Friday, September 26, 2014

Astro FOTD: Nuclear Matters

The Sun started its life on the main sequence with approximately ten billion years worth of hydrogen fuel in its core. Consequently, an individual hydrogen nucleus there - a proton - can expect to live billions of years, and undergo zillions of close encounters with its fellows before winding up as part of a Helium nucleus. This means that the nuclear reactions (starting with tunneling through the coulomb barrier of another proton) are extremely infrequent and improbable.

This means that they can't be measured in the laboratory - no experiment could possibly attain sufficient luminosity to produce any interactions at the temperatures/velocities found in the Sun. Consequently, the nuclear reactions of the Sun and other stars mostly have to be modeled, extrapolated, and calculated. It's a remarkable triumph of theory that these calculations have been extremely successful, and that models of stars have passed test after test.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Morning Thoughts

While having breakfast at one of my favorite local restaurants, I couldn't help noticing that the three men at the next table were having a passionate and frequently loud discussion or argument, in Arabic. No doubt there are many topics that might have engaged them with such passion - prospects for the local college football team, for example - but given recent events, I found it easy to suspect something more political. Not knowing Arabic, I can only guess, but it occurred to me that recent US action against ISIL/ISIS must pose some problems for Arabs living in the US or Muslims more generally.

To date it seems that only a tiny fraction of American Muslims have embraced radical views and programs, and neither have many of the foreign Muslims living in the US. Still, some few have, and it doesn't take many to start a vicious cycle of terror and repression. Such a cycle would be a tragedy for the US, and, very likely, a catastrophe for American Muslims.

So I can't help wondering what the guy with the I Heart Kuwait window sticker was thinking about.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

About Black Holes

Long time readers, if any, may recall that I'm fond of the semi-crackpot idea that black holes don't really exist. Two new papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer make just just such a claim: I and II.

The abstract of the latter:

A star collapsing gravitationally into a black hole emits a flux of radiation, knowns (sic) as Hawking radiation. When the initial state of a quantum field on the background of the star, is placed in the Unruh vacuum in the far past, then Hawking radiation corresponds to a flux of positive energy radiation travelling outwards to future infinity. The evaporation of the collapsing star can be equivalently described as a negative energy flux of radiation travelling radially inwards towards the center of the star. Here, we are interested in the evolution of the star during its collapse. Thus we include the backreaction of the negative energy Hawking flux in the interior geometry of the collapsing star and solve the full 4-dimensional Einstein and hydrodynamical equations numerically. We find that Hawking radiation emitted just before the star passes through its Schwarzschild radius slows down the collapse of the star and substantially reduces its mass thus the star bounces before reaching the horizon. The area radius starts increasing after the bounce. Beyond this point our program breaks down due to shell crossing. We find that the star stops collapsing at a finite radius larger than its horizon, turns around and its core explodes. This study provides a more realistic investigation of the backreaction of Hawking radiation on the collapsing star, that was first presented in [1]

The authors don't comment, so far as I can tell, on the implications for all those black hole like objects that occupy our universe. Perhaps they are "frozen stars" in the sense that some early investigators understood black holes. Even if the stars involved never collapse to actual black holes, the intense gravity causes time to slow down so much that it takes zillions of years for the news to reach us.

Secession Disasters

The Scots, having wisely (IMHO) decided to cast their lot with union, I decided to look at the general problem of secession. The argument for secession is essentially always the same: the people (or nation, religion, ethnicity, language, etc.) cannot endure being ruled by the people of Y. When the rule is imperial and historically imposed by force rather than democratic there is some logic to the argument. Since most large nations were the fruits of empire, it's an argument that is frequently available. When we are talking democracy, though, and nations with a long established unity, I think secession is almost always nuts. And why is that idiot Cameron still running the joint?

A very few examples of peaceful and otherwise amicable national divorces exist, but they are vastly outnumbered by those that resulted in war, calamity and catastrophe. India-Pakistan, Yugoslavia, a vast catalog of Africa, numerous examples in the Americas, the American Civil War, and so on.

One of the oddities of the India-Pakistan divorce was that Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim majority area, as well as some neighboring areas, were awarded by the boundary commission to India. The reasons for this are controversial, at least in Pakistan, but in any event Pakistan decided to subvert the semi-autonomous government of the local Hindu Maharajah by unofficial jihadi warfare. The jihadis did not succeed in inspiring major local support, and the maharajah asked for Indian support, so Pakistan lost its first unofficial war.

