BLOG 2015 Q1
Poldark — unexpectedly good

CAD image of a proposed tower
at the site of my childhood

Canvassing in

Global Warming

Is the UN target of limiting global warming to 2 K enough? Writing in Climate Change Responses, Petra Tschakert says we need a 1.5 K target. Hans-Otto Pörtner, an IPCC Fifth Assessment Report author, said some species would struggle with 2 K warming but most should cope with 1.5 K.

Defining Beauty
The Body in Ancient Greek Art
British Museum, London
2015-03-26 — 2015-07-05

British politics is broken

Lit Motors
Electric car for one
with gyro stability

AR Like

Solar eclipse viewed from easyJet flight EZY1805 from Manchester to Reykjavik on Friday


Anglo-Saxons in British genes: most white British people now owe almost 30% of their DNA to the ancestors of modern Germans.


2015 March 31

America Versus Islamic State

Rolling Stone

"Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future," said Barack Obama in March 2011.

In June 2014, Islamic State militias took Mosul. Its fall triggered a catastrophic collapse of Iraqi forces across the country. Huge areas and millions of citizens fell into the clutches of ISIS, who also captured enormous quantities of US-supplied weapons.

A pageant of savagery included crucifixions, slavery, and beheadings. IS propagandists understood that spectacle was reality, and that this reality could spread virally across the globe, summoning the clash of civilizations they sought.

Since then, the US military commitment in Iraq has steadily escalated. Congress approved a bill to spend $5 billion to fight Islamic State and now Obama has asked Congress to authorize a new war.

2015 March 30

UK Election

David Cameron

Five years ago, Britain was on the brink. Millions of people were unemployed, there was no economic security for our families and there were worries about whether our country could pay its debt.

Five years later, because of our long-term economic plan and the difficult decisions we have taken, we have more people in work than at any time in our history, living standards are on the rise and we are more economically secure.

Britain is back on its feet again: 1000 jobs are being created every single day and 760,000 more businesses have started up. Last year our economy grew faster than any other major advanced economy in the world.

After five years of effort and sacrifice, Britain is on the right track. This election is about moving forward. As prime minister, that is what I will deliver.

Poll Position

Paul Goodman

Sunday Times poll: Conservatives 32%, Labour 36%
Observer poll: Conservatives 34%, Labour 33%

The conventional wisdom is that the Conservatives will overtake Labour in poll share before polling day. One analysis of the polls puts Cameron ahead of Miliband as a leader and as best prime minister. Is this the moment when the polls turned for Cameron and put him on course to beat Miliband?

No. Liam Fox: "Successful political parties don't pick personalities and hope the agenda follows."

Drift To Brexit

The Guardian

UK prime minister David Cameron looks marginalized in the European Union. The Germans, the Scandinavians, the east Europeans, even the French are all keen to keep Britain in the EU, but their readiness for concessions will be tested if he wins a second term and gives Europhobia free rein.

EC president Donald Tusk says he wants to help solve the problem in a "limited and rational way" but rules out a renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty. In 2012, the UK government ordered a review of the costs and benefits of EU membership. It found no case for repatriating powers from Brussels.

2015 March 29

Deep Space


Humans have not left LEO since 1972, when astronauts last walked on the moon. Robot spacecraft have ventured to almost every corner of the solar system. When it comes to science, robots win:

Rosetta is orbiting a comet, waiting for the Philae lander to wake up.
Dawn is at the icy dwarf planet Ceres, which might have a subsurface ocean.
New Horizons is set to become the first spacecraft to visit Pluto.
Juno is scheduled to arrive at Jupiter next summer.
Cassini has been studying the Saturnian system for more than a decade.
Curiosity continues to rove around on the surface of Mars.
Messenger is wrapping up a mission at Mercury.

The human space program has a purpose. We humans are perpetually in jeopardy if we stay on Earth, whether from nuclear war, climate apocalypse, or a killer asteroid. To survive, we have to spread out.

NASA has started work on a new Orion spacecraft and the space launch system. But it cannot afford to visit Mars. Under existing budget constraints, it never will.

2015 March 28


Seth Shostak

Astronomers have long known SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Now some say we should encourage a response from aliens by transmitting messages. Active SETI is controversial.

Advertising our existence could be a mortal threat to the planet. Stephen Hawking noted that on Earth, when less advanced societies drew the attention of those more advanced, the consequences for the former were seldom agreeable.

I think this concern is overwrought. The nearest intelligent ETs are likely to be many light years away. Simple exchanges would take decades. Maybe we should offer the aliens Big Data. We could transmit the contents of the Internet. A powerful laser could beam the data in a few days.

Some say we should choose caution and forbid powerful transmissions to the skies. But we can do better than to declare that future generations should endlessly tremble at the sight of the stars.

AR I supported passive SETI but I say no to an interstellar WikiLeak.


John R. Bolton

President Obama’s approach on Iran has brought a bad situation to the brink of catastrophe.

Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear weapons has long been evident. Now the arms race has begun. Saudi Arabia has long been expected to move first. No way would the Sunni Saudis allow the Shiite Persians to outpace them in the quest for dominance within Islam and Mideast geopolitical hegemony. Analysts believe Saudi Arabia has an option to obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan, allowing it to go nuclear overnight. Egypt and Turkey would be right behind.

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal: "Whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same."

2015 March 27


Myron Magnet

President Barack Obama is about to repeat the mistake of appeasing Iran that President Jimmy Carter made decades ago.

In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini engineered a revolution in Iran and declared the Islamic Republic of Iran. On November 4, a mob of students invaded and seized the American embassy in Tehran and took its employees hostage. The hostages endured 444 days of captivity.

President Carter responded by entangling himself in a bewildering web of fruitless negotiations at the UN and the World Court. He should have told the mullahs that they had 48 hours to release our citizens unharmed, or else we would bomb the holy city of Qom.

Anyone who wants to keep his hands clean should stay out of politics. Bombing Iran in 1979 would have given the world proof of US resolve as a global superpower not to be attacked with impunity.

Winston Churchill rebuked Neville Chamberlain when he returned from Munich in 1938: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war."

President Obama has chosen dishonor.

AR A hard claim: I hope it proves wrong.

2015 March 26


Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Five fundamentals of Islam that need to be removed or significantly diluted:

1 The status of the Koran as the last and immutable word of God
2 The emphasis on the afterlife over the here-and-now
3 The concept of jihad or holy war
4 The writ of sharia law in everyday life
5 The obligation for Muslims to command right and forbid wrong

Muslims need to understand Mohammed as a real man in the context of his times and the Koran as a historically constructed text, not as a divine instruction manual.

2015 March 25


John Mecklin

The United States plans to modernize about 200 B61 nuclear bombs hosted at air bases in five NATO countries. The upgrade to B61-12 will make it into a precision guided standoff weapon able to attack the same targets as previous gravity bombs but more accurately and efficiently, using smaller yields that would create less collateral damage and less radioactive fallout.

Under current plans, approximately 480 B61-12s are set to be produced for five different aircraft. In addition to deployment in Europe, the USAF intends to use the B61-12 to arm not only F-35A but also
B-2 and B-52 bombers based in America. Estimated ultimate cost of the B61 modernization program: over $10 billion.

Countries with nuclear weapons have recently embarked on big programs to renew the strategic and tactical weapons in their arsenals. Russia is replacing all its Soviet-era nuclear weapons systems. The proposed US maintenance and modernization program is projected to cost some $355 billion over the next decade and $1 trillion or more over 30 years.

The nuclear investments are designed to make weapons harder to shoot down and more precise and reliable. With about 16,000 nuclear weapons still on the planet, nuclear nations have no intention of giving up their nukes anytime soon.

AR The UK Trident is all or nothing, and could be finessed in a crisis with a skilled opponent. An air-launched PGM based on F-35 and B61-12 makes more sense for realistic European scenarios where collateral damage is an issue.

2015 March 24

Slouching Toward Mecca

Mark Lilla

Michel Houellebecq said a decade ago that whoever created monotheistic religion was a cretin and that of all the faiths Islam was the dumbest. His novel Soumission puts us in 2022, when France elects its first Muslim president.

Over the months, a new social model develops, with the polygamous family at its center. Men have different wives for sex, childbearing, and affection. The wives pass through all these stages as they age, but never have to worry about being abandoned. They are always surrounded by their children, who have lots of siblings and feel loved by their parents, who never divorce.

Houellebecq creates a character, Rediger, who writes sophistical books defending Islamic doctrine. His Islamists idealize the life of piety and despise modern culture. They believe in hierarchy within the family, with wives and children there to serve the father. They hate diversity and see high birthrates as a signs of civilizational health. And they quiver with the eros of violence. But Europe is dying and Islam is flourishing. If Europe is to have a future, it will have to be an Islamic one.

Rediger says the summit of human happiness is to be found in absolute submission: children to parents, women to men, and men to God. And in return, one receives life back in all its splendor. The Koran is an immense mystical poem in praise of the God who created the perfect world we find ourselves in, and teaches us how to achieve happiness in it through obedience.

Soumission is a classic novel of European cultural pessimism. Houellebecq seems to think France has lost its sense of self. Europeans lost their bet that more freedom would make them happier, and now they submit to God.

AR Lilla has interesting views on Europe and God.

2015 March 22

Is There a Market for Peerages?

The Observer

A group of Oxford academics claim there is a significant statistical relationship between political party donations and nominations for UK peerages. The academics examined the 303 Lords nominations between 2005 and the third quarter of 2014 and all donations since 2001. They isolated prominent people who would be expected to be nominated, leaving 92 others, who donated between them 98% of all the donations coming from nominees to the Lords. Among those, 27 donated 95% of the total. The 27 came from a larger pool of 779 big donors who stood out on electoral commission records.

The academics argue that lifetime appointments to the UK House of Lords are in effect being sold. Yet constitutional reform is unlikely to be top of the agenda of any of the major political parties in the general election. The drive for reform must come from within Westminster. Those working there are well aware that something is seriously wrong.

AR Reform Parliament now!

Bad Thinkers

Quassim Cassam

The problem with conspiracy theorists is how they interpret and respond to the relevant information at their disposal. This is fundamentally a question of the way they are.

