Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dark Matter

Julianne of Cosmic Variance is an astronomer who works primarily with galaxy formation, but admits to tinkering with dark matter from time to time. The linked post tells us all we need to know about the physics of chocolate and how to produce it in the ideal crystalline form.

Money quote:

Science. It works, bitches.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Magneto-Mentallic Fields

One mystery of science unexplained by the standard model or string theory is the origin and dynamics of the magneto-mentallic field that rigorously excludes any comprehension of irony from the (otherwise very clever) brain of Luboš Motl. It seems that humorist and novelist Bruno Maddox has written a column for Discover magazine Three Words That Could Overthrow Physics: “What Is Magnetism?”
claiming that science has yet to come up with an acceptable explanation of magnetism. This column became the occasion of a whole flood basaltic eruption of righteous outrage from Lumo, denouncing Maddox and suggesting that he might be isomorphic to Lee Smolin, Peter Woit, Karl Marx, and all the other demons of the Lumonic underworld.

To be sure, the article was spotted earlier by Bee of Backreaction. She sensed that it might be humorously intended, but she wasn't amused either.

Maddox may not know much physics, but as the son of physicist, science writer, and longtime Nature editor Sir John Maddox, it seems safe to assume that he's quite familiar with physicists famous and otherwise. At any rate, he knows how to push their buttons.

Any work of ironic humor ought to have a point, and after detailing some of the trouble he went to to try and understand magnetism, he writes:

As far as I can tell, these virtual particles are composed entirely of math and exist solely to fill otherwise embarrassing gaps in physics, such as the attraction and repulsion between magnets. And as far as I can tell, because I’ve had it repeatedly and rather pityingly told to me, to want to pursue the matter any further is an impulse that marks its sufferer out as a man who doesn’t know an awful lot about physics, or science, or the pursuit of truth in general.

What I have learned, in other words, after 71 days of strenuous research, is that I and my fellow Dummies no longer have a seat, if we ever did, at the dinner table of science.

And, this, of course, is just the simple truth. Physics, like its virtual particles, is composed (perhaps not quite entirely) of math, and those who do not know it can’t truly enter into the kingdom. Aristotle apparently told Alexander that there was no royal road to geometry. The path through algebra, trigonometry, and calculus is longer but no easier, and that just gets you to the entrance foyer. Much more is needed to understand quantum field theory, including linear algebra, probability and statistics, differential equations, complex analysis, and at least those bits of the calculus of variations, group theory, and functional analysis that will be included in your preparatory physics courses. Those need to include classical mechanics, special relativity, electromagnetism, waves, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics. Mechanics, electromagnetism, and quantum theory are generally expected to require two or three helpings (semesters or years) of study, each.

Having climbed that far up the pyramid, quantum field theory still lies ahead, and it’s no afternoon stroll either. So what do get when you finish that last pesky Peskin and Schroeder problem set? Full enlightenment? Maybe.

On the other hand, there is this from Einstein:

All the fifty years of brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question: “What are light quanta?” Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself.

Virtual quanta aren’t necessarily simpler.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Revenge and Remorse

Jared Diamond's thought provoking essay on civilization and revenge in the 21 Apr New Yorker managed to sneak by me for a while. Since Diamond is writing it, it's pregnant with insights into human nature and culture, but it left me wanting to argue.

The principal focus is a war of revenge fought between two clans in the New Guinea highlands.

In 1992, when Daniel Wemp was about twenty-two years old, his beloved paternal uncle Soll was killed in a battle against the neighboring Ombal clan. In the New Guinea Highlands, where Daniel and his Handa clan live, uncles and aunts play a big role in raising children, so an uncle’s death represents a much heavier blow than it might to most Americans
. . .

Daniel told me that responsibility for arranging revenge usually falls on the victim’s firstborn son or, failing that, on one of his brothers. “Soll did have a son, but he was only six years old at the time of his father’s death, much too young to organize the revenge,” Daniel said. “On the other hand, my father was felt to be too old and weak by then; the avenger should be a strong young man in his prime. So I was the one who became expected to avenge Soll.” As it turned out, it took three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs before Daniel succeeded in discharging this responsibility.

The tale should be read in full, but the first punchline comes when Diamond asks about Daniel's reaction to his success:

Only one arrow hit Isum, but it was a bamboo arrow, flat and sharp as a knife, and it cut his spinal cord. That’s even better than killing him, because he’s now still alive today, eleven years later, paralyzed in a wheelchair, and maybe he’ll live for another ten years. People will see his constant suffering. Isum may be around for a long time, for people to see his suffering, and to be reminded that this happened to him as proper vengeance for his having killed my uncle Soll.”

When I asked Daniel how he felt about the battle in which Isum became paralyzed, his reaction was unapologetically positive: a mixture of exhilaration and pleasure in expressing aggression. He used phrases such as “It was very nice,” and his gestures projected euphoria and a huge sense of relief.
I felt that it was a matter of ‘kill or else die by suicide.’ I was prepared to die myself in that fight. I knew that, if I did die then, I would be considered a hero and would be remembered. If I had personally seen the arrow go into Isum, I would have felt emotional relief then. Unfortunately, I wasn’t actually there to see it, but, when I heard that Isum had been paralyzed, I thought, I have everything, I feel as if I am developing wings, I feel as if I am about to fly off, and I am very happy. After that battle, just as after each battle in which we succeeded in killing an Ombal, we danced and celebrated and slaughtered pigs. When you fight with thinking and finally succeed, you feel good and relieved. The revenge relieves you; now it can be your turn to help someone else get his own revenge.

The second story Diamond tells is that of his father-in-law. The father-in-law's family was in Poland when Germany and Russia both invaded. He was captured fighting the Russians, but later fought for them against the Germans.

His mother, sister, and niece had been hidden, but thieves found them, assumed that as Jews they must have gold, and eventually killed them when they turned out to have nothing. The father-in-law caught the man he believed to be the murderer, thought about murdering him, but eventually turned him over to the authorities. He was imprisoned briefly, but otherwise went unpunished.

Diamond contrasts his father-in-laws bitterness and regret at the loss of his family and the fact that the presumed murderer escaped with Daniel's satisfaction and pleasure at his revenge.

On other occasions, he admitted to Marie, “Every day, still, before going to sleep, I think of my mother’s death, and of my having let her murderer go.” Until his own death, nearly sixty years after the murders of his parents and his release of his mother’s killer, Jozef remained tormented by regret and guilt—guilt that he had not been able to protect his parents, and regret that he had failed in his responsibility to take vengeance. That was the responsibility that Daniel had satisfied, and the terrible burden that Daniel had spared himself, by personally orchestrating the shooting of Isum.

Diamond's clear implication is that if his father-in-law had just whacked the suspect, he would have spared himself all that grief. Maybe so, but I'm not so sure. Remorseless murderers exist in all societies, and in Daniel's it was a survival trait. Daniel felt remorse neither for the man he caused to be crippled nor for the two dozen others on both sides killed by the way. Would it have worked that way for his father-in-law? Maybe, but maybe not.

Neither does Diamond consider the possibility that the man that the villagers his father-in-law terrorized gave up might not be the real murderer.

His theme, though, is characteristically insightful. The desire for revenge is a powerful one, one that has been somewhat submerged in our society by the combination of law and Christianity, but it's no less there.

If we had realized it a bit more clearly we might never have elected the very stupid and self-centered man who now leads our country. Because he is stupid, he never realized that our occupation of Iraq would trigger a powerful desire for revenge among the population. Because he was self-centered he chose his desire for revenge against Saddam's supposed crimes against his father over the country's desire for revenge against those who attacked it.

Pimpin' Ain't Easy

Just in case there is still somebody on the planet who didn't get the word, Miley Cyrus, AKA Hannah Montana, is the billion dollar a year mainstay of Disney's preteen empire. At age fifteen, though, she has nearly reached the sell-by date for her six to fourteen demographic.

Her canny parents have made plans for a transition. Following in the footsteps of Britney, Lindsey, and others, they apparently figure it's time to skank her up a bit for the older kids. A little bra flashing, plus some semi-porn via Vanity Fair and Annie Liebovitz ought to be just the trick - no pun intended.

Naturally enough, many parents of her current fans are outraged, but that's part of the plan too.

Somebody really ought to prosecute her parents.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

News Alert!

Acting on a telephone tip from an anonynmous female claiming to be an abused student, Arizona police today raided the secretive compound of fundamentalist mathematicians practicing polygony. According to the tipster, girls and boys as young as thirteen living in the compound had been forced to practice triangulation and other forms of polygony. In many cases, even young children had been exposed to quadralaterals, pentagons, and even dodecadons, often by adults several times their age.

Because so many of the children had been exposed to the same polygons, generic geometric testing may be required to sort out the damage to each. Authorities believe that the children are too indoctrinated to cooperate with police. Many are willing only to state name, rank of symmetry matrix, and cereal preference.

Lawyers for the cult state that the public has yet to hear their sides of the dispute.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Teaching Math

Modern fads in math teaching tend to lean heavily on so called manipulatives - the theory being, apparently, that the hands are the window to the math brain. Kenneth Chang reports in The New York Times that Ohio State U reseachers have cast doubt on this theory.

An experiment by the researchers suggests that it might be better to let the apples, oranges and locomotives stay in the real world and, in the classroom, to focus on abstract equations, in this case 40 (t + 1) = 400 - 50t, where t is the travel time in hours of the second train. (The answer is below.)

“The motivation behind this research was to examine a very widespread belief about the teaching of mathematics, namely that teaching students multiple concrete examples will benefit learning,” said Jennifer A. Kaminski, a research scientist at the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State. “It was really just that, a belief.”
. . .
In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

There are a whole lot of problems with generalizing from a study of college students to first graders, or even high school students, and the researchers are now planning to something similar with younger students.

I don't have a dog in that particular race - I think that I do better reasoning from the particular to the general rather than vice versa, but the confusing effect of extraneous information is also a persuasive idea.

More importantly, for me, is what this study reveals about the crappy state of our educational practice. Why is the answer to this question not known? If millions of kids are being subjected to manipulatives, and if schools are paying billions for said manipulatives, why don't we know if they work or not? Why haven't large scale, multi-method random comparison tests been carried out?

If a textbook publisher, or other vendor of school materials has a teaching method they wish to sell, the country should carry out a large scale comparison test of several methods, in real classrooms, with randomly selected schools and teachers.

There is no excuse for us to let education remain a fashion industry. Many far less vital aspects of society have been subjected to the discipline of the scientific method. It's time for education to join the modern world.

The Restoration

You don't have to be a historian to notice a nasty monarchist streak creeping into American politics. Kennedies, Bushes, and now Clintons, each with their enthusiastic partisans. The unsophisticated, so I suspect, cling to monarchy out an attachment to a real or imagined past, and some sheep-like devotion to a leader symbol.

Watching James Carville, Lanny Davis and Terry McCauliffe slime their way across the tube the other day, I felt sure that I saw something more sinister at work: the naked lust for power. Of course that's the kind of creatures they are - you can't really blame a snake for being slithering or a cockroach for scuttling in the dark.

I really expected much better from Paul Krugman, though, but I surely didn't get it. I have often proclaimed him the best of columnists, but his offering today is both shallow and dishonest. His latest attempt to help resurrect Lady Voldemort offers this:

Mr. Obama was supposed to be a transformational figure, with an almost magical ability to transcend partisan differences and unify the nation. Once voters got to know him — and once he had eliminated Hillary Clinton’s initial financial and organizational advantage — he was supposed to sweep easily to the nomination, then march on to a huge victory in November.

Nice strawman, Paul. Your candidate is widely disliked in most of the country, tainted by scandal, and has run an incompetent campaign, thus frittering away seeming inevitability, so it's a good time to attack the other candidate for not being Moses and Alexander the Great in one body.

Well, now he has an overwhelming money advantage and the support of much of the Democratic establishment — yet he still can’t seem to win over large blocs of Democratic voters, especially among the white working class.

As a result, he keeps losing big states. And general election polls suggest that he might well lose to John McCain.

Most polls tend to show him doing rather better against McCain than Hillary. Hillary has raised, and spent, over $100 million. Obama has done even better, but his financial advantage was significant in exactly one State, Pennsylvania, where all the demographics were stacked against him, and where Hillary can count herself a native.

But how negative has the Clinton campaign been, really?

Hillary: Obama isn't a Muslim, as far as I know. That's slimy, Prof Krugman, and you know it.

Let me offer an alternative suggestion: maybe his transformational campaign isn’t winning over working-class voters because transformation isn’t what they’re looking for.

So what is it that the Prof thinks sixty plus, poorly educated white voters are missing from Obama? The problem is, you see, that Obama simply isn't wonkish enough.

Mrs. Clinton has been able to stay in the race, against heavy odds, largely because her no-nonsense style, her obvious interest in the wonkish details of policy, resonate with many voters in a way that Mr. Obama’s eloquence does not.

Well let me mention an alternative of my own, one that, unlike Prof Krugman's, is actually supported by the polling data: race. The Clinton's are a bit too cute to play the race card personally, but their surrogates are all over, talking about suicide pacts, subjecting Obama to religious tests no other candidate faced, and broadly hinting that an African American can't win.

Krugman saves his two most dishonest paragraphs for last:

But the message that Democrats are ready to continue and build on a grand tradition doesn’t mesh well with claims to be bringing a “new politics” and rhetoric that places blame for our current state equally on both parties.

And unless Democrats can get past this self-inflicted state of confusion, there’s a very good chance that they’ll snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this fall.

I have never heard Obama blame "our current state equally on both parties." I wonder where Krugman thinks he heard this? Of course it is true that Bill Clinton's reckless personal behavior played a huge role in delivering us into the hands of George Bush.

If the Democrats do lose, how much of the blame will be deserved by Hillary's dishonesty and rule or ruin tactics? I would guess plenty.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Timely Thought from Senator McBush

Elisabeth Bumiller reports in The New York Times:

Senator John McCain took direct aim at the Bush administration on Thursday as he stood in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and declared the handling of the disaster “terrible and disgraceful” and pledged that it would never happen again.

Dutiful stenographer as always, Bumiller forgets to mention that when the debacle was occuring, McCain was having cake with Bush. She does mention that his concern for New Orleans was not enough to keep him from voting against aid for the stricken city. His concern somehow became manifest when he started running for President.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ignorance for Dummies

Bob Herbert's New York Times column addresses the perennial problem of American education failures. It is actually possible to get a pretty good elementary and high school education in America, but not nearly enough of the students are getting it. Herbert cites the usual suspects:

An American kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds . . .

“We have one of the highest dropout rates in the industrialized world,” said Allan Golston, the president of U.S. programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In a discussion over lunch recently he described the situation as “actually pretty scary, alarming.”

. . .

Mr. Golston noted that the performance of American students, when compared with their peers in other countries, tends to grow increasingly dismal as they move through the higher grades:

“In math and science, for example, our fourth graders are among the top students globally. By roughly eighth grade, they’re in the middle of the pack. And by the 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring generally near the bottom of all industrialized countries.”

Herbert doesn't offer any solutions.

I have my own ideas, some of which are given below:

  • Testing needs to be national, and mandatory for public, private, and home schooled children. Well defined national standards need to be published and publicized. The current system, with each State defining its own standards, is a joke. Some States have defined competence so minimally that there students pass without any mastery of material.
  • Control of curriculum must be siezed from the publishing companies. They have a huge stake in making education a fashion industry, and almost none in real student achievement.
  • Rigorously test teaching methods and publicize the good and bad ones. Once again, publishers cannot be allowed to control this process.
  • Emphasize excellence over accomodation. Current standards for accomodating the severely damaged and dangerously mentally ill are too costly, and too disruptive to the educational mission. We should take care of our damaged children as well as we can, but that is not primarily an educational mission.
  • Pay teachers well, continuously train and evaluate them, and eliminate the incompetent.
  • Look at factors in our society that contribute to poor school achievement and attack them at a societal level.
  • Experiment but validate.
  • Deemphasize everything but the academic mission.
  • Rid the curriculum of non-academic elements. In my city, for example, it is possible a (sufficiently athletically talented) student to take up to one fourth of his high school credits in football. A similar situation exists with respect to band and basketball. Extra curricular activities belong outside the curriculum. (Our schools win lots of football championships, however)
  • Explore incentives for keeping kids in school.
  • Reward academic excellence. Students in the top 25% nationally should get good college scholarships.
  • Set national priorities for learning. Test all schools on the standard materials (including colleges and universities) and publicize the results.
  • Allow for differences in school populations, but document progress or lack thereof.

Not Working

It's clear that whatever the world was planning to deal with CO2 emissions isn't working. The biofuels fiasco, combined with the imminent decline of cheap, relatively clean oil is driving the world to dirty, polluting, and carbon heavy tar sands and coal. The world's economies are gasping and flopping like Permian fish surfacing to escape the anoxic depths.

Whatever our intentions, it looks like we are going to get a lot more CO2 in the atmosphere before we get any less. Denialists who live long enough will get a chance to see if their scepticism is justified.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lie Groups

My praise for the accessibility of Galois theory in Robert Gilmore's new book Lie Groups, Physics, and Geometry: An Introduction for Physicists, Engineers and Chemists in this earlier post may have been a bit too fulsome.

Further study shows that his development depends on knowing something of group representations, character theory, and character tables, subjects frequently absent from elementary treatments and often found pretty deep in others (page 846 of Dummit and Foote, for example), though Hammermesh will get you there more quickly.

The Undead

It looks like Hillary will get her double digit result, or nearly get it, in Pennsylvania, so the undead corpse of her candidacy will stagger on for a few more primaries. Oh well.

If nothing else, it could demonstrate that race and slime are still potent weapons against Obama - which might reinforce Hillary's storyline that he can't win.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Art and Life

It's not news that life imitates art.

It's a continuing grief that life has such lousy taste. From The Guardian:

The American TV drama, 24, featuring counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, inspired lawyers at Guantánamo, who were instructed to come up with new interrogation techniques.

Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, a military lawyer at the detention centre, said Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, "gave people lots of ideas". She told Philippe Sands, author of Torture Team: "We saw [24] on cable ... It was hugely popular."

Sands writes: "She believed the series contributed to an environment in which those at Guantánamo were encouraged to see themselves as being on the frontline - and to go further than they otherwise might."

The US military criticised the award-winning series last year, saying it encouraged soldiers to see torture as a justifiable weapon against terror suspects.

Bauer, who resorts to breaking a suspect's fingers, suffocation and electrocution to extract information tells one bad guy: "You are going to tell me what I want to know - it's just a matter of how much you want it to hurt."

Sunday, April 20, 2008


I suffered through Tim Russert and two other morons spending a good chunk of an hour bashing Obama this morning, and incidentally trying to defend the Gibson/Stupidopolous "debate." Part of their defense was the notion that if Obama became President he would have to deal with that sort of thing every day.

Say what? When, exactly, has an elected President had to deal with this stuff? Only in the media's moronic debates when seeking election. Presidents speak to the media on their own terms, not the media's. Nobody illustrates this better than W, who rarely communicates to the country at all.

Russert: "Hillary being coronated."

What an illiterate moron.

War Profiteers

David Barstow, writing in today's New York Times has a definitive story on how the Pentagon captured and manipulated the news media in the Iraq war. Donald Rumsfeld and Tori Clarke carried out an elaborate "Psyops" war against the American people by deploying a vast horde or so-called "military analysts" to television, the press, and radio. These people, mostly retired military engaged in lobbying for Defense contracts, received favored access and special perks as long as they spouted the official propaganda.

There were clear quid pro quos: those who deviated from the official line lost access.

Some e-mail messages between the Pentagon and the analysts reveal an implicit trade of privileged access for favorable coverage. Robert H. Scales Jr., a retired Army general and analyst for Fox News and National Public Radio whose consulting company advises several military firms on weapons and tactics used in Iraq, wanted the Pentagon to approve high-level briefings for him inside Iraq in 2006.

“Recall the stuff I did after my last visit,” he wrote. “I will do the same this time.”

Pentagon Keeps Tabs
As it happened, the analysts’ news media appearances were being closely monitored. The Pentagon paid a private contractor, Omnitec Solutions, hundreds of thousands of dollars to scour databases for any trace of the analysts, be it a segment on “The O’Reilly Factor” or an interview with The Daily Inter Lake in Montana, circulation 20,000.

The last mentioned paper caught my eye: I was a paper boy for them when I was in seventh and eighth grade.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Motl Independence

I know I should quit Lubos, and I have tried, but I just can't. The comedic possibilities are just too good to pass up.

Lubos saw a NYT story about some algae that actually seem to do pretty well on a diet of increased CO2. This was a good enough excuse to push his favorite theory that CO2 is a vitamin. So he wrote:

250 million years ago, when the land was dominated by dinosaurs, the oceans were controlled by coccolithophores, one-celled marine plants (a kind of phytoplankton).

This is a pretty funny statement for a few reasons, but mostly because 250 million years ago was right (1.5 million years) after the Permian-Triassic extinction event, the most drastic such in the fossil record. So Lumo is going on about how CO2 makes for an ideal ocean, but at that time oceanic life had been utterly devastated, with 96% of species extinct. Even more amusing is the fact that the P-T extinction is associated with, and may even have been caused by, a huge pulse in atmospheric carbon.

The first thing I noted, though, and wrote about, was the dinosaurs.(CIP in bold, LM in italics)


I'm afraid there were no dinosaurs 250 million years ago. If fact there was hardly any animal life on the planet at all. The Earth at that time had not yet begun to recover from the Permian extinction - an event associated with major dislocations in the carbon cycle.


LM: You don't have to remind us that you are a complete idiot. See the basic timeline here Tim...#Basic_timeline for the evolution of animals. Animals with footprints already started in the paleozoic era 542 million years ago. 250 million years ago, we already had mezozoic in which dinosaurs spread abruptly. Most of their evolution occurred between 235 and 230 million years ago.

The Permian-Triassic exctinction left about 5% of marine species and 30% of land-based vertebrate species alive, they almost immediately occupied the whole planet, and as an almost direct consequence, this "clearing of the slate" has led to an ensuing diversification. This is not my speculation but a standard well-known fact, see e.g. Wikipedia. Saying that the event has eliminated animal life as a category is completely absurd. While the event might have been bad for the particular individuals who died, from the long term viewpoint of life on Earth, there was nothing wrong about the event and tendentious words such as "dislocations of carbon cycle" by alarmist idiots cannot change anything about it.

capitalistimperialistpig Homepage 04.18.08 - 12:54 pm #

Lumo, I think, missed my first point, but let's look at his critique line by line:

LM: You don't have to remind us that you are a complete idiot...

Guilty!, Guilty!, Guilty! One must admit that anyone who attempts to educate Lubos and his ineducable acolytes is in fact a complete idiot.

LM: See the basic timeline here Tim...#Basic_timeline for the evolution of animals. Animals with footprints already started in the paleozoic era 542 million years ago.

True, but hardly relevant.

LM: 250 million years ago, we already had mezozoic in which dinosaurs spread abruptly.

The reason that there were no dinosaurs 250 million years ago is the same as the reason that there weren't any birds, bats, or monkeys at the time - they hadn't got around to evolving yet. It took about twenty million years before that happened - for dinosaurs - the others took longer.

LM: Most of their evolution occurred between 235 and 230 million years ago.

Actually they initially evolved 230 my ago. Their major evolution and radiation took place over the next 165 million years, till they met their cosmic doom.

LM: The Permian-Triassic exctinction left about 5% of marine species and 30% of land-based vertebrate species alive, they almost immediately occupied the whole planet, and as an almost direct consequence, this "clearing of the slate" has led to an ensuing diversification. This is not my speculation but a standard well-known fact, see e.g. Wikipedia.

CIP: The descendants of the survivors did indeed multiply and diversify, but it took them a long time - tens of millions of years in those "healthy" oceans. There is considerable evidence that the highly unfavorable conditions for most life lasted at least five million years.

LM: This is not my speculation but a standard well-known fact, see e.g. Wikipedia. Saying that the event has eliminated animal life as a category is completely absurd.

That would indeed be absurd. Good thing I didn't quite say that.

LM: While the event might have been bad for the particular individuals who died, from the long term viewpoint of life on Earth, there was nothing wrong about the event...

And if you think there is nothing wrong with wiping out most individuals and species for twenty million years or so, global warming is no big deal.

LM: ... and tendentious words such as "dislocations of carbon cycle" by alarmist idiots cannot change anything about it.

Not sure what his point is here. It is a fact, though, that carbon isotope ratios changed drastically after the Permian, and that that change probably represents the infusion of thousands of gigatons of carbon - perhaps from methane clathrates.

It seems that Lumo subsequently noticed his error, since he went back and changed the 250 million years to 230 million years in the current version of his post - without noting that fact. The change makes the irony slightly less humorous.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Creative Destruction II

Schumpeter seems to have popularized the notion of creative destruction in economics, but the concept has an ancient pedigree. Ancient cultures often symbolized it through human sacrifice and other sacrificial ceremonies. The process itself is everywhere evident in the universe, in life and death and in the sometimes gradual but frequently catastrophic processes of geology and astrophysics.

The Maya took the concept literally enough that they more or less destroyed most of their possessions, including buildings, every fifty-two years. Smaller sacrificial acts, including human sacrifice were annual or even more frequent.

The Permian-Triassic extinction event, the most dramatic in the fossil record, killed off something like 90% of all species, and probably all but a tiny fraction of individual animals. It took at least ten million years for species diversity to recover, but when it did its composition was quite unlike that of the previous history of animal life on the planet. The catastrophic destruction of old life cleared the way for some dramatic innovations, including those leading to the reptilian mega-fauna of the next 190 million years or so.

Other episodes of creative destruction are easy to find closer to home. The genocidal catastrophes unleashed by Columbus and those who followed him made possible the creation of new nations and even new types of nations in the New World. The catastrophes of the Communist Revolution and the World Wars of the Twentieth Century similarly unleashed creative potential in both Europe and Asia.

For living creatures, creation and destruction takes place at a multitude of levels. Species, population, and individual each

struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

Within each individual, the cycle proceeds as well, with cells and tissues continually being destroyed and recycled. Even inside the cell, the molecules that make it up mostly have far briefer lives than the cells they constitute, living each for an hour or a microsecond, and then back to the destructor.

If we peer down to the very fabric of reality, quantum field theory teaches us to understand all interactions in terms of creation and annihilation operators. If you spy a distant star, some few photons from that star annihilated on your retina and created some molecular excitations that would ultimately be amplified (through yet more creation and annihilation event) to the signal in your brain. The gravitational forces holding that star together are transmitted by the continual creation and annihilation of gravitons, and similarly, the electromagnetic forces that hold your eye together are transmitted by photons.

One’s attitude toward creative destruction might be shaped by whether one expects to be a survivor or a victim. Some might even question whether the two are inextricably linked, but I don’t think the link can be broken. A more pertinent question is whether it is possible or desirable to limit the destructive effects on individuals, and if so, how can society best be organized to such ends.

The hierarchy of creation and destruction is what makes possible society, life, and the organized universe. I will look at the application to economics in a later post.

Edward Norton Lorenz, 1917-2008

Edward Lorenz discovered that long term weather prediction is impossible and helped create the new science of chaos. Kenneth Chang has a nice obit in the New York Times

Dr. Lorenz published his findings in 1963. “The paper he wrote in 1963 is a masterpiece of clarity of exposition about why weather is unpredictable,” said J. Doyne Farmer, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.

The following year, Dr. Lorenz published another paper that described how a small twiddling of parameters in a model could produce vastly different behavior, transforming regular, periodic events into a seemingly random chaotic pattern.

At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972, he gave a talk with a title that captured the essence of his ideas: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

Lorenz's worked reawakened interest in deterministic dynamical systems. Although Poincare had discovered key elements at the turn of the twentieth century, his work had largely been forgotten by the time modern computers were developed. The computer explorations of Lorenz and others brought this science back to life.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: Robert P. points out in the comments that:

Poincare's work was not forgotten - a long series of mathematicians (Lyapunov, Birkhoff, Siegel, Kolmogorov) continued to build upon it. However, this work was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream physics community (Fermi being the only exception I know of) until Lorenz, Henon and Ford made it accessible.

I should have said that the work of Lorenz and others brought it to the attention of the broader scientific community that chaotic behavior was not just abstruse mathematics, but a phenomenon that was important for real world problems like weather prediction.

L33+ $n06$

Another bit of idiotic campaign crap, courtesy of McCain/Clinton and the usual media morons: the "elitist" charge against Obama. In its origin the word "elite" means chosen or elect, which is what all the candidates aspire to be. They were all members of various elites anyway: The Clintons as Yale Law grads, the Obamas as Harvard Law grads, and McCain as the fifth dumbest Annapolis grad in his class. McCain, thanks to his recipe plagiarizing, drug stealing, beer barroness wife, is very wealthy, the Clinton parlayed the Presidency into great wealth, and the Obamas are now well off thanks to sales of his books.

Even the Idiot is a Harvard and Yale grad, not to mention the scion of a wealthy family of crony capitalists and klepto-profiteers.

So when I hear Clinton, McCain, or the resident hag of the NYT talk about Obamas elitism and her own bowling trophy, I reach for my air sickness bag.

Taking the Pledge

Among the many stupidities of modern politics are the various "pledges" that morons like ABC's Gibson like to press candidates to make. I wish the candidates had the courage to just say: "I would be very foolish to make any detailed promises to an idiot like you that would constrain my future actions on behalf of the United States. I can tell you what my plans are today, and I can tell you my understanding of the situation, and I can tell you that I will use my best judgement to do the right thing for the country. Those who say otherwise are pledging *not* to use their best judgement, but to obey some promise to a reporter. I won't do that."

Unfortunately, none of them was willing to be that brave.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Have WIMPs Been Found?

