Monday, May 28, 2012

The Psychology of Security
A lot of this can be chalked up to simple ignorance. If you think the murder rate in your town is one-tenth of what it really is, for example, then you're going to make bad security trade-offs. But I'm more interested in divergences between perception and reality that can't be explained that easily. Why is it that, even if someone knows that automobiles kill 40,000 people each year in the U.S. alone, and airplanes kill only hundreds worldwide, he is more afraid of airplanes than automobiles? Why is it that, when food poisoning kills 5,000 people every year and 9/11 terrorists killed 2,973 people in one non-repeated incident, we are spending tens of billions of dollars per year (not even counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) on terrorism defense while the entire budget for the Food and Drug Administration in 2007 is only $1.9 billion?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Q: Why haven’t we discovered Earth-like planets yet?
Finding an Earth-like planet will require a lot of patience and more powerful telescopes and telescope arrays, but that’s just an engineering problem. It’s just a matter of time (and probably not even that much!). Once found, the next challenge will be to determine whether or not the newly found tiny-as-Earth planets are covered in plants and critters. Already there are some ideas being floated that involve analyzing the atmosphere of the exoplanet to find signs of life (specifically, water vapor and oxygen). As impossible as that sounds, considering that we can’t actually take pictures of exoplanets (and again, every time you look at a star you can’t do better than a point of light) we’ve actually managed to do it a few times! Unfortunately, the first atmospheres we’ve seen were only visible because they were forming huge “comet tails” by being blown off of the surface of “hot-Jupiters” orbiting practically within high-fiving distance of their host stars. So, not Earth-like, but it is a step in the right direction.

Chances are, we’ll find an Earth-sized planet inside of the goldilocks zone of another solar system, and be able to determine if there’s life on it or not, within the next few decades. Copernicus would crap himself with joy if he were alive today.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A limited version of federalism is a less miserable solution than the break-up of the euro
That is why we have reluctantly concluded that the nations in the euro zone must share their burdens. The logic is straightforward. The euro zone’s problem is not the debt’s size, but its fragmented structure. Taken as a whole, the stock of euro-zone public debt is 87% of GDP, compared with over 100% in America. Similarly, the banks are not too big for the continent as a whole, just for individual governments. To survive, Europe has to become more federal: the debate is how much more.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

With euros leaving Greece, Greece may need to leave the euro
The question is how long this can continue. Greece has no money. Revenue collections are falling short, and one suspects Gresham's Law may begin operating. One doesn't turn over precious euros to the Greek government if an exit is looming; one hoards them, bringing forward the day when an alternative scrip begins circulating. The mere prospect of bad money may drive out good money. Meanwhile, the flow of euros into depositors' hands ultimately originates at the European Central Bank, and the ECB is no doubt very nervous about continuing to supply them for fear of huge, open-ended exposure to a Greece that is potentially on its way out. The ECB may already be rationing euros to Greece. If that continues or scales up, we are then talking about effective capital controls—the ATMs no longer dispense euro notes—and more pressure for the introduction of alternative scrip in Greece. Exit, in other words, becomes a fait accompli.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Trouble with Airport Profiling
Why do otherwise rational people think it's a good idea to profile people at airports? Recently, neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris related a story of an elderly couple being given the twice-over by the TSA, pointed out how these two were obviously not a threat, and recommended that the TSA focus on the actual threat: "Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim."

This is a bad idea. It doesn’t make us any safer -- and it actually puts us all at risk.

Good for Obama, bad for gay marriage

As of today, gay marriage is once again a partisan issue at the heart of a presidential election campaign. Many Republicans who might have had flexible opinions as of yesterday are now going to find themselves psychologically inclined to move towards the party line. Mitt Romney will be forced, within the next hours or days, to come out with a full-throated argument against gay marriage. Republican office-holders will have to vocally support that position. Republican media outfits (Fox News, conservative talk radio, RedState and so forth) will have to join the attack. Millions of GOP voters who otherwise might have gradually reconciled themselves to gay marriage within the next few months will be held back by the ideological alignments created in this presidential campaign.
A good example of unintended consequences.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Jeff sent me this video.  At first I doubted the punkness level of some of the songs (like Don't Dream it's Over aka the gayest song I've ever heard).  Also it seems like punk girls are only capable of saying "yeah".

But I guess this song is pretty punk after all:

Monday, May 7, 2012

Direct Democracy vs Representational Democracy

A Slashdot story on the Pirate Party lead to an interesting discussion about direct democracy vs representational democracy.  It starts around here:

Friday, May 4, 2012

Q: What would life be like in higher dimensions?
If you set off a firecracker in 3, 5, 7, etc. dimensions, then you’ll see and hear the explosion for a moment, and that’s it.  If you set of a firecracker in 4, 6, 8, etc. dimensions, then you’ll see and hear the explosion intensely for a moment, but will continue to see and hear it for a while.  For light the effect would be fairly subtle, except for extremely long-distance effects, like somebody reflecting a bright light off of the moon.  You probably wouldn’t notice the effect day-to-day.  However, it would ruin the experience of sound.  In 4 dimensional space the firecracker, even in open air, would sound like thunder; loud at first, and leading into a drawn out boom.  It may not even be possible to understand people when they speak.

Why Should There Be Dark Matter?
There are a couple of fundamental symmetries of nature that, at least in everyday life, seem pretty obvious. One is that the laws of physics in a mirror -- where left and right are reversed -- are the same as our normal laws of physics. (We call that Parity, or P-symmetry.) Another is that matter and anti-matter obey the same laws of physics. (We call that Charge Conjugation, or C-symmetry.) Most laws of physics that you know, like gravity and electromagnetism, always obey these symmetries.

According to the standard model, they have to; it's coded into the physics. But these symmetries don't exist for the nuclear (weak and strong) forces in the standard model. If I took something like a muon, reflected it in the mirror (applying P-symmetry), and replaced that image with an anti-muon (applying C-symmetry), I'd be testing whether the combination of CP-symmetry was a good one or not.

If it were a good symmetry, then if all the muons decayed with one orientation, all the anti-muons would decay with that specific, mirrored orientation. But they don't, and so that CP-symmetry is violated. This is good for the Universe, because CP-violation is one of the necessary things to make more matter than anti-matter. But if it happens for an interaction like this -- the Weak nuclear interaction -- then it stands to reason that it should also happen for the strong nuclear force.

But it doesn't! Why wouldn't it?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Kilogram, Reinvented
Once a year, three officials bearing three separate keys meet at the bottom of a stairwell at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, in Sèvres, France. There they unlock a vault to check that a plum-size cylinder of platinum iridium alloy is exactly where it should be. Then they close the vault and leave the cylinder to sit alone, under three concentric bell jars, as it has for most of the past 125 years.