Saturday, May 31, 2008

Back and jetlagged!

Sorry for the lack of posts -- I am digging out after returning from Paris.

Here are some sports links I found of interest :-)

Ulitmate fighting on CBS tonight -- first time on a national broadcast network! Kimbo Slice, one of the headliners, rose to fame thanks to YouTube video of his street fights. Although he has fan appeal, he's far from a top level fighter at this stage of his development.

US military embraces ultimate fighting! See here, here and slides.

Profile of China's surprisingly successful rowing program. (video, slideshow.) They've recycled tall athletes from track and field and other sports into rowing. I've always thought the talent pool in rowing was relatively thin, and China's success partially supports this viewpoint.

Some projections have the Chinese olympic team edging out team USA in the overall medal count in Beijing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Le Louvre

A little tourist fun!

Paris conference on black hole information

Gravitational Scattering, Black Holes and the Information Paradox, May 26 - 28, 2008.

Web page here. My slides (pdf).

This is quite a good meeting so far. The atmosphere is informal, with about 50 participants.

Today there were two sessions. The conveners arranged brief talks to stimulate discussion, but the format was mostly open. In the early session the scheduled speakers were Giddings, Hawking, Andy Strominger and me. Hawking ended up not speaking, although he was in attendance. In the second session we had Gary Horowitz, Erik Verlinde and Strominger again.

10h 00 - 13h
What is the BH information paradox/problem/puzzle/question?
convener: T. Jacobson

14h 30 - 18h
Is string theory providing a statistical-mechanics interpretation of BH thermodynamics?
convener: J. Maldacena

I thought my talk went well, but I evidently did not convince either Giddings or Strominger that information loss to baby universes is a viable solution to the information problem :-(

There were a number of interesting exchanges. One in particular between 'tHooft, Maldacena, Englert, Giddings and Hawking lasted for some time. The issue was whether gravitational interactions between infalling particles and pre-Hawking radiation states are strong. 'tHooft maintained steadfastly that they are, with support from Englert. I couldn't quite tell what Hawking's opinion was, and all the others were opposed.

The remaining schedule is as follows.

Tuesday 27/05

10h 00 - 13h
Do quantum BH microstates have something to do with a classical geometry?
convener: D. Amati

14h 30 - 18h
Can the AdS/CFT correspondence teach us how to solve the information paradox?
convener: J. Polchinski

Wednesday 28/05

10h 00 - 13h
What can we learn from the study of transplanckian-energy collisions?
convener: G. Veneziano

14h 30 - 18h
BH and workshop evaporation: did we gain any new information?
convener: TBA

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Obama's Silicon Valley money machine

In politics, as much as anywhere else, it's all about the benjamins. Obama isn't just smart and charismatic, he had the savvy and vision to build a 21st century, digital social network-driven campaign that has obliterated all the records for fund raising: nearly $200 million raised from over a million donors. In February, the Obama campaign reported that 94 percent of their donations came in increments of $200 or less, versus 26 percent for Clinton and 13 percent for McCain.

This is real democracy in action!

No experience? Who in Silicon Valley wants to send a candidate to the white house with lots of beltway experience? Obama gets it, in a way that Clinton and McCain do not and can not.

The Atlantic Monthly: ...In a colossal error of judgment, the Clinton campaign never made a serious approach, assuming that Obama would fade and that lack of money and cutting-edge technology couldn’t possibly factor into what was expected to be an easy race. Some of her staff tried to arrange “prospect meetings” in Silicon Valley, but they were overruled. “There was massive frustration about not being able to go out there and recruit people,” a Clinton consultant told me last year. As a result, the wealthiest region of the wealthiest state in the nation was left to Barack Obama.

Furthermore, in Silicon Valley’s unique reckoning, what everyone else considered to be Obama’s major shortcomings—his youth, his inexperience—here counted as prime assets.

I asked Roos, the personification of a buttoned-down corporate attorney, if there had been concerns about Obama’s limited CV, and for a moment he looked as if he might burst out laughing. “No one in Silicon Valley sits here and thinks, ‘You need massive inside-the-Beltway experience,’” he explained, after a diplomatic pause. “Sergey and Larry were in their early 20s when they started Google. The YouTube guys were also in their 20s. So were the guys who started Facebook. And I’ll tell you, we recognize what great companies have been built on, and that’s ideas, talent, and inspirational leadership.”

This was the dominant refrain as I traveled around the Valley. From a policy standpoint, there are many reasons for tech-minded types to support Obama, including his pledge to establish a chief technology officer for the federal government and to radically increase its transparency by making most government data available online. ...

What ultimately transformed the presidential race—what swept Obama past his rivals to dizzying new levels of campaign wealth—was not the money that poured in from Silicon Valley but the technology and the ethos.

The campaign’s focal point is, which has made better use of technology than its rivals since the beginning. As a consequence of this fact and the general enthusiasm over the candidate, Obama’s Chicago-based staff is constantly besieged by suitors offering the latest applications, services, software, and widgets. Since many are based in Silicon Valley, Spinner volunteered his services as a talent scout.

To understand how Obama’s war chest has grown so rapidly, it helps to think of his Web site as an extension of the social-networking boom that has consumed Silicon Valley over the past few years. The purpose of social networking is to connect friends and share information, its animating idea being that people will do this more readily and comfortably when the information comes to them from a friend rather than from a newspaper or expert or similarly distant authority they don’t know and trust. The success of social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and, later, professional networking sites like LinkedIn all but ensured that someday the concept would find its way into campaigning. A precursor,, helped supporters of Howard Dean organize gatherings during the last Democratic primary season, but compared with today’s sites, it was a blunt instrument.