We can be pretty sure they, or something equally odd, is out there somewhere, but you got to be good looking, cause they sure are hard to see. A team of physicists working in Italy has extended their claim to have seen WIMPs in a deep underground detector:

A team of Italian and Chinese physicists on Wednesday renewed a controversial claim that they had detected the mysterious dark matter particles that astronomers say swaddle the galaxies in halos and direct the evolution of the universe.

The team, called Dama, from “DArk MAtter,” and led by Rita Bernabei of the University of Rome, has maintained since 2000 that a yearly modulation in the rate of flashes in a detector nearly a mile underneath the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy is the result of the Earth’s passage through a “wind” of dark matter particles as it goes around the Sun. Other groups of hunters of dark matter have just as consistently failed to find any evidence of the putative particles.

At a meeting in Venice, Dr. Bernabei reported that a new, bigger experiment named Dama/Libra had now observed the same modulation. “No other experiment whose result can be directly compared in a model-independent way is available so far,” she said. The findings increase the chances that the modulation is real, outside dark matter experts say.

If true, this is very important - perhaps the first clue as to what lies beyond the standard model. The result is yet to be confirmed by other experimenters.

Adventures in Pushy Parenting

If you are the sort of parent who interviews your children's potential teachers and studies their records like a horse player studies a racing form, you might be a pushy parent. Teachers like parents who are engaged, but dread and despise the Pushy Parent, so it's important for the pushy parent to try to operate in disguise, pretending to be just an engaged and helpful parent.

I recall one day observing my son's kindergarden class playing Red Rover - you, remember, that game where you line up on two sides and call over a member of the other side, while holding hands tightly clasped each to each. If the rover can't break your line, he or she becomes a new member of your team, but if the line breaks you lose a member to the other team.

After a while I noticed that although many children got called, my son was not among them. Gradually a bit of indignation built up in the pushy parent, but he managed to stay under cover. Finally, with the other team having gained almost every other player, his name was called. It was only then that I recalled that not only was he the kindergarden sprint champ, but also notably larger and stronger than the rest of the class. The collision occurred, and tiny bodies hurtled every which way, like tenpins after a strike.

Sometimes, usually, it's better to understand first, before you get indignant.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Poisoned Again

The Bush regime implemented a highly efficient method for injuring, poisoning, and otherwise endangering Americans - appoint regulators who are incompetent, corrupt, and in the pockets of special interests. The Supreme Court blessed this arrangement by ruling that once government regulators had ruled on safety, individuals would have no further recourse against those who poisoned them.

BPA, a practically ubiquitous plastic found in everything from plastic bottles to dental fillings, has long been suspected of being potentially hazardous. A new study reinforces those fears.

The National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, released a draft report today that says exposure to the chemical may be linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, early puberty in girls and such behavioral changes as hyperactivity. It urged further study.

The report marks a significant departure from earlier positions taken by the government, which had maintained there was a negligible human health risk associated with BPA.

Oops! And screw you Mr. Greenspan.

Feeling Really Peaked

Paul Krugman looks at oil, and now I am getting nervous.

There are two basic facts that would seem to explain a lot about what’s happening to oil prices.
First, Gross World Product growth has accelerated — from 2.9 percent in the 90s to almost 5 percent in recent years, according to the IMF. All of this is because of growth in emerging economies, largely China.
Second, world oil production has stalled — after growing around 1.6% a year in the 90s, it’s been basically flat . . .

. . . This is what peak oil is supposed to look like — not Oh My God We’ve Just Run Out Of Oil, but steady pressure on the economy and the way we live from rising energy prices and their consequences. And it doesn’t matter much whether we’re literally at the peak, or whether production can rise by a few million more barrels a day; unless there are big sources of oil out there, we’ll be feeling peakish for the foreseeable future.

It seems quite possible to me that there really still is quite a bit of oil out there, probably most of it at prices well above the production costs we have been used to in the Middle East and elsewhere. That may not change the calculation much - at least not on the scale of decades.

Bellatrix Lestrange

Regular readers know that I'm a big Harry Potter fan, and consequently Jo Rowling fan as well. I'm not a fan of her lawsuit against Steven van der Ark's Encyclopedia, though. She testified yesterday, and her testimony seemed both incoherent and dishonest. More importantly, if she wins it will be a huge victory for corporate oligopoly against independent commentary and critique.

Her central contentions don't look very good to me: that it would hurt sales of her encyclopedia - vastly improbable, and that it was poorly written - irrelevant. Her contention that the author frequently used her own words directly sounds more substantial, but of course I haven't read the book.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sanctimonious Joe

The disintegration of Lieberman's reputation would be pitiful if he weren't so contemptible. Josh Marshall:

There must be something wrong with me that I can still be surprised at how low Joe Lieberman (Joe-CT) can sink. Via Think Progress, Joe getting interviewed on Fox ...

NAPITALIANO: Hey Sen. Lieberman, you know Barack Obama, is he a Marxist as Bill Kristol says might be the case in today's New York Times? Is he an elitist like your colleague Hillary Clinton says he is?
LIEBERMAN: Well, you know, I must say that's a good question. I know him now for a little more than three years since he came into the Senate and he's obviously very smart and he's a good guy. I will tell ya that during this campaign, I've learned some things about him, about the kind of environment from which he came ideologically. And I wouldn't...I'd hesitate to say he's a Marxist, but he's got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America.

Feeling Peaked

Kevin Drum looks at Russian oil production and finds intimations of the apocalypse.

PEAK OIL WATCH....Over the past few years Russia has been a relative bright spot on the oil scene, expanding its production by over a million barrels per day between 2002 and 2007. But it looks like Russia is now due to join Norway, Mexico, and the UK as countries that have hit their peak and are about to go into decline:

Russian supply in the first three months of this year fell for the first time this decade, averaging 10 million barrels a day, a 1% drop from the year-earlier period...."There isn't a lot of supply coming on right now, so this [lack of non-OPEC growth] is framing the whole narrative of the market," said Roger Diwan, a financial energy adviser at PFC Energy in Washington.

...'s true that both the Saudis and the Russians have megaprojects due to come online over the next year or two, so it's not as if they're just twiddling their thumbs. Overall, though, oil at $100 a barrel sure doesn't seem to be spurring the kind of additional production you'd think it would. It's almost as if there's no net additional production to be

In this final remark, I think Kevin is underestimating the time it takes to bring in a major new oil field by a factor of five or so.

Paging Dr. Malthus

There isn't really a shortage of food in the world. The corn going into one ethanol fillup for an SUV could feed a person for a year. What there is is a shortage of food that poor people can actually afford. That shortage is in part a consequence of well-intentioned follies like the ethanol biofuel program, but it's also reflects the growing appetites of newly prosperous Chinese, Indians and others.

The world's food supply is such that meat for the well off translates into hunger or starvation for the poor. The current malthusian crisis would have happened sooner or later even if we all gave up ethanol and meat, and the only long term solution is fewer mouths to feed.

The high price of food, oil, and other resources is a signal that we are approaching the limits of the Planets capacity to support us. There will probably be future times of less serious want, but more serious want is inevitable unless the world moves aggressively to limit population.

I won't try to predict whether these shortages will produce global wars or just localized starvation, but either seems bad enough to warrant action.

Does Life Begin at Conception?

That was one of the questions asked at the "compassion forum" last night, and I wasn't too impressed with the answers from Hillary and Barack. I don't know why they can't give an accurate answer, something like:

Of course not! Conception is the union of two human cells that are already alive, descended in an unbroken line of living cells for billions of years.

The question you weren't bright enough to ask, is this: At what point does that merged cellular material deserve to be treated as a living "person" with individual rights. When it is a blastosphere, more or less hard to distinguish from a worm or a fish of the same stage of development? When it has a heart and a nervous system? When it looks human with a heart and a brain? Or when it escapes the womb.

