Tuesday, May 31, 2005

it is a math world

An interesting, yet incomplete, little column on math teaching in the Washington Post.

Summary: math activists are angry at the National Council of Mathematics Teachers over curriculum and teaching strategies.

The old "new math" war, again.

For what it is worth, I tend to side on the "make them memorise the damn multiplication tables" side of the argument.
And I think calculators are an abomination for students, at least before age of 12 or 13.
(When I worked as a bar manager, one of the mostly successful strategies was to ban bar workers from adding orders on the cash register, they were supposed to have the total correctly in their head by the time they reached the register. The VAT man hated us. - Which reminds me, must retro-blog on USTA Bars someday...)

But... personally I would have loved a little more flexibility and imagination in some of my math teachers, and some of the new math stuff really stuck (like set theory and theory of base N arithmetic really was good for me at a tender age, I just don't know if it really aided most of my fellow students in understanding the intricacies of life).

So I am a little torn.

Things I would pay to see on TV

Krugman-Okrent debate

NYT Public Editor Okrent issued some surprising critcisms of the paper's columnists in his final column for the paper; in particular he effectively accused Prof Krugman of fraud in his columns and of publishing wrong or deliberately inaccurate analysis.

Krugman objected and asked for rebuttal.

The NYT now has a "public debate" between them, carefully buried on their Public Editor website at
here is the main page, scroll down for the back-and-forth.

All I can say is "You have got to be kidding me".
Or maybe "Okrent is full of shit".

A couple of items grabbed my attention: "When I had the chance to consult some of my reader mail later in the week, some of his greatest mis-hits immediately came to the fore." - Okrent.

Er, no. When you wrote the column you should have had the explicit instances in mind, not cherry pick what some Luskin-reading nutcases sent you later as examples they thought were a problem.

"This was the first he heard from me on these specific issues partly because I learned early on in this job that Prof. Krugman would likely be more willing to contribute to the Frist for President campaign than to acknowledge the possibility of error." - Okrent.

Er, 1) It was Okrent's job, as I understand it, to raise the issues at the time
and, 2) he did so, on several occasions he then itemises, and where there was an ambiguity, Krugman clarified or corrected.

This whole episode is pathetic and NYT should be ashamed.
Krugman should switch to the Post or somewhere else, anywhere else.

Oh, and Okrent is playing out of league; I don't think he even knows the rules he is playing under...

Friday, May 27, 2005

iPod list - what should the '08 Presidential candidates be listening to now?

A few weeks ago, it was revealed that President Bush has an iPod.
Never mind what was on it, the Guardian immediately began exploring what ought to be on Bush's playlist.

So... what should now be on the iPod playlist of the people who will be the Democrat and Republican Presidential candidates in 2008?

Here is my take:


  • No Surrender - Springsteen
  • Travelin' Soldier - Dixie Chicks
  • Fight the Power - Public Enemy
  • Walk this Way - Run DMC
  • Southern Man - Neil Young
  • For what it's worth - Buffalo Springfield
  • This Land is Your Land - Guthrie
  • Respect - Aretha Franklin
  • Emperor's New Clothes - Sinead O'Connor
  • Battle of Epping Forest - Genesis
  • Who Are you - the Who
  • Won't get fooled again - the Who
  • Ghost Town - Specials
  • Pride (In the Name of Love) - U2
  • Sorted for E's and Whizz - Pulp
  • Democratic Circus - Talking Heads
  • Sexuality - Billy Bragg
  • My Youngest Son Came Home Today - Billy Bragg
  • Two Suns in the Sunset - Pink Floyd
  • Goodbye Blue Sky - Pink Floyd
  • Shipbuilding - Elvis Costello
  • Miserable Lie - Smiths
  • The Message - Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
  • Career Opportunities - Clash
  • Washington Bullets - Clash
  • Know your rights - Clash
  • Rebel Waltz - Clash
  • Over the Hills and Far Away - Sharpe soundtrack
  • Ode to Joy - Beethoven
  • Vote for We - Clint Eastwood and General Saint


  • Glory Days - Springsteen
  • Courtesy of the Red White and Blue - Toby Keith
  • Right back where we started from - Maxine Nightingale
  • Walk this Way - Britney & Justin superbowl live remix
  • Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Ballad of the Green Berets - Barry Sadler
  • America the Beautiful - Lawrence Welk
  • Upside Down - Diana Ross
  • Every Breath you take - Sting
  • Talkin' bout a revolution - Tracy Chapman
  • Sympathy for the Devil - Stones
  • I do not want what I haven't got - Sinead O'Connor
  • Gloria - U2
  • I will survive - Gloria Gaynor
  • In the Navy - YMCA
  • Common People - Pulp
  • One in Ten - UB40
  • Psycho Killer - Talking Heads
  • Tainted Love - Soft Cell
  • We are Family - Sister Sledge
  • Rock the Boat - The Hues Corporation
  • I started something I couldn't finish - Smiths
  • Money - Pink Floyd
  • The Post War Dream - Pink Floyd
  • The Marching Song of the Covert Battallions - Billy Bragg
  • Oliver's Army - Elvis Costello
  • Games without Frontiers - Peter Gabriel
  • Rock the Casbah - Clash
  • Charlie Don't Surf - Clash
  • Ivan meets GI Joe - Clash
  • Armagideon Time - Clash
  • Men of Harlech - Zulu soundtrack
  • Ride of the Valkyries - Wagner
  • Everybody wants to rule the world - Tears for Fears
  • Don't You Want Me Baby - Human League
  • Vote for We - Clint Eastwood and General Saint

Your turn.

There should be a whole separate Clash playlist for each...

Songs that ought to be on there but don't exist:

Fortunate Son - Green Day cover

Baghdad's Burning - Clash live reunion tour

Addendum: Patrick's comment below make me want to clarify my thoughts on this...
This was not meant as a set of "liberal" and "conservative" anthems; I started with the first and last songs for each, and then free associated, trying to some extent to pair songs (though the republicans ended up with more I believe).
What I wanted were "state-of-mind" tunes I'd like them to have - that I would like them to listen to, not that they might want to listen to.

And, yes, some of them are ironic or contradictory. But, for example, I'd like current republicans to listen to all of the Ballad of the Green Beret - to the last verse. And live up to it.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

ROSES drive you mad

Each year NASA does an "omnibus solicitation" announcement called ROSES
It lists all the "normal" Requests for Proposals for the financial year. In order of NOI (notice of intent) and proposal due date - note it does not include RfPs administered by contract centers, so, for example, HST, Spitzer and Chandra proposals are generally listed separately by their administering centers (STSCI, SSC and CSC).

NASA has now gone to electronic submission, in the style of the NSF Fastlane system, the NASA system is NSPIRES and actually looks pretty good, except it is not up yet fully. So right now proposals have to be done in hardcopy, AND the electronic form has to be submitted, EXCEPT for the actual proposal, AND we have to take the electronic "cover page" - which is now 17 pages (used to be 4 pages) - AND we have to print it out and submit the electronic cover page in hardcopy. 15 copies plus the original.
That's 1000 or so pages per proposal. That is a lot of trees.

The only thing that saves us right now is that I think this weeks proposals are so messed up that a lot of people may not succeed in submitting (I'm done! Phbrt!). The current count is way below normal, given that the drop-dead deadline is tomorrow. So maybe the success rate in this round will be over 10% instead of the 7-8% is was headed for. We wish.

Oh, and the Feds have announced that by 2008 all agencies must transit to "" which I am informed is a Micro$oft based data management system; so both NSPIRES and Fastlane (which are actually working) will be trashed. The system appears in trial runs to roughly double the workload for University submissions, since the process requires researchers submit to their local Research Offices, who then submit the proposals on their behalf, all the bits, at the same time. This will have some "teething problems" I suspect, and involve a lot of short tempered faculty standing over the shoulders of administrative staff on various due dates.

