Weekend Strangness

The weekend news barrens started on Friday this week with several articles showing us that weird and strange can still be appreciated, at least in and around the overload of irrelevant and useless celebrities.

The Yankee government postal service has (apparently) decided to issue a postal commemorative sheet for the movie melange Star Wars.[Link] In a fit of bureaucratic indecisiveness and probably cowering over the Walter Reed debacle, they are submitting the decision of which stamp off the sheet to a voting frenzy of popularity. The voting is highly undemocratic, anyone who visits the site is rationed to one vote per day, not one vote total. Indeed it is totally meaningless other than some sort of personal satisfaction?

One suspects since the stamp will be the new $0.41 denomination that this is a giant misinformation campaign by the YG to disguise the on-going disaster that the postal service has become in the modern economy. Also, one suspects the influence of Yankee politicians in the form of the voting. Certainly the vote often flavor is familiar from our experiences in places like Boston and Chicago.

We may also hope that the stamps are better looking in  the actuality than in the graphics on line. Since the postal service has subcontracted some stamp production to outside printers, such as the American Banknote Company, the quality of stamp artwork has improved significantly, both inside and outside the service. This seems to be some form of support for the argument that competition improves product. If that is the case, it should have been applied here because these stamps certainly have a drab and Gothic look to them, faintly reminiscent of the early innovations in the ’60’s of regular issues, but certainly not up to the standards we expect these days for commemoratives.

It is also somewhat startling given the extreme political correctness of the postal service to see them publicizing themselves by dressing up postal boxes as robots and issuing these stamps commemorating imaginary regimes that practiced all manner of slavery and repression. Perhaps this is a new fairness on the part of the postal service and we may expect a new series of stamps honoring actual slave masters and oppressors such as Nathan Bedford Forrest and Adolph Eichmann? Or perhaps a stamp commemorating the Japanese-American Internment Camps?

While we’re on politicians, I see that the senior senator of Massachusetts, the one who drives cars into the water is trying to kill off a wind power project that would compromise the sea view from his palatial Hyannisport estate.[Link] Hmmmm. Has anyone told the senator that he is an American and not a Roman?

The good news of this is that perhaps this type of political dedication and awareness will accelerate the extinction of homo yankeeass and end the beloved reconstruction occupation of the Sowth. Not that Sowthern politicians are any better capable of making sane and sound decisions or serving their electorates, but at least then they are our crooked, dishonest, blackguards and not those acceptable to the Yankee overlords.

Meanwhile, some European researchers have suggested an explanation for observed galactic behavior that they claim negates the need for “dark energy”.[Link] This would be good news if it be accurate and applicable, since we generally like simplicity and no one has yet gotten dark energy much beyond the shadows under the bed stage of elaboration and demonstration.

The theory might be labeled the “bubble plastic” theory since it attempts to explain the behavior by the gravitational collapse of bunches of matter at fairly small scales. The analogy of popping one bubble at a time in bubble plastic eventually collapsing a large wad is this appropriate and so neat that I wish I had thought of it. Certainly it will rank in the forefront of physics name humor.

Some of the folks at fair Harvard, the other shul on the Charles that is noted for students rowing boats and graduates providing the kings of America, have dismissed the idea as unlikely because of its lack of large scale effect. They are somewhat more positive of the beneficial effects of extract of Willow bark, commonly known as aspirin, for providing some reduction in risk of heart disease and cancer.[Link]

Finally, from Kenya, where the local Christian shamen have been protesting the national museum’s collection of pre-sapiens remains, comes some interesting mumblings about homo rudolfensis not being as anomalous as previous thought.[Link] Evidently the projection of rudolfensis having a rather contemporary flat face and large brain were the result of some inaccurate rules of thumb that have since been discredited.

This appears to be a rather serious blow to the intelligent design proponents who had been using rudolfensis as evidence that sapiens was created rather than evolved and all the other hominid remains had been salted in place as a sort of mystical prank or deity joke. Given their alogic and thought trains, it is amazing to remind oneself that William of Occam was a Franciscan friar. 

