Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I Got Your Civil Society Right Here

Via Roy, I have been skirting the margins of the right-wing fever swamp. The odious Mark Levin (check out his oeuvre here, if you must) had this to say about developments in Ferguson, MO:

What we are witnessing now is the left's war on the civil society. It's time to speak out in defense of law enforcement and others trying to protect the community and uphold the rule law.

Call me crazy, but my idea of a civil society has no room for corpses of teenagers lying in the street for four hours. Once again, I have the sinking feeling that I'm living in a "Banana Republic with Nukes".

I don't have a television, so I haven't been watching any cable "news" coverage of the post-verdict situation in Ferguson, MO. Last night, I met up with friends for a beer and caught some of the post "Monday Night Football" coverage, and there was talk of bottles thrown and tear gas canisters launched. A quick perusal of the web shows that a dozen businesses were torched and there were scores of injuries- it looks like the situation might get really bad, but I'd argue that the attack on "civil" society took place long ago.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Working the Refs

Patricia at The Polygon has a great post about the declaration of a state of emergency in Missouri in the runup to a grand jury decision regarding P.O. Darren Wilson's slaying of Michael Brown. On the right side of the dial, we have bloviators such as Mike Huckabee and Sean Hannity (in a discussion with Mark Fucking Fuhrman, no less!) talking about "mob action" and violence in anticipation of street protests.

To me, this is a clear cut case of working the refs- they are preemptively poisoning the meme stream against any protestors so that any violent response on the part of the police will seem legitimate, indeed inevitable. It's a case of screaming "LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO TO YOU!" in advance of a potentially ugly bout of brutality.

It stinks, it's repugnant, and it's as transparent as hell. Maybe "Anonymous" needs to turn some of its efforts against the media normalizers of violence as well as the KKK.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Deja... YOU?

Alright, I was able to get the cat off my sweatshirt, think I'll put it... WHAT?

I thought I'd just gotten you to move... wait, it's you !!

You had me going for a second there, you're not always easy to tell apart. Ya both like scritches, too:

The lint brush is going to get a workout this week!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Would You Mind Moving? You're Sitting on My Coat

Sweatshirt, if you want to get technical. Looks like my co-worker Fred has gotten v-e-r-y comfortable:

Hey, it's time to actually do some work, I'm going to need that sweatshirt... looks like it's time for wakey wakey! Sheesh, who knew a cat's head could be so heavy?

I can't seem to move my hand!

Once I get my hand free, I think I'll just get the staff windbreaker out of the office.

Title yoinked from a line from my favorite film noir.

It's a little throwaway line after the villain has just finished the second of his masterful monologuing scenes... a funny little juxtaposition between the rhetorical flights of an erudite supervillain, and the utter banality of day-to-day annoyances. "Hey, I just delivered a learned yet sinister soliloquy, now move your ass!"

Now I'm going to have to watch the whole movie again... I hope this doesn't wake the cat up.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Like Something out of Star Wars

Forget the flashy blasters and lightsabers from the Star Wars movie franchise, the technology I want to see developed and adopted is the humble moisture vaporator, which should really be called a condenser. Via Jim at Wisdom of the West, we have a portable condenser-cum-water bottle (note to pervs, the cum does not refer to Pastor Manning's favorite flavor-upper).

With drought being endemic to large swaths of the U.S., and lack of access to potable water in much of the developing world, the prospect of removing water vapor, which can play a role in exacerbating global warming, from the atmosphere could be a promising tactic in combating two problems. As far as water vapor in the upper troposphere goes, it could be possible (though not easy) to use high-altitude balloon-supported condensers to bring atmospheric water to the surface.

At any rate, Jim puts up a This Week in Water post periodically, much like Vixen Strangely posts a regular climate round-up. These posts are always a good read.

Just think what a $158 billion "Star Wars" program could accomplish if it were aimed at increasing access to clean, potable water for all of the world's residents.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

No Excuses: Secret Science Club Lecture Recap... Finally!

On Monday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for the monthly Secret Science Club lecture, featuring theoretical chemist Dr Garnet Chan of Princeton University. On his website, Dr Chan describes his research focus thus:

Garnet Chan’s research lies at the interface of theoretical chemistry, condensed matter physics, and quantum information theory, and is concerned with quantum many-particle phenomena and the numerical methods to simulate them.

At the start of his lecture, which he titled "Simulation and Complexity of the Quantum World", Dr Chan gave a hilariously self-deprecating description of his work. He stated that he is a theoretical chemist, a chemist that doesn't perform chemistry experiments. He joked that he needed a kid to help him when he conducted his last experiment. Dr Chan then noted that he had looked at the descriptions of preceding talks, and that he wanted to tie some of the themes of previous lectures together, with an emphasis on the small scale. The goal of his research is simulating the quantum world, and that quantum mechanics is a complicated subject.

Dr Chan quipped that everybody tells lies about quantum mechanics, but that such lies are not indicative of low moral standards, but are simplifications because it's extremely hard to discuss quantum mechanics without bringing complex mathematics into the discussion. Physics operates from a massive scale to a tiny scale... the scale of the universe (dealing with objects in the 1026 meter range) to the quantum scale (dealing with objects in the 10-15 meter range). Theoretical chemistry involves bridging the macroscopic and the microscopic worlds, from the human scale to the scale of atoms and molecules. Dr Chan underscored the importance of the atomic theory by quoting Richard Feynman:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

In our daily experience, the world appears to be continuous, but matter is discrete. The nature of matter was debated until approximately a century ago, the matter finally being theoretically settled by Einstein (PDF) and verified experimentally by the observation of Brownian motion by French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin. Perrin observed that the motion of small starch particles was not continuous, but "jagged". If matter were contiguous, such motion would be smooth. If matter were composed of discrete bits, motion within the matter would be discrete. The rapidity with which a particle will change directions is equal to the number of collisions it is involved in- the ratio of the granule to the substrate, which is Avogadro's number.

Today, clearer evidence of atoms can be obtained through the use of scanning tunneling microscopes. Dr Chan described scanning tunneling microscopes as having a tip "one atom sharp", and the magnitude of the signal obtained by the electron microscope maps out the undulation of the surface of the substance scanned. At the atomic scale, though, things are "sticky", and the difference between the human scale and the atomic scale is so pronounced that it is difficult to make observations- there's no way to "see" inside atoms. Rather than bridging these scales in the real world, the "world of the atom" has to be digitally recreated in the computer world. It is crucial that the computer simulations are completely faithful to reality. The "laws of nature" are known- aside from Planck's scale (1035 meters), the fundamental laws and particles of the universe are known. Dr Chan asked, "Is this the end of physics, or the start of something beautiful?"

Nature is made of many particles, it's not just a matter of "more of the same". Dr Chan used the analogy of a chess game to describe theoretical chemistry: we know the pieces, we know the basic interaction among the pieces, but we don't know the complexity of the game- the interaction of the known particles leads to nature's complexity.

Dr Chan then addressed the question: what is quantum mechanics? General relativity applies to the large-scale structures of the universe, while classical "Newtonian" mechanics suffice for the human scale. On the micrometer scale of atoms and molecules, Newton's predictions begin to break down. Quantum mechanics are the "theory of small", involving atoms, molecules, the strength of bonds, the color of materials, their "stickiness", their electrical properties- as an example of a subject pertinent to quantum mechanics, Dr Chan cited the adhesiveness of gecko feet.

The lecture then shifted to the topic of atoms, a subject Dr Chan called "high school redux". An atom can be illustrated as a nucleus surrounded by one or more electrons, which Dr Chan described as "a fine model, but a complete lie". The reality is that everything in quantum mechanics is "fuzzy" and indistinct- there is a fluidity to electrons, they are not discrete. These fuzzy particles move as waves do, changing shape as they go- the "billiard ball" model of a perfect rigidity localized at all times is inaccurate. Regarding the question of location, whether a particle is "here" or "there" or "both here and there", Dr Chan showed a picture of a wave and asked, "Is the wave at point A, point B, or point C?"

The measurement of the position of a particle is probabilistic, there is no definite answer. Dr Chan joked, "It's our problem, not the particle's." Measurement involves comparing referents to determine similarity- such a comparisons don't look like completely like any particular position. Measurement in quantum mechanics involves measuring fuzzy particles to localized positions probabilistically- there is no straight answer to the location of a particle. Dr Chan then displayed a lovely slide of the Schrödinger equation to show the mathematical model for measuring changes in a quantum system over time.

Simulating quantum mechanics is not easy- in the case of a single particle, one has to factor in the superposition of different local positions. When two particles are considered, they can exist in the superposition of many localized two particle configurations, with correlations between the particle positions- if one particle is "on the right", for example, the other can be considered "on the left". This correlation is known as quantum entanglement. Dr Chan described quantum entanglement as "strange". In an example using two particles, there is a 50/50 chance of either particle being "left" or "right", but if one particle is on the left, there is a 100% chance of the other particle being on the right. Does finding one particle on the left mean that the other particle is on the right? Dr Chan once again quipped, "It's our our problem, not the particles'!" We see a 50% chance that a particle is in a particular position, and we intuitively assume that it is accurate, but the position is uncertain.

When more particles are added to the mix, there is an explosion of possibilities- when two particles are involved, there are four (22) possibilities, three particles yield eight (23), one hundred particles yield 2100 possibilities. Mathematically, there are myriad possibilities- simulating quantum mechanics appears exponentially complex due to the need to describe the possible positions of multiple particles. Dr Chan then noted that it is really an illusion of complexity- certain configurations of atoms can be ruled out. Nature does not explore all quantum possibilities, the world we have has special properties, such as gravity, that limit possibilities. Nature only produces local entanglement, in order to monitor what two particles are doing simultaneously, we only need to monitor two particles in the same region of space.

Dr Chan concluded with a discussion of the material benefits that could be obtained by a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics- specifically the development of high-temp superconductors and a "materials genome project" to map out all possible materials that can be developed.

In the Q&A, the topic of spooky entanglement was brought up, and Dr Chan brought up the inability of nature to generate entanglement over long distances. Some bastard in the audience, who was going to bring up spooky entanglement, had to go to a fallback question regarding string theory, which Dr Chan indicated was not a useful model in reality, but had led to some interesting mathematical models. Funny, on the macro level, Neil Degrasse Tyson also indicated that he was unimpressed with string theory. After the lecture, the bastard, not being a bastard in real life, apologized to Dr Chan for bringing up string theory, which said "bastard" considers a bunch of hooey.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a great lecture. Personally, it was useful to me, because quantum mechanics is one of those topics I don't spend enough time reading up on by inclination, which means I need to force myself to read about it more. It's kinda like pushups... I do them precisely because I'm not inclined to do them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Notebook

I was planning on doing the lecture recap for Monday's Secret Science Club event, but I forgot to bring my notes to work, where I typically have a bit of quiet in which to write. I totally feel like a dumbass- I kept telling myself all afternoon, "Don't forget your notebook, don't forget your notebook." I even made sure I put it next to my wallet and my two keychains (I keep my work keys and my personal keys separate... I've always bought into that too many keys on the keychain trope, and I prefer not to carry too many keys while I'm walking the grounds at work- makes it harder to slip into ninja-mode.

At any rate, when I get home from work this morning, I will slip my little yellow book into the inside pocket of my oversized (even for me) Carhartt hoodie. If I leave without that, I'll have bigger problems than leaving my notebook at home.