Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Hot Times

A cold front came through yesterday - I almost wished I had put on a long sleeved shirt or maybe even a jacket while I was walking around campus. A big change from the 80 F plus days we had been having. Meanwhile in the Arctic, the temperature today is almost 7 C warmer than the mean for this time of year, and some places it's 20 C above normal. Not coincidentally, sea ice for this time of year is more than 1.5 million km^2 below the modern mean, a record and by a bunch. At this time of year, we can usually expect 3 to 5 weeks more of Arctic sea ice increase, but it has been decreasing for twelve days now and a big recovery doesn't look in the cards.

Should we expect a record melt this year? Too early to say, but it surely could be like that.

Trump Triumph

Trump crushed his rivals in Nevada, getting more votes than Rubio and Cruz combined. It's very hard to believe that he can now be stopped, but next Tuesday will almost certainly tell the tale. Unless one or both of them can break through with at least a couple of actual wins on Super Tuesday, it's over. Welcome to stupid world.

Hillary had better get ready, though Bernie might be better placed to take on Trump.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Rules of Engagement

The US is attempting to fight a war in Iraq and Syria under rules of engagement that avoid war crimes. It seems hard to disapprove of this, but I do tend to thing that it ignores a basic truth. War is intrinsically a crime, bloody and indiscriminate murder. Trump is a dangerously fascist personality, but he taps into some fundamental aspect of humanity when he advocates murdering the families of terrorists and a more bloody minded approach to ISIS.

World War II was, among other things, a nearly all out war against civilian populations. The American Civil War ended only when Sherman burned his way through Georgia, making it clear that the alternative to surrender was death by starvation.

Our attempts to fight a more humane war have been spectacular failures, not only failing to subdue the enemy but proving massively inhumane in their execution. The Syrian catastrophe is the classic example. Our attempt to just fight bad guys and split hairs has had us fueling more violence, much of it inflicted with weapons we have supplied to all sides. Allowing ISIL to occupy territory has made it a global beacon for terrorists and world wide terrorism. Our attempts to get proxies to fight a war has created what amounts to feuding warlords.

A fundamental principle of American warfare has always been, if I may borrow a well-worn cliche, is to go big or go home. If fundamental American interests are not involved, going home is the obvious choice. If we want to do state building, and our attempts to date in the Islamic world have been disastrous, the same rule applies. Plan for generations, and plan to control nearly every aspect of society, as we did in Japan and Germany after WW II.

I favor disengagement and going home. In the case of ISIL, which conducts world wide terror, we may not have that choice. Here is one crazy idea: make it an offer it can't refuse. Stop American interference in return for a guarantee of safety for Americans there and here. As an alternative - utter annihilation.

Climate Derangement Syndrome

I spent a long time interacting with the AGW deniers, or as I like to call them, sufferers from Climate Derangement Syndrome (CDS). It's been a month or so, but my head still hurts thinking about it. Before I forget (and I am trying) I thought I would note down a few diagnostic criteria.

(1)Paranoid conspiracy theories. The governments of all or almost all nations, in league with the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, sinister leftists and the ghost of Karl Marx are engaged in a giant conspiracy to deceive the world about climate.

(2)A few truth tellers, funded by patriotic coal companies, are still trying to tell the truth.

(3)Any fact or coincidence - a cold day in Edmonton, Alberta, for example - is golden and determinative if it supports the narrative.

(4)Any measurement, no matter how indirect (satellite temperature measurements, for example) is golden if it can be cherry picked to support the cause.

(5)Any measurement, no matter how clear cut, is part of the conspiracy if it doesn't fit.

(6)Reality can be adjusted to fit one's politics.

I'm so damned tired of stupid, but most of the other news is politics, and that is about as catastrophic as I can remember.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Do You Believe in Magic?

Paul Krugman doesn't. Sad to say, me neither.

First of all, to say what should be but sometimes apparently isn’t obvious, what you would ideally want and what you think can be achieved — and even what you think should be an election platform — aren’t the same thing. What I and most of my wonk friends would like to see is what the late Robert Heilbroner used to call Slightly Imaginary Sweden — or these days, maybe Diversified Denmark. That is, a strong social safety net that protects everyone against avoidable misery, workers with substantial bargaining power, strong environmental policy; not an equalized society, not a Utopia, but someplace where basic decency is a fundamental principle.

