Friday, June 30, 2017


And every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for the Second Coming in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it. If traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 23). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Hating on Libertarianism

Trump Treasury boy Steve Mnuchin recently opined that taxing millionaires to provide healthcare to poor is "theft." This is a good example of why I find it easy to refresh my hatred of libertarianism, at least in its current incarnation. A cardinal principle of libertarianism seems to be that individuals, at least rich ones, don't owe anybody anything except themselves. I regard this as inimical to the fundamental principle that allows humans to cooperate in groups, the sense of shared destiny and collective responsibility.

Senile Dementia

Does some form of senile dementia explain Trump's bizarre behavior? It's a tempting diagnosis, but there are also some contrary indications. He seems to have always been a jerk and a compulsive liar with poor impulse control, and he still can work a crowd. I wonder what those who study such things think? Did he used to be able to speak in complete sentences?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Private Business

An acquaintance shared this story, which I will put in quotes, though it's surely not a precise reconstruction.

I had a small check to deposit, so I went to the drive through - I know that you can make a deposit at the ATM, but I'm old, and I didn't want to try to figure it out. I was in a hurry, so I was wolfing down my sausage McMuffin in the car. I sent over the check with my card, and in a bit the girl came back sounding real friendly like. I was, she said, and old and valued customer - a high value customer, whatever the hell that is, and entitled to a private banker.

OK, my social security gets deposited automatically, ditto my pension, and every two or three weeks I go to the ATM to take out some cash for this and that. I'm probably not getting the private bit, but I'm damn sure nobody's going to make a living handling my banking needs. So what the hell is a private banker, anyway?

I was curious, so I looked it up. It seems that banks are willing to assign special banker to those considered high net worth individuals (HNWI). Their duties, so I imagine, are to try to hustle some of that money, perhaps stroking them a bit to keep them invested. Anyway, I'm not sure I can still socialize with somebody in that class - or at least he can pick up the next check.

Health Care Repeal

We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it.(15)
She'll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.
(W. Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 2, Scene II)

Anybody who thinks McConnell is done with his Trumpcare bill is fooling himself.

Paean to a Pen

I'm a slow learner, so when I work through technical stuff I usually write out and at least try to derive all the equations. My favorite pen for that kind of work is the Pilot Precise V5. It writes a nice precise 0.5 mm line, dries almost instantly, never skips, lasts a long time, and it's dirt cheap (a dozen for $13.28 from Amazon).

I've used a lot of pens, some of them nearly two orders of magnitude more expensive, but I've never found one better suited to my needs (writing equations with lots of symbols, Greek letters, and subscripts.) There is a retractable and refillable version, but I usually use the stick.

A true triumph of technology. I got about 200 pages of equations and notes out of one pen.

Twenty Percenters

David Brooks, the least crazy of the NYT conservative columnists, has been bashing the current GOP lately. His latest column accuses them of abandoning conservative principles. Not the critique I would make, but not without merit.

But I am not here to praise Brooks. His opening paragraph contains a familiar bit of right-wing BS.

There is a structural flaw in modern capitalism. Tremendous income gains are going to those in the top 20 percent, but prospects are diminishing for those in the middle and working classes. This gigantic trend widens inequality, exacerbates social segmentation, fuels distrust and led to Donald Trump.

This is the kind of technically true but profoundly misleading stuff that makes otherwise kindly liberals hate Brooks.

In fact, nearly all of the income gains have gone to a tiny fraction of the top 20%. It's pretty shocking just how sharp the income needle is. If we look at net worth, the results are even more dramatic. The minimum net worth for entry into the top 10% is well over twice that for the top 20%. Making the top 5% means having more than 4 times the wealth of an 80 percentiler, and for the top 1% you need 18 times as much. The truly wealthy in the top 0.1 % have 71 times as much.

The same trend appears throughout the net worth chart. The bottom decile has negative net worth, and the net assets at the 20th percentile are roughly equivalent to an old car and the clothes on your back. Jump to the 30th and that old car becomes a newish one. Going up a decile at any point usually involves at least a doubling of net worth.


Apparently at least some of the cometary debris fields the Earth passes through contain several hundred meter sized chunks of the old comet. Collision with one of them would flatten a continent. Whole comets colliding with Earth might destroy almost all life on Earth.

