Showing posts from May, 2014

The Denial Industry

There is now a rather well organized denial industry, centered on the right-wing "think" (or stink) tanks, prepared to deny any bit os science or logic that is inconvenient to their sponsors. They got their start defending big tobacco, but moved on to denying ozone destruction by halocarbons, and global warming. Inequality denial has been in vogue for a few decades too, with a big push now against Piketty (see post below ). I was struck by Paul Krugman's characterization of their methodology regarding inequality, but equally applicable to things like AGW denial. This denial didn’t rely on any one argument, nor did it involve consistent objections. Instead, it involved throwing many different arguments against the wall, hoping that something would stick. Inequality isn’t rising; it is rising, but it’s offset by social mobility; it’s cancelled by greater aid to the poor (which we’re trying to destroy, but never mind that); anyway, inequality is good. All these arguments

Piketty's Charge

Krugman on the right's furious efforts to discredit Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century : Brad DeLong links to the now extensive list of pieces debunking the FT’s attempted debunking of Thomas Piketty, and pronounces himself puzzled: I still do not understand what Chris Giles of the Financial Times thinks he is doing here… OK, I don’t know what Giles thought he was doing — but I do know what he was actually doing, and it’s the same old same old. Ever since it became obvious that inequality was rising — way back in the 1980s — there has been a fairly substantial industry on the right of inequality denial. This denial didn’t rely on any one argument, nor did it involve consistent objections. Instead, it involved throwing many different arguments against the wall, hoping that something would stick. Inequality isn’t rising; it is rising, but it’s offset by social mobility; it’s cancelled by greater aid to the poor (which we’re trying to destroy, but never min

The LunchBox

A very good movie set in India , following an improbable intergenerational encounter via a lunch box that gets misdelivered.

Russian Regulars in Donetsk

According to this article: DONETSK, Ukraine – It’s no longer about amateurs. There is a full-scale war going on, and it’s fought by professionals. The Russians are here – and they’re making a grab for power in eastern Ukraine. If there was ever any doubt, it was quashed this week when separatist leaders and fighters here opened up to journalists about their Russian roots. In interviews with the Kyiv Post, Vice News, and the Financial Times, fighters in the so-called Vostok Battalion identified themselves as Russian citizens, with several saying they were from the Autonomous Republic of Chechnya. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, top Russian officials have repeatedly denied the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Most recently, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic denied claims that he was responsible for sending Chechen mercenaries to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine, saying that such accusations were wholly “untrue.” Still, K

There Are No Cows on Mars

Or, at least, less than 100. We know that, says Mike Brown, because the level of methane on Mars is less than 1 part per billion - about the amount that would be produced by 100 cows, burping. It's not exactly a shock that Mars is not prime cattle country, but the aforementioned result is also a major blow to one of Mike's favorite theories: that some kind of life on Mars was all but certain since life from Earth was very likely transported to Mars in the Early days by meteorites blown off the Earth in major collision, to land there when the planet was more hospitable. Even today, it seems likely that Mars has locales where methanogens would survive and reproduce. Of course the reverse voyage scenario is also possible. In which case it would be a bit tragic that the planet that (perhaps) gave us birth, no longer supports life.

Kiss Your Cash Goodbye

Ken Rogoff wants to abolish paper money (FT, gated but free) . Has the time come to consider phasing out anonymous paper currency, starting with large-denomination notes? Getting rid of physical currency and replacing it with electronic money would kill two birds with one stone. First, it would eliminate the zero bound on policy interest rates that has handcuffed central banks since the financial crisis. At present, if central banks try setting rates too far below zero, people will start bailing out into cash. Second, phasing out currency would address the concern that a significant fraction, particularly of large-denomination notes, appears to be used to facilitate tax evasion and illegal activity... Of course tax evaders, other crooks, terrorists and guys who just don't want their wives to know what they are up to would hate it. My guess is that these people, especially the first category, have too much political power to let it happen. Rogoff suggests that we start with l

Gee, Officer Krupke

The trouble is he's crazy... Elliot Roger, the UCSB murderer, is being variously held up as an entitled rich kid, a frustrated nerd misled by geeky Hollywood types who somehow get the girl anyway , a product of the twisted masculinity of pickup artist nutjobs, and yet another example of the bullying patriarchate. Without necessarily completely rejecting any of those possible influences, let's just note that his real problem was that he was nuts. My guess is that he was a psychopath. Unfortunately, this condition seems to be inborn and probably incurable. A large fraction of mass murderers turn out to be psychopaths, though not all psychopaths becomes mass murderers or even criminals.