So, how long has this been going on? We worked it over at coffee this morning:

3RiversResearch Call for Proposals:

We will be transtiting to the new papyrus proposal system after the rainy season;
through year 7 of the reign of Gilgamesh we will be accepting scrolls, but then we will transit to the new all city MicroMud uniform triangular papyrii applications
right now you must still submit the proposal on clay tablets, in triplicate + original
remember that you must allow for the clay to dry before delivery, last minute submissions are not prudent. It may rain, even in dry season.
you may not use city issue grain or beer to pay for the clay porters, it must come from internal funds only
each clay tablet submission must include a cedar wood carved cover, until we transit to the papyrus scrolls
you must cut down your own cedars, but only after a city official identifies and sells you a tree cleared for clearing
to make a carved cedar tablet, you must first create a papyrus copy, submit that, and get it certified and returned so you can arrange for carving. We are NOT accepting the papyrus scrolls yet, but you will return the scroll to us with the carved cedar cover
we need 3+1 covers, with original (not copy) signatures on each, the signatures will then be transferred to clay for our records department and kept on file
please remind external collaborators that we need confirmation letters with signature; we will accept clay or pressed seal signatures, but not carved wood or bone; we can not handle stone inscriptions from lands across the river; and no papyrus copies in this round, we expect to have the system up next year when the scroll storage racks are built. The contractors are confident they will have the new triangular storage bin design working by the deadline for transiting to the new system, they did the army records contract and have experience in large database construction; they are currently working on the new tax law records system.

We remind all proposers that employment of army veterans is looked upon favourably be review panels. Please inform your subcontractors that army pay arrears are expected to be cleared up when the revenue stream is reconfigured; current target date is your 9 of r.o.G. Long may he live.

NASA here we go...

NASA Watch points to which reports the new NASA roadmaps are out.

Can't find the pointers on APIO on NASA web, but here is where they are

Cowing also has a pointer to Griffin's visit to JPL. The report from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune seems strange give that SIM and TPF are looking at multi-year deferrments; and Mars Science Lab loses the 2009 window (will ESA pounce one wonders).
Maybe it means LISA will be saved so JPL has something to work on?


damn, that must have been fun to watch - congrats Liverpool.
I think the US networks were showing end of sweeps 2 hour "specials" of mostly "Reality" shows. Yeuch.
Though word is Law and Order was worth watching, unusually. Catch in a rerun someyear.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

050509A update

All public on the GCN website below:

the Energizer Bunny team out at UC has a tentative spectrum of the optical counterpart
redshift about 0.6; signature of star formation, consistent with the broadband redshift estimates.

Expect a type II supernova spectrum will emerge in a few weeks

With Swift in full operational mode, a lot of GRBs are likely to be coming in with good optical transient counterparts,
and following those up and doing a good job is bloody hard work.
And there are not that many teams with that many people out there doing this.

People are going to run out of steam at some point and science could be lost just because
of understaffing and insufficient resources.

GRB 050525A - here we go again...

Very bright well position gamma ray burst happened just after midnight (UT).

Originally thought to be short, but it is not (double peaked, ~ 10 sec duration).
Very very bright and ROTSE already got a very bright optical counterpart.

from GCN3466 position RA(J2000) = 18h 32m 32.3s
Dec(J2000) = +26d 20' 17.5" We estimate an uncertainty of
about 6 arcseconds radius

This one is going to be interesting - bet the hypernova/collapsar scenario will be totally confirmed with this one, or severly tested if there is not a low/moderate redshift star forming galaxy under the counterpart.

Gonna be a busy night in the southwest and Hawaii... have fun folks.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

consistency and miracles

Ted Chiang wrote a very good little story called Hell is the Absence of God
It is the view of someone in a world where the Old Testament God is real and present, miracles are a daily reality and God likes to be worshipped and honoured. And the protagonist denies God, creating a paradox, for good and interesting reasons.
It is a fascinating story, people should read it. even Sean.

So, Science as a fundamental premise, implictly assumes there is no God - in the sense of an omnipotent, supernatural deity. Individually scientists deal with this either by becoming atheists, agnostics, or holding their deistic upbringings in a state of contradiction in their minds (and a surprising number do so, rather to my surprise). Good for them.

If you look at science and theology in historical context then deism has undergone an obvious evolution from pantheistic concepts of Tribal Gods as Greater Than Normal People, gratuitously mixed in with Spirits of Nature and Object concepts, to latter day monotheisms which are basically Our God Kicks Your Gods Butt.
Fine, people being confused and insecure is logically irrelevant to existence of a God or not; and the major religions spent the best part of a couple of millennia burning out good thinkers on rationalising this.
But science, as expressed so well by Laplace, has no use for that hypothesis.

Why the antagonism?
Well, the fundamental premise of science is that nature is consistent, understandable and follows "law".
As a tertiary hypothesis, we also conjecture the laws are fundamentally mathematical and quantifiable.

This precludes "miracles" - as I once discussed with a colleague, it is not tenable that "God" could arbitarily pick up a galaxy and aesthetically rearrange the local universe on whim. Note that this is also a testable hypothesis - if we observe a supernatural "miracle" then it is subject of scientific study, and science as a concept can be falsifiable (that is actually interesting, not only are scientific theories falsifiable, by construct, but the meta concept of science is falsifiable).

So, what is this: well, we need to distinguish between different contingencies:
- there is the "technology indistinguishable from magic" - projecting back, this is obvious - consider the reaction of a person 2000 years ago to a "clap-on" light switch combined with electric lights. Such phenomena are scientific in essence, and amenable to our analysis, although potentially intractable (the technological singularity hypothesis).
Arbitarily Advanced Civilizations can arguably functionally act as a "God" to less informed intelligences, but by bootstrap anything they do is amenable to scientific discovery and can be reproduced given enough resources (man I'd like to write that grant proposal!)
- there is "god as programmer" - where our experiential reality is under some external control - we can experience miraculous rearangements of reality much as a character in a computer game might be arbitarily jumped to a new situation with no regard to the game rules. That would be annoying; there would still be a "reality" out there, but no more accessible to us than a monster in Halo could go for a walk in Central Park (think Star Trek Next Generation virtual reality room). Everyday miracles would then basically be "easter eggs" in the game of life...
The Holographic Conjecture (wiki entry here as starter) is kinda scary in this context; it is how I'd design a virtual universe for easy read of the internal state.
- and there is ye old fashioned God. Who can either be your personal God or can be a Newtonian 'set things in motion' kinda God - classically this was problematic because it appeared to eliminate free will, unless you reintroduced some supernatural element; but quantum mechanically this arguably not an issue. QM plus initial conditions probably permits complex enough systems to have something functionally like a free will.

And that is a problem. A Prime Mover leads of course to the classical paradox of who set the PM in motion. No more satisfactory than panspermia theories of life.
A God who does nothing is irrelevant from a scientific perspective (yes, that may be the whole challenge of faith, good for those with faith, but irrelevant then to practical day-to-day life).
A God who intervenes, contraditcts the premise of science, and should be ignored, until and unless the contradiction becomes apparent; at which point we re-evaluate.

Oh, and the "God as fakeout" - it is setup to look like it evolved but really was created, and is just test of faith. Please, I'll just go with the illusion then and become a cosmologist or something. Pah.
Pascal's wager used the wrong prior. Not only do most religious factions firmly believe that most other believers in something different are damned; most of their putative Gods are so obnoxious I'd rather be damned (go read the Chiang story ok, he's a much better writer than I). Or pray that God will go with the Unitarians, I would if I were God.

So, "that about does it for that God person", eh?
The interesting question is the prevalence of deistic myths in human societies; there are hints that it is a evolutionary adaptation, a coping mechanism until we can deal with reality, as it were. Plus the extra incentive to accept social moral codes is a big social evolutionary driver until more people understand meta-game theory and classical iterated game theory.

Finally, a disturbing thought: if QM does not rescue us from the Newtonian paradox of free will, given the initial conditions of the universe, would then a single miracle - a single violation of physical law at some point in space-time - be sufficient to circumvent this and provide free will - non-deterministic trajectories in the future light cone?
You could sorta see how it might, or maybe I should not post so late...

Ah well, for a refreshed sense of purpose I should go see where Arkani-Hamed has gone with the whole "space of theories as a degree of freedom", I've always been a sucker for meta-theories of physics, where the laws of physics become a free parameter.


