18 September 2005

Should math be beautiful, or practical?

The readers of Physics World recently voted on the greatest equation of all time. The result was a tie. One of the top vote-getters was Maxwell's equations, which describe electromagnetism. One physics professor I know said that understanding these equations was a big hurdle for students; once mastered, Einstein's work was a doddle. (He may have exaggerated a bit, but only a bit.) The usefulness of these equations is hard to overstate.

The other winner was Euler's formula, which can be written as:
e + 1 = 0
When mathematicians first see this, they find it incredible. This formula includes two basic transcendental numbers, e and π, the multiplicative identity (1), the additive identity (0), and the basis for the imaginary numbers (i) with nothing extraneous. At first blush, it's hard to believe that an imaginary exponent of a real number should wind up as a real. But seeing that it does is a wondrous experience.

I would guess that if you interviewed the voters, you would find that those who voted for Maxwell's equations were scientists and engineers, who value usefulness. But those who voted for Euler's formula would be mostly mathematicians, who value beauty.

Technorati Tags:

Next year, Caracas?

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela and bugaboo of the President of the US, has announced that he has proof that the US has plans to invade Venezuela. Now, I'm sure that the administration would love to have a distraction from the demonstration of their incompetence in New Orleans, and from the continuing incompetence in Iraq. I also have no doubt that the Pentagon has drawn up plans to invade Venezuela. They probably have plans for the invasion of Switzerland drawn up. But given the lack of sufficient resources, the rapidly-dwindling enlistments, the fast-rising deficit, and the bottom-of-the-barrel poll numbers, it seems hardly likely that this will come to pass. But it would make for interesting times.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Ah, the good old days

I was an undergraduate at Rice University for a very long time. Twelve years, to be exact. During all that time, the football team (we're talking American football here, not that wimpy soccer stuff) was always the whipping boy of the conference. One year, the team was named the worst in the nation in the Penthouse list. This caused great joy among the students, as it allowed us to chant "we're number 1!" at games.

One memorable year, we lost to LSU 77-0 one week, and then 72-15 to Texas the next, scores which stretch the limits of what's possible, given the limited time available during a game. The latter score was considered a moral victory, since no one had scored as much against Texas that season. This was somewhat tempered by their having sent in their cheerleaders to play the last quarter,

Disappointingly, Rice fell out of first place in Penthouse, and has since been only middling bad. But this week, hearteningly, Rice lost to Texas 51-10, giving this old Owl hopes that once again students will throng one small section of the stadium, screaming "we're number 1!"

Technorati Tags:

17 September 2005

Surely even Bush doesn't believe what he says

So Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the US ever. Also, one of the most expensive. Helping people recover from this is one of the purposes of government — it falls under that "promote the general welfare" clause. So, how are we going to pay for it? From taxes, of course. That's where the government's funding comes from. So, what does Bush say?
President Bush on Friday ruled out raising taxes to pay for Gulf Coast reconstruction, saying other government spending must be cut. "You bet it will cost money, but I'm confident we can handle it," he said.
Excuse me, but "other spending must be cut"? Has this administration, and this Congress, given any indication that they can do anything other than spend more, and cut taxes? And one way or another, their record deficits will be paid for from taxes, either now, or later, when grownups are back in charge. But Bush tried to be reassuring about that, too:
"It's going to cost whatever it's going to cost, and we're going to be wise about the money we spend," Bush said a day after laying out an expensive plan for rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast without spelling out how he would pay for it.
Any government that gives multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts to their cronies is, prima facie, emphatically not "wise about the money we spend".

Technorati Tags: , ,

16 September 2005

Internet .xxx real estate, going fast!

Patrick Trueman, of the conservative Family Research Council, takes on the Internet in a USA Today editorial, and makes it very clear that he just doesn't get it:
It was Churchill who observed, "There is nothing so exhilarating as to be shot at, without result!" And this must be the sentiment of pornographers. For years there has been near unanimous condemnation of the notion that they should be rewarded with even more space on the Internet. Yet, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet's governing agency, is moving ahead on this seductive idea.
Oh yeah, that precious limited "space on the Internet". It's a shame that it'll be going to porn merchants when it could be used for...what on earth is he talking about? It's clear that he doesn't understand that the name space on the Internet is, in practical terms, unlimited, and although some names are better than others, there's always room for another name.
Most who advocate for a .xxx domain for porn sites say children would be the chief beneficiaries because filtering pornography would become a simple matter - just block .xxx sites. That assumes that pornographers would give up their .com sites, the cash cow of the porn industry, and move to .xxx.

Pornographers may be sleazy, but that hasn't affected their sound business sense. They have been making millions on the .com domain since long before Michael Dell sold his first computer over the Internet, and they would keep all their current .com locations.
Maybe yes, maybe no. There's no inherent reason why .com should be any more profitable than .xxx. It's not as though .xxx sites would be any harder to find.

Besides, porn merchants really don't want children looking at their sites. They want people with credit cards looking at their sites. I think many of the big porn merchants would be happy to move to the .xxx domain.
Pornographers would simply expand to .xxx, thus perhaps doubling the number of porn sites and doubling their menace to society. Thus the argument that .xxx would benefit children is without any basis in fact.
News flash, Patrick: Pornographers can, today, buy just as many domain names as they want. In fact, some of them do buy many, many names, which doesn't increase the number of sites, it just increases the number of names under which they can be found. .xxx will likely have little or no effect on the number of sites, and if any do give up their .com names — and you'd better buy them when they give them up, Patrick, because if you don't, others will — you gotta count that as a win, yes?
Furthermore, creating a designated domain for pornography would simply have the effect of legitimizing much material that is likely illegal.
Ah, this is the real problem. The only action people like Patrick want taken on things they disapprove of is to eliminate them. It's all or nothing with them. There is no understanding that people are going to do these "bad" things anyway, and given that, the best thing to do is to minimize the harm that comes from them.

Just one example, one that has effects that can be seen here in Southeast Asia: social conservatives disapprove of premarital sex, so the only thing they want to do is to tell people not to have sex. Any hint of real sex education, ways to minimize the risk of pregnancy or disease, is anathema. The Bush administration has done their best to implement that policy, and given the financial clout of the US, has been fairly successful at it. And people, here and all over the world, are getting sick and dying for the sins of people like Patrick Trueman.

Technorati Tags: , ,

15 September 2005

At least he's not telling them to chew on razor blades

Thailand's prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has a job for the kids here (from the Bangkok Post 11 Sep 2005):
...children could be selling expressway coupon booklets at toll plazas, he said.

Apart from easing traffic congestion at toll plazas, the scheme is likely to improve the quality of life of the children, he said.
I read this and heard, "Kids! Go play, er, work in traffic!"

Sad to say, though, he's probably right that this will improve their quality of life. These children are currently selling garlands of flowers at stop lights, and if the coupon books are popular enough, this could raise the amount of money the kids make. (He's proposing that they earn 2 baht, about $0.05, for each book they sell.) The toll plazas are a more controlled environment, and thus likely safer. And his proposal includes accident insurance for the children.

But there aren't nearly enough toll plazas to employ all of the flower sellers, so this will wind up being yet another symbolic gesture from Thaksin. Shouldn't he working on making it possible for these children to do what they should be doing, going to school and conducting the serious business of children, which is play?

Technorati Tags: ,

13 September 2005

The death of Gwen Araujo

It's very strange to be in Thailand, reading about the killing of a transwoman in America, because so many of the issues in the case just wouldn't exist here.

I remember reading in a guidebook that there was no gay "scene" in Thailand — not because there were no homosexuals here, but because homosexuality was so well-integrated into Thai life that there was no need for a "scene". And from what I've seen, that's mostly true. You see homosexuals and cross-dressers everywhere here from shop clerks to executives. And while you might remark on someone's being gay, it seems to carry little more emotional weight than remarking on how fat they are.

And so the talk of "gay panic" is hard for Thais to understand. When I said that it had been claimed as a defense in murder cases in the US, I was asked, "So, it's OK to murder someone if you really, really hate them?" I tried to explain that it was put forward as a form of temporary insanity, but I wasn't very effective as an advocate. My heart just wasn't in it. Thank god.

Technorati Tags: , ,

American peace activist detained in Australia

Scott Parkin, who was lecturing on non-violent protest in Australia, has been detained as a threat to Australia's security. Under Australia's national security laws, it's possible that he could be deported without ever knowing, specifically, why.

It's difficult to imagine what real threat — other than ideological, given the Australian government's embrace of violence in Iraq — Mr Parkin could pose to Australia. Certainly the Australian who sent me that article believes this is being done at America's behest. But it's of a piece with the Iraq belligerents justifying going to war by claiming that Iraq posed a "threat", without ever specifying what that threat was. And it uncomfortably echoes other times when people were deemed to threaten the state based on what they thought, rather than what they did.

