Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Climate Change Then and Now

Climate change in the past is more the rule than the exception. Earth and life have survived many changes in climate. Human civilization developed in a highly special period though - the last ten thousand years has been a period of exceptionally stable and (for humans) benign climate. Modern humans first emerged between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene, a period of turbulent and frequently hostile climate. It's rapid and drastic climate changes may well have prevented our ancestors from developing agriculture. These climate changes have been far from benificent from the standpoint of existing species. Large scale reductions in territory and mass extinctions have been common. It's highly plausible that several of our brother species of humans met their ends in this way.

The most recent ten thousand years, the Holocene, hasn't been like that. Stability and very gradual change have been the rule.

Until the last 100 years. The rapid and unprecedented consumption of fossil fuels has provoked significant climate change that seems certain to continue and intensify. That change probably won't end civilization - at least not without a lot of further help from us - but it is sure to cause plenty of problems.

MKS vs. Gaussian

According to the tale, a famous ship captain was noted for keeping a small chest, always carefully locked, in which he kept a small, secret notebook. Each day he would carefully scrutinize the notebook, replace in the chest, and carefully lock it. The key never left his person.

Because the captain was so successful in every endeavor, many wondered about the contents of the secret notebook, but he declined all efforts to get him to share.

When he died, full of honors and at a ripe old age, his first mate was quick to grab the key and open the chest. With pounding heart he opened chest and notebook. There he read: "left is port, right is starboard."

MKS electromagnetic units are an abomination in the sight of the universe.

That is all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Physics Problem

Kevin Drum posts the following:

Over the past couple of weeks, I've noticed that my distance vision is a little fuzzy. Time for new glasses, you say, and you're probably right. But here's the odd thing. I keep all my old glasses, and last night I tried them all on just to see if an older prescription worked better than my current glasses. What I discovered was a little strange.

Right under my TV I happen to have two LED clocks. One uses red LEDs and the other uses blue LEDs. With my current glasses, the blue LEDs are sharp and the red LEDs are fuzzy. But when I put on glasses that are a few years old, it changes. The red LEDs are sharp and the blue LEDs are fuzzy. The difference is quite noticeable, not a subtle thing at all.

Anyone know what this is all about?

Naturally some of his commenters got the correct answer, but you should try to solve it without looking (zillions got wrong answers, of course). Hint: there are two parts to the answer, one involving physics, the other involving physiology.

Defensive Alliances: 1900

After its crushing defeat of France in 1870, the newly united nation of Germany became the most important European power. It's long rival France, was now smaller, weaker and less economically dynamic and was not only beaten but profoundly isolated due to the long enmity with Britain and Russia, and Bismark made it his business to keep France weak and isolated. The other power, the Austro Hungarian Empire, was ally.

Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Bismark, and made Alfred Tirpitz head of his navy. Together they embarked on an ambitious ship building program designed to be able to confront Britain on the high seas. This, together with some other slights and rivalries deeply angered the British, who countered with their own ship building program. Meanwhile, the Kaiser's new Chancellor let the old treaty with Russia expire.

France exploited the moment to settle its differences with both Russia and Britain, forming the so-called Entente Cordial.

[British Prime Minister] Lloyd George recalled in his war memoirs that he went to visit the Liberal elder statesman Lord Rosebery on the day the Entente was announced. “His first greeting to me was: ‘Well, I suppose you are just as pleased as the rest of them with this French agreement?’ I assured him that I was delighted that our snarling and scratching relations with France had come to an end at last. He replied: ‘You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end!’ ”

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 3398-3402). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

*Redacted Redacted*

Florida's pinhead governor apparently issued a "secret" order that State officials not mention the words "cl****e ch***e" or "gl***l wa****g". This despite, or perhaps because no State is more threatened by rising sea levels. From Steve Benen's story:

Everyone had a good laugh the other day when an official from Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) administration tried to get through a legislative hearing on emergency preparedness without using the words “climate change.” But before the story fades from view, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the substantive question behind the humor.

