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.