I hope the Australian government thinks again, and backs down on this. They should just say no to America on this.

Technorati Tags: , ,

12 September 2005

Looking for something to get mad about

The right wing of the blogosphere seems determined to get all outraged over the proposed design of the Flight 93 memorial. Said design incorporates a red crescent shape, and crescents are associated with Islam. One appears on the Pakistani flag, for example, and on the Turkish flag, and mosques often have a star and crescent at the top of their domes and minarets.

OK, true enough. But do the wingnuts really want to cede the moon and everything involving a circular arc to Islam? What about the crescent roll, which is said to commemorate the Austrian victory over the Turks at Vienna, a victory which stopped their conquest of Europe? What about the Crescent City — is this the hidden reason why Bush seemed so willing to let it be wiped out? And are we going to have to get rid of the third letter in the alphabet? And you know, the colonnades around St Peter's Square...

New Orleans is dying, and this is what they're worrying about?

P.S. Attaturk over at Sadly, No! proposes renaming crescent rolls as "freedom rolls".

Technorati Tags: , ,

If my blog were organic...

...it would look like this:The Phnom Penh

This, thanks to the cool tool OrganicHTML. Go on, give it a try.

Technorati Tags:

Heather has two mommies — and a daddy

You've probably heard about the embryo that's been proposed, using a fertilized egg cell from one mother, but a nucleus from another couple's fertilized egg. This would give the embryo genetic material from three parents. The nuclear DNA is half from the father and half from one mother, in the usual way, so what does the third parent have to do with this?

It turns out that mitochondria have their own DNA, which we inherit from our mothers. The speculation is that mitochondria were once free-living organisms which were "captured" by our very early unicellular ancestors. The mother from whose egg the nucleus would be taken could have a flaw in her mitochondrial DNA, which causes a muscle disease. The Franken-egg is part of a research project to see if it would be possible for a mother with this disease to have children who are free of it.

Now, the reason I'm interested in this is that I have a close relative who has a mitochondrial myopathy — in fact, he's the only person known to have his particular form of it. And the reason I recently had a muscle biopsy was because of the possibility of this disease in me.

I'm going to guess that the research will eventually find that the mitochondria and the rest of the cell, even if, long ago, they were independent, have become somewhat more entangled with one another over the eons, and that allowing such an embryo to reach maturity would make those dependencies manifest, just as cloning has revealed DNA to be more complex, and more dependent on the cellular environment, than was once assumed.

Technorati Tags:

Jack Kemp, New Deal advocate

Talking about the "golden opportunity" afforded by Katrina, Jack Kemp says:
Out of the tragedies of the U.S. Civil War and World War II, Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt imagined an unimaginable future. They created transformative programs that helped define the American dream of ownership and economic empowerment. Lincoln's Homesteading Act empowered people with title to 160 acres of land, free, and Roosevelt's Federal Housing Authority and GI Bill of Rights offered ways for capital-less people to own a house and to receive higher education.
Sounds like he's advocating a massive government giveaway program to help build a just, more equitable South, doesn't it?

Yeah, right:
As we think about the government's role in assisting people get back on their feet after Katrina, we should be thinking about how to expand private property rights, business ownership and create rational incentives to build a new Gulf Coast and Delta Region unencumbered by bureaucratic rules and strictures. We have an enormous opportunity to replace outmoded government programs and bureaucracies with public-private partnerships and new private institutions that are built upon the foundation of individual ownership, private property rights, personal responsibility and social justice that an ownership society brings.
I would bet that he's not talking about protecting the rights of the poor to the shacks in which they live and which, in many cases, own. This all sounds like code for getting rid of environmental regulation entirely.

What he doesn't seem to realize is that the EPA was formed precisely because many people do not take personal responsibility and social justice seriously. And sure, that applies to the poor as well as the rich, but a refinery owner has much larger potential impact on the environment than a panhandler with nowhere but an alley in which to pee.

He goes on to advocate eliminating the estate tax in the affected areas, which would have no effect, since the very few rich people who are affected by this tax aren't the ones who were hurt by the disaster. In fact, he hits all of the anti-tax high points: capital gains taxes (how many of the poor are affected by this?), income tax, and business's share of the Social Security tax.

The one place where he's advocating doing something for the poor is in giving them school and housing vouchers "to make a down payment on a house anywhere in the country". You see, conservatives actually like New Orleans. As Bush said, it's a great place to party. It's just that they would like it a whole lot better if it those impoverished blacks who vote for Democrats lived somewhere else.

