Monday, July 31, 2006

Peter Woit on Susskind on Woit & Smolin

Peter Woit and Lee Smolin have each written books allegedly critical of string theory. I haven't seen them yet because they aren't published here yet. Leonard Susskind, one of the founders of string theory, was interviewed on KQED. He had a defense of string theory and some bad things to say about a couple of unnamed physicists who have got to be Woit and Smolin. This provoked a rather impressive slapdown from Peter at Not even Wrong which includes:

Near the end of the interview, when asked to cite some experimental evidence in favor of string theory he said that yes there was a lot of evidence including:

1. The existence of gravity.

2. The existence of particles.

3. The laws of the universe.

Quite remarkably he then went on to announce that QCD is a string theory and take credit for it, saying that string theory was “invented by Nambu and myself as a theory of protons and neutrons, an extremely successful theory of protons and neutrons”. According to Susskind, string theory provides “the whole explanation of protons and neutrons and nuclear physics” and that “heavy ion collisions are best described in terms of string theory”.

It's really pretty pitiful if the best Susskind can do is petty ad hominem stuff about Peter like:

Well, for example, there’s one fellow who failed as a physicist, never made it as a physicist, became a computer programmer, has been angry all of his life that he never became a physicist and that physicists ignore him, so he’s now taking out his revenge by writing diatribes and polemics against string theory.

Smolin gets no less snarky a dismissal:

There’s another fellow who has his own theory, I won’t tell you who his name is or what his theory is, but he writes lots and lots of theories and his theories go glub, glub, glub to the bottom of the sea before he even gets a chance to put them out there. Physicists don’t take him seriously, he’s angry and so he’s also writing a book complaining…

As Peter says:


UPDATE: Having now heard all of the Susskind interview, I have to say that apart from the cheap shots at the start, and the strange claims at the end, it was pretty good. The most interesting part for me was how he had been a plumber for five years before going to college. He went to school to study engineering, but turned out to have no talent for mechanical drawing (in those pre-computer days).

Glacial Growth

I hope Rae Ann won't mind if I take a question she asked in a comment as the topic for a post.

The question was:

...why is the glacier on Mt. St. Helens growing while others are shrinking?

I thought I might know the answer, but I wasn't sure, so I thought I had better check. It turns out that my idea was a part (the minor part) of the answer, but not the main idea.

My thought was that, hey, it's a baby. It's only been there since 1980 (its predecessor having been melted and vaporized in the 1980 explosion), and it does get like 40 feet of snowfall every year. Well, it is a young glacier, but it's already bigger than the pre-explosion glacier. It's the fastest growing glacier in the world because the rim of the crater formed by the explosion gives it quite a bit of shade for most of the day. It's expected to keep growing until it gets out of the shade or another meltdown happens.

Details and discussion can be found here

It's one of only two in the US that is growing. Nobody seems to know for sure why the Mount Shasta glacier is growing while those all around it are melting, but it may be getting more snowfall.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

PR Disaster

The Israeli attack on Qana which killed at least 37 children was not only a trajedy, but a PR disaster for Israel. According to Washington Post story by Anthony Shadid, Edward Cody and Robin Wright.

Israeli warplanes blasted a group of buildings in this southern Lebanese village Sunday, killing more than 50 people, most of them women and children, according to Lebanese officials. The Israeli military said the airstrike was aimed at destroying Hezbollah rocket launchers nearby and that civilians were not being targeted.
I feel confident that this Israeli claim is in fact true, but it's not getting much sympathy anywhere except on Israeli TV and Fox News. The fact that Israel started the war by smashing up almost all the Lebanese civilian infrastructure alienated even many people (like me) disposed to give Israel the benefit of the doubt.

Israel had a small army of smooth talking diplomats blanketing the airwaves this morning, but I found it hard to credit the notion that the slaughter was a Hizbullah war crime.

It doesn't help that:
Qana was the site of another attack by Israeli missile fire 10 years ago that killed 106 civilians at an U.N. observer post during an earlier round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah
By way of explanation, Israel broadcast some video of rockets and buildings.
Military video reportedly captured by a drone aircraft was later released to broadcast on U.S. networks that showed a truck moving into a building for shelter and rockets being fired after dark, but it as not clear where that building was in relation to the buildings that housed the refugees in Qana or if it was related to the Qana incident.

Another Israeli military spokeswoman said that Lebanese villages south of Tyre were warned days in advance to leave the area.

If somebody says to me, get out of town, I'm going to blow up your house, I might well leave, but that won't convince me they were any more justified.

Finally: Empirical Evidence for String Theory

One of the interesting possible predictions of string theory is that our four dimensional spacetime might just be one "brane" of many in the universe. Fareed Zakaria finds some evidence for such a parallel universe on NBCs Meet The Press. From Think Progress via The Huffington Post.


[If I were running against conservatives,] I would make up a campaign commercial almost entirely of Donald Rumsfeld’s press conferences, because the man is looking — I mean, it’s not just that he seems like a bad Secretary of [Defense]. He seems literally in a parallel universe and slightly deranged. If you listen to what he said last week about Iraq, he’s living in a different world, not a different country.

Zakaria may have been referencing Rumsfeld’s “glib” remarks last week when asked whether Iraq was getting “closer to a civil war“:
SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I don’t know. You know, I thought about that last night, and just musing over the words, the phrase, and what constitutes it. If you think of our Civil War, this is really very different. If you think of civil wars in other countries, this is really quite different. There is - there is a good deal of violence in Baghdad and two or three other provinces, and yet in 14 other provinces there’s very little violence or numbers of incidents. So it’s a - it’s a highly concentrated thing. It clearly is being stimulated by people who would like to have what could be characterized as a civil war and win it, but I’m not going to be the one to decide if, when or at all.

Tommy Boy has a Point

Tom Friedman had a reputation as one of the most astute observers of the Middle East before he decided to jump on the Iraq war bandwagon. That led to a two year period of insanity where he kept insisting that things could just still work out, providing Bush would just pay more attention to Tom Friedman.

He was interviewed on NBC by little Russ today and said a lot of things that made sense. One that caught my attention was his analysis of why Bush has become the most hated American President (in the rest of the world). His idea went something like the following:

The rest of the world likes to make fun of American optimism and naivette, but secretly has always looked up to it. Before Bush, America seemed to stand for something, to have some principles. The cold, calculating, Bush, Cheney, and Rice, with their cynical lies and hypocrisy destroy that hope, and the world hates Bush for that.

Now this is just me, but the fact that they always seem to calculate wrong isn't exactly inspiring either.

Hot Times

The Sunday Times reports:

Heatwave with a global grip

IT looks like being the hottest July on record but Britain is not alone in experiencing extreme conditions, write Jonathan Leake and Alex Delmar- Morgan.
Hot, arid weather is afflicting millions in America and in dozens of countries across Europe and parts of east Asia.

The phenomenon has surprised meteorologists who are used to seeing drought as a regional, not global, problem. This weekend they said early analysis of the hot weather, together with the size of the areas affected, suggested it was linked to global climate change.

“Greenhouse gas emissions raise the likelihood of heatwaves like this one,” said Dave Griggs, a Met Office representative on the Joint Scientific Committee for the World Climate Research Programme. “By 2040 this will be just an average summer and by 2060 it will be a relatively cool one.”

Data on the global heatwave have been collated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in America. Its maps show that most of the US is 3-7C above the average for the time of year and several western states have been more than 9C higher.

In California the temperature in Death Valley reached 56.5C and in many west coast towns it exceeded 40C. An estimated 130 people have been killed by the heat and demand for power to run air-conditioning overloaded power stations, leaving some areas without electricity for up to three days.

In South America, mid-winter temperatures in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Brazil are up to 7C higher than average. The accompanying drought has reduced the giant Iguazu falls on the Brazil-Argentina border to a trickle. . .

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Logic of Sectarian Violence

One of the most dismaying aspects of the sectarian slaughter in Iraq is that the perpetrators usually have nothing personal against the victims. They are slaughtered simply for their group membership.

Humans in hunter gatherer societies tend to break up into small bands which often compete violently with each other. Sectarian violence likely stems from an instinct that had a certain function in such a world, but is catastrophic when it is internal to a civilized society. Osama bin Laden and his fellow sociopaths openly promote their "war of civilizations," but it's really a war that destroys civilizations. Similarly, the racial extremists of the American right want their members to join the army so they will be prepared for the coming race war in America.

