Friday, June 24, 2005

iPod iChing - what would Sean ask?

Since Sean is on hiatus, I thought it appropriate to do a friday iPod iChing, got to keep the spirit alive.

Last time was a general consult, so this time, let us do a specific question: Will the question of Dark Energy be correctly resolved in the near future??

and the randomizer runs...

  • The Covering: Used to Be - Violent Femmes
  • The Crossing: Brothers in Arms - Dire Straits
  • The Crown: Boat Train = Pogues
  • The Root: Needle in a Haystack - Velvettes
  • The Past: (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais - Clash (live version)
  • The Future: The Great Gig in the Sky - Pink Floyd
  • The Questioner: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) - Pink Floyd
  • The House: Les sons et la parfums tournent dans l'air - Claudio Arrau
  • The Inside: Pride (in the Name of Love) - U2
  • The Outcome: Nessun Dorma - Pavarotti

Wow. I think I'm a convert... I take back all the bad things I said about the Tarot. Well, almost.
Man, no Icelandic songs at all in there... statistically there should be one or two. Bummer.

"Used to Be" - are the important events... Ouch. Somebody took the end of CDM cosmology pretty hard, eh?
"Brothers in Arms" - are obstacles - hm, so a small number of the scientific establishment punditry are blocking progress
"Boat Train" - is the best that can be achieved currently. So young cosmologists should go get totally blasted for now.
"Needle in a Haystack" is the Root - no shit. Way trendy too - "name that album"!
"White Man in Hammersmith Palais" is the Past - it will be a non US/Euro breakthrough?
"Great Gig in the Sky" - is the future. Dark Energy will be resolved by a space mission!
"Another Brick in the Wall" - I'm part of the establishment problem. Ouch.
"Les sons et la parfums" - other people feel we all come out sounding good and smelling of roses later?
"Pride" - live version too - so, I expect a "lone genius" breakthrough
"Nessun Dorma" - is the outcome!!! No one sleeps. "Look the stars shall tremble..." We win but Die. Hm, Big Rip back on?

In summary: the iPod has spoken - Dark Energy will be resolved in the near future!
It will be a lone genius or a small team, not a white US or European person, who will do it in an unexpected way over establishment skepticism, and will use the results of a space based mission, astronomical data. The Clash song suggests the person will have significant private funding - lets look at Packard and Sloan fellows methinks, but not someone concerned with becoming rich from their breakthrough. Duh.
But we will all come out looking good at the end of it, except that we all die eventually. Hm, who at SISSA is working on this?

I wonder when Stephon Alexander will get here. Seems like a smart guy...

Just to remind people, the key is here

Here is a brief history of iPod iChing on the blogs. Apparently started on LiveJournal blogs - but here on blogspot we make it scientific, dammit.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

make your own terrorists

A scientific paper on a major vulnerability to bioterrorism was withdrawn recently.
The media, very helpfully, then reported in detail what the paper was about, just in case any wannabe terrorists hadn't caught the draft paper when it came out.

This morning CNN briefly headlined an "experts predict WMD attack" pseudo-story, sometime in the next decade anyway.

So, why hasn't al Qaeda launched another attack on the US?

One possibility is that they can't. That seems unlikely, it doesn't take much, the US is still relatively porous and it wouldn't take much resources to launch high profile nuisance terrorist attacks.

One possibility is that they tried but the process was (inadvertently) interrupted. There are strong hints that a couple of attacks on the UK were interrupted; there was a news story sometime ago where an FBI agent said they thought a planned attack on US ports had been interrupted when conspirators were swept up and expelled. Insufficient evidence to actually charge anyone specific, more a overall sense of an anomaly directed at ports.

The other possibility is that aQ is patient, and is biding its time for an effective or spectacularattack. ie that they have assets in place and either still preparing, or are keeping quiet while waiting for a code word trigger.
The two latter possibilities are of course not mutually exclusive.

So, what would they do, and what could they do?

Well, aQ have stated their goal - protracted struggle with the US until the US is bankrupt and withdraws. Might as well take them at their word.
Embroiling US troops in Iraq helps the aQ there - it is a low cost operation for them, which is costing the US heavily.
More broadly, how would they damage the US economy in a long lasting manner? It is a very large, very robust economy. Even WMDs or co-ordinated infra-structure attacks would be little more than nuisances in the long run, for the US as a nation (as distinct from individual tragedies).

Well, a second war would do damage. Not clear that aQ has the leverage to trigger a second general war with the US. I'm sure they'll try a couple of places, and a couple of non-obvious places. But the US administration would have to be pretty stupid to get drawn into another provocation...