But neither of those is the most likely way for humanity to end our hour upon the stage. We are still our own enemy number one. Sixty some years into the thermonuclear age, we still haven't blown ourselves up, but the hazards are growing again, as more nations get the bomb and missiles to deliver it. The world's most dangerous nuclear power is now run by probably its stupidest leader ever, and another major nuclear power is aggressively expanding.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Homo Deus

I've started reading Yuval Noah Harari's book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He opens with some observations on how radically the world has changed in the last century or so. For most of the history of civilization, famine and plague cut huge swaths through populations.

About 2.8 million French – 15 per cent of the population – starved to death between 1692 and 1694, while the Sun King, Louis XIV, was dallying with his mistresses in Versailles.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This was far from an isolated event. Even higher casualty rates afflicted Finland, Scotland, and Estonia at the time. Dozens of such catastrophic famines killed at similar rates in the much larger populations of China and India.

Plague was equally catastrophic. The Black Death killed 25% of the population of Eurasia. The diseases carried by European explorers killed 90% of the population of the Americas and similar percentages of Polynesian islanders. During World War I, Spanish Flu killed twice as many people as the war, including two of my then young aunts.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Defying the Laws of Physics

My Google News can reliably be expected to provide me with new feats of athletic prowess, engineering, driving skill or other actions claimed to defy the laws of physics. Unsurprisingly, none of them ever do.* I guess the statement "amusingly illustrates the laws of physics" just lacks panache.

*Actually, I can think of an exception: the so called electromagnetic drive. But I'm pretty damn sure that's purely imaginary.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Otto Warmbier

Unfortunately it's not at all uncommon for college students, usually young men, to engage in dumb stunts or pranks that get themselves or others killed. Of course it wasn't smart for Otto Warmbier to decide to swipe a propaganda poster in North Korea, of all places. That offence, which likely would have earned a wrist slap in a civilized country, got him murdered in North Korea. His death, after being returned brain dead from North Korea, provoked a flurry of hysteria from certain right wing sites, alleging that liberals celebrated his punishment and murder.

Exhibit A was a Larry Wilmore nightly show in which Warmbier was lambasted for his folly. I looked at it, and it was the most tasteless and nasty thing I've seen from Wilmore, even granting that it was done long before anybody knew Warmbier would die for his offence. To imply that this was some common liberal propaganda effort strikes me as ridiculous though, even if Wilmore happens to be a liberal comic. Wilmore's offence was cruelty and tastelessness, not liberalism. In any case, Wilmore and his show are gone.

Similarly, the idiot adjunct professor who got fired for saying that Warmbier got what he deserved was guilty of being an asshole, not a liberal.

Yes, there are liberal assholes (not to mention conservatives of the same inclination), but it's ridiculous to indict a whole group for the offences of a few jerks.


I don't watch a whole lot of television, but there are three sitcoms I usually catch, and this being Summer, they aren't available, except as stale reruns. That tends to leave my television cupboard a bit bare for those evenings when, exhausted by a hard day of retirement*, I collapse on the couch. That's especially tough in the Summer when there are no sports on television.

I've never watched wrestling, especially not women's wrestling, so I'm not exactly sure why I started watching GLOW, the new NETFLIX series fictionalized version of the story the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, a syndicated series that ran in the 1980s.

My wife and I love it. It's great partly because Alison Brie and Marc Maron, the lead characters, are great, but mostly because the writing is great. The large ensemble of other wrestlers and a few others is also excellent. As in the real GLOW, the "wrestlers" were recruited from wanna be actresses, stunt women, and dancers. The principal actresses, especially Brie and her principal opponent, do most of their own stunts and claim to have had a ball learning and practicing their wrestling moves.

Comedy and drama - plus wrestling - a lot more entertaining than I expected.

*As my (also retired) neighbor pointed out to me, the tough thing about retirement is that you never get a day off.

Artificial Intelligence: The Threat

Kai-Fu Lee, writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, writes about what he calls The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it. Imagine how much money a company like Uber would make if it used only robot drivers. Imagine the profits if Apple could manufacture its products without human labor. Imagine the gains to a loan company that could issue 30 million loans a year with virtually no human involvement. (As it happens, my venture capital firm has invested in just such a loan company.)

We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?

The author argues that while retraining can save some jobs, others will be harder. How many cashiers or fry cooks can be retrained to be AI programmers? How many chatty bartenders does a country need?

He argues that strongly Keynesian policies plus heavy taxation of those who profit heavily is the only way to save jobs. This will involve massive transfers of wealth.

He further adds that essentially all the profits of the AI revolution will go to the US and China, as the only two countries with enough expertise to and data to succeed. This may be arguable, but certainly only a few countries are in the chase.

