Showing posts from February, 2011

Good Theories and Bad

I seem to recall that once upon a time, Nobel Prizewinner Albert von Szent-Györgyi said something like(I can't find the quote): Good theories and bad can be distinguished by the biblical prescription. By their fruits you shall know them. Good theories lead to discoveries. Bad theories just lead to more theories designed to save the old bad theories.

Still With a Hardon for SUSY*

Peter Woit listens to Nima Arkani-Hamed. [Changed from "String Theory" on Peter's advice. New title is more accurate, since Nima actually talked mainly about super symmetry - and funnier.]

Proteins as Quantum Computers

Proteins are immensely complicated molecules that somehow manage to fold themselves up quite intricately in surprisingly short times. How do they do it? It seems to be a sort of quantum computing. It seems that rather than explore alternative pathways one by one, the way a classical system would, they explore them all at once in a kind of quantum superposition.

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel....I'd Like to Thank the Academy...

How do we tell if we are dreaming or not? The problem is that in dreams our critical faculties are more than a little attenuated. In a dream it may seem plausible that one has suddenly become wildly attractive to hot nineteen year-old coeds, or (as in my case) that my lifelong dream of flying under mental power has finally been achieved. So there I was, sitting on the edge of a roof to which I believed I had just flown. Dare I launch into space to fly down? In the movie Inception the protagonist carries a little top to test dream vs. reality - if it doesn't stop, it's supposed to be dreamland. Well, I didn't have a top, and it wouldn't have stayed on the slanted roof anyway, but I did recall another idea: supposedly counting your fingers is a good test of dream vs. reality. I looked at my hand. At a glance, it certainly seemed to have the right number of fingers. I began to count: one, two, three...but then the last two - or was it three - seemed to kind of blur

New Zealand Quake

The most shocking thing about the New Zealand quake is the large number of casualties from what seemed like a relatively small quake. The total energy in the NZ quake was about 6000 times smaller than the big 2010 quake in Chile, yet the causualty figures are comparable, and this despite the fact that New Zealand is a first world country with very tough building codes. Location seems to be a critical factor. The NZ quake was both near and shallow, both aggravating circumstances, but I expect that they will be taking a closer look at those building standards for the future. Big government, by the way, seems to be an essential feature in coping with natural disasters. Building codes play a critical role in surviving floods, quakes, and related calamities. We saw Bush's small government philosophy in full swing in the Katrina disaster, where thousands of Americans died mostly due to governmental incompetence. The very same year, miserably poor and grossly misruled Cuba survived e

My Degrees

Mathematicians have been known to note a certain type of relationship, their Erdös numbers and for movie stars there are degrees of Kevin Bacon. We may define a similar number for chess players – the number of steps we need to go through to find a player who played us who played somebody (or chain of somebodies) who played the target. My Bobby Fisher number is two, as is my Alexander Alekhine number, since I have played chess players who played each of them. Via Fisher and Alekhine and a few others, I have second or third degree connections with most of the other twentieth century World Chess Champions. This, of course, doesn’t make me any less of a fish = weakie chess player. While playing in some kind of (bridge?) tournament when I was in the Army, I met another soldier who played chess, and we decided to form a chess team. He turned out to be a very strong player (a former national junior champion), and was acquainted with our mutual contemporary, Fisher. I think that they h

Lies Conservatives Told Me

Obviously, these are lowlights only. This war will pay for itself. Tax cuts will pay for themselves. Markets are efficient. Fanny and Freddie caused the Financial Panic of 2008 A deregulated financial market will take care of itself. Government isn't the solution. Government is the problem. Obama is a Socialist

What's to Like About String Theory?

Phil Gibbs has four of his reasons in a guest post at Lumo's place. I can't share his enthusiasm for the Multiverse, but the other reasons have some force. He points out that failure to find clear signatures of ST in currently accessible energy domains would hardly be a refutation. It's possible that string theory today could be like atomic theory in the time of Democritus - true but millenia away from testability.