Thus, Pakistan’s first move in Kashmir was to announce Jihad by unofficial forces. An unconventional war was started on the assumption that the Kashmiri people would support the invading tribal lashkar (unstructured army) and that the Maharajah’s forces would be easily subdued. Little, if any, thought had been given to the prospect of failure or to what might happen if the Indian army got involved in forestalling a Pakistani fait accompli.

However, the Kashmir Maharajah did seek Indian military help and signed the Instrument of Accession with India to secure military assistance . India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent in Indian troops to fend off the Azad (Free) Kashmir forces. The Indian army then secured the capital, Srinagar, and established control over the Kashmir valley and most parts of Jammu and Ladakh before a UN-sponsored cease-fire.

The battle over Kashmir so early after independence transformed the ideological confrontation between Muslims and Hindus of which Jinnah often spoke into a military conflict. Within months of independence Pakistan was at war with India. To this day Pakistan disputes Hari Singh’s accession to India, arguing that it was not the result of a voluntary decision and that he was not competent to accede to India because he had signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan earlier.

Ideologues argued that Pakistan should put off normal relations with India “until and unless the Kashmir issue has been settled.” 33 By and large this stance has endured ever since. As a result, the state of virtually permanent war with India helped Pakistan’s British-trained generals and civil servants establish their dominance over politicians who lacked any real experience in government.

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (pp. 28-29). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

And so it goes, usually

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Population Pressure and War

Population pressure appears to play a major role in Chimpanzee "warfare", and it might well play a similar role in human affairs. The turmoil in the Africa and the Middle East is associated with drought and population growth. The relative peace in Europe during the Nineteenth Century may well have been related to the opportunities of young men to emigrate to the Americas, Australia, and the colonies.

Historians ought to pay close attention to this sort of meta-factor.

How we fare in empires vs. independent nations is also worth a look.

Jeffrey Sachs + Michael Shank Think fighting ISIS is a bad Idea

Too many times in recent history the United States has responded militarily to provocations and threats in ways that have resulted in spiraling war and violence at great long-term cost to the American people. We believe that the latest escalation of U.S. attacks on ISIL (also known as Islamic State or ISIS) threatens such an open-ended, costly and ultimately unsuccessful path. We do not doubt the dangers of ISIL in the region, but we believe that U.S.-led bombing is most likely to create further instability, spiraling violence, and new recruits for radical military groups.

The right strategy, we believe, is for regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to lead the response to ISIL under the umbrella of the U.N. Security Council. In this way, the U.S. would avoid the trap of being viewed, once again, as the leader of an anti-Islamic crusade. Anti-American hate, and hence the vulnerability of U.S. individuals and property to terrorist attacks, is already running very high. A U.S. escalation of bombing in Iraq and Syria would send it soaring.

We note that ISIL is vastly outnumbered by the regional powers. ISIL’s advances reflect political disarray, the Syrian civil war, and pockets of local support in Sunni regions. They do not reflect any intrinsic or insurmountable military advantage.

The problems are much deeper than military. They are fundamentally social, political, and economic. Moreover, the spiraling wars in the region, including the recent U.S. bombing, take us farther from real solutions, not closer. We believe that the U.S. backing for the anti-Assad insurgency in Syria has greatly and unnecessarily contributed to the current disarray, weakening the Assad regime and thereby opening up the space for ISIL to insert itself on the ground. We strongly urge the U.S. to stop its efforts to overthrow the Assad regime and rather to seek a political solution in the U.N. Security Council context that does not count on Assad’s removal as a precondition (hence bringing Russia and China on board in a cooperative UNSC mandate).

More here

So far, at least, our Syria strategy has sucked. I have no faith in the Sachs + Shank proposal, but not much in any other ideas either.


Arctic Sea ice area has quite likely reached its minimum for 2014, and it finishes in a virtual tie with 2013 and 2009, about 1.2 million km^2 below the long term average minimum. It is, however, far above the record melt of 2012 as well as significantly above several other post 2007 melt minima. The climate skeptics are trumpeting this as "the great Arctic recovery." That's a bit hasty, especially since it also finished well below any pre-2007 melt seasons. A casual examination of the record shows that significant fluctuations have always existed on top of the long term decline, but if you imagine that climate science is some kind of partisan game, I suppose any deviation from the trend, no matter how unsurprising, looks like a triumph for side stupid.

Of course reality doesn't care much about ideology, and it always gets the last word, but it might be too late to permit sensible measures to deal with some really big coming problems.

Science and Nonsense

A new study reconfirms old studies that showed that we share our propensity for war with our Chimpanzee cousins. That's certainly no surprise to me. the cited article is interested in the question:

Is war a modern human invention, or does it have deep roots in biology?

I didn't have much doubt about that either. More dismaying to me is the reaction of some on the academic left.

Brian Ferguson, director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Rutgers University at Newark, said he disagrees with the new study’s interpretation of the data, as well as the methods used to rate the role of human influence on the chimp behavior.


Since Wrangham’s book “Demonic Males” was published, Ferguson said he has been compiling an exhaustive response, although he acknowledged that most primatologists who study chimpanzees do not agree with him.

“If people think that it is in our nature to go to war, that we’re somehow by evolution primed to go out and kill members of other groups, it leads to a kind of fatalism: you never can change that,” Ferguson said. Instead, he believes the evidence shows war is a recent invention.

In other words, he doesn't believe it because he doesn't want to. If he really would like to eliminate war, playing just pretend is not the way to do it. Instead, one needs to look at the factors that promote and discourage war and inhibit the first and promote the second. Fooling yourself won't help.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Going Indie

On Thursday, Scotch voters will vote on independence from Britain, and if the polls are right, and human stupidity triumphs as usual, there is a good chance they will chose secession. I guess I've already hinted that I think this is a bad idea. I can't think of another occasion on which a nation, united in language and culture for hundreds of years, has decided to tear itself apart on such a flimsy pretext - essentially, so far as I can see, because Scots watched one too many Mel Gibson movies.

The partition of India was much better motivated, but equally idiotic and certainly more catastrophic, at least in the short run. Pakistan was essentially the creation of one man, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. His rationale was that it would be intolerable for Muslims to live in a democratic nation where they would be outnumbered and outvoted by Hindus.

The idea of partition was disliked by many thoughtful British, essentially all Americans, and many others. Britain agreed to it, I imagine, because it was too exhausted to mediate an alternative and perhaps because it hoped to exploit its old colonial tactic of pitting Hindu against Muslim.

American journalist Margaret Bourke-White scored an early interview with Jinnah and was not impressed:

Jinnah’s expectation of US aid for Pakistan, American officials’ concerns about anti-Americanism, and Bourke-White’s cynicism about Pakistani objectives around the time of the country’s inception together seem like the prologue to a story with many repetitions. The Life correspondent discerned in Pakistan a persistently voiced “hope of tapping the US treasury,” which led her to wonder “whether the purpose was to bolster the world against Bolshevism or to bolster Pakistan’s own uncertain position as a new political entity.”

Ultimately, in Bourke-White’s opinion, “it was more nearly related to the even more significant bankruptcy of ideas in the new Muslim state— a nation drawing its spurious warmth from the embers of an antique religious fanaticism, fanned into a new blaze.” 4

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (pp. 10-11). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Events have hardly proved her wrong.

Reducing Global Warming

It's pretty well known that the way to deal with global warming is with a carbon tax. People who should know better, like Paul Krugman, advocate for a slightly hidden carbon tax called cap and trade, but it has proven completely unworkable. Its slightly hidden character doesn't fool anybody but the most naive rubes, creating a vast space for those who do know better to manipulate and jimmy the tax.

Of course the problem with the carbon tax is that it's immensely unpopular. People really really don't want to pay more for gasoline, electricity, or heating oil. It's also a highly regressive tax, so that it would be devastating to lower income people without an aggressive rebate program, and such transfer programs are anathema to the right.

The human race may not be collectively smart enough to survive.

Defeating ISIS

Many have weighed in to argue that that's impossible, and if you are talking about exterminating the organization, it may well be true. At the moment though, that's not the problem it presents. That problem is that it's a coherent, effective fighting force that's conquering territory, committing genocide, and threatening our allies. That can be dealt with, and we know very well how to do it. Unfortunately, the strategy and tactic require an effective ground force.

Kosovo and other examples showed once again that air power is rather ineffective against dispersed ground forces. Consequently, it's necessary to force those ground forces to concentrate at which point air power is crushing, at least in open terrain. That kind of concentration requires a determined advance by forces on the ground, at which point the enemy must either surrender ground or concentrate in order to resist.

Monday, September 15, 2014


The NFL may have caved on men "disciplining" wives and girl friends, but it's still a place where an indicted 100 kg thug can beat a four-year old bloody.

At least if that thug can really play.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kevin Drum on ISIS

Kevin is another guy who thinks we are wrong to take on ISIS:

There's no question that the beheading of American citizens by a gang of vicious thugs is the kind of thing that makes your blood boil. Unless you hail from Vulcan, your gut reaction is that you want to find the barbarians who did this and crush them.

