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Friday, March 31, 2006

Farewell, March

In like a lion…
Snow in Fourmilab driveway 2006-03-05
March 5th, 2006 15:58 CET

…out like a lamb.
Snow in Fourmilab driveway 2006-03-31
March 31st, 2006 15:54 CEST

Posted at 16:22 Permalink

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Devil in the White City

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-72560-1.
It's conventional wisdom in the publishing business that you never want a book to “fall into the crack” between two categories: booksellers won't know where to shelve it, promotional campaigns have to convey a complicated mixed message, and you run the risk of irritating readers who bought it solely for one of the two topics. Here we have a book which evokes the best and the worst of the Gilded Age of the 1890s in Chicago by interleaving the contemporary stories of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the depraved series of murders committed just a few miles from the fairgrounds by the archetypal American psychopathic serial killer, the chillingly diabolical Dr. H. H. Holmes (the principal alias among many used by a man whose given name was Herman Webster Mudgett; his doctorate was a legitimate medical degree from the University of Michigan). Architectural and industrial history and true crime are two genres you might think wouldn't mix, but in the hands of the author they result in a compelling narrative which I found as difficult to put down as any book I have read in the last several years. For once, this is not just my eccentric opinion; at this writing the book has been on The New York Times Best-Seller list for more than two consecutive years and won the Edgar award for best fact crime in 2004. As I rarely frequent best-seller lists, it went right under my radar. Special thanks to the visitor to this site who recommended I read it!

Boosters saw the Columbian Exposition not so much as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World but as a brash announcement of the arrival of the United States on the world stage as a major industrial, commercial, financial, and military power. They viewed the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (for which the Eiffel Tower was built) as a throwing down of the gauntlet by the Old World, and vowed to assert the preeminence of the New by topping the French and “out-Eiffeling Eiffel”. Once decided on by Congress, the site of the exposition became a bitterly contested struggle between partisans of New York, Washington, and Chicago, with the latter seeing its victory as marking its own arrival as a peer of the Eastern cities who looked with disdain at what Chicagoans considered the most dynamic city in the nation.

Charged with building the Exposition, a city in itself, from scratch on barren, wind-swept, marshy land was architect Daniel H. Burnham, he who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.” He made no little plans. The exposition was to have more than 200 buildings in a consistent neo-classical style, all in white, including the largest enclosed space ever constructed. While the electric light was still a novelty, the fair was to be illuminated by the the first large-scale application of alternating current. Edison's kinetoscope amazed visitors with moving pictures, and a theatre presented live music played by an orchestra in New York and sent over telephone wires to Chicago. Nikola Tesla amazed fairgoers with huge bolts of electrical fire, and a giant wheel built by a man named George Washington Gale Ferris lifted more than two thousand people at once into the sky to look down upon the fair like gods. One of the army of workers who built the fair was a carpenter named Elias Disney, who later regaled his sons Roy and Walt with tales of the magic city; they must have listened attentively.

The construction of the fair in such a short time seemed miraculous to onlookers (and even more so to those accustomed to how long it takes to get anything built a century later), but the list of disasters, obstacles, obstructions, and outright sabotage which Burnham and his team had to overcome was so monumental you'd have almost thought I was involved in the project! (Although if you've ever set up a trade show booth in Chicago, you've probably gotten a taste of it.) A total of 27.5 million people visited the fair between May and October of 1893, and this in a country whose total population (1890 census) was just 62.6 million. Perhaps even more astonishing to those acquainted with comparable present-day undertakings, the exposition was profitable and retired all of its bank debt.

While the enchanted fair was rising on the shore of Lake Michigan and enthralling visitors from around the world, in a gloomy city block size building not far away, Dr. H. H. Holmes was using his almost preternatural powers to charm the young, attractive, and unattached women who flocked to Chicago from the countryside in search of careers and excitement. He offered them the former in various capacities in the businesses, some legitimate and other bogus, in his “castle”, and the latter in his own person, until he killed them, disposed of their bodies, and in some cases sold their skeletons to medical schools. Were the entire macabre history of Holmes not thoroughly documented in court proceedings, investigators' reports, and reputable contemporary news items, he might seem to be a character from an over-the-top Gothic novel, like Jack the Ripper. But wait—Jack the Ripper was real too. However, Jack the Ripper is only believed to have killed five women; Holmes is known for certain to have killed nine men, women, and children. He confessed to killing 27 in all, but this was the third of three mutually inconsistent confessions all at variance with documented facts (some of those he named in the third confession turned up alive). Estimates ran as high as two hundred, but that seems implausible. In any case, he was a monster the likes of which no American imagined inhabited their cities until his crimes were uncovered. Remarkably, and of interest to libertarians who advocate the replacement of state power by insurance-like private mechanisms, Holmes never even came under suspicion by any government law enforcement agency during the entire time he committed his murder spree, nor did any of his other scams (running out on debts, forging promissory notes, selling bogus remedies) attract the attention of the law. His undoing was when he attempted insurance fraud (one of his favourite activities) and ended up with Nemesis-like private detective Frank Geyer on his trail. Geyer, through tireless tracking and the expenditure of large quantities of shoe leather, got the goods on Holmes, who met his end on the gallows in May of 1896. His jailers considered him charming.

I picked this book up expecting an historical recounting of a rather distant and obscure era. Was I ever wrong—I finished the whole thing in two and half days; the story is that fascinating and the writing that good. More than 25 pages of source citations and bibliography are included, but this is not a dry work of history; it reads like a novel. In places, the author has invented descriptions of events for which no eyewitness account exists; he says that in doing this, his goal is to create a plausible narrative as a prosecutor does at a trial. Most such passages are identified in the end notes and justifications given for the inferences made therein. The descriptions of the Exposition cry out for many more illustrations than are included: there isn't even a picture of the Ferris wheel! If you read this book, you'll probably want to order the Dover Photographic Record of the Fair—I did.

Posted at 13:55 Permalink

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Solar Eclipse Captured through Clouds


Unlike the total solar eclipses of 1999 and 2001, the Fourmilab expedition to view the eclipse of 2006-03-29 involved travel only to the adjacent parking lot. Having not been able to work a trip to the band of totality into the schedule, I settled for observing the partial eclipse visible from here. Even that didn't seem promising, as the odds on clear skies in late March are quite poor and the weather forecast was for clouds and intermittent rain the whole week with the eclipse in the middle.

Still, hope springs eternal, so the night before I set up the Olympus C3040Z camera on an astronomical tripod with a full aperture solar filter at hand just in case the clouds should part. Between first contact and maximum eclipse, there were thick low scudding clouds and off and on drizzle, but shortly after maximum eclipse (about 10:36 UTC, 12:36 local summer time) the clouds thinned and the partially eclipsed Sun occasionally peeked through. I set up the camera and shot pictures indiscriminately for about the next ten minutes to see what I'd get. All the pictures (except for a few experiments which didn't turn out) were taken with the lens zoomed to its maximum focal length of 21.3 mm with an Olympus 1.45× teleconverter attached (equivalent to a 150 mm lens on a 35 mm camera). Aperture and shutter speed were automatic, but in fact all pictures were taken at the minimum exposure of f/10 at 1/800 second; a neutral density filter would have saved several shots which ended up overexposed, but I don't have one which fits this camera. There is a substantial time parallax between the instant you press the shutter release and when the picture is actually taken with this camera, so I didn't even attempt to choose optimum moments—whenever the disc of the Sun was visible through the clouds, I just fired away as fast as I could.

The picture above, one of the first I took, is the best of a rather sorry lot. It is, however, perfectly representative of how the eclipse looked to the unaided eye; the cloud deck served as a solar filter and obscured any detail on the solar disc, of which there was barely any to see here near the bottom of the sunspot cycle. This photo was taken at 10:45 UTC, about ten minutes after maximum eclipse. At maximum, 43.5% of the Sun's diameter was covered by the Moon at this location, and in this picture about 40% remains occulted. Less than a third of the area of the Sun's disc was obscured by this eclipse, and there were no perceptible changes in the intensity or quality of the light; the clouds completely masked the already small decrease in insolation. I'd said that if I got clear skies for the transit of Venus in 2004, I wouldn't gripe about the weather for at least ten years afterward, so I'm not complaining! I'm glad the clouds vouchsafed me a view of the spectacle in the sky and a chance to capture it in a photo.