Long time ago I was learning about constitutional crises in anglo history, and in particular the limits of the executive in dispensing with laws (the classic example being why ambulances are not prosecuted for breaking the speed limit; with the classic counter-example being why king wossisface couldn't dispense with a law and act outside it - the law applied equally to everyone, and could not be circumvented for procedural tricks alone).

Scientists, for some strange reason, have this thing about stuff being consistent and following comprehensive rules.
Makes it hard sometimes to fill out IRS forms, but such is life.
Personally, I find not just rules, but meta-rules to be important; and while finding tricks to circumvent rules may be clever and daring, it is not good when playing classical iterated games.

On a related note: it is a truism that a successful politician who wants to stay in office must do what it takes to get the resources to run and the votes to win; but, a society that survives must have leaders who can transcend their personal ideology to work on what is truly good for society as a whole in practise, not theory. This may sometime mean that the personal goals of leaders clash with those of the society they lead (unless you believe that there is no such thing as society, just a emergent clump of individual priorities - in which case you should read up on theory of altruistic collaboration in evolutionary context, but I digress) - in those cases, either the leaders must give way, or society will lose. Too many societal losses and the society dies, no matter how great and glorious the leader.

Interestingly, the same set of issues comes up when dealing with academia. The Professor as feudal lord beholden only to the Dean as long as the tithing come in makes for a convenient administrative model - leaving the independent labs to handle most of the oversight of staff, with only unseemly inter-lab squabbles and inheritances of failing duchies and baronies to be settled by the greater powers. But, the interests of the individual professor or research group may not align with the interests of the College or University. Great, persisitent Universities handle this; wannabes don't.

Tomorrow: so, how does this all relate to universal consistency and the peculiar USAin problem of creationism and science.

Personal note:
school photos came back - they're good. Will be off in the mail soon.
Diddi is eating well, moved on to Avocado. Messy. Sleeping better except
for occasional gas, should probably have skipped the tabasco... worked with his sister!

Regular photo service will resume when our home comp disk is upgraded.
Applications for the e-mail list will be accepted ;-) (family and close personal friends only)!

Monday, May 23, 2005

reality and fiction

Recent reuters news story on a well know, popular song being derived from an old lullaby/

Over 20 years ago, Spider Robinson wrote a short story: Melancholy Elephants - about the curse of indefinitely extended copyright and how all art is essentially derivative.

Oh, and it has an interesting point about the powers of US Senators in a classical senate. And the influence of corporate lobbyists.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

no sleep

well, despite a long hard day, Diddi - who turned a wild 7 months today - is not sleeping;
so I ain't blahgin

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Save PlanetFinder Program - NASA's wild ride

There is an online petition to save the PlanetFinder program at NASA. Specifically the SIM and TPF missions.
US citizens and non-NASA employees only, as I understand it.

So what is going on? Well, as I mentioned the other night, NASA's budget squeeze has come to a head and something's got to pop. With earmarks, HST rescue (or is just a shuttle deorbit now?) back on, and NGSTJWST is experiencing technical difficulties.

So, the current swing on the roundabout is to "defer" the PlanetFinder/Navigator programs to get JWST to phase C/D and cover the other shortfalls. This basically stops work on these programs as I understand it.
(Coincidentally, the changes seem to involve all non-Mars $ heading for the west coast stopping at the edge of the beltway, strange that. Be interesting to see how the west coasters respond.)

So, there's an online petition to try to boost support as a delegation heads to DC next week to discuss the issue with some Congress critters. They may possibly have picked the absolutely worst day (wednesday) in congressional history to discuss actual budget issues, since the Congress seems involved in some obscure procedural spat - must not have anything better to do right now, slow time I guess.

In a rational world, none of this would happen. In a semi-rational world this will settle down to some sensible compromise.
The way things are going, that will require both sides to fight their ground. Which is a dumb way to arrange science priorities. Didn't think anything would make me long for the ponderousness of the ESA committees.

Ah well, BE was like the 2003 policy (expired); and planets are soooooo 2004 (tired); and 2005? er well if anyone knows please tell me, 'cause I see no sense in what is going on - beyond petty turf battles and institutional politics.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Lest Darkness Fall

Late Lite Lazy SF blagging.

Lest Darkness Fall is the title of one of the best and most time tested of the "alternate history" concept novels.
By L Sprague de Camp. Good author.

In it, a modern man, a la Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, finds himself in ancient Rome,
and sets about preventing the Dark Ages. First he must survive, then he must defeat Belisarius (SF writers all love general Belisarius of Byzantium, for good reason - if you got to rip off the ancients, rip off the best, via the best). Then life gets interesting.

Most of the rest of de Camp's stuff is light classical fantasy. The Incompleat Enchanter is a fun series, playing with literature, most of the rest is distracting but forgettable, he is probably best known for editing and extending Robert Howard's classic "Conan" series.

His other "great book" is the "Ancient Engineers". In it he considers how ancient civilizations could have built their great works, including a history of engineering and great engineering devices. The book is dated, some of the history is now suspect and there are more rigorous and scholarly works on the actual likely mechanics of ancient engineering.
But de Camp did his homework and is a good writer, and modulo it being dated and spotty, it is well worth a read.

Oh - on the topic - people should read "Household Gods" - by Turtledove and Tarr.
It puts a slightly irritating LA lawyer in a border town of the Roman Empire, during Marcus Aurelius' time if I recall.
Not quite so romantic and heroic. More a struggle for survival and a coming of age story.

federal funding - wild ride ahead

Been hearing interesting things about NASA - but as these things go, what I heard I can't say,
and what I can say I haven't heard...

However, I suspect that NASA will be doing a number of 180 degree turns in science policy,
and that some of my high energy and cosmology colleagues will have some emotional whiplashes;
however, I suspect the total number of U-turns will be an even number, at least over then next couple of years.
I could be wrong.

So NSF (and NIH) - informal news is that funding will be tight, real tight. So they will "consolidate" the
Requests for Proposals into a fewer number (ie cut) and will restrict the number of proposals per PI per year
(so no trying to beat the odds by doing multiple submissions to different RFPs).

And the buzzword of the year is "interdisciplinary frontier science"

It will be interesting to see what happens in astronomy, where there has always been a decoupling between
funding and access to facilities - ie you can get funding but no telescope time, or telescope time but no
funding (even for actual travel to the telescope). Strange that.

Interesting times ahead.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

foreign postdoc barriers - unintended consequences

As of March 8th 2005, and new H-1B visa, or transferred visa requires a $500 "fraud prevention" fee to be paid by the employer to the federal government.
This is ~ $30-40 million for the feds, nominally presumably to check that each applicant is genuinely a genuine expert in their field of employment (H-1B is temporary employment visa for experts - used a lot for comp engineers and other technically qualified experts in short supply; including academic postdocs in scientific fields).
Fair enough, wouldn't want a terrorist or something slipping through (not that H-1B is the route of choice, one would naively think...); and the computer companies can pay...

But, the universities are charged as well; and there is a rider - you can't use grants to pay the fee.
Presumably this clause was primarily intended to stop companies from just billing the fee back to government contracts, has to come out of their profits; but universities don't work that way.
The clause effectively requires the fee come out of unrestricted funds; university's own money - now some universities have a lot of that - endowment funds essentially - not that it means the administration will part with it for the researchers.
But most don't. So this either comes out of operational funds (ie recycled tuition) or the very rare actual unrestricted funds, and there's always some - they pay for things we're not allowed to use grant money for (including moving fees for postdoc hires, some entertainment expenses, foreign travel, odd miscellaneous expenses restricted from grant billing, and emergencies).
But there is not very much of this money in a typical university. And if a foreign postdoc costs an extra $500 each upfront, from unrestricted funds, that is a significant (but generally surmountable) barrier to hire. This will lead to general reluctance to hire a foreigner.

That may be unintended (or not - though I suspect the primary target was companies, not universities), but unfortunate.
There are already disincentives to scientists to come to the US, this is another little barrier on top of all the other ones (cd this from Sean.