Technorati Tags: ,

Touched by His Noodly Appendage

A common response from science-believing folk — including yours truly — to the continuing attempts to inject religious belief into the science curriculum has been to state that such beliefs are not scientific because they cannot be disproven. If you believe, for instance, that the world was created on 2 October 1966, and everything sprang into being with created histories and memories, but that nothing really existed before that point, there is simply no way to disprove it. The same is true of the existence of a god who has been defined to be undetectable by any means.

Science also offers no way to distinguish between religions, as none have any truth value, at least the kind of truth with which science concerns itself. You may prefer Zoroastrianism based on the length of its tradition, that it was the faith of your parents, and because you prefer the moral system it promulgates, but none of these are scientific reasons for preferring it.

As I say, scientists have been making this argument for a long time, but nothing convinces like a good example — and now we have one. The recently-formed Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the fastest-growing religion in the world. It's a joke, of course, but one that's meant to illustrate a serious point, that there is no scientific reason for preferring "intelligent design" to FSMism.

And a personal thank you to Norm & Lisa, who brought me an FSM shirt. I wear it with pride, not because I'm anti-religion, but because I'm pro-science.

Technorati Tags: , ,

11 September 2005

Good news on the hydrogen front

If the claims made by Amminex are true, hydrogen as a fuel is a step closer to reality. They say they've devised a safe, cheap way to store, transport, and use hydrogen, apparently by embedding it in a solid matrix of some kind.

Now all we need is a cheap, efficient way to produce the stuff. Whatever it is, I hope it's something that can be used on a small scale, so that it becomes usable by small communities. This would reduce energy dependence, since anyone could produce it, and reduce energy wastage, since it would not have to be transported over large distances. It would even help with national security, since having distributed production, and no distribution network necessary, removes what is currently one of the most cost-effective targets for terrorism.

Personally, I would bet on some microbe that is able to break up water. But anything that reduces the world's dependence on the few oil-producing nations, reduces pollution, slows global warming, and makes us safer would be very welcome indeed.

Technorati Tags: ,

Massachusetts opts for open file formats

An article on Forbes states that Massachusetts has proposed
that at the beginning of 2007 it is planning to order all state employees to create and save documents using only open format software.
The permissible formats would be OpenDocument, which is the free OpenOffice's native format, and Adobe's PDF format. Both of these formats are royalty-free, meaning that any software — including Microsoft's, if they ever get over their loathing of anything that doesn't produce royalties — is free to read and write them without charge.

Open formats are, for users, an unreservedly Good Thing. Think of plain text files, the ones whose names probably end in ".txt" on your computer. How many times have you not had a program which could open them? As far as I know, every text editor and word processor available today can read and write a plain text file — on my laptop, I count 68 programs which know how to read them.

On the other hand, if you get e-mailed a Visio file, as a client of mine did recently, but don't own Visio, you're out of luck. This is especially true in a place like Cambodia, where the correct version of the program you need may not be available at any price.

Another problem is that you may need to read an old file, but the program that created it runs only on hardware that you no longer have. Having that file in an open standard dramatically increases your chances of being able to read it, since you're not locked into a single, possibly defunct, software vendor.

One further advantage of using open standards is that an organization can specify what file formats and communication protocols an employee's computer needs to support, rather than mandating what specific hardware and software that computer must have. This allows employees to use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. This in turn can reduce support costs, since those users generally already know how to — and, just as importantly, want to — fix most problems on their preferred platform.

So hooray for Massachusetts. I'm expecting many national governments in Asia to do something similar. And if enough places, and enough companies, insist on open standards, maybe Microsoft will someday decide it's in their interests to play nicely with the other kids on the block. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

Technorati Tags: , ,

10 September 2005

The gummint knows what you've been printing

If you've been using a color laser printer, that is. Printer manufacturers encode information about the printer into the yellow dot patterns, which can then be used to trace which printer was used; as most printers are purchased with credit cards, this can then be used to find whoever printed it.

I'm sure they justified this saying that it would be used to track counterfeiters. Does anyone believe that it won't be used to track political dissent?

Technorati Tags: ,

08 September 2005

The things you hear...

...in New York, apparently. Here's a sample:
Guy: Your copy machine is out of cards.
Store dude: Yes, I'm sorry.
Guy: Can I just pay you to make copies?
Store dude: It's out of cards, I have no way to make it work.
Guy: Can I use this one?
Store dude: That one's just for color copies. Sorry, I don't make the rules.
Guy: You sound like a real loser.
Store dude: And yet, I'm about to complete my objective — which is to tell you to fuck off — while you still don't have your copies.

