Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fabulous Monastery: Prologue

Once upon a time the people of a community decided to establish a monastery in order to give glory to God, provide edification for the populace, and give young men with no regular occupation a place to hang out. As it turned out, the community did well, and the monastery was run by clever people, and the young men who had hung out there grew old and some of them left part of their money to the monastery.

Ever since the invention of wealth, men have striven to accumulate it, and some have accumulated rather substantial piles thereof. These accumulations tend to be curtailed by the great ineluctables of death and taxes. Not so for the monastery. The community had arranged for it not to pay taxes and it did not die, but its friends did, often leaving it their spare cash in so doing. When an early donor left it half his cash and his library, they renamed the monastery "The Monastery" in his honor.

Centuries passed. Wise management, death, and no taxes inflated its wealth, until its resources exceeded those of most small countries. It became such a popular place for young men (and now, young women) to hang out that competition to hang out at the Monastery became a bitter and pitted rite of passage for the young and clever.

And now the citizens of that community that had given it birth looked on The Monastery and regarded its vast wealth with envy. "What is this monastery," they asked, "that we should not tax it?"

And there we shall begin.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Scott McClellan

McClellan's revelation's ( of Bush's lies and deceptions to get us into to Iraq are not news to those of us in the reality based community. They probably won't have much effect on the Kool Aid drinkers either. What they do offer, besides vindication, is some forensic evidence on the mind of Bush. The impetuosity, arrogance, stubbornness and incuriosity aren't news either of course, but one bit that caught my eye was that about Bush's talent for self-deception, imagining or pretending, for example, that he couldn't remember if he had used cocaine.

Time Enough

Sean Carroll has a new post at and a new article in Scientific American about the direction of time. I had a couple of questions, but comments don't seem to be working (or visible) so I will just ask and see if anybody has any ideas.

(1)Sean makes much of the fact that a random initial state is very different from the extremely low entropy state from which our Universe apparently started. Doesn't Loschmidt's paradox force us to thing the same thing about any preceeding state? If the state of (say) one million years ago is randomly chosen from those that could give rise to the present, isn't it overwhemingly more likely that it was of much higher entropy than the present state? Exactly as much more likely, in fact, as that the state one million years in the future will have higher entropy than the present. (See e.g.,'s_paradox).

(2) Sean points out that the number of microstates doesn't change in the course of the evolution of the universe, and is presumably finite for a finite volume. How does this square with his multiplication of baby universe's scenario. Wouldn't you run out pretty soon?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Feynman at TMC

Via Dr. M., Danny Hillis has a remembrance of Richard Feynman and his time at Thinking Machines corporation. It's chock full of genuine Feynmania:

Richard arrived in Boston the day after the company was incorporated. We had been busy raising the money, finding a place to rent, issuing stock, etc. We set up in an old mansion just outside of the city, and when Richard showed up we were still recovering from the shock of having the first few million dollars in the bank. No one had thought about anything technical for several months. We were arguing about what the name of the company should be when Richard walked in, saluted, and said, "Richard Feynman reporting for duty. OK, boss, what's my assignment?" The assembled group of not-quite-graduated MIT students was astounded.

After a hurried private discussion ("I don't know, you hired him..."), we informed Richard that his assignment would be to advise on the application of parallel processing to scientific problems.

"That sounds like a bunch of baloney," he said. "Give me something real to do."

So we sent him out to buy some office supplies. . .

He also did a lot of real technical work, studying the routing algorithm, soldering circuit boards, and applying the machine to lattice QCD and fluid dynamics.

And another view of Feynman chavaunist pig:

The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest "girl" and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. "Yes, it really annoys me," she said. "On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it." That was the essence of Richard's charm.

And pathos:

I remember a conversation we had a year or so before his death, walking in the hills above Pasadena. We were exploring an unfamiliar trail and Richard, recovering from a major operation for the cancer, was walking more slowly than usual. He was telling a long and funny story about how he had been reading up on his disease and surprising his doctors by predicting their diagnosis and his chances of survival. I was hearing for the first time how far his cancer had progressed, so the jokes did not seem so funny. He must have noticed my mood, because he suddenly stopped the story and asked, "Hey, what's the matter?"

I hesitated. "I'm sad because you're going to die."

"Yeah," he sighed, "that bugs me sometimes too. But not so much as you think." And after a few more steps, "When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you've told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway."

Monday, May 26, 2008


Yet more evidence that Hillary has used the Imperius curse on Paul Krugman

Saturday, May 24, 2008

One Thousand and Two

. . . gums to chew, before they dump you in the stew.

I am a bit of a bibliophile, or perhaps bibliomaniac, but when I contemplate the approaching footsteps of mortal doom I can't say that I worry about which of the top 1001 novels I haven't read. So I probably am not in the target audience for 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Come to think of it, though, is anyone?

Hungry authors must eat, of course, and if inspiration fails, maybe putting together a long list of books obscure and un is one way to fill the pages. I suppose that I have read a couple of thousand novels in my lifetime, though my input has declined dramatically in the last forty years. I'm just not that big a reader of novels.

I certainly don't dislike novels, in and of themselves. War and Peace, Anna Karenina and a few others are permanent pieces of my mental furniture. A good novel, like any good relationship, is a substantial psychic investment, and it's costly when it goes wrong. You can wind up investing weeks and a lot of energy in reading a long book and have it turns out to be Gravity's f#$@%&g Rainbow. What a waste of neurons!

I don't read many novels any more, and when I do read one, it's only occasionally a "serious" or "literary" one. I recall some NYT column where young editorial types were talking about "life changing" novels. If you have a life, how many times do you want to change it, anyway?

I may also be slightly influenced by an anecdote I heard about Dirac. After a visit to the US in the 1930s, he was preparing for the long sea voyage back to Britain. Someone offered him a book to read on the trip. He declined. "Reading," he said, "inhibits thought." I have always envied that. I would love to have thoughts interesting and important enough that I couldn't stand to be parted from them, even for a bit.

That said, it might be nice to have a much shorter list of entertaining books to read while we wait in that waiting room for the great dentist appointment in the sky.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Can Somebody Get Him A Cellphone?

I'm talking about Ted Hagee's God, of course. Ted, you might recall, is the Texas preacher whose endorsement John McCain gratefully accepted a few months back, though the McBushster is having some second thoughts lately.

The problem is that old sermons of Haagee keep surfacing. Hagee's God, like the God of big time preachers Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, is a potent but inarticulate guy with a penchant for expressing his opinions via weather, earthquake, and international terrorism. Aside from hating Catholics, Ted's God also really hates Gay parades, so, hearing that one was planned for New Orleans, he sent a hurricane to devastate the much of Louisiana and Mississipi.

Hagee's God also wanted to tell the Jews to move to Israel, so he sent them (and the rest of the world) Hitler. So, Big Guy, what happened to those old time Biblical plagues of, say, frogs or maybe even grasshoppers? Too boring? Or have you lost your touch with these?

I seem to recall that Falwell also thought that 9/11 was God's punishment for gaydom. Pretty clearly he thought that the Old Guy was stilled pissed about the sodomy thing.

I worry, though, that maybe our preachers are misinterpreting the Big Guy's somewhat ambiguously phrased messages. Maybe Katrina wasn't really about parades. Maybe He is still exercised about the eating of shrimp. I think that there are probably even more shrimp eaters than sodomites in Mississipi and Louisiana. And I know for a fact that the WTC was full of guys who trimmed their beards.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Deficits Don't Matter

Reagan proved that "deficits don't matter" said Cheney to Bush. Prior to Reagan, the Republican party had had a strong anti-deficit bias, but Reagan's lesson of borrow and spend, borrow and spend, was eagerly embraced by banks, credit card companies, and the public. Democrats were mostly OK with it since it allowed some social programs to continue. Republicans were OK with it since the benefits went overwhelmingly to the rich.

Eventually, though, the tab for all those free lunches comes due. I think I see the waiter coming now, and he doesn't look like he's in a generous mood.

Chronicle of Doom Fortold X

They say that you should be nice to the people you meet on the way up, since you may meet them again on your way back down. I don't know that that works for countries, but in any case America managed to pick the ultimate unpopular asshole as leader just in time for him to annoy and enrage practically everybody while launching us on our downward trajectory.

Tom Friedman actually has a NYT column worth reading this week.

There has been much debate in this campaign about which of our enemies the next U.S. president should deign to talk to. The real story, the next president may discover, though, is how few countries are waiting around for us to call. It is hard to remember a time when more shifts in the global balance of power are happening at once — with so few in America’s favor.

Let’s start with the most profound one: More and more, I am convinced that the big foreign policy failure that will be pinned on this administration is not the failure to make Iraq work, as devastating as that has been. It will be one with much broader balance-of-power implications — the failure after 9/11 to put in place an effective energy policy.

It baffles me that President Bush would rather go to Saudi Arabia twice in four months and beg the Saudi king for an oil price break than ask the American people to drive 55 miles an hour, buy more fuel-efficient cars or accept a carbon tax or gasoline tax that might actually help free us from what he called our “addiction to oil.”


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Feeling Peak-ed (III)

Is peak oil really here this time? Not very likely, perhaps, and probably only ARAMCO, if anybody, really knows, but it sure looks like the age of big production growth may have ended. Does this mean that the long cycle of boom and bust in the oil industry is over? Probably not, but it's hard to believe that we will see much cheap oil anytime soon.

Anne-Louise Hittle, of Wood Mackenzie, added that investors were shifting their focus from the short-term to the medium-term, where supply fears played a bigger role. Since January, long-term futures oil contracts, such as those for delivery in 2016, have jumped almost 60 per cent, while near-term prices have gone up 35 per cent.

That trend was exacerbated by T. Boone Pickens, the influential investor who believes world oil production is about to peak as aging fields run dry. He warned that oil prices would hit $150 a barrel by the end of the year.

“Eighty-five million barrels of oil a day is all the world can produce, and the demand is 87m,” Mr Pickens told CNBC. “It’s just that simple.”

Mr Pickens’s view is still in the minority in the oil industry. But concerns over future oil supplies are fast moving into the mainstream and influencing investors.

The US, with our addiction to cheap oil and profligate ways, are likely to feel quite a bit of pain. If we are smart, we will use this time to promote energy efficiency. Signs to date are not especially promising. See for example, the gas tax shennanigans recommended by Clinton and McCain.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Last Week's Procrastination Post

Slate devoted a whole issue to procrastination. Everybody inveighs against it, and Emily Yoffe hauled out some non procrastinating expert to claim that it's just a bad habit with no basis in biology. I will believe that when I believe the same thing about sleep and eating.

Procrastination is the brain's way of protesting against spending too much time doing stupid and boring things like processing paperwork, writing reports, and mowing the lawn. None of those things was useful to our survival when our brains evolved, and the fact that they might be now has not yet been incorporated into the plan.

Pretty Boy

Verena von Pfetten claims women like, or even prefer, ugly men.

Well that explains why I could never get a date in high school.

And why George Clooney has always had the same problem.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Good as Gold

James Hamilton on why the gold standard is a dumb idea:

A savvy speculator would then reason as follows.

The U.S. has promised that it will continue to convert dollars to gold at $600 per ounce. But that will require them to raise interest rates at a time of potential financial panic, and I don't believe they have the stomach for that. I'm going to ask for my dollars in gold right now, in the guess that they'll abandon this policy shortly. When they give up the standard, my gold will have appreciated, and I'll have a handsome profit.

And how could the U.S. respond to such a speculative attack? We'd have two choices. One would be to say to the speculators, you're right, this idea of driving interest rates up at a time of financial crisis was a dumb one. Dollars are no longer convertible to gold at the old fixed rate.

Or the other option would be to say, no, we really mean it this time, honest, we're serious about this whole gold standard thing. So, we drive interest rates higher and watch the deflation mount. Outstanding debt that is denominated in dollars becomes more and more costly for people to repay, and we'd see a really impressive level of bankruptcies and business failures. The cycle would continue until the politicians who promised to stay on the gold standard are driven out of office and the deflation spiral could finally be ended by the new leaders choosing option 1 after all.
. . .
A 1991 research paper by Ben Bernanke and Harold James noted the very strong correlation between when a country abandoned the gold standard and when it began to recover from the Great Depression.
. . .
As I pointed out in an article published in 1988, gold-standard advocates think in terms of an institution whose continued operation, once adopted, would never again be doubted. But the problem is, if you can go on a gold standard, then you can go off a gold standard. And uncertainty about if and when the latter will occur can make the system itself a very destabilizing force.

