Saturday, September 30, 2006

Deja Dien Bien Phu all over again

Josh Marshall notes:

Ever wonder why it seems like we are enduring a repeat of the Nixon Administration? Now we know. From Bob Woodward's new book, via War and Piece:

A powerful, largely invisible influence on Bush's Iraq policy was former secretary of state Kissinger.
"Of the outside people that I talk to in this job," Vice President Cheney told me in the summer of 2005, "I probably talk to Henry Kissinger more than I talk to anybody else. He just comes by and, I guess at least once a month, Scooter and I sit down with him." (Scooter is I. Lewis Libby, then Cheney's chief of staff.)

The president met privately with Kissinger every couple of months, making him the most regular and frequent outside adviser to Bush on foreign affairs...

OK, so we have to stay in Iraq not just because Bush can't admit that his attempt to retrieve the family honor (hah) in Iraq is a failure but because Kissinger is still trying to prove that he shouldn't have been a failure in Vietnam - the delusions of two f*****n lunatics. In the case of Vietnam, it is clear that our loss was mostly the world's gain. Vietnam's transition to a modern state hasn't been painless and isn't over, but they are the effective check to Chinese power in Indochina that a post colonial sock-puppet state never would have been. Unfortunately, 50,000 Americans and two million Vietnames died for our confusions there, more than half of them as a direct result of Kissinger's policies. Another couple of million died in Cambodia as a side effect.

CNN on Rumsfeld

Frank Cesno of CNN had a long piece on Donald Rumsfeld. It was critical, but balanced, and had the advantage of interviews with Rumsfeld, JCS chief General Peter Pace, and many of Rumsfelds toughest military critics.

One section struck me. Rumsfeld sets great store on transformation - using modern information technology and precision weapons. I think it was Pace who said that in WW II it took 3000 bombs to destroy a bridge (on average). With modern technology, a single bomber could destroy fourteen (or some similar number) of bridges on one mission. We certainly saw some of this in Israel's latest Lebanese war.

As of now, the technology has decisively shifted the balance of power to the military of the technologically advanced countries. I wonder if that advantage will last. We have seen technology move from the frontier to the consumer in less and less time. Will it really continue to be true that the ability to do precision mass destruction will remain confined to the advanced countries?

I can imagine some pretty elementary weapons of precision destruction that could be built today with hobby shop components - five years from now it might be far far easier.

Friday, September 29, 2006


I hope nobody took my previous post as an indication that I think a lot of prominent conservatives are perverts. It seems that some prominent conservatives are racist white supraemist perverts.

The second most powerful editor at The Washington Times is a white supremacist racist who says blacks are "born genetically 15 to 20 IQ points lower than a white person" and that abortion is necessary "to keep the black and minority population down in this country." His wife, Marian, confirmed this, on the record, in an interview with reporter Max Blumenthal for the Oct. 9 issue of The Nation magazine.
Francis B. Coombs Jr., the managing editor of The Washington Times, a major media ally of the Bush administration, is described by multiple newsroom sources in Blumenthal's piece as an unreconstructed "racial nationalist" and a hater of blacks and Jews.

He also seems to have a sexism problem.

A Party of Perverts?

So Rep Foley (R-Fla) sent a bunch of incriminating emails to a sixteen year old former House page. He's history.

Josh Marshall notes one little problem. The page reported this to Rep Alexander (R -LA) about eleven months ago, and he claims he told Republican House leaders about it at the time. So why were Hastert, Delay, and or Blunt protecting this pervert child molestor for ten months?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hello Tyranny

The US took a giant step away from our Constitution and the rule of law today when Congress voted to eliminate Habeas Corpus, permit torture, and disregard the Conventions against war crimes, at the disgression of the President. They did this despite the unanimous opposition of the Judge Advocates General of the military services, who said this would endanger American soldiers and hurt the war on terror. Habeas Corpus, the right of the accused to demand a hearing on the charges against him, is the seven century old foundation of rule of law - the so-called "Great Writ."

So why did Congress do this? Not because of any imminent threat to the Country, but because of the threat to Republican Control of the Congress. By packing their bill with unjust an un-American features they hoped be able attack Democrats who voted against it as "soft on terror."

It will likely work. Many Dems in close races voted for it, thereby earning them the lasting hatred of hard core believers in the Constitution and enemies of Bush. Many of them may stay home in November.

The New York Times observes:

Here’s what happens when this irresponsible Congress railroads a profoundly important bill to serve the mindless politics of a midterm election: The Bush administration uses Republicans’ fear of losing their majority to push through ghastly ideas about antiterrorism that will make American troops less safe and do lasting damage to our 217-year-old nation of laws — while actually doing nothing to protect the nation from terrorists. Democrats betray their principles to avoid last-minute attack ads. Our democracy is the big loser.

Republicans say Congress must act right now to create procedures for charging and trying terrorists — because the men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks are available for trial. That’s pure propaganda. Those men could have been tried and convicted long ago, but President Bush chose not to. He held them in illegal detention, had them questioned in ways that will make real trials very hard, and invented a transparently illegal system of kangaroo courts to convict them.

It was only after the Supreme Court issued the inevitable ruling striking down Mr. Bush’s shadow penal system that he adopted his tone of urgency. It serves a cynical goal: Republican strategists think they can win this fall, not by passing a good law but by forcing Democrats to vote against a bad one so they could be made to look soft on terrorism.

Last week, the White House and three Republican senators announced a terrible deal on this legislation that gave Mr. Bush most of what he wanted, including a blanket waiver for crimes Americans may have committed in the service of his antiterrorism policies. Then Vice President Dick Cheney and his willing lawmakers rewrote the rest of the measure so that it would give Mr. Bush the power to jail pretty much anyone he wants for as long as he wants without charging them, to unilaterally reinterpret the Geneva Conventions, to authorize what normal people consider torture, and to deny justice to hundreds of men captured in error.

The editorial goes on to detail the particulars.

Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant” in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.

The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there’s no requirement that this list be published.

Habeas Corpus: Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.

Judicial Review: The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.

Coerced Evidence: Coerced evidence would be permissible if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant. Coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.

Secret Evidence: American standards of justice prohibit evidence and testimony that is kept secret from the defendant, whether the accused is a corporate executive or a mass murderer. But the bill as redrafted by Mr. Cheney seems to weaken protections against such evidence.

The shocking thing for me is how fragile our system of government has proven: Nineteen suicidal nutballs, aided and abetted by a few dishonest American singularly un-American politicians have done it lasting damage.

Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post online does some truth-telling also:
Today's Senate vote on President Bush's detainee legislation, after House approval yesterday, marks a defining moment for this nation.

How far from our historic and Constitutional values are we willing to stray? How mercilessly are we willing to treat those we suspect to be our enemies? How much raw, unchecked power are we willing to hand over to the executive?

The legislation before the Senate today would ban torture, but let Bush define it; would allow the president to imprison indefinitely anyone he decides falls under a wide-ranging new definition of unlawful combatant; would suspend the Great Writ of habeas corpus; would immunize retroactively those who may have engaged in torture. And that's just for starters.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


The President's press conferences lately have taken on an increasingly schizophrenic quality as reality diverges further from his narrative. For the most part, the press has scrupulously ignored this, but Dan Froomkin (Bush's Imaginary Foe) of the Washington Post saves some of his paper's tattered honor with this analysis:

President Bush's angry nonanswers to two straightforward questions yesterday were among the best illustrations yet of his intense aversion to responding to his critics' actual arguments.

Rather than acknowledge and attempt to rebut the many concerns about his policies, Bush makes up inane arguments and then ridicules them.

Froomkin exhibits some examples:
Q Thank you, sir. Even after hearing that one of the major conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimate in April was that the Iraq war has fueled terror growth around the world, why have you continued to say that the Iraq war has made this country safer?"

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I, of course, read the key judgments on the NIE. I agree with their conclusion that because of our successes against the leadership of al Qaeda, the enemy is becoming more diffuse and independent. I'm not surprised the enemy is exploiting the situation in Iraq and using it as a propaganda tool to try to recruit more people to their -- to their murderous ways.

"Some people have guessed what's in the report and have concluded that going into Iraq was a mistake. I strongly disagree. I think it's naive. I think it's a mistake for people to believe that going on the offense against people that want to do harm to the American people makes us less safe."

OK, that's straw-man number one. Nobody I've heard of is suggesting that going on the offense against terrorists is bad. The question at hand is whether going on the offense against Iraq -- which had nothing to do with 9/11 -- made us less safe. By using this absurd straw-man, Bush leaves that issue unaddressed.

Froomkin has more, much more, in the same vein. The overall impression is to reinforce the idea that Bush is living in a parallel universe, interacting only weakly with ours. This may have started as calculated political dishonesty or spin, but as the discrepancy between his story and the real world increases, more and more he seems to be disconnected from reality.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Off the Mass Shell

A Bushite characterized his opponents as members of "the reality based community." I suppose that makes him and his co-believers members of the unreality based community.

In quantum mechanics intermediate states that don't satisfy the conservation laws (energy and momentum, for example) can contribute to transition amplitudes. Similarly, the unreality based community has contributed immensely to causing the US to transition from widely respected military and economic superpower to crippled giant. Recent consensus intelligence estimates have concluded that the Iraq fiasco has increased the threat of terrorism and been a boon to terrorist recruitment and that we are pretty much screwed in Iraq, whatever we do now.

To top it off, the World Economic Forum has dropped the US from first to sixth in global competitiveness. Why?
Kevin Drum Reports:

The WEF said the best performing countries were distinguished by their competent economic stewardship....

Oh. Right. I guess that would do it.

"US competitiveness is threatened by large macroeconomic imbalances, particularly rising levels of public indebtedness associated with repeated fiscal deficits,"

the report said.
"Its relative ranking remains vulnerable to a possible disorderly adjustment of such imbalances."

Thanks, Republican Party!

Not to worry, they have much, much more planned.

The unreality based have found international politics and economics temporarily unrewarding, so they are now concentrating on other stuff, like global warming denial. They even have a Senator, whose other distinction is being five times voted dumbest guy in the Senate, who regularly denounces global warming on the Senate floor. He might also be the clown who gets science fiction writers to promote their books, er, testify, re global warming.

Meanwhile, Senator G Felix "Macaca" Allen is saying: "I did not put deer head in the mailbox of that (word I've never used) family. Maybe I just left them one of my mom's ham sandwiches."

Monday, September 25, 2006

Standards & Curriculum

Commenter Molnar posted the following:

The problem of incoherent curricula and standards is not restricted to mathematics and science, of course. Roger Shattuck wrote a frightening account (first published in the New York Review of Books, I believe) of his experience in a Vermont school district that is probably better than most: The-Shame-of-the-Schools

I finally got around to reading it, and next checked my own State's standards. I regret to say that all the bad things Roger Shattuck had to say about Vermont's standards seem to be equally true of New Mexico. Let me excerpt bits of Shattuck:
The state Framework of Standards and the lengthy district Curriculum Guidelines (themselves based scrupulously on the state Framework) presumably lay out a course of study for all students. As they stand, these two documents do not and cannot serve this function. They mention no authors' names and no titles of books to be read. Only the science and mathematics documents specify topics for a particular grade. Elsewhere entry after entry stipulates that students shall examine, investigate, analyze, understand, and interpret immense intellectual topics such as "fiction" and "nature and nurture." The verbs teach, learn, and study do not appear. Because they clump four grades together, these documents cannot, for example, provide an answer to the question: "In what grade are the following materials taught: the solar system, Athenian democracy, dangling modifiers, the Founding Fathers." Such items do not even appear.

The nearly impenetrable pages of the state of Vermont's Framework of Standards plus the Addison Northeast Curriculum Guidelines add up to an elaborate professional camouflage of the fact that at no level—state, district, or school—is there a coherent, sequenced, and specific curriculum. The teachers on the curriculum committee for accreditation had good reason to ignore the district Curriculum Guidelines. They propose no course of study, no coordinated sequence of subjects within the core fields. I'm not saying that our district curriculum is watered down or lopsided or old-fashioned or newfangled. I'm saying that those six hundred pages contain no useful curriculum at all.

I note that New Mexico is no less successful in couching its standards in impenetrable prose.

There is more, much of it on the history and development American educational philosophy, but his major point is that standards are hopeless without reference to a sequenced curriculum.

New Mexico's phonics standards for Kindergateners make a fair amount of sense:
D. Acquire reading strategies
1. Demonstrate phonemic awareness and knowledge of alphabetic principles by:
Demonstrating understanding that spoken language is a sequence of identifiable speech sounds.

Demonstrating understanding that the sequence of letters in the written word represents the sequence of sounds in the spoken word.

Demonstrating understanding the sounds of letters and the understanding that words contain similar sounds.

2. Demonstrate decoding and word recognition strategies and skills by:
Recognizing and name upper and lower case letters of the alphabet.

Recognizing common words and signs by sight.

Recognizing beginning consonant letter-sound associations in one-syllable words.

All reasonable goals, all maddeningly vague, completely without sequence, method, or plan. What might an actual curriculum look like?

How about:

Week 1. Teach the names of the letters of the alphabet. (the curriculum should provide detailed guidance, including pronunciations for the names of the letters, on the steps in this process based on observations of the teaching experience in many classrooms).

Week 2. Review alphabet, practice recognizing letters, start learning to recognize letters in words. Teach children how to spell their first names.

Week 3. Teach the short vowel sounds, learn to reconize them in some simple words (cat, hat, bad, big, let)

And so on. Needless to say, successful Kindergarten teachers do something very like this, either finding it in textbooks, remembering how they were taught, or inventing it for themselves.

The "constructivist" philosophy in education (see Shattuck above) has been interpreted to imply that every teacher and every student has to invent their own educational system. Needless to say, this rarely works even when attempted.

So how did we wind up in this mess? Were we just lucky, or what? My theory is that things are this way because that's the way textbook publishers like it. With no curriculum, they can lock you into their proprietary "learning systems," and sell, sell, sell you ever more specialized crap to fix the things their primary materials screw up.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dr. Evil

Perhaps it's not quite obvious from my blog, but in person I'm a very mild-mannered, calm sort of person. I hate losing my temper. It might have something to do with being large. I can relate to Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Or maybe the bull in the china shop. I still feel a little guilty about the kid who broke his hand hitting me in the face in fifth grade.

Not long ago, my wife and I made an expensive (for us) purchase, and after taking it back to the dealer twice and being left to cool her heels, my wife insisted I go along.

We got there, talked to service guy. Wait, wait, wait. Finally guy shows up, looks, says he has to talk to his manager... Wait... Wait... Wait.

Smoke issues from ears. I stalk in looking for manager. Non-manager studiously ignores me. Walk angrily up to front desk. Ignore friendly greeting from salesman standing around. Salesman behind desk asks how I am.

"Not very damn well!"

I mention, none too politely, that we've been waiting around a long time and that I want the manager.

People scurry in impressive fashion. People suddenly show up to tend to our problem.

Feel guilty, but secretly slightly pleased.

The trouble with Dr. Evil is that it's so difficult to get him back into hibernation.

And he does produce excess stomach acid, not to mention no doubt harmful stress hormones.

Tell me again about the rabbits, George.


Lubos Motl is noting a claim that:

...Osama's body is already in Karl Rove's fridge waiting for the November elections. ;-)

Having supposedly died of natural causes. I'm not so sure that that is such a great selling point for the Administration. Unable to catch the world's number one terrorist, even though he has supposedly been on dialysis for a decade or so, they finally catch him after death.

This could be Rove's promised "October Surprise."

Friday, September 22, 2006

Should we be Thankful for Hugo Chavez?

It's true he is an authoritarian blowhard and general nuisance, but it is nice to have somebody who makes an even bigger ass of himself than our George.

Victory for Torture

McCain, Warner, and what's his name staged a short-lived resistance to President Bush's attempt to institutionalize torture in America and make us the only country officially legalizing violation of the convention against war crimes. They crumpled like empty beer cans under a garbage truck (See, for exampleWP - Editorial or WP - A Soviet torture victim's perspective or NYT) when Cheney showed them the instruments of torture, though. McCain survived five years of Communist torment in Vietnam, but greed for power made him a coward after one week.

I hope, but have little confidence, that some Democrats will try to save our country from further disgrace and dishonor.

Nothing is more disgusting to me than the way these corrupt charlatans have frightened the American people into turning their backs on the law, the Constitution, and the basic principles of human decency. The only plus I can see is that this sorry episode gives me a bit of insight into how one of the most civilized countries in Europe became a nation of monstrosities.

