BLOG 2013 Q4

View from Poole Bay to Purbeck, last day of 2013

Sara Majeres
Fool's gold?

AR If he can write
bestsellers, why
oh why can't I?


ROH, 2013-12-18

Unauthorized introduction

A personal review

2013 December 31

Porn Filter

Martin Robbins

David Cameron's idea of an Internet porn filter has always been a political fiction. What activists actually called for is an "objectionable content" filter. Working through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has put in place a set of filters and restrictions as ambitious as anything this side of China.

We may not be able to stop bad parents cutting their children off from the world, but that doesn't mean we should allow ISPs to build and sell the tools to do it with. Something very rotten has taken hold at the heart of the British Internet industry. We are entitled to transparency and clear answers.

Britain and Germany

AR To The Times, 2013-12-27

Your recent encomium to George Osborne (Dec 27) encourages us to believe the British economy is recovering at last. Perhaps at last we can put the strategic blunder of investing all our hopes in the financial sector behind us. But for me the CEBR suggestion (Dec 26) that we can overtake Germany any time soon is illusory. This year I returned to the UK after living and working in Germany for a quarter of a century, and I see several grounds for caution.

1 Our infrastructure is in a sorry state. German roads are excellent, and British roads are not. Given the multiplier effect of good roads for any business that relies on road transport, for any commuter who can ill afford to waste time in traffic jams, for any fleet owner paying high taxes to run a fleet inefficiently, and for any ordinary citizen who gets so used to dirt and disrepair and anger and frustration that expectations elsewhere are soured into general pessimism, this drawback is disastrous. Other infrastructure too, such as housing, similarly needs more investment.

2 Young people are not being channeled efficiently into productive occupations. The German system of craft apprenticeships serves the wider economy excellently, but the air of demoralization and dismay I sense among some young people here does not. Too many of them want to be pop stars or footballers, and too few feel any pride in the occupations that offer realistic prospects of future prosperity. Our education system should be reorganized to encourage more people to take a more grounded interest in what they can expect to do for a living. The present system is elitist and outdated. As an Oxford scientist with four degrees in philosophy, I may have set a poor example for my fellow citizens, but I think German employers made better use of my efforts than British ones had done previously.

3 The sense of social solidarity in Britain falls lamentably short of German levels. Decades of pragmatic cooperation between business bosses and unions have resulted in an enviably low level of class friction in German society, where a republican constitution more effectively levels the playing field for people from average backgrounds than the royalist establishment in Britain can do. Public obsession with the royal family in the UK encourages a denial that anything is amiss in a traditionalist political system that routinely papers over incompetence, cronyism, corruption, and sheer irrationality at every turn.

4 Germans have learned from a humbling twentieth century that their national polity needs continuing hard work and readiness to change and adapt if it is to remain an object of pride. British citizens, by contrast, despite losing an empire, have not yet learned to rethink imperialist prejudices in their sense of national identity. The financial crisis showcased too many smart young people hoping to get rich quick on the backs of fellow citizens who, in the absence of native peoples in the empire, were the easiest victims to prey on. Now some Britons have begun to pour their contempt on Romanians and Bulgarians, apparently ignorant of the bigotry such views reveal.

One does not wish to condemn too harshly a national tradition that still bears noble traces of the Churchillian virtues that bestowed greatness upon the proud history of this island folk, but the present embodiment of the British tradition is too often an embarrassment to me as I contemplate defending its shortcomings and its excesses in conversation with my German friends. I think we must do better before we can hope to overtake the Teutonic locomotive of the European economy.

AR The Times did not publish it.

2013 December 30


Sarah Birke

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, ISIS, is linked to al-Qaeda. ISIS has swept across northern Syria and forced the mainstream Syrian opposition to fight on two fronts. It has obstructed aid getting into Syria, and news getting out. It has forced the US and European governments to rethink their strategy of supporting the moderates. And it has become a powerful force on the ground.

ISIS has an extremist view of Islamic rule. Originating as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has overseen relentless attacks in Iraq, and seeks to unite the entire umma, or Muslim community, under one rule. Jabhat al-Nusra has pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, while ISIS is far more ruthless. ISIS has fundamentally changed the war in Syria.

Religion and Drugs

Richard J. Miller

The Vedas are Sanskrit texts that represent the oldest Hindu scriptures. The Rigveda was compiled in northern India around 1500 BCE. Ancient Persians composed the Zoroastrian Avesta. In both the Rigveda and the Avesta there is frequent mention of soma, described as a plant from which a drink or potion could be produced that was consumed by the gods. People could use it to empower themselves and to communicate with the gods. The Rigveda can be interpreted as indicating that Amanita muscaria (fly agaric, a mushroom) was the source of the drug.

John Marco Allegro published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970. He suggested that ancient people may have viewed rain as a type of heavenly semen. Plants absorbed this holy semen, Amanita muscaria more than others. The use of Amanita muscaria as a religious fertility sacrament was the provenance of a priestly sect, which eventually led to the development of the concept of Jesus to encapsulate the identity of Amanita muscaria around the year 70 CE. According to Allegro, the Jesus myth became Christianity. His arguments were not well received.

AR The drug idea is interesting, the Jesus idea is wild.

2013 December 29

Top 10 Economies

Will Hutton

Of the world's Top 10 economies in 2013, the United States is #1, twice the size of China. After Japan at #3 and Germany at #4 comes France at #5, just pipping Britain at #6.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) says the Eurozone economies, especially France and Italy, will sink down the chart. China will rise to #1 by 2028, later than the CEBR thought last year. India will climb to #3. The UK, if it continues to shrink the state, keeps taxes low, deregulates its labour markets, continues to be open to immigration and disengages with Europe, may be #7 in 2028.

But the economic theory that supports these predictions is itself in crisis, says Wendy Carlin at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). The best economics now has much more sophisticated understanding of what drives innovation, investment, productivity, and growth.

Sunni Versus Shia

Patrick Cockburn

Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is fanning the flames of sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world.

Skilled use of the internet and access to satellite television funded by or based in Sunni states has been central to the resurgence of al-Qaeda across the Mideast. Satellite television, internet, YouTube, and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are spreading sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world.

AR Islamic states must outlaw hate speech and intolerance. How about outlawing Islam?

Read More

The independent

Neuroscientists find that reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity and persistent changes in the left temporal cortex and in the the primary sensory motor region of the brain.

Over 19 days, 21 students read the 2003 thriller Pompeii by Robert Harris in the evening, then had fMRI scans the next morning. The neurological changes were found to continue for 5 days after finishing.

Emory University tidy lead author neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns: "The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist."

2013 December 28


Theodore Dalrymple

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is now in its fifth edition (DSM-5). It fails to recognize that a description of behavior is not the same as a medical diagnosis. No objective laboratory markers or correlatives of psychiatric disorder exist. Yet the manual is destined to be taken seriously by psychiatrists, insurers, and lawyers.

The DSM-5 informs us that more than 1 in 7 people have a lifelong personality disorder. Several undesirable characteristics must be present in an individual for such a diagnosis. Either a mass outbreak of human nastiness has occurred or the whole business of diagnosis is dubious or even ridiculous. The DSM authors suffer from psychiatric nosology overvaluation disorder (PNOD).

Quantum Activism

Amit Goswami

God chooses the insight that we perceive as a surprise aha! moment — because we know we didn't do it. The insight is literally God's grace. Actually, it is more. It is God's choice, the result of which is experienced by us in the quantum self; the ego only makes the mental representation.

AR Note to self: Quit quoting quantum quackery!

2013 December 27


Jack Straw

I support Israel, and its right to live securely within its international borders. But my reservations about its conduct towards the Palestinians have grown year by year. On a visit this month I was shocked by what I saw of the Israeli actions toward Palestinian shepherd families in the South Hebron hills.

These Palestinian families have to live in temporary structures. They tell me they can prove their title back to Ottoman days. The Israeli government claims the structures have to come down. These communities fight to stay by force of argument, supported by some courageous groups of Israelis.

AR Israelis need to reclaim the moral high ground, not the hills of Hebron.

2013 December 26

World War I

Martin Kettle

The first world war ended in November 1918. But it could have ended in spring 1918, if the German offensive toward the Channel had succeeded. What if it Germany had won the war?

A victorious Germany would not have had reparations inflicted upon it at Versailles. The rise of Hitler would have been much less likely. The second world war and the Holocaust need not have followed. Zionism might have faded. The Mideast would be different: Turkey would have won too in 1918.

In the European Reich, defeated France might have seeded fascism. Britain would have lost its navy, its oil interests in the Mideast and the Gulf, and its empire. America would have become an isolationist power. There might have been no cold war. Europe would have been different.

2013 December 25

God Loves Us

Pope Francis

God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. Yet on the part of the people, there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience and rebellion, times of being a pilgrim people, and times of being a people adrift. If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light.

AR Mood music for patriarchalists over the winter solstice.

2013 December 24

2013 December 23


Shlomo Avineri

Zionism grew up in central and western Europe. European nationalism created a different identity for the Jews. In 1881, pogroms broke out in Russia and created the impetus for mass Jewish emigration. The first proto-Zionist groups emerged, thinking about creating Jewish settlements in Palestine.

Theodor Herzl saw that if you want to achieve a state, you have to create an organization that speaks for the Jews. Jewish nationalism was a mirror image of European nationalism, and Jewish racism was the mirror image of European racism. In Europe the racists won, but in Zion they would not.

2013 December 22

The NSA on Trial

David Cole

The National Security Agency collects and stores data on every phone call every American makes and every text every American sends. The Obama administration maintained that the program had been approved by all three branches of government. All three branches now call for reform.

In the digital age, virtually everything you do leaves a trace that is shared with a third party. All of this data can be collected, stored, and analyzed by computers in ways that were impossible a decade ago. Should this data be freely searchable by the NSA, without any basis for suspicion?

2013 December 21


Martin Rees

After Apollo, the political impetus for manned spaceflight was lost. And the intrinsic inefficiency of chemical fuel is a fundamental constraint. Launchers will get cheaper when they can be designed to be more fully reusable. It will then be feasible to assemble larger artifacts in orbit.

Nuclear power could cut the transit times and transform manned spaceflight to an almost unskilled operation. With an abundance of fuel for mid-course corrections, and to brake and accelerate at will, interplanetary navigation would be simpler than driving a car or ship.

During this century, all the planets, moons, and asteroids of the solar system will be explored and mapped. But the role that humans will play in this is debatable. Robotic techniques are advancing fast, and the practical case for manned spaceflight gets ever weaker.

2013 December 20


European Space Agency

The ESA Gaia mission lifted off yesterday on a Soyuz rocket from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on a mission to map a billion stars.

Gaia is now en route toward an orbit around the gravitationally stable point L2, some 1.5 Gm beyond Earth as seen from the Sun.

ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain: "Gaia promises to build on the legacy of ESA's first star-mapping mission, Hipparcos, launched in 1989, to reveal the history of the galaxy in which we live."

AR I helped publish Hipparcos studies. I look forward to the Gaia map.

CNN — The Gaia mission aims to build a 3D picture of our galaxy, measuring precise distances to a billion stars. Gaia is also expected to log a million quasars beyond the Milky Way, and a quarter of a million objects in our own solar system, including comets and asteroids.

Designed and built by Astrium for ESA, the makers say the Gaia telescope is so sensitive that it could measure a person's thumbnail from the Moon. Its imaging camera has a billion pixels. Estimated total mission cost: €740 million (a billion dollars).

AR A billion well spent, I say.

2013 December 19

EU Reform

Mats Persson

David Cameron is off to an EU summit on EZ banking union. He will be seeking support for EU reform. But exceptional statesmanship is required for sweeping reform.

1 Cameron gave a good Europe speech in January but failed to follow it up. He had years to change the rules on benefit entitlements but is now rushing them through before next January.

2 UK government departments are pulling in different directions. Multi-party coalitions such as the Dutch or Finnish are far more joined up on Europe.

3 Cameron fails to understand the interests of his EU partners. France has the most to gain from limiting EU regional spending. Budget reform deals are there to be done.

Cameron should appoint a lead negotiator or an EU reform task force to coordinate policy and test ideas. Jumping from headline to headline is a sure way to end up pleasing no one.


Solar Flip

The solar magnetic field flips over in the next few weeks. The Sun flips magnetic north and south every eleven years, causing geomagnetic storms. The flip will boost the Aurora Borealis.

AR Too late!

Animated optical illusions


Martin Heidegger had a deeply unscientific concept of race

Image: Pete Lawrence
Aurora Borealis

AR Mood music!

Jo Wall
Me and Joey,
St. Andrew's Day

2013 December 18


Royal Opera House, Live in Cinema

Royal Bloodlines

The Spectator

Catherine the Great and David Cameron are second cousins, nine generations removed. David Cameron is a direct descendant of William IV, whose grandfather Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, was a second cousin of Catherine the Great, since they shared the great-grandparents Johann, Fuerst von Anhalt-Zerbst, and Sophie-Auguste, Prinzessin von Holstein-Gottorp.


Geoffrey Hill

The idea that you write to express yourself seems to me revolting. The idea that you write to glorify or to make glorious the art of expressiveness seems to me spot on.

2013 December 17


New Scientist

Google has acquired a portfolio of robotics firms. They make products including walking humanoids, pack mules for the military, assembly robots, machine vision systems, and robotic movie cameras.

Amazon last year spent $750 million to buy a maker of wheeled robots for product picking in its warehouses. And Apple is spending $10.5 billion on advanced manufacturing robots.

Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert: "The robotics industry is in the early stages of a transformation from a primarily industrial market to a dynamic technology sector."

2013 December 16

Trident Replacement

James Arbuthnot

There has been a steady decline in my certainty that we are doing the right thing by replacing Trident. Nuclear deterrence does not provide the certainty that it seemed to in the past. It's not an insurance policy, it is a potential booby trap.

Nuclear deterrence doesn't work against terrorists. You can only aim a nuclear weapon at a rational regime. With the defense budget shrinking, you have to wonder whether replacing Trident is an appropriate use of scarce defense sources.

AR The British SLBM deterrent is another Maginot line. Our real security is provided by the US nuclear umbrella. I say merge the British force with the French force and make it a European deterrent. But how can we sell that idea to UKIP?

2013 December 15

Toxic Talk of Fortress UK

Sir David Warren

I was the UK ambassador in Japan from 2007 until the end of 2012. Japan is a major trade and investment partner of the UK. An increasingly toxic political debate on immigration plays into doubts abroad about British thinking.

All the evidence is that migrants put more into the economy than they take out. Only a tiny minority claim benefits. The anti-immigration lobby argues that the population of Britain is out of control and that the barriers need to be drawn up. But the idea that we can detach our economic growth strategy from the continued need for legal migration is fantasy.

Foreign governments watch these political discussions with increasing concern. In my experience, protestations that Britain can be a stronger country by pulling up the drawbridge and going it alone are met by polite bewilderment.

AR In Globorg, no nation, not even the UK, is an island.

Yutu on Moon


China has landed a spacecraft on the Moon. The lander carried a robotic rover called Yutu (Jade Rabbit). Touchdown was on Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows) and was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976.

Yutu is expected to work for some three months. The 120 kg rover can climb slopes of up to 0.5 rad and travel at 5 cm/s. Its instruments include several cameras, X-ray and IR spectrometers, and ground-penetrating radar.

