Richard Wagner's The Valkyrie, English National Opera, November−December
2021 October 18
UK Voting System
At its recent conference in Brighton, Labour narrowly rejected a motion calling for the party to back proportional representation.
The party membership was overwhelming for PR, with 80% of its representatives backing the resolution. But the leadership was staunchly against it, backed by the unions. Under the intricacies of Labour voting rules, the resulting 95% union vote against defeated the motion by a slim margin.
First-past-the-post (FPTP) allows the two-party system to endlessly reproduce itself. This duopoly survives because it takes 38,000 votes to elect a Tory MP, 50,000 for a Labour MP, 250,000 for a Liberal Democrat MP, and 850,000 for the sole Green MP.
FPTP keeps the small parties out and locks the two big parties in, no matter how badly they perform.
AR The UK Alternative Vote referendum held in May 2011 asked whether to replace the FPTP system with the AV system.
AV lets voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Ballots are initially counted for each voter's top choice. If a candidate has more than half of the vote based on first choices, that candidate wins. If not, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the votes.
Q: The UK uses the FPTP system to elect MPs. Should the AV system be used instead?
A: YES 32% NO 68%, turnout 42% (2011 result)
William and Kate
Celebrities joined Prince William in London for the inaugural awards of the Earthshot Prize, an ambitious environmental program aimed at finding new ideas and technologies around the world to tackle the climate crisis and related challenges.
William: "We are alive in the most consequential time in human history. The actions we choose or choose not to take in the next 10 years will determine the fate of the planet for the next thousand .. The future is ours to determine. And if we set our minds to it, nothing is impossible."
AR The winners are Costa Rica for planting trees, an Indian company for recycling agricultural waste, a Bahamas coral farm for restoring dying coral reefs, Milan for recycling wasted food for people in need, and a Thai−German−Italian team for an electrolyzer to make clean hydrogen.
2021 October 17
China Hypersonic Threat
China is making progress on hypersonic weapons. In August, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that flew in low Earth orbit before speeding down to its target. This caught US intelligence by surprise.
America, Russia, and China are all developing hypersonic weapons, including glide vehicles launched into LEO that return to Earth at Mach 5. Because they have no fixed parabolic trajectory and can maneuver, they negate US ABM systems.
US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall hints that Beijing is developing a new weapon with the "potential for global strikes .. from space" like a fractional orbital bombardment system: "If you use that kind of an approach, you don't have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It's a way to avoid defenses and missile warning systems."
North American Aerospace Defense Command head General Glen VanHerck said in August that China had "recently demonstrated very advanced hypersonic glide vehicle capabilities [that] provide significant challenges to my NORAD capability to provide threat warning and attack assessment."
Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu: "We don't have a global strategy and plans of military operations like the US does. And we are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries."
AR I say take China at its word for now.
Atlas V rocket with Lucy spacecraft aboard launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida,
on a mission to study Jupiter's Trojan Asteroids, 2021-10-16
2021 October 16
America vs China
For decades, US politicians have bashed China in almost every presidential campaign. The Biden administration China policy continues a relentless propaganda war against China.
Washington views a rising China as a challenge to its primacy around the world. Chinese success with a different political system is unacceptable to US politicians, especially when the US system seems to have become dysfunctional.
Racism is a factor. Former US State Department policy planning chief Kiron Skinner: "It's the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian."
The American propaganda war against China resembles that of the Cold War era. Chinese companies were formerly welcome but are now considered a national security threat. Chinese students and scholars are often suspected of being spies.
Even the Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language, history, and culture, are now seen as a threatening influence in America.
US news outlets are a willing partner in this propaganda war. They are careless about checking facts when the disinformation is about China.
The US propaganda war is extremely dangerous. It has already hindered bilateral and multilateral cooperation on critical global issues such as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and the Covid pandemic.
America should end its trade war, tech war, and propaganda war against China.
China remains a domain for experts. Its internal life and culture are distant and opaque. Economic critiques of Chimerica are marginal.
The US left includes "tankies" who champion the Beijing regime, some who critique the Chinese regime on trade and human rights but fear warmongering, and others who say the existential stakes of climate change require deep cooperation with Beijing.
The US center has lost hope that China will become a democracy. It remains unsure whether to pivot to confrontation and try to disentangle our economies or whether globalization means we need to deepen ties instead.
The US right includes a Cold War 2.0 mentality, a view of China as a rival in need of military containment, and a wider view of China and America converging in decadence.
Americans have never excelled at understanding other societies.
AR I vote for entanglement, cooperation, and work for Earth stewardship.
Crewed spaceship Shenzhou-13 on Long March-2F carrier rocket lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center,
Gobi Desert, China, and docked with orbiting space station core module Tianhe, 2021-10-16
2021 October 15
The Astronomical Journal
An international team of astronomers has discovered that numerous gamma-ray sources are the active galactic nuclei known as blazars. These are supermassive black holes in the central regions of galaxies that sweep out powerful relativistic plasma jets.
