Archive for June, 2006

Google Hits and Misses

Posted in Technology and Software on June 30, 2006 by Mike Procario

There is a story in Business Week on how Google develops new products and how few of them are successful. I have tried many of these products and I have to agree that many under underwhelming. I have a high opinion of Gmail. I think that is has an excellent interface as well plenty of storage. The new Yahoo web mail service is quite good, but it does not support downloading messages with POP3, so I am staying with Gmail. I heavily use Google Maps. It clearly was better then any of the other services when it first came out. Some of the others have been catching up, like local.live.com. I am trying out Google BrowserSync and so far I like it. I am only syncing two computers and only the bookmarks.

I use Picasa, Google’s photo management and editing software. It seems to hit the sweet spot for me of ease of use and power. It does 90% of what I want without fuss. I have been waiting for a new version to come out, but they have been few and far between.

I use the Google Calendar and the Google personalized home page. They are functional but I would give them up quickly if something better came along.
I have also tried Google Reader, Google RSS feed reader, and I did not care for it. I had Google Desktop installed for awhile. I did find that it did a good job at searching my computer, but I did not get anything out of the widgets. I was worried about the privacy implications and I hope that eventually there will be a tool that the does the job without having to run over the network. I tried out Google Page Creator and was underwhelmed.

I tired Google Talk, but I am not really an IM type of person. It has a fatal flaw in that it does not have an audible alert of new messages. I had several conversations with my daughter while she was away at college and if she did not reply immediately I would open a new window and not know when she replied.
For me Gmail is the only surefire hit, but apparently not many people really care about the POP3 downloading as much as me, so it is not been able to overtake Hotmail and Yahoo. The BusinessWeek article points out.

Gmail, the e-mail service that was lauded at its 2004 launch for offering 500 times as much storage space as some rivals (they quickly closed the gap), today is the system of choice for only about one-quarter the number of people who use MSN and Yahoo e-mail.

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Homestake Receives Large Private Contribution

Posted in physics, Science on June 27, 2006 by Mike Procario

A colleague sent me this link on a major private contribution of $70 million to developing the Homestake mine in South Dakota into a major underground science lab. Underground facilities are used by particle physicists to study rare processes like proton decay, solar neutrino interactions, search for dark matter, etc. In all of these processes cosmic ray interactions can fake a signal and putting the detector underground shields the experiment from cosmic rays.

Other fields of science like biology and geology have their own reasons to work underground. The National Science Foundation has been looking at proposals to develop a multidisciplinary underground lab, and one of the proposals uses the Homestake mine. This contribution could give the Homestake proposal an advantage over the competition.
Unlike astronomy which frequently receives private donations to build telescopes, particle physics has not traditionally received significant private funds for facilities. There was a recent $13 million donation to operate the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Lab, but that is nuclear physics.

String Theory Not Even Wrong

Posted in physics, Science on June 12, 2006 by Mike Procario

Here is a review of Peter Woit's new book critiquing string theory. The basic argument is that string theory has very little connestion with the real world and is extremely difficult to test. Physicists have started to take this critique seriously. This article describes some of the possible tests. 

String theory is fascinating and is well worth exploring. The problem that I have is balance. It clearly will take a long time to translate string theory into solid testable predictions, if ever. Woit complains that too many theorists are now pursing string theory. If all particle physics theorists pursue strings then who will be interpreting the data from the LHC? What if there is an alternative theory than can make predictions at lower energies.

A variety of influential scientists agree with Woit's view. From the review

Yet he has formidable allies such as David Gross (the Nobel Llaureate theoretical physicist), Roger Penrose (the world-class mathematician) and Lee Smolin (the leading cosmologist), plus an accumulating constituency of other big-name supporters.

I hope that excesses can be reined in without completely wiping out the effort.

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Who Needs to Understand Statistics?

Posted in Economy, Science on June 9, 2006 by Mike Procario

The New York Times has story about how the public's perception of the economy is different from the adminstration's. It seems to be that the adminstration does not have a good grasp of statistics.

