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Note:These pages make extensive use of the latest XHTML and CSS Standards. They ought to look great in any standards-compliant modern browser. Unfortunately, they will probably look horrible in older browsers, like Netscape 4.x and IE 4.x. Moreover, many posts use MathML, which is, currently only supported in Mozilla. My best suggestion (and you will thank me when surfing an ever-increasing number of sites on the web which have been crafted to use the new standards) is to upgrade to the latest version of your browser. If that's not possible, consider moving to the Standards-compliant and open-source Mozilla browser.

July 30, 2007


My wife and I finally got around to seeing the Michael Moore movie.

Over dinner, she asked me, “So, do you think there’s any chance of ever getting National Health Care in this country?” I shrugged, “Sure. Why not? It happened in my lifetime in Canada.” Of course, the medical establishment fought it tooth and nail; in Québec, I recall, the doctors staged a Province-wide strike. But they came around fairly quickly, when they realized that the Government paid their claims promptly and in full, unlike the Insurance Companies, whose business model consists of denying claims and paying out the ones they accept as slowly as legally possible.

The only question, as I see it, is who’s going to play the role of Tommy Douglas? Douglas was mentioned in Moore’s film, as the father of Canada’s Medicare system, along with the tidbit that he has been voted the Greatest Canadian of all time. Moore notes that Douglas beat out such obvious candidates as Canada’s first Prime Minister and Wayne Gretzky, but never explains why.

In brief: as Premier of Saskatchewan, Douglas pushed through legislation, needless to say over the vociferous objections of the Medical establishment, to create the first prototype of the Medicare program at the provincial level. He went on to found the Federal New Democratic Party in 1961, and his program for universal coverage was enacted by his successor in 1962.

On the Federal level, with Douglas at the helm, the NDP campaigned tirelessly for a national version of the Saskatchewan program. It didn’t take long for this fringe left-wing idea to become mainstream. In 1966, the Liberal Pearson government1 enacted a Federal version of Douglas’s program.

The rest, as they say, is History.

In many ways, it should be much easier here. Unlike back then, there’s a broad consensus that the health care system in this country is broken. Forty years on, every American health care professional I’ve talked to (not least, my wife) is so fed up with the Insurance Companies that they’re more liable to embrace the change than to protest.

So the expanded answer to my wife’s question is: what we need is a successful implementation at the State level by some intrepid Governor, and then someone to champion making the program national.

The temptation, among our risk-averse politicians, is to “triangulate” and attempt to buy off the Insurance Companies. I don’t think this will succeed. If, on the other hand, one of y’all were to take them on and win, you’d stand a very good chance of being remembered as The Greatest American of all time. Something to think about, no?

Update: Some Data to Ponder

Life expectancy versus healthcare expeditures in OECD countries (2003)
Country Life Expectancy (years) Total Exp. on Health/Capita (US$) Total Exp. on Health (% of GDP)
Japan 81.821398.0
Iceland 80.7311510.5
Spain 80.518357.9
Switzerland 80.4378111.5
Australia 80.326999.2
Sweden 80.227039.3
Italy 79.922588.4
Canada 79.730019.9
Norway 79.5380710.1
France 79.4290310.4
New Zealand 78.718868.0
Austria 78.622809.6
Netherlands 78.629769.1
Finland 78.521187.4
United Kingdom78.522317.8
Germany 78.4299610.8
Luxembourg 78.237057.7
Belgium 78.1282710.1
Greece 78.1201110.5
Ireland 77.824517.2
Portugal 77.317979.8
Denmark 77.227638.9
United States 77.2563515.2
Korea 76.910745.5
Czech Republic75.312987.5
Mexico 74.9 5836.3
Poland 74.7 7446.5
Slovakia 73.9 7775.9
Hungary 72.411158.3
Turkey 68.7 5137.6

1 No doubt, it helped that Pearson’s was a minority government, supported by the NDP.

Posted by distler at 8:17 PM | Permalink | Followups (27)

July 28, 2007


At Strings 2007, one of the things I was curious to hear about was what the old-time supergravity experts thought about the conjectures by Zvi Bern et al about the possible finiteness of 𝒩=8\mathcal{N}=8 supergravity (see here for some previous comments on the subject). So I went around surveying their opinions. To a man (or woman), they were united in the opinion that 𝒩=8\mathcal{N}=8 supergravity would diverge. All that they disagreed about was the loop order at which the divergence would first occur.

Some said 5 loops, based on the hypothetical existence of a harmonic superspace formulation for 𝒩=8\mathcal{N}=8 supergravity. The more linearly-realized supersymmetries you have, the more powerful the convergence properties they impose. If a harmonic superspace formulation, with 24 of the 32 supersymmetries linearly realized, were to exists, this would postpone the first divergence to 5 loops.

Renata Kallosh was betting on 8 loops where, many years ago, she constructed an explicitly E 7,7E_{7,7}-invariant counterterm. Others were betting on 9 loops, due to an argument by Berkovits, to do with pure spinors.

All of them, in other words, had their own pet explanation for the improved convergence properties found by Bern et al but, depending on what they believed was responsible, this would only protect you from divergences up to some finite loop order, well beyond what’s been calculated heretofore.

