Thursday, August 30, 2012

Time-reversal symmetry violation

When did physicists first begin to suspect that what we experience as time emerges from quantum entanglement, much as we experience heat from the kinetic energy of molecules?

I suspect it was a long time ago, perhaps around the time of the double-slit experiment in 1909, but certainly by the 1960s. More recently some of the physicists I read have been openly speculating that time is emergent at the macro level, presumably in the context of a collapse of the wave function (measured in unit.

So it's particularly interesting that new experimental evidence of an "arrow of time" used quantum entanglement to expose T symmetry violation in kaons...

The arrow of time: Backward ran sentences… | The Economist

... The main hint that nature violates the time-reversal (T) symmetry ... —and thus that there really is an arrow of time—came from seemingly disparate discoveries about matter and antimatter. Mathematically, particles and their anti-versions differ in two ways: they have opposite electrical charges and they are each other’s mirror reflections. But in 1964 some particles called kaons were shown not to respect this charge-conjugation/parity (CP) symmetry, as it is known. Matter and antimatter are not, in other words, quite equal and opposite. However, according to another law, C, P and T symmetries, when lumped together into a single, overarching CPT symmetry, must be conserved. This means that if CP is violated, then T must be too, in order to even things out.

The obvious place to look for this T violation is where C and P are already known to misbehave. Between 1999 and 2008 a laboratory in California was set up to do just that. The old linear accelerator at Stanford was repurposed, turning it from the machine that co-discovered a particle known as the charm quark (thus winning its operators a Nobel prize) into a factory for making particles called B mesons. These are interesting because they and their antiparticles exhibit CP-violating tendencies. They are thus a promising place to look for T violations, too.

Which is what the scientists of SLAC’s BaBar experiment have been doing. Though the B-meson factory itself has been silent for four years (the accelerator is now in its third incarnation, as the world’s most powerful X-ray camera), its data live on, and the collaborators have been ploughing through them. They are looking in particular at how long it takes a B-meson to change its nature, focusing on one particular member of the extended B-meson family, the electrically neutral B0.

As with many things quantum, B0 can exist in a number of forms. These are known as B, B-bar, B-plus and B-minus. Like a subatomic werewolf, a B0 constantly shifts between them. If time truly has an arrow, though, some of these shifts will occur at a different rate when going in one direction rather than the other. In particular, CP-violation theory predicts that B-bar will turn into B-minus faster than B-minus turns into B-bar. All that remains is to measure the difference.

Unfortunately, that is not as easy as it sounds. A particle’s final state can be known by looking at what other sorts of particle it decays into. What cannot easily be known is what it was beforehand, and for how long.

In the wacky world of quantum physics, however, it is not always impossible to work out what a particle once was but no longer is. That is because B-mesons are sometimes born as quantum-mechanically conjoined twins. One twin gives away the initial state of the other and how long it lasted in that state—and all is revealed.

That revelation, which has been submitted for publication to Physical Review Letters, leaves no room for doubt: B-bars turn into B-minuses far faster than B-minuses turn into B-bars. As many as five B-minuses are produced for every B-bar. The chance of this result being a fluke is a nugatory one in 10**43...

It feels as though we're closing in on the nature of time. The next few years should be fun.

See also:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When paper dies, what will happen to all the mill towns?

Between Minnesota and Montreal, across Wisconsin and the UP and along the 17, there are hundreds of communities. Most are a few thousand people.

When we drive that route, we always wonder -- how did these people come to live there? Why do they stay?

No, it's not smart-ass urban elite kind of question. We know some of the answers. Emily grew up on a mill town north of nowhere

Screen shot 2012 08 29 at 7 43 22 PM

We both practiced medicine in an even smaller but less remote mill town.

Screen shot 2012 08 29 at 7 45 35 PM

So we know how people can end up in those towns -- and we know why many stay. It's a bit surprising to many, but mill towns can be very pleasant places to live --  assuming the mill is modern and downwind (though you get used to the smell). There's work for a wide range of people there -- not just for the elite. There are usually forests, and they're not all tree farms. We liked our towns a lot.

Of course not all of the towns we pass through are mill towns. Some are agricultural centers, some are government towns, and a few are former industrial centers turning into college towns.


20120813 Albion river trail 8 13 15484

Many of those towns have their own problems, especially because the live-anywhere-work-on-the-net vision of 1995 didn't work out. Mill towns though, they have bigger problems. 

Twenty-five years after it was proclaimed dead, paper is finally going away ...

Each product or business model travels through the life cycle phases of introduction, growth, maturity and decline. Paper markets, in general, are in the maturity or decline phase in North America; demand is declining, price is often the key differentiator, and industry consolidation is rampant. Over the last five years, 81 mills have closed in North America. After its paper making days are over, what will your mill become?