Technorati Tags:

Who is your cable bill addressed to?

I know this is old news, but I bring it up just to say that I once lived in a house where an employee of the electric company had once resided. As a result, our electricity bill was addressed to "Saint Thomas Aquinas". It was always a little odd, getting phone calls for him.

Technorati Tags:

For the font geeks among us...

An alert friend sends this documentary of a typeface, its origins, fall from grace, rescue by the Beach Boys (really), and current ubiquity.

Technorati Tags:

Popcorn, the hidden killer

From CHEST, via WebMD, we find out that the artificially butter-flavored grease on your microwave popcorn is not only bad, it's also bad for you:
Severe airways obstruction and bronchiolitis obliterans have been reported inmicrowave popcorn production workers and attributed to inhalation of flavoring agents.

Technorati Tags: ,

We failed Katrina's victims

There's a first-hand account from a couple of people who got caught by the hurricane going around the blogs right now. Click on that link and go read it. I'll wait here.

Then contrast that with Barbara Bush's statement that "...so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them", and her son's telling the man in charge of the relief effort that he was doing "a heck of a job". It becomes clear that once the kind of people they know — those who have another home, and a private plane to take them there — are taken care of, they really don't understand, or care, what happens to everyone else. The president thoughtlessly delays care to the sick, hungry, and homeless so that he can get his photo opp with firemen. His mother rivals Marie Antoinette in her lack of understanding of the plight of the poor.

We've had four years since 9/11 exposed our lack of preparedness for major disasters, and Bush became president promising to protect us from those disasters. But when the disaster struck — and it could just as easily have been a terrorist bomb which destroyed the levees — no one was ready.

The people I talk to here in Southeast Asia simply cannot believe that things got so bad in New Orleans, that such a rich country which (after a few missteps) helped so much after the tsunami here, was utterly unable to deal with a crisis of its own.

This alone is enough that Bush and his administration should be counted as miserable failures. And we should be ashamed of having allowed such incompetence to govern us.

Technorati Tags: , ,

The US needs New Orleans

I was talking one day with a timber company executive, and he told me that they were doing the people of the US a service by clearing out the difficult terrain of the wilderness and replacing it with "managed forest". He showed me two pictures, one of a natural forest, thick with underbrush, and the other of what his company left behind, with trees well spaced in orderly rows and open spaces in between. He asked me which I preferred, and I said the "wild" forest, an answer he professed not to believe, as "no one" could possibly prefer the natural forest over the "managed" one.

But he was wrong. Wilderness is difficult and uncomfortable, and isn't in the least orderly. It is also beautiful and inspiring in a way that nothing man-made ever is. Something in most people's souls hunger for it. Even though age and infirmity have severely limited the time I can spend in the wilderness, I am comforted simply by knowing it's there, that something remains of the places where we became human, of what greeted the first people. When the earth loses its last wild place, humanity will lose part of its soul.

In American culture, New Orleans is our cultural wild place, a place where danger and opportunity lurk around every corner, where behind every door lies mystery. It's a place where those who live safe suburban lives can go to let themselves be free. The language is different there, a strange accent more Brooklyn than Louisiana, laced with words that were once French, like "voo car-ay" (Vieux Carré). Even the legal system is different, a relic of French colonial times, so different that few lawyers can practice both in Louisiana and the rest of the US.

When in New Orleans, or in the wilderness, we can question the assumptions we make about our lives. We learn that we don't really "need" a new car, or another pair of shoes we'll never wear; that the behavior we think of as mandated by natural law is really just custom, that nothing bad is going to happen if we "Show your tits!" for a string of plastic beads.

A friend who used to live in New Orleans said that on her way to work one morning, she drove past a man dressed in a clown suit who was haranguing passing traffic. He was clearly on a long, dedicated drunk, his clothes were torn, and his makeup ruined. Later, at work, my friend realized that she hadn't thought this odd enough to have commented on it to her co-workers. Living in New Orleans had increased her range of human possibility. And when she finally left the city, she mourned, and still mourns, the danger-laced freedom and excitement of the place.

For her, for me, for everyone who loves wild things, I hope that New Orleans rises again from the waters still dirty, dark, and dangerous. If not, it will be the death of part of the American soul.

Laissez les bon temps roulez. Please.

Technorati Tags: