Saturday, May 30, 2015

August 1914 = June 2015 ?

Paul Krugman:

There’s an odd summer-of-1914 feel to the current state of the Greek crisis. While some of the main players are, rightly, desperate to find a way to head off Grexit and all it entails, others – on the creditor as well as the debtor side — seem not just resigned to collapse but almost as if they’re welcoming the prospect, the way, a century ago, far too many Europeans actually seemed to welcome the end of messy, frustrating diplomacy and the coming of open war.

Is there still a way out? There should be. As I and others have been saying for a while, the arithmetic is actually quite clear: Greece cannot run a primary deficit, it cannot be forced to run a large primary surplus, so a small primary surplus is the obvious solution and better for all concerned than euro exit.

Krugman's argument is that there is no way for Greece to actually pay all that it owes, so that it would be better for all if most of the Greek debt were written off and Greece was to just make mainly symbolic payments rather than write off the Greek debt, definitely blow up the Greek economy and quite possibly blow up the European economy with it.

But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful! They are people of bad race and lineage; out of their countenances peer the hangman and the sleuth-hound. Distrust all those who talk much of their justice!

Friedrich Nietzsche...............Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Friday, May 29, 2015

Upstart Wines

I rarely drink wine. When I drink at all, it's usually beer. I usually don't care for the taste of wine, and wines, especially red wines, provoke my asthma. Also, despite my bulk, I have low alcohol tolerance, so that even one drink usually gives me a slight buzz. In any case, serious wine drinkers speak a language that I don't understand and that doesn't usually interest me.

So its really pretty odd that I found myself fascinated by this New York Times Magazine article by Bruce Shoenfeld. He begins:

A band of upstart winemakers is trying to redefine what California wine should taste like — and enraging America’s most famous oenophile in the process.

It seems that the upstarts have rather different ideas about what makes a suitable wine than Robert M. Parker, the founder of The Wine Advocate and reigning world wine guru. As I say, wines don't interest me, but people always do, and one of the more fascinating traits of H. sapiens with time and money on its hands is to become infatuated by a topic or facet of existence. Wines, like Dungeons and Dragons, Motorcycles, and cult novelists seems to be one of those topics.

You might like the story if you like wine or just find weird people fun.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Solar Dreams

For pessimists only. As of 2013, solar power provided about 0.24% of all energy consumed in the world.

Book Review: Magnificent Delusions

Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, Nov 5, 2013 by Husain Haqqani is a detailed description of the relations between Pakistan and the US from the birth of Pakistan in 1947 to nearly the present. There are plenty of delusions, to be sure, but I'm not so sure that they are magnificent - more like delusions of magnificence.

From its founding, Pakistan sold itself to the US as a bulwark against Communism, but in fact spent nearly all of the aid the US has lavished on it - some $67 billion in 2011 dollars - on an expensive military aimed almost exclusively at India. Pakistan was founded so that Indian Muslims could be independent of Hindu rule, and its primary tool in unifying its own diverse cultures has always been fanning the flames of Muslim fanaticism and anti-India rage. One pretext for that rage was the fact that in the partition India managed to grab Jammu and Kashmir, a region with a large Muslim population that Pakistan wanted. Many of the the Indian-Pakistani conflicts since have focused on that region, which has long been divided by a less than peaceful line of control.

When the British ruled India, they imagined that the Indians were divided into martial and non martial races, and they recruited their India's Army mainly from the presumably martial races of the Punjab. No doubt this idea fed the delusions of the Pakistani officer class, who in turn imagined that they were better fighters than the Indians and could defeat them in battle as a result. Repeated defeats taught them nothing but denial, defiance and resentment. Instead of building its economy, Pakistan spent lavishly (mostly with US and Saudi money) on building their Army.

While India was the prime target of Pakistani propaganda and rage, the US was not far behind. Pakistan was a bitter and resentful supplicant, with one hand holding out the begging bowl while the other cultivated scurrilous accusations against its benefactor. This was more a tactic than an accident, since the generals who have always controlled Pakistan claimed that if they didn't get more aid, they would face the anger of the Islamic street - the very anger that they assiduously cultivated.