One of my favorite blog colloquys went like this:

Wally Paulnuts: Ron Paul is an Austrian economist. . .

Sagredo Slapdown: Ron Paul is a Texan obstetrician. He doesn't understand anything about economics.
(names changed because I forget).

Doesn't Play Well With Others

is one of those notices you hate to have sent home with your kindergartener. It's an implicit threat that your child might be destined to be unpopular, an outcast, a criminal, or perhaps even a Republican. Most kids do learn at least a bit about getting along eventually, though, and few become serial killers.

The religions born of Abraham have a bit of nasty history in that regard, perhaps not so surprisingly given their origin in the worship of a tribal war god. Like many such, he was infernally jealous and intolerant of any competition, frequently commanding the extermination of whole peoples some of whom might have strayed in their devotion or not had the right accent. Check out Exodus for examples.

As his cult fragmented, as popular cults do, the various branches fell to extermination of each other, with occasional bouts of limited toleration. The rise of liberal democracy made necessary a more tolerant practice, and eventually a substantial portion of Christianity signed on, albeit grudgingly, to the notion of religious tolerance. Abe's original homeboys, dispersed and few in numbers, could also summon up at least lip service. The half-bros from the other side of the tracks had a different history, and powerful strains of intolerance still hold sway in much of the Muslim world.

One can find radically intolerant statements in Islamic law and writing, but that's not really different from Christianity and Judaism. In practice, though, at the present epoch of history, Islams intolerance is much more extreme. Neither Christians or Jews today would broadly sanction the murder of apostates, but Islam does.

In the broader panorama of history, though, Islam has frequently been quite tolerant compared to the Christianity of the day, so it's hard to believe that tolerance can't happen.

I think that the current Conservative devotion to a war against so-called "Islamfascism" is as phony and hypocritcal as Larry Craig's war against gays, but there is no doubt that there are fanatics motivated by religion trying to wage war on the West. Religious intolerance is almost certainly a fundamental obstacle to Islamic countries' freedom, modernization and adoption of democratic political institutions. It's a problem that they will probably need to solve if they aren't to be swept away, vast oil wealth notwithstanding.

Or not.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mitigation: WGIII SPM

I have been surfing through the IPCC WGIII (Mitigation) summary for policy makers, and I'm not impressed. In my opinion, it's a terrible piece of technical writing, unlikely to be of much use to anyone, least of all policy makers.

Why am I so critical, when it has lots of colorful graphs, boxes and tables, and clearly represents a lot of hard work? In the first place, I can't imagine an audience. I certainly can't imagine a senior government official, congressman, or even congressional staffer reading through these 24 pages, or learning much if they did.

The central organizing principle is a set of alternate "scenarios," but you won't find much discussion of them here - for that you need to go "somewhere else." In fact that's true of almost everything in the summary. Curious as to what a US$/tCO2-eq is? Better look "somewhere else."

I have never met a policymaker who was willing to wade through this kind of technical gobbledegook. My guess is than even Congressional staffers would glaze over by Table SPM.2.

The relevant questions a real policy maker might have are not addressed. There are expressions of "agreement" and "confidence," but no discussion of the underlying assumptions. There is blather about top down and bottom up studies, but no discussion of what that might mean.

Predictions about how the climate system will respond to forcings are founded on physics, and so have at least some credibility. Predictions about how economic and political systems will behave are ****much**** more uncertain. Nobody mentions that. Nobody really knows what the economic impact of a cap-and-trade system would be and nobody has a clue as to how it could be enforced internationally.

Cost expressed in US$/tCO2-eq are worthless. What does that mean per gallon of gas?

Nobody, so far as I can tell, is preparing the public for stuff they will ultimately need to sign up for. That may not be the purpose of the WGIII SPM, but don't see any other value to it either.

It's vague where it should be specific (detailed mitigation methods), specific where it should be silent (implausible and widely varying estimates of economic impacts), and maddeningly jargon filled. Are the authors really unaware that a useful summary needs to be mainly self-contained?

