Friday, December 28, 2012

Merry Christmas from Ireland

John, David, Peter, Kathleen, Clemént, Jordon, Patricia and William

Peter, John, Patricia, David, William, Mary, Tom,Kathleen, Clemént, Jordon and Luke

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wright's Law

Dear Mrs Chown, Ignore your son's attempts to teach you physics. Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is.

Best wishes, Richard Feynman.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

One of the more interesting gift catalogues we received

This is from Peter (not the founder of this blog, but the one with the same name), who  claims these are pages from a catalogue Lisa found while shopping in a discount mall. (Click on each image to view it full size.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Geography of Gun Violence

The Newtown shooting has occasioned endless features and articles on gun violence and gun control.  While I'm not sure that anything can be done to stop a mass killer intent on carrying our his mission, our murder rate is off the charts -- as Jim has pointed out.  Using 2009 data, we have a gun homicide rate that is is some 15 times greater than the combined homicide rates of 22 other high income countries.  That's just crazy and, if a mass killing generates a discussion about that, I'm not not complaining.

The frenzy is such that even old articles are being dredged up.  I saw an article originally published in January 2011, after the Tucson, Arizona shootings:  The Geography of Gun Deaths.  It compared the firearm deaths -- accidental, homicide and suicide -- for the 50 states and the District of Columbia.   Here's a map showing the comparison:  

Then, came the interesting part.  As the author, Richard Florida states:

With these data in hand, I decided to look at the factors associated with gun deaths at the state level. With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, we charted the statistical correlations between firearm deaths and a variety of psychological, economic, social, and political characteristics of states. As usual, I point out that correlation does not imply causation, but simply points to associations between variables.

First of all, let's look at the factors that do not correlate with gun death rates:  rates of unemployment, illegal drug use, stress,  neuroticism, mental illness and population.  

Now, what are the factors which can be assocaited with high gun death rates?  The factor with the highest correlation to gun deaths was which candidate carried your state in 2008.  If your state went for Obama, breathe a sigh of relief; there are not many gun deaths in your state.  Be concerned, however, if it went for McCain.   Also, if your looking for safety, pick a state with a high immigrant population.  A high immigrant population had a high correlation to low gun death rates.   Also, look for a state with a lot of college graduates.   Anyway, here's the complete graph.  You can see for yourself.  


Monday, December 17, 2012

It's the news, again

In Progress typically has a unique perspective on events. I don't want to add more to the cascade of reporting and opinions on the tragedy of Newtown, CT. Kottke has abstracts and links to an incredible amount of thoughtful writing.

I'll only add a couple of quick comments. First, Tom, before he left for Ireland, was upstairs packing and heard me say that I doubted even this tragedy would budge Obama and congress to enact more strict gun control. When he came down he said imaginatively that it is more likely that the response, especially from the gun lobby, would be: we need to pass legislation to arm teachers with hand guns.

Secondly, why is this news? It is not because it is unusual for 26 people to be killed by gun shots in a day. In 2011 there were 8,583 deaths from guns in the U.S. That averages, over a 365 day year, to about 24 a day, so this was a pretty average day. It's just that it coincidentally happened in just one spot.

Friday, December 14, 2012

NASA Working on Warp Drive

NASA is currently working on a warp drive -- thanks to recent work by physicists Miguel Alcubierre and Harold White. Once developed, we could be in Alpha Centauri in two weeks tops. See How NASA might build its very first warp drive. For the more technicially minded, here is White's paper:  Warp Field Mechanics 101.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas songs

On the subject of Christmas songs here's "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" with a little bit of a different twist to it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Creepy Christmas Song

It seems that everywhere I turn these days someone is writing about the song, "Baby It's Cold Outside."  The song is a duet sung as a conversation: one party to the exchange is bent on seduction while the other resists. The song was first presented to the public in the 1949 motion picture, Neptune's Daughter. The film actually featured two performances of the song: one by Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams and the other by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. It won the Academy Award for best song that year.

The problem is that in this time of date rape and Rohypnol, some question the appropriateness of the song, especially at Christmas time.  After all, the woman protests, "I simply must go", "The answer is no", "I've got to go home", and the guy persists -- exactly the opposite of what they teach you in the workplace harassment seminars.   And he uses every weapon in the arsonal:  appeals to her safety and well-being, flattery and utltimately guilting her ("What's the sense of hurtin' my pride?" "How can you do this thing to me?").  And the "Say, what's in this drink?" line has its own obvious problems. 

Stephen Deusner of Salon doesn't approve. Is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” a date-rape anthem? Alyssa Broda of PolicyMic says This Song is About Sexual Harassment. And Eleanor Barkhorn and Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic want to re-write the lyrics.  How to Redeem 'Baby, It's Cold Outside': Fix the Lyrics.

Well, in spite of it all, it's a pretty clever song -- and you can decide for yourself if it's creepy or not.  Is she putting up a token protest, or does she really want to leave?

First, here are the two versions from Neptune's Daughter:

And a more recent version from Glee:

And, finally, if you just want the lyrics:  

Saturday, December 8, 2012

More Things You Shouldn't Teach Your Children

In a previous post I offered the view that the sad state of religion today has been severely abetted, if not principally caused, by teaching religion to children. I want to expand that to other areas.

It's not unusual to spread lies to our children in many areas, but typically they are corrected when the child becomes an adult. From Santa, to George W. never telling a lie, to Columbus discovering America, we later teach them the fine distinctions of what first was presented as simple truth.

The reason religion is such a problem area is that, while we may take advance math or history, ninety-nine per cent of us never take advanced religion. As I said earlier, we get stuck with the child view.

