Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stellar Atmospheres FOTD

The light we receive from the stars originates in the stellar atmosphere - the outer regions of the star. The stellar atmosphere is usually measured in terms of optical depth, where:

Optical depth is defined as the negative natural logarithm of the fraction of radiation (e.g., light) that is not scattered or absorbed on a path....... Wikipedia.

Typically the stellar atmosphere is considered to extend to optical depths of roughly 100-1000, but most of the star's light comes from an optical depth of about 2/3. Stellar atmospheres are very tenuous at those depths, with densities 5 orders of magnitude or so less than the density of Earth's atmosphere at the surface.

Friday, August 29, 2014

After Tamerlane: Book Review

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 is John Darwin's account of how a somewhat backward fringe of Eurasian civilization came to dominate the world with global empires and how those empires collapsed. This is big picture history. Those colorful characters who do so much to give human scale and character to history are hardly present, because Darwin is far more interested in global features. It's a major loss, from my point of view.

On the positive side, his mile high view of history makes clear a lot of trends and large scale phenomena that might remain obscured in a finer grained (and more human) history. I was especially interested in two central themes - the notion that European predominance was essentially accidental and the degree to which events, once underway, have their own momentum, beyond the control of any of the actors.

Europe in the Fifteenth Century knew that it was on the outskirts of civilization, and so did the rest of the world, to the extent that it knew of Europe at all. Almost certainly it was not the only part of Eurasian civilization which had the capability to cross the seas and find the New World. Unquestionably China did, and almost certainly the Indian and Arab traders who worked across the Indian Ocean did as well. What the latter lacked was motivation and inclination. Portugal and Spain wanted to get to the Orient. The Orient could hardly have cared less about them.

The purely accidental discovery of the New World, and the naval capabilities developed in getting there and around Africa were critical components in the development of the military power that created empire. Perhaps equally important was the way that these discoveries shattered old world views and opened the European mind.

It's plausible to guess without the fall of the Indian domino, the story would have been very different. Again, India fell into British hands almost by accident. The unlucky combination of external invasion from Central Asia, a crumbling Mughal Empire, and the internal struggle to pick up that empire's pieces made it peculiarly vulnerable. Add in a tax system capable of being co-opted and local interests willing to cooperate, and the conquest of India became self-financing. The loot from the Indian treasure house became the foundation of the greater British empire.

The end of the European empires was more sudden. The great cataclysms of the Twentieth Century struggles among the Europeans weakened them militarily, economically and morally. Meanwhile, anti-colonial resistance had been maturing, especially in India. World War II forced Britain to make a deal to free India after the the end of the war, and after that the end seemed inevitable, even if the colonial system managed to stumble on for another generation or so - at least partly because the Soviet threat induced the mostly anti-colonial US to support Britain and France for a few more decades.

My other notes on the book can be found here.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


If the Nineteenth Century was dominated by the increasing scope and power of Europe's colonial system, The Twentieth saw the destruction of the same.

Decolonization is often equated with the end of colonial rule, but this is much too narrow. It is far more useful to think of it as the demolition of a Europe-centred imperial order in which territorial empire was interlocked with extraterritorial ‘rights’. The bases, enclaves, garrisons, gunboats, treaty ports and unequal treaties (as in Egypt or China) that littered the Afro-Asian world were as much the expression of this European imperialism as were the colonies and protectorates coloured red, blue, yellow or green on the old imperial maps. So was the assumption that intervention was justified by the general failure of non-European states to reach the civilizational standard that European visitors were entitled to expect. This imperial ‘order’ imagined a cultural hierarchy in which the progressive capabilities of North West European (and Euro-American) societies were contrasted with the (sometimes picturesque) ‘stationary state’ in which non-Western cultures were presumed to be stuck. It also expected, and where possible enforced, an economic division of labour in which the capital, manufactures and technical skills of the imperial-industrial world were exchanged for the raw materials and foodstuffs of the non-Western countries.

Most, if not all, of this global ‘regime’ was quickly demolished in the two decades that followed the Second World War...

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 441-442). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

The Soviet empire was enough more durable to last almost four decades after the war.

Putin's Plan?

If the First World War should teach us anything, it's that blundering your way into war is easy, but getting out is not. Of course there are lots more examples in the intervening century. The real question in Ukraine now is whether Putin has nay idea of what he is doing. Does he have a rational plan, or is he just upping the stakes because he doesn't know how to extract himself? From Anna Nemtsova, in Moscow:

MOSCOW, Russia – Where U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have failed to make Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledge his ever-more-overt invasion of Ukraine and think about pulling back, Valentina Melnikova, the head of Russia’s famous Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, might just have a chance.

Early Thursday morning, Melnikova started getting phone calls from Russian army bosses. All of them, from the deputy defense minister to the paratrooper division commanders, wanted to meet with the great matriarch of the Russian military. She had accused the entire high command, along with Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin of invading Ukraine and of committing a crime against Russian citizens by sending Russian soldiers to "the bloody battlefields" without declaring the war, without signing legal papers with the servicemen, without letting Russian mothers know where exactly their drafted sons ended up dying.

The day before, Russian servicemen were fighting shoulder to shoulder with pro-Russian separatists in Novoazovsk, a strategic port city on the Russian border. By taking over Novoazovsk, the separatists cleared the way for more servicemen to pour into Ukraine. “According to our expert analyses,” said Melnikova – and few organizations have better information than hers – “ there are over 10,000 Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine today."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Martian Chronicles: A Book Report

I was an SF fan in my youth, but somehow I don't remember reading Ray Bradbury's rather famous collection of linked short stories. I finished them with mixed feelings. It's a mostly dystopian fantasy book, set, more or less, on Percival Lowell's Mars, a Mars of canals and deserts, populated by an ancient race and mostly stereotypical human invaders. For me, they are mixed in quality. He has a real poetic gift for creation of a numinous place. The places, though, are mostly peopled with stick figures, and the villains are routinely doltish and boring.

He can, however, write a helluva preface. A fragment:

All right, then, what is Chronicles? It is King Tut out of the tomb when I was three, Norse Eddas when I was six, and Roman/ Greek gods that romanced me when I was ten: pure myth.

If it had been practical technologically efficient science fiction, it would have long since fallen to rust by the road. But since it is a self-separating fable, even the most deeply rooted physicists at Cal-Tech accept breathing the fraudulent oxygen atmosphere I have loosed on Mars . Science and machines can kill each other off or be replaced .

Myth, seen in mirrors, incapable of being touched, stays on. If it is not immortal, it almost seems such. Finally: Don’t tell me what I am doing; I don’t want to know!

What a way to live. The only way. For by pretending at ignorance, the intuition, curious at seeming neglect, rears its invisible head and snakes out through your palmprints in mythological forms. And because I wrote myths, perhaps my Mars has a few more years of impossible life. One thing half-assures me: I am still being invited back to the California Institute of Technology.

Bradbury, Ray (2013-05-21). The Martian Chronicles . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I welcome opinions of those who see it differently.

In 1914, John McCain was Running Germany

Or somebody like him.

Achilles heel of Europe’s global primacy was the underdevelopment of the European states system. It was Europe’s sudden expansion on its Balkan doorstep, the brittle structure of its multinational empires, and the chaotic politics of its smallest states that turned a political murder into a general war. The European balance of power was unable to cope with the final collapse of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. To a shrewd insider just before the war, it seemed obvious enough that international peace must depend on the judgement and skill of statesmen and diplomats.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 373). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Holy Hologram, Batman

Fermilab Press Release:

A unique experiment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory called the Holometer has started collecting data that will answer some mind-bending questions about our universe – including whether we live in a hologram.

Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3-D world exists only on a 2-D screen, we could be clueless that our 3-D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions.

