Sunday, November 30, 2008

War Profiteer

How many American soldiers died to make Barry McCaffrey rich? That is the question invited by David Barstow's New York Times expose on the activities of NBC military analyst and retired four star General Barry McCaffrey. It is a long article, but Steve Benen picks out a particularly devastating sentence:

. As Barstow explained, "On NBC and in other public forums, General McCaffrey has consistently advocated wartime policies and spending priorities that are in line with his corporate interests. But those interests are not described to NBC's viewers. He is held out as a dispassionate expert, not someone who helps companies win contracts related to the wars he discusses on television."

Benen also quotes Spencer Ackermans "Get Rich or Die Trying:

If this mammoth New York Times piece is wrong, Barry McCaffrey really ought to sue, because if it isn't, he has no reputation for integrity left. [...]

[T]he scope of McCaffrey's hustle is really breathtaking. Barstow demonstrates that many, if not most, of the pronouncements he made on TV about the wars benefited one or another defense contractor who employed him. That's the way the scheme worked: Company hires retired general to use his connections to its benefit. Retired general accepts special grants of access from the office of the secretary of defense that benefit both his TV career and his consulting career. Retired general proclaims on TV things that benefit both the secretary and the company -- or, when circumstances necessitate, the company at the expense of the secretary. TV viewer, looking for informed analysis of confusing wars, is unaware of any of this. Welcome to the new military-media-industrial complex.


McCaffrey's reply, as quoted by Ackerman:

Thirty-seven years of public service. Four combat tours. Wounded three times. The country knows me as a nonpartisan and objective national security expert with solid integrity


Too bad he had to finish by selling out his country and fellow soldiers.

Racism Watch

Lumo is giving voice to his inner Nazi again today. His targets this time are the Gypsies.

Gypsies are a people of Indian origin who speak a language related to Hindustani and retain a number of Hindu cultural practices, but except in India, are not actually Hindus. Somehow they have managed to survive centuries of pogroms, enslavement, and extermination campaigns and remain widely distributed in Europe and the US.

In Lubos's country, the Czech Republic, they have suffered from Nazi extermination, a Communist era sterilization program, and continuing widespread discrimination.

The garbage Lumo spews is the usual stuff Nazis and other racists say about Jews, Blacks, the Irish, the Chinese, Eastern Europeans or any other target group of opportunity. Go to the link if you want a trip to the sewer.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Econ Cage Match: Friedman vs Keynes

Milton Friedman advanced the view that recessions and depressions were primarily monetary phenomena, and that the appropriate weapon against them was expansion of the money supply. He went further, claiming that the Federal Reserve caused the great depression. In fact monetary policies were somewhat effective against recession during most of the later half of the twentieth century, and an anti-Keynesian attitude became standard among conservatives.

Then came the Panic of 2008. Conservatives universally poo-pooed what the called the "leftist" Cassandras like Roubini and Krugman. When the tidal wave hit, Bernanke frantically threw money out of helicopter (a Friedman metaphor) but nothing worked.

Paul Krugman has a series of blog posts on how the current crisis has exposed the hollow core of monetarism and brought Keynesian ideas once again to the fore. The first one (Nov. 29) features Amity Schlaes as monetarist road kill.

Age Zero is Way too Late

Finally a practical use for all that genetics crap.

BOULDER, Colorado: When Donna Campiglia learned recently that a genetic test might be able to determine which sports suit the talents of her 2 ½-year-old son, Noah, she instantly said, Where can I get it and how much does it cost?

"I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it's good to match them with the right activity," Campiglia, 36, said as she watched a toddler class at Boulder Indoor Soccer in which Noah struggled to take direction from the coach between juice and potty breaks.

"I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration," she said.

In health-conscious, sports-oriented Boulder, Atlas Sports Genetics is playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that aims to predict a child's natural athletic strengths. The process is simple. Swab inside the child's cheek and along the gums to collect DNA and return it to a lab for analysis of ACTN3, one gene among more than 20,000 in the human genome.


Waaayyy, Way too late honey. My wife and I have the test done on all our sons' girlfriends.

Inconsistent Histories

I have been reading Leonard Susskind's The black Hole Wars and intend to do a book review, but meanwhile, I have gotten to the point where he presents his principle of "Black Hole Complementarity." This is a riff on Bohr's Complemetarity Principle which maintains that the apparently mutually contradictictory wave and particle pictures of matter describe complementary aspects of a reality not fully captured by either. Ask an electron a "wave question", and you get a wave type answer, ask it a "particle question" and you get a particle answer.

For black holes, the contrasting pictures are these: If you lower a probe (Julio, say) and stop it very close to the surface of the black hole, he sees a hellishly seething bath of Hawking radiation. I need to mention at this point that although the BH looks very cold to an outside observer, that is just due to the huge gravitational red shift. Julio's beer can, though, falls freely through the horizon and finds the trip quite uneventfully radiation free, at least until it gets to the overwhelming tidal forces closer to singularity at the center of the BH. So what does the outside observer see? He sees the beer can fall toward the horizon but never reach it, being annihilated and having his energy and bits become part of the seething bath of Hawking radiation.