The only other leverage is to get the US to destroy itself - either by destroying US public confidence, triggering an economic depression through fear and prolonged consumer conservatism; or, the other way is to lever the US legal system to trigger long term economic damage - forcing repression, choking innovation, reducing mobility, increasing useless regulation and artificial high cost, and generally useless, security measures.
Such might be triggered by multiple high emotional impact terror attacks: schools, hospitals, sporting events, other soft targets.
There are very few infrastructure targets which are so unique and so hard to rapidly replace that there'd be actual lasting damage; might be able to think of a few, but such things really are surprisingly resilient and replacable, unless the associated psychological impact precludes action to fix the situation.
And it would be highly imprudent to openly say what the few might be, even if I'm wrong, as I most certainly would be.

Finally, there is the question of what aQ has? Do they have a handful of people? Tens? Hundreds? Larger numbers who'd mobilise on the street if asked (I don't think they have thousands of people in the US actually willing to committ felonies, but civil disobedience by many, co-ordinated with terrorism by few, is a potentially effective tactic).

What resources do they have? Tens of thousands of $? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Hundreds of millions?
What they can do is very sensitive to the asset level and whether the money can be channeled to the users.
I suspect the high end here. They have donors with real money, and there are too many ways in which a lot of money can be moved into place. Simplest way would be to buy up legitimate businesses, even as part of legal immigration requests. Use them as revenues streams and realisable assets, even as infrastructure. If I were aQ I'd buy a light truck franchise or two, and some general stores in friendly neighbourhoods. With medium workforces, slowly turned over; warehouses behind fences, steady traffic and on-site workshops and their own, familiar to all, transport.

Finally what tools? Certainly light firearms, up to AK47s and field improvised explosives and incinerants.
Do they have light infantry weapons inside the US? (Mortars, claymores, plastic explosives, machine guns? People trained to use them in place inside the US?)
Heavy weapons (armoured vehicles and artillery - very hard to arrange unless they completely infiltrated a national guard unit or some such, hard to hide)? Would be surprised if they had air - though buying a small cargo/charter carrier wouldn't be inconceivable. Easier to have some sea transport; again they'd need to own a smallish company with own assets engaged in long term legitimate trafficking. Tricky, but not impossible.

Special weapons? Most WMDs are overrated in impact - even nuclear weapons do just local damage if used singly.
Radiological weapons are more a nuisance, and chemical weapons are hard to deploy in significant quantities.
The possibilities that threaten are biological weapons, if done effectively, which is hard by all accounts. Economic biological weapons - eg hoof & mouth disease, are a bigger economic threat than many higher profile bioweapons targeted at people.

Main impact of special weapons is the psychological impact. The sense of vulnerability for the public. The Ickyness factor, and propensity of authorities to overreact or misreact. Which is the leverage they'd have on the US economy as a whole.

Finally, one wonders if aQ learned one of the primary IRA lessons - for terror, you maximise the threat by having a significant number of false alarms per real attack. Not too many, just enough to maximise uncertainty and fear.
Of course the terrorists will still most likely lose. In so far as a victory for either side can be defined in such circumstances.

Iran and Iraq - idle speculation

So, what is going on with Iran. Well, what do I know? I'm a physicist... but as a theorist, I am free to speculate.

First, what happened to the reform minded pro-western Iranians that every good Beltway pundit assured us were bursting to take control? (Modulo theories of vote fraud - some people just jump onto any such explanation at the slightest provocation, when it suits them). Well, they're there, and seem to be a respectable 10+/- % of the population.
It is of course possible that wealthy, university educated pro-western Iranians are selectively more likely to chat with Beltway pundits about Iranian politics, but I'm sure the pundits factor in such selection effects and do not go on national television relying just on cocktail party anecdotes.

So, what about the rest... well, as in the US, I expect the rural population is numerous, tends to be relatively religious, xenophobic and socially conservative. That would explain a lot.
The urban poor might tend progressive, but they're also likely to be reactively nationalist; so, if for example, there were a highly publicised attempt by an outsider to devalue or influence the election, they might react. But no one would be that stupid.

So, the best scenaro now is the status quo ante; with the worst scenario the rise of a reactionary hardline religious conservative to consolidate the theocracy and anti-american stance. Bummer, wonder what triggered that.

Iraq is not looking to good either. Be hard to get more US troops in, unless Operation Yellow Elephant (also here) succeeds beyond all hope. Europe is not going to send any significant people.
So, could go with some new nation with a large armed force - India... don't think so. Indonesia, nah, too busy.
China! That's it. ~ 500,000 People's Army ground troops (in blue berets of course). Can't be much of a downside to that scenario, no real vested interest for China in the Middle East, no potential internal conflict with muslim minorities, eh?

Spot of bother there.

I have to confess the "Downing Street Minutes" have somewhat surprised me. Way back when, I had wondered if, as appeared to be the case, the US was just trying to rationalise a pre-set, non-rational, decision to go to war.
I had concluded that this was not the case: that there must be classified humint with positive proof of serious WMD threat (eg why did W get a smallpox vaccination?), and the tipping point for me was that the Brits were going along...
But now it appears Blair was just deciding that they couldn't repeat the "Vietnam error" and that staying on the US good side was worth the quagmire. At least the UK cabinet knew that the intel claims were fixed and that there was no post-war planning, they went into it with eyes open.

