Showing posts from October, 2006

String Theorists at Bay

Since Professor Motl seems to be under some sort of edict or ban of the Church, I have tried to avoid making comments that he might not be allowed to respond to. That doesn't mean he doesn't continue to writing interesting, controversial, and sometimes dubious stuff. A recent post in the first category is this one . It's about George Johnson's talk to the string therorati at KITP and their reactions. Amanda Peet explained that it had to be obvious that the authors of those books don't apply the same standards to their theories as they use for string theory - and she uses the obvious inconsistencies of loop quantum gravity as an example. George Johnson offered a truly bold hypothesis that "he thinks that no one would call [the author of the blue book] a crackpot". A massive laughter, led by Joe Polchinski et al., explodes in the room, indicating a rather strong disagreement with the journalist. ;-) I suspect that this argument mainly indicates that Peet

Gloom and Doom

To be a Democrat in the Twenty-first Century is to be acustomed to failure. It's like being a fan of a perennially losing football or baseball team. Even when things look good, it seems likely that our candidates will whiff some crucial pitches, or drop that perfectly placed touchdown pass. The refs, of course, will miss those flagrant Republican fouls and spitballs. Despite some promising signs, I can hardly dare believe we might get a piece of this government back, pass a couple of good laws, and, above all, start holding this reckless and foolish government accountable for its actions. Whatever happens, Bush will control the executive for another two and a quarter years, and thus will have great power to continue damaging our country. Maybe, though, the most outrageous recklessness can be checked. Maybe some of the thieving war profiteers can be brought to justice. There are three guys in my head trying to sell me their predictions. The crazy optimist thinks that the Amer

Uranium Weapons

Depleted uranium weapons (using the uranium left over after fissionable U-235 has been extracted) were extensively used by the US in Bosnia and in the first Iraq war. Uranium is a very dense and hard metal - 1.6 times as dense as lead and almost 5 times as hard as steel. These qualities, and the fact that it burn in air, make it a very effective penetrating weapon against hard targets such as tanks or fortified underground bunkers. It has some adverse collateral effects. Use in Bosnia and the first Iraq war is linked to clusters of cancers that occurred in local civilians afterwards. Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent , reports on evidence that the Israelis used uranium weapons in the most recent war against Lebanon. Two oddities stand out: the weapons were used very close to the Israeli border, where winds are likely to carry the toxic dust into Israel, and the uranium used seems to be very slightly enriched in U-235 rather than depleted. Many Lebanese, however, long ago co

The World

Site Meter has this nice facility for displaying where your visits and page views come from. I'm always amazed to see the wide geographic distribution. At first I assumed that it was just some people getting unlucky with next blog , but apparently some of you seem to keep coming back. If you are a regular, or even an accidental next blogger, feel free to pipe up and let us know what you think. And, if you feel like it, let us know where you are!


As I was driving to work this morning Bush was talking about Nancy Pelosi's statement that Afghanistan was a legitimate part of the war on terror, but Iraq was not. Bush's critique: She should ask the people of Madrid, and London, and Bali, and Morocco, etc. How f****** dumb do you have to be to think this is a meaningful argument? Or how double-f****** ignorant? How many of the bombers or planners of any those attacks were Iraqis or had ties to Iraq? Zero! The 9/11 bombers, like Osama bin Laden, were mostly from the country ruled by Bush's kissy face buddy, Saudi Arabia. Yeah, he was from the bin Laden family, the family of Dad's former business partner. Yeah, the same family Bush hustled out of the country on a private jet right after 9/11. The London bombers were of Pakistani extraction. The Madrid bombers from North Africa. Bin Laden, last we heard, is still holed up in Pakistan, another Bush ally, where he continues to issue death threats against America