The most sensible thing is conclude that there is no single moment when the developing human is suddenly touched with the magic potion, and the transformation of a fertilized egg into a human is not all or nothing but gradual. That implies that all abortions are not equal - a first trimester abortion is much different from a late third trimester abortion.

This position offends the extremists of both sides of the abortion debate, and that alone is enough to make us suspect that it is the right position.

The Last Superhero: 1911-2008

Dennis Overbye, writing in The New York Times has a nice obituary story of John Archibald Wheeler, dead at 96. Wheeler's career began in the heroic age of physics, when he worked with Neils Bohr on the liquid drop model of the nucleus, and he and his students helped transform the study of general relativity. Richard Feynman was perhaps his most famous student, but many others made their mark on physics.

Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of Dr. Wheeler, “For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing.”...

Among Dr. Wheeler’s students was Richard Feynman of the California Institute of Technology, who parlayed a crazy-sounding suggestion by Dr. Wheeler into work that led to a Nobel Prize. Another was Hugh Everett, whose Ph.D. thesis under Dr. Wheeler on quantum mechanics envisioned parallel alternate universes endlessly branching and splitting apart — a notion that Dr. Wheeler called “Many Worlds” and which has become a favorite of many cosmologists as well as science fiction writers.

Recalling his student days, Dr. Feynman once said, “Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy.”

Two of my favorite stories about Wheeler aren't mentioned by Overbye:

In Chance and Chaos David Ruelle says that students in his generation came to physics either through radio building or chemistry experiments. He mentioned this theory to Wheeler and his wife, and asked which route he had followed. Wheeler's wife said "Both," and held up Wheeler's hand to exhibit a finger missing as a result of an early experiment in the chemistry of explosives.

When Feynman presented the classical version of advanced plus retarded potentials approach to the self energy of the electron, Pauli was in the audience (along with Einstein and a whole host of other luminaries). Afterward, Pauli asked Feynman about the quantum theory, and Feynman said that Wheeler was working it out. Pauli replied: "So the graduate student does the classical theory and the professor does the quantum. Let me tell you a secret: the professor will never produce that quantum theory."

Of course he didn't.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Evariste Galois and His Theory

Like any math groupie with any pretensions to self-respect, I have long been somewhat familiar with the story of Evariste Galois. It's hard to imagine that there could be a more romantic tale in mathematics - Galois making his great discoveries as a teenager, frustrated in his attempts to get his work published, and dead in a duel at twenty - over a woman, no less (or maybe politics).

I have also been vaguely familiar with the content of his theory: he was the first to use the mathematical terminology group, played a key role in the development of group theory, and developed the eponymous Galois theory that established the impossibility of solution by radicals of the general polynomial equation of degree five or higher.

Despite having taken a couple of elementary courses in modern algebra, I found my teachers managed to stop before they actually got to Galois theory. Dean, for example, makes it the subject of his final chapter, and ditto the classic text Birkoff and MacLane. Dummit and Foote wait until page 538.

These facts, together with the failure of Cauchy and Fourier to appreciate his theory, convinced me of it's great complexity, and casual glances at the aforementioned texts did nothing to disabuse me.

One of the many delights of Robert Gilmore's new book, Lie Groups, Physics, and Geometry: An Introduction for Physicists, Engineers and Chemists is the initial chapter, which by way of motivation for the development of Lie Group theory throws in an elementary and concrete development of Galois Theory, shows how it permits the construction of solutions for degree four and below, and disallows general solutions for degree five and above. As a bonus, he shows how the theory resolves the age old puzzles about duplicating the cube, squaring the circle, and trisecting an angle. It takes him 22 pages, and doesn't use any math that shouldn't be familiar to college freshmen.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Air Chaos: Bushworld Strikes Again

Mathew L. Wald and Micheline Maynard, writing in The NYT this morning, lay out how the current air chaos followed from Bush's lack of governance. Like the crisis in the financial markets, Katrina, and so much else, the airline troubles resulted not so just from his personal incompetence but also from his attempt to implement conservative ideology. Randites like Alan Greenspan and their many fellow travelers in Bushworld believe in market magic - they think that government regulation isn't needed.

In the case of the airlines, things reached a critical point when whistleblowers pointed out that deregulation had reached the point where the law was being flouted.

What happened?

One answer is that some whistle-blower inspectors for the Federal Aviation Administration disclosed that they had been discouraged from cracking down on Southwest Airlines for maintenance problems, and they found a sympathetic audience with some Washington lawmakers.

That prodded the F.A.A. to order a national audit to check whether airlines were in compliance — and to propose a record penalty of $10.2 million against Southwest.

Then F.A.A. inspectors discovered the mistakes that prompted American to cancel more than 3,000 flights last week. Delta, United, Alaska and others also canceled hundreds of flights.

But more broadly, the turmoil is better understood as a reaction — or overreaction, in the eyes of some in the industry — to a long-term shift, over two presidencies, in the way the F.A.A. oversees the airlines.

In the 1990s, the agency was more of a cop on the beat, handing out penalties to those who broke the rules.

“You used to fear an F.A.A. inspector showing up,” said Joseph Tiberi, a spokesman with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. “They checked everything from the nuts and bolts in your tool kit to the paperwork in the cockpit.”

But then a different, more collaborative approach emerged that critics say went too far. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, which crippled the industry, the agency began “a creep away from their rigorous oversight of maintenance,” said Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota and the chairman of the House committee that has pushed the issue.

Of course contempt for the law is standard in Bushworld, but airline passengers are heavily weighted to the powerful and influential, including Congress. A lot of those people weren't willing for for their broken bodies on a hillside to become the latest monument to right-wing folly.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Merit Pay

Brad DeLong is usually as pithy as he is erudite, but I really can’t follow his analysis of a bit of “Crunch” here:

Let me join Alan Viard in beating up on Jared Bernstein for the undefined term "merit" in his first basic principle:

TPMCafe Talking Points Memo Let's Talk "Crunch": Economic outcomes are generally thought to be fair, in the sense that market forces dole out rewards to those who merit them. But that’s not always the case. Power, whether it’s based on political clout, wealth, class, race, or gender, is also a key determinant of who gets what.

"Merit" can, I think, mean three things:
1. Marginal productivity--the amount by which, given who you are where you are with the resources you happen to own, total collective product would be reduced if you and your resources were to suddenly vanish from the scene.

2. Optimal incentives--because we want people to take local actions that advance our global goals, we have set up a system that provides people in the right place at the right time with the right skills with incentives that give them a better life--or at least more stuff--if they take actions that we regard as adding to the total pie.

3. From each according to his or her ability--what each would be able to add to the collective pie if he or she had and is the resources to fully realize his or her potential to the extent that that freedom for the one is compatible with that freedom for others.

4. To each according to his or her need--what each of us needs, understanding "need" to include not just bare necessities but also conveniences and luxuries, to the extent that provision of what we need to one is compatible with the provision of what they need to others.

Let me just first mention that I’m afraid I’ve been a physics student too long – when I hear impersonal forces mentioned, like, say “market forces,” I want to see a Lagrangian. Especially if they start to “dole out rewards.” My impression was that markets were locations or occasions for trading – places where individuals or agents could exchange stuff.

So what about Brad’s “three” candidate definitions for merit? My first impression was that only the first even looked like a definition. I was puzzled enough that I consulted the The Online Dictionary of Etymology The origin of the word, which goes back to proto Indo European, is in a word meaning allotment or share. A Latin ancestral word means “that for which money is paid.” Etymologically speaking, Jared Bernstein’s usage looks impeccable.