The complementary elements are the inconsistent histories of the beer can - does it fall through the horizon untouched (the beer can view) or is it annihilated before it reaches the horizon? These seem utterly incompatible, but it appears that no experimental test can discriminate between them. This is a bit shocking.

Only in Hell

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, an American Admiral apparently said "When this is over, Japanese will be a language spoken only in Hell." One of his Japanese counterparts was slightly more precise: "We have awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible purpose." 9/11 produced similar thoughts about Islam.

In the case of 9/11, much of that terrible purpose proved misguided, thanks largely to our doltish President and his corrupt and incompetent advisors who saw tragedy as an opportunity to advance the interests of big oil and their own warped notion of Israel's interest.

India is now in just that same state of incoherent and vengeful rage. Exactly how that rage winds up being focussed has momentous consequences for the world, but especially for India.

What? You Didn't Expect the Spanish Inquisition

Benny Sixteen, AKA Joey the Ratz, former head of the Holy Inquisition (and former Hitler Youth) has some news for youz:

In quotations from the letter that appeared on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible

Friday, November 28, 2008

Night Thoughts

These terrorist attacks always provoke thoughts of the so-called "War of Civilizations" that bin Laden is said to wish to provoke. The money and sophistication of the weapons of the Mumbai attackers suggests organized support with real money and territory. These resources are tiny, of course, compared to those of India, Europe, or the US, but their effect is magnified by their willingness to use indiscriminate violence. So far, the rest of the world has responded in somewhat measured fashion.

Despite its excesses and grotesqueries, even the Bush response never descended into all-out religious warfare. When the provocation becomes great enough and prolonged enough, the pressure for that kind of response becomes overwhelming. Should that happen, the hundreds of millions of Muslims innocent of any violence will suffer with the relatively few who are guilty.

The principal victims of such a war would be the citizens of Muslim countries, but the damage to the institutions of democracy in the US and Europe would also be enormous. Mass expulsions and internments would be likely.

It is absolutely urgent that the countries of the victims and those of the perpetrators take urgent action suppress the individuals and institutions that promote terrorism.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Axial

David Frum reputedly coined Bush's "Axis of Evil" phrase, linking together three countries (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) whose most obvious common traits were that they were all on Bush's enemies list and none of them had had anything to do with 9/11.

When 9/11 did happen, Bush's first instinct was to pack the bin Laden family on a jet and send them safely back to Saudi Arabia, the country most directly involved in 9/11, since both the plotter and most of the participants were from that country. Moreover, Saudi Arabia had spent decades financing the radical madrassas that have so successfully exported a radical jihadist mentality to Pakistan and other countries. If one wanted to single out an "Axis" (a dumb idea, anyway) responsible for much of current terrorism, it would run through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The Wahabi brand of Islam promoted by the Saudis is deeply reactionary, fostering both resentment of the modern world and rejection of it. By rejecting the very things that would permit Muslims to adapt to the modern world (education of girls, for example) they condemn their adherents to remain poor and backward.

It is unclear at the moment whether the Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by these people, but if Pakistan's fingerprints are on it, India can probably not let this go unpunished. Pakistan will be left with hard choices - to fight, and lose catastrophically against India, or to take on the radicals, including much of its own intelligence services in what is likely to become a significant civil war.

Westerners, and especially Americans were principal targets, so we have a major stake in this as well. What useful role can we play? That is also unclear.

If we had had a non-idiot president on 9/11, he would have made Saudi Arabia a main focus of his war on terror. The bin Ladens and other Saudi princes would have been detained as enemy aliens, and Saudi Arabia would have been given a harsh choice - reform utterly, surrender all the financiers of terror, and suppress the jihadist preachers or suffer a war of revenge.

The Saudis understand wars of revenge, but they know regime change is bullshit.

Life, Art

It's no news that life imitates art. Lousy art, it seems, is imitated by idiots, slavishly and often catastrophically.

24 is a television show popular with Bushies in which Kiefer Sutherland occasionally manages to prevent the Universe from being destroyed by torturing some hapless Muslim. In 24's World always has a ticking time bomb that only Jack (the KS character) can find and dispose of. I've only watched one episode, but regular viewers assure me my synopsis is correct.

Interestingly enough, the show was apparently the inspiration for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld torture program, which, unlike Jack Bauer's, never managed to uncover even one ticking bomb, but did result in the torture of hundreds, dozens of them tortured to death or insanity.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Falling, Can't Get Out

My Xmas black hole puzzle (see earlier) has largely evaporated under the combined assault of Wolfgang and Lubos, but there is a nagging remnant.

What is the rate of change of the radius of BH in the coordinates of the free falling beer can? The ratio of their radius and distance as a function of time (in the free fall coordinates)?

Merit

Arun has some primo Kristol Meth.

