Before the Day

My esteem colleague, Total Angular Momentum Coupling, who blogs as Eye of the Tyger, [Link] has a wonderful blot on the importance of tomorrow and the nature of being American this morning. The blot, derived from another referenced thereon, is largely told from the standpoint of an Englishman who, I believe speaks as human, as Englishman, and as European.

Being handicapped with the affliction of physicist, I found myself distracted by one claim,

“We stood at Gettysburg, scene of the bloodiest battle of all,”

and found myself questioning the accuracy of this statement. My memory, having visited this matter in writing The Physics of War, was that Gettysburg was noteworthy but not uniquely exceptional. So I checked my data, and produced the figure below:


This is a plot of battles. The data plotted are the fraction surviving the battle unwounded on one side versus the same on the other. The data in black dots are for the American Civil War, as given in Livermore’s Numbers and Losses, those in red triangles are drawn from Brassey’s Battles. I should mention that the accuracy of Livermore’s data are questioned but not, I believe sufficiently, to disqualify their use here. The American Civil War data span the period from 1861 to 1865. The data from Brassey’s Battles spans the period from Thermopylae to Goose Green.

Since we are plotting the fraction remaining unwounded, the values of the variable lie on [0,1], and the closer to 0 the greater the loss. The upper right hand corner represents few losses on both sides, and so the further from this point, the more losses on both sides.

This brings us to what bloodiest means. This is an old argument. Some claim it is men killed but not those wounded. Others claim it is both. Some claim it refers to one side and not both. I shall not venture an opinion, merely present the figure.

I call your attention to the black dot furtherest to the left and lowest down of its kind. This dot is Gettysburg, the battle referred to above. It does lie the farthest from the upper right hand corner of all the American Civil War battles.

I ask you to observe that there are red triangles farther from that corner than any of the black dots. In particular, I call your attention to the red triangle that rests on the horizontal axis, indicating that the losses to one side in this battle were complete or almost complete. This battle, which is of a class that one of my colleagues, Angular – Linear Momentum Coupling, and I refer to as mythic, is a small battle fought in San, Antonio Texas. In its way, this battle is almost as crucial as is Gettysburg to what makes us American and epitomizing why we revere our veterans. Such distinctions however are overly fine; no sacrifice for freedom can be measured to be greater than another.

That battle in Texas is commonly called Alamo.

I have had the honor and the experience of standing in the Alamo and atop Round Top. There are great differences between Chamberlain and Travis; there are great differences between the men who manned the Alamo and those who formed the Twentieth Maine. But one overwhelming, overriding thing makes them brothers, brothers that tomorrow we shall honor. They fought for freedom and many gave their lives for that ideal and actuality.

Fingers or Thumb

One of the things that supposedly sets humans, or at least primates, apart from the other animals is their hands, in particular their opposable thumbs. (Yes, Virginia, there was something the other day about a dinosaur, a raptor I believe, with opposable thumbs.) Of course there are a few other contributing factors such as full erectness of posture, sentience and intelligence combined, maybe consciousness, and a list that goes on for a while. Indeed, the list varies depending on author and pundit.

When I was in graduate shul on the plains of Illinois, it was the custom on Friday afternoons for faculty and graduate students to retire to a local bar where the faculty would purchase pitchers of beer, and pontificate to, in the name of mentoring and bonding with, the graduate students, the graduate students would nod in the best approximation of epiphany they could manage, and everyone would drink beer. Afterwards, the faculty would drive home for dinner or whatever and the graduate students would return to their offices or labs and try to recover the time spent on conviviality with the faculty. (Yes, Virginia, this is exactly parallel to the message of Jorge Cham.[Link]

Once winter set in, which seemed to occupy about six months of the year, it was not unknown for bad weather to have set in during our occupancy of the bar and for faculty and grads, more often grads because of the campus parking rules, to get lost. One chap managed to wander off lost and get a bit of overexposure but this was blamed, in the spirit of the era, on his inability to handle his beer.

Sometimes, when several of us were displaying this inability and wisely stayed away from laboratory machinery for fear of damaging it (primarily) or ourselves (secondary), we would convene around the coffee pot and discuss the nature of the universe on a more exalted plane than that of undergraduates but without the correct strictness of faculty. One of the topics I can recall we discussed was the relationship between the width of the thumb and stubbornness. The grad advancing this theory, which he attributed to his mother, was a red headed fellow from New Yawk of Jewish ancestry. My mother, a staunch Baptist, had advanced the theory to me in my youth, and this led us to not only discuss the relationship between thumb width and stubbornness, but the differences between Jewish and Southron mothers. The latter we concluded was only observable conclusively by the former’s penchant for chicken soup and the latter’s for vegetable soup.

Sadly, we have not maintained ties and I have even forgotten his family name, so we are unable to continue our investigation of the differences and similarities of Jewish and Southron mothers. I have been able to discern over the years, by direct observation, that as a statistical rule, those who have been conferred an earned doctorate of philosophy degree have wider thumbs than those who do not. On the basis of this I can hypothesize that an important factor in surviving graduate shul is stubbornness in large measure. Obviously the limited nature of the observations precludes any insight into its relative importance, since this is the only factor observed, but based on anecdotal non-data, the colleagues that I have discussed with and I are fairly strongly in agreement that it is a primary, if not the primary, factor involved.

In a blot earlier this week, I commented on some research that indicated that women who suffered from anxiety of maths inadequacy derivatively suffered from memory loss. My interest here was more with whether there was an actual gender based skill difference with regard to maths. Indeed, my personal observations have been that the difference exists but is more a matter of nurture than nature, possibly accentuated by what appears to be a stronger grounding of the female consciousness in reality and the male predilection to flights of fancy. Crucially, among those humans I have observed who have developed maths skills, there is little gender differentiation. Of course, I don’t associate much with pure mathematicians so my observations are likely skewed.

But I was thrilled this morning to note in an AAAS newsletter that researchers at U Bath in England have discovered that maths ability seems to be correlated with the relative lengths of the firstd and third fingers of the human hand. I should be specific here. The thumb is the zeroth finger in that many do not count the thumb as a finger although collectively one speaks of fingers and includes the thumb in that collective. The first finger is the one next to the thumb and the rest are numbered sequentially from there. hence, the little finger or pinky is the fourth finger. But just to confuse things, in some systems the thumb is the first finger and so forth. Caveat Phalange!

Anyway, these researchers have been able to amass observations that people for whom the next to last finger is longer than the next to thumb finger have greater maths abilities. They also observe that women tend to have the two fingers close to each other in length, at least more so than males. So perhaps the matter is solved?

When Europeans came to America, one of the things they noted was a practice among some of the Amerindian tribes to bind the heads of children to give them some flattened feature in adulthood. The rationale given for this is often enhanced appearance which in turn has social implication. In a similar manner, the Chinese once bound the feet of female children to assure dainty feet in adulthood. May we now expect girls to have to sleep with extensor traction on their next to last fingers in the interest of increasing their maths abilities and hence their social status as adults?

And yes, my next to last finger is about 0.05 longer than my next to thumb finger.

Internet Censorship

Censorship of the internet, usually in the form of blocking is apparently on the rise. I know back when I worked for the Yankee government and watched over information things, we used blocking software in the technical library to keep people away from the porn sites. I was never very clear how much of that was librarian indignation but the official reason had primarily to do with inappropriate use of taxpayer funded work time. Interestingly, the ones who were wiliest about getting around the software were NASA contractors and visiting Army officers from the Middle East.

Subsequently, the Yankee army got a real bee in its bonnet over a long list of improper sites and they used a somewhat more material argument of heightened risk of malicious infection. The amusing thing about that exercise was that many sites one would expect an army to exclude were not, and visa versa. But it was good evidence that any organization that survives more than a hundred years or so become crippled with Byzantine, alogical policies and directives. Part of this, one suspects, is due to emergent organizational complexity that creates pockets of authority with the ability to issue guidance without being accessible for interrogation or clarification.

I am told similar stories by colleagues who work for corporations and have heard that some foreign states, notably China and some of those Middle Eastern countries, restrict what their citizens can access. Hence my interest was piqued this mornig when I saw an article on this in New Scientist. [Link]

What is notable, is that the article [Link] is blank! Evidently this article on internet censorship was itself censored before I could get to it!

Firefox Crown of Thorns

While I am ranting, I would like to give a two sided response to the Firefox folks.

One of the things I dearly like about Firefox 2 is that it has a spell checker.

One of the things that I intensely dislike is the stupidity of that spell checker.

When I blog – using Performancing/ScribeFire – I have to keep my Concise Oxford Dictionary in the upper right corner of the desktop all the time to check the words that Firefox says are misspelled. By my approximate survey – over this one week – about 0.87 of the words Firefox says are misspelled are not. My conclusion is that the adaptability of the spell checker is sadly deficient.

And yes, I will admit that selecting the upper right corner is my choice based on my work habits, the geography of my desktop, and some other factors that I am not fully conscious of – probably that my RSS article alert stack (Alertbear) insists on inhabiting the lower right corner. But this rant is directed at Firefox, even if it is a mixed bag of praise and prod.

The prod is that you need to do some work on making this spell checker a bit smarter.

Yumping Yimminie

This is a bit of a rant so those who may object to strong language may be at risk of being offended. I can’t say for sure because I haven’t written the whole thing yet.

Many of the web sites I have gone to recently, pointed by my RSS feed subscriptions, feature an advertisement by General Electric. Evidently GE is trying to brainwash surfers as to how ecologically conscious they are. This is part of the expected flood among the corporations to say they are countering global warming regardless of how little they really are doing. In quite a few cases it will eventually emerge that this advertsing is all that they are doing, but by that time it may be too late and they can take their money to the grave with them.

Anyway, their mascot or totem – cute cartoonish animal figure – is some sort of tree frog (maybe toad) who flops about the page obstructing and distracting reading. As such it is advertising at its simplest and purest, as such is supposed to be mildly amusing to counter the sourness of its antagonizing distraction.

My complaint about this thing is its ubiquity. Yesterday I kept tabs on how many of the web pages I visited had this odious computer frog. In total, only 0.23 of them, but if I only count the science web sites, including science blogs, I get 0.51.

I have to hope that GE is spending as much on actually combating global warming as they are proliferating that frog!

Museum Musings

I have always been a bear for museums. I do not quite know why but it seems to be something entrained in my genetic makeup. I can find no ancestors who share this perversion, either parents or grandparents. Yet to this day my ideal of a vacation is days spent puring over the collections of museums.

I have to admit to being somewhat selective. Art does little for me, nor am I entranced by many of the more popular exhibits. When my parents took me to the District as a child I have to admit to greater interest in the Romanesque statue of George Washington than the hall of First Ladies’ inaugural gowns; to the Smithsonian’s collection of postage stamps than the Hope diamond.

It was also on that trip that I learned some valuable lessons about humans and museums. One of our visits in the capitol of the Yankee republic was a wax museum , one of whose exhibits was of a waxen Robert Edward Lee and Ulysses Simpson (born Hiram Ulysses) Grant at Appomattox. The exhibit was sadly compromised by several errors, one of which was that Lee was portrayed as surrendering the Confederacy to the Union. This, of course, is quite beyond Lee’s authority to say nothing of power. What he actually was surrendering, as its commander, was the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Grant who was general-in-chief, field marshal, or war czar of the Union armies. There were other Confederate field armies still abroad, and the actual span of the Confederacy had some time to run. This is a point often missed in public education and obviously by that district wax museum.

The other obvious mistake was that despite careful reproduction of the chairs used by the two commanders, their roles had become reversed in the display with Lee reposing in the reproduction of Grant’s chair and visa versa. As change would intrude, it happened that as we were departing the museum the proprietor asked my parents if we had enjoyed our tour. My mother replied that it was enjoyable in spite of the inaccuracies noted by her son. The proprietor, obviously expecting childish misconception, asked what I found wrong, and being denied tact by the same cruel genetics that endowed me with museum interest, I told him in exacting terms. His reaction, which taught me a great deal about both humans and museums, was that I could not possibly be right because no adult had ever noted any such discrepancies. I informed him that he should be advised to check the accuracy of my claims and at that point, wishing to avoid any scene, my parents hustled me off.

But I was rather pleased a couple of weeks later to receive a letter from the proprietor apologizing for his incredulity and claiming that he had rectified both inaccuracies. But then the fifties were a kinder, more polite period although even as we approached the centennial of the second revolution, abysmally ignorant of it. But then we seem as humans to consistently deny the mold that shaped us.

In which regard, I note that the opening of the “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky [Link] where apparently the same inaccuracies of history portrayed by Ringo Starr in “Caveman” are presented, replete with mystical rationalizations. Clearly a sad miscarriage of religion seems to be perpetrated here. I must admit to not having visited and would have to admit to a small probability of actual visitation given the number of accurate museums and perhaps of high secondary import, the number of excellent microbreweries in the Cincinnati area. But I do fear the fate of any honest and inquiring child who should offer a critique of the inaccuracies apparently present in this museum. And certainly that tells us something about how humans may misuse each other as well as museums.

