Friday, February 29, 2008

Headline Reader

Mickey Kaus asks: "Is the GQ Man a wuss?"

Since I don't read Kaus (it's a blood pressure thing), I have no idea what the actual subject matter is, but it sounds to me like the start of an exciting series: "Is the Pope Catholic?... Does a bear sleep in the woods?..."

Dark Arts

Jo Rowling is sueing the author of an unauthorized Harry Potter encylopedia. She apparently claims that his book is a threat to her next billion bucks. I'm no lawyer, but it sounds to me like she has no case - the proposed encyclopedia is almost certainly a critical work of the type protected by fair use laws. On the other hand, she, unlike the author, has the money and lawyers to summon up plenty of practitioners of the dark arts to crush him.

I suspect she would do more for her future earnings and the artistic integrity of her work if she would do something about the increasingly stinko movie versions of the books - each one seemingly worse than the last.

Of course it's pretty clear that she has lost touch with her story - that stupid bit about Dumbledore being gay, for example. How she could confuse a minor homoerotic element of a relationship with sexual orientation is really a mystery to me. Of course, she made the obverse mistake with Ginny. Pretty much everybody but Harry and Jo knew that she was a lesbian - which turned out to be responsible for the unfortunate breakup of their marriage after the birth of their first child.

Rowling was also too obtuse to notice that Ron was much too dumb and boring for Hermione - another early divorce, of course.

Perhaps Rowling is sueing in the hope of being able to fix those little blunders in her version of the encyclopedia. Here's hoping she gets handed her ass on the suit.


As we progress through our eighth year of George W Bush, I note that the stock market indices, in dollars, are now just about where they were when Bush took office. Meanwhile, the dollar has lost about 1/3 of its value against the Euro, 2/3 of its value against the oil barrel, and the country has been saddled with a mountain of new debt. By almost any measure, Americans are far poorer today than when Bush became president.

Nonetheless, John McCain and virtually all other Republicans remained committed to the same disastrous policies. There is one group that has benefitted from the Bush policies - the very rich. Some hangers on, like Cheney, have also done very well.

If the American people fall for this stupidity again, they are probably beyond hope.

Options May be a Failure

We have a tendency to want to keep our options open. This is a very good principle for defense, escape and evasion, but it can also inhibit accomplishment. If we think too much about the road not taken, we are going to spend all our time at that fork in the road.

John Tierney, writing in The New York Times talks about a study and a famous example:

The next time you’re juggling options — which friend to see, which house to buy, which career to pursue — try asking yourself this question: What would Xiang Yu do?

Xiang Yu was a Chinese general in the third century B.C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making. He crushed his troops’ cooking pots and burned their ships.

He explained this was to focus them on moving forward — a motivational speech that was not appreciated by many of the soldiers watching their retreat option go up in flames. But General Xiang Yu would be vindicated, both on the battlefield and in the annals of social science research.

Of course we don't remember the names of other would be conquerers who tried the same maneuver only to be slaughtered on the beaches or starve for lack of cooking pots.

I wonder if my habit of buying more books than I can read is another example of keeping too many options open. I would probably learn more by finishing the ones I have than by buying new ones in the hope that they might be clearer.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Craig Ventner: Bullshit!

OK, Craig Venter is the wizard who won the contest to sequence a human genome (his own), but I have got to call bullshit on this story:

A scientist who mapped his genome and the genetic diversity of the oceans said Thursday he is creating a life form that feeds on climate-ruining carbon dioxide to produce fuel.

Geneticist Craig Venter disclosed his potentially world-changing "fourth-generation fuel" project at an elite Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in Monterey, California.

"We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy," Venter told an audience that included global warming fighter Al Gore and Google co-founder Larry Page.

"We think we will have fourth-generation fuels in about 18 months, with CO2 as the fuel stock."

You can't use CO2 as fuel - fuel has to supply free energy, and CO2 can't do that. We already have organisms that convert CO2 to fuel - we call them plants - but the CO2 is not a fuel, it's a substrate, the process is fueled by solar energy from the Sun. Something has to supply the free energy if you are going to convert CO2 to a fuel.

I suspect that what Ventner really has in mind are some altered bugs that use Sunlight to make CO2 into a more directly useable fuel - something more like gasoline, but the story as written is bullshit.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William Buckley

William Buckley was handsome, accomplished, and urbane, not to mention wealthy and patrician. His vocabulary was seemingly beyond pretention and affectation. As author, editor, and television host he was a major voice for American conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century. His causes were mostly unholy, including racism, Franco's fascism, and MaCarthyism.

American conservatism has usually been a mix of aristocrats bent on conserving their wealth and power and yahoos bent on conserving ignorance, superstition and their own prejudices. Buckley put a sophisticated and amiable sounding face on these, thus doing a lot to make conservatism appear respectable.

His work lives on in the National Review, but the urbanity has largely given way to the fulminations of mouth-breathing yahoos.

Brad DeLong has his own funeral orations.

Comment Policy

The management reserves the right to summarily delete personal insults. This should be a seminar, not a food fight, as Brad DeLong puts it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Debate: My Read

Hillary came out swinging, but Obama seemingly effortlessly flicked away every punch that she or Russert could throw. The master boxer dominated the debate, and though Hillary fought gamely, she looked defeated at the end.

But WTF do I know?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Call Me a Cockeyed Optimist!

The counsel of despair and surrender to Mordor is everywhere, but I'm feeling optimistic. I think there is definitely a tide turning, a tide that will likely sweep away many of the evils of Bushworld. More and more attention is focussed on Bush crimes: the Haynes resignation and the 60 minutes expose of the Siegelman lynching for two. Corporate media is still largely in the Bush-Cheney time warp, but they may not even be that relevant anymore.

What Does Ralph Want?

For most Democrats, Ralph Nader evokes such a strong aversion instinct that it's difficult to try and imagine his motivations. Aside from the visceral first name response, there is a strong feeling of betrayal: here is a person who claims to believe many or most of the things we do, openly and unapologetically furthering the enemy agenda.

Never mind the shallow dishonesties - that there is no real difference between the parties, that he didn't really influence the results, that his candidacy "pulls" the Democrat to the left. I don't think Nader believes any of these, and certainly I don't.

The usual explanation is that he is a narcissist with a messianic complex. That fits a lot of the known personality facts: the monk and the fanatic, for example. I suspect, though, that there is more.

Nader and the Bushies share a very important trait: they don't want to reform the US, they want to destroy it and build it anew. The Bushies, apparently, want to establish a post-medieval oligarchy, so they strike at the foundations of modern democracy: voting rights, public education, and social security. Nader is more of a guess, but he would seem to be one of those stern utopian socialists who knows how everyone else ought to live.

For the revolutionary of every stripe, the reformer is enemy number one. The revolutionary doesn't want the system reformed, he wants it destroyed. Thus, for Nader, the catastrophic policies of Bush could be seen as a necessary step to promote the revolution, while Gore would have just delayed revolution with reform.

He may hope to play the same role with Obama or Hillary. Or maybe he really is just another senile narcissist, doomed to keep playing the same role as it transitions from tragedy to farce to an ultimately contemptible pathos.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mathematical Memories

A big battle in mathematics teaching concerns the importance of memorization. The latest incarnations of "new math" are adamantly anti-memorization. I have a small amount of sympathy for this point of view: rote memorization of algorithms not understood seems increasingly pointless in the age of the calculator. My hostility toward the modern approach is based on my experience with students who don't know their multiplication or addition tables. It's hopeless to try to teach children how to reduce fractions, determine primality, or almost anything else when they don't know the basic arithmetic facts, and need to add on their fingers.

When I was in seventh or eight grade, the new, 'hard' arithmetic we learned was taking square roots. I believe the algorithm was a variation on Newton's method, performed in a fashion to look like long division. I remember absolutely no discussion of how, or why it worked - it was just a succession of memorized procedures. It might have had some marginal utility in those pre-calculator days. It would be absolutely silly to teach kids to do this now.

Many of the algorithms we sweated over in school are a bit like that today. In the age of calculator, does it still make sense to teach kids to do column addition? How about multi-digit multiplication, or long division? I admit to some ambivalence on these. Let me try a wishy-washy middle of the road answer: yes, they should be taught, because the algorithms are useful objects for futher generalization, but only minimal competence is really required - speed and precision are overkill. The many pages of column addition I had to do as a kid would be absurd today.

I am more fanatical about the basic facts: every kid should drill to mastery on addition facts and the multiplication tables. Ditto on concepts like place value, the algorithms for simplifying fractions, adding fractions, and multiplying and dividing fractions. Without the multiplication facts, notions of primality and fractions are impossible to master.

Memorization is bad when it substitutes for understanding, but properly employed, it forms the skeletal structure upon which understanding can be built. Memory gives examples upon which understanding can be built. Facts are the signposts of our memory in every field, even an abstract one like mathematics.

Memorization of dates is a similar bugaboo in history, but it is attaching occurences to dates that permits us to make sense of historical connections. How could one understand the relationship of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, for example, without knowing at least approximately when Mohammed, Jesus, and Moses lived?

I recently tried doing some elementary problems in a quantum field theory book. The first problem I encountered was that I had lost contact with certain neccessary technology: I had forgotten what little I had known about the traces of matrices. The key facts are pretty simple, and Wikipedia had them, but without them I would have been helpless.

It's the same in everything, I think. Everybody needs to remember a lot just in order to do his job and survive. Memorization needs to be understood not as an alternative to understanding, but as an essential ingredient of it. Medical students spend a lot of effort to learn names of bones, muscles, and nerves not because those names are important but because they need to be able to understand how all those parts work together, and because the names are needed to keep straight what is what and how it relates to the rest of the world.

Dead Presidents

Ralph Nader becomes the first person to run for president while already dead. Or maybe not. I was just going by his Huffpo campaign picture.

Bobby Fisher

Dick Cavett has a magnificent remembrance of Bobby Fisher in which we can still see the charismatic genius later laid low by devastating mental illness.

Once seated, he was something to behold. Six foot two (tall in those days), athletic in build, perfect in grooming, and with striking features. The face radiated intelligence. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone you’d ever seen.
And there were the eyes.
Cameras fail to convey the effect of his eyes when they were looking at you. A bit of Svengali perhaps, but vulnerable. And only the slightest hint of a sort of theatrical menace, the menace that so disconcerted his opponents.
Looking out over the audience, I could clearly see entranced women gazing at him as if willing to offer their hearts — and perhaps more — to the hunky chess master.
When I asked him about such matters, he said that the awful demands of his life — the global travel; the constant study, sometimes until dawn, followed by play; the punishing five-hour sessions at full concentration, day after day — all this made it “pretty hard to . . . [hesitates] . . . build up a relationship.” He seemed quite surprised with himself, as did friends watching, that he had allowed so revealing a moment. (That old Cavett magic, no doubt.)
One thing he said in that first appearance became famous. At one point I asked him what, in terms of thrills, the chess equivalent might be of, say, hitting a home run. His answer: “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” There was a trace of a chill in his laughter.

Si Se Puede Cambiar

An Obama anthem?

Saturday, February 23, 2008


The egregious William Saletan is at it again on heredity. Last time we paid attention to him, he was trying to sell us on the genetic character of racial differences on IQ tests. His credibility got shredded on that issue, so this time he is back on the subject of obesity, and for good measure, is taking the side of nurture rather than nature.

The logic works like this: obesity develops in childhood, obesity is overwhelmingly genetic, but, obesity is increasing and genes can't have changed, so it must be the parents fault.

An editorial on the study, published in the same journal, explains:

[T]he shared-environment effect is the result of the degree of variability of environments that were observed in the sample, and, therefore, it cannot be used to infer the possible effects of altering the environment in which we all live and that may vary only modestly among families. If all homes, for example, had the same poor dietary and exercise practices, the shared-environment effect would be estimated as zero, and yet it would be entirely appropriate to attribute much of the obesity to parental behaviors.

There is one crucial flaw in this argument, embraced by the journal editors and Saletan, but not by the study authors: there is zero evidence to back up this pure speculation. The nature of the environmental change promoting modern obesity is not known, nor is it known whether parents can control it. What is known is that all sorts of intensive interventions have failed.

It's certainly plausible that lifestyle changes like less exercise promote obesity. It's also true that intervention to significantly increase exercise have repeatedly failed to prevent or decrease obesity. We can't rule out the possibility that some large external factor plays a role: hormone like pesticides in the food, vitamin additives to the food, etc., etc., etc.