So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.

One way or another, we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

I think he leaves out that a number on the have-nots list will have missiles and thermonuclear weapons, and with them the capacity to destroy the big two.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Libertarians Have a Nice Slogan

Naturally it hides a morally bankrupt core. Right now, the wealthy libertarians who own the Republican Party in the US are engaged in the destruction of Medicaid.

Another score for libertarians was the Grenfell Tower catastrophe in Britain. From The New York Times:

Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.

Of course, after the disaster, the same libertarians who cheered removing regulations in the name of "cutting red tape" cited the disaster as evidence of the failure of government regulation, and always quick to add insult to injury, blamed the victims for choosing to live in a firetrap.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Sun: Book Review

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb Aug 6, 1996 by Richard Rhodes, is a great book, but probably not for the faint hearted. If you have labored under the delusion that humans are rational animals, forget about it. We are sometimes an intellectual species, but a very irrational one, driven by vanity, paranoia and other prehistoric emotions, quite unsuited to life in a world with thermonuclear weapons.

The penultimate chapter tells the story of the Cuban missile crisis, and it's pretty terrifying how close some pretty smart people came to utterly destroying the world. This was at a point when both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization many times over.

We had gotten to that point thanks to the paranoia and other frailties of some of the smartest guys around, including Curtis LeMay, Edward Teller, John Wheeler, and John von Neumann. Only the cool heads of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy narrowly saved the day more than once.

It's terrifying to think what might have happened if an idiot like Trump, or even a dimwit like W, had been in charge.

I recommend the book highly. There are no equations, but if you are a physicist with a few tens of billions of dollars and access to certain critical materials and technologies, there is enough detail to build your own bomb.

I've written a lot more about it here.

I know that WB has read it and would be particularly interested in his comments.

Local Warming

107 F here today (about 42 C), and it's predicted to get a bit hotter. I'm glad I don't still live in Phoenix - 118 yesterday.

Meanwhile, the high Arctic has been just a shade cool for the past 3 months. I wonder if that will impact this year's melt season.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Entropic Principle

That book you spent some time searching for in the dusty boxes in the garage (on the hottest day of the year) isn't there either.

Corollary 1: That book you were thinking of buying - don't - you already own it.

Corollary 2: See above.

Upside: You know all those ridiculous Greiner-Mueller books you bought but never read? The one on thermo actually has a good explanation of the very point you were mystified about. My apologies Prof's G and M.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Trump still firmly in control in the South.

Democrats are getting demoralized.

Dance, Dance, Dance

Well I've done it again - inhaled a 400 page Murakami novel in less that 24 hours. Why can't I read physics books like that?

Dance, Dance, Dance concerns the further adventures of the narrator of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, and A Wild Sheep Chase.

Here he sets off to find the long vanished girlfriend from Sheep Chase and curious characters enter the picture, including an old acquaintance who has become a famous actor, a thirteen year-old clairvoyant with famous and wealthy but incompetent parents, The Sheepman from Chase, a host of call girls and others who disappear or turn up dead. Because this is Murakami, paranormal stuff happens.

Murakami is a terrific writer, and I loved this book despite the fact that I normally have no patience for paranormal goings on. Murakami's formidable erudition on music, culture, and much else combined with his eagle eye for character and setting make this joy, as do his vivid and witty descriptions.

Incidentally, his characters, aside from setting and minor differences in diet, are almost entirely indistinguishable from Americans.

Monday, June 19, 2017


During the 1950s, SAC commander Curtis LeMay and the US Air Force became absorbed in the idea of a preventive war against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had specifically rejected the idea, but LeMay engaged in tactics that some considered designed to provoke such a war, in particular, repeated overflights of Russia with various US spy planes. Such flights apparently cost at least 20 planes and the lives of about 100 aviators - some of whom went to the Gulag.

One of LeMay’s US reconnaissance crews remembered flying a B-47 deep into the USSR on May 8, 1954, and taking damage from a MiG-17. The mission made it back to England leaking fuel. LeMay ordered the crew to the US, the pilot, Hal Austin, recalled many years later:

[LeMay] said, “I tried to get you guys a Silver Star,” but he said “you gotta explain that to Congress and everybody else in Washington . . . so here’s a couple of [Distinguished Flying Crosses] we’ll give you for that mission.” There wasn’t anybody in the room except the wing commander and us three guys, General LeMay and his intelligence officer. . . . Then General LeMay said, “Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”

I think that was just a loose comment for his staff guys, because General Tommy Power, his hatchet man in those days, chuckled and he never laughed very much. So I always figured that was a joke between them. But we thought maybe that was serious.2549

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 565-566). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Plasma Physics

Since I've been studying astrophysics, I've noticed that I don't know anything about plasma physics. This prompted me to buy a book on plasma physics, namely: Introduction to Plasma Physics: With Space, Laboratory and Astrophysical Applications by Donald A. Gurnett (Author), Amitava Bhattacharjee (Author).

While trying to decide where to shelve it, I noticed that I already had a couple of books mainly about plasma physics, if by "a couple" you mean 6 or 7.

This suggests a disturbing possibility to me: It may be that owning a book does not mean you know anything about the contents. Who could have imagined?

More Oppenheimer

The downfall of Oppenheimer has the flavor of a Greek tragedy, but his persecutors were Americans, some naturalized and some born here. From The New York Review of Books:

The man who provided the argument and the occasion was William Liscum Borden, a single-minded young zealot who thought he knew why Oppenheimer resisted Air Force demands for hydrogen bombs—“more probably than not,” Borden wrote the head of the FBI in November 1953, “J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”

But neither could have managed Oppenheimer’s destruction without the help of the obsessed H-bomb promoter Edward Teller, who had never forgiven Oppenheimer for choosing another man to run the theoretical division at Los Alamos, who dreamed of replacing Oppenheimer as the protean man of the hour, and who nursed matters forward as he methodically planted seeds of suspicion in the minds of Borden, Strauss, and Air Force generals that Oppenheimer’s “faulty judgment” could be traced to hidden loyalties from his Red period.

Borden wrote a letter which repeated many well-known and thoroughly investigated facts about Oppenheimer's links to some Communists, except that he included in each paragraph the claim that the probable explanation for those facts was that Oppenheimer was a Communist agent. Eisenhower was shown the letter, and he immediately recognized the total absence of any new or persuasive evidence, but he was also feeling the heat from Joseph McCarthy, so didn't dare object.

Interestingly, Borden had played a key role in the loss of a document containing the only real secret of the US H-bomb at that point, the radiation implosion mechanism. He had mailed a copy to John Archibald Wheeler (another H-bomb hysteric), who promptly lost it. Wheeler thought that he had left it on a train, but even partial disassembly of the Pullman car involved failed to reveal it.

The review of several Oppenheimer related books linked here and above, btw, is a great short read on the whole business.

Nuclear Hysteria

The nuclear hysteria of the fifties was pumped up by some of the smartest US physicists, especially Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and John Wheeler. Of course lots of others, even smarter, saw through it, including Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Rabi. So did Eisenhower, at least to a degree. Unfortunately, logic and reason have a hard time competing with hysteria, especially when politicians on the make, like Symington and McCarthy join the chorus.


This would be a deterrent—but if the contest to maintain this relative position should have to continue indefinitely, the cost would either drive us to war—or into some form of dictatorial government.

Such intense anxiety demanded alleviation. Conveniently, there was a scapegoat at hand to slaughter.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 529). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That scapegoat was Oppenheimer. Teller's hysteria with regard to Oppenheimer was due in part to humiliation. Oppenheimer had mocked him when some of his calculations had left off some huge factors, and Oppenheimer, an arrogant and sarcastic fellow who was also quicker than anyone, was well positioned to puncture Teller's own arrogant but fragile ego.

Oppenheimer's most dangerous enemy, though, was Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower's new head of the AEC. Strauss was a brilliant business man, but also stubborn and arrogant, and had likely also suffered at the hands of Opie's condescension. One of his colleagues described as a man who would consider you a fool if you disagreed with him once, and a traitor if you persisted. Strauss was also a prude: he was scandalized by the fact that Oppenheimer had begun sleeping with his wife Kitty while she was still married to another man. Moreover, he was a conservative and very religious Jew, while Oppenheimer was a liberal and totally irreligious Jew.

Of course his suspicions of Oppenheimer were not totally without foundation. Oppenheimer had described himself as not a Communist but said that he had probably been a member of many of the Communist front organizations on the West Coast. Ultimately though, the evidence adduced against Oppenheimer had far more to do with hysteria than logic.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pitch Perfect

This week's Nature:

Only 1 in 10,000 neurotypical people in the West have AP — the ability to effortlessly, without context, name the note sounded by a violin or a vacuum cleaner (“That's an F-sharp!”). Among those on the autism spectrum, the number rises to 8%, roughly 1 in 13. For people born blind or who lost their sight early in infancy, it is 45%. AP, Ockelford argues, enables children to sound out and tinker with familiar tunes; that experimentation leads to a deep grasp of musical structure.