Haven't surprised me as much as the relative lack of reaction to the Minutes in the US media.
This is a first hand, unrefuted, account describing the US policy making pre-war. And it directly contradicts claims made by the US administration then and since.
That's a matter for immediate resignation in honourable democracies.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

minor sub-fields

In my recent semi-rant about citations, I noted that one issue is that papers in small sub-fields are intrinsically incapable of racking up large number of citations (since not that many papers about that subject are published), unless the paper becomes interesting and relevant to a larger sub-field.
This incidentally is why high citation biology papers tend to have order of magnitude more citations than highly cited physics papers. For a physics paper to get 1000+ citations is extraordinary, whereas top biology papers get over 10,000 citations
(see eg ScienceWatch). In fact there are no physicists among the top 50 cited scientists, although this is in part due to biologists ability to write more than 1000 papers each...

So what? Why not squeeze out the small sub-fields? Clearly they don't matter to most people, and the few that do stuff relevant to the bigger community can be duly rewarded.
Well, no. Don't work that way. And in fact I'd argue this is a trap that the greater flexibility and responsiveness of the US science community is vulnerable to - the more stodgy, stay-the-course European style of science tends to let them ride out faddishness and sustain broader ranges of sub-fields.
Here is why that matters:

first - little fields can become big fields with very short notice; in physics, a trivial instance is the search for high temperature superconductors, or Bose-Einstein condensates; in astronomy, the most recent instance is the theory and observational search for extrasolar planets.
How does that work - well, consider for example the well known Goldreich & Tremaine 1980 ApJ v241 p425 paper on disk satellite interactions. A paper now recognised as predicting the essential physical mechanism of planet migration through coupling to the gaseous disks.
ADS shows 277 current citations (an undercount, but representative). 225 of those citations came in the 10 years since the discoveyr of the planet around 51 Peg in 1995 - only 52 citations came in the first 15 years the paper was published!

Similarly, the basic technique used by Mayor & Queloz 1995 (702 ADS citations) came from a sequence of work over 20+ years; including Marcy & Butler 1992 (78 ADS citations), Cochran & Hatzes 1991 (10 ADS citations), Campbell & Walker 1979 (51 ADS citations) and Griffin 1973 (61 ADS citations).
The point is that incremental advances in a relatively minor field over 20 years lead to a breakthrough which is now one of the largest observational and theoretical sub-fields in astronomy, and a major national objective of US policy.

Nor is this a special case - consider for example stellar populations in globular clusters. A major review by Meylan & Heggie from 1997 has a mere 145 ADS citations. A typical "good" paper in this field might rack up 20-30 citations, because there just aren't that many papers written.
But, van den Bergh, Bolte & Stetson 1990 has 272 ADS citations - a technical paper on relative ages of stellar populations.
Reason why, is that it became relevant to cosmology - it was one of papers that "bubbled out" to point out there was an independent estimate of the age of the universe, or at least a lower bound, and hence a constraint on the Hubble constant and deceleration parameter.
And it was papers like that, which showed stellar population ages were inconsistent with the simplest CDM cosmology (the "stars are older than the cosmos" paradox) which pushed the testing of the CDM models and laid the groundwork for the ready acceptance of Lambda-CDM when additional data indicating that as a favoured scenario became available.

Not by itself, but that is the point. You can't isolated those break-out papers and think only that work needs to be done, because that research in turns rests on a very broad prolonged endeavour advancing our understanding on all fronts, not just those fashionable in this funding cycle.

Monday, June 20, 2005

iPod iChing

Sean has a rather amusing iChing using your iPod friday feature - well, Tarot really, the one time I perused my mothers well worn '70s iChing book, to see how I'd do on exams, it told me "work hard and you will persevere", having determined that it actually works, I refrained from any more iChinging.

So, just for laughs, I ran my iPod randomizer:

  • The covering: Jóla Jólasveinn - Ragga Gísla
  • The crossing: London Calling - The Clash
  • The crown: Popplag í C-dúr G-dúr - Stuðmenn
  • The root: Ghetto Defendant - The Clash
  • The past: I Should Know - the Mavericks
  • The future: Against Th' Law - Billy Bragg and Wilco
  • The questioner: Levi Stubb's Tears - Billy Bragg
  • The house: Boat Train - the Pogues
  • The inside: March of the Priests - Mozart
  • The outcome: Between the Wars - Billy Bragg

Oh dear. see here for key
Next two were "Rapture" by Blondie and "Anarchy in the UK" by the Sex Pistols.

