Showing posts from December, 2007

Kristol Meth

Many have asked what The New York Times could be thinking in hiring Bill Kristol. The Times has a somewhat exaggerated reputation as a liberal paper and Kristol is pure right-wing meth, a hardcore neocon famous for his Iraq war cheerleading and absurdly wrong war predictions. Kristol despises the NYT and most of its readers return the contempt with interest.

So why did they make a move so clearly likely to offend a majority of their readers? I have a two part theory. First, the Times sees itself as locked in a death match with Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, and its infamously wing-nut editorial page. Second, even though New York is one of the more liberal American cities, it is also the most Jewish city in the world, and many otherwise liberal American Jews don't believe that you can be radical enough in your support of right-wing Israeli politics.

The two pillars of Neocon politics are a devotion to the interests of the Israeli right and the American rich, and bot…


Luboš Motl, a Czech blogger and potato bug expert, has written about the concentration of funding in science. He didn't say much interesting about it, but did use the occasion to rant about some of his favorite villains. I posted a comment which got deleted, no doubt because he didn't like my observation that if it were up to him, there would only be one idea in fundamental physics.

Just sayin'.


Cycles are pretty common in the Universe. Galaxies go through cycles of star formation and decay. Atoms are cycled through stars and back into the interstellar medium. Here on Earth, we have the hydrological cycle, with water evaporating from the oceans or elsewhere, condensing and falling as precipitation, and flowing back to the ocean. Oceanic crust and other materials from the interior of the planet is extruded at mid-ocean rifts and volcanos, cycled across oceans and subducted back into the interior. Oxygen and carbon atoms have their own cycles through rock, ocean, and atmosphere.

Closest to our interest here are the cycles of life. Birth, growth, death and decay take place in a cosmic instant, but these cycles have something crucial in common with all the others - they are all heat engines, powered by taking in energy at low entropy and putting it out at higher entropy. The same of course is true of the cycle that powers your automobile.

All the cycles mentioned are in so…

Huckabee on MTP

At least one pundit predicted that Mike Huckabee's campaign would run aground on Tim Russert's patented gotcha questions on MTP. I caught part of Huckabee's appearance and I don't think so. He looked solid, confident, and well briefed.

I think that our nameless pundit (because I can't remember who it was ;)) missed the mark because he failed to note that:
Huckabee is a veteran pol and cool under fire.Huckabee apparently knows how to prepare, unlike, say, Richardson, who completely booted his MTP appearance.Little Russ saves the tough questions for Democrats.I now think Huckabee is very likely to be the Republican nominee, and somewhat likely to beat Hillary. He might even beat Obama.

Intellect, Pickled

Paul Steinberg, writing in today's New York Times, has an interesting parable on the subject of George Bush's intellect.

Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

I thought the part about inflexibility of learning was particularly apropos - it explains a lot. Apparently the efficacy of exercise is less in humans, however.

Metabolism First

Arun, writing in the comments to an earlier post, brought my attention to Robert Shapiro's Scientific American cover story on a metabolism first approach to the origin of life. (Subscription only, but a longer, earlier, free version, minus nifty graphics and some other features is here. )

The magic without magic of small molecule cycles is heredity without heredity - actually, a distributed type of heredity. Such a system takes energy from the environment, uses it to drive a chemical cycle which includes producing more of the molecules that participate in the cycle. In effect, such systems create a local negative entropy gradient by exploiting some naturally occuring negative entropy gradient (energy from the Sun, volcanos, lightning, whatever).

Hurricanes perform an analogous feat. Once organized, their ferocious winds very efficiently extract heat from the ocean and use it to drive those same winds. The entropy gradient they exploit is that between the warm ocean below and the col…

Triumph of the Nazghul

I never would have believed it myself. I seem to recall that Ann Coulter once wished for the destruction of the New York Times building, presumably with the staff inside. Now, it seems, I can no longer in good conscience disagree. It's time to retire the Gray Lady, time to realize that print is, or by all that's holy, ought to be, dead.

Word is that ... I can't bear to say it...

Sob. And SOB. And other imprecations too vile for a family flog.

Reducible Complexity?

