Thursday, July 31, 2008

Objects in Your Phase Space May Be Smaller Than They Appear

Lubos Motl has a very interesting post on a new ArXiv paper (0807.4556) by Jan de Boer, Sheer El-Showk, Ilies Messamah, Dieter Van den Bleeken.

Because I don’t understand the technical details, let me just quote Lumo on what seem to me the most interesting parts:

What is the general lesson? The general lesson is that in quantum gravity, the number of degrees of freedom is often much lower than what you would need to realize all of your fantasies based on classical physics. The entropy bounds and the holographic principle were the old moral examples why it is so.

The new Benelux paper gives you a new and, in some optics, more concrete picture why not all of your classical fantasies are allowed. Why is it so? Simply because you often don't have enough quantum phase space (not even one Planck volume, up to powers of (2 pi), necessary for one quantum microstate) to realize them.

A priori, this comment could sound crazy to you. If you have large objects, the corresponding phase spaces - parameterizing things like the distances between the components of a bound state - are also large. And if they are large, these phase spaces will have a large enough volume in all of their regions to represent all the classical geometries rather faithfully.

But the vague argument above is actually incorrect. Long distances on the phase space actually don't imply large volumes. ;-) Picky mathematicians would always know that they don't but most physicists would suspect that the mathematicians' counter-examples are inevitably pathological. But they can't really be that pathological because they appear in the description of some of the most canonical black hole solutions in supergravity and string theory.

. . .

Once people look at them carefully, they could also understand the origin of holography (and the Bekenstein-Hawking entropy for general backgrounds) somewhat more constructively. What do I mean? The surprising feature of holography is "how do all those numerous degrees of freedom - that a priori seem to be associated with the large black hole interior - disappear?" And the answer could be that they don't really disappear but if you construct the corresponding phase space (whose cells form a basis of the Hilbert space), you find out that the volume of the phase space is much lower than you expected and the calculation reduces to those simple phase spaces that lead to the finite "S=A/4G" entropy.

The final paragraph is very similar to some points in the Carlip paper of my previous post. After some talk about 2 + 1 dimensional spacetime black holes Carlip says:

A typical black hole is neither two-dimensional nor conformally invariant, of course, so this result may at first seem irrelevant. But there is a sense in which black holes become approximately two-dimensional and conformal near the horizon. For
fields in a black hole background, for instance, excitations in the r–t plane become so blue shifted relative to transverse excitations and dimensionful quantities that an effective two-dimensional conformal description becomes possible [147–149].
Indeed, as noted in section 2.5.3, the full Hawking radiation spectrum can be derived from such an effective description [50,51].Martin,Medved, and Visser have further shown that a generic near-horizon region has a conformal symmetry, in the form of an approximate conformal Killing vector [150, 151].

As a count of microscopic degrees of freedom, the Bekenstein-Hawking entropy (2) has a peculiar feature: the number of degrees of freedomis determined by the area of a surface rather than the volume it encloses. This is very different from conventional thermodynamics, in which entropy is an extensive quantity, and it implies that the number of degrees of freedom grows much more slowly with size than one would expect in an ordinary thermodynamic system. This holographic” behavior [175, 176] seems fundamental to black hole statistical mechanics, and it has been conjectured that it is a general property of quantum gravity. It may be that the generalized second law of thermodynamics requires a similar bound for any matter that can be dropped into a black hole; a nice review of such entropy bounds can be found in [177]. The AdS/CFT correspondence discussed in section 3.1.3 is perhaps the cleanest realization of holography in quantum gravity, but it requires specific boundary conditions. A more general formulation proposed by Bousso [178] is supported by classical computations [179], and is currently a very active subject of research, extending far beyond its birthplace in black hole physics to cosmology, string theory, and quantum gravity.

Another fascinating subject that I wish I understood.

Let me Count the Ways

A slightly famous mathematician once said to me: “I think Hawking is the most overrated physicist.” This took me aback, and I spent quite a while explaining to him that Hawking had important results in addition to his appearances on Star Trek and The Simpsons.

Most important was his discovery of black hole radiance, and the revolution in black hole statistical mechanics it energized, which in turn is the most important result of quantum gravity. I suppose it would be more precise to say that black hole radiance and black hole thermodynamics is the nearest thing to a result in quantum gravity, since there are no experimentally confirmed predictions in quantum gravity.

Nonetheless, all roads in quantum gravity appear to lead to black hole thermodynamics, and it would be hard to find a yet unobserved phenomenon in which physicists believe more firmly. Steven Carlip gives an overview of those many paths leading there in his new paper Black Hole Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics (arXiv:0807.4520). Among them, classical thermodynamic arguments, semi-classical quantum field theoretic arguments, statistical mechanical arguments based on string theory, Maldacena’s ADS/CFT, loop quantum gravity calculations, Sakharov’s induced gravity, entanglement entropy, and derivations from causal sets.

What accounts for this universality of result from seeming very different approaches? That’s the question that interests Carlip, but he doesn’t have a definitive answer. He does have what he thinks is a tantalizing clue, but you will need to read the paper to get that.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Professor Obama

Jodi Kantor, writing in The New York Times has a long article on Obama's years as a law professor at the University of Chicago. It's hardly a hostile piece - Obama is portrayed as a superb teacher who was eagerly recruited for a tenured position, but turned it down. Obama was a listener who led a socratic dialog, forcing students to think things through rather than mere absorb received wisdom. Obama was a rare but hardly confrontational liberal in one of the most conservative law schools in the country.

