Wednesday, November 30, 2005

String theory as mathematics

Is string theory post-modern physics? No, it's more like pure mathematics. Indeed, some string theorists are paid by math departments. Though he doesn't say so, what the author of the article linked to above is really arguing is that string theory should be treated as pure math (i.e., funded less).

However, string theory and competitors like loop quantum gravity are not merely mathematics. They are are attempts to describe the entire universe by a single grand mathematical model. Right now, we essentially have two partial mathematical models of the universe which, when patched together, are empirically correct (so far) but mathematically inconsistent. To see the physical incompleteness of this patchwork, one currently must consider cosmological questions about the distant past and future, or questions about the behavior of a infeasibly high-energy particle accelerators. For the more practically minded, these questions are not worth expending resources on. So, why is anybody paid to be a string theorist? We should all know the answer: there is an innate, prerational human desire (albeit stronger in some than others) to explain all that we encounter.

Notice how the above question elides the issue of how much funding string theory should get. I don't have a firm opinion on the matter, but I lean towards a truth-in-labeling policy: let string theorists ask for funding as mathematicians working on a very, very interesting mathematical problem, unless they have a promising research proposal for getting us closer to a feasible empirical test of string theory. Such a policy probably amounts to the status quo, for I would hope that the people making the relevant funding decisions already know that string theory is nowhere near empirically falsifiable. (The most promising route I know of is to look for violation of Lorentz invariance in natural particle accelarators like supernova; such tests (all negative so far) rule out some variants of string theory and loop quantum gravity.) I can't bring myself to get agitated over whether a string theorist is officially titled a physicist or a mathematician. (Tangentially, I generally prefer private funding for things that don't have practical applications.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Toric Minesweeper. (Hat tip: Geekpress.) This reminded me of an idea I've had for a long while: toric Go. If one isn't inclined to create a computer visualization, one could simply declare the opposite edges of a regular Go board to be adjacent. (Numbering the edge points would be a helpful visual aid.) Still on my long todo list is to actually play a game of toric Go. Meanwhile, I can speculate. First of all, the rules would not need to be changed. (In technical terms, the rules make sense for any graph.) Also, the first move wouldn't matter thanks to translational invariance. Most interesting to me would be how the early game would change. Without corners and edges, it might take many more stones before it is even clear who is trying to control what territory.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dr. Pepper status

As I type this, I'm consuming Madison Dr. Pepper can #1260, thereby accumulating more empty Dr. Pepper cans than I did at MIT. The MIT collection took about 27 months to create; this time around it took 15 months. Alas, as the photo indicates, I'm running out of space. (I came very close to running out of space at MIT, but graduated just in time.) I'll have to dispose of the cans and restart the counter by January at the latest.
I'm not sure exactly why, but I can't remember the last essay that got more laughs out of me than this one. I'm actually a little dissapointed in myself that I didn't find this sooner.

Some history

Recently I've read a handful of interesting history articles. Victor Davis Hanson's latest book on the Peloponnesian War got a good review in The New Criterion, and after reading a chapter of it online (1 2 3 4 5), I think I shall add this book to my Christmas wish list.

Then I read this TNR article on (negative) French attitudes towards America which covers some interesting history on this topic.

Most recently I read this OpinionJournal article on the origins of a very familiar Thanksgiving hymn; see also David Kopel's commentary.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The House GOP's hard-fought, two-vote margin of victory for the 2003 Medicare drug bill infuriated me. But I have to give some credit for Friday's two-vote margin in favor of budget cuts (really cuts in planned spending increases). How much credit? Let's be proportionate: over the next decade, these budget cuts would amount to, oh, 7% or 8% of the expected costs of the Medicare bill.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dahlia Lithwick wonders why we don't have "conservative pundits and thinkers jigging for joy" in response to the news that back in 1985 Alito wrote that "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion." What's to get excited about? I always assumed Alito thought Roe was wrongly decided. Did anyone else actually believe otherwise? The interesting question is how much respect Alito believes Roe deserves as a precedent. I strongly suspect Alito will not give a clear answer to this question, for obvious political reasons.

Monday, November 14, 2005

On the same theme as my last post, Becker and Posner here (1 2 3 4) give a good summary of the case against restricting campaign contributions.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

To me, incidents like this one just underline the folly of making nonprofits tax-exempt only as long as they are not too politically active. Enforcement of such rules is unavoidably capricious. Besides, if we think participating in democracy is a good thing, then why have tax penalties for political speech?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

France has declared a twelve-day state of emergency. Quoting today's NYT,
France declared a 12-day state of emergency today in an attempt by the government to curb the worst civil disturbances in the country in nearly four decades.
The law itself states that emergency measures can be enacted by government decree for up to 12 days on all or part of the territory of France. Beyond a curfew, the law gives the authorities powers to conduct raids without a warrant; to restrict freedom of the press and freedom of assembly; to shut down theaters; to close bars; and to put under house arrest any individual whose activities are deemed dangerous to the maintenance of law and order.
People arrested under the law can be jailed for two months, fined 3,750 Euros, or both.
Why has it come to this? The biggest reason is that France's criminal justice system is broken. Theodore Dalrymple touched on this back in 2002. For more recent evidence, see the above-linked NYT article:
Nearly 400 people have been detained, but few have been jailed; many of the rioters are teenagers, and the vast majority of underage detainees have been released.
To prevent anarchy, a state must jail its criminals. There are two ways to achieve this. One is to forcibly transport criminals to jails. The other is to turn criminals' neighborhoods into jails.

France could do a lot more to try to integrate its immigrants and their offspring; welfare reform especially comes to mind. However, the rule of law is a prerequisite for the success of any such efforts.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Just now checking Tradesports, I expect Alito to be confirmed with over 80% probability. I'm generally happy about this. As noted by Randy Barnett and David Bernstein, we're probably no closer to a consistently originalist majority on the Supreme Court, in the sense that Thomas probably is and will be the only sitting justice who would vote to overturn New Deal precedents. However, I doubt another Thomas could get confirmed by the current Senate except by stealth, an option I think unacceptably risky.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

This is why we need a balanced budget amendment. (Hat tip: Instapundit.) This was attempted in the 90s, but failed in the Senate by a single vote (66-34 in favor). It's time to try again. Congress has no desire to balance the budget anytime soon, so the amendment should have language saying it doesn't go into effect until five years after it's ratified.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

There's lots of good stuff in the current issue of City Journal. I really can't do justice to it with excerpts. Theodore Dalrymple compellingly describes how some young British Muslim men, despite having lived essentially secular, modern, Western lives, choose to reject the West violently. Also compelling is Steven Malanga's recapitulation of the growth of unionization of workers directly and indirectly paid by the government, and these unions' success in lobbying for massive increases in state and local government spending.

Update: Also see Heather Mac Donald's article, or Randall Parker's summary of it.
Jonathan Rauch has written an interesting piece on businesses trying to politically mobilize their employees. My question: will this lead to increased or decreased support for free trade? Yes, free trade is benefits business in general, but particular businesses love to be protected from foreign competitors.