Thursday, October 20, 2016

Schiaparelli: Uh oh

The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli Mars Lander appears to have been lost in atmospheric entry. This is a significant setback for Mars exploration. The lander was intended as a demonstration of landing technology but also had significant scientific objectives.

This is yet another reminder of how perilous space exploration continues to be. The US has announced a goal of putting humans on Mars by 2030, but that seems optimistic to me.

E O Wilson doesn't think that humans will ever live on Mars or in space. This is the planet we were "designed" for, or at least evolved through billions of generations for.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Something there is that does love a wall

SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 
And spills the upper boulders in the sun; 
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast............................Robert Frost, Mending Wall 

For the scientifically inclined, that something is entropy. But walls are everywhere the signature of life, so there are also things that do love walls. Cell walls, skins, snail shells, termite mounds, farmers fences and the Great Wall of China are all fashioned to keep order inside and disorder out. An Anthropology professor once told me that every culture draws a wall around itself.

Culture walls are fashioned not from stone or chitin, but from elements of culture: language, religion, endogamy rules, shared myths and prejudices, taboos, tattoos, and tribal insignia.

Did I mention that this post is about Donald Trump? I think the heart of his appeal is the culture war currently underway in the US and elsewhere. The national culture, as it existed in myth and reality, was based on religion, family, sex roles, and jobs, on the farm or in the store or factory. It incorporated elements of sexism, racism, homophobia, and a naive sort of nationalism. The nation has always had a more cosmopolitan elite, hardly immune to the sort of ignorant prejudices of larger nation but at least slightly more aware of and tolerant of diversity. Enclaves of other cultures existed, especially in cities, but were largely isolated from the rest of the country.

Television and other national media changed that. Big box stores and globalization brought the world to every small town. Television brought blacks and gays and other challenges to the traditional order to every living room or kitchen. Meanwhile science told us that much of our religious and other myths were fabrications. Our elites told us to embrace multiculturalism.

This, I think, flatly ignores human nature. I think that we instinctively protect our culture and reject others. Donald Trump's coarseness and rejection of conventional values appeals to those who wish to fight back against cultural change, however wrongheadedly. His ridiculous wall with Mexico means more as metaphor than potential reality - it's seen as a wall against the wave of cultural change that is sweeping through the nation and the world.

The fact that it would be as useless against the one as the other doesn't matter to those who reject science and government statistics.

Friday, October 14, 2016


Trump has produced a note from a rather dubious character who claims to have been sitting next to Trump and Jessica Leeds 35 years ago, and not seeing Trump do anything wrong. I wonder if airlines or customs have records of who was on what plane that long ago.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


So far as I know, the word "eviscerate" means "remove the entrails of," a good idea if you want the carcass of a fish, elk or deer not to rot before you get it home. Modern readers might be forgiven for thinking that it actually means "criticize severely," as in "Michelle Obama Eviscerates Trump."

Even though I don't entirely disapprove of the sentiment, I'm pretty sure that's not really what she did. Besides, what would be the point - his carcass has already rotted from the head.

The Times They Are A-Changing

Bob Dylan wins Nobel for Literature.

A list of his lyrics.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Want to Win a Nobel Prize?

If so, you should probably attend the École Normale Supérieure, which produces Nobel prize winners at a rate of 135/100,000. Second best, Caltech manages about half that rate, 67/100,000, while number three Harvard only gets 32/100,000. The also-rans, Swarthmore, Cambridge, the École Polytechnique, and Columbia trail close behind, with Amherst and the University of Chicago rounding out the top ten.

Small, super-elite schools outdo most of their big name competitors.

Chester the Molester isn't Just All Talk

Two more women have come forward with stories of being molested by Trump. One was allegedly groped in her airline seat.

It's increasingly clear that Trump is the one who belongs in jail.

UPDATE: More women are coming forward. Will the floodgates open?

Denial is hard when you have already confessed on video tape.

Concealed Carry

Recent years have seen modest progress on second amendment rights. I feel a lot safer with my Glock 26 Gen 3 safely tucked under my arm. If I went to church, its cold comfortable weight would make me a lot less worried about the preacher spouting leftist heresies. And in class, I don't really have to put up with the prof's liberal bullshit.

There are still way too many limitations, though. What should I do if I have to deal with terrorists or a rampaging stewardess when I'm on a plane? How can I defend my house against federal agents and black helicopters without machine guns, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft weapons?

Frankly, I feel naked without at least a few tactical nukes in the basement. What was the point of all those years spent studying nuclear physics if I can't own yellowcake and an ultracentrifuge farm?

Maybe Trump will save us.

Burnt Umber

Some languages have only black (or dark) and light (white) as color words. Those languages that add a third color word always seem to add red. Additional words are added in an almost perfectly regular order. The maximum, as in English, seems to be eleven, and they are almost exactly the same eleven.

Of course this doesn't mean speakers of those languages with fewer color words see fewer colors or are impoverished in their ability to describe colors. Instead, they probably resort to devices familiar to artists and whoever names the contents of the giant-sized Crayola boxes - compare the color to something in our experience, like the color of the leaves of the dgoberry tree, or its fruit when ripe, or burnt umber.

What the hell is umber anyway, and why would anybody burn it? I have no idea, but Wikipedia does, including the fact that it is darker than the other earth pigments sienna and ochre.

Alpha Male or Just Another Pervert?

When Trump owned the Miss Teen USA pageant, he felt his status allowed him to routinely walk into the dressing room of these fifteen through seventeen year old girls when they were changing. If he had been a High School teacher he probably would have landed on the sex offender list.

What would he consider himself entitled to do if President - aside from abrogating treaties and jailing political opponents, I mean?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Strapped on the Roof

After Gropergate (a term I prefer to the more popular and vulgar one), several previously Trump supporting GOP politicos bailed on him. This provoked howls of outrage from brownshirts Trump supporters, so the revolt quickly collapsed.

How bad off this leaves the party remains to be seen, but it's hardly good news. The defectors face the rage of the Trumpies, while those who cling to him risk going down with his ship - if it indeed goes down.

Spin 1/2

Sabine Hossenfelder sets out to demystify spin 1/2. That's an admirable objective, and Bee is a good explainer, but I'm not convinced that she succeeds. If we avoid digging into the group theory, probably the simplest way to describe a spin 1/2 system is to say that we need to rotate it through 720 degrees to get it back to the original state.

We can think of macroscopic systems that act sort of like this, and Bee has one. For me, a simpler one is a system of two interlocked gears, one twice the size of the other. Rotating the smaller gear once only turns the big one half-way, while rotating it twice brings everything back to the starting point. The trouble with all such implementations is that it's hard to imagine a supposedly simple elementary particle harboring such complexity in its coupling to spacetime.

Once again, we are forced to realize that, as Feynman put it, "quantum mechanics is not only stranger than you imagine, but stranger than you can imagine." Fortunately, the mathematics is not so limited. If someone wants to understand why there are no, say, 1/3 spin particles, I don't know of any answer except to say "study the math."

But read Bee's article - she has lots of useful stuff to say even if you still wind up somewhat mystified.

The Sniff Master

Trumps's incessant sniffing in the first debate prompted Democrat and Physician Howard Dean to speculate that he used cocaine. Of course this hands off diagnosis got a lot condemnation from friend and foe, but Dean noted that Trump's grandiosity and delusional rhetoric also fit the pattern.

He does seem a bit to healthy to be a 70 coke addict, but that does suggest a question. These days, you probably can't get a job bagging groceries without taking a drug test. Why not political candidates at all levels? Submission of tax returns should also be mandatory.

Some alternative explanations for the sniffing include allergies and pregnancy.


Sanctions, e.g., virtual blockades, are a favorite weapon of those who abhor war, but it's important to note that though they may be bloodless, they still cause casualties. The sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN (including the US and Russia) after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait were very tough and collapsed the Iraqi economy, though they did include exceptions for food and medicine. Cynthia has mentioned the estimate that they might have been partly responsible for the excess deaths of up to 500,000 Iraqi children. Ironically, they did succeed in eliminating Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the other ostensible purpose (besides Kuwait), but George W. Bush insisted on invading anyway. Of course it's arguable who was really most responsible for those deaths, the sanctions or Saddam, but there seems little doubt but that they were devastating.