It is sorta scary that Bill Kristol has a PhD - from Harvard yet. Tends to destroy my faith in the Ivy League. Not to mention a rational universe.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Still Idiots: George Will and David Brooks

Caught a bit of ABC's This Week this morning and George Will, who clearly had forgotten that last week Paul Krugman had schooled him on this very point, proclaimed again that "the New Deal didn't work," citing 1937. Paul wasn't there, but Arianna Huffington quite appropriately called this a "conservative myth" and Robert Kuttner followed up with devastating details.

David Brooks, on the other hand, seemed to have gotten his crystal pyramid stuck - somewhere - and wandered off into some sort of New Age fantasy. How refreshing to have a couple of non-idiots on board as a corrective.

Copenhagen

I saw Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen (John Ziman's Physics World review here) last night, and I was very impressed. The principal subject is Heisenberg's September 1941 visit with Bohr in Copenhagen. At that time, the Bohr-Heisenberg collaboration that was so fundamental to the discovery of quantum mechanics was a decade and and a half in the past, Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany, and Heisenberg was already at work on a German fission bomb.

Heisenberg's visit was risky - he and Bohr were both being watched by the Gestapo, and Bohr, who was half-Jewish as well the world's most prominent nuclear physicist, was also under watch. What Heisenberg apparently said to Bohr "is it moral for a physicist to work on applications of fission" would have gotten them both shot if the Gestapo had heard. In any case, Bohr apparently reacted with intense anger, but no answer. Bohr was smuggled out of Denmark just before the arrest of all Danish Jews (who were tipped off, apparently by a source in the German embassy - who himself may have had Heisenberg links, and also mostly escaped.) Bohr wound up at Las Alamos, and contributed to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Heisenberg's bomb was never built.

This was a very difficult play for the actors, because many crucial question hinge on Heisenberg's understanding of the feasability of the fission weapon, especially the critical mass required for a fission weapon based on U235, which in turn depends on understanding the neutron diffusion equation. Moreover, there is much discussion of the heady moments of the nineteen twenties when Bohr, Heisenberg, and others struggled to create quantum mechanics. I think that the play captures both the thrill and much of the substance of those days. Both things require that the actors talk a great deal of physics - diffusion, cross-sections, fission, uncertainty, complementarity - and these are things actors usually don't know. I spoke to two of the actors afterwards, and this was something they worried about, but I assured them that they were right on, and they seemed pleased that a physicist thought so.

Though important, the physics is not the central point. That central point is the nature of moral choice and fate, and its contingency. Heisenberg comes off pretty well in this play, but there are no unblemished heroes here. Bohr was famous for the many drafts his papers required, an arduous task in those days before the word processor and the computer. The play too presents several drafts of the reality of the events depicted.

I should mention that the play was written after all the principals - Bohr, his wife Margarethe, and Heisenberg - were all dead, and it is in the form of a trialog among the three ghosts. I call them ghosts since they know and acknowledge that they are all dead.

I think it is a terrific play, especially for physicists and other fans of Bohr and quantum mechanics.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stupid Headline for Today

Yahoo news: e=mc2: 103 years later, Einstein's proven right.

The actual deed, a QCD calculation, is perhaps interesting, but as the article ultimately admits, Einstein's famous equation already had plenty of evidence.

PARIS (AFP) – It's taken more than a century, but Einstein's celebrated formula e=mc2 has finally been corroborated, thanks to a heroic computational effort by French, German and Hungarian physicists.

A brainpower consortium led by Laurent Lellouch of France's Centre for Theoretical Physics, using some of the world's mightiest supercomputers, have set down the calculations for estimating the mass of protons and neutrons, the particles at the nucleus of atoms.

According to the conventional model of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.

The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent?

The answer, according to the study published in the US journal Science on Thursday, comes from the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons.

In other words, energy and mass are equivalent, as Einstein proposed in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

The e=mc2 formula shows that mass can be converted into energy, and energy can be converted into mass.

By showing how much energy would be released if a certain amount of mass were to be converted into energy, the equation has been used many times, most famously as the inspirational basis for building atomic weapons.

But resolving e=mc2 at the scale of sub-atomic particles -- in equations called quantum chromodynamics -- has been fiendishly difficult.


QCD is hard. Journamalism - not so much.

However, 5% is a small number. Why shouldn't it be zero?

We don't need no stinkin' . . . (Xmas Edition)

It is time to post my annual Christmas Black Hole puzzle. It’s pretty much the same puzzle every year, but since nobody ever gives me an answer I can understand, here is the latest version:

Two immortal and durable observers, call them Paul and Julio, want to observe the life history of a black hole. The strategy is this: Paul will stay back, where space-time is flat, but Julio will go in and stop just outside the horizon. Immortal though he is, Julio likes a cold one, so he drinks his beer and tosses the empty out the back window, where it falls freely (behind him) toward the black hole. Julio moves so close to the black hole that his watch runs very slowly compared to Paul’s. In fact he stops just at the point where one microsecond on his watch corresponds to T on Paul’s, where T is the time it takes for the BH to evaporate. By coincidence, that microsecond happens to be just the time it takes for the beer can drifting behind him to catch up and pass him on its way into the black hole.


After time T has passed, the BH has presumably evaporated and space-time is again flat, so Paul ought to be able to see and communicate with Julio again. A few zillion years have passed for Paul, but only that one microsecond for Julio, but now their clocks are on the same time again.

So what about the beer can? It was falling freely into the black hole when it caught up with Julio, but at that point, the BH had just finished evaporating. The distant observer and the nearby observer both saw the aluminum test body falling freely into the BH, but by the time it got there, they both agree that the BH was already gone.

But there is nothing special about the beer can, so how can anything fall into the BH, and, for that matter, how can the BH form at all?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Optimism

OK, we knew we were screwed. Actually, it has been apparent for a bit that we were really, really screwed.

Paul Krugman has an encouraging word.

Don’t panic about the stock market

Panic about the credit markets instead. Interest rate on 3-month Treasuries at 0.02%; interest rate on high-yield (junk) bonds over 20%.

This is an economic emergency.

The three month T bill actually hit 0.005% today.

We are totally #$&@ed.

Shake It

CNN claims that other world leaders wouldn't shake hands with Bush at the recent summit.

It appears in this video that President Bush's approval is in a sorrier state than polls indicate. In a video taken at the G20 summit, Bush walks across a line of world leaders without shaking or being asked to shake any of their hands. Whether the President is being rejected by the world leaders or he is rejecting them, CNN's Rick Sanchez aptly says that Bush looks like "the most unpopular kid in high school that nobody liked."


I wouldn't be surprised if this interpretation is a bit excessive but it is pretty easy to see how he could wind up the skunk at the picnic. Being arrogant, overbearing, criminal, ignorant, obnoxious and grossly incompetent can tend to produce that effect in those about you. Being at the center of the destruction of the modern financial system at the end of your term doesn't help either.

Unclear on Concept

I was listening to Faux News on the XM on the drive home today. The usual idiots (Fred, Morton, Mara, and Charles Krauthammer) were yakking about the new administration. Krauthammer thinks he has an actual point, and says, look, Obama promised change and here he is bringing in a bunch of Clintonistas and Democrats. He's not giving people the change they voted for!

Earth to Chuck, here: The change they voted for was change from George Bush, Dick Cheney, and all the Neocon, Richcon, Crookcon and Crackcons, slime balls like you. A lot of those people would have been perfectly happy with more Clinton, and most of the rest of us are ecstatic to have an intelligent leader who is willing to tap into existing expertise - that's change I can believe in.

News You Can't Believe

From the NYT: Adam Smith, Disproved.

Adam Smith, in his famous pin factory description, wrote that labor specialization improves productivity. He should have specified which species he was referring to.

A new paper finds that ants that specialize are no more productive than ants that don’t. The author, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona named Anna Dornhaus, studied how efficiently rock ants completed their tasks of brood transport, collecting sweets, foraging for protein and nest building. An ant was considered more specialized the more it concentrated its work on one particular task.


For all I know, this is a perfectly reasonable paper. The NYT headline is pure crap, of course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Krugman Skewers Another RW Propagandist

Paul Krugman deflates the some more Amity Schlaes nonsense.

When you hear claims that the New Deal made the depression worse, they often come directly or indirectly from the work of Amity Shlaes, whose misleading statistics have been widely disseminated on the right.

Now, Ms. Shlaes has found a new target: John Maynard Keynes. There’s a lot to critique in this piece, but this one takes the cake:

But the most telling fact about the new rush to spend is that its advocates have insisted on invoking the New Deal. They tend to gloss over the period when the phrase, “We are all Keynesians now,” was actually first uttered: the mid-1960s. (Uttered by Friedman, in fact, though he meant only that we all work in the terms of the Keynesian lexicon.)

The Great Society of that period was the ultimate Keynesian experiment, and it didn’t work very well.
Grr. Keynesianism says that deficit spending can help create jobs when the economy is depressed. The Great Society wasn’t deficit spending, it wasn’t intended to create jobs, and the economy of the 1960s wasn’t depressed. It was social engineering; we can talk about how well or badly it worked, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with Keynesian economics.

Parts . . .

Physicians have succeeded in making an artificial trachea for a woman using her own stem cells and some donor cartilage.

PARIS — Physicians at four European universities have successfully transplanted a human windpipe, using stem cells from the recipient’s own bone marrow to reline a donor trachea and prevent its rejection by her immune system, according to an article in the British medical journal The Lancet.

This is an early step in the development of artificial organs based on one's own cells, but its apparent success guarantees that future efforts will be redoubled. The holy grail for such efforts is the creation of whole organs: artificial pancreas, heart, kidney, liver, and lungs. These will take a while, but some version might appear in the next decade, and in a couple or three decades, rich people might start stockpiling handy replacement parts.

Pleistocene Park

Scientists have sequenced the DNA of extinct mammoths, and our Neandertal cousins are next. They are plotting to grow some:

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.


Staple of SF or brilliant conception of Michael Crichton - I vote for the latter.

About our cousin:

The full genome of the Neanderthals, an ancient human species probably driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.


I'm as eager as the next nut to see a landscape populated by mammoths, dire wolves, and saber tooth tigers. Neandertals - not so much.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

George Will is Still an Idiot

. . . even if he did wake up enough to reality to see that McCain-Palin was disaster.

In the clip at the link, he spouts the latest riff on the conservative spin on the great depression, and Paul Krugman straightens him out: link.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Pardon Me

One rumor has it that Bush plans some sort of mass blanket pardon for his fellow criminals. His father did it, of course.

If it happens, we certainly need to amend the Constitution to limit the power of pardon to those not working for the President in any appointive position. We ought to do that anyway.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Learnin'

The Lumonator tackles the subject of education, and sort of seems to be going somewhere interesting until one of his fits takes him and he gets stuck cursing his many enemies. Learning, he thinks, is a bit like a wavelet decomposition - you start out with approximations and gradually refine them putting in more and finer detail. I can see this, to a degree. My toddler grandnephew used to refer to all four legged creatures as "dog" when he was little.

It seems that Lubos is doing some tutoring of one of his nephews - my sympathy to Kubo - who evidently needs to do a lot of simplification of rational polynomial expressions. Now that isn't a very useful skill, since most such don't admit much simplification, but it is an exercise in pattern recognition. The trick, of course, is to factor the polynomials.

Lubos also thinks that students don't get enough negative reinforcement, so I will offer some for him: your theory of progressive refinement is only the less important part of learning. Before you can refine, you must have generalizations that can be refined. Some of those are likely innate, like the concept of the four legged animal. Others, like the laws of physics, must be synthesized. One that seems to be difficult for the less mathematically inclined is the notion of equivalent fractions.

The idea that 1/3 and 27/81 are different ways of writing the same number, or that (x^2+4x+4)/(x^2-4) is the same as (x+2)/(x-2) doesn't seem to be reachable by refinement of some more primitive notion of number. Instead it is a generalization of the notion of number and the notion of equality.

Pattern recognition in general is a challenge to the idea of progress through cataloging of exceptions. The fundamental notion of pattern recognition is symmetry - the something that stays the same when other things are changed. This skill is very crucial for survival, so it's no surprise that we come equipped with a lot of pattern reconition hardware. A lot of education is adapting that hardware to slightly different tasks. There is a commonality in the recognition of the lion from his paw print and the recognition of a factorable polynomial.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Creative Destruction Watch

  • Real estate - check
  • Investment banks - check
  • Financial markets - check
  • Other banks - check
  • Automobile Industry - check
  • Stock Market - check
  • My 401K - check
  • United States - TBD
  • World Economy - TBD

Now when does this creative part kick in?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Larry Summers

Larry Summers, the former Secretary of the Treasury and Harvard President, is being talked about for the Treasury position again. This has caused some consternation in the leftosphere. There may be good reasons for opposing him, but the most frequently cited one, his supposed misogyny, is nonsense. It his based on a speech he gave to a conference pondering the paucity of women in tenured positions in math, physics, and engineering. Here is a transcript of that speech.

First some facts: there are relatively few women in tenured positions in the above subjects, historically women in science have faced great discrimination, and in recent times women have overcome discrimination to become a strong presence in other fields from construction to law to medicine.

So why are physics and math so resistant? Discrimination, overt and other, is one plausible explanation. If Summers had stopped there his speech would have been forgotten. Instead he went on to suggest that differences between men and women in interest, career committment, and even aptitude might be factors. These notions may be correct or not, but they probably don't seem too preposterous to be considered by anybody except academic feminists. In any case, the outrage ultimately pushed him out of the Harvard presidency.

I can understand why women think that this kind of thinking is exactly what has justified centuries of discrimination and exclusion - and they are right. Nonetheless, Summers has some useful suggestions. Maybe the academic career training track has unneccessary minefields for women. Maybe discrimination is still a large factor. Those things need to be considered and attacked.

It certainly doesn't surprise me that physicists are male chauvinist pigs - physics is pretty testoserone drenched. So too are medicine, the law, and construction, so why have women done relatively well there?

In the end, however, equality of outcome is too blunt a test of discrimination and hanging Larry Summers for noting that is unreasonable.

Lumo Self-Parody Watch

http://motls.blogspot.com/2008/11/rss-msu-0013-deg-c-month-on-month.html

Bionic Eyes

Contact lenses with embedded integrated circuits have prompted speculations about bionic eyes with zoom and record functions. Cool, yes, but I don't think the speculators understand how a lens or camera works.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Addendum: Fearful Symmetry

In my earlier review I neglected to mention what might even be considered the punchline of the whole symmetry story. The symmetries of ordinary life are of time and space - translation and rotation. The gauge fields that underlie the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces have a different character, associated with rotation in some mysterious internal "space." Early in the twentieth century Kaluza had a remarkable idea, further developed by Klein: suppose that in addition to ordinary space there were attached a tiny circle to each point, too small for us to notice, making a total of four space dimensions and one of time. Add gravity to this, and voila!, electromagnetism emerges. The circular symmetry of the hidden dimension produces the gauge symmetry underlying electromagnetism.

