Sunday, March 30, 2014

Israeli Sniper Story

A couple of weeks shooting at Palestinians.

500 METERS FROM THE ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER — The team — two of us snipers, a spotter, the lieutenant, and a driver, sit around a table in the small office of Major W, commander of this special infantry unit. I examine a grainy black-and-white photo that’s being passed around — a chubby middle-aged man in a jacket with white sleeves standing in a sunny field. The picture is from military intelligence, and it shows the man we are planning to shoot.

Read more:

What Lies Beneath

A moderate sized (magnitude 4.8) earthquake shook Yellowstone National Park yesterday. This is notable partly because Yellowstone has a history as a supervolcano. It only blows every 700,000 years or so - last time about 700,000 years ago (OK, OK, it was only 640 kyrs ago) - but when it does, it's a spectacular, continent annihilating event with global consequences. There seems to be a big pool of magma collecting down below:

Late last year a new study into the enormous super volcano found the underground magma chamber to be 2.5 times larger than previously thought — a cavern spanning some 90km by 30km and capable of holding 300 billion cubic kilometres of molten rock.

Students of geometry might be impressed by the thought that a pool of areal extent less than 2700 km^2 could house "300 billion cubic kilometers of molten rock." Let's make the plausible guess that they really meant 300 billion cubic meters, or a more reasonable 300 cubic kilometers - it's still quite a bit.

A more measured view here and of course Wikipedia.

Battle of Kiev

Jamie Dettmer has seen what he considers convincing photographic evidence that the sniper attacks on protesters at Maidan were carried out by the KGB linked and Russian trained SBU. The rather absurd claims by Putin that the murderers were actually pro-European agents provocateurs never made sense, even if they were swallowed by many credulous anti-Americans.

A couple of excerpts:

Most of the photographs accompanying this article were taken on February 20, and they appear to reveal the truth about who carried out the shootings in Independence Square on that day—a fateful one for both Ukraine and for Europe, which suddenly witnessed the continent’s worst political violence of the 21st century. The pictures shared exclusively with The Daily Beast show members of a crack anti-terrorist unit known as the Alfa Team in the courtyard of the headquarters of Ukraine’s feared state security service, the SBU, preparing themselves for battle. The agency’s seven-story headquarters occupies an entire city block and is just three streets from the Maidan.

The SBU is the successor intelligence agency to the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet-era KGB and it still maintains exceptionally close ties to Moscow. For many years “leading SBU functionaries came from the KGB,” says Boris Volodarsky, a former Russian military intelligence officer and author of the book The KGB’s Poison Factory. He says Russia’s intelligence service, now known as the FSB, has made sure over the years to maintain deep penetration of its Ukrainian counterpart and to ensure that its “agents and associates remain in place.” That was easily done during the presidency of the pro-Russian Yanukovych...


More than a hundred people were killed and at least 900 injured in February during the battles that seesawed in Kiev’s Independence Square between security forces loyal to Yanukovych and the protesters, who came from all walks of life and from across Ukraine’s political spectrum. They were determined to topple him and end the five-year kleptocracy in which he, his family and close associates looted the country to the tune of $70 billion.

February 20 marked a critical turning point in the conflict. It was the most violent day in the history of Ukraine since Soviet times and it proved to be the undoing of the Yanukovych regime. The snipers failed to break the spirit of Yanukovych’s opponents, but the carnage inspired key loyalists in his ruling Party of Regions, including the city’s mayor and members of the Rada, or parliament, to quit. The next day Yanukovych fled the capital, and then the country.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Have We Metaphor...

... or are you just simile to somebody I used to know?

A major theme of Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Philosophy is the notion that abstract thought is metaphorical and that the metaphors are grounded in the neural circuity of our sensory motor systems. Thus we may tackle the subject of metaphysics, see its key ideas, or have them go over our head. The apparatus of deductive thought is itself encapsulated in metaphor. Premises are starting points, deductions are a journey, and conclusions are a destination that follows from them.

According to the authors, the core metaphors are grounded in simultaneous activations:

Part 1: Johnson's theory of conflation in the course of learning. For young children, subjective (nonsensorimotor) experiences and judgments, on the one hand, and sensorimotor experiences, on the other, are so regularly conflated-undifferentiated in experience-that for a time children do not distinguish between the two when they occur together. For example, for an infant, the subjective experience of affection is typically correlated with the sensory experience of warmth, the warmth of being held. During the period of conflation, associations are automatically built up between the two domains. Later, during a period of differentiation, children are then able to separate out the domains, but the cross-domain associations persist. These persisting associations are the mappings of conceptual metaphor that will lead the same infant, later in life, to speak of "a warm smile," "a big problem," and "a close friend."

George Lakoff. Philosophy In The Flesh (Kindle Locations 610-615). Kindle Edition.

Such subjective associations with concrete sensory-motor experience color, shape and define all our more abstract notions.

Got to be a Better Way

One would think that in an age when parents routinely track their children's locations to within a few meters using their cell phones, that there would be a better way to find lost airplanes. The still unsuccessful search for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is approaching a month and has probably consumed hundreds of millions of dollars. Isn't it time to install tamper proof (at least from the aircraft) systems that report vital information, including location, via satellite?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Delusions Induced by Power

Even as the German Sixth Army was being annihilated at Stalingrad, Hitler still thought German armies would be in India by Spring. Putin took Crimea at almost zero cost. Will he be able to resist further moves?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Boomerang: Book Review

Michael Lewis is a writer you might want to read even if he wrote about something really boring, like baseball statistics - oh wait, he did - and it became a hit movie (Moneyball). He has a magical ability to capture interesting characters at or near the core of interesting economic events, so he is a business writer, after a fashion. His other famous movie, The Blind Side, was also sports oriented (football), but the characters are always at the center of his stories, and that's what makes his tales of Wall Street shenaningans and national bankruptcies winners.

That's true of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, but the if it were only about some characters caught up in a global calamity, the book would be much less interesting to the analytically inclined (I've seen the movies, but I haven't read those two of his books.)

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way. No response was as peculiar as the Greeks’, however: anyone who had spent even a few days talking to people in charge of the place could see that.

