Showing posts from December, 2010

I Knew He Was French...

Paul Krugman reports: This is too weird not to share: guess who was named by one survey as the most influential left of center European thinker ?


The Daily Beast and their panel of MacGeniuses came up with a list of twenty " smartest people of 2010 ." Nobody I actually know made the list, but I have some opinions on some of them. Of course the really smart people of 2010 are probably toiling in utter obscurity in some math or physics department, but we are sticking with just the public types here. #15 Christopher Hitchens. A very clever, passionate, and erudite fellow who manages to be wrong about a lot of stuff. If I had to be stuck on a long ocean voyage with only one person to talk to, he would be my choice from this list. #14 Kanye West. WTF? #8 Felisa Wolfe-Simon. Probably a good scientist who did some nice work with the arsenic tolerating bacteria, but this story was so absurdly hyped by NASA and the press that it really has become something of an embarassment. The bottom line seems to be that she and colleagues do not seem to have proven metabolic replacement of phosphorus in cellular processes. #5 J. Cra

Nut-Jobs of the Right, XXIV

Tucker Carlson, who so far as I know is not a vegetarian, thinks Michael Vick should have been executed. This sentiment is probably widely shared by NY Giants fans, but I think that rather, the Eagles' offensive line ought to execute their blocks.

The Weather Outside is Frightful

OK, maybe not so much here in southern New Mexico, though I suppose you could get a sunburn if you left your shirt off too long outside - but Europe is having its third tough winter in a row and the eastern US is also in the fridge again. So what does it mean? Proof of global warming or disproof (I couldn't bring myself to say "a refudiation", but I was tempted). Judah Cohen, a commercial weather forecaster, offers a interesting meteorological theory in the NYT . Annual cycles like El Niño/Southern Oscillation, solar variability and global ocean currents cannot account for recent winter cooling. And though it is well documented that the earth’s frozen areas are in retreat, evidence of thinning Arctic sea ice does not explain why the world’s major cities are having colder winters. But one phenomenon that may be significant is the way in which seasonal snow cover has continued to increase even as other frozen areas are shrinking. In the past two decades, snow cover has ex

Why It's More Dire in Eire*...

Paul Krugman looks at the housing bubble in Ireland and Nevada ... The populations are similar; the housing bubbles were comparable in their extremity; both currently have roughly 14 percent unemployment. .... Fiscally, Nevada’s retirees can count on Washington to keep paying their Social Security and Medicare, which amounts to a big transfer into the state now that it’s paying much less in federal taxes. Oh, and Nevada is in effect getting a federal bank bailout — not so much directly via the FDIC, although there’s some of that, as via Fannie and Freddie: with less than 1 percent of the US population, Nevada is generating more than 5 percent of the F&F losses — losses that are a problem for taxpayers in general, not specifically in Nevada. So there you have it: optimum currency area theory in action.. Ireland is faced with the combined disadvantages of sharing a currency with Germany but not a budget. *Yes, I've heard that it's not supposed to rhyme with "fire."

Flim-Flam Man

Prof. Steve Landsburg, AKA "The Burg" has a response of sorts to criticism of his "percentage of girls" puzzle from yours truly and Lubos Motl . That response was to challenge Lubos (I am the blogger-who-may-not-be-named) and all comers to a \$15,000 sucker bet. Lubosh has called the bet a "borderline cheat" but I don't see any border at all. The problem is that the subject of his bet is quite different from the original puzzle and his answer to his new problem is different than his original answer - and, not incidentally, now correct in a certain approximation. Here is the original problem: There’s a certain country where everybody wants to have a son. Therefore each couple keeps having children until they have a boy; then they stop. What fraction of the population is female? Well, of course, you can’t know for sure, because, by some extraordinary coincidence, the last 100,000 families in a row might have gotten boys on the first try. But in expect

He'll Be a Dentist...