Finding low-energy counterparts of unidentified gamma-ray sources is a challenge. A third of all sources detected by the Fermi satellite are unidentified.
A team led by Harold Peña Herazo, INAOE, Mexico, analyzed hundreds of optical spectra collected by the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fabre Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) at Xinglong Station, China. LAMOST is hosted by National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences.
From sources discovered by the Fermi satellite, the team selected a sample of Blazar Candidates of Uncertain type (BCUs). They used optical spectroscopy to classify data in the LAMOST archive and confirm tens of BCUs as blazars.
Most blazar sources are BL Lacertae objects and have a featureless optical spectrum. Measuring their cosmological distance is extremely challenging.
AR China hosts good work in science.
My beach today
2021 October 14
NI Protocol: EU Offer
Daniel Boffey, Jennifer Rankin
The EU will scrap 80% of checks on foods entering NI from GB. EU officials are "preparing for the worst" amid signs Boris Johnson is set to reject the new deal.
EU Brexit commissioner Maroš Šefčovič says customs checks on manufactured goods will be halved as a concession to ease border problems. UK Brexit minister David Frost says UK sovereignty over NI is fundamental and wants a new protocol with no role for the ECJ.
Šefčovič: "We cannot have access to the single market without the supervision of the ECJ. But I think that we should really put aside this business of the red lines, the business of deadlines."
The new EU proposal reduces checks on most supermarket goods. Trucks carrying mixed loads will only need one health certificate for each journey rather than one for each product line. Customs paperwork will be cut by deeming more goods "not at risk" of entering the EU single market.
In exchange, the UK must keep border inspection posts up and running, let EU officials access real-time data on checks, intensify checks to prevent smuggling, and put individual labels on products for the NI market.
Šefčovič: "I hope with a constructive spirit we indeed could be in the home stretch, and I would be very happy if we can start the new year with new agreements."
UK in crisis
On the day Boris Johnson gave his big speech at the party conference in Manchester, more than 5.5 million households suffered a huge overnight cut to state benefits. Motorists struggled to find petrol. Soaring gas prices forced energy companies out of business.
As Johnson went on holiday to Spain, steelmakers, ceramics and paper producers, chemicals firms, and glassmakers warned they were days from shutdown. Food supplies, factories, courts, farms, hospitals, restaurant chains, and power grids are all at breaking point.
As they grapple with the fallout from Brexit and the pandemic, Johnson and his team are taking policy decisions they accept will inflict pain on millions of voters. A sense of foreboding dominates discussions in Whitehall and Westminster.
The fundamental problem is a shortage of workers. Brexit immigration policy created a crisis. Johnson concedes it will take time to raise wages to attract British workers.
AR Bodger is a disaster. I'd rather be living in Germany.
⦿ Laetitia Vancon
Laura Kreidberg directs a new
department at the MPI for
AR I ♥ Heidelberg
2021 October 13
The James Webb Space Telescope is a dream come true for exoplanet astronomers. I like to say it will be 10 000 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope. It has a 10× bigger mirror, so we can observe things that are fainter; 10× more wavelength coverage, well into the infrared, so we can see cooler and maybe more habitable planets; 10× better stability; and 10× better spectral resolution, so we can see the exact wavelengths in the color spectrum to determine the chemical composition of atmospheres more precisely.
The real game changer will be JWST observations of rocky planets. JWST is designed to detect an atmosphere on a planet around the TRAPPIST‑1 system, a star system 40 lightyears away with 7 roughly Earth-size planets.
We only see the total brightness of the star and a planet. We're looking for variations in total brightness at the level of 100 parts per million. By measuring the change when the planet passes behind the star, we can figure out how bright the planet is, which tells us its temperature. The temperature can suggest an atmosphere.
With JWST, so long as the atmospheres are not too cloudy, we can observe their spectra. By observing starlight passing directly through the atmosphere, we can say whether it has water or methane or carbon dioxide in it.
The holy grail biosignature is out-of-equilibrium chemistry. On Earth we have both oxygen and methane in the atmosphere, which means that they must be constantly produced by something, and that something on Earth is life.
Earth is not that special. There are loads of other planets with the same temperature and size. We also know that water is very common. Everywhere on Earth where we find water, we also find life. And life arose very quickly on Earth, suggesting that if you have the right ingredients and you wait long enough, you end up with living beings.
AR Wonderful. I should have persisted with space science and worked on this stuff.
Strange radio signals are coming from the direction of the center of the galaxy. They turn on and off seemingly at random.
Ziteng Wang, a.k.a. Andy, first discovered them in 2020 using the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder radio telescope. Astronomers also observed it with the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.
David Kaplan: "We've looked at every other wavelength we can, all the way from the infrared to optical to X-rays, and we see nothing, so it doesn't seem to be consistent with any kind of star that we understand."
Andy's object flares in brightness by up to 100× and fades very quickly, so it's probably small.
AR I like these puzzles.