Nonetheless, I am skeptical that markets, or their forces, are in the business of allocating rewards. Individuals compete with each other for survival and for stuff. Markets do allow individuals or their agents to trade, and those with more desirable stuff to trade, or shrewder trading techniques, tend to accumulate more stuff. Of course those who set up markets, or regulate them, are providing a service, and they take their cut.

Allocation of rewards, though, is not a market function, nor, I think, a function of market forces, whatever they may be. Circumstance, luck, and society all have a lot to do with the allocation of rewards – markets not so much. It is through society that political power does its allocation. Society, not a market or market force, defines and protects property, levies taxes, and supplies services, including market regulation, and society has a lot to say about how rewards are allocated.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


I ran into a former colleague at the gym the other day. After a bit of chit-chat she asked: "How are you enjoying retirement?"

Hmmm. That gave me pause for a minute. Not as much, I hope, as I would if I were actually retired. But I just explained that they hadn't thrown me overboard yet.

It's definitely another reminder that I'm getting old. I always figured that I would be one of those "Oh, you're already retired" types. No luck, I guess. And I'm rapidly moving into the "You haven't retired yet?" category.

Imperial Wedding?

Among the bizarre happenings signalling the end of days: A rumored Microsoft-News Corp joint venture. I suppose there could be some advantage in having all your Anti-Christs in one basket.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Suprema

Can we just get rid of this absurd idea that Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, George Tenet, and Condeleeza Rice were anything but fully culpable members of the Bush criminal gang? David Kurtz of TPM links to this ABC story by Jan Crawford Greenburg, Howard L. Rosenberg and Ariane de Vogue.

It seems that they, together with Cheney and Rumsfeld constituted the Suprema (the so-called National Security Council's Principals Committee) that authorized, prescribed and specified the details of the CIA's torture program.

In dozens of top-secret talks and meetings in the White House, the most senior Bush administration officials discussed and approved specific details of how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, sources tell ABC News.

The so-called Principals who participated in the meetings also approved the use of "combined" interrogation techniques -- using different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time -- on terrorist suspects who proved difficult to break, sources said.

Highly placed sources said a handful of top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding.

The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.

The advisers were members of the National Security Council's Principals Committee, a select group of senior officials who met frequently to advise President Bush on issues of national security policy.

At the time, the Principals Committee included Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft's moral sensibilities may have been dull, but he still had some feeling for PR.

Then-Attorney General Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.

According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."


The Man

Who's the man every guy wants to be and every girl wants to be with? Not your humble correspondent, alas, but probably George Clooney. Ian Parker has a long (ten section), mainly worshipful portrait in The New Yorker. While Parker does manage to say that Clooney's apparently effortless charm is a bit more studied than effortless, he does come off as a paragon: funny, loyal to his friends, artistically serious and morally serious - the kind of guy you want to envy but can't.

The looks, the voice, and the charm are all essential ingredients for this celebrity, of course, but it helps a lot that he seems deserving.

If you're a fan, read it. If not, you might be before you finish.

Tough Times

Feeling the pinch of the recession? Thinking about a little retrenchment? If so, you will no doubt be comforted to know that not everybody feels your pain. The market for super luxury yachts and flying palaces has never been better.

The WSJ reports (subscription) that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, perhaps feeling a bit cramped in his two-throne room 747-400, has plunked down $300 million for a new Airbus 380, plus a comparable amount to have it suitably outfitted. The rest of the high end market is booming too - customizers can't keep up with the demand.

Who says Bush world can't be fun?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Big Train Coming

Suppose you had half a trillion bucks burning a hole in your pocket, didn't feel like starting a stupid war, and were looking for a really good investment opportunity. How about building a high speed global railway? Fuel prices keep driving up the cost of flying, and that's just going to get worse.

With the aid of a tunnel under the Bering strait one could reach every continent except Antarctica and Australia, and you could get pretty close to Australia. Of course, even at 200 miles an hour it's a long way from Seattle to Beijing, but think of the comfort factor, and freight could move a lot faster than by ship.

If you build on that scale, it might be sensible to increase the form factor for the railway cars, scaling each dimension up by a factor or two or so. Oil and gas pipelines, as well as superconducting electrical power lines could use the same right of way. Add a few branch lines and everywhere would be close to everywhere else.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Faith Based Science

Science for Conservatives

I was browsing the web site of a former Harvard prof, when I noticed a key scientific paradigm shift. It assorted rather nicely with the ads the site carries for ESP, refutations of Einstein's relativity, etc.

The core of the paradigm shift is the recognition of a fundamental principle of Republican science - the need to free oneself from the tyranny of those pesky facts. The trouble with physics, says our prof, is a dependence on some "myths," four of them which he mentions. Most are inoffensively trivial, like number two:

Myth: If I cannot settle or understand a question, no one else can do it either.

Now I can't recall meeting anyone quite that arrogant, and I suspect that this particular myth is believed in by fewer adults than believe in the tooth fairy, but maybe somebody does believe it. Three and four are similar.

Myth number one is more substantial:

Myth: Reliable answers to questions about Nature can only be obtained by a direct experiment or observation.

To be sure, there is a lot of wiggle room in that word "direct." Once again, though, I doubt that many scientists would subscribe to that "myth" under the most restrictive interpretation of the word direct. I suspect, though, and both history and the author's subsequent arguments indicate that he has something else in mind: the notion that an otherwise unsupported theory can be considered tested if it is derived from well tested theories. We are talking string theory here, people, even though it isn't mentioned in the post.

Let's hear from the author though:

If two phenomena are related and if they can be proven to follow the same laws with the same accuracy, it really means that if we know the structure of one of them, we also know the structure of the other one. On the other hand, it doesn't follow that both of these phenomena are equally difficult to be observed or measured experimentally. The similarity of the underlying structure and the similar "ease" of verification are two different things.

How, I wonder, if you can't test one of them, can you decide that "they follow the same laws with the same accuracy." The history of the standard model in particular, and of physics in general, is full of inspired guesses that turned out to be correct. Even more common are the guesses that turned out to be wrong. For exactly that reason, physicists from Galileo to Feynman maintained that experiment was the only trustworthy arbiter.

A few string theorists, though, demoralized by the grim prospects for any foreseeable tests of their theory, are advocating the long discredited Aristotelian notion of deducing physics by pure thought.

Call me a skeptic.

Global Hunger

The recent run up of world food prices is threatening to starve millions. Don't miss Paul Krugman's New York Times column on the subject this morning.

There have already been food riots around the world. Food-supplying countries, from Ukraine to Argentina, have been limiting exports in an attempt to protect domestic consumers, leading to angry protests from farmers — and making things even worse in countries that need to import food.

How did this happen? The answer is a combination of long-term trends, bad luck — and bad policy.

Let’s start with the things that aren’t anyone’s fault.

First, there’s the march of the meat-eating Chinese — that is, the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this

He also notes the effect of energy prices, climate change, and bad policies.

Unfortunately, it is highly plausible that none of these trends are likely to reverse any time soon.

Krugman doesn't mention it, but overpopulation is not only the ultimate determinant of food requirements but also a major factor in many of the other dangerous trends.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Evil that Bush Does

One of the things that evil does is destroy the good - not only good works but the good that is in ordinary people. One big element of the vast tapestry of evil woven by George Bush is what he has done to our institutions, our government, and the Army. Alyssa Peterson's tragedy is one thread of that, told here by Greg Mitchell on the Huffington Post.

Doubt, Strings, and CO2

When is it OK to doubt the experts?

Let me rephrase that: Does it ever make sense to doubt the experts?

We are often faced with conclusions from scientists or other experts which seem profoundly counterintuitive or offensive to our general world view. So when should we listen to our intuition and when should we just bow to those considered "experts?" The answer, as always, is "it depends." Consider a few test cases.

