Archive for September 2011

Do Not Get Out Of The Boat

September 28, 2011

Daily Kos has recently posted what may be the most eyeball-melting, brain corroding wingnut rap ever.  I’m not going to embed it here.  It’s that bad.  Don’t go watch it if you value any illusions you may yet possess about the possibility of the advance of civilization.  Any action you take from here — on you, my brothers and sisters.

The barbarians over at the GOS even had the sadist’s delight in getting this up at 6 p.m. Eastern time — dinner, or, for me and my family, the start of the new year observances that focus on the contemplation of the twelve months just past.

Talk about harshing one’s mellow.  Seriously, that’s a vid that could curdle any supply of milk within parsecs.

All of which leads to the question:  what is it about wingnuttery that yields such dire, humorless, dispiriting simulacrums of art.  Hell — not even art, but entertainment?  Even the merest of pleasures?

We did not deserve this.

Image:  Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne,  Altogether Too Stupid, (a peasant woman gets her wits sharpened on the knife-grinder’s whetstone as other are drawn in by the miracle cure), before 1662.  I know I’ve used this one before — but damn, it’s on point.

“I knew I was going to take the wrong train….”

September 27, 2011

…”so I left early.”

Thus sayeth that noted neutrino expert Yogi Berra, Bb.D.

Because humankind cannot live by politics alone, here’s a bit of an off-angle reaction to the biggest news in physics since Big Al (as I thought of him through a decade of film-and-book making/writing on the good Dr. Einstein) looked out of his window and wondered what would happen if the roofer he was watching slipped and fell.  Before the poor fellow hit the pavement, of course.

That would be the announcement last Friday that an Italian team of physicists sent a beam of neutrinos from the CERN high energy physics facilty on the Franco-Swiss border through the Alps to a detector in the Italian national physics lab in Gran Sasso, a journey of almost 460 miles (~730 km).  The newsworthy bit was that the experimenters measured the speed with which some 16,000 or so neutrinos covered that distance, and found that it very slightly exceeded the speed of light, “c”  — the canonical limit within Einstein’s special theory of relativity that nothing may exceed.*

The effect detected by the experiment, known as OPERA, was small:  1 part in about 40,000 greater than c.  But any breaking of the light barrier is a huge deal.  If the result stands up, we’re in for a fun ride.  There will be lots of new physics to be found.  Good initial reactions can be found all over the physics blogosphere — try this, or this to get started.

For my part, as someone who’s been observing physics from the outside since I first grew fascinated with Einstein’s work in the late 1980s, I’m reminded a bit of the last decade of the nineteenth century.  In 1894 the (to-be) Nobel laureate A. A. Michelson famously told an audience at the University of Chicago that

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.

Timing is everything:  in  1895, just one year after Michelson gave his speech Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays, and it was off to the races into the 20th century revolutions in physics.

Recently, folks may have been forgiven for feeling at least a little bit of what Michelson did, as by the 1990s, every major relevant experiment over the previous couple of decades had confirmed the details of the Standard Model of particle physics.

That theory is not complete.   It does not encompass General Relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity, for example, and it has a just the whiff of an ad hoc quality to it.  It has troubled a fair number of observers that the Standard Model comes with a number of dials (parameters) that have to be set by hand, as it were, to make all the sums come out right.

For all that, the theory proved for decades to be astonishingly powerful:  those twenty or so parameters have paid for themselves with hundreds — thousands, really — successful predictions.  But the frustrating bit has been that for many, many years, very clever people have tried and failed  to find something that the Model got wrong that would lead to a more comprehensive picture of reality.  Physics, if not confined to what Michelson quoted a colleague as saying — measurements of the sixth decimal place — seemed to some to be grasping for something to liven up the joint again.†

And then, of course, we got dark matter.  Dark matter has been hanging around for a while — roughly forty years, ever since Vera Rubin first measured motions in distant galaxies that implied the presence of much more mass than could be accounted for by the available luminescent matter —  stars.  We’re still waiting for a definitive understanding of what all that mass is made of.

More recently, dark energy (or a non-zero cosmological constant, if you prefer) appeared on the scene — a yet more challenging observation. Dark energy was first detected by a pair of teams measuring the light from a particular type of supernova. Reporting in 1998 and 1999, they confirmed that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace — and putting that information into the framework of Big Bang cosmology generated an astonishing number:  about three quarters of the stuff in the universe — the sum of mass and energy present within the cosmos– comes i the form of whatever this dark energy turns out to be.


