Showing posts from November, 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 mov

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.,

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.


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.

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 G


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

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, “Every

"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

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.

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.

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, an

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 effortles


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 annoy


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,

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

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 p

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

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&#

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 s

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, re

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: