March 31, 2006

Warning: mutant hillbillies, next 35 miles.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:34 PM

And on a related note, I will be making a lightning trip to L.A. this weekend. I'm hoping to get there late tonight; I'll try not to stop at the Wrong Gas Station. (There are a few of those near I-5; I had to stop at one once with a nearly empty tank.) While on the road I will be unable to delete the comment spam that has been annoying me the last few days, so try to ignore it. (It's mostly on posts from a week ago anyway.)

Instead of a Friday Random Ten, here's my playlist for the road:

  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones
  • Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
  • Liars, Drum's Not Dead
  • Lilys, Everything Wrong Is Imaginary
  • Built To Spill, Perfect From Now On
  • Mercury Rev, Deserter's Songs
  • Pixies, Bossanova
  • Ladytron, Witching Hour
  • Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
  • My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

These are CDs that are actually in the car; I'll also have my iPod so I really have more options than just this list.

Unofficial reunion at Caltech's Alumni Weekend?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:22 PM

This post is primarily meant for the Caltech alums in the audience. Mohi and I were discussing alumni weekend—this year will be the five-year reunion for our class—and we're wondering how many people are going to be there, or might be interested in meeting up there. We're not necessarily thinking about going to the official alum events, but this seems like a good opportunity to get everyone there at the same time. Post your thoughts in the comments. The relevant dates are May 18-21.

Permalink | Tags: Caltech

March 29, 2006

Wednesday Schrodinger's Cat Blogging: Coupled Qubits

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:45 PM

The slides for my March Meeting talk, "Variable Coupling of Two Flux Qubits", are now available online. As promised, below the fold is a non-technical explanation of the results presented there. This work builds on the single-qubit work, about which I posted in August; it may be helpful to review that post before reading the following.

Continue reading "Wednesday Schrodinger's Cat Blogging: Coupled Qubits"

March 27, 2006

Scary vs. gross [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:20 AM

It's spring break, but I don't have any vacation plans. I do have some travel lined up later on this spring: I bought my tickets for Coachella so I'll be seeing some of you there next month.

The Hills Have Eyes: This movie was so bad I'm just going to leave V for Vendetta on the sidebar. Normally I like horror flicks, but this one seemed unclear on the concept. Specifically, the film confuses "scary" with "gross", and so we get a lot of gore and ugly mutants but not a lot of suspense. Instead of being frightening the experience was merely unpleasant, and it wasn't even the most disgusting thing I'd seen all week (David Bowie's eyeball hanging out of its socket being the clear winner there). The protagonists are dumb even by horror movie standards—Roger Ebert writes pretty much his entire review on how dumb they are—and some of them are sufficiently annoying that I was rooting for the mutants within ten minutes or so. Some critics have suggested that the movie is an allegory for the Iraq war. Such a film would have been much more interesting; in reality the movie drags out a few political stereotypes but doesn't sign on to an agenda or pursue anything as sophisticated as an allegory.

Charles Stross:Iron Sunrise: Here's the problem with "hard sci-fi": sometimes the author knows just enough physics to get it wrong. For example: this novel's faster-than-light communication scheme involving EPR-style entangled qubits. Now, I'm one of the few readers of this book who actually has a pair of entangled1 qubits in his2 basement. But any competent physicist should know that information can't be transferred this way—you just get correlated random numbers. (You can make a one-time pad this way for quantum cryptography, and indeed this has been done.)

All this shows is that I'm a big nerd. Once I stopping thinking very hard about the physics in the book, it turned into a fun pulp novel, with spies, assassins, conspiracies, and Nazi villains (or near enough). Once the plot really got going I was hooked, and it was an excellent way to pass the time while I was stuck in the airport last weekend. One non-science complaint I had was that the plot twists were all telegraphed in advance, so there weren't any big surprises. However, the characters were well-written and just reading about their interactions was fun.

