Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Denial Industry

There is now a rather well organized denial industry, centered on the right-wing "think" (or stink) tanks, prepared to deny any bit os science or logic that is inconvenient to their sponsors. They got their start defending big tobacco, but moved on to denying ozone destruction by halocarbons, and global warming. Inequality denial has been in vogue for a few decades too, with a big push now against Piketty (see post below).

I was struck by Paul Krugman's characterization of their methodology regarding inequality, but equally applicable to things like AGW denial.

This denial didn’t rely on any one argument, nor did it involve consistent objections. Instead, it involved throwing many different arguments against the wall, hoping that something would stick. Inequality isn’t rising; it is rising, but it’s offset by social mobility; it’s cancelled by greater aid to the poor (which we’re trying to destroy, but never mind that); anyway, inequality is good. All these arguments have been made at the same time; none of them ever gets abandoned in the face of evidence — they just keep coming back.

This is exactly my experience in dealing with the climate denialists: no attempt at logical consistency, a hodge-podge of often mutually inconsistent arguments, immunity to evidence, and so on. It's not greenhouse gasses, it's insolation - if that doesn't fit the measurements so what. Venus has a big greenhouse - no, it's just adiabatic compression - never mind that this makes neither thermodynamic or other sense.

Piketty's Charge

Krugman on the right's furious efforts to discredit Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

Brad DeLong links to the now extensive list of pieces debunking the FT’s attempted debunking of Thomas Piketty, and pronounces himself puzzled:

I still do not understand what Chris Giles of the Financial Times thinks he is doing here…

OK, I don’t know what Giles thought he was doing — but I do know what he was actually doing, and it’s the same old same old. Ever since it became obvious that inequality was rising — way back in the 1980s — there has been a fairly substantial industry on the right of inequality denial. This denial didn’t rely on any one argument, nor did it involve consistent objections. Instead, it involved throwing many different arguments against the wall, hoping that something would stick. Inequality isn’t rising; it is rising, but it’s offset by social mobility; it’s cancelled by greater aid to the poor (which we’re trying to destroy, but never mind that); anyway, inequality is good. All these arguments have been made at the same time; none of them ever gets abandoned in the face of evidence — they just keep coming back.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The LunchBox

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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Russian Regulars in Donetsk

According to this article:

DONETSK, Ukraine – It’s no longer about amateurs. There is a full-scale war going on, and it’s fought by professionals. The Russians are here – and they’re making a grab for power in eastern Ukraine.

If there was ever any doubt, it was quashed this week when separatist leaders and fighters here opened up to journalists about their Russian roots. In interviews with the Kyiv Post, Vice News, and the Financial Times, fighters in the so-called Vostok Battalion identified themselves as Russian citizens, with several saying they were from the Autonomous Republic of Chechnya.

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, top Russian officials have repeatedly denied the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Most recently, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic denied claims that he was responsible for sending Chechen mercenaries to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine, saying that such accusations were wholly “untrue.”

Still, Kadyrov did not deny that Chechens are fighting in Ukraine, adding, “If somewhere in the conflict zone somebody saw a Chechen, that’s their personal business.”

This doesn't appear to be a full scale invasion - not yet at least. What Putin's next move will be is anybody's guess.

It seems the new guys and the original separatists are not on the same page:

The battalion’s seizure of the Donetsk regional administration building on May 29, which had previously been controlled by local separatists swearing allegiance to the self-proclaimed breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, underscores the growing control of Russian militants in Ukraine’s east.

The battalion, a well-organized unit of mercenaries comprised mostly of Russian citizens, according to Varan, one of the unit’s commanders who declined to give his real name, stormed the building and forced the separatists of the DPR out onto the streets.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There Are No Cows on Mars

Or, at least, less than 100. We know that, says Mike Brown, because the level of methane on Mars is less than 1 part per billion - about the amount that would be produced by 100 cows, burping. It's not exactly a shock that Mars is not prime cattle country, but the aforementioned result is also a major blow to one of Mike's favorite theories: that some kind of life on Mars was all but certain since life from Earth was very likely transported to Mars in the Early days by meteorites blown off the Earth in major collision, to land there when the planet was more hospitable. Even today, it seems likely that Mars has locales where methanogens would survive and reproduce.

Of course the reverse voyage scenario is also possible. In which case it would be a bit tragic that the planet that (perhaps) gave us birth, no longer supports life.

Kiss Your Cash Goodbye

Ken Rogoff wants to abolish paper money (FT, gated but free).

Has the time come to consider phasing out anonymous paper currency, starting with large-denomination notes? Getting rid of physical currency and replacing it with electronic money would kill two birds with one stone.

First, it would eliminate the zero bound on policy interest rates that has handcuffed central banks since the financial crisis. At present, if central banks try setting rates too far below zero, people will start bailing out into cash. Second, phasing out currency would address the concern that a significant fraction, particularly of large-denomination notes, appears to be used to facilitate tax evasion and illegal activity...

Of course tax evaders, other crooks, terrorists and guys who just don't want their wives to know what they are up to would hate it. My guess is that these people, especially the first category, have too much political power to let it happen.

Rogoff suggests that we start with large bills.

Gee, Officer Krupke

The trouble is he's crazy...

Elliot Roger, the UCSB murderer, is being variously held up as an entitled rich kid, a frustrated nerd misled by geeky Hollywood types who somehow get the girl anyway, a product of the twisted masculinity of pickup artist nutjobs, and yet another example of the bullying patriarchate. Without necessarily completely rejecting any of those possible influences, let's just note that his real problem was that he was nuts.

My guess is that he was a psychopath. Unfortunately, this condition seems to be inborn and probably incurable. A large fraction of mass murderers turn out to be psychopaths, though not all psychopaths becomes mass murderers or even criminals.

Let Me Count the Ways...

Dear Mr. X.

I will not be signing your petition about ocean pH measurements because:

(1)Petitions are a stupid way to attempt to resolve scientific issues.

(2)I don't think it makes sense to call data "hidden" when its freely available by internet.

(3)It leads with an endorsement of your own, blog published but not peer reviewed research, which I am not prepared to study or critique.

(4)It proposes nakedly political measures to suppress the best judgement of government scientists in favor of your own interpretations.

(5)I don't like being bullied. You can invite me to sign your petition. If I decline you should just go away instead of harassing me.

(6)I don't agree with anything in it.

(7)I don't trust your scientific judgement.

(8)...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cisalpine Gaul*

Phil Plait, who often writes entertainingly about astronomy, taught me a new word today: "cisgendered" as in "cisgendered male", which is what he proclaims himself to be. I had to look it up, and apparently it means a person who identifies with the gender assigned at birth. I assume that this is some sort of politically correct way of saying one is not transgender in orientation without invoking such dreaded English words as "usual" or "normal", though it's not exactly clear to me how translation into a Latin equivalent is more or less offensive. Rather, I suppose, it's one of those tribal shibboleths intended to identify oneself as among the PC hip.

Anyway, the actual substance of his post is looking at the Isla Vista mass murderer as an example of Men Behaving Badly. He was, it seems, a contributor to Men's Rights forums (or "fora" as Phil would prefer), as well as such other festering pools of aggrieved masculinity as pickup artist and anti-pickup artist sites. I don't think that this is likely to be one of the more fruitful lenses through which to view this kind of atrocity, but it has turned out to be a rallying cry for some, including those who believe traditional masculine values should be abolished, whatever that may mean.

* Cisalpine Gaul, we may recall, is what the Romans called the territory they found occupied by Celts on "their" side of the Alps.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Guns

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Asteroids Are Coming!

And there is a chance one might kill you!

An extremely unlikely chance, says Mike Brown. About 1 in 74 million, meaning that there are 73,999,999 other ways that are equally likely to knock you off.

Of course the occasional biggie can flatten a city or even a continent, but Brown says we know there aren't any of the continent smashers headed our way for at least several hundred years. Consequently, there is no urgency whatsoever to rush to build a zillion dollar asteroid defense system. We should continue to study asteroids, mainly for other reasons, but just monitor the situation. If one is headed here in 500 years, we can hope that our descendants will be a lot better prepared to deal with it then.

Comets are another problem. Partly because they are moving much faster, so they have a lot more kinetic energy. Mostly, though, the problem is that we won't have, can't have, much warning. A year or two at most. Consequently, our prospects for doing anything about a comet with our name on it are approximately zero.

Oh well.

Or, more to the point, don't panic*. And don't spend tens of billions panicking about them.

*But you might want to carry a towel.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dynamical Friction

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

Encounters between the large bodies, whether planets or protoplanets, and the smaller, statistically tend to change the semi-major axis of the little guys, but unless the little guys are ejected completely, they are doomed to return to the point of encounter with the big guy. Comets, which presumably formed somewhere in the not too distant solar system, get large semi-major axes in this fashion.

If that were the end of the story, all the comets would have burned up or been ejected into interstellar space aeons ago. However, once they are far from the Sun on their highly elongated orbits, perturbations from passing stars or fluctuations in the collective gravitational field of the galaxy can give them little boosts that tend to change their perihelia more than their semi-major axis. Once the perihelion gets beyond Neptune, they can coast around the Sun in their multi-million year orbits, forming the Oort comet Cloud, until some other passing star or gravitational fluctuation sends them in to put on a show.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Watch Out Wolfgang!

A (Daily) Beastly headline: NSA Records Every Cellphone in Bahamas.

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

The Climate Skeptic and I

I may have mentioned that a local group of climate skeptics, including a number of my former colleagues, invited me to their meetings. I resisted for a bit, but their leader insisted, so I attended a few meetings and got in their email lists. The first meeting didn't seem promising - the leader was out of town, and the restaurant proposed for the meeting had gone out of business, and one member suggested that Michael Mann should be murdered. Nonetheless, I did go to a later meeting when they had found another restaurant, had an excellent breakfast of Huevos Rancheros, and learned a lot about the currently popular reasons why AGW could not be right.

Of course a relationship begun under such promising circumstance could hardly have been expected not to run into some headwinds eventually. The leader was a big fan of Bond cycles, for reasons that were not to become clear to me for a long time. He kept urging me to read a paper by Bond, for reasons that it took me a long time to figure out.

After I had casually remarked that the obvious alternatives to Greenhouse gasses as a driver of current climate change, like changes in the insolation, were refuted by the evidence, he threw a bit of an email tantrum, accusing me of never having read the Bond paper (true), or responding to it (also true), as well as implying that I was a stuck up PhD and a rotten person.

At that point, I decided that (1)I was spending way too much time dealing with these people, (2)that I would read the damned Bond paper and (3)that I didn't deal well with cognitive dissonance. To briefly summarize the Bond et. al., correlations were found between cosmic nuclide abundances in sediments and evidence of ice rafting events in the North Atlantic, suggesting that the so-called Bond events in the Holocene were caused by insolation decreases.

Anyway, I emailed a short reply, which was returned as undeliverable. I tried again, a couple of times (slow learner), with the same result. Eventually I got another testy email, with the same complaints, plus a few more, like wasting his time, so I tried my reply again. Still undeliverable.

More adventures in what probably ought to be called abnormal psychology.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

So far as we know, Mars never had any flowers, but it did have water, and fair amounts of it, at least for a while. My current favorite MOOC is Mike Brown's Caltech Solar System class via Coursera. The first third of the course is devoted to Mars, and it's fascinating.

The oldest terrain on Mars, called the Noachian, shows evidence of rain, flowing streams, and lakes. There are also lots of craters, suggesting that this may have occurred during the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment. Not a whole lot of rain, but something comparable to the deserts and semi-deserts of modern Earth. Obviously this would have required a warmer and wetter Mars than that of today. How could it have been that warm, especially with the Sun perhaps 70% as bright as today? The most plausible answer is greenhouse gas, probably mostly CO2, supplemented by some water vapor.

After a few hundred millions of years, by the Hesperian period, evidence of rain goes away, but evidence of water doesn't. Instead we have dramatic outflow channels forming, almost certainly formed by release or melting of ground water, probably triggered by the volcanism associated with the Tharsis bulge, that created the big Northern volcanoes, like Olympus Mons. The quantities of outflow were very large, apparently creating a medium sized, if shallow, ocean in the basin that forms a big portion of the North Polar surroundings of the planet.

The most recent three billion years or so have been much colder and dryer. Water persists, in polar icecaps, dust covered mountain glaciers, and underground in the North, but it's mostly frozen and buried.

So where has all the atmosphere gone? The answer, it seems, is blown away in the solar wind. Unprotected by an Earth style magnetic field, and held rather tenuously by the weak Martian gravity, it just blew off.

Did life have a chance to evolve there during the few comparatively balmy years of Noachian or Hesperian? TDB.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

So You Think You'd Like to be a Planet

Suppose, for example, that you are one of those 100 nanometer sized particles of rocky materials that populate the galaxy as a result of Supernovae and other major Stellar events. It's lonely out there in the cosmic void, so you would like to get together with friends to form a planet. How does one go about this?

First thing is, you've got to hang where the cool crowd does - in a large, cool (say 10 C above absolute zero), cloud of gas and dust. There's usually a bunch of them around the plane of the disc of any respectable spiral galaxy. You and your cloud may need a little push to get started - a nearby supernova or a density wave in the spiral galaxy, for example, but once your local cloud is gravitationally bound, you're on your way.

Once the cloud starts contracting, it begins to break up into small pieces. It's important at this point to stay in the thick of things, since the early stars get the gas - and dust. Be cool though, and hang on to some of your angular momentum, otherwise you just get sucked into the star and re-vaporized. At this point, you and your homies will be circulating about the protostar, with a lot of bumping and jostling which will circularize and flatten your orbits.

At this point, the trick is for you and your posse to stick together. Gravity can't do that job for you yet, though the combined gravity of zillions of little particles can help you all clump into a rough disc, so actual sticking has to depend on chemical forces between surfaces. How big do the lumps have to get for gravity to start to be important?

Consider a sphere that has grown to 1 cm in radius - you and a few million-quadrillion other dust grains lumped together, maybe. The surface gravity of your little ball is given by G*M/r^2, where M = 4*pi*rho*r^3/3 where rho is the density. G = 6.67 x 10^-8 in cgs units, so if we assume rho = 1 g/cm^3, the density of water, surface gravity becomes about 2.8 x 10^-7 cm*s^-2. Note also, that for constant density, surface gravity scales with radius, so for an Earth sized planet of radius 6.4 x 10^8 cm, surface gravity would be 178 cm/s^2. Earth is about 5.5 times as dense as our hypothetical planet, so it's surface gravity is about 5.5 times as large, or 980 cm/s^2.

Another interesting parameter for you and your fellow dust grains is the escape velocity at the surface, given by Sqrt(2*G*M/r). For our 1 cm radius dust ball, it works out to about 7.5 x 10^-4 cm/s. Note that it too scales like radius, but only like the square root of density. Clearly that's a small speed, even by snail standards - so gravity isn't really any help at that scale. By the time you get to Earth size and density, though, the numbers get kind of big, 11.2 km/s.

How about a stadium sized fluffy rock of 100 meter (10^4 cm) radius? Escape velocity is still small - 7.5 cm/s, and you could definitely jump off. Scale that up to 10 km, and escape velocity becomes 7.5 m/s, and you would need to be fairly athletic to make the leap out of the gravitational field, so gravity is now a major player.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Race as a Social Construct

From Steve Hsu. Apparently it was:

The anthropologist Ashley Montagu [who] advanced the idea that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

Does this mean that racial differences are imaginary? Not really. Steve has some details, but that's not exactly what I want to discuss. All of our concepts are ultimately social constructs, including the notions of table, energy, black hole, nation, and language. By that I mean they were invented by societies of humans and that these social constructs may reflect underlying realities more or less imperfectly. How, exactly, is a table different from a stool, to take one example? Well we sit at tables and on stools, but sometimes we sit on a table or use a stool as a table.

Race, like racism, is a social construct, but there are physical differences in appearance, for example, which are correlated with ancestry. Racism is, among other things, using ancestry or differences in appearance correlated with ancestry as a basis for discrimination.

Ever since large agricultural societies developed there seems to have been systematic discrimination based on some kind of class, often, but not always, partly based on ancestry. American racism, consequently, had plenty of ancient precedent, but it's real development began with the systematic enslavement of Africans in the Eighteenth Century or so. Before that, slavery had largely died out in much of Europe, but sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations wanted cheap labor, and Native Americans were too vulnerable to European diseases to be usefully enslaved.

European slaves and indentured servants were experimented with for labor, but their ease of escape and blending with the population was a disadvantage, as were developing notions of human rights.

Slaves from Africa, though, looked different and didn't have the usual European cultural traits and languages. The remaining problem was that pesky notion of human rights, which was dealt with by demoting blacks to a less human status. In that sense, slavery gave birth to racism, rather than vice versa. Other ancestral groups suffered similar, if usually considerably less severe, exploitation, including Asians, Irish and numerous other disadvantaged groups.

The more general point is that racism is less a cause than a consequence of exploitation.

State of the MOOC

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are about two years old, at least the big three (Coursera, edX and Udacity) are. I've completed ten of them, I believe, and audited all the lectures of a few more. I may have started but dropped out of almost that many more. As long as MOOCs are free, the sensible approach is to try out anything that looks promising and drop out if they don't meet your expectation, or if you get too busy at work or home, or just get bored. Traditional educators are horrified by MOOC dropout rates, but the fact remains that a reasonably successful MOOC is completed by more students than many professors face in a lifetime.

At least two giant question marks hang over the MOOC at the moment: how to pay for them, and how do the students get credit for their learning. The answer to the first is becoming clearer: the students will pay to play. Udacity has already gone to a model where the student pays $150 a month to take a course. In return students will get some access to instructors and some credentials that may be worth something to prospective employers - or not. Coursera and edX are also trying to get students to pay for a chance to earn a "verified certificate".

The value of these certifications to a student is the second and even bigger question mark. Clearly the two questions are strongly linked. If the certificates are valuable, the students will pay. If not, they won't. At present, at least in the US, the standard unit of value is the degree, and right now none of the certificates counts toward a degree, so far as I know. That is a hurdle with a giant potential barrier. The institutions providing the courses don't want to devalue their degrees by offering credit at cut rate prices. Universities not offering MOOC courses have even bigger incentives not to grant credit that would undercut their own offerings by honoring MOOC certificates.

A third question intertwines with the first two: how does MOOC learning compare with that in a traditional brick and mortar course? Now that many traditional Universities offer online courses and degrees, how do they stack up against MOOCs. I've talked to students and faculty in the latter, and the online courses are pretty unpopular with both.

My own experience is that MOOCs can be very very good, but it requires a talented teacher and good production values - especially heavy investment in good online problems and problem software. They can also be strikingly mediocre - I dropped one course in an interesting subject when I realized that the lectures consisted of the professor reading his textbook in a nearly incomprehensible accent. It's also clear that not every student is suited to the MOOC. The sort of confident and talented student who gets into top universities can probably handle a MOOC well. So can amateur students with a degree or three under their belts and a certain amount of free time.

Still, nearly all the MOOCs I have taken are less demanding than their counterparts would be in a top school. Also, there is nothing like a MOOC curriculum right now. Instead, there is a scattering of courses, mostly at low levels, in things somebody would like to teach. Something like half a dozen courses on planets and exoplanets exist, but you won't find anything beyond the very elementary level in stellar astrophysics or most other astronomical topics.

I predict that MOOCs will need to be able to provide both structured curricula and real credit - probably including degrees - if they are to be a big success.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Oops!

It seems that the US under Bush handed the keys to the bus to the International Space Station to the Russians. There were various circumstances that made it seem like a good idea at the time.

Back in 2004, President Bush announced that NASA's aging space shuttle program would be retired in 2010 and — eventually — replaced by a plan to return to the moon. At the time, NASA realized there would be a four-year gap between the space-shuttle retirement and when the new manned space transport system would be in place.

But at that point, it didn't seem like a big problem for NASA to ask Russia to transport US astronauts to and from the space station in the interim. Relations between the two countries were friendly — Bush was telling reporters that he'd looked into Putin's eyes and "got a sense of his soul." What's more, NASA had relied on Russian transport for 29 months after the Columbia disaster in 2003, when the shuttle program was put on hold.

And:

This isn't even the only way that the US spaceflight program is dependent on Russia. The Atlas V rocket — built by a joint Lockheed Martin-Boeing venture and used to launch American military satellites and civilian payloads — runs on a Russian-built engine.

When the Atlas V was being designed in the 1990s, Lockheed Martin got a waiver from the usual Defense Department requirement that critical components be manufactured in the US, partly because the Russian engines were better and less expensive than American options, and partly because of political motivations.

"There was a fear that if we didn't find some way of keeping Russian rocket scientists employed, they would go off and work for Iran or North Korea," says James Lewis, a national security and space analyst.

Anyway, a Peeved Putin is cutting us off - though mostly not immediately. And the subversive Republican US Congress has cut funding for US replacements.

Uh Oh...

Wolfgang leads us to Jester who finds a potentially disastrous uncertainty in the BICEP2 data. Jester:

Barring a loose cable, the biggest worry about the BICEP signal is that the collaboration may have underestimated the galactic foreground emission. BICEP2 performed the observations at only one frequency of 150 GHz which is very well suited to study the CMB, but less so for polarized dust or synchrotron emission. As for the latter, more can be learned by going to higher frequencies, while combining maps at different frequencies allows one to separate the galactic and the CMB component. Although the patch of the sky studied by BICEP is well away from the galactic plane, the recently published 353 GHz polarized map from Planck demonstrates that there may be significant emission from these parts of the sky (in that paper the BICEP patch is conveniently masked, so one cannot draw any quantitative conclusions). Once the dust from the BICEP announcement had settled, all eyes were thus on precision measurements of the galactic foreground. The rumors that have been arriving from the Planck camp were not encouraging, as they were not able to confirm the primordial B-mode signal. It seems that experts now put a finger on what exactly went wrong in BICEP.

To estimate polarized emission from the galactic dust, BICEP digitized an unpublished 353 GHz map shown by the Planck collaboration at a conference. However, it seems they misinterpreted the Planck results: that map shows the polarization fraction for all foregrounds, not for the galactic dust only (see the "not CIB subtracted" caveat in the slide). Once you correct for that and rescale the Planck results appropriately, some experts claim that the polarized galactic dust emission can account for most of the BICEP signal. The rumor is that the BICEP team has now admitted to the mistake [Update: this last sentence is disputed].

Wolfgang:

I cannot believe this; one of the most important discoveries in recent years depends on a pdf file and it is unclear what it actually shows? Can the two teams please talk to each other and exchange the necessary data?

Jester was the first to report this story, but I think there is more than one jester involved in this ...

UPDATE: Peter Woit of NEW has more details.

The dust hasn't settled on this one yet, but it looks like the BICEP2 team can put Grandma's picture back in that spot on the shelf they had saved for the Nobel Prize, for the moment.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Russian Rules

Jamie Dettmer from Donetsk:

Shortly before separatist leaders here declared a huge majority had voted in a referendum to break from Ukraine, their press spokeswoman had chortled at the idea that a result would be declared a mere three hours after polling stations closed.

“Are you crazy? How would we have time to count the ballots?” said Claudia.

Precisely, how indeed? But then despite a series of opinion polls over the past few weeks showing only a minority of eastern Ukrainians wanted to follow the example of the Black Sea peninsula and secede, the plebiscite in Donetsk—one of two of Ukraine’s easternmost regions voting Sunday—was always a foregone conclusion.

The procedures in the plebiscite managed by Denis Pushilin, a former casino croupier who is the co-chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, followed the Kremlin's house rules: the cynical strategies and plays of Russian-style “managed democracy,” not the electoral models outlined by organizations such as the United Nations or the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

The separatists used all the now familiar techniques—including weeks of armed and thuggish intimidation, the abductions and murder of opponents, multiple voting, pre-filled ballot papers, adding names to an incomplete electoral roll and allowing anyone who turned up at a polling station with a Ukrainian passport in hand to cast a ballot.

Next?

Kiss it Goodbye

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, that is. Also New York City, Miami, and much of Bangla Desh and most of the world's other low lying cities. According to this NYT Article by Justin Gillis and Kenneth Chang, the disintegration of that ice sheet has begun, and will probably continue over the next few centuries, apparently more or less independently of anything we do about climate change. The good news is that it probably won't be very fast for next 100 years or so - so don't sell that beachfront property quite yet.

The precise causes are unknown, though AGW and the Ozone hole are suspects.

Most scientists in the field see a connection between the stronger winds and human-caused global warming, but they say other factors are likely at work, too. Natural variability of climate may be one of them. Another may be the ozone hole over Antarctica, caused by an entirely different environmental problem, the human release of ozone-destroying gases.

Whatever the mix of causes, they appear to have triggered a retreat of the ice sheet that can no longer be stopped, even if the factors drawing in the warmer water were to reverse suddenly, the scientists said. At this point, a decrease in the melt rate back to earlier levels would be “too little, too late to stabilize the ice sheet,” said Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington and lead author of the new paper in Science. “There’s no stabilization mechanism.”

The basic problem is that much of the West Antarctic ice sheet sits below sea level in a kind of bowl-shaped depression the earth. As Dr. Mercer outlined in 1978, once the part of the ice sheet sitting on the rim of the bowl melts and the ice retreats into deeper water, it becomes unstable and highly vulnerable to further melting.

Knock Yourself Out

Doubts about football are sinking in even in small town Texas.

Amid widespread and growing concerns about the physical dangers of the sport, the school board here approved plans in February to shut down the district’s entry-level, tackle-football program for seventh graders in favor of flag football. There was little objection.

Texans still love football, but parents don't want their kids to become brain damaged adults like Junior Seau and Tony Dorsett.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Left and Right Wing Climate Conspiracy Theories

Liberals tend to believe that there is a conspiracy by energy companies and billionaire oil investors who just happen to be spending hundreds of millions to suppress and ridicule the facts about human caused global warming (AGW).

Conservatives, by contrast, believe that there is a conspiracy by a few hundred climate scientists feeding at the government trough, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, various national and international Meteorological, Chemical and Geological Societies, most Nobel Prize winners, governments, the UN and Al Gore to promote alarm at phenomena which (a)probably don't exist, (b)even if they exist, are likely to be good for you, (c)and even if they are bad, have happened before anyway. And it's all just so that the UN can take away your gas guzzling pick-me-up.

Who you gonna call?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Modeling An Ice Age


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

Does anyone have anything more substantial?

Illustris: The Universe in Simulation

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


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Save the Date?

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

We could use another good SF film.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Ukraine: Sloviansk

Ukraine appear poised for an assault on the pro-Russian city of Sloviansk, says Sarah Rainsford of the BBC.

Fears of an impending offensive by Ukrainian forces are growing in the pro-Russian stronghold of Sloviansk, sources inside the city say...

The mood has hardened in the towns around Sloviansk. Many people are horrified by Friday's deaths of dozens of pro-Russian activists in Odessa, something that they say "cannot be forgiven".

But even in this Russian-speaking heartland, there are occasional signs of support for a united Ukraine: the odd blue and yellow national flag poking from a window, or those colours painted onto a lamppost. But the overwhelming mood is defiance and anger at Kiev for sending troops here.

If the assault by Kiev looks to succeed, Putin will have the chance to show his true intentions.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

What is Culture?

Well it's one of those pluripotent words, that's for sure. The original meaning of the term, still preserved in such terms as cultivate, was the tillage of land and tending of crops. Cicero may have suggested that the mind was as worthy of cultivation as our fields, and this led to interpretation of culture as higher learning. Much later, anthropologists and archeologists appropriated the term for description of differences in human societies. Archeologists, in particular, use it to refer to the characteristic assemblages of artifacts left by ancient societies, which is to say the sufficiently durable remains of their tools, art, and manufacture.

Anthropologists use the same term to refer as well to beliefs, practices, and other intellectual elements common to groups of people. In a more diluted form, sociologists can use it to speak of the culture of a nation, region, college or even a corporation.

Of course individuals always differ among themselves in beliefs, practices, etc on the one hand, and widely share others across the spectrum of nations. At some point, then, the use of the term becomes too vague to be meaningful. My own perspective is that meaningful cultures really only exist in relative isolation. For many purposes, every middle class person in the world today lives in essentially the same culture - they use the same cultural artifacts, have similar knowledge, and share many common objectives. The globalization of culture is even more extreme at the top of the economic heap: Russian, Indian, American, Arab and Chinese oligarchs drive the same cars, buy yachts and jets from the same builders, and send their kids to the same elite prep schools and universities in the US and Britain.

Of course that's hardly to claim that there aren't systematic differences among these people and even their children. But as some point the commonalities are much more determinative of behavior. Those who imagine a purified "national" or religious culture, and every country has them, are deluding themselves. Barring a massive breakdown of international communications, an increasing globalized world culture seems inevitable.

Ukraine: Battle of Odessa

Odessa was the place Stalin and many other Bolsheviks got their basic training in revolution, so perhaps it's not coincidence that Putin chose it for his latest provocation. Roland Oliphant of The Telegraph has an account of the events from Odessa:

The crowd, which included ordinary members of the public as well as members of the “Maidan Self Defence forces” and at least some members of Pravy Sektor, a hardline nationalist group, began to gather at around 2pm in Cathedral Square.

Before they reached the stadium, however, witnesses said the march was attacked by men who appeared to be pro-Russian activists, sporting the black and orange ribbon of St George.

The assault by the pro-Russians appears to have been planned. Witnesses and video footage show the attackers were well equipped for a street fight, with shields, helmets, sticks and body armour.

But so, too, were the marchers. Once the clash started, casualties were almost inevitable.

The heavily outnumbered pro-Russians eventually retreated to the Trades Union building where conflict continued.

We will probably never know whose petrol bomb began the fire that eventually spread throughout the building, but this inferno ended up killing 32 people.

Witnesses sympathetic to the pro-Maidan movement point out that video footage appears to show the fire beginning on the third floor, behind an intact window - and out of reach of the petrol bombs thrown by the crowd outside. Maybe, they say, a pro-Russian dropped a petrol bomb by accident.

Putin's provocation has succeeded. How long till the invasion to "rescue" his partisans?

Friday, May 02, 2014

Escalation in Ukraine: Civil War

Putin's Anschluss proceeds:

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

It looks like Putin is determined to seize all of Eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine is resisting dismemberment. Surface to air missiles among the pro-Russian faction are yet more evidence of the presence of actual Russian military units.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review, Part IV

My experience with the book was a bit conflicted. On the one hand, I thought that I learned a lot, and certainly finished with more respect for and, I like to think, understanding of Hindu thought. Despite the heavy presence of scholarly apparatus (thousands of citations and hundreds of endnotes), there are some curious inexactitudes (India lies mostly in the Northern Hemisphere - so far as I can tell India and its islands lie entirely in the Northern Hemisphere). The author is addicted to a chatty, discursive, and frequently frivolous tone which I sometimes found annoying.

It's important to note that the author hasn't written a history of India, but a history of its main religion. There are bits of the history of the country included, but mainly just as background. Because it's a history, the focus is on evolution and change. Moreover, as the author declares at the outset, her focus is not on the central figures of the religion, it's priestly and other high castes, but on societies outsiders - women and those now called Dalits formerly AKA untouchables. Despite this declaration of focus, the fact remains that the sacred texts were in the keeping of the priestly caste, the Brahmins, first as a purely oral tradition, and later written out by just that same priestly class.

Most religions like to emphasize their eternal and unchanging character. In Christianity and Islam, this pretense has been reinforced by ruthless suppression of dissent. Hinduism, to it's lasting glory, has almost entirely avoided this intellectual crime. Consequently, it incorporates an immense variety of variations on belief systems and practices. I expect this is part of the basis of the claim by some that Hinduism is not a religion.

One of the central puzzles of Hindu history is the relation of the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) to the people who composed the Vedas, the oldest Sanskrit sacred poems. The IVC thrived from perhaps 3500 BC to 1500 BC, and during that time built remarkably sophisticated and geometric cities, and traded with the cities of the ancient Middle East. They left no writing, except perhaps a few undeciphered symbols, in groupings too small to be decoded. The Vedas are thought by most scholars to have been composed near the end of this period though only written out more than 1000 years later.

It should be mentioned that there is a school of history, or perhaps political science, which maintains that the Vedas predate the IVC. This is part of a scheme of thought which places India at the center of world and is closely associated with the Hindu nationalists. Many of its ideas are not taken seriously by most independent scholars.

The conventional notion, supported mainly by linguistic evidence, is that the Vedic people were part of the vast Indo-European diaspora that probably originated in Central Asia and swept over virtually all of Europe and big chunks of Asia. Alternative origins are possible, but the out of India theory favored by Hindu nationalists is generally discounted because the centerpiece of Indo-European culture is the horse, and the horse is not native to India and does not thrive there (according to Doniger). The IVC does not seem to have had horses, and did not portray them in its art, though many other animals including lions, elephants and rhinoceroses are plentiful. Genetic evidence, at least at this point, is more ambiguous - and could well be compatible with either the Central Asia or the out of India hypothesis.

In any case, except for having mastered the horse, and possibly turning it into the decisive weapon of war, the Vedic peoples seem to have been pastoralists who says Doniger, lived out of their saddle bags and built nothing more elaborate than mud altars for their sacrifices. Perhaps a Hebrews vs. the promised land analogy is appropriate: nomadic pastoralists, were well organized for war, and conquered the sedentary cities of the Cannanites/IVC. To push the analogy one step further, one can imagine a sort of variant Out-of-India theory in which people from the IVC went to Central Asia, adopted the horse and most of the lifestyle, but retained enough city technology of war to come back and conquer the IVC. We don't know and probably never will.

However it happened, some notions in IVC art seem to be incorporated into Hinduism so there is evidence of connection, though some of the connections became manifest only a millenium later when the Vedic peoples built their own cities.

Piketty on Economics American Style

I should perhaps add that I experienced the American dream at the age of twenty -two, when I was hired by a university near Boston just after finishing my doctorate. This experience proved to be decisive in more ways than one. It was the first time I had set foot in the United States, and it felt good to have my work recognized so quickly. Here was a country that knew how to attract immigrants when it wanted to! Yet I also realized quite soon that I wanted to return to France and Europe, which I did when I was twenty-five. Since then, I have not left Paris, except for a few brief trips. One important reason for my choice has a direct bearing on this book: I did not find the work of US economists entirely convincing. To be sure, they were all very intelligent, and I still have many friends from that period of my life. But something strange happened: I was only too aware of the fact that I knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems . My thesis consisted of several relatively abstract mathematical theorems. Yet the profession liked my work. I quickly realized that there had been no significant effort to collect historical data on the dynamics of inequality since Kuznets, yet the profession continued to churn out purely theoretical results without even knowing what facts needed to be explained. And it expected me to do the same. When I returned to France, I set out to collect the missing data.

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration...

Piketty, Thomas (2014-03-10). Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Kindle Locations 647-659). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

The "university near Boston" that he coyly neglects to name is MIT. He goes on to claim that economists in France have more freedom in France:

There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.

Piketty, Thomas (2014-03-10). Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Kindle Locations 661-663). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.