The snake oil all makes sense now...

Arstechnica, one of my favorite online news/technology sites, has done a nice writeup on a study done regarding "snake oil cures."  Essentially, less efficacious cures, including those that are completely ineffective, are still very commonly spread.  This is, oversimplifying drastically, because cures that are too good aren't much talked about after they finish working.  Think of this example:

Three people, Alex, Ben and Clare, all get sinus infections.  They have different ideas of proper treatment.

Alex takes nothing, but toughs it out and is well in a month.  Lots of complaining and lingering simptoms, so everyone around hears about it.

Ben takes antibiotics and begins feeling better in 24 hours and is well in a week.  Feeling well almost immediately, he quits talking about being sick, and no one around thinks about it after a couple days.

Clare desides upon a "total body cleansing" regimen and is well in three weeks.  It does a reasonable job of treating symptoms like congestion, but is only slightly effective at removing the infection.  Since the symptoms are helped but she is not totally well, she will mention to others that she is improving because of the cleansing.

In the end, socially speaking, Clare's total body cleanse will be more effective at selling itself to others.  It will be spoken of positively for the longest period of time, so it markets itself better.

Another point from the article is that vaccines, because they prevent the illness completely, market themselves in the worst possible way.  You can't tell if it's working on an individual basis.  Every time the vaccine saves you from getting the mumps, you can't even tell.  So, it makes a lot of sense why negative effects, even imagined ones, are going to appear to far outweigh the positive effects, even when this is absolutely not the case.


Voluntary Darwinism

Jenny McCarthy is not someone I'd think of as a role model.  I'm not sure I'd even want to hear her movie recommendations, let alone let her give me life advice.  For some reason, then, since she has a kid that is (possibly misdiagnosed as) Autistic, she is the mouthpiece for the anti-vaccination movement.  She'll be on Larry King soon (tonight?), and just wait 'till she gets on Oprah and the mind control begins (has she already been on Oprah, or is Oprah already talking about it?).  Besides having an afflicted child, what makes her qualified to speak on medical recommendations?  Is it the fact that she was a centerfold 15 years ago?  Perhaps it's because she has spent a lot of time on MTV, that's pretty educational.

See, the thing is, even after you remove some of the vaccines that are suspected of being nasty, you still get Autism. You can do any number of studies and reach any number of conclusions based upon how you fiddle the numbers and subjects, but the overall scientific concensus appears to be that there is no link between autism and vaccinations.  Yet there is evidence that tends to indicate a genetic link.

So Darwinism?  Well, it's a bit prolonged, and unfair to the children, but if you're stupid enough to believe Jenny McCarthy and not get your kids vaccinated, then their odds of reproducing are going to drop by some degree.  This degree may not be great, unless they do a lot of international travel, but I'm hopeful that on a long enough timeline, the effect will be shown.  It's tricky to have sex after Polio paralyses you!

Wait, you want an example, so you know I'm not just trying to sound scary?  How about a Measles outbreak in California, caused by a family taking an unvaccinated 7 year-old to Germany.  This then spread after he came back to the US, because some of those the child came into contact with also were not vaccinated.  I hope that none of the other people who got sick were permanently effected, but this is a splendid case where a recommended and easy vaccination would have prevented the entire problem.

This isn't something I'd take totally seriously, but here is the count of cases of vaccine-preventable sicknesses and deaths since Jenny McCarthy started speaking out against them.  The sicknesses and deaths are serious enough, but of course there isn't a direct link between Jenny and people being stupid enough not to have their kids vaccinated.

I hate to keep adding to this, but here is the article that I've seen referenced a few times elsewhere.  It's the one by Jenny McCarthy where she calls her son a "Crystal" and herself an "Indigo," because some random person in the street said it to her.  From the article:

After doing some of my own research on the word Indigo, I realized not only was I an early Indigo but my son was in fact a Crystal child. From that point on things in my life started to make sense. I always wondered why I was a ball-buster and rule breaker on TV, and at that moment I knew exactly why. I was born to not only think outside the box, but to break that box up into a million pieces. I called this day my “awakening” but really it was the day I remembered. This was the day my life and global mission became so clear. There was nothing I could do that could contain the excitement of what was to come.

