Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Read This!

America's Mistake in Afghanistan. And the linked Wikipedia article.

Fun Sports I Used to Love Unconditionally

When I went to parochial school, our favorite recess and lunchtime sport was one we called tackle - a version of pump, pump pull away where we lined up on two safe sides before attempting to run across to the other safe zone without getting tackled. Since anyone tackled joined the crew of tacklers in the middle, the odds rapidly rose against getting across safely, even for a large, slightly fast guy like me.

Our favorite away from school was neighborhood football, sometimes touch but usually tackle. Winter was sometimes hockey but usually pump pump pull away on skates.

High school football, on the other hand, wasn't much fun. Mostly it was getting yelled at by coaches and being given boring jobs like offensive and defensive tackle. I took it up again in the Army and in grad school - usually touch.

It turns out that football, hockey, and rugby are really bad for your brains. That's probably especially true for kids whose muscles and brains haven't yet matured.

I didn't play soccer until I was an adult - a middle aged adult, actually - but I found it more fun than any of the others. Unfortunately, it's probably even worse for brains than those other sports. There are lots of opportunities for concussions - head to ball, head to goal post (for goalies), head to head, elbow to head (probably my one soccer concussion), and foot to head.

I wonder if a very light helmet for soccer might reduce such injuries. It might even increase scoring, since it would probably produce headers with more velocity and perhaps more precision.

Schadenfreude: Linton Edition

Humans seem to be wired to get joy out of seeing an arrogant and privileged snob get hers (or his).

This week's winner of the Marie Antoinette Prize is Louise Linton, rich girl, actress, and current wife (#45?) of Treasury Secretary Minutechin. Her chosen method for committing social seppuku was apparently Instagram. (I have no idea what that is, by the way). She evidently posted a picture of herself getting off a government plane and thoughtfully tagged all the expensive clothing and accessories she was wearing/carrying.

This led to a snarky comment from a citizen:

“Glad we could pay for your little getaway,” the user, identified as Jenni Miller, wrote in the comments section.

Linton then went full Marie A on her opponent:

“Cute! Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country? I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. . .

The thirty-six year old is now probably more famous than she really hoped. A bit late, she made her instagram private and apologized. But she is sure to be popular on late night TV.

Afghanistan

Trump's speech on Afghanistan policy was calm, measured and dignified, and he read it right off the teleprompter. It was also essentially content free.

A recurring theme for most of the war has been that if we could just teach those Afghan soldiers how to fight, the Taliban could be routed. What nonsense. I am pretty sure that the problem is not technical proficiency, whatever limitations they may have in that regard, but commitment to the cause. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan - why are those soldiers so hard to motivate to fight for the occupying power?

Trump failed to explain any details of what he would do to discourage Pakistan from supporting the Taliban. He didn't even mention the weapons and other help that Russia supplies to them. There is no clue as to what he hopes to do about the pervasive corruption that undermines all the military efforts. The "no nation building" battle cry might inspire his fellow idiots, but the fact is that it is a strategy that's been tried again and again and always failed.

We succeeded in Germany and Japan precisely because we were fully committed to nation building. We failed in Iraq because we didn't even try how to figure out how to put back together the nation Bush had shattered. Ditto Libya and so on.

Trump did experiment a bit with his patented troublemaking ideas, by trying to suck India into the Afghan quagmire. That should work well.

Unpresidented

I was thinking about that initial cabinet meeting where all the cabinet members (except General Mattis) abased themselves at Trump's feet while singing his praises. I remembered a case where President Kennedy assembled a bunch of Nobel Prize winners for some kind of White House dinner and remarked that it was possibly the greatest intellectual assemblage ever at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

Perhaps something similar could be said of Trump's cabinet meeting - the greatest assemblage of human stupidity ever in the place, except possibly when Trump dines alone.

Staring at the Sun

So did Trump endanger his eyes by glancing at the Sun during the eclipse? I think that it's unlikely that he was any blinder as a result than he was before, and that his retina's weren't likely to have been damaged. Staring at the Sun is not a good idea in general, but pupillary reflexes normally act to minimize the damage by maximum contraction.

The real hazard occurs during totality, when it becomes very dark in the visible and the pupils open wide. At that point, despite the near absence of visible light, there is still a lot of UV from the corona, and it's entirely possible to stare at the eclipsed circle and get a retina damaging dose.

Since Trump was not on the path of totality, the very bright visible portion of the Sun should have kept his pupils minimally sized and his brief glance was quite likely harmless. I wasn't on the path of totality either, but I put on my eclipse glasses to take a look.

