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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Blogs of Note

Maybe it's the wine we had with dinner, but I find I Found Some of Your Life absolutely hilarious (start at the beginning for the full effect).

Meanwhile, I've either had too much or too little wine to come to a conclusion about One Million Footnotes. It's either brilliant or incredibly dumb, and the line between the two can be pretty thin.

(Both sites via the "Blogs of Note" list on Blogger's front page.)

Posted at 7:42 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Friday, September 17, 2004

Pathetic Plea Redux

As threatened previously, I want to repeat my plea for people to do my homework for me. I would like some concrete examples of both George Bush and Joh Kerry lying with statistics in the current presidential campaign: that is, making some concrete statement about policy backed up with numbers that, while accurate, are actually deceptive.

A good example would be Kerry's line about how the jobs being created in the current "recovery" pay $9,000 less than the jobs that have been lost. This is based on averages of very broad categories of jobs (including burger-flippers), and not a comparison of the actual salaries of those who lost jobs and found new ones.

Two notes: 1) While I'll use deceptive statements by George Bush from the 2000 campaign in support of his tax cut scheme if I have to, I'd really prefer to have statements from the current campaign season. 2) The recent incident in which Bush denounced Kerry's health care plan as too expensive while offering a more expensive "plan" does not count. That's not a lie-with-statistics. It's just a lie.

In the unlikely event that someone making a good suggestion has not already received a GMail invite (because they're been living in a cave in the Himalayas and their WiFi was down, or something), I have GMail invites to offer as a prize.

Posted at 9:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Nature Abhors a Singularity

One of the Big Ideas in modern SF is the idea of a "Singularity," a term coined by Vernor Vinge (I'm not sure if he originated the concept, but I'm pretty sure the term is his). The idea is based on the observation that the pace of technological change has increased dramatically in the last several decades, and if anything appears to be accelerating. Extrapolating out from this, Vinge (and others working with the idea) predict that there will come a point in the near future when changes occur so rapidly that humans (or our post-human descendents) will become essentially unrecognizable. The complexity of our technology is growing exponentially, so humans of the relatively near future will be so far beyond the humans of the past, or today, as to be utterly incomprehensible.

As a science fiction reader, the idea makes for some cool stories. As a scientist, I find it a little annoying. In science, you see exponential growth fairly frequently-- the number of products of a given reaction, the number of photons in a laser mode, the number of atoms in a BEC: these are all things that grow exponentially. And the thing about exponential growth is this: it never lasts very long. Eventually, all the resources needed to drive the growth-- reactants, excited atoms, non-condensed atoms-- are consumed, and the growth levels off. A graph of the product versus time usually looks sort of like an "S" in the Star Wars font: basically flat, turning up dramatically (though not backwards), then flattening out at a higher level.

The classic example (dating back to antiquity) of the unsustainability of exponential growth is the chessboard problem: take a chessboard, and put one penny on the left-hand square closest to you, then two on the square next to it, and four on the square next to that, and so on, doubling the money at each square as you work your way across the board (you'll have $2.56 at the end of the first row, then double back). See how far you can get-- it won't be very far. If you were to manage to cover each square of the board, you'd need 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 pennies for the final square. And if you've got that many pennies, I'd like to talk to you about some research problems I have in mind...

A technological example of exponential growth is the famous Moore's Law: the speed of computer chips doubles every eighteen months. This is why the 500 MHz computer I bought in 2000 (which wasn't top-of-the-line then) was replaced by a 2,500 MHz computer (still not top-of-the-line) this year: four years, a bit more than two doublings. Futurists are fond of extrapolating this trend (which is really somewhere between an empirical observation and an industry target) out for several years, and promising no end of marvels once we all have terahertz computers the size of a pack of cigarettes (neglecting the fact that Windows will by that time require six terabytes of RAM for best operation...).

Of course, there are all sorts of problems with this extrapolation. Moore's original observation was that the number of transistors on a chip (which is related to the speed) was doubling every eighteen months. If you extend that for a few more doublings, you start to get down to transistors that are smaller than the size of a single atom. At which point, you start having some serious sustainability problems.

