Oh, to be a fly on the wall…

A line from an article about US election irregularities:

In Kentucky, a poll worker was arrested for trying to throttle a voter.

What?!? Throttling a voter?? Sounds like there might very well be a very, very interesting story behind this one. Any suggestions on the last thing this particular voter might have said, just before being throttled?

Here’s one to start things off: “So I just pushed this thing here, and now I’ve got this blue screen saying something about an illegal operation…”

New estimate on Iraqi war deaths – one in forty

Just released (see, for example, this Reuters article) is a new study, which aimed to estimate the number of Iraqis who have died as a result of the US invasion in 2003. The methodology involved interviewing randomly sampled families, rather than more passive studies involving, for example, morgue reports. The conclusion is that the death rate since the invasion has been about two and a half times higher than that before the invasion, as a result of all causes — including violence, breakdown in medical services, etc. This translates into 655 000 additional deaths, or one in forty Iraqis.

It is studies of this sort which once again show that invading a stable country, even one ruled by a brutal regime, does NOT improve the lives of the people within the country. And it certainly can’t improve the world’s image of the invading country. I just hope that one day soon American society will start really asking itself how this tragedy could have been allowed to happen, and how the US world view needs to change to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Life just got more … interesting

Ok, so not really life — just my physics. But this title flowed better.

So far today (it’s noon), I have made some real progress on a tricky problem we’ve been working on, that looks like it might soon give some very interesting results, possibly publication-worthy. This is very good. Also today, another paper appeared online with similar results to some of our work, from a different approach. This is potentially very bad. It’s 62 pages of heavy maths, so I’m not sure how bad at this stage. Preliminarily, though, it looks like at least some of our work is not in their paper.

So yes, things might start moving quickly now.

Arctic ice shrinks 14% in a year

New studies from NASA (JPL) and elsewhere show a 14% reduction in perennial (ie. survives the summer) Arctic ice in just one year, from 2004 to 2005. Supercomputer models had suggested that the ice (and, incidentally, polar bears as a species) would all be gone by 2070, but this is far faster even than those predictions.

This might be a good time to turn off a light, or take your bike to work tomorrow. Just a thought.

Co2 levels in ice cores

In the news today: new studies of gas bubbles trapped in Antarctic show that current CO2 levels are higher than those for the last 800 000 years — and that the growth in CO2 levels over the last 17 years is so fast that it would normally require over 1000 years of natural variation to produce the same change.

The past 800 000 years includes many ice ages, and interglacial warming periods between the ice ages. The CO2 level fluctuates in step with global average temperature. So we’re looking at a change that in the last 17 years has been larger than that associated with a mere ice age (though luckily other changes are also associated with ice ages). But our CO2 emission rate is still increasing.

Controlling computers with the mind

You may have heard of research being done on sensors which allow computers to be controlled with thoughts alone, as opposed to physical movement of the body (via, say, a keyboard). This research has immediate implications for people who are paralysed, but also longer-term implications for human-machine interfaces in general. At the moment it’s a pretty new field, and not very many people have actually controlled computers with thought alone.

I am one of those people.
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Seen in a Caltech corridor

Appearing in a Caltech corridor today: a transcript of Pluto’s concession speech. My favourite line: Dick Cheney was quoted as saying, “Today is a victory for the terra-ists”.

Beats the UFO News, a newsletter which occasionally mysteriously appears in random theoretical physicists’ mailboxes on campus. It’s a circa 1960’s, 30-odd page collection of articles including scientific explanations [sic] of devices such as power sources for UFOs that run off the fifth fundamental force.

Strings 2006

One more day of the Strings 2006 conference to go! It’s been a very intense conference, with many ideas and talks. I’ve gained some ideas which are at least somewhat related to things I’ve been thinking about, but I’m not sure how they’ll turn out.

I have been a little disappointed that there have been no “big picture” talks — string theory has had a slow year, and I would have been interested to hear what some of the big names were thinking about for the coming year. Though I suppose if anyone did have a big idea, they would have already published.

I’ve been contributing a little to Jonathan Shock’s very ambitious efforts to summarise proceedings at the conference, over at his blog. It’s turning into a useful reference (judging by his page hits, if nothing else), and it’s certainly be useful for me to review the talks. Though it is hard trying to write down succinct summaries of talks in other areas of string theory, especially when there are 5.5 hours of talks a day!
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Apportioning the Internet

The control of the infrastructure of the Internet is a controversial issue. Recently in the news was the refusal of ICANN, the governing organisation of the domain name system, to approve an application for the creation of a “.xxx” domain — aimed at sites providing pornographic material. The issue is deciding just who actually made the decision. But it’s definitely not the only issue of global fairness in Internet infrastructure.

The problem is that ICANN makes domain name decisions which are then effectively binding on the world (though China may be thinking of breaking ranks). But in general, the rest of the world has to follow suit if the Internet is to continue to work smoothly.
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ANALYZE your PostgreSQL databases!

I’ve recently been reminded, in no uncertain terms, of the importance of running the “ANALYZE” (or “VACUUM ANALYZE”) command periodically on a PostgreSQL database installation.

My problem:
Amongst other tables, a production database I administer has three tables: two moderately large tables, A(1) and B, and one quite large one (>700 000 records), C (for “Cross”), which is essentially the full cross product of A and B, with an additional piece of information for each tuple (record). So I’m associating some information with every combination of records from tables A and B.
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