Entries for October 2011

October 31, 2011

The Daily Show on Pat Robertson

When even Pat Robertson thinks the Republican party's candidates and base are too extreme in their public rhetoric (although he agrees with their sentiments), then you know that the party has a problem.

The Republican comedy road show

I am beginning to wonder if Herman Cain and the entire Republican field are not performance artists and the whole campaign is one big act. Take a look at this long new internet ad from Herman Cain, which is even weirder than the previous blowing smoke ad.

At least the production values have improved a lot. But this ad demonstrates perfectly the fact that the campaign seems to be oblivious to jarring notes. The first part is quite clever and amusing. Then when the actor steps out of the role at the 1:40 mark and becomes presumably himself, he acts like a egotistical and self-important jerk who is rude to the crew. Why would the ad's producers think that an endorsement from such an unlikable person would be a positive thing? And what's with that slow creepy smile at the end that seems to be becoming Cain's trademark?

Stephen Colbert generates more ad ideas for the Cain campaign in the same vein.

In a comment to my earlier post, John suggested that these odd ads may be a smart strategy on Cain's part since the smoker ad has attracted so much attention. I am not convinced. Being talked about is good to gain name recognition but Cain's among Republican voters is already high at 80%, so he does not need more buzz. What he needs to do is convince people that he is a credible leader. It is one thing to have people laugh with you at something clever and funny that you put out, it is quite another to have them laugh at you for seeming to be a little strange. Coming out with ads that are ridiculed even by the people in your own party, such as this parody by Jon Huntsman's three daughters, is not a good sign.

If it was only people like me who are laughing at the antics of the Republican field, trying to outbid each other in pandering to the looniest segments of their party's base, that would be one thing. But even Republican party stalwarts are sounding the alarm. Neoconservative columnist John Podhoretz is one of those clearly worried about the looniness that seems to have overtaken the Republican party although, as Charles Pierce correctly points out, he and his fellow 'moderate' and 'sensible' Republicans benefitted for over three decades because of their careful cultivation and grooming of the crazy base that is all grown up now and biting the hand that fed them. Podhoretz scolds Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney as if they were children, saying:

Memo to the Republican field: You’re running for president. Of the United States. Of America. Start acting like it.

Stop proposing nonsense tax plans that won’t work. Stop making ridiculous attention-getting ads that might be minimally acceptable if you were running for county supervisor in Oklahoma. Stop saying you’re going to build a US-Mexico border fence you know perfectly well you’re not going to build.

Give the GOP electorate and the American people some credit. This country is in terrible shape. They know it. You know it. They want solutions. You’re providing comedy.

Enough with the foolishness. Stop it. Stop it now.

But it is too late. All these conservatives and neoconservative Republican party stalwarts calling for sensible behavior are the ones who sowed the seeds of this behavior. They cannot complain if the plants are now strangling them. Back in November 2008, I pinpointed the precise moment when they lost control and that was John McCain's nomination of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. That let loose the furies that we now see driving the party's agenda.

If they want to pin the blame on someone, it should be John McCain.

October 30, 2011

The crazy anti-science people

The rejection of science by the Republican party and its rabid base is quite extraordinary. To reject evolution is to reveal oneself to be a pre-Enlightenment person living in post-Enlightenment world.

The correlation of pre-Enlightenment thinking with religion is clear. Religious people fear (correctly) that science undermines religious faith and so they can be easily manipulated by big business to reject science and devalue evidence and data because of their belief in the value of 'faith', which is merely a synonym for prejudice and gut feelings.

In this clip from The Daily Show, Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour seems to be even dumber than Lord Monckton, in that she never seems to catch on that she is being primed to say crazy things that will make her look like a fool. How can such a stupid person ever acquire the label of 'strategist'?

What use is half a wing?

Creationists like to challenge the theory of evolution by asking how it can be that things can evolve incrementally since in its early stages the new feature seems to lack its final functionality. They pose questions like "What is the use of half an eye or half a wing?" Of course, scientists have long explained this. They have shown how the eye could have evolved by tiny changes and in fact even right now almost the full spectrum of differential eye development can be seen in existing species.

They have also pointed out that it is a mistake to assume that the final functionality of a feature was the only functionality all along, and that features may have had other functions in the early stages and only later became adapted to its final use.