Even if you assume that some technique will be found to allow the doubling to continue, there's also Moore's other (often-overlooked) law: the cost of a chip fabrication plant doubles every 2-3 years. At some point, it's not unreasonable to believe that the benefits of increased computer power will no longer outweigh the costs of maintaining the current rate of growth, and things will taper off. If you look at some of the "Moore's Law" graphs out there, you can convince yourself that this might be starting to show up.

Of course, identifying where the turnover will take place is a tricky business. Much trickier than identifying the current trend, let alone extrapolating the trend. If you're in the exponential portion of the growth curve, it's hard to spot the end. But it's a safe bet that things will level off sooner or later (though you'll probably make more money betting on "later").

This little rant was, again, touched off by the ever-fertile "Wedge" thread at Making Light, specifically by this Brad DeLong comment. Buried in a long and very nice explanation (with numbers) of the Social Security/ Medicare problem, he says:

The increase in the fiscal gap coming from Medicare and Medicaid is a bigger--and harder--problem. All trends suggest that the next two generations will see extraordinary improvements in medical technology coupled with large increases in medical costs.

The whole health care crisis is really a public policy example of a Singularity problem. The cost of medical care has been exploding in recent years, at a rate that really can't be sustained. Sooner or later, it's going to have to stop-- whether through major policy changes or just the fact that the whole business will eventually become unprofitable.

As an academic matter, I often wonder what, if anything, is done to take this into account in projecting costs into the future. (Nothing all that reliable, I suspect, which is why I don't put a great deal of faith in long-term budget projections). As a political matter, the question is more "what can we do to bring this expansion to a halt in a way that doesn't take civil society down with it?"

Posted at 8:35 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Quick Hits

A collection of short items that don't really rise to full post-hood on their own:

Kenn Cavness of Cogicophony asks "why aren’t we bailing out the airlines?"

Sure, they were floating by prior to 9/11, but that attack directly affected their commerce and there was nothing they could do about it. We bailed out the S&L industry because the failure of the S&Ls would directly affect our economy; wouldn’t all the failures of all these airlines do the same thing? Shouldn’t we, as a country, feel some sympathy to the companies?

Why is the government being such a hardass in giving relief to these companies?

Strictly speaking, this ought to go in a comment, but I refuse on principle to use a comment system that requires registration, so I'll put it here. My response has two parts: 1) We already did bail them out. One of the bills in the immediately-post-September 11 legislative rush was an airline bailout. That was three years ago-- how long are we expected to keep bailing? 2) The airlines that are going under are going under because they suck. See previous rant.

Comment of the Month, over at (where else?) Making Light, regarding the current spate of hurricaines:

Clearly God is angry at America for not allowing gay marriage. Notice that the storms aren’t coming anywhere near Massachusetts.

Elsewhere, John Scalzi rants back at an emailer, and works in a little rantlet about the intersection between art and politics:

Besides, only a moron buys books -- particularly fiction -- on the basis of the author's politics. Author Mark Helprin has written what is far and away my favorite book of contemporary fantasy: Winter's Tale. He's also an unregenerate neocon, which has been my least favorite political flavor for some time now. Orson Scott Card, who has written two of my favorite science fiction books, is a conservative member of the LDS Church and views gay marriage as a terrible threat to our nation. As we all know, I think that's pretty silly. China Mieville, who writes lovely fictions, is so socialist (speaking of lovely fictions) that he ought to be salmon-hued. I wouldn't vote any of them into office. But I will buy their books.

I'm sort of split on this question. On the one hand, I agree that choosing authors on the basis of their adherence to particular political views is silly. Read Fred Clark for an extreme example of how this can go horribly, horribly wrong.

On the other hand, in practical terms, I tend to apply this only to authors I read before I knew their politics. I give Card a pass, for example, but I refuse to buy S. M. Stirling's books because he was such an offensive ass on Usenet. (Though, in all fairness, he was actually surprisingly reasonable in the one panel I saw him on at Worldcon, so maybe he's a Shetterly case.) It helps that I have reason to believe the books wouldn't really appeal to me on other grounds, but I had been planning to at least give the Draka books a shot before I encountered him on rec.arts.sf.written.

In general, though, I think John's point is a good one. I'm not at all conflicted about the fact that Orson Scott Card is guest of honor at next year's Boskone (though Kate is), because I don't think his loathsome personal views should be held against him as an author. The loathsome Children of the Mind, on the other hand...

Also via Scalzi, a silly site of Far Side Cartoons photoshopped into reality.

I'll stop now.

Posted at 8:25 AM | link | follow-ups | 19 comments

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

An Open Letter to Manufacturers of Scientific Equipment

You may or may not know me. I am a consumer of many of your fine products, and if all goes well, I hope to remain a consumer of your products for many years to come.

Just so we're on the same page, let me review the basic process by which this consumption takes place. You design, build, and test sophisticated pieces of scientific equipment: vacuum pumps and controllers, phototubes and avalanche photodiodes, vacuum ultraviolet light sources. Having produced these devices, you then offer them to me, and I give you large sums of money.

Now here's the really crucial step: before I give you large sums of money, you first tell me how much money you expect for a given product. This is colloquially known as the "price" of the equipment in question. This is a critical part of the whole enterprise-- I am a professional researcher, with a doctorate in physics. I do not purchase research equipment in the manner of an American tourist in a foreign bazaar, by just handing over large wads of cash, and hoping the merchant doesn't cheat me on the change.

The key lesson to take from this is: Your Prices Are Not State Secrets. Sometime before you actually deliver the product to me, and receive money from me, you have to tell me how much it costs. This is especially important for an academic like myself, as I often need to obtain the money from somewhere else before I can give it to you, and the National Science Foundation is not in the habit of handing large suitcases of cash to assistant professors at small colleges. More's the pity.

I say again: Your Prices Are Not State Secrets. If you tell me how much a new vacuum pump will cost, Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft will not break down your door and haul you off to prison. Not for that, anyway. You're going to have to tell me this information sometime, before the transaction can take place. It's an accepted part of the business process.

Having established that the prices of your products are not a matter of national security, and that you gain nothing by hiding this information from me, would it kill you to put prices on your web pages? You've obviously spent plenty of money hiring professional web designers to design spiffy frame-based, Flash-driven, graphics-heavy web sites for you, and yet, somehow, the one piece of information I want has not made it onto these pages.

Don't get me wrong-- it's not that I don't appreciate the other information you've put up there. I like having the ability to print PDF versions of your sales brochures, rather than having you mail glossy copies to me. The elegantly nonfunctional designs of your pages have produced no end of amusement for my colleagues, as I mutter darkly about appropriate punishements to visit upon the designers. And those of you who provide actual technical specifications of your products for download, thank you-- that's the second most important piece of information I want from you.

But all those features, while nice, do me no good if I can't figure out how much the damn things cost. I realize that prices are subject to change, and there are discounts and special programs, and blah, blah, blah. Amazon sells millions of different products, and somehow, they manage to put prices on all of them, and keep track of what's what on their web page. You're smart people. Figure it out.

Thank you for your attention.

Chad Orzel

(PS: Oh, yeah-- the other little game some of you play? The one where you make it really difficult to find a phone number on your page that I can call to get a price quote? You must die. Screaming. Without having received any of my money.)

Posted at 8:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I Am Not My Generation

I was born in 1971. This puts me fairly solidly in "Generation X," by most definitions of that marketing category. Experience tells me something different.

I grew up in a small town in central New York. I barely heard of REM or U2 before Document and The Joshua Tree got them some Top-40 radio airplay. Forget the Replacements, and most of the other seminal post-punk bands. I didn't hear them until I got to college. Hair metal we got-- hair metal was big in the sticks.

I don't recognize about a quarter of the trendy fashion things that show up on I Love the 80's, and about another quarter of them are things I recognize only from visiting family on Long Island, where I had cousins about my age. The remaining half, I recognize, but tend to place about a year later than when they show up in nostalgia shows, because of the lag in getting out to cow country.

About the time when I was supposed to be wearing flannel, working a shitty job, and hanging around coffee houses bitching about the meaninglessness of life, I started grad school. In physics. In DC, where flannel is unnecessary, and I don't even drink coffee. Most of my college friends were working on Wall St., and my high school friends got real jobs and started getting married and having kids.

Around the time I was supposed to be making a zillion dollars in the dot-com boom, I was, well, still in grad school, with no disposable cash to invest. On the bright side, this means I didn't lose anything in the big crash (which came just as I finally got out of grad school, and started to make a moderately reasonable wage...).

I'm not sure what the iconic Gen-X experience of the moment is supposed to be (the media seems to have more or less abandoned my age group, save for I Love the 80's), but I feel confident when I say that teaching at a small liberal arts college probably isn't it. But then, maybe I'm just ahead of the curve for once in my life...

This mini-rant was sparked by references to the Baby Boomers as a monolithic bloc in the Social Security thread at Making Light, where it isn't precisely relevant, which is why it's ended up here. Scott Westerfeld's So Yesteday (coming soon to a book log near you...) played into this as well.

According to the Gen-X site I linked above (which, by the way, also takes a dim view of the media concept of Gen-X), there are 47 million people born between 1965 and 1975. Expecting that many people to share a significant number of the iconic experiences defining that "Generation" is sort of silly. Expecting them to act as a monolithic bloc of opinions, tastes, and desires is just idiotic.

And yet, these sorts of expectations are rampant. Particularly with regard to the "Baby Boom" generation, who are currently held to be a bunch of SUV-driving, rapaciously consumerist former hippies who "sold out" and are ruining the country. But again, this is just ridiculous-- we're talking tens of millions of people, here. The hard-core hippies and the soccer mons probably aren't even the same people.

Another example by anecdote: My parents were born in the late 1940's, which puts them on the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation. But again, they're not the media image of "Boomers."

They went to (and met at) a state college in Central New York, and their college experience was more Animal House than Woodstock. At the height of the 60's, my father was in the Peace Corps, teaching in a remote part of Ethiopia. Shortly after returning to the US, he married my mother, and started teaching sixth grade in a small town school district. Not long after that, I was born, and my sister a few years later.

And there's the rest of the story. The Disco Years? Married with kids, teaching in a small town. Reagan, Yuppies, and selling out? Married with kids, teaching in a small town. And so on.

(Going through this rant in the late 90's, I found that my friend Paul can top my "atypical Boomer parents" anecdotes: in the late 60's, his father was a doctor in the Army, stationed in Utah. There's not a lot of overlap between "Woodstock" and "Salt Lake City"...)

Talking about the Baby Boom as a population category makes sense (in that they are a large bump in the population distribution, and will put significant stress on the Social Security system when they start retiring en masse). Talking about them as a monolithic cultural bloc, whose self-centeredness is the source of every bad thing in the last decade or so, does not.

Posted at 9:33 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Monday, September 13, 2004

RSS Aggregators?

So, I'm looking for a way to streamline my blog reading, and the technology of choice for this appears to be some sort of news aggregator. Looking at what's out there on the web, it looks like Bloglines may be what I'm looking for, but I thought I should ask for advice from my tens of readers.

What I'm looking for: I'm using PC's running Windows for all my computing at the moment, so spiffy Mac-based products are right out. Ditto elegant open-source UNIX programs.

Kate relies on the LiveJournal hack, with a separate "Friends Page" of RSS feeds that have been set up as LiveJournals. I don't like this model, however, as all recent posts are displayed with at least some of the text. That means that a high-traffic blog like BoingBoing can easily push new stuff by other people way down to the bottom of the page. I don't want to have to do a lot of scrolling to see who's updated recently.

