BLOG 2014 Q1

NSW Rural Fire Service
Bush fire near Sydney, Australia

Carnegie Institution for Sciences
The paths of Oort cloud objects 2012 VP113 (red) and Sedna (orange) outside the Kuiper belt (cyan) around the Solar System (magenta)

2012 VP113, a.k.a. Biden, is 450 km across, about half the size of Sedna. If it is made mostly of ice, then its gravity probably pulls it into a spherical shape, making it a dwarf planet.

How can I be happy?
British Humanist Association
Narrated by Stephen Fry

In prep.


In his TV documentary England, Martin Amis, 64, says he finds being English "a source of quiet pride". But he describes the England of his younger days.

AR It's just a personal view,
like Roger Scruton's book
England: An Elegy

Photo of me with
old schoolfriends
Graham and Steve
after my mother's

Most Satisfying Jobs
(plus mean income)

CEOs and senior officials
Managers and proprietors in agriculture and horticulture
Company secretaries
QA professionals
Health care managers
Medical practitioners
Hotel managers and proprietors
Skilled engineering supervisors

Image: Andy Gilmore
Putin and the Surgeon

Dark Sector Lab


2014 March 31

Climate Change

Suzanne Goldenberg

A report from the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change concludes that climate change is already melting sea ice and thawing permafrost in the Arctic, killing off coral reefs in the oceans, and leading to heat waves, heavy rains, and mega-disasters. Climate change also poses a threat to global food stocks and to human security. It could lead to dramatic drops in global wheat production as well as reductions in maize. Fish catches in some areas of the tropics are projected to fall by about a half. So climate change is linked to rising food prices and political instability.

Our Climate Future

Michael Slezak

The new IPCC report is the second of three parts of its fifth assessment of climate change. Part 1, released last year, covered the physical science of climate change. It stated that the climate is changing as a result of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Part 2 focuses on how people can adapt in the face of uncertainty. The IPCC says we must become resilient against diverse changes in the climate: "The natural human tendency is to want things to be clear and simple. And one of the messages that doesn't just come from the IPCC, it comes from history, is that the future doesn't ever turn out the way you think it will be."

Confident predictions include more rain in parts of Africa, more heat waves in southern Europe, more frequent droughts in Australia, and rising sea levels. Poverty makes the impacts worse, and the report suggests adaptations for alleviating it. All countries should diversify their economies, rather than relying on a few main sources of income that could flood or blow over. Countries should also find ways to become less vulnerable to the current climate variability. Current global spending on adaptation is tiny. But the unpredictability makes it difficult to prepare for some of the threats.

Part 3, due out in April, is on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing emissions now would give us more time to adapt to climate change, as well as a better chance of avoiding its worst effects.

2014 March 30

Climate Change

Rowan Williams

We have heard for years the predictions that the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels will lead to an accelerated warming of the Earth. What is now happening indicates that these predictions are coming true. Our actions have had consequences that are deeply threatening for many of the poorest communities in the world.

Rich, industrialized countries, including our own, have unquestionably contributed most to atmospheric pollution. Both our present lifestyle and the industrial history of how we created such possibilities for ourselves have to bear the responsibility for pushing the environment in which we live toward crisis.

Cleaner Coal

Charles C. Mann

Technology for extracting the carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant and channeling it away for underground storage is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). At a 2008 meeting of the G8, the assembled energy ministers backed an IEA recommendation to launch CCS demonstration projects.

China burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world put together. It emits a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases. In 2006, Beijing established a nationwide program to boost its coal production. Starting in 2010, Shenhua built a big facility to convert coal into liquid fuel for automobiles. In 2013, the facility's CCS plant sequestered more than 110 000 tons of CO2 in an underground saltwater aquifer. By 2020, if all goes well, Shenhua could be sequestering 2 million tons (2 Tg) of CO2 a year.

The most developed technique for capturing CO2 is amine scrubbing. The exhaust from burning coal is bubbled through a solution of MEA in water. MEA bonds to the CO2 to form MEA carbamate. The MEA carbamate and water are boiled or the pressure is lowered, and the MEA carbamate breaks up into CO2 and MEA. The CO2 is pumped away and the MEA is recycled.

This kind of CCS will eat up about a quarter of the plant's thermal output. Given that typical coal plants convert only half their thermal energy into electricity, CCS-equipped power plants will consume a lot more coal.

Canadian CCS startup Inventys Thermal Technologies has a better idea. A ceramic-coated drum rotates inside power-plant smokestacks, and CO2 molecules adhere to the drum by static electricity. Steam washes off the CO2. This method is much cheaper than amine scrubbing.

2014 March 28

Russia's Revenge

Angus Roxburgh

A new cold war is starting. President Putin does not understand the west. His political technologists have been priming Russian television viewers with alarming images. One showed a millionaire fascist on a stage in the Maidan (Independence Square in Kyiv, the cauldron of the revolution) demanding that Russians be shot in the head.

When informed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that opposition gunmen might have been responsible for the mass killings on the Maidan in Kyiv that were the catalyst for the Ukrainian revolution, the European Union high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton responded: "I didn't pick that up. That's interesting. Gosh!"

Western leaders shuttled in and out of Ukraine, taking decisions apparently way beyond their competence. The US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland distributed cookies to the Maidan protesters, and discussed with her ambassador which opposition leader should become prime minister, as though she were viceroy of Ukraine.

The first decade after the collapse of the USSR was a disaster for Russia. Putin came to the scene so inexperienced he opened himself up to all kinds of advice. He wooed western leaders and mused about joining NATO one day. But then he began closing down critical media and gathering power around himself and his KGB comrades. The west took fright and began to build up its defenses against Russia. NATO expanded eastward. In return the Russians started building up their own defenses.

Strobe Talbott describes the upheaval in Ukraine today as Putin's payback to the United States for "a quarter-century of disrespect, humiliation and diplomatic bullying".

2014 March 27


Noam Scheiber

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Even the best venture capitalists fail most of the time, so the returns on successes must be enormous. But the veneration of youth in Silicon Valley now seems way out of proportion to its usefulness. However much age and experience may grind down the rest of us, it is impossible to generalize to that tiny fraction of people so brilliant and driven as to be capable of creating the next Google.


Jon Nathanson

Noam Scheiber paints a picture of competent entrepreneurs unable to secure venture capital on account of their age. Silicon Valley's startup scene is an unparalleled hub of innovation, and the industry's most successful founders have been young. The problem is the data set. The young may be better at large-scale innovation. Or they may not be. We don't have enough data to make that claim, and we have plenty of evidence to the contrary. Plenty of entrepreneurs, engineers, and business leaders in tech can appreciate the wisdom of age, the strength of diversity, and the value of experience.


Liel Leibovitz

You may have heard that Nymphomaniac, the new movie by Lars von Trier, is pornographic.

A man discovers a woman lying beaten and takes her home. She says she's Joe, a nymphomaniac and a horrible person. He says his name is Seligman and he is Jewish. He urges Joe to tell her story. A conversation starts. It is the conversation between Judaism and Christianity.

Joe is Christ inverted. At 12, she experiences an involuntary orgasm that mirrors the transfiguration of Jesus. Her life becomes a quest for more perfect forms of transcendence.

Seligman is her polar opposite. Everything he learned in life, he learned from the books that line his apartment. He offers Joe interpretation, to turn her endeavors from a pursuit of salvation to a sensible way of being in the world.

The film lets us all understand the dangers inherent in Joe's spiritual appetites. As he had in Antichrist and Melancholia, von Trier is arguing here that our thirst for transcendence can only lead to disaster. We may yearn for love, but we can't handle it.

Seligman embodies Jewish eschatology. He believes that all attempts at redemption must focus not on some desperate thrust heavenward but on a series of small earthly steps.

Nymphomaniac is a godly film.

2014 March 26

Putin Saves NATO

Roger Boyes

Vladimir Putin is almost single-handedly saving the moribund Atlantic alliance. President Obama is only a day or two into his European trip and it is already clear that something is going right again. We are thinking and acting strategically for the first time in five years. The annexation of Crimea took the West by surprise but has not shocked it into paralysis. We are comfortable with this kind of enemy.

Beyond The Big Bang

Lisa Grossman

The BICEP2 team saw hints of gravitational waves in the CMB from 12 Ts ABB. Planck satellite data depict an early universe that was almost uniformly smooth, which seems to support inflation. The Planck team saw no signs of gravitational waves. The BICEP2 gravitational wave signal is twice what Planck suggested.

The BICEP2 results support the simplest models of inflation. An inflaton particle drove the process. In the chaotic inflation model, the inflaton that decays quickly and allows quantum fluctuations to trigger new bursts of inflation, giving rise to other universes. In the natural inflation model, the inflaton retains its peak energy for longer before decaying, to explain the smoothness of the CMB. In Higgs-like inflation, the inflaton had a scalar field like the Higgs boson.

If the Planck team sees weak gravitational waves, the models get more complex. In one, inflation starts out fast and slows down abruptly. In another, inflation was faster in one direction, explaining the "axis of evil" in the Planck data.

Or, in a variant of string theory, there was no inflation. Picture the cosmos as a rolled-up piece of paper held in place with rubber bands. The paper is a 9D universe and the rubber bands are vibrating strings. If two strings meet, their edges can form a single, twisted loop, and release 4D spacetime to swell to the size of our universe today. The BICEP2 results favor this model.

AR Oh, what fun!

2014 March 25


Michael Hayden

The Internet was begun in the United States and it is based on American technology, but it's a global activity. We in the United States feel it reflects free people, free ideas, and free trade. The Russians and the Chinese want to divide the Internet up into national domains and create barriers in cyberspace.

I'm not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation. I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn't keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us.

At the Munich Security Conference it was clear to me that Germans regard privacy the way we Americans might regard freedom of speech or religion. I think the director of national intelligence, the director of the CIA, and the new director of the NSA need to put Germany very early in their travel plans and meet with the German service.

As a professional intelligence officer, I stand back in awe at the depth, breadth, and persistence of the Chinese espionage effort against the West and the United States. The differences between us and the Chinese: We're more sophisticated and we're self-limited. I never claimed the moral high ground.

G8 is dead — long live G7

The Times

Russia is out of the G7 following President Putin's landgrab in Crimea. President Obama and the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, and Japan decided to freeze Russia out of the G8 club, boycott a planned G8 summit in Sochi, and meet as G7 in Brussels in June.

AR All these Gn meetings, for n in N, are precursors to GO meetings in Globorg.

2014 March 24


Clancy Martin

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein wrote Plato at the Googleplex to show us that figuring out how to live a meaningful life is something very different from understanding the meaning of special relativity or evolution. She transports Plato into the 21st century and puts him into fictional dialog with a variety of contemporary characters.

Goldstein's Plato is less interested in teaching those with whom he converses than he is in helping them see that they don't know what they think they know. In sending Plato to Google, Goldstein deftly exposes the conceptual presumption at the heart of what looks like the latest high-tech methodology.

Goldstein reminds us that virtually every scientific area of inquiry began with a question or an insight from a philosopher. The grand forward push of human knowledge requires each of us to begin by trying to think independently, to recognize that knowledge is more than information, to see that we are moral beings.