I'm sorry, but if you take that seriously... well... I want a hit of whatever you're on.  Seriously?

You can yell at me for this mental leap, but the first thing I wonder is whether untreated syphillis has caused megalomania.  ;)

Last addition, for serious.  What Are Indigo and Crystal Children and Adults?  What The Fuck.  I know that I am an overly logical person with my own set of faults on the other end of the scale, but the fact that people can believe a crock of shit like that is just so... disappointing.


A Great Quantum Mechanics Explanation

This was actually posted by someone in a discussion about Watchmen which was started by Roger Ebert. I'm trying to find a link. It's one of the best explanations I've seen of the various mind-bending concepts of Quantum Mechanics and also a bit about why it is often seen to disagree with Einstein's Relativity (which they never did adequately explain in my Modern Physics class which covered both of these theories).

Eric M. Van wrote:

"There really is spooky action at a distance, apparently instantaneous communication of information between widely separated particles."
I really hate to wade into the waters of attempted pithy lay explanations of QM concepts, but I really feel like I should put a stop to what is the all-too-common interpretation of the nonlocality of the EPR "paradox". That is to say:

Information cannot be transmitted faster than light because of quantum entanglement.

Einstein rightly worries about violating local causality because local causality is absolutely fundamental to Relativity Theory. Local causality cannot be violated and Relativity to still be true.

Yet QM implied quantum entanglement (which Van described earlier).

A little backstory on this... You've probably heard the famous Einstein quote "God does not play dice with the universe". This was his essential criticism of quantum mechanics. He was never comfortable with QM because it was most essentially says that the universe we experience is entirely probabilistic at the most fundamental level. Einstein still thought in terms of classical Newtonian "billiard ball" physics, which quantum mechanics denies. Thus, his "dice" comment.

His (with Podolosky and Rosen) thought experiment involving the apparent violation of local causality because of quantum entanglement was basically a reductio ad absurdum attempting to refute QM by way of showing it was incompatible with Relativity (and, whether or not contemporary physicists held Relativity to be irrefutable, they certainly felt local causality to be fundamental).

However, it took a few years, but eventually there was a definitive answer to the EPR paradox that showed that local causality isn't really violated.

In short, you can say that changing say, the spin of an entangled particle here will change, instantly, the spin of its entangled particle some distance away (any distance would violate causality, but for clarity, think a light year or something—many science fiction writers use quantum entanglement vis a vis the EPR Paradox as their rationale for faster-than-light communication across space), but there's a problem: because of other aspects of QM, particularly Heisenberg Uncertainty (which I'll deal with in a minute), when you're observing a particle, there's a built-in uncertainty about, say, the spin of that particle on a moment-to-moment basis. In short, if you were watching an entangled particle and observing its spin, you'd see it constantly changing, whether its entangled partner was being changed by experiments, or not. The changes would be random. The experimenters, a light year away, would be making changes in the spin of the entangled particle that will be masked by the random changes that will happen anyway.

The only way to extract information out of the paired particle will be to compare observations of both particles, at which point you could identify how the experimenters changed the spin and the other particle echoed that change. And there's the rub: to compare the observations, you'd need to transmit that information across that distance by some other method...that is equal to or less than the speed of light and obeys local causality.

At this point, whether local causality has been violated becomes a philosophical question. You can't ever claim that local causality has been "violated" except after-the-fact, by virtue of acting in the world in ways which don't violate local causality. Arguably, only when you compare the observations does the experienced reality come into being where local causality seems to have been violated.

Dangit, there's so much here to be explained...

