Showing posts from September, 2014

Astro FOTD: Nuclear Matters

The Sun started its life on the main sequence with approximately ten billion years worth of hydrogen fuel in its core. Consequently, an individual hydrogen nucleus there - a proton - can expect to live billions of years, and undergo zillions of close encounters with its fellows before winding up as part of a Helium nucleus. This means that the nuclear reactions (starting with tunneling through the coulomb barrier of another proton) are extremely infrequent and improbable. This means that they can't be measured in the laboratory - no experiment could possibly attain sufficient luminosity to produce any interactions at the temperatures/velocities found in the Sun. Consequently, the nuclear reactions of the Sun and other stars mostly have to be modeled, extrapolated, and calculated. It's a remarkable triumph of theory that these calculations have been extremely successful, and that models of stars have passed test after test.

Morning Thoughts

While having breakfast at one of my favorite local restaurants, I couldn't help noticing that the three men at the next table were having a passionate and frequently loud discussion or argument, in Arabic. No doubt there are many topics that might have engaged them with such passion - prospects for the local college football team, for example - but given recent events, I found it easy to suspect something more political. Not knowing Arabic, I can only guess, but it occurred to me that recent US action against ISIL/ISIS must pose some problems for Arabs living in the US or Muslims more generally. To date it seems that only a tiny fraction of American Muslims have embraced radical views and programs, and neither have many of the foreign Muslims living in the US. Still, some few have, and it doesn't take many to start a vicious cycle of terror and repression. Such a cycle would be a tragedy for the US, and, very likely, a catastrophe for American Muslims. So I can't help

About Black Holes

Long time readers, if any, may recall that I'm fond of the semi-crackpot idea that black holes don't really exist. Two new papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer make just just such a claim: I and II . The abstract of the latter: A star collapsing gravitationally into a black hole emits a flux of radiation, knowns (sic) as Hawking radiation. When the initial state of a quantum field on the background of the star, is placed in the Unruh vacuum in the far past, then Hawking radiation corresponds to a flux of positive energy radiation travelling outwards to future infinity. The evaporation of the collapsing star can be equivalently described as a negative energy flux of radiation travelling radially inwards towards the center of the star. Here, we are interested in the evolution of the star during its collapse. Thus we include the backreaction of the negative energy Hawking flux in the interior geometry of the collapsing star and solve the full 4-dimensional Einstein and hyd

Secession Disasters

The Scots, having wisely (IMHO) decided to cast their lot with union, I decided to look at the general problem of secession. The argument for secession is essentially always the same: the people (or nation, religion, ethnicity, language, etc.) cannot endure being ruled by the people of Y. When the rule is imperial and historically imposed by force rather than democratic there is some logic to the argument. Since most large nations were the fruits of empire, it's an argument that is frequently available. When we are talking democracy, though, and nations with a long established unity, I think secession is almost always nuts. And why is that idiot Cameron still running the joint? A very few examples of peaceful and otherwise amicable national divorces exist, but they are vastly outnumbered by those that resulted in war, calamity and catastrophe. India-Pakistan, Yugoslavia, a vast catalog of Africa, numerous examples in the Americas, the American Civil War, and so on. One of t

Population Pressure and War

Population pressure appears to play a major role in Chimpanzee "warfare", and it might well play a similar role in human affairs. The turmoil in the Africa and the Middle East is associated with drought and population growth. The relative peace in Europe during the Nineteenth Century may well have been related to the opportunities of young men to emigrate to the Americas, Australia, and the colonies. Historians ought to pay close attention to this sort of meta-factor. How we fare in empires vs. independent nations is also worth a look.

Jeffrey Sachs + Michael Shank Think fighting ISIS is a bad Idea

Too many times in recent history the United States has responded militarily to provocations and threats in ways that have resulted in spiraling war and violence at great long-term cost to the American people. We believe that the latest escalation of U.S. attacks on ISIL (also known as Islamic State or ISIS) threatens such an open-ended, costly and ultimately unsuccessful path. We do not doubt the dangers of ISIL in the region, but we believe that U.S.-led bombing is most likely to create further instability, spiraling violence, and new recruits for radical military groups. The right strategy, we believe, is for regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to lead the response to ISIL under the umbrella of the U.N. Security Council. In this way, the U.S. would avoid the trap of being viewed, once again, as the leader of an anti-Islamic crusade. Anti-American hate, and hence the vulnerability of U.S. individuals and property to terrorist attacks, is already running very hi


Arctic Sea ice area has quite likely reached its minimum for 2014, and it finishes in a virtual tie with 2013 and 2009, about 1.2 million km^2 below the long term average minimum. It is, however, far above the record melt of 2012 as well as significantly above several other post 2007 melt minima. The climate skeptics are trumpeting this as "the great Arctic recovery." That's a bit hasty, especially since it also finished well below any pre-2007 melt seasons. A casual examination of the record shows that significant fluctuations have always existed on top of the long term decline, but if you imagine that climate science is some kind of partisan game, I suppose any deviation from the trend, no matter how unsurprising, looks like a triumph for side stupid. Of course reality doesn't care much about ideology, and it always gets the last word, but it might be too late to permit sensible measures to deal with some really big coming problems.

Science and Nonsense

A new study reconfirms old studies that showed that we share our propensity for war with our Chimpanzee cousins. That's certainly no surprise to me. the cited article is interested in the question: Is war a modern human invention, or does it have deep roots in biology? I didn't have much doubt about that either. More dismaying to me is the reaction of some on the academic left. Brian Ferguson, director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Rutgers University at Newark, said he disagrees with the new study’s interpretation of the data, as well as the methods used to rate the role of human influence on the chimp behavior. ... Since Wrangham’s book “Demonic Males” was published, Ferguson said he has been compiling an exhaustive response, although he acknowledged that most primatologists who study chimpanzees do not agree with him. “If people think that it is in our nature to go to war, that we’re somehow by evolution primed to go out and kill members of other groups, it lea

Going Indie

On Thursday, Scotch voters will vote on independence from Britain, and if the polls are right, and human stupidity triumphs as usual, there is a good chance they will chose secession. I guess I've already hinted that I think this is a bad idea. I can't think of another occasion on which a nation, united in language and culture for hundreds of years, has decided to tear itself apart on such a flimsy pretext - essentially, so far as I can see, because Scots watched one too many Mel Gibson movies. The partition of India was much better motivated, but equally idiotic and certainly more catastrophic, at least in the short run. Pakistan was essentially the creation of one man, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. His rationale was that it would be intolerable for Muslims to live in a democratic nation where they would be outnumbered and outvoted by Hindus. The idea of partition was disliked by many thoughtful British, essentially all Americans, and many others. Britain agreed to it, I imagine

Reducing Global Warming

It's pretty well known that the way to deal with global warming is with a carbon tax. People who should know better, like Paul Krugman, advocate for a slightly hidden carbon tax called cap and trade, but it has proven completely unworkable. Its slightly hidden character doesn't fool anybody but the most naive rubes, creating a vast space for those who do know better to manipulate and jimmy the tax. Of course the problem with the carbon tax is that it's immensely unpopular. People really really don't want to pay more for gasoline, electricity, or heating oil. It's also a highly regressive tax, so that it would be devastating to lower income people with out an aggressive rebate program, and such transfer programs are anathema to the right. The human race may not be collectively smart enough to survive.

Defeating ISIS

Many have weighed in to argue that that's impossible, and if you are talking about exterminating the organization, it may well be true. At the moment though, that's not the problem it presents. That problem is that it's a coherent, effective fighting force that's conquering territory, committing genocide, and threatening our allies. That can be dealt with, and we know very well how to do it. Unfortunately, the strategy and tactic require an effective ground force. Kosovo and other examples showed once again that air power is rather ineffective against dispersed ground forces. Consequently, it's necessary to force those ground forces to concentrate at which point air power is crushing, at least in open terrain. That kind of concentration requires a determined advance by forces on the ground, at which point the enemy must either surrender ground or concentrate in order to resist.


The NFL may have caved on men "disciplining" wives and girl friends, but it's still a place where an indicted 100 kg thug can beat a four-year old bloody. At least if that thug can really play.

Kevin Drum on ISIS

Kevin is another guy who thinks we are wrong to take on ISIS: There's no question that the beheading of American citizens by a gang of vicious thugs is the kind of thing that makes your blood boil. Unless you hail from Vulcan, your gut reaction is that you want to find the barbarians who did this and crush them. But that shouldn't be your final reaction. This is not an era of conventional military forces with overwhelming power and no real fear of blowback. It's an era of stateless terrorists whose ability to commit extremely public atrocities is pretty much unlimited. And while atrocities can have multiple motivations, one of the key reasons for otherwise pointless actions like one-off kidnappings and beheadings is their ability to either provoke overreactions or successfully extort ransoms. Unfortunately, Americans are stupidly addicted to the former and Europeans seem to be stupidly addicted to the latter, and that's part of what keeps this stuff going. In any c

Climate Zombie Trolls

One of the blogs I read is devoted to Arctic sea ice. Most of those who comment there are professionals or very knowledgeable amateur Arctic watchers - I just lurk. Unfortunately the climate trolls attack, armed with their half-truths and outright nonsense from Denial Central or wherever the great stupidity attractor lurks. They invariably parrot the same stale mythology that has been circulating for years and fail to understand the implications of their own claims. They do, however, wield one super-power - the ability to change the subject whenever somebody takes the trouble to refute one of their stupidities. Combine this with their general cluelessness and disrespect for staying on topic, and they become a serious pest - like flies at a picnic. Here is a good, or rather, an egregious, example, posted by one keithwqq: Astounding rebound in Arctic, record high levels in Antarctic. Tough year to be a warmist. It would be hard to exaggerate just how much misinformation, confusio

The Glue Trap

Obama made his intention to extract us from Bush's foreign wars pretty clear, but the US keeps getting dragged back in. Couldn't we, shouldn't we, just say the heck with you and let the Middle East and the rest of the world struggle with their own problems? Former big time interventionist Andrew Sullivan is sure that Obama is making a big mistake by going after ISIS. He quotes David Frum, good old "axis of evil" Frum, as follows: The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?” That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable—at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead. What terms likely to be acceptable is a question for the future, but I think Obama's rationale makes a hella lot more sense than Frum's

Obama's Anti-ISIL Speech

If Obama uses the phrase "reverse the momentum" I will likely throw-up. In fact any mention of p or other component of the stress-energy tensor will bother me. Other stupid words are: limited, defensive, and surgical . War is war. If you aren't in to win, you are just killing people for no good reason. Suitable words and phrases include: defeat, crush, eliminate, annihilate, destroy, conquer and vanquish . Please no idiotic euphemisms, equivocations, or weasel wordings.

Barbarians at the (Water)gate

The customer needed a haircut before an important public appearance. The barber made polite conversation on the one subject every last customer was interested in: “What do you think of these Watergate hearings?” “They’re pretty interesting, but I haven’t been able to see much of them.” “I’ll say they’re interesting. I’m bringing my TV set to the shop next week. I want to see this guy Dean get his butt kicked.” “Yeah, that’s going to be something. We’ll find out what the squealer has to say for himself.” “Right. You know, I can’t imagine a guy lying that way about President Nixon. The guy is crazy, maybe.” “Could be,” John Dean said, with all sincerity. Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations 2870-2875). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Scientific Conspiracies

A favorite ploy of denialists of various stripes (vaccination, global warming, evolution...) is that scientists are engaged in a sort of conspiracy to silence dissent. Given the pretty widespread belief that rigorous internal critique is at the core of the scientific method, can scientific conspiracies really exist? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes - though none of the above are likely examples. The most prominent contemporary example seems to be the great "saturated fats are evil" myth. Nina Teicholz has traced the story in her book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, which she is currently flogging in various venues. Of course this was not a conspiracy of deliberate deceit, but of true believers. Their is very little evidence that Ancel Keys or any of the others propagating this myth were deliberately selling something they knew was wrong. Instead, they believed the idea so passionately that they discounted contrary

Juggling for Seniors

Once upon a time I had a modest (OK, VERY modest) skill at juggling. So, not having done any juggling for a few years or decades or something, I decided to see if my old muscles, reflexes, and fading vision could still handle it. Three balls, check. Four beanbags - not so hot, managed 11 consecutive catches, while minimum proficiency is supposed to be twenty, but not bad considering that I never was any good at it. Three clubs is probably the minimum skill that is amusing to watch, and I used to be able to do it pretty easily, even managing a few simple tricks. This seems to be a major challenge for my own personal beanbag - the fixed one, between my shoulders, I mean. So far, I just haven't been able to manage the air traffic control. The problem is that I just can't seem to stay in the basin of stability, and my pattern quickly become chaotic. This is a familiar pattern in control theory - either the sensors aren't up to the task or the actuators aren't. Bu

The El

Current Southern Oscillation conditions continue to muddle along in weak El Niño territory, so if you were counting on it to bring some big rains, maybe not. Of course it could still make a big splash, but odds now seem against it.

Uh Oh?

From DAVID M. HERSZENHORN in the NYT: MOSCOW — A strange incident near the Russian-Estonian border on Friday ended with an Estonian intelligence officer in Russian custody and the two countries trading sharply contradictory allegations about what happened. Estonia’s president and prime minister, among other officials, said the officer had been kidnapped at gunpoint from their territory and forced across the border in a blatant violation of sovereignty. The Russian Federal Security Service said the officer was in Russia and engaged in a clandestine operation when he was detained. The episode threatened to heighten tensions between Russia and the NATO alliance, to which Estonia belongs, at a time when relations are already severely strained over the conflict in Ukraine. It came just two days after President Obama gave a speech in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, pledging that NATO would defend the Baltics against Russian aggression and suggesting that any attack on them would lead to w

Debates About Israel

Jonah Shepp gives the standard boilerplate defense of Zionism at Andrew Sullivan's place. He claims to be "seeing both sides now" but the other side, whatever it may be, is hidden behind his paywall. I don't want to get into any of that on either side, but I would note that debates about Israel in the US are really about what the US should or should not be doing. Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, and tough measures are sometimes needed in such places, but should their problems really be our problems? Israel is a US client state, depending heavily on the US for money and weaponry, not to mention vital political support in the form of UN Security Council vetoes. Jon Stewart noted the irony that when Israel called a ceasefire in its latest Gaza war, apparently because it had run out of (American) ammo, the US, which had loudly proclaimed its desire for just such a ceasefire, was quick to promise that a few hundred million bucks worth of ammo was on the way. Th

Shot Clock: The Thoughtful Man

I've been trying to puzzle out Obama's unpopularity in the face of an economy that continues to improve despite relentless Republican sabotage.  Some of the theories I've floated have been met with less than widespread acclaim. Rick Perlstein, in his new book,  The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, notes that Reagan, in his youth, developed a talent,  for turning any situation into an inspirational or heroic narrative with himself in the lead role.  Many a youth does something similar, but Reagan's genius was in his ability to project this heroic myth into the world, and sell it.  Very useful for a movie actor, an for a leader too.  His remarkable record at lifesaving, for example, reveals a number of beneficiaries who didn't think they really needed succor. Reagan the politician had a glib and self-serving, if not necessarily responsive, answer for every question, usually cribbed from one of his campaign speeches. Compare and contra

Better Off Russian?

Some have argued that the Ukrainians would be better off in Russia. That doesn't seem to have been the case for the chunks of Georgia that Putin picked up on one of his earlier land grabs. In any case, one of the prime motivations for big desertions of Ukrainian police to the separatist cause seems to have been the promise of much larger Russian pensions. So how are Russians doing, overall? In per capita GDP, a lot better than Ukrainians. In some other respects, maybe not so hot. From Masha Gessen's story in the New York Review of Books blog. In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II. Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality. By the mid-1990s, the average St. Petersburg man lived for seven fewer years than he did at the end of the Communist period; in Moscow, the dip was even greater, with death coming nea

The Great Attraction

Our Galaxy is known to have a peculiar velocity of some 600 km/s with respect to the cosmic microwave background. It's long been rather unclear what the nature of "the Great Attractor" responsible for this velocity has been. A new study seems to clarify that question and to establish our position in a newly identified supercluster of galaxies being called Laniakea. Within the boundaries of the Laniakea Supercluster, galaxy motions are directed inward, in the same way that water streams follow descending paths toward a valley. The Great Attractor region is a large flat bottom gravitational valley with a sphere of attraction that extends across the Laniakea Supercluster. The name Laniakea was suggested by Nawa'a Napoleon, an associate professor of Hawaiian Language and chair of the Department of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature at Kapiolani Community College, a part of the University of Hawaii system. The name honors Polynesian navigators who used knowledg

The European Apex

It can be argued that modern European civilization reached its apex in the earliest years of the Twentieth Century. It was a high point of European power, confidence and culture. European science and technology had outstripped anything achieved by the other great civilizations. Most of the world had either been colonized or dominated by Europe. The only really important exception was Europe's overseas cousin in the thoroughly Europeanized United States. Technology and military power were not the only elements of its dominance. Europe proclaimed and probably mostly believed that its conquest of much of the rest of the world was bringing the benefits of their allegedly "higher" civilization to more benighted peoples everywhere. The industrial revolution of coal, steam, and their associated technology had propelled it to dominance, and new advances like electricity and the use of petroleum seemed certain to push progress farther and faster. Few Europeans probably kn

Gambling Men at the LHC Casino

Peter Woit has collected some information on Supersymmetry bets by various physicists. Most of them are still outstanding. Only Jacques Distler was brave enough to bet on the first 10 inverse fempto barns, and he has evidently paid up to Tommaso Dorigo. It seems that Mother nature has little compunction about fooling us.

Our Ediacaran Cousins?

The multi-cellular animal body plans we see today all seemed to have originated, or at any rate first left fossil traces, in the Cambrian, beginning 540 million years ago. They were not the very first multi-cellular animals though. The preceding 100 million years saw the flourishing of the Ediacaran fauna , mysterious tube and frond shaped guys who resembled nothing living today. Or maybe not . The linked BBC story reports the discovery of some tiny animals that don't look like anything else around today, but when I first saw the picture, I thought "Ediacara?" Apparently some better informed people had the same thought. A mushroom-shaped sea animal discovered off the Australian coast has defied classification in the tree of life. A team of scientists at the University of Copenhagen says the tiny organism does not fit into any of the known subdivisions of the animal kingdom. Such a situation has occurred only a handful of times in the last 100 years. The organisms

Privacy in the Internet Age

As Bill Joy noted some time ago, and JLawr and colleagues recently found out, it's at best an illusion. Caught among the assaults of horny teenagers with time on their hands, curious corporations, and snoopy governments, your online secrets aren't. As ever more of our lives moves online, privacy becomes ever more illusory. This is not really such a novel condition for humans. In hunter-gatherer bands of yore and small towns everywhere until quite recently, privacy was all but nonexistent and secrets very perishable. In the anonymity of cities and the automobile, a more private lifestyle took root, but it may be ending.

Taking Kiev

Is there a moral equivalence between Putin's invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and US interventions in Somalia, Iraq, etc? I don't think there is, but whether or no, I don't think that's the central issue in Putin's actions. Some interventions are much more dangerous than others. Two more fundamental concerns involve territorial incorporation and location. The disappearance of the old European empires in the mid and late Twentieth Century was widely supposed to have marked the end of the colonial age and global wars it spawned. Of course foreign interventions didn't stop, but it was tacitly understood that they would not pit the great powers directly against each other, and that old style colonial conquest was not permitted. Putin's interventions in Ukraine and Georgia violate the second principle, but perhaps more importantly, his actions, plus his belligerent rhetoric (I can take Kiev in two weeks) sent a shiver of fear through Poland and the Baltic

My Tax Dollars At Work

Newspaper headline: FBI leads hunt for hacker behind Jennifer Lawrence naked pictures. The FBI is leading the hunt for the hacker who stole naked photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities, a bureau spokesman said Monday. Images of the 24-year-old Oscar-winner began appearing on the website 4chan on Sunday night after the actress's Apple iCloud account was apparently broken into. Anonymous 4chan users claimed to have photographs of 100 women including the actresses Scarlett Johansson and Winona Ryder and the models Kate Upton and Cara Delevingne. I suppose it bespeaks an attenuated moral sense that I have limited sympathy for these bimbos who put naked pictures of themselves on the internet and then are outraged when they find a wider than intended audience. I mean really, did they think these pictures were only going to be seen by their boyfriends, movie producers and the NSA? How naive.

Nutrition and the Brain

If I only had a brain... Steve Hsu links to some papers discussing nutrition and the brain . In childhood the proportion of nutrition consumed by the brain is particularly prodigious: The metabolic costs of brain development are thought to explain the evolution of humans’ exceptionally slow and protracted childhood growth; however, the costs of the human brain during development are unknown. We used existing PET and MRI data to calculate brain glucose use from birth to adulthood. We find that the brain’s metabolic requirements peak in childhood, when it uses glucose at a rate equivalent to 66% of the body’s resting metabolism and 43% of the body’s daily energy requirement, and that brain glucose demand relates inversely to body growth from infancy to puberty. Our findings support the hypothesis that the unusually high costs of human brain development require a compensatory slowing of childhood body growth. It's well known the under-nutrition in childhood depresses adult heig

Empire Building

The collapse of the big European empires, concluding with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, left the US as the only superpower, leaving it as something of a global "empire." The quotes are appropriate because in recent decades the US has not attempted to permanently occupy or politically incorporate foreign nations. Of course this hasn't kept us from interfering in the rest of the world, sometimes militarily. The old empires of Europe mostly seem content with their fate, except of course for Russia, which under Putin has annexed a few former colonies and continues to hint and push for more ambitious goals. These annexations have been the old-fashioned kind, by military force, though so far confined to former colonies with substantial pro-imperial sentiment. Meanwhile, the Chinese empire has forcefully reasserted itself, propelled by a surging economy and renewed self-confidence. So far, the main targets of its imperial advances have been Tibet, Hong Kong, and

Outside My Window

I have a rose bush just outside the window my computer faces, with a little trellis for support. A month or so ago I hung up one of those sock-type finch feeders, which eventually attracted some house finches. They seem to have some bullying tendencies, with usually only one or two (mating pairs?) feeding at a time, with any others being chased off. More recently, the lesser goldfinches showed up. They seem more tolerant of crowds, with up to half a dozen showing up at a time, though the much bigger house finches sometimes chase them off.