In the medium term, this will do damage to US science; a little bit, but it cumulates.

Bad policy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Boys and Men

Crooks and Liars has video of UK MP George Galloway testifying to the US Senate committee.

I don't think US Senators are ready for actual debate by experienced dog-fight debaters who have a command of facts and experience in on-the-floor rebutting.

Independent of Galloway's politics, he humiliates the Senate committee. It is masterful.

The evil that men do

I was surprised to read that US forces as part of their S&R training:abuse of POWs to expect in custody sub-clause, include the tearing up and flushing of a bible down the toilet. See Mark for why this might surprise some people.

So, at least we now know the line of thinking that lead to the (alleged) Qu'ran incidents.

So, the outrage begins. I was particularly interested to find the following prescient comment on a the FreeRepublic

""But when you want to interrogate a fundamentalist, it is not easy to get into his mind when he considers you an infidel . . ."
Easy solution . . . Confuscius say, turn Abdullah into a big fat infidel . . . "Abdullah, sweetie . . . Now, if you don't want to spend any more time with your head held under water, you WILL look into that there camera over there, you WILL crap on this here Koran, you WILL curse Allah's name, you WILL piss on Mohammad's memory, and you WILL drink this here big glass of pig piss, blood and poop -- five times every day, for the rest of your life. Got me, sweetie? . . . Or . . . We can hold your head under water again. Your choice.
I guarantee you, Abdullah will become the biggest infidel you've ever met and will eagerly spill his guts, infidel to infidel (you just won't want to have him over for dinner, what with all that pig piss, blood and poop on his breath).

12 posted on 05/24/2003 11:29:16 PM PDT by LibWhacker"

Such a contrast with 2005, eh?
Ah, the outrage

Monday, May 16, 2005

writing backblog

6 papers waiting my attention - 2 post-referee
2 referees reports almost overdue
a thesis and faculty meeting
and it is both HST GO-14 phase 2 week, and coming up ROSES proposal season

so wtf am I doing blogging...

Sunday, May 15, 2005

more tenure truths

First heard on Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone Days:

I did it their way

Apparently by Bob Blue.

"...And so, my fine young friend, now that I am a full professor,
Where once I was oppressed, I've now become the cruel oppressor.
Like me, you'll learn to cope, you'll learn to climb life's golden stairway.
Like me, you'll see the light, you'll do it their way."

I try to play my copy to everyone of my friends who gets a tenure track position.

They're usually singing along by the time he hits the second verse.

More songs that shouldn't be sung:

White Man in Hammersmith Palais - done by Vanilla Ice

Short GRB note

I will not comment on the GRB stuff at this point, I've been co-opted.
I will comment on it again by next week I expect. It is still exciting, but as always more complicated than first glance suggests.

date rate

So, remember the Date Equation?

Well, it was pointed out to me, confidentially, that this is not a completed problem - having found the number of probable candidates, you then need to estimate the encounter rate, or equivalently, the mean time between dates.

Now, this is trivial: R = n s v

where R is the rate of dates, and 1/R = T is a characteristic time between dates.
as usual, n is the number density (eligible people per unit area); s is your date cross-section in meters, and v is the encounter velocity.

But there are complications;
first of all, n is non-uniform, it is probably poorly averaged by a uniform density,
secondly, cross-section is non-trivial. There is an irreducable s0 = 1 meter, which is where people basically bump into you; but some people have much larger cross-sections, they have a "date charge" which I choose to call charm, which enables long range interactions! So, a rock star or good comedian may have a cross-section of ~ 100 meters, and be in a crowded room with n = 1, whereas a social misfit has s ~ 1 and if they're picky, n may be as low as 10^-8

But, in a crowded region, the velocity is necessarily slow, and the charm coupling is clearly velocity dependent! A highly charmed individual maximises their opportunity at slow speeds, not high speeds as one might naively infer;
so we can approximate s(v) = s0*( sC/( 1 + (vC/v)^2) - of course you recognise this equation, it can't be exact, or there'd be singular charm collapses; but it will do as a first order approximation. vC is clearly of order unity, probably a bit less than one, maybe 0.1 will approximate it.

But, but, we're not done yet! Some couplings are forbidden. Even if you're not picky, and a very charming lecturer...

Further, with clumping and non-trivial topology of the phase space, rigorous estimates will require Monte Carlo simulations.

But, worst of all; you can temporarily enhance your cross-section tremendously through virtual charm coupling; now you might protest that this never leads to bound states, but if the virtual interaction is resonant, then a real bound state may form even if the geometric cross-section, or velocity would imply in the classical limit that no interaction will take place.

Sociology is very complicated.

In the meantime, the rock star; v ~ 10^-4, n ~ 1, s ~ 100 => R ~ 10^-2 s^-1
a truly charming rock star that is just diffusing in a crowd can get a date per minute in the classical limit. In fact if vC is large enough, the rock star is near singular collapse as v -> 0, modulo second order corrections.

Social misfit in a big city - v ~ 1, n ~ 10^-8, s ~ 1 => R ~ 10^-8 - or one date every 3 years or so; sounds about right.

Thus we conclude that the first order classical approximation provides adequate approximation for the extreme limiting cases. Note that if the misfit has very stringent restriction, for example on age ranges, the actual suitable population may change more rapidly than they get dates - so they have a finite probability of never getting a date.
The rock star case is of course self-limiting, for obvious reasons of other physics we have neglected. Think of it as a renormalisation sort of thing, too high an R triggers some new hidden physics which limits the true R, but we can work with an effective theory.

Hm, can we try a realistic mid-range problem: relatively indiscriminating undergraduate at a midsized university.

N = 1000, A = 10^7 m^2, so n ~ 10^-4, s ~ 1, v ~ 0.1 - that's mean progress through ambling along.
So within an order of magnitude, expect a date per day; except there is clumping, which reduces the effective number density, and worse than that, there is screening of the charm charge due to clumping, in fact you may never get to effective range for your charm charge to trigger a resonant interaction. So realistic rates are 1-2 orders of magnitude smaller.
I see the potential for very complicated higher order scatterings if a highly charmed charge individual penetrates the screening radius of a dense clump of datees of the opposite charm.

So we conclude that in dense environment, even for intermediate strength interactions, the second order corrections are important. We note parenthetically that charm screening may be an even more important effect in high schools and work places, mostly from peer clustering, but sometimes due to paper screens or other social constructs.

I think this promises to be a rich field for extensive numerical simulations, particularly since we have not yet estimated the effects of virtual charm cross-sections; nor do we have data on where or how resonances occur.

Now, if you combine this with the "marriage optimisation algorithm", you're almost done. Theoretically.

(yes, there is such a thing, mathematician came up with it; I'll blahg on it later)

Friday, May 13, 2005

the wrong song

I was listening to Norwegian Wood, as covered by Cornerstone, in (the original?!) Hindi, I gather.
It is very good. Really works.
But some songs are just done wrong. Like right now it is graduation time in many places, and a bunch of choirs will be belching out Gaudeamus Igitor like it were a hymn, whereas it should be sung like something from the Student Prince, except the way it is actually done in the iTunes version of the Student Prince...It is just wrong. Way too solemn.

Some covers do work, and some songs cross styles well.

eg Pretty Vacant done rockabilly style by Kingswood (aka Purty Vacant),
or Walk this Way done by Run DMC
or Rawhide done by Dead Kennedys
Route 66 by Billy Bragg (aka A13)

so what else works? what should work?

I know I'd like to hear:

Fortunate Son covered by Green Day

River done by Bob Marley (or any good reggae singer)

anything by Half-Man Half-Biscuit

Under a blood red sky done by a jazz quartet.

is there any song that can't be jazzed?

and, what songs should never be covered in which way?


Tainted Love by Michael Jackson

Pretty Vacant by Britney Spears

Love will tear us apart by Mariah Carey

Teenage Kicks by any boy band

Anarchy in the UK done by the Mormon Choir

(james - if you're reading this, bill me for the keyboard, but get a coffee proof monitor!)

oh, and any song done by Rod Stewart or Andy Cameron accompanied by the Scottish Football Team...

we're on the march, wi' Ally's Army
we're going tae the Argentine...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

More on this thing called tenure

A funny article on tenure, sort of, in the way that some of Steve Corbett's better moments are funny, from InsideHigherEd.

I particularly like the:

...Like faculty all over the country, we endure only slightly less crazy rules at Illinois and Indiana, where “equal or better” quality institutions are mandated, among other credentials, for letter writers. Last year an administrator at one of our institutions pushed his glasses down his nose, looked wisely over them, and asked “Is Penn State really a peer institution?”


wholesale retirements over the last few years have made it impossible to appoint a competent college committee. There just aren’t enough sane senior faculty members available to make up a committee with a sense of institutional history, a rational sense of fairness and an in-depth knowledge of campus standards. It is hard to rely on a college executive composed of three chimpanzees, a scorpion, a pit viper, and a coma patient.

Dead common we are.

I guess PSU will have to beat UIUC and UoI this year in the holy football game. That'll show them.

the top 20

Helgi Briem - found the web site by accidental google. Never knew Helgi was in Fræbblarnir - means I probably saw him in concert 25 years ago or so. Weird. Check their MP3 samples above.

The definitive top 20 icelandic albums.

I would rearrange the order a bit - I am feeling a bit inimical towards Sigur Rós for slightly obscure reasons, and Björk - well I really prefer her early stuff, but this is a pretty good list.

Dr Gunni - the John Peel of Iceland?
I miss John Peel.

Fabriclive:07 is one of the best albums around, and, appropriately, listed as "unclassifiable" on iTunes.

Also check out Smekk Leysa for more avant garde Icelandic scene... ;-)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

GRBs, colliding neutron stars and fast physics

So, GRB 050509b made the press; starting with
Good news article on scienceNow, and associated press put out a very short teaser.

The official NASA press conference is cancelled, and "scientists are cleared to discuss the results".
Since I am unaffiliated with either Swift or the ground based followups, I was free to comment, but was promptly co-opted as a "outside commentator" and therefore under a "no-comment" embargo until release.
NASA has a reason for this, they like co-ordinated, well spaced and timed blitzed on specific news, and preferably stuff that has been published in a refereed paper (and there were high energy astrophysics press events today [on COUP] and another on thursday on GRB041209a (not a NASA event I believe).

But, what do you do when the data and citable telegrams on followups are published immediately on the web?
Journalists aren't stupid, and many good science journalists know where to look for breaking news; they follow the GCN, IAUC and MPEC circulars, and religiously read arXiv every evening. And good for them.

Now, how they're getting my cell number I don't know. Our secretary is not handing it out...

Still, no press is bad press. And it made slashdot - total geek streed cred, d00d.

Oh, science. Its still there; though whether the faint, possibly variable optical counterpart is real or background is very uncertain. The x-ray counterpart is quite well localised and is right next to a whopping big elliptical galaxy at z=0.22.
Those are relatively rare beasts, and this is highly suggestive, but not conclusive, evidence for physical association.
(I guesstimate less than 1:100 chance of a short GRB being that close to a galaxy like this.. post hoc ergo...)

But, deeper Keck imaging reveals "shitloads" of faint blue crap all over the XRT error circle. Which could be high redshift star forming galaxies, which could be the real hosts of the GRBs, which would kinda blow the theory of a delayed offset neutron star merger right out of the water, and incidentally scupper the beautiful model of Bloom, Sigurdsson & Pols (1999).

So what could it be? It fits the NS merger model well, almost scarily well; like coincidence well.
If it is higher z, it is faster (to compensate for (1+z) time dilations, so true time scale of less than 10 millisec (?!) and higher energy. That points to neutron star-black hole merger, with dynamically unstable disruption of the neutron star and a ballistic accretion flow (as opposed to an angular momentum limited disruption with viscous evolution).

That's interesting too. (and thanks to Prof Cole Miller for illuminating discussion on this!) But I still lean to the neutron star merger theory.
Ultimate proof will come when several of these are seen. If they are seen in statistical association with L* galaxies at low redshift, and not ones undergoing a lot of recent star formation; then the NS-NS merger model is likely right.

Interesting possible implications - gravitational radiation sources for ALIGO; tests of extreme nuclear physics, sites for rare nucleosynthetic processes, possible extreme magnetic field evolution, tracer of past star formation, and relativistic physics.
Need lots more, hope Swift picks them up. They're x-ray faint, which is consistent with a relativistic blast wave in low densityh intergalactic medium, but that makes them harder to localise.
Knowing what the beaming fraction is would be very valuable.

Monday, May 09, 2005

News at 11

There will be a formal announcement on the observations of Swift GRB 050509b on wednesday at 1 pm (tentatively), from NASA HQ.

I will not comment on this until then.

Short GRBs - what's the fuzz?

Ok, having lapsed into exuberant mode, I should probably explain myself.


and here

GRBs are short flashes of high energy gamma rays. Very high energy radiation, effectively blocked by the atmosphere and only see from space. The energy budget is comparable to that of the most powerful supernovae, and even very distant ones have enough energy flux to affect the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere.
Very close GRBs (inside our own galaxy, and near us, which occur ~ every 500 million years) may be bright enough to cause mass extinctions!

Before we knew what they were, we knew there were two types: a "short hard" type, lasting less than a second; and a long type, typically lasting many seconds. So the possibility there might be two physical mechanisms has long been speculated upon.

When BeppoSAX found optical counterparts to GRBs, they were exclusively the long GRBs.
We are now pretty sure that these form from very young, massive stars in small blue galaxies undergoing strong episodes of star formation - some of these GRBs are "dark" - we are also fairly confident this is because they are hidden behind dense dust clouds which obscure the optical radiation while letting through the gamma and x-ray radiation.

The GRB, according to the Rees-Meszaros-Paczynski scenario, occurs when a rapidly rotating massive (~ 10 solar masses) black hole forms in a "failed supernova" that become re-energised as a "hypernova". In the process, two jets of material, traveling at almost the speed of light, punch out through the poles of the star and "shock" against the clouds of interstellar gas near the star, causing non-thermal gamma-rays to be emitted. This is a fairly well tested scenario; the one weakness is that the details by which (and how) the black hole forms and ejects the energy is not well know - we know the basics of the "engine" but not the detailed microphysics (but there are theories...).

So a GRB is the signature of a black hole forming. But possibly only a sub-set of all black holes; the jet of radiation are strongly and narrowly beamed, so we miss most of them (the radiation beams are not pointed at us). Visible GRBs seem to occur at the rate of ~ 3 per day in the universe. But we may be missing 99+% of the events.
Black holes form at the rate of maybe 100,000 per day in the universe (about one per second). So maybe as few as one black hole in a thousand makes a successful GRB!?

But, we couldn't nail down the short GRBs.

One theory was that they were "clean" mergers of two neutron stars, bound together and spiraling in through emission of gravitational radiation (a process we see happening in the galaxy).
The lower mass neutron star, would disrupt just before contact (fraction of a second) and form a relativistic disk, cooling through neutrino emission. The higher mass neutron star would implode into a black hole, but the inflowing material has too much angular momentum, so something has to go out. This would be relativistic jets of material, which would then shock, as above, to make gamma rays.

But, neutron star pairs take 100s of millions to billions of years to merge. So this happens long after star formation, so we might expect to see it in old galaxies with no ongoing star formation. Like elliptical galaxies.
Further, NS-NS pairs are observed (and theoretically should) have high peculiar velocities. So they are displaced by 10s of kpc from their site of formation by the time they merge, and should be seen in the outskirts of galaxies.
(There is a subtlety - basically the higher the peculiar speed, the shorter the timescale to merger, on average, so the typical displacement is not as broad as one might naively infer).

Anyway, Josh Bloom looked at this extensively for his PhD thesis. And one of Swift's major science goals was to localize short GRBs and test theories of them.

If the variability of the alleged counterpart is confirmed, then this has been done.

Preliminary data is that it looks good and it could well be a NS-NS merger.

Disclaimer: I am not a member of the Swift team and have no association with any group taking data.
I have a little bit of experience chasing optical counterparts, but am not in competition with these groups.
I wrote a couple of theory papers on this a long time ago. I am chuffed but have nothing to gain from this.

short hard GRB caught - mystery solved?

For a long time, the nature of Gamma Ray Bursts - very high energy, very high power flashes of gamma-rays from very large distances - has been one of the big open questions in astronomy. First detected by Vela nuclear bomb test monitoring satellites more than 30 years ago, they were a favourite of theorists, until the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory in the early 90s basically proved all the theories wrong, and strongly suggested they were at cosmological distances.

The next big breakthrough came in 1997 when BeppoSAX localised the x-ray counterparts to a few GRBs well enough that optical searches could be done (gamma ray images have very poor resolution and singling out optical transient in 100 square degree images was impossible back then). And the first counterpart to the long GRBS (multi-second duration) was established. They are typically at redshifts of few; they are seen within or very near small galaxies undergoing intense star formation, and are now thought to be due to shock in strongly beamed, moderately relativistic jets that come from "hypernovae" - failed supernovae that form black holes. The statistics are consistent with only a small fraction of black holes forming GRBs, possibly the most rapidly rotating ones only.

But, there is a separate, harder to pin down class of GRBs, the short-hard group. Typically tens of millisecond duration, and until now, no identified x-ray or optical counterparts.

The Swift Satellite is the current top GRB hunter, optimised to rapidly catch the short GRBs.
And it has now done so. GRB050509b was caught this morning, about 30 msec duration, localised with faint x-ray counterpart and now there's a good possible optical counterpart.

Woo Hoo!.

It is about 35 kpc offset from an elliptical galaxy of redshift of only 0.22 or so.
This is consistent with a scenario where the short GRBs specifically are low mass black holes forming in neutron star-neutron star mergers (a la the Hulse Taylor pulsar or PSR 0737 (aka Burgay's pulsar).
These mergers can significantly lag behind star formation processes, and may therefore be seen in galaxies with no recent star formation; and since NS-NS pairs have significant peculiar velocities, they may be seen with a large offset from the host galaxy, as predicted by Bloom, Sigurdsson & Pols and elaborated upon extensively in Bloom's thesis.

Here is the raw info:

NUMBER: 3381
SUBJECT: Swift Detection of GRB050509b: A short duration burst
DATE: 05/05/09 05:03:23 GMT
FROM: Louis M Barbier at NASA/GSFC/Swift

C. Hurkett, E. Rol, (U Leicester), L. Barbier (GSFC), S. Barthelmy (GSFC),
A. Blustin (MSSL), D. Burrows (PSU), J. Cummings (GSFC/NRC),
N. Gehrels (GSFC), J. Kennea (PSU), C. Markwardt (GSFC/UMD), S. Holland
(GSFC/USRA) on behalf of the Swift Team;

At 04:00:19.23 UT, the Swift Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) triggered and
located on-board GRB050509b (trigger #118749). The BAT on-board
calculated location is RA, dec 189.056, +29.000 (12h 36m 13s, +29d 00' 01'')
(J2000) with an uncertainty of 4 arcmin (radius, 3-sigma, including
estimated systematic uncertainty). The BAT light curve showed a single short
spike with a duration of less than 128 milliseconds. The peak
count rate measured by BAT was about 2100 counts/sec in the 15 -
350 keV band.

NUMBER: 3383
SUBJECT: GRB 050509b: Swift XRT Position
DATE: 05/05/09 06:29:23 GMT
FROM: Jamie A. Kennea at PSU/Swift-XRT

J. A. Kennea, D. N. Burrows, J. Nousek (PSU), C. P. Hurkett, E. Rol, J.
Osborne, A. Wells (U. Leicester), N. Gehrels (NASA/GSFC), G. Chincarini
(INAF-OAB) and P. Giommi (ASDC) report on behalf of the Swift XRT team:

The Swift BAT instrument detected GRB 050509b at 04:00:19 UT on 9th May
2005 (GCN Circ 3381). The observatory executed an automated slew to the
BAT position and the XRT began taking data at 04:01:12 UT. The XRT was in
Auto state but was not able to centroid on the afterglow due to low source
intensity. From downlinked data we find a faint uncatalogued X-ray source
located at:

RA(J2000) = 12:36:13.6,
Dec(J2000) = +28:58:58.6

NUMBER: 3388
SUBJECT: GRB 050509b: Optical Counterpart Candidate
DATE: 05/05/09 08:44:13 GMT
FROM: Josh Bloom at Harvard/CFA

J. Bloom (UCB), C. Blake (Harvard), J. X. Prochaska (UCSC), J. Hennawi
(UCB), M. Gladders (Carnegie), B. Koester (U Michigan) and H. W. Chen
(MIT) report:

We have continued to observe GRB 050509b (GCN #3383) with the imager
on the 3.5m WIYN telescope. Under improving conditions, a 600s observation
in the sloan r band beggining at 06:05 UT revealed a apparent point source
within the XRT error circle (GCN #3383) and within the detectable light of
the nearby galaxy (GCN #3386).

A finding chart may be found at:

Sunday, May 08, 2005

lazy blog - California dreamin'

So, fun places to do science...

Kavli Institute at UC Santa Barbara.

Perfect location, nice new building, good people, and kickass workshops.

Been there three times I think; always productive and often fun. I think that was where I was introduced to the great custom of pulsar hottubbing, though that reached perfection in Santa Cruz and Aspen...

Most fun paper I've written recently came from a completely accidental conversation over wine, pure luck the combination of people who sat down together - though there were a couple of people there who were very unlucky not to sit down with us.
This is one of these "anyone could have done this paper"(well anyone of 10 or 12 people who knew to), and a very good graduate student, we found out later, was in fact working towards this and independently confirmed what we found while our paper was in press. Weirdly. two of us had talked about doing this about 5 years earlier, but with lack of time, moving, lack of students to work on these projects etc, it didn't get done. [Hm, lack of people to do stuff - something to blahg about]
[oh, and "spontaneous appearance" - sweated blood to knock the bloody thing into shape, Science and Nature are serious about their word count limits. I'm sure it is character forming or something. Some of us need room to blather on, as my students have learned the hard way.]

This is how fun science happens. It is how it should happen. Spontaneous leisurely conversation of speculative issues over coffee/beer/wine/water that leads to a paper spontaneously appearing. Also the hallmark of a great science instution if they provide the atmosphere in which such happens.

Oh, hotel situation relative to UCSB campus is awkward - kinda a linear freeway sort of town. Good food in downtown; allegedly one of the best sushi places on the west coast (and possibly one of the most expensive). Lots of decent mexican food, though I haven't found a truly great place there yet (any hints people?).

Saturday, May 07, 2005

McLeod - anarcho libertarian trotskyite hard sci-fi

And if that doesn't sound interesting, there's no hope for you.

McLeod is one of the leading lights of the modern Scottish science fiction movement (Edinburgh clan).
He also writes very good science fiction. The "Star Fraction" is brilliant, and the associated series of loosely linked alternate future histories (Cassini Division, Stone Canal and Sky Road) deal with a chaotic, anarchic future; with anarchist communes, libertarian utopias, stalinist militarism and the US General Strike (ok he lost my willing suspension of disbelief on that one...).
His later stuff - good in parts, with hope for significant resurgence of the early edgy stuff.
Oh, and he's a Prometheus Award winner?!

Most memorable moment - description by the protagonist of his father being killed by locals, supported by US troops with high tech gear; eerie preview of some of the more disturbing stories of the fight against the Iraq insurgency, and how the US leveraged its technical advantage and manpower shortage. This from a 10 year old book.

Anyway, he's good, go read.

Friday, May 06, 2005

so sorry

Don't know how it happened; but I finished with Clash: Live - somehow "Straight to Hell" seemed appropriate for the finish, extended live version of course...

Congratulations seniors.

grade drag

Hm, so:
1) setting "The Planck Dive" by Egan as a gen ed reading assignment may be too much, even as extra credit for honour students... still, if a couple of people get a kick start from it, its got to be worth it.

2) Spilverk Þjóðanna (aka "Orchestra of the Nation") is definitely the choice of iTunes to use for late stage grading. Although whoever I'm on when "Icelandic Cowboy" (buy it at kicks in will be in for an interesting time (I'm kidding, I renormalise...). Bob Marley or the "Attitude" playlist for the final push... ? decisions, decisions.

The Truth about Tenure

A comment asked that I comment on the tenure process - and I will - sometime Real Soon Now.

In the meantime, I caught ER (sweeps ya know) last night, and Dr Carter got tenure, and Dr Lewis did not...
Dr Weaver tried to explain it to Dr Lewis: blah, blah, budgets, blah blah research blah blah; and then she got angry and in an unrealistic but interestingly truthful outburst she let it slip: "you're expected to have raised at least a million dollars in grants by your seventh year" (paraphrasing).

Er. That is it.

There are refinements; eg some institutions have a hard time dealing with "collaborations", this strange thing where more than one faculty member contributes to a grant or research effort. Some deal with it by assigning all the credit to the senior faculty member (I kid you not); some just pro-rate the credit; some have incredible elaborate non-zero-sum schemes for assigning partial credit (beware of those, they're often negative-sum).
Synergy may be in the vocabulary of admins, but 99% of them don't know what it means. Resident Dean excepted of course.

Oh, and if they start talking about "inter-disciplinary" thingies, then run to your office and lock the door. What they mean is "we get other peoples money". No concept of sharing. My 3 year old does better than that.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Date Equation - the original

Found it: Here is Chip's current web site, with the legendary Date Equation in its original pristine form

That's Outreach and Social Relevance in the Physical Sciences.

unThoughts and pessimistic non-science

I signed up for Google's adSense on a whim; watching the ad-robot frantically trying to find topical ads as I wander away from my mean topic of astrophysics is fascinating.
I wonder how badly it could be screwed with.

Gaming Googlebots is cruel but fun.

At the current pace, I have 4 more hours of grading to do. AARGH.
Well, actually, that is not too bad.

I have learned that non-science major undergrads are instinctive pessimists; either that or they have a very, very poor sense of quantitative numerical concepts (I wonder...).
Anyway, they, almost without exception, choose very short (T_civilization) values when running Drake equation solvers; like anywhere from 100 years (we're Doomed, Doomed Right Now) to a generous 10,000 years.
One day I'll have to get back to this, and why the Fermi paradox hinges on outliers and mean values, not modes or medians...

In the meantime, everyone should look at the far more relevant "Date Equation"

Oh, sod it. Here's the whole thing. I can't find Chip's original website copy - he moved.

In the 1960's astronomer Frank Drake formulated an estimate of the
number of intelligent civilizations in the universe by multiplying
together the probabilities for the existence of planets, habitable
planets, proper conditions for life, etc. With only a little
varitaion, it has occured to some of us that a similar equation can be
used to estimate the number, N, of intelligent, civilized, dateable
persons of the appropriate gender in one's terrestrial neighborhood by
multiplying critical probabilities, F_*, as follows.

N = F_gender xF_age xF_single xF_babe xF_school xF_pc xF_cool xN_pop

Just like in the real Drake equation, the exact probabilities are
somewhat uncertain, and will vary according to your locale. We offer
here some rough guidelines for illustrative purposes.

F_gender (this one's pretty well defined):
0.5 if you are unisexual
1.0 if you are bisexual

F_age (this accounts for your age preferences)
0.01 if you're interested only in people within 1 year of your age
0.04 within 3 years
0.14 within 10 years
0.42 within 30 years
1.00 Seek professional help!

F_single (this one will probably depend on what age range you're after)
0.25 if you want someone never married
0.5 if you'll consider those presently single
1.0 if you have no respect for the institution of marriage

F_babe (or, substitute F_hunk, using the appropriate change of variables)
(physical attractiveness)
0.10 if you consider only the knockouts in the top 10%
0.30 if you're reasonably picky
1.00 if you're desperate

F_school (level of education)
0.10 if you requre an advanced degree
0.40 if you require a college education
0.80 if you require a high school diploma
1.00 if you require consciousness

F_pc (political/social/religious compatibility; this one
is pretty ill-defined)
0.001 if you belong to a far right or far left militia group
0.10 if you're very libral or very conservative
0.50 if you're moderate
1.0 if you're not interested in conversation or verbal interaction

F_cool (fraction of people who are cool to hang out with,
similar interests, etc.; this one's really uncertain;
take a wild guess)
0.01 if you're a couch potato
0.10 if you're picky about your friends
0.50 if you're really hip and travel in all crowds

N_pop (the total population of your metropolitan area; adjust
by factors of 2-3 as necessary))
10^0 if you're a hermit
10^1 if you live in antarctica
10^2 if you like in podunk, USA
10^4 if you live in a small town
10^5 if you live in a small city like Santa Cruz or Victoria
10^6 if you live in a large metropolis

For example, for a single female in Victoria, BC, interested
in single heterosexual men, 30-40 years of age, well educated,
moderately attractive, with libral social views, we obtain:

0.5 x 0.15 x 0.25 x 0.30 x 0.10 x 0.25 x 0.25 x 300,000 = 10.5


Created by Tess Lavezzi and Chip Kobulnicky for your amusement only.
Use only under the supervision of a Dr. or qualified statistician. For
aural use only. Do not take or combine with any other formula or

Daily Show strikes again

Daily Show on wed 4th May had an interesting video clip sequence (carefully selected of course, but more representative than you might think).
They showed a recent "Question Time" (live on BBC TV "town meeting" with Prime Minister Tony Blair) intercut with scenes from a recent President George Bush "town meeting". The difference was stark, and it wasn't just the accents (sorry Jon).

It should be re-run tonight at 11:30 EST after the new Daily Show at 11. Watch or tape it.
Along with Jon's "yelling at CNN anchors" last week, it ranks up there in great moments in US TV News since, er, since Jon was on Crossfire...

Thought for the day

Exams and grading are to teaching as proposals are to research

I do hope the students looked at Hubble sequence classification, Hubble law and Concordance cosmology...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Freedom outbreaks detected in Ca

Here we go again...

Senat Bill 5 in the California Senate picks up the "academic freedom" issue.
I am so sorry, dear colleagues at UC. Hope it sinks without a trace.

...develop guidelines and implement specified principles,
relating to academic freedom, of a Student Bill of Rights.

blah, blah

(D) The Legislature further declares that intellectual
independence means the protection of students from the imposition of
any orthodoxy of a political, religious, or ideological nature. To
achieve the intellectual independence of students, teachers should
not take unfair advantage of a student's immaturity by indoctrinating
him or her with the teacher's own opinions before a student has had
an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in
question, and before a student has sufficient knowledge and ripeness
of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his or
her own, and students should be free to take reasoned exception to
the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve
judgment about matters of opinion.

Er, these are University students, not kindergartners.

And I thought the whole student self-esteem movement was out, so 70s you know.
We want stringent 2+2=4 lessons, and no alternative norms will be tolerated.

(1) Students shall be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned
answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines
they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.


eg If someone takes an intro gen ed astro class from me, and I ask the perennial "soft question" of:
"what is the approximate age of the Earth" - the answer better be within about 3% of 4,500 million years.
Any other answer is incorrect. Independent of religious belief.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Its a mad world

You have got to be kidding me!.

Did I mention that I think the US tenure and promotion system is insane.


First seen in O'Hanlon OpEd in Washington Post today - quote below is from

”Higher headquarters did not provide the Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) with a plan for Phase IV. As a result, Third Infantry Division transitioned into Phase IV in the absence of guidance.”

Can't be right?

3rd ID AAR - PDF file

oops. there it is, page 293.

So after conquest, you just stop. That's planning for success.

(Marines use M$ Office? Airborne does PowerPoint? Eew. )

NASA: Sisyphus

Three new e-mails today

Explorations directorate indefinitely postponed the Broad Agency Announcement for ESRT and HSRT (technology research RFPs). Don't know what to buy until they know what to do.