In other words:  we live in interesting times.  And thankfully, some such circumstances — those outside of politics — are actually interesting as in fun, rather than applying the usual torque that line evokes.

There are huge, significant new problems out there, with at least some real prospect of observational discoveries that could lead to major shifts in our understanding of the cosmos we call home.  This neutrino result would lead to another such shift — if it holds up — and it would thus stand both as an example of virtuoso measurement and as a great big sloppy kiss of an invitation to theorists who will have to rethink special relativity — for a century one of the fundamental principals of existence, a fact of life in the universe so fundamental that any physical result had to conform to it or fail.

To be sure, there’s a good way to go yet before we plunk the leaders of the OPERA team into sedan chairs and bear them off in triumph to Stockholm.  As of four or five days into the era of superluminal neutrinos, no one has found an obvious killing flaw in the work, but it’s a complicated experiment, and confirmation would be so consequential that every physicist I’ve talked to or read has cautioned me not to bet the rent money on it.

(Thanks xkcd)

But even as we wait — probably not too long, as these things go — for another experimental team to reproduce or demolish this initial finding, we can enjoy the one certain decay product of a collision between theoretical physics and the Twitterverse.

That would be neutrino jokes (perhaps an acquired taste).  Hence these, gathered by the L.A. Times.  (h/t @JenLucPiquant).

My favorite (also plumped by regular commenter SiubhanDuinne in a previous thread):

We don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here, said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

Yeah.  An acquired taste.

*There is a history of theoretical musings about faster-than-light particles that predates this experiment, but such particles, dubbed tachyons, are understood never to slow to the speed of light.  In this conception, the speed of light is a limit that can be approached from either side — below or above — but never crossed.  So, for those of us in the slow lane, the  cartoon description of the speed of light as a speed limit has been close enough to right to do the job.  We do live in interesting times.

†The “sixth decimal point” statement has earned Michelson a lot of ridicule over the years.  Certainly, it was bad luck indeed to provide such a quotable quote just one year before the gaudy show-stopper of X-rays.  But on reading this paper (pdf) on Michelson’s thinking about measurement, I’m reminded he’s at least partly the victim of a bad rap.  In his 1894 speech he expressly pointed out that two problems pressing on physicists at the time were the “constitution of matter and the ether and the true mechanism of light” — in other words, the questions that lead directly to both relativity and the quantum theory.  (Thanks to Ed Bertschinger for discussing this point with me; he is not to blame for any use I made of his knowledge.)

And though Michelson was clearly wrong in the import of his statement — the “nothing left but the details” suggestion — still, as a master of meticulous experimental technique, he can be credited with a deep, and clearly correct idea:  high precision measurement was and remains the probe through which new phenomena could be discovered.  The neutrino experiment that has prompted all this hullabaloo may indeed be the latest example of the power of experimental acuity to evoke genuinely new insights.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888.  (Predictable, I know — but a variation on the usual, and a gorgeous painting).

Facts Matter (Education Division)

September 27, 2011

Kay over at Balloon Juice recently posted on Republican whining that our president thinks governing is actually something worth doing.  I agree both with her disdain for the president’s (and, in my view) our polity’s opponents, and her argument that in fact it is important to try to solve problems before they become crises.

That’s especially true in the case of No Child Left Behind, which threatens real disruption when the day of reckoning comes (soon, in 2014) — with the heaviest impact falling, of course, on those least able to bear it.

But it is important to remember as well that Obama is no knight sans peur and sans reproche in the school reform fight.

I’m no kind of expert here, but what has consistently driven me crazy every time I’ve dipped a toe into the literature on education reform is the near-total absence of any actual reason to believe anything so called reformers say.

So without further ado, I’ll turn the critique over to Diane Ravitch,  a stalwart in chronicling and condemning the Overlords’ attempt to remake American education to some abstract vision.  In her latest, a damning review of Stephen Brill’s panagyric to the grand alliance of Wall St. viceroys and Silicon Valley technophiles, she offers this summary of the Obama administration’s approach to the reform of reform:

The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms—remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration—is supported by experience or evidence.

Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools. In addition, the “Common Core State Standards” in reading and mathematics that states must adopt if they hope to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education have never been subjected to field-testing.