1It's actually debatable whether they are entangled (I suspect they are) but they are definitely coupled. More on this in an upcoming post.
2Actually, UC Berkeley's basement.

Arab Strap: The Last Romance: I felt like I am not nearly bitter enough to appreciate this album properly. And this is supposed to be one of Arab Strap's more uplifting records! Well, the tone does get happier as the CD plays, culminating in the nearly-triumphant "There Is No Ending". (The US version of the album has two bonus tracks, but that one is clearly the end of the album.) Overall this is a decent album with a few excellent tracks: the first song and the aforementioned last song; another one I like is "Don't Ask Me To Dance". For the most part I like the darker music, which probably means I should check out their other records which are supposed to be along the same lines. (This purchase finally prompted me to find out that the Belle & Sebastian album The Boy With The Arab Strap was named after this band, and not the other way around.)

March 24, 2006

Absurd claims

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:57 PM

I'm going to steal yet another meme from Tyler Cowen, who asks: What is the most absurd claim you believe? "It should refer to a view which you actually hold, but many other smart people consider untenable and bizarre."

During a period overlapping heavily with my undergraduate years, my answer would have been that I think David Lewis' theory of possible worlds is largely correct; in particular the notion that all possible worlds are just as real as the actual world. I've only read excerpts from Lewis' works so I'm not prepared to accept or discredit his entire theory, but the underlying principle seemed right. Later, however, I realized that this could not possibly be true as I had imagined it: the reason being that the laws of physics in the actual world seem to be very regular and time-translation invariant, whereas there are many more grue-like worlds where the laws of physics randomly change than there are worlds like this one. So the probability of finding oneself in a world where the laws of physics are observably stable is vanishingly small. (A reasonable objection is that this probability isn't well-defined. But if all possible worlds are equally real I would be very surprised not to find myself in a world with some grue-ish properties.)

So I had to shelve this idea. I'm still don't have a convincing idea of what distinguishes the actual world from other possible ones, but I think there must be something, and maybe it has to do with why the laws of physics are fixed with time.

Anyway, I thought the modal realism thing would be an unusual answer to the question, but it was mentioned by the fourth commenter in the original MR thread so I guess not. But having given up on that some years ago, what is my current most absurd belief? Probably that many-worlds is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. (Even though I don't like to call it "many-worlds".) Of course this has some conceptual similarities with my previous absurd belief, but at least this one suffers from fewer grue-type problems.

Anyone else want to confess some absurd beliefs?

March 23, 2006

Is there hope for Arkansas?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:31 PM

Doesn't look like it:

“Bob” is a geologist and a teacher at a science education institution that serves several Arkansas public school districts.
Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.”
In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD ... but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

It's just insane that in the 21st century, young earth creationists are de facto deciding the curriculum in some parts of this country. In this case we should just refer to the Kung Fu Monkey motto: "Everybody who wants to live in the 21st Century over here. Everybody who wants to live in the 1800's over there. Good. Thanks. Good luck with that."

March 22, 2006

Workplace Physics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:09 PM

Classical theory: I tend to occupy either my office on the first floor or the lab in the second basement. Obviously the office has the higher potential energy. By the work-energy theorem, I can be promoted to the higher-energy state by performing work on the system. Once I am up in the office, I write up the results of the experiment and the energy exits the system in the form of a publication, so I find myself back in the lab.

Quantum theory: My state oscillates between the lab and office levels. Timescales for transitions are on the order of several weeks. Spontaneous absorption of data will cause a transition to the office state; the office state will randomly decay into the lab state with emission of one quantum of data (a PRL submission). My state is entangled with the state of the dilution refrigerator: if I am observed in lab there is a very high probability that the fridge is running.

A thermodynamic digression: When I am away from my office for several weeks, the number of objects on my desk increases with time. When I am away from the lab for several weeks, the number of items in the lab decreases with time (roughly in proportion to their utility to other members of the group). Conclusion: the chemical potential in the lab is positive, while the chemical potential on my desk is negative.

