All Things In Moderation

Dave Shea institutes a form of comment moderation; predictable firestorm ensues. Dave also redesigned his site. switching to black text on a white background, with plenty of whitespace. The default font also looks bigger and clearer to me, although that could be an illusion — I haven’t really looked at the old and new stylesheets side by side. Overall, I think it looks great, but I’m biased towards higher contrast and larger fonts. I’ve been thinking about writing a song about this, actually…

I like big TEXT and I cannot lie
You other designers can’t deny…

Eh, well, it needs some work.

In Other Markup-related News: Peter-Paul Koch has a great article on cleaning up inline JavaScript in favor of using simple DOM hooks instead. Good stuff. Often irascible but always entertaining, Peter-Paul Koch is like the Joe Clark of JavaScript. You have to give PPK credit — if he finds it necessary to add a non-standard replace attribute to his code, he’ll do it, and the hell with validation if it gets in the way of his work. In this day and age, this is quite the bold position. After all, these days the issues seem to revolve around such things as the semantic meaning of the <div> element and how many <h1> elements can dance on the head of a pin are allowed on a single webpage. Heck, you can’t even kinda sorta make the suggestion that maybe simple structure tables might be useful under some circumstances without getting lambasted by markup purists. So you’ve got to respect someone who uses their markup to actually, you know, solve problems. PPK, my hat is off to you.

Now With Advanced HTML Technology

It always has seemed kind of silly to discuss markup so often, and not allow people to use inline links in their comments, for crying out loud. So I’ve opened up a small subset of HTML elements. The new system allows links and a number of inline elements such as <em> and <code>. I would have liked to open up elements such as <pre> and <blockquote>, but… eh. It’s a long story. Anyway, the upshot is that instead of saying,

Evan, your “commentary” on <marquee> and <blink> ( was in *wretched* taste.

you can now say,

Evan, your “commentary” on <marquee> and <blink> was in wretched taste.

How exciting! I almost opened up the style attribute, so that you all could chew me out in large, red Comic Sans MS. But bold will have to do.

Aaaanyway. Since this entry is so short, here are a few amusing physics links I’ve collected over the last few days.

  • Chad Orzel: Scattered Thoughts on Physics Pedagogy. Chad, Chad, you’re teaching engineers. Why are you tangling yourself in knots? Just teach V=IR by rote, hand out A’s like candy, keep a low profile, collect tenure, everybody’s happy. Sheesh, I really should have stuck with academia. It ain’t exactly brain surgery. [Via J. Bradford DeLong.]

  • From TechCentralStation, the same magazine that brings us Instapundit’s ruminations on how Luddites are holding back “molecular manufacturing”, we find this article on global warming. It’s replete with gems such as:

    “Take, for instance, the “average global temperature,” which is the primary statistic offered as evidence of global warming. The problem with this statistic is that it has no physical meaning. Temperature is not a thermodynamic variable that lends itself to statistical analysis, nor does it measure a physical quantity.”

    Oh, dear. Bear in mind that I have met hardcore Ayn Rand libertarians who do understand thermodynamics, some of whom have even gone on to earn doctorates in physics. So I think it’s just TechCentralStation. [Via J. Bradford DeLong. For an economics professor, he’s quite the clearinghouse for physics links. Maybe he should read up on Quantum Finance.]

  • Understanding Research Papers. For the record, “correct within an order of magnitude” is a perfectly acceptable answer in astrophysics.

Supercharge Your Outlook Performance!

My new desktop at work has finally arrived. Out with the old Dell, in with the new. The new machine has twice the memory and about four times the processor speed of the old machine. Presumably it plays Quake really well.[1] However, its most salient benefits are:

  • It reboots really, really fast.
  • It’s actually pretty quiet. Outstanding.

So after several days of blood, sweat, and more than a few tears, all my applications are loaded and working properly… with the curious exception of ClearCase, which still refuses to read the main Engineering Documents VOB. Fortunately, it’s not like my job depends on reading engineering specs.

Actually, the application that gave me the most trouble was Outlook. Displaying a message was taking over three seconds, as compared to, oh, 30 milliseconds on my old, “obsolete” machine. We soon determined that A) it was a client-side problem, and B) uninstalling and reinstalling Outlook and Office didn’t help.

Fortunately, before the IT guys got a chance to take stronger measures, I found the solution. Poking around in the settings, I discovered that the checkbox next to “Enable Instant Messaging in Outlook” was checked. That setting looked weird to me, so I unchecked it and restarted Outlook. Lo and behold, Outlook was fast again! I checked the box, restarted, and yes, Outlook was slow again. Unchecked, fast again. I {heart} reproducible errors. So, to sum up: if you want Outlook to run fast, uncheck that Instant Messaging box. I suppose having three orders of magnitude more RAM than the computers on the Space Shuttle probably wouldn’t hurt either.

So while my apps are working okay now, I am still struggling to restore my environment to a usable state. Outlook is particularly obnoxious, as its preferences are scattered throughout at least several screens. It took me about five months to tweak it into shape the last time around. I should note that the IT guys did mention that I could migrate all my preferences and documents in one step. However, they claimed this would involve generating a gigantic multi-gigabyte file, and any registry cruft in my old profile would get loaded right along with all the useful stuff. The clean install sounded a lot better after that.

All I’m saying is, it would be really nice if Outlook could export its preferences to a file.[2] Although hey, you know what would be even better? What if we had a system where all well-behaved applications stored their preferences in easily-readable text files? Heck, maybe they could even store all their preferences under a common directory. Just imagine, you could copy the old directory to the new machine, swap it in, and presto! — all your applications would just work. That would be some sweet-ass technology. Boy howdy.

1. Although its Quake performance might be hampered a bit by the fact that it uses onboard graphics and sound.

2. Maybe it can, but darned if I could find the option.

Fine, We’ll Just Have Our Own Science Over Here, Then

Via science writer Clive Thompson: the NY Times reports that a Creationist minister has opened up a dinosaur theme park in Pensacola, Florida:

“My kids kept recognizing flaws in the [Disney World] presentation,” said Mrs. Passmore, of Jackson, Ala. “You know — the whole ‘millions of years ago dinosaurs ruled the earth’ thing.”

Clearly, the worrisome trend to build an entirely parallel system of pseudo-science continues apace. Why have we suddenly decided that now is a good time to start tearing down the mechanism of scientific inquiry? I guess that after several centuries of constant evolution and refinement, the whole “science thing” is starting to look a little dusty. Out with the old, in with the, um, new.

As for those of you who are snickering over the silly Creationists: be sure to take a good hard look in the mirror first.

We’ll Just Build a Scaffolding!

So Slashdot is wondering whether the Diamond Age is approaching. After skimming through the comments, I found not one that had anything sensible to say whatsoever. In a sense, this is cheering. It means that not one irate graduate student lost their temper and leaped into the fray. In turn, this implies that our current crop of physics and chemistry Ph.D. candidates is gifted with an uncommon dose of common sense. The future of Western Civilization is looking brighter every day.

The original source of the Slashdot post was about what one would expect. A collection of breathless press releases on the wonders and terrors of nanotechnology, the usual suspects sitting on the board, not a professional physicist or chemist in sight.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to share my Eric Drexler story. Nearly five years ago, my former employer held a large three-day symposium for its system engineers. The goal was partly education, but mostly entertainment. The seminars were divided into three categories. Category 1 was the nuts-and-bolts practical stuff. How to tune Solaris, that sort of thing. Category 2 dealt with upcoming stuff, products two to five years out (many of which are now cancelled). Category 3 was the really far-out stuff, completely non-practical, the just-for-fun stuff.

Eric Drexler was scheduled in Category 3. Naturally, I was keenly interested in hearing a popular speaker talk about my former field. As an aside: maybe it’s just me, but I love it when any expert manages to explain to a lay audience what makes their field so fascinating. It’s a hard thing to do without mangling the message, confusing the audience, or simply dumbing things down beyond recognition. When it’s done well, it’s a sight to see. Anyway, I was expecting an interesting discourse on current activity in nanotechnology, perhaps with an emphasis on future directions in computing.

Instead, what we got was nanobots.

The lecture opened with Drexler asking us to consider the strawberry. A strawberry is a fantastically complex object — and yet it’s built molecule by molecule, from carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. If Nature can build a strawberry, why can’t we?

Drexler then observed that on the nano scale, mechanical operations are incredibly fast. (Which is true, crudely speaking.) Consider a mechanical arm in an auto factory, said Drexler. When it assembles a car, it moves with speeds on the order of meters per second. If we scale down a billion-fold, the operation of our mechanical arm speeds up commensurately. We can do orders of magnitude more operations per second.

