November 28, 2007

Comforting

I've been reading The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone. I vaguely remember studying the subject in high school physics--the thing I remember most is that while I had all kinds of problems with classical physics (I think some of the math threw me), I really enjoyed the few weeks (was it even two?) we spent discussing quantum mechanics.

I find this passage particularly moving:

Left alone, the neutron lives, on average, a whole fifteen minutes before it vanishes in a puff of three other particles. Fortunately again for us humans, the neutron is stabilized within atomic nuclei, so certain combinations of up to 209 protons and neutrons can bundle together and live forever. This means our world is made of scores of different elements, and not just the single element hydrogen. And it's all because mass is energy and energy is mass.

We are in the realm of Lucretius.

For some time, I have been troubled by the notion of entropy: why is it we live in a highly sophisticated, structured world when the rules of classical physics suggest that we should trend toward a simpler state. (Julian Barbour raises this problem in The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics. Perhaps I'm just too dense to understand his argument, but it did not seem to me that he resolved the problem.) Quantum mechanics suggests that at the subatomic level, there are pathways to both simplicity and complexity, as well as discoverable reasons for the tendency towards the latter.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:30 PM | Comments (0)

In Praise of Lindsay Lohan...

...or at least the popular press' infatuation with her. (Full disclosure: I don't know too much about Ms. Lohan, but the two movies I have seen her in, both on basic cable -- Mean Girls and Freaky Friday -- I was pleasantly surprised at how much verve she had.)

I mention this because of Steven King's interview, in which he says,

You know, I just filmed a segment for Nightline, about [the movie version of his novella] The Mist, and one of the things I said to them was, you know, "You guys are just covering — what do they call it — the scream of the peacock, and you're missing the whole fox hunt." Like waterboarding [or] where all the money went that we poured into Iraq. It just seems to disappear. And yet you get this coverage of who's gonna get custody of Britney's kids? Whether or not Lindsay drank at her twenty-first birthday party, and all this other shit. You know, this morning, the two big stories on CNN are Kanye West's mother, who died, apparently, after having some plastic surgery. The other big thing that's going on is whether or not this cop [Drew Peterson] killed his... wife. And meanwhile, you've got Pakistan in the midst of a real crisis, where these people have nuclear weapons that we helped them develop. ...

By all means, read the whole interview (we helped Pakistan develop nuclear arms? How? By not cracking down on BCCI quickly enough??). Still, I have a theory of why Lindsay and Britney (I don't and never have liked her at all) preoccupy us. Stories about their antics get the public's attention because they're easy to frame as basic right/wrong issues (Lindsay Lohan is a drunk, Paris Hilton is a slut, Britney is a terrible mom, etc; also--Barry Bonds is a drug abuser, Michael Vick is dog-abusing monster). When the media report on, say, a thug like Chavez (who deserves a Lohan-esque "call the slut a slut" approach), they lose the public. Because so much coverage needlessly avoids calling a spade a spade in the name of "balance," stories that don't shy away from negative portrayals of bad actors draw readers (and viewers, of course). The public eats up stories that can draw clear moral distinctions and say, "Here's the bad guy." It doesn't seem to matter (Duke Lacrosse, Bonds, Lohan, even Paris Hilton) whether the bad guy is really a bad guy or not.

Obviously, such lack of seriousness has costs. If our present media culture existed in the 1930s and 1940s, it would denigrate the brave and lovely Josephine Baker as a slut while refusing to call Hitler a fascist.

Josephine Baker.jpg
Posted by Ideofact at 02:22 AM | Comments (1)

November 26, 2007

No peaking

actaeon.jpg

I couldn't help but think of Actaeon glimpsing Diana in her bath when I read this story in which some argue that astronomers glimpsing the secrets of the universe may very well have cursed, not just them, but all of us:

New Scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have accidentally nudged the universe closer to its death by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

The damaging allegations are made by Profs Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and James Dent of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, who suggest that by making this observation in 1998 we may have caused the cosmos to revert to an earlier state when it was more likely to end. "Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may have reduced the life-expectancy of the universe," Prof Krauss tells New Scientist.

Which is why, as Woody Allen once wrote, "if the girl in the office down the hall has some good points but perhaps not all the qualities you desire it's best to compromise."

I've been reading about quantum mechanics recently, and must admit that just as I am a classical liberal who questions whether my prejudices make the most sense, I am also a classicist when it comes to physics (the difference being that classical liberalism can prevail through arms--whether at Thermopylae, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Omaha Beach or Kabul: subatomic particles are indifferent to the fortunes of war). The notion that a single particle can be in two different places at the same instant is unsettling, to say the least (I'm reminded of a scene in David Lynch's Lost Highway, in which a very creepy Robert Blake is both at a party speaking with a guest and in the guest's home at exactly the same moment). In any case, I've yet to encounter this bit of Heisenberg gone wild:

quantum theory says that whenever we observe or measure something, we could stop it decaying due what is what is called the "quantum Zeno effect," which suggests that if an "observer" makes repeated, quick observations of a microscopic object undergoing change, the object can stop changing - just as a watched kettle never boils.