Lewis, Michael (2011-09-28). Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (pp. 42-43). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Lewis ends up in California, our very quintessential disaster tourist destination. His book ends with some philosophical/evolutionary psychological thoughts on our species vulnerability to this kind of disaster:

The succession of financial bubbles, and the amassing of personal and public debt, Whybrow views as simply an expression of the lizard-brained way of life. A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control’s color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern. The boom in trading activity in individual stock portfolios; the spread of legalized gambling; the rise of drug and alcohol addiction; it is all of a piece. Everywhere you turn you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for a short-term reward. What happens

Lewis, Michael (2011-09-28). Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (p. 205). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Most of the those countries/States that plunged themselves into ruin have now begun to recuperate. How long the lessons will last is another question.

A good look at Lewis and his work is in New York Magazine here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

...When Jupiter Aligns with Mars...

The equations of motion that govern the Solar System are chaotic. So a kind of important question is that of whether planetary orbits are stable. The best available answer seems to be maybe.

When simulations are run for a few billion years, some funky stuff sometimes - but only rarely - happens. Sometimes Mercury collides with Venus. Sometimes with the Sun - or, more usually, neither. Sometimes Mars gets ejected from the Solar System.

Gravitational micro-lensing observations seem to show that there are a certain number of orphan planets out there, planets that apparently formed in stellar systems but subsequently hit the road after getting ejected from their birth systems. There are even hints that such an event might have occurred early in the history of our Solar System. One puzzling event of early solar system history is the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment. One theory sanctioned by dynamic simulation is that this asteroid bombardment, some 300-500 million years after the formation of the planets, might have been due to the shuffle accompanying the ejection of a large planet from the system. Versions of the Solar System with another substantial planet seem to be unstable.

Gravitational Reverberations from NYT

Dennis Overbye, writing in the NYT, has a nice article on the significance of the BICEP2 measurements. He makes a point that I had not understood (I'm assuming that he is right).

The gravitons themselves, theory says, are produced by the same process by which black holes leak. It is known as Hawking radiation, after Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, the renowned black hole theorist, best-selling author and avatar of cosmic mystery who discovered it in a prodigious calculation in 1973.

Shortly thereafter, William Unruh, now at the University of British Columbia, showed that you didn’t need black holes to see this radiation, just acceleration in space. In this case, the role of the black hole you can’t get out of is played by the rapidly retreating horizon you can’t reach in the inflating universe.

Hawking radiation has been part of the physics firmament for decades; it’s the best-known prediction of quantum gravity.

“Now it seems that Hawking and Unruh were right!” said Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at M.I.T., noting that some physicists had wondered whether gravity obeyed the dice-playing quantum principles that Einstein had disdained. “Now we know that gravity is indeed quantized, involving graviton particles,” he added.

So Hawking and Unruh might need to be added to the list of those getting Nobels out of this. The fact that the Hawking and Unruh effects come directly out of semi-classical quantum field theory may be significant too. One way of looking at the trick behind these calculation is that part of the quantum field modes get cut off by a horizon - or, alternatively, that one member of a virtual particle pair fall through the horizon and leaves its partner stuck and real on the other side.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Climate Change Crosshairs

Unsurprisingly, some estimates suggest that Asia will be the first to feel severe climate change effects. Large populations, crowded cities, low lying land and already high temperatures present special vulnerabilities.

People in coastal regions of Asia, particularly those living in cities, could face some of the worst effects of global warming, climate experts will warn this week. Hundreds of millions of people are likely to lose their homes as flooding, famine and rising sea levels sweep the region, one of the most vulnerable on Earth to the impact of global warming, the UN states.

The report – Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability – makes it clear that for the first half of this century countries such as the UK will avoid the worst impacts of climate change, triggered by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. By contrast, people living in developing countries in low latitudes, particularly those along the coast of Asia, will suffer the most, especially those living in crowded cities.

Food crops may also be vulnerable.

The Categorical Imperative

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy......................Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

You probably know that the Prince of Denmark was not talking to or about Immanuel Kant - he hadn't been born yet. Despite the title, I'm not either. I have in mind the thought that we humans quite naturally sort things into categories.

In their book, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought , George Lakoff and Mark Johnson note that categorization is a fundamental characteristic of life. Every time an amoeba decides to move toward what it senses as food, or a bacterium turns on some enzymatic system in response to a change in local chemistry, it is, in effect, making a decision, characterizing or categorizing its environment. For creatures with brains and nervous systems, the categorization can be made more explicit. Our eyes, for example, have about a million sensory cells, but only 100,000 fibers projecting to the brain. Visual experience has been presorted and categorized before it ever gets to the brain. Every stage of sensory processing includes a similar sorting and discrimination.

Obviously, the same sort of thing happens in every animal. Like us, a bird or a bee doesn't "see" a pattern of light and color, it sees a flower. Lakoff and Johnson make the point that our intellectual processes are clearly in a continuum with those of other animals, and shaped by the same evolutionary pressures. This fact, and others flowing from modern cognitive science, pose fundamental challenges to the ideas of conventional philosophy, both academic and folk.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ukrainian Mafia Connection

Jamie Dettmer in The Daily Beast:

Before and since Russia’s move to annex the Crimea, many who favor the pro-European government in Kiev have argued that these “bosses” might be provocateurs from Russia’s FSB intelligence service or Spetsnaz special forces infiltrated into Ukraine to orchestrate pro-Russian sentiment. But Berg, an organizer of the pro-Ukrainian rally last week where pro-Russian thugs stabbed a student to death, says there’s a different and in some ways more frightening explanation: the ominous hand of organized crime.

A public prosecutor, who declined to be named in this article for reasons of personal safety, says local hoodlums are operating among the pro-Russian protests in the restive eastern Ukraine, helping to direct them on the instructions of Kremlin-linked organized crime groups. He points the finger specifically at the notorious Seilem mob, which has been closely tied over the years to ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, a onetime governor of Donetsk, who is now in exile in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

There is much more in the article about the connections between the Oligarchs, the Mob, and the Kremlin.

Friday, March 21, 2014

More Gravitational Wave Reverberations

Someone said that the greatest tragedy in science is the slaughter of beautiful theories by ugly facts. Beautiful or not, the BICEP2 results are apparently creating some theoretical carnage. Andrei Linde's chaotic inflation, with its multiversal implications, looks pretty good. Some other stuff - not so much.