But that shouldn't be your final reaction. This is not an era of conventional military forces with overwhelming power and no real fear of blowback. It's an era of stateless terrorists whose ability to commit extremely public atrocities is pretty much unlimited. And while atrocities can have multiple motivations, one of the key reasons for otherwise pointless actions like one-off kidnappings and beheadings is their ability to either provoke overreactions or successfully extort ransoms. Unfortunately, Americans are stupidly addicted to the former and Europeans seem to be stupidly addicted to the latter, and that's part of what keeps this stuff going.

In any case, a moment's thought should convince you that we're being manipulated. We've read account after account about ISIS and its remarkably sophisticated command and publicity apparatus. The beheading video is part of that. It's a very calculated, very deliberate attempt to get us to respond stupidly. It's not even a very subtle manipulation. It's just an especially brutal one.

So if we're smart, we won't give them what they want. Instead we'll respond coldly and meticulously. We'll fight on our terms, not theirs. We'll intervene if and only if the Iraqi government demonstrates that it can take the lead and hold the ground they take. We'll forego magical thinking about counterinsurgencies. We won't commit Western troops in force because we know from experience that this doesn't work. We'll avoid pitched battles and instead take advantage of our chances when they arise. Time is on our side.

Kevin is a very smart guy, but I think he is wrong, wrong, wrong on a number of points. Of course the beheadings were a deliberate provocation, but our failing to respond would be a tremendous success for them. They would have demonstrated that we are as impotent as they imagine. The last paragraph is starts out sensibly and rapidly degenerates into nonsense. There is zero reason to think time is on our side - ISIS was rapidly expanding before we intervened. The notion that we should avoid pitched battles absolute military nonsense - such a battle is precisely where our technology and overwhelming firepower have the huge advantage.

Climate Zombie Trolls

One of the blogs I read is devoted to Arctic sea ice. Most of those who comment there are professionals or very knowledgeable amateur Arctic watchers - I just lurk. Unfortunately the climate trolls attack, armed with their half-truths and outright nonsense from Denial Central or wherever the great stupidity attractor lurks. They invariably parrot the same stale mythology that has been circulating for years and fail to understand the implications of their own claims.

They do, however, wield one super-power - the ability to change the subject whenever somebody takes the trouble to refute one of their stupidities. Combine this with their general cluelessness and disrespect for staying on topic, and they become a serious pest - like flies at a picnic.

Here is a good, or rather, an egregious, example, posted by one keithwqq:

Astounding rebound in Arctic, record high levels in Antarctic. Tough year to be a warmist.

It would be hard to exaggerate just how much misinformation, confusion, and general dumbassery keith has compressed into two short sentences. His idea of an "astounding rebound," for example, is a sea ice area 1.1 million km^2 less than the mean and less than any year before 2007.

Not that they will pay attention, but here is my advice to them. Shut up and listen when the adults are talking. Do your homework and you can even participate. Or at least just confine your comments to unserious blogs like this one, or to your own echo chambers.

The Glue Trap

Obama made his intention to extract us from Bush's foreign wars pretty clear, but the US keeps getting dragged back in. Couldn't we, shouldn't we, just say the heck with you and let the Middle East and the rest of the world struggle with their own problems? Former big time interventionist Andrew Sullivan is sure that Obama is making a big mistake by going after ISIS. He quotes David Frum, good old "axis of evil" Frum, as follows:

The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?” That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable—at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead.

What terms likely to be acceptable is a question for the future, but I think Obama's rationale makes a hella lot more sense than Frum's rationale for his wars ever did. In ISIS, the US confronts an aggressive, rapidly expanding, declared enemy, which is disrupting an area of vital strategic importance to us. Moreover, its a murderous, genocidal organization attacking our allies. Finally, it is an organization which has publicly and gruesomely murdered Americans just for the crime of being American.

Getting involved in foreign civil wars is an unpleasant and frequently counterproductive business, but not getting and staying involved can also turn out badly, as it did when we let Afghanistan drift after the Russians were chased out.

One point which we should not delude ourselves about - stamping out ISIS will not end turmoil in the Middle East. Nor can we completely eliminate ISIS. What we probably can do is destroy its military power, kill or capture its leadership, and destroy its financial infrastructure. I wouldn't bet that these things can be accomplished without US troops on the ground though.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Obama's Anti-ISIL Speech

If Obama uses the phrase "reverse the momentum" I will likely throw-up. In fact any mention of p or other component of the stress-energy tensor will bother me. Other stupid words are: limited, defensive, and surgical. War is war. If you aren't in to win, you are just killing people for no good reason.