The man who shot six women (killing one) at a Seattle Jewish center announced that:

"I'm a Muslim American; I'm angry at Israel,"
He could equally logically have said "I'm angry at a guy with blue socks, so I will kill some people wearing blue socks." Logic is not what powers such people though, but rather a climate of hatred and fear.

Hacks like Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity help create that climate when they proclaim that the US is entering "World War III." Muslims, including Muslims who are not crazy, quite plausibly see themselves as the target of this planned war.

It doesn't help that our President is an incoherent fool who mouths such absurd rationales for our Middle Eastern policies that everyone knows that he is lying.

Friday, July 28, 2006


Partly because so many of the neocon architects of the war were Jewish (Kristol, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith) some have argued that Iraq was a war fought to make Israel safe. This conveniently leaves out the fact that Bush and Cheney and Rice aren't Jewish.

It's fair then, that Israelis are arguing that the war in Lebanon is a case of Israel serving its American master. A couple of Haaretz articles argue that Bush is pushing Israel to expand the war, and it is obvious that he is doing nothing to contain it.

I think there is something to this theory. Bush and friends are right to be concerned about the growth of Iranian influence in the wake of the Iraq fiasco. It's not clear to me that another fiasco is going to help things.

The Doofus

I had the misfortune today to listen to part of Bush and Blair's press conference while driving to work today. I only heard a fragment, but I decided to read the transcript, now disappeared, and look at Josh's link to the YouTube after reading Josh Marshall's post on the subject:

BREAKING: President Bush Really Big Doofus

Yes, I grant you, this may have been reported in other outlets before. But we're here listening to the Bush-Blair press conference. And a few minutes ago a reporter (I think David Gregory, but will check on that) asked the president in so many words: You said Iraq was going to bring about new Middle East but now the Middle East is a complete disaster.

Certainly, this would be a challenging question on more levels than one. But the president's answer, quite a lengthy one actually, showed in a really frightening detail how President Bush seems to be basically brain dead on this issue. We'll try to get a copy of it up on line. You really have to hear it to believe it.

Here is the exchange in question:
Q: Mr. President, both of you, I'd like to ask you about the big picture that you're discussing.

Mr. President, three years ago, you argued that an invasion of Iraq would create a new stage of Arab-Israeli peace. And yet today there is an Iraqi prime minister who has been sharply critical of Israel.

Arab governments, despite your arguments, who first criticized Hezbollah, have now changed their tune. Now they're sharply critical of Israel.

And despite from both of you warnings to Syria and Iran to back off support from Hezbollah, effectively, Mr. President, your words are being ignored.

So what has happened to America's clout in this region that you've committed yourself to transform?

Bush: David, it's an interesting period because, instead of having foreign policies based upon trying to create a sense of stability, we have a foreign policy that addresses the root causes of violence and instability.

For a while, American foreign policy was just, Let's hope everything is calm - kind of, managed calm. But beneath the surface brewed a lot of resentment and anger that was manifested on September the 11th.

And so we have, we've taken a foreign policy that says: On the one hand, we will protect ourselves from further attack in the short run by being aggressive in chasing down the killers and bringing them to justice.

And make no mistake: They're still out there, and they would like to harm our respective peoples because of what we stand for.

In the long term, to defeat this ideology - and they're bound by an ideology - you defeat it with a more hopeful ideology called freedom.

And, look, I fully understand some people don't believe it's possible for freedom and democracy to overcome this ideology of hatred. I understand that. I just happen to believe it is possible.

And I believe it will happen.

And so what you're seeing is, you know, a clash of governing styles.

For example, you know, the notion of democracy beginning to emerge scares the ideologues, the totalitarians, those who want to impose their vision. It just frightens them.

And so they respond. They've always been violent.

You know, I hear this amazing kind of editorial thought that says, all of a sudden, Hezbollah's become violent because we're promoting democracy. They have been violent for a long period of time. Or Hamas?

One reason why the Palestinians still suffer is because there are militants who refuse to accept a Palestinian state based upon democratic principles.

And so what the world is seeing is a desire by this country and our allies to defeat the ideology of hate with an ideology that has worked and that brings hope.

And one of the challenges, of course, is to convince people that Muslims would like to be free, you know, that there's other people other than people in Britain and America that would like to be free in the world.

There's this kind of almost – you know, kind of a weird kind of elitism that says well maybe - maybe certain people in certain parts of the world shouldn't be free; maybe it's best just to let them sit in these tyrannical societies.

And our foreign policy rejects that concept. We don't accept it. And so we're working.

Josh observed in a later post:
But if you watch this passage I think you see something different. Namely, that pretty much everything that's happened over the last three years, and certainly over the last three months has just gone in one presidential ear and out the other. He is, in both the deepest and most superficial sense, out of it.

The Patriot.

Phillip Carter is a lawyer and national security writer who founded the blog INTEL DUMP. He is also a US Army officer who was patriotic enough (and crazy enough) to leave a perfectly good law practice and journalistic career to volunteer for duty in Iraq, where he is currently serving. Because of his assignment, he cannot write about the war directly, but he has some of the best background articles around.

It has been extraordinarily difficult for America to define its current war. Are we at war against terrorism, defined by many as a tactic or strategy incapable of ever being conquered? Are we at war with Islamic terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and Hezbollah? Are we at war with the states which sponsor Islamic terrorist organizations? Or are we at war with Islam itself?

This last question may seem preposterous to some. But it's not to many Muslims, who see U.S. actions abroad as a campaign against Islam itself. And within the U.S., there remain a number of scholars and politicians who cast the current war in apocalyptic terms: "World War III" and the classic "clash of civilizations" come to mind. It seems to me that many of these grandiose characterizations miss the mark analytically, but they have a great psychological impact. Before I came to Iraq, I decided to learn as much as I could about Islam so that I could assess these questions more analytically, and also so I would have a fuller understanding of the people I would work with here.

The above is his introduction to a series of excellent book reviews. I will quote the last one:

In the Belly of the Green Bird, by Nir Rosen, probably belonged in my grouping of Iraq books. Unfortunately, my copy arrived after I finished writing those reviews, so I'm putting it this one. As an Arabic-speaking reporter of Arab descent, Rosen brings the same capabilities with him to his coverage of Iraq as Anthony Shadid — the ability to blend in and cover the Iraq war from the side of the Iraqis. This Rosen does with a great deal of passion, staying in Iraq for years, far longer than any other reporter. He becomes close enough to certain insurgent groups to earn an invitation into their lair. He provides us with glimpses inside their deadly world, leaving me with both admiration and hatred for these fighters. Sun Tzu said many years ago that knowing your enemy was crucial for victory. Rosen's book tells more about the insurgency than nearly any intel dump I've gotten over here, and it should be required reading for all U.S. personnel in Iraq. Although it's true that some fighters (particularly those from outside Iraq) wage war out of pure nihilism, many inside Iraq fight us for clear, articulable, understandable reasons. We must develop an understanding of these men which goes beyond the depth offered by PowerPoint briefings in order to develop strategies and tactics for fighting them — or better yet, for disarming and enfranchising them.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Z Prime

Amongst the usual stuff, Lubos Motl has an interesting note on prospects for detecting the Stuckleberg Z' in the LHC. Apparently, the Z' gets its mass from a different mechanism than the usual Higgs, a mechanism that has some support in string theory.

The LHC candidates multiply. Let's hope some of them show up for the party.

I guess it must be OK then.

Another one from Brad Delong:

"We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world," Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Israeli radio, "to continue this operation, this war, until Hezbollah won't be located in Lebanon and until it is disarmed." Mr. Ramon also raised the possibility of an expanded air assault, saying "all those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah."

Is this for real? If so, I guess it would explain why those UN guys got killed despite ten times advising Israel of their position.

And what is it with Canadians? Have they got "bomb me" painted on their backs or what? Seems like they are taking a lot of causualties for a peace loving country without any enemies. If I was Canadian, I would be pretty pissed. Actually, I'm pretty mad even though I'm not Canadian.

Puffery and Access

Brad Delong is still unhappy with the Washington Post, specifically a ridiculous puff piece by Peter Baker that includes:

For the president, the timing could not be much worse. In a second term marked by one setback after another, the White House was in the midst of a rebuilding effort aimed at a political comeback before November's critical midterm elections.

Rebuilding effort? What rebuilding effort? Stem cells, flag burning and gay marriage? Delong adds:
The most illuminating thing that one of Peter Baker's peers has said to me to explain stories like this is: "We really have to write these sort of things to maintain access. But we don't believe them. And everybody serious reading our newspaper knows we don't believe them." Seems to me that somebody needs to have a talk with Peter Baker about the importance of not printing stuff that is false, for the only asset the Washington Post might ever have would be credibility as a news source.

That is pretty damn sorry when the press believes it has to write lies to maintain "access." Access meaning access to the latest administration propaganda? That's what they've sold their souls for?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Puzzling Again

Another look at TSM's puzzle:

A family has two children. We know that one of them is a boy. What is the probability that the other one is a girl?

I don't doubt or misunderstand his answer (see previous post, or his posting). The question is, why do we find that answer so counterintuitive. I think that it is because there is some ambiguity in the question. Consider a different but similar seeming problem:

You know that the Johnsons have two children, but you don't know their respective sexes. Your daughter comes home and says, "I talked the Johnson kid today. His name is Mike."

What is the probability that Mike's sibling is a sister? Is this like TSM's puzzle, or like my Ace-Jack puzzle in my previous post?

Aaron Bergman has posted a comment pointing out that the second sentence ("We know that one of them is a boy.") of the puzzle is ambiguous. It could mean "exactly one of them is a boy," and that's actually the most likely interpretation of the sentence in isolation. In that case, the probability of a sister is 100%. Another interpretation is "at least one of them is a boy." That's the interpretation TSM uses, and, stated thusly, pretty obviously leads to the answer 2/3.

I claim that there is another, implicit interpretation, that leads to the counter intuitive feel of the answer. That interpretation is "You have learned that one of them is a boy." In that case, we are back to the situation of the Johnson kid, whose sibling is a sister with a probability of 50%.

Why so? By plausible assumption, your learning that the sex of one J kid was a male was a random event whose probability was 100% if the siblings were bb, 50% if bg or gb, and 0 if gg. Since you did first observe a boy, the probabilities of the initial distribution have to be corrected to bb 50%, bg and gb each 25%.

Your initial observation has "collapsed the wave function" (that's a joke kids).

If the problem is stated in the unambiguous and explicit way "at least one of them is a boy," the counter intuitive aspect goes bye-bye. At least for me.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Wanna Bet?

The Statistical Mechanic, AKA Wolfgang, had this little puzzle.

A family has two children. We know that one of them is a boy. What is the probability that the other one is a girl?
His answer is:
Initially there are four equally likely cases: { bb, bg, gb, gg}.
The intelligent reader can easily understand what the b and g stands for.
After we learn that there is (at least) one boy, we can eliminate the case gg.
Thus we are left with three equally likely cases {bg, gb, bb} and in two of them
the other child is a girl, thus the probability is 2/3.

I really like this example, because it is so quick and easy and yet so counter-intuitive.

I have an alternative puzzle: We deal out a large deck of cards which consists only of Aces and Jacks, with equal numbers of each. Each hand consists of two cards, face down. I walk up to one at random and turn up one of the cards, getting an Ace. You gentle reader, are offered the following bet: "I will bet $4 to your $6 that the other card is not a Jack, and is in fact another Ace."

Informed by the SM's analysis, should you conclude that the odds are two to one against me, and that hence you should take the bet?

Israeli Strategy

Is there a strategy behind Israel's terror campaign against Lebanon's Shia? Maybe so, but I doubt that it can work. Israel had to know that there would be a PR cost to targeting apartment houses and fleeing carloads of children, so they probably had a reason. My guess is that they hope to scare the Shia out of supporting Hizbollah, in elections or on the ground.

The other prong of their strategy consists of driving Hizbollah from the South and replacing them with some international peacekeepers. I can't imagine why any country would sign up for such a role, but maybe somebody will. A five year-old could devise Hizbollah's next move - mounting the same kind of campaign against the foreign army that they mounted against the Israeli occupation, and which eventually drove Israel out.

That's the point of the terror strategy. Hizbollah as a guerrilla army can only succeed with considerable help from the populace and the Lebanese government.

Will it work?

I doubt it. People who have lost home, job and children can live for revenge when nothing else is left.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Misanthropic Me

Bee has a long thoughtful post on various versions of the Anthropic Principle, with many comments. Lubos has another, much longer, and related post on what kind of universe is necessary for life. Unfortunately I didn't get much out of either one, since my brain shuts off when I read (or hear) the phrase "Anthropic Principle."

Basic statistical mechanics indicates that if our universe started from a random state, it is more likely that our present ideas of the history of the Universe, the Earth, and even ourselves, is more likely to be an illusion based on chance alignments of molecules than real. It's more likely that those memory traces in your brain (and the rest of you) are a chance fluctuation than real records of your history (see, for example, Brian Greene's Fabric of the Cosmos, pg. 160 ff.

In such a universe it's very hard for me to believe anthropic considerations are likely to help us make sense of the whole thing. It seems very unlikely that there was anything ineluctable about the evolution of the human race here on Earth, so it's also possible that our universe and its laws somehow evolved. If, to abuse Einstein's phrase, God had some choice in the design of the universe, I don't see how the AP helps us understand it.

Warped Passages

I finally got around to reading Lisa Randall's Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions. Writing a popular book on advanced physics seems like kind of an unlikely enterprise, on the face of it. It's pretty well extablished that it takes six or eight years of hard post high school study for highly motivated and mathematically talented students to get a sound technical understanding of frontier science, so isn't it pretty absurd to expect to explain the same to people who never learned or promptly forgot the elements of algebra and calculus?

Remarkably enough, many physicists have attempted, and often succeeded in just that daunting task. I guess my favorites among those I know would be Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, Kip Thorne's Black Holes and Time Warps, and Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. Randall's book is in many ways a worthy successor to these. I don't find her quite as elegant a stylist as Weinberg or Greene, and she doesn't have Thorne's knack for the telling anecdote, but she is tackling what looks to me to be an even more difficult task - explaining branes and their potential relevance to leading problems in particle physics.

Because she has to explain not only the standard model of particle physics but also at least one of its diseases, the hierarchy problem, she sets herself a tougher task than the three authors I mentioned. Since she doesn't use mathematics (except for a few occasionaly useful math endnotes), she is forced to rely heavily on analogies, which she does with a vengence. Of course I had a high fever while reading much of the book, but a lot of the analogies left my head hurting. One that still haunts me is her explanation of color antiscreening in terms of office gossip.

I liked her explanation of the hierarchy problem though, and I liked her explanation of how extradimensional branes might help. Several of the later chapters are devoted to the idea of how a single extra (fifth) dimension might confine gravity if it was an anti-deSitter warped dimension (negative curvature in only the fifth dimension with sections perpendicular to the fifth dimension all being flat).

After a few of these had been exhibited, I started getting impatient. So, what are you telling me here, are these just some subset of infinitely many possible weird worlds or what. Also, at this point the water sprinkler and ducks on a pond gravity analogies started driving me nuts.

The high probability for the graviton to be found near the Gravitybrane, and the corresponding concentration of the gravitational field there, might also be compared to the high likelihood of greedy ducks in a pond being near the shore.
I hope that helps somebody. Headpain ouch!

The last several chapters had some interesting tidbits. The major theme here was the possible ambiguity of the notion of dimension itself. A few quotes on various notions: From Chapter 24 p. 450 on AdS and duality. Dualities of theories with different numbers of dimensions.
We know that the number of dimensions should be the number of quantities you need to specify the location of an object. But are we always sure we know which quantities to count.

On T-Duality p. 451
…an infinite dimension in one theory is T-dual to a theory with one dimension fewer (since a zero size circle doesn’t count as a dimension)...

Once again the meaning of dimension is ambiguous.

One of the strongest reasons for believing that our spacetime description is inadequate at the Planck scale length is that we don’t know any way, even in theory, to examine such a short distance.
Facts so bizarre cry out for a deeper explanation.

She lines up a lot of big guns to agree that something funky is happening at very small scales.

Ed Witten: space and time may be doomed.

Nathan Seiberg: I am almost certain that space and time are illusions.

David Gross: Very likely, space and perhaps even time have constituents; space and time could turn out to be emergent properties of a very different looking theory.

Lisa Randall adds:
Unfortunately, no one yet has any idea what this more fundamental description of space and time will turn out to be.

This seems a bit too coy. Perhaps the influence of her faithful reader and critic Prof Motl disuaded her from mentioning what many physicists from Heisenberg (at least) on have believed: that space and time, like matter and energy, have an underlying granular structure.

Alain Connes and Carlo Rovelli, for example, think they have some ideas about that.

Branes in extra dimensions and warped branes.

