BLOG 2014 Q4

ISS view over Syria and Israel to Egypt, 2014-12-25

I watched the ISS fly over my garden at 17:21 GMT
on Christmas Eve

"One of the great legacies of our culture is that we have a supremely great poet who keeps reminding us how words make us who we are. This means that having good words around us — an imaginative context that feeds us — is not a luxury but a necessity of life."
Rowan Williams


Angela Merkel is named
The Times Person of the Year
for taking control of western
talks with Vladimir Putin.

Venus Express
was a Venus weather satellite. Now it is out of gas. Next month it will slip out of orbit and burn out in a fireball. Because Venus has no magnetic field, the solar wind slams into the atmosphere and engulfs the planet in huge explosions. Venus is really sensitive to space weather.


2014 December 31


Melanie McDonagh

The anti-Islamization movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) is causing controversy in Germany. The movement has swelled from a few hundred last October in Dresden to the thousands the Monday meetings attract now in cities around Germany. Its supporters feel that mainstream politicians have not articulated popular concerns about immigration, and notably immigration from outside Europe.

Most immigrants to Germany are from other parts of Europe, and are mostly secular or Christian. The largest group of Muslim migrants has been the Turks, who were formerly guest workers. But events in Iraq, Syria, and the Arab world have added to the numbers coming to Germany. The numbers seeking asylum in Germany, many of them Muslim, were over 77,000 for the first six months of this year, and have grown since. In all, 16 million people living in Germany came from abroad. In 2013, the number of arrivals was 1.2 million, of whom 1.1 million were non-Germans.

The German question underlying concerns about Islam is what constitutes the state or the nation. The immigration has happened by default, not by explicit consent. The Alternative for Deutschland party has failed to make more headway because of the overwhelming popularity of Angela Merkel, the mother of the nation, but German politics will change soon enough. Disquiet over the changing nature of Germany will continue to show through PEGIDA.

2014 December 30

Maritime Patrol

The Times

The UK government needs to shore up its maritime patrol capability. When the government scrapped the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft in 2010, it left the UK dangerously exposed. Nimrod MRA4 had cost £3.8 billion to develop but was never deployed.

Conservative MP Julian Lewis: "The Russian navy is known to be developing the most advanced underwater technologies, and are procuring new, more stealthy submarines."

Conservative MP James Gray: "Nimrod and similar aircraft are not the only way for the UK to maintain a coastal patrol capability. It is also possible to use satellites or other capabilities and technologies owned by our European allies."

The US Navy flies P-8 Poseidon aircraft. Boeing sees the UK as a prime market for Poseidon. The UK government says a decision will be taken after the 2015 general election.

2014 December 29

Life In Space

Charles Fishman

The International Space Station (ISS) is big. It has the length and width of a football field, weighs as much as a fully loaded jumbo jet, and has more interior volume than a jumbo. It soars into a fresh sunrise every 92 minutes.

The ISS is half American, half Russian. Each nation manages its own side of the craft. The US side includes modules or equipment from Canada, Japan, and Europe, and typically a visiting astronaut from one of those places. The role of station commander alternates between a cosmonaut and an astronaut. A total of 216 people have lived there.

Astronaut workdays are scripted by the people on the ground. Every minute of an astronaut workday is mapped out in blocks devoted to specific tasks. A click on a time block expands it to present all the steps necessary to perform the task at hand. Most of the workday is devoted merely to maintaining the station, handling logistics, and staying healthy.

American astronaut Mike Fincke has served 3 missions, 381 days, with 9 space walks totaling 48 hours, at the ISS: "A little push with your big toe will take you halfway across the station. It's like being Superman."

2014 December 28

Life Is Quantum

Johnjoe McFadden

Erwin Schrödinger proposed that life inhabits a border zone between quantum and classical worlds. Genes are too small for the accuracy of their copying to depend on the classical emergence of order from disorder, so he guessed that genes involve aperiodic crystals mutating via quantum jumps and that life reflects a quantum order.

A decade later, Watson and Crick unveiled the double helix. Molecular biology remained largely wedded to the concepts of classical physics, but recent experiments indicate that some life processes depend on quantum weirdness.

The sense of smell seems to work because odor molecules fit odor receptors like keys in a lock. The receptors respond to molecular vibrations that might promote quantum tunneling of electrons to open the lock.

Some birds navigate using the Earth's magnetic field. A robin's compass depends on light and detects the angle of magnetic field lines relative to the Earth's surface. It seems the bird uses photon entanglement to do so.

Enzymes speed up chemical reactions. They might work using quantum tunneling by letting electrons and protons jump from one position in a biochemical process to another via quantum teleportation.

Photosynthesis uses light to assemble living matter. Chlorophyll molecules turn light energy into electrical energy, which turns carbon dioxide into plant matter in a reaction center. Somehow, nearly all the photon energy reaches the reaction center. Apparently, instead of going one way through the system, the photons use quantum coherence to go all ways at once.

Gene mutations could involve quantum jumps as nucleotide bases switch between alternative structures by quantum tunneling. In 1999, Jim Al-Khalili and I suggested that proton tunneling might account for adaptive mutation, which appears to occur more frequently when it provides an advantage.

Quantum Biology
Jim Al-Khalili

In 1998, my colleague Johnjoe McFadden wanted to explain adaptive mutations. Mainstream evolutionary theory holds that mutagenesis occurs randomly. Johnjoe proposed that quantum tunneling of protons in hydrogen bonds in DNA might play a role.

We ended up publishing a speculative paper on adaptive mutations. A new field of research bringing together quantum physics, organic chemistry, and molecular biology has burst into life.

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden

AR I was most impressed by McFadden's 2002 sketch of an electromagnetic theory of consciousness (since it so resembled my own photonic theory: see my 2009 book Mindworlds and citations therein). I met Johnjoe at TSC 2003 in Prague and we enjoyed good talks both there and later in London. We considered a collaboration, with me as a quantum expert to complement his biology, but of course he was better off with Jim (whose recent TV series on quantum physics confirmed his expertise).

2014 December 27

Reagan Rx

Fareed Zakaria

The Apollo moon landing triggered all kinds of technological innovations and solutions that then had commercial applications. Apollo needed small computers for its trip and NASA bought integrated circuits, helping the computer revolution take off.

GPS technology was originally developed by the US military. After the Cold War ended, the Clinton administration opened up the technology to commercial applications.

The mapping of the human genome attracted $3.8 billion of federal funding from 1990 to 2003. Its impact on the economy from 1988 to 2010 was estimated by Battelle at almost $800 billion.

The United States has dominated the world of basic science for decades, but its share of global research and development is falling. China is on course to surpass the United States in the percentage of its GDP it spends on R&D in just a few years.

Reagan, 1988: "The remarkable thing is that although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does. This is why I've urged Congress to devote more money to research. It is an indispensable investment in America's future."

F-35 Obsolete

Dave Majumdar

The US $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is set to replace almost every type of fighter in the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps inventory. But its Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) is obsolete. Older US jets carry new sensor pods that are far more advanced. The new pods display clearer HD video in both in the IR and optical spectrum, can beam full-motion video feeds to ground troops, and can mark targets with an IR laser beam to coordinate attacks.

The F-35 EOTS was seen as a replacement for targeting pods to preserve stealth. But stealth forced compromises that hinder upgrades. The EOTS camera does not have the range or HR capability found on the targeting pods now carried by US fighters in action. And it is unable to send live video to ground troops. The IR pointer in current aircraft lets the pilot highlight a target. The ground controller can sees its sparkle and confirm the target. Its absence in the F-35 is a problem.

Brain Science

Philip Ball

This is the Age of the Brain. The US BRAIN Initiative, the EU Human Brain Project, and the Japanese Brain/MINDS initiative will explore how the brain does things. But consciousness and brain activity have a somatic element. Emotions are not so much states of the brain as mental representations of states of the body.

The big brain projects are data-gathering exercises. We lack an understanding of how patterns of neural connectivity and interaction lead to thoughts, emotions, creativity and imagination, psychosis and joy. Collecting vast amounts of data without any notion of what you want to ask of it has never been a good way to do science.

2014 Boxing Day

Global Warming


Humans are altering the Earth system at every scale, up to and including the global climate. Going forward, how will human ingenuity handle a warming world? Doomsday predictions of more droughts, fires, floods, and economic disaster are familiar, but our species is innovative and adaptive. What opportunities does global climate change present for making our societies more equitable, prosperous, and resilient in the long run?

On 2015-01-15, Future Tense — a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University — will discuss these issues at the New America offices in Washington DC.

2014 Christmas Day

Jesus: Muslim Prophet

Mehdi Hasan

Jesus, or Isa, as he is known in Arabic, is deemed by Islam to be a Muslim prophet rather than the Son of God, or God incarnate. He is referred to by name in 25 different verses of the Quran. Among the prophets recognised by Islam, Jesus is second only to Muhammad.

According to Islamic theology, Christ introduced a new way based on the love of God. Sufi philosopher al-Ghazali described Jesus as the prophet of the soul and Sufi master Ibn Arabi called him the seal of saints.

Muslims see the virgin birth as evidence of Jesus' unique importance as a prophet and a messiah. They reject the Trinity, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. They believe that Jesus was raised bodily to heaven by God. Muslims claim their Jesus is the historical Jesus, as he might have been without St Paul or St Augustine or the Council of Nicaea.

A.N. Wilson: "Islam is a moral and intellectual acknowledgement of the lordship of God without the encumbrance of Christian mythological baggage ... Christianity will decline ... and the religious hunger of the human heart will be answered by the Crescent, not the Cross."

2014 Christmas Eve

Peace On Earth

Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack

In most of the world, the homicide rate is sinking. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. The global rate appears to be down from 71 homicides per million people in 2003 to 62 in 2012.

Rates of rape and violence against women have been sinking in America for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Many countries are working to reduce such crimes. Children too are safer than in the past.

Genocide and other mass killing of noncombatant civilians has dropped by about three orders of magnitude since the decade after World War II, and by four orders of magnitude since the war itself.

The number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945. In 7 of the 11 wars that flared since 2010, radical Islamist groups were one side in the struggle. The world is not falling apart.

Fairy Tales

Rowan Williams

Fairy tales are gradually turning into myths. They are just about the only stories we have in common with which to think through deep dilemmas and to keep alive registers of emotion and imagination otherwise being eroded. The fairy tale carries a new burden of significance.

One way of understanding the fairy tale is to see it as dramatizing the human confrontation with nature and destiny. We never know when help is at hand. The conviction underlying all this sort of storytelling is that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful.

Myths provide a framework for imagining our human situation overall. A world of edges, shocks, and possible help or danger from outside may be the mythology we need.

AR Rowan speaks as a Christian watching Islam.



To Venus
Robotic exploration
Crewed mission to orbit
for 30 days
Crewed mission to airship
for 30 days
Crewed mission to airship
for 1 year
Floating cloud city

Decrypted Secrets
Friedrich L. Bauer

AR TU München Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Friedrich L. Bauer and I spent years in the 1990s working on the English translation and update of his modern classic on cryptology. Among other things, it presents full mathematical details of the Enigma crypts and the methods used in Turing's "bombes" to decrypt them.

"The best single book on
cryptology today."


2014 December 23


IEEE Spectrum

The planet Venus may be nicer than Mars. It's nearer to us and closer in size and it has a density and chemical composition more like Earth. Its surface also much hotter than Earth, at over 700 K, with an atmospheric pressure over 92 times greater, huge volcanoes, and an acidic cloud layer. So the surface is too hostile for humans. But living about 50 km above it could be quite pleasant.

In a High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), NASA scientists propose a city in the clouds, held aloft by balloons like airships. A first mission would send a robot into the Venusian atmosphere to check it out. Then a crewed mission would orbit Venus for 30 days. The next mission would fly a crewed airship for 30 days. Later missions would have a crew spend a year in an airship. Eventually permanent colonists would live in a floating cloud city.

At an altitude of 50 km, Venusian atmospheric pressure is like that at sea level on Earth, and Venus has only slightly lower gravity than Earth. The radiation level in the Venusian atmosphere is about the same as in Canada. By contrast, Mars has has a very thin atmosphere, low gravity, and high radiation. The temperature at 50 km on Venus is 75°C, not too hot for an airship cooled by power from sunlight some 40% brighter than on Earth.

Venus is often much closer to Earth than Mars is. A crewed mission to Venus would take 440 days using existing or planned rockets: 110 days out, 30 days there, and 300 days back, with the option to abort and fly back to Earth immediately after arrival. Getting to Mars and back using the same technology would involve at least 500 days in space and possibly up to 900 days, with no abort option.