Comments upon reading Iris Fry's The Emergence of Life on Earth Chapters 7 & 8
The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick (with large contributions from Maurice Wilkins, Rosalyn Franklin, and Linus Pauling, to mention a few) is perhaps the most momentous discovery of the twentieth century. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins got the Nobel, and most of the glory (Franklin was already dead, and Pauling, who came close but missed, already had two of his own) but it is clear that if Watson and Crick had failed, somebody else would have discovered it soon, regardless.

The most important fact that discovery revealed was noted in the very coy finale of the Watson and Crick publication:
“. . . it has not escaped our attention that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material”.
The DNA structure consists of two complementary helices, which upon separation, can produce (with the help of enzymes) two copies…

Metabolism, Heredity and Catalysis

Reading Iris Fry's The Emergence of Life on Earth Chapter 6Not much progress on understanding the origin of life was possible until some understanding of the mechanisms of life was achieved. Some physics and a lot of chemistry were required before it could be discovered how living things went about the business of growing, developing, and reproducing.

Underlying all living activity is metabolism - the systematic production of chemical changes that consumed energy, changed its form, and used it to produce motion or new components of living things. It gradually became understood that highly specific catalysts (enzymes) were the master chemists at work in living cells. Meanwhile, Mendel's laws of genetics had made possible an "atomic theory" of inheritance. Heredity was apparently embodied in discrete form, rather than as some mysterious and continuously variable fluid. Leonard Trolland, writing in 1914, realized that a gene too could be considered a sort of catalyst - a…

Beastly Fates

The Beast produces his fifty most loathsome list, and consigns them to condign punishments. Samples: 8. Michael Chertoff
Charges: Looks and acts like a man who sleeps in a coffin. . .

Exhibit A: Habitually references his "gut feeling" that the next terror attack is imminent.

Sentence: Gut feeling is actually stomach cancer.

. . .

2. Dick Cheney

Charges: Worst president ever. So openly horrible, he now makes jokes about being Darth Vader. Unashamedly advocating for executive abuse of power and corporate theft. In and out of public office since his congressional internship during the Nixon Administration. Didn't care about the quagmire he foresaw in '94, because since then he'd deftly maneuvered to profit from it. Polling lower than HPV.

Exhibit A: His Halliburton stock rose 3000% in 2007. No joke.

. . .

Magic Without Magic

That evocative phrase of the physicist John Archibald Wheeler is probably even more apropos for biology than for physics. The problem in biology was the seeming unbridgeable gap between living and non-living. From Aristotle to Descartes to Huxley, biologists were forced to invoke some magic - some vital principle mysteriously present in organic matter - in order to explain life. Of course Descartes and Huxley tried to reduce it to mechanism, but always their ideas collided with the complexity and purposefulness of life.

Leonardo da Vinci conceived of biological systems as machines at least 500 years ago, and Descartes made it a cornerstone of his philosophy a bit more than a century later, but three plus centuries more were needed before biology (and physics, chemistry and biochemistry) could penetrate to the essence of that magic. That magic without magic is modern molecular biology, especially the revelation of the workings of DNA and its translation into proteins.

Only with that s…

The Man Who Would be King

Glenn Greenwald points out that Mitt Romney has fairly explicitly promised that if he is elected, you can kiss your Constitution goodbye. His claims of executive powers exceed even Bush's.

We can only keep you safe if you give up your freedom, promise these Republicans. Of course they have been utter failures at the safety bit as well.

Generation and Reduction

The reductionist paradigm bequeathed to us from the ancient Greek philosophers always had trouble with life. Aristotle found it necessary to invoke a dualistic explanation, dividing the world into body and soul, matter and an organising priciple. Iris Fry, in her book The Emergence of Life on Earth, devotes the first five chapters to the historical background of thought on the origin of life, and Aristotle's idea, suitably kneaded and pummeled, formed the foundation until nearly the beginning of the twentieth century. Actually, even today it's hard to take much exception to Aristotle, except that we now know that the organizing principle, or soul, is embodied in the information stored in material, the DNA.

Although early Greek atomists resisted making a distinction between living and nonliving, the difference is simply too marked to be ignored. The problem that now bedevils us, abiogenesis, or the development of life from non-living material, wasn't a problem for much o…

Krudlow on Bush

Why satire is wasted on wing-nuts: Part XXXIV

Larry Kudlow thinks that 2007 was a very good year for George Bush.

Against all odds, and despite the usual drumbeat of criticism, President Bush had a very good year.
The punch line is that he isn't joking.
On the other hand, he hasn't been impeached, tried as a war criminal, or jailed. Yet.
So maybe the Krudster has a point.