The US started the Bush regime with the world's most powerful military, its strongest economy, and something even more valuable - the respect that comes from holding the moral high-ground. Now our military has exhausted troops and broken down equipment and the economy is a shaky mess tottering on a mountain of debt, but those are pretty small losses compared to being ashamed of our country's leaders and direction.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pepperoni, With Extra Cheese

It seems to me that Lubos may have come around to my view of Captain Clueless and his Congress.

Well, if we live in a medieval society controlled by uneducated cretins, there's no reason not to work as a pizza boy, I have the same plans.

He also appears to be contemplating a career change.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Theory of Nothing?

String Theory dominates theoretical physics in most of the prestigious physics departments in the US. It aims and claims to be the long sought "Theory of Everything," explaining both particle physics and gravity. Thanks to talented proseletysers, especially Brian Greene, the theory has also captured the imagination of the scientifically literate public. Peter Woit has had the effrontery to step into this triumphal procession to announce that this emperor has no clothes. His new book Not Even Wrong is a frontal attack on String Theory and its pretensions. This non-expert reviewer will attempt to review both argument and book.

I took two main points from the argument: String Theory is a scientific failure, but it is a failure that has captured a grossly disproportionate share of the resources allocated for theoretical physics, especially in the US. In consequence of the concentration of power and prestige in the hands of a few top departments this String Theory dominance chokes off the opportunity for new and better ideas.

Why does Dr. Woit consider String Theory a failure? Firstly, because it makes no prediction that anyone has been able to test. Second, it fails to account for the known facts of particle physics. Finally, it lacks a coherent theoretical structure that could permit us to clearly ascertain what, if anything, it does predict.

It is perhaps a bit unfair to say String Theory predicts nothing. Since it only appears to be consistent in ten space-time dimensions, it could be said to predict that space has nine dimensions. Since we only observe three, it also "predicts" that six of them are curled up too tiny to be seen. No theoretical explanation is known for why six and just six of the dimensions should be so curled, so it can be considered an ad hoc assumption inserted to save the theory - and it is not the only such. Another such "prediction" is supersymmetry. I don't share Peter's distaste for supersymmetry, but it does have one undeniable flaw - it too is quite unobserved.

The other argument is that theoretical physics has gotten itself in a nasty box because all the leading physics departments have such a huge stake in String Theory that they can't afford to let it fail. String Theory is so complex and difficult that it takes many years to master, but aspiring theoretical physicists cannot get academic jobs if they study anything else.

It seems like a pretty brutal system. Of every ten theoretical physics PhD's produced by top universities, Peter calculates that only about one will get a similar job, and those jobs require an arduous post-doctoral apprenticeship - years of post-docs, more years for a sometime small chance of tenure. There is a very real chance that those who undertake the journey will find themselves middle-aged (35 or so), unemployed and with no obvious skills applicable to the real world.

I think Dr. Woit has made a powerful argument, and one I that I suspect may shake the towers of the mighty in theoretical physics. One reason I suspect that is that the criticism he has attracted so far seems curiously insubstantial. Of the major String Theorists, only Susskind has so far reviewed it, so far as I know, and his criticism was long on insult and short on refutation.

So much for the argument - how about the book? I didn't love every part of it - there were parts I could not follow - I suspect that might be true for everybody except experts in quantum field theory. I did end liking the book a whole lot, mainly for some of those parts I couldn't completely follow. He has a number of telling anecdotes and quotes. A lot of the most damaging come from leading String Theorists!

My favorite chapter was the one on quantum field theory and mathematics - it showed me glimpses of wonders I had never suspected.

I wrote some notes for an attempt at a chapter by chapter commentary on the book. I will append them here:

At one point Peter Woit offered to ask his publisher to send me a review copy of his new book, Not Even Wrong, but I didn't take him up on it. This was partly because I'm not an expert and couldn't give an expert review, but also partly because I wouldn't be able to look at a gift book impartially. So I bought a copy, which was slow, but at least I feel slightly more impartial.

The easiest thing to criticise a book for are those things that it isn't, and the material that it doesn't contain. Thus reviewer Aaron Bergman gave NEW a couple of knocks for being tendentious (Well, duh! Did you read the title?) and for not explaining why STers still love it. I myself have a list of things that Peter should have included, and I intend to send it to him if he ever announces plans to reissue NEW as a multivolume treatise. (In fact, let me start right here. That whole business of non-commutative rotations would be a lot clearer with just a little experimenting with 90 degree rotations of, say, a book, in different planes of rotation).

I prepared for this review by reading several other reviews, especially those by Motl, Aaron, Johnson, Chad Orzel and the Economist. The first thing I noticed was that, except for Aaron and Motl, none of those other reviewers seemed to be an expert either (I only saw excerpts from Susskind's review). Motl's review, of course, was a mixture of the trivial (planes of rotation generalize to dimensions other than three, axes of rotation don't), the misguided (criticizing British vs American spelling in the British edition), and the lunatic (declaring Peter to be a science hating Anti-Christ, and I'm only being slightly metaphorical here). Aaron's review was more balanced and thoughtful, but, while critical, scarcely layed a glove on any of Peter's central points. Working only from excerpts, Susskind's review seems both insubstantial and petty - ad hominen attacks are the lowest form of criticism in science. Having thus disposed of the experts, I have to modestly admit that, ignorant as I am, I still know a lot more physics than Easterbrook and the NYT science reporter.

Aaron and Chad, two talented writers and physicists that I greatly respect, both complain that Peter doesn't offer a good alternative. While it's true that he doesn't offer his own theory of everything, he does make several concrete suggestions: that there is more to gauge theory and representation theory than has yet been plumbed, that if ST wishes to continue without benefit of experiment, it needs to become more like pure mathematics, and that physics departments need to foster diversity of intellectual approach.

The epigraph to Chapter Two is from Karl Marx, in The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production...

I don't know anything about Marx, and so I have no clue as to what his point was, but it certainly is apt for fundamental particle physics (bourgeoisie -> particle physics community). Should I read this as saying something about Peter's politics, or did he just like the statement, or did he put in in just to pimp Lubos? I don't know, but I like the last two theories. Woit has a way of putting the slyly humorous into his text in a fashion subtle enough that I can't quite tell when he is joking. The chapter is a very brief history of the "means of production," the accelerators which are used to study elementary particles.

Chapters three and four are devoted to quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. My guess is that it helps to know something about these subjects before you read the chapters. Notable features are his emphasis on the role of mathematician Hermann Weyl in elucidating the relationship of group theory to quantum mechanics and the relative estrangement of mathematicians from the development of quantum field theory.

One of my favorite aspects of the book are his inclusion of telling or otherwise interesting anecdotes. Mathematical physicist Res Jost:
In the thirties, under the demoralizing influence of quntum-theoretic perturbation theory, the mathematics required of a theoretical physicist was reduced to a rudimentary knowledge of the Latin and Greek alphabets.

In another vein are some quirky human aspects. While Schroedinger was holed up in a mountain retreat with his girlfriend, inventing his famous equation of quantum mechanics, his wife back in town consoled herself by banging his best friend, Weyl.

I found the brief chapter on gauge symmetry particularly clear, and the outline of the history of the guage principle outstanding. I would quibble with his rather stubborn mathematical disinclination to provide simple examples, even when available (eg, parallel transport on a 2-sphere). The final paragraph of the chapter is a nicely tantalyzing one:
The 1950s were a golden age of mathematics, especially in Princeton and Paris. Those years saw the development of a large number of fundamental ideas of modern mathematics that remain central to this day. It was also a time of minimal contact between physicists and mathematicians, with each of the two groups discovering things whose significance would become clear to the other only many years later.

My favorite chapter so far is the one on the standard model. This is mostly familiar material to me, but Peter's point of view is new to me, and I found much of the history illuminating. One puzzle: on page 78, he says "eight pions have been found that have the right properties to be the Nambu-Goldstone bosons for this symmetry..." I hope he is talking about psuedo-scalar mesons. Have they really taken to calling them all pions? Or is it just my inexpertise talking?

