Monday, June 19, 2006

But not yet! (The Robots are Coming!)

Attack of the Sexbots

Sensation mongering quote from the Sunday Times:

“People are going to be having sex with robots within five years,”

That's not all, it seems.

THE race is on to keep humans one step ahead of robots: an international team of scientists and academics is to publish a “code of ethics” for machines as they become more and more sophisticated.
Although the nightmare vision of a Terminator world controlled by machines may seem fanciful, scientists believe the boundaries for human-robot interaction must be set now — before super-intelligent robots develop beyond our control.

“There are two levels of priority,” said Gianmarco Verruggio, a roboticist at the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation in Genoa, northern Italy, and chief architect of the guide, to be published next month. “We have to manage the ethics of the scientists making the robots and the artificial ethics inside the robots.”

Verruggio and his colleagues have identified key areas that include: ensuring human control of robots; preventing illegal use; protecting data acquired by robots; and establishing clear identification and traceability of the machines.

“Scientists must start analysing these kinds of questions and seeing if laws or regulations are needed to protect the citizen,” said Verruggio. “Robots will develop strong intelligence, and in some ways it will be better than human intelligence.

“But it will be alien intelligence; I would prefer to give priority to humans.”

The analysis culminated at a meeting recently held in Genoa by the European Robotics Research Network (Euron) that examined the problems likely to arise as robots become smarter, faster, stronger and ubiquitous.

“Security, safety and sex are the big concerns,” said Henrik Christensen, a member of the Euron ethics group. How far should robots be allowed to influence people’s lives? How can accidents be avoided? Can deliberate harm be prevented? And what happens if robots turn out to be sexy? “The question is what authority are we going to delegate to these machines?” said Professor Ronald Arkin, a roboticist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “Are we, for example, going to give robots the ability to execute lethal force, or any force, like crowd control?” The forthcoming code is a sign of reality finally catching up with science fiction. Ethical problems involving machines were predicted in the 1950s by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov whose book I, Robot was recently turned into a Hollywood film. The Terminator and Robocop series of films also portrayed mechanical law enforcers running amok.

Present robots perform more mundane tasks: the most common consumer robots in Britain include self-guided vacuum cleaners such as the Scooba, lawnmowers such as the Robomow and children’s toys such as Robosapien.

But far more sophisticated machines are being developed. The National Health Service has used a robot called da Vinci to perform surgery at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London. In Japan, human-like robots such as Honda’s Asimo and Sony’s Qrio can walk on two legs. More advanced versions are expected to be undertaking everyday domestic tasks and helping to care for the elderly in as little as 20 years.

Guess what. If robots get smarter than us (and they will, unless we stop building them), they will make the rules, not us.


OK, so I'll shut up for a while.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Why Physics?

Mark of Cosmic Variance ran a little contest to come up with the top ten reasons to study physics (aside from becoming a professional physicist). He and his commenters came up with some good ones, but I'm not sure they got the big one.

A (then) senior I know at a top physics factory was taking General Relativity, Quantum Field Theory, and String Theory. Since he had already told me he had no intention of going on in physics, I asked: why those courses? His answer: "because those are supposed to be the hardest courses they teach here."

The answer makes more sense to me now than it did then. It's natural for young people to test themselves, and for a purely intellectual test, it's hard to beat physics. Top employers like to hire physics graduates of top schools not because it has taught them to think, but because success in a physics degree is evidence of high intelligence.

The Crookosphere

Evidence continues to accumulate that the Republican House Leadership has run the joint as a criminal conspiracy. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is the latest guy implicated in graft. Josh Marshall has a link to the Chicago Tribune story by James Kimberly and Andrew Zajac detailing the scheme.

The complex structure of a real estate transaction in Kendall County last December left House Speaker Dennis Hastert with a seven-figure profit and in prime position to reap further benefits as the exurban region west of Chicago continues its prairie-fire growth boosted by a Hastert-backed federally funded proposed highway.

Instead of cash, Hastert (R-Ill.) took most of his share of the proceeds in land, some of it less than 2 miles from the parcels he and two partners in a land trust sold for nearly $5 million to a developer who plans to build more than 1,500 homes and commercial space on the property near Little Rock and Galena roads in Plano.

Hastert received five-eighths of the proceeds of the sale, which worked out to a profit of more than $1.5 million for him on property that he and his partners accumulated in a little more than three years.

Delay, Cunningham, Ney, Lewis - the list just keeps on growing. Diogenes might search in vain for an honest Republican Congressman.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

WTF? Wolfgang?

This post was supposed to be about Ghana's astonishing and beautiful victory over the Czech Republic in the World Cup, but thanks to Wolfgang, it must be about something else. Wolfgang says:

I happen to agree with a lot of what Lubos writes ...,
and cites the following as an example (I have numbered the paragraphs for reference):
#1) I am not so much concerned about the future of any funding because I am leaving Academia soon and I never cared about money much anyway.

#2) Moreover, I am also a leading expert in loop quantum gravity so that switching funding to LQG would not affect me even if this question were relevant. ;-)

#3) What I am primarily concerned about are aggressive crackpots who have no idea what they're talking about and who attempt to distort science as such and force scientists to share their idiotic beliefs, just like the religious bigots in the 16th century wanted to stop scientists from doing their work, and sometimes they did so rather efficiently.

#4) Sorry to say but the list of these bigotic individuals also includes Christine who just told us that she believes that string theory is not a "theory". What is it? Apple juice? Have you lost your mind?

#5)Sorry to say but I have just seen far too much about her so that I must conclude that Christine is clearly just a plain stupid person. Every sufficiently well trained parrot can say these simple sentences that XY theory could be plain wrong, and all these things. But the difference between parrots and scientists is that the scientists don't say far-reaching statements without evidence, and they are quantitatively able to estimate their real uncertainty, uncertainty that something is correct or incorrect, and their chances that something else is right.

#6) Creationists also say that evolution is just another "theory" that is perhaps not even a "theory", and when they promote their idiotic agenda, they also start with the indications that the evolution and creationism are equally uncertain - just like Christine wants to spread her dumb impression that string theory and loop quantum gravity are equally uncertain.

#7) It's a matter of strategy and all crackpots have the same strategies of "asymmetric war". The ultimate goal is clear: to flood physics departments with crackpots who are doing various "deep discrete theories" and make them 1/2 of theoretical physics if not more. The attempts to promote the idea that LQG and string theory are equally uncertain is just a beginning to a far more far-reaching plan to destroy physics.

#8)The two theories are extremely far from being equally uncertain or promising. Even if we imagine that string theory is uncertain, it is more likely to be correct than its ridiculous alternatives at least by 25 orders of magnitude. Experts know why, laymen don't. But science is done by experts, not laymen.

#9) Christine is a layman who has no idea what she's talking about and she just wants to pollute science by her ignorance. Whenever the mechanisms allow ignorants to contaminate thinking in this way, they will always do so.

#10) This is what all of the "democratic scientists" led by Peter Woit completely miss. You still have not understood what is the difference between science and politics, science and religion, science and comparative literature, science and wrestling, and science and everything else.

#11) It would be a complete catastrophe if people like you could directly influence what's going on with science and with other scientists because it would return us to the era in which unscientific bigots who only had opinions but who could not actually analyze reality rationally were restricting the society and thinking of rational thinkers.
What, Wolfgang, is it you agree with here? Which paragraphs? Maybe #1 since it's about his personal plans? Or perhaps #2? Has he ever published anything on LQG? How about #3? Do you also see a sinister plot by agressive crackpots attempting to sieze control of physics? It looks more like a paranoid fantasy to me.

Maybe #4? Maybe you can identify the key scientific point he makes here. What the hell difference can it make if it's called a theory or not?

Paragraph #5) What's the deep content of this one? A critique with a point or just lunatic raving?

#6) Do you think this is a plausible comparison? Can you see any difference between the two cases?

#7) Perhaps you see a deep truth here where I think I see another fantasy of a paranoid mind. Please explain if you do.

#8) You know a lot about probability. Maybe you could explain how Lumo calculates his probabilities here. It looks pretty Bayesian to me.

#9) Only three more paragraphs to go. Is this the one?

#10) This is another one I would like to have explained. I'm afraid I found only the usual symptoms of paranoia and conflation of his fears.

#11) Maybe this is the long sought money paragraph. "A complete catastrophe if people like" Sabine could influence science...?

Wolfgang adds:
It is a mistake to think that the opinion of Christine, Peter, CIP or the Daily Llama is as important as the opinion of Lubos, Jacques or John Baez...

On questions of science, opinions, however expert, are no substitute for facts. For purposes of planning, the key attributes are knowledge, judgement, and objective temperment and demeanor. No doubt Lubos has knowledge, but I have seen no evidence of judgement or objectivity. In his usual fashion he has totally confused utterly different ideas and points of view whose only commonality is that he doesn't like them. I haven't read Sabine's original post, so I don't know exactly what she was proposing, but I can tell that Lubos isn't proposing anything coherent whatsoever.

You, by contrast, usually show excellent judgement, but I'm clueless as to what you are arguing for here.

Deep Impact

The environmental impact of a person living a typical first world lifestyle is about 32 times as great as that of a person living a third world lifestyle. This factor is a kind of average over resource consumption, pollution generated, and other effects. Economists like to claim that the Earth can sustain many more people than it now has, but of course such claims are based on low impact lifestyles (when not pulled from thin air). (Numbers from Jared Diamond's Collapse)

The trouble is that people living in third world conditions aspire to the first world lifestyle. If a magic wand, or rapid economic progress made such possible, the net human impact on the environment would increase 12 fold. Nobody thinks this is possible in any kind of reasonable timeframe. There is simply not 12 times as much oil production, or 12 times as much copper available. There is no plausible way the world's food production can increase by a factor of 12, and no likelyhood that our ecosystems could survive a twelvefold increase in production of pollutants and industrial toxins.

Countries with third world populations that can get their act together are making agressive attempts to move into the first world economies, most notably China and India. Countries that can't are providing floods of desperate immigrants to the first world. The Chinese who gets a good job and buys a car and the central American immigrant who gets to Los Angeles both more or less immediately move up into first world type consumption patterns.

There is no chance that the present pattern can be long sustained and no chance that these environmental problems can continue unsolved. In the lifetime of today's children and young adults we will either figure out better ways to deal with them or will suffer the age old solutions of nature: war, plague, genocide, mass starvation, and civilizational collapse.

The most hopeful signs are the rapid decreases in fertility being seen in China and much of the rest of the world.

Today's young adults are probably the first generation of Americans to see a significant decline in their living standards compared to their parents. It will likely be more dramatic for those still children.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Hazardous Activity

Is blogging a bad career move?

No doubt it depends on the career, but there are certainly a whole range of careers where it can be bad for you. Academics traditionally have a lot of leeway to write and speak out, but maybe keeping a weblog is just too out.

The first academic weblog I read with any regularity was Sean Carroll's Preposterous Universe. Sean is a popular teacher, much in demand for both popular and technical lectures, and the author of an important textbook on general relativity. He seemed to be compiling a solid research reputation. It was a shock then, to his readers as well as to him when he was denied tenure at the University of Chicago.