Okay, look: the reason local causality was so important to Einstein and fundamental to Relativity is that violating it—in fact, actually postulating instantaneous "action at a distance"—is a violation the very basic premise of Relativity. Relativity in its most basic sense says that there's no such thing as absolute space or absolute time. That is to say, you can't say that a point in space is exactly somewhere and you can't say that a moment in time is the same for the entire universe. With regard to time, in other words, there is no such thing as a universal "now". You can't say that "two things happen at the same time" in an absolute sense. You can say that they happen at the same time, relative to each other. You can say that two points in space have some distance, relative to each other. And that's it. There is no absolute space or absolute time. This is what makes relativity so fundamentally counter-intuitive, contrary to our everyday experience of reality.

Einstein didn't just randomly make this up and then see what it might mean. He came up with this because there had been a number of disturbing experiments, one in particular, that seemed to call deeply into question our notion of absolute space. He came up with relativity as he tried to understand how to interpret these weird experimental results.

So, this is the problem: quantum entanglement, when it is said to violate local causality, implicitly violates the relativity of time. If you can "instantly" change one thing a distance away by changing something here, then you have a way of defining an absolute instant moment in time that's true for the entire universe. If EPR worked, then Special and General Relativity would be proven false.

And while it's true that quantum mechanics is the first most successful physical theory in history, Relativity is second. Toppling Relativity today would be the equivalent of Einstein toppling Newtonian physics in his time. It's a big deal. You can see why Einstein would personally have some trouble with the implications of his thought experiment. That's why he thought that it proved QM false. But my explanation of what would actually happen explains why both Relativity and QM survive the EPR Paradox.

And the way in which EPR doesn't violate local causality, not really, is extremely familiar to particle physicists: it's exactly the sort of thing they dealt with right at the very beginning of the development of QM and in the experiments they performed.

The foundational experiment in quantum physics is the famous "two slit experiment". It's pretty easy to explain, and if you really want to have a lay understanding of what the weirdness of QM is, then you need to understand the two slit experiment.

Imagine a very sophisticated emitter of light that can emit as little as one photon at a time. Photons are the particles of light. This emitter is a "gun", pointed at something like, say, photographic paper. A single photon isn't really enough to expose the paper, but bear with me.

Okay, so you have that gun pointed at the paper. Now, photons, like all these quantum elementary particles, don't move in exactly straight lines like billiard balls. If you point your photon gun, the photons that come out average in something close to a straight line, but because of Heisenberg Uncertainty (remember I mentioned it?), it's only an average. Individual particles vary probabilistically.

HU is simple, and fundamental. It says that we can't know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. In fact, it says that the more we know of one, the less of the other. (This wades into deeper waters, but the usual explanation of this is the commonsensical "you can't measure something without changing it" idea. However, this is a practical way to interpret HU, but it's not exactly true. HU is stronger than that. It's epistemological. It's saying exactly what it's saying: you can't know both at the same time. Or, it's saying that both don't exist at the same time in the sense that they both have definite values. It's a mistake to think that HU is a statement of a measurement problem. It's more than that.)

So, photon aimed with out gun "scatter" probabilistically. You fire the gun at the film a lot, you get a nice dark, exposed spot.

So, now we place a lead plate between the gun and the film. The plate has a small hole in it. We fire the gun for a while. What do we see? We see an exposed circle of film behind the hole in the plate. Now we put two holes in the plate, side by side, and fire the gun for a while. What happens?

Well, this is the rub. It took a very long time for anyone to think of light as being made up of particles (well, actually, if you go back to the Greeks, you find the Greek atomists did think of light as being made of particles, like everything else, but that's only a historical curiosity). Why? Because light actually seems to be made up of waves, like water waves. Light "flows" around corners. That's diffraction. Light does all sorts of things that waves do. It's why we have rainbows.

If you imagine our photon gun as a water gun pushing water waves in a tank, and you think of the steel plate; then you can imagine the little waves that will come through the single hole in the plate. It may be hard to visualize this, but if those waves "exposed" something like our film, they'd make a circle, just like the photon and the single hole did.

Now think about having two holes. With waves, the water wave will go through both holes at the same time, and the pattern they will make on the other side of the steel plate will be two waves, which will interfere with each other (where one has peaks and the others have troughs). Again, if you has something like film to record how those two waves impact it, you'd see a classic "interference pattern". Not two circles. That's the important thing, here.

And if you have your photon gun, two holes in the lead plate, and film behind the plate, you'll see that interference pattern after you fire your photon gun for a bit.

But remember that I said you could fire a single photon with the gun? That implies that this is a particle, the photon. Didn't we say that light acted like a wave? Yep. Which is weird.

Here's where it gets weirder.

Since we can fire only one photon at a time, then we can build a little device to attach to each of the two holes in the lead plate so that we can tell which hole each photon goes through when one goes through the lead plate. Now we fire lots of photons.

What shows up on our film? Not the interference pattern we had before when we didn't know which hole the photons each went through. Now, while we're checking to see which hole each photon goes through, the whole thing changes. We see two circles on the film, and not an interference pattern.

This is the essential weirdness of the two-slit experiment and the essential weirdness of quantum physics:

When we force light to act like it's made up of particles—by checking to see which hole each particle goes through—it acts like it's made up of particles. When we don't, it acts like a wave. In acting like a wave, a single particle emitted from the gun will go through both holes at the same time (because it's a wave).

When the gun emits a particle, that photon doesn't "know" whether we have a detector on the hole in the plate, or not. It leaves the gun, it a wave or a particle?

You might say that when it gets to the plate, and there's a detector there, then it "decides" that it's a particle. That's one way of thinking about it. Except that what happens is that if you can tell that it's a particle, it will always have been a particle.

I've read about some interesting thought experiments that make this point much more viscerally. For example, you can imagine light leaving a very distant galaxy that is partly occluded from our view by, say, a black hole. Because of "gravitational lensing", the light will bend around the black hole the same way that light waves bend in a lens. And this is true for each individual photon. So, you say that a particular photon actually went around the black hole like a wave would...all around it. Now imagine a device that can detect a single photon here on Earth detecting on of those photons from that distant galaxy. Now, because we force it to be a particle, by looking for it in a way that presupposes particles, then we've forced it to have acted like a particle. In that case, it's always been a particle...meaning that it now went to the side of the black hole. If we don't look for a particle, it the light will act like a wave. Just like our photon gun...that distant galaxy is exactly the same thing, doing the same thing; and the black hole is acting sort of like that lead plate. 

And the point here is that the photon passed that black hole millions of years ago. Yet, we only just now check to see if it's a particle or a wave. What we do now, makes it true a million years ago.

Doesn't that violate local causality? Well, no, no more than EPR does. Because there's no way to check.

Now we have the famous Schroedinger's Cat. That was another attempt at a reductio. I won't explain it, it's just the same sort of thing except it takes this to a seemingly absurd degree—you have a cat that lives or dies on the basis of observing whether something acts like a particle. The thought experiment implies that you can't say that the cat lives or dies until someone opens the box and checks...until that point, the particle has acted like a wave, and so the cat exists in a wavelike both dead and alive until the box is opened. QM theorists said, before that thought experiment (and still do, mostly) that the probabilistic weirdness of QM only exists at the microcosmic level, that the probabilities of macrocosmic things, like cats and people, involve so many particles that the probabilities work out to be so close to certainty that everything is solid and things are exactly in one place (and not spread out in many places at once) and so forth. The Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment is an example showing that this sort of QM weirdness can "invade" the world we live in.

In a very contrived circumstance, of course.

So, anyway. Dealing with seemingly paradoxical things began at the very beginning of QM. QM always threatened things like local causality because of the kinds of weirdness I've described. However, and importantly, in all the history of modern physics, all of these weird things have been reconciled. And they usually come down to, well, observation. You can't observe things, or compare observations of things, in ways that violate local causality and the speed of light and whatnot. Since QM basically says that things exist in an indeterminate state until you observe them, it avoids trying to say what is happen "at the same time" of two entangled particles at a distance.