Did I mention that I didn't like it?

Too Old to be President?

Yes, I am ageist about the Presidency. John McCain is too old to be President. Let's remember that Reagan, who was a couple of years younger than McCain when he became President, spent his second term drifting into the fog of Alzheimer's disease while George Bush the first and other henchmen immersed the country in the criminal follies of Iran-Contra.

I'm an old guy myself, rapidly approaching Medicare eligibility, and I watched myself and my contemporaries get old. Most of us still have most of our mental faculties about us (somewhere about us - now where did I put those damn things?) but we are all slowed mentally and physically. McCain seems to be a tough guy, from long lived and vigorous stock, but he was never very bright to begin with, he has had cancer, and his body was broken in Vietnam.

McCain deserves our respect and honor for what he went through, but the Presidency is not a reward for good service. Age is not the primary reason I am against him, but it is a reason, and I think a good one.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Damn The New York Times

It's official. Ann Coulter and I agree on the New York Times.

What possessed the New York Times to give neocon godfather Edward Luttwak a platform on its editorial page to tell wacko Muslims to assassinate Barack Obama? Luttwak (who is not Muslim but Jewish) used the platform to propound the notion that Obama counts as a Muslim apostate whose murder is thereby sanctioned by God and religion. Many Muslims have pointed out that Luttwak's inference of apostasy is bizarre and unlikely to be sanctioned even by extremists, though no doubt there are nuts out there extreme enough to be induced to try.

I understand why slimy neocon like Luttwak might try a smear like this - when you have no morals and are about to lose power, anything goes. What in the hell inspired Sulzberger incorporated to print this garbage, though? Has the nutbag wing of the Israel lobby decided that they stand or fall with the neocons?

The NYT has forfeited all journalistic credibility and the respect of every American patriot. Even Fox News has yet to stoop this low.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Road Kill

Brad DeLong leads us to Fake Steve Jobs, who diagnoses Dell.

I love Charles Cooper of CNET and I respect the fact that he's got to print so many column inches per week in order to earn his paycheck but I have to take issue with his latest effort (see here) where he tries to argue that while Dell looks like crap today, in fact Dell could bounce back just the way Apple did. Coop is light on details and specifics and just sticks to the argument that "times change" and that "Dell has bounced back from previous stumbles so who knows?"
. . .
What people overlook is that the advantages that allowed Dell to prosper for about a decade were all fleeting advantages. Dell was for a while an innovative company, but its innovations did not involve product design. They involved manufacturing and distribution efficiencies.
. . .
The other reason Dell won't rebound is that the company is yoked to Microsoft. Vista has hurt them tremendously. Don't doubt it. All of the PC makers know this and they are furious about it. But what can they do? They put their future in the hands of the Beastmaster. They figured they could deal with the Borg's evil nature; they didn't anticipate having to deal with the Borg's incompetence.
. . .
Which brings me to the real difference between Dell and Apple -- simply put, it's me. When you boil down all the facts and data, the real bottom line on Apple's rebound is that Apple rebounded because I came back to the company. I mean it's pretty obvious, isn't it? I get tossed out, the company goes into the crapper. I come back, the company booms. You don't need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, as the Allman Brothers once sang.

Now as for Dell, well, you know what their big problem is? Dell doesn't have me. Or anyone like me. Mostly because, let's face it, there isn't anyone else like me. I'm one of a kind. Sui generis, as the French say.
. . .
To think Michael Dell can do at Dell what I did at Apple is like thinking that if you give Michael Dell a striped shirt and put him in Picasso's old studio and let him buy supplies from Picasso's supplier then you'd have another Picasso. No. Apple is just that -- it's my paint store, the place I get my brushes and canvases and frames and smocks and the metal or clay or whatever Picasso used to make his sculptures. Apple is the loft where I do my work and make love to my nude models. Figuratively speaking. It's the kitchen where I pose for wacky photos with loaves of bread.

The truth on Dell? Dell is Gateway. Dell is Kaypro. Dell is Osborne Computer. It's DEC and DG and Apollo. It's a flower that bloomed and now must die. It's roadkill. It's mulch. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's a good thing.