2014 March 23


Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Inflation is the idea that the visible universe expanded exponentially for a tiny fraction of the first second, from a size very much smaller than an atom to about the size of a grapefruit. The energy of the expansion formed the particles that later formed our universe.

Cosmic microwaves have been flying free almost since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. When the universe was just under 400 000 years old, hydrogen atoms formed and there were no longer free particles to scatter the light. The light from that time now bathes us as microwaves. They appear much the same wherever you look in the sky. We explain that fact with inflation.

Quantum theory predicts ripples in the fabric of spacetime. They are stretched by inflation and dimple the grapefruit. As the Big Bang unfolds, the ripples clump particles together under gravity, in time leading to stars and people. Inflation predicts the average properties of how the matter should be distributed, and the agreement between prediction and observation is terrific.

The BICEP2 telescope tests for the existence of gravitational waves from the primordial universe. BICEP2 sees their imprint on the cosmic microwaves as a distinctive swirling pattern in their polarization. The amount of polarization is a measure of the energy once stored in the vacuum. BICEP2 sees a lot of swirl, so the vacuum energy was near the grand unification energy.

Particle physicists have long dreamt of grand unification of the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The forces seem to fuse at the energy levels about a trillion times above those in the LHC. The new results could help turn the dream into reality.

2014 March 22


Christopher de Bellaigue

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leads the AKP government and works in Ankara. Turkish preacher and moral didact Fethullah Gülen lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania and presides over an empire of schools, businesses, and followers.

The AKP government and the Gülen movement share a modernizing Islamist ideology, but relations between them have deteriorated. Erdoğan has purged his entourage and replaced half his cabinet. Thousands of policemen have been moved from their posts, as well as judges and bureaucrats.

Before all this, in early 2013, Turkey's modernizing Islamist current enjoyed much goodwill. Erdoğan came to power in 2003, after a long struggle by Islamists against the country's secular institutions. Erdoğan reformed the economy and reined in the armed forces.

The AKP was in an unofficial coalition with Islamists such as the movement of Fethullah Gülen. His schools turned out well-behaved, patriotic, pious Turks, and the government welcomed them into the bureaucratic and business elites. The Islamists promised high standards of ethics and behavior.

Erdoğan has reacted to the dissatisfaction of a largely secular minority with police violence. He talks of "false prophets, seers, and hollow pseudo-sages" and his target is clear. Gülen, in one of his frequent sermons broadcast to big audiences in Turkey, recently placed a malediction on his enemies, as the Gülenist media spread allegations of government corruption.

Gülen denies that he heads a movement. His followers share his vision of a modern and tolerant Islam. He has been winning followers since he was a young imam preaching that humanity needs to be saved from sin and shown the path of Koranic revelation and prophetic example.

The Gülen movement controls numerous Turkish schools and universities, proselytizes energetically, and has infiltrated secular institutions such as the police force. The AKP government launched a huge investigation in 2007, which ended in 2013 with the jailing of 242 people.

2014 March 21


George Soros

The European Union has a resurgent rival to its east. Russia badly needs Europe as a partner, but Putin is positioning it as a rival. The spontaneous uprising of the Ukrainian people must have taught Putin that his dream of reconstituting what is left of the Russian Empire is unattainable.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a brief moment when the United States emerged as the undisputed leader of the world. It abused its power, but the oligarchs who control much of the Russian economy have no confidence in the regime. That is what makes the economy so weak.

Russia is trying to reassert itself as a geopolitical player. Ukraine and Crimea are of great interest to Russia. The West cannot reverse the annexation of Crimea. Ukraine is a potentially attractive investment destination, but realizing this potential requires improving the business climate.

Paul de Man

Liel Leibovitz

Paul de Man was one of the fathers of deconstruction. The critic Louis Menand said deconstruction was "like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water".

During the Second World War in Belgium, de Man published an essay titled "The Jews in Present-Day Literature" arguing that European civilization remained healthy despite Jewish attempts to soil it and that it may be best for the Jews to move far away so as not to pollute the purity of the master race. He behaved badly in his personal life too.

There was a correlation between the man and the theory. The catastrophic effects of this mindset have been widely documented. A big contribution of Judaism to the advancement of civilization was to abandon crowds of little gods and replace them with one God, to whose service all are called. Such a worldview has lapsed among the thinking classes.

The atomization of the American mind is a moral failure. Academics champion individual rights and set up bulwarks of divergence. But once you have deconstructed, problematized, and tortured the notion of the common good beyond recognition, any act is as good as the next one and all are bowed in the service of radical difference.

If this mentality is horrible for all mankind, it is particularly horrible for Jews. The story of Paul de Man is a cautionary tale of what bad ideas can do to erode the pillars of civilization.

AR God is dead — long live Globorg, our destiny.

2014 March 20

Funeral of Liz's consort Don (1924-06-26 — 2014-03-09)

Quantum Gravity


Physicists are searching for a theory of quantum gravity. Most physicists believe that gravitons give rise to gravity. But calculations of graviton interactions yield infinities.

Supergravity posits the existence of new particles that mirror graviton effects. It has long been assumed to suffer from the infinity problem, but no one was sure. Using new tools, UCLA physicist Zvi Bern and his team are now calculating these gravitational interactions and making sense.

In one approach to calculating scattering amplitudes in supersymmetric quantum physics, gluon scattering amplitudes are computed by measuring the volume of an amplituhedron. The amplituhedron corresponds to interactions between gluons. The fact that gravitons behave like two copies of gluons could point the way forward.

The Amplituhedron

Quantum field theory would be simpler if interactions previously calculated with long formulas matched the volume of the corresponding amplituhedron. The amplituhedron encodes scattering amplitudes representing the probability that a set of particles will turn into certain other particles upon colliding. The amplituhedron research could show how our universe emerges out of pure geometry.

2014 March 19


Lisa Grossman

In general relativity, gravity is the curvature of spacetime. Gravitational waves are ripples made by accelerating objects. The discovery of primordial gravitational waves supports inflation. For some theorists, proving that inflation happened is a sign of the multiverse.

Andrei Linde: "If inflation is there, the multiverse is there. Each observation that brings better credence to inflation brings us closer to establishing that the multiverse is real."

The simplest models of inflation require a particle called an inflaton to inflate spacetime. Inflatons decay over time, so for inflation to work, they need to last longer than the period of inflation. Then they continue to drive inflation in their location, blowing new universes into existence that rapidly inflate before settling down. This "eternal inflation" produces new universes in a multiverse.

Frank Wilczek: "For the first time, we're directly testing an aspect of quantum gravity. We're seeing gravitons imprinted on the sky."


Emma Green

Peter Watson interprets Friedrich Nietzsche's 1882 declaration "God is dead" as a turning point in intellectual history. Nazis drew on Nietzsche and writers like Martin Heidegger for philosophical heft.

Modern times have seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one. The new atheists say evolution and biology disprove the existence of God. Religious belief fails to explain the modern world and the idea of God has been debunked.

Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism. But the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort of higher power. If the age of atheism started in 1882, most people still haven't caught on.

2014 March 18


Simon Tisdall

A majority of the residents of Crimea were happy to abandon Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. The overall outcome reflected popular wishes and was crudely democratic. So it is unwise of US President Barack Obama and the Europeans to declare they will "never" recognize the Crimean result.

In his telephone conversation with Obama on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted the "Kosovo precedent" of a 2008 declaration of independence by the provincial assembly in Pristina, when Kosovo was still a part of Serbia. Putin's question to Obama was: So what's the difference?

The right of self-determination of peoples is guaranteed under the UN Charter. It is a mistake to make of the secession of Crimea an issue of principle on which there can never be compromise. The key challenge for Obama and the EU is what the departure of Crimea implies for the wider region. The sanctions should pivot on what Moscow does next, especially in eastern Ukraine but also in Moldova, the Baltic states, and Georgia.

The Surgeon

The Times

Alexander Zaldostanov is the Surgeon. He leads the Russian motorcycle gang the Night Wolves, who crossed to Crimea from Kerch and set up camp near Sevastopol. Their base is straight from Mad Max. Zaldostanov: "We are seeing victory here today, victory for Russians and victory for Sevastopol." Amid his fans he added: "We've come to protect Russians from the Banderas and fascists, and I hope Britain and America learn their lesson."

Big Bang To TOE

The Guardian

Discovery of primordial ripples in spacetime provides a deep connection between general relativity and quantum mechanics. University College London cosmologist Andrew Pontzen: "This is a genuine breakthrough. It represents a whole new era in cosmology and physics as well."

The detection provides the first direct evidence for inflation. BICEP2 collaboration lead John Kovac: "Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today. A lot of work by a lot of people has led up to this point."

The BICEP2 team spent three years analyzing the polarization in the CMB signal. The work could offer clues on the way to a quantum theory of gravity and the theory of everything (TOE).

2014 March 17

Big Bang Ripples

Lisa Grossman

Gravitational waves in spacetime let us peer back to the first slivers of a second after the big bang. Scientists working with the BICEP2 collaboration at the South Pole (image left) announce the first clear sign of gravitational waves in a pair of papers published today. The results still need to be confirmed by other experiments, but physicists say the results look convincing.

Alan Guth: "No experiment should be taken too seriously until there's more than one that can vouch for it. But it does seem to me that this is a very reliable group and what they've seen is very definitive."

Cosmologists say a growth spurt in the baby universe called inflation would let us see traces of short gravity waves in maps of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Guth proposed inflation in the 1980s to explain the fact that CMB variations are too uniform for subluminal expansion.

Inflation should have stretched the first gravitational waves to a size we can detect in the CMB. The CMB is polarized as it scatters off electrons in the cosmos. Rippling gravitational waves would twist the polarization pattern into distinctive swirls called B-modes (diagram below). The BICEP2 result supports the simplest models of inflation and matches the predictions of grand unification theory (GUT).

The detection is also the first whiff of quantum gravity. Guth: "If gravity were not quantized, inflation would not produce gravitational waves. So we really are seeing a direct effect caused by the quantization of gravity."


Lawrence Krauss

Scientists operating a sensitive microwave telescope at the South Pole announced the discovery of polarization distortions in the CMB. The distortions appear to be due to gravitational waves dating back to 10^-35 s after the Big Bang (ABB). By comparison, the CMB was created 10^13 s ABB. Where this may lead, no one knows. But it should be cause for great excitement.

In 1979, Alan Guth proposed what he called inflation: that the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second ABB. Inflation explains how the universe is likely to have grown back then. Within a few years, Guth and others demonstrated that quantum effects during this period could have resulted in the formation of all observed cosmic structures.

If gravity is also subject to quantum mechanics, then quantum fluctuations in gravity would appear today as gravitational waves. Now a CMB probe that measures how primordial light might be polarized by gravitational waves apparently sees precisely the signal expected from inflation. The amplitude of the effect is about as expected if the scale of inflation is the GUT scale.


Looking for a soft landing


The philosopher's cone?