But while it is pervasive in things religious, it causes problems in other subjects too. Unless you are a college physics major, you most likely have not been taught, and will not be taught any physics that has been developed since 1865! Yes, 1865. Imagine all the lies this fills us with. Thank goodness this is not true for other areas of science.

For example, were you taught that gravity was a force of attraction between the masses of different objects? I was. Do you believe it still? It's a lie; a popular misconception. The problem, again, is that we don't teach the adult version because…well, I'm not sure why…perhaps, like religion, it would be too difficult, or that many aren't interested.

No serious scientist believes gravity is based on mass. You can easily grasp that the notion is silly when you think about gravity's affect on light. Everyone knows about light and black holes; but light has no mass. Actually the source of gravity, at least as we understand it today, is not mass, but energy and momentum. Newton's Law of Gravitation is just an approximation. It's 'good enough' for most purposes. But it helps to have the 'adult' versions of things.

OK, the title of this post is a child's view of the subject. We can't really stop teaching children childish things, but we should try not to teach them things that are flatly wrong without continually reminding them with every lesson:
"This is not exactly right. It's wrong, but it's somewhat understandable. Hopefully, you can use it. Build on it. But, most importantly, continue to discover all the wrongness in it, and correct it. Whatever you do, don't believe it as gospel."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Traveling Upstream

Shane Carruth is the man behind the world's most complicated film, Primer. It's a movie that fascinates even when you haven't the foggiest of what's going on. After a few viewings you get the impression that time travel may be involved, that time travel is as addictive as crack, and that a lot of characters are walking around with similar names and faces. Unfortunately, something this complex is often seen as either an intelligence test or the emperor's new clothes. But that was 2004; now is 2012. Carruth is now moving Upstream Color. And it's coming to Sundance.

If that teaser (NOT a trailer) means anything to you, you may not be tethered properly.

Of course the whole movie may not add a lot of clarity, if Primer is any indication. I'm excited though. And it comes from my daily perusal of Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. I can tell you that:
Within the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industry, there are many process streams that require purification by some means or another. Typically, this requires that a specific impurity is removed or that a range of impurities are eliminated. In the latter case, these impurities are never fully characterized and are generally called color-species. 

In all cases, the color is regarded as an impurity that must be removed in order to avoid any adverse quality problems downstream with the final pharmaceutical product. The removal of upstream color also serves to improve the resin lifetime of expensive chromatography media that is used in downstream purification.
Feel better now?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Finding Fault with God

It's nice to see that other mainstream media, aside from In Progress, attempts to venture beyond childhood notions of religion. Yoram Hazony, a Jewish Philosopher, writes a nice piece in the New York Times. This statement may be part of our mythical canon:
The belief that any human mind can grasp enough of God to begin recognizing perfections in him would have struck the biblical authors as a pagan conceit.
I found that Hazony's explanation on the pitfalls of perfection called to mind the first episode of "The Hermeneutics of Wishes" where I quote William James and call it the Incompatibility Principle. (shameless plug: There is still time to enjoy the six part series.)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Amazing Science

I know some people are interested in this, especially John, so here is an amazing article about amazing science.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Election Firsts

All the post election news centered around how surprised and bummed out the Republicans were about the election results, and how, once again,  Nate Silver got everything right (I'm beginning to re-think the Niels Bohr observation:  "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."  Silver doesn't seem to have any problem.)

So, it's possible that you missed a few election firsts.   We begin with same-sex marriage.  For the first time by popular vote, same sex marriage laws were passed in Maryland, Maine and Washington.  Minnesota, trying to get on the gay marriage bandwagon, voted no to a ballot initiative to change its constitution to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.  Meanwhile, there were other victories for gays.  Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) became the first openly gay senator in United States history.  And while we're on the subject, Spain's highest court voted to uphold the legality of same-sex marriages in that country.  France is moving toward passing a same sex marriage law in 2013.

In another first, Puerto Ricans voted for the first time in that island's history in favor of statehood in a nonbinding referendum.

Puerto Ricans were asked about their preference in two parts. First, by a 54% to 46% margin, voters rejected their current status as a U.S. commonwealth. In a separate question, 61% chose statehood as the alternative, compared with 33% for the semi-autonomous "sovereign free association" and 6% for outright independence.

Who knows where this will lead, but it may be that there will be a 51st state in the near future.  Among other things, this will mean another blue state, and will move us down the road toward bi-lingualism (as psychologists tell us, increasing American intelligence overall and preventing dementia). The United States now has the 5th largest number of Spanish speakers in the world.  Adding Puerto Rico may move us up the ladder.  You might as well get started right now:  estadidad means statehood.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Future of Football (American style)

American football is second only to Nascar racing as the most popular spectator sport in the United States. Statistics are murky, but it's safe to say that oodles of people like to watch the game. The problem is the people who play the game—they don't last like they used to. For whatever reasons, it may be more likely for wealthy NFL players to pay taxes at over a 15% rate than to finish a season. Fans like to identify with the players, but the team at the end of the year is barely recognizable from the one that started. Fans in Pittsburgh now will have to somehow root for one of the most scorned and ridiculed players in recent local history, Plaxico Burress. The team has lost its receivers, linemen, quarterbacks, defensive backs and their uniforms.

There is a solution. Combine the two most popular sports, auto racing and football. At first glance they seem incompatible, but their immense popularity is based on one common event—crashes. By replacing the injury prone players with repairable mechanical engines, we could enjoy spectacular crashes on practically every play. The mind numbing boredom of auto racing gets to keep all its noise and adds incredible robotic strategy. The rules would have to be slightly modified. All 'players' would need to receive instructions from the bench, but the current army of rule making officials in both sports have more than enough expertise to quickly come up with a working formula.