License to Steal

One of the ways the Bush family likes to reward itself and its rich friends is by handing out licenses to steal. Bush failed to get the estate tax repealed, so he found a clever way around the problem, as described by David Cay Johnston in the the NYT:

The federal government is moving to eliminate the jobs of nearly half of the lawyers at the Internal Revenue Service who audit tax returns of some of the wealthiest Americans, specifically those who are subject to gift and estate taxes when they transfer parts of their fortunes to their children and others.

The administration plans to cut the jobs of 157 of the agency’s 345 estate tax lawyers, plus 17 support personnel, in less than 70 days. Kevin Brown, an I.R.S. deputy commissioner, confirmed the cuts after The New York Times was given internal documents by people inside the I.R.S. who oppose them...

But six I.R.S. estate tax lawyers whose jobs are likely to be eliminated said in interviews that the cuts were just the latest moves behind the scenes at the I.R.S. to shield people with political connections and complex tax-avoidance devices from thorough audits.

Sharyn Phillips, a veteran I.R.S. estate tax lawyer in Manhattan, called the cuts a “back-door way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.”

Of course that's just a repeal for crooks. Honest people will still be paying.

This is just SOP for Bush of course. One of his first acts as President was to let Ken Lay dictate the composition of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Lay & friends took advantage of the lack of oversight to steal about $40 billion from California. Similarly, he appointed a head of the Securities and Exchange commission who let it be known that he didn't take regulation seriously - though he was forced out after the first series of corporate looting scandals.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

World War III

A favorite meme of the right-wing stupidocracy lately has been "We are already in World War III." Newt Gingrich seems to have been the first to roll this particular load of crap onto the public stage, but the usual idiots (Sean Hannity, Faux News, et al) quickly chimed in. They say this with particular enthusiasm, as if it might justify their calamitous mismanagement of public policy for the past six years.

To be a real world war, it would have to involve full mobilization of all the great powers against each other, and, given modern weaponry, billions of casualties. Presumably Bush, as leader of the only currently agressive superpower, would have to play the role of Hitler. Perhaps this isn't quite what they mean.

Maybe this is just more neocon bullshit, designed to drum up a war against Iran, and save the Republican party's electoral ass. Considering the source, I would have to say that there is at least a 99% chance that that is the case.

Sometimes you get what you wish for, though. Thanks to these idiots, Iran and North Korea are much graver threats to the world now than they were before our idiotic Iraq adventure. There is now a real threat that militant Shiite Islam will dominate from Iran to Lebanon.

Dershowitz: Those who supports terrorists are not entirely innocent.

I would like to swear off commenting on the news, but it continues to piss me off too much. Like this op-ed in the LA Times.

His bottom line:

The Israeli army has given well-publicized notice to civilians to leave those areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into war zones. Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit. Some — those who cannot leave on their own — should be counted among the innocent victims.

I think maybe Hizbullah might have given Israelis some notice too.

Scientific American: Oh Dear.

Scientific American this month has as it's cover story a truly mediocre exercise called The Expert Mind, by Philip E. Roth. It's mostly about chess, mostly a rehash of old research, and provides essentially no support for its central thesis - that hard study is more important than talent.

He lost me at hello. How far does a chess grandmaster see ahead?

"I see only one move ahead," Capablanca is said to have anwered, "but it is always the best one."

I much prefer the version I heard. When Capablanca arrived at the great New York Tournament of 1924, he had not lost in ten years, and newspapers reported that he looked ten moves ahead in a chess game (perhaps he even said that). It created a sensation when mathematician and chess master Reti defeated him in the fifth round.

Reti, my story goes, was then asked how many moves he looked ahead. His reply, "as a rule, not even one."

The point, whichever story you believe, is that positional judgement is more important than calculational ability.

Computers have shown that that's not necessarily so. Humans are poor calculators, but expert humans are good positonal judges. Despite having lots of human positional judgement poured into them, computers remain, at best, mediocre at positional judgement, but perfect calculation can more than compensate - if you can see far enough ahead.

Tour de France

Floyd Landis takes the Tour. After bonking and being left in the dust on the penultimate Alpine stage, he wound up a seemingly insuperable 8:08 off the pace, and was written off by everybody. A solo attack the next day produced an incredible comeback, winning the stage by 4 1/2 minutes and leaving him in third place just 30 seconds behind the leader. Saturday's time trial was decisive, with Floyd convincingly beating the two riders ahead of him, to take a 57 second lead. Now he is the Champion, only the third American to win, but the eighth time in a row for an American to win.

Probably the most exciting Tour in a long time.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Meanwhile, Back in Afghanistan

Remember Afghanistan? That was the country where we chased the terrorists out and established democracy. Naturally, Bush and company couldn't be bothered to do anything that would actually help Afghanistan become a democracy, or even bother to capture the terrorist leaders. They were too busy worrying about one percent threats in Iraq, and planning to destroy the American economy.

Guess what! It seems there is a bit of trouble back in Afghanistan again:

The most senior British military commander in Afghanistan yesterday described the situation in the country as "close to anarchy" with feuding foreign agencies and unethical private security companies compounding problems caused by local corruption.
The stark warning came from Lieutenant General David Richards, head of Nato's international security force in Afghanistan, who warned that western forces there were short of equipment and were "running out of time" if they were going to meet the expectations of the Afghan people.

The assumption within Nato countries had been that the environment in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban in 2002 would be benign, Gen Richards said. "That is clearly not the case," he said yesterday. He referred to disputes between tribes crossing the border with Pakistan, and divisions between religious and secular factions cynically manipulated by "anarcho-warlords".

It was "assumed" things would be fine. Gee, where have we heard that one before.

One Thousand Combatants

According to this Washington Times Story:

Israeli chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said yesterday the offensive has killed 100 Hezbollah guerrillas. A U.S.-designated terror group, Hezbollah has about 1,000 or fewer combatants, and several thousand active supporters or members.

Huh? The IDF had to destroy a country and make three quarters of a million people homeless to deal with a battalion or two of guerillas? Can this be right? If true, the disproportion is staggering.

1,000 soldiers is not even a medium sized Mexican drug gang.

One Per Cent

Ron Susskind has a new book out, The One Per Cent Doctrine. I haven't read it, and probably won't, but according to Bryan Burrough's review in the New York Times,

The "one percent doctrine” is [Cheney's], a mandate that any threat that bears even a 1 percent chance of being real must be treated as real. This is a profound shift in thinking, Suskind tells us, and leads to American action, as in Iraq, in which force is deployed where there is only the slightest chance of a true threat.

Burrough, who manages the anatomically improbable feat of keeping his lips firmly pressed to Bush, Cheney, and Susskind's butts all at the same time, doesn't mention it, but while Cheney and friends had their minds focussed on one per cent threats, a whole Armada of 70, 80, 90, and 95 per cent threats sailed up behind them. The most obvious and widely predicted threat was that the Iraq adventure would go bad, leaving Iran largely in control of a Middle East in chaos - something that is already happening. Other threats like our potentially catastropic balance of payments mess, the loss of American moral authority and even respectability in the World, and pending environmental calamities were ignored while they have swelled to gigantic proportions.

Meanwhile they have presided over one of the most corrupt and incompetent governments in American history.

I expect that there is less than a one per cent chance that these criminals will be brought before a court to answer for their crimes, but I can still dream, can't I?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Oh Good

According to David S. Cloud and Helen Cooper's New York Times Article

WASHINGTON, July 21 — The Bush administration is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after beginning its air campaign against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, American officials said Friday.

Israeli airstrikes heavily damaged a mainly Shiite section of Beirut's suburbs.
The decision to quickly ship the weapons to Israel was made with relatively little debate within the Bush administration, the officials said. Its disclosure threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that could be compared to Iran’s efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah.

The munitions that the United States is sending to Israel are part of a multimillion-dollar arms sale package approved last year that Israel is able to draw on as needed, the officials said. But Israel’s request for expedited delivery of the satellite and laser-guided bombs was described as unusual by some military officers, and as an indication that Israel still had a long list of targets in Lebanon...

Fly Boys

Like the US, Israel has invested heavily in airpower and information warfare. The opening days of the war against Lebanon have shown that that combination is very efficient at destroying a nation's infrastructure and making half a million people homeless, but the results against Hizbullah are less convincing. Apparently the Israelis thought taking out Hizbullah would be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel - or, at any rate, Palestinians in a refugee camp.

Apparently, they have found Hizbullah in caves and bunkers a tougher nut to crack. I was sure Drudge had a story up on this today, but I can't find it anywhere now.