Posted at 16:16 Permalink

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Visual Display of Quantitative. . .Whatever

Have you seen the Autodesk Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2005? (Note that due to Autodesk's January fiscal year, a small business practice that Dan Drake and I are responsible for, this is the year-old document which covers the fiscal year ending in January 2005; I have not yet received the 2006 annual report, but it should come to hand soon.) I have long been one of those sceptical green-eyeshade people who reads annual reports, prospectuses, and proxy documents from back to front, and I hadn't happened to glance at the “front of book” material in this document until today when I'd pulled it out to look up a number for a calculation I was doing and, before putting it back on the shelf, happened to idly flip through the colour material at the start.

One of the oldest tricks in the satchel of the PR flack is the “area chart”, like this made-up one.

Area Chart

What's wrong with this picture? Well, look at what they're doing to your brain, hoping you won't notice. Profits did, indeed, double between 2004 when the company made a buck 'o five and 2005 when it cleared a big two-ten. This has been reflected by doubling the diameter of the circle representing the 2005 profit compared to that for 2004. But doesn't it look a lot bigger than twice the size? Of course: brains which evolved in an epoch where it was very important to be able to distinguish between a tiger and a tabby cat tend to perceive the size of something from its area, not linear measure, and the circle at right has four times the area and four times as many pixels filling it as the one for 2004. I've kind of given away the game by including the numbers within the circles; an even more slippery presentation would omit them.

Once you've become attuned to this kind of creative graphical presentation, you develop a background process which rings a little bell in your brain when something doesn't look quite right, and that's the little tinkle I heard when flipping past page 3 of the annual report, from which I have extracted the following chart and reduced it in scale to fit on this page; click the image for the full page captured from the on-line PDF edition of the document.

Autodesk Revenue 2001-2005

Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle!   Let's take a closer look at this graphic, shall we? I grabbed the image from a 55% scale PDF display of the page and measured the diameter of the circles in pixels with The Gimp (measurement of a raster image is not as precise a taking dimensions off a CAD drawing, but a difference of a pixel of two doesn't make any substantial difference here). The results, tabulated and crunched with an OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet are as follows.

Year Revenue Diameter Area Diam/RevB Area/RevM
2001 936 82 5281 87.6 5.6
2002 947 89 6221 94.0 6.6
2003 825 70 3848 84.8 4.7
2004 952 100 7854 105.0 8.2
2005 1234 173 23506 140.2 19.0

The column labelled Diam/RevB is the result of dividing the diameter of the circle in pixels by the revenue in billions, while Area/RevM is the area of the circle in pixels divided by the revenue in millions. If the diameters of the circles were proportional to the revenue (as in the “Profits Double!” chart at the top), all the numbers in the Diam/RevB column should be the same, since the ratio of the diameter of the circles to the revenue they represent will be constant. If, on the other hand, the area of the circles represents the revenue (and hence the diameters are proportional to the square root of the revenue), then the values in the Area/RevM column should be the same, since the number of pixels which represent a unit of revenue should be equal for all years.

Taking a look at the actual results, we immediately arrive at a conclusion of “Huh?” Neither the diameter nor the area are vaguely proportional to the revenue figures they're supposed to represent! The down year of 2003 is substantially smaller than it should be by either measure compared to the two preceding years, and the two most recent years are inflated, 2005 almost ridiculously so, compared to the scale of the preceding years. Revenue grew about 30% from 2004 to 2005, but the circle for 2005 has three times as many pixels in it and, even if you go by diameter, has grown by more than 70% from 2004, which is itself at a substantially larger scale than the circles to its left.

The chart below, which I made with Impress, shows the revenue figures for 2001–2005 as circles with area proportional to the revenue figure. (If you must use figures with area for scalar values, as opposed to a line or bar chart, making the area proportional to the values you're graphing seems to me to the only reasonable choice.)


Gives a rather different impression, doesn't it? This is why I prefer to read those dull tables of numbers at the back of the document!

If you're interested in the use and abuse of graphics in the communication of quantitative data, you should treat yourself to Edward Tufte's books, but you probably already knew that.

Posted at 03:37 Permalink

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Reading List: Florence of Arabia

Buckley, Christopher. Florence of Arabia. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-8129-7226-0.
This is a very funny novel, and thought-provoking as well. Some speak of a “clash of civilisations” or “culture war” between the Western and Islamic worlds, but with few exceptions the battle has been waged inadvertently by the West, through diffusion of its culture through mass media and globalised business, and indirectly by Islam, through immigration without assimilation into Western countries. Suppose the West were to say, “OK, you want a culture war? Here's a culture war!” and target one of fundamentalist Islam's greatest vulnerabilities: its subjugation and oppression of women?

In this story, the stuck-on-savage petroleum superpower Royal Kingdom of Wasabia cuts off one head too many when they execute a woman who had been befriended by Foreign Service staffer Florence Farfaletti, herself an escapee from trophy wife status in the desert kingdom, who hammers out a fifty-page proposal titled “Female Emancipation as a Means of Achieving Long-Term Political Stability in the Near East” and, undiplomatically vaulting over heaven knows how many levels of bureaucrats and pay grades, bungs it into the Secretary of State's in-box. Bold initiatives of this kind are not in keeping with what State does best, which is nothing, but Florence's plan comes to the attention of the mysterious “Uncle Sam” who appears to have unlimited financial resources at his command and the Washington connections to make just about anything happen.

This sets things in motion, and soon Florence and her team, including a good ole' boy ex-CIA killer, Foreign Service officer who detests travel, and public relations wizard so amoral his slime almost qualifies him for OPEC membership, are set up in the Emirate of Matar, “Switzerland of the Gulf”, famed for its duty-free shopping, offshore pleasure domes at “Infidel Land”, and laid-back approach to Islam by clergy so well-compensated for their tolerance they're nicknamed “moolahs”. The mission? To launch TVMatar, a satellite network targeting Arab women, headed by the wife of the Emir, who was a British TV presenter before marrying the randy royal.

TVMatar's programming is, shall we say, highly innovative, and before long things are bubbling on both sides of the Wasabi/Matar border, with intrigue afoot on all sides, including Machiavellian misdirection by those masters of perfidy, the French. And, of course (p. 113), “This is the Middle East! … Don't you understand that since the start of time, startin' with the Garden of Eden, nothing has ever gone right here?” Indeed, before long, a great many things go all pear-shaped, with attendant action, suspense, laughs, and occasional tragedy. As befits a comic novel, in the end all is resolved, but many are the twists and turns to get there which will keep you turning pages, and there are delightful turns of phrase throughout, from CIA headquarters christened the “George Bush Center for Intelligence” in the prologue to Shem, the Camel Royal…but I mustn't spoil that for you.

This is a delightful read, laugh out loud funny, and enjoyable purely on that level. But in a world where mobs riot, burn embassies, and murder people over cartoons, while pusillanimous European politicians cower before barbarism and contemplate constraining liberties their ancestors bequeathed to humanity in the Enlightenment, one cannot help but muse, “OK, you want a culture war?”

Posted at 15:51 Permalink

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Reading List: An Army of Davids

Reynolds, Glenn. An Army of Davids. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006. ISBN 1-59555-054-2.
In this book, law professor and über blogger (InstaPundit.com) Glenn Reynolds explores how present and near-future technology is empowering individuals at the comparative expense of large organisations in fields as diverse as retailing, music and motion picture production, national security, news gathering, opinion journalism, and, looking further out, nanotechnology and desktop manufacturing, human longevity and augmentation, and space exploration and development (including Project Orion [pp. 228–233]—now there's a garage start-up I'd love to work on!). Individual empowerment is, like the technology which creates it, morally neutral: good people can do more good, and bad people can wreak more havoc. Reynolds is relentlessly optimistic, and I believe justifiably so; good people outnumber bad people by a large majority, and in a society which encourages them to be “a pack, not a herd” (the title of chapter 5), they will have the means in their hands to act as a societal immune system against hyper-empowered malefactors far more effective than heavy-handed top-down repression and fear-motivated technological relinquishment.

Anybody who's seeking “the next big thing” couldn't find a better place to start than this book. Chapters 2, 3 and 7, taken together, provide a roadmap for the devolution of work from downtown office towers to individual entrepreneurs working at home and in whatever environments attract them, and the emergence of “horizontal knowledge”, supplanting the top-down one-to-many model of the legacy media. There are probably a dozen ideas for start-ups with the potential of eBay and Amazon lurking in these chapters if you read them with the right kind of eyes. If the business and social model of the twenty-first century indeed comes to resemble that of the eighteenth, all of those self-reliant independent people are going to need lots of products and services they will find indispensable just as soon as somebody manages to think of them. Discovering and meeting these needs will pay well.