With Carnegie Mellon's robotic prowess, Pittsburgh could have a leg up on the competition.  And there would be no need change the eminently appropriate name of Steelers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

comment on Increase Tax Rates or Eliminate Deductions

I wanted to add this graph, but I couldn't put it in the comment section:

Someone else showed me this, but I couldn't find it on the site so I'm posting it (again?). I was shocked that the tax cuts drove the deficit much, much more than the wars.

When Patricia N. was here before Halloween, she told me of an economics lecture she attended recently where the speaker basically said, illustrated with fact, figures, charts, bells and whistles, that taxes have not increased since the 50's or 60's, but the services from the government have grown enormously. Eventually, there are no free lunches.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Increase Tax Rates or Eliminate Deductions?

The show down between the Republican House and Obama is going to be whether we raise revenue by getting rid of some deductions or raise tax rates.  My question is:  what is the source of the fear of increased tax rates?

In September of this year, the Congressional Research Service published a paper, "Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945 September."   I'm surprised that the paper has not received more attention.  By taking an historical view, it concludes that raising tax rates on the wealthy do not have a negative impact on the economy in any way, but merely increase disparities in income distribution.

Here is the summary:

Throughout the late-1940s and 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was typically above 90%; today it is 35%. Additionally, the top capital gains tax rate was 25% in the 1950s and 1960s, 35% in the 1970s; today it is 15%. The real GDP growth rate averaged 4.2% and real per capita increased annually by 2.4% in the 1950s. In the 2000s, the average real GDP growth rate was 1.7% and real per capita GDP increased annually by less than 1%. There is not conclusive evidence, however, to substantiate a clear relationship between the 65-year steady reduction in the top tax rates and economic growth. Analysis of such data suggests the reduction in the top tax rates have had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth. However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution. The share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of U.S. families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% by 2007 before falling to 9.2% due to the 2007-2009 recession.

Just looking at the most recent years we see that tax cuts do not equal growth in GDP:

If anyting cuts in tax rates appear to have a negative impact on the economy.

Here are two more charts.  One shows how tax rates for highest income taxpayer have declined over the years, and thje other one shows how the share of total income by the wealthiest has increased over the same time.  One thing is clear:  decreasing tax rates for the wealthy may not help the economy but it helps rich people.

Again, why are Republicans opposing tax increases on the wealthy?

Now, can we get back to doing God's work?

Those of you who think that Christianity is now simply a front for a bunch of conservative culture warriors need to take a look at Faithful America.

Faithful America is an online community of people of faith which seeks to, in its own words, "restore community and uphold the common good in America and across the globe." It sees as its issues ending poverty, promoting human rights, preventing climate change, fighting hate speech and reforming immigration laws.

Ellen in an email entitled "Now, can we get back to doing God's work?" sent me the link below to a petition sponsored by Faithful America which is addressed to the American Catholic bishops. I was trying to think of how I could give this petition the widest possible distribution and immediately thought of In Progress.

And so here it is:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Football…, I mean, soccer

Maryland has been ranked first most of the season in soccer. Currently the polls rank them second with Akron first and Notre Dame third. However, the NCAA tournament committee seeded Notre Dame first (either because they won the Big East or they get special bias), Maryland second and Akron ended up seeded fifth. The upshot of all this is, if each team plays as predicted, the Terrapins will be facing the Irish for the championship. (Also, it may be the only time in history you can say Notre Dame football is ranked third and it doesn't matter if you are talking to an American or any other nationality.)

On a completely different note, coaches and sport banquet hosts are always saying sport teaches us lessons. This was illustrated dramatically in the latest Monday Night (American) Football game with the Steelers and Kansas City. The Chiefs performed an excessive group celebration after an apparent fumble recovery and runback for a touchdown. Upon review it was ruled an incomplete pass—no touchdown. But the penalty stands. It gave the Steelers a first down on an otherwise fourth down with the incomplete pass.

The lesson (other than never be too proud of yourself): Fictive things wink as they will; but the penalties remain.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Disclosure: Tom's post on running

I got an email from Tom, who is having trouble posting to the blog. As many emails today, it was mostly concerned with confidentiality, disavowing any information, especially tax information which you may think it contains, and explaining what it is not intended for. But I also discovered it contained a link to an article on running and how fast you may think you are going.

Please note I am not endorsing any information you may think is implied in this post, especially if it constitutes fraud.

Is this post-Reconstruction America?

This is a fascinating article comparing today's political world with post-Reconstruction.

Dear Treaters and Tricksters

Halloween is, like most holidays, focused on children, but guided by adults. The adults make the rules:
• “Don’t run. Look both ways before crossing the street. Be sure to say, ‘Thank you.’”
• “You’re not going out Trick ‘r Treating until you finish your liver and stewed tomatoes.”
• “Roman gladiators also had to wear boots when it was raining.”
• “You can’t bring you’re dad’s loaded shotgun as part of your costume.”
• “You have to be able to see.”

Most adults, although their own childhood memories fade or change as they age, want children to have fun, but their first concern is safety. This is altogether reasonable—after all, they are adults. Children, on the other hand, see things quite differently, and are much more concerned about adventure. It is the child’s responsibility to creatively extract the maximum amount of fun within the adult-set parameters.

Sometimes children just forget the rules, as children are wont to do, such as excitedly running across the street without looking. This is when luck plays a major role in the child’s future growth. More often, however, the child considers the rules, the consequences and benefits of sidestepping them, and makes his or her best choice. This is particularly true for Halloween because practically all choices are out of sight of the parent—or at least until parents started accompanying kids house to house.

On orange and black plastic shopping bags distributed by my local Shop and Save supermarket around Halloween time are “Halloween Safety Tips”. They are reasonable, adult produced principles.

Avoid trick-or-treating after dark. Choose well-lighted familiar streets for your trick-or-treat route.
My child view was the exact opposite. We did not like to go out until dark. What at night is scenic (and scary), may seem cynic (and stupid) by the day. Halloween is all about dusk, dark, and shady. About street lights we had no control. We would go whatever route afforded the most candy per travel time.

Never trick-or-treat alone. Go in a group and share the fun!
The only objectionable part here is the ‘never’. Sure, it generally was more fun to go in groups, but, for whatever reason, it was not unusual to end up alone. This was not a bad thing, and, indeed, being alone at night, ringing strange people’s doorbells, being attacked by strange dogs, helped us grow up a bit. We are all better cold-call salesmen for it.

Wear light covered costumes or decorate your costume with reflective tape so drivers can see you.
A reasonable adult suggestion, but, really, something we never thought about. Didn’t reflective tape develop out of the U.S. space program? Anyway, how does reflective tape harmonize with the fashion statement of the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh?

Wait until you get home before eating your treats and candy.
They may as well have written, “Wait until you get home so you can share your candy with your brothers and sisters.” Strangely, more often than not, this was the one dictum I followed. I’m not sure why, unless I felt that eating candy was wasting valuable time that could be spent gathering more.

That's it from the supermarket regulators. Well, kids, you’re in an adult-run world, despite what your parents think, do the best you can. And good luck.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Problem

The problem: 2,976 people die including 19 hijackers in the coordinated September 11th suicide attacks against the U.S.

The response: The U.S. invades Iraq and later Afghanistan resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties, both military and civilian. The U.S. is still trying to recover from our response both militarily and financially.

The problem: Boy gets dumped by girlfriend.

The response: He drinks himself into oblivion or worse.

The problem: Hurricane Sandy devastates the east coast of the U.S. causing untold hardship and billions of dollars in damage.

The response: Practically all Pittsburgh communities, which were not affected locally by the storm, postpone Halloween citing poor weather. (There is a chance of drizzle, like practically every other Halloween.)

The problem: Something horrible happens but it is unclear how to solve the problem.

The response: TRANSFERENCE to something that we can solve.

Sandy, the Jersey Shore and the Boss

We all know that Bruce Springsteen is no fan of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.  Nevertheless,  with the approaching hurricane, Springsteen spoke out in support of the governor's shorefront evacuation orders:

This boardwalk life for me is through
You know you ought to quit this scene too

The song is -- you know it -- "Sandy."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

HMS Bounty

As some of you may have heard, a replica of the HMS Bounty was sunk this week by Hurricane Sandy. Of the 14 crew members, there were 2 deaths; the captain and a woman named Claudene Christian, who had spent 10 hours in the water before the Coast Guard was able to reach the site.

Strangely, Claudene Christian was a descendent of Fletcher Christian, the mutanist who overthrew our very own Capt. William Bligh on the original HMS Bounty. (Can someone confirm the relation to the Harvey surname?)

And speaking of english maritime history, I just finished listening to an audiobook of Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I very highly recommend it:

The Beach

Fifth Street pavilion. Here are some other images courtesy of the Sand Paper. (By the way, did you know that Joseph Mancini is the current mayor of Long Beach Township? Is this a vampire, a son, grandson?)

Monday, October 29, 2012

The First Time

The Lena Dunham ad promoting Obama aired last week online.  It now has has all the conservatives' knickers in knots:

Said Hadley Heath, spokeswoman for the Women's Forum: "This ad simply proves that the Obama campaign only knows how to speak to one specific type of woman. And I’m proud to say I am not that type of woman."

"It's offensive, repulsive and should be removed immediately.  It is beneath the dignity of the office you hold," Rep. Marsha Blackburn from Tennesee said in an open letter to Obama. 

Eric Erickson, conservative blogger and CNN contributer, tweeted: "What's worse than the Obama ad is that some people really like it. We do live in a fallen, depraved world destined for the fire."

This makes me think of the G.K. Chesterton quote:  "A puritan is a person who pours righteous indignation into the wrong things. "  Anyway, I'm sure that these folks are lots of fun at parties.

But, the ad is not above criticism.  Mostly, as it turns out, it's a ripoff of a Putin campaign ad released earlier in the year.  You judge which one is better.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cold Fusion One Year Later

It's been a year since we last reported on Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR), previously known as Cold Fusion. A lot has happened and a lot has not happened. What has surprised me the most is the number of organizations, companies, and individuals who are working on the technology. Some of the researchers are new, but some have been working ever since 1989, when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann published their never-to-be-verified paper. This includes NASA, MIT (which helped debunk the original 1989 study), Darpa, and Cern. National Instruments' president Dr. James Truchard kicked off NIWeek 2012 with an enthusiastic push for LENR research.

The best article currently on the subject is by I still think skepticism is in order but I'm tending more toward the persistent and practical realm, rather than disbelieving in all and any energy claims. There seems to be something there, and now theoretical physicists are coming up with a number of explanations (here, here, here). That's the great thing about science, it will come up with the craziest stories as long as there is some repeatable experiment, i.e. "If you build it, they will come".

Lastly, there may be some critical cultural mass building for LENR since there is a science documentary called "The Believers" being released this week in Chicago.

Apple unable to lose its cool

In July of this year the High Court in London ruled that consumers were unlikely to mistake Apple's iPad with Samsung's Galaxy Tab. Judge Colin Birss said in the ruling that "[Samsung's tablets] do not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design. They are not as cool."