Suitable words and phrases include: defeat, crush, eliminate, annihilate, destroy, conquer and vanquish.

Please no idiotic euphemisms, equivocations, or weasel wordings.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Barbarians at the (Water)gate

The customer needed a haircut before an important public appearance.

The barber made polite conversation on the one subject every last customer was interested in: “What do you think of these Watergate hearings?”

“They’re pretty interesting, but I haven’t been able to see much of them.”

“I’ll say they’re interesting. I’m bringing my TV set to the shop next week. I want to see this guy Dean get his butt kicked.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be something. We’ll find out what the squealer has to say for himself.”

“Right. You know, I can’t imagine a guy lying that way about President Nixon. The guy is crazy, maybe.”

“Could be,” John Dean said, with all sincerity.

Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations 2870-2875). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Scientific Conspiracies

A favorite ploy of denialists of various stripes (vaccination, global warming, evolution...) is that scientists are engaged in a sort of conspiracy to silence dissent. Given the pretty widespread belief that rigorous internal critique is at the core of the scientific method, can scientific conspiracies really exist?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes - though none of the above are likely examples. The most prominent contemporary example seems to be the great "saturated fats are evil" myth. Nina Teicholz has traced the story in her book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, which she is currently flogging in various venues.

Of course this was not a conspiracy of deliberate deceit, but of true believers. Their is very little evidence that Ancel Keys or any of the others propagating this myth were deliberately selling something they knew was wrong. Instead, they believed the idea so passionately that they discounted contrary evidence and relied on very dubious supporting data. Even the sugar and vegetable oil companies who jumped aboard with both feet and boatloads of cash probably thought they were during mankind a favor with their low fat foods, margarine, and other products.

One enabling factor has been the difficulty and expense of doing controlled nutritional studies, so almost all data must come from epidemiological studies. One strong piece of evidence, however, is the fact that overall, Americans have drastically reduced their consumption of saturated fats, while getting fatter and more diabetic. Also, the evidence that saturated fats are not the bogeyman has gradually accumulated and a critical analysis of the studies portraying it as such has found their severe weaknesses.

So how about those other conspiracy candidates? The big difference is the quality and quantity of the evidence. Evolution, vaccination, and human caused global warming all have all have ample evidence and detailed models of action, something that the saturated fat hypothesis never achieved.

A better candidate example might be string theory. It has achieved tremendous influence without a bit of direct evidence, and it's more zealous practitioners are famous for their persecution of doubters. Neither of those things is evidence that the string hypothesis is wrong - but it's equally certain that it is an unproven hypothesis. Of course it can't be compared in practical importance to any of the other hypotheses. If string theory is true and useful, we will likely find some evidence for it eventually, but it's practical importance will be confined to some faculty appointments, at least in the medium term. Meanwhile all the others concerned directly affect the lives and health or millions or billions.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Juggling for Seniors

Once upon a time I had a modest (OK, VERY modest) skill at juggling. So, not having done any juggling for a few years or decades or something, I decided to see if my old muscles, reflexes, and fading vision could still handle it. Three balls, check. Four beanbags - not so hot, managed 11 consecutive catches, while minimum proficiency is supposed to be twenty, but not bad considering that I never was any good at it. Three clubs is probably the minimum skill that is amusing to watch, and I used to be able to do it pretty easily, even managing a few simple tricks.

This seems to be a major challenge for my own personal beanbag - the fixed one, between my shoulders, I mean. So far, I just haven't been able to manage the air traffic control. The problem is that I just can't seem to stay in the basin of stability, and my pattern quickly become chaotic. This is a familiar pattern in control theory - either the sensors aren't up to the task or the actuators aren't.

But I haven't given up. Yet.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The El

Current Southern Oscillation conditions continue to muddle along in weak El Niño territory, so if you were counting on it to bring some big rains, maybe not. Of course it could still make a big splash, but odds now seem against it.

Uh Oh?


MOSCOW — A strange incident near the Russian-Estonian border on Friday ended with an Estonian intelligence officer in Russian custody and the two countries trading sharply contradictory allegations about what happened.

Estonia’s president and prime minister, among other officials, said the officer had been kidnapped at gunpoint from their territory and forced across the border in a blatant violation of sovereignty. The Russian Federal Security Service said the officer was in Russia and engaged in a clandestine operation when he was detained.

The episode threatened to heighten tensions between Russia and the NATO alliance, to which Estonia belongs, at a time when relations are already severely strained over the conflict in Ukraine. It came just two days after President Obama gave a speech in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, pledging that NATO would defend the Baltics against Russian aggression and suggesting that any attack on them would lead to war with the West.