Andrew Sullivan notes that Obama cooly waited until Americans were out of Libya before harshly condemning Gaddafi. He compares this behavior favorably to that of some notorious blowhards and hip shooters. Leon Wieseltier is his poster boy for the latter.

Free Energy for All

Civilization, and life in general, can be thought of as being powered by negative entropy. We need to get low entropy energy from somewhere, extract some useful work from it, and dump the resulting high entropy energy into some cool reservoir. For living systems, this usually amounts to Gibbs Free Energy , but our machines are less picky. Except for little bits of nuclear energy stored in our rocks by ancient supernovae, and a tiny bit from various gravitational sources (tides, continuing contraction of the Earth) all that energy comes from the Sun. Three and a half billion years or so ago, certain autotrophs learned how capture a photon and hook up its energy to power some chemical reactions to store energy C . We could plausibly call this the most important invention in the history of life. All told, such reactions capture roughly 100 terawatts of solar power. Heterotrophs, like us, evolved to consume those autotrophs and get our (Gibbs) free energy from them. As Eli has noted, w


Now that Charlie Sheen seems to have trashed his show ( Two and a Half Men ), maybe Chuck Lorre's operation can devote more top writers to The Big Bang Theory , where the writing has looked a bit thin since Lorre added the show about the chubbies. I imagine that Sheen has now pretty much stamped "permanent loser" on his own forehead. Too bad, because he had talent and looks. Who is likely to take a chance on him now?


The Obama Administration has been consistently caught flatfooted in the wave of rebellions sweeping through the North Africa. There was probably more excuse in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, where the governments went with relatively little violence. Lybia is not like that. There was plenty of forewarning and Obama still can't even condemn Quaddafi by name. At a minimum, a show of force and harsh warning would be appropriate - are there any carriers close by? A group of NBA point guards once critiques the President's basketball. Magic Johnson gave him the ultimate praise - saying he was always thinking 5 minutes ahead. Five minutes is a lot on the hard court but not nearly enough in the hard world. In particular, Obama better be ready when the wave hits Saudi Arabia. In my opinion he ought to tell them that he is with them for reasonable attempts to reform their repressive state, but count us on the other side if they start shooting their own people ala Gaddafi.

Persona Non Grata

It seems that the rest of the English speaking world produces more right wing nut jobs than can be consumed locally. I have a short list of same that should be summarily run out of this country: Niall Ferguson Charles Krauthammer Rupert Murdoch Tina Brown David Frum Don't forget to take the horse you rode in on.

The Hand of Koch

Eric Lipton, writing in the New York Times , notes the hand of the brothers Koch in the attempt to crush the Wisconsin unions. Among the thousands of demonstrators who jammed the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds this weekend was a well-financed advocate from Washington who was there to voice praise for cutting state spending by slashing union benefits and bargaining rights. The visitor, Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, told a large group of counterprotesters who had gathered Saturday at one edge of what otherwise was a mostly union crowd that the cuts were not only necessary, but they also represented the start of a much-needed nationwide move to slash public-sector union benefits. “We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation,” he said. What Mr. Phillips did not mention was that his Virginia-based nonprofit group, whose budget surged to $40 million in 2010 from $7 million three years ago, was created and financed in part by the secretive billion

Crushing the Unions

I'm not a huge fan of public service unions, but they are one of the few remaining institutions with any ability or inclination to resist the big money oligarchy and speak up for what's left of the American middle class. One of the huge Republican successes of the past thirty years was breaking American private sector unions, mainly by shipping the jobs of union workers overseas, but also by anti-labor laws. That's why Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's plan to destroy public sector unions by denying them collective bargaining rights is seen as a threat by many freedom loving Americans. Paul Krugman puts it this way: What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side. Walker's plan won't save any money n