For the first crewed missions, a helium-filled airship nearly 130 m long would be covered on top with solar panels and have a gondola slung underneath for a small habitat and an ascent vehicle for the return trip. The airship would be sent in advance (folded up inside a spacecraft) and the crew would dock with it from a transit vehicle in Venus orbit.

The airship would enter the Venusian atmosphere inside an aeroshell at 7200 m/s. The aeroshell would decelerate to 450 m/s and then deploy a parachute. The aeroshell would drop away and the airship would unfurl and inflate until its lift and drag slowed it down. It would then fully inflate and float in the wind. Equatorial winds of about 100 m/s would carry it around the planet in 110 hours. The winds veer north, so to stay on course the airship would use solar power to push south by day and drift north to conserve power at night.

The crew would do science from inside a small (21 cubic m) habitat based on the NASA Space Exploration Vehicle. From the airship payload of 70 tons, nearly 60 tons is the ascent vehicle, a winged rocket slung below the airship. To head home, the crew would get into a capsule at the front of the rocket, drop from the airship, and blast back into orbit. They would dock with their transit vehicle, fly back to Earth orbit, and dock with a final capsule for touchdown.

NASA could put a crewed mission to Venus ahead of one to Mars.

Nuclear UK

John Lindberg

Our use of fossil fuels is not sustainable. We must act now to make the world safer and cleaner. We need to adopt nuclear fission with thorium as reactor fuel and then to develop fusion reactors.

Thorium nuclear power is not new. Uranium was chosen instead of thorium because it can help make nuclear weapons. Now the Indians and Chinese are investing in thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Thorium is much more abundant than uranium but is just as potent as fuel. Proposed reactor designs for thorium feature passive safety and a much reduced waste disposal problem. The reactors can recycle highly radioactive waste from uranium power plants to leave no waste that requires 100,000 years or more of storage. We have the expertise for thorium power. What we need is political will.

Fusion is clean and safe. A first generation of fusion reactors would burn lithium to provide power for thousands of years and the second generation would burn deuterium. G2 fusion reactors would have enough fuel to last until the end of mankind.

The UK must take the lead in research and development. Renewable sources will never provide base load. Only nuclear can do that. We must show faith in our scientists. Seize the day!

2014 December 22

Islamic State

Frederik Pleitgen

Juergen Todenhoefer traveled deep into the caliphate and visited Mosul. Islamic State fighter: "We hit their front lines hard, also using suicide attacks. Then the others fled very quickly. We fight for Allah, they fight for money and other things that they do not really believe in."

Todenhoefer: "When we stayed at their recruitment house, there were 50 new fighters who came every day. And I just could not believe the glow in their eyes. They felt like they were coming to a promised land, like they were fighting for the right thing. ... I think the Islamic State is a lot more dangerous than Western leaders realize. They believe in what they are fighting for and are preparing the largest religious cleansing campaign the world has ever seen."

Alan Turing

Christian Caryl

British computer science pioneer Alan Turing made an enormous contribution to Allied victory in the second world war. Anyone trying to turn his story into a movie must either embrace the richness of Turing as a character, and trust the audience to follow, or simply capitulate by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius.

The Imitation Game takes the latter path. Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore are determined to suggest maximum dramatic tension between their tragic outsider and a blinkered society. This not only fatally miscasts Turing as a character, it also completely destroys any coherent telling of what he and his colleagues were trying to do.

In reality, Turing was an entirely willing participant in a collective enterprise that featured a host of other outstanding intellects. Three Polish experts had already spent years figuring out how to attack the German Enigma cipher machine and provided the template for the machines Turing later created. Turing and his colleagues were encouraged in their work by a military leadership that had a pretty sound understanding of cryptological principles and operational security.

In the movie version of events, Turing and his small group spend the first two years of the war in fruitless isolation, and only in 1941 does his crazy machine finally show any results. This is a highly stylized version of the epic struggle to crack the German navy cipher. In fact, Turing's "bombes" were helping to decipher German army and air force codes from early on. The movie presents a bizarre departure from the historical record.

The film also ladles in extra doses of intrigue where none existed. Even if you believe that Turing was driven to his death, the movie treatment of his fate borders on the ridiculous. There is no basis for any of this in the historical record. Bad faith underlies the whole enterprise.

2014 Winter Solstice

Elf On The Shelf

Washington Post

The Elf on the Shelf is a scout elf sent from the North Pole to help Santa Claus manage his naughty and nice lists. The doll comes with a popular Xmas book.

Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin say this is a capillary form of power that normalizes the voluntary surrender of privacy, teaching young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance and reify hegemonic power.

When children enter the play world of The Elf on the Shelf, they may not touch the doll and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. They are taught to accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures.

The Elf on the Shelf contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects.

AR Starter pack for a Jesus doll that reports to God.

Good As Gold

Michael Sandel

If I ruled the world, I would rewrite the economics textbooks. This would be a big step toward a better civic life. Today, we often confuse market reasoning for moral reasoning. We fall into thinking that economic efficiency defines the common good. But this is a mistake.

Economics presents itself as a value-neutral science of human behavior. Increasingly, we accept this way of thinking and apply it to all manner of public policies and social relations. But the economistic view of the world makes for an impoverished public discourse, and a managerial, technocratic politics.

I would reconnect economics with its origins in moral and political philosophy. Consider the growing use of cash incentives to solve social problems. The NHS is experimenting with cash rewards to people for losing weight, quitting smoking, or taking medications. I would ask whether the cash incentive might drive out attitudes worth caring about.

Market reasoning must answer to moral reasoning.

Michael Sandel
Michael Sandel

Collecting for the Mayor's
charities, Dolphin Centre


Dresden: Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes

The Sunday Times
Brits Back
Hundreds of British troops from the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Armoured Corps will deploy to Iraq in early 2015. A fleet of Foxhound, Ridgeback and Mastiff vehicles is being prepared in Dubai, where they are stored after airlift from Afghanistan.

Poole 2014-12-12: me

John Sellwood
My New Zealand nephew Commander John Sellwood won the top award for the Advanced Command and Staff Course
(Joint) 2014

Top: Mount Sharp,
Gale Crater, Mars
Bottom: As the
crater once was?


2014 December 20

Juden hinter Muslime

Der Spiegel

Die Pegida-Bewegung stellt sich gegen eine angebliche Islamisierung in Deutschland. Nun stellt sich der Zentralrat der Juden hinter die Muslime.

Zentralratsvorsitzende Josef Schuster: "Wir dürfen die Pegida-Leute auf keinen Fall unterschätzen. Die Bewegung ist brandgefährlich."

2014 December 19

Xmas Dinner
With the Mayor of Poole, Borough of Poole Councillors, the MP for Poole, and others
Royal Motor Yacht Club
Sandbanks, Poole

A man not preoccupied with the excellence of his dinner should be suspected of inaccuracy in other things.
Samuel Johnson

Mideast Strategy

Vali R. Nasr

The Mideast is in turmoil. Islamic State is carving out a new Sunni realm in Iraq and Syria. Arab governments tremble at popular demands for change. America needs Sunni partners and Shiite partners, and President Obama has suggested that the United States and Iran should collaborate against Islamic State, but a resolution of the nuclear standoff is necessary for broader strategic cooperation to develop. An investment in grand strategy would be the surest way for America to free itself of Mideast problems.

2014 December 18

Methane On Mars

The Guardian

NASA says Curiosity has detected methane at about 1 part per billion in the Martian atmosphere. Life might be the source. On Earth, animals burp or fart methane as a waste gas. On Mars, underground microbes could be putting out the gas.

Other processes can make methane. Rocks bearing olivine on Mars can react with water to produce methane. Subsurface clathrates can release it in bursts over time. And it can be made in reactions between cosmic dust and UV sunlight.

NASA is planning a Mars 2020 mission as part of a campaign to bring back Martian rock samples. A joint European-Russian mission will launch the ExoMars rover and a Mars trace gas orbiter in 2018 with the goal of looking for life.

2014 December 17

Islamist Turkey


Hundreds of schools in Turkey are caught up in an education overhaul that threatens to roll back the country's secular foundation. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says it is responding to demand, but parents and teachers from affected schools say that the conversions are being pushed through against their wishes.

The government plans to build mosques in 80 different state universities and to convert one Istanbul university into a center for Islamic learning. Almost a million pupils are enrolled in imam-hatip religious schools, in which around a quarter of class hours are dedicated to Sunni Islamic study. Parents and teachers say administrators are restricting optional classes so pupils are forced to take religious ones.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Republic of Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman empire in 1923. Over 15 years, he set about rooting out the influence of Islam from Turkish society. He banned sharia courts, closed all madrasas, shut down private Islamic orders, and banished religious education from state schools. Turbans and the fez were banned, and the hijab was outlawed in public offices. Atatürk abolished the caliphate.

Since Atatürk's death in 1938, resistance to his reforms within Turkey has steadily eroded them. Some even contend that the entire Republican project was a mistake. The present government's religious agenda could expose Turkey to the turmoil roiling Iraq and Syria.

Mideast Christians

Douglas Murray

Across what was Nineveh, Iraqi Christians spent this year fleeing from village to village, hoping to find safety somewhere. Now in Acton, London, a beleaguered congregation of Iraqi Christians sing hymns in Syriac, hear sermons in Arabic, and pray for the dead in Aramaic.

Everybody in this London congregation has a story. They tell of Muslim neighbors stealing their houses. Some of their relatives were taken to the mosques and forcibly converted to Islam. Others were martyred. A woman: "It is the end."

2014 December 16


Der Spiegel

PEGIDA - Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes - bringt immer mehr Bürger auf die Straße. An diesem Montagabend sind in Dresden 15.000 Menschen gekommen, so viele wie noch nie. PEGIDA vereint sie alle: die Frustrierten, die Ängstlichen, die Wütenden.

Gegen "die Zuwanderungsschwemme, irgendwann ist mal Schluss", wie ein 48-Jähriger ruft. Gegen die "Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge, die sich in der sozialen Hängematte Deutschlands" ausruhen, wie es ein 51-Jähriger ausdrückt. Gegen "die obere Klasse, die Politik, die sich abschottet", wie ein etwa 60-Jähriger sagt.

PEGIDA-Frontmann Lutz Bachmann: "Wir sprechen nicht mit der Presse, dabei bleibt es. Vorhin habe ich aber mit Al-Jazeera ein Interview gemacht."


Al Jazeera

German police have noted a significant rise in far-right extremism and attacks targeting foreigners. The trend is seen as a backlash against a sharp increase in refugees arriving in Germany.

Dresden has seen a rise in anti-Islam "Monday marches" under the slogan PEGIDA, "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident", which drew over 10,000 people a week ago.

A poll for Spiegel found a majority of Germans were open to some of the views voiced by PEGIDA. A third of those polled believed Germany was undergoing a process of Islamization, while two thirds said the German government was not taking current record levels of immigration and asylum seekers seriously enough.

Germany has an estimated 4 million Muslims, in a total population of about 80 million.

2014 December 15


UK prime minister David Cameron visited Poole today. He spoke on the economy at Magna Academy and visited a housing development in Hamworthy.


2014 December 14

The Russian Military

Jonathan Masters

Russian conventional forces dwarf those of its Eastern European and Central Asian neighbors. As part of defense reforms, most Russian ground forces are to be professionalized and reorganized, but for the foreseeable future many will remain conscripts with limited training.

Moscow is intent on remilitarizing its Arctic territory and is restoring its airfields and ports to help protect hydrocarbon resources and shipping lanes. But much military equipment remains decades old. The Russian navy is little more than a coastal protection force. All of its large vessels are holdovers from the Cold War.

Russian air power is also limited. Most of the air force dates from the Cold War, but modernization of air and space defenses is a top priority of the rearmament program. A consolidated Aerospace Defense Command will deploy a SAM system near Moscow and along the Russian border.

The Russian nuclear arsenal remains on par with the United States. Moscow has about 1,500 strategic warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines, and heavy bombers. There are also believed to be some 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads. Moscow appeared to lower its nuclear threshold in 2000, permitting the use of such weapons in response to major conventional attacks.

The Russian military budget has more than doubled over the last decade, behind only China and the United States. Russia is about halfway through a $700 billion weapons modernization program.

Russian leaders acknowledge that there is now little threat of a large NATO land invasion but they criticize the eastward expansion of the alliance. NATO members need to prepare for Russian guerilla tactics and Baltic governments should be wary of Russian subversion.

The American Middle

Jim Tankersley

The stock market is soaring and US unemployment is sinking. But all that growth has done nothing to boost average pay. Real household median income is still lower than it was when the recession ended.

The American middle class is in trouble. Over the past 25 years, the economy has grown 83%, after adjusting for inflation, but typical family income has stagnated. Corporate profits have doubled as a share of the economy and workers today produce nearly twice as many goods and services per hour on the job as they did in 1989. Yet in 81% of US counties, the median income is lower today than it was 15 years ago.

A smaller share of Americans enjoy the fruits of an expanding economy. Republicans and Democrats keep promising to help the middle class reclaim its prosperity, but to no avail.

2014 December 13

The Sexual Revolution

Cosmo Landesman

In the battle of ideas, some academics once believed that sexual minorities could subvert the system. The personal was political. The heterosexual penis and oppressive patriarchy went hand in hand and led to rape, nuclear war, and ecological devastation.

Today everyone wants to be like boring white heterosexuals. Sexual outsiders have come in from the margins and bought into the lifestyle of the Great White Males they once despised. It is not the white male heterosexual who is facing a crisis of identity, but members of the gay, lesbian, and transsexual community. They have lost their transgressive edge.

The white heterosexual male can no longer expect everyone to conform to his idea of sexuality or being normal. The sex war is over. We boring white heterosexual males have won.

2014 December 12

No Truth

Peter Pomerantsev

Russians have created a society of simulations, with fake elections, a fake free press, a fake free market, and fake justice. They are led by religious Russian patriots who curse the decadent West while keeping their children and money in London. All cultures split the public and private selves, but in Russia that split is often total.

As the Kremlin plays the West, we see it extend the tactics it uses at home to foreign affairs. At the core of this strategy is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. The Kremlin replaces facts with disinformation.

2014 December 11

Mideast War

The New York Times

President Obama is conducting the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria under an outdated 2001 authorization, without explicit approval by Congress and without the limitations that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has urged. But there are too many red flags about the potential for mission creep to ignore. Obama says he has all the authority he needs under the 2001 authorization. Any action on his authorization must be accompanied by a thorough debate about American policy toward the Islamic State.

Twin Earth

Sarah Scoles

Astronomers now estimate that our galaxy contains at least as many planets as stars. Planets are normal and the sun is an unremarkable star. Our solar system lives in a suburb of the galaxy. Our Milky Way is just one of countless other galaxies. Our collection of known planets contains ever more small orbs that might have rocks and water, in a habitable zone where life as we know it could exist.

Earthlings have made a huge cultural shift, from wanting to be the center of the universe to wanting not to be alone. What disturbs us now is to think Earth is somehow special. Astronomers want to find a twin Earth. Otherwise we might be alone, thrust back toward the philosophical center. The discovery of Earth 2.0 will transform a numbingly cold universe back into a cosmos we can connect with.

2014 December 10


Jason Mark

Escape is not an option, at least not in a time frame relevant to our current environmental predicament.

"It's a perfect planet," one of the astronauts says in Interstellar, referring to spaceship Earth. "We're not going to find another one like it."

Placards at climate marches: "There Is No Planet B."

Wet Mars

New Scientist

Gale Crater on Mars was once a large lake. The Curiosity rover has found evidence of multiple cycles of water flowing into a lake that could have lasted tens of millions of years. The lake dried out and reappeared several times, laying down the sediments that make up Mount Sharp.

Curiosity encountered conglomerate rocks full of pebbles that were probably deposited by rivers. As it continued, the landscape changed to sandstones that were all tilted toward the mountain.

Caltech project scientist John Grotzinger: "If Mount Sharp had been there and water had been flowing off Mount Sharp, it would be flowing downhill to the north. But the rocks that are exposed show the water flowing to the south."

Water flowed from the crater rim toward the interior, filling up an ancient lake. At the base of the mountain, sandstone layers become thinner and flatter, as if they were laid down more slowly, without currents swirling them around. But how did the Martian atmosphere stay wet enough to prevent the lake from evaporating?

JPL deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada: "The climate system must have been loaded with water. The question is, could temporary climate fluctuations form what we see geologically, or do we need longer term warm wet climate?"

2014 December 9

Income Inequality


Rising inequality in the years after 1985 reduced UK growth. The economy expanded by 40% during the 1990s and 2000s but would have grown by almost 50% had inequality not risen. Reducing income inequality could have increased growth over 25 years, with a cumulated GDP gain of over 7%.

Governments should rejig tax systems to make sure wealthier individuals pay their fair share. Policymakers need to consider those at risk of failing to benefit from the recovery and future growth. Countries that promote equal opportunity for all from an early age will grow and prosper.

2014 December 8

City Loot Haven

The Observer

The City of London is a haven for dishonest officials from overseas to hide stolen money. Conservative MP Stephen Barclay, who worked in senior anti-money-laundering roles at the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and Barclays Bank, says a long-awaited government anti-corruption plan does not address flaws in the British financial system that allow crooked officials from foreign countries to launder their loot in London banks. Barclay says UK government investigators do not have enough time to carry out detailed checks on suspicious transactions in UK banks.


SET for BRITAIN awards support and promote early-stage and early-career research scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians in the UK.

2014 December 7

Science Fiction

Noah Berlatsky

American capitalism is dedicated to the cult of growth and expansion. The new boss is ever bigger, better, and cooler than the old. The ideology of eternal improvement fits pop sci-fi neatly. Technology advances and humans mutate into X-Men without ever prompting a consideration of alternatives.

Science fiction is everywhere in popular culture. But it has largely jettisoned the future. Star Wars is a fantasy in which tomorrow is just a place to rearrange the robots on a Titanic that never sinks. Progress has conquered the present so thoroughly it no longer even needs to push forward.

Falkland Square, Poole, 2014-12-06: Vishal Gupta, Cllr Carol Evans, Cllr Elaine Atkinson, Robert Syms MP, me




2014 December 6

Christmas Homily

Giles Fraser

Christians make better humanists. Christmas Christianity imagines God as a human infant.

Christians have not always been convincing humanists. In too many cases, religion has stood over and against human flourishing. Denigrations of the human should be an affront to Christian values.

What makes human beings morally distinctive? Darwin was right but evolution hardly encourages us to think of human beings as uniquely valuable. Some may say because we are rational. But are rational people more morally valuable than irrational ones? Surely not. No, it requires a leap of faith.

Atheists are not always at the forefront of defending human life when it comes up against other values such as choice. If by humanism we mean that human being is morally superior to all other categories, many of us find a more robust form of humanism at Christmas.

Christian Humanism

Angus Ritchie and Nick Spencer

Christians ought to be proud of their humanist credentials, rather than seeing humanism as a kind of atheism. Were it not for Christianity, the ideas of humanism would not have developed in Europe.

The Christian faith provides a firmer foundation for humanist beliefs than evolutionary atheism. A commitment to reliable rationality, to moral realism, and to human dignity can only be secured on a theistic basis. The price of humanism is philosophical rigor.

2014 December 5

UK 2020

The Guardian

The National Audit Office recently warned that more than half of councils currently risk financial failure by the end of the decade. The Local Government Association estimates that the current £1.6 billion gap between adult social care demand and available resources will rise to £4.3 billion by 2020. In town and county halls there is talk of existential and financial crisis.

Orion Test Success


Orion is built to take humans deep into space. Orion will carry a crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the trip, and provide safe re-entry to Earth.

NASA launched Orion atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on a successful flight that tested many systems critical to safety, such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes, and the heat shield.

In the future, Orion will launch on the Space Launch System. The SLS will be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars.



To curb the changing climate, we can:

1 Capture carbon from the air to form limestone.

2 Plant new growth forests to capture carbon from the air.

3 Seed the ocean with iron to feed microalgae that free oxygen from carbon dioxide, then sink
    into the depths, sequestering the carbon.

4 Spray the atmosphere with sulfate aerosols that absorb sunlight and cool the Earth.

2014 December 4

Bet On Growth

The Times

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne cut taxes for most homebuyers yesterday and bet on a growing economy powered by rising property prices. Four years ago Britain had been at the brink. Now it had "higher growth, lower unemployment, falling inflation, and a deficit that is falling too".


Phil Zuckerman

To me, someone is secular if hen does not:
1 hold any supernatural beliefs about deities, spirits, or netherworlds
2 engage in any religious rituals or rites
3 identify or affiliate with a religious group, denomination, or tradition.

Secularization is a historical process whereby a given society becomes less religious over time. Whereas secularism implies ideology, social movement, political agenda, how things ought to be.

Jeffersonian secularism is the political position that church and state ought to be separate and that government ought to be as neutral as possible when it comes to religion in the public square. This version of secularism is what used to be called disestablishmentarianism.

Secularism is growing in virtually all nations for which we have data. The vast majority of people who walk away from religion don't miss it.

2014 December 3


Anne Applebaum

Since 2000, Russia has been ruled by an elite with origins in the old KGB. Horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of KGB officers hid state money in offshore banks and used it to take over Russia. They maintain control by issuing contradictory regulations that force everyone to violate one law or another.

Vladimir Putin emerged as king of the thieves. After he became president in 2000, he preserved some of the language of reform in his public statements. He remained open to relationships with NATO and with American and European leaders and he regularly attended meetings of the G8. But he never abandoned his KGB methods. He made no attempt to encourage entrepreneurial capitalism in Russia or to create a legal system that would allow small businesses to grow. People who did not play by his rules were destroyed.

Putin systematically destroyed the nascent institutions of liberal democratic society. He refused to tolerate any real political opposition and eviscerated independent media. In place of a genuine media and a real civil society, Putin and his inner circle set up a system for manufacturing disinformation and mobilizing support.

2014 December 2

Ukraine in NATO? Nein

Christoph Schult

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he would like to hold a referendum on NATO membership. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg confirms the right of every sovereign nation in Europe to apply for NATO membership. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees NATO membership for Ukraine as a red line. Only the Baltic states and Poland currently support Ukrainian accession to NATO.

Bundesaußenminister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: "Für die Bündnisfrage gilt: Ich sehe partnerschaftliche Beziehungen der Ukraine mit der NATO, aber keine Mitgliedschaft."

Islamic State

Ahmed Rashid

Islamic State is determined to reshape the Mideast as a unitary Caliphate. The number of Christians in Iraq has dwindled from a million in 2003 to a quarter that number today. Half a million Assyrians have fled, as have thousands of Armenians and Greeks. Syria is even worse off. Arab states need to convince their populations that the extremism of Islamic State is destroying tolerant Islam.

2014 December 1

French Blue

The Times

Marine Le Pen wins the support of her National Front party for a presidential run: "Messieurs Sarkozy and Hollande, you have failed in everything. You were entrusted with a treasure: France. You were entrusted with a diamond: its people. You damaged one. You abandoned the other."

Le Pen, 46, is polling ahead in the presidential race for May 2017. With her anti-immigrant stance and pledges to leave the euro and the EU, she has set the agenda in a bleak political landscape.

AR Adieu, old EU.

Ocean Spirals

Shimizu Corporation has unveiled a scheme for a new Atlantis, an ocean city.

Ocean Spirals are floating globes mounted on long spiral springs that anchor them to the seabed. Each globe is 500 m in diameter and accommodates up to 5,000 people in hotels, residential areas, and commercial spaces. It generally floats on the surface to enjoy sunlight, but can be retracted below the waves in bad weather.

The spring spirals 3 or 4 km down to the ocean floor. Pods move up and down its 15 km spiral track to a seabed station. Power is generated from organisms that convert carbon dioxide to methane and from the heat gradient between the surface and the depths. The station harvests manganese and other profitable minerals.

Shimizu says it could build the first Ocean Spiral by 2030 for about $25 billion.

More Shimizu dreams



The British RAF has taken delivery of its first A400M Atlas military transport aircraft.

Euler's identity

eiπ + 1 = 0

AR Math = joy


2014 St Andrew's Day

Winston Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, 140 years ago today.

2014 November 29

Saudi Arabia — Islamic State

Karen Armstrong

Islamic State was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the caliphate. Its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam developed 200 years ago in Arabia.

During the 18C CE, revivalist movements sprang up as the Muslim imperialists lost control of peripheral territories. Westerners were separating church from state, but Muslim reformers insisted that God dominated the political order.

Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91 CE) was a scholar in central Arabia. He was obsessed by idolatry and opposed Sufism and Shiaism as heresies. He found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a local chieftain, who enforced Wahhabism with the sword. Ibn Saud's son took Mecca in 1803 CE.

Wahhabism returned during WWI when a Saudi chieftain carved out a kingdom with his devout Bedouin army, the Ikhwan. Over time, the Saudis settled into religious conservatism and used oil wealth to export Wahhabism worldwide.

Like the Ikhwan, Islamic State represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are resisting its attacks on the kingdom.

AR Blame Lawrence of Arabia.

2014 November 28

Vote for Paxman

The Times

Tory figures are wooing the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman to run as a Conservative candidate for mayor of London. Paxman, 64, at a literary festival this summer: "I have to be frank — I suppose I am a One Nation Tory, yes."

The phrase "One Nation Tory" originated with Benjamin Disraeli, who became Conservative Prime Minister in 1868, He presented his political philosophy in two novels. He proposed a paternalistic society with the working class receiving support from the establishment and emphasised social obligation rather than individualism.

The Tory Reform Group works to promote the values of One Nation Conservatism: a modern, progressive Conservatism that strives for economic efficiency and social justice; a Conservatism that supports equality, diversity and civil liberties.

"The TRG has contributed greatly to the Conservative Party over the last 30 years and is central to where we need to be in the future."
— David Cameron, 2009

AR I have to be frank — I like this.

2014 November 27

EU Hope

The Times

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker announced a €300 billion spending plan to kick-start the EU economy and revive morale: "We are offering hope to millions of Europeans disillusioned after years of stagnation."

Too Good To Be True

Larry Elliott

A €300 billion plan to revive the eurozone economy by investing in infrastructure. A Brussels fightback against austerity. It sounds too good to be true.

And it is. There is only €20 billion of new money, with the rest coming from the private sector. Critics liken the scheme to subprime mortgage debt. In the €13 trillion eurozone economy, the sum is small and will take time to arrive. A list of projects will have to be assessed by a panel of experts before a final list can be drawn up. This is a recipe for bureaucratic delay.

The European Central Bank is likely to opt for quantitative easing. This will dwarf the Juncker plan. But at least he recognizes just how bad things are.

2014 November 26

Pope: Europe Ails

The New York Times

Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament to say Europe has lost its way, its energies sapped by economic crisis and a remote, technocratic bureaucracy.

"In recent years, as the European Union has expanded, there has been growing mistrust on the part of citizens toward institutions considered to be aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful."

On immigrants: "We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery. The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance."

On work: "The time has come to promote policies which create employment, but above all, there is a need to restore dignity to labor by ensuring proper working conditions."

On the poor: "How many of them there are in our streets! They ask not only for the food they need for survival, which is the most elementary of rights, but also for a renewed appreciation of the value of their own life, which poverty obscures, and a rediscovery of the dignity conferred by work."

Europe remains suffused with Christianity. Even the EU flag designed by Arsène Heitz in 1955 was inspired by Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary.

2014 November 25

Hagel Resigns

The New York Times

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has resigned. Officials said the decision was a recognition that the threat from the militant group Islamic State will require new skills. The US military is back on a war footing. In August Hagel called Islamic State an "imminent threat to every interest we have" when the administration was still struggling to define the threat.

Chuck Out

Foreign Policy

Hagel was not seen as a strong secretary of defense. He was seen as having become a conduit for the growing frustrations of the military leadership in the Department of Defense toward the president and his White House team, particularly regarding the growing threat posed by the Islamic State.

But Hagel is not the problem. This administration has alienated its own cabinet members more than any other in memory. At a moment when most second-term presidents have long since bid adieu to their campaign staffers and have focused on governing, Obama is drawing his closer, providing him more of a security blanket than an effective national security team. Anyone offered the top job at the Pentagon ought to think long and hard about accepting it without assurances that the White House will give him or her (and the military) the latitude needed to fulfill the mission.

2014 November 24

Self: The Great Illusion

New Scientist

As you wake up each morning, you gradually become aware of your self inhabiting a human body. As wakefulness grows, so does your sense of having a past and a personality. But this intuitive sense of self is an elaborate illusion.

Poole Bay today

Dan Eckstein
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the Australian Parliament in Canberra. He has generated immense excitement by saying things Indians yearn to hear. But rhetoric and big plans aside, India is still the same.

Shams, 26, was a doctor in Malaysia. She travelled to Syria and married a jihadi. Her diary on their first meeting: "I was trembling ... After few minutes, I flipped my niqab. He looked at me ... and asked ... 'Can we get married today?' "

Benedict Cumberbatch
played Alan Turing in
The Imitation Game.

Alan Turing invented the
Turing machine, designed the
Colossus computer, cracked the Enigma code, and inspired the
Turing award. Cumberbatch:
"This man's achievements
are extraordinary."

Brian Cox
Manchester International Festival will feature physicist Brian Cox and the AR company Magic Leap telling the story of the universe from the big bang to us.


Hen is a Swedish gender-neutral pronoun introduced at two Stockholm nurseries in 2012. Today Swedes use hen frequently and other Europeans are joining the trend. Humboldt University professor Lann Hornscheidt: "Sweden is really the pioneer."


2014 November 24

Islam: The Great Illusion

David Mikics

Hitler and Himmler had a soft spot for Islam. Hitler fantasized that, if the Saracens had not been stopped at Tours, Islam would have spread through the European continent and Jewish Christianity would not have gone on to poison Europe.

The Nazis made sure that the Nuremberg laws were applied only to Jews, not to other Semites such as Arabs. The Grand Mufti of Palestine was useful to the Nazis as a propagandist, but few Muslims believed that Hitler was the protector of Islam.

In the early years of WWI the German Reich saw Muslims as their great hope against the Entente. Instead, Britain and France capitalized on the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire and sliced up the Mideast pie between them.

After WWI, the Entente curtailed Ottoman territory. But the Turks won the new nation of Turkey. Germans portrayed them as trailblazers on the path to strong nationhood. The Turkish treatment of minorities was the true precursor for Nazi genocide.

After WWII, the United States recruited Islamic leaders in its battle against the Soviet Union. Washington even smiled on Saudi funding of radical Islamist organizations, hoping that religion would serve as a bulwark against Soviet Communism.

Even now, President Barack Obama hopes to use Iran as a stabilizing regional force. But Iran cannot be relied on to bring peace to the Mideast, unless we aim at the end state mocked by Tacitus: They make a desert and call it peace.

2014 November 23


A N Wilson

A Reluctant Leader? Germany in the 21st Century
The British Museum, London, 17 Nov 2014

Britain and Germany do not understand one another. The Germans say federalism and are thinking of a long history of the German-speaking lands, going back to the medieval guilds and the Holy Roman Empire, where the pooling of sovereignty and skills among the multifarious states of the place we now call Germany was good. For the Island Race of Britons, however, federalism looks like a threat to sovereignty and independence.

I came away from the British Museum feeling that a conference that had begun with the best intentions had been hijacked somewhere along the line by war. We spent half the day worrying about German attitudes to modern immigrants and wringing our hands about the Third Reich.

Queen Victoria lost out to Bismarck. Had Wilhelm II not become Kaiser, the First World War would surely have been impossible. Victoria, like Michael Stürmer and all intelligent Germans, carried in her bosom an instinctive memory of the Holy Roman Empire, whose chaotic system of government allowed it to be overthrown by French nationalism and the ambition of Napoleon.

A Europe in which Germany, assisted by Britain, is dominant is one in which we are all better off. The present Germany is the most stable and flourishing democracy in the world. This is an achievement of the German people. That is the real story, which the British fail to understand. But we apparently prefer to vote UKIP and demonstrate our stupidity.


Dennis Overbye

The Earth is a dying dust bowl. Schoolchildren are being taught that the moon landings were faked, and NASA is driven underground. This is the world of Interstellar.

Caltech professor Kip Thorne wrote The Science of Interstellar to explain that a lot of hard core physics, especially string theory, was buried in the story. He had the job of keeping the moviemakers from violating any known laws of physics, his criterion for acceptance being something physicists would at least discuss over beer.

Director Chris Nolan asked for a planet on which the dilation of time was so severe that one hour there would correspond to seven years on Earth. Thorne found a way, with the planet very close to a massive black hole spinning very fast. Wormholes and the fifth dimension easily pass the beer test.

As long as it was in space in this universe, the movie worked for me. It was on either end, on Earth and in the fifth dimension, that it goes off the rails.

2014 November 22


Arthur Krystal

"What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us."
Lionel Trilling, 1942

Trilling belonged to a culture of New York intellectuals, French writers, and British critics. Nothing seemed more crucial than deciding which books best reflected the social consciousness of an age. The interpretation of poetry, fiction, history, and philosophy testified to a moral view of the world.

Ideas mattered because they had power. Hegel looked at Napoleon and saw an idea on horseback. Hegel mattered to Marx, Kant had mattered to Coleridge, Schopenhauer mattered to Tolstoy, and Tolstoy mattered to readers in a way our best novelists can no longer hope to duplicate.

Postmodernists exposed ideas embedded in the linguistic and social codes of Western civilization. They mirrored developments in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. The human brain is a big idea that can subsume all others. The gods who mesmerized Trilling have dropped from sight.


David Brooks

Interstellar is all about love, from generation to generation, and across time and space. Twelve apostles go out alone into space to look for habitable planets, sacrificing their lives so that canisters of frozen embryos can be born again.

Science and emotion mingle to create a powerful mystical atmosphere. Quantum entanglement lets two particles that have interacted with each other behave as one even when far apart. The movie shows people in love doing that.

Religious symbols in the movie include the apostles, a Noah's ark, a fallen angel who turns satanic in an inverse Garden of Eden, and space project Lazarus. A vast and incorporeal intelligence offers merciful salvation. Interstellar is big.

2014 November 21

Space: The Final Frontier

Matthew R. Francis

Planetary scientists want the following missions:

Our sister planet has active geology and complex meteorology. Previous missions mapped its surface. A few landed and took samples before being destroyed by the heat and pressure. The Venus Climate Mission would include multiple atmospheric probes and a balloon for more measurements.

Saturn's largest moon has mountains of ice and lakes of methane, and its sky is an orange fog. The Titan Saturn System Mission would include a boating trip on a lake, an orbiter, and a balloon that could stay aloft for a long time.

Jupiter's moon Europa has an icy shell over an ocean of liquid water. The Europa Clipper concept is for a spacecraft designed to orbit Jupiter and fly low over the moon's surface to scoop up plume molecules for analysis.

The red planet was once warmer and wetter than today. Landing a probe on the northern Martian ice cap to use radar or drill down would tell us about Martian history. NASA researchers have also designed gliders and balloons to sample air molecules at various altitudes.

AR I do too.

2014 November 20

Real And Mythic AI

Jaron Lanier

Real AI would probably be less of a threat to us than it is as a fake thing. The myth is destructive.

People are social creatures. If a program tells you this is how things are, this is who you are, this is what you like, or this is what you should do, we have a tendency to accept that. You have these algorithms that rely on big data in order to figure out who you should date, who you should sleep with, what music you should listen to, what books you should read, and on and on and on.

There is no evidence that the recommendations are particularly good. And no way to tell where the border is between measurement and manipulation. It turns into a system that measures which manipulations work. To make it work, we ignore the contributions from all the people whose data we grab. Big data systems are useful. There should be more of them, but if that means more people not being paid for their contributions, then we have an economic problem.

People benefit from all the free stuff and cheap stuff that comes out of the system. But you need formal economic benefit to have a civilization. Things like employment, savings, real estate, and ownership of property and all these things were invented to acknowledge the fragility of the human condition.

The notion of the singularity is similar to divinity. This entity will run the world, and you should be in terrified awe of it. That looks an awful lot like the new digital economy to me. The effect of the new religious idea of AI is a lot like the economic effect of the old idea, religion.

The myth of AI is just a stupid mess. Real AI is something we can improve and apply in useful ways.

2014 November 19

British Immigration

The Times

Britain is granting citizenship to more migrants than any other EU country. Almost a quarter of new passports handed out to migrants by the 28 EU member states are British.

EU states granted citizenship to 820,000 migrants in 2012: Britain 193,000, Germany 114,000, France 96,000, Spain 94,000, Italy 65,000.

About 15% of new UK passports went to Indians, 9% to Pakistanis, 5% to Nigerians, 4% to Filipinos. Fewer than 4% of applications were either refused or withdrawn.

