Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lorentz Transformations

If you know anything about theoretical physics, you have probably seen one of the derivations for the Lorentz transformations in Special Relativity. These are the transformations that relate two observers with different constant velocities to each other, and tell them how to compare their measurements. These derivations typically come with a lot of rockets and spaceships sending light signals etc. Here, I want to give you a different approach that strips off some of the interpretational baggage and adds some maths baggage. But don't panic, it's not that complicated.

Special Relativity assumes time is a dimension, i.e. space-time is Minkowski space. There are thus four coordinates in this space, xi with the index i taking the values 0,1,2,3. Since time has different units than length, to be able to describe space and time as elements of one space-time we have to multiply time by a constant of dimension length/time, i.e. a velocity. This constant is usually denoted c. It is then x0 = c t. We will come back to the meaning of this constant later.

The other ingredient of Special Relativity is that the laws of physics are same for all observers with constant velocity. That means there are sensible and well-defined transformations between observers that preserve the form of the equations.

A Word or Two about Tensors

The way to achieve such sensible transformations is to make the equations "tensor equations", since a tensor does exactly what we want: it transforms in a well-defined way under a change from one to the other observer's coordinate system. The simplest sort of a tensor is a scalar φ, which doesn't transform at all - it's just the same in all coordinate systems. That doesn't mean it has the same value at each point though, so it is actually a scalar field.

The next simplest tensor is a vector Vi which has one index that runs from 0 to 3, corresponding to four entries - three for the spatial and one for the time-component. Again this can be a position dependent quantity, so it's actually a vector field. The next tensor has two indices Tij that run from 0 to 3, so 16 entries, and so on: Uijklmn.... The number of indices is also called the "rank" of a tensor. To transform a tensor from one coordinate system in the other, one acts on it with the transformation matrix, one for every index. We will come to this transformation later.

Note that it is meaningless to say an object defined in only one inertial frame is a tensor. If you have it in only one frame, you can always make it into a tensor by just defining it in every other frame to be the appropriately transformed version.

The Scalar Product

A specifically important scalar for Special Relativity is the scalar product between two vectors. The scalar product is a symmetric bilinear form, which basically means it's given by a rank two tensor gij that doesn't care in which order the indices come, and if you shovel in two vectors out comes a scalar. It goes like this:

gijViUj = scalar,

where sums are taken over indices that appear twice, once up and once down. This is also known as Einstein's summation convention.

I used to have a photo of Einstein with him standing in front of a blackboard cluttered with sum symbols. Unfortunately I can't find it online, a reference would be highly welcome. That photo made really clear why the convention was introduced. Today the sum convention is so common that it often isn't even mentioned. In fact, you will have to tell readers instead not to sum over equal indices if that's what you mean.

The scalar product is a property of the space one operates in. It tells you what the lengths of a vector is, and angles between different vectors. That means it describes how to do measurements in that space. The bilinear form you need for this is also called the "metric", you can use it to raise and lower indices on vectors in the following way: gijVj = Vi. Note how indices on both sides match: if you leave out the indices that appear both up and down, the remaining indices have to be equal on both sides.

Technically, the metric it is a map from the tangential to the co-tangential space, it thus transforms row-vectors V into column vectors VT and vice versa, where the T means taking the transverse. A lower index is also called "covariant", whereas upper indices are called "contravariant," just to give you some lingo. The index jiggling is also called "Ricci calculus" and one of the common ways to calculate in General Relativity. The other possibility is to go indexless via differential forms. If you use indices, here is a good advice: Make sure you don't accidentally use an index twice for different purposes in one equation. You can produce all kind of nonsense that way.

In Special Relativity, the metric is (in Euclidean coordinates) just a diagonal matrix with entries (1,-1,-1,-1), usually denoted with ηij. In the case of a curved space-time it is denoted with gij as I used above, but that General case is a different story and shall be told another time. So for now let us stick with the case of Special Relativity where the scalar product is defined through η.

Lorentz Transformations

Now what is a Lorentz transformation? Let us denote it with Λ. As mentioned above, you need one for every index of your tensor that you want to transform. Say we want to get a vector V from one coordinate system to the other, we apply a Lorentz transformations on it so in the new coordinate system we have V' = VΛ, where V' is the same vector, but how seen in the other coordinate system. With indices that reads V'iΛij = Vj. Similarly, the transverse vector transforms by V'T = ΛT VT.

Lorentz transformations are then just the group of transformations that preserve the length of all vectors, length as defined through the scalar product with η. You can derive it from this requirement. First note that a transformation that preserves the lengths of all vectors also preserves angles. Proof: Draw a triangle. If you fix the length of all sides you can't change the angles either. Lorentz transformations are thus orthogonal transformations in Minkowski space. In particular, since the scalar product between any two vectors has to remain invariant,

VT η U = V'T η U' = VT ΛT η Λ U,

they fulfil (with and without indices)

ΛijηkiΛlk = ηjl <=> ΛT η Λ = η   (1)

If you forget for a moment that we have three spatial dimension, you can derive the transformations from (1) as we go along. Just insert that η is diagonal with (in two dimensions) entries (1,-1), name the four entries of Λ and solve for them. You might want to use that if you take the determinant on both sides of the above equation you also find that |det Λ| = 1, from which we will restrict ourselves to the case with det = 1 to preserve orientation. You will be left with a matrix that has one unknown parameter β in the following familiar form

with γ-2 = 1- β2.
Now what about the parameter β? We can determine it by applying the Lorentz transformation to the worldline (cΔt, Δx) of an observer in rest such that Δx = 0. We apply the Lorentz transformation and ask what his world line (Δt', Δx') looks like. One finds that Δx'/Δt = βc. Thus, β is the relative velocity of the observers in units of c.

One can generalize this derivation to three spatial dimensions by noticing that the two-dimensional case represents the situation in which the motion is aligned with one of the coordinate axis. One obtains the general case by doing the same for all three axis, and adding spatial rotations to the group. The full group then has six generators (three boosts, three rotations), and it is called the Lorentz group, named after the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz. Strictly speaking, since we have only considered the case with det Λ = +1, it is the "proper Lorentz group" we have here. It is usually denoted SO(3,1).

Once you have the group structure, you can then go ahead and derive the addition-theorem for velocities (by multiplying two Lorentz-transformations with different velocities), length contraction, and time dilatation (by applying Lorentz transformations to rulers).


Now let us consider some particles in this space-time with such nice symmetry properties. First, we introduce another important scalar invariant of Special Relativity, which is an observer's proper time τ. τ is the proper length of the particle's world line, and an infinitesimally small step of proper time dτ is consequently

2 = c2 dt2 - dx2

One obtains the proper time of a curve by integrating dτ over this curve. Pull out a factor dt2 and use dx/dt = v to obtain

2 γ2 = dt2

A massive particle's relativistic four-momentum is pi = mui, where ui=dxi/dτ = γ dxi/dt is the four-velocity of the particle, and m is its invariant rest mass (sometimes denoted m0). The rest mass is also a scalar. We then have for the spatial components (a = 1,2,3)

pa = m γ va .

