Friday, March 31, 2006

Pyramid Scheme

One of my commenters took exception to the description of the pyramids as an uber boondoggle, and suggested those who thought so must be "ignorant." Luckily, the meeting notes for the planning session for one of these monuments has survived, and a freedom of information act request to the Department of Antiquities pried them loose. Here they are as translated and edited by your humble correspondent. If I may coin a phrase - "I report, you decide." My comments in italics.

MEETING NOTES: Pyramid Planning (The Great Pyramid of Bushufu, here discussed, is widely considered to be one of the eleven wonders of the ancient world)

Dramatis Personae:
Bushufu, Pharaoh of Egypt
Cheneops, His Grand Vizier
Imhorove, Advisor
Khahren (Nefertits) Advisor

Kheneops: So the plan is we spend the next few decades piling up 4 million tons of rock to bury you in?

Bushufu: Huh?

Imhorove: He means build a giant pyramid for you to ascend to speak with the other gods.

Bush: Yah. Right. Cool.

Nefertits: So how much will this cost.

Khene: Pretty much all of our GDP beyond the minimal nutritional needs of the peasants. About 10%.

Bush: What about defense?

Imhor: Good idea Mr. Ph. We will tell the people this will be the tower of your defense against invaders.

Bush: Maybe we should leave the peasants a little?

Khene: Stick to Principle Mr. Ph. If we leave peasants money they will want to go wind surfing on the Nile and get in the way of our boats. They might even want to hunt our pen raised pheasants.

Nef: So why are we building this pyramid again?

Khene: The peasants can't work the farms during the flood season. If we leave them alone they will just get jealous of our palaces, hunting lodges, and Corvettes. This is mainly to keep them out of trouble. You know, sort of like how you give Cub Scouts those funky little things to braid when you can't find anything else to do with them. What do they call those?

Nef: Boondoggles. We used to call them boondoggles.

UPDATE: The original manuscript had a small undecipherable fragment not previously presented. Thanks to the wonders of forensic philology we can now bring you the rest.

Bush: Is this going to be a big government program? The Supreme Gods didn't appoint me to create big government programs.

Khene: No Sir, Mr. Ph. We will contract this out. We will give the job to somebody with a reputation for bringing projects in late and over-budget. My old firm Khalliburton would be a good choice.

IQ and Brain Growth

One of the most hyped stories of the past few days has been that of how high IQ children's brains grow differently that those of average children.

The brains of highly intelligent children develop in a different pattern from those with more average abilities, researchers have found after analyzing a series of imaging scans collected over 17 years.

I think this is interesting, but a high degree of skepticism is probably appropriate. Like the liberal vs. conservative preschooler story of a week or so ago, this one has a narrow base:
The finding is based on 307 children in Bethesda, Md., an affluent suburb of Washington. Starting in 1989, they were given regular brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging, a project initiated by Dr. Judith Rapoport of the National Institute of Mental Health.

So what did they find:
This set of scans has been analyzed by Philip Shaw, Dr. Jay Giedd and others at the institute and at McGill University in Montreal. They looked at changes in the thickness of the cerebral cortex, the thin sheet of neurons that clads the outer surface of the brain and is the seat of many higher mental processes.

The general pattern of maturation, they report in Nature today, is that the cortex grows thicker as the child ages and then thins out. The cause of the changes is unknown, because the imaging process cannot see down to the level of individual neurons.

But basically the brain seems to be rewiring itself as it matures, with the thinning of the cortex reflecting a pruning of redundant connections.

The analysis was started to check out a finding by Dr. Thompson: that parts of the frontal lobe of the cortex are larger in people with high I.Q.'s. Looking at highly intelligent 7-year-olds, the researchers said they were surprised to find that the cortex was thinner than in a comparison group of children of average intelligence.

It was only in following the scans as the children grew older that the dynamism of the developing brain became evident. The researchers found that average children (I.Q. scores 83 to 108) reached a peak of cortical thickness at age 7 or 8. Highly intelligent children (121 to 149 in I.Q.) reached a peak thickness much later, at 13, followed by a more dynamic pruning process.

One interpretation, Dr. Rapoport said, is that the brains of highly intelligent children are more plastic or changeable, swinging through a higher trajectory of cortical thickening and thinning than occurs in average children. The scans show the "sculpturing or fine tuning of parts of the cortex which support higher level thought, and maybe this is happening more efficiently in the most intelligent children," Dr. Shaw said.

Another red flag was raised for me by this detail:
The I.Q. was tested when the children entered the program. Further tests were not needed because I.Q.'s are so stable, Dr. Rapoport said.

I have tremendous respect for Dr. Rapoport, but does this make sense? You study brain plasticity based on IQ but never recheck your baseline condition? And IQ test results are not *that* stable. I personally have a whole raft of scores spanning 50 points or so (not counting Dr. M's estimates, which would add another 40 points to the range). Besides, wouldn't it be interesting to compare any changes in brain development with measure IQ?

It is somewhat amusing in that it seems to turn a conventional idea upside down. Instead of your brain configuration determining your smarts, it seems to be more the other way around. If genes are everything, of course, there isn't any difference.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook Hits a Triple

I make fun of Gregg from time to time, so it's only fair that I offer praise when he says something right. He diagnoses NASA's disease pretty well in It's the Earth, Stupid.

At this point, the shuttle exists almost solely to service the space station, while the station exists almost solely to give the space shuttle a destination to fly to. Two space shuttles have exploded on national television. Yet the program drags on owing to the desire of aerospace contractors, and members of Congress who represent shuttle districts, for launches that cost nearly $1 billion each. The shuttle has operated just once since the Columbia loss in February 2003. It may or may not fly in 2006. Most experiments conducted aboard the space station could be done at far less expense by automated probes. "Life science" research on the astronauts themselves is the sole mission that requires people to be present, but even this boils down to billions of dollars spent for astronauts to take each other's blood pressure. As Gar Smith has written, the space station represents "one of the biggest boondoggles since the Pyramids." Despite the dubious rationales for the shuttle and space station, the proposed fiscal 2007 budget fully funds a new round of waste on these programs—about $8 billion, compared with about $5 billion for space probes, Earth study, and study of the distant universe.

Gregg thinks NASA should concentrate on studying the Earth, the Solar system and nearby stars. Bush's moronic Mar's program gets some well deserved slaps too.
As for the moon base, for three decades NASA has sent nothing to the moon, not even a robot probe. That's because the Apollo missions found little to suggest that the moon is interesting, except to geology postdocs. Yet the White House has called for construction of a "manned" moon base—there seems no alternative to that phrasing—and the proposed budget includes about $4 billion in initial moon-base funding. The long-term price may be astronomical, as it were. The program cost (construction, launch, servicing, and ground support) for a stripped-down moon base might hit $200 billion, about the cost of a year of the Iraq war.

Yet it's unclear what astronauts would do at a moon base, other than survive until their return voyage. A moon base would not be useful for a future Mars expedition—quite the contrary, it would be an obstacle. Any Mars-bound mission would almost certainly depart directly from Earth orbit to the Red Planet; stopping at the moon would be counterproductive in terms of propulsion physics and so dramatically raises the price of Mars flight. (The details are here.) NASA is thinking about a moon base solely because Congress appears gullible enough to fund one. Within the halls of the space agency, the manned-space empire is believed to be in jeopardy. NASA wants to sustain the astronaut corps, even at the cost of pretending a moon base makes sense when every NASA official knows it will be a hole to pour money down.

Meanwhile, the proposed budget clobbers programs of tangible value. Hydros, a mission to study soil moisture, would be canceled. At a time when increases in the global agricultural yield are just barely staying ahead of population growth, improving knowledge of our planet's soil moisture seems, oh, 10,000 times more important than paying for astronauts to take samples of the lunar regolith.

The NASA budget also delays by years the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, which would allow precise tracking of rainfall, especially in places where there are now only estimates, such as over the oceans. The most urgent question regarding global warming is whether it will change global rainfall patterns, as this could impact the agricultural production on which the world's food supply is so perilously balanced.
I quibble with his diagnosis of NASA's lack of interest in the Moon. Moon exploration died to feed those great tapeworms, the shuttle and the space station.

Gregg doesn't like pure science much either. He doesn't like the deep space, nature of the universe stuff. That's the main reason I hold him to a triple. The shuttle and spacestation critique is home run worthy.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Stalinist History of the Superconducting Supercollider

Lubos Motl had a reference to the current unfortunate state of particle physics in the US, and its origins in the demise of the Superconducting Supercollider, which was to have been a giant collider built in Texas. To refresh my memory, I looked up the Wikipedia article on the SSC. I was a member of the APS division of particles and fields in those days, an I had followed the SSC story closely, even participating in a very minor way in some of the debate. What I found in the Wikipedia article didn't match my memory of the events, so I looked a bit further. What I found was upsetting. The Wikipedia article was little more than an Stalinist version of the real SSC history.