It turns out that if we add more dimensions and other symmetries we can produce other Yang-Mills gauge fields - the stuff of all the forces. There turn out to be some problems, like the electron winding up with a gazillion times too much mass.

Fast forward six decades to string theory. String theory also needs extra dimensions, and likes them to be curled up. A hasty marriage with Kaluza-Klein is arranged. God still has his little jokes though. Superstring theory can sort of fix the electron mass - it makes it zero - but string theory has its own ways of making gauge fields and doesn't need Kaluza-Klein symmetries.

TBD - or not.

Great Moments in Punditry

From CNN this AM: "the United States hasn't been attacked on President Bush's watch."

I guess that 9/11 thing happened in what, the 90's?

Naturally, none of the other three or four participants in the discussion picked up on this.

Every Cloud - Silver Lining Department

Real estate and gambling titan Sheldon Adelson has apparently taken a big hit in the latest economic turmoil. This is potentially good news for democracy, since Adelson has been a right wing sugar daddy who used his billions to buy big chunks of the US and Israeli governments.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Future of the POS

Any political party that lasts long enough becomes a makeshift - a coalition of disparate interests held together more by duct tape and the lust for power than any larger purpose. So it is with the Republicans, and there is nothing like voter repudiation to force a certain amount of re-evaluation.

The modern Republican Party, that is, the party of Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Gingrich has dominated American politics for most of the past forty years. That circumstance derives mainly from its status as the beneficiary of Southern racial resentment in the wake of Johnson's civil rights legislation, but the conservatives also created a set of institutions dedicated to promoting their causes: the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Cato Institute. Superficially these were modeled on the Brookings Institute and similar think tanks, but those who dared to actually think were punished by expulsion. The real mission of these conservative "stink tanks" was propaganda - specifically propaganda designed to protect the wealth of their wealthy sponsors. The third leg of this Republican stool is commercial Christianity - the James Dobsons and all their ilk who have done so well here in this World by Christianity even if they won't pass the camel - eye-of-needle test for entrance into the next. Their issues are abortion and gay marriage, though I think only the first has any future.

The voters who voted for Obama and the Democrats this year were mainly young people, blacks and Hispanics. Those who voted Republican were old and white. These facts present a very tough challenge to a Republican future.

A more profound challenge lies in the fact that we go to the present sorry pass by following many of the same disastrous policies that led to Hoover's great depression. Only the hard core self-deluded believe that those policies - the policies that continue to be promoted by the Hoover institute and other right wing stink tanks - will get us out of this mess.

Obama will need not only great skill but considerable luck to extricate us. If he succeeds Republicans may spend another thirty years in the wilderness. If he fails due to Republican obstruction, the POS may disappear forever.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Hold the Applause

I am grateful that Obama was elected, and really, really grateful than McCain-Palin were not, but let's not get into canonization yet. One of the things every achiever has to learn is not to read his own press clippings too worshipfully. Just because somebody named a mountain after him doesn't mean that he has achieved anything as President - he isn't President yet. Public adulation can be more corrosive than public scorn.

Bush was undone by stupidity, hubris and vanity, and Clinton was undone by hubris and vanity despite high intelligence. So far, Obama looks resistant to those vices, but he needs to be careful. He should make sure there is someone on his staff to whisper memento homo . . . in his ear.

Keynes

It looks like Faux News is planning to fight the next war from their fortified bunkers along the Hoovernot Line. I listened to them spewing some nonsense about how fiscal stimulus "never works" this morning. The ignoranti of the POS have decided that among the things they don't believe in (besides Darwin, thermodynamics, and the Constitution) is Keynes.

Book Review: Fearful Symmetry

Book Review: Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics by Anthony Zee.

Anthony Zee is a prominent physicist who has written a well-regarded, if somewhat idiosyncratic text (Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell) as well as several popular books on physics. Fearful Symmetry is his look at the central role symmetry has come to play in modern physics, and it is aimed at the general reader. The roots of the word symmetry mean something like “proportioned together,” and we use it to describe things we regard as harmoniously proportioned. We each have some sense of symmetry, and it plays a key role in our perception of beauty.

The decorative art of even rather low-tech cultures often makes use of symmetrical patterns – patterns that repeat with translation or rotation. A circle looks the same, seen from any direction, a square looks the same if you rotate it by 90 degrees, and one stretch of railroad track looks a lot like any other. Most animals are bilaterally symmetric, and faces that depart too far from this ideal are typically considered unattractive.

The key notion that underlies symmetry is that which is unchanged when something else changes. It is no accident that this notion has a large sway over us. It’s the thing that makes the world comprehensible. We sort the world into things that are the same and note their differences. Each tiger is no doubt different from every other, but they are all scary – but bunny rabbits rarely are. It’s easier to build with bricks that come in only one (or a few) types than with stones of random size and shape.