UPDATE: Well, I think I can see why even Drudge dumped the story calledIsrael's military stunned by the failure of its air war
. It seems to have come from something called World Tribune a Buddhist newspaper I had never heard of.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Message from Baghdad

One of the Bush administrations big talents is enforcement of the groupthink mentality and the disciplined message. Never, never, never tell the truth is its first principle. There are signs that the Army is finding it tougher to play along.

From John Hendren's story at NPR

At an unusually candid news conference, Brig. Gen. William Caldwell acknowledged things are not going as planned in the capital. Caldwell, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, stated clearly that the war for Iraq will be decided in the Baghdad's streets...

U.S. military commanders acknowledge that the Iraqi government's campaign to bring security to Baghdad is an abject failure. Violence in the capital has risen by about 40 percent in the past five days alone.

The carnage is now enormous. More than 100 civilians are being killed every day. Relative to Iraq's population, that's like a 9/11 every other day. And unlike 9/11, when there were many killed but few others injured, in Iraq their are many more severely wounded than killed.

Iraq, remember, had no role in 9/11, unlike GW's kissing kin in Saudi Arabia, who supplied 15 or so of the hijackers, not to mention the money to fund al Quaeda.

If the Army is speaking out now, it's because they see a situation spinning out of their control. To re-establish order, they need three or four times as many troops - troops that can't be had without a draft, and even with one, not for six months to two years.

Their is almost no chance that anything good can come out of this war, and an increasing chance that the result will be a major Mid East war with likely economic catastrophe in much of the world.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Cosmic Mist

Lubos Motl has a new post up touting the theory that Cosmic Ray Flux could be a major climate driver of more importance than CO2. The basic idea is that cosmic rays serve as condensation nuclei in the atmosphere, producing high clouds that reflect away some of the Solar radiation. The idea is not new, but Shariv's paper claims evidence of correlation through studies of iron meteorites, which contain interesting signatures supposedly due to the cosmic ray flux they were exposed to in the sixty days or so before coming to Earth.

Not everybody finds this article quite as convincing as our conservative string theorist. Stefan Rahmstorf, David Archer, Denton S. Ebel, Otto Eugster, Jean Jouzel, Douglas Maraun, Urs Neu, Gavin A. Schmidt, Jeff Severinghaus, Andrew J. Weaver and Jim Zachos present a pretty good slapdown here.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Time to Celebrate!

Every dark cloud supposedly has a silver lining. The Iraq war has been bad to a lot of people, like Iraqis and Americans, but Dick Cheney has tripled his net worth, and other Halliburton shareholders are doing just fine too. The current troubles in the Middle East bother some, but Andrew Sullivan finds a blogger full of good cheer at the Rapture Ready website:

"Is it time to get excited? I can't help the way I feel. For the first time in my Christian walk, I have no doubts that the day of the Lords appearing is upon us. I have never felt this way before, I have a joy that bubbles up every-time I think of him, for I know this is truly the time I have waited for so long. Am I alone in feeling guilty about the human suffering like my joy at his appearing somehow fuels the evil I see everywhere. If it were not for the souls that hang in the balance and the horror that stalks man daily on this earth, my joy would be complete. For those of us who await his arrival know, somehow we just know it won't be long now, the Bridegroom cometh rather man is ready are not."
The blogger's handle is ohappyday.

Don't forget to max out those credit cards!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Other Opinions on the Middle East

No American politician or news outlet dares to criticize Israel, but if my circle of acquaintances is any indication, that attitude isn't quite unanimous among Americans.
Two excerpts:

Why don't we just nuke Israel
And (from a different source) a comment on Israel's blowing up some Canadians in Lebanon.
If Canada had any balls they would declare war on Israel.

Despite having five times the population, eight times the GDP, and 2000 times the land area, Canada is probably not any miltary competition for Israel. I doubt that they have any ability to project military power in the Middle East.

Public opinion has already turned largely against Israel in Europe. I doubt that there is any immediate threat of that happening in the US, but if it does, Israel's leverage will be much smaller. Blowing up Lebanese (or Canadians) who are essentially helpless bystanders in the struggle between Israel and Hezbollah is not likely to generate good PR.

UPDATE: Looks like I lied. There was Pat Buchanan on MSNBC dissing Israel for attacking civilians rather than Hezbollah soldiers, and calling their collective punishment strategy "unchristian and unamerican." These epithets probably don't have much sting for Israel, but they might carry some weight with Americans.

Telling Moment

On ABC's Sunday talk show, a video clip or Army Chief of Staff Schoonover.

He is asked: "Are we winning the war in Iraq?"

Seemingly endless pause. At last he says: "Well let me just say we are not losing."

I feel for the guy. He doesn't want to lie, and he doesn't want to demoralize his troops. Unfortunately, he pretty much winds up doing both.


We went to see Pirates of the Caribbean last night, but the 7:35 PM showing was sold out, and 8:30 was too late for the old people (me), so we saw Superman Returns instead. An unfortunate error.

The plot was stupid, and Superman himself was clearly mentally retarded, but what I really resented was the music. Superman, the action, and almost everybody else got incredibly cheesey John Williams knock-offs, but Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (the arch-villian) got Mozart and other great classical music. Not even Spacey managed to look good in this dumb movie.


DarkSyde of The Daily Kos seems to share my confidence in the ablity of this president to handle the crisis in the Middle East:

The scenarios can bewilder the most thoughtful game theorists: Sunni Vs Shia? Muslim Vs Jew? Christianists Vs Islamists? Iraq Vs Iran? Moderates Vs Extremists? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that George Bush and this specific incarnation of the GOP got caught flatfooted by a hurricane that was visible from the moon for a week and predicted for years. I wouldn't bet on them successfully solving a crossword puzzle at this point, let alone getting a handle on the Middle East...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

President Stupid

The World is going to hell in a handbasket, and President Stupid mumbles incoherently on the sidelines. From Think Progress:

During a press conference today at the G8 summit in Russia, President Bush told President Vladimir Putin that Americans want Russia to develop a free press and free religion “like Iraq.” To laughter and applause, Putin responded: “We certainly would not want to have same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, quite honestly.”
I find it humiliating to have this idiot as president.

Why are the Arabs so Weak?

Saudi Arabia has three times the population of Israel, twice the GDP, and immensely more land area than Israel, but it is militarily completely helpless by comparison. It has had immense oil wealth and a large income from it for a couple or three generations yet relative balance of power has continued to tilt the same way. Why so?

Of course Iraq tried to increase its military power too, but came acropper through several kinds of stupidity, notably attacking Iran and Kuwait, but also by other kinds of folly.

Saudi Arabia doesn't have that kind of excuse, so why don't they have a technological society and military power. Some of the answer may lie in the fact that Israel, and it's pit bull (that's us) didn't want it to happen, but I suspect the real reason was the greed, shortsightedness, and insecurity of its rulers. Those rulers chose to indulge in imperial luxury, feeding their appetites to the detriment of their country. Of course there was enough money to build an air force and still afford quite a few palaces, and they even bought some good planes, but they never bothered to train the pilots.

I doubt that that was a simple oversight. I think that rather it was fear of allowing any alternative power base in their country that has kept them weak. If those rulers had spent their money on building a modern industrial society and modern institutions rather than on having hundreds of wives and palaces, Saudi Arabia would most likely be the most important power in the Middle East today.

Greed and corruption is not the only factor though. The deal the rulers struck with religion is also a huge factor in keeping the country backward. Oil wealth apparently provided the means to avoid the transition to modernity rather than to quickly effect it.

It's a truism that unearned wealth destroys the recipient. Spain was in many ways destroyed by the vast gold horde it plundered from America. It looks a lot like the same has happened to the Arab oil rich.

Hockey Stick: The Usual Scoundrels

The National Academy of Sciences has released its study of Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years (2006) which can be read online here. Lubos Motl has assembled a collection of critiques by the usual scoundrels and liars. (He also has a link that purports to be to the NAS report, but is in fact just commentary by a highly biased commentator.)

Let me recapitulate what I know of a key background controversy: Mann, Hughes, and Bradley (MHB)published the "hockey stick" paper with a reconstruction of the past millenium's climate which showed the hockey stick shape, with the present as blade of the stick. Subsequently, McIntire and McKittrick (M&M)critiqued their reconstruction, had some difficulty getting their critique published, and name calling ensued. Other climatologist and statisticians subsequently weighed in on both sides of the issue. Because Mann et. al. claimed that their reconstruction showed that the present was the warmest period in the last 1000 years, this became a cause celebre for the anti-global warming guys.