ROSES has two amendments: slight postponement of Applied Info, and Earth-Sun Science has significant postponement. Don't know what to make of that - could be they need to wait see how much $ they'll have; could be an effective cut (postponement to push funding into future years in effect, by stretching the process); could be nothing.

Don't think we're done yet.

Oh, and I was joking about BoeL-Mart the other post, but the two giants just announced they were merging the Delta and Atlas for the EELV competition. Eh, wot?

LANL blog

The real Los Alamos Blog.

Oh my. Worth a read.

Path was NYT to InstaPundit (I saw it over on NASAwatch).
Good pick up by the media.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Nature of Theory

So what is "theory", or more broadly: what does a theorist do?

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best--
A perfect and absolute blank!"

And I don't mean the endlessly inane "but it is `just a theory'" that one hears from the media and certain idiots about broad fields of intellectual activity with decades or centuries of established foundations; I don't have the energy for that during finals week... I mean, what is done when a "theorist" does a "theory" on some small(ish) problem in a sub-field.

This is a slightly thorny issue for a couple of reasons: within physics, particle field theory and in particular the infamous quest for "the Theory of Everything" has somewhat appropriated the phrase - "theoretical physics" has a dangerous tendency to be synonymous with "particle theory". In astrophysics there is a similar tendency for "theory" to be synonymous with "cosmological theory" or at least theory of large scale structure formation. And despite my strange appearance as a founding member of the Grand Challenge Cosmology Consortium, the one thing I am not is a theorist on large scale structure (well, I sometimes backslide, but only when lead astray by fun collaborators).
The other reason is that, in my ever so humble opinion, there are several different ways of doing theory - whereas a distinct number of my colleagues, at least at the knee-jerk response level, might contend there is only one way to do theory (their way of course; naturally, my way is way better...).

So, what are we doing? Well, there are two root approaches:
explain an observation - "postdiction" - sadly that is what we do most of the time, mostly due to a horrendous lack of imagination and bravura by theorists. This is sorta easier, and sorta more boring, but in reality what most of us do most of the time. Even if only inadverdently. And so it should be; science is data drive, we "observe reality", in so far as we care to ponder anything beyond naive positivism (philosophy is for beer drinking, working requires pragmatism or at least enough of a disconnect to separate the subjectivist or theosophic quandries from the practicalities of actually getting on with it). And, theories, quite properly ought to be tested against reality where practical (some interesting theories can't be, yet, but that doesn't mean they're not interesting; ok, they may be more metaphysical, but who are we to deny the reality of metaphysics).
or, sometimes, we "predict". This is fun, exciting, and sometimes testable. It is also almost always incorrect. That is why theorists who make correct predictions tend to get famous and rich, or at least famous, or maybe ignored and rudely treated, but at least they have the internal satisfaction of knowing they were right all along. Or possibly just delusional.
Prediction, famously, is hard.

Ok, so "how" do we do this?
Well, this is where it gets tricky:

there is the "algebraist" to borrow a useful phrase from Banks. These are people who know all the special functions in Abramowitz and Stegun; they recognise the most obscure ODEs and their closed form solutions, and they are wizzes at plowing through many pages of eqns (or Mathematica output) and keeping track of all the factors of 2 and signs.
These are very useful people; this has historically been a very good way of solving problems. Simplify it to a known PDE with initial or boundary conditions, look for closed form special solutions, or guess (hopefully unique) solutions.
If it works, you either have a solved problem, or at least an approximate solution that captures the qualitative nature of the true solution.
The catch? To get to a solvable problem, you often have to make so many approximations or simplifying assumptions, that you're solving an irrelevant toy problem. Bummer.
My attitude is that you want at least one person like this in a department or research group, and to judiciously collaborate with them if the chemistry is good. Some places and people feel everyone should be like this, and that is what they produce.

there is the computer modeler. So we don't want to overapproximate, but the problem is intractable. No problem, we brute force it (or better still invent improved solution schemes) numerically. There is an increasing tendency to do this as computers become more powerful and easier to use with black box codes. I have a deplorable tendency to do this myself.
When it works, you not only discover something about the problem, maybe even a solution, you also get beautiful graphics that can outshine reality (proudest moment: carrying a b/w printout of a simulated system, and have an experienced observer look over my shoulder and say "which system is this?".
The problem: well, oversimplification of assumptions - this is more insidious in some ways then in the "find an ODE" approach. Numerical subtleties (errors) especially when using "black box" codes other people supplied. And a tendency to "parametric studies" (which can degenerate into "salami science"). Since you've gone to the trouble of getting the code going, debugging, generating initial conditions etc., once you're good to go, you can just keep running while tweaking the initial conditions.
Case study: a cruel but correct referee's report I got, which noted that I had "predicted" all possible behaviours of a particular system, and there was not testable prediction left... Ouch. Quickly corrected of course, since the idea was to see which part of the explored parameter space was consistent with eventual observed outcome (ie future data would test which model of all possible models was correct), but the attitude that had crept in was bad. Bad theorist. Oh, and there is a philosophical trap for people to fall into, when they start agonising over "emergent behaviour" and "complexity". Beware of buzzwords. As with subjectivists, there is a good point there, maybe even a coffee point rather than beer point. But lets keep it under control shall we.

perturbed individuals: these are people who did too many quantum mechanics homework problems. You look for an exact theory, and then look for a perturbation solution to the approximate problem. Or some series expansion in a funky space where you're guaranteed to have some solution spanning your problem. Guilty. It is too easy, for well behaved problems you're guaranteed to make progress (so don't try this with quantum gravity...). But this approach has limits, and may give misleading results. It also leads to the Hunting of the Lagrangian - a fun but sometimes futile endeavour, which at least leads to papers being published. It is not true that the universe can be described entirely if we just find the perfect Lagrangian. The subtleties of mid 19thC mechanics are elegant, but it is a formalism with some limits.

phew, almost done: so, what remains (except whatever bits I forgot)? Well, in astrophysics, the "order of magnitude" approach can work wonders, and is on a given day, my favourite. It sometimes works like magic. It sometimes fails like magic. It is also a "school of theory" approach, you can see the lineage in many papers (I like to think, immodestly, as an offspring, not yet much of a progenitor). In the purest approach, it is a matter of writing down ab initio the equations governing a system, and abstracting the qualitative solutions, without necessarily solving the full dynamical or asymptotic state. In its crudest, it is an estimate of which scales matter, and converting derivatives to ratios (this sometimes works in astrophysics, drives some other physicists nuts, it is fun), and getting out a number, any number...
If you do it right, you may suddenly find a solution accurate to 15 significant figures. If you do it wrong, you may be off by a factor of million or more - (we'll ignore the cosmological constant here). In messy physics there is the lesson of the Reynolds number. Scaling isn't everything.

Enough for now, I'll rethink and regurgitate on this some other time.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Hydrogen Economy

Was reading the online version of a major Icelandic newspaper. One story was discussing problems with the hydrogen filling station in town.

So. Iceland has a deal with Daimler Benz (IIRC) to try to be a model for transition to a hydrogen transport economy. Starting with buses, Benz supplied, I believe, some subsidised hydrogen engine buses and someone ponied up for an experimental fueling station.

This makes sense for Iceland, its been a dream of many of the power engineers there at least since the 60s. Iceland is totally dependent on imported fossil fuel for transport, despite having an enormous electric surplus. A natural candidate to transit to hydrogen fuel, if the storage and generation is solved. Double leverage since buses are used, and land routes are compact; and a major consumer of fuel oil are ship engines, which should transition more easily. And unlike most other places, the primary energy source to crack H2O to get the hydrogen is not an issue.

But, that is not what struck me about the article; rather the fact that it was so matter of fact in describing operational difficulties and shutdowns and attributing (and quoting engineers) it to engineering shakedowns - a very rational, normal discussion of startup transient difficulties and engineering progress - no exposes, or dramatic emphasis on failure or crisis, and no fake "binarity", no obligation to find and quote some "anti-hydrogen" activist. (Its ok, Iceland has tabloids too, the media there are no saints). But it was still very reassuring to read a calm, informative technical news item in a regular newspaper.