In this case however, it turns out that quantum mechanics implies that if an unstable system has survived for far longer than the average such system should, then the probability that it will continue to survive decreases more slowly than it otherwise would. By resetting the clock, the survival probability would now once again fall exponentially.

"The intriguing question is this," Prof Krauss told the Telegraph. "If we attempt to apply quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole, and if our present state is unstable, then what sets the clock that governs decay? Once we determine our current state by observations, have we reset the clock? If so, as incredible as it may seem, our detection of dark energy may have reduced the life expectancy of our universe."

Worse still, astronomers with their universe-guzzling Hubble telescopes might have done more damage:

This is not the only damage to the heavens that astronomers may have caused. Our cosmos is now significantly lighter than scientists had thought after an analysis of the amount of light given out by galaxies concluded that some shone from lightweight electrons, not heavyweight atoms. In all, the new analysis suggests that the universe has lost about one fifth of its overall mass.

I suspect socks lost in the laundry account for most of that mass...

It's easy to make jokes (perhaps preferable), but I'm reminded of a line from Borges: We don't know what the universe is. Like a child playing with an adult machine, we might well push some button, or undo some safety catch, that leads to disaster. That said, I'm with the child -- let's keep on peaking...

Posted by Ideofact at 01:06 AM | Comments (1)

November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving

"No presents, just eating," said the nine-year-old when he was a mere four-year-old. I'm inclined to agree. I'm thankful to many people, not least of which is my long suffering wife (if only because she has to put up with me), but it's very hard for me to thank a conjecture--a throw of the dice. Reading the Iliad, one quickly discovers that option one for humanity was the notion that the gods (there had to be many of them, because there were many of us) weren't all that different from us, except that they had cool superpowers. Option two was a single God who was much different from us. I'm waiting for option three...

Posted by Ideofact at 02:51 AM | Comments (0)

November 19, 2007

The Right Profile

The man behind Ideofact most likely has an IQ between 100 and 145, is either a university graduate who enjoyed his liberal arts educations so much he wants to keep up with the things he studied as a student or an autodidact who deeply resents university culture. He is probably the sort of fastidious person who shelves all his books by dividing them into subject and then alphabetizing them who nevertheless may so abandon himself to his intellectual passions that he allows unread books to pile up on his desk, his bar, by his bed and even in his bed...

And so on. Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about the inadequacies of profiling, the art of looking at a crime scene and deducing from it useful information about the perpetrator. Gladwell writes of a UK group that tested some of the FBI profilers' most cherished assumptions:

...the Liverpool group selected a hundred stranger rapes in the United Kingdom, classifying them according to twenty-eight variables, such as whether a disguise was worn, whether compliments were given, whether there was binding, gagging, or blindfolding, whether there was apologizing or the theft of personal property, and so on. They then looked at whether the patterns in the crimes corresponded to attributes of the criminals—like age, type of employment, ethnicity, level of education, marital status, number of prior convictions, type of prior convictions, and drug use. Were rapists who bind, gag, and blindfold more like one another than they were like rapists who, say, compliment and apologize? The answer is no—not even slightly.

“The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviors for completely different reasons,” Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist who has been highly critical of the F.B.I.’s approach, says. “You’ve got a rapist who attacks a woman in the park and pulls her shirt up over her face. Why? What does that mean? There are ten different things it could mean. It could mean he doesn’t want to see her. It could mean he doesn’t want her to see him. It could mean he wants to see her breasts, he wants to imagine someone else, he wants to incapacitate her arms—all of those are possibilities. You can’t just look at one behavior in isolation.”

It turns out that the art of profiling isn't much different than the art of the sideshow fortune teller. Gladwell summarizes the profile the FBI came up with for the BTK killer:

Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental.
Posted by Ideofact at 11:42 PM | Comments (0)

November 17, 2007

Until Proven Innocent

Thomas Boswell, like many sportswriters, does not seem to understand the criminal justice system:

Ever since Balco broke in '03, my main worry has been that Bonds would never be convicted or exonerated or even brought to trial. Instead, he and his sport would simply be dragged into disgrace by leaked grand jury testimony. What if the feds, despite their time and expense, never built a case worthy of a courtroom? Yet their voluminous evidence, never exposed to cross-examination, might convince most fans of Bonds's systematic cheating. Now, we get a last act.

