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Sunday, November 30, 2003


recently read: Bellow

I have a weakness for Chicago-style conservatism. This is not to say that I buy into it, but the no-nonsensicality of it--or attempted no-nonsensicality, for we can never entirely escape nonsense--appeals to me. This morning I finished Saul Bellow's novel-tribute Ravelstein. In the front of the book is the standard publisher's disclaimer: "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters...any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead...is entirely coincidental." Ok, sure... Ravelstein is Allan Bloom, the professor of classics at the University of Chicago who died in 1992. In the late eighties Bloom wrote the bestselling book, Closing of the American Mind, and instantly became the Right's showcase intellectual. Today's Right is not worthy of him; not that they would want him: he was an atheist, homosexual, and died of AIDS. (He hit the trifecta, as Bush would say.) The last two bits of information were brought to light only upon publication of Ravelstein in 2000. Ravelstein is an easy read; Bellow focuses on the last months of the life of Bloom the man, not the academic.

I read Closing of the American Mind when I was an undergraduate, not for any course or anything, just on my own. Most of the philosophical argumentation flew over my head but I think I got the main point: the humanities departments in America are "sick", having been infected by German philosophers (I'm being deliberately vague here); the sickness, or weakness, of these educators--those who transmit "culture" down the generations--has contributed to the growing dominance of the non-humanities departments--science, engineering, economics, etc.; after decades, the result is a materially wealthy, but culturally impoverished America. As an economist, I should know better than to think about such things or take seriously those who do, but it can be entertaining. Amid the leveling that is cultural relativism, the wholesale demolition of values and absolutes, it's refreshing to come across someone with the confidence of Bloom. 'Learn life from Plato and Rousseau! Listen to Mozart!', he would shout from the rooftops. How many academics worth anything could get away with writing something like this?
In short, life [as a result of rock music] is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbation fantasy.

This description may seem exaggerated, but only because some would prefer to regard it as such. The continuing
Allan Bloom
exposure to rock music is a reality, not one confined to a particular class or type of child. One need only ask first-year university students what music they listen to, how much of it and what it means to them, in order to discover that the phenomenon is universal in America, that it begins in adolescence or a bit before and continues through the college years. It is the youth culture and, as I have so often insisted, there is now no other countervailing nourishment for the spirit. Some of this culture's power comes from the fact that it is so loud. It makes conversation impossible, so that much of friendship must be without the shared speech that Aristotle asserts is the essence of friendship and the only true common ground. With rock, illusion of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas, which are supposed to contain so much meaning beyond speech, are the basis of association. None of this contradicts going about the business of life, attending classes and doing the assignments for them. But the meaningful inner life is with the music.

This phenomenon is both astounding and indigestible, and is hardly noticed, routine and habitual. But it is of historic proportions that a society's best young and their best energies should be so occupied. People of future civilizations will wonder at this and find it as incomprehensible as we do the caste system, witch-burning, harems, cannibalism and gladiatorial combats.
Ah, the good old days, when kids listened to rock music.
Saul Bellow
Now popular culture has evolved to the point where rap dominates. <mytwocents>Popular culture is partly a race to the bottom. One can only expect the music that appeals to the most people to appeal to the basest instincts. But at some point you have to hit rock bottom. I think that mainstream rap is that rock bottom. Once you hit bottom, there's no place to go but up, so I actually think it's good that today rap dominates: popular music can only get better from here. Do I think people shouldn't listen to rap? No. Would I prefer that they listen to something else? Yes.</mytwocents> This passage on rock music gives you a pretty good taste of Bloom the cranky intellectual.

Bellow's portrait shows Bloom/Ravelstein in a different light. He is dying, and thus vulnerable; it's hard to tyrannize when you yourself will soon be no more. What Bellow hits again and again is Ravelstein's love: love for himself (il va sans dire), for friends, and for intimates. Not necessarily for family, Ravelstein got a poor draw in that regard ('Couldn't even make Phi Beta Kappa', rails his father), but for those who are worthy of his love.
Without its longings your soul was a used inner tube maybe good for one summer at the beach, nothing more. Spirited men and women, the young above all, were devoted to the pursuit of love. By contrast the bourgeois was dominated by fears of violent death. There, in the briefest form possible, you have a sketch of Ravelstein's most important preoccupations.
If you want to learn more about this grumpy old conservative, I would recommend that you read Closing of the American Mind first, then Ravelstein. The two together give a fairly complete picture. I'm not qualified to discuss Bloom's philosophy, but the implications of a lot of the stuff he spouts are not realistic. I don't think students today should learn Greek and spend as much time reading Plato as studying math. I, for one, never cared for learning "culture" in the classroom; better to read it, listen to it, live it, on your own. Nevertheless, he was an interesting character, and we can never have too many interesting characters.



Wal-Martians

This could only happen in America:
A mob of shoppers rushing for a sale on DVD players trampled the first woman in line and knocked her unconscious as they scrambled for the shelves at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Patricia VanLester had her eye on a $29 DVD player, but when the siren blared at 6 a.m. Friday announcing the start to the post-Thanksgiving sale, the 41-year-old was knocked to the ground by the frenzy of shoppers behind her.

"She got pushed down, and they walked over her like a herd of elephants," said VanLester's sister, Linda Ellzey. "I told them, 'Stop stepping on my sister! She's on the ground!"' [...]

Paramedics called to the store found VanLester unconscious on top of a DVD player, surrounded by shoppers seemingly oblivious to her, said Mark O'Keefe, a spokesman for EVAC Ambulance. [...]
$29 for a DVD player? Hey, that's not bad!


Saturday, November 29, 2003


Feynman 1.10: Conservation of Momentum

As you can see, I'm experimenting with these images. Let's see, where were we... So we have the first two of Newton's laws: inertia and force equals mass times acceleration. Newton's third law is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; or momentum is conserved. If we have two objects, this just means that the derivative with respect to time of the sum of the momenta equals zero.

Alternatively we can look at things from the viewpoint of what Feynman calls Galilean relativity. Galilean relativity asserts that the laws of physics look the same whether we're standing still or moving with a uniform speed in a straight line. This perplexed me as a very young child: when I tossed a ball in the back seat of a moving car, I thought it should have flown back in my face, rather than dropping in my lap as if we were standing still. Suppose we have two gliders of equal mass gliding frictionlessly (on a physics lab air trough) toward each other at the same velocity. What happens when they collide (assuming it's not an elastic collision)? By symmetry, they should stop, and experimentally they do. Makes sense. Now suppose that, using the same two gliders, one is traveling at v and the other is at rest. What velocity should we expect when they collide and slide off together? We can use what we already know. Imagine we are traveling at the speed v/2 and observing what's going on. Then the first glider appears to be moving at the speed v/2 and the second appears to be moving at the speed -v/2. Since they are of the same mass we know that when they collide, they should stop. And they do, or so it appears to us; their actually post-collision speed is the same as ours, v/2. Gallilean relativity.

There is some discussion of elastic collisions, billiard ball type stuff, and then an interesting little remark about rocket propulsion. When a rocket engine ignites, it ejects a small mass m, with a very high velocity V. After this, by Newton's third law, the rocket, with mass R, should be moving at a speed of v. This velocity is simply v = Vm/M. "Rocket propulsion is essentially the same as the recoil of a gun: there is no need for any air to push against."

Finally, our first hint of relativity, Einstein's relativity, that is. In Newton's universe, mass is constant; in our universe, we have the following equation m = m,o / [(1 - v^2/c^2)^1/2], where m,o (m sub o) is the mass of the object at rest, v is the velocity, and c is the speed of light. For slow speeds, the actual mass is very close to that of the object at rest. But as we approach the speed of light, the mass blows up. The implications for the theory in this chapter are straightforward: we just replace our original m with the above equation.



recently read: Proust

Today I completed the 3rd volume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Le Côté de Guermantes. I would be lying if I said that I loved it. I enjoyed the previous volume, A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, far more. The protagonist is back in Paris (for the most part) and immersed in the strange world that is pre-WWI, aristo-Parisien salon life. You are either for Dreyfuss, or you are against him. Here is a very nice excerpt:
Is it because we relive our past years not in their continuous sequence, day by day, but in a memory focused upon the coolness or sunshine of some morning or afternoon suffused with the shade of some isolated and enclosed setting, immovable, arrested, lost, remote from all the rest, and thus the changes gradually wrought not only in the world outside but in our dreams and our evolving character (changes which have imperceptibly carried us through life from one time to another, wholly different) are eliminated, that, if we relive another memory taken from a different year, we find between the two, thanks to lacunae, to vast stretches of oblivon, as it were the gulf of a difference in altitude or the incompatibility of two divergent qualities of breathed atmosphere and surrounding coloration? But between the memories that had now come to me in turn of Combray, of Doncières and of Rivebelle, I was conscious at that moment of much more than a distance in time, of the distance that there would be between two separate universes whose substance was not the same.
I thought my rusty French would continue to improve as I read, but Guermantes was no easier for me in terms of language than Jeunes Filles. Nevertheless, I'm glad I stuck with it. I am left with a vague and heavy awareness of what happened in the book; as much a sense of the "atmosphere"--physical, social, and psychological--as knowledge of the 'events' that took place.


Friday, November 28, 2003


Feynman 1.9: Newton's Laws of Dynamics

This was a wonderful lecture. It gives me a much better perspective on Newton's immense contribution to science:
Before Newton's time, the motions of things like the planets were a mystery, but after Newton there was complete understanding. Even the slightest deviations from Kepler's laws, due to the perturbations of the planets, were computable. The motions of pendulums, oscillators with springs and weights in them, and so on, could all be analyzed completely after Newton's laws were enunciated. So it is with this chapter...
Newton's first law is a restatement of Galileo's principle of inertia. Here is Newton's second law: "the time-rate-of-change of a quantity called momentum is proportional to the force". Momentum is, of course, mass times velocity. Mass, it is important to remember, is not the same thing as weight. The weight of a person would vary according to whether they were on earth or some other planet, but the mass would remain the same. Mass is a measurement of inertia; as Feynman writes, it is the amount of force required to keep a body in a circle as we swing it around on a string at a certain speed. In physics, velocity is different from speed. Velocity is a vector, which has a magnitude and a direction, while speed is simply the magnitude of this vector. Acceleration is also a vector. A more familiar way to state Newton's second law is force equals mass times acceleration.

Feynman outlines a technique which uses Newton's second law to describe simple motions. Suppose we want to describe the motion of a planet around the sun. If the planet is located at a distance r from the sun, then the force acting on the planet is equal to GMm/r^2, where G is the gravitational constant, M is the mass of the sun, and m is the mass of the earth. From Newton's second law we know that this force is equal to ma. In a two-dimensional plane with the sun at (0,0) and the planet at (x,y) we can resolve the equation into its two components, F,x (F sub x) and F,y, and similarly into a,x and a,y,. We want to find these accelerations in terms of x and y or, equivalently, x,y and r. So F is a vector pointing toward (0,0) from (x,y); F,x and F,y point toward the y and x axes, respectively. Using the properties of similar triangles, F,x/F! (F! is the magnitude of F) = x/r. F! is simply GMm/r^2. Which yields F,x = -GMmx/r^3, and symmetrically, F,y = -GMmy/r^3. Also note that r = (x^2 + y^2)^(1/2). Now, returning to Newton's second law, we know that a,x = -GMx/r^3 and a,y = -GMy/r^3. Using these three equations and the initial position and velocity of the planet we can, numerically, describe the planet's motion.

We start at time 0 and proceed in 0.1 second (or whatever) chunks of time. At time 0 we have the initial conditions. The x-position at time 0.1 will be (approximately) the x-position at time 0 plus 0.1 times the x-velocity at... we could use the x-velocity at time 0.1, but it would be a better approximation to use the x-velocity at the midpoint of the interval. So, the position at time 0.1 will be (approximately) the x-position at time 0 plus 0.1 times the x-velocity at time 0.5. The x-velocity at time 0.5 will be the x-velocity at time -0.5 plus 0.1 times the x-acceleration at time 0.5. Time -0.5? To get things started we need to cheat a bit and let v,x(0.5) = v,x(0) + 0.1a,x(0); after the first step we can use the formula v,x(t+.5)=v,x(t-.5)+0.1a,x(t). And of course, the same goes for the y-dimension. By proceeding in this way we can describe the motion of the planet around the sun to any desired degree of accuracy.

Now let's do all nine planets. Well, no, but it's the same idea. We just need to develop the dynamic equations for each planet, find the initial conditions, specify the special-case-velocities (the v,x(0.5)'s) and let her rip. A typical planet will experience gravitational attractions of the GMm/r^2 variety from each of the other eight planets and the sun. The force acting on the planet is simply the sum of these forces. Maybe I'll try to do this on Matlab someday. In any event, there it is. We can now describe the motion of the planets, complete with minor perturbations. Thank Isaac Newton.



better Baghdad than Midland

So Bush spent a couple of hours at Baghdad airport yesterday. Like Brad Delong, I think it was a good move. Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan is in raptures. How very little we've come to expect from this president. For some perspective on Bush's Thanksgiving, do read Juan Cole's very informed comment.


Thursday, November 27, 2003


recently read: Vidal

One reason for my especially heretical mood of late is that I've been enjoying Gore Vidal's historical novel, Julian. Well, today I finished it up, and I must say, it's now my favorite Vidal novel that I've read so far. Last year I discovered Vidal and scorched through almost all of the American Chronicle series, Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C., and then part of The Golden Age. I also immensely enjoyed Creation. To top it all off, I even read Vidal's United States--a collection of 114 essays written from 1952-1992--in a very short period of time. This was probably a little much. By the time I got to The Golden Age, the last book during this stretch, I was completely Vidaled out. It is also his weakest effort, in my opinion.

Julian was Roman Emperor from 361-363. This was not a particularly happy time to be emperor, especially if you're hell-bent on turning back the rising tide of intolerant, Constantine-emboldened Christians. All in all, this was a delightful book. I will quote just one short passage. Julian describes Paris (p. 226):
Of the cities of Gaul, I like Paris the best and I spent three contented winters there. The town is on a small island in the River Seine. Wooden bridges connect it to both banks where the townspeople cultivate the land. It is lovely green country where almost anything will grow, even fig trees. My first winter I set out a dozen (jacketed in straw) and all but one survived. Of course the Paris winters are not as cold as those at Sens or Vienne because the nearness of the ocean warms the air. As a result, the Seine seldom freezes over; and its water--as anyone knows who has ever visited there--is remarkably sweet and good to drink. The town is built of wood and brick, with a fair sized prefect's palace which I used as headquarters. From my second-floor study, I could see the water as it divided at the island's sharp tip, like the sea breaking on a ship's prow. In fact, if one stares hard enough at that point in the river one has a curious sense of movement, of indeed being on a ship in full sail, the green shore rushing past.
My five-month stay in Paris was easily the happiest period of my life. Reading Vidal's description of the ancient Isle de la Cite brought back my own memories. Magical.

If you only read one Vidal novel, read Julian. If you can manage three, I would recommend Julian, Lincoln, and Creation.



what it's all about

There is more to Thanksgiving than just huge birds and crowded airports. Max Sawicky explains.


Wednesday, November 26, 2003


Mickey schmickey

Yesterday I noticed this "50 Places to See Before You Die" page over on the BBC (kind of a morbid title, isn't it; are they taunting me?). No, Nashville, Tennessee did not make the list. It was apparently compiled from BBC reader (listener, viewer, surfer?) votes over the last year. The top spot goes to the Grand Canyon. Fine. Number 2: The Great Barrier Reef. Alright. I wouldn't put it that high, but then again, I don't scuba dive. Number 3: Florida. Florida!? Yes we still have plenty of wonders of the world to get through and yet already there is Florida. I'm thinking to myself, "What is it, the beaches? Miami? swamps? old people? what?" So I click on Florida and, to my horror, I discover that when they say Florida, they mean Disney. A freakin' amusement park? You gotta be kidding me. Orlando would be number three on my list of "50 places you really don't need to see before you die", right after Dollywood and the state of Mississippi. Strike Florida from the list and the Brits have decent taste in travel. I shudder to think what monstrosities a similar CNN-generated list would churn up.

As you might have gleaned from the above, I don't much care for the whole Disney thing; it's a shame that it has become such a major part of America's identity. I'm a classic Looney Tunes kind of guy myself. At least Bugs had wit. Oh yes, since it is a bloody list, I might as well reveal how many of the 50 I have actually seen: eight, or nine if you include Florida. The others: Grand Canyon, New York, Venice, Yosemite National Park, Paris, Alaska, Rome, and San Francisco. Not bad for a 26-year-old American. Given my health, I'm especially glad I decided to: a) take that road trip across the American west when I was twenty (I could have worked and saved money); b) "study" abroad in Paris for a semester when I was 21-22 (thanks Mom and Dad), and c) after Paris, do a six week road trip through Europe with my then-girlfriend (I could have saved a lot of money and interned somewhere that summer gaining valuable experience). Seize the day, I say: travel when you're young, especially if it's the irresponsible thing to do.


Tuesday, November 25, 2003


wowza

GDP growth last quarter was revised up to 8.2% from 7.2%. Expect a piddlin' 3.5% for the current quarter, or so says the economist forecaster in the Times article.



Feynman 1.8: Motion

I'm not going to spend much time on this relatively simple chapter. Nutshell: velocity is the derivative of distance; acceleration is the derivative of velocity; velocity is the integral of acceleration; distance is the integral of velocity. Most of the chapter is spent baby steppin' our way through basic calculus in one dimension, and then at the end, there's a brief flurry of formulae in three dimensions and we're done. Sorry, I guess that's all the time we have, good day. Oh okay, one token Feynmanism:
Some changes are more difficult to describe than the motion of a point on a solid object, for example the speed of drift of a cloud that is drifting very slowly, but rapidly forming or evaporating, or the change of a woman's mind.
Stop.



the priests, the lawyers, and the lawyer-victims

It's amazing that this guy even worked to defend the Church in the first place. Thank Apollo he finally came around (NY Times):
For five years, Robert P. Scamardo defended the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston against lawsuits by people who claimed to have been sexually abused by priests.

As general counsel, he vigorously resisted accusers, he said, fending off their lawsuits and collaborating with church officials to send them away quietly, with as little money as possible.

He said he felt good about his job until one negotiating session with a gray-haired woman who said, through tears, that the molesting she suffered long ago was still causing her depression, marital strife and sexual problems. "You can't possibly understand," she insisted.

Mr. Scamardo said he desperately wanted to tell her, "Yes, I do."

Of the thousands of people who have fought the church over sexual abuse charges, Mr. Scamardo is the only one known to have fought from both sides.

While representing the church as a trusted insider, Mr. Scamardo said, he was secretly struggling to cope with his own sexual abuse as a teenager by a priest and a lay youth minister. The conflict between his inner and outer selves brought anguish, thoughts of suicide and finally a confrontation with the diocese. When he sought compensation from the church as an abuse victim this year, he came up against a bishop and lawyers aggressively guarding church assets.

In an interview in Houston, Mr. Scamardo provided a window into how church lawyers worked to deter lawsuits, minimize the church's payouts, limit coverage for therapy and keep any settlements secret...
You should read the whole thing. Non-Catholics and especially the non-religious-from-birth probably can't appreciate how terrible this whole pedophile-priest thing really is. If you could pick a subset of the population that would suffer most from being sexually abused, it's precisely adolescent Catholic boys. As someone who was once both young and Catholic, I can assure you that, had this happened to me when I was, say, 15-years-old, I probably would have killed myself. I was so fucked up mentally about sexual matters--being a nice, trusting, Catholic kid who liked to believe that what my elders drilled into my head wasn't complete bullshit--that having a priest come onto me in the absolute worst damn-you-to-hell sort of way would have destroyed me. I would not have told anyone. I simply would have killed myself. Or worse, I would have joined a seminary.


Monday, November 24, 2003


read it and weep...literally

From Brad DeLong:
The High Water Mark of Free Trade?

The high-water mark of free trade in the old days was reached in the first decade of the twentieth century: the years from 1905-1935 or so saw a steady retreat from free trade toward various forms of protection, with damaging effects on the world economy (although no one is really sure how damaging).

Now Stephen Roach fears that we have reached the high-water mark of free trade for this cycle of globalization:
Morgan Stanley: The first is a new and powerful global labor arbitrage that has led to accelerating transfer of high-wage jobs from the developed world to lower-wage workforces in the developing world. Enabled by the Internet and the maturation of vast offshore outsourcing platforms in goods and services alike, labor has become more "fungible"? than ever. In a world without pricing leverage, the unrelenting push for cost control gives a sudden urgency to this cross-border arbitrage. The outcome is a new and potentially lasting bias toward jobless recoveries in the high-wage developed world. That brings the second major force into play -- a political backlash against the trade liberalization that allows such cross-border job shifts to occur. It is the politics of this trend that disturb me the most as I peer into the future.

Insecure and scared workers tend take out their fears and frustrations on incumbent politicians. To the extent that the IT-enabled global labor arbitrage represents a new and lasting threat to job security in the developed world, this political backlash is understandable -- albeit deplorable. This backlash has now taken on a life of its own -- giving rise to what I believe is a "perfect storm" in global trade policy. This storm is an outgrowth of five major setbacks on the global trade front -- the first and most worrisome being the breakdown in the WTO ministerial negotiations last September in Cancun, Mexico. Tensions between poor developing countries and the wealthy industrial world came out in the open on such long-standing issues of agricultural subsidies, competitiveness and investment rules, and financial market transparency. This failure is on a par with the WTO fiasco in Seattle in 1999 and all but rules out successful completion of the so-called Doha Round of multilateral trade liberalization originally slated for 2004.

The second is the mounting risk of a global trade war over steel. Motivated largely by domestic political considerations, the Bush administration raised tariffs on selected steel imports by up to 30% in March 2002, drawing justification from the WTO's so-called Safeguard Agreement. The WTO has since found these measures to be illegal and has given the United States until December 15 to rescind them. The European Union has warned of the imposition of $2.2 billion in retaliatory measures should that not occur. Others, including most recently, Japan and Norway, have announced that they will follow suit.

Third, China bashing has taken an ominous turn for the worse. The Japanese fired the first rhetorical salvos in this trade battle well over a year ago, accusing China of exporting deflation and hollowing out the Japanese economy. America has taken the blame game to a new level. The Bush administration has just imposed quotas on imports of selected Chinese textile products, and legislation has been introduced in both houses of the Congress that would impose huge tariffs on all Chinese imports into the US -- 27.5% in the case of the Senate version and most likely even a higher tax in the House version. The most worrisome aspect of these legislative threats is the broad bipartisan and ideological support they enjoy in the Congress. Moreover, there is no effective political counterweight to America's onslaught of China bashing. The White House has put its protectionist cards on the table by actions on steel and Chinese textiles. Nor have trade-intensive US multinationals spoken up -- hardly surprising in this post-Enron climate of political vindictiveness.

Fourth, trans-Atlantic trade tensions between the United States and Europeseem to have taken on a life of their own. It's not just steel. It's also disputes over genetically modified beef and other food products, agricultural subsidies, and a broad array of services. Particularly contentious is America's Foreign Sales Corporation tax law (FSC), some $4-5 billion annually of export tax subsidies. The WTO has also ruled the FSC arrangements illegal, granting the EU up to $4 billion in remedial damages if these measures are not lifted by the start of 2004. Cross-border US-European trade currently amounts to some US$400 billion annually, hardly a trivial mater. With Europe and the US both facing intensified structural pressures on the job front, one of the pillars of the world trading system is at risk of crumbling.

Fifth, a darkening outlook for multilateral trade breakthroughs is being compounded by deteriorating prospects for less ambitious bilateral and regional agreements. The just-concluded negotiations in Miami for the Free Trade Association of the Americas are a case in point. The meetings adjourned with nothing of great substance accomplished other than an agreement to meet again next year. The same snail-like progress has been evident with respect to the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement, as well as one with Australia. In a jobless recovery that is now moving into the full force of the election cycle, the US Congress seems to have little appetite for either the large or the small milestones on the road to trade liberalization.

We all know the dark lessons of protectionism. The odds of falling into that abyss remain low, in my view. But support at the other end of the spectrum -- accelerated trade liberalization -- is slipping rapidly...
After reading the comments thread after this post, my emotions are strong enough to fuel 3000 words of ranting incoherence; but instead I will be brief. If half of the population of DeLong's highly educated readers do not understand the sense in which backlash to IT driven productivity gains is "deplorable" then there is little hope for the politicians and the people they represent. How much of this is xenophobia? How much of this is just left-wing economic idiocy? But wait, the right now acts like the left in economic matters, while the left still acts like the left. Result? We're screwed.


Saturday, November 22, 2003


Why do we have eyebrows?

Stupid MSN article that caught my attention while checking Hotmail:
Dear Martha,

Why do we have eyebrows?

- 7-year-old boy

Dear 7,

Eyebrows are so trendy these days. That TV-makeover show for men made itself famous for curing a man of his unibrow. And you can't pick up a fashion magazine that doesn't instruct women on the do's and don'ts of eyebrow grooming.

With all that fashion focus, you'd think eyebrows were a mere accessory, designed to make us look good.

The truth is, they are an accessory. But unlike something purely decorative, like an eyebrow piercing, eyebrows are also useful, like umbrellas. They keep the rain out of your eyes. They keep the sweat out, too, which makes them even better than an umbrella, and certainly less goofy looking than the Björn Borg headband thing that was all the rage when your parents were kids.

This is the real reason you don't want to shave your eyebrows off, or pluck the hairs out one by one. While being eyebrow-free might make you look funny, the real problem would be that you might not be able to see well if your face got wet. This could have been really bad news if you were a cave boy trying to run away from a saber-toothed cat, just as it would be bad news at recess if you were playing kickball at recess and you couldn't see home base...
Listen to Martha, 7-year-old-boy, she knows what she's talking about. My eyebrows have just about had it; only a few scattered hairs remain. Today, while exerting myself in the late-autumn heat, sweat poured down my brow. It then plowed through my remaining eyebrows and either dripped on my glasses or got in my eyes. Oh! My kingdom for some eyebrows!



Feynman 1.7: The Theory of Gravitation

Pronounced [fIn' mun]. I once had a professor who mispronounced it [fAn' mun] which threw me into confusion. This chapter is kind of a survey of gravitation--a subject far too vast for one lecture. He begins with a historical overview of how the semi-modern theory of gravitation developed, i.e., Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, all the usual suspects. Then I learn about one poor underrated fellow with a particularly big idea: Tycho Brahe.
In the beginning of the fifteenth century there were great debates as to whether [the planets] really went around the sun or not. Tycho Brahe had an idea that was different from anything proposed by the ancients [the ancients knew the planets went around the sun; Copernicus rediscovered this]: his idea was that these debates about the nature of the motions of the planets would best be resolved if the actual positions of the planets in the sky were measured sufficiently accurately... This was a tremendous idea--that to find something out, it is better to perform some careful experiments than to carry on deep philosophical arguments.
Kepler used the data collected by Brahe to develop his three laws, and stole most of the immortality. This idea is so important, and so counterintuitive, and so difficult for humans to learn or remember. We prefer the glamour of the theorist or the prophet to the hard work of the empiricist. Empiricism doesn't speak to our ego the way the alternatives do. This idea is the key to modernity, science, progress, you name it. Tycho Brahe, Tycho Brahe, I will remember you Tycho Brahe.

So what are Kepler/Brahe's laws? 1) Each planet moves around the sun in an ellipse, with the sun at one focus. 2) The radius vector from the sun to the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal intervals of time. 3) The time required for a planet to go around its orbit is roughly proportional to the 3/2 power of the diameter of the orbit. While Kepler was doing his work, Galileo was talking about inertia, and then Newton came along.
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.
Newton, of course, developed the general law of gravitation that holds for most practical purposes: F = G mm'/r^2; every object in the universe attracts every other object with a force which for any two bodies (m and m') is proportional to the mass of each and varies inversely as the square of the distance between them. Simple enough. The planets move around the sun not because of little angels with flapping wings, as was once hypothesized, but because of the gravitational force of the sun. This force is what keeps the planets in an orbit--changing directions, instead of flying off in a straight line because of inertia. It is interesting to note that in the popular understanding of weightlessness in space (at least my 'popular' understanding) we think that astronauts are weightless because they have escaped the earth's atmosphere. This is not true. They are weightless because they are moving at a sufficiently high speed around the earth such that their spaceship is in orbit: the force of gravity is just enough to keep it falling toward the earth at about the same rate that the earth curves. If it were possible to get an airplane up to these kinds of speeds, about five miles a second, at, say, 30,000 feet, then the occupants of the plane would experience weightlessness.

What is the mechanism behind gravity? We don't know. Or at least we didn't know in 1963. As far as I know, we still don't know, but we probably have better guesses today. I believe this is the 'holy grail' of physics, unifying gravity, electromagnetism, and all the rest, but I might be mistaken. I'm content to learn 1963 physics for now.



Bush and the moon god

In a serious breach of official party theology, Bush alleged that good, decent, nice, American Christians worship the same freedom-pushin' "Almighty" as those nasty Muslim types. In other words, the Lord and the ancient moon god are one and the same. Authorities on the matter, evangelical Christians, were quick to point out the President's mistake. How could the One True God be a moon god? Why that's just silly.
Evangelical Christian leaders expressed dismay yesterday over President Bush's statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, saying it had caused discomfort within his conservative religious base. But most predicted that the political impact would be short-lived.

At a news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair in England on Thursday, a reporter noted that Bush has often said that freedom is a gift from "the Almighty" but questioned whether Bush believes that "Muslims worship the same Almighty" that he does.

"I do say that freedom is the Almighty's gift to every person," the president replied. "I also condition it by saying freedom is not America's gift to the world. It's much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same god."

Bush's remarks sent immediate shock waves through Christian Web sites and radio broadcasts. A Baptist Press report quoted Richard D. Land, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, as saying that Bush "is simply mistaken."

"We should always remember that he is commander in chief, not theologian in chief," Land said in a telephone interview yesterday. "The Bible is clear on this: The one and true god is Jehovah, and his only begotten son is Jesus Christ."

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, also issued a statement contradicting Bush.

"The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them. Muhammad's central message was submission; Jesus' central message was love. They seem to be very different personalities," Haggard said.

But both Land and Haggard, who are frequent visitors to the White House, doubted that the remark would cost Bush votes in 2004.

"This president has earned a lot of wiggle room among evangelicals," Land said. "If he had said that Islam is on a par with Christianity, it would be a more serious case of heartburn. This is just indigestion."

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative public policy group, said it is unclear what the ultimate fallout will be. "But the one thing that's for certain is, it's not helpful to the president. Since everybody agrees he's not a theologian, he would be much better advised to punt when he gets that kind of question," Bauer said.

The Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, executive director of the Clergy Leadership Network, a new organization of left-leaning clergy that seeks to counter the Christian right, declined to say whether she believes Christians and Muslims worship the same god.

"I would rather you not quote my theology," she said. "But I have to say that I'm very pleased that President Bush wants to be so inclusive, and I think his inclusiveness in this particular comment speaks well for who we have been as a nation theologically. Not all of his policies and his actions have been as inclusive."

Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, responded to Bush's statement with a single word: Alhamdullah, Thanks be to God.

"We read again and again in the Koran that our god is the god of Abraham, the god of Noah, the god of Jesus," he said. "It would not come to the mind of a Muslim that there is a different god that Abraham or Jesus or Moses was praying to."
Note to White House reporters: hammer Bush on his theology, because clearly, in the evangelical Christian universe, "you're either with us or you're against us." Well, where are you Bushy? You can't have it both ways, buddy boy.


Thursday, November 20, 2003


gotta love that global warming

Twas a gorgeous autumn day here in Nashville: bright blue skies, 72 degrees... Tomorrow promises more of the same. What's the date again? November 20? Whatever... I remember back when I was a kid and we used to have frosts in October, and it used to turn colder in November, and then winter would arrive. I guess I need to get with the times and move further north.

The obscenely perfect weather did provide a nice context for my 2.5 mile ritualistic traipse through the golden-wooded hills conveniently located not far from my parents' house. The body--my enemy--held up okay, aside from this annoying nerve pain in my left leg. Weird stuff, that nerve pain. Should go away soon, though. The burgeoning chemo fatigue will no doubt make this hike a lot more interesting in the coming days.



Tumour Diary

I just noticed this feature, Tumour Diary, on the BBC's website. Cancer Blog, Tumour Diary... They're quite similar. Here's the story behind Tumour Diary:
BBC News Online science and technology writer Ivan Noble was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in August 2002. Since then he has been sharing his experiences in an online diary.
Looks like he's had a rough go of it lately: he had a recurrence, another surgery, and there's not a lot of reason to think the tumor won't come back. I wish him the best. I sort of know what he's going through... Right now two months seems like two years for him.

That I have had no brain metasteses develop so far is the only way I consider myself lucky. The brain is, unfortunately, one of the more common locations for melanoma to spread, and it is how most melanoma patients eventually die. I will take my good fortune while I can. I was in a similar position to Mr. Noble this past June. Then came good news... You just have to hang on until things go your way.


Wednesday, November 19, 2003


course four

Lots of chemo flowing through my veins right now... Course four of who knows how many is officially under way. I was not able to see my doctor since he was out of town, and so my chemo dosage was not lowered. Fine, we can see how effective this exercise business really is.

Two interesting things I learned from my trip: 1) Last night I was waiting for my order at the chaotic McDonald's in Philadelphia's 30th Street train station (I really eat well on these trips, don't I). The server yells out, "number 1, with a coke!" An ABCD* girl and I step forward to claim the meal; we both ordered the same thing. Slight confusion, and I see that the server only has the drinks. The ABCD then offers me what she thinks is one of the Big Mac meals (I'm not sure), I politely decline, and tell her to go ahead. It turns out that the bag is not a Big Mac combo, so we step back and again wait for our food. I then take a look at this girl, and see that she is a very cute young college-age girl of Indian origin (but from her accent I can tell that she's spent most, if not all, of her life in the US). So I'm standing there thinking how coincidental it is that we ordered exactly the same thing, when, finally, our food arrives. I go and sit down somewhere in the large, mostly empty restaurant. She then sits down just to the right and across from me; a very strange thing to do, indeed. This makes no sense to me. What, is she attracted to my striking, eccentric, shiny dome of a noggin; or perhaps it's that unique, malignant lump jutting out of the side of my neck. She certainly doesn't see guys like me every day. But even if she didn't notice the lump--and had a thing for bald, young, white guys--poor, disease ridden me was in no position to hit up every young girl that I run across, what with it being chemo eve and all. But the sad fact is that even in the best of times, I probably would not have spoken to her. My skin color has always been my curse. From the earliest times, I associated it with my flesh burning in the sun, ridicule from the well-tanned, and an extremely high propensity to blush; the latter, of course, has a devastating effect on any child introvert's ability to approach attractive girls. As a child I was puzzled by racism, mainly because I hated being so damn white. And now, fate's ultimate irony: I'm dying of skin cancer. Or maybe I'm dying... Or I'm supposed to be dying... Back to the cute ABCD... So we eat our Big Macs, gobble our fries, and suck on our cokes in silence until I get up and leave the train station. I even had a line: "So what do you study?" As a young ABCD, she had to be a student, either undergrad or grad. After this incident, I went through the following thought process: trying to find a girlfriend is not an option in your condition; nevertheless, you need to get over this aversion to meeting attractive women, lest you condemn yourself to only meeting unattractive women; now would be a good time to get over this aversion since the stakes are so low, i.e., all I desire out of any conversation at the moment is just the conversation itself. This evening, while waiting for the shuttle bus to my car at the Nashville airport, I noticed another young, semi-attractive desi girl. This time, conscious of last night's thought process, I decided to do something very uncharacterisic: I sat right across from her on the shuttle. Nothing came of it, of course; I had just received chemo, for Christ's sake. But I need to start doing more Albert Ellisian things like this. We can always change; it just takes a little courage now and then. But why is female beauty so paralyzing?

2) Traveling and especially the use of public transportation can fight misanthropy. During this very short trip I had three opportunities to help out, in a small way, some stranger. The first time, I was again waiting for a shuttle bus, this time at the Baltimore airport. This black woman wheels up to the curb with this cart full of luggage and bags. Her bus pulls up (not mine) and she begins frantically loading the stuff on the bus. Now I chose not to help her, since it wasn't my bus. But some guy on the bus did start helping her load all the stuff, and seeing him do this lifted my heart a little bit. Ping, a chip off my big block of misanthropy. The second incident occured on the train back to Baltimore today. I still don't have this Amtrak thing mastered yet, but I could have sworn that when a conductor comes by and removes your ticket from above your seat that means you're getting off at the next stop. There was an old Jewish couple sitting in front of me. They were obviously from New York and probably going to DC. In fact, I knew they were going to DC: why would they take a train from NY to Baltimore airport? I noticed that the old guy was hard of hearing; whenever an announcement came over the intercom, the wife would loudly repeat it in his ear. So we're approaching Baltimore airport and the conductor guy comes by and takes my ticket and those of the old couple. Oh, I say to myself, they're getting off at BWI too. We pull up to the station and I notice that both of them are asleep. Reflecting back on yesterday's missed opportunity at the shuttle stop, I nudge the guy's shoulder and semi-shout "BWI! BWI!". Somewhat confused, he asks "DC? DC?". After a couple of exchanges like this, I realize that he is, in fact, going to DC and profusely apologize before jumping off the train. I was a little embarrased for disturbing the old fellow for nothing, but then decided that my intentions were pure and that I would do it again. Ping. I did learn that sometimes the conductor takes away the ticket prematurely. Third incident: right after leaving the train and the old couple I head over to the shuttle stop to go to Baltimore airport. The shuttle arrives and this woman who is leaving drags her heavy rolling bag down the stairs of the bus. One bag that had been balanced on top of the rolling bag falls to the ground. I then go out of my way to pick it up and put it back on top; she thanks me and I get on the shuttle. Ping again. The point is that in a very short period of time, I had three opportunities to make a very small difference in someone else's life, whereas, if I had driven, I would not have had these opportunities. Now, I know, I know... If you live in New York, you'll tell me that the very reason why you're such a friggin' misanthope is because you have to deal with all these friggin' people all over the place. But deep down, I think you know you like it. You prefer it to the suburbs and the SUVs. Now cars, the roads, that's where misanthropy spreads like wildfire. As a pedestrian, the absentmindedness of another pedestrian can be at worst, a harmless collision; at best, an opportunity for you to help out and brighten both of your days. But absentmindedness by the driver of a Ford Expedition results in at best, severe annoyance; at worst, death of innocents. Perhaps the autofication of America is one factor driving its increasing misanthropism/conservativism/fear.

Anyway, that's what I learned on my trip.

   * ABCD = American Born Confused Desi


Tuesday, November 18, 2003


Feynman 1.6: Probability
"The true logic of this world is in the calculus of probabilities."

James Clark Maxwell
What? Just six chapters in, and we have an entire chapter on probability? Yes, and a good one at that. For the record, I learned from the foreward that the 5th and 6th lectures were written not by Feynman, who was out of town that week, but by Stanford professor, Matthew Sands. Hence the absence of rhetorical flourish in the post on lecture 5 and probably 6. I will not discuss most of this chapter, except to say that I wish I had read it during my first course on probability. The basic concepts of probability are introduced with the standard coin flip, and before we know it, we're talking about random walks. I also like how the first bit of calculus, the integral, is introduced in an intuitive, probabilistic context. One thing I hope to gain from my study of Feynman's Lectures is a much stronger intuitive grasp of mathematics. Then, at the end of the lecture, more about the mysterious uncertainty principle...
When probability was first applied to such problems [describing the behavior of molecules in a sample of gas], it was considered to be a convenience--a way of dealing with very complex situations. We now believe that the ideas of probability are essential to a description of atomic happenings.
Here is a more precise statement of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: [Δx][Δv] ≥ h/m. Notice the mass thing tossed in the denominator on the right hand side. This explains my pre-Feynman understanding of the uncertainty principle. The less massive an object, the greater the quantity we get when we multiply the standard deviation associated with the probability density of the object's position with that of its velocity; the less we're able to pin it down. So, way back when, I learned that the nucleus is basically static while the electron is more like a cloud. Well, now I know that a nucleus is not perfectly static, but it is a lot more static than the much smaller electron, and so my old intuition is still of some use.



the longest article

After scarfing down a tasty regular Lucky Dog brand hot dog (not that cajun creole crap) in Baltimore's airport this afternoon, I picked up a hot-off-the-presses copy of the New Yorker. Now it is a New Yorker general rule that article quality is proportional to article length. If this rule holds true, then I just read, on the flight back to Nashville this evening, the finest New Yorker article ever. What's the article, you ask? "War After the War," by George Packer. Most New Yorker articles on Iraq have focused on trying to figure out what the hell the Bush Administration/Defense department is up to; that is, they have been top-down. This one is decidedly not top-down; but it is certainly not a mere collection of anecdotal human interest stories. Rather, it is, what I would call, middle-up. Packer picks out several interesting Iraqi vantage points from which to illustrate the enormous challenges that the Iraqi people and the American occupiers face, many of which are exacerbated by the policies of the Defense Department. Here are a few of the vantage points: we learn about a Harvard PhD in charge of Iraqi education; a US Marine captain in charge of an Iraqi district who is simultaneously trying to get the sewage going and trying to track down lingering Fedayeen; a scheming, slimy Shiite cleric working the C.P.A (Coalition Provisional Authority) for funds; a young wishing-to-be-Westernized Iraqi female student and her marginalized secular family, even Paul Bremer himself. So set aside some time this week and read "War After the War". Since it's practically the entire magazine, they couldn't put it on-line, but at least they have this NY Times style slide show teaser. If the article bores you, stop reading it; but I'm pretty sure that won't be a problem. I can almost guarantee that upon completion of this article you will have a more accurate picture of the current and possible future states of Iraq than our president. Yes, I find that to be a very sad state of affairs, and no, the picture doesn't look good.

Update (10/30/03): It's now on-line.


Monday, November 17, 2003


just high enough

Platelet count du jour: 108,000. Still rather low, but high enough... My doctor might decide to lower the chemo dose. In any event, a friend in St. Louis convinced me of the importance of exercise a few days ago, and I'm going to try a little experiment with this next round: I will exercise regularly, something of which I didn't do nearly enough the last few weeks. We'll see how the platelets respond... Of course, if my doctor lowers the chemo dose then it won't be as clear whether the exercise works or not.

I had a nice trip to St. Louis and made two discoveries: Global Foods Market and Nachomamas. The first is a very good international grocery store (a friend and I bought and prepared a silver pomfret, definitely a first for me), and the second is a good, but cheap, Mexican restaurant. Now for my quick pop up to Philly for chemo...


Thursday, November 13, 2003


my sentiments exactly

There's about to be some serious nested blockquoting going on... From Brad DeLong:
Matthew Yglesias takes the blame for everything that goes wrong in Iraq:
Matthew Yglesias: I Told Myself So: ...The shame of the Iraq situation is that it could've been done better -- by a more honest, more competent, more moral administration, but it likely won't be. The big thing to look forward to, however, will be the recriminations. Do we blame liberal hawks and idealistic neocons for being duped by a gang of ruthless Rumsfeldites, or to they blame war skeptics for fostering an atmosphere of hopelessness that led the administration to abandon serious efforts?

As a dupe-turned-skeptic, of course, I'll get the blame either way.
Me too. I thought last winter that the Bush administration would not be doing this without *hard* evidence of serious nuclear weapons programs. I--hard as this may be for some of you to believe--trusted them. No more.
That's what it comes down to for me as well, a betrayal of trust. I'm still somewhat astonished by the fact that the "intelligence" the US relied on to justify this splendid little war was so blatantly manipulated. I'm also quite astonished by the extent to which the British, usually so much saner than the rest of the world, enabled the Bushies. Blair's seconding of the Bush pre-war rhetoric is what convinced me that the usual UN inspections were probably not sufficient to deal with Saddam's WMDs. I still didn't think regime change was the best way to deal with them, but, hey, it sure was a way to deal with them. Again I say, oh well...



oh well...

Platelet count du jour: 63,000. So I'm off to St. Louis for the weekend; let's see if my Acura has another 650 miles left in it. I'll be back to have my blood drawn first thing Monday morning, and then (hold my thumbs) start round 4 on Tuesday.


Wednesday, November 12, 2003


frontier justice

Man, those Texans; when they ain't executin' murderers, they acquittin' 'em:
Even in Texas, with its history of legal lenience when it comes to self-defense, they are wondering how Robert A. Durst was found not guilty of murder yesterday in the killing of Morris Black, an elderly neighbor in a Galveston apartment house.

As was explained in gory detail during the six-week trial, Mr. Durst, a New York real estate heir, admitted that a handgun went off in Mr. Black's face as the two men struggled over it, and that he then dismembered the body and dumped it into Galveston Bay. Yet Mr. Durst was acquitted. ...

Legal experts in Texas said yesterday that local mores might play some part in understanding the not guilty verdict, but could not explain most of it. Several factors were possibly at work, they said — the most obvious being the stunning strategies of the defense team, Mike Ramsey, Dick DeGuerin and Chip Lewis, who overcame what looked like impossible hurdles standing between Mr. Durst and acquittal.

Tucker Graves, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Houston, said, "In Galveston, as opposed to Houston or Dallas, I'd guess the jury pool was mostly comprised of native Texans, people who are very familiar with the concept of self-defense."

Texas was one of the first states to let ordinary citizens obtain permits to carry concealed weapons, and has long had a broader view of what it means to defend one's self and property. Nevertheless, Mr. Odom said, "That doesn't diminish what I think is just a tremendous job by Mike Ramsey and Dick DeGuerin on this case."

So what did they do?

They picked the right jury for their client and virtually did away with one of the most obvious problems in the case: how does anyone explain the fact that Mr. Durst sawed a body to pieces?

"We were looking for people who could separate how Morris Black died from other bad stuff in the case that did not bear on the issue, like cutting up the body and running," Mr. DeGuerin said.

Mr. DeGuerin and his longtime friend and partner on the case, Mr. Ramsey, went through 170 potential jurors before they settled on 14 with whom they felt comfortable.

"We also wanted people who could understand why he was wearing a wig, living in a $300 apartment while being a millionaire from New York," Mr. DeGuerin said. The in-depth look at what was called Mr. Durst's mental instability was crucial, Mr. Odom said: "They were effective in saying that some of this abnormal behavior you and I would never be involved in, he would, and that does not mean that he was a murderer. It means that he's a little bit different."

Yesterday after the verdict, in the defense team's "war room" at the Tremont House hotel, a couple of blocks from the courthouse, there were three bottles of Champagne on a table littered with files, notes, the detritus of a two-year defense effort.

Even though lawyers who were following the Durst case said that the killing of Mr. Black did not fit into the model of frontier justice — because Mr. Black, although cantankerous, did not fit the image of a villain menacing society — the defense team disagreed.

Mr. DeGuerin, who also teaches at the University of Texas at Austin Law School, said that sometimes he refers in class to an old Texas saying about why horse thieves get hung and some killers get off. "No horse ever needed stealing," Mr. DeGuerin explained. "But there are people who need killing."

[my emphasis]
Mon dieu. I'll try to remember that last quote from Mr. Deguerin; file it under "Texas wisdom."



swing and a miss

Platelet count du jour: 60,000. We're going in the wrong direction here. I'll go in tomorrow for another blood test, but I gotta tell ya, my heart won't be in it. My consolation prize? A no-expense-paid trip to St. Louis; not bad, but I really wanted the chemo.


Tuesday, November 11, 2003


Feynman 1.5: Time and Distance

This chapter is all about measurement. Sure we would like to have some deep mind-blowing definition of time, but Feynman has none to offer. We can do no better than "[t]ime is what happens when nothing else happens", and try to measure it as accurately as possible. Starting from square one, Feynman retraces human progress in measuring first time, and then distance. With time, our instincts were to chop it up into periodic intervals, say the day. When it seemed that the lengths of days and nights changed, and we weren't sure if one 'day' was as long as the next, we applied some ingenuity. We flipped an hourglass or some such periodic device around and discovered that the number of flips from noon (defined as the high point of the sun in the sky) to noon was, indeed, constant, even though the amount of daylight seemed to lengthen or shorten depending on the season. Feynman then elaborates on the methods that have been developed to measure time in increasingly short and increasingly long intervals. How old is the universe? 1018 seconds. How long does it take a photon to cross the width of a nucleus? 10-24 seconds. Incidentally, at Feynman's time the universe was believed to be between 10 and 12 billion years old. Not a bad estimate; today we've narrowed it down to 13.7 billion years, give or take a couple hundred million.

Distance is not quite as exciting philosophically as time, but the two concepts are quite similar to physicists. What I find to be the most interesting part of the chapter is his discussion of triangulation to measure distances in space. The method is simple: you have two observers who want to measure the height of a mountain, say. They position themselves on opposite sides of the mountain and measure the angle between the line parallel to the ground and the mountain peak. The peak and the two observers form a triangle; with the angles and the length of the base known, one can easily calculate the height of the triangle (after a quick refresher on trigonometry, of course), and thus the height of the mountain. This same technique can be used to measure the distance from the earth to the moon, the earth to certain stars, even the width of distant galaxies. Why didn't I learn this in high school? Again, he has a scale of distances from longest to shortest known. Distance to the edge of the universe? Around 1027 meters. Radius of a nucleus? 10-15 meters. The second most interesting part of this chapter is how scientists arrived at this second number. The best measurements by semi-direct methods can only get us as small as the diameter of an atom, about 10-10 meter. To measure the nucleus, scientists measured the "apparent area", σ = πr2. You get a thin sheet of material, carbon, for example, and you pass a beam of high energy particles through it and count the number of particles that don't get through. The high energy particles will only bounce off a nucleus, not the miniscule electrons, and if the sheet of material is thin enough, you don't have to worry too much about nuclei overlapping one another. So if we know the number of atoms, N, in the area, A, of material, then the total area "covered" by the nuclei is σN/A. This quantity should be equal to the proportion of particles that do not make it through to the other side: (n1 - n2)/n1, where n1 equals the number of particles shot at the sheet, and n2 equals the number of particles that make it through. Solve for σ, then r, and you're done. Okay, maybe that's better than triangulation.

The chapter ends with another mention of the mysterious uncertainty principle. We go on and talk a lot about finding ever more precise measurements of things, and then it turns out there is a lower bound on possible accuracy; not only with respect to space, Δx = h/Δp, (where h is the small quantity, "Planck's constant", Δx is the error in position, and Δp is the error in the momentum of an object) but also with respect to time: Δt = h/ΔE, where ΔE is the "error in our knowledge of the energy of the process whose time period we are measuring. If we wish to know more precisely when something happened we must know less about what happened, because our knowledge of the energy involved will be less." Uncertainty reigns.



Soros vs. Bush

I saw George Soros and economist Jeffrey Sachs on c-span a while back; both gentlemen eloquently--and passionately--attacked the Bush administration. Mr. Soros has decided to "put his money where his mouth is:"
George Soros, one of the world's richest men, has given away nearly $5 billion to promote democracy in the former Soviet bloc, Africa and Asia. Now he has a new project: defeating President Bush.

"It is the central focus of my life," Soros said, his blue eyes settled on an unseen target. The 2004 presidential race, he said in an interview, is "a matter of life and death."

Soros, who has financed efforts to promote open societies in more than 50 countries around the world, is bringing the fight home, he said. On Monday, he and a partner committed up to $5 million to MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group, bringing to $15.5 million the total of his personal contributions to oust Bush.

Overnight, Soros, 74, has become the major financial player of the left. He has elicited cries of foul play from the right. And with a tight nod, he pledged: "If necessary, I would give more money."

"America, under Bush, is a danger to the world," Soros said. Then he smiled: "And I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is."

Soros believes that a "supremacist ideology" guides this White House. He hears echoes in its rhetoric of his childhood in occupied Hungary. "When I hear Bush say, 'You're either with us or against us,' it reminds me of the Germans." It conjures up memories, he said, of Nazi slogans on the walls, Der Feind Hort mit ("The enemy is listening"). "My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me," he said in a soft Hungarian accent. ...

In past election cycles, Soros contributed relatively modest sums. In 2000, his aide said, he gave $122,000, mostly to Democratic causes and candidates. But recently, Soros has grown alarmed at the influence of neoconservatives, whom he calls "a bunch of extremists guided by a crude form of social Darwinism."

Neoconservatives, Soros said, are exploiting the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a preexisting agenda of preemptive war and world dominion. "Bush feels that on September 11th he was anointed by God," Soros said. "He's leading the U.S. and the world toward a vicious circle of escalating violence." ...

Asked whether he would trade his $7 billion fortune to unseat Bush, Soros opened his mouth. Then he closed it. The proposal hung in the air: Would he become poor to beat Bush?

He said, "If someone guaranteed it."
Smart guy, and principled too. I would like to note that I have contributed more to oust Bush, as a proportion of net worth, than even Mr. Soros. If only that Bill Gates guy would join the fight, then we'd be in business.


Monday, November 10, 2003


no surprise

Platelet count: 83,000. Better than 62,000 -- the platelet count at this point after the last round -- but not good enough for chemo (100,000+). So it's safe to say that my three week cycles are four week cycles, and thus my progress will be somewhat slower than we initially hoped. Not a damn thing I can do about it though. Maybe as I add weight (my appetite is pretty good) and exercise more, the platelets will increase in subsequent rounds. We'll see.

The silver lining is that I will be able to go up to St. Louis for a few days this weekend. I'm still planning on returning to school for the spring semester, but I won't make that decision until after the next set of CT scans. Those will be done about three weeks from now.

I ran into my Vanderbilt doctor today and spoke with him briefly. Vanderbilt will be starting their own Bay/Carbo/Tax trial in a month or so, and it looks like I will be able to transfer. That will save us the significant money and hassle associated with traveling to Philadelphia.



update (5:50 p.m.): I just spoke with the nurse from Philly and it turns out they were not able to finish the paperwork that would have allowed them to issue another week of the Bayer pills. So rather than wait a whole week, I'm going to go in to Vanderbilt for blood work this Wednesday, and then Thursday, if necessary. If the platelets are above 100,000 on either of those two days, I'll fly up to Philly to get chemo on the day after. Hopefully, the platelets will rise, but if they don't, at least I'll still be able to go to St. Louis.


Sunday, November 09, 2003


Feynman 1.4: Conservation of Energy

Okay, now it's time to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty with this stuff. Well, maybe not yet, Feynman is quite gentle -- today's lecture deals with topics I'm sure I was taught and tested on in high school. But passing tests and learning are not the same thing, especially for me. What is energy anyway? We don't know exactly, but there is a constant amount of it in the universe and we say that it is conserved; i.e., the quantity of energy, this constant amount, never changes, despite all of the apparent changes that take place around us. Feynman works through a series of examples using the conservation of energy: he calculates the force required to lift 2000 pounds one inch with a screw jack (1.6 pounds, with 10 threads per inch and a 20 inch handle); and he calculates the force required to support a board with varying weights placed in different locations.

What are the different forms of energy? Well... There's gravitational energy, kinetic energy, heat energy, elastic energy, electrical energy, chemical energy, radiant energy, nuclear energy, and finally mass energy (e=mc^2). In this chapter, Feynman discusses only the first two in detail. At the very end there is this interesting bit about our inability to efficiently harness energy for human use:
Our supplies of energy are from the sun, rain, coal, uranium, and hydrogen. The sun makes the rain, and the coal also, so that all these are from the sun. Although energy is conserved, nature does not seem to be interested in it; she liberates a lot of energy from the sun, but only one part in two billion falls on the earth... We have already obtained energy from uranium; we can also get energy from hydrogen, but at present only in an explosive and dangerous condition. If it can be controlled in thermonuclear reactions, it turns out that the energy that can be obtained from 10 quarts of water per second is equal to all of the electrical power generated in the United States. With 150 gallons of running water a minute, you have enough fuel to supply all the energy which is used in the United States today [1963]! Therefore it is up to the physicist to figure out how to liberate us from the need for having energy. It can be done.
Or can it? Technology has progressed remarkably on so many fronts in the last 40 years. Even Feynman (maybe) in '63 could not have imagined the modern computerized society that we take for granted. But energy technology has failed to progress at anywhere near the same rate: we're sucking down fossil fuels faster than ever before. Sometimes the physicists need a nudge: the incredible exigencies of WWII split the atom; the incredible profits to be had fueled the chip-makers. Where's the urgency with energy? Where's the gas taxes? Where's the 'Manhattan Project' for hydrogen fuel cells'? Why do small, backward countries in the Middle East still dictate our foreign policy? Perhaps cheap, clean, abundant energy is not in the best interests of those with real power in the U.S. Perhaps there's simply no one to pay the physicists.



follow up: Fleck and Meyer

The Tennessean reviewed the premier of Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer's Concerto for Banjo, Bass and Orchestra:
World premieres on the classical stage are much like handsomely wrapped holiday gifts — they routinely promise more than they deliver.

The Nashville Symphony's unwrapping last night of an intriguing collaboration between Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, their Concerto for Banjo, Bass and Orchestra, delivered plenty, drawing a raucous standing ovation from a near-capacity Tennessee Performing Arts Center crowd.

Led by Kenneth Schermerhorn, the 30-minute piece presented a fascinating compositional challenge: how to take this odd, even awkward pairing of instruments and make it work within the admittedly flexible format of a classical concerto.

The strengths were many. As you'd expect, Fleck's banjo and Meyer's bass were handled with great verve, and their interplay was at times dazzling. It also was subdued on occasion, even to the point of taking on an interesting brooding quality. ...
On an unrelated note, for those of you who have difficulty remembering how to spell Tennessee, just learn the following cheer: T, (pause), E, (pause), double-N, E, (pause), double-S, (short pause), double-E, (pause), TENNESSEE!


Thursday, November 06, 2003


Epictetus praises laziness

Stoic philosopher Epictetus applies his keen economic intuition in a defense of laziness and apathy (The Enchiridion, 12):
If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: "If I neglect my affairs, I'll have no income; if I don't correct my servant, he will be bad." For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, "This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing."
The price of perfection is indeed very high. Hmmm... What would Epictetus think of an education policy whose purported goal is to "leave no child behind"? Oh, wait, Epictetus wouldn't bother about such things; he's a Stoic, after all, and only concerns himself with matters under his control.



democracy in California

Via Hit & Run, voters in Bolinas, California passed this surreal measure Tuesday with 67.4% of the vote:
Shall the following language constitute a policy of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District? Vote for Bolinas to be a socially acknowledged nature-loving town because to like to drink the water out of the lakes to like to eat the blueberries to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motor boats. Dakar. Temporary and way to save life, skunks and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful.
If your curiosity is piqued, see the Hit & Run comments on the post for an exegesis.


Wednesday, November 05, 2003


Feynman 1.3: The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences

I won't spend too much time on this survey chapter because its just intended to whet the students' appetite and convince them of the fundamental role that physics plays in all science. I'm already well convinced of that. Also, some of the fields that he discusses, in particular biology and psychology, have undoubtedly advanced almost beyond recognition in the last forty years. What I found most interesting in this chapter are a few passages that reveal a lot about Feynman the man. The first is in the section on astronomy. He writes: "But the most remarkable discovery in all of astronomy is that the stars are made of atoms of the same kind as those on the earth." He then jumps to a rare footnote:
How I'm rushing through this! How much each sentence in this brief story contains. ... Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars--mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere." I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination--stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern--of which I am a part--perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar [an observatory at CalTech], rushing all apart from some starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
Ah, but at least there is Calvino. And then there is this little bit about the stellar furnace:
One of the men who discovered this [how stars burn] was out with his girlfriend the night after he realized that nuclear reactions must be going on in the stars in order to make them shine. She said "Look at how pretty the stars shine!" He said "Yes, and right now I am the only man in the world who knows why they shine." She merely laughed at him. She was not impressed with being out with the only man who, at that moment, knew why stars shine. Well it is sad to be alone, but that is the way it is in this world."
One can imagine him, at this moment, pausing, thoughtful, staring into the middle distance, and then suddenly coming to himself and continuing with the lecture. It is sad to be alone. Before heading to the crescendo of the conclusion, I should note one interesting thing that comes up a couple of times in the chapter: the mystery of circulating or turbulent fluids. Scientists in 1963 were baffled by the complexities of the weather and, more mundanely, the flow of water through a pipe. My understanding is that these problems eventually came under the realm of chaos theory, and that, while predictions have improved, these sorts of problems are almost by definition intractable. But I'm getting out of my league... Here is Feynman's masterful last paragraph:
A poet once said, "The whole universe is in a glass of wine." We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts--physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on--remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!
(Gasp!) We all have different temperaments. If I had been lucky enough to be sitting in Feynman's lecture hall listening to this, I would be jumping out of my seat. This is genius! Some of the engineers around me would be yawning, but I, with my romantic streak, would be on fire. Maybe I'm just a sucker for rhetoric, but there's something to be said for effectively communicating and generating enthusiasm. "Wow, I can't wait for the next lecture!", I would say to myself as I leave the lecture hall...