Obama’s campaign moved first. Staffers credit the candidate himself with recognizing the importance of this new tool and claim that his years as a community organizer in Chicago allowed him to see its usefulness. Another view is that he benefited greatly from encouraging a culture of innovation and lucked out in the personnel department, with his own pair of 20-something wizards. Joe Rospars, a veteran of Dean’s campaign who had gone on to found an Internet fund-raising company, signed on as Obama’s new-media director. And Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, took a sabbatical from the company and came to Chicago to work on the campaign full-time.

When launched, at the start of the campaign, its lineage was clear. The site is a social-networking hub centered on the candidate and designed to give users a practically unlimited array of ways to participate in the campaign. You can register to vote or start your own affinity group, with a listserv for your friends. You can download an Obama news widget to stay current, or another one (which Spinner found) that scrolls Obama’s biography, with pictures, in an endless loop. You can click a “Make Calls” button, receive a list of phone numbers, and spread the good news to voters across the country, right there in your home. You can get text-message updates on your mobile phone and choose from among 12 Obama-themed ring tones, so that each time Mom calls you will hear Barack Obama cry “Yes we can!” and be reminded that Mom should register to vote, too.

“We’ve tried to bring two principles to this campaign,” Rospars told me. “One is lowering the barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for folks who come to our Web site. The other is raising the expectation of what it means to be a supporter. It’s not enough to have a bumper sticker. We want you to give five dollars, make some calls, host an event. If you look at the messages we send to people over time, there’s a presumption that they will organize.”

The true killer app on is the suite of fund-raising tools. You can, of course, click on a button and make a donation, or you can sign up for the subscription model, as thousands already have, and donate a little every month. You can set up your own page, establish your target number, pound your friends into submission with e-mails to pony up, and watch your personal fund-raising “thermometer” rise. “The idea,” Rospars says, “is to give them the tools and have them go out and do all this on their own.” The organizing principle behind Obama’s Web site, in other words, is the approach Mark Gorenberg used with such success—only scaled to such a degree that it has created an army of more than a million donors and raisers. The Clinton campaign belatedly sought to mimic Obama’s Internet success, and has raised what in any other context would be considered significant money online—but nothing like Obama’s totals, in dollars or donors. John McCain’s online fund-raising has been abysmal.

The social-networking model provided Obama with something that insurgents before him, from Gary Hart to McCain, always lacked: a means of capturing excitement and translating it into money. In the 2004 primary, Howard Dean raised $27 million online. Obama is fast approaching $200 million.

...At a critical point in the race, this money had a dispositive effect. After “Super Tuesday,” on February 5, Clinton’s campaign ran out of money—a scenario that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. Obama, flush with cash, proceeded to win the next 11 contests, all but putting the nomination out of Clinton’s reach.

“What’s amazing,” says Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute, “is that Hillary built the best campaign that has ever been done in Democratic politics on the old model—she raised more money than anyone before her, she locked down all the party stalwarts, she assembled an all-star team of consultants, and she really mastered this top-down, command-and-control type of outfit. And yet, she’s getting beaten by this political start-up that is essentially a totally different model of the new politics.”

...The alchemy of social networking and the presidential race has given Obama claim to some of the most fabulous numbers in politics: 750,000 active volunteers, 8,000 affinity groups, and 30,000 events. But the most important number, and the clue to how Obama’s machine has transformed the contours of politics, is the number of people who have contributed to his campaign—particularly the flood of small donors. Much of Clinton’s haul, and McCain’s, too, has come from the sort of people accustomed to being wooed in the living room, and Obama initially relied on them, too. But while his rivals continued to depend on big givers, Obama gained more and more small donors, until they finally eclipsed the big ones altogether. In February, the Obama campaign reported that 94 percent of their donations came in increments of $200 or less, versus 26 percent for Clinton and 13 percent for McCain. Obama’s claim of 1,276,000 donors through March is so large that Clinton doesn’t bother to compete; she stopped regularly providing her own number last year. ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Vive la France!

En route to Paris today. Hope the May 22 general strike doesn't strand me somewhere along the way!

Summer 2008 Conference fun.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Confessions of an economist

A revealing dialog from Brad DeLong, in which he questions the choice of topics in his spring semester macro course. A must read for all social scientists who have faced math intimidation tactics from economists :-)

[... Previous discussion: the Solow model tells us nothing useful about the real world. But Brad spent 5 weeks last semester covering it in his macro class... ]

Glaukon: But the bottom line is that we don't have good explanations at any deep level for why the U.S. today is and stays 30 times richer than Kenya.

Akhilleus: Or, rather, that we have good explanations but they are historians', political scientists', and sociologists' explanations--not explanations in which a facility with the differential calculus is terribly helpful and thus not explanations instrumentally useful to a sect of academics who want to use their facility with the differential calculus to impose a form of hegemonic domination over social science in general.


Akhilleus: But surely there is value in being confused about the issue at a higher and more sophisticated level...

See also this Larry Summers anecdote (Ellison, an anthropologist, was Dean of the Graduate School under Summers):

Over lunch not long after Summers took over the presidency in 2001, Ellison said, Summers suggested that some funds should be moved from a sociology program to the Kennedy School, home to many economists and political scientists. ''President Summers asked me, didn't I agree that, in general, economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists?" Ellison said. ''To which I laughed nervously and didn't reply."

Most amusingly, see Life among the Econ by Axel Leijonhufvud. Discussed previously on Economist's View. Twilight of the modls!

Life among the Econ

The Econ tribe occupies a vast territory in the far North. Their land appears bleak and dismal to the outsider, and travelling through it makes for rough sledding; but the Econ, through a long period of adaptation, have learned to wrest a living of sorts from it. They are not without some genuine and sometimes even fierce attachment to their ancestral grounds, and their young are brought up to feel contempt for the softer living in the warmer lands of their neighbours such as the Polscis and the Sociogs. Despite a common genetical heritage, relations with these tribes are strained-the distrust and contempt that the average Econ feels for these neighbours being heartily reciprocated by the latter-and social intercourse with them is inhibited by numerous taboos. The extreme clannishness, not to say xenophobia, of the Econ makes life among them difficult and perhaps even somewhat dangerous for the outsider. This probably accounts for the fact that the Econ have so far-not been systematically studied. Information about their social structure and ways of life is fragmentary and not well validated. More research on this interesting tribe is badly needed.

