Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Blaming the fuel supply for the combustion?

A pretty catchy headline -- Ninety flatulent cows start fire at dairy farm in Germany -- ill reflects what happened: an electric spark set off accumulated inflammable gases. It is well known that ruminants of the sort produce methane as their cud evolves. The setting suggests a venue where such natural carburation is expected and normal: a dairy farm. Was the density of cows suddenly increased, the ventilation reduced, the composition of the cud changed? Not said. Was the "static electric charge" as expected and as normal as the presence of methane? Not said, but one can doubt: it seems unlikely that the cows suddenly began producing dangerous levels of methane in a sparking environment.
This is a story I'd love to find amusing, but the framing bothers me. Much as blaming the "dangerous crude" for exploding after careless train accidents, blaming gases produced by a human-regulated process (a dairy farm, in this case) for an explosion triggered by human recklessness seems a bad habit to encourage.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014


Why I learned the word 'epicaricacy'

How does one find new words of interest? There are several ways that come to mind.

Today I was trying the bluffing and searching technique when I had a very unexpected response. The construct sought to combine "hypocrisy" with "-cracy" to convey rule by those who claim to espouse one set of principles but exercise another. I made a spelling error along the way -- 'hipocri-' instead of 'hypocri-' -- and searched for 'hipocricracy'. Imagine my surprise to find the search engine proposal to correct my search term by 'epicaricacy'!


For those wanting to know now, without switching to Wiktionary, epicaricacy is apparently a recent coinage meaning the same thing as schadenfreude but looking less like a word borrowed from a foreign language: a word made from ancient Greek pieces instead of a German word. It means rejoicing at or deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others.

Mysterious Substitutions and IrregEx

I am baffled by the transformation involved in finding the "similar" string of characters "correcting" my query term.
  h i p o c r i c r a c y
  e p i c a r i c _ a c y 
How did '-ricracy' become '-ricacy'? Why was the semantically very important 'r' deleted?
Then, the prefix to that, 'hipoc', became 'epica'. One can imagine trying to correct a letter sequence using a transformation applying letter inversions whenever possible, then substitutions of vowels:
  h i p o c
  h p i o c
  e p i o c
  e p i c o
  e p i c a
The biggest change was converting the initial 'hp' (caused by swapping the i and the p) to 'ep', pretty necessary since one would not find any words starting 'hpi' (except maybe Hewlett-Packard machines or programs).
Alternate Process
Here is another look at what happened, which I will not argue is a better proposition.
  1. replace the prefix by another common prefix of similar length and also having two syllables: hipo- becomes epi-
  2. deal with what is left, preserving as much as possible of the suffix -acy etc.
       c   r i c r
       c a r i c

Search engine correction works in mysterious ways.


Correcting the spelling, one does find a few occurrences of hypocricracy in Internet content. Most seem to be simple misspellings of "hypocrisy" but there is at least one short message broadcast via twitter.com which uses the word as (I) intended.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Depression, Noise and Shopping for a Vacuum Cleaner


Recently I tried shopping for a vacuum cleaner by Internet. I've done so before, but this time I was shopping for one to be used in California, not in France. My search for ratings and specifications was directed at a couple of the largest on-line retailers, those whose reputations led me to expect that they, if any vendor, would supply shoppers with the numbers I was seeking. They did not supply the numbers. I was disappointed, none of the data (other than wattage or amperage) was forthcoming.

The Challenge

A difficulty was that what little I knew about vacuum cleaners sold in France was useless because of the difference in electric power supply. In France, as in most of the industrialized world, electricity is served to consumers at about 230v (50 Hz) whereas Californians receive 120v at 60 Hz (cf. Wikidepia article on mains electricity by country; the most surprising exception may be Japan at 100v). Some of the same brands are sold both places, but many others are sold in only one or the other. Consequently, I set about trying to compare vacuum cleaners using the ratings and specifications given for them, even though those might be theoretical and not very realistic. In this respect, I proceeded much as any first-time shopper would.

Shopping Procedure

I do not often shop for appliances. Most appliances I've bought have lasted a long time, so I'm willing to spend some time doing the shopping (my time investment will be amortized). I begin by identifying my criteria for performance. For a refrigerator, that might be volumes (measured in litres) of the refrigerator and freezer compartments, freezing capacity per day (measured in kg), hours maintaining cold without power. I also consider usage costs. For a washing machine, that would be water and electricity per wash cycle. Then I can weigh the additional cost of an A+++ rating versus an A++ rating against the energy cost savings.

Once I have my ratings and costs, I can rank the options and decide whether a better machine is worth the extra cost, or a loss of performance is acceptable for the cost savings it would gain.

