Saturday, April 30, 2005

Pulleeze!

E. J. Dionne is a normally bright WaPo columnist, but this column is from outer space.

President Bush's critics have him all wrong. They think of him as an anti-intellectual, opposed to theory and disdainful of grand ideas.

To the contrary. George W. Bush's spring of discontent arises from a fact that no one dares to notice: George W. Bush is an egghead.
An ideologue, or in thrall to ideologues, yes - an intellectual never. As the economist J M Keynes wrote:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
I believe Bush is more correctly described by the final sentence than as an intellectual.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Lumo Leashed?

Lumo seems seriously preoccupied with string theory these days. I suppose that's not too surprising, but a little dissappointing to me, since I usually don't understand those posts and I'm often amused and infuriated by his often eccentric posts on other subjects.

My dark suspicion is that he might have gotten caught in a PC violation in the Summers Affair, forcing him to do a T reversal to save his Lorentz invariant m ass.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Nth Estate

Watched the Prez's press conference. Arghh! Not sure if he only let idiots ask questions or if they are all idiots. A couple of people tried to ask somewhat pointed questions (not very successfully), but most were strictly Roland Hedley. Some questions that didn't get asked:

a)North Korea built 1 or 2 nuclear bombs during your father's administration. Clinton reached an agreement which kept them from building anymore. You ostentatiously cancelled the agreement and refused bipartite talks while North Korea built 6 more bombs. How can you call that a success?

b)You want us to worry about a 200 billion a year shortfall in Social Security 20 or 40 years from now, but you created and are ignoring a $600 billion/year shortfall (the current account deficit) right now. How can that make sense?

c)You took us to war in Iraq under false pretenses, and now 1500 Americans and many tens of thousands of Iraqi's are dead. How is this not a huge failure?

d)Whenever asked about something that went wrong in Iraq, Rumsfeld claims (dishonestly) that he was just following the advice of the generals. Isn't it time to appoint a Secretary of Defense who will hold himself accountable?

e)You promised to catch Bin Laden dead or alive. Do you expect to catch him before he dies of old age?

Philibuster

Ed Witten filibusters at the Frist with Griffith's Elementary Particles. Picture here (via Josh Marshall).

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

What is Liberalism

Kevin Drum is asking his readers to define liberalism pithily.

LIBERAL PRINCIPLES....What do liberals stand for?
My take: Defending individuals against the power of government, church, corporation and economic oligarchy. Individual worth and individual freedom.

These principles are hardly adequate to define a program, so I would supplement them with some notions that I think are compatible with more than one philosophy of government:

a)Government should only do for the people what they can't do better for themselves. (Lincoln)

b)We need to be good stewards of our country and planet.

c)War is a terrible evil, and should only be undertaken as a last resort.

d)Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.

e)A people can only be free if they can know the truth. Secrecy in government is a positive evil.

Since many of Kevin's commenters took advantage of his invitation to post crude parodies of liberalism, here's my version of contemporary Republican conservatism:

a)Government of, by and for the Super-Rich.

b)Posturing instead of policy, here and abroad.

c)Endless war to distract the populace from a crumbling economy.

d)Lies, corruption and propaganda.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Relativity: Jo Jo left his brain ...

Joel Achenbach has a speed of light post in his Column/Blog in the WaPo.

My editor, Tom, whose last contribution to the blog brought him only misery and derision, has hit me with an imponderable speed-of-light question, to wit:

"According to Einstein (I think), the velocity of light is the one constant in the universe, and everything else, including time, is relative. But isn't velocity a function of time? You can't say what the velocity of anything is without using units of time. So if time is relative, how can velocity be absolute? OK science wonks, and I know you are out there, let the savaging begin!"