Apple appealed the ruling, so they were stuck with the unenviable task of proving that Samsung's Galaxy Tab was just as cool as the iPad. Of course, they lost. I suppose no lawyer, no matter how much you pay them, can prove that.

For punishment Apple will have to explicitly state on its website and in print that the Galaxy is just "not as cool." It's just like when you had to stand in the corner of the classroom wearing a sign that read, "I'm sorry that you're not as cool as I."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What Debate Question Would You Ask?

The Town Hall Debate format allows citizens to ask the presidential contenders a question. What a great idea! What would your question be?

Here is the first one I thought of:

It has been said that citizens of all countries should vote for the American president because they are often more affected than the citizens of the United States. Certainly the civilian citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan have been more affected than most likely anyone here in this 'town hall'. Are you in favor of letting all world citizens vote for the U.S. president and, if not, what means do citizens of other countries have to protect themselves from the U.S.?

Maryland Challenges

Martin must be having a hard time deciding whether to go to the soccer field to watch the nation's top college soccer team, go to the indoor track to watch the nation's top ranked human powered helicopter team and Sikorsky Prize contender, or go study.

Here is the NPR story.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Who Won the Vice Presidential Debate?

Who won the vice presidential debate?  Well, I didn't see it, so I can offer no first-hand account.  But, in order to find out, I checked Google and discovered that almost everybody won except either candidate.

According to CNN Politics, Martha Raddatz won.  Who won Thursday's debate? Martha Raddatz.  The Inquisitor agrees.  And The Winner Of The Vice Presidential Debate Is: Martha Raddatz

According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama won the debate.  Debate winner? Barack Obama

The Washington Post had many winners, but none were either of the actual candidates.  Its list of winners were (a) Joe Biden's last 15 minutes; (b) Martha Radditz; (c) political junkies; (d) party bases; (e) "My friend"; and (f) Chamillionaire.  Winners and losers in the vice presidential debate

According to Policymic, Joe Biden's teeth were the debate winner.  VP Debate Winner: Laughing Biden and His Teeth

And last but not least, another article from the Washington Post, the furniture won the debate.  VP debate winner: Furniture

Friday, October 12, 2012

Nobel Prize for Physics previewed by In Progress

Back in August of 2011, my last day of Quantum Week, I threw in a lightning round of topics we had barely touched upon or that enhanced the weirdness of quantum physics. One of the items was the following:
  • It is properly claimed that observing a particle means hitting it, no matter how gently, with light, a photon, which disturbs the particle you are attempting to detect. That is why the system is disturbed. However, there have been other experiments which claim non-demolition measurements. They don't measure using light or photons

I included the link to a 2007 article explaining the work of Serge Haroche and his collegues at Ecole Normale Supérieure. If you had followed Quantum Week, you would have not been surprised when Serge Haroche shared the Nobel Physics Prize this year with David J. Wineland for exactly this work—his measuring of photons without disturbing them.

Now Myk is always quoting Richard Feynman saying if he were able to quickly explain what he did, it wouldn't be worth a Nobel Prize. Einstein is also quoted as saying, "If you can't explain it simply, then you don't understand it well enough." Well, as we know in this crazy world, both may be true. Actually Feynman brings them together in this little episode.
Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he returned and said, "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it."
Despite the complexity of Serge Haroche's prize winning work (as previewed by In Progress), here is a short video which does a decent job explaining it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Who Lost the Debate?

Answer: Democracy

Anthropologist David Givens, in a fit of idiotic cultural insight, captured, perhaps unknowingly, the essence of our presidential debates and perhaps our whole political landscape, when he said:
If you turn off the sound, you will feel or see what most Americans are feeling or seeing. If you turn the sound back on, the words get in the way of the nonverbal.
Genius! To find out the real message of the debate, as well as its winners and losers, don't listen to what they say! First we close our ears; next it will be our eyes.

It has come to this. Trying to decide issues in a democracy is just too difficult for us. The commentators said this immediately after the debate finished, before we had a chance to turn them off. Essentially I heard, "Boy, there were some technical details thrown in there on some issues. I'm not sure what to think of that. Let's talk about the integrity, honesty and appearance of the candidates."

Have issues such as health care, the tax code, and education become too difficult for a democracy to understand?

[Thanks to Myk for pointing this out to me, and, by the way, Myk, Sue, and I had a wonderful, wonderful vacation that was only marred by its shortness. We also had great fun and conversations with Ellen, Tom and Cookie.]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - VI

Meanings End

We've come to the denouement of our journey. This is the final episode which contains the shocking conclusion. Hopefully, during our exploration, we have learned about the…
Good ones, poor ones,
Enticingly allure ones,
Vague ones, sure ones—
But also how to cure one's
Desires for wishes,
Although we've had our misses. 
We've endured this tour
More surely as a cure
Of what you shouldn't wish for
Unless your humbly poor.
So what conclusive wishes
Will land us all in riches?
Good question. Let's see if we can come up with some satisfactory answers. These are in reverse order of recommendation—last is best.

The first recommendation (which is really number 5) is to think small. If you're ill, wish for health, If your poor, wish for wealth—but not too much. The worst thing you can do is to let your wish bring you contentment. Remember, full contentment may be reached when you're dead. I have neither the space nor expertise to enter into the money-brings-happiness question. In general, discounting all the uncertainty about what one means, or can even know, about one's state of happiness (By the way, Daniel Kahneman says there is only a .5 correlation between what we report as happiness and what we experience.), the studies seem to suggest greater wealth and greater happiness fit together better than less wealth and greater happiness (up to $60,000/year in the U.S). But a great windfall is suspect. One million dollars, though not what it once was (or because it's not what it once was) is a nice wish. If not that, try the elimination of all remotes so, once again, we get to leave our couches and walk to TV's which have buttons to turn on and off the CD player or other peripherals.