Although the intelligence officer was apparently detained around 9 a.m., the Russian security service, known as the F.S.B., did not acknowledge the incident until Friday evening, when it issued a statement to three Russian news agencies.

Senior Estonian officials, including the director of the country’s Internal Security Service, held a news conference in the late afternoon, saying the officer had been abducted after unknown assailants set off a stun grenade and jammed communication signals. At the time of his capture, the officer was investigating a criminal case in the area of Luhamaa, Estonia, a little more than a mile from the border with Russia, officials said, according to Estonian news reports.

If Ukraine is Putin's Rhineland, moving against the Baltics would be his Czechoslovakia. NATO could not afford to ignore such a move. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Obama's mealy mouthed speech in Estonia didn't do much to demonstrate Western resolve.

Debates About Israel

Jonah Shepp gives the standard boilerplate defense of Zionism at Andrew Sullivan's place. He claims to be "seeing both sides now" but the other side, whatever it may be, is hidden behind his paywall. I don't want to get into any of that on either side, but I would note that debates about Israel in the US are really about what the US should or should not be doing.

Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, and tough measures are sometimes needed in such places, but should their problems really be our problems?

Israel is a US client state, depending heavily on the US for money and weaponry, not to mention vital political support in the form of UN Security Council vetoes. Jon Stewart noted the irony that when Israel called a ceasefire in its latest Gaza war, apparently because it had run out of (American) ammo, the US, which had loudly proclaimed its desire for just such a ceasefire, was quick to promise that a few hundred million bucks worth of ammo was on the way.

The problem is that as a client, Israel basically sucks. It's leaders routinely undermine US attempts to broker peace settlements, insult our leaders and diplomats, and take actions like settlement expansion and siezure of Palestinian land.

So are the insults and disses just harmless political fun? Not to the thousands of American soldiers and civilians who have died, and the tens of thousands maimed by the enmity these things provoke among Muslims. If Israel can disrespect America and its President, then obviously the US is an tool of Israel, and deserves the violence and terrorism wielded against it.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, no American President can afford to treat Israel like just another country, like say, Turkey, or Thailand, worthy of US help to the extent that they serve our national interests. Instead, they are more like the obnoxious little brother who is always getting in bar fights and then running to us for help. And he's really not even a cousin - more like a friend of a friend.

Shot Clock: The Thoughtful Man

I've been trying to puzzle out Obama's unpopularity in the face of an economy that continues to improve despite relentless Republican sabotage.  Some of the theories I've floated have been met with less than widespread acclaim.

Rick Perlstein, in his new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, notes that Reagan, in his youth, developed a talent,  for turning any situation into an inspirational or heroic narrative with himself in the lead role.  Many a youth does something similar, but Reagan's genius was in his ability to project this heroic myth into the world, and sell it.  Very useful for a movie actor, an for a leader too.  His remarkable record at lifesaving, for example, reveals a number of beneficiaries who didn't think they really needed succor.

Reagan the politician had a glib and self-serving, if not necessarily responsive, answer for every question, usually cribbed from one of his campaign speeches.

Compare and contrast the clip of Obama in the following Jon Stewart bit.  Obama is in Estonia, supposedly rallying NATO to respond to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.  A gray and sickly looking Obama stumbles through a shapeless lecture to Putin on how to play by the rules, delivered at an excruciatingly slow pace that makes it seem as if every word is being dragged from him under torture.


This sort of thing is leadership 001.  Obama is a lot smarter than Reagan ever was, but he has really shown a failure to master the elements of leadership.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Better Off Russian?

Some have argued that the Ukrainians would be better off in Russia. That doesn't seem to have been the case for the chunks of Georgia that Putin picked up on one of his earlier land grabs. In any case, one of the prime motivations for big desertions of Ukrainian police to the separatist cause seems to have been the promise of much larger Russian pensions.

So how are Russians doing, overall? In per capita GDP, a lot better than Ukrainians. In some other respects, maybe not so hot. From Masha Gessen's story in the New York Review of Books blog.

In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II. Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality. By the mid-1990s, the average St. Petersburg man lived for seven fewer years than he did at the end of the Communist period; in Moscow, the dip was even greater, with death coming nearly eight years sooner.

In 2006 and 2007, Michelle Parsons, an anthropologist who teaches at Emory University and had lived in Russia during the height of the population decline in the early 1990s, set out to explore what she calls “the cultural context of the Russian mortality crisis.” Her method was a series of long unstructured interviews with average Muscovites—what amounted to immersing herself in a months-long conversation about what made life, for so many, no longer worth living. The explanation that Parsons believes she has found is in the title of her new book, Dying Unneeded.

