Friday, October 31, 2008

Get a Clue

I quit watching Grey’s Anatomy when it stopped showing at least a little medical science in each show and started becoming all-soap-opera-all-the-time. Curiously, about the same time the real medical science started disappearing, the philosophical voice-over of Erin at the end of the show stated taking a nose-dive in quality as well – I blame writing staff changes, but I don’t care enough to find out if that’s really true. The point is, they lost my interest. My wife, however, still watches it from time to time, and it was on last night while I was putting the insulation on the windows.

I think that l’affaire Wagner has dramatically reduced my tolerance for stupid, and last night’s Grey’s was chock full o’dumb.

Let’s start with the portrayal of the surgeon who rotated back from Iraq. What a slap in the face to all the good doctors, nurses, medics and corpsmen treating our servicemen and women in the theater of operations. Physicians over there fight to get the best equipment in the field. Modern field hospitals are not the Korean War’s understaffed and undersupplied MASH units, and the surgeons aren’t constantly looking for materials to improvise with. Certainly medics and corpsmen out in the field might use a tampon to stop heavy bleeding from a deep wound, but the hospitals are well-equipped.

And certainly when those doctors come back to the world, they use every advanced material and technique at their disposal, they are not using skin glue to seal a major wound. Finally, the statement by that doc in the show about triage can also simply not be true, because, once again, this is not Korea, and hospitals are not being overwhelmed by massive casualties in Iraq – they don’t need to let the bad cases die for lack of personnel to treat them. The whole sub-plot was a massive calumny on the fine medical cadres of the various Armed Forces, and on behalf of the fine doctors with whom I worked while I was and Navy and Air Force contractor, I can only say – stick it where the sun don’t shine, Grey’s.

But that wasn’t the big stupid last night. The big stupid was the doctor using animals to train for surgery. The whole running argument in the show was a hugely confused mess. The issue is this: animals are as sparingly as possible in surgical training for human doctors, but used very often in special cases where the surgery is experimental, and the Hippocratic Oath requires that the fine details be worked out on a non-human subject.

The models that are used, are used to save patient lives.

Certainly, much training that used to be conducted on animals is now conducted on simulators. Animals are expensive, and if for no other reason than that, they are used only when necessary. But look at those crude simulators. At this point, we can not reproduce the complex vasculature and immune response of a living thing in a simulator. Animals must be used for some training, and the argument in last night's Grey's that we have the technology to completely replace them is a specious one. Grey’s is a close enough simulacrum to real life, that it will get half-educated nitwits up in arms, thinking that they actually learned something on that show.

The greater harm, though was in the justifications of the doctor who advocated the surgical animal models. He continually used examples from the development of vaccines and drugs, not from surgery. Animal models for surgery will be replaced with simulators long, long before animals are replaced in pharmaceutical testing. Surgeons deal with the macro level, organs that can be pretty well understood at the level required for medical practice. Drugs and vaccines interact on the cellular level, and we, the human race, do not know nearly enough biology yet to replace them.

In the words of a real expert on this topic:

It's true: I don't actually like the fact that every successful modern drug has risen to its place on top of a small mountain of dead animals. But not liking doesn't keep it from being true, and not liking it doesn't mean that I have an alternative, either. I don't. What the animal rights campaigners - the more rational ones, anyway - don't seem to realize is that tens of millions of dollars are waiting for the person who can come up with a way of not using so many mice, rats, and dogs. (The less rational ones wouldn't care even if they knew).

They're expensive, you know, animals are. We don't just have them running around in rooms with a bunch of straw on the floor. They live in facilities that are expensive to build and expensive to maintain, and you have to hire a lot of people whose only job is to take care of them. The anti-testing people seem to have visions of drug company employees cackling at the thought of getting to use more animals, when the truth is that we'd dump them in a minute if we could.

But here's the hard part: we can't. Not for now, and not for some time to come. We don't know enough biology to do it. As it stands, if you were able to model every relevant system in a rat, well enough to use your model for predictive screening, you'd have basically built a rat yourself. We get surprised all the time when our compounds go into animals, and every time it happens, it shows how little we really know.

By muddying this issue, Greys did a great disservice to the debate. Grey’s writers – the next time you design an episode around an issue, make sure you have half a clue, will you? We don’t need any more half-baked Wagners running around out there.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Decline and Fall

CW’s post on the history of technology got me to thinking about the decline of one piece of technology that I’ve personally witnessed – film cameras.

Up until WWII, the camera world spoke German. Leica, Hassleblad, Rollei – names like those were on the lips of every serious photographer in the pre-war years, but Kodak would do for the budget conscious. The Japanese started making these cheapy-cheap cameras in the 50s as part of their recovery effort, because even before the War, photography was a national pastime. I remember my father reminiscing about the post-war cameras and how they’d laugh at the “clink” of the mechanisms.

But those cameras sold well to kids and budget-conscious novices. The Japanese are fanatical about attention to detail, and as they brought in revenue from those cheap cameras, their quality got better and better. Names such as Cannon, Mamiya and Pentax suddenly started appearing on the lips of serious photographers, and the medium format camera of the real pros was no longer a wholly German province anymore.

For fast results, of course, Polaroid ruled the roost (and still do for official documents), but those consumer Polaroid photographs degrade to a green blur over time. Still, for applications that required a fast print, Polaroid was the way to go. Today’s kids miss out on the smell of that paper as you peeled it away from the print – always a thrill to a little kid seeing his image slowly come into focus on the film.

Of course, in high school and college I knew nothing of medium and large format cameras - I was never much of a photographer, but my wife is an avid one. In graduate school, through her, I began to discover the world of the 35mm SLR and began to understand the lust for medium format that resided in every serious photographer’s heart.

In 1997, I entered business school. One of my teachers was an actual venture capitalist, and he had invested in a company that was promoting a new technology – digital cameras. Even in 1997 digital cameras were usually bulky and hard to use, with low resolution, But one set of early adopters drove the market – real estate agents. Instead of taking a Polaroid and making a photocopy, a digital image could be emailed to a prospective agent or buyer instantly. This was an instant hit with everyone who had been using Polaroids for similar applications. My teacher made a lot of money at it.

But still, for serious, high resolution work, film ruled the day. The photography world was split over Fuji and Kodak film. The subject of choosing a film type for a given application took up a lot of space in photography magazines. It was generally accepted that Kodak had the better resolution and Fuji had the better color balance, but there was a bewildering array of film types for the professional and serious amateur. Kodak had dominated the American market until they let the chemists get in charge. Those technically-trained senior officers concentrated on further and further technical refinements in resolution that no one but a pro, and even then, only a pro blowing up to poster size, would appreciate. Fuji understood that for most 4 or 5 inch prints, and to most people snapping pictures of their kids, it’s the color that matters. And they had marketers in charge who understood the power of advertising. Fuji scooped Kodak for sponsorship of the 1984 Olympic Games, gaining huge share in the American market. After that, Kodak was playing catch-up, right on into the digital age. If there is ever an argument against the common technical worker’s whine that they do the real work and marketing adds no value, Kodak is it.

Film was still the serious medium of choice in 1999 when my wife and I moved to Tokyo. We were living in photography Mecca. In the US, we had to drive over an hour to find a photography store with a so-so collection of film. In Japan, I worked not far from Yodobashi Camera, the headquarters of the largest retail camera chain in Japan. My wife thought she’d died and gone to heaven. Any type of film she would read about in a book, magazine, or internet post could be found in the film department in the basement of the main store (Yodobashi has about 5 buildings in Shinjuku, all specializing in different things, there’s even a narrow, 6 story building dedicated only to watches).

My wife had a pretty good SLR in Japan (a Cannon), and I had a little Olympus digital for snapshots. I think we went through 2 or 3 of those Olympus cameras as the resolution kept getting better.

But film was still king. We’d go up to the 4th floor of the camera store to let my wife salivate over the huge selection of Hassleblad, Leica, Mamiya, and Pentax medium and large formats. Then she’d go get a sample of Kodak or Fuji’s latest and greatest film.

In the basement of the building where I worked, Pentax had a showroom, half of which was used as an art gallery. Famous Japanese photographers would get a Pentax camera for free and then go out to someplace exotic and take exquisite photographs that were shown in the gallery in large poster format. The camera and lenses used to take the pictures would always be center stage. The show rotated every 2 weeks, so my wife and I would go to lunch together, then peruse the gallery on my lunch break. Good times.