And while we are considering misuse, let us take up the matter of the Smithsonian exhibit on global warming that was delay and neutered to defray any wrath of the present administration. [Link] This is another lesson I learned on that museum sabbatical long ago, the risk that placing any repository of knowledge and research amidst politicians has, for however thickly and adamantinely mystical dogma may be protected by religious zealots, so thin and brittle are the egos of politicians in the protection of their policies.

Hard and Soft

This morning’s CNET articles includes one that describes a diatribe by the hardware industry on the software industry.[Link] Evidently the explosion was partly induced by Megahard’s announcement, covered in another blot, of how the next edition or iteration of WINDOWS would be vastly different from VISTA, being based fundamentally on using multicore processors.

The hardware industry, in the form of an Intel fellow, lambastes the software industry for not also being responsive to Moore’s Law.  At this point I should perhaps mention something about the taxonomy of laws. Laws of the first kind, sometimes called primary laws, are those that describe fundamental processes of reality, tempered only by our limited perceptions and cognitions. The laws of physics are example of these. A common misconception is that these laws are immutable and in a sense they are, but since our understanding of the actuality that these laws represent is limited and hopefully improving, the statement and interpretation of these laws is mutable.

Laws of the second kind, sometimes called secondary laws, are those that describe derivative processes. These include most of the “laws” postulated by social scientists. Often these laws are empirical in nature and are valid over a limited range of some sort. Laws of the third kind, sometimes called tertiary laws, are those invented by humans without any strong connection with reality. The laws passed by legislatures fall into this category.

“Violations of the laws of the first kind will kill you, of the second kind either enrich or pauperize you, and of the third kind enslave you.”

Moore’s Law is a law of the second kind. It states that the number of fundamental processor operations performed per second that a state-of-the-engineering processor can perform doubles every 1.5 years. The reason this is a secondary law is that it may violate some primary laws. That is, at some point the way the universe is physically may prevent engineers from developing new processors that are faster than predecessors. Interestingly, Intel seems to have admitted, somewhat stealthily, that it has hit a speed barrier and is only maintaining advances by multicoring. Of course, this may be a misunderstanding on my part due to poor reportage or misreading.

There are a couple of things that strike me as interesting here. The social one is an indication that the hardware side of the information world sees the software side as damping the market. Since Megahard portrays that VISTA is primarily an effort to strengthen security, an aspect almost orthogonally alien to the hardware industry, this perception may have some justification but not necessarily benefit for the user/consumer.

On a technical basis, Moore’s Law is actually a limiting factor computationally. If we are interested in solving problems with computers, the way in which the problems are mapped into the discrete representation of computers is crucial. Let us suppose that a representation of N discrete things is necessary to adequate state the problem. Then, if the number of calculations to enumerate the problem is proportional to N, we may double the size of N, and thus the accuracy of the representation, every 1.5 years.

If however, and this is usually the case, the number of calculations to enumerate the problem is N^m, then the time to be able to double the size of N is 2^(m-1) * 1.5 years. Many basic problems require N^2 calculations (a simple sort, for example), so the doubling time for the problem is really 2^(2-1) * 1.5 years = 3.0 years.

I should comment that this situation doesn’t apply to most people/users/consumers. Primarily this only impacts folks doing technical research, have rapidly growing databases that need to be serached and sorted, and computer gamers. The latter are impacted by the resolution of the visual representation and thereby the ease of suspension of disbelief, and hence, presumably, the believability and enjoyment. Most folks however fall into two categories of users.

The first of these are those who have some programs they run periodically. The characteristic of these programs is how many times they have to run it. If its once a day or month, then processor speed isn’t a primary concern, that occurs only if the time to run the programs gets close to (or bigger than) the time between individual runs. So the impact of processor speed here is how much time they have to spend making n runs a day.

The second are folks who use several different programs and would like to have them all running at a good speed simultaneously. Since this is often limited by the speed of the processor, these folks are primarily interested in how many programs is the practical limit.

Hence, both of these types of folks are more interested in having multiple processors available since that translates into multiple programs or multiple instances of the same program running simultaneously. This multitasking is not as directly compatible with multicore as one might think and it is still a major challenge for the software folks, despite all of Megahard’s often coughed claims.

And this, I suspect, is the real gap that the software folks need to fix.