Sex and Sin

Peter Brown

Kyle Harper recalls the sexual morality of Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire of the classical period. The new sexual code elaborated by early Christians undermined an ancient social equilibrium in the two centuries following the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE.

In the second century sexual codes implied by Greek novelists such as Achilles Tatius, many of the women were slaves. Free sex used the enslaved bodies of boys and girls. Roman law and sexual morality governed whose bodies could be enjoyed with impunity and whose required consent.

Sex in the Roman world was intimately linked to slavery. Once in power, Christians hammered the sexual codes of a society glutted on the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies. For Christians, there was right sex, wrong sex, and abhorrent sex. Wrong sex of any kind was a sin.

The victory of Christian norms was brutal. In 390 CE, male prostitutes were publicly burned in Rome. In 438 CE, the abolition of prostitution was proposed. From 527 CE, Constantinople was hit by the plague and a ban on gay sex led to grim processions of mutilated offenders.

Late antiquity saw a growing hatred of the body. Earlier, sex had allowed human beings to sink back into the embrace of the universe and was felt as communion with the divine. Then Christian conversion tested the power of the will. In Christian late antiquity, the will won out over the cosmos.

AR Perhaps Islam will impact the West similarly.

2013 December 14

Local party: JoLo turns 50

No Sex Apartheid in UK

The Times

Islamic speakers at universities will no longer be allowed to demand that men and women sit apart after Universities UK was forced to climb down yesterday. David Cameron: "I'm absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain. That is not the right approach, the guidance should not say that, universities should not allow this."

AR Quite right. On this issue, at least, the Islamist prejudice is intolerable.

2013 December 13

Quark Stars

Anil Ananthaswamy

A star that goes supernova twice in quick succession may mark the birth of a quark star.

When a star many times more massive than the sun runs out of fuel, its core implodes. The outer layers are cast off in a supernova, to leave behind a rapidly spinning neutron star with a crust of iron. As it spins down, the forces opposing gravity weaken and the core melts to quark soup, freeing quarks from their bound state. A runaway process converts the neutron star into a quark star.

Predictions based on the quark nova model include the creation of very heavy elements. The quark nova ejects a mixture of neutrons and iron from the crust, which interact to form the heaviest elements.

The conversion of a neutron star to a quark star could also explain some long-duration gamma-ray bursts. On 2011-07-09, a gamma-ray burst was observed with two peaks spaced 11 minutes apart. The old "collapsar" model of gamma-ray bursts does not easily explain such an emission.

Colliders like the LHC have been smashing heavy ions to create a quark-gluon plasma, where quarks are essentially free. Quark stars would prove that quarks can exist freely in other conditions.

>> more

2013 December 12

Grow a New Brain

New Scientist

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm combined a scaffold made from gelatin with a tiny amount of rat brain tissue minus its cells. They hoped the tissue would provide enough biochemical cues to enable seeded cells to develop as in a brain. When they added mesenchymal stem cells from rat bone marrow to the mix, they found evidence that the stem cells had started to develop into neural cells. The method combines the benefits of natural tissue with the mechanical properties of an artificial matrix. A scaffold seeded with neural cells could help people with neurodegenerative disease or be used to replace damaged parts of a brain.

2013 December 11

Democracy in the Digital Age

Writers Against Mass Surveillance

The basic pillar of democracy is the inviolable integrity of the individual. Human integrity extends beyond the physical body. In their thoughts and in their personal environments and communications, all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested.

This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes. A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.

We demand the right for all people to determine, as democratic citizens, to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed, and by whom; to obtain information on where their data is stored and how it is being used; to obtain the deletion of their data if it has been illegally collected and stored.


Daniel Goleman

The ability to focus in the midst of a din indicates selective attention, the neural capacity to beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli, each one a potential focus in itself. The biggest challenge comes from the emotional turmoil of our lives. Such thoughts barge in to get us to think through what to do about our upsets. The more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we do.

The ability to stay steady on one target and ignore everything else operates in the brain's prefrontal regions. Our neural wiring for selective attention includes that for inhibiting emotion. Those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite emotional waves. The power to disengage attention and move on is essential.

2013 December 10


The Times

Regular exercise can radically cut the risk of dementia. David Cameron has decided to tackle the looming crisis as he prepares to host a G8 conference on the disease. Keeping fit and eating well rather than new drugs will bring greatest progress in the fight against the condition.

Five key components of a healthy lifestyle can ward off a range of conditions including heart disease and diabetes as well as dementia: regular exercise, eating fruit and vegetables, staying slim, light drinking, and not smoking. People who consistently followed four out of the five healthy habits are 60% less likely to suffer from cognitive decline or dementia, with exercise accounting for much of the effect.

Alzheimer's Society research director Doug Brown: "We have known for some time that what is good for your heart is also good for your head, and this study provides more evidence to show that healthy living could significantly reduce the chances of developing dementia."

Life on Mars

Steve Connor

About 3.6 billion years ago Mars had at least one large freshwater lake with the right ingredients to support the kind of mineral-eating microbes seen on Earth. The NASA Curiosity rover has found a type of sedimentary rock known as mudstone, likely formed by a large body of standing water over many thousands of years.

Imperial College London professor and Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission researcher Sanjeev Gupta: "I think it's a step change in our understanding of Mars. It's the strongest evidence yet that Mars could have been habitable for ancient microbial life."

Icelandair Cargo plans to use Aeroscraft airships for freight delivery in the Arctic region.

Australian condom ad
banned as too sexy


Floreat Oxon!

Oxford University Press
has published the 17th
and final volume of
The Dictionary of Medieval
Latin from British Sources

 completing a project
begun in 1913.

"Today I wouldn't get an academic job. I was an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises."
Peter Higgs

Romanian labor minister
Mariana Campeanu:

"Many doctors and nurses and other healthcare staff are coming to work in the UK and these are well qualified personnel that will contribute highly to the welfare of the British people."

Scary Japanese ad
for winter tires


Andy ponders the
wonder of words

2013 December 9

The Origin of Life

Steve Connor

A subterranean community of genetically similar microbes has been found living on opposite sides of the Earth. They may have evolved directly from a common ancestor some 3.5 billion years ago, when the surface of the planet was sterilized by intense ultraviolet radiation. Researchers believe life may have started in tiny wet cracks in underground rocks, fueled by hydrogen and methane.

A study presented at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco compared DNA sequences of hydrogen-eating microbes extracted from rock fractures deep below North America, Europe, South Africa, and Japan. The sequences were 97% similar. Hydrogen microbes have been found more than 4 km deep in a Johannesburg mineshaft, and may live even deeper below the seabed.

Underground microbes may exploit serpentization, when hydrogen and methane are produced as water comes into contact with olivine under high temperatures and pressures. They would use the hydrogen for fuel and the methane for carbon. Such microbes can survive temperatures of 400 K and pressures of 5 MPa. Knowledge of the deep biosphere can help in the search for life on Mars.

2013 December 8

Oscars of Science

Parmy Olson

The second Breakthrough prize for life sciences is being awarded on Thursday at NASA Ames Research Center in California. It's like the Oscars of science, says Yuri Milner, the technology investor behind it all. Milner has invited some of his billionaire friends in the Valley to stump up money for the prize too: Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Ma have agreed to join him in contributing.

The Breakthrough prize and the Fundamental Physics prize bestow riches unknown among science luminaries. Milner says a lack of collective interest in fundamental science means people don't think as much about the big questions of life and the universe as they could. He believes that with the right combination of celebrity endorsement and cash, scientists can become celebrities.

2013 December 7

Life in Britain

Bill Bryson

The amazing thing about this country is how compact it is and yet how infinite. You can parachute into a random place and you are going to be within five miles of somebody who has done something really globally important. That's quite an amazing achievement. I could parachute you into Iowa and you would not find that at all.

I've just come back from a US book tour and the most common question I was asked was: why are you living in Britain? Why would you forsake America? First of all: I hadn't forsaken America. But also, Britain is really nice. It's very attractive. There are lots and lots of other places in the world to live besides the United States and lots of very good reasons to live there. It is not rejecting one to live in another. Many Americans just can't understand that.

If there is a flaw in the British character it is a failure to see what is good about the country. There are some things here that are wonderful and nobody native seems to notice.

Clash of Civilizations

Alain Finkielkraut

France is transforming into a multicultural society. Immigration used to go with integration. The left wanted to resolve the problem of immigration as a social issue. In reality we saw an eruption of hostility toward French society. The left does not want to accept that there is a clash of civilizations.

Immigration has to be more effectively controlled. Islam may one day belong to Europe, but only after it has Europeanized itself. Today the Muslims in France like to shout in an act of self-assertion: We are just as French as you! It would have never occurred to my parents to say something like that.

2013 December 6

"No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
Nelson Mandela, from his book
Long Walk to Freedom

2013 December 5

Cost of Coal

New Scientist

In the UK, 1600 deaths per year and over 350 000 lost workdays can be attributed to air pollution from coal burning, according to the Health and Environment Alliance HEAL. Breathing fumes from coal-fired power stations also causes more than a million cases of respiratory symptoms a year.

Coal-fired power plants release pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulates of soot in large quantities. These are known to contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. HEAL estimates the total cost to EU healthcare of coal fumes at €43 billion per year.

AR If nuclear power caused even a small fraction of that we'd see mass hysteria.

Genes and Genomes

David Dobbs

Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful. Our phenotype is human less because we carry different genes from other species than because our cells read our genomes differently as we develop from zygote to adult. Genetic accommodation:

1 A population changes its phenotype by changing gene expression.
2 A gene emerges that helps lock in that change in phenotype.
3 The gene spreads through the population.

Richard Dawkins says genetic accommodation works because the gene ends up locking in the change and carrying it forward. But the genome is in conversation with itself, with other genomes, and with the environment. Conversations define the organism and drive the evolution of new traits and species. Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

AR Windy article, short result.

2013 December 4



Young people in Shanghai are the best in the world at mathematics, reading, and science.

The findings are part of the 2012 PISA survey of education systems conducted every three years by the OECD. More than half a million students, aged 15 and 16, sat a 2-hour exam last year as part of the study. The pupils came from 65 countries representing 80% of the global economy.

Overall, the United Kingdom ranked #26, equaling the average score for OECD countries in mathematics and reading, and performing above average in science. The United States ranked #36, performing below the OECD average in math and near the average for reading and science.

Shanghai was #1 in math, with the equivalent of nearly 3 years of schooling above the OECD member country average. Singapore was #2 in math, followed by Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Macau.

Shanghai was #1 in reading, with a score equivalent to 18 months more schooling than the OECD average. Hong Kong was #2, followed by Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.

Shanghai was #1 in science, with a score equivalent to nearly 2 more years of schooling. Hong Kong was #2, followed by Singapore, Japan, and Finland.

Shanghai has been at the forefront of recent education reforms in China. Its education system invests in teaching staff, and its culture prioritizes academic achievements over other pursuits.


The 2012 PISA rankings are led by East Asian countries. But the three "countries" at the top of the PISA rankings are cities — Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Shanghai is a global financial capital. About 84% of its high school graduates go to college, compared to 24% nationally. Its per capita GDP is more than twice that of China as a whole.

The PISA results show that on reading scores, Massachusetts ranked #4 and Connecticut #5. These results say nothing about the US education system as a whole.

AR A good maxim in life is: Learn from the best. Shanghai is doing something right.

2013 December 3

Britain and China

David Cameron

Three ways I believe an open Britain can be an essential partner for an opening China:

1 We must continue to develop our bilateral trade and commercial relationship.
2 We can be partners in making the case for economic openness and free trade across the world.
3 We have a responsibility to work together on a range of wider international issues.

Male and Female Brains

The Guardian

Women's brains tend to be highly connected across the left and right hemispheres, whereas men's brains are typically more connected between the front and back regions.

A study of how brains are wired in healthy males and females used diffusion tensor imaging to map neural connections in the brains of 428 males and 521 females aged 8 to 22. The scans showed greater connectivity between the left and right sides of the brain in women, while the connections in men were mostly confined to individual hemispheres. The only region where men had more connections between the left and right sides of the brain was in the cerebellum, for motor control.

Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Studies of the brain establish that male brains are optimized for intrahemispheric and female brains for interhemispheric communication. The developmental trajectories of males and females separate at a young age, demonstrating wide differences during adolescence and adulthood. The observations suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

2013 December 2



Ray Kurzweil thinks he has a good chance of living forever. His day job at Google is as engineering director, but "solving death" is a pet project of CEO and co-founder Larry Page. Kurzweil advises on the company's new Calico venture, which is focused on finding a cure for aging.

Kurzweil believes in the Singularity. Already our smartphones are extensions of our minds, and soon we'll be implanting computers and nanobots in our bodies and brains to enhance their natural functions. By 2045, our machines will enable us in effect to back up our minds to the cloud.

Kurzweil says technological advances come exponentially faster. Each year brings more change than the last. He says not only that information technology is growing exponentially but also that that all technology is becoming applied information technology. So progress is speeding up.

On aging, Kurzweil says progress is coming. He's 65, so it may be too late for him, but he lives in hope: "We'll get to the point where we dramatically extend human life expectancy because we will have wiped out major diseases, and ultimately all disease as well as the aging process."

2013 December 1

Oxford Elitism

Rory Kinnear

Some Oxford graduates still believe in a society where only the strong shall prosper and any weakness shall be ruthlessly punished. Having gone to a public school, I thought I knew about posh people, but I didn't know anything until I went to Oxford. I imagine it's changed a little bit in the 18 years or so since I was there, but not enormously. However democratic and egalitarian we kid ourselves into thinking society might be, I think that sense of entitlement operates as basically and viciously as it always did.

AR I guess it's changed in the 33 years since I was there too.

Ring Nebula
Image: NASA, ESA, C.R. O'Dell, Vanderbilt U, D. Thompson, LBTO

Data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Large Binocular Telescope, Arizona, are combined in this view of the Ring Nebula.
UV radiation from the white dwarf relic star (center of image) illuminates the ring, which is about a light year across.

Image: Pete Lawrence
Aurora Borealis

AR What we might have seen.

Comet ISON

Comet ISON

Josephine Wall
Winter Exhibition
2013-11-30 — 2013-12-01

US-Saudi Relations
NY Times

Saudis are Sunni, Iranians are Shiite. The new US deal with Iran has touched a raw nerve. Saudis fear the United States will anoint Iran as the central American ally in the region.

Former US Mideast diplomat Richard W. Murphy: "It's a hard state of mind to deal with, a rivalry with ancient roots."

Shiite Victory
Robert Fisk

The partial nuclear agreement between Iran and the world's six most important powers brings a victory for the Shia in their growing conflict with the Sunni Mideast, hope for the Assad regime in Syria, isolation for Israel, and infuriation for Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states.

Animated map (90 s) giving a brief geographic history of the main world religions

2013 November 30

Left Brain/Right Brain

Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller

The popular left brain/right brain story is wrong. One two half of the brain is not logical and the other intuitive, one analytical and the other creative. The left and right halves of the brain function in different ways that are more subtle than is popularly believed. And the halves of the brain always work together as a system.

