BLOG 2021 Q4

Jets emerging from the galaxy Cygnus A create massive interstellar blobs, visible here in radio waves.
In 1977, theorists showed that when magnetic field lines from an accretion disk fall onto a spinning black hole,
its rotation winds the field lines into a helix oriented along the rotation axis. Magnetic fields in motion
accelerate a current of electrons and positrons along the helix in both directions as jets.



2021 December 31

A Critical Mistake

Holly Thomas

Don't Look Up alienates those who most need to be moved by its message.
Its premise is that a huge comet is on a collision course for Earth, but the corrupt US president and the evil media choose to ignore the danger because they think they can profit from it.
It's a climate change metaphor. As the movie would have it, the biggest problem facing the world is that the gullible public and greedy elites keep refusing to listen to the clever scientists.
In the recent context of vaccine misinformation and billionaires making vanity trips to space, it's a tempting position. But when science becomes politicized, truth is no longer persuasive.
To win people over, science must remain apolitical.

AR A fair point.


2021 December 30

Don't Look Up

Peter Kalmus

Don't Look Up tells the story of astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her PhD adviser, Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who discover a comet − a "planet killer" − that will impact the Earth in just over six months.
The scientists are essentially alone with this knowledge, ignored and gaslighted by society. The panic and desperation they feel mirror what many climate scientists feel.
This film is really about how humanity is responding to planet-killing climate breakdown. The public underestimate how rapid, serious, and permanent climate and ecological breakdown will be if we fail to mobilize. The Earth system is breaking down with alarming speed.
Don't Look Up conveys a certain cold truth that climate scientists and others who understand the full depth of the climate emergency are living every day.

AR Is this the end for humans?




2021 December 29


Molly Young

Stoicism has enjoyed a revival during the pandemic. Books like Letters from a Stoic by Seneca and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius have become more popular.
Seneca: "Disaster is virtue's opportunity."
Stoicism has some basic principles. Excellence of character, or virtue, is the only true good, and we should spend our lives pursuing it. Virtue is its own reward, but it will also make us happy. We should cultivate feelings of kinship toward all humans. We should not whine or gossip. We should mentally rehearse undesirable events to prepare for them. We should decide what we can and cannot control and quit worrying about the latter.
Stoics recommend a daily review. Take a moment each evening to reflect on the previous waking hours. The idea is not to flog yourself for mistakes but to acknowledge them with future improvements in mind.
Stoics say lack of attentiveness is psychological slavery. Both Epictetus and Seneca used the metaphor with an intent to startle. The modern equivalent is probably addiction. In both metaphors, the absence of self-mastery and freedom derive from an external agent.
Seneca writes to his friend: "There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us. We suffer more often in imagination than in reality."
Stoicism offers a set of practical exercises:
  View from above: Imagine looking down from miles above Earth at the speck of yourself and ponder the insignificance of your troubles.
  Contemplation of the sage: Imagine a wise person is watching over your actions and behave with appropriate virtue.
  Contemplation of impermanence: Consider all your possessions and relationships as loans that might be recalled at any time.

AR As Seneca used to say, vale.




2021 December 28

Universe and the Planets

BBC Box Set / Professor Brian Cox

The Planets: 5 × 1 hr

Universe: 5 × 1 hr

AR This 10-hour spectacle is my new Christmas season indulgence, to replace the Lord of the Rings box set I enjoyed for many years. Cox offers a more adult experience, leavened with more directly philosophical food for thought. Bleak as it may seem, this has saved my 2021 season.


Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky


2021 December 27

Richard Dawkins

Kate Mossman

Richard Dawkins, 80, retired in 2008. His 1976 book The Selfish Gene argued that what an animal is doing is maximising its genetic representation in future generations. His 2006 book The God Delusion put him at the centre of the New Atheist movement.
On Brexit: "It's a disaster for science."
On Covid: "It was always on the cards .. something any Darwinian could see."
On hope: "We are the only species that's remotely capable of looking into the future .. The hope is that .. as the centuries go by, there is a progressive .. change in our values, morals, and ethics."

AR For me, his best book is The Extended Phenotype (1982).


Fyodor Dostoevsky

Rowan Williams

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote brilliant novels. But his opinions jar against liberal orthodoxy.
He was an authoritarian monarchist who loathed Western democratic ideals and thought socialism a diabolical perversion. He wrote polemics against Jews and advocated war against Islam. He thought Christian faith was the only hope for cultural renewal and global reconciliation but made a better case for atheism than most atheists.
Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821. His experience in a prison camp was formative. Religious belief became central for him. In 1859, he began to write about his experience in prison. He was fascinated by the distance between the diversity of human life and Enlightenment plans for a just social order. By 1881, when he died, he was an established presence in Russian culture.
In Crime and Punishment (1866), the young murderer Raskolnikov says his first victim is dispensable, with no human claim on him. But whoever stands before me, I must see where and how their humanity is denied or affronted and do what I can to affirm and release it.
In The Devils (1872), we meet the revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky, whose manipulative coldness views the lives of others as immaterial. We also meet Nikolai Stavrogin, who has destroyed a life, fights desperately to affirm his existence, and finally commits suicide.
In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), various characters articulate the insight that each of us is responsible for all. No one can ever assume the life and welfare of someone else is not their business. Whoever I encounter has a claim on me. There are no alibis.
Dostoevsky: "Without God, everything is permitted."
He left this ambiguous. The Russian word for "permitted" has connotations of indifference, of shrugging the shoulders, and Russian has no definite article. The phrase can start "without a god" or a source of meaning outside our own agendas and preferences.
We are always being pulled forward into new meanings and relations. We can always change how we relate to a reality that will not bend to our will.
Dostoevsky's great novels present an ethical and spiritual challenge.

AR Rowan is a remarkably good critic.


Golden Pavilion, Kyoto



2021 December 26

America vs China

Miya Tanaka

In 2022, recognizing the rising influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region, the Biden administration will launch an economic framework to deepen its regional engagement. It will pursue "shared objectives" around trade facilitation, the digital economy and technology, supply chains, clean energy, infrastructure, worker standards, and so on.
Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies expert Matthew Goodman: "The Biden administration has to turn this economic framework into something real, and that means partly fleshing out the details."
In September, Beijing applied to join the Pacific free trade pact sealed under Japan's leadership as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), following US withdrawal.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between China, Japan, South Korea, the 10 members of ASEAN, and others takes effect on January 1. China has also asked for admission to a digital economy partnership signed in 2020 between Singapore, Chile, and New Zealand.
Doubts remain over accepting China into the CPTPP. Members such as Japan and Australia voice caution. But if the United States remains out and China keeps pressing to join, members may give Beijing a serious hearing.
Under the TPP, Washington had offered market access to Vietnam. But such steps are unlikely to become part of the new framework. The Biden administration aims to avoid clashes with Congress in favor of other incentives for China.
Goodman: "If the combined benefit for the partner countries is positive, then maybe they will be willing to engage, and accept some of the US requests for higher standards on worker rights or on digital economy."

AR Americans face a learning curve with China.


Webb launched at noon


2021 Christmas Day


David Smith

When Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on to the lunar surface in July 1969, Bill Nelson was an army lieutenant. At 79, Nelson now leads NASA and aims to put astronauts back on the Moon.
Nelson: "Why the Moon? Because the goal is Mars. What we can do on the Moon is learn how to exist and survive in that hostile environment and only be three or four days away from Earth before we venture out and are months and months from Earth."
In 1986, Nelson was an astronaut in the space shuttle Columbia.
On Earth: "It is so beautiful. It is so colorful. It is suspended in nothing. There's home and yet it looks so fragile. That experience informed a lot of my public life .. I became more of an environmentalist when I went into space."
On politics: "As we orbited the Earth every 90 minutes, I didn't see racial divisions and I didn't see religious divisions and I didn't see political divisions .. What I saw, we were all citizens of planet Earth."

AR Indeed.


The Lyrics



Caitlin Moran

Paul McCartney is my person of the year. I think it's good to wake up every morning and feel the immense, pleasurable luck of getting to live in a world at the same time as living, writing, breathing, talking, singing Paul McCartney.
Alongside The Lyrics, published on November 2, Peter Jackson's 6-hour documentary The Beatles: Get Back was broadcast on November 25. The documentary is an immersive experience. You are in the studios in Richmond with them in 1969.
Get Back is ultimately about Paul, aged 27, trying to hold together the biggest and most influential band the world will ever see. His primary coping method − aggressive productivity − is stratospherically successful.
We often talk about being awestruck by genius. But when you see a true, ludicrous excess of it in action, the most honest reaction is as if you've just huffed laughing gas. It is just deeply amusing how gifted McCartney is.
Paul McCartney remains an inspiringly self-constructed and unique example of his sex. At 79, he is a splendid example of just how wonderful a man can be if you work at it.

AR Respect.




2021 December 24

Russia vs West

Andrew Roth

Russian president Vladimir Putin: "NATO's move to the east is unacceptable. The United States is standing with missiles on our doorstep .. How would the Americans react if missiles were placed at the border with Canada or Mexico?"
The Russian defense ministry has deployed more than 100,000 soldiers with tanks and artillery within striking distance of the Ukrainian border.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny: "The TV set in our jail block hysterically fights NATO all day long. On every channel, they talk about NATO threats."

AR NATO should relent and relax.


Brexit One Year On

Financial Times

The exact costs of Brexit remain unknown. UK GDP was 3.9% higher in 2021 Q3 than in 2016 Q2, but the EZ was 6.2% up and the US 10.6%.
CER deputy director John Springford says the likely UK trade performance is some 15% below the expected level had the UK not left the EU in January. He says the UK economy is on track to lose around 4% of GDP compared with expectations had the UK voted Remain.
Nottingham University professor Sarah Hall thinks the effect on the UK service sector is more of "refocusing geographically" than of large losses. UK services exports in 2021 Q2 were 14% down on two years earlier, and exports to the EU were 30% down.
Brexit has harmed UK living standards. The UK should make all efforts to patch up its relationship with the EU.

AR Liz Truss should befriend EU leaders.


The Year in Math and Computer Science

Bill Andrews

  The 4D Poincaré conjecture that certain shapes homotopy equivalent to a 4D sphere are also homeomorphic is now firmly proved.
  Tadayuki Watanabe proved that the Smale conjecture is false and the 4D sphere has more than the basic symmetries.
  Floer Morava K‑theory combines symplectic geometry and topology and proves a new version of the Arnold conjecture.
  The Fargues−Fontaine curve combined with ideas on perfectoid spaces further connects number theory and geometry.
  Deep neural networks have huge numbers of parameters that should result in overfitting and an inability to generalize, but they are equivalent to kernel machines.
  Convolutional neural networks find it hard to distinguish between objects, gradient descent is a hard problem, and quantum computing with topological qubits may be impossible.
  Two new kinds of neural networks make solving partial differential equations easier. Both can approximate operators, allowing the nets to map between infinite-dimensional spaces.
  New algorithms for quantum computers let them process nonlinear systems by first approximating them as linear ones.
  A digital proof assistant named Lean verified that there are no more types of special tetrahedra than the ones discovered 26 years ago.
  A new result suggests the cardinality of the reals is 𝔄2 rather than 𝔄1, violating the continuum hypothesis. But CH still has strong support.

AR Good progress but nothing big.




2021 December 23

The Year in Biology

John Rennie

  The useful properties of protein molecules largely depend on how they fold their amino acid chains into a precise shape. But malleable proteins and blobby masses of protein molecules called condensates control a wide range of vital processes in cells.
  A parasitic plant native to SE Asia spends most of its life as a thread of cells growing inside other plants, then blooms as a giant flower that weighs as much as a small child and smells like rotting meat. Its genome is missing almost half of the genes conserved in other plants yet is huge because it includes DNA from other species and multiple copies of transposons.
  Experiments with single-celled species show the evolutionary advantages of multicellularity. If cells clumping together gives them even a small consistent benefit, they quickly become multicellular. New work suggests how the cells differentiate into distinct tissues in a multicellular body.
  Human capacities do not arise from anatomically distinct brain areas. Parts of the brain associated with specific functions are sometimes also linked to different functions as well. The background noise measured in brain signals encodes information about what the body is doing.
  A network of grid cells in the brain enables us to map where we are in space and to organize memories and abstract concepts. But this grid system only works for mapping in 2D. Mammals seem to rely on a more complex system for knowing where we are in 3D.
  Even creatures with rudimentary brains sleep. The hydra spends a part of every four hours asleep. Sleep may have begun a billion years ago to serve a metabolic function in helping cells repair themselves.
  We have partial connectomes for several creatures. A connectome for 1 mm3 of human brain tissue reveals unique types of neurons and other surprises. Connectome data for fruit flies reveals their navigational circuitry. Comparative connectomics will let us fold information from multiple individuals into the connectome of a species to show how neurons wire together and how variations in neural circuits affect organisms.
  Plants can sequester carbon in the soil in humus. Because humus seems stable, many global climate models assume it buries lots of excess carbon. Recent studies show that in warmed natural soils, humus breaks down sooner than expected. Untended soils in forests may not sequester much carbon.

AR Some important and some fun stuff here.


The Year in Physics

Michael Moyer

  An X-ray space telescope has seen an enormous bubble that bulges out of the top and bottom of our Milky Way galaxy. The bulges are 45 kly tall and may be evidence of an eruption from a cloud of gas sucked into the Milky Way black hole millions of years ago.
  The intrinsic magnetism of the muon has an experimental value that differs from the predictions of the Standard Model by a wide margin. The result dovetails with results on neutrinos that suggest a new dark sector of particles and forces.
  A time crystal that flips back and forth between two distinct states forever, with no energy lost or gained, has been created in a quantum computer. It has an out-of-equilibrium phase, breaks time-translation symmetry, and seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics.
  A potential approach to quantum computing uses topological qubits whose information is braided into their physical structure. Other phenomena can masquerade as such topological qubits. Topological quantum computing is even harder than we thought.
  A detailed image of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87 has shown how supermassive black holes launch jets of matter and energy many kly into space. The M87 images reveal a spiral magnetic field around the black hole.

AR See my earlier blog entries.


Dawn breaks over my garden to greet the azimuthal new year



2021 December 22


Apoorva Tadepalli

Talking to a publishing colleague during a lunch date, I realized that I was living with the sense that everyone around me was climbing a ladder. I complained that I hadn't yet had any promising conversations with publishers who wanted to buy my book.
The ladder is a sham. Maybe the media industry is toxic and exploitative and full of nepotism. A cynical view of the writing life is unavoidable.
Careerism is the dominant style of American life. Image management is simply a part of social and professional life today.
A large genre of recent literature spanning fiction, nonfiction, and literary criticism seems intent on foregrounding the ugliest aspects of literary life. Many writers and readers are attracted to books that paint a bleak picture of what we spend our lives doing.
Sally Rooney's commercial success is tied to her denunciation of commercial success. In the mode of careerism that shows up in Beautiful World, we must both want fame and want to denounce our desire for fame.
Her character Alice is an Irish novelist recovering from a breakdown due to her instant fame and visibility. Most of the novel is taken up with Alice contemplating the many ways that her success as a writer has made her miserable.
Cynicism is understandable. The fiction and cultural criticism that resonate with us reflect our dissatisfaction. But this merely adds reading and writing to the list of things that suck.
My cynicism about the careerist aspects of becoming a successful writer was the mirror image to my original idealized portrait of the literary life. Extreme resistance to a fantasy of the writer's life becomes its own fantasy, one where the writing life is built on nothing but shallow notions of fame, success, and ambition.
Alice lives the writing life. She wants to write a novel, even as her future as a writer remains unclear. Her ambition lives at her desk, in the shoulder pain caused by her keyboard.
Alice is aware of the dull and ugly things we do to build a career. But publicized success is only a distraction. She is determined to create something of meaning.

AR I can kinda go with that.


⦿ Chris Gunn/NASA
James Webb Space Telescope, partially deployed in a Northrop Grumman facility in California last year
It is due to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from a spaceport in French Guiana on Christmas Day



2021 Winter Solstice

James Webb Space Telescope

Dennis Overbye

Sitting in a spaceport in French Guiana, wrapped like a butterfly in a chrysalis of technology, metal and wires, is the biggest, most powerful and, at $10 billion, most expensive telescope ever to be launched into space: the James Webb Space Telescope. Its mission is to look back in time.
Goddard Space Flight Center chief scientist John Mather: "We're looking for the first things to come out of the Big Bang."
If all goes well on December 24, the JWST will embark on a journey to a spot called L2 beyond the Moon where forces balance to keep it in a stable orbit around the Sun.
Over the next 29 days on its way up, the chrysalis will unfold into a telescope in a series of movements more complicated than anything yet attempted in space, with 344 single points of failure, and far from the help of any astronaut or robot:
1  Antennas will pop out and aim at Earth, enabling communication.
2  A sunscreen the size of a tennis court, made of five thin sheets of plastic, will open.
3  The 18 gold-plated beryllium hexagons will snap into place to form a mirror 6.5 m across.
By then, the telescope will have reached L2. It will then need six months for tests and calibration.
The JWST is a collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency. Its mission is to explore cosmic history using infrared radiation. To do so, it must be kept at less than 45 K, hence the multilayer sunshield.
The Webb will look back more than 13.6 Gy to a mere 108 years ABB.

AR Bon chance!


The Guardian
Boris Johnson and others at Downing Street garden party during lockdown on 15 May 2020
Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab: "I know how hard that No 10 team were working ..
and they, as people do in work, were having a drink."

Conservative Party


2021 December 20

Brexit: Over 2 Truss

The Times

Lord Frost was thought to be a kindred spirit of Boris Johnson. His failure to persuade his boss to embrace a libertarian agenda is no surprise.
The pandemic calls for unprecedented levels of state intervention. The hero of the story is the NHS. This is no time to argue for a small and passive state. Frost was more preoccupied with his own ideology than with political realities.
Johnson has given the Brexit brief to foreign secretary Liz Truss. They now have delicate decisions to make about how to manage UK relationship with the EU. Frost threatened a trade war with the EU in the middle of the pandemic.
The government has wisely softened its position in talks with Brussels. Talk of a leadership challenge in the new year will grow louder.

Frosty exit
Andy Brown

During the 2019 general election campaign, I spoke to hundreds of people on the streets in a constituency that voted heavily for the Conservatives. They chose to vote for Boris Johnson only because they wanted to stop hearing about Brexit every night.
The prime minister says he got Brexit done. Now, days before the negotiations conclude on Britain's post-Brexit future, Lord Frost has walked away, leaving them in chaos.

Brexit is far from done
Anthony Robinson

Brexit is not done. Many of the most consequential rule changes had been put on hold pending the outcome of negotiations about how they will work. They will come into force in the new year.
Northern Ireland has yet to face the full impact of the customs controls Johnson accepted between NI and GB. Days before the details were due to be signed off, Lord Frost has walked out.

AR Can Truss save the day?


Sunset on my jogging trail last night

- Tweets

"Lord Frost is leaving
the government because
he is a conservative and true Brexiteer."
Nigel Farage

"Frosty built a great team ..
to do an outstanding job."
Dominic Cummings

"So farewell, Lord Frost.
You did a lot of damage in
a very short time."
Lionel Barber


2021 December 19

Brexit Minister Resigns

Mail on Sunday Exclusive

Boris Johnson has been dealt a severe blow following the sensational resignation of Brexit minister Lord Frost. Although Frost handed his resignation to the PM a week ago, Johnson persuaded him to stay in post until January.
Frost has now chosen to "step down with immediate effect" through a hurried letter of resignation to the PM outlining his "concerns about the current direction of travel" on Covid measures, tax rises, and Net Zero policies:
"Brexit is now secure. The challenge for the Government now is to deliver on the opportunities it gives us .. we need to get to: a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy, at the cutting edge of modern science and economic change."
Frost's dramatic move has sparked yet another crisis in Downing Street. Sources say his bombshell has caused "panic" inside No 10.
A senior government insider says Frost has "had enough of his endless, exhausting skirmishes with Brussels" and was frustrated by arguing with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic over the NI protocol.
Senior Tories believe Johnson will tough out the rest of the winter but face a serious threat in spring. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss lead the field of contenders.

Frost's resignation plunges Johnson further into crisis
Stephen Bush

David Frost has resigned from the cabinet in a further blow to Boris Johnson's flagging authority. Frost had been the government's de facto Brexit secretary, but his resignation owed much more to the general direction of the government.
Frost recently warned that attempting to follow the European model while staying outside of the European project would inevitably lead to a worse future for the UK after Brexit than had it remained in the EU.
With Frost in the cabinet, Brexiteers saw the government hadn't gone soft on Brexit. His resignation increases the prospect that Johnson's premiership will not live to see next Christmas.

AR Excellent news!


Boris bubble
BBC News
Lib Dem victor Helen Morgan bursts Boris bubble

The Times
Her victory



2021 December 18

Boris Bubble Burst

Jonathan Freedland

For the first time since he became prime minister, Boris Johnson is paying a direct price for his actions. For two long years, he seemed to defy the laws of political gravity.
His mishandling of the first phase of the pandemic was disastrous. It was a record of both calamitous misjudgement and corruption. His admirers said he was immune to forces that would bring down lesser mortals. But then he fell to earth.
The voters of North Shropshire organised themselves. Labour and Green supporters put aside their affiliations to vote for the candidate best placed to defeat the Tory. Tactical voting made the difference between victory and defeat.
Two years ago, Johnson promised to Get Brexit Done. His superpower was to appeal to some Labour voters. His appeal was tacitly predicated on an understanding that the Conservative party was a damaged brand.
A Conservative frontbencher: "When you peek behind the curtain, Tories are privileged, sneering elites who take the rest of us for fools."

Poisoned by populism
Matthew Parris

The Tories had this coming. A former Tory lady voter told a canvasser in North Shropshire: "It's the lying. We just can't have that."
This isn't about one policy or another, but about probity, dignity, consistency, rootedness. There's something tacky about the government.
The Tories have lost their centre of gravity. It started with the referendum on Europe. Some Tories embraced UKIP xenophobia with enthusiasm.
The parliamentary Tory party lost its nerve. They thought they needed to move toward UKIP to forestall the defection of more voters. I said no, let UKIP drain the poison.
Instead, the party swallowed it. Tories tried to accommodate and absorb populism. People like Johnson pandered to it and prospered.
UKIP lost support. Johnson clowned around. Cabinet ministers recruited solely for their Brexit credentials shuffled along behind. Distinguished Tory centrists were expelled for being Remainers.
The party has lost its bottom. Conservative governance has become a nightly soap opera of calamity and chaos. The Conservative party has been poisoned by populism.

AR Get proportional representation done.




2021 December 17

The Tory Party Is Over

BBC News

The Liberal Democrats have won the North Shropshire by-election It had been a safe Conservative seat, with a 2019 majority of almost 23,000. But Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan took the seat by almost 6,000 votes.
The by-election followed the exit of Owen Paterson as MP after a sleaze scandal and more scandals about lockdown parties in Downing Street last year. The PM also faced a rebellion of 100 Tory MPs this week over Covid rules.

'The party is over'
The Times

Conservatives have suffered a humiliating defeat to the Lib Dems. The PM faces a major test of his leadership after they overturned a 23,000 Tory majority to secure victory with a 34% swing.
Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan won the by-election with 17,957 votes. The Conservatives took 12,032 votes. Turnout was 46%. North Shropshire was previously an ultra-safe Conservative seat.
Morgan: "Boris Johnson, the party is over. Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinised, it will be challenged and it can and will be defeated."

'You are no leader'
The Guardian

Victor Helen Morgan: "Tonight, the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people .. They have said loudly and clearly: Boris Johnson, the party is over .. Our country is crying out for leadership. Mr Johnson, you are no leader."

A dangerous moment
Laura Kuenssberg

The government is going to try and say this is mid-term misery. But this is an appalling result for the Conservatives. This isn't a little slip up, it's a disaster.
People on the ground say the Tory campaign was going OK, until the recent shenanigans in Downing Street emerged, and support fell off a cliff. People in the Conservative party are pencilling in the possibility of a summer leadership election.
Things are febrile, but there's no doubt this is a dangerous moment for the PM.

Is he still a winner?
Katy Balls

This result will be tied to Boris Johnson's leadership and the difficult time he has had over the past month. While campaigners both say sleaze only came up rarely on the doorstep, the Paterson row kicked off a chain of events.
Johnson is facing increased scrutiny. His rambling speech to business leaders at the CBI in which he spoke about Peppa Pig regularly came up on the doorstep. Those canvassing say Partygate was a potent issue.
The result will give Tory MPs pause for thought. North Shropshire voted heavily to leave and counted as a Tory safe seat. MPs back Johnson because they see him as a winner. They will be concerned.

AR Bodger, the end is nigh.


"Will the owners of the
blue planet between Venus
and Mars please attend
to your vehicle. It
is overheating."


2021 December 16

Milky Way Black Hole

European Southern Observatory

The ESO Very Large Telescope Interferometer has obtained the deepest and sharpest images to date of the region around the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.
MPE Garching director Reinhard Genzel: "We want to learn more about the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*: How massive is it exactly? Does it rotate? Do stars around it behave exactly as we expect from Einstein's general theory of relativity? The best way to answer these questions is to follow stars on orbits close to the supermassive black hole. And here we demonstrate that we can do that to a higher precision than ever before."
The GRAVITY collaboration developed a new analysis technique to obtain the deepest and sharpest images yet of our galactic centre. Developed for the ESO VLTI, GRAVITY combines the light of all four 8.2 m telescopes using interferometry.
MPE Garching researcher Julia Stadler: "The VLTI gives us this incredible spatial resolution, and with the new images we reach deeper than ever before. We are stunned by their amount of detail and by the action and number of stars they reveal around the black hole."
The team made precise measurements of stars as they approached the black hole. The closest and fastest approach, by star S29, was to 13 Tm (about 90 AU) at 8740 km/s. The stars follow the paths predicted by general relativity for objects moving around a black hole of mass 4.3 million ⦿.

AR See the ESO star movie frames.


Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX
and Tesla, personal net worth
ca $300 billion, tweets:
"Thank you!"


2021 December 15

Touching the Sun


The NASA Parker Solar Probe has flown through the solar corona to sample particles and magnetic fields. The solar corona has a temperature of up to 1 MK.
NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen: "Parker Solar Probe touching the Sun is a monumental moment for solar science and a truly remarkable feat. Not only does this milestone provide us with deeper insights into our Sun's evolution and [its] impacts on our solar system, but everything we learn about our own star also teaches us more about stars in the rest of the universe."
PSP launched in 2018 and set out to answer fundamental questions about the solar wind. It is scheduled to make 21 close approaches to the Sun over 7 years.

AR This will help us understand all stars.


2021 December 14

The Cosmological Principle

Charlie Wood

The cosmological principle lets us draw sweeping conclusions about the whole universe based only on what we see from our corner of it.
Ever more distant galaxies appear in similar numbers, so the universe is homogeneous. We see a similar scene in different directions, so the universe is isotropic. The homogeneity and isotropy of the cosmos enable us to model it.
Our standard model of the cosmos is based on general relativity. Einstein wrote it with 10 interlinked equations and 20 variables, making it generally too complicated to solve.
We lean on the cosmological principle to model the universe as a smooth and symmetric fluid. By averaging over details, the cosmological principle lets us predict the velocity and acceleration of the expanding cosmos with the Friedmann equations.
As we zoom out, the universe gets ever smoother. Galaxy surveys find roughly the same amount of matter in any patch of space larger than hundreds of millions of light years across. Simulations suggest the principle has plenty of room even for structures spanning billions of light years.
As for anisotropy, strong evidence against a cosmic flow comes from the cosmic microwave background, which has an average temperature of 2.725 K in every direction.
The CMB looks a fraction of a degree warmer in one direction, but this is due to the peculiar velocity of our solar system in the Milky Way and relative to nearby galaxies. This local drift of roughly 300 km/s is no problem.
But the CMB distortion could also include the effect of the whole observable universe drifting. A model of the cosmos that splits it into chunks and averages the amount of matter in each region treats the average as a local backdrop. The model predicts a universe expanding faster over time.
Compared to dense patches of galaxies, emptier voids in space expand faster, since they have fewer galaxies attracting each other. Since the empty parts grow faster than the dense parts, the universe becomes emptier and expands faster. This backreaction may undo the case for dark energy. It may even explain away the Hubble tension.
Artifacts of our location are not failures of the cosmological principle.

AR The dark energy story is vulnerable to new thinking.


⦿ Julia Zaharova/Tretyakov Gallery
"Diversity United" exhibition, New Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Emmanuel Macron of France, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany are patrons of the exhibition, which arrived in Moscow in November after four months in Berlin and will move to Paris in March 2022.
Bringing together works by 90 artists from 34 countries, the show offers an idealistic picture of a Europe united around liberal values. Its organizer is German Foundation for Art and Culture chair Walter Smerling: "Russia's idea of democracy and freedom is a little bit different from the idea of the rest of Europe. Art will not change the situation, but we can build a basis for dialog in Moscow."



2021 December 13

G7 − Russia − Ukraine

Patrick Wintour

G7 foreign ministers warn of "massive consequences" if Russia invades Ukraine and urge military de‑escalation.
The G7 reaffirms "unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of any sovereign state to determine its own future" and praises Ukraine's restraint.
G7: "Any use of force to change borders is strictly prohibited under international law. Russia should be in no doubt that further military aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and severe cost in response."
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov says Russia is being demonized for moving its troops within its own borders and says Vladimir Putin told Joe Biden in a video call last week that Russian troops do not pose a threat to anyone.
Economic sanctions may include restrictions on Russian access to global finance markets and on funding Russian government debt. Canceling the NS2 pipeline to Germany is also on the agenda.
German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock: "In the event of further escalation this gas pipeline could not come into service."
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss: "We do have very strong anti-corruption and money laundering laws in the UK, but let us be clear: when the UK has wanted to send clear messages and achieve clear goals, we have been prepared to use economic sanctions, so we are considering all options."
US sources say Russia could be planning an offensive on Ukraine next year. Moscow denies this and demands security guarantees that NATO will not expand further east or deploy weapons close to Russian territory.

AR Let's avoid the language of threats on either side.


⦿ Vikki Slade
Upton Heath, Poole, 2021-12-11


"There's this basic question
of trust and that is broken with
the prime minister and that's
why he is unfit for office."
Sir Keir Starmer


Liz Truss
10 Downing Street
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss
on a tank in Estonia. An MP:
"That went down very badly
in the tearoom."


2021 December 12

Omishambles Rolls On

Tim Shipman

The mood on the Conservative tables in the Commons tearoom resembled something between a wake and a mutiny. Tory MPs had just watched Boris Johnson get pummelled by Sir Keir Starmer at PMQ.
That morning a video had come to light of Allegra Stratton doing a mock press conference. The video sank No 10 claims that there was no party.
That day in Portcullis House, MPs brandished letters to send to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady demanding a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.
Next week Johnson faces the biggest rebellion of his premiership, with more than 60 Tory MPs poised to vote against the imposition of extra Covid measures.
More than half a dozen parliamentary private secretaries may resign from the government rather than back plan B to combat the Omicron variant.
In Operation Revenge, Theresa May loyalists will oppose the government on Tuesday and may submit letters of no confidence if the Tories lose the by-election on Thursday.
May calls Johnson's government "a shitshow" and adds: "Something has to change. I'll vote against the government this week in the hope that he listens. But if we lose on Thursday, letters will go in."
Liberal Democrats are polling at 39% in North Shropshire and Tories at 40%. The Conservatives held the seat with an almost 23,000 majority in 2019.
Lord Geidt oversees the ministerial code of conduct. He may resign after Johnson misled him about what he knew of the Tory donors who helped to fund the renovations on his Downing Street flat.
This toxic brew of scandal and chaos leaves Johnson facing the greatest political crisis of his premiership. With the Omicron strain causing a new health crisis, he faces backbench rebellion.
Johnson is shellshocked. A witness on Thursday: "He looked a bit broken."
Dominic Cummings: "He's done, gone by this time next year, probably summer."

The party is over
Francis Elliott

Boris Johnson has left a trail of broken friendships, colleagues, families, and lovers in his wake. But he defied the rules of political gravity and won a landslide election victory two years ago today. Now his unforced errors have put his premiership in mortal danger.
A former aide: "He's got an interesting relationship with the truth. If he can convince himself he's not lying about a topic that can be a powerful political tool. But he seems in the last year to have moved on from that to just outright lying."
Partygate ought to worry Johnson: 50% of respondents to a YouGov survey say they are "paying close attention" to the story.
YouGov director Anthony Wells: "Hardly anything will lead to a ten-point drop in the polls. But the question is how far this will contribute to a 'drip, drip' that this guy is buggering about and is completely incompetent. I think that's his weakness, not that he's a liar."
Conservative Home website editor Paul Goodman: "Cummings has been painting a picture .. of No 10 as a kind of latter-day Versailles, with the prime minister cast as a weak Louis XVI, who will do almost anything to placate a volatile spouse, and his wife as a modern-day Marie Antoinette."
Carrie Johnson has played a role in many of the scandals, from parties to wallpaper to the airlifting of Afghan cats and dogs at the expense of humans.

The vultures are circling
Isabel Hardman

Voters are angry. Boris Johnson's approval rating is at an all-time low. Partygate has cut through.
An MP: "There's a view that a line has been crossed and it's about competency and respect for the office of prime minister."
A senior Tory: "They thought he was this magic, natural-born winner. But the magic is pretty shaky .. His judgment is so poor."
Vultures include Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab, Nadhim Zahawi, Sajid Javid, and Tom Tugendhat.

The fool king
Stewart Lee

Allegra Stratton is another bright satellite burning up in Boris Johnson's doomed orbit. Her press secretary role was created in 2020, complete with her own Downing Street press conference hub at a cost to the taxpayer of £2.6 million.
She used it to rehearse plausible denials of a Covid rule-breaking Christmas party in Downing Street: "This fictional party was a business meeting, and it wasn't socially distanced."
This week, she might have used it this week to shield Johnson from the unproven suggestion that he had helped to fly 170 asylum-seeking pets out from collapsing Kabul.
Last month, vaccination checks were at the discretion of venues. But by Wednesday night, a massive dead cat was required to distract from a day of denied parties and prioritised pets, so Johnson banged plan B on the kitchen table.
Many diehard Tories still cling to an inflatable bendy banana marked "Get Brexit Done" and will still want to vote for the party despite its utter rottenness.
But many more will demand a blood sacrifice. Fate has handed us a perfect votive offering: Pen Farthing's 170 Afghan dogs and cats.
On the corner of Hyde Park, where once stood the bloody tree of Tyburn, let us pile a pyre of faggots. Let banks of seating be laid down. Let Allegra Stratton serve cheese and wine as Boris Johnson and others take their seats. Then burn the animals on a bonfire.
The smoke may purify Tory Albion.

AR Depose King Boris.



"Two years on .. he
has .. fucked it."
A Tory MP


2021 December 11

Planet Boris

Laura Kuenssberg

Planet Boris is a disaster. Downing Street is struggling to keep hold of events. The prime minister is making mistakes for which MPs and ministers must all answer.
The atmosphere inside No 10 is described as deadly silent, horrible, as if the lights are on, but no-one's home. Nothing important is discussed in meetings. Ministers stay silent or message each other about how bad things are.
Johnson still has his huge majority. He still has enormous powers as PM and as political campaigner and celebrity. Yet Tory sentiment has moved against him.
He faces two tests next week. A Commons vote on Tuesday about the Covid regulations will see his backbenchers vote against them. A by-election on Thursday will replace Owen Paterson as MP for North Shropshire. Many Conservatives fear doom.

Incompetence  personified
The Guardian

Not long ago, Tory MPs dismissed the idea that Boris Johnson was a dilettante prime minister. That has changed.
Backbenchers are fuming about Christmas parties and Downing Street refurbishments. Johnson has squandered the Tory poll lead and put their seats in danger.
It needs more than 50 MPs writing a letter of no confidence in Johnson to trigger a leadership challenge. Anything could trigger more letters to the 1922 Committee.
A Tory MP: "Are there more than 50 MPs who have submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister? No. Are there more than 50 MPs who think he is doing the job extremely badly? Undoubtedly yes."
Another Tory MP: "Boris has become politically toxic .. He's incompetence personified."

A pantomime
Camilla Cavendish

Our prime minister's sudden decision to trigger the government's Covid Plan B feels like a man with his pants down diverting attention while he pulls them up. Pantomime season is here, and Boris Johnson is keen to distract us from last year's Downing Street Christmas party. The insult to our intelligence is overwhelming.
Conservative MPs need to take responsibility for what they have foisted upon the nation. Having kept Johnson out of office for years because they didn't trust or respect him, they should have known better.
His cavalier attitude and disdain for detail have infected everything. Ministers and MPs are tired of having to cover up for their leader's misjudgements. Officials are ground down by the chaos.
The appalling revelations about Britain's failure to get more Afghans out of Kabul this summer tell a tale of empty offices, of thousands of emails backing up from desperate Afghans. A different leader would have done something. This PM seems more concerned about dodging accountability.
Announcing the new Covid restrictions, Johnson pleaded: "Please play your part." Perhaps he could start by playing his part, which was supposed to be that of PM.

The toad
Matthew Parris

The prime minister has been rumbled. A moral toad is crouching at the heart of the British establishment. It remains uncertain whether that establishment is capable alone of purging itself of the beast.
He knows no rules and trades on respect for codes of honour that others take for granted. Lord Geidt assumed a gentleman wouldn't tell him a barefaced lie about his struggles to pay an interior decorator. His assumption was correct: A gentleman wouldn't.
The Downing Street refurbishment affair is serious. We see now why Johnson was so keen to use the Owen Paterson business as a smokescreen for the removal of the parliamentary commissioner for standards.
Allegra Stratton took a mock-interview last Christmas and was asked an unexpected question about the now-infamous party. Her inability to spin her way out of it does her credit. Now she has taken the hit for the toad. His first response was to fib. His second was to let her fall.

The threat
Dominic Grieve

Boris Johnson was made leader by Conservative MPs desperate for a way through Brexit. They elected a figure whose character flaws were obvious. The atmosphere of sleaze, dishonesty, and chaos he has created is corrosive of public trust and an existential threat to the party.

AR Oust the toad now.


Humpback whales



2021 December 10

The Ocean Fishcotheque

Philip Hoare

The ocean is full of strange noises. It is a giant conductor of sound, an aquatic internet for every organism in it. Deep down in the ocean, sound is the only viable sense.
The great whales make a sound that can be heard for thousands of miles. I was once echo-located by a sperm whale and felt her sonar clicks judder through me like an MRI scanner.
American scientists first recorded humpback song in the Atlantic during the cold war, when trying to detect the sounds of Soviet submarines.
Ship engines, military sonar, and sonic surveys threaten foraging fish, the immune systems of mammals, and the social structures of many creatures.

AR Save the whales.


Gravitational Waves

Katie McCormick

In general relativity, a gravitational wave leaves an indelible imprint on the structure of spacetime. We hope to find a way to measure this memory effect.
Kip Thorne: "There's an intimate connection between the memory effect and the symmetry of spacetime. It is connected ultimately to the loss of information in black holes."
The gravitational wave detector LIGO has two arms in an L shape. Imagine a circle circumscribing the arms, with its center at their intersection. A gravitational wave will periodically squeeze the circle vertically and horizontally. The difference in length between the two arms will oscillate, revealing the passing of the wave.
The memory effect is that the wave permanently deforms the circle by a tiny amount. The memory is a change in the relativistic gravitational potential.
Spacetime is like an infinite game of Boggle. The classic Boggle game has 16 dice arranged in a 4 × 4 grid, with a letter on each of the 6 sides of each die. When a player shakes the grid, the dice jump and settle into a new arrangement of letters. All configurations are equivalent in the sense that they are all at rest in the lowest-energy state of the dice. When a gravitational wave passes by, it shakes the cosmic Boggle board, changing spacetime before it settles into its lowest-energy state.
Something is conserved in the settled states of the cosmic Boggle board, so there are hidden symmetries in the structure of spacetime.
An empty region of spacetime, where gravitational pull can be neglected but gravitational radiation cannot, has translational, rotational, and boost symmetries. Supertranslation symmetries let us stretch, squeeze, and shear parts of spacetime but leave distant flat spacetime unchanged.
The memory effect is the physical manifestation of these symmetries. A supertranslation lets the Boggle universe pick a new but equivalent way to warp spacetime.
The horizon of a black hole has the same supertranslation symmetries as asymptotically flat space. Its memory effect lets infalling energy alter spacetime near the black hole, changing its information content. This may solve the information paradox.
LIGO cannot detect the memory effect of a gravitational wave.

AR Seems a simpler resolution than appeal to "ER = EPR" entanglement wormholes.