I am pretty close to an O-bot, I guess, and I do think that we have in President Obama one of the most sneakily effective drivers of real policy change to be seen around these parts for a long time.  And again, I’m nothing like an education reporter.

But my background as a science writer makes me very suspicious.  The Obama waiver seems better than the alternative of the NCLB guillotine — Obama at his worst is a meliorist, a believer in the possibility of progress through human endeavor.  But the weakness of the empirical justification for what is on offer sticks in my craw…and it reminds me that even with the best of our friends, being on the right side of the angels most of the time still means that some moments are spent on the far side of that line.  Which bears noticing, and an attempt to repair.

Oh — and this all gives me a very sketchy excuse to post a wonderful video turned up by my Swiss science writing colleague Reto Schneider.  The video documents what purports to be a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.”  It is…well see for yourself, and think Sokal before Sokal:

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See how great all that science-y stuff is for education and all?

For the details on the hoax (and the astonishing fact that even after being told the whole thing was a fake, some members in the audience persisted in seriously-intended questions!), check out what Reto has to say at the link above.

Image:  Antonio de Pereda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655

Eine Kleine Sunday Light Reading

September 25, 2011

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet the last several days, I know.  That’s what happens when a lot of years thinking about Albert Einstein brings one an invitation to the city of Medellin, Colombia to talk Big Al to the public.

Medellin is a fascinating place, as it happens, though I didn’t get that much time to explore.  I was struck throughout my visit at the oddness of the mix of circumstances that brought me to a place I’d truly never imagined I’d go, to speak of relativity, Hitler, and all kinds of things.  Funny old life and all that.

It’s not that complicated to get to Medellin from Boston — a hop to Miami and then a direct flight from there — but the plane rides and the layovers added up to the longest stretch of uninterrupted pure reading time I’ve had in a while.  On the way down, I finished Tom Bissell’s really interesting Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter — I may write about this non-gamer’s reaction to Bissell’s attempt to locate the game-specific artistic core of the genre — but what has me captivated from a couple of days ago is my re-entry into Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet.

That book, a memoir written from deep within the consuming fact of Judt’s last illness — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — is really a collection of short essay/memories.  Judt was a historian — his work centers on post-war Europe — and a public intellectual, the author of essays that detailed the flaws and follies of politics and culture on both sides of the Atlantic with bite — even ferocity.  The Memory Chalet touches on such concerns only obliquely.  But even so, in the midst of this exercise of recollection, flashes of connection arc across time and wit to produce sudden, wonderful set pieces.

Like the one prompted by a remembrance of Britain’s end-of and post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee — so precisely rendered as to strike switchblade slash of political observation that makes me wish (again) that this particular wit were still unsheathed:

Moral seriousness in public life is like pornography:  hard to define but you know it when you see it.  It describes a coherence of intention and action, an ethic of political responsibilty.  All politics is the art of the possible.  But art too has its ethic.  If politicians were painters, with FDR as Titian and Churchill as Rubens, then Atlee would be the Vermeer of the profession:  precise, restrained — and long undervalued.


Bill Clinton might aspire to the heights of Salvador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing — and cupidity — of Damien Hurst.

Blair as Hurst.  Perfect.

See what I mean, though?  Would that Judt were around to wrap mind and apply pen to the freak show of contemporary Republican politics!

One more thing.  Given that it’s Sunday, and we should not live by politics alone, here’s a bonus bit of Judt, pure memory here, in a brief passage that tries to capture an identity formed through a childhood transected by warring cuisines:  the postwar English assaults against food; his grandparents’ resistant strain of Eastern European Jewish Sabbath meals; the first hints of a world of food beyond Land’s End.  What did all this add up to for the grown up Judt, that sophisticated citizen of Intelligentsia?  This:

As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory?  Naan dunked in matzohball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras.  We are what we ate.  And I am very English

For me, it would be the wonton soup from the long lost Yee’s Canton Café — the consequence of having a Jewish historian of China for a father, who declared that the Chief Rabbinate’s writ ended at the door to a Chinese restaurant — followed by my mothers’ leg of lamb with red currant jelly.  You?

Image:  J. Vermeer, The Geographer, c. 1668-1669.


For rage and sorrow…

September 16, 2011

…You might want to check out Susan from 29’s diary over at GOS, in which she writes on the moral horror that was a Republican Presidential debate in which the audience cheered the death of an uninsured man — Susan’s brother, Steve Patience.

