Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Putin's Excellent Middle East Adventure

So what is El Puto up to in Syria, and how dangerous is it? Some see it in terms comparable to the pushing and shoving that led up to WW I, and other see analogies to Hitler's series of probes that led to WW II. These might be exaggeration, but one thing that is not an exaggeration is that the catastrophe Putin could unleash on the world would dwarf those of the previous two World Wars.

There is little doubt that he is now pushing the envelope, seeing how far the US can be pushed without striking back. With some reason, he suspects that Obama is tired of wars and the US military's repeated failure to deliver results.

Or maybe he is just so impressed with the success of the Bush family's various escapades in the Middle East that he wants in on the game.

In any case, it seems that we can expect an escalating series of provocations. Now what?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Book Review: The Global Carbon Cycle

The Global Carbon Cycle by David Archer, is one of the excellent series of Princeton Primers in Climate. These are short, economically priced (in the paperback or Kindle editions), slightly technical discussions of aspects of climate.

The carbon cycle is the movement of Earth's stock of carbon among its several reservoirs - the solid earth, the oceans, fossil fuels, the soils, the biosphere, and the atmosphere. The atmosphere is the smallest of these but it is also the one crucial for anthropogenic climate change and climate change more generally. The movements are complex, imperfectly understood, and, again, crucial for our understanding of the effect of carbon on the climate.

Archer's book explains much of what is known, something about how it is known, and discusses those things that aren't known, all in concise fashion. I liked the book and learned a lot, but I still have a number of complaints. The Kindle version is cheap ($19.25) and easy to carry on my phone, but the not very numerous equations are rendered as tiny images which are difficult (or were difficult for me) to magnify. In some cases, the author gives different numbers for the same quantities, like the amount of carbon in natural gas reservoirs, for example. To be sure, estimates vary, but I would prefer that he give a range rather than quote different estimates in different places. I would also prefer a more structured organization scheme, with more chapters and fewer topics in each.

Despite it's generally careful approach to the unknown aspects of the problem, the author occasionally lets his alarm at human caused climate change emphasize, or perhaps overemphasize, the worst case scenarios.

In my many arguments with climate skeptics, I have found that the carbon cycle is one of the things about which they are most deeply confused. Its complexity makes it a convenient dumping ground for all kinds of magical thinking, but they could learn a lot by reading this book. That, however, is something that they are unlikely to do.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Religious Tolerance

Religious tolerance was accomplished in much of the West after centuries of fierce struggle, but is now widely considered to be a pillar of liberal civilization. It's a pillar frequently abused even in its central heartlands, but to much of the world it remains a foreign concept.

Muslims get a lot of bad press for the murderous fanaticism of some of their fellow believers, and a great deal of the religious strife in the world today is fueled by Muslims and Islamic countries. India, like the Muslim nations, is another whose glories lie mostly in the past, but Hindu religious violence seems to be more modern than ancient. The most murderous excesses accompanied the partition of India into modern India and Pakistan, where millions of Muslims and Hindus died, but the disturbing trend is that India is now ruled by a man and party tied to some of the worst recent excesses, a leader and a party that has conspicuously failed to condemn recent religious murders by Hindus.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ten Men on a Dead Man's Chest

A favorite libertarian fairy tale concerns some guys on a desert island, one of who is so productive that he produces more than all the others combined. In my version, I speculate on how this could happen. The one guy may have happened to find a marvelously productive pool, teeming with fish, crabs and other food, while the others are forced to forage in the mean desert landscape. The question of the fairy tale is about the ethics of the others ganging up to tax Mr. Productivity.

I won't bother with that nonsense, but I'm pretty sure that I know how primitive hunter gatherers would deal with it. They would ask him to share, and if he refused, conclude he was a psychopath and kill him.

Of course things get more complicated in civilized society, so that option for dealing with the pool squatter's modern counterpart, Martin Shrkeli, is neither useful nor permissable. His squatter rights derive from laws that were intended to promote competition to provide generic drugs at low cost. Mr. Shrkeli bought the rights to a drug that is lifesaving for a relatively small number of patients and increased the price of this sixty year old drug by about 5000%.

His right to do this is provided by the government. As with many other pool squatters, this right derives from the ability of rich people to get the government to vote them special privileges. The government should withdraw those privileges and the voters should turn out the rascals who granted them.

Sex, Drugs and Rock'n Roll

It's probably some kind of commentary on human nature that a fair number of great songs have been written about drugs. They range from cautionary tales like Ed Sheerin's The A-Team, to frank love songs like this classic Grace Slick/Jefferson Airplane performance at my 26th birthday party.
A recent chart topper is The Weekend's paean to cocaine, I can't feel my face.

I hate drugs, but I love the music.  I feel the same way about Wagner.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


It seems that our brains are not our only body parts with a clock. In fact they are ubiquitous at the cellular level. Evidently circadian rhythms developed pretty early in evolution and were strongly conserved. We know something about this partly from studies of caffeine.

From Rachel E. Gross's story in Slate:

Caffeine was already known to alter the circadian clock in red bread mold, green algae, fruit flies, and sea snails. But humans were liable to be a little different. For the first half of the study, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder measured how caffeine influenced the circadian rhythms of five human caffeine consumers over 49 days.