I had my teeth cleaned the other day. The tech managed to convince me that it was time to expose my head to some more ionizing radiation, so I submitted to X-rays. I had mixed feelings about the fact that they still used film. My previous dentist had gone to a CCD system which, while requiring less radiation per shot, also convinced my idiot tech that it wasn't really necessary to get the shot right the first time, since she could always get a do-over - one good reason I left that dentist. After the cleaning, the dentist looked at my X-rays and said somewhat wistfully: "Nothing really terrible happening to any of these teeth on the X-rays." Afterwards he carefully inspected my wisdom teeth, and said with still more apparent disappointment: "Nothing really going on to justify pulling them - YET." Am I getting more paranoid in my old age or does the guy really need that boat payment?

It's Called Civilization

Human culture seems to have undergone some sort of major phase transition when we started living in cities. Progressive citification has only intensified in the last century or so as technology has permitted a smaller and smaller number of farmers to feed the rest of us. So what's so special about cities? Are they more than just a convenient way to stack a lot of people in a small amount of room? It may not have taken a physicist to intuit the answer, says Jonah Lehrer, writing in the New York Times Magazine , but if you want the insight codified in some equations, a physicist, namely Geoffrey West, is the man. West used to think about physics, but the cancellation of the Super Collider in 1993 caused him to look for new worlds to think about. His first big score was in biology, West has been drawn to different fields before. In 1997, less than five years after he transitioned away from high-energy physics, he published one of the most contentious and influential papers in modern b

Back to "The Burg"

Steve Landsburg brings us this little post-Channukah present : I think he mangles the logic and presents a totally bogus answer.* Let's read it: •Here’s the wrong answer: Every birth has a 50% chance of producing a girl. This remains the case no matter what stopping rule the parents are using. Therefore the expected number of girls is equal to the expected number of boys. So in expectation, half of all children are girls. {OK, Compare paragraph below} •Pretty convincing, eh? So why is it wrong? Well, actually, most of it is right. Every birth has a 50% chance of producing a girl — check. This remains the case no matter what stopping rule the parents are using — check. Therefore the expected number of girls is equal to the expected number of boys — check! But it does not follow that in expectation, half of all children are girls! { Yes, Steve, it does!! } •To see why not, let me tell you about the families who live on my block. There are 3 families with four girls each (and no boys)

Bad Trippin'

What's up with the recent weather related travel debacle in Europe? Five inches of snow shuts down the biggest airports in Europe. Should we attribute it to a typical failure of those damn European socialists? Not exactly. Actually this one is more like a typical failure of greedy and short-sighted capitalists. Clive Irving has the story of Heathrow and other British airports. It seems that after the Brits noticed that airports could be made into shopping malls, they turned airports over to the British Airport Authority, which, despite the name, was a private company, rather than a government entity. As a result, the BAA became a prized, highly profitable business, much admired beyond the U.K. It caught the eye of an ambitious Spanish multinational—until then a specialist in building highways—called Ferrovial. In 2006 Ferrovial bought control of the BAA. Then the problems really began. Passengers complained of poor maintenance, filthy toilets, chaotic security lines, and poor commu

Speedy Projectiles

When I wrote earlier about viscosity and speedy bullets , Guest flogged me for my explanation of penetrating power. I thought it was about the speed of sound, and he said "pressure" and made me figure out why. That's all in the comments to the linked post. I knew that speed of sound had to be involved though, so I needed to think that through as well. Here what I came up with while trying to go to sleep the other night. It is pressure that melts the solid (by compressing the material until the intermolecular forces cease to bind, but the speed of sound is important too. Excess pressure is radiated away at the speed of sound, in the form of sound waves, but when the disturbance (hypervelocity projectile, say) is moving faster than the speed of sound, pressure does not have time to be radiated away. Thus, excess pressure accumulates ahead of the projectile and does its melting work until the projectile slows below sound speed and permits it to radiate away. All that is

The Senator Who Lived

Harry Reid has been the target of oppobrium from right and left lately - accused of not being able to lead, follow, or campaign. The upshot of the lame duck makes him look a bit more like the master strategist, though. Ezra Klein of the WaPo on the lame duck: Sen. Lindsey Graham summed up the session by saying, "When it's all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch."

