Saturday, March 21, 2009

An open letter to Jacqui Smith MP
From "a quondam lover of England"

From the Japan Times :
When recently I fell in love for the first time (at 40-something) — to an Englishman — I felt happiness overflowing. Career and caring for my elderly parents mean I cannot consider leaving Japan, but at least I would be able to get married in beautiful England.

Think again. Unromantic apparatchiks have taken over the U.K. To get married in England, even to an Englishman with his own property in England, I need a visa. (My husband-to-be comes from generations of English and Irish stock — and his grandmother was a Claypole, archetypically English, from the same family tree as Oliver Cromwell.)

I can visit the U.K. freely for business or pleasure for six months, but for a fleeting visit to get married I need a visa. We can get married in Japan, the U.S., Canada, France or Italy without a visa between us, so why is the U.K. different? Where is the reciprocity so beloved of diplomats?

My next surprise was that the U.K. no longer has visa officials in Japan whom I could approach. Visa applications have been outsourced to an Indian company owned by a Swiss travel concern, which then sends the form and passport to Manila for processing.

Was Japan consulted? How would Britons react if visas for Japan were handled in Russia or Mongolia?

First I had to fill in an online application. After standard information about age, address, marital status, etc., I had to supply my father's and mother's names, their dates and places of birth, whether I had a criminal record, had been deported from any country, or had been a terrorist or involved in war crimes or genocide. 

Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Words that do not inspire confidence
An occasional series

The laser – dubbed a weapon of mosquito destruction (WMD) – has been designed with the help of Lowell Wood, one of the astrophysicists who worked on the original Star Wars plan to shield America from nuclear attack.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fusion Confusion
Extrapolation saves the nation

Hello, Google Groups uk.railway - thank you for reading this post about fusion, I hope that you enjoyed it. I'd like to pick up on a couple of responses:

A. I became a physicist for the money, the women, and the fast cars[1]. However, I think that there are plenty of us on RA salaries who would be quite surprised by:
"Meanwhile, gullible politicians will fork out more tens of billions of 
pounds for the highly paid scientists who promise much but never deliver 
anything except a greater number of ever-larger invoices. 
The comments section is available for those who wish to name all these "gullible politicians" who dish out largess - I want my share. Mr. Poulson is challenged by Recliner, and subsequently retreats from the claim:

"Perhaps it should be "overpaid" in view of their [lack of] results "
Those work-shy physicists, eh? They should get a job and go to college.  

B. As I stated in the post,  
"I don't hold a brief for fusion, but I think the assumption - that fusion is a fantasy and that the plasma jockeys are spending their grant money on slow horses and fast women - should probably re-examined."
I was merely comparing progress in the semiconductor industry - which no-one attacks - and the progress to date of fusion. The graph does not claim that "a commercial plant would have worked by 2005 ". It shows the rate of increase in the "triple product" - a figure of merit associated with nuclear fusion. Even were this achieved, there would still be issues with removing the products of fusion and the energy produced from the reaction.

C. As Jeremy Double notes, the gap between the discovery of nuclear fission and working civilian reactors was less than 30 years (Rutherford was sceptical about the possibility of nuclear power to his end...). The claim that it will take hundreds of year to commercialize to fusion seems to me to involve a strong assumption.

D. Does anyone have a source for the claim that fusion is 15/30/50 years away? It doesn't sound like something a scientist - however overpaid - would say. Is it just one self-publicist mouthing off? An over-zealous PR department? A campaign for funding? Or is it a media myth like "scientists in the 70s predicted a global ice age" or "nuclear industry baddies claimed they could produce electricity too cheap to meter"

If it is one of the latter, let's kill it off now.

[1] I was disappointed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quote of the day

It’s becoming apparent that there’s a divide between people who are quantitatively minded, and people who aren’t. I don’t think people in the latter category can understand quite how viscerally people in the former category react against the misuse of numbers.

Nobody likes being bullshitted. I think that’s universal. However, not everyone has a feeling for whether or not a numerical statement is bullshit. The numbers quoted by Amnesty are bullshit, that’s become quite clear. The difference is between those who think that the qualitative argument - that domestic violence is a big problem that particularly affect women - is all that matters, and those who think that the accuracy of the quantitative description of that problem also matters.

I can’t stay on the fence here. Quantitative accuracy matters. The modern world has been constructed by people who cared about the value of quantitative accuracy, from antibiotics to the contraceptive pill to the internet. If you take advantage of these things, you have no place bashing people who are obsessive about quantitative accuracy: your way of life depends on them.

And let’s be quite clear: when people who care about quantitative accuracy criticise your figures, it’s not because they oppose your political positon. It’s not because they’re your enemy. It’s because you’ve got your numbers wrong. Quantitvely-minded people care about this in the abstract, regardless of the political context. In doing so, they are upholding an important value that transcends politics. Truth matters, and nobody should be criticised for upholding that value. - [source]

That's the science writer Iain Coleman, who elegantly summarizes the divide over Amnesty International's problematic statistic

Monday, March 09, 2009

Thought experiment
But no entanglement

Pretend you've never heard of Hardy's paradox. Would this article make any sense at all?

The comments on the article are shear joy, too.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

A disturbing thought
Which we shall not ponder too closely

I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Myspace Kills
Will no-one think of the children?

[Following the Susan Greenfield's "rather indulgent" claims regarding social media,  a guest post from my mate Ice-G]

A magnificent article from The Times :

"Social networking sites can provide a "constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognised, and important". Greenfield continued. This was coupled with a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation, which were "far more perilous … occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses" and "require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones, those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously".

With only a few minor modifications it may be improved:

The Guardian can provide a "constant reassurance to academics – that they are listened to, recognised, and important". Greenfield continued. This is coupled with a distancing from the stress of the peer review process and real discourse with experts, which are "far more perilous as ones views may actually be challenged."  Furthermore peer refereed publications "require a real sensitivity to evidence, a body of theory and most worryingly can sense bullshit, those sneaky molecules that I release and which others smell subconsciously".