Belle & Sebastian blow their cover

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:06 AM

Like I'm going to see two of my favorite bands in one night and not say it was awesome. First, the New Pornographers, who are without Neko Case on this tour. There's definitely something missing without her formidable voice; I think they had their (excellent) keyboardist doing the female vocals although I couldn't see the stage very well during their set, so I'm not sure. I also may have missed a song or two, since I was late looking for parking. I didn't keep track of their setlist, but they played several of my favorites: "The Laws Have Changed", "From Blown Speakers", "The Bleeding Heart Show", and "Stacked Crooked". Carl Newman forgot the opening to "It's Only Divine Right" and started in the middle of the song; after that no one else could remember how it started either and there was some confusion onstage. (Eventually it came back to him.) Despite the absence of Neko Case it was still a pretty good performance.

Then, Belle & Sebastian. After the March Meeting is when I often take up new projects, and one I was thinking about was learning all the songs from If You're Feeling Sinister on the guitar. I've started with the first track, "The Stars of Track and Field", and have given it a few attempts since I got back from Baltimore. So it seemed like an omen when Stuart Murdoch came out on stage, picked up his acoustic guitar, and led off with "Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs..." They played several other songs from that album, many from their latest (The Life Pursuit) and a couple from each of the others, excluding (conveniently) the two I don't own (which are Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and Storytelling). Also a few from their EP releases, including—to my delight—"Your Cover's Blown". That was probably the one track I was really hoping they'd play.

I could have stood there forever listening to them, and it seemed too soon when they stopped. Somehow they got away without playing "The Blues Are Still Blue", even though the single just came out. (As I've mentioned, that's my favorite song on the latest LP.) It was a great show, and I plan to see them again the next time they tour the U.S.

Belle & Sebastian's setlist is below the fold; I was writing them down on an index card, which led at least one person to start asking me for the names of the songs he didn't recognize.

Continue reading "Belle & Sebastian blow their cover"

March 21, 2006


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:59 PM

I'm not normally a squeamish person, but this Slate article on what to do if your eyeball falls out of its socket did me in. I had to go to Cute Overload for a chaser.

Music for productivity

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:05 PM

On Friday there was a Lifehacker post recommending Brian Eno's Music for Airports album as background music for doing work, the idea being that ambient music allows one to concentrate in a pleasant atmosphere. Indeed, I've found that downtempo electronica is good for this: I've used Air and Zero 7 to good effect. Shoegazer rock can also do the job, since it's richly textured and can fade into the background—this accounts for some of My Bloody Valentine's meteoric rise up my charts.

If a deadline's not looming this sort of music can be a little too calming and actually make me less productive, so if I really need motivation I will sometimes turn to power pop: The New Pornographers, and lately, Weezer. (Thanks to Lemming for recommending the Blue Album—it's become one of my favorite '90s CDs.) Less easily classified, The Go! Team also serve this purpose.

Right now I'm listening to a playlist of my 5-star-rated songs by Belle & Sebastian and The New Pornographers, since I'm seeing them both live tonight.

Any other recommendations for music to listen to while working?

Permalink | Tags: Life, Music

March 20, 2006

Photos from Washington, D.C.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:21 PM

washington monument and flag

I managed to upload a batch of pictures while they were still current. These are from my D.C. visit last week and are mostly from the National Mall (particularly the WWII Memorial, which I hadn't seen before). The other photos are here.

Spammers Destroy Trackback

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:42 PM

I turned off trackbacks a while ago due to spam, and I see that two blogs much larger than mine (Marginal Revolution and Brad DeLong, both on my list of daily reads) have done the same. Indeed, looking in my server logs I see that there has been a massive, distributed trackback spam attack underway since last Monday—presumably this is also what's hitting the other blogs. There's no way I could have policed this last week, in Baltimore with my computer broken, so I feel vindicated in closing off trackbacks several months ago.