I also made a very crude pinhole camera by punching a hole in a piece of paper with a pen. My favorite view, though, is looking at the shadows of bushes and trees, where accidental small gaps in the foliage make a horde of small pinholes that become transformed into tiny images of a crescent Sun.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Left, Right and Indian

It has been observed that many Americans of Indian descent are leftist with respect to American politics but rightist where Indian politics are concerned. Some find this counterintuitive or even paradoxical, but I don't think so. Americans of Indian descent tend to be highly educated and relatively prosperous but may well feel doubly endangered in the US, firstly by racial and ethnic prejudice, and also by the encroachment of American values on them and their children. Hence they are attracted to values of anti-discrimination and diversity in the American left.

In India, though, they are members of a wealthy and English speaking elite. As such, they fear the impact of the challenges to India's traditionally highly stratified society from below. India is one of the world's most unequal societies, and one of the reasons for the inequality is the traditional culture of caste, which is deeply embedded in culture and religion. They see those that challenge it as the gravest enemies, and reserve their bitterest enmity for those Indians that do.

This seems to apply mainly to first generation Indian Americans. Not sure how or if it translates to later generations.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hillbilly Girls

Oak Ridge, the giant industrial city created out of farmland in Tennessee, had one central job: separation of U235 from its less fissionable isotopic counterpart, U238. The first method that worked, electromagnetic separation by giant calutrons, a cousin of the cyclotron and ancestor of the mass spectrometer, by acceleration of ions through a magnetic field, creating separation based on the different radii of circulation of the two ions. That was the job of the Y-12 plant.

In those pre-computer days, operating the calutrons meant human control of a bunch of parameters that needed to be carefully controlled: source heating, voltage, ionization..." by operators reading dials and tweaking knobs.

In Berkeley, only PhDs had been allowed to operate the panels controlling the electromagnetic separation units. When Tennessee Eastman suggested turning over the operation of Lawrence’s calutrons to a bunch of young women fresh off the farm with nothing more than a public school education, the Nobel Prize winner was skeptical. But it was decided Lawrence’s team would work out the kinks for the calutron units and then pass control to the female operators.

Then the District Engineer [General Leslie Groves] gave [Cyclotron and Calutron Inventor E. O.] Lawrence some surprising news: the “hillbilly” girls were generating more enriched Tubealloy[Uranium] per run than the PhDs had. And Product was all that mattered.

A gauntlet had been thrown down.

The two men agreed to a production race. Whichever group generated the most enriched Tubealloy over a specified amount of time would win—though “winning” only meant bragging rights for the Engineer or Lawrence.

By the end of the designated contest period, Lawrence and his PhDs had lost handily.

They just couldn’t stop fiddling with things, Lawrence thought, trying to make things run smoother, faster, harder. Still, he was surprised.

The District Engineer understood perfectly. Those girls, “hillbilly” or no, had been trained like soldiers. Do what you’re told. Don’t ask why.

He and the General knew that was how you got results.

Kiernan, Denise. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (pp. 109-110). Touchstone. Kindle Edition.

PhDs are easily distracted.

Terrorism

Professor Drumph, our new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, seems to think that we can fight terrorism by nuking Venezuela and by deploying a special squad of anti-terr with magic bullets dipped in pig's blood, but what can actually be done in the real world? Our present strategy of treating terrorism as a police problem is not doing very well in Europe.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tales of the Alt-left in Charlotteville

Dahlia Lithwick collected first person stories from a lot of the people who were on the ground in Charlottesville. They don't exactly fit the Trump-Nazi narrative. Here are a couple:

Brandy Daniels Postdoctoral fellow at the Luce Project on Religion and Its Publics at UVA

It was basically impossible to miss the antifa for the group of us who were on the steps of Emancipation Park in an effort to block the Nazis and alt-righters from entering. Soon after we got to the steps and linked arms, a group of white supremacists—I’m guessing somewhere between 20-45 of them—came up with their shields and batons and bats and shoved through us. We tried not to break the line, but they got through some of us—it was terrifying, to say the least—shoving forcefully with their shields and knocking a few folks over. We strengthened our resolve and committed to not break the line again. Some of the anarchists and anti-fascist folks came up to us and asked why we let them through and asked what they could do to help. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou talked with them for a bit, explaining what we were doing and our stance and asking them to not provoke the Nazis. They agreed quickly and stood right in front of us, offering their help and protection.