If Pakistan's delusion that it could defeat India with an Army paid for from abroad is easily dismissed, how can we explain the fact that the US repeatedly took the sucker's bet that it could buy Pakistani cooperation with money and weapons? It's complicated. One factor is that US administrations usually like to start anew, frequently ignoring the hard won lessons of the past.

Under the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, the US was preoccupied with building a firewall against Communism, and anybody who claimed anti-Communism could qualify for a merit badge. Socialist and Neutralist India, by contrast, was automatically suspect. Kennedy and Johnson were more suspicious of Pakistan, but were preoccupied with other problems, especially Vietnam. Carter was similarly enmeshed with Iran, but he, and to a much greater degree Reagan, saw a chance to defeat Russia in Afghanistan, pouring in the money that built the Pakistani Interservice Intelligence (ISI) organization, the Taliban, and a host of other terrorist organizations fostered by the ISI.

After 9/11, Bush junior confronted Pakistan with an ultimatum - be with us or against us. Pakistan agreed, but did not stop cheating. Both Clinton and Obama offered Pakistan a lot if they would only mend their evil ways and concentrate on building a country, but the generals persisted in their fanaticism. Obama in particular warned Pakistan that if a terrorist attack against the US (like that against India by Lakshar-e-Taibba) succeeded, nobody could prevent terrible retribution.

Last I heard, the US and Pakistan continue to pursue their drone operations against the Taliban, operations in which the ISI cooperated, but fulminates against in the press.

So how did I like the book? It's packed with information, backed up by many dozens of pages of endnotes, and rather well written, by a Pakistani professor in exile who was part of several Pakistani governments. This should not be confused with a dispassionate history by an outsider - it is a history, but one told by someone who feels that his country has repeatedly been betrayed by its military, a military which has become a cancer on the country. The US does not escape blame either. The military and the ISI fed on our largesse, and could not have assumed their fully malignant form without it.

My extended comments on the book can be found here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Collision Hazards

The largest ocean going ships are about half a million tons. I would expect that any interstellar ships we or others might build would have to be at least that size in order to survive a journey lasting decades or centuries. Let's estimate a million tonnes - 10^9 kg - roughly twice the mass of the supertanker the Seawise Giant.

I remember the first time I saw a piece of armor plate that had been struck by a hypervelocity projectile. Even though the projectile was only a bit larger than a beebee, it had drilled a hole right through two inches of armor plate. Lower velocity projectiles spread their energy over larger areas. The operative factor is the speed of sound. If the projectile is moving significantly faster than the speed of sound in the target material, there isn't enough time for the forces to be transmitted laterally, and the projectile just keeps boring a hole until it has piled up enough mass in front of it to slow the whole procession, including the shock wave at the front, below the speed of sound.

It's a bit more complicated than that of course.

Suppose you had a large interstellar space craft moving a something like half the speed of light. The kinetic energy would be pretty large:

m*c^2(gamma - 1), where gamma = 1/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2) = 1/sqrt(3/4) = 1.1555, so that available kinetic energy is 1.4 * 10^16 J/kg, or 1.4 * 10^25 J for a million tonne behemoth like that described in the first paragraph. That amounts to the equivalent of 3 billion megatons of TNT - not enough to blow a planet to bits, death star style, but possibly enough to blast a hole right through it. So you might not want to aim your interstellar ship directly at a habitable planet, just in case you had trouble slowing down.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Who Created al Qaeda and ISIS?

Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani President, and his Inter Service Intelligence agency, the ISI did, but the money to do it came from Reagan and the Saudis. Reagan and his minions funded the ISI to create the Afghan insurgency against the Russians, but total operational control was vested in Pakistan and the ISI. Charlie Wilson, the Democratic Congressman (and eponymous hero of Charlie Wilson's War) had bought into a propaganda film produced by a glamorous and politically connected socialite who had become a fan of Zia and his insurgents. The film featured a heroic Mujaheddin leader but didn't mention his early career throwing acid into the faces of women in Kabul who went out without their faces covered and provided bipartisan support for giving the ISI everything it wanted.

With full operational control, the ISI had plenty of resources left for building itself into panoptican styled on the KGB, and for fomenting trouble among Indian Sikhs and in Kashmir. But the ISI still had a mission in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew - ensuring that Afghanistan was ruled by Islamists friendly to Pakistan or kept in turmoil.

The Taliban and al Qaeda were the result.

ISIS is a simpler story. After Bush Too's war in Iraq, his idiot proconsul Paul Bremer turned the Iraqi army out without jobs or pensions - but with weapons.

How We Got Into Afghanistan

To the extent that we remember at all, Americans have only a dim idea how we got first got involved in Afghanistan. Something about the Soviet invasion, followed by the CIA and "Charlie Wilson's War." Husain Haqqani tells some more of the story in "Magnificent Delusions."

After Army Chief Zia-ul-Hac overthrew the elected government of Pakistan and murdered the elected President, he faced rebellions in some provinces. When the British divied up the subcontinent, they had deliberately divided the Pashtun peoples, placing some of them in Pakistan and the rest in Afghanistan. This resulted in persistent demands for a united "Pashtunistan." Meanwhile, a somewhat leftist government had been elected in Afghanistan and adopted policies (land reform, rights for women) that offended large landowners and Islamic fundamentalists.

Zia responded by training, funding, and supplying Islamist insurgents, creating an Afghan civil war. This war probably played a key role in provoking or enabling the rather small Communist faction into overthrowing the elected Afghan government and taking power. At this point, Zia, pointing to the Communist threat, was able to enlist American President Jimmy Carter into small scale support for Zia-ul-Hac's Afghanistan war - thereby making the US the first great power to become deeply involved. Six months later, the Soviets invaded.

Because Pakistan, against US wishes, was developing a nuclear weapon, the US had stopped all military aid to Pakistan. The Soviet invasion changed all that.

The US policy that emerged immediately after Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan revolved around Pakistan. As Vance wrote in his memoir, Carter was willing to seek congressional approval to waive the legal prohibition on military aid to Pakistan. At the same time the United States would reaffirm its nuclear nonproliferation policy and press Pakistan to provide acceptable guarantees that it would not develop a nuclear weapon. But the first step was to reach agreement with Pakistan on the terms of an assistance package.

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan had flipped. The New York Times headline “Pakistan Is No Longer the Ardent Suitor, but the Prize to Be Courted” captured it exactly. 56 Zia handled the new situation with panache. He was eager to partner with the United States, but he made it seem like a difficult decision. He emphasized Pakistan’s “strategic position” and its being the “backdoor to the Gulf” and praised the United States as the champions of the free world. 57 But he also spoke of the vulnerability of Pakistan to Soviet and Indian pressures.

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (pp. 247-248). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

In effect, Zia had mouse trapped the US and the Soviets into a confrontation that ultimately would be disastrous to both.

Zia was both a cunning and treacherous fellow, but his plans could not have succeeded without a large dollop of American stupidity.

Here is Reagan, somewhat later:

After meeting Zia, Reagan wrote in his diary for that Tuesday: “The weather turned out fine for the official greeting ceremony for Pres. Zia of Pakistan. We got along fine. He’s a good man (cavalry). Gave me his word they were not building an atomic or nuclear bomb. He’s dedicated to helping the Afghans & stopping the Soviets.”

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (p. 229). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

All Physics is Local

In Kerson Huang's book, The Fundamental Forces of Nature: The Story of Gauge Fields he notes that the principle of local gauge invariance "removes the last vestige of action at a distance from physics." The reason for this is that the job of keeping track of the field has been merged with spatial displacement via the replacement of the ordinary derivative in the Hamiltonian by a gauge covariant derivative.

The notion of gauge was introduced into physics by Hermann Weyl, the distinguished mathematician, in an attempt to unify electromagnetism and general relativity. It didn't actually work out in its original version, because, as Einstein pointed out, it implied unphysical effects. As often happens, with a little reinterpretation it was quickly recognized as a key feature of electromagnetism, and with the rise of the standard model and the idea of Yang-Mills fields, the key principle for all the fundamental forces of nature.

I find it mysterious but fascinating.

Class and Inequality

Hunter gatherers are strongly egalitarian. Sedentary agriculturalists tend to develop hierarchical class structures. The lowest classes tend to be profoundly repressed.

Why so? If we dismiss the usual idiotic ideas based on divine ordination or social Darwinism, what are we left with?

One cardinal fact about the sedentary lifestyle is that it permits much higher birth rates. The higher birth rates mean that societies produce a lot more people than they can feed. In effect, to prevent being torn apart by internecine struggles, societies develop what amounts to a designated dying class. Like the development of organized warfare, another agricultural innovation, having an oppressed class increases the death rate.

At least in large societies, two classes doesn't seem to be enough. Perhaps three or more are needed for stability. Because the upper classes are likely to out reproduce and out survive the lower classes, means for class demotion are also needed. That fear of class demotion, for example, forms a central theme in novels like "Pride and Prejudice" and "War and Peace."

The means to escape the Darwinian jaws of brutal class oppression and war were not really available until quite recently in history. Birth control, even mandatory birth control, seems a lot more humane to me that those alternatives.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Going to the Matrices

The expression "going to the mattresses" should be familiar to fans of The Godfather or of Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail. It's what Mafioso, or presumably, book store owners, do when they go to war.

In linear algebra and geometry, the sophisticated prefer to speak of the advantages of coordinate free representations, but, when the rubber meets the road, they often "shut the doors and compute with matrices," as one wag put it.*

I was reminded of that by my current interest in tensor networks, where the action is precisely in matrices (and their higher rank analogs.

* Actual quote, from Irving Kaplansky, speaking of himself and Paul Halmos:

We share a philosophy about linear algebra: we think basis-free, we write basis-free, but when the chips are down we close the office door and compute with matrices like fury.

And a different opinion from Dieudonne:

There is hardly any theory which is more elementary [than linear algebra], in spite of the fact that generations of professors and textbook writers have obscured its simplicity by preposterous calculations with matrices.

Both via Mathoverflow

Locality in Physics

The world looks simpler when we confine ourselves to local interactions. We affect the world mostly by local interactions. If we want to move something, we usually need to push on it. When Newton discovered his law of universal gravitation, with its action at a distance, that conception of locality was profoundly challenged. He didn't like it, but he could discover no satisfactory hypothesis to explain it. Electricity and magnetism turned out to present similar challenges.

The invention of the electromagnetic field by Faraday and Maxwell changed all that. Field strengths, and the forces they generated were now determined by the fields and charges in the local neighborhood, in effect pervading space with an ether that transmitted the forces. Einstein showed that the ether had to be Lorentz invariant and that gravity too could be localized, with the gravitational field now being determined by the matter and fields in the neighborhood.

One reason this is interesting today is the discovery of the fact that the quantum physics of certain many body systems is radically simplified if the Hamiltonians of those systems have the locality property. These ideas are embodied in so-called tensor networks. In particular the quantum entanglement entropy of such systems can be shown to be proportional to the area of the system boundary. Equally fascinating, effective geometry appears to appear naturally from such tensor networks.

For students of General Relativity and String Theory, this should loudly clang several bells with names like Bekenstein entropy, the Holographic Principle, Maldacena duality, quantum information and spacetime, and Wheeler's 'It from Bit'. These ideas are being actively pursued, and Jennifer Ouellette has a popular level article here in Quanta. A semi-technical article on the fundamental tool, the tensor network is:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Divorce, Pakistani Style

For various reasons, nearly all of them bad, the US clung to its alliance with the Pakistani generals despite repeated demonstrations that they were unreliable and frequently treacherous allies. This was much more dramatic during the Eisenhower and Nixon years than during the Kennedy administration, mostly because Nixon, like Dulles and Kissinger saw the world thru Manichean glasses. Relatively stable and progressive India, by pursuing socialist ideas and hewing to a neutralist line in the cold war became a "Soviet stooge" for them. Meanwhile, the repressive and incompetent but Sandhurst educated Pakistani generals spoke a language that they could appreciate, even when their double dealings were repeatedly exposed. In their conversations (as revealed by Nixon's tapes) Indira Gandhi was dismissed as a "bitch" and an "old witch".

Nixon did have one relatively good reason for hanging onto the Pakistani generals: Yahya Khan was his pipeline to the Chinese leadership and a key element in his plan to open relations with China.

Meanwhile Pakistan was falling apart. The Bengalis of East Pakistan, a badly treated majority in their own country, were sick of ill-treatment by the Pashtun and Punjabis of West Pakistan who dominated the military and government. After an election dominated by the Bengali party, Pakistan's generals plotted to hold on to power by military force.

The December 1970 election had brought Pakistan’s fissures to the fore. In response, West Pakistanis reacted with shades of ethnic superiority. Soon after the elections a general visiting Dhaka told his military colleagues: “Don’t worry. We will not allow these black bastards to rule over us,” a reference to the darker skin color of Bengalis compared to Pashtuns and Punjabis. 48 “The Punjab is finished, smashed,” an industrialist told the Times. “Our country has gone to the dogs,” he said, because “We will be ruled by Sindh and Bengal,” a reference to the fact that Mujib was Bengali whereas Bhutto was an ethnic Sindhi.

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (p. 150). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

After feigning negotiations, Yahya Khan unleashed military repression.

US officials knew Ahsan and Yaqub [Pakistani officers who opposed the intervention] well, so Washington should have heard their views. But the United States chose to stand by Yahya. A new military commander, Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, arrived in Dhaka in March 1971 to enforce national unity with US weapons supplied ostensibly to save South Asia from communism. Pakistani soldiers then confined foreign journalists to their hotels before starting “Operation Searchlight,” a ferocious military action aimed at arresting and killing Awami League leaders. During this military operation at least ten thousand civilians were massacred within three days. There was a large Pakistani force already stationed in East Pakistan, but reinforcements and equipment were flown in from West Pakistan to bolster their strength.

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (p. 151). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

US diplomats, the press, and much of Congress were outraged by Pakistan's atrocities, but Nixon and Kissinger were unwilling to risk their pipeline to China, even while they concluded that Yahya Khan was delusional and not very bright. Kissinger and Nixon may have brighter, but they were also delusional, attributing the slaughter in East Pakistan to Hindu-Muslim conflicts while in fact they were nearly completely irrelevant.

Nixon continued his delusional support of Yahya Khan even after India intervened on behalf of the Bengalis. The Pakistani army quickly collapsed and surrendered, but the generals continued their policy of attempting to deceive their own people.

The headline of Dawn, Pakistan’s major English newspaper, on the day of Pakistan’s surrender read, “Victory on All Fronts.”

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (p. 169). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Readers inclined to think of Kissinger and Nixon as both immoral and not too bright probably won't change their mind on the basis of Haqqani's book. The picture painted of Pakistan's military leadership is more like tragic-comically stupid.

Indian Puzzles

Geological Edition

When an unstoppable force like the Indian subcontinent crashes into an immovable object like the Eurasian plate, the consequences include the tallest mountains in the world and a cadence of earthquakes like the magnitude 7.8 one that struck Nepal last month and a major aftershock in the same region last week.

Many of the geological questions about the collision remain unanswered. How did the Indian subcontinent get so quickly to where it is today? How big was India originally? Even the simplest of questions — when did India meet Eurasia, the tectonic plate that Europe and Asia sit on? — is up for debate, with researchers offering answers that differ by some 30 million years.

From a New York Times article by Kenneth Chang.

It seems that there are many puzzles about the details of the collision, and several inconvenient facts of involving the when, where, and what of the collision. In particular, it's not why the subcontinent is moving so fast, whether there were two or more subduction zones involved, and what has moved under Asia so far.