The “every person an entrepreneur” world sketched here raises the same concerns I expressed in regard to David Bolchover's The Living Dead: this will be a wonderful world, indeed, for the intelligent and self-motivated people who will prosper once liberated from corporate cubicle indenture. But not everybody is like that: in particular, those people tend to be found on the right side of the bell curve, and for every one on the right, there's one equally far to the left. We have already made entire categories of employment for individuals with average or below-average intelligence redundant. In the eighteenth century, there were many ways in which such people could lead productive and fulfilling lives; what will they do in the twenty-first? Further, ever since Bismarck, government schools have been manufacturing worker-bees with little initiative, and essentially no concept of personal autonomy. As I write this, the élite of French youth is rioting over a proposal to remove what amounts to a guarantee of lifetime employment in a first job. How will people so thoroughly indoctrinated in collectivism fare in an individualist renaissance? As a law professor, the author spends much of his professional life in the company of high-intelligence, strongly-motivated students, many of whom contemplate an entrepreneurial career and in any case expect to be judged on their merits in a fiercely competitive environment. One wonders if his optimism might be tempered were he to spend comparable time with denizens of, say, the school of education. But the fact that there will be problems in the future shouldn't make us fear it—heaven knows there are problems enough in the present, and the last century was kind of a colossal monument to disaster and tragedy; whatever the future holds, the prescription of more freedom, more information, greater wealth and health, and less coercion presented here is certain to make it a better place to live.

The individualist future envisioned here has much in common with that foreseen in the 1970s by Timothy Leary, who coined the acronym “SMIILE” for “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension”. The “II” is alluded to in chapter 12 as part of the merging of human and machine intelligence in the singularity, but mightn't it make sense, as Leary advocated, to supplement longevity research with investigation of the nature of human intelligence and near-term means to increase it? Realising the promise and avoiding the risks of the demanding technologies of the future are going to require both intelligence and wisdom; shifting the entire bell curve to the right, combined with the wisdom of longer lives may be key in achieving the much to be desired future foreseen here.

InstaPundit visitors will be familiar with the writing style, which consists of relatively brief discussion of a multitude of topics, each with one or more references for those who wish to “read the whole thing” in more depth. One drawback of the print medium is that although many of these citations are Web pages, to get there you have to type in lengthy URLs for each one. An on-line edition of the end notes with all the on-line references as clickable links would be a great service to readers.

Posted at 00:30 Permalink

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Puzzle: What Doest Thou, Dude?

Today's puzzle is based on verse from the very first page of James Fenton's An Introduction to English Poetry. The following is an extract from a poem written around the year 1375.
Queme quyssewes then that coyntlych closed,
His thik thrawen thyghes with thwonges to tachched;
And sithen the brawden bryné of bryght stel rynges
Umbeweved that wyy, upon wlonk stuffe,
And wel bornyst brace upon his both armes,
With gode cowters and gay, and gloves of plate…
The puzzle? Determine what act is being described here.

Fenton says, “But who, without specialist help, could arrive at the conclusion that…?” Can you figure it out?

Posted at 00:52 Permalink

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Reading List: The Dalkey Archive

O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Dalkey Archive. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1964] 1993. ISBN 1-56478-172-0.
What a fine book to be reading on Saint Patrick's Day! Flann O'Brien (a nom de plume of Brian O'Nolan, who also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, among others) is considered one of the greatest Irish authors of humor and satire in the twentieth century; James Joyce called him “A real writer, with the true comic spirit.” In addition to his novels, he wrote short stories, plays, and a multitude of newspaper columns in both the Irish and English languages. The Dalkey Archive is a story of mind-bending fantasy and linguistic acrobatics yet so accessible it sucks the reader into its alternative reality almost unsuspecting. A substantial part of the material is recycled from The Third Policeman which, although completed in 1940, the author despaired of ever seeing published (it was eventually published posthumously in 1967). Both novels are works of surreal fantasy, but The Dalkey Archive is more conventionally structured and easier to get into, much as John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit stands in relation to his own earlier and more experimental Stand on Zanzibar.

The mad scientist De Selby, who appears offstage and in extensive and highly eccentric footnotes in The Third Policeman, is a key character here, joined by Saint Augustine and James Joyce. The master of malaprop, Sergeant Fottrell and his curious “mollycule” theory about people and bicycles is here as well, providing a stolid counterpoint to De Selby's relativistic pneumatic theology and diabolical designs. It takes a special kind of genius to pack this much weirdness into only two hundred pages. If you're interested in O'Brien's curious career, this biography is an excellent starting point which contains no spoilers for any of his fiction.

Posted at 21:44 Permalink

Friday, March 17, 2006

What Gives Gold that Mellow Glow?

In discussions of special relativity, you occasionally encounter a claim like, “The effects of special relativity only matter to particle physicists and others working with extreme energies and velocities. Relativity has no consequences in everyday life.” Well, these days, anybody who counts upon the Global Positioning System (GPS) to navigate their car or the airliner in which they're travelling uses both special and general relativity, because without correction for their effects, GPS would be so inaccurate as to be useless. But GPS is a recent innovation, and the relativistic corrections are both complicated and hidden from the user in the software in the receiver and on board the satellites. But there's an effect of special relativity which was observed, if not understood, by the ancients: the yellow gleam of gold.

With an atomic number of 79, gold is in the last row of the periodic table containing stable elements, and only four stable elements (mercury, thallium, lead, and bismuth) are heavier. With 79 protons in its nucleus, the electrons of the gold atom are subjected to an intense electrostatic attraction. Using the naïve Bohr “solar system” model of the atom for the moment, electrons in the 1s orbital, closest to the nucleus, would have to orbit with a velocity v of 1.6×108 metres per second to have sufficient kinetic energy to avoid “falling into” the nucleus. This is more than half the speed of light: c≈3×108 m/s, which, according to Einstein's equation:


increases the electron's mass (or, in more modern terminology, momentum) by about 20%. Quantum mechanics replaces the Bohr orbits with a probability distribution of the electron's position, with the Bohr orbit radius interpreted as the distance from the nucleus where the peak probability occurs. The relativistic increase in mass of the electron causes a relativistic contraction of its orbit because, as the electron's mass increases, the radius of an orbit with constant angular momentum shrinks proportionately.

From the Bohr model, you might expect this effect to be significant only for the innermost electrons, but due to quantum mechanics, it strongly affects electrons in s orbitals even in outer shells, because their probability density remains high near the nucleus. The higher angular momentum p, d, f, and g orbitals have their probability peaks farther from the nucleus, and hence are less affected by relativistic contraction.

The colour of metals such as silver and gold is mainly due to absorption of light when a d electron jumps to an s orbital. For silver, the 4d→5s transition has an energy corresponding to ultraviolet light, so frequencies in the visible band are not absorbed. With all visible frequencies reflected equally, silver has no colour of its own; it's silvery. In gold, however, relativistic contraction of the s orbitals causes their energy levels to shift closer to those of the d orbitals (which are less affected by relativity). This, in turn, shifts the light absorption (primarily due to the 5d→6s transition) from the ultraviolet down into the lower energy and frequency blue visual range. A substance which absorbs blue light will reflect the rest of the spectrum: the reds and greens which, combined, result in the yellowish hue we call golden.

What gives gold
that mellow glow?
makes it so!

Special relativity is also responsible for gold's resistance to tarnishing and other chemical reactions. Chemistry is mostly concerned with the electrons in the outermost orbitals. With a single 6s electron, you might expect gold to be highly reactive; after all, cæsium has the same 6s1 outer shell, and it is the most alkaline of natural elements: it explodes if dropped in water, and even reacts with ice. Gold's 6s orbital, however, is relativistically contracted toward the nucleus, and its electron has a high probability to be among the electrons of the filled inner shells. This, along with the stronger electrostatic attraction of the 79 protons in the nucleus, reduce the “atomic radius” of gold to 135 picometres compared to 260 picometres for cæsium with its 55 protons and electrons—the gold atom is almost 50% heavier, yet only a little over half the size of cæsium. Only the most reactive substances can tug gold's 6s1 electron out from where it's hiding among the others, and hence not only the colour of gold, but its immunity from tarnishing and corrosion are consequences of special relativity.