...authors wrote that the measurements made by Kovac's team using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole all but ruled out a class of models that attempted to explain both inflation and another cosmic mystery — the nature of dark matter — based on a hypothetical elementary particle called the axion. The researchers did not rule out all axion models, however, only that “this particular class of axions make up only a tiny fraction of the dark matter”, says Marsh.

Cosmologist Marc Kamionkowski of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, agrees that some axion models no longer work, “because they require inflation to operate at a lower energy scale than the one indicated by BICEP2”.

Kamionkowski says that the BICEP2 discovery would also rule out a plethora of other theories in one fell swoop, including several other ideas on the properties of the energy field that drove inflation. “The family of acceptable models has been collapsed tremendously,” he says.

Drums in the Deep

Our lagomorphic guru seems increasingly convinced that the Kali age is upon us - or at any, rate, that the triumph of Mordor is at hand. In addition to plenty of hot Siberian air invading the Arctic, it seems that in some places wet bulb temperatures have been creeping dangerously close to the 35 C death zone - the temperature at which humans can no longer cool themselves without refrigeration. A heat wave just a couple of WBT degrees warmer might produce hundreds of thousands or millions of casualties. Svalbard might actually see liquid water precipitation next week.

Oh well. No wonder I prefer to think about exoplanets.

Heavy Metal

The metallicity of a star, we might recall, measures how much of its material consists of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, that is, those elements that were manufactured in earlier generations of stars that subsequently spewed their contents across the cosmos. Our Sun, for example, has about 1 iron atom for every 20,000 hydrogen atoms. Metallicities of other stars are measured on a logarithmic scale on which the Sun is defined to have metallicity zero. Thus, a star with metallicity -4 has an iron fraction only 1/10000 that of the Sun (1 iron atom for every 200 million hydrogen atoms). The most metal poor stars of all seem to have metallicities of about -4.5, while the most metal rich are near 1, with ten times more iron than the Sun. Since the very first generation of stars had no metals at all, these would have been off the scale in the negative direction, but none of these so-called Population III stars seem to have survived to the present.

The kinds of planets a star can have seems to depend on the metallicity. The first extrasolar planets detected were the "hot Jupiters," gas giant planets very close to their stars, often well inside the orbital distance of Mercury, some with orbital periods of less than a day. From Kepler's third law, orbital radius scales like the 2/3 power of period, so such a planet would be very close to its star. The existence of such planets was a surprise, but they seem to be very common in metal rich stars, and such stars seem to have lots of them.

So how do gas giants form? The main answer seems to be "quickly." The initial star and its protoplanetary disc have both gas and dust. The dust condenses to to planetesimals which in turn assemble into rocky and metallic planets. If there is still hydrogen and helium around, and they are large enough, they can attract hydrogen and helium to become gas giants, but they have only a few million years, because then their star heats up and blows the hydrogen and helium out into interstellar space. Higher metallicities mean more dust, and presumably faster planetary formation, which probably accounts for more gas giants in such systems.

Via David Spergel's Coursera/Princeton class Imagining other Earths - especially the interview with Debra Fisher, one of the more prolific planet finders.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Social Security: A Modest Proposal

If a society is to support a large number of retired people, it's clear that those people will live on the production of those still working - on the transfer of production from those who work to those who are retired. This is true whether the actual funding was saved penny by penny by those now retired, is extracted by taxes on those still working, or accumulated in stock market retirement accounts.

Here is a radical proposal: create a retirement account for each citizen at birth, invested automatically in diversified securities. This would fund their individual social security pensions, which would be the same for everyone. Everyone could be encouraged to save also, to provide any luxuries they might wish to enjoy.

How to fund it? Hey it's not called fiat money after the car. The net effect would be slightly inflationary, which seems to be a good economic idea anyway - essentially all well run central banks manage their money to be slightly inflationary, which would work as invisible tax with zero administrative costs on the whole economy. The biggest advantage of the plan is that the administrative cost is essentially zero.

Anybody got a problem with that?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Flat Earth

My AGW skeptical friends particularly resent being called "flat Earthers". They see themselves as lonely voices of scientific skepticism in a world of hokum. Of course I don't agree.

In many cases, they are pretty well informed, better informed, in fact, than the average amateur "warmist", as they like to call people like me. The group I meet with have regular presentation in which they brief each other on various aspects of climate - last week's talk was on the carbon cycle. They pride themselves of believing "data", not experts.

Unfortunately, they are very selective in what data they choose to believe and take seriously. The retired biologist who presented on the carbon cycle material had a lot of details of facts and figures but the only thing that seemed to make an impression on him was the fact that some of the sources and sinks were large compared to human emissions and that the various sources he found on the internet had somewhat different estimates of the quantities.

Now the fact is that the carbon cycle is conveniently divided into slow and rapid components. Humans are currently putting something like 10^15 grams of carbon into the atmosphere every year. The fast carbon cycle (mostly biological photosynthesis and oxidation) involves one or two orders of magnitude more carbon, but almost all of that is stored only very temporarily. The slow carbon cycle (volcanism and precipitation of carbonates, for example) involves a order or two of magnitude less than humans are putting into the atmosphere. These can store carbon for millions of years. Failure to recognize this cardinal difference means missing the point: Fast carbon cycle processes only store carbon for a short time.

Two Cultures Cage Match

No human investigation can be called real science if it cannot be demonstrated mathematically..............Leonardo da Vinci

As quoted in de Pater, Imke; Lissauer, Jack J.. Planetary Sciences (Kindle Locations 1338-1339). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

The restoration of Nate Silver's 538 has provoked a reactionary spasm of Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic. Catherine Thompson of Talking Points Memo:

The New Republic's literary editor Leon Wieseltier ripped Nate Silver's newly relaunched FiveThirtyEight website on Wednesday, urging readers to resist the "intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs."

Silver's venture relaunched on Monday under a fox logo -- an allusion to Greek poet Archilochus' saying “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” If Silver is the fox, he considers the opinion columnists he loathes to be the hedgehogs, and FiveThirtyEight to be the antidote to the chattering class' blathering.

"Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically," he told New York Magazine.

Wieseltier blasted Silver for that "slander," arguing the data guru has more of the hedgehog in him than he'd ever admit.

Wieseltier goes on to label Silver more hedgehog than he admits - but I'm not sure that's actually an insult. Knowing "one great thing" is no mean accomplishment. Not least if it happens to be statistics.

On the other hand, I think history has only partially endorsed the Leonardo epigraph.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Lumo has comments and links on the theoretical fallout from BICEP2.

Linde Gets the News

If you haven't seen this video yet, you should.  Note that the furthest direct view of the origin of the Universe from the CMB on takes us back to t = 300,000 years or so.  The BICEP2 result goes back to phenomena many, many orders of magnitude earlier (via the imprint of primordial gravitational waves on the CMB).

Religious Studies: Miracles and Magic

There are a couple of kinds of religious studies departments in American Academe, and they mostly aren't on friendly terms with each other. One version, which I will call the Bible School version, is basically concerned with producing exponents of the faith - preachers and ministers. Students are expected to be believers and practitioners, and are instructed in the details of the faith so as to reinforce and defend the religion. Some comparison of religious points of view may be presented, but essentially only for purposes of defense of the faith. Indoctrination is central.

A second type of religious studies, prominent in the prestigious private universities, is focussed on the study of religion as a human institution. Scholars may or may not be believers, but they are usually expected to be critical and analytical in their approach. One place where this approach collides with the Bible School approach is in the consideration of the miraculous.

Most religions contain elements that could be described as magical or miraculous: gods and other spirits take an active part in goings on on Earth, speak to their adherents, prescribe and proscribe behaviors, and intervene frequently in human business. The analytical and skeptical tend to look askance at such doings, and frequently interpret them as myth or symbol. Here is Wendy Doninger, analyzing symbolism in the Mahabharata:

Unlike dogs and Nishadas, ogres and antigods cannot represent themselves because, in my humble opinion, they do not exist; they are imaginary constructions. Therefore they are purely symbolic, and the question is, What do they symbolize? Later in Indian history, they are often said to symbolize various groups of human beings: tribal peoples, 50 foreigners, low castes, Dravidians, South Indians, or Muslims. Various Hindus have named various actual human tribes after ogres and antigods and other mythical beasts (such as Asuras and Nagas), and others have glossed ogres such as the ogress Hidimbi, who marries the human hero Bhima, in the Mahabharata, or the Naga princess Ulupi, who marries Arjuna, as symbolic of tribal people who marry into Kshatriya families...

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 245). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

This sort of thing, whether applied to the various Catholic miracles, those of the Old Testament, or some other religion, can offend the faithful.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Inflation Happened

UPDATE: It's unsurprising, I suppose, but still disappointing, that much of the press coverage seems to confuse Cosmic Inflation (which the new data would seem to strongly support) with the Big Bang, which has long been on solid ground.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Farmer and the Cowman Can't be Friends?

Sometimes inter-religious violence looks more like competition for resources.

KANO, Nigeria (AP) — Officials say Fulani Muslim herders attacked three Christian villages and killed more than 100 civilians. Hundreds of thatched-roof huts were set ablaze. Thousands have been killed in recent years in competition for land and water between mainly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers across Nigeria's Middle Belt. More than 100 people were killed in similar attacks in neighboring Katsina state last week.

Friday, March 14, 2014

To B-Sure

Physics rumordom is rife with rumors of something big in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). In particular, the suspicion is that so-called primordial B-modes (of polarization) might have been observed by the BICEP2 South Polar experiment. For reasons beyond my (zero) pay grade, these are expected to show evidence of the characteristic energy scale of cosmic inflation - or at least give hints about that very early age of the Universe. The link is to Lumo's account, which contains explanatory material as well as numerous links to other speculations and explanations.


The Mahabharata is a text of about seventy-five thousand verses or three million words, some fifteen times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, or seven times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and a hundred times more interesting.

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 263). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Doesn't sound like the voice of someone bent on ridicule of The Mahabharata to me.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

No Racism to See Here .... Move Right Along

...The trouble is he's lazy...

Paul Ryan is busy explaining that there was nothing racist about his remarks that "inner city" men were poor because they were lazy. It's a cultural thing, apparently.

Speaking Wednesday on Bill Bennett's "Morning in America" radio show, Ryan said there is a "tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work."

"After reading the transcript of yesterday morning’s interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make," he said in a statement.

He had said later Wednesday that his comments had "nothing to do" with race, after a Democratic colleague on the Budget Committee blasted those remarks as a "thinly veiled racial attack."

I wonder if there might be an inner Republican cultural problem of lazy inarticulation. It does seem to be a recurrent problem.

Mysteries, Jokes, and Miracles

We are attracted to puzzles and mysteries. No doubt this trait has played a key role in humans becoming the dominant ecological factor on our planet. We like to organize our world and this organization led to science and many other human institutions. Events which don't fit our expectations are called mysteries, or sometimes, miracles - with mysteries presumably being puzzles that we just haven't figured out while miracles supposedly involve God tinkering with the otherwise reliable clockwork of the Universe. For me, and I would think most of the scientifically inclined, the real miracle is that there aren't any actual miracles.

Canonization of Roman Catholic Saints apparently requires some miracles. It turns out that these miracles, in accordance with the principle that there aren't really *any* miracles, are always very small miracles: somebody supposed to be very sick prayed for the intervention of the Candidate and mysteriously became better, or something of the sort. Those who pray for big miracles, like "make everybody's cancer go away" are invariably disappointed.

It seems to be the case that the word miracle is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root meaning 'to laugh' or 'to smile'. So maybe miracles are God's little jokes on the Universe. But, luckily for science, he doesn't seem to have that kind of sense of humor.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


I checked out the reboot of Cosmos, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The hero of the first episode was clearly Giordano Bruno, who glimpsed reality and paid by being tortured to death by the (Un)Holy Inquisition. Despite some progress, there are still plenty of people in the World willing to do murder over scriptural interpretations they regard as incorrect. Less dangerous but still a nuisance are those who would suppress books and authors they regard as blasphemous.

The first episode was fairly short on specific information - or at least stuff that was unfamiliar to me - but had lots of pretty pictures, which, after all, is what astronomy and cosmology are mostly about.

Messy Eaters of the Cosmos

Black holes seem to be pretty messy eaters. Roughly 10% of the potential energy of mass consumed seems to get radiated by the accretion disc and polar jets. Bright quasars radiate up to 10 trillion times Solar luminosity - perhaps 1000 times the brightness of a galaxy. That requires a yearly consumption of a couple of Solar masses of gas and or stars.
You wouldn't want to be in the immediate neighborhood. Of course most quasars were creatures of the early universe. Lately they have become as scarce as Ents.

Monday, March 10, 2014

If a Leaf Falls in the Forest...

When stars or big gas clouds fall into a black hole, it makes a heck of a racket. Magnetohydrodynamic effects in the accretion disc heat the infalling matter to millions of degrees, resulting broad spectrum emission of electromagnetic radiation, and powerful jets of charged particles can be sources of great amounts of synchrotron radiation, much of at longer wavelengths.

How about dark matter? Is there any reason to believe that it doesn't just fade softly and silently away as it fall into the black hole, carrying nothing but mass and a bit of angular momentum? It, presumably, cares nothing for electromagnetic fields or hydrodynamic pressure.

Your amateur cosmologist speculates, however, that not a whole lot of DM meets that fate. My reasoning is based on the fact that the dissipative mechanisms (friction and radiation) that allow baryonic matter to condense far more strongly than dark matter are not available to it. Any thoughts? I haven't seen anything on this yet.

UPDATE: Here is a professional's take:

Worth Remembering

Perhaps the most momentous discovery by a European was made by a nut job who refused to listen to the geographers who correctly told him that his boats and he would be wormwood long before they reached his intended destination of China. Despite his foolhardiness, he was as good a sailor as he was lousy a geographer.

Buying Regulators Attention to Make Big Bucks?

Suppose you have made a big bucks bet that some company's business practices wouldn't survive regulatory scrutiny - or rigorous enough regulatory scrutiny. How do make your ambition come true. Michael S. Schmidt, Eric Lipton and Alexandra Stevenson, writing in The NYT have the fascinating story of how one hedge fund billionaire has paid elected officials, activist groups and others to make his scrutiny a reality.

Indian Elections: One Perspective

Manu Joseph in the NYT:

What the elections are largely about this time is the rise of the fierce Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi — whose charm in no small measure derives from the sense of danger he exudes from having been accused of complicity in the 2002 riots in Gujarat State that resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims — and the political responses to his ascent.

The notion that Mr. Modi, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been the principal opposition in Parliament for 10 years, is the answer to India’s woes has been propagated by the business community, which owns Indian journalism, and the urban middle class, which views the Indian National Congress as corrupt, inefficient and a reckless benefactor of the poor. The noise on social media, which is largely in favor of Mr. Modi, contains the low-stakes patriotism of Indian residents of the United States who do not have to live through the consequences of their long-distance affair with nationalism. They tend to be liberal Democrats in the United States, but political conservatives in India.

Sunday, March 09, 2014


I briefly tuned in to ABC's This Week With the Regular Moron. The RM was out, so the Replacement Moron intoned something about Putin and Obama's "War of Words" over Ukraine. Hint: It's not a "war of words" once one side invades with troops, tanks and guns and starts blockading roads and harbors.

Moral Equality

I have never been much of a fan of Saint Paul, mainly because I have blamed him for invention of a lot of aspects of Christianity I never much cared form - like salvation by faith. Andrew Sullivan has a post which makes me reconsider. The invention of agriculture seems to have transformed somewhat egalitarian hunter gatherer societies into very hierarchical ones. This quote of a quote credits Paul with the invention of a powerful antidote:

[A]t the core of both ancient thinking and ancient society was the assumption of natural inequality. Different levels of social status, Siedentop argues, reflected what were taken to be inherent differences of being. Crucially, it was this assumption of natural inequality that was to be overturned by the Pauline interpretation of the significance of the life of Christ. As Siedentop expresses it, Paul wagered on human equality and in doing so he set out a Christian understanding of community as “the free association of the wills of morally equal agents”. In essence … Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual seeks to show how this new assumption of the moral equality of humans came, over a thousand years and more, to transform the way in which we conceived of both society and government.

At its heart is the claim that the Christian assumption of moral equality in turn gave rise to a commitment to the equal liberty of all individuals. If this is true, it follows, as Siedentop states, that it was the canon lawyers and philosophers of medieval Europe and not, as has usually been assumed, the writers of the Renaissance and their rediscovery of ancient humanism who are largely responsible for our modern conception of liberty and who therefore can lay claim to having established the fundamentals of modern liberalism. As Siedentop writes, the canon lawyers and philosophers of the 14th and 15th centuries “laid the foundation for a private, rights-based sphere, where freedom and conscience prevailed”.

To the extent that its true, it's a big deal in the history of the human race.

Big Data World and Real_ID

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 under mysterious and suspicious circumstances is likely to accelerate the collection of detailed information on virtually everybody on the planet. Two or perhaps more of the passengers appear to have been travelling with stolen identification documents.

In an age when governments and corporations can collect detailed information on every chat, tweet, email or facebook post, it should not escape anybody's notice that it would be far easier to construct a database of everybody on the planet, or at least everyone who wished to travel by any kind of public conveyance, and check that identification biometrically anytime anybody boarded or sought to board any such public conveyance.

Intrusive? Yes - but hardly more so than global collection of all those conversations.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

GHGs to the Stars

Metals, in Astro speak, are any elements other than hydrogen and helium. Since they weren't synthesized in the big bang (except for traces of lithium) the cosmos started out without any of them. The metals (in the astronomical use of the word) out of which we and our planet are made were created inside of stars and later dispersed in the interstellar medium through stellar winds and supernova explosions.
The oldest stars in our current universe, some of them over twelve billion years old, have much smaller metallicities (metal contents) than our own star, the Sun, which wasn't formed until the Universe was already about 9.4 billion years old. None of those stars, however, have the zero metallicities expected from the first born stars, so it looks like none of those survived to the present. Since a star with a mass of 85% of that of the Sun (or less) would be expected to live longer than the present age of the Universe, that suggests that no such stars were made in that first generation.
The absence of metals makes some significant differences in the formation and behaviors of stars. To condense into a star, a cloud of hydrogen needs to dissipate a bunch of heat. Hydrogen and helium are relatively inefficient at that. Metals make a big difference in the opacity of stars - one might think of them as the green house gases of the stars - or, more precisely, the greenhouse plasmas of the stars.
Consequently, it is plausible that most of those first generation stars were extremely massive, perhaps anywhere from 100 to 10000 Solar Masses. Not only that, but their lesser opacity made it easier for radiation to leak out of them, so for a given mass and luminosity, these so-called Population III stars were smaller and hotter than a population I (modern) counterpart, so they would put out a bluer spectrum.
Such stars lived fast and died hard, and were millions to billions of times as bright as the Sun. Depending on their mass, they could end their short (a million years or less) lives in a variety of catastrophes, including gamma ray bursts that seem to be the most distant stellar phenomena known, 8 or more red shifts away, back when the universe was only a few hundred millions of years old.

Progress - Isn't it Wonderful?

How do you feel about hearing of unmanned aerial vehicles unleashing destruction from the skies? Outraged? Fearful? More than a little jealous?

If you picked option three, Tyler Cowen has a link for you.

A Texas firm has revealed a personal security drone with a stun gun capable of unleashing 80,000 volts.

The firm showed off the drone in a series of shocking demonstrations bringing a volunteer to the ground.

It says the drone uses a smart app to track intruders, and once it had received the go ahead from a human operator, it fires taser darts and unleashes 80,000 volts. …Called Cupid which stands for Chaotic Unmanned Personal Intercept Drone, the security product was revealed today at the SXSW Festival in Austin as a concept for the future of security.

- See more at:

And the purported video.

Soon, second level rappers will be entering the club with an entourage of low maintenance UAVs.

If this sounds like BS to you, you might want to watch your back. There might be a drone on your tail.

Rich Country, Poor Country

Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States..............attributed to Porfirio Díaz

One of the oldest and thorniest questions in economics is what makes one country rich and another poor. It's not too hard to come up with laundry lists of things that seem to be pluses and others that seem to be minuses. Good government, check. Good education, check. Business friendly legal system, check. Solid economic infrastructure, check. On the negative side: corruption, endemic disease, social conflict and civil war, external interference. So how do you get out of the bad stuff and into the good? That's not easy.

To these lists I would add my sociobiological favorite: low fertility. It appears to be nearly impossible for a country to become and stay rich with a high fertility level and consequent high population growth rate. The most spectacular examples of rapid economic growth occur in countries with low to very low fertility rates. Check out Gapminder World for multiple examples.

In Mexico's case, it's easy to find reasons for it's relative poverty: historical, political, social, and other. It has frequently suffered invasions and massive territorial theft and other interference from its powerful neighbor to the North, not to mention other powers. It has long been ruled by a corrupt oligarchy and suffered frequently from internal conflicts. Poor education and cultural fragmentation are also problems. Finally, many of its most ambitious and talented emigrate to the United States, and frequently stay.

However, its fertility rate is now down to approximately the replacement rate, and infrastructure has been rapidly improving. Corruption is a downer, but a politically influential cement maker can do a good job of promoting road building. I would be a little surprised if Mexico's GDP/capita doesn't improve significantly over the next twenty years.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Invasion Fictions

Perhaps it's a sign of human progress* that in the Twentieth Century a lot of invaders felt they needed some good excuse to stage an invasion of a foreign country. Putin has continued that tradition. Malcolm Jones lists a few others.

*Or maybe not. If I recall correctly, Marcus Crassus came up with some cockamamie excuse for his ill-fated invasion of Parthia - despite a peace treaty and specific failure of the Roman Senate to authorize it.


Whatever the moral, political, and historical reasons/rationalizations of Putin's seizure of Crimea, it's very clear that he did violate the provisions of Budapest Memorandum of 1994, by which Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in return for guarantees of its territorial integrity by the US, UK and Russia. Since one of the supposed guarantors is the violator in question, that leaves the US and UK. The UK has been notably shy about applying its somewhat significant leverage. Why so?

A lot of Russian money flows through and to Britain. One version of the story is here.

If you’re looking for Russia’s weak point at the moment, you could do worse than start at a house on West Heath Road in leafy north London. It looks modest enough, but it would probably set you back $15 million.

It is the primary residence of Andrey Yakunin. His father, Russian Railways chief executive Vladimir Yakunin, is a former KGB agent and longtime pal of President Vladimir Putin. He was also a lead organizer of the Sochi Olympics and heads National Glory of Russia, an organization that aims to protect Russians from Western culture. (In a barely-readable book called Problems of Contemporary World Futurology, he predicted the collapse of the West in 10-20 years). His wife, Natalya, is in the same trade. She heads Sanctity of Motherhood, which propagates the “many-child family” through traditional Russian values and Orthodox Christianity. Their son Andrey is a fund manager, a graduate of the London Business School, and a specialist in “mid-market business hotels,” particularly ones that adjoin Russian train stations. His son, in turn, attends a posh English private school.

The Yakunin family is Putin’s Kremlin in microcosm, a hypocritical spookocracy that rejects everything about the West except its money, houses, and consumer goods. It also encapsulates the Kremlin’s weakness. If Putin’s Ukraine adventure causes Europe to freeze assets and inconvenience the Kremlin elite, then Putin will find himself losing support fast—from the constituency he needs the most.

The other side is that British real estate, schools, banks, and luxury goods markets of all kind like to bathe in Russian gold.

For the rest of Europe, the concern is even more substantive - It's heavily dependent on Russian natural gas.

Thursday, March 06, 2014


Andrew Higgins, writing in the NYT, has some observations from Sevastopol. Quick summary, its complicated but there is a lot of Russian feeling there:

Explaining the city’s agonies this week to a group of visitors, mostly Russians, at Sevastopol’s Crimean War museum, Irina Neverova, a guide, recounted how Britain, France, Turkey, Germany and other nations had all tried, and ultimately failed, to loosen Russia’s grip over the centuries.

“Every stone and every tree in Sevastopol is drenched in blood, with the bravery and courage of Russian soldiers,” said Ms. Neverova, who complained that school history textbooks written under instructions from Ukrainian officials made scant mention of Sevastopol’s heroics and focused instead on the deeds of Ukrainian nationalist fighters in the west of Ukraine, whom many Russians view as traitors, not heroes.

Of course there is a substantial non-Russian minority there who now feel trapped.

It seems unlikely that Putin will be dislodged from Crimea. The big question is whether he will try to grab more or all of Ukraine.

Darkness, Darkness

Via the Lumonator, some interesting news about the search for dark matter. Dark matter, you may recall, makes up about 80% of the matter content of the universe and about 25% of the total energy content. It's the second most mysterious component of that universe, trailing behind its bigger, stranger, brother, dark energy, thought to make up the other 70% of the cosmos. It is clumped by gravitation, but appears to interact scarcely at all with ordinary matter via the electromagnetism or the strong force. Its condensation under gravitation seeded the cosmic web and galaxy formation.
The most popular theory of its nature is the so-called WIMP hypothesis, for Weakly Interacting Massive Particle. Since nothing is known about WIMPs, this doesn't pin them down much, but presumably that arose when the universe was hot enough in approximately equal numbers of particles and antiparticles. After the temperature cooled enough, they went their separate ways, influenced only by gravity.
They cluster under gravitation, and according to most models, ought to produce a spike of concentration at the centers of galaxies and galaxy cluster. Most evidence, though, indicated that that spike is somehow rounded off.
Back to Lumo's articles, first a popular account in Quanta Magazine.

Not long after the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope took to the sky in 2008, astrophysicists noticed that it was picking up a steady rain of gamma rays pouring outward from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. This high-energy radiation was consistent with the detritus of annihilating dark matter, the unidentified particles that constitute 84 percent of the matter in the universe and that fizzle upon contact with each other, spewing other particles as they go. If the gamma rays did in fact come from dark matter, they would reveal its identity, resolving one of the biggest mysteries in physics. But some argued that the gamma rays could have originated from another source.
And from the ArXiv:
Past studies have identified a spatially extended excess of ~1-3 GeV gamma rays from the region surrounding the Galactic Center, consistent with the emission expected from annihilating dark matter. We revisit and scrutinize this signal with the intention of further constraining its characteristics and origin. By applying cuts to the Fermi event parameter CTBCORE, we suppress the tails of the point spread function and generate high resolution gamma-ray maps, enabling us to more easily separate the various gamma-ray components. Within these maps, we find the GeV excess to be robust and highly statistically significant, with a spectrum, angular distribution, and overall normalization that is in good agreement with that predicted by simple annihilating dark matter models. For example, the signal is very well fit by a 31-40 GeV dark matter particle annihilating to b quarks with an annihilation cross section of sigma v = (1.4-2.0) x 10^-26 cm^3/s (normalized to a local dark matter density of 0.3 GeV/cm^3). Furthermore, we confirm that the angular distribution of the excess is approximately spherically symmetric and centered around the dynamical center of the Milky Way (within ~0.05 degrees of Sgr A*), showing no sign of elongation along or perpendicular to the Galactic Plane. The signal is observed to extend to at least 10 degrees from the Galactic Center, disfavoring the possibility that this emission originates from millisecond pulsars.
It could be big - see Lubos and other links therein. Better test are coming, both in new instruments and by looking at dwarf galaxies, which are rich in dark matter but relatively poor in the sorts of astrophysical competitors that can put out gamma rays.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

Actually, I want to talk about the so-called Lyman-alpha forest. Suppose we look at a distant Quasar. It puts out a broad continuum in the UV, which gets red-shifted depending on how far it is away. On its way, it is extremely likely to encounter clouds of ionized intergalactic hydrogen, as well as more minor ingredients. Even at a cosmically "modest" red shift of 1, corresponding to a look back time of about 7.5 billion years, back in the strapping youth of the cosmos (5.5 Gyr.) there will be a forest of absorption lines in that emission. That forest consists almost entirely of differently red shifted versions of the Lyman-alpha line. The various incarnations are due to differently red shifted clouds of hydrogen along the path from quasar to Earth, with the least red shifted due to nearby clouds and the more red shifted to clouds farther away. The farther the source is away, the more intervening gas clouds until the "forest" becomes an impassible jungle of totally overlapping lines at higher red shifts. Beyond red shift 6 (to when the Universe was a mere toddler of less than 1 Gyr)nothing can be seen through the forest. There might have been enough neutral hydrogen around to suck up all the light, in those years when re-ionization was not yet complete.

ESO 137-001

The galaxy ESO 137-001, a barred spiral in the Norma Cluster (Abell 3627) is putting on an impressive light show as it barrels through the cluster at a few million miles per hour. The hot gas in the cluster is stripping the galaxy of its much cooler gas and leaving a bright blue trail stretching many times its diameter behind it. Although at least one publication dubbed this event a cosmic horror show, that might be an exaggeration. It's future capability to form stars will doubtless be compromised, but existing stars probably won't notice.

The bright blue trail is actually newborn stars created by the compression of the gas as it is swept out of the galaxies. These stars won't have a galaxy of their own, but belong instead to the cluster as a whole. Below is a Hubble + Chandra image.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Oil and Free Enterprise

The trouble with oil was competition. Competition drove down prices and made it hard to make a buck. John D. Rockefeller was perhaps the first to do something about it, by establishing the vast cartel of Standard Oil and dominating all aspects of oil in the United States, and most of the rest of the world. Government got into the act in a big way in World War I, when Churchill and others converted the fleet to oil propulsion, and got the UK to invest directly in oil production in Persia.

After the war, the explosive growth of the automobile and other machines propelled by internal combustion produced first shortages and then the discovery of vast new oil fields, notably the enormous East Texas field. Its enormous production drove the price of a barrel of oil down by a factor of ten, and everyone in the business was losing their shirts.

The Texas economy, and perhaps law and order, were on the verge of collapse. 3

For some time, Texas Governor Ross Sterling, a founder and former chairman of Humble Oil, had been vacillating about what to do. But now he had no choice; he had to act. He, in effect, declared war on East Texas. On August 17, 1931, he announced that East Texas was in a “state of insurrection” and “open rebellion,” and sent in several thousand National Guardsmen and the Texas Rangers, who showed up on horses, as the recent rains had made the roads impassable to motor vehicles. They set up their base on what was to be dubbed “Proration Hill” and, operating from horseback, shut down production within a matter of days. An eerie quiet settled in over East Texas as work in the oil fields ceased. Even the chickens, which had happily feasted on the millions of insects drawn each day by the continuous gas flares, were forced to “return to the prosaic ante-petroleum practice of scratching for worms.”

Yergin, Daniel (2011-04-05). The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (pp. 233-234). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

Running On Empty

The cosmos, like some of the rest of us, is getting old. If we look back in time, to redshift 1, for example, we can see that star formation rates were much higher in the past. Of course if we look back even further, to redshifts of 7 or more, star formation rates again decline. It took a while for star formation to really get underway in the universe. This decline is hardly a mystery. With the passage of time, more and more of the required baryons - hydrogen gas - gets locked up in stars and other things. Moreover, the remaining hydrogen is being diluted by cosmic expansion. So star formation rates have declined by perhaps a factor of ten since those good old days.

That might be a good thing from the standpoint of life. Star formation produces supernovae and perhaps other dangerous stuff that you really might not want in your galactic neighborhood.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Article 4

Poland has invoked article 4 of the NATO treaty. This is only the fourth time the article has been invoked. Ivo Doalder:

Article 4 provides for consultations of the NATO members “whenever, in opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." Such consultations are rare—this would be only the fourth time they have happened. . .

The decision by Poland to invoke Article 4 indicates that Warsaw—along with the three Baltic Allies—is concerned that developments in neighboring Ukraine poses a threat to its security. This is understandable, given the fact that Russian President Putin not only sought (and received) authorization to use its armed forces throughout Ukraine, but has justified this move in terms of the need to protect “Russian-speaking” people—many of which reside in other parts of eastern Europe.

Doalder recommends beefing up NATO air and ground forces in Poland and the Baltics. Exactly how strong or weak the Russian armed forces are is seemingly a contentious question, but the core of NATO's strength is the US, and to a much lesser extent Germany. And the US is pretty far away.

Physics and Computational Complexity

Scott Aaronson talks computational complexity in new papers of Lenny Susskind and Terry Tao on black hole firewalls and Navier-Stokes respectively. Another good reason for wishing I weren't so dumb.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Fun Fun Fun...

Commentator Petesh on Kevin Drum's blog thinks Tennyson has a few words of apropos:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson would like a rhythmic word or two on the subject of Crimea, f'rinstance:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'

Was there a man dismay'd?

Not tho' the soldiers knew

Some one had blunder'd:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Meanwhile Merkel thinks Vladimir may be out of touch with reality.

And somebody else points out that its only five months to the Centennial of the start of WWI


I think maybe Obama should call in his National Intelligence Director, ask him WTF, and tell him to start planning for a 50% smaller budget.


Ukraine used to have nuclear weapons - more than China, Britain, and France combined. It agreed to give them up in a deal in which the US, Russia, and the UK guaranteed its territorial integrity. It looks like it might have made a big mistake there, since Russia has violated its part of the deal and the US and UK are very unlikely to hold up their end of the bargain - and probably have no capability to do so.

Great power deals have a history of being worth approximately the value of the paper they are printed on, so this is hardly a surprise. The agreement in question was apparently not a formal treaty - such treaties being, in the US, the "law of the land" according to the Constitution, but the outcome to date should give even those bound by more formal treaties, like NATO, pause. NATO has six times the population of Russia, and sixteen times the GDP, so it hardly lacks for resources. Even without the US and Canada, it still dwarfs Russia on both counts, so the only question is whether it has the will to arm itself well enough to resist.

I suspect that one upshot of the Russian invasion is that no country will again voluntarily give up weapons of mass destruction, which is to say nukes, since the others hardly count. Gaddafi was dead not long after he gave up his weapons, such as they were, and Ukraine is another object lesson.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Crimea and Ukraine

Mary Mycio has a good argument why Crimea is not an easily separable part of Ukraine.

If the plan is to install Yanukovych in a Russian-controlled Crimean mini-state, it might work, for a while. But that does not mean it will be easy. Putin’s imperialist gambit may turn out to be his Waterloo.

To see why, just open a map. That narrow strip of land tethering northern Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, called the Perokop Isthmus, is the peninsula’s lifeline. What’s left out of most Western analyses of Putin’s brazen military intervention is the Crimea’s complete economic dependence on the mainland, which provides nearly all of its electricity and water and about 70 percent of its food.

What she leaves out is that these are also powerful arguments for Putin to grab all of Ukraine.

Next on the Menu

If Russia takes over all or much of Ukraine, as seems increasingly likely, should its other neighbors be worried? That was a rhetorical question.

In fact, Lithuania and the other Baltics are already feeling the heat. Alex Botting sees Russia's increasing turn to imperialism in the West partly as a response to Chinese pressure in Central Asia. Russia can't compete with China militarily or economically, but Europe is both rich and weak - a fat sheep in a world of lean and hungry wolves.

Can Europe unite and rouse itself from its torpor to defend itself? It might not have a lot of time.

Ioffe on Ukraine

Julia Ioffe offers her take at New Republic.

We didn't think Putin would do this. Why, exactly? This has often puzzled me about Western analysis of Russia. It is often predicated on wholly Western logic: surely, Russia won't invade [Georgia, Ukraine, whoever's next] because war is costly and the Russian economy isn't doing well and surely Putin doesn't want another hit to an already weak ruble; because Russia doesn't need to conquer Crimea if Crimea is going to secede on its own; Russia will not want to risk the geopolitical isolation, and "what's really in it for Russia?"—stop. Russia, or, more accurately, Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat. Trying to harness Russia with our own logic just makes us miss Putin's next steps.

I recommend the whole pessimistic article.

Is Putin the Latest Hitler?

Putin has made no secret of his nostalgia for the old Soviet empire. Is Ukraine his Czechoslovakia? There are certain ominous parallels, even, if one wants to be melodramatic, between the Sochi and Munich Olympics. The justifications haven't changed either: intervention on behalf of one's fellow nationals and historic interests. The apologists in the West haven't changed their tunes much either.

Imperialistic aggression is an appetite that tends to grow in the eating. Georgia was just an appetiser.

Any good bully has 20/20 vision for weakness, and the West looks plenty weak. Three generations of Europeans have grown up thinking war is something that happens someplace else. Three generations of Americans have exhausted themselves fighting mostly pointless wars in Asia.

If it's Kiev today, where will Putin be stopped? I don't think Europe has much power to resist, and the US is busy making plans to drastically reduce its Army.

I wonder if Putin would have been so quick to invade if Obama had reacted forcefully and ruthlessly when his "red line" was crossed in Syria