Making Light has a way to prevent individual links from contributing to the Google pagerank of the linked site; this will indeed make this kind of spam pointless, but I don't think it will act as a deterrent. It's basically free to post trackback spam and I doubt any spammer will bother to check which sites are tagging links with the "nofollow" attribute. Certainly they haven't noticed that I don't even have trackbacks anymore.

Ultimately the result will be the complete abandonment of the trackback protocol, as we are seeing already. I hope this won't also happen with blog comments, but since the value added to the blog is much higher for comments it's more worthwhile to police them for spam rather than close them entirely.

Long Form [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:24 PM

My trip back from Baltimore took about 12 hours longer than it should have, but I eventually made it back. Despite attempts to catch up on sleep I still feel like I'm recovering—it was a busy week.

V for Vendetta: This is a powerful movie that mostly does a good job blending action/suspense with a political message. The setting is a near-future Britain which has slid into fascism after the deterioration of Iraq and some high-casualty terrorist attacks. (Meanwhile the United States has fallen into anarchy and civil war.) The plot centers around the masked-and-caped V, who pursues a personal vendetta against certain government officials, while working on a larger plot to overthrow the entire government in the spirit of Guy Fawkes. It wouldn't be correct to say that V is the hero of the movie—he's morally ambiguous at best and commits at least one act I found horrifying. However, the government he's fighting against is so much worse that he sometimes seems good by comparison.

The movie can be didactic at times, and the message is delivered in a heavy-handed way. However, I think the time for subtlety is past: the government we have right now is detaining citizens without trial, torturing innocent people, and asserting unlimited executive power. It's refreshing to see a movie that stands up and says straight out that we, as a citizenry, should not tolerate these things. I certainly don't think we need to blow up any buildings, and Guy Fawkes is the wrong model for this sort of thing, but the basic notion that the people have a right to replace an unacceptable government translates well to the ballot box.

As for the film qua action movie, it's generally well done. There is a thread of paranoid tension running throughout that works well to keep up the suspense—this is one of the ways that the politics reinforce the action. A sequence early-on in which V takes over the state-run television studio is especially good, and the climactic fight scene at the end is the sort of thing the Wachowskis excel at. There are a couple of points where the exposition/recapping becomes excessive and the suspense wanes, but it picks up again afterwards.

Anyway, I liked it. (Remember when I wrote short capsule reviews in the open threads?)

David Goodstein: Out of Gas: This book is Goodstein's effort to explain the interrelated problems of peak oil and climate change to a non-technical audience, and in doing so he explains the physics of energy and the historical development thereof. He sets forth a mostly pessimistic picture, anticipating oil supply problems in the very near future and associated social turmoil. Unfortunately I think he too quickly brushes off the economic arguments about alternative energies becoming more cost-effective as the costs of fossil fuels increase. I don't think this solves the problem but it should make the situation better than he expects. (One of the frustrating things about reading peak oil commentary is that physicists are frequently naive about economics, and economists naive about physics.) His treatment of the basic physics issues surrounding energy production is very good, however, and I would recommend it to a non-technical audience for that reason.

In the end, I am still not sure just how worried I should be about peak oil, but the answer is clearly non-zero.

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not: This is the hot band over in Britain right now, and musical Anglophiles will find their sound pleasing. Imagine the drunken swagger of the Libertines with the guitar sound of Franz Ferdinand, and you have a good approximation. This CD hasn't quite achieved the heavy rotation of certain other recent British additions to my collection, but it's still pretty good. The major single seems to be "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" but several others are equally good, like "Fake Tales of San Francisco".

March 17, 2006

By Popular Demand: The '90s Movies Thread

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:33 AM

A few weeks ago there was a request for a thread on the subject of essential '90s movies, along the lines of the music thread that ran in January. These threads are nicely self-sustaining so I decided to save it for the next time I was away from the blog for a few days. That time was five days ago, but I had assumed I would be able to turn my computer on. So instead I'm posting it now, since it's a good Friday thread and I'll be on a plane for much of the day.