Former Ukrainian President
Viktor Yanukovych had an
obscenely opulent palace
for his presidential villa

Running from the mental
fog of a bleak winter

The Times Higher Education
World Reputation Rankings

Harvard University
Massachusetts Institute
of Technology
Stanford University
University of Cambridge
University of Oxford
University of California
Princeton University
Yale University
California Institute
of Technology
University of California
Los Angeles

Academic Fat Cats
Aditya Chakrabortty

University vice-chancellors defend mega-pay as the going rate for "talent" and pocket as much cash as they can get away with. Higher education managers pose as CEOs and claim similar pay and perks. Open University boss Martin Bean is on £407,000. University of Birmingham VC David Eastwood is paid almost three times as much as the prime minister.

AR UK HE starves students:
This is rank injustice.

Checking the unrest in Crimea


2014 March 17

UK Agenda for EU Reform

David Cameron

I am putting forward an ambitious agenda for a new European Union:

1 Powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it.

2 National parliaments able to work together to block unwanted European legislation.

3 Businesses liberated from red tape and benefiting from the strength of the EU market to open up greater free trade with North America and Asia.

4 UK police forces and justice systems able to protect British citizens, unencumbered by unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the European court of human rights.

5 Free movement to take up work, not free benefits.

6 Support for the continued enlargement of the EU to new members but with new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the continent.

7 Ensuring Britain is no longer subject to the concept of ever closer union enshrined in the treaty signed by every EU country.

AR All sound domestic politics, but will it fly across Europe?

2014 March 15



Crimeans vote Sunday in a referendum that effectively gives them two options: either to become independent or join the Russian Federation. But Crimea is integrated into Ukraine's mainland economy and infrastructure: it imports 90% of its energy, and 90% of its water, 80% of its electricity, and roughly 65% of its gas come from the rest of Ukraine. Crimea gets 70% of its $1.2 billion budget from Kiev. Moscow plans to invest over $5 billion in Crimea, but local people dependent on tourism will suffer.


John Gray

Nietzsche said God is dead. Science, notably Darwinism, had revealed a world with no inherent order or meaning. With theism no longer credible, meaning would have to be made in future by human beings.

The idea that religion is separate from culture is a Christian notion. Christianity may be a more tragic creed than Nietzsche's doctrine, but neither the Christian religion nor Nietzsche's philosophy can be said to express a tragic sense of life. According to Christianity, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed by divine grace and even death can be annulled.

Nietzsche wanted to revive the tragic worldview of the ancient Greeks. Tragedy requires a conflict of values that cannot be revoked by any act of will. But Nietzsche ended up producing a hyperbolic version of humanism.

2014 March 13

WWW @ 25

Tim Berners-Lee

All the people who have been part the Word Wide Web can be proud of what has been achieved. The Web has become an important technology for everyday life and almost everything we do. So there is a strong tendency for governments, big organizations, and companies to try to control it.

The lack of oversight over the spying systems both in the UK and the US needs to change. Any country that has a part of the government or the police spying on the Internet must demonstrate that they have a very solid level of accountability and that the information they get is never abused.

We created to define the values that we as Web users insist on. I would like every country to debate what that means in terms of their laws. The right to privacy must be in there, the right not to be spied on and not to be blocked. Access to the Web is a fundamental right.

2014 March 12


Joseph Silk

In the multiverse scenario, our universe is one of an infinity of space-time patches, each one outside the causal reach of any other. In infinite space, universes indistinguishable from ours are repeated infinitely, as is every conceivable configuration of mass-energy permitted by the laws of physics. Even the laws of physics may vary across the multiverse. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that everything that can happen will happen, infinitely many times.

Support for this scenario stems from the fine-tuning of our surroundings. A cosmological constant much different from the observed value would make life as we know it impossible. If it has different values in each of the universe domains in the multiverse, then somewhere there has to be a universe with the value in our universe. But it is not clear whether we can calculate the odds for anything to happen in an infinite volume of space-time.

AR The fallacy here is that everything that "can" happen will happen in an infinite multiverse. Lots of things might never happen, however far out we go.

2014 March 11


Peter Watson

In 1882, Nietzsche declared that God is dead, adding that we had killed him. Darwin's Origin of Species was the greatest blow to Christianity, but Nietzsche's work was a near-second. Darwin said his ideas had gone down better in Germany than anywhere else.

Religion is a psychological adjustment to our predicament. Worship is best understood as a sociological phenomenon. Religion is prevalent among the poor and in decline in the more prosperous parts of the world. It is less that religion is on the rise as poverty is.

There is no one secret to life, other than that there is no one secret to life. If you must have a transcendent idea then make it a search for the good or the beautiful or the useful, always realizing that your answers will be personal and never final.

2014 March 10


Alun Anderson

Stanislas Dehaene studies consciousness and the brain at his lab near Paris. He sees an "avalanche in the brain" when the threshold for conscious awareness is crossed. Electrical activity in certain centers is suddenly amplified and spread into regions of the parietal and prefrontal cortex. Activation surges on into a much larger expanse of cortex, and distant brain regions start showing tightly correlated activity.

Dehaene sees consciousness as the process of brain-wide information sharing. Your brain is constantly creating millions of short-lived mental representations of your world by unconscious processing. When one is broadcast to decision systems distributed around the brain it enters consciousness. The global workspace supports a kind of collective intelligence. But the "hard problem" of consciousness remains.

AR See my book Mindworlds.


Michael S. Malone

Memories are created by a biochemical reaction in neurons. Short-term or working memory operates at a number of different locations around the brain. Long-term memory takes up much of the landscape of the upper brain. The memories are often stored in the same neurons that first received the stimulus. Memories are made when certain proteins are synthesized in the cell. Frequent repetition of signals makes the record stable and permanent.

Memory is explicit or implicit. Explicit or declarative memory is all the information in our brains that we can consciously bring to the surface. Episodic memories occurred at a specific point in time. Semantic memory lets us understand how the world works. Implicit or procedural memory stores skills and memories of how to function in the natural world.

2014 March 9


Henry A. Kissinger

Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939. Crimea became part of Ukraine only in 1954. The west is largely Catholic, the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian, the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other would lead eventually to civil war or breakup.

The problem lies in efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country. Ukraine should:

1 Have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations
2 Not join NATO
3 Be free to create any government compatible with the expressed will of its people

It is incompatible with the rules of the existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea.

National Security

Peter W. Singer

Americans are more afraid of cyberattack than attack by Iran or North Korea, climate change, or China or Russia. Some 40 trillion emails are sent a year, 30 trillion websites now exist, 9 new pieces of malware are discovered every second, and 97% of Fortune 500 companies admit they’ve been hacked. The complexity of the issue overwhelms policy makers.

Cybersecurity is crucial but is treated as an area only for IT folk. The technical community understands the hardware and software but not the human side. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Very basic cyber hygiene would go a very long way. They would stop 90% of all cyber attacks.

Snowden exposed three kinds of NSA activity:

1 Smart and strategic espionage against American enemies
2 Questionable mass collection of data from American citizens
3 Unstrategic targeting of close American allies and leaders

2014 March 8

Imaginary Jews

Michael Walzer

Karl Marx called for the overthrow of the capitalist order. But he identified capitalism with Judaism. For Marx, the overthrow of capitalism will emancipate mankind from Judaism.

In Anti-Judaism, David Nirenberg argues that Marx appropriated a powerful language of opprobrium. Marx had Jewish origins and might have questioned the association of Judaism and capitalism, but instead he stoked old fears about Jewishness.

The identification of Judaism with materialism predates the appearance of capitalism in Europe by at least 1500 years. The enemies are mostly not Jews but Judaizing non-Jews who take on Judaism's negative characteristics. Real Jews have little to do with all this.

Joseph Goebbels proclaimed that the age of rampant Jewish intellectualism was at an end. He was making an argument that begins in the Gospels. Arguments about how Christianity superseded Judaism were based on oppositions: law superseded by love, the letter by the spirit, the flesh by the soul.

German idealist philosophers repeated many of the arguments of the early Christians. Kant understood the moral heteronomy he sought to overcome in Jewish terms. Hegel said Kantianism was simply a new version of the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality. These philosophers used the language of anti-Judaism to resolve the ancient tension between the ideal and the real.

The Bolsheviks were widely understood as Jewish, and many of them were Jews. Jewish bankers can rule the world and Jewish Bolsheviks can aspire to overthrow and replace the bankers. In some alcoves of the Western imagination, the two groups can almost appear as co-conspirators.

Nirenberg argues that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization.

2014 March 7

Black Holes

Michael Finkel

The death of a star more than 20 times the mass of the sun is spectacular. It collapses in a colossal burst of energy, its core plunges inward, and temperatures soar. Gravity pulps atoms into quarks and leptons and gluons, and so on until no one knows. The star has become a black hole.

At the center of most galaxies is a teeming bulge of stars and gas and dust. At the very hub of the bulge, in virtually every galaxy looked at, including our Milky Way, is a black hole. The one at the center of the Milky Way is 4.3 million times more massive than the sun. It is currently tranquil. But it's pulling a gas cloud toward it. Radio telescopes around the world are waiting to observe the black hole in action. We will see the accretion disk, a ring of debris outlining the edge of the hole. This should be enough to dispel most doubts that black holes exist.

Matter falling toward a black hole produces a lot of frictional heat. Black holes also spin, and the combination of friction and spin results in a lot of matter being flung off. This hot stuff is channeled into jet streams that spurt out at a tick below the speed of light. The jets can drill straight through a galaxy. Eventually they cool and the gas forms new stars.

At the center of a black hole is a singularity. Something is there, extremely small and dense. Our universe began, 13.8 billion years ago, in a tremendous big bang. The moment before, everything was packed into a small, dense singularity. A singularity was the seed of our universe.

2014 March 6

Hillary on Putin

Timothy Stanley

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton: "All ... the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous."

In the eyes of many ethnic Russians, the Ukrainian nationalists are the Nazis. The revolution overthrew a democratically elected leader and elevated Russophobe fascists into key government positions. Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union until two decades ago and Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. The country contains millions of ethnic Russians and has Russian military installations that are key to Russian strategic interests.

The Ukrainian Nazi movement is small, and Ukraine is dwarfed by Russia, which puts Putin in the role of the dominant regional power picking on a small country and exploiting its extremist politics for the purpose of propaganda. But Putin is still no Hitler.

German Anti-Islamism

Der Spiegel

German anti-Islamists say Islam is a political ideology. CDU delegate Hans-Jürgen Irmer warned Hesse state parliament that "Islam is set on global domination" and that Muslim groups could not be trusted because deceiving non-Muslims is central to Islam.

There are about four million Muslims in Germany. An estimated 42 000 of them are fundamentalists. According to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 5% of Germans say Islam is an "archaic religion, incapable of fitting into modern life" and want to restrict religious freedom for Muslims.

Politically Incorrect is a popular German-speaking anti-Islam website: "The spread of Islam means that our descendants — and probably us too — will live in an Islam-dominated social order oriented towards the Sharia and the Koran and no longer towards the constitution and human rights."

Muslims are rising to higher positions in German society. Mosques are being built in city centers, as in Leipzig. Yasemin Shooman from the Academy of the Jewish Museum in Berlin says continuing Muslim integration is strengthening anti-Muslim prejudice.

2014 March 4

Russia vs. Ukraine

CNN, 1002 GMT

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have overplayed his hand by sending troops into Crimea. The United States and many European countries demand that Moscow scale back its deployment.