In the meantime, until Mr. Saletan and the smug assholes who edit The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition can point to some intervention that actually works to prevent or decrease obesity, they ought to save their lectures. They won't do so, because that would just be to admit that they are practicing a "science" without useful results.

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Lumo explains why the LHC is not a threat to the Universe or even the local planet. Somehow, I would find the message more reassuring from almost anybody else.

Friday, February 22, 2008


At Lee's suggestion, I added a librarything link to some of my books. Most of the books listed are on physics. You might notice that I have a lot of old junk. This is not coincidence - I pretty much am old junk.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ready to Lead on Day One

Unfortunately, it's already day two, and Hillary doesn't seem prepared to handle it. Paul Loeb has comments:

I know it seems a geological eon ago, but remember the resignation of Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle? And how Doyle never told Clinton about the campaign's massive hemorrhaging of cash, while Clinton kept Solis in the dark when she took out her $5 million personal loan? I couldn't clear my mind from the endless tape loop of "a candidate ready to lead on day one," and started wondering what that incident reveals about Hillary Clinton's competence, transparency and trust.

In fact, I wonder whether she specifically surrounds herself with people who are so intimidated they can't even stand up and disagree with her, or tell her bad news. Personal loyalty is fine, but we've had plenty of that in the current administration, with disastrous results. The charges and counter-charges around Doyle's departure suggest either that Clinton's built a team that is sharply lacking in basic skills, like high school math, or that she has a character that makes people afraid to challenge her.

Think about her foreign policy advisors. As political scientist Stephen Zunes explores, almost every one of them supported the war in Iraq, (while Obama's overwhelmingly opposed it), and many have spoken out on supporting the Petraeus "surge." Had Clinton surrounded herself with Iraq war skeptics, this might cast a shadow on her own stand. But these people are fine with her rationalizing it.

In fact, Hillary has a consistent pattern of refusing to admit mistakes. Had she flat out admitted her Iraq war vote was wrong, she might well now be the presumptive nominee, but she chose instead to evade its implications through an endless succession of rationalizations and technicalities. She did the same thing with her vote on a regressive bankruptcy bill, which she now claims didn't matter since the bill ended up not passing. And she's doing the same thing with NAFTA. Bill Clinton staked much of his political capital in making it the centerpiece of his first term achievements, in the process creating so much anger and backlash among labor and environmental activists that many stayed home and helped the Gingrich Republicans sweep to their 1994 upset victory. Now, Hillary is saying, she'd always privately argued against against it, so bears no responsibility for its hollowing out of America's industrial base.


How should we teach elementary mathematics? This is a subject close to my heart and once again the focus of fierce educational warfare. As a student, parent, and spouse of an elementary school teacher I have been exposed to a few of these battles, and it's always presented as a contest of the good new way versus some obsolete old bad way. The latest episode is the battle over so-called "Math Investigations," published by Pearson, developed by a nonprofit called TERC, based, perhaps very loosely, on standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

It has attracted a lot of hostility from parents, including some highly mathematically literate parents. It seems to have considerable support for the educational establishment, and is the flagship product of a publishing behemoth.

The basic content, in so far as I can tell, is an emphasis of student discovery of problem solving methods, a strong de-emphasis on memorization, heavy use of calculators, and a role for the teacher as facilitator rather than leader. Students encourage to try different problem approaches like drawing pictures, using manipulables, and counting on their fingers.

The WaPo has this story on some rumbling of parental revolt. A couple of foci for parent anger are the lack of textbooks and wholesale discarding of much traditional nomeclature, and especially, painful experience.

Greg Barlow, an Air Force officer in the defense secretary's office at the Pentagon, was helping his 8-year-old son, Christian, one recent night with a vexing problem: What is 674 plus 249?

The Prince William County third-grader did not stack the numbers and carry digits from one column to the next, the way generations have learned. Applying lessons from his school's new math textbook, "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space," Christian tried breaking the problem into easier-to-digest numbers.

But after several seconds, he got stumped. He drew lines connecting digits, and his computation amounted to an upside-down pyramid with numbers at the bottom. His father, in a teacherly tone, nudged him toward the old-fashioned method. "How would you do that another way?" Barlow asked.

A personal pet peeve for me is the de-emphasis memorization. For some reason, modern education has an absolute fetish against it, but memory is probably the most fundamental human talent, and children are very, very good at it.

Defenders of TERC say that they are teaching understanding, not memorized algorithms made obsolete by the calculator.

Carol Knight, Prince William's math supervisor, said that when children break down numbers into multiples of 10 and 100, their understanding of place value and "number sense" increases.

"Memorization will only carry you so far," Knight said. "With 'Investigations,' kids understand the real values of the numbers and are not doing shortcuts. When they multiply 23 times 5, they'll do five 20s to get 100, and then add five 3s to get 15, and they put that all together and get 115. What they've done is made actual use of the numbers."

Sounds reasonable, alright, but it gets a bit messy if you want to multiply, say, 1024 by 319, since you get twelve terms in your sum with up to seven digits in each. Which is why we have calculators.

The battle has been taken to youtube. Anti TERC (and another somewhat similar program called Everyday Mathematics) is represented by : Math Education, an Inconvenient Truth while the case for the defense is presented in here.

If you watch them, I would be interested in your reactions.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Un error

Tribute bands are rarely any good, and it's usually a mistake for ordinary mortals to attempt the feats of the extraordinary. I should never attempt to imitate Michael Jordan for example.

Lindsey Lohan was a very cute kid, and she is a pretty young woman, but MM she's not [Link may not be work safe, as they say, but the nudity is very mild].

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Strange Beauty

Any physicist or physics fan who hasn't read George Johnson's Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics is missing a great read. Johnson has written a deeply penetrating biography of Murray Gell-Mann - my vote for greatest living physicist. Gell-Mann is an outsized personality as well as a great physicist and genuine polymath.

The reviews in my link above describe him as irrascible, but that seems a bit imprecise. Despite his huge accomplishment, he is clearly gnawed at by deep insecurities that apparently prompt his many faults: jealousies petty and grand, pomposity, pedantry, and an apparently incurable impulse to demean others. The Nobel laureate can't escape the insecure prodigy bent on showing up the big kids.

One great virtue of Johnson's writing is that he can show us the pompous, mean-spirited intellectual bully and still get us to like him.