Carl Zimmer had a nice article earlier this year in National Geographic about the evidence that feathers might have evolved for a different purpose long before flight occurred. More recently, he reports on new research results that add to our knowledge of what purpose those non-flying feathers in primitive wing forms might have served.

October 29, 2011

Drone killings

Nat Hentoff cites Morris Davis, a professor of law at Howard University, who says that the continuous killing by the US of people around the world (Americans and non-Americans alike) in the CIA-run drone program is, apart from being a moral abomination, a clear violation of law because the CIA is a civilian organization and thus does not even have the fig leaf of 'combatant immunity' that the military can use to justify its killings.

Boycott Bank of America

Matt Taibbi makes the case that removing our money from Bank of America is one concrete action that we can take to show our disgust with the banking industry. Targeting one of the worst culprits is a better strategy because we cannot boycott the entire industry. If we can shake one of the main institutions, it will cause other banks to fear if they will be the next to have a bull's-eye painted on them

I used to feel the same way about earlier boycotts of gas companies to protest gouging practices. General boycotts will fail because people eventually need gas. It would be better to pick a particular gas company and boycott only them because such an action can be continued indefinitely. After the BP oil spill, if people stopped buying only BP gas, that would have forced them to take the public outcry more seriously.

October 28, 2011

Non-believing clergy

Thanks to reader Jeff, I learned that The Clergy Project, designed to provide a safe place for non-believing clergy to make the transition from living a secret life to becoming open, is now operational. I wrote five years ago that I suspected that many clergy, even high-ranking ones like the pope and bishops, are atheists.

ABC News had an interview with some of the non-believing priests. Other interviews can be found on the website.

Signs of strong support for Elizabeth Warren

Since I contributed to Elizabeth Warren's campaign for US senator from Massachusetts, I get email updates of the campaign. I must admit that I was impressed by the size of this turnout in Framingham when she went to a volunteer meeting. Such a huge crowd in a relatively small town for such a meeting more than a year before the election is extraordinary and augurs well for her campaign.


I suspect that such enthusiasm is a spin-off from the energy generated by the Occupy Wall Street movement, since she has been such a sharp critic of Wall Street practices.

Rising income inequality

The Congressional Budget Office released a report yesterday looking at the changes in the distribution of household income from 1979 to 2007. The graph on the very first page tells the whole story: The top 20% has increased its share of the national income at the expense of the other 80%, whose shares have all gone down.

Jared Bernstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities digs deeper into the report:

Between 1979 and 2007, incomes grew by 275 percent for the wealthiest 1 percent of households, 37 percent for the middle 60 percent of households, and 18 percent for the poorest 20 percent of households. These figures adjust for inflation and account for the impact of taxes and government transfer payments such as Social Security and unemployment benefits.


In media coverage of this report, I have heard phrases like incomes of the top 1% have 'doubled' or 'almost tripled'. This is wrong. A 275% increase means that they increased by a factor of 3.75, i.e., almost quadrupled!

Kevin Drum comments that what has happened is that "For all practical purposes, every year about $700 billion in income is being sucked directly out of the hands of the poor and the middle class and shoveled into the hands of the rich."


Losing the capacity for shame

Glenn Greenwald has the details of the drone killing that killed the 16-year old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the son's 17-year old cousin, and seven others while they were reportedly having a meal. The US government will no doubt spin some story to justify their action. The standard operation is to immediately put out some self-serving lies and not worry about them unraveling later, since few people worry about corrections once the initial impression has been made. Nowadays they don't even have to bother doing that since the killing by a US drone of a US teenager by the US government aroused hardly any interest. Just another ho-hum event.

In fact, starting with Saddam Hussein's sons and with Mohammed Gadafi being the latest, celebrating the deaths of whoever has been named a major enemy and exulting over the display of their brutalized corpses with whoops of triumph, akin to one's favorite football team scoring a touchdown, has become the norm. Glenn Greenwald is worth quoting at length:

As I wrote previously, "no decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadaffi, just as none harbored any for Saddam." And it's understandable that Libyans who suffered for four decades under his rule (like Americans after 9/11 or Muslims after years of violence and aggression in their countries) would be eager for vengeance. Nonetheless, and regardless of what one thinks about Gadaffi or the intervention, summarily shooting a helpless detainee in the head is one of the most barbaric acts imaginable — under all circumstances — but Gadaffi's gruesome death nonetheless sparked waves of American jubilation and decrees of self-vindication this week.