"Jóla Jólasveinn" is "Christmas Santa Claus" and "Popplag í C-dúr" is a joke song about pop groups who only know one chord (analogous to the "chord A" song, but poppier).

So, influences and obstacles are a myth of Santa and London Calling.
Crown is a parody of popular culture.
Root is Ghetto Defendant!
Past is I Should Know!
Don't know what to make of House - had to replay that one to remember it. (here for lyrics to that one)
Future and Questioner speak for themselves.
Inside and Outcome are just scary.

I don't want to play this game anymore...

Sunday, June 19, 2005


So, high turnout in the Iranian presidential elections, leading to a run-off between a conservative cleric and a not-so-conservative, slightly reform minded cleric. The candidate favouring modernization and reconciliation with US came fifth.

Analysts attribute this to a surge of anti-american sentiment and lessening of apathy after President Bush criticized the Iranian elections... way to go.

What were they thinking? Did anyone honestly think Bush speaking out at that point would encourage reform, or were they deliberately trying to make Iran more hardline? Or just not thinking...

see eg or here

Citation patterns

I've been meaning to make an idle comment on this for a while, ie this is unprompted by any particular event in my personal life, though Sean's blog on inter-disciplinary network citation patterns (physicists don't cite sociologists or some such) prompted further thought on this...

Anyway, most of you've had these moments - when someone buttonholes you at a meeting, or sends an e-mail nastygram, claiming you overlooked their important, if not critical, paper which was somehow vaguely related to you recent paper.
What I really hate about such is that it works: the easy thing to do is to look slightly embarrassed and add a cite, even if it has nothing to do with your work; the other thing I hate is when I find myself going "but they didn't cite me..."
An insidious issue is that the people who complain the most about others not citing them, and who drive up their own citation rates, are also generally the ones who don't cite others, sometimes quite deliberately. A strategy instantly familiar from classical iterated game theory.

So, why does this matter?

First, citations count. They are part of the "reputation index" of scientists, and they are objective, quantitative measures of something, so university administraitors have a tendency to obsess on them.
Citing properly is hard, even with modern tool like ADS and the citation index.
Large fields have papers with large citations - it is difficult to get 1000 cites, if only 20 papers are published in your sub-field each year! (It is possible, if your work becomes important to some other large field, like cosmology).
There are infamous, and impenetrable, "schools of citation" - research groups which meticilously cross-cite each others work and ruthlessly ignore work by competitors.
It is possible to miss, in good faith, whole groups of cites, even with ADS like tools, if the papers don't cross-cite. Way back when I did my thesis I was mortified to discover a series of Australian papers related to my thesis topic which I had been unaware of. The student who did them evidently left science, and no one cited them, so I didn't come across them until after the thesis was written. (I did cite them in later papers).

So, when should people cite? Other than the obvious classic papers and recent discoveries and the classic and recent reviews?
True citation classics are actually never cited - no one cites Einstein (1905) when using E=mc^2, or Newton (Principia CUP) when using F = GMm/r^2... If you read it, and it contributed to your work, you should cite it; if you can. Some journals have fairly ruthless citation count limits.
If you see a paper you think is flawed, and you decide to do the problem "correctly" should you cite the paper, even if you don't rely on the results or method? I'd say "yes", because it is the paper that got you thinking about the problem!

Is citation analysis overused? The heavy citation of great papers is in fact usually because they are great, or at least very useful (in astronomy, catalogs and methods papers tend to get very heavy citations, even though they are sometimes not particularly profound, and don't necessarily solve difficult problems). Papers that get no citations are mostly not cited because they are bad or irrelevant. The mean citation rate per paper in science tends to be less than 1 across disciplines...

Ah well, in the end, getting a cite, particularly for either a very new paper (especially one with a student first author), or a very old paper is still a thrill, particularly when it comes from someone "new". But the way citations are done is too easily gamed and the whole process is too flawed to be taken as seriously as it is sometimes.

Friday, June 17, 2005

NASA - new AA Science

NASAwatch says Mary Cleave is new Associate Administrator for Science.

Bio here.

She is former 2 mission astronaut; mission spec on a shuttle construction trial and Earth radar.
Background is Bio and Engineering. Hm. Published researcher in hydro/eco.

Done JSC, GSFC and HQ. Program Manager SeaWIFs, Deputy AA for Earth Science.

Be interesting to see how this affects things. I'd expect Earth Science fortunes to revive. Congress permitting.

Assistant is apparently Hartman, form Solar System Exploration. Hartman was the Pluto Program director in OSS for a while I believe. Hm.

All eyes on Universe division now.

Stross's new novel Accelerando available free online

Charlie Stross has released his new SF novel Accelerando as a free download on the web. This novel includes his excellent short story "Lobsters" and related stories; theme is near future tech and "singularity" themes. Looks good, possibly very good (I've only read bits).