The symmetries that interest Zee, though, are symmetries of the laws of fundamental physics. Of course any law (of physics or man) is a sort of symmetry in itself. When Galileo noted that all objects (in the absence of friction) fell at the same rate, he was recognizing a symmetry of nature – that the acceleration due to gravity applied to all falling objects. When Newton noted that the motion of the moon could be explained by the same gravitational law that explained the fall of the apple, he was generalizing that symmetry to the cosmos.

The symmetries in the mathematical form of the physical laws themselves are slightly more abstract, and require making an intellectual separation between the laws themselves and the particulars of a given physical situation. In Galileo’s form of the law of gravity, the accelerations of the individual falling masses are the same, but there is a special direction picked out – down. Newton’s form frees us from that restriction by noting that the thing that is special about down is not the direction but the incidental circumstance that down happens to be the direction in which the center of a whole bunch of mass happens to lie. This generalization to a more symmetrical form turns gravity from something special about the Earth to a cosmic universal. The recognition universal gravitation was one of the most profound intellectual transformations in the history of the human race – it was the end of Earth as the center of the universe.

Zee's favorite symmetries, local symmetries, don’t really enter the picture until the start of the twentieth century. Two profoundly revolutionary concepts, relativity and the quantum, turn out to be intimately connected to symmetry, and symmetry proves crucial to understanding their consequences. The mathematical language of symmetry is the theory of groups and group representations. This represents a pretty deep challenge to the author who doesn’t want to use any actual mathematics. My impression is that he succeeds pretty well, but it’s hard to be confident because I’m actually supposed to know a little bit about these things. I should mention that my point of view is that of someone who has studied this subject but has forgotten a lot of what little I once knew. When a physicist, even an old and none too bright one like your frequently humbled correspondent, reads a popularization it’s never quite clear that his appreciation of the work has much relevance to that of the general reader, so will the intended audience feel the same?

Zee’s book was first published in 1986, well after the triumph of symmetry in particle physics, and not long after the first string theory “revolution.” The present edition dates from 1999, and he has updated with an afterword on string theory since, but the story of strings in not central to his book – but the concept of symmetry is pretty central to string theory. His story takes us to the so called Grand Unified Theories (GUTs) of the day, SU(5) and SO(10), which aimed to integrate strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions without gravity. Strings, of course, include gravity as well.

The predicted signature of GUTs (proton decay) has not been observed, and with strings the experimental evidence is so far absent as well. Zee doesn’t want to commit on the subject of strings, but he is a bit skeptical. His prejudice, he says, is that the concepts are too conservative – basically just the same old relativity and quantum mechanics. Perhaps he is right, but its probably worth mentioning that quantum field theory was left for dead a couple of times before its great triumph in the 70’s – first by Oppenheimer and others in the early 1940’s and again in the 1960’s, for the same reason – the old guys thought it was too conservative an approach. Well, the future is still out there, waiting to happen.

Zee, I should mention, takes Einstein’s point of view – not interested in “this or that phenomenon” but trying to understand whether “God had any choice in how he made the Universe.” If the multiverse idea is correct, the answer is clearly the one Einstein and Zee didn’t like – our laws of physics are an essentially accidental consequences of how some moduli happened to settle. It’s not a prospect I find appetizing, but then God didn’t actually ask for my opinion.

I recommend Fearful Symmetry to anyone with an interest in physics. If non-physicists happen to read or have read it, I would be interested in your opinions as to how you found his explanations – physicists too, of course.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

John McCain is an Idiot

More evidence from Faux News:

However, perhaps one of the most astounding and previously unknown tidbits about Sarah Palin has to do with her already dubious grasp of geography. According to Fox News Chief Political Correspondent Carl Cameron, there was great concern within the McCain campaign that Palin lacked "a degree of knowledgeability necessary to be a running mate, a vice president, a heartbeat away from the presidency," in part because she didn't know which countries were in NAFTA, and she "didn't understand that Africa was a continent, rather than a series, a country just in itself."

Palin was apparently a nightmare for her campaign staff to deal with. She refused preparation help for her interview with Katie Couric and then blamed her staff, specifically Nicole Wallace, when the interview was panned as a disaster. After the Couric interview, Fox News reported, Palin turned nasty with her staff and began to accuse them of mishandling her. Palin would view press clippings of herself in the morning and throw "tantrums" over the negative coverage. There were times when she would be so nasty and angry that her staff was reduced to tears

Meanwhile, McCain was assuring us that she was very well qualified indeed. What a contemptible little man he is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Obama

Obama probably does not have the option of being a good or mediocre President. The mess he has inherited probably leaves him only the choices of failure or greatness.

President Bush

George Bush faced great challenges as President, almost all of them of his own making. He began inauspiciously by mocking the intelligence analyst who told him bin Laden was planning to attack the US with hijacked aircraft, and it went downhill from there. He was probably not the most catastrophic President - Buchanan probably earns that honor - but Buchanan was caught in terrible circumstances not of his own doing. Bush, by contrast, inherited a country prosperous and at peace. His vanity, stupidity, and poor choice of advisors turned this into one disaster after another.