Holier Than

Religion was supposedly invented to provide an explanation for things that threaten people that the people cannot contend with. This is why religion, with the military, are the two secondary fundamental human organizations. Government, of course, is the primary fundamental human organization. The military was invented to address contendable threats.

So given that we have these organizations whose purpose is to explain the “why” of natural disasters, shadows under the bed and in the closet, and the perceived inequities of stupidity and random chance, is it any wonder that they often succeed by inflating their adherents’ egotism? In particular, there is the quaint custom of convincing their adherents that those who are not members of the organization are deficient, bad, smelly, unattractive, and just plain wrong.

We shake our heads in dismay over the violence in Iraq between Sunni and Shia organizational adherents. After all, they are just furriners who do strange things anyway since they aren’t, thank our deity, good, deity fearing, Americans. Maybe if they kill each other off enough they will come to their senses and join our organization that envisions the true, correct, right, good smelling, handsome/beautiful, right and accurate, deity.

In fact, we can even do the same thing here in America, which isn’t the same thing as what those dirty, smelly, unattractive, wrong minded furriners are doing because we are Americans. Because we’re right, because our organization tells us so.

And that dirty, smelly, ugly, wrong, even bad, guy who may want to run for President should be punished or something because he’s not a member of our organization.[Link] Good application of religion. Definitely protecting people from things that cannot be contended with.

Makes one wonder if maybe the religious organizations should have stopped when they invented prostitution?


One of the features of the (American – and presumably ? English) English language is the use of multiple meanings of words in indiscriminate and unclear fashions. An example of this is the word “diet”:

1 the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.
2 a special course of food to which a person restricts themselves to lose weight or for medical reasons.(Tenth Oxford Concise Dictionary)

The problem I have with this is that I tend to use the word with its first meaning, while too many of the people I talk to use the second meaning.

I suspect I was exposed to the scientific usage too much in my formative years, but for whatever reason, I look at diet as something one does/has so long as one continues to metabolize. Such may suffer punctuated changes over time, but it is a fact of existence.

For others, it seems that a diet is some sort of transitory, temporary penance or adventure they are either visited with or embarked upon. Somehow, that seems rather dreary, as if they have been visited by deity to atone for their sins or undertake some cosmic undertaking. One immediately wonders if they are suffering from dementia and whether it will be temporary or not.

Happily, consideration indicates that it is usually, not always, not dementia but something milder, a combination of egotism and ignorance. Given the success of so many restaurant chains purveying physiologically detrimental meals, one is forced to conclude that Joe/Jane Consumer is blissfully unaware of how unhealthy their diet (1) is, but when the supersized portions and the continual consumption of “comfort” food comes to its natural result, they are confronted with either accepting their physical, as well as mental, obesity or of diet (2).  From this, we may conclude that their only periods of conscious thought are when they have become unattractive?

The magnitude of this discovery is astonishing. Surely Newton envisioned gravitation because of the ugly bump on his head? Einstein formulated Relativity because of the gibes from his fellow passengers on the street trolley referring to his haircut? Clearly, diet(2) and creativity go hand in hand.

The Joy of Survey Science

Science and Consensus – two concepts that are as alien as breathing and vacuum. But COSMOS magazine is having a survey on what the greatest challenge for science is.[Link] The questions and responses are below:

What we learn from this is that physics is old hat, but at least there is some concern for the demise of the species. Of course, given the inadequacy of our ability to educate our young in maths and science, we might as well just go stick our heads in the oven. Ah, but that would just add to the greenhouse gasses the administration says aren’t causing the non-existent global warming.

A survey from Australia purports to reveal connections between cellular phone manufacturer and owner characteristics.[Link] I am not too sure how these apply given the differences between Australians and the different types of Americans, but its interesting. What seems to have not been considered here is price. I carry a brand of phone that is almost opposite on ever characteristic. The selection criterion – lowest price.