I won’t say that the moment — or that audience — defines America.

But America is a place where poor — and not so badly off, in fact — suffer and die with what a medical student I once knew termed “financial arrest” within a badly broken medical system.

It’s a place where we know we can do better, and are in fact beginning to do so — not enough, but it’s a start — as long as the health care bill survives.

At the same time, America is indeed the place in which the “I’ve got mine, Jack” crowd that gets loud at the news of Steve Patience’s death could define who we all are for decades to come.

So when you think of all the ways Obama has betrayed you  this week, or how the Democratic congressman or senator representing you or the next door district or state just hasn’t gotten on top of what this country needs, or really, how both major parties are tied in way too tightly with the monied interests — there’s reality to be found there.

As a practical matter, for the next thirteen months, whatever truth there is to any of our grievances with our Democratic leaders doesn’t matter.  Not one damn bit.  (I.e. – what Tim F. says.)

Bonus video:  Susan of 29 in her own words, courtesy of Move On:

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You Can Always Tell A Harvard Man (And Woman)…

September 16, 2011

…You just can’t tell how much damage they will do.

The reality-based community took it on the chin again this week in a whole bunch of ways.  One that caught my eye came in this exchange, reported in TPM:

“[I]f you want a role that has benefit programs for older Americans, like the ones we’ve had in the past, and that operate for the rest of the government like the ones we’ve had in the past, then more tax revenue is needed than under current tax rates,” [Congressional Budget Office chief Doug]Elmendorf said. “On the other hand, if one wants those tax rates, then one has to make very significant changes in spending programs for older Americans” or all the rest of the government’s functions.

Given where Congress finds itself — a separate story that began over a year ago — that’s the debate Democrats want to be having. Should we roll back safety net programs in order not to increase taxes on the wealthy?…And it’s precisely the debate Republicans do not want to have. So they spent Tuesday trying to reorient the conversation: instead of arguing in favor of their preferred and informed decisions about the future of the country, they posited a scenario where crisis is upon us already and the only plausible way to avert fiscal catastrophe and help the country end its economic slump is to cut, cut, cut right now.

“There’s a recent report by Alberto Alesina of Harvard University,” noted Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), “showing that the most successful and pro-growth deficit reduction took place in countries that relied chiefly on austerity programs, spending cuts. And nations that relied more on tax increases were less successful in reducing the deficits and had slower economic growth.”

Ah, one more zombie lie — or rather an error, or failed analysis turned into a public lie by those who repeat it.

Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna published this paper in 2009.  Portman accurately described what it claimed to demonstrate.  To say, as Brian Beutler does in the TPM piece, that this work is controversial is surely true — just as remarking that a blue whale is large is a valid statement.  Here’s Krugman discussing it shortly after publication, capturing the flavor of informed (as in, statistics-competent) criticism.  There are, of course, a wealth of other takes a google’s length away.

But the real problem is that Krugman’s and others’ initial questions of the work, were, of course correct.

To put it in the way natural scientists do when confronted by similar challenges to well-established knowledge, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  Here, if you want to say something contrarian about experiences as empirically well documented as the effects of fiscal austerity on economies, you need to nail every facet of the argument.  You don’t just get to say the speed of light in a vacuum in the early universe was different from that speed now (a real claim).  You gotta prove it.  So far, eighty years of trying to do so for both the tired light hypothesis and the anti-Keynsian fairy-dusters have been unsuccessful.

This latest attempt to assert (spherical) cows are (spheroidal) chickens is no different.  The most recent analysis of Alesina and Ardagna’s claims comes  in this report from the IMF research shop.  Essentially, the new work shows, the Harvard team constructed their data universe in way that led them into a fundamental mistake, as Krugman’s describes:

…results purporting to show economic expansion following spending cuts and/or tax increases were based on a statistical illusion: an expanding economy can often lead to rising revenue and/or falling spending (e.g. because safety-net spending falls or because the government cuts back in an attempt to cool off inflationary pressures). And as a result, what the Alesina-Ardagna results capture is muddle by reverse causation.