Vacuum Cleaner Criteria

What I want from a vacuum cleaner is that it suck up the dirt. It should suck up dirt fast, and keep it inside (preferably in a sack) not broadcast it as dust; HEPA filters and such give me confidence that it will not broadcast the dust. It may be noisy, but preferably not too noisy. It should have perennial availability of replacement sacks--either some industry standard (are there some?) or come from a manufacturer that is sure to stay in business. Then there are accessories, cord length and so on.


"Depression" is the word for it in French, and in meteorology (on barometers). It is measured in kpa, thousands of pascals. Looking at a couple of advertising brochures from French retailers this week, there is one at 31 kpa, one (Dyson bagless) at 28 kpa, and a Hoover at 36 kpa.

Noise (db)

Noise levels are measured in decibels. Not all the vacuums I've seen in France are rated, but most are in appliance vendor catalogs; so are dishwashers and washing machines. This week's advertising brochures do not provide decibel data, however. I have ear protectors to wear.

Volume (dm3/s)

I'm not sure how important this is compared to depression (or suction) but I suppose that if two machines have the same kpa rating then the one that has a higher volume will get the cleaning done faster. I do not know to what extent a lower kpa rating can be offset by higher volume (or patience). This week's machines, as examples, are indicated as rated at 44 dm3/s, 32 dm3/s, and 46 dm3/s.

Power (W)

Finally, and in the absence of other ratings, one can consider the wattage consumed by the cleaner. If the design is poor, the efficiency is low, the bags and filters it incorporates generate a high level of resistance then a higher wattage may not provide more suction and cleaning capacity. Wattage does suggest how much it will cost to operate, and how much it will heat your house during use. This is also the aspect in which American models and French models differ the most. To power appliances at a given wattage, say 2000 W, requires twice as much amperage at 115v as at 230v, so Americans would need fatter wires to not risk starting a fire at that flow rate.

For example, this week's (same) machines draw 2000 W, 1400 W and 2400 W. The most powerful bagged cleaners (among the eight right this minute on BestBuy) listed for the American consumer market are 12 amps (which converts to 1440 W = 12 amps * 120v), about the same as the least powerful in France. There seem to be some 220v models for sale in the U.S. too, but I've excluded them since "normal" houses do not have that voltage available.

Noise and Depression

All I found in the catalogues of American vendors were prices, wattages (or amperages) and customer comments. In other words, noise. It was a disappointment, a little depressing.  "Emptor" running on empty.

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Thursday, January 09, 2014


Without a Beginning but with an End

My problem with the semantics of "infinity" may be that I'm trying to apply its etymology too literally. It seems to me that "finite" means limited, having an end, bounded. Therefore, "infinite" should mean unlimited, endless, unbounded. So, I tell myself, "infinity" may be a good name for the size of a set like the natural numbers which increases--goes on--without end, but there should be another word for things that have no known beginning--they've just always been--but can come to an end. We tend to say that such things, the negative numbers for instance, which end at zero, are also infinitely many. Yet, when time and time-ordering is involved, might there not be an appropriate conceptual distinction to make?
This conceptual distinction is evident in a case I noted recently (writing on breaking of records): the difference between "first" (and sometimes "second", "third", and beyond) which is forever, and "last" which might not be forever. Beginnings of new states can be thought of as endings of prior states. Must we suppose that before being broken, for instance, something must be made?
The difficulty, our difficulty, may be that it is even harder for us to conceive of beginninglessness than endlessness, whence our lack of a word for it and our beginningless search for origins. "Beginningless" being "from time immemorial". Perhaps some things were in stable states--pure, or whole, or something else which can end-- not just since some moment no longer remembered, but since forever in the past (the concept I cannot find a word for).

Why It Matters

Precedent and tradition are strong arguments in human society. Property ownership and territorial sovereignty have been justified by arguments of descendanceline of descent from Adam and Eve, the original "owners" (or at least custodians) of the earth. Property ownership and territorial sovereignty are the way they are because that is the way they were meant (by the creator) to be, goes the argument, and it is not mankind's to challenge. Social Contract theory proposes various resolutions that do not require perpetuation of an original situation if it can be improved upon. But some may prefer to avoid re-negotiation of just power by claiming original rights and authority. Lack of an origin necessarily undermines such claims.
Evolution as a process does not necessarily mean there was no origin, but it may make some origins too fuzzy and too uncertain to be credible bases for claims to ownership and authority. Is it sacrilegious and subversive to ask "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" No? Well, how about "which came first, the human or the deity?" And if there was no beginning, what state of affairs can remain unchallenged as necessarily "right" simply because it has been so since time immemorial?
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made a personal observation about belief in the non-teleological nature of things. He wrote, in part
I don't have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don't believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don't know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

I suspect this sort of nihilism follows from a lack of a creation event, and is not necessarily excluded by a creation event either (is it?). God could play dice with the world, or might have done so initially. If that is where the concept of "beginninglessness" would lead, is it any wonder that society lacks it?