Get close enough to your TV screen and you’ll see pixels, small points of data that make a seamless image if you stand back. Scientists think that the universe’s information may be contained in the same way and that the natural “pixel size” of space is roughly 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom, a distance that physicists refer to as the Planck scale.

“We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just like matter is,” said Craig Hogan, director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics and the developer of the holographic noise theory. “If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years.”

Quantum theory suggests that it is impossible to know both the exact location and the exact speed of subatomic particles. If space comes in 2-D bits with limited information about the precise location of objects, then space itself would fall under the same theory of uncertainty. The same way that matter continues to jiggle (as quantum waves) even when cooled to absolute zero, this digitized space should have built-in vibrations even in its lowest energy state.

Essentially, the experiment probes the limits of the universe’s ability to store information. If there is a set number of bits that tell you where something is, it eventually becomes impossible to find more specific information about the location – even in principle. The instrument testing these limits is Fermilab’s Holometer, or holographic interferometer, the most sensitive device ever created to measure the quantum jitter of space itself.

Now operating at full power, the Holometer uses a pair of interferometers placed close to one another. Each one sends a one-kilowatt laser beam (the equivalent of 200,000 laser pointers) at a beam splitter and down two perpendicular 40-meter arms. The light is then reflected back to the beam splitter where the two beams recombine, creating fluctuations in brightness if there is motion. Researchers analyze these fluctuations in the returning light to see if the beam splitter is moving in a certain way – being carried along on a jitter of space itself

Of course this doesn't say anything about how this tests various holographic conjectures. Some details are here though:


Cogito, ergo sum...............Descartes

Introspection, or examination of one's own thoughts, has been a central focus of art, psychology, and philosophy. It's a primary element of consciousness. What's up with that?

Long time readers, if any, may guess that when I ask a question like that I'm probably looking for a Darwinian answer - what, I mean, is the evolutionary function of introspection? Any complex system that moves needs to have some information about its environment and its internal state, and especially of self and non-self. So far as I know, snakes don't actually make the mistake of swallowing their own tails. In a social species, it makes a lot of sense to have some capability for understanding the thoughts of others, and understanding one's own thoughts provides a useful template. When one's safety depends on successful inhibition of certain instincts, it makes sense to have a watchdog paying attention to instinctive and other responses.

Our introspection has access to only a very limited and often highly processed version of our brain activity - we don't experience the output of individual hair cells in the ear, or photo-sensors in our eyes, but highly processed syntheses of these. We see blue, not differential excitation of different types of cone cells. It could hardly be otherwise. Our consciousness only has room for a highly simplified model of our thought.

Jonathan Haidt compares our conscious, introspective, superego like "supervisor" to a small boy sitting on an elephant, trying to guide it. He has some influence, but most of the work is being done by the elephant.

Prelude to the Collapse of the Colonial Empires

The wolves of European colonialism mainly managed to avoid general war among themselves while extending their empires over the rest of the world. By 1900, they were running out of other peoples' land to steal or otherwise colonize. So they turned, once again, on each other.

The most vital prop of Europe’s primacy in Eurasia, and of the powerful position of the great European states in the Outer World beyond, had been their collective determination not to fight each other. It had been this and the Atlantic peace between Europe and the Americas that had allowed the rapid growth of international trade, the steady extension of European influence and authority, and the ironic achievement of the African partition. The reluctance of European governments to upset their continental balance of power and risk the social and political upheaval that a general war would bring had restrained their pursuit of national and imperial advantage.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 370). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

1914 ended that. Of course there were other, internal strains, economic, ethnic, religious and ideological that were ripping the old order apart. Meanwhile, colonial resistance was crystallizing, and the calamities of the mid-twentieth century weakened the power, prestige, and moral self-confidence of the colonizers, as well as exposing their dependence on the colonies.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Generic Liberalism

After the calamitous wars of late Eighteenth Century the five major powers of Europe, Britain, France, Germany Prussia, Austria and Russia reached a sort of accord in the Treaty of Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. They would cooperate to prevent future continental wars and not have their foreign trade interfered with. Moreover, after 1815, a creeping generic liberalism spread over the continent. Naturally the treaty was not completely successful, and wars continued, but not on the scale of the religious, dynastic and Napoleonic wars of earlier times. Nor was the advance of liberalism especially rapid or steady.

So what were the tenets of this mid-Nineteenth century liberalism. According to Constant:

Modern societies, he suggested, were too complex to be ruled politically after the fashion of an ancient city state – the model to which many earlier writers (including Rousseau) had appealed. Diversity, pluralism and localism were the secret of stability and freedom. Secondly, the legislators, to whom the executive should answer, should be drawn from those least likely to favour the extension of arbitrary power or to be seduced by a demagogue. Politics should be the preserve of the propertied, who would exert a wholesome (and educated) influence on the ‘labouring poor’. The propertied were the true guardians of the public interest. Thirdly, it was necessary for property rights and other civil freedoms to be protected by well-established rules – an ideal that implied the codification of the law and its machinery.9

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 229-230). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

In the short run, at least, this liberalism was a help rather than a hindrance to European imperialism. The rest of the globe would now be subjugated, not in the name of one or the other of a bunch of religions that didn't impress them, but in the name of giving them the blessings of liberal value.

Unlike previous ideologies espoused by European expansionists – crusading imperialism, mercantilism, dynastic absolutism – generic liberalism proved remarkably attractive to some at least of the colonized. Its values were, or seemed, universal: they appealed to Indian, Chinese, African and Arab elites almost as much as to Europeans. Here was an astonishing and unprecedented third dimension to the expansive powers of the Europeans. It endowed them (that is, the more skilful practitioners of ideological politics) with a flexible new weapon in the search for allies in the non-Western world. It helped to prise open societies closed to all their other threats and blandishments. It was – or later seemed to its embittered foes – the Trojan Horse of European imperialism.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 237). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

In the end, liberalism, or a form of it, would become one of the most powerful weapons of the anti-colonialists. Ultimately liberalism, at least in the modern conception, was not compatible with alien rule of subject peoples. Though hardly the only factor, this liberalism claimed as one of its first accomplishments the gradual abolition of one of the nastiest aspects of European colonialism - the African slave trade.

Power of Ideas

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. ................. J M Keynes The General Theory

Economists, defunct or extant, right and wrong, have rather more power than the dentists to which Keynes suggested they should be equated.

But Krugman doesn't want to take the rap for this one:

The French Government has Collapsed And It's Partly Paul Krugman's Fault.

On Monday morning, the French government collapsed. All the ministers have resigned, and President Francois Hollande will have to appoint new ones. Paul Krugman deserves some of the blame.

The incident that immediately precipitated the resignation of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls' cabinet was an interview given by Arnaud Montebourg, France's economics minister to LeMonde, in which he protested his government's ongoing austerity policies.

As evidence of that policy's failure, Montebourg cited the former Princeton professor and New York Times columnist.

Read more:

Another Malthusian Insight

for our times too.

(‘No great commercial and manufacturing state in modern times . . .’ said Malthus, ‘has yet been known permanently to make higher profits than the average of the rest of Europe.’)1

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 223). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Suicide Bombing the Euro Economy

Via Brad Delong:

Paul de Grauewe: "[European policymakers] are doing everything they can... stop recovery taking off, so they should not be surprised if there is in fact no take-off. It is balanced-budget fundamentalism, and it has become religious. We know from the 1930s that if everybody is trying to pay off debt and the government then deleverages at the same time, the result is a downward spiral. The rigidities in the European economy have been there for ages. They have absolutely nothing to do with the problem we face today...

Is this a purely irrational religion, or is it one of those that has big benefits for some, even if the involved countries and the peninsula suffer? I'll bet on the latter, with the starring role, as usual going to the usual rentier suspects. Inflation erodes assets, especially debt assets. So it's good for debtors and bad for creditors. Creditors being mainly wealthy, and debtors being mainly poor, guess who has the bigger seat at the conference table?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Enemy of my Enemy

... is sometimes really, really my enemy.