Go grab it. Then buy it, and all his other stuff handing over bits of paper or plastic in exchange for quaint old archival paper version of his output. They make for good decor, nostalgia items and off-line backup, as well as more pleasant reading in bed, on the toilet, bath or plane.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

California shaking

I heard third hand, from a geologist friend of mine that todays earthquake - is the third medium quake in a row, within an interval of a few days, which occured directly on the main San Andreas fault.

May not mean anything, could even be relieving stress build-up (though I'd like to hear that from USGS or Caltech people), or it could be not so good - always waiting for the Big One...

I miss California.

Krugman tackles coingate

Krugman has an interesting op-ed on the Ohio "coingate" that Kos diarists have been pushing hard.

Something there smells. Hard to tell if it is individual venality or broader and more serious corruption.

Til Hamingju með daginn

Happy Independence Day! 17 Júní

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Change is bad -

All proposals to the federal government must use a new joing web based application system no later than 2007 or so, namely the rapidly-growing-in-infamy

I've been getting increasingly shrill in-house e-mails on the need to prepare for the transition, accompanied by dire whispered conversations with research admin personnel who have actually had hands on experience with it.

I guess NSF will transit this year, and why not, since they have a perfectly decent long running functional grant submission system in the FastLane...
NASA just put in place its somewhat clunky NSPIRES, but despite the unexpected extra bits of work and hidden mandatory sub-items to complete, that thing actually seems to be working - so it must be time to junk it and move on.

So I just took a look at and their PureEdge system, and may I say


What the f... were you morons thinking?!

First of all the instructions begin with "launch your Internet Explorer".
This piece of junk is a Micro$oft only supported system, with a slight nod to Netscape for the AOL hangouts.

Dammit, real scientists don't use IE!

Where is Firefox and Safari support?

Oh, wait here is a link to "Support for Mac" (what about Linux/Lintel boxes and good old Suns?) - ah, if you run a PC emulator for Windows XP they're pretty sure it will work, except for the following known problems...

I see now why our provisional solution is to have the PIs put the proposal together and then hand it over to the local admin for them to enter it in the system and then have us check it (apart from the need for Institutional "authorized" people to access this - something both FastLane and NSPIRES have solutions to).

Why are these idiocies inflicted upon us?

Monday, June 13, 2005

intelligent design - bad astronomy

Phil has it right - and we will win again.
Reality can not be denied.

Hm, Dover PA is not that far from Gettysburgh, and is probably still on the line of march to DC.
Wonder how long it will take for our side to gear up for this... the only way lose this one is if the fight is abandoned.

I fear this will get personal before it is over.

NASA - Griffin takes charge

NASAwatch has more details on the upcoming reassignments of senior NASA personnel.
Apparently 20 high level admins reassigned today, several have already made it known that they will retire (to private business by and large, or switch to other gov agencies). also has info.

Be interesting to see what emerges from this shake-up. Keeping my fingers crossed, there are people I would very much like to see stay on through this round of musical chairs.

Some come here for learning

Some come here for learning
and some for Basil Spence (who's he?)
and some come here for three years
at the government's expense (that's me!)
But of all the bloody good reasons
for coming to Sussex
It's not so much for the S-U-S
it's more for the S-E-X

tune: March of the Grenadiers - as I recall

This was an unofficial anthem at Sussex University, way back when I were a lad. Originally composed by some rugger bugger, as I was told; but was appropriated by the USTA Bar licensees as their anthem.
Additional verses below - the libelous and unprintable ones are skipped - those below were composed by Malc and Sgh, mostly (I seem to recall "bottoming" one of them, after Malc came up with the first 6 lines - while taking some semi-illegal short cut on the outside of a 2nd or 3rd story of one of the student houses, at about 3 am - good stuff).

Some they join the Union
to help the underdog
But all they get around to
is renaming the bogs.
To serve the average student
there's just one thing to be
Serve beer and wine
ring the bell, call TIME
as an USTA bar licensee

If you are a lefty
or a feminist
You'll have fun at Sussex
Fighting prejudice
But if you're like the rest of us
there's only one big issue
There's a lot to be said
for a nice warm bed
and a girl to share it with you

(substitute preferred one syllable word or slang for actual preferred bed partner in last line - makes for good "competitive singing").

This had to be done for posterity. May the google archives last long.

Friday, June 10, 2005

reasons to take astronomy - part 1

So, I finally got around to reading my student evaluations - quite decent, and the criticism was fair enough (although if you really want the homework returned graded promptly then I will not permit electronic submission of homework and be much tougher on due dates and extensions)

But, I digress. First time I taught an intro Astro course I got the usual mix of reviews (and, yeah, I was too tough, all first timers are, we don't truly comprehend the lack of mathematical background of non-science majors until we see it the hard way in person). One however stood out: the young man who took the class to, successfully, impress his reluctant girlfriend (you're welcome, she has my concerned sympathy, hope it all worked out); at the time I thought it was a truly unique one-off fluke.