Awe and confusion is my reaction to chapter ten (New Insights into Quantum Field Theory and Mathematics. Most of the material in this chapter was new to me, and a lot is still beyond me. Witten is unquestionably the star of this chapter, and it gave me my first real appreciation of his contributions to mathematics, as well as teaching me a tiny bit about conformal field theory, mirror symmetry, dualities, and some of the uses of them that Witten's work made possible. One equation in one talk, for example, more or less detroyed the whole field of Donaldson Theory (by solving all the problems). The eight pions became nine in this chapter, so I was clearly on the wrong track wondering where the other five came from. I am probably confused, but I still think he may be referring to the psuedoscalar meson nonet.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Fashion Industry

Watching The Devil Wears Prada reminded me that US elementary education is a fashion industry - for much the same reason that women's clothing is. Sell more clothes - sell more textbooks.

Few subjects are more victimized by this approach than mathematics. The heirarchical nature of mathematics means that if you lose the thread at any point, it will be very hard to find it again. Arithmetic is needed for algebra, and both plus geometry are needed in trigonometry, while all four are essential for calculus - the key to the whole kingdom of mathematics and physical science.

The New York Times has an editorial on the subject called Teaching Math, Singapore Style. The situation and the problem have rarely been articulated more clearly:

The countries that outperform the United States in math and science education have some things in common. They set national priorities for what public school children should learn and when. They also spend a lot of energy ensuring that every school has a high-quality curriculum that is harnessed to clearly articulated national goals. This country, by contrast, has a wildly uneven system of standards and tests that varies from place to place. We are also notoriously susceptible to educational fads.

One of the most infamous fads took root in the late 1980’s, when many schools moved away from traditional mathematics instruction, which required drills and problem solving. The new system, sometimes derided as “fuzzy math,’’ allowed children to wander through problems in a random way without ever learning basic multiplication or division. As a result, mastery of high-level math and science was unlikely. The new math curriculum was a mile wide and an inch deep, as the saying goes, touching on dozens of topics each year.

Many people trace this unfortunate development to a 1989 report by an influential group, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. School districts read its recommendations as a call to reject rote learning. Last week the council reversed itself, laying out new recommendations that will focus on a few basic skills at each grade level.

Under the new (old) plan, students will once again move through the basics — addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and so on — building the skills that are meant to prepare them for algebra by seventh grade. This new approach is being seen as an attempt to emulate countries like Singapore, which ranks at the top internationally in math.

All these references to Singapore are encouraging, given this country’s longstanding resistance to the idea of importing superior teaching strategies from abroad. But a few things need to happen before this approach can succeed.

First of all, the United States will need to abandon its destructive practice of having so many math and science courses taught by people who have not majored in the subjects — or even studied them seriously.

We also need to fix the current patchwork system of standards and measurement for academic achievement, and make sure that students everywhere have access to both high-quality teachers and high-quality math and science curriculums that aspire to clearly articulated goals.

Until we bite the bullet on those basic, critical reforms, we will continue to lose ground to the countries with which we must compete in the global information economy.

One central problem is that the "patchwork system of standards and measurement for academic achievement" is tied to our national worship of local control of schools. Because of State and federal financing this local control is by now more myth than reality, but the federal money in particular has gone largely to financing a lot of quixotic and often misguided social engineering rather than to standards and curriculum.

It is common for a child today to attend several different public schools, often in different districts and different States. It simply makes no sense today that each State, each school district, and each school should be making up its own curriculum and standards. Because of this patchwork, textbook companies have a positive incentive to create new educational fashions and embody them in textbooks. If the children wind up confused by the changing fashions, hey, they can sell you remedial materials too.

Rabbit Run!

This has been one of the wettest Summers in memory for Southern NM. The desert is blooming, and the rabbits are multiplying like undetermined parameters in a Supersymmetric extension of the Standard Model.

They also seem to have taken a liking for the neighborhood shrubbery. While out for an early evening stroll I startled one from a neighborhood juniper hedge. He promptly took off across the street, directly in front of an oncoming car. When the car slowed, he coolly turned, running in a complete circle of just the diameter of the wheel span. Having demonstrated his mastery by bringing the driver to a complete halt, he continued on into shrubs on the other side of the street. Twenty paces further I scared up a couple more, but their getaways were uneventful.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lucky We're Still Sick?

Business Week notes:

Since 2001, the health-care industry has added 1.7 million jobs. The rest of the private sector? None

I knew GW was making me sick. I guess I'm not alone.

When to Cut and Run

After the elections, is the apparent plan.

TPM guest columnist DK says:

It became clear sometime in early 2006--I can't recall pinpointing exactly when--that President Bush's call to "stay the course" in Iraq meant he and the GOP would dance with who they brought through the 2006 elections. It is the only way they can retain Congress.

But it has also been increasingly clear that the decision has already been made--has been made for some time--to change course after the elections. James Baker's group is designed and intended to be the cover for declaring victory and getting out of Iraq. If for no other reason, the pressure from within the GOP to fix this mess before the 2008 election will be enormous.

So my question is, how many American troops will have died between the time the decision was made to get out of Iraq and the time we actually do get out of Iraq? How many American lives will it cost to give the GOP a chance to retain control of Congress?

It looks like a reasonable estimate based on history would be about 600. Plus five or six times that many maimed.

Parsing Gas

The recent plummet in oil and gasoline prices is expected to help the Publican Party retain control of Congress. Is it possible to know if oil is being released from the strategic petroleum reserve? I'm normally suspicious of conspiracy theories, but Karl Rove is running the show here, folks.

How Bush Lost Iraq: Episode One Million

The WP gets gets around to documenting yet another chapter in the vast library of stupidity, cupidity, and political fanatacism:

Adapted from "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, copyright Knopf 2006

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted all manner of Americans -- restless professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But before they could go to Baghdad, they had to get past Jim O'Beirne's office in the Pentagon.

To pass muster with O'Beirne, a political appointee who screens prospective political appointees for Defense Department posts, applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration.

O'Beirne's staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade .

Many of those chosen by O'Beirne's office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting...

"We didn't tap -- and it should have started from the White House on down -- just didn't tap the right people to do this job," said Frederick Smith, who served as the deputy director of the CPA's Washington office. "It was a tough, tough job. Instead we got people who went out there because of their political leanings."

Endowed with $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds and a comparatively quiescent environment in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion, the CPA was the U.S. government's first and best hope to resuscitate Iraq -- to establish order, promote rebuilding and assemble a viable government, all of which, experts believe, would have constricted the insurgency and mitigated the chances of civil war. Many of the basic tasks Americans struggle to accomplish today in Iraq -- training the army, vetting the police, increasing electricity generation -- could have been performed far more effectively in 2003 by the CPA.

But many CPA staff members were more interested in other things: in instituting a flat tax, in selling off government assets, in ending food rations and otherwise fashioning a new nation that looked a lot like the United States. Many of them spent their days cloistered in the Green Zone, a walled-off enclave in central Baghdad with towering palms, posh villas, well-stocked bars and resort-size swimming pools.

By the time Bremer departed in June 2004, Iraq was in a precarious state. The Iraqi army, which had been dissolved and refashioned by the CPA, was one-third the size he had pledged it would be. Seventy percent of police officers had not been screened or trained. Electricity generation was far below what Bremer had promised to achieve. And Iraq's interim government had been selected not by elections but by Americans. Divisive issues were to be resolved later on, increasing the chances that tension over those matters would fuel civil strife.

To recruit the people he wanted, O'Beirne sought résumés from the offices of Republican congressmen, conservative think tanks and GOP activists. He discarded applications from those his staff deemed ideologically suspect, even if the applicants possessed Arabic language skills or postwar rebuilding experience.

Smith said O'Beirne once pointed to a young man's résumé and pronounced him "an ideal candidate." His chief qualification was that he had worked for the Republican Party in Florida during the presidential election recount in 2000.

O'Beirne, a former Army officer who is married to prominent conservative commentator Kate O'Beirne, did not respond to requests for comment.

He and his staff used an obscure provision in federal law to hire many CPA staffers as temporary political appointees, which exempted the interviewers from employment regulations that prohibit questions about personal political beliefs.

O'Beirne, as noted, is husband to right-wing nutbag commentator Kate O'Beirne. It is typical of the corruption of the mass media that they employ all these party hacks, Democrat and Republican, as commentators. These people have no business in journalism, but the tube is infested with them.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Torture President

Why is George Bush fighting so hard for his bill to legalize torture ?
(The president goes to Capitol Hill to lobby for torture)

...Another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and one more intimately familiar with the war on terrorism, also weighed in this week: "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," former general and secretary of state Colin L. Powell wrote to McCain. "To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts."

Mr. Powell was referring to an article of the Geneva Conventions that prohibits cruel and degrading treatment of detainees. Mr. Bush, with support from most Republican congressional leaders, wants to redefine American obligations under the treaty. Three Republican senators -- John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee; Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina; and Mr. McCain -- are bravely promoting an alternative measure that would allow terrorists to be questioned and tried without breaking faith with traditional U.S. values. The Armed Services Committee approved their bill yesterday and sent it to the Senate floor.

A popular theory is that it is a political stunt he expects to help in the elections. He was utterly incoherent and unresponsive when asked about it at his news conference.

Maybe so. Or maybe he, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are contemplating spending their declining years in prison in the Hague.

Good Morning!

After my morning walk, when I picked up and opened the newspaper, I was greeted by black headlines announcing that a would-be blackmailer was threatening to shoot the people of my city if the city didn't pay him a large sum of money.

I was in DC when the DC snipers were on the rampage, and one of the early killings took place near my hotel, so this has a certain resonance for me. Most people here are armed, and not a few are packing, but that's not much help against a sniper who shoots from ambush.

Friday, September 15, 2006

DDT and Hard Choices

DDT is bad for birds and might (or might not) cause cancer and birth defects. It's also the most effective weapon against the world's worst insect spread disease, malaria. Consequently, the World Health Organization has recommended that it be used, in limited circumstances, for mosquito control.

We will be faced with many such tough choices in the environment in the years ahead, but overpopulation will greatly compound them all. Probably the most effective thing we could do to cure poverty, prevent war, and limit disease is to promote and assist in population control in the underdeveloped world - or any place with high birth rates. Yet another issue on which Bush is disastrouly wrong. It's amazing how he seems to bat 1.000 in folly.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


On 6/28/1914 a group of seven Serbian extremists attempted to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A hand grenade missed, wounding others in the Imperial party and bystanders. The Archduke escaped injury, but in attempting to visit the hospital where the wounded were taken, the driver made a wrong turn, taking him past one of the conspirators. As the driver backed up to rectify his mistake, the assassin fired into the car, killing the Archduke and his pregnant wife.

from The Wikipedia

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary waited for 3 weeks before deciding on a course of action, because most soldiers were on leave to help gather the harvest.[citation needed]
On July 23, assured by unconditional support of the Germans should war break out, the empire sent the July Ultimatum to Serbia, which demanded, among other things, that Austrian agents would be allowed to take part in the investigation of the murder, and that Serbia would take responsibility for it.

Serbia accepted all terms except the participation of Austrian agents, but Austria declared war. A little over four years later, twenty million people were dead, and the Austrian, Russian, German, and Ottoman empires were destroyed. The war also brought the Communists to power in Russia and set the stage for an even more calamitous war twenty years later.

Austria was the initial victim, the principal perpetrator of the war, and, in the end, one of most disastrously affected nations. The urge to take revenge, not just against the perpetrator of a crime, but against his relatives, fellow countrymen, and incidentally associated persons probably has some root in our primitive natures, but in this case it proved enormously costly.

After 12/7/1941 an American admiral in the Pacific declared: “When this war is over, Japanese will be a language spoken only in hell!” I read that somewhere, and after 9/11/2001 found myself thinking that when the coming war was over, Islam would be a religion practiced only in hell. Perhaps more intelligent and more balanced persons can escape this reaction, but most cannot. After a while, those who are slightly intelligent and remember some history can see the folly and danger. Such people decide that the punishment should be reserved for the guilty, and, where possible, be proportionate to the crime.

Politicians and other demagogues may or may not reach this realization, but they know that there is a witless mob eager to respond to calls for mass vengeance, and eager to label and dehumanize anyone with a relationship, however remote or irrelevant, to the perpetrators. Words like “Maccaca” (monkey) or “raghead” do that job of labelling and dehumanizing. So does the more pompous (and consequently, darkly comical) “Islamofascist.”

The combination of real and outrageous grievance, unscrupulous demagogery, and exaggeration or conflation of threats is the perfect potion to prepare a credulous populace for a foolish war. It is our misfortune to have been led into such a war by a demagogue who also turned out to be an idiot, an ignoramus who knows nothing and learns nothing, a fool who can neither admit his mistakes nor correct them.

I hope that we are luckier than Austria.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nasar and Gruber on Perelman

(Boosted from a comment by Cynthia, who gives a brief account of the major contents.)

Manifold Destiny, Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber's New Yorker article on Grigory Perelman, is now on line, and it's a heck of a good read(not to be confused with the cooking-on-your-cars-engine book of the same name. Nasar, you may recall, wrote "A Beautiful Mind," which became the impressive Russell Crowe movie.

The tale they tell is one of math personalities, and Perelman nicely fills center stage in the role of hero-ingenue, but some other characters play major roles too.

I found the author's attempts to seduce Perelman into to agreeing to an interview with carefully chosen gifts pretty amusing, especially since when they finally gave up and went to his door they found he hadn't bothered to check his mail, and consequently hadn't noticed their efforts.

Harvard's Fields Medal winning mathematician Shing-Tung Yau is first on stage and makes quite a convincing villain. Yau, a masterful technician, had achieved fame largely by proving a conjecture of Calabi, providing the highly important Calabi-Yau Manifolds for string theory.

Richard Hamilton is a more ambiguous figure. His idea of Ricci flow proved to be the crucial element for proving the Poincare Conjecture - the real star of this show. Hamilton, though, was something of a playboy, and couldn't seem to concentrate on the problem. Perelman knew a key piece that Hamilton was missing, and tried to alert Hamilton and offered to collaborate, but Hamilton ignored him.

Yau had encouraged Hamilton to work on the Poincare, but they were scooped when Perelman published his proof on the internet. Perelman's proof was brief - key ideas were merely sketched out. Yau and his students worked to fill in the gaps, producing hundreds of pages, and claiming credit for the proof. Most experts who have looked closely at the proof don't think Yau and company contributed any essential ideas that Perelman hadn't already presented.

The unseemly sight of this famous mathematician, his own great work many years behind him, trying to steal the credit (as Perelman saw it) for his ideas may have been a key factor in driving Perelman out of mathematics.

It's not an uncommon circumstance, I guess, for someone who has achieved greatly in his youth to become bitter and petty in his decline. So it seems to have been the case with Yau.

One problem for those like Perelman who crack a famous problem is that by doing so they put a lot of lesser workers out of a job. By solving the problem, they destroy a whole minor industry devoted to work on it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Heating the Ocean

Peter Minnett has what I consider to be a rather confusing RealClimate post. Based on the comments, a lot of other people felt the same confusion.

Observations of ocean temperatures have revealed that the ocean heat content has been increasing significantly over recent decades (Willis et al, 2004; Levitus et al, 2005; Lyman et al, 2006). This is something that has been predicted by climate models (and confirmed notably by Hansen et al, 2005), and has therefore been described as a 'smoking gun' for human-caused greenhouse gases.
However, some have insisted that there is a paradox here - how can a forcing driven by longwave absorption and emission impact the ocean below since the infrared radiation does not penetrate more than a few micrometers into the ocean? Resolution of this conundrum is to be found in the recognition that the skin layer temperature gradient not only exists as a result of the ocean-atmosphere temperature difference, but also helps to control the ocean-atmosphere heat flux. (The 'skin layer' is the very thin - up to 1 mm - layer at the top of ocean that is in direct contact with the atmosphere). Reducing the size of the temperature gradient through the skin layer reduces the flux. Thus, if the absorption of the infrared emission from atmospheric greenhouse gases reduces the gradient through the skin layer, the flow of heat from the ocean beneath will be reduced, leaving more of the heat introduced into the bulk of the upper oceanic layer by the absorption of sunlight to remain there to increase water temperature.

The post is confusing because it seems to imply that heating the skin layer decreases the ocean skin layer –> atmosphere sensible and latent heat flux. It doesn’t – it increases it. What is decreased is the net flux from the ocean below to the skin layer. The basic principle is very simple – more heat incident on the ocean makes it warmer.

The supposed paradox arises in the fact that there is no obvious way for the heat absorbed in the skin layer to be transported to the warmer ocean below. This idea demonstrates that a little microphysics can be a dangerous thing. What the warmer skin layer does is result in less net conduction to the surface (on account of the smaller gradient) and suppression of convection which would otherwise transport more of the colder skin layer water into the depths (likewise).


Kevin Drum has a post on why so many are so bitter against Bush.