Scandal O'Rama

Despite total Republican control of all three branches of government, every week seems to bring a couple of new GOP scandals. A mistress strangler here , An attempted rapist and alien hider there , throw in some crooked land manipulations here , here , here , a bit of voter intimidation there , and pretty soon you start wondering about these guys. The GOP or the Soprano's? Add a couple of Republican Congressmen with a taste for same sex (male) pages and a Republican running for governor who allegedly has a felon for a boyfriend . Sounds like a moral, Christian group if I ever saw one. Of course Democrats have their own scandals. Harold Ford, running for Senate in Tennessee, is clearly guilty of supporting stem cell research and running for Congress while (partly) black . Josh Marshall has this collection of politico's and their friends who have actually been charged, indicted, or convicted. (There is actually a dem on the list, though he hasnt't been indicted yet). If

It Takes a Family

One interesting point made in Thomas Rick's book Fiasco - The American Military Adventure in Iraq is that, calamitous as the actions of George W. Bush have been, he is not soley responsible for the debacle. Some of the other big blunders were made by his father, George H. W. Bush. The worst was that, after we failed to destroy Saddam's Imperial Guard divisions, he explicity encouraged the military and the cities to rebel against Saddam, and after they did, let American forces stand by while Saddam sent the Imperial Guards to destroy them. American airpower would almost certainly have been decisive if it had been used. The Iraqi's took the obvious lesson from this, that America could not be trusted. Saddam similarly concluded that the Americans lacked follow through and a coherent plan.

Department of Stupidity Department

One of the many ludicrous charges being floated by the Republicans now is the notion that Democrats are plotting "to establish a Department of Peace." That's good old Majority Whip Roy Blunt. Not that there is any remote possibility of this being true, but more interesting is trying to fathom the reason Republicans find this particular bogeymany scary. Greg Sargent of TPM Cafe is reminded of the great Onion headline: Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over' That was on 17 January, 2001, folks. Pretty damn scary how prescient it was.

TWP IV: Seers versus Craftperps

Act IV, Scene 1. On the Heath [Lights come up dimly. Two men, dressed as witches, stand around a large iron pot on a fire. Wind howls. A red-haired man, THE DIRECTOR, stirs the pot, while the larger man, THE PLAYWRIGHT, looks on.] DIRECTOR: Double, double... PLAYWRIGHT: I'm thinking of a ballet, with a phalanx of dancers in grey military uniforms, dancing in strict unison - groupthink. DIRECTOR: Toil and trouble... PLAYWRIGHT: Seers would be highly individualized principal dancers, with brightly colored and distinctive costumes. They would have highly varied dance steps as they are pursued about the stage by the groupthink phalanx. DIRECTOR: Cauldron boil and cauldron f****** bubble... [fade to dark] Lee Smolin makes a pitch for democracy and diversity in theoretical physics in the fourth part of his book, and I'm sorry to say that I found it a bit irritating. I definitely agree that lockstep thinking, with everybody working on the same approaches to the same problems is


Sally Quinn has a story about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in today's Washington Post. The opening line pretty clearly announces the provenance: Don Rumsfeld is the shrewdest person in Washington. At this point, that's an opinion held by approximately one person in the inhabited universe, so this is pretty clearly announcing itself as a letter from Donny. So what's the SecDef concerned about? He understands better than anyone that somebody has to be in line to take the blame when things go wrong. So far he has been willing to do so. But not much longer. The drumbeat to get him out of the Pentagon has reached deafening proportions. Republicans and Democrats, the generals, the media, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Andy Card, the first President Bush, and even Laura Bush all want him gone. Until now George W. Bush has resisted all of the pressure to get rid of his defense secretary. But those in the know say that the president may have reached the point where he realizes

TWP III: What Lies Beyond?

Act III, Scene I [Lights up to reveal a The Sage, seated cross-legged on a low platform. Standing before him is The Student. Both are dressed in white robes] STUDENT: Master, tell me how I may know the secrets of Nature. [Sage appears to ignore him, remains seated with his head down.] STUDENT: Umm... [Sage looks up slowly, adjusts volume control on his Ipod.] SAGE: Listen... STUDENT: I am listening! SAGE: Listen to what Nature is telling you! STUDENT: But there are all these moduli - all these minima! [Sage removes earpiece.] SAGE: I didn't say listen to Lenny friggin Susskind! Listen to the data. To Nature. [Student bows, looks puzzled. Upstage center is illuminated to reveal a set of large speakers. Sage plugs Ipod into sound system.] PINK FLOYD: Teacher, Teacher... [very loudly. Fade to black as song continues.] [Spotlight on a short redhead, the director, fourth row center.] DIRECTOR: OK, better. Lose the Pink Floyd though. Go with something from this century. ******

