Friday, June 30, 2006

Torturing Ants in the Name of Science

Via 3QuarksDaily, the National Geographic reports:
Hunting for food, ants roam haphazardly. But when they find it, they use celestial cues, perhaps from the sun, to head back to their nests more or less in a straight line—rather than retracing the tortuous journeys they'd made on their outbound searches. Instead, a new study suggests that ants have internal "pedometers," or step counters, that help them gauge how far they have traveled. Food was placed about 33 feet (10 meters) from an ant nest. When ants found the food the researchers collected the insects before they had time to carry it back to the nest.

Twenty-five of the ants were then put gently on their backs. Scientists glued stilts made of pig bristles to the insects' legs—a delicate procedure that had to be done quickly so the ants wouldn't forget what they were doing and fail to return home. Another 25 ants had their legs surgically shortened by chopping off part of the bottom segment. For the ants on stilts, each step now covered more distance than they were used to. They overshot the nest, running an average of more than 50 percent farther than they should have. Those with shortened legs undershot by nearly as much.
First comment: This result is consistent with other research suggesting that ants figure out their location relative to their nest using "dead-reckoning". This technique, which seems incredible without a computer, works this way: the ant keeps track of how many paces it has walked and how many times it has turned, and what angles it has turned through, and numerically integrates to figure out its current position.

Second comment: They chopped off a poor bug's legs? They glued hog bristles to another bug's legs? Ew!!! Sounds like evil scientists from a bad science fiction movie experimenting with brain transplants.

This reminds me of what an old friend, Mark Muldoon, once said about people who grow bonsai trees: "What if somebody cut your arms and legs off to try to get you to grow into an interesting shape?"
Permalink 4:22 PM

Georgia Update

Kyle and I both grew up in Georgia, and we love our home state, but sometimes I love it in the same way that you might love a batty old aunt whom you are embarrassed to admit (in public) is your relative. A couple of recent news stories:
  • From The Oxford Press: Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday began weighing the pros and cons of reinstating a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, knowing the decision it reaches could force a special session of the General Assembly and bring conservatives to the polls in November.

    The court heard oral arguments for 40 minutes, but the justices gave no indication of when and how they would rule. But several attorneys and legal experts said that the issue of civil unions could be key in the court's deliberations.

    A lower court judge in May found that the amendment — approved by 76 percent of voters in November 2004 — violates the "single-subject" rule of the state Constitution because it addresses both marriage and civil unions.

  • From The Gwinnett Daily Post: Laura Mallory, a Loganville mother of four, is appealing the Gwinnett Board of Education's unanimous decision to keep the best-selling [Harry Potter] books on school shelves.
    Her appeal will continue the debate that began when Mallory filed complaints against each of the six books, writing that they included "evil themes, witchcraft, demonic activity, murder, evil blood sacrifice, spells and teaching children all of this." (Via Shakespeare's Sister)
Loganville happens to be where my sister, Michelle, lives. She's my children's beloved aunt, but not a batty old one...
Permalink 12:16 PM

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Speed limit enforced by AIRCRAFT

Expanding a bit on a comment I made to Kevin Drum: if the SWIFT program was losing its effectiveness ("The bad guys figured out how we were catching them."), then the logical thing for the government to do was to bring the program out into the open. Sometimes the police run speed traps, but other times they just put up big signs that say, "we're watching you" and hope that will deter people from speeding. Of course, it's even more effective if the warning comes from someone else. Most people ignore those signs, but slow right down if an oncoming car flashes its lights.

To use another analogy: if you find a rat hole, you might want to put traps around it. But eventually the rats will get wise to the traps, and then the best thing to do is to plug the hole. In the NSA's case, the best way to plug the hole (terrorists using foreign banks to transfer funds) would be to leak the fact that they are monitoring the transactions.
Permalink 11:56 PM

No Longer Weird

Chuck Shepherd gives a list a weird stories that have happened so often they can no longer be considered weird.