Caste and Status

The information that we do have indicates that, for such a primitive people, the social structure is quite complex. The two main dimensions of their social structure are those of caste and status. The basic division of the tribe is seemingly into castes; within each caste, one finds an elaborate network of status relationships.

An extremely interesting aspect of status among the Econ, if it can be verified, is that status relationships do not seem to form a simple hierarchical “pecking-order,” as one is used to expect. Thus, for example, one may find that A pecks B, B pecks C, and then C pecks A ! This nontransitivity of status may account for the continual strife among the Econ which makes their social life seem so singularly insufferable to the visitor.

Almost all of the travellers’ reports that we have comment on the Econ as a “quarrelsome race” who “talk ill of their fellow behind his back,” and so forth. Social cohesion is apparently maintained chiefly through shared distrust of outsiders. In societies with a transitive pecking-order, on the other hand, we find as a rule that an equilibrium develops in which little actual pecking ever takes place. The uncivilized anomaly that we find among the Econ poses a riddle the resolution of which must be given high priority in Econological research at this time.

What seems at first to be a further complication obstructing our understanding of the situation in the Econ tribe may, in the last analysis, contain the vital clue to this theoretical problem. Pecking between castes is traditionally not supposed to take place, but this rule is not without exceptions either. Members of high castes are not infrequently found to peck those of lower castes. While such behavior is regarded as in questionable taste, it carries no formal sanctions. A member of a low caste who attempts to peck someone in a higher caste runs more concrete risks-at the extreme, he may be ostracized and lose the privilege of being heard at the tribal midwinter councils.


A comparison of status relationships in the different “fields” shows a definite common pattern. The dominant feature, which makes status relations among the Econ of unique interest to the serious student, is the way that status is tied to the manufacture of certain types of implements, called “modls.” The status of the adult male is determined by his skill at making the “modl” of his “field.” The facts (a) that the Econ are highly status-motivated, (b) that status is only to be achieved by making ”modls,” and (c) that most of these “modls” seem to be of little or no practical use, probably accounts for the backwardness and abject cultural poverty of the tribe. Both the tight linkage between status in the tribe and modl-making and the trend toward making modls more for ceremonial than for practical purposes appear, moreover, to be fairly recent developments, something which has led many observers to express pessimism for the viability of the Econ culture. ...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Obama in Oregon

8 nightmare years of George W. Bush are nearly over.

Flickr slideshow.

I can't resist adding this one:

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Two recommendations, and a little story ;-)

1) The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and why it Matters, by Diane Coyle. Coyle is a Harvard PhD and an accomplished writer. This is an evenhanded and up to date overview of modern economics. There is good coverage of behavioral economics, limitations of rationality, heterodox ideas, Schumpeter, creative destruction, etc. Here's an excerpt from an Amazon review that I agree with:

Once in a while an interesting economics book will come along, but invariably by someone proselytizing for his own particular take on the policy issues of the day, or eager to teach you the bizarre behavior of the neoclassical rational actor. I have longed for a solid description of what's been happening in the field recently by a competent economist without a policy bone to pick. At last I would have something to offer my friends and family so they could actually answer the oft-repeated question "What do economists actually have to say about the issues of the day when they're not simply expressing their personal political views, or those of their employers?" Coyle's book [is] the rare example of such a book.

People are generally ignorant of modern science and they know it. They are even more ignorant of the basic principles of economics, but they think they know more than they do. Therefore, they despise and fear economists, who are easily pilloried as other-worldly academics who throw around big equations but couldn't meet a payroll or punch a time clock if their professional future depended on it. Conservatives and liberals alike cherish basic principles of economics that are as stupid and inane as intelligent design and flat-earth-ism. We need a dozen more books like this excellent contribution by Diane Coyle.

Coyle covers the history and theory of economic growth, the sources and potential cures for world poverty, the nature and source of happiness and its relationship with income and wealth, the economics of adverse selection and moral hazard, rent-seeking and the politics of state intervention, evolutionary economics, behavioral economics, and the new, analytical institutional economics.

2) Books by Israeli author Etgar Keret. I've been reading The Nimrod Flipout and The Busdriver Who Wanted to be God. Keret writes brilliant, very short stories, sometimes with a magical realist twist, sometimes straight up. There is black comedy and absurdity and occasional deep insight.

Keret interview with Leonard Lopate:

A great quote from an LA Weekly interview:

“I write about the violence that I grew up with,” Keret says matter-of-factly. “In a country where, for three years out of their lives, everybody who is 18 lives in a reality where he may kill people or see people get killed next to him, he may do things Americans would never do. I didn’t serve in the occupied territories, but people who do know that if you knock on a door and it doesn’t open, you kick it open. You can play the guitar, read Nietzsche, become a very good dentist, but you’ll still do it. And once you cross that line, it’s very difficult to uncross it. When your girlfriend won’t talk to you and locks the door, you will still know how to kick it open.”

An off color story (you've been warned): an old friend of mine, who is now a well-known physicist, used to frequent the singles bars in LA. One night he met a not so bright girl and went back to her apartment. He put her through a long and rather rigorous set of activities. Afterwards, he mentioned that she was his first lover and that he had been a virgin. At first she was overcome, why me? I feel so special! Then, she asked, but how did you know so much? Where did you learn to do all those things? Books, he replied.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The big dog

This picture (via Barry Ritholtz) illustrates that the US is still the dominant economy in the world.