Islamic extremists have captured a major government military airport in Raqqa, eastern Syria, completing their takeover of the entire province and dealing a humiliating blow to President Bashar Assad.

The victory is further evidence that the Islamic State is determined to widen its grip on the region. Since it launched its assaults in June, the Islamic State has captured half of Iraq and one-third of Syria and operates an Islamic caliphate armed with US weapons and financed by booty seized during its lightning raids.

Complete with ritual suicide bombings and beheadings.

More Adventures on that River in Egypt

In a series of email exchanges, denialist Mr. X. challenged me with a number of aggressive questions, responded to me with some links to essentially irrelevant data (claiming, for example, that CO2 levels in the atmosphere had plateaued on the basis of the fluctuations of the rate of increase of CO2), took exception to my pointing out that in fact CO2 had increased every year since the Mauna Loa measurements began, and did not appreciate my pointing out that he had confused first and second derivatives or that he needed to understand some physics to comprehend how CO2 warms the surface.

He got offended and pronounced that he didn't want to hear any more of my lectures.

Darn! And he was such a promising student!

Well, he did ask.

The Robots Are Coming

...for your job.

Or maybe not.

Brad DeLong links to some various opinions:

Most utopian: “How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work.” — Hal Varian, chief economist at Google

Most dystopian: “We’re going to have to come to grips with a long-term employment crisis and the fact that — strictly from an economic point of view, not a moral point of view — there are more and more ‘surplus humans.'”— Karl Fogel, partner at Open Tech Strategies, an open-source technology firm

Most hopeful: “Advances in A.I. [artificial intelligence] and robotics allow people to cognitively offload repetitive tasks and invest their attention and energy in things where humans can make a difference. We already have cars that talk to us, a phone we can talk to, robots that lift the elderly out of bed and apps that remind us to call Mom. An app can dial Mom’s number and even send flowers, but an app can’t do that most human of all things: emotionally connect with her.” — Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit

Most grim: “The degree of integration of A.I. into daily life will depend very much, as it does now, on wealth. The people whose personal digital devices are day-trading for them, and doing the grocery shopping and sending greeting cards on their behalf, are people who are living a different life than those who are worried about missing a day at one of their three jobs due to being sick, and losing the job and being unable to feed their children.” — Bill Woodcock, executive director for the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit research institute on Internet traffic

Most frightening to Americans: “Globally, more jobs will be created by manufacturing of robots, but in developed countries like the U.S. and Europe jobs will be displaced by manufacturing by robots.” — Mike Liebhold, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group

Most frightening to parents: “Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told to them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.” — Howard Rheingold, tech writer and analyst

In the medium term robots will create wealth. The question is how that will distribute. Will a few owners of capital get it all? Or will some of it be transferred to the rest of humanaity?

Steppe Warriors

I had never fully appreciated the role of the warriors of the steppe in Eurasian history. While they were a recurring bad dream for the cultures they ravaged, they also created or destroyed many of the great empires of history. In the Sixteenth Century, for example, they ruled China (the Manchus), India (the Mughal empire), and the Ottoman empire. The founders of the Persian (Safanid) empire also seem to have some elements of Turkic roots. The Russian empire grew out of a vassal state of the Golden Horde.

These frequently loose confederations of pastoral nomads were exceptionally capable at warfare, and vulnerable civilizations, Ming, Roman and other collapsed before them.

The empires they built were not without their merits. Under the Mughals, Indian culture and economy flourished - at the cost of frequently brutal taxation. When their empire disintegrated, claims John Darwin:

...Humiliated by the Marathas, unable to staunch the haemorrhage of power to their provincial governors or subahdars, and challenged by the rise of Sikhism in the Punjab, Mughal prestige was finally shattered by the invasion of Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran. Indeed, Nadir’s victory in 1739 was the starting gun for chaos. Maratha, Rohilla (Afghan) and Pindari (mercenary) armies, and those of lesser warlords, ravaged North India. In this predatory climate, trade and agriculture declined together. Economic failure echoed political disintegration. Small wonder, then, that Mughal India was the first of the great Eurasian states to fall under European domination after 1750.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 146). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Darwin seems to be of the opinion that stable empires are generally a good deal. Probably not an entirely popular point of view. Somewhat confusingly, he then adds:

In recent years, this simplistic ‘black’ version of India’s pre-colonial history has been largely rewritten. The late Mughal period no longer makes sense as the chaotic prologue to colonial rule. India’s conquest was a more complex affair than the foredoomed collapse of an overstretched empire and the pacification of its warring fragments by European rulers with superior political skill. A realistic account of the half-century that ended at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (the opening salvo of Britain’s colonial conquest) would stress the part played by Indians in building new networks of trade and new regional states. It was this that helped to set off the crises that overwhelmed them unexpectedly in the 1750s.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 146). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

His whole book is full of this sort of confusing mix. My guess is that he endorses the first view, but wants to show his open mindedness. Or maybe I have it backwards.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Sounds like something Bart Simpson might have said, once upon a time, but it's an Icelandic volcano which might disrupt European air travel with its ash cloud.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland's Bardarbunga volcano began erupting Saturday under the country's largest glacier after a week of seismic activity rattled the area with thousands of earthquakes, the country's Meteorological Office said.

The eruption prompted Iceland to raise its aviation alert level to red — the highest level on a five-point scale — indicating the threat of "significant emission of ash into the atmosphere."

Seismic data indicates that magma from the volcano is melting ice beneath the Dyngjujokull icecap on the Vatnajokull glacier, Met Office vulcanologist Melissa Pfeffer said.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Indian Territory

Despite the trouble I get into when I venture there, I continue to be fascinated by the remarkable history of India. Although Indian civilization is one of the oldest and most creative in the world, its very wealth, combined with its proximity to central Asia, have made it a repeated target for conquerors. Despite living under foreign and culturally alien invaders for most of the last 1100 years, it has managed remarkably well at preserving an independent, vibrant and exceptionally resilient civilization. I doubt that this can be said of any other nation.

John Darwin considers the subject in his book After Tamerlane. One of the successor conquerors was Akbar, grandson of Babur. Here is one number that amazed me.

Akbar’s ministers were able to apply their revenue system – collecting in cash perhaps one-half of the value of agricultural production86 – with remarkable uniformity across his territories.87 This great revenue stream was the real foundation of Mughal imperial power.

It paid for the army as well as a cultural programme that drew on the practice of Timurid Samarkand.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 85). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

It seems astounding that a government could extract that much wealth from a pre-industrial agricultural economy without starving all the subjects to death.

Socialism and Morality

Am I my brother's keeper? ............... Genesis 4:9

Socialism has been a big failure as a modern economic system. From a Darwinian point of view, the reason is obvious: free riding. Without the discipline of the marketplace, the system is entirely too vulnerable to those who would take without contributing. Perhaps even more important is the non-Darwinian fact that socialism does not seem to create incentives for innovation and efficiency. In fact only capitalism seems to be good at that.

Despite these facts, certain socialistic notions are very appealing to the human psyche, and most modern governments, including those of the most successful states, incorporate a lot of socialized elements. As the epigraph from Genesis suggests, such elements are fundamental to a number of religions. Christopher Boehm suggests that a socialized sharing of large kills developed early in human culture, probably between 250,000 BP and 45,000 BP, and that that practice was responsible for the development of the human moral sense.

The behavior of modern hunter-gatherers, as well as indirect prehistoric evidence, suggests that bullying and other forms of free riding are strongly suppressed in such societies by concerted social action, up to and including capital punishment. Modern socialist experiments also include important elements of compulsion, and the most socialistic societies have been oppressively totalitarian - another good reason they are suspect.

So far as I no modern government, and probably no society of any sort, lacks socialistic elements. Given that fact, the real question can never be socialism or not. Instead, as with many other things, the question we have to ask is how much is optimal? And that means trade-offs.

