Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for June 15th, 2008

Download Firefox 3 on Tuesday

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Don’t forget! And, via Lifehacker, here’s a little guide to what you’ll be getting.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Firefox, Software

The Oil Peak is here

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At least, it sure seems like it. From an article in the Independent on the refurbishing and repurposing of the oil rig Alwyn in the North Sea:

… “Alwyn started out as an oil well and platform more than two decades ago. As oil production has fallen, it has been adapted and changed,” says Bradshaw, a man who seems devoted to his life here in the middle of nowhere. The rig’s expanding team is having to work harder than ever to keep it going. A vast network of underground pipes has linked it to new pockets of oil and gas – some of the neighbouring platforms seem like they are just touching distance away. New techniques have been used to boost the quality of the last dregs of oil coming out of the ground. Empty reservoirs are being drained of natural gas. Now, a major discovery of a field of natural gas has meant that, after 21 years of work, Alwyn’s creaking infrastructure is being given a facelift to keep going for another 20 years. But it will also mean its conversion from the oil platform it once was will be complete.

The end of Alwyn’s oil well days is a familiar story in the North Sea. The rig men may be working as hard as ever, but UK oil production has been falling rapidly ever since 1999. In the past, that hasn’t been such a problem – other producers around the world have always been able to produce more of the black stuff to keep the wheels of world industry lubricated. But according to some, that may be about to change. Oil prices are so high – $137 a barrel – and predicted by Alexey Miller, head of Gazprom, the Russian state energy giant, to rise as high as $250 a barrel – that social tensions have begun to emerge, while the world’s leaders have been going cap in hand to oil producers, asking them to squeeze a few more barrels out of their wells. And as prices have kept on breaking records, an ever-growing worry looms in the background, the elephant in the room of the oil price rise: what if they can’t produce any more? What if, this time, the oil taps really are running dry?

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Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

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Biréli Lagrène

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Thanks to James Fallows (and read his post for more links) this very nice piece played by Biréli Lagrène.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Jazz, Video

Lag in recognition of scientific studies

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Mind Hacks has an interesting post on how long it can take for the results of a definitive study to sink in:

Homosexuality is a mental illness, at least according to the head of Northern Ireland’s health committee. Iris Robinson MP, who, with impeccable timing, put forth her views on a radio show while responding to the news that a local man had been badly beaten in a homophobic attack.

After apparently branding homosexuality as “disgusting, loathsome, nauseating, wicked and vile” she went on to recommend that “I have a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals – trying to turn away from what they are engaged in”.

The “lovely psychiatrist” turns out to be Paul Miller who doesn’t actually seem to defend the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness but does seem to have a sideline in assisting people to change their sexual orientation.

In a recent newspaper article Miller claims this is based on research:

Dr Miller cited a study by American psychiatrists Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse which he said concluded that people can change sexual orientation and that the process of change was not damaging.

“That was a very robust study because in the past, and rightly so, people who worked in this field were criticised for not having robust research.”

So what is this research Miller talks about? A randomised controlled trial from the peer-review medical literature? A meta-analysis of past treatment programmes? Perhaps just an exploratory outcome study?

No, it’s a book released by a Christian publisher and written by a psychologist and psychiatrist employed by a private evangelical college in the States.

In a subsequent BBC interview on her comments, Mrs Robinson well, just keeps on digging.

For those of you interested in the new fangled practice of ‘evidence based medicine’ that seems not to have caught up with Iris Robinson, one of the most influential studies on the mental health of homosexuals was published in 1957.

Conducted by psychologist Evelyn Hooker, it used several measures to profile a group of homosexual and heterosexual males and asked a number of psychiatrists to determine who was gay and straight just by looking at the data from the mental health assessments.