Carnegie Europe scholar Ulrich Speck: "Putin's broader plan is to recreate some kind of Soviet Union lite ... If Moscow succeeds in Ukraine, it will come to the conclusion that it can act like an empire ... Inside the EU there is no unity about the proper reaction."

The United States has halted trade and investment talks and military engagements with Russia. Nobody in Washington appears eager for a military confrontation. US Secretary of State John Kerry: "The last thing anybody wants is a military option in this kind of situation."

Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says his government will not give up Crimea. Former Ukrainian PM Yulia Tymoshenko said that if diplomacy fails to persuade Moscow to withdraw its forces from the Ukrainian region of Crimea, the world should apply the "strongest means" on Russia.

Russia says ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych requested that Russia send in military forces. Russian soldiers wearing no insignia have deployed around the region and blockaded Ukrainian troops in their bases. Russian forces have complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula.

2014 March 3


Christopher Meyer

In Crimea, unbadged, troops have seized key buildings and strategic points. It is pretty obvious that most of them are Russian. President Putin has obtained authority for a military intervention to protect Russian interests and nationals. There could be war between Ukraine and Russia. Some have begun to draw comparisons with Hitler's invasion of the ethnically German Sudetenland in 1938.

Crimea became part of the Russian Empire more than 200 years ago under Catherine the Great. For Russians, it is the scene of two historic episodes of heroic resistance: firstly in the Crimean War of the 19th century and then to the German army in the Second World War. Add the great naval base at Sevastopol and you can see why Putin sees a clear national interest in what transpires in Ukraine.

There will be costs for Obama and NATO if we cannot deflect Putin from his path. Obama has gained the reputation of being a weak president, who will not take a stand against aggressors. But foreign policy should be based on a cold calculation of national interest. As Putin knows, the US and NATO are not going to war to stop Russia taking Crimea or the eastern Ukraine under Russian control.


Michael Dirda

The Age of Nothing by Peter Watson surveys and summarizes 20th-century philosophical and moral thought on "how we have sought to live since the death of God".

The wholly secular lack — Watson paraphrases and quotes Charles Taylor — "a sense of wholeness, fulfillment, fullness of meaning, a sense of something higher; they have an incompleteness ... 'a massive blindness’ to the fact that there is 'some purpose in life beyond the utilitarian' ".

Clifford Geertz: "The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs."

AR Seems worth reading: Watson was good on Germans.

2014 March 2


CNN, 0949 GMT

The Ukrainian National Security Council ordered a mobilization as Russia appeared to mass troops for military intervention in Crimea. Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov announced that intervention would lead to war.

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for 90 minutes to express concern over the crisis, according to separate statements released by their respective governments.

UN spokesman for the Ukraine mission Yegor Pyvovarov says Russia now has 15 000 troops in Crimea. Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin rejected Ukrainian calls to stop Russian intervention and said reports of Russian troop deployments were only rumors.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted that NATO ambassadors meet in Brussels today to discuss the situation.

Project Fear

Dominic Lawson

Project Fear is the political campaign to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom. It bombards Scots with warnings about what they will lose if they vote in September to secede:

1 The three main Westminster political parties reject monetary union with an independent Scotland. Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond wants Scotland to keep the pound, but it would have no support from the Bank of England as lender of last resort.

2 President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso said it would be "extremely difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to rejoin the European Union.

3 Westminster may not accept the existing border between Scotland and England in the North Sea. An Oxford professor: "It is this line only that assigns almost all the oil to Scotland and Alex Salmond disingenuously talks as if that line would survive genuine separation. It could not. No one knows how international arbitration would go, but the best guess seems to be that about half would go to Scotland."

Project Fear amounts to a dry run for a campaign against British voters during a referendum on EU membership in 2017. Those who seek British liberation from the EU should take note.


Harbour View Woodland Burial and Memorial Gardens
Funeral of Elizabeth Pigdon, 13:30, 28 February 2014

My Mother Liz: A Tribute
PDF, 2 pages, 250 KB

Tool for Drivers
Frixo for up-to-the-minute
UK road traffic reports

Cranach the Elder (c 1525)
Strange Beauty
Masters of the German Renaissance
National Gallery
2014-02-19 — 2014-05-11

Living in the
ice cream cone

Sam Adams Award
Oxford Union

Edward Snowden posts a video message as Chelsea Manning wins the Sam Adams award for "integrity in intelligence"

Edward Snowden on



2014 February 28

Merkel in London

Der Spiegel

In her speech before parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the UK and its role as a liberator in the world wars, as the cradle of parliament, and as a leading European power. She even cited Richard von Weizsäcker that "Britain does not need to prove its European vocation".

As for the European Union, she agreed it need change. Its laws should be checked regularly. National parliaments should get more attention and failures must be exposed. But the EU is working well and only needs readjustment here and there. So a cold shower to Tory Eurosceptics.



After the revolution in Ukraine, tension flared in Crimea. Five facts:

1 Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union. After 1991, lawmakers in Ukraine and Crimea voted for it to stay part of Ukraine.

2 A lot of Russians still live in Crimea. There are three main groups in Crimea: ethnic Ukrainians in the north, Russians in the south, and Tatars in the middle.

3 The Russian Navy has had a base at Sevastopol for 230 years. Russia is expanding its Black Sea port of Novorossiysk but Sevastopol is still the home of the Black Sea Fleet.

4 Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, became known as the Lady with the Lamp in the Crimean War when Britain, France, and Ottoman Turkey fought against Russia.

5 In 1945, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British PM Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in the Crimean resort of Yalta to carve up Europe for the Cold War.

AR If Russia takes Crimea, East-West relations freeze again.

2014 February 27

Merkel Wants UK in EU

The Times

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will set out the case for Britain to stay in the European Union in her address to both Houses of Parliament today. Germany and Britain have a common interest in reforming the single market, but the free movement of workers is a core principle of the market. She will say she is sympathetic to measures to stop the misuse of free movement for benefits tourism.

Downing Street was keen to stress its gratitude for the Chancellor's visit to London. Mrs Merkel is the second German Chancellor to address both Houses of Parliament after Willy Brandt did so in 1970. President Richard von Weizsäcker also did so in 1986.

AR When Brandt came he visited Oxford and I saw him speak live. Inspirational.

715 New Planets


NASA announces the discovery of 715 new planets. About a thousand planets had been identified in our galaxy previously. Four of the new planets are in the habitable zone. The planets orbit 305 different stars and were discovered by the Kepler space telescope. A new technique allows scientists to make new planetary discoveries more often and in more detail. The new batch of planets was verified using data from the first two years of the Kepler mission, so there may be many more to come.

NASA astrophysicist Douglas Hudgins: "Kepler has really been a game-changer for our understanding of the incredible diversity of planets and planetary systems in our galaxy."

AR These are historic times for planetology.

2014 February 25


Freeman Dyson

Science consists of facts and theories. Facts are discovered by observers or experimenters. One wrong fact is enough to ruin a career. Theories are free creations of the human mind, intended to describe our understanding of nature. Since our understanding is incomplete, theories are provisional. Mistakes are tolerated.

The most exciting and creative parts of science are concerned with things that we are still struggling to understand. Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science. They are a central part of the struggle. In every century and every science, I see brilliant blunders.

The key to enjoyment of any sport is to be a good loser. The greatest scientists are the best losers. As Einstein said, God is sophisticated but not malicious.

2014 February 23

Christian Beginnings

Rowan Williams

Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed a radically simplified version of the law of Moses and the religion of the Hebrew prophets. The early community of his followers was shaped by charismatic phenomena and social rituals that reinforced the familial bonds of the group.

A steady drift away from the Jewish faith followed. The Christian community developed a complex system of cosmology in which Jesus became a divine being manifested on Earth. This synthesis was different from the religion of Jesus and his first followers.

Geza Vermes refuses to follow earlier German scholars in their negativity toward Judaism and is familiar with the entire spread of Jewish thinking in the age of Jesus and Paul. His Jesus represents an intensified version of Mosaic and prophetic faith.

John's gospel has to be treated as a bit of an aberration. Vermes is inclined to see Platonic themes working the alchemical change in Christianity. The basic alteration is a matter of turning the faith that Jesus himself held into a faith about him.

Traditional Christian creeds are the product of a secular chain of influences, serving to obscure the historical core of what was new in Jesus' life and work. Vermes shows how the sort of thing that was being claimed in the creed of 325 CE had antecedents within a century of Jesus' crucifixion.

The authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls thought of their community in its remote desert setting as the real temple. Something of this carries over into the New Testament: God lives among those who associate themselves with Jesus. This develops into the idea that Jesus is the divine power incarnate.

AR Thanks, Rowan: I shall read a few books by Vermes.

False Messiah

Robert M. Price

According to Joseph Atwill, Titus Caesar and Josephus devised a plot to seduce Jews into worshipping Titus, son of Vespasian, under the guise of a fictitious Jesus. The four gospels and Josephus' history were written to be read together as a Flavian Pentateuch for a new and pacifist Judaism.

Accepting that a committee wrote the gospels and the history seems absurd. Only an obtuse reader can fail to appreciate the sublime quality of much of the New Testament. Atwill's claim that the gospels are black satires merely reveals his own inability to appreciate what he is reading.

Atwill connects widely separated dots and collects correspondences from gospel to gospel and between the gospels and Josephus, then uses them to create parallel accounts. But the natural way to deal with the parallels is to say the gospel writers wrote late enough to have borrowed from Josephus.

AR OK: Atwill has got it all wrong.

2014 February 21


Paul Bloom

Sam Harris says we are biochemical puppets. Unconscious associations and attitudes hold powerful sway over our lives. Such statements assault religious belief, traditional morality, and common sense.

The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of rational choice.

If you doubt the power of reason, consider the lives of those who have less of it. The relationship between IQ and success is hardly arbitrary. High intelligence is also related to kindness. Self-control can be seen as the purest embodiment of rationality and benefits not just individuals but also society.

Morality is seen as the paradigm case of insidious irrationality. Intellect seems largely irrelevant when it comes to our sense of right and wrong. But the existence of moral dumbfounding is less damning that it might seem. Our moral attitudes show systematic change over human history. The moral circle has expanded toward inclusiveness.

Politics forces us to confront those who disagree with us. If you want to see people at their worst, press them on the details of complex political issues that correspond to political identity. But such instances of irrationality need not cloud our view of the rational foundations of our everyday life.

Reason underlies much of what matters in the world. We can use reason to invent procedures that undermine our explicit and implicit biases. This is how moral progress happens.

AR This is elegant but hardly fatal to Sam's views.

2014 February 20

Inglorious Bathos

My Amazon review

This bloodbath comedy reinvents the end of the Third Reich in a slapstick assassination of the top Nazis in a little cinematic holocaust planned and perpetrated by American and French Jews. The trademark Tarantino gore is splashed in abundance and the dextrous wit of the multilingual screenplay is a joy to the ears. Christoph Waltz plays an exuberantly garrulous "Jew hunter" SS colonel in a virtuoso performance that holds the plot together with dazzling panache. Brad Pitt by contrast looks out of place as a drawling hillbilly US lieutenant leading an inglorious pack of Jewish scalp-hunters. Still, with Tarantino chapter breaks and applied graphics to put a modern gloss on what could easily have sunk into another fictional war story, the production sings along quite effectively.