The story goes into her theory - mostly the shock of social disruption - but whether one buys that or no, the statistics don't paint a pretty picture of life in Putin's Russia. Men under 15 have mortality rates like those of third world countries with a tiny fraction of Russia's per capita GDP, not to mention the tremendous disparity in technological capability.

The Great Attraction

Our Galaxy is known to have a peculiar velocity of some 600 km/s with respect to the cosmic microwave background. It's long been rather unclear what the nature of "the Great Attractor" responsible for this velocity has been. A new study seems to clarify that question and to establish our position in a newly identified supercluster of galaxies being called Laniakea.

Within the boundaries of the Laniakea Supercluster, galaxy motions are directed inward, in the same way that water streams follow descending paths toward a valley. The Great Attractor region is a large flat bottom gravitational valley with a sphere of attraction that extends across the Laniakea Supercluster.

The name Laniakea was suggested by Nawa'a Napoleon, an associate professor of Hawaiian Language and chair of the Department of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature at Kapiolani Community College, a part of the University of Hawaii system. The name honors Polynesian navigators who used knowledge of the heavens to voyage across the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.

Read more at:

The name seems to mean "immeasurable heaven", which is a bit ironic, since the supercluster was traced by careful measurements of the peculiar velocities of the constituents.

I recommend that you go to the linked sight and watch the Nature video. It's very good, and the reader's accent is lovely.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The European Apex

It can be argued that modern European civilization reached its apex in the earliest years of the Twentieth Century. It was a high point of European power, confidence and culture. European science and technology had outstripped anything achieved by the other great civilizations. Most of the world had either been colonized or dominated by Europe. The only really important exception was Europe's overseas cousin in the thoroughly Europeanized United States.

Technology and military power were not the only elements of its dominance. Europe proclaimed and probably mostly believed that its conquest of much of the rest of the world was bringing the benefits of their allegedly "higher" civilization to more benighted peoples everywhere. The industrial revolution of coal, steam, and their associated technology had propelled it to dominance, and new advances like electricity and the use of petroleum seemed certain to push progress farther and faster. Few Europeans probably knew or appreciated it, but Planck had just discovered the quantum and Einstein relativity.

A key factor in this rapid progress must have been the century of relative peace enjoyed since the end of the Napoleonic wars. Economic and cultural connections, many believed, had made war obsolete, at least war between "modern" nations.

August 1914 shattered this illusion, and its consequences shattered European power, prestige, economic strength and self-confidence. The path to this catastrophe is the subject of Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

Gambling Men at the LHC Casino

Peter Woit has collected some information on Supersymmetry bets by various physicists.

Most of them are still outstanding. Only Jacques Distler was brave enough to bet on the first 10 inverse fempto barns, and he has evidently paid up to Tommaso Dorigo.

It seems that Mother nature has little compunction about fooling us.

Our Ediacaran Cousins?

The multi-cellular animal body plans we see today all seemed to have originated, or at any rate first left fossil traces, in the Cambrian, beginning 540 million years ago. They were not the very first multi-cellular animals though. The preceding 100 million years saw the flourishing of the Ediacaran fauna, mysterious tube and frond shaped guys who resembled nothing living today. Or maybe not.

The linked BBC story reports the discovery of some tiny animals that don't look like anything else around today, but when I first saw the picture, I thought "Ediacara?" Apparently some better informed people had the same thought.

A mushroom-shaped sea animal discovered off the Australian coast has defied classification in the tree of life.

A team of scientists at the University of Copenhagen says the tiny organism does not fit into any of the known subdivisions of the animal kingdom.

Such a situation has occurred only a handful of times in the last 100 years.

The organisms, which were originally collected in 1986, are described in the academic journal Plos One.

The authors of the article note several similarities with the bizarre and enigmatic soft-bodied life forms that lived between 635 and 540 million years ago - the span of Earth history known as the Ediacaran Period.

Unfortunately, the method by which they were collected almost 30 years ago destroyed the DNA. Presumably somebody is looking for some more.

Privacy in the Internet Age

As Bill Joy noted some time ago, and JLawr and colleagues recently found out, it's at best an illusion. Caught among the assaults of horny teenagers with time on their hands, curious corporations, and snoopy governments, your online secrets aren't. As ever more of our lives moves online, privacy becomes ever more illusory.

This is not really such a novel condition for humans. In hunter-gatherer bands of yore and small towns everywhere until quite recently, privacy was all but nonexistent and secrets very perishable. In the anonymity of cities and the automobile, a more private lifestyle took root, but it may be ending.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Taking Kiev

Is there a moral equivalence between Putin's invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and US interventions in Somalia, Iraq, etc? I don't think there is, but whether or no, I don't think that's the central issue in Putin's actions. Some interventions are much more dangerous than others. Two more fundamental concerns involve territorial incorporation and location.

The disappearance of the old European empires in the mid and late Twentieth Century was widely supposed to have marked the end of the colonial age and global wars it spawned. Of course foreign interventions didn't stop, but it was tacitly understood that they would not pit the great powers directly against each other, and that old style colonial conquest was not permitted.

Putin's interventions in Ukraine and Georgia violate the second principle, but perhaps more importantly, his actions, plus his belligerent rhetoric (I can take Kiev in two weeks) sent a shiver of fear through Poland and the Baltics. NATO's recent decision to construct what is essentially a toy "rapid response" force is feeble riposte which may well backfire by encouraging him.

The world may well be entering another more dangerous phase. Unfortunately, Putin, like other would be imperialists, has discovered that bellicose deeds pump up political popularity. It would be very difficult to contain any European war.

Monday, September 01, 2014

My Tax Dollars At Work

Newspaper headline:FBI leads hunt for hacker behind Jennifer Lawrence naked pictures.

The FBI is leading the hunt for the hacker who stole naked photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities, a bureau spokesman said Monday.

Images of the 24-year-old Oscar-winner began appearing on the website 4chan on Sunday night after the actress's Apple iCloud account was apparently broken into.

Anonymous 4chan users claimed to have photographs of 100 women including the actresses Scarlett Johansson and Winona Ryder and the models Kate Upton and Cara Delevingne.

I suppose it bespeaks an attenuated moral sense that I have limited sympathy for these bimbos who put naked pictures of themselves on the internet and then are outraged when they find a wider than intended audience. I mean really, did they think these pictures were only going to be seen by their boyfriends, movie producers and the NSA? How naive.

Nutrition and the Brain

If I only had a brain...

Steve Hsu links to some papers discussing nutrition and the brain. In childhood the proportion of nutrition consumed by the brain is particularly prodigious:

The metabolic costs of brain development are thought to explain the evolution of humans’ exceptionally slow and protracted childhood growth; however, the costs of the human brain during development are unknown. We used existing PET and MRI data to calculate brain glucose use from birth to adulthood. We find that the brain’s metabolic requirements peak in childhood, when it uses glucose at a rate equivalent to 66% of the body’s resting metabolism and 43% of the body’s daily energy requirement, and that brain glucose demand relates inversely to body growth from infancy to puberty. Our findings support the hypothesis that the unusually high costs of human brain development require a compensatory slowing of childhood body growth.

It's well known the under-nutrition in childhood depresses adult height. Even though the brain probably gets priority, it is very likely that a similar effect affects adult brains. Steve thinks this may be linked to the Flynn effect.

Empire Building

The collapse of the big European empires, concluding with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, left the US as the only superpower, leaving it as something of a global "empire." The quotes are appropriate because in recent decades the US has not attempted to permanently occupy or politically incorporate foreign nations. Of course this hasn't kept us from interfering in the rest of the world, sometimes militarily.

The old empires of Europe mostly seem content with their fate, except of course for Russia, which under Putin has annexed a few former colonies and continues to hint and push for more ambitious goals. These annexations have been the old-fashioned kind, by military force, though so far confined to former colonies with substantial pro-imperial sentiment.

Meanwhile, the Chinese empire has forcefully reasserted itself, propelled by a surging economy and renewed self-confidence. So far, the main targets of its imperial advances have been Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, but they are also making threatening noises in the South China sea.

Since all these new contenders, and some more minor powers, are packing nukes, this resurgent empire building presents a fundamental challenge to the Pax Americana, and a real threat to the age of rapid economic growth that much of the world has seen in recent years. Past experience with aggressively growing empires is not promising.

I'm not sure what to make of the contrasts. China seems to be expanding mostly because of its reborn economic strength - Russia because of its continuing economic weakness.

Outside My Window

I have a rose bush just outside the window my computer faces, with a little trellis for support. A month or so ago I hung up one of those sock-type finch feeders, which eventually attracted some house finches. They seem to have some bullying tendencies, with usually only one or two (mating pairs?) feeding at a time, with any others being chased off. More recently, the lesser goldfinches showed up.

They seem more tolerant of crowds, with up to half a dozen showing up at a time, though the much bigger house finches sometimes chase them off.