New Theory of Motion

Kelsey Houston-Edwards

Vladimir Arnold wanted to know when the orbits of planets are stable and periodic.
A planet moving through space has its position and momentum described by 6 numbers. Representing each configuration of position and momentum as a point with 6 coordinates gives the phase space of the system, in this case flat 6D space. The motion of a planet is a line weaving through this space.
Arnold conjectured that every phase space of a certain type contains a minimum number of configurations in which the system it describes returns to where it started, and this minimum number is at least equal to the number of holes in the overall phase space.
Phase spaces can have different shapes. The position and momentum of a pendulum can each be represented as a point on a circle, so the phase space of a pendulum is two crossed circles that form a torus. Holes have different dimensions, and higher-dimensional holes are hard to visualize.
In topology, homology is the way to count holes. Homology lets us extract the number of holes in each dimension. We typically do the computations using integers, but we can do them with other number systems, producing different variants of the Arnold conjecture.
We now have a proof of the Arnold conjecture for cyclical number systems.

AR But it's heavy math.


Scottish Greens



2021 December 9

Downing Street Revelations

The Times

Boris Johnson is under attack on three fronts:

  Tory MPs are voicing concern over "potentially criminal" behaviour by Johnson's aides at a Christmas party last December. Public anger is growing that Downing Street staff were partying at a time when the rest of the country was under tough lockdown restrictions.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case will investigate three potentially illegal parties last year: the Downing Street Christmas party on December 18, another party on November 27, and a Department for Education party on December 10. Dominic Cummings adds there was a party in the Downing Street flat on November 13.
Disciplinary action will be taken against individuals if necessary.

  Senior Tories are rebelling over new plans to bring in additional coronavirus rules requiring the public to show vaccines passports before attending large events.
Backbench 1922 committee former member Pauline Latham suggests Johnson imposed the Plan B restrictions to distract from revelations about the Downing Street Christmas party: "It is shocking, and I think it's inappropriate to do that."
Latham may submit a letter of no confidence in the PM: "I do think he needs to take a good hard look at how things are going."

  Labour leaders have asked parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone to launch an inquiry into Johnson after an inquiry finds Johnson personally asked a Tory donor to pay thousands of pounds to refurbish his Downing Street flat. A report from the Electoral Commission revealed new undeclared donations from a Tory peer to pay for the work.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner: "Boris Johnson has taken the British public for fools. He has not only broken the law but made a mockery of the standards we expect from our prime ministers."
If Stone rules that Johnson broke parliamentary rules, he could be suspended as an MP.

Carrie Johnson gave birth this morning to a girl. Boris plans to take "some time" with his family.

AR What a mess.


2021 December 8

France vs Brexit

Daniel Finkelstein

In 1963, Charles de Gaulle vetoed UK attempt to join the common market. He didn't think Britain was ready or willing to commit to the project. He had a point. Britain joined, but it was always rubbing against the instincts of the original members.
Emmanuel Macron is convinced the UK has made a grotesque error in leaving the EU. He thinks the present UK government is flippant about the promises it made in negotiations. He thinks he should try to make Brexit as uncomfortable as possible.
Macron has a clear strategic vision. He believes France should drive a powerful centralised Europe with a single currency and strong institutions. This would ensure greater protection and equality in a globalised economy.
What he wanted was for Britain to share this vision and to be his partner in creating a more federalist Europe. But this was totally unrealistic. Britain was always a dissenter and would have prevented him from achieving that vision.
Britain has damaged its own interests by leaving, but it has aided the cause of those supporting a federal Europe. The EU won't be stronger with members who don't wish to belong and don't share its vision. Being petulant won't help.

AR But it has expressive force: They want us in.



Markus Gabriel

A philosopher is a person who can respond to counterarguments with meticulous arguments. In a complex situation, philosophers formulate a judgment that can be revised or corrected by other philosophers if necessary. This is how philosophical research works.
I have nothing against public intellectuals practicing what we call popular philosophy. Philosophy is also about things outside academia.
Most of us don't know what we know about Covid because we've studied medicine and can seriously assess these questions ourselves, but because we trust certain experts. That's a difference in epistemic status.
The engine of our society is the idea that scientific and technological progress, coupled with economically secure economic growth, will bring paradise on Earth. We've put natural and economic sciences in the place where religion used to be.
We must get rid of the idea that we can rule nature. We're animals. We'll never go back to 2019 turbo-capitalism and the illusion of complete mastery of nature. Yet we keep trying to solve our problems using scientific and technological methods.
For the escalating crises in which we find ourselves, we need more science, but less of the illusion that there's a map to follow.

AR Science is not a map, it's a method.


Pearl Harbor
US Navy
Imperial Japanese forces attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941

Chinese rover Jade Rabbit 2
discovers mysterious object
on far side of Moon


2021 December 7

Autonomous Nuclear Arsenals

William Hague

Henry Kissinger says AI weapon systems will fundamentally change our ideas of national security. An AI adversary might take actions beyond human ability to understand or predict. Mistrust and miscalculation can lead to war.
Kissinger: "The introduction of non-human logic to military systems and processes will transform strategy."
Vladimir Putin says he who leads in AI will rule the world. The Pentagon finds an AI fighter plane outperforms one with a human pilot. A race no one can afford to lose is under way.
Leading military powers have so far opposed any new legal instrument or treaty against the development of AI weapons. They will not risk being left behind or losing their advantage. In Israel, the Iron Dome missile shield AI system works well.
Kissinger: "When the calculation of equilibrium becomes uncertain .. the risk of conflict through miscalculation reaches its height."
The threat that global strategy will come to rely on competing AI systems taking actions unfathomable to the human mind is an existential issue we cannot sidestep.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt calls for US work with allies on standards for autonomous weapons and dialog with Russia and China on human control of nuclear weapons.
Kissinger: "History will not forgive a failure to attempt to set limits."

AR AI is a lever to magnify human stupidity.


The Code Breaker
Simon & Schuster
I'm reading this at the
of Bill Gates


2021 December 6

Russia vs Ukraine

Edward Lucas

US intelligence reports suggest Russia is planning to attack Ukraine. President Putin seeks a formal end to NATO expansion, limits to the military presence on its borders, and de facto dismemberment of Ukraine. He wants to end the post-1991 security order in Europe.
Ukraine poses a political threat. If it can prosper in freedom, Russians may seek an end to the Putin regime. Russian propagandists depict Ukraine as a failing state and a fascist hellhole, but it is a real nation. Russia guaranteed its territorial integrity in 1994.
Putin will not stop with Ukraine. He can demand further demilitarization in neighboring countries. Energy deals can entrench him as gas exporter to Europe. With NATO and the EU rendered ineffective, Russia can increase its presence further.
NATO did not expand to encircle or humiliate Russia. When NATO first admitted members from the former Warsaw Pact, it did so in consultation with Russia. It signed the NATO−Russia Founding Act in 1997 and jointly established the NATO−Russia Council in 2002.
In 2010, NATO changed its brief to include defense of its eastern members. That followed a cyberattack on Estonia in 2007, the war in Georgia in 2008, and a Russian military exercise in 2009 rehearsing an attack on the Baltic states and a nuclear strike on Warsaw.
In the Baltic Sea region, NATO forces are heavily outnumbered. Finland is outside NATO, and Sweden is strengthening its US−UK defense ties. For Russia to portray these forces as a threat is absurd.

AR Invite Russia into NATO.


2021 December 5

Human Extinction?

Henry Gee

We expect the human population on Earth to peak around 2050 and then fall sharply. By 2100, it could be half its present size.
Mammal species tend to come and go within a million years or so. Homo sapiens multiplied rapidly from a very small starter population. The human genome is extremely uniform. Lack of genetic variation is bad for species survival.
Over the past few decades, the quality of human sperm has declined. Possible reasons include environmental pollution and stress triggered by living close together in cities.
Relentless growth is unsustainable in a world where resources are finite. Our species sequesters around a third of net primary productivity on Earth. This is bad for other species and may damage human economic prospects.
People nowadays work harder and longer to emulate the lifestyles of their parents. Economic productivity has stalled or declined globally, and people put off having children until their own fertility starts to decline.
Humans occupy most of the planet and plunder nature. When habitats degrade, fertility declines, the birth rate sinks below the death rate, and the gene base is narrow, the only way is down.

AR Go for quality, not quantity.


British Guantanamo Bay?

The Guardian

Former Brexit secretary David Davis says UK home secretary Priti Patel's borders bill risks creating a British Guantanamo Bay. He says her plan to send asylum seekers offshore while their claims are processed may create a facility as bad as the US detention camp in Cuba.
Davis says she cannot say where the offshore asylum processing facilities would be located and adds that most asylum seekers are eventually granted refugee status: "Pushing the problem to another part of the world is just a costly way of delaying the inevitable."
The nationality and borders bill will soon return to parliament for debate. Tory MPs who wish to grant British citizenship to more people leaving Hong Kong may rebel.
Dozens of Conservatives have put their name to an amendment to broaden the UK visa program. The Home Office says it has no plans to expand eligibility criteria.
The BMA has co-signed a letter to Patel saying the offshoring plan will cause "lasting and profound harm to the health and wellbeing" of asylum seekers.
The Home Office hopes to "manage the UK's asylum intake [to] deter irregular migration and clandestine entry" to the UK.

AR Quality, not quantity, I guess.


Poole Bay
Colder than it looks: Poole Bay, 2021-12-04



2021 December 4

Germany vs Russia

Oliver Moody

When Olaf Scholz won the Bundestag election in September, many observers feared the worst. The SPD leadership once called for the removal of US nuclear warheads stationed in Germany.
The new coalition agreement has exceeded expectations. The US nukes will stay. NATO is praised. Germany will coordinate China policy with the US.
Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock: "As Europeans, we shouldn't make ourselves smaller than we are .. If we deny access to products .. that's a big problem for an export nation like China. We Europeans should make much stronger use of the single market as a lever."
Central European neighbours expect Germany to assert leadership in the EU and on the wider global stage. Former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski: "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inaction."
Germany is the primary staging post and logistical hub for US military operations across Europe and the MENA region. The Biden administration thinks Germany can corral EU member states and take on a greater share of Europe's defences.
Centre for European Reform defence expert Sophia Besch: "Germany is seen .. as an ally with a strong voice in Europe. A Germany that finds consensus within Europe before coming to the US is the kind of partner that the US wishes for."
Neither the German government nor the public seems to want a bigger role. In a 2020 poll, 60% of Germans said the Bundeswehr should not be sent to defend a NATO ally under attack. A later poll finds 82% want Germany to be neutral between the US and China.
Experts differ on how radical change will be under Scholz.

AR I'm sure Germany will handle relations with Russia well.




Britain vs France

Sylvie Bermann

Britain and France are twin countries, with similar populations and economies and the same status on the world stage. Any prejudices and mockery have been mostly friendly.
Brexit has changed all that. Formerly convivial rivalries have turned sour and unfriendly. Brexiteers accuse France of wanting to punish the UK for Brexit.
The French government says the decision to leave the EU has made the UK a third country, a term with legal and regulatory consequences, and is irritated by attempts to have cake and eat it.
The NI protocol arose because a third country requires land or sea borders to protect the EU internal market. Disrespecting an agreement negotiated, signed, and proclaimed as fantastic has created a real loss of trust in the British government.
The fishing dispute is also seen in Paris as emerging from a British violation of an agreement with the EU. It is seen as an act of hostility toward France.
Some Brits say France should take back "its migrants" and insult the French police. They suggest Britain withdraw its financial contributions. This provokes outrage in France: The payments are for French police to guard the border for the British.
Some French presidential candidates want to scrap the treaty on border controls. Let the UK "take back control" of its borders on its own soil.
Paris is finding it impossible to work seriously with the present UK government. The French president is not amused. The stakes are too high.

AR France is right, Brexit Britain wrong.




2021 December 3

Russia vs NATO

The Times

Russian president Vladimir Putin says he will point hypersonic weapons at us if NATO deploys a missile defense shield in Ukraine.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov: "The alliance's military infrastructure is being irresponsibly brought closer to Russia's borders in Romania and Poland, deploying an anti-missile defence system that can be used as a strike complex. American medium-range missiles are about to appear in Europe, bringing back the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation."
US secretary of state Anthony Blinken: "I made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine."
The Russian foreign ministry says Ukraine has moved half its army into the Donbas region. The head of a breakaway republic says he will ask Moscow for military assistance if Ukraine moves against it.
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg: "Ukraine and 30 NATO allies .. decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto."

AR Will a Donbas battle be our Stalingrad?


Quantum Spin Liquids

Charlie Wood

A group in Cambridge, MA, has discovered a quantum spin liquid. It marks a step toward the dream of building a universal quantum computer.
Neutral atoms can implement qubits. Laser beams can capture and move atoms like a tractor beam. A laser pulse can puff up atoms into a supersized Rydberg state, like flipping a classical bit. Neutral atom qubits can be in superpositions of large and small and can entangle with each other.
We can use grids of neutral atoms to probe phases of quantum matter with exotic configurations enabled by superposition and entanglement. We can position the atoms into lattices and engineer bespoke atomic interactions by manipulating Rydberg states.
The Cambridge group has used quantum simulation to probe a new phase of matter, a quantum spin liquid. The spins interact magnetically and tend to point in opposite directions. But if three atoms are arranged in a triangle, only two of them can point in opposite directions, so they keep fluctuating, even at 0 K, like atoms in a liquid.
The group has measured the topological order of a quantum spin liquid.

AR Inspiring work.


Cohen Quad
Alison Brooks
My alma mater Exeter College Oxford unveils its new Cohen Quad

A palindromic


2021 December 2

Brexit Battles

The Times

Former French ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann says relations between France and Britain have "never been as bad since Waterloo".
According to Le Canard Enchaîné, Emmanuel Macron complained that Boris Johnson says one thing in private and another in public: "It's always the same circus .. It's very sad to see a great country, with which we could do so much, led by a clown. Johnson has the attitude of a knucklehead."
Macron said Johnson knew Brexit was "catastrophic" for the UK and was using France as a scapegoat: "Bojo talks to me, he's down to earth, everything's fine, we're having grown-up discussions, and then he sticks it to us either beforehand or afterwards in an inelegant manner."
UK government sources say relations with Macron are irreparable.

Brexit isn't working
Simon Nixon

In economic terms, Brexit has been a failure. UK trade with the EU is an estimated 11% lower than it would have been, and labour shortages and supply chain disruptions worsen by the day.
Even Lord Frost admits things are not working out as hoped. He is trying to rewrite the NI protocol and says Britain will not succeed "behind its own tariff wall and with a smaller market" − exactly what Remainers said.
Sir Keir Starmer says Brexit can be made to work by negotiating a compromise with the EU over problems arising from the NI protocol. Yet HMG insistence on rewriting it to remove any role for the ECJ almost guarantees a confrontation with the EU.
Starmer's specific proposals may not be deliverable. A new veterinary agreement with the EU would reduce checks on the trade in agriproducts. The EU is open to such an agreement. HMG says no, on the basis that it would hinder a US trade deal, yet no US deal is on offer.
Several of Sir Keir's proposals were requests the EU rejected during the Brexit negotiations. The EU is unlikely to relent on financial services. The UK thinks of trade in financial services in economic terms, but the EU thinks in terms of sovereignty.
Business may welcome Sir Keir's pledge to seek to ensure that UK data protection is deemed "adequate" by the EU. But HMG is already consulting on proposals to diverge from EU data rules.
Frost thinks making Brexit work will require regulatory divergence, trade deals, and lower taxes. Yet all the deals HMG has finalised since Brexit have effectively rolled over existing EU ones. And taxes have risen to fund public services. Regulatory divergence is the only card left to play.

No US steel deal
Financial Times

The US is delaying a deal to remove Trump-era tariffs on UK steel and aluminium because Washington is concerned about London threats to change post-Brexit trading rules in NI.
US concerns at British threats to trigger Article 16 are blocking talks with the UK on easing the tariffs. Washington has warned the UK, but HMG says the option remains on the table.
The EU and US agreed to suspend tariffs on billions of dollars of steel and aluminium in October. The deal provides relief from Trump-era tariffs but leaves out the UK.

AR Depressing.




2021 December 1

Arctic Rain

Damian Carrington

As the climate crisis heats up, rain is likely to replace snow as the most common precipitation on the Arctic northern ice cap.
Research using the latest climate models shows the switch from snow to rain will happen decades earlier than previously estimated. If global heating reaches 3 K, the Arctic will get more rain than snow before the end of the century.
Even if the global temperature rise is kept below 2 K, the Greenland and Norwegian Sea areas will still get more rain. Rapid heating in the Arctic may also increase extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves in the northern hemisphere.
Research leader Michelle McCrystall: "The Arctic having very strong snowfall is really important for everything in that region and also for the global climate, because it reflects a lot of sunlight."
Much Arctic land is tundra. McCrystall: "You are putting warm water into the ground that might melt the permafrost and that will have global implications."

AR Alarming.


Bayerische Schlosserverwaltung
Neuschwanstein Castle: King Ludwig II of Bavaria built it as a homage to composer Richard Wagner



2021 St Andrew's Day

Global Britain

Ian Birrell

Global Britain was sold as a powerful force for good. But when the going gets tough, the prime minister retreats into jokes or resorts to insulting allies.
The PM talked about bonding with Europe on fresh terms, intensifying cooperation, and retaining access to the single market. He pledged to "enjoy constructive and productive relationships with our neighbours .. based on mutual respect for sovereignty" and claimed Brexit would "take the wind out of the sails" of those "playing politics" with immigration.
As migrant boats in the Channel highlight the absurdity of suggesting Brexit might solve the refugee problem, the PM descends into a slanging match on social media with France. He has already angered France on fishing, vaccines, and AUKUS.
Brexit weakened control over migration. Britain is no longer party to the Dublin agreement and no longer a member of Europol. Any deal to return rejected migrants must now be negotiated with individual countries.
In Germany, the new chancellor sees France as his key partner. He says the UK supply chain crisis was made worse by ending free movement. The new German government opposes the HMG bid to overturn its own Brexit deal.
In Belarus, a brutal dictator has weaponised migration. In Bosnia, Serb extremists talk of separation. In Hungary, a nationalist leader undermines EU solidarity. In Ukraine, people fear a Russian invasion. In China, a Communist leader is building up military strength.
In Britain, populist hucksters boast of British exceptionalism and shout over the Channel. This is Global Britain.

AR I'm now an internal exile.




2021 November 29

Leading Europe

Guy Verhofstadt

Germany now has a government eager to lead Europe from the front. The new German coalition may turn the tide across the continent.
France has an unusually European president to take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in January.
Italy has a capable prime minister who ties his political survival to the handling of the Covid crisis and the EU recovery funds to tackle its economic impact.
In most European capitals, the debate has become more constructive, while the spoiler governments in Poland and Hungary have begun to isolate themselves.
The German coalition deal sees a "European Germany embedded in the historical peace and freedom project that is the European Union" building "a sovereign EU as a stronger actor in a world shaped by uncertainty and competing political systems" and taking on responsibilities across the EU.
The "Merkel brake" that hindered EU action against the Hungarian or Polish governments is now off. The new deal calls on the Commission to use the existing rule-of-law mechanism more consistently and on the Council to develop a range of rule-of-law instruments up to suspending the voting rights of governments violating EU values.
Germany is committed to taking the lead in the green transition. But Europe needs Eurobonds to finance the recovery from the current crisis. National financing of the EU budget leads to fights between governments and to funding of national projects.
The new German government supports the call for reform and treaty change in Europe. It foresees a constitutional convention and further development of a federal European state.
This new Germany will fight for a stronger European Parliament and a uniform European electoral law with partly transnational lists and a binding system of lead candidates.
We need a stronger and more democratic Europe.

AR Excellent news − let Brexit Britain fail.


2021 November 28

UK: Crisis Zone

Jennifer Rankin

EU ministers are meeting in Calais to discuss how to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats. France has invited representatives from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the European Commission to the meeting. Representatives from Frontex and Europol are also invited. UK home secretary Priti Patel was disinvited. The French government seeks a European solution.

France no longer trusts UK
Peter Ricketts

Brexit has unsettled what had been a close partnership. Most of its aftershocks have involved London and Paris.
AUKUS left the French feeling humiliated. London and Washington negotiated behind their backs for six months with Australia to wrest a submarine deal from them. Joe Biden rang Emmanuel Macron to apologise. Boris Johnson mocked: "Donnez-moi un break."
In France, the result is a total collapse of trust in Johnson and his government.
For months, Home Secretary Priti Patel and her French counterpart Gérald Darmanin have been sniping at each other in public about migrants crossing the Channel. Johnson's open letter to Macron on 25 November has made matters worse.
The British proposals should have been discussed quietly with France and then taken to the meeting of European ministers in Paris today before being made public. Instead, Macron saw Johnson's letter for the first time on Twitter.
London is preparing a new defence treaty with France. Treaties can only be built on mutual trust.