It is difficult to articulate exactly why, but there is something very significant about a nation that so continuously finds purpose and joy in the corpses its government produces, while finding it in so little else. During the Bush years, I frequently wrote about how repetitive, endless fear-mongering over Terrorism and the authoritarian radicalism justified in its name was changing — infecting and degrading — not just America's policies but its national character. Among other things, this constant fixation on alleged threats produces the mindset that once the government decrees someone to be a Bad Guy, then anything and everything done to them (or ostensibly done to stop them) is not merely justified but is cause for celebration. That was the mentality that justified renditions, Guantanamo, vast illegal domestic surveillance, aggressive war against Iraq, and the worldwide torture regime: unless you support the Terrorists and Saddam, how could you oppose any of that?

That character-degradation is produced at least as much by conditioning the citizenry to stand and cheer, to beat its chest, to feel righteous and proud, each time the government produces a new dead Bad Guy. Even at its most necessary and justified, the act of ending a human life with state violence should be a somber and lamentable affair. There's something bloodthirsty about reacting ecstatically. To react that way when guilt is unproven (Awlaki), or when the person is unknown (most drone victims), or is killed by acts of pure barbarism (Gadaffi) is the mind of a savage. But it's now been more than a decade since 9/11, and this has been the prevailing mentality in America continuously since then (to say nothing about the lengthy, brutal wars fought before that). What happens to a citizenry and a nation that so frequently erupts into celebratory dances over the latest dead body its government displays?

What's perhaps most revealing about these death-celebrations are how reflexive — how visceral — they have become. For a President to claim the power to target his own citizens for death — and to do so in total secrecy, with no rules or oversight — is literally one of the most radical powers that a political leader can seize. The Fifth Amendment's guarantee of "due process" was intended to prohibit exactly that, as was the Constitution's heightened requirements for proving "Treason" in a court of law. Had George Bush seized this power, it would have led the list of progressive "shredding-the-Constitution" grievances against him. But all of that was washed away in the celebrations over Awlaki's death, drowned out by the blind ritualistic war cry of He was Bad and so I'm glad he's dead!

Constantly celebrating the people we kill — dancing over their corpses — is now one of the most significant and common American rituals shaping our political culture. One of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that this mentality has become fully bipartisan. And it's hard to see how this will change any time soon: once one goes down that road, it's very difficult to turn around and go back. That's true both individually and of a nation.

Even the Los Angeles Times notes the remarkable expansion in the use of deadly force by Obama, saying:

For a president who promised to end the gunslinger ways of his predecessor, Barack Obama has proven himself comfortable with the use of lethal force… All told this year, he has sent U.S. troops into action on land or in the skies of seven countries on two continents.

Now he has added Moammar Kadafi to the list of enemies eliminated.

"This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world," Obama said from the White House Rose Garden, tabulating his achievements with language that betrayed a trace of bravado.

Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president Obama is really on a roll now, deliberately killing foreigners and US citizens with abandon. And as the deaths of al Awlaki's son and nephew indicate, even adolescents and children are fair game. As Jacob Hornberger says, "The assassination of 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki confirms that we now live in a country whose government has the unfettered authority to assassinate anyone it wants, adult or minor, foreigner or American, and remain mute about it."

Amy Davidson wonders in The New Yorker how far along we have to go on this road of celebrating the killing and imprisoning of even children and adolescents before we begin to ask ourselves who or what we have become. How young must the victims get before we recoil in horror? At long last, have we no shame?

UPDATE: Rick Santorum raises the ante saying that the US should actually cold-bloodedly murder any scientist who may be working on nuclear weapons programs for countries the US or Israel does not like. And this person is seeking the presidential nomination of a major party.

October 27, 2011

Ron Paul causes some embarrassment

During the ritualistic chest-thumping of the last Republican debate about how the candidates would never negotiate for hostages, Ron Paul created an awkward moment when he reminded them that the sainted Ronald Reagan had traded arms for hostages with Iran. Watch.