To Whom It May Concern

I apologize for ever implying that Ginny might not be a suitable life partner for HP and that Ron was dull. No doubt Jo Row knows better. ---------Uncle CIP

Second Responders

It seems that the administration has praised John Stewart for kicking Congress in the pants hard enough to revive the 9/11 first responders health care bill. Meanwhile, the same President, who campaigned for better health care for our wounded veterans, especially those who are victims of traumatic brain injury (TBI), presides over an administration that continues to deny those veterans the gold standard of that care, cognitive rehabilitation. The reason for denial is simple: it's expensive. The Pentagon convened a large panel of experts from both civilian and military medicine, and they unanimously recommended cognitive rehabilitation, but the Pentagon didn't like the answer, so they had a pet contractor write a report disagreeing. Every outside expert reviewing the contractor report found it deeply flawed, but with that report in its pocket the Pentagon continues to deny the wounded the best treatments. NPR and Pro Publica report the details.

Republicans Hate...

... Hispanics slightly more than they hate gays . But they really hate 9/11 first responders . ... the Senate voted against the cloture vote on the DREAM Act: 55-41. The Senate on Saturday cleared the way for a final vote on a bill to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law, putting the 17-year effort to end the ban on gays in the military just hours from completion. Senators voted 63 to 33 go proceed to debate on the bill. Fifty-seven members of the Senate Democratic caucus and six Republicans -- Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio) -- voted yes. Four senators -- Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) -- did not vote. Shepard Smith excoriated the Senators who are holding up the so-called "Zadroga Bill" to assist 9/11 first responders who suffer from medical problems as a result of their t

Viscosity II: String Theory

Non-experts might want to read Viscosity I first . String Theorist and blogger Joseph Djugashvili has a post on what string theory has to say about viscosity, and in particular, about the ratio of viscosity to entropy density. My first reaction was “Say what?” Why should string theory have anything to say about viscosity? It’s a long post, with several interesting references and a number of the standard boring rants, but I won’t attempt to summarize – go read it yourself. Getting back to the question, recall that viscosity is all about transverse transfer of momentum. At low energies, transverse forces have a long time to act, so it’s not implausible that viscosities could become arbitrarily large, and they do. Conversely, it’s also not really surprising that transverse momentum transfers should saturate at high energies. Consider the case of a bullet smashing into a steel plate. If you have an ordinary bullet, and a reasonably thick plate, as the bullet hits it transfers momentum to

Viscosity I

The most fundamental property of a fluid is (doh!) flow. Under application of a force, a fluid deforms continuously. That doesn’t mean that fluids don’t protest a bit, however. Pushing through a fluid usually produces a resistance – you need to do work to make it flow, and a flowing fluid produces forces on objects that it flows past. Of course fluids have mass, and changing the velocity of a mass requires a force, but I’m not talking about that kind of inertial force at the moment, but about the frictional force a fluid moving at constant velocity exerts on anything it flows past. That frictional quality is called viscosity. We are familiar with very viscous fluids like honey, and much less viscous fluids, like water and air. Imagine stepping into a shallow but swift flowing stream. You feel a force as you insert your foot. That initial force can be explained purely on inertial grounds – you have forced the stream to change direction to flow around you. If the fluid were frictionless,

Economics: Disease and Cure

Humans appear to have been practicing medicine since before civilization. Early medicine was based on a mixture of experience, folklore, and superstition. This or that herb or practice sometimes helped this or that condition. Surgery gradually improved with knowledge of anatomy, and the discovery of bacteria gave insight into the nature of many kinds of disease. Advance beyond superstition and nostrum required understanding of how the machine worked at the cellular level and below, though. Economics, I think, seems firmly lodged in the era of superstition and nostrum. Neoclassical economics has developed elaborate mathematical models, but they lack predictive power and depend on approximations that are too unrealistic to support them. The first requisite for a scientific approach to a cure is to identify the disease and its process. It’s at this point that neo-classicism meets its most fundamental challenge – its optimization assumptions essentially deny the possibility of disease. In

The Compromise: Once More

My current opinion is that Obama made several mistakes, but this compromise was not one of them. If a fight was going to be made, it had to be made last Spring or Summer. The Republicans have little incentive to fold right now, and will have even less after the end of this Congress. If there were no tax deal, and no unemployment extension, the drag on the economy would have been very likely to stifle the economy, and it would have been very hard to pin the blame on the Republicans. That said, the fight has been postponed. Obama's choices are to let the Republicans drive or to prepare for war now. If he's not in full warpaint by this time next year, we are truly screwed. One thing he said this week scared the hell out of me - somebody asked him about a "line in the sand" and he said that they will find out that he has a lot of lines in the sand. That sounds like a plan for disaster. What we need is for the President to articulate a clear and sensible strategy, s

Meditation on a Theme by ...

Tyler Cowen. Looking around at my overflowing bookshelves, my son once said: "I think you have all these books because you are trying to convince other people that you're smart." After thinking about for a second or two I replied: "No, I think I'm trying to convince myself that I'm smart." Maybe it would be closer to say that I overestimate my intellectual ability to assimilate the books that I buy. I'm going to guess that the really smart guys in physics don't buy many physics books. Feynman, Fermi, and Landau reputedly rarely read scientific papers - they just needed to hear the idea and then they worked it out for themselves. Math might be a slightly different matter. Whoever we are though, we rarely lack the instinct to try to impress each other. It's probably a key instinct in our organization as a social species. Feynman and Gell-Mann made spectacles of themselves in their juvenile versions of dominance displays at Caltech Physics

I Throw My Hands Up In The Air Sometimes...

I think it's frustration over not being able to get this idiotically addictive Taio Cruz song out of my head...

Republican Scientists

There hardly exist any , reports Daniel Sarewitz. Only 6 % of scientists self-identify as Republican. There is probably a bigger percentage of blacks in the Ku Klux Klan than that. He wonders why, but Kevin Drum isn't so puzzled : Of course scientists are hostile toward Republicans. As far as they're concerned, Republicans are troglodytes who don't believe in evolution, don't believe in climate change, want to ban stem cell research, and don't want to fund the NSF. They'd be crazy not to be hostile toward Republicans. My guess is that relatively few scientists are ideologues of right or left, and that there would be, will be, more Republican scientists as soon as Republicans stop being no nothing dumb shits ... like than's going to happen anytime soon.

Compromise II

Despite the bitter complaints of those like Krugman and me who wanted a fight, tax cuts and deficit cutting have been pushed to the 2012 election. There is a logic to this, but there is also a peril. What expectation can there be that the fight will turn out any better then? The logic: this is a fight that the President could not win, with a much more Republican Congress coming in. The peril: if the economy continues to limp, and the Democrats remain as inept as they have been, the same battle will need to be fought two years hence, on more unfavorable political terrain. TBD: Obama as fox or rabbit. If we are lucky, Krugman (and I) will have to admit that Obama is smarter than we are. Let's hope so.

Presidential Compromise

I don't like it, but at least he got a small stimulus out of it . Kicking this can down the road does not look like a good idea to me. Europe's can kicking looks even worse. We cannot go on like this. The crisis in the euro zone is the single largest threat to the fragile global recovery we are now seeing. And this is not just a problem for Europe. It matters to us in Britain, as well as to the United States and Asia. At last year’s Group of 20 meetings in London, the participating countries agreed to stabilize the international banking system and to stimulate the world economy. Further progress was made in Pittsburgh six months later. There was real political will to do what was necessary. That momentum has now been lost, and it will not be regained without greater involvement from the major economies. Decisive action, confronting the underlying causes of this crisis, is now imperative. Don't expect leadership from Obama or Merkel.