The word Stalinist is a general derogatory epithet, so let me make explicit what I mean by it here: "making shit up to fit an ideological agenda."

Here are the most offensive sentences:

The project was eventually canceled by Congress in 1993 due to heavy pressure from President Bill Clinton.[citation needed] Many questioned the wisdom of closing down the facility, which had brought high-paying science jobs to the southern regions of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex.[citation needed] As predicted, the closing of the SSC held drastic ramifications for the area, and resulted in a mild recession made most evident in those parts of Dallas which lay south of the Trinity River.[citation needed] It is thought today that President Clinton had wanted to close the SSC all along as an economic retaliation against George H. W. Bush's home state of Texas.[citation needed]

Was that the way it really happened? The official SSC history (which does not discuss the termination) contained expressions of enthusiastic support from Clinton and Gore. A more balanced account here shows that the House revolt against the SSC involved both Republicans and Dems, and that an influential current Republican Congressman, Sherwood Boehlert, whose web site lists him as Chaiman of the House Science Committee, was one of the arch-foes of the SSC. More Democrats that Republicans voted to save it.

A more balanced account, in my opinion, is John Cramer's article in Analog. A series of blunders by high ranking policy people had raised costs and made the program very expensive:

When George Bush became President in 1989, the SSC cost estimate, with a more realistic inflation rate, rose to $5.9 billion. This was already 34% above the cost Reagan had announced. Bush chose as his Energy Secretary a spit-and-polish Rickover protege from the Navy's nuclear submarine program, Admiral James Watkins. Watkins' appointment was a disaster for the SSC. His management style, developed with large DOD nuclear submarine construction projects, was exactly wrong, as applied to a cutting-edge scientific project like the SSC. He treated the dedicated physicists and seasoned accelerator engineers of the SSC like crooked shipyard contractors trying to sell the government $5,000 toilet seats. Seeking personal control, he grossly increased the bureaucracy and paperwork associated with SSC oversight. He dismantled the existing SSC management structure, installing people that he trusted in key positions while displacing physicists and experienced accelerator builders from the decision chains. The SSC Program Office in Dallas swelled to one hundred bureaucrats, sixty permanent staffers plus forty more on temporary assignment from elsewhere in the DOE. Roy Schwitters, SSC Director, later characterized the DOE's massive oversight overkill as "the revenge of the C students."

Clinton didn't help much either, despite giving lip support to the project. His Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary proved to be another inept administrator. Meanwhile, escalating costs were causing problems. The conservative think tank, The Cato Institute unleashed this attack: Super Boondoggle Time To Pull The Plug On The Superconducting Super Collider.

Physicists were also divided. Probably most damaging was the opposition of Philip Anderson, and other condensed matter physicists. Perhaps they hoped that money not spent on the SSC would go to condensed matter physics - I doubt that much of it did.

Clinton is perhaps guilty of not defending the SSC as diligently as he might have, though it was probably a lost cause regardless, but the charge that he orchestrated the defeat is utter, Stalinist, nonsense.

I am not enough of a Wikipediologist to know who posted that crap, but somebody who remembers the real history, ideally someone personally involved, should correct it.


A GOP Congressional candidate recently visited Bagdad, and posted a picture of a peaceful street scene to show how well the war was going. The only problem - the picture was evidently taken in Turkey.

Such a weird combination of stupidity and duplicity perfectly captures the combination of stupidity and duplicity characterizing today's GOP. This combination deserves its own name. How about "dupidity?" No, let's save that for those believing that crap - and go with Stuplicity.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Mexican Flags

Want to really mobilise anti-immigrant feelings in the US? Get up a big demonstration with tens of thousands of people shouting in Spanish and waving Mexican flags. Not only does that seem to demonstrate how many illegal immigrants are living among us, but it also shows how they fail to share our culture or loyalties. It's no coincidence that Drudge and the other right wing suspects emphasize exactly these points. It's a bit harder for me to figure out why immigrant rights people seem to think these demonstrations are a good thing.

Monday, March 27, 2006

It's the Stupid Economy

Also via Huffington, The Wall Street Journal explains why average Americans manage to contain their enthusiasm for the "Bush Boom":

Since the end of 2000, gross domestic product per person in the U.S. has expanded 8.4%, adjusted for inflation, but the average weekly wage has edged down 0.3%.

That contrast goes a long way in explaining why many Americans tell pollsters they don't believe the Bush administration when it trumpets the economy's strength. What is behind the divergence? And what will change it?

Some factors aren't in dispute. Since the end of the recession of 2001, a lot of the growth in GDP per person -- that is, productivity -- has gone to profits, not wages. This reflects workers' lack of bargaining power in the face of high unemployment and companies' use of cost-cutting technology. Since 2000, labor's share of GDP, or the total value of goods and services produced in the nation, has fallen to 57% from 58% while profits' share has risen to almost 9% from 6%. (The remainder goes to interest, rent and other items.)

Delta's Dubya Doubts

The LA Daily News has an interesting interview with Eric Haney, a founding member of the elite anti-terrorism Delta Force, author of "Inside Delta Force," a retired US Army command sergeant major, and currently a technical advisor to the TV show "The Unit." Some excerpts:

We recently spoke to Haney, an amiable, soft-spoken Southern gentleman, on the set of "The Unit."

Q: What's your assessment of the war in Iraq?

A: Utter debacle. But it had to be from the very first. The reasons were wrong. The reasons of this administration for taking this nation to war were not what they stated. (Army Gen.) Tommy Franks was brow-beaten and ... pursued warfare that he knew strategically was wrong in the long term. That's why he retired immediately afterward. His own staff could tell him what was going to happen afterward.

We have fomented civil war in Iraq. We have probably fomented internecine war in the Muslim world between the Shias and the Sunnis, and I think Bush may well have started the third world war, all for their own personal policies.

Q: What is the cost to our country?

A: For the first thing, our credibility is utterly zero. So we destroyed whatever credibility we had. ... And I say "we," because the American public went along with this. They voted for a second Bush administration out of fear, so fear is what they're going to have from now on.

Our military is completely consumed, so were there a real threat - thankfully, there is no real threat to the U.S. in the world, but were there one, we couldn't confront it. Right now, that may not be a bad thing, because that keeps Bush from trying something with Iran or with Venezuela.

The harm that has been done is irreparable. There are more than 2,000 American kids that have been killed. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed ...

He's no fan of Cheney, either:

Q: What do you make of the torture debate? Cheney ...

A: (Interrupting) That's Cheney's pursuit. The only reason anyone tortures is because they like to do it. It's about vengeance, it's about revenge, or it's about cover-up. You don't gain intelligence that way. Everyone in the world knows that.
(via The Huffington Post.)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Holy Shit!

Anybody who still believes Bush's policies have made us safer should be forced to read this Sarah Chayez story linked by Arun. At gunpoint. 28 gauge shotgun point.

A couple of money paragraphs:

Taliban leaders strut openly around Quetta, Pakistan, where they are provided with offices and government-issued weapons authorization cards; Pakistani army officers are detailed to Taliban training camps; and Pakistani border guards constantly wave self-proclaimed Taliban through checkpoints into Afghanistan.

But beleaguered Afghans have a hard time getting U.S. political and military officials to focus on these two factors, which feed on each other. U.S. personnel cling to the fictions that Afghans are responsible for the local officials who rule over them--despite the overwhelming moral and material support the United States has provided these officials--and that the Pakistani government is cooperating in the war on terror. And so the Afghan villagers, frightened, vulnerable, and disillusioned, are obliged to come to terms with the "fairies who come at night."

This state of affairs is so bewildering that Kandaharis have reached an astonishing conclusion: The United States must be in league with the Taliban. They reason that America, with its power and riches, could bring an end to the "insurgency" in a month, if it so chose. They figure that America remains a close and munificent ally of Pakistan, the country that is sponsoring the "insurgency," and so the continuing violence must be a deliberate element of U.S. policy.

I'm not big on conspiracy theories, but why is it that we always catch "the number three" guy in al Quaeda?

Burn, Heretic!

Freeman Dyson is a famous physicist and futurist who has had a number of ideas in several fields. First William Connolley at stoat, and now Lubos Motl have posted on a commencement speech Dyson gave at the University of Michigan last December.

Aside from getting in a few digs at the Ph.D. system, he focussed on what he called his "three heresies." The first involves global warming, about which he says all the fluff about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Secondly, he thinks that biotechnology will become sufficiently domesticated that:

Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. Designing genomes will be a personal thing?a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture.

Finally, he says:
So lastly my third heresies, I say the United States has less than a century left as top nation. Since the modern nation-state was invented, about the year 1500, a succession of countries has taken turns as top nation. First it was Spain, then France, then and Britain, than America. Each term lasted about 150 years. Ours began in 1920 so it should end in about 2070.

Dyson has had lots of good ideas, but he is 84 years old, and he has spent his career at the Institute for Advanced Studies, which Einstein famously called "a quaint ceremonious village of tiny demigods on stilts." I was hardly shocked by his "heresies" but rather disappointed. They seem trite, boring, and unsupported (at least in his talk) by fact or logic.