Note, though, that the growth rate differential between the US and China is currently around 7 percent per year (e.g., 10 vs 3). If that persists for another decade, China's PPP GDP will exceed that of the US.

See here for a list of PPP adjusted GDPs by country.

70% of US GDP is consumer-related. One can expect significant consequences abroad from any slowdown here -- for example due to freezing of home equity lines of credit ;-)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Nuclear weapons sites in China's earthquake zone

I was wondering about this. Interesting detail from the Times on China's nuclear weapons sites in the earthquake zone. So far so good; let's hope the dams are OK as well.

Related: China Builds the Bomb, a history of China's early atomic weapons program. See page 44 for profiles of two of the leading scientists, including Peng Huanwu, a quantum field theorist and student of Max Born.

NYTimes: China’s main centers for designing, making and storing nuclear arms lie in the shattered earthquake zone, leading Western experts to look for signs of any damage that might allow radioactivity to escape.

A senior federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue, said the United States was using spy satellites and other means to try to monitor the sprawling nuclear plants. “There appear to be no immediate concerns,” the official said.

Nonetheless, “it’s potentially a serious issue,” Hans M. Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, said in an interview. “Radioactive materials could be released if there’s damage.”

China began building the plants in the 1960s, calculating that their remote locations would make them less vulnerable to enemy attack.

China’s main complex for making nuclear warhead fuel, codenamed Plant 821, is beside a river in a hilly, forested part of the earthquake zone. It is some 15 miles northwest of Guangyuan in Sichuan Province. The vast site holds China’s largest production reactor and factories that mine its spent fuel for plutonium — the main ingredient for modern nuclear arms.

Jeffrey G. Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit research group in Washington, said the military buildings that make up Plant 821 were probably unusually strong compared with civilian structures.

“I’d rather have been in the reactor building than a grade school” on Monday when the quake struck, he said. The site’s various plants “were built as military facilities, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if, by and large, they came through pretty well,” he added. ...

“From what I know, they’re a really brilliant people and I think they do things the right way,” said Danny B. Stillman, a former director of intelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory and an expert on the Chinese nuclear program because of extensive travels in the 1990s to its secretive sites and bases.

Closer to the epicenter of the quake that struck Monday is Mianyang, a science city whose outskirts house the primary laboratory for the design of Chinese nuclear arms. It is considered the Chinese equal to Los Alamos. Known as the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, it too, Mr. Stillman said, houses a reactor, though a smaller one meant for research.

In China, the academy leads in the research, development and testing of nuclear weapons and has centers throughout Sichuan Province.

...North of the city, for example, is a plant that shapes plutonium into the compact spheres that ignite nuclear weapons.

Nuclear experts said that closer to the epicenter of the earthquake, in rugged hills a two-hour drive west of Mianyang, China runs a highly secretive center that houses a prompt-burst reactor. It mimics the rush of speeding subatomic particles that an exploding atom bomb spews out in its first microseconds.

North in an even more rugged and inaccessible region, nuclear experts said, China maintains a hidden complex of large tunnels in the side of a mountain where it stores nuclear arms.

“It’s very close to the epicenter,” said one specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because, to the best of his knowledge, the exact location of the secret complex had never been publicly disclosed.

Dr. Stillman, the former intelligence chief at Los Alamos, said he had immense regard for the Chinese weapons scientists and assumed that many of their nuclear plants had been built to ride out the pounding of an earthquake or other disasters, natural or man-made.

“All the Chinese I met in the program were really brilliant,” he said. “So I think they do it the right way. I hope.”

Elbow strikes

Somehow my 2.5 year old son Max has learned how to use elbow strikes. When he sits on my lap, or on top of me on my chest (the mounted position, in jiujitsu), he drops perfect strikes using his elbows. No sign that his twin sister has mastered the technique, though :-)

I've tried not to watch ultimate fighting while the kids are around (in fact, mom doesn't allow it), but he must have figured it out somehow. So far his overall jiujitsu is pretty weak, though :-)

Related: David Mamet is a purple belt, and his recent movie Redbelt is about jiujitsu and the fight game!

The real deal: Marcelo Garcia, best pound for pound in the world. Watch this video to see some beautiful jiujitsu! The submissions are all at the end. The beginning and middle are all takedown and position game. At about 2 minutes he smokes my old instructor Renzo Gracie. At 5 minutes in you can see him against heavyweight Ricco Rodriguez, who he taps with an ankle lock.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A bankers' utopia

Not exactly the opinion piece I expected to find in the Wall Street Journal!

WSJ: Our Great Economic U-Turn

...The top 20% of households earned more, after taxes, than the rest of the country combined in 2005, while the topmost 1% of the population took home more than the bottom 40%. ...Real hourly wages for most workers, on the other hand, have risen only 1% since 1979, even as those workers' productivity has increased by 60%. What's more, American workers now clock more hours per year than their counterparts in virtually every other advanced economy, even Japan. And unless you haven't read a newspaper for 15 years, you already know what's happened to workers' health insurance and pension plans.

I confess that I am fascinated by the mechanics of this huge social reconfiguration – in the same sense that I am fascinated by the industrial procedures of a slaughterhouse... How the big change was brought off is the subject of Steven Greenhouse's important new book, "The Big Squeeze," which is also my source for many of the statistics in the preceding paragraphs. ...

...It is, in other words, a political disaster, with tax cuts, trade agreements, deregulatory measures, and enforcement decisions all finely crafted to benefit one part of society and leave the rest behind. Few of the voters who gave Ronald Reagan his landslide victories, it is fair to say, intended for this to be the outcome. They wanted their country to stand tall again, certainly; they wanted the scary regulators off their backs, maybe; but I can recall no conservative who trumpeted those long-ago elections – or any of the succeeding contests, for that matter – as a referendum on plutocracy.

So let us have one now. Instead of pleasant talk about "change" and feats of beer drinking at the corner tavern, let us hear our candidates address this greatest issue of them all: What kind of country are we to be? A land of equality? Or a bankers' utopia – where the law of the land has achieved mystical oneness with the higher law of classical economics, and devil take the bottom 80%.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

On data mining

Last week we had Jiawei Han of UIUC here to give a talk: Exploring the Power of Links in Information Network Mining. He's the author of a well-known book on data mining.

During our conversation we discussed a number of projects his group has worked on in the past, all of which involve teasing out the structure in large bodies of data. Being a lazy theorist, my attitude in the past about data mining has been as follows: sit and think about the problem, come up with list of potential signals, analyze data to see which signals actually work. The point being that the good signals would turn out to be a subset (or possibly combination) of the ones you could think of a priori -- i.e., for which there is a plausible, human-comprehensible, reason.

In many of the examples we discussed I was able to guess the main signals that turned out to be useful. However, Han impressed on me that, these days, with gigantic corpora of data available, one often encounters very subtle signals that are identified only by algorithm -- that human intuition completely fails to identify. (Gee, why that weird linear combination of those inputs, with alternating signs, even?! :-)

Our conversation made me want to get my hands dirty on some big data mining project. Of course, it's much easier for him -- his group has something like ten graduate students at a time! Interestingly, he identified this ability to tap into large chunks of manpower as an advantage of being in academia as opposed to, e.g., at Microsoft Research. Of course, if you are doing very commercially applicable research you can access even greater resources at a company lab/startup, but for blue sky academic work it wouldn't be the case.

Conference fun

My summer schedule is filling up already!

Paris, May 26-28: Black hole information at Institut Henri Poincaré.

Foo camp, Sebastapol, July 11-13: woo hoo! O'Reilly Media's annual un-conference. My report from last year, including video.

Sci Foo, Googleplex, Aug 8-10: co-organized by Google, O'Reilly Media and Nature. Flickr photos from last year (2007).

Trento, Italy Sept. 1-5: statistical thermalization, at the European Center for Nuclear Theory (ECT).

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Gladwell amongst the patent trolls

Malcolm Gladwell writes about Nathan Myhrvold's company Intellectual Ventures in the recent New Yorker. (Myhrvold is the former cosmologist who left physics and eventually became consigliere to Bill Gates, founding Microsoft Research and charting Microsoft's blue sky research direction. He famously missed the importance of the Internet until the mid 90's.) If you read this blog often, you know my opinion about Gladwell: he has a good nose for interesting topics, but not enough brainpower or common sense for reliable analysis. The same is true here: he produces an interesting profile of Myhrvold (although see here for a much better one from 1997 by Ken Auletta) and friends, but seems to entirely miss a number of important points. Intellectual Ventures is not about real inventions, but about patenting around ideas so that they have a future claim on the ones that turn out the be useful. In other words, they are patent trolls. Gladwell does not seem to realize the difference between rampant speculation and true invention: the hours of painstaking work in the lab required to convert an idea into reality.

Here's an excerpt about how the "invention" process works -- get some smart guys in a room and let them talk (every theory group lounge is a fount of commercializable ideas ;-). Yes! if your inventors are smart enough, they can produce 36 new inventions at dinner! Is this a statement about real innovation, or about what a patent attorney might manage to get the understaffed, overburdened USPTO to approve? It makes a mockery of what real inventors and innovators do. Why start a company and hire engineers to build a prototype? Just get a few lawyers and patent everything in sight...

How useful is it to have a group of really smart people brainstorm for a day? When Myhrvold started out, his expectations were modest. Although he wanted insights like Alexander Graham Bell’s, Bell was clearly one in a million, a genius who went on to have ideas in an extraordinary number of areas—sound recording, flight, lasers, tetrahedral construction, and hydrofoil boats, to name a few. ...

But then, in August of 2003, I.V. held its first invention session, and it was a revelation. “Afterward, Nathan kept saying, ‘There are so many inventions,’ ” Wood recalled. “He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like.”

The original expectation was that I.V. would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

For the cognoscenti out there, yes, the Wood mentioned in the article is none other than Star Warrior Lowell Wood, former head of the zany (useless?) O Group (NYTimes 1984) at Livermore. Wood is perfect for Myhrvold's purposes -- for decades his group bamboozled the US defense establishment with wild ideas that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Follow the link to the Times article and tell me how many of the ideas mentioned turned into something useful, now almost a quarter century later.

Rather than leave you with a completely negative impression of the article, I include the following excerpt, which has Wood noticing something about cancer cells in the bloodstream that seems to have eluded biologists and medical researchers for some time. It is true that there are great ideas out there just waiting to be discovered, but lots of people can have the same idea. The hard part is making the idea into a practical, commercially viable reality.

...Last March, Myhrvold decided to do an invention session with Eric Leuthardt and several other physicians in St. Louis. Rod Hyde came, along with a scientist from M.I.T. named Ed Boyden. Wood was there as well.

“Lowell came in looking like the Cheshire Cat,” Myhrvold recalled. “He said, ‘I have a question for everyone. You have a tumor, and the tumor becomes metastatic, and it sheds metastatic cancer cells. How long do those circulate in the bloodstream before they land?’ And we all said, ‘We don’t know. Ten times?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘As many as a million times.’ Isn’t that amazing? If you had no time, you’d be screwed. But it turns out that these cells are in your blood for as long as a year before they land somewhere. What that says is that you’ve got a chance to intercept them.”

How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. “It was an article that talked about, at one point, the number of cancer cells per millilitre of blood,” he said. “And I looked at that figure and said, ‘Something’s wrong here. That can’t possibly be true.’ The number was incredibly high. Too high. It has to be one cell in a hundred litres, not what they were saying—one cell in a millilitre. Yet they spoke of it so confidently. I clicked through to the references. It was a commonplace. There really were that many cancer cells.”

Wood did some arithmetic. He knew that human beings have only about five litres of blood. He knew that the heart pumps close to a hundred millilitres of blood per beat, which means that all of our blood circulates through our bloodstream in a matter of minutes. The New England Journal article was about metastatic breast cancer, and it seemed to Wood that when women die of metastatic breast cancer they don’t die with thousands of tumors. The vast majority of circulating cancer cells don’t do anything.

“It turns out that some small per cent of tumor cells are actually the deadly ones,” he went on. “Tumor stem cells are what really initiate metastases. And isn’t it astonishing that they have to turn over at least ten thousand times before they can find a happy home? You naïvely think it’s once or twice or three times. Maybe five times at most. It isn’t. In other words, metastatic cancer—the brand of cancer that kills us—is an amazingly hard thing to initiate. Which strongly suggests that if you tip things just a little bit you essentially turn off the process.”

That was the idea that Wood presented to the room in St. Louis. From there, the discussion raced ahead. Myhrvold and his inventors had already done a lot of thinking about using tiny optical filters capable of identifying and zapping microscopic particles. They also knew that finding cancer cells in blood is not hard. They’re often the wrong size or the wrong shape. So what if you slid a tiny filter into a blood vessel of a cancer patient? “You don’t have to intercept very much of the blood for it to work,” Wood went on. “Maybe one ten-thousandth of it. The filter could be put in a little tiny vein in the back of the hand, because that’s all you need. Or maybe I intercept all of the blood, but then it doesn’t have to be a particularly efficient filter.”

Wood was a physicist, not a doctor, but that wasn’t necessarily a liability, at this stage. “People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic,” he said. He wasn’t being critical of biologists and physicians: this was, after all, a man who read medical journals for fun. He meant that the traditions of medicine encouraged qualitative observation and interpretation. But what physicists do—out of sheer force of habit and training—is measure things and compare measurements, and do the math to put measurements in context. At that moment, while reading The New England Journal, Wood had the advantages of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective.

That was also why Myhrvold had wanted to take his crew to St. Louis to meet with the surgeons. He likes to say that the only time a physicist and a brain surgeon meet is when the physicist is about to be cut open—and to his mind that made no sense. Surgeons had all kinds of problems that they didn’t realize had solutions, and physicists had all kinds of solutions to things that they didn’t realize were problems. At one point, Myhrvold asked the surgeons what, in a perfect world, would make their lives easier, and they said that they wanted an X-ray that went only skin deep. They wanted to know, before they made their first incision, what was just below the surface. When the Intellectual Ventures crew heard that, their response was amazement. “That’s your dream? A subcutaneous X-ray? We can do that.”

Let me close with my usual observation (specifically aimed at venture capitalists, research lab directors and university administrators) concerning an asymmetry in cognitive depth: yes, physicists can casually read the New England Journal of Medicine and come up with interesting insights, but, no, biologists and medical doctors cannot read Physical Review.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How the other half works

Valleywag lists its top ten tech workspaces here, including photos. Fancy cubicles, workout facilities and kitchens I expected, but stripper/fireman poles? :-) How does your office compare?

Here's my favorite shot, from Pierpoint Communications in downtown Austin.

Actually, Valleywag's top 10 are unimpressive compared to the some of the hedge fund offices I've seen in Manhattan :-)

Here's where I work, home of the largest Feynman diagram in the world:

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Brainpower ain't free

This NYTimes article describes research on the fitness costs and benefits of increased intelligence (learning ability). The specific results are for fruit flies, C. Elegans (worms) and E. Coli (bacteria), but the theoretical basis is well understood already. Evolutionary equilibrium occurs at a local fitness maximum, which means that further increases in brainpower come with negative fitness costs in some other area (e.g., disease resistance, physical capability). If brainpower could continue to increase without negative side effects, it would have. The fact that it hasn't suggests that genes with beneficial effects on intelligence may also come with negative consequences.

Note that equilibrium is only an approximate condition -- there may be directions in gene space in which overall fitness can still increase (even substantially), but it takes time for the random mutational process of evolution to find them. In most directions one would expect to find either only a very small positive (or zero) fitness gradient or a negative gradient, assuming a population that has been genotypically stable for a long time. Recent studies suggest that humans may have experienced rapid evolution in the last 10-50 thousand years due to the advent of agriculture, population growth, etc.

At the end of the article, one of the biologists seems ready to rediscover the Cochran-Harpending hypothesis :-) See also here.

NYTimes: ... It takes just 15 generations under these conditions for the flies to become genetically programmed to learn better. At the beginning of the experiment, the flies take many hours to learn the difference between the normal and quinine-spiked jellies. The fast-learning strain of flies needs less than an hour.

But the flies pay a price for fast learning. Dr. Kawecki and his colleagues pitted smart fly larvae against a different strain of flies, mixing the insects and giving them a meager supply of yeast to see who would survive. The scientists then ran the same experiment, but with the ordinary relatives of the smart flies competing against the new strain. About half the smart flies survived; 80 percent of the ordinary flies did.

Reversing the experiment showed that being smart does not ensure survival. “We took some population of flies and kept them over 30 generations on really poor food so they adapted so they could develop better on it,” Dr. Kawecki said. “And then we asked what happened to the learning ability. It went down.”

The ability to learn does not just harm the flies in their youth, though. In a paper to be published in the journal Evolution, Dr. Kawecki and his colleagues report that their fast-learning flies live on average 15 percent shorter lives than flies that had not experienced selection on the quinine-spiked jelly. Flies that have undergone selection for long life were up to 40 percent worse at learning than ordinary flies.