The Murder of James Foley

We are rightly outraged, I think, at the cold-blooded murder of American Journalist James Foley by ISIS militants. Beheading seems like a barbaric former of murder, and it is, but is it really worse than other methods? Would we have been less outraged if he had been murdered in an Arizona type hour long calamity of botched lethal injections?

I'm not try to equate murder of a journalist with execution of a murderer, but I would note that our good buddies in Saudi Arabia have executed at least 19 people by beheading in the last 17 days, eight of them for nonviolent offenses according to this Human Rights Watch report:

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has executed at least 19 people since August 4, 2014. Local news reports indicate that eight of those executed were convicted of nonviolent offenses, seven for drug smuggling and one for sorcery.

Family members of another man, Hajras bin Saleh al-Qurey, told Human Rights Watch on August 17 that they fear his execution is imminent. The Public Court of Najran, in southern Saudi Arabia, sentenced al-Qurey to death by beheading on January 16, 2013 for allegedly smuggling drugs and attacking a police officer during his arrest.

“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “There is simply no excuse for Saudi Arabia’s continued use of the death penalty, especially for these types of crimes.”

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the Saudi government news agency, on August 18, authorities executed four Saudi men in Najran province. A court had previously convicted the men – identified as Hadi al-Mutlaq, Awadh al-Mutlaq, Mufreh al-Yami, and Ali al-Yami – of attempting to smuggle hashish into the country.

Why the Long Pause...?

As the bartender asked of the polar bear...

The apparent slowdown in global surface warming since 2000 is both a treasured talking point of the climate skeptocracy and a persistent puzzle for climate scientists. Suspicion has focused on the ocean heat content, mostly the Pacific, but according to this article in The Economist, the Atlantic now looks more like the culprit.

The most likely explanation is that it is hiding in the oceans, which store nine times as much of the sun’s heat as do the atmosphere and land combined. But until this week, descriptions of how the sea might do this have largely come from computer models. Now, thanks to a study published in Science by Chen Xianyao of the Ocean University of China, Qingdao, and Ka-Kit Tung of the University of Washington, Seattle, there are data.

Dr Chen and Dr Tung have shown where exactly in the sea the missing heat is lurking. As the left-hand chart below shows, over the past decade and a bit the ocean depths have been warming faster than the surface. This period corresponds perfectly with the pause, and contrasts with the last two decades of the 20th century, when the surface was warming faster than the deep. The authors calculate that, between 1999 and 2012, 69 zettajoules of heat (that is, 69 x 1021 joules—a huge amount of energy) have been sequestered in the oceans between 300 metres and 1,500 metres down. If it had not been so sequestered, they think, there would have been no pause in warming at the surface.

Hidden depths

The two researchers draw this conclusion from observations collected by 3,000 floats launched by Argo, an international scientific collaboration.

This sort of heat storage is probably part of a multi-decadal cycle, suggesting that when warming returns, it will return with a vengance.

UPDATE: More details in this Climatewire story.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The (Not so Fresh-Faced) Student

Not sure why, but I seem to have decided to study astrophysics. I took a number of MOOC courses, and they were fun, but I wasn't really getting much depth. So I started working my way through a couple of books (and buying a bunch more). I quickly found that I really couldn't learn much unless I pretty much did everything - read every word, wrote down the equations and their derivations, and did the problem sets.

I didn't do that when I was a real student, but maybe I was smarter then.

Or not.

Trouble on the Planet of the Apes

Some of the most fascinating experiments in primatology have been the attempts to teach apes human languages. Jane C Hu takes a look and finds some troubling details. One of the problems is that the people crazy enough to dedicate their lives to an ape for decades can't really be trusted to be objective observers.

Last week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the two laughing and tickling one another. At one point, Koko lifts up Williams’ shirt to touch his bare chest. In another scene, Koko steals Williams’ glasses and wears them around her trailer.

But how seriously should we take claims that Koko understood? Hu looks behind the curtain and sees some reasons for doubt.

The world Hu looks at is infested with backbiting, obsessive secrecy, and dubious claims about the ape's actual cognitive abilities. There have always been skeptics about the claims made by the researcher/foster parents of the apes, and the pervasive non-disclosure agreements required of those who work with the apes do absolutely nothing to quell those doubts, but the disclosure of Hu's informants seem mostly to be concerned with whether or not the apes are being properly fed and cared for.

The experiments have taught us a lot about ape cognition, and its limitations, but we are left with doubts about many of the claims as well as about the ethics of such experiments.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mixed Economy 200,000 BC

The economic systems of our close relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos involve a very limited type of sharing. Meat is prized but hard to come by, and kills are typically appropriated by the most alpha male present. Typically he will share a portion with a few cronies - probably just enough of them to deter a mass attack by those without.

There is evidence that a quite different system had evolved among humans as early as 200,000 years ago, in which large kills were systematically shared by all members of a band, just as they are by extant and recent hunter gatherer bands.

Christopher Boehm thinks that this socialized distribution of major game, combined with severe punishment of would be bullies who would take more than their share, was the basis of the development of human morality. The sharing, by the way, only applies to big game, with each family on its own with respect to smaller scale gathering hauls.

The sharing pattern is probably necessary for big game hunting to be a major economic strategy, both because it helps even out good and bad hunting days and because whole group cooperation is probably needed to bring down the really large game animals.

Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Harbinger of Doom?

This article suggests that there might have been some factual basis to the ancient myths of comets as Harbinger's of doom. It seems that it's possible a hunk of Halley's comet hit the Earth in 536 A.D., triggering a 10 year bout of cold and famine.

The ancients had ample reason to view comets as harbingers of doom, it would appear.

A piece of the famous Halley's comet likely slammed into Earth in A.D. 536, blasting so much dust into the atmosphere that the planet cooled considerably, a new study suggests. This dramatic climate shift is linked to drought and famine around the world, which may have made humanity more susceptible to "Justinian's plague" in A.D. 541-542 — the first recorded emergence of the Black Death in Europe.

The new results come from an analysis of Greenland ice that was laid down between A.D. 533 and 540. The ice cores record large amounts of atmospheric dust during this seven-year period, not all of it originating on Earth.

More detail in the link.

Trophy Strife

Andrew Sullivan has been running an extensive series on the controversy over giving out trophies indiscriminately to stars and bench sitters, winners and losers, in kid sports. I'm not much of a fan of trophies for anyone in kids sports - I think adult intervention in kid sports should be minimal, restricted if possible to teaching skills, organizing facilities, and preventing mayhem, but if anybody gets a trophy, everybody should. This, of course, is very much in keeping with our hunter-gatherer ancestors egalitarian ethos.

In addition, singling out individual players undermines team spirit and morale. The players probably know who is really good and who isn't - why should adult validation be necessary.

Andrew has plenty of opinions on both sides. Two:


The disgust that so many adults feel at the idea of everyone getting a trophy has to do with creating incentives. If everyone gets a trophy then no one will try hard; if everyone gets basic food and housing to survive, then no one will work. Of course, this isn’t true. A soccer team full of 10-year-olds who all get participation trophies won’t all sit down and stop playing soccer– the kids who are good at scoring points will still want to do so. But the kid who never scored a point will, for a moment, be recognized: You played soccer too.


I don’t know, maybe because the world IS unfair and we’re realists and not delusional purveyors of utopian fantasy?

And my favorite:

Giving trophies to everyone is practically like giving away none, because with the ubiquity comes devaluation.

One approach I sort of liked when my kids were in youth sports was recognizing each player for something he or she did particularly well.

Ferguson and Government by Extortion

The first governments were probably little more than protection rackets. Jeff Smith, writing in the NYT, takes a fascinating look at a variation on this theme in Ferguson MO.

Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit.

This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County.

Ferguson’s demographics have shifted rapidly: in 1990, it was 74 percent white and 25 percent black; in 2000, 52 percent black and 45 percent white; by 2010, 67 percent black and 29 percent white.

The region’s fragmentation isn’t limited to the odd case of a city shedding its county. St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines. According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent.

There is more on how this generally disadvantages the poor and black people in particular.

History: Running Out of Steam?

One of the great puzzles of history is why civilizations rise and fall. We understand the history of distant stars far better than those of the cultures we live in. John Darwin:

The greatest puzzle in Chinese history is why the extraordinary dynamism that had created the largest and richest commercial economy in the world seemed to dribble away after 1400. China’s lead in technical ingenuity and in the social innovations required for a market economy was lost. It was not China that accelerated towards, and through, an industrial revolution, but the West.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 44-46). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Unlike some other civilizations (Roman, Islamic, Indian, and perhaps Western), China was neither disrupted by internal convulsions nor external invasions.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Phoning it In

Amateur theater has some challenges usually not faced by those that actually pay the actors. For example, during rehearsal of a local play, the lead actor really had to be out of town on business. Now the assistant director could have read the lines, but instead the actor skyped in and the other actors carried his virtual presence around the stage.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Matters of Size

In principle, there is not much limit to black hole size. We expect little ones to evaporate quickly, but nobody has seen any of these. The ones we can measure are mostly big - several solar masses - or really really big - millions or billions of solar masses. We have a pretty good idea how the former form from the death throes of giant stars, but the latter are more mysterious. It's also surprising that we haven't measured any intermediate sized ones - a few hundred to a few thousands of solar masses - until now.

The universe has so many black holes that it’s impossible to count them all. There may be 100 million of these intriguing astral objects in our galaxy alone. Nearly all black holes fall into one of two classes: big or colossal. Astronomers know that black holes ranging from about 10 times to 100 times the mass of our Sun are the remnants of dying stars and that supermassive black holes, more than a million times the mass of the Sun, inhabit the centers of most galaxies.

But scattered across the universe like oases in a desert are a few apparent black holes of a more mysterious type. Ranging from a hundred times to a few hundred thousand times the Sun’s mass, these intermediate-mass black holes are so hard to measure that even their existence is sometimes disputed. Little is known about how they form. And some astronomers question whether they behave like other black holes.

Now a team of astronomers has succeeded in accurately measuring — and thus confirming the existence of — a black hole about 400 times the mass of our Sun in a galaxy 12 million light-years from Earth.

Richard Mushotzky from the University of Maryland (UMD) said the black hole in question is a just-right-sized version of this class of astral objects.

“Objects in this range are the least expected of all black holes,” said Mushotzky. “Astronomers have been asking: Do these objects exist, or do they not exist? What are their properties? Until now, we have not had the data to answer these questions.” While the intermediate-mass black hole that the team studied is not the first one measured, it is the first one so precisely measured, “establishing it as a compelling example of this class of black holes,” said Mushotzky.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Modern Times

What is modernity? John Darwin, in After Tamerlane, offers this perhaps idealized version:

But modernity is a very slippery idea. The conventional meaning is based on a scale of achievement. In political terms, its key attributes are an organized nation state, with definite boundaries; an orderly government, with a loyal bureaucracy to carry out its commands; an effective means to represent public opinion; and a code of rights to protect the ordinary citizen and encourage the growth of ‘civil society’. Economically, it means the attainment of rapid, cumulative economic growth through industrial capitalism (with its social and technological infrastructure); the entrenchment of individual property rights (as a necessary precondition); and the systematic exploitation of science-based knowledge. Culturally, it implies the separation of religion and the supernatural from the mainstream of thought (by secularization and the ‘disenchantment’ of knowledge) and social behaviour; the diffusion of literacy (usually through a vernacular rather than a classical language); and a sense of common origins and identity (often based on language) within a ‘national’ community. The keynotes of modernity become order, discipline, hierarchy and control in societies bent on purposeful change towards ever higher levels of ‘social efficiency’.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 25-26). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition. (pp. 25-26). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Among other problems, this version is both Eurocentric and also objectionable to many who consider themselves modern. At best, it's an idealized version of what some leading Western states consider themselves, but it is nonetheless something of a model.

Black Hole Digestion

Consider a 10^8 solar mass black hole powering an active galactic nucleus, with an accretion disc consisting of say 300,000 solar masses. How long does it take the hole to gobble up the whole thing?

About a million years.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

More Ukraine

Ukrainian separatists were boasting today of large scale reinforcements from Russia: tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops.

DONETSK, Ukraine — The new pro-Moscow leader in the breakaway republic of Donetsk bragged openly today that Russia has strengthened his besieged rebel forces with men, armored vehicles and tanks. His boast would appear to confirm Ukrainian claims that the Kremlin is stepping up backing for the insurgents, defying the West with a dangerous escalation of the conflict Russian President Vladimir Putin said midweek he hoped would end soon.

Alexander Zaharchenko, who was appointed “prime minister” of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic earlier this week, told The Daily Beast that the rebels have received reinforcements from across the border, and specified in an interview with Russian radio station that “1,200 men trained in Russia have joined his force and that separatists have received also 120 armored personnel carriers and 30 tanks.”

It's not clear exactly what Putin is up to. This seems likely to be enough troops for the rebels to stave off defeat, but probably not enough for any kind of win. Ukraine can't fight Russia, but the talked about full-scale invasion hasn't happened yet.

Cultural Imperialism

In a world where American sitcoms, Yoga, Chinese manufactures and Coca-Cola have penetrated nearly everywhere, how much autonomy do traditional cultures still possess? Industry, economy, science and technology have been global now for many decades. The financial and intellectual elite have become cosmopolitan classes of their own. Vast population migrations have created exposed people from all over to cultures other than their own.

Nonetheless, cultures are things that don't easily loosen their grip. They are good at building walls. The most fundamental wall is probably language. 12,000 years ago, when there were 1000 times fewer people, these people probably spoke 10,000 different languages, each with 1000 or so speakers. today there are about the same number of languages, 6500 or so, but speakers are heavily concentrated in a few: Mandarin, Hindustani, English, Spanish, Arabic etc. Many of the smaller language groups are likely to disappear soon, but that will still leave thousands of languages, and perhaps, different cultures.

Nonetheless, a global superculture (super in the sense of being grafted onto the respective cultures of the members) is likely to persist, and likely to dominate business, technology, science, and aspects of art. At the moment, the native language of that group is English. For the future, TBD.

Believing in Evolution is Silly

Says Keith Blanchard. And I think he's right. Faith has very little to do with it.

So if someone asks, "Do you believe in evolution," they are framing it wrong. That's like asking, "Do you believe in blue?"

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don't believe in it — you either understand it or you don't. But pretending evolution is a matter of faith can be a clever way to hijack the conversation, and pit it in a false duality against religion. And that's how we end up with people decrying evolution, even as they eat their strawberries and pet their dogs, because they've been led to believe faith can only be held in one or the other.

I think his analogy is badly chosen. "Blue" is closely tied to a primary sensory experience, evolution isn't. A better analogy would be, "Do you believe in gravity?"

I don't think that this argument is going to persuade many doubters, though. Faith is mentally cheaper than understanding.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Eve of Destruction

Save the date, March 16, 2880. That's when asteroid 1950 DA is scheduled to make a very close approach to Earth, with a 0.3 % estimated chance of impact. It's a big rascal, with a 1 km diameter, so that would be bad.

The date of Earth's potential destruction has been set at 16 March 2880, when an asteroid hurtling through space has a possibility of striking our planet.

Researchers studying the rock found that its body rotates so quickly that it should break apart, but somehow remains intact on its Earth-bound trajectory.

Read more: Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

Breaking apart would probably be bad, increasing the sum of the collision cross sections of the fragments.

Habla RNA?

Or maybe I mean ARN.

Anyway, it seems that your plants apparently do.

It’s well known that DNA and RNA strands are able to encode vast amounts of information, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that RNA is also being used as a means of communication between species. Virginia Tech scientist Jim Westwood has discovered that messenger RNA is regularly exchanged between plants and parasitic weeds, allowing the two to communicate with each other.

“The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” said Westwood, reports. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’.”

Punishing Deviance

Christopher Boehm believes that social communities getting together to punish deviance had a lot to do with the development of conscience and the human moral sense - a sense seemingly lacking even in our closest animal relatives. Hunter-gatherers (HG) are good at that, and modern humans have carried that over into small towns, churches, and other groups.

Mostly our HG ancestors have been concerned with behaviors that directly threaten the group survival: bullying, psychopathy, excessive murder, can rate the death penalty, but lesser crimes are first dealt with by shaming and threats of exclusion.

More modern societies extend the list of condemnable behaviors considerably, often in the form of various religious prohibitions and shibboleths. I'm thinking here of everything from tatoos to dietary restrictions to rules about who can marry whom. What sociobiological function, if any, do such prohibitions and rules perform?

My guess is that the central function is to weld the members into a unified community. By drawing sharp, if largely imaginary, boundaries between groups, people are forced, or at least incentivized to draw a boundary on the "us" side and against the "them" of the outsiders. Think of it as the cultural equivalent of a cell membrane, or a vertebrate skin.

Uh Oh: Ukraine Again

After simmering offstage right for a bit, Ukraine heated up when Russian armored personnel carriers entered Ukraine and were attacked.

Ukraine said Friday that its artillery destroyed part of a convoy of Russian military vehicles that crossed into Ukraine at around the same time as a Russian relief aid convoy was reaching the border area.

The Russian defense ministry flatly denied the report and the Russian Foreign Ministry said it has information that Ukraine was planning to attack the now stalled 262-truck Russian humanitarian convoy.

A Good Year for Polar Bears?

Well maybe, if they live on the American side. Sea ice area is greater this year than for almost a decade, and the melt season is unlikely to last much longer. On the Asian side, there is a lot of water between the ice and the coast.

The denialist crowd is no doubt high fiveing, but sea ice area is still well below long term averages. More dispassionate observers note that weather is variable, and likely to remain so.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Another Example of Why...

I really can't afford to indulge WB and remove him from my blogroll: elaborate stories

"Today, Mirzakhani .. still writes elaborate stories in her mind. The high ambitions haven’t changed, but the protagonists have: They are hyperbolic surfaces, moduli spaces and dynamical systems. In a way, she said, mathematics research feels like writing a novel. “There are different characters, and you are getting to know them better,” she said. “Things evolve, and then you look back at a character, and it’s completely different from your first impression.” The Iranian mathematician follows her characters wherever they take her ..." Quanta Magazine

He will just have to start publishing lower quality stuff.

Astrophysics Fact of the Day

Co-moving coordinates and the scale factor.

The most dramatic discovery in the history of cosmology was probably Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the universe: distant galaxies are rushing away from us, and from each other, and the rate depends on the distance. Perhaps the most fruitful way to think of this is in terms of co-moving coordinates. Imagine a set of coordinates attached to each point in space, stationary with respect to the average local mass distribution. Over time, these coordinates get farther apart. In fact, points that were a distance of 1 mile apart in the year 1 of the Universe are now about 1 million miles apart. Roughly speaking, all that mass that now makes up the Andromeda galaxy - a trillion Sun's worth - was then about as close as the nearest star is now.

Distance between any two points is increasing, and the rate of increase is about the same everywhere, though it does change a bit with time. We measure this in terms of the scale factor a(t). By convention, it is now 1, which means that back at year one, it was about 10^(-6) or 1 millionth. Local effects like gravity and electrical forces break this rule on smaller scales - I'm not getting any taller due to the expansion of the Universe.

Campbell Brown's War Against The Teachers Unions

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown is at war with the teacher's unions. Brown is married to Bush admin war propagandist Dan Senor, and now fronts a shadowy organization called "The Partnership for Educational Justice." She was on the Colbert report recently, and Colbert was uncharacteristically tough about asking her who funded her enterprise. She dodged, she evaded, she weaved but finally had to admit that she just wasn't going to tell.

Is it a stretch to guess that the usual suspect are at work here, the billionaires who hate to admit that their real mission has more to do with subverting democracy than improving education. If they - whomever they may be - really care about education why are they ashamed to have their names mentioned in this connection.

I have my own quarrels with teacher's unions, but I really don't like the smell of this operation.

Astrophysics FOTD: Interstellar

NASA thinks that they have identified some some grains of interstellar dust collected by some cosmic flypaper they flew.

Astronomers have likely located the first ever grains of interstellar dust they can get their hands on with the help of thousands of citizen volunteers in the Stardust@Home project.

Just seven tiny particles of stardust have been located in the aerogel and aluminium foil collectors of NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, which were dropped off on Earth in 2006 after seven years in space.

Stardust’s primary mission was to snag samples of comets and bring them back home, but the craft also had separate interstellar dust collectors, which were dropped by parachute along with the comet versions. A group of scientists and volunteers have spent the last eight years combing through the tennis-racket-sized mosaics of 132 aerogel tiles in search of the exceedingly rare, microscopic motes from outside our Solar System...


While the scientists are happy to say that the motes are likely to be interstellar dust particles, they’re not fully confident yet.

“The composition and trajectory modelling tell us that it is most likely that the grains are interstellar,” Stroud said.

Isotopic analysis could discriminate whether the grains originated in the proto-solar nebula or elsewhere, I expect.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Arctic Methane Apocalypse?

Not to worry. Despite Arctic Ocean bubbles, melting permafrost and Siberian explosions, David Archer at Real Climate says that's not something to worry about for the present. Their effect is, and is likely to remain, miniscule compared to human CO2 emissions. At least for some considerable time.


We live, so they say, in the age of globalization. It started much earlier, of course, when traders first started travelling long distances to exchange goods. That likely is older than civilization. It picked up when longer distance trade opened up across central Asia, and when ships became capable of crossing wider seas.

John Darwin's After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 looks at that period since globe spanning sea voyaging began.

Globalization is an ambiguous word. It sounds like a process, but we often use it to describe a state – the terminal point after a period of change. All the signs are that, in economic relations at least, the pace of change in the world (in the distribution of wealth and productive activity between different regions and continents) is likely to grow. But we can, nonetheless, sketch the general features of the ‘globalized world’ – the stage which globalization has now reached – in a recognizable form. This is the ‘present’ whose unpredictable making the history in this book attempts to explain. These features can be briefly summarized as follows:

1. the appearance of a single global market – not for all but for most widely used products, and also for the supply of capital, credit and financial services;

2. the intense interaction between states that may be geographically very distant but whose interests (even in the case of very small states) have become global, not regional;

3. the deep penetration of most cultures by globally organized media, whose commercial and cultural messages (especially through the language of ‘brands’) have become almost inseparable;

4. the huge scale of migrations and diasporas (forced and free), creating networks and connections that rival the impact of the great European out-migration of the nineteenth century or the Atlantic slave trade;

5. the emergence from the wreck of the ‘bipolar age’ (1945–89) of a single ‘hyperpower’, whose economic and military strength, in relation to all other states, has had no parallel in modern world history;

6. the dramatic resurgence of China and India as manufacturing powers. In hugely increasing world output and shifting the balance of the world economy, the economic mobilization of their vast populations (1.3 billion and 1 billion respectively) has been likened to the opening of vast new lands in the nineteenth century.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 7-8). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Astro FOTD (Early Universe Numbers)

The horizon and some numbers.

Because the universe has a finite age, the distance we can detect objects or effects has a limit. At earlier times, that limit was smaller. For example, when the universe was one nanosecond old, that limit, the horizon, was about 30 cm, or one foot. Anything further away was outside of our past light cone, and could not affect us gravitationally or otherwise. By age 1 second, the horizon was about 300,000 km away, and by 3.26 years, about a parsec. It's more convenient to work on a temperature scale, though, so here are some numbers:

T = 10^10 K, t = 3.6 seconds, energy density = 7.5 x 10^37 GeV/m^3 = 1.3 x 10^11 kg/m^3, horizon at 10^9 m, photon energy 8 MeV

T = 10^6 K, t = 4 x 10^6 s, e d = 8 x 10^25 GeV/m^3 = .1 kg/m^3, horizon at 10^15 m, photon energy = 1 keV

T = 10^3 K, t = 4 x 10^14 s = 10^7 yr, e d = 7 x 10^9 GeV/m^3 = 10^-17 kg/m^3, horizon at 10^23 m, photon energy = .09 eV.

Many numbers from handy-dandy Hyperphysics early universe calculator.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Astro Fact of the Day

Sir James Jeans, the pioneering astrophysicist made many contributions but today we will consider the Jeans Length. A cloud of gas, he reasoned, would collapse if pressure forces were overwhelmed by the gravitational self-attraction. One way to think about it is that if the time for a pressure wave to move across the cloud is greater than the time required for the cloud to collapse in free fall, gravity wins. Pressure waves, we may recall, travel at the speed of sound.

In the early days of the universe, when we were all young warthogs, or, more precisely, a plasma of hydrogen and helium nuclei and electrons, the speed out sound was very high, perhaps 2/3 of light speed c. After a few hundred thousand years, the plasma, cooled by cosmic expansion enough for electrons and nuclei to recombine into atoms, and sound speed plummeted.

This caused the Jeans length to decrease by ten orders of magnitude. Before recombination, only clouds of mass of galaxy super cluster size could collapse. Afterwards, clouds as light as a globular cluster (10^5 to 10^6 solar masses, say) could collapse.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Astro Fact of the Day

Gravitationally bound systems (globular clusters, stellar "solar" systems, black holes) have negative specific heat. If you add heat they will equilibrate (virialize) to a cooler kinetic temperature.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Astro Fact of the Day

Matter likes company. About 95% of galaxies belong to groups (like our own galaxy, the Milky Way) or clusters. 5% or so go it alone in the void, though. The galactic loners seem to do alright, though. They seem to have more gas and more sustained stellar formation, probably because they don't experience gas stealing close encounters with other galaxies.

There are lonely stars outside galaxies too, and lots of planets outside of stellar systems. Mostly these latter two probably started out as insiders but got booted out by gravitational interactions.

Morality in Foreign Policy

Our notions of morality are based on interpersonal relations, but how well do the scale into relations of nations? For much (or all) of human history the answer has been hardly at all. There is one standard for the in group, be it clan, tribe, nation or religion, and another for the out group. Occasional attempts to introduce moral standards into the relations between nations took a concrete (if unsuccessful) step in the Twentieth Century with the creation of the League of Nations, and later with the United Nations.

The animating principle behind such ideas has not been that nations would not pursue their own interests, as people has always done, but that there would be some minimum standards, much as human societies have attempted to impose(mostly successfully) on their members from time immemorial (or at least 50,000 years or so). To call these efforts a success would be a great exaggeration but the considerations have at least come up.

The issues of colonialism and genocide have been central. Morality was hardly the principal force in the disruption of the old colonial empires, but it was a force, and a substantial one. Countless genocides have marked human history, but the Nazi genocide against Jews and some others marked sort of a milestone: the victims were among the most accomplished and literate people of Europe. Conventions against genocide were adopted, and some attempts were made to enforce them.

Genocide itself has hardly gone out of fashion. Cambodians, Rwandan Tutsis, Kurds, and at least half a dozen others have been victims since WW II. One reason that Obama intervened in Iraq was the genocidal actions of ISIL against Yasidis, and potentially Kurds. So when exactly is a Superpower - the Superpower - justified in intervening in a civil war? That's a conundrum.

Ready for Your Closeup?

Pluto and pal

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Who is John Galt?

Answer: A megalomaniacal psychopath whose ambition is to destroy civilization as constituted. He is also the fictional hero of Ayn Rand's gigantic word brick, Atlas Shrugged. His ambitions are aided by his considerable magical powers which allow him to conjure amazing inventions out thin air. Of course the author attributes the inventions not to magic but to super-intelligence, an intelligence entirely belied by his idiotic philosophical monologues. I like to think of him as a sort of motor-mouth Lord Voldemort.

His psychopathic character is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that Rand based some of her heroes on a notorious child murderer who delivered his victim's body parts to the parents. Of course she claims she didn't admire his deeds, just his attitude.

It is more than a bit bothersome to me that this novel and author are bible to many of the Republican big shots, including Rand Paul, who had all his staffers read AS. The novel is also immensely popular, having sold many millions of copies, and young libertarians are likely to be be fans.

I've written extensively about it here:

And so it goes.

Minus Alpha

Chimpanzees have a strictly hierarchical society, and they all know their place in it. Our other ape cousins are also pretty hierarchical. Mobile human hunter-gatherer societies, the prototypical human societies that nearly all of our ancestors probably lived in for something like 40,000 years, and some modern and near modern hunter-gatherers still live in, are not like that. Instead, there is a high degree equality among all (adult male) hunters, and egalitarianism is strictly enforced, by shaming, ostracizing, expulsion, or extreme cases, murder of those who try to exploit or lord it over others.

It's likely that this egalitarian focus made possible the high degree of human cooperation which has enabled our extraordinary developments in art, technology, and civilization. In particular, humans display the ability to cooperate outside of purely familial groups.

Based on:

Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (p. 30). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Curious Fact of the Day

Interstellar grains, those sub-micron sized bits of stardust manufactured from matter exported by stellar winds and supernovae, seem to be spinning at supra-thermal velocities. That is, there is more energy in rotational than linear degrees of freedom. A few curious processes are expected to be responsible.

Physics of the Interstellar and Intergalactic Medium (Princeton Series in Astrophysics) by Bruce T. Draine (Dec 20, 2010), page 308.

The Blogfather

In honor of the birthday of "The Blogfather" (December 5, 1973), I bought a six-pack of Czech beer. I may drink it before the big 41.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Bad News For One More Evil Empire

The NCAA is a rotten system which conspires to make vast profits while depriving the athletes of any share of the revenue and is a personal pet peeve of mine. That system was dealt a major blow by a court decision today.

In a decision that could drastically reshape the world of college sports, a federal judge ruled on Friday that the N.C.A.A.’s decades-old rules barring payments to college athletes were in violation of antitrust laws.

In a 99-page ruling, Judge Claudia Wilken of United States District Court in Oakland, Calif., delivered a resounding rebuke to the foundation of the N.C.A.A., issuing an injunction against current rules that prohibit athletes from earning money from the use of their names and images in video games and television broadcasts.

This is a very important crack in the system, but doesn't go nearly far enough.

Back to Iraq

Once more into the quagmire.

It's pretty hard to argue with the reasons (prevention of genocide, expansion of an avowedly hostile terrorist protostate) but this black hole keeps sucking us back in.

Barack Obama orders US airstrikes on Islamic State, formerly Isis, after militants seize swathes of northern Iraq causing thousands of Christians to flee - follow latest updates

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The EM Drive

There has been a lot of hype lately concerning The EM Drive, a supposed microwave based thruster that needs no propellant and May "violate the laws of physics." Call me just a teeny bit skeptical:

NASA has tested an "impossible" electric space drive that uses no propellant – and found it works even when it is designed not to.

The system is designed to use microwave energy reflected along a specially designed chamber to produce thrust. The idea first appeared as the Emdrive by British inventor Roger Shawyer in 2001, who designed a motor that he showed could produce power in this way. But critics scoffed, saying it would violate the laws of momentum.

