Showing posts from July, 2008

Objects in Your Phase Space May Be Smaller Than They Appear

Lubos Motl has a very interesting post on a new ArXiv paper (0807.4556) by Jan de Boer, Sheer El-Showk, Ilies Messamah, Dieter Van den Bleeken. Because I don’t understand the technical details, let me just quote Lumo on what seem to me the most interesting parts: What is the general lesson? The general lesson is that in quantum gravity, the number of degrees of freedom is often much lower than what you would need to realize all of your fantasies based on classical physics. The entropy bounds and the holographic principle were the old moral examples why it is so. The new Benelux paper gives you a new and, in some optics, more concrete picture why not all of your classical fantasies are allowed. Why is it so? Simply because you often don't have enough quantum phase space (not even one Planck volume, up to powers of (2 pi), necessary for one quantum microstate) to realize them. A priori, this comment could sound crazy to you. If you have large objects, the corresponding phase spaces

Let me Count the Ways

A slightly famous mathematician once said to me: “I think Hawking is the most overrated physicist.” This took me aback, and I spent quite a while explaining to him that Hawking had important results in addition to his appearances on Star Trek and The Simpsons. Most important was his discovery of black hole radiance, and the revolution in black hole statistical mechanics it energized, which in turn is the most important result of quantum gravity. I suppose it would be more precise to say that black hole radiance and black hole thermodynamics is the nearest thing to a result in quantum gravity, since there are no experimentally confirmed predictions in quantum gravity. Nonetheless, all roads in quantum gravity appear to lead to black hole thermodynamics, and it would be hard to find a yet unobserved phenomenon in which physicists believe more firmly. Steven Carlip gives an overview of those many paths leading there in his new paper Black Hole Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics (

Professor Obama

Jodi Kantor, writing in The New York Times has a long article on Obama's years as a law professor at the University of Chicago. It's hardly a hostile piece - Obama is portrayed as a superb teacher who was eagerly recruited for a tenured position, but turned it down. Obama was a listener who led a socratic dialog, forcing students to think things through rather than mere absorb received wisdom. Obama was a rare but hardly confrontational liberal in one of the most conservative law schools in the country. Nonetheless, there is a thinly sourced undercurrent in the story promoting the idea that Obama was already plotting a course for high office and planning his career accordingly. If true, it's hardly damning - this is supposed to be a country where anyone can grow up dreaming to be president, but I'm skeptical anyway. John K. Wilson, one of Obama's former students takes strong exception to that element of the story in this Huffpost article . A bit of his commentary:

Effing the Ineffable

It's a profoundly uncomfortable fact for thoughtful American Jews that the Iraq war was promoted and (mis)managed by mostly Jewish neoc a on Israel lobbyists (Kristol, Feith, Wolfowitiz, Perle) in alliance with oil interests (Cheney, Rice, Bush) and war profiteering crony capitalists. The same group now bangs the drum for war with Iran. Joe Klein is brave and crazy enough to speak this uncomfortable truth : I have now been called antisemitic and intellectually unstable and a whole bunch of other silly things by the folks over at the Commentary blog. They want Time Magazine to fire or silence me. This is happening because I said something that is palpably true, but unspoken in polite society: There is a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who unsuccessfully tried to get Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and then successfully helped provide the intellectual rationale for George Bush to

Super Trooper?

John Pomfret asks (rhetorically) whether China is the next superpower. He knows China well, certainly far better than I, and concludes that the answer is no. But is China really going to be another superpower? I doubt it. It's not that I'm a China-basher, like those who predict its collapse because they despise its system and assume that it will go the way of the Soviet Union. I first went to China in 1980 as a student, and I've followed its remarkable transformation over the past 28 years. I met my wife there and call it a second home. I'm hardly expecting China to implode. But its dream of dominating the century isn't going to become a reality anytime soon. Too many constraints are built into the country's social, economic and political systems. For four big reasons -- dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn't travel well -- China is more likely to remain the muscle-bound adolescent of the internatio

Mamma Mia!