What keeps that golden
twinkle bright?
Mass increase near
speed of light!

Posted at 22:56 Permalink

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reading List: My FBI

Freeh, Louis J. with Howard Means. My FBI. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 0-312-32189-9.
This may be one of the most sanctimonious and self-congratulatory books ever written by a major U.S. public figure who is not Jimmy Carter. Not only is the book titled “My FBI” (gee, I always thought it was supposed to belong to the U.S. taxpayers who pay the G-men's salaries and buy the ammunition they expend), in the preface, where the author explains why he reversed his original decision not to write a memoir of his time at the FBI, he uses the words “I”, “me”, “my”, and “myself” a total of 91 times in four pages.

Only about half of the book covers Freeh's 1993–2001 tenure as FBI director; the rest is a straightforward autohagiography of his years as an altar boy, Eagle Scout, idealistic but apolitical law student during the turbulent early 1970s, FBI agent, crusading anti-Mafia federal prosecutor in New York City, and hard-working U.S. district judge, before bring appointed to the FBI job by Bill Clinton, who promised him independence and freedom from political interference in the work of the Bureau. Little did Freeh expect, when accepting the job, that he would spend much of his time in the coming years investigating the Clintons and their cronies. The tawdry and occasionally bizarre stories of those events as seen from the FBI fills a chapter and sets the background for the tense relations between the White House and FBI on other matters such as terrorism and counter-intelligence. The Oklahoma City and Saudi Arabian Khobar Towers bombings, the Atlanta Olympics bomb, the identification and arrest of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and the discovery of long-term Soviet mole Robert Hanssen in the FBI all occurred on Freeh's watch; he provides a view of these events and the governmental turf battles they engendered from the perspective of the big office in the Hoover Building, but there's little or no new information about the events themselves. Freeh resigned the FBI directorship in June 2001, and September 11th of that year was the first day at his new job. (What do you do after nine years running the FBI? Go to work for a credit card company!) In a final chapter, he provides a largely exculpatory account of the FBI's involvement in counter-terrorism and what might have been done to prevent such terrorist strikes. He directly attacks Richard A. Clarke and his book Against All Enemies as a self-aggrandising account by a minor player including some outright fabrications.

Freeh's book provides a peek into the mind of a self-consciously virtuous top cop—if only those foolish politicians and their paranoid constituents would sign over the last shreds of their liberties and privacy (on p. 304 he explicitly pitches for key escrow and back doors in encryption products, arguing “there's no need for this technology to be any more intrusive than a wiretap on a phone line”—indeed!), the righteous and incorruptible enforcers of the law and impartial arbiters of justice could make their lives ever so much safer and fret-free. And perhaps if the human beings in possession of those awesome powers were, in fact, as righteous as Mr. Freeh seems to believe himself to be, then there would nothing to worry about. But evidence suggests cause for concern. On the next to last page of the book, p. 324, near the end of six pages of acknowledgements set in small type with narrow leading (didn't think we'd read that far, Mr. Freeh?), we find the author naming, as an exemplar of one of the “courageous and honorable men who serve us”, who “deserve the nation's praise and lasting gratitude”, one Lon Horiuchi, the FBI sniper who shot and killed Vicki Weaver (who was accused of no crime) while she was holding her baby in her hands during the Ruby Ridge siege in August of 1992. Horiuchi later pled the Fifth Amendment in testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1995, ten years prior to Freeh's commendation of him here.

Posted at 15:11 Permalink

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Physics: Simulations All the Way?

Several people have sent feedback from The Cosmic Landscape review recently posted here to inquire whether I'd considered the possibility that, if our universe was indeed a simulation, there might not be a top-level (non-simulated) universe at all, but rather a closed loop (or infinite regress) of simulations. Yes, I have considered that possibility, but there's only so many impossible things you can squeeze into one book review! Here are a few comments about the approach which can be summarised as:
There is no top level; it's simulations all the way!
or, alternatively,
It from bit,
Bit from it.
Round and round,
Never quit.
I haven't thought about this in great detail, but it seems to me that the “simulations all the way” model may be phenomenologically isomorphic to both the eternal inflation/string landscape and Lee Smolin's cosmological natural selection (CNS) (original paper) models. If the creator of the simulation picks the parameters at random, it's like the string landscape, and if he twiddles them slightly from the values in his own universe it's like CNS. But in any case there is an unavoidable natural selection component because only universes which permit the existence of beings able to create simulations will beget simulated progeny. Hence, if we are in a simulation, it is descended from an unbroken line of habitable simulations.

As to the closed loop of simulations, it sounds crazy, but if the amount of state in a simulation is finite, then the possibility of a loop kind of falls out of the Poincaré recurrence theorem; whether there was a top level or not is unknowable once you've passed through sufficient generations of simulations to explore all possible initial states and transition rules. This is much like Tegmark's "Level I" parallel universes, where an infinite number of Hubble volumes containing all possible initial conditions exist.

Posted at 20:35 Permalink

Monday, March 13, 2006

Physics: George Ellis on Messages from the Megaverse

In my recent review of Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape, I stated that observational evidence for the existence of the multiple universes supposed to make up the megaverse was “barring some conceptual breakthrough equivalent to looking inside a black hole, forever hidden from science by an impenetrable horizon”. This is an allusion to chapter 12, “The Black Hole War”, which suggests that Stephen Hawking's throwing in the towel and conceding that black holes do not cause loss of quantum state information means that it may be possible (at least in theory) to obtain information about other parallel universes encoded in radiation emanating from the cosmic horizon which delimits the observable universe.

George Ellis, who, along with Stephen Hawking, literally wrote the book about The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time has now posted a brief comment on ArXiv, “On Horizons and the Cosmic Landscape”, which says that this is all nonsense, based on Susskind's confusing event horizons such as those which surround black holes with particle horizons, which are observer- and time-dependent, and simply specify the volume of space-time from which light has had sufficient time to reach an observer; your own horizon, which is slightly different from everyone else's, expands in every direction by one light-year from one birthday to the next. Ellis also observes, as did I, that the visual horizon due to the cosmic background radiation further reduces the volume accessible to observation and concludes, “The ESA-NASA Planck Surveyor data will not have coded into it the nature of multiverse regions enormously more distant from us than a Hubble radius. An application for a grant to decipher information about far distant regions of a megaverse that may be hidden in the data will not succeed.”

Posted at 15:51 Permalink

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Reading List: The Cosmic Landscape

Susskind, Leonard. The Cosmic Landscape. New York: Little, Brown, 2006. ISBN 0-316-15579-9.
Leonard Susskind (and, independently, Yoichiro Nambu) co-discovered the original hadronic string theory in 1969. He has been a prominent contributor to a wide variety of topics in theoretical physics over his long career, and is a talented explainer of abstract theoretical concepts to the general reader. This book communicates both the physics and cosmology of the “string landscape” (a term he coined in 2003) revolution which has swiftly become the consensus among string theorists, as well as the intellectual excitement of those exploring this new frontier.

The book is subtitled “String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design” which may be better marketing copy—controversy sells—than descriptive of the contents. There is very little explicit discussion of intelligent design in the book at all except in the first and last pages, and what is meant by “intelligent design” is not what the reader might expect: design arguments in the origin and evolution of life, but rather the apparent fine-tuning of the physical constants of our universe, the cosmological constant in particular, without which life as we know it (and, in many cases, not just life but even atoms, stars, and galaxies) could not exist. Susskind is eloquent in describing why the discovery that the cosmological constant, which virtually every theoretical physicist would have bet had to be precisely zero, is (apparently) a small tiny positive number, seemingly fine tuned to one hundred and twenty decimal places “hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks” (p. 185)—here was a number which, not only did theory suggest should be 120 orders of magnitude greater, but which, had it been slightly larger than its minuscule value, would have precluded structure formation (and hence life) in the universe. One can imagine some as-yet-undiscovered mathematical explanation why a value is precisely zero (and, indeed, physicists did: it's called supersymmetry, and searching for evidence of it is one of the reasons they're spending billions of taxpayer funds to build the Large Hadron Collider), but when you come across a dial set with the almost ridiculous precision of 120 decimal places and it's a requirement for our own existence, thoughts of a benevolent Creator tend to creep into the mind of even the most doctrinaire scientific secularist. This is how the appearance of “intelligent design” (as the author defines it) threatens to get into the act, and the book is an exposition of the argument string theorists and cosmologists have developed to contend that such apparent design is entirely an illusion.