He criticizes climate models for their limitations, and says we shouldn't waste valuable money on them. He thinks climate modelers should be out doing measurements. Well duh. Climatologists are well aware of the limitations he mentions, and busy measurement programs are looking at the questions he mentions and others more profound. The modelers are busy trying to devise refinements of their models, which are much more complete than the "hydrodynamic codes" he discusses.

The bit about biotech reminds me of the Popular Science magazines I used to read in the 60's and 70's. Practically every cover had personal spacecraft and nuclear reactors for the families of the year 2000. If we do get to the point where kids can design three-eyed cats for their amusement, and moms the perfect little football star, the technology is more likely to be used for designing more addictive drugs and sinister bioweapons for terrorists.

I think he is generalizing from an awfully small and unrepresentative sample in his geopolitical prognostications. All the powers he mentioned were based on overseas empires, unlike the US. In any case, the question that interests me about the next hundred years are whether civilization, or the human race, will still be around.

Fantasy Fanatics

Twenty of the top twenty-one world wide box office movies are some form of fantasy. The situation doesn't change much until we get down into second fifty, where comedy, drama, and historical fiction (also the genre of Titanic, the all-time champ and single exception in the top twenty-one) offer some modest competition.

This doubtless says something important about the state of our civilization - probably that reality is too boring and unpleasant to be interesting. I'm a fantasy fan myself, but I like to keep my fantasy separate from reality, in contrast to those who prefer to conflate the two - Fox News fans and dittoheads, for example.

The best fantasy offers an alternate reality with a rationale, logic, and characters preferable to our own. These fantasies attract subcultures of fanatics who live more in that reality than our own. Lord of the Rings fans who learned Sindarin (an elvish language), Trekkies, and Potterheads can bring an incredible devotion to their subject. Hard core Potter fans, for example, can tell you not only mundane details like the names of the three European schools of magic, and the model of broom that Harry rides, but also exotica, like the color of the dress robes Hermione wore to the Yule Ball (periwinkle blue) and the last word of Book Five (wake).

Thanks to this fanaticism, and the much larger numbers of slightly less devoted fans who nevertheless buy all the books, see all the movies, and buy the DVD's, Jo Rowling is tied for 746th (and last) on Forbes list of the world's billionaires.

Which reminds me - I need to go out and buy the DVD of Goblet of Fire, which, unfortunately, the director really made a mess of. Better buy the two DVD extended edition - maybe the deleted scenes are better than the stuff they actually put in the movie.

Psibr Zone

CIP: You catch Harvey C on ABC?

P0(psibr_nought): Y

CIP: And?

P0: can I use the g word?

CIP: I'd really rather you wouldn't. What did you think of his argument?

P0: he looks pretty good in a suit and overcoat. Very manly. I noticed they showed a picture of his book cover, minus the pink lettering for his name.

CIP: And what about Naomi?

P0: who?

CIP: The woman ABC rather absurdly claimed he was debating.

P0: o, right. yeah, her too.

CIP: And the debate?

P0: actually, I had the sound off. I put on the pod when george will starting reading some thirty year old nyt story about potential ice ages. did I miss anything?

CIP: I suppose not.

The Brink

We seem to have accomplished the feat of making the lives of the Iraqi people considerably more miserables than they were under an evil and sadistic dictator. Juan Cole reports some of the evidence that the Iraqi civil war is intensifying. Al Quaeda seems to have accomplished its strategic goal in Iraq - an ironic counterpart to George Bush, who similarly accomplished his strategic goal - his reelection.

But what about the elections? If nothing else, they demonstrate that elections aren't a substitute for the kind of social bargain that permits a nation to function.

Leaving aside the question of the wisdom of invading Iraq, every day provides fresh evidence of the incompetence of the occupation. Lacking the manpower and skill set needed to carry out a successful occupation, the Bush team based its strategy on slogans and the wishful thought that the Iraqis might figure out how to put their country back together on their own.

Is there still some hope that this might happen? There seems to be little optimism among those whose paychecks don't depend on George Bush.

The less serious of the threats from a civil war is that the Iraqi Shia will align themselves with Iran to form regional power, one likely to have nuclear weapons at some point in the future. The worst case scenario sucks Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia into general regional ethnic and religious warfare. If that happens, oil can say hello to $300 a barrel.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Immigration: Sense and Nonsense

The immigration problem is complex: it has real and imaginary parts. One of the imaginary parts is the idea that it is hard to stop illegal immigration. In fact, it would be pretty easy. The reason that it doesn't happen is that a lot of people want to keep immigration common, not too difficult, and illegal. Some of those people are illegal immigrants, but they don't really count, since they can't vote or afford large campaign contributions. The rest are the people who employ the illegals.

The NPR reporter put it something like this "Americans don't want to be overun by immigrants, but they also don't want to lose their nannys."

That, I suppose, is the perspective of the urban upper middle class, but most illegals work in businesses, including agriculture, restaurants, janitorial services, construction, etc. There are a lot of advantages to employing illegals. They work cheap and don't go to the police when they get cheated. Immigrants who are professors, I guess, can get green cards.

The way to stop illegal immigration is to fine those who employ them. Very few immigrants, legal or illegal, come here to watch the soccer games, they come here to work. If you are going to punish people for employing illegal immigrants, you need to be able to identify them. Every American who works or goes to school already needs a Social Security Card. Just make those cards into hard to forge picture ID's and you are there.

Eliminating illegal immigration will require some sort of guest worker program, at least temporarily. More about that in another post.

Because there are so many with a stake in keeping immigration safe, common, and illegal, you hear a lot of psuedo ideas bandied about in Congress, like making illegal entry a felony. Yah right. Just what we need. A few million more prison inmates. Advocating ideas like that is a real idea to keep solutions imaginary.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Doubt and Redoubt

Another grim sign for the war in Iraq: the moron cheerleaders for the war are preparing their fallback redoubt. So far they have proved wrong in every particular of their predictions: about the threat posed by Iraq, about a connection to al Quaeda, about the cost of the war, about the length of the war, about the conditions we would face in Iraq, and about the difficulty of rebuilding Iraq. So whose fault will it be if this war ends in ignominious defeat?

Maybe the fault of the idiots who got us in there and made every conceivable strategic and tactical blunder? Or the corrupt dolts who ran the occupation like a PTA fund raiser for Republican campaign contributors? Nope! It will be the fault instead of those who noted those blunders and warned against them!

Brad Delong exhibits Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds, and some other scumbag preparing for their retreat.

Great Moments in Theatre: The Rooftops of Paris

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Lacking Ishmael's adventurous spirit and opportunities, I nevertheless like an occasional change of pace. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - I got interested in Theatre, got into a few plays, and took some acting classes.

My favorite teacher had a penchant for exercises intended to draw us out of our inhibitions and mannerisms. A particularly unpromising seeming one paired us up to interact with each other without speaking or touching. We started out on the stage of a medium sized theatre, seating perhaps 300. A notable feature was a sort of giant jungle gym, made of triangles about three feet on a side, built up from the sides of the theatre and extending over the audience and the apron of the stage, used for mounting lights and other miscellaneous purposes.

My partner for this exercise was a girl of about 20 - roughly half my age at the time - very tall and good looking, and, as it eventuated, rather strong and agile. An exercise of this sort is a bit hard to get into. Paired with a semi-stranger, not allowed to speak, among ten other similar couples, and watched over by a demanding teacher. We tried some patomime, we tried standing staring. We sat down and stared sitting down.

After a bit, my partner stood up, whipped off her leather jacket with a theatrical flourish, spun around, and flung it away, quite incidentally clipping me hard across the cheek with the metal zipper pull. At this point our exercise picked up considerable emotional intensity, with me pursuing slowly but grimly, and her easily dancing away.

She dodged behind one of the base columns of the jungle. I followed, and she dodged out the other side. We repeated, but hey, I used to play a little BBall, and this time as she tried to escape, I blocked. I blocked again on the other side.

At this point the crazy chick started climbing up the jungle gym. No honorable course was open for me but to follow. All the way up to the top of the theatre she climbed, followed by an idiotic old guy. Eventually I scrambled onto a catwalk, one of what turned out to be a maze of such running all about theatre, just below the ceiling.

It was dark. I could see about five feet in the gloom. She was more than five feet away. I caught my breath.

I looked down at the seats 30 or 40 feet below. I caught my breath again. It occurred to me that acrophobia was a survival instinct.

I slowly crawled about exploring the catwalks. It was dark as hell. Meanwhile, down below, the other pairs had run out of steam, but they couldn't see us on the catwalks in the gloom. Nobody else was doing anything, but our teacher, true to his directorial instincts, was not about to interrupt a moment of high (30 or 40 foot high)drama.

I couldn't see her anywhere. There were lots of catwalks. Fellow students down below were falling asleep. Eventually it occurred to me that she might have left the building. One of the catwalks led to the booth with the sound and light boards.