This is a seriously bad silly movie, despite fine actors (Meryl Streep, Julie Walters), famous actors (Pierce Brosnan), fantastic Greek island scenery, and one of the world's great assemblages of 80's Europop. There are some fine singers on hand too, but unfortunately there isn't any story for the actors to act in and way too many of the songs were sung by actors whose talents weren't up to the job. Super Trooper and SOS ought to be show stoppers, but tended to hurt my ears until the backup singers drowned out the leads. Meryl Streep is not a terrible singer, but she doesn't have the voice for "The Winner takes it All." If you see Pierce Brosnan opening his mouth to sing, drop into a fetal position, cover your ears, and moan loudly enough to drown out the pain. Of course I liked it anyway, because I am a seriously damaged ABBA fan.

Cargo Cult Science: Selective Reading

Lumo is doing a little more selective reading of Feynman, in particular, of Feynman's Cargo Cult Science lecture. As usual, he is pretty good at finding the parts that agree with his point of view but displays his patented obliviousness about those that don't fit: Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. My emphasis. Gee, what popular scie

Private Matters

Dr. C's guide for celebrities: Private Matters: - Your (legal and consensual)sex life, your health, your children all clearly fit this category. Your arrest for assault , lewd and lacivious conduct, or hit and run - not so much.

My First Time

The center of circulation of the remanents of Hurricane Dolly are now directly over El Paso, Texas, about 40 miles from here. El Paso looks a bit like a pinwheel on the radar . This is a rare treat for those who dwell in the desert. Of course her teeth are a bit dull after having gnawed her way through a thousand kilometers or so of terrain.

Hey Stupid!

Rick Shenkman is just the latest guy to set out to make a buck by telling us that we are stupid. So why should we pay to be insulted? Mostly, I suppose, because we assume that he must be talking about all those other guys, you know, the stupid ones. I have to confess that I like the epigraph to his excerpt linked above. If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." -- Thomas Jefferson So how is it that we are we stupid? Let me not count the ways, but mention and discuss a few: "About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family, according to a survey. "The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpso

Hit and Run

... would be a serious offense for you or for me, but not so much if you are a conservative icon, I guess. Columnist and all around death eater Robert Novak reportedly splattered a pedestrian on the windshield of his Corvette and took off. When witnesses chase him down - possible in DC traffic, he claimed not to have noticed the victim. Yeah, like that's really easy to miss when the guy is on your windshield. Novak left with a $50 citation for failure to yield, but I would be surprised if it ended there. If witnesses can be believed, he is guilty as hell, and has a record of agressive behavior and road rage. No doubt he will find some way to bribe the victim into silence, but in a fair world he would see real prison time and the victim would get a bundle.

Over the Top

Gordon Kane wrote a very nice elementary textbook on elementary particle theory that I like a lot. Recently, however, reportedly he said of of the LHC: It is certainly the most important experiment of any kind in the past century, without qualification” and “the most important thing ever in our quest to understand the fundamental laws of nature and the universe.” Hmmm. That would make it more important, for example, than Rutherford's scattering experiment that discovered the nucleus, the experiments that discovered all the elementary particles, those that revealed the universe of galaxies, the clues to QM and relativity, etc. What sort of discovery would fit that bill? Well, I guess if the LHC managed to create a phase transition that destroyed the universe, or a black hole that ate the Earth, those might qualify. How about sup p ersymmetry? No way. Mini black holes (that don't destroy the Earth)? Close, but no banana. Conclusive evidence of extra dimensions? Well, may


John McCain has identified with the most unpopular programs of the most unpopular President in recent memory, been associated with crooks and scoundrels, and has conducted one of the most inept campaigns I've seen. His party is justifiably blamed for almost every mess the country is in, and that's plenty. He is a bully and a lout who cheated on his wife, lied about it publicly, and told coarse and demeaning jokes about women and children. He was a terrible student who got a plum Navy assignment through family connections, and whose military experience was mainly as a prisoner of war. Not too smart ever, he has been a regular Mr. Malaprop in public, confusing Sunni and Shia, and showing total confusion about the geographic relations of the world's most dangerous problem countries. Nevertheless, pitted against the smartest and most charismatic politician in recent memory, he is still managing to run even or almost even. I can only think of two plausible explanations, both