The trouble with sanctions is that their impact falls heavily on those least responsible for the misbehavior targeted. Cuba is another case in point. The many privations of the Cuban people under Castro are do not only to Castro's bad economics and other crimes, but also to the sanctions imposed by the US. You can be sure that they didn't cause Fidel or Raul to miss many meals, but the average Cuban fared far worse. How many excess deaths among children can be attributed to those sanctions, I wonder?

This paper claims that the answer is not so many, mainly because, unlike Saddam, Castro moved aggressively to protect the most vulnerable.

Those sanctions were imposed because of the local political clout of the Cuban refugees, many of whom enjoyed a luxurious life style under Batista and his predecessors. Obama was able to end many of those sanctions because younger Cubans have seen their futility and the damage they do to ordinary Cubans.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Too Late

Republicans are thinking of bailing on Trump. I say that it's way too late. They are strapped to Trump like a dog strapped to the roof of Mitt Romney's car. All they can do now is puke all over it.

It's Not About What He Said

The gropmeister's problem is not his crude language - it's what he admitted and bragged about doing. It's not idle bragging either. Women have testified under oath to being groped by him against their will.


JILL HARTH’S first concern with Donald Trump’s hands wasn’t that they were small. It’s that they were everywhere.

Harth and her longtime boyfriend were in meetings with Trump to forge a business partnership. “He was relentless,” Harth recalled in an interview, describing how on Dec. 12, 1992, he took the couple to dinner and a club — and then situated himself beside Harth and ran his hands up her skirt, to her crotch. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I would go away from him and say I have to go to the restroom. It was the escape route.”


On Jan. 24, 1993, Harth and Houraney went to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for a contract-signing celebration, bringing along some “calendar girls” at Trump’s request. He offered Harth a tour of the estate and then pulled her into the empty bedroom of his daughter Ivanka.

“I was admiring the decoration, and next thing I know he’s pushing me against a wall and has his hands all over me,” Harth told me. “He was trying to kiss me. I was freaking out.” Harth says she was desperately protesting, and finally managed to run out of the room and find the group again. She and Houraney left rather than stay the night, as they had intended.

Some of the calendar girls stayed, and the sexual harassment lawsuit says Trump showed up uninvited in the predawn hours in the bedroom of one of the young women; she kicked him out but was shaken. When contacted, the woman declined to speak about the experience, and I’m not naming her here.

Trump was then with Marla Maples, who was pregnant that spring with his daughter Tiffany, but this didn’t constrain him. He took an intense interest in the calendar girls, pursuing some and rejecting others, Harth says, adding that he had an aversion to black contestants and made derogatory comments about them.

That year, Harth continued to meet Trump for business — and, she says, he continued to try to jump her. “He’d say, ‘Let’s go in my room, I want to lie down,’ and he’d pull me along. I’d say, ‘I don’t want to lie down,’ and it would turn into a wrestling match. … I remember yelling, ‘I didn’t come here for this.’ He’d say, ‘Just calm down.’”

Of course Trump denies this, but if you are going to testify under oath that you didn't do something, it's probably not a good idea to brag about it later.

UPDATE: John Marshall has an editorial with the same theme as mine - it's not about the vulgar language. He writes a more detailed account, including the similar allegations by ex-wife Ivana Trump. Also, Josh is writes better than I do.

Gropergate: Will Trump's Past Finally Catch Up With Him?

There may be a critical mass issue for the powerful sexual predator. Rumors and scattered accusations left Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby untouched for decades. Finally, however, a few brave and persistent women let loose the flood that washed away the protections of their power. Trump has already been accused by two women, under oath, of sexual assault. These accusations bounced off his armor of bluster and money. The damning thing about the new video is that Trump admits and brags about sexually assaulting women. If that brings wronged and angry women out of the woodwork, he is probably finished.

Think of it as the moral equivalent of his finally "shooting someone on Fifth Avenue."

Meanwhile, Drudge and the other Nazgul have flocked back to Mordor, armed with more emails stolen by Putin, for a final assault on Hillary.