What worried me at the outset and still worries me now two viewings later is that the moral standpoint the movie as a whole represents is both well worn in countless previous movies and philosophically inadequate to the loathsomeness of the evil it reflects. The Nazis were beastly to the Jews, so let a bunch of Jews be equally beastly to the Nazis, and let them kill Hitler too, to end the war nine months earlier and save the world, as it were. This is fine as a first introduction to the issues for innocent youngsters, if there are any left, who have not yet gone deeper. But brutality was not the unique horror of the Nazi phenomenon, and ending the horror show nine months earlier would have saved far more Germans, who had collectively voted to stage the spectacle in the first place, than Jews, who had suffered their worst attrition already by then. Hypotheticals are anyway moot in history.

No, the unique horror of the Nazi phenomenon was its deep intellectual roots in a culture that saw history in racist terms and was prepared to suffer mightily to showcase its view in historical fact. Some six million Germans were killed in the war, in circumstances as hideous as those in which six million Jews also died, and the Germans knew from 1943 at the latest that their furious revolt against the rest of the world was doomed to spectacularly bloody failure. But they did it anyway, in an operatic celebration of the martial arts armed with the latest high-tech weapons that may well stand as unparalleled in history since the astonishing career of Alexander the Great in antiquity. That the feat left the stench of genocide in its wake is troubling, and nothing in Tarantino's movie helps us to digest or reprocess that obstinate fact of history.

AR This replaces the review I posted in January.

2014 February 18

A simple ceremony and a woodlands burial, later this month.

2014 February 16

She selflessly did her best for me all my life. That's what mums do. They do it for no other reason than love. Not for reward. Not for recognition. They create you. From nothing. Miracle?
They do those every day.
Ricky Gervais


My Mother Liz
1924-09-28 — 2014-02-16

"I chose to do it, OK?"


Unauthorized summary of
Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus
Flavian Signature Edition
PDF: 10 pages, 131 KB

Severe flood warnings in force as rain shows no signs of abating



The Grand Mufti
David Mikics

Amin al-Husaini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, close pal of Hitler, champion of Islamist radicalism, and leader of the Palestinians until 1968, frequently said the Mideast needed to get rid of its Jews, spent the war years in Berlin, met often with Eichmann and Himmler, recruited for the SS in Bosnia, and opposed the UN partition of Palestine in 1947, which led to the creation of Israel. He still inspires those who dream of annihilating Israel and establishing a purely Muslim Mideast cleansed of Jews and Christians.

Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia)
and Saga Norén (Sofia Helin)


2014 February 14


Antony Beevor

The imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan is being hailed as the first moment when the UK has not been at war since 1914. A strategic pause may ease budget problems. The UK long ago ended its independent operational capacity and is entirely dependent on the Americans. The Pentagon has laid down three elements that a British government must maintain: the Trident nuclear deterrent, the GCHQ intelligence capacity, and special forces. The rest is optional.

AR The UK pays its dues for the US strategic nuclear force and NSA surveillance and lets Washington run the show. Now perhaps we can rebuild the old country along new lines.

2014 February 13

Free Will

Sam Harris

People think they have control over what they believe. But the popular sense of free will is primarily a 1P fact, not a 3P account of how human beings function. The philosophical problem of free will arises from the fact that most people feel that they author their own thoughts and actions. The moment you show that a person's thoughts and actions were determined by events that he did not and could not see, feel, or anticipate, his 3P account of himself may remain unchanged, but his 1P sense of autonomy comes under pressure.

Something in our moral attitude changes when we catch sight of antecedent causes. A person is unlucky to be given the genes and life experience that doom him to psychopathy. That doesn't mean we can't lock him up. We don't demand that mosquitoes and sharks behave better than they do. We simply take steps to protect ourselves from them. The same futility prevails with certain people.

AR This is in response to Dan Dennett (blog Jan 28).

2014 February 12


Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

In America today, some groups are more upwardly mobile than others. Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure. Mormons have become leaders of corporate America. Jews make up only about 2% of the US adult population but account for a third of the current Supreme Court and about a third of US Nobel laureates.

The most successful groups in America today share three traits:

1 A superiority complex. Mormons see their group as an island of morality in a sea of moral decay. Many Iranians refer to a Persian superiority complex. Most Jewish children hear that Jews are the chosen people, a moral people, a people of law and intellect, a people of survivors.

2 A sense of insecurity. Immigrant kids frequently feel motivated to achieve because of an acute sense of obligation to redeem parental sacrifices. Chinese immigrant parents frequently impose exorbitant academic expectations on their children.

3 Impulse control. This runs against the grain of contemporary culture, but every one of the most successful groups inculcates habits of discipline from a very early age.

The three qualities are open to anyone. The way to develop this package of qualities is through grit. It requires the ability to work hard, to persevere, and to overcome adversity.

The United States was born a Triple Package nation. But by 2000, all that remained was a culture of entitlement and instant gratification. The trials of recent years have been good for America.

Marjorie Ingall

The Triple Package looks at eight groups and uses financial metrics as indicators of success. Chua and Rubenfeld say all eight groups share the three traits essential for success.

Kindness, creativity, and happiness may not be as easy to measure as household income, but it's sad to see "success" defined so narrowly.

2014 February 11

UK R&D Spend 5x More For WMD Than Renewable Energy

Stuart Parkinson

We at Scientists for Global Responsibility have compared recent R&D spending by the UK government on major weapons systems with public R&D spending on measures to tackle major drivers of armed conflict, such as resource depletion, social and economic injustice, and climate change.

During the three financial years spanning 2008 to 2011, annual R&D spending on all aspects of UK nuclear weapons systems was over £320 million per year. In the same years, annual British public R&D spending on renewable energy was only £60 million.

Comparing total public spending on military R&D with that on work for sustainable security (international development and poverty alleviation, climate change impacts, sustainable energy technologies, food security, international relations, natural resource management, biodiversity, environmental risks and hazards, sustainable consumption, and other measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change), we found that on average during 2008 to 2011, the UK spent nearly £1.8 billion a year on military R&D, while for sustainable security research it spent less than £1 billion.

The huge UK R&D spend on nuclear weapons is particularly bizarre. Detonating half the nuclear missiles carried by a Trident submarine could disrupt the climate so badly through the injection of smoke into the stratosphere that about 2 billion people would be threatened by famine due to crop failure.

Against a backdrop of growing political instability driven by climate change, the imperative should be global abolition of nuclear weapons as soon as possible. Yet the UK spends much more to maintain the nuclear threat than it does for the tools to tackle climate change.

AR The UK nuclear deterrent policy was forged in the cold war and has never been properly reconsidered since then. No plausible security nightmare warrants an independent British capability to obliterate a score of cities worldwide in nuclear firestorms within minutes. Only desire for solidarity with the United States and for parity with France dictates such madness.

It is time for UK decision makers to wake up and reflect on (a) what image and heritage the UK should seek to project and leave for posterity in a rapidly growing and civilizing world and (b) how they can defend squandering scarce resources on weapons that no rational person would wish to use.

Overspending on defense versus civil welfare bankrupted the former Soviet Union. Overspending on UK defense now impoverishes British citizens who must suffer substandard healthcare and education plus a vainglorious public obsession with "punching above our weight" — compare a person who esteems his muscles and his handgun more than his civil skills and accomplishments.

2014 February 10

The Oldest Star

The Independent

Astronomers at the Australian National University have found the oldest known star in the universe. The star SMSS J 031300.36-670839.3 is only 60 Em away from us in the Milky Way and is roughly 13.6 billion years old. The Big Bang occurred some 13.8 billion years ago.

The star is thought to have been formed in the wake of a primordial supernova. Key to determining its age was an analysis of its iron content. Lead researcher Stefan Keller: "It's giving us insight into our fundamental place in the universe. What we're seeing is the origin of where all the material around us that we need to survive came from."

AR So close and yet so old — glory be!

2014 February 8

The Second Thirty Years War

Jan Fleischhauer

The years between 1914 and 1945 formed one long war. Germany lost two million soldiers in Part I and more than double that in Part II. Conversely, more than twice as many Britons and four times as many Frenchmen died on the battlefields of Part I than in Part II. The long war killed 70 million people.

For most of Part I, the Germans were tactically superior to their opponents. In 1917 France was on the verge of collapse. The United States turned the tide. By August 1918, some 1.3 million men had been shipped from the United States to Europe. When in September the Allies penetrated the Siegfried Line, the war was lost. General Erich Ludendorff asked the Kaiser to approve cease-fire negotiations.

Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to concede that it was solely responsible for the war. The United States became noninterventionist, Germany was defeated, Britain was in debt to the United States, and France was no longer a major military power. The peace ignited a desire among Germans for revenge.

For the war veteran Adolf Hitler, the dream of exacting revenge became an obsession. He rose by angrily declaiming the "shameful and humiliating" Treaty of Versailles in his speeches. The German economy struggled with depression for years, until Germans voted for the Third Reich. In 1940 German troops defeated France in six weeks. It was the desired victory, but for Hitler it was merely the start of a much wider war of conquest.

In 1945, the victorious Western Allies chose generosity. Germans who lived in the Western occupation zones benefited from a reconstruction funded by the Marshall Plan. Those trapped in the eastern part of Germany bore a heavier burden for another 44 years, until reunification. The nation that had twice plunged the continent into war was now a model democracy and a force for European integration.

Ironically, as Niall Ferguson pointed out, the burden Germany took on for European integration roughly matches that imposed on the country by the Treaty of Versailles. Altogether, Germany paid about as many billions to the rest of Europe between 1958 and 1992 as it had earlier in war reparations.

2014 February 7


Toward a Science of Morality
A critique by Andy Ross
PDF: 2 pages, 51 KB


New Scientist

People with schizophrenia often have to agree to take antipsychotic drugs for the rest of their lives. We now know these may do little to aid recovery while trapping people in a mental miasma that ruins their chances of living a normal life. Adding to the cruelty, people with serious mental health problems are often denied adequate healthcare for physical illnesses because their symptoms are assumed to be delusional. Recent research suggests that people weaned off antipsychotics are much more likely to live productive lives.