But nothing like that is going to happen in America any time soon. If we’re going to have any kind of radical change in the next few years and probably the next couple of decades, it will come from the right, not the left.

As Matt O’Brien rightly said recently, even the incremental changes Hillary Clinton is proposing are very unlikely to get through Congress; the radical changes Bernie Sanders is proposing wouldn’t happen even if Democrats retook the House. O’Brien says that the Democratic primary is “like arguing what’s more real: a magical unicorn or a regular unicorn. In either case, you’re still running on a unicorn platform.” This is, alas, probably true: the platforms of the candidates are better seen as aspirational than as programs at all likely to happen.

Of course Krugman, like me, is an old guy. We remember that revolutions usually go badly.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Burning Down the Constitution

Scalia is barely dead, but the Republicans have already indicated that they intend to trash their constitutional duties by refusing to let Obama appoint anybody to the Supreme Court. Whether the voters will punish them for this or not is a good question. Scalia was perhaps the best friend the American oligarchy has had on the court in several generations.

Friday, February 12, 2016

What's in a Name?

...A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..........Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 2, W. Shakespeare.

By religion I mean Christianity, by Christianity I mean Protestantism, by Protestantism I mean the Church of England as established by law.... from Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding.

Imagine ... no religion............John Lennon.

Names are specifiers and classifiers, and, as in Shakespeare's play, sometimes an excuse to engage in mutual murder. That's pretty much the case for the Fielding quote as well, and Lennon is pretty explicit. A curious inversion of the Fielding character's sentiment has become a meme in some Hindu nationalist circles: the claim that Hinduism is not a religion.

The Indian Prime Minister:

“The Supreme Court in India has given a nice definition to Hindu dharam… The Supreme Court has said that Hindu dharam is not a religion but a way of life... I believe the SC’s definition shows the way,” Mr. Modi said.

Of course the other big religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. all prescribe a way of life too. Things get a bit uglier when one looks into the details of the context in which the Indian SC made its proclamation: a case in which Hindu temples wanted to preserve some explicit privileges despite the Indian Constitution's explicit prohibition of religious based discrimination.

Here is another advocate of the not a religion story.

Defining what is and is not a religion turns out to be just as hard for scholars as the above opinions suggest. Practically speaking, in the US it's important for tax purposes. I wonder how US Hinduism handles that - do they claim religious exemption?

I'm afraid I just fall back on the "looks like a duck, quacks like a duck" algorithm. Gods? Check. Temples? Check. Public and private rituals? Check. Elaborate body of superstitious nonsense? Check. Willingness to organize in mobs to murder outsiders or violators of tenets. Check! It looks like a duck to me.

There is also the fact that powerful elements of the "way of life" in question have clear cognates in the Indo-European religious systems that once dominated most of Europe and much of Asia, including details of social organization and names of deities.

Which brings me back to the only thing I can recall learning in one of my college philosophy classes: word definitions are ultimately conventional, and hence have an arbitrary element. So if you want to claim that something or other is or is not a religion, go ahead, and I will go ahead and try to decide if you are speaking the same language that I am.

UPDATE: Arun has a detailed discussion of the peculiar legal and societal circumstances that led the Indian Supreme Court to the seemingly paradoxical decision that Hinduism is not a religion. As well as I can summarize, it's a product of attempts to protect minority (Muslim, Christian, Parsi and Jewish) privileges enshrined in the Constitution. Minority rights tend to make things complicated.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Scenes From a Fifteen Hundred Year War

In 529 CE, not quite sixteen hundred years ago, Muhammad and ten thousand or so followers seized the city of Mecca and destroyed the hundreds of shrines of other religions in the city. By his death, Islam had expanded to much of the Arabian peninsula. Two hundred years later it had conquered North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Empire, most of Spain, and parts of Central Asia. Muslim warriors and raiders penetrated far into France, but were handed a big defeat at Tours in 732 CE. After that, something like stalemate settled over the Muslim Christian divide for much of the next 700 years. Nearly all of that Muslim advance was at the point of a sword. The political systems established under Muslim rule waxed and waned but cultural conquests remained remarkably durable.