Blame Game

Cultural anthropology is an unfortunate science. Hardly had it managed to do more than invent itself than its most interesting subjects began to vanish before its eyes. The same forces that brought investigators into contact with technologically primitive societies tended to rapidly destroy them. The homogenization of world culture that had its origins in Western colonial expansion has now grossly affected every culture in the world.

Combine this circumstance with the generally difficult prospects for anthropological professionals and some internal tics developed under the influence of French post-structuralism and literary theory, and you get a cranky, querelous kind of science, distrustful of itself and especially of the society from which it sprang. A science, in short, likely to be suspicious and dismissive of grand theories like those Jared Diamond espoused in Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.

George Johnson, writing in the New York Times, has been listening to some of the…

Ideology: Convenient Untruths

Triumph of the Kleptocracy
Adam Smith famously noted that every nation that had relied upon deficit financing had paid with its strength or existence.
The practice of funding has gradually enfeebled every state which has adopted it. The Italian republics seem to have begun it. Genoa and Venice, the only two remaining which can pretend to an independent existence, have both been enfeebled by it. Spain seems to have learned the practice from the Italian republics, and (its taxes being probably less judicious than theirs) it has, in proportion to its natural strength, been-still more enfeebled.
It works for individuals and corporations as well.
It's probably not coincidental that a cardinal objective of the American, or rather, global, kleptocracy has been the enslavement of the country and the people to debt. We begin with the reign of Saint Reagan, rightly celebrated by the GK, above all for cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on middle class. Those were merely the outward man…

Italy, France, and Other Tropical Countries

The NYT has a story on the advance of tropical disease into new environments, with an assist from global warming and globalization: As Earth Warms Up, Tropical Virus Moves to Italy .

CASTIGLIONE DI CERVIA, Italy — Panic was spreading this August through this tidy village of 2,000 as one person after another fell ill with weeks of high fever, exhaustion and excruciating bone pain, just as most of Italy was enjoying Ferragosto, its most important summer holiday.

Officials set out insect traps and were surprised by what they caught: tiger mosquitoes.
“At one point, I simply couldn’t stand up to get out of the car,” said Antonio Ciano, 62, an elegant retiree in a pashmina scarf and trendy blue glasses. “I fell. I thought, O.K., my time is up. I’m going to die. It was really that dramatic.”

. . .

After a month of investigation, Italian public health officials discovered that the people of Castiglione di Cervia were, in fact, suffering from a tropical disease, chikungunya, a relative of dengue f…

Math is Hard - Barbie

Actually I'm having trouble with several other subjects as well. Molecular Biology is nicer than physics because you have all these nice pictures. Unfortunately, each picture is worth a thousand words, so a text with a thousand pictures also seems to have a million more words. If I could remember the names (and properties) of all these silly molecules I would have been a botanist - with apologies to Enrico Fermi.

In physics, you pretty much know that you need to understand all the fundamentals - but experimental details are more optional. In biology, it's not so obvious, at least to me. Do I really need to remember which is the 3' and which the 5' Carbon of the whachamacallit sugar - (do I need to know how to tell a ribose from a deoxyribose, or for that matter, a purine from a pyramidine)? And all those blankety blank amino acids? Wait, wait - I think I remember glycine.

I have decided on a compromise strategy - I will stare at each page of elaborate diagrams unt…

Recycling to Save the Environment

What to Do with all those Nuclear Submarines

The world is cluttered with junk left over from the cold war - ICBMs, nuclear subs, etc. Most of it is trash, of course, but some of those subs could still be useful. One major threat to the world's sustainability is deep sea trawling. (Time: Laying Waste to the Deep Sea)
Far out on the high seas, on any given day, hundreds of fishing vessels drag huge nets, big enough to snag a 747 jumbo jet, across the ocean bottom, vacuuming up 150-year-old fish, flattening ancient reefs and destroying everything else in their paths.

Only the biodiversity of tropical rainforests rivals that of the deep sea — our planet's largest wilderness — an aquatic wonderland that is now being systematically razed by what is likely the world's most environmentally destructive business. The fishing occurs mostly around the ocean's most unique topographical formations — submarine canyons, mid-oceanic ridges and tens of thousands of seamounts (most are exti…

Stupid Libertarian Tricks

I thought of a few alternative titles for this post, like, for example: How Alan Greenspan, George Bush, and the Right-Wing Kleptocracy Conspired to Bring About the Sub-prime Crisis. Or how about: How the Invisible Hand got its Fingers Stuck in the Cookie Jar. Or we might have just gone with the headline of Paul Krugman's NYT column: Blindly Into the Bubble.

It's a now familiar tale: ideology and greed combine to produce stupid policies. A few get very rich, less than honestly, and many get a good deal poorer. Krugman lays out how Alan Greenspan, Ayn Randian zealot of unfettered capitalism, ignored clear and persistent warnings to enable a vast swindle. Naturally, George Bush and his appointees played key supporting roles.
When announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

There was a definite Hirohito feel to the explanation Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reser…

Orphan IQ

A new study rather dramatically illustrates the effect of early environment on IQ. Benedict Carey reports the study in the NYT story: Orphanages Stunt Mental Growth, a Study Finds
Psychologists have long believed that growing up in an institution like an orphanage stunts children’s mental development but have never had direct evidence to back it up.

Now they do, from an extraordinary years-long experiment in Romania that compared the effects of foster care with those of institutional child-rearing.

. . .

On I.Q. tests taken at 54 months, the foster children scored an average of 81, compared to 73 among the children who continued in an institution. The children who moved into foster care at the youngest ages tended to show the most improvement, the researchers found.

The comparison group of youngsters who grew up in their biological families had an average I.Q. of 109 at the same age, found the researchers, who announced their preliminary findings as soon in Romania as they were know…

Essential Cell Biology

What little I know of molecular biology was learned from reading the first edition of James Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene (Just out in a new $$$ixth edition). It was a very good book, but that was a few decades ago, so much has been learned and forgotten (by biologists and by me, respectively) in the interim. Since I have again become interested in molecular evolution, I thought I could use a review and update.

The gold standard these days, so far as I can tell, is The Molecular Biology of the Cell, by Bruce Alberts and a team of seven, supposedly now available in a brand new (I can't find a copyright date yet) fifth edition. This, however, is a $142.00, three kilogram, 1728 page fine print monster, so I think I will pass, or at least wait until a cheap used copy is available. It has a baby brother, Essential Cell Biology by Alberts and most of the same cast, and I found it on my son's bookshelf, so I will try a read of that.

Any other advice from those in the…

Q & A

Questions our fearless punditry have asked the candidates, together with the correct answers.

Q (Russert): Do you believe that life begins at conception?

A: Duh! No! It began billions of years ago. Get a grip Timmy!

Q (Couric): How do you feel about marital infidelity?

A: Katie, are you trying to come on with me? Cause like I'm married. And besides, this isn't the time. Call me though.

Q (NLS): What did the Founders mean by the "pursuit of happiness?

A: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Q (SL): Is it a mistake, therefore, to call the United States a democracy?

A: Under current leadership, it has strong resemblances to a fascist kleptocracy.

Q (SL): How does the U.S. debt compare with the debts of other nations?

A: The United States now owes more than all of the rest of the nations of the world combined.

Q (AP): What is the last work of fiction you've read?

A: Rudy Giuliani's campaign biography.

Q: (AP) What were your best and worst subjects in school?

A: Math and Religion. …

Hard Times

Joanne of Cosmic Variance has the bad news for fundamental physics in the 2008 budget. Science overall does poorly, but high energy physics and fusion research get shafted big time.

For High Energy Physics, well, the situation is dire, and I am not exaggerating. The numbers are:
FY07 current operating budget is $751.8M
The Bush Administration’s request for FY08 was $782.3 M.
The final bill (with the mandatory rescission) provides $688.3 M
This is a reduction of $63.5 M from FY07 and $94 M from the President’s FY08 request. The language specifically targets NovA (a neutrino facility under construction at Fermilab) and the International Linear Collider:
Within funding for Proton Accelerator-Based Physics, no funds are provided for the NOvA activity in Tevatron Complex Improvements. Within Advanced Technology R&D, in the current constrained environment and without a Critical Decision 0 by the

Department, only $15,000,000 is provided for International Linear Collider R&D and $5,455,0…


Not too new, but Andrew Sullivan gives us a good example of why the Republican right is immune to satire:
Jonah Goldberg's party might be dragging citizens off the street, incarcerating them without charges for four years and torturing them (if you haven't heard of Jose Padilla, you've been reading too much NRO), they might have suspended habeas corpus indefinitely, they might be wire-tapping your phone without warrants, they may be claiming presidential authority to ignore laws and treaties ... but the real fascism can be found in:

a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.
Be afraid.