Let Me Count the Ways...

Dear Mr. X. I will not be signing your petition about ocean pH measurements because: (1)Petitions are a stupid way to attempt to resolve scientific issues. (2)I don't think it makes sense to call data "hidden" when its freely available by internet. (3)It leads with an endorsement of your own, blog published but not peer reviewed research, which I am not prepared to study or critique. (4)It proposes nakedly political measures to suppress the best judgement of government scientists in favor of your own interpretations. (5)I don't like being bullied. You can invite me to sign your petition. If I decline you should just go away instead of harassing me. (6)I don't agree with anything in it. (7)I don't trust your scientific judgement. (8)...

Cisalpine Gaul*

Phil Plait, who often writes entertainingly about astronomy, taught me a new word today: "cisgendered" as in "cisgendered male", which is what he proclaims himself to be. I had to look it up, and apparently it means a person who identifies with the gender assigned at birth. I assume that this is some sort of politically correct way of saying one is not transgender in orientation without invoking such dreaded English words as "usual" or "normal", though it's not exactly clear to me how translation into a Latin equivalent is more or less offensive. Rather, I suppose, it's one of those tribal shibboleths intended to identify oneself as among the PC hip. Anyway, the actual substance of his post is looking at the Isla Vista mass murderer as an example of Men Behaving Badly. He was, it seems, a contributor to Men's Rights forums (or "fora" as Phil would prefer), as well as such other festering pools of aggrieved masculinity


Arun points to the origins of the Second Amendment in the necessity of armed militias to prevent slaves from freeing themselves This key principle probably played an important role in the long history of slavery in human civilization. Every slave holding society is by necessity militarized.

The Asteroids Are Coming!

And there is a chance one might kill you! An extremely unlikely chance, says Mike Brown. About 1 in 74 million, meaning that there are 73,999,999 other ways that are equally likely to knock you off. Of course the occasional biggie can flatten a city or even a continent, but Brown says we know there aren't any of the continent smashers headed our way for at least several hundred years. Consequently, there is no urgency whatsoever to rush to build a zillion dollar asteroid defense system. We should continue to study asteroids, mainly for other reasons, but just monitor the situation. If one is headed here in 500 years, we can hope that our descendants will be a lot better prepared to deal with it then. Comets are another problem. Partly because they are moving much faster, so they have a lot more kinetic energy. Mostly, though, the problem is that we won't have, can't have, much warning. A year or two at most. Consequently, our prospects for doing anything about a

Dynamical Friction

Dynamical friction plays an important role in planetary formation. The basic notion is equipartition of energy - not by collisions, but by gravitational interactions. When the protoplanetary disk has reached the stage of being populated by a variety of bodies of various masses, random gravitational encounters will tend to slow down the big ones and speed up the small ones - relative to the mean orbital speed. Being slower is an advantage from the standpoint of growth, as larger bodies with smaller relative velocities merge more readily, so the big get bigger faster than the small. The fast moving smaller planetesimals either get ejected or ultimately crash into bodies large enough to hang on to them. Encounters between the large bodies, whether planets or protoplanets, and the smaller, statistically tend to change the semi-major axis of the little guys, but unless the little guys are ejected completely, they are doomed to return to the point of encounter with the big guy. Comets

Watch Out Wolfgang!

A (Daily) Beastly headline: NSA Records Every Cellphone in Bahamas . Americans aren’t safe from Big Brother even when they go on vacation. The National Security Agency is recording the complete audio of every cellphone call in the Bahamas and storing them for up to a month. According to The Intercept, which broke the story Monday using documents obtained from Edward Snowden, 5 million Americans visit the Bahamas every year and many of them have homes there. NSA documents say the program is used to locate drug traffickers and smugglers of undocumented immigrants. In addition to the Bahamas, the MYSTIC program is also used to monitor the communications of Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines, and an unnamed country.

The Climate Skeptic and I

I may have mentioned that a local group of climate skeptics, including a number of my former colleagues, invited me to their meetings. I resisted for a bit, but their leader insisted, so I attended a few meetings and got in their email lists. The first meeting didn't seem promising - the leader was out of town, and the restaurant proposed for the meeting had gone out of business, and one member suggested that Michael Mann should be murdered. Nonetheless, I did go to a later meeting when they had found another restaurant, had an excellent breakfast of Huevos Rancheros, and learned a lot about the currently popular reasons why AGW could not be right. Of course a relationship begun under such promising circumstance could hardly have been expected not to run into some headwinds eventually. The leader was a big fan of Bond cycles, for reasons that were not to become clear to me for a long time. He kept urging me to read a paper by Bond, for reasons that it took me a long time to

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

So far as we know, Mars never had any flowers, but it did have water, and fair amounts of it, at least for a while. My current favorite MOOC is Mike Brown's Caltech Solar System class via Coursera. The first third of the course is devoted to Mars, and it's fascinating. The oldest terrain on Mars, called the Noachian, shows evidence of rain, flowing streams, and lakes. There are also lots of craters, suggesting that this may have occurred during the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment. Not a whole lot of rain, but something comparable to the deserts and semi-deserts of modern Earth. Obviously this would have required a warmer and wetter Mars than that of today. How could it have been that warm, especially with the Sun perhaps 70% as bright as today? The most plausible answer is greenhouse gas, probably mostly CO2, supplemented by some water vapor. After a few hundred millions of years, by the Hesperian period, evidence of rain goes away, but evidence of water doesn't

So You Think You'd Like to be a Planet

Suppose, for example, that you are one of those 100 nanometer sized particles of rocky materials that populate the galaxy as a result of Supernovae and other major Stellar events. It's lonely out there in the cosmic void, so you would like to get together with friends to form a planet. How does one go about this? First thing is, you've got to hang where the cool crowd does - in a large, cool (say 10 C above absolute zero), cloud of gas and dust. There's usually a bunch of them around the plane of the disc of any respectable spiral galaxy. You and your cloud may need a little push to get started - a nearby supernova or a density wave in the spiral galaxy, for example, but once your local cloud is gravitationally bound, you're on your way. Once the cloud starts contracting, it begins to break up into small pieces. It's important at this point to stay in the thick of things, since the early stars get the gas - and dust. Be cool though, and hang on to some of you

Race as a Social Construct

From Steve Hsu. Apparently it was: The anthropologist Ashley Montagu [who] advanced the idea that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality. Does this mean that racial differences are imaginary? Not really. Steve has some details, but that's not exactly what I want to discuss. All of our concepts are ultimately social constructs, including the notions of table, energy, black hole, nation, and language. By that I mean they were invented by societies of humans and that these social constructs may reflect underlying realities more or less imperfectly. How, exactly, is a table different from a stool, to take one example? Well we sit at tables and on stools, but sometimes we sit on a table or use a stool as a table. Race, like racism, is a social construct, but there are physical differences in appearance, for example, which are correlated with ancestry. Racism is, among other things, using ancestry or differences in appearance correlated with ancestry as

State of the MOOC

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are about two years old, at least the big three (Coursera, edX and Udacity) are. I've completed ten of them, I believe, and audited all the lectures of a few more. I may have started but dropped out of almost that many more. As long as MOOCs are free, the sensible approach is to try out anything that looks promising and drop out if they don't meet your expectation, or if you get too busy at work or home, or just get bored. Traditional educators are horrified by MOOC dropout rates, but the fact remains that a reasonably successful MOOC is completed by more students than many professors face in a lifetime. At least two giant question marks hang over the MOOC at the moment: how to pay for them, and how do the students get credit for their learning. The answer to the first is becoming clearer: the students will pay to play. Udacity has already gone to a model where the student pays $150 a month to take a course. In return students will get


It seems that the US under Bush handed the keys to the bus to the International Space Station to the Russians. There were various circumstances that made it seem like a good idea at the time. Back in 2004, President Bush announced that NASA's aging space shuttle program would be retired in 2010 and — eventually — replaced by a plan to return to the moon. At the time, NASA realized there would be a four-year gap between the space-shuttle retirement and when the new manned space transport system would be in place. But at that point, it didn't seem like a big problem for NASA to ask Russia to transport US astronauts to and from the space station in the interim. Relations between the two countries were friendly — Bush was telling reporters that he'd looked into Putin's eyes and "got a sense of his soul." What's more, NASA had relied on Russian transport for 29 months after the Columbia disaster in 2003, when the shuttle program was put on hold. And: Th

Uh Oh...

Wolfgang leads us to Jester who finds a potentially disastrous uncertainty in the BICEP2 data. Jester: Barring a loose cable, the biggest worry about the BICEP signal is that the collaboration may have underestimated the galactic foreground emission. BICEP2 performed the observations at only one frequency of 150 GHz which is very well suited to study the CMB, but less so for polarized dust or synchrotron emission. As for the latter, more can be learned by going to higher frequencies, while combining maps at different frequencies allows one to separate the galactic and the CMB component. Although the patch of the sky studied by BICEP is well away from the galactic plane, the recently published 353 GHz polarized map from Planck demonstrates that there may be significant emission from these parts of the sky (in that paper the BICEP patch is conveniently masked, so one cannot draw any quantitative conclusions). Once the dust from the BICEP announcement had settled, all eyes were thus o

Russian Rules

Jamie Dettmer from Donetsk: Shortly before separatist leaders here declared a huge majority had voted in a referendum to break from Ukraine, their press spokeswoman had chortled at the idea that a result would be declared a mere three hours after polling stations closed. “Are you crazy? How would we have time to count the ballots?” said Claudia. Precisely, how indeed? But then despite a series of opinion polls over the past few weeks showing only a minority of eastern Ukrainians wanted to follow the example of the Black Sea peninsula and secede, the plebiscite in Donetsk—one of two of Ukraine’s easternmost regions voting Sunday—was always a foregone conclusion. The procedures in the plebiscite managed by Denis Pushilin, a former casino croupier who is the co-chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, followed the Kremlin's house rules: the cynical strategies and plays of Russian-style “managed democracy,” not the electoral models outlined by organizations such

Kiss it Goodbye

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, that is. Also New York City, Miami, and much of Bangla Desh and most of the world's other low lying cities. According to this NYT Article by Justin Gillis and Kenneth Chang , the disintegration of that ice sheet has begun, and will probably continue over the next few centuries, apparently more or less independently of anything we do about climate change. The good news is that it probably won't be very fast for next 100 years or so - so don't sell that beachfront property quite yet. The precise causes are unknown, though AGW and the Ozone hole are suspects. Most scientists in the field see a connection between the stronger winds and human-caused global warming, but they say other factors are likely at work, too. Natural variability of climate may be one of them. Another may be the ozone hole over Antarctica, caused by an entirely different environmental problem, the human release of ozone-destroying gases. Whatever the mix of causes, they

Knock Yourself Out

Doubts about football are sinking in even in small town Texas. Amid widespread and growing concerns about the physical dangers of the sport, the school board here approved plans in February to shut down the district’s entry-level, tackle-football program for seventh graders in favor of flag football. There was little objection. Texans still love football, but parents don't want their kids to become brain damaged adults like Junior Seau and Tony Dorsett.

Left and Right Wing Climate Conspiracy Theories

Liberals tend to believe that there is a conspiracy by energy companies and billionaire oil investors who just happen to be spending hundreds of millions to suppress and ridicule the facts about human caused global warming (AGW). Conservatives, by contrast, believe that there is a conspiracy by a few hundred climate scientists feeding at the government trough, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, various national and international Meteorological, Chemical and Geological Societies, most Nobel Prize winners, governments, the UN and Al Gore to promote alarm at phenomena which (a)probably don't exist, (b)even if they exist, are likely to be good for you, (c)and even if they are bad, have happened before anyway. And it's all just so that the UN can take away your gas guzzling pick-me-up. Who you gonna call?

Modeling An Ice Age

I just finished (auditing) edX and MIT's excellent course Global Warming Science  and finished with some doubts about climate models.  In particular, I wondered about the challenge of modeling an ice age.  It looks like there has been very little progress in this area, and that in fact we know not much at all about how an ice age starts or ends.  So far as I can tell, we don't really know why the rather weak changes in insolation trigger the ice age or why they end.  This Scientific American note links to a study that posits one ending scenario, but that scenario still has a lot of unknown unknowns in it. Does anyone have anything more substantial?

Illustris: The Universe in Simulation

The new Harvard-Smithsonian/MIT cosmology simulation from Mark Vogelsberger et. al. is the most detailed simulation of the evolution of the Universe yet. The domain is slightly more than 100 Megaparsecs, and a lot of hydrodynamic details are included. This is perhaps the first simulation to apparently get galaxies and perhaps their central super massive black holes (SMBH) right. Proportions of ellipticals and spirals look quite close to observed. It's a sequence of very pretty pictures, though I found the continual spinning a bit much.  Full screen suggested.

Save the Date?

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is scheduled to be released on November 7 of this year. Some big stars and good actors. Based on "a treatment" developed by Kip Thorne, who is executive producer. We could use another good SF film.

It's War

Pictures from Sloviansk

Ukraine: Sloviansk

Ukraine appear poised for an assault on the pro-Russian city of Sloviansk, says Sarah Rainsford of the BBC. Fears of an impending offensive by Ukrainian forces are growing in the pro-Russian stronghold of Sloviansk, sources inside the city say... The mood has hardened in the towns around Sloviansk. Many people are horrified by Friday's deaths of dozens of pro-Russian activists in Odessa, something that they say "cannot be forgiven". But even in this Russian-speaking heartland, there are occasional signs of support for a united Ukraine: the odd blue and yellow national flag poking from a window, or those colours painted onto a lamppost. But the overwhelming mood is defiance and anger at Kiev for sending troops here. If the assault by Kiev looks to succeed, Putin will have the chance to show his true intentions.

What is Culture?

Well it's one of those pluripotent words, that's for sure. The original meaning of the term, still preserved in such terms as cultivate, was the tillage of land and tending of crops. Cicero may have suggested that the mind was as worthy of cultivation as our fields, and this led to interpretation of culture as higher learning. Much later, anthropologists and archeologists appropriated the term for description of differences in human societies. Archeologists, in particular, use it to refer to the characteristic assemblages of artifacts left by ancient societies, which is to say the sufficiently durable remains of their tools, art, and manufacture. Anthropologists use the same term to refer as well to beliefs, practices, and other intellectual elements common to groups of people. In a more diluted form, sociologists can use it to speak of the culture of a nation, region, college or even a corporation. Of course individuals always differ among themselves in beliefs, practices

Ukraine: Battle of Odessa

Odessa was the place Stalin and many other Bolsheviks got their basic training in revolution, so perhaps it's not coincidence that Putin chose it for his latest provocation. Roland Oliphant of The Telegraph has an account of the events from Odessa: The crowd, which included ordinary members of the public as well as members of the “Maidan Self Defence forces” and at least some members of Pravy Sektor, a hardline nationalist group, began to gather at around 2pm in Cathedral Square. Before they reached the stadium, however, witnesses said the march was attacked by men who appeared to be pro-Russian activists, sporting the black and orange ribbon of St George. The assault by the pro-Russians appears to have been planned. Witnesses and video footage show the attackers were well equipped for a street fight, with shields, helmets, sticks and body armour. But so, too, were the marchers. Once the clash started, casualties were almost inevitable. The heavily outnumbered pro-Russians eve

Escalation in Ukraine: Civil War

Putin's Anschluss proceeds : Pro-Russian separatists shot down two helicopters in a key eastern Ukrainian city, and fighting in the port city of Odessa triggered a fire that killed dozens, as the embattled nation moved closer to the brink of civil war. Interim Ukraine President Oleksandr Turchynov said "many" pro-Russia rebels have been killed, injured and arrested in a major offensive to regain control of Slavyansk, though it was not clear if the Kiev-backed forces had succeeded. Russia reacted angrily to the offensive by Ukrainian security forces, calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council after a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin warned it "effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements." In the Black Sea port city of Odessa, Ukraine's third-largest city, a fire that broke out in a trade union building amid clashes killed 31. Fighting there represented another ominous milestone in the conflict

The Hindus: Book Review, Part IV

My experience with the book was a bit conflicted. On the one hand, I thought that I learned a lot, and certainly finished with more respect for and, I like to think, understanding of Hindu thought. Despite the heavy presence of scholarly apparatus (thousands of citations and hundreds of endnotes), there are some curious inexactitudes ( India lies mostly in the Northern Hemisphere - so far as I can tell India and its islands lie entirely in the Northern Hemisphere). The author is addicted to a chatty, discursive, and frequently frivolous tone which I sometimes found annoying. It's important to note that the author hasn't written a history of India, but a history of its main religion. There are bits of the history of the country included, but mainly just as background. Because it's a history, the focus is on evolution and change. Moreover, as the author declares at the outset, her focus is not on the central figures of the religion, it's priestly and other high cas

Piketty on Economics American Style

I should perhaps add that I experienced the American dream at the age of twenty -two, when I was hired by a university near Boston just after finishing my doctorate. This experience proved to be decisive in more ways than one. It was the first time I had set foot in the United States, and it felt good to have my work recognized so quickly. Here was a country that knew how to attract immigrants when it wanted to! Yet I also realized quite soon that I wanted to return to France and Europe, which I did when I was twenty-five. Since then, I have not left Paris, except for a few brief trips. One important reason for my choice has a direct bearing on this book: I did not find the work of US economists entirely convincing. To be sure, they were all very intelligent, and I still have many friends from that period of my life. But something strange happened: I was only too aware of the fact that I knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems . My thesis consisted of several relatively