Nonetheless, there is a thinly sourced undercurrent in the story promoting the idea that Obama was already plotting a course for high office and planning his career accordingly. If true, it's hardly damning - this is supposed to be a country where anyone can grow up dreaming to be president, but I'm skeptical anyway.

John K. Wilson, one of Obama's former students takes strong exception to that element of the story in this Huffpost article. A bit of his commentary:

The author even tries to smear Obama as someone who taught law school with an eye toward his own political ambitions:

Mr. Obama’s years at the law school are also another chapter — see United States Senate, c. 2006 — in which he seemed as intently focused on his own political rise as on the institution itself.

It's not even clear what this means, but it seems to suggest that Obama's careful, thoughtful approach as a teacher and colleague in the law school was all a guise he used to avoid taking positions which, presumably, he feared might be dug up a decade later by reporters investigating his presidential campaign. This notion is, of course, thoroughly insane. What the author should have concluded is that Obama's years at the University of Chicago Law School show without a doubt that Obama's careful, thoughtful approach to issues today is not a centrist political cop-out; instead, it's a fundamental intellectual approach that Obama followed long before he ever sought political office.

According to Kantor:

Now, watching the news, it is dawning on Mr. Obama’s former students that he was mining material for his political future even as he taught them.

This is a particularly odd comment, suggesting that Obama was simply using his students as a way to prepare for his political ambitions. In reality, Obama as teacher and Obama as politician was inspired in both roles by certain values and thinkers, and it's no surprise to see similarities.

And this:
According to Kantor,

he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage.

To the contrary, Obama greatly benefitted the law school by being someone who was engaged, with the real world. The problem was that his ivory tower colleagues weren't very interested in the world of politics.

Yet Kantor writes,

Because he never fully engaged, Mr. Obama “doesn’t have the slightest sense of where folks like me are coming from,” Mr. Epstein said. “He was a successful teacher and an absentee tenant on the other issues."

I very much doubt this. Richard Epstein is an over-the-top libertarian, and his views are very consistently, and loudly, expressed at every opportunity. I think Obama, like me and everybody else, figured Epstein out very quickly. Personally, I enjoy Epstein and his machine-gun-mouth spewing out oddball ideas all the time. But Epstein is never really interested in finding out where other people are coming from, and certainly not interested in changing his mind about anything. He's exactly the kind of person Obama would tend to ignore, the ideologue with a passion only for hearing himself. Epstein was annoyed that Obama never played his intellectual mind games, and instead sought to make real changes in the political world.

I strongly recommend both articles - the second is a good companion to the first.

Effing the Ineffable

It's a profoundly uncomfortable fact for thoughtful American Jews that the Iraq war was promoted and (mis)managed by mostly Jewish neocaon Israel lobbyists (Kristol, Feith, Wolfowitiz, Perle) in alliance with oil interests (Cheney, Rice, Bush) and war profiteering crony capitalists. The same group now bangs the drum for war with Iran.

Joe Klein is brave and crazy enough to speak this uncomfortable truth

I have now been called antisemitic and intellectually unstable and a whole bunch of other silly things by the folks over at the Commentary blog. They want Time Magazine to fire or silence me. This is happening because I said something that is palpably true, but unspoken in polite society: There is a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who unsuccessfully tried to get Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and then successfully helped provide the intellectual rationale for George Bush to do it in 2003. Their motivations involve a confused conflation of what they think are Israel's best interests with those of the United States. They are now leading the charge for war with Iran.

Happily, these people represent a very small sliver of the Jewish population in this country. Unhappily, their views have had an impact in the highest reaches of the Bush Administration--and seem to have an influence on John McCain's campaign as well. Happily, the Bush Administration seems more interested in talking to the Iranians than in launching on them--and, according to my Israeli friends, the Israelis are not going to do anything foolish, either. I remain proud of my Jewish heritage, a strong supporter of Israel and a realist about the slim chance of finding some common ground with the Iranians. But I am not willing to grant these ideologues the anonymity they seek.

Unfortunately he doesn't actually name names, but he is brave and will be attacked and pilloried in the press.

In early 2003, during my first weeks as a Time Magazine columnist, I wrote a handful of skeptical columns about the coming war in Iraq, including this one about Israel's security as a hidden casus belli. Then, with the troops in place and the war about to begin, I said something stupid on Tim Russert's cable TV show--reluctantly saying ok, we should proceed with the attack. It was the only statement I made in favor of the war and I quickly came to my senses--but that's no excuse. We have lost more than 4000 Americans, tens of thousands have come home grievously injured, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and wounded, and we are weaker, palpably and morally, as a result.

I am not going to make the same mistake twice. I don't think a war with Iran is coming, thank God, but this time I am not going to pull any punches. My voice isn't very important in the grand scheme of things, but I'm going to do my job--and that means letting you know exactly where I stand and what I believe. I believe there are a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who are pushing for war with Iran because they believe it is in America's long-term interests and because they believe Israel's existence is at stake. They are wrong and recent history tells us they are dangerous. They are also bullies and I'm not going to be intimidated by them.

This was a brave deed Joe. Good luck, and don't let Charles Krauthammer sneak up on you. The footrest on his wheelchair doubles as a sword cane.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Super Trooper?

