Sunday, February 28, 2010

Libertarian Wack XXIV

So what does a libertarian say to his kid who claims that an Eight O'clock bedtime is slavery?

A certain brand of Libertarian Wack equates any government whatsoever with slavery, on the grounds that it impinges on their right to do anything they want. These people don't understand the phrase reductio ad absurdum.

Entropy I

I wanted to put together a post on entropy, but I can't seem to get my thoughts organized.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Waldman via DeLong

I should really give up economist bashing. Economists themselves are so much better at it.

Robert Waldmann writes:

Zombie Economics: Just from the first two words of the title "Zombie Economics:" I assumed the book was about reanimation of refuted hypotheses. I'd say the point is not that economists have come up with a lot of false hypotheses. That's normal and just the way hypotheses are. The point is that the status of those so-called hypotheses is not reduced by empirical evidence.

As noted by Quiggin, one problem is that they aren't hypotheses at all but rather statements so vague that they can't be tested. The other problem is that many economists draw policy implications of statements so vague that they can't be tested.

Review Review

If Wall Street and Math interest you, don't miss Peter Woit's review of The Quants. Some parts that I like:

Patterson’s story emphasizes heavily the relationship to gambling. He writes extensively about Ed Thorp, who developed the theory of card-counting, did well with this at casinos, then moved on to the hedge fund business. Just about everyone profiled in Patterson’s book is described as having read and been inspired by Thorp’s 1962 book on card-counting (Beat the Dealer). ...

...The book has little to say about a more significant failure that involved a different group of quants, those responsible for the bad mathematical models used to justify the mortage securitization business. From what I can tell, there the story is that if there’s a lot of money to be made creating a financial instrument carrying large risks obscured by complexity, it’s not hard to find people willing to help you sell it by creating bad mathematical models of its behavior.

I would like to see Wolfgang's review, but maybe he is too close to speak about this stuff.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A History of Violence

1280 CE is not one of those years that jumps out of the history books at you, but eyeglasses seem to have been invented about then. Robert the Bruce was six years old,Thomas Aquinas was six years dead, and Marco Polo was in China at the court of Kublai Khan. Meanwhile, away from the center of the World, Native Americans were occupying the Gila Cliff dwellings in what is now New Mexico and Polynesian sailors were arriving in New Zealand, where they colonized it, killed off the megafauna, and became the very warlike Maori.

A couple of hundred years later, about the same time that Columbus was sailing the Ocean blue, some of their descendants colonized the Chatham islands, became the Moriori and developed a rigorously non-violent and pacifistic society. Unfortunately, these Moriori traits did not serve them well when their Maori cousins arrived in 1835 and proceeded to exterminate their culture and all but a tiny number of them.

We humans clearly have the capability of either warlike or peaceful behavior, but the message of history is that violence is by far the more prominent thread. It easy to imagine, also, that there was nothing freakish about the outcome of the encounter between Moriori and Maori - when peace meets war, war usually wins.

Intergroup warfare is actually fairly rare in the animal kingdom. Besides us, our Chimpanzee cousins, wolves, and ants there doesn't seem to be a lot of it. It seems clear that our history of violence has at least some support in our genetics, since it seems unlikely that our grim history would have unfolded as it has otherwise.

Peace loving people, and that includes most of us, have an obligation to take into account our nature when they try to construct a world without war. We need to understand what it was that made the Maori fierce and their close cousins peaceful. Those who propound on economics need to realize - as they often fail to - that policies that ignore this central human propensity are pointless academic exercises.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Socially Useful

One of the interesting points of the previous topic is the question of what exactly is "socially useful." The answer depends on what you mean by "socially" and "useful." China reputedly spent tens of billions on the Beijing Olympics. Why?

It spent all that because it wanted to signal to it's own people and the world that it had become a great power. Most major nations now invest quite a lot in their Olympic programs with the objective of increasing their prestige. They do this because they realize that they are in competition with each other and that prestige matters in that competition. Do a few olympic medals make it more likely that other nations will buy your products or decide not to try a miltary adventure against you? Probably so, and even if they don't, they appeal to our primitive instincts that equate prestigious with "dangerous."

Humans tend tend to organize themselves into a heterarchy of social units, which both compete and cooperate. Those entities compete with each other, but they also compete for our loyalty. Badges of prestige are a key tool in that competition as well. Individuals and societies place high value on these badges because they link them with their prospects for survival and reproduction.

When we as individuals calculate the usefulness of an activity, we start with our Darwinian selves. Our parents make a similar calculation. It's no secret that athletic accomplishment brings sexual opportunity - in high school as well as the NBA. Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women - take that Tiger. All that sexual opportunity brings children, lots of them

I think libertarians may find these dimensions of human nature a bit hard to appreciate. By rejecting the collective dimension of human nature, they render themselves blind to much of how the world works. I would be curious if this tendency was innate rather than acquired - sort of another point on the autistic spectrum.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Annoying Ideas

Is Steve Landsburg a closeted social democrat? I would never have guessed, but how about this statement?