I found my way to the booth, entered it, and looked around, glad to be standing on solid looking floor. She still wasn't anywhere within the nearest five feet.

Feeling rather foolish, I went to the door of the booth and opened it.

Immediately I felt a great deal more foolish. A loud burglar alarm sounded. A security guard had to be summoned to turn it off. My partner now appeared from the catwalks.

Back on stage at the starting gate, the teacher eagerly cross-examined us about our emotions, reactions, and interactions. I was evasive and deliberately inarticulate. My partner said she imagined herself being pursued by the Phantom across the rooftops of Paris.

Or maybe she said "Fatman."

Embargo Flash!

Lubos has the hot new news from String Theory - or at least the alleged announcer is pretty hot.

I think he might have broken the embargo on this news by about one week plus two days.

You Are An Idiot!

is an expression directed at me from time to time. I have to admit that it occurs to me occasionally too. I try not to use it, though, partly because it seems childish, but mainly because it is a confession of abject intellectual failure. If I say "you are an idiot," I might just as well have said "I'm not smart enough, knowledgeable enough, persuasive enough, or charming enough to get you to see the merits of my position."

But what do I know. I'm an idiot.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Conservation versus Liberation

I really do wonder what all you conservatives are thinking (just in case any of you ever read this blog). Now I admit that I never cared for W. I didn't like the nasty slanders he spread about McCain, I didn't like the smirk, and I didn't like the way he spoke like an illiterate. These are matters of taste though, so I can certainly see why some of you might feel differently. It's the substance part that puzzles me. To me, W has launched a reckless war, mismanaged it corruptly and incredibly incompetently, and wrecked our finances.

A few possibilities have occurred to me:

A) You don't care about that.

B) You don't believe it and don't want to hear about it.

C) None of the above (please specify)

I would appreciate any responses from those who consider themselves conservative.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cool in School

A long term study that looked at kids in nursery school and twenty years later found that:

Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.

The study from the Journal of Research Into Personality isn't going to make the UC Berkeley professor who published it any friends on the right. Similar conclusions a few years ago from another academic saw him excoriated on right-wing blogs, and even led to a Congressional investigation into his research funding.
It turns out that whiny insecurity only explains about 7% of the variance, but let's not let that discourage speculation.

I didn't attend preschool or kindergarten, and I don't remember being whiny in first grade - but then, who would. I was pretty damn insecure though. That insecurity might have been partly due to the fact that I couldn't see the board and hence had little clue as to what was going on, but the big factor was clearly Jimmy W and his little gang of thugs. They made my life hell before school, after school, during recess and during lunch, by chasing me, stuffing snow into my clothes, and beating me up.

I was the youngest in my grade I think, and I had grown up in a neighborhood with only girls, and it took me a while to learn the social ropes of juvenile society. It was probably about third or fourth grade, when another minor league bully was tormenting me, that I blew my top, picked him up and threw him down. This was quite a shock for both of us, but doubtless more gratifying for me, especially since the gathered crowd started cheering and clapping. This little victory is still one of my most memorable moments.

By that time I had glasses, had learned to read, and, quite inevitably, had become a liberal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Throes, Last Throes, and True Believers

Every recent poll seems to show that disenchantment with Bush is growing. That's certainly a sentiment I can share and endorse, but the whole experience is also intensely frustrating. Bush certainly still has a hard core of true believers, and I find it frustrating that they can't be brought to see the light - at least the smarter ones. It's especially frustrating to me that the Democrats seem so inept at putting together a program and campaign.

One Senator said that Dems have the wind at their backs - now all they need is a sail. Indeed. Bush was beaten in 2000 and beatable in 2004, but somehow he is still President, and will be for three more years. It's hard to escape a kind of doomed feeling that once again the Dems will boot the election while the country sinks into disaster.

The corrupt, incompetent, and spendthrift Republican Party is clearly in its "last throes." Will it still be there one and three years from now?

Trust Me, I'm Your President

The founding fathers had a healthy suspicion of untrammeled executive power, which is why the constitution carefully divides the powers of government between three co-equal branches. Rae Ann, AKA Vicious Mama, has advanced a constitutional theory that would pretty much demolish the balance of powers. She begins by quoting the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I think the key word there is "unreasonable."

Someone show me where in the Constitution that it says a wartime President cannot wiretap foreign terrorists' incoming calls without a warrant when taking the time to get that warrant might cost lives.
The idea that searches and seizures require a warrant was not a new American principle, but an old principle of English common law. The Fourth amendment was a protest against King George III's assertion of the right to issue blanket warrants permitting his agents to search without any specific finding of guilt or suspicion. Two hundred thirty years later, another George, also the third of his name to be chief of state, has asserted the same priviledge. Rae Ann quite reasonably asserts that a key word here is "reasonable." The question is, who is to judge? Under our system of government, the rule has always been that the judiciary decides, as specified clearly in the Constitution. Rae Ann then raises the usual straw man "when taking the time to get that warrant might cost lives."

Congress prepared for just that eventuality in the FISA law, which specifically allows emergency wiretaps without prior approval - but requires subsequent justification to the FISA court.

One of the commenters on her blog contributes some mistaken information. DHammett (presumeably not the Communist writer, who is dead) writes:

Here are a few facts about FISA and the Patriot Act. There are 7 special FISA courts and judges, all of them in DC.

Actually, there are eleven, who are required by law to be from at least seven different judicial districts, though three of them are required to be near DC (that's where the government is).

The same requirements for probable cause for Title III monitoring exist under FISA as under criminal statutes.

Well duh! That's what the Constitution requires. If you don't like it, then you have to repeal the Fourth Amendment.

It takes months to years for one FISA approval, which only lasts 3 months.

That is simply false. It takes hours or minutes, and there is the emergency provision mentioned above.

Usually, once a Title III is approved under FISA, a renewal needs to be requested immediately or the authorization will expire and the approval process starts anew. The instances in which emergency Title III monitoring is approved are precious few, and justification in the form of probable cause must still be made, after the fact, to the FISA judge.
In fact, the FISA court has disapproved only a microscopic percentage of requested wiretaps (0 out of over 1754 in 2004, for example. See statistics here). The government has never appealed any of these refusals.

Before information obtained under a FISA wiretap can be used for criminal investigative purposes, its use must be approved by no less than the attorney general of the US.
Again, in accord with long accepted interpretations of the Fourth Amendment and common law. FISA is for Foreign Intelligence and Security, not criminal prosecutions. If you don't like it, try to repeal the Bill of Rights.

If Bush thought that the FISA law was too restrictive, he could at any time have gone to Congress to request a modification, but he never has. He chose instead to trash the law and the Constitution.

Ultimately this has less to do with liberal versus conservative than it has to do with trust. The founding fathers, traditional conservatives, and I always have distrusted unlimited executive power, which is what you have when the President is the sole judge of the legality of his own actions.

You so-called conservatives are asking us to trust this President - and not only him, because if this power grab is permitted, precedent is set for every future President who wants to seize your papers or property in the name of national security.

I don't trust any President with this power, but I find it bizaare that anyone would trust this one with it. This is a man who has repeatedly and flagrantly lied about almost everything. He lied about his arrest record, he lied about his military service, he lied about his tax cuts, he forced his employees to lie about his budgets, and he conducted his campaigns by spreading scurrilous lies about his opponents. He lied about his business dealing to the SEC, was caught, and got off lightly only because his father had just appointed the SEC commissioner. Worst of all he has lied about the war at every turn, even in today's Press conference:
I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences ... and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him.

Does he really think Americans are so stupid as to forget that Saddam, under pressure, did admit the inspectors, and that they wandered all over Iraq, looking for weapons of mass destruction, and forced Saddam to destroy his rockets. Oh, never mind, we are that stupid, or at least a lot of us are.

Of course they never did find those WMD's, which is not terribly surprising when you consider that they didn't turn out to exist.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Brave New Stars Revisited

Well, Wolfgang has borrowed Jaques Distler's flaming spear to deflate my black hole heresies, and a darn good job they have done of it. Unfortunately, I seem to have forgotten a key lesson of the Penrose and Hawking results, that the special features of the global picture don't seem to depend on anything special about the local picture.

There is something infuriatingly obtuse and arrogant about a paper that starts with:

Event horizons and closed time-like curves cannot exist in the real world for the simple reason that they are inconsistent with
quantum mechanics.

As Chapline's "Dark Energy Star" paper (astro-ph/0503200) does.

You could just as well turn it around: "QM can't be right because it conflicts with GR." Most infuriatingly, he acts like this is some kind of revelation, as though that very point had not been the main preoccupation of many of the greatest physicists for the past half century.

Having said that, I still pine for a horizon that is locally special.

Atrocity Story

Every war produces atrocities. Usually the civilians who sent the soldiers to fight don't believe the stories. I know I didn't believe some of the stories my fellow soldiers brought back from Vietnam about killing women and children. They were true though - these guys had been at My Lai or similar, smaller scale versions.