For me, that qualifies him for worst President ever.

Republicans Devouring Their Young

Via Brad DeLong, from Newsweek:

NEWSWEEK has also learned that Palin's shopping spree at high-end department stores was more extensive than previously reported. While publicly supporting Palin, McCain's top advisers privately fumed at what they regarded as her outrageous profligacy. One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist. But instead, the vice presidential nominee began buying for herself and her family—clothes and accessories from top stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards. The McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent "tens of thousands" more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as "Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast," and said the truth will eventually come out when the Republican Party audits its books.

Party of Stupid

Stupidity got a major bruise in the US yesterday, but still retains a lot of power. Minnesotans apparently re-elected Michelle Bachman, Stupidity's Princess Number One. Alaska, America's own welfare State, apparently re-elected convicted felon Ted Stevens and likely to-be-charged crook Don Young.

Meanwhile, Stupidity continues to rule big chunks of the American South, Appalachia, the Great Plains, and the Mountain West.

One major reason for hope: Stupidity is mainly old. The next generation may be less stupid.

TBD.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

OK, I feel a bit better now.

It could have been slightly more decisive, especially in the Senate, but good enough.

Obama will face tremendous challenges. I think he has a good chance of being up to them. McCain - Palin would have been disaster for sure.

David Brooks: Lying in Print

The trouble with conservative columnists, as a NYT editor remarked, is that they tend to lie in print. He should know, since he employs several of them. David Brooks is always a good case in point. From today's column:

Nov. 4, 2008, is a historic day because it marks the end of an economic era, a political era and a generational era all at once.

Economically, it marks the end of the Long Boom, which began in 1983.

This is ludicrous on so many levels that one is amazed by the absurd effrontery. Whatever boom began in 1983, it had ended, or at least severely paused, by 1991. The subsequent boom ended in the year 2000. Since then, we have had seven years of anemic economic growth ending in late 2007, followed by catastrophe in the early fall of 2008. We have now had nearly a year of declining employment.

Most of the rest of his column is almost as preposterously in error. Brooks, of course, is a master of the "make shit up" school of conservative sociology. He should stick to that. Trying to comment on the real world is far beyond his comprehension level.

It really is despicable what one apparently needs to do to keep one's parking space at the AEP.

Monday, November 03, 2008

More and Less

Bee and Lubos are now blogging on a fairly recent paper by Mile Gu, Christian Weedbrook, Alvaro Perales, Michael A. Nielsen
entitled "More Really is Different." This title is borrowed from Phillip Anderson's paper of the similar name ("More is Different") arguing for the importance of emergent phenomena, such as the collective excitations of the solid state and plasmas. As might be expected, Bee produces a didactic post with little editorial embellishment, while Lubos skitters all over the place, says a lot of interesting things, but mainly just misses the point.

The abstract:

In 1972, P.W.Anderson suggested that `More is Different', meaning that complex physical systems may exhibit behavior that cannot be understood only in terms of the laws governing their microscopic constituents. We strengthen this claim by proving that many macroscopic observable properties of a simple class of physical systems (the infinite periodic Ising lattice) cannot in general be derived from a microscopic description. This provides evidence that emergent behavior occurs in such systems, and indicates that even if a `theory of everything' governing all microscopic interactions were discovered, the understanding of macroscopic order is likely to require additional insights.

I don't want to discuss the paper, except to say that their point is to map the idealized physical system on to a logical system for which it has been proven that no finite and complete system of axioms exists.

From a practical standpoint, Anderson's point cannot be challenged. There is no foreseeable future in which the properties of complex molecules, much less living systems, could be deduced directly from (say)quantum field theory and the standard model. Neither does Anderson or anybody else suggest that the physical laws that apply to complex molecules and living systems don't conform to and ultimately reduce to fundamental physics.

Lumo's argument covers a lot of ground, and makes some sensible points, but he is confused on a central point:

My countrymate Kurt Gödel has shown that every axiomatic system that is at least as powerful as set theory including integers admits a proposition that can be neither proved nor disproved within the system itself. But it seems to me that what many people don't understand is the fact that at the very same moment when the proposition is shown to be unprovable, it is also proved to be correct - within a slightly extended system of logical methods.

Actually, since the statement's negative satisfies the same criterion, whether the statement is true or false is an arbitrary choice independent of the original system. If a crucial intial assumption of the proof is valid (that the original axiom system is consistent), each such Goedelian statement allows one to extend the axiom system by adding such additional assumptions. The point is that no finite number of such additions can constitute a complete description of the system, and if the paper's logic is correct, no reduction to a finite set of laws for the idealized sytem is possible.

Lumo goes on to add that rules are not enough to describe a physical system, one also needs some sort of initial conditions or "history." Perhaps it is possible in this case to consign those undecidable elements of the system to initial conditions - but I don't know.