Brexit isn't working
Will Hutton

British alliances in Europe have been shattered. Britain is diminished.
The government has trapped itself. The EU−UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) offers little more than minimalist WTO terms of trade.
UK officials float proposals for British regulation and safety certification of British industries. But the industries say this is economically stupid. The chemical industry asks: Why not simply accept EU certification?
The financial services industry is increasingly concerned. The TCA offers no provisions for banks to sell their services within the EU. As a financial market, London currently equals New York’s in depth and liquidity, but every bank that moves business to the EU weakens it.
In the first half of 2021, UK exports to the EU were down 13%, imports down 25%. British children and young people can no longer study in the Erasmus programme or work in EU industries. The hundreds of au pairs and thousands of schoolchildren who used to come to the UK every week are deterred by new rules.
The UK is palsied by the fetish of sovereignty.

AR Get Bodger out. Rejoin the EU.




2021 November 27

The Omicron Variant

Hannah Devlin

The WHO calls coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern because of its mutations: "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant."
The variant has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, more than twice as many as Delta. Antibodies from previous infections or vaccination may no longer be well matched.
Recently approved antiviral drugs should work as effectively against the new variant because they ignore the spike protein and work by stopping the virus from replicating.
Teams are already working on updating vaccines with the new spike protein.

AR Here we go again.




Channeling Jesus

Irina Aleksander

Carissa Schumacher says she began channeling Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, in late 2019.
Schumacher, 39, majored in cognitive neuroscience at Brown University. After work in biotech, she eventually moved to the Elfin Forest in California. One day, she felt a blue flame swirl down her spine and felt Yeshua's energy.
She spent the next decade preparing her channel for Yeshua. By 2013, she was channeling for friends. She received a message in a dream to lead her followers into the desert and began hosting journeys into Arizona.
When she channels Yeshua, her voice and body change: "It feels like I'm being flushed down a toilet. I go whoosh! And he comes up. I breathe a lot. My body shakes."
Schumacher: "Yeshua invites us to set our burdens down."

AR Celebrities pay her for this.


Annalena Baerbock
The next German
foreign minister?


2021 November 26

Cross-Channel Migration

The Times

Boris Johnson has written to Emmanuel Macron asking him to let Border Force staff and British security contractors conduct joint patrols on French beaches from next week after 27 migrants drowned in the Channel.
Johnson urged Macron to let British personnel patrol with gendarmes on beaches and nearby road networks. He also asked him to accept the immediate return of migrants who cross the Channel.

Johnson letter prompts French anger
Financial Times, 0736 UTC

France has withdrawn an invitation to the UK home secretary to a meeting on the migrant crisis.
A French official: "Priti Patel is no longer invited to the inter-ministerial meeting on Sunday which will go ahead with France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the European Commission."
The official says the content of the letter from Johnson to Macron is "unacceptable and contrary to our discussions" and objects to its being made public.
Elysée Palace: "[Macron] expected the British to cooperate fully and to abstain from exploiting a tragedy for political ends."

AR Another fine bodge.




2021 November 25

Olaf Scholz

Katrin Bennhold

Olaf Scholz has won his campaign to become the next chancellor of Germany. He did so by convincing voters he would be much like Angela Merkel.
Scholz not only sounds like the outgoing chancellor, he shares her aura of stability and calm. From temperament and political style to facial expression, he channels Merkel.
As soon as he is sworn in as chancellor in early December, Scholz will have to deal with a surging pandemic, Poland−Belarus border tensions, Russian threats against Ukraine, a more confrontational China, and a less dependable United States.
Scholz, 63, has been a familiar face in German politics for decades and served in two governments led by Merkel's CDU, most recently as finance minister.
Born in Osnabrück, Scholz grew up in Hamburg, the city he later ran as mayor. As a fiery young socialist, he spent a decade as a labor lawyer. As SPD secretary-general under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, he defended painful labor market reforms.
Even political opponents speak admiringly of his political instinct, stamina, and quiet confidence. He has a reputation as a safe pair of hands and a decent person.
Scholz has an ally in President Biden as Germany takes over the presidency of the G7 in January. Both are center-left leaders.
Scholz: "A sovereign Europe is the key to our foreign policy. As the economically strongest and most populous country in the heart of Europe it is our duty to make this sovereign Europe possible, to promote it and advance it."

AR A natural ally for Keir Starmer.


D. Trump, K, Rittenhouse


2021 November 24

Scholz Is Next

Financial Times

The next German chancellor will be Olaf Scholz: The SPD has sealed a deal with the Greens and the FDP to form an Ampelkoalition government.

AR Good news!


Anglo-French Relations

Rafael Behr

Anglo-French relations are tetchy. Migration is one point of tension. Access to fish is another. Emmanuel Macron was affronted by AUKUS.
Downing Street sees the French president as an enemy of Brexit. Macron sees the European project as an amplifier of French power. He faces a presidential election next year.
The UK government plans a grand rapprochement and talks of a deep strategic partnership. But it pretends its relations with Paris and Berlin and with the EU are unrelated.
Brexit minister Lord Frost wants a patchwork of bilateral deals with EU member states. Foreign secretary Liz Truss seems to think European relations are beyond her remit.
Brexiteers cite old wars to deny the present reality of the European project. They think Britain can have relations with continental powers but not the EU. Wrong.

Michel Barnier
Angelique Chrisafis

Michel Barnier has hardened his stance as the Republicans prepare to choose their presidential candidate.
Barnier: "There are two conditions for things to get better in France: security and immigration .. we need an electroshock in terms of security and immigration."
He says unregulated immigration from outside the EU is weakening French identity. He calls for France to regain legal sovereignty from EU courts and then pause immigration to review the procedures that are failing. Can he do this without violating EU law?
A Republican presidential candidate will be chosen by almost 150 000 party members and the winner announced on December 4.
Barnier understands provincial France: "You can't be in politics or become president without loving trees."

AR Improve AF relations.




2021 November 23

Russia and the West

Kadri Liik

Russian foreign policy is learning to operate in a multipolar world. The Kremlin is experimenting with paramilitary intrusions and limited actions. Moscow aims to build regional leverage to gain bargaining power in the competition between America and China. It sees the European Union as close to a hostile power. On Ukraine, hopes for US help and fears of US military action lie behind Russian troop movements along the border.

AR EU: Ease up on Russia.


Peppa Pig


Peppa Pig?

The Guardian

Boris Johnson gave a rambling speech to business leaders at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference on Monday. He lost his place in his speech for about 20 seconds and diverted into a lengthy tangent about Peppa Pig.
On Peppa Pig: "I think that is pure genius, don't you? No government in the world, no Whitehall civil servant, would conceivably have come up with Peppa."
On electric cars, he imitated the sound of an accelerating car with grunts transcribed as "arum arum aaaaaaaaag" in the official Downing Street release.
On his plan to help business invest in tackling climate change, he compared himself to Moses: "I said to my officials the new Ten Commandments were that thou shalt develop industries like offshore wind, hydrogen, nuclear power, and carbon capture."
An MP: "I thought today's performance was the most embarrassing by a Conservative prime minister since last week's PMQs. Someone needs to get a grip. He is losing the confidence of the party."
The PM faces a rebellion over his social care proposals, anger at the decision to scale back rail improvements for the north, and frustration over government failures on small boats crossing the Channel. He admits he "crashed the car into a ditch" by bungling a lobbying scandal.
On Monday evening, Tory MPs from the 2019 intake glumly gathered in a parliamentary office to share a bottle of whisky.

AR Abba: "Time 2 go."


Leeds, 1974
⦿ Peter Mitchell
Seacroft, Leeds, 1974
From Facing Britain: British Documentary Photography Since the 1960s



2021 November 22

The Solar Revolution

Philip Bethge

The renovated house in Hamburg looks normal. But it has battery storage and a heat pump, and if you look closely at the 1100 or so red roof tiles, you can see a difference. The owner: "Each one of these tiles can produce up to 6.5 W."
New technology is driving a boom. On some days, 25 kWh of solar power costs less than €1 on the German market. Coal and gas electricity are often twice as expensive.
The next German government aims to achieve its climate protection goals by expanding wind energy and photovoltaics. Germany currently has around 54 GW of solar power, covering around 9% of electricity needs. Experts predict 300−450 GW by 2040.
Solar panels are being produced again in Germany and Europe. Political issues with China, rising costs in global supply chains, and lower prices with automated new technology make local production more attractive.

AR I'd like such a house.


England to the north and France to the south of me, 2021-11-21



2021 November 21


Simon Tisdall

A rising tide of authoritarianism threatens to inundate Europe:
  When Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko used migrants to pressure the EU, German chancellor Angela Merkel phoned him for a chat. Baltic states were furious.
  When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan menaced EU members Greece and Cyprus last year, only French president Emmanuel Macron responded with forces. Erdogan is now meddling in Ukraine and the Azerbaijan−Armenia conflict.
  When Russian president Vladimir Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the EU reacted weakly. Putin is still intimidating Ukraine.
  While Polish and Hungarian leaders clash with Brussels over the rule of law and democracy, Poland faces migration from Belarus and appeals for EU solidarity.
  While British prime minister Boris Johnson snipes and sneers at the EU, his defence minister uses the Belarus and Ukraine crises to advance the Brexit agenda and sell arms in Warsaw and Kiev.
  While US president Joe Biden reassures Europeans that NATO is as vital as ever, he devotes more attention to an economically aggressive and globally competitive China.
Macron's ideas for enhanced European strategic autonomy and a more integrated EU offer a path forward.

AR If the EU fails, we're all in trouble.


Anglo-French Rapprochement

Tim Shipman

The UK government is working on a deal with France on nuclear testing, on a joint carrier strike capability, and for Indo-Pacific cooperation.
After the G7 summit in June, Emmanuel Macron told Boris Johnson he liked the British integrated review of defence, security, and foreign policy. It called for the UK to strike new alliances with like-minded countries where they had mutual interests.
Britain and France could "rediscover their strategic agency" at a time when the US is less proactive on the world stage. They could work with the Indo-Pacific Quad powers.
Former UK national security adviser Lord Darroch of Kew: "We both have serious defence capabilities and aspire to global roles, we are both nuclear powers, and we are neighbours. So the case for defence collaboration is irresistible."
Former UK ambassador to France Sir Peter Westmacott: "The issue for the French government is more one of how to deal with our unreliability as a negotiating partner."
Macron reacted with fury when Australia abandoned a submarine deal with France to sign the AUKUS pact. Anglo-French relations really turned sour on the eve of the COP26 climate summit. Macron said British actions on fish and Brexit gave it a credibility problem as a broker of international deals.
A Downing Street official says a "significant Anglo-French rapprochement" is plausible.

AR I say merge the AF nuclear forces.


Tories Are Angry

Andrew Rawnsley

Tory MPs are angry with Boris Johnson:
  The "red wall" MPs who won northern Labour seats in 2019 are angry. They are mired in a sleaze crisis that damages their party. They see betrayal of HS2 promises and fiddling with social care at the expense of poorer pensioners.
  The "red corduroy" MPs in old Tory areas are angry. Many of them do paid work threatened by tighter rules on outside jobs. They are already hard for government whips and will get worse if the PM's bungling costs them money.
  The Spartans, the Brexit fundamentalists, are angry. They have their hard Brexit but not the domestic program they wanted. Britain is no libertarian tax haven, and taxes are rising.
  The Thatcherites are angry. A veteran: "Boris doesn't have a conviction in his body .. Is this a Conservative government?"
  The centrists are angry. Moderate voters are repelled by sleaze and by the PM's mendacity, incompetence, and crude bombast.
Johnson was seen as a winner in 2019. Approval for his performance as PM is now at a record low.

AR Bin him.




2021 November 20

Time Flows Because We're Ignorant

Abigail Beall

Time moves in one direction for us. But the microscopic laws of physics are symmetrical between past, present, and future.
Sean Carroll: "That distinction only becomes relevant in the macroscopic world, where our incomplete information about the precise physical configuration of a system leads us to perceive an arrow of time, and to put causes first and effects after."
Entropy is a measure of the number of different microscopic configurations a system can have without changing its macroscopic appearance. There are more ways for a system of particles to have high entropy than low entropy, so entropy naturally tends to increase.
Where entropy is high, we lose any chance to know a system's precise physical configuration, because there are so many equivalent options. If we had all that information, time's arrow would disappear.
Carroll: "The increase of entropy is responsible for all of our impressions that the past is different from the future, including the impression that time flows."
In the quantum world, uncertainties seem to be intrinsic to reality, although that interpretation is itself up for debate.
Marcus Huber: "Here, the state is truly undetermined prior to a measurement, so the lack of knowledge − and rise of entropy − is even more fundamental."
For entropy always to rise, the universe must have started in a state of extremely low entropy. Why?

AR Roger Penrose is good on this.


Gas giants
Latest Hubble images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune

⦿ Mark Fairhurst


2021 November 19

US−China Talks

The Times

President Joe Biden and President Xi Yinping have agreed to start discussions on strategic stability and nuclear arms control.
US joint chiefs of staff vice-chair General John Hyten says of China: "They launched a long-range missile, it went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that glided all the way back to China that impacted a target in China .. They look like a first-use weapon."
Former Indo-Pacific commander Admiral Philip Davidson says Chinese missile technology advances are changing the "security paradigm" in the region and China could take control of Taiwan in a few years.
US military commanders see the Chinese navy becoming a global maritime force, with aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious assault ships under construction.
USS Gerald R Ford will be an immensely capable aircraft carrier in 2022. But it has cost more than $13 billion and is years late. China is the top shipbuilding nation in the world by tonnage.
President Xi aims to have a world-class military by 2049.

AR Changing of the guard on planet Earth.


2021 November 18

New Brexit Conflicts

Michael Sauga

Boris Johnson is trying out a hybrid trade war with the EU. He is pushing in Northern Ireland in a way that could permanently poison relations with the continent.
He threatens to break the agreement that makes NI part of the EU single market. He wants to avoid controlling goods at sea, to escape the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and to encourage NI Unionists to agitate against the deal.
He wants to raise tensions on the island until goods flow between GB and NI by London rules. He wants the EU to cede sovereignty over its internal market to the UK.
The NI compromise was bizarre from the start. It separated economic boundaries from political ones. To avoid customs barriers in Ireland, GB goods are checked on export to NI. Johnson seemed heedless of the consequences.
Brussels must stick to its guns. With no controls on GB imports to NI, GB companies could rebrand goods from all over the world and export them duty-free to the EU.
Keeping the ECJ out of NI trade is no less toxic. If Brussels accepted this, the UK would evade European justice. EU member states like Poland or Hungary would take note. The EU could give up if it let Johnson win so easily.
The EU must insist its agreements with the UK are respected. If it cannot, it will fail too with Beijing or Moscow. Europe must not surrender to Johnson.
Since the UK left the EU, mutual trade has declined at double-digit rates. This damages Germany and its neighbors as well as the UK. The latest estimate is that Brexit will permanently cost the UK 4% of its prosperity.
Johnson wants to transform the UK into a high-productivity high-wage economy. But hardly anything increases productivity as much as free trade. NI shows being in the internal market brings economic benefits.
Brexit may have to get worse before it gets better. Johnson wants to prevent NI from showing his hard Brexit was a mistake. But NI is an EU red line.

AR Back down, Bodger.


2021 November 17

UK Labour Government?

George Peretz

Polls suggest an election today would produce a hung parliament. The SNP would likely have enough MPs to give Labour a majority with them.
Boris Johnson would not resign until it became clear that an alternative government could win a vote of confidence. Then he would have to resign as soon as he lost a vote of no confidence. The Queen would then ask Keir Starmer to form a government.
If Labour could win a vote of confidence in the new parliament, the Queen would refuse any request by Johnson for another election. Once Starmer was prime minister, he could call a general election whenever he wanted.
Minority governments may negotiate agreements with other parties, but there is no formal requirement to do so. Labour need not negotiate a deal with the SNP to form a minority government, even if the government relies on SNP support.
Labour could take a "back us or sack us" line with the SNP and resist attempts to make SNP support conditional on agreement to an independence referendum. The SNP would not wish to bring the government down if promised electoral reform or extension and entrenchment of devolution.
A minority Labour government would inherit the powers the current parliament is handing to the executive to legislate without parliamentary scrutiny. It could use those powers to renegotiate the terms of the TCA with the EU.
The number of people who voted Labour, plus those who voted Lib Dem, Green, or SNP, will almost certainly greatly exceed votes cast for the Conservatives. The UK needs a fair voting system.

AR A plausible scenario.




2021 November 16

Brains Predict Perceptions

Anil Ananthaswamy

Artificial neural networks can learn to make predictions about incoming information. They show abilities like those of biological brains.
A computational model called predictive coding proposes a hierarchy of information processing levels in the brain. The highest level represents the most abstract knowledge. This layer makes predictions, anticipating the neural activity of the layer below, by sending signals downward. The lower layer compares its actual activity against the prediction from above. A mismatch triggers an error signal that flows upward.
This process happens for each pair of consecutive layers, down to the bottom layer that receives sensory input. Any discrepancy results in an error signal that ripples back up the hierarchy. The highest layer eventually updates its hypothesis.
Modern deep neural networks have one input layer, one output layer, and multiple hidden layers sandwiched between the two. A recurrent neural network (RNN) has feedforward and feedback connections between its neurons and has constant ongoing activity that is independent of inputs.
Any evolving neural network in an organism needs to minimize energy usage. RNNs use the weights between their neurons as a proxy for synaptic transmission, which accounts for much of the energy usage in biological neurons.
A team forced an RNN learn with the minimal weights between units. The RNN learned to predict input using a model of expected inputs. It arrived at this architecture to minimize energy usage.
A neural network that minimizes energy usage will implement some sort of predictive processing. Biological brains probably do the same.

AR Good work.




2021 November 15


John Gray

Julian Huxley defined transhumanism: "The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself − not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity."
Huxley advocated eugenics: "Man .. is in urgent need of further improvement .. The marked differential increase of lower-income groups .. cannot possibly be eugenic in its effects."
Transhumanists say the next phase of human evolution will transcend the flesh. Ray Kurzweil argues for reversing aging, interfacing the brain with computers, and other technological enhancements of the human organism.
Melanie Challenger says humans are essentially embodied creatures. If a human mind is separated from its biological body and installed in a cyborg or projected into cyberspace, the resulting entity will be more like an angel.
Denial of death fuels most religion. Transhumanists express the same impulse. Kurzweil: "Death is a great tragedy .. a profound loss .. I don't accept it."
A virtual mind can die. Cyberspace is hosted on server farms. Natural disasters can burn or bury the farms. Exit transhumanism.

AR Our tech is still primitive.




2021 November 14

COP26 Concludes

The Sunday Times

A historic UN deal on ending coal power was weakened last night. The pledged "phase-out" became "phase-down" after objections from China and India.
COP26 president Alok Sharma: "I apologise for the way this process has unfolded. I am deeply sorry."
Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan: "A signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending."
Climate Change Committee CEO Chris Stark: "The writing is on the wall for fossil fuels now."
The pact includes a commitment to submit stronger climate targets by the end of 2022 to try to limit global warming to 1.5 K above pre-industrial levels.
At present the pact leaves the world on track for 2.4 K of warming by 2100.

AR A disappointment.


Brexit Redux

Anthea Simmons

Get Brexit done! The catchphrase was a con. Boris Johnson and his sidekick Lord Frost signed a deal they never intended to honour. Their eyes were fixed on a no-deal Brexit to crater the economy and leave a rogue global laundromat for all things dodgy and dirty.
Brexit has worked for Johnson. Conservative HQ is already planning a re-election campaign around Brexit again. But how can he square the circle of getting Brexit done with the need to get it done again?
Well, Frosty has a cunning plan. Keep prodding and poking the EU until they snap. Johnson and Frost want the EU to impose sanctions for breach of the 2020 agreement because then they can blame the EU.
Johnson needs conflict and a resurgence of the worst Brexit polarities.
  He's stuffed on levelling up, as people twig that it's levelling down.
  He's stuffed on the greenwash thing, as everyone sees through the blah, blah, blah.
  He's stuffed on looting the economy to funnel money to his chums through dodgy PPE contracts
    and a stonking waste of public funds on test and trace.
  He's stuffed on breaching conduct rules he says are sacking offences.
  And then there's the tragic matter of the Covid dead.
He needs Brexit undone to appease his hardliners. He needs it undone by the EU to rally his fans. Then he can call an election and do it all again.

Sleaze too
Tim Shipman

A Tory strategist: "This is the worst it has been between the party and Boris since he became prime minister. Boris will pay a huge price with MPs."
No 10 is widely seen as chaotic and dysfunctional. Two insiders both say: "It's much worse in there than you think."

AR Time for the last rites.