CO2 Sources

I was at dinner the other night with a friend who is a retired chemist and chemical engineer. He started talking about the CO2 we breathe out and how it compared to the amount put in the air by automobiles. He seemed to think that production by cars was relatively insignificant. I'm sorry to say that I didn't have any numbers to compare. I've since tried to check that out. Our breathing produces somewhat less than about 300 kg per year per person or something like 2.1 x 10^9 metric tons for all 7 billion of us = 2.1 GT/yr. One barrel of average crude oil is responsible for about the same amount as a person breathes out in a year - about 315 kg of CO2. the world currently uses about 70 million barrels per day x 365 days = 8 GT per year. If we combine all fossil fuels and cement production, we add 30 GT of CO2 per year. So our breathing is a relatively small part of our contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere, but humans, numerous as we are, are a small part of the total bi

Bully for You!

Bullying in schools has usually been considered a pathology, perhaps the result of trauma suffered by the perp. Primatology suggests otherwise. Competition for status is prominent among many of our close animal relatives, and that status usually confers reproductive advantages vital to the (genetic) struggle for existence. New studies indicate that high school is not so very different , as reported by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times. For many teenagers navigating the social challenges of high school, the ultimate goal is to become part of the “popular” crowd. But new research suggests that the road to high school popularity can be treacherous, and that students near the top of the social hierarchy are often both perpetrators and victims of aggressive behavior involving their peers. The latest findings, being published this month in The American Sociological Review, offer a fascinating glimpse into the social stratification of teenagers. The new study, along with related research

Genius and Paranoia

It's not too unusual for genius to be accompanied by a touch of paranoia, and sometimes that paranoia consumes their life. Goedel reputedly starved himself to death for fear that someone was poisoning his food. Bobby Fisher probably had more excuse for paranoia than most. The FBI was watching him, or at least his family. His telephone was tapped when he was only twelve. The FBI was still hot on his trail seven years later when he had become one of the strongest chessplayers in the world. And the Russians were conspiring against him too. They had, in fact, staffed a whole secret laboratory of psychologists and grandmaster chess players just to probe his psychology, his chess, and potential weak points. These are just a couple of tidbits from Frank Brady's new biography: Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness His story is a tragedy on Shakespearian scale.

Hidden Symmetry

Sean reports that Supersymmetry is still in hiding . I'm going to guess that Peter Woit is not too surprised by this. The year cranking up could be a big one - we can hope it's a big one, with nothing yet to show for the LHC. If the LHC really finds nothing, chances of anybody building the next super accelerator any time soon might be close to zero. In which case particle physics might be become a branch of theology.

Arun Reads Volokh So That I Don't Have to

Yes, Libertarians are as wack as we suspected . Via Arun Even genius has its limitations. Stupidity is not thus constrained. By way of response, let me just note that the value of the reductio ad absurdum is that it reveals who and what is absurd.

The Really Big Technological Developments.

Re: The great Stagnation. Inventions important enough to hugely reshape human existence. I. Language, fire, tools. When: 100,000 - 2,000,000 BCE. II. Agriculture, pottery, cities, writing, metal smelting. When: 2,000-20,000 BCE. III. Combustion engines, electrical power, complex mechanisms. (1 CE to 1900 CE) Note that every one of these continues to be central to human economic life, all these years later. (to be continued.)

Reading the Headlines

...instead of the stories. I saw in the NYT that a new production of Siegfried (Wagner's ring cycle III) will use 3-D images on stage - viewable without glasses. I thought they could just use real singers...

Miss Average

Via Lubos : Geekologie has constructed average photographs of women from 46 countries. Two observations: they are all pretty, average is beautiful, it seems. Second, my favorites are the Central and Eastern Europeans, especially Polish and Russian. Is that just me?