...No, you’ve missed the main point, which is that markets work well when the reward to a supplier is commensurate with the social value of what he produces, and that tournaments (such as Olympic events) are classic examples of markets where that condition is not met.

Now this sounds to me like something Paul Krugman might have said, but Prof Landsburg said it right here.

What, you might say? You're quoting Landsburg again! What is your problem?

I not a big fan of Landsburg's opinions, and he can't stand me, but he does turn out to have a lot of the ideas that are just annoying enough to get my attention.

Ideas can be annoying because they are wrong, trite, insulting, or just boring. Such are the mosquitoes of the idea world. There is a more interesting type of annoying idea though, and that’s the one that undermines some tenet (or even tenant!) of one’s world view but stubbornly resists easy refutation. These are the ideas worth struggling with, although unfortunately I have a lot of trouble getting along with those who propound them. A lot of these turn out to have a libertarian flavor, and Landsburg is a nearly ideal source.

Let me back up to a recent episode of SL which provoked the comment quoted above:

What must it be like, I wonder, to be the parent of an Olympic athlete, watching your kid accomplish magnificent feats of almost no social value? When your kid is a taxi driver or a shoe salesman or a carpenter, you can take pride every day in knowing that he or she has taken someone home, or helped someone walk, or given someone shelter. When your kid is an Olympic gold medalist, mustn’t you feel a little sheepish about all the superhuman effort that went into nothing more than taking a gold medal away from someone else?

At first I thought that SL was being ironic here, but it seems not. The deep, and annoying, question is why a parent, for example, should place such a high value on some achievement like winning a gold medal but so little on providing a useful service, like driving a cab. More broadly, why should a society so arrange its values?

As in all such analyses, my instinct is to ask Mr. Darwin. For the parent, the answer is clear. Winning the gold medal (or hitting the little league home run, or being elected Prom Queen) is a big leg up in the battle for reproductive fitness – cab driver, not so much. Our society, whether family, town or nation is modeled on the primitive band in which our ancestors evolved, so that badge of fitness is or seems like one for the band (society) as well as parent. Something like 8% of the inhabitants of large swaths of Asia appear to be direct descendants of Genghis Khan and his close relatives. Our selfish genes don't give a damn about social usefulness.

So what’s wrong with the sort of economic reasoning that we see in L’s post? For me, it’s mostly just one thing – it doesn’t explain actual human behavior. One can imagine a sort of worker’s paradise in which people really thought that way but it wouldn’t be of this world. I think we can see Prof Landsburg's inner social democrat peering out here, wanting markets (and parents) to value the socially useful.

I don't mean by that that we are helpless prisoners of the Darwinian struggle, doomed to keep playing out this game to its grim Malthusian end, though, but I'm sure that we can’t pretend that these aspects of our nature don’t exist and still come to any useful conclusions.

That's why a cynical liberal like me doesn't trust the markets, even though I recognize that they do somethings very well and much better than any central planner could. And another reason that I suspect libertarians misjudge human nature.

Past and Future

[One of a series in my attempt to understand the latest dust up between Bee and Lumo]

It seems clear that the (evolutionary) reason we have brains is to be able to predict the future, or at least to organize our response to the present, which amounts to the same thing. Prediction and control of the future is the full time business of essentially all of our institutions, including religion, state, and family. Science has proven a rather useful tool in that regard, and physics is one of the shiniest pennies in that coin purse – physics can predict the wavelength of certain radiations of excited atoms with phenomenal accuracy, and the evolution of the planets for tens of thousands of years.

The principle which permits prediction is causality, the notion that the past determines the future. In classical physics, it is held that if we knew the past in sufficient detail, and could do the arithmetic, we could compute the detailed future. In practice, of course, that could only be done in particularly simple physical situations, like the motion of planets around the Sun. More complex problems, like the motion of party guests around a punchbowl, were beyond our skill and knowledge. Quantum mechanics kicks a key causal leg out from under us. Even perfect knowledge and perfect computation are not enough to truly predict the future, since an irreducible probabilistic quantum uncertainty will remain.

A powerful kind of causality still exists in quantum mechanics however. The quantum state function evolves according to the Schrödinger equation, and that evolution is strictly deterministic. The irreducible quantum uncertainty only enters the picture when we actually try to measure that quantum state.

Semi-classical quantum gravity seems to offer a more serious challenge to predictivity however. The problem occurs because matter entering a black hole carries information with it, but when a black hole evaporates, it seems that information can't come out with it. Wikipedia has what I consider an excellent discussion of problem here:

The always useful John Baez has this:

More on proposed cures later.

Theological Politics

I'm not usually a big fan of theological explanations in the political arena, but is the current economic catastrophe God's punishment on the American people for stupidity? Indications are that they are thinking of electing a Republican congress again in 2010. I don't expect that God would have much trouble thinking up further condign punishments.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Conservation of Energy

It's hard to think of a fundamental scientific concept with more explanatory power than energy. It plays a key role in chemistry, biology, geology and even economics as well as physics and astronomy, where it originated. The word, or its Greek precursor appears in the work of Aristotle, but the modern concept of kinetic energy derives from the vis viva of Leibnitz (mass x velocity squared), which Leibnitz believed to be conserved. Leibnitz also anticipated the modern notion that energy lost to friction showed up as heat. Another century and a half or so was needed before the relationship could be proven and clarified.

The power of the idea stems from the fact that energy is conserved. Considerable refinement and redefinition was needed to conserve the notion of energy conservation, though. New forms of energy had to be named and noted: gravitational potential energy, thermal energy, chemical energy and electromagnetic energy. The accounting proved well worthwhile, of course, since the different forms of energy could be converted into each other, and energy represented the capability to do work.

Following the history of that energy allows us to unravel much of the workings of the world. Here on Earth, most energy comes from the Sun in the form of photons of electromagnetic energy, some of which is converted by photosynthesis into chemical energy stored in carbohydrates , which in turn gets converted into that ubiquitous gasoline of life, ATP which powers muscle, brain, and other metabolism.

It's the conservation of energy that proves the most important constraint on life and civilization. The World would be much different if we could build a perpetual motion machine of the first kind and get energy for free. That's why it's kind of shocking to the physicist to realize that there really does seem to be such a perpetuum mobile - the Universe, driven by by dark energy. Sean Carroll has a brief account, but if you want more of the details you really want John Baez here. While Sean is pretty categorical, at least in his post title ("Energy is Not Conserved"), John has a bit more measured take:

Is Energy Conserved in General Relativity?
In special cases, yes. In general -- it depends on what you mean by "energy", and what you mean by "conserved".

Each explains why those two statements don't really contradict each other, but John has more details. Sean, though, explains more of the the role of the dark energy.

Monday, February 22, 2010


A new and rather pathetic slander from Steve Landsburg targets former Harvard President and current Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers. I guess I should no longer be surprised by the puerile quality of the stuff that allegedly constitutes "tackling the big questions of philosophy using ideas from mathematics, economics and physics" a la Landsburg, but his latest stunt is more like tackling the small questions of invective using the ideas of the seventh grade playground. Here's today's schtick - put up a picture of mass murderer Amy Bishop and Summers and launch a few nasty slanders that seem to apply to the murderer and then make it clear that he's talking about Summers. Ho ho ho - what a pathetic little s**t, and no, I don't mean Summers.

Of course it's pretty silly for me to be defending Summers, but Landsburg irritates the hell out of me, and that was true even before he banned me for making fun of his brand of psuedo-economics (and criticizing his tendency to get confused while trying to explain relativity - a more forgiveable sin in my book.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Area 53

The World's most famous physics experiment is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, in Switzerland and France. Billions of Euro's have been spent in the search for the mysterious Higgs particle, thought to play the major role in giving mass to the massive of the particle universe, but the target remains elusive.

It's less widely publicised in the physics community, but a far larger and much more expensive experiment has been mounted in the Nevada desert at the site I call simply, Area 53. This experiment, like the LHC, has a single primary focus, in this case, the study of psychokinesis. Despite a major slowdown in the US economy, I can assure my colleagues that my recent visit showed that tens of thousands of investigators continue to passionately pursue this quest, and billions continue to be pumped into the search.

Like the hunt for the Higgs, though, this quarry has so far remain hidden. All the investigators passion and ingenuity has not yet proven capable of stopping that roulette wheel on cue, or popping the Ace-Jack out of the shoe in Area 53, also sometimes known as Las Vegas.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Economists in Denial

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and whatever abysses nature leads, or you will learn nothing...................T H Huxley

Few seem to be wise enough to heed Huxley's advice. It seems to be human nature to believe what we want to believe and ignore the evidence. This is a fault in anyone, but absolutely disabling in a scientist.

The efforts of the Chicago School to protect its imaginary theory of economics are a good example of that flavor of folly. John Cochrane's puerile and argument poor attempt at a counter-attack on Paul Krugman was an unfortunate early exemplar. Now Cochrane and John Taylor's analyses of the Lehman failure ignore obvious facts, says the EofC who has a word for it: lying.

It's generally hard to come to agreement when one side simply lies...

Cut and paste doesn't seem to work for me at EofC, so you need to compare Cochrane and EofC paragraphs to see the divergence from reality.

So why do I find it hard to believe that a professor at a prestigious school should get away with such egregious nonsense? I need to keep reminding myself that much of what passes for economics consists of "a smokescreen for justifying policies convenient to powerful economic interests."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Math Puzzle From Comments

Zephir gives us a couple of amusing puzzles in the comments, and asks:

Does knowledge of math help or prohibit us in solving of paradoxes like this one?


The answer is of course yes. First a note on the puzzling aspect. In One, we get two versions of a 5x13 triangle on a gridded background. Each version is divided into two triangles (2x5, and 3x8) and two other figures. Even though the identical figures appear to be in each, the second has one empty square, so the total area for the sub figures of the first appears to be 32 and 33 for the second, but that's sort of alright since the big triangle should have area 32.5! So what's happening?

The second puzzle has a somewhat similar theme (you need to look). I will put my answer in the comments, in case people want to try the puzzles before looking.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mathematics and Technique

There are two sorts of truth, Bohr claimed. Ordinary truths, whose opposites are falsities, and great truths, whose opposites are also great truths. Now it should go without saying that one shouldn't take Bohr too literally, but these latter are the ones that interest me. Libertarians have some of these truths, I think, mixed together with a gross misinterpretation of the nature of the human condition. One of those confused libertarians links to this interesting great truth about the teaching of mathematics.

Briefly, Paul Lockhart's Lament, as he styles it, is that mathematics is not being taught as one of the arts, as it ought. An emphasis on technique and memorization, at the expense of ideas, makes students dislike mathematics and resist learning it. I'm not sure the comparison with music that he chooses really makes his point:

musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer. Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; ...
Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soulcrushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

You get the idea, or, if not, read at the link. He isn't being original here. Every decade or two, somewhat similarly motivated people discover that math isn't fun for most students because students aren't taught to be mathematicians. Sometimes these ideas turn into a movement, usually with the result that kids wind up doing things that their parents and teachers don't understand, kids find they can't solve math problems, and a counter-revolution produces a back to basics movement and we begin again.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to Mr. Lockhart's argument, but I am pretty unsympathetic. I am unsumpathetic because I have seen the devastation wrought by previous similarly motivated "reforms" - new math, discovery math, etc. I also suspect that he has either forgotten or never knew how music is actually taught. I would also say that mathematicians should not and cannot be trusted to design a math curriculum for non-mathematicians. Not to be impolite, but a professional mathematician is a freak of nature - unnaturally inclined to live in a very narrow part of his/her head. He can't be trusted to guess what kids find interesting and can't be trusted to remember how he himself learned.

Put techniques for discovering the fun of mathematics in front of 100 school kids and 6 will say cool, and become interested, 34 will try to figure the thing to memorize to pass this new stupid class, and the remaining 60 will look blankly and uncomprehendingly on at yet another bit of tedium. For their teachers, the corresponding numbers will be 2, 10 and 88.

I also distrust this notion of mathematics as an art. Considered purely as an art, mathematics would rank in popular appeal somewhere between dog collar calligraphy and vegetable peeling collage - the audience would only include other mathematicians, and darn few of them. Mathematics is interesting to the wider world because it is useful, necessary and indispensable. We teach it in schools because so many people need to use it. That means that schools need to teach the kinds of skills and techniques that adults actually need to use. Nowhere in Mr. Lockhart's essay do I see any recognition of the way mathematics is used by 99.9% of the human race.

We should remember too, that much of art consists of learning technique. Musicians, or at any rate, most musicians, do have to learn how to read music, and all have to spend thousands of hours learning the technique of their instruments. If Mr. Lockhart wanted to argue that schools are still wasting far too much time on obsolete techniques of mathematics, he would find a ready listener in me.

Games, puzzles and the other fun activities he thinks should take the place of the current curriculum are fine, but is there any chance that any significant segment of the population would thereby learn enough mathematics to do their taxes, much less calculate statistics, solve differential equations or learn the much more difficult techniques needed to actually do mathematics professionally? I doubt it.

I have been a frequent critic of the math curriculum myself, but I regret to say that I see almost nothing valuable in Lockhart's suggestions. Anybody care to venture a contrary opinion?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Please Shut Up Joe Biden

Boy do I hate listening to that guy. Maybe it's Obama's fault, but don't these gys know how to attack? I don't think that the AMerican people, however Christian they may be or profess to be, will tolerate a President who insists on turning the other cheek. "Iraq will be one of the great achievements of this administration." What a moron. What a stupid obscenity obscenity moron.

Cheney gets on and attacks relentlessly, and all Biden can do is play extremely weak defence. ABC is happy to feed Cheney softballs and Biden is happy to lead with his chin.

It was Bush-Cheney that ignored clear and repeated warnings to allow the worst attack on the US in history. It was Bush-Cheney who allowed bin Laden to escape (and flew his relatives out of the US on a special plane after 9/11, before any Americans were allowed to fly), it was Bush-Cheny who got us into the Iraq war and got tens of thousands of Americans killed and wounded in a wild goose chase for WMDs that didn't exist, and it was Bush-Cheney who turned surpluses into deficits and wrecked the economy. What imaginable reason is there not to attack their record at every opportunity?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another Point The Tenure Committee Might Want to Consider

Some people take bad news poorly.