Over 40 years ago, Caltech scientist Roger W. Sperry cured severe epilepsy in 16 patients by cutting their corpus callosum. Each patient developed two distinct personalities. In 1973, The New York Times Magazine announced: "Two very different persons inhabit our heads ... One of them is verbal, analytic, dominant. The other is artistic." A myth was born.

We have developed a new theory built on the anatomical division of the brain into its top and bottom parts. The top part sets up plans and revises those plans when expected events do not occur. The bottom part classifies and interprets what we perceive. Depending on how a person uses the top and bottom parts, four possible cognitive modes emerge. These modes reflect the amount that a person likes to devise complex and detailed plans and to understand events in depth.

2013 November 29

Northern Lights

Flight from Bournemouth Airport

Flew north in a Boeing 737-800 over Britain to Shetland, flew 3 highly elliptical orbits to allow passengers to enjoy 6 sessions of 300 s each viewing northward, then flew back to base. All flying from Scottish border north was in total cabin darkness to allow optimal night vision. The aurora borealis was extremely dim but the stars were as spectacular as ever.


Der Spiegel

British PM David Cameron wants to restrict access to social benefits for EU citizens in the UK. On January 1, 2014, controls are lifted on immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria. Cameron fears that populists in UKIP will gain support in the upcoming EU elections.

Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and the UK together wrote to the EU Commission in April complaining about the social burden caused by internal EU migrants. Germany and the UK will increase the pressure in the December 5 meeting of EU ministers. The Cameron government also wants to cut benefits for EU migrants and define new rules for future EU members.

German CSU MEP and deputy EVP faction leader Manfred Weber: "Cameron should stop running after UKIP. His rhetoric is only making them stronger."

AR I think Weber is right. Ease back on this issue or it will backfire.

2013 November 28

Comet ISON

The Guardian

Comet ISON is due to pass 1 200 000 km from the surface of the Sun at 18:37 GMT Thursday. The comet will reach temperatures of 3000 K, hot enough to vaporize not just ices but dust and rock as well.

Jodrell Bank Observatory associate director Professor Tim O'Brien: "It's like throwing a snowball into fire. It's going to be tough for it to survive."

Chinese Defense Zone


USS George Washington is now patrolling waters off the island of Okinawa as part of AnnualEx 2013. The exercise involves dozens of warships, submarines, and aircraft from the US Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

China has a new Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. All military aircraft in this zone must report their flight plans to China, maintain two-way radio, and clearly mark their aircraft.

Commander of the US 7th fleet Vice Admiral Robert L. Thomas: "We are going to continue with our operations in international airspace as we always have. It's about international norms, standards, rules and laws. When anybody makes an extreme claim it is really an imperative that the international community can continue to operate in accordance with international law and not be distracted."

China's aircraft carrier Liaoning set sail this week for the South China Sea with four other warships.

2013 November 27

The Joy of the Gospel

Pope Francis

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.

The Church can come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them.

Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church. My hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving.

I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. Unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric.

AR If the New Testament is a literary construction designed to support the Flavian emperors, as the evidence I'm currently reading strongly suggests, then the Church urgently needs to reinvent itself as a charitable institution rather than an evangelical one.

2013 November 26

Iranian Oil

John Defterios

Economic isolation brought Iran's new government to the negotiating table. In 2012, the Iranian rial plunged and the economy went into hyper-inflation. With rising import prices and falling real wages, Iranian industry is in trouble and large numbers of workers were laid off in 2012.

Iran sits on about 9% of the world's proven oil reserves. But its top four customers — China, India, Japan, and South Korea — have cut back their energy imports due to US and European pressure. The Islamic republic now produces only about 2.5 million barrels a day (bpd), far off its 4 Mbpd peak a decade ago. US Secretary of State John Kerry: "During the six month phase, the oil sanctions that will remain in place will continue to cause over $25 billion in lost revenues to Iran."

Saudi Arabia wants to keep the pressure on Tehran. Iraq plans to double production by 2020 to 6 Mbpd, so if Iran resumes its oil exports the Kingdom may have to export less to defend prices. Iran, a country of nearly 80 million people, is potentially the Germany of the Mideast.

AR I'd hedge that and say potentially another Turkey.

2013 November 25

Iran Deal


Iran started its nuclear program in 1957 with the help of the United States. Iran is not the only nation with a nuclear program but faced scrutiny because it had signed the NPT. India and Pakistan never did. Iran's nuclear program is considered a threat because a decade ago nuclear inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium at a plant in Natanz. Iran halted enrichment but resumed in 2006.

The new deal is an interim agreement before a more formal agreement is worked out. For years Iran and Western powers had left negotiating tables in disagreement, frustration and open animosity. The deal requires Iran to dilute its stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to 20% and mandates Iran halt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the equipment required to do that. Iran is not required to ship out their highly enriched uranium to be converted elsewhere.

Iran says it's enriching uranium and building nuclear reactors for civilian energy needs. Nuclear power plants use uranium that is enriched to 5%. Iran will also have to cut back on constructing new centrifuges and enrichment facilities, and freeze essential work on its heavy-water reactor under development at Arak. Iran is also expected to provide daily access to inspectors from the IAEA. If Iran doesn't fulfill its commitment, the international community will add pressure and more sanctions.

Seven years ago, the U.N. Security Council passed sanctions against Iran for failing to suspend its nuclear program. Sanctions that initially targeted Iran's nuclear capability expanded to include bans on arms sales, Iranian oil and certain financial institutions, including the country's central bank. Iran stands to gain billions of dollars from relaxed sanctions.

Israel says it has the most to lose if Iran develops a nuclear bomb. The 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah marked a turning point in Israeli relations with Iran. The Islamic republic saw Israel as an illegitimate state with no right to exist amid Muslim nations.

AR The Islamic republic has yet to repudiate that view.

2013 November 24



An "initial, six-month" deal between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China, and Russia over Tehran's nuclear program slows the program in exchange for lifting some sanctions while a more formal agreement is worked out. The deal addresses Iran's ability to enrich uranium, what to do about its existing enriched uranium stockpiles, the number and potential of its centrifuges, the ability to produce plutonium using the Arak reactor, and measures to increase transparency and allow intrusive monitoring of its nuclear program.

Israeli Reaction
Jerusalem Post

Israeli finance minister and security cabinet member Yair Lapid: "A diplomatic accord is certainly better than war, a diplomatic accord is better than a situation of permanent confrontation - just not this agreement."

Israeli economic minister and security cabinet member Naftali Bennett: "Israel does not see itself as bound by this bad, this very bad agreement that has been signed."

2013 November 23

Dr Who

Doctor Who, 7.50 pm, BBC One, Saturday November 23, 2013

The Doctor is an alien: the last of the powerful Time Lords, an intrepid traveller, a wanderer through space and time. Armed with only his intelligence, charm, and trusty sonic screwdriver, he has pitted himself against the deadliest creatures in the universe.

He chooses traveling companions from those he befriends, briefly sharing his life with them and showing them the astonishing wonders of the universe. He travels in his extraordinary ship, the TARDIS, a time machine that is bigger on the inside than the outside.

Doctor Who was first broadcast on BBC One at 5.15 pm on Saturday November 23, 1963.

AR I watched it then and now. Bookends to a life in sci fi.

2013 November 22

Silent Conquest

Nick Cohen

Silent Conquest is a documentary that "offers a frightening insight into the extent to which Europe, Canada and the United Nations have already succumbed to the restrictions of sharia blasphemy laws".

The video details how writers and politicians have been persecuted by the courts as much as by jihadis. When presented with men who will murder to protect the supposed honor of their religion, the state in Europe, Canada, and Australia notes the intensity of Islamist feeling and appeases it.

Less than 200 years ago, German scholars began to reveal how the New Testament was a textual mess. The revelation that Christ did not appear in the historical record destroyed Christianity. But Islamists say: "Use textual criticism, scholarship, satire, and mockery against Islam and we will kill you."

Silent Conquest sees Muslims as outsiders who have sneaked in and torn up our rights. Its makers cannot acknowledge that the first victims of radical Islam are the Muslims it claims to own.

AR The trailer is depressing. I have no desire to see the video. The revelation "destroyed" Christianity? I think the truth is more interesting than that. Cue for my next book.

National Science Foundation

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is comprised of 5160 digital optical modules suspended along 86 strings embedded in 1 km^3 of ice beneath the South Pole. The observatory detects neutrinos by the tiny flashes of blue light produced when they interact in the ice.

Boston Dynamics
Height 2 m, weight 150 kg

The most amazing fact
about the cold war is
that we survived it

The Prince of Wales says
we are living off the Earth's natural capital rather than the income derived from that capital. We sit by and watch while the bank of nature heads toward catastrophe.


Google Books

In 2004, Google launched a project to digitize every book in the world to make them searchable. Partners such as New York Public Library and the libraries of Oxford and Harvard universities signed on. But from 2005 legal challengers accused the company of copyright infringement and soon paralyzed the project.

Today the project is back on track, after a federal judge in New York ruled that the effort is covered by "fair use" exceptions to copyright restrictions. The big winner is the belief that the Web should be used to open up access to the entirety of our civilization's knowledge. The ruling affects more than just Google.

Back story

UK Social Mobility

PM David Cameron concedes there is insufficient social mobility in British society. Speaking days after former PM Sir John Major criticized the "truly shocking" dominance of the affluent and privately educated in public life, Cameron said he absolutely agreed with the thrust of Major's comments and accepted that the coalition must "do far more" to increase diversity in the national elite.

2013 November 22


IceCube Collaboration

IceCube announces the first solid evidence for astrophysical neutrinos from cosmic accelerators. IceCube principal investigator Francis Halzen: "This is the first indication of very high-energy neutrinos coming from outside our solar system. It is gratifying to finally see what we have been looking for. This is the dawn of a new age of astronomy."

Neutrinos can carry information about the workings of the highest-energy and most distant phenomena in the universe. Billions of neutrinos pass through every square cm of the Earth every second, but the vast majority originate either in the Sun or in the Earth's atmosphere. Extragalactic neutrinos are far rarer, but can provide insights into supernovas, black holes, pulsars, active galactic nuclei, and other extreme extragalactic phenomena.

NSF scientist Vladimir Papitashvili: "IceCube is a wonderful and unique astrophysical telescope. It is deployed deep in the Antarctic ice but looks over the entire universe, detecting neutrinos coming through the Earth from the northern skies, as well as from around the southern skies."

Extraterrestrial Neutrinos

IceCube Collaboration

We conducted an all-sky search for neutrinos at energies above 30 TeV in the cubic km Antarctic IceCube observatory between 2010 and 2012. We observed 28 neutrino candidate events ranging in energy from 30 to 1200 TeV. The data contain a mixture of neutrino flavors compatible with flavor equipartition and have a hard energy spectrum compatible with that expected from cosmic ray accelerators. Although not compatible with an atmospheric explanation, the data match expectations for an origin in unidentified high-energy galactic or extragalactic neutrino accelerators.

2013 November 21

UK Universities

The Times

Modern universities are hubs in a cash nexus. As well as disinterested intellectual inquiry, they serve commercial purposes. Business parks spring up around the best of them to exploit new technology.

Professor Michael Arthur, president and provost of University College London (UCL), has said that his institution needs to improve its undergraduate teaching. All the top professors will have their contracts changed so that their teaching is as important a part of their assessment as their research.

In 1963, UK academics spent 55% of their time teaching and 45% on research. The split is now 40% teaching and 60% research. But the university is also for students, and their voice is getting louder.

Quantum Discord

Hugo Cable and Kavan Modi

Quantum computers use qubits, which can be entangled. But controlling entanglement is hard, so why not build quantum devices exploiting entanglement that tolerate noise? A system can be fully quantum, and hence highly entangled, or it can be only partially quantum, lacking entangled connections but possessing other features of quantum theory. Discord in effect measures how quantum a system is.

Interest in discord took off in 2008, when researchers at the University of New Mexico studied a simplified model of a quantum computer. As more qubits were added, the computer continued to work efficiently as the number of data entries grew exponentially, without a large increase in the amount of entanglement. The model works using only one qubit protected from noise, while all its remaining qubits are fully noisy.

Discord consumption
Mile Gu et al. (Nature 2012)

Quantum discord between bipartite systems can be consumed to encode information that can only be accessed by coherent quantum interactions. We experimentally encode information within the discordant correlations of two separable Gaussian states. The amount of extra information recovered by coherent interaction is quantified and directly linked with the discord consumed during encoding. No entanglement exists in this experiment.

AR Curious: must get clearer on coherence, entanglement, and discord.

2013 November 20


Der Spiegel

Members of the European Parliament are tired of the monthly move from Brussels to Strasbourg for a week of plenary sessions. Thousands of working days are lost in the move from Brussels, where committee meetings are held, to Strasbourg, where meetings of the whole parliament take place. MEPs want to end the monthly move, which costs EU taxpayers some €180 million a year. But France has blocked attempts to do so. There will be no decision before late 2014.

AR End this farce.

Is Jesus a fictional character and Christianity a fraud?

Caesar's Messiah

The hypothesis advanced in this book is scientific. It can be checked by any scholar who makes the effort to read the historical works of Josephus Flavius and the New Testament Gospels carefully, in parallel. I found the forensic case Atwill assembles in his cool and methodical report both startling and convincing. Assuming that he has correctly translated and interpreted the texts, and that the mathematics is fairly deployed to prove the case with high probability, we have a clear case of massive and systematic deception. Christianity becomes a fraud.

Essentially, Atwill claims that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character written into history to prophesy events that were new at the time of writing. The intent of this deception was to persuade the successors of the militant Jews who were defeated in the Roman destruction of the Second Temple to adopt a pacifist ideology that in effect deified the the Flavian emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, respectively. A more egregious blasphemy against Judaic monotheism is hard to imagine.

What I found especially shocking in this scenario is that the deception worked for almost two millennia. The evidence for the hypothesis was there for all to read in the first-century literature, but generations of earnest scholars had missed it until Atwill, who was raised in a deeply Christian environment but had an exceptionally gifted analytic mind, serendipitously spotted the key threads of the fraud and then took a few decades to build up his case. His book is not a light read and his key finding is presented more in sorrow than with glee, but the result is clear.

The huge irony in all this is that Christianity has arguably become the greatest religious ideology the world has ever known. Based on a Jewish militant tradition bordering on rabid racism, tempered by Greek philosophy and poetic sensibility, and spread by Roman military and institutional strength, the ideology that was centered on the figure of Jesus turned out to be a winner for many millions of believers, whose successors created the modern world. Modern Christians might prefer to rebury the filthy roots that Atwill digs up, but truth will out, and must.

AR Thanks to Richard Dawkins for alerting me to this book.

2013 November 19


Paul Davies

What can be said about the chances of life starting up on a habitable planet? The underlying problem is complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is, at the molecular level, staggeringly complex. If life arose simply by the accumulation of many specific chemical accidents in one place, it is easy to imagine that only one in, say, a trillion trillion habitable planets would ever host such a dream run.

Life may pop up readily in Earthlike conditions, or it may be a fluke, unique in the observable universe. We cannot conclude that Earth is typical. No statistical evidence can be drawn from a sample of one. The easiest way to settle the matter is to find a second sample of life, one that arose from scratch independent of known life. The inventory of extrasolar planets being discovered is a first step.

No planet is more Earthlike than Earth itself. If life does pop up readily in Earthlike conditions, then it should have started many times, right here on Earth. Although the pathway from microbes to complex thinking beings like humans may still be difficult, at least we know it happens by Darwinian evolution. If microbial life is widespread in the cosmos, we can expect that sentient beings will evolve.

God in Proof

Robert Bolger

Nathan Schneider reconsiders the business of presenting proofs for God’s existence. He moves fluently and easily from ancient Greece to the internet age, from the usual suspects in Western philosophy (Plato, Augustine, Anselm, Descartes, Kant, and Hume) to Islamic proofs, the contemporary philosophical reinvigoration of theism, and scientific proofs.

Religious proofs are only meaningful for certain people. Whether they mean anything has more to do with what we bring to the proofs than what the proofs bring to us. Searching for God is not like searching for some thing among others. If God could be found at the end of a logical proof, then finding God would be like finding a solution to a math problem.

2013 November 18


Jeremy Bernstein

Negotiations with Iran hit a road block with the 40 MW heavy water reactor in Arak. If the reactor is for making medical isotopes, a light water reactor would have served that purpose just as well.

Nuclear fission occurs when a neutron hits a U235 nucleus, causing it to split and to spit out further neutrons that can start a chain reaction. The probability of fission increases when the neutrons are slowed down in a moderator such as water. In a light water reactor, which uses ordinary water, the uranium fuel must be enriched to about 4% U235. In a heavy water reactor, one can use natural uranium, which has less than 1% U235. But this method also produces plutonium as a byproduct.

For a reactor of the Arak type, each megawatt of thermal power generates 1 g of plutonium per day. So a 40 MW plant can produce 40 g of plutonium per day. In a year it could make up to about 14 kg of plutonium. This is enough for one or two bombs of the sort dropped on Nagasaki.

It would be easy enough to convert the Arak reactor into a light water reactor. By going ahead with a heavy water reactor, Iran seems determined to be able to make plutonium, and perhaps a bomb.


Today NASA launches the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission on a trip to Mars. With a mass of about 2500 kg, MAVEN will orbit Mars for a year or more between 150 km and 6000 km above the surface. NASA says the mission cost is $671 million.

MAVEN lead scientist Bruce Jakosky: "MAVEN is going to focus on trying to understand what the history of the atmosphere has been, how the climate has changed through time and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability — at least by microbes — of Mars."

NASA Mars scientist Pan Conrad: "We'll get a window on what is happening now so we can try and look backward at the evidence locked in the rocks and put the whole story together about Martian history and how it came to be such a challenging environment."

The MAVEN mission will swoop through the atmosphere and analyze the gases. MAVEN project scientist Joe Grebowsky: "The first mission we sent to Venus did extensive aeronomy things, quite like what we're doing with MAVEN now. But we can't see the surface of Venus. With Mars you can see the surface, and that distracted people."

The young Mars had a global magnetic field but lost it about 4 billion years ago. MAVEN team member David Brain: "A magnetic field protects an atmosphere from the sun, because it turns charged particles away. It's like a big sneeze guard. If you take the sneeze guard away, the solar wind comes crashing into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere comes splashing out."

MAVEN will examine how the solar wind interacts with the Martian atmosphere today. MAVEN scientist Mehdi Benna: "We want to try to rewind the movie and see what happened as Mars aged."

MAVEN is due to reach Mars on September 22, 2 days before India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

2013 November 17


Christof Koch

Buddhism emphasizes the universal nature of the conscious mind. All animals have complex physiology, not just humans. Animals also have very complicated behaviors. The simplest explanation is that consciousness is an immanent property of highly organized pieces of matter, such as brains.

Giulio Tononi's integrated information theory (IIT) assigns to a brain or a complex system a number that tells you how integrated the system is. Any system with integrated information different from zero has consciousness. How much it has depends on how many connections it has and how they're wired up.

In IIT, consciousness is a local maximum. So in the brain, the whole system is conscious, not the individual nerve cells. For an ecosystem, it's a question of how richly the individual components, such as the trees in a forest, are integrated within themselves as compared to interactions between trees.

The internet contains a few billion computers, and each computer has a couple of billion transistors in its CPU. So the internet has at least 10^19 transistors, compared to the roughly 10^15 synapses in the human brain. In my version of panpsychism, it feels like something to be the internet.

AR I talked with Tononi about IIT at ASSC XIII.

2013 November 16

Strangers on a Train
Gielgud Theatre, London

A seemingly innocent conversation soon turns into a lethal nightmare of blackmail and psychological torment in this gripping thriller, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith that inspired a movie by Alfred Hitchcock.

AR Melodramatic play, excellent production.

2013 November 15

Blackout Britain

David Rose

Britain and Germany have for years chosen green energy over cheap energy. In Germany industry is being sacrificed to environmentalism. In Britain millions of households are in fuel poverty.

The new Energy Bill, together with its predecessor, the 2008 Climate Change Act, will inflict even bigger fuel bill increases. The 2008 measure aims to treble the proportion of power produced by renewables by 2020. The green bill by 2020 could exceed £100 billion.

This year, Britain introduced a tax on emitting CO2. Power generators must pay £16 for every ton of CO2 they emit. The Climate Change Committee rules that this should quadruple by 2030. The cost of effecting this revolution in the crucial industry on which all others depend will be about £300 billion.

This year, German consumers will pay a total of €20 billion for power from wind, solar panels, and biomass, of which €17 billion is subsidy. Yet Germany exempts manufacturing companies from most of their renewable subsidies. The European Commission may soon declare this an unlawful state subsidy.

The UK can repeal the Climate Change Act, abolish its targets, and stop the Energy Bill coming into force. We could get on with fracking and so release our colossal reserves of clean natural gas. In America, carbon emissions have fallen to a 20-year low because gas is so much cleaner than coal.

Britain and Germany are sleepwalking toward the same economic calamity.

AR Nuclear power is one answer, solar power from North Africa another.

Indian Progress

Pankaj Mishra

The liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991 inspired fresh hope. But economic growth has been led by the service sector rather than manufacturing. Agriculture, which still employs most of the population, remains stagnant. A small educated workforce enjoys rising salaries, but there have been only small changes for people in the bottom half of the dual economy.

By 2010, India's 100 wealthiest people had increased their combined worth to $300 billion, a quarter of the country's GDP. Crony capitalism and rent-seeking are powering economic growth. Reforms that boost growth are not enough to improve the living conditions of the poorest. They have to be supplemented by a radical shift in public policy in education and health.

Rich Indians in the United States have built a new economic relationship between India and the United States. Now rising social unrest is making an insecure Indian elite gravitate to hard-line leaders. Observers are impressed by Indian democracy, but many more Indians will have to exercise their democratic rights if they wish to transform Indian society and politics.

AR All this sounds very like the problems in the UK.

2013 November 14

Internet Economics

Geoff Shullenberger

Many people believe in the Internet as the source of salvation and the end of history. Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier say enthusiasm for the Internet underwrites an anti-democratic technocratic agenda. Internet freedom is about the freedom of data, not people, and strengthens the hand of a small elite.

Morozov calls the Internet a socially constructed concept. The Internet gospel has subsumed economic developments, including reconfiguration of supply chains, expansion of financial services, weakening of labor unions, concentration of wealth, and depression of real wages, into a redemptive framework.

Lanier is concerned by the processes that concentrate wealth accumulation around the algorithmic power of big computer nodes. He calls these nodes siren servers, and in his account they are emblematic of contemporary network capitalism. The Internet gospel disguises and naturalizes the immense and expanding power of siren servers.

Lanier sees a massive accounting fraud by which the ever-increasing power of computation entails a devaluation of human labor. Siren servers tempt users into their orbit by offering some upfront benefit, then collect their data and monetize it. The people who fed the latest AI triumph are left unpaid and jobless. But Lanier's plan to reward the originators of value defrauded by the current system would end up exacerbating inequality. His nanopayment scheme for digital property rights would lead to a world filled with litigation in which the established rentiers with access to armies of the best lawyers and accountants and with huge dossiers of copyrights would have an overwhelming advantage.

Lanier advocates obliterating the last remnants of private life in order to save the free market from the inequality it has caused. His solution is to turn the vast commons of quotidian activity and experience into a limitless intellectual property regime enforced by a universal panoptic apparatus. Readers might prefer a socialist backlash.

NASA launched its Cassini-Huygens spacecraft in 1997. In orbit around Saturn since 2004, the craft took pictures during a solar eclipse on July 19, 2013. A panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system backlit by the sun was released Tuesday. It is the first image including Saturn, its moons and rings, and Earth, Venus, and Mars all at once.

National Geographic
National Geographic
How Europe would shrink if the polar ice caps melted

BBC Newsnight reports that Saudi Arabia could obtain nukes "at will" from Pakistan, where weapons made on behalf of the Saudis are ready for delivery.
Julian Borger


India launches a mission to Mars today. So far only NASA, the former Soviet Union, and the European Space Agency have succeeded in operating Mars probes. Japan tried in 1998 but failed. A UK probe failed in 2003. China and Russia failed in 2012.


Royal Opera House
London, 2013-12-18
(330 min)

Kim And I
Dennis Rodman

I'm not saying that the Marshal of North Korea is in control. It's the system that's been built for years and years and years. And this young kid is trying to do something to make it work. He's a good guy, a good-hearted kid. Between me and him, we're friends. It will work, just watch, 24 months from now. The door will open a crack. It took an asshole like me to do it.

2013 November 12



The current era of particle physics is over. When scientists at CERN found the Higgs boson, they uncovered the final piece of the Standard Model. Physicists were hoping the Higgs would show them something new. But it proved almost exactly as the Standard Model said it would be.

Scientists had hoped to find evidence for other strange particles. Over the next few years, experimentalists will be working to try to answer questions about dark matter, the properties of neutrinos, the nature of the Higgs, and perhaps what the next era of physics will look like.


Matthew D. Lieberman

Our brains respond adaptively to their daily tasks. But when the brain is not focused on a specific task, it turns to social cognition, or thinking about other people, oneself, and how they relate.

Babies show default network activity almost from birth. The default network activity precedes any conscious interest in the social world, suggesting it might create those interests.

When researchers gave people only a few seconds of pause between math problems, the default network activity was present right away. It seems to come on like a reflex.

The default network quiets down when we perform a specific task. But then the mind returns to the default mode. In other words, the brain's free time is devoted to thinking socially.

2013 November 11


The Guardian

Criminal courts in the United States are facing a surge in the number of defendants arguing that even though they committed a crime, they cannot be held responsible because their brains made them do it.

Nita Farahany, a professor of law who sits on the Obama administration's bioethics advisory panel, told a Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego that those on trial were mounting ever more sophisticated defenses that drew on neurological evidence in an effort to show they were not fully responsible for their actions.

Lawyers typically drew on brain scans and the like to reduce defendants' sentences, but in many cases the evidence was used to try to clear defendants of all culpability. Farahany said judges and lawyers urgently needed educating in neuroscience to understand its uses and limitations.


Jeremy Dean

People consistently overestimate their ability to control themselves. So trying to stop an unwanted habit can be a frustrating task. The mere act of exerting willpower saps the strength for future attempts. We face willpower-depleting events all day long. The worse the day, the more the willpower is exerted, the more we rely on autopilot and follow bad habits. Plan for those times.

2013 November 10


New Scientist

We are now pretty certain that there are billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy. The nearest may be a mere 12 light years away. The Kepler Space Telescope malfunctioned in May, but its successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is due to launch in 2017. It will scour the sky for small rocky worlds around nearby stars, and is expected to find hundreds. We can be pretty confident that, if life is common in the universe, we will have found signs of it by the middle of the next decade.

Burn and Crash

Jeremy Leggett

I have watched captains of the energy and financial industries at work and concluded that too many people across the top levels of business and government have found ways to ignore systemic risk. As a result of their complacency we face four great risks:

1 We have way more unburned conventional fossil fuel than is needed to wreck the climate. Yet much of the energy industry is discovering and developing unconventional deposits to pile onto the fire, while simultaneously abandoning solar power just as it begins to look promising.

2 We risk creating a carbon bubble in the capital markets. For policymakers to limit global warming to 2 K, 60-80% of proved reserves of fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground unburned. If so, the value of oil and gas companies would crash and a lot of people would lose a lot of money.

3 We risk a surprise if the boom in shale gas production proves to be a bubble. Production from individual shale wells declines rapidly, and large amounts of capital have to be borrowed to drill replacements. Many people judge based on the received wisdom that limits to shale drilling are few.

4 We court disaster with assumptions about oil depletion. Crude oil production peaked in 2005, and oil fields are depleting at more than 6% per year, according to the IEA. The 2 million barrels a day of new US production capacity comes in a world that consumes 90 million barrels a day.

We have to nurture clean energy industries and strategies. Emerging experience in Germany and elsewhere gives increasing credibility to the view that modern economies can be powered on a mix of renewables.

2013 November 9

Paranoid USA

Dirk Kurbjuweit

The intelligence services of the United States are an expression of their society. Paranoid democracies act in hysterical ways out of fear. The United States is a country whose settlers fought for their independence and democracy. This has led to tremendous military might and heightened sensitivity.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States experienced a relatively relaxed decade, until September 11, 2001. Belligerent Islamists were totally opposed to American society. A paranoid democracy tends to use the tools of a dictatorship, and they include maximum surveillance.

Militarist UK

Joe Glenton

Royal Marine commandos are capable, professional, and robust soldiers. But we should not feel compelled to point out that those brave men and women are fighting in Afghanistan to secure our safety every time the military is mentioned. We ought to ask why there is surprise when atrocities occur.

When a political decision is taken that puts men who are primed for violence into a war, bad things will happen. War is the very last resort and should not be engaged in lightly. The culture of irrational and uncritical soldier worship serves only to blind us to the realities of war and occupation.

2013 November 8

Pandora's Promise

Robert Stone

I spent four years on Pandora's Promise. I've screened the film at the US Department of Energy, at the IAEA in Vienna, and at university nuclear engineering departments. This film has received nothing but support from the technical and scientific community regarding the facts.

I've taken not a dime from the nuclear industry. And I'm not a lobbyist or a propaganda tool for anyone. I'm an independent documentary filmmaker with a long track record of producing sober and critically acclaimed films on historical, technological and environmental themes.

Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists claims that I have a zeal to promote nuclear energy. I feel that his criticism is driven mostly by his aversion to nuclear technology in any form. The view is shared by many of his generation that grew up equating nuclear energy with nuclear weapons.

The IFR technology featured in the film is simply one illustrative example of the many advanced reactor technologies that are in various stages of development: thorium reactors, molten salt reactors, small modular reactors, traveling wave reactors, etc.

Lyman and others seem to suggest that nuclear energy is hopeless and that all research and development into its advancement should be abandoned. Given the overwhelming challenges we face in attempting to power the planet, that's about the most irresponsible course of action imaginable.

2013 November 7


The Atlantic

Medieval universities, among them Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, developed in large part as training grounds for men of the church. Theology was the queen of the sciences, the field of inquiry that gave meaning to all others. Several of the great American universities: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alike were founded with the express purpose of teaching theology.

To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy. If history and comparative religion offer us perspective on world events from the outside, the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events from within. The absence of theology in our universities is an example of blindness to the fact that engagement with the past requires more than analysis.

