Sunday, October 21, 2007

Are Things Improving?

Even with civilization at stake, there's got to be some time set aside for... civilization. So here are some things that ours has been up to, lately.


A fascinating tidbit from Benny Peiser's newsletter: Democracy, GDP, and Natural Disasters: The average annual percentage of the global population killed by natural disasters decreased 10-fold from the period 1964 to 1968 compared with the period 2000 through 2004, from 0.01 percent (roughly one killed for every 10,000 people) to 0.001 percent (one in 100,000) respectively. At the same time, the average annual number of recorded disasters increased five-fold between 1964 through 1968 (64 per year) and 2000 through 2004 (332 per year). The events that continue to result in the major number of fatalities are the relatively small percentage of events that occur with large recurrence intervals, such as massive floods, strong earthquakes and direct strikes from intense hurricanes, or events that are unusual in the area in which they occur.

Clearly, the impact of a natural disaster is not simply a function of the natural event itself, but is determined also by society's ability to respond to the disaster. Over the same time period that we observe a decreasing number of disaster deaths, two great global socioeconomic trends of the last half century have also occurred: democratization and economic development. To evaluate the role that democracy and economic development play in reducing the humanitarian impact of natural disasters, we measured 133 countries' natural disaster death tolls against both their average democracy ranking and their average per capita GDP. We excluded only those nations with a population of fewer than 1 million people, or which have experienced five or fewer disasters between 1964 and 2004.

The Role of Democracy: More than 80 percent of the total global disaster deaths from 1964 to 2004 occurred in just 15 countries, including China, Ethiopia, Sudan, Indonesia and Bangladesh, among others. Of these fifteen nations, 73 percent are below the median global GDP and 87 percent are below the median democracy index. The democracy index is the average of the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicator values for voice and accountability, political stability, absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption.

The exceptions to the trend that high GDP correlates with a low death toll after a natural disaster are Iran and Venezuela, both oil-rich countries with significant wealth but low democracy indices. Because the two outliers have high GDP and relatively high death tolls, they suggest that democracy, rather than GDP, may play the more pivotal role in reducing deaths from natural disasters. The strong exponential correlation between democracy and GDP, however, makes it difficult to differentiate the two.


NonZeroRobert Wright gives a terrific talk: Progress is not a Zero-Sum Game: How cooperation (eventually) trumps conflict Alas, though we agree on very much, I think Rob underplays the role that old-style human nature plays, in thwarting the new synergies of enlightenment positive sum games. Wright discusses this further in his book: NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

In case you missed this... (how could you?) Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

Parallel universes really do exist, according to a mathematical discovery by Oxford scientists described by one expert as "one of the most important developments in the history of science".The parallel universe theory, first proposed in 1950 by the US physicist Hugh Everett, helps explain mysteries of quantum mechanics that have baffled scientists for decades, it is claimed. In Everett's "many worlds" universe, every time a new physical possibility is explored, the universe splits. Given a number of possible alternative outcomes, each one is played out - in its own universe.

According to quantum mechanics, unobserved particles are described by "wave functions" representing a set of multiple "probable" states. When an observer makes a measurement, the particle then settles down into one of these multiple options. The Oxford team, led by Dr David Deutsch, showed mathematically that the bush-like branching structure created by the universe splitting into parallel versions of itself can explain the probabilistic nature of quantum outcomes.

”Can explain” That is a far cry from “proves”. It seems that even in science reporting, polemical zing trumps accuracy.

What caused the extinction of mammoths and the decline of Stone Age people about 13,000 years ago remains hotly debated. Overhunting by Paleoindians, climate change and disease lead the list of probable causes. Now a group reports evidence that a comet or low-density object exploded in the upper atmosphere and triggered a devastating swath of destruction that wiped out most of the large animals, their habitat and most humans of that period, ending the Clovis culture. If so, this certainly lets proto Amerindians off the hook... though the timing seems strangely auspicious.

What I find more interesting, even still, is that this is about the time that many changes occurred in the Middle East, like the surge of agricultural villages and use of copper tools and advanced pottery

DUAL REALITY is the concept of maintaining two worlds, one virtual and one real, that reflect, influence, and merge into each other by means of deeply embedded sensor/actuator networks. Both the real and virtual components of a dual reality are complete unto themselves, but are enriched by their mutual interaction. See this site for a tour of the MIT Dual Reality lab and for slides for a talk given at the MIT Media Lab's Spring 2007 Things That Think consortium

Experts say they are "stunned" by the loss of ice, with an area almost twice as big as the UK disappearing in the last week alone. So much ice has melted this summer that the Northwest passage across the top of Canada is fully navigable, and observers say the Northeast passage along Russia's Arctic coast could open later this month. If the increased rate of melting continues, the summertime Arctic could be totally free of ice by 2030.

When Salmonella typhimurium food bugs were flown in special flasks on the shuttle, they were found to alter the way they expressed 167 genes. The bacteria were almost three times as likely to kill infected mice compared with standard samples held on Earth. The study has important implications for astronauts going to the Moon or Mars.

”We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” - George Bernard Shaw


The collated and collected version of “Ostrich Hunting” is now posted online at:

Ostrich Hunting: The Bill Clinton Gambit Part 1

Ostrich Hunting: The Bill Clinton Gambit Part 2

This is a preliminary version that - per Stefan’s advice - I may show to the guys at Salon. It still needs your help! (See below in comments where I may announce further changes.)

* There are lots of points and facts that could use links to back them up. Yes, many are “common knowledge” but attribution always helps.

* More items? Places where it’s too repetitious, even for me?

Thanks and onward.


Anonymous said...

Parallel Universes ...

