Friday, June 29, 2007

I (finally) just finished Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics. There have been many reviews and lots of back-and-forth on the scientific blogosphere regarding its main theme: that String Theory (or more accurately String Theories) is a dead end unless the establishment realizes that more encouragement and backing needs to be given to those promising grad students who would rather explore quantum gravity and other non-mainstream topics.

Most of Smolin's excellent book in fact deals with just how strings came to dominate and suffocate physics over the past 25 years. I must say what struck me was the fact that current string candidates are mainly background dependent: meaning, they do not run with Einstein's most provocative idea, and one of the greatest achievements of general relativity--which is that it is background independent. Space and time are dynamic in Einstein's universe; indeed they emerge from his theory as important agents (if you will) in how it all works.

But all the currently mainstream string theories are background dependent, meaning they have to assume at the outset a static space in the background against which strings work. This to me certainly sounds like a step back...but no one in the past quarter century has figured out how to come up with a background-independent theory. The book is very well written, and in spite of the thesis--not at all obnoxious or arrogant. This too was a pleasant surprise, as I must confess, I couldn't get through Smolin's earlier book, Life of the Cosmos, which I found wooden in style.
It's Friday and time for a dose of Krauthammer:

The senator was vexed. The U.S. auto companies were resisting attempts by her and other Senate well-meaners to impose a radical rise in fuel efficiency by 2017. Why can't they be more like the Chinese, she complained. Or, to quote Sen. Dianne Feinstein precisely: "What the China situation, or the other countries' situation, shows is that these automakers, in all of these countries, build the automobile that the requirements for mileage state. And they don't fight it, they just do it."

Yes. That is how things work in Communist Party dictatorships. It is odd to hold up China as a model of corporate-government relations. It is also poor salesmanship. Just a week after Feinstein made that statement, the Brilliance BS6 sedan -- "a car with which [China] wanted to conquer Europe's automobile market" -- failed a German crash test so miserably that it may be banned from Europe, reported the European news agency AFX News. "It was the second time in less than two years that a Chinese-made car has failed the test, following the spectacular failure of the Landwind sport-utility vehicle made by Jiangling Motors 18 months ago."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ross Douthat yawns his way through Christopher Hitchens' new tome. But hey, every talented writer, including Hitch, is entitled to be a bore on one subject. Then again, maybe not.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Jason Rosenhouse uncovers a classic case of distortion, sadly all too common.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Michael Yon, in a must-read piece from the front lines:

During about the first three months of 2005, when I was in Diyala Province (whose capital is Baquba) I first wrote that Iraq was in Civil War. I felt the backlash from that throughout 2005-2006, and worse, we all watched the sad unfolding of greater and greater lies until now, in 2007, when the civil war is systemically toxic.

Today Al Qaeda (AQ) is strong, but their welcome is tenuous in some regions as many Iraqis grow weary enough of the violence that trails them to forcibly evict AQ from some areas they’d begun to feel at home in. Meanwhile, our military, having adapted from eager fire-starting to more measured firefighting, after coming in so ham-fisted early on, has found agility in the new face of this war. Not lost on the locals was the fact that the Coalition wasn’t alone in failing to keep the faith of its promises to Iraqis.

Whereas we failed with the restoration of services and government, AQ has raped too many women and boys in Anbar Province, and cut-off too many heads everywhere else for anyone here to believe their claims of moral superiority. And they don’t even try to get the power going or keep the markets open or build schools, playgrounds and clinics for the children. In addition to destroying all of these resources, and murdering the Iraqis who work at or patronize them, AQ attacks people in mosques and churches, too. Thus, to those listening into the wind, an otherwise imperceptible tang in the atmosphere signals the time for change is at hand.

We can dissect our Civil War, or World War II or Vietnam, but there is no way to dissect the current war. Only the residue of those prior wars remains with us today—the scars and headstones, memorial statues, history books, and national boundaries. We only dissect that which is dead. Pathologists who autopsy those wars can no longer affect the outcomes. There is little left to the corpse of a war, but the sculptors of history take the clay and give it shape and substance. But even the most masterful among the artisans—Michelangelo himself—chipping and slicing at marble from Carrara, could not breathe life into the statue of David. Twice I stood in Florence, staring up at David, clad only in his slingshot, the rock with which he would change history cupped in his hand.

But as I write these words, the explosions—cannon fire reverberating day and night, rockets exploding on base, the rumbling and crumpling sounds of car bombs—are the very pulse of this war. This war cannot yet be dissected because it still lives– wounded, angry, thrashing on the table, but alive. We can only hack into it, diagnose it, treat it, knowing each attempt at a cure affects the pulse. Doing nothing causes tachycardia. Much of what afflicts Iraq was here before America was born. But when we elected to perform surgery on this sick land, we used hacksaws and sledgehammers, and took an already sick patient and hacked off some parts while pulverizing others.

Hat tip: Jay Fitzgerald.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Jason Rosehouse takes Jerry Coyne to task for blowing a good opportunity at The New Republic. He's right.

Friday, June 15, 2007

One of the nicest things about being a dad is watching your kids discover and enjoy the same books you did.

Anyone remember Kick, Pass and Run? First published in 1966, this was one of those books the nuns ordered from Scholastic when I was in parochial school and I adopted the point where I was bringing it with me to Bruins games at the old Boston Garden in 1970.

I went on Amazon and found the exact edition I remembered (I don't know about you, but this is what I'm doing for my midlife crisis, going on line and tracking down cherished books from childhood to buy for my kids).

All of which is a roundabout way of expressing that little joy you get from watching your three-year-old open the same book and start reciting it from memory as she slowly starts to learn her letters.

"Rabbit was the first one to hear it..."

Happy Father's Day.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

America's Oldest Home Video? You Decide...

Okay...I don't have any way of proving this. But...there can't have been many people with their own video decks at home in the 1970s. This was before VHS was taking off, and when the only affordable cameras were the kind you'd see in banks for closed-circuit television.

That's what I used here. I plugged my little Hitachi HV-62 CCD into our Panasonic 3/4-inch deck, put a cheap lavalier on my 8-year-old brother, and let him do his spoof of a commercial for Sprite. Some how, references to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry crept into his schtick, so it must have been the time it was first shown on Network TV. (Fall 1976)

And yes, I still have the book-sized Umatic cassette in my bookshelf.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Since Podiobooks has expanded, and more and more sites dedicated to podcasting fiction have come on line, I've noticed the number of subscriptions to my novel have increased. Keep reading listening out there!
Rather than post each chapter audio file to Doctor Janeway individually, which doesn't make sense given that they are now all available on the book site's front page, I'm linking to the entire thing here. (scroll down to the bottom of the page)

Siris has already started listening, for one.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Joseph Bottum on the death of Richard Rorty:

The iconic status he achieved is difficult now to understand. The frisson of postmodernism in its early days had something to do with, as did Rorty’s claim to be the last true heir of the American pragmatist tradition, the mantle falling to him from the shoulders of John Dewey. But he had a mind of enormous capability and energy, and he was always worth reading.

That’s not something that can be said of many. He will be missed.

Friday, June 08, 2007

I'm currently reading Alasdair MacIntyre's Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (based on his Gifford Lectures)--which is a rather dry title for a book that looks at the fascinating history behind philosophy since Aquinas in the Middle Ages. It's become sort of a cliche, I know, about philosophy these days that, in stark contrast to the cumulative success of science in explaining the natural world, philosophy just seems to bat around the same questions without ever coming to acceptable answers. And worse, bats them around in arcane languages that no ordinary person would understand. (Just one of the reasons scientists love to make fun of it, and who can blame them?)

MacIntyre makes the point (among many others in an excellent read) that this paralysis was not the case for philosophy before Aquinas. That, in fact, you could read philosophy at the 'new' universities in the 13th century--as many did--as a progressive accumulation of wisdom from Socrates up to Aquinas, and that it was only with his passing, and the subsequent misunderstanding of his (dare I say it) holistic approach to wisdom, that philosophy has slowly disintegrated into multiple competing schools that can't even agree on the right questions anymore, let along what the answers to those questions might be.

Aquinas deliberately left his Summa open ended. He knew he built on the work of those that came before, and expected, or hoped that many would build on his work after. Instead, his work was almost immediately condemned and even when his work was revived in later decades and centuries, it was only in dissections, never as a whole, and too often it was never studied in the same spirit.

Anyway, this just scratches the surface of what MacIntyre is getting at. Not exactly beach reading, but if you want a challenge, and you find the history of philosophy less daunting than philosophy itself, I recommend it.

Update: Brandon over at Siris has been mulling over MacIntyre as well.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Very interesting debate between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath (and it's a pity Dawkins didn't use this in his final program). Also a pity Google video doesn't allow embedding the way Youtube does...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Victor Davis Hanson:
We need to confess that the jihadists are not only keen students of insurgency warfare, but good observers of the American psyche. We think their kidnapping, childish infomercials, gruesome tactics, and horrific websites are primordial and counterproductive; but they are more likely horrifically simple in inciting the most basic fears and self-preservation instincts of ordinary people. Precisely because decapitation belongs to a different century makes it more gruesome now, not less. Because the al Qaedists steal many of their talking points from the Western Left does not make them unimaginative as much as eerily familiar. And because we can daily predict the serial barbarity of the jihadists makes it not so much unimaginative as savagely inevitable.

So what to do?

We can quibble and fight about tactics on the ground, manpower numbers, strategic postures toward Iran and Syria, the need to prod the Iraqis, but our problem is more existential. Either stabilizing Iraq now is felt critical to the United States and the West or it isn’t. If the Left is right that it isn’t, then we should flee; if they are wrong, and I think they are, then we must start using our vast cultural and media resources to explain what is at stake — in a strategic and humanitarian sense — and precisely what it is costing America and why it in the long run is worth it, and how we have adjusted to counter our enemies who in the last four years have not won in Iraq or anywhere else either

Monday, June 04, 2007

Michael Behe's first book in over ten years is now out. And judging from Mark Chu-Carroll's review, it isn't worth the wait.

Hat Tip: Jason Rosenhouse.
The final installment of the debate between Hitchens and Wilson is here. For my money, probably the best debate yet.

Wilson's point strikes me as the strongest. How do you possibly base/found/maintain a civil society on a moral code that does not ultimately ground itself on the transcendent?
Dan Rayburn is not impressed by the new deal between Apple and Youtube:

Some have predicted that this is now the first real integration of web video and the TV but I beg to differ. Is there any business model behind it? No. Will Apple they sell more Apple TV's now? No. Does this give YouTube some sort of way of monetizing their content? No. Yes, YouTube will get some more viewers to select pieces of videos but the lack of traffic to YouTube is not what's stopping them from creating a revenue stream from their traffic. The only reason Apple and YouTube did this deal is is because they could. It's does nothing to change the dynamics of the business models or the industry....

Am I the only one that is getting tired of hearing about YouTube? Ok, I get it YouTube, you're really cool and you got bought by Google. But what about a business model? How about discussing what your video advertising strategy is going to be? You have been saying for the past two years that you are "experimenting" with advertising models. Less talk, more action.

CustomFlix will soon be providing the re-issue of Doctor Janeway's Plague as a trade paperback available on demand at Amazon. Their system is currently in beta phase, but once all the kinks are worked out, a new edition of the book will be forthcoming, with corrections and some revisions based on the excellent feedback I have had from readers since it first appeared in 2000.

Meantime, I will start linking to the serialized audio episodes online, for anyone looking for some summer time beach reading listening.

Episode One.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Scott Carson is on a roll.
For people with a morbid fascination for the moronic, there is a commercial available at the Creation Museum website that features funky 1950s-style art (pretty much right out of the era from which most of these ideas themselves emanate) and melodramatic music. Although the museum's designers manifest a rather fundamentalist perspective on things, the staff apparently aren't allowed to, since the museum is open on both Saturday and Sunday, requiring its workers to violate the third commandment (well, I guess for the fundamentalists it's really the fourth commandment) no matter which day they count as the Sabbath. Maybe they view working for the museum as itself a kind of mitzvah.
Cretin museum indeed.