More than 2 million migrants have been given British citizenship since 2000. Adults qualify for British citizenship after 5 years of residence in the UK or marriage to a British citizen and must pass a Home Office test. A spokesman: "British citizenship is a privilege, not a right."

AR Separate the immigration issue, which brings integration costs, from EU membership, which brings business benefits.

Personal Identity

Nina Strohminger

Autobiographical memories might not be key to identity. People who have lost much of their memory tend to report that their sense of self remains intact. Their caretakers often detect the same person persisting beneath radical memory loss.

Souls come to the rescue. The soul bestows upon us our unique identity. A flourishing soul is one in the habit of virtuous acts. Eastern traditions say the soul is reincarnated according to a person's moral behavior. Our moral selves survive us in death.

The identity of a person arises from his moral capacities. Asked which traits a person would most likely still have in a new body, subjects say moral traits, not episodic memories. They say a patient is the least like himself after losing his moral faculties.

The single most important mental trait in judging self-identity is one's deep moral convictions. People are least willing to take psychoactive drugs that threaten their personal identity. People are perfectly willing to take drugs that enhance memory or wakefulness.

Our moral capacities are not our most distinctive features. Most animals that share our zeal for individual identification live in cooperative societies. The ability to keep track of individuals is required for reciprocal altruism and punishment.

Moral features are the chief dimension by which we sort and choose social partners. For men and women alike, the most desired trait is kindness. Moral character is key in determining whom you like. Know thyself as a constellation of moral capacities.


Gerhard Roth

Die Seele umfasst sehr viel mehr als der Geist. Erst seit etwa 50 Jahren ist klar, dass die seelischen Funktionen mit Mechanismen und Zentren im Gehirn zu tun haben.

Unser Bewusstsein dient dem Gedächtnis: An die bewusst erlebten Dinge können wir uns viel besser erinnern als an die unbewussten. Die sprachliche Kommunikation und Handlungsplanung wären ohne Bewusstsein unmöglich.

Wir müssen annehmen, dass die Entwicklung der Seele ein langer evolutionärer Prozess war, der eine Reihe von Tieren hervorgebracht hat, von denen wir mit ziemlicher Sicherheit sagen können, dass sie ein Bewusstsein haben.

Die Hirnforschung behauptet nichts, was philosophisch nicht schon gedacht war, aber sie kann sagen, was davon naturwissenschaftlich fundierbar ist und was nicht.

AR Uni Bremen Prof. Gerhard Roth habe ich 1998 beim Vortrag in Bremen kennengelernt.

2014 November 18

China's New Stealth Fighter

Reuben F. Johnson

The number one attraction at Zhuhai this year was the new Shenyang FC-31 fighter. It is powered by two engines based on those in the MiG 29. A senior MiG official said the Chinese completed the design themselves. But the FC-31 bleeds too much energy in flight. Even during straight and level flight it needs afterburners to stay up. These are aerodynamic design defects a Russian team would not have made. The FC-31 at Zhuhai was in clean configuration. An aircraft with weapons would fly even worse.

2014 November 17


David Kaiser

In 1964, John Stewart Bell proved a theorem about quantum entanglement. The entangled particles could be far apart, yet measurements on one particle should affect the other instantaneously. Bell showed that quantum theory requires entanglement.

Experimental tests confirm Bell's theorem. But every test leaves loopholes. One is known as setting independence. In any test, the researcher selects the settings of the detectors in the experiment, and the researcher might not act freely.

In our proposed experiment, detector settings would be determined by an observed property of some of the oldest light in the universe. So any conspiracy would have occurred back at the Big Bang. We expect to confirm the usual quantum predictions.

2014 November 16


The Observer

Immigration has steadily barged up the hierarchy when pollsters ask voters what concerns them most. It now rivals the economy at number one. All the traditional parties are struggling to find ways of talking about immigration that stay true both to their principles and to the national interest.

The "slam the door" xenophobes make up around a quarter of all voters. The young have become more positive about the economic impact of migrants. Older cohorts who are near or in retirement have remained negative. Liberals on immigration also represent around a quarter of the public.

The half in the middle are unimpressed by how governments have managed migration. They endorse the proposition: “Immigration brings both pressures and economic benefits, so we should control it and choose the immigration that is in Britain's best economic interests."

Bolide Events

NASA map from the Near Earth Object (NEO) program: more than 556 space rocks entered the atmosphere (as bolides) in the last 20 years.

First photo from ESA Rosetta lander Philae on comet 67P/

The Science of Interstellar
Kip Thorne

Russell Brand — Awakened Man

AR Not


2014 November 15

$1 Trillion Nukes

The Times

The United States will spend up $1 trillion to upgrade its nuclear weapons arsenal over the next three decades. Defense secretary Chuck Hagel: "No other mission we have is more important. It deters nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and our partners. It prevents our adversaries from trying to escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression."

Border Control

The Guardian

UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond: "If your ambition is that we have total, unfettered control of our own borders to do what we like, that isn't compatible with membership of the European Union, it's as simple as that. And people who advocate that know jolly well it is not compatible with membership of the European Union. So if that's what you want, you're essentially talking about leaving the European Union."

2014 November 14

Islamic State

Myriam Francois-Cerrah

Islamic State is anti-Western in outlook but its objectives are local. The focus on theological explanations obscures what the polls tell us about popular opinion in the Arab world. The entire region has seen a decline in support for political Islam.

Defining conflicts in strictly ideological terms is simply a way of relieving ourselves from any substantive assessment of the environmental factors at play. Discussions of the real causes are forgotten for a discourse focused on theology.

Surely the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and Iraq and the use of violence as a political tool across the region is more important than the ideological outlook of a group whose most sophisticated theological output so far has been a Friday sermon.

We have allowed the argument that Islam is the problem to exculpate all other factors. History, politics, and economics are all deemed irrelevant in the face of Islam. But political violence demands a political explanation.

Gone Girl

Zoë Heller

Gone Girl is a marital horror story based on a thriller by Gillian Flynn. Amy and Nick used to be writers in New York but lost their jobs in the recession. One morning, Nick returns home to find his wife vanished. He calls the police and finds himself the prime suspect. The film now begins to shuttle back and forth between the hunt for Amy and her marital past. Nick and Amy are not who we initially think they are, but their real identities turn out to be just as banal as their false ones.

Some fans of the film have claimed to see in it an indictment of the way in which heterosexual coupledom enforces oppressive gender roles. This is a perverse reading. The problem with Amy is that she is an animation of a not very interesting idea about the female capacity for nastiness. Gone Girl starts from the delusional premise that the goodness of women and the loveliness of marriage are potent modern shibboleths and then sets up a group of gender avatars to "prove" the opposite.

2014 November 13

Jews Back in Germany

Jürgen Habermas

On their return to postwar Germany, Jewish emigrants taught a new generation. Jews had been so creative in German philosophy since the days of Moses Mendelssohn that the contributions of both sides are inseparable. The Jewish background of authors such as Husserl, Simmel, Scheler, or Cassirer was not a philosophically relevant difference for any student in 1949 who sensed the historical significance of Auschwitz.

Ernst Bloch returned to Leipzig in 1949. His expressionistic Marxism survives as an idiosyncratic document of the time. Julius Kraft, Gottfried Salomon-Delatour, and Alphons Silbermann resumed teaching at the universities of Frankfurt and Cologne in 1957 and 1958. Gunther Anders had done his doctorate under Husserl and returned to Vienna in 1950, then enjoyed journalistic success as an essayist and commentator on the atomic age.

Herbert Marcuse spoke at the Deutscher Soziologentag in Heidelberg in 1964. He had received a solid philosophical training with Heidegger in Freiburg and adhered to conventional scientific standards in his philosophical studies. In his lecture he stuck to a Weberian Marxism that promised to uncover the internal connection between formal rationality, domination, and capitalism. I sensed how this hermeneutic exercise caused a spark to leap across to the young minds. The political culture of postwar Germany owed its progress in part to Jews.

2014 November 12

Global Climate

The Guardian

The United States and China have unveiled a secretly negotiated deal to reduce their greenhouse gas output. China has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030 or sooner and the US has committed to deep reductions by 2025. The European Union aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030.

AR Nuke the problem — go for thorium.


George Monbiot

Interstellar is a magnificent film, as well as a classic exposition of technological optimism and political defeatism. The Earth is facing planetary catastrophe and its inhabitants look for a place to escape.

Millions of adults consider such fantasies a realistic alternative to addressing the problems we face on Earth. NASA claims that gigantic spaceships could be wonderful places to live.

Such fantasies lack imagination. Wild flights of technological fancy are accompanied by a stolid incapacity to picture the inner life of those who might inhabit such systems. People who imagine that human life on Earth will end because of power and greed and oppression imagine that we will be able to escape these forces in pressure vessels in space.

Only by understanding this as a religious impulse can we avoid the conclusion that those who gleefully await this future are insane. They want to escape the complexities of life on Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics.

2014 Remembrance Day

11th hour minutes of silence in Portcullis House, London,
followed by observation of parliamentary debates
and luncheon in the Palace of Westminster

Mr. Europe?

Der Spiegel

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is under pressure due to potentially illegal tax deals forged in Luxembourg during his stint as the country's prime minister.

AR We should remove this front man for financial piracy.

2014 November 10

Peaceful Revolution

The Times

Angela Merkel used the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to commemorate the Peaceful Revolution thus: "We can change things for the better — that is the message of the fall of the Berlin Wall ... To people in Ukraine, in Syria and in Iraq and in many other regions of the world where freedom and human rights are threatened ... it is a message of confidence in our ability to tear down walls today and in future ... The fall of the Wall has shown us that dreams can come true."

2014 Remembrance Sunday

The War Memorial, Poole Park

Tower Park, Poole

AR A triumph of the imagination, worthy to inherit the mantle of the 1968 classic
2001: A Space Odyssey.

Der Fall der Mauer: Heute vor 25 Jahre

The Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) says that European migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to UK public finances between 2000 and 2011. Those from the original 15 EU countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, contributed £15 billion more in taxes than they received in welfare while east European migrants contributed £5 billion more.

Chinese Shenyang J-31
stealth fighter will fly at
the tenth Zhuhai show


Immigrants from outside the EU cost Britain almost £120 billion over 17 years. But EU migrants contributed £4 billion more in taxes than they received in benefits.

Xinhua News Agency
Earth from beyond Moon

The fundamental problem in the Mideast today is not with the Sunni or the Shia or even with Islamic State. The problem is with religion itself. It is the idea of received wisdom, divine revelation, the notion that
"I have heard the Truth" and that everyone else is deluded. This is the corrupting engine of religious violence in the
Mideast. Truth divorced from evidence is perilous.
Matthew Syed


2014 November 9


The Sunday Times

The Bank of England governor Mark Carney will set out his proposals on how to avoid future government bailouts at the G20 summit in Australia.

As chairman of the Financial Stability Board, Carney led efforts to insulate taxpayers from a repeat of the 2008 bank bailouts. The National Audit Office put the UK government bill for the credit crisis at about £850 billion, mostly in emergency loans and financial guarantees.

Bailout costs in the aftermath of the 2008 crash pushed up national debt across the world. Britain slashed public spending and taxpayers are still angry.

AR Too right they are. Bankers partied at my expense.


Philip Roth

Nothing in a personal history is too petty or vulgar to speak about and nothing too monstrous or grand. That was the rule that I followed to depict a son's satiric mockery of his Jewish family, wherein the most comical object of mockery proves to be the satirizing son himself.

2014 November 8

Germans Baffled

Christopher Caldwell

The German Chancellor wants Britain to stay in the European Union, as a bulwark against its turning into an inflationary transfer union. She is calling for transition controls regarding migration from new EU member states, and she wants more say for national parliaments over EU law.

What puts Angela Merkel and David Cameron at odds is their very different national systems. The German constitutional order is an intentionally gummed-up machine, except in matters of monetary policy. The euro crisis is the kind of crisis German statesmen excel at resolving. It involves meeting several mutually contradictory goals in a way that leaves as few disgruntled people as possible. Merkel wants more sovereignty for Germany but she cannot offer the concessions Cameron seeks.

Germans are baffled that Cameron is paying more attention to intra-EU immigration than extra-EU immigration. Southeast England has become a social welfare magnet and an international bazaar, yet the locals are complaining about a few tens of thousands of self-sufficient Poles?

2014 November 7


The New York Times

British spies have the authority to intercept privileged communications between lawyers and their clients. They may have illegally exploited that access in some sensitive security cases. GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 were forced to hand over secret internal guidelines for monitoring lawyers in response to a legal challenge. GCHQ guidelines state that "you may, in principle, target the communications of lawyers" but must "give careful consideration to necessity and proportionality".

AR Seems OK to me.

2014 November 6


The Guardian

An international investigation into tax deals struck with Luxembourg has uncovered the multi-billion dollar tax secrets of multinational corporations. A cache of leaked tax agreements and other sensitive papers reveals the EU state aiding tax avoidance on an industrial scale. The documents show hundreds of companies using complex webs of internal loans and interest payments to slash their tax bills. These arrangements, signed off by the Grand Duchy, are legal.

AR Abomination! Luxembourg should have the same tax regime as Germany.

2014 November 5


John Boehner: "It's time for government to start getting results and implementing solutions to the challenges facing our country, starting with our still-struggling economy."

The Internet of Things

Sue Halpern

The IoT will connect everything with everyone, globally. Virtually every aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software in the cloud. Big data will be processed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and used to automate the global economy.

The IoT will bolster and expand the surveillance state. Your car, your heating system, your refrigerator, your fitness apps, your credit card, your television set, your window shades, your scale, your medications, your camera, your heart rate monitor, your electric toothbrush, your washing machine, and your phone generate streams of data that can be mined and monetarized.

The IoT is about lots and lots of cheap data. The more things know about you, the more public life will get. Connecting everyone and everything in a neural network brings the human race out of the age of privacy and into the era of transparency. Social media present a curated self, but the IoT will know our viewing habits, grooming rituals, medical histories, and more, uncurated.

The IoT will automate payments and purchases, door and home control, driving and movement tracking, health and activity monitoring, and continuous sharing with friends. Businesses will replace people with machines and deploy sensors and algorithms to rationalize their operations. A new age of art and unemployment born of robotics, big data, and AI will dawn globally.

2014 November 4

Virtual ID

The Times

Every Briton is to be offered a government-backed virtual ID to store personal data online, file tax returns and apply for driving licences through a single portal. Within a year, more than half a million people are expected to start using the new Verify scheme to prove their identity, under a radical expansion of public services available online. The move has prompted privacy concerns.


Robert Hannigan

GCHQ is happy to be part of a mature debate on privacy in the digital age. But privacy has never been an absolute right. Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states now come as standard. There is no doubt that young foreign fighters have learnt and benefited from the leaks of the past two years.


Matthieu Ricard et al.

Meditation can rewire brain circuits. Advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state of mind with less effort. Meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced practitioners. It may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.

2014 November 3


The Times

UK PM David Cameron is being urged to end tax credits and benefits for EU migrants.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the UK would cross a point of no return if Cameron imposed an emergency brake on EU migration. She would watch Britain leave the EU.

Of the 2 million migrants in British low-paid jobs, fewer than half are from the EU.

UK Conservative MEP Syed Kamall: "One of the problems we face is that we have a universal benefits system, whereas other countries have the contributory benefit system."

The plan would cover everyone, so as not to discriminate against EU migrants.


Peter Kellner

The British public has turned against the European Union again. A poll shows that if a referendum were held now, 43% would vote to leave and just 37% to stay in. Three issues:

1 European arrest warrant. David Cameron says police and security services need Britain to sign up again to a standard European system for extraditing people facing criminal charges. UKIP and others say no. Voters: 56% back Cameron, 18% say no.

2 UK payments to the EU. The EU demands a one-off payment of £1.7 billion because the UK economy has done better than expected. What voters want: 52% say no, 35% say pay. What voters expect: 61% think we will pay, 22% think we won't.

3 Immigration. Voters prefer UKIP on this issue:
Nigel Farage 28%, David Cameron 16%, Ed Miliband 12%, Nick Clegg 5%, can't or won't say 39%.

AR Fortress UK — w**s begin at Calais!

2014 November 2


Der Spiegel

Western industrialized nations need new growth. But the governments lack funds for new spending. Central banks have spent hundreds of billions on economic stimulus packages following the financial crisis, yet the money is not fructifying the economy.

Companies are hardly investing in new machinery or factories. Instead, prices are exploding on the global stock, real estate and bond markets in a dangerous boom driven by cheap money. Real wages are falling but the rich are getting richer. Banks and investment firms that used to recycle savings into progress and new jobs today redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top.

The crisis of capitalism has become a crisis of democracy. Many feel their governments are being duped by bank lobbyists who threaten apocalypse to secure privileges. Banks drove the expansion of debt that caused the crash and now they are inhibiting the recovery. Top bank executives are making as much as they did before the crisis and the biggest banks have become bigger.

The United States has become a debt republic. It has redistributed its $60 trillion of debt since the crisis. The banks passed on their bad loans to taxpayers and the government has more debt than ever. Millions of workers lost their homes and their jobs and the social divide widened. Wealth has grown at the top while the median household has become $50,000 poorer since 2007.

The European Central Bank has become the most powerful bureaucracy in Europe. Its emergency aid has turned into subsidies that do more harm than good. Deposit interest rates intended to encourage banks to lend mean banks earn almost nothing from the spread between savings and lending rates. The ECB is weakening the credit sector and creating new risks.

We need a new political alliance to take a stand against Big Finance.

2014 November 1

German Electricity

Foreign Policy

The German power system is a patchwork with millions of small producers. On a sunny and windy day, its share of renewables now rises above 70%. The output is distributed through a smart grid.

Offshore wind has proven pricey and technologically trickier than anticipated. German offshore wind parks generate 0.6% of its renewably generated electricity, onshore wind 34%.

Solar power farms in North Africa were envisioned as supplying 15% of all of Europe's electricity by 2050. But investors are discouraged with the lack of progress and political instability in the region.

Nuclear power is on the way out. The cost of new facilities has grown exorbitant. To finance the a $27 billion plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset, the UK government promised the French consortium EDF a guaranteed price of more than twice the current market rate for 35 years.

German green energy sales paid $22 billion to municipalities in 2012, and knock-on business another $31 billion. The municipalities saved nearly $8 billion in fossil fuel imports.

The German Renewable Energy Sources Act 2000 created a strong incentive to invest in renewables. The cost is passed on to customers. German power is among the costliest in Europe.

In 2011, Germany shut down a third of its nuclear reactors. Renewables now constitute more of the power supply than brown coal or nuclear, but dirty brown coal is still burned to fill the gap.

The German patchwork power system is working. A decentralized power supply based on intermittent sources can power an industrialized economy.

Poole High Street, 2014-10-31



Paragon Space Development Corp.
Alan Eustace, 57, rose 41 km
into space under a balloon and
then fell freely down, setting
a new world record.

Bye Bye Bitman

Tower Park, Poole

AR The movie is a horribly realistic evocation of WW2 combat in a tank. Brad Pitt was good, the mud and gore were relentless, and the sights and sounds were as authentic as a movie can make them. In its visceral evocation of tanker life, the movie reminded me of Lebanon, a little Israeli movie about IDF soldiers in a Centurion tank.

Support for EU membership at highest level for 23 years

Time out

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Science is our best answer. But it takes a philosophical argument to prove that. Science provides the best description of reality. The realm of philosophy is in trying to reconcile what science is telling us with other intuitions we have. A philosophical belief is a moral position that is arrived at through a system of reasoning and intellectual coherence.

Are We Free?
Daniel Dennett


2014 October 31


Melanie McDonagh

Mindfulness has been touted as a cure for pretty well everything. The heart of it is sitting in silence, thinking about your breath going in and out. Distracting thoughts are fine so long as you let them go.

Mindfulness is squarely based on Buddhism. However much people may dislike the idea, the major world religions have developed to be a comfort and support for humans in their quest for meaning.

Mindfulness can lead you to the heart of yourself. Where Buddhism causes us to go within ourselves, Christianity takes you out of yourself, to God and from there to others. Being mindful is mostly about me.

2014 October 30

Our Moral Duty

David Cameron

Conservatives are committed to cutting your taxes. It is morally right that the rich pay their fair share in tax; and right that those who are able to contribute to our public services and safety nets do so. But what is morally wrong is government spending money as if it grows on trees. Every single pound of public money started as private earning. Every million in the Treasury represents a huge amount of hard work. Conservatives understand this basic point.

2014 October 29

Wake Up, Europe

George Soros

Europe is facing a challenge from Russia. The European Union and the eurozone lost their way after the financial crisis of 2008. Now Russia is presenting an alternative that poses a fundamental challenge to the values and principles on which the European Union was founded.

Europe and the United States are determined to avoid any direct military confrontation with Russia. Russia is taking advantage of their reluctance. Violating its treaty obligations, Russia has annexed Crimea and established separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine.

The collapse of Ukraine would be a tremendous loss for NATO, the European Union, and the United States. A victorious Russia would pose a potent threat to the Baltic states. Not only the survival of the new Ukraine but the future of NATO and the European Union are at risk.

Sanctions against Russia have a depressive effect on the European economies. This aggravates the recessionary forces already at work. By contrast, assisting Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression would have a stimulative effect not only on Ukraine but also on Europe.

The new Ukraine has the political will both to defend Europe against Russian aggression and to engage in radical structural reforms. To preserve and reinforce that will, Ukraine needs to receive adequate assistance. It is high time for the members of the European Union to wake up.

Arabs And Apostasy

Brian Whitaker

Compulsion in religion is the ideological foundation stone of Islamic State and Islamist movements in general. Believing they have superior knowledge of God's wishes for mankind, such groups feel entitled to punish those who fail to comply with the divine will.

Although freedom of belief is a widely accepted principle internationally, it is still far from established in the Arab countries. As far as many of the Arab public are concerned, discriminating against those who hold different beliefs is the right thing to do. For Arab governments, enforcing religious rules and allying themselves with God helps to make up for their lack of electoral legitimacy.

In Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the UAE, and Yemen, apostasy is a crime and in theory the death penalty can apply. Executions for apostasy would trigger an international outcry, but those states also fear the backlash if they try to abolish the death penalty.

2014 October 28


The Times

The spacetime continuum warps as you watch Interstellar. A tear in the universe is explained.
Kip Thorne generated equations to guide the special effects software. The dialogue feels like a math class. The cinematography has breathtaking moments. The soundtrack is laid on with a heavy Germanic trowel. A close encounter with the far side of theoretical physics. For three hours.


The Guardian

Christopher Nolan's grand space opera is inspired by Kip Thorne's work on traversable wormholes. Interstellar is the best introduction of scientific theory into blockbuster cinema since Nolan's Inception. The last humans, stranded in a distant solar system, debate quantum theory and the selfish gene as the majesty of the galaxy sweeps by. Glorious spectacle.


The Independent

Interstellar is a $160 million sci-fi epic from Christopher Nolan. Made under the supervision of
Kip Thorne, the film combines abstruse ideas about spacetime with old fashioned melodrama, great special effects, and a final nose dive into bathos. As in Gravity, the filmmakers use the silence of space to accentuate the eeriness. The music has a sacral feel. A film for sci-fi buffs.

AR Kip Thorne's immortal work was with Charles W. Misner and John Archibald Wheeler on the massive text Gravitation. For me, the wormhole stuff is general relativity at the Gödel level, unphysical, unmoderated by the unsolved challenge of quantum gravity. Inception was unphysical for me too, based on a strange concept of consciousness.

2014 October 27


Steve Richards

A significant section of the Conservative party follows the views espoused by Tony Benn:

Benn regarded the state as a benevolent force, whereas Conservatives want government to play a smaller role. But in the importance they attach to democracy, and in their interpretation of what form democratic politics should take, they have much in common.

Benn originated the idea of a referendum on Europe when the Labour government held one in 1975. He would advocate withdrawal from the EU whatever Cameron says or does, on the grounds that the EU can never be accountable to voters here or elsewhere.

Benn started a campaign after the 1979 election to make Labour leaders and MPs more accountable to party members. He supported the right of local parties to deselect MPs and said constituents, not the national leadership, should hold MPs to account.

Benn was animated by debate rather than tribal loyalties. In his diaries he speaks admiringly of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, on the basis that they were teachers of conviction.

The parliamentary Conservative party includes libertarians, patrician Tories, Eurosceptics who want out, Eurosceptics who want to stay in, pro-Europeans, those who above all seek ministerial office, and a growing number who have other priorities in politics. Some are Bennites.

2014 October 26

German Intransigence

The Sunday Times

Chancellor Angela Merkel: "Germany will not tamper with the fundamental principles of free movement in the European Union."