The IMF authors say something similar with proper professional decorum r — which makes their conclusion yet more rhetorically devastating:

Estimation results based on measuring discretionary changes in fiscal policy using cyclically-adjusted fiscal data––a practice often used in the literature––suggest that fiscal consolidation stimulates private domestic demand in the short term, providing support for the hypothesis. This result is consistent with a literature that finds that fiscal contractions can be expansionary. However, our analysis suggests that using cyclically-adjusted data to estimate the effects of fiscal consolidation biases the analysis toward overstating expansionary effects.

In contrast, estimation results based on fiscal actions identified directly from contemporaneous policy documents provide little support for the expansionary austerity hypothesis. In particular, we compile an international dataset of fiscal policy adjustments motivated by a desire to reduce the budget deficit and not in response to current and prospective economic conditions using the Romer and Romer (2010) historical approach. Based on the fiscal actions thus identified, our baseline specification implies that a 1 percent of GDP fiscal consolidation reduces real private consumption by 0.75 percent within two years, while real GDP declines by 0.62 percent. The baseline results survive a battery of robustness tests. Our main finding that fiscal consolidation is contractionary holds up in cases where one would most expect fiscal consolidation to raise private domestic demand. In particular, even large spending-based fiscal retrenchments are contractionary, as are fiscal consolidations occurring in economies with a high perceived sovereign default risk.

Put that more simply:  you need to look at what really happened during the actual events you want to understand if you are going to make any sense of the situation.  When you look at a derived model of those events, you miss what people actually said and did, and you are vulnerable to a whole host of methodological traps to which any act of model-making is subject — and hence you screw up.  Which is what the Harvard pair appears to have done.

I don’t know what Alesina and Ardagna will say to all this, or about the use of their conclusions by Senator Portman.  But, of course, once it’s out there, they could issue mea culpas from the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, and it wouldn’t matter.

That’s the nub:  the real issue is that credentialed economists produced work that does not conform to reality — but does conform to what our friends in the Comfort the Comfortable lobby would wish to be true…and hence, it will never die.  Just to repeat:  it is not true that cutting demand in an economy with a demand gap in the gazillions will magically conjure up folks willing to spend.

Oh — and one more thing:  Portman knew, or should have, that the work he cited was, to say it most nicely, unproven. The IMF research, only the latest in a series of demonstrations of flaws in the Alesina-Ardagna conclusions, was released early in the summer, more than two months before the hearing this week.

If Portman did not pick up on work of direct relevance to their argument about the proper course for our country to steer, then he and his staff are incompetent, and should have no role in setting policy for a rowboat, much less for a society and economy on which the lives and happiness billions at home and abroad depend.  If he did know about it, then he’s a lying scum who has no business in any position of power.

You make the call.

So, just to get back to the underlying reality (and to belabor the obvious one more time): as the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was reminded this week, starving an already famished economy of someone, anyone, the government willing to spend is the way to screw your economy, and especially those most vulnerable in it.

Which, of course, is exactly what the Republican deficit hallelujah chorus is trying (and mostly succeeding) in doing to us.

Images:  David Vinckboons, Distribution of Loaves to the Poorbefore 1650.

Viktor Oliva, The Absinthe Drinker, 1901

Department of Cool: Housing Division

September 15, 2011

Not to go all MIT on y’all, but this piece from the news office hit my desktop today.

The gist:  a design studio taught within the MIT Department of Architecture in 2009 posed the challenge of coming up with a house design that could be built for $1,000, with the idea that such housing could be used in the wake of natural disasters like the then fresh-in-memory Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

Masters student Ying chee Chui came up with a 500 square foot dwelling that has now been built in a town in Sichuan for $5,925.  Dubbed a “Pinwheel House,”…

It has a modular layout, with rectangular room units surrounding a central courtyard space. “The module can be duplicated and rotated, and then it becomes a house,” Chui says. “The construction is easy enough, because if you know how to build a single module, you can build the whole house.”

Part of the boost in cost from the design target came from enlarging the original plan to 800 sq. ft., and part reflects prototyping costs — but the point is being made:  there are alternative approaches to both design and construction methodology that can produce good housing for a much larger swath of the world’s people than now possess it.

Two postscripts:  first:  this year’s version of the same studio course is looking at $10K houses for Japan in the wake of the earthquake-tsunami disaster.

Second:  the linked article is sadly lacking in the heart of the cool — the tech within and the details of the layout and production methods for the Sichuan prototype as it now exists.  I’ll try to track those down and post later.

Image:  Meister der Weltenchronik, Construction of the Tower of Babel, c. 1380


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