Less than 10 minutes later, a much larger group of the Nazi alt-righters come barreling up. My memory is again murky on the details. (I was frankly focused on not bolting from the scene and/or not soiling myself—I know hyperbole is common in recounting stories like these, but I was legitimately very worried for my well-being and safety, so I was trying to remember the training I had acquired as well as, for resolve, to remember why I was standing there.) But it had to have been at least 100 of them this go around. I recall feeling like I was going to pass out and was thankful that I was locked arms with folks so that I wouldn’t fall to the ground before getting beaten. I knew that the five anarchists and antifa in front of us and the 20 or so of us were no match for the 100-plus of them, but at this point I wasn’t letting go.

“Cornel West said that he felt that the antifa saved his life. I didn’t roll my eyes at that statement or see it as an exaggeration.”

At that point, more of the anarchists and antifa milling nearby saw the huge mob of the Nazis approach and stepped in. They were about 200-300 feet away from us and stepped between us (the clergy and faith leaders) and the Nazis. This enraged the Nazis, who indeed quickly responded violently. At this point, Sekou made a call that it was unsafe—it had gotten very violent very fast—and told us to disperse quickly.

While one obviously can’t objectively say what a kind of alternate reality or “sliding doors”–type situation would have been, one can hypothesize or theorize. Based on what was happening all around, the looks on their faces, the sheer number of them, and the weapons they were wielding, my hypothesis or theory is that had the antifa not stepped in, those of us standing on the steps would definitely have been injured, very likely gravely so. On Democracy Now, Cornel West, who was also in the line with us, said that he felt that the antifa saved his life. I didn’t roll my eyes at that statement or see it as an exaggeration—I saw it as a very reasonable hypothesis based on the facts we had. Rev. Seth Wispelwey Directing minister of Restoration Village Arts and consulting organizer for Congregate C'ville

I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend. Incredibly brave students held space at the University of Virginia and stared down a torch-lit mob that vastly outnumbered them on Friday night. On Saturday, battalions of anti-fascist protesters came together on my city’s streets to thwart the tide of men carrying weapons, shields, and Trump flags and sporting MAGA hats and Hitler salutes and waving Nazi flags and the pro-slavery “stars and bars.”

“They have their tools, and they are not ones I will personally use, but our purposes were the same: block this violent tide.” Rev. Seth Wispelwey

Out of my faith calling, I feel led to pursue disciplined, nonviolent direct action and witness. I helped lead a group of clergy who were trained and committed to the same work: to hold space on the frontline of the park where the rally was to be held. And then some of us tried to take the steps to one of the entrances. God is not OK with white supremacy, and God is on the side of all those it tries to dehumanize. We feel a responsibility to visibly, bodily show our solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

A phalanx of neo-Nazis shoved right through our human wall with 3-foot-wide wooden shields, screaming and spitting homophobic slurs and obscenities at us. It was then that antifa stepped in to thwart them. They have their tools to achieve their purposes, and they are not ones I will personally use, but let me stress that our purposes were the same: block this violent tide and do not let it take the pedestal.

The white supremacists did not blink at violently plowing right through clergy, all of us dressed in full clerical garb. White supremacy is violence. I didn’t see any racial justice protesters with weapons; as for antifa, anything they brought I would only categorize as community defense tools and nothing more. Pretty much everyone I talk to agrees—including most clergy. My strong stance is that the weapon is and was white supremacy, and the white supremacists intentionally brought weapons to instigate violence.

Seems to me that what the antifa was doing was the job the police didn't do.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Which Side

Washington Post Headline: "Trump puts a fine point on it: He sides with the alt-right in Charlottesville."

I had argued that. It's nice that at least some agree with me.

From the story:

It was inevitable that President Trump’s brief news conference on Tuesday concerning national infrastructure would, instead, be redirected to a discussion of the violent protest in Charlottesville this past weekend and his delayed criticism of the racist and pro-Nazi groups that were central to it.

It did not seem inevitable, though, that Trump’s responses to questions about those protests would cement as correct the general interpretation of his first comments on the matter: He’s sympathetic to the goals of the men who marched Saturday night carrying Confederate and Nazi flags — and even to the “peaceful” torchlight protest on Friday in which marchers chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans.

After those protests spiraled into violence on Saturday and after a counterdemonstrator was killed by a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist from Ohio, Trump offered a wan response to what had happened.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, this has been going on for a long, long time.”

The latter part of that statement is an attempt to distance himself from any blame for the recent increase in visible white nationalist activity. The former? An apparent attempt to equate those vocally defending Nazism and the goals of the Confederacy in Charlottesville with those who showed up in opposition. His critique was not just about the violence that day, but about “hatred” and “bigotry,” which, he suggested, was not just the province of the Nazis and racists.

