Monday, November 30, 2015

Hotbed of Religious Terrorism

William Saletan traces a bunch of domestic terrorism to the fanatical mosques churches of North Carolina.

On Friday, a gunman killed three people and wounded nine more at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. The suspect is white American Robert Lewis Dear. When police apprehended Dear, he uttered one telltale phrase: “no more baby parts.” People who have known or met Dear say he wasn’t a regular churchgoer. But they also report that he believed devoutly in the Bible and that he claimed to have read it “cover to cover.” In an online forum, Dear apparently spoke of Jesus and the “end times.” He painted or posted crosses on at least three of his homes.

Dear moved to Colorado last year from North Carolina, where he had been living. For two decades, the Tar Heel State has been a hotbed of religious extremism, fueled by clerics who preach holy war. The result is a stream of interstate terrorism.

It began with Eric Rudolph, a Holocaust denier who grew up in the Christian Identity movement. In 1996, Rudolph traveled from North Carolina to Atlanta, where he detonated a bomb at the Olympics, killing one person and injuring more than 100 others. A year later, Rudolph bombed a lesbian bar in Atlanta, wounding five people. In 1998, he bombed a reproductive health clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, killing a security guard and injuring a nurse. The “Army of God,” which hosts Rudolph’s writings, claimed credit for his attacks.

In 2001, Steve Anderson, another Christian Identity follower, was pulled over for a broken tail light on his way home from a white supremacist meeting in North Carolina. He pumped 20 bullets into the officer’s car and fled. Police found weapons, ammunition, and explosives in his truck and home. A year later, he was captured in the western part of the state.

In 2010, Justin Moose, an extremist from Concord, North Carolina, was arrested for plotting to blow up a Planned Parenthood clinic. Moose, who claimed to represent the Army of God, also opposed the construction of a mosque near ground zero in New York. He called himself the “Christian counterpart of Osama Bin Laden.” Eventually, Moose pleaded guilty to disseminating information on how to make and use explosive devices

Let's build a wall.

International Terrorism in the US

Alex Tabarrok reports on foreign linked terrorism in the United States. The RAND data base of international terrorism counts 567 acts of international terrorism in the US between 1968 and 2009. 140 of these, or about 25%, were committed by anti-Castro Cubans. The second worst offender, with about 10% of the total, was the Jewish Defense League.

Both these groups flew a bit under the radar, both because they weren't interested in producing mass casualties among the American public and because they have politically powerful protectors.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Original Refugees

Obama and others have likened the Syrian refugees to the Pilgrims. Do they realize that this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for open immigration? They do know how that one played out, right?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Nothing Can Go Wrong

When I pointed out the danger of East-West escalation in Russia's decide to intervene militarily in Syria, more than one correspondent assured me that that couldn't happen. Now Turkey has shot down a Russian jet, and, apparently, killed the pilots.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Collateral Damage: Refugee Backlash

The backlash against Syrian refugees after Paris was as predictable as the tsunami after a magnitude 8.0 quake. Naturally, the nativist right-wing, here and elsewhere, is running with it. No, it's not entirely rationale, and the refugees are overwhelmingly innocent victims of forces they had no part in generating, but that's life: harsh, unforgiving, and random.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the West continues to look helpless against ISIS. This not only fuels the refugee crisis but increases suspicion of governments who want to accommodate refugees.

An unfortunate side effect, especially of the rising tide of anti-Muslim propaganda, is likely to be increasing alienation of the Muslim population. Assholes like Trump and Rubio feed the beast, but the rest of us will reap the consequences.

My advice to Obama - do something or get the heck off the beach.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Astro FOTD: Lonely Planets

Our galaxy, The Milky Way, appears to have a couple of hundred billion "rogue" planets without any stars to call their own. Some of them were kicked out of their systems of formation early in their history (it is suspected that our own system lost one or more planets in this fashion) and some probably formed on their own, in a process analogous to star formation in giant molecular clouds.

See, e.g., http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/08/200-billion-free-floating-starless-planets-roam-the-milky-way.html

Not so Crazy

Some French Artists of 115 years or so ago imagined the year 2000. They got a lot of ideas right even if the details look oddly primitive.

Hotober

October 2015 was the hottest October in the satellite temperature record. It will likely also be the hottest in the surface measurement record.

Since the satellite record is a talisman of the denialist crowd (it can be construed to show less recent warming than the surface record), I decided to surf some of the flat-Earther commentary. Responses ranged from "I don't believe it" to "OK, but it doesn't matter" to "the pyramids were built to store grain."

The doesn't matter answer was by far the most prominent.

Monday, November 16, 2015

To Be or Not to Be

Or, rather, as Hamlet eventually admits, to do, or not to do.

It turns out that these decisions are mediated by different neurotransmitters, and that the inhibitory ("not to do") processing i the brain develops slowly through adolescence.

Yet another reason why teenagers are batshit crazy.

A popular instrument used by researchers to test inhibition is the Go/ No-Go task in which subjects are told to press a button (the “Go” response) when a certain letter or picture appears, and not to press it (the “No-Go” response) when the letter X appears. Several studies have shown that children and adolescents generally have the same accuracy, but the reaction times, the speed at which a subject successfully inhibits a response, dramatically decrease with age in subjects age eight to twenty. In other words, it takes longer for adolescents to figure out when not to do something.

Jensen, Frances E.; Nutt, Amy Ellis (2015-01-06). The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (p. 55). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Why so? Because the teenage brain is primed to learn. Synaptogenesis, creation of new synapses, far outruns deletions of old ones, and that means excitation outruns inhibition at the neural level - but not only the neural level.

Provocation

NPR's Fresh air has an interview with a veteran student of France and terror that suggest that the radically secular policies of France are a major provocation to its Muslim population. The terrorism and the resulting strengthening of the extreme right are likely to increase the provocation.

Josh Marshall on ISIS

Josh Marshall is no right winger, but he too seems to think it is time to end ISIS. A couple of excerpts:

I don't know what the precise best policies here are. But I do have a clear idea of several of the building blocks. The first recalls something I said a few weeks ago, which is that it is folly to be actively engaged against both sides in a civil war, which is effectively what we are now doing. Such a policy may have a cynical logic when you have two hostile entities which you want to see wear each other down and pulverize each other - much as we did during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980s. That is not the current situation. The Assad regime, while bloody, does not in any way pose an immediate threat to the United States. We need to redefine our Syria policy around the goal of the physical elimination of ISIS as a territorial entity and the physical elimination of its top leaders. If that means accepting the continuance of Assad family rule in at least rump Syria than we need to accept that - even though he's backed by regional adversaries Russia and Iran. Again, how serious are we about eliminating ISIS? I'd say not very serious if we're still hung up on Assad.

And this:

What I do know is this. ISIS is a genuine threat to us and our allies. In recent weeks, they've killed more than a hundred people in Paris, downed a Russian jetliner and appear to have carried out major attacks in Beirut and Ankara. They are a real and present threat. Assad is not a clear or present threat to us. Our policy is a contradiction and a losing one. We can deal with Assad later. In Washington circles it's become a conceit. Our policy in Syria should be to destroy ISIS. Everything else can come after that.

I would add that if we destroy ISIS in convincing enough fashion, some of the other players might be at least a little intimidated.

End the ISIS Caliphate?

The existence of a so-called Islamic State dedicated to terror has proved to be a rallying cry for terrorists around the world, as well as a source for terrorists, terrorism propaganda, and instruction. So the debate has begun over whether it's time to erase that state. There are many reasons why the US and Europe have hesitated, including the cost, especially in soldiers lives, and the manifest failure of regime change projects in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In addition, such a move would further upset the already disrupted Sunni-Shiite balance.

Despite the risks, there is a growing feeling that some kind of strike back is needed, some way to show would be terrorists that their tactics are hurting their cause. Christopher Dickey has an article entitled After Paris, Is It Time to Roll on Raqqa, the ISIS Capital?

It includes this quote:

Thus a CIA veteran with long experience hunting Osama bin Laden and trying to outmaneuver ISIS, speaking privately, tells The Daily Beast, “Everybody is going to respond to this thing with solidarity, tying little ribbons on trees and that sort of bullshit,” when what’s needed, in his opinion, is “to drive a stake in their heart.”

How would you do that?

“Put together a force of 6,000 or 7,000 airborne soldiers and just take Raqqa. Don’t issue warnings. Don’t assemble tank columns. Train the force, then use it,” said this gentleman, a veteran of the clandestine services, but not of the military. “They have made Raqqa the capital of their state. Take it and you have changed the ground immediately. You can’t fight ISIS with baby steps, and what happened in Paris gives you the immediate rationale to do something strategic. Otherwise? They are winning.”

Talk, as they say is cheap. Actual execution probably would not be. And once captured what do you do?

I think we have ample evidence that a crash course in introducing the inhabitants to the blessing of democracy doesn't work. The other extreme is a Roman style "Carthago delenda est" style campaign - leave no stone on a stone, and sow the soil with salt.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"This is an Attack on All Humanity"

Obama to world. I like Obama, but I really hate that kind of bullshit rhetoric. It wasn't an attack on "all humanity" it was an attack on France, intended to punish it for real or imagined deeds against Islam. One of the things wrong with Bush's idiotic wars was that they were waged under false pretenses - one of them being that we were trying to bring the blessings of liberty to Iraq and Afghanistan. Incoherent rationales lead to incoherent strategies which lead to disastrous results. As a result, Bush let the perpetrators (bin Laden and Saudi Arabia) escape while wading into the idiotic Sunni vs Shiite conflict with both feet.

It appears that the Paris attacks were done in the name of ISIS, for actions against ISIS, and if so, the appropriate action is revenge against ISIS. We probably can't destroy it, but we could erase its geographic presence. If terrorist get the message that terror hurts their cause, they might hesitate. They will only be encouraged if the response is pious platitudes piled into pyramids of nonsense.

Even rather primitive and tribal peoples understand revenge, but they are rightly suspicious of bullshit rhetoric.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Terror and Repression

How far should France and the World go to repress the kind of terror we saw tonight? Would cutting off the head of ISIS, by destroying its territory utterly, help? Internally, how much civil liberty does one need to sacrifice?

Of course we don't know any details yet, but allowing ISIS to exist and occupy territory may not be an option the world can still afford. Destroying the so-called Caliphate may take boots on the ground, and once that is done, then what? Recent history is not encouraging.

What about purely internal measures? Again, the details of who the attackers were are crucial. The worst case might be that they were radicalized French citizens. Reputedly there are thousands of radicalized French Muslims already under surveillance. If the attackers are among them, or closely linked, mass roundups of suspicious characters might occur.

If French Muslims cannot manage to control their most radical elements, then they are likely to suffer a more general repression.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Girlsplaining at Slate

I expect that I've complained in the past of the sexism and general incoherence embodied in the term "Mansplaining" and all its variants. That's the origin of this piece's title (It's called irony, for the clueless). That and the Slate article titled "Sexism Mansplained" for Michelle Goldberg's article here.

I found it pretty hard to make any logical (I hope that's not a purely mansplainist concept) connection between the Slate title and the article, which seemed to be mainly about some Sanders supporters trying to use Hillary's gender against her.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Review: Climate and the Oceans

Climate and the Oceans, by Geoffrey K. Vallis, is the third book of the Princeton Climate Primer series that I am reviewing. Like the others, this is available in economical Kindle and paperback editions.

Vallis's book is heavily focused on the dynamics of the ocean, but contains introductory sections on climate, numerous other examples of climate effects, including El Niño. The final chapter is devoted to global warming, and a discussion of the greenhouse effect. He emphasizes the uncertainties that remain both in the ocean dynamics and more generally. Alternative theories of global warming (solar effects, novel cyclical mechanisms, etc.) but emphasizes that there is essentially zero evidence for any of these.

Ocean dynamics is fluid dynamics on a rotating, wind blown, unevenly heated sphere, with complicated salinity effects thrown in. In other words, it's complicated as all get out. Vallis takes on the task of explaining the complicated mixture of wind, Coriolis, and Eckman transport effects responsible for the major currents in the ocean without explicit appeal to vector calculus - a somewhat unfortunate choice, in my opinion, since explicit appeal to vorticity (the curl of velocity) makes things quite a bit clearer in my mind, but I found the explanations pretty clear considering the limitation to just partial derivatives.

Some mathematical details are relegated to chapter appendices.

One example stands out as something he clarified for me: deep ocean current that sinks in the North Atlantic and rises in the Antarctic. That always seemed counter intuitive to me, since the coldest water is in Antarctica. The explanation lies in the fact that 1) North Atlantic water has higher salinity and 2) the fact that the circumpolar winds around the Southern continent drive an Eckman transport of surface water toward the North, so Eckman pumping is the key.

Overall, an excellent book, and another worthy title in the Princeton Climate Primer series. If you need a more extensive and mathematical dose of fluid dynamics on a differentially heated rotating sphere, Vallis has also written a serious textbook: Atmospheric and Oceanic Fluid Dynamics: Fundamentals and Large Scale Circulation.

Jennifer Doudna Hasn't Won the Nobel Prize - Yet

But she will.

Only a generation or so ago, a Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist could confidently announce that it would never be possible to edit a genome. However, it turns out that the engineering department of molecular biology - bacteria - have been doing it for ages. The discovery of the so-called Crispr Cas9 system has revolutionized gene editing, and is in the process of unleashing a torrent of genetically modified organisms on the world.

Jennifer Kahn has a great story about Doudna and Crispr in The New York Times of Nov 9.

The tool Doudna ultimately created with her collaborators paired Crispr’s programmable guide RNA with a shortened tracer RNA. Used in combination, the system allowed researchers to target and excise any gene they wanted — or even edit out a single base pair within a gene. (When researchers want to add a gene, they can use Crispr to stitch it between the two cut ends.) Some researchers have compared Crispr to a word processor, capable of effortlessly editing a gene down to the level of a single letter.

Even more surprising was how easy the system was to use. To edit a gene, a scientist simply had to take a strand of guide RNA and include an ‘‘address’’: a short string of letters corresponding to a particular location on the gene. The process was so straightforward, one scientist told me, that a grad student could master it in an hour, and produce an edited gene within a couple of days. ‘‘In the past, it was a student’s entire Ph.D. thesis to change one gene,’’ says Bruce Conklin, a geneticist at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. ‘‘Crispr just knocked that out of the park.’’

It's widely agreed that Crispr is a revolutionary technology, and Doudna and Charpentier (another key player) have already collected $3 million Breakthrough Prizes. So why no Nobel? In addition to the Nobel committee's notorious conservatism, the favorite theory is the existence of a giant patent dispute between Doudna's Berkeley lab and the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, where Feng Zhang has collected an impressive number of Crispr patents.

There is little doubt about the fundamental role of Doudna in the science, and Zhang has also done crucial work, but the winner take all approach of the patent system really makes this a mess. The amount of cash at stake is truly enormous - this could be a multi-trillion dollar technology.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Debate

A few questions and remarks re the Republican clown show.

What happened to Maria B's face and hair?

Only the WSJ guy asked any real questions. The others were pure softball pitches.

Didn't matter since hardly anybody bothered to answer the question asked.

Trump and Carson got the kid glove treatment. Bush still looked like the mail boy who accidentally walked into the board meeting.

Questions by Bartiromo were as deranged as her hair. Nearly all had transparently false premises.

Cruz and Rubio looked marginally less clueless than the rest. Can we deport them back to Mexico, now?

Magical thinking was prominent in the tax plans of all the candidates. The operating principle: give more money to rich people and enormous growth will rain down from the heavens. This principle, though quite dear to the rich, has zero historic or economic support.

Carly Fiorina is a pretty skilled liar.

I still think Carson must have removed half of his own brain.

Kasich is really annoying, but be might be the only one of them who wouldn't destroy the country in his first term.

Wrongheaded

US Soccer has banned heading the ball for kids under ten. This follows increasing evidence that heading the soccer ball causes brain damage, concussions, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Many think the ban should be extended to those four or more years older. Stefan Fatsis looks at the facts and the history, but my favorite excerpt is this prelim:

On a turf field at a Washington, D.C., elementary school not long ago, the Jaguars were playing the Thunderbolts in a big fifth-grade boys’ soccer game. The airborne ball struck a Jaguar head. It bounced to a Thunderbolt head. Then another Thunderbolt head. And then a Jaguar head and another Jaguar head and finally to the ground. With each successive header, the parents oohed and cheered—how cute! how cool!—their delight echoing off of the school’s brick walls.

The game was part of a daylong school soccer tournament, and I was watching with the all-girls rec team that I coach. I don’t allow my team to head the ball. Naturally, then, when the girls saw the Jags and T-bolts Ping-Ponging the ball around the field with their noggins, they turned to gauge my response. I smirked and shook my head. Then, with the timing of a seasoned stand-up comic, one of the girls announced, “No wonder they’re all so dumb!”

It was less a statement of fact, of course, than an exquisite preadolescent takedown of the opposite sex. But lurking, literally, beneath every header is a mystery: Can the routine act of heading a soccer ball cause traumatic brain injury? The answer to this question still isn’t entirely clear, but I believe we know enough to say this much: It makes no sense to allow young children to knock their heads repeatedly against a soccer ball.

Not only can contact with the ball cause concussions, but the act of attempting a header is likely to cause collisions with heads, elbows and sometimes feet of other players. The hardest knock I ever took in soccer was from another player's elbow when we both were going for a header.

Children have disproportionately large heads and weak neck muscles that make them poorly prepared for collisions with the ball. Their brains are also more fragile.

Stupid Questions for Stupid Candidates

My favorite: would you kill Baby Hitler?

We can rest easy. John Ellis "Jeb", "nail-eater", Bush has the guts to do the deed. It's not surprising, I suppose, since brother W was willing to kill lots of Baby Saddams and other Iraqi babies, not to mention a few thousand American soldiers just to get re-elected.

Needless to say, I think anybody dumb enough to answer the question, not to mention anybody stupid enough not to point out how stupid the question is, is too stupid to be President. But that's how dumb I am.

Protest at the University

University students and protest go together like beer and Pizza. A relatively privileged group with lots of time* and freedom, it's natural for students to find something get upset about and organize against it. Universities are used to this and usually take it in stride, though every once in a while a nutjob like Reagan will call out the air force to bomb the students into submission.

The shocking thing about the University of Missouri protests is how quickly they brought about the University's abject surrender, with President and Chancellor resigning. This happened because and only because the football team made itself the core of the protest. The team's threatened strike brought the U to its knees.

The American University is in many ways a slave to its football program, and to the financial benefits it accrues by virtue of having the free labor of its athletes. It would be surprising if football players don't take the obvious lesson from this and realize their latent power. It would be natural for them to exploit this to gain economic benefits for themselves - I mean demand that they get paid.

Maybe this could be a stimulus to bring the whole corrupt NCAA system down.

*Clearly I'm not talking about physics or engineering students here.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Book Review: Quantum Mechanics

Leonard Susskind has published a couple of books based on his Theoretical Minimum lectures, one on classical mechanics and this one on Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum, written with Art Friedman. I suppose I have a hundred or so books on various aspects of quantum mechanics, and I originally intended to just read through it like a novel, but guess what? It seems that I have forgotten quite a bit in the nearly half-century since I last studied QM. Anyway, I decided to read it carefully, going through every derivation and solving every problem, just like I was going to teach the book.

The textbooks I learned from long ago (Gottfried, Merzbacher, Pauling and Wilson) were fairly substantial volumes, but not like the massive tomes of Cohen-Tannouji and or even Shankar. Susskind has gone to the opposite extreme, just 364 pages, with large print and a spare selection of topics. The concept is to teach just the fundamentals, and teach them in as simple and clear a fashion as possible. Calculus and a bit of linear algebra is all the math required, and even it is presented in as simple and undemanding a fashion as possible. Problems are very simple and very focused on fundamentals.

This is not a book for traditional QM course. The would be instructor or student will look in vain for such classic topics as the hydrogen atom, scattering theory, perturbation theory and many other traditional subjects. Susskind instead devotes a great deal of time to measurement, quantum states and entanglement, explored via spin states. Later, he tackles the Schrödinger Equation and finally, the harmonic oscillator. The topics lost are important, but are more about the math than the physics.

This book is an excellent choice for anyone with a bit of math (calculus) and a desire to understand what quantum mechanics really is, especially if they don't feel up to the grind of Shankar et. al. It's also a good choice for someone who has taken one of those traditional courses, done the math, and still feels baffled about what it's really about, as well as a nice book for old guys who would like to relearn the fundamentals barely remembered.

I expect that it took 60-100 hours for this rather slow guy to work through the whole book, compared to the 6-10 times as much to go through, say, Shankar, in the same detailed way. Of course, YMMV.

I understood the old dictum that you don't really understand a subject until you have taught it a long time ago. I've never taught quantum.

Socially Approved Superstitions

Ben Carson has been collecting a few liberal sneers for claiming that the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain (for the seven lean years, I guess), but Tyler Cowen and others have noted that this belief is really more consistent with the laws of physics than some of the Christian and Jewish superstitions that virtually every presidential candidate has signed up for in some way or another.

I have to say, well, sort of, but there is a significant difference. Using the pyramids to store grain doesn't violate any laws of physics, but it does violate common sense. The pyramids still exist, and people can examine them and check their suitability for grain storage. The miracles of the Bible are hidden behind the veil of time, and that's true even of the far more recent miracles like Joseph Smith's golden tablets. There aren't any physical artifacts to check. Moreover, they are all explicitly miracles, which means they are supposed to violate the laws of physics.

That doesn't mean that I subscribe to any of the aforementioned superstitions or even their more contemporary modern versions, but I do think that Cowen et. al. miss an important subtlety. Believing in ancient miracles may be silly, but it's not as silly as believing that the Walmart down the street is an alien spaceship when you can easily check that it sure doesn't seem like one. The notion that God parted the Red Sea for Moses and a bunch of Hebrew troublemakers may be implausible, but really, how are you going to check?

Friday, November 06, 2015

Book Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

I reviewed the movie made of The Diary of a Teenage Girl a couple of weeks ago. It packed enough of an emotional wallop that I immediately ordered and read the book. I have to say, good as the movie was, the book is a more substantial work of art. It's more harrowing than the movie, and the book is more gritty than the gritty movie.

In my opinion, Minnie, the central character, is one of those magical characters of fiction, like Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, who is more vivid than the people you know in real life. The book is based on author Phoebe Gloeckner's actual teenage diary, though Gloeckner has always insisted that it is a novel, rather than a memoir or autobiography. Her daughters offer a contrary view: "No, that's you, Mom."

I've become a slightly obsessive Gloeckner fan. Whatever the extent of the parallels with her protagonist, and they are extensive, the author is clearly an highly original character herself. Not that it's in any way relevant to this review, but I have to note that she attended the same university in Czechia as another original, Luboš Motl, AKA The Blogfather.

Like the movie, the book is the story of fifteen year-old Minnie's affair with her mother's boyfriend, and her subsequent descent into a perilous world of sex, drugs, and sordid despair. At the start of that affair, Minnie had never even been kissed. If this sounds like the premise for a porn movie, well it could be but isn't, though the book doesn't shy away from explicit sex.

What makes this book high art is the protagonist's penetrating intelligence, the absence of parental love or guidance in her life, and her struggle with her own sex drive and moral confusion. While the movie has a somewhat conventionally happy ending, the book is more ambivalent, giving her only some sense of her own autonomy and ability to construct her life.

The book has an unconventional structure, being built partly of ordinary prose in the guise of diary entries and partly of graphic novel elements. Gloeckner is a cartoonist, art professor, and medical illustrator as well as a writer. The first paragraph:

I don't remember being born. I was a very ugly child. My appearance has not improved so I suppose it was a lucky break when he was attracted by my youthfulness.

Well, of course, it wasn't lucky at all, but tragic. Moreover, despite her self-description, both protagonist and author are described by more unbiased observers as beautiful and possessed of incredible personal magnetism. (For the author, we have pictures.)

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Ben Carson

Carson, the leading Republican candidate for President, was formerly a famous neurosurgeon. I seemingly recall that he was once reported to have removed half of someone's brain. I wonder if it could have been his own.

I always thought that a certain minimum amount of general intelligence and world knowledge was required to become a physician, but Carson presents a rather sharp challenge to that idea. In a Republican field notable for its know nothing character, Carson is a real standout displaying a breadth of ignorance of politics and government that would be surprising in a high school dropout. One of his latest bloopers is repeatedly expressed opinion that the pyramids were build to store grain. I guess they just forgot to make them hollow.

Kevin Drum reports on another Carsonism.

“I recently had a discussion with a well-known physicist. He was talking about the Big Bang Theory and how all this obviously culminated into this wonderful, extraordinarily organized solar system that we now have, which you can set your watch by, where scientists can predict 70 years away when a comet is coming. That’s an incredible amount of organization to have originated from just a large explosion.”

Carson then tells the story of how he supposedly stumped the physicist by asking him how he could reconcile such an “organized” universe with the laws of thermodynamics, specifically entropy, which says that systems tend to move towards disorder.

“Well of course he has no answer for that. They never have an answer for any of these things.”

Huh. Not just a physicist, a "well-known" physicist. And Carson says this guy was floored by his question. Apparently he had never given any thought to whether the Big Bang theory was compatible with the second law of thermodynamics.

Conclusion: either this was the stupidest physicist ever, or else Carson was lying. I think you can guess which side I'm on, but Carson can clear this up in a trice by telling us who this hapless physicist was. I sure hope it's not someone who's conveniently dead.

I think that there is a third possibility - Carson is delusional. On the other hand he has a demonstrated track record of lying about his past.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Existential Angst of English Professors

... casts a large shadow of gloom over modern literary fiction, but isn't one of my more pressing concerns. That's one reason that I don't read much literary fiction, but not a very good one, I expect, since there is plenty of good literature being written on other subjects. Mostly, I suppose, is the fact that there is so much of it, and I really don't want to spend that much time on it. Still, I do try to read some such every now and then.

Anyway, my latest is My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, the first book in her Neapolitan quartet. Ferrante is sometimes described as Italy's best known and least known author, with the first adjective attesting to the popularity of her works and the second to her personal reclusiveness, carried to an extreme that one reviewer said made Salinger look like a publicity hound.

It's the story of the friendship of two bright girls growing up in a tough neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s and early 1960s, daughters, respectively, of a porter and a shoemaker. The narrator shares the author's (probably psuedonymous) Christian name, making it easy to guess that it is at least partially autobiographical. The girls and their girlhood are the central elements of the story, but the city, or rather the neighborhood gets almost equal billing. It is a dangerous place, where fathers rule their families with a bruising fist and violence is a ready resort in many a confrontation. The war lies over the memory horizon of the protagonists, but it, fascism, and the Camorra, the Mafia-like secret criminal society centered in Naples, are a dark background.

I think that it's a terrific book, both for its picture of the milieu and the characters, and recommend it highly.

Since I've been simultaneously reading The Diary of a Teenage Girl (the book upon which the movie I recently reviewed was based), I couldn't help noticing certain parallels and perpendiculars between the two narratives. One narrator grew up in an environment where many of our current bogeymen ruled: the patriarchy, sexual repression, and violence; the other in the anything goes sex and drug drenched San Francisco of a couple of decades later. It's pretty clear to me that the latter environment was the more toxic.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Buffalo, Beefalo, Bison

Arun, remember him, has an interesting bit on the extermination of the Bison in the American West. He argues rather credibly that it was not an accident of capitalism but part of a deliberated strategy of depriving the Native Americans of economic sustenance. Here is the money quote:

But the real reason was no civilizational altruism but aim for political subjugation as US Representative James Throckmorton would reveal in 1876:

There is no question that, so long as there are millions of buffaloes in the West, the Indians cannot be controlled, even by the strong arm of the Government. I believe it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence.

You don't have to share Arun's anti-Western viewpoint to see the logic.

Astro FOTD

Pluto has ice mountains 3500 meters high. On Earth, once our ice reaches a depth of 30 meters or so, it begins deform continuously by plastic flow - that's why glaciers flow and why there are no tall ice mountains here. Pluto has much weaker gravity, only about 1/12 th of that of Earth, but that's not nearly sufficient to explain the ice mountains - only enough to take them to about 1/10 th their actual height.

The big factor is temperature. The tensile strength of ice increases with decreasing temperature, as fewer and fewer of the hydrogen bonds are disrupted by thermal motion, and at Pluto's -230 C, water ice is a pretty hard rock.

Phil Plait has a nice picture at: http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/10/29/crescent_pluto_stunning_new_horizons_image.html