I wish I hadn't gone broke in college and had finished my degree (and then had the resources to go on to a PhD). I lack the knowledge to even tell if my thoughts make sense. But now and then through the years I read a bit and have at least vague ideas of what's being discussed, and play with them in my head a bit.

For what it's worth I suspect the parallel universe is "real" or more precisely that the phase space is the "real" space. We only "see" those aspects of it with which we are quantum entangled (from the beginning of time forward) and the rest/other "realities" are occluded by that lack of entanglement. This becomes a tautology when pushed too far, but I suspect the conservation rules we observe are simply results of the nature of entanglement.

Pushing this picture a bit under the heavy influence of Jack Daniels and Terry Pratchett I suspect that the "past" is no more fixed than the future ... that the past continually re-reifies as entangled superposition states coalesce. The problem is finding the rule which will define when/which/if latter time states will override the earlier. (Of course we never "see" an altered past because at any moment the "real" past is what we remember because of the now re-arranged particles which make us up). This would have consequences though which could be tested in the real world: the frequency of re(2)ification is higher where matter interacts more often, and in my more possibly insane moments I wonder if this is part of the "cause" of gravity.

Oh well, it's fun, but I'll never have the math to even tell if what I'm saying can map to anything intelligible, far, far, far less prove anything.

But it's fun to think about.

-- TWZ

David Brin said...

Yes, way fun. Especially the Jack Daniels part. ;-)

The Sci Fi author who explores the quantum mysteries better than most is Greg Egan. ALmost any of his books will blow your mind.

sociotard said...

Hey Dr. Brin! Have you been following the "Storm Worm"?

I was intrested by this bit of malware. It uses a portion of the targets computer power, and networks with many many other infected computers to become a sort of supercomputer. One column described it like this:

* This doesn't seem to have received much attention, but the world's most powerful supercomputer entered operation recently. Comprising between 1 and 10 million CPUs (depending on whose estimates you believe), the Storm botnet easily outperforms the currently top-ranked system, BlueGene/L, with a mere 128K CPU cores. Using the figures from Valve's online survey, , for which the typical machine has a 2.3 - 3.3 GHz single core CPU with about 1GB of RAM, the Storm cluster has the equivalent of 1-10M (approximately) 2.8 GHz P4s with 1-10 petabytes of RAM (BlueGene/L has a paltry 32 terabytes). In fact this composite system has better hardware resources than what's listed at for the entire world's top 10 supercomputers:

BlueGene/L: 128K CPUs, 32TB
Jaguar: 22K CPUs, 46TB
Red Storm: 26K CPUs, 40TB
BGW: 40K CPUs, 10TB
New York Blue: 37K CPUs, 18TB
ASC Purple: 12K CPUs, 49TB
eServer Blue Gene: ?
Abe: 10K CPUs, 10TB
MareNostrum: 10K CPUs, 20GB

This may be the first time that a top 10 supercomputer has been controlled not by a government or megacorporation but by criminals. The question remains, now that they have the world's most powerful supercomputer system at their disposal, what are they going to do with it? And I wonder what the LINPACK rating for Storm is?

Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

Unknown said...

Mere CPUs doth not a supercomputer make!

The missing half is the interconnect, which is probably at least three orders of magnitude less than the Top10's and extremely unreliable.

So it would probably be the fastest (in flops) for things like {SETI, folding, FightAIDS, ...}@home where little interconnect is required, but probably not on the typical supercomputer applications.

(I wonder if anyone has implemented LAPACK on a slow, distributed network.)

Another issue is the logistics of using this supercomputer.

With all the X@home projects, it would be a simple matter of locating the controlling server and arresting it's owners.

So if it were put to any use, it would have to be something completely decentralized (e.g. SkyNet).

I'll get right on that.

Anonymous said...


sociotard said...

It is decentralised.

(from the wikipedia entry, for however much you trust wikipedia)
[i]The compromised machine becomes merged into a botnet. While most botnets are controlled through a central server, which if found can be taken down to destroy the botnet, the Storm Worm seeds a botnet that acts in a similar way to a peer-to-peer network, with no centralized control. Each compromised machine connects to a list of a subset of the entire botnet - around 30 to 35 other compromised machines, which act as hosts. While each of the infected hosts share lists of other infected hosts, no one machine has a full list of the entire botnet - each only has a subset, making it difficult to gauge the true extent of the zombie network. On 7 September 2007, estimates of the size of the Storm botnet ranged from 1 to 250,000 computers.[/i]

Unknown said...

Yes, I meant to say any application we wish to run on the bot net would have to be decentralized, unlike the @home projects or huge CFD simulations, which require a central coordinator.

David Brin said...

These fires have hit almost exactly on the anniversary of the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Watching closely. All schools canceled. Avoiding falling ash. Horrible air quality. But wind directions seem to favor us right here. A very bad santa ana is being opposed by a slow but strong offshore counterpush, right over us. So I give us good odds. But what drama!

Forced to prepare, though. We've taken the younger two kids, plus pets, to grandma. Small but real chance of total evacuation. Taking down Jim Burns paintings & Hugos and kid mementos and photos... what a lot of stuff you notice when you have to...
Will let y’all know more tonight.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you've had time to prepare. I hope the winds hold up!

* * *

There was an interesting discussion, on the Making Light blog, about putting together "Jump Bags:"

Simply, a piece of luggage you can grab if something forces you out of your house. Besides clothes, it should have a printed out sheet of contact information, and a CD full of your vital docs, including your last year's tax return.

For older folks, it would have things like a week of any meds you're on, and copies of prescriptions.

David Brin said...

I've told y'all about CERT
which is the pale shadow of civil defense in this country (The lack of something better is more than enough reason to point a finger at some leaders and snarl treason.)