On the same plane of idiocy, there is a WIRED article on April fool’s tricks for nerds.[Link] Apparently, WIRED doesn’t understand the difference between nerds and geeks as most of these are only geekish. Nerdish April fools tricks have to do with science rather than technology. Of course, given our educational system’s ineptitude in maths and science, the distinction may be beyond the capacity of even a supposedly technical reporting organization.

I could give some examples of nerdish April fool’s tricks but why should I contribute to the delinquency of geeks? Nerds can figure them out for themselves.

Happily, there are matters of consequence happening. The city of San Francisco, obviously emboldened by the success of New Yawk with trans fat, has banned plastic bags.[Link] We expect announcement of the closure of all Mal Wart stores in San Francisco momentarily. The British Food Standards Agency, obviously emboldened by the BBC’s historical program on empire, has demanded that manufacturers of junk food immediately reduce portion size.[Link] We expect announcement of immediate compliance by Mal Wart, with conserved unit price, of course.

Further demonstrating their greater ability to educate in the maths and sciences, and actually fund scientific research, English researchers have published evidence and analysis that fashions change at a relatively fixed rate, thus saying something concrete and useful about the attention span, or mean-time-to-yawn of consumers.[Link] At least we hope this holds for all humans and not just Englishmen. We expect the researchers will receive additional funding from Mal Wart to determine how to reduce the mean time. Perhaps they can hide the research on why some people never change in this effort?

And lastly, in an abnormal burst of American litigiousness, Delta Zeta sorority has initiated legal action against DePauw U for banning their local chapter after the sorority dumped all the non-hot members.[Link] Evidently the old saws about beauty and brains not always going together has some relationship to the prior legal action of the former members against the sorority. While this sort of things definitely uses up a lot of cellular phone minutes, can we consider it as part of the explanation for the nation’s inability to teach maths and science?

Interestingly, the sorority doesn’t even want to go into court, they have announced all they want is an out of court settlement. One has to wonder.

Has Been

History indicates that society abhors superpowers. Not only have there been few periods when there were only one such, but their lifetimes are steadily decreasing as the pace of social change, its optempo if you will, increases.

The United States is now added to the list of former superpowers.  We are now seventh nation on the planet in terms of technology growth.[Link] According to the World Economic Forum, the problem arises from our inept government and corporations. In particular, the identified our stagnating use of mobile communications, an absence of government leadership in IT, and nonexistent education, especially in maths and science.

Welcome to the Third World, Guys.

How is this surprising? Frankly, it isn’t. The Yankee government sees IT as bad, not good, and consistently throttles any real innovation. What innovation there is is usually merely camouflaged marketing for the corporate masters. Our stagnation in mobile communications can also be tied to a focus on cash flow rather than citizen services. And education, that’s the saddest of all because it can’t be fixed in less than a generation, even assuming there is any inclination to do so.

A Stately Parade of Lemmings

One of the curses/blessings of being a physicist is to be continuously observant, searching for patterns in the universe around one. Often this continual observation results in an obliviousness to aspects of the environment one exists in, but somehow that seems both necessary and balancing. But it is rather difficult to explain to most of humanity how observing and characterizing chaotic behavior is constructive, just as a single example.

The flow of human activity is one such. We all like to be informed of the happenings of our fellows although what aspects of their behavior are interesting differ. My observations tend to follow interests that have developed over my life even though some of them are considerably less relevant than they once were. Nonetheless, one unconsciously and consciously tries to find patterns in these activities.

I was thus struck this morning by the bittersweet nature of urbanity. In one article [Link] there is a discussion of whether there needs to be a blogging code of conduct. Interestingly, this seems to be prompted not by the writings of the bloggers themselves, but by sociopathic remarks made by readers who either violently disagree with the blogger or are just plain mentally defective and enjoy threatening bloggers with torture and violence.

The cause celebre of this suggestion is a woman blogger who has had to go into hiding because of threats against her person. It demonstrates how the sterility of the blogging environment amplifies any emotion laden interaction. What would be a trivial bump in a crowd turns into something meriting life changing courage and introspection in the blogging environment.