What the Oakland assault tells us

As I feared, the authorities are starting to use force on the Occupy protestors, starting in Oakland. Charles Pierce says that the assault symbolizes the militarization of the police:

Make no mistake about it: The actions of the police department in Oakland last night were a military assault on a legitimate political demonstration. That it was a milder military assault than it could have been, which is to say it wasn't a massacre, is very much beside the point. There was no possible provocation that warranted this display of force. (Graffiti? Litter? Rodents? Is the Oakland PD now a SWAT team for the city's health department?) If you are a police department in this country in 2011, this is something you do because you have the power and the technology and the license from society to do it. This is a problem that has been brewing for a long time. It predates the Occupy movement for more than a decade. It even predates the "war on terror," although that has acted as what the arson squad would call an "accelerant" to the essential dynamic

It's time for the country to realize that something is dangerously out of control here, and that it's not a bunch of people in sleeping bags in the public parks. There is a tradition of public protest in this country. Hell, this country is itself an act of public protest. Preserve that, or preserve nothing else, because there's nothing else worth preserving. Police officers are public servants. They are not soldiers, facing down enemies. This is not a war. This is America.

It may not be a war as yet, but the oligarchy sees this as an uprising that must be quelled in its infancy.

Relativity-9: The importance of corroborating evidence in science

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In my series on the logic of science, I recounted how philosopher of science Pierre Duhem had pointed out as far back as 1906 that the theories of science are all connected to each other and changes in one area will have unavoidable effects on others that should be discernible. In this case, if neutrinos in the OPERA experiment did in fact travel faster than the speed of light, then we should be able to look at some other effects that should occur and see if they are observed.

Cherenkov glow.jpegOne of them is the 'Cherenkov effect'. This effect says that when something travels faster than the speed of light, it should emit a certain kind of radiation that is analogous to the shock waves that are produced when something travels faster than the speed of sound. This is known as the 'sonic boom' that we can hear when jet planes break the speed of sound. It also occurs when bullets are fired at speeds greater than the speed of sound but because bullets are so small the sonic boom is too weak for us to hear it.

The Cherenkov effect is well known and has been studied and confirmed. How can this be if it requires something to travel faster than the speed of light? Recall that the speed of light barrier in Einstein's theory is that in a vacuum. When light travels through any medium (light, water, atmosphere), it is slowed down by the interactions of the medium with the light particles. Other particles such as electrons are also slowed down by the medium but they may not be to the same extent, in which case it can be possible for some particles in a medium to travel faster than the speed of light in that same medium. If they do so, they should emit the light equivalent of the sonic boom and this is called Cherenkov radiation. The spectrum of light emitted lies mainly in the ultraviolet region and its overlap with the visible spectrum produces a characteristic blue glow. One can see this in the cooling water that surrounds nuclear reactors, as in the image on the right, and in this video of a pulse of radiation being sent into the cooling liquid.

In a paper, Andrew Cohen and Sheldon Glashow calculate that high energy, faster-than-light neutrinos as produced in the OPERA experiment would lose much of their energy due to Cherenkov radiation, mainly by the production of electron-positron pairs, on their way from CERN to Gran Sasso. But that does not seem to have happened, according to a different experiment at Gran Sasso (known as ICARUS) that works with the same neutrino source as the OPERA experiment.

Another concern involving consistency is with the supernova SN1987A that was observed in 1987. It turned out that a cluster of 24 neutrinos were detected in three different detectors on the Earth about three hours before the supernova was observed, i.e. before the light signals reached Earth. That difference was not put down to the neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light but to the fact that the neutrinos, while created at the same time as the light, escaped from the exploding star three hours before the light did due to their low interactivity with matter, and so had a head start on the journey to Earth, even though they traveled in free space at the same speed as light. The measured time difference was consistent with our understanding of the processes involved in a supernova.

If the neutrinos had speeds greater than that of light by even the small amount given by the OPERA experiment, then because of the huge distance of the supernova from Earth (about 168,000 light years), the supernova neutrinos should have reached Earth about 4.7 years before we saw the supernova. If neutrinos in the OPERA experiment had in fact, been traveling faster than the speed of light, why had they not done so in other situations, such as the 1987 supernova?

The working model of science is that things behave in a law-like, repeatable manner and not idiosyncratically. If we observe something in one situation, we expect to see it happening again in similar situations. If a deviation from law-like behavior is observed, we assume that this is due to the existence of another, deeper, hitherto unknown law whose effect only became apparent because of some conditions that had been incorrectly assumed to be unimportant.

In this case, one could postulate that since the OPERA neutrinos have a thousand times as much energy as the supernova neutrinos, faster-than-light speeds only arise for such high-energy neutrinos. Of course, such a new explanation requires new corroborative evidence and so the discussion will go on as explanations and evidence play out their dialectical relationship until a consensus emerges. That is how science works.

Next: Science and public relations

October 26, 2011

"Wall Street Isn't Winning – It's Cheating"

Matt Taibbi, in a must-read article with the above title says that what drives the Occupy Wall Street protests is not envy of the rich but the fact that the system is corrupt and unfair.

Americans for the most part love the rich, even the obnoxious rich. And in recent years, the harder things got, the more we've obsessed over the wealth dream. As unemployment skyrocketed, people tuned in in droves to gawk at Evrémonde-heiresses like Paris Hilton, or watch bullies like Donald Trump fire people on TV.

Success is the national religion, and almost everyone is a believer. Americans love winners. But that's just the problem. These guys on Wall Street are not winning – they're cheating. And as much as we love the self-made success story, we hate the cheater that much more.

In this country, we cheer for people who hit their own home runs – not shortcut-chasing juicers like Bonds and McGwire, Blankfein and Dimon.

That's why it's so obnoxious when people say the protesters are just sore losers who are jealous of these smart guys in suits who beat them at the game of life. This isn't disappointment at having lost. It's anger because those other guys didn't really win. And people now want the score overturned.

He lists all the swindles that are currently going on in favor of the rich banks and against ordinary banking customers, and ends, "These inequities are what drive the OWS protests. People don't want handouts. It's not a class uprising and they don't want civil war -- they want just the opposite. They want everyone to live in the same country, and live by the same rules. It's amazing that some people think that that's asking a lot."

Crafting a political campaign ad

Stephen Colbert has a couple of funny segments with Republican pollster Frank Luntz about using focus groups to craft a message for his SuperPac.

Why US troops are leaving Iraq

Recent news reports have said that the US is making arrangements for a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq by December 31. I said five years ago that I felt that there was bipartisan agreement in the US to keep troops in that country indefinitely as part of its ambitions for global empire, mainly because the US was investing so much money to construct massive, permanent, military bases in addition to the largest embassy in the world. This did not look like the actions of a country that was planning to leave any time soon. So the announcement of a 'complete withdrawal' requires some explanation.

The picture has been confused by the White House's contradictory statements. While they try to pacify their antiwar supporters by acting as they actually wanted this outcome and are fulfilling a campaign promise for withdrawal, they are also trying to counter their Republican critics, who are blasting them for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and demanding that the US continue to keep its troops there, by pointing out that the December 31, 2011 deadline was actually negotiated by George W. Bush with the Iraqi government back in 2008, in something known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that was subsequently endorsed by the Iraqi parliament. It was what allowed the US to continue to keep troops in the country beyond the earlier December 31, 2008 deadline.

The story gets even more complicated. The idea seemed to be that the SOFA would be re-negotiated later to extend that deadline beyond 2011. And in fact, contrary to the idea that this withdrawal outcome was something Obama wanted in order to keep his campaign promise, the Obama administration has been negotiating with the Iraqi government to extend the deadline and the withdrawal announcement was caused by the Iraqis being adamant about not allowing it. In fact, the White House is still negotiating for a continuation, even after the withdrawal announcement.

Why are the Iraqis balking at an extension? The main reason is that the US is insisting that US troops have immunity from the Iraqi government for any actions in that country. But many events involving US troops killing civilians have angered Iraqis, and the idea of giving immunity that might be seen as condoning and even encouraging further such actions was seen as a non-starter by a significant segment of the Iraqi population.

One incident that has caused particular outrage was the release in May of this year by WikiLeaks of a US diplomatic cable of a massacre in 2006 by US troops, as reported by the McClatchy news service. (Warning: Heartbreaking photo of dead young children accompanies the story.)

A U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks provides evidence that U.S. troops executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old infant, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence, during a controversial 2006 incident in the central Iraqi town of Ishaqi.

But Philip Alston, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a communication to American officials dated 12 days after the March 15, 2006, incident that autopsies performed in the Iraqi city of Tikrit showed that all the dead had been handcuffed and shot in the head. Among the dead were four women and five children. The children were all 5 years old or younger.

It is likely that the anger at reports of such incidents, and the natural feeling that people who committed such atrocities must be brought to justice, torpedoed any efforts by the Nouri al-Maliki government to obtain the immunity required by the US.

It did not help the US that since Bush signed the agreement, party members representing cleric Muqtada al Sadr have gained significant strength in the Iraqi parliament, winning 40 seats in the 2010 elections and gaining eight seats in the cabinet. al Sadr has close ties with Iran and is adamantly opposed to any extension for US troops.