I don't think that M. Van understands that the EPR paradox doesn't actually violate local causality, because pretty much all lay people, notoriously including science-fiction writers, don't understand this.

I don't recall the name of the commenter who said this, but it is the best thing to keep in mind when trying to understand quantum physics: it's math. All narrative descriptions of QM are inadequate attempts to talk about something that only can be talked about with anything approaching real comprehension by using math. Words don't suffice, words are misleading. QM goes so far outside our intuitive experience of reality, that our words are not only insufficient, they are misleading.

Don't trust non-physicists' explanations of QM. Including mine. If you care to understand it at all, then read a source that has that primary, reliable, mathematical comprehension who will then, at least, mangle it minimally when he/she describes it to you. When you trust people like me, you're two degrees of separation from comprehension using a tool, language, that is inherently misleading on the topic.

That said, I believe that it's a pity that the philosophical implications of QM have languished for so many years, now. At it's birth, there was a huge burst of enthusiasm in grappling with what it means, by physicists and knowledgeable non-physicists, alike. That was the period of Schroedinger's Cat and other famous thought experiments. That period lapsed. The implications are too weird and it wasn't proving to be very fruitful to grapple with this with language and the usual tools of philosophers. It led to lots of badly-informed popular misunderstandings, too, which continue to litter bookstores everywhere. But there are a few physicists who still work on the philosophical questions inherent in QM. I asked one that I met what kind of response he gets from his fellow physicists for this work. He told me that it's slightly disreputable, but they tolerate it because he does other, more respectable, particle physics work.

As someone with an education in both the history and philosophy of science, I do think that some of the issues inherent in contemporary physics are worth thinking about by the non-physicist. Particularly, I believe that both Relativity and QM point right at epistemology. I don't think it's an accident that the two basic physical theories we have developed over the history of physics—both of which are fantastically successful at describing the universe we live—are built upon the foundation of marking out the essential limits of knowledge. Relativity demolishes the "God's Eye" view of the universe that we intuitively believe—that there is a "now" for the universe, that everything exists in exact relationships with everything else (in space), that theoretically we could know the exact state of the universe in a given moment. Relativity demolishes this for things like spaceships traveling very quickly, planets, and other macroscopic things. But QM takes this limiting of knowledge down into the fundamental particles; where, here too, we see that mostly we can't know much at all, and very little with certainty.

If you want something to spend late nights considering, in amateur philosophizing, then consider that the history of western science is that we started with some fundamental assumptions, built from those for thousands of years, and the elaborate structure we've built has turned on itself, ouroboros-like, and called into question (or radically redefined) those very basic assumptions upon which we founded this whole process. The most basic things we thought we knew, we learned, after assuming them, we either didn't know or radically misunderstood. What does that mean? What does that tell us about our comprehension and experience of the universe?

That's the question I'd like to ask Dr. Manhattan. If he existed.

Sorry for the length. I hope you read it. 

Ebert: I'm going to post it now and read it bright and early. I feel like I've returned to college. It's a good feeling.

And then SalmonOfDoubt posted this in the Penny Arcade forums, of which I am very fond.  Sometimes, you've just gotta put Quantum Mechanics in perspective.  And if you've seen Watchmen, you understand why there is so much discussion of glowing blue quantum dongs.

Imagine, if you will, a seven dimensional penis which can project beyond time, and even through solid matter. This metadong can be everywhere and nowhere at once, its exact physical state is constantly in flux. You might think of this scenario as somewhat emasculating, because if someone asks you (for example) if you have the balls to do something, you have to very earnestly reply that you might or you might not, it's kind of a quantum thing. On the other hand, ask that motherfucker if he can have sex with anyone who ever existed, ever, even if they were trapped inside a safe. See what I'm talking about? With an infinite wang, this and much more is possible. Well, I guess I should say probable. It's kind of a quantum thing.