They couldn’t, and two thirds of both of gay and straight samples were rated as well-adjusted. This was the first of many studies that showed that there is nothing innately psychopathological about homosexuality.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 2:32 pm

Running societies the rational way

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Hazel Muir has a fascinating article in New Scientist, with an idea to which no one (it would seem) could object: test public policies and adopt only those that work:

Some measures are just plain common sense. If drug use is rife in prisons, deter offenders with random drug tests. If teenagers are straying into delinquency, give them a taste of what prison life is like to shock them into cleaning up their acts. And since newly qualified drivers cause many deaths and injuries, all children should be taught how to drive responsibly at school.

Policies like these are bound to make a difference, aren’t they? Well, yes, but perhaps not quite in the way you might imagine. All are examples of bright ideas that have backfired in the real world. Delinquents given tours of prison are usually more likely to reoffend. Random drug tests seem to increase heroin use.

In the 21st century, you might expect governments to be pragmatic about achieving their aims, to do what works. This means basing policies on hard evidence rather than on assumptions or ideology. Yet this seldom happens. Even when policies are tested before being rolled out to an entire area or country, the methods used to evaluate their effectiveness are often worse than useless.

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Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 2:29 pm

Symmetry collection now complete

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Fascinating article by Marcus du Sautoy in New Scientist. Read the entire article if you like math. Here’s the conclusion:

There are more indivisible symmetries to add to the periodic table, but the other groups aren’t as well behaved as the Lie groups, shuffles or prime-sided shapes. At the end of the 19th century, a French mathematician called Emile Mathieu had discovered five indivisible symmetries that didn’t seem to fit into any of these patterns, nor did they create a family of their own. They just seemed to be sitting there like orphans. Were these five the only exceptional groups of symmetries, or what mathematicians called sporadic groups?

In 1965, Thompson received a letter from the Croatian mathematician Zvonimir Janko, who claimed to have discovered a sixth sporadic group. At first Thompson was quite dismissive of the claim, but as he analysed Janko’s proposal he realised the Croatian could be onto something.

Janko’s discovery turned out to be the beginning of a crazy period in the story of symmetry when mathematicians discovered a whole range of strange indivisible sporadic groups of symmetry that didn’t seem to fit any of the patterns determined by previous generations. Many of the discoveries depended on using a formula developed by Thompson to predict how many symmetries such a sporadic group might have.

Often the birth of these sporadic groups mirrored the discovery of fundamental particles in physics. By exploiting the symmetries underlying the standard model of particle physics, theorists predicted the existence of particles such as the charm quark several years before experiments found evidence for them. Similarly, mathematicians used Thompson’s formula to predict objects before they were actually constructed.

Thompson and Tits are among those who have their names attached to some of these sporadic groups. The culmination of this period of exploration was the prediction by German mathematician Bernd Fischer of an object that can only be seen from 196,883-dimensional space and has more symmetries than there are atoms in the sun. Robert Griess, a mathematician at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, eventually constructed the object in 1980.

Called simply “the monster”, it is the largest of the sporadic groups. Far from being some anomalous freak with no relation to reality, we are beginning to realise that the symmetries of the monster might actually underpin some of the deepest ideas of string theory – currently our best hope of uniting relativity and quantum physics.

We are finally coming to the realisation that the monster was the last: there are no more indivisible symmetries to add to the periodic table of symmetry. In what many regard as one of the greatest achievements of mathematics, we now have a complete list of the building blocks of symmetry. It is the power of mathematical proof that we can be so sure that the list is complete, but it is thanks to the work of mathematicians like Thompson and Tits that we are able to produce such a definitive answer. It’s now up to the next generation to explore what symmetrical objects we can build from these atoms of symmetry.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 2:14 pm

Posted in Science

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The Prius pays off

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When The Wife was getting a new car I campaigned strongly for the Prius, because I thought that Peak Oil was near. This was almost 4 years ago. Now, with gas prices surging (I saw regular at $4.50/gal. yesterday), it’s clear that the Prius was the best choice. Details here give cost of ownership over a three-year period, via Lifehacker. But the key is shown below—cars, left to right, are Prius, Accord, and Civic, and the mileage estimates are the revised, combined EPA estimates from fueleconomy.gov.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Daily life

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Business lessons from Improv

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Interesting post on how one can learn lessons from Improv. It begins:

An educator I was media training said that a basic skill that should be taught in all schools is improvisational communications. He said we face the need to improvise responses to situations in all aspects of our lives – from work to home to the community. I agree.