By the dawn of the Sixteenth Century, the struggle between Muslim and Christian had again intensified. Spain had defeated the last Muslim power on the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, by Roger Crowley, opens with Mehmet II's ascent to the roof of the now 1000 year Church of Saint Sophia to contemplate the empire he had just conquered with the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, but quickly moves on to 1521, when his great-grandson, Suleiman the Magnificent, decided to conquer the Crusader/Pirate stronghold of Rhodes.

Rhodes, a fifty mile long spearpoint of an island, lies only 11 miles off the coast of Turkey, and its strategic position astride the routes of merchants bound for Egypt and pilgrims headed to Mecca made it a spear point in the Sultanate's side. After a long and bloody siege, the knights were dislodged, and after that the Ottomans came to dominate the sea at the center of the world. Muslim pirates based in North Africa, like the Barbarossas, backed by the increasingly aggressive fleet based in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) terrorized the coasts of Christian Europe. Hundreds of towns and villages were pillaged and millions of Christians murdered or carried off to the slave markets of Algiers and Tripoli. A series of catastrophic defeats repeatedly smashed Spanish naval power in the Mediterranean.

Suleiman took on the title of Caesar, and made it clear that his objective was Rome. Crowley's book is the story of the ensuing struggle, with a significant emphasis on the struggles of the European Christian side. In all things, Europe was hogtied by its deep divisions: Catholic vs. Protestant, Catholic Spain vs. Catholic France, Venice vs Rome and Genoa. Spain, having treated its remnant population of Moriscos badly, had a large hostile fifth column ready to cooperate with the pirates in its midst. The King of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, had his own vast and unruly empire to deal with. Suleiman pressed the Hapsburg flank in Hungary and ultimately at the gates of Vienna. Protestant Netherlands was in revolt. Italy was a fragmented and fractious nightmare.

It's a good story, and Crowley tells it brilliantly. It might even inform us a bit on the world of today, six-hundred and fifty years down the road.

An excerpt from the epilogue:

Both sides were soon afflicted by economic malaise. Philip defaulted on his debts in 1575; the years after 1585 saw fiscal crisis start to rack the Muslim world too. The slogging maritime war, and the particular cost of rebuilding the fleet after Lepanto, increased the steepening gradient of taxation in the sultan’s realms. At the same time, the influx of bullion from the Americas was beginning to hole the Ottoman economy below the waterline, in ways that were barely understood. The Ottomans had the resources to outstay any competitor in the business of war, but they were powerless to protect their stable, traditional, self-sufficient world against the more pernicious effects of modernity. There were no defensive bastions proof against rising European prices and the inflationary effects of gold. In 1566, the year after Malta, the gold mint at Cairo— the only one in the Ottoman world, producing coins from limited supplies of African gold— devalued its coinage by 30 percent. The Spanish real became the most appreciated currency in the Ottoman empire; it was impossible to strike money of matching value. The silver coins paid to the soldiers grew increasingly thin; they were “as light as the leaves of the almond tree and as worthless as drops of dew,” according to a contemporary Ottoman historian. With these forces came price rises, shortages, and the gradual erosion of the indigenous manufacturing base. Raw materials and bullion were being sucked out of the empire by Christian Europe’s higher prices and lower production costs. From the end of the sixteenth century globalizing forces started stealthily to undermine the old social fabric and bases of Ottoman power. It was a paradigm of Islam’s whole relationship with the West.

Crowley, Roger (2008-07-01). Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World (Kindle Locations 4818-4824). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I read the Kindle edition. The only problem with it is that maps and pictures don't come out very well.

Sean Carroll on GR Waves

Sean has some more cool stuff on the LIGO accomplishment. A favorite quote:

The fact that Einstein’s prediction has turned out to be right is an enormously strong testimony to the power of science in general, and physics in particular, to describe our natural world. Einstein didn’t know about black holes; he didn’t even know about lasers, although it was his work that laid the theoretical foundations for both ideas. He was working at a level of abstraction that reached as far as he could (at the time) to the fundamental basis of things, how our universe works at the deepest of levels. And his theoretical insights were sufficiently powerful and predictive that we could be confident in testing them a century later. This seemingly effortless insight that physics gives us into the behavior of the universe far away and under utterly unfamiliar conditions should never cease to be a source of wonder.

The equations that Einstein wrote down predicted lasers, black holes, and gravitational waves. He explicitly doubted the existence of the latter two. It didn't matter. His equations were smarter than he was, or more precisely, were telling us all stuff that even he, their inventor, didn't realize.

More GR Waves

Lumo has an excellent post on the GR wave discovery. Highly recommended if you want some modestly technical detail.

Here is a quote on the energy release:

Kip Thorne has described the unbelievable power of the black hole merger differently. During the peak power, the black hole merger releases 50 times more watts in gravitational waves than all damn stars in the visible Universe combined. This is just shocking.

GR Waves

The detection of gravitational waves is not only a fantastic technological triumph and yet another attaboy for general relativity, but it opens up a brand new window on the universe. Gravitational waves are hard to see - so you got to be good looking - but the apparent source was really powerful, briefly radiating more power in GW than whole galaxies do in light.

From Dennis Overbye's NYT article:

The discovery is a great triumph for three physicists — Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ronald Drever, formerly of Caltech and now retired in Scotland — who bet their careers on the dream of measuring the most ineffable of Einstein’s notions.

I'm pretty sure Thorne's career was solid before, but he and colleagues should get the Nobel Prize pronto. Thorne is also an author of the influential textbook, Gravitation, the wonderful popular book on general relativity, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy, as well as other books technical and popular. In addition he was the godfather and an executive producer of the movie Interstellar.

The paper announcing the discovery has more than 1000 co-authors, and LIGO cost $1 billion plus.

As Thorne points out, this is our first good look at gravity in the strong field regime.

A friend who was a student at Caltech with Thorne claims that he, Thorne, used to say that his IQ was only 140, but he was very well organized.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pumping Iron

Some time ago, never mind how long precisely, I was sitting in the green room of a local theater, waiting to rehearse one of my scenes. It was a hot summer night, and pretty much everybody was wearing shorts. One of my fellow actors and I were talking to a cute college student props and makeup girl. For some reason, she volunteered that she had placed second in the Girl's State Championship 800 meter race when she was in high school. My friend scoffed and grabbed her leg about mid-thigh.

"No you didn't," he said. "You are no athlete."

At that point he grabbed my thigh and insisted she do the same.

"Ed," he pronounced, "is an athlete."

At the time I was in my late forties, at least forty pounds overweight, and the only exercise I could remember doing recently was lifting my fat ass out of the chair.

So, anyway, I have my doubts about the thigh test as a fitness diagnostic. It might be genetic. I was really impressed with how it allowed my friend to get up close and personal with the girl, though.

Two and a half decades later, my thighs are still pretty firm. Of course I still do pump a little iron. Like *very* little. While waiting for the leg machine at the gym today, I noticed that the not very big girl using it was moving four times my starting weight - two and a half times my final weight. I wasn't about to try squeezing her thighs.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Not Brain Surgery

Among the concepts that have taken a lot of damage this election cycle is the notion that brain surgery is a uniquely challenging intellectual task. Thanks for that, Dr. Carson. I don't think that there is much doubt that surgery on the brain is tough test of hand and eye as well as requiring a lot of knowledge about the complexities of neuroanatomy, but if Carson is any kind of exemplar, its pretty clear that that kind of intellectual accomplishment is pretty well compartmentalized from understanding the rest of reality.

The idiot savant is a standard caricature in popular art and also a pretty familiar figure in science departments everywhere. The kind of narrow focus that may help one master the esoterica of a demanding field often seems to leave no energy or interest for the rest of the intellectual universe.

Michael Burry, the real-life neurosurgeon turned hedge fund manager who is one of the central characters of the The Big Short, despite his thorough medical training did not recognize his own place on the autism spectrum until his son received the Asperger's diagnosis in school. Only at that point did he realize that his son, very like himself, fit the diagnostic criteria almost precisely.

Is Carson another autism spectrum character? I have no idea, but he sure does seem to have a brain that deviates from the standard issue.

Saturday, February 06, 2016


The Republicans had more of a debate tonight. Not sure if Rubio's robotic performance will hurt him or not. Though I was less bothered by his robotic repetitions than by the fact that he appeared to be insane.

I detest them all. Except possibly Kasich.

Just Not That Into Her?

Based on relevant experience, Hillary Clinton is one of the best qualified Presidential Candidates of all time, just a bit behind George H. W. Bush. Of course that comparison isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. Experience isn't necessarily the crucial trait in Presidents.

Her problem as a candidate seems to be that people just don't like her much. Some of that is Bill's fault - she get burned for his sins - and some of it is hers. She doesn't seem to have a very relate-able public personality. Very important, though, is the fact that she has long been target one for the vast right-wing conspiracy. She pushes all their anti-feminist and anti-progressive buttons. They have waged relentless war on her for decades with their idiot mantra of Whitewater, Vincent Foster and Benghazi.

For whatever reasons, I'm not a big fan on a personal level either, but she seems by far the least dangerous Presidential candidate in the race. I can't stomach semi-fascist Trump, crazy pretty boy Rubio, or his even crazier ugly boy counterpart Cruz. Half-brain Carson and whoever remain of the other seven dwarfs don't look so hot either.

Woo Hoo?

Lumo reports on an email by somebody who says "I know a guy who said he saw..."

So has LIGO really seen a black hole merger? Next Thursday, February 11, is supposed to be the day for the big reveal - 36 and 29 solar mass black holes merging while radiating away 3 solar masses of gravitational waves. If true, this is really big - probably the biggest thing since the discovery of the positron.

We shall see.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Feeling The Bern

Listened to a little of Bernie Sanders last night, and I thought he did a good job of articulating a lot of the country's problems: overpriced, inefficient medical care, the death grip of wealthy interests on the political process, and college debt. Sanders is quite a bit further left than I am, but that doesn't bother me much - I don't think that there is much risk of him turning us into Venezuela or Cuba. I am afraid, though, that if nominated he won't be able to win, and if elected, he won't be able to govern. The immense power of vast financial interests are a gigantic ice sheet sitting on the nation's chest, and it won't melt fast if at all.

Learnin' USA

Alex Tabarrok:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering and math and statistics.

If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying?

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

- See more at:

The nation still does need waiters, but is that really the ideal training? And we almost certainly don't need waiters who start their careers with $100,000 of educational debt.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Portents of the Apocalypse


Well, in my pre-Iowa notes I called the Republican primary right:

I know what will happen on the Republican side: someone horrifying will come in first, and someone horrifying will come in second.

Let me add that someone horrifying also came in third. Marco Rubio may seem less radical than Cruz or Trump, but his substantive policy positions are for incredibly hawkish foreign policy, wildly regressive tax policy, kicking tens of millions of people off health insurance, and destroying the environment. Other than that, he’s a moderate.

I would add that the Democratic first and second placers are on the verge of doddering into senility.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Star Warts

OK, I finally saw the new Star Wars. It was long, loud, and boring - not as bad as the worst episodes, but pretty much utterly lacking in any redeeming artistic quality - unless you count Daisy Ridley, who is pretty cute. Abrams faithfully recycled nearly every now well-worn Star Wars cliche, and there he stopped. No hint of imagination or originality crept in at any point. If one were to write a textbook about how to make an utterly derivative movie, you could seek no better model. Even the cliches were executed with ham-handed ineptitude.

Did Science Nerds Kill a Tween Girl?

My title is the front page link at The Daily Beast to this story in which the principal suspects are two Virginia Tech students who are respectively a freshman and a sophomore engineering major. Suppose the suspects had turned out to be black, or gay, would our headline writer have written "Did Niggers/Queers Kill a Tween Girl?"

The lesser offense is using a patently offensive stereotype, but the real offense is that the stereotyping effectively imputes the crime to a whole class of people. The fact that the apparently clueless headline writer confuses scientists and engineers is a minor annoyance.