Intellectual vices are tendencies to think in certain ways. Differences in intellectual character help to explain why people in the same situation end up believing different things.

Like other bad habits, intellectual bad habits can be too deeply entrenched to change. The only remedy is to try to mitigate the harm the vices do to their owners and to others.

2015 March 21

Sustainable Economics

Prince Charles

We face the dual challenges of a world view and an economic system that seem to have enormous shortcomings, together with an environmental crisis which threatens to engulf us all. Our ability to adapt to the effects of climate change depends upon us adapting our pursuit of unlimited economic growth to that of sustainable economic growth. And that depends upon basing our approach on the fundamental resilience of our ecosystems. Ecosystem resilience leads to economic resilience.

2015 March 20

Robot Revolution

Sue Halpern

Year after year, the software that runs computers and other machines and devices becomes more sophisticated and powerful. Machines now account for 10% of all manufacturing tasks and are likely to perform about 25% of them by 2025. Algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers do drug development.

Whenever the workforce is subject to automation, technological unemployment must follow. Technological progress will leave many people behind as it races ahead. Even where automation does not eliminate jobs, it often changes the nature of work. Automation dulls the brain, removing the need to pay attention or master complicated routines or think creatively and react quickly. Google is making us mindless sloths.

We live in a technophilic age. We love our digital devices and all that they can do for us. It is naive to believe that government is competent, let alone in a position, to control the development and deployment of robots, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. Government departments have their own visions of the technological future. Business resists regulation. We, the people, are at risk.

2015 March 19

UK Budget

George Osborne

We have got a plan that is working:
A growing economy
A record number of jobs
Rising living standards
The deficit down
National debt starting to fall as a share of the economy


Richard Vague

China is now sitting on top of the greatest accumulation of bad debt and overcapacity in history. More than 1 in 5 homes in urban areas is vacant and millions remain unsold. There are other red flags. Chinese researchers say China has wasted $6.8 trillion in investment.

Good loans result in GDP growth. When private loan growth outstrips GDP growth, much of that excess will be problem loans. China may have $2 trillion to $3 trillion in problem loans. Chinese banks and shadow lenders are not reporting bad loans close to this amount.

2015 March 18

Right On, Bibi

Jerusalem Post

Israel opposition leader Isaac Herzog: "A few minutes ago I spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and congratulated him on his achievement and wished him luck."

2015 March 17

Carbon Politics

Matt Ridley

Carbon dioxide is not the most urgent problem facing humanity. But the next British government will be legally committed to cutting our CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. About 90% of our total energy still involves emitting CO2. The expansion of nuclear and renewables is not going nearly fast enough, because electricity comprises just one third of our energy use. We will have to switch to electric cars and heating to cut CO2.

With present technology, we cannot decarbonize our power cheaply. We could extract CO2 from power station exhaust by carbon capture and storage (CCS), but CCS reduces the efficiency of the power station from about 35% to maybe 26% and roughly trebles the price to about the same as power from an offshore wind farm. For now, there is no way to meet our decarbonization target without bankrupting the country.

Johan Rockström/TED

King John and barons, 1215
Magna Carta
Law — Liberty — Legacy
British Library
2015-03-13 — 2015-09-01

"Give a man a fire and he's
warm for a day, but set fire
to him and he's warm for
the rest of his life."
Terry Pratchett




AR A little essay
about my childhood
published in Poole
Harbour Times


2015 March 16

New US Bomber

Loren Thompson

The new US Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B, probably a.k.a. B-3) is coming soon. The USAF plans to buy 80-100 of them at $550 million each, with initial fielding in 2025. It will:

1 Have an unrefueled range of over 5,000 nautical miles (over 9 Mm)

2 Carry less payload than previous bombers
Even at half the payload of the B-2, the B-3 could still destroy dozens of different targets in a single sortie using lightweight smart bombs.

3 Cost more than $550 million per plane
The target price of $550 million per bomber is expressed in fiscal 2010 dollars. It covers the cost of manufacture, not amortization of a $20 billion R&D program. The total bill may look more like $900 million per plane.

4 Not contain breakthrough technologies
The B-2 bomber was designed for penetration of hostile airspace during a nuclear war. The B-3 is likely to adapt technology from other programs.

5 Not be supersonic
The USAF will probably opt for more on-board EW gear rather than a supersonic dash capability.

6 Not be unmanned
The fiscal 2016 budget summary describes the LRS-B as nuclear capable and optionally manned. The combination sounds so controversial the USAF is likely to skip it.

7 Look different from the B-2
Experts speculate the B-3 will be another flying-wing design like the B-2. But the B-2 was conceived decades ago and stealth has moved on.

8 Rely more on off-board capabilities
The B-3 will be the first information-age USAF bomber. All the legacy bombers in the current fleet were designed before networking became central to warfare. The B-3 will need to stay connected.

9 More than a hundred strong
The USAF says it wants 80-100 B-3s, but by the time they are produced, all its current bombers will be facing retirement. If the B-3 works, the USAF will likely replace the whole fleet.

10 Built by Boeing.

AR Another $100 billion. RAF planners may want a few.

2015 March 15

Violence and War

John Gray

Some say human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic. This has come about largely through the increasing power of the state. Nuclear weapons keep the peace, and fear of their use prevents conflict between great powers.

But advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous, and easily lost. Amid the general drift, peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Civilization remains inherently fragile.

2015 March 14

Pi Day

Manil Suri

March 14 is Pi Day — 3.14.15. Pi is irrational and absurd. It opens a window into the universe of transcendental numbers, which exclude surds. Out of the totality of numbers, almost all are transcendental.

AR Decades ago I got deeply into all this in transfinite set theory.

2015 March 13


John Gray

Christianity follows changing moral fashions. The same might be said of atheism. Evangelical atheists today view liberal values as part of an emerging global civilization. In modern western contexts, roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God.

Sam Harris wants a scientific morality. He takes for granted that a science of good and evil cannot be other than liberal in content. His militancy in asserting these values seems to be largely a reaction to Islamist terrorism. But the ongoing reversal in secularization is not a peculiarly Islamic phenomenon. The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values. So secular thinkers look to science for a foundation for their values.

Friedrich Nietzsche exposed the problem atheism has with morality. He understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of religious traditions. He was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.

The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. The quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism is the belief that all human beings are born loving freedom and peace and cease to do so only as a result of oppressive conditioning. But in the larger sweep of history, it is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.

2015 March 12

EZ Crisis

Thomas Piketty

Eurozone economic output remains below the 2007 level. The austerity policies have been taken too far. Europeans have used political instruments to turn the financial crisis into a debt crisis and a crisis of confidence across Europe.

Each EZ country has a common currency but a different tax system. Fiscal policy was never harmonized in Europe. In creating the eurozone, we have created a monster. Countries cannot reduce their deficits unless the economy grows. Setting fixed deficit rules for the future cannot work.

We need to invest more money in training and in R&D.
We need a fiscal union and a harmonization of budgets.
We need a common EZ debt repayment fund.

Even Germany and France can no longer manage to tax multinational companies effectively, because the companies are playing countries off against each other. Many major corporations pay less in taxes than small companies. A common EZ corporate tax would help.

UK Defense

Liam Fox

We need to beef up our collective defenses on NATO borders in Poland and the Baltic states.

Russia has been upgrading its nuclear weapons and missile systems. We need to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent to ensure we are able to prevent the threat of the use of such weapons against ourselves and our allies. Our Trident deterrent does not come cheap at around £20 billion but that gives us more than 35 years of protection against nuclear blackmail.

As part of our NATO commitment Britain is expected to spend 2% of UK GDP on defense.

AR The UK Trident force is redundant if the US commitment to NATO is good. The UK should beef up its forces with other US purchases such as F-35C, B61-12, P-8, and BGM-109 to reinforce US solidarity.

2015 March 11

Germany and Israel

Omri Boehm

The philosopher Kant defined enlightenment as a process of growing up and finding the courage to think for oneself. This requires one not only to strive to transcend the perspective of private commitments and attempt to judge from the cosmopolitan standpoint of everybody else but also to think aloud by submitting one's opinions to the judgment of the reading public.

Jürgen Habermas developed discourse ethics in a heroic attempt to salvage enlightenment thinking from the ruins of the Third Reich. He offered Kant's ideal of public reasoning in response to Heidegger's idea of private authenticity.

This return to Kant will not be achieved before German intellectuals find the courage to think and speak about Israel. German intellectuals who do not speak implicitly accept that their history as Germans commits them to the Jews and not to universal humanism. Keeping silent about Israel is not the right way to do justice to the history of the Holocaust.

Gershom Scholem

Shaul Magid

Gershom Scholem emigrated from Berlin to Palestine in 1923 and died in 1982. His life exhibits an intellectual and cultural dual allegiance to Germany. His choice to settle in Palestine/Israel included repeated attempts to repatriate to Europe. He traveled around Europe after WW2 and suffered months of depression as a result.

In the waning decades of his life, Scholem became a strange kind of hero among the German intelligentsia. He wrote his memoir, From Berlin to Jerusalem, in German and published it in Germany in 1977. He is known for groundbreaking studies in Kabbalah and Judaica.

AR Years ago I enjoyed a book by Scholem on Jewish mysticism.

2015 March 10


Gordon Brown

Anti-Europeans frame the Europe issue as a basic choice: are you for Britain, or are you for Europe?

Pro-Europeans must tell the truth about the 3 million jobs, 25,000 companies, £200 billion of annual exports, and £​450 billion of inward investment linked to Europe. Britzerland would be subject to EU rules but denied a vote in shaping them. The Hong Kong option of leaving Europe to join the world is really the North Korea option.

The true patriotic course for Britain is not just to engage but to lead in Europe. The Britain that championed tolerance, liberty, and social responsibility before any other is ready once again to lead a progressive movement for change. It is a movement to mobilize Europe to tackle the challenge of making a global economy work for people.

We are geographically, historically, economically, and culturally part of Europe.

70 Years On: Tokyo

The Independent

Soon after midnight, 1945-03-10: About 300 US B-29 bombers dropped incendiary bombs filled with jellied gasoline onto Tokyo. The firestorm killed about 100,000 people, most of them old people, women and children. The raid began an orgy of destruction in the final months of WW2 that included dozens of similar raids on Japanese cities, and culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost 70 cities were reduced to rubble and perhaps half a million people killed.

AR The British Trident deterrent is capable of committing such a megadeath orgy within hours. British decency would be its first victim.

2015 March 9


Tom McCarthy

The anthropologist is a version of the writer stripped down to its bare structural essentials. You look at the world and you report on it. The writer as vanguard ethnographer is a lovely idea. But it has an almost systematic unworkability inscribed within it.

Universities have become businesses, and not very good ones. Businesses have taken over their former role as prime sites of knowledge generation. The best engineers and so on end up working in business. More than half of all anthropology graduates now work for corporations too.

The rise of corporate capitalism and the astonishing rate of its recent acceleration present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function.

2015 March 8


The New York Times

President Obama said that he and other world leaders have offered Iran an "extraordinarily reasonable deal" that will test whether the leadership of the Islamic nation is serious about at last resolving the dispute over its nuclear program.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of Congress to warn that the terms as publicly reported would make it a "bad deal" that would still leave Iran with a nuclear infrastructure that could make bombs.

Senator Dianne Feinstein: "What Prime Minister Netanyahu did here was something that no ally of the United States would have done. I find it humiliating, embarrassing and very arrogant. Because this agreement is not yet finished."

Fading UK

Anne Applebaum

The Conservatives might fail to win a majority in the general election. Britain might turn left, it might turn right, it might leave the European Union, it might break up.

In any case, the British seems to have lost interest in foreign policy. In 2009, the Conservatives withdrew from the Christian Democratic mainstream in the European Parliament, a decision that cut British influence in Germany. Then David Cameron announced his intention to hold a referendum on British EU membership, cutting British credibility in Europe. And in 2013, Parliament voted against supporting US airstrikes in Syria, cutting friends in American too.

The Conservatives are not guaranteed re-election and perhaps there are no votes in defense. But the UK will be worse off in a world where it has no influence.


Camilla Cavendish

The UK net migration target has been missed by a mile. Mass immigration poses profound questions about the nature of citizenship and rights. Today 16% of the British working age population is foreign born. Pressure on services is straining some local authorities to breaking point.


Armando Iannucci

Money is the root of all politics. Any major political movement needs big money to fund it, and rich business people get access and influence proportionate to their party donation.

Politics now is just accountancy. Politicians feel the need to act as though they run something. So they act like company directors. But the money men pull their puppet strings.

2015 March 7

Turning Poole Blue

Delivery Day for the latest Poole Town In Touch

AR Over the months I've published about a dozen In Touch newsletters for the various Poole wards.

2015 March 6

Blue Mars?


About 4 billion years ago, Mars had enough water to cover its surface in an ocean about 140 m deep.

NASA and ESO scientists studied Mars with three IR telescopes (Keck II and the ITF in Hawaii and the ESO VLT in Chile) to map its atmosphere over six years. They measured the ratio of H2O and HDO (in which a hydrogen atom is replaced by heavier deuterium): the greater the water loss from the planet, the greater the ratio of HDO to H2O in the water that remains. Atmospheric water in the near-polar region was enriched in HDO by a factor of 7 relative to Earth ocean water, implying that Mars lost a volume of water 6.5 times larger than the present polar caps.

Lead author Geronimo Villanueva: "Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space. With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars."

Water isotopic anomalies in martian atmosphere

Maps of atmospheric water and its deuterated form across the martian globe show isotopic anomalies indicative of great water loss. Early Mars (4.5 Gy BP) had a global equivalent water layer at least 137 m deep.

2015 March 5

Life And Death

Yuval Noah Harari

Medicine today is more and more focused on upgrading the healthy. This opens the possibility of creating huge gaps between rich and poor. This century, most humans will likely lose their military and economic value. Then the continuation of mass medicine is not so certain.

The biggest question in economics and politics of the coming decades may be what to do with all these useless people. Events in the Mideast are just a speed bump on the highway of history. People like Ray Kurzweil are creating new religions that will take over the world.

AR Globorg is great!

2015 March 4


Daniel Finkelstein

People get together in small groups, and these groups gradually become more extreme. They form an identity that is resilient to argument and the norms of the outside world. They accept a narrative that justifies further extremism and brooks no opposition.

This has happened repeatedly in history. Now it is Muslim identity and Islamic ideas that have been co-opted by these groups. The burden of condemning it and challenging it and exposing it inevitably falls upon Muslims:

Culturally, to ensure greater social integration and prevent these exclusive groups;
Politically, to challenge a Muslim identity based upon victimhood;
Intellectually, to expose the weakness of the jihadist view of Islam.

UK Defense

AR I say retire Trident, upgrade QE carriers for CATOBAR ops with
F-35C (not B) and B61-12, build more Astute SSN and upgrade for nuclear Tomahawk SLCM, build more frigates, order P-8 MPA, and so on. Save billions and get more flexible forces with adequate deterrence.


Jihadi John
Maajid Nawaz

Islamic State executioner
Jihadi John, Mohammed Emwazi, is a British computer science graduate from the University of Westminster. This university is well known for being a hotbed of extremist activity.


2015 March 3

The Iranian Bomb

Binyamin Netanyahu

The foremost sponsor of international terrorism could be weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.

We must all stand together to stop Iran's march of conquest, subjugation and terror. Iran's regime will always be an enemy of America. Don't be fooled; the battle between Iran and Isis does not turn Iran into a friend of America. When it comes to Iran and Isis, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.

Iran will become even more aggressive when its economy has been unshackled and it has a clear path to the bomb. This deal will be a farewell to arms control.

The Great Deceiver

Dallas G. Denery II

Saint Augustine said God cannot sin. Everything God does, God does well and justly. So why did God send his only son to redeem mankind? And why did Christ appear on Earth as the man Jesus?

Well, the Devil had deceived Adam and Eve. To undo this tangle of despair, God decided to deal with the Devil much as the Devil had dealt with Adam and Eve. The Devil had disguised himself as a serpent, so God disguised himself as a sinless man. He tempted the Devil to crucify the innocent Jesus and so to lose his grip on humanity. Augustine: "The Lord's cross was the devil's mousetrap."

During the Scientific Revolution, the commitment to rational causes for all events robbed God of the power to deceive or even to interact with the world. God became the source of universal order.

AR Thus the great deception was debunked.

2015 March 2

UK Defense

The Guardian

US Army chief of staff General Raymond Odierno is "very concerned" about British defense cuts.

UK PM David Cameron: "Britain has the fifth largest defense budget of any country in the world and the second largest in NATO. We are a very strong partner for the US."

Liam Fox

1 Russia poses a threat to some of our NATO allies. Malign Russian activity in the Baltic, the Balkans, and the Caucasus should remind us that under Article 5 of the NATO treaty an attack on one member is an attack on all.

2 Upgrading our nuclear deterrence and increases in capability will include the training and manning for the new carriers as well as provision of F-35 joint strike fighters.

3 British spending cuts in public spending should have been deeper and earlier. Defense took its share of those cuts.

4 For Britain to fall out of the 2% club would not only be a source of anxiety to the United States but would undermine British moral authority.

AR Keep it above 2%, chaps.

Ranking By Truth

New Scientist

Google search currently uses the number of incoming links to a web page as a proxy for quality. A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page by tapping into Knowledge Vault. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a proxy for truth. Web pages that contradict them are bumped down the rankings.

2015 March 1


Lawrence Haas

For more than a decade, US leaders worked to prevent Iran from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons technology. The international community imposed sanctions that would remain in place until we could rest assured that Iran would not develop nuclear weaponry.

President Obama now seems prepared to ink a deal that would put Iran on the cusp of nuclear weaponry. Yet nothing of late suggests that Tehran will change for the better. Iran remains an aggressive state sponsor of terrorism across the region. Its leaders continue to threaten Israel.

View from the rooftop of Hotel A La Carte. My Khe beach, Da Nang. Image: Thomas Uhlemann/dpa/Corbis
Vietnam 40 years on

End UK tax dodging

Live long and prosper

The first Chinese train to Spain completed a 26 Mm round trip on a new cargo line through Kazakhstan, Belarus, Poland, Germany, and France.

Security Challenges
Facing NATO

RUSI video

Russian TV
View from Russian Bear of
RAF Typhoon off Cornwall
this week

"Marx to the left of me,
Thatcher to the right,
Here I am,
stuck in the middle
with EU."

IOP Publishing

Photo: Fiona Hanson
Rowan Williams
"I'm preparing for
my final years."

AR He's younger than me!

Deutsche Fotothek
Dresden 70 years ago:
Allied fire-bombing
left 25,000 dead


2015 February 28

Islamists Versus Christians

Asra Q. Nomani

For Muslims, shirk is equating any being with God. Various translations define shirk as paganism, idolatry, or polytheism, and people who practice shirk are mushrikun. The Quran says shirk is a major sin. In one hadith, shirk is worse than murder. For most Muslim, Christians and Jews are people of the book, but they are mushrikun for Islamic State extremists.

Wahhabists accuse Muslims of shirk if they are Shi'ites, visit the tombs of saints, or celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. Islamic theologists regard tombs as shirk. Islamic State has interpreted shirk to put a veneer of ideology and piety on the kidnapping of women from the Yazidi ethnic minority of Iraq and Syria by calling the women mushrikun.

Translations of the Quran by the government of Saudi Arabia feed hatred of Jews and Christians. One translation adds parenthetical phrases: "Guide us on the Straight Way, the Way of those whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), and not of those who went astray (such as the Christians)."

2015 February 27

Pax Americana

Jessica T. Mathews

Bret Stephens believes that international security is skidding downhill. The evidence suggests otherwise. The number of armed conflicts is down by more than one third since the end of the cold war. Recent years have also been ones of declining threat from weapons of mass destruction. There are now far fewer nuclear weapons in the world and fewer countries with nuclear programs than there were twenty years ago. Stephens urges a US global hegemony.