2021 November 13

Climate Fairy Tale

Bill McKibben

The Glasgow COP limped towards its end. Activists won concessions from the big countries. Their anger was heard around the world.
The COP results are largely determined before they begin. They are scoreboards rather than contests. They reflect the effect civil society has over the nations involved. They show the power of civil society relative to the fossil fuel industry.
September 2019 was a high point. Then came Covid. The world faced a different crisis. But already the landscape for activists was shrinking. The rise of illiberal governments around the world put much of the world beyond the reach of protest.
Activism is spreading again. Greta Thunberg helped everyone understand Glasgow with her "blah, blah, blah" framing. Greenwashing claims like "net zero by 2050" will look steadily shabbier, exposed by each flood and hurricane.
The idea that governments will simply do what needs to be done is a fairy tale.

AR Bodger, behold the bathos of boosterism.


UK Scorecard

Daily Mail

  In a new poll, Conservative support is down to 34%, Labour is up to 40%.
  Parliament's liaison committee will grill the PM on his handling of the sleaze crisis next week.
  The PM's ethics adviser Lord Evans says Britain could become a corrupt country.
  Images show the luxury villa in the British Virgin Islands from which former attorney general
    Sir Geoffrey Cox cast his Commons votes by proxy.
  Dominic Cummings says the PM spent time in the run-up to the Covid crisis writing a book on
    Shakespeare to help pay for his divorce.
  Sir Geoffrey's brief stint in government let him double his hourly earnings as a barrister.
  Research finds 139 MPs have second jobs, 25 of them for more than 8 hours a week.
  Police won't probe cash for honours allegations over appointing wealthy donors to the Lords.

AR Bedtime 4 Bodger.


New Scientist
Cosmic inflation



2021 November 12

Big Bang Logic


Quantum gravity ruled the early universe. Cosmic inflation left a CMB signature we aim to match in our inflationary theories. We are converging on a new way to evaluate them via unitarity, the rule that all probabilities add up to 1.
We can check a theory for unitarity by checking that its predictions from moment to moment have probabilities adding up to 1. But now, instead of calculating every frame of the movie, we can do the check by looking only at the final frame.
In particle physics, we can check a quantum theory by multiplying the matrix before a collision with the matrix after it. For a unitarity collision, the product is 1.
A movie of a particle collision can run forward or backward, so we can easily convert the initial matrix to the final matrix. But an inflating cosmos looks different in reverse, so finding the initial matrix from the final one is hard.
A Cambridge group has found a way to do so. The cosmological optical theorem says the initial and final matrices capture unitarity. We can skip the rest of the movie.
Inflation affects the distribution of galaxies across the sky. A two-point correlation function gives the odds of finding two galaxies separated by certain distances.
As the universe inflated, quantum lumps grew and made waves. When inflation stopped, the cosmos had big and small dense spots and gravitational waves. We can take three-point functions for the waves and apply the matrix test for unitarity.
The probabilities of events are always positive. For unitary universes, each wave has a positive coefficient. Any theories predicting negative waves are out.
We are closing in on observational tests for unitarity in an expanding universe.

AR This is useful progress.




2021 November 11

US−China Climate Deal

The Guardian

The US and China have agreed to work together on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. At the COP26 climate summit, they unveiled a joint declaration calling for "concrete and pragmatic" regulations in decarbonisation, reducing methane emissions, and fighting deforestation. A joint working group will meet regularly to address the climate crisis and advance the multilateral process.

AR Good.


Now vs Then

Brendan Simms, Charlie Laderman

UK Carrier Strike Group 21 is currently deployed to the Indo-Pacific region.
In late 1941, Britain deployed the capital ships Repulse and Prince of Wales to the region to deter the Japanese. Three days after Pearl Harbor, Japanese aircraft sank both ships.
In 1941, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan saw the world skewed in favor of the British Empire and the United States. In 1945, Germany and Japan were vanquished.
Almost all conflicts today are civil wars. The big powers know that any material benefits from going to war with each other are illusory. Nuclear weapons are a deterrent.
China feels embattled. AUKUS and the Quad are directed against China. Around the South China Sea, states are arming up to guard against Chinese encroachment.
Supply chain problems aggravate the geopolitical tension. If Japan was short of oil in 1941, China today lacks semiconductors.
China wants Taiwan. The US stance on Taiwan remains deliberately ambiguous. China cannot know how the US would react to an attack, and Taiwan cannot rely on US backing.
Could Carrier Strike Group 21 meet a fate like that of Repulse and Prince of Wales in 1941?

AR Yes.


Worse Than Sleaze

Nicholas Reed Langen

Headlines over Tory sleaze ignore the fact that Boris Johnson has once more attempted to subvert constitutional norms with the aim of insulating himself and his party from independent scrutiny.
The rule of law requires that those who make laws are also bound by them. The sleaze narrative normalises the effort by the prime minister to violate constitutional norms and the rule of law.
Johnson is undermining and degrading democratic norms. As prime minister, he shows contempt for anything and anyone who subjects him to independent scrutiny or who holds him to account.

AR Bad.




2021 November 10

More Sleaze

The Times

Conservative grandee Sir Geoffrey Cox QC MP has been paid more than £1 million in the past 12 months to work as a lawyer for various clients, including defending the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in a corruption case started by the UK Foreign Office.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner: "This appears to be an egregious, brazen breach of the rules. A Conservative MP using a taxpayer-funded office in parliament to work for a tax haven facing allegations of corruption is a slap in the face and an insult to British taxpayers .. You can be an MP serving your constituents or a barrister working for a tax haven. You can't be both."
Rayner has referred his case to parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone.

AR Cox insults all UK taxpayers.


AUKUS vs China

The Guardian

Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating says AUKUS is "like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain" and dismisses the credibility of the UK tilt to the Indo-Pacific region: "Britain is like an old theme park sliding into the Atlantic compared to modern China."

AR AUKUS is undiplomatic.



UK taxpayers will help fund
small modular nuclear reactors
as Rolls-Royce secures private
funding for £195 million and
triggers £210 million
from HMG.


2021 November 9

German Coalition Talks

The Times

German coalition talks are foundering on fundamental disputes in areas from foreign policy to climate measures and government borrowing.
Olaf Scholz and the SPD won the Bundestag election with only 206 of the 736 seats. They need the support of the Greens, with 118 seats, and the FDP, with 92. Scholz aims to seal a quick deal and become chancellor on December 6. But talks have slowed down as 280 negotiators in 22 working groups work on the details.
German foreign and security policy is a thorny problem. Scholz and the SPD want a loose agreement to ensure continuity with the Merkel strategy of avoiding the conflict between America and China.
There is a dispute over about 20 US nuclear bombs in Germany. These are a NATO tripwire for use by German jets against Russian aggression. Scholz is content to let them be, but senior figures on the left wings of the SPD and Greens want them removed.
Fiscal policy is another sticking point. Greens and the SPD want to borrow an extra €50 billion a year to invest in infrastructure and clean energy. The FDP wants control of the finance ministry and fears the state spending money inefficiently and racking up debts.
Germany is in the fourth wave of the pandemic. The weekly incidence rate is now above 200 new cases per 100,000 people. Some 11% of the intensive care beds in hospitals are occupied.
Caretaker chancellor Angela Merkel argues for prolonging the official state of emergency and targeting measures at the unvaccinated. But the SPD, Greens, and FDP aim to avoid lockdown restrictions and bring back free antigen tests for the public.
The prolonged uncertainty at the heart of the EU is troubling. If the delay in Berlin continues too long, it will collide with campaigning for the French presidential election. Also, coalition talks may lose momentum.

AR Get on with it, chaps!


Building Earth

Jonathan O'Callaghan

The discovery of protoplanetary disks has changed our understanding of planet formation. For the gas giants, such as Jupiter and Saturn, a model called pebble accretion looks good. Pebble accretion may also explain how the rocky worlds of the inner solar system arose.
We used to think planets grew from the gradual accumulation of colliding planetesimals. But planetesimal accretion is slow, and water on Earth depends on the arrival of asteroids.
In the pebble accretion model, a single dominant planetesimal can grow to a huge size in just a few million years by sweeping up material inside a protoplanetary disk. Pebbles are a few mm to cm in size, whereas planetesimals are up to hundreds of km wide.
Pebble accretion can explain the formation of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. But it raises questions about the formation of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.
Both the pebble accretion and the planetesimal accretion model require planetesimals to form via streaming instability, where dust and pebbles feel drag in the gas around the star. The pebbles form clumps, which become gravitationally bound into planetesimals.
In pebble accretion, a few planetesimals become dominant. They sweep up pebbles in the protoplanetary disk, which stream down onto the surface of the planetesimal in long riverlike filaments. This is an energetic process, with hot magma oceans glowing on the surface as pebbles rain down. Earth would grow to its full size in just a few million years.
Pebble accretion suggests that incoming icy pebbles from the outer solar system could provide a steady supply of water to a planet like Earth as pebble snow.
Pebble accretion solves the problem of rapid planet growth and explains the presence of water on Earth. We can see pebbles in developing exoplanetary systems. We await more from the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in December.

AR I'm eager to see JWST in action.




2021 November 8

Brexit Trade War?

Financial Times

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney says the UK is pushing for renegotiated Brexit deal it knows it cannot get. Brussels would retaliate by abandoning the entire Brexit agreement. A breakdown in relations between London and Brussels would follow.
The UK government says it may suspend parts of the Brexit deal over differences on how to make post-Brexit trade rules work for NI. The Brexit deal leaves NI inside the EU customs union and single market to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland.
London dismisses concessions from Brussels to simplify Irish Sea customs checks, saying they do not go far enough, and refuses to accept oversight of the deal from the ECJ.
UK Brexit negotiator Lord Frost and EU VP and Brexit overseer Maros Sefcovic were due to meet again on November 12 in London. The EU suspects London will trigger Article 16 to collapse negotiations in a bid to get the EU to rewrite the protocol.
Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin: "It would be .. reckless to invoke Article 16."

AR A trade war might topple Bodger.


Churchill, Einstein
Winston Churchill and
Albert Einstein in the
garden at Chartwell
Einstein on Nazi Germany:
"To prevent the greater evil,
it is necessary that the lesser
evil — the hated military —
be accepted for the
time being."
On Churchill: "He is an
eminently wise man."


2021 November 7

Tory Sleaze Crisis Deepens

The Observer

After a long inquiry, parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone found Tory MP Owen Paterson guilty of "egregious" breaches of parliamentary lobbying rules. The standards committee recommended that Paterson be suspended for 30 days.
Paterson had repeatedly lobbied ministers on behalf of Randox and another company. He was paid more than £100,000 a year by them. He regularly used his House of Commons office for meetings relating to his business interests and failed to declare the interests.
On Tuesday, Boris Johnson flew back to London from COP26 in Glasgow to dine that evening with his old Telegraph boss Charles Moore at the Garrick Club. They discussed the case.
Chief whip Mark Spencer and leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg were planning to block Paterson's suspension and replace the parliamentary standards committee by a new committee with a Tory chair and majority.
On Wednesday, MPs were under a three-line whip to vote for the plan. HMG won by 250 to 232, but many Tories rebelled, with 13 voting against and 60 abstaining.
On Thursday, Daily Mail ran the headline: SHAMELESS MPs SINK BACK INTO SLEAZE
On Friday, amid public uproar, Rees-Mogg announced a U-turn, dropping the plan to suspend both the suspension and the idea of setting up a new standards committee.
Paterson heard about the U-turn while he was out shopping. He said he will step down as MP.
When Paterson was sacked from the cabinet in 2014, Randox founder Peter Fitzgerald gave him consultancy work with Randox to exploit his connections.
Fitzgerald and Paterson shared a love for horse racing. Paterson's wife was on the board of the Jockey Club along with Dido Harding, who became head of the government's test and trace program. Former health secretary Matt Hancock, a.k.a. the MP for horse-racing, received big donations from horse-racing grandees.
In March 2019, Hancock visited the Randox headquarters in NI. In 2020, Randox was awarded Covid testing contracts worth almost £500 million. The contracts were awarded without being advertised.

Former Tory prime minister Sir John Major said of the whole story: "I think the way the government handled that was shameful, wrong, and unworthy of this or indeed any government.".

The Sunday Times reveals the Conservative party is abusing the honours system by offering seats in the House of Lords to multimillionaire donors who take on the temporary job of party treasurer and increase their own party donations beyond £3 million.
Lord Farmer said it had become "a tradition" for Conservative prime ministers to hand out a peerage to the holder of the party's top fundraising role.
The Lords have an important role in the UK legislative process as a check and balance for new laws. Successive Tory prime ministers have rewarded benefactors by appointing them to the Lords. Six former Tory ministers express deep unease at the abuse.

AR All this stinks.


2021 November 6

Global Britain

Tim Ross

As new prime minister, Boris Johnson hired John Bew to write Global Britain in a Competitive Age, a 111‑page integrated review of security, defence, development, and foreign policy.
The review says 2021 "will be a year of British leadership, setting the tone for the UK's international engagement in the decade ahead".
Despite Johnson's hopes for an influential role for Global Britain, he can't escape the souring relationship with Britain's ex-partners in the EU.
Johnson: "I think the UK has had an astonishing impact on the world in the last 18 months or so. If that isn't Global Britain, I don't know what is."
He says the UK has struck more than 60 trade deals: "Each of these represent the UK making anew in the world forum the argument for free trade and economic interpenetration."
According to the latest figures from the OBR, UK goods trade has fallen sharply both with the EU and with the rest of the world since Brexit.
Chatham House director Robin Niblett: "Can you have Global Britain and be at war with Europe? .. No."

Damaged trust
Rachel Sylvester

The prime minister and his government whips told Conservatives to vote against an independent cross-party committee that had been set up to protect public trust in politics.
Trust is the foundation on which the whole political process is built. To rebuild and retain it, the system must be both rigorously enforced and seen to be rigorously enforced. Only this week, a report by the anti-corruption watchdog Lord Evans called for politicians with "poor ethical standards" to face tougher sanctions.
Johnson is a rule breaker who usually gets away with it. Sooner or later, this will be his downfall.

AR Bodger must go.


Autumnal Japan: Takaragawa Onsen, Gunma



2021 November 5

The Japanese Constitution

The Times

Conservative nationalists in Japan are pushing to exploit their success in last weekend's general election to revise Japan's peace constitution. The new parliament will be dominated by right-wing MPs who support changing the constitution.
The peace constitution was imposed on Japan in 1947 by the US military occupation. Some Japanese see it as a source of shame, but any effort to change it will provoke confrontation. Many Japanese regard it as a bastion against the resurgence of militarism.
Amending the constitution is the policy of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. It is supported by its coalition partners, the Clean Government Party and the Democratic Party for the People.
The drive for constitutional reform has been given a push by the success of Japan Renewal, a right-wing populist party based in Osaka. It wants to hold a constitutional referendum next summer.
Constitution article 9: "Japanese people for ever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."

AR In our world, article 9 is constitutional overreach.




Tory Sleaze

The Times

Boris Johnson's personal judgment was publicly questioned by senior Tories last night after he abandoned attempts to block the suspension of a senior MP for breaching lobbying rules.
His U-turn came after the government whipped Tories to back its amendment in the Commons, prompting 51 of them to rebel amid accusations of corruption: "One rule for us, another rule for everyone else."
At the centre of the sleaze scandal was former Conservative cabinet minister Owen Paterson, who resigned as an MP yesterday.
Tory MPs called for chief whip Mark Spencer to resign over his handling of the issue. Others said No 10 was blaming Spencer to duck responsibility.
Johnson is said to be "pissed off" and frustrated with the U-turn, which he views as an "own goal" and a distraction from COP26.

The Paterson debacle
Simon Jenkins

Bodger's attempt to rescue his friend Owen Paterson from a mild penalty for a breach of the parliamentary code was an abject failure. The Tories have abandoned their attempt to tear up the independent system for combating parliamentary sleaze.
The prime minister clearly had no clue what was wrong. He seemed not to get the point of ethics. He has now had two years of constant brushes with the Westminster ethics police but in each case he just shrugs. For him, it seems, his will is law.
On Wednesday night, 250 Tory MPs obeyed Bodger's orders to bail out his friend. They slept on their decision and now recognise their guilt. For Bodger to have proposed a hand-picked Tory ethics committee to replace one he disliked is outrageous.
Johnson seems obsessed with loyalty alone. His most reckless decision as Tory leader was to sack all the senior colleagues who were more able than him. He saw them as a threat. The result has been two years of ineffective cabinet government.
In many countries, the national assembly would have its rights constitutionally embedded. Not in Britain. In many, there would be a role for the supreme court. Again, not in Britain. Yet Britain loves to lecture other nations on the evils of corruption.

AR Get Bodger out.


BBC News
Climate change: a really simple guide

A seafront walk (8 photos)


2021 Diwali

COP26 ▸ Global Warming < 2 K

The Times

Pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions made so far at the Glasgow climate conference could keep global warming to below 2 K.
This could contain global warming at 1.9 K above pre-industrial levels, below the 2 K upper limit set out in the 2015 Paris agreement.
India, the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, plans to get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
At least 19 countries will announce a moratorium on financing new international oil and gas projects. More than 190 have also committed to phase out coal as a means of generating electricity.
Given the multilateral pledges to reduce global methane emissions and curb deforestation, there is a good chance of keeping temperature rises below 2 K.

AR Let's hope we don't breach 2 K.


2021 November 3

Gaia Can Destroy Us

James Lovelock

We cannot avert a climate catastrophe if we continue to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems.
Almost 60 years ago, I suggested our planet self-regulated like a living organism. I called this the Gaia theory. In the years since, we have seen how much life affects the environment. Suffocation by greenhouse gases and clearance of rainforests have caused the biggest changes for megayears.
For gigayears, Earth's surface temperature has been set mainly by the radiant heat coming from the Sun. This energy increased over time because stars increase their heat output as they grow older. Thanks to Gaia, the Earth's regulating system kept the surface temperature near optimal for life.
Burning fossil fuels releases methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases into the atmosphere. They absorb radiant heat and stop it escaping from Earth. This causes global warming.
The amount of global warming depends hugely on the properties of water. When ice forms, much of it is white snow. This reflects sunlight back to space and is cooling. But when water warms, it evaporates and adds further warming.
We are entering a heat age. We must reduce the burning of fossil fuels and build more nuclear power stations. We also need to address overpopulation and destruction of tropical forests.
We need to look at the world in a holistic way and learn to live in partnership with Earth.

AR Lovelock, 102, is St Gaia.


3 books


2021 November 2

Science and Climate Change Denial

Anjana Ahuja

Hot Air, by Peter Stott, is a personal account of the development of the science of the climate crisis and the long battle to deny or downplay its existence.
Stott was recruited by the Met Office to work on climate prediction: "The research was under attack from a plethora of lobby groups promoting climate change denial."
In 2006, when Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was put on the British school curriculum, a group took the government to court for indoctrinating pupils. Stott was a witness for the defence.
A High Court judge ruled the film should still be shown but the teaching notes watered down to weaken the claimed link between climate change and extreme weather.
Stott: "The back rooms of business and politics .. had won another tactical battle in their long-haul campaign for obfuscation of scientific findings and delay to climate action."

Our Biggest Experiment, by Alice Bell, guides us through the science of climate change and how society woke up to it, from the industrial age to the present.
In 1983, an official report from the US National Academy of Sciences, using decades of land and ocean data, decreed that the planet was warming.
In 1988, James Hansen appeared before the US Senate to declare his confidence in a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming.
In that year, the IPCC was formed, global warming went mainstream, and environmentalism became a political force.

Saving Us, by Katharine Hayhoe, explores the psychology of people's beliefs about the climate crisis and offers lessons for how to change minds across the political divide.
Hayhoe: "I'm getting used to being hated. Communist, libtard, lunatic; Jezebel, liar and whore; high priestess of the climate cult and handmaiden of the Antichrist, I've been called it all."
Rejection of the science on climate change is most strongly correlated with personal values, ideologies, worldviews, and political orientation.
People fall into one of six groups on the issue: dismissive, doubtful, disengaged, cautious, concerned, and alarmed. Hayhoe says only the dismissive are out of reach.

AR Will I read them? Probably not.




Bro-in-law Andy


2021 All Saints Day


The Times

President Biden signed the Paris agreement on his first day in the job. Then China pledged to cut greenhouse gases to net zero by 2060. Other countries followed by the dozen. Now 18 of the G20 nations have similar goals. Net zero commitments cover more than 80% of the global economy.
An observer: "The discussion has moved away from whether we even need to get to net zero and is now one of how we do it."
When the Paris accord was signed in 2015, the world was on track to 4 K of global warming by 2100 compared with the average temperature between 1850 and 1900. Current forecasts put that at 2.7 K. COP26 aims at 1.5 K, but we will have to wait years to declare success or failure.

AR The problem is looking more soluble.


Heavy Neutrinos?