Physics Phirst

Among Lumo's regular features that I still like to read are his frequent scientific biographies. A recent note on Leon Lederman noted his advocacy for Physics First , the notion of teaching physics befor other sciences in high school. There is a logic to this, since physics and its concepts form the underpinning of chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology and all the other physical sciences. Traditionally physics has been last for mathematical reasons - students don't have enough math to understand much physics until they have learned trigonometry and calculus. My own view is that logical simplicity and didactic effectiveness are not necessarily linked, and I dislike the whole layer cake approach to science and math. One hundred fifty years ago or even less many still believed that chemistry and biology depended on fundamental phenomena different from physics, some vital substance, for example. It is now clear that that notion is incorrect, and that all sciences are close

Another Reason Not to Retire

My wife has gone on a kick of getting rid of all our stuff that is old and doesn't work.

Doofus or Dastard?

The liberal blogosphere is pissed at McCain for revealing something of Obama's itinerary in Iraq. Since an American presidential candidate would be a prime al Quaeda target, this was a pretty bad thing to do - loose lips sink ships. Hilzoy has some comments . This is not just another screwup from McCain. It is very, very serious. There are things you are just Not Supposed To Talk About. This is one of them. If McCain doesn't have the common sense, the decency, and the discipline not to talk about them, that's a very serious problem. Since I'm not willing to assume he did this out of malice, I have to conclude that he just let this slip. But if he were President, we would need to count on him not to let things like this slip. Apparently, we can't. And that's a very big deal. Since he has already revealed himself as a doofus who wants to be President in the worst way, does it matter? If the American people elect another idiot, one can hardly claim that they shou

Ten Years

Al Gore wants to convert all the nations electricity production to "green" sources in the next ten years. Is that a pipe dream? Yes, probably, but getting a start is a good idea anyway. There are multiple points economic and strategic. Our dangerous dependence on foreign oil is a continuing economic and strategic threat, and there is good reason to believe that CO2 is bad for the planet. The US has little remaining oil, but the deserts of the Southwest get a tremendous amount of Sunlight that is barely exploited economically. My own feeling is that nuclear needs to be a big part of the mix, but it can't be the whole answer or even a major part for several decades - we simply can't create the infrastructure quickly enough. Most of our oil is used for transportation, of course, but that could change too. Electric cars are coming, and electric railroads have existed before and could exist again.


. . . is a country that hasn't existed for the last decade and a half, but John McCain keeps promising to defend it. Should we be concerned? Not on that basis alone. Czechoslovakia was a country during McCain's childhood, youth, adulthood and middle age and it's not surprising that an old man makes that kind of gaffe. Younger people make similar mistakes. More bothersome is his apparent cluelessness about the differences between Sunni and Shia, and how they relate to al Quaeda. This is a matter central to any strategy in the Middle East and especially Iraq and Iran. We really can't afford another Presidential dimwit who makes all his decisions on the basis of grade school slogans and thinks a pose is a strategy.

Idols of the Tribe

For a biologist, PZ Myers is remarkably clueless about evolution, or, at any rate, he affects to be. Why should I think so? Because he seems to imagine that a nearly universal human trait is just a deviation that can be cured, preferably with ridicule and contempt. Religion, I mean. His latest publicity stunt is asking for people to send consecrated communion wafers to him to desecrate. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat i

Mighty Warrior

John McCain thinks he knows how to win wars. Unlike Eisenhower or Grant, though, he was hardly the victorious commander of a military triumph. The vast majority of his combat service was spent as a prisoner of war - in a war we lost. This fact doesn't take away from his individual valor or patriotism, but it's hardly a demonstration of talent for high command. Instead of empty bragging, he might try laying out some specifics that hint he has a clue as to what obstacles we face and what "victory" would mean. Instead we get the same braggadocio, belligerance, and shallow idealism of the slogan that we got from Bush.

Cheshire Cat

That Cheshire Cat of bloggers, Wolfgang B., has again left a mysterious Goodbye link . I, for one, hope that it's brief and temporary.

Apo Calypso

I hate the taste of Technetium (pyrophosphate ion linked 99m) in the morning. In fact I hate medical tests of all sorts.