No matter how outrageous the satire you think up, you can't match the absurdity of what these people actually think and say.

The Ancestor's Tale: Not Quite a Review

Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale is the story of life on Earth, recounted in 39 rendezvous with other forms of life, each rendezvous set at the point of divergence of our ancestor and the other. I always intended to write a review, but now, at the end, I really can't. I am more of a viewer than a reviewer. I like a book where I can get into an argument with the author, and one where I can stop and wonder at the marvels shown, and Dawkins' book marvellously fits that description.

Instead of a review, I have presented eleven (now twelve) views of The Ancestor's Talehere.

It is a quite wonderful book, and I intend absolutely no disrepect to the author when I say that its merit lies more in the tale than the teller - though he tells it very well. He quite explicitly says the same. The author's love and indeed reverence for his subject is very much in evidence. He says a few words at the end about his disdain for the conventional reverence for the supernat…

Retiring Too Late

Alan Greenspan's reputation would have been intact if he had had the sense to retire in 1999 or 2000. It was all down hill from there, though. Signing off on the Bush tax cuts to usher in vast deficits, followed by the blunder of ignoring and even promoting the sub-prime debacle ensured that he will go down as a major bumbler. His mistakes grew directly out of his partisanship and his ideology. Convinced of magic self-regulation in free markets, and reluctant to offend the conservative ideologues, he abandoned judgement. His reputation will justly suffer.

He goes about these days emitting smoke in an effort to obscure his culpability, but it won't work.

I think he has another equally bad deed on his record that rarely draws much commentary - his role raising social security taxes to make up for the Reagan tax cuts for the rich.

Sinners in the Crosshairs of an Angry God?

If you were a bit unclear on that benevolent deity bit, you might want/not want to check out this story. It seems that a jet from a supermassive black hole in the center of one galaxy is blasting into another nearby galaxy.
A jet of highly charged radiation from a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy is blasting another galaxy nearby -- an act of galactic violence that astronomers said yesterday they have never seen before.

Using images from the orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory and other sources, scientists said the extremely intense jet from the larger galaxy can be seen shooting across 20,000 light-years of space and plowing into the outer gas and dust of the smaller one.

Intense jets of particles and photons can be hazardous.
"What we've identified is an act of violence by a black hole, with an unfortunate nearby galaxy in the line of fire," said Dan Evans, the study leader at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. He said …

Bully Boy

There is a certain type of schoolyard bully whose stock in trade is standing around pointing out other people's actual or possible defects: "Mary Jane is Fat," "Bart is stupid," "Your Dad's a religious nut." I always picture him as Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons, complete with "Ha, Ha" laugh.

Perhaps it's just my bad memory, but I think I remember a time when PZ Myers wrote an interesting blog about evolution and development. Now, though, it seems to be all religion bashing, all the time.

Now I understand a bit about obsession - I personally have been driven into shrill unholy madness by Republican mendacity and criminality - but enough is enough. I will try to resist speculating on what childhood trauma or oedipal conflict pushed PZ into whackjobhood, but he got there somehow, and it's a nasty, mean-spirited whackjobhood at that.

It does seem successful as a blogging tactic though. Every bully seems to attract a crowd of lik…

Rewind and Repeat

The final chapter of The Ancestor's Tale consider's a question that had occurred to me earlier in my comments: what would happen if we could rewind to some earlier era and let the whole process occur again? Would evolution retrace its steps? Closely? At all?

It turns out that Stuart Kauffman had posed just such questions some time ago. Physicists are addicted to this kind of gedanken experiment, but biologists, not so much. There is a pretty sharp divergence of opinion, it seems. Steven Jay Gould, and in a slightly different context, Ernst Mayr could be considered advocates of "radical contingency." In that view, the replay would be utterly different. Simon Conway Morris takes an almost opposite view, with Dawkins taking an intermediate position a bit closer to Morris. Put me down with Morris.