Drexler then proceeded to show us a series of computer-generated 3-D drawings of atoms assembled into structures that looked vaguely like things you would find in an auto factory. There was a “robotic pincer arm” made from a few hundred carbon atoms. There were a number of elaborate gear-and-sprockety looking structures. The piece-de-resistance was a structure that looked a heck of a lot like a several-thousand-atom turbine. (There was no word as to whether these structures were molecularly stable, but let’s give Drexler the benefit of the doubt and assume that he had crunched the numbers correctly — that the pretty pictures weren’t simply assembled in a CAD program.)

Now, let’s review the structure of Drexler’s argument:

  1. Molecular operations are millions of times faster than the mechanical operations of a robotic arm in a factory.
  2. Here is a molecular robotic arm.
  3. Here is a set of useful-looking molecular structures.
  4. Profit!1

What made the whole experience even more irritating was Drexler’s breezy insistence that not only was the Age of Molecular Factories quite real, but that it would solve all of our current-day problems. The lecture was sprinkled with all sorts of little ruminations on what our grandchildren would think of us. For example: why were there food shortages in your day, grandfather? Why didn’t you just make more food? Or: why did you worry about global warming? Why didn’t you guys just fix it?

After stewing for the entire hour, I was determined to ask Drexler (politely) what was going on. Clearly he didn’t actually believe this nonsense. I waited until the lecture was over, introduced myself politely, and mentioned that I was a bit concerned that he had, err, glossed over the quantum mechnical issues a bit. I don’t know what I was expecting, really. Maybe a half-hearted admission that yes, he had oversimplified a bit, but you’ve got to fire up the troops somehow. That would have made me grit my teeth a bit, but I could have accepted it.

Instead, he cheerfully brushed my objection aside. Yes, maybe the intermediate quantum states would be unstable. “But we’ll just build a SCAFFOLDING!” he said.

At that point my forebrain mercifully short-circuited, forcing my autonomous social functions to take over. I vaguely remember politely shaking his hand and wandering off in a daze. Crisis averted. A couple of years later, I was gratified to dicover that in his debate with Nobel-prize winning chemist Richard Smalley, Drexler essentially proffered a fancier version of the scaffolding argument.3 So now I don’t feel quite so bad.

Anyway, we can at least draw a few lessons from all this nonsense:

  1. Science education in this country for engineers and programmers is woefully inadequate. Here we had a room of smart, very well-paid Sun engineers, and not one was anything but credulous (unless there were a few like me who were sitting there silently with steam coming out of our ears.) This is freshman chemistry, people.

  2. The appeal of Drexler’s snake oil to Silicon Valley techies is obvious. Take global hunger, which is a terrible problem that requires efforts on many fronts — scientific, political, logistical, environmental, legal, you name it. But never mind all that! In a generation or two we’ll work around all those nasty, corrupt politicians and lawyers and just make all the food we’ll ever need.

  3. Tremendous effort is being wasted discussing the non-existent benefits and non-existent risks of a non-existent technology. Meanwhile, real nanotechnology (dismissed by uninformed pundits as “nanopants”) has real (but less sexy) benefits and real (but less sexy) risks. The danger is that over time, funding will be diverted to service the Drexlerians. Fortunately, the grownups seem to be in charge. For now.

So what can be done about this? For starters, chemists and condensed-matter physicists could do a hell of a better job of educating the public on what nanotechnology really is and is not. I suspect that most Ph.Ds are reluctant to do so — partly because they think the Drexlerians are pretty harmless or even creating positive interest in the field, but mostly because they feel it really isn’t their job to wade into the messy fray. Unfortunately, this is short-sighted. Here’s one way to look at it, guys: string theorists can deal with their crackpots by simply tossing the occasional envelope or email into the trash. Meanwhile, your crackpots have well-funded institutes and get invited to fancy corporate conferences. At this point, the average engineer can’t tell the difference between you and them. Think about it.

1. Needless to say, anyone who has bothered to take a college chemistry or physics class should understand the problem with this reasoning, namely that assembling molecules is not like unto assembling automobiles. Even if we grant that Drexler’s fantastical molecular turbine is stable, the thousands of intermediate states required to assemble the turbine atom-by-atom are almost certainly not. To bring the analogy into the world of automobiles, it would be like if you remove the rearview mirror, the entire vehicle falls apart.2

2. Hmmm, would that make the Ford Pinto the world’s first quantum mechanical car? Err, anyway…

3. Unlike me, Smalley has apparently protected his brain with some sort of Stupidity Faraday Cage, which allowed him to continue his debate with Drexler without risking permanent brain damage.