Freedom of Speech

is one of those things everybody wants for themselves, but a lot of people can't tolerate in others. Kevin Drum has a few examples . The offending parties are mainly governments (French, Turkish, German) but include Jews, Muslims, and pro-immigrant protesters. The targets may be artists, reporters, historians, or just people on the street. Some are worse than others: Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a frequent critic of Vladimir Putin, was gunned down in broad daylight in her apartment building. "According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Ms Politkovskaya is the twelfth journalist to die in a contract-style killing since Mr Putin came to power." After Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech critical of Islam, Christian churches were firebombed in the West Bank, a Pakistani terrorist group called for the pope's murder, a Baghdad terrorist group threatened to kill all Christians in Iraq, and a nun was murdered in Somalia. Others are just too c

Midnight for Fluffy

William M. Connolley's post, Holocaust of the fluffy toys brought back some slightly shameful memories for me. I think the occasion was some sort of theatrical gala - raising money for a local theater. As I recall, we payed big bucks (for me) to get dinner and a chance to sit around with other theater fans. There was, however, some entertainment, a series of carnival type booths around the room. For a small fee, one could participate in various games of skill or chance, with fluffy animal toys as prizes. One of these was target shooting with a Nerf bow and arrow. As it happens, relatively few people can hit the broadside of a barn from twelve feet with a Nerf bow and arrow. With two subteen sons, I wasn't quite innocent of the machine's dynamics, though, and quickly figured out that a steady hand and an aim about three feet South-South-West of the bullseye could get the job done. I expended a few tickets, collected a couple of fluffy animals, and that should have bee

TWP II: Enter the Dragon

Act II, Scene I [String Theory, an alluring young woman clad in slightly revealing rags, enters stage right, and starts to walk toward center stage. A short, red-haired man, front row center, stands and loudly interrupts:] MAN: No! No! No! NO! Too trite, too NO! This is supposed to be a book review, not a high school skit. Start over! [Lights go down. Muffled sounds of movement on stage. Light comes up slowly, a single red spot illuminating a large and peculiarly marked egg, downstage center. Spot spreads to reveal a ring of kneeling men, clad in loin cloths, surrounding. Each man in turn leans forward, touches his head to the egg, returns to his position, and tosses a handful of powder on the egg, which flares up in smoke and crackling flame. Then the egg speaks.] EGG: By the wiggling of my strings, I do promise you all things. EGG: Particles! By the wiggling of my strings! EGG: Gauge Fields! By the wiggling of my open strings! EGG: Quantum Gravity! By the wiggling of my closed string

Trouble with Physics: Notes for a Review I. Prologue and Dramatis Personnae

Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics, is a long and detailed argument about the current state of physics and the nature of science by a passionate and profound thinker. Naturally, no review, much less this one, can do it full justice. These posts are my attempt to assimilate his argument and my offer to discuss the interesting questions he raises with anyone interested. I've called the book an argument, but it is also a tale in the mode of the heroic quest. In that genre, where should I place it? Somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Jason and the Argonauts , I should think, maybe over there next to Moby Dick . The White Whale in this epic is the search for a Theory of Everything, or at least a theory of Quantum Gravity. At the risk of stretching this analogy well beyond its elastic limit, the roles of Ahab and his crew are played by the String Theorists. Some time ago, never mind how long precisely, physics set out to achieve a unified view of all the phenomena of t

Liberals and Libertarians

So what do Liberals and Libertarians share, besides the first five letters? Just as those five letters suggest, I think that commonality is a belief in freedom. Libertarians are beginning to notice that they aren't entirely comfortable in the Party of Bush, Ashcroft, and James Dobson. The problem is that Libertarians only seem to consider the threat posed to liberty by the government. Liberals are wary of oppressive government, but they also fear the power of entrenched wealth - historically probably the more significant oppressor. Of course it's also true that the Libertarians are larded up with Ayn Randers and various other nutcases, but there are probably many who can be brought to see the light - or at least some of it.