My wife took photography classes and perfected her craft. She took thousands upon thousands of pictures. In July and August, there are fireworks festivals pretty much every weekend somewhere in Tokyo or its environs. She took wonderful pictures of the fireworks on her film camera, while around us in the crowded venues thousands of Japanese were doing the same thing. We’d go early so she could pick our spot. We’d get a box of chicken strips from the KFC in our train station, grab a bunch of drinks from the convenience store, and head out to the park. Once there we had hours to kill, me reading and snacking on that perennial Japanese festival food, grilled squid on a stick, and she snacking on chicken and fiddling with her camera. She even bought a heavy-duty 35 mm SLR EOS system which could take multiple shots per second and had a 45 point focusing system that would track which object your eye was looking at in the field of view and focus on that.

When the pictures of the fireworks, or the castle, or the volcano (we’ve climbed Mt. Fuji twice) were done, we’d bring them back to Yodobashi for developing. Out in front of the main store, on the opposite side from the cameras, in front of the printers, Yodobashi had a kiosk for dropping off film (the kiosks are on the lower right in that photograph, you can't make them out, though). My wife was having none of that for her precious pictures, I was often sent to work with a couple of dozen rolls of film, so that I could climb to the top of the camera building to where the real photo developing center was, and drop off the film on my lunch break. The film drop-off counter only took up about a third of the floor space on that floor, the rest was dedicated to photo albums and their detritus – photo corners and various mounts.

The girls and ladies at the counter grew to recognize me. When I first arrived in Japan, they gave me a lot of the “上手ですね” (you're very skilled, aren't you?) that Japanese often give to foreigners who fill out forms in Kanji instead of English or Kana. Gradually I became just the American dude with all the film. Many of the ladies knew me by name, and Yamada-san always greeted me as soon as I cleared the last step and walked onto their floor.

We left Japan in 2001, but I go back two or three times a year. My wife kept a supply of film from Yodobashi in the freezer for the longest time. For the really good film types, she didn’t trust American developers, and would send me on my biannual pilgrimages with a couple of dozen new rolls for Yodobashi to develop. Even two years after we moved back to America, Yamada-san still knew my name.

Gradually, however, we switched over to digital. The resolution nearly caught up to film, my wife’s SLR came out in a really nice digital version, and developing that many pictures for one or two good shots on the roll is expensive. I was no longer sent to Japan to bring back film for the stash in the freezer.

Three years ago, I was in for a shock – the Pentax Forum was gone! A little piece of my personal history, and a big piece of the history of technology, was gone. Medium format film cameras no longer drew shoppers into the Pentax store, and they switched to selling over the internet. The store and gallery next door, however, was still going strong – a showroom and showcase for Epson printers.

I hadn’t been back to Yodobashi’s camera store in over two years when I went back just a few weeks ago. I’d told my friend Eric that I’d check out the tripods when I was there, and even though I think he already got a nice Slik from B&H, I thought I’d check to see if what I’d told him was still true – that while even Japanese cameras are more expensive in Japan than in the US, the accessories are often cheaper. Turns out that’s sort of still true, but you now have to be careful. Asia is not the bargain it once was (if Japan ever was).

But the prices on the tripods were not the big shock. I made a beeline for the camera section in the main store. There were the digital cameras on the first floor like they used to be. But I headed up the stairs for the film camera section. It was gone! There were plasma flatscreens for sale where the film counter used to be! There were printers in the basement where the film cases used to be, the refrigerated counters like an open dairy case of roll after roll of high grade film. No tripods either. I asked a clerk where the tripods were. He pointed me to a narrow building across the street that used to house digital camera accessories, not quite as small as the watch building, but pretty close.

And there I found the film cameras. A few tiny floors. One example each of film medium formats (some with digital backs) in a sad little 3 shelf display case on the third floor, along with some used medium format cameras, which Yodobashi never used to carry - they left the used market to Camera Doi across the road. Camera Doi is now completely gone from Shinjuku, I think.

The tripods took up one floor, making the camera selection on the other floors even tinier. And no film. No refrigerated cases. And saddest of all for me, no Yamada-san. The top floor had a tiny selection of photo albums, but no film drop off counter. I guess they do most of their film selling and developing through the internet now. Not enough people buy it in a store to make a big display economically feasible. There I was in the camera store that always débuted the best new Japanese cameras of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and now film cameras were an afterthought. The kiosk by the main store that used to have racks and racks of envelopes for you to drop your film into for developing still has kiosks. But they are photo printers that take smart media cards and give you a print on the spot.

This was made all the more surreal by the fact that the Yodobashi jingle was still playing over the outside loudspeakers, a jingle I suspect has not changed in 35 years, the one set to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic": 新宿駅西口の前 (Shinkjuku eki nishi guchi no ma-ei).

So in less than a decade, I can paint a picture of the demise of a technology, in the very country and the very city where it was popularized, from its dominant prime to a curiosity for hobbyists and old fogies who are having none of this digital revolution.

Most technologies die a much slower death. A number of farmers still plowed with horses up until the 1940s, including my own grandfather. Tractors and horses fed America side by side for decades. But the advantages of high-resolution digital were just too great. Instant gratification combined with resolutions that rival or even beat film, killed the old technology. At the moment, I don’t see anything replacing CCDs in the near term. And even then, the future will still be digital.

I wonder where Yamada-san landed. This being Japan, I pretty sure she’s working for Yodobashi in some capacity. I had a touch of nostalgia that night working my way back in a slightly inebriated fashion to the hotel though the electronics stores and izakayas of Nishi Shinjuku’s back alleys. But I’m not particularly sad about the decline of film. It was me, after all, who lugged all that film to the developer. ;-)

And Now for Something Completely Different

Time to post something else to keep this blog from becoming all-Wagner all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud that we exposed this man for what he is when the media was giving him a free ride. But honestly, I’ve only ever dealt with one other crank of that nature, and I knew she was a nutcase from the get-go, the first time she ever appeared in one of my classes. This whole affair makes me feel like I did after I’d gotten rid of her when she used to buttonhole me after class (for long conversations of stuff she knew less than nothing about): kind of fuzzy headed and longing to talk with a rational human being.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Blast From the Past

MWT reminded me that the UCF has encountered a pathological personality such as Wagner's before, albeit by proxy. Does anyone doubt that the pathology of Dr. Andrew Burt almost exactly matches that of "Dr." Walter Wagner?

Exhibit A:

in my opinion it might be possible to find a better example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, but if there is one you’d better hope they don’t work with anything critical to the public, like nuclear power or immunizations. The best I can say about Burt is that he falls into the “means well” category of unintentional menace, although in my experience the petulance and pettiness he indulges in after people are inexplicably unappreciative of his latest well-intentioned disaster don’t recommend him to sympathy; he’s the sort of person who is under the impression that passive-aggressive lashing out can be hidden or mitigated with a smiley-face emoticon at the end of a sentence.

And Exhibit B:

1. Burt’s publishing record, or lack thereof. By his own admission, in Burt’s writing career, which goes back into the last century, he’s produced five short stories that would be SFWA qualifying. His one novel was self-published (publisher: Techsoft. CEO of Techsoft: Andrew Burt) and has more Amazon reviews (seven) than sales registered by BookScan (five). In contrast, Russell Davis has published close to twenty novels and was editor of two book lines at Five Star Publishing, including their SF/F line; his book sales figures dwarf Burt’s by a few orders of magnitude. Davis wrote science fiction for a living; Burt writes science fiction, it seems, largely as an affectation.

Burt would make a virtue of necessity by suggesting he’s not running on his publishing record, because, after all, why would one’s career as a writer be at all relevant to someone who’s running to be president of a major writer’s organization? But of course it does matter, and it should matter. Active professional experience matters to other creative organizations: The president of the Screen Actor’s Guild is not a guy who qualified on a commercial a decade ago and has then spent the intervening time in community theater; the president of the Writers Guild of America (West) isn’t a guy who squeaked into the Guild on a technicality and has since mostly just given workshops at the Learning Annex. And it’s certainly mattered to SFWA in the past: unless my research is wildly off, all of the past presidents of SFWA save one had published novels prior to their presidential tenure; the one exception had his published while he was president and was a multiple Nebula nominee for his short stories before that.

And it matters (or damn well should) to other SFWAns, the ones who have sold books and more than a bare handful of qualifying short stories, to have someone heading their organization who understands the concerns of actual, working writers because they themselves are (or have been) a working writer. Why would you, as a writer, trust someone who has never signed a book contract with a science fiction publisher to engage in fruitful discussion with science fiction publishers about your professional concerns as a writer? Why would you, as a writer, trust someone who has barely any experience as a writer to move the organization in a direction that is relevant to your professional career? Equally importantly, if you were a brand-spanking-new science fiction writer, with your very first book contract in hand, why on earth would you join a professional writer’s organization whose president has less personal experience with book contracts than you do?

Burt is another shining example of the slacker, non-hacker geek I talked about in Delusional. Maybe he and Wagner should write a book.


Of course it would be fiction. Just not science fiction.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Before we begin this vivisection of the comments in this post, I’d like to quote a real physicist (I’m a Physical Chemist, and you note I’m not making original claims about the science here – I’m qualified to interpret the arguments of real nuclear physicist, but it would take years of additional study for me to become one) on what it takes to actually be a physicist. Although I will note that this holds true for all other disciplines of science as well:

Let's be blunt: if you want to even start to call yourself a nuclear physicist -- and by this I mean someone who actually understands what is known fundamental forces well enough to make meaningful predictions as to what they might do in unfortunate circumstances -- you might want to actually have authored a paper in the subject.

Wagner is throwing mud at the wall of credentials, hoping something with his name on it will stick. That is not how a real physicist behaves.

And here we come to the psychology of the individual. I spent a good 12 years of my life teaching and interacting with budding scientists, and I’ve come to recognize the particular archetype that we’re dealing with, here.

Most non-jocks and non-populars segregate out early in middle or high school. The largest remaining social segment is the geek pool, where many try to fit in. This collection of misfits generally has some pretty pathological norms because of the shared experience of rejection. Michael Suileabhain-Wilson ably described many of these peccadilloes in The Five Geek Social Fallacies.

But within the geek group there are the true nerds, and then the also-rans. Within the professional geek group, which includes scientists, engineers, computer programmers, mathematicians, and the like, an exclusionary hierarchy definitely emerges, and professional standards and exams serve as the means whereby slackers and non-hackers can be excluded from the group. It is at this stage that the pseudo-geek, the less talented ones, get their first taste of rejection from the geek group.

I’d venture to guess that no geek is truly unintelligent, but when swimming in a pool enriched in real genii, it is possible for a borderline geek to get an inferiority complex and start acting weird. The engineer “DW”, whom I blogged about when discussing the Young Earth Creationists, is such an example. Although DW was rather intelligent, he was not nearly as intelligent as he thought he was, and going from being a big fish in the High School pond to a little fish (with some real, bona fide genii in the class) at a world class engineering school made him act the way he did, and irritate the piss out of the rest of us.

Others, less intelligent that DW, found solace in geek-like activities such as chess and math games – but success in those endeavors did not necessarily mean success in the classroom or laboratory, and the more time spent on and talking about non-major activities, the more one began to suspect that the geek in question was hiding academic deficiencies. I knew one such individual in graduate school, who spent much time fiddling with bits of code and talking about his Amiga. Most of us chemists were competent but not excellent programmers and computer jocks, so talking with him gave the impression of wide ranging intelligence. My wife took a class with him, and was shocked to find out she did better than him by a whole letter grade. Then I had the same experience. He was a good, but not great, chemist on paper exams. He hid this by constantly talking about stuff we knew something about, but not as much as he did. When the rubber hit the road, though, he was barely average. He eventually flunked out of the thesis part of graduate school because he was not even a good chemist in the lab.

Geek Social Fallacy #1 keeps unfortunates pseudo-geeks in the geek social circle until the end of the undergraduate degree or the end of the required classes in graduate school. Then the slackers and non-hackers get shucked like a corn husk once the real graduate study part of graduate school begins. In many cases this second rejection episode turns their psychology pathological.

Wagner is such a personality.

Let’s first examine his claims that dance around being a scientist, without ever actually hitting the mark that Dr. Steinberg outlined in that quote above.

First, getting 80 / 80 on the CBEST, which is an “objective test” unlike the ones in graduate school. Some physicists and mathematicians are good calculators, others have problems adding 3 digit numbers with consistent accuracy. The ability to calculate (and especially the ability to calculate quickly) and the ability to conceptualize complex functions and hence do higher math are only weakly correlated. I would not go so far to say that they are orthogonal skills, but certainly the correlation coefficient is less than 0.3. Since this is one area where Wagner got a “win”, he keeps coming back to an irrelevant measure.

This is exactly analogous to my erstwhile graduate schoolmate talking about coding on his Amiga for problems that were not required in class. When it came to actually writing code to simulate the diffusion of electrolytes around an electrode for Electrochemistry class, well, he had to ask me for help. Wagner’s admitted he didn’t do as well on a test that measured calculus ability, but that was because they were asking how to teach physics, not how to do it. That’s a subject matter test, not a philosophy of education test. Suuuuure, Wagner, we believe you. And my ex-schoolmate’s ability to create games on his Amiga gave him the ability to simulate voltammetry. Not.

There is a term in physics – necessary, but not sufficient. Oh yes there is. How does performance on a standardized test qualify one to actually be a scientist? Only in the sense that published scientists necessarily did have to pass such tests in order to enroll in their degree programs. I mean, I passed my black belt test, but that does not make me Benny "The Jet" Urquidez. On the other hand, success on a speed calculating test is not even necessary to do high level science, evidenced by the fact that such sections appear on the CBEST and the ASVAB, but not in the GRE or GRE Physics subject matter tests.

Second, when confronted with the fact that it is apparent that the math test he’s been touting all over the net is a non sequitur, Wagner goes on the offensive against the entire system of graduate education the world over:

Now, as I understand it, you have not passed any objective examinations since your college days. Your 'orals' given by your buddy professors are not fully objective. Written objective examinations, such as the two I took, can be examined over and over, year after year, because they are objective.

Oh yes. Standardized tests are reproducible, which is not the same as being objective. IQ test scores are reproducibly rising due to education programs shifting over time to curricula that “teach the test”. Standardized tests serve as a first-pass filter. They strain out the complete non-hackers. Every holder of a B.Sc. in mathematical science can remember working on problem sets that took days, even weeks to figure out. Those problems can not be included in a timed exam, and yet are the very problems that separate the average geek from the exceptional one.

So, after the GRE (yet another “objective exam I have not heard any claims from Wagner about), how are the budding graduate geeks further sieved against incompetence? With graduate classes, containing the sort of “objective” exams that Wagner claims are superior to oral exams. In most cases two years of such classes. The kind of classes Wagner was not able to pass even one of in the Berkeley physics program. Those graduate exams make undergraduate finals look like middle school algebra tests. They are often “take-home” exams to give adequate time to do the problems, and as such contain problems completely unlike the ones in the books (although based on the same material), and require extensive thought. This kind of exam is getting closer to the kind of work a real scientist does, and is exactly why I asked Wagner if he’d ever passed one. You have to pass more than one to be a real, working scientist, and especially to call yourself a nuclear physicist.

After this come the oral exams. And guess what, Walter? Those are not really exams, they are quality control devices and plagiarism detectors. The “exam” from working on a single, difficult problem for 4 years or more is the peer-reviewed paper, as Dr. Steinberg pointed out. That is how real scientists are measured, and that is how graduate students are measured. It is almost impossible to obtain a Ph.D. these days without publications, and the peer review exposes any flaws in your arguments by subjecting it to criticism from potential rivals. It is only after publishing that the oral exams are taken. Their sole purpose is make sure that the work was done by the student and not the professor. The exam can ask about anything, not just what’s on the study syllabus for some test. I was asked to re-derive equations in my defense that weren’t even in the thesis document, they were just peripherally related. Reproducible? No way, different professors nitpick at different things. Objective? You betcha, because if I did not know the details of my own thesis material it would have become readily, painfully apparent.

So now we have a claim that timed calculation tests make one as smart as a nuclear physicist, and that being as smart as one makes you one. I think even the non-scientists reading this see the flaws in that logic. This is the logic of the also-ran, the slacker, the non-hacker who could not even get an undergraduate degree in physics. The geek who can’t handle rejection from the group. The sad thing is that a B.Sc. in Biology from Berkeley is nothing to sneeze at. It’s just that Physics sits on top of the difficulty heap in the hierarchy of science, and Wagner wants into that club so bad he can taste it. So bad he’ll claim to be in it under oath:

I am a nuclear physicist with extensive training in the field. I obtained my undergraduate degree in 1972 at Berkeley, California in the biological sciences with a physics minor, and graduate degree in 1978 in Sacramento, California in law.

Fortunately for Wagner, there is no legal definition of “nuclear physicist” which can be used to charge him with perjury. But by any scientist’s definition, he is not one (See Dr. Steinberg above). Deep down, he has to know that no real scientist takes this seriously.

I know he knows it because he then goes on to claim that his experience as a Radiation Safety Officer further bolsters his claim to be a nuclear physicist:

Essentially, my job was to look for and root-out the safety flaws overlooked by scientific researchers as it pertained to nuclear physics, as a protection not only for the researcher’s own health, but for the visitors and population at large.

I call bullshit, Walter. Why? Because, aside from investigators overseeing the administration of clinical trials, there are no "scientific researchers" as a normal human being defines the term, at the VA. And those clinical trialists certainly do not do any research "as it pertained to nuclear physics". They use radiomedicine, tried and true techniques far from the cutting edge of nuclear physics. The responsibilities of a Radiation Safety Officer have nothing to do with the calculations of risk at CERN. Proof? You want proof that the paragraph in that lawsuit about Wagner's responsibilities at the VA was an exaggeration?

Well, lucky for us we live in the age of the internet, where Wagner's very job description is advertised:

HEALTH PHYSICIST (Radiation Safety Officer)

The Department of Veterans Affairs New Jersey Healthcare System is seeking a full-time Radiation Safety Officer for our Imaging Service and Radiation Safety Program, which includes Radiation Oncology, Diagnostic Radiology, Nuclear medicine and research divisions.

The VA NJHCS is a consolidated facility comprised of two main campuses, one in East Orange and the other in Lyons, New Jersey.


The Radiation Safety Officer is responsible for investigating all overexposures, accidents, spills, losses, thefts, unauthorized receipts, uses, transfers, disposals, miss-administrations, and other deviations from approved radiation safety practice and implementing corrective actions as necessary. The RSO is also responsible for implementing, or causing to be implemented, all written policies and procedures related to radiation safety under the direction of the Medical Center Director, his delegates and the Radiation Safety Committee. Additional duties of the position include: Training of personnel, maintaining all pertinent records and permits, managing waste disposal for all users of radioactivity at the medical center


· All applicants must be U.S. Citizens

· Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Science that includes at least 30 semester hours in health physics, engineering, radiological science, chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and/or calculus.

· Experience as an RSO strongly desired.

· Certification as a health physicist by the American Board of Health Physics is strongly desired.

· Satisfy State and Federal regulations for RSO qualification in accordance with the National Health Physics Program for designation on an NRC permit.

Uh huh. Does that look like the job description of a nuclear physicist to you? Me neither. Now, let's take a look at the CVs of some people I found by googling "Berkeley particle physics", because I wanted to show how far from the mark Wagner's "credentials" are from those of real scientists in this very field who were in some way associated with his very school:

Chris Quigg

Joanne D Cohn

C. B. Thorn

Daniel T. Larson

Stephen D.H. Hsu

Joshua Simon Bloom

Go on, click on those links. See how many list even things like National Merit Scholarships, to say nothing of standardized test scores. Some mention Phi Beta Kappa, because that is something you earn through more than the effort put into a single test, and science CVs are all about the honors, publications and accolades you earn from years of hard work. Now go on, do your own google search. Most CVs of Academics are on the web. Match them up against Wagner. Now go to Google Scholar. Look up Wagner's publication record. Go ahead, do it again. Oh, I forgot, Wagner wuz robbed. Of his one and only publication.

Sorry Wagner. I know of Professor Price by reputation. He's a class act, and he's been in the National Academy since the 70s. He would not get 45 Ph.D. students and 44 post-docs by screwing people out of their publication rights. That happens once, and the world gets out. No more grad students for the good professor. Once again, I call bullshit. Once again, Wagner = non-hacker.

So Wagner looks like a preening idiot even to the non-delusional layman at this point. He does not care. This isn't the first time he's called a non-issue a "safety problem" to stroke his own ego. All he cares about is his standing with people like jtankers. Because his is a world class ego tied to a minor-league intellect, and keeping this little gravy train going is his only claim to fame. This is the ego that drives the pseudo-geek rejected by professional geekdom. And I'd never have even gotten into this fray if he wasn't costing me money via the courts, and if his idiocy hadn't earned death threats for a real, Nobel-winning scientist. But he is and it did.

Let me be clear. In this day and age of specialization, it is close to impossible for a layman to be on the cutting edge of science. The low-hanging fruit is gone. Edison would be a minor researcher in some industrial lab today. And in Academia, publications rule the day.

Wagner is going to trot out the old "the entire physics community has a grudge against me and I'm never going to get published in a peer-reviewed journal" tripe. Heh. Unfortunately for him there now exists Xarchiv. You can publish on Xarchiv without peer review, and should your genius be such that it does not need peer review, that will be self-evident. Even kooks and budding kooks such as Plaga and Werbos publish stuff on Xarchiv. It gets ignored (in the case of Werbos) or knocked down (in the case of Plaga), but it's there. Where' Wagner's opus? The same place his credentials reside.

And so to recap: today all physicists have undergraduate and / or graduate degrees in physics. Wagner is a slacker and a non-hacker who never managed to get an undergraduate degree in Physics. Physicists publish papers. Wagner talks about passing a test aimed at school teachers. Physicists publish papers. Wagner talks about objective” testing. Physicists publish papers. Wagner’s friends talk about his chess prowess (DW was a great chess player, BTW – and I still beat the pants off him in chemistry). Physicists publish peer-reviewed papers. Wagner talks about suggesting that concrete be poured over nuclear waste in a secret, temporary storage site to prevent terrorist attacks.* Getting Wagner on-topic is like nailing jello to a wall. Because there is nothing there but ego.

*A site that could be protected easily with a no-fly zone, as are all nuclear plants in the US. It’s likely that his colleagues laughed not because of the remote possibility of terrorist attack (and in pre-9/11 days, a ground-based infiltration was more likely, and possibly still is) but because sealing the waste without proper treatment and precautions would lead to dangerous gas formation and possible vessel bursting, as almost happened at Hanford before the stirrers were installed.

[Update - for all those who care, I'm a Leo. Shows, doesn't it? :D]

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A bunch of random stuff; the triumph of economics

When the economic going gets tough, the tough economists bust out Schumpeter:

Schumpeter's theory is that the success of capitalism will lead to a form of corporatism and a fostering of values hostile to capitalism, especially among intellectuals. The intellectual and social climate needed to allow entrepreneurship to thrive will not exist in advanced capitalism; it will be replaced by socialism in some form. There will not be a revolution, but merely a trend in parliaments to elect social democratic parties of one stripe or another. He argued that capitalism's collapse from within will come about as democratic majorities vote for the creation of a welfare state and place restrictions upon entrepreneurship that will burden and destroy the capitalist structure. Schumpeter emphasizes throughout this book that he is analyzing trends, not engaging in political advocacy. In his vision, the intellectual class will play an important role in capitalism's demise. The term "intellectuals" denotes a class of persons in a position to develop critiques of societal matters for which they are not directly responsible and able to stand up for the interests of strata to which they themselves do not belong. One of the great advantages of capitalism, he argues, is that as compared with pre-capitalist periods, when education was a privilege of the few, more and more people acquire (higher) education. The availability of fulfilling work is however limited and this, coupled with the experience of unemployment, produces discontent. The intellectual class is then able to organise protest and develop critical ideas.
- From the Schumpeter Wikpedia Page

Oops. Schumpeter was apparently right again. I just wish it didn't have to happen on our watch.

He goes on:

In the same book, Schumpeter expounded a theory of democracy which sought to challenge what he called the 'classical doctrine'. He disputed the idea that democracy was a process by which the electorate identified the common good, and politicians carried this out for them. He argued this was unrealistic, and that people's ignorance and superficiality meant that in fact they were largely manipulated by politicians, who set the agenda. This made a 'rule by the people' concept both unlikely and undesirable. Instead he advocated a minimalist model, much influenced by Max Weber, whereby democracy is the mechanism for competition between leaders, much like a market structure. Although periodical votes from the general public legitimize governments and keep them accountable, the policy program is very much seen as their own and not that of the people, and the participatory role for individuals is severely limited.

Schumpeter wrote this stuff in 1942. The world was embroiled in the greatest industrial war to date, following a profoundly destructive economic depression. Those who don't understand history are destined to repeat it, and the small majority who do understand it are still just screwed anyway.

Tonight I was looking at gas prices. It has seemed to me that there has been a bit of a disconnect between the price of oil and the retail price of gasoline, and I was fascinated by what I found.

Of course the price of gasoline at the pump lags the spot price of oil, so statistics are a little tough. Looking at trends over different time periods can be very illustrative, however.

Wonder what gas is supposed to cost? Here's the formula:

(Oil price per barrel/42)/0.56*

* A general average using the spot price for benchmark North Sea Brent Crude

Today oil was $69. That equals $2.93 per gallon of regular unleaded at the pump. Today the national average for regular unleaded was 3.08. As we say, gas prices naturally lag oil prices, because of the delay in getting the oil refined and delivered. When gas prices are stable, they tend to equal out near the 56% factor - e.g. the cost of oil averages 56% of the cost of a gallon of regular gasoline.

When oil prices are volatile, the relationship lags in both directions, but the lag is a lot longer to the downside: i.e. gas goes up the minute that oil goes up, but doesn't come down until the market forces it down.

But it is interesting: when oil is volatile, price fixing and collusion in the market is a lot easier to spot. When gas and oil move in opposite directions, clearly there's something going on.

There's a great web site to observe this: Vermont Gas Prices

Go there, select your local area, the national average, and overlay crude oil prices.

What I saw was that the relationship is usually pretty consistent, but recently, in some selected parts of the country, gas and oil spot prices have headed in opposite directions.

This sort of thing is extremely corrosive to the economy. In a market as large as oil, it takes a great deal of collusion to send gasoline prices in the opposite direction from oil prices.

Even in a rigged market, however, it is very difficult to maintain this sort of price fixing, and it is certain that if the price of oil stabilizes, the price of gasoline across the country will eventually level off near the actual opportunity cost.

We're in a time where economics are the paramount issue of the day. Our nation is currently making decisions that will define our national economic identity for years, perhaps generations, to come. Perhaps we will never recover if we make the wrong decisions. Perhaps it's already too late.

Some fantastically significant and important decisions were made in the last couple of weeks, basically without any serious discussion or consideration, either by government or the people. Were the right decisions made? I don't think we have any idea. Have we commited our future to socialism with no possible alternative course? I really hope not.

We should be having a very serious national discussion about the role of government, what we expect from it, and what sacrifices or tradeoffs we are willing to make. But that discussion is masked or distorted by the coincidental political season. I wonder if future historians will look at this period and judge that we drove ourselves off a cliff because of a very unlucky coincidence of fate.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pirate Text Messaging

From Savage Chickens.

More on Technology History

If Dennis and Ken had had a Selectric instead of a Teletype, we'd be typing "copy" and "remove" instead of "cp" and "rm" today.
- The Unix Haters Handbook

I've been trying to decide if the evidence really suggests that technological progress is slowing significantly, or if that is a misapprehension based on anecdotal experience.

From the comments in the nostalgia post, I started thinking about the pace of technological change in the last several years, and whether things "take longer" now than they used to.

I think this is somewhat counterintuitive. We're used to thinking, I believe, that the pace of change, and the pace of life in general, is accelerating. But I've started to think that's the opposite of the actual situation.

There's no question that change has not only slowed, but reversed, in aerospace technology. I've written about that quite a bit, and it depresses the hell out of me.

We've been accustomed, however to continued rapid advancements in information technology, thanks to Moore's law, but we've now gotten to the point that Moore's Law looks like it has its limits. (About the year 2021, according to researchers at Intel. Notice a trend here?)

Short of the limits of Moore's Law, however, is Wirth's Law, which says that software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster. That's a real no-sh1tt3r, as we sometimes say. Most commercial software today is awful crap. Did I blog about how it took me nearly a week to get Windows Vista to install and run? Once it finally did install, I let it run (or I should say crash) for about 2 hours before I wiped the machine and installed Linux.

I do think open source software reverses the trend of Wirth's Law, and its one of the few things that gives me hope for the future. I'm really, really hoping the economy of free actually turns out to be viable.

So I've been thinking about changes in technology, and my use of technology over the years. For those who may have heard these stories before, I apologize.

I started college (in 1983) with a manual typewriter - specifically the Remington Rand portable that my grandmother took to college herself in 1927. It was broken, and I had to rig up a series of pulleys and fishing weights to advance the carriage. After the first couple of term papers on that machine, I told my mother that I had to do something different, and she gave me the electric Smith Corona that she had used in college in 1962. That served me through my freshman and sophmore year until I took a few computer courses and figured out that word processing might be a big advancement.

I had used a Correcting Selectric at work before college, and thought it was the most advanced piece of technology I had ever seen, along with the Telecopier, that involved putting a piece of paper on a large metal drum and dialing a phone number, whereupon the large machine at the other end would spin around with a blank page inserted and eventually a copy of your page would appear at the other end. I was first acquainted with this technology around 1980.

Before that (in the 1970s), as I mentioned in the comments to the previous post, I had hung around the computer lab at a local university because I was fascinated by the mainframe (which was probably actually PDP-11 minicomputer, although I don't fully remember) and all the things it could do. There were huge IBM punchcard machines and large floor-mounted terminals with teletypes for display. The best function of this machine, that I could determine, was a purely text-based game called "Star Trek". In this game you would engage the Klingons by guessing their location and vulnerabilities, issuing orders to your crew via the teletype, and exchange phaser fire until one of you was toast. Afterward you could collect all the green-and-white teletype paper off the floor and review the whole game, or save it for posterity. (Which I did, but apparently posterity ended quite a while back.) This would have been around 1976-1977.

So when I started taking some computer classes in college, things had advanced somewhat, and a Vax 11/780 was the backbone of the computer science department. Much more credentialed geeks than me told me that the Vax (which ran a pretty modern version version of Unix known as VMS) was actually pretty outdated, compared to the newest personal computers. One of my wealthier friends had an original IBM PC that he didn't use because he said it was already too slow and outdated (in 1985), so he let me use it for my schoolwork, which was probably the biggest revolution in information technology I've ever experienced in my life.

So I went from a 1927 Remington Rand manual typewriter to the IBM PC in less than three years - that was a lot of change in a short time.

When I graduated, I purchased an IBM PC, with no hard drive and two 360K 5.25 inch floppies, for about $1700 (in 1986 dollars). I ran IBM PC DOS on one floppy, and stored my personal files on the other. For a long time I used a copy of an internal IBM text editor called, of course, "e". Later I graduated to WordStar, and moved on to WordPerfect (still for DOS) by the time I got to grad school. WordPerfect was the first "professional grade" word processor that I had seen, and it had lots of features I never understood.

I was still using pure-DOS, although I had obtained a 386 machine with a hard drive, a graphics card, and a color monitor, by the time I finished grad school in 1993.

At work (in 1993) we still had DOS-based machines on our desktop, although our office had a couple of high-end Unix workstations (one was a DEC and the other was a Sun, I think) that ran X-windows and Motif.

Not long after that, I was doing some pretty bleeding-edge technology work (read about it here - although that account is substantially incorrect) and started working with Windows-based PCs substantially for the first time. It was also about this time that I really started to investigate and use the internet seriously. I was unimpressed with Windows from the outset, but needed to use it for compatibility with some of the graphics programs that we used in remote sensing, and for the network file-sharing functions. At the time the dominant Windows version was 3.11 for Workgroups, which meant it had extensions for Windows networking. To get it on the internet, you had to install a third-party IP stack. I believe the one I used was called "Trumpet Winsock".

So in 10 years, I had gone from the 1927 Remington Rand manual typewriter to a laptop (substantially outwardly identical to the one I'm typing on now) running a graphical user interface connected to the internet.

Of course, that's just my personal experience, and certainly not the actual timeline of the invention of the technology (the graphical personal computer actually first came along in 1973), but my experience was not untypical, and in many ways I was ahead of the curve.

I had first used networking in 1977, when I plugged the phone into one of those those rubber-cup modems to connect to the PDP-11 and play Star Trek, and had joined Compuserve in 1986 because a disk came with the modem that I had purchased to connect to the VAX at school. Certainly most people I knew were not using personal computers at all in the 1980s, nor using the internet until the very late 1990s.

But I think the point is that there were big changes in people's use of information technology between 1983 and 1993, and more big changes (mainly related to the internet and networking) betweeen 1993 and 2003, but I now think the changes have slowed.

I just mentioned the laptop I'm using today (a 2007 Dell model) is outwardly identical to the one I used in 1994 (an IBM Thinkpad, which I still have and it still works). Both use a graphical interface on a high-resolution color LCD monitor, both connect to the internet at comparatively rapid speeds (broadband wireless today vs. 14,400 baud modem in 1994, but most of those 1994 web pages loaded as fast on the modem as the 2008 web pages load on the broadband connection).

The desktop machines I have around the house are outwardly identical to the ones from 1993, just faster with lots more storage and memory. What else has changed?

Ubiquitous broadband is an advancement - from around 1997, as is wireless networking. I first ordered an ISDN line around 1996, and had an early pre-802.11 wireless network to connect to it by 1998. By 2001 I had DSL and 802.11. Those were incremental improvements, however, over wired dialup.

Perhaps the biggest recent advancements have been in personal wireless devices, however. I first had a cell phone in my car in 1990, and had my first "pocket cell phone" around 1993, I think. Today I have a wireless device that surfs the internet (poorly) and receives GPS position overlaid on Google Earth imagery, as well as placing phone calls (poorly). But it does more than my desktop did in 1998, which is an advancement. I have this sense that personal wireless devices are hitting the wall too, however, although they have it it much more recently. My latest device (a Blackberry) is a much crappier telephone than the plain old cell phone it replaced, and I don't know what else they can add to it beyond the capabilities it already has. (I'm really looking forward to the Google Phone, though).

So the big trend of more processing power in smaller packages, which, coupled with wireless, offers consumers more and new information power, seems to be continuing at some level, but I'm just not sure for how much longer. The changes just seem to be getting smaller and more incremental. Where are my high-resolution VR goggles? Weren't they supposed to be commonplace by now?

Looking around at other kinds of technology, I just don't see much new in a long time. TV's are converging with computer networks, and old-style television will be gone soon. But the technology that's replacing it isn't new, it's just taken a very long time to supplant a technology as deeply imbedded in culture as television. And TV content itself has really gone completely to hell. We've gone from "Hawaii 5-0 (or better yet, Hawaiian Eye and Adventures in Paradise) to "Survivor: Gambia" and "Dancing with the Stars". The main thing I do with my TV is listen to satellite radio, which I suppose is another recent advancement, although it is an application much older technologies. .

Other major technologies also seem stagnant. Automobiles saw substantial advancements in reliability over the last generation, but haven't gotten significantly more efficient since the 1970s. Hybrid cars are a recent development, but so far they haven't really changed anything. If there are any areas that cry out for technological improvement, its energy and transportation, but I really get the impression that the automobile and oil industries are actually opposed to real advancement.

I wonder if my suspicion of technological stagnation makes me some kind of Luddite. It isn't that I'm not in favor of technological improvement, I just think were rapidly nearing a period of major and prolonged stagnation, which is likely to have far-reaching and poorly understood implications.

Perhaps we need it, however. Rapid changes of all kinds over the last generation have produced great strains on our society, and maybe we need a break. Maybe this stagnation, if it is real, will offer our civilization a change to "catch its breath" and "recharge its batteries", in order to enter a new period of rapid advancement in the future. I hope so.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


As he is wont to do, Walter Wagner finally stopped by Mixed Nuts and left a drive by comment. I missed it, since I don't get email updates of comments, but I'll re-post here in it's entirety:

It certainly seems easy to post horses--- about others when you do so without revealing your identity.

If you're so sure of yourself, ID yourself when you engage in ad hominem attacks.

I do not personally know Dr. Plaga, but I have read many of his papers. He is exceptionally knowledgeable in physics, something you are clearly lacking in.

As to my credentials, they are neither exaggerated nor minimized. I majored in physics for three years, switched majors my senior year to biological sciences [a science of which you are also likely woefully ignorant], and hence technically I minored in physics. Thereafter I spent two years training incoming graduate physics students in cosmic radiation techniques, while also analyzing cosmic radiation physics experiments. Thereafter, I spent five years managing a complex radioactive materials license with approximately 200 users of radioactive materials with Z = 1-92. I took a breather from that field to work in science education. Out of 10,000 applicants, I scored 80/80 on the mathematics portion of the examination, with the second highest scorer obtaining 79/80.

Now, if you can take a test like that and ace it, I'd be happy to discuss subjects with you. Otherwise, I'm simply casting my pearls before swine.

Since I do not normally read for your blog, I'll likely not see your response. If you wish to communicate anything of value, you should email me at the address at my website.


Walter L. Wagner

Ah yes Walter, I'm just some guy on the internet. In fact, I am, but let me repeat:

These people [this means you, Walter] in no way have earned a polite response from the legitimate scientific community. They need to be ostracized from legitimate scientific discourse on the ‘Net. The politeness with which they are treated at CERN and at physics blogs where the scientists blog under their own names is due only to the natural degree of civility of those scientists. Unfortunately, that makes the anti-LHC crowd look as if they are carrying on a legitimate debate. If they pulled their rhetorical tricks in meatspace on real topics, someone would drop their ass with a well-aimed right hook, or at the very least tell them directly to shut the fuck up.

This is where I come in. I blog anonymously. This opens me up to accusations of just being “some guy on the net” and lying about my credentials. I don’t give a shit. Real scientists will see the telltale signs of my scientific training in the topics I choose and the way in which I talk about them. Laymen can take my writing to a known expert and see the same thing. Everyone else in the nutjob category can take a running jump. My purpose here is to get, somewhere on the net, a non-polite response to the anti-LHC idiocy. I want to show what the rational people are really thinking when they deal with this mess.

At least we've cleared up this math test, thing, it's been reported differently on different sites. It's the California Math Teacher's Exam, right? Hmmm. At first I was going to give the dude a few props for at least knowing math up to integral calculus. That's freshman-level stuff in science, math and engineering, but still, it's a good deal higher math than most conspiranoiacs.

But I just had to dig a little deeper, because nothing is what it seems in Wagner World.

The single-subject math test is scored on a 300 point scale, with 220 being passing. Then I looked at the words he used, again. Did Wagner lie? I don't think so. Looking at his tactics to this point, Wagner at least got this out of law school debate practice - if you need to spin something, make every statement factually accurate, but leave out facts critical of your case and word it in such a way as to lead the listener to the opposite conclusion of a person who has all those facts.

The key words are:

Out of 10,000 applicants, I scored 80/80 on the mathematics portion of the examination, with the second highest scorer obtaining 79/80.

Mathematics portion? 80 point scale? Oh. I see. He's talking about the CBEST. Which is scored on an 80 point scale. The test that everyone, from elementary to secondary education, has to pass in order to teach in California. Even kindergarten teachers.

The CSETs, on the other hand, are subject matter tests, so if, say you want to be a physics teacher in California high schools, you take this. Now there is math in that test, but there's no "math section", because it's a single subject test. We don't ask our English teachers to know integral calculus (although we should - sorry Eric :p).

Let's look at the math requirements for this 80 point test, shall we?

A. Estimation and Measurement
Understand and use standard units of length, temperature, weight, and capacity in the U.S. measurement system.
Measure length and perimeter.
Understand and use estimates of time to plan and achieve work-related objectives.
Estimate the results of problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division prior to computation.

B. Statistical Principles
Perform arithmetic operations with basic statistical data related to test scores (e.g., averages, ratios, proportions, and percentile scores).
Understand basic principles of probability and predict likely outcomes based on data provided (e.g., estimate the likelihood that an event will occur).
Interpret the meaning of standardized test scores (e.g., stanine scores, ercentiles) to determine how individuals performed relative to other students.

Add, subtract, multiply, and divide with whole numbers.
Add and subtract with positive and negative numbers.
Add, subtract, multiply, and divide with fractions, decimals, and percentages.
Determine and perform necessary arithmetic operations to solve a practical mathematics problem (e.g., determine the total invoice cost for ordered supplies by multiplying quantity by unit price, summing all items).
Solve simple algebraic problems (e.g., equations with one unknown).
Determine whether enough information is given to solve a problem; identify the facts given in a problem.
Recognize alternative mathematical methods of solving a problem.

Recognize relationships in numerical data (e.g., compute a percentage change from one year to the next).
Recognize the position of numbers in relation to each other (e.g., 1/3 is between 1/4 and 1/2; -7<-4). Use the relations less than, greater than, or equal to, and their associated symbols to express a numerical relationship. Identify numbers, formulas, and mathematical expressions that are mathematically equivalent (e.g., 2/4 = 1/2, 1/4 = 25%). Understand and use rounding rules when solving problems. Understand and apply the meaning of logical connectives (e.g., and, or, if-then) and quantifiers (e.g., some, all, none). Identify or specify a missing entry from a table of data (e.g., subtotal). Use numerical information contained in tables, spreadsheets, and various kinds of graphs (e.g., bar, line, circle) to solve mathematics problems.

Well, Walter, I'm very glad that you can solve simple algebraic problems and use the relations less than, greater than, or equal to, and their associated symbols to express a numerical relationship, but what exactly his has to do with scientific acumen, and acumen in Nuclear Physics in particular, escapes me entirely.

As for hereafter, I spent five years managing a complex radioactive materials license with approximately 200 users of radioactive materials with Z = 1-92, yes, filling out all the Federal paperwork for receiving and disposing of medical radioactives at a large hospital (with roughly 200 doctors, nurses and techs in some way involved in radiology, from X-rays to radiomedicine) is complicated, but complicated in a legal, fill-out-the-forms sense, not in a "let's see if we discovered a new cosmic ray" sense.

And Z = 1 - 92? Hydrogen to Uranium? Dude. I'm a chemist. I know what Z is. No, they don't use any of the transuranium or transactinide elements in nuclear medicine. This kind of silliness only impresses yokels such as jtankers.

Now, since I'm a scientist, I also know that you can't just switch majors in your third year on a whim - too many prereqs and required courses. The courseload overlap with physics is minimal. Either you were trying for a double major and failed, or you were trying for a minor all along - I'm assuming you were not a super senior.

Then you became a lab tech. Thereafter I spent two years training incoming graduate physics students in cosmic radiation techniques, while also analyzing cosmic radiation physics experiments.

You were a scanner for the Berkeley lab. No one denies this, it just doesn't make you a Nuclear Physicist. Yes, I was trained on instruments such as Raman Spectrometers, NMRs and EPRs by lab techs who were responsible for those instruments when I was a grad student. They went home from work every day at 5:00. I didn't. I went on to get a Ph.D. They didn't.

Here's the deal. Nuclear Physics is a graduate discipline. As far as I know, you never passed a graduate physics class. I note that you are very careful never to mention any graduate training in physics. Very good, Mr. Wagner, Esq. Never get caught in an outright lie. If I am wrong, give me the names of the graduate classes you passed, and the professors who taught them.

You are misleading people about your credentials and you are misrepresenting yourself as a "doctor" with a JD.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Some Nostalgia

We did this occasionally on my old blog. Hopefully it is a little less controversial than the LHC :)

From my friend Michael Haskins:

How many do you remember?

Head lights dimmer switches on the floor.
Ignition switches on the dashboard.
Heaters mounted on the inside of the fire wall.
Real ice boxes.
Pant leg clips for bicycles without chain guards.
Soldering irons you heat on a gas burner.
Using hand signals for cars without turn signals.

Older Than Dirt Quiz: Count all the ones that you remember not the ones you
were told about Ratings at the bottom.

1. Blackjack chewing gum
2. Wax Coke-shaped bottles with colored sugar water
3 Candy cigarettes
4. Soda pop machines that dispensed glass bottles
5 Coffee shops or diners with tableside juke boxes
6 Home milk delivery in glass bottles with cardboard stoppers
7. Party lines
8. Newsreels before the movie
9. P.F. Flyers
10. Butch wax
11. Telephone numbers with a word prefix (OLive-6933)
12. Peashooters
13. Howdy Doody
14. 45 RPM records
15. S&H Green Stamps
16 Hi-fi's
17 Metal ice trays with lever
18 Mimeograph paper
19 Blue flashbulb
20. Packards
21. Roller skate keys
22. Cork popguns
23. Drive-ins
24. Studebakers
25 Wash tub wringers

If you remembered 0-5 = You're still young
If you remembered 6-10 = You are getting older
If you remembered 11-15 = Don't tell your age,
If you remembered 16-25 = You're older than dirt!

I have some more - some more modern, some much less so: How many of these things do you both remember, or better, remember using regularly:

1. 5 1/4 inch floppies (or better yet, 8 inch floppies). Bonus points if you remember the capacities of 5.25 and 8 inch disks. Extra bonus points if you had a computer that loaded the operating system on floppies.

2. The TRS-80

3. Pure-text internet. The idea from this post came from John's reference to Usenet. Bonus points if you used the pure-text internet on a machine with floppy-loaded operating system and a monochrome (green) monitor, connected via a 2400 baud modem. (Bonus points if you thought 2400 baud was impossibly fast.)

4. A modem (probably 1200 or maybe even 300 baud) that involved sticking the phone handset into large rubber cups.

5. Gopher

6. Loading an IP stack into Windows For Workgroups 3.11 to connect to the internet via a modem (maybe 4800 or even 9600 baud).

Moving on to some non-internet stuff:

7. The TV antenna on the roof of your house that had a large dial on top of the TV to rotate and point it (I may have used that one in my old blog).

8. Cable TV with 13 (or fewer) channels.

9. Making coffee with a percolator, or even by putting the grounds directly in a pot of water and boiling them (folks who camp or spend a lot of time in remote areas without electricity (Jim maybe?) probably not only remember that but still do it that way.

10. Those "All in one" stereo systems that combined a turntable, cassette player, and receiver in one, cheap, enclosure. Speakers were usually separate. Double bonus points if you had one of those in quadraphonic.

One of my new favourite TV shows is "Mad Men", because of its very authentic and detailed portrayal of life in the early 1960s. I wish there were a web page accounting all the little details about this show - many of which I know from experience are authentic, and others which I don't personally remember but accordingly couldn't dispute.

I really think the recent past has a lot to teach us about the present and the future. To try to figure out where we are going, it is imperative to understand how we got here. I just hope our immediate future looks more like the 50s or 60s, or even 70s (!) than the 1930s, which is what it looks like right now.

Some follow up: I scored "older than dirt" on Mike's list above, but I'm really not. I'm a Gen-X-er, albeit one of the oldest, and that makes me hardly even middle-aged. The point is that there has been a heck of a lot of change, in society, in technology, in life, just in our lifetimes.

I've written before (maybe here, I'd have to check) that the rate of technological change has been slowing, and in some areas we've gone backwards For example, we can't fly to the moon today, and I bet that had you polled rocket scientists, not to mention ordinary people, in 1969 or 1973, they would have said travel to the moon would be routine by 2008. Had you told the folks on Apollo 17 that they were making possibly the last trip to the moon EVER, they absolutely would not have believed it. They still had hope for the future.

I get the impression that the rate of social change is slowing as well, but this is a much less precise metric. The last generation saw the "liberation" of women (which I, as an apparently very politically incorrect retro chauvinist type guy, still don't understand), and the realization of substantial social equality, which I do understand. The most recent major change seems to involve acceptance of sexual choices and preference, which I think is a very different "revolution" than the others, and I don't think we have a clue what it means.

What's next? What frontiers of inequality or unfairness remain to be conquered? Unfortunately I think the future could involve the pendulum swinging back the other way, rather than continuing on in the direction of progressive change.

I think the fact that I cringed when I wrote the word "progressive" is somehow an indication of so-far dimly appreciated future trends. Who could be against "progressive"? Yet the word has deep, subconscious political baggage.

Anyway, I think appreciation and understanding of the past is going to be increasingly important, because our current historical cycle has just plain run out of steam, so the future is not going to resemble the recent past at all. The question is whether it will resemble anything to which we can relate in any way.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Commenters and Me

This is a collaborative blog, so I am speaking for myself only, although I suspect that CW has a similar comments policy to mine. I am normally polite, even to commenters who do not agree with me. Eric disagrees with me in just about every way imaginable on the mechanics of politics (although not on most of the goals, I must admit), and we debate each other all the time in a private forum as well as our own blogs. I normally enjoy debate with sharp and intelligent opponents. I really enjoy debate with Eric.

If you comment on my posts and are reasonably polite, then you’ll get a reasonably polite response. You can ask Eric and Jim, who disagree with me most on this forum and on their own blogs.

There is one group of people I have no patience for, however: people who believe and espouse ideas that are demonstrably false in the face of proof that those ideas are false. This would include Wiccans who claim that their religion is ancient, rather than dating back to just before the days of Alstair Crowley who took ancient, but moribund ideas and crafted them into something only a New Ager could love. This would especially include Young Earth Creationists, whom I took to task in this post. Most recently, this includes the opponents of the Large Hadron Collider. One of the reasons this groups ticks me off so much is that they hunt down every blog post on the subject and spam it, as you can see in the comments to my posts.

When the anti-LHC crowd happens upon a non-anonymous blog or site of known scientists, those scientists have to be careful in their response, lest they look unprofessional. Measured responses to the anti-LHC crowd, unfortunately, make the layman think that their might be something to this “black hole stuff”, since real, known scientists are engaged in “debate”. The layman doesn’t have the tools to discern when the subtext of the scientist’s response is “go read a couple of hundred articles and take 5 or 6 graduate classes in physics before you come back and argue this nonsense here again, dickhead”.

The misperceptions is closely related to Warnock’s Dilemma on blog and usenet posts:

Warnock's Dilemma, named for its originator Bryan Warnock, is the problem of interpreting a lack of response to a posting on a mailing list, Usenet newsgroup, or Web forum.

The problem with no response is that there are five possible interpretations:
1. The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There's nothing more to say except "Yeah, what he said."
2. The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.
3. No one read the post, for whatever reason.
4. No one understood the post, but won't ask for clarification, for whatever reason.
5. No one cares about the post, for whatever reason.

In this case, we are dealing with a derivative of #2: the post is utter nonsense, and the respectable scientists don’t want to be caught on the internet with their professional pants down by replying to these quarter-educated nutjobs with their real, profanity laced feelings. Unprofessional conduct can haunt you a long, long time, even if it was justified.

Polite response is also somewhat related to the Geek Social Fallacy #1:

Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil

As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If GSF1 exists in sufficient concentration -- and it usually does -- it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event. GSF1 protocol permits you not to invite someone you don't like to a given event, but if someone spills the beans and our hypothetical Cat Piss Man invites himself, there is no recourse. You must put up with him, or you will be an Evil Ostracizer and might as well go out for the football team.

These people in no way have earned a polite response from the legitimate scientific community. They need to be ostracized from legitimate scientific discourse on the ‘Net. The politeness with which they are treated at CERN and at physics blogs where the scientists blog under their own names is due only to the natural degree of civility of those scientists. Unfortunately, that makes the anti-LHC crowd look as if they are carrying on a legitimate debate. If they pulled their rhetorical tricks in meatspace on real topics, someone would drop their ass with a well-aimed right hook, or at the very least tell them directly to shut the fuck up.

This is where I come in. I blog anonymously. This opens me up to accusations of just being “some guy on the net” and lying about my credentials. I don’t give a shit. Real scientists will see the telltale signs of my scientific training in the topics I choose and the way in which I talk about them. Laymen can take my writing to a known expert and see the same thing. Everyone else in the nutjob category can take a running jump. My purpose here is to get, somewhere on the net, a non-polite response to the anti-LHC idiocy. I want to show what the rational people are really thinking when they deal with this mess.

The debate over the LHC is no longer an intellectual game in my view. When a Nobel-winning physicist gets death threats over the idiocy of pseudo-scientists, the gloves come off.

One final note. Our friend from Lower Saxony “debating” the rational people who visit (and run) this blog is trying one of the oldest tricks in the pseudoscientist's book. Eric will immediately recognize the “cover them in paper” gambit of trying to open questions on multiple issues at once. MWT called the dude on it, and he ignored him. It gets to the heart of their rhetorical assault, however, because they are always trying to find something to pick at. The idea is that if they can get a win anywhere then it bolsters their credibility, and they can then wave and shout about an irrelevant victory as if it damaged the premise of the central argument against them. Fortunately for the rational people, these nuts are extremely unlikely to win on anything, given their poor grasp of the physical sciences.

In all these comment threads, I’m going to clearly label the tangents so that those playing at home don’t need a playbook.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fun With Search Engines

Thanks to CW, Refugees is pretty high in Google for things like DH 86 Express and Bristol Brabazon, although he is also the reason we are hit #5 for "pirates with skin lesions". :D

I, on the other hand, am proud to note that we are #1 in Google for "Rainer Plaga idiot" and #6 (ahead of Janiece) for "Walter Wagner retard".

Yes Nathan, we are doing our part to de-crazy the internet. :p

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Live-blogging the debate

The stakes are allegedly high for the Vice Presidential debate, which is interesting because usually they aren't. In most Presidential elections the Vice-Presidential debates are soundly ignored. It is significant from a purely political-science perspective that the VP nominees and debate are such a reputedly important factor.

So far I'm not impressed with either side. Both have fumbled quite a bit, and missed obvious opportunities to score big points. Both seem somewhat over-prepared and somewhat stiff, but both have also managed to avoid any major stumbles or gaffes so far.

Joe Biden has repeatedly employed a typical debating tactic that's particularly popular in the US Senate: vigorously assert things that are patently and provably not true when you know you can't be called on it or contradicted before its too late. (Like "Barak Obama warned of the financial crisis".) Sarah Palin has not made too many clear and unequivocal points, even on issues that should work well for her, like energy policy. Both sides badly fumbled the subprime mortage issue.

There's a lot of really suspect information being put out, but not a lot of serious blows being landed by either side. It's like two half-blind boxers swinging at each other, but mostly connecting with the air. Also they claim to agree on quite a bit of stuff - stuff that Biden and Obama mostly voted against, like tax cuts.

Biden is going on about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - really arcane wonk stuff. Palin is talking about counterinsurgency in Afghanistan - she sounds well prepared here.

Both sides are really lost in the weeds.

Gwen Ifill is calling Biden out on recommending intervention in Darfur. Biden is talking about Bosnia... Unfortunately I doubt Sarah Palin knows the "McCain in Bosnia" story. Biden says he wants a no-fly zone in Darfur - that's really out there. Palin has scored a few points about Biden's previous criticism of Obama and support of McCain.

I think Joe Biden looks younger and Sarah Palin looks older than they actually are - I'm not sure who that benefits. They are of very different generations - actually two generations apart - neither is a baby boomer.

Joe Biden just said it would be a national calamity if he became President. Very modest!

I'm not very inspired by either side. Both Palin and Biden have been excessively focused on tactics and not screwing up, and neither side has appealed effectively (as far as I can tell) directly to the American people.

Biden got choked up talking about worrying about his kids... probably very few Americans know that his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident shortly before he was elected to the Senate. I wonder if the media will point out that incident- - that will be interesting to see. It was for sure the most emotional moment of the debate.

My experience with these things is that sound bites win, and I think Sarah Palin has scored more sound bites. Joe Biden definitely came across as more human and humble. It will be interesting to see how it is spun.

The bar was somewhat high for Sarah Palin - if she stumbles it would probably be the end for John McCain. So far she hasn't made any major mistakes that I've seen.

They're in their closing statements now... Palin going first. I think she should have said more about John McCain in Vietnam... overall the McCain campaign hasn't used that subject perhaps as much as they could have. I don't know what that means.

Joe Biden ended the debate on a high note with a prayer for the troops.

Gwen Ifill did try very hard to be neutral - to the point of leaning the other way. That was pretty widely expected, I think.

Overall, it was a pretty friendly and congenial debate - I don't think either side wanted trouble.

What will it mean? My impression is not that much.

Fossett's Plane Found

My initial pessimism was over-done, and the wreckage of Steve Fossett's Super Decathlon was found near where his ID's were found a couple of days ago.

I hadn't thought it would be this easy, after the massive search conducted for months after his disappearance. The crash site was only 60 miles from where he took off, but apparently hadn't been searched before, which makes me wonder how thorough the search really was.

The mystery is apparently not completely over, however. Despite reports that "remains"were found in or near the wreckage (with no elaboration), there is still question or uncertainty about whether Fossett was killed in the crash. The aircraft flew almost head-on into the mountain at 9700 feet, so Fossett would have been killed instantly. The most likely scenario is that his body was devoured and/or carried off by wild animals.

It looks like this is it, however. Local experts say that animals will remove any evidence of human remains within a very short time, and the NTSB says they have enough for DNA tests, which I imagine will settle the case. Given the conspiracy theories that have surrounded Fossett's disappearance, however, if the resolution is not clear and obvious, speculation that he somehow faked his death are likely to continue.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Iran Deyanat Update

The situation has not yet been resolved, and, in recent days, the pirates seized a Ukrainian ship known to be carrying heavy weapons bound for Sudan.

The US Navy surrounded the pirate-controlled Ukrainian ship, and the pirates had a shootout amongst themselves over what to do next.

Meanwhile Fox News also replayed the story of a mysterious cargo on the Iran Deyanat yesterday.

The Iran Deyanat is still being held, but I have not found any other sources (other than Andrew Mwangura and Hassan Osman) who claim the ship carries a dangerous cargo. Of course, apparently no one else besides the pirates has had access to the ship so far.

Various observers have pointed out (or claimed - I'm not sure how true the stories are) that the notion of China exporting iron ore to Rotterdam is odd and improbable, because China is overwhemingly an importer of iron ore, and the ship seems to be riding very high in the water to be heavily loaded with iron ore.

It's really uncertain what's going on here. It might be that the ship would have been ransomed by now if it weren't carrying something strange - or then again perhaps not. I spoke with a couple of real experts about this sort of thing, and they both expressed scepticism that there was an arms shipment involved, for a variety of reasons.

I have another one of those feelings (I've apparently been having a lot of them lately) that this situation may just fade away and we'll never know what was on the ship.

Strange Developments in Steve Fossett Case

This is weird.

Steve Fossett's pilot's license, along with another ID and $1005 in cash, may have been found "tangled in a bush" near Mammoth Lake, California. A black Nautica fleece pullover, "covered in animal hair", was also found in the area, but it is unknown if it is related.

No trace of Fossett, or his aircraft, have been found as of yet, however.

The possible explanation is that Fossett's Super Decathlon crashed in the area, and his body was removed from the wreckage by a lion or bear, with his ID's and money getting caught in the underbrush as the animal drug his body away.

But if that scenario is correct, the wreckage of the aircraft should be in the vicinity. It is noteworthy that the area where the ID's and money were found is only 60 miles from where Fossett took off, but was not very thoroughly searched - which seems weird.

The forensics should tell the tale on this one, and it could - perhaps hopefully will - result in the resolution of the Steve Fossett mystery. For some reason I have a feeling - perhaps for no legitimate reason - that the aircraft will continue to prove elusive.