I have to confess that the question makes my head hurt. Just like Tom's editing. It would take me several hours to put together an answer for Tom, and then it would be wrong, and I'd have to call up Brian Greene, who probably has better things to do than be pestered by the likes of me.
Well Joel, rather than bother Brian, or inflict your nonsensical musings on the readership, you could do Tom, Brian, and yourself a favor and just buy two copies of Brian's Book, Fabric of the Cosmos, expensed to the WaPo, and read the first two chapters which explain it all.

Or, very briefly, just note that while the speed of light is absolute, and time and distance are relative, not everything else is. Invariant mass, interval and many other things called Lorentz scalars don't change with reference frame. Distance and time are relative in a very precise sense, such that velocity = distance divided by time is constant for anything going at the speed of light.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Anti Relativity

Relativism seems to be a big bugaboo for Pope Benedict XVI. I'm not sure what he means by that, but I was briefly tempted to try write a humorous post where angry Catholic protesters picket Relativity conventions, or maybe fanatical RC suicide bombers crash their cars into Cosmology Caravans. Unfortunately, it's too sick and too real to be funny.

So what is the Pope really upset about? To me his real concern is people no longer believing that the Church has a monopoly pipeline to God. That's always the crucial issue, especially for the Catholic Church. Don't bother to read your Bible, Catholics have been told, we will tell you what to believe.

I wouldn't want to shut up before I do a little Protestant bashing too, though. Anybody know how much money Dobson, Robertson, and other evangelical leaders have tapped thier flocks for? I have no idea, but my guess is that they aren't living like monks. My suspicion is that not many could slip that camel through the eye of Christ's needle.

UPDATE: This site by a former associate has some info on how Dobson has worked the Christian Money Machine to become a multi-millionaire. I am pretty sure no camel that fat could ever slip through the eye of the needle. (Mark 10:24). To be sure, Mark does cite a loophole - my guess is that that verse was a later addition.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

What the bleep do we know?

OK, this movie probably doesn't deserve a review. A mostly plotless mess of mystical nonsense, it does have a lot of scientists talking about quantum mechanics, psychology, and neurophysiology, and linking them in implausible ways.

I watched this movie with my wife though, and while I doubtless annoyed her with numerous snorts of derision, her biggest surprises were in reaction to some of the points where they discussed real quantum phenomena and I said "yeah that part is real." The genuine oddity of quantum reality is stranger than the mystical hocus pocus we make up.

I am a little surprised that they got real physicists to associate themselves with this.

The movie has a website here.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Hot fyzikz chykz!

Sean Carroll has a post ostensibly about Einstein, but actually mostly devoted the relative hotness of women physicists. He claims that women physicists are notably better looking than the general population, which, regretably enough, has not been my experience. Of course Sean moves in classier circles than I do, but from where I sit women in physics look pretty average, except for being disproportionately left handed (and, of course, smart).

On the other hand, Sean is always going on about the discrimination against women in physics, so maybe this is a mechanism. Men can get hired in tenure track positions if they are good, but women competing for the same jobs need to be good looking too.

Self-hating male that he is, Sean can't resist dissing men in physics:

...if you talk to women scientists about the prospects of finding potential boyfriend material among their male colleagues, you will hear a telling motto -- "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."
The version of this I first saw, from a female Caltech sophomore at
studentsreview was a bit more even handed:
Dating at Caltech: For girls, the odds are good, but the goods are odd. For guys, the odds are terrible and the goods are all screwed up.


UPDATE: Sean has pulled his comments on "hotness" after getting a bit of criticism from the usual suspects. Sean, of course, is worried about his 'feminist credentials' (Should I get part credit for almost resisting the urge to say "what a wuss?"}, but his critics really ought to learn a little biology. Yes, most males, or at least most heterosexual males, have some automatic program in their brains that evaluates women on the basis of their sexual attractiveness. Related circuitry evaluates other males primarily on whether they look like potential rivals or threats. Women, because of their different biology, no doubt do the arithmetic slightly differently. Protest against it if you like, but your efforts might be equally profitably protest the weather or the nitrogen content of air.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Habemos papam

Or at least the Catholic Church does. I'm not bothered by his (age 14) membership in the Hitler Youth. I'm not very happy about his previous job as head of the Holy Inquisition - OK, they changed the name a few decades ago, but not the job description, though to be fair, I'm not aware of any Auto da Fe during his term. I didn't like it when he denounced the reports of priestly pedophlia as a "plot against the Church."