The very title of the book, then invites us to contrast two theories of the origin of the universe: “intelligent design” and the “string landscape”. So, let's accept that challenge and plunge right in, shall we? First of all, permit me to observe that despite frequent claims to the contrary, including some in this book, intelligent design need not presuppose a supernatural being operating outside the laws of science and/or inaccessible to discovery through scientific investigation. The origin of life on Earth due to deliberate seeding with engineered organisms by intelligent extraterrestrials is a theory of intelligent design which has no supernatural component, evidence of which may be discovered by science in the future, and which is sufficiently plausible to have persuaded Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was the most likely explanation. If you observe a watch, you're entitled to infer the existence of a watchmaker, but there's no reason to believe he's a magician, just a craftsman.

If we're to compare these theories, let us begin by stating them both succinctly:

Theory 1: Intelligent Design.   An intelligent being created the universe and chose the initial conditions and physical laws so as to permit the existence of beings like ourselves.

Theory 2: String Landscape.   The laws of physics and initial conditions of the universe are chosen at random from among 10500 possibilities, only a vanishingly small fraction of which (probably no more than one in 10120) can support life. The universe we observe, which is infinite in extent and may contain regions where the laws of physics differ, is one of an infinite number of causally disconnected “pocket universes“ which spontaneously form from quantum fluctuations in the vacuum of parent universes, a process which has been occurring for an infinite time in the past and will continue in the future, time without end. Each of these pocket universes which, together, make up the “megaverse”, has its own randomly selected laws of physics, and hence the overwhelming majority are sterile. We find ourselves in one of the tiny fraction of hospitable universes because if we weren't in such an exceptionally rare universe, we wouldn't exist to make the observation. Since there are an infinite number of universes, however, every possibility not only occurs, but occurs an infinite number of times, so not only are there an infinite number of inhabited universes, there are an infinite number identical to ours, including an infinity of identical copies of yourself wondering if this paragraph will ever end. Not only does the megaverse spawn an infinity of universes, each universe itself splits into two copies every time a quantum measurement occurs. Our own universe will eventually spawn a bubble which will destroy all life within it, probably not for a long, long time, but you never know. Evidence for all of the other universes is hidden behind a cosmic horizon and may remain forever inaccessible to observation.

Paging Friar Ockham! If unnecessarily multiplying hypotheses are stubble indicating a fuzzy theory, it's pretty clear which of these is in need of the razor! Further, while one can imagine scientific investigation discovering evidence for Theory 1, almost all of the mechanisms which underlie Theory 2 remain, barring some conceptual breakthrough equivalent to looking inside a black hole, forever hidden from science by an impenetrable horizon through which no causal influence can propagate. So severe is this problem that chapter 9 of the book is devoted to the question of how far theoretical physics can go in the total absence of experimental evidence. What's more, unlike virtually every theory in the history of science, which attempted to describe the world we observe as accurately and uniquely as possible, Theory 2 predicts every conceivable universe and says, hey, since we do, after all, inhabit a conceivable universe, it's consistent with the theory. To one accustomed to the crystalline inevitability of Newtonian gravitation, general relativity, quantum electrodynamics, or the laws of thermodynamics, this seems by comparison like a California blonde saying “whatever”—the cosmology of despair.

Scientists will, of course, immediately rush to attack Theory 1, arguing that a being such as that it posits would necessarily be “indistinguishable from magic”, capable of explaining anything, and hence unfalsifiable and beyond the purview of science. (Although note that on pp. 192–197 Susskind argues that Popperian falsifiability should not be a rigid requirement for a theory to be deemed scientific. See Lee Smolin's Scientific Alternatives to the Anthropic Principle for the argument against the string landscape theory on the grounds of falsifiability, and the 2004 Smolin/Susskind debate for a more detailed discussion of this question.) But let us look more deeply at the attributes of what might be called the First Cause of Theory 2. It not only permeates all of our universe, potentially spawning a bubble which may destroy it and replace it with something different, it pervades the abstract landscape of all possible universes, populating them with an infinity of independent and diverse universes over an eternity of time: omnipresent in spacetime. When a universe is created, all the parameters which ultimately govern its ultimate evolution (under the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics, to be sure) are fixed at the moment of creation: omnipotent to create any possibility, perhaps even varying the mathematical structures underlying the laws of physics. As a budded off universe evolves, whether a sterile formless void or teeming with intelligent life, no information is ever lost in its quantum evolution, not even down a black hole or across a cosmic horizon, and every quantum event splits the universe and preserves all possible outcomes. The ensemble of universes is thus omniscient of all its contents. Throw in intelligent and benevolent, and you've got the typical deity, and since you can't observe the parallel universes where the action takes place, you pretty much have to take it on faith. Where have we heard that before?

Lest I be accused of taking a cheap shot at string theory, or advocating a deistic view of the universe, consider the following creation story which, after John A. Wheeler, I shall call “Creation without the Creator”. Many extrapolations of continued exponential growth in computing power envision a technological singularity in which super-intelligent computers designing their own successors rapidly approach the ultimate physical limits on computation. Such computers would be sufficiently powerful to run highly faithful simulations of complex worlds, including intelligent beings living within them which need not be aware they were inhabiting a simulation, but thought they were living at the “top level”, who eventually passed through their own technological singularity, created their own simulated universes, populated them with intelligent beings who, in turn,…world without end. Of course, each level of simulation imposes a speed penalty (though, perhaps not much in the case of quantum computation), but it's not apparent to the inhabitants of the simulation since their own perceived time scale is in units of the “clock rate” of the simulation.

If an intelligent civilisation develops to the point where it can build these simulated universes, will it do so? Of course it will—just look at the fascination crude video game simulations have for people today. Now imagine a simulation as rich as reality and unpredictable as tomorrow, actually creating an inhabited universe—who could resist? As unlimited computing power becomes commonplace, kids will create innovative universes and evolve them for billions of simulated years for science fair projects. Call the mean number of simulated universes created by intelligent civilisations in a given universe (whether top-level or itself simulated) the branching factor. If this is greater than one, and there is a single top-level non-simulated universe, then it will be outnumbered by simulated universes which grow exponentially in numbers with the depth of the simulation. Hence, by the Copernican principle, or principle of mediocrity, we should expect to find ourselves in a simulated universe, since they vastly outnumber the single top-level one, which would be an exceptional place in the ensemble of real and simulated universes. Now here's the point: if, as we should expect from this argument, we do live in a simulated universe, then our universe is the product of intelligent design and Theory 1 is an absolutely correct description of its origin.

Suppose this is the case: we're inside a simulation designed by a freckle-faced superkid for extra credit in her fifth grade science class. Is this something we could discover, or must it, like so many aspects of Theory 2, be forever hidden from our scientific investigation? Surprisingly, this variety of Theory 1 is quite amenable to experiment: neither revelation nor faith is required. What would we expect to see if we inhabited a simulation? Well, there would probably be a discrete time step and granularity in position fixed by the time and position resolution of the simulation—check, and check: the Planck time and distance appear to behave this way in our universe. There would probably be an absolute speed limit to constrain the extent we could directly explore and impose a locality constraint on propagating updates throughout the simulation—check: speed of light. There would be a limit on the extent of the universe we could observe—check: the Hubble radius is an absolute horizon we cannot penetrate, and the last scattering surface of the cosmic background radiation limits electromagnetic observation to a still smaller radius. There would be a limit on the accuracy of physical measurements due to the finite precision of the computation in the simulation—check: Heisenberg uncertainty principle—and, as in games, randomness would be used as a fudge when precision limits were hit—check: quantum mechanics.