Psychiatric insight at its best

2014 February 6


The Guardian

I hereby plead guilty to a selective, provocative slant on the region. Everything I said on the grim truth behind the "Scandinavian miracle" was true, and backed up by the OECD, the IMF, and the UN. In my book, I reflect on the many positive aspects of the Nordic societies. Nearly all the negative views originated with the many local experts I interviewed during my years of research.
— Michael Booth

Put it to a referendum and the Danes would always vote for the system we have versus, say, the US one. There are nuances in British culture that don't resonate here. Class matters a lot in Britain. Denmark is a more homogenous society. We stick together. There is a greater sense of community. Sure, we Danes are very happy.
— Adam Price

We Finns have a great sense of humor. We may not be big talkers, but if a Finn likes you he will eventually open up. How do you tell the difference between a Finnish introvert and a Finnish extrovert? One looks at his own feet when he's talking to you, the other will looks at yours.
— Alexander Stubb

On all lists measuring quality of life, the Nordics tower over the UK. Iceland's eternal post-colonial project is guarding our sovereignty. But Iceland isn't really Nordic. Just look at the map. We are an Atlantic state. Culturally we are spot-on British. Even our black and dry Icelandic humor is horribly non-Nordic.
— Eiríkur Bergmann

In the global economy, it is almost impossible to maintain fully social democratic policies, but the newly elected rightwing government is launching deliberate attacks on collective and sustainable solutions. None of these challenges to Norwegian society, or the resistance to them, is mentioned by Booth. Yet the country remains a good place to live.
— Agnes Bolsø

Modern Sweden seeks to balance the deep existential desire for individual freedom and social cohesion. The state promotes laws and policies that have freed individuals from unequal and patriarchal forms of community. But Swedes are currently no more successful in handling the conflict between rights of citizens and human rights than anyone else.
— Lars Trägårdh

2014 February 5

The Military Balance 2014

International Institute for Strategic Studies

Asian defense budgets rose again. Defense budgets in the West continued to contract. Defense spending is shrinking in European countries when the reorientation of US defense policy toward the Asia-Pacific places a greater share of the international security burden on them.

NATO allies have made progress on interoperability. This will be difficult to maintain in the face of decreasing spending and following the 2014 ISAF drawdown. The NATO agenda now includes ballistic missile defense, cyber security, and out-of-area maritime security tasks.

Missile defense remains a key priority area for states in the Mideast. Gulf states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have bought, or are buying, the most advanced Western missile and air-defense and strike systems, including standoff air-launched munitions.

Asian defense spending in 2013 was 11.6% higher in real terms than in 2010. China, Japan, and South Korea accounted for more than half of all the real increases in Asian defense spending in 2013. Asia lacks security mechanisms that could defuse regional crises.

AR The UK should press for more NATO interoperability.

2014 February 4

PRISM Reactors

MIT Technology Review

The UK has a large stockpile of plutonium. The UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) planned to mix it with uranium to form mixed oxide ceramic (MOX) fuel for a nuclear power plant, but the project was too technically challenging and put on hold. Now the authority says the GE Hitachi Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM) provides a credible alternative. PRISM is small and modular enough for key parts to be made in factories, speeding construction and reducing costs, and it features good passive safety. The reactor could burn not just plutonium but all hazardous nuclear waste, to generate low-carbon electricity at prices competitive with other nuclear reactors.

AR Memo to NDA: Go for PRISM.

Arab Chaos


Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahir is exasperated with the ISIS group fighting in Syria and blames it for "the enormity of the disaster that afflicted the Jihad in Syria". When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi said ISIS was absorbing the al-Nusra Front, both al-Nusra and Zawahiri rejected the bid.

Between 40 000 and 50 000 jihadists in the new Islamic Front are clashing with ISIS. Zawahiri: "Our hearts are bleeding, the heart of our Islamic nation is bleeding when we see the internal strife among the mujahedeen in Syria." Baghdadi demanded that his opponents "repent or suffer consequences".

AR Let Baghdadi crush Zawahiri and let Iran back Assad. Then let Turks and Persians vie to rule the Arabs, who seem unable to rule themselves.

Sexist Philosophy

Rebecca Schuman

The American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Women reports sexual misconduct and a female-unfriendly environment of sexual harassment in the University of Colorado Boulder department of philosophy. Its report cites 15 official complaints of harassment and inappropriate sexualized professional behavior at alcohol-soaked extracurricular activities as well as divisive and bullying behavior to members of various underrepresented groups. Chair Graeme Forbes has been ousted and replaced by a faculty member from linguistics, and recruitment and admission of new graduate students has been halted until 2015.

AR I studied with Graeme at grad school in Oxford. Our research supervisor pushed Graeme into a career and left me cold, apparently because my ideas were still too fluid.

2014 February 3


The Guardian

UK defense secretary Philip Hammond has told his junior ministers to lobby shipbuilding unions after the ministers said that parliamentary support for the £80 billion Trident renewal program was waning.

The huge cost of building four new submarines for SLBM CASD has led MPs in Westminster to question whether at a time of austerity the UK can afford such "wildly paranoid cold war madness" (AR).

Former Tory defense minister James Arbuthnot, now chair of the defense select committee: "Nuclear deterrence does not provide the certainty that it seemed to in the past. It's not an insurance policy, it's a potential booby trap."

2014 February 2

The Bridge


The Bridge stars detectives Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) and Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), a Dane and a Swede, in a Scandinavian crime drama set in Malmö and Copenhagen (between which runs the Öresund or Øresund Bridge — see below).

Belatedly I watched the last 4 hours of the second 10-hour series and loved it. The heroine Saga displays the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome and was a treat to see in action, racing around in her combat duds and her scruffy old Porsche. Ah, to be in Scandinavia now that wisdom's here!

2014 February 1


Abby Ellin

The average age at which current United States retirees say they stopped working is 61, up from 59 in 2003 and 57 in 1993. But a January Gallup poll of baby boomers found that 49% didn't expect to retire until age 66 or older. Many cited financial concerns as the main reason they aren't quitting sooner.

Financial experts warn that baby boomers, who are often caring for ailing parents and supporting their fiscally challenged children while trying to navigate their own lives, are in over their heads. Aside from money worries, many baby boomers continue working because they want to, and because they can.

AR I need to earn more, and I can.

Soerfm (Creative Commons)

Öresund or Øresund Bridge between Malmö in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark:
I have driven across this bridge at least four times.

Trick — soft landing

Sierra Nevada Corp.
Astronauts' sweet new ride:
Sierra Nevada Corporation
pencils Dream Chaser first
orbital flight — 2016-11-01

Now it gets tricky

"There is no such uncertainty
as a sure thing."
Robert Burns

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Official trailer (2:18)
Curious thriller with
a financial meltdown
plot set in Russia.
But well made.

The Wolf Of Wall Street
Official trailer (2:14)
Disgusting story,
amusing movie, but
Leonardo DiCaprio
is amazingly good.

Another text almost ready
to join the corpus

12 Years A Slave
Shocking story,
excellent movie

Rosetta and its comet lander

Rosetta was 18 minutes late phoning home Monday. The
on-board alarm clock went off at 1000 GMT as planned, but instead of waking up, the craft woke fully only after a second reboot. ESA says the problem won't affect the rest of the mission.

2014 January 31

Stem Cells

New Scientist

Adult cells can be made to turn into any type of body tissue just by tweaking their environment. Harvard Medical School team co-lead Charles Vacanti: "The implication is that you can very easily, from a drop of blood and simple techniques, create a perfect identical twin."

Vacanti and team rewound adult cells by stressing them. They took lymphocytes from 7-day-old mice and exposed them to an acidic environment (pH 5.7) for 30 minutes. When they grew the cells in the lab, by day 7 two-thirds of the surviving cells showed genetic markers of pluripotency. They call the new cells "stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency" (STAP) cells.

The team injected the STAP cells into a blastocyst (an early-stage mouse embryo). The embryos developed into pups with the STAP cells in every tissue in their body. The pups later had offspring with STAP cells too. The team also injected STAP cells into an adult mouse to form a teratoma (a type of embryonic tumor) and found the acid-bath technique worked on brain, skin, muscle, fat, bone marrow, lung, and liver tissues from 7-day-old mice. And the team put STAP cells together with growth factors to form STAP stem cells, which they injected into a very early embryo and implanted into a mouse, where the cells grew with the embryo.

Vacanti: "We can use the technology that we have demonstrated today and come up with ways to perfuse tissues with healthy cells. That way we can boost function and transform it from a failing organ to an organ which will survive."

2014 January 30

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
National Theatre Live, Tower Park, Poole

The Great Catastrophe

R.J.W. Evans

The Great War broke out in the summer of 1914. The Concert of Europe had been established a hundred years earlier. New alliances undermined the concert and crises hardened them. By 1913 the major powers were staring into an abyss.

July 1914 saw a unique concatenation of events. All imagined war would be limited and short, but all swiftly accepted the dictates of total war. The war left 16 million killed and 20 million wounded. Few in July 1914 could have foreseen this.

Biggest Error In Modern History
Niall Ferguson

Britain could have lived with a German victory in 1914. If Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later.

Creating an army more or less from scratch and then sending it into combat against the Germans was a recipe for disastrous losses. And if one asks whether this was the best way for Britain to deal with the challenge posed by imperial Germany, my answer is no.

Even if Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have had a pretty massive challenge on its hands trying to run the new German-dominated Europe and would have remained significantly weaker than the British empire in naval and financial terms. Given the resources that Britain had available in 1914, a better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later.

The cost of the first world war to Britain was catastrophic, and it left the British empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state. It had accumulated a vast debt, the cost of which really limited Britain's military capability throughout the interwar period. Then there was the manpower loss.

Arguments about honor resonate today as they resonated in 1914, but we should think of this as the biggest error in modern history.

AR I agree: Britain and Germany could have been the team of the century.

2014 January 29


 Sir Iain Lobban will stand down in November after more than six years as head of GCHQ. The Snowden revelations led to GCHQ being accused of mounting mass surveillance. But intelligence professionals say they show that under Sir Iain's leadership the listening post has punched above its weight and helped thwart hundreds of terrorist plots by tracking covert communications across the web.
The Times

GCHQ surveillance programs are probably illegal and breach European human rights and privacy laws, according to a parliamentary legal opinion. RIPA 2000 sanctions GCHQ activity but has been left behind by advances in technology. The opinion says GCHQ staff are potentially able "to commit serious crime with impunity" and proposes that the UK clarify what the data may be used for under British law.
The Guardian

The Shock Of The Fall

A novel by Nathan Filer
Costa Book of the Year 2013

Nathan Filer's debut novel The Shock Of The Fall has earned high praise from comedian and former nurse Jo Brand, who said it was the best fiction about mental illness she had ever read.
Martin Chilton

Nathan Filer won the 2013 Costa book award for a moving account of schizophrenia and grief. Filer, 33, has worked in psychiatric wards for more than a decade. He now lectures in creative writing at Bath Spa University. Last year a fierce bidding war left publisher HarperCollins with the novel in a 6-figure deal. Novelist Rose Tremain: "For a first novel it is astonishingly sure-footed ... It is about grief and this is a subject we all have experience of. It is grief analyzed but treated absolutely without sentimentality."
Mark Brown

"It feels very nice indeed. I'm delighted. I wrote this book because I wanted to share it, not for myself. I always wanted people to read it and winning this prize means I know this will happen more and more."
Nathan Filer

2014 January 28

Free Will

Daniel C. Dennett

Sam Harris wants to persuade us all to abandon the idea of free will. He says the idea is a major obstacle to social reform. His main objection is that what everyday folk mean by free will is demonstrably preposterous and he thinks "free will" has to be given that incoherent sense.

Harris: "It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell of free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful. Where people can change, we can demand that they do so. Where change is impossible, or unresponsive to demands, we can chart some other course."

Harris is the author of his book. He is responsible for its virtues and its vices. But then we can hold Harris at least partly responsible for his character, since it too is a product — with help from others — of his earlier efforts. He can't take credit for the luck of his birth or education, but those born thus lucky are informed that they have a duty or obligation to preserve their competence, and grow it, and educate themselves, and Harris has responded admirably. He can take credit for that.

Harris: "But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it."

Harris says there is no morally relevant difference between the raving psychopath and us. We have no more free will than he does. Well, we have more something than he does, and it looks very much like what everyday folks often call free will.

AR Dan is grooming Sam for a bright future in philosophy.

2014 January 27

Leaky Black Holes?

The Independent

Stephen Hawking says black holes may not have event horizons. An event horizon is the boundary of a black hole, where gravity is just strong enough to drag light back and prevent it escaping. Now Hawking suggests that apparent horizons would only hold light and information temporarily before releasing them back into space in garbled form. So black holes do not have an event horizon to catch fire.

The firewall paradox formulated by Joseph Polchinski and others concerns the fate of an astronaut who fell into a black hole. The astronaut would hit a wall of fire at the event horizon and burn to death in an instant. But if there are no event horizons, there are no black holes from which light cannot escape. Quantum theory lets energy and information escape from a black hole.

Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes
S. W. Hawking

Firewalls around black holes would break the CPT invariance of quantum gravity. My proposal that gravitational collapse produces apparent horizons but not event horizons that lose information is supported by ADS-CFT and is the only resolution of the paradox compatible with CPT. The collapse to form a black hole will in general be chaotic and information will effectively be lost, but not unitarity.

Osama Bin Laden

David Samuels

Osama Bin Laden looked forward to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. From his last known private letter, dated April 25, 2011: "What we are witnessing these days of consecutive revolutions is a great and glorious event ... thanks to Allah things are strongly heading toward the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America."

Bin Laden had unique strategy for using the United States to reshape the Mideast in a way that would undermine the Arab regimes the jihadists sought to overthrow. He saw that while the jihadist movement was far too weak to overthrow the Arab regimes directly, the "far enemy" was strong enough to make the ground shift beneath the feet of Arab rulers.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Bin Laden said: "The goal is to weaken America until it can no longer interfere in Muslims affairs. Once the American enemy has been defeated, our next step would be targeting the region's leaders who had been the pillars of support for that American hegemony."

Sunni Versus Shiite

Douglas Murray

The Mideast is taking shape along religious lines. The House of Saud and the Ayatollahs in Iran are fighting each other in a war between Sunnis and Shiites.

The Syrian civil war is a confrontation inflamed by religious sectarianism. The Shia militia of Hezbollah were sent by their masters in Iran to fight on the side of Bashar al-Assad. Across Europe and the Mideast, many thousands of young men listened to the call of religious leaders who declared that Hezbollah is not the army of God but the army of Satan.

The region as a whole has started to fall into a maelstrom. In Iraq, Fallujah fell back under jihadi control under the black flag of al Qaeda. Some Syrian cities are also now under al Qaeda control. The Saudis are now supporting groups as close to al Qaeda as to make little difference.

The result may be like what Europe went through 400 years ago, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out. This is a conflict that will realign Islam.

2014 January 26


Tony Blair

The issue of religious extremism is an issue about religion as well as politics. We need to go to the roots of where a false view of religion is being promulgated and to make it a major item on the agenda of world leaders to combine effectively to combat it. This is a struggle that is only just beginning.

All over the Mideast region and including in Iraq, where sectarianism threatens the right of the people to a democratic future, such a campaign has to be actively engaged. It is one reason why the Mideast matters so much and why any attempt to disengage is so wrong and short-sighted.

AR On this issue I back Blair.

2014 January 25


Meg Urry

Type Ia supernova SN2014J is only 11.4 million light-years from Earth. A group at the University of London Observatory discovered it by accident:

Professor Steve Fossey: "The weather was closing in, with increasing cloud. So instead of the planned practical astronomy class, I gave the students an introductory demonstration of how to use the CCD camera on one of the observatory's automated 0.35 meter telescopes."

Student Tom Wright: "One minute we're eating pizza, then five minutes later we've helped to discover a supernova. I couldn't believe it."


Kapil Komireddi

President Bashar al-Assad is more powerful today than he was 15 months ago. His Baathist machine remains the only stable feature in Syria. Despite the carnage, daily life in Damascus largely continues as before. There have been no major defections, and the Syrian Arab Army continues to pledge its allegiance to al-Assad.

Washington remains tethered to its policy goal of removing al-Assad from power. But the opposition that hopes to wrest power from al-Assad does not have a significant constituency in Syria. Much of the territory outside the government's control is held by groups linked to al Qaeda.

2014 January 24

Searching For U

Matthew Chalmers

Bill Wootters says we can make quantum mechanics work with real numbers, but only if we use a universal bit U that interacts with everything else.

The square root i of minus 1 lets us define 2D complex numbers with both real and imaginary components. In quantum theory, a thing like both a particle and a wave is represented by a wave function that describes it using complex numbers coding probabilities. The wave function collapses into a real number when you make a measurement. Squaring the wave function gives a real probability. Something is lost in the measurement.

Quantum information theory uses qubits. Wootters and his colleagues replaced qubits with real-number equivalents, plus U as a master bit. U is represented by a vector in a 2D plane and replaces all the complex numbers in quantum theory. U makes even an isolated quantum system decohere in a way not predicted by standard quantum theory. In conventional quantum mechanics, entanglement is limited to two objects. In the new formulation, U entangles with everything.

Real-Vector-Space Quantum Theory with a Universal Quantum Bit

We replace the complex phase appearing in quantum states by a single binary object, the ubit. We recover ordinary quantum theory from this model by restricting Stückelberg's rule. We obtain a family of modifications of standard quantum theory with the parameter ratio s/omega, where s quantifies the strength of the ubit's interaction with the rest of the world and omega is the ubit's rotation rate. The parameter governs spontaneous decoherence of isolated systems.

Optimal Information Transfer and Real-Vector-Space Quantum Theory

Born's rule for computing quantum probabilities maximizes mutual information relative to other conceivable probability rules when modeled with a real state space but not with the full set of complex states. This result generalizes to higher dimensional Hilbert spaces.

AR Years ago I thought seeking to replace complex numbers with real ones in quantum theory was just a game for philosophers (such as David Albert). Now I sense serious potential advantages.

2014 January 23

Million-Dollar Proof?

New Scientist

Kazakh mathematician Mukhtarbay Otelbayev says he has proved the Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness problem. The Navier-Stokes equations are used to model fluids but may not always have solutions. Otelbayev says he worked on the problem on and off for 30 years. He writes in Russian, so the international mathematical community is having difficulty evaluating his proof. The Clay Mathematics Institute has offered $1 million to anyone who could prove the problem.

Existence and Smoothness of the Navier-Stokes Equation
Charles L. Fefferman

2014 January 22

Depression + Anxiety x Madness = Genius?

William Lee Adams

Edvard Munch, who died 70 years ago today, created his masterpiece "The Scream" after a sinister vision: "The sun began to set. Suddenly the sky turned blood red. I stood there trembling with anxiety, and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature."

Simon Kyaga and a team of researchers in Sweden used a registry of psychiatric patients to track nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives. The patients had conditions ranging from schizophrenia and depression to ADHD and anxiety. They found that people working in creative fields were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. And people in creative professions were more likely to have relatives with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and autism.

Last year neuroscientist Andreas Fink and his team in Austria published a study comparing the brains of creative people and people living with schizotypy, a milder form of schizophrenia without delusions or disconnection from reality. The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging and found that among those high in schizotypy and those who scored highest on originality, the right precuneus kept firing during idea generation. Normally this region deactivates during a complex task.

American psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman: "It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible ... sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas."

2014 January 21

European Union

Robert Cooper

Those in the Conservative Party who want to leave the EU demand a referendum. The point of a referendum is to get what they want. But:

1 No one is going to buy British products that do not meet inter­national standards. If the UK wants to be at the table when the standards are set it has to belong to the EU.

2 From the point of view of realpolitik, a permanent coalition of European states to which we did not belong is the nightmare of British policymakers through all the ages.

3 Together, the EU and NATO are the most successful collaboration among sovereign states ever achieved. Altruism and self-interest tell us to remain.

Much in the EU needs to be fixed. With 28 sovereign states at the table, that will be a slow and clumsy process. Working with others for a program of reform makes sense. A referendum makes none.

Selling Medical Data

The Guardian

Drug and insurance companies will from later this year be able to buy detailed NHS England medical data on patients from a single central database.

Medical data for everyone in England will be harvested from NHS records and uploaded to a central repository. The data will include NHS numbers, date of birth, postcode, ethnicity, and gender. Citizens will have no say in who sees their data or how it is used.

Organizations such as university research labs, insurers, and drug companies will apply to HSCIC to access the database of "pseudonymised" data (scrubbed of some personal identifiers but not completely anonymous).

HSCIC public assurance director Mark Davies said there was a "small risk" buyers could re-identify patients by matching the scrubbed records against their own medical data. HSCIC will not discriminate between applicants in access requests.

NHS England said a key aim of was to "drive economic growth by making England the default location for world-class health services research".

AR Making money by selling intimate access — there's a name for that. Worse, if the NHS dies, private insurers will doubtless discriminate in whom they insure.

2014 January 20


Richard Quest

A heterarchy is multiplicity of overlapping, interacting, connecting, and networking structures. The World Economic Forum evidently sees the new world order thus. The 2014 Davos strap line:

The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business

2014 January 19


Will Hutton

Britain today: at the bottom, a world of food banks, payday lending, and quiet desperation; and at the top, an extravagantly paid elite. Social ills ranging from obesity to depression become ever more entrenched. Yet this same inequality creates a fragile, enterprise-averse banking system, an escalating credit boom, overpriced homes, and a low-investment, low-innovation economy. Inequality is also behind extra public spending: on housing benefit, policing, care, and remedial interventions.

Societies as unequal as Britain's are profoundly dysfunctional. Inequality must be tackled head on.

AR Sobering but true.

Ross salutes the flag of freedom from his vantage on the V-cone.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-180 is the new USAF UAS. Unlike Global Hawk or Reaper, it is designed to penetrate denied airspace with unprecedented persistence. With an estimated wingspan of 40 m, the craft is a step toward the USAF LRS-B.

Ran the beach today during a raging storm. A hailstorm soaked my backside, then a sandstorm blasted my front, but at last came blue sky.

The cone is not the answer.


2014 January 16


New Scientist

2014 January 15


Sam Harris

There are no real boundaries between science and philosophy. When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. Consciousness may always seem like a miracle. In philosophical circles, this is known as the hard problem of consciousness. Should consciousness prove conceptually irreducible, remaining the mysterious ground for all we can conceivably experience or value, the rest of the scientific worldview would remain intact.

2014 January 14

Brain Simulation

Matthew Sparkes

A Japanese supercomputer with 705 024 processor cores and 1.4 PB of memory has simulated 1 s of human brain activity in 2400 s.

The project was run by the Japanese research group RIKEN, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, and Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany, and was the largest neuronet simulation to date. It used the open-source Neural Simulation Technology (NEST) tool to replicate a network consisting of 1.73 billion nerve cells connected by 10.4 trillion synapses, representing 1% of the human brain.

Simulating the whole brain at the level of the individual nerve cell and its synapses will be possible with exascale computers, perhaps within the next decade.