I tried a desktop-based news aggregator a while back (one of the big PC ones-- I no longer remember which), and I wasn't very happy with it. It gave a nice compact list of blogs, and marked the number of new posts, but it generated dozens of "false positives," with the same posts appearing multiple times, and lots of old posts being marked as "new" whenever a blog was updated. I spent as much time re-marking things read as I currently spend clicking through to sites to see if they have new posts.

It may be that there isn't a product out there that will do what I want. That wouldn't surprise me. If I'm not going to get exactly what I want, though, I'd like to know what people think of the products that do exist.

Posted at 9:43 AM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

More Vince Lombardi, Less Busby Berkeley, OK?

Football season started again this weekend, and once again, I was struck by the degree to which the NFL has turned into Broadway.

Score a touchdown? Do a little dance.

Make a routine five-yard reception? Get up and do a little dance.

Your man dropped the ball? Never mind that you were beat, do a little dance.

If you can't dance, don't worry-- just strike a pose. Flex and roar like you're a pro wrestler. It's fun!

I'm not trying to say that guys shouldn't get fired up for the games, or anything like that. I'm just saying that if I look up the New York Jets' schedule, I half expect to find them playing the Sharks in Week 9 ("When you're a Jet, you're a Jet,/ And you PLAY to WIN the GAME...") Somewhere in the last couple of years, the whole celebration dance fad has gotten completely out of hand. Enough is enough already.

As a blogger, I have an unworkable but emotionally satisfying solution to propose. Since the league and the referees can't manage to enforce the "excessive celebration" rules, we should just strike them from the books. But at the same time, we should get rid of the penalty for hitting a guy who is celebrating.

You want to stop just over the goal line and strike a pose? Fine, but be prepared to take a shot in the kidneys from the safety you're mocking. You want to spin the ball and make six-shooter motions? Fine, but don't be surprised if a linebacker takes your head off. You want to ham up the first down signal? Better make sure there isn't a defender close by first...

If nothing else, it would add an element of suspense to the celebration after a play.

Posted at 9:24 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Ghostwriter Wanted

We were out walking the dog last night, just at twilight, and Emmy got all excited by a rabbit on the side of the road. We were talking to her as we dragged her down the street, and I said something about it being a real, live, bunny.

"Well, we think it was a live rabbit," Kate said. I pointed out that it had hopped away from the dog, and she said "Well, it could be a zombie bunny."

"Nah. It moved way too fast for that," I said. Kate agreed that the proper mode of locomotion for a zombie is "shambling," which is sort of hard to manage when your movement is based on hopping.

This led to a slightly disturbing mental image of some mad Australian voodoo doctor making zombie kangaroos, thinking that they'd be useful guard animals for his Outback stronghold. Of course, when intruders arrived, the zombie 'roos would hop off after their prey, bits dropping off at every leap. After three or four bounds, they'd have jarred themselves all to pieces...

If I had a great idea for a comic fantasy novel set in Australia, I would definitely use this bit. Problem is, I don't have a great idea for a comic fantasy novel set in Australia (though, to be fair, Terry Pratchett didn't either, and he went ahead and wrote one...).

This happens to me all the time (see also my brilliant idea for a CSI episode). I get these weird ideas for things that would be wonderful vingettes in a longer work. They don't have enough substance to be stories in their own right, and I have neither the time nor the plotting ability to construct a novel that would contain them. I usually forget them almost immediately (I had another of these flashes at Worldcon, but while I clearly remember saying to Kate "If I had an idea for a _____ novel, I'd use that bit," I no longer remember the idea...), but they always seem brilliant at the time.

(I've occasionally toyed with the idea of putting them on a blog or a LiveJournal or some such, just to have them recorded somewhere. I'm hesitant to start a third blog, though, for fear that blogs are like cats, and once you pass some critical number, you quickly end up with forty of the damn things wandering around pissing on the furniture...)

I gotta get my life some writers...

Posted at 8:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

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