Especially recommended for younger physicists who know little of the heroic age of particle physics before the triumph of the Standard Model. Gell-Mann's ideas and discoveries played a key role in setting physics up for that triumph. Feynman once said that "there is no important result in particle physics that doesn't have Gell-Mann's name on it." It was typically double-edged Feynman in that inside the genuine praise is a hint at Gell-Mann's habit of tending to claim all the credit for discoveries due in part to others.

A prominent physicist and Gell-Mann friend who reviewed the book reports asking him about it. "There is an error on every page," Gell-Mann replied. Maybe so, said the reviewer, but the stuff Johnson got right was much more important. It showed the world "the real Murray."

Gell-Mann's great rival Feynman was an even more outsized personality, and his combination of aw-shucks manner and charisma (not to mention brilliance) made him a perfect weapon of destruction for Gell-Mann's pretentiousness. Combined, they were a perfect murderer's row for those who dared to present colloquia at Caltech - rude, obnoxious, and oh so unreasonably brilliant.

Children as Decor

Way too much time on my hands at the moment.

Julie Scelfo, writing in the New York Times, has an article, Children are not Decor, on the struggles of the style conscious to coexist with children. Pretty chilling stuff to someone like me who is naturally offended by style and decor.

I categorize the parents profiled as follows: Acceptable parents 20%; Possibly adequate parents 40%; Should have been sterilized 20%; Should be restrained by court order from ever being within 300 yards of a child 10%; Should probably be shot on sight 10%.

Hot Hot Hot

A fever is your body's way of saying f*** y** to a virus or other invader. Or maybe it's the other way around. I could check it out, but I've got too high a fever to handle that much intellectual processing.

Yes, I have the flu, and I hate it.

If my posts seem even more incoherent than normal lately, that's the excuse I'm sticking to. I'm pretty sure that intellectual processing gets very murky somewhere over the 103 F mark, which is where I spike every time my tylenol fix runs out. At that point, reality and some aspects of oddly abstract fantasy seem to blend. At 103.9 (measured after I got out of bed and took a couple of acetominophen) my current planning imperatives (whether I would get up and freeze) seemed to be embedded on one of those multidirectional circular control disks - sort of a pie chart with choices.

Meat, the Parents

Artificial Intelligence has a long history of underperformance versus the predictions of its enthusiasts. Nonetheless, Ray Kurzweil has some AI chops and he is predicting that machine intelligence will match human by 2029.

Humanity is on the brink of advances that will see tiny robots implanted in people's brains to make them more intelligent said engineer Ray Kurzweil.

He said machines and humans would eventually merge through devices implanted in the body to boost intelligence and health.

There's one part of this scenario I find implausible. Once computers develop the self-awareness and general competence to outdo us at everything, why would they bother to keep that messy, fragile and expensive meat part around?

Evolutionary breakthroughs are usually accompanied by widespread extinctions of more primitive types that can no longer compete.

Don't Know Nuthin

I caught Jon Stewart interviewing Lee Siegel tonight (a repeat of yesterdays show). Siegel has written a book called: Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. Jon roughed him up a bit, but not, apparently, enough.

It seems that Mr. Siegel, who inveighs against the hazards of internet anonymity, has some personal experience. He is, in fact, the guy who put the "sock" in sock puppet.

Patricia Cohen, in an article that is mainly about another book, manages to slip in the following well chosen demolition:

Mr. Siegel, one might remember, was suspended by The New Republic for using a fake online persona in order to trash critics of his blog (“you couldn’t tie Siegel’s shoelaces”) and to praise himself (“brave, brilliant”).

Another book is Cohen's main interest: The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Jacoby is disturbed that Americans are so damn dumb, and don't seem to care. She got the idea for her book on 9/11:

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

Writing a book about ignorance is a safe strategy, since the dummies won't read it. Whether "starting a national conversation" on the subject is likely to be fruitful, I couldn't say. My personal recipe for decreasing American stupidity would start with shipping Rupert Murdoch back to Australia together with all his minions, newspapers and their associated slime trails, perhaps in a barrel of vinegar. I have quite a long list of people he should take with him.

Friday, February 15, 2008

No One Could Have Predicted This

I am always a bit suspicious of the statements people make when some whack job goes out and starts shooting people.

In recent weeks, Steve Kazmierczak, turned erratic after suspending an unidentified medication. He gathered the tools for a slaughter, and carried it out quickly, silently and without emotion.

But that person bore no resemblance to the 27-year-old man who Donald Grady, the chief of the college’s department of public safety, said “was revered by the faculty and staff and students alike” and was completely unknown to police.

"Revered by faculty and staff?" Now some grad students are liked, and a very few might even be considered able, but I'm having a lot of trouble wrapping my brain around the reverence. I have known some memorable grad students, and even a couple that might be called legendary (and not in a good way) but never one who was revered. But maybe that's just me.

Pimp My ASAT

The Bushies stated rationale for their plan to disrupt that falling surveilance satellite seems to be provoking a bit of mirth among the pros. David Kurtz at Josh Marshall's TPM links to this detailed discussion. A few lowlights:

The Pentagon says it has to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite because of the threat of a toxic gas cloud. Space security experts are calling the rationale highly unlikely. "Having the US government spend millions of dollars to destroy a billion-dollar failure to save zero lives is comedic gold," one tells DANGER ROOM.

Lots of hydrazine tanks have fallen to Earth already, without doing any harm. Even in the worst case scenario, the hazard area is small - a couple of football fields.

"The cynic in me says that the idea that this is being done to protect the lives of humans is simply a feel-good cover story tossed to the media," another veteran space security specialist adds. "It is true that hydrazine is very toxic and could result injury or death, but the odds of this happening are minuscule. The average person in American is many thousands of times more likely to be killed in a car accident than by any falling debris. In fact, no one has ever been killed by space debris (I have heard of one or two being struck but only minor injuries). So pretty much everything else you can think of (including getting hit by an asteroid/comet) is many times more likely than dying from this. Having the US government spend millions of dollars to destroy a billion-dollar failure to save zero lives is comedic gold."

We are, of course, used to the Bushies lying about anything and everything. There are more plausible rationales - We want to show Chinese that they aren't the only ones who can zap a satellite and, no doubt, some defense contractor smells billions in anti-satellite warfare money.


A quick check of my bookshelves suggests that I have something like thirty-leven books on Quantum Field Theory, some, so be sure, of only historical interest. Surely that should be enough for any but the dullest student to learn the subject.

So why the heck did I just buy another one?