After 9/11, Americans were united behind Bush and against the terrorists. Bush, and Karl Rove chose to use that moment to wage war against other Americans - to paint patriotic Americans as disloyal and use that slander to strenthen his power. It was a vile and un-American act, turning American against American. That is the true legacy of modern so-called "conservatism," dividing the country and exploting that division to steal us all blind.


OK, I tried to listen to the speech, and even managed to stomach some of the big lies about progress in Iraq, but when he blamed 9/11 on years of "seeking stability in the Middle East" my gag reflex won out. 9/11 happened on his watch, while he was asleep at the wheel, plotting Middle East chaos. Now that he has had five years of Middle East chaos, what have we got out of it but an endless stream of body bags and crippled soldiers?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Harveytown Rumormongering

From The Huffington Post:

Despite the controversial presidency of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, we hear that the Harvard search team looking for his replacement still has sort of a thing for Washington. The two leading choices of those offering names via the tip line are, um, a little more female friendly than Summers. The two: former President Clinton, once a prof at the University of Arkansas, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former provost of Stanford, the so-called Harvard of the West...

Rice is not known to be a friend to String Theory, but Clinton did present Shing-Tung Yau with a Presidential Medal of Science.

CORRECTION!: As a (once near professional class) pianist, Rice clearly knows a thing or two about string theory. Clinton, as a pretty good saxophonist, is more of a 2-brane person. Note also that Lubos (in the comments) claims some string theory chops for Rice, a claim unsupported in the article cited, which merely talks about the string theoretic interests of her boss.


My two favorite comments on the recent demotion of Pluto:

"First the liberals took God out of the schools and now they are taking Pluto out of the Solar System."

"There is simply no way to rationally justify why Pluto should be one of nine planets if there exist other celestial bodies in the Solar System that are larger and more important and "planet-like" than Pluto."

Amen sister. Amen brother. Next thing you know the liberals will be taking away our God-given Guns.

And we certainly can't afford any non "planet-like" planets, especially if they aren't large and important. Mercury, Mars, and Venus together only add up to about 1/1000th of a Jovian mass, so I say they have got to go too. Just not large enough. Come to think of it, they don't seem much like the real planets in others respects either - no thick reducing atmosphere, no rings, no moons to speak of.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Whose Delusion?

No aspect of the Iraq War is more puzzling than our utter failure to plan for the aftermath. Military experience and military doctrine have long recognized the need, so how the heck did this fall off of Pentagon planners tables? The Daily Press, a local Virgina paper, supplies one giant data point - not exactly a surprise but a confirmation, in an interview with Brigadier General Mark Scheid, a key Iraq war planner. (via Orin Kerr in turn via Kevin Drum.)

"The secretary of defense continued to push on us ... that everything we write in our plan has to be the idea that we are going to go in, we're going to take out the regime, and then we're going to leave," Scheid said. "We won't stay."

Scheid said the planners continued to try "to write what was called Phase 4," or the piece of the plan that included post-invasion operations like occupation.

Even if the troops didn't stay, "at least we have to plan for it," Scheid said.

"I remember the secretary of defense saying that he would fire the next person that said that," Scheid said. "We would not do planning for Phase 4 operations, which would require all those additional troops that people talk about today.

The Daily Press points out that Rumsfeld did fire Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki after he told Congress that the occupation would require "hundreds of thousands" of troops.

This story confirms the account given in Cobra II, the history of the Iraq invasion, and shows once again how consistently Rumsfeld (and Bush) have lied about "giving the commanders on the ground all the soldiers they asked for."

What led Rumsfeld to such folly? Believing the fantasies spun by Chalabi and his Neocon cabal? Arrogance and senility? Or did the direction come from Bush, who often and proudly showed his disdain for "peacekeeping operations?" The last might explain why Bush has not fired Rumsfeld.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Didn't I Tell You

...that We don't need no Stinkin Black Holes?

Tanmay Vachaspati, Dejan Stojkovic, Lawrence M. Krauss have a new paper on the ArXiv, Observation of Incipient Black Holes and the Information Loss Problem (gr-qc/0609024) that tends to support my favorite crackpot theory.

We study the (quantum) formation of black holes by spherical domain wall collapse as seen by an asymptotic observer. Using the Wheeler-de Witt equation to describe the collapsing spherical domain wall, we show that the black hole takes an infinite time to form for the asymptotic observer in the quantum theory, just as in the classical treatment. We argue that such observers will therefore see a compact object but never see effects associated with the formation of an event horizon...

Even more interestingly, they find that the compact object radiates, but that it's radiation is only approximately thermal, and so not quite like Hawking's - though it goes to thermal in Hawking's limit t->infinity.

There are some caveats, but they also have some suggestions for tests. The most interesting, to me, was the test in the case of sonic analogues of black holes - or so-called dumbholes.
No theoretical idea is complete without the possibility
of experimental verification and so it is important to ask
if the picture we have developed in this paper can also
be tested experimentally. We have already mentioned
the relevance of our conclusions to black hole produc-
tion in particle accelerators provided low scale gravity is
correct. However, there is an even more accessible ex-
perimental system where these theoretical ideas can be
put to the test. These are condensed matter systems in
which sonic black holes (dumbholes) may exist. It is well-
appreciated that it is very hard to realize a dumbhole in
the laboratory for various experimental reasons. Yet the
crucial aspect of our work in this paper is that there is
no need to produce a dumbhole in order to see acous-
tic “pre-Hawking” radiation. The process of collapse to-
ward a dumbhole will give off radiation. This is also the
conclusion of Ref. [9] though the details of the analy-
sis and conclusions are different – for example, we find
non-thermal emission whereas Barcelo et al claim ther-
mal emission with a modified temperature that is lower
than the Hawking temperature. In any case, it should be
much easier to do experiments in the laboratory that do
not go all the way to forming a dumbhole, and this could
be an ideal arena to test pre-Hawking radiation.

ABC, Lies, and Videotape

One extraordinarily successful right-wing meme is the myth of the liberal media. Given that most of the media is controlled by rich corporations with loyalty only to their bottom lines, this is an implausible idea on the face of it, but constant repetition has made many people believe it. What is undoubtedly true is that television, at least, has a sensationalist and anti-religious bias, stemming from their experience that sex sells and religion doesn't. Confounding this with a political bias is confused though, especially since the one network with a clear political bias (Fox) is both conservative politically and hyperaggressive in pushing the boundaries of taste in its entertainment division.

ABC is a big, slightly flabby, corporation with no really obvious political bias except for way too many conservative hacks on Sunday mornings, so how did they wind up pushing a Republican political hit job like "The Path to 9/11?"

My guess is that stupidity was the main operational principle here. A right-wing writer and director sell a project with obvious draw for the 9/11 anniversary. The sales job is slick and persuasive, and nobody in ABC's corporate entertainment division bothers to read the script and fact check it. Hey, what the heck do they care, it's entertainment right? If they miss a few details, isn't like that getting the color of Napoleon's hair wrong or something? What they forgot was that their entertainment purported to be a history of the central national political event of our time.

Those who were libelled and still alive were outraged. Many of the libelled dead still had friends willing to speak up. And anyone with a brain realized that it was important to get the facts right on this particular story.

I hope ABC will see the light and pull this piece of junk, or at least dump the major lies in it. If they don't, I predict they will pay, where they care, in their wallets.

About Time?

Josh Marshall reports from the Asia Times:

Asia Times: "With a truce between the Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad now in place, the Pakistani government is in effect reverting to its pre-September 11, 2001, position in which it closed its eyes to militant groups allied with al-Qaeda and clearly sided with the Taliban in Afghanistan. While the truce has generated much attention, a more significant development is an underhand deal between pro-al-Qaeda elements and Pakistan in which key al-Qaeda figures will either not be arrested or those already in custody will be set free."

Some are speculating that this is a smoke screen for a hot-pursuit deal that allows the US to snatch and grab bin Laden. Good politics and good policy?

A more pessimistic view is that it's one more way we are getting sand kicked in our eyes.

About forty-five days from now would be a good time for Bush to produce this rabbit. I guess we shall see which it will be.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Betting Odds

From The Statistical Mechanic I learned that Lumo has bet a grand that the LHC will find SUSY. Meanwhile, some other guy (see link) is willing to bet a $1000 that LHC finds nada. It seems to me that there is room for some arbitrage here.

I guess these guys must be Bayesians - what do you think James?

I did not have torture with that woman, Ms. Rice

Bush's speech claiming that the "US does not torture" was a preposterous lie in many other ways as well. Kevin Drum lays out a few of the torture techniques used. He doesn't mention the prisoners who were tortured to death, including some who were clearly innocent.

The calculate dishonesty exists at every level: the lumping of anybody he might have a gripe with as "islamofascists" is particularly infuriating from the guy who let the 911 perpetrators escape so he could attack Iraq. Even more cynical is:

Then came Mr. Bush, who used a speech to the same audience to lump disparate groups together as “Islamo-fascists,’’ and then, this week, to warn explicitly that the world had averted its eyes to the rise of Lenin and then of Hitler, propelling the United States into a century of hot and cold wars.

(New York Times)
The references to appeasing Hitler and Lenin would be funny if Americans knew a bit of their history: That both sides of the Bush-Walker clan worked as bankers to Hitler, supplying resources for Germany's re-armament. Meanwhile, their colleagues and collaborators Percy Rockefeller and Averell Harriman were also banking on the Soviet Union.

This President is a liar. His policies are built on lies and corruption, and his many failures reek of both. The 9/11 disaster, the catastrophic mismanagement of the war in Iraq, the ruinous deficits, the bumbling in New Orleans were all propelled as much by profiteering and corruption as by stupidity. Our stupid policies in Iraq owe a lot to the corrupt shenanigans of the Defense Policy board and Chalabi as they do to native stupidity.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Good Times

Happy Labor Day says Kevin Drum. Especially if you live in Wyoming, Montana, Rhode Island, DC, or North Dakota. Those are the States (+DC) in which median income has actually increased in the Six Years of Bush. Everywhere else, it decreased. Nice work GW! Not to worry though - centi-millionaires and billionaires did very well indeed.

Kevin shows this map from The Detroit Free Press.

Steve Irwin

It was a shock to read that Steve Irwin is dead. I'm not a huge fan of animal shows, but Steve was special. His combination of irrepressible enthusiasm and genuine love for his animal subjects was something magical.

If anybody ever looked invulnerable, it was Steve. Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris

I will miss him.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Short People

Randy Newman made a few enemies with a hit song that included the lyrics: "Short people got no reason to live." According to Joel Waldfogel's Slate Magazine Story it just gets worse from there:

It is well-documented that short people earn less money than tall people do. To be clear, pay does not vary lock step by height. If your friend is taller than you are, then it's nearly a coin toss whether she earns more. But if you compare two large groups of people who are similar in every respect but height, the average pay for the taller group will be higher. Each additional inch of height adds roughly 2 percent to average annual earnings, for both men and women. So, if the average heights of our hypothetical groups were 6 feet and 5 feet 7 inches, the average pay difference between them would be 10 percent.

But why? One possibility is height discrimination in favor of the tall. A second involves adolescence. A few years ago, Nicola Persico and Andrew Postlewaite of the University of Pennsylvania and Dan Silverman of the University of Michigan discovered that adult earnings are more sharply related to height at age 16 than to adult height...

Why so? Various theories have been advanced. Maybe height -> highschool prestige -> earnings potential. Or maybe society discriminates in favor of tall people. New studies make another idea even more plausible:
In a new study, Anne Case and Christina Paxson, both of Princeton University, find that tall people earn more, on average, because they're smarter, on average. Yikes.

Before you blast Case and Paxson with angry e-mails, let's look at their method. With detailed data from the United Kingdom, they followed two groups of kids, one born in 1958 and the other in 1970, through to adulthood. Every few years, the government collected information about height, weight, intelligence, educational experience, and, during adulthood, pay. Based on these data, Case and Paxton document once again that taller people earn more. Then they note that from an early age, height is related to intelligence. Even at age 5, a variety of intelligence measures—based on conceptual maturity, visual-motor coordination, and vocabulary—are higher on average for taller kids.

This sets up the study's major finding. While height, on its own, bears a strong relation to pay, when adult height is included along with measures of childhood intelligence in pay analyses, it no longer does the explanatory work on its own. Height appears to matter, when intelligence is not included, because taller people are, on average, smarter.

So, why did height at age 16 bear a stronger relationship than adult height to adult earnings in the earlier study by Persico, Postlewaite, and Silverman? Case and Paxson point out that kids who are tall at age 16 are those who have experienced their adolescent growth spurts at a relatively early age. And they point out that these kids turn out to be the well-fed and nurtured kids of parents who are on average smarter and richer than the rest, and who also pass on extra IQ points. The 16-year-old taller kids end up earning more for reasons apart from their height.

US Presidents have mostly been tall - and the taller man usually wins. When it doesn't happen (2000, 2004) the result is usually disastrous ;) A century ago, the English upper class male was nine inches taller than his lower class counterpart. Democracy, unions, and modern diets have largely erased that difference.

On the other hand, a lot of successful people are short: Tom Cruise, Bill Gates, Napoleon, Jon Stewart, and Frodo Baggins. Not to mention Tiny Tim, Tom Thumb, and Truman Capote.

Being tall is hardly an unmixed blessing. Tall people don't live as long, probably, if my experience is any guide, because we keep hitting our heads on low things, like chandeliers, low ceilings and door frames.

And people can always ask you: If you're so tall, why aren't you rich? Or smart?"

Alexandre Groethendieck

Another Groethendieck post mined from John Baez's Blog.

Groethendieck is a name you might not encounter in the first year or two of a graduate math program, but he is one of the most influential recent mathematicians. His story is so dark and strange that I couldn't resist revisiting it, this time by quoting Sam Leith's Spectator article. Inside the story is an answer to one of Rae Ann's questions about his manuscripts which I put into bold letters.

The Einstein of maths
Sam Leith on Alexandre Grothendieck, the revolutionary number-cruncher who was last heard of in the Pyrenees raging about the Devil
The odds are that the name Alexandre Grothendieck will mean little or nothing to most Spectator readers. It’s a name I heard for the first time in high summer two years or so ago, not long, as I remember it, after the film A Beautiful Mind had come out. I was in the garden of my friend Umar’s house in Cambridge, and we were waiting for his ancient cast-iron barbecue, Camp Freddie, to cook some sausages.

Umar is a mathematician of considerable braininess, and when we are together we often end up talking maths. That is, I tend to ask him to explain what he does, and he tends to try, and I tend not to understand. But sometimes we strike gold. An entire afternoon was once passed happily playing logic games involving prisoners with different-coloured hats. I have giggled ignorantly at maths jokes (‘What’s purple and commutes?’ ‘An Abelian grape’), hummed and hawed over the question of whether maths is discovered or invented, and been mindboggled for a week after he explained the concept of the ‘cardinality of infinities’ (some infinities are bigger than others, it turns out).

By Grothendieck I was riveted. The story, in short, is of a mathematician of staggering accomplishment (in one of the hens’-teeth-rare public references to him he is described as ‘the mathematician whose work was to lead to a unification of geometry, number theory, topology and complex analysis’) who has retreated, like a Salinger or a Pynchon of number theory, into utter isolation. The most recent cutting dismisses him as ‘last heard of raging about the Devil somewhere in the Pyrenees’.

It would not be an exaggeration, I think, to describe Grothendieck as a legendary figure in the mathematical world. Yet if you run a search through the cuttings library of the mainstream press, you will find barely a single mention of his name. Until very recently, even the Internet, that repository of all arcane knowledge, contained little verging on nothing. There was one blurred and out-of-date photograph, a couple of fragments. Nothing at all for the lay reader to go on.

There are, I’d say, two good reasons why this would be so. In the first place, the luminous brilliance of Grothendieck’s mathematical achievement — his 1966 Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize of maths, is an indicator — is matched only by the near impossibility of explaining it to anyone without a background in pure maths.

His work — especially in the golden period between 1955 and 1970 — is described as being ‘maximally deep’; that is, he was interested in stating his solutions to mathematical problems in the most general way possible, and applying congruences across discrete fields. He used, for example, algebraic geometry to crack number theory — and as Umar puts it, ‘number theory was the bigger fish to crack’. The mathematician Leila Schneps — custodian of the newly established website — describes him simply as ‘the Einstein of mathematics’.

But there is another reason why he has retreated below the radar of the non-mathematical world. Grothendieck doesn’t write popularising books like Stephen Hawking; he doesn’t tour American universities lecturing undergraduates; and he doesn’t, any more, publish his researches and discoveries in mathematical journals. In fact, 13 years ago, Grothendieck more or less disappeared altogether.

In the Pyrenean village in which he had lived since the 1970s, he burned thousands of pages of manuscript in the garden of his then girlfriend, left on her kitchen table an enormous manuscript copy of a memoir by his mother, and vanished.

The biographical section of the Grothendieck Circle ends in 1991: ‘In August, Grothendieck leaves his home suddenly, without warning anyone, for an unknown location. He spends his time writing an enormous work on physics and philosophical meditations on themes such as free choice, determinism and the existence of evil. He refuses practically every human contact.’

Among the few images of him with which we are left, the most recent show a shaven-headed, bespectacled man — in looks not a million miles from Foucault — with the austere grace of a Buddhist monk. He used, indeed, to sleep on the floor instead of a bed, but is said to have mellowed to the extent that he now owns a bed and tends a garden with enthusiasm. A vegetarian, he presses on his rare visitors armfuls of apples and figs.

His later work survives in mimeographs and photocopies; his lettres fleuves — correspondence in French or English, often running to hundreds of pages, mixing philosophical invective, attacks on rival mathematicians and, seeded like nuggets in the texts, insights into maths on a very, very high level.

One of the last members of the mathematical establishment to come into contact with him was Leila Schneps. Through a series of coincidences, she and her future husband, Pierre Lochak, learned from a market trader in the town he left in 1991 that ‘the crazy mathematician’ had turned up in another town in the Pyrenees. Schneps and Lochak in due course staked out the marketplace of the town, carrying an out-of-date photograph of Grothendieck, and waited for the greatest mathematician of the 20th century to show up in search of beansprouts.

‘We spent all morning there in the market. And then there he was.’ Were they not worried he’d run away? ‘We were scared. We didn’t know what would happen. But he was really, really nice. He said he didn’t want to be found, but he was friendly. We told him that one of his conjectures had been proved. He had no idea. He’d stopped being interested in maths at that stage. He thought his unpublished work would all have been long forgotten.’

Grothendieck’s first disappearance, in a sense, came in 1970, when at the very height of his powers he abandoned a post that had been created for him at the Institute of High Scientific Studies (and which remains probably the most prestigious tenure in his field of mathematics) on the grounds that it was partly funded by the military industrial complex. In 1988, he was awarded the Crafoord Prize. He refused to accept it.

Grothendieck’s father was an anarchist who died in Auschwitz; Alexandre, along with his German mother Hanka, was interned in France during the war as an ‘undesirable’. These days, what we know of Grothendieck’s thinking suggests his guiding preoccupation is the problem of evil. He lives alone and works, for 12 hours a day, on a 50-volume manuscript which addresses, among other things, the physics of free will.

One story has it that Grothendieck is now convinced that the Devil is working to falsify the speed of light. Schneps ascribes his concerns with the speed of light to his anxiety about the methodological compromises physicists make. He talks constantly, however, about the Devil, semi-metaphorically, sitting behind good people and nudging them in the direction of compromise, of the fudge, of the move towards corruption. ‘Uncompromising’ is the expression Schneps favours.

In his correspondence with Leila Schneps, he told her he would be willing to share his research into physics with her if she could answer one question: ‘What is a metre?’

She and Lochak, baffled, took a month to write back — and did so at length. But before this letter arrived, Grothendieck dispatched three letters in quick succession. His first letter appeared to threaten suicide. His second was ‘the warmest, warmest thing ... saying it’s just amazing anyone cares....’ The third addressed ‘Leila Schneps’ in bitterly sarcastic inverted commas. They found their subsequent letters returned unopened. ‘We went to see him and he slammed the door in our faces....’

Has Grothendieck — runs the obvious question — gone mad? Well, possibly. It all depends on what you mean by ‘mad’.

‘He lives alone and he writes on really deep ideas,’ says Schneps. ‘In the past, what about saints or prophets? Did people think they had gone mad? He cannot bear to live in the world we’re in.... He’s certainly abnormal. I could not possibly call him mad. People say there’s normal and there’s insane. These are not the only two categories....’

‘I never once doubted,’ Grothendieck writes in an early chapter of Récoltes et Semailles, his philosophical autobiography, ‘that I would eventually succeed in getting to the bottom of things.’

A more important mathematician than John Nash, a more extraordinary and horrific back story, and a beautiful, beautiful mind. If anyone can figure out what a metre is, who is to say that we will not one day have it back?
© 2004 The

And that, readers, is a memorable memo.

Self Evident Truths

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.

. . . . The Declaration of Independence

The above are probably the most memorable words of our most memorable political document, and have played a key role in shaping both our national ethos and our political institutions. It's fair to say that such "self-evident truths" are not ordinary truths, but what Neils Bohr called "great truths." Ordinary truths, said Bohr, are statements whose opposites are false, whereas great truths, are distinguished by the circumstance that their opposites are also great truths. The man who wrote those words was a slave holder, chosen for the task for his eloquence and and reputation. People are very obviously unequal in size, intellect, and economic circumstance, so in what way are they "self-evidently" equal.

Jefferson gives the answer, of course: in their inalienable rights, especially Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. One might also argue that governments, historically speaking, have been instituted more to deprive men of their rights than to ensure them, but that quibble doesn't deprive Jefferson's words of their eloquence or power. Jefferson's words represent an ideal, a goal to be striven for, rather than an attempt to document the historical reality.

Our other cardinal political document, The Constitution, can be seen as an attempt to create in reality the Nation envisioned in Jefferson's Declaration. It has been our great good fortune that the men who wrote it were neither religious or political ideologues like so unfortunately many of their fellow Nation makers, but rather practical minded politicians, business men, and soldiers as well as the extraordinary polymaths Jefferson and Franklin.

Great truths are subject to the "Tinker Bell" effect. Their power can endure only as long as people believe in them. Adams, Jefferson, and others among the founders feared the rise of hereditary aristocracy, and believed the Nation needed to take affirmative steps to prevent its creation. The tension between democracy and aristocracy has always existed in our country, but the rise of the mass media, especially television and talk radio, have given the aristocratic partisans a powerful new weapon. I have written previously about how the network of conservative foundations and advocacy groups works tirelessly to advance what their rich patrons imagine to be their interests.

One of those interests is undermining the American consensus on Jefferson's self-evident truths. It is a bit difficult to sell an agenda of more power and money to the super-rich, so they find it useful to try to sell it under a variety of other guises: individualism, anti-collectivism, religion, anti-unionism, and xenophobia. There is more than one irony in that list. Christianity has a clear anti-rich bias, and is, in fact, rather socialist. The people pumping up xenophobia are often the ones benefitting most from immigrant labor. A climate of xenopobia helps keep the price of immigrant labor down by making it easier to cheat immigrants or eprive them of their rights.

War is a favorite tactic of the tyrant. It helps to rally the people around the leader, and provides a handy excuse for suppressing inconvenient freedoms.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Another Beautiful and Strange Mind

John Baez writes about Groethendieck:

Alexander Grothendieck was the most visionary and radical mathematician in the second half of the 20th century - at least before he left his home and disappeared one fine day in 1991.

It's a fascinating story whose ending may never be known. If you like Perelman, you've got to love Groethendieck.

Physicists are occasionally eccentric, but mathematicians have a lock on the truly nuts.

Why is Venus Hot?

It seems like an easy question - Venus is closer to the Sun, and gets about twice as much solar radiation as the Earth does. It's not that simple though. Venus is a very shiny planet - it has an high albedo. Most of that solar radiation is just reflected back into space and plays no role in heating Venus up. On an area basis, Venus absorbs less energy from the Sun than Earth does.

The answer lies in the so-called greenhouse effect (I say so-called, because real greenhouses work mainly by trapping the warm air enclosed, rather than radiation). Venus makes it very hard for outgoing infrared radiation to escape. It does this by having a very thick and dense atmosphere, most of which is carbon dioxide (CO2).

It is slightly surprising that this should be so effective, since the CO2 spectrom has some prominent spectral holes through which you might expect a lot of hot thermal radiation to escape - the saturation effect. Two effects cooperate to close the holes. Spectral lines are broadened by the pressure of the hot, dense Venusian atmosphere. In addition, small amounts of water vapor and other compounds fill the spectral gaps.

The greenhouse effect gives Venus a temperature of almost 900 F - hot enough to melt lead. It's even hotter than Mercury, which is twice as close to the Sun.