As the only CERT for several square miles, I could not possibly canvas the area but I've just stepped in from ringing as many doorbells as I can, in my green vest and hardhat, checking on folks. Amazing how many aren't obstinately staying.

...though in fact, I would give 5:1 odds this area will be just fine. Anyway, I got a lot more than just a Jump Bag!

Ah well, a taste of what we all may face, unless civilization starts becoming assertive, once again. Thrive all.

Tony Fisk said...

Even a few hundred kilometers away from the fires of 2003 and 2006, the air in Melbourne could be cut with a knife.

Amazing how many aren't obstinately staying.

Go or stay? Emergency services seem divided on this point. The evidence (in Oz) appears to be that your property has a better chance of survival if someone hangs around to tackle the spot fires and embers.

You need to have made your decision, and be prepared for it, though!

At least it sounds like they give you the choice. I was wondering about that, in light of essays on professionals v amateurs.

Take care. (as if you need telling this!)

Anonymous said...

Take care with the fires, Dr. Brin. I was playing the Stop Disasters game the other day, and doing the fire one in Australia. IT was pretty hard, even with making sure everyone knew what to do and upgrading housing. California's been dry for years, I wonder if/when they'll implement more burn-resistant building codes, if they haven't already.

Tony Fisk said...

No doubt, the last thing you want at the moment is the smoky flame of the political lamp, but this little snippet has a number of angles:

Another officer stands up:
Cheney, Howard 'deal' freed Hicks
(NB: the Harper's article referred to isn't up yet)

To have Hicks standing trial just prior to an election would have been a great embarrassment to Howard. Instead, he was offered a plea bargain, a year's internment in an Australian prison, and a large gag.

(Oddly enough, I was thinking about the Hicks case just a day or so ago. So much for 'out of sight, out of mind'!)

That a deal was cut comes as no real surprise. That Cheney, himself, set it up highlights the degree of political favoritism involved.

Tony Fisk said...

Oops! An interesting thought, but it was Hicks who was offered the plea bargain, not Howard!

Woozle said...

Re fires: this summer, Sandy & I visited the house of her great-cousin Inge, this little 80-something-year-old woman living by herself in the hills just off Hollywood Ave., and who told us stories of standing up on the roof with a garden hose whenever the fires happen. Apparently she has saved her house several times this way, and was never in real danger (as long as the water stays on... though she does also have a swimming pool, but I don't know if she would have any way of spraying that water into a fire).

Re alternate universe interpretation of quantum theory -- The interesting thought which occurred to me is this:

If an object in an uncollapsed "quantum state" is actually the same object in different universes, and what happens when we observe it and "collapse" it into a non-quantum state is that we are actually being forced into one particular universe (I almost said "choose which universe we're in", but obviously it's not something we can control as of yet)...

...then the fact that we can make use of "quantum bits" (qubits), i.e. single bits with multiple superposed states, to do actual computational work implies that we are actually making use of "parallel universe computing" -- the object containing the same non-quantum bit is doing slight variations on the same calculation in a vast array of multiple universes, and we get the benefit of the universe where the useful answer happens to pop up.

To be more specific... my understanding of quantum computing, which may be in error, is that you give it problems of the sort where zillions of permutations of something need to be tried, and you want the one that works best. If this is the case, then quantum computing essentially runs each scenario in a different universe, and then returns the parameters used in the universe which happened to come up with the best answer.

Which further implies that there can be at least some communication between universes, right up to the point where the universes observably diverge.

And a further, more blue-sky thought: since the quantum algorithm is effectively "choosing" which universe-stream we go into, might there be some way to make use of this to gain further control over quantum-based random events ("choosing universes" by writing algorithms which only "collapse" to universes with a (to-us-)favorable outcome? this probably violates the rules somehow, but it's interesting to think about).

Anonymous said...

Interview with James Forbes about high-tech "Fire Blogging"

Unknown said...

Here's a "damn interesting" story about the experiment that established realistic group conflict theory.

22 fifth-grade boys with near identical demographics were selected to attend summer camp in two separate groups. At first the groups bonded and hierarchies within each group were established. Then the experimenters brought the groups together in conflict and later forced cooperation and witnessed the surprising results.

Conclusion: We need to be invaded by incompetent aliens. Pronto.

Anonymous said...

Red Cross donation link for Southern California Wildfire mess:

Unknown said...

(For some reason my logon is now working. Go figure...)

Great article about the future of synthetic biology by the always-fascinating Jaron Lanier:

And the estimable John Baez has another "What's New" up, this time explaining the famous Red Rectangle and inevstigating where dust in the early universe came from (among other things):

And if you're not depressed enough about politics, a recent study suggests that election winners are mostly determined by looks. Even a split-second glance at a candidate, the Princeton study shows, suffices to predict the winner 70% of the time:

Ah, yes, homo sapiens. Smart primates, foolish choices...

Woozle said...

"Even a split-second glance at a candidate, the Princeton study shows, suffices to predict the winner 70% of the time"

Does this mean we allow looks to override our rational judgment, or does it mean that you can actually tell quite a lot about someone by looking at their face? Has anyone done a study on that question?

Unknown said...

A pseron with good looks and charisma is always a good person, while evil people are invariably ugly. Just look at the glamorous Alkibiades as compared to the pig-faced Socrates...

Woozle said...

The study did not address the question of how aesthetically pleasing the participants found each face, but rather how "competent" they judged each face to be. I could suggest some mechanisms whereby this judgment might have a good correlation with reality.

I would like to see a follow-up study correlating the results of this study with the performance in-office of the winning candidates. Only if that study shows no (or negative) correlation can we declare the fallaciousness of {snap judgments of competence based on facial appearance alone}; until then, it's just an assumption. (...unless there have been other studies along these lines which have already demonstrated said fallaciousness.)

Blake Stacey said...

Popular reporting on quantum physics is horribly broken. From that "parallel universes" story, one can't tell what new has been done (Everett's many-worlds interpretation is, honestly, old hat).

The kerfluffle over string theory is, perhaps, dying down. Smolin and Woit shot their bolt, misrepresented the state and history of research, and now have nothing new to say. Today, therefore, we just have the humdrum variety of incompetence to witness.

Not too long ago, New Scientist published a letter from a reader giving a thoroughly wrong explanation of quantum entanglement with a note from the editor saying, "That's exactly right." Asking an actual physicist about physics questions is apparently not in the job description for the Letters editor.

This is just the most recent example of a trend which has basically ruined physicists' respect for popular science magazines. The only exceptions are, to my knowledge, American Scientist and possibly Seed.

Anyway, enough of this depressing stuff. Did you hear about the Australian printer company which plagiarized a quantum-physics lecture for a TV commercial?

Blake Stacey said...

OK, in the sputtering-political-lamp department, the White House cut 10 pages from a 14 page document on the health impacts of climate change. So much for the Administration catching up with the science. (Roundup of relevant links here.)

David Brin said...

Everybody's home now. Soot everywhere and the air isn't great. But the fires veered a mile or two awayas an ocean breeze fought back against the sub-hurricane level Santa Ana winds. Bless the Pacific Ocean.

As for associating good with pretty and evil with ugly, it's hardly new. I can't even blame it on Tolkien and Lucas... though certainly they were among the top practitioners of this venerable romantic cheat.

Tony Fisk said...

(Shades of the Western winds beating back the mirk from Mordor)

Glad to hear you're all OK, but I'm afraid the smell is going to linger for a week or two.

To be fair to Tolkien, there is a passage in Fellowship when the hobbits are belatedly reading Gandalf's misplaced warning note: 'All that is gold does not glitter'

Sam: 'I think that servants of the dark lord would look fair and feel foul...'

Strider: '...whereas I look foul and feel fair, Sam?'

Aah! Glamour! Check out Pratchett's 'Lords and Ladies' (for the Morris dancing, if nothing else!)

David Brin said...

Good point. Tolkien did try. He was about as honest a romantic as I am... tho he still sided with past over future.

Anonymous said...

And for those fanatic enough to have read "The Silmarillion," we learn that Sauron and Morgorth had a "fair appearance" early on, useful for fooling people.

But, yes, it seemed to be Tolkein's intent to induce an heart-breaking longing for a lost age. The farther you get from those damn elves, the more corrupt and sad things are. Bleh!

Tony Fisk said...

Some of the elves in the Silmarillion left a little to be desired , as well. (Feanor, in particular, plus some dodgy cove whose name I forget who abducted elf maidens)

Actually, since you've got me thinking this way, I've come to the conclusion that Tolkien's biggest 'romantic cheat' was applied, not to the backdrop of 'have not' orcs, but poor, old 'thou art fallen from grace and don't you forget it' Smeagol.

Here we have one humble (and admittedly dodgy) hobbit who gets ensnared by the most potent artefact in Middle Earth. After centuries of possession, he's fumbling for some understanding but, one quick rebuff, and 'the moment passed, never to return'. It is felt he has a part to play in this saga, and what is it? To grab the ring off Frodo, do a victory dance on the edge of an abyss... and TRIP??

(Ah, but did he fall, or was he pushed by a zephyr set off by a strategic flap of the wing of that bloody Bogong/Valar moth?)

A third option would have given the poor sod some credit at least: unable to part with the ring, and realising that he wasn't going to have it for much longer, he jumped.

Oh, well. It's still a rollicking good yarn.

Unknown said...

Glad to hear Dr. Brin dodged the bullet -- this time. There will be a next time if you're foolish enough to stay in LoCal. The entire American Southwest is going to have to depopulate. It's unsustainable in the face of Peak Oil and global warming. But, like ostriches with their heads in the sand, Californians keep denying, denying, denying.

They're all like Jews who continue to stay in Germany after 1933. They keep saying, "Oh, the problems aren't that bad" and "Yes, there are some things to worry about, but they'll never happen to me." Yeah. Right.
That drought won't happen to them. The 70% reduction in Sierra snowpack won't happen to them. The water riots won't happen
to them. The $20 a gallon gasoline prices won't happen to them.
Dream on, Californians.

Woozle cannot possibly be serious in claiming that we need a scientific "study" to determine whether a person who looks competent is in fact competent. C'mon! Look at any TV show, watch any movie. You see actors who play superbly competent-looking judges and lawyers and scientists and engineers. William Shatner plays a magnificently competent-seeming lawyer on The Practice -- would you like the actor William Shatner to represent you if you were arraigned on murder charges, Woozle?

Let's have a little common sense, people. Some facts are so blatantly obvious you're not going to find them documented in peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. For example, show me a journal article showing that humans require food to eat. Can't find it? Whoops -- looks like humans don't need to eat, eh?

Please. This complete lack of common sense is one of the abiding stains of the internet. Be serious.

Appearances are deceptive, as we know from the theater and TV and the movies. We don't need a scientific study to realize a fact that blazingly obvious.

As far as population trends & social movements go, I have to wonder if the current ultramacho flame-out of the death cult formerly known as the Republican Party might not be the last hurrah of patriarchy. At least, if these societal trends continue:

Blake Stacey is correct in pointing out that "popular reporting on quantum phsyics is horribly broken." It's worse than that, though -- popular reporting on any kind of serious science is horribly broken, as the recent bizarrely overblown frenzy over James Watson's (probably incorrect) surmise about alleged evolutionary differences twixt races shows.,,2195980,00.html
Reporters always look for the most sensational possible spin on any science story, so every new run of a particle accelerator is misreported as "a test of string theory" even though string has not yet produced a single testable falsifiable prediction in any peer-reviewed HEP journal.

Every new discovery about the human genome gets misreported as "a breakthrough in the stride toward rewriting the stuff of human heredity" even though we're so far from that we'll be lucky if it's only a few centuries before we're able to meaningfully modify the human genome to affect any kind of higher polygenic traits, such as shyness, or an alleged "gay" gene, or intelligence.

Blake Stacey's claim that "The kerfluffle over string theory is, perhaps, dying down. Smolin and Woit shot their bolt, misrepresented the state and history of research, and now have nothing new to say" is provably false, of course.

Woit continues to ask for a single falsifiable scientifically testable prediction from string "theory" and the numerologists who misname themselves string "theorists" continue to refuse to provide any.

As Woit notes, in the latest issue of Scientific American, in the article "The Great Cosmic Roller Coaster,"

the authors note that “String theory has received some unfavorable press of late”, and characterize criticism of the theory as due to the fact that it “has yet to be tested experimentally”, ignoring the fact that much of the criticism is about string theory’s inherent untestability. Not only has it not been tested yet, but no one has any idea how to test it ever. They admit as much when it comes to predictions about particle physics:

string theory has disappointed because it has not yet been possible to test it experimentally, despite more than 20 years of continued investigation. It has proved hard to find a smoking gun - a prediction that, when tested, would decisively tell us whether or not the world is made of strings. Even the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - which is now nearing completion near CERN , the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva - may not be powerful enough.

Of course Blake Stacey can quickly and easily prove that I'm an ignorant fool. All he has to do is provide some hard testable falsifiable predictions from string theory, and walk us through the math leading to his results.

Let's be specific: give us a precise Calabi-Yau compactification radius, Blake Stacey, to within a factor of two. And, if it's anywhere near the Planck Length, show us plans for the particle accelerator capable of revealing spatial curvature on a scale of 1.6 x 10^-35 m. (For those of you not familiar with this stuff, any particle accelerator able to probe anywhere near the Planck length would have to be many times the size of our galaxy.)

Okay, so maybe that's too tough, Blake Stacey. How about an easy one? Calculate the mass of the Higgs for us from first principles, using string theory. We require a single testable falsifiable value, not a range 10^500 values. Gives us a single testable falsifiable value for the Higgs mass, show us how you calculated it from string theory, and prove mathematically that it's the only answer given by string theory, not some fudge factor cooked up by twiddling and diddling 130-odd free parameters.

Still too tough for you? Okay, fine. Calculate the value of the fine structure constant for us from string theory and show mathematically why it's the value we observe, and not some other value. Your answer must not involve a host of "free parameters," AKA fudge factors. Show all calculations. Then point us to the peer-reviewed HEP journal where your result is published.

Every time I ask some proponent of string "theory" to provide us with a simple calculation like this, they go ape. They spew venom, spout gibberish, start blowing smoke up everyone's ass in a frenzy of pseudoscientific defensiveness. What no string "theorist" has ever done, however, is to point to a single peer-reviewed published prediction ever made by string theory which can be tested and falsified by a scientific experiment.

Hey, Blake Stacey...when we have people running around making mathematical claims that can't be tested by any possible scientific experiment, we have a name for that -- but it's not "physics."

It's called numerology.

Alas, your attempted smear job on Woit and Smolin falls flat, inasmuch as they're bound to "provide nothing new" -- since people who debunk numerology tend to keep on saying the same thing over and over again. It's a highly repetitive process. When you debunk pseudoscience, you keep asking the same questions over and over and over again: "Show us the do we test this? If you can't test it scientifically, it's not science, it's numerology." The process of debunking mindless superstition and vacuous numerology is inherently repetitive. It's boring. It's dull. It's tedious. It's drudge work, as anyone familiar with The Amazing Randi knows. Randi, like Woit and Smolin, keeps battering away at the same old questions -- show us the evidence, submit to a double-blind experiment, let us compare the predictions with the results of the experiment. There's "nothing new" there because the basic principles of science are always the same. We need evidence for claims. If the claims can't be tested, they're not science. It doesn't matter how elaborate or how mathematically sophisticated the reasons why the claims can be tested -- if you can't test 'em experimentally in such a way as to disconfirm the claim once and for all, then it's not science, it's bullshit and self delusion and superstition.

Blake Stacey's complaint about Woit and Smolin's debunking of string "theory" is the same twaddle we hear from ufologists and big foot "researchers" and bogus psychics who claim to be able to bend spoons by the power of their minds. The crystal healers and dowsers and ufologists always wail and whine about the "skepticism" of hard=headed scientists who demand hard evidence. The ufologists and big foot lovers always whimper about how "these scientists add nothing new" and "their minds are closed to the greater universe of psychic phenomena!" Yadda yadda yadda. The claims of the ufologists and psychic surgeons and dowsers and string "theorists" are always conveniently untestable, the assertions are always so vague that they can never be nailed down ("We have a landscape of 10^500 vacua!"), and when asked to submit to an experiment which will once and for all falsify their wildly expansive claims, they always weasel out.

Want to convince me UFOs are real? No problem. Drag in the corpse of a dead alien. Right here, right now. In my living room. I'll phone the CDC and we'll do a DNA test. Can't do it? Then you're spouting bullshit, get out of my face.

Want to convince me bigfoot is real? Easy. Haul in a corpse of one of the critters. Right here, right now. On my doorstep. I'll phone the local university zoology department and we'll do a DNA workup and a forensic anatomy study with X rays and MRI scans. Can't do it? You're spouting bullshit, get out.

Want me to believe string "theory"? Fine. Give me the journal, volume number, issue number, page numbers, article title and authors of the pooer-reviewed HEP journal article providing a testable falsifiable prediction made by string theory -- then point me to the volume number, issue number, pages numbers, article title and authors of the peer-reviewed HEP journal article showing the results of the experiment which confirms those previously published predictions. Can't do it? You're spouting bullshit, get out.

Ah, the delicate bouquet of smells like -- pseudoscience!

Tony Fisk said...

Zorgon, where do you propose that Californians depopulate to?

Woozle said...

Zorgon, those actors "look" competent because you get to see them in "action", where they play the parts of competent people. Would you judge Shatner competent if you saw him for the first time in a static view lasting a split second (as was done in the study)? {Judging someone's character from watching a TV show} (especially multiple episodes) is hardly {judgment solely on the basis of facial appearance}, which is what the study was about.

Even if the two methods of judgment (watching a static photo of someone for a split second vs. watching them for several hours of scripted drama) were equivalent, your question is the wrong one. Some alternatives:

(1) I haven't watched the show, so I can't say for sure, but I suspect that I would be happy to have Shatner's character as my attorney.

(2) Shatner's appearance of competence on a TV show is competence is in the area of acting, not lawyering. The correct question is not "would you have Shatner as your lawyer?" but "would you hire Shatner as an actor?".

(For that matter, who's to say that a good actor couldn't take on "competent" facial attributes under the right circumstances, e.g. the right role?)

I'm having difficulty believing that anyone who goes on extensively about how irrational people are would object to applying a little science to settle a question of fact.

I'm pretty sure there is extensive data on human nutritional needs. "You cannot possibly be serious" in claiming there isn't any data showing how long humans can go without food.

I'm suspicious of any "fact" which "everyone knows" but for which nobody can produce substantiating evidence.

Aren't you?

[resists temptation to conclude with some sort of dismissive zinger]

Naum said...


Glad to read you and family are OK…

Jeff Freeman said...

What I find more interesting, even still, is that this is about the time that many changes occurred in the Middle East

Ah ha! WMDs! I KNEW it!

sociotard said...

Crap, if the Californians have to depopulate, so do we Idahoans. This area would be a scrub desert, were it not for the irrigation. Plus Yellowstone is set to explode soon, so most of the intermountain west needs to evacuate.

When you get down to it, it isn't California that needs to depopulate, it's Earth.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, you desire proof. I've got proof of psychic abilities -- you have to meet the guy, of course. But the proof is there.

Still sticking to Niven's assertion that 'if psychic powers exist, they must be utterly useless, else we would have done something with them.'

Psychic powers do not need to be Useful (nor even reliable).

Will you trust someone else's recollection of something (ghost, ufo, etc)? Probably not, and you've got good reason to. Memory in humans is generally a tricksy thing. But what if someone with photographic memory saw a ghost? His memory is far more reliable than yours, and that fact can be proven with ease.

Does someone have to stuff the facts before your eyes for you to believe? (I've never seen a glueball, but there's evidence that they exist)

Unknown said...

Woozle remareked:
Shatner's appearance of competence on a TV show is competence is in the area of acting, not lawyering.

LOL! You haven't seen William Shatner act in his post-1975 period, have you?

Southern California will have to depopulate, ditto AZ, NV, NM and southern TX. These are parched deserts. The water supply can't sustain the current population with global warming. For more details, see the excellent book "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner.

These states can depopulate to the Pacific Northwest (much of which is startlingly underpopulated), the mountain states, and the Eastern seaboard. Also the areas along the Mississippi river, which are not likely to completely run out of water anytime soon. America is a huge country and even today mostly empty. If you've driven across it you're shocked at just how empty most of it is.

Submitting the question of whether someone's physical appearance correlates with their professional competency should be put to the test with double-blind experiments, just as dowsing has been, but any person with a lick of common sense already knows the answer. A doube-blind experiment is just dotting the i's and crossing the t's.

Viz., see the Munich experiments on dowsing published in the 1999 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.

Enterik said...

Bacerial transmogrification's Avery, MacLeod and McCarty for a new era!

Science. 2007 Aug 3;317(5838):632-8. Epub 2007 Jun 28.

Genome transplantation in bacteria: changing one species to another.

Lartigue C, Glass JI, Alperovich N, Pieper R, Parmar PP, Hutchison CA 3rd, Smith HO, Venter JC.
J. Craig Venter Institute, Rockville, MD 20850, USA.

As a step toward propagation of synthetic genomes, we completely replaced the genome of a bacterial cell with one from another species by transplanting a whole genome as naked DNA. Intact genomic DNA from Mycoplasma mycoides large colony (LC), virtually free of protein, was transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum cells by polyethylene glycol-mediated transformation. Cells selected for tetracycline resistance, carried by the M. mycoides LC chromosome, contain the complete donor genome and are free of detectable recipient genomic sequences. These cells that result from genome transplantation are phenotypically identical to the M. mycoides LC donor strain as judged by several criteria.

David Brin said...

Zorgon, it isn’t necessary to get overwrought. Or to repeat Blake’s full name in tones of didgeon. In fact, string theory has the justification of mathematical prettiness (as does numerology). Plus the fact that if ST is CONSISTENT with observations, it has going for it the historical fact that no mathematical system that ever ran consistent with known facts ever proved later to be useless.

As for CA depopulating, I feel 50% + solar energy should do wonders. The problem is not SoCal, it is the automobile lifestyle.

Folks I just saw the Fantastic Four sequel (having never seen the original). Shoot me if I ever watch another film by that wwiter or director. Ugh! Ptooie!

Re PSI… I think my article on it convers some useful ground.

POLITICAL PARAGRAPH! Today, Dana Parino, the Bush press secretary, said in definding the removal from the CDC director's testimony any mention of public health threats resulting from global warming, that people needed to remember the "health benefits of global warming." When asked what those were, she said, well, lots of people freeze to death, and that will not happen in the future, and we should all remember that will be a good thing. This is a true story, not a daily show skit.
(I still need links for "What if Bill Clinton...")

Tony I LOVE the “Smeagol jumped” gambit! Like my own “Inner Darth Gambit” that would instantly explain almost HALF of the immoral inconsistencies of the Lucasian universe and half of the driveling-stupid coincidences.


That series – plus EMPIRE STRIKES BACK proves that the current George Lucas is a pod person replacement. TYIJC had its (big) flaws. But it was a love song to civilization in every episode.

Using filthy pool water to wash away soot from everything...

Woozle said...

Zorgon: I'm torn between just letting this thread lie (in which case you might think I was conceding the point) and giving it one more try (in which case I look like I can't let go of trivia and Have I Stopped Beating My Dead Horse Yet). I'm settling for looking bad.

The discussion of Shatner's acting abilities is getting off-topic; you implied, strongly, that he did a very good impersonation of a competent lawyer on TV; it was on that basis that I suggested he was displaying competence in acting.

I stand by my original suggestion, i.e. (a) we shouldn't just assume that a fraction-of-a-second's-glance at someone's photo doesn't have a significant correlation with their true level of competence, and (b) the way to settle the question is through scientific inquiry.

Anonymous said...

I liked exploits of the teen-aged Young Indiana Jones. And the framing device, in which a eighty-something, eye-patched, decrepit Indy buttonholes people to tell them his stories is wonderful.

DB, you should

a) Write a plug for the DVD on Amazon,

b) Create a link to the Amazon page for the discs, with your web page Amazon associate ID in the URL. Your webmaster can help you with that.

Tony Fisk said...

An interesting snippet from that pesky lamp that won't go out:

Keeping watch on Bush

Waxman appears to be on the case. Good!

David Brin said...

Why does the only dem who "gets it" also have the charisma of a wart hog?

Tell you who I have my eye on. Eliot Spitzer. Look him up. He's the dem the neocons fear the most.

Here's another: What if Bill Clinton's FEMA, after a major regional disaster, held a "news conference" at which the administrator welcomed "the press"... but none were present? Only employees who asked scripted "questions"?

Anonymous said...

There was an NPR story today in which the reporter interviewed himself to see what felt about the FEMA phony news conference.

Very funny and pointed.

And, um, God-Damnit, why the HELL are we putting up with this crap? Phony news conferences from a United States government agency?

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah . . . what CNN's conservative blowhard Glenn Beck had to say about the fires in Southern California:

"I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today."

Unknown said...

Dr. Brin, with the greatest respect I have to say that I do not find string "theory" to have even the slightest mathematically elegance or prettiness.

On the contrary -- current string "theory" is notable for its remarkable mathematical ugliness.

String "theory" started out as something mathematically pretty. Early on, in the late 70s and early 80s, it had quite a bit of mathematical elegance. The problem, as everyone knows, is that pretty soon string "theory" ran into big problems.

If you doubt this, Dr. Brin, I would urge you to try just quantizing a (supposedly) "simple" relativistic string.

Quantization is not some one-size-fits-all algorithm; there are some big mathematical stumbling blocks right at the start:

Full quantization maps typically exist only on very tiny subalgebras of the full Poisson algebra -- even then, many of 'em aren't unique, which multiplies your difficulties in finding a unique subalgebra.
But okay, assuming you do find a unique subalgebra, now you have to represent your subalgebras as operators on a suitable Hilbert space. But that's another big stumbling block too, because now you discover you must do it on a Fock-Krein space, which means that the standard spectral methods are suddenly off limits.

Fine, so let's say you make it over this mathematical hump and now you've integrated your symmetry generators (a process that is, shall we say, "decidedly non-trivial" -- see Comm. Math. Phys. Volume 156, No. 3 (1993), 435), well, then you've leapt out of the frying pan into the fire. Because now you've gotta encode your unbounded operators into an algebra of bounded operators, meaning a C*-algebra, so you can use different representations. Fortunately this additional mathematical mountain, while tall, can also be climbed -- see Comm. Math. Phys. Volume 156, No. 3 (1993), 435). Remember that you need other representations because your particles (strings) have to interact. Not much good to have a string "theory" if you don't allow interactions twixt particles (strings), is it?

Right, fine, so now that we've rappalled up all those mathematical mountains, we're still not even close to being done. Now we have to enforce our constraints, and immediately we get the shock of a lifetime, 'cause in our initial representation there is no solution
except in 26 dimensions. Yow.

Fortunately, we can climb this addiitional mathematical Himalayan peak by using the incredibly ugly kludge of trading off 26 bosonic string dimensions for 10 fermionic string dimensions. And now we've got representations (interactions of particles, i.e. strings) in 10-D with 6 of those dimension curled up on Calabi-Yau manifolds.
However, we're still not done! Now, as Witten points out, in order to wriggle out of the 5-different-string-models dilemmma we now have to add yet another dimension to collapse them into a single string "theory," so now we're back up to 11 dimensions and we've now got wiggling branes instead of vibrating strings.

I dunno...does this sound elegant to you, Dr. Brin? Sounds like a Mexican fire drill to me. It's a giant mess of ad hoc "let's do this to wriggle out of that dilemma" mathematical card tricks. The Fock-Krein space scam, the let's-trade-bosonic-for-fermionic-dimensions scam... Man, this is just a great big ad hoc game of mathematical three card monte.