What really bothers me is his idea that the Church has a monopoly on truth. To me, that's one of the most sinister aspects of the totalitarian mind set. All the garbage about moral relativism and blah de blah is just a way of saying "leave the thinking to us."

We shall see, I suppose. Maybe we will wind up greatful that we "have a friend like Ben"(edict XVI).

Ben, the two of us need look no more
We both found what we were looking for
With a friend to call my own
I’ll never be alone
And you my friend will see
You’ve got a friend in me
(you’ve got a friend in me)
Oddly enough, Michael Jackson's friend in that song is a rat.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Grudge

Like a lot of guys who were wearing a uniform and packing a rifle when Jane Fonda posed with the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, I've held a grudge for the past almost 40 years. This despite the fact that I knew this was a stupid war and I really liked Barbarella.

Anyway, I watched part of her interview with Larry King (despite the fact that I really hate Larry King). I didn't find her explanation/justification particularly convincing, but I did find I couldn't hold a grudge anymore. The fact is the lady has a truly magical voice. It's amazing how much of our impression of a person is derived from the voice, though I guess it doesn't surprise many actors.

On the more Satanic side, I think much of Cheney's influence comes from his resonant and powerful seeming voice. I don't see much evidence that the man is other than a rather dim ideologue, but his voice has some magic too.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Grapeshot

Paul Krugman thinks he detects A Whiff of Stagflation in tomorrow's NYT.

Last week fears of a return to stagflation sent stock prices to a five-month low. What few seem to have noticed, however, is that a mild form of stagflation - rising inflation in an economy still well short of full employment - has already arrived.
Not good news and not unexpected. The real problem is that the idiots running the show have left us virtually no room to maneuver if anything goes wrong.

Boring!

Well, it's been about a million years since anyone commented on a post I've made, so I'm pretty much forced to conclude that I'm boring.

I suppose I could just shut up, or I could try more serious blogwhoring, but it's pretty sad when you can't even walk into a blog-bar on a Friday night and start a fight.

Open thread for any takers.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Let me count the ways...

Tom Friedman is a charter member of my seriously annoying club, a category I reserve for smart guys who really ought to know better, but he has a great column in this morning's NYT.

One of the things that I can't figure out about the Bush team is why an administration that is so focused on projecting U.S. military strength abroad has taken such little interest in America's economic competitiveness at home - the underlying engine of our strength.
I can actually answer this one - because they are idiots whose brains are paralyzed by ideology. That and the fact they see our government as the enemy - it's hard to build the strength of our Nation when you are trying to be able to strangle it in the bathtub - to use Grover Nordquist's memorable phrase.

Friedman is even better when he starts documenting the ways our competitiveness has declined under Bush:
Thomas Bleha, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer in Japan, has a fascinating piece in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs that begins like this: "In the first three years of the Bush administration, the United States dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage.
But read the whole thing.

I have a few quibbles: Friedman seems to think expensing stock options is a terrible idea. I think this is absurd. Stock options can be a good idea, but hiding their cost from the investing public isn't. We need more transparency, not less.

Friedman is also deluded in apparently thinking that he can reason with the Bush-Frist-Delay-Hastert crowd, or appeal to their patriotic sentiments. These guys don't read, and they don't reason, and they aren't patriots.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Running Out

The high price of oil and gasoline has gotten peoples attention. Unfortunately, the aversive reflex response is so far pretty much unmediated by any higher thought. A Congressman back from his district said all his constituents were upset by it and wondered what he was going to do about it. They might as well have asked him how he was going to prevent the Sun from rising tomorrow.