Here's a candidate from Ishaqi. The US and Iraqi police accounts have some things in common. US Marines went there looking for an al Quaeda member and found him. The al Quaeda suspect was captured and the other people in the house wound up dead. In the Marine's version, a helicopter gunship fired on the house, they went in, found the rest of the people dead and took out the suspect. Neighbors and the US trained Iraqi police (those guys standing up as we stand down), say that the Americans went in, handcuffed everybody, brought the suspect out, shot everybody else, killed all the farm animals, and then called in the gunship to destroy the house.

A translated version of the signed Iraqi police report says:

This is a translation of the Iraqi police report obtained by Knight Ridder, including accounts of events not related to the Ishaqi raid.
In the name of God, the most merciful
This is the morning and afternoon events of 15/3/2006
1. Interior Ministry Operations:
All forces belonging to the Interior Ministry will go on 100 percent alert status starting Wednesday 15/3/2006 until 1000 hours Friday 17/3/2006.
2. Coordination Center of Beji
At 810 gunmen in a white vehicle, duck type (a reference to the local name for a Toyota model) kidnapped the child Mohamed (Badei Khaled) from Samaha school in Beji (map coordinates 617667).
3. Coordination Center of Dujail
At 730 a benzene truck burned near Gassem al Queisy fuel station after one of its tires caught fire. The incident burned the driver (Hamed Abdalilah) and he was transported to the hospital (map coordinates 263519).
4. Coordination Center of Balad
At 230 of 15/3/2006, according to the telegram (report) of the Ishaqi police directorate, American forces used helicopters to drop troops on the house of Faiz Harat Khalaf situated in the Abu Sifa village of the Ishaqi district. The American forces gathered the family members in one room and executed 11 people, including 5 children, 4 women and 2 men, then they bombed the house, burned three vehicles and killed their animals (map coordinates 098702).
They were:
Turkiya Muhammed Ali, 75 years
Faiza Harat Khalaf, 30 years
Faiz Harat Khalaf, 28 years
Um Ahmad, 23 years
Sumaya Abdulrazak, 22 years
Aziz Khalil Jarmoot, 22 years
Hawra Harat Khalaf, 5 years
Asma Yousef Maruf, 5 years
Osama Yousef Maruf, 3 years
Aisha Harat Khalaf, 3 years
Husam Harat Khalaf, 6 months
Staff Colonel
Fadhil Muhammed Khalaf
Assistant Chief of the Joint Coordination Center
The Knight-Ridder correspondents reporting the story interviewed some of the locals.
A local police commander, Lt. Col. Farooq Hussain, interviewed by a Knight Ridder special correspondent in Ishaqi, said autopsies at the hospital in Tikrit "revealed that all the victims had bullet shots in the head and all bodies were handcuffed." Efforts to reach hospital spokesmen Sunday were unsuccessful.
Keefe, the U.S. military spokesman, said that he had seen photographs of the victims and had not seen handcuffs, which caused him to doubt the validity of the report.
He said, however, that he has no reason to doubt the body count provided by local police.
The part about killing the animals had an odd resonance for me. The American military historian Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall's account of D-Day has a story of American soldiers who, after a killing a group of German soldiers in a fierce fire fight, opened the barn and shot every cow, pig, and goose. Similarly, in the Illiad, Odessyus, after a battle, slaughters farm animals in a fit or delusion. Of course killing the women and children wouldn't have shamed a Greek, but doing in the farm animals was a terrible faux pas, and a source of lasting embarassment.

There are those who would invent or exaggerate such stories. Unfortunately, they are sometimes true. From the standpoint of the dead, of course, it hardly matters whether they were executed up close and personal or blasted apart by a John McCain style bomb from the sky.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Black Holes V

Following a suggestion of Lubos in the comments to the immediately preceding post, here is the link to New Scientist story on Chapline's idea. They present it quite nicely, I think. A key idea is that what we think of as black holes might really be "dark energy stars."

...[Chapline] and Laughlin realised that if a quantum critical phase transition happened on the surface of a star, it would slow down time and the surface would behave just like a black hole's event horizon. Quantum mechanics would not be violated because in this scenario time would never freeze entirely. "We start with effects actually seen in the lab, which I think gives it more credibility than black holes," says Chapline.

With this idea in mind, they - along with Emil Mottola at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Pawel Mazur of the University of South Carolina in Columbia and colleagues - analysed the collapse of massive stars in a way that did not allow any violation of quantum mechanics. Sure enough, in place of black holes their analysis predicts a phase transition that creates a thin quantum critical shell. The size of this shell is determined by the star's mass and, crucially, does not contain a space-time singularity. Instead, the shell contains a vacuum, just like the energy-containing vacuum of free space. As the star's mass collapses through the shell, it is converted to energy that contributes to the energy of the vacuum.

The team's calculations show that the vacuum energy inside the shell has a powerful anti-gravity effect, just like the dark energy that appears to be causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. Chapline has dubbed the objects produced this way "dark energy stars".

A considerably earlier, string theory inspired paper:

by Kenji Hotta contains some related ideas. It was one of the first that caused me to get interested in the WDNNSBH theory. His abstract:
In recent years, Susskind, Thorlacius and Uglum have proposed a model for strings near a black hole horizon in order to represent the quantum mechanical entropy of the black hole and to resolve the information loss problem. However, this model is insufficient because they did not consider the metric modification due to massive strings and did not explain how to carry information from inside of the horizon to the outside world. In this paper, we present a possible, intuitive model for the time development of a black hole in order to solve the information loss problem. In this model, we assume that a first order phase transition occurs near the Hagedorn temperature and the string gas changes to hypothetical matter with vanishing entropy and energy which we call `the Planck solid'. We also study the background geometry of black holes in this picture and find out that there is no singularity within the model.
To me, at least, Hotta's "Planck solid" looks a bit like Chapline's "dark energy star."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Black Holes IV

Lubos has a new post which links to a year old one on my favorite crackpot notion. I haven't yet read the Champline papers he references, so I don't know if his ideas fit into the ones I like or not, but it doesn't really look like it.

UPDATE: There are two interesting ideas in the Champline paper for me. One is the analogy to sound in a superfluid, and the second is a reference to a paper

D. Boulware, Phy. Rev. D11, 1404 (1975).
that allegedly shows that QM Greens Functions are necessarily funky at a horizon. I don't know how to evaluate either of these ideas, but a lot of people, including 't Hooft have speculated on funky behavior near a horizon. Lumo suggests that Champline doesn't like Hawking radiation, but I feel sure [at the blind prejudice level] that it has to be involved at the fundamental level.

For a large mass, freely falling through a horizon is supposedly a pretty nothing experience. On the other hand, parking near one should be extremely hot due to the Hawking radiation. The question in my mind is what the experience is like at the time of formation. In particular, what about an almost black hole - a mass that is just barely larger than it's Schwarzschild radius - does it produce anything like Hawking radiation?


Groundbreaking is a term usually used to describe some minor political, scientific, or artistic innovation, or, ocassionally, digging a basement. I prefer the more geological sense, like this:

Geologist Dereje Ayalew and his colleagues from Addis Ababa University were amazed -- and frightened. They had only just stepped out of their helicopter onto the desert plains of central Ethiopia when the ground began to shake under their feet. The pilot shouted for the scientists to get back to the helicopter. And then it happened: the Earth split open. Crevices began racing toward the researchers like a zipper opening up. After a few seconds, the ground stopped moving, and after they had recovered from their shock, Ayalew and his colleagues realized they had just witnessed history. For the first time ever, human beings were able to witness the first stages in the birth of an ocean.

It's too bad that the human lifespan is five or six orders of magnitude too short to see this kind of event unfold.

The Grudge

Perhaps I'm overgeneralizing, but I have the impression that a lot of conservative's motivation seems to stem from the feeling that the poor are getting away with something. I often try to engage conservatives in some dialog about what I perceive to be injusticies in our system (like the enormous tax subsidies given for private jets), but the conversation usually concludes with some rejoinder about how people are buying truffles and caviar with food stamps.

Is this response is the result of the very successful campaign of the ultra-rich and their minions (Cato, Heritage, Fox, Rush, et. al.) to divide Americans against each other, or is it just the natural human impulse to blame someone weaker than oneself? It certainly assorts oddly with the tendency of so many conservatives to call themselves Christians.

A teacher I know claims I'm oversimplifying. The kids on free lunch at school sometimes show up with expensive athletic shoes. It's natural, she claims, for a parent who can't afford to buy a computer to want to splurge on something for her kids or herself. Maybe even caviar.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

As an old guy, I'm naturally pretty out of touch with emerging cultural trends. Consequently, I was sort of interested when a new book by this lots older but much more famous guy started making some little waves in the infosphere. Out of touch as I am, I feel compelled to consult my cultural correspondent, who keeps in touch with this stuff from his spot glued to his keyboard. Psibr-nought, as he styles himself, or S0, as I shall call him, has his finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist.

I reproduce a portion of our IM text conversation:

CIP: So have you seen this book, Manliness, by Harvey C. Mansfield?


S0: Ye

CIP: So do you have an opinion?

S0: Gay-aye!

CIP: I wish you wouldn't use that as a generic term of disapprobation. I've got a small but cool readership, and I can't afford to offend people.

S0: So why do you consider it disapprobative? You have something against gay people?

CIP: No! No! Of course not. It just doesn't seem polite. Can't you use something else, like, say, "lame."

S0: So just pick on the physically handicapped?

CIP: OK, OK, how about "dumb" or "stupid?"

S0: Good plan. The mentally handicapped probably won't fight back on a blog.

CIP: [expletive deleted] How about "berk" or "git?"

S0: You want to know what's really gay? A male over the age of fourteen who quotes Harry Potter. Besides, "berk" is a rather vulgar reference to the female anatomy.

CIP: [multiple expletives deleted]

S0: How about if I just say [generic approbative yawp, yelp or yahoo]?

CIP: Won't that be a bit cumbersome?

S0: Right. I'll just use the initials. Like I said: gay.

CIP: So what's your problem with the book?

S0: Well, check out
the cover:

Black, white, title in white letters on black, authors name in pink - gay, gay, gay.

CIP: But that's just judging a book by its cover. What about his argument, his reasoning?

S0: Gee, I dunno, what's it about?

CIP: I think he's claiming men are different from women.

S0: Doh! That's a revelation alright. When do you suppose he figured that out?

CIP: I think it had to do with his studies of Achilles and Machiavelli. I had sort of hoped you had read it, or at least a few reviews. He calls himself the last conservative at Harvard.

S0: So is that why they call him Harvey?

CIP: I don't think so - it might be his name. As a cultural critic, I hoped you would be in tune with this kind of stuff, that you would have read it and mined it for his insights about the deep historical and philosophical roots of manliness as contrasted with the shallow insights of evolutionary biology.

S0: Sorry - it's a bit 2 gay for me - not that there is anything wrong with that. I've got some new starcraft hacks to learn.

S0: Oh, and could you leave out those nasty cracks I made about Harvard? I'm trying to get on the janitorial staff there.

CIP: What? You need the money?

S0: Nah, I just wanted to sign up for the free class - I hear that Lubosh is teaching QFT.



From the Pew Poll (via Kevin Drum and Laura Rozen).

...Until now, the most frequently offered word to describe the president was "honest," but this comes up far less often today than in the past. Other positive traits such as "integrity" are also cited less, and virtually no respondent used superlatives such as "excellent" or "great" ­ terms that came up fairly often in previous surveys.

The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is "incompetent,"and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: "idiot" and "liar." All three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago

The Prez can, however, still fool 33% of the people, including 73% of Republicans.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Black Holes III

Regular readers, if any, might recall that I have an affection for the somewhat crackpot notion that black holes might not really exist by virtue of evaporating before they form. Abhas Mitra has a new paper gr-qc/0603055 with a new approach to a similar idea:

Even when we consider Newtonian stars, i.e., stars with surface gravitational redshift, z << 1, it is well known that, theoretically, it is possible to have stars, supported against self-gravity, almost entirely by radiation pressure. However, such Newtonian stars must necessarily be supermassive. We point out that this requirement for excessive large M, in Newtonian case, is a consequence of the occurrence of low z<< 1. On the other hand, if we remove such restrictions, and allow for possible occurrence of highly general relativistic regime, z >> 1, we show that, it is possible to have radiation pressure supported stars at arbitrary value of M. Since radiation pressure supported stars necessarily radiate at the Eddington limit, in Einstein gravity, they are never in strict hydrodynamical equilibrium. Further, it is believed that sufficiently massive or dense objects undergo continued gravitational collapse to the Black Hole stage characterized by z =infty. Thus, late stages of Black Hole formation, by definition, will have, z >> 1, and hence could be examples of quasi-stable general relativistic radiation pressure supported stars. It is shown that the observed duration of such Eddington limited radiation pressure dominates states is t ~ 5. 10^8 (1+z) yr. Thus, t --> infty as Black Hole formation (z--> infty) would take place. Consequently, such radiation pressure dominated extreme general relativistic stars become Eternally Collapsing Objects and the BH state is preceded by such an eternal radiation pressure supported phase.
Some clever person should figure out how the luminosity he derives compares to Hawking's version for the black hole.

First Mistake

I went to a lecture by Edward O. Wilson last night about the future of life. The lecture was quite good, and I intend to mine it for a few posts (hey, so my life *is* pretty boring) but what really impressed me was his answers to questions. The questioners were young people, probably students at the U, and their questions were somewhat unfocussed or even a bit incoherent, but he always managed to turn the question into a good question, and give a better answer in a way that was both flattering and encouraging to the questioner.

The first questioner asked if it was inevitable that scientists who got involved in policy debates lose their scientific credibility, and how could that be avoided?

His answer: Do the science first, and concentrate on that. When you have the scientific credibility, you can take on policy. His involvement, he said, was like that of an astronomer who had detected the track of a ten mile wide asteroid headed for Earth.

Do the science first! Darn! That's where I went wrong!


Great Ceasar dead and turned to clay
could stop a hole to keep the wind away

Julius Caesar was stabbed to death today, 2050 years ago, and it seems that Chem Profs all over (according to the MIT Chem Prof on NPR this morning) like to tell their students that right now, each of them and each of us has about one molecule of Caesar's last breath (et tu, Brute) in our lungs. I'm not convinced.

Molecules get recycled. They get broken down, combined into other compounds, and regenerated - except for Argon and a tiny bit of Helium. Besides, it's not clear that an individual molecule really has a long term identity. Indistinguishable quantum systems inevitably lose their separate identities over time.

The clay is complex and individual enough to have a longer term quantum identity though.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Global Warming: The Sky is Falling

Lubos is flacking for an improbable sounding global warming scenario propounded by Vladimir Shaidurov here.

His theory, posited with no quantitative content and only the vaguest suggestion of a mechanism, is that the comet that exploded about six miles above Tunguska Russia in 1908 started the current period of global warming. This, supposedly, triggered unspecified changes in the mesosphere leading to global warming. This trend was temporarily interrupted by water vapor injected into the stratosphere by nuclear and thermonuclear tests in the period 1945 - 1970 or so. He also suggests an ameliorative mechanism based on combustion of Hydrogen in the Mesosphere.

Such an idea is not entirely nuts, but it doesn't seem very likely either, especially in the absence of a mechanism for comet induced mesospheric changes. The effects of water vapor injected into the stratosphere by nuclear tests should be readily calculable though, and I would be surprised if they rival the effect of a medium sized volcanic explosion.

Flowers for Slobo

Slobodan Milosevich, by all accounts, was corrupt, incompetent, and, thanks the series of wars he started to maintain his grip on power, a vicious war criminal who brought ruin to Yugoslavia and ruin and shame to Serbia.

That said, his trial, and the manner of his death are a great blot on the International War Crimes Tribunal. The length of the trial was preposterous. It had been going on for more than four years when he died of what are probably not completely natural causes. The Tribunal and the prosecutors need to be told in no uncertain terms that if their case cannot be presented in four weeks, they don't have a case.

The comic opera trial of Saddam Hussain is a similar cock-up. If they were determined to hang this guy, they should have gotten around to it before Bush had created more mass graves than Saddam.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Throttling Dissent

Stoat, AKA Belette, AKA that guy whose name I usually manage to misspell, takes Keyes Institute's Fred Hutchison by the throat over a column he wrote called Common sense on global warming. To be sure, Belette does manage to point out a few minor defects in Fred's understanding of the relevant science:

Although neither nitrogen or oxygen has an influence on the greenhouse effect, for some reason CO2 is assumed by environmentalists to influence the greenhouse effect so as to cause global warming. We are all waiting for an explanation of how CO2 differs from nitrogen and oxygen in its influence on the greenhouse effect. Until such explanation is forthcoming, it seems reasonable to suspect that the theorists are failing to differentiate between wholesome CO2 and poisonous CO1 (carbon monoxide) and other toxic gases that accompany CO2 in industrial pollution. (says Fred)

Belette points him to the explanation, but also puts it in a capsule:
The answer is given right up front at wiki:Greenhouse Gas so its rather odd that H has failed to find it: its because O2 and N2 are diatomic, so don't absorb in the infra red. Getting this wrong is so stupid it doesn't even make it ...
But enough of this minor stuff that Stoat gets right. Let's get to his big blunder:
It leads off, instead of with facts, by presenting us with the opinions of someone unknown. And why should we trust them? Aha, because they were "once an enthusiastic environmentalist" but have now seen the light

Someone unknown? William pulleeze! We are talking about Nicholas Kristof, resident saint of the New York Times. Oh, never mind - I guess you guys way over in the 53rd State may not be up on what's happening at the center of the civilized world. So what the heck did Nick say, anyway?
Liberal syndicated columnist Nicholas D. Kristof was once an enthusiastic environmentalist, but says, "I'm now skeptical of the movement's I-have-a-nightmare speeches." He said in a recent column, "The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they have lost credibility." He recalls the warnings in the seventies that the Alaska oil pipeline would decimate caribou herds. The herds have increased five fold since then. Kristof also recalls panicky warnings in the seventies of global cooling and the disasters this would bring to the world. Allegedly, the meteorologists were nearly unanimous in their predictions of global cooling. Kristof mentions other scare warnings that did not come true, such as disastrous overpopulation in Asia, famines, nuclear winter, and radical changes in the weather. The things that disillusioned Kristof give us a simple smell test: 1) scare warnings of impending disaster; 2) assertions that scientists are unanimous; and 3) politicalized groups that have a bad track record in their predictions.
Well there you go. Nick is a heck of a guy, a lonely voice protesting African genocide, rescuer of Cambodian sex slaves, and a genuinely decent fellow - at least in print - but I'm not sure how much he knows about infrared spectra either.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Among the many things I blame Bush for is giving capitalism a bad name. The Bush style of corrupt government manipulating corporate cronyism probably bears some of the blame for the resurgence of socialism in Latin America and elsewhere.

Chile, supposedly South America's model for free market ideas, has just elected a Socialist President. Meanwhile, Argentina's President has suspended beef exports in a lame attempt to quell inflation in domestic prices.

Is it fair to blame Bush? Who cares, he deserves it anyway!

Poster Boy

Claude Allen could be a sort of poster boy for the Bush administration. As a White House policy aid making $160,000/yr. his job was coordinating abstinence education, faith based initiatives, and anti-abortion policy. I guess these must have left him a bit of free time, since he also got the job of coordinating the WH response to Hurricane Katrina, says Josh Marshall, though he notes that:

Maybe he was too busy waiting in the return line at Hecht's to focus on the hurricane stuff.
Allen was arrested for more than twenty-five counts of felony theft for ripping off Hecht's and Target. Details here.

Josh also observes that:
People have a lot of meta-theories for the decline in the White House's poll numbers and management effectiveness. But perhaps the more straightforward explanation is that with so many senior officials being arrested, it just leads to a breakdown in command and control.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Prosperity! W Style

The US will run a current account deficit of roughly $900 billion this year, or about $3000 per man, woman, and child. That is more or less how much more we are buying than producing. Live it up Americans! You've mortgaged your house, country, and children and everything they can hope to own, so enjoy it while you can. Not to worry though - at this rate it will still take foreigners fifteen or twenty years before they own everything of value here.

Oops, There Goes Another One

Brad Delong is impressed with the honor and dignity Bush brought to the White House.

Especially the dignity. From Rachel Shteir at Slate:

When Claude Allen, President Bush's longtime domestic-policy adviser, resigned suddenly on Feb. 9, it baffled administration critics and fans. The White House claimed that Allen was leaving to spend more time with his family, while the Washington Times speculated that the 45-year-old aide, a noted social conservative, might have quit to protest a new Pentagon policy about military chaplains. Allen himself never publicly explained the reason for his departure.

News today may shed light on the mystery of Allen's resignation. According to the Montgomery County Police Department, Allen was arrested yesterday and charged in a felony theft and a felony theft scheme. According to a department press release, Allen conducted approximately 25 fraudulent "refunds" in Target and Hecht's stores in Maryland. On Jan. 2, a Target employee apprehended Allen after observing him receive a refund for merchandise he had not purchased.

Oh the dignity! It looks like a lot of individual Republicans are getting to spend more time with their lawyers. I wonder if they have to apologize for all the nasty things they have had to say about trial lawyers. Nah, just charge them double rates.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

My post on trackbackgate below drew a plaintive comment from Matti Pitkanen who is, he says, blacklisted from the ArXiv. I won't pretend to have any opinion on the merits of his work or of his particular case, but it is clear that the existence of the ArXiv has radically changed the landscape of scientific publication. If, as I expect, it gradually supercedes all paper journals, as it largely already has in some fields of physics, those who control the ArXiv will have more or less exclusive control of the dissemination of new results.

This is a radical change from the system of fifteen years ago, when a fringe scientist rejected by mainstream journals could usually find some journal that would publish his results. The history of science shows that although new ideas often arise from the scientific consensus, it is far from rare for them to originate on the fringes, e.g., Wegner, Boltzmann, Margulies, Alvarez.

Trackbackgate illustrates how a few individuals with authority arising mainly from accidental circumstances can make decisions in an essentially unaccountable fashion, without any need to explain or even define their criteria, and that these decisions potentially affect the whole future of science.

I would prefer a system that was truly open, with perhaps three levels of papers: submitted papers, which would be completely open, endorsed papers (similar to the present system), and refereed papers. It would still be necessary to have some method for rejecting commercial and other spam, but I would envision the submitted papers system open to anyone willing to go to the trouble of writing one, no matter how crazy. In any case, it seems imperative that all decisions be made based on objective and published criteria.

It's not clear how this type of system can introduce the kind of market mechanisms and competition which worked after a fashion for paper journals.

Health Care

Arun has a nice table comparing some US health care with the health insurance systems of Canada, Britain, and France. Notice that all three are much cheaper than ours and that all three nations beat us on almost all key measures of health.

No country is completely satisfied with its health care system, but Americans are among the most dissatisfied. Nobody I know thinks that the British or Canadian systems are the model we should shoot for - to many restrictions on doctors and patients, the French system performs very well, is much cheaper than ours, and has high satisfaction among doctors and patients.


Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned today. Rumor has it that she wants to spend more time with her lawyers.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Party Time

"I'm not a member of any organized political party," Will Rogers famously said, "I'm a Democrat." Lately Democrats have been sensing some blood in the water, as the President's poll numbers hover near historic lows and half the Republican Congressional leadership has either been indicted or seems in danger of it. Naturally, being Democrats, they are busy booting opportunity out the window.

They adopted a fatuous and widely derided slogan ("Together, we can do better") that was previously slightly used by the Kerry campaign and the guy with the funky eyebrows, and then proceeded to squabble about the syntax. They do this because they can't agree on the major substantive issues (War, deficit, lobbying reform, health care) and are paralyzed by the fear that whatever they say, Karl Rove will find some band of loonies to advertise it as proof of treason.

They need to start by forgetting any fantasies of impeachment - yes, I too have that dream - but start by facing the fact that it's less likely than demolition by collision with an asteroid. Bush is the guy who's going to be driving this boat for the next three years. He doesn't need somebody to cooperate with him, he needs some critical supervision.

Americans has shown that they mainly prefer divided government, and Democrats need to appeal to that. The President claimed he needed a Republican congress to wage the war on terror and he got it, but what the country got was corruption, incompetence, and a hopelessly bungled war in Iraq. This Presidency needs to be held acountable by a Congress more interested in minding the country's business than stealing its money. We need a Congress willing to find out what the President is doing and hold him to account. A Congress willing to perform its constitutional duties.

Democrats need a platform for 2008, perhaps, but for 2006 they just need to promise to do what the Republicans have not, uphold the Congress's role in oversight


Brad Delong has a long post from C. V. Wedgwood's William the Silent, and it's a reminder that selfless statemanship has occasionally existed:

It was a strange, almost a unique, thing to be the idol of a nation and remain uncorrupted, to be yourself the guardian of the people's rights sometimes against the emotional impulse of the people themselves. In times of emergency and war, in political crisis and national danger it is often expedient to sacrifice the forms--even the spirit--of popular government. Was not this one of the chief reasons why popular governments [have] withered in so many lands during this stormy [twentieth] century?

There lies his greatest claim to recognition: he sought not to impose his own will on the embryo nation, but to let the nation create and form itself. He belonged in spirit to an earlier, a more generous and more cultured age than this [late sixteeth century] of narrowness and authority, and thin, sectarian hatred. But he belonge also to a later age; his deep and genuine interest in the people he ruled, his faith in their development, his toleration, his convinced belief in government by consent--all these reach out from the mediaeval world towards a wider time.
Virtues much despised today.

Meanwhile Juan Cole is less impressed with our current leaders:
The constant drumbeat of hatred toward Muslims and Arabs on the American Right, on television and radio and in the press, has gradually had its effect. This according to a Washington Post poll. Even in the year after September 11, a majority of Americans respected Islam and Muslims, but powerful forces in US society are determined to change that, and are gradually succeeding. As they win, Bin Laden also wins, since his whole enterprise was to "sharpen the contradictions" and provoke a clash of civilizations.

Some 25% of Americans now say they personally are prejudiced against Muslims. And 33% think that Islam as a religion helps incite violence against non-Muslims, up from 14% after September 11.

The Bush administration policy is to continually insinuate that the Muslim world is the new Soviet Union and full of sinister forces that require the US to go to war against them. But at the same time, America has warm relations with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, etc., etc. When Saudi Arabia's then crown prince (now king) Abdullah came to the US, Bush brought him to the Crawford ranch, held hands with him and kissed him on each cheek.

