Friday, September 15, 2006


Greg Easterbrook reviews Lee Smolin's book on what's wrong with String Theory.

The Upfront:
Lee Smolin is a brilliant theoretical physicist who has worked for many years in the bowels of string theory. His book and Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong are interesting and important, and the point they make is quite possibly correct.

I've read a lot on strings, worked through the math at about a graduate (but not professional) level, understand the main concepts, (at least from the period between the 1920's and the early 1990's) and have tried to form an intelligent, well reasoned opinion on it. I've kind of failed in this. There is a point in string theory past which it is simply black to me. If someone like Smolin, Hawking or Page sketches out a proof for me in some of the really abstract stuff, I might get a glimmer of how this fits in, but I'm incapable of doing this on my own from scratch.

The parts of string theory I understand make sense. I can easily show a unification of gravity and EM in a few as 5-dimensions (hint: Einstein and Kaluza did this in the '30s. It's not rocket science by today's standards). I have no clue if it's right, but I do understand that we're missing something fundamental in physics, much like we missed photon quantization in the 19th century.

The Gripe:
This review is awful.

C'mon who uses the "claptrap"? String theory may be off the rails, it may be overly complex, it might even be wrong, but it's not useless claptrap. It's a fairly useful theoretical framework for understanding the otherwise totally inexplicable.

Then there is this interesting paragraph:
And consider this. Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

There is so much wrong with this collection of words, so many confabulations of things which don't go together, so many little straw men standing in a wheat field, I don't even know where to begin. He's brought together religion, science, some math he clearly doesn't understand and (seemingly) a general grudge against science into a one entangled knot of ego-satisfying word-salad. How can an editor let this through?

Then there is a whole 'graph on the word "theory" and for the second time a comparison to Darwin and creationists:
Really, string theory isn't a theory at all. Creationists who oppose the teaching of Darwin have taken to deriding natural selection as "just a theory," and Darwin's defenders have rightly replied that in science, "theory" does not mean idle speculation. Rather, it is an honored term for an idea that has been elaborately analyzed, has not been falsified, and has made testable predictions that have later proven to be true. The ordering of scientific notions is: conjecture, hypothesis, theory. Pope John Paul II chose his words carefully when in 1996 he called evolution "more than a hypothesis." Yet the very sorts of elite-institution academics who snigger at creationists for revealing their ignorance of scientific terminology by calling evolution "just a theory" nonetheless uniformly say "string theory." Since what they're talking about is strictly a thought experiment (just try proving there are no other dimensions), from now on, "string conjecture," please.

String Theory is a theory. some of it's aspects are testable, but not yet tested. It's not that people don't want to test them, or are arguing that they shouldn't be tested. I freely grant that the whole of the theory is not testable or for that matter expressible as a simple set of axioms accessible to the general public). It's disingenuous for Easterbrook to suggest that they are unprovable.

Ugh. String theory can be criticized on a lot of points and may quite well be wrong, however Easterbrook doesn't use any of them instead settling for some gratuitous science bashing and equating science and religion.

His review is a piece of shit.



So, a concerned and intelligent friend of mine send me an article on the side effects of Aspartame, which include a host of fuzzy neurological symptoms, many of which I sometimes seem to display. I read the article, decided I didn't really know much about the chemical other than the fact that it pops up from time to time as having caused "health problems"

Turns out, the note she sent me was already listed as an Urban Legend.
Okay, not a promising start, but also not really evidence either way.
Turns out it's surprisingly hard to get a decent review of Aspartame that isn't sponsored by someone with a clear interest in it being safe/unsafe. Even the wiki entry is surprisingly unscientific claiming:

"Some point to the rapid breakdown of aspartame causing spikes of phenylalanine and aspartic acid which can upset chemical balances and cross the blood-brain barrier, as well as unnatural spikes in levels of methanol in places the body does not normally encounter it (like within metabolic processes), raising concerns as to its safe containment and elimination."

There are victim groups, lawsuit groups, consipracy groups etc. etc. Jesus Christ folks! It's not like the want to put floride in your water!

After digging through a couple of dozen sites, I finally found a decent one with some science in it.

Bottom line: You're at more risk from fruit juice than aspartame.

Ripped From the Headlines: Woman pleads guilty in fake penis case


MCKEESPORT, Pa. --A woman pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in connection with a bizarre incident in February that resulted in a fake penis being microwaved at a convenience store.

Leslye Creighton, 41, of Wilkinsburg, entered the plea Wednesday, and authorities dropped the same charge against Vincent Bostic, 31, of Pittsburgh, who has agreed to help pay $425 to replace the store's microwave, police and the couple's defense attorney said.
Police in McKeesport, about 10 miles east of Pittsburgh, said the Feb. 23 incident began when Bostic filled a fake penis with his urine that they said Creighton planned to use to pass a drug test to get a job.

The two stopped at a GetGo! convenience store and, after wrapping the device in a paper towel, asked a store clerk to heat it up in a microwave, police said. Authorities said they believe Creighton wanted the device heated so the urine inside would be at body temperature during the drug test.

The clerk, however, believing the lifelike device to be a severed penis, called police.