We hear a lot of facile suggestions, but the fact is that there isn't any short term fix, there might not be any long term fixes, and living with the end of cheap oil is going to be painful.

The depletion of this resource is only one symptom of the increasing autotoxicity of our presence on the planet. Many crucial resources are at or near their limit, and there is little public realization of the fact.

This situation is a familiar one for cultures. Human history and prehistory is littered with the corpses of civilizations and other cultures that collapsed due to exhaustion of one or more critical resources. Jared Diamond tackles exactly this subject in his new book Collapse. Our case may not yet be hopeless, but it is dire, and his book has a nice collection of tales of failure and success in trying to adapt to this kind of impending disaster.

Bad Medicine

Paul Krugman has another must read column on the American health care mess is tomorrow's NYT.

In 2002, the latest year for which comparable data are available, the United States spent $5,267 on health care for each man, woman and child in the population. Of this, $2,364, or 45 percent, was government spending, mainly on Medicare and Medicaid. Canada spent $2,931 per person, of which $2,048 came from the government. France spent $2,736 per person, of which $2,080 was government spending.

Amazing, isn't it? U.S. health care is so expensive that our government spends more on health care than the governments of other advanced countries, even though the private sector pays a far higher share of the bills than anywhere else.

What do we get for all that money? Not much.

Most Americans probably don't know that we have substantially lower life-expectancy and higher infant-mortality figures than other advanced countries. It would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that this poor performance is entirely the result of a defective health care system; social factors, notably America's high poverty rate, surely play a role. Still, it seems puzzling that we spend so much, with so little return.

It would be nice if the Democrats could figure out how to make use of this issue. Unfortunately, we haven't seen much leadership from them on any issue. I wonder how big a disaster it will take before some leader emerges to confront the right wing money machine.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

We don't need no stinkin dark energy III

Not entirely discouraged by what some might consider a pretty conclusive refutation astro-ph/0503582, the We don't need no crowd strikes back with these papers:

astro-ph/0503715 by Notari, the N of KMNR and

astro-ph/0504192 by 5 authors including Wiltshire of WDNNSDE II. et. al. and Wiltshire (he's last author) check out his model against the super nova data. They get reasonable results only if they throw out dark matter as well as dark energy, so I would say this doesn't look too good for their theory.

To this inexpert observer, it looks like dark energy is still in the Cosmological drivers seat, but stay tuned.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Anti-Semitism

Words make good clubs, and the title has been a favorite of some conservatives and others who should know better. Some time ago I got an email from an influential member of the Temple lambasting NPR for anti-Semitism. Their crime - presenting a multi-part historical report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that didn't sufficiently adhere to the official propaganda line. Eric Alterman, a practicing Jew and Zionist who studied in Israel, was called an anti-Semite by some Boston columnist because she didn't like his opinion on some conservative shiboleth. Columbia University launched a rather farcical investigation of what were probably mainly imaginary slights suffered by Zionist students.

Jews above all should object to this debasement of the term. Some still alive were victims of the vicious anti-Semitic crimes of the Nazis and others. It is only recently that most of the overt discrimination against Jews has largely disappeared in major American instituions of education and business. When these crimes are conflated with the real and imaginary slights of paragraph one, the term becomes meaningless. If every criticism of Israel or any Jew is anti-Semitism, then everything is. If everything is, nothing is.

A few suggestions, based on reserving the term for genuinely offensive, threatening, or discriminatory behaviors:

Criticizing Israel isn't anti-Semitism unless it's based on religion or ethnicity.

Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism (though advocating or practicing violence against Israel certainly is).

Suggesting that America's interests are not congruent to Israel's is not anti-Semitism.

Recognizing that Palestinians have legitimate human rights is not anti-Semitism.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Turning our Backs on the Future

Rick Weiss has a nice article on the decline of basic science in the United States in todays Washington Post.