UK Defence Journal
USS Ronald Reagan seen from HMS Queen Elizabeth, South China Sea
AR QE showboats in South China Sea, UK sinks.
⦿ Jack Taylor
Phuket — go back
to the beach
2021 October 12
UK Public Health Failure
A report from the Commons science and technology committee and the health and social care committee finds that the early handling of the coronavirus pandemic was one of the worst public health failures in UK history.
The report condemns a fatalistic approach, groupthink, evidence of British exceptionalism, and a deliberately slow and gradualist approach. The UK fared "significantly worse" than other countries, says the 151-page report led by two former Conservative ministers.
The crisis exposed "major deficiencies in the machinery of government" as public bodies failed to share vital information and scientific advice, due to a lack of transparency, input from international experts, or meaningful challenge.
The UK developed a test for Covid in January 2020 but "squandered" its lead and fell into permanent crisis: "For a country with a world-class expertise in data analysis, to face the biggest health crisis in 100 years with virtually no data to analyse was an almost unimaginable setback."
The slow and gradualist approach was a deliberate policy: "It is now clear that this was the wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy."
The early hesitation on lockdown was disastrous: "This happened despite the UK counting on some of the best expertise available anywhere in the world, and despite having an open, democratic system that allowed plentiful challenge."
AR We all know who to blame.
UK Immigration Turnoff
Boris Johnson promises an end to using uncontrolled immigration as "an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery they need to do their jobs".
He aims to recast a supply chain crisis caused partly by shortages of HGV drivers and agricultural workers as pain for the gain of weaning the UK off low-skilled immigrant labour.
A government source: "Vote Tory to get a pay rise, vote Labour to see mass immigration drive your wages down."
Migration cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Immigration is as much a question of human relationships as of economic need. Lorry drivers from EU countries are not attracted by the new UK temporary visa scheme.
Migration policy expert Yva Alexandrova: "It was quite insulting in a way. It's like, we've kicked you out [but] now we need you for three months and then we're going to kick you out again."
Brexiteers say the UK can cherry-pick the world's "brightest and best" and forget the rest. But "low-skilled" migrant workers are still needed. UK policy hinders their access to healthcare and benefits.
AR Present UK policy is a moral disaster.
UK Leader Cult
Worshippers at the Borisfest in Manchester witnessed the leader's speech — a breathless and jumbled hurtle through slogans, wordplay, boasts, metaphors, and jokes, a lot of jokes. Those looking for a philosophical thread or a coherent argument were left disappointed.
The Conservative party used to have a set of values and a body of convictions. Now it revolves around a capricious character with few deep beliefs and no fixed ideological abode.
The shortages of essential workers and goods that are disrupting daily life might just have something to do with the severity of the rupture with the EU. But to admit that would be to concede that the prophet of Brexit is fallible. Blame business instead.
There are consequences from putting a party in such thrall to one mercurial personality. The cultists worship an extremely flawed parcel of mortal flesh who is much better at cracking jokes than he is at cracking governing.
AR Hail Bodger ..
2021 October 11
German Industrial Revolution
Germans want a new beginning and a progressive government. They have made the Social Democratic Party (SPD) the strongest party. And they want me to be the next chancellor.
People want progress. The SPD, the Greens, and the FDP are united by the idea of progress in society. They have different but quite overlapping ideas about it. I am optimistic that we can be successful in assembling a traffic light coalition.
We need to modernize our industry. Germany must lay the technological and industrial foundations for the future. The aim is to become a climate-neutral industrialized country in just under 25 years.
Respect must once again play a major role in this society. I want to live in a society where we meet as equals. Progressive parties are committed to upward mobility in society.
If you want to form a government together, you need trust. This will only work if all the coalition partners in the government come together with their ideas. That is good for mutual trust and the formation of a good government.
This is a special moment in German history. We need a first-class mobile communications network for Germany. We need to expand and modernize the power grid. We will expand energy production from wind power and solar.
We are facing existential challenges. We can only stop global warming with a different industrial policy. The German economy shows it is possible to reconcile prosperity and climate protection.
Europe must do its part.
AR This is wonderful. The UK needs a leader with such vision.
British Money Laundering
The bloated British financial sector lies behind worldwide economic problems. The City of London is the money laundering capital of the world.
The offshore ecosystem is complicated by design. Intricate and opaque instruments plus banking secrecy and negligent financial regulation shroud the cash and assets of the nefarious rich in legal mists. The tax havens hide their loot from rules, laws, and taxes.
Estimates of the wealth held in tax havens range from $6 trillion to $36 trillion.
AR Shame on the British establishment.
2021 October 10
US Debt Ceiling
The New York Times
The US Senate has reached a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. Those who defend it as a check on federal spending misunderstand it. The government only borrows to provide for spending previously authorized by Congress, or to pay interest on existing debt.
Congress has already voted to spend this money. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would be an attack on the global financial system, which rests on the absolute confidence of investors that the United States will always repay its debts.
Treasury secretary Janet Yellen says Congress should pass a law that lets the government borrow whatever is necessary to provide for the spending authorized by Congress. Brinkmanship is bad.
AR Bad for global confidence in America.
UK Tory Blues
Boris Johnson is restricting immigration to force businesses into raising wages and skills for workers. He compares business demands for more visas for EU workers with junkie pleas for another fix.
Johnson gambled when he said his government would be judged on whether wages keep rising. Rishi Sunak says the test of success should be whether the government can create more jobs.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss is at odds with Sunak over cuts to foreign aid. She values the soft power that overseas aid provides. A former cabinet minister: "Boris has set up Liz as a rival to Rishi."
Johnson is concerned about the NHS waiting list of 5 million people. This includes patients with chronic ailments or who have just begun treatment. He wants to fix this by the next election.
He wants the government to do more to bully people into lifestyle changes: "You have got to tell people if people are too fat."
AR Tell them, sure, but also fund the NHS.
2021 October 9
Britain vs Germany
Germany is the most successful exporting democracy in the world. It is committed to organised private enterprise rather than Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Its economy relies on a comprehensive system of laws, regulations, partnerships, and public institutions, all interconnected.
Germany never nationalised on the scale the UK did. Its industry is highly organised and runs education and training in collaboration with the formal education system. Companies invest in research and development much more than in the UK. Germany is an economic gold standard.
Germany shows that high wages come from economic systems that produce high productivity, not the other way around. It shows that overcoming the British disease of low productivity will be a long-term national mission that requires economic partners and political parties to work together.
Boris Johnson's route to higher productivity enforces wage increases in sectors with labour shortages caused by Brexit. Britain faces a period of painful public austerity and open conflict between business and government.
AR Brits should befriend Germany and rejoin a reformed EU.
Poland vs EU
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen says she is deeply concerned by the Polish constitutional tribunal ruling that basic principles of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution.
Poland rejects the basic principle of EU legal primacy. This jeopardises Polish access to EU funds and the rights of its population and businesses.
French Europe minister Clément Beaune: "This is not a technical or a legal question. This is a highly political topic that adds to a long list of provocations aimed at the EU."
Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn: "The primacy of European law is essential for the integration of Europe and living together in Europe."
MEPs urge VDL to take Poland to the ECJ over the ruling.
AR Why are Britain and Poland rebelling?
Melting Ice Stays Smooth
Josef Stefan described how ice melts in water in 1889. An equation describes the diffusion of heat from the water into the ice. Another equation tracks the changing interface between ice and water as melting proceeds.
But the equations can describe an ice−water boundary that forms a forest of sharp spots called singularities. The Stefan problem is to show that the singularities are well controlled.
Alessio Figalli, Xavier Ros-Oton, and Joaquim Serra (FRS) have proved that singularities rarely form along the boundary, and when they do, they immediately disappear.
If you dip a wire ring in a soapy solution, a soap film forms. Surface tension pulls the film into a minimal surface. A zoom in on an arbitrary point on the surface shows a flat plane. The film is smooth, without singularities.
Unlike soap films, melting ice forms singularities. A zoom on the ice−water boundary shows frozen spots surrounded by warmer water. These points are stranded singularities. At a singularity, the temperature is always 0 C.
As you move away from a singularity, the water temperature around it traces a paraboloid. Deviations from a perfect paraboloid give rise to various singularities. FRS proved they all disappear.
The Stefan problem is solved.
AR Good to know.
An RAF Typhoon fighter escorted two USAF Bone bombers on their transatlantic transit to RAF Fairford as part of the latest
Bomber Task Force mission. RAF: "Bomber Task Force missions demonstrate US commitment to the collective defence of
NATO and contribute to stability in the European theatre."
Patriotic Alternative (PA) is Britain's fastest growing far-right group and claims 15,000 supporters. PA targets zoomers (Generation Z) and aims to make whites a 95% majority in Britain.
PA has radicalized Brits online during lockdown. PA founder Mark Collett is creating a network of fitness units run by Fascist Fitness founder Kris Kearns.
Collett: "I encourage young people to get involved in physical exercise and believe that training together brings out the best in many people. The only training I endorse is for legal, healthy physical activity to help with fitness and mental health."
He points to the PA code of conduct: "The endorsement or promotion of violence and/or terrorism is strictly forbidden."
PA deputy leader Laura Towler: "The system is tightening the noose on anybody who believes that race is real, that there are only two sexes, that children should be protected from deviance and LGBT propaganda .. we have the right to remain the majority in our own homeland."
AR Fascist xenophobes — beware of them.
⦿ James McCauley
2021 October 8
Bodged Anglo-German Relations
German trust in Downing Street has almost evaporated. Angela Merkel is said to find Boris Johnson unreliable and unserious. German officials complain that dealing with Johnson has been more difficult than dealing with Donald Trump.
Merkel's heir apparent Olaf Scholz speaks English and has Anglophiles in his inner circle. But his chief foreign policy aim is to strengthen the cohesion of the EU. He says he will support Dublin in any disputes with London.
German attitudes toward Britain are shifting. Britons rank Germany as their second most important ally, albeit way behind the US. But Germans rate their top four as France, the US, China, and Russia. The UK has been down at fifth since the 2016 referendum.
By the end of 2021, the UK is likely to drop off the list of Germany's top ten trading partners for the first time since 1950. British exports to Germany fell by 11% over the first half of this year alone.
German politicians were sorry to see Britain leave the EU, but this has not broken British−German relations. A chilly distrust may have settled over the higher levels of politics but in other areas the ties remain warm.
German journalist Stefanie Bolzen: "Brexit and the process of transformation bound up with it interest the Germans a great deal. Some of them regard the EU critically themselves."
A German MP: "There's a very great deal of consensus in Germany on our relationship with Britain. We want to have a true friendship with Britain and a fresh start for our bilateral political relationship."
UK ambassador to Germany Jill Gallard: "Germany is an essential ally with whom we have deep economic ties and a growing foreign policy and security partnership .. I detect a real appetite in both our countries to open a new chapter in our relationship."
AR Good Anglo-German relations should be equal-first priority for Liz Truss.
2021 October 7
UK Economic Reform
The Tory conference in Manchester heard sharp words about business and its failure to deliver the higher wages ministers now demand. The story starts in 2016.
Most British businesses prized access to the EU single market. The Conservatives split over the referendum but have since become a Brexit party.
Brexiteers dreamed of leaving the EU to deregulate and free up business. Many Brexit voters wanted the opposite, an economy where they were better protected from globalisation. The voters won.
Boris Johnson has little interest in economic theory. His lodestar is public opinion. His cabinet ministers know which way the winds are blowing.
Business has learned lessons from public distrust. A chief executive in Manchester said cabinet Thatcherites are "decades out of date" in their ideas about business.
The environmental, social, and governance (ESG) agenda is for business to renew and retain its social licence by proving its value to the public. Instead of getting out of the way, the state should work with business to do good.
Labour voters want companies to create jobs and make profits, but to do so while paying their taxes, treating workers well, and making the world a better place.
Climate change should bring Tories and business back together. Big businesses and big investors need a clear steer from government.
Economically Illiterate bluster
Boris Johnson lacks a coherent economic plan, say business leaders. He delivered a boosterish party envisaging a high-wage, high-skilled economy to "unleash" the "unique spirit" of the British people.
Conservative activists applauded the speech, but not business groups, trade unions, or think tanks. The Adam Smith Institute called it a "bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate" address.
Bright Blue thinktank chief executive Ryan Shorthouse: "There was nothing new in this speech, no inspiring new vision or policy."
CBI director general Tony Danker: "Ambition on wages without action on investment and productivity is ultimately just a pathway for higher prices."
TUC secretary general Frances O'Grady: "The PM is in no position to lecture people on wages when he is holding down the pay of millions of key workers in the public sector."
AR Are there no thoughtful economists in the cabinet?
Benjamin List and David MacMillan win the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of asymmetric organocatalysis.
Chemical catalysts have long been enzymes or metals. Asymmetric organocatalysis makes use of small organic molecules to promote faster and more efficient reactions.
Many chemical reactions can generate two chiral forms of a molecular product. In the case of pharmaceuticals, the mirror twins can have very different physiological effects. We need ways to selectively synthesize just one chirality.
Metal catalysts and enzymes can favor one chirality over the other. But metal catalysts can have harmful effects on the environment. And enzymes are often large and complicated molecules.
The prizewinners have triggered two decades of research into efficient and effective organocatalysts. They have focused on asymmetric catalysis to prioritize the synthesis of one desired chiral molecule over the other.
AR I like to understand such things.
Bo: "I've got the guts."
2021 October 6
China and Taiwan
Daniel L. Davis
American policymakers must face the reality that fighting China over Taiwan almost certainly risks military defeat. The prevailing mood in Washington is to fight if China attempts to conquer Taiwan by force. America should refuse to be drawn into war.
There is no rational scenario in which the United States could end up in a better place after a war with China. At best, it would be a pyrrhic victory; most likely, a defeat despite a costly intervention; at worst, escalation to nuclear war.
Refusing to engage in direct combat against China on behalf of Taiwan will let the United States emerge on the other side of a China−Taiwan war with its global power intact.
Washington should tell Taiwanese leaders that maintaining the status quo is far better than destruction by Beijing.
Taiwan claims to be a sovereign nation. Taiwan defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng on the risk of invasion: "By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily."
AR The status quo is not an option for Beijing.
Tory Conference Blues
New UK foreign secretary Liz Truss promises to build "a network of economic, diplomatic, and security partnerships" with a list of allies including Gulf autocracies but not the EU.
Brexit minister David Frost calls EU membership a "long bad dream" that includes the treaty he negotiated with Brussels.
Rishi Sunak says freedom from Brussels is more valuable than "just proximity to a market" and sees Britain as "science superpower" and "the most exciting place on the planet."
Michael Gove calls poverty pay a function of the "old EU model" that voters rejected. In fact, only British governments exercised their sovereign power in the EU to choose low wages and meagre workplace rights.
Boris Johnson presents economic difficulties as temporary turbulence in the transition to a brighter future. He's riding out the storm with bravado and bonhomie. Tories are sailing to the promised land of Brexit with only his cartoon drawing for a map.
The Conservative party conference in Manchester operates in a bubble. It shows the Tories to be complacent and out of touch.
Home secretary Priti Patel's hardline approach to law and order left her having to explain why her department has been ineffective on crime, on violence against women and girls, and on asylum seekers crossing the Channel.
Priti Vacant went on to limit the powers of protest, rejoice in the end of free movement, knock lawyers for bothering to defend asylum seekers, and promise to turn back small boats in the Channel by trying to sink them.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab got muddled about an asylum case while mumbling about lawyers being a waste of space and the need to overhaul the Human Rights Act.
Health secretary Sajid Javid says Covid is over and health inequalities are a thing of the past. Now we have health disparities.
AR Sounds dire — glad I wasn't there.
Climate and Complex Systems
The Nobel Prize in physics goes to three physicists for work on complex systems.
Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann win half of the prize for their work building climate models that correctly predict the effects of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
Giorgio Parisi wins the other half for discovering patterns in spin glass systems to show how the evolution of a complex system relates to the dynamics of its parts.
Earth's climate is a nonlinear system, leading to unstable feedback loops. When air temperature rises, so does water vapor content, trapping more heat and raising the temperature. When floating ice melts, more sunlight is absorbed by the dark ocean, causing further warming.
Manabe modeled the atmosphere, showed how greenhouse gas concentration in it affects heat flow, and calculated global climate sensitivity.
Hasselmann developed climate models in which the climate evolves slowly in response to random weather fluctuations.
Parisi studied how flipping spins affected the dynamics of spin glass. He made deep studies of frustration.
AR Nonlinear models are tricky.
2021 October 5
US Debt Crisis
Reckless Republicans are pushing the US government toward a historic debt default by refusing to raise the cap on how much money the federal government can borrow. The US treasury says it will default by around 18 October unless Congress raises the current debt limit of $28.4 trillion. Failure could wreak havoc on the global economy.
AR This shows why the US dollar should no longer be the primary global reserve currency.
Temperature and Touch
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian are awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of some of the molecular receptors for somatosensation.
The somatosensory system enables the perception of touch, temperature, pain, body position, and self-movement. Somatosensory receptors are found in skin, muscles, internal organs, bones, joints, and other systems.
Julius and his team studied receptors for heat and pain. They identified genes that encode the ion channel protein TRPV1 and other receptors such as TRPM8, a skin receptor for low temperatures.
Patapoutian and his team identified genes that encode ion channel receptors for changes in pressure, Piezo1 by mechanical force and Piezo2 by touch and body movements. Both receptors help regulate various other internal processes.
Somatosensory receptors are ion channels. When stimulated, they open to let ions flow into a nerve cell. The cell sends an electrical signal along peripheral nerves and into the somatosensory cortex.
Different receptors distinguish between kinds of pain. Researchers hope to develop therapies and treatments for chronic pain by targeting them.
AR Perhaps this can end philosophical nonsense about pain.
2021 October 4
The Pandora Papers
The Pandora papers include 11.9 million files exposing the secret offshore affairs of 35 world leaders, 300 other public officials in more than 90 countries, and more than 100 billionaires.
The files were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington. They reveal the hidden workings of a global offshore economy that enables rich people to hide their wealth and pay little or no tax.
Tax havens are attractive to tax evaders, fraudsters, and money launderers. They are estimated to cost governments billions in lost revenues.
The leaked records reveal the central coordinating role of London in the offshore world. London is home to wealth managers, law firms, company formation agents, and accountants that serve rich clients, many of whom pay no tax on their overseas assets.
The Pandora papers show money shifting around offshore destinations as wealthy clients and their advisers seek to circumvent new regulations.
AR Outlaw tax havens.
The B— PM
The UK is in a rapidly escalating national crisis. Labour shortages are so serious that the government has put the army on alert. The crisis stems from Brexit.
The UK government will no longer talk about Brexit. When Boris Johnson was interviewed about the petrol crisis, no one even dared say the word. There are no empty supermarkets or queues of drivers with jerry cans in their boots in any EU country.
The mantra is that the current crisis has nothing to do with Brexit. On the causes of the crisis, Labour has taken its eye off the ball. The word Brexit is just as taboo for them as it is for the Tories.
Labour has decided to ape Brexiteer populist rhetoric. Its inability to attack the Tories on Brexit renders it ineffective as an opposition.
British voters cannot choose between experts whose job it is to inform themselves about complex issues and then offer political options based on the facts. In the new populist UK, the public is stranded without a compass in a fog of empty rhetoric.
In 10 Downing Street, Johnson is trapped between ideology and reality. He can only hope the "supply chain crisis" will disappear if he just closes his eyes and wishes it away.
