Measured Against Reality

Monday, October 29, 2007

On using words correctly

Here's an interesting anonymous article from the 1920's called Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men. It's quite an interesting read, and I particularly liked this part, as I harbor similar feelings:

"ONE of the five things I find out before I employ a man," says the author of this article, "is whether he can talk and write effectively. This may seem a strange requirement, but it has been a very useful one. If we could unscrew the top of men's heads and look in, many of our problems would be eliminated, for we could see what sort of thinking goes on there.

"Lacking that privilege however, we have to judge by what comes out of the mind through the tongue and fingers. If you write and speak neatly and accurately, it is because your thinking is orderly; if your expression is forceful, the thought back of it must be forceful. But if you blunder for words, punctuate incorrectly, spell incorrectly, and express yourself clumsily, I'm sure to believe you mind is cluttered and ill-disciplined.

"The continual use of slang expressions is an evidence of mental laziness, and I will not hire a man who depends upon slang to express his meaning. It is a substitute for exact thinking."

I don't think I can adequately describe the apoplexy I feel when I read malformed sentences, and I don't mean that in a snobbish way. I don't expect every person to be a poet, and I consider myself a mediocre writer at best, but when you can't write down a coherent, cogent sentence that obeys the grammatical rules of our language, it speaks volumes about you.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

There's Ghosts in them thar hills!

This is why people are so stupid. Or maybe I've got my cause-and-effect backwards, it's hard to say. Either way, CNN running a story about ghosts is just ridiculous.

Read the article, it's laughable. It's a totally credulous treatment of an idiotic topic, without a single skeptical word. Not to mention that the author is a professional ghost-buster. And this drivel is on a leading news site.

I've even heard of some kind of magic show, dedicated to charlatans peddling their idiocy.

It's a really depressing time to be a skeptic.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Who is Seth Patinkin, and why should I care?

The strangest thing has been happening lately on the comments section of my post about gay marriage in Oregon. It started with this comment, by a guy named Seth Patinkin claiming to be experiencing some kind of discrimination. I'm going to be honest, I didn't really read it. It obviously had nothing to do with my post, and if I jumped on the bandwagon of every discrimination case I'd have negative time to do other things. Besides, there's hardly anything I can do about it.

But I get those odd-ball frequently, and they've stopped surprising me. What was truly weird is that I've since gotten two comments bashing him (or more accurately, one bashing him and the other referencing a blog that has the same content).

I don't really know how these people are finding me, or why they think I care (the case isn't even from Oregon, it's from Indiana. How did they get to a blog post about gay marriage in Oregon?).

I just found this to be quite odd. I guess that's the price one pays for having a blog, really random comments

Thursday, October 18, 2007

String Theory may be useful after all

Here's an interesting string theory article from Nature (subscription required, sadly). It's about how string theory may be an accurate description of the strong force, what it was originally invented to explain.

Over the summer I took some high schools kids to talk to Leonard Susskind, a Stanford Professor and one of the developers of string theory. He described its original formulation as a theory of the strong force. One of the rationales he gave for thinking like this is that it's impossible to spin apart a nucleon. By that he meant that if you take anything bigger than a nucleon (say, a basketball), and spin it fast enough, it will break into constituent pieces. This is true for everything from a planet down to an atom. But when you spin a nucleon (proton or neutron) it doesn't break apart, but it does stretch out and turn into something like a dumbbell shape (and presumably gains a noticeable dipole moment). So one of the things that could explain that phenomenon is a force acting like a super-strong rubber band holding the constituent parts of the nucleon (quarks) together.

Anyway, that's the story given by someone who was there for why it was developed. The article gives a different description:

So particle physicists started casting around for other ways of attacking the problem. In 1968, the Italian theoretician Gabriele Veneziano made a brilliant guess and wrote down a concrete mathematical expression, the Veneziano amplitude, that explained some important features of high-energy scattering. But his formula could not be understood in terms of point-like particles; instead, it required the existence of extended objects — strings. These strings are thin tubes of energy formed by force lines that bind quarks together, and, just like violin strings, they can oscillate in many modes. The numerous resonances of strong-interaction physics would then be nothing but the different oscillation modes of these strings.