Landscape Architecture

Readers of Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics will recall that the whole string theory landscape problem depends on flux compactification . I probably can't be trusted to explain it correctly, but the trouble starts with the fact that you need to curl up six of the space dimensions of ten dimensional spacetime. Once one has done this with Calabi-Yau manifolds, you have two more problems: They don't naturally lend themselves to a positive cosmological constant (which we observe) and they seem likely to spontaneously self-destruct. A way was found to stabilize them with tape and baling wire, or, more technically, electric and magnetic flux bound to branes. A lot of ways. Say 10^350. Kachru and Douglas, the inventors, have a new Reviews of Modern Physics article: hep-th/0610102 on the subject, and Peter Woit has some commentary . The article has at least some elementary parts, and Peter's commentary is interesting. So are the responses in his comment section.


There is a lot of information in the blogosphere. There are, for example, 58 million plus web pages on How to meet girls , including such helpful step-by-step instructions as these . Or, if you are just interested in the Geek Rock band Nerf Herder's album of the same name, there is also a lot on that, including a Wikipedia entry. Thanks, no doubt, to the diligent efforts of world wide antiterrorism forces, there are only about 1050 web sites googleable on How to build an atomic bomb. Apparently the North Koreans didn't read the right one. There are, however, apparently no instructions on how to reset the pressure on a Remstar CPAP machine. Homeland security needs to hire these guys.

Educating California: Some Good Teachers, Left Behind

Samuel G. Freedman takes a look at the operation of No Child Left Behind and the educational establishment in this New York Times article . Jefferds Huyck stood in a corner of the gymnasium, comfortable in being inconspicuous, as the annual awards ceremony began one Friday last May at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, Calif. He listened as the principal named 16 of Mr. Huyck’s students who had earned honors in a nationwide Latin exam, and he applauded as those protégés gathered near center court to receive their certificates. Then the principal, Andrew Goldenkranz, said, “And here’s their teacher.” Hundreds of students and parents and colleagues rose unbidden in a standing ovation. In that gesture, they were both celebrating and protesting. As virtually everyone in the audience knew, Mr. Huyck would be leaving Pacific Collegiate, a charter school, after commencement. Despite his doctorate in classics from Harvard, despite his 22 years teaching in high school and college, despit

The Butcher's Bill

From The Wall Street Journal: Iraqi Death Toll Exceeds 600,000, Study Estimates . A new study asserts that roughly 600,000 Iraqis have died from violence since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, a figure many times higher than any previous estimate. And George still can't figure out why the Iraqis aren't more grateful. For comparison: Human Rights Watch has estimated Saddam Hussein's regime killed 250,000 to 290,000 people over 20 years. Direct American action is probably responsible for less than 1/3 of the casualties. The others are indirect results, caused by disbanding the Army and the Police, failing to control stockpiles of weapons, and failure to control the border. The Lancet study, funded largely by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies, said while the percentage of deaths attributed to the U.S.-led coalition has decreased over the past year, coalition forces were involved in 31% of all violent deaths since March 2003.

NK Squib?

Rumors abound that the NK nuke was only about .55 kilotons. This would likely indicate premature or other ignition failure. A 10 k or so explosion was expected. It could still be a bit early to celebrate. 1,100,000 lbs of TNT is still a pretty big firecracker. It's not a city killer, but it could lay waste to several dozen city blocks. See, e.g., this weapons effects calculator.