The NAS was asked to examine the whole subject of climate reconstructions, and the report linked to above is the result. As should be the case in an NAS study, the importance of the report lies less in their conclusions than in their careful presentation of the issues. Those conclusions point out certain defects in the arguments of each side.

M&M argued that MHB's statistical methodology was flawed, and that a better methodology (theirs) showed considerable uncertainty about the reconstructed temperatures more than 500 years ago. The National Academy's analysis concludes that they and other critics of MHB have a point, but also say that it's not possible to conclude which statistical analysis is best because (among other things) different measures of uncertainty are sensitive to different kinds of uncertainties in the data. Most relevantly to the HS controversy, they conclude that there is considerable certainty to the conclusion that the present is the hottest period in the last 400 years, but that the same cannot be concluded about the last 1000 years.

That they conclude, does not imply that attempting to reconstruct past climates is a bad idea, nor does it contradict the evidence that our current warming is mainly anthropogenic in origin. The limitations of the available evidence don't make it possible to conclude what caused the medieval warming (or even if it really happened), but we have a lot more information about the present.

Personally, I always considered this debate rather peripheral to the whole issue of anthropogenic climate change (how much does it matter if the present is the warmest time in the last 400 years or the last 1000?) but this is apparently a partial vindication for M&M and a less than full vindication for MHB. The important question, from my point of view is not our uncertainty about what happened 1000 years ago, but what is likely to happen in the next 50 to 100 years.

Credit Card Conservatism

Has our present generation of borrow and spend, credit cart conservatives pushed the country close to bankruptcy? A Federal Reserve study suggests that the answer is yes. According to Edmund Conway's story in the Telegraph:

The United States is heading for bankruptcy, according to an extraordinary paper published by one of the key members of the country's central bank.

A ballooning budget deficit and a pensions and welfare timebomb could send the economic superpower into insolvency, according to research by Professor Laurence Kotlikoff for the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, a leading constituent of the US Federal Reserve.

Prof Kotlikoff said that, by some measures, the US is already bankrupt. "To paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary, is the United States at the end of its resources, exhausted, stripped bare, destitute, bereft, wanting in property, or wrecked in consequence of failure to pay its creditors," he asked.

According to his central analysis, "the US government is, indeed, bankrupt, insofar as it will be unable to pay its creditors, who, in this context, are current and future generations to whom it has explicitly or implicitly promised future net payments of various kinds''...

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Plan

Anthony Shadid's thoughtful Washington Post Report from Beirut talks about a strategic basis for Israel's attacks on Lebanon. A plausible idea is that they are trying to drive a wedge between Hisbollah and the rest of the Lebanese population.

The radical Shiite movement Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, hold an effective veto in Lebanese politics, and the group's military prowess has heartened its supporters at home and abroad in the Arab world. But that same force of arms has begun to endanger Hezbollah's long-term standing in a country where critics accuse it of dragging Lebanon into an unwinnable conflict the government neither chose nor wants to fight.

If it doesn't work, a plausible result is a unified Shiite axis running through Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, all cooperating against Israel.

The fact that Israeli warplanes can flyby the Syrian Presidential Palace with apparent impunity demonstrates how weak the Arab states remain, however.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bee's Blog

Sabine's (Bee's) blog Backreaction is becoming a go to blog on theoretical physics. She has posted a nicely balanced review of Peter Woit's new book.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Israel's Dilemma: Again

Recent events have sharpened my view of Israel's dilemma. Hizbollah and Hamas are dancing in the streets about killing and capturing Israeli soldiers. Perhaps it's accidental, but it now strikes me that Israel's enemies have adopted a smarter strategy. As long as Palestinians were blowing themselves up along with bus passengers and cafe patrons, it was easy to scorn them as subhuman crazies.

Soldiers are harder targets but everyone understands that they are fair game in a war. Television in the Middle East and Europe can now show Israel blowing up families and children with helicopter gunships, while Palestinians and Hizbollah look heroic as they fight back with rifles and RPGs against tanks and fighter bombers.

The basic Israeli tactic of hitting back harder, giving pain for pain, only works against an opponent who thinks they have something to lose. If the Israeli offense in Gaza continues for a few more weeks, thousands of Palestinians will starve or die of other deprivations - mostly the very young and the old. Meanwhile, their chances of rescuing their captured soldiers are probably not good.

Israel seems to be operating on autopilot, without an evident strategy or plan. It needs to wake up and find one soon.

Rumor has always argued that the Iraq war was really about protecting Israel. If so, that strategy is also in considerable ruin. The US is likely to abandon Iraq with its Army and reputation seriously damaged. Iraq could be left with a fundamentalist Islamic state with ties to Iran. Meanwhile, Iran's military capability is developing.

A Theory Not a Fact

One of the energy lobby's internal memos wanted global warming to be portrayed that way. "Our product is doubt" they said. The same professional liars who fought the long defense of tobbaco companies and against controlling ozone destroyers are still at it. That's a minor sidelight in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

I found the movie more effective than I expected, though in my case he was preaching to the choir. His movie is not about the science of global warming, though he disusses it briefly, and not about the so called "climate debate," which isn't really a debate among the experts but a theatrical piece staged by Exxon & friends for the benefit of the gullible.

Mostly the movie is about the evidence for global warming and its serious and in some cases, dire, effects. He has a lot of it. There are a few cases thrown in where the dots might not really connect, but overall I found it both sound and persuasive.

Unfortunately, few if any of those who could learn the most from its message will ever see it. "There are none so blind as those who will not see" wrote the poet.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Peter Woit on Teaching Strings to Undergraduates

Peter Woit has posted on teaching strings to undergrads. Apparently a number of top schools have started offering the course. MIT was first, and Barton Zweibach's textbook was the result of that course.

Maybe now that there’s a textbook, that is what has caused other institutions to follow suit. Caltech has Physics 134, String Theory, and Carnegie-Mellon has Physics 33-652, An Introduction to String Theory. Stanford goes its competitors one better by having two undergraduate courses in string theory: Physics 153A, Introduction to String Theory I, and Physics 153B, Introduction to String Theory II. This last course even promises to explain to students how string theory is connected to particle physics.

Peter doesn't say in his post how he feels about this, but the post attracted a flurry of comments from anti-stringers, some alleged stringers who dissed Peter in semiLubosian fashion, and more measured critiques (of Peter) from (string theorists) Clifford Johnson and Aaron Bergmann - minus much in the way of specifics.

It also had one great comment from a non-string theorist who took Zwiebach's original course:
I took the class myself a couple years ago back when we were still given the typed manuscript for free (there now I’ve definitely given away my identity for a couple readers of the weblog for sure) and even though obviously I chose a different branch of physics for my graduate work I have to say that the course was simply outstanding and Barton Zwiebach is one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had. Yeah string theory as science has definitely seen better days, but the class itself is a great way to learn a lot of the tools used in modern physics. The way Barton teaches it also makes it a neat way to see how different theoretical underpinnings can come together - the calculation of the Beckenstein-Hawking entropy result for example played a big role in my personal decision to pursue statistical mechanics as a graduate student (now of course, as a statistical mechanician, I can laugh at all you particle guys whose work is simply an input into our theories ).

Also I’d like to point out that while the class started with probably 60 people (including 30 or so undergrads) the year I took it, we only ended with 6 undergrads by the end I think and about 20 graduate students. So before anyone gets too worried about Barton’s corruption of us youth I think it’s worth thinking about the positive aspects of the class - I of course cannot speak to the other institutions’ courses, but I learned a lot of useful tricks in 8.251 that I use to this day.

I think this is right on. I love Zwiebach's textbook. It is a true pedagogical masterpiece. I don't doubt that there other physics subjects upon which undergrads can equally (or more) usefully practice their quantization skills, but learning to quantize a relativistic string in n-dimensions is a lot of fun.

Of course it's quite possible that strings don't exist, or that they do, but won't show up experimentally anytime soon. I talked my son into taking one of those courses even though he had no interest in being a string theorist. Maybe I should ask him what he thought of it. Any comment, #2 son?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hard Corps Revised Edition

Lubos Motl looks at "hard science" vs. "soft science" and sees (surprise! surprise!) black hats versus white. This requires a little tinkering with the usual definitions where the hard sciences got their obduracy from being able to make calculations and measurements which could be rigorously compared, like physics, astronomy, chemistry, and some parts of geophysics. Soft sciences, by contrast, were charactrized by difficulty in making meaningful calculations that could be compared to measurements, as in sociology, parts of biology, and string theory.