Rules: Suggest movies from 1990-1999 that are essential in the sense of classic, influential, or just generally awesome. Obscure and idiosyncratic choices are encouraged. Also, pick the best overall movie from that decade, and we'll see if there's a concensus.

Here are some of my favorites to get you started (with my top pick in bold):

  • Army of Darkness (1993)
  • Clerks (1994)
  • Pulp Fiction (1994)
  • The Usual Suspects (1995)
  • The Big Lebowski (1998)
  • The Matrix (1999)

I'm probably forgetting a few since I don't have my DVD collection in front of me (should have entered it into listal),

Here are the 10 "Best Picture" Oscar winners from the 90's:

  • 1990: Dances With Wolves
  • 1991: The Silence of the Lambs
  • 1992: Unforgiven
  • 1993: Schindler's List
  • 1994: Forrest Gump
  • 1995: Braveheart
  • 1996: The English Patient
  • 1997: Titanic
  • 1998: Shakespeare In Love
  • 1999: American Beauty

March 15, 2006

my apocalyptic tenor has not been dispelled

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:09 PM

my apocalyptic tenor has not been dispelled

Originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

I don't know if this will show up, but it's the T. Rex skeleton at the National Museum of Natural History. I spent the day in Washington DC, and possibly saw Rick Santorum. (I inadvertently walked into one of his campaign events.) Better pictures (of the city, not the senator) to follow when I'm on a connection better than my phone.

March 14, 2006

Good day for a physics talk

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:26 AM

Also, it's Albert Einstein's 127th birthday today. There's a lot of talk on Mixed States about "Pi Day" but this is contingent on the American convention for writing dates. Those countries that write the day first can instead celebrate "Pi Approximation Day" on July 22 (22/7).


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:16 AM

I have been in Baltimore for a couple of days now; I would have posted earlier but my computer has chosen an inopportune time to refuse to turn on. This was distressing not just because I had several items to post to the blog, but also because I planned to use my computer for my talk this afternoon.

Fortunately my roommate had experienced a similar problem with his desktop, and had a trick for getting it started: hold down the power button while plugging it into the wall. This sounded crazy, but when I tried this (inserting the battery instead of plugging in the power cord) it booted right up.

So I should be in good shape as long as I don't shut it down again... Meanwhile, I am still under extended warranty and Dell is sending a technician to my hotel to fix the problem this week.

March 10, 2006

More Postdoc Commentary

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:32 PM

Since this is becoming a theme around here, I'm linking to another perspective on the postdoc experience, this one embedded in a rant about public perceptions of scientists.

This is not reality. If you want to do science, you're in the lab. You're in the lab a lot. Sometimes you forget what the sun looks like. You gotta pay your dues. That means laying your intellect bare for harsh criticism for years on end. Committee members and advisors constantly challenging you. Who the hell do you think you are? What makes you think you can succeed in this field?

The underlying point seems to be that the academic career path selects for scientists who are dedicated and intellectually rigorous, although this is not explicitly stated. The author's "job description" for a neuroscience postdoc is amusing. (Via Pharyngula.)

Friday Random 10

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:56 PM

No tarot reading this time, although I'm tempted to divine the outcome of my March Meeting talk.

  1. The Arcade Fire, "Haiti"
  2. Elliott Smith, "A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free"
  3. Iron & Wine, "Free Until They Cut Me Down"
  4. Cat Power, "I Don't Blame You"
  5. Mylo, "Musclecars"
  6. Wolf Parade, "It's A Curse"
  7. Ladytron, "Cracked LCD"
  8. Belle & Sebastian, "Like Dylan In The Movies (Live Version)"
  9. Arctic Monkeys, "A Certain Romance"
  10. Feist, "Leisure Suite"
That's a pretty good set, actually. Number 11 is Sybris, "You're Only Confident In Your Insecurities", which would have been a bad one to draw if I had been doing the tarot version.

March 9, 2006

Innovations in LN2 Storage

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:13 AM

It sounds like an Aggie joke: a Texas A&M chemistry lab had a liquid nitrogen tank with a leaky pressure relief valve, so some clever individual solved the problem by replacing the valve with a metal plug. This ultimately transformed the chemistry lab into a rocketry lab.

The cylinder had been standing at one end of a ~20' x 40' laboratory on the second floor of the chemistry building. It was on a tile covered 4-6" thick concrete floor, directly over a reinforced concrete beam. The explosion blew all of the tile off of the floor for a 5' radius around the tank turning the tile into quarter sized pieces of shrapnel that embedded themselves in the walls and doors of the lab. The blast cracked the floor but due to the presence of the supporting beam, which shattered, the floor held. Since the floor held the force of the explosion was directed upward and propelled the cylinder, sans bottom, through the concrete ceiling of the lab into the mechanical room above. It struck two 3 inch water mains and drove them and the electrical wiring above them into the concrete roof of the building, cracking it. The cylinder came to rest on the third floor leaving a neat 20" diameter hole in its wake. The entrance door and wall of the lab were blown out into the hallway, all of the remaining walls of the lab were blown 4-8" off of their foundations. All of the windows, save one that was open, were blown out into the courtyard.

Fortunately no one was working in the lab at 3 am when it went off, so no one was hurt. However, this certainly redefines the concept of blowing up the lab. I'll have to keep this story in reserve in case I need to explain an accident to my advisor. "Did you hear about the guys at A&M who plugged their nitrogen tank and destroyed the building? Aren't you glad I only broke a vacuum pump?"

Via Uncertain Principles.

Permalink | Tags: Lab, Science

March 8, 2006

You can see the light bulb above my head.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:17 PM

I just realized this and had to share it.

The reason that Ladytron's Witching Hour has an unlisted 14th track consisting of nine minutes and three seconds of silence is so that the CD would be exactly 60:00 long. Because it's Witching Hour.

Seems like cheating... they should have recorded more music!

Permalink | Tags: Music

Best search requests of February 2006

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:13 AM

From the referrer logs, these were all searches leading to pages on this blog. Editorial comments in italics.

  • getting drunk in more than two dimensions
    If you drink too much, try projecting onto the nearest plane.
  • pics enron employees walking naked
    Corporate malfeasance porn?
  • what is a male reaction to meeting his soul mate if she is unavailable
    I suggest getting drunk in more than two dimensions.
  • english spellings illogical phonetics crazy
    English spellings and illogical phonetics make Homer something something.
  • how to overcome shyness among pretty girls
    If you find out, let me know.
  • cell phones email blackberry news technology solitude
    Which of these things is not like the others?
  • start a business selling physics
    Laws of motion on sale—everything must go! Buy one fermion, get one free! Over 10500 string theories in stock!

The most popular search string was (as always) "gazebo", 189 hits last month.

March 7, 2006

Preparations [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:47 PM

The March Meeting is next week, so I'm currently getting my talk ready. I'll be in Baltimore all week, with at least one day in DC. If I have time I'll put together a post to go up concurrently with my talk explaining some of the results therein; otherwise I'll do it after I get back. The next open thread will be posted either very early or very late.

Mylo: Destroy Rock & Roll: This is fun electronic/dance music, reminiscent of Daft Punk. It's been out in Europe for quite a while now and I first heard "Drop The Pressure" (one of the better tracks) on that Snow Patrol mix CD that came out last year. (That CD actually yielded four or five new finds that I really liked.) There's a kind of iconoclastic glee in the title track, whose lyrics consist of commands to destroy various classic rock artists. But at the same time it's all in good fun. Another one I like is "Zenophile", which pulls in an acoustic guitar for a nice effect.

March 6, 2006

Colloquium Blogging: Steve Koonin on the Energy Situation

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:57 PM

Some of you know Steve Koonin from his days as Caltech's provost. He's now chief scientist at BP International, and gave the colloquium at Berkeley today under the title "A Physicist's View of the World's Energy Situation". The talk was extremely interesting and seemed like a very realistic assessment. Some of the points I took away (in a bit of random order):

  • Koonin estimates peak oil in about 30 years. Asked about the more alarmist estimates of 10-20 years, he basically says that BP has better data about the oil supply.
  • On the other hand, there is 200 years worth of coal left in the ground.
  • Coal is the worst fossil fuel for carbon emissions, but technologies exist to mitigate this.
  • Oil in the US is mostly used for transportation, coal and natural gas for electric power.
  • Energy use in transportation is very inefficient, but efficiency needs to be coupled to conservation: car engines improved efficiency by about 25% in the 90's but most of this went into heavier and faster cars rather than better gas mileage.
  • Koonin first downplayed the evidence for climate change, then stated that he is 90% confident that it is happening and went on to treat it as a serious issue.
  • However, based on projected fossil fuel use he feels that large quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100 are unavoidable, and we should focus on adaptation rather than prevention.
  • Renewable energy is very far from being a realistic replacement for fossil fuels.
  • There are two large numbers relevant to global energy use: the per capita energy consumption in developed countries (the USA is an outlier, but other developed countries are within a factor of two) and the population of developing countries. Efforts by Europe, the US, and Japan to control emissions only offset the effects of growth in China, India, etc. by a few years.
  • The word "fusion" did not appear in the talk. A number of questioners brought it up and Koonin stated that it was at least 50 years away from replacing fossil fuels. "First you have to get it to work."
  • In the extreme long run (200+ years, once fossil fuels are exhausted) Koonin predicts fusion and solar will be the dominant energy sources. Currently solar is much more expensive than almost all other sources of energy, but this is a materials problem and can potentially be solved.

The talk will eventually appear here as a webcast. I've been increasingly interested in energy issues lately and I found it to be a fascinating look at how the oil companies (or at least one of them) look at these things. Next week while I'm traveling I'll read Out of Gas and see what Koonin's fellow Caltech prof David Goodstein has to say about this. (Goodstein is clearly more pessimistic.)

March 5, 2006

Postdoc unionization

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:30 PM

Some excellent comments have been posted on my earlier entry regarding working in science and the gender gap. Much more insightful than what I wrote. On a related subject, I find via The Daily Transcript an article in Science describing moves towards unionization of postdocs. Berkeley is naturally one of the schools at the vanguard of this movement. The article is very positive towards this development and describes some significant improvements in conditions at one school (the University of Connecticut Health Center) that has unionized.

I think this is probably a good idea. The way postdocs are currently used as cheap labor strikes me as tremendously exploitative, and a union could alleviate this. Of course this will ultimately mean that it's more expensive to hire postdocs, and funding scientific endeavors will likewise become more expensive. But as a society we're willing to pay more for clothing that's not produced in sweatshops—we should also be willing to pay more for science that's not produced by overworked and underpaid scientists.

There is one problem that comes to mind, though: much of what currently drives the exploitation of postdocs is the scarcity of top-tier academic jobs in science, and the corresponding pressure to produce high-quality publications during the postdoc period. So you will get a lot of people who aren't willing to, say, go on strike, because they need to be taking data in order to advance their case for a tenure-track job. I'm not sure how to get around this.

March 3, 2006

Musical exhibitionism

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:56 PM

If you've ever wanted to look through my CD collection, now you can without even coming to Berkeley. They're sorted by rating, but for some reason the page doesn't display what the rating is. Look at only the unrated albums (via the drop menu) to see what I've picked up recently. I may fill in the other sections of this site later, but music was the easiest to do. (I also don't have my classical music CDs on there.)

Via Lifehacker, who really shouldn't be finding more ways for me to waste time.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

"Why does anyone think science is a good job?"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:31 AM

Uncertain Principles links to an essay proposing a novel explanation for why there are so few women in science: jobs in science are terrible in terms of pay, working conditions, and job security, and women are put off by this.

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college. He got into Stanford for graduate school. He got a postdoc at MIT. His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine. But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life. He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.
I don't buy it as an explanation for the gender gap: it doesn't explain the vast gender disparities between different fields within science. Women are being deterred from working in physics but not biology, and as far as I can tell everything that is said in this essay about science in general applies to both fields. On the other hand, it's good commentary on the serious downsides of pursuing a career as an academic scientist.

March 2, 2006

Are the dolphins embarrassed too?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:46 PM

Via alicublog, Peggy Noonan has a hilariously crazy column up in which she asserts that (a) she is such a delicate flower that she feels violated by the fact that modern culture does not adhere to Victorian standards of propriety, and (b) for Lent, she is giving up not being an obnoxious prude. One might wonder how we would know the difference, but fortunately she's come up with a catchphrase:

Lent began yesterday, and I mean to give up a great deal, as you would too if you were me. One of the things I mean to give up is the habit of thinking it and not saying it. A lady has some rights, and this happens to be one I can assert.

"You are embarrassing the angels." This is what I intend to say for the next 40 days whenever I see someone who is hurting the culture, hurting human dignity, denying the stature of a human being. I mean to say it with belief, with an eye to instruction, but also pointedly, uncompromisingly. As a lady would. All invited to join in.

Can you believe that someone wrote that, and it was published in The Wall Street Journal? Peggy, you are embarrassing the humans. Anyway, I for one look forward to seeing her quoted on Overheard in New York trying out her new slogan.

I Can't Drive 55

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:40 PM

Via Leiter Reports, a video of five cars creating a 55 mph rolling barrier on an Atlanta freeway. The blog post where I found the link was interested in implications for ethics, but I am more interested in the effect on traffic viewed as a fluid flow problem. Anyway, the students in the video are trying to make a point about how strict observance of speed limit laws would have undesirable consequences, but I'm pretty sure that in most states creating these kinds of barriers is itself illegal. (Not sure about Georgia in particular, so their claims that they are following the law may indeed be valid.)

Permalink | Tags: Culture

March 1, 2006

Mathematical Fashions

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:30 PM

While we toil away on our experiments in Birge Hall, the works of our mathematical colleagues in neighboring Evans become ever more mysterious.

The Sarong Theorem Archive: This page is an electronic archive of images of people proving theorems while wearing sarongs.

So what theorem would you choose when preparing a photo for this page? I would go with the proof of the error bound on Simpson's Rule, but I should give Mason first dibs on that.

Via Bitch, Ph.D.

ID Whack-a-mole: Nevada

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:19 PM

Shellock sends along this story about a guy trying to get anti-evolution provisions into the Nevada constitution. Fortunately, he seems to be one of the less organized species of crackpot:

Las Vegas masonry contractor Steve Brown filed his initiative petition with the secretary of state's office, and must collect 83,184 signatures by June 20 to get the plan on the November ballot. To amend the Nevada Constitution, he'd have to win voter approval this year and again in the 2008 elections.

Brown said Tuesday that he hopes that volunteers will help him collect the signatures, but at this point has no name-gathering organization set up. A Democrat and member of a nondenominational church, he said he hoped for broad support from people who share his views.

(Emphasis mine.) Presumably some creationist lobbying group could step in and help gather the signatures, but I don't think even the Discovery Institute is that dumb. I know it's a bad idea to bet against the stupidity of the American people, but I expect this particular proposal to fizzle out. Actually, given that the movement here consists of one dude, I wonder why it's getting any press coverage at all. There are plenty of crazy guys on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley whose theories and legal proposals are equally newsworthy.

(I see Pharyngula also has this story.)