Oddly enough, my main worry after reading that passage is that Thomas Boswell might never be convicted or exonerated or even brought to trial for possibly ingesting illegal substances into his own body. Perhaps Boswell would enjoy a four year federal investigation of his own past, and the opportunity to exonerate himself in a court of law from ever having made any inaccurate statement to federal investigators about substances he's put into his own body.

Bonds may be a jerk, and may well have cheated to compete with other cheaters. There is something known as prosecutorial discretion, however, and none was exercised in the case of Barry Bonds.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:32 AM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2007

Reflections on Bonds

I am saddened that the Department of Justice has chosen to indict, after a four year investigation and presentations before multiple grand juries, Barry Bonds not for any conduct of his prior to coming under investigation, but for how he responded to the investigation. The government, like the press and much of the public, doesn't care for Barry Bonds.

I confess I'm not a big Bonds fan myself--he doesn't play for the Phillies (if his record deserves an asterix, it may well be that unlike Ruth or Aaron, Bonds benefited from hitting against a decade's worth of mediocre Phillies pitching), and he broke in with our hated cross-state rivals. But like other Phillie killers over the years (including Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose--all of whom I had the chance to root for when they donned Phillies uniforms), I had to admire and fear Bonds' prowess at the plate. Incredible skills.

I didn't root for Bonds to break the preposterous Mark McGwire's home run record (where is the investigation of Mr. McGwire--why hasn't the government devoted four years and millions of dollars to investigating the former Cardinal slugger?), but I did follow him closely this year and enjoyed seeing him break the all time home run record.

Had Bonds gotten along better with reporters--had he been more of a McGwire or Sammy Sosa--chances are he too would be skating on steroids charges, and would not have had four years of government scrutiny. But because he turned a cold shoulder to sports reporters, he was portrayed as a monster. He's not.

He's an incredibly gifted, driven athlete. He may not be a very nice man (I don't know if he was). But he hasn't done anything to compare with Ty Cobb (a virulent racist who beat up a crippled fan in the stands). When baseball writers begin to lobby to have Cobb removed from the Hall of Fame, I'll take more seriously their condemnations of Bonds. And when the government devotes as much effort to the McGwires and other players who originally pumped themselves up with steroids, giving themselves and their teams an unfair advantage, rather than a single player who allegedly began taking them in order to keep up with them, then I might be inclined to regard this indictment as something other than a vendetta against a black athlete who didn't meet white baseball fans' expectations of a "good" black athlete.

oops -- corrected spelling of Mark McGwire's name...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:35 PM | Comments (0)

Parisians Regard These as Essential Services...

I had to laugh when reading, in the Washington Post this morning, this story about strikers challenging French President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic reforms:

But the transit stoppage was just the start of woes for residents, tourists and Sarkozy's six-month-old government. Technicians at the Paris Opera House and the Comedie Francaise and employees at electric and gas companies also walked off their jobs. Student strikes closed about one-third of the nation's universities.

Theater technicians leaving their posts? Don't the French have laws to prevent such an unraveling of civil society? And what society can long function without students showing up for classes?

I'm reminded of a bit from a Woody Allen short story, entitled Reminiscences: Places and People:

Autumn. Paris is crippled by another strike. Now it is the acrobats. No one is tumbling, and the city comes to a standstill. Soon the strike spreads to include jugglers, and then ventriloquists. Parisians regard these as essential services, and many students become violent. Two Algerians are caught practicing handstands and their heads are shaved.

The story is available in the Insanity Defense.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:02 PM | Comments (0)

Uuuhhh....

...Rock the vote, or something...

Posted by Ideofact at 01:02 AM | Comments (0)

November 14, 2007

Collapse

Joseph A. Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies is simultaneously a dense and gripping read, and incredibly thought-provoking. After noting that for 98 percent of humanity's sojourn on earth, we lived in small, discreet, simple bands, Tainter writes,

It has only been within the last 6000 years that something unusual has emerged: the hierarchical, organized, interdependent states that are the major reference for our contemporary political experience. Complex societies, once established, tend to expand and dominate... A dilemma arises from this: we today are familiar mainly with political forms that are an oddity of history, we think of these as normal, and we view as alien the majority of human experience. It is little surprise that collapse is viewed so fearfully.