Those are quite extraordinary differences.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, children whose first language is tonal (Vietnamese or Mandarin) in this study, and who start studying music at an early age, are much more likely to develop perfect pitch. So absolute pitch is an acquired skill, but one which requires training at a very early age. Four is problematic and eight seems to be definitely too old.

Pit Bull

A friend of mine had a pet pit bull who stepped on an ants' nest and got stung. He then proceeded to bite and claw at the nest until the stings either killed or incapacitated him. Donald Trump seems a lot like that. It's no surprise that he's now being investigated for obstruction of justice. Whatever real or imaginary crimes prompted the deceptions of Flynn et. al., Trump's ham-handed attempts to quash the investigations have now put him squarely in the prosecutorial sights. Many have suggested that he wouldn't have taken such a chance unless he had something big to hide. I'm not so sure. It's possible that his aggressive instincts just lead him from one dumb choice to another.

Personally, I hope that's not true. I'd like to think that he had a good reason, however evil, for putting the country through all this.

Second Amendment

Some idiot decided to take Republican talk of second amendment solutions seriously. It apparently turned out to be a Bernie Sanders fan. Naturally and fortunately, he doesn't seem to have been a very good shot.

What a moron. Hasn't he read Julius Caesar?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How Low Can He Go?

Gallup has Trump approval at 36% today, tying his low so far. His weekly average is 37%, a new low. Disapproval, at 60%, is also a record. I figure that if disapproval/approval reaches 2 to 1, Republican politicians are going to start heading for the hills, or at least hiding in the bushes. Actual impeachment might require 3 to 1

Trump's Farce of a Cabinet Meeting

Clearly, Donald Trump has been sent to humiliate this nation in every way possible. From the NYT:

Usually presidents mark their first cabinet meetings with a couple of words and a group grin for the cameras. But President Trump turned the first meeting of his full cabinet, on Monday, into a tribute to himself.

Mr. Trump called himself history’s most successful president “with few exceptions,” saying, “We’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at a just about record-setting pace,” though he has yet to move any major legislation through Congress. On Monday morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the latest court to block his travel ban.

“In just a very short time we are seeing amazing results,” he said. “People are surprised. It’s kicking in very fast.”

After 12 minutes of tooting his own horn, Mr. Trump invited his team to jump in. Maybe he’d call on one or two of them before getting down to work? No — everyone on the team was invited to praise the president in a public display of affection more Pyongyang than Washington, while the dear leader soaked up the love.

Some embraced this task more enthusiastically than others.

Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, has reportedly been given an ultimatum by Mr. Trump: Shake up the beleagured White House staff by July 4, or hit the road. His gratitude to the president was almost prayerful: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people, and we’re continuing to work very hard every day to accomplish those goals.”

Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, spent last week worrying about his job and being maligned on Twitter by Mr. Trump, who ranted about his Justice Department’s handling of the travel ban, and Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Sessions gushed about Mr. Trump’s popularity among law enforcement officers. “It’s an honor to be able to serve you,” he said, and “to set the exact right message, and the response is fabulous around the country.”

Vice President Mike Pence said, “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people...”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Top 20%

Richard V. Reeves, who apparently graduated from Oxford, has an idiotic op-ed in the NYT on class in America, entitled "Stop Pretending You're Not Rich". In it he argues that the top 20% of Americans, with an average family income of $200,000/yr, are a sort of permanent American upper class.

Rather than lying with statistics, he is probably just being stupid, but it's a familiar trick. The top 20% includes all the billionaires, centi-millionaires in the top 1% and top 0.01% and they make that äverage statistic pretty meaningless. In fact, only 7% of American individuals, and 17% 0f households, make more than $100,000 per year. The entry level to that top 20% is a lot less than $200K. The roughly 5.6% of households actually making more than $200K/yr are certainly fairly well off, but it's the top 0.1%, with a minimum net worth of around $20 million, and who own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined, who really count as rich, and even they are pikers compared to the guys who can write $20 million dollar plus checks to finance a favored political candidate or cause.