... “Humans have gone to the extreme,” said Dr. Dukas, both in the ability of our species to learn and in the cost for that ability.

Humans’ oversize brains require 20 percent of all the calories burned at rest. A newborn’s brain is so big that it can create serious risks for mother and child at birth. Yet newborns know so little that they are entirely helpless. It takes many years for humans to learn enough to live on their own.

Dr. Kawecki says it is worth investigating whether humans also pay hidden costs for extreme learning. “We could speculate that some diseases are a byproduct of intelligence,” he said.

The benefits of learning must have been enormous for evolution to have overcome those costs, Dr. Kawecki argues. For many animals, learning mainly offers a benefit in finding food or a mate. But humans also live in complex societies where learning has benefits, as well.

“If you’re using your intelligence to outsmart your group, then there’s an arms race,” Dr. Kawecki said. “So there’s no absolute optimal level. You just have to be smarter than the others.”

Monday, May 05, 2008

Inflation, deconstructed

This NYTimes illustration of the various components of the CPI (inflation index) is one of the most impressive web graphics I've seen in a while. I suggest you click through and look at the original -- it allows you to zoom in and see the contribution from individual components (gasoline, computers, college tuition, eyeglasses, etc.) to the overall index. Blue regions represent deflation (reduction in prices); reddish regions are strong inflation (the big red blob is gasoline).

One interesting point is that the CPI uses "owner's equivalent rent" to calculate the housing part of the index. This missed the run up in house prices (rents were pretty flat over the last few years, meaning price to rent ratios were very high, a strong signal of a bubble). Had the cost of ownership, as opposed to renting, been factored in, inflation would have been significantly higher in recent years. Of course, most of that will go away now that the housing bubble has popped :-)

See previous discussion here.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Grand unification and quantum gravitational effects

New paper!

Ever notice that the energy scale for grand unification (> 10^16 GeV, as dictated by proton decay) is uncomfortably close to the scale where (currently uncalculable) quantum gravity effects are strong (Planck scale = 10^19 GeV)? Does this make you nervous about whether one can trust low-energy predictions of grand unified models? Or, conversely, whether evolution of coupling constants from low-energies can really offer evidence for or against unification?

In this new paper, we add an additional wrinkle: the scale of quantum gravity might be lower than previously expected, due to renormalization effects. In models with large numbers of particle species (e.g., N=1000, common in many SO(10), E8xE8 and even SU(5) models), these effects can reduce the Planck scale from the conventional value (10^19 GeV, obtained by dimensional analysis) by almost an order of magnitude, thereby increasing the size of quantum gravity uncertainties.

Grand unification and enhanced quantum gravitational effects

Xavier Calmet, Stephen D.H. Hsu, David Reeb

In grand unified theories with large numbers of fields, renormalization effects significantly modify the scale at which quantum gravity becomes strong. This in turn can modify the boundary conditions for coupling constant unification, if higher dimensional operators induced by gravity are taken into consideration. We show that the generic size of these effects from gravity can be larger than the two-loop corrections typically considered in renormalization group analyses of unification. In some cases, gravitational effects of modest size can render unification impossible.

Figure caption: For $\eta$ fixed by the particle content of the theory, solid lines are contours of constant $c$ such that, under the presence of the gravitationally induced and enhanced operator (\ref{dim5}), SUSY-SU(5) perfectly unifies at two loops for given values of the initial strong coupling constant $\alpha_3(M_Z)$ and SUSY breaking scale $M_{{\rm SUSY}}$. Over the whole range, unification happens for some value of the coefficient $c$, with unification scale and unified coupling between $M_X=9.3\times 10^{14}\,{\rm GeV}$, $\alpha_G=0.033$ (lower right corner) and $M_X=5.5\times 10^{16}\,{\rm GeV}$, $\alpha_G=0.045$ (upper left).

Don't become a scientist! Philip Greenspun edition

I recently came across this essay by Philip Greenspun, which examines, in brutal detail, the negative aspects of a career in science. It goes way beyond my previous writings on the subject :-) Greenspun's essay was occasioned by the Larry Summers affair, and his main point regarding women in science is that science is such a crummy career choice that only testosterone-poisoned (overly competitive and status-driven) men would be stupid enough to pursue it. I'm not sure I agree completely with that perspective, but I like his essay quite a bit.

Some other themes he touches on: (a) sample bias; people are typically only familiar with the lives and careers of exceptionally successful scientists: In short, some young people think that science is a good career for the same reason that they think being a musician or actor is a good career: "I can't decide if I want to be a scientist like James Watson, a musician like Britney Spears, or an actor like Harrison Ford.", and (b) foreign immigration as a source of scientific talent: Science may be one of the lowest paid fields for high IQ people in the U.S., but it pays a lot better than most jobs in China or India.

Incidentally, I met Philip many years ago through a common friend who is a scientist at Harvard, at one of the many parties she hosted. (When I first wrote this post I thought she and Philip had been housemates, but she says that recollection is incorrect. I think I do remember his dog Alex, though.) At one of these parties I met Steve Pinker in the kitchen. After a long conversation about his research I remember thinking: gee, isn't that all kind of obvious? Don't you wish you understood Yang-Mills theory? I was still a kid, just like Albert Q. Mathnerd described below :-)

You might like to dismiss Greenspun's perspective on this subject, but keep in mind that the guy earned a math SB (at 18) and PhD in EECS at MIT and founded several software startups. So he's not entirely clueless about how the academic and real worlds work.

...Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.

This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.

Why does anyone think science is a good job?

The average trajectory for a successful scientist is the following:

age 18-22: paying high tuition fees at an undergraduate college

age 22-30: graduate school, possibly with a bit of work, living on a stipend of $1800 per month

age 30-35: working as a post-doc for $30,000 to $35,000 per year

age 36-43: professor at a good, but not great, university for $65,000 per year

age 44: with young children at home (if lucky), fired by the university ("denied tenure" is the more polite term for the folks that universities discard), begins searching for a job in a market where employers primarily wish to hire folks in their early 30s

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.