I'm a Clinton libertarian 

I've been following this two-dimensional political compass survey for a week or so in the blogosphere. There has been some interesting discussion about the value of such tests, which I will not get into. Here are my results: left of center with strong libertarian tendencies. I do wish they had thrown a couple of gun control questions into the survey, because I am a libertarian who is in favor of gun control (oxymoron?); that would have probably taken me a couple of notches up the y-axis. Perhaps that's one way that the survey is biased toward libertarians. I suspect that there's a lot of us out there who want the government out of our lives as much as possible but do not believe in a God-given right to own assault rifles.

Anyway, Tim Lambert now has a nifty chart up that collects the results of an ever-growing number of bloggers (I jumped on the bandwagon and added my own data point). As expected, bloggers tend to be libertarian. What is interesting is that the results seem to bunch around a one-dimensional diagonal line, so perhaps the old one-dimensional right-left political spectrum ain't so useless after all. If you haven't already, take the survey; and when you're done, be sure to check out the the site's estimate of where the U.S. presidential candidates and other world figures stand. Bush is about as right-authoritarian as you can get. These charts shouldn't be taken too seriously, though; I mean, really, would I vote for Al Sharpton? One interesting thing to note is that the AntiDave ideology, the political orientation that resulted when I took the survey and selected the exact opposite of my real views, is quite close to that of Adolf Hitler. That's certainly enough to earn my endorsement.


Tuesday, November 04, 2003


life in a red state iv

Here is this weekend's program at the Nashville Symphony:
Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer

Bela Fleck, banjo
Edgar Meyer, bass
Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor

Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Bela Fleck/Edgar Meyer - Concerto for Banjo and Double Bass
Schumann - Symphony No. 2 in C major

Nashville-native virtuosi Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer will unveil the world premiere of Concerto for Banjo and Double Bass, their collaborative work commissioned by The Nashville Symphony. The moving images of Vaughan Williams' Thomas Tallis Fantasia and the elegance of Schumann's Symphony provide context and contrast for this work.
Unfortunately, I don't think I will be able to attend... I, uh, well... The truth is, I will be in St. Louis, or if not in St. Louis, I'm sure I won't be feeling very well this weekend...


Monday, November 03, 2003


Feynman 1.2: Basic Physics

As I mentioned in the last post, the first three chapters are basically an introduction; no equations, just a broad discussion of science and physics in general. This chapter's discussion of physics is split into three parts: pre-1920, that is, pre-quantum mechanical, post-1920, or, modern, quantum physics, and lastly, a section on nuclei and particles. But first, there is the lively introduction:
What do we mean by "understanding" something? We can imagine that this complicated array of moving things which constitutes "the world" is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules. The rules of the game are what we mean by fundamental physics...If we know the rules, we consider that we "understand" the world.
Of course we don't know all the rules... When I was a muddled adolescent, I bought into, or at least behaved like I bought into, the idea that there was some sort of eternal truth, or something of real transcendental value inside of me. After much anguish and frustration at my inability to discover, much less express to others, what I knew was of value inside me, I began to wonder if my whole way of looking at things was wrongheaded. Later, I realized that I had suffered from a quasi-religious, wannabe-an-artist-but-don't-have-the-talent, ego trip. At some point in my life, I stopped looking inward and started looking outward. Out there in the world, in books, in people, that's where the interesting stuff happens -- not in my empty head.
Our minds are finite, and yet even in these circumstances of finitude we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite, and the purpose of life is to grasp as much as we can out of that infinitude.

--Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)
This change of view did wonders for my psychological well-being. And, of course, this is the only way to do science. Feynman continues with his chess example to illustrate the three ways that we know whether the rules that we 'guess' at are valid. The first is by constructing controlled experiments to isolate the rule we want to test. The second is by checking less specific rules that can be derived from the rule we want to test. Here's the chess example: a bishop always moves diagonally, which, if true, means that every bishop must be on a red square. We can check this rule (whether a bishop must always move diagonally) by checking to see if all the bishops are on red squares. [Of course a bishop can, occasionally, wind up on a black square; Feynman uses this to make another point, which I omit.] The third way to check whether our ideas are correct is by rough approximation. For example, we may see a chest master move a piece without having a clue what he's doing, but using rough approximation we may be able to figure out that 'roughly' he's moving his pieces around the king to protect it. In the same way we can roughly understand nature without knowing what every piece is doing. The introduction concludes with a discussion of the 'amalgamation' of natural phenomena. The physical sciences used to be divided up into different classes, heat, electricity, mechanics, optics, etc., but of course many of these were discovered to be different aspects of one set of phenomena. Heat is just the movement of atoms, so heat is part of mechanics. Biology is chemistry is physics. Too bad this doesn't work in the social sciences, although economists would sure like to play the role of the physicist.

Forces. I always underestimate the power of the electrical force. Both gravity and the electrical force vary according to the inverse of the distance squared, but the electrical force is much larger:
[C]onsider two grains of sand, a millimeter across, thirty meters apart. If the force between them were not balanced, if everything attracted everything else instead of likes repelling, so that there were no cancellation, how much force would there be? There would be a force of three million tons between the two! You see, there is very, very little excess or deficit of the number of negative or positive charges necessary to produce appreciable electrical effects.
Another important point to remember: the number of electrons in an atom determine all of the chemical properties. Before, when considering an atom, I placed a lot of weight on the number of protons because they're so massive, but the electrons determine how it behaves chemically, which is mostly what matters. Now what about quantum mechanics? "Things on a small scale behave nothing like things on a large scale." There are three main aspects of quantum mechanics that Feynman communicates in this section: the uncertainty principle; impossibility of accurate prediction; things that behave like waves also behave like particles, and vice versa. To start, Feynman uses the uncertainty principle, the fact that we cannot both know where something is and how fast it's moving, to explain why atoms are so big:
What keeps the electrons from simply falling in [to the nucleus? After all, they have opposite charges.] This principle: If they were in the nucleus, we would know their position precisely, and the uncertainty principle would then require that they have a very large (but uncertain) momentum, i.e., a very large kinetic energy. With this energy they would break away from the nucleus. They make a compromise: they leave themselves a little room for this uncertainty and then jiggle with a certain amount of minimum motion in accordance with this rule.
This example is rather deep. My mental model of an atom was always a static nucleus with a cloud, or layers of clouds, around the nucleus. But with the uncertainty principle, the nucleus is, in fact, never 'static'; that is impossible. It is continuously bouncing around with its electron shell at velocities corresponding to the kinetic energy (heat) of the atom. Of course the electron cloud is still there. Hmmm... Before this example, I had only mentally applied the uncertainty principle to electrons, not all particles. So, given we know the position of the nucleus (and so we do not know it's momentum, but it has to be high) if an electron were to crash into the nucleus we would then know it's position and therefore, by the uncertainty principle, the kinetic energy of the electron would also have to be very high; so high that it breaks away from the nucleus. Very interesting.

In the final section, 'Nuclei and Particles', we see that physics circa 1963 is just a big mess. There is a table of particles --analogous to the periodic table of elements-- arranged according to charge and 'strangeness'. Feynman doesn't get into what exactly 'strangeness' is at this point, so it must be rather complicated. It's hard for me to get excited about too many other particles besides electrons, protons, and neutrons. But, on the other hand, it is rather weird to have them all, and in many cases, not to have any idea why they exist. What is strange is how they are generated: "Just as the electrical interaction can be connected to a particle, the photon, Yukawa suggested that the forces between neutrons and protons also have a field of some kind, and that when this field jiggles it behaves like a particle." Finally, from his conclusion:
This then, is the horrible condition of our physics today. To summarize it, I would say this: outside the nucleus, we seem to know all; inside it, quantum mechanics is valid--the principles of quantum mechanics have not been shown to fail. The stage on which we put all of our knowledge, we would say, is relativistic space time; perhaps gravity is involved in space-time. We do not know how the universe got started, and we never made experiments which check our ideas of space and time accurately, below some tiny distance, so we only know that our ideas work above that distance.
One last thing to note: "There are four kinds of interaction between particles which, in order of decreasing strength, are the nuclear force, electrical interactions, the beta-decay interaction, and gravity." This beta-decay is the force causing the neutron to decay into a proton and an electron and is not well understood.


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