While it must be admitted that one has few limitations on what one blogs, save those imposed by the hosting organization, if any, most bloggers show considerable urbanity and are only mildly nekulturny. After all, this is an environment of visitation, not broadcast. Hence, discouraging words are intensified.

In this regard, the establishment of a blogging code would have less to do with how bloggers write than how they may react to comments and remarks. Some bloggers consider it a matter of principle to not censor comments. My practice is that the comment has to be (1) understandable to me, and (2) relevant. My rationale for this is that my blog is like a garden and I am the gardener. If something sprouts that I don’t like, I can pluck it out and toss it on the compost heap. If you like that kind of plant, raise your own garden.

But speaking of gardens, I also note an article this morning on climate zone changes being caused by global warming.[Link] The research was done at U Wisconsin by geographers who have estimated that something like 0.4 of the planet’s land area will have changed climate zone by 2100 CE. They predict new, even more inhospitable zones near the equator and the disappearance of the colder zone near the poles.

What isn’t reported is how the ecologies will be disrupted in this process, nor how humans will be distressed, in many case killed.

No Place to Stand

Jared Diamond once wrote a book entitled The Third Chimpanzee. It is a pretty standard piece of his writing style, which is overlong discussions of simple matters, complete non-treatment of interesting matters, and stealth innovation. The title of the book derives from the small difference in DNA structure between the chimpanzees and man. Of course, given the recent sequencing of Neandertal DNA, a more proper title would have been the fourth (or more).

Nonetheless, the title came back to my mind this morning while I was perusing the feeds. The first source of mental neutrons was an article on work by anthropologists at U Utah and U Chicago.[Link] They have the interesting thesis that the rate of human evolution has been increasing over the last 100 KY or so.

Part of what set me off here is that word “rate”. This is a matter that I have studied pretty heavily the last ten years or so, largely because of our lack of fundamental understanding of what a rate is. This lack of understanding can be found in almost any daily newspaper where rate will be used in several different ways in different articles. The other interesting thing about rates is that they are a means of changing from a discrete, punctuated representation to a continuous one, and therein lies the core of my interest, at least mathematically.

This punctuation into continuity thing is very appropriate here because what we are thinking about is mutations. What the two researchers are probably saying – and its not clear whether the muck up is their fault or the poor reportage – is that the rate is proportional to population – number of humans. Now if it is proportional to the population to the first power, then the rate results in a number of mutations that is exponential over time. This implies that whatever is causing the mutations is either volumetric or wired into humans. 

But the clinker to all of this may be cockroaches, which supposedly haven’t changed in umpteen years. We think they have a bigger population than humans, so why don;t that have a high evolution rate? Maybe questions like this are why biologists and anthropologists don’t like maths?

The second article is about research done by Humboldt U and U Michigan that indicates that children’s attitudes towards learning change as they age.[Link] In particular, they found that primary students displayed little correlation (again, interpreting the reportage!) between what courses/subjects they liked and what they performed well in. By high shul, there was a good positive correlation between interest and performance, and this correlation was stronger in males than females.

The immediate question here arises on whether this is a matter of nature or nurture? How much of the correlation is caused by teacher-student interaction, or even dis-interaction. As I have mentioned in a previous blog, some of the best physicists are those with the poorest teachers.

Which brings us to the third article [Link] that talks about research at Pennsylvania State U. This research has indicated that maths ability arises from a combination of smarts (Intelligence Quotient, with all that social baggage,) attention span, and self discipline.

IOW, you can’t just be smart, you also have to be able to concentrate. I would personally offer that you have to have some special interaction between the conscious and unconscious. I know from experience that I work on maths problems while I am asleep. I might also mention Kekule’s model of Benzene, or any number of somnolent solutions.

But the interesting thing as we learn more about who and what we are as animals, is that we can’t know what we are going to be until we get there, and we won;t ever get there unless we kill ourselves off.