2013 November 6

Moral Psychology

Thomas Nagel

Joshua Greene discusses human morality via psychological experiments, observations of brain activity, and evolutionary theory. He says the tragedy of commonsense morality is that moralities that help members of particular communities to cooperate peacefully do not foster a comparable harmony among members of different communities.

Biologically, humans were designed for cooperation within groups and within the context of personal relationships. Commonsense morality requires that we sometimes put Us ahead of Me, but the same disposition also leads us to put Us ahead of Them. We feel obligations to fellow members of our community but not to outsiders.

Greene thinks we need a metamorality. We have strong moral reactions against certain actions that cause harm but serve the greater good on balance, but not to other actions that produce the same balance of good and harm. Greene wants to persuade us that moral psychology is more fundamental than moral philosophy.

Our moral intuitions are best understood as gut reactions that have evolved to serve social peace by preventing interpersonal violence. One of the hardest questions for moral theory is whether the values tied to the personal point of view should be part of the foundation of morality. Humanity has a long road of moral development ahead.

2013 November 5

Spies In Berlin

The Independent

Leaked NSA documents show that GCHQ operates electronic spy posts from diplomatic buildings around the world. The UK seem to have a secret high-tech listening station in central Berlin.

German Green MEP Jan Albrecht: "If GCHQ runs a listening post on the top of the UK's Berlin embassy, it is clearly targeting politicians and journalists ... This is hardly in the spirit of European cooperation."

One NSA document said Washington recently closed some of the 100 secret data collection sites it operated in embassies around the world and transferred some of the work to GCHQ.

The British embassy in Berlin has had a white structure on the roof since it opened in 2000. The structure resembles spy gear used in the GCHQ cold war listening post in West Berlin.

German Reaction
Der Spiegel

The UK might have been spying from its embassy in Berlin. The German foreign ministry head of the department of European affairs told the UK ambassador that eavesdropping on communications inside the offices of a diplomatic mission would violate international law.

CDU parliamentarian Wolfgang Bosbach: "Such full-blown spying is completely unacceptable and must be dealt with."

Social Democratic chairman of the Bundestag parliamentary control committee Thomas Oppermann: "As sad as this may be, in future we will have to assume we are being spied on by our own friends."

AR Breaking bad: Time for UK politicians to assert control over their spy dogs.

Earth 2 ... 2 Billion

Alok Jha

Our galaxy probably contains at least 2 billion planets like Earth, with liquid water on their surfaces and orbiting their parent stars in the habitable zone. The nearest could be less than 12 lightyears away.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uses measurements from the NASA Kepler space observatory to estimate that over 1 in 5 of the Sun-like stars the Milky Way have rocky planets orbiting in the zone that gets about as much solar energy as Earth gets from the Sun. There are around 100 billion stars in our galaxy, 1 in 10 of them like the Sun.

London astrophysicist Subhanjoy Mohanty: "Previous analyses of Kepler data had shown that red dwarfs very frequently harbour Earth-size planets, including in their habitable zones. This new study shows that the same is true as well around stars more like our own sun. This is certainly an added impetus for planned future missions which will study the atmospheres of these potentially habitable planets."


Small rocky planets with liquid water enjoy key ingredients for biology. The NASA Kepler telescope surveyed 42 000 Sun-like stars and found planets of Earth size orbiting in habitable zones allowing surface liquid water. We calculate that 22% of Sun-like stars harbor such planets.

2013 November 4

Nuclear Energy

Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, James Hansen, Tom Wigley

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. Continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity's ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

Global demand for energy is growing rapidly. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump. Renewables cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.

Nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants cheaper than existing plants.

Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides, but we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions.

AR I agree.

Fire And Ashes

Evan R. Goldstein

In May 2011, Michael Ignatieff, 58, lost an election in Canada. He had worked as screenwriter, essayist, columnist, memoirist, TV host, biographer, novelist, war correspondent, and authority on ethics and international affairs. For 16 years he was a public intellectual. Then, in 2000, Harvard picked him to become a professor of human rights.

Ignatieff rose quickly in Canadian politics. By 2009 he led the opposition Liberal Party. The New York Times said he might be Canada's next prime minister. On election night Ignatieff and his wife were relaxed. A few hours later, the smile was gone. The Liberal Party had been trounced. Ignatieff quit politics and wrote a memoir: Fire And Ashes

AR I enjoyed reading Ignatieff's biography of Isaiah Berlin some years ago.

2013 November 3

Labour Scandal

The Sunday Times

Ed Miliband refuses to publish a report on the Labour party vote rigging scandal. The trade union Unite attempted to rig the selection of the Labour candidate for the Falkirk seat. The report documents forgery, coercion, trickery, and manipulation. Miliband had to abandon the inquiry after a dirty tricks campaign by Unite apparently led key witnesses to withdraw their evidence. Unite boss Len McCluskey denies any wrongdoing.

Dominic Lawson

Unite is overwhelmingly Labour's biggest cash donor. When polled in 2010, 40% of Unite members said they would vote Labour, but 28% said Conservative and 20% Liberal Democrat. This suggests that most of its 1.4 million members do not share Len McCluskey's desire to challenge the government with a general strike and civil disobedience. They may not wish to "march against fascism" or to support Unite's new Centre for Labour and Social Studies, known as Class.

AR The moderate majority must unite against the class warriors.


The Independent

Astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney act in space:

1   James Cameron calls Gravity "the best space film ever done".
2   Sandra Bullock wore no make-up during filming, because astronauts don't.
3   To replicate zero g, Bullock was strapped into a lightbox rig controlled by robots.
4   Bullock spent up to 10 hours a day alone in the rig, communicating via headset.
5   Lighting was created with 1.8 million lights that could be individually controlled.
6   The explosions are shown in silence because there's no sound in space.
7   Clooney or Bullock are shown in their suits with real faces, the rest 3D animated.
8   The film lasts only 91 minutes and is mostly in silence, except for the soundtrack.
9   The last film to show zero g in a movie was Apollo 13. Gravity is in 3D.
10 Gravity had a production budget of $100 million.

2013 November 2


New Scientist + AR

Newton captured time in mathematical equations. Soon physicists depicted motion on a graph with time on a spatial axis. The "now" in time looked as subjective as a "here" in space.

Einstein said there is no way to specify events that are simultaneous for everyone. Two distant events that are now to you are not both now for anyone moving at another speed.

The result is the block universe. Past and future are no more physically distinguished than left and right. Some things are closer to you in spacetime and some are further away.

George Ellis on the block universe: "It doesn't represent the passage of time, and that's one of the most fundamental features of daily life. So it's a bad model of reality."

Quantum physics describes future outcomes by probabilities in the present. Quantum objects exist in superpositions of more than one state until we measure them, when they adopt a definite state.

Ellis: "Even if you know everything about the state of the universe today, you can't predict what will be tomorrow. The future can't be real because it's not even fixed yet."

For Ellis, the present moment is the boundary between what is fixed and what is yet to be fixed. We live on the leading edge of a growing block universe, on a surface that shimmers into focus a step at a time.

Spacetime is warped by gravity. With enough data and a big computer, we could calculate a 3D surface on which each point has the same age as us. Spacetime is defined up to then and not beyond.

This present is not now as we know it. If you and I are moving at different speeds, we still disagree on what happens now. But causally related events happen in the same order from all perspectives.

The future is indeterminate. Aspects of the present are too. The present is not solid but dotted with fuzzy bits that sharpen up later. These fuzzy bits are very small and brief.

Lee Smolin wants to throw out the block universe. Whereas in relativity spacetime warps, in shape dynamics only sizes change. Observers agree on what happens now but not on how big distant things are. Quantum physics gets a single universal clock. The universe is a series of time slices. Events in the past or future exist as projections in the present.

Tim Maudlin has a geometric theory of linear structures that leaves the warped spacetime geometry of relativity intact. It gives lines direction, as vectors, and hence gives time its arrow.

To distinguish past and future time, thermodynamics says the universe started off in order at the big bang and has been expanding into increasing disorder ever since. There is an infinity of future paths for the universe but only one path into the past. So we see the past but not the future.

In the block universe, a human life is a sempiternal 4D worm. We get flow by thinking that the same self persists. Really there is a new slice of me in each now. Things seems to move, but really I move.

2013 All Saints Day


The Economist

Speakers at the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) recently discussed plans for a starship named Icarus. The nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 4.4 lightyears (42 Pm) away. DARPA is sponsoring a project to develop the sorts of technology a starship might need to go there.

Over 50 years ago, Freeman Dyson designed a big starship called Orion powered by a series of nuclear bombs spat out behind it. But it would have taken 130 years to fly to Alpha Centauri, only to zoom right past it.

In the 1970s, the BIS designed Daedalus, an unmanned ship weighing 54 000 tons that would use a fusion rocket to attain 12% of light speed (0.12c), allowing it to travel 6 lightyears (70 Pm) in 50 years. But it too was unable to slow down again. That would have more than doubled the fuel load. And its 3-helium fuel is scarce (it could be mined on the Moon).

The new BIS starship Icarus would at least be able to slow down. But only Project Longshot, run by NASA and the US Navy, envisages going into orbit around the target star.

A different approach is to leave the fuel behind. Their ships would use a sail. A giant orbiting laser would push the sail with photons to to a significant fraction of light speed. The ships could be much smaller and lighter. They might even be able to slow down to orbital speed by using the solar wind of the target star to push a second sail. And the power laser could be reused to cut costs.

Still, accelerating a starship to 0.1c would consume more power than our present global civilization and cost many trillions of dollars. Money well spent?

AR Obviously not, at least this century.

Economic Growth

Vandana Shiva

Economic growth hides the poverty it creates. The concept of growth was used to mobilize resources during WW2. GDP measures the conversion of nature into cash, and commons into commodities.

But poverty is spread when public systems are privatized. People are forced to pay more for what was a common good. Household economics provided for basic human needs using natural resources and allowing ecological renewal. It was centered on women. Growth economics is a power game for men.

The dominant model of economic development has turned against life. When economies are measured only in terms of money flow, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And the rich start resource wars to feed growth. The violence in unsustainable development is:

1 Against the natural world — expressed as the ecological crisis
2 Against people — expressed as destitution and displacement
3 Against resource ownership — expressed as war and conflict

GDP has become dissociated from real value. This is not an end to poverty. It is an end to human rights and justice. GDP does not capture the human condition. The real currency of life is life itself.

AR Hear, hear.


Virgin America
safety announcement


Robert Wright reviews
morality by recalling the
evolutionary background
of trolley problems and
says a utilitarian
is hopeless

Moshe Halbertal reviews
the moral absolutism of
Ronald Dworkin

Lou Reed

Lou Reed fronted the Velvet Underground until 1970, but his 1972 album Transformer was his masterpiece. I interviewed him in 2012 and he responded with: "That's a rather pubescent question, don't you think?" and "Jesus. Who do you think you're talking to?" I interviewed him again in September 2013, when he looked much older. He was an articulate and creative professional.
Will Hodgkinson


Evgeny Morozov
has his say on
privacy and



The number of known exoplanets has jumped from 999 to 1010 thanks to a host of new worlds discovered by the Super Wide Angle Search for Planets collaboration. Like many others, these planets are roasting-hot Jupiter-like worlds. The search for a habitable, Earth-like planet continues.

AR This is exciting.

Steven Weinberg
on cosmology and
particle physics

Here we have an encyclopedia
of madness ... a terrifying
glimpse of a futuristic
system of repression
in which deviance
is pathologized

"I write very vulnerably, but I think in some ways that's what separates me from my peers ... I don't think anyone ... sets out to be a role model ... My self-worth ... was shattered."
Katy Perry


Scientific results are hostage to experiment. But with over 6 million active researchers worldwide, scientists have lost their taste for quality control.

Leading journals reject 9 in 10 submitted papers. They tend to publish the most striking findings, so many researchers pep up papers by ignoring awkward data. Negative results now account for only 1 in 7 of published papers. Yet they are needed to prevent researchers from repeating them.

Journals should replace peer review by post-publication evaluation in appended comments. That system works well in physics and math.

Golshifteh Farahani
The Patience Stone

Captain Phillips
Talk with director
Paul Greengrass


2013 October 31


Robert Webb

Dear Russell, I read your thing on revolution with great interest and some concern. My first reaction was to rejoin the Labour Party.

Pensioners get attention from politicians because they vote. Many of the people you write about are in desperate need of support. The present coalition is not interested in helping them. Election day is when we are the masters. We give them another chance or we tell them to get another job.

I understand your ache for the luminous, Russell. But revolution ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. Read Orwell.

Winston Churchill

The Guardian

A bust of Sir Winston Churchill is on display in Statuary Hall thanks to Republican house speaker John Boeher, who passed a resolution to honor to Churchill in the US Capitol. At the unveiling he called Churchill "the best friend the United States ever had" and the architect of "a beautiful and, of course, special relationship".

Churchill, who in 1963 was made an honorary US citizen, is revered among some Americans and quoted almost as often as the Founding Fathers. Democratic minority house leader Nancy Pelosi: "That steadfast voice, rumbling with unending determination, served as a great beacon of hope to the free peoples of the world."

Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell said Churchill was "the greatest Englishman of his time". His Democratic counterpart Harry Reid called Churchill a "saviour" of the world and told the audience he owned 125 hours of Churchill's speeches and readings: "I've heard them all."

Current US secretary of state John Kerry: "To think that in Statuary Hall, the building that British troops tried to burn down [in 1814], the bust of of the one time secretary of state for the colonies will forever stand alongside the statue of Samuel Adams."

2013 October 30


The Guardian

Vicky Pryce was released from prison in May after serving 8 weeks of her 8 month sentence. The mother of 5 and her ex-husband, former cabinet minister Chris Huhne, were both imprisoned for perverting the course of justice after she took his motoring penalty points 10 years ago. She has now published a book about her experience.

Pryce: "Holloway was a great big chaotic place, but as soon as I started speaking to other girls it was very clear to me that prison was not necessarily the best thing for them ... The annual cost per prison place for a woman is more than £56 000, yet intensive community orders cost less than a third of that and evidence shows they have more impact on reducing reoffending ... Prison often exacerbates the problems these women were facing before they were sent away. The lack of co-ordinated governmental thinking on this is perpetuating the problems and doing nothing to lower costs or re-offending, which costs a staggering £9 billion or £10 billion a year."

2013 October 29

No Trust

The New York Times

President Obama is poised to order the NSA to stop eavesdropping on the leaders of American allies.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein: "I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers."

German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich: "The Americans know by now that this affair is very damaging to their own interests."

German federal data protection commissioner Peter Schaar: "If we want to return to a relationship based on trust, it will require serious effort. Officially the Americans said that they respected German law. Now we know that was not the case."

The NSA documentation on Angela Merkel authorized operatives in Germany not only to collect data about the numbers she was calling but also to listen in on her conversations. The Obama administration has refused to confirm that her phone was targeted. The refusal further angers German officials.

No Joke

Charlotte Potts

Angela Merkel is angry. For Germans, the US surveillance is no joke. Both the Nazi secret police (the Gestapo) and the East German intelligence agency (the Stasi) spied on citizens. Germans have fought hard for their privacy.

Last week Merkel became Germany's first named NSA victim. Her anger is real enough for her to have phoned President Barack Obama and protest. Polls show that most Germans support her sharp reaction. Why spy on Germany?