But the U.S. scientific enterprise is riddled with evidence that Americans have lost sight of the value of non-applied, curiosity-driven research -- the open-ended sort of exploration that doesn't know exactly where it's going but so often leads to big payoffs. In discipline after discipline, the demand for specific products, profits or outcomes -- "deliverables," in the parlance of government -- has become the dominant force driving research agendas. Instead of being exploratory and expansive, science -- especially in the wake of 9/11 -- seems increasingly delimited and defensive.
The last 50 or 60 yeats has been sort of a golden age for American Science, produced partly by the flood of scientists from Europe due to the Nazis, but mainly by relatively lavish government funding for science after World War II and during the cold war. We have benefitted immensely from that research - our preminent power in the world and our wealth both drive in large part from it.

The people now in charge, though, don't see it that way. To them, science can be tolerated if they see a quick contribution to the bottom line, but they are more concerned with the threat it poses to their world view. This situation is hardly unprecedented or even unusual in world history. In 1100 AD or so, Arabic civilization was the most advanced and progressive in the Western world. Religious scholars recognized the threat and suppressed science and progress. A similar suppression was attempted in Europe a few hundred years later, but the fortunate political and religious fragmentation of Europe at the time allowed the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton to triumph. In the middle of the 15th Century, Chinese ships were the best in the world and Chinese explorers had explored the Coast of Africa and were close to being able to sail for the Americas. A purely political decision called the exploration ships back, and China sank into a decline from which it is just now starting to emerge.

Sean Carroll has a nice post on this subject predating Weiss's article at Preposterous Universe

Friday, April 08, 2005

Does Google Suddenly Suck?

Very recently, I've noticed that my Google searchs are getting much less efficient. I put in a search topic, e.g., skin rash, and get a long list of sites that turn out to be only remotely related. The common factor: they are all ads (for, e.g. beauty products) and they all have the search terms in the page but little or no germane content. Anybody else notice a problem like this? Is this Google's new business model or is somebody gaming them?

Tommy Lasorda's Home Number?

Anybody got Tommy Lasorda's home phone number? Because that jerk has been calling my neighbors and me to shill for the Prez's Social Security phase out, and I'd like to give him my opinion.

Well I couldn't find it, but his booking agent seems to have a toll-free number. Maybe they can help me get my message to him.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain...

For the last week or so Drudge and the other right-wing stooges have been flogging a story that the infamous "Shiavo Memo" advising Republicans how they could use her plight to their advantage, was a plant. Oops. That particular lie is no longer operative. Some flunky was forced to cop the plea and commit sepuku.

The legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) admitted yesterday that he was the author of a memo citing the political advantage to Republicans of intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo, the senator said in an interview last night.

Mike Allen has the story in the Washington Post

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Retirement? What Retirement?

Just went thru one of those retirement calculators. Put in the usual stuff - wanted 80% of my current income, expected to live about as long as my ancestors, current savings, blah blah, blah blah.

The bad news - I'm a couple of million bucks short. The good news - I can catch up before retirement by saving just 387% of my current income per year. Guess that's a negatory on that little sailboat I wanted.

Tom Friedman

NYT columnist, Middle East expert, and Iraq war cheerleader Tom Friedman has a new book coming out called "The World is Flat." I had him more or less figured for a flat-earther. Too bad his international political analysis is as misguided as his cosmology.

Choosing a New Pope/Passing a Budget

Lubos Motl has a new post on choosing the new Pope. The part I liked was:

If they're unable to choose Wojtyla's successor for three days, they can only eat bread and wine. After five days, they can only fill their plate once. These rules of starvations have been tested for many centuries and they guarantee that someone is eventually chosen.

This might be a good procedure for Congress to adopt in passing a budget.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Mr. Bush: I don't trust you with my money

The President is inordinately fond of telling us that he trusts us with our own money. In response I ask: then why the #**k are you spending so much of it? I guess he thinks that most of us are so dumb we can't figure out that all that borrowed money will have to be payed back, with interest, by us. Sadly enough, he seems to be pretty much right.