The EmDrive, we're told, generates thrust by using the properties of radiation pressure. An electromagnetic wave has a small amount of momentum which, when it hits a reflector, can translate that into thrust, Shawyer found, and this apparently can be used to power flight in the near-frictionless environment of space.

The idea languished, but a decade later the Chinese Academy of Sciences published a paper saying that it too had built an EmDrive-like which, when fed 2.5kW, generated 720mN of thrust – a tiny amount, admittedly.

But this got the attention of NASA boffins, who in 2013 commissioned a series of tests on the drive and got some surprising results.

In an eight-day trial held by US engineering firm Cannae, researchers found that by using a reflective chamber similar to that proposed by Shawyer, the team was able to use solely electrical input to generate 30 to 50 micro-Newtons of thrust. Again, incredibly tiny, enough to move a grain of sand, but apparently significant.

If it really works, maybe we could power it with cold fusion.

I guess I should mention that my skepticism is based on the notion that it violates conservation of momentum. My guess is that if it works, there is some momentum being transferred, probably to some nearby object, via quite conventional known physics.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Early Years of Social Engineering

People have been breeding animals and plants, at first semi-accidentally and later more purposefully, for many thousands of years, but our first experiments in that direction may have been a factor of ten or so earlier.

One of the great puzzles of human evolution is human generosity and other altruistic behavior. The theory of evolution predicts that selfishness usually pays off at the level of the gene and above. If a behavior lowers one's fitness at the profit of someone else, any genes that permit or encourage it ought to be selected against.

Darwin simply wondered how he could ever reconcile his new theory, which was so “individualistic,” with the fact that patriotic young men so willingly went to war to sacrifice their lives for their countrymen. They were sacrificing not only their lives but also the lives of their future progeny, who otherwise would be inheriting these generous tendencies. The great naturalist was confounded.

Darwin had in mind the fact that free-riding cowards would be avoiding these same risks and that their greater numbers of surviving offspring would be inheriting the same selfish tendencies. In short, following his theories, generously self-sacrificial patriotism should always be on the wane, while dispositions to hold back and stay safe should always be proliferating. This meant that over the long run any tendencies to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the group should be automatically suppressed by natural selection—yet in practice young men were going to war, and many were doing so eagerly.

Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (p. 12). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Boehm's theory is, in effect, that human groups selected for cooperation by systematically punishing or excluding non-cooperators. This sort of behavior is only possible for those with brains large enough to understand who the non-cooperators are and social enough to cooperation with other to punish non-cooperation. He and other ethnographers have observed this sort of behavior in modern or recent hunter gatherer societies, and their is reason to think it is universal among them. This and other considerations suggest ancient origins.

We were our own first selective breeding experiment.

The Prize: My Book Report

Daniel Yergin's 928 page magnum opus, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, is the story of oil, and it's role in world history, from the beginning to about 1991, with an epilogue that notes some of the events of the next twenty years. Yergin is a gifted writer and story teller, with an eye for the telling anecdote, as well as remarkably comprehensive.

The central theme is the tale of how oil went from being an obscure, if remarkable, curiosity to major commodity and maker of great fortunes, to the central commodity and strategic objective of the modern world. Modern man, says Yergin, is Hydrocarbon Man, and oil is central to almost all his works. Modern civilization was built on cheap, readily available, and highly transportable energy, oil has been fundamental to all that. Oil was a central point of contention of the two great wars of the twentieth century, and a major factor in dozens of others. It is deeply implicated in the present turmoils in the Middle East and Africa.

I have talked a good deal about the book and its story in my previous posts (see below), but the point I want to make here is that it's a really good book, and probably an essential one if you want to understand how the world has worked and continues to work in the modern age. If you are looking for reinforcement of your cartoons of evil oil companies and western colonialism here, this may not be your book. There are plenty of nefarious characters and deeds chronicled, but the story is far more subtle and human than that. It's also a story of courage, ingenuity, luck, prescience and folly - all the ingredients of a great story and a great history.

My previous posts about Daniel Yergin's book: The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, are to be found here.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Crime and Punishment

Decades ago, in Darwinism and Human Affairs, biologist Richard D. Alexander defined the evolutionary conscience as being more than an inhibitor of antisocial behavior. He called it the “still small voice that tells us how far we can go in serving our own interests without incurring intolerable risks.”15

Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (p. 30). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Origins of Culture

One of the many mysteries of human evolution is the rather sudden flowering of culture about 50,000 years ago. In the two to three millions of years between humans developing simple stone tools and that date human technology and society seems to have evolved very slowly. After that date the pace of technological evolution sped up dramatically, art appeared, and humans apparently started living in larger groups. Humans anatomically similar to modern human seem to have been around since about 200,000 years ago, so what could account for the change?

Some researchers think they have found a key clue in a fairly subtle change in facial shape.

Humans started making art work when their personalities got gentler and their faces more feminine, a study suggests.

Researchers found that culture boomed around 50,000 years ago when there was an apparent reduction in testosterone.

This led people to have gentler personalities and saw the making of art and advanced tools become widespread.


Heavy brows were out, rounder heads were in, and those changes can be traced directly to testosterone levels acting on the skeleton, according to Duke University anthropologist Steven Churchill, who supervised Cieri's work.


There are a lot of theories about why, after 150,000 years of existence, humans suddenly leapt forward in technology. Around 50,000 years ago, there is widespread evidence of producing bone and antler tools, heat-treated and flaked flint, projectile weapons, grindstones, fishing and birding equipment and a command of fire.

There are clues in both our close relatives and more distant ones in the animal kingdom that testosterone is an anti-cooperative hormone. Bonobo and elephant societies are female dominated, apparently because they cooperated better than males. Too much testosterone and competition seems to obliterate cooperation.


Report: Israel Spied on John Kerry's Phone During Middle East Peace Talks

Israel reportedly eavesdropped on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's phone calls during last year's failed Middle East peace talks between Israel, Palestinian authorities and Arab states.

The intelligence services of Israel, as well as those of at least one other country, intercepted phone calls made by Kerry using an insecure telephone, according to a report published on Sunday by the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Which invites the question of why he was speaking on an insecure phone, considering that he has a presumably well-equipped aircraft immediately on hand.

Reckless stupidity? Disinformation?

If he discussed official business, that likely would have been a firing offense, or worse, for any of his minions.

Friday, August 01, 2014

QFT and All That

I have always thought that any physicist should have a good grasp of quantum field theory. I have taken a couple of courses in the subject, own dozens of books about it, and have worked probably a couple of hundred QFT problems, few of which I probably remember how to do today. The fact is, I don't have a solid grasp of QFT, but it's not exactly for lack of trying.

I mention this fact because there are a few new and highly touted QFT books out there. In particular, these:

Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur, by Lancaster and Blundell. I'm not really an amateur, and I'm certainly not gifted, so might this be appropriate? Hard to say. I don't think they've written QFT for the Dumb ex-Pro yet.

Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory, by Robert D. Klauber. Of course I'm not really much of a student, so would friendliness help?

Finally, Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model, by Matthew D. Schwartz. This does seem like the professional version, but would I learn anything from it, and what is it I want to learn anyway. I probably wouldn't get that much out of learning how to calculate the Lamb shift again. QCD cross sections? Not really. What renormalization means really? Well maybe.

But I would like to have a clearer idea of how the whole thing fits together.

With Friends Like This...

...Israel should need enemies?

Via Andrew Sullivan:

The Times of Israel ran the following headline in its Ops and Blogs section: "When Genocide is Permissible." The author, one Yochanon Gordon, wrote, in part:

History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously. Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely? …

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?

Hitler would be proud. The great genocides of history (the native Americans, the Armenians, the Jews, the Tutsi, the Thebans and so on) have all been justified on very similar reasoning.

The Times has since taken down the post.