The core of the Gould-Mayr argument is that the detailed path of evolution depends on such an intricate set of contingencies that any replay would rapidly diverge from t…

Note to Self

If you plan on hanging a dog, slitting his throat, and stoning him to death, make sure that you are a preacher-governor's kid instead of an NFL quarterback. Also good advice if you plan to smuggle a loaded handgun aboard a plane in your carry-on luggage.

via Pharyngula.

Happy Birthday, Little Guy!

Today is the sixtieth birthday of perhaps the most important character of the twentieth century. Number twenty was a pretty momentous century, what with two world wars, space travel, relativity, quantum mechanics, and the atomic bomb, but I think that the little guy was probably the star nonetheless. I'm talking, of course, about this guy.
The transistor was invented by scientists William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain to amplify voices in telephones for a Bell Labs project, an effort for which they later shared the Nobel Prize in physics.

On Dec. 16, 1947, Bardeen and Brattain created the first transistor. The next month, on Jan. 23, 1948, Shockley, a member of the same research group, invented another type, which went on to become the preferred transistor because it was easier to manufacture

The subsequent invention of the integrated circuit allowed an ever increasing number of transitors to be crowded onto a chip of silicon, with the current record about a billion. I s…

Cheaters Never Win

. . . in the ideal world, but in the real world they do tend to. One problem with proposals to regulate emissions is the question of how to deal with cheating - countries that don't observe emissions limits. Our ingenious climate scholar, Prof. Eli Rabett has an answer:
Nations wishing to make major progress on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions should introduce emission taxes on all products. These taxes should be levied on imports as well as domestic goods at the point of sale, and should displace other taxes, such as VAT, sales taxes, and payroll (e.g. social security, health care) in such a way that tax revenues are constant, and distributed equitably.

Pretty clearly, this can only work if most of the major consumer nations sign on. I doubt that it could really work without the US, but it might. I would be interested if economists (or anybody) could find any flaws in this idea?

Lifelike: Last Call for Intelligent Design

The only redoubt of biology that has not yet yielded utterly to Darwin is the problem of the origin of life. I have now reached Canterbury in The Ancestor's Tale and it's pretty clear that even that last fortress is crumbling fast.

The line between living and non-living is still a bright one - there is still a yawning gap between chemistry and life. So how do you get from non-living to life? I'm a firm believer in the idea that there are no "valley crossers" in evolution, to use Lee Smolin's phrase, only hill climbers, so the answer (I think) has got to be some variation on "in small steps."

Living things distinguish themselves in a number of ways, but the most obvious are metabolism and reproduction, or more precisely, more or less faithful reproduction. Little pine trees grow up to be big pine trees, not cherry trees, and little kittens grow up to be cats instead of dogs. The hereditary quality is the important one, says Dawkins. Without it yo…

Southside Story

Scott Aaronson has a tale to tell. It's a tale of an intrepid blogger pitted against corporate power. There is international intrigue, some notably hot models, unscrupulous corporate power, and even a bloody oriental religious sacrifice. To get the details you need to go here, where Scott lays out how it came to pass that:
. . . this sordid southern-hemisphere tale of sex, plagiarism, quantum mechanics, and printers could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction
Don't forget to read the comments.

Testing, One,Two, Three

The vast majority of of the human race could not run a 4.7 sec 40 yards downhill, with a twenty-five mile an hour tailwind, but if you are a prospective NFL cornerback or safety a time that fast is way too slow. (Check out, e.g., Mark Zeigler's fascinating San Diego Union-Tribune article). The difference between a 4.4 forty and a 4.7 forty is a bit less than three yards over the distance, which is a lot more than a cornerback can concede to a receiver. The NFL screens several hundred prospective recruits every year, and they are weighed, measured, tested, tested, and tested. That forty yard sprint is likely the most important test, but the NFL also tests how high you can jump, how far you can jump, and how many times you can bench press 225 lbs. And it gives you an IQ test. That test, the twelve minute, fifty question Wonderlic, is also given to something like 2.5 million other prospective employees every year. The NFL, Walmart, and all the others giving such tests aren't inte…