I stand corrected. To the person who was thus motivated this year: you're welcome too; I remain dubious. Hope it all works out for both of you...

PS: I'm assuming "got laid" colloquially still means what it used to. Who knew.

NASA climate - A Modest Proposal

As noted before, NASA postponed 3 of 7 Carbon and Climate RFPs

Now consider in context:

climate change reports edited by administration lawyer from Petroleum Institute (also here)

Addendum: here is the original NYT story with sidebar graphic sample of what was changed and how - very handy

Bush on Climate Change this week

In terms of climate change, I've always said it's a serious long- term issue that needs to be dealt with. And my administration isn't waiting around to deal with the issue; we're acting.

I don't know if you're aware of this, but we lead the world when it comes to millions of dollars spent on research about climate change.

We want to know more about it. It's easier to solve a problem when you know a lot about it. And if you look at the statistics, you'll find the United States has taken the lead on this research.

Someone should get on this, it will make it more difficult for Bush to get the research he so wants to make an informed decision on Climate Change issues. Oh dear. And funding is soooo tight, what with lower tax revenue and spending caps.

So, here is a Modest Proposal:
the war in Iraq is funded as an "emergency" supplemental appropriation that is "off-budget", with a proviso to revisit at any time during a budget year, for supplemental funding to the supplement. Yet strangely that non-budget item notoriously includes large funding provisions for various non-emergency items too.

So, lets do something sensible. A CongressCritter with Clout, Conscience and Clear Vision should add a 1% surcharge to the war emergency budget (~ $800 million per year). With 25% to go on supplemental funding on Global Carbon and Climate Change, and the other 75% to go on alternative energy and energy saving research projects...

de Long perspective, with Fafblog pointer, such cynics


Another day, another NASA science Request for Proposal postponement:

The due dates for proposals to the Astrobiology Science and Technology for
Exploring Planets program described in Appendix B.17 have been
changed. The deadline for submitting or modifying a Notice of Intent (NOI)
has been extended to October 14, 2005. The due date for proposals is
changed from July 29,2005, to November 30, 2005.

The due date is postponed, because last years selection has not been made, so people who proposed before don't know whether to apply again or not.
ASTEP is the technology development line for instrumentation for Exploring Planets. Fairly big bucks.

Effectively this pushes ASTEP ahead by a year; ie somewhere over the years, as decisions and deadlines slip, a years funding
is lost. Which is effectively a cut.
I've been noticing this in several lines now, the intervals between RFP dates is more than a year each year, so over 4-6 years, there is only 3-5 years of funding. So 15-25% cuts, in effect.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

anachronisms, literature and lost opportunities

We own several of the Harry Potter books. In the UK editions, which have not had the spelling and language "corrected" for US consumers. We'll acquire the rest, for posterity and our immediate entertaintment, next time we're in the UK. Or if that ends up being in the too distant future.
The breaking point of this was of course the infamous "Philosopher's Stone" title transmutation to the "Sorceror's Stone".
One of the dumbest editorial decisions, ever.

So, I was reading Pocahontas (Disneyfied version with pictures) the other night. The Big Kid is in the "pink princess phase".
And there Pocahontas gazes upon the good ship Susan Constant, flying the Union Jack?!?

So, the good news is that The Big Kid now shouts, with glee, "Wrong Flag", everytime we turn that page (which will hopefully be a finite number of times).
The bad news, is What the F... were they thinking?

The story is explictly, and unavoidably set during the reign of King James. Almost a century before the Act of Union.
What could have been a history learning opportunity, for kids seeing an unfamiliar flag, is turned into an egregious error, propagating an historically wrong perspective at a very basic level, just when kids are actually open to learning about these things.
Yes, the Union Jack is more familiar and places the scene into a more immediate context; but it is the wrong context and it really, really grates each time I read the bloody book. And it is so unnecessary.

At least the stupid annoying little pug dog character is historically accurate in context.

I won't start on the characterization, that will have to come after I figure out how to express my disgust at the treatment of Sleeping Beauty and Little Mermaid, which invert the moral of the stories and are bordeline evil in their subversion of motives and appropriate behaviour.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

NASA: coming up ROSES - part 18

Another day: another ROSES amendment

"With this amendment to ROSES-2005, and for the reasons explained below, NASA postpones the call for proposals in the three Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry programmatic element topics associated with the Remote Sensing Science for Carbon and Climate program ...

In order to allow NASA and the research community to appropriately respond to this announcement, the solicitation of proposals in related areas of Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry will be postponed.

Proposals are no longer solicited in the following three programmatic element topics of Appendix A.7 of ROSES-2005:
- Global Ocean Carbon / Particle Abundance,
- Coastal Ocean Carbon, and
- Global Air-Sea CO2 Flux.

A new proposal due date for the postponed Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry programmatic element topics will be announced as a new program element in the ROSES-2006 NASA Research Announcement. ROSES-2006 will be released in late January 2006; proposals will be due no earlier than 90 days after the release.

The solicitation for proposals under the other four programmatic element topics listed in Appendix A.7 of ROSES-2005 remains unchanged.

No comment.

academic truths

Graduate study is the only true example of Lamarckian Evolution

As with all good oligarchies, academia operates on SPECTRE rules:
Succession through Assassination

more unsporting US thoughts

oh, and for the primary US team sports the rules are structured so that a drawn game is unlikely or impossible...
curious that

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Grauniad non-science

I love the Grauniad.

I have read either the main paper or the Weekly consistently (albeit sometimes with a hiatus requiring a major effort to catch up on it) for over 25 years.

But, their science reporting sucks. And I don't just say that because their article on my 2003 press release hinged on an interview with someone who hadn't read the paper and didn't know what it was about - at least they had tried to do some original reporting rather than just paste'n'cut the press release or AP story (well, ok, the bulk of the article is press paste'n'cut - but they did add some original content, which puts them in the top 3% of all news stories on the issue).

And now their science news blog sucks too.

Come on, if you're going to do it, then do it.

Apples and Intel

So, Apple is switching to Intel - and the x86 architecture at that (well, I guess their alpha derived 64 bit chips are not working out). I guess it will be the x86 64 bit lineage - this will probably help the laptops, which are gorgeous and can use the performance boost and power savings.

I am a little bit worried about the desktops though - the G5 is nice for scientific computing in ways that no other CPU other than the new (and effectively unobtainable) alpha EV7 is; I don't see the current Intel 64 bit chips being competitive, maybe the AMD chips but not Intel. Hopefully by 2007 they'll have made a functional competitive 64 bit chip, or scientific desktop buyers will have to transition yet again (and I don't see people going back to Sun).

why are US sports different

It is plain that the US does sports differently - the main team sports are ones that are essentially unique to the US (ok, basketball is spreading, but is only barely competitive outside US), baseball is only played in US, Canada and nations occupied by US; and US football is essentially unique (ok, it is a variation on Rugby but has diverged by now to be essentially a different species).
There are further differences: US sports tend to need a lot of equipment (even basketball requires a basket, which is not as simple to improvise as a soccer goal of some sort for a street game); the games are structured, with frequent breaks, player called time-outs and effectively unlimited substitution (TV has driven a lot of that, but the elements seem to have been there from the start, and, yes, you can show soccer games on advertisement supported television); there is essentially no international competition in any of these sports; but, the strangest thing is that the leagues are fixed - there is no promotion or demotion - you can have catastrophical sequential losing seasons and you still get your main revenue stream (shared TV revenue) with no penalty - in the rest of the world the team games are ranked leagues and any team can be demoted from the first rank leagues and if things go badly a championship team can slide to oblivion in only a few years of bad management and player disaffection.

Why does the US structure its team leagues so there is no movement in or out of the first rank leagues? Why no demotion playoffs or rotation of the worst premier teams with the best second rank leagues?
On odd days I suspect this is telling us a lot about the culture.

Or not.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

book crash!

Finally realised the source of the loud crashing noise yesterday.

Main free standing bookcase in the family room popped two shelves; apparently adding Chaitin's Randomness, Barrow's Infinite Book, a Jarred Diamond and a couple of Jane Smiley's to the front edge of the top shelf was too much, and we cascaded to the second top shelf, but fortunately no further. Looks like no actual damage, just stuff yielding. Gracefully.

I guess we better get the new built-ins into the (ex)garage soonish (August now, if all goes well).

Busy week - birthdays, playgroups, Child Education Association board picnic (interesting perspective as one of the many male spouses herding the kids and trying to match names to faces), and coming up the School Board meeting and School picnic.
I'm sure when I was 3 my social calendar was not that crowded.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

short GRBs - what happened

So, May 9th I arrive early in the office, and see there was a GRB just after midnight;
it was a classic short hard burst (~ 30-50 msecs), Swift caught it and caught an associated x-ray transient (9 - 11 photons over a period of few minutes, depending on how you count), and localised it to within about 10 arcseconds (that is a small area of the sky).
Nifty; early followups showed a bright elliptical at low redshift right next to the x-ray error circle, and faint blue dot that might have been an optical counterpart (but wasn't). Later imaging showed a lot of faint blue crap, the sort of high redshift star forming galaxies you'll see anywhere on the sky with deep enough imaging.

Interesting: I blogged it, just for fun - I was not working on GRBs but I had in the distant past, and some of my former collaborators were involved. I also e-mailed "heads up" notices to a few people, letting them know something interesting was up and what the summary was (ie "go read my blog").