What is c?

Let us eventually come back to the parameter c that we introduced in the beginning. Taking the square of the previous expression (possibly summing over spatial components), inserting γ and solving for v one obtains the particle's spatial velocity as a function of the momentum to
In the limit of m to zero, one obtains for arbitrary p that v=c. Or the other way round, the only way to get v=c is if the particle is massless m=0.

So far there is no experimental evidence that photons - the particles that constitute light - have mass. Thus, light moves with speed c. However, note that in the derivation that got us here, there was no mentioning of light whatsoever. There is no doubt that historically Einstein's path to the Special Relativity came from Maxwell's equations, and many of his thought experiments are about light signals. But a priori, arguing from symmetry principles in Minkowski-space as I did here, the constant c has nothing to do with light. Nowadays, this insight can get you an article in NewScientist.

Btw, note that c is indeed a constant. If you want to fiddle around with that, you'll have to mess up at least one step in this derivation.

See also: The Equivalence Principle


I just received a Service Agreement Contract from an US research institution. Under point 19, it explains

    19. Excusable Delays

    [The Institution] will be excused from performance hereunder if a delay is caused by inclement weather, fire, flood, strike, or other labor dispute, acts of God, acts of governmental officials or agencies, terrorism, or any other cause beyond the control of [the Institution].

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


IIB supergravity axion-dilaton coset, SL(2,R)/SO(2), 7-branes in the conjugacy classes of the Q7-branes. In order to realize a gauge fields of the Q7-branes in the brane to the Q7-branes that belong to different conjugacy classes are determined by an SL(2,R) naturally couple to IIB supergravity with appropriate source terms characterize the conjugacy classes are determinant of Q. The 7-branes with conjugacy class det Q = 0. We construct the Q7-branes. We construct the matrix Q and it will be called by three numbers (p, q, r) which parameterize the matrix Q and will be called Q7-brane world-volume labelled by three numbers (p, q, r) which parameterize the full bosonic Wess-Zumino term for the gauge invariant coupling of the full bosonic Wess-Zumino term for the gauge invariant couplingof the matrix Q and will be called Q7-branes. In order to realize a gauge fields of IIB supergravity it is necessary.

Tragically, the original text was on the same level of comprehensibility. For more fun of that sort, try the Gibberish Generator.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Socialism and Social Democracy

For no particular reason I just want to clarify a confusion that I have encountered fairly often, that's what the difference is between Socialism and Social Democracy. Socialism aims to achieve a more just society by putting the means of production in the hands of the government, it is against privatization (though not necessarily for common ownership, that's communism). That has a priori nothing to do with planned economy in case you wonder.

Social Democracy means you acknowledge that the free market fails to automatically take into account certain goals your society might value, that are most often those based on solidarity and long-term plans. For example environmental protection, help for medical emergencies, social help etc. An unregulated free market is merciless on the sick, the old, the poor, or the unlucky, simply everybody who fails to contribute directly to economic growth for whatever reason, e.g. by having too many kids. Social democracy includes the human wish not to see your neighbors starve the moment they can no longer be productive, and recognizes that one day you might be in that same situation.

The way it is typically done is to take away money from those who have plenty, e.g. by taxes, and give it to those who need it to survive. Yes, that means redistribution of wealth. You do that backed up by a democratic system to ensure this redistribution is considered just by the majority of people and not in conflict with more fundamental laws. Needless to say, the people who have the big money will complain about it. Keep in mind they made their money in a system that is considered unjust by the majority of people living around them. The outcome is a social market economy, that is, one that combines a capitalist mode of production with the belief that society should protect all its members from economic and social need.

Justice is however something that is perceived very different depending on what culture one has grown up in. I for example find it quite amusing that Americans like to talk about Germany as a 'social welfare' state as if that was something undesirable. As far as I am concerned, I am very relieved that if I am in Germany I know all my neighbors do have a health insurance, I know all my friends have an unemployment insurance, and I know they can live from social help should it be necessary. Of course there's parties in Germany who are more left or right leaning, more or less liberal, more or less conservative, but overall the idea of a social market economy is more generally accepted.

Choose what you want. That's what democracy is good for.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Project Help

I need some help with a project I'm currently working on. No PhD required, not physics related, you can do it after hours. It will take about a month, you'll get a paycheck and I'm told it's tax deductible. Must be US/Canadian resident. If you are interested, please send email to sabine[@] for more info.

Update Oct 29: Thanks everybody for your interest, I do no longer consider applicants.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Lightcone Institute

After you have stared at the link to the Lightcone Institute in my sidebar for a year or so, I think the time has come to tell you what it is about. It's what I spend my time on that is not occupied by physics - which is typically not much, and presently not any, but has added up over the last decade to make this a more concrete project which managed to attract a moderate but existent amount of interest. It's my way to make constructive use of my desperation about the state of the world, and an antidote to the nagging feeling that what I work on isn't particularly useful for the vast majority of people on this planet.

Sure, I can give you a long speech about the purpose and importance of fundamental research and how it is interesting for the broader public, not to mention that it is where my personal interests are. But it remains a fact that investing into fundamental research is a luxury of societies at a very advanced level. And if I open a newspaper after a day sitting through seminars it tells me the world really has other problems than axion-dilaton coset SL(2,R)/SO(2) 7-branes or similar fun. Sometimes more, sometimes less so. Presently more so.

But hey, as I told you previously, to me science is more than a profession, to me science is a worldview. And thus my interpretation of the problems we are currently facing on a global scale is a lack of scientific method, which has resulted in an erosion of trust in the systems that govern our lives. We are failing to update these systems and their institutions so they be able to deal with our increasingly complex global problems.

Finishing the Scientific Revolution

Science is as old as mankind. We analyze the world we observe to better understand it, and to make our lives more pleasant. The scientific method has proven to be extremely useful to achieve this; this method being nothing but inventing a model for the world based on previous knowledge, and testing how well it works. If it works well or at least better than available models, we call that progress and use it for further examinations. If not, we discard it and look for something better. At least that's the idea. A lot can be said about how this so straight-forwardly sounding manner has worked out during our history in less straight-forward ways, but to say the very least, it has worked tremendously well for the natural sciences.

Science in its organized form has taken off in the 16th and 17th century, and has changed our world dramatically. This period in our history during which we saw a tremendous amount of progress in the fields astronomy, physics, biology, medicine and chemistry is often called the “Scientific Revolution” - a revolution of thought rather than a revolution of governance that kick-started the development of technologies and established scientific research as one of the most important drivers of progress in our societies. We find during this period the names of great thinkers like Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Franklin and Descartes, to only mention a few.