No Peace

Richard Kemp

When I spoke on Iraq for the UK Joint Intelligence Committee, I judged that the Iraqi security forces unaided would never contain the insurgency. General David Petraeus reduced violence from its peak of 29 000 civilian deaths in 2006 to under 3000 by 2011. But attacks have increased steadily since President Obama announced a total withdrawal in 2011. A coalition military presence may have averted the current plunge toward the abyss. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki should institute political reform, discipline the vengeful Shia militia, and return to US counter-insurgency tactics. President Obama should consider providing support.

2013 October 28


Julian Zelizer

The NSA surveillance scandal is a huge blow to President Barack Obama. It is yet another betrayal of his 2008 campaign promise to repair the US standing in the world.

Obama left much of George W. Bush's foreign policy framework in place. He continued with an extremely aggressive campaign against terrorist networks, employing drone strikes to destroy networks despite significant civilian causalities, allowing for tough interrogation techniques and detention policies and depending on secrecy to reduce accountability. All this has dampened enthusiasm for Obama.

The NSA issue concerns the proper domestic balance between civil liberties and counterterrorism and now extends into the realm of diplomacy. Obama needs to fix it.


Jacob Aron

Time is an illusion in a toy cosmos made of two photons. And it might emerge from quantum entanglement. But quantum mechanics and general relativity don't mix.

When quantum objects are entangled, measuring the properties of one changes those of the other. A clock entangled with the rest of the universe appears to tick when viewed by an observer within that universe. But an observer outside the universe sees a stationary universe.

Marco Genovese and colleagues demonstrated this effect in a toy cosmos containing a pair of entangled photons. The photons start out polarized either Horizontally or Vertically, and the polarization rotates as the photons pass though a quartz plate and on to detectors. The entangled photons are in a superposition of H and V states until they are observed. The thicker the plate, the more their polarization evolves, affecting the probability of measuring an H or V state.

If one photon is the clock, with a tick alternating between H and V states, reading it affects the polarization of the second photon. An observer reading the clock entangles with the photon universe and can predict the probable detected polarization of the other photon. Repeating the experiment with thicker plates changes the detection rates.

If the experimenter stays outside the photon universe and measures the quantum state of the system as a whole, the state of both photons together is always the same, as in a static universe.

Lee Smolin: "They have verified in the context of a laboratory system that quantum mechanics is working correctly."

202013 October 27


Russell Brand

Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Total revolution is what interests me.

Materialism and individualism do in moderation make sense. If you are naked and starving and someone gives you soup and a blanket your happiness will increase. On the most obvious frequency of our known sensorial reality we are independent anatomical units. So we must take care of ourselves. But with most of our basic needs met, the instincts of fear and desire are being engaged to imprison us in an obsolete fragment of our consciousness.

For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political. Our connection to one another and the planet must be prioritized. We have become a people without a unifying myth. We are trying to sustain social cohesion using redundant ideologies devised for a population that lived in deserts millennia ago. We have created agriculture and cities. Now we have succumbed to an ideology that is totally corrupt and must be overthrown.

We have to be inclusive of everyone. We are mammals on a planet, who now face a struggle for survival if our species is to avoid expiry. Consciousness itself must change. The reality is we have a spherical ecosystem, suspended in infinite space, upon which there are billions of carbon-based life forms, of which we presume ourselves to be the most important, and a limited amount of resources. The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity.

The Spiritual Revolution has come. The revolution of consciousness is a decision.


Russell Brand (10:46)

Brand said he didn't have the remotest clue as to what should replace the lies, treachery and deceit of the current system. But don't vote cos it changes nuffink, right? And there's a revolution coming but I don't know what it's for. Profit is howwible and politicians are howwible and big companies are howwible. Paxo was nodding off in his chair while Russell talked rot.

Asking for It

A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!

This show is brutal, brilliant and brave. Adrienne Truscott takes rape comedy by the balls and has a lot of fun. The most powerful hour of comedy on the Fringe.

Truscott remains fiercely in character as a girl who is asking for it. Her point is that no one, not even someone as ridiculous as this character, is asking for it.

Naked from the waist down, Adrienne Truscott dances onto the stage, swigs gin and tonics, points and winks at audience members, and forces us to confront her body as well as her act.

In a live chat, Truscott recalled the genesis of her show. When she was a student in a seminar, the professor said one in four women have been sexually assaulted. Addressing the women in the room, he said several of them must be rape victims. Truscott turned to the men in the room and said: "Well, by that logic, at least one of you have raped a woman in your lives, so which one of you is a rapist?"

The premise of the show is that Truscott is asking for it, and yet she was not raped. Perhaps it is the rapist who makes a rape happen after all.

2013 October 26



Iran has installed more and more advanced centrifuges. We updated breakout estimates of the time Iran would need to produce a significant quantity of weapon grade uranium (1 SQ = 25 kg WGU) from its low enriched uranium (LEU) stocks.

Iran would need additional time to field WGU in a weapon. But these preparations would be difficult to detect. The most practical strategy is to prevent Iran from accumulating sufficient WGU.

We evaluated breakout scenarios based on the current IR-1 centrifuges and LEU stockpiles, total installed IR-1 centrifuges, and a possible covert facility containing IR-2m centrifuges, in four steps:
(1) from natural U to 3.5% LEU, (2) to 20%, (3) to 60%, (4) to WGU.

Iran could produce 1 SQ in 5-7 weeks using all its 20% LEU hexafluoride stockpile. Using only its 3.5% LEU, Iran would need 8-10 weeks to make 4 SQ WGU. Iran could use a covert plant to break out in 1-2 weeks, or 7-11 weeks using a covert plant with a more realistic cascade organization.

Negotiation should be guided by the need to lengthen breakout times. A reasonable minimum breakout time should be at least 6 months.

2013 October 25


The Guardian

President Obama is isolated from key allies following international anger over NSA surveillance and over US Mideast policy. Secretary of state John Kerry has been meeting with Saudi and Israeli leaders.


The Guardian

From a leaked National Security Agency (NSA) memo dated October 2006 to the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID): "In one recent case, a US official provided NSA with 200 phone numbers to 35 world leaders ... These numbers have ... been tasked" (for monitoring).

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden: "The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel. Beyond that, I'm not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity."


New Scientist

Perhaps our universe was born with a bounce, not a bang, and perhaps it needed no inflation.

The CMB dates to about 12 Ts ABB and is roughly uniform everywhere we look. The most widely accepted explanation is that the universe inflated rapidly in the first moment ABB. All we see was in contact before inflation. Quantum fluctuations were inflated to seed structures like galaxies. But inflation is mysterious and has no predictive power.

Paul Steinhardt and colleagues advocate a cyclic universe. A previous universe contracted and crunched. A bounce then led to our universe. Cosmic smoothness is explained without inflation and quantum fluctuations survived. In their model, a "ghost" field with negative pressure softened the crunch and led to the bounce. But the ghost field is as mysterious as inflation.

Primordial gravity waves from inflation would leave ripples in the CMB. A hunt is on for them.

2013 October 24


Der Spiegel

German government officials are furious over alleged phone tapping by US intelligence agencies:

Chancellor Angela Merkel placed an angry call Wednesday night to President Barack Obama
    to discuss the suspicions.

Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle summoned US ambassador John Emerson.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called for Berlin to suspend the
    transatlantic SWIFT deal governing the transfer of bank data for terror monitoring.

Defense minister Thomas de Maizière: "The Americans are and remain our closest friends,
    but this is completely unacceptable. We can't simply return to business as usual. There are
    allegations in France, too."

AR Obama and Cameron must bring the US and UK spies to heel.



Galaxy z8_GND_5296 is 30 billion light years from Earth. We see it as it was over 13 billion years ago, just 700 million years after the Big Bang. A spectroscopic analysis of its emissions shows a redshift of 7.51. The galaxy is the closest yet observed to the cosmic dark ages when space was filled with neutral hydrogen gas. This epoch lasted for a few hundred million years, until the first stars lit up. Astronomers detected the galaxy using the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and analyzed it with the spectrograph on the Keck Telescope in Hawaii.


Harm de Blij

The age of the dinosaurs ended with a bang. One day about 65 million years ago, a comet or asteroid about 10 km in diameter streaked toward Earth at a speed of 25 km/s. It struck Earth in what is today Chicxulub in Mexico. The impact energy was equivalent to about 100 million H-bombs, forming a crater 180 km in diameter, 65 km deep, and encircled by a geological fault 30 km beyond.

The devastation reached around the planet. The impact area was a shallow sea, and the blast sent a mass of debris high into the atmosphere. Some debris reached halfway to the Moon before falling back to Earth. When it fell back, it rained red-hot rocks that set fire to forests almost everywhere. The air was hot enough to evaporate entire lakes and incinerate whole ecosystems.

The Chicxulub impact marked the K/T boundary. It was one of the three greatest known mass extinctions ever. Some large dinosaurs far from the site may have survived the original blast, but food chains had been fatally disrupted and they too died out. Some small mammals were better equipped to outlive the crisis. But the faunal and floral exuberance of the Mesozoic era came to an end.

Much of the enormous volume of pulverized, ejected rock remained in orbit around the Earth. The rest choked the atmosphere and blocked the sun. Volcanoes around the planet may have been triggered, adding eruptions to the toxic mix. The smoke from worldwide fires darkened the skies across the globe. The climate cooled more than at any time since the ice age 185 million years earlier.

2013 October 23

Saudis 2

The Times

Saudi royals are angry at Washington for failing to intervene in Syria. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud will sever cooperation with the CIA in arming Syrian rebels. For Saudi hawks, the desire to supplant Iran as the dominant proxy force in Damascus trumps other considerations. A Saudi official: "There is a feeling that this is not the United States of old, that Washington is trying to dispose of all its responsibilities in the region."

AR Saudis have the money and the arms. Let them do their own dirty work.

Saudis 1

The Atlantic

Saudi Arabia refused a seat on the UN Security Council, claiming frustration at UN ineffectiveness in the Mideast and elsewhere. The Saudis accused the UN Security Council of double standards that prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace. They cited UN failure on the Palestinians and in Syria.

Allies of Saudi Arabia in the Mideast — the Arab League, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Kuwait — all publicly back the move. Saudi Arabia has turned down voting power in potential UN decisions on the Iranian nuclear program, further action in Syria, precarious Egyptian politics, and sectarian conflicts in Iraq. Have Arabs given up on the UN?

AR The Saudis seem to want the UN to rule the world through blood and iron.

2013 October 22


Der Spiegel

Angela Merkel and her CDU, together with the CSU and the SPD, are preparing to form a coalition government. Merkel now has more power in Germany and Europe than any chancellor before her. Her officials are forging plans to transform the European Union by gaining more control over national budgets and public borrowing in the eurozone. This would improve economic governance in the EZ.

Germany boasts almost full employment and a healthy national budget. The first item on the coalition agenda is to hand out benefits and spend money. Thanks to the strong economy, this needs no new taxes. Budget surpluses are expected to give the government an extra €15 billion to spend by 2017. There was talk of paying off old debts, but Germany is still within its debt limit requirements.

Last week, Merkel talked with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy at the Chancellery. The German Finance Ministry wants to beef up Protocol 14 of the EU treaty. Merkel will act after the May 2014 EU election, but amending the treaty is risky. The UK government, driven by UKIP, could use the opportunity to retrieve powers from Brussels, essentially renationalizing Europe.

AR UK politicians must be stopped from committing a Eurostrategic blunder.


Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Antisemitism is arguably the most enduring and murderous ethnic prejudice in human history. It has now gone global, in no small measure due to digital technologies:

1 While before a person had to be personally exposed, through people or perhaps a book, to vile stuff about Jews, today all you need is a browser.

2 New antisemitic accusations and initiatives can spread like wildfire, picked up by news or community websites and replicated virally, globally.

3 Now there are international and virtual communities of antisemitic hatred. Bigotry shared in communities is powerfully sustained and spread.

4 Different streams of antisemitism are merging in a global amalgam. Muslims, Christians, Leftists, neo-Nazis, Arabs, and others all demonize Israel.

5 In the Arab and Islamic worlds, what antisemites say goes well beyond, in ferocity and murderousness, even Nazi Germany's hate speech.

The way to fight digitally enhanced antisemitism is to get Internet providers, social media sites, and search engines to adhere to their own terms of usage, and to enforce laws prohibiting hate speech.

AR Despite its muddled, fuzzy semantics, "antisemitic" is now the mot du jour for prejudice against Jews. The hate is directed against the people, the religion, and the politics, and is no less fuzzy and irrational. Even the word "hatred" is going: hate is all, a wild 4-letter teeth-baring monosyllable for a wildly obscene state of mind.

2013 October 21

No sex please, we're Japanese

The Observer

Ai Aoyama is a sex and relationship counsellor in Japan. Today she tries to cure sekkusu shinai shokogun (celibacy syndrome). The Japanese population, now 126 million, is shrinking and may sink below 90 million by 2060. Aoyama believes people are fleeing from human intimacy.

A recent survey found that most unmarried men and almost half of all women aged 18-34 are not in a romantic relationship. A third of people under 30 have never dated at all. More than a quarter of men and almost half of women aged 16-24 are not interested in or despise sexual contact. Both sexes say mendokusai (too much bother) to explain their relationship phobia. Is this a glimpse of our future?

À la recherche du temps perdu

Wall Street Journal

100 years ago next month, Marcel Proust published Swann's Way, the first volume of his 6-volume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. The novel is about a man compelled by a sudden surge of memory to revisit his past and to draw meaning out of it.

Two French publishers turned down the manuscript in 1912. Proust paid for a third to publish it. An early reader: "At the end of this 712-page manuscript ... one has no notion of ... what it is about. What is it all for? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading to?"

Proust's novel is so unusually ambitious, so accomplished, so masterful in cadence and invention that it is impossible ... [cut]

AR I haven't read it. See the 4-hour theater adaptation A Waste of Time (Glasgow 1980, no link).

2013 October 20


New Statesman

Christian think tank Theos finds that well over half the UK citizens it polled said that they believed in some kind of spiritual being or essence. More than three-quarters agreed that "there are things that we cannot simply explain through science or any other means".

But the poll found quite low levels of belief in more specifically religious concepts. Around a third believed in life after death, a quarter in angels, and only a sixth in the power of prayer. By far the most popular view was that prayer "makes you feel more at peace".

Organized religion is at least as much a form of communal belonging as it is a vehicle for private spiritual fulfillment. Richard Dawkins: "A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief."


Mohammed Ansar

I sat opposite the leader of the English far right in a television debate. I called for the EDL to be proscribed and talked about EDL ideology. Then something odd happened. Tommy and I looked at each other and suddenly we were kids at the back of the class. I met Tommy later that month at a hotel. Three hours of debate followed.

A few days later I met Tommy again, in Newcastle, where an EDL rally was being held. I challenged him but he wasn't listening. And then it happened again. We both looked at each other, sighed, laughed, and before I knew it, he had put his arm around me. We had been "papped" [photographed by the press]. The furore about the image spread around the Muslim world.

I stood up and addressed an EDL meeting. It was a stressful experience. At the end of the meeting I invited Tommy back to my room and he stood with me as I offered a prayer. We ate food from a local Indian takeaway. Now Tommy is quitting the EDL. The answer to hate is not more hate.