Wealth is more important than income for deciding who is actually rich, and the top 1%, with a minimum net worth of about $8 million, count as rich to me. The minimum net worth to make it into the top 20% is around $400K.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Theoretical Minimum

Landau's theoretical minimum was a test so rigorous that only a few ever passed it. Presumably it tested something like the contents of the famous Landau and Lifshitz series on theoretical physics. Leonard Susskind has been working on his own "Theoretical Minimum" series, and while it is at most an extremely simplified "Theoretical Minimum for Dummies", your humble dummy correspondent found the Quantum Mechanics volume very nice. I probably never used quantum mechanics once during a long career doing mostly atmospheric physics, so I had forgotten a lot. There's an awful lot of quantum mechanics you won't learn from it, but it's very good in presenting the fundamentals in a mathematically sound way.

Anyway, he and his coauthor have a new volume coming out on Special Relativity and Classical Field Theory so I decided to order it.


Stan Ulam and Edward Teller invented the approach to making an thermonuclear bomb that turned out to work. Ulam's idea was using the hydrodynamic shock produced by a fission bomb to compress the fusion materials. Teller improved that idea by using the radiation pressure (rather than hydrodynamic pressure) to do the compression. Teller, who had been the tireless advocate of the H-bomb and spent many years on an idea that didn't work, didn't want to share credit.

Edward Teller seems to have found it intolerable that someone might share credit for the historic invention on which he had been working single-mindedly for almost ten years; he moved immediately to take over the technical breakthrough and make it his own. After he and Ulam issued their joint report, Françoise Ulam observes, “my impression is that from then on Teller pushed Stan aside and refused to deal with him any longer. He never met or talked with Stan meaningfully ever again. Stan was, I felt, more wounded than he knew by this unfriendly reception, although I never heard him express ill feelings toward Teller. (He rather pitied him instead.) Secure in his own mind that his input had been useful, he withdrew.”2187 (Carson Mark confirms Françoise Ulam’s impression: “Ulam felt that he invented the new approach to the hydrogen bomb. Teller didn’t wish to recognize that. He couldn’t bring himself to recognize it. He’s taken occasion, almost every occasion he could, not every one, to deny that Ulam contributed anything. I think I know exactly what happened in the interaction of those two.2188 Edward would violently disagree with what I would say. It would be much closer to Ulam’s view of how it happened.”)

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 471). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

More ammo for the Teller was a giant jerk view of history.

Whistling in the Dark

Trump and fellow idiots have been blasting Comey for "leaking" the contents of the memos he wrote.

Dana Gold, writing in Slate:

Trump kept up this attack on Friday, taking to his favorite medium to say, “WOW, Comey is a leaker!”

Meanwhile, NSA contractor Reality Winner is facing up to 10 years in jail because she allegedly mailed a classified document to the Intercept with evidence of an attack by Russian military intelligence operatives on the U.S. election system. What’s been missing from both of these conversations is a greater focus on what was being revealed, which should greatly influence how we think of and describe those making the revelations.

The shared NSA documents revealed that Russia had hacked a voting software supplier just days before the election. Comey’s memo, meanwhile, revealed an allegation that the president attempted to interfere in an ongoing FBI investigation—a charge the president now denies—potentially to the point of obstruction of justice. The media makes a mistake when it buys into the administration’s labeling of both these figures as leakers.

Leaking has become the default term for almost all unauthorized disclosures of information, classified or not, provided anonymously by employees to journalists. But not all leaked information has the same value. A more accurate description of both Comey’s and Winner’s disclosures is not leaking, but rather anonymous whistleblowing. The distinction matters.

More Teller

As calculations by Ulam, Everett and Fermi made it increasingly clear that Teller's design for the thermonuclear bomb (the so-called 'classical super') would not work, Teller became bitterly critical of Los Alamos, and campaigned for his own lab.

In fact the failure was Teller’s, Hans Bethe observes, not the laboratory’s: That Ulam’s calculations had to be done at all was proof that the H-bomb project was not ready for a “crash” program when Teller first advocated such a program in the fall of 1949. Nobody will blame Teller because the calculations of 1946 were wrong, especially because adequate computing machines were not then available. But he was blamed at Los Alamos for leading the Laboratory, and indeed the whole country, into an adventurous program on the basis of calculations which he himself must have known to have been very incomplete.2138

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 461). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Kim Il Sung's Invasion of South Korea

Kim’s Soviet advisers had proposed the day and time; it matched Hitler’s invasion of the USSR on the morning of Sunday, June 22, 1941.2021 US Ambassador to South Korea John Muccio, tired from a late night playing strip poker with several of the embassy secretaries, cabled the news to the State Department.2022

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 436). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Kim's idea - Stalin and Mao were not that eager.