John Pomfret asks (rhetorically) whether China is the next superpower. He knows China well, certainly far better than I, and concludes that the answer is no.

But is China really going to be another superpower? I doubt it.

It's not that I'm a China-basher, like those who predict its collapse because they despise its system and assume that it will go the way of the Soviet Union. I first went to China in 1980 as a student, and I've followed its remarkable transformation over the past 28 years. I met my wife there and call it a second home. I'm hardly expecting China to implode. But its dream of dominating the century isn't going to become a reality anytime soon.

Too many constraints are built into the country's social, economic and political systems. For four big reasons -- dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn't travel well -- China is more likely to remain the muscle-bound adolescent of the international system than to become the master of the world.

After reading his reasoning, I concluded that his reasoning stunk worse than China's demographics. The real reason China is not the next superpower is that it is already a superpower - not the number one superpower, but surely number two.

Pomfret is obsessed with China's demographics. He thinks it will be the first country to get old before it gets rich, and blames the one child policy. As it happens, just over 43% of China's population is under thirty. The comparable figure for the United States is 41%. For Japan, it's about 32%. Mr. Pomfret's concern for China maybe overstated, at least compared to its major competitors.

The flaws he finds in China's economy don't find any concrete incarnation in his story, except in the fact that "Kung Fu Panda" was inexplicably released by Hollywood instead of Beijing.

China has real problems with its environment, but they aren't alone, of course.

Overall, I don't think Pomfret's story is worth the french fries its printed on.

Mamma Mia!

This is a seriously bad silly movie, despite fine actors (Meryl Streep, Julie Walters), famous actors (Pierce Brosnan), fantastic Greek island scenery, and one of the world's great assemblages of 80's Europop. There are some fine singers on hand too, but unfortunately there isn't any story for the actors to act in and way too many of the songs were sung by actors whose talents weren't up to the job. Super Trooper and SOS ought to be show stoppers, but tended to hurt my ears until the backup singers drowned out the leads.

Meryl Streep is not a terrible singer, but she doesn't have the voice for "The Winner takes it All." If you see Pierce Brosnan opening his mouth to sing, drop into a fetal position, cover your ears, and moan loudly enough to drown out the pain.

Of course I liked it anyway, because I am a seriously damaged ABBA fan.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cargo Cult Science: Selective Reading

Lumo is doing a little more selective reading of Feynman, in particular, of Feynman's Cargo Cult Science lecture. As usual, he is pretty good at finding the parts that agree with his point of view but displays his patented obliviousness about those that don't fit:

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

My emphasis.

Gee, what popular scientific theory can we think of that doesn't fit that last point?

Private Matters

Dr. C's guide for celebrities:

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

My First Time

The center of circulation of the remanents of Hurricane Dolly are now directly over El Paso, Texas, about 40 miles from here. El Paso looks a bit like a pinwheel on the radar.

This is a rare treat for those who dwell in the desert. Of course her teeth are a bit dull after having gnawed her way through a thousand kilometers or so of terrain.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hey Stupid!

Rick Shenkman is just the latest guy to set out to make a buck by telling us that we are stupid. So why should we pay to be insulted? Mostly, I suppose, because we assume that he must be talking about all those other guys, you know, the stupid ones. I have to confess that I like the epigraph to his excerpt linked above.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." -- Thomas Jefferson

So how is it that we are we stupid? Let me not count the ways, but mention and discuss a few:

"About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family, according to a survey.

"The study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms."

Art before politics, but can I just say that the question, as stated, is stupid. I would like Americans to know what freedoms are guaranteed by the Constitution, but there is no importance to what particular amendment it is guaranteed in. Nor is there any importance to being able to spout them off. I would be more impressed if the freedoms had been included in a true false list, e.g., the following freedoms are guaranteed by the Constitution, enter true or false for each: (a)Assembly, (b)Press, (c)right to keep pets, (d) Speech.

I'm by no means thrilled by my fellow citizen's erudition, but some of this guy's examples max out the needle on the lame-o-tron. Only 10% of us know what happened in 1066. Say what? A thousand years ago some limey caught an arrow in the eye thereby allowing one group of invading continental Europeans to take over the aristocracy of one small island nation from another group of previous continental invaders. Since that time there have been a few gazillion battles of conparable size and consequence on most of the continents.

Shenkman has real points too, though, notably Americans amazing confusion about government finances, Social Security, and similar matters.

The Republicans have been equally unctuous. While they have claimed that they are terribly worried about Social Security, they have been busy irresponsibly spending the system's surplus on tax cuts, one cut after another. First Reagan used the surplus to hide the impact of his tax cuts and then George W. Bush used it to hide the impact of his cuts. Neither ever acknowledged that it was only the surplus in Social Security's accounts that made it even plausible for them to cut taxes.

Take those Bush tax cuts. Bush claimed the cuts were made possible by several years of past surpluses and the prospect of even more years of surpluses. But subtracting from the federal budget the overflow funds generated by Social Security, the government ran a surplus in just two years during the period the national debt was declining, 1999 and 2000.

In the other years when the government ran a surplus, 1998 and 2001, it was because of Social Security and only because of Social Security. That is, the putative surpluses of 1998 and 2001, which President Bush cited in defense of his tax cuts, were in reality pure fiction. Without Social Security the government would have been in debt those two years. And yet in 2001 President Bush told the country tax cuts were not only needed, they were affordable because of our splendid surplus.