2013 October 19


Matt Rowland Hill

Tommy Robinson quit the English Defence League. Short and stocky, like a welterweight grown pudgy between bouts, he speaks with understated intensity. Earlier this year he spent 18 weeks in solitary confinement after running into trouble with Muslim gangs in jail. He now says he wants to become an advocate for moderation and dialogue by working with Quilliam.

Tommy was born in Luton in 1982. His father was English, his mother Irish. His adoptive father worked at the local Vauxhall car plant. At school, Tommy scored 11 A-C grades at GCSE, including an A in Maths. But he left school at 16. When the Vauxhall plant closed in 2000, 15% of Luton's population were Muslims. Today they are 25%, and white Britons are an ethnic minority.

After he left school, Tommy applied to study aircraft engineering at Luton Airport. He won an apprenticeship and qualified in 2003, but then got a criminal conviction for assault and lost his job. After September 11, his criminal record meant he was blacklisted from working at airports.

Tommy knew little about Islam as a religion. But now he began to see the clash of civilizations happening on the streets of Luton. So he set up a group called Ban the Luton Taliban. They held a demonstration, and it worked. The next protest snowballed, and soon the newly formed English Defence League was making headlines. At 26, Tommy was thrust into the national spotlight.

He befriended Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam a few weeks ago and now says he's sorry for provoking fear among British Muslims.

Tommy Robinson

Everyone in Luton is the son of immigrants. I always knew there was a hostility coming from the Muslim community, and I never really knew what it was. When I looked into the religion, I thought, this is what it is: Islam, political Islam, Salafism, Wahhabism. I don't care if they want to practice their religion, just when they're not integrating and asking for special treatment.

There's a problem with extremism. And how are we going to work together to get it solved? I don't think it's by allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Iran to fund multi-million pound mosques and manipulate which form of Islam is being taught in them. So we can stop the foreign funding to all religious institutions. What does David Cameron know about growing up in Luton?

AR I was born in Luton. My father worked then at Vauxhall.

2013 October 18

The Patience Stone

Martin Wolf

The Patience Stone stars Golshifteh Farahani, who is Iranian but lives in exile in Paris. She portrays a mother of two caring for her injured husband. The man is much older than her and lies in a coma after being shot in the neck. Gunfire can often be heard outside the house. "Can you hear me?" the woman asks her husband. There's no answer, but she continues to talk. The director is Atiq Rahimi, who also lives in Paris. He wrote the novel on which it is based. It won the Prix Goncourt in 2008.

Farahani gained fame in Body of Lies, a 2008 Hollywood thriller directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. She then starred in About Elly, which won a Silver Bear at the 2009 Berlinale. After she bared a breast for a moment in a promotional video for a French film award, a man claiming to represent the Islamic Republic of Iran's judiciary called her parents and threatened to cut off her breasts. Farahani: "I don't believe I could live in Iran again."

The Fog of Law

Lord Justice Moses

"None have succeeded in defeating the armed forces of the United Kingdom. [But] our own legal institutions threaten to succeed. So argue the authors of this stimulating, well-reasoned and important paper. They recall that in 2009, soldiers carried twice the weight of the loads born by their predecessors during the Falklands. Now they demonstrate the even greater weight of judicial intervention imposed on the armed forces following the decision of the Supreme Court in June 2013 in the Smith case. The judges, by a majority of four to three, chose, in that case, to admit of the application of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to soldiers on the field of battle, should their death or injuries be attributable to some earlier decision relating to procurement."

AR Ponderous prose prizewinner! But no sign of fresh thinking.

2013 October 17

Long Live the USA!

The Times

A deal: Uncle Sam will continue to service his debts and pay his bills. President Obama chose a strategy of refusing to negotiate and stuck to it. He has won a political victory. Tea Party loyalists in Congress behaved as if they had a mandate to suspend government and repeal legislation. But their dread of borrowing is justified. On a typical day the US Treasury spends $2.5 billion more than it takes in.


Anthony Grafton

Anti-Judaism: David Nirenberg asks why so many have said so much about the Jews. He traces how Jews became the villains of early Christian and Muslim narratives. In the Middle Ages, Jews were said to pollute Christian society through their materialism and greed. Martin Luther demonized the Jews. Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer Judaized their opponents.

In his New Testament epistles, Paul explained why Jesus completed the history of Judaism. The Gospel writers transmuted his theory into narrative. They explained why the Romans had destroyed the Temple. Then Augustine explained that Christian rulers must protect Jews because they would serve as proof that Christianity had superseded their obsolete religion.

AR Now Christianity is obsolete too.

2013 October 16

Down with the USA!

Timothy Garton Ash

The US national debt exceeded its limit in May this year. Since then, the federal government has been using "extraordinary measures" to pay its bills and refinance its debt. These measures end tomorrow. If things go on like this, investor confidence will run out. Even if Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives step back from the brink at the last minute, huge damage has already been done.

Just a Mo

Daniel Finkelstein

All is not well at the London School of Economics. At the Fresher's Fair, the students running the Atheist Society stall wore T-shirts displaying an image from Jesus and Mo. The identity of the characters is not explicit, but the cartoon pokes fun at religion. The Student Union called in the school authorities, who called in security, and the offenders were required to hide or lose their T-shirts. The school felt bound by the Equality Act to prevent harassment, defined as an act that might violate someone's dignity or create a hostile environment "related to a protected characteristic" such as religion.

AR My MSc is from LSE. Then the leftists ruled the school. Now it's the god mob.

2013 October 15

Rule of Law

The Guardian

Former Conservative Home Office minister Lord Blencathra (a.k.a. David Maclean): "We dislike leaks. Yes, we disapprove in many ways of what the Guardian has done, but at the same time we are deeply, deeply uneasy about what has been going on. I do not want people like Mr Snowden endangering national security. But I do not want our national security apparatus operating in what seems to me to be outside the law or on the very edge of the law. Or if it is just within the law, certainly without parliament knowing. Many of us are happy to have certain information collected by the state but, by God, we've a right to know the parameters under which they are operating."

AR Praise the Lord!

Nobel Prizes

Quantum computing pioneer
Seth Lloyd has developed a
quapp for machine learning
on big data

"I find New York a tremendously exciting and glamorous city. There is such a buzz about it. For sheer excitement, it's the best place to go for a weekend, party for four days, and then get out."
Martin Amis

Wright Wrongs

Chris Wright was one of the most successful talent scouts and hit creators in the music business. He founded the Chrysalis media group and made £70 million. But he turned away David Bowie, Dire Straits, The Kinks, The Spice Girls, and the musical Cats. In his new autobiography he is brutally honest about his failures.

Slavoj Žižek
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Gosh, big's no way to describe it though it's important in theory
(5, 5)

A personal portrait
By Volker Ullrich

Caesar's Messiah
The Roman Conspiracy
To Invent Jesus

By Joseph Atwill

Covert Messiah
Is Christianity the Genesis of Modern Psychological Warfare? Symposium, Conway Hall,
Holborn, London

2013-10-19, 09:30

Rites of Love and Math

Brain Cure

A new pathway for future drug treatments of neurodegenerative diseases blocks a faulty signal in diseased brains that shuts down the production of essential proteins. Scientists at the University of Leicester, UK, tested it in mice with prion disease but say the same principles apply in a human brain with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

Colin McGinn and the
making of a philosopher

Boston Dynamics

Petman tests camo (1:05)

Introducing WildCat (2:09)

Command and Control
Nuclear Weapons,
the Damascus Accident,
and the Illusion of Safety
By Eric Schlosser

Schlosser tasked film-maker Kevin Ford with bringing the book's themes to life in a video (4:25, audio by Radiohead)

Top Ten Fighters

F-35 Lightning II
F-22 Raptor
Eurofighter Typhoon
Sukhoi Su-35
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
Dassault Rafale
F-15E Strike Eagle
Saab JAS 39 Gripen
F-16 Fighting Falcon

World Universities
The Times

U Cal, Berkeley
Imperial, London

AR Odd. Compare
the QS rankings
(Sept 11)

Tom Clancy, technothriller
writer, died aged 66: "I read
the papers, watch CNN, and think. It's all in the open.
You just have to know
where to look."

British Museum, London
2013-10-03 — 2014-01-05

2013 October 14

2013 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

Der Spiegel

The winners are Eugene F. Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, and Robert J. Shiller. They won the award for their research on understanding and predicting movements in asset prices. Fama showed that short-term markets are efficient but not predictable. Shiller proved that market movements are predictable in the long run. And Hansen provided the tool to apply the theories.

Robert Shiller predicted the new economy bubble and the financial crisis. In his 1981 American Economic Review article Do stock prices move too much to be justified by subsequent changes in dividends? he noted that stock prices are much more volatile than company dividends are. And the way stock prices change relative to dividends is predictable. These findings shook the efficient market hypothesis.

Shiller later proved that he could actually predict market trends. In his 2000 book Irrational Exuberance he anticipated the crash of the stock market in the following years. His fame grew when it turned out he had also predicted the collapse of the US housing market in 2007. Since then, Shiller has become the star witness for critics of financial capitalism. He has shown that investors often behave irrationally.

UK 2015

Rafael Behr

For the Conservative party, the value of a policy is measured by its utility as a weapon against the opposition. Does it neutralize an Ed Miliband attack or trap him on the wrong side of public opinion? Government aides boast that campaign strategy and policymaking are now inseparable.

Conservatives say they are fixing the economy for the benefit of hard-working people. Labour stands for mass immigration, welfare profligacy, and debt. Tories like the punchy tone. Only a few worry about the stultifying effect of monolithic messaging. They just hope to win in 2015.

Ed Miliband says his agenda is one of social and economic transformation on an epic scale. Ed Balls has committed the Labour party to budget discipline. But they need more than paper pledges of fiscal rectitude. People now accept Tory claims that there is no money left to spend.

Cameron and Miliband claim to talk about the future while their opponent is wedded to the past. But the future they have in mind is a mirage of balanced budgets, gleaming hospitals, secure borders, higher wages, lower bills, new homes, fairer taxes. On the real future there is silence.

AR If our politicians could prophesy the future, they'd quit.


Nick Davies

Politicians say we should trust the security agencies. Those agencies not only concealed the bending or breaking of rules but also attacked the whistleblowers who revealed it. When I combed through GCHQ documents provided by Edward Snowden, I was struck by two things:

1 GCHQ is much cleaner than it used to be. It has adopted internal procedures designed to ensure it complies with the law. This can be seen as an achievement of earlier whistleblowers.

2 There is still ample reason to worry. GCHQ claims to deal only with terrorism and serious crime, but there are signs of mission creep. Documents show GCHQ targeting migration from Africa.

AR It's like the Bomb priesthood during the cold war.

2013 October 13

Global War On Christians

John L. Allen Jr.

Christians are by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet. About a million Christians have been killed for their beliefs in the past decade. Iraq had a flourishing Christian population of at least 1.5 million in 1991. Today there are fewer than half a million. In the Indian state of Orissa in 2008, riots left some 500 Christians killed, thousands more injured, and at least 50 000 homeless. In Burma in 2010, the Burmese military were authorized to attack and kill minority Christians on sight. One doesn't have to be Christian to see the defense of persecuted Christians as a towering priority.

State Of England


NHS England medical director Dr Andy Mitchell says London hospitals are at breaking point. And NHS England chief executive Sir David Nicholson warns of a massive funding gap. If NHS services are run as they are now, NHS England faces a £30 billion gap by 2020. UK Department of Health: "The NHS is already on track to make £20 billion of efficiency savings by 2015 by making changes to the way it works ... We've protected the health budget and increased health spending in real terms."


An OECD study ranks Brits aged 16-24 in England and Northern Ireland #22 out of 24 western countries for literacy and #21 for numeracy. Alone in the developed world, the British 16-24 group performed worse in literacy and numeracy than the 55-65 group. UK education secretary Michael Gove blames the educational establishment for driving down standards.


Rosie Kinchen

Tommy Robinson was the poster boy of British racism. He founded the English Defence League in 2009 in Luton, and it now has about 30 000 followers. They march through city centers with large Muslim populations, chanting slogans and being offensive.

Now he is leaving the EDL. He has defected through Quilliam, a foundation set up by Maajid Nawaz. I asked Robinson why he quit. He said he decided in February while serving an 18-week prison sentence for trying to travel to America on a false passport. Prison was the "best thing" because he "needed a break" from his former life: "Everything revolved around the pub."

Tommy was a notorious bully, often seen swaggering topless down barricaded streets, beer can in hand, hollering "EDL till I die" at bystanders. But he claims that in solitary confinement he had plenty of time to think. He decided to leave the EDL but was "terrified" about how to do it. Then he met Nawaz and saw a way out. He took the leap, with Quilliam on hand to protect him.

Robinson is good at tapping into fears and then inflaming them. He is convinced that he is the voice of the white working class. And he believes the police are targeting him. The truth is that he is thuggish and scared. He says he sympathizes with UKIP.

2013 October 12

British-German Pact Defies EU

The Times

Britain is negotiating a secret deal to help to shield Germany's luxury car industry from new European rules in return for support for UK bankers. Germany sought help to delay the introduction of caps on carbon dioxide emissions that could harm BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. In return, Britain seeks help to protect the banking sector, which is lobbying to reduce the impact of regulations from Brussels.

Tommy and Maajid

The Times

Tommy Robinson and Maajid Nawaz say they will work together to combat extremism. Robinson founded and headed the English Defence League. British Pakistani Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Nawaz was a radical Islamist until he founded the Quilliam Foundation. Both men have been in prison and have both faced death threats.

MN: "I was given a second chance and so I want to help someone else to have one. I've left a group and I've lost my family as a result of it. I said to Tommy, I know what this feels like."

TR: "I saw the EDL as the voice of working-class people but because it's a nationalist organization it attracted some people with another agenda. There were neo-Nazis there and I didn't want to be the public face of that."

MN: "He has assured me that he's not anti-Muslim. What he's concerned about is Islamist ideology, although, as he will admit, he has sometimes mistakenly referred to that as Islam. Tommy is coming from a certain cultural milieu."

TR: "People are annoyed and frustrated that there's been no debate and when you're not even allowed to talk about things because you are called an extremist."

MN: "The Lib Dems are traditionally less anti-immigration than the Conservatives but I don't think this is a party political issue. The stuff Tommy and I both care about are far-right racism, social cohesion, and integration."

2013 October 11

Snowden Leaks

Sean O'Neill

The Snowden leak of secret files was the most catastrophic loss ever suffered by British intelligence, says former GCHQ head and UK homeland security adviser Sir David Omand: "You have to distinguish between the original whistleblowing intent to get a debate going, which is a responsible thing to do, and the stealing of 58 000 top secret British security documents and who knows how many American documents, which is seriously, seriously damaging."

UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg: "I've got no doubt that there were some parts of what were published which would have passed most Guardian readers completely by, because they were very technical, but would have been immensely interesting for people who want to do us harm."

AR Fair enough. Rap Guardian knuckles. But open up on GCHQ activities.

The Jesus Myth

Daily Mail

Joseph Atwill says Christianity was created as a propaganda tool to pacify subjects of the Roman Empire. He says he noticed a pattern forming while studying War Of The Jews by Josephus, where he found dozens of parallels between Jesus and Roman Emperor Titus Flavius.

