019.) Over the last two weeks, at least 75% of the pennies I’ve gotten at McDonald’s were pre-2000, some of them very pre-2000. Yesterday alone I got three pennies, two from the ’90s, and one from…1962. This morning I actually got a parking-lot nickel. (Left, above.) It’s from 1999 in case you can’t make it out, and it’s lived a very hard life. The nickel on the right is 80 years old. The penny, a trifling 38. I wonder if, with new coins in short supply, McDonald’s is again getting them from the people who run networks of supermarket coin exchangers. I was getting shiny new pennies for a couple of months, and then suddenly I wasn’t. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
    • “How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the manager? I would like to see him.”
      –Soren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (1847)

      (Hmmm. Maybe “Soren” is German for “Karen”.)

    • There’s an excellent COVID-19 stats dashboard maintained by the Arizona Department of Health Services that as best I can tell is updated daily. It covers new cases, hospitalization rates, daily death rates by date of death, demographics, and lots of other useful stuff. The daily death rates for the disease have been in single digits since September 10, and the peak death day was July 17, when 97 people died. Seeing the graphs and digesting the numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the pandemic is burning out in Arizona.
    • The older red wine is, the less trans-resveratrol it contains, and thus the fewer beneficial health effects. I’m not a wine snob, and most wine I drink these days is 2017 or 2018. I’ll open old wine now and then (we have some) when the occasion demands, but not for daily consumption.

    • Put this on your calendar: On December 21 there will be a “grand conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which will be the closest conjunction of the two giant planets since 1623 AD. The planets will be separated by only 6 arc minutes, which is one-fifth the width of the full Moon. With a decent scope and good eyepieces, you should be able to see the disks of both planets in one view.
    • This is a good year for planet spotting. On October 6, Mars will reach its closest approach to Earth during its 2020 opposition. (The opposition itself refers to Mars with respect to the Sun, and is on October 14.) The Red Planet will reach magtnitude -2.6, and on that date will be brighter than Jupiter. It won’t be this big or bright again until 2030. So put it on your calendars.
    • Great fun: Sixty Seconds of Stella Leaf Jumps. (I remember leaves, heh.)
    • We’ve been hearing that Vitamin D enhances immune function for respiratory infections for quite awhile. It’s also true that many of the people who die from COVID-19 are significantly and often severely deficient in the vitamin. Here’s a scientific paper correlating Vitamin D levels with SARS-CoV-2 test results. Short form: The more deficient you are, the more likely you are to be infected after contact with the virus. Take some pills. Get some sun. Don’t just cower in your spare room waiting for a vaccine.
    • Twitter can be so worth it sometimes.
    • Check out the first graph in this article. Countries that treat their COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine have far lower case-fatality rates than countries (including ours) that has banned or discouraged the use of the drug.