Might we expect surprises as we subject our simulated universe to ever more precise scrutiny, perhaps even astonishing the being which programmed it with our cunning and deviousness (as the author of any software package has experienced at the hands of real-world users)? Who knows, we might run into round-off errors which “hit us like a ton of bricks”! Suppose there were some quantity, say, that was supposed to be exactly zero but, if you went and actually measured the geometry way out there near the edge and crunched the numbers, you found out it differed from zero in the 120th decimal place. Why, you might be as shocked as the naïve Perl programmer who ran the program “printf("%.18f", 0.2)” and was aghast when it printed “0.200000000000000011” until somebody explained that with about 56 bits of mantissa in IEEE double precision floating point, you only get about 17 decimal digits (log10 256) of precision. So, what does a round-off in the 120th digit imply? Not Theory 2, with its infinite number of infinitely reproducing infinite universes, but simply that our Theory 1 intelligent designer used 400 bit numbers (log2 10120) in the simulation and didn't count on our noticing—remember you heard it here first, and if pointing this out causes the simulation to be turned off, sorry about that, folks! Surprises from future experiments which would be suggestive (though not probative) that we're in a simulated universe would include failure to find any experimental signature of quantum gravity (general relativity could be classical in the simulation, since potential conflicts with quantum mechanics would be hidden behind event horizons in the present-day universe, and extrapolating backward to the big bang would be meaningless if the simulation were started at a later stage, say at the time of big bang nucleosynthesis), and discovery of limits on the ability to superpose wave functions for quantum computation which could result from limited precision in the simulation as opposed to the continuous complex values assumed by quantum mechanics. An interesting theoretical program would be to investigate feasible experiments which, by magnifying physical effects similar to proposed searches for quantum gravity signals, would detect round-off errors of magnitude comparable to the cosmological constant.

But seriously, this is an excellent book and anybody who's interested in the strange direction in which the string theorists are veering these days ought to read it; it's well-written, authoritative, reasonably fair to opposing viewpoints (although I'm surprised the author didn't address the background spacetime criticism of string theory raised so eloquently by Lee Smolin), and provides a roadmap of how string theory may develop in the coming years. The only nagging question you're left with after finishing the book is whether after thirty years of theorising which comes to the conclusion that everything is predicted and nothing can be observed, it's about science any more.

Update: Text highlighted in red added, discussing future experimental signatures which might suggest our universe is a simulation. (2006-03-12 13:07 UTC)

Update: What if there is no top-level universe? (2006-03-15 19:35 UTC)

Posted at 00:20 Permalink

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Scraping ArXiv: Kludging Open Scientific Hypertext

Ever since the creation of the arXiv.org e-Print Archive (formerly the Preprint Archive at Los Alamos National Laboratory), occasional controversies have erupted over the credentials required to post papers there and the suitability of certain topics in various categories. In one celebrated case, Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973) struggled to publish an (admittedly controversial) paper on ArXiv, only to have it moved from the category in which it was original accepted to a “general physics” category without consultation with the author. Such controversies have led to the establishment of an Archive Freedom site to document alleged misconduct by ArXiv management which links to an “Open Archive” site called sciprint.org which, at the present time, appears to be under construction.

Recently, a kerfluffle has broken out over ArXiv's introduction of “trackbacks” to discussion of papers on Web logs. Some critics of string theory claim they have been deliberately excluded from posting trackbacks purely due to their skeptical view of this enterprise. (Following the links in this article will take you to more discussion of this issue, pro and con, and you'll probably want to read.)

Despite their reputation for computer savvy, pioneering of rapid-turnaround paperless publication, and rapid adoption of new technologies, it seems to me that in this case the physicists are approaching this in a surprisingly old media kind of way—they have replaced the opaque peer review process of print journals with opaque guardians at the gate of their electronic successors. Now, if the operators of ArXiv wish to enforce their own criteria (and, indeed, the overwhelming majority of taxpayer-funded scientists cranking out minimum publishable units on the trudge toward tenure seem happy with their judgement, or at least disinclined to complain), why not just let them, but build something better on top of their foundation: “embrace and extend”, as it were? The concept of a single monolithic archive is so twentieth century, anyway; all the technology needed to transcend limitations in the existing archive is at hand and readily deployed. In fact, it is almost identical to that used by news and other feed aggregators.

The idea of an open, alternative archive sounds fine and noble, but nobody will read the papers there if they are all flaky stuff which such an archive is certain to accrete in abundance. It seems to me that the correct approach is to do as programmers do, and encapsulate ArXiv with a “wrapper” which addresses its shortcomings. This could be done just as news aggregators “scrape” sites to build a feed from their content. Suppose one were to set up their own “anarXiv.org” site (hurry up—the name's still available!), which mirrored all of the content of ArXiv at the index level: only the information used in searches and queries would be mirrored; the actual content, even the abstracts, would be retrieved directly from ArXiv through redirection. This would avoid any issue of violation of authors' copyright, since all that would be served is a link to where they posted the paper for public access. Since content would be fetched from ArXiv, updates to papers would be available as soon as they were posted there, so there would be no problem with mirror synchronisation.

The anarXiv.org site would, however, accept submissions with its own, presumably more open policy. (What policy? That's up to whoever built it, and if others disagree with them, let them start their own archives layered atop it. All that's being replicated are links, and the cost of that is next to nil.) Papers on AnarXiv would have URLs similar, but in a distinct name space from those on ArXiv, for example, papers in the general relativity and quantum cosmology section of ArXiv have names like gr-qc/0603999, while a paper in the same section at AnarXiv might be named gr-qc/a0603888, but ArXiv links would work at AnarXiv as well, so if as long as you retrieved them through AnarXiv, you needn't worry where they're coming from. AnarXiv could have its own innovative trackback, comment, filtering, and moderation facilities, limited only by the imagination of those who created it, and these facilities would apply to papers published on ArXiv as well, since any ArXiv publication would transparently “show through”.

Now, I am not foolish enough to think for an attosecond that creating this kind of open archive on top of a scholarly resource would not open the floodgates to trash from every crank, crackpot, and illiterate bozo on the Web—heck, I used to read sci.physics on Usenet! What it would do, if done right, is create a transparent testbed for experimenting with all the various kinds of moderation and filtering which have been discussed ever since Ted Nelson proposed Xanadu. AnarXiv could support third-party plugs-ins, much like those in modern Web browsers like Mozilla Firefox, which implemented various filtering strategies (for example, “transitive endorsement”—show me papers endorsed [or, perhaps, simply retrieved in full] by people I trust and the web of those they trust). If there's actually something to the dream of open hypertext, then how about really trying it out and seeing if it can be made to work instead of fighting over a publication model that dates from the age of print on paper?

Please note that I have no interest whatsoever in building such a system myself, nor participating in such a project beyond making this suggestion. More than six decades have elapsed since Vannevar Bush described Memex in As We May Think, ,and four decades since Ted Nelson coined the word “hypertext” in describing Project Xanadu and Doug Engelbart advocated Augmenting Human Intellect with computers. Now that the technological prerequisites of such systems are on the desks of scientists around the world, shouldn't we be getting on with it?

Posted at 14:49 Permalink

Friday, March 10, 2006

Comments from Author of Hunt for the Skinwalker

A copy of my February 27th comments about the book Hunt for the Skinwalker found its way to co-author George Knapp, who responded as follows. Following Mr. Knapp's remarks (which appear here with his permission), is a brief note I sent to him clarifying my intent in the remark he discusses in item 4 below.

Thanks for forwarding the review of Skinwalker. I don't know anything about your friend John Walker, but I thoroughly enjoyed his comments and got a good chuckle from several of his well-crafted lines. Clever stuff, especially the 1997 article. Damn, that's a fine if twisted take on the phenomena. If humans are rattled by the idea of alien spacecraft zipping around in our skies, imagine what the reaction will be if it can be proven that all of these silly UFOs are nothing more than ETs copulating above our heads. If this concept catches on, it could be the spark we need. The religious groups will mobilize overnight and force the feds to finally do something about UFOs. After all, we can't allow aerial humping to continue on such a massive scale. What kind of message does it send to our children? Alien porn is what it amounts to. We might as well turn over the control of our airspace to Larry Flynt or SF's Mitchell Brothers. Who among us would ever again be comfortable while taking a walk in the rain? Are our heads being pelted by harmless raindrops, or are we being saturated by droplets of cosmic sperm mixed with the vaginal fluids of some Reticulan floozie? There's a time and a place for interstellar nookie. It's called pay-per-view. In a sense, Mr. Walker is saying that Earth is the galactic equivalent of Las Vegas. Horny space swingers and conventioneers travel here with their secretaries or mistresses because they know that what happens in the atmosphere stays in the atmosphere, and the little woman back home in the Crab Nebula doesn't need to know.

Walker's more serious criticisms are more than fair and I understand why he posits them. That doesn't mean I agree with them. So, in the spirit with which they were offered, I'd like to respond.

1) When he compares the NIDS trailer to the VW van driven by the Lone Gunmen, he is way off base. A better comparison would have been Ken Kesey's Magic Bus.