Atwill: "Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century. When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare. They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system. That's when the peaceful Messiah story was invented ... Once those sources are all laid bare, there's simply nothing left."

The Jesus Conspiracy

The Independent

Caesar's Messiah author Joseph Atwill says Palestinian unrest by Jewish zealots awaiting their warrior Messiah was a big problem for the Roman authorities, who resorted to psychological warfare. Roman aristocrats fabricated the story of Jesus Christ and wrote the New Testament.

Atwill: "Christianity may be considered a religion, but it was actually developed and used as a system of mind control to produce slaves that believed God decreed their slavery. ... Although Christianity can be a comfort to some, it can also be very damaging and repressive, an insidious form of mind control that has led to blind acceptance of serfdom, poverty, and war throughout history."

Richard Dawkins: "I'm not qualified to judge Atwill's thesis. Just thought it might be worth a look."

2013 October 10


Edward Frenkel

Think of mathematics as the grand project of building an enormous jigsaw puzzle, with different groups of people working on different parts. Then, every once in a while, somebody finds a bridge between two parts, a way to put pieces together so that big chunks of the puzzle connect.

I believe that physical reality as we know it and the world of mathematical ideas are two separate worlds, and neither can subjugate the other. Sometimes you have some beautiful mathematics which comes out of the real world. We all know the story of Newton, an apple falling on his head. But another possibility is that within the narrative of mathematics, he discovered something about the real world. There is a subtle interplay between the physical and the mathematical worlds.

We have to realize the power of mathematics. The global economic crisis was caused, in part, by misuse of mathematical models. People who understood those models were sounding the alarm. The executives who had the power did not understand how these formulas functioned. Physicists faced a similar dilemma when they realized the power of the nuclear bomb. Physicists were trying to understand the structure of matter and inadvertently discovered this incredible power.


Michael McGhee

I was struck by the serenity of the Buddha. Meditation calms the passions and prepares the practitioner for the experience of enlightenment or awakening. The practitioner transcends egocentrism.

Buddhist practice becomes a form of ethical preparation, reducing the forms of self-preoccupation that impede a concern for justice. Buddhism is more like a philosophy of life than a religion.

Thinking of Buddhism as a philosophy brings it into dialog with the ancient conception of philosophy, as spiritual practice to liberate oneself from illusion and ready oneself for moral action.



1 Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
2 It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.
3 When anger rises, think of the consequences.
4 Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in getting up every time we do.
5 He who will not economize will have to agonize.
6 Things that are done it is needless to speak about; things that are past it is needless to blame.
7 Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous.
8 Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

2013 October 9

I am transferring from me at 1und1 in Germany to me at 1and1 in the UK.
They say this will involve taking the name offline while the change propagates in the system.
The site will still be up at the address until the transfer is complete.
Meanwhile I'm busy anyway, editing a philosophy book for Springer

Messiah Complex

The Guardian

Russell Brand's Messiah Complex is far more satisfying than his previous standup outings. Brand knows he'll be met with adulation. He loves hugging his fans, flashing smiles for the cameras. But rather than just eat the cake, he wants to show us it's hollow inside. Celebrity has replaced religion.

Brand says discrediting communism because the Russians misused it is like blaming Steve Jobs because Brand uses his iPad mainly for porn. His point is, in a world where $40 billion could eradicate poverty, and $21 trillion is held by the rich in offshore accounts, we need a radical change in our values.

He has a pick'n'mix attitude bordering on the contradictory toward traditional belief systems. And he often detours, via florid sex talk, to tell us how much he worships women. But he keeps the laughs front and center, as when he ridicules a portrait of Jesus wearing a crucifix necklace: "Spoiler alert!"

AR If it needed only $40 billion, Bill Gates would have done it already.

2013 October 8

Nobel Prize in Physics 2013

François Englert and Peter W. Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider".



We need to understand Iran's nuclear capabilities and aspirations. US Army War College professor Christopher J. Bolan: "Iran is not a threat to American vital interests. They don't want nuclear weapons. I think it has just been overly alarmist when folks are advocating a more aggressive reaction."

Government agencies worldwide conclude that Iran's leadership is level-headed and its decisions are reached soberly. National Defense University professor Gawdat Bahgat: "They are not crazy, and they are not stupid. They are rational. They see that making the bomb is not in their best interest."

American military officials say Israel has little to fear. Iran's leaders know that an attack on Israel would mean the destruction of their own country by Western military forces. Former Mossad director Efraim Halevi: "I think, ultimately, it is not in the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel."

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, there have been US calls for regime change in Tehran. Experts say that makes the Iranians suspicious about the intentions of the American government: Is Washington really worried about weapons, or are officials looking for ways to change the regime?

That puts Iran in a difficult position. Its leaders fear that if they unilaterally abandon the capability to develop nuclear weapons, they will open themselves up to a possible invasion. But they know that if they start building a bomb, they will be attacked with the full force and fury of the American military.

America faces difficulties too should it choose to attack Iran. An attack would play into the narrative that the United States is waging war on Islam. It would buy only a brief delay in Iran's nuclear weapon capability, and would strengthen Iranian hard-liners. Negotiating with Iran is the smart play.

Let Kids Be More Feral

George Monbiot

Children who spend time learning in natural environments "perform better in reading, mathematics, science and social studies", says a British study. Exploring the natural world "makes other school subjects rich and relevant and gets apathetic students excited about learning".

The Wilderness Foundation UK found that taking troubled teenagers into the mountains improved their self-control, self-awareness, and behavior. UK schools inspection service Ofsted says getting children out of the classroom raises standards, motivation, personal development, and behavior.

The UK government published a white paper in 2011 proposing "action to get more children learning outdoors, removing barriers and increasing schools' abilities to teach outdoors". But 95% of all outdoor education centers have had their local authority funding cut. Kids need feral time.

2013 October 7


Chris Huhne

I was warned not to reveal any "privileged information" acquired as a UK government minister. But I have a revelation of another kind to make. Readers would be shocked not by what ministers know when they are taking decisions, but by what they do not know, and are not told.

I was also on the National Security Council, attended by ministers and the heads of the secret and security services, GCHQ and the military. If anyone should have been briefed on Prism and Tempora, it should have been the NSC.

Throughout my time in parliament, the Home Office was trying to persuade politicians to invest in "upgrading" Britain's capability to recover data showing who is emailing and phoning whom. Yet this seems to be exactly what GCHQ was already doing.

AR Curious. With this level of dysfunction, UK democracy is seriously endangered.

2013 October 6

Nuclear Scare

The Independent

A major nuclear incident was narrowly averted at the main UK Royal Navy submarine base in July 2012. Both the primary and secondary power sources of coolant for nuclear reactors failed at the Devonport dockyard in Plymouth. Experts compared the crisis with the Fukushima meltdown in Japan in 2011.

A heavily redacted report from the MOD Site Event Report Committee (SERC) reveals a failure of the electric power source for coolant to nuclear reactors and then the diesel backup generators. A submarine arriving in Devonport must be connected to coolant supplies to prevent its nuclear reactor overheating.

The Devonport nuclear facility was built for the new Vanguard ballistic missile submarines and also bases Trafalgar and Astute class nuclear attack submarines. There were two previous electrical failures at Devonport, both involving the loss of shore supply to nuclear subs, one in 2009 and one in 2011.

Babcock launched an investigation after the 2012 incident and blamed the loss of power on a defect in the central nuclear switchboard. The investigation cited areas of concern including an "inability to learn from previous incidents and to implement the recommendations from previous event reports".

CND general secretary Kate Hudson: "Accidents such as the one highlighted in this report again show that a city-center location is no place for nuclear submarines."

2013 October 5


CNN Labs

Analysis of data from the Mars rover Curiosity shows that Martian surface soil contains about 2% water by weight. The rover's SAM instrument helped scientists probe the soil by heating a sample to 835 C. The gases that came off included oxygen, chlorine, and water vapor. The isotope ratios suggest this water came from the recent Martian atmosphere. The analysis reveals a hydrological cycle on Mars.

Data from the rover's ChemCam instrument let scientists analyze the soil and rock on Mars. One main soil type on Mars is made of fine-grained particles and carries a significant amount of hydrogen. The other main soil type is coarse and local to Gale Crater, the area where the rover is exploring. These particles, up to 1 mm in size, reflect the composition of rocks in the area.

Curiosity can determine whether Mars was once habitable and look for organic compounds. The release of chlorine and oxygen when it heated Martian soil suggests the presence of perchlorate at a 0.5% level. This substance can destroy traces of organic carbon when heated with the soil. Perchlorate in Martian dust could present a toxicity problem to humans on Mars during dust storms.

Curiosity is on the way to Mount Sharp, which is over 5 km high. As the rover climbs, it will probe sedimentary layers representing chapters of Martian history. At a location called Waypoint 1, it found a rock typical for an ancient stream bed. The river would have extended from the rover's landing site all the way to Waypoint 1. The entire area would have been a stream bed eons ago.

AR This is historic science.


New Scientist

Cosmic microwave background results from the ESA Planck satellite raise problems for inflation. The inflation scenario is that space expanded exponentially in a tiny fraction of a second soon after the big bang. It explains the fact that CMB radiation is uniform to within 0.3 mK, even in parts of the sky that are too far apart for light to have evened out random hotspots. These parts were in contact before inflation blew them apart. Stars and galaxies grew from the tiny dents in spacetime made by quantum fluctuations. Inflation stretched the dents far enough to seed the structures we see.

The quantum field of a hypothetical particle called the inflaton does the inflating. The energy of the inflaton field dictated how fast space inflated. It was high when inflation started and was down to zero when it ended. But previous maps of the CMB were too fuzzy to show how it varied. Models suggested the potential energy curve made a plateau ending in a more or less smooth downward curve. This is the initial condition problem for inflation.

The new Planck measurements rule out some models. They give an energy curve looking like an upturned soup bowl. The edge might fall steeply before flattening off and then falling again. Because the potential energy started out high, there is no need to assume the newborn universe was uniform. But the Higgs field causes problems. It seems the Higgs vacuum is metastable and could decay. Either the Higgs and inflaton fields did not have enough energy to inflate the universe or inflation was energetic enough to trigger Higgs vacuum decay and collapse the universe to a singularity. Inflation is in trouble.

AR Bet on Higgs — inflation is as speculative as Alan Guth's office is messy.

2013 October 4


The Times

Sir Andrew Wiles says mathematics has lost its moral purity through misuse. He says his subject has become a powerful tool that can be used for financial gain and as a weapon in cyberwarfare: "One has to be aware now that mathematics can be misused and that we have to protect its good name."

Professor Wiles spoke to mark the opening of a new Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford, which has been named the Andrew Wiles Building. The institute features tiling designed by Sir Roger Penrose. Professor Sam Howison says it will bring together those working on very abstract mathematics with those working on more applied problems: "We've not built an ivory tower for ourselves."

AR I worked at the Mathematics Institute almost 40 years ago. Fond memories, but no financial gain.

2013 October 3

Today is the 36th anniversary of my first day at the Ministry of Defence in London.
It is also the 23rd anniversary of German reunification. The two events may be related :)


Gary Sick

Iran's new president Dr. Hassan Rouhani is a man of considerable gravitas. His PhD is in law, from Glasgow Caledonian University. He was national security adviser to presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, and he has represented Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for nearly a quarter of a century.

In the 34 years since the Iranian revolution, the Islamic government has lost much of its legitimacy. Since 2009, the leadership has relied on repression to preserve its strength. Poor economic management has amplified the perception among many Iranians that the system is no longer working. Iran has good universities, an entrepreneurial culture, a developed industrial base, and until recently huge oil revenues. Yet in recent years, few of the 76 million Iranians have benefited from all this.

President Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif have long experience negotiating with the West. In the next few weeks, they will face a barrage of assertions from Israel, the US Congress, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab monarchies that their offer is a sham and should be rejected. Negotiations begin soon.

AR Proof of a sham — bang!


The Times

David Cameron claims that the Conservatives are the "party of the future" and that the best way of helping people struggling to pay their household bills is to focus on economic recovery. Young people under 25 not in education, employment, or training (neets) will lose their housing benefits.

AR So parents of neets pay — neat.


The Daily Beast

Dave Eggers rebukes Silicon Valley titans like Google, Facebook, and Twitter for their steady erosion of privacy and even interiority. The Circle is a reminder that surveillance and transparency were not always judged merely by what they might do for us.

Mae Holland is a disgruntled utility company grunt recruited to the Circle. Millennials will instantly recognize her as the girl who not only wants a plum job but also believes it is her birthright. The Circle's mission turn outs to be fueled by love of power. We know what power does. But does Mae?

Mae consents to having her life made public. A colleague surreptitiously records what should be a sexual embarrassment involving Mae. When she petitions to have the video erased, she is told that the elimination of shame is part of the Circle's mission. That private moments might be sacred, not humiliating, never occurs to those who believe that privacy is theft.

AR What is sacred? Discuss.

2013 October 2

Bibi @ UN

Jerusalem Post

Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN: "Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone ... Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map."

Those words were meant for the global leaders engaging Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Netanyahu wants them to be aware of a possible Israeli military strike as they negotiate. He says the aim is the complete dismantling of Iran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu: "The last century has taught us that when a radical regime with global ambitions gets awesome power, sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds. That's the central lesson of the 20th century. And we cannot forget it."

AR Wrong lesson. The 20th century taught that in a clash of big ideas (be they racist, communist, or fundamentalist) no holds are barred. Sort out the big ideas and peace can prevail.

Cameron @ ConCon

The Times

At the Conservative party conference, UK PM David Cameron said young people who are not in full-time education or undertaking an apprenticeship will either have to find a job or enter an approved training program under changes included in the 2015 Tory manifesto: "We want to see everyone under 25 earning or learning ... Go to school. Go to college. Do an apprenticeship. Get a job."

The reforms aim to prevent young people being trapped in benefit dependency: "We have done some big things to transform Britain, but we need to finish the job we've started. We need to go further, do more for hardworking people ... What matters is the effort you put in, and if you put the effort in you'll have the chance to make it. That's what the land of opportunity means."

AR My efforts gave me a chance but so far I seem to have blown it. Buy my books, world!

2013 October 1



The US government shut down at 12:01 am ET Tuesday after lawmakers in the House and the Senate could not agree on a spending bill to fund the government. Obamacare was the bone of contention. House Republicans were against it, Senate Democrats were for it. Close to 800 000 "non-essential" federal employees will be furloughed.

AR I propose that all the House and Senate lawmakers be "furlowed" (sic) on zero pay until they end dysfunction in Washington.


New Scientist

In the beginning, there were many gods. Ara Norenzayan argues that Christianity, Islam, and so on prospered because they had a competitive edge over their rivals. They alone offered an all-knowing, interventionist god who judged immoral behavior. This encouraged cooperation among strangers and paved the way for modern civilization.

Atheists may be distrusted in religious societies as freeloaders who act immorally. Police and the rule of law step in to ensure cooperation and accountability. Watched people are nice people. Some cohesive and peaceful societies, as in Scandinavia, have outgrown their gods. The US exception shows that religion is about more than cooperation.

AR It's about welfare in a dysfunctional society.

Banker quotes that read like jokes

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