Schroedinger's equation, this ain't. Looks more like Enron accounting from where I stand.

IMHO String "theory" got a rep for mathematical elegance because of its early formulations. As problem after problem arose with those early schemes, more and more craptacular mathematical complexity got added to force-fit it with the real world, until we've now got something far more hideous and grotesquely cumbersome and non-elegant than the Ptolemaic system of epicycles.

When this kind of ever-increasing kludgification uglifies an initially elegant amthematical scheme, it's a sign that something is fundamentally wrong with the basic idea. You need to dump the entire scheme and start over fresh.

Copernicus did that with the Ptolemaic epicycles, Robert Boyle did it with the circulation of blood in the body, Boltzmann did it with the statistical action of large numbers of particles. Previous schemes had become hypercomplex and unworkable in each of these cases, and it was recognized that the previous overly complicated model of nature had to be thrown out because it was no longer falsifiable.

We've reached the same stage with string "theory." The proof is that so many new paremeters and extra dimensions have been jerry-rigged onto string "theory" (now called "M-theory" by Witten in its 11-D form) that the so-called "theory" can't even be falsified anymore!

This is no coincidence. It's a direct result of tacking on so many ugly mathematical encumbrances (c.f., J. Math. Phys., Vol. 26, No. 6 p1280, 1985 and even worse, Lett. Math. Phys. 15, 205 (1988)) that you've now got enough craplicious free parameters to back-predict anything you can possibly observe. That makes the string "theory" non-falsifiable and consequently worthless as a scientific model. It also makes it mathematically ugly as hell, as I think you'll agree from the previous examples.

The argument that the math of string "theory" will probably bear useful fruit in some other field seems necessary but not sufficient. That argument weakens even more when it's used as justification for concetrating essentially all the attention in HEP theory on string "theory." This boils down to a very weak advocacy (in effect) of any line of resarch, inasmuch as any direction of research no matter how misguided is likely to yield incidental benefits in unrelated fields.

For example, if we were to build supercomputers to test astrological charts, the supercomputers could undoubtedly prove useful for other productive research. I think we both agree that this would not justify building supercomputers to do research on astrological predictions, however.

A much more powerful argument than the nonexistent "elegance" of string math would be to point out the extraordinarily kludgy chewing-gum-and-tinfoil ad hoc character of the Standard Model. The SM is just a dog's breakfast. It's got well over 100 free parameters, and we don't know where the basic stuff like the Higgs field comes from in the SM -- it's just there. Poof! Presto! Let's posit this thing, then we can get gauge coupling and do our calculations.
However, the SM has one radiant feature that mkes it worthwhile to put up with all that godawful mathematical mess...the Standard Model predicts observations.

In fact, it's so good at predicting observations that right now we can't find any accelerator data that the SM hasn't successfully predicted. It's true that the SM doesn't prediction neutrino oscillations, but that's a minor tweak -- the really big stuff that the SM doesn't predict is dark energy, and we don't even know what dark energy is yet. By the way, string "theory" says nothing about dark energy either.

So the 3 big experimental findings in HEP or cosmology of the last 20 years, dark energy, dark matter and neutrino oscillation, were not predicted by string "theory."

That's bad news. If you've got a candidate for the theory of everything, it should predict observations before you make 'em.

Probably one of the most insightful comments about string "theory" I've seen is this:
The fact that it requires 6/7 extra space dimensions that are not observed, and that time seems to be emergent, implying that physics must somehow be done without time, is enough to give serious thinkers pause. Not about string theory per se, which is only the symptom of the trouble, but about our understanding of the true nature of space and time.

To me, the extra dimensions are the kicker. Every single experiment ever done in the history of physics shows we've got 3 dimensions of space and 1 of time. Einstein unified 'em back in 1905, and now we know space-time is a 4-D manifold. Great. But where do we go from there?

There is not a single experiment anywhere in the history of physics showing even a hint of one extra dimension, let along 6 or 7! yet we're supposed to throw out all that experimental data and assume the hypothetical existence of 6 (or 7) extra space-time dimensions on the basis of...what? Nothing. No physical evidence at all. For a string "theory" of surpassing mathematical ugliness.

Peter Woit has made the most devastating criticism of string "theory," AFAICT:

1. Our experimental techniques are reaching fundamental technological limits: it’s harder and harder to get to higher energy.
2. The standard model is too good: the absence of experimental anomalies that could tell us which direction to look for progress is a huge handicap.
3. A huge amount of time and effort has gone into the pursuit of a very speculative idea (string-based unification) which does not work. People who have put in this time and effort are loathe to admit failure, and to make the effort to retool and try other speculative ideas.

The Standard Model's grotesque inelegance doesn't change the fact that it works. It works so spectacularly well at calculating every particle interaction we can produce in any accelerator we seem able to build that there's a real question why we even need string "theory." (Yeah, yeah, QM and GR prove incompatible -- but since time is emergent in string "theory," that doesn't solve our problem.)

Of course, the LHC might someday, somewhere, over the rainbow, show evidence of some new gauge couplings that go beyond the Standard Model. The most convincing theoretical calculations I've seen place the minimum energy to get beyond the SM at 1 TeV:

That's well within the range of the LHC with its 4-7 TeV estimated average beam energy. At present the hadron calorimeters top out at 7 TeV:

So we should be able to see something beyond the 1 TeV range and test whether get particle interactions beyond the Standard Model.

Personally, I'm betting on the SM at the LHC but more weird unexpected findings from cosmological sources. IMHO the era of the acclerator is over -- future "Huh?" moments in HEP will come from cosmological events, not earth-based accelerators.

But as far as any alleged mathematical "elegance" of current string (or M-) "theory" is concerned -- sorry, but that dog won't hunt.