By The Way

An author called "Skullsinthestars" has published a nice four-part series of notes on infinity, beginning with "Infinity is weird: how big is infinity?". The second part ("What's bigger than big?") considers the infinity of numbers in the [0,1] interval. This serves as a reminder that caution is required when thinking of infinity as "limitless" or "unbounded": there can be infinitely many pieces of something if it can be split without limit.
That reminds me of an old joke I heard long ago, about the difference between a mathematician and an engineer. It involves a couple of heterosexual guys, but I suppose it works with a couple of heterosexual gals as well; I don't know about other cases. The story goes, that given a set-up with an attractive (and nekkid) potential mate a certain distance away and a rule allowing one to advance half the remaining distance to the target each unit of time, the mathematician stays put whereas the engineer advances. The mathematician explains that he (or she) would never fully reach the desired party so there is no point advancing. The engineer admits that this is true, but figures he (or she) will get close enough for a good approximation before too long.

To Consider

A teleological universe might also be without a beginning but with an End, but why would it?

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Friday, January 03, 2014


Pro-Pipeline Propaganda from Yahoo! and AP

A news item appears among the headlines on Yahoo! dot com this morning, signed "Associated Press, By MATTHEW BROWN and JAMES MacPHERSON" informing that a "Warning issued about oil shale shipped from ND, Mont." This may be a good example of an article best read from the bottom to the top.
North Dakota state officials said production "likely" won't be stunted (which means severely prevented from growing) by the recent occurrence of an accident.
An interesting sentence for deconstruction is "North Dakota regulators had said last month that they were considering crafting a report to disprove that hauling the state's crude by rail is dangerously explosive." How and when is hauling dangerously explosive? From the cases of accidents cited, it seems the hauling becomes dangerously explosive when it is interrupted by out of control trains derailing, rupturing and spilling fuel. Well, that is news!
Continuing upward, we find that an attorney for the Association of Hazmat Shippers questions the importance of the newsworthy announcement that is the subject of this article: the problem is with the tank cars, flaws known for decades. If tank cars are to be tipped over at high speed, they probably should be more robust.
An expert from a university in Texas is cited to remind the reader that "the volatility of crude varies from one oil field to the next and is driven largely by how heavy it is.". That makes it easier to understand that "the Bakken's light oil may be different" -- it is from one oil field not the next.
A rail safety consultant asserted that "the dangers of crude have long been underappreciated, and need to be communicated to the hundreds of counties and cities across the U.S. that have seen a surge in crude oil trains." Centuries ago (1745), in the Vosges mountains of Alsace, crude from mines in Merckwiller and Pechelbronn was used in small quantities for medicinal purposes. It was then found useful for lamps and heating, as fuel. Certainly the inflammability of crude has been communicated to the New World by now, has it not? More recently, residents of Germany and France (and Luxembourg?) have noted the dangers of shipping nuclear fuels and waste by rail; when will the radioactivity of such materials be known in America, or is it already?
That the volatility of the oil "is particularly important for firefighters and other emergency responders who have to deal with accidents" I do not doubt. The wonder is, or would be if we were sure it was true, that firefighters and other emergency responders along the lines these trains of crude follow are not aware that it is volatile, dangerous, highly (and explosively) inflammable. The mayor of the town where the most recent railroad negligence occurred "agreed that there was no surprise in the federal government's assessment that Bakken crude may be more volatile." So, who is or would be surprised?
Thus, we have seen the argument supporting the newsy assertion:

Following a string of explosive accidents, federal officials say crude oil being shipped by rail from the Northern Plains across the U.S. and Canada may be more flammable than traditional forms of oil.
It is left to us to recognize that derailed trains used to ship crude oil are more likely to provoke explosions and fires of crude. Four options (or more) for treating the problem come to mind.
  1. Stop shipping the Bakken crude oil by rail. hint: use a pipeline instead.
  2. Make the trains as safe a conveyance as a pipeline. Is that possible? If so, at what cost, borne how and by whom?
  3. Stop shipping the Bakken crude oil at all. Not a real option. We cannot expect everyone to drive to North Dakota to fill up if the crude were refined and retailed locally.
  4. Stop extracting the Bakken crude oil. Again, not a real option. America needs this oil.
Have we detected the rationale for making this a Yahoo! headline?

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