An aspect of improvisation in the theatre that is also found in our daily lives is the concept of ‘blocking’ – the rejection of a suggestion that is ‘offered’ by another party.

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Daily life

Congress: cowardly and partisan

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I recall a book titled Congress: The Sapless Branch, by Senator Joseph S. Clark. It was published in 1964 but the title at least still seems true. Peruse this McClatchy article by David Lightman:

Congress is spending these opening weeks of the general-election campaign trying to score points with voters by forcing partisan opponents to cast embarrassing votes — and doing virtually nothing to ease the nation’s economic, energy or foreign crises.

Political posturing is hardly unknown at the Capitol, but since lawmakers returned from their Memorial Day recess June 3, Republicans have halted Democrats’ efforts to tackle the gasoline price crisis, Democrats have turned back a Republican bid to find common ground on help for the unemployed and the two sides are deadlocked on funding the Iraq war.

“Things are bad,” said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Politics is the focus this year, not policy.”

Partisan politics, it appears, will continue to be the focus in Congress this summer, particularly because two U.S. senators are expected to be their parties’ presidential nominees. No sitting senator has been elected president since 1960.

Democrats like to highlight how presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has consistently supported President Bush’s economic plans, including his tax cuts, which they say disproportionately benefit the wealthy and do little to help today’s sluggish economy.

Republicans counter that Obama is too eager to raise taxes, which the GOP says would stifle job creation and economic growth. Obama calls for raising income taxes on the very wealthy, raising the income limit that’s subject to the Social Security wage tax, repealing a number of Bush’s tax reductions for business and raising the tax on capital gains.

Events this week illustrated how lawmakers are playing these games.

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Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 12:10 pm

Did mathematics lead gravitational theory astray?

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I recently blogged how a mathematical construct corresponded exactly to the physics of gravitational lensing, to the extent that a physicist proved that the limit of the mathematical theorem was sharp. But now an objection to over-dependence on mathematics, though whether well-founded I can’t decide:

The mathematics of gravitation theory is remarkable for its expansibility and physical ambiguity. To a large extent it applies equally well to an interpretation of gravitation as a force and as a geometric distortion of spacetime. But given the pre-relativistic association of gravitation with force, that ambiguity, combined with the current primacy of mathematics in the interpretation of physical phenomena, has led to an overextension of the mathematics and resulted in theoretical misdirection.

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Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 12:03 pm

Posted in Science

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Reading seriously

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The article of the effects of Web-reading on one’s ability to read seriously—that is, become immersed in a book, able to sustain focus and attention—struck a chord. I also had noted that I had become habituated to reading in multiple short sessions, jumping from book to magazine to book, reading three or four books simultaneously and intermittently.

So last night I pulled out Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov (Everyman edition) and stayed focused on it. I had read fifty pages before I was ready to go to bed, and today I’ll pick it up again and stick with it. (I’ve read it once before, in college, but that was a long time ago.)

I came across this interesting passage in which the elder Zosima rebukes Fyodor Pavlovich, the father of the brothers and somewhat of a buffoon.

The elder looked up at him and said with a smile:

“You’ve known for a long time what you should do, you have sense enough: do not give yourself up to drunkenness and verbal incontinence, do not give yourself up to sensuality, and especially to the adoration of money, and close your taverns; if you can’t close all of them then at least two or three. And above all, above everything else—do not lie.”

“About Diderot, you mean?” [Fyodor Pavlovich had just told an untrue story about Diderot, then admitted that it was false, that he had just made it up. – LG]

“No not exactly about Diderot. Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea—he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility… Do get up from you knees and sit down, I beg you, these posturings are false, too…”

Something about that passage reminded me of George Bush (and others): men who are quick to take offense—very thin-skinned and prickly.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2008 at 8:35 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

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