    Odd Lots

    Boy, writing this entry just felt good. I gotta do more of these…

    • People are asking me what’s happening with Dreamhealer. (First chapter here.) I’m working with an artist on a cover. The ending needs a hair more editing, but after that it’s an afternoon’s work to lay out the ebook in Jutoh. I had intended to introduce it at LibertyCon mid-June. Lacking a LibertyCon, I’m now just intending to get it out as fast as I can.
    • Are any of my ham friends (general or higher) interested in an experimental sked on the low bands? If so, where have you heard Phoenix? I usually try 20M before anything else, but if anybody’s got any heuristics, let me know somehow.
    • Everybody (ok, every nerd) knows about the Carrington Event. Even I didn’t know that we had another one of those in May 1921. Although Carrington is more famous, by strictly objective measure (the disturbance storm time index, or Dst) the two solar storms were almost exactly alike. In both cases telegraph stations caught fire from currents induced in the wires, and a lot of telephone equipment (which wasn’t deployed in 1859) was destroyed in 1921 by the same induced currents. Damn, like I needed something else to worry about.
    • I’ve backed a number of technologies before. Risky business. I backed Wi-Fi back in the early oughts and won big.I backed WiMAX and watched it swiftly and silently vanish away. I backed Powerline networking (now gathered under the umbrella term HomePlug) and lost but still use it. Here’s a good article on what happened to both WiMAX and HomePlug.
    • One technology I haven’t backed yet is 5G mobile, which is finally getting some traction in the marketplace. My LTE phone works just fine, and I don’t stream video to my phone. (I have a big honking TV for that.) Where I think 5G is most promising is as competition to the mostly monopolist residential broadband providers. We have cable Internet here, and it’s…ok. If 4K (or God help us, 8K) video is to have a chance, it will be through the benefits of 5G, and not otherwise.
    • Neil Ferguson’s computer model of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the UK’s lockdown. Now it comes out that the model was a good design with a trash implementation. (This from a computational epidemiologist, who just might know a crap pandemic model when he sees one.) Imperial College refuses to release the original model’s code and is making stupid excuses why not. A fragmentary and much-jiggered source code suite is now available on Github, and includes things like a global variable struct with 582 fields. (And lots more global variables.) Uggh. Her Majesty should demand her people’s money back.
    • A San Diego County supervisor stated that only six of 194 recorded coronavirus deaths were actually caused by the virus. The others died with the virus, but according to the supervisor, not of it. Yes, yes, I know, it’s not either-or. COVID-19 can push an elderly heart or cancer patient over the edge. Still, we need solid numbers on how deadly this thing is, and for that we have to back out the count of people who were already dying of other things.
    • Here’s a good example: A Colorado man died of alcohol poisoning. (0.55%, when the supposedly lethal threshold is 0.3%.) He was tested for coronavirus and found to be carrying it. So he was listed as dying of COVID-19. He had no comorbidities, beyond enough booze to kill a middling elephant.
    • The county I grew up in now has more COVID-19 cases than any other county in the US. Good ol’ Cook County, Illinois. I guess we got out in time.
    • In good news locally, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is announcing plans to build a $10B plant in Arizona. Is it possible that those jobs are coming back? (Sorry, Steve.)
    • Now that we’re all obliged to wear masks, it was inevitable: Gait recognition technology is in development. It uses deep learning and sensors in the floor. This is more than a little creepy, granting that we once said that about face recognition as well. I recall a friend (now deceased) telling me in 1976 that “You walk as though you’re on your way to kill something.” (That was partly ROTC marching and partly the need to walk fast from one busted Xerox machine to another in downtown Chicago.) Maybe I should buy a scooter.

    Odd Lots

    • Amazon is selling hand-made (in Latvia) steampunk thumb drives incorporating copper pipe caps and a Soviet-made pentode vacuum tube. LEDs light up the glass from the bottom of the tube when there’s power available at the USB connector. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for the pointer.)
    • Tonight would be a good night to see Mercury. It’s never easy because the planet never gets too far from the Sun in the sky, but with smartphone apps like Sky Map (on all Android phones by default) it’s certainly easier than it once was. Start by finding Venus in the west, immediately after the Sun goes below the horizon. (You can’t miss Venus.) Mercury lies roughly on a line between Venus and the Sun. There are no bright stars in that part of the sky, so if you see a star near that line, it’s not a star but ol’ Merc himself.
    • Speaking of the Sun… Here’s a solid overview of the history of solar science. It’s a long piece, and even if you choose not to read it, the photos and diagrams are worth the visit.
    • Betelgeuse continues to dim for unknown reasons. It’s fallen from 10th brightest star in the sky to 24th brightest. Orion is the first constellation I can clearly recall seeing, and these days, it just looks…off. This may mean it’s about to go supernova…for large values of “about.” (Hundreds or more likely thousands of years. Stars are never in a hurry.)
    • I’ve been following the coronavirus epidemic using a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins. Who knows how accurate it is, but one does get a feeling that China is currently in a world of hurt. I got the link from my friend Charlie Martin, and he’s got a good article about the issues involved.
    • This is a little weird, but it’s one more telltale that the technical publishing industry I loved for so long is no longer with us. I went searching for a book on installing, configuring, and customizing the MediaWiki software, and found…nothing. There’s plenty online, but I’m talking about book-length treatments. If you know of one let me know. My longstanding heuristic is that if it’s not on Amazon, it isn’t available.
    • How to turn a waterway into wine. At least it wasn’t a Zinfandel.
    • Ah, but this was a sweet, sweet hack: Some guy wandered around downtown Berlin pulling a little red wagon full of smartphones, all running Google Maps. Wherever he happened to be during his wander, Google Maps reported a traffic jam.
    • If politics bores you as much as it bores me, here’s a solid distraction from all the tiresome yelling and screaming: The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets. Eat quick: My instincts tell me that as a category buffets are not long for this world.
    • Finally, you’ve heard me say that there’s funny, there’s National Lampoon funny, and then there’s Babylon Bee funny. This may be one of the Bee’s best pieces yet–given this season’s nonstop nonsense.

    Odd Lots

    • Our pool cover kept the pool at tolerable temps (mid-high 70s) until a few days after Halloween. Then the nights got cold fast, and we finally removed the cover, cleaned it off, rolled it up, and put it in the shed. Water temp is now 62 degrees. I’m sure I’ve been in water that cold, but as a successful retired person, I reserve the right not to do things I did gladly when I was in seventh grade. As for when it goes back on in the spring, well, I’m working on that. We’ll see.
    • QBit is still with us, though he’s a little grumpy and not moving as fast as he used to. He does not appear to be in pain, but we’re having the mobile vet check him again at the end of the month.
    • We’ll be watching fistfights about this for years still, but ongoing research is pushing consensus strongly toward the hypothesis that low-carb high-fat diets accelerate metabolism. This happens to me almost every day: Twenty minutes after my nearly zero-carb breakfast (two eggs fried in butter, coffee, sometimes bacon) I feel warmer and start to sweat under my arms.
    • From the Things-Are-Not-Working-Out-As-We-Were-Promised Department: When we bought our house here in Phoenix in 2015, we immediately replaced nearly all the interior lighting with LED devices. Three years later, they’re dying like flies. (Several died within the first year.) Probably half of the incandescent bulbs we had in our Colorado house survived for all the 12 years we lived there. More efficient, yes. Long-lasting, well, I giggle.
    • The Center for Disease Control warns Americans not to eat Romaine lettuce in any form. A particularly virulent form of e. coli has been found in lettuce sold in 11 states, but since the CDC doesn’t know where all the infected lettuce came from, it’s advising consumers not to eat romaine at all.
    • The Dark Ages began with real darkness: In the year 536 a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland covered Europe in volcanic smog. Crops failed, famine was everywhere, and soon came Justinian’s Plague, now thought to be bubonic plage. By the time the plague faded out, half of Europe was dead. I find it fascinating that we can identify periods of prosperity by looking for lead dust in ice cores, meaning that people were mining precious metals. After nearly vanishing after 536, lead levels didn’t reach the norm again until 640.
    • “Reading is like breathing in and writing is like breathing out, and storytelling is what links both: it is the soul of literacy.” –Pam Allyn
    • Statuary in ancient Greece and Rome was not always blinding white, but was often painted and sometimes gilded, and restorations of the colors are startling to moderns. Here’s an excellent long-form piece on how old statues likely appeared when they were created–and why many historians reject the idea of painted Classical statuary.
    • Too much caffeine triggers the release of cortisol, which in large quantities over a period of time leads pretty directly to heart disease. Modern life is cortisol-rich enough enough without downing 6 cups a day!
    • Some ugly stats quoted by Nicholas Kristof: “38 colleges, including five from the Ivy League, had more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%. Over all, children from the top 1% are 77 times more likely to attend Ivy League colleges than children from the bottom 20%.” Legacy admissions have got to go.

    Odd Lots

    • In response to numerous queries: QBit is still alive, and still pretty frisky, considering that our vet suggested he would be gone by now. Yes, his lymph nodes are still swelling, and we won’t have him for a whole lot longer, but he’s fighting lymphoma pretty well. We’re giving him a supplement called Apocaps, that supposedly accelerates apoptosis in cancer cells. I’ll keep you posted.
    • A new study involving more than a million patients pretty much drives the last nail into the coffin of cholesterol alarmism. Cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease, and therefore statins don’t do people any good. This is a very very big deal. It’s not enough to ignore government-issued nutrition advice. I’d recommend doing the opposite.
    • There are 18 volcanoes in the US considered “very high threats.” I have never lived close to any of them, and that was (mostly) deliberate. Arizona has two volcanoes with a threat rating (one “moderate” and one “very low”) but neither of those is within a hundred miles of me. Click through to the PDF; it’s excellent, and will tell you what volcanoes in your state have threat ratings.
    • Good article on life expectancy. (Thanks to Wes Plouff for the link.) As I read it, the US is doing pretty well compared to the rest of the world. I wish there were data on life expectancy plotted against habitual hours of sleep per night. My intuition is that people who short sleep die younger.
    • 2018’s tornado count is the lowest in 65 years. STORMY, are you still at it?
    • Merriam-Webster will show you what words were coined the year you were born, or any arbitrary year from 1500 to the present. On the list for 1952 are stoned, global warming, deep space, modem, nonjudgmental, softcover, field-effect transistor, plotline, sonic boom, and Veterans Day. So what are the cool words on your list?
    • We don’t hear much about polar bears these days, in part because they’re thriving, in spite of any changes in the climate that may be happening. Three recent papers cited at the link.
    • Our pool water is still at 84 degrees, almost certainly due to a warmish fall (it hit 90 in our neighborhood today) and especially our pool cover. We were in the pool today, and luvvin’ it.
    • Best webcomic I’ve seen in some time. Carol and I just finished a whole box of pumpkin spice K-cups, and that may do us for another year. We think that coffee should be light, sweet, and spicy, like life. Goths we are not, evidently.