We Are Screwed

Josh Marshall's Guest Blogger DK looks at the "new Bush Foreign policy" and sees only helpless ineffectuality.

... As Kevin Drum noted last week, "the Bush administration literally seems to have no foreign policy at all anymore."

Afghanistan is reverting to the Taliban. Iraq is beyond the point of no return. North Korea is acting with impunity. Iran controls its own destiny.

Worse, for an Administration that has instinctively favored military action over diplomacy, the nation's military resources are depleted, bogged down, and largely unavailable for any further foreign adventures.

Yet we have stories emerging that suggest the current foreign policy dilemma is a deliberate course of action chosen by Bush. Time, in a mishmash of its news and style sections, calls it a "strategic makeover" led by Condi Rice.

The fact is Bush has boxed himself in, frittering away lives and treasure, and leaving himself with few options. He deserves no more credit for a policy shift than the man serving a life sentence who declares that he will henceforth be law-abiding.

Italy vs France

A strange game. France mostly played better, but Italy wins on penalty kicks.

The biggest oddity was Zidane getting kicked out for a blatant head butt - a blatant head butt which the ref probably only saw on television. I wonder what Materazzi said to him to push him over the edge?

The Jerk

I don't know anything about Peter Beinart, but having just seen him on George Stephanopolus, I have concluded that he is a duplicitous idiot. The particular stupidity he was espousing was that the fight against Lieberman was evidence that the Democratic Party was becoming more like the Republican, prizing ideological purity above all. The anti-war Democrats, he said, aspire to be more like Karl Rove.

I guess this is the kind of garbage you have to mouth to make it on TV these days. Clearly, Beinart is an Ann Coulter wannabe.

There is more than one good reason to want to oust Lieberman, but the key is his support for a costly, stupid, and immensely counterproductive war. Anti-war Democrats don't aspire to ideological purity. We include social conservatives(like John Murtha) and strong on defense moderates (like James Webb) as well as a lot of others ranging out to the nutbag left. What we want is some truth and accountability and an end to the US occupation of Iraq.

I don't know if Beinart is just the usual Republican liar or merely yet another unscrupulous jerk publicizing himself, but I do know that he is spouting nonsense.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

South Asia

Frequent commenter Arun has a number of excellent recent posts on South Asian history and related matters. Among the most interesting for me were some of those relating US relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan and how the CIA's war with Russian in Afghanistan fed both the drug trade and the Taliban.

Arun includes a long excerpt from US Ambassador to India John Gunther Dean's oral history, from which I grabbed this snippet:

In order to understand U.S. relations with South Asia in the 1980s, one must also have some understanding of Indian-Pakistani relations during that period, and the crucial role of Pakistan in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Little was written in the United States during the 1980s about the links between arms for those fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the boom in the drug culture in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Perhaps the overriding U.S. policy consideration toward all of South Asia in those days was "to trap and kill the Russian bear in Afghanistan, and Pakistan was a staunch ally in its strategy."

... As I stated in earlier chapters, different agencies and departments of the U.S. Government could have conflicting positions. This was also the case in Embassy New Delhi; specifically, it applied to the relationship of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Generally speaking, to protect its "assets" abroad, the CIA had ensured in those days that the DEA's concerns outside the United States were subordinated to its own.

The CIA did achieve its goal of getting the Russian Bear driven out of Afghanistan, but the side effects included corruption of Pakistan and the creation of a formidable engine of Islamic extremism.

Now He Tells Us

Arianna Huffington asked Colin Powell if we were ever going to get out of Iraq:

"We are," he told me, "but we're not going to leave behind anything we like because we are in the middle of a civil war."

Leaving aside the folly of getting into Iraq in the first place, for which Bush and Cheney bear most of the blame, the catastrophic mismanagement of the invasion by Rumsfeld seems most responsible for the current civil war. When Rumsfeld was briefed by the military on their (contingency) plans for an Iraqi invasion, they asked for 500,000 men. Rumsfeld pulled the number 125,000 out of the air and we went (more or less) with that. As a result, there have never been enough American troops to control the country and its borders, making anarchy all but inevitable. Further blunders created the present civil war between Sunni and Shia.

I suppose it's nice that Powell now acknowledges the fix we gotten ourselves into, but it would have been nice if he had spoken out early and forcefully.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Yet Another One Down!

It looks like one more of my favorite crackpot notions has bit the dust. It's known theoretically (no experimental evidence) that a uniformly accererated observer should experience a particle flux called Unruh radiation. The acceleration necessary to make this observable is beyond ordinary capabilities, but I had been interested in the effect for electrons in atoms, nucleons in the nucleus, quarks in a nucleon, etc. It seems that notion is vain, since according to Emil T.Akhmedov, Valeria Akhmedova, and Douglas Singleton there is No Unruh-like Radiation for circular motion (hep-th/0607026).

By studying the response function for a detector in uniform circular motion we show that no Unruh-like radiation will be detected. Thus, it is not possible to measure the Unruh effect using circularly moving electrons in a particle accelerator.

The motions I mentioned are not uniformly circular, but it looks like the result is probably more general.
For a detector in uniform circular motion we found that its transition rate is essentially that of a detector in uniform linear motion, indicating that a detector in circular motion should not see any Unruh-like radiation. It is therefore not possible to observe the effects of Unruh-like radiation on the polarization of electrons in storage rings as claimed in [2].

This agrees with the tunneling calculation for circular motion [3]. In the case of the tunneling picture the physical reason for the lack of Unruh radiation was the lack of a horizon or barrier which would prevent some photons from reaching the detector. For linear acceleration, a, photons some distance behind the observer will not reach the observer. For circular motion nothing prevents any photon from eventually reaching the circularly moving observer.

Oh well.

Brit 100

Via Mark Trodden of Cosmic Variance and Lubos Motl, I learned about Universities UK’s EurekaUK report on their choices for the top 100 discoveries by UK universities of the last 50 years. Mark picks out the ones most relevant to physics and astronomy and Lubos does his usual dyspeptic rant, but neither mentions the two I found most interesting.

The focus is technology with implications (and social science) but some pure research made it too. My first selection is probably the most important development in fundamental science of the last half-century as well as the most important technological development of that period:

Revealing the recipe of life
James Watson and the late Francis Crick unveiled the double helix structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA on February 28, 1953.

That discovery has revolutionized medicine and biology given birth to biotechnology. The discovery is also one of the crowning triumphs of the revolution in our understanding of the nature of matter that grew out of quantum mechanics and the exploration of the atom. The twentieth century was a century of unifications, but none was more important than the unification of physics, chemistry and biology that came out of atomic theory and quantum mechanics.

The second selection I made is not without its own important technological implications, but is mostly important for the way it helped revolutionize the our understanding of the history of the Earth.

Seafloor spreading and plate tectonics
In 1963, two British marine geologists discovered huge matching magnetic 'stripes' in the rocks by ocean ridges.

This proved to be the key to confirming and understanding continental drift and plate tectonics, the Rosetta Stone of geology. There are many other interesting discoveries on the list, as well as many that Lubos has concluded are silly, leftist, or at least not string theory.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Israel's Dilemma

Since I'm already having a lousy day, I might as well post on the subject of the Middle East.

Israel just happens to be an economically advanced, democratic, liberal principled, theocratic and racist state situated among neighbors who share few of those traits, except for theocracy, and a different theocracy at that. A series of wars each started or provoked by its neighbors left it in charge of land formerly owned and occupied by followers of another theocracy. Oddly enough, the conquered and displaced resent their current status, which is miserable.

This is not an unfamiliar problem, historically speaking. The Bible is replete with examples, and God is usually pretty firm in such matters. As a cynical Bible student once said, "Genocide is God's way of resolving territorial disputes."

Sharon and other looked at the options: forced assimilation, expulsion, and extermination and found all unacceptable. That leaves some kind of coexistence as the only alternative, but with Hamas in charge of Arab Palestine, peace is not possible.

The vast disproportion of strength is a paradoxical difficulty for Israel. If the Palestinian State were strong enough to be a military threat, Israel could just smash it. It would be relatively easy for Israel to conquer and rule the Palestinians, but then what?

In the end, I guess, Israel will have to make the Palestinian State an offer it can't refuse: Make peace, recognize Israel and control your terrorists, or we will occupy you and put you into reservations (like the Native Americans), regulating every aspect of your lives - your laws, your schools, the language you speak, how you dress, your religion, and how many children you can have.