Today we study as sophisticated areas as neuroscience, nanotechnics, immunology, microbiology or endocrinology. Don't worry if you don't know the latter, I didn't know it either, I Googled it and found it's the study of the glands and hormones of the body. And then there are of course the computer sciences, which are possibly the most impressive outcome of the technological developments altogether and the advancements of computing power itself has had a large impact on the possibilities in scientific research.

I'm not a historian and this isn't an essay about the history of science. I'm just telling you that because this revolution doesn't include the social sciences. Most notably, academic research in the fields that we would today call sociology, politics and economy are still waiting to obtain the attention they deserve. In these areas, the dark middle ages of trial and error in applications have lasted some more centuries, with the situation only slowly changing today. The reason for this is not hard to find. Understanding political or social systems is much more complicated than understanding the motion of planets, since the latter is a system that can very easily be simplified to a model that is computable even by hand. In the political and social sciences, arguments are lead mostly in the narrative, and have for long been detached from what actually was happening in politics. Neither did much of these studies reach the broad public for most of it is not part of the standard school education, as is physics, biology and chemistry.

It is only now, in the 21st century, that the advances have gotten far enough so we begin to understand some aspects of systems as complex as for example our global economy. In fact, the economical system is probably the best investigated case that falls into this category, for there is money to make there. The political system lags behind. This lag is is crucial because it is needed to deal with the progress driven by the natural sciences. What we are running into is a dangerous imbalance in which new technologies change our societies faster than the governing institutions can deal with these changes.

Results from the natural sciences are today very well integrated into our daily lives. Think about architecture, engineering, drug tests, health checks, and numerous investigations behind every single consume item, from your car to canned food.

In the last decades one also finds increasingly more examples for a similar integration of the social sciences. Think about architecture again, but take into account the question what group of people the building will host and what amount of interactivity you want to create. A lot of thought has been put into this for example with PI's building. Or think about city planning in general. Economic modeling too has become quite common, though it is tainted by ideological believes and lacks scientific rigor. And then there are the cases where governments commission models to better understand the outcome of planned regulations, like various forms of carbon taxes. These are all cases where one sees some first glimpse of a development I am sure will speed up rapidly in the coming years: an increasing application of insights from the social sciences to our daily lives, in a more organized manner.

And after four centuries, it is really about time to finish the scientific revolution.

Reestablish Trust

And why is this necessary? It is necessary because we simply are no longer able to deal with the problems we are facing. Just look at the present economic crisis. If you stop for a moment trying to find somebody to blame, then the problem comes down to:
  1. Lack of understanding how the system works, i.e. studies that would have been necessary are missing.

  2. Paying more attention to ideology than to scientific argumentation, i.e. failure acknowledge the importance of objectivity.

  3. Failure of our political system to incorporate knowledge in a timely manner.

You can say the same with regard to the question why climate change is so slow to be addressed. You can say the same about lots of other outstanding problems, may that be the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, water shortages, or even your country's inability to come to any conclusion of how to address coming energy scarcity. These are processes that happen, but they happen excruciatingly slow and are hindered by unnecessary rhetoric and psychological games.

Is it really surprising then that many people have lost trust in what politicians say? Is it really surprising that we are now facing several years of aftermath of a economic crisis because of lacking faith in this system?

The conclusion that I draw from this is that the most important thing we need is a solid basis for arguments, and a way to integrate won insights. We need to improve the systems we are operating in, the systems that are meant to allow us to live together with a minimum amount of friction and a maximum amount of progress.

I neither believe that human behaviour is predictable, nor do I think the goal can be to replace human decisions with 'scientifically correct' decisions - this is plain nonsense. What I think however is possible, and necessary, is to make sure decisions can be reached and incorporated fast and easily. One should make a clear distinction here between opinion and the process to reach and implement a decision from opinions. What I am talking about is to set up the system, based on scientific insights, to provide a better environment for those living within it to pursue individual goals without being hindered by outdated institutions.

Or, in short, make sure the system can correct its own mistakes.

The Lightcone Institute

So that's what the institute is about. It is about bridging the gap between the natural, the social, and the computer sciences to initiate this change. And since it is a change in which the scientific community plays a pivotal role, one can't do it without addressing the problems of the academic system itself. The problems of the academic system are in many ways reflections of the larger problems we see in our societies: We have a system that is hindering progress, and knowledge about this dysfunctionality is not incorporated. The system is outdated and unable to correct itself.

You see the above discussed points reflected in the four pillars of the Institute's research. There is the interdisciplinary research to make these connections between the different areas of science, there is the basic research to provide the fundamental pieces that might be missing, there is researching research to address the role of the scientific community. And then there is the essential public outreach to get the hopefully won insights to where they needs to be. The latter point is meant to include communication to the public, as well as to private, academic, and governmental institutions.

You will find that on the website the areas of research are populated with some possible research topics that fall into these categories, like Social-Ecological Systems, Network Science, or the Future of Scientific Publishing.

As to the operation of the Institute, it is a directed research in that the Institute has a clearly defined mission that studies should be dedicated to. Here are the mission statements:
  • The Institute's research is to be beneficial and relevant for society.

  • The research is focused on interdisciplinary work between the natural and social sciences, fundamental research, and the sociology of science.

  • The Institute aims to strengthen the public outreach of the scientific enterprise and actively communicate its research endeavors.

  • The Institute will collaborate closely with political institutions, businesses and academia.

All that's missing is money and people.
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance to keep pace with the times.”

~Thomas Jefferson

Think ahead

Here is a self-quote, dated January 3rd 2008, from my post On the Edge:

“What is currently much more scary is the global economical instability. I am not much of an an economist, but even I sense there will be some major economical crisis rather soon, possibly even this year. If you need any indicators, take Bush talking about the 'fundamentals of the economy being strong'. The whole situation in the US is incredibly unstable. There is a large percentage of people living damned close by poverty level. If their situation gets only slightly worse, they will be pushed to fight for survival, not because they want to, but because they have no other way out.”

This just came back into my mind after reading “Crises on Many Fronts” by Bob Herbert in today's NYT.
“But if we are indeed caught up in the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, the ones who will fare the worst are those who already are poor or near-poor. There are millions of them, and yet they remain essentially invisible. A step down for them is a step into destitution.”

Right. And if we wait another year, then maybe somebody will come to realize what I meant with unstable did include the political situation.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Shut up and Calculate

As a PS to Step 11 of '10 Steps to Improve the World', here is a recent quote from Jeffrey Sachs:

“Now what I know about our training since the early 1980s [...] the way we train people to think [...] in mainstream economics and in mainstream politics, has left them almost unable anymore to distinguish the surface from the underlying reality. Not only was it the age of Reagan and the beginning of market fundamentalism that came in the early 80s, and the rational expectations revolution and all the rest, but a fundamental break in how we actually train our students to think [...] the way we see it in our universities.

Because the new kind of economic modeling for 25 years, the one that won all the Nobel Prizes said: you don't have to understand the deep picture, you have to look at the prices you see on the surface and infer the deep picture from that. In other words, the surface tells you the depths in fact because the surface and the depths couldn't be two different things. You don't really have to know underlying mechanisms in the economy because the prices reflect the underlying mechanism. In fact you fit the deep model, if there is one, by looking at the surface and then inferring what the deep model must be, that's literally how students are trained. They're not trained to be skeptical, they're trained to fill in parameters of a system which assumes from the start that what you see on the surface is what you really have. Whereas what fundamental proper skepticism of the Popperian sort [...] and also what the logic of economic bubbles shows, and what the logic of biophysical bubbles show, is what you see on the surface can completely hide and obscure what's happening below.

And it's our job as scientists, and I would say as responsible citizens, to understand the deep points and therefore help to rectify the discrepancy and keep ourselves away from trouble.”

~ Jeffrey Sachs, October 20, 2008 “Can We Save the World Economy? A Conversation with Geroge Soros, Nouriel Roubini, and Jeffrey Sachs”, Recording here

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Pronunciation: \ˈwä-tərˈ-lü-nī-təs\

An obsessive-compulsive disorder (ICD-10 F42), characterized by recurrent and persistent thoughts of sunny beaches, hourlasting complaints about potholes, cynical remarks about location advantage, and the distressing urge to spend thousands of dollars on a flight to anywhere. This rare condition has been observed in some regions of Western Ontario during the winter months.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ten Steps to Improve the World

It's actually eleven steps...

  1. Give people a solid education in the working of their social, political and economical systems, combined with information literacy and critical thinking. How can you expect them to understand what's going on if they have no basis for that understanding?

  2. Allow people to vote where they live. You let them into the country, now if they have an interest about what's going on around them, give them a voice.

  3. Stop trying to rip off customers with special offers, discount rates, or things they neither need nor want. Declare unrequested advertisement illegal and put a tax on ads. Advertisements today are mostly void of information, and deliberately designed to skew consumer interests. We already have a society that is based on mutual distrust. How can one believe this to support the optimal use and distribution of resources?

  4. Abolish all wrappings of food items that can not be opened without tools. What kind of an absurd development is it to disable accessibility of groceries by insurmountable plastic barriers?

  5. Shut down all automated call centers, unless a caller has specifically requested an automated service. Hey, we're facing a dramatic increase in the unemployment rate anyway, why not actually make your service-free toll-hotline useful by populating it with people who can actually help the caller?

  6. Stop indoctrinating people from childhood on that career and profit is the only valuable goal in human life. Are you really surprised suicide and depression rates increase in the so-called 'Western Civilization'?

  7. Take secularism seriously. Religious believes have no place in political or scientific argumentation. There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.

  8. Recognize that trial and error has its limitations. We don't have enough wiggle room anymore to try out the success of institutions for social, political and economical governance. Most people have lost trust in politicians' abilities because well-founded argumentation has been replaced with rhetoric. A scientific method in these processes is the only way to address the challenges we are and will be facing.

  9. Take democracy seriously. A person's voice should not be weighted by the money he or she has. It can't possibly be so hard to understand that the functionality of the whole political system is at risk if one mixes economical success with political influence.

  10. Reestablish a culture of debate and acknowledge the importance of your country's intellectuals. Teach people the logical fallacies and how to lead sensible arguments. At the very least, teach them to shut up if they have nothing to say.

  11. Leave your suggestion to improve the world at your favourite blog :-)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ice IX

This afternoon, I stumbled upon this phase diagram of water, showing the different phases of ice. Depending on temperature and pressure, solid water can have a large variety of crystal structures.

I couldn't avoid having a closer look: Ice-Nine exists!

from Landolt-Börnstein: "Physical properties of ice"
(DOI: 10.1007/10201909_90 - free PDF preview)

Fortunately, unlike its mythical cousin, the real Ice-Nine (labelled "IX" in the lower left corner of the diagram) cannot occur at ambient conditions, but exists as a metastable phase only below about -100 centigrade (170 K), and at pressures of a few kbar.

So, no danger that it may accidentally solidify all liquid water...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fresh Apple Juice

Auenland, as Sabine has dubbed it, has seen this year a rich harvest of all kinds of fruits, especially apples.

Unfortunately, a heavy hailstorm in early July has left its marks on the apples: there is hardly a single fruit without an ugly scar. But they are very tasty nevertheless, and they make an excellent juice. So this is how my brother and me have spent the last two weekends:

We have gathered apples from the trees my family owns around the village,

packed them in my car and brought them to the press of the local fruit-growing and gardening association.

There, the apples are being processed to juice. They are washed and shredded,

and the shred is squeezed in the press.

The gardening association has an apparatus to heat up and pasteurise the juice on-site (the silvery cask in the background on the the right), and fill it in bags to store it. But the most tasty juice is the fresh, untreated one.



Am I the only one who thinks this is a quiet time in the science blogosphere? Seems the only thing people are discussing lately is the economic crisis or the US presidential election. I've been wondering whether this is a non-linear feedback effect. Typically, if I get many emails, I write many emails since I'm already at it anyway. Similarly, if I'm at replying comments, I go check some other blogs and keep on typing.

Anyway, in case you haven't yet noticed it's THIS time of the year again - this time when the postdocs are getting busy with updating their CV and checking the job postings. And as things are, this year I'm again on the market, so I'm spending my time writing research statements and research plans and grant proposal and so on. Meaning I won't have much time to blog also in the coming weeks.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Distorted Science

Following some links in Stefan's recent 'This and That', I came across this interesting paper
    Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science
    By Neal S. Young, John P. A. Ioannidis, Omar Al-Ubaydli
    PLoS Med 5(10): e201

    Abstract: This essay makes the underlying assumption that scientific information is an economic commodity, and that scientific journals are a medium for its dissemination and exchange. While this exchange system differs from a conventional market in many senses, including the nature of payments, it shares the goal of transferring the commodity (knowledge) from its producers (scientists) to its consumers (other scientists, administrators, physicians, patients, and funding agencies). The function of this system has major consequences. Idealists may be offended that research be compared to widgets, but realists will acknowledge that journals generate revenue; publications are critical in drug development and marketing and to attract venture capital; and publishing defines successful scientific careers. Economic modelling of science may yield important insights.

Though the authors constantly talk about 'science' generally, upon closer look it turns out that their concern is actually with biomedical research. This becomes particularly clear if one looks at one of the author's previous essays “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False" (PLoS Med 2(8): e124), which is primarily concerned with lacking reproduction of data finds in various fields of life sciences, failure to pay sufficient attention to negative finds, and the tendency to temper with samples to 'improve' statistical significance with the effect of skewing results.

However, I do think that some of the problems the authors raise are present also in my field of research. For example, they point out “For much (most?) scientific work, it is difficult or impossible to immediately predict future value, extensions, and practical applications,” but nevertheless an early and quite rigorous selection and branding process takes place. Here with branding they refer to getting published in journals with high-impact factor, after a selection through peer review and editors. Since getting a high quality 'branding' is important, scientists adapt strategies to succeed according to these criteria. Meanwhile, journals “strive to attract specific papers, such as influential trials that generate publicity and profitable reprint sales” and try to increase their impact factor:

“Impact factors are widely adopted as criteria for success, despite whatever qualms have been expressed. They powerfully discriminate against submission to most journals, restricting acceptable outlets for publication. “Gaming” of impact factors is explicit. Editors make estimates of likely citations for submitted articles to gauge their interest in publication.”

They proceed with discussing an economic analogy in which the forced selection of some few research findings as being suitable for the desired publication in high-impact journals is an example for 'artificial scarcity': Even though a commodity (here, journal publication) exists in abundance, it is restricted in access, distribution or availability to make it rare and raise its value.

This has disadvantages that lie at hand. The importance of getting published can lead to increased conformity of research interests (“herding”) since outlying topics are risky, and it favours publishing of new and surprising findings over negative results that would attract less attention: “Negative or contradictory data may be discussed at conferences or among colleagues, but surface more publicly only when dominant paradigms are replaced.”

Many of this might sound familiar to you from my earlier post We have only ourselves to judge on each other, where I argued that increasing pressure (like financial and peer pressure) has the side-effect that marketing tactics become important for scientific topics, which goes on the expenses of objectivity and open criticism.

The authors then go on to closer investigate their criticism of the current publishing system and offer 10 options to deal with the problems that I want to briefly comment on:

Potential Competing or Complementary Options and Solutions for Scientific Publication
  1. Accept the current system as having evolved to be the optimal solution to complex and competing problems.
  2. Promote rapid, digital publication of all articles that contain no flaws, irrespective of perceived “importance”.
  3. Adopt preferred publication of negative over positive results; require very demanding reproducibility criteria before publishing positive results.
  4. Select articles for publication in highly visible venues based on the quality of study methods, their rigorous implementation, and astute interpretation, irrespective of results.
  5. Adopt formal post-publication downward adjustment of claims of papers published in prestigious journals.
  6. Modify current practice to elevate and incorporate more expansive data to accompany print articles or to be accessible in attractive formats associated with high-quality journals: combine the “magazine” and “archive” roles of journals.
  7. Promote critical reviews, digests, and summaries of the large amounts of biomedical data now generated.
  8. Offer disincentives to herding and incentives for truly independent, novel, or heuristic scientific work.
  9. Recognise explicitly and respond to the branding role of journal publication in career development and funding decisions.
  10. Modulate publication practices based on empirical research, which might address correlates of longterm successful outcomes (such as reproducibility, applicability, opening new avenues) of published papers.

My thoughts on these suggestions are:

  1. Though I suspect the authors included this point to have the reader realize this is not a preferable option and thus action required, one should keep in mind that after all the system is so far not a complete disaster. People keep telling me peer review is failing, journals are dead, and other slogans of that sort. But I can easily imagine ways to make the situation even worse, and everybody who wants to 'improve' the system should make sure that improvement doesn't have unwanted side-effects that are even more distorting.
  2. I can't but think the authors missed an essential point with this claim. Even if one forgets about the impact factor, there is a huge pressure to publish, period. Scientists are publishing more and more, and one of the main reasons, so I think, peer review is struggling is that the more papers are produced, the less time there is to review them. Plus the problem that this time-consuming process isn't well acknowledge. Rapid distribution of all papers that 'contain no flaws' irrespective of their importance sounds like a great goal, but won't be feasible without changes in the publication and review culture. For example, one could consider my suggestions to have a division of labor in task.
  3. As much as I am in favor of publishing negative results, I don't see why they should be preferred over positive results. A result is a result and should be treated equally.
  4. Well, yes, of course. That's what science is all about. You don't decide whether a paper is worth publishing depending on whether you like the result or not.
  5. That is an interesting suggestion indeed that would directly discourage exaggerated claims. Just that I don't know how this could be done in practice.
  6. This is already the case. Increasingly more journals offer supplements of various type.
  7. Another very good suggestion. This can however only work if such reviews and summaries are a work acknowledged as an important contribution by the community. Otherwise it will just be regarded as a waste of time, time in which one could do 'real research'.
  8. That would indeed be good, but again it remains unclear to me how so. As usual however I am skeptic about setting incentives in a specific way because if done so without any sensible feedback mechanism, these incentives might develop their own life as well and eventually have backlashes in counterproductive strategies, that leaves people aiming to fulfil certain given secondary criteria instead of primary goals (for more on secondary criteria and primary goals, see The Marketplace of Ideas).
  9. That is basically what I usually refer to as creating awareness about the problem. Without that, nothing works. The paper does quite a good job with that.
  10. That's a question of science policy, together with the need to have more studies of what practices lead to desirable long-term outcomes. I totally agree this is a topic that needs to be payed more attention to, and that in a practical way such that results lead to change. As much as I like the general sense of the paper, on the practical side it is somewhat weak.

The authors conclude by asking whether we have created a system for the exchange of scientific ideas that serves best “the striving for knowledge,” the “search for truth” and “the free competition of thought”. It seems pretty clear that the present system does not serve best this purpose. The topic investigated in the article is a good example for what I mean with management and organization of knowledge. Scientific publishing is an essential ingredient to structuring and disseminating scientific knowledge, and we should pay close attention to this process not negatively affecting the way scientists chose or present research topics. I find it overly simplistic though to put the blame on the publishers. To a much larger extend the problem is caused by scientists accepting the system they are faced with and complying to the pressures excerted on them without asking about the long-term effects.

Neal S. Young, John P. A. Ioannidis, Omar Al-Ubaydli (2008). Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science PLoS Medicine, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0050201

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This and That

  • The Physical Review has made available for free three papers by Nobel prize winner Yoichiro Nambu, including the classical NJL papers A Dynamical Model of Elementary Particles Based on an Analogy with Superconductivity I and II (see Physical Review Focus - Nobel Focus: Particle Physics Gets a Break). The two papers are quite technical. If you are interested in a more accessible discussion of chiral symmetry and its breaking, you may find Aspects of Chiral Symmetry by Volker Koch (arXiv:nucl-th/9706075v2) quite helpful. There was a time at the Theoretical Physics Institute in Frankfurt when the figure with the ball in the Mexican Hat potential (the one on page 15) showed up in nearly every seminar talk.

  • The Royal Society of London offers the "Theo Murphy Blue Skies awards", to support fundamental research in new and emerging areas with the aim of providing preliminary proof of concept for unproven or novel and transformative ideas and projects which draw on the application of interdisciplinary expertise.

  • Under the headline "Publish and be wrong", the Economist writes about a paper arguing that headline-grabbing scientific reports are the most likely to turn out to be wrong ("Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science", by Neal S. Young, John P. A. Ioannidis, and Omar Al-Ubaydli, PLoS Medicine, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050201). The claim is that the pressure to publish in prestigious journals yields fosters overselling, thus increasing the risk of errors. The authors ' background is medical research, and I'm not so sure if their results can be readily transferred to other disciplines. But I'm quite convinced that their claim holds for research results with prominent coverage in newspapers. (via incoherently scattered ponderings)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Canada votes

Yes, Canada votes today - just in case your newspaper was too cluttered with Obamisms, Palinoms, or stockbrokers burying their head in their hands. As almost all modern democracies, Canada has a multi-party system. Currently five parties are represented in the Parliament: The Conservative Party of Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party of Canada, the Green Party of Canada, and the Bloc Québécois.

Just to mention it, even the USA is - theoretically - a multi-party democracy. Here is the list. Ever heard of more than the first two? And yes, there exists also a Democratic Socialist party in America.

If you're eligible to vote, chose wisely...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada, and this time I actually was aware a national holiday is coming before I stood in front of a "CLOSED" sign. I feel very integrated. It's a day to be grateful for having ten fingers to type, a warm laptop in my bed, a blog to publish and a readership to talk to. So thanks to everybody for being around, commenters and lurkers likewise (Yes, I'm talking about YOU!).

At an international workplace, national holidays can be very confusing. Oct 3rd for example is a national holiday in Germany. Oct 9th, so I learned, was a Jewish holiday. Yesterday was the Spanish National Day 'Día de la Hispanidad', today is also 'Rwagasore Day', a national holiday in Burundi, and tomorrow is President's Day in Zaire. Granted, there are no Zaireans at PI, but still this inspired me to look up some calenders to figure out what day one would indeed have to work if one did obey all religious and national holidays.

Not many. I went through the Earth Calendar, and here are the days that would not have been holidays in 2008: Jan 23, Feb 13, Nov 13, Dec 3rd. Happy holidays! I'm all for globalization ;-)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

This is your economy on drugs

The Reward Circuit

Happiness and self-fulfilment are common goals in the game that is human life. However complex the rules of that game, eventually it is a neurobiological response in our brains that makes us feel happy or satisfied. Natural selection has favored those species who desired to achieve behavior that was beneficial for the survival of the individual and its kind. In the course of evolution, we were thus endowed with what neuroscientists call the “reward circuit”. The reward circuit becomes active if we do what is necessary or beneficial for survival, such as eating, learning, or having sex.

Research has shown the reward circuit is not only a direct response that leads to the production of endorphins responsible for happiness. It is also coupled to the hippocampus, our learning and memory center, and the prefrontal cortex, relevant for our thinking and planning. This enables us to develop possibly quite complicated tactics to trigger the reward mechanism. With the rise of human culture, many secondary goals have developed such as the desire for money or human touch, and tactics explained in all the self-help books that promise a way to reach them. This reward circuit provides a powerful mechanism on the level of an individual that has been enormously effective in driving progress of the whole species.

There are shortcuts to immediate happiness. Drugs like cocaine, speed, angel dust, heroine, morphine, alcohol and tobacco stimulate the reward system, and often provide greater pleasure than is normally the result of natural stimulation. With repeated drug use, neurotransmitters in the brain develop a substance tolerance, it then takes a larger dose to achieve the same effect. Simultaneously, the user becomes less receptive to natural stimuli and loses interest in activities other than obtaining the next dose. Changes in the brain metabolism cause withdrawal effects, which makes it hard to fall back into a previously stable and pleasant state. Our ability to learn from rewards and direct our actions towards this goal then leads to a planning of how to get the next drug. It becomes the center of interest, many users report a constant obsession with the drug. In many cases, the addict neglects primary survival needs.

All of the mentioned drugs have well studied negative consequences for the user's physical and mental health. But the knowledge of these consequences is generally not sufficient for the addict to break out of this vicious cycle that rewards repeated short-term kicks on the expenses of long-term happiness. If left untreated, it will finally lead to breakdown or death.

Knowledge of this lacking ability for self-correction of the reward circuit has therefore caused us to issue laws, educate our children, and help those in need. These are measures to protect us from our own weaknesses to avoid potentially fatal damage.

There are other ways to cheat on our reward system, that include overeating or extreme sports that trigger hormone rush, actions that become feasible at a high civilizationary level when primary survival needs are easily fulfilled. The boundaries between what unhealthy behavior requires external constraints are flowing and subject of discussion, which strongly depends on the consequences of substance abuse for the rest of the society, the tension lies between personal freedom and damage to other individuals. Tobacco use has by now in many countries been widely banned in public buildings. Obesity, though not an addiction, has been argued to require action.

Besides these substance addictions, impulse control disorders like pyromania, or compulsive stealing and gambling have similar effects of immediate satisfaction and high rewards. “Monetary reward in a gambling-like experiment produces brain activation very similar to that observed in a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of cocaine,” says Hans Breiter, co-director of the motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Centre at the Massachusetts General Hospital [1].

Many facets of human behavior pursued today are hard or impossible to trace back to primary needs, like the desire to appear on TV or to collect shoes.

Return on Investment and other Highs

Similar reward mechanisms operate in the systems that govern our lives. These incentives eventually go back to individual rewards, and they are often institutionalized for larger groups of people and based on secondary criteria that have grown out of primary needs. Companies don't strive for sex, they strive to accumulate capital. Interest groups don't hunt for food but for attention. Nations don't seek understanding but influence.

One can cheat on these reward mechanisms as well, which leads to the emergence of tactics that run contrary to the original intention of being beneficial for the society. We therefore have means to constrain damaging behavior like proper product information, property rights, ethical codes for scientific conduct, trade laws, or marketplace regulations. Again, the question of what needs attention is a discussion constantly in flux. The aim is in all cases to ensure that the pursuit of individual interests within a given system results in desirable long-term and large-scale trends.

October 2008, the world economy is struggling. The system meant to distribute resources, free capital, and connect traders in a virtuous cycle of demand and supply is choking after warnings have been ignored for more than 15 years [2,3,4]. Politicians and economists likewise praised the wisdom of the free market to regulate itself. Thousands of bankers all over the globe acted for their own immediate advantage, neglecting long-term risks, ignoring tell-tale signs of more problems to come. Again and again proposed political regulations to ensure the well-being of the society on the long run were put aside, argued to dampen the highs of the gambles. Bonuses of top managers increased to absurd rates, became the norm, increased further. What has worked for some became the goal for more, an upward cycle in constant need of higher kicks.
“Dissatisfaction over high pay, business failures and American-style laissez-faire capitalism has been sweeping across Europe for some time, but it has been given new impetus as investors and politicians struggle to make sense of a credit vise that tightens by the day.
Even before the latest tumult, steps were taken in the Netherlands and France to limit excessive compensation, and the issue is back on the agenda [...]”
Landon Thomas, NYT [5]

Disregard of long-term goals combined with immediate rewards in a system rushing from one high to the next became accepted as the norm. Consume has turned into an antidote to national and personal downs, was made into a value pursued for it's own sake, producing absurdities along the way, and inhibiting the ability for self-correction:
“[C]onsumerism is based on the fact that we are a society dominated by business interests. There is massive propaganda for everyone to consume. Consumption is good for profits and consumption is good for the political establishment - Consumption distracts people. You cannot control your own population by force, but it can be distracted by consumption. The business press has been quite explicit about this goal.”

Reliance on the infallibility of the reward circuit results in a neglect of factors necessary for the survival of the society as a whole.

Until finally the system breaks down.

I think we're in for an indefinite period of withdrawal, trying to return to a stable mode of operation.


“[T]oday there is only one incentive for doing business, and that is the maximization of profits. But the incentive of doing social good must be included. There need to be many more companies whose primary aim is not that of earning the highest profits possible, but that of providing the greatest benefit possible for human kind.”

is how Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus summarizes the need to pay attention to the needs of the society as a whole [7].

But how well do we know long-term effects? And if we know them, can we be sure they are implemented sufficiently fast to avoid damage?

Remarkably enough, I agree with Alan Greenspan on the cause of the problem. In his speech at Georgetown University on Oct 2nd [8] he said “Reputation and the trust it fosters have always appeared to me to be the core attributes required of competitive markets.”

Yes, the central issue is trust. But not trust in the traders, but trust in our ability to detect and correct shortcomings of the system. A detection that should not be hindered by faith-based argumentation, should not be tampered with by rhetoric, should not be driven by psychological effects. It requires a solid data base, shared knowledge, objective evaluation, and validation of models and predictions. In short, it requires a scientific method to reestablish trust in the working of our political and economical systems.

The Scientific Revolution, which has lead to a stunning progress in the natural sciences four centuries ago, has not yet been extended to the applications of social sciences. To a large extend, developments in these areas are still made in a process of trial and error, experiments with the well-being of billions of people. It is a slow learning process often plagued by a lacking ability to learn from past mistakes. Given that trial and error has worked for a long time, and that the computational prerequisits to deal with large amounts of data are only available since recently, it is not surprising this revolution did not take place earlier. But it is about time we upgrade to the 21st Century.


The Scientific Revolution is unfinished, and we need to finish it.

[1] “Gambling - Like Food and Drugs - Produces Feelings of Reward in the Brain," by Harald Franzen, Scientific American, May 24, 2001.
[2] “The Reckoning - Taking Hard New Look at a Greenspan Legacy," by Peter S. Goodman, NYT October 8, 2008.
[3] “The End of Arrogance - America Loses Its Dominant Economic Role," Spiegel, Oct 2008.
“The Risk of a Systemic Financial Meltdown: The 12 Steps to Financial Disaster,” Nouriel Roubini Feb 5, 2008.
“Culture of Outsize Pay for Bankers, Born on Wall Street, Has Europe Fuming,” by Landon Thomas Jr., NYT, Sep 30 2008.
Interview with Noam Chomsky - “The United States Has Essentially a One-Party System,” Spiegel Oct 10 2008.
“Capitalism Has Degenerated into a Casino', Spiegel, Oct 10 2008.
[8] “Markets and the Judiciary,” Dr. Alan Greenspan, Sandra Day O’Connor Project Conference, October 2, 2008

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Book Review: Who Controls the Internet?

Who Controls the Internet?
Illusions of a Borderless World

By Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu

Goldsmith and Wu's book is a down-to-earth examination of the relation between users, the Internet and national governments. It is a well written story of the evolution of the Internet, and a collection of case studies from the last decade. It documents conflicts between nations, between national laws, between cultural and political differences. With only 184 pages, the book doesn't contain any redundancies, doesn't try to convince the reader of fanciful future visions, and doesn't offer easy solutions.

I was very relieved to read the book because it finally clears out the naïveté that seems to have been so abundant in the early years of the Internet. It has always puzzled me how intelligent people could believe that anarchy works. Haven't we learned anything in the last some thousand years? Wasn't there a reason why our societies have laws and law enforcement, why we have governments to minimize friction and set a frame we can all live in together? Yes, one can have self-organization without institutionalized governance - if you have a small group of nice people who share common interests. But groups didn't stay small on the Internet, people aren't all nice, and eventually one has to find a way to exert power or run into chaos.

Needless to say, that chaos didn't happen because we are already living in societies were that power is constantly present, even if only seldom exerted - what matters much more is the possibility to exert it. And thus Internet users eventually came to realize that national governance does extend to the Internet, for better or for worse. But without it, we wouldn't have any legal basis for trade, for copyright, for free speech, to protect values that we consider important.

Goldsmith and Wu acknowledge the transformative potential of the Internet, but make the reality of the net very clear. They discuss various reasons why the Internet has national boundaries and differences. Language for example is one of them. Though it has been speculated the web would remain English dominated, this has turned out not to be the case. Fact is, many people prefer their own language. But more important than the language are cultural, social, and historical differences. There are differences in currency, climate, and consumer norms. These are all factors for why people in different nations simply have different interests, and these reflect in the structure of the information they share and search for.

Another reason for the Internet being attached to earthly reality is that though one can order a book with one click, it doesn't drop out of your screen if you do so. It has to be delivered to you, which binds companies to real places and spaces. Goldsmith and Wu also argue that connectivity and infrastructure is better in the virtual world where it is in the real world, which is the reason why large companies - even if their products are 'virtual' - preferably settle in the vicinity of large cities and not in the middle of nowhere. It's just where the music plays and you don't want to miss it.

The last reason they mention, and the one they put the most emphasis on, is governance. Eventually, “beneath the fog of modern technology” it is “coercive governmental force on local persons, firms and equipment” that makes for national differences, so they write. It is governments defending the interests of their citizens, by lawsuits, fines or by arrest.

They have plenty of examples for why governmental protection matters: Yahoo had to learn that France doesn't like Nazi paraphernalia be offered on websites available in its country - no matter where these websites come from. Eventually, Yahoo complied. Microsoft had to learn that European privacy laws are considerably stricter than US ones, and complied. Ebay had to learn that Indians are sensitive to sex videos, but more importantly, Ebay had to learn that if somebody cheats on you, you'll need a legal system to be able to punish them and to avoid cheating becomes commonplace. The authors spend a whole chapter on how the Chinese government censors and modifies Internet content, and uses it for their own purposes, and another chapter on the filesharing and copyright story of Kazaa and Napster.

In every case they explain how governments eventually exerted control. For example how the US government put an end to online cigarette sales that evaded state taxes: In 2005, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms simply ordered several major credit card companies to stop taking orders. In the case of Kazaa, the industry filed thousands of lawsuits for filesharing. One might think that ridiculous given that an estimated 60 million people had used the legally problematic software, but this neglects the fact that most people actually didn't want to break laws. They just wanted convenience, and sueing some people made Kazaa sufficiently less convenient to allow the legally unproblematic iTunes to succeed. Examples of governmental exertion from China are significantly more dramatic though.

The authors also explicitly criticise the superior role Americans are sometimes claiming when it comes to the question how the Internet should be:

“[C]ritics of government control over the Net [...] believe that the U.S. First Amendment [and speech-protective U.S. libel laws] reflect universal values and [are] somehow written into the architecture of the Internet. But the First Amendment does not reflect universal values; to the contrary, no other nation embraces these values, and they are certainly not written into the Internet's architecture. [...]

The critics assume that wherever the Internet goes, it brings a single global cyberlaw with it, like a tortoise carrying its shell. The irony, of course, is that the tortoise shell is not a consensus global law, but rather the parochial U.S. First Amendment.”

However, they do by no means claim some consensus global laws are practical or even wishful. On the contrary, they make a case for a plurality of laws where possible, but for global solutions where necessary.

They also point out similarities between the rise of the Internet and earlier communication revolutions, such as the telegraph, the telephone, radio or TV. In all instances, this caused a shift in powers, caused a lot of people to feel uneasy, and it took some time until the appropriate legal structure was put in place to deal with these changes. We are now in this period of another communication revolution. If the challenges of these developments remain ununderstood or misunderstood, so they say, this might have grave disadvantages for the usefulness of the Internet in the long run. The result of the changes that have taken place especially with regard to China may be “the beginning of a technological version of the cold war, with each side pushing its own vision of the Internet's future.”

Throughout the book, the authors argue that the role of governments and regulation by laws is necessary to accompany the changes in our communication and data-sharing:

“As viruses, online fraud, spam, and other abuses add up, the greatest dangers for the future of the Internet come not when governments overreact, but when they don't react at all. The old and primary role of preventing harm and protecting rights must be translated to the present for the network to continue to grow and to prosper.”

What I generally missed in the book though were counterexamples for how the Internet on the contrary, has helped to make crossing between nation's boundaries easier. Just think of how developments in communication and data-sharing have pushed a lot of the outsourcing trends we've seen in the last decade. The complete lack of discussion of these developments makes one wonder how balanced the book is in total, or whether the authors just picked those cases that could be woven to a tale most easily.

Either way, I learned a lot from this book. If this was an review I'd give five stars.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Noble Prize in Physics 2008

News from Stockholm:

The Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Yoichiro Nambu, "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics" and to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa "for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature".


Now, that may help you to decipher half of the cryptic abbreviations NJL and CKM!

TAGS: , ,

Monday, October 06, 2008

MESSENGER at Mercury, Flyby 2

Remember MESSENGER, the spacecraft under way to Mercury? On its complicated path that will make it the first satellite to enter into an orbit around the innermost planet, MESSENGER had its second close encounter with Mercury earlier today: At 08:40 UTC, the probe rushed past the planet at a height of 199.7 kilometers (124.1 miles) and a maximal velocity relative to Mercury of 6.616 km/s (4.111 miles per second or 14,800 miles per hour).

The photo was taken by MESSENGER on Sunday, October 5, 2008, for optical navigation purposes. The crescent shows parts of the surface of Mercury which have never been seen by spacecraft before.

More about MESSENGER to come soon...


Friday, October 03, 2008

The End of Arrogance?

Spiegel - one of the major German weekly magazines - had a cover story this week titled

Unusually enough, I read it. Unusually because I don't typically read essays about economy. What stunned me about this article was the quite obvious cheerfulness, the finger pointing, the Schadenfreude. It's a rather lengthy writing, but let me just give you some adjectives for a taste.

G.W. Bush is called “old,” “erratic,” “unkempt,” what he said is “absurd” according to an unnamed German diplomat, he was a “laughing stock” at the UN meeting, the “lame duck president whom the rest of the world is no longer taking seriously” . The Bush administration was “immoderately self-confident,” and “offended even some of its best friends” .

The United States is no longer “muscular and arrogant” , the article says, no longer “the superpower that sets the rules for everyone else and that considers its way of thinking and doing business to be the only road to success”. American turbo-capitalism comes crashing down in a giant snowball system, they write, it was an “irrational exuberance”. They proclaim an “erosion of American supremacy”.

The second part of the article is considerably less polemic and more contentful, possibly somebody else wrote it. While I was visiting Germany the last weeks, I've come across several articles in that spirit, though most were not quite as blunt.

While I was reading this essay two things came into my mind. First, it looks like the authors were striving to replace American arrogance with European arrogance. Second, it's a very premature judgement. Premature because I doubt anybody knows what the consequences of the present crisis will look like for Europe. Premature also because Americans won't give up their conviction of an alleged “supremacy” that readily.

Now today, they post a selection of several letters received in reply to this article, see

Well, here are some extracts:

“The financial crisis will pass and [...] the US will be stronger than ever.” -- Alice Griffin, New York City.

“The current "crisis" is less a debacle than it is an opportunity to do what the US always does, namely step up and fix the problem.” -- Steve Kopper, Washington, DC.

“Please do not be so quick to count us out. This is not a time to despair but, rather, it is an opportunity to make some money, if you are brave and patient.” -- Kurt Christensen, USA.

“With history comes clarity, and Bush will be judged more accurately than he is today. He could care less what people think.” -- a reader from Cary, North Carolina, USA.

“[Y]ou are dead wrong to count Americans out and to count capitalism out. Free markets and capitalism are the only road to prosperity.” -- Mario Faustini, New York.

“Never count out the United States of America. Yes, we are, and will be, going through a period of pain and retraction, but our people are resilient.” -- Steve H., USA.

So, Europe. Can you imagine such a reply from your citizens to a Europe-critical article in an US magazine? I can't. And that's why they will stay ahead of us.

But you know what? After I've complained for 4 years, one now can actually get cash-back on the Debit card in some German grocery stores...

Update Oct 4:

The NYT comments on Germany's reaction to the mortgage crisis:.
Germans tend to be the strait-laced, play-it-safe types in financial matters [...] “Americans have trust in the future and are willing to borrow against it,” said Matthias von Arnim, a German financial expert and author. “The Germans say, ‘In the future everything is going to be worse, so I have to save.’ ”


In interviews here, German citizens actually seemed less willing to blame the Americans for the troubles at home, pinning the problem on the greed of their own banks.

“The Americans always go first,” said Gesine Wiemer, 40, who works in marketing for a scientific research company, “but the rest of them go along with them.”

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The most lopsided tower

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the most lopsided building of the world is no longer the tower of Pisa, but a church tower in the German village of Suurhusen, in the far North-West of the country. It is measured leaning at a 5.19° angle compared to only an 3.97° angle at which the tower of Pisa leans.

[Photo: Church Website]

The church was built in middle of the 13th century, the tower was added in 1450. The tilt of the tower is thought to arise from a combination of its oak wood foundation and wet soil.

However, as Craig Whitlock from the Washington Post reports, this caught by surprise the inhabitants of Bad Frankenhausen, whose "Church of Our Beloved Ladies by the Mountain" is tilded only by 4.4° but is twice as high. So the locals want their church to be acknowledge as the "World's Crookedest Tower".

Germany, the land of crooked and tilted towers ;-)