Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I've been asked what I want for my birthday. I said I'd like a laser you can start a campfire with.

That's be cool!

With a historical flare, too.

Geek fire

Monday, July 24, 2006

Creative spam

I just cleaned out the junk mail from gmail--it doesn't have a single "dump it all" command, unfortunately, so I have to chuck it in blocks of 50 messages. In amongst the enhancement offers, come-ons and pleas for help from Nigeria, a message about Small Group Bible Studies: "What seven word phrase guarantees ..." (gmail only gives the first few words). I didn't need to read further: "guarantee" is a word of magic, not obedience. But I'd not have thought that small group leaders would be such a lucrative demographic to tap online. Somebody has more imagination than I do.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


After weeks of almost nightly practice, last night was the first night of Patience. My wife suggested that it might be good if I bought a ticket, or at least came late. There were hours before then, so I went home and tried to attend to the suggested errands. That evening as I ground over reluctant alignment measurements, I realized: This isn't another rehersal, this is opening night!

I dashed off, figuring I could get in the last half hour. In the parking garage a large pickup truck stuck out into the turning zone, and a huge SUV decided they wanted the middle and my lane too. I tried to get past, and brushed up against said pickup. No damage done (big black mark on the side of my car), but the security guard turned around and tried to figure out what to do.

So I arrived just as the curtain fell. From my position I couldn't see my wife or son during curtain calls, and she never saw me.

So much for bringing moral support.

Compared to the great problems in the world, disappointing my wife probably doesn't register on the radar. But I can do precisely nothing about Hizballah and Israel or any of the other battles. But what I can do, I ought to, and I muffed this one.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Our Superstring Universe

by L.E. Lewis Jr.

Strings, branes, extra dimensions, and superstring-m theory.

Who edited this? I can’t believe a particle physicist looked at it, or looked at more than just a slice or two of it. Lewis writes like a reporter: reasonably clearly, and with a charming breathless disregard for the facts.

The preface announces that this may soon be the most important theory of science…ever. Even back in June 2003 it was no secret that superstring theory was running into serious problems—such as not being able to predict anything. But set that aside and plow on. He brings in the “space particle” interpretation of strings to support a “continuous creation of space” and then brings in “an interpretation of a feature of SS-M theory;” namely the holographic principle “which seems to imply and allow a concept generally considered to be outside the realm of science. It is the concept of a human afterlife.”

That’s just the preface.

Next he addresses the origin of our universe in a breathless set of pagelets describing the time intervals starting with the initial nugget (which encoded our “universe to be”, never mind the Darwinian selection mentioned on the next page). Only 3 of the 10 space dimensions succeed in uncoiling.

Along the way he interjects descriptions of what he means by force and motion, space-time, matter-energy, and symmetry. I’d like to applaud him for trying to explain symmetry to the layman, except that he gets a bit hung up on jargon and forgets to include translational symmetry. (Translational symmetry is like driving in the Great Plains. Drive a hundred miles and the landscape looks exactly the same as it did before—nothing seems to change.) Then he proceeds to screw up what he did talk about when he addresses symmetry breaking. Water, inspected at the molecular level as he wants us to, isn’t really very symmetric at all. To understand what he’s talking about you have to think of yourself sunk in the middle of the ocean—water all around you. Move, turn—it always looks the same (just so you stay far away from the boundaries—pretend they aren’t there). But when the water starts to freeze a solid object appears; and now you can move nearer or farther from it, and look at it from different angles, and the view isn’t always the same. Some symmetry is now lost, or “broken.” “Building symmetries” is also possible, along similar lines.

The reason this sort of thing is important is that the equations that describe behavior of matter change in subtle and important ways when there is no longer one or another symmetry.

During the section on the inflation of the universe, he mentions quark formation, saying that up and down quarks appear and create protons and neutrons. Except, of course, that you have to generate anti-quarks as well, which generate antimatter, which annihilate with ordinary matter, and only an asymmetry in the weak interaction leaves us with any leftover matter at all. No mention of anti-quarks appears here (or anti-electrons in the next section)—a stunning omission.

In Chapter 11 when he yammers about “a new energy source?” he asks ”is it possible that (electron’s) mass could be converted directly into energy?” The answer is no, and if he understood the symmetries he wrote of earlier he’d know that. (He uses a picture that shows why, but I guess he didn’t understand it.) Then he calculates the energy equivalent of the electron—and gets .54 kilowatt hours! Of course this is wrong by a factor of more than 20 billion billion. I guess he was asleep during the lectures on measurement and units. I find it rather creepy that he professes to be able to explain arcana of M-theory and yet doesn’t know that cm/sec isn’t the same as m/sec. It comes as no great surprise that he completely omits any mention of the unification of electromagnetism and the weak force in his section on the standard model.