Darn! I wish I could write like that.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fair Farvard

At the end of the Middle Ages, the vast wealth of the Catholic Church proved a severe temptation to monarchs. Somewhat similarly, the Massachusetts legislature has been casting covetous eyes at the enormous wealth of its education industry, and has mused about taxing it.

Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw (we won't mention Greg's less than excellent adventure in the Bush White House) thinks that might be a signal that it's time to move along. Space is short in Cambridge, and the place is big enough to be unwieldy anyway.

1. Instead of expanding the university into Alston, Harvard could create a second campus in another state. Call it Harvard South. (Put it in a better climate than Boston, and I would be one of the first faculty to volunteer for the move.)

2. Transfer much of the endowment to Harvard South. Support Harvard North by slowly selling off land in Massachusetts.

3. Eventually, make Harvard South the main campus, and Harvard North the satellite. If Massachusetts state lawmakers remain hostile, close Harvard North down entirely.

That's dandy with Brad DeLong, who thinks they should move it to Berkeley. That, of course, would be a great waste, since the weather there is only a modest improvement on Boston, the land is also dear, and they already have some fine schools.

Southern New Mexico has an ideal climate though, and land is cheap. Illegal aliens to work in the cafeterias and maintain the grounds are plentiful. And, of course, we would be too thrilled to even think of taxing the joint anytime soon.

That "Harvard South" crap won't cut it though. How about, say, "Farvard?" Or maybe "El Harvardo?"

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sullivan Watches Clinton's "Victory" Speech

I don't think he was impressed:

. . . She cannot concede; she cannot give an inch; she cannot acknowledge reality. Observing sociopaths in close detail as their world collapses around them and they cannot absorb the truth is always fascinating. And yet some sliver of humanity is discernible: her tone is altered. Even she cannot fake enthusiasm or confidence any more. And Bill seems grim. Chelsea seemed close to breaking into tears.

If you want another president whose own grip on reality has little relationship to the outside world, then you know who to vote for.

Harsh? Maybe, but considering the crap she has been spewing lately, hardly unjust.

For a truly repellent performance, though, you really should have caught Lanny Davis on CNN. He was a tired old whore, knowing exactly what he was doing, fully appreciating how disgusting, dishonest and contemptible he was, but obliged to go through the motions one more time anyway.

Too Smart for Your Own Good?

Any body ever accuse you of being too smart for your own good?

Me neither, but it seems that you can be, at least if you are a fruit fly.

In a series of experiments, scientists selected fruit flies for their ability to learn to recognize an undesireable food source by repeatedly breeding the best learners. The fruit flies became good at this kind of learning after a few generations.

It takes just 15 generations under these conditions for the flies to become genetically programmed to learn better. At the beginning of the experiment, the flies take many hours to learn the difference between the normal and quinine-spiked jellies. The fast-learning strain of flies needs less than an hour.

It seems that their learning extracted a cost, though:

But the flies pay a price for fast learning. Dr. Kawecki and his colleagues pitted smart fly larvae against a different strain of flies, mixing the insects and giving them a meager supply of yeast to see who would survive. The scientists then ran the same experiment, but with the ordinary relatives of the smart flies competing against the new strain. About half the smart flies survived; 80 percent of the ordinary flies did.

The trouble with this experiment for me is that they initially selected the flies for just the ability to learn one thing. It would hardly be strange if they acquired that ability at some other genetic cost - otherwise why wouldn't the wild type have already acquired that trait. The analogous experiment with humans might select humans for, say, ability to learn trigonometry. After 15 generations or so of this, would anyone be surprised if it turned out that the math geeks couldn't compete with wild type humans in the jungle?

An interesting experiment, but as it stands, it hardly is evidence for the authors point.

Falsifying AGW Theory

James Annan and Roger Pielke [James neglects to provide a link or even identify which RP is in question] are duking it out on the subject of falsifying the Anthropogenic Global Warming theory. If we are good Popperians, we should believe that a good scientific theory ought to be falsifiable - subject to disproof through predictions that fail to occur. General relativity, for example, would have been falsified if Einstein's predictions for the precession of Mercury's orbit and the the deflection of starlight during eclipses had proven wrong. Darwin's theory of natural selection would similarly have been damaged if the mechanisms of heredity had turned out to be different for each diffent type of animal.