Then I got calls/e-mails from reporters... ones I had talked to before about different astro news, and they basically wanted to know: was this interesting? why was it interesting? was I doing it? and who should they talk to?
So I told them - yes, because, no and these people (including specifically Swift's PAO).

Fun - oh, and I e-mailed people and warned them the press was going to be looking for them.

Then NASA called, they were trying to put together a hasty press conference, basically to sell the event and to some extent to manage the news - would I come in as the "outside, unaffiliated pundit"? I was going to be in DC anyway, and had read up on it, so sure why not.
This also had the effect of shutting me up - no more talking or commenting, not on public info; not on confidential info I then started receiving. Them's the rules, you get involved in formal events, you go under embargo.

Then the press conference was cancelled, the optical counterpart was not confirmed, which clouded the snap theorising of association with the low redshift galaxy (I still think that is the case, but the evidence is blurrier). And, the press was already on it, so why have a conference? Some NASA folks were miffed, they like to control these things, but there is a fundamental problem - all Swift data is immediately public. And the essential info goes out as "GCN telegrams" - emails really - and is on a public website and is generally explicitly citable!
And there are smart knowledgable science reporters out there, who know to scan the GCN/IAUC/MPEC telegrams and look at arXiv everyday (and the helpful blogs which now highlight exciting preprints).
So the oldstyle manages press conferences are in danger of being, shall we say, less prevalent for the really hot news.

Anyway, then the real surprise: for these 3-4 days I had no involvement with the actual science - I have no association with Swift, I am not part of any of the pre-arranged collaborations which followup on GRBs (I have been in the past but am not currently - it is a thankless task, and people with young children should not be on "drop everything no matter what the time and go to work").

But, my kibbitzing, in particular on stuff going back to Bloom etal 1999, had added up to "science" and all of a sudden one of the competing groups working on this had roped me in as a co-author. Tricky. Not the group with significant membership of colleagues from my own institution - in fact after I got back from DC I had to avoid them to avoid any perception of poaching their thoughts, or leaking our work.

Anyway, paper is out as preprint - see below - and it was presented at an AAS press conference at the Mineapolis summer meeting earlier this week.

Press release + material is below. The slides are pretty. Go look (or I'll inline them someday soonish).

UCB press release


Lesson from all of this: don't do science press releases the week Deep Throat's identity is released...

Friday, June 03, 2005

Privileged Planets and Abused Science

Curious editorial in the WaPo today: Privileged Planet

To summarize: the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) rented a hall to the Discovery Institute ("intelligent design" advocated) to premiere a movie "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe" - this is basically the "Rare Earth" hypothesis taken to the deistic extreme of "Unique Earth".

One can argue the Galactic Habitable Zone hypothesis (well, not, it is badly wrong) and it is possible "Earth" is rare, conceivably even unique within the Milky Way, but to jump from there to an argument from design is a fallacy of such breathtaking stupidity, that one almost admires the agility of the mental leap.

So, the NMNH got trapped in taking the money without checking the source; standard power play for wannabes there.
So what?

So, this is how our institutions are corrupted. Places like the Discovery Institute buy a little bit of respectability and not coincidentally a fair amount of publicity. Their arguments acquire a thin veneer of legitimacy and the Science side is ever so slightly tainted.

What I still do not understand, given how we got where we are, is how any sentient member of society can so ardently seek to destroy the essential science and progressivity which got us here. Do people really want to outright destroy modern civilization? Or do they honestly think they can persist in the manner to which they are accustomed without modern science and the people and infrastructure that holds it together? Anyone short of an "imminent apocalypse" believer ought to have the sense to leave well enough alone and leave matters of faith to the sphere of faith.

SF blahging

Norman Spinrad is an author whose books have not aged well: many of his best - Bug Jack Barron, Void Captain's Tale, Little Heroes, Iron Dream - now read as somewhat embarrassing 70s style bricks, written to shock and titillate, with the serious message (and it is there) mostly obscured.

One of his books though remains intriguing: "Russian Spring" - it is a near future story, with the US withdrawing behind military technology and xenophobism, flirting with fascism, while Russia resurges in alliance with a strong EU.

Book has all of Spinrad's strengths, and fewer of his weaknesses. I wouldn't say it is an entertaining read, too grim for that, but it is worth a read; or a re-read.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Brad deLong has a good summary of the whole Krugman-Okrent thing, in case anyone won't take my word on the summary:
"Okrent is full of shit"

Sean has a pointer to one of the most outrageous pieces of idiocy I have yet seen -

Dangeous Reading

at deLong, but originally at Wonkette (I link to her, but I clearly don't read her often enough, but, hey, that is what a "web" is for - pointing to what you'd otherwise miss).

You have got to be f'ing kidding me. "Origin of the Species" [sic] !? "On Liberty"?!

Which reminds me, I need to blahg about last months devolution developments in Dover, Pa.
After ROSES season ends. It will require actual thought.