Perhaps you already expected that there would be an effect on humans, and if so, you weren't wrong.

It also seems possible that the various clocks in the body might get out of sync after multi-time zone travel.

The way caffeine works on cells in the body might be different than how it works on the brain. “Your liver has clocks in it. Your muscles have clocks in them,” says Wright. “We know if you jet-lag a mouse, the brain adapts really quickly. Whereas it could take time for the other tissues to catch up. In other words, jet lag isn’t just the fact that your brain is in another time zone—it’s that your liver might be in a different time zone than your brain.”

Think of it as the technological equivalent of splinching - your brain is already home, but your liver is still in London or Tokyo.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Big Climate Knob

The climate of the Earth has exhibited both dramatic changes and implausible stability over the last several billion years. We have good reason to think that the Sun was a lot dimmer 4 billion years ago, but we had liquid water even then. We have had icy periods like the ice ages and relatively cool periods like today and much warmer periods too, but we have stayed in that liquid water, life supporting range. So what factors have controlled and varied that climate while keeping it in the habitable range?

It's clear that there are several such factors, but in his 2009 Bjerknes Prize lecture to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Richard Alley argued that the paleoclimate record overwhelmingly supports the notion that atmospheric CO2 is the big knob in that control system. He supports his argument with extensive data and logic. No one has yet figured out how to explain the climate of the planet without invoking the importance of the CO2 greenhouse.

More recently, A Lacis, et. al., (2010) calculate the response of the atmosphere to removal of the non condensable (CO2, NH2, etc) without directly changing the H2O greenhouse gas concentration. They then put the data into a climate model and allowed it to evolve for a few years. The graph below represents the main results. My favorite line is the black dotted line representing Top of the Atmosphere radiation imbalance.

Notice that removal of the CO2 and minor noncondesibles produces an immediate radiative imbalance of more than 30 Watts/m^2. That is a huge number, and it comes purely out of radiative transfer. No complex climate dynamics are involved - though they come into play in it's later evolution. The longer term changes come out of a climate model, of course, but given the magnitude of the original radiative balance change, are highly plausible. Notice that column water vapor gradually declines by a factor of ten, a completely unsurprising change given the direct cooling and the positive temperature feedback, thus dramatically reducing the crucial H2O greenhouse effect.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

New Year's Resolutions

I know it's early, but I'm an old guy and you never know what the future will bring. For the same reason, I don't think there is much point in making resolutions for 2016, so I'll make some for a year that could make a difference in my life: 1959, my junior year of high school.

(a)Leisure activities: stop reading all those crappy science fiction novels and concentrate on something important: chasing girls.

(b)Sports: Don't play football again this year unless they let me have a glamour position like quarterback. Defensive lineman doesn't cut it. Basketball - continue basketball but shoot more and pass less. Work on my mid range jumper. Track - Do you know what girls are doing in the Spring? It's not watching track, especially field events like shotput, javelin, and discus. Lifeguard training might be good.

(c)School activities: Science club - no, they can find a new VP; Chess club - puulleeeze!; Drama might be a good choice, lots of girls there. Speech and Debate: continue, but please ask out that cute sophomore who laughs at your jokes.

(d)Academics: OK, further de-emphasis of this would be a challenge, but use a little more imagination in choice of classes. What do girls like?

(e)Work: Get job at burger bar where girls wear skates to deliver food.

(f)Car: I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Way Things Seem To Us

From Wikipedia

In philosophy, qualia (/ˈkwɑːliə/ or /ˈkweɪliə/; singular form: quale) are individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term "qualia" derives from the Latin neuter plural form (qualia) of the Latin adjective quālis (Latin pronunciation: [ˈkwaːlis]) meaning "of what sort" or "of what kind"). Examples of qualia include the pain of a headache, the taste of wine, or the perceived redness of an evening sky.

Daniel Dennett (b. 1942), American philosopher and cognitive scientist, regards qualia as "an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us".[1]

Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961), the famous physicist, had this counter-materialist take:

The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist's objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.[2]

I notice that Wolfgang has again waded into the qualia debate, in the form of an attack on the conception of narrative as a key to the definition of self.

If it is obvious to me that the reality of qualia cannot be doubted and you think there is nothing even there to discuss, it is another strong hint that our conscious experience is actually quite different. Perhaps we experience colors with different intensity (but what exactly would that mean?).

I don't think it can be doubted that each of us has a different conscious experience, at least if we specify that our conscious experience includes our memories and our sensory experiences. My problem is trying to figure out what a phrase like "the reality of qualia" means, if anything. The essential quality of "qualia" is that they are purely individual but my test of "reality" depends heavily on it being shared.

In any case, I wonder if the curious case of the woman who has orgasms in her left foot has anything to say about qualia?

In her case, it seems that an infection may have caused some cross talk among the neurons from her foot and from her vaginal area. Similar cross talk effects appear to afflict those who "hear" colors or, tragically, feel touch as pain.

On the one hand, such pathological cases suggest that different sensations for similarly named experiences are quite real. On the other hand, the identification of their physiological basis suggests that Schrödinger was mostly wrong.