Swiftboating Harry

Slate Magazine has managed to escape my wrath of late by sheer inconsequential irrelevance. No longer. By reposting this vicious slander by Chris Sullentrop, they have crossed the line. Sullentroll, who has now been promoted to the New York Times cabal of known deatheaters posted an article titled Harry Potter: Pampered jock, patsy, fraud. Let's look at a few of the specific slanders: Like most heroes, Harry Potter possesses the requisite Boy Scout virtues: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. What crap! Harry is indeed brave and loyal, indispensable qualities in a hero. He is as disobedient as Tom Sawyer, rather irreverent, and unremarkable in all the other BS virtues. Why isn't the movie that comes out next week titled Ron Weasley and the Chamber of Secrets? Why isn't its sequel dubbed Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Why Harry? What makes him so special? Simple: He's a g

Counting to Nine

North Korea made it official, testing their first nuclear weapon this morning. Once again the Bush policy of do-nothing braggadocio has laid a big egg. Josh Marshall calls it just right . For the US this is a strategic failure of the first order. The origins of the failure are ones anyone familiar with the last six years in this country will readily recognize: chest-thumping followed by failure followed by cover-up and denial. The same story as Iraq. Even the same story as Foley. ... All diplomatic niceties aside, President Bush's idea was that the North Koreans would respond better to threats than Clinton's mix of carrots and sticks. Then in the winter of 2002-3, as the US was preparing to invade Iraq, the North called Bush's bluff. And the president folded. Abjectly, utterly, even hilariously if the consequences weren't so grave and vast. Threats are a potent force if you're willing to follow through on them. But he wasn't. The plutonium production plant, wh

Standing Up and Standing Down: Reality's Day

We will stand down as Iraqi troops and police stand up has been a long time Bush Administration mantra. We have now reached the goal levels of Iraqi troops and police, but as Amy Scott Tyson notes in tomorrow's Washington Post U.S. Casualties in Iraq Rise Sharply . The number of U.S troops wounded in Iraq has surged to its highest monthly level in nearly two years as American GIs fight block-by-block in Baghdad to try to check a spiral of sectarian violence that U.S. commanders warn could lead to civil war. Last month, 776 U.S. troops were wounded in action in Iraq, the highest number since the military assault to retake the insurgent-held city of Fallujah in November 2004, according to Defense Department data. It was the fourth-highest monthly total since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The sharp increase in American wounded -- with nearly 300 more in the first week of October -- is a grim measure of the degree to which the U.S. military has been thrust into the le

33 Percent

A new Newsweek poll shows that 33 percent of those polled still approve of the job George Bush is doing. My reaction: What in the hell are those people thinking? Let's review. Recently we have learned that: 1) The Bushies had not one but at least three strong warnings that bin Laden was preparing an attack but ignored them - just as they later ignored the predicted destruction of New Orleans. 2) The consensus of all 16 US intelligence agencies is that Bush's war in Iraq has increased the strenth of anti-US terrorism. 3) Bush continues to lie about the situation in Iraq. 4) Republicans offer a lot of lip service to family values, but their true allegiance is to keeping power in the family, even it it means top House leaders have to conspire to keep secret the fact that one of their members is a sexual predator, preying on the House pages. It boggles my mind, but it does remind me never to underestimate the human power of self-delusion. Democrats are understandably encourag

ST - The E-Channel Biography

E Channel biographies are highly formulaic: Young person, armed only with looks, charisma, indomitable spirit, and, sometimes, talent, overcomes formidable obstacles to become a star. As money and adulation come flooding in, the usual bogeymen show up to drill a little hole in the fairy tale castle wall: sex, drugs, and hubris - that pride by which the gods bring down those who look like potential competitors. The significant other splits. The fans get bored. Financial inflow drops while outflow mounts. As the crisis mounts, we can all see what is coming next: 30 or 40 consecutive commercials. It's a bit of a stretch to say that String Theory has reached this point in its career, but tiny cracks in its public facade have widened. Peter Woit and Lee Smolin are hardly the first or most prestigious critics to go public. Philip Anderson, a long time critic, is one of the most important twentieth century physicists. Robert Laughlin, another condensed matter Nobel prizewinner h

Admiral of the Ocean Seas

Five hundred and fourteen years ago next Thursday, a sailor on one of Christopher Columbus's ships spotted the island of Hispaniola, thus initiating the European conquest of the New World. A man of somewhat uncertain origins, Columbus has been variously claimed by Genoa, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Judaism. He was the greatest mariner of his age, a brilliant leader, an inspired (if deluded) navigator, brave, indefatigable and pius. He was also a monster. In his generally admiring and occasionally adulatory biography, title as above, Samuel Eliot Morison notes Columbus's extermination of the native Taino Indians: Those who fled to the mountains were hunted with hounds, and of those who escaped starvation and disease took toll, whilst thousands of the poor creatures in desperation took cassava poison to end their miseries. So the policy and acts of Columbus for which he and he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492.