Just for Kicks

Leftist demonstrators tore down a statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina today. Aside from the malicion vandalism, this provides perfect fuel for the alt-right and Trump's "plague on both your houses" narrative. I'm guessing that the statue was made of some sort of soft metal, since the legs were somewhat crumpled in the fall.

Afterwards, several members of the crowd came up to kick the fallen statue of a handsome and anonymous young soldier. I trust that their feet were suitably rewarded.

Perhaps the nation could invest in adequately durable monuments for all the angry people to kick the heck out of - barefeet only please.

One View of Modern India

The present century has seen the rise of democratically elected authoritarian leaders in many nations: Trump in the US, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and others. In many case inter-ethnic tensions are a factor. From a Slate interview with Ramachandra Guha:

I would like to slice up the story of modern India into four sectors. There’s politics, which is multiparty competition, elections, charismatic, strong authoritarian leaders, etc. Then there is economics, which you’ve talked about, which is a move from a command economy toward market liberalization. Then there’s society, which is the turning of social relations. I think that’s very important and should not be ignored, because India is a deeply hierarchical society. The French anthropologist Louis Dumont famously called us Hindus “Homo Hierarchicus” because the caste system is, without question, the most sophisticated and diabolical form of social exclusion ever invented by humans. Then of course you have gender inequality, because both Hinduism and Islam give women a totally subordinate role.

But on this third category I think India is moving, despite authoritarian populism at the top, despite the economic inequalities generated by market liberalism, toward a more egalitarian society. Women and Dalits are less exploited now than at any point in human history. Women and Dalits are asserting themselves more than at any point in human history, which is why we are now also witnessing an upper-caste, patriarchal backlash against them. I think this is something that’s going on beyond politics and economics.

Finally, there’s religion and culture. This is where the report card over the last 10 years has slipped dramatically, because the main difference between the Congress Party and the BJP is that the Congress believed that Muslims and Christians are equal citizens of the land whereas the BJP follows very much the Pakistan model of nation-building, which is that the state is identified with the majority community. In Pakistan, it’s Muslims. In India, it’s Hindus. I think the insecurity of Muslims, which has grown over the last eight or 10 years, and particularly the last three or four years, puts a question mark even on economic growth, because if you have insecurity and a breakdown of law and order and the police take the side of the goons rather than of victims, then no one is going to invest in India. I think this is in some ways the most worrying feature of Narendra Modi: that India is being redefined as a Hindu state, which is absolutely new in its 70-year history.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trump and the Neo-Nazis

Josh Marshall:

The problem with the continued begging, ‘why won’t he denounce, why won’t he denounce’ is that at some point, maybe later today, President Trump will go before a podium and read off through gritted teeth a pro-forma denunciation of Nazis and it will seem to a lot of people like it means something when it doesn’t. He’s already made crystal clear where he stands here. The question is how we individually and as a country are going to deal with that fact, not how many more mulligans we’re going to give him. His neo-nazi supporters are truly over the moon that he’s steadfastly refusing to criticize them, even in the face of withering criticism and derision. They get the message. They’re ecstatic. Everyone who doesn’t see this, see that it is intentional, is getting played for chumps.

I'm far less sure that Trump will ever concede, but Josh has a point.

UPDATE: Should never have doubted you Josh.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

True Confession

It's time for me to admit a major personal failing. Despite being born and raised in Montana, and the son, grandson, sibling and various other degrees of kinship of foresters, wilderness guides, and other mountain men, I can't do a really decent job of sharpening a knife. I have accumulated oil stones, water stones, diamond stones and an electric sharpener, as well as a rouge infused leather strop but the best I seem to be able to achieve is the 'cuts sheet of paper' degree of sharpness. My knives are utter failures getting shaving sharp and they are not that hot at thinly slicing a bell pepper either.

Suggestions?

Eugenics 101

As the geneticist James Crow put it, the greatest mutational health hazard in the population is fertile old men.

Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (p. 231). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Because in men, unlike women, gametes continue to be produced throughout life, while mutations continue to accumulate.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Giant Screw-Up by Virginia Police

Many are injured and at least one person is dead as police in Charlottesville sat on their hands while violence escalated. Police should have moved aggressively to separate the sides and especially after violence broke out.

Meanwhile, the disgusting human who occupies the White House barely managed to interrupt patting himself on the back long enough to condemn violence by "both sides" - a message the Nazi's and KKK rightly interpreted as tacit approval.

You are either against the Neo-Nazis and KKK or you are with them. Trump has chosen his side.