Defense attorney William Difenderfer said Creighton faces a maximum punishment of $300 and 90 days in jail when she is sentenced Nov. 15 by McKeesport District Judge Doug Reed. Difenderfer called it "a humorous, but weird, case."

Embarassing Disclaimer: I went to high school not far from there.

Hail Eris!

The new name for the dwarf planet 2003 UB313 brought a smile to my Discordian face.

Government Information for You!!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Things We Want to Become True

An interesting debate between Mitchell Kapor and Ray Kurzweil on whether or not the statement "By 2029 no computer - or "machine intelligence" - will have passed the Turing Test. " is true. Obviously I am on Kapor's side, althought I admit a) I'd like to lose and b) it's at least theoretically possible I will.

What I think is interesting is their styles of arguement. Ray is arguing like a SciFi fan, glossing over the hard truths to get to the visionary statement, then turning around and saying that, becuase the vision is so compelling, it *must* be true. Kapor is arguing more about the science involved, and one statement in particular has been key in my own arguments:

Additionally, part of the burden of proof for supporters of intelligent machines is to develop an adequate account of how a computer would acquire the knowledge it would be required to have to pass the test. Ray Kurzweil's approach relies on an automated process of knowledge acquisition via input of scanned books and other printed matter. However, I assert that the fundamental mode of learning of human beings is experiential. Book learning is a layer on top of that. Most knowledge, especially that having to do with physical, perceptual, and emotional experience is not explicit, never written down. It is tacit. We cannot say all we know in words or how we know it. But if human knowledge, especially knowledge about human experience, is largely tacit, i.e., never directly and explicitly expressed, it will not be found in books, and the Kurzweil approach to knowledge acquisition will fail.

In one of his books, Charlies Stross has the ship AI of a starship crossing space reach a critical point and transcend. It figures out enough physics to build an instantaneous network and cuts it's journey short. This has always struck me as the fundemental problem with how AI is protrayed and seems to be the strength of Ray's arguement. It will just happen. OTOH, those of us who have done scientific research know it's a messy business. Lots of mistakes, lots of errors and, most importantly, lots and lots of experiments. This is what Kapor is arguing, and it seems far more grounded in reality.

Will we have computers as fast or faster than the human brain by 2029? Possibly. Will they have human intellect? Well, it takes a human brain, interacting with the world many years to get to concrete operational thinking (indeed, many never do. There is much less difference between your brain and a person with an IQ of 50 than there is between your brain and chimps). It seems very unlikely that we'll have the ablity to do the soft skills, the reasoning by that point.

Much as I want it to be true, I have to put my money with Kapor.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Also, in Theme with Creating a Lighter Mood

Here's an interestign link to an article on Breast Physics.

One of my cohorts in grad school at UMass, James Case, left the astronomy department, went over to physics and did a successful Ph.D. thesis on the physics of high energy radiative transfer in human female breasts.

Who knew how ahead of the game he was at the time??

True That

This is completely true.

9/11 Rememberance

Frankly, I'm disgusted. Rather than a day of sober reflection, rememberance and thought, 9/11 has become a campaign event/holiday.
This note, posted on The Big Picture, a Capital Markets blog I read, summerizes it best for me.

I've been assembling this weekend's linkfest -- and I started to feel a little quesy. I couldn't figure out what it was, and then it dawned on me: 9/11 overdose.
We are in for a total excess of "celebrations" -- is that the right word? -- of the 5th anniversary of 9/11.
That would be Wood, for you married couples. Instead of wood, we get tasteless Mini-series, crass comedic novels, fictionlized dramatizations, front page columns, magazine stories galore: The U.S. media, following the ugly lead of politicians, is about to engage in a full on festival of September 11th commericalization.
Its already cloying; 9/11 is now at risk for becoming another holiday, like Halloween or Columbus day. Macy*s will have a white sale, halftime at football games will do a video montage (aftr the 9/11tailgate party in the parking lot), speeches will be given, barbecues consumed. Take what has been already been done to Christmas: Sterilize, mass produce, fictionalize, and repackage it into one giant opportunistic shopping orgy.
Thanks, but no thanks.
I don't want to see any of these things -- don't want to buy the book, see the mini-series, read the column. Shit, I don't even want write about it. I already told my own
personal recollection from a day of horror. That's more than enough.
What asshole thought up making a
commerative 9/11 coin? -- and would they please choke on their own vomit in their sleep? (Thanks). A fictionlized version of events? Fictionlized? Are you shitting me? Can't we have a more dignified way to honor our dead?
The greatest tragedy of the post-9/11 period has been the failure of our nation's leaders to bring the country nation together. There was an enormous opportunity to take advantage of the crisis to unify the population and work together. That moment was lost. When the history of this period gets written 50 years from now, and blame gets apportioned for that, it will be none too flattering the collection of buffooons and incompetents (of both parties).

Sunday, September 10, 2006


I made a video this morning for my SG. This is about 4 mins edited down from 25. The group attacked a giant cephalopod that was attacking part of the city.
I'm holding the camera, so I am not in the shots.

This was modestly complicated to produce, although having done this once, I see how it works.