Even after the withdrawal, the US will still have a major military presence in Iraq, consisting of a small army of private military contractors working for the State Department. They have similar military capabilities to the US army and their role will be to protect US interests, including the massive embassy and five consulate-like outposts spread around the country. The State Department is keeping secret its plans for this private army and denying the usual government oversight committees any jurisdiction. This is not a good sign because these private armies lack the discipline and accountability of the regular military and the State Department has little experience with overseeing such a quasi-military operation. It was private contractors that were responsible for the 2007 event when Blackwater security personnel killed 17 civilians in a rampage at a crowded traffic circle in Baghdad. The company renamed itself Xe Services after that event.

It seems likely that the US will continue its negotiations for an extension right down to the wire.

(See Glenn Greenwald for more here and here.)

October 25, 2011

Is Herman Cain stupid?

Clearly the panel on Bill Maher's show think that Cain could give Sarah Palin a run for the title of the most ignorant and confused high-profile politician in recent times.

One thing that panelist Joshua Green said shed a lot of light and that is that although Cain is described as the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, that was from a long time ago. What he has been doing for the last fifteen years is touring as a motivational speaker. People who do that can get used to blathering self-help messages tailored to get a rousing response from the audience right in front of them without bothering about whether it makes sense or contradicts what they said to another audience at another time and place.

Cain's latest campaign ad also has to make you wonder at his judgment. Look at what happens at the 40-second mark. Can you imagine any other candidate letting that pass?

Climate change skeptic changes mind

Global-warming deniers eagerly embrace anyone who supports their cause, however much of a crank that person may be. So any respectable scientist who expresses skepticism about global warming or who criticizes the work of those scientists who have warned us about it is makes them delirious with joy.

They were particularly pleased when Richard Muller did so because he is a physicist at the University of California-Berkeley and thus comes with good credentials. Based on preliminary work he had done, Muller had said that he thought the previous studies that said global warming was happening were wrong. Republicans invited him to testify to Congress and in 2010 many right wing groups, including the Koch brothers, were willing to fund his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, which aimed to do a new and independent study as a check on all the other global warming studies, no doubt expecting him to contradict them.

But things didn't go quite according to plan. In a press release announcing the first set of four papers that they have submitted to journals, Muller says, "Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK." In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons for doubt, until now, Muller reinforced that message, adding:

When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn't know what we'd find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.

Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.

One has to be a bit concerned that Muller announced his results in a press release and in a newspaper op-ed and not after the papers had undergone peer review. Bypassing the normal processes of science and going straight to the public tends not to have good results.

The problem for climate change skeptics when they try to co-opt real scientists to their cause is that real scientists deal with the data they have and not the data they wish they had. Whatever the private beliefs of scientists, they cannot go outside the bounds allowed them by the data, unless they are dishonest and suppress or fabricate them.

As Kevin Drum comments:

The BEST report is purely an estimate of planetary warming, and it makes no estimate of how much this warming is due to human activity. So in one sense, its impact is limited since the smarter skeptics have already abandoned the idea that warming is a hoax and now focus their fire solely on the contention that it's man-made. (And the even smarter ones have given up on that, too, and now merely argue that it's economically pointless to try to stop it.) Still, the fact that climate scientists turned out to be careful and thorough in their basic estimates of temperature rise surely enhances their credibility in general. Climategate was always a ridiculous sideshow, and this is just one more nail in its coffin. Climate scientists got the basic data right, and they've almost certainly gotten the human causes right too.

Those deniers, like James M. Taylor of the Heartland Institute who had earlier embraced Muller as one of them are now disowning him, calling these new results "meaningless" and attacking his credibility, saying that he might be having the "intent of deceiving casual observers about the true nature of the global warming debate." Other deniers are also edging away from their earlier embrace of Muller.

Global warming deniers will probably still give a platform to people like the Briton Lord Monckton, who has made quite a name for himself talking about this subject even though he has no expertise whatsoever in this area and makes outrageous statements such as calling an Australian government climate adviser a Nazi. The Australian comedy show The Chasers interviews Monckton and he clearly has no suspicions until the very end that his leg is being pulled and that he is being made to look a fool.

October 24, 2011

Tom Lehrer sings The Vatican Rag

How the Fed secretly bailed out American and foreign banks

Thanks to reader Mark, I came across this report by US Senator Bernie Sanders about a GAO audit of the Federal Reserve that reveals that it secretly loaned out over $16 trillion dollars to American banks and businesses all over the world. The audit also revealed that there were people on the board of the Fed who seemed to be benefiting from the Fed's actions.

Such audits of the Fed are a new thing this year, thanks to legislation sponsored by Sanders. It is ridiculous that such secrecy has been allowed for so long to institutions that are publicly funded and use public money.

Relativity-8: General relativity

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

To understand the role of Einstein's general theory of relativity, recall that the original OPERA experiment claimed that they had detected neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. This posed a challenge to what is known as Einstein's theory of special relativity, proposed in 1905, which said that the relationship between the clock and ruler readings for two observers moving relative to one another would be different from the ones given by the seemingly obvious relationships derived by Galileo centuries earlier. According to Einstein's theory, it is the speed of light that would be the same for all observers, while clock readings could differ, and that Einstein causality (the temporal ordering of any two events that are causally connected by a signal traveling from one to another) would be preserved for all observers. One inference that followed from Einstein causality is that no causal signal can travel faster than the speed of light, and this was what was seemingly violated by the OPERA experiment.

But Einstein had a later and more general theory that he proposed in 1915, called the general theory of relativity, that included the effects of gravity. He showed that clock readings were not only affected by the speed with which the clock was moving, they were also affected by the size of the gravitational field in which the clock found itself. This is the source of what is referred to as the 'gravitational red shift' that enters into cosmology that causes the light emitted by distant stars and galaxies to be shifted towards larger wavelengths as they escape the gravitational field of those objects on their journey to us.

To understand what is going on, recall that when we measure the elapsed time between two events, what we are really doing is measuring the number of clock ticks that occur between the events. According to general relativity, the stronger the gravitational field, the slower the rate at which a clock ticks. The slower the rate at which a clock ticks, the less time that it records as having elapsed between two events.

So, for example, since we know that the Earth's gravitational field decreases as we go up, this means that if we take two identical clocks, one on the floor and the other on the ceiling, the one on the floor would have fewer ticks between two events than the one on the ceiling, even if both are stationary. So the clock on the floor would 'run slower' than the one on the ceiling and hence the time interval measured between two events measured by clocks on the floor will be less than that measured by clocks on the ceiling.

In the OPERA experiment, the time measurements were made using GPS satellites. These are whizzing by at both high speeds (about 4 km/s) and high altitudes (about four Earth radii). Typically, the signals are handed off from one satellite to another as they appear and disappear over the horizon and the transition is almost seamless and produces such small errors that we do not notice it. But the OPERA experiment requires such high precision that they arranged to do the experiment during the transit time of just a single satellite so that even that source of error was eliminated.

Because the rate at which clocks run depends upon the size of the gravitational field, one has to make corrections to allow for the fact that the time readings given by clock readings of the satellites will be different from the time readings given by clocks on the Earth, and so one needs to make extremely subtle corrections to the GPS time stamp to get the correct clock readings on the Earth. This is why much of the attention has focused on this aspect. It is not that the OPERA experimenters overlooked this obvious feature (such general relativistic corrections are routinely made by GPS software in order to make the GPS system function with sufficient accuracy) but whether they have made all the necessary corrections to the extremely high level of precision required by this experiment.

Carlo Contaldi at Imperial College, London has suggested that the clocks at CERN and Gran Sasso were not synchronized properly due to three effects, one of which is the fact that the gravitational field experienced by the satellite is not the same at all points on its path since the Earth is not a perfect sphere. He says that the errors that would be introduced are of the size that could produce the OPERA effect. (You can read Contaldi's paper here.)

Ronald A. J. van Elburg at the University of Groningen has argued that subtle effects due to the motion of the detectors with respect to the satellite could have shifted the time measurements at each clock on the ground by 32 nanoseconds in the directions required to explain the 60 nanosecond discrepancy. (You can read van Elburg's paper here and reader Evan sent me a link to a nice explanation of this work.)

The OPERA researchers (and some others) have challenged some of these explanations and said that they will provide a revised paper that explains more clearly all the things they did.

There have been no shortage of ideas and papers pointing out problems and possible alternative explanations for the OPERA results. Sorting and sifting through them all before we arrive at a consensus conclusion will take some time.