2014 January 13


Anne-Marie Slaughter

The gap between the richest and poorest Americans is growing wider. The top 10% took in more than half of all income in 2012, the highest share since the data series started. Yet the United States has among the highest child poverty rates of any developed economy.

My personal vision is of a renewed America that cares. The care paradigm starts from the premise that human beings cannot survive alone. Our progress as a species flows from our identity as social animals. Caring is part and parcel of building community.

An America that puts an equal emphasis on care and competition would be a very different place. We would build a social infrastructure that allows people to care for one another, in the same way we provide the basic physical infrastructure that allows them to compete.

The pursuit of happiness is the most personal of American founding values. Happiness can certainly be achieved through individual achievement, through winning the competition. But it is equally reached through a web of of connectedness and care.

2014 January 12

Nietzsche and the Third Reich

David B. Dennis

The Nazis used culture to define and promote their broadest ambitions. Their claim on Friedrich Nietzsche shows how culture became entwined with politics and war in Nazi propaganda. Their newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, made his ideas appear to coordinate with Nazism.

Nietzsche rejected nineteenth-century nationalism: "Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation." But he said of himself: "I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today." And he valued the "earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit".

The VB said Nietzsche "hated and fought every form of democracy, both political and spiritual" and considered the rule of the humble to be a blow against life itself. He set forth an outlook that “handled contemporary things harshly and tyrannically” in the interest of the future.

German cultural identity under the Nazis did not merely justify anti-Semitism or policies of extermination, it led to them. Hitler's racist ideas were grounded in cultural terms. Yet Nietzsche was no anti-Semite, and had criticized the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner and others.

According to the VB, Nietzsche often said struggle rules throughout nature and that life itself is an outcome of war. In the words of Nietzsche's Zarathustra: "And if ye will not be fates and inexorable ones, how can ye one day — conquer with me? ... For the creators are tough."

2014 January 11


Jonathan Sacks

Anglo-Jewry had a very distinguished past. We were in demographic decline for forty years, but now we've turned that around. Judaism has enormous gifts to offer: strong sense of community, supportive families, a dedicated approach to education. We do well with our children. We are great givers. The best way to contribute to humanity as a whole is to be strong in your own traditions.

A European Union report in November 2013 showed that three-quarters of the Jews interviewed throughout Europe were of the view that anti-Semitism has increased in the past few years. There are worries about the state of the European economy, and people turn to somebody to blame. Jews have always been blamed. It should concern the European political leadership very seriously.

The transformation of Jewish-Catholic relations has been one of the real signs of hope in my lifetime. It shows that you can heal wounds that may have existed for centuries. I am a firm admirer of the Catholic church and its leadership for having done so. Jews have always believed that you don't have to be Jewish to win salvation. That's an important doctrine in an age of religious conflict.

2014 January 10



With an estimated lifetime cost of GBP 20 000 000 000, the proposed renewal of the British strategic nuclear SLBM deterrent based on American Trident missiles may seem like a waste of money. But it is not, given just one simple premise.

If we wish to retain a military alliance between the UK and the USA that binds closer than the NATO alliance, a renewed Trident commitment is the natural way to do so. In the — hopefully unlikely — eventuality that British voters elect to leave the European Union, and that the EU then develops in a more federalist direction, which may even invite comparisons with the former USSR, tensions between the member states of NATO could neutralize it as an effective military alliance in a conceivable future scenario where EU quiescence in face of Russian military power seems threatening.

In that nightmare fantasy scenario, a tight UK-USA alliance could shield Anglo-American interests from nuclear blackmail. British participation in the Trident deterrent would thus insure the UK against the shame of subjection to an evil EUSSR empire.

China Lake Naval Air Warfare Range Tour

2014 January 9

Iraq and Afghanistan

Robert M. Gates

President George W. Bush always detested the notion, but I believe our later challenges in Afghanistan were significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq. I hoped we could stabilize Iraq so that when US forces departed, the war wouldn't be viewed as a strategic defeat for the United States or a failure with global consequences. In Afghanistan, I sought an Afghan government and army strong enough to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from returning to use the country again as a launch pad for terror.

President Barack Obama simply wanted to end the "bad" war in Iraq and limit the US role in the "good" war in Afghanistan. Bush was willing to disagree with his senior military advisers, but he never (to my knowledge) questioned their motives or mistrusted them personally. Obama was respectful of senior officers and always heard them out, but he often disagreed with them and was deeply suspicious of their actions and recommendations.

In recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do.

2014 January 8



More live images of the Aurora Borealis from a darkened aircraft circling over Norway.

Gates Memoir

Thom Shanker

Former US defense secretary Robert M. Gates was a Republican holdover from the George W. Bush administration who served for two years under President Barack Obama. In his new memoir, Gates praises Obama as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions "opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats."

Gates recalls that at a White House meeting in March 2011 called to discuss the withdrawal timetable, Obama opened by expressing doubts about General David H. Petraeus and questioning whether he could do business with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Gates: "As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

Gates writes that Obama's White House staff "took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level" and says of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr: "I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." Altogether, Gates writes: "I was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House's lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and unpredictability of war."

Gates holds the George W. Bush administration responsible for misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. He began public service as a USAF intelligence officer.

AR I always had great respect for Gates' professionalism and competence.

2014 January 7



Wonderful live images of the Aurora Borealis from Tromsø, Norway. Wow — bright green and lively.

UK Austerity

George Osborne

The Conservative economic plan builds a stronger, more competitive economy and secures a better future for Britain by:

Reducing the deficit so we deal with our debts, safeguard our economy for the long term
    and keep mortgage rates low

Cutting income taxes and freezing fuel duty to help hardworking people feel more financially secure

Creating more jobs by backing small business and enterprise with better infrastructure and
    lower jobs taxes

Capping welfare and reducing immigration so our economy delivers for people who want to
    work hard and play by the rules

Delivering the best schools and skills for young people so the next generation can succeed
    in the global race

The plan is working. For the first time in a long while, there's a real sense that Britain is on the rise. But it's far too soon to say job done — it's not even half done.

AR This much austerity seems callous, but it just might work.

2014 January 6


Michael Robbins

The National Association of Evangelicals was founded in St Louis in 1942. NAE members sought to establish that "the Christian world-life view ... explains reality and life more logically and comprehensively than do modern alternatives" (in the words of Carl Henry, following Gordon Clark).

In Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen defines modern American evangelicalism by a crisis of authority: "how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom." She recounts their evangelical Weltanschauung: "They intoned it whenever they wrote of the decline of Christendom, the decoupling of faith and reason, and the needful pinprick of the gospel in every corner of thought and action."

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argued that the Reformation laid the groundwork for secularization. NAE members were naive to think they could simply formulate a worldview, as if it were a matter of choice, but they recognized that the default options for understanding lived experience had changed. As Taylor argues, it is not the same thing to be a Christian in the 21st century as it was to be a Christian in 1500.

A consequence of this shift is that atheists reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief, and we are subjected to ignorant books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

AR And Sam Harris. These Four Horsemen triggered my 20-month outburst of passionate online debating in Godblogs. An acolyte of Gordon Clark trolled the debate and prompted some of my rhetoric. Coincidentally, this week I'm reading Charles Taylor's book (I studied Hegel with him at Oxford).

2014 January 5

American Slavery

Henry Louis Gates

Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave or Quentin Tarantino's film Django Unchained address slavery in polar opposite ways. Quentin made a postmodern slave spaghetti western. Steve's film is a realist take on slavery. It's hard to think of how much more brutal slavery could have been.

We now know there were more than 36 000 voyages from Africa to the new world: 12.5 million Africans got on the boats; 10.7 million got off the boats. The rest died at sea. Of the remainder, 388 000 came to the United States. To get some perspective on that, Jamaica got 1 million and Brazil 6 million. The reason we think of it as an American phenomenon is the visible power of the civil rights movement in America. After the importation of slaves was made illegal in the US in 1808, slave owners turned to breeding slaves. In 1860, when the last federal census before the civil war was held, there were 4.4 million African Americans, only 10% of whom were free. Today, the percentage of blacks living under the poverty line is about the same as when Martin Luther King was killed.

2014 January 4

Survival of the Richest

Matthew Hutson

Social class essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people can be explained by differences in their fundamental identities. Most people hold essentialist beliefs about categories such as gender, race, and sexuality, and some too about more cultural ones such as nationality, religion, and political orientation.

If you’re doing well, you believe success comes to those who deserve it, and those of lower status must not deserve it. The higher people perceive their social class to be, the more strongly they endorse such beliefs. If you feel you’re doing well, you want to believe success comes to those who deserve it, so those of lower status must not deserve it.

Social Darwinism is the idea that since only the fit survive and thrive, this process should be accepted or even accelerated by public policy. Social class essentialism entails belief in economic survival of the fittest as a fact. It might also entail belief in survival of the fittest as a desired end, and reducing support for restorative interventions.

2014 January 3


Nicolas Clee

Amazon is still cool. Ebooks now account for a third of fiction sales in the UK, and this year will rise to half. These sales go mostly to Amazon, which promoted its Kindle e-reader with low prices and now has at least 90% of ebook sales in the UK. Overall, its UK book sales are about as high as sales through all terrestrial bookshops put together.

Book publishers have three main fears:

1 Piracy. For digital entrepreneurs, copyright is no longer sacrosanct. People want to get things for free or cheaply, but they are also happy to pay what they see as fair prices.

2 Lower prices. The average price paid for an ebook in the UK is about £3, for a bestselling paperback novel about £4.20, and for a bestselling hardback novel about £11.

3 Irrelevance. Authors have the increasingly viable choice of self-publishing. Internet distribution has vastly reduced the cost and difficulty of publishing a digital manuscript as a book.

Kindle Direct Publishing encouraged many thousands of aspiring authors to self-publish their work. It pays from 35% to 70% of the returns from sales. Book publishers paid authors just 15% of the returns until they were pressed to pay 25%. Amazon has been welcome for readers and authors.

2014 January 2


The Times

Volgograd suicide bomber suspect and former ambulance paramedic Pavel Pechyonkin:
"I am not inventing anything from the Koran; I am reading it. Why should we follow those Christian commandments, when Allah — all glory to him — urges us to fight those kaffirs [infidels]? Why shouldn't we leave their children orphaned?"

AR This is evidence for the hard Sam Harris line on Islam.

2014 January 1

The Answer

Andy Ross

The answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is 42, said Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the second novel of that trilogy, the hero Arthur Dent tried to discover the question to which 42 was the Answer. When someone playing Scrabble spelled out "forty two" Arthur pulled more letters from the bag, but only made the string: "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?" He despaired: "Six by nine. Forty two." When told on a BBC forum in 2007 that in base 13 arithmetic six by nine is 42, Adams responded, "I may be a sorry case, but I don't write jokes in base 13." As it happens, 42 equals 101010 in binary code, but this is still a joke.

The history of human attempts to find big answers is fascinating, to me at least, and seems well worth a longer look. More to the point, I have a big answer of my own, which is about as practical as 42 and rather less amusing, but at least more helpful in one interesting way. ...

PDF: 8 pages, 211 KB

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