One of my fellow graduate students once told me about his clever scheme for extracting otherwise unavailable energy. It had only one problem - it didn't square with the second law of thermodynamics.

Was he crazy to doubt the experts? Yes, I think he was. There are so many lines of logic and so much experimental evidence for the second law that it is almost certainly unassailable. I seem to recall that he never did get his degree, but he did become a successful engineer and rather wealthy - but not from his energy extraction scheme.

The vast majority of climate scientists and students of the atmosphere believe that the CO2 that we are pumping into the atmosphere is causing an extremely dangerous global warming. A tiny minority of such scientists, and a horde of other nuts take the opposite view. Many thoughtful people look at the argument and wonder what they should believe.

The above question presents an extreme case, because not quite all the doubters can be dismissed as guys who can't do the arithmetic - Richard Lindzen being the archtype. Moreover, the evidence consists of a not quite unequivocal time series and the results of some of the most complex models in existence, all of which have known and unknown limitations. Finally, the consequences of choosing wrongly are potentially very severe or catastrophic.

Regular readers know my choice - I will go with the experts, mainly because the vast majority of the critics really can't, or won't, do the arithmetic. They mostly make trivially obvious or absurd errors. I tend to trust my analysis of that point, because even though I'm not an expert, I have done research in closely related fields. For a true layman, the case is much more difficult - such a person can mainly just listen to pro and con and try to decide who seems more trustworthy.

My last example is string theory. This theory is so complex and difficult that only a very few people - probably a few thousand at most - have any kind of detailed understanding of it. Even among professional physicists, any kind of detailed comprehension is very rare. It's easy for outsiders to imagine that string theorists are a kind of priesthood consumed by a fanatical devotion to their religion.

What's wrong with that last idea? Several things, actually. Firstly, there are several powerful arguments that suggest that string theory may be on the right track: it seems an expression of the unification of relativity and quantum mechanics, the beauty of some remarkable mathematical results, the fact that it seems to be a natural extension of the most powerful ideas of twentieth century physics. From a different perspective, there is the fact that for a generation string theory attracted many or even most of the most brilliant physics students.

It one critical way, the string theory (ST) situation differs fundamentally from the question of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Almost nothing depends on your decision, if decide you do. Unless you sit on the funding board of some institution funding physics research, or on the tenure committee of some physics department, nothing at all.

For the rest of us, we can afford to wait until string theory either makes some testable predictions or proves hopelessly incapable of making such predictions. In the meantime, we can afford to be fans, critics, or merely indifferent. The future can decide whether string theory was the most brilliant inspired guess in the history of physics or just a particularly challenging new kind of chess.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Cap and Trade: A Modest Proposal

The world's attempt to wean itself from carbon is not going so well. It probably doesn't help that the biggest emitters (the US and China) aren't playing, but Andrew C. Revkin, writing in The New York Times argues that a concensus is building that our current attempts aren't working. He cites an article by Jeffrey Sachs in Scientific American for a start. Sachs:

Technology policy lies at the core of the climate change challenge. Even with a cutback in wasteful energy spending, our current technologies cannot support both a decline in carbon dioxide emissions and an expanding global economy. If we try to restrain emissions without a fundamentally new set of technologies, we will end up stifling economic growth, including the development prospects for billions of people. The key is new low-carbon technology, not simply energy efficiency.

Economists often talk as though putting a price on carbon emissions—through tradable permits or a carbon tax—will be enough to deliver the needed reductions in those emissions. This is not true. Europe’s carbon-trading system may or may not have modestly reduced emissions, but it has not shown much capacity to generate large-scale research nor to develop, demonstrate and deploy breakthrough technologies. At the margin, a trading system might marginally influence the choices between coal and gas plants or provoke a bit more adoption of solar and wind power, but it will not lead to the necessary fundamental overhaul of energy systems

Sachs answer is to accelerate technological change to come up with carbon free alternatives. Revkin talks of a "Manhattan Project" for the purpose. Frequent denialist sympathiser Roger Pielke Jr seems to be thinking along similar lines.

This mostly seems bogus to me. The Manhattan Project was a crash program to develop a newly discovered technology. Various schemes for reducing carbon emissions don't fit that paradigm. They consist mainly of wishful thinking.

Inspired by Jonathan Swift, I offer a modest proposal that I believe would address the core of the problem while actually providing economic stimulus. Apply the cap and trade principle to human reproduction. Reducing fertility is not only the key to rapid economic growth but also the only approach likely to reduce carbon emissions in the mid to long term.

The principle is simple: women's right to reproduce would be capped. The sufficiently rich could purchase additional reproductive rights from the poor. This would tend to put economic power in poor countries exactly where it has been shown to do the most good - in the hands of poor women, while also ensuring that most children would be born into families with sufficient resources to support them.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Crow Chow

I hate to give up on a story before I know the end of it. This causes me some grief, like that I get every time I go to see a new Harry Potter movie - or buy the latest DVD.

When Tolkien more or less created the modern epic fantasy, the success of The Lord of the Rings launched a thousand imitators, not all of which are utterly bad - though of course many are. I have indulged in a few of them, and once in, I'm usually caught. Robert Jordan had to write about four lousy books in a row (in the Wheel of Time Series) before I gave up on him.

My latest indulgence is George R R Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series. The first book was pretty good - the guy can write and he created some interesting situations and characters. Book four, A Feast for Crows got quite a lot of hype (from Time, among others), but I'm pretty disappointed.

Magic has more or less disappeared from the series, and the cardboard characters are getting a bit old, but the worst feature of the book is the sheer bloat. The number of characters has become so large that a forty-one page appendix is needed to list the main ones and their principal relationships. There are a dozen or more characters who get the story told from their point of view and each one only gets a chapter at a time.

The damn thing has become a giant swords and sorcery soap opera, with little swords and less sorcery. What does fascinate Martin is disease, deformity, mutilation, rape, and death. There is a bit of sex, depicted with the enthusiasm of someone who hates it, but a lot of four letter words.

If that sort of thing interests you, you might want to wait until the author finishes, probably sometime in this millenium. Jordan died before finishing his series, but I think he was out of ideas a few books earlier.

I wonder if I should preorder the next book in the series now, or wait until it's published this fall.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Torture Incorporated

We now know that the tortures at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were orchestrated from the very top. Lawyers for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld all went to Guantanamo to brief the commander on the torture authorization memos they had ordered from Justice Department (irony!) lawyer John Yoo. The commander of Guantanamo took the message to Iraq and Abu Ghraib.

When the Abu Ghraib pictures came out, Rumsfeld covered up high level involvement and let low ranking GIs take the fall. Cheney and Bush and their lawyers (Addison, Gonzalez, Yoo) of course knew what they were doing.

They all deserve jail for this despicable betrayal of our soldiers alone. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any will. The profound cowardice of our Congress makes impeachment impossible, and Bush's magic pardon pen will probably spare the rest in any case.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Rebellion Then and Now

A certain amount of rebellion is probably an essential part of growing up, but being an old fuddy-duddy, I confess myself not disappointed by a current trend. It seems that while girls of the previous generation had to risk disease, degradation, death, and portrayal by Tom Wolfe in order to establish their street cred in the sexual revolution, the current generation can do the same merely by expressing their intent to preserve their virtue.

Not expecially germane to the topic or the story, but my favorite line from the story was:

It seemed to Fredell that almost no one had sex in Colorado Springs.

Janie Fredell is an advocate for sexual abstinence at Harvard, a situation apparently somewhat similar to being a Christian missionary in Northern Pakistan.