Digital Invariance?

Hypothesis: The combined IQ of a smartphone and its owner is an invariant of the motion.

(Is It Really a Vitamin?)* D

Wolfgang asked: I try to increase my intake of vitamin D to reduce cancer risk. The best would be long outdoor exposure to the sun. Unfortunately, this would increase the risk of skin cancer. So why can the human body not synthesize this vitamin (without sunlight)? What kind of intelligent design is this? So what's special about sunlight, in particular, sunlight in the UV? Energetic photons, that's what. My guess is that it's either hard or very inconvenient to store a big enough chunk of energy to complete some crucial part of the synthesis - and sunlight is a widely available resource. Wikipedia says: The photosynthesis of vitamin D evolved over 750 million years ago; the phytoplankton coccolithophor Emeliani huxleii is an early example. Vitamin D played a critical role in the maintenance of a calcified skeleton in vertebrates as they left their calcium-rich ocean environment for land over 350 million years ago. "Because vitamin D can only be synthesized via a phot

Deep Down Quantum Mechanics

The Born probability law, says Brad DeLong, is the Deepest Mystery of Creation. He follows that up with: “Let me just say that Eliezer Yudkowsky is a bad man for writing almost-comprehensible weblog posts about them ...” I’m always interested in deep mysteries, and even though I’m not quite ready to endorse Brad’s assessment, it is indeed pretty mysterious. It says that the probability of measuring a certain value for a state variable of a quantum system is proportional to the squared modulus of a complex valued vector. To be slightly less abstract, assume that the variable in question is the location of a particle, in which case the complex valued vector becomes just a complex function, the so-called wave function of the particle. In classical mechanics we could specify the same position, deterministically, by giving the position and momentum of the particle. If you know only probabilistic information about the classical system, then the probability of some measured value can be

Exobiology OMG: NASA Discovers Little Green Men!

OK, strictly speaking, what they discovered was that some men could turn kind of green if fed a suitable poisonous diet. Or even more strictly speaking, that some bacteria could incorporate some Arsenic instead of Phosphorus and still survive , and, apparently, reproduce. Interesting, but, at least in the press release, it’s not clear that arsenic has taken over the crucial physiological functions of phosphorus either in the DNA or the ATP cycle. Most disappointing announcement from the government since the last time Obama spoke.

N-Dimensional Chess

Conventional Democratic wisdom, at least until recently, was that Obama was playing 3-dimensional chess, and we peasants just couldn't appreciate the subtlety of his moves. Lately, though, it's starting to look like the man is playing in a couple fewer of dimensions and can't quite figure out why his pawn can't move any more. Is there any area in which he hasn't disappointed? Even his triumphs, health care and the stimulus, were born crippled and badly advertised.


It's not a secret that my disgust with Obama has been growing, but this crap with Peter Orzag, a former cabinet member deeply involved with the bank bailout, negotiating for a position with Citibank pushed me over the edge. If this isn't a crime, it sure as hell ought to be.

Advising the White House

Brad DeLong , on the wise words of a former Chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisors: I think that one of Christie Romer's predecessors as CEA Chair, Stanford economist and Republican Mike Boskin, says it best. Being Chair of the CEA and advising all the political appointees in the White House is, he says, a lot like teaching Econ 1 at Stanford. Only at Stanford your students do their reading, pay attention, and ask deeper and more thoughtful questions.

Greetings From the Transgalactic Ambassador

Only speculation, of course, but NASA claims to have some exo-biology announcement planned for tommorow: At least one guy seems to be pooh-poohing the sensational: But Alexis Madrigal, science editor at The Atlantic, disagrees. "I'm sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I've seen the Science paper. It's not that." he said. News via Wolfgang .