This two-faced policy and self-contradictory rhetoric has contributed to growing hatred and bigotry toward Muslims in the US, which is no less worrisome than the hatred Jews faced in Europe in the 1920s. It is dangerous because of what it can become.

The subtext of bigotry and racism is what has blindsided the Bush administration with regard to the port deal for a company based in Dubai...

The hatemongers are well known. Rupert Murdoch's Fox Cable News, Rush Limbaugh's radio program and its many clones, telebimbos like Ann Coulter, Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham, Congressmen like Tom Tancredo, and a slew of far rightwing Zionists who would vote for Netanyahu (or Kach) if they lived in Israel-- Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, Michael Rubin, David Horowitz, etc., etc. And finally, there are many Muslims who have an interest in whipping up anti-Islamic feeling. Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress helped maneuver the US into a war against Iraq with lies about a Saddam-al-Qaeda connection and illusory WMD. The dissident Islamic Marxist group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is now placing equally false stories about Iran in the Western press and retailing them to Congress and the Pentagon.

The hatemongers think that the American public is sort of like a big stupid dog, and you can fairly easily "sic" it on whoever you like. Just tell them that X people are intrinsically evil and that the US needs to go to war to protect itself from them. Then they turn around and blame those of us who don't want our country reduced to footsoldiers in someone else's greedy crusade for being "unpatriotic."

Juan has a number of other good points, but of course he is walking right past the elephant in the living room, the 9/11 attacks. It is quite true that Rove, Bush, and Cheney chose to exploit this outrage in the most contemptible fashion by using it as a pretext to pursue their idiotic ideas in Iraq, but that very real crime is the real source of anti-Muslim prejudice. Bad and stupid leaders make bad and stupid choices, but we all get to pay for them.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Isn't it Ironic?

Fifteen years ago, just about the same time that Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the World Wide Web, a young string theorist in Los Alamos, New Mexico came up with another really good idea - making string theory preprints available over the net. Physicists had long circulated their important papers to colleagues as typescript papers rather than force everybody to wait through the long months to publication. With Paul Ginsparg's innovation, they could submit their papers as electronic files which could be downloaded the next day by anyone in the world with access to a computer and an internet connection. Subsequent implementation on the World Wide Web made it even simpler.

It was both the fastest and most democratic medium of scientific interchange ever invented. Initially, anyone could submit a paper. An early paper from an obscure Eastern really old Central European university caught the attention of leading researchers, an attention that turned to awe when they learned that the unknown author was still an undergraduate. He was recruited to a US school for graduate study.

Meanwhile, the electronic preprint service had evolved into an electronic archival system, The ArXiv, which now includes almost all of physics, and has branched out into and influenced similar systems in Mathematics and other fields. As it grew, it required rules to regulate it and bureaucrats to administer it.

A recent innovation and the rules governing it have raised some controversy. It seems that a couple of string theorists thought that the ArXiv could be pimped out for the blogospheric age by implementing a trackback feature. One of these, I believe, was that formerly unknown Czech student (remember him) now grown up into, or at any rate become, a professor, the Hammer of the heretics, and the Savonarola of String Theory.

Unfortunately for this string theoretic utopia, the most sinister heretic of them all, the very incarnation of the anti-stringy Satan, had been waiting for just such an opportunity. He had the nerve to attempt to post a trackback to a paper on the Xiv. Fortunately, the forger of this ring of power, er, builder of the track-back mechanism, was not just a member of the ArXiv Politburo, but a full-fledged stringy warrior himself. If Lubos is the Hammer in the String God's (political) right hand, Jacques Distler is the flaming spear in his left. Peter Woit's trackbackery was in vain.

Peter is persistent. He complained to the ArXiv, he complained on his blog. The ArXiv ignored him, but a few other bloggers, mainly led by Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance, started wondering what was going on. Eventually, Jacques posted the explanation of the policy I linked to above. Read it, and make your own decision, but I find myself agreeing squarely with Chad Orzel of Scienceblogs/Uncertain Principles:

I don't really have a dog in this fight-- I find many string theorists downright insufferable, but if I had Peter Woit hounding me, I'd probably be looking for ways to get rid of him, too. If have to say, though, that the explanation Jacques gives is enough to put me firmly on Woit's side-- maybe it's just extremely badly worded, but as he presents it, this sounds like an incredibly obnoxious policy.

This is compounded by the fact that I can't quite see what the problem is that it's trying to solve (other than "keep Peter Woit from annoying us"). What do you gain from turning TrackBacks on if you're going to limit them to an extremely restricted group of people? Isn't the whole point of the enterprise to broaden the pool of people talking about physics?

If you're going to allow TrackBacks at all, it seems to run counter to the spirit of the whole thing to restrict their posting so tightly. If you're that concerned about granting the ArXiv imprimatur to lunatics with weblogs, then shut TrackBacks down completely, or come up with some better standard than this "active researcher" lunacy (if nothing else, a clearly defined threshold number of papers used to determine "active" status)-- and publish the standard, for God's sake. The whole stupid situation was made even worse by having the standards known only to people on the ArXiv board, and not clearly set forth where people trying to post TrackBacks could see it.
(My bold).

The silliest irony of the whole affair is that the purported purpose here is to avoid "trackback spam," a sensible goal with many proven solutions. If you actually go over to the ArXiv, you find that not only are actual trackbacks so inconspicuous as to be almost invisible, they are also as rare as Nobel Prizewinners at a George Bush Rally. I had to look through about twenty abstracts before I recalled that Lubos had dissed Lee Smolin, et. al. at some length on his blog, so there was a trackback on that paper. The paucity of trackbacks probably has something to do with the fact that only 12 blogs have trackbacking privileges. If Cornell's ambition is to make the ArXiv look infantile, obtuse, and silly, they are doing very well indeed.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

RTS: The Gated Way

The institution of serfdom has arisen, or at least perpetuated itself in a variety of societies, though not, as far as I can recall, through quite the mechanisms suggested by Hayek. More generally, the partial or total enslavement of much of the population has occurred in many societies that had more egalitarian origins.

The American founding fathers were quite aware that republican governments had historically proven rather fragile, and John Adams wrote about his analytic study of the mechanisms of failure in the Roman, Florentine, and Greek Republics. One of the key factors he found was the rise of an oligarchy that concentrated wealth and power and became increasingly isolated from and distinct from the rest of the citizenry. He and others in our government considered that possibility a major threat to our own republic, and consequently passed laws intended to prevent that eventuality from occurring here.

Nonetheless, an American aristocracy of wealth and birth did arise, and by end of the Nineteenth Century had accumulated most of the trappings of nobility - private communities, mansions with hordes of servants and largely endgamous mating patterns. The income tax was initiated partly in response to this phenomenon, and that, combined with more fundamental economic factors, produced a rich and relatively egalitarian society in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

That egalitarian society has suffered major damage since the 1970's. Globalization, technology, and especially the changes in taxation patterns initiated by Saint Reagan (big tax cuts for the rich, big tax increases for the middle class and working poor) have produced huge changes in the wealth distribution in the US.

Brad Delong excerpted Paul Krugman's NYT column:

What we’re seeing isn’t the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.


So who are the winners from rising inequality? It’s not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent. The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that. A new research paper by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, “Where Did the Productivity Growth Go?,” gives the details. Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn’t a ticket to big income gains. But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that’s not a misprint.

Just to give you a sense of who we’re talking about: the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that this year the 99th percentile will correspond to an income of $402,306, and the 99.9th percentile to an income of $1,672,726. The center doesn’t give a number for the 99.99th percentile, but it’s probably well over $6 million a year.

In 1968 a 99.9 percentile income was about forty times that of a 25 percentile income. By 1990 it was four hundred times as large. There is every reason to believe the disparity continues to increase. The Bush administration, oddly enough, has not been very forthcoming about changes since 2001, but the impact of their tax policies is clear. Taxes for the richest decreased far more than those for anyone else.

The gated community is the modern manifestation of membership in the oligarchy. If you have a few million dollars to spare you might qualify to join
The Yellowstone Club. It and it's founder, Tim Blixeth are lovingly portrayed in this week's New York Times Magazine by Susan Dominus. Tired of rubbing elbows with the upper middle class hoi polloi at Aspen? Embarrassed by the humiliation of having to call for a tee time at your allegedly exclusive country club? Join the Yellowstone Club and golf and ski in a private gated ski resort and golf course. Warm up by hopping on your private jet to the branch campus on the Mexican Gulf coast. You can bet you won't find any surly lift attendants at the Yellowstone club Montana, and the bar boys will jump when you lift your finger in Mexico.

There are other advantages. Your security, and your children's are being watched over by a crack security team headed by a former Secret Service biggie.

You can't blame the rich and famous for joining up. Bill Gates has to know that there are quite possibly criminals or even terrorists who might like to snatch his kids. And if your kid has to learn to snowboard from some local snow punk, at least he will be wearing the servants livery.