He starts out reasonably clearly describing the history of quantum mechanics, and then bollixes the section about Einstein’s contribution. On the whole that section is worthwhile, though: clear expositions of this are rare.

When he talks about omega, the expansion of the universe, and the microwave background he leaves the reader about as wise as before—maybe a little worse if the reader actually thinks that light can “cool.” If you’re going to talk about “curvature” of space, you need to open with a few examples; explaining what motion looks like in 2-d curved spaces like a sphere’s surface and handwaving your way to 3-d.

The missing dark energy and dark matter problems come up. It’s been long known that galaxies act like there’s more gravitating matter in them than meets the eye. Recent work untangling the “Einstein lensing” (light bends in gravity, so you can get extra images of remote objects) of distant galaxies shows that the intervening galaxies that cause the lensing have a distribution of gravitating matter that doesn’t quite match the visible part. Theoretical calculations of the universe’s overall curvature parameter (omega) suggest that the visible matter is only 4% of what’s needed to get omega=1. Even with estimates for “dark matter” this still only comes to less than a third. (They call the missing part the “dark energy.”) You’d think this was time to give the theory the old hairy eyeball, and that’s part of the appeal of string theory.

I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on string theory. The learning curve is pretty fierce, and the math is pretty hairy. The model is appealingly simple, and work that’s been done hints at interesting links tying together various physics and astrophysics mysteries in addition to putting gravity and quantum mechanics together in a natural way. You just have to ignore the fact that nobody’s been able to use it to predict anything yet because there are an infinite number of resulting models of the universes and some fundamental problems with getting the parameters right.

The fundamental model of string theory is fairly simple. All particles are vibrations in a space of 11 (or 10, or 23) dimensions. Eh? You only know of 3? (Don’t forget time!) Well, you wouldn’t see a dimension if it were coiled up on itself in a minute loop—unless there was something echoing around in that tiny loop like the sound in an organ pipe. You still wouldn’t see it directly (too tiny) but you could tell when an energetic one went by from the kicks it gave other things in the vicinity—which is how you spot the elementary particles. With a few simple rules about interpretation (faster vibration means more energetic means more massive) and about the interaction of these strings you can come up with a theory of particle physics and incorporate gravity naturally. The loops of tiny dimensions and vibrating strings in them put natural limits to the unpleasant infinities that show up when you try to describe gravity in quantum mechanics equations.

Some glitches arise: there should be a whole zoo of very heavy elementary particles, unless they all decayed away long ago. The theory demands some dramatic cancellations between positive and negative energies to give the small masses of the known particles: unbelievably large numbers differing only by minute amounts. (Truth to tell, quantum electrodynamics in the standard model has its own issues with things like that; but they’ve found some ways to justify and systematize them with “renormalization groups.” Don’t ask. Physicists do things that make mathematicians wince. They work, though.)

”Supersymmetry” (an elementary particle symmetry between particles with two different classes of spin) arises naturally out of string theory. This is regarded as a virtue, for some reason. Supersymmetry theories predict that every particle known so far (electron, up quark, Z-boson, etc) has an analogous particle of the opposite spin class. This makes a lot of calculations simple and the models beautiful, but we’ve never found one of these supersymmetric particles. As far as this experimentalist can tell the theorists can always tweak their model this way or that to predict that the lowest mass “super particle” was just outside the reach of the last experiment. Of course there’s all that dark matter that we don’t understand; maybe that’s stable supersymmetric particles. Or maybe not; I can’t seem to lay my hands on any to test it.

Chapter 8, on “Curled-up Shapes and Extra Dimensions,” is not terribly clear. It may seem so to a layman, but I found a lot of the theory described to be unmotivated and arbitrary. Which I suppose is natural when you don’t know the theory very well. But I’m not going to take Lewis’ descriptions as accurate given his track record, and neither should you. The chapter on “Building Credibility” doesn’t. In “The Search for Proof:’ finding the predicted supersymmetric particles would bolster all supersymmetry theories, not just string theory; neutrino interactions are rare but still happen often enough that we build detectors and find them; etc. If we had some ham we could have some ham-and-eggs if we had some eggs.

I will pass over the section on the holographic principle and life after death in silence.

It was kind of fun to see some old familiar names like the Icarus neutrino detector. I worked a little on that long ago—it is a liquid argon detector under the Gran Sasso mountain; one of Carlo Rubbia’s ideas.

In summary: the author doesn’t know what he’s writing about. Parts of the book are clear and accurate, and parts of it are clear and wrong. And for some parts I can’t tell one way or the other.

One interesting site critiquing string theory is Not Even Wrong

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Health Second Edition, by Marna Owen

If I may paraphrase a more famous review: This is not a book to be taken lightly. It should be thrown down and stamped on.

Youngest Daughter is taking Freshman Health at home this summer. This is the book she was assigned. It is startlingly elementary for a High School Freshman course.

The subject area consultant is Dr. Anita Hocker, who is “Supervisor of Health Education and Health Services for Sarasota County Schools,” “a specialist in curriculum,” “has been a high school science teacher, a developer of community health programs, and a medical researcher.” That last bit of resume padding is telling: a researcher would mention what the topic was. Dollars to doughnuts Anita was a student hourly—an honest job but not a research position. The Curriculum advisor is Stephen Larsen, with degrees in speech pathology and learning disabilities. There’s no info about Marna Owen.

In this book one learns such marvelous things as “Bones are hardened cartilage” (page 48). The chapter quiz often refers to things not discussed in the text. It also includes “Health Issues” such as “Some states have laws that require people to wear seat belts in cars. Do you think that these are good laws? Should the government get involved in your health?”

Maybe it escaped notice somewhere along the line, but questions about government responsibilities have more to do with political theory than medicine. The book reads as though the text and questions were composed separately. And howlers like the bone and cartilage claim shouldn’t have appeared even in a first edition, let alone a second.

The mental health includes the usual nonsense chatter about self-image. Youngest daughter and I had a long talk about “good self image.” This little gem of a phrase carries substantial ambiguity: Does it mean that you think well of yourself or that you think accurately of yourself? There’s a fellow in the mental hospital who thinks he’s Superman—he has a great self-image. And another who thinks he’s already damned and in hell, and needs to be whipped: not such a nice self-image.

We read a bit of Psalm 51: David had a pretty low opinion of himself at the time, but it was accurate. And what was really important was his attitude. He decided to go repent and try to get forgiven, in the hope that even somebody like him could still be good and an example again.

I think it was the Incans who had a proverb loosely rendered as “Party as though you would die tomorrow; farm as though you would live forever.” Both images are wrong: you (usually) won’t die tomorrow and you aren’t going to live forever. But the attitudes matter: celebrate wholeheartedly, enjoying everything as though this were the only time you could; and work responsibly.

Researchers found that bullies often have a “good self-image” (contrary to the party line). Suggestive, isn’t it?

Youngest daughter and I also had a long talk about the necessity for professional help after crises. Once again, recent work looking at the use of counselors after disasters (NY Times archives) found that people who put the past behind them and (using good old denial and other defense mechanisms) tried to go on with life were generally in better emotional shape a few years later than people who tried to talk through their issues with the counselors. Some people benefit from professional help (I’ve seen that, and so has she), but most seem to overcome crises just fine with just friends and time.

Some people need therapy, but we don’t need a “therapeutic culture.”

And we don’t need this book. The school is going to get a very nasty letter about it. Luckily we have a number of good references to fill in gaps, but students in a class have no such luck.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


Son, you are 12 years old and it is time for you to learn about the noblest form of wit: puns. With puns you are playing with sound and meaning, with the very nature of word and language. They enliven conversation, and sometimes even enlighten. You will find them in the books of the prophets, and Jesus himself is reported to have said one. Samuel Johnson can go pound sand.

You know, of course, that a pun uses words that sound similar to restate a phrase in a new way with a new meaning.

The most delightful of these are firecracker puns, which need no buildup but fit naturally into a conversation. In the best of these the new meaning fits into the conversation, and invites reciprocation. Puns where the new meaning is irrelevant tend to derail the conversation, which is not usually ideal—though sometimes a new direction is exactly what is needed. (It is very hard to give short examples, because they fit into the much longer conversation.)

Built-up puns are also fun. The shorter the buildup the better, and the more plausible the buildup the better. It is more fun for the audience when the pun is unexpected, so try not to spoil the surprise by announcing the joke in advance.

Puns must have context. Just noting that knows and nose sound the same does not leave anyone rolling on the floor laughing. It is a rather boring fact. But observing that “though an obstinate 3-year-old is unschooled he really no’s a lot” puts the similarity to use, gives it a context, and wins the undying thanks of an amused parent. Or so one hopes.

It is probably best to practice with built-up puns first, until you become skillful enough to see opportunities in conversation for firecracker puns. To do this you start with a reasonably common or plausible phrase, and see what can be varied.

Try “bar association.” That’s an organization intended to maintain standards for lawyers—if you don’t meet the standards you aren’t allowed to practice law. But bar sounds like “barre,” which is a ballet term. Who could “associate” in ballet? Students or teachers—pick one. The pun is more effective if the buildup has some links to the original, so we’ll pick the teachers as the associates, and try to put them in some sort of formal group.

That suggests an obvious buildup: “The ballet teachers unionized last month, and formed their own barre association.”

That isn’t too bad. It has the virtue of being short, at least. However, the “association” part isn’t very strongly connected with the “unionized,” and so the result is kind of limp. Unless there is more context (such as the word “association” having appeared already in the conversation), this is pretty weak.

It isn’t hard to strengthen it, though—because “bar” has several meanings already. One of them is “tavern” which of course is a place where people congregate/associate. So you can modify the buildup to be: “The ballet teachers union is at Matty’s Tavern for their weekly barre association meeting.” The word “association” is still not very well motivated, but “bar” is now a double pun. The more puns you can work into a phrase, the better (unless it starts sounding labored).

A built-up pun needs more and stronger context than a firecracker pun. If there are several of you in the kitchen and the dog begs for the ham bone, you can toss him the bone and say “Bone appetit!” The context is there already: the bone and the hope that the dog will enjoy his meal; so the pun can stand alone. This may be a bad example, because it is hard to come up with a plausible buildup: the best I’ve got is to talk about Julia Childe devoting a few minutes to explaining what leftovers are suitable for giving to the pets. To make that plausible you need to describe it with a sentence or two—and you start to lose the virtue of brevity. This pun works best as a firecracker.

Let’s look at another phrase, and see what it offers when we vary it:

Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.

  • Nobody. No-body; body. This could come from an undertaker, Dr. Frankenstein, or the famous wrestler’s name. The problem is that revising nobody gives kind of awkward grammar.
  • Knows. Nose, no’s. The word “nose” appears naturally in contexts with dogs sniffing things out, elephants, or Cyrano. The phrase “no’s” is a bit awkward, but means denial—maybe someone contradicting one of those fake tell-all stories? But that assumes that your audience knows about them.
  • Troubles. Tribbles. This is an old Star Trek reference (and has been done repeatedly) Not recommended: those likely to understand it will probably see it coming.
  • I’ve. Eye, ivy. Eye is hard to work in, but ivy might, especially together with scene, below. Some kind of outdoor setting?
  • Seen. Scene, screen, been. Scene means setting or view, of course. Screen can be in a garden too. Been would have to be pronounced with a long e, which isn’t standard anymore, but it fits in nicely with a confession (Nobody knows the trouble I’ve been)

We can pick out a modified phrase: “Nobody knows what troubles ivy screens.” Obviously the issue at hand is some kind of plant disease killing off the plants put there to hide the ugly brickwork. I leave working out the exact buildup as an exercise.

Or we can try to talk about watchdogs failing at their job with “Nobody nosed the troubles I’d seen.”

You always have to keep your audience in mind: puns about ballet may misfire if they use jargon your hearers don’t know about. For example, I only learned what the word “barre” meant a few years ago: before then I’d have just looked blank if you tried the earlier pun on me.

If your audience is familiar enough with the subject, you can sometimes use an indirect pun, where you don’t actually say the pun itself but say a phrase that references it. For instance, if someone mentions the ferry, you can say that you’ve heard of a collection of amusing stories about it collected by the Brothers Grimm. The actual pun—ferry tales—doesn’t need to be said. Carom puns like this work best in conversations, but they’re hard to fit in.

Ready? Go bless the world with glorious puns.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

More bumper stickers

On one car: “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake” and “Let’s get together and feel all right.”

I’m trying to figure out under what set of definitions the first statement could be true. At first glance it seems counterfactual (a polite way of saying “stupid lie”): history is quite full of counterexamples. But let me try to get inside this person’s head and figure out what sort of view of the world they are using.

I have to assume that the person who wrote this, and the person who stuck it on his car, actually mean something logical by the statement. It of course could be illogical nonsense that sounds good, and it is tempting to classify it that way—lots of people hunger for nonsense, after all. Or it could be the product of ignorance; but I doubt it—high school history has been dumbed down, but not dumbed down that far.

I’ll assume we both understand war to mean what happens when at least one group of people band together to fight with another group to achieve some objectives (keeping the other guys from killing them, or capturing slaves or land, etc), and that this fighting is on some largish scale. History is full of cases where one side’s objectives (staying alive, keeping their own property, grabbing the other guys’, or whatever) were met. It also is larded with cases where neither side’s goals were met, and a lot of people died with not much result. Nobody won those wars—no argument there.

Take a common enough setting as the example: country A wants a chunk of country B, and would like some slaves and other loose booty to go with it. A’s armies attack B. Repeatedly. After a few decades A practically (though rarely officially) gives up. Lots of people are now dead and both countries are poorer, but B survived, and so their objectives in going to war were met. (Substitute “tribe” for country if you doubt that this is common.)

My Bumper-Sticker Philosopher looks at this and says that nobody wins. He must mean that everybody has lost, and plainly both sides have lost a good deal in this case. Perhaps he is thinking of lives and treasure. If so, then he is saying that lives and treasure are more important than whatever the object they were risked for was. That sounds good at first, but on closer examination it isn’t quite as obvious as it seems. First, notice that the people fighting disagreed with him—they were willing to risk their lives for some mutual goals. Some were willing to die for those goals.

Look at the goals of the people of country B. They want to keep from being robbed, and keep from being made slaves of. If they valued life and safety more than protecting each other, unfortunately they would quickly have neither. So in a way they have to lose their lives to save them: be willing to die in order to survive. (The goals of the people of country A, though less ethical, are founded on their intent to take risks to provide for their own.)

If you take the claim that a life is worth more than anything else to its logical conclusion, nothing is worth risking your life for either.

So by what means do you avoid predation? Perhaps my BSP expects that each person will, if he feels safe from your attack, feel no need to attack you. That’s a common formulation anyway. A cursory glance at society proves otherwise: at least 1% of the population is perfectly willing to prey violently on the rest. My BSP seems likely to reply that this would not be true in a perfectly just society. This is true by construction (in a perfectly just society there aren’t any predators to begin with), but is not very useful (and I get very tired of hearing it). It is quite easy to increase that percentage, but it has been very hard to reduce it.

So if my Bumper-Sticker Philosopher thinks of loss of lives and treasure as the loss of the war, then he seems to be saying that nothing is worth risking lives for, and that he trusts in an Edenic society to make people good.

Maybe the BSP is more subtle, and he means something else. Perhaps what he means by loss is more of a spiritual thing. When we fight we become killers, in intent if not in execution. So when people go to war, something happens to their characters, making them less than they ought to be.

OK, I can follow that line of reasoning. Of course you run into Hamlet’s problem: “whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or “to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” For willingness to protect the innocent is as obviously noble a characteristic as is a peaceful spirit.

I can go farther. Unwillingness to protect those in your care is an ignoble abdication of your responsibility unless there is some better guardian available. Frequently there is no other guardian, and so you must fight unless there is a supernatural guardian and supernatural justice available.

I note that in this case my BSP’s statement does not absolutely demand that there be no wars. It may be that you must choose between ignoble actions. This differs from the purely materialist attitude discussed above.

So perhaps my BSP is a pacifist on religious grounds. I’m inclined to doubt it, though—because of the second bumper sticker.

The second bumper sticker carries, in this culture, an erotic, promiscuous, message. I’m not aware of any major religions that command both pacifism and adultery. The combination is found in do-it-yourself religions, with each man his own prophet. I am reluctant to dignify “it’s true because I say so” with the title of religion, or honor such a jackdaw as a prophetic follower of God. The tests for prophethood are pretty strict.

So I reckon there are three possibilities:

The message is nonsense in pretty language.

The Bumper-Sticker Philosopher thinks that life is too important to risk and probably also that a Just World (&tm;) will have no war or crime.

He objects to war on religious grounds, as defined by himself

I think I have spilled a lot of virtual ink on nonsense.

I should revise the numbers. A survey done in 2005 says youth gang affiliation in Dane County is 6%. So my predator rate (based on prison populations) is a factor of 6 too low.