Untenured professors are traditionally expected to keep their heads down, their noses to the grindstone, and keep cranking out influential papers.

Another favorite web log I read is Juan Cole's. He is a tenured professor at his university, but was recently refused appointment at Yale after recommendation by the departments doing the hiring - an unusual circumstance. His appointment was targeted by right wing groups who didn't like his views on the Middle East.

Brad Delong is a very big academic blogger as well as a prominent economist. His position apparently suits him, and he seems completely secure in it. He has been an Assistant Treasury Secretary though, and might be in line for bigger things when Democrats retake the White House. Will his bloggings help or hurt him if that happens? At any rate he will have a long paper trail.

Meanwhile, Lubos made a remark about leaving academia, provoking speculation like this over at Not even Wrong. It would be sad if Lumo's blogging hurt his career, but hardly a shock. He hasn't tread lightly.

Blogging is fun and addictive, but I guess my advice to the untenured would be to speak softly and let your research do your talking.

I believe it was Gildor who said that advice was a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise. I expect that goes double when it's from the foolish to the foolhardy.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Sell Off/Sell Out

Human Events online is not normally a big source for me, but a new conservative bugaboo does seem a bit sinister to me - for somewhat different reasons. The story concerns a new North American superhighway destined to bypass US ports and truckers. Here's the part that caught my attention:

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is overseeing the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) as the first leg of the NAFTA Super Highway. A 4,000-page environmental impact statement has already been completed and public hearings are scheduled for five weeks, beginning next month, in July 2006. The billions involved will be provided by a foreign company, Cintra Concessions de Infraestructuras de Transporte, S.A. of Spain. As a consequence, the TTC will be privately operated, leased to the Cintra consortium to be operated as a toll-road.

Given our profligate and irresponsible government's penchant for borrowing several thousand dollars per person per year, it seems all but inevitable that our children will grow up in a country where most things, including the roads they drive on, will be owned by foreigners.

Human Events has its own take:
A good reason Bush does not want to secure the border with Mexico may be that the administration is trying to create express lanes for Mexican trucks to bring containers with cheap Far East goods into the heart of the U.S., all without the involvement of any U.S. union workers on the docks or in the trucks.

I don't trust this source, or the author of the story, (Jerome R. Corsi), but it is another sign that even conservatives are beginning to see the sinister side of Bushville.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Human Ancestry

We got some of those National Geographic DNA kits, and were watching the video while preparing to swab.

They seem to have reconstructed a pretty good family tree for modern humans, with the San people of Africa at the root. About 50,000 years ago, some of them headed out and were next found in Australia, 10,000 km of Ocean and twice as far by land. No archeological trace of that journey remains, but a critical DNA marker of the population has been found in India, so it appears that some of their genes survive in today's India. Next, a couple of population groups moved out through the middle East into India and China. A third group moved through the middle East to Central Asia, where they still remain, though they were also the source of huge tertiary migrations ten thousand or so years later. They were the ancestors of the Europeans, the Native Americans, many Indians and Chinese, and the Asian Russians.

Germany 1 - Poland 0

The Poles were fired up and held off Germany for 91 minutes, playing with only 10 for the last 20 minutes or so. German intensity in the last six minutes was amazing though, with a whole swarm of chances, including two off the crossbar or goalpost. At 91 minutes though they finally punched one in.

Uh Oh!

From Arun.

The Congress has created a statute, and President Bush has signed it into law that is as follows:

Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

This is transparently unconstitutional, but with the Peronists in charge, who knows.


OK. This is becoming clinical. A third Motl related post out of four. IeventriedtapingmythumbsbutthenIfoundI could hit the space bar with my index fingers. This time a qustion for Lubos, based on his comment on Bee's blog at backreaction.

The reason why it is unacceptable to stop attacking people who say outrageous things as you do is that if I don't attack them, these outrageous things will be viewed as legitimate statements and they will be gaining power - which can already be observed.

a)Do you realize how incongruent this with your claim to believe in a free market of ideas? It's actually the opposite - Marxist style dogmatism.

b)Do you actually think you persuade anybody intelligent that an idea is bad by calling its proponent a dog, pig, crackpot or similar epithet?

c)Has it occurred to you that in a free market of ideas, you have to sell your ideas, not just cram them down somebody's throat in the manner of Lenin?

d)Do you realize how much your behavior resembles that of every lunatic proclaiming his own alternate reality? How hard it is to appreciate your true intelligence when you cloak it in juvenile behavior?

e)Have you ever considered trying persuasion?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Unbiased Observer

I suppose there is at least a chance that Juan Cole is not a totally unbiased observer of GWB. His headline for tomorrow:

Bush Sneaks In and Out of Baghdad Again

An elephant is very like a tree

And Darwin's natural selection is a lot like string theory.

The reason why the situations of string theory and evolution are analogous is that both of them are more or less inevitable given the known data, known approximate laws of Nature, and known and derivable logical constraints.

No minor, small observations would be enough to rule out the whole framework of evolution or the whole framework of string theory because we have much stronger reasons to be nearly certain that the general pictures are correct and our job is to complete the details. Surely, we don't abandon evolution after the first surprising observation of the genes of XY where XY does not stand for Xi Yin. In the same way, we don't abandon string theory once we find out that the simplest compactification - on torus - is not realistic.

Xi Yin??
Evolution is the only way how to logically reconcile the rich spectrum of complicated life forms, their shared molecular and other features, their diversity, currently observable mechanisms that decide about the survival, and the history of the Earth and the Universe including the obvious life-less beginning.

String theory is the only consistent way how to logically reconcile the known rich spectrum of particles and forces, including gravity, in a quantum setup, how to properly reflect their known interactions, and the known behavior of particle physics and general relativity at different energy scales. It is the only way to go beyond quantum field theory without sacrificing its proven features, and because we almost certainly know that we must go beyond ordinary local field theory, string theory seems to be the only game in town, despite 4 unsuccessful decades of attempts to show that there could exist alternatives.

In the case of evolution, the evidence is more of an observational character and the basic logic is comprehensible to many people; in the case of string theory, the evidence is much more strongly based on mathematical reasoning that is comprehensible to a limited set of experts.

Both string theory and evolution have critics who claim that string theory and evolution are not falsifiable. In both cases, the theories are viewed as "not falsifiable" because at least to some extent, the inevitability of the frameworks has already been proved which makes it hard to falsify it.

One slight difference: evolution predicted millions of things that have subsequently been observed. A few examples: The literally thousands of missing links, unknown to Darwin, but subsequently discovered. The great age of the Earth, not known or understood in Darwin's time. The fact that the mechanisms of heredity would support just such a system of evolution by natural selection that Darwin postulated. The fact that every organism on Earth shares the same basic genetic code and much the same biochemical mechanisms.

It would have been easy for evolution to have been falsified - no missing links might have been discovered, the Earth might have been as young as physicists of Darwin's time believed, different organisms might have proven to have different genetic machinery.

String theory also makes somes apparently unambiguous predictions: extra dimensions and supersymmetry for example. Neither is yet observed.

Hopeless Recidivist!

That's me. Hopeless.

I promised myself I would stop writing about Lubos. Sure I love the rush, but ultimately the kind of abuse it attracts destroys the body and the mind. The streets of Cambridge are littered with vacant-eyed derelicts who started writing about Lumo.

I tried. I really tried.

But what with Lumo planning a career change and all, I thought just one post couldn't hurt, could it? Could it?

His latest post favorably cites a site that compares string theory with Democritus's atomic theory - a piece of 19th century science that accidentally fell into the fifth century BC.

Maybe he means that we will be able to test string theory by the year 4400. I'm not sure I can wait that long.

Rove Walks

Karl Rove, says David Johnston, in This NYT story will walk.

The prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case on Monday advised Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, that he would not be charged with any wrongdoing, effectively ending the nearly three-year criminal investigation that had at times focused intensely on Mr. Rove.

The decision by the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, announced in a letter to Mr. Rove's lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, lifted a pall that had hung over Mr. Rove who testified on five occasions to a federal grand jury about his involvement in the disclosure of an intelligence officer's identity. and Jason Leopold have some explaining to do. So does their "credible source."

Monday, June 12, 2006


Czechia crushed the US 3-0 in today's World Cup play. It wasn't that close. This is pretty embarassing, because there are doubtless more American kids playing youth soccer on any Saturday than there are citizens of the Czech Republic.

So, why can't anybody here play this game? Dave Egger's has some theories in this Slate article: The True Story of American Soccer.

On Saturdays, every flat green space in the continental United States is covered with tiny people in shiny uniforms, chasing the patchwork ball up and down the field, to the delight and consternation of their parents, most of whom have no idea what is happening. The primary force behind all of this is the American Youth Soccer Organization, or AYSO. In the 1970s, AYSO was formed to popularize soccer among the youth of America, and they did this with startling efficiency. Within a few years, soccer was the sport of choice for parents everywhere, particularly those who harbored suspicions that their children had no athletic ability whatsoever.

The beauty of soccer for very young people is that, to create a simulacrum of the game, it requires very little skill. There is no other sport that can bear such incompetence. With soccer, 22 kids can be running around, most of them aimlessly, or picking weeds by the sidelines, or crying for no apparent reason, and yet the game can have the general appearance of an actual soccer match. If there are three or four coordinated kids among the 22 flailing bodies, there will actually be dribbling, a few legal throw-ins, and a couple of times when the ball stretches the back of the net. It will be soccer, more or less.

This happy state is not destined to last.
But at about age 10, something happens to the children of the United States. Soccer is dropped, quickly and unceremoniously, by approximately 88 percent of all young people. The same kids who played at 5, 6, 7, move on to baseball, football, basketball, hockey, field hockey, and, sadly, golf. Shortly thereafter, they stop playing these sports, too, and begin watching these sports on television, including, sadly, golf.

The abandonment of soccer is attributable, in part, to the fact that people of influence in America long believed that soccer was the chosen sport of Communists. When I was 13—this was 1983, long before glasnost, let alone the fall of the wall—I had a gym teacher, who for now we'll call Moron McCheeby, who made a very compelling link between soccer and the architects of the Iron Curtain. I remember once asking him why there were no days of soccer in his gym units. His face darkened. He took me aside. He explained with quivering, barely mastered rage, that he preferred decent, honest American sports where you used your hands. Sports where one's hands were not used, he said, were commie sports played by Russians, Poles, Germans, and other commies. To use one's hands in sports was American, to use one's feet was the purview of the followers of Marx and Lenin. I believe McCheeby went on to lecture widely on the subject.

Even after the end of the evil empire, it seems, there remain some obstacles.
Our continued indifference to the sport worshiped around the world can be easily explained in two parts. First, as a nation of loony but determined inventors, we prefer things we thought of ourselves. The most popular sports in America are those we conceived and developed on our own: football, baseball, basketball. If we can claim at least part of the credit for something, as with tennis or the radio, we are willing to be passively interested. But we did not invent soccer, and so we are suspicious of it.

The second and greatest, by far, obstacle to the popularity of the World Cup, and of professional soccer in general, is the element of flopping. Americans may generally be arrogant, but there is one stance I … stand behind, and that is the intense loathing of penalty-fakers. There are few examples of American sports where flopping is part of the game, much less accepted as such. Things are too complicated and dangerous in football to do much faking. Baseball? It's not possible, really—you can't fake getting hit by a baseball, and it's impossible to fake catching one. The only one of the big three sports that has a flop factor is basketball, where players can and do occasionally exaggerate a foul against them, but get this: The biggest flopper in the NBA is not an American at all. He's Argentinian! (Manu Ginobili, a phony to end all phonies, but otherwise a very good player.)

But flopping in soccer is a problem. Flopping is essentially a combination of acting, lying, begging, and cheating, and these four behaviors make for an unappealing mix. The sheer theatricality of flopping is distasteful, as is the slow-motion way the chicanery unfolds. First there will be some incidental contact, and then there will be a long moment—enough to allow you to go and wash the car and return—after the contact and before the flopper decides to flop. When you've returned from washing the car and around the time you're making yourself a mini-bagel grilled cheese, the flopper will be leaping forward, his mouth Munch-wide and oval, bracing himself for contact with the earth beneath him. But this is just the beginning. Go and do the grocery shopping and perhaps open a new money-market account at the bank, and when you return, our flopper will still be on the ground, holding his shin, his head thrown back in mock-agony. It's disgusting, all of it, particularly because, just as all of this fakery takes a good deal of time and melodrama to put over, the next step is so fast that special cameras are needed to capture it. Once the referees have decided either to issue a penalty or not to our Fakey McChumpland, he will jump up, suddenly and spectacularly uninjured—excelsior!—and will kick the ball over to his teammate and move on.

Well, there you have it.

There is also the crucial fact that, unlike NBA basketball, there is no convenient way to pack 45 minutes of commercials into the last 40 seconds of clock time. That makes soccer a non-starter for television and the resulting big money.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Blog Left

Adam Nagourney has this NYT story on the Daily Kos's Las Vegas convention.

As became clear from the rather large and diverse crowd here, the blogosphere has become for the left what talk radio has been for the right: a way of organizing and communicating to supporters. Blogging is nowhere near the force among Republicans as it is among Democrats, and talk radio is a much more effective tool for Republicans.

Is that really so? Daily Kos is lefty Dem, or course, but TTLB's top ten is dominated by right wing blogs (Instapundit, Michelle Malkin, etc.) On the other hand, wignut blogs are boring, mainly because they just propagate the party line, and rarely allow debate, and it's pretty easy to believe they don't have much influence.

Most of the prominent lefty blogs feature comments that are largely uncensored, with the resulting lively debate, plus excruciatingly familiar trolls from antiabortion and libertarian types.

In any case, the convention attracted a lot of Dem candidates, includings Mark Warner, Bill Richardson, and Wesley Clark.

Not present were the very unpopular (with this crowd) Hillary and the fervently hated Joe Lieberman.


Peter Woit's book Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory And the Search for Unity in Physical Law won't be legally for sale in the US until September 30, but it is out in the UK and getting some favorable reviews. This is good for Peter and also seems to be driving some string types bananas.

I'm agnostic on the ultimate value of string theory for a few reasons, but Peter runs a great site, and I'm anxious to read his book.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, has a good story on the implications of killing Zarqawi.

Make no mistake: The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a big deal, and for reasons beyond justice, vengeance, and crossing out another top mug on the al-Qaida most-wanted chart.

Just how big a deal it is will depend on what the new Iraqi government does as a follow-up—or, more to the point, what it can do, and there are still severe limits on that.

Still, one piece of good news is that there is a new Iraqi government, and this seems to be in part a direct outcome of the airstrike that hit Zarqawi and his entourage. Right after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the news, the parliament confirmed his appointments to the Cabinet's final three, most crucial slots: the defense, interior, and national-security ministries. The nominees—a Sunni and two Shiites, respectively—had been subjects of rancorous sectarian debate, which ended instantly upon the demise of Iraqi sectarianism's chief instigator…

…There were already signs that Zarqawi's operation was unraveling. Many Sunni Arabs bitterly protested his strategy of splitting Iraq's Muslims, especially his attacks on Shiites and their mosques. Juan Cole reports that, just this week, some of Zarqawi's fighters mounted an assault on a Fallujah police station—and were staved off by young Sunni tribesmen. Initial accounts of Zarqawi's death reported that "area residents" gave his location away. Later stories said the information came from insiders. Either way, it's good news. The former would mean that, for at least some Iraqis, their impatience with Zarqawi's violence outweighed their fear of his wrath. The latter would mean that his organization is about to splinter still further—with, ultimately, the same result.

So, is there a window of opportunity? Maybe so. Shiites were elated. Some Sunni’s were sullen, but they clearly now have some more maneuvering room. Whether Zarqawi was turned in because our intelligence is getting better, or because the Sunni’s were fed up with him, or even if the insurgents figured he was worth more to them dead than alive, there should be a chance now.
If there's any legitimacy to the new Iraqi government, now's the time it might take traction. If it can't take hold now, it might not ever.

"Might" seems too weak a qualifier.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Juan Cole

According to this Jewish Week story, Juan Cole was denied an appointment at Yale after a concerted campaign by Neocons and others.

A tenured professor at the University of Michigan, Cole was tapped earlier this year by a Yale University search committee to teach about the modern Middle East. In two separate votes in May, Cole was approved by both the sociology and history departments, the latter the university’s largest.

The only remaining hurdle was the senior appointments committee, also known as the tenure committee, a group consisting of about a half-dozen professors from various disciplines across the university.

Last week, however, in what is shaping up as the latest in a series of heated battles over the political affiliations of Middle Eastern studies professors, the tenure committee voted down Cole’s nomination. Several Yale faculty members described the decision to overrule the votes of the individual departments as “highly unusual.”

The reasons behind the rejection remain unknown; several calls to a Yale spokeswoman went unreturned.
Cole has been a frequent critic of the Iraq war, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and certain Likud politicians. He refused to comment on the decision but did say of the campaign against him, which included editorials or op-eds in Slate, Yale publications, and the Washington Times:
“These articles,” said Cole, “attempted to make my critiques of the Likud, on both sides of the Atlantic, look like an attack on American Jewry in general, which is manifestly not the case. For these people, Likud equals Israel equals Jews, so all criticism of revisionist Zionism and Greater Israel expansionism is anti-Semitic.”

Yale would not comment officially, but one anonymous source claimed that:
...Cole appears to lack in collegiality, as his penchant for combative blog entries and personal spats with detractors might make him an unnerving fixture on Yale.

Yale certainly couldn't afford that. I wonder if the collegiality bit applies in physics. How about at Harvard? Juan is pretty much St. Francis of Assisi by comparison with someone who will go unnamed here.

via Josh Marshall

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Fear Factor

Brad Delong podcasts about the dollar's gravity defying act:

The U.S. current account deficit may reach $1 trillion this year--a deficit of $13,000 for every family of four that we are borrowing from abroad to finance our spending and will have to pay back, someday. As more and more time passes without a sharp decline in the dollar, the international economists whose offices surround me are becoming more and more annoyed. Someday the foreigners will want to be repaid the money they have lent us, yes? The way we repay this is by shipping them our exports, yes? In order to ship them our exports, our exports must be competitively priced--which means the value of the dollar has to be lower, yes? And if the value of the dollar in the future must be lower, it will start falling now--there is, after all, lots of money to be made on betting on what seems to international economists to be a sure thing.

The international economists look forward into the future, and see a future in which the value of the dollar will be low.

But foreign-currency speculators and international investors do not see this future. They continue to hold very large positions in dollar-denominated assets. There appears to be nobody in Canary Wharf or Midtown Manhattan who thinks it is their business to bet on a future run from the dollar. In past history, the dollar is something that you run to, not from. George Soros can bet on a run on the pound. Thai import-export firms can bet on a run on the baht by accelerating their dollar receipts. Everyone can bet on a run on the Argentinian peso--a favorite sport of international financial speculators for a century and a half. But nobody wants to bet on a run on the dollar. Not yet.
The U.S. economy managed to unwedge itself from large trade deficits in the 1970s and 1980s without any significant economic discomfort. We'll probably manage to do the same this decade. Let's hope so. The chances that new Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and new Treasury Secretary to be Henry Paulson will have a very exciting time in their jobs are growing--growing slowly, but growing every day.

The Last to Know

I sometimes think that Luboš may not entirely reciprocate the deep affection and profound intellectual respect that I have for him, so let me just mention a couple of important things that I learned from him lately.

1) Clifford has left Cosmic Variance in a snit. Apparently one or more of his fellow bloggers thought that he a)too prolific, b)wrote about too many things, c)was too friendly to religion (Lumo's theory). Well, I'll miss him, and hope he either returns or starts his own blog. He seemed exceptionally congenial for a string theorist.

2) Privatize is conservative for "steal," as in

Prescott Bush was an important member of that secret society, and because it was secret, no one can have an idea whether it was OK or not for Prescott to privatize the bones, especially not pigs.

He was talking about the President's grandfather's part in robbing Geronimo's grave.

This glossary does help me understand what Republicans are talking about when they say that they want to "privatize" social security, as they once again are. I always suspected as much, but it is good to have it confirmed by a true believer.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Advice to a Senior Physicist

Luboš Motl says that:

A senior physicist who is not a string theorist has sent me a piece of text that he or she called "a tendentious, malicious attack on scientists and through that on science itself".

The perp in this case is a Robert Matthews, writing behind a subscription wall in the Financial Times, so I have no clue as to what he said, but it clearly provoked LM as well as his senior colleague. The post itself is pretty much the usual, long on insult and short on specifics, but my real point here is addressed to the "senior physicist."

Why exactly was it you gave this to LM? Luboš, of course, is a very clever fellow, but he also believes practically every crackpot notion known to the modern world - or at least the right wing ones. If you want to discredit some writing, sending LM to do the hit is *not* the way to win hearts and minds. Of course Lumo did say she (or he) was not a string theorist so ...

The anti-stringers are are starting to get more vocal.

I'm inclined to think the issue is mainly beside the point. The LHC will be built, and results will either give some encouragement to ST or not. If not, ST will probably go to sleep (with the fishes!) for quite some time.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Grave Robbing 2

Prescott Bush, the Grandfather of the current president, famously stole Geronimo's bones for Yale's Skull and Bones secret society (members include both president's Bush and John Kerry). This Huffington Post site helpfully includes directions to the late Mr. Bush's own burial site.


It's not exactly a secret that the war in Iraq is going badly. The insurgency and its enemies inflict horrific casualties every day. Iraq still does not have a functioning government. The question in my mind is, do the soldiers in country think we are losing?

Stan Goff, author and retired soldier tells about his arrival in Vietnam here, and in this story, republished in the wake of Haditha.

From his 2006 post.