The opposition looks on. Keir Starmer talks of a "botched Brexit" and buys into the myth that the botch is the problem. There is no painless Brexit.
The UK could have stayed in the EU and raised the minimum wage and improved conditions for the workforce. Instead, the government said things would magically get better the moment the UK had "thrown off the shackles" of EU membership.
No one in the UK has anything like enough time now to plan and enact the detail of reform. Instead, Boris Johnson has delighted his public with a new Great British Idea: a national space strategy.
Brexit is a disaster.
Boris, your work is done
The prime minister could quit now on his own terms. He could tell his admirers he has delivered Brexit and Covid vaccination and averted a Corbyn premiership. Then he can resume his rightful career as an entertainer, telling adoring audiences what they want to hear.
AR He needs an ultimatum.
Chinese J-20 stealth fighter, Airshow China 2021, Zhuhai
2021 October 3
China vs Taiwan
China national day was on Friday. The PLA air force sent 38 and 39 aircraft, most of them J‑17 and Su‑30 fighter jets, into the Taiwan defense zone on Friday and Saturday.
Taiwan premier Su Tseng-chang: "China has always conducted brutal and barbarian actions to jeopardise regional peace."
Last week, China accused Britain of "evil intentions" in sending a warship into the Taiwan Strait.
AR Britain is risking a £3 billion carrier for a gesture. Hong Kong is long gone.
Fascists vs Jews
I used to live near Ridley Road in the East End of London. My dad was an orthodox Jew who grew up around there. In 1962 you could march through Jewish communities waving fascist flags and the police would protect you.
Fascists are human. Understanding their logic might help us unpack what's happening now. Populist politicians are popping up all over the world, partly because we haven't humanised the far right in the past.
Being Jewish in Britain is a very different experience to being an American or Israeli Jew. There are only 260,000 Jews here. In an age of identity politics, all those myths about Jews being rich and controlling things still haven't been broken.
There's something unique to the Jewish experience but also something universal about how societies react to immigration and economic recession. If we understand those patterns, we can defeat them.
I know what happens when religious theocracy undermines democracy. We have to understand where it comes from. No one sets out to be a murderous dictator, but it starts with blaming the other.
For a while antisemitism disappeared from the far right in the UK, but it seems to be their hot PR strategy now. And seeing people from the left sympathise with Iran's views on Jews frightens me.
It's hard to imagine when you trust your country how bad it can get. Everything seems absolutely fine until the moment that it ain't. And then it's just too late.
AR She wrote the script for the BBC series Ridley Road.
Consciousness vs Theory
Consciousness or experience doesn't seem to admit an explanation in terms of physics and chemistry and biology.
Integrated information theory (IIT) says conscious experiences are informative and integrated.
Conscious experiences are informative. Every conscious experience is different from every other experience. Each one rules out the occurrence of a huge set of alternatives. Conscious experience is also integrated. Every conscious scene appears as a unified whole.
IIT proposes a quantity called Φ to measure the amount of consciousness in a system.
I say consciousness is there because of our nature as flesh-and-blood machines. A living system maintains itself as separate from its environment. I take energy in, and I maintain myself as a system that maintains its boundaries with the world.
Of all the possible combinatorial arrangements of my different components, I remain in only a tiny subset of statistically expected states. My body must resist the second law of thermodynamics.
The free-energy principle lets us understand how and why brains work the way they do. The brain uses predictive models, and all our conscious experiences arise from them.
Life is a cluster of related properties that come together in different ways in different organisms. By accounting for its properties, we dissolve the idea that we need a spark of life to explain it.
For me, consciousness is similar. The mystery of consciousness may dissolve too.
AR I find this more interesting — meatier — than IIT.
Polar stratospheric clouds like these form from ice crystals that act as sites for ozone breakdown
2021 October 2
The energy infrastructure that powers our civilization must be rebuilt. But zeroing out emissions will not cool the planet. Warming is proportional to the cumulative emissions over the industrial era.
Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but achievable goal. But repairing the accumulated damage will require more. To cool the planet in this century, humans must either remove carbon from the air or use solar geoengineering.
Carbon removal technologies are inherently slow. Geoengineering is cheap and acts fast. The trade-off between geoengineering and carbon removal depends on our time horizon.
Carbon removal will require an enormous industry. It will achieve nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year.
Geoengineering could also work. Less than 2 megatons of sulfur per year injected into the stratosphere from a fleet of about a hundred high-flying aircraft would reflect away sunlight and cool the planet by 1 K. The sulfur falls out of the stratosphere in about two years.
Adding 2 megatons of sulfur to the atmosphere sounds reckless, yet this is only about 5% of the annual sulfur pollution from fossil fuels. Geoengineering might worsen air pollution or damage the global ozone layer, and it will certainly exacerbate some climate changes. Falls in death rates from extreme heat would be 10−100 times greater than rises in death rates from sulfurous air.
Geoengineering's grand challenge is geopolitical. We do not have a stable and legitimate governance process for the technology.