The data he cited were averages, or means, and that can be misleading. "The average wage is a useful indicator if you want to know what's happening to the tax base, but it might not tell you what's going on for the individual worker," said Alan B. Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton and a former chief economist at the Labor Department. Consider a hypothetical country with 300 million workers. Say the chief executive of an investment bank gets a $300 million raise this year, while the other 299,999,999 workers don't get a raise. In the aggregate, the average per-capita salary has risen by $1, but only one person has more money in his pocket.

To see how typical workers are doing, it's better to look at median wages and incomes — the midpoint that separates the top 50 percent from the lower 50 percent. And median income, which was stagnant during President Bush's first term, is struggling to keep pace with inflation. "Median household income has gone nowhere since the turn of the decade," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.

Other effects like the rising price of gasoline, health insurance co-pays, home purchases, mortgage payments were also mentioned. Except for gasoline these are not well represented in the Consumer Price Index. Here one does not need to understand the math behind the stastics as much as the limits of statistics. The are not magic. If you do not put int he relevant data then you do not get a relevant number.

No More Physics for Poets

Posted in physics, Science on June 8, 2006 by Mike Procario

Edward Morley (pseudonym) is calling for the elimination of Physics for Poets classes. He feels that they do a disservice to both students and science. I have no experience with Physics for Poets classes, having neither taught nor taken one, so I do not have data to judge the soundness of his argument. I did find one point though that I liked.

Forcing non-science majors to take the same courses as science majors seems like an unappealing prospect in large part because so many introductory science courses are unappealing. If we are to force non-science majors to take introductory science major courses, we will also need to commit to making those courses more acceptable to a broader range of students.

Fermilab Annual User’s Meeting

Posted in physics, Science on June 3, 2006 by Mike Procario

I attended the annual user's meeting at Fermilab this week. I have been to about 10 of them over the years and this was the most interesting one I can remember. There were several interesting "political" talks in addition to the physics talks. A combination of circumstances have come together on the political front: the release of the "Rising above the Gathering Storm" report from the National Academies, American Competitiveness Initiative, the passage of the increased budget for the DOE Office of Science in the House of Representatives, and the release of the EPP2010 report. On the physics front the Tevatron experiments are now reporting on large data samples, MINOS has presented their first accelerator oscillation result, and even MiniBoone seems on the verge of releasing their long awaited result.

On the political side, Representative Judy Biggert of Illinois, who chairs the Science Subcommittee on Energy gave a talk that concentrated on the budget for the Office of Science and the prospects for the International Linear Collider. She called on those present to contact their Senators and encourage them to support the Office of Science budget in the Senate.

Norman Augustine's talk was actually a public lecture attended by people from the local community in addition to physicists. The thrust of the Gathering Storm report is broader than I had realized. It is about more than just increasing funding for basic research in the physical sciences. It is about improving science eduction in the K-12 education system. This will require more teachers with a real scientific background and new ways of teaching.

Harold Shapiro gave his impressions on what the EPP 2010 report means. I took three things away from his talk. The first was that only by building the ILC in the US will the US maintain a leadership position in high energy physics. This does not mean a dominant position but an equal with any other program in the world. A neutrino program is worthwhile physics and should be pursued, but even the most aggressive neutrino program you can conceive will not keep the US in a leadership position. The third point is that we should not abandon any of the major subfields but we have to do more work outside the country as we build an ILC than some would desire.

The first physics talk I heard was on a search for SUSY with trileptons. It was given by a young woman from Purdue. It was an excellent talk. SUSY is not an area that I have worked in, although I know the basics. She gave a very nice short introduction into SUSY and why it is important. Then she discussed why trileptons are considered the golden mode for searching for SUSY. There was no signal but the data set is now getting large enough that there is hope that SUSY can be found if it exists.

I also heard talks on the results from MINOS, MiniBoone, Bs mixing, and measuring the mass of the top quark using all hadronic final states.

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