    Odd Lots

    Odd Lots

    • Lazarus 1.8.4 has been released. Bug-fix release but still worth having. Go get it!
    • From the Questions-I-Never-Thought-to-Ask Department: How was sheet music written after quill pens but before computers? With a music typewriter, of course.
    • How to become a morning person. Yes, there are benefits. The larger question of whether circadian orientation is born or made remains unanswered. Carol and I both lived at home during college. We’re both morning people. My sister and I had the same parents, grew up in the same house and obeyed the same rules (bedtimes were set from above and were not negotiable) and she went away to school. She is a night person. Proves nothing, but I find the correlation intriguing. (Thanks to Charlie Martin for the link.)
    • Here’s a long-form, highly technical paper on why human exposure to low-level radiation is more complex than we thought (hey, what isn’t?) and that some data suggests a little radiation experienced over a long timeframe actually acts against mortality. I’d never heard of the Taiwan cobalt-60 incident, but yikes!
    • Sleep, exercise, and a little wine may help the brain’s glymphatic system clean out unwanted amyloid waste products within the brain, preventing or staving off Alzheimer’s. This process may be the reason that anything with a brain sleeps, and why humans (who have more brain matter per pound than anything else I’m aware of) should get as much sleep as we can.
    • An enormous study on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet was found to be profoundly flawed, and has been retracted. The data was supposedly re-analyzed and the original results obtained again, but if the researchers made the mistakes they did originally (assuming that they were in fact mistakes and not deliberate faking) I see no reason to trust any of their data, their people, or their methods ever again.
    • How faddism, computerization, national bookstore ordering, a court case, and New York City cultural dominance destroyed (and continues to destroy) traditional publishing of genre fiction. The good news is that with indie publishing it matters far less than it otherwise would.
    • If you’ve followed the nuclear energy industry for any significant amount of time, you know that fusion power is always 30 years in the future. Now, I’ve also been hearing about thorium reactors for almost 30 years, and I got to wondering why we don’t have them yet either. Here’s a good discussion on the problems with thorium power, which intersect heavily with the problems plaguing ordinary uranium reactors.
    • Long-held myths die hard, especially when governments beat the drum for the myth. Eggs are good food. I eat at least two every day, sometimes more. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study indicating that people on a lots-of-eggs diet lost weight and suffered no cardiac consequences of any kind. Good short summary here.
    • I don’t see a lot of movies, but I’m in for this one, crazy though the concept is. After all, spectacle is what the big screen and CGI are for. Mad Max meets Cities in Flight? Sold.
    • The contrarian in me has long wondered how much of what I put out on the street every week in the recycle can is actually recycled. The answer is very little, especially since single-stream recycling became fashionable. Almost all of it goes into landfills. The reasons are complex (there’s not a lot you can do with scrap plastic, for example) but apart from aluminum cans, the cost of sorting it far exceeds the value of the reclaimed materials.
    • The antivax movement has always boggled me for its indomitably willful stupidity. Having stumbled upon a research paper on who the antivaxers are I boggle further: They are almost all members of the educated elite in our urban cores. This was always a suspicion of mine, and now we have proof.
    • Here’s a fascinating piece on the effects of water vapor and continental drift on global temperatures. The topic is complex, and the piece is long and rich, with plenty of graphs. The comments are worth reading too. The primary truth I’ve learned in researching climate for the last ten or fifteen years is that it’s fiendishly complex.
    • Brilliantly put: “But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning.” –Frank Bruni, NYT.
    • A few days back I got Leonard Bernstein’s quirky, half-classical, half-klezmer “Overture to Candide” stuck in my head all afternoon. One listen to this was all it took.
    • I got there by recovering an old memory, of a chap who came to SF cons in the 70s with a strange keyboard instrument that he blew on through a hose, which as you might expect sounded like a piano accordion without a bellows. He was a filker and played interesting things, and I always assumed that he had somehow built the device himself. (It was much-used and taped up in several places.) But no, the chap is Irwin S. “Filthy Pierre” Strauss, and the instrument is a melodica.
    • Finally, one of the creepiest articles I’ve seen in a couple of years. I considered and set aside a plotline in my upcoming nanotech novel The Molten Flesh that involved sexbots, real, fully mobile AI sexbots enlivened (if that’s the word) by the Protea device. Maybe I should bring it back. The original 1959 Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely” has always haunted me. Maybe sex is a sideshow. Maybe it’s about having something to care about that cares back, and therefore gives your life meaning. I could work with that.