In 1970, when I arrived at my unit, Company A, 4th Battalion/503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, in what was then the Republic of Vietnam, I was charged up for a fight. I believed that if we didn't stop the communists in Vietnam, we'd eventually be fighting this global conspiracy in the streets of Hot Springs, Arkansas. I'd been toughened by Basic Training, Infantry Training and Parachute Training, taught how to use my weapons and equipment, and I was confident in my ability to vanquish the skinny unter-menschen. So I was dismayed when one of my new colleagues--a veteran who'd been there ten months--told me, "We are losing this war."

Not only that, he said, if I wanted to survive for my one year there, I had to understand one very basic thing. All Vietnamese were the enemy, and for us, the grunts on the ground, this was a race war. Within one month, it was apparent that everything he told me was true, and that every reason that was being given to the American public for the war was not true.

A lot of bad things start happening once an army decides the battle is lost. From his 2003 article.
In 1970, I was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, then based in northern Binh Dinh Province in what was then the Republic of Vietnam. When I went there, I had my head full of shit: shit from the news media, shit from movies, shit about what it supposedly mean to be a man, and shit from a lot of my know-nothing neighbors who would tell you plenty about Vietnam even though they'd never been there, or to war at all.

The essence of all this shit was that we had to "stay the course in Vietnam," and that we were on some mission to save good Vietnamese from bad Vietnamese, and to keep the bad Vietnamese from hitting beachheads outside of Oakland. We stayed the course until 58,000 Americans were dead and lots more maimed for life, and 3,000,000 Southeast Asians were dead. Ex-military people and even many on active duty played a big part in finally bringing that crime to a halt...

I changed over there in Vietnam and they were not nice changes either. I started getting pulled into something--something that craved other peole's pain. Just to make sure I wasn't regarded as a "fucking missionary" or a possible rat, I learned how to fit myself into that group that was untouchable, people too crazy to fuck with, people who desired the rush of omnipotence that comes with setting someone's house on fire just for the pure hell of it, or who could kill anyone, man, woman, or child, with hardly a second thought. People who had the power of life and death--because they could.

The anger helps. It's easy to hate everyone you can't trust because of your circumstances, and to rage about what you've seen, what has happened to you, and what you have done and can't take back.

It was all an act for me, a cover-up for deeper fears I couldn't name, and the reason I know that is that we had to dehumanize our victims before we did the things we did. We knew deep down that what we were doing was wrong. So they became dinks or gooks, just like Iraqis are now being transformed into ragheads or hajjis. People had to be reduced to "niggers" here before they could be lynched. No difference. We convinced ourselves we had to kill them to survive, even when that wasn't true, but something inside us told us that so long as they were human beings, with the same intrinsic value we had as human beings, we were not allowed to burn their homes and barns, kill their animals, and sometimes even kill them. So we used these words, these new names, to reduce them, to strip them of their essential humanity, and then we could do things like adjust artillery fire onto the cries of a baby.

Until that baby was silenced, though, and here's the important thing to understand, that baby never surrendered her humanity. I did. We did. That's the thing you might not get until it's too late. When you take away the humantiy of another, you kill your own humanity. You attack your own soul because it is standing in the way.

So we finish our tour, and go back to our families, who can see that even though we function, we are empty and incapable of truly connecting to people any more, and maybe we can go for months or even years before we fill that void where we surrendered our humanity, with chemical anesthetics--drugs, alcohol, until we realize that the void can never be filled and we shoot ourselves, or head off into the street where we can disappear with the flotsam of society, or we hurt others, esepcially those who try to love us, and end up as another incarceration statistic or a mental patient.

I don't know if we have reached that sorry state yet where our leaders are just lying to us and the troops so that they won't have to admit defeat on their watch, but we are certainly close. Of course there is no one in the administration who will even address this kind of issue, much less come up with a realistic plan for the future.

Space Invaders: Speed

A colleague once asked me the following question: "What would happen if a fair sized (10^9 kg) alien starship crashed into the Earth at 95% of the speed of light?"

Let me start by mentioning what happens when a similar sized (1 km) asteroid crashes into the Earth at a typical solar system speed of about 20 km/s. It's velocity and mass are such that any air between it and the surface gets plastered on to the front of the asteroid and smashed into the Earth along with the only very slightly slowed asteroid. The speed of the asteroid is so much greater than the speed of sound (.33 km/s) that the air has no time to get out of the way.

Another data point: It's pretty interesting what a BB sized piece of metal does when it impacts a few inches of armor plate at a few miles/s. It punches through it like paper. If a projectile strikes a material strain waves in that material transfer momentum laterally, distributing the impact. If the projectile is moving much faster than the speed of the strain waves, this does not have time to happen, and material is simply sheared away and pushed ahead until enough mass accumulates to sufficiently slow the projectile. Using this logic, my seat of the pants notion was that the alien spaceship might just drill clean thru the planet.

U of A's Impact Effects Calculator doesn't agree, though it does say that the crater might be a few hundred miles deep. Of course the velocity of my alien spacecraft is much larger than those their models were designed to deal with.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Space Invader: The Big Bopper

The biggest catastrophe in the history of advanced life on this planet was a pretty big one indeed. The Permian-Triassic extinction event killed off 90% of marine species (including the last trilobites) and 70% of terrestial vertebrate species, and very likely, almost every individual creature alive. There have a number of theories as to the cause (Wiki link) but a relatively new one is based on the discovery of the remains of an "Ohio sized"crater under the Antarctic ice.

The crater, buried beneath a half-mile of ice and discovered by some serious airborne and satellite sleuthing, is more than twice as big as the one involved in the demise of the dinosaurs.

The crater's location, in the Wilkes Land region of East Antarctica, south of Australia, suggests it might have instigated the breakup of the so-called Gondwana supercontinent, which pushed Australia northward, the researchers said.

"This Wilkes Land impact is much bigger than the impact that killed the dinosaurs, and probably would have caused catastrophic damage at the time," said Ralph von Frese, a professor of geological sciences at Ohio State University.

Meanwhile, it seems that the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab has produced a handy dandy on-line Earth Impacts Calculator. I tried checking it out by plunking down a suitable asteroid and watching it from a couple of thousand kilometers away (near Australia?). Here is it's diagnosis:
Your Inputs:
Distance from Impact: 2000.00 km = 1242.00 miles
Projectile Diameter: 50000.00 m = 164000.00 ft = 31.05 miles
Projectile Density: 3000 kg/m3
Impact Velocity: 20.00 km/s = 12.42 miles/s
Impact Angle: 45 degrees
Target Density: 2500 kg/m3
Target Type: Sedimentary Rock
Energy before atmospheric entry: 3.93 x 1025 Joules = 9.38 x 109 MegaTons TNT
The average interval between impacts of this size is longer than the Earth's age.
Such impacts could only occur during the accumulation of the Earth, between 4.5 and 4 billion years ago.
Major Global Changes:
The Earth is not strongly disturbed by the impact and loses negligible mass.
The impact does not make a noticeable change in the Earth's rotation period or the tilt of its axis.
The impact does not shift the Earth's orbit noticeably.
Crater Dimensions:

Transient Crater Diameter: 240 km = 149 miles
Transient Crater Depth: 85 km = 52.8 miles

Final Crater Diameter: 493 km = 306 miles
Final Crater Depth: 1.91 km = 1.19 miles
The crater formed is a complex crater.
The volume of the target melted or vaporized is 247000 km3 = 59300 miles3
Roughly half the melt remains in the crater , where its average thickness is 5.45 km = 3.38 miles
Thermal Radiation:

Time for maximum radiation: 34 seconds after impact

Visible fireball radius: 368 km = 229 miles
The fireball appears 41.9 times larger than the sun
Thermal Exposure: 2.05 x 109 Joules/m2
Duration of Irradiation: 8830 seconds
Radiant flux (relative to the sun): 232

Effects of Thermal Radiation:

Clothing ignites

Much of the body suffers third degree burns

Newspaper ignites

Plywood flames

Deciduous trees ignite

Grass ignites

Seismic Effects:

The major seismic shaking will arrive at approximately 400 seconds.
Richter Scale Magnitude: 11.3 (This is greater than any earthquake in recorded history)
Mercalli Scale Intensity at a distance of 2000 km:

VI. Felt by all, many frightened. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster. Damage slight.

VII. Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction; slight to moderate in well-built ordinary structures; considerable damage in poorly built or badly designed structures; some chimneys broken.


The ejecta will arrive approximately 764 seconds after the impact.
Average Ejecta Thickness: 3.72 m = 12.2 ft
Mean Fragment Diameter: 1.25 mm = 0.0491 inches

Air Blast:
What does this mean?

The air blast will arrive at approximately 6060 seconds.
Peak Overpressure: 793000 Pa = 7.93 bars = 113 psi
Max wind velocity: 669 m/s = 1500 mph
Sound Intensity: 118 dB (May cause ear pain)
Damage Description:

Multistory wall-bearing buildings will collapse.

Wood frame buildings will almost completely collapse.

Multistory steel-framed office-type buildings will suffer extreme frame distortion, incipient collapse.

Highway truss bridges will collapse.

Highway girder bridges will collapse.

Glass windows will shatter.

Cars and trucks will be largely displaced and grossly distorted and will require rebuilding before use.

Up to 90 percent of trees blown down; remainder stripped of branches and leaves.

This is cool, but I think the event might have saturated its effects calculator. "Multistory steel-framed office-type buildings will suffer extreme frame distortion, incipient collapse...Up to 90 percent of trees blown down; remainder stripped of branches and leaves" in a 1500 mi/hr wind? I don't think so. 100 percent of trees would be converted to wood dust, and steel office type buildings would be blasted to bits.

"Clothing ignites

Much of the body suffers third degree burns." I think they mean vaporizes.

I got the same effects even when I cranked up the speed enough to put my observer inside the fireball.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Off the Mass Shell

Luboš Motl has now also posted on google gapminder, and since I haven't had a Lumo related posted for a bit, here is a fragment of dialog from his comments:

Most interesting to me was the fact that once fertility drops to some low level (2 or 2.5) rapid economic development in per capita GNI is almost inevitable. Further, the only examples of high GNI/c countries that have relatively high fertility are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
CapitalistImperialistPig | Homepage | 06.01.06 - 6:55 am | #

I think that you're confusing the cause and effect, CIP. The number of children per woman is around 2-2.5 *because* the people are already kind of secured materially (against hunger etc.), and they just want to do the same for their children.
Lubos Motl | Homepage | 06.01.06 - 10:47 am | #


I don't really disagree with the logic, except on one point. If you look at the gapminder graphs and traces, it's clear that in almost all cases, fertility falls first, and only then does per capita GNI increase. Thus, if cause and effect is as Lumo argues, it must be carried by tachyons. I'm going to go with the traditional idea that cause precedes effect.

Probably the most notable example is China, which started as one of the poorest (per capita) nations on Earth, but has grown explosively ever since fertility became very low.

Lumo - For example, you will find out that there is no visible correlation between GDP per capita (in international dollars) and the percentage of women in labor force, something that the feminists would like you not to know. If there is a small correlation, it is negative.

CIP - An oversimplification. Except for oil rich Middle Eastern countries, *all* rich countries have high female participation in the workforce. Some, but my no means all, of very poor countries have even higher work force participation by women.