Posted by distler at 6:32 PM | Permalink | Followups (4)

July 27, 2007


In case you happened to miss the Scott Thomas Beauchamp “controversy,” which created a veritable firestorm in the Wingnutosphere last week, Jon Swift has a nice rundown.

Me? Well, I had grown weary of The New Republic, and was planning to allow my subscription to lapse. But now I’ve decided to resubscribe. After all, anyone who can show the wingnuts for the batshit crazies that they are can’t be all bad…

Posted by distler at 11:37 PM | Permalink | Post a Comment

July 26, 2007

WebKit and MathML

Dave Morrison always has the coolest toys. Years ago, he was the only person I knew with SSH on his cell phone. So it wasn’t all that surprising that he was the owner of the first iPhone I ever got to fondle.

“Look,” he said, “here’s your blog.”

Sure enough, there was Musings, in all its glory … Or most of it. “No MathML,” he muttered. And, indeed, that’s something that I’ve been muttering about for years. In the two years since it became open-source, WebKit has gained a lot of mindshare. In addition to Safari and the iPhone, it powers Nokia’s mobile browser and even the developers of KHTML have bowed to the inevitable.

So it’s a little disappointing that the WebKit MathML project has gone precisely nowhere. Dave and I discussed the matter, and he even expressed an interest in joining the aforementioned project … if only there were something to join.

So where are the developers interested in implementing MathML in WebKit? Y’all should talk.

Someday, it would be nice to be able to read this blog on Dave’s phone.

Update (7/26/2007):

Speaking of Safari, it appears that I unjustly maligned that browser’s DOM support in real XHTML. It turns out that it’s broken, but not quite as broken as I thought. What I thought was brokenness was merely WebKit being stricter than the others. document.createElement doesn’t do what you think it does1 (as it does in Mozilla or Opera). You really do need to use document.createElementNS. The upshot is that Instiki now sends S5 slideshows to Safari as real XHTML. Which means that inline SVG, if not MathML, works.

1 In other browsers, document.createElement creates an element in the XHTML namespace. In Safari, it creates an element in the null namespace.

Posted by distler at 11:28 AM | Permalink | Followups (7)

July 18, 2007

A Plea

Speaking of the Jones Polynomial, there was another tidbit that I learned from Mike Freedman last week. Vaughn Jones’s original formulation of his knot invariants involved the theory of subfactors of von Neumann algebras. Find a finite-index subfactor of a Type II1 factor, and you can construct a modular tensor category (3D TQFT) out of that data.

All of the example we’re familiar with are connected with 2D RCFTs or quantum groups. But, says Mike, there are examples of finite index subfactors, due to Haagerup, which do not seem to correspond to any known RCFT. (Note that the Jones indices, (5+13)/2(5+\sqrt{13})/2 and (5+17)/2(5+\sqrt{17})/2, are irrational.)

Now, unfortunately, my eyes glaze over whenever someone starts talking about von Neumann algebras. So I’m not going to be much good at figuring out what these constructions are. But perhaps some of my readers do not suffer from this malady. If any of you are willing to chime in with some explanations, I would be eternally grateful.

Posted by distler at 9:51 AM | Permalink | Followups (10)

July 17, 2007

Topological Quantum Computing

It’s kinda weird hearing condensed matter physicists batting around phrases like “Modular Tensor Category” and “the Jones Polynomial.” But such is life. I’ve been talking a bit with the folks who are thinking about topological quantum computing, and that’s where their heads are at, these days.

Posted by distler at 10:32 AM | Permalink | Followups (2)

July 6, 2007


I have an amusing anecdote from my stay in Madrid, that I thought I would share. But then I read this, and realized that I had been totally out-classed.

Still, I hope that, after you’ve read PsychoPhil’s story and cleaned the coffee off your keyboard, you’ll indulge me as I recount my more modest tale.

I arrived in Madrid on Sunday morning, and made my way to my hotel on Madrid’s excellent Metro system. The stop at which I had to change trains was approaching, and I stood up to made my way towards the door. With my garment bag slung over one shoulder and my book bag over the other, somewhat dishevelled from having spent the last umpteen hours crammed into an economy-class seat on a trans-Atlantic flight, I must not have been a very pretty sight.

So I was a little surprised when an attractive young woman, standing by the door, smiled pleasantly at me. I smiled back, and then looked away. When I looked back a moment later, she was … gone. I looked around the car, but she’d vanished! “That’s odd,” I thought. But I didn’t think much more about it, as I got off the train and made my way to the next platform.

It was then that I noticed that the outer pocket of my book bag was unzipped. “Uh oh!” I thought, as I began to rummage inside it. But, no, my iPod was still there, along with all the other items … except … for a bottle of fountain-pen ink in a ziploc bag.

It took a while for me to get around to replacing the bottle of ink, but aside from that, no lasting harm was done.

So I’d like to thank you Señorita, wherever you are. I got a fair amount of amusement out of the episode. I hope you found something equally useful to do with the ink.

Posted by distler at 2:23 PM | Permalink | Followups (5)

July 5, 2007

Beyond the MSSM

One of the talks at Strings 2007 that I surely would have blogged about, but for my laptop’s ailments was Nati Seiberg’s report on his most recent paper with Dine and Thomas.

Posted by distler at 11:36 AM | Permalink | Followups (6)