And we all need to remember that there are a lot of wackos out there.

We are sort of used now to the distraught grad student going postal, but is seems truly peculiar when the Harvard PhD prof does. The other oddity here is that this was not her first killing. Was that first killing really an accident? Apparently there is some oddity about the police file being missing.

UPDATE: It just gets stranger: She apparently shot her brother three times with a shotgun in 1986, and the killing was ruled an accident. WTF? The law and parents must have conspired to put this murderer back on the streets, to kill again. Why and how?

Friday, February 12, 2010

That's Entertainment

This sounds like a really cool resort - and they say you can even take classes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Another Relativistic Train

Landsburg returns to the subject of the relativistic train. It no doubt reflects badly upon my character that it pains me to note that this time he seems to get it right.

UPDATE: As Arun points out in the comments, not really. There is a big magnetic field in Fred's inertial frame, and he would see it if he moved his charge or deployed a compass.]

... imagine a wire, made of protons that stay still and electrons that drift rightward; that drift is what we call a current. And imagine a nearby charged particle—call it Fred—also traveling rightward.

Now relativity tells us that Fred is allowed to think of himself as stationary, and the protons (along with you and me) as drifting off to the left. Relativity also tells us that if passengers on a moving train say the cars are 100 feet apart, then an observer at the station will say they’re closer than that. In this case (according to Fred) you and I are the passengers moving with the train of protons, and if we say they’re an angstrom apart, then Fred says they’re closer. That means Fred sees more positive charge per inch of wire than we do. If Fred himself happens to be negatively charged, he’ll be drawn toward the wire.

As far as Fred is concerned, that’s a purely electrical force, but it’s a force that you and I can’t account for on electrical grounds. So you and I call it magnetism.

UPDATE continued: The thing is, Fred sees only an electrostatic force because he doesn't bother to measure the magnetic field. A more honest way to express it is to say that part of the field we see as purely magnetic from the stationary frame appears to be an electrical field in Fred's frame.

The details are explained at the freshman physics level in Chapter 5 of Ed Purcell's "Electricity and Magnetism."

Let me use SL's example as a jumping off point for a slight puzzle. Imagine that the wire we are seeing is arranged in a circle like the train we considered once before. The numbers of electrons and protons in the wire are equal, making it electrically neutral. When the electrons are set in motion, Fred decides to amble along with them. He doesn't need to go very fast, since the average drift velocity of electrons in is much less than the speed of light - less, in fact, than the speed of a snail - a few centimeters per hour. Now George, our stationary observer measures the average distance between electrons in his frame, and its still the same as it was at rest, call it l. It ought to be, since we have the same number of electrons and they are still in the same wire. (electrons, unlike opposite ends of your typical rail car, don't mind being pushed a bit further apart).

Fred has carried his own meter stick with him, and he decides to check some distances in his frame (co-moving with the local electrons). He finds that the nearby electrons have been pushed apart by the relativistic factor gamma = 1/sqrt(1-(v/c)^2). I will call it g. The protons, as seen from his frame, are closer together by the factor 1/g. The circle of wire, firmly attached to the protons, has similarly shrunk. So here is our first puzzle: The electrons are farther apart on a track that is smaller - so how do they all fit?

If Fred is carrying a charge, he will see a force due to the fact that the local protons are more densely concentrated than their negative counterparts by a factor that amounts to (v/c)^2 x charge concentration of carriers. The resulting force scales like charge x current x v/c as one would expect from the Lorentz Force law and Biot-Savart law of magnetism.

About that puzzle...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Voyages of Discovery

One of the craziest things a person can do is to set off across uncharted seas with no clear idea of where he is going. Christopher Columbus was nuts. He ignored the advice of geographers who told him quite accurately that his ships would be worm-eaten flotsam long before he could sail all the way to China. Even crazier were the Polynesian mariners who discovered New Zealand, Madagascar, and Hawaii. Columbus at least knew that there was a China out there in the ultimate West - the Polynesian sailors could only guess what might await them.

By comparison, our modern voyages to orbit and the Moon have been ridiculously cautious and conservative. Much exploration has followed the latter model - cautious trips along a coastline, and short voyages never far from land. Most scientists work that way as well - pushing the paradigm a little this way or a little that. Peter Woit and Lubos Motl don't agree on much, they do agree that that's the kind science they approve of.

Einstein had a different opinion. He was unimpressed by those he saw as seeking to "drill through the thinnest part of the wood." Feynman too advised young physicists not to pay much attention to the fashionable trends in physics, but to follow their own ideas.

Dr. Woit expressed some disdain for physicists interested in vague entropic forces where "everything could be done with high school mathematics." I would recommend that he look at the key papers of Einstein on SR and the photoelectric effect, Bohr on the Hydrogen atom, and Bekenstein on black hole entropy. The mathematics is elementary but the implications are profound.