So what are the critical observations for AGW, asks Roger? At the risk of oversimplifying Annan's answer, he says: AGW is a statistical theory about multidecadal warming - wait a few decades and see. Eli R points out some ancillary effects that are suitable tests.

I don't think Roger is being unreasonable in thinking that these answers are not quite to the point. Maybe we will have definitive answers in a few decades, but what about now? Are there no measurements that can test the theory?

It seems to me that there are some potential tests that examine the gears and wheels of the theory without the need to challenge the Boltzmann radiation law. The AGW theory is statistical because there are large unmodelled factors that affect global temperature.

Atmospheric CO2 has been increasing more or less steadily for many decades now, and with it the associated radiative forcing. The average global temperature has behaved in a much more complex fashion, presumably due to other forcings and to internal dynamics which are assumed to produce heating or cooling. Some of these dynamics likely just store heat in the deeper ocean, and are intrinsically confirmatory of AGW theory. Others change the radiative properties of the planet. These latter, if large enough and of appropriate sign, signal a potential threat to the theory - they represent a possible negative feedback.

Confirmation or disconfirmation of AGW theory must thus concentrate on understanding these dynamics, and capturing them in realistic models.

The above is not exactly an original insight. I'm sure that all the major players understand it well, and that is one reason that considerable effort goes into trying to understand exactly those dynamics. For some reason, though, these rather obvious facts are rarely discussed. Perhaps there is a fear that the discussion of the points would be construed as an admission of doubt.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Silver Whale

Some time ago, never mind how long precisely (funny how this Moby Dick reference gets more useful as my memory for details fades), my wife gave me a large box, and told me to get my junk out of her drawers.

Maybe I should rephrase that. The box allegedly contained a rolling toolchest, and she asked me to get my tools out of the drawers she wanted to use for her junk.

The box weighed approximately 400 lbs and was constructed to withstand a simultaneous earthquake and H 5 tornado, so just getting it open was a bit of a challenge. When opened, what was revealed was parts, 11,347 of them by rough count or actual estimate, of which only 11,017 were screws, in 33 varieties. What I had, in short, was not a toolchest, but a project.

Now my wife claims that she was unaware that the chest came disassembled. Lending plausibility to that notion is the fact that she clearly remembers a much younger, stronger, keener-eyed, and clearer-sighted me struggling into the wee hours of Christmas morning trying to assemble a couple of big wheel racers consisting of exactly three parts each. On the other hand, she is eager to get me out of the house and into the garage.

Lo these several months later, the project does seem to be taking shape. There is now an actual, rolling, box-shaped silvery metallic object in my garage, and I have even finished assembling the first drawer (less than 200 parts). When I attempted to insert that drawer, though, I met a peculiar obstruction. Further research revealed it to be a part, screwed in place, that didn't seem to belong there. I wonder how much of the box will need to be disassembled to remove it.

I have a friend who is building a jet aircraft in his garage. Aside from the heliarc welding, his task may be the simpler.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


I was driving home from the neighborhood WalMart, and turned on NPR to listen to Maria Hinojosa on Latino USA. The program, or at any rate the part I listened to, featured a number of Hispanics defending MEChA, and citing its good effects on their lives. It seems the organization feels under attack from the latest maneuverings of the Arizona legislature.

I'm no friend to the kind of anti-immigrant bullshit that Republicans are now embracing, so I thought I ought to check out MEChA. The Acronymn stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or Student Movement of Aztlan. Aztlan is usually conceived of as Mexico plus those parts of the US that we stole from Mexico.

The national web site, linked above, certainly seems inoffensive enough, and the Constitution is bureaucratic enough to put the doughtiest proofreader to sleep. If you make it down far enough, though, you come to section twenty-four:

Section 24.

In order to be a MEChA chapter recognized by the Regional, it shall adopt and abide by the following responsibilities:

A) Orient all members by discussing and reading historical documents of our Movimiento including: El Plan de Santa Barbara, El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, and the MEChA Position Papers of Philosophy, Constitutions, Relationship to Outside Organizations, and Goals & Objectives.