Neutrinos come in three flavors: electron, muon, and tau. They may oscillate between flavors in flight. The math works if each flavor is a quantum mix of three different masses. But the Standard Model says neutrinos are massless.
The Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) tests whether neutrinos oscillate in flight by aiming a beam of muon neutrinos toward a detector and counting the number of electron neutrinos that arrive. It detects far more electron neutrinos than predicted.
Neutrinos are detected from the Sun at less than half the rate predicted. Neutrinos that fall to Earth when cosmic rays collide with the upper atmosphere also seem to vanish.
The LSND data suggest the existence of a fourth flavor: the sterile neutrino.
But cosmological observations rule out sterile neutrinos. CMB data suggests there are three flavors. Other neutrino oscillation experiments strongly support the three-neutrino model.
A dark sector model with three heavy neutrinos of different masses not only accounts for the experimental data but can also explain the origin of neutrino mass, matter−antimatter asymmetry through the seesaw mechanism, and dark matter.
Perhaps we need to extend the Standard Model.

AR Perhaps we do.


⦿ Friedrich Stark / EPD
Globall, Oberhausen, Germany

Watch out


2021 October 31

UK−EU Spat Could Wreck COP26

The Guardian

Scientists and environmentalists call on Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron to declare a ceasefire in a bitter Anglo-French row on fishing rights. They fear UK arguments with EU neighbours could overshadow the COP26 summit on climate change.
Green groups and scientists are exasperated that UK and French governments are fighting on fishing rights while the UK bemoans the NI protocol and risks trade war with the EU. Brexit minister Lord Frost threatens action against France.

G20 gala dinner
Mail Online

Italian president Sergio Mattarella hosted world leaders at the Quirinale Palace in Rome for a gala dinner to mark the end of a G20 summit on Saturday.
He sat at the head of the table between Joe Biden Mattarella and Ursula von der Leyen. Emmanuel Macron sat next to Jill Biden on one side. Prince Charles sat further to the left. Boris and Carrie Johnson were in a far corner.
Earlier on Saturday, Johnson complained to VDL that French threats on fishing were "completely unjustified" while VDL tweeted that the European Commission was "intensively engaging for finding solutions" to UK complaints.
The fishing feud has already seen a British trawler detained in a French port and the French ambassador in London summoned to the Foreign Office. France is angry that the UK and the Channel Islands have not issued enough fishing licences to French boats.
Paris threatens to ban UK boats from unloading their catches at French ports from next Tuesday and impose checks on all products brought to France from Britain.
The G20 summit agreed to impose a global minimum tax of 15% on the profits of multinationals such as Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple to stop them sheltering profits.
Italian prime minister Mario Draghi: "From the pandemic to climate change, to fair and equitable taxation, going it alone is simply not an option."

AR Charles beats Bodger as a UK figurehead.


My view today


2021 October 30

Nature Is Essential

Frans Timmermans, Achim Steiner, Sandrine Dixson-Declève

Climate, biodiversity, and human health are interdependent. Nature is essential to a resilient future for us all. We can chart a planetary response to our planetary crisis that puts nature at the centre.
The Planetary Emergency Plan, published by the Club of Rome and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, identifies key actions that support a paradigm shift from limiting the harm we do to the world to enhancing and restoring the health of ecosystems. The plan calls on governments and sectors to adopt commitments to protect our global commons and develop national and sectoral roadmaps for regenerative land use and green, inclusive, circular societies.
The transition to a sustainable future that lies within planetary boundaries needs to be global. The EU strives to lead on biodiversity.

COP failure
Boris Johnson

"What the UK has been trying to do is take the abstract concepts of net zero that we talked about in Paris six years ago, and to turn them into hard, sharp deliverables in terms of reducing coal use, reducing the use of internal combustion engines, planting millions of trees, and getting the cash that the world needs to finance green technology ..
If you increase the temperatures of the planet by four degrees or more, as they are predicted to do remorselessly, you'll have seen the graphs, then you produce these really very difficult geopolitical events. You produce shortages, you produce desertification, habitat loss, movements, contests for water, for food, huge movements of peoples ..
When the Roman empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. The empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, all over the place, and we went into a dark ages, Europe went into a dark ages that lasted a very long time. The point of that is to say it can happen again."

AR High stakes — get it right.




2021 October 29


Financial Times

The COP26 summit opening in Glasgow on Sunday is a defining moment in the struggle to keep the planet from climate catastrophe. The richest countries must offer evidence that they will help poorer nations meet the cost of addressing the ever more visible impacts of climate change. The summit needs to spur new deals to phase out coal, end fossil fuel subsidies, curb deforestation, and take other concrete steps to cut emissions. The omens are not propitious. Though most countries have plans, the combined result still leaves the world on track for 2.7 K of warming by 2100.

AR Tragedy of the commons ..


My copy, still largely unread

⦿ Barbara Brandom
Robert Brandom


2021 October 28

Hegel Today

Willem deVries

Robert B Brandom's tome A Spirit of Trust (2019) elaborates a philosophy that claims G W F Hegel as its seminal forebear. He says Hegel is investigating the categories we use to think about and act within the world.
Spirit is identified with the normative structures that constitute human social interactions and human rationality. These are embodied in material conditions and activities, but they cannot simply be identified with the physical activities of material bodies.
Hegel told a story about the evolution of the normative structures that make rational thought possible. His system is an attempt to organize the knowledge accrued over history concerning the world we live in. He allows for the ongoing historical development of our categorial scheme.
Semantic theory is key to the revival of Hegelian thought. The content of a word or sentence, and equally the content of a concept or thought, is determined by its position within a complex linguistic economy that responds to norms of proper usage.
Brandom on Hegel's dialectic: "As a matter of deep pragmatist semantic principle, the only way to understand the content of a determinate concept .. is by rationally reconstructing an expressively progressive history of the process of determining it."
Experience induces change in our first-order empirical concepts, but categorial conceptions can also be influenced by developments in religion, the arts, politics, and philosophy. Understanding a determinate concept requires a story based on reason and evidence about how and why the concept came to have the role it has. Brandom says concepts to be retained and developed will have an expressively progressive history.
Human attempts to discover truth and do right are engaged in an ongoing back-and-forth among the players. The societal process can hope to move further and further toward the truth only to the extent that the contributors are sincerely and rationally striving in good faith to achieve truth and foster human flourishing.
Society can achieve its ideal state only if a spirit of trust pervades and prevails among its agents. Brandom: "A proper understanding of ourselves as discursive creatures obliges us to institute a community .. bound by and built on trust."
Brandom takes concepts and principles to have both a subjective and an objective reality. He takes it that concepts are embedded in the forms of things themselves. The inferential connections constituting the content of a concept are modal connections.
Objective concepts are embodied in and determined by the alethic modal properties and relations among objects (what is connected to what). Our subjective concepts are embodied in and determined by the deontic modal properties and relations among our concepts (what one ought to think). When we bring deontic and alethic into correspondence, we have grasped the truth.
Hegel saw that human sociality was a corrective to the individualism of enlightenment liberalism. No concept stands alone. His dialectic is a search for the broader context within which a concept can best play its role.

AR Brandom has clearly improved upon my 1974−1977 reading of Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes — as well as on all Marxist readings of it. My reading was informed by personal interactions with such Hegel scholars as Charles Taylor, Michael Inwood, and Leszek Kołakowski, as well as study of texts by such authors as Karl Marx, V I Lenin, György Lukács, Alexandre Kojève, and Jean Hyppolyte.
By contrast, I sought to insert my reading into the analytic tradition of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel, W V O Quine, and Saul Kripke. Since then, John McDowell has risen far enough from that tradition to sense Hegel's relevance to it.
Brandom has leveraged that rise to achieve the fusion of ideas I achieved only in solipsistic mathematics. I did glimpse a glorious transparency, but it remained opaque to those I sought to illuminate. I went on to tackle Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, only to end on the unresolved contradictions of the bit−qubit story, entanglement, decoherence, and quantum gravity.




2021 October 27

Winston Churchill

Peter Baker

Geoffrey Wheatcroft says Sir Winston Churchill was a racist, a hypocrite, a dissembler, a narcissist, an opportunist, an imperialist, a drunk, a strategic bungler, a tax dodger, a neglectful father, a credit-hogging author, a terrible judge of character, and a masterful mythmaker.
Wheatcroft: "He led the British nobly and heroically during one of the great crises of history, and has misled them ever since, sustaining the country with beguiling illusions of greatness, of standing unique and alone, while preventing the British from coming to terms with their true place in the world."
He recalls Churchill's disastrous Gallipoli campaign in WW1, his fervor for maintaining Britain's overseas empire, his misguided efforts during WW2 to fight in Africa and the Mediterranean rather than invade France, his deadly lack of interest in the famine in Bengal, his support for carpet-bombing German cities, his cynical deals with Stalin, and beyond all this his racism.
Wheatcroft says Churchill has misled subsequent leaders: "On every occasion when action has been informed by the fear of appeasement or the ghost of Munich, woeful failure has followed, from Korea to Suez to Vietnam to Iraq and much more besides."
John F. Kennedy was the first president to wrap himself in Churchill's cloak, followed by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Only when the likes of Donald Trump invoke Churchill does Wheatcroft come to his defense.
This book could be the best single-volume indictment of Churchill yet written.

AR Bodger venerates Churchill. Woe betide us!




Clocking Quantum Gravity


A massive body warps spacetime. Earth's gravitational field slows time but weakens with height. If Alice lives on a higher floor than Bob, she ages faster. The difference has been measured by comparing atomic clocks ticking high and low.
A team has now measured the difference in the flow of time between the top and the bottom of a 1 mm cloud of atoms they used as a clock.
The team tickled a cloud of 105 strontium atoms with a laser. If the laser frequency is just right, the electrons orbiting each atom get excited to a higher orbit. Measuring this frequency provides an extremely precise measurement of time.
If the team improves the clock sensitivity by about 10×, they can search for gravitational effects in the decoherence behavior of the atoms.

AR Ingenious!




2021 October 26

Leading Europe

Helen Thompson

Leading the European Union and its predecessor organizations has always been difficult. For a long time, France and Germany managed it collaboratively.
But for most of the past decade, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has presided over Europe alone. A competition to succeed her is underway.
Leading the charge is President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose attempts to give the EU an explicitly political purpose have been frustrated so far.
Hamstrung by the rivalry between America and China, and deeply divided internally, the EU is in trouble. There is now a vacuum at the heart of Europe.
Merkel tried to seal an orientation toward China. She said that on economic and climate matters Europe prefers cooperation with China to confrontation.
For Germany, pragmatic cooperation seems a sensible course. But for other member states, China poses more of a threat.
Europe is profoundly divided on multiple issues and headed for stasis.

AR Expect Russian incursion, AA intervention, ugly scenes. I blame Brexit.


Tesla Tops $1 Trillion

Financial Times

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk says "Tesla is very much a production ramp problem, not a demand problem" as its market valuation tops $1 trillion. Tesla overtook Toyota in July 2020 to become the world's most valuable carmaker by market value. Since then, its value has increased fivefold. It is now worth more than the next nine most valuable public carmakers combined and the sixth American company to hit a trillion-dollar valuation, following Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook. The seventh company to surpass the valuation is Saudi Aramco.

AR The Big Six are leading the informatic revolution.




2021 October 25

Climate Science

Lawrence M. Krauss

Climate science can tell us whether at COP26 we are pushing our luck.
Natural skepticism is emboldened by just how much remains uncertain at the forefront. These concerns cannot be wished away.
The real question is whether there is sufficient uncertainty to justify stepping back from concerted efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is no.
The fundamental science that underlies climate change is well established. The general climate predictions based on it agree with observations made over the past 60 years.
Basic physics and observations underlie the reality of human-induced climate change:
1  Averaged over time, the energy input from the Sun onto the Earth is 44 TW. The Earth's overall temperature will not rise if the same amount of energy radiates back out to space.
2  If there were no atmosphere and the Earth radiated 44 TW back into space, the average surface temperature of the Earth would be −18 C.
3  The actual average temperature of the Earth is +15 C. This is because the Earth is blanketed by an atmosphere that traps much of the heat energy. About a third of solar energy impinging on Earth is reflected into space from the top of the atmosphere. The rest is absorbed. The Earth's surface then radiates energy back out as infrared radiation. How much energy is absorbed on the way out determines how much warmer we get.
4  Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes it less transparent to outgoing infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide absorbs heat energy, leaving less energy radiated out than in. This radiative forcing heats up the Earth's surface.
5  The predicted radiative forcing is consistent with measurements. If it continues, the temperature will continue to rise.
The basic prediction that measured human production of greenhouse gases between 1900 and 2020 would increase the Earth's temperature by about 1.2 K has been validated.
Humanity pumps about 10 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, roughly 5 billion of which will remain in the atmosphere for a millennium. If the current production rate continues, by 2050 the atmospheric abundance will have doubled compared to the pre-industrial level. Almost all of it will remain in the atmosphere for the foreseeable future.
A mean temperature rise of 5−7 K will irreversibly destabilize the Greenland ice sheet over a few centuries. A temperature increase of 2 K could do so more slowly. If the ice vanishes, worldwide sea levels will increase by a ruinous 7 m.
Doubts about the likelihood and timing of a tipping point are legitimate. Doubt about the seriousness of what is at stake is not.
Are we feeling lucky?

AR Play safe at COP26.


With an idea, Gandhi founded a movement. With a movement, he created a nation. With a nation, he changed the course of history.
2021-10-23 — 2021-10-28



2021 October 24

Poland vs Belarus

The Sunday Times

Waves of migrants are crossing from Belarus into Poland and neighbouring EU countries. In first nine months of 2021, EU border agency Frontex counted more than 6,000 attempted illegal crossings from Belarus.
Poland has set up an exclusion zone along its frontier with Belarus. Border guards, police, and soldiers patrol it 24/7 to stop and push back migrants who enter it.
The Polish parliament is legislating for a fence along the entire 400 km border. Latvia and Lithuania are also building fences along their borders with Belarus.
Transnational Institute researcher Nick Buxton: "Europe is increasingly becoming a walled continent."

AR Let Frontex police all EU external borders.


Poland vs Europe

New Statesman

When the Polish government changed its system of appointing judges to give it a greater say, the European Court of Justice ruled that the changes were contrary to EU law.
Radosław Sikorski says the ruling PiS party is leading Poland "on the path of Hungary and ultimately Russia in trying to abolish the separation of powers" and packing the courts.
In a defiant speech to the European Parliament, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: "Poland will not be intimidated."
Sikorski: "He went full Farage, full nationalist. He used the language of sovereignty in a Europhobic manner."

AR The EU is right, also on GB/NI.




2021 October 23

Huge Language AI

Matthew Sparkes

Microsoft and Nvidia have created the biggest-ever artificial intelligence to mimic human language more convincingly than ever before.
The Megatron-Turing Natural Language Generation (MT‑NLG) neural network has 530 billion parameters — representing synapses in the brain.
The previous champ was the OpenAI GPT‑3 with 175 billion parameters. It surprised researchers last year with its ability to generate fluent streams of text.
MT‑NLG was tested on a range of language tasks. It showed a greater ability than GPT‑3 to complete sentences accurately and mimic human reasoning.
MT‑NLG was trained using the Nvidia Selene supercomputer, which runs on 560 servers, each with 8× A100 80 GB Tensor Core GPUs.
AI research is now an engineering problem of efficiently splitting up a problem and distributing it over vast hardware landscapes.
Current metrics for assessing quality of language processing AIs are nearing the end of their useful life. We need new ones.

AR The human brain has more than 100 trillion synapses.




2021 October 22

Brexit Means Brexit

Jonathan Lis

Tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol have been mounting ever since 2020. Last week, Brexit minister David Frost demanded the wholesale rewriting of the protocol.
HM Government objects to an internal border in the Irish Sea, to oversight of the protocol by the ECJ, and to the community divisions sown by leaving the EU. It was warned of all three but went ahead and negotiated the protocol, eulogised it, and campaigned for it.
If HMG was adamant that NI should not have a different customs and regulatory framework from GB, or that NI should not be subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ, it should not have signed the deal. It gave way to secure an "oven-ready" deal.
HMG wanted to leave both the single market and customs union. This implied a trade border with the EU that separated NI from either Ireland or GB. HMG chose the latter.
Theresa May accepted a customs union backstop to soften the sea border. Boris Johnson prioritised absolute sovereignty and hardened it.
HMG dislikes border frictions with the continent. Ministers have delayed implementing checks on goods from the EU until 2022. The controls will add friction to supply chains.
HMG is rushing to offer more visas to foreign workers as the labour shortage deepens. Applications have been laughably few. Many drivers no longer want to work in the UK. Their working conditions are better in the EU.
Brexit erects trade barriers, so trade is harder. Brexit guts the workforce, so there are fewer people to do the work. Brexit sacrifices the perks of EU membership. Brexit means Brexit.

AR The wages of sin is death.




2021 October 21


Peter Bradshaw

This eerily vast and awe-inspiring epic, a cathedral of interplanetary strangeness, is better than the attempt a generation ago by an acknowledged master.
Director Denis Villeneuve has used less than half of Frank Herbert's book and let it grow. It breathes and drifts through unimaginably vast reaches of fictional galaxies, with images of enormous spacecraft moving into view or descending onto alien landscapes of parched and austere beauty.
The story is set in a far future where the rulers live like Renaissance princes. Paul is son and heir to the Duke, whose family is ordered by the emperor to govern the desert planet Arrakis. They must suppress or appease its people, the Fremen, and get sole rights to the planet's spice.
Villeneuve is superb at juxtaposing the colossal spectacle with the intimate encroachment of danger. His dramatic language exalts the alienness of every texture and surface.
A character: "The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience."

A hero in the making
Manohla Dargis

Published in 1965, Frank Herbert's DUNE is a beautiful behemoth. Herbert dreamed up a desert planet where water was the new petroleum. His future-shock epic reads like a cautionary tale for our environmentally ravaged world.
The movie leans on a lot of exposition, but Denis Villeneuve also uses his visuals to advance and clarify the narrative. The designs and textures of the movie's various worlds and their inhabitants are arresting, filigreed, and meaningful.
The screenplay takes predictable liberties. Hollywood foregrounds obviousness and blunt action sequences over ambiguity and introspection. There's talk and stillness here, true, but also plenty of fights, explosions, and hardware.
A white noble is hailed as a messiah by the planet's darker native population. The shadow of Lawrence of Arabia and colonialist fantasies looms large because the Fremen and their language are drawn from Arabic origins. DUNE is about a white man leading a fateful charge.

AR Worth seeing on a big screen.




2021 October 20



Axions are hypothetical lightweight particles that could resolve two major problems:
 Axions would imply an unseen field to solve the strong charge−parity (CP) problem that the quarks and gluons in protons and neutrons obey a certain symmetry.
 Axions would clump together in exactly the ways we expect of dark matter, and they have just the right properties to explain why they're so hard to find.
If axions exist, we think they are produced inside the hot core of a neutron star and turn into X‑ray photons as they escape into space through its extremely strong magnetic field.
Most known neutron stars are rapidly spinning pulsars, which release lots of X‑rays anyway. Researchers focus on seven neutron stars in our galaxy that rotate slowly. All but one of them seem to show an excess of X‑rays that hint at axions.
The Sun may produce axions in its interior that then stream into space. The CERN Axion Solar Telescope (CAST) points a 10 m superconducting magnet at the Sun that would turn any incoming axions into X‑ray photons it could detect.
In 2024, the DESY Baby International Axion Observatory (BabyIAXO) will be 100× more sensitive than CAST. The full IAXO experiment will be 100× better again.

AR Frank Wilczek likes axions.


Liz Truss
Liz Truss


In Praise of the European Union

The Guardian, 2016-05-02

Liz Truss: "This is a debate about our country. People who care about .. us being an outward-facing, internationally focused country go out and vote."
Truss calls Brexit campaigners "extreme and outdated" in a declaration with former Labour leader Ed Miliband, former Liberal Democrat energy secretary Ed Davey, and Green MP Caroline Lucas.
They say Leave campaigners dismiss vital green policies and climate change as "mumbo jumbo" and say EU collaboration is the only hope in tackling global warming.
Truss: "We share our air. Up to 50% of all particulate matter in UK air comes from the European continent. It is a classic tragedy of the commons: you produce pollution but you are not feeling the full effect of it so that is why we need to work together."
She says membership of the EU helps shore up depleted fish stocks, cleans up the sea and beaches, helps reduce the illegal trade of ivory and rhino horns, and contributes to tackling animal disease. The EU ended the threat of acid rain and helped address the hole in the ozone layer.
Truss: "Membership of the EU magnifies Britain's global influence. When you are speaking for 500 million people that really carries weight."