Today, conservatives argue that the Social Security Trust Fund is a fiction. They are correct. The money was spent. They helped spend it.

To this debate about Social Security -- which, once one understands what has been happening, is actually quite absorbing -- the public has largely been an indifferent spectator. A surprising 2001 Pew study found that just 19% of Americans understand that the United States ever ran a surplus at all, however defined, in the 1990s or 2000`s. And only 50% of Americans, according to an Annenberg study in 2004, understand that President Bush favors privatizing Social Security. Polls indicate that people are scared that the system is going bust, no doubt thanks in part to Bush's gloom-and-doom prognostications. But they haven't the faintest idea what going bust means. And in fact, the system can be kept going without fundamental change simply by raising the cap on taxed income and pushing back the retirement age a few years.

How much ignorance can a country stand? There have to be terrible consequences when it reaches a certain level. But what level? And with what consequences, exactly? The answers to these questions are unknowable. But can we doubt that if we persist on the path we are on that we shall, one day, perhaps not too far into the distant future, find out the answers?

The thing is, the American public is not totally responsible for its ignorance and confusion. The fact is that much of our so-called news media is mainly dedicated to spreading lies and distortions about all of the above. When they aren't doing that they are distracting us with idiotic stories of police chases, missing blond girls, and similar fare.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hit and Run

... would be a serious offense for you or for me, but not so much if you are a conservative icon, I guess. Columnist and all around death eater Robert Novak reportedly splattered a pedestrian on the windshield of his Corvette and took off. When witnesses chase him down - possible in DC traffic, he claimed not to have noticed the victim. Yeah, like that's really easy to miss when the guy is on your windshield.

Novak left with a $50 citation for failure to yield, but I would be surprised if it ended there. If witnesses can be believed, he is guilty as hell, and has a record of agressive behavior and road rage. No doubt he will find some way to bribe the victim into silence, but in a fair world he would see real prison time and the victim would get a bundle.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Over the Top

Gordon Kane wrote a very nice elementary textbook on elementary particle theory that I like a lot. Recently, however, reportedly he said of of the LHC:

It is certainly the most important experiment of any kind in the past century, without qualification” and “the most important thing ever in our quest to understand the fundamental laws of nature and the universe.”

Hmmm. That would make it more important, for example, than Rutherford's scattering experiment that discovered the nucleus, the experiments that discovered all the elementary particles, those that revealed the universe of galaxies, the clues to QM and relativity, etc. What sort of discovery would fit that bill?

Well, I guess if the LHC managed to create a phase transition that destroyed the universe, or a black hole that ate the Earth, those might qualify. How about suppersymmetry? No way. Mini black holes (that don't destroy the Earth)? Close, but no banana. Conclusive evidence of extra dimensions? Well, maybe, but I doubt it.

Kane and a few of his stringfellows have set the bar so high that LHC is very unlikely to top it.


John McCain has identified with the most unpopular programs of the most unpopular President in recent memory, been associated with crooks and scoundrels, and has conducted one of the most inept campaigns I've seen. His party is justifiably blamed for almost every mess the country is in, and that's plenty. He is a bully and a lout who cheated on his wife, lied about it publicly, and told coarse and demeaning jokes about women and children. He was a terrible student who got a plum Navy assignment through family connections, and whose military experience was mainly as a prisoner of war.

Not too smart ever, he has been a regular Mr. Malaprop in public, confusing Sunni and Shia, and showing total confusion about the geographic relations of the world's most dangerous problem countries.

Nevertheless, pitted against the smartest and most charismatic politician in recent memory, he is still managing to run even or almost even.

I can only think of two plausible explanations, both justified by my conversations with people I know: racism and the continuing power of the mighty right wing lie machine.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Physics Phirst

Among Lumo's regular features that I still like to read are his frequent scientific biographies. A recent note on Leon Lederman noted his advocacy for Physics First, the notion of teaching physics befor other sciences in high school.

There is a logic to this, since physics and its concepts form the underpinning of chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology and all the other physical sciences. Traditionally physics has been last for mathematical reasons - students don't have enough math to understand much physics until they have learned trigonometry and calculus.

My own view is that logical simplicity and didactic effectiveness are not necessarily linked, and I dislike the whole layer cake approach to science and math. One hundred fifty years ago or even less many still believed that chemistry and biology depended on fundamental phenomena different from physics, some vital substance, for example. It is now clear that that notion is incorrect, and that all sciences are closely linked and depend on exactly the same principles. The elementary phenomena that living and non-living matter depend on are the same.

Key physical principles crucial to all sciences, like the concept of energy and its conservation should not have to be taught from scratch in each. A better approach might be to introduce one concept at a time and then explore its role in a variety of phenomena. Energy has become a familar term to everyone, but the loss of precision in becoming a familiar term is so great that politicians can speak of "hydrogen energy" as if it were some new source of energy instead of something which can be produced only at the cost of more energy than we can get back from it.

As Feynman pointed out the way to teach about energy is look at the details for examples - he discussed the case of one of those toy friction cars with a flywheel. Slide it along the floor, revving up the flywheel, and the car has energy. If you put it down, it will take off. Feynman's point, though, was that you have to look at the innards, the spinning flywheel, to get any insight. You can explore a lot about energy without touching any mathematics, and with that kind of background, the student will be ready to see the point of doing the bookkeeping on conversion of one form of energy to another.