At issue is a FEMA requirement that states develop a “climate-change plan” in order to receive preparedness dollars. This became literally laughable in the Florida example – Scott’s chief of emergency management said the state will eventually have a hazard-mitigation plan with “language to that effect.”

So why would someone purportedly elected to safeguard the interests of the citizens of the State purposefully, albeit somewhat comically, attempt to suppress the mention of a major threat to those interests? I have a theory. Some of those citizens, or at least some of those interests, have different interests than the general populace and a lot more money. Miami, for example, is undergoing a frenzy of sea side condo building. Enthusiasm for these condos might be figuratively dampened by publicity about the fact that their foundations are about to be literally dampened by encroaching sea water.

Imperial Appetites

Where today the international community sees failed or failing states as a problem, in the age of imperialism the powers saw them as an opportunity. China, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, all were weak, divided, and apparently ready to be carved up. So was Morocco, which was becoming increasingly anarchic by 1900. The death of the strong and capable Sultan Hassan I in 1894 had left it in the hands of a teenager, Abdelaziz. “He is not bad looking, but podgy and puffy; good features and good clear eyes,” said Arthur Nicolson, stationed there as a British diplomat. “He didn’t look unhealthy, but like a boy who ate too much.” 50 Abdelaziz proved unable to keep control of his subjects. While his administration grew increasingly corrupt, powerful regional leaders asserted their independence, pirates attacked merchants along the coasts and bandits raided caravans in the interior and kidnapped the rich for ransom. Late in 1902 a rebellion threatened to topple the whole rickety regime.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 3290-3297). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Whole Lot of Stupid

There is a whole lot of stupid in the world, and local density enhancements exist, but some still struggle against the tide. James J. Krupa talks about teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky.

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My response was and is always the same: We didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

It helps to be as ignorant of the Bible as of history.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thinking About Having a Child?

Shouldn't you first have your genome edited for clarity and errors? The CRISPR/Cas system seems to be making that possibility real. CRISPR (and writing out the acronymn likely won't help you understand it) is a prokaryotic immune system that works by editing the genomes of potential virus enemies, but its editing capabilities can be used for other purposes - see discussion in the Wikipedia link given above. In fact they already have been used to edit out a deleterious gene in mice.

People too carry some nasty genetic diseases, and the possibility of editing them out is being aggressively investigated by top genetics laboratories. Of course, if you are going to be editing genes to eliminate congenital blindness or Tay-Sachs disease, maybe you should take the opportunity to stick in some genes for high intelligence, good looks, athletic ability, etc., etc.

The age of gene customization is (nearly) on us, and that means that future humans will have some more powers previously attributed only to gods.

Tyler Cowen writes about CRISPR and its eugenic implications here, with numerous links. Stephen Hsu is here, with, among other things:

... Rumors are rife, presumably from anonymous peer reviewers, that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos and have submitted papers on their results. They have apparently not tried to establish any pregnancies, but the rumors alarm researchers who fear that such papers, published before broad discussions of the risks and benefits of genome editing, could trigger a public backlash that would block legitimate uses of the technology.

I think it is obvious that we are talking about what is potentially one of the most momentous developments in human history.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Parasite Class

I have a finch feeder outside the window where my computer sits. Most of my customers are the Texas lesser goldfinches, which weigh about 10 grams, or roughly the weight of two nickels, which is how much money I have left to rub together after buying their food. They eat little nyjer seeds, which they shell and eat with phenomenal efficiency. They are my personal parasite class, and I feel guilty if I let their feeder sit empty. It's quite amazing how much these tiny creature eat, though.

I'm a member of the parasite class myself, since I don't work for pay, and live off my pension and savings. I tend to think of the rentier class as parasites too, so it annoys the heck out of me when one of their members, like Willard R., inveighs against the people who get Social Security and other government benefits.

Uh Oh

Some of the same people who confidently counted Netanyahu out are predicting that the Ted Cruz Presidential campaign is DOA.

German Thinking Before World War I

The relatively new nation of Germany was eager to take its place among the colonial powers.

What Weltpolitik actually meant in terms of concrete policies was another matter. As Field Marshal Count von Waldersee, who commanded the European forces suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, wrote in his diary when the idea first started to circulate widely: “We are supposed to pursue Weltpolitik. If I only knew what that is supposed to be; for the time being it is nothing but a slogan.” 30 It did seem, though, to imply that Germany acquire its fair share of colonies. [German historian and nationalistic prophet] Treitschke certainly argued so. “All nations in history,” he said in his lectures, “felt the urge to impress the stamp of their authority on barbaric countries while they felt strong enough to do so.” And Germany was now strong enough; its high birth rate was evidence of German vitality. Yet Germany was cutting a poor figure by comparison with Britain and other empires: “It is therefore a vital question for the nation to show colonial drive.” 31

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1882-1891). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thus the notion that a proper great power, like Britain, France, and Russia had vast colonial empires played a key role in the events that led up to the Great War, the war that, ironically, played a key role in the ultimate collapse of the colonial system, and eventually convinced the heretofore colonial powers that in the modern age, colonies would not be worth their cost.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form?

How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form? By Abraham Loeb

This is intended to be a short introduction to the interface between cosmology and astrophysics governing the first galaxies and stars. Allegedly it is aimed at the undergraduate with a science background or the non-specialist scientist, but I found the level of presentation rather uneven. What kind of student, I wondered, would need to have the terms "star" and "galaxy" defined but still be able to decipher "Polarization is produced when free electrons scatter a radiation field with quadrupole anisotropy Q?"

This short book packs a lot of information into it, though I'm not sure that I agree with the title. It's mostly not about those events but rather about the modeling of the growth of cosmological density perturbations which ultimately gave rise to those stars and galaxies. This is a technical book, with lots of equations, but derivations of those equations are mostly absent or extremely cursory. I would guess that the ideal audience for this book is a graduate student in the field who would like a quick review and summary of key concepts and equations.

Nevertheless, a lot can be learned from this book even without trying to understand every equation (I didn't). The plain text does a good job of explaining key ideas.

The figures, unfortunately, are something of a disaster. Most of them are tiny copies of figures from journals, with details and captions in tiny print. They are purely black and white and the quality of reproduction is not high.

This book was published in 2010. The author has subsequently (2013) collaborated on a much thicker and larger book on the same subject. I have only read short excerpts, but it does look more like a proper textbook with real derivations, though much of the material is adapted directly from the present volume. It might be a better bet for those who want a more detailed understanding.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Character of Kaiser Wilhelm II

The manifold blunders that led to World War I have filled many a book, but in Margaret McMillan's version, the Kaiser gets first place. He was apparently intelligent, even intellectual, but he was also a nitwit, utterly lacking in the character of a a good leader. He was lazy and impetuous, and lacked perspective, judgement, and self-restraint.

Combine grandiosity with lack of common sense and many evils promptly follow.

War and Pique

I have been criticized, and indeed mocked, for suggesting that personal pique could play a major role in international affairs - in particular, Netanyahu's repeated disrespecting of the American President.

Margaret MacMillan, in her examination of the causes of World War I, pays some attention to the human factors which led to the gradual deterioration of relations between Britain and Germany, including rude and angry letters between their respective sovereigns, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Queen Victoria (his grandmother). Official quarrels of little import became magnified by annoyed public opinion.

Samoa, for example, was a crisis that need not have happened because no great national interests were at stake. Yet it proved unnecessarily difficult to resolve because of public agitation, especially in Germany. “For even though the great majority of our pothouse politicians did not know whether Samoa was a fish or a fowl or a foreign queen,” said Eckardstein, “they shouted all the more loudly that, whatever else it was, it was German and must remain forever German.” 18 The German press suddenly discovered Samoa to be essential for national prestige and security.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1410-1416). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Kaiser's tendency toward rude and childish practical jokes:

Indeed, the King of Bulgaria, a country which Germany hoped to make an ally of, once left Berlin “white-hot with hatred” after the Kaiser smacked him on the bottom in public.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1500-1502). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Britain and Germany Before the Great War

Winston Churchill:

We have engrossed to ourselves, in a time when other powerful nations were paralysed by barbarism or internal war, an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1332-1336). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.