2) The statement that most of the interesting stuff ended as soon as NIDS arrived is incorrect. The book admits that the level of activity changed once the team arrived and started "hunting" the for the source. The NIDS team and its scientific board came to believe that the "entity" on the ranch was smart, elusive, and purposeful, displaying a kind of gamesmanship similar to "trickster" tactics that have been reported elsewhere. It didn't like being stalked and it rarely revealed itself in the same way or same spot, at least, that's the impression of the team, the ranchers, the Utes, the neighbors, and others. If readers aren't willing to at least entertain the possibility that this is an accurate description of how things unfolded or that an unknown sentient intelligence could accomplish such things, then I don't know why such readers would even finish the book. While writing the book, Colm and I were very aware that readers would probably have to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief, to borrow a film term, just to absorb the ridiculous array of events that occurred. We knew how tough it would be for people to accept all of this at face value. We debated about whether we should water it down, omit some of the incidents, try to make the story more believable by not revealing several of the most outrageous events. Ultimately, the decision was easy. We told the story as accurately as we could. Our hope was that at least a few scientists would have the requisite curiosity to read the whole thing and that some of the individual incidents might spark a dialogue. If anyone chooses to believe otherwise, so be it. But that's the approach we took because it seemed to be the most honest way to tell the story.

If Mr. Walker thinks the events witnessed by the NIDS team don't really amount to much, then maybe he skimmed a few chapters. The scientists and staff personally witnessed a hell of a lot, not only random lights, orbs, and structured craft, but plenty more, including the tunnel of light that appeared from which a large creature emerged, the dinosaur creature that was shot out of a tree, the mind-meld incident when a black cloud engaged a physicist, dramatic and inexplicable reactions by humans, animals, and sensors, and a lot more. The team didn't personally witness the mutilation of livestock as it occurred, but they were on hand to examine and analyze the physical evidence. Ditto for the incident with the bulls. Ditto for the vandalism of the video equipment by a force that was invisible to adjacent cameras. Ditto for the strange ice circle that formed on a pond. They endured a hell of a lot of weird stuff, maybe not as much as the ranch family endured, but more than most of us will ever see in a lifetime.

3) The criticism that too little photographic evidence was obtained is valid and completely understandable. The video cameras operated 24/7 for years. They did capture assorted images of lights on the property, but a distant ball of light in a sea of rural darkness means diddly. There are other photos and videos that have not yet been made public. The reasons aren't all that mysterious. What's more, I'm working on a documentary that will include this material, including footage shot on the night that the creature was blasted out of the tree, video of the mutilated calf and the examination of the carcass, photos of the bulls after they were released from the trailer, and a few photos taken by the current residents of the ranch that are just as weird as evrything else about this case. In Mr. Walker's article, he addresses this issue, and I'm surprised he doesn't remember his own words. Basically, he proposes that the reason why there is so little compelling photographic or sensor evidence of UFOs (or amorous aerial sex partners) is because we humans build sensors that are designed to detect and document the things that we expect to see. We don't create cameras that are designed to photograph things that aren't supposed to exist. If he believed this back when he wrote the article, I would hope that he would cut us some slack. The phenomena on the ranch didn't want to be photographed. You can believe that, or don't believe it. That's just the way it went down. We're not talking about a predictable experiment carried out in a petri dish. This kind of a study doesn't have a lot of precedents, and the events on the ranch don't happen everywhere else so far as we know, at least not in such a concentrated form.

4) Mr. Walker questions whether all of these events really occurred as described in the book, a big hypothetical in his view. I understand this reaction and expected it. That doesn't make it any more palatable. I'm not going to get bent out of shape but will just say this; Journalism isn't a hobby for me. This is my job. I don't make stuff up and I don't put my name on a written account that isn't truthful. I've been reading the field reports about the ranch for a lot of years now. The reports weren't written so that they would eventually be compiled into a book. No one at NIDS wanted this stuff to be released, not because of any hidden agenda, but because of the knowledge that such a collection of strange info might harm the reputation of the organization. It took a long time to talk the principals into allowing me to write something. It took a long time to convince Colm Kelleher to participate in a book project. True, Colm isn't a physicist, but he is a PhD scientist with a solid reputation and an enviable professional resume'. He didn't make this stuff up either. Residents of the area have been reporting these types of things for at least 50 years. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since not one of them wants any publicity or money or anything else. I understand why someone who doesn't know Colm or me might question whether all of these things really happened. To the best of my knowledge, they did. Anyone who wants to scoff at this or question our personal integrity can go…engage in an ionospheric threesome with those slutty lap dancers from Alpha Centauri.

Regards to all,


I sent the following clarification along with the request to reprint the above comments, which Mr. Knapp kindly granted.

Thank you very much for your extended and thoughtful reply to my comments on Hunt for the Skinwalker.

First of all, may I post your remarks on my Web log? I am sure folks who read my review would be interested in your reaction and the additional information therein.

Second, in response to your point 4 (regarding my “big hypothetical” remark), I did not in any way intend to imply that I doubt the veracity of the accounts by you, Mr. Kelleher, or other NIDS researchers quoted in the book; if my words were taken that way, then please accept my apology. In the last paragraph of the review, what I meant as hypothetical was the physical reality of all the phenomena reported over the decades and before your arrival and that of NIDS. As you observe, that is a much longer list of phenomena even more bizarre than those experienced by the researchers. Also, since there are cases where multiple individuals were present but, for whatever reasons, only one experienced a phenomenon, the interpretation as a physical manifestation may not be clear. (Granted, a mutilated cow or ice circle is about as physical as one might ask for.)

I think that Jacques Vallee is extremely perceptive and spot-on in observing that these kinds of phenomena have to be approached with an awareness that conscious deception and misdirection may be involved, not on the part of the investigators, but by the phenomenon itself. Einstein said, “Subtle is the Lord, but not malicious”, but what we have here seems to be not only malicious but downright hostile. The usual tools of science assume, with Einstein, that the universe does not actively deceive scientists; in a case like this, treating the investigation as an intelligence effort against a hostile adversary may be the most productive approach.

The reference to Jacques Vallee in the last paragraph is to his 1979 book, Messengers of Deception, quoted at some length in Skinwalker, which argues that science may be ill-equipped to study a phenomenon which, unlike the physical universe, may deceive and actively conceal facts. The Vallee book has been out of print for ages, but if you can lay your hands on a copy, is well worth reading.

Posted at 00:08 Permalink

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Reading List: Prayers for the Assassin

Ferrigno, Robert. Prayers for the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7289-7.
The year is 2040. The former United States have fissioned into the coast-to-coast Islamic Republic in the north and the Bible Belt from Texas eastward to the Atlantic, with the anything-goes Nevada Free State acting as a broker between them, pressure relief valve, and window to the outside world. The collapse of the old decadent order was triggered by the nuclear destruction of New York and Washington, and the radioactive poisoning of Mecca by a dirty bomb in 2015, confessed to by an agent of the Mossad, who revealed a plot to set the Islamic world and the West against one another. In the aftermath, a wave of Islamic conversion swept the West, led by the glitterati and opinion leaders, with hold-outs fleeing to the Bible Belt, which co-exists with the Islamic Republic in a state of low intensity warfare. China has become the world's sole superpower, with Russia, reaping the benefit of refugees from overrun Israel, the high-technology centre.

This novel is set in the Islamic Republic, largely in the capital of Seattle (no surprise—even pre-transition, that's where the airheads seem to accrete, and whence bad ideas and flawed technologies seep out to despoil the heartland). The society sketched is believably rich and ambiguous: Muslims are divided into “modern”, “moderate”, and “fundamentalist” communities which more or less co-exist, like the secular, religious, and orthodox communities in present-day Israel. Many Catholics have remained in the Islamic Republic, reduced to dhimmitude and limited in their career aspirations, but largely left alone as long as they keep to themselves. The Southwest, with its largely Catholic hispanic population, is a zone of relative personal liberty within the Islamic Republic, much like Kish Island in Iran. Power in the Islamic Republic, as in Iran, is under constant contention among national security, religious police, the military, fanatic “fedayeen”, and civil authority, whose scheming against one another leaves cracks in which the clever can find a modicum of freedom.