Well, hope springs eternal, and now that there are approximately as many QFT texts as there are students, somebody has to support the industry.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

House Shows Spine

It's about time, but the House refused to knuckle under and pass the Spying on Americans Act with telecom immunity. Naturally, the Pres is in a snit and the House Republicans slipped into mass hysteria.

Let's see more, please.


The trouble is he's crazy....
The trouble is he's lazy...

We're no good, we're no good!
We're no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good

..................Gee Officer Krupke, West Side Story

Obesity is one of those subjects on which everyone can have an opinion, and on which most can be utterly wrong, because useful answers aren't known. It's not so much that research hasn't been done, it has. It's actually that nobody wants to hear the results. Certain truisms exist, but may do more to obscure reality than illuminate it.

The central truism of obesity, known to Hippocrates, is that if you eat less and exercise more, you will lose weight. Systematic starvation works. If you take normal weight individuals and starve twenty pounds or so off of them, their metabolism slows drastically, they lose much less than the calorie count suggests, their thinking muddles, they can't think of anything else but food, and they display increasing signs of neuroticism.

If you take normal weight individuals, cause them to eat much more than normal, they gain some weight, but have a 50% increase in metabolic rate, and gain far less than the tale of the calories would predict.

Most interestingly, if fat people are starved down to a normal weight, they display all the physiological characteristics of the normal people starved to well below their normal weights.

Study after study has shown that for the overwhelming majority of people, diets don't work, except in the short run.

Most people, including doctors (most of whom seem clueless about the relevant research), prefer to blame obesity on the obese. It's convenient, since thin people have about as much insight into the problem as tall people have to being short. (You really should gain some height - you will feel better and have more friends)

There is little doubt that people are growing fatter, so it would be premature to dismiss environmental factors, but efforts to control such factors almost always fail.

This is a pre-completion book report for Rethinking Thin, by Gina Kolata.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Old Acquaintance/Super

I went to a little trouble to look up OA. It wasn't so easy, since he lives about forty miles from nowhere, down dirt roads and worse. I brought the beer - Corona, his favorite, so I hoped he might be a bit less taciturn than usual.

He welcomed me warmly, which is to say that he put down his shotgun when he recognized me (or maybe the Corona), and invited me in.

I didn't spend a lot of time on the usual BS. I pretty much went straight for the question - which super power did you choose? I mentioned that my correspondents had gone heavily for the purse.

"They probably don't realize how tough it is to cash in a few hundred kilo's of gold", he said. "Besides, I'm pretty well fixed from ... before."

I could never get him to be specific about that "before." I know that he used to be some kind of electronic hardware engineer, but I can't make up my mind if he cashed out of, played poker, or smuggled whatever.

"Mind reading doesn't look so hot either. Whose mind would I read? Butch's? I occasionally get some temporary female company out here, but it might not be too good an idea to find out what the girls are thinking either."

Butch is his old German Shepard.

"So you picked flying?" I said.

"I didn't say that," he said. "It has its own downside. I would look pretty silly doing Immelmans on a broom stick."

Clearly he wasn't going to tell me more, so I finished another Corona or two, and headed back towards civilization.

So did that old rascal not take any, I wondered.

Following that crappy road was none too easy in the dark, so I kept glancing up at the not-quite-half moon to orient myself.

On one of those glances I saw the oddest looking crow flash across the moon, and if I'm not mistaken, climb into an Immelman. I didn't know crows did that.

The Fifth

Roger Clemens should definitely have taken the fifth - or else been honest. Most people really hate the slammer.

That testimony was not a pretty sight.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I Can do Anything Better than You Can

I don't think that there is any more air beneath the wings of the meme that Obama isn't up to the rigors of a tough campaign against the Republicans. He has out-strategized and out-organized Hillary in the past weeks, and she can't compete in charisma.

It isn't over 'til it's over, but it's approaching the point where Hillary will need a miracle or big Obama blunder to win it.

His victory speech was textbook. Without stooping to any personal attack, he sharply drew the lines between himself and Hillary and especially between himself and McCain. He lauded McCain as a hero but still managed to skewer him for his policies and his policy flipflops.

Monday, February 11, 2008


The guys I went to lunch with today got talking about places with bad weather - one of them was headed to Omaha, and it was clear, sunny, and about 70 F here. It ocurred to me that I've never lived in a place with bad weather. I've lived places where the blizzards get down to 50 below, and other places where the summer can bake up to 122 F, and spent some time where the mud was thigh deep before it froze, but none of them ever impressed me as having bad weather. I've been lucky, I guess, and I've never lived in Omaha.

In the March Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb has some regrets about the roads not taken, and tries to make the case that women should be willing to settle for Mr. Good Enough. It's a keenly observed article, and she has some good lines:

Once you’re married, it’s not about whom you want to go on vacation with; it’s about whom you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business. And I mean this in a good way.

Actually, if you've got kids, it's not a nonprofit, but I can agree with most of that.

She makes the argument for settling, but she can't sell herself. My feeling is that the problem is more fundamental. If you set out trying to pick a mate the way you would try to pick the perfect pair of shoes, you are bound to be disappointed.

Gottlieb has a kid (sperm donor) but has she ever said to herself "This kid is almost good enough, but he really doesn't seem to be as pretty as Tom Cruise, as athletic as Michael Jordan, or as smart as Ed Witten. Maybe I shouldn't have settled?"

She, and her like minded friends, seem to me to have their minds too focussed on their own navels. They can never be satisfied, because they are too self-centered.

Of course I'm in no position to lecture or give advice. I been extremely lucky in my spouse and family, and I've never had to live anywhere with bad weather, or even in Omaha.

Don't Know Much about Bi-ol-o-gy

Proteins are the rock stars of the cellular macromolecules. They are also the policemen, carpenters, truck drivers, trucks, and heavy construction materials, not to mention the chemists, engineers, and heavy and light machinery. These protean characters are all assembled from the same seemingly boring pattern though - long one-dimensional chains composed of just twenty types of subunits - one damn thing after another.

I have, you might just guess, reached the end of the Protein chapter of Bray, Alberts, et als Essential Cell Biology, and I've become quite fond of it. It's a really nice piece of pedagogy. I've probably already mentioned that it has approximately one million words and a similar number of pictures - all excellently executed and instructive. Another nice touch is the problems, some of which are distributed in the text and others concentrated at the ends of chapters. I find them moderately challenging - I mean I miss a lot of the answers - and highly instructive. they nearly always have highly relevant pedagogical points.