Detox this!

 I have a hairdresser that I have been going to for around 5 years now.  She does a splendid job and is very easy to get along with, so I have no plans of going to anyone else.  On the other hand, she has very unscientific ideas when it comes to health.  She often mentions "detoxing" and various other ways of improving your health, often following it up with a comment that "Western Medicine" has some reason for not wanting you to know about it, or at least is intentionally ignoring the health benefits.

Seriously?  Detox items often cost just as much as "Western Medicine," so I would think that the pharmapseudical companies would be all over it to make more money if it worked.  The problem is that detox is a combination of a waste of money, and just following the basic rules of how to be a healthier person that any doctor should tell you.  Eat better.  Give up bad habits.  You'll feel better!  Wow!

What, you don't believe me?  Well, then you won't believe this either:

I'm posting it anyways, because perhaps someone on the edge will see it, and do some further research.  Detoxification?  It's just cleaning.  So get yourself some soap and wash up!  Eat better, and that will help detoxify you, because that's what your body is designed to do.  Most of that detox stuff is just snake oil, sold in the modern age.  In fact, I'd be interested in seeing just how much "Snake Oil" linament I could sell, if I advertised that it would clean your mind, colon and soul (in no particular order).  I may pay $20 for a 2oz thing of hair product, but I don't tell myself that it is doing anything for me besides making my hair stick up the way I like.

Edit:  Before anyone decides that I am condemning all non-Western medicine, that is not my intent.  I'm just pointing out one particular bit that is a big scam.  I expect that there is a subset of non-Western medicine that can be beneficial, but I also believe that if so, it has a scientific basis.  It isn't some sort of spiritual bullshit.  Neither is Western medicine flawless, but I trust the scientific method (which does not include "my cousin's friend's dog trainer told me that it worked for him") more than I trust trendy health treatments.

Lost Odyssey - A Thousand Years of Dreams

Lost Odyssey, so far, is amazing game. The most amazing parts of which are short stories, accompanied by sound, music and background art. While you can find many on YouTube, the quality is poor. This video should give a better impression of how the stories are told. The game waits for you after each full "page," so the pacing is up to you when you are reading them.

You definitely want to choose the Hi-Res version, if you have the bandwidth.

Cases for the Samung P2 (YP-P2) MP3 Player

I just got a Samsung P2 8GB MP3 player. It's very nifty and I may write more about it, but the first thing I realized I needed was a case. I have a 4G 1st-gen iPod Nano, and I got one of those silicone "nanotubes" for it, and it's done exactly what I always needed, which is to make it a lot more "grippable" while also giving it some resistance to bumps and hard surfaces.

Apparently some of the first P2's came with a hard "crystal case," but mine from Amazon did not. I did some googling and have found the following cases:

Noreve - Tradition leather case

Digital Life Outfitters - Action Jacket

In addition, Gizmodo has pictures of various peripherals for the P2, including the crystal case and some nifty BT speakers, but I don't see any of these coming up on the Samsung website yet. I've also emailed DLO to see if they are going to make a silicone case for the P2, so I hope they say 'yes'.

I've also found a nifty forum that seems to have more information than anywhere else about the P2.

Badak, a Korean freeware transcoder that, with the proper preset, supports the P2.

12/09/2007 Update:
Change the player region and switch from the MTP to UMS interface. MTP is Media Transfer Protocol, which means that the player is treated as a special device which you can't play from directly and will warn you about copying the wrong formats of files. UMS treats the device like a standard flash drive.

While DLO isn't planning on making a fitted silicone case for the player, it looks like the generic case makers have hit ebay with their own. I plan to pick one up once I get back from Taiwan.

Protip: Don't forget the charging cable at home when you take your shiny new MP3 player to entertain you on the long flights to/from Taiwan.