Friday, January 31, 2014

Keystone, Again

The phase space for Obama to reject the Keystone pipeline has shrunk almost to zero.

I expect he will approve it. Greens will be outraged, but they shouldn't be. Blocking the pipeline would only have created more environmental carnage as it was trucked, railroaded, and shipped to China.

A carbon tax is probably the only rational approach to limiting greenhouse emissions. Not that it's especially likely to either be passed or successful if passed.

Due Diligence

It's well known that IQ correlates strongly with academic and other success. Unfortunately IQ doesn't seem to be especially malleable. Some intriguing results suggest that certain other traits, possibly with just as strong a correlation, might be more amenable to development. Such, at any rate, is the claim made in this article.

Something else mattered just as much, and sometimes more, to kids’ life chances. This other dark matter had more to do with attitude than the ability to solve a calculus problem. In one study of U.S. eighth graders, for example, the best predictor of academic performance was not the children’s IQ scores—but their self-discipline.

OK, the author has already managed to annoy the heck out of me by implying that solving calculus problems (a)was not a strong indicator of self-discipline and (b)highly correlated with academic success. But let me just guess that these errors were due either to her lacking (a) the IQ to appreciate her error or (b)the self-discipline to search for a better analogy.

So how did the researchers measure self-discipline?

After the test portion of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other international exams, students typically filled out surveys about their families and other life circumstances. There were no right answers for the questions on the surveys. In fact, the professors, Erling Boe, Robert Boruch, and a young graduate student, Henry May, weren’t even interested in the answers. They wanted to track students’ diligence in filling out the forms. So, they studied the survey attached to a 1995 test taken by kids of different ages in more than forty countries (called the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”).

The researchers encountered several surprises very quickly. First, students around the world were surprisingly compliant. The vast majority dutifully filled out most answers, even though the survey had no impact on their lives.The lowest response rate for any country was 90 percent.There was some variation from within a given country,but the variation didn’t seem to reveal much about the students.

Between countries, though, the differences in diligence mattered — a lot. In fact, this difference turned out to be the single best predictor of how countries performed on the actual substantive portion of the test.

It seems that relatively small country vs. country differences in compliance were associated with large differences in performance - but individual differences in compliance were not associated with similar differences in performance.

No one knows the answer for sure, but it’s possible that the diligence kids showed in answering the survey reflected their diligence in general. In other words, maybe some kids had learned to finish what they started in school: to persist even when something held no particular gratification. The opposite was also true. Some kids had not learned to persist, and persistence was not valued as much in their school or in their societies at large.

Yeah, maybe, but the operative phrase is the first one in the paragraph.

Astrobiology

I'm taking the University of Edinburgh's Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life course from Coursera. It's a bit of a disappointment - just a guy talking and showing slides from his IPAD. The problem is that I haven't really heard anything new. One problem with Astrobiology is that it doesn't actually have any subjects yet - but that hasn't kept string theory from prospering.

I was hoping to learn something about prospects for life in other galaxies - maybe later.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Monopoles

Is there an ungated copy of this paper? monopoles

I can't figure out what these "synthetic monopoles" are from the abstract.

No Black Holes

I am gratified that Stephen Hawking has come around to my point of view on black holes: they may not actually exist. Lumo may be less enthusiastic.

Of course the difference between "real" black holes and those things that look hella lot like black holes is probably unobservable.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

New Grammy Category?

Bee has composed and performed a song about and dedicated to Supersymmetry: My invisible friend.

Not sure if Grammys have a theoretical physics category yet. Look for the cover by Eminem featuring Rihanna.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Adventures in Climate Land

In recent weeks I've attended meetings of a local climate skeptics (denialists) group and of a pro climate action group. The AGW skeptic group was heavily populated by former colleagues of mine, and they were very polite and friendly despite my skepticism of their facts and reasoning. I've been invited back to talk about my point of view. I'm not under the illusion that they are likely to be persuaded by anything I say, but I figure its worth the effort just to find out what their reasoning is. What I would really like to know is how they wound up believing what they believe. Nearly all are technical people with a background in meteorology, but mostly not in atmospheric radiative transfer.

I also attended a climate action group meeting. I'm pretty sure they are right on the facts, have a sound approach (a carbon tax with rebate), and a sensible action plan. I'm also pretty sure that they are wildly unrealistic about the prospects for action. They seem to be mostly professors, but mostly without a strong background in the radiative transfer issues central to the effect.

Civilization has spent 300 plus years now feasting on fossil fuel energy, and I just don't see any quick way to wean our now vastly greater population from it. China is now the big source of CO2 and India is well on its way to catching up with the EU and the US. Absent big technology breakthroughs, I expect carbon emissions to grow for at least twenty more years - and very likely more.

The Struggle for Global Domination

Standard Oil had won total domination of the US Oil industry and the world wide market for kerosene - its then most valuable product - by the 1870s, but the Nobel brothers brought modern technology to the oil fields of Baku and soon Russian production had become a significant factor, taking back the Russian market. After a railroad and pipeline reached the Black Sea, thanks to Rothschild investment, Europe was opened to Russian Oil, and by 1990 1890 a three cornered fight between Standard, the Nobels, and the Rothschild companies for global dominance was in full swing, with new technology for transport developing explosively - or actually the reverse, since a major point of the technology was avoiding the explosions that plagued some early transportation efforts.

PISA: At Least We Beat Argentina

It seems to be time to return to that old time theme: why does American education suck?

The current items in evidence are the 2012 scores in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in particular, the mathematical literacy assessment. Tyler Cowen notes that even our rich kids are below average:

The data was provided to The WorldPost by Pablo Zoido, an analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the group behind PISA. It shows that students’ wealth does not necessarily make them more competitive on an international scale. In the United States, for example, the poorest kids scored around a 433 out of 700 on the math portion of PISA, while the wealthiest ones netted about a 547. The lower score comes in just below the OECD average for the bottom decile (436), but the higher score also comes in below the OECD average for the top decile (554).

“At the top of the distribution, our performance is surprisingly bad given our top decile is among the wealthiest in the world,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Education who reviewed the data.

The data also makes for some jarring comparisons: Canada’s fourth decile performs as well as Chile’s top socioeconomic tier. Taiwan’s bottom sliver performs about as well as Montenegro’s wealthiest 10 percent. Vietnam’s bottom 10 percent slightly eclipses Peru’s top 10 percent. And the poorest kids in Poland perform about on par with Americans in the fourth decile.

- See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/01/wealth-and-pisa-scores-why-doesnt-money-help-u-s-performance-more.html#sthash.0AHLUAwP.dpuf

Josh Marshall gets into the act here.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Grouchy Old Man's Guide to Grammys 2014

Most performers sound, and look, better on the radio.

Exception: Pink and Nate Ruess who just sound great always.

Who did Lorde's makeup?

Why was it taking the sorting hat so long to decide on Pharrell Williams?

Invisible Hand Talk

I think I've read that the phrase "invisible hand" occurs only once in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but nothing else from economics is so sacred or sacralized. His insight was that the workings of a competitive market would produce a number of socially desirable outcomes. This insight was central to classical economics, and, dressed up in mathematical glad rags, central to neoclassical economics, and its offspring, like the Real Business Cycle theory. Now Adam Smith was a very clever fellow, and he knew that business men really hated free competition, and would work the levers of power to eliminate it, but he probably underestimated their skill at eliminating it.

The story of the Standard Oil Trust, as told in Daniel Yergin's The Prize, is the classic example. Once drilling for oil and simple distillation (refining) techniques were developed in the 1860s, the oil market quickly became chaotic, as production of kerosene outpaced demand. Boom was followed by bust and every millionaire made had a bunch of bankrupts in his train. John D. Rockefeller set out to tame the ruinous monster of competition and succeeded astoundingly. The core of his method was simple: store up money in boom and buy out the competition in bust. His method, discipline, organization and ruthless business practices created the first and greatest global corporation and the greatest fortune in history, incidentally inventing big data in the process - Standard Oil tracked every bit of oil production, shipment, refining, and sales, not only its own, but everybody else's as well.

It would be wrong to categorize his deeds only as purely selfish rent seeking. The combine he created not only standardized high prices but also high quality products - in the early days of helter skelter refining, thousands of Americans died every year from kerosene explosions due mostly to poorly refined kerosene containing too much naptha or gasoline. The vast capital his enterprise generated led to orderly and systematic development of resources and markets.

Friday, January 24, 2014

De-Colonialization: Pakistan

At the end of the Fifteenth Century, Europe began its colonization of the world. A few centuries later, nearly every part of the world had fallen under the sway of Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands. These empires eventually crumbled, the last of them in the second half of the twentieth century, but the world had been transformed. North America, Australia, and New Zealand were irrevocably Anglicized. South and Central America were Latinized. Africa too, was utterly transformed. Only the Ancient civilizations of the Near and Far East retained much cultural integrity. I would argue that even that is largely illusory.

Cultures, like any evolutionary product, resist destruction and replacement. After all, they would never have emerged or endured without some self-preserving traits. When the European empires fell, the newly independent nations rushed to reclaim their respective cultural heritages. For the nations where the indigenous cultures had been most thoroughly extirpated, this wasn't really a problem, but elsewhere it was. Colonialism had disturbed the power relations, especially where one empire had replaced others.

Its legacy, very often, was internecine slaughter and national fragmentation. India is perhaps the most interesting case. Various empires, both internal and external, have tried to unify that diverse civilization, but the British had the most recent and long term success. In doing so, they replaced the Moghuls, a dominant Islamic empire ruling a majority Hindu culture. I imagine that the Muslims did not appreciate that, but the end of British rule brought another threat, submergence into and domination by the majority Hindu culture. Muhammad Ali Jinnah focussed these fears, and aided by British ambivalence about a united and independent India, brought about the creation of Pakistan.

Roosevelt, and internationally minded Americans in general, thought this was a terrible idea, and history has not done much to indicate that they were wrong. Separation of populations by religion was never practical, and attempts in that direction have led to terrible carnage. Pakistan itself has since fragmented into two countries, and Pakistan has remained an economic failure.

This is the starting point of MAGNIFICENT DELUSIONS: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding by Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States.

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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Prize: Book Blogging

Daniel Yergin's book of that title is as good as the reviews promise - even better. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1992, 2008) won the Pulitzer, and it's easy to see why. Oil is probably the most pivotal commodity in the modern economy, and he tells its story with wit and style, including all sorts of telling details.

Oil was known in ancient Mesopotamia at least 5000 years ago. Bitumen was used as mortar for the walls of Jericho and Babylon. It is one of the most global of commodities. Kerosene, its first commercially important product was refined in the 1850s, named by a Canadian. Its first good lamp was invented in Vienna, imported to the US and exported to the world. The drilling techniques first used to recover "rock oil" in Pennsylvania were invented for extracting salt 3000 years ago in China.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Childhood's End

//Some modest spoilers ahead, just in case you still want to read it and haven't taken advantage of the 61 years since it's publication.

I had forgotten almost everything I knew about Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

I did remember hating the ending, doubtless for the same reasons that I still hate it.

Parapsychological bullshit.

That said, the theme is a fascinating one, the notion of transcending humanity. It's an age old dream, almost as old as human records. If such diverse characters as Kurzweil and Harari are right, that possibility lies right before us. Perhaps man can become superman, and not by magic or the supernatural. We are already in a sort of cyborg transition, as our ubiquitous electronic appliances become ever more integrated into our existence. It's hardly implausible that some kind of phase change in human nature is at hand, and that our descendents two or three (or four or five) generations hence may become unrecognizable to us.

Back to Clarke's book though, it really is amazing how prescient he was in so many ways.

Marc Andreessen on Bitcoin

Tyler Cowen sends us to Marc Andreessen on Why Bitcoin Matters. A venture capitalist may see further than a Nobel economist:

That last part is enormously important. Bitcoin is the first Internetwide payment system where transactions either happen with no fees or very low fees (down to fractions of pennies). Existing payment systems charge fees of about 2 to 3 percent – and that’s in the developed world. In lots of other places, there either are no modern payment systems or the rates are significantly higher. We’ll come back to that.

Bitcoin is a digital bearer instrument. It is a way to exchange money or assets between parties with no pre-existing trust: A string of numbers is sent over email or text message in the simplest case. The sender doesn’t need to know or trust the receiver or vice versa. Related, there are no chargebacks – this is the part that is literally like cash – if you have the money or the asset, you can pay with it; if you don’t, you can’t. This is brand new. This has never existed in digital form before.

Bitcoin is a digital currency, whose value is based directly on two things: use of the payment system today – volume and velocity of payments running through the ledger – and speculation on future use of the payment system. This is one part that is confusing people. It’s not as much that the Bitcoin currency has some arbitrary value and then people are trading with it; it’s more that people can trade with Bitcoin (anywhere, everywhere, with no fraud and no or very low fees) and as a result it has value.

There is much more, including some fascinating technical background.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Smarter

How would I think if I were a lot smarter? That question is prompted by the confluence of a few things lately on my mind. The oddest was a little article I read on Christopher Langan, touted by some as "the smartest man in the world" and featured in one of Malcolm Gladwell's recent excursions into whatever it is that he does.

Langan's brilliance is attested to by the usual mythology:

He began talking at six months, taught himself to read before he was four, and was repeatedly skipped ahead in school...

...

Langan says he spent the last years of high school mostly in independent study, teaching himself "advanced math, physics, philosophy, Latin and Greek, all that".[8] He earned a perfect score on the SAT despite taking a nap during the test.[6] Langan attended Reed College and later Montana State University [Disclaimer, alma mater of CIP], but faced with financial and transportation problems, and believing that he could teach his professors more than they could teach him, he dropped out.[8]

...

He says he developed a "double-life strategy": on one side a regular guy, doing his job and exchanging pleasantries, and on the other side coming home to perform equations in his head, working in isolation on his Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe.[8]

In a 1999 interview broadcast on the TV show 20/20, neuropsychologist Robert Novelly described Langan's IQ as "the highest individual that I have ever measured in 25 years."[6] Langan has been featured in magazines and newspapers such as Esquire[8] Popular Science,[9] The Times,[7] Newsday,[10] and Muscle & Fitness.[11] He appeared on BBC Radio[12] and the TV show First Person and[13] has written question-and-answer columns for New York Newsday,[14] The Improper Hamptonian,[15] and Men's Fitness magazine.[16]

If Muscle & Fitness and Men's Fitness both think that you are really smart, you've truly climbed the intellectual heights, I guess.

A second thread is that I've recently been rereading Arthur C. Clark's Childhood's End a fondly but hardly remembered classic that I first read nearly six decades ago. It is centered on the takeover of Earth by ostensibly benevolent Colonial Overlords with super technology and intelligence to match. Their super intelligence is attested by their ability to read really fast while simultaneously carrying on conversations.

The final thread was Lumo's derivation of the sum of the natural numbers from the modular transformations of a torus.

Anyway, I don't really think that being able to read really fast while carrying on a conversation is really a talent I strongly covet. I suppose that it might have been nice to be able to teach myself to read at age four, but how much good has it done Christopher, really? On the other hand, there are a couple of talents that I really do wish I had: remembering anything when I wanted to, and being able to read through stuff like Lumo's derivation, or almost any other kind of advanced math, and really understand it just like that.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Short

Lee, who thinks that it's crazy to infer that sickly arthritic slaves were worse off than their well-nourished, healthy, and relatively free hunter-gatherer ancestors, and Arun, who thinks enough malnutrition to shorten stature by a few inches is good for you, probably shouldn't Read Brad DeLong's reading assignment for his economic history class.

Deep Waters

Almost 300 years ago Leonard Euler, who has to be in the competition for greatest mathematician of them all, discovered a "proof" that the sum of all the natural numbers (1 + 2 + 3 ...) is "equal to" -1/12. This result is not exactly intuitive, and it seems that PZ Myers recently learned about it and objected, ostensibly in the name of skepticism. Lumo heard about Myers objection, and objected to it. In his inimitable, or at least better unimitated, fashion.

The point is that Euler's mathematical curiosity turns out to be generalizable to whole classes of conventionally divergent series, and even more curiously, may well have some relevance to physics. In fact, Euler's series pops up in string theory, as Lumo explains - I also like the explanation in Zwiebach's A First Course in String Theory.

Is it coincidence that certain areas of physics are plagued with divergent series and that mathematicians have found ways to make sense of generalized sums of some such series? Beats the heck out of me, but it could be one of God's little hints.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Untitled Masterwork

It's humbling that one of my more popular recent posts has neither title nor content.

I think I might finally be getting the postmodern thing.

Ordovician Chill

The end of the Ordovician geological period (444 million years ago) poses a nice puzzle for climatologists, and for related reasons has become a favorite of the more scientifically minded among the AGW denialist crowd. It was a mainly hot time for the planet, with temperature mostly around 40-50 C (104-122 F) with occasional excursions to 60 C (140 F). This was apparently due to the very high CO2 content of the atmosphere, roughly 14 to 18 times early modern values.

The puzzle is that the period concluded with two sharp episodes of severe glaciation, and one of the most severe mass extinctions known. The glaciation was followed by more hot weather.

It was a pretty different world - the day was only about 21.5 hours long, there were few plants and no vertebrates on land, and probably most significantly, the continents were arranged very differently.

There were only four continents (Baltica, Siberia, Laurentia, and Gondwana, by far the biggest, incorporating modern Antarctica, India, parts of Africa and South America and more). The Northern hemisphere was nearly all water, and it was a very watery world, with shallow seas covering much of what is now dry land. Gondwana reached the South Pole just about the time the glaciation started.

"Well that explains the big chill," one might say. Not so fast though. There remain a couple of problems. First, the glaciations were geologically brief - 1 million years or less - and careful simulations show that even with the landmasses mostly around the pole it's hard to get that much chill with 14X (14 times modern) CO2. 1 million years is just an eyeblink in terms of continental movement, so how could this arriving at the pole account for the brief but intense chill?

The detailed answer is not known (at least to me) but the most plausible explanations involve our old friends CO2 and feedback. The time scale is right, at any rate. An oversimplified scenario might go like this: change in ocean circulation, driven by continental position; provokes cooling which leads to lower CO2; which leads to more cooling, glaciation; drastic sea level changes; causing changes in carbonate and silicate weathering; causing another CO2 spike which melts everything and leaves behind plenty of CO2.

As usual, corrections by those who understand more are greatly appreciated. Other comments and questions are also valued. Ignorant rantings by those who know less will be tolerated if at least slightly polite.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Resolved

I think one of my resolutions for this year had something to do with avoiding idiots. That was way too ambitious a goal. I really should have said avoid arguing with true believers. The core characteristic of the true believer is immunity to evidence. They live in a zone beyond fact and logic.

I was reminded of that **again** - and yes I know that I'm a slow learner - when I continued an email correspondence with a former colleague who likes to paper our local newspaper with letters to the editor criticizing global warming. He made a claim about the last thirteen years of the climate record. I pointed out that his own data didn't really support his claim. He changed the subject to the Vostok ice cores. I pointed out that they didn't really support his argument there either, though they did strongly support the CO2 temperature link. He replied that the end Ordovician cooling (hundreds of millions of years ago) came at a time of high CO2, supporting his argument with a low resolution graph from some right wing blog. There too, further investigation showed that the real story did involve CO2 decrease as well as the movement of Gondwanaland to the neighborhood of the South Pole.

Of course less polite TB just resort to insults and profanity, but changing the subject is a similar strategy.

The best one can hope for from this sort of confrontation is that one might be prompted to learn something - not from your interlocutor - as I learned about the Vostok ice cores and the end Ordovician.

Of course it also decreases whatever faith one might have had in human rationality.

Kafka Lives!

A bizarre legal case reminds us that Austria is not thrilled about being reminded of its Nazi past. It's pretty hard to imagine any other explanation for the charges in this case - at least if the story William D. Cohan tells has it right.

Stephan Templ, a longtime critic of Austria’s role in the confiscation of art and real estate from Viennese Jews during World War II, faces a three-year prison sentence in his native country under circumstances that can only be described as Kafkaesque.

As nearly as I can tell, his crime was filing a claim on behalf of his mother for a share of the stolen estate of his mother's relatives. His purported crime was defrauding the Austrian State by failing to file claims on behalf of some other relative who in theory might have renounced her claim in favor of the State (but said she wouldn't).

I'm curious as to whether there is anything more rational going on here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bubbles, Baubles, Bright Shiny Galaxies

Back in the early days, when the Universe and I were young, the Universe (and I) were a hot dense plasma, with most of the mass and energy tied up in dark matter. A slight amount of clumping existed so dark matter and ordinary matter would fall together. Ordinary matter, being a plasma, dragged the radiation along with it, but as it collapsed, pressure would resist and cause re-expansion of ordinary matter (and the radiation along for the ride), producing oscillations. These oscillations could grow, but no faster than the speed of sound, probably about 2/3 the speed of light in a vacuum - but lots faster than the speed of light or other EM waves in the plasma. These oscillations produced slightly underdense bubbles with slightly overdense bubble walls.

The maximum size to which a bubble could grow was thus limited by the speed of sound and the age of the universe. When the plasma cooled to the point that neutral atoms could form, radiation was freed from its plasma shackles and made its way out into the larger universe, some of it eventually falling into one of our detectors of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). Those bubbles, though, left their imprint on the CMB, 6 parts in 100,000 differences in the temperature.

They also left their imprint on the Universe. Those slight overdensities grew into the network of filaments and voids that now dominate the very large scale structure of the Universe. Cosmic expansion has blown up the bubbles or rings along with the rest of the Universe, and they are now some 490 million light years in maximum radius.

We also measure the recession velocities of the galaxies in the rings via their redshifts. The measurements of the distance to these standard rulers as a function of their redshift can be used to trace the expansion history of the Universe.

Gates, Evalyn (2009-01-24). Einstein's Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe (p. 232). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Reticulated Universe 2

Suppose that you take a few billion simulated dark matter particles (each one representing zillions of real dark matter particles) and start them off in the early universe, letting them interact under their mutual gravitation.  A few billion years later, they make funky patterns like this from the Millenium Simulation:


The lights along the filaments are galaxy clusters.  Major intersections are superclusters.  The distance scale indicator is 125 Mega parsecs or about 400 million light years - about 5000 times the diameter of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

The guys at Max Planck Institut also did a fly through video, including a look around at a supercluster:




An imagined reality with empirical support.




Human Rights

The notion of universal human rights seems to be a relatively modern invention. Certainly many cultures were entirely comfortable with restricting the rights of others, even celebrating their murder, enslavement, and death by torture. When did this start to change, and what propelled it? The notion is central to the development of the modern world and played a key role in the breakup of all the empires of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.
Harari traced some elements back to one of the early empires of the Middle East, whose ruler for the first time proclaimed his empire as something designed to benefit both ruled and ruler. Certainly the Roman Empire embodied many aspects of that. Though the Romans were utterly ruthless in their conquests, peoples once conquered were given considerable power to assimilate, and this assimilation made all of Europe, and ultimately, most of the rest of the World, Roman, at least in part.
Harari also noted the seminal role of the universalist religions, especially Christianity and Islam. Their emphasis on the value and centrality of the individual shaped future values in crucial ways. Not that actual humans are especially good at living out the noble sentiments they espouse, but these sentiments have their own power. Most later conquerors, whether Christian, Islamic, or Communist did so in the name of saving their victims. Of course being murdered, raped, and pillaged by someone ostensibly bent on saving your soul or at least your body from some evil of Capitalism is not a whole lot more pleasant than the same experiences at the hands of a less hypocritical conqueror, but words and sentiments do have consequences.
Slavery in the old Roman Empire was greatly mitigated in medieval times, mostly through the influence of the Church. The opposition to the new African slavery in the New World came out of Christianity. I'm less familiar with the story of anti-colonialism, but the great emancipators of anti-colonialism, especially Gandhi, made excellent use of the conflict between what the British Empire proclaimed itself to be and what it was in fact. Intellectual and moral inconsistency turned out to be the Achilles heel of the Christian empires.
Certainly the flowering of human rights burst forth in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. It's ironic but unsurprising that some of the recently "emancipated" are the quickest to protest against the extension of rights to still others. Thus, as homosexuality is increasingly normalized and protected in the West, Africa, especially, and even India, have become more repressive.
I say unsurprising because it's a highly predictable response to the increasing destruction of every local culture by the global secular culture. Thus, repression in Alabama and Nigeria can both be understood in terms of the same paradigm - the spasms of resistance to an increasingly universal global culture.

Another layer of irony is provided by the fact that the impetus behind the African anti-gay campaigns is provided mostly by American evangelical fanatics, who, facing the fact that they have already lost the culture war in America, have gone to Africa to spread their hate.




Amateur Cosmologist: Two Puzzles

Most versions of the Lambda-CDM (cosmological constant plus cold dark matter) predict that dark matter concentration should peak strongly in the centers of galaxy clusters - forming a so-called cusp. Puzzle #1: Actual distributions seem to be cuspless and rounded. Why so?

The hot intra-cluster gas that makes up most of their normal matter mass radiates due to ion collisions (mean free path - l light year). Densities are near the centers so collisions are more frequent, more energy is radiated, and the gas cools faster. This should result in so-called cooling flows as hotter outer gas moves in to take the place of the now cooler gas, some of which should form neutral atoms and ultimately, stars. Puzzle #2: Such flows appear absent. Why?

Your amateur cosmologer has his crackpot idea of the year.

Dark matter is presumed to be composed more or less equally of darkons and anti-darkons, which, on those odd occasions on which they interact, annihilate. If the annihilation cross section is higher than expected, could that smooth out cusps? Could the energy released reheat central baryonic gas?

Just asking.

The Reticulated Universe

When simulations of the early universe are done, matter (dark and normal) collects in very large scale [tens or hundreds of millions of light years] filaments of overdensity. Galaxies and stars develop in these filaments, the voids between them are largely empty of matter.

Here and there - ok, mostly there - two filaments intersect. Such intersections are the breeding grounds of galaxy clusters and superclusters. The large concentrations of dark and normal matter in such clusters draws streams of gas from the filaments whose intersection marks the cluster, with the result that the cluster is bathed in a vast sphere of superheated (10^7 -10^8 K) but very low density (10^-7 to 10^-1 baryons/cm^3)gas.

If two or more such clusters are close enough, their mutual gravitational attraction will propel them into high speed (10^7 km/hr) collision. These results can be spectacular, as in the case of the "Bullet Cluster" (Formal names: 1E 0657-56, 1E 0657-558)

In the picture, the white light is the visible spectrum, the red is an X-ray image from the Chandra telescope, and blue is dark matter inferred from gravitational lensing. The characteristic Mach cone shape of the shock front is seen on the right X-ray image. These galaxy clusters, each with hundreds or thousands of galaxies and hundreds of times more mass and stars than our milky way, apparently collided about 150 million years before this.

The massive stars with their low cross section and high mass just passed right by each other. The ionized gas clouds of each clusters, which make up the great preponderance of their ordinary baryonic matter, collided like bricks, and mostly got left behind in the middle. Dark matter, like the ordinary matter in stars, and so is also effectively collisionless.

It's plausible that these clusters will do this dance a few more times in the next few billion years before forming a single, larger cluster. Since these clusters are almost 4 billion light years away, it might be more precise to say they already have. Of course our galaxy will collide with big sister galaxy Andromeda and the Sun will die (of natural causes) before news of their current comoving state reaches us.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Still More Bridgery-Doo

Josh Marshall:

This could get fun fast. Former Gov. and now State Sen. Richard Codey (D) says "Democratic power brokers" have and still are trying to shut down the BridgeGate investigation.

So who all does have a vulnerable body part in this particular ringer? Kinda hard to imagine Big Dems working hard to save Christie's neck.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

I am Not Usually a Fan

... of Ross Douthat. Mostly because he just annoys me. But I do read him occasionally.

Anyway, I read this pre-Christmas Op-Ed of his:

PAUSE for a moment, in the last leg of your holiday shopping, to glance at one of the manger scenes you pass along the way. Cast your eyes across the shepherds and animals, the infant and the kings. Then try to see the scene this way: not just as a pious set-piece, but as a complete world picture — intimate, miniature and comprehensive.

Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and man — the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.

It’s easy in our own democratic era to forget how revolutionary the latter idea was. But the biblical narrative, the great critic Erich Auerbach wrote, depicted “something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life.”

All of this strikes me as dead on - especially the first sentence of the second paragraph. He goes on to discuss how that world view comes into conflict with the increasingly secular world view of the intelligentsia. And he follows up with this:

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. . .

The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

He doesn't push the point, but my guess is that he wants a return to the old Mythology, where God serves as moral arbiter and ultimate policeman. He isn't the first to have such thoughts, of course. Benjamin Franklin gave us the Deism of his youth in favor of a sort of vague religiosity that thought any religion was good as well as it led to good behavior.

We humans are highly dependent on what Professor Harari calls our "imagined realities". Whether we can generate one that both gets the facts right and proves a suitable framework for human society is still an open question.

Money Money Money...

Josh Marshall links to a story hinting that the real issue in Bridgegate might be big money - a billion dollar development project. This makes a heck of a lot more sense than the rather threadbare revenge story. It also hints that this could spread maybe even to Cuomo.

A couple very interesting new threads on the Bridgegate story. As I've mentioned, as the scope of the Bridge closure effort and the attempt to cover it up grow, payback for a small town Mayor's Christie non-endorsement has seemed increasingly implausible as a motive. This morning Brian Murphy went on Steve Kornacki's show to discuss a major billion dollar development project which would have been gravely impacted (perhaps scuttled altogether) by any permanent move to create a traffic choke point in Fort Lee. (There's an important disclosure that both men have been very forthcoming about: both worked for Wildstein in former lives when Wildstein ran a NJ politics website called PolitickerNJ.com.) But before getting to that there's another aspect of this story which I think deserves attention.

We know that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was on the phones with basically everyone as soon as the traffic started piling up last September 9th. But there's something about the nature of his correspondence with Port Authority Deputy Director Bill Baroni. He repeatedly goes out of his way to make clear he wants things handled quietly, without the press or politics getting pulled into the mix. In fact he appears to want the communication to be solely between them.

Interestinger and Interestinger. Who was squeezing whom? And for what? And why would the Mayor and the Govs of both NJ and NY want this kept quiet?

Brian Murphy has the story of what little we do and don't [a heck of a lot] know about the Bridgegate money angle.

Sharon

the world is busily reacting to the "death" of Ariel Sharon yesterday, but practically speaking, he died eight years ago when the massive stroke put him in a permanently vegetative state.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bad Neighborhoods

Life on this planet has had its vicissitudes, but has - so far - survived for 3.5 billion years or so - roughly 14 Galactic years. It's not clear that this could have happened if we hadn't been located in a relatively ideal galactic neighborhood. Many parts of our galaxy might be too metal poor to produce Earth like planets. Others are so crowded with stars that we might have been bombarded with comets. In some parts of the galaxy there are just too many big, short lived stars going supernova with disastrous local consequences.

What about other galaxies?

Some are a lot like ours, but others, especially those in galaxy clusters, are loaded up with hot gas producing a lot of X-rays.

My question is, what about one of those galaxy clusters that radiate 10^44 ergs/s in the X-ray? Could our planet survive there? We have some X-shielding capability, but is it enough? Anybody know how to do the arithmetic?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Toast

Extra Cristie... er, crispy.

Her

Spike Jonze is a genius and Amy Adams is adorable.

And I really liked Her.

A rom-com SF film with faint echoes of Childhood's End and Flowers for Algernon - only it's not at all like either of those.

Love and your operating system. Scarlett Johansson is pretty hot even if all you get is her voice.

Bully Boy

Bullies can be popular. Especially popular with those who have a bunch of resentments that they feel too weak or helpless to act on themselves. That's one reason Chris Cristie is popular with his constituents. Ezra Klein points out that he has a full-time cameraman who follows him around photographing all his frequent confrontations with constituents or others who might have unpopular points of view. Good put downs get posted to YouTube. It has been a very successful strategy for him.

Of course bullying some unpopular civilian is one thing, and bullying another politician by punishing tens of thousands of his constituents is another. That's why the Port Authority bridge scandal is a potential death sentence for Christie's political career.

I grew up in a neighborhood where there were no other boys my age, so my entire pre-school experience was playing with girls. This put me at a pretty big disadvantage on the school playground, and I got bullied quite a bit in my early years until one guy pushed me too far and I picked him up and threw him down. At that point we both discovered that I was bigger and stronger than him - and bigger than any of the other kids in my grade as well. It was a shock for us both, but the rather surprising thing was that all the kids who had been egging on the bully suddenly changed sides when he went down.

If there is one thing people like better than a bully, it's seeing a bully get what's coming to him.

Christie, as Ezra Klein points out, really is a bully. It's not in the least implausible that the Bridgegate (arghh!) trails lead back to him personally, and even if it doesn't, it's pretty clear who set the tone for that sort of petty bullying. Petty bullying that in this case may well be a federal crime.

I personally still really like to see a bully taken down.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Noted

The Indian consular official whose arrest ignited Indian outrage has been indicted. She invoked diplomatic immunity and has been ordered to leave the country.

Khobragade, 39, was charged yesterday with making “multiple false representations” to U.S. authorities to obtain a visa for the caretaker, and the State Department later ordered her to leave the country after India denied waiving her diplomatic immunity. Her flight has already left the U.S., according to an Indian government official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

...

The visa fraud charge against Khobragade carries a maximum prison term of 10 years, while the false statements charge has a maximum term of five years, according to prosecutors in Bharara’s office.

History of Humankind

I have written a lot about Prof Harari's lectures in his course A Brief History of Humankind, but having completed the course, I thought I would add a few thoughts on my takeaways.

(1)There a lots of open questions about the relations between the various human variants that existed before H. sapiens replaced all the others, and about the biological basis of the developments that propelled our increasingly rapid technological progress.

(2)Technological advance has not always been our friend. The central development of our history, the agriculture, allowed us to proliferate, but left us in many ways less healthy, more disease ridden, more subject to violence and oppression, and quite possibly, less happy. It also made us one of the most important players in the global ecology. Much of this was not new to me, but some was.

(3)I had drastically underestimated the role of empires in creating the world of today. Almost everyone in the world today lives in a culture that was shaped by the big empires of the past. For most of us, our history is of one conquest after another. Culturally, but also to significant degree, biologically, we are both conquered and conqueror.

(4)The human race is very likely hurtling toward a future so different from the past that calling it "The Singularity" is not a crazy notion. In Harari's definition that means that technological, biological and cultural change will be so rapid and total that we can't predict it in any meaningful way. This was a very difficult notion for me to accept, but I have come to suspect that it is correct.

National Honor: Face Off

According to many accounts, World War I started by escalation of a global game of chicken in which each side let itself be sucked further into the vortex in response to escalating threats to their "national honor. In order to avoid loss of face each side managed to lose millions of lives, destroy its economy, and lose empires.

Another good example of adaptations to paleolithic life that doesn't translate well into the modern world?

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

"Immoral"

A commenter recently opined that all taxes are immoral. It's a strange sentiment, mixing taxes and morality, but one that one hears a lot from the Randian right. Of course nobody enjoys paying taxes, but most of us figure that it's part of the deal of living in civilization - since nobody has figured out how to construct one without some form of taxation. Of course some utopian (or dystopian, depending on your point of view) theorists imagine they have, but unlike socialism, a similarly utopian theory, they have never been tried and thus received the salutary lessons of failure.

The online Dictionary of Etymology has this on the word "moral":

moral (adj.) Look up moral at Dictionary.com mid-14c.,

"pertaining to character or temperament" (good or bad), from Old French moral (14c.) and directly from Latin moralis "proper behavior of a person in society," literally "pertaining to manners," coined by Cicero ("De Fato," II.i) to translate Greek ethikos (see ethics) from Latin mos (genitive moris) "one's disposition," in plural, "mores, customs, manners, morals," of uncertain origin. Perhaps sharing a PIE root with English mood (1).

Meaning "morally good, conforming to moral rules," is first recorded late 14c. of stories, 1630s of persons. Original value-neutral sense preserved in moral support, moral victory (with sense of "pertaining to character as opposed to physical action"). Related: Morally.

Societies and religions usually have some expected codes of personal behavior. Plato and Aristotle made a try at codifying these, but study of diverse societies has shown that despite some important common threads, the details of expected, or "moral" personal behavior vary greatly. Moral codes are sometimes written down, and codes of laws generally put the state in the position of enforcer of moral codes.

Generally, moral codes govern personal behavior, how we treat others, how we should treat the gods. In Christianity, at least, quite a bit of energy is concerned with regulation of sex. That's hardly surprising, since the family is the basis of society, and regulation of the family is thereby fundamental.

Cristie Campaign Blimp Hits Headwinds

Has Chris Christie's petty vindictiveness caught up with him? Emails published by leading media today point directly to involvement of close aides in the lane closures and resulting traffic jams.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she emailed David Wildstein, Mr. Christie’s close friend from high school, and one of his appointees at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge. Mr. Christie and some officials at Port Authority have said the closings were done as part of a traffic study, but they caused havoc for days, backing up traffic for hours.

This sort of sabotage is almost certainly criminal. At the very least Christie was clueless about criminal activity of his closest aides, designed to punish his political opponents. It now seems more likely that he was the one pulling the trigger - a fact that even loyal aides might recall when faced with lengthy jail stays.

Christie is hardly the biggest jerk in the Republican Party, but he is one of the most popular jerks. More:

The emails indicate that Mr. Christie’s staff and his associates at the Port Authority were closely aware of the political context. Mr. Christie, a Republican, was leaning on local Democratic officials to endorse his re-election bid so that he could then seek his party’s presidential nomination by arguing that he was the candidate who could attract bipartisan support in a blue state.

Mr. Christie won re-election in November by 22 points, and instantly became a leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination by winning across many demographic groups. His campaign boasted that he had been endorsed by more than 50 local Democratic officials.

But the documents released Wednesday underscore what Republicans as well as Democrats in New Jersey have long said about the governor: that he is a bully who wields fear and favor to get what he wants, and lashes out at even the smallest perceived slights.

UPDATE: Christie throws staff under bus, backs it over them. He had better hope that they don't hold a grudge.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Corporate Taxes

I'm not a student of the issue, but I won't let that discourage me from having an opinion. The US has very high nominal corporate tax rates (35%) but much lower effective rates. Apple paid only 8.2% last year, for example. High tax rates plus abundant loopholes means that big companies can spend big money figuring out how to exploit this sort of gimmick. One such tactic is moving jobs overseas.

Laurence J. Kotlikoff has studied this, and proposes abolition of the corporate income tax in this NYT Op-Ed.

In recent decades, American workers have suffered one body blow after another: the decline in manufacturing, foreign competition, outsourcing, the Great Recession and smart machines that replace people everywhere you look. Amazon and Google are in a horse race to see how many humans they can put out of work with self-guided delivery drones and driverless cars. You wonder who will be left with incomes to buy what these robots deliver.

What can workers do to mitigate their plight? One useful step would be to lobby to eliminate the corporate income tax.

That might sound like a giveaway to the rich. It’s not. The rich, including Boeing’s stockholders, can take their companies and run — and not just from Washington State to, say, North Carolina. To avoid our federal corporate tax, they can, and often do, move their operations and jobs abroad. Apple’s tax return says it all: The company, according to one calculation, paid only 8.2 percent of its worldwide profits in United States corporate income taxes, thanks to piling up most of its profits and locating far too many of its operations overseas.

So what are the presumed benefits and how do you replace the lost revenue?

The size of the potential economic and welfare gains are stunningly large and don’t reflect any extreme supply-side (a k a, voodoo economics) assumptions. Fully eliminating the corporate income tax and replacing any loss in revenues with somewhat higher personal income tax rates leads to a huge short-run inflow of capital, raising the United States’ capital stock (machines and buildings) by 23 percent, output by 8 percent and the real wages of unskilled and skilled workers by 12 percent. Lowering the corporate rate tax to 9 percent while also closing loopholes is roughly revenue neutral and also produces very rapid increases in capital (by 17 percent), output (by 6 percent) and real wages (by 8 percent).

Eliminating the corporate tax and raising income tax rates or lowering the corporate tax rate and eliminating its loopholes are not the only options. Elsewhere, I have proposed eliminating the corporate income tax, but making shareholders pay income taxes on their companies’ profits as they accrue. This leaves companies with no tax reason to avoid operating in the United States but ensures that shareholders, not wage earners, make up for any revenue losses through higher personal tax payments.

I'd like to hear the downside.

New Year's Resolutions

(1)The ocean of stupidity is very large, and I have a very small spoon. Try to ignore idiots.

(2)Don't trust any doctor until I have good reason.

(3)Read more fiction. Preferably escape novels. Reality is too depressing.

(4)Walk more. Driving is only for when you have somewhere to go.

(5)Vote Democratic. No matter how bad they are, they are still probably better than a Republican.

Polar Vortex vs. Global Warming

Global warming skeptics are quick to claim any cold day anywhere as "proof" of the validity of their skepticism, so that the polar vortex currently gripping much of the US is a late Christmas for them. So it's only fair to point out that the opposite explanation is at least equally valid, namely that our current encounter with the polar vortex could actually be a consequence of global warming and such events might become more common as the planet warms.

That word "global" often seems to be a problem for our skeptical friends, as does the fact that changes in one place might be anti-correlated with changes in others. Polar vortices are so-called because they form and tend to hang around the pole in Winter. One of the factors that tends to keep them polar is the temperature difference between the pole and the rest of the planet. One of the demonstrated features of our current global warming is that the far North is warming far faster than the rest of the planet - that's actually one of the signatures of CO2 driven warming. It's at least plausible that the consequent decrease in temperature gradient makes the current sort of arctic breakout "easier" and more frequent.

Note that all that polar air moving south means an equal amount of warmer air moved north. Anchorage Alaska will be quite a bit warmer than Atlanta today.

Bryan Walsh has a news article, with appropriate caveats, on the subject here:

What does that have to do with climate change? Sea ice is vanishing from the Arctic thanks to climate change, which leaves behind dark open ocean water, which absorbs more of the heat from the sun than reflective ice. That in turn is helping to cause the Arctic to warm faster than the rest of the planet, almost twice the global average. The jet stream—the belt of fast-flowing, westerly winds that essentially serves as the boundary between cold northern air and warmer southern air—is driven by temperature difference between the northerly latitudes and the tropical ones. Some scientists theorize that as that temperature difference narrows, it may weaken the jet stream, which in turns makes it more likely that cold Arctic air will escape the polar vortex and flow southward. Right now, an unusually large kink in the jet stream has that Arctic air flowing much further south than it usually would.

Still, this research is fairly preliminary, in part because extreme Arctic sea ice loss is a fairly recent phenomenon, so scientists don’t have the long data sets they need to draw more robust conclusions about the interaction between Arctic warming and cold snaps. In fact, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that it was likely that the jet stream would shift towards the north as the climate warmed, and that the polar vortex would actually contract, even as a 2009 study found that sudden stratospheric warming events are becoming more frequent, which in turn seems to be driven by the rapid loss in Arctic sea ice.

And while a muddle like that would seem to make the science less rather than more reliable, it’s actually one more bit of proof that climate change is real. Global warming is sometimes thought of more as “global weirding,” with all manner of complex disruptions occurring over time. This week’s events show that climate change is almost certainly screwing with weather patterns ways that go beyond mere increases in temperature—meaning that you’d be smart to hold onto those winter coats for a while longer.

Read more: Climate Change Could Be the Cause of the Record Cold Weather | TIME.com http://science.time.com/2014/01/06/climate-change-driving-cold-weather/#ixzz2peC9KsGY

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Dog Gone

Dennis Rodman seems to be taking a 6-man B-Ball group to North Korea.

Guess he knows what happened to the last six that took on KJU.

That River in Egypt

Denial seems to be less a river than an archipelago. Those who disbelieve in science exhibit various degrees and types of crackpottery, but a few generalizations seem justified: science denialists tend to be ignorant, usually about almost everything, but sometimes just about their own bête noire; they also tend to be dogmatic, and uninterested in evidence; they are highly ideological, more interested in defending their own world view than in facts.

Evolution doubters are good examples of all three. A recent Pew survey looks at American vies of evolution and finds that about a third of Americans disbelieve in evolution. This disbelief is strongly correlated with religious affiliation and anti-correlated with education level. The level of stupidity/ignorance is a bit mind boggling to me. 33 % of the sample agreed with the statement:

“humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

I would be tempted to wonder that such people can feed themselves, except I suppose that their entire intellectual resources are devoted to just that task.

Vaccination denialists are another populous island group in the great archipelago. I don't know of similarly detailed information about them, but I have the impression that they are more of the new-agey, hippie, stoner, vaguely lefty persuasion.

Climate science skeptics sometimes fit the selective stupidity variation of my first unifying principle. One amusing technical blunder endorsed by many among them is the notion that atmospheric thickness, in and of itself, independent of the greenhouse gas content, somehow explains a phenomenon like the extreme surface temperature of Venus. Several otherwise intelligent guys, among them physicists and research meteorologists have made the claim to me that the perfect gas law explains the temperature difference between the surface and the effective radiating temperature of a planet.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Gravitational Lensing

The curvature of spacetime produces non-euclidean behavior in light rays, and consequently multipathing and lensing effects. Einstein worked this out early - actually before he had the correct final form for the equations of General Relativity - but didn't publish it until 1936, and only then because he was pestered to by Rudi Mandl, a pesky Czech engineer. Einstein didn't consider the effect interesting or important.

Fritz Zwicky knew better and recognized the potential immediately (1937). Almost another half-century had to pass before experiment caught up with theory.

These are a few of the tidbits I have picked up in Evalyn Gates popular book Einstein's Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe.

Viewed through a normal telescope, a quasar looks like a point of light, much like a star. (Hence the name quasi-stellar object, which is abbreviated to quasar.) However, if a massive galaxy lies directly between the quasar and Earth, what we observe is stunningly different. The mass of the galaxy, which may be more than a trillion times the mass of the Sun, warps the spacetime around it and this warp acts as a lens that spreads the point of light from the quasar into a ring of light that appears to encircle the galaxy—the rare phenomenon known as an Einstein ring.

More often the quasar does not lie exactly behind the galaxy, but just slightly to one side of it. When this occurs, multiple images of the quasar can be produced—two or four identical copies of the same quasar are seen. This unmistakable hallmark of gravitational lensing was a known theoretical possibility in 1979, but the serendipitous discovery of a twinned quasar nevertheless took the observers by surprise.

Gates, Evalyn (2009-01-24). Einstein's Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe (p. 75). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Free Will y ...

Bee has post on Free Will and Lumo has a response. Bee thinks thinks that this ancient philosophical debate might be important for physics because she thinks that an unreasonable belief in free will might be impeding progress in quantum gravity.

Sabine argues that since the known laws of physics are either deterministic or random the future is either determined by the past or God's dice game (if I may borrow from Einstein) so there is no room left for "free will".

From my point of view, this essentially amounts to defining free will out of existence. She then goes on to list "ten misconceptions" about the implications of her conclusion, which I mostly consider meaningless or worse. Lumo's view is closer to my own, but of course a critical point is how one defines or fails to define "free will".

One key point is whether one considers the future to be already defined or not. In ordinary thinking, the big difference between past and future is that the past is fixed and unchangeable, while the future isn't. Of course a lot of the future does seem pretty deterministic - the Sun will come up tomorrow, I'm pretty sure. Other stuff, not so much. I might go to see a movie tomorrow, or I might not. Whether or not I do may depend a lot on external events, but it also depends on some internal events - choices that I make. Of course Bee could argue that these choices I make have already been determined by some deterministic evolutions in the physics of my brain or by dice rolls already recorded in God's book of future games of chance but I find that claim lacking in potential empirical content - it's a claim that doesn't seem to be testable even in principle.

To me, however, there is a potential physical question at the core here: is our notion of the difference between past and future purely an illusion, or is it something real, something not yet captured by our apparently time symmetric laws of physics? Of course those laws don't seem to be exactly time symmetric - is that a clue or an artifact of circumstance?

Friday, January 03, 2014

Job Creators

Perhaps the most tiresome message of the Republican Party is that we need to give more money to the rich, since they are the "job creators". How is that working out in practice? Via Wonkblog, this Saenz and Piketty graph of the income distribution in the US since 1917.

The top 10% of earners now has the biggest share of the national income recorded. How is that Job Creation coming? Not so hot. The figures are even more skewed when the top 1% and top 0.1% are looked at.

The only other time US inequality approached this level? 1929.