Bad News for Obama?

An inauspicious augery hidden amongst all the good news for Obama this weekend: Bill Kristol thinks he might win -
Obama’s Path to Victory .

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Cutting Up

John C Dvorak is promoting the theory that all those cable cuttings in the Middle East might not just be coincidence.

Nobody knows what caused the cut cables in the Mediterranean that interrupted Internet service to parts of the Middle East last week, but there are now conspiracy theories galore written by bloggers and pundits.
Some say it will benefit terrorists and Iran somehow. In fact, the cut cables -- originally blamed on ships dragging anchors -- look more like a ploy by some intelligence agency to disrupt Iranian commerce, specifically an emerging oil bourse that the Iranians have been quietly establishing and hoped to roll out fully in the next 60 days.

If so, there is no lack of suspects. The US, harassing Iran just to show we can? Israel?

The cuttings were at least initially blamed on dragging ship's anchors. If that theory has any credibility whatsoever, it certainly implies that cable cutting is not so tough. This sounds like the kind of information warfare that anyone with a boat and an anchor could wage.

Most of the worlds communication traffic is via fiber optic cables, and a lot of the network lies under the oceans.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Trouble with Entropy

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations-then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation-well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation." (Eddington, A.S.,

…………… The Nature of the Physical World

I suspect that at least 95% of physicists think that statistical mechanics and statistical entropy explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The rest of us are a bit less sure.

Entropy in statistical mechanics is proportional to logarithm of the volume of phase space occupied by the statistical ensemble in question. The volume occupied in phase space is just the volume of all accessible states of the system. A classic simple system is a perfect gas in box divided into two parts by a removable partition, with all the molecules initially on one side. When the partition is removed the volume of the box doubles, and the volume of accessible phase space increases by a factor of 2^N, where N is the number of molecules. The consequent entropy increase of N log 2 agrees well with experiment.

So where is there a problem? A fundamental theorem of Hamiltonian dynamics, called Liouville’s Theorem, says that in Hamiltonian evolution the volume of an ensemble of systems in phase space is unchanged. There is a little problem of the contrast between “unchanged” and “increases by a factor of 2^N.” The conventional explanation is that when the ensemble expands into the larger phase space, it does so by developing “fingers” that project almost everywhere into the larger volume while retaining their original volume. Thus, the initial space filling volume transforms itself into a dense network of tiny filaments. The entropy increase is captured only when you “coarse grain,” or divide up the phase space into large blocks and count as part of the new, larger, phase space any volume which has a trace of the old volume. The problem is that this seems to do a bit of violence to the notion that all accessible points in the phase space be occupied. I should mention that the above reasoning is based on an ideal, isolated system, an ideal not reached for real systems where various fudges are available. That last is not possible when we consider the Universe as a whole, where the problem of defining entropy becomes more acute.

Roger Penrose talks a bit about these matters in his book The Road to Reality. He is inclined to suspect that this subjective or arbitrary element in the definition and computation of entropy might be hiding important truths. As usual, I’m hoping my readers might have some insights that would clarify these thorny questions.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Hold the Pepsi, Hold the Fries

I'm going to guess that most of us would not have considered french fries and cola drinks to be health foods. Some, like your humble correspondent, were taken in by the idea that diet versions of the soft drinks would be less unhealthy. A couple of new studies blow that one out of the water.

Consumption of diet drinks, it seems, is strongly correlated with so-called metabolic syndrome, as reported in the NYT story by Nicholas Bakalar.

Researchers have found a correlation between drinking diet soda and metabolic syndrome — the collection of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes that include abdominal obesity, high cholesterol and blood glucose levels — and elevated blood pressure.

Fried foods, surprise, surprise, are also bad, but not as bad. Ditto red meat and refined grains.

Combine that with an earlier report that cola drinks, diet or no, tend to kill your kidneys, and you have a recipe for knocking the heck out of my basic food groups.

So what does that leave? Nuts and grass just don't sound that appetising to me.

Ensembles, Ergodicity, and Entropy

Wherein our author continues his attempts to understand stat mech, as inspired by the critiques of Arun and Lumo.

What is the relationship between the ensembles of statistical mechanics and the physical systems that they represent? In the case of a classical system, its coordinates qi and momenta pi (i=1…N) are supposed to have definite values at each point of time, so that the state of a system at an instant should correspond to a single point in the 2 N dimensional Hamiltonian phase space (actually, symplectic manifold). In statistical mechanics, however, we represent such a system by the whole ensemble of points in the manifold that is compatible with the macroscopic description of the system. Moreover, essential thermodynamic properties of the system such as temperature, entropy, and free energy are defined (statistically) only in terms of the ensemble, not in terms of an individual phase space point (or microstate).

So how is the unicity of the classical state to be reconciled with the fact that real physical systems in equilibrium have temperature, entropy, etc.? There are two traditional explanations in statistical physics. Ergodicity is the notion that for typical macroscopic systems, the individual p’s and q’s are evolving very rapidly compared to the time for, say, a temperature measurement. Consequently, the phase space point representing the system is moving rapidly in its phase space and exploring a lot of it, so any temperature (say) measurement is averaging over a large number of different phase space configurations. It turns out that such time averages are usually hard to compute, so the other approach, Gibbs idea of an ensemble of systems, has proven more fruitful. In that approach, the macroscopic system is represented by the complete collection or ensemble of microsystems (a volume of the phase space, in effect) compatible with the macroscopic parameters.

This does still pose the problem of unicity vs. the ensemble, however. How can a macroscopic classical system, with its presumably unique location in phase space, be compatible with averaging over a volume. One attempted solution is the ergodic hypothesis, which posits that the time average and the ensemble average are equal. This is hard or impossible to prove. The second approach, which I like better, is based on the idea that if a system is in equilibrium (the only conditions under which temperature and entropy are well defined), some states are overwhelmingly more likely than others.

Suppose for example that we have a known amount of an ideal gas confined to known volume at a known temperature, and we wish to measure the pressure. In our ensemble of microstates that is compatible with our known parameters, there are a small number for which no gas particles will impinge upon our pressure sensor during the measurement period, and consequently that the pressure sensor will read zero. In this view, the predictions of stat mech are purely probabilistic – the most probable reading for the pressure is p = nRT/V, but there is a small probability of zero.

So, given a microstate (say ten atoms in a box, all of which happen to be in the left half of the box at the moment), does it make sense to talk about its entropy? Only, I think, if you happen to slip in a partition at that moment, which confines them to that side. It’s like Feynman’s joke: “Driving to work today, I saw a license plate with the number XKL-395. What do you suppose the probability of that is?” It’s the same, of course, as AAA-000, or any other plate, even if our pattern recognition facilities find it less special.

So where does that leave me? All the way back to Arun, at least, and part of the way to Lubos, though with Lumo I often have trouble deciding exactly what he does mean. Is a fluctuation that puts all the oxygen atoms into one half of the room enough to make a drastic reduction in entropy? If we treat the room contents as a perfect gas, the answer is no. If we treat it as a real gas with realistic diffusion times, the answer could be different.

There are lots of books on stat mech, but most avoid much talk of the conceptual foundations, which might be one reason a lot of physicists are a bit vague themselves. One that is devoted the the subject is the almost century old Paul and Tatania Ehrenfest book.

Morning Mourning

It's not quite over, but despite a dozen gloomy auguries and the furious opposition of its establishment, the Republicans seem poised to nominate the one candidate with a realistic chance to beat a Democrat. It's even less over on the Democratic side, but despite a dozen favorable auguries, the Democratic establishment is closing in on the one candidate most likely to lose to a Republican.

I'm depressed.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Hillary Hatred

Stanley Fish takes a shallow look at Hillary hatred in his latest column in the NYT. He notes the weird excesses some of that demonization takes:

But the people and groups Horowitz surveys have brought criticism of Clinton to what sportswriters call “the next level,” in this case to the level of personal vituperation unconnected to, and often unconcerned with, the facts. These people are obsessed with things like her hair styles, the “strangeness” of her eyes — “Analysis of Clinton’s eyes is a favorite motif among her most rabid adversaries” — and they retail and recycle items from what Horowitz calls “The Crazy Files”: she’s Osama bin Laden’s candidate; she kills cats; she’s a witch (this is not meant metaphorically).

Demonization of the enemy - whether Arab, Jew or New York Yankee - is hardly a new theme in human affairs. It's part of how we psych ourselves for combat. In the case of the Clintons, there is a powerful lobby behind it - all those rich and super rich upon whom Clinton raised taxes. I suspect that there is a component of Hillary hatred tapping into a still deeper level of the collective unconsciousness, though.

Young male Chimpanzees, including all of us the East African plains apes, compete obsessively for status. Among of the first targets for domination are females, because they are smaller. Hillary, I suspect, attracts hostility partly because she is an anomaly in the dominance structure.

That said, I still don't like Hillary. I like to think that I have some very good reasons for that dislike - the war and a distrust of dynasties, for example, but I can't help but wonder if there isn't an element of some more primitive resentment in the mix.

On the other hand, I can't stand Romney either.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Ain't Progress Great?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an update last week to its investigation of an outbreak of a paralysing condition that is affecting certain meat processing plant workers who use compressed air to remove the brains from the heads of pig carcases

Bride of the Return of the Boltzmann Brain

Lubos Motl has returned to the subject of Boltzmann Brains, so how can I resist? Lubos makes a couple of arguments, which don't really seem compatible to me, but let me concentrate on the more important one. He wants to dispose of Poincare recurrences - the fact that a system eventually (after a veerrry long time) returns arbitrarily close to it's initial state.

We must be very careful to distinguish different types of description of physics. Below we will explain that Poincaré recurrences are only relevant for the exact, microscopic description of a physical system. When we describe a physical system microscopically, we really need to know the initial state completely accurately. When we know it accurately, we can say that it will return to the same point after the recurrence time.

What he is getting to here is the notion that you don't usually know the exact microscopic state, only the ensemble that it belongs to. He eventually gets to the point: is simply not true that the microstates in the collection will return to the same initial state after a universal time. Individual states get restored but the precise time is different for each of them.

True enough, but so what? We didn't know the exact physical state of the initial system, but presumably it had one, and that state will sometime reach its Poincare recurrence - at that point it won't matter what happened to the other members of the ensemble, since they weren't real anyway.

Lubos makes this error because he made an earlier one:

But if we describe the initial state accurately, we can't talk about its entropy and we can't describe it by macroscopic words such as an "egg". Microstates can't be subjects of macroscopic assertions. Microstates have no emotions, if you wish.

If we want to say that the initial state has a certain nonzero entropy or that it is an "egg", it inevitably means that we only describe the state approximately. We only have incomplete information about the initial state. Most typically, we only specify certain macroscopic degrees of freedom - and even these degrees of freedom are specified with a nonzero error margin - and we ignore most microscopic details of the system i.e. allow them to have an arbitrary form.

When we talk about entropy, my statement is a tautology because the entropy is defined with respect to particular ensembles of microstates. If you say that a system has a certain entropy, it means that you only talk about the ensembles and in the same sentence, you simply cannot distinguish the individual microstates in the ensemble from each other.

Lumo is saying that entropy is only defined for ensembles, not for individual microstates. He is confusing the way we calculate the entropy with the entropy itself. A given physical system consists of a single microstate, and its entropy is a physical property of that microstate. When we calculate the entropy, however, we calculate the number of microstates compatible with the macroscopic configuration corresponding to the microstate - in effect, the entropy depends on the neighborhood, not the "emotions" of the microstate.

He gives us an example which will serve to refute his main claim:

OK, if you return to the same point of the phase space - for example a point where all oxygen atoms are located in the left half of the bedroom - is it correct to say that the entropy will have to drop sometime in the future, in order to return to the initial state that we started with and that could have a low entropy?

The answer is, of course, No. It is No even in ordinary physics of gas in a box.

Actually, the answer is the opposite. Consider the gas in the box. In order for the question to be meaningful, we need to have some way to measure where the atoms are in the box. We can do that with a sliding partition with which we regularly divide the box in half and count the atoms. If the number of atoms is small, the Poincare recurrence time won't even be terribly long, so when all the atoms wind up on one side is the entropy reduced? Yes it is. It's an elementary stat mech problem to show that it has decreased by a factor of N*log2, where N is the number of atoms.

Ironically, Lubos is a victim of the exact error he accuses others of:

...the inability of the authors to distinguish a microscopic description of a physical system from the macroscopic or approximate one i.e. their inability to distinguish an ensemble of microstates from its individual elements.