Next, and fourth on the list, if you have taken the advice to "get to know your wish giver", and he/she/it seems trustworthy, let them decide. We've seen in the vast majority of cases that the unpoor are notoriously bad at choosing a wish. Trust is a wonderful commodity.

Thirdly, perhaps better than asking your wish giver, ask your friends and/or relatives, á la "How the Old Woman Got Her Wish". You've been following your desires for a long time now and look where it's gotten you. It's that trust thing again. These people may know you better than you know yourself, and they won't be so greedy. I know these recommendations are unconventional, but conventional wisdom has been without this seminal guide.

The penultimate suggestion is not for everyone. Use your wish to benefit someone else. I know, a once in a millennium chance and you blow it on someone else. Think of the positives, however. You get an unbelievable amount of merit, and who knows how that might play out? You get tremendous gratitude. If the wish was for money, I'm sure a good percentage will be coming right back to you in thanks. And lastly, you avoid the significant risk of woe that seems to follow wishes around. You likely get a great gift in thanks before the recipient realizes you did them no favor.

Finally, here is my last and best recommendation—but it needs a bit of background.

There is a video of Richard Feynman discussing the fantastic behavior of the very small. "Electrons act like waves—no they don't exactly. Electrons act like particles—no they don't exactly. Electrons act like a fog around the nucleus—no they don't exactly." Similarly, the three wish triad generally brings one back full circle—but not always. The poor and kind-hearted gain health, happiness, and often wealth—but not always. Wishes for absurd amounts of wealth and power often backfire—but not always. Just as science fails to find a consistent pattern of behavior for the tiny, our empirical analysis has failed to discover a law of wishes.

Oh, we have learned a tremendous amount, but empiricism has its limits. And when they are met, we nervously turn to thinking, I mean, philosophy. In the world of the small we have the Copenhagen Interpretation (or Multi-worlds, if you're into infinities). Let's try our hand with wishes.

Unlike electrons, wishes don't exist empirically outside of written accounts. Thus, we had to resort to hermeneutics. In fact, wishes don't exist outside of language. Not too worry. Just as you would have to be a madman to think the physical world does not exist outside your mind, you would have to be the same to say wishes don't exist because they aren't in the physical world. We see their destructive effect every day.

And not only are wishes born of language but so too, in a matter of speaking, is everything else. It's a two way street. Our language is stimulated by the world, but also our world is cast through language. The world both generates and is generated by language. It is through our ontological questioning that our way of being and the way of the world is experienced. And when confronted by a wish, it is our own language of the world that forms the wish and drives the resultant wish fulfillment. A wish is a pure manifestation of language as the house of being.

The being of the wish is the communicative event of language in use—its ontology both generates and is regenerated by what is said in that historical moment. So the focus, that up until now has been on the nature of the 'whatness' of wishes, can be shifted to the question of the 'whoness' of the one wishing. The world, as it exists, exists for the wisher as for no other creature in the world. Your 'whoness' determines the reality of your wish more than any outside physics. Ultimately it matters less what your wish or wish strategy is, but rather who you are. Strangely enough, this seems to be endorsed by the tales themselves.

Wishes are fulfilled based more on a Heideggerian 'whoness', than an empirical 'whatness'. So the strategy, then, is to be authentic. Move past thinking of the world (and others) as subjects and objects as those meanings end. Know thyself as you currently are in the world in order to understand your being in the world. No biology of parentage can answer of whence we came into being. We're thrown into the world as by magic and must learn what human being in the world is. Try speech instead of idle talk; wonder instead of mere novelty; and care, mostly care. That is the primordial state of being as we strive towards authenticity.

Now, if much of the above makes no sense to you, even after reading it over a couple of times, then, congratulations! You've already outpaced me in your strive towards authenticity.

Here is how the tales tell it. Live your life as if you were poor and humble. Cultivate your garden. Be generous, especially to curious looking strangers. And when the time comes to claim your wish, your 'whoness' will provide you with just the right one. If you're not comfortable with that, then just wish for a big sunny field.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - V

All the terms used in the science books, 'law,' 'necessity,' 'order,' 'tendency,' and so on, are really unintellectual .... The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.… I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. …this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. —G. K. Chesterton

Calculating Meanings

We've surveyed old tales and new, and now must fashion some meaning into it all. We seek nothing less than to develop an ontology of wishes. While in the early days, the poor and uneducated were content with instant transportation, splendid palaces, and untold riches, today we have all that and more—treasures that those kind-hearted woodsmen could never have dream of. But still we wish for more. So we need to look at the data, determine likely trends, evaluate our options, and formulate a strategy which will optimize our wish experience.

However, this is no easy task. To add some perspective, let's compare it to using the Large Hadron Collider(LHC) to find the Higgs boson. The LHC generates about 800 million events per second of which 100 per second are considered interesting and analyzed. Compare that to perhaps one wish generated per year—in good times. The LHC contains millions of sensors recording data with extreme precision. By contrast, wish data has been gathered by insensitive tavern owners, passed on by generations around wine and beer soaked tables, and recorded centuries later by tipsy academics and authors. The LHC is the culmination of years of work by thousands of scientists at a cost of millions of dollars. This is a few weeks work by one person for a few cents worth of electricity and library late fees. What I am trying to say is, don't expect a 5-sigma confidence level.

And this is complicated by the one common feature of quantum mechanics and wish mechanics: no one understands how they work. Both are logically impossible. But as Nobel physicist Richard Feynman said, "...the 'paradox' is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality 'ought to be'." I think Mr. Feynman and Mr. Chesterton would have gotten along splendidly. Don't let your feelings of what 'ought to be', hinder your chances of wish fulfillment.