Numberman Strikes Back

Richard Dawkins gives a nice account of radioisotope dating in "The Redwoods Tale." Until he comes to actual numbers. After explaining that potassium 40 decays to argon 40 with a half-life of 1.3 billion years, he explains how you can do dating by comparing the amounts of the respective isotopes left in the rock.
If there are equal amounts of potassium 40 and argon 40, you know that [half has decayed and the crystal formed 1.3 Gya]...
If there's twice as much argon 40 as potassium 40, it is 2.6 billion years . . .
Oops! If it were 2.6 gya, then only 1/4 of the potassium would have survived, and the ratio would be three to one, not two to one. He doesn't give the equation, but it can be written as:
N(t)=N0*2^(-t/h), where N(t) is the number of atoms at time t, N0 is the starting number and h is the half life. For his example N(t)/N0 = 1/3, so 2^(-t/h)=1/3 and (-t/h)*ln(2)= ln(1/3), or t= h*ln(3)/ln(2) = 2.06 billion years.
Similarly, he claims that if there is twice …

The Gloves Are Off

Andrew Sullivan links to My kind of GOP campaign ad.

UPDATE: And another one for Huckabee, from David Kurtz at TPM


I haven't posted on physics for a while. Mainly that's because it's just too depressing. Even an arrow of time food fight between Sean Carroll and Lubos Motl can't rouse me from somnolence, though Sean has an interesting point or two and Lubosh is even further off the mass shell than usual.
Is the end of physics really here?
Probably not, but it sure would be nice to have some interesting experimental data.

Creative Destruction: Kill The Poor

Gregory Clark has written A FAREWELL TO ALMS: A Brief Economic History of the World, a new book attracting considerable attention among economists and historians. I'm not going to talk about the book here, I'm saving that until I've read a bit more, but I do want to review one of its themes, as developed by the author in a New York Sun opinion piece: How to Save Africa:
Africa is poor. Very poor.

Saving Africa has rightly become a popular concern, uniting Bono and Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie and Pope Benedict XVI. Despairing of academic skepticism, the intellectual force of this movement, Jeffrey Sachs, appeals directly to the people promising $110 per head to end destitution and disease in Africa. Who could resist such a humanitarian bargain?

However, in economics the best of intentions does not necessarily lead to the best of outcomes.

The long history of living standards suggests that the Sachs plan is more likely to further impoverish Africa than enrich it. The promised hea…

Nature/Nurture: Black Like Jim

I'm agnostic about many aspects of God's nature, but I'm pretty sure that She has a weakness for irony. According to this New York Times story, Jim Watson - remember him, the brilliant but sometimes obnoxious Nobel Prize winner who got in trouble for dissing African IQs - Jim, it seems, is 16% African. Watson became only the second person to disclose his complete DNA, and analysis apparently showed about 16% African and 9% Asian ancestral DNA. These numbers would be compatible with great-grandparents who were Black and Asian. (via Andrew Sullivan)

More substantively, Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent New Yorker article on IQ and heredity, based in part on a debate between Flynn and Jensen. Here is perhaps Flynn's biggest point:
Flynn then talked about what we’ve learned from studies of adoption and mixed-race children—and that evidence didn’t fit a genetic model, either. If I.Q. is innate, it shouldn’t make a difference whether it’s a mixed-race child’s mother or fat…

Science Fair Project

If one had the resources and time, a nice experiment would be to try removing all animal life above the unicellular level. Then wait for a billion years or so to see what evolved to fill the niche.
How about slime molds? These very curious characters spend the early part of their lives as unicellular amoeboid hunters. After a bit of feasting, some will start sounding the chemical trumpet, and they spontaneously assemble into a slug like organism which will crawl around for a while until it finds a suitable spot to stand on its head and turn itself into a miniature mushroom, with the former rear end becoming a mass of spores to be dispersed and start over.
How tough would it be for some of them to learn to prosper and diversify in the slug form?
Maybe some parasitic plants might develop some motility?
Richard Dawkins, in The Ancestor's Tale, has our last common ancestor with the slime molds (and the rest of the amoebazoans) back at co-ancestor 35, between the fungi and the plants. …

Movie Mini-Review: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK) didn't translate particularly well to the big screen, but I rather liked it anyway. So why the Box Office crash in the US? I suspect that it just wasn't well enough known here, and it wasn't that heavily promoted.

The need to pack a lot of narrative into two hours meant that essentially all of the subleties were lost. My favorite parts of the book were set in Oxford, but very little of that remains in the movie.

The movie ends rather earlier in the narrative than the book. Consequently, we don't see the truly dark side of Lord Asriel. This tends to warp the overall mood of the story. I suspect that this was a studio choice not to end the movie on a real downer.

Why Are the Political Debates Always So Stupid?

Because they aren't debates. Real debates are interesting. In a debate, two sides face off on an issue, present their cases, and get to cross examine each other.
For some moronic reason, candidates now are content to assemble as a panel and stand there trying to answer stupid questions with sound bites.
There is only room for one topic in a debate, and more than two debaters is also probably a problem. It might be possible to accomodate up to four in a format where each debater had, say, a ten minute presentation, eight minutes to question the others, and two minutes for a rebuttal and summary. The moderator's only job would be to keep the time.
Here are a few topics:Health careEnergy & EnvironmentIraqPresidential AccountabilityEducationNational Infrastructure

Religious Intolerance

The point that sticks in my craw about Romney's "Faith speech" is the cynical hypocrisy of it. Republicans today have mastered the newspeak of 1984 and Stalinist Communism. Romney represented his speech on the one hand as an appeal to traditional American tolerance while still trying to appeal to the most intolerant segment of Americans. Don't eat me he said to the fundamentalists - let's join hands to gang up on unbelievers and non-Christians.
The NYT's Dec 7 editorial hits the key points:
Still, there was no escaping the reality of the moment. Mr. Romney was not there to defend freedom of religion, or to champion the indisputable notion that belief in God and religious observance are longstanding parts of American life. He was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how di…

Torture, Lies, and Videotape

What did those videotapes the CIA illegally destroyed show? It seems that some, at least, showed the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah was a low ranking Al Quaeda gofer who turned out to be crazy and not know anything, but Bush was convinced he was important, so he wanted him tortured. Kevin Drum (via a complicated path that you will need to visit his site to unravel) has some details. Under torture, Zubaydah:
. . . began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to" And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."
Drum summarizes:
So here's what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had bru…


When I toured Westminister Abbey some decades ago, I recall seeing the tomb, or at any rate the name, of William Wilberforce. The name was familiar, so I asked the guide (docent?) if he was related to that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce who had famously debated Thomas Huxley on evolution. William was indeed the father of that Bishop, but if I learned what he had done to earn his place amongst England's great heroes I don't recall it.
What he did was lead the long crusade in England to ban the slave trade. The movie Amazing Grace is a lightly fictionalized account of that crusade, and to me a great movie. Gorgeous English scenery, a dramatic true story, and, best of all, a whole potfull of great British actors - Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, and Michael Gambon to mention a few.
He and his cohorts changed the world for the better, a great deed indeed. Moreover he did it by doing good - not by starting a war but by making the world see evil through his eyes.

Eternal Inflation with JS

Andrew Sullivan links to some cartoons on the Mormon religion. This youtube short is a rather unfriendly depiction of Mormon cosmology and theology, but it matches up pretty well with Eternal Inflationary cosmology.

A Bird in the Hand . . .

The notion of saving for the future, or investing, is a key to economic development. On the other hand, it also conflicts our natural tendency to value the immediate over the future.
Would you rather get ten dollars today or a million a year from now? That's probably not a hard question for most people. What about a thousand dollars today versus a million thirty years from now? A billion fifty years from now?
I won't be alive fifty years from now, so why would I want a billion then? Well, it the money were inheritable, my children have a good chance of being alive then, and, should I be so lucky, my grandchildren and other progeny. If it's tradeable, I should be able to sell it tommorow for several tens of millions to someone who will in turn eventually sell it for even more and so on until some owner perhabs not yet born collects fifty years from now.
How did I get the "tens of millions." It's a crude estimate based on current long term interest rate…

That Old Time Religion

I seem to recall that Benjamin Franklin, having rejected Puritanism and become a Deist, noted that his morals seemed to have declined in consequence. After reflection, he concluded that religion was a good thing if it taught moral lessons that would benefit the practitioner and the larger society, and that any religions which did that should be welcomed. If I apply that test to the Mormons I have known, I would have to say the Church passes the test rather nicely, Senator Hatch notwithstanding.

Mitt Romney gave a very mealy-mouthed talk today, purportedly on the subject of his religion. He noted that the constitution and American tradition dictate that his religion should be tolerated, as should those of all others who vote Republican - while pointedly failing to extend that tolerance to the irreligious and Muslims. He emphasized commonalities of belief with his target audience while somehow failing to discuss any matter on which he and evangelicals might have different opinions.

These …