The Suspect

Once master atom bomb spy Klaus Fuchs had been revealed the FBI started looking hard for the "other" spy they had reason to believe was at Los Alamos. Suspicion fell upon uber hawk Edward Teller.

Teller was a “close associate of . . . Fuchs at Los Alamos.” Mici Teller had traveled to Mexico City with Fuchs and Rudolf and Genia Peierls “in the latter part of 1945.” “The Tellers had Fuchs at their home for dinner when Fuchs returned to this country in 1947.” “Dr. Teller had considerable contact with Fuchs in England in the summer of 1949.” Besides his affiliation with Fuchs, Teller also had recommended for postwar graduate study at the University of Chicago a man with whom he had worked at Los Alamos who “has been identified as a Soviet espionage agent while at Los Alamos.” Teller’s name had appeared on a list of possible espionage recruits that the man had compiled.1983 Teller had traveled to New York during the time periods bracketed in the NKVD cable decode and “made frequent trips away from the Los Alamos Project and could have furnished information to the Russians on a regular basis.” And, oddly, “Dr. Teller is outspoken against furnishing atomic energy information to Russia, which appears strange in view of the fact that his parents and other relatives are in Hungary under Communist domination.”

Had its agents investigated further, the FBI could have learned much more about Edward Teller that might have appeared suspicious. Teller had refused to work on important implosion calculations at Los Alamos in the spring and summer of 1944 and his refusal had led directly to the decision to bring British scientists, including Klaus Fuchs, to Los Alamos. Teller had left Los Alamos to return to private life in 1946 even though he was the leading theoretician responsible for thermonuclear work; his departure had undoubtedly delayed the progress of that work. Teller had insisted on the development of a particular design of thermonuclear weapon, the Super, which had not been determined to be feasible on basic physical principles, when another design, his Alarm Clock, was unquestionably feasible on basic physical principles. The Super design Teller had insisted upon Los Alamos pursuing had recently been shown to be almost certainly inadequate. He had continued to insist on its development, and had encouraged a major commitment of people and funds which the President himself had endorsed, even though the Super was at best a marginal design and even though its development would deprive the country of a large number of atomic bombs which might otherwise be produced. Adding hypothetical charges such as these to the evidence it had already assembled of Teller’s associations with Fuchs, the FBI might have built a powerful case that the brooding, volatile Hungarian-born physicist was a Soviet spy.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 429-430). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Rhodes adds:

Teller and like-minded patriots such as Lewis Strauss and William Borden would not hesitate to compile similarly hypothetical charges against Robert Oppenheimer in the years to come.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 430). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

And that's about as close as Rhodes comes to dissing any of the atom scientists.

That Imp Word

Post Comey testimony, Slate has its Impeach-O-Meter at 45%. My personal guess, based mainly on a long life of poor guesses about political outcomes, is more like 65%. Republicans would rather be roasted on a slow fire than impeach, but they are starting to hedge their bets.

My feeling is that Trump would have to be an idiot to have done so much stupid stuff to conceal the smoke if there wasn't some fire, but on the other hand, Trump does seem to be an idiot, so who knows.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Republican Senators

The Republican National Committee had reportedly asked the Republican Senators to rough up James Comey in the hearing today, but they didn't do anything like that. They tried to offer a bit of cover for Trump, especially as far as making the most generous possible interpretations of his reported conversations, but they were mostly both polite and even deferential - Senatorial, you might say. Either they are determined to make a serious investigation or just haven't figured out yet which way they should jump.

John McCain, though, seemed both unclear and out of touch. Some wonder if the 80 year old is all right.

UK Election

The Brits probably can't make as stupid a choice of their next leader as Americans did, but it won't be for lack of trying. Results, I hear, are only hours away, but speculation is rife that May's attempt to increase her parliamentary majority may fail, and that she might be lucky to wobble weakly back to power.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Comey's testimony not only demonstrated why Trump should be impeached but also touched on Hillary's successful self-sabotage, with a clear assist from Bill.

What a bunch of dumbasses.

HIGHLY PREMATURE UPDATE: Labour - 6 181, Conservatives - 2 166: So far, Labour gets a net gain mostly at the expense of SNP. WC can breathe easy though - the LibDems have already picked up 2 seats and have a firm grip on 5.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Another Fine Mess

Trump seems to have blundered into some kind of showdown between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Iran and Turkey taking sides with Qatar. Will he blunder away our military base in the Gulf?