Not a pretty picture, but what are the alternatives? For the record, I think Israel can afford to offer a lot more carrot than it has so far. I'm not endorsing this particular stick either, but what are the alternatives?

Roadmaps and similar sophistries have gone nowhere so far.

The Man?

Is Dennis Overbye The Man in science reporting? He's got the bully pulpit at the NYT, a graceful writing style, and is plugged in to the world's top physicists. Still, I was a bit put off by the tone in his recent NYT article Physics Awaits New Options as Standard Model Idles

For most of us, any physics is new physics.

Having stopped paying attention somewhere back around "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" or the discovery that you can make sparks by shuffling your feet on the carpet and then touching a doorknob (or another person), we amateurs respond with the same glazed mixture of wonder and incredulity to the latest abilities of computer chips or the expansion of the universe.

Isn't that a bit too condescending an attitude to take to readers of the NYT science section?

The main theme of his article, the theoretical malaise induced by the fact that particle physics hasn't revealed any applecart upsetting discoveries lately, is rather well done. The melodramatic ending is over the top though:
In words that still haunt me, Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, once wrote, "When a child asks, What is the world, we literally have nothing to tell her."

[string theory deletia]...

My own daughter, Mira, just turned 4 and she is not asking me what the world is made of, quite yet. I've managed to keep ahead of her so far, if only by reading a page ahead in the dinosaur books that occupy bedtime, but the time is coming when she will be calling me and the world's physicists to account.

When she does, I would like to have something to tell her, and myself.

Jeez, Dennis, that's ridiculous. We have better anwers now than ever before. If you want final answers, you need to go to the theology section, not physics.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Five Minutes of Exciting Soccer

One hundred and ten minutes into Italy vs Germany I wondered why they didn't just skip the boring prolog and go directly into the penalty kicks.

The last five to ten minutes were thrilling though disappointing for German fans I'm sure. Why can't more of soccer be like this?

Italy 2 Germany 0

Arizona Clown Show

The sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix and suburbs), is one of those distinctly American buffoons who has managed to parlay melodramatically cynical posturing into a long political career. Every few years he manages to get a little national coverage with one of his little gimmicks for tormenting his prisoners. Making the prisoners wear pink underwear was a hit, as was housing them in tent cities.

His latest trick is making the prisoners stand at attention while playing the Star Spangled Banner twice daily. His amazing hypocritical justification is that this is to "increase their patriotism." Now anybody ought to be able to figure out that repeatedly taunting a bunch of people deprived of their freedom with the anthem of freedom is a lot more likely to build hatred than patriotism, but in the land of Faux and Bush, no hypocritical pomposity is sufficiently over the top.

Brad Delong has a nice quote from Fredrick Douglass today.

Frederick Douglas, 1852:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?: I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless;

Unlike the slaves, the prisoners are presumeably responsible for their incarceration, but I doubt that the reaction to the stimulus is much different.

The US incarcerates a larger fraction of its citizens than any other country in the world, handily beating out repressive states like Belarus, Russia, Cuba, and Kazakhstan. No advanced western democracy is anywhere close. The vast majority of those incarcerated will get out in a few years. Turning them into dedicated enemies of the country hardly seems like a good strategy.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Strings Agonistes

Strings are king in many of the most prominent US Physics departments, but somewhat uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The rumblings of discontent have reached the pages of The Wall Street Journal in the form of a story by Sharon Begley that relies heavily on quotes from Peter Woit of Not Even Wrong.

A letter of rejoinder from MIT string theoriest Barton Zwiebach has been posted by Lubos Motl on his blog The Reference Frame, quoted in it's entirety below:

Dear Editor:

As a string theorist and an enthusiastic daily reader of the Journal I was baffled by the gloomy assessment in "Has String Theory Tied Up Better Ideas in the Field of Physics?", of Friday June 23, 2006. In this column, science reporter Sharon Begley presents the viewpoint of those who regret the twenty-year old dominance of String Theory in the marketplace of ideas in High-Energy Physics.

The "Not Even Wrong" epithet is hurled, suggesting that string theory is a sloppy and speculative work that cannot even be judged. To the contrary, string theory is an extraordinarily precise and rigorous framework where facts can be proven beyond doubt and computations give unequivocal answers. As every theory in science, it is speculative until confirmed by experiment -- hardly a reason to single it out. The cited naysayers correctly state that string theory has a myriad solutions, each describing possible universes. From this they conclude that making predictions, or disproving the theory, is impossible. Not really. All that is needed to confirm string theory is finding one solution that describes our universe. All that is needed to rule out string theory is showing that no solution describes our universe. An answer must exist.

Rather than speculate on the ideas that might have developed in the absence of string theory, we can celebrate the remarkable insights that have emerged from it. It has explained, for example, why black holes have entropy and temperature. It has also demonstrated a surprising fact: theories of strong nuclear forces are equivalent to theories of gravity. Over the last two months, several new papers use string theory to describe the motion of quarks in the plasma created by the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven! Not bad for a theory whose critics say is pie in the sky.

As in other collective endeavors, there is a bandwagon effect and many people rushed to string theory at the early start. There have been market corrections and a healthy equilibrium exists where string theory and other good ideas are explored and compete for attention. In this competitive environment, string theory continues to hold its own and to excite physicists with its possibilities.

Barton Zwiebach

Barton Zwiebach has written A First Course in String Theory, a book that I consider to be one of the greatest physics textbooks ever. That said, I find his letter unconvincing and somewhat disingenuous. Peter Woit has a detailed deconstruction of the letter's distortions here.

Begley did say the phrase "not even wrong" meant "sloppy and speculative" but Peter has explicitly disavowed this and I don't think that's what Pauli (the originator) meant either. Peter says it just means incapable of being tested, so Zwiebach has a point there.

I just want to add two points of criticism. Zwiebach claims: ...
string theory is an extraordinarily precise and rigorous framework where facts can be proven beyond doubt and computations give unequivocal answers.
Facts, in ordinary usage and in my dictionary, are true statements about reality. Mathematical theorems don't count. Neither do unconfirmed speculations. No doubt string theory computations do give some unequivocal answers - unfortunately, the answers given are either things we already know or don't currently have the capability to test. Peter has much more to say in related veins.

Second, Zweibach defends the landscape:
The cited naysayers correctly state that string theory has a myriad solutions, each describing possible universes. From this they conclude that making predictions, or disproving the theory, is impossible. Not really. All that is needed to confirm string theory is finding one solution that describes our universe. All that is needed to rule out string theory is showing that no solution describes our universe. An answer must exist.

This is almost beyond pathetic. The same defense could be made for Intelligent Design, Ptolamaic Epicycles, and Phlogiston. A scientific theory without any predictive power is just, just, Not Even Wrong.

If string theorists are going to defend their science, they need to be thinking about how it can make contact with experiment. The ideas of people like Lisa Randall and Nima Arkani-Hamed are much more relevant to this than appeals to the dream that somewhere, among the 10^500 compactifications in the landscape, there might be a universe (or a trillion universes) that look a lot like the one we live in.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Intimations of Mortality

There is nothing like confinement in a hospital bed, chained to an IV pole, to let the gloomy demons loose - or at any rate, it does the trick for me. Combine that with the disorientation of a strange town and the befuddled mind (or more befuddled mind) of a high fever, and it would be easy to get depressed. After a couple of days I felt well enough to accept the local paper they offered me.

None of that depressing national or international news sullied the front page of this small town Montana paper that day. That stuff was pre-empted by the wholesome family values of Red State America.

After a day out shooting and drinking, a nineteen year-old boy is sitting in his pickup, playing with a pistol. His friends reproach him for playing with the weapon, so he says "Why not? It's not loaded," puts the pistol to his temple and blows his brains out. Also killed is the sixteen year old girl sitting next to him in the pickup.

It doesn't get much more cheerful. Another group of kids decides to blow up some mailboxes with fireworks. Evidently the chosen victims had some previous experience with mail box vandalism, so their mailboxes were embedded in a rock and concrete matrix. Chunks of the exploded masonary shattered the femur and pelvis of one fifteen year-old perpetrator and severed a major artery. Last I heard, he was expected to live.

At the time, all I could think of was the terrible waste and devastated lives left behind. Eventually, I recalled my own experiments in explosives manufacture - not motivated by malice, but science - but probably equally dangerous if I had been a more proficient chemist.

Maybe those violent video games my kids liked weren't as bad as some alternatives.