British Xenophobia

Jonathan Freedland

David Cameron has staked much on the renegotiation that will precede his referendum. But he crossed a red line when he demanded exemption from the principle of free movement of people. For the other 27 states, that principle defines the single market. The Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, and Romanians hear the rhetoric and conclude that we have lurched into xenophobia.

Indian Nationalism

Pankaj Mishra

Narendra Modi, India's new prime minister and main ideologue of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is stoking old Hindu fires over what he calls more than a thousand years of slavery under Muslim and British rule.

A rhetoric of national aggrandizement can quickly slide into reckless warmongering. The ideology of anti-imperialist imperialism in a modern state with media and nuclear technology can make Islamic fundamentalists seem toothless.

2014 October 25


New Statesman

Britain, in common with other countries, has been enriched economically, culturally and socially by immigration. The unilateral rejection of free movement by the UK would encourage similar reprisals against the 1.8 million British citizens living abroad in the EU. Such a retreat into protectionism and nativism would be an act of collective self-harm.

2014 October 24

Patrons Dinner, Bulbury Woods Golf Club
Guest Speaker: Desmond Swayne MP

"I fully support the Prime ministers refusal to pay this extra £1.7 billion. It is absurd to impose what is effectively a tax on economic success. All political parties should be united to fight this, this is not the time to posture smugly from the sidelines, British politicians need to act together to see this off."
Julie Girling MEP

2014 October 23


Jason Webster

Fifty years ago, Idries Shah published The Sufis. Now the Idries Shah Foundation is bringing out new editions in English and commissioning translations of his work into Persian, Arabic and Urdu.

Sufism has embraced free thinkers and people concerned with human development from many cultures throughout history. Classical Sufis in the Islamic world include Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Fariduddin Attar, and Avërroes. Many of their ideas passed to Europe through contacts between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the crusader states, Norman Sicily, and the Iberian peninsula.

Shah, who died in 1996, broke new ground by explaining Sufism accessibly, often in psychological terminology. He went on to write more than 30 books on Sufism, selling over 15 million copies in dozens of languages. Sufism is a natural antidote to fanaticism.

AR I discussed Shah and Sufism in my book CORAL.

2014 October 22


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Plato laid out the terrain of philosophy. The methodology of philosophy is the argument, exploring implications, thought experiments, counter-examples. Philosophy has to happen in the clash of points of view. You need these other points of view. The sparkiest lecturer I ever heard was Saul Kripke. He would stand there and just catch fire! He was giving lectures on Wittgenstein.

Platonism is constantly referred to in philosophy of mathematics. The American Mathematical Association found that something like 98% of mathematicians described themselves as Platonists. There is a kind of commitment to the existence of the abstract. Every theoretical physicist I've ever known has believed that not only is reality given to us in the language of mathematics, but that when we have two empirically adequate theories, you go with the one that has the most beautiful mathematics. That's Plato!

AR Gödel was a Platonist too, as I found 40 years ago as a grad student. I found Kripke a sparky lecturer too, even in his logic days before he morphed into Kripkenstein.

2014 October 21


Tomis Kapitan

Those in power use the rhetoric of terror not only to sway public opinion but also to direct attention away their own acts of terror. The rhetoric erases any incentive to understand the nature and origins of grievances, deflects attention away from policies that might have contributed to the grievances, repudiates any calls for negotiation, obliterates the distinction between national liberation movements and fringe fanatics, and paves the way for the use of force.

The rhetoric of terror actually increases the likelihood of terrorism. It magnifies the effect of terrorist actions by heightening the fear among the target population. Those who succumb to the rhetoric contribute to the cycle of revenge and retaliation by endorsing military actions that grievously harm the populations among whom terrorists live. A violent response is likely to stiffen the resolve of those from whose ranks terrorists have emerged, leading them to regard their foes as people who know only the language of force. The result is a nightmare of skewed reason and perpetual warfare.

2014 October 20


The Guardian

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso: "If you support continued membership of the EU you need to say what Europe stands for and why it is in the British interest to be part of it. And you need to start making that positive case well in advance, because if people read only negative and often false portrayals in their newspapers from Monday to Saturday, you cannot expect them to nail the European flag on their front door on Sunday."

Polish ambassador to the UK Witold Sobków: "We want the UK to remain in the EU so we will do our best to help the British government introduce some reforms in the functioning of the EU, enabling the UK to remain in the EU."

Barroso: "I too come from a country with a long history, a trading nation, proud of its culture and tradition. And it may be a revelation to some, but the vast majority of people living in Europe are also rather attached to their national identity, however they may choose to define it."


Jim Holt

Einstein proved that whether an observer deems two events at different locations to be happening at the same time depends on his state of motion. Whether two events are simultaneous is relative to the observer. And once simultaneity goes, the division of moments into past, present, and future becomes meaningless.

In 1949, on the occasion of Einstein's 70th birthday, Kurt Gödel presented Einstein with a proof of the nonexistence of time. Playing with Einstein's equations of general relativity, Gödel found a novel solution that corresponded to a universe with closed timelike loops. A resident of such a universe could travel back into his own past. Einstein was not pleased, but Gödel was delighted. A past that can be revisited has not really passed. So, Gödel concluded, time does not exist.

At the tiniest of scales, the fabric of space-time dissolves into a quantum foam in which events have no determinate temporal order. Temporal matters are even stranger if we look back at the Big Bang. Stephen Hawking says that asking what came before the Big Bang is as silly as asking what's north of the North Pole.

AR Gödel was a Kantian about time. Quantum granularity makes this harder. We are immersed in time, whether our concept of time is correct or not.

2014 October 19


Salman Rushdie

I am concerned about the mangling of language that makes possible the creation of tyranny. The overwhelming weight of the problem lies in the world of Islam, and much of it has its roots in the ideological language of blood and war emanating from the Salafist movement within Islam, globally backed by Saudi Arabia.

The deformed medievalist language of fanaticism, dubbed "jihadi-cool", is being heard more and more in mosques and on social media. A Saudi opinion poll shows that 92% of respondents agree that ISIS conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law. Hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today.

To feel aversion toward such a force is not bigotry.


Jonathan Portes

The 1958 Treaty of Rome established freedom of movement for labour, capital, goods, and services within the European Economic Community. Over the years, free movement rights have been extended to let people move to look for jobs within the European Union as well as take them.

The UK government agreed to allow in workers from the new member states in 2004. The UK wanted the countries of the former Eastern bloc in the EU. The economy was doing well, and immigrant workers were likely to boost it. Also, the UK had no right to stop them from coming here.

Since 2004, studies showed no significant evidence that EU migration had reduced native job prospects. Immigrants complement rather than substitute for natives, helping raise wages and productivity for everybody. Some immigrants abuse the benefit system, but migrants are about half as likely to be on unemployment benefit as natives.

Recent immigrants from the EU are much younger, and much more likely to be in work, than the average Briton. And since most public spending goes on pensions, health care for older people, and education, the overall impact on the deficit is positive. Stopping EU migration would cost public services more in lost tax revenue than it would save in reduced demand.

2014 October 18

Election Agent Training in Shaftesbury, Dorset

2014 October 17

Dark Matter

The Guardian

The ESA XMM-Newton space observatory may have detected dark matter particles called axions. Dark matter is thought to make up about 85% of all the matter in the universe.

Researchers at Leicester University spotted the signal in 15 years of data from the observatory. The intensity of x-rays it recorded rose by about 10% whenever it observed the boundary of Earth's magnetic field facing the Sun.

From their report in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: "It appears plausible that axions — dark matter particle candidates — are indeed produced in the core of the sun and do indeed convert to x-rays in the magnetic field of the Earth."

2014 October 16

Bum Rap

The Independent

Former Sex Pistol John Lydon calls Russell Brand a "bum hole" for refusing to vote.
His advice: Read as much as you can and "find out who's using you".

Particle Fever
The Hunt for the Higgs Boson

Following six scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, where experts recreated the conditions just moments after the Big Bang and revealed the Higgs boson, this documentary gives an insight into a scientific breakthrough.

2014-10-15 21:00—22:35


"Margaret Thatcher detached the Conservative Party from the aristocracy."
Martin Amis

Islamic State

"One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar — the infidels — and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law."

Lotus Motorcycles
Lotus C-01
German superbike:
A 200 hp V-2 engine in an
aero tech steel/titanium/
carbon-fiber frame for


Hannover, April 1945: Two Sherman tanks rumble into the square. One has "Fury" scrawled on its gun barrel and Brad Pitt poking out of the turret. The movie includes a real Tiger tank from Bovington Tank Museum. One detail is wrong. In WW2 the average age of a combat soldier was 26 and the cutoff age for the US draft was 38. Pitt is 50.

Dad's Army

In the British folk memory,
1940 was the defining moment when the country stood alone to fight Nazi Germany. Britain's wartime experience was immortalized in the TV show
Dad's Army, with its song
Who do you think you're
kidding, Mr Hitler?

Real Time

The Zone of Interest
is the best novel Amis has written since The Information. His fixation on the most violent and debased aspects of humanity find a commensurate subject in the darkest abominations of the last century. There are few contemporary novelists who can render violence and stupidity with such forceful style and intelligence.
Mark O'Connell

Me in Poole High Street
September 2014

"The question concerning the
role of world Jewry is not a racial but a metaphysical question."
Martin Heidegger

Sunni politics


2014 October 15


Mosharraf Zaidi

Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize but Pakistani schools are in a desperate state of rot.

Pakistan has over 50 million school-age children. Its constitution guarantees all of them a free and compulsory education. But almost half of them, mostly girls, are not attending school. Even at school, only half the pupils reach the competence levels of kids years several years younger in other countries. Over half of the primary schools have no working electricity, over a third have no drinking water on site, and 2 in 5 don't even have working toilets.

Contracts for schools and teachers afford politicians the opportunity to distribute patronage.


Gary Gutting

In my survey of philosophers, almost 3 in 4 said they accepted or inclined to atheism, while fewer than 1 in 6 accepted or inclined to theism. Atheists have a strong case against God as a scientific hypothesis. Believers can say any concepts of God fall short of the divine reality.

Christianity has apparent contradictions in its doctrines. An appeal to mystery is inevitable. The fundamental revelation is the moral ideal expressed in the New Testament Christ. Engagement with the practices inspired by that ideal is the only requirement for being a Catholic.

Islam was once connected with traditions of philosophical reflection that tempered excesses of blind faith. Such traditions are still effective in many parts of the Muslim world, but in some places they have failed and a fanatical mutation has gone out of control.

2014 October 14

National Health

Polly Toynbee

Pay is also a token of respect. To deny a below-inflation 1% to nurses was a calculated provocation. With its Health and Social Care Act, the government wasted billions in a chaotic reorganization of the NHS that cabinet ministers now call a disaster. The current fragmentation of the NHS has set trusts to compete against each other for income, staff, and patients in a sham health market. If ordinary laws of the market worked, nurses should be in a powerful bargaining position. But some in the NHS get large bonuses, such the John Radcliffe hospital CEO who gets a £30,000 bonus on top of his £215,000 pay, defended by his local MP: "There should be performance related pay for key people." This is an affront to other NHS key people and a microcosm of warped rewards across the UK.


The Times

UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt warns that the ebola outbreak is becoming as serious as the AIDS epidemic.

AR Respect nurses and pay them.

2014 October 13


Stefano Hatfield

The racism behind the UKIP message is repugnant. Facts: 2.2 million Britons live in continental Europe, while 2.3 million other EU citizens live here. Some 77% of our EU migrants work, while 72% of Britons do. EU migrants form 2.1% of UK welfare recipients. But last year there was a 30% rise in net migration to Britain to 212,000, fueled largely by migrants from southern Europe, while 320,000 Brits emigrated, the fewest since 2008. Migrants form 8% of the UK population (10% including dependent children). Black and Asian ethnic groups form 11% of the population. UKIP is a protest vote.

2014 October 12


The Times

A new poll suggests that 1 in 4 voters would vote for UKIP at the next general election, to give both Labour and Conservatives 31% and Liberal Democrats 8%. This could give Labour 253 MPs, Conservatives 187, UKIP 128, Lib Dems 11, and other parties 71.


Paul Krugman

Martin Wolf says academics and policymakers displayed ignorance and arrogance in the run-up to the financial crisis. When crisis struck, major central banks rescued troubled banks and sustained money supplies, but we got a depression all the same.

Hyman Minsky argued that periodic financial crises are a more or less unavoidable feature of capitalism. Borrowers and lenders become complacent and underestimate the risks of high levels of debt. Leverage rises year after year. Then something goes wrong. This is the Minsky moment.

The economics establishment identified financial crisis with bank runs by depositors. Yet by 2008 depository institutions were no longer the dominant form of banking. Institutions like money market funds and investment banks were both unsecured and unregulated. Policymakers convinced themselves that such innovation was making the system more stable and efficient. They were wrong.

It is tempting to turn it all into a morality play. Two reasons to be skeptical:

1 If the secular stagnationists are right, advanced economies suffer from persistently inadequate demand. Depression is their normal state, except when spending is supported by bubbles. So bubbles are good because they prop up demand. We need policies to support demand on a continuing basis.

2 Even if you believe that financial excess set the stage for the slump, there was still no good reason why the slump had to be so terrible. Given low interest rates, the stimulus could have been bigger and gone on longer. An obsession with deficits and fiscal austerity deepened and extended the slump.

Debt, shadow banking, international imbalances, and so on helped set the stage for disaster, but intellectual shifts arguably played an equally large part in the crisis. Conventional economic analysis fell short, but policymakers made the situation worse.


Russell Brand

Politics is something I've acquired through growing up in a single-parent family, being on the dole, then being a drug addict. There's a lot of anarcho-collectivism in the fellowship around abstinence-based recovery. I want to address the alienation and sense of despair that you see all around us. It don't matter to me how much people have a go at me. I'm ready to die for this.

Karl Marx designed one of the most powerful and influential economic and social philosophies of recent history. Regardless of what I do, madness is coming. And I'll be happy to participate in whatever way I can. But I don't think it will be by joining an already antiquated and defunct system. I'm not asking for an invitation to the party. I'm saying the party's over.

AR I won't be voting for him.


Ian Urbina

Recent US actions aimed at countering sexual assault reveal little uniformity on how to define rape.

Until 2012, the FBI still considered rape a crime committed solely against women. For statutory rape, some states set rules for a minimum age difference between partners. In some states, active resistance is required for rape, and merely saying no is insufficient. Only 40 years ago, no state allowed husbands to be prosecuted for raping their wives, and 60 years ago, in some states, sex between a black man and a white woman was considered rape.

Some see an urgent need for national standards regarding rape and sexual assault.

2014 October 11


The New York Times

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize goes to Malala Yousafzai, 17, and the Indian child rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi, 60. The prize committee chairman said it was important for "a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism" as they share the $1.1 million prize.


The Times

Prime Minister David Cameron says the double by-election results puts Labour leader Ed Miliband closer to power. Some Conservatives say Cameron should take advantage of the UKIP challenge to Labour in the north.

MP Jacob Rees-Mogg: "We should think about what that means in terms of the UKIP-Conservative relationship, because the Conservative family could win a majority on that basis. Otherwise, the only thing we manage is mutually assured destruction."

MP Peter Bone: “If we can get that vote as one we would have a massive centre-right majority in parliament, but if we split the vote we could have Labour winning on 31-32% of the vote."


Priyamvada Natarajan

The scientific enterprise is often seen as a large and dispassionate machine in which objective scientists seek cold facts from experiments. This leaves out the excitement, awe, and wonder that motivate many scientists.

Curiosity and wonder have driven the scientific enterprise. Changes in the notion of curiosity from vice to virtue have gone hand in hand with the development of empirical methods in science. A slow and gradual honing and growing sophistication of our understanding is driven by accumulating data enabled by the invention of new instruments. As empirical evidence accumulates, theories aim at a more comprehensive explanation that subsumes earlier views.

Two other forces that condition science are serendipity and ignorance. Scientists continually uncover new facts that confront them with the extent of their ignorance. Breakthroughs in understanding are essentially unforeseeable even to a seasoned mind. Researchers can be held captive by their entrenched intuitions and refuse to accept new ideas until they are faced with overwhelming empirical evidence contradicting their views. Blunders are part of scientific progress.

A view of how science actually works might reduce the misunderstanding and distrust of science.

2014 October 10


The Times

Strong surge for UKIP in two by-elections:

In Clacton, Tory defector Douglas Carswell secured a resounding victory with a 12,404 majority and 60% of the vote. He returns to the Commons as the first UKIP MP.

In Heywood & Middleton, UKIP destroyed a Labour majority of 5,971 to come second with 38.7% of the vote compared with 40.1% for Labour.

2014 October 9

Holocaust Novels

Adam Kirsch

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis, and J, by Howard Jacobson, return to the Holocaust:

Jacobson believes that the subject demands disorientation, reticence, and confusion. J takes place in a future England, somewhere around the year 2070. As Jacobson sketches in more of his fictional world, it becomes clear that it is afflicted by a continual, habitual violence. Then there are the more pointed and private omens. Jacobson is imagining an English Holocaust, set to take place sometime around the year 2020. He has written a horror story about a Holocaust that changes history and even human nature. The real horror of the real Holocaust is that it did no such thing.

Amis deliberately circumvents the conventions of Holocaust writing. Nearly the whole cast of The Zone of Interest are perpetrators. Amis has written a comedy that happens to be set in Auschwitz. The protagonists are the administrators of the camp. The horror is made to bleed through the edges of the story. Amis writes beautifully and originally about Auschwitz. The book conjures everyday life there. We see not overt savagery but carefully chosen moments of pathos and irony. The crime of Auschwitz was to assign the victims and the perpetrators their roles in an ideological apocalypse.

2014 October 8

Islam in Real Time

Sam Harris

Ben Affleck is now being lauded for having exposed my and Bill Maher's racism, bigotry, and hatred of Muslims. I say we have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.

Affleck and others imagine that ISIS is functioning like a bug light for psychopaths by attracting disaffected young men who would do terrible things to someone, somewhere, in any case. These disturbed individuals travel to a foreign desert for the privilege of decapitating journalists and aid workers. I await an entry in the DSM-VI that describes this troubling condition.

Affleck and others are confused about Islam. Like many secular liberals, they refuse to accept the abundant evidence that vast numbers of Muslims believe dangerous things about infidels, apostasy, blasphemy, jihad, and martyrdom. And they do not realize that these doctrines are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity.

We need honest talk about the link between belief and behavior. No one is suffering the consequences of what Muslim extremists believe more than other Muslims.

Is It Is or Is It Ain't?

"President Obama keeps insisting that ISIS is not Islamic. Well, maybe they don't practice the Muslim faith in the same way he does. But if vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe — and they do — that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS."
Bill Maher

2014 October 7

Physics Nobel for Blue LED

New Scientist

Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano at Nagoya University in Japan, and Shuji Nakamura at the University of California in Santa Barbara, share the 2014 Nobel prize for physics for developing blue light emitting diodes in the late 1980s. Since then, the blue LED has transformed the way we light our world, watch movies, and store data.

LEDs are made from multiple layers of semiconductor sandwiched together, one with an excess of electrons and the next with an excess of positively charged holes. Applying a voltage to the device drives the electrons and holes together into the filling layer, where they combine to emit light. Its color depends on the semiconductor material. Gallium nitride doped with indium has the quantum properties to emit blue light, but it was hard to make a semiconductor sandwich with a gallium nitride filling.

In 1986, Akasaki and Amano made one by adding an extra layer to the sandwich. Meanwhile, Nakamura did so by growing a gallium nitride crystal first at low temperatures and then at higher temperatures. The trio went on to turn their blue LEDs into blue lasers, used in Blu-ray players. LED units make more efficient lighting.

AR These guys published their first book on the blue LED with Springer while I was there working on the physics books.

2014 October 6

Brain Science Nobel Prize

New Scientist

The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to three scientists who located specialized cells in the brain responsible for helping us to navigate our world. One half of the award went to John O'Keefe at University College London and the other half to the husband and wife team May-Britt and Edvard Moser, both at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

O'Keefe discovered in 1971 that certain cells in the hippocampus were only active when an animal was in a particular place in a certain orientation in its environment. The same combination of cells was active when the animal visited the same location, but a different combination was active when visiting another site, suggesting that the activity of these cells helps the animal build an internal map of its environment. The Moser team later found another component of our internal navigation system within the entorhinal cortex.

Asian Cauldron

Robert D. Kaplan

By the year 2000, Asia accounted for 20% of global military expenditure. Asia's share of arms imports increased to over 40% of the world total. In 2011, China's defense budget rose to nearly $100 billion. China is now the world's second largest military spender.

China has over 60 submarines and will have around 75 or so in the next few years, slightly more than the United States. China is outbuilding the United States in new submarines by 4 to 1 since 2000 and by 8 to 1 since 2005.

2014 October 5

The British Constitution

Vernon Bogdanor

Constitutional issues keep pushing forth in the UK: the European Union, the role and composition of the House of Lords, and the independence referendum in Scotland.

In 1998, the Westminster Parliament created devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The devolved bodies, unlike the House of Commons, were to be elected by proportional representation.

The British government now has an English problem. English Conservative MPs will not support further devolution unless something is done for England. They propose English votes for English laws.

The British are not wholly foolish in regarding constitutional issues as less important than social and economic ones. Britain is governed not by logic but by Parliament.

Shaping Virtual Lives

Online Identities, Representations, and Conducts
Eds. Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska, Theo Meder, and Andy Ross

"This is an interesting and necessary book, which should stand side by side with Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga's book Homo Ludens."
— Eda Kalmre

From special issue "Homo Ludens: Describing Virtual Lives" edited by Mare Kalda,
Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, 57/2014, 189-190

The Frost Report

John Cleese

It was to become a great joke among writers that in the final credits of the TV show every week the words "Written by" were closely followed by the words "David Frost" in large letters and then, after a slight gap, by the word "and" in smaller letters and finally, in even smaller letters, the names of a couple of dozen writers. David was endearingly shameless in matters such as these.

2014 October 4


Will Self

No forensic or analytic account of reading can do justice to the strange interplay between levels of reality we apprehend when we read deeply. Reading on screen is fundamentally different. Digital text will bring with it new forms of reading, learning, memory, and even consciousness.

The book is in retreat. The relationship between words and revenue is debatable. A certain kind of expertise was understood to have a value to its consumers that was both constant and capable of being monetized at a fixed rate. The web snapped this inelasticity. Follow the money.


John Gray

Richard Dawkins is an evangelist. He says memes leap from brain to brain, via a process that can be called imitation, and he sees this process at work throughout human culture. But a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with the assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value.

Science may show that humans are not and can never be rational animals. Perhaps religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Dawkins is an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. Religion is irrational, and we will all be better off without it. This is his argument for atheism.

2014 October 3


Anna Della Subin

The American Psychological Association estimates that 1 in 5 of American men and women are chronic procrastinators. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association declared procrastination a symptom of mental illness. Why not view procrastination as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity?

2014 October 2


Sajjad Rizvi

The Quran presents Abraham as an adherent of Islam. A primordial faith connects humanity to one God and leads in turn to Judaism, Christianity, and then historical Islam as proclaimed by Muhammad. Jewish and Christian communities were considered often to be imperfect monotheists.

Shia Islam is a religious tradition in which the presence of the divine through the Imam provides the path to salvation. The Imam is the Law and the revelation. Believers follow the path to salvation through their devotion and obedience to the Imam. Sunni traditions tend to be more pragmatic about politics.

Conscious Computers

Christof Koch

Integrated Information Theory, developed by Giulio Tononi, says that consciousness is a property of complex systems that have a particular way of interacting with the world. But a digital simulation would not be conscious.

Consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. But it takes a particular type of hardware to instantiate it. If you were to build a computer in the appropriate way, like a neuromorphic computer, it could be conscious.

People are going to abuse computer intelligence, blindly maximize for some goal. It will lead to more and more concentration of power among fewer and fewer people. I think there is really an existential danger to the species.

Robot Law

The Times

The RoboLaw consortium told the European parliament that robots could act independently if they had the legal status of a corporation. Driverless cars could reduce accidents by 97%, but under present legislation the manufacturer could be liable for accidents. New insurance schemes could address this.

2014 October 1


MIT Technology Review

Robots are safe and smart enough to work alongside people on BMW production lines. These robots are increasing productivity and flexibility but they are relatively slow and lightweight, which makes them safer to work around.

Robots on production lines promise to transform the division of labor between people and machines. Traditional robots work well but they are unsafe with anyone nearby. The new robots can automate more the production process.

The next generation of robots to work with humans will be faster and more powerful. The sensors and computer power needed to react quickly and intelligently to safety risks are now cheap. Mixed teams can be more productive.

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