It would be a big change, refocussing from named fields to systematic exploration of concepts, but I think its worth a try. Every high school kid should take a science course every year, and that course should have physics, chemistry and biology and bits of other sciences in it.

Ditto for math. The layer cake is equally silly there. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus are an integrated whole, and should probably be taught that way. Too many students fail calculus because they no longer remember enough algebra, geometry, and trig to do the problems.

Another Reason Not to Retire

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

Friday, July 18, 2008

Doofus or Dastard?

The liberal blogosphere is pissed at McCain for revealing something of Obama's itinerary in Iraq. Since an American presidential candidate would be a prime al Quaeda target, this was a pretty bad thing to do - loose lips sink ships.

Hilzoy has some comments.

This is not just another screwup from McCain. It is very, very serious. There are things you are just Not Supposed To Talk About. This is one of them. If McCain doesn't have the common sense, the decency, and the discipline not to talk about them, that's a very serious problem. Since I'm not willing to assume he did this out of malice, I have to conclude that he just let this slip. But if he were President, we would need to count on him not to let things like this slip. Apparently, we can't. And that's a very big deal.

Since he has already revealed himself as a doofus who wants to be President in the worst way, does it matter? If the American people elect another idiot, one can hardly claim that they shouldn't have seen this coming.

Ten Years

Al Gore wants to convert all the nations electricity production to "green" sources in the next ten years. Is that a pipe dream?

Yes, probably, but getting a start is a good idea anyway. There are multiple points economic and strategic. Our dangerous dependence on foreign oil is a continuing economic and strategic threat, and there is good reason to believe that CO2 is bad for the planet.

The US has little remaining oil, but the deserts of the Southwest get a tremendous amount of Sunlight that is barely exploited economically. My own feeling is that nuclear needs to be a big part of the mix, but it can't be the whole answer or even a major part for several decades - we simply can't create the infrastructure quickly enough.

Most of our oil is used for transportation, of course, but that could change too. Electric cars are coming, and electric railroads have existed before and could exist again.


. . . is a country that hasn't existed for the last decade and a half, but John McCain keeps promising to defend it. Should we be concerned?

Not on that basis alone. Czechoslovakia was a country during McCain's childhood, youth, adulthood and middle age and it's not surprising that an old man makes that kind of gaffe. Younger people make similar mistakes. More bothersome is his apparent cluelessness about the differences between Sunni and Shia, and how they relate to al Quaeda. This is a matter central to any strategy in the Middle East and especially Iraq and Iran.

We really can't afford another Presidential dimwit who makes all his decisions on the basis of grade school slogans and thinks a pose is a strategy.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Idols of the Tribe

For a biologist, PZ Myers is remarkably clueless about evolution, or, at any rate, he affects to be.

Why should I think so? Because he seems to imagine that a nearly universal human trait is just a deviation that can be cured, preferably with ridicule and contempt. Religion, I mean.

His latest publicity stunt is asking for people to send consecrated communion wafers to him to desecrate.

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart.

Elsewhere he says he plans to commit some anti Islamic sacriledges on the same day, and claims:

The point of desecrating the host isn't to make people angry -- it's to demystify and desanctify nonsense. It's how we wake people up -- by showing that their beliefs are powerless.

I call bullshit on that. In the first place, it's silly to think that desecrating a few hosts would prove anything to anyone. The only magic power I've heard claimed for the host is the ability to repel vampires, and having consumed a few in my youth, I can say that it's been fully effective for me in that capacity.

A more serious flaw in Myers' evolutionary comprehension is his apparent failure to realize the role of gods, flags, and other tribal totems in human culture. The natural, or at least primitive, unit of organization is the hunting gathering band, but at some point when it became necessary to organize into larger groups for survival, gods and tribal totems were invented to unify the clan. Individuals can only keep track of a limited number of relatives, but the god, king, or flag can be everybody's father.

The point is that when you attack the totem, you disrespect and attack the tribe. Everybody understands that if you go into a group of a different ethnicity and shout a racial epithet aimed at them, you are asking for a fight or a war. Similarly, if you replace some gang's grafitti with your own, you have issued a challenge - often a mortal challenge. In earler times, an insult or slight could result in a duel. These things all have an evolutionary logic - your prospects for survival depend on you and your affiliation being respected.

A religion is a tribe, among other things, and those that have survived have developed defensive mechanisms. When PZ promises to desecrate a sacred totem of a tribe, he is disrespecting that tribe, and challenging it to war. The power of the totem isn't any peculiar intrinsic magic, it is in its power to unify the anger of its followers. One can hope that there are no Catholics in America willing to do murder to avenge his disrespect, but I would be less confident of Muslims.

PZ's real motive, I suspect, has nothing to do with what he claimed above. Instead he is stotting - showing off to win the adulation of his tribe, or his religion as I characterize it: Atheism Church Militant.

Sean of Cosmic Variance has his own take on this affair. He is an atheist of a slightly less militant stripe, and doesn't really approve of Myers, but (in my opinion) can't quite articulate why it bothers him.

Mighty Warrior

John McCain thinks he knows how to win wars. Unlike Eisenhower or Grant, though, he was hardly the victorious commander of a military triumph. The vast majority of his combat service was spent as a prisoner of war - in a war we lost.

This fact doesn't take away from his individual valor or patriotism, but it's hardly a demonstration of talent for high command. Instead of empty bragging, he might try laying out some specifics that hint he has a clue as to what obstacles we face and what "victory" would mean. Instead we get the same braggadocio, belligerance, and shallow idealism of the slogan that we got from Bush.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cheshire Cat

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

Apo Calypso

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

Sunday, July 13, 2008

New Yorker Cover

There is a Kurt Vonnegut story somewhere of an anti-Nazi in the Nazi propaganda apparatus who tries to satirize the Nazi propaganda by making up utterly absurd anti-Semitic allegations and stories. No matter how absurd or preposterous his tales are, though, they are taken seriously, and he quickly rises to be a key henchman of Goebbels. For the propagandist, no absurdity is too absurd.

Perhaps the sophisticated editors of the New Yorker and their artist were unaware of both story and principle, but they produced a cover that incorporates every nasty smear of Obama in the Republican canon. It's a satire they say. Ha, ha.

If so intended, what a bunch of dumb fucks. If they had been paying any attention, they might have noticed that all that stuff is gospel to the professional Republican liars.

Catch, for example, the Hoover Institute's Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell comparing Obama and McCain. Unlike Obama, he says, "Senator McCain has not spent decades aiding and abetting people who hate America."

Return Fire

Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes bombarded with large scale "pass it on" emailings from deluded friends pushing some right wing cause. This can be annoying, but lately I prefer another tactic. I write as cogent and unstrident a refutation of the email's claims as I can, backing it up with links to facts, figures and analysis, and hit the return to all button.

I figure that this is a relatively rare opportunity to shine a little light onto those who live in the right wing media cocoon.

"A Nation of Whiners"

Plutocrats Dictionary, Definition:

Whine v., - that annoying sound the populace makes when we crush their balls.

McCain economic guru Phil Gramm got into a bit of trouble when he said that the US was in a "mental recession," and that the country was "a nation of whiners." McCain stepped away from that, but just in case anybody had any doubt about how the Plutocracy feels, they were out in full force today to back up Gramm. George Will and Senator Jon Kyl, (R) AZ, were Sunday talking heads to back him up, and the Washington Post was quick to chime in with a Gramm flunky's editorial. They can't afford to be sympathetic, because things are working out just the way they planned, with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and oil companies getting richest of all.

It's important to remember that while the Bush economy has been a disaster for most Americans, it has been just dandy for rich people like McCain, crony capitalists like Gramm, and flunkies like George Will.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Physics Problem

Since Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance is doing a thing to explain everything you always wanted to know about quantum mechanics, but were afraid to ask, I thought of a question. It's not really appropriate for the forum Sean will be addressing, so I will mention it here.

In quantum mechanics, the state of a physical system is represented by a ray in Hilbert space, a generally infinite dimensional vector space. In classical mechanics, the state of a system is represented by a point in configuration space (or, in the case of the Hamiltonian description) by a point in a 2n dimensional symplectic manifold (where n is the number of degrees of freedom of the system). As Planck's constant h -> 0, the two descriptions should become equivalent.

How does one go from the Hilbert space description to the manifold in that case? Anybody know a good answer for this?

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

And I'm still voting for Obama.

There is a scene in the movie Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World where the Captain (Russell Crowe) and the Doctor(Paul Bettany) are eating hard tack biscuits, and a couple of weevils crawl out. Crowe asks Bettany which of the two is the smaller. The Doctor, good naturalist that he is, inspects them and selects one. That, says Crowe, is what the job of a commander is about: choosing the lesser of two [we]evils.

That is the job of the politician and the statesman as well, and so also the voter. Thus, despite my distress about FISA, I have told myself "fuggedaboudit."

I too must choose the lesser weevil. That is an easy choice.

Impeach Obama!

OK, maybe that's a bit strong, as well as premature, but the last few weeks have been a dagger in the heart for many hard core Obamaphiles. The traditional turn to the center was certainly to be expected, but subtle it was not. Bob Herbert of the NYT is on the case.

One issue or another might not have made much difference. Tacking toward the center in a general election is as common as kissing babies in a campaign, and lord knows the Democrats need to expand their coalition. . .

. . . Separation of church and state? Forget about it.

. . . agreeing with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas . . .

For one thing, he’s taking his base for granted, apparently believing that such stalwart supporters as blacks, progressives and pumped-up younger voters will be with him no matter what.

For many of us, the FISA vote is the unkindest cut. There is a promise and plenty of Constitutional Principle involved.

I'm not thrilled about the football stadium acceptance either. Aside from security concerns, the whole thing is a bit too Hitler in Vienna for my taste.

I hate having to vote for the lesser of two evils.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Americans in Zion

Perhaps some have suspected that I regard Zionism as less than an unmixed blessing for American foreign policy. I have thought, though, that the enthusiasm of some American Protestant groups for Israel was a recent development. No so. It turns out that long before any significant number of Jews thought about taking back Palestine, Protestant evangelicals were before them.

We could blame George Bush, or rather, the Reverend George Bush. He wrote the book on the subject, it seems: The Valley of Vision; The Dry Bones of Israel Revived to be specific. Not either of those Presidents George Bush, to be sure, but rather a somewhat remote ancestor, a Professor of Hebrew at NYU before the genetic line rotted through inbreeding and too much coke. Bush's 1844 treatise was somewhat definitive, but it wasn't quite the start either.

Freed from Rome's New Testament exclusiveness by Martin Luther and Gutenberg, Protestants had started reading the Old Testament. The Restorationist idea - the idea that Palestine should be restored to the Jews - had taken firm root in America quite early. The first American missionaries set out to the Middle East in the 1820's, earning the martyrdom they desired.

Their mission was two-fold: convert the inhabitants to Christianity and restore Israel in order to prepare for the return of the Messiah. The subsequent years saw larger flocks of missionaries who succeeded in establishing numerous schools in the Ottoman Empire, but recruiting few converts. Those they did convert were almost all already Christian - mostly Eastern Orthodox. Jews and Muslims showed no interest in salvation Protestant style, possibly because apostasy was punishable by death by the Muslims and Jews were heavily dependent on their own economic networks - or maybe because Protestantism didn't look like all that much fun, regardless.

Nor were European Jews or the then tiny community of American Jews interested in the project. Even when a few Jews, like the American poet Emma Lazarus, tried promoting Zionism, they were met with indifference. Jewish leaders of the day noted that a Jewish State would cause all Jews to be suspected of being a fifth column, and thereby untrustworthy as citizens. Jews were still subject to plenty of discrimination in the US, but they had benefitted greatly from political, economic, and legal equality and didn't want to jeapordize it.

Thus Zionism remained a Protestant project, and a hopelessly unsuccessful one at that, until near the end of the Nineteenth Century, when further convulsions in Europe would awaken Jewish interest.

All of the above has been cribbed from Michael B. Oren's great book, America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present. More about the book and its story later.

About Those Evil Speculators

A favorite meme has been that commodity prices have been driven up by the activity of "speculators." I have tended to be a bit dubious, particularly in the case of oil, where not a lot can be conveniently stored, but the Washington Post's David Cho tracks some speculators to their dens. Who are they? We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. Or at least our pension funds.

Soaring fuel prices that are burning a hole in the wallets of consumers are not only benefiting oil companies and Middle Eastern producers. They are also lighting up the investment returns of pensions funds, which millions of ordinary Americans are counting on for their retirement.

California's public employees' pension fund, the world's largest, made its first investment of $1.1 billion into oil and other commodities early last year, and since then, Calpers has seen it soar 68 percent. Fairfax County pension managers have enjoyed a 61 percent return from a similar move over the past 12 months, far outpacing any other segment of the fund's portfolio.

"Our commodity investment has really helped," said Robert L. Mears, executive director of Fairfax County's Retirement Administration Agency. "This year would have been a lot worse."

Other pension funds are rushing to get in on the action as the prices of oil, precious metals, corn, uranium and other vital goods continue to reach record highs. Montgomery County officials are in the process of shifting 5 percent of their $2.7 billion pension fund away from stocks and into commodities.

These funds are part of a tidal wave of investment dollars that has flooded commodity markets in recent years and, critics say, contributed to the run-up in prices.

Pension fund managers are playing with Other People's Money and are charged, usually, with putting prudence first in such bets. Notoriously volatile commodities hardly fit that bill.

The investments can be very attractive because there are only light restrictions on whether they can be bought and sold using borrowed money. While risky, this can produce enormous returns.

For decades, trading commodity contracts was considered taboo by most pension funds because the market is so volatile and risky. Most fund managers relied on their stock and bond investments to enlarge their pools of retirement money.

That changed after the stock market crashed in 2001. Fund managers realized they needed more diversified portfolios that would perform well regardless of whether stocks did. At the same time, new financial products simplified trading by allowing big funds to buy into commodity indexes, which work like mutual funds, that were run by Wall Street firms, mainly Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.[my italics]

Oh shit! Now I know where I've seen this movie before. How many times do we need to show it before we start to get the point?

Not to worry though, the Bush Administration is on the case:

Even as rising prices translate into staggering increases at the grocery store and at the pump, some regulators, including Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., say investors are not to blame.

Market magic will save the day. Or not. At any rate, his former minions at Goldman Sachs will probably do OK.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

I would like to dedicate this post to United Airlines, for my seven hour layover in Denver, which enabled me to finish reading this book, and drove me to starting another really promising one.

For those who may have suspected that I am an Obama fan, it's true, and this book hasn't made me any less of one. More than ever, Obama seems like the Anti-Bush to me: eloquent where Bush is incoherent, analytical where Bush thoughtless, cool where Bush is rash, compassionate where Bush is mean - and, most importantly, penetrating where Bush is dense. Where Bush is utterly unable to express himself except in the most banal and trite sloganeering, Obama reveals a nuanced understanding of how the world works.

Obama's first book, written before his political career, is personal, revealing, and gripping. The image revealed is more complex and interesting than the plaster saint we see in the campaign literature. It is also a bit less polished than Audacity of Hope, but well-written nonetheless. Autobiography is always written from a highly biased point of view, but Obama is not reluctant to be self-critical.

His rather odd family circumstances left him more than a little confused about his identity. Raised almost entirely by his (white) mother and her parents he often felt marooned in a cultural milieu that he was part of but couldn't fully belong to. The father he couldn't remember and only saw once after his infancy loomed as a mythic figure celebrated in occasional larger-than-life anecdotes of his mother and grandparents.

An able student driven relentlessly by his mother, he managed to get admitted to Hawaii's elite prep school, thanks to a bit of affirmative action: his (white) grandfather had a friend on the board. Once again he felt isolated among his mostly wealthy and almost entirely white classmates. This started him on a long quest for his identity as a black man.

Despite the fact that both of his parents ultimately earned PhDs, he was hardly a child of the academy - when his father went off to Harvard to study, he never came back, and his mother's education came later.

His father, it seems, was idealistic, eloquent, brilliant and complicated. He wasn't much of a father to his eight children by four wives, and his idealism brought his downfall to tribal politics.

Steve Sailer excerpts much of the description of one half-brother here. I would recommend ignoring Steve's obtuse commentary, but the passage gives a real flavor of Obama's thought.

"'So, Mark,' I said, turning to my brother, 'I hear you're at Berkeley.'

"'Stanford,' he corrected. His voice was deep, his accent perfectly American. 'I'm in my last year of the physics program there.'"

They meet once more, for lunch:

"I asked him how it felt being back for the summer.

"'Fine,' he said. 'It's nice to see my mom and dad, of course. … As for the rest of Kenya, I don't feel much of an attachment. Just another poor African country.'

"'You don't ever think about settling here?'

"Mark took a sip from his Coke. 'No,' he said. 'I mean, there's not much work for a physicist, is there, in a country where the average person doesn't have a telephone.'

"I should have stopped then, but something -- the certainty in this brother's voice, maybe, or our rough resemblance, like looking into a foggy mirror -- made me want to push harder. I asked, "Don't you ever feel like you might be losing something?'

"Mark put down his knife and fork, and for the first time that afternoon his eyes looked straight into mine.

"'I understand what you're getting at,' he said flatly. 'You think that somehow I'm cut off from my roots, that sort of thing.' He wiped his mouth and dropped the napkin onto his plate. 'Well, you're right. At a certain point, I made a decision not think about who my real father was. He was dead to me even when he was still alive. I knew that he was a drunk and showed no concern for his wife or children. That was enough.'

But read the rest, in the book. Or, if you must, the rest of that passage at the link.

This article, by Scott Fornek, reviews a bit of what is known about Obama's very extended family.

The book leaves plenty of questions. Why does Obama, after graduating from a prestigious college and experimenting with the corporate life, go to work in decaying Chicago neighborhoods as a barely paid community organizer? Other people ask him that question (in the book) and he doesn't have a good answer for them or us. It's a peculiar way for an ambitious talent to start. My own theory is that it represented a merger between his search for a black identity and his mother's lifelong passionate idealism - an idealism he describes as naive but just as clearly admires.

I recommend the book strongly both to those who want some insight into whom our next President is and why he ought to be.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Road Trip to the Apocalypse

Chronicle of Doom Fortold, Chapter XX?

Energy Cassandra's have been warning us about this for decades, but now it's here. Oil is no longer cheap, and the long term is likely to get worse. Nelson D. Schwartz has a look at the history in today's New York Times. Like many of our recent disasters (9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Bush tax cuts) this is a calamity that those with minds could see coming for millions, er, trillions of vehicle miles.

Schwartz has some quotes:

“Much of what we’re seeing today could have been prevented or ameliorated had we chosen to act differently,” says Pete V. Domenici, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a 36-year veteran of the Senate. “It was a bipartisan failure to act.”

Mike Jackson, the chief executive of AutoNation, the country’s biggest automobile retailer, is even more blunt. “It was totally preventable,” he says, anger creeping into his affable car-salesman’s pitch.

I will buy the bipartisan failure, but the principal blame goes to the Bush administration, and to the idiots who elected it. Despite plenty of warning, Americans chose to live in a dream world where God would always provide them as much oil as they needed, and never mind the fact that the people who stood to gain the most from high priced oil were running the country.

For big oil, and its (mostly) Republican minions, current prices are a fluke, caused by our failure to drain the last drop of our reserves or maybe by mysterious speculators. Pretty clearly, the markets are unconvinced.

I think that it's pretty unlikely that we really are at peak oil, and even more dubious that oil is likely to rise a whole lot more. Barring disaster (e.g., "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran"), oil is likely to fall in response to world wide recession and a gradual cranking up of supplies. Perhaps it will even reach $60/bbl. again. If so, we will have another chance to blow our opportunity to do something about it.

Energy conservation is the most obvious answer, and that is unlikely to happen without higher taxes on its use. No one will dare touch that unless energy prices suddenly decline, but Americans really do need to move beyond the culture of immediate gratification.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Coach

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

As it happened, the big guy managed to get into coaching anyway.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Adventures in the Outback

It's not actually the inner Oz I'm talking about here, but the wagon of the same name produced by Subaru. On my recent visit to Montana, my rental car turned out to be a Subaru Outback, which was good, because I had been intending to test drive one.

It wasn't until I attempted to find my car in a restaurant parking lot that I made a curious discovery while walking down a row of silver Outbacks looking for mine. The Outback is the National Car of Montana, or at any rate, Kalispell, Montana - or at least the Toyota Camry of Kalispell. Every other vehicle seems to be an outback. The whole vibe was redolent of Drowning Mona.

The Outback, I hear, has a very good reputation in snow. There wasn't any snow where I was driving (Logan Pass is apparently still closed due to the depth of the remaining snow), but it seemed like a pretty good car anyway.

Except for the fact that I needed contortionist skill to actually enter it. If I put my foot in first, there was no way to get my thigh past the steering wheel, depite several degrees of freedom in that steering wheel. Backing in was the only option.