We know why. Newspapers and magazines are shrinking. Despite DRM-madness eBooks are growing. Currency will eventually be replaced by (zero privacy) electronic transactions. Lexmark has stopped making inkjet printers. China makes its own paper. 

The end of paper, or at least it's semi-retirement, has a bright side. We burned a lot of carbon and energy moving that paper around (though the replacement is hardly energy-free). It's not all bright though. A lot of very fine towns are going to be facing some hard transitions ...

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Ocean is a weird place: floating islands of pumice

A research vessel diverts course to avoid a 9 mile long floating island of volcanic rock: "the raft was already about 15 kilometers (9 miles) long. It eventually grew to more than 20,000 square kilometers". The article doesn't tell us how close to the surface the pumice came. Did it truly float? What old stories of the sea might have been about these transient islands?

Monday, August 20, 2012

How much of America's healthcare crunch is dementia care?

US healthcare costs were 2.6 trillion in 2010; about 18% of the 2011 US economy. Of that, dementia care costs about $200 billion, or about 8% of our total health care bill.

Demographics, and our failure to prevent brain deterioration, means dementia costs will grow. Since demented patients often exhaust all personal and family financial resources, these costs will show up as medicaid expenditures.

Even so, dementia is less of a problem than I had long thought. Even if costs were to increase by another 50% over the next decade, it still wouldn't break the bank.

Faced with the facts, I'm now forced to examine my unexamined assumptions. I can now imagine why dementia might turn out to be a bit of a bargain.

Many, if not most, dementia patients no longer receive aggressive medical care. They do need hands-on care, but in the modern economy there's no lack of people reasonably happy to do that work for comparatively little money. Demented people don't eat that much, and they don't require costly ingredients or food preparation. They don't demand the latest gadgets or costly bandwidth or cutting edge architecture or modern art on the walls. They can live where land is cheap.

In many ways, demented people are cheaper to maintain than non-demented people of similar ages. Given that neither produce wealth, from an economic accounts perspective dementia might be a money-saver.

Even as our dementia population grows, increasing costs may be offset by advances in robotics and remote monitoring, and, in time, by widespread acceptance of euthanasia [1].

Of course dementia and pre-demential can bankrupt individual families, but in our income skewed economy those bankruptcies don't add up to all that many billions.

To answer my title question then, dementia care does not appear to be a uniquely large part of our healthcare crunch. Obesity, for example, may be more important.

That's too bad, because many of us have a personal interest in a business case for dementia prevention...

[1] I want my kids to have a robust financial incentive to pull the off switch on my future demented self.

Friday, August 17, 2012

johngordon on is almost certainly doomed. Almost no-one believes that a Weibo-like communication service can run at scale other than by advertising or selling user information. I mean, it's not as though we pay for our data services, or our voice services, or for those stampy things. is a quixotic hopeless sad bit of misplaced nobility.

So, of course, I love it. Here's my stream: johngordon on

Monday, August 13, 2012

Is Detroit the future of Manhattan?

This year our family trek took us through Chicago and Detroit.

Detroit was more interesting and attractive than we'd expected, but it's not hard to find collapsed houses. We didn't get to make the urban ruins tour, but we've seen the pictures. Detroit crashed hard. 

Chicago did quite a bit better. It was never a one business town.

Unlike, say Manhattan. These days it seems to be a finance and business town, just as Detroit was once a car town.

So what happens when Finance doesn't need humans any more? What happens when it's all software and AIs and rule based systems?

Will Manhattan 2050 look like Detroit?

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Dear Dems: Maybe you shouldn't have spammed me so much.

The GOP may have a loose relationship with the falsifiable world, but they're tight where it matters. They have money by the truckload, mostly delivered by the deluded wealthy [1] to anonymous GOP funding streams.

So you'd think that Emily and I be inundated with pleas for donations.

Instead, crickets.

Seemed odd to me, then I remember the dense wall of filters and blocks I had to put up after our last set of donations. I had to block over thirty domains to beat back a deluge of Dem spam.

I guess our defenses are working. All those pleas and invitations are probably lost in my spam filters.

Maybe my team needs to rethink their fund raising strategy, and to implement rigorous email list control. Work on it guys.

In the meantime, I guess we'll have to send money somewhere. Google will probably come up with an address.

[1] Besides America, how many other post-industrial nations associate wealth with virtue and intellect?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

I put $50 down on

I was mildly (cough) irked (cough) when Google Reader Shares died.

My Pinboard/IFTTT/Twitter/WordPress replacement works better than it ought to, but it's frail. It could fall apart at any time, for many reasons. I want a solution that I can rely on, from a company that wants me as a customer -- not as a product.

That's why, like Gruber and many of the geeks I read, I put $50 down to reserve @johngordon on Time to put some money where my mouth goes.

They need a bunch of money in the next five days to launch. Take a gamble.

Update 8/17/2012: My (alpha) stream: is my kind of quest: quixotic, almost certainly doomed, but noble.

CAPTCHA has failed, and so anonymous comments may go too.

My most loyal commenter (that's you Martin) tells me he can't solve Google's CAPTCHAs any more.

Neither can I. I responded ...
I can't do the CAPTCHAs either. Blog authors don't usually see them, but occasionally I'm connecting with a non-owner account.

I think they've evolved to a point that only human experts and AIs can solve them, and they all work for spammers.

Problem is I allow anonymous comments and only moderate if > 4 days, so there's only CAPTCHA and Google spam detection between me and endless hordes of mosquitoes.

As an experiment I've disabled CAPTCHAs on I'll see how good Google's spam detection is. If the volume is too high I'll turn off anonymous comments. I agree, CAPTCHA has reached the end of the road.
Even in tiny market blogs like mine, comment and discussion is problematic.

Update 8/9/12: No problems! I should have dumped CAPTCHA years ago. Turns out I did on and then forgot I had. Google's comment spam filters are pretty amazing.

Digital has finally killed paper -- and office supply stores.

One day I looked up and saw an empty space where some pay phones were. I knew then I had to get a mobile phone.

More recently, I knew the post office was shrinking, and I knew paper mills were shutting down, but I hadn't noticed that office supply stores were dying too.

It makes sense of course. When was the last time you bought a paper clip or a file folder? We buy some school supplies for our kids, but nothing that general retail stores can't handle. If not for a peculiar circumstance, we'd rarely buy printer paper. Our printer would go the way of our last typewriter -- dusted off every few months for a special project.

Apple added printing to iOS devices a few months back. Did anyone notice?

Thirty years after the PC was supposed to eliminate paper, but instead causes a printing boom, it's finally happening.

I'm sure we can't imagine all the implications. If paper becomes a nice product, for example, what happens to the cost of paper back books?

PS. A little bit of irony though. Our typewriter went away around 1990 or so. We've done a lot more hand printing since. So the world split between new tech and ancient tech.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Net security is completely broken

Matt Honan was thoroughly hacked, including having his iCloud link computers obliterated [1], because our net security infrastructure is completely broken.

Here's just one bit of the hack ...

How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking | Gadget Lab |

... It turns out, a billing address and the last four digits of a credit card number are the only two pieces of information anyone needs to get into your iCloud account. Once supplied, Apple will issue a temporary password, and that password grants access to iCloud...

... First you call Amazon and tell them you are the account holder, and want to add a credit card number to the account. All you need is the name on the account, an associated e-mail address, and the billing address. Amazon then allows you to input a new credit card. (Wired used a bogus credit card number from a website that generates fake card numbers [1] that conform with the industry’s published self-check algorithm.) Then you hang up.

Next you call back, and tell Amazon that you’ve lost access to your account. Upon providing a name, billing address, and the new credit card number you gave the company on the prior call, Amazon will allow you to add a new e-mail address to the account. From here, you go to the Amazon website, and send a password reset to the new e-mail account. This allows you to see all the credit cards on file for the account — not the complete numbers, just the last four digits. But, as we know, Apple only needs those last four digits. We asked Amazon to comment on its security policy, but didn’t have anything to share by press time....

That sound you hear is the hollow laughter of Bruce Schneier, who used to write about the madness of 'secret questions' before the sheer stupidity of it all wore him down.

It's all broke guys.

Once upon a time civilians [2] used the same password everywhere. Smart civilians made it a bit harder to guess, like "Joseph45206". They knew their passwords.

They were hacked of course. So companies began insisting on more robust passwords. Civilians stopped remembering their passwords. So they took to requesting password resets whenever their browsers forgot a password. Except email addresses fade away, so resets often failed. Then sites started asking 'secret questions' to do resets, but nobody remembers the answer they gave to their #$! secret question [3]. So now Apple support basically hands over credentials to nice sounding voices.

This system can't be fixed.

Phone based two-factor might help, but I've been using Google's two-factor since day 1 and it's still a royal pain in the ass. It's strictly for geeks. Not to mention what happens when you lose your phone.

We need to give Schneier a few drinks and get him to talk about this again. Failing that:

  1. Backup for Darwin's sake.
  2. Don't enable remote wipe of Mac OS X hardware. Just encrypt it.
  3. Use Google two-factor (two-step verification) if you are a geek and can stomach it.
  4. Fear the Cloud. Keep the data you value most close to you.
  5. Don't use iCloud.
  6. Don't trust Apple to get anything right that involves the Internet and/or Identity. [4]
Not being Schneier my advice isn't worth much, but fwiw I suspect the "solution" is:
  1. Get rid of the secret security question.
  2. Strictly limit password resets. If someone lost last access, charge them $50 to go to bank, post office or notary to establish their identity.
  3. Incorporate biometrics (thumb print and speech probably).