Here's a large chunk of the meat of the article:

The new approach that revives the link to string theory first suggested itself in 1998, when Juan Martín Maldacena conjectured a link between a close relative of QCD and a 'superstring' living in a ten-dimensional curved space-time. Although the theory in question, known as supersymmetric N = 4 gauge theory, is sufficiently different from QCD to be of no direct interest to experiment, the link raised the prospect of a general connection to some form of compactified string theory. This equivalence is now commonly referred to as the AdS/CFT (Anti-de-Sitter/conformal field theory) correspondence. If true, it would mean that string theory was originally not so far off the mark after all — its ingredients just need to be interpreted in the correct way.

The Maldacena conjecture raised a lot of interest, but seemed for a long time to be quantitatively unverifiable. This was because it takes the form of a duality in which the strongly coupled string theory corresponds to weakly coupled QCD-like theory, and vice versa. But to verify the duality, one would need to find a quantity to compare in a regime of intermediate coupling strength, and calculate it starting from both sides. No such quantity was obvious.

Help came from an entirely unexpected direction. Following a prescient observation, the spectrum of the N = 4 theory has been found1, 2 to be equivalently described by a quantum-mechanical spin chain of a type discovered by Hans Bethe in 1931 when modelling certain metallic systems. There are not many quantum-mechanical systems that can be solved analytically — the hydrogen atom is the most prominent example — but Bethe's ansatz immediately applied in a much wider context, and constructed a bridge between condensed-matter physics and string theory (in this context, see the recent News & Views article by Jan Zaanen on the nascent connection to high-temperature superconductivity). Indeed, even though the mathematical description of the duality on the string-theory side is completely different from that on the condensed-matter side, a very similar, exactly solvable structure has been identified here as well.

Puzzling out the details of the exact solution is currently an active field of research. But in one instance, that idea had already been put to such a hard test that a complete solution now seems within reach. The context is a special observable entity, the 'cusp anomalous dimension', which was argued to be ideally suited as a device to test whether string and gauge theory really connect. Some of its structure at strong coupling was also worked out. Just recently, Beisert, Eden and Staudacher have extracted the analogue of this observable on the field-theory side, and have been able to write down an equation valid at any strength of the coupling. Since then, work has established that their 'BES equation' does indeed seem, for the first time, to offer a means of reformulating theories such as QCD as string theories.

Much still needs to be learned from this one exactly solvable case. There is justifiable hope that this solution will teach us how to go back to the physically relevant case of QCD and finally arrive at the long-sought dual description by a string theory. It may even take us closer to realizing the quantum-field theorist's ultimate dream, unfulfilled for more than 50 years: completely understanding an interacting relativistic quantum-field theory in the four space-time dimensions that we are familiar with. Progress towards this goal can be judged independently of loftier attempts to use strings in the construction of a theory of everything.

So there's something, even if string theory isn't a theory of everything, it may yet be useful.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The USA is no longer a country

I just ordered some books from Amazon, and had a strange thing happen when I tried to edit an address (from last year's to this year's). Take a look below:

Apparently the USA isn't a country.

Oh, and I removed my address and phone number after the error, it seemed like an egregious mistake to put that information online, even in a picture. Also, even after reselecting "U.S.A." from the dropbox (it was the first choice), I still got the error. Amazon really doesn't think the US is a country.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nanny State Review

I just finished Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi today. It's a fantastic book, and I'll give it the same praise I give Radley Balko's blog, it's absolutely infuriating.

How can that possibly be a good thing? Because Harsanyi methodically documents exactly how asinine laws that treat grown adults as if they're children have accelerated their attack on our freedoms over the past years. He goes through smoking bans, modern attempts to return to alcohol prohibition (one step at a time), fatty food bans, sex and sex toy bans, and all of those other wonderfully idiotic bans that limit our freedom of choice while saving us from nothing but ourselves.

He documents this insanity while showing how it's utterly unnecessary, a reaction to overblown hysterics (typically of only a few do-gooders), and adds delightful, often hilarious commentary. The book is well-researched: he shows the ways nannies derive their ridiculously inflated "statistics", as well as how these laws are born, and the fact that the public is usually utterly ambivalent about the measures: there's a distinct lack of outcry for reform except in rare cases.

All in all, I highly recommend it. It'll leave you incensed at the paternalistic nannying enveloping us, and with a distinct lack of hope for a better, nanny-free future. But knowing is half the battle, and after reading this book you'll know all there is to know about the modern nanny movement, and why every freedom-loving American should do all they can to stop it.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Good Sign

It seems that with gay marriage I only hear bad news, so when I see that Oregon has a domestic partnership law that's about to go into effect, well it lifts the spirits. Granted it's not full marriage, and it is in one of the more liberal states, but it's a step in the right direction. And after we've taken so many steps in the wrong direction with 20-some-odd states banning gay marriage outright, it's nice to see a positive one.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

2007 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg for Giant Magnetoresistance, or GMR. This is one of those discoveries that really matters, given that it's how hard drive read heads work. I was kind of hoping for a Stanford win (Andre Linde is always one of the people on the short list


Monday, October 08, 2007

Random stuff

A strange thought occurred to me today. The practice of giving a child the combination of his parents' last names separated by a hyphen has becoming increasingly common (or however people get hyphenated last names), and I was wondering what would happen if two people who had hyphenated last names gave their child the combination of their last name. I could imagine a society with exponentially growing last names, (obviously by 2^(generation)), and I wonder if it has ever happened that someone has more than two last names spliced into one (I've certainly never seen more).

This is going to pass for a blog post because I've been incredibly busy at school, apparently taking Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics at the same time as some fuzzy (read: non-technical) classes and starting to work in a lab is just a bit much (compared to what I'm used to).

Also, Stanford somehow managed to beat USC on Saturday, in what can only be described as USC falling apart magnificently (we were a 41-point underdog). It's being called one of the greatest upsets in the history of college football, and since Stanford went 1-11 last year, our starting quarterback was out for the game, it's our coach's first year (we've had a new coach every year I've been here), and our team is plagued by injuries and we have a tremendously difficult time recruiting new talent, well it just might be the greatest upset of all time.

Needless to say campus went crazy that night, it was good fun.

I promise I'm going to try to update more frequently with science-related stuff. I sincerely don't understand how people like PZ Myers manage to update so frequently, it's

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Atheist Father's Dilemma

I don't think I agree with this. In case you don't feel like reading it, it's advice given to a father whose daughter is being raised Christian by her mother even though he doesn't believe. The daughter is distraught over the fact that he is going to hell, according to the lunacy she's being taught.

I don't really understand how anyone could advise him to anything but sit her down and tell her that it's all fairy tales. And don't say that it would be traumatic, because it's no more traumatic than finding out any other imaginary creature doesn't exist. She'll be hurt, but she'll get over it.

And I don't mean in one fell swoop, but teach her about the natural world. Don't just say evolution is true (etc), show her. Go to a natural history museum, by her books (appropriate for her age, not The Blind Watchmaker), teach her about the world. But not just that, teach her critical thinking. Show her how to tell the difference between a claim that should be taken seriously and one that should be dismissed. You don't even have to mention god or Jesus or anything about religion. Because the fact of the matter is once you have the critical thinking apparati and the basic knowledge in place, you just can't take religion all that seriously any more (and those few that do, like Ken Miller, just look awfully conflicted doing it).

That's my two cents on that story.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Evolution of Stains

The Onion understands evolution better than most Americans.

And their reporting on it is better than most newspapers.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Lucifer Effect

Because posting has been quite intermittent lately, here's a review of The Lucifer Effect I wrote for the Stanford Daily. I recommend the book, and if you're interested in more concrete details check the review.