To start, I'll address the burning question on everyone's mind:
No, you can not wish for more wishes.

If you were entitled to more wishes, they would have been given to you. Technically, this falls under the category of meta-wishes, which we will cover in more detail later, but I want to address this special case because of its popularity. Jinn are not dumb, plus they have been doing it for thousands of years, thousands of thousands of years, more years than the grains of sand. Your chance of outsmarting a wish granter, while not zero, is much less than you think. Here are a few common attempts to wish for more wishes:
I wish…
  • for infinite wishes.
  • that one wish actually means one hundred wishes.
  • for world peace and a frilly dress and …. (see below for exceptions to banning compound statements)
  • to have a wish granted each year on my birthday/Boxer Day/Talk Like a Pirate Day.
  • that whenever I say Shazam/Rumpleskiltskin/"Maizy doats and dozy doats" my next wish is granted.
  • for the power to change/supplement/disavow whatever I wish for.
  • if you will not grant me multiple wishes, I wish for multiple jinn (or whoever is doling).
  • that my eyelashes have the power to grant wishes.
  • to be transported to a world where multiple wishes are granted.
  • for you to suspend the law denying multiple wishes.
  • to become a wish granting entity.
To my knowledge, none of these will work. Also, just to point out how difficult the less-than-humble approach is, note that you could very well be 'granted' many of the above wishes, but, given a capricious jinni or one who judges you capricious, none of the extra wishes need come true. Language is devilishly important when going this route. For example, don't say "I wish I was wealthy" when you really mean "I wish to be wealthy."

Here is one you might try, however. At least it is not guaranteed to fail.
  • I wish for the knowledge of all the locations of magical items in the world that grant wishes.
I have it on reasonable authority that you could end up with 14 more wishes—17 tops.

Also, there have been examples when seemingly compound wishes have been granted. In "Poor Man and Rich Man" the second wish of the poor man is "that we two, as long as we live, may be healthy and have every day our daily bread." This appears to cover both the husband and wife for being healthy and getting daily bread. Don't try this at home. The couple are desperately poor and stupidly kind. The wish granter is as far up in the hierarchy as you can get, Lord God himself. Plus, the poor peasant only asks for 2 out of his choice of 3 wishes. For the third wish God suggests a new house—which he accepts.

In another instance recorded in "How the Old Woman Got her Wish", an Indian tale, an old blind woman successfully 'tricks' Ganesh. After consulting with different people before asking for her one wish, she says, "I want to see my grandson drinking milk from a golden bowl." She gets her sight, wealth, and a son for her daughter. However, Ganesh is particularly associated with good fortune and is "the remover of obstacles."

There is another way to side step this issue. Most wish givers will agree to a gift that keeps on giving. The catch is that it is not a new wish, but a continuing behavior. For example, in "The Table, the Ass and the Stick" a table continually spreads food, an ass spews gold coins from both its mouth and ass, and a stick ceaselessly beats a selected target. Also in "The Jew Among Thorns" (or, more properly, "The Miser in the Bush") we find a fiddle that, when played, causes people to dance, and the best one, "if I ask a favor of any one he shall not be able to refuse it." While there are obvious limits as to what people can do, this is a pretty clever, far ranging wish.

But more importantly, why would you ever want more wishes? You're going to be lucky if one wish benefits you in any way. We've seen the destructive power of three wishes. Unless you are a very poor simpleton, extra wishes are not going to aid you. As your wish count rises so does your probability of heartbreak. Your chance of benefiting from a thousand wishes is zero, nil, the null set, zilch; infinite wishes, less than that.

Since we are answering questions on everyone's mind, let's return to Disney's restrictions on wishes. We agree with "no wishing for more wishes", but the other 'rules' are suspect. "I can't make anybody fall in love with anybody else" is obviously not true. Just wish for wealth and your love problems are over in about ninety percent of the cases. A wealthy prince or princess is hard not to love. A wish for good looks and good manners covers 90 percent of the rest. The remaining 1% involves damsels who want to be loved in return, before declaring their love. These are the difficult ones. They have a head on their shoulders, a heart on their sleeve, or parents in unhealthy relationships. Do not be surprised if you are required to perform 3 impossible tasks to prove your love. So, if you are not especially talented in slaying giants or dragons, save your wishes.

Not killing anyone, or bringing people back to life are also bogus. Just wish that they be turned into a turnip or sent to the bottom of the sea or a safe fall on their head. And plenty of people have been brought back to life. Of course, depending on your definition of death, you could say they were just resting. Some have been brought back even after boiled in water and stripped of all flesh. The key in such cases is arranging their bones in just the right way. There is, however, a pivotal lesson to be learned from Disney here: wish granters are not all created equal. Every jinni or little black manikin have things they can and can't do. Get to know your wish giver. This is important. If we have learned anything from our hermeneutical study, it is wishing is not Newtonian science. The rich and the rational are at a great disadvantage.

As mentioned, wishes for more wishes are a type of meta-wish. Meta-wishes have always been denied, but perhaps no one has explained why better than Douglas Hofstadter. Here is Hofstadter's explanation, and why he became the bane of jinn everywhere—perhaps why we don't see more of them around today.