[1] Of course he didn't have backups. Don't beat him up about that, he's busy flogging himself.
[2] As opposed to geeks with 15 yo FileMaker password databases stored on encrypted disk images. 
[3] Unless they've added a $!%!%$! secret question field to the #$!#$ FileMaker encrypted disk image database and the answer to the secret question is something like: "4hgoghi4ohh4tt".
[4] Apple needs to pay their executives less and their geeks more. 

Coin flips and climate

The weather is unusual, but is the climate truly different? How would we know?

I toss a fair coin 10 times. Which of these patterns is more likely than the other?


Now toss a fair coin nine times. I get HHHHHHHHH. What's the chance of getting T on the next toss?

The answer to the first question is that all of these outcomes are equally likely, though some seem odder to us than others. They all show five tails and five heads, the most common result of tossing a coin ten times. [1].

The answer to the second question is, of course 50%.

Now for the interesting question.

I toss a coin 100 times and I get 95 tails. What is the chance that the coin is fair [2]?

What if find one side of the coin is more magnetic than the other?

What if you inspect the rim and notice a color change from one side to the other?

Each of those three observations makes it less likely that the coin is fair. Taken together they strongly suggest the coin isn't fair.

We know that weather is not "fair". It is biased by climate.  If the distribution of weather events changes, we may infer that the climate bias is changing. If we have strong reason to suspect that atmospheric CO2 concentrations change climate, and we know CO2 is rising and weather events are changing, we have even more reason to suspect that climate is changing.

That's why we can say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that our climate is changing.

[1] Contemplation of these results doubtless leads to speculations on the arrow of time, Boltzman's brains, and the insanely unlikely probability of my certain existence. But that's not for today.
[2] Can I reject the null hypothesis of a fair coin, where a fair coin, tossed a very large number of times, will turn up heads and tails with equal frequency?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Google's Kansas Gigabit and the wireless war

The Google-Apple war continues, but it's dwarfed by the wireless war that started when Verizon and ATT used price signaling to become VerizATT [1].

Now AT&T retail sales is incented to trash talk iPhones and sell Android. VerizATT is, for the moment, allied with Google against Apple. (Which should give geek fans of Android some qualms.)

This is starting to feel like the tooth-and-claw capitalism of the 19th century railroads [2].

Meanwhile Google is going nuclear on Comcast. Will they stay loyal to VerizATT, or will they turn when Apple is wounded?

Will Comcast do a deal with Apple? Will Microsoft continue to sit on the sidelines?

Will Apple and Microsoft form a separate consortium to buy Sprint and T-Mobile?

With its massive pipes, will Google offer free net access to homeowners willing to mount a LTE-Advanced tower on their roof?

These are interesting times.

[1] They must figure that by the time antitrust kicks in the war will be done.
[2] Not the first time that comparison has been made. Railroad tracks have a lot in common with wireless spectrum. My grandfather was a railroad man when everyone was in railroad; sometimes I wonder if 19th century geeks were all in the railroads.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Microsoft: what really happened?

I finally read the entire How Microsoft Lost Its Mojo Vanity Fair article. It's worth a read for all geeks over 40, despite some obvious flaws. A few quick comments:
  • The article makes Microsoft sound atypical. I don't think it is, I think it's a very typical corporation. It's no more had a lost decade than any other publicly traded company that's not Apple. (Google search is more than 10 years old. What have they done since?). It's only remarkable because it was once so extraordinary.
  • Most modern corporations do something like stacked ranking, they're just not usually so obvious about it. GE's disastrous HR innovations are ubiquitous.
  • Vanity Fair's fact checkers should be stack ranked. Obviously Eichenwald needed help. There are many chronological and tech history errors in the article; I especially don't get what was so remarkable about OS X 10.4/Tiger. 10.3 was the amazing version of OS X.
  • I don't remember mention of the effects of the 1990s Consent decree. That's a curious omission. In the late 90s it was possible that Microsoft would be broken up for business practices that are illegal for de facto monopolies. If Gore had won in 2000 that might have happened. Instead Bush won. (I wonder who Gates funded that year.) Microsoft remained intact; now that seems a Pyrrhic victory.
  • I think Google is following Microsoft's path, they're just not as far along. More importantly, I don't see how Apple can avoid Microsoft's fate. Jobs psyche and power were unique. All publicly traded corporations tend to resemble one another.