A bunch of the good stuff can be found in El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán. A sample:

In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage but also of the brutal "gringo" invasion of our territories, we, the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare that the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny.

We are free and sovereign to determine those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land, the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts. Aztlán belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops and not to the foreign Europeans. We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent

Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and who struggles against the foreigner "gabacho" who exploits our riches and destroys our culture. With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our mestizo nation. We are a bronze people with a bronze culture. Before the world, before all of North America, before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlán.

Por La Raza todo. Fuera de La Raza nada.

The Spanish phrase translates: "In the race all. Outside the race, nothing."

So as a perhaps insufficiently "brutal gringo" inhabiting northern Aztlan, should I be nervous? There is a fair amount of revolutionary and Leninist rhetoric:

Land and realty ownership will be acquired by the community for the people's welfare. Economic ties of responsibility must be secured by nationalism and the Chicano defense units.
For the very young there will no longer be acts of juvenile delinquency, but revolutionary acts.
Self-Defense against the occupying forces of the oppressors at every school, every available man, woman, and child.

I guess means that those rotten kids who smashed my mailbox were not delinquents but revolutionary terrorists.

A lot of this is doubtless the fulminations of beer fueled college kids, but if these kids were Arabs or Palestinians, I suspect that they would be rotting in Gitmo as we speak

Omen for Hillary?

A filly ran in the Kentucky Derby for the first time in a while this year, and Hillary advised voters to bet on the filly.

The Derby results might thereby be considered an unpromising omen.

After the race, the filly Eight Belles collapsed after pulling up. According to Dr. Larry Bramlage, among the on-call veterinarians Saturday at Churchill Downs, she broke both of her front ankles and was euthanized on the track.

I'm not one to stretch an analogy, but the winner was Big Brown.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Moving Finger

There is no future, there is no past

No Day But Today
…………………………………Rent, Finale B., by Jonathan Larson

Bee asks us if we believe that the past, present, and future exist in the same sense.

Few notions of physics are as recalcitrant as time. The Newtonian notion of time as always and everywhere uniformly flowing may have temporarily (!) tamed time, but it didn’t domesticate it. Special relativity, which showed that time can’t be clearly separated from space, loosed some demons, and general relativity is worse. There was trouble from quantum mechanics too, which really prefers to treat time and space differently – unlike other observables, time doesn’t correspond to any Hermitian operator.

I don’t want to get into those very interesting issues, however, since there is a more elementary one that is even more difficult. No aspect of time is more fundamental to our ordinary understanding than its division into past, present, and future, but no aspect of our world is less captured by physics. The known laws of physics, both classical and quantum, are almost entirely symmetric in time. No distinction between past, present, and future seems to be embodied in them. The reason for the ‘almost’ is that there is inferred a slight past – future asymmetry in the weak interactions. I say inferred, because the asymmetry has not, to my knowledge, been measured directly, but is inferred from the assumption of CPT (combined charge conjugation, parity reversal, and time reversal) invariance and measured CP violation. As far as I know, no one has a clue as to how such an asymmetry could produce the “present.”

For the most part, physicists have reacted to this mysterious fact as Einstein did – “Nothing to see here folks, move along now.” Usually this is put into a form something like: “the present is an illusion, due to consciousness.” For me, that is akin to saying “sound is an illusion, created by ears.” These aren’t explanations because they beg the question.

In the case of sound, we can relate the real and the illusion to a larger world. Real sound originates in mechanical disturbances and its transduction into electrochemical signals in the ear and brain, and we can (in principle) distinguish illusory sounds produced by malfunctions of the auditory apparatus from real one by looking for their correlates in the larger world. The illusion depends on the partial mimicry of the reality, and the larger reality discriminates between illusory and real.

If “the present” is called an illusion, the question to ask is what is it an illusion of? By what mechanism could such an illusion arise? If this special moment, “the present” is singled out by consciousness, how can it do that? That, I think, comes back to physics.

In one of his debates on quantum mechanics, Einstein related a conversation with another prominent physicist:

PP: I’m inclined to believe in extrasensory perception.

AE: This has more to do with physics than psychology.

PP: Yes.


UPDATE: Don't miss Wolfgang's Magical Mystery Tour of Time and other things.