Psstt! Hey Buddy!

Can I borrow ten bucks, just for today? Yeah, I know, I borrowed ten yesterday, and the day before, and so on. No, I won't pay you back tomorrow, but I will borrow another ten spot. Yeah and the next day too. Oh yeah, I've got a wife and three kids, so could you make it $50? That's what we borrow every day, America. Ten bucks each for every man, woman, and child. About $3 billion, total. More than a trillion a year that we borrow from the rest of the world. I can't say that it makes me very optimistic about the future. Even the Republicans are worried. That's why they are working so hard to steal enough to make it through the coming hard times.

String Theory and its Discontents

Burton Richter Takes a Shot at string theory in the October Physics Today . To me, some of what passes for the most advanced theory in particle physics these days is not really science. When I found myself on a panel recently with three distinguished theorists, I could not resist the opportunity to discuss what I see as major problems in the philosophy behind theory, which seems to have gone off into a kind of metaphysical wonderland. Simply put, much of what currently passes as the most advanced theory looks to be more theological speculation, the development of models with no testable consequences, than it is the development of practical knowledge, the development of models with testable and falsifiable consequences (Karl Popper's definition of science). You don't need to be a practicing theorist to discuss what physics means, what it has been doing, and what it should be doing. ... The last big advance in model building came a bit more than 30 years ago with the birth of t

Falsifiability and Predictivity

GLENDOWER I can call spirits from the vasty deep. HOTSPUR Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them? .....................Henry IV, Part I, Act III, Scene I If string theory turns out to be right, string theorists will turn out to be the greatest heroes in the history of science. .....................The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin One of the knocks against string theory is the Popperian idea that a good scientific idea should be falsifiable - it should predict something new that can be tested by experiment. My favorite string theorist has a long post up about falsifiability in physics and string theory. I don't know much about string theory, but, unfortunately, one doesn't need to know much to know that a lot of what he says is crap. Some examples: In all of its [string theory's] known formalisms, it has fixed Lagrangians and quantitatively accurate and rigorous formulae just like renormalizable quantum field theori

Isn't it Ironic?

The right wing noise machine recently completed a far fetched and highly counterfactual attempt to blame 9/11 on Bill Clinton. Thus, there is a certain irony in the fact that Bob Woodward has revealed yet one more way that the Bush administration ignored a clear and urgent warning of a potential attack by bin Laden before 9/11. One of the most explosive claims in Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial is that then National Security Advisor Condeleeza Rice was briefed by the head of the CIA and another key counterterrorism official on July 10, 2001, that bin Laden appeared to be planning a major attack, quite possibly on the United States itself. Condi issued a categorical denial, but was proved a liar by both witnesses and the paper trail almost immediately. Rumsfeld, Ashcroft received warning of al Qaida attack before 9/11 By JONATHAN S. LANDAY, WARREN P. STROBEL and JOHN WALCOTT McClatchy Newspapers : WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Attorney G

Guidance Counselor

So, a string theorist and a chessmaster were sitting in a bar. After a couple of drinks, conversation lagged, and the string theorist said: "So how did you happen to get into your line of work?" At that point they were interrupted, because a prostitute came over to offer her wares. The chessmaster demurred, since he didn't have any money, and the string theorist likewise declined since he already had all the physics groupie coeds he could handle. Since the bar was empty, the hooker was in no hurry to wander off, and the chessmaster invited her to sit down. As soon as she did, he posed the string theorist's question to her. She pouted, complained that everybody asked that, and then replied: "At first I did it because it was fun, then I did it because people said I was good at it and it was fun, then because I was good at it and they gave me money. Now I do it because I don't know how to do anything else." The chess guy raised his class, clinked glas