In statistical mechanics, everything is calculated from ensembles, a very useful technique. It's important to remember though, that those that things we calculate: temperature, pressure, entropy, are not properties of the ensemble - they are properties of the actual physical system, which in turn is just one point in that ensemble's phase space.

And that's this week's memo/lesson for the prof.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Ice, Ice, Baby!

It's hard to imagine a scientific question more exciting than that of the origin of life, and Discover Magazine has a new article on a provocative new theory. That theory posits an origin in ice at very cold temperatures. This notion is counterintuitive but there is evidence from experiments, and if true, suggests that the chances for life elsewhere in the solar system and cosmos might be very good.

Some of the most provocative experiments were done by Stanley Miller, the famous origin of life pioneer.

One morning in late 1997, Stanley Miller lifted a glass vial from a cold, bubbling vat. For 25 years he had tended the vial as though it were an exotic orchid, checking it daily, adding a few pellets of dry ice as needed to keep it at –108 degrees Fahrenheit. He had told hardly a soul about it. Now he set the frozen time capsule out to thaw, ending the experiment that had lasted more than one-third of his 68 years.

Miller had filled the vial in 1972 with a mixture of ammonia and cyanide, chemicals that scientists believe existed on early Earth and may have contributed to the rise of life. He had then cooled the mix to the temperature of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa—too cold, most scientists had assumed, for much of anything to happen. Miller disagreed. Examining the vial in his laboratory at the University of California at San Diego, he was about to see who was right.

As Miller and his former student Jeffrey Bada brushed the frost from the vial that morning, they could see that something had happened. The mixture of ammonia and cyanide, normally colorless, had deepened to amber, highlighting a web of cracks in the ice. Miller nodded calmly, but Bada exclaimed in shock. It was a color that both men knew well—the color of complex polymers made up of organic molecules. Tests later confirmed Miller's and Bada’s hunch. Over a quarter-century, the frozen ammonia-cyanide blend had coalesced into the molecules of life: nucleobases, the building blocks of RNA and DNA, and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The vial’s contents would support a new account of how life began on Earth and would arouse both surprise and skepticism around the world.

I found the whole article fascinating.

Miller's researches were ultimately cut short by a stroke, and in an astonishing act of scientific folly, most of his surviving experiments were destroyed.

Winograd Report

Because Israel is faced with real "existential threats," in contrast to the phony ones conjured up by Senator McCain and the other Republican clowns, it tends to take its wars a bit more seriously. For the Republican Party and its many allies, a war is a profit center for It and its clients in the military-industrial complex rather than something serious enough to put aside Party in favor of the Nation.

Consequently, we managed to blunder into a ridiculous and costly war and wage that war utterly fecklessly without anybody bothering to check how and why. None of those who led us into that war, from Bush to Clinton to Edwards, want the truth to come out, but the country needs to hear it.

Israel, with a boost from the same clowns, made a similar mistake in Lebanon, but they ended the disaster quickly and conducted a real inquiry to find our what went wrong. That inquiry was the Winograd commission, and its final report has been produced, and it is scathing in its condemnation of the blunders of the government and military.

Americans, by contrast have done nothing. Even the 9/11 inquiry, it is now alleged, turns out to have been corruptly undermined by its own chief of staff.

If Obama survives next Tuesday, he, as one of few not tainted by agreeing to the war, should call for an independent commission to investigate the war: its origins, its misconduct, and how to prevent future blunders of the same type. If Hillary objects, he should beat the heck out of her on the issue.

Chile Chile

The chile pepper (or chili pepper) is a sacrament here in southern New Mexico. I had never sampled it before a stint in the army sent me to Arizona, but I quickly became an addict. I now favor fairly mild varieties, though when I was younger, I lived a bit more adventurously.

Chiles are an American plant, spread to Asia after the voyages of Columbus - a bit of an irony, since he had set out to establish a route to get spices from India, but wound up being responsible for delivering them to India instead. New Mexico State University, right here in Las Cruces, NM, is the location of the Chile Pepper Institute, the world's center of Chile science and arbiter of all Chile questions.

The Wall Street Journal reports[subscription] that a new fiery champion has been crowned in the Chile world, the bhut jolokia from the Assam region of India. It measures a mind bogling one million Scoville Units, versus about 5000 for a Jalapeno, and something like 50,000 to 100,000 for Thai and Chinese hot peppers. Workers who process it need to dress like astronauts.

The Big Jims, Sandias, and Poblanos I like are rated only 500-2500 Scoville Units, while cherry peppers only rate about 50.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Qualifying Exam

One of the dreaded rituals of graduate school is the qualifying exam. (At least in physics, in the US) So, asks the faculty, what the hell have you been doing the last four, five or six years as a physics major, and what have you learned? Such exams are supposed to winnow the grad school grain from the chaff, and if the experience of my classmates was typical, it is a career ender for a large fraction. Those who pass, the theory is, know at least enough of the fundamentals not to embarass the University.

Despite it's many humiliations, the American Presidential primary system can hardly claim to effectively serve a similar function. Winnow it does, but it would be hard to claim that the best consistently survive. Consequently, I am proposing that we add a Presidential Qualifying Exam to the mix. The idea would be to hustle a few of the more egregious idiots off the stage early, while perhaps calling a bit of attention to the better students.

We can dismiss one popular subject out of hand, since the Constitution is quite explicit about there being "no religious test" for any office. No such prohibition exists for history, economics, law, or science. My proposal would be for a fairly broad based exam, with five main topic areas: American, World, and Military History; Economics; Law and the Constitution; Society and Culture; and Science and Mathematics. In addition, there should be three or four case study Presidental crisis simulations to be dealt with.

Questions should emphasize fact over interpretation, and questions where the answers are broadly controversial should be avoided where possible. The case study questions should be graded by experts required to present their reasoning. The tests, and the test scores, would be purely advisory. I would require all candidates to take the exams, but not to release their scores or answers, although they would be encouraged to release both.

For the case studies, scores would be far less relevant than the answers. Suppose, for example, that some hypothetical candidate, faced with a hypothetical hurricane threatening to destroy an American city, decided that his best strategy would be to play a bit of air guitar, cut some brush, and put a failed horse show lawyer on the task. Some critics might churlishly complain, but if the voters found his answer apropos, so be it - but they would get a chance to read the complaints.