So you can't make meta-wishes because it could lead to absurd, illogical or catastrophic events. This includes:
I wish…
  • for greater happiness than any wish could give me.
  • my wish is not granted. (or my wish doesn't come true)
  • that no future wishes ever be granted (or the converse: all wishes come true)
  • I had never been granted a wish.
  • that wishes don't exist.
  • that my wish be granted as I intend it to be.
  • for a change in the ontology of wishes.
  • for 0 wishes. (this is a favorite of mathematicians)
Though not meta-wishes, the following are just as absurd, illogical or ill-defined, and as such should be avoided at all costs:
I wish…
  • for unlimited cheese curls.
  • for a square circle.
  • for world peace or cure for cancer, as it may be similar to a 'square circle' or invoke a "Monkey's Paw" outcome
  • that the jinni become my personal servant.
  • for inerrancy, especially when making wishes.
  • to be greater than God.
Now that we have a fairly clear understanding of what not to wish for; are there any good strategic wishes? Well, if you don't have the benefit of poverty and ignorance, historically you are in trouble. But if you really want to play, here are some possibilities. I don't necessarily recommend them. Some of these are to be used as the first of three wishes.
I wish…
  • that you answer all my questions truthfully.
  • that you provide me with a list of wishes that will not bring me misfortune, unhappiness, or death.
  • for knowledge of every wish granted and its outcome.
  • for a clear explanation of the rules about wishing.
  • for the ability to alter any coefficients of friction at will during sporting events.

[Next: Meanings End]

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Home Away From Home

                                                                    Compass Hill House
                                                                          County Cork

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Same time last year?

It seems like I posted this last year, but Maryland is once again ranked number one. Congrats. I think Martin is sitting this year out—in the stands.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes - IV

So be careful what you wish for
'Cause you just might get it and if you get it
Then you just might not know what to do wit' it
'Cause it might just come back on you ten fold

Calculating Means

We've heard many narratives from long ago. What about a more modern scenario? As you might suspect it's more calculating.

Isabel lived on a cull de sac. A cunning wife, with degrees in both psychology and law, she had grown tired of her less than perfect husband. He had been a good catch, but they had grown hopelessly apart. Last week-end she realized for the first time that he danced like a boat.

"A boat?"

"Yes, honey, you do."

She was the practical one in the marriage. One day she was cleaning out her husband's pockets before throwing his soiled clothing into the washer when she discovered a curious looking object. He was forever browsing pawn shops and garage sales. This looked like an old hook-shaped talisman made of bone. She started to rub her fingers over the carved pattern when suddenly a purplish wisp of smoke arose, and an incorporeal figure appeared before her. Whether jinn or ifrit she could not tell, but was determined to make the most of her luck. The voice was frighteningly deep and powerful:

"I grant to thee, from health to gold,
Three wishes, true to what I'm told.
But when the wish itself takes hold,
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(Yet my advice—be I so bold:
Tis best to have this trinket sold.)"

The last two lines were spoken more personally, yet also with a certain resignation. Elated at what she heard, to be sure, Isabel soon gained her poise and considered her options. The jinni flame flickered impatiently, but she waved her arm for more time to think. She was calculating means to her ends… and finally knew what she wanted. She had vaguely formed these wishes before her jinni ever appeared.

"I wish to be the fairest in all the land," she said. "The most beautiful. No, wait." She hesitated, "I wish to be the sexiest in the land."

"Reflect upon what you've been told.
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(I warn you, have this trinket sold.)"

"You heard me. Do my bidding. I have no problem with my husband being ten times as sexy."

"Tis done—behold!"

And the woman saw in the mirror that the jinni held, that she was indeed the fairest, or rather the sexiest, in the land. She would have no problem getting any man she wanted. In fact, she would have no problem getting anything she wanted.

Without hesitation now, because she had carefully considered all three wishes, she said, "I wish to be beneficiary for a $100 million life insurance policy on my husband."

"Reflect upon what you've been told.
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(I warn you, have this trinket sold.)"

"Your work is quite satisfactory, but I wish you would list…" She caught herself just in time. "I wish to be the beneficiary for a $100 million life insurance policy on my husband. I have no concern about my husband receiving one for ten times as much."

"Tis done—behold!"

And the woman received the policy the jinni held out. She looked it over. It seemed perfectly satisfactory, properly dated with the correct names and amount. Her specialty was not inheritance nor insurance law, but this looked genuine. She was proud of herself; it was going quite well.

"Now for my third wish. I wish to have a mild heart attack."

"Reflect upon what you've been told.
Your spouse receives the same, tenfold.
(I warn you, have this trinket sold.)"

"You are tiresome. I wish for a mild heart attack."

"Tis done—behold!"

"Ouch!" she cried as she collapsed to the laundry room floor. "This isn't good."
She felt a tingling on her left side. "This is mild?" But the jinni as well as the talisman was gone. She got up, composed herself. "I'm fine," she thought. "More than fine." But she decided to stop at the hospital just in case. Plus, there was another reason she wanted to go.

When she arrived at the medical center, she discovered to her horror, that she did indeed suffer a mild heart attack. Unfortunately, her heart had not been strong before. The left side of her face was now partially paralyzed. She looked terrible. Nevertheless, she felt with luck and money she could return to normal. Coyly, she asked about her husband. Had he been notified she was there? Had he come to the hospital?

Surprised, the doctor said that, yes, indeed, he had come to the hospital. "He also had a heart attack."

"Oh, that's terrible!" she feigned surprise. "Is he dead?"

"Oh no, his attack was 10 times milder than yours."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steve in Namibia

Day One -- Middle of Nowhere
Day 2 - Middle of Nowhere

Day Three -- Middle of Nowhere

My Host Family

Wild Fires -- Two That Day

Waiting for a Bus (4 hours)

The Guys Visiting Outside My Window

All Work and No Play

Grade 12

Leaving School

Wandering the Coastal Desert

Entering my House/Compound


Etoshan Pan