AR Truss was then environment secretary and is now foreign secretary.


Jon Danzig



2021 October 19

Power and Fear

David Puttnam

HM Government plans to revise the data protection regime. By far the most likely outcome is the privatisation, exploitation, and sale of our personal data.
Look at what else is coming down the track:
 An elections bill set on undermining the independent Electoral Commission
 A bill to reform judicial review to reduce the role of the judiciary
 A police bill that weakens the right to legal protest
 A plan to widen the scope of the Official Secrets Act with no public interest defence for journalists
 An education bill to reduce academic freedoms in teacher training
All this is accompanied by continued mutterings about "unelected judges" in Strasbourg and "reforming" UK implementation of the European Human Rights Act.
HMG's draft Online Safety Bill in its present form does not go anything like far enough in addressing the issue of personal responsibility for the profound societal harm caused by tech-enabled misinformation. We must create far clearer lines of accountability.
There is something deeply flawed in the response of the global tech monoliths to criticism. Only parliament can bring them under control. Big tech has a clear duty of care.
Throughout the deeply unpleasant Brexit debates, I was forced to watch ministers malevolently twist, turn, and posture in parading their prejudices and their ignorance. I no longer have sufficient patience to treat mendacious political inanity with the appearance of courtesy.

AR Lord Puttnam is retiring from the House.


Teleparallel Gravity

Paul M. Sutter

Albert Einstein showed that massive objects curve spacetime and give rise to gravity. His theory of general relativity is beautiful and works perfectly. Another mathematical language for curvature is called torsion.
Einstein tried to use torsion to explain both gravity and electromagnetism. Massive objects and charged objects would cause spacetime to twist differently, as either electromagnetism or gravity. But he never got the idea to work properly.
Teleparallel gravity is general relativity written in terms of torsion rather than curvature. The two forms are equivalent, but the language of torsion is more malleable. It can explain away the big problems in cosmology: dark matter, inflation, dark energy, and the Hubble tension.
There is no single theory of teleparallel gravity, but theorists in Estonia find it is contained within string theory.

AR I guess I must have a go at torsion.




2021 October 18

UK Voting System

Neal Lawson

At its recent conference in Brighton, Labour narrowly rejected a motion calling for the party to back proportional representation.
The party membership was overwhelming for PR, with 80% of its representatives backing the resolution. But the leadership was staunchly against it, backed by the unions. Under the intricacies of Labour voting rules, the resulting 95% union vote against defeated the motion by a slim margin.
First-past-the-post (FPTP) allows the two-party system to endlessly reproduce itself. This duopoly survives because it takes 38,000 votes to elect a Tory MP, 50,000 for a Labour MP, 250,000 for a Liberal Democrat MP, and 850,000 for the sole Green MP.
FPTP keeps the small parties out and locks the two big parties in, no matter how badly they perform.

AR The UK Alternative Vote referendum held in May 2011 asked whether to replace the FPTP system with the AV system.
AV lets voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Ballots are initially counted for each voter's top choice. If a candidate has more than half of the vote based on first choices, that candidate wins. If not, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the votes.
Q: The UK uses the FPTP system to elect MPs. Should the AV system be used instead?
A: YES 32% NO 68%, turnout 42% (2011 result)




Earthshot Prize

The Guardian

Celebrities joined Prince William in London for the inaugural awards of the Earthshot Prize, an ambitious environmental program aimed at finding new ideas and technologies around the world to tackle the climate crisis and related challenges.
William: "We are alive in the most consequential time in human history. The actions we choose or choose not to take in the next 10 years will determine the fate of the planet for the next thousand .. The future is ours to determine. And if we set our minds to it, nothing is impossible."

AR The winners are Costa Rica for planting trees, an Indian company for recycling agricultural waste, a Bahamas coral farm for restoring dying coral reefs, Milan for recycling wasted food for people in need, and a Thai−German−Italian team for an electrolyzer to make clean hydrogen.




2021 October 17

China Hypersonic Threat

Financial Times

China is making progress on hypersonic weapons. In August, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that flew in low Earth orbit before speeding down to its target. This caught US intelligence by surprise.
America, Russia, and China are all developing hypersonic weapons, including glide vehicles launched into LEO that return to Earth at Mach 5. Because they have no fixed parabolic trajectory and can maneuver, they negate US ABM systems.
US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall hints that Beijing is developing a new weapon with the "potential for global strikes .. from space" like a fractional orbital bombardment system: "If you use that kind of an approach, you don't have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It's a way to avoid defenses and missile warning systems."
North American Aerospace Defense Command head General Glen VanHerck said in August that China had "recently demonstrated very advanced hypersonic glide vehicle capabilities [that] provide significant challenges to my NORAD capability to provide threat warning and attack assessment."
Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu: "We don't have a global strategy and plans of military operations like the US does. And we are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries."

AR I say take China at its word for now.


Atlas V rocket with Lucy spacecraft aboard launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida,
on a mission to study Jupiter's Trojan Asteroids, 2021-10-16



2021 October 16

America vs China

Chen Weihua

For decades, US politicians have bashed China in almost every presidential campaign. The Biden administration China policy continues a relentless propaganda war against China.
Washington views a rising China as a challenge to its primacy around the world. Chinese success with a different political system is unacceptable to US politicians, especially when the US system seems to have become dysfunctional.
Racism is a factor. Former US State Department policy planning chief Kiron Skinner: "It's the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian."
The American propaganda war against China resembles that of the Cold War era. Chinese companies were formerly welcome but are now considered a national security threat. Chinese students and scholars are often suspected of being spies.
Even the Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language, history, and culture, are now seen as a threatening influence in America.
US news outlets are a willing partner in this propaganda war. They are careless about checking facts when the disinformation is about China.
The US propaganda war is extremely dangerous. It has already hindered bilateral and multilateral cooperation on critical global issues such as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and the Covid pandemic.
America should end its trade war, tech war, and propaganda war against China.

US views
Ross Douthat

China remains a domain for experts. Its internal life and culture are distant and opaque. Economic critiques of Chimerica are marginal.
The US left includes "tankies" who champion the Beijing regime, some who critique the Chinese regime on trade and human rights but fear warmongering, and others who say the existential stakes of climate change require deep cooperation with Beijing.
The US center has lost hope that China will become a democracy. It remains unsure whether to pivot to confrontation and try to disentangle our economies or whether globalization means we need to deepen ties instead.
The US right includes a Cold War 2.0 mentality, a view of China as a rival in need of military containment, and a wider view of China and America converging in decadence.
Americans have never excelled at understanding other societies.

AR I vote for entanglement, cooperation, and work for Earth stewardship.


Crewed spaceship Shenzhou-13 on Long March-2F carrier rocket lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center,
Gobi Desert, China, and docked with orbiting space station core module Tianhe, 2021-10-16

BL Lac


2021 October 15

Analyzing Blazars

The Astronomical Journal

An international team of astronomers has discovered that numerous gamma-ray sources are the active galactic nuclei known as blazars. These are supermassive black holes in the central regions of galaxies that sweep out powerful relativistic plasma jets.
Finding low-energy counterparts of unidentified gamma-ray sources is a challenge. A third of all sources detected by the Fermi satellite are unidentified.
A team led by Harold Peña Herazo, INAOE, Mexico, analyzed hundreds of optical spectra collected by the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fabre Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) at Xinglong Station, China. LAMOST is hosted by National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences.
From sources discovered by the Fermi satellite, the team selected a sample of Blazar Candidates of Uncertain type (BCUs). They used optical spectroscopy to classify data in the LAMOST archive and confirm tens of BCUs as blazars.
Most blazar sources are BL Lacertae objects and have a featureless optical spectrum. Measuring their cosmological distance is extremely challenging.

AR China hosts good work in science.


My beach today


2021 October 14

NI Protocol: EU Offer

Daniel Boffey, Jennifer Rankin

The EU will scrap 80% of checks on foods entering NI from GB. EU officials are "preparing for the worst" amid signs Boris Johnson is set to reject the new deal.
EU Brexit commissioner Maroš Šefčovič says customs checks on manufactured goods will be halved as a concession to ease border problems. UK Brexit minister David Frost says UK sovereignty over NI is fundamental and wants a new protocol with no role for the ECJ.
Šefčovič: "We cannot have access to the single market without the supervision of the ECJ. But I think that we should really put aside this business of the red lines, the business of deadlines."
The new EU proposal reduces checks on most supermarket goods. Trucks carrying mixed loads will only need one health certificate for each journey rather than one for each product line. Customs paperwork will be cut by deeming more goods "not at risk" of entering the EU single market.
In exchange, the UK must keep border inspection posts up and running, let EU officials access real-time data on checks, intensify checks to prevent smuggling, and put individual labels on products for the NI market.
Šefčovič: "I hope with a constructive spirit we indeed could be in the home stretch, and I would be very happy if we can start the new year with new agreements."

UK in crisis
Tim Ross

On the day Boris Johnson gave his big speech at the party conference in Manchester, more than 5.5 million households suffered a huge overnight cut to state benefits. Motorists struggled to find petrol. Soaring gas prices forced energy companies out of business.
As Johnson went on holiday to Spain, steelmakers, ceramics and paper producers, chemicals firms, and glassmakers warned they were days from shutdown. Food supplies, factories, courts, farms, hospitals, restaurant chains, and power grids are all at breaking point.
As they grapple with the fallout from Brexit and the pandemic, Johnson and his team are taking policy decisions they accept will inflict pain on millions of voters. A sense of foreboding dominates discussions in Whitehall and Westminster.
The fundamental problem is a shortage of workers. Brexit immigration policy created a crisis. Johnson concedes it will take time to raise wages to attract British workers.

AR Bodger is a disaster. I'd rather be living in Germany.


Laura Kreidberg
⦿ Laetitia Vancon
Laura Kreidberg directs a new
department at the MPI for
Astronomy, Heidelberg.

AR I Heidelberg



2021 October 13


Laura Kreidberg

The James Webb Space Telescope is a dream come true for exoplanet astronomers. I like to say it will be 10 000 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope. It has a 10× bigger mirror, so we can observe things that are fainter; 10× more wavelength coverage, well into the infrared, so we can see cooler and maybe more habitable planets; 10× better stability; and 10× better spectral resolution, so we can see the exact wavelengths in the color spectrum to determine the chemical composition of atmospheres more precisely.
The real game changer will be JWST observations of rocky planets. JWST is designed to detect an atmosphere on a planet around the TRAPPIST‑1 system, a star system 40 lightyears away with 7 roughly Earth-size planets.
We only see the total brightness of the star and a planet. We're looking for variations in total brightness at the level of 100 parts per million. By measuring the change when the planet passes behind the star, we can figure out how bright the planet is, which tells us its temperature. The temperature can suggest an atmosphere.
With JWST, so long as the atmospheres are not too cloudy, we can observe their spectra. By observing starlight passing directly through the atmosphere, we can say whether it has water or methane or carbon dioxide in it.
The holy grail biosignature is out-of-equilibrium chemistry. On Earth we have both oxygen and methane in the atmosphere, which means that they must be constantly produced by something, and that something on Earth is life.
Earth is not that special. There are loads of other planets with the same temperature and size. We also know that water is very common. Everywhere on Earth where we find water, we also find life. And life arose very quickly on Earth, suggesting that if you have the right ingredients and you wait long enough, you end up with living beings.

AR Wonderful. I should have persisted with space science and worked on this stuff.


Andy's Object

Leah Crane

Strange radio signals are coming from the direction of the center of the galaxy. They turn on and off seemingly at random.
Ziteng Wang, a.k.a. Andy, first discovered them in 2020 using the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder radio telescope. Astronomers also observed it with the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.
David Kaplan: "We've looked at every other wavelength we can, all the way from the infrared to optical to X-rays, and we see nothing, so it doesn't seem to be consistent with any kind of star that we understand."
Andy's object flares in brightness by up to 100× and fades very quickly, so it's probably small.

AR I like these puzzles.


UK Defence Journal
USS Ronald Reagan seen from HMS Queen Elizabeth, South China Sea

AR QE showboats in South China Sea, UK sinks.



2021 October 12

UK Public Health Failure

The Guardian

A report from the Commons science and technology committee and the health and social care committee finds that the early handling of the coronavirus pandemic was one of the worst public health failures in UK history.
The report condemns a fatalistic approach, groupthink, evidence of British exceptionalism, and a deliberately slow and gradualist approach. The UK fared "significantly worse" than other countries, says the 151-page report led by two former Conservative ministers.
The crisis exposed "major deficiencies in the machinery of government" as public bodies failed to share vital information and scientific advice, due to a lack of transparency, input from international experts, or meaningful challenge.
The UK developed a test for Covid in January 2020 but "squandered" its lead and fell into permanent crisis: "For a country with a world-class expertise in data analysis, to face the biggest health crisis in 100 years with virtually no data to analyse was an almost unimaginable setback."
The slow and gradualist approach was a deliberate policy: "It is now clear that this was the wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy."
The early hesitation on lockdown was disastrous: "This happened despite the UK counting on some of the best expertise available anywhere in the world, and despite having an open, democratic system that allowed plentiful challenge."

AR We all know who to blame.


UK Immigration Turnoff

Daniel Trilling

Boris Johnson promises an end to using uncontrolled immigration as "an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery they need to do their jobs".
He aims to recast a supply chain crisis caused partly by shortages of HGV drivers and agricultural workers as pain for the gain of weaning the UK off low-skilled immigrant labour.
A government source: "Vote Tory to get a pay rise, vote Labour to see mass immigration drive your wages down."
Migration cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Immigration is as much a question of human relationships as of economic need. Lorry drivers from EU countries are not attracted by the new UK temporary visa scheme.
Migration policy expert Yva Alexandrova: "It was quite insulting in a way. It's like, we've kicked you out [but] now we need you for three months and then we're going to kick you out again."
Brexiteers say the UK can cherry-pick the world's "brightest and best" and forget the rest. But "low-skilled" migrant workers are still needed. UK policy hinders their access to healthcare and benefits.

AR Present UK policy is a moral disaster.


UK Leader Cult

Andrew Rawnsley

Worshippers at the Borisfest in Manchester witnessed the leader's speech — a breathless and jumbled hurtle through slogans, wordplay, boasts, metaphors, and jokes, a lot of jokes. Those looking for a philosophical thread or a coherent argument were left disappointed.
The Conservative party used to have a set of values and a body of convictions. Now it revolves around a capricious character with few deep beliefs and no fixed ideological abode.
The shortages of essential workers and goods that are disrupting daily life might just have something to do with the severity of the rupture with the EU. But to admit that would be to concede that the prophet of Brexit is fallible. Blame business instead.
There are consequences from putting a party in such thrall to one mercurial personality. The cultists worship an extremely flawed parcel of mortal flesh who is much better at cracking jokes than he is at cracking governing.

AR Hail Bodger ..





2021 October 11

German Industrial Revolution

Olaf Scholz

Germans want a new beginning and a progressive government. They have made the Social Democratic Party (SPD) the strongest party. And they want me to be the next chancellor.
People want progress. The SPD, the Greens, and the FDP are united by the idea of progress in society. They have different but quite overlapping ideas about it. I am optimistic that we can be successful in assembling a traffic light coalition.
We need to modernize our industry. Germany must lay the technological and industrial foundations for the future. The aim is to become a climate-neutral industrialized country in just under 25 years.
Respect must once again play a major role in this society. I want to live in a society where we meet as equals. Progressive parties are committed to upward mobility in society.
If you want to form a government together, you need trust. This will only work if all the coalition partners in the government come together with their ideas. That is good for mutual trust and the formation of a good government.
This is a special moment in German history. We need a first-class mobile communications network for Germany. We need to expand and modernize the power grid. We will expand energy production from wind power and solar.
We are facing existential challenges. We can only stop global warming with a different industrial policy. The German economy shows it is possible to reconcile prosperity and climate protection.
Europe must do its part.

AR This is wonderful. The UK needs a leader with such vision.


British Money Laundering

Nicholas Shaxson

The bloated British financial sector lies behind worldwide economic problems. The City of London is the money laundering capital of the world.
The offshore ecosystem is complicated by design. Intricate and opaque instruments plus banking secrecy and negligent financial regulation shroud the cash and assets of the nefarious rich in legal mists. The tax havens hide their loot from rules, laws, and taxes.
Estimates of the wealth held in tax havens range from $6 trillion to $36 trillion.

AR Shame on the British establishment.


2021 October 10

US Debt Ceiling

The New York Times

The US Senate has reached a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. Those who defend it as a check on federal spending misunderstand it. The government only borrows to provide for spending previously authorized by Congress, or to pay interest on existing debt.
Congress has already voted to spend this money. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would be an attack on the global financial system, which rests on the absolute confidence of investors that the United States will always repay its debts.
Treasury secretary Janet Yellen says Congress should pass a law that lets the government borrow whatever is necessary to provide for the spending authorized by Congress. Brinkmanship is bad.

AR Bad for global confidence in America.


UK Tory Blues

Tim Shipman

Boris Johnson is restricting immigration to force businesses into raising wages and skills for workers. He compares business demands for more visas for EU workers with junkie pleas for another fix.
Johnson gambled when he said his government would be judged on whether wages keep rising. Rishi Sunak says the test of success should be whether the government can create more jobs.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss is at odds with Sunak over cuts to foreign aid. She values the soft power that overseas aid provides. A former cabinet minister: "Boris has set up Liz as a rival to Rishi."
Johnson is concerned about the NHS waiting list of 5 million people. This includes patients with chronic ailments or who have just begun treatment. He wants to fix this by the next election.
He wants the government to do more to bully people into lifestyle changes: "You have got to tell people if people are too fat."

AR Tell them, sure, but also fund the NHS.


2021 October 9

Britain vs Germany

Stewart Wood

Germany is the most successful exporting democracy in the world. It is committed to organised private enterprise rather than Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Its economy relies on a comprehensive system of laws, regulations, partnerships, and public institutions, all interconnected.
Germany never nationalised on the scale the UK did. Its industry is highly organised and runs education and training in collaboration with the formal education system. Companies invest in research and development much more than in the UK. Germany is an economic gold standard.
Germany shows that high wages come from economic systems that produce high productivity, not the other way around. It shows that overcoming the British disease of low productivity will be a long-term national mission that requires economic partners and political parties to work together.
Boris Johnson's route to higher productivity enforces wage increases in sectors with labour shortages caused by Brexit. Britain faces a period of painful public austerity and open conflict between business and government.

AR Brits should befriend Germany and rejoin a reformed EU.


Poland vs EU

Jennifer Rankin

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen says she is deeply concerned by the Polish constitutional tribunal ruling that basic principles of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution.
Poland rejects the basic principle of EU legal primacy. This jeopardises Polish access to EU funds and the rights of its population and businesses.
French Europe minister Clément Beaune: "This is not a technical or a legal question. This is a highly political topic that adds to a long list of provocations aimed at the EU."
Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn: "The primacy of European law is essential for the integration of Europe and living together in Europe."
MEPs urge VDL to take Poland to the ECJ over the ruling.

AR Why are Britain and Poland rebelling?




Melting Ice Stays Smooth

Mordechai Rorvig

Josef Stefan described how ice melts in water in 1889. An equation describes the diffusion of heat from the water into the ice. Another equation tracks the changing interface between ice and water as melting proceeds.
But the equations can describe an ice−water boundary that forms a forest of sharp spots called singularities. The Stefan problem is to show that the singularities are well controlled.
Alessio Figalli, Xavier Ros-Oton, and Joaquim Serra (FRS) have proved that singularities rarely form along the boundary, and when they do, they immediately disappear.
If you dip a wire ring in a soapy solution, a soap film forms. Surface tension pulls the film into a minimal surface. A zoom in on an arbitrary point on the surface shows a flat plane. The film is smooth, without singularities.
Unlike soap films, melting ice forms singularities. A zoom on the ice−water boundary shows frozen spots surrounded by warmer water. These points are stranded singularities. At a singularity, the temperature is always 0 C.
As you move away from a singularity, the water temperature around it traces a paraboloid. Deviations from a perfect paraboloid give rise to various singularities. FRS proved they all disappear.
The Stefan problem is solved.

AR Good to know.


An RAF Typhoon fighter escorted two USAF Bone bombers on their transatlantic transit to RAF Fairford as part of the latest
Bomber Task Force mission. RAF: "Bomber Task Force missions demonstrate US commitment to the collective defence of
NATO and contribute to stability in the European theatre."