New Yorker Cover

There is a Kurt Vonnegut story somewhere of an anti-Nazi in the Nazi propaganda apparatus who tries to satirize the Nazi propaganda by making up utterly absurd anti-Semitic allegations and stories. No matter how absurd or preposterous his tales are, though, they are taken seriously, and he quickly rises to be a key henchman of Goebbels. For the propagandist, no absurdity is too absurd. Perhaps the sophisticated editors of the New Yorker and their artist were unaware of both story and principle, but they produced a cover that incorporates every nasty smear of Obama in the Republican canon. It's a satire they say. Ha, ha. If so intended, what a bunch of dumb fucks. If they had been paying any attention, they might have noticed that all that stuff is gospel to the professional Republican liars. Catch, for example, the Hoover Institute's Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell comparing Obama and McCain. Unlike Obama, he says, "Senator McCain has not spent decades aiding and abettin

Return Fire

Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes bombarded with large scale "pass it on" emailings from deluded friends pushing some right wing cause. This can be annoying, but lately I prefer another tactic. I write as cogent and unstrident a refutation of the email's claims as I can, backing it up with links to facts, figures and analysis, and hit the return to all button. I figure that this is a relatively rare opportunity to shine a little light onto those who live in the right wing media cocoon.

"A Nation of Whiners"

Plutocrats Dictionary , Definition: Whine v., - that annoying sound the populace makes when we crush their balls. McCain economic guru Phil Gramm got into a bit of trouble when he said that the US was in a "mental recession," and that the country was "a nation of whiners." McCain stepped away from that, but just in case anybody had any doubt about how the Plutocracy feels, they were out in full force today to back up Gramm. George Will and Senator Jon Kyl, (R) AZ, were Sunday talking heads to back him up, and the Washington Post was quick to chime in with a Gramm flunky's editorial. They can't afford to be sympathetic, because things are working out just the way they planned, with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and oil companies getting richest of all. It's important to remember that while the Bush economy has been a disaster for most Americans, it has been just dandy for rich people like McCain, crony capitalists like Gramm, and

Physics Problem

Since Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance is doing a thing to explain everything you always wanted to know about quantum mechanics, but were afraid to ask, I thought of a question. It's not really appropriate for the forum Sean will be addressing, so I will mention it here. In quantum mechanics, the state of a physical system is represented by a ray in Hilbert space, a generally infinite dimensional vector space. In classical mechanics, the state of a system is represented by a point in configuration space (or, in the case of the Hamiltonian description) by a point in a 2n dimensional symplectic manifold (where n is the number of degrees of freedom of the system). As Planck's constant h -> 0, the two descriptions should become equivalent. How does one go from the Hilbert space description to the manifold in that case? Anybody know a good answer for this?

It's the End of the World as We Know It

And I'm still voting for Obama. There is a scene in the movie Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World where the Captain (Russell Crowe) and the Doctor(Paul Bettany) are eating hard tack biscuits, and a couple of weevils crawl out. Crowe asks Bettany which of the two is the smaller. The Doctor, good naturalist that he is, inspects them and selects one. That, says Crowe, is what the job of a commander is about: choosing the lesser of two [we]evils. That is the job of the politician and the statesman as well, and so also the voter. Thus, despite my distress about FISA, I have told myself "fuggedaboudit." I too must choose the lesser weevil. That is an easy choice.

Impeach Obama!

OK, maybe that's a bit strong, as well as premature, but the last few weeks have been a dagger in the heart for many hard core Obamaphiles. The traditional turn to the center was certainly to be expected, but subtle it was not. Bob Herbert of the NYT is on the case . One issue or another might not have made much difference. Tacking toward the center in a general election is as common as kissing babies in a campaign, and lord knows the Democrats need to expand their coalition. . . . . . Separation of church and state? Forget about it. . . . agreeing with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas . . . For one thing, he’s taking his base for granted, apparently believing that such stalwart supporters as blacks, progressives and pumped-up younger voters will be with him no matter what. For many of us, the FISA vote is the unkindest cut. There is a promise and plenty of Constitutional Principle involved. I'm not thrilled about the football stadium acceptance either. Aside fr

Americans in Zion

Perhaps some have suspected that I regard Zionism as less than an unmixed blessing for American foreign policy. I have thought, though, that the enthusiasm of some American Protestant groups for Israel was a recent development. No so. It turns out that long before any significant number of Jews thought about taking back Palestine, Protestant evangelicals were before them. We could blame George Bush, or rather, the Reverend George Bush. He wrote the book on the subject, it seems: The Valley of Vision; The Dry Bones of Israel Revived to be specific. Not either of those Presidents George Bush, to be sure, but rather a somewhat remote ancestor, a Professor of Hebrew at NYU before the genetic line rotted through inbreeding and too much coke. Bush's 1844 treatise was somewhat definitive, but it wasn't quite the start either. Freed from Rome's New Testament exclusiveness by Martin Luther and Gutenberg, Protestants had started reading the Old Testament. The Restorationist i

About Those Evil Speculators

A favorite meme has been that commodity prices have been driven up by the activity of "speculators." I have tended to be a bit dubious, particularly in the case of oil, where not a lot can be conveniently stored, but the Washington Post's David Cho tracks some speculators to their dens . Who are they? We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. Or at least our pension funds. Soaring fuel prices that are burning a hole in the wallets of consumers are not only benefiting oil companies and Middle Eastern producers. They are also lighting up the investment returns of pensions funds, which millions of ordinary Americans are counting on for their retirement. California's public employees' pension fund, the world's largest, made its first investment of $1.1 billion into oil and other commodities early last year, and since then, Calpers has seen it soar 68 percent. Fairfax County pension managers have enjoyed a 61 percent return from a similar move over the past 1

Review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

I would like to dedicate this post to United Airlines, for my seven hour layover in Denver, which enabled me to finish reading this book, and drove me to starting another really promising one. For those who may have suspected that I am an Obama fan, it's true, and this book hasn't made me any less of one. More than ever, Obama seems like the Anti-Bush to me: eloquent where Bush is incoherent, analytical where Bush thoughtless, cool where Bush is rash, compassionate where Bush is mean - and, most importantly, penetrating where Bush is dense. Where Bush is utterly unable to express himself except in the most banal and trite sloganeering, Obama reveals a nuanced understanding of how the world works. Obama's first book, written before his political career, is personal, revealing, and gripping. The image revealed is more complex and interesting than the plaster saint we see in the campaign literature. It is also a bit less polished than Audacity of Hope , but well-written no

Road Trip to the Apocalypse

Chronicle of Doom Fortold, Chapter XX? Energy Cassandra's have been warning us about this for decades, but now it's here. Oil is no longer cheap, and the long term is likely to get worse. Nelson D. Schwartz has a look at the history in today's New York Times. Like many of our recent disasters (9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Bush tax cuts) this is a calamity that those with minds could see coming for millions, er, trillions of vehicle miles. Schwartz has some quotes: “Much of what we’re seeing today could have been prevented or ameliorated had we chosen to act differently,” says Pete V. Domenici, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a 36-year veteran of the Senate. “It was a bipartisan failure to act.” Mike Jackson, the chief executive of AutoNation, the country’s biggest automobile retailer, is even more blunt. “It was totally preventable,” he says, anger creeping into his affable car-salesman’s pitch. I will buy the bipartisan fail

The Coach

Some years back, a relative of mine was an official at a small Montana community college. According to her story, a retired journeyman NBA player who lived in the area volunteered to coach the school's basketball team, and hung around in her office trying to persuade the powers that were to let him try. They wouldn't hear of it. As it happened, the big guy managed to get into coaching anyway .

Adventures in the Outback

It's not actually the inner Oz I'm talking about here, but the wagon of the same name produced by Subaru. On my recent visit to Montana, my rental car turned out to be a Subaru Outback, which was good, because I had been intending to test drive one. It wasn't until I attempted to find my car in a restaurant parking lot that I made a curious discovery while walking down a row of silver Outbacks looking for mine. The Outback is the National Car of Montana, or at any rate, Kalispell, Montana - or at least the Toyota Camry of Kalispell. Every other vehicle seems to be an outback. The whole vibe was redolent of Drowning Mona . The Outback, I hear, has a very good reputation in snow. There wasn't any snow where I was driving (Logan Pass is apparently still closed due to the depth of the remaining snow ), but it seemed like a pretty good car anyway. Except for the fact that I needed contortionist skill to actually enter it. If I put my foot in first, there was no way to get my