Woit and Motl each have recent post decrying the kind of crack-pottery they see overtaking physics. Now physics has always attracted crackpots by the bushel and the peck, but Peter and Lubos aren't referring to the kind of garden variety crackpot who shows up on John Baez's index or 't hooft's "bad theoretical physicist" standard. In particular, they have in mind guys like Erik Verlinde, though Motl has been known to add 't hooft and Penrose to his list.

Your garden variety crackpot is a guy who flunked calculus but knows that his penetrating intuition grasps the universe as it really is. The Woit-Motl crackpots, by contrast, are guys who are, well, somewhat more accomplished in physics than Woit or Motl.

We can agree, of course, that guys like Verlinde (and Penrose and 't hooft and of course Columbus) are crazy. The question is, to borrow a construction of Bohr's, are they crazy enough to be right? If I can push my analogy a bit further, here is a potential clue. Columbus and the Polynesian argonauts of the Pacific were superb sailors who had mastered all the technology available to them. Most of those crazy guys who set out into the unknown will never be heard from again, but maybe we should salute those who just might be crazy enough to be right.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Fixing Congress

It's not going to happen, but Bob Kerrey has some sensible ideas about how to fix Congress. It would require a constitutional amendment:

1) Establish an open bipartisan national system of apportioning congressional districts. State legislatures are given this authority now. It is their gerrymandering of districts, which have contributed most to the polarized nature of congressional debates and to the sense that too few incumbents are actually at risk.

2) Set a limit of the number of terms that can be served. I’d say six in the House and two in the Senate should be enough to establish the continuity needed to maintain institutional memory.

3) Increase the qualifications for being able to run. Why not, for example, make everyone who wants to be a candidate for Congress take the same examination we give to men and women who want to become citizens? Shouldn’t each member of Congress know at least as much as a recent immigrant?

4) Create national rules for all federal elections. Take the power back from the political parties and give it to citizens concerned about when and how primaries are held, how they are to be financed, and what punishments are to be meted out to those who break the law.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Snow Days

For me as a kid in Montana, one of the highlights of winter was a snow day. It took a pretty impressive manifestation of winter fury to close down the schools of hardy Montanans, but when drifting snow made country roads impassible to the school buses, it wasn't really worthwhile to keep the schools open for the townies. They even have snow days in Las Cruces, NM, though calling "snow day" for two or three inches of the white stuff seems pretty comical to me. For school kids, though, and teachers, those lost days have to be made up.

One of the perks of being a government worker in Washington DC is the occasional day off for snow, inauguration, or other special event. The great Snowmaggedon event of 2010 has already gotten most Federal employees two and one half days off, and one can't be confident that the place will open up Wednesday either. Most employers can't afford to be so generous, though, so the days off for the Feds provoke considerable resentment. The rationale for giving the nonessential government workers the day off is that in a one industry town, having all of them scrambling to get to work through impassible streets with the Metro only partially functional would keep anybody from getting anywhere safely.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

I Beg To Differ

At some point in my undergraduate career I read a debate between Einstein and the philosopher Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach argued that truth seekers of good faith couldn't agree to disagree if they were careful to define their terms. Einstein wasn't buying and I remember thinking that Reichenbach's argument was preposterous. Four plus decades have perhaps muddled my memories, but I think HR's point was that logical opposites could not coexist.

The problem is that our ideas about reality are not based in some commonly agreed axiom system but on our individual and only partially articulable conceptions of the nature of the world. We tend to disagree about both foundational issues and the criteria for consideration of evidence that bears on such questions. The theory of relativity was thought to present a profound challenge to philosophy because it challenges our common sense notions of the nature of space and time. Quantum mechanics turns out to be even more difficult, challenging our common sense notions of the real and the unreal.

The string theorist Leonard Susskind has proposed something he calls black hole complementarity to resolve certain problems in quantum gravity. Consider two narrative versions of what happens to a spaceship falling into a very large black hole. If we apply the laws of general relativity and quantum mechanics (in the semi-classical approximation) to the spaceship, we may calculate that the passengers perceive falling through the horizon as uneventful. The outside observer, on the other hand, sees something much different - as the spaceship approaches the event horizon, it encounters a hellish blast of Hawking radiation which tears the ship to pieces before it reaches that horizon. So which narrative should we believe? Well, there is one narrative for those on the ship, and one for those on the outside, and never shall the twain meet, for their world lines have become causally disconnected.

In one sense, this is just another, slightly more pointed version of the famous double slit experiment.

[One reason this post looks half baked is because it is. It was a partial draft that got published by mistake. I will try to finish it when I get time.]

Saturday, February 06, 2010

So You Want to be a Genius?

If you want to be a genius, you probably need to start with some talent. Peyton Manning, who will go for his second super bowl ring tomorrow, is widely considered to be a football genius. Stefan Fatsis, writing in Slate, reviews the evidence, and throws in some discussion of the nature of genius.

The 18th-century writer and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, quoted in Nobel-winning neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal's 1916 book Advice for a Young Investigator, put it even more neatly: "Genius is simply patience carried to the extreme."

As the privileged son of an NFL quarterback, Manning the genius is no "outlier." But his genius isn't innate, either; with his Opie face and boyishly parted, short, brown hair, Manning looks more like a dentist than an NFL superstar at first glance. In his forthcoming book The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, David Shenk tells the story of how Ted Williams would use his lunch money to pay friends to shag baseballs so he could keep hitting. The point: Like other brilliant obsessives from Mozart to Newton to Darwin to Bird to Manning, Williams worked harder than everyone else. He hated when people described him as a natural. "Why wouldn't he?" Shenk says.

Peyton Manning has narrowly focussed his life on football, seemingly from his earliest years. His fanatical devotion to study and practice is legendary, and so is his performance in the pinch. His signature accomplishment is the second half comeback. Teams throw their best and most complicated stuff at him in the first half, but by the second, he has figured it out and picks them apart. There are quarterbacks with more impressive records but they mostly seem to have played for teams so good that no comeback was required - the other team got blown out in the first half.

Still, if Manning had been 5' 6" and slow of foot rather than 6' 5" and quick, his genius likely would have confined itself to the high school arena. The element of talent is still crucial. Besides his physical skills, though, he needed his quick mind but above all his power of concentration and focus. The last is probably the most fundamental element of genius - patience carried to an extreme.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Disfunctional Senate

We learned today that Republican Senator Shelby of Alabama has put a "hold" on seventy presidential appointees in an attempt to extort some earmarks for a big campaign contributor. The obvious lesson from this is that the rules of the Senate are unworkable in an environment like today's extrem partisanship. It's a system built for gridlock.

Let me suggest that there is another lesson too. There are way too many Presidential appointees (3000 or so) under the present system. One fourth of the way through the president's term of office, many senior jobs are still unfilled. Worse, because the appointees are political rewards, key jobs often go to gross incompetents - think "heck-of-a-job" Brownie, for example.

Other countries manage to work pretty well with much smaller numbers of appointees. Senior civil servants should occupy most of those three thousand jobs. The Cabinet, a couple of dozen key aides, and the presidents own staff (who don't require confirmation) should be more than enough. Presidents should be expected to submit their nominees on their second day of office, and the appointees should be guranteed an up or down vote by April.

A Child's Garden ...

American schools have found some pretty stupid ways to waste student's time. In some of our local high schools, for example, if you have a talent for football you can spend 25% of your academic time "studying" it. My fellow local citizens seem mostly content with a system that has brought in several State football championships.

I've long been a critic of American education's tendency to be a fashion industry, with mostly bad consequences for students, so I should be a receptive audience for Caitlin Flanagan's Atlantic Monthly diatribe against school gardens. They are, it seems, an insidious anti-academic plot to prepare our children only for careers as lettuce choppers. In California now - and coming to a school near you soon - she claims, school gardens have become the focus of the curriculum, displacing algebra and The Crucible. I've seen sillier things - at least you probably won't get a concussion gardening - but I find Flanagan a bit hard to take.

First there is the feverish tone:

Imagine that as a young and desperately poor Mexican man, you had made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields with other migrants. There, you performed stoop labor, picking lettuce and bell peppers and table grapes; what made such an existence bearable was the dream of a better life. You met a woman and had a child with her, and because that child was born in the U.S., he was made a citizen of this great country. He will lead a life entirely different from yours; he will be educated. Now that child is about to begin middle school in the American city whose name is synonymous with higher learning, as it is the home of one of the greatest universities in the world: Berkeley. On the first day of sixth grade, the boy walks though the imposing double doors of his new school, stows his backpack, and then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.

This may call up images of Mao marching hapless students out to the harvest, but the school gardens I have seen are typically about the same size as a suburban vegetable garden. Divide that by a few hundred or thousand students and each student winds up responsible for a couple of flower pots worth of garden. Is the garden curriculum dominating the school? Maybe, but Flanagan's story lacks the telling detail and specificity that would convince me that she has actually seen one of these in use.

Flanagan's writing style - call it Mo Dowd light - is heavy on the cranky sneer, light on relevant facts, and suffused with vaguely anti-feminist hostility. Here she is on Alice Waters, founding mother of the school garden movement:

Waters, described by her biographer, Thomas McNamee, as “arguably the most famous restaurateur in the United States,” is, of course, the founder of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, an eatery where the right-on, “yes we can,” ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hôte menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams—wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included.

Now California public schools do indeed suck, but there a lot of other plausible candidates for reasons, starting with a vastly needy student population, heavy on non native speakers of English and decades of declining budgets driven by old Proposition 13. Unmentioned by Flanagan is the continuing mischief wrought by No Child Left Behind, which has turned schools nationally onto almost total focus on tests.

On the few occasions where she mentions actual evidence it's hardly germane. Her extensive perusal of the literature on school gardening has not revealed that it improved algebra scores. Imagine that. One charter school with a committment to rigorous standards puts up much better scores than a long time garden school.

Her writing is perfect fodder for that sort of conservative who sees every idea, good or bad, as a liberal plot. Unsurprisingly, Steve Landsburg thought the article was great. Four years ago, Ann Hulbert offered a more dyspeptic take on Flanagan and her works.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Climate MSU

Lubos and Moncton demonstrate the simplest way to criticize their enemies, just make shit up.

Lying is the cheapest form of argumentation, and one almost universally practiced by the climate skeptics.

Is Microsoft The New GM?

Dick Brass issues a harsh wakeup call to Microsoft in this New York Times Op-Ed. Oldsters like me who've spent our lives thinking of Microsoft as The Evil Empire are now vaguely embarrassed to be taunting what now looks like a pitiful, reeling giant. Seemingly beset by more agile rivals on every side, Microsoft continues to lurch through highly profitable years but fails to innovate, keep up, or look even slightly cool. Many of it's flagship products are losing market share and looking threatened.


AS they marvel at Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon’s popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or popular Web services like Facebook and Twitter.

Some people take joy in Microsoft’s struggles, as the popular view in recent years paints the company as an unrepentant intentional monopolist. Good riddance if it fails. But those of us who worked there know it differently. At worst, you can say it’s a highly repentant, largely accidental monopolist. It employs thousands of the smartest, most capable engineers in the world. More than any other firm, it made using computers both ubiquitous and affordable. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office applications suite still utterly rule their markets.

I am skeptical. Exactly when did MS ever innovate? The earlier MS showed a certain talent for adopting and gaining control of new technologies developed elsewhere, but I can't recall a single major MS product that was homegrown. Amazon had a revolutinary idea. Google had a revolutionary product. Apple has both innovatve products and a relentlessly perfectionist esthetic utterly at odds with Microsoft's "everything including the kitchen sink" philosophy.

Brass is right, though, in thinking that it would be bad to revel in Microsoft's troubles. He has his own diagnosis for why an army of the world's best and brightest have largely failed to bring great new products to the market - entrenched corporate politics, as well as some old scores to settle.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.

For example, early in my tenure, our group of very clever graphics experts invented a way to display text on screen called ClearType. It worked by using the color dots of liquid crystal displays to make type much more readable on the screen. Although we built it to help sell e-books, it gave Microsoft a huge potential advantage for every device with a screen. But it also annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success.

Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used. The head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches. The vice president for pocket devices was blunter: he’d support ClearType and use it, but only if I transferred the program and the programmers to his control.

Is it a leadership problem? Or inevitable senescence?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Cap and Trade is dead for this age of the world. Jim Hansen should rejoice - he got his wish. I am inclined to think a straight up carbon tax is a better idea anyway, though that's in no danger of happening soon, either. The big thing going for that is that the country really needs the money.

Bourgeois Physics

Clifford has a friend who thinks physicists are weird,

…like Einstein, with crazy hair…

For some odd reason Clifford thinks this opinion needs to be countered. So he points out that back before Einstein became famous, and started looking like a rock star, he had hair and a suit like any other government bureaucrat.

Clifford, I think, has spent entirely too much time thinking about D-Branes.

So You Want to be a Bank Director

Wolfgang has found out just how simple it can be. The FED helpfully explains, just in case you might be missing:

...a basic knowledge of banking and what to consider in overseeing a bank."

Kids, feel free to try this at home. Nothing can go wrong...

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

David Brooks Has A Message for Old People

The bottom line is Shut up and Die. Or maybe just "F*** Off!"

Remember that scam where Reagan and Greenspan had everybody paying extra for Social Security and Medicare for 35 years so that they would exist when we got old? Well, Reagan and the Bushes spent it on wars, tax cuts for the rich, and missile defenses that never work, so its all gone. Don't expect any of it back.

Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.

Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control.

Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of G.D.P. By 2019, it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities. Already, pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.

Or maybe it's just "So Long Suckers."

For four decades the Republican Party and the CLub for Growth and all the other right wing stink tanks have labored to bankrupt the country to the point where Social Security and Medicare will be destroyed. They have nearly succeeded.

Monday, February 01, 2010


Lubos reminds us (US readers) to catch The Big Bang Theory on CBS tonight.

In the episode 1x14, Sheldon gets seriously stuck with a physics problem. Light cones, statistical physics, relativity, hexagons, and even carbon atoms seem to play some role here. :-)

I guess he is trying to derive the Einstein approximation of GR out of some stochastic model - an entropic force, if you wish. After all, his IQ is just 187 so you shouldn't be shocked that he sometimes spends a night with a hypothesis that cannot work.

Cheesecake ensues.