Via Avedon Carol.
Permalink 10:44 PM

Flag Burning Amendment Fails

From YahooNews
The 66-34 tally on the flag amendment Tuesday was one less than the two-thirds, or 67 votes, required to send it to the states for ratification. The House cleared the two-thirds threshold last year, 286-130.
Thank God (or whoever). As Rich Magahiz points out in comments,
This column ran in our local paper today: "The countries that enacted national bans on flag desecration are Cuba, China, Iran, Nazi Germany and Iraq under Saddam Hussein."
Permalink 8:23 AM

More Universe-Hopping

Another comment about this (99.5% goofy) theory:

The down side is that, if it's true, then you are in constant danger of slipping to an alternate universe by accident. If you are not aware of the fact that Warsaw, rather than Kracow, is the capital of Poland, then you are in danger of slipping into an alternate universe in which Krakow really is the capital of Poland. That gives poor students a new explanation for their ignorance: "Well, in the universe that I come from, Benjamin Franklin was the second President of the United States."
Permalink 8:16 AM

Quantum Universe-Hopping

Now for something completely different...Here's my (only 95% goofy) idea for how to use quantum mechanics to travel between alternate universes. (Okay, maybe 96% goofy...)

According to one interpretations of quantum mechanics (namely, the Many-Worlds Interpretation, due to Everett and later expanded on by Dewitt), the universe is constantly "splitting" into alternate realities.
[Click permalink to read more...]

You flip a coin, and there is some world in which the coin comes up "heads" and another, almost identical world in which the coin comes up "tails". This is the popularized version of Everett's idea, and there is a lot that can be said about why this popularization is not completely correct, but that would take me too far astray from my (maybe 97% goofy) idea. So assume that this is correct for now.

So if there are these alternate universes, then why can't I see them? What pins me down to this universe? Why can't I travel to the universe in which Gore was elected President in 2000?

The short answer is correlations. My brain, with its billions of neurons, contains lots of information in the form of memories, and this information correlates my state with that of the rest of the universe. If I have memories of some particular historical event (such as that deplorable election) then I'm marooned forever in the universe in which that event occurred, with no hope of rescue. In contrast, the simple carefree electron, with no memory, is free to wander to any alternate universe, blissfully unconcerned about plotline consistency or continuity.

So the solution to the problem of travel to alternate universes is simple: Put yourself into a state that is equally "at home" in both universes, and you can easily slip from one to another. To be specific, close your eyes and completely erase all memories of the 2000 election. Then when you reopen your eyes, you are just as likely to find yourself in the universe in which Gore won as the one in which Bush won. Unfortunately, if you find that Gore won, you won't be able to celebrate this successful application of quantum mechanics, because you will have no memory of it ever having been different. If you have any suppressed unconscious knowledge of your previous universe, then that knowledge will block your successful universe-hopping.

That's the thing that makes it 99% goofy---it really is completely untestable. However, if you are ever in the situation in which your death is imminent (you are in a plane about to crash), then you have nothing to lose --- you might as well try to hop to a universe in which you are perfectly safe.
Permalink 7:45 AM

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Buffet Joins the Good-Guy Billionaire Club

From BusinessWeek Online
[Warren] Buffett, the world's second-richest man, announced Sunday that he will soon begin giving about $1.5 billion a year to the Gates Foundation, essentially doubling the pot of money the world's largest philanthropy doles out each year.
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That's amazingly generous. What's amazing to me is how egoless it seems. Warren Buffet will be spending billions on charity, and he won't even have a foundation named after him.

So the list of billionaires that I admire:
  • Warren Buffet

  • Bill Gates (grudgingly), for his work on behalf of world health

  • George Soros, for his (so far, fruitless) efforts to fight back against the American right-wing

  • J.K. Rowling, because of Harry Potter, and because it's cool that someone can become a billionaire just by writing kids books.

Speaking of billionaires, here's a mind-blowing fact: 5 of the top ten richest people in the world (in 2002) were siblings, the Waltons, heirs to the WalMart fortune.

And I remember thinking that the Waltons were such a humble family. Good night, John Boy.
Permalink 11:11 AM

More Nonsense from the Worst Congress Ever

From The Houston Chronicle (the first Google hit on this topic):
A constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration is headed toward its best chance of passage in 15 years with a cliffhanger vote later this week in the Senate.
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I'm not surprised that this is a high priority for this Congress. The world is running out of oil. Global warming is threatening our coastal cities. The cost of medical care is threatening to bankrupt our country. We are running a $400-billion per year deficit. 2500 lives and hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost in a war with no end in sight. And this congress is worried about people mistreating pieces of cloth.Unbelievable. What does a US flag stand for, if it doesn't stand for political freedom?

Am I exaggerating to say that we have the worst Congress in 50 years, perhaps ever? Put that together with the worst President and the worst Supreme, and we've hit the trifecta. Lucky us.
Permalink 7:33 AM