...Consider someone taking the kind of high IQ and drive that would be required to obtain a tenure-track position at U.C. Berkeley and going into medicine. This person would very likely be a top specialist of some sort, earning at least $300,000 per year. Instead of being fired at age 44, our medical specialist would be near the height of her value to her patients and employer. Her experience and reputation would continue to add to her salary and prestige until she was perhaps 60 years old. [A woman who wanted to spend more time with her children can choose from a variety of medical careers, such as emergency medicine, that involve shift work and where a high salary can be earned with just two or three shifts per week. She could also work from home as a radiologist reading data transmitted via Internet.]

Consider taking the same high IQ and work ethic, going into business, and being put on the fast track at a company such as General Electric. Rather than being fired at age 44, this is about the time that she will be handed ever-larger divisions to operate, with ever-larger bonuses and stock options.

A top lawyer at age 44 is probably a $500,000 per year partner in a big firm, a judge, or a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000 per year salary with some private work. ...

What about the excitement and fun of science?

Is life all about money and job security? What about excitement and fun? Isn't that a good reason to choose a job? Sure! I love every minute of my $8 per hour job as a helicopter instructor, but on the other hand I don't say that it is a great career and I can't understand why there aren't more women helicopter instructors.

Some scientists are like kids who never grow up. They love what they do, are excited by the possibilities of their research, and wear a big smile most days. Although these people are, by Boston standards, ridiculously poor and they will never be able to afford a house (within a one-hour drive of their job) or support a family, I don't feel sorry for them.

Unfortunately, this kind of child-like joy is not typical. The tenured Nobel Prize winners are pretty happy, but they are a small proportion of the total. The average scientist that I encounter expresses bitterness about (a) low pay, (b) not getting enough credit or references to his or her work, (c) not knowing where the next job is coming from, (d) not having enough money or job security to get married and/or have children. If these folks were experiencing day-to-day joy at their bench, I wouldn't expect them to hold onto so much bitterness and envy.

...The most serious concern is that the field that a youngster found fascinating at age 20 will no longer be fascinating after 20 or 25 years. If you have a narrow education and have been earning an academic salary, it is much tougher to change careers at age 45 or 50 than for someone who was in a job where the earnings are higher and begin at a younger age. A doctor who practices for 10 years can easily save enough to finance a switch to almost any other occupation. A successful lawyer can walk away after 15 or 20 years, commute to school from his oceanfront and town houses, and become a furniture maker (my friend's dad did this).

Why do American men (boys, actually) do it?

Pursuing science as a career seems so irrational that one wonders why any young American would do it. Yet we do find some young Americans starting out in the sciences and they are mostly men. When the Larry Summers story first broke, I wrote in my Weblog:

A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group

men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question "is this peer group worth impressing?"

Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT ("Course 18" we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley's attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan. ...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Obama and race on campus

The melting pot still has a ways to go, even on elite university campuses. I suspect most liberal whites feel better about themselves thinking that they have a black friend, or voting for a black candidate. Apparently most black students don't feel they have even a single white friend.

It's still early, but at the moment I think I'm going to vote for Obama, partially because I think he's the smartest and most effective person in the race, but also because I can't take any more of Hillary's pandering. I actually respect McCain -- the biggest problem I have with him is probably his age.

WSJ: ..."It's much harder to be a white person and go to an all black party at Duke than vote for Obama, says Jessie Weingartner, a Duke junior. "On a personal level it is harder to break those barriers down."

Jazmyn Singleton, a black Duke senior agrees, After living in a predominantly white dorm freshman year, she lives with five African-American women in an all-black dormitory. "Both communities tend to be very judgmental," says Ms. Singleton, ruefully. "There is pressure to be black. The black community can be harsh. People will say there are 600 blacks on campus but only two-thirds are 'black' because you can't count blacks who hang out with white people."

The racial divisions among college students are striking both because of the fervor for Obama and the increasing diversity on campus. Colleges offer a unique opportunity for students to get to know each other in a relaxed atmosphere where many of the issues that often divide blacks and whites, like income and educational levels, are minimized amid the common goals of going to class, playing sports and going to parties.

About 10% of Duke students are African-American, compared to 4.5% two decades ago; they include many popular athletes as well as student leaders. The newly elected head of the graduate and professional student association is an African-American woman. Black and white students live together in the same group of dorms during freshman year, though they can join fraternities and sororities and select their roommates starting in sophomore year.

Like many colleges, Duke sponsors initiatives to address race relations on campus, an effort that gained added impetus following the widely publicized incident two years ago when white lacrosse players hired a black stripper to perform at a party and the woman then falsely accused several of the students of raping her.


But working or voting for an African-American running for president doesn't necessarily bridge differences -- on campus or, later, in the workplace. Following a recent discussion in one of his classes about the campaign, in which most students expressed support for Sen. Obama, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke sociologist, asked his white students how many had a black friend on campus. All the white students raised their hands.

He then asked the black students how many of them had a white friend on campus. None of them raised their hands.

The more he probed, Mr. Bonilla-Silva says, the more he realized that the definition of friendship was different. The white students considered a black a "friend" if they played basketball with him or shared a class. "It was more of an acquaintance," recalls Mr. Bonilla-Silva.

Black students, by contrast, defined a friend as someone they would invite to their home for dinner. By that measure, none of the students had friends from the opposite race.
Mr. Bonilla-Silva says when white college students were asked in series of 1998 surveys about the five people with whom they interacted most on a daily basis, about 68% said none of them were black. When asked if they had invited a black person to lunch or dinner recently, about 68% said "no." He says his own research and more recent studies show similar results.

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