What a dumbass.


As we read a preview of Comey's testimony, nothing is more striking than the depths of Trump's stupidity and self destructiveness. He might just as well as have had baseball caps printed up saying "Impeach Me."

Hair Between Their Eyes

Steve Hsu leads us to a new paper which finds evidence of recent selection for the polygenic traits height, educational attainment, and "self reported unibrow." Steve is particularly interested in the evidence for selection for genes associated (with educational attainment in Europeans) in East Asians. That selection appears to have occurred during the past 10,000 years.

Although the paper is about 84 pages, most of that is figures and tables, with only about 19 pages of exposition. I found it more understandable than Steve's very brief summary.

It's probably obvious that selection is important for polygenic traits, since most significant differences are polygenic, but data to date has been sparse.

From the abstract:

An open question in human evolution is the importance of polygenic adaptation: adaptive changes in the mean of a multifactorial trait due to shifts in allele frequencies across many loci. In recent years, several methods have been developed to detect polygenic adaptation using loci identified in genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Though powerful, these methods suffer from limited interpretability: they can detect which sets of populations have evidence for polygenic adaptation, but are unable to reveal where in the history of multiple populations these processes occurred. To address this, we created a method to detect polygenic adaptation in an admixture graph, which is a representation of the historical divergences and admixture events relating different populations through time.

Note From an Unperson

1984 all over again.

Eric Trump declares Democrats "not even people."

Monday, June 05, 2017

Neutron Stars: Astro FOTD

Fun Fact: The mass of a neutron star is about 20% less than the mass of the neutrons and other nucleons that compose it.

The difference is gravitational binding energy.

CNN Wants to Know

I found this on my Google News page:

Ahead of the British election, we want to know: What do you think the UK's place in the world should be? Call us and leave a message:

I'm not the sort to call, but it happens that this is an issue I feel strongly about. I believe that the UK's place in the world should be astride the Greenwich Meridian, West of France and East of the Atlantic Ocean. Almost anyplace else would be deeply confusing, though somewhere between Australia and New Zealand might be OK too.

Congratulations! Your Safety School is Now in Afghanistan

There is something satisfying about seeing the privileged get taken down by their own arrogance, even if they are a bunch of smart/smart alecky high school students.

Seppuku, Facebook style:

They posted memes about rape and dead children and the Holocaust. They joked that hanging a Mexican child should be called "pinata time." And now Harvard has decided it doesn't want them anymore.

According to the Harvard Crimson, the Ivy League university has rescinded offers of acceptance to at least 10 incoming freshman for the class of 2021, following an investigation into the messages they posted in a private Facebook group:

A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December, according to two incoming freshmen.

In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.

It's probably not a good idea to play "Words Against Humanity" online.

Saturday, June 03, 2017


In 1948, people in the AEC starting thinking that we ought to have a way to detect nuclear tests by other powers. Of the three possible methods of detection discussed (radioactive dust in the atmosphere, acoustic, and seismic) only the first could be quickly implemented, and Oppenheimer was convinced that it couldn't work. He and others at that time didn't believe air bursts would leave dust, the radioactive elements having been reduced to atoms. The Air Force had been given the job of doing it, and found a private company, Tracer Labs, eager to take up the challenge. Oppenheimer was shown to be wrong.

Shortly after the Soviets exploded their first nuclear bomb near Semipalatinsk in September of 1949, the Air Force and Tracer Labs detected the signal, and followed it across the ocean, the US and the UK. Tracer labs was able to pin down the day and nearly the hour of the explosion. Despite independent evidence from intelligence, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and later Truman were skeptical.

... Truman was skeptical of the Soviet achievement; he told a senator later that he could not believe “those asiatics” could build so complicated a weapon as an atomic bomb.1706

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 373). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Ignorant prejudice - it's not just for breakfast.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Sequestering Carbon

That's actually almost the only good reason I have figured out for buying Statistical Physics: Theory of the Condensed State (Course of Theoretical Physics Vol. 9, aside from the fact that it seems to be the only volume of L&L that I don't own. I mean Landau isn't even listed as an author, and it's almost 40 years old.

Of course there are a couple of other volumes that I only have in German, a language that I can't actually read.


Thursday, June 01, 2017

Another One for President Stupid

Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate accord is a great victory for the libertarian Republicans - AKA the Koch brothers.