Carbon removal is the safest path to permanent cooling. Solar geoengineering may be able to cool the world this century with fewer environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption.
Pretending that climate change can be solved with emissions cuts alone is a dangerous fantasy. If you want to reduce risks from the emissions already in the atmosphere you must look to carbon removal, solar geoengineering, and local adaptation.
AR Quick, cheap, risky: We'll do it.
Will Douglas Heaven
Working with the UK Met Office, Google AI firm DeepMind has developed a deep generative model of rainfall (DGMR) that can accurately predict the likelihood of rain in the next 90 minutes.
Forecasting rain is hard. Techniques use massive computer simulations of atmospheric physics work well for forecasting the longer term but less well at nowcasting.
The DeepMind team trained their AI on radar data. Snapshots taken every 5 min of radar measurements that track the clouds were put together in a stop-motion movie.
They fed this data to DGMR. When Met Office forecasters rated DGMR in a blind comparison with forecasts made by a state-of-the-art physics simulation and a rival deep-learning tool, 89% said they preferred the DGMR results.
AR Well done DeepMind.
We've had the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe. The result is the fastest-growing economy in the G7.
There's a shortage of lorry drivers which has been around for a very long time. Once the global economy gets moving and opens up again, things will be fine. We're not going to intervene.
We're now moving into a period where we're seeing a very strong, jobs-led recovery. I don't want to subsidise low pay. I want to see people paid more.
We had to look after everyone in this country and furlough huge numbers of people in this country. In the end it was far, far better to do that than let businesses go to the wall. It was very expensive.
We've resolved our relationship with the EU. We've got Brexit done. We're fixing the problems in social care. And we're also going to tackle productivity.
People voted for change in 2016. They voted for us again in 2019.
AR Verbatim, cherry-picked.
⦿ Jeremy Selwyn
2021 October 1
UK Nightmare Winter 2021/22
Long lines outside gas stations. Panicked drivers fighting one another as the pumps run dry. Soldiers deployed to distribute fuel. The pandemic drags on, food rots in fields, and families sink into poverty. The UK today recalls memories of the 1978/79 winter of discontent.
The fuel crisis is only one concern. A global gas shortage, rising energy and food prices, supply chain issues, and the government decision to slash welfare have cast the future in darkness. Any sense of normality has gone.
For months, British industry leaders have warned about shortages of truck drivers, fruit pickers, meat processors, waiters, and health care workers. Signs of breakdown are everywhere following Brexit. Some 1.3 million overseas nationals left Britain between July 2019 and September 2020.
The government refused to respond. Ministers bloviated and prevaricated, saying there was nothing to worry about. They are waiting for companies to pay British workers more instead of relying on cheap foreign labor. British conditions for truck drivers are among the worst in Europe.
Inflation has risen faster than at any point since 1997. Energy is more expensive than anywhere else in Europe. Three million households in Britain live in fuel poverty. Yet the government is about to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week. This will push half a million more people below the poverty line.
The UK faces a bleak winter.
We Germans have got our problems. But then we see how much worse things are in Britain. We cannot help but grin at your troubles.
Olaf Scholz spoke for most Germans when he said this week that it was all your fault. You voted for Brexit and you threw out foreign workers. We did warn you this might happen.
Germans agree the British troubles are a direct consequence of Brexit.
AR I agree too.
Charm Tetraquark Puzzle
The LHCb collaboration has discovered the double-charm tetraquark.
The quark model says quarks live together in complementary sets of three to make the proton, the neutron, and other baryons, while pairs of quarks make up various mesons.
QCD paints the proton as a seething mass of quarks roped together by tangled strings of gluons. Experiments confirm much of QCD, but its central equation looks a mess. QCD theorists are stumped by tetraquarks and pentaquarks.
Quarks come in six flavors, and heavier quarks are rare. Charm quarks weigh more than the up and down quarks in protons but less than the beauty quarks we seek with LHCb.
Two charm quarks can attract each other and rope in two lighter antiquarks. The four quarks stick together for mere sextillionths of a second before a quantum jitter adds two more quarks and they all form three mesons.
The new tetraquark is a fresh clue to the strong force enigma.
AR QCD needs sorting.
Nonlocal Quantum Computing
Existing quantum computers are prone to random errors. But qubits made from Majorana zero modes (MZMs) would be protected from errors.
MZMs are emergent quasiparticles made of electrons. At low temperatures, electrons in a semiconductor can line up in a superconducting chain. The electrons at the ends become two halves of one quasiparticle at zero energy.
Each MZM quasiparticle is made up of the electron states at both ends. If they came together, they would form either an electron or a vacuum state. Separated, they stay in a superposition, so an MZM can act as a qubit.
MZM quasiparticles are like particle−antiparticle pairs, except that both halves are identical, their own antiparticles. No such particle has ever been seen.
MZMs could resist decoherence if the ends of the chain were braided to keep the qubit nonlocal, protected by topology.
AR Pie in the sky.