But the historical events upon which the Islamic Republic is founded may not be what they seem, and the protagonists, the adopted but estranged son and daughter of the shadowy head of state security, must untangle decades of intrigue and misdirection to find the truth and make it public. There are some thoughtful and authentic touches in the world sketched in this novel: San Francisco has become a hotbed of extremist fundamentalism, which might seem odd until you reflect that moonbat collectivism and environmentalism share much of the same desire to make the individual submit to externally imposed virtue which suffuses radical Islam. Properly packaged and marketed, Islam can be highly attractive to disillusioned leftists, as the conversion of Carlos “the Jackal” from fanatic Marxist to “revolutionary Islam” demonstrates.

There are a few goofs. Authors who include nuclear weapons in their stories really ought seek the advice of somebody who knows about them, or at least research them in the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. The “fissionable fuel rods from a new Tajik reactor…made from a rare isotope, supposedly much more powerful than plutonium” on p. 212, purportedly used to fabricate a five megaton bomb, is the purest nonsense in about every way imaginable. First of all, there are no isotopes, rare or otherwise, which are better than highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium for fission weapons. Second, there's no way you could possibly make a five megaton fission bomb, regardless of the isotope you used—to get such a yield you'd need so much fission fuel that it would be much more than a critical mass and predetonate, which would ruin your whole day. The highest yield fission bomb ever built was Ted Taylor's Mk 18F Super Oralloy Bomb (SOB), which contained about four critical masses of U-235, and depended upon the very low neutron background of HEU to permit implosion assembly before predetonation. The SOB had a yield of about 500 kt; with all the short half-life junk in fuel rods, there's no way you could possibly approach that yield, not to speak of something ten times as great. If you need high yield, tritium boosting or a full-fledged two stage Teller-Ulam fusion design is the only way to go. The author also shares the common misconception in thrillers that radiation is something like an infectuous disease which permanently contaminates everything it touches. Unfortunately, this fallacy plays a significant part in the story.

Still, this is a well-crafted page-turner which, like the best alternative history, is not only entertaining but will make you think. The blogosphere has been chattering about this book (that's where I came across it), and they're justified in recommending it. The Web site for the book, complete with Flash animation and an annoying sound track, includes background information and the author's own blog with links to various reviews.

Posted at 16:41 Permalink

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Fourmilab: FloodCam on the Web

Ever since the recent flood, even though the groundwater evacuation blockage which was believed (but never proved) to have caused it has been corrected, I've made it a point during periods of heavy rain and/or melting snow to inspect the basement which flooded regularly, both to respond to flooding as soon as possible after it occurs, and in the hope of observing the water entering and fingering the cause. This, of course, means venturing out in the most horrific storms at all hours, with a high probability (not that I'm complaining!) of observing nothing out of the ordinary. Until riding out the worst the storm season can wreak builds confidence that the problem is indeed fixed, I'm loath to leave town without the ability to monitor what's going on in the basement.

Well, it's refreshing every now and then to have a problem with which this global data network can actually help out! From now on, even when I'm hunkered down while the wind and water test the defences, or on the road with Fourmilab unattended, a round-the-clock surveillance camera will be watching the furnace room where the water entered the last time. Images are captured every ten minutes and Fourmilab live camera: basement furnace room archived so that if the flood does recur, its progress can be documented after the fact. The most recent image is posted on a public Web page; there's nothing secret about the Fourmilab furnace room (all the isotope enrichment stuff is in the other end of the basement), and if somebody else wants to keep an eye peeled and give me a holler if the tide starts to rise, more power to 'em!

The image above is “live”—it is a scaled down thumbnail of the most recent image from the camera; clicking on it will display the surveillance page with the full resolution (640×480: oh wow) image. The images are acquired with a Sony SNC-P5 network camera, which has an embedded Web server and is connected directly to the Fourmilab local network. Images are captured every ten minutes and transferred via FTP to the server farm administration machine, which archives them and distributes the most recent image every half hour to each machine in the server farm. The Sony camera is a rather odd amalgamation of elegant design and slapdash crapola. It has a very nice feature set, including remote pan, tilt, and 3× optical zoom, 3.5 lux sensitivity, and both MPEG-4 and JPEG compression, with a frame rate of 30 frames per second in 320×240 resolution and 15 fps at full 640×480 resolution. There is a built-in microphone, and one can even uplink compressed audio to a line-out jack to, for example, remotely command the waters to recede. For applications in which one is on the lookout for bipedal miscreants as opposed to wayward water, there is a built-in motion detector which can trigger image capture and a contact closure to activate an alarm circuit. Images can be delivered in real-time to a Web browser running a Java or (brrrrr) ActiveX client program, which can pan and zoom the camera and listen to the audio feed in real time. Captured images can be archived locally, fetched from a built-in FTP server, delivered to a remote machine via FTP, or sent via E-mail through an SMTP mail host.

All of this sounds quite nice, and indeed it is. The physical packaging is also rather elegant, with the camera equipped with a tripod socket which also permits it to be mounted in two different orientations on a supplied shelf/wall/ceiling bracket. The camera lens and positioning mechanism are protected against dust by a bubble housing which can be easily cleaned, and outdoor mounting enclosures are available. Where things get ugly, and I mean u-g-l-y, is when you look closely at the Web access—the configuration pages don't work with any browser other than Microsoft Internet Explorer! This isn't even due to their being deliberately designed to be Explorer-specific: it's thanks entirely to incompetently-implemented JavaScript, HTML, and CSS which just happens to work with Exploder and, rightly so, not with browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Opera which actually conform to and enforce the relevant standards for these languages. The problems are not minor issues of formatting: almost all of the text in the configuration pages is invisible when viewed in proper browsers, leaving only buttons and input fields with no indication of their function. The Java client program does work in non-Explorer browsers, but only if you first configure the camera appropriately from Explorer. The remote functionality available from the browser or Web client is, to my way of thinking, quite odd. While you can connect to the camera remotely and see real-time motion video and live audio and capture images from the feed, there's no way to connect to the camera and tell it to capture a still image; you can capture images periodically based on a timer, or when triggered by motion sensing or the alarm input, but not by remote control. I would also expect the pan, tilt, and zoom facilities to be accessible via documented HTTP commands—your surveillance program should be able to look around without having somebody at the controls slewing the camera. Now, obviously, since Sony's own client program does these things, and it communicates via TCP/IP to the camera's internal Web server, a modicum of snooping with tcpdump and reverse engineering will probably get the job done, but one wonders why, in a professional product which sells for almost US$1000, the customer should be forced to go to such lengths to accomplish such obvious things. The camera supports firmware updates, so perhaps Sony will remedy these lacunæ in a subsequent release (I verified that my camera has the most recent firmware installed).

While the immediate motivation for installing this camera was keeping an eye on the floodplain without slogging through storms, I'd intended, if it worked out well, to add additional cameras in other interesting locations, perhaps even with remote pan and zoom accessible to visitors. Given my discoveries about the Sony camera, unless the shortcomings are remedied by Sony in a firmware update or I'm motivated to and manage to find work-arounds for the limitations of the current design, I will be looking for better solutions before deploying additional cameras.

Posted at 22:04 Permalink

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Mozilla Firefox 1.5: Adblock vs. Java and Flash Plugins

Ever since I upgraded my development machine to Fedora Core 4 Linux and re-installed various things disrupted by the installation of the new distribution, neither Flash animations nor Java applets have displayed correctly in the Mozilla Firefox browser, despite the latest versions of the plugins for each being installed. Odder still, sound from the content would play OK, but the portion of the screen where the graphics were expected to display remained blank.

Today, I finally figured out what was going on. For more than a year, I have had the “Adblock” extension installed in Firefox. Properly configured, it blocks about 95% of banner advertisements and irritating animated flash ads which clutter some popular sites. Unfortunately, apparently with the advent of Firefox 1.5 (which I installed some time before the upgrade to Fedora Core 4, but I view Flash and Java content so rarely, I may not have noticed the problem immediately), Adblock appears to be a bit too assiduous in its blocking, blanking out all Java and Flash graphics entirely, even if permitted by the filtering rules. If you're experiencing a problem with Flash and Java and suspect this to be the cause, try disabling Adblock from the Tools menu; if that fixes the problem, Adblock is fingered as the culprit.

Fortunately, the problem is easily fixed. A complete rewrite of Adblock called “Adblock Plus” is now available from adblockplus.mozdev.org. This fixes the conflict with Flash and Java (at least it did for me), and has a number of nice new things, such as the ability to subscribe to filter lists published on the Web.

Posted at 22:44 Permalink