AR Physicists have so pacified Homo sap with nukes that the US Globocop looks musclebound and Trident like overkill.



An IS militant: "These antiquities and idols behind me were from people in past centuries and were worshiped instead of God. When God Almighty orders to us destroy these statues, idols and antiquities, we must do it, even if they're worth billions of dollars."

AR My psychology of revelation gives such inner compulsion a logical semantics in which "orders" like these arise from brain states.

2015 February 26

Global Warming

Naomi Klein

The economic system that we have created has also created global warming. The system is broken. The lack of restraint on the part of the energy companies is disastrous.

We are going to experience global warming and far more natural disasters. But we still have time to prevent truly catastrophic warming. We also have time to change our economic system.

We have to make some decisions now about what values are important to us and how we really want to live. As long as we have a chance to minimize the damage, we have to continue to fight.

We need a dramatic change both in policy and ideology, because there is a fundamental difference between what the scientists are telling us we need to do and our current political reality.

The system in which we live sees all growth as good. But there are kinds of growth that are clearly not good. Emissions are rising and climate change is here.

We need an economic and political transformation, one based on stronger communities, sustainable jobs, greater regulation, and a departure from this obsession with growth.

2015 February 25


Roger Boyes

As the only Muslim-led member of NATO, Turkey has a central role to play in the Mideast. Turks aim to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria and to ensure that the Kurds do not exploit Mideast chaos to carve out their own state. In both these aims, Islamic State is not so much an enemy as a useful tool.

Turks communicate with IS commanders and help support the IS economy. They do not let NATO jets bomb Islamic State from Incirlik, the US airbase in Turkey. Turkish forces went into Syria only to rescue the holy tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman empire.

Turkey is playing a double game. For now, we will just have to pretend to be friends.

Well Done, Old Chap!

The Times

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne deserves a "pat on the back" for Britain's economic recovery and should be allowed to "finish the job" of performing a "textbook" recovery, says OECD secretary-general Ángel Gurría: "The UK has made tremendous progress exiting from the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. Job creation is remarkable and growth is strong."

2015 February 24

The New Way of War

Douglas A. Ollivant

Wars today are brutal and manpower intensive. We encounter professionals who intermingle with the population, outside national bounds, in spaces that belong to no state or only tenuously to a state.

The United States must adapt:

1 We need to rethink the way we go about buying our military hardware. The debacles of both the
F-35 aircraft and the US Army DCGS intelligence architecture are well documented.

2 We need forces that work with allied forces in spaces where the state is weak or nonexistent. Special forces teams are the capability most needed for future warfare.

3 We need prepared and ready land power. Indigenous land power supported by US airpower will continue to be the preferred approach, but the United States still needs a reliable ground force.

4 The Pentagon should focus on systems that push power and information to the edge of the system. In our age the force of choice has had access to centralized information. The forces of choice for the future will need to have information pushed out to them.

5 Military personnel management systems have defects in recruiting and development. We need new proposals that increase flexibility and expand the talent pool without degrading the production of leaders who can take young men into combat.

6 Warfare has not changed fundamentally. Wars will continue to be fought by young men over issues of fear, honor and interest, much like today.

2015 February 23

Islamic State

Graeme Wood

Islamic State is very Islamic. Virtually every major decision and law it promulgates adheres to the Prophetic methodology. The Prophet reportedly said the armies of Rome will set up camp in the Syrian city of Dabiq. The armies of Islam will meet them and defeat them there. After that, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. An Antichrist from Iran will kill vast numbers until just a few remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Then Jesus will return to Earth and lead the Muslims to victory.

2015 February 22

Retiring Trident

Toby Fenwick

Shortly after May 2015, the UK government will decide on replacing the Trident SLBM force V-boats with Successor-class SSBNs. A decision to go will lock the UK into capital spending of up to £33 billion by 2032 on the new subs, and this will likely lead to the UK operating Trident beyond 2050 at a total LCC of about £109 billion.

If the UK scraps plans for Successor-class SSBNs and moves to a free-fall nuclear capability based on LM F-35C JSF DCA and US B61-12 PGM, an alternative nuclear force based on 100 B61-12s has a capital cost of less than £17 billion. This includes:

Associated nuclear storage and C2
Conversion of both QE-class aircraft carriers for CATOBAR
5 additional Astute-class SSNs
4 additional Type 26 frigates
6 shipborne AEW&C and 4 COD aircraft
Converting the 14 RAF Voyager for flying boom AAR
8 P-8 class MPA/MMA

All these investments will enhance UK conventional force projection capabilities and precision conventional strike capability.

AR The VfM + LCC argument is convincing. Go for F-35C + B61-12.

2015 February 21

700th Anniversary Lecture by Dr Rowan Williams:
"Secular Churches and Holy Societies"
University Church of St Mary the Virgin, High Street, Oxford
Followed by tea in Exeter College Oxford

The Conscious Web

Stephen Balkam

Kevin Kelly says AI will enliven inert objects in the way that electricity did over 100 years ago. "Everything that we formerly electrified, we will now cognitize."

The internet of things (IoT) will link countless objects and people with embedded wireless identifiers that communicate autonomously, with 50 billion nodes by 2020.

Tim O'Reilly sees the IoT as the biggest online development yet. He thinks we should "expect our devices to anticipate us in all sorts of ways" and points to Google Now.

David Chalmers and others speculate that all things in the universe might be (or potentially be) conscious. If so, could we in the midst of a conscious web?

Teilhard de Chardin envisioned a global sphere of thought called the noosphere. He saw it as the evolutionary step beyond our geosphere and biosphere.

AR This scenario is my Globorg hypothesis — see my books, from Lifeball to Coral.

2015 February 20

NATO Panzeraufrüstung

Allan Mallinson

Germany is not pulling its weight against the Russian threat. UK defense secretary Michael Fallon says the Russians pose a "a real and present danger" to the Baltic members of NATO.

Every euro for the Greeks is one less for the Bundeswehr. German disarmament since the fall of the Berlin wall has been greater than that from the Versailles treaty after World War I. At the end of the Cold War the army had eight Panzer divisions. Now it has some 63,000 active soldiers.

NATO is looking thin. Britain and France have their eyes on other problems. Their armies are being rebuilt around the concept of agility, meaning lightweight. German troops played a minor role in Afghanistan, but in Europe the German army could play to its historic strengths.

German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen will overhaul German strategy in the light of the conflict in Ukraine. A new approach is needed for when diplomacy fails. Germany could reinvigorate NATO by reconstituting six Panzer divisions to build up 150,000 armored troops.

Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorsky: "I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."

2015 February 19

Evolution of Eukaryotes

David Baum and Buzz Baum

The evolution of the eukaryotic cell was a critical event for life on Earth.

Inside the eukaryotic cell is an intricate meshwork of membranes called the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), interspersed with other structures such as mitochondria. At the core is the nucleus, a large compartment with a double membrane, within which lies the DNA. This type of cellular organization distinguishes eukaryotes from prokaryotes.

Perhaps the eukaryotic cell evolved when a prokaryote folded parts of its outer membrane inwards, pinching off portions to generate internal compartments. Some membranes then wrapped around the DNA to make the nuclear membrane, while others morphed into the ER. Other cells engulfed by the cell went on to become mitochondria.

We propose that eukaryotic cells evolved when a prokaryote extruded blobs of outer membrane through its cell wall. These then fused to form the peripheral parts of the eukaryotic cell that contain the ER and mitochondria. The outer membrane of the eukaryotic cell is new. The nuclear envelope is the boundary of the prokaryotic ancestor.

Our model explains features of the ER and the nuclear membrane.

2015 February 18


Yanis Varoufakis

In 2008, capitalism had a global spasm. The financial crisis set off a chain reaction that pushed Europe into a downward spiral that continues to this day.

This crisis of European capitalism is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath. We need to arrest the free fall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate its alternative.

Karl Marx created a narrative populated by workers and others who struggled to harness reason and science in the context of empowering humanity. Contrary to their intentions, they unleashed demonic forces that usurped and subverted their own freedom and humanity.

This dialectical perspective on the great contradictions of the capitalist era dissolved the paradox of an age that generated the most remarkable wealth and the most conspicuous poverty. Beside the dialectical relation of debts and surpluses, of growth and unemployment, of wealth and poverty, indeed of good and evil, Marx discovered another binary opposition: the contradiction between human labour as a source of value that can never be quantified in advance and labour as a quantity that is for sale and comes at a price.

Economic theory that treats human and other productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanization of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system of value.

If capital ever succeeds in commodifying labour, it will also squeeze that human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx.

Marx made the greatest contribution any economist has ever made to our understanding of the contradiction buried in capitalism. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic input without destroying itself.

Marx argued that wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely on false consciousness.

Neoliberals have convinced a large array of people that markets are not just a useful means to an end but also an end in themselves. The great objective behind liberalism was to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter, leaving economics to capital.

Margaret Thatcher delivered a shock to the UK. The recession her government engineered destroyed progressive politics and the notion of values that transcended market price.

What good will it do today to call for a dismantling of the eurozone?
We must try to minimize the human toll from this crisis.

AR Varoufakis is the Greek minister of finance.

2015 February 17


Helen Arnold

SAP S/4 HANA is the biggest innovation since R/3. SAP is breaking all limitations of the past, with a completely new suite:

Simpler: Complexity is the most intractable business problem that all companies face today. SAP S/4 HANA will remove complexity from core systems and help companies return to standard. CIOs will be able to reduce their company data footprints and show a huge gain in performance. A focus on parallelism without locking improves throughput. Companies get more for less.

Faster: Custom code and modifications hinder innovation. Critical modifications we can host on the SAP HANA cloud platform. By getting back to a standard code line, we open businesses up to a much faster innovation cycle. Without long upgrade cycles or waiting for enhancement packs, businesses can consume innovation frequently. CIOs can become trusted innovation partners.

Flexible: CIOs will guide SAP S/4 HANA deployment either on premise or via the cloud. They will have the option to consume innovation packages delivered either in the public cloud or on the SAP HANA enterprise cloud. On premise customers can consume updates more frequently. Companies with SAP S/4 HANA on premise can easily convert to SAP S/4 HANA on the cloud.

With complexity eliminated and innovation easily adoptable, companies can become faster and better at what they do.

AR I was in the HANA team. We broke new ground.

2015 February 16


Hugh Eakin

The July 2011, massacre by Anders Breivik was the worst mass killing in Norwegian history. In a long manifesto, Breivik revealed a preoccupation with Islamic colonization abetted by the ruling Labor Party. He had been in the Progress Party, which warned about stealth Islamization. In 2013, the Labor Party was voted out and replaced by the Conservative Party in coalition with the Progress Party.

Thanks to oil, Norway's GDP per capita is now more than $100,000. It has low income inequality and leads the world in gender equality. Its cities are clean, almost every child gets a public education, the prisons are models of rehabilitation, and all tax returns are published online. The Norwegian government sends more humanitarian aid abroad per capita than any country.

After 9/11, opposition to Muslims and Islam entered Norwegian politics. A community of Islamophobes supported the Eurabia theory that there was a conspiracy to Islamize Europe. Young Norwegian Muslims founded Islam Net, an online youth organization with a Salafist ideology, raising suspicions that it was a pathway to radicalization. Hostility to Muslims in Norway is growing.


Karen Armstrong

Muhammad began to preach to his fellow Meccans in 612 CE. His message was based on the Quran, a new revelation for the people of Arabia. Many believed that their god Allah was identical with the god of the Jews and Christians. The bedrock message of the Quran was simply that it was good to share your wealth with the poor and vulnerable and to treat them with respect.

2015 February 15


Classical and Quantum Gravity

The team responsible for the visual effects in Interstellar developed new code to generate the movie images of the wormhole and black hole Gargantua. When a camera is close up to a rapidly spinning black hole, surfaces known as caustics create multiple images of individual stars and of the plane of the galaxy in which the black hole lives. The images are concentrated along one edge of the black hole shadow and are caused by the black hole dragging space into a whirling motion and stretching the caustics around itself many times. The code mapped the paths of millions of lights beams as they passed through warped spacetime to make an iconic image for the movie.

The black hole focuses a light beam emitted from any point on a caustic surface into a bright cusp of light. All the caustics but one wrap around the sky many times when the camera is close to the black hole. As each caustic passes by a star, it either creates two new images of the star as seen by the camera or annihilates two old images of the star. The simulations showed the caustics creating and annihilating a huge number of stellar images. On the opposite side of the shadow, the multiple images of each star are compressed inward and are not seen in the images.

Kip Thorne: "This new approach to making images will be of great value to astrophysicists like me. We too need smooth images."

2015 February 14

Master of the Universe

The Spectator

Guy Spier read PPE at Brasenose with Dave Cameron. After Oxford and Harvard Business School, Spier headed straight to a toxic New York brokerage firm. Eighteen months later, no one in the financial industry would employ him. He grasped that the secret to making money is first to turn yourself into the kind of person who is good at making money.

He renouncing the excitement of shorting, of bubbles, of vertiginous rises and headlong falls, in favor of value investing. He learned to spot which companies are going to do well and then backed them for the long run, knowing that their value will increase steadily over time.

He realized that the quest for value extends far beyond financial markets into a whole way of life. He quit the buzz of New York for the dull life of Zurich. He located his office well away from the financial center and just ten minutes from home.

His philosophy: the happier you are and the better you are at making others happy, the more easily you generate an environment in which you thrive not just personally but financially.

Lord Green

The Independent

Stephen Green: clergyman, banking executive, then chairman of HSBC from 2003 to 2010, and author of the book Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World.

After his elevation, Lord Green joined the Coalition government as a trade minister. Now he has nothing to say on the aggressive tax avoidance procured by his bank's Swiss subsidiary on his watch, or on allegations of tax evasion.

AR I once chatted with Stephen at a college dinner in Zurich (we are old boys of the same Oxford college). Nice chap, moral and religious. Oops!

2015 February 13


Fred Kaplan

What Putin fears most in this confrontation is not the introduction of some Western tanks or rockets but a thriving, prosperous Ukraine. It would be an example to the rest of the former Soviet republics that a better, richer life can be had under Western styles of governance and economics than under Putin's dream of a resuscitated USSR.

Messages to ETI

The Independent

Douglas Vokoch, of the SETI Institute in California, advocates beaming powerful radio messages to hypothetical alien civilizations advanced enough to read them. Vokoch: "With recent detection of Earth-like planets in the habitable zones of other stars, we have natural targets for such transmission projects. Some would argue that we should avoid powerful transmissions at all costs for fear of an alien invasion. If this mindset became entrenched, it would signal a guarded vision for humankind as isolationist, avoiding exploration, trying to minimize risk at any cost."

2015 February 12

Ukraine Deal?

The Guardian

The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France may be close to agreement following all-night talks in the Belarus capital Minsk on resolving the Ukraine conflict.

AR Hope it works. We're not ready for war.

2015 February 11

Nuclear Power

MIT Technology Review

Transatomic Power has begun work on a nuclear reactor that would be smaller and safer than a conventional unit. The design uses molten salt as its coolant, making it safe from meltdown, and it can burn nuclear waste without making material for weapons. Based on a reactor developed and tested 50 years ago at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the new design uses zirconium hydride as a moderator, protected from the corrosive molten salts by silicon carbide. Experiments will test whether the new materials perform as expected. The work is supported by Founders Fund.

2015 February 10


Samuel Moyn

Anglo-American liberalism has never been the sole version of the tradition. The French tradition treats modern individualism as a historical product rather than a natural fact.

Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers appealed to the classical past in order to attack Christian oppression. They encouraged their heirs to skirt the roots of liberalism in the Christianity that flourished in the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages were much more Christian than liberal. We need to explain the move from a refusal of the relevance of Christian moral beliefs in politics to a revolution in assumptions about the subordination of individuals to hierarchy.

The monotheists made the divine so otherworldly that man was liberated. Christianity severed the monotheist promise from terrestrial fulfillment and inscribed it in the soul. The same revolution that alienated individuals in relation to the world inadvertently prepared their independence from the divine and deprived politics of any sacred meaning.

Axel Honneth: "One of the major weaknesses of contemporary political philosophy is that it has been decoupled from an analysis of society, instead becoming fixated on purely normative principles."

2015 February 9


Andrew Keen

The digital economy does not so much disrupt what went before as destroy it. We need to ask what kind of world we want to live in. For most authors, editors, photographers, and musicians, the 25 years since the birth of the web have been a disaster. The winners take all, the rest wither and die. The internet has not been an unmitigated success.

The A Team

Andy Garner-Watts
Alvin Gunputh
Andy Ross
Poole Quay, 2015-02-07

Below: In front of
Setchfields model shop

Above: With statue of
Lord Baden-Powell,
hero of Mafeking and
former owner of
Brownsea Island

Left: In front of the
historic Custom House

East meets West

Juliet Marine Systems

Math And Sex

Mathematics can be as good
as sex. We are drawn to math.
Beauty is part of the process.
Brain scans show that the experience of mathematical
beauty excites the same area of
the brain as music or art. Math
prodigy Paul Erdős claimed that
certain proofs were so perfect
they were divine.

Russian Bear over
Poole Bay last week


2015 February 8


Patrick French

1911 Presiding over the Delhi Durbar, the Emperor of India King George V and his consort Queen Mary announced that the capital of the Raj was to be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi and laid the foundation stone for the Viceroy's new residence in Coronation Park.

1931 Construction completed, New Delhi inaugurated. Viceroy of India Lord Irwin invited Mohandas Gandhi to his palace for tea. They agreed that the Indian National Congress would call off civil disobedience and the British would release political prisoners and move toward participatory government.

1932 Viceroy Lord Willingdon invoked emergency powers and imprisoned tens of thousands of non-violent protesters, including Gandhi, who promptly went on hunger strike.

1942 Malaya, Singapore, and Burma fell to the Japanese. British power in Asia was finished.
1947 India became independent and Pakistan was created.
1950 India rejected the King Emperor George VI and declared itself a republic.

2015 February 7

East Meets West
A charity evening featuring Indian cuisine and culture
Newtown Conservative Club, Poole

Half of EU Voters Back Reform

The Telegraph

A survey in four major European countries finds that voters want change in the European Union.
About half of the people polled believe the EU should be reformed:

58% in France
46% in Germany
49% in the Netherlands
49% in the UK


Juliet Marine Systems

The US Navy is in a revolutionary period of change. Juliet Marine Systems in Portsmouth, NH, has developed a supercavitating surface craft as a testbed for technology it plans to apply in a prototype Unmanned Undersea Vehicle.

The GHOST rides on twin submerged buoyant tubular foils. It is a combination of stealth fighter aircraft and attack helicopter technologies packaged in a marine platform. Systems for integrating its weapons will be capable of engaging multiple targets while GHOST operates at very high speed.

AR Reminds me of Parson's Turbinia, the "ocean greyhound" that dazzled onlookers at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review in 1897 (and of the "bubbleboat" I designed 55 years ago).

2015 February 6

First Stars

New Scientist

The first stars were born over 100 million years later than we thought, says ESA Planck data.

The CMB is the stretched relic of the "Let there be light" epoch 12 Ts after the big bang. Planck mapped the CMB and the team has analyzed it to find that the cosmic dark ages lasted longer than we thought. The Planck predecessor WMAP put the start of the era at about 420 My ABB. Now Planck sets back the start of reionization to about 550 My ABB.

The Planck data rules out the BICEP2 claim to have detected primordial gravitational waves.

2015 February 5

Drinks and talk with UK transport minister Claire Perry MP
The Old Vicarage, Bere Regis, Dorset

Cosmic Inflation

New Scientist

Last March, cosmologists found apparent evidence that spacetime rippled during the big bang. Astronomers at the BICEP2 observatory reported signs of gravitational waves in the CMB consistent with inflation. Later researchers using ESA Planck data suggested that the BICEP2 signal could be due to dust in the galaxy. Now another study shows that the dust can explain the BICEP2 results.

2015 February 4

Convert Railways to Busways

Institute of Economic Affairs

Commuters could pay 40% less to travel and more passengers could get a seat if some commuter railways in London were converted into busways:

Capacity: Commuter railways move a quarter of a million passengers into London during the morning peak hour, many of whom have to stand, when 150 express coaches could seat them all using one seventh of the capacity of a one-lane busway.

Journey time: Express coaches would deliver similar travel speeds but operate more frequently. Door-to-door time savings for coaches operating from suburbs and villages would be greater.

Cost: Converting commuter railways into busways would reduce fares for passengers. Conversion costs would be high but adding new rail capacity and rail subsidies would be worse.

The government spends £6 billion a year on the rail network. It funds about 40% of spending on the heavy rail network. Although 90% of passengers and 70% of freight traffic go by road, state spending on railways is only 30% lower than that on roads.

Policy decisions on rail have reflected political priorities rather than economic logic.

2015 February 3

Biker Deaths

Foreign Policy

The global #1 public health crisis is a soaring number of motorcycle fatalities. Across Asia, 2 and 3 wheeled vehicles account for about a third of all highway deaths, with the highest numbers in SE Asia. Road crashes cost SE Asian economies some 3% of GDP. Governments talk of making roads safer but see accidents as the price of progress.

2015 February 1

Russia Versus NATO

James Rubin

Western policies have failed to deter Moscow. President Vladimir Putin has not been dissuaded from his goals in Ukraine. Sanctions imposed by the European Union and Washington have imposed a price, but not one high enough to deter Russia from continuing to carve out a large chunk of Ukraine.

Beyond Ukraine, NATO steps to reassure its members in eastern Europe, primarily Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, are woefully inadequate. NATO needs a new approach to ensure that deterrence is restored for the Baltics and eastern Europe, a few hundred miles from the heart of Europe.

To strengthen NATO, the main step was a contingency fund to allow increased military exercises. But to bolster the defense of Poland, instead of the new military base that the Polish government had offered to host, the United States sent in a unit of 200 soldiers to rotate in and out of the country during exercises.

Western leaders need to take dramatic steps to show solidarity with new NATO members in the east. The time to worry about Russian sensibilities is past. Moscow has charted a path of war. The West must chart a wiser path to peace.

Chandra X-ray observatory image of Large Magellanic Cloud star remnant SNR 0519-69.0

"Der 8. Mai war ein
Tag der Befreiung."

Richard von Weizsäcker

Globall goes virtual

Big Bazooka

EZ €1.1T QE

Demo in Hannover

Demo in London


Der Spiegel

Monday marches by PEGIDA activists have transformed Dresden into a Mecca for Islamophobes.



2015 January 31


Yuval Noah Harari

Terror is a military strategy that hopes to change the political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage. This strategy is almost always adopted by very weak parties.

Terrorists aim to beat the rival with the rival's own power. They leave all the important decisions in the hands of the enemy. People turn to terrorism because they know they cannot wage war, so they opt instead to produce a theatrical spectacle.

Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theater producers and less like army generals. To fight terrorism effectively we must realize that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to terrorist provocations.

The legitimacy of the modern state is based on its promise to keep the public sphere free of political violence. This is what makes the theater of terrorism so successful. A huge space empty of political violence acts as a sounding board.

The most efficient answer to terrorism might be good intelligence and clandestine action against the networks of money that feed terrorism. But this is not something citizens can see on television.


Sam Harris

I came into science from the philosophical side of wanting to understand consciousness and subjectivity. Then I had to know more about the brain in order to be able to talk about the mind.

When you have certain experiences in meditation, or with psychedelics, that show you a very different possibility for your experiences, moment to moment, those don't tell you anything about the nature of the cosmos. These experiences do entitle you to say something about the nature of human experience and its possibilities. We can then understand them further by understanding what's happening in the brain when we have them.

The self is an idea which we know doesn't actually make sense in terms of what's going on at the level of the brain. And it also doesn't make sense if you pay close attention to your conscious experience. I think the good life question is the most important question.

2015 January 30


Prince Philip

Great engineers have a passion to improve life. What drives them is the conviction that they can find a better way to do things. Instead of complaining, they think of ways to make things better. Engineering has made a greater positive difference to human life than almost any other human endeavor.

AI Threat

Bill Gates

I am concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern.

One project I am working on with Microsoft is the Personal Agent which will remember everything and help you go back and find things and help you pick what things to pay attention to. The agent will work across all your devices.

AR Ah yes, absent-minded middle age.

2015 January 29

Virtual Reality

Molly Wood

Gaming was the focus of the original Oculus Rift VR headset. Oculus was bought by Facebook last year for $2 billion. The $200 Samsung Gear VR headset is built in partnership with Oculus.

Augmented reality lays virtual elements on top of the real world instead of taking you into an entirely contained experience. Google has invested more than $500 million in AR company Magic Leap.

2015 January 28



A team of Microsoft engineers, designers, and researchers has toiled to create an augmented reality headset called HoloLens. The device weaves digital elements into the real world in a magical merging of the virtual and physical.

I used it to install a light switch. I put on a headset and looked at a hole in the wall and a row of tools. An engineer Skyped in on my screen, introduced himself, and drew a holographic circle around a voltage tester. Then he walked me through the process of installing the switch, sketching quick arrows and diagrams that glowed on the wall in front of me. Five minutes later, I flipped the switch and turned the light on.

This is the next computing interface. In this new reality, sensors will be everywhere, producing copious amounts of data, a layer of ambient intelligence coating every physical object. The technology will offer a visual computing platform controlled by speech and gesture that is so intuitive it fades into the background.

HoloLens has three controls, to adjust volume, to adjust the contrast of the hologram, and to power on or off, all powered by Windows 10. When it comes to market toward the end of this year, it will weigh about the same as a bike helmet.

NASA saw its potential to help space explorers collaborate more closely and to provide presence. A team built a Mars simulation that works so well that NASA plans to deploy the technology on a mission by this summer.

AR This is right for now. Google Glass was a step too far.

2015 January 27

The Moral Arc

Michael Shermer

When I talk about a moral arc of progress, I mean an improvement in the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings. My argument is one for natural rights.

Social problems such as homicide and violence ought to be treated as public health issues. If you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence due to improved technologies and policies, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to solving problems such as crime and violence is also something we ought to do.

The survival and flourishing of sentient beings is our moral starting point. Most people act in what they consider to be moral ways. When we can clearly see that they are in fact behaving in ways that lead to the suffering or death of sentient beings, it is probably more accurate to say that they are mistaken in their beliefs than that they are simply immoral or evil. And the solution is that we need to correct their mistaken beliefs. Science and reason are the best tools we have for doing that. Ultimately moral progress comes about from generating better ideas rather than better morality.

The moral arc is not a smooth curve, but the moral progress we have made is real and lasting. The trends are encouraging. We have good reasons for optimism about the future of humanity.

Auschwitz 70 years on

2015 January 25

Ex Machina

Dir. Alex Garland

AR Excellent: a better cinematic introduction to Chalmers' Hard Problem and the AGI issue would be hard to imagine.

2015 January 24


Oliver Burkeman

In Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, David Chalmers gave a talk on consciousness. Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event, recalls: "He comes on stage, hair down to his butt, he's prancing around like Mick Jagger. But then he speaks. And that's when everyone wakes up."

Chalmers introduced the Hard Problem of Consciousness: Why should brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Two decades later, the field of artificial intelligence has advanced stupendously. But the Hard Problem remains.

René Descartes identified the dilemma that would tie scholars in knots for years to come. You are conscious. But this most certain and familiar of phenomena obeys none of the usual rules of science. The mind must be made of some special stuff. Cartesian dualism remained the governing assumption into the early days of modern brain study.

David Chalmers: "Evolution could have produced zombies instead of conscious creatures ... I can see how you're behaving, I could do a brain scan, and find out exactly what's going on in your brain, yet it seems it could be consistent with all that evidence that you have no consciousness at all."

Chalmers is fond of clambering on stage to sing The Zombie Blues, a lament about the miseries of having no consciousness. It would be satisfying if a theory were to vanquish the Hard Problem. Chalmers has no particular confidence that a consensus will emerge in the next century.

AR Chalmers' work inspired my book Mindworlds.

2015 January 23

Drinks reception with Liam Fox
St Nicolas Church, Corfe Mullen

Augmented Reality

The New York Times

The HoloLens is wondrous. It suggests that interacting with holograms could become an important part of how we use machines in the future. Microsoft has clearly put a great deal of engineering work into this project. When you put on the device, which looks like ski goggles, you see 3D digital controls as well as images from a video game superimposed on the world around you. The holograms do not have very high resolution, but they are crisp enough to create the illusion of reality.

HoloLens will draw comparisons with Google Glass. Both devices mix digital images and daily life, and both make you look silly when you wear them. But Glass mostly keeps the digital images out of your field of vision and is thus more suited to be used in public. The HoloLens immerses you more deeply in a digital environment. Glass is meant to be more like a replacement for your phone while the HoloLens seems more like a substitute for the personal computer. It's meant to be useful.

AR See chapter 0001 of my 2010 book G.O.D. Is Great.

2015 January 22


The Guardian

The billionaires and corporate oligarchs meeting in Davos this week are getting worried about inequality.

For 35 years, market fundamentalism has ruled. Inequality in income and wealth has ballooned both between and within the large majority of countries. Under this regime of privatization, deregulation, and low taxes on the rich, finance has sucked wealth from the public realm into the hands of a small minority and laid waste the rest of the economy. Not only is such appropriation of wealth a moral and social outrage, but it is fueling social and climate conflict, wars, mass migration, and political corruption, stunting health and life chances, increasing poverty, and widening gender and ethnic divides.

Escalating inequality has been a crucial factor in the economic crisis of the past 7 years.

2015 January 21


Winston Ross

Geert Wilders could become the next prime minister of Holland. Ten years ago, his proposals were mostly seen as the ravings of an extremist. Now reporters call him a populist and no longer dismiss his xenophobic rants.

Europeans are becoming increasingly hostile to Muslims and immigrants. Islamophobes are burning mosques in Sweden and marching by the tens of thousands in Germany. Wilders: "This is war."

Wilders says he hates Islam, not Muslims: "The biggest disease we have faced in the last decades in Europe is cultural relativism, the idea by liberals and leftist politicians that all cultures are equal. They are not. Our culture, based on Christianity, humanism and Judaism, is a better culture."

He abjures violence: "We should be tolerant to people who are tolerant to us. We should be intolerant to people who are intolerant to us."


Adam Gopnik

Michel Houellebecq is a satirist. The principal target of his new satire is not French Islam but the spinelessness of the French intellectual class. The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond. The reform of education, the reinforcement of the family, even the re-domestication of women are all held up for admiration.

Like most satirists worth reading, Houellebecq is a conservative. The Muslim warriors are inspired by the austere ideal of submission to authority. But the great majority of Muslim kids will do what kids everywhere do: pursue their own interests within the system. Sharia law is the last thing they want.

2015 January 20


Philip Ball

Darwinian evolution takes random variation and sieves it by natural selection. But the landscape that the evolutionary process explores has a remarkable structure.

A computer program can predict the simplest features of an RNA shape from its sequence. RNA molecules with the same shape can vary very widely in sequence. You can go from one sequence to another with the same shape via a succession of small changes called neutral mutations.

Any given sequence in the search space has a huge number of neighboring sequences that have completely different shapes, yet it can still mutate step by step into a different sequence with a similar function. So the search space is navigable: You can change the genotype neutrally, without losing the phenotype. RNA can evolve.

Proteins have this property too. Different organisms often possess proteins with the same shape and function, yet typically these will share no more than a fifth of their amino acids in common. It seems evolvability is a fundamental feature of complex networks.

For many organisms, you can obliterate many of their individual genes to no obvious effect. There are plenty of similar gene circuits that do much the same job as the original one. A network that can evolve new features and forms among a vast array of alternatives must be robust against small changes.

A property of biological systems even deeper than evolutionary processes is the landscape of possible shapes. The landscape has a topology in which functionally similar combinations of the component parts are connected into vast webs that stretch throughout a multidimensional space, each intricately woven amid countless others.

The structure of these combinatorial landscapes of biomolecules enables nature to innovate rather than only making incremental variations on what already exists. Evolution can take a random walk along a web of neutral mutations. Through neutral drift, organisms can reach locations in phase space inaccessible by adaptive mutation from their original starting position.

Evolvability and openness to innovation are features of information. Darwinian evolution is a result of how information is organized in complex systems.

AR Evolving now: the AGI God.


Colin Barras

Plasticity may play a key role in evolution. Instead of mutating first and adapting later, animals often adapt first and mutate later.

A physical feature that began as a plastic response to an environmental trigger can become a hereditary feature. Plastic changes occur because an environmental trigger affects a developmental pathway in some way. Random mutations can have similar effects. So in an environment in which a particular plastic response is crucial for survival, only mutations that allow or reinforce this response can spread. The altered developmental pathway becomes a permanent hereditary feature.

Plasticity can determine which mutations spread. Genetic assimilation does not overturn any fundamental principles of evolution.

2015 January 19

Digital Apocalypse

Sam Harris

It seems likely that we will one day build machines that possess superhuman intelligence. A future artificial general intelligence (AGI) will likely exceed human performance on every task to which it is assigned.

A superhuman AGI that behaved exactly as intended would quickly free us from doing most intellectual work. Absent a willingness to immediately put this new capital at the service of all humanity, a few of us would enjoy unimaginable wealth, and the rest would be free to starve. Even in the presence of a truly benign AGI, we could find ourselves slipping back to a state of nature, policed by drones.

Chaos seems a probable outcome even in the case where the AGI remained perfectly obedient. But the control problem appears quite difficult to solve. Imagine that we build a computer that is no more intelligent than the average team of researchers but runs a million times faster than the minds that built it. What are the chances that such an entity would remain content to take direction from us?

The fact that we seem to be hastening toward some sort of digital apocalypse poses ethical challenges. To have any hope that a superintelligent AGI would have values commensurate with our own, we would have to instill those values in it. But whose values should count?

The moment of truth: Picture ten young men in a room — several of them with undiagnosed Asperger's — drinking Red Bull and wondering whether to flip a switch. Should any single company or research group be able to decide the fate of humanity?

And yet the only thing nearly as scary as building an AGI is the prospect of not building one. We seem to be in the process of building a God.

TOP Half

The Guardian

Billionaires and politicians gather in Switzerland this week for the World Economic Forum in Davos. The charity Oxfam at the gathering will demand action to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Oxfam finds that on current trends the richest 1% will own more than 50% of the world's wealth by 2016.

2015 January 18


James Meek

The British army spent 8 years in Afghanistan. It was a military and political catastrophe. British troops were responsible for the deaths of at least 500 Afghan civilians and the injury of thousands more. From 2001, 453 British forces personnel were killed in Afghanistan and more than 2600 wounded. The British operation cost around £40 billion.

Tony Blair was responsible for the decision to send the army to Helmand in 2006. Senior American officers in Iraq had become weary of British boasting. The British high command realized that their American patrons considered them to have been beaten in Iraq. They decided this disaster made it even more important to persevere in Afghanistan.

Within weeks of their arrival, British troops were fighting for their lives. The initial headline deployment was 3500 British troops. The number of men trained to go out on patrol with weapons was about 700. The soldiers were mostly exultant at having survived their battle initiation. The officers were wary and diplomatic. The corporals and sergeants understood quickly that the people attacking them were locals and that the British army was being forced on the defensive.

In 2008 almost half of all attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan were in Helmand. Eventually the Americans sent in the Marines, bailing Britain out a second time. This left British troops effectively subordinate to US plans. The Americans were keen to implement an aggressive surge in Afghanistan. The British were obliged to go along with it.

The British were hated in Helmand. The British army had a history of invading Afghanistan and the reaction to the British arrival was astonishment. The British were fighting local men led by local barons. The Taliban provided money, via their sponsors in the Gulf, and ideas the barons could franchise. The British and Americans got played.

Charlie Hebdo

Slavoj Žižek

Friedrich Nietzsche saw Western civilization moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. We are the Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in struggle up to self-destruction.

The passionate intensity of the terrorists bears witness to a lack of true conviction. A belief is fragile if it is threatened by a stupid caricature in a weekly satirical newspaper. The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but rather that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.

The rise of radical Islamism is exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries. Liberalism is not strong enough to save its core values against the fundamentalist onslaught. Fundamentalism is a reaction against a real flaw of liberalism. The only thing that can save its core values is a renewed Left.

Max Horkheimer said about fascism and capitalism that those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. Today those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.

2015 January 15


David Cameron and Barack Obama

Progress and prosperity are never guaranteed. As we meet today at the White House, we reaffirm our belief that our ability to defend our freedoms is rooted in our economic strength and the values that we cherish — freedom of expression, the rule of law and strong democratic institutions.

We need strong and determined leadership to meet the challenges of our time:

1 We must do all we can to bolster our economies against another global economic downturn.
2 We will continue to stand together against those who threaten our values and our way of life.
3 We will continue to stand up to Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine.

European Right

Joerg Forbrig

European extremists are getting a boost from the French tragedy. Most Europeans like mobility and migration within the European Union but dislike immigration from outside the EU. Most view Islam as incompatible with the Western world and many see Islam as a threat.

Populist and extreme right parties are tapping these sentiments:

Nigel Farage of UKIP blames a "fifth column" in Europe.
Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party says it is time to "de-Islamize" the Netherlands.
Marine Le Pen of the Front National says the time is up for denial and hypocrisy.
Alexander Gauland of the AfD sees proof it was wrong to ignore the Islamist threat.

This puts pressure on Europeans:

European Muslims are at risk of being marginalized in European societies.
European politicians will push to restrict immigration and increase security.
Fortress Europe will become even more of a reality.


Der Spiegel

Köln, Mittwochabend: Einer Demonstration von 150 "Kölnern gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes" (Kögida) standen laut Angaben der Polizei 6500 Gegendemonstranten gegenüber. Unter die wenigen Kögida-Anhänger hätten sich auch Hogesa-Anhänger ("Hooligans gegen Salafisten") gemischt.

2015 January 14

Wagner and the Jews

Nathan Shields

The Wagner question concerns the morality of art and of music. Wagner understood that a myth is also a vehicle of deeper truths. To Wagner, the Gesamtkunstwerk is a drama of collective salvation.

The God of the Jews, Wagner wrote in Religion and Art, is doomed by art. Art is the true creation, before which His false one pales. The end of salvation is to become music, to dissolve into pure sound, all life's dissonances resolving into the absolute.

>> more

2015 January 11


Lucian Kim

In her New Year address, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave some motherly advice to German citizens, telling them to stay away from rallies in Dresden organized by PEGIDA.

Germany is divided on immigration. A recent poll found that while most of its 4 million Muslims like democracy, half of all Germans view Islam as a threat, 60% believe Islam is incompatible with modern life, and 1 in 4 would end Muslim immigration.

The poll found that older people feel more threatened than younger ones, and that Islamophobia is greatest where there are the fewest Muslims. In Saxony, where PEGIDA was born and less than 1 in 1000 is Muslim, 70% feel threatened.

Alternative for Germany, AfD, founded in 2013, opposes the euro and criticizes Merkel for moving too far to the center. The AfD caucus in Saxony is talking with PEGIDA.

AR European opinion is mobilizing fast.

All communities can do more to help deal with terrorists. But there is a special burden on
Muslim communities because whether we like it or not these terrorists call themselves Muslims.
They try to take a great peaceful religion and warp it for their own means. To say that this has got
nothing to do with Islam and Muslims would be wrong. These people are taking a peaceful religion of
a billion people around the world and using it as their tool to carry out their horrible activities.
Sajid Javid

Photo: Tim Woodcock
VW Käfer


2015 January 11

Germany: A Force For Good

Will Hutton

Chancellor Merkel arrived in London last week as the leader of Europe's most successful liberal democracy. Germany is quietly attempting to anchor Europe in the same successful combination of liberal democracy, social solidarity, and productive capitalism that it enjoys. Germany is not living in the past like today's Britain, hankering to restore lost certainties.

Neil MacGregor says Germany can only face its historical crimes, genocide, and millions of war dead with a resolve to never again make the same mistakes. Germany is now freed of imprisoning and destructive myths. It has become a force for good, too little recognized in Britain because we still define ourselves as a victor over Germany when it was evil.

For Germany, the nation state has been an interlude between the Holy Roman Empire and the European Union. The union is the only way to conceive of the future and create a peaceful and productive Europe. Senior German officials talk privately in these terms, categories that bewilder the British still locked in fundamentally traditional political categories.

Germans want to see the atrocities in Paris as the acts of a murderous cult fueled by marginalization rather than join in any putative clash of civilizations. They would love Britain to recall that at different times it has fought alongside Germans, to drop its fixation with old wars and make common cause to build a great future. Europe could be so much stronger.

2015 January 10


New Scientist

Now is a trick of the mind. We experience a succession of nows as time passing. Neuroscientists and psychologists say now lasts on average between 2 and 3 seconds. This is the window within which the brain fuses experience into a psychological present. The property of flow emerges from a hierarchy of nows.

A functional moment is the timescale at which a person can distinguish one event from another. This varies for different senses. The auditory system can distinguish two sounds 2 ms apart, whereas the visual system requires much longer. For the brain to detect the order of stimuli, two events must be at least 50 ms apart. Even if the asynchrony between audio and visual streams is up to 200 ms, the brain can adjust the signals to synchronize them.

Our brains integrate stimuli into a cohesive whole within a window of up to 2.5 s. This is the subjective present. Our sense of now is a psychological illusion based on the past and a predicted future. We combine the experienced moments to feel a sense of continuity. This mental presence underpins the sense of self.

AR This was the key theme in chapter 13 of my 2009 book Mindworlds.

2015 January 9

France First

Marine Le Pen

Islamists have declared war on France. The Charlie Hebdo shooting was a terrorist attack carried out in the name of radical Islam.

Them and Us

Nesrine Malik

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is not reducible to anything as simple as two cultures clashing over the sanctity of a prophet. Which is not to say that this has nothing to do with religion. There is far too much cowardice and equivocation when it comes to such issues. But to engage in war talk is to give in to the reductionism demanded by terrorists.


Anjem Choudary

Islam means submission to the commands of Allah. Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression. Their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation. Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is an obligation. The Messenger Muhammad: "Whoever insults a Prophet kill him."

France: Islam Threat

The Times

The number of Muslims in France is up to 6 million, about 10% of the population. But 70% of the inmates of French prisons are Muslims. A recent poll found that 43% of the French see Islam as a threat to the French national identity. Nearly 70% say Muslims have failed to integrate into French society.

2015 January 8

Fossil Fuel Folly

The Guardian

A Nature study reveals the geopolitical and economic implications of tackling global warming for countries and companies that rely on fossil fuel wealth. Trillions of dollars of known and extractable coal, oil and gas cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under the internationally agreed 2C safety limit. Currently, the world is heading for a catastrophic 5C of warming.

Deadline to seal a global climate deal; December, UN summit, Paris

AR We must go nuclear.

The Case for Mocking Religion

Christopher Hitchens (2006)

Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent.

On the question of offensiveness:

1 Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers. How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions? Those who are determined to be offended will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.

2 Can the discussion be carried on without the threat of violence, or the automatic resort to it? There can be no negotiation under duress or under the threat of blackmail and assassination. And civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient.

Charlie Hebdo

Agnès Poirier (2007)

Charlie Hebdo is being sued for racism by the Paris Grand Mosque, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, and the World Islamic League.

We have to stop mistaking healthy criticism of religion for racism.

Deadly Mutation in the Heart of Islam

Salman Rushdie (2015)

Religion deserves our fearless disrespect.

Europe in Decline

Arthur C. Brooks

Europe's core problems are demographic, not economic. Nearly 1 in 5 Western Europeans was 65 years old or older in 2014. By 2030, this will have risen to 1 in 4. The last time the countries of the European Union were reproducing at replacement levels was some 40 years ago. In 2014, the average number of children per woman was about 1.6.

Europe needs visionary leaders and a social movement to rediscover that people are assets, not liabilities.

M16 nebula

US Military Aircraft
Approximate unit costs
A-10 Warthog $19 million
MQ-9 Reaper $17 million
V-22 Osprey $72 million
F-22 Raptor $144 million
B-2 Spirit $810 million
F-35 Lightning II $101 million

2015 January 7

Goldilocks Planet

The Guardian

Planet Kepler 438b is
470 light years away
Slightly larger than Earth
Orbiting an orange dwarf star
In the Goldilocks zone where the temperature is right for water and life.

Astrophysicists announced the discovery at AAS 225, Seattle.

2015 January 6


Michel Houellebecq

My atheism came to seem unsustainable. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that they are in a schizophrenic situation. Their big issues are societal issues. On these issues they are very far from the left. And one doesn't see why they'd vote for the right.

I think there is a real need for God. The return of religion is a reality. Researchers say we are witnessing a progressive secularization of Islam, and that violence and radicalism should be understood as the death throes of Islamism. This is not what I have observed.

For people to convert is a sign of hope, not a threat. On the level of values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic.

I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. The Koran turns out to be much better than I thought. The jihadists are bad Muslims. A holy war of aggression is not generally sanctioned. Prayer alone is valid.

2015 January 5


John Allen

The components of instability that we face with Daesh are found widely in the region. It's not just about Daesh, Iraq or Syria. There are social difficulties, economic difficulties, governance challenges that created opportunities for extremism to emerge and the radicalization of populations.

We want to deny Daesh safe havens either in Iraq or in Syria, to preclude its capacity to organize an existential threat to those countries. The frontline states of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon also need assistance. We need not only to expose Daesh for the darkness that it is, but also to celebrate the values within countries that help defeat its attractiveness.

2015 January 4

Time and the Universe

Bryan Appleyard

Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin say:

1 Time is real and therefore there are no unchanging physical laws
2 There is only one universe
3 Mathematics is of strictly limited use in explaining the cosmos

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time is about the way we live now and the world view we have been sold as scientific. Unger and Smolin urge natural philosophy as a form of investigation in which all is tested against nature and in which history, the account of the cosmos in real time, becomes the queen of the sciences. They say science is about what can be conclusively established on the basis of rational argument from public evidence. Neither the multiverse nor the block universe qualifies and neither does the beginning of time.

Geoengineering Ideas

New Scientist

1 Dam the Straits of Gibraltar and lower the Mediterranean Sea level
2 Build a water pipeline from the Amazon River to the Sahara Desert
3 Flood the Qattara Depression in NW Egypt with seawater
4 Join NE Siberia with Alaska by bridging the Bering Straits
5 Dam the Indian Ocean exits of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea
6 Create an isthmus over Adam's Bridge linking Sri Lank and India
7 Sink the Isthmus of Panama to relink the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans

2015 January 3


David Cole

The US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have conducted an international dragnet surveillance program of unprecedented scope.

Digital technology has radically reduced the practical obstacles that we used to rely on to protect our rights. The government can simply go to the various electronic communications service providers you use and obtain from them detailed information on your every phone call, Web search, e-mail, online chat, or credit card purchase, as well as your physical location whenever you are carrying your cell phone. Under current law, you have no constitutional right to object to the government obtaining the information from the companies that serve you. The government can obtain a detailed, intimate portrait of anyone at low cost, without any basis for suspicion.

Disclosures about NSA spying have changed the actions of Silicon Valley corporations. Their business interests have been hurt, so they are now behind privacy reforms — hope for the future.


New Scientist

2015 is the centenary of general relativity. In 1915, Albert Einstein published a set of equations that changed our understanding of the universe. Out went the Newtonian notion of gravity as a force between massive objects, in came the idea that gravity is an effect of the fact that massive objects curve spacetime.

Einstein's general theory of relativity is built upon ten coupled hyperbolic-elliptic nonlinear partial differential equations that take many pages to write down. The equations predict that cataclysmic cosmic events should send ripples through spacetime, but we have yet to observe any. This year will see the resumption of the Caltech gravitational wave experiment LIGO and the launch of the ESA spacecraft LISA Pathfinder.

2015 January 2

The US Military

The Atlantic

The United States will spend more than $1 trillion on national security this year, about as much as the next 10 nations combined. Americans have the best-equipped fighting force in history, yet it is repeatedly defeated by less modern, poorly equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war.

Estimated cost of post-9/11 wars in and around Iraq and Afghanistan: $1.5 trillion

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 was designed for the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and US allies worldwide. It was to be strong enough for Navy carrier landings, light and maneuverable as an Air Force dogfighter, and able to take off and land like a helicopter for the Marines. It is years behind schedule and billions over budget.

Estimated total F-35 program costs: $1.5 trillion

2015 New Year's Day

Cosmic Mathematics

Ian Stewart

In 1687, Isaac Newton published his law of universal gravitation. It paved the way to a rational scientific understanding of nature based on precise mathematical laws.

One of the great tests of Newtonian gravitation was Edmond Halley's prediction about a comet. Halley realised one comet was a repeat visitor, with an elliptical orbit that took it near the Earth every 76 years. His prediction of its next return in 1758 proved correct.

In 2004 the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Rosetta probe to visit Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. On 12 November 2014 a small capsule, Philae, landed on the comet. Rosetta performed a carefully choreographed cosmic dance, tugged by the combined gravitational forces of the sun, the Earth, Mars and other bodies. Its route was designed for fuel efficiency and took ten years. Each close fly-by with Earth and Mars gave the probe a free boost, governed by Newton's law of gravity.

The early solar system was very different from the sedate one we see today. The planets formed by a chaotic process of accretion. The giants were closer together and millions of planetesimals roamed the outer regions. Jupiter and Saturn wandered into a resonance that pushed Neptune and Uranus outwards, with Neptune overtaking Uranus. The disturbed planetesimals fell toward the Sun. Chaos erupted in the solar system as planetesimals played celestial pinball among the planets. Some planetesimals went into long, thin orbits as comets.

These theories are supported by huge computer calculations of solar system dynamics. Mathematics has illuminated many other cosmic puzzles.

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