Showing posts from April, 2015

Last Stand for the Armored Knight

The armored knight has dominated human combat probably since somebody first figured out how to slap on boiled leather armor. The immense advantage of armor, especially when combined with the mobility conferred by putting him on horseback meant that one of these guys could dominate and appropriate much of the earnings of dozens or hundreds of his fellows. Technology has caused the value of the armored knight to fluctuate a bit, but in his current incarnation, as F-35 pilot, his equipment alone costs the full annual salary of almost ten thousand of his fellow citizens (as much as $350 million apiece for the Navy's F-35C). His day may be ending though. The problem is that the pilot not only adds a lot less value than he used to, but that he is becoming the weakest link in the weapons system. His eyes have long since been supplanted by longer range radar and his acceleration tolerance is far below that of steel and solid state electronics. He is bulky and fragile, and his job mig

Rating Colleges

Brookings has computed ratings for colleges and universities by value added. The top three four year schools are Caltech, Colgate, and MIT. Harvard, Princeton and Yale are somewhere below the top twenty.

Sunni, Shia, and Us

Sunni and Shia have been fighting it out for more than a millenium, but the current conflicts in Yemen and Iraq owe a lot to US interventions in both places. One may wonder why the f*** we seem to be on both sides of this shit storm. (Shia in Iraq, Sunni in Yemen). Whom, if anyone, benefits from that?

The United States and Pakistan

An ally, in one perhaps cynical definition, is someone you can't trust enough to call a friend. Pakistan has been that ally since it's inception. Pakistan was largely the creation of one man, Muhammed Ali Jinnah , and its rationale for existence was to prevent Muslims from having to live in a country with a Hindu majority. In that respect, as in many, it has failed, with the Muslim population of the subcontinent now divided among three countries: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, with with Pakistan having roughly 2/5 of the total. Husain Haqqani, scholar, journalist, and former Pakistani ambassador to the US, has written an history of US Pakistan relations, and its title could also be its summary: Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding Both the US and Pakistan have been seriously deluded in what they have expected from each other, but Pakistan probably takes the bigger hit in the early going. Margaret Bourke-White, the

Book Review: The War That Ended Peace

The Nineteenth Century was the century of European hegemony. Europe and it's colonies dominated the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. The old powers of Islam and China were diminished and crumbling. Europe itself had mostly been at peace for nearly 100 years, with only localized wars. The First World War was not only an immense catastrophe in itself, but a crucial trigger of the further cataclysms that followed: the Communist Revolution and the Second World War. At the end of the war, three empires had been swept away and all of Europe was devastated in ways from which it would never recover. Margaret Macmillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 traces the origins of that war in the circumstances, power politics and human folly that led to it. What if is the question that marks the beginning of practically every intellectual inquiry, and history is a wonderful source of such. There can hardly be any doubt that the war itself was a colossal blunder. Na

Book Review: What Are Gamma Ray Bursts?

Joshua S. Bloom's What Are Gamma Ray Bursts is the second book in the Princeton University Press Frontiers in Physics Series. It shares the same concise and compact format as the earlier volume on the First Stars and Galaxies in the Universe, together with the same annoyingly small type face. It's also very reasonably priced. Gamma Ray Bursts, first discovered as a side effect of a program to monitor the nuclear test ban treaty, are extraordinarily intense and very brief, with the duration of the gamma ray pulse being anything from less than a second to several seconds. During this time they are thousands of times brighter than a quasar and millions of times brighter than a supernova or a galaxy. Bloom traces the history of our understanding of this phenomenon, and discusses the physics believed to be involved in the phenomena. There are still many uncertainties, but it is generally believed that there at least three different types of GRBs. The so-called soft gamma r

Bee Hits the NYT

Well, it's official. Bee is now a celebrity physicist. George Johnson in the NYT: Earlier this year, Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist in Stockholm, made the jarring suggestion that dark matter might cause cancer. She was not talking about the “dark matter” of the genome (another term for junk DNA) but about the hypothetical, lightless particles that cosmologists believe pervade the universe and hold the galaxies together. Though it has yet to be directly detected, dark matter is presumed to exist because we can see the effects of its gravity. As its invisible particles pass through our bodies, they could be mutating DNA, the theory goes, adding at an extremely low level to the overall rate of cancer. We know her better as proprietor of the blog BackReAction.

I Have An Idea For A Video Game

...said the kid to the video game developer. So does everybody else, said the developer. The problem is that there is a lot of hard grunt work between idea and accomplishment. That's true in spades for ideas in theoretical physics. Ideas are cheap but testable quantitative predictions are expensive. If you can't do the arithmetic, nobody will, or should, take you seriously.


Your density is very close to 1 gm/cm^3, which in mass is equivalent to Avogadro's number of hydrogen atoms or 6.022 x 10^23/cm^3. For comparison, the average density of Universe today is only equivalent to 5 atoms/m^3, but only one part in 25 or so is expected to be baryonic matter, so about 2 x 10^-7 atoms/cm^3. In a galaxy, matter is about a million times as dense, and averaged over the local solar system, another factor of a million more dense, and a neutron star is about 10^14 (one hundred trillion) times as dense as you are, while you are roughly 10^32 times as dense as the average of the universe. The point is that density varies a whole lot in the present day universe, but this was not always the case. The oldest light in the universe comes from 13.7 billion years ago, a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, when the Universe had cooled enough ( to 3000 K, or so) for hydrogen atoms to form from the previous soup of protons and electrons - the so-called age of r

The Depths of Folly

After the assassination of the heir to the throne in Sarajevo by Serbian extremists, the Austrian hawks had the excuse for war that they had been clamoring for. As in the case of the 9/11 attack almost a century later, the Austrians had abetted the attackers by their reckless disregard of clear warnings. The depth of the Austrian folly can be grasped in the reaction of the chief of the general staff and principal Austrian warmonger. Conrad, who as chief of the general staff had been clamoring for war ever since the Bosnian crisis in 1908, heard the news as he changed trains in Zagreb. He wrote immediately to his beloved Gina. Serbia was clearly behind the assassinations and Austria-Hungary should have dealt with it long since. The future of the Dual Monarchy now looked grim, he went on: Russia would probably support Serbia and Rumania would have to be counted as an enemy as well. Nevertheless, he told Gina, war there must be: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued,

War and Terror: 1914

MacMillan on the Serbian terrorists who lit the fuse: The act which was going to send Europe on the final leg of its journey towards the Great War was the work of fanatical Slav nationalists, the Young Bosnians, and their shadowy backers in Serbia. The assassins themselves and their immediate circle were mostly young Serb and Croat peasant boys who had left the countryside to study and work in the towns and cities of the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. While they had put on suits in place of their traditional dress and condemned the conservatism of their elders, they nevertheless found much in the modern world bewildering and disturbing. It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda a century later. Like those later fanatics, the Young Bosnians were usually fiercely puritanical, despising such things as alcohol and sexual intercourse... ... The leader of the assassination plot was a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, the slight, introverte

Some Books

...Are magical attractants for a kind of ignorant hysteria. You can usually identify them on Amazon by a couple of traits: they have large proportions of the highest and lowest ratings, with little in between, and the negative ratings come overwhelmingly from those who are not Amazon verified purchasers. The latter circumstance is hardly proof that they haven't read the book, but it is a clue. Of course any book advocating a polarizing position is likely to attract both hostility and support, but the distinguishing characteristic is whether any cogent arguments are brought to the case. The distinguishing characteristic of what I tend to think of as the ignorant non-reader review is the one sentence slam with no particulars, like this canonical example: Lousy book - very biased and without much research. tendency to twist facts and research to push own conclusions. Said of a book with several thousand specific citations of original documents.

A Gathering of Jackals

The death spasms of the ancient Ottoman Empire were a major factor in precipitating World War One. That empire was dying, and much of Europe wanted a piece. Britain had grabbed Egypt, France had gobbled up several North African territories, and Russia and Austria Hungary had major ambitions in Europe. Germany wanted a piece of the African action, and so did Italy, but the most fraught struggle was in the Balkans. The major powers were not the only ones engaged in trying to gnaw off pieces of the not yet dead Ottoman corpse. Various Balkan provinces had briefly united to throw off Ottoman rule, but promptly turned on each other afterwards, each trying to grab more of the common pie. Hundreds of years of imperial rule had shaken, stirred, and mixed the various ethnicities, but rising nationalist sentiment everywhere was undoing the mix. Then, as now, every tinpot imperialist could claim to be intervening to protect their fellow Christians, Catholics, Orthodox, fellow Slavs, Serbs

Out of Style

Lately I find myself thinking that Taylor Swift's relentless narcissism is getting just a bit too tedious. Naturally, I found myself humming Style about 40 minutes later.

GRBs: Astro FOTD

Gamma Ray Bursts, during their brief (seconds or so) existence are the brightest objects in the universe, hundreds or thousands of times as bright as a quasar and millions of times as bright as a supernova. Brilliance and brevity both present related puzzles. If the gamma rays released are thermal, the implied temperatures (trillions of K) are implausible, and the brevity of the emission time is also hard to explain, if we assume that emitting shock wave cools by collision with the interstellar medium. Both effects are believed to be explained by the ultrarelativistic character of the shock wave, moving at a speed just barely lower than the speed of light. Gamma = sqrt(1/(1-v^2/c^2)) is 1000 or more. This produces a relativistic Doppler effect, which can be considered to be the combination of an ordinary Doppler effect with relativistic time dilation. Because the source is coming rapidly toward us the emitted radiation doesn't get very far ahead of the shock wave that emitted

Military Fantasies

A large and influential proportion of the military leaders just prior to World War I had embraced a fantasy version of war, one founded in the tactics and strategy of Napoleon but made utterly obsolete by the machine gun, the long range rifle, and rifled artillery. They imagined a war in which the offense, the infantry and cavalry charges would be quickly decisive. “It must be accepted as a principle,” said the 1907 British cavalry manual, “that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel.” There was talk too of breeding stronger and faster horses to gallop quicker across the fire zone. Attack, battles, a war itself, all were to be fast and, crucially, short. “The first great battle,” an officer told the French parliament in 1912, “will decide the whole war, and wars will be short. The idea of offense must penetrate the spirit of our nation.” Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29)

Sports Reporting

The lede of the NYT story on the NCAA Finals. This was a heavyweight fight of a college championship game, with two fine teams, Wisconsin and Duke, trading right crosses, hooks and uppercuts. I saw some of that, especially from Duke, but I think they played some basketball too.

Spring Offensive?

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark, fresh from a fact finding trip to Ukraine, predicts a Russian offensive in Ukraine this Spring. Russian-backed separatists are planning a fresh offensive in eastern Ukraine that could come within a matter of months, warns retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. “What is happening now is preparations for a renewed offensive from the east,” and this could take place following Orthodox Easter, on April 12, and “most probably” before VE Day on May 8, Clark said on March 30, citing multiple local sources he spoke with on a recent fact-finding mission to Ukraine. “That’s what all the talking is about right now, preparing the cover for the next attack,” he said.

Peace Partisans

Organized movements to warn against war developed and grew in the decades before World War I. Prescient individuals from Alfred Nobel to the elder Field Marshall von Moltke foresaw the catastrophic effects of war with modern weapons. These movements were a counter current to the growing militarism of the age, and a reaction to arms race that gripped all of Europe and beyond. Their reach was not uniform, however. The German peace movement never had more than about 10,000 members, who were drawn mainly from the lower middle classes. Unlike Britain, for example, it did not attract eminent professors, leading businessmen or members of the aristocracy. Where senior clergy supported the British or American movements, in Germany the churches generally denounced it on the grounds that war was part of God’s plan for mankind. 25 Nor did liberals take the lead in supporting peace in Germany as they did in other countries such as Britain and France. Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War

Terrorism Then

100 and some years ago. The last part of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth saw an upsurge in terrorism across Europe, especially in France, Russia and Spain, and in the United States. Often inspired by anarchism which saw all forms of social and political organization as tools of oppression, or simply by nihilism, terrorists set off explosions, hurled bombs, stabbed and shot, frequently with spectacular success. Between 1890 and 1914 they murdered, among others, Sadi Carnot, the President of France, two Prime Ministers of Spain, Antonio Cánovas in 1897 and José Canalejas in 1912, King Umberto of Italy, President McKinley in the United States (whose assassin was inspired by Umberto’s murder), Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the Russian statesman Stolypin and the Grand Duke Sergei, an uncle of the Tsar. Their victims were not only the powerful and the prominent: bombs dropped into the audience at a performance of William Tell in Barcelona killed twenty-nine and a bomb

Red Cards

Lumo has a curious story about a protest in the Czech Republic where protesters showed the President red cards to symbolize their intent to "send him off", soccer style. The curious part is a photograph in which supposed protesters are taking red cards of that type from a box that still has a US embassy postmark. Such a photo would be really easy to fake, but if genuine demonstrates both outrageous US behavior and really stupid execution of this particular stupid tactic. The subject warrants investigation, and if genuine, the guilty ambassador should be sent off. From the Radio Prague English language daily news summary: President Miloš Zeman says he is aware of a conspiracy theory that a protest against him on November 17 was organised by Prague’s U.S. Embassy. In an interview in Saturday’s Právo he said it was “a hypothesis that could not be ruled out”, but added that there was at present no evidence to support it.

Dangerous Ideas

It would be hard to think of any academic thinkers whose thought wrought greater destruction than Marx and Nietzsche (note that I leave out religious leaders and politicians). These words of Nietzsche, for example: In the coming century, there would be a “new party of life” which would take humanity to a higher level, “including the merciless destruction of everything that is degenerate and parasitical.” Life, he said, is “appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity …” Quoted by Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 4921-4923). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. MacMillan adds: The young Serbian nationalists who carried out the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and so precipitated the Great War were deeply impressed by Nietzsche’s views... ...Part of Nietzsche’s appeal was that it was easy to read a great deal into his work, and people including socialists, vegetarians

The Golden Horde

By my estimate, my flock of lesser goldfinches (10 grams each), with a little help from their house finch cousins, have eaten something over 15 million nyjer seeds since I installed the feeder outside my window a few months ago. That's a lot of nyjer seeds, even at 150,000 seeds per pound, especially since they shell and eat every one. I would think their thumbs would get tired. Or, since they don't actually have thumbs and are forced to use beak and tongue instead, their tongues.

Wealth and Population

It is estimated that in 50 BC, the area that is now France had a population of about 2.5 million. At the same time, India was estimated to already have a population of about 100 million. By 1600, the French population had increased to about 20 million, while the Indian population was still about 100 million. Why the difference? Of course we can't know for sure, but the most plausible reason (for me) was that both populations were at approximately the Malthusian limits imposed by their technology at the time, and that French food production, social arrangements, sanitation, and public safety were both very primitive compared to India in 50 BC, but had largely caught up by 1600. Meanwhile, globally, little progress had been made beyond the Indian technology of 50 BC. By 1800, the French had added another 45% (to 29 million) to their population and India had added perhaps as much as 100% (to 200 million),(all numbers before 1800 are estimates). By this point, technological diff