6,000 years is a lot of years, but just two percent of the species' time on the planet. Is the ability to live in complex societies an evolved adaptation? (Julien Jaynes suggested that external stresses led to internal changes in the way our brains operate--one need not credit his theory to ask whether a subtle change in our mental make up did open the door to civilization). Obviously complex societies are an evolutionary adaptation that confer advantages (better, more abundant and more diverse food, law and order allowing better chance that children will reach adulthood, and so on), but do they also have drawbacks? For example, without writing, religious beliefs could be changed and adapted by each generation to meet their situations. The idea of a fixed text can be a maladaption. Of course, there's no such thing as a fixed text--the meaning of religious texts changes by the instant--but the illusion of a final, universal text and perpetual, fixed laws will lead to societies structured on fictions, tethered less and less to reality.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:26 AM | Comments (0)

November 09, 2007

Added to the pile

Arrived today: The Portable Atheist, edited by Christopher Hitchens. Selections from Lucretius, Orwell, Darwin, Lovecraft, Dawkins and others. Some surprises: Nothing from Camus, from La Mettrie, nothing from the Renaissance and almost nothing from the classics...

That said, it looks like an engaging selection. I'm looking forward to it (should get to it around Christmas time...)

Posted by Ideofact at 01:20 AM | Comments (0)

November 08, 2007

Time...

...to work on a short story vaguely about time. I'm so far very disappointed with The End of Time, but I'm trying to keep an open mind. I tend to agree with the author -- time does not exist -- but I expeced a more elegant model in its place.

I'm still waiting for a new New Refutation of Time.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:21 AM | Comments (0)

Pictures of us

I've read several versions of this story (for example, here and here), and I'm somewhat baffled as to what the news is. I recall reading in my freshman physical anthropology class (round about 1983 or so) that some Neanderthals had red hair, and while I may be confusing a picture of Celts in a Latin reader I had in high school with that college textbook, I seem to recall that the main book for our anthro class showed some rather fetching Neanderthal babes with red tresses.

I suppose what's new is the isolation of genetic evidence for the red hair, but I still find it offputting to read, "The image of Neanderthals may be in need of a makeover."

Here's a widely circulated, 2005 image of a Neanderthal girl whose remains were found in Gibraltar:

2005 Neanderthal.jpg

It appears that the charming young lady has red hair. If journalists would actually read the work of their peers (and look at the pictures as well) they'd be far less ignorant...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:59 AM | Comments (1)

Fact du jour

Sometime in the seventh through the tenth centuries A.D., however, there was a major collapse in the Mesopotamian alluvium. By the eleventh or twelth centuries A.D. the total occupied area had shrunk to only six percent of its level 500 years earlier. Population dropped to the lowest point in five millennia. State resources declined precipitiously. In many strategic and formerly prosperous areas, there were tax revenue losses of 90 percent and more in less than a single lifetime. People rebelled and the countryside became ungovernable. By the early tenth century irrigation weirs were nearly all confined in the vicinity of Baghdad. ...the basis for urban life in perhaps 10,000 square kilometers of the Mesopotamian heartland was eliminated for centuries. Until the modern era the region was claimed primarily by nomads...

From Joseph A. Tainter's work The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:38 AM | Comments (0)

I hope the Russians love their history too

Astonishing story on National Public Radio this morning -- astonishing, because during the Soviet Union's existence NPR never would have described it thusly:

Ninety years ago on Wednesday, Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power in Russia. The communist revolution ushered in a totalitarian dictatorship that killed and imprisoned tens of millions of people....

Lev Mishchenko has lived the Soviet nightmare. Born in 1917, the year of the revolution, he says the Bolsheviks killed both his parents by the time he was four.

"It was a period of criminal rule by a group of thugs," Mishchenko says. "Our history is notable for its cruelty and the baseness of its ideas, such as class warfare … which the regime cultivated to justify violence against its opponents."

The whole story -- which is about Russia's depressing descent back into totalitarianism -- reads far more like Robert Conquest or Ronald Reagan, whose anti-communism NPR reporters regularly tut-tutted over.

Far more representative of that mindset is a line that I read with dismay this morning in the Washington Post, reproduced here from RealClearPolitics:

The shah was America's friend, just like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He was our staunch ally against the bogeyman of that time, the Soviet Union, just as Musharraf has been America's partner in fighting al-Qaeda. (emphasis added)

So the Soviet Union was a "bogeyman," -- a person or thing of which one has an irrational fear. A generation of 19th century of intellectuals came to view Russia as the prisonhouse of nations; Dostoyevsky correctly conjectured that those who would overthrow the jailors would be far worse.

One can legitimately argue that al Qaeda is not the threat that the Soviet Union was, but equating both with the bogeyman shows that the writer making the comparison lacks any sense of history -- at least NPR seems to have learned from it.

One hopes the Russians will as well. My sense is that 80 percent approval ratings for Putin, who views the fall of the Soviet Union as the great tragedy of the 20th Century, is an inflated number. Hard to say you disapprove of the man standing with his boot right over your face...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:30 AM | Comments (0)