Patriotic Alternative

Dominic Kennedy

Patriotic Alternative (PA) is Britain's fastest growing far-right group and claims 15,000 supporters. PA targets zoomers (Generation Z) and aims to make whites a 95% majority in Britain.
PA has radicalized Brits online during lockdown. PA founder Mark Collett is creating a network of fitness units run by Fascist Fitness founder Kris Kearns.
Collett: "I encourage young people to get involved in physical exercise and believe that training together brings out the best in many people. The only training I endorse is for legal, healthy physical activity to help with fitness and mental health."
He points to the PA code of conduct: "The endorsement or promotion of violence and/or terrorism is strictly forbidden."
PA deputy leader Laura Towler: "The system is tightening the noose on anybody who believes that race is real, that there are only two sexes, that children should be protected from deviance and LGBT propaganda .. we have the right to remain the majority in our own homeland."

AR Fascist xenophobes — beware of them.




2021 October 8

Bodged Anglo-German Relations

Oliver Moody

German trust in Downing Street has almost evaporated. Angela Merkel is said to find Boris Johnson unreliable and unserious. German officials complain that dealing with Johnson has been more difficult than dealing with Donald Trump.
Merkel's heir apparent Olaf Scholz speaks English and has Anglophiles in his inner circle. But his chief foreign policy aim is to strengthen the cohesion of the EU. He says he will support Dublin in any disputes with London.
German attitudes toward Britain are shifting. Britons rank Germany as their second most important ally, albeit way behind the US. But Germans rate their top four as France, the US, China, and Russia. The UK has been down at fifth since the 2016 referendum.
By the end of 2021, the UK is likely to drop off the list of Germany's top ten trading partners for the first time since 1950. British exports to Germany fell by 11% over the first half of this year alone.
German politicians were sorry to see Britain leave the EU, but this has not broken British−German relations. A chilly distrust may have settled over the higher levels of politics but in other areas the ties remain warm.
German journalist Stefanie Bolzen: "Brexit and the process of transformation bound up with it interest the Germans a great deal. Some of them regard the EU critically themselves."
A German MP: "There's a very great deal of consensus in Germany on our relationship with Britain. We want to have a true friendship with Britain and a fresh start for our bilateral political relationship."
UK ambassador to Germany Jill Gallard: "Germany is an essential ally with whom we have deep economic ties and a growing foreign policy and security partnership .. I detect a real appetite in both our countries to open a new chapter in our relationship."

AR Good Anglo-German relations should be equal-first priority for Liz Truss.


2021 October 7

UK Economic Reform

James Kirkup

The Tory conference in Manchester heard sharp words about business and its failure to deliver the higher wages ministers now demand. The story starts in 2016.
Most British businesses prized access to the EU single market. The Conservatives split over the referendum but have since become a Brexit party.
Brexiteers dreamed of leaving the EU to deregulate and free up business. Many Brexit voters wanted the opposite, an economy where they were better protected from globalisation. The voters won.
Boris Johnson has little interest in economic theory. His lodestar is public opinion. His cabinet ministers know which way the winds are blowing.
Business has learned lessons from public distrust. A chief executive in Manchester said cabinet Thatcherites are "decades out of date" in their ideas about business.
The environmental, social, and governance (ESG) agenda is for business to renew and retain its social licence by proving its value to the public. Instead of getting out of the way, the state should work with business to do good.
Labour voters want companies to create jobs and make profits, but to do so while paying their taxes, treating workers well, and making the world a better place.
Climate change should bring Tories and business back together. Big businesses and big investors need a clear steer from government.

Economically Illiterate bluster
The Guardian

Boris Johnson lacks a coherent economic plan, say business leaders. He delivered a boosterish party envisaging a high-wage, high-skilled economy to "unleash" the "unique spirit" of the British people.
Conservative activists applauded the speech, but not business groups, trade unions, or think tanks. The Adam Smith Institute called it a "bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate" address.
Bright Blue thinktank chief executive Ryan Shorthouse: "There was nothing new in this speech, no inspiring new vision or policy."
CBI director general Tony Danker: "Ambition on wages without action on investment and productivity is ultimately just a pathway for higher prices."
TUC secretary general Frances O'Grady: "The PM is in no position to lecture people on wages when he is holding down the pay of millions of key workers in the public sector."

AR Are there no thoughtful economists in the cabinet?


Asymmetric Organocatalysis


Benjamin List and David MacMillan win the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of asymmetric organocatalysis.
Chemical catalysts have long been enzymes or metals. Asymmetric organocatalysis makes use of small organic molecules to promote faster and more efficient reactions.
Many chemical reactions can generate two chiral forms of a molecular product. In the case of pharmaceuticals, the mirror twins can have very different physiological effects. We need ways to selectively synthesize just one chirality.
Metal catalysts and enzymes can favor one chirality over the other. But metal catalysts can have harmful effects on the environment. And enzymes are often large and complicated molecules.
The prizewinners have triggered two decades of research into efficient and effective organocatalysts. They have focused on asymmetric catalysis to prioritize the synthesis of one desired chiral molecule over the other.

AR I like to understand such things.


Bo: "I've got the guts."


2021 October 6

China and Taiwan

Daniel L. Davis

American policymakers must face the reality that fighting China over Taiwan almost certainly risks military defeat. The prevailing mood in Washington is to fight if China attempts to conquer Taiwan by force. America should refuse to be drawn into war.
There is no rational scenario in which the United States could end up in a better place after a war with China. At best, it would be a pyrrhic victory; most likely, a defeat despite a costly intervention; at worst, escalation to nuclear war.
Refusing to engage in direct combat against China on behalf of Taiwan will let the United States emerge on the other side of a China−Taiwan war with its global power intact.
Washington should tell Taiwanese leaders that maintaining the status quo is far better than destruction by Beijing.

Taiwan claims to be a sovereign nation. Taiwan defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng on the risk of invasion: "By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily."

AR The status quo is not an option for Beijing.


Tory Conference Blues

Rafael Behr

New UK foreign secretary Liz Truss promises to build "a network of economic, diplomatic, and security partnerships" with a list of allies including Gulf autocracies but not the EU.
Brexit minister David Frost calls EU membership a "long bad dream" that includes the treaty he negotiated with Brussels.
Rishi Sunak says freedom from Brussels is more valuable than "just proximity to a market" and sees Britain as "science superpower" and "the most exciting place on the planet."
Michael Gove calls poverty pay a function of the "old EU model" that voters rejected. In fact, only British governments exercised their sovereign power in the EU to choose low wages and meagre workplace rights.
Boris Johnson presents economic difficulties as temporary turbulence in the transition to a brighter future. He's riding out the storm with bravado and bonhomie. Tories are sailing to the promised land of Brexit with only his cartoon drawing for a map.

Manchester bubble
John Crace

The Conservative party conference in Manchester operates in a bubble. It shows the Tories to be complacent and out of touch.
Home secretary Priti Patel's hardline approach to law and order left her having to explain why her department has been ineffective on crime, on violence against women and girls, and on asylum seekers crossing the Channel.
Priti Vacant went on to limit the powers of protest, rejoice in the end of free movement, knock lawyers for bothering to defend asylum seekers, and promise to turn back small boats in the Channel by trying to sink them.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab got muddled about an asylum case while mumbling about lawyers being a waste of space and the need to overhaul the Human Rights Act.
Health secretary Sajid Javid says Covid is over and health inequalities are a thing of the past. Now we have health disparities.

AR Sounds dire — glad I wasn't there.


Climate and Complex Systems


The Nobel Prize in physics goes to three physicists for work on complex systems.
Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann win half of the prize for their work building climate models that correctly predict the effects of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
Giorgio Parisi wins the other half for discovering patterns in spin glass systems to show how the evolution of a complex system relates to the dynamics of its parts.
Earth's climate is a nonlinear system, leading to unstable feedback loops. When air temperature rises, so does water vapor content, trapping more heat and raising the temperature. When floating ice melts, more sunlight is absorbed by the dark ocean, causing further warming.
Manabe modeled the atmosphere, showed how greenhouse gas concentration in it affects heat flow, and calculated global climate sensitivity.
Hasselmann developed climate models in which the climate evolves slowly in response to random weather fluctuations.
Parisi studied how flipping spins affected the dynamics of spin glass. He made deep studies of frustration.

AR Nonlinear models are tricky.




2021 October 5

US Debt Crisis

David Smith

Reckless Republicans are pushing the US government toward a historic debt default by refusing to raise the cap on how much money the federal government can borrow. The US treasury says it will default by around 18 October unless Congress raises the current debt limit of $28.4 trillion. Failure could wreak havoc on the global economy.

AR This shows why the US dollar should no longer be the primary global reserve currency.


Temperature and Touch

Jordana Cepelewicz

David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian are awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of some of the molecular receptors for somatosensation.
The somatosensory system enables the perception of touch, temperature, pain, body position, and self-movement. Somatosensory receptors are found in skin, muscles, internal organs, bones, joints, and other systems.
Julius and his team studied receptors for heat and pain. They identified genes that encode the ion channel protein TRPV1 and other receptors such as TRPM8, a skin receptor for low temperatures.
Patapoutian and his team identified genes that encode ion channel receptors for changes in pressure, Piezo1 by mechanical force and Piezo2 by touch and body movements. Both receptors help regulate various other internal processes.
Somatosensory receptors are ion channels. When stimulated, they open to let ions flow into a nerve cell. The cell sends an electrical signal along peripheral nerves and into the somatosensory cortex.
Different receptors distinguish between kinds of pain. Researchers hope to develop therapies and treatments for chronic pain by targeting them.

AR Perhaps this can end philosophical nonsense about pain.




2021 October 4

The Pandora Papers

The Guardian

The Pandora papers include 11.9 million files exposing the secret offshore affairs of 35 world leaders, 300 other public officials in more than 90 countries, and more than 100 billionaires.
The files were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington. They reveal the hidden workings of a global offshore economy that enables rich people to hide their wealth and pay little or no tax.
Tax havens are attractive to tax evaders, fraudsters, and money launderers. They are estimated to cost governments billions in lost revenues.
The leaked records reveal the central coordinating role of London in the offshore world. London is home to wealth managers, law firms, company formation agents, and accountants that serve rich clients, many of whom pay no tax on their overseas assets.
The Pandora papers show money shifting around offshore destinations as wealthy clients and their advisers seek to circumvent new regulations.

AR Outlaw tax havens.


The B— PM

Annette Dittert

The UK is in a rapidly escalating national crisis. Labour shortages are so serious that the government has put the army on alert. The crisis stems from Brexit.
The UK government will no longer talk about Brexit. When Boris Johnson was interviewed about the petrol crisis, no one even dared say the word. There are no empty supermarkets or queues of drivers with jerry cans in their boots in any EU country.
The mantra is that the current crisis has nothing to do with Brexit. On the causes of the crisis, Labour has taken its eye off the ball. The word Brexit is just as taboo for them as it is for the Tories.
Labour has decided to ape Brexiteer populist rhetoric. Its inability to attack the Tories on Brexit renders it ineffective as an opposition.
British voters cannot choose between experts whose job it is to inform themselves about complex issues and then offer political options based on the facts. In the new populist UK, the public is stranded without a compass in a fog of empty rhetoric.
In 10 Downing Street, Johnson is trapped between ideology and reality. He can only hope the "supply chain crisis" will disappear if he just closes his eyes and wishes it away.
The opposition looks on. Keir Starmer talks of a "botched Brexit" and buys into the myth that the botch is the problem. There is no painless Brexit.
The UK could have stayed in the EU and raised the minimum wage and improved conditions for the workforce. Instead, the government said things would magically get better the moment the UK had "thrown off the shackles" of EU membership.
No one in the UK has anything like enough time now to plan and enact the detail of reform. Instead, Boris Johnson has delighted his public with a new Great British Idea: a national space strategy.
Brexit is a disaster.

Boris, your work is done
Max Hastings

The prime minister could quit now on his own terms. He could tell his admirers he has delivered Brexit and Covid vaccination and averted a Corbyn premiership. Then he can resume his rightful career as an entertainer, telling adoring audiences what they want to hear.

AR He needs an ultimatum.


Chinese J-20 stealth fighter, Airshow China 2021, Zhuhai

Ridley Road



2021 October 3

China vs Taiwan


China national day was on Friday. The PLA air force sent 38 and 39 aircraft, most of them J‑17 and Su‑30 fighter jets, into the Taiwan defense zone on Friday and Saturday.
Taiwan premier Su Tseng-chang: "China has always conducted brutal and barbarian actions to jeopardise regional peace."
Last week, China accused Britain of "evil intentions" in sending a warship into the Taiwan Strait.

AR Britain is risking a £3 billion carrier for a gesture. Hong Kong is long gone.


Fascists vs Jews

Sarah Solemani

I used to live near Ridley Road in the East End of London. My dad was an orthodox Jew who grew up around there. In 1962 you could march through Jewish communities waving fascist flags and the police would protect you.
Fascists are human. Understanding their logic might help us unpack what's happening now. Populist politicians are popping up all over the world, partly because we haven't humanised the far right in the past.
Being Jewish in Britain is a very different experience to being an American or Israeli Jew. There are only 260,000 Jews here. In an age of identity politics, all those myths about Jews being rich and controlling things still haven't been broken.
There's something unique to the Jewish experience but also something universal about how societies react to immigration and economic recession. If we understand those patterns, we can defeat them.

I know what happens when religious theocracy undermines democracy. We have to understand where it comes from. No one sets out to be a murderous dictator, but it starts with blaming the other.
For a while antisemitism disappeared from the far right in the UK, but it seems to be their hot PR strategy now. And seeing people from the left sympathise with Iran's views on Jews frightens me.
It's hard to imagine when you trust your country how bad it can get. Everything seems absolutely fine until the moment that it ain't. And then it's just too late.

AR She wrote the script for the BBC series Ridley Road.


Consciousness vs Theory

Anil Seth

Consciousness or experience doesn't seem to admit an explanation in terms of physics and chemistry and biology.
Integrated information theory (IIT) says conscious experiences are informative and integrated.
Conscious experiences are informative. Every conscious experience is different from every other experience. Each one rules out the occurrence of a huge set of alternatives. Conscious experience is also integrated. Every conscious scene appears as a unified whole.
IIT proposes a quantity called Φ to measure the amount of consciousness in a system.
I say consciousness is there because of our nature as flesh-and-blood machines. A living system maintains itself as separate from its environment. I take energy in, and I maintain myself as a system that maintains its boundaries with the world.
Of all the possible combinatorial arrangements of my different components, I remain in only a tiny subset of statistically expected states. My body must resist the second law of thermodynamics.
The free-energy principle lets us understand how and why brains work the way they do. The brain uses predictive models, and all our conscious experiences arise from them.
Life is a cluster of related properties that come together in different ways in different organisms. By accounting for its properties, we dissolve the idea that we need a spark of life to explain it.
For me, consciousness is similar. The mystery of consciousness may dissolve too.

AR I find this more interesting — meatier — than IIT.




2021 October 2

Cooling Earth

David Keith

The energy infrastructure that powers our civilization must be rebuilt. But zeroing out emissions will not cool the planet. Warming is proportional to the cumulative emissions over the industrial era.
Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but achievable goal. But repairing the accumulated damage will require more. To cool the planet in this century, humans must either remove carbon from the air or use solar geoengineering.
Carbon removal technologies are inherently slow. Geoengineering is cheap and acts fast. The trade-off between geoengineering and carbon removal depends on our time horizon.
Carbon removal will require an enormous industry. It will achieve nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year.
Geoengineering could also work. Less than 2 megatons of sulfur per year injected into the stratosphere from a fleet of about a hundred high-flying aircraft would reflect away sunlight and cool the planet by 1 K. The sulfur falls out of the stratosphere in about two years.
Adding 2 megatons of sulfur to the atmosphere sounds reckless, yet this is only about 5% of the annual sulfur pollution from fossil fuels. Geoengineering might worsen air pollution or damage the global ozone layer, and it will certainly exacerbate some climate changes. Falls in death rates from extreme heat would be 10−100 times greater than rises in death rates from sulfurous air.
Geoengineering's grand challenge is geopolitical. We do not have a stable and legitimate governance process for the technology.
Carbon removal is the safest path to permanent cooling. Solar geoengineering may be able to cool the world this century with fewer environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption.
Pretending that climate change can be solved with emissions cuts alone is a dangerous fantasy. If you want to reduce risks from the emissions already in the atmosphere you must look to carbon removal, solar geoengineering, and local adaptation.

AR Quick, cheap, risky: We'll do it.


Weather Forecasting

Will Douglas Heaven

Working with the UK Met Office, Google AI firm DeepMind has developed a deep generative model of rainfall (DGMR) that can accurately predict the likelihood of rain in the next 90 minutes.
Forecasting rain is hard. Techniques use massive computer simulations of atmospheric physics work well for forecasting the longer term but less well at nowcasting.
The DeepMind team trained their AI on radar data. Snapshots taken every 5 min of radar measurements that track the clouds were put together in a stop-motion movie.
They fed this data to DGMR. When Met Office forecasters rated DGMR in a blind comparison with forecasts made by a state-of-the-art physics simulation and a rival deep-learning tool, 89% said they preferred the DGMR results.

AR Well done DeepMind.




UK 2021

Boris Johnson

We've had the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe. The result is the fastest-growing economy in the G7.
There's a shortage of lorry drivers which has been around for a very long time. Once the global economy gets moving and opens up again, things will be fine. We're not going to intervene.
We're now moving into a period where we're seeing a very strong, jobs-led recovery. I don't want to subsidise low pay. I want to see people paid more.
We had to look after everyone in this country and furlough huge numbers of people in this country. In the end it was far, far better to do that than let businesses go to the wall. It was very expensive.
We've resolved our relationship with the EU. We've got Brexit done. We're fixing the problems in social care. And we're also going to tackle productivity.
People voted for change in 2016. They voted for us again in 2019.

AR Verbatim, cherry-picked.




2021 October 1

UK Nightmare Winter 2021/22

Samuel Earle

Long lines outside gas stations. Panicked drivers fighting one another as the pumps run dry. Soldiers deployed to distribute fuel. The pandemic drags on, food rots in fields, and families sink into poverty. The UK today recalls memories of the 1978/79 winter of discontent.
The fuel crisis is only one concern. A global gas shortage, rising energy and food prices, supply chain issues, and the government decision to slash welfare have cast the future in darkness. Any sense of normality has gone.
For months, British industry leaders have warned about shortages of truck drivers, fruit pickers, meat processors, waiters, and health care workers. Signs of breakdown are everywhere following Brexit. Some 1.3 million overseas nationals left Britain between July 2019 and September 2020.
The government refused to respond. Ministers bloviated and prevaricated, saying there was nothing to worry about. They are waiting for companies to pay British workers more instead of relying on cheap foreign labor. British conditions for truck drivers are among the worst in Europe.
Inflation has risen faster than at any point since 1997. Energy is more expensive than anywhere else in Europe. Three million households in Britain live in fuel poverty. Yet the government is about to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week. This will push half a million more people below the poverty line.
The UK faces a bleak winter.

Peter Tiede

We Germans have got our problems. But then we see how much worse things are in Britain. We cannot help but grin at your troubles.
Olaf Scholz spoke for most Germans when he said this week that it was all your fault. You voted for Brexit and you threw out foreign workers. We did warn you this might happen.
Germans agree the British troubles are a direct consequence of Brexit.

AR I agree too.


Charm Tetraquark Puzzle

Charlie Wood

The LHCb collaboration has discovered the double-charm tetraquark.
The quark model says quarks live together in complementary sets of three to make the proton, the neutron, and other baryons, while pairs of quarks make up various mesons.
QCD paints the proton as a seething mass of quarks roped together by tangled strings of gluons. Experiments confirm much of QCD, but its central equation looks a mess. QCD theorists are stumped by tetraquarks and pentaquarks.
Quarks come in six flavors, and heavier quarks are rare. Charm quarks weigh more than the up and down quarks in protons but less than the beauty quarks we seek with LHCb.
Two charm quarks can attract each other and rope in two lighter antiquarks. The four quarks stick together for mere sextillionths of a second before a quantum jitter adds two more quarks and they all form three mesons.
The new tetraquark is a fresh clue to the strong force enigma.

AR QCD needs sorting.


Nonlocal Quantum Computing

Philip Ball

Existing quantum computers are prone to random errors. But qubits made from Majorana zero modes (MZMs) would be protected from errors.
MZMs are emergent quasiparticles made of electrons. At low temperatures, electrons in a semiconductor can line up in a superconducting chain. The electrons at the ends become two halves of one quasiparticle at zero energy.
Each MZM quasiparticle is made up of the electron states at both ends. If they came together, they would form either an electron or a vacuum state. Separated, they stay in a superposition, so an MZM can act as a qubit.
MZM quasiparticles are like particle−antiparticle pairs, except that both halves are identical, their own antiparticles. No such particle has ever been seen.
MZMs could resist decoherence if the ends of the chain were braided to keep the qubit nonlocal, protected by topology.

AR Pie in the sky.


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