The Great Stagnation

Tyler Cowen is selling a new electronic micro book called The Great Stagnation . It’s a tiny book – essentially just an essay – but it is cheap, $3.99 on Amazon. I like his subject, summarized in the subtitle: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better . There are a number of interesting ideas, but I liked the last few chapters better than the first. In fact, it didn’t take long for my first symptoms of indigestion to set in. He has a graph at location 142 tracing growth in median US family income from 1945 to 2007. There are two lines on the graph, one labeled actual, the other labeled “if it had kept pace with GDP per capita.” The graph shows almost steady growth in the GDP per capital line, with median family income faltering and falling well-behind after the early 1970’s. So far, so good, but next he creates a muddle. You can see the rate of growth of per capita median income slows down…” Say What? Do you mean median or p

Bored This Way

Sorry Stephanie, but that new song - unh, unh. Grammy for Bad Romance was a nice consolation though. And C Lo and his puppets definitely kicked your butt for costumery. Surprising to me how much worse a lot of stuff by big artists (Bruno Mars, etc.) sounded. Lady Antebellum has the real stuff though. Of course most of the show was past my bedtime.

Potter Head's guide to the King's Speech

Overall, a pretty good movie. Naturally not terribly historically accurate says Christopher Hitchens - Edward VIII was a far more egregious Hitler loving facist than the movie's vague hints suggest, Churchill was his guy all the way, and George VI was another appeaser. The family is a bunch of Germans, after all. Facts be damned, Bellatrix Lestrange was a surprisingly hot Queen Elisabeth (mum, not monarch - Helena Bonham Carter), Dumbledore was a pretty steady George V (Michael Gambon) but Peter Pettigrew was a scary Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall). There were some other actors in it too. A couple of them were pretty good - I missed their names, but they might show up at the Academy Awards.

String Theory

Recent results: Something about convex polyhedra.


Will Mubarak be strung up on the gates of his own palace or will the Army launch Egypt into civil war? Optimism is still possible, but not very.

Captain Meteo: Rainbows

Q (Banerjee asks): Rainbow phenomena are predicted very accurately assuming spherical raindrops. But falling raindrops do not remain spherical because of aerodynamic effects. What is the shape of a falling raindrop and what are the effects of that shape on rainbows? First: about raindrop shapes. The smaller ones (1mm or less) are pretty spherical. Bigger ones tend to a top-half of the hamburger bun shape, see e.g. here . Those bigger than about 4 mm tend to get ripped apart by aerodynamic forces. Let’s start with ordinary rainbows from spherical drops. We have mostly noticed that the Sun is always at our back when we see rainbows, and if have played around a bit with sprayers on hoses. that we can get complete circular rainbows under the right circumstance. Descartes seems to have been the first to study rainbows systematically, so let’s quote from him, via this marvelous NCAR document : About Rainbows. [You will want to look at the picture in the link] He writes:"Considering that

Captain Meteo II

Q: Why do (some) clouds keep their shape for a long time and do not disperse quickly? [asks Wolfgang] If we watch clouds, one thing we notice is that most clouds keep changing their shapes. They grow and shrink, form and evaporate. A few, however, don't. Both processes are driven by motions in the atmosphere. I will consider one process of each type, though there are many more. The most common shape changer might be the fair weather cumulus . These are the kind of clouds that appear especially on warm and sunny summer days with little wind. Typically they form in the early to mid-afternoon and have a flat-bottomed, roundish shape and a puffy top, without great thickness. Individual clouds are rather short lived, usually less than an hour. After the sun warms the ground and the air in contact with it, puddles of warm and hence lighter air form near the ground, begin rising, and eventually form columns of rising air. Typically, this near ground air is both warm and moist, and as the

Captain Meteo Answers Your Atmospheric Science Questions

Q: Why is there Air? The original atmosphere of our planet was almost certainly lost to space in the early excitements of planetary formation and bombardment. The air we have today can be considered to be the accumulated out gassing of the planet - Terran afflatus, so to speak. The rocks out of which our planet formed contained small amounts of various gasses which have been gradually released by physical and chemical volcanic processes. Q: Why is the sky blue? The blueness of the sky, where the sky still is blue, is evidence for the molecular composition of the atmosphere. Because the atmosphere consists of myriads of these little tiny guys bouncing around randomly, their random motions produce random fluctuations in the density of the air at very small scales. The expected size distribution of these fluctuations can be calculated, and it turns out that most of them are several times as small as the wavelength of visible light. Light scatters from density fluctuations (or, more precis

Uncritical Thinking

The IOWA legislature was debating some legislation to stigmatize or otherwise harass gay parents, and a nineteen year old student (raised by gay parents)decided to share his experience in testimony against the bill. His testimony went viral and was widely praised. Steve Landsburg, blogger, economist, and a favorite punching bag of mine thought this would be a good occasion to demonstrate that he is obnoxious - he is good at finding such occasions, and published this critique . Some people claim (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, perhaps absurdly — I lean toward the latter) that gay people, on average, are less successful as parents. In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine (except, perhaps, for their ability to reason): His complaint seems to be that Zach presente

Are You Tall?

Is this the same kind of question as "Are you happy?" Steve Landsburg thinks so, but I have a different opinion. The title question pretty clearly refers to some external standard, and in particular to other people, almost certainly others of your sex and age group - adult or child. The second question clearly refers to a purely internal standard, and almost certainly to an absolute rather than relative sense. I could be pretty unhappy even if I was slightly less unhappy than I was yesterday - or contrarywise. So how could an ostensibly bright guy like Landsburg - here I am referring to an external standard of IQ tests, professional accomplishment, etc - make such a dumb error of category? I don't know, but I have a guess - systematic intellectual dishonesty. All this is apropos of a couple of Landsburg posts, each of which, like Tolstoy's unhappy families (Anna Karenina), is unhappy in its own way. Tuesday's Burg deals with freedom and prosperity, with fre

The End of the World as We Know It...

...and I'm a bit cold. The latest winter storm brought us about 3 inches of snow and far colder weather (very slightly below zero Fahrenheit) than we are used to in Southern New Mexico. As a result, all schools and many government agencies are shut down. Say what? Three inches of snow shuts down the government? It's a bit more complicated. The reason schools, etc are shut down is that we don't have enough electricity to go around. If the schools etc. opened, somebody else, businesses and homes, would lose power. As it is, we are subject to "rolling brownouts" - my wife turned on a space heater last night and it blew the circuit breaker for the room. One of the benefits of a largely deregulated power industry. And, perhaps, global warming.

Egypt, dying! Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast...

Latest events make it pretty clear that the Army is complicit in the attacks on the pro democracy demonstrators in Egypt. What happens next is far less clear. Anti-Mubarak forces will probably need better weapons than rocks if they hope to push him out now. The US has provided Mubarak an Army that should have little trouble quelling the revolt - if the Colonels decide to stick with him.

Should Israel Fear Arab Democracy?

Well, yes. If Israel were surrounded by economically and culturally vigorous Arab democracies instead of rotten autocracies, the apartheid state it is currently trying to establish would be far less tenable and for less acceptable to the world. And, no. Because if that should happen, the excuse for the apartheid state would vanish, and it might actually reform itself.

Dominant Schtominant

Musically I'm an ignoramus. I don't know a dominant from a mediant - or at least I didn't before last night. I signed up for a Community College course in the Beethoven Symphonies, and last night was my first class - I missed the first week, it seems. The instructor's approach is to begin by explaining the musical elements and illustrating them with brief excerpts - dual themes with variations, sonata form, minuet and trio, etc., etc. Unfortunately I'm a bit too slow to pick all that up, and my musical memory is not so hot either. He adds another layer to this sort of syntactical analysis - a sort of Symphony as novel layer. (I liked his remark that Beethoven found the Symphony as a book of four short stories and left it as a novel with four - or five - chapters.) I was a bit less thrilled with the particular novel he found, though. I suppose it would be too obtuse to fail to see Beethoven's Fifth as something other than threat, struggle, and ultimate triumph, b