October 23, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement gains allies

The Occupy Wall Street movement is broadening its base and gaining more allies every day. Now a group called Occupy Writers has joined in that contains such famous names as Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Lemony Snicket, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, and Ann Patchett, some of whom have contributed original writings, such as the thirteen observations by Lemony Snicket, a few of which are given here:

  • People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.
  • There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.
  • Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

Meanwhile Saturday Night Live broadcasts a press conference by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Siri and the Turing test

I don't have an iPhone of any kind but was intrigued by the reports of the latest one that had the voice recognition software known as Siri that seems to have a conversational ability reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as can be seen from this compilation of a conversation.

I am not sure if this is a hoax but the person who put up the video assures skeptics that this is real and says that anyone can test it by getting hold of a Siri-enabled iPhone. I am curious if any blog reader who has it can confirm.

As an aside, I am a bit bothered by Siri referring to the user as 'Master'. I know it is not a real person but the feudal overtone is jarring.

Taking his claims at face, it seems as if Siri is able to pass at least a low-level Turing test.

October 22, 2011

The case against circumcision

PZ Myers makes the strong argument that this practice is nothing but ritualized child abuse.

It is quite amazing how we accept as normal long-standing practices that, if they were not covered by the protective umbrella of old religions, we would reject with horror otherwise as the actions of cults or barbarians.

The Daily Show has more on the bizarre things that religious people believe and do.

What's the one after 9-0-9?

Herman Cain took a beating for the fact that his 9-9-9 tax plan would raise taxes on low and middle income people while giving rich people a huge tax break.

So he has tweaked it and now says that for the poor it will be a 9-0-9 plan. You can be sure that such ad-hoc lurches due to pressure has produced another half-baked plan that will also be roundly attacked. So what's next?

This gives me an excuse to cue up the Beatles.

October 21, 2011

Five bank behemoths that hold the political system hostage

Sarah Jaffe and Joshua Holland list them (Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs) and explain why they are so bad and how they get their way.

Currently, Bank of America is engaged in yet another effort to swindle the taxpayers. When it took over Merrill Lynch it also acquired all the toxic derivatives the latter owned. Bank of America is an FDIC-insured institution, which means that its deposits are taxpayer-insured, while Merrill Lynch is not. Now Bank of America is apparently trying to quietly shift the Merrill Lynch liabilities over to Bank of America so that the taxpayers will bear whatever loss occurs,

Of course the Federal Reserve, which has already used enormous amounts of taxpayer funds to bail out the banks, supports the move but the FDIC is balking, fearing getting stuck with a huge bill.

When did humans arrive in the Americas?

It used to be thought that they came 13,000 years ago across the then-existing land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska, during what is known as the 'Clovis' period.

A paper published today in the journal Science has measured with high precision (with new techniques) the age of a mastodon fossil bone with a weapon point embedded in it that was found in 1970. It found that it is 13,800 years ago, with an uncertainty of only 20 years, suggesting that humans were here earlier than thought, supporting other evidence that there was human hunter activity here as early as 15,000-16,000 years ago.

A large number of mammals (mastodons, woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, giant sloths, camels) disappeared rapidly around 12,700 years ago and it was thought that this must have been due to rapid climate change as the Ice Age ended, since Clovis hunters were not thought to have been around for that long.

But the new earlier date for humans in the Americas suggests that mammal extinction may have been accelerated by humans hunting them with weapons.

Tragic death of exotic animals

The big story in Ohio has been the tragic one of a private owner of a large menagerie of exotic animals in a rural area of central Ohio who reportedly released all of them before killing himself. The authorities, confronted with dangerous animals roaming wild in populated areas, shot and killed almost all the animals.

I was stunned to learn of the scale of the carnage. 48 animals were killed, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, and eight bears. The photo of the corpses of these magnificent animals was heartbreaking.

I was also furious that it is even possible for private individuals to obtain and keep these animals in poor conditions but apparently the laws allow it. According to the news report:

Since 2004, Thompson had been charged by local authorities with cruelty to animals, allowing his animals to run free and improperly disposing of dead animals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also received two complaints about the farm in 2008 and 2009, involving such things as pens that may have been unsafe, animals that were too skinny and dead animals on the property, said Dave Sacks, a USDA spokesman. But the agency decided it had no authority to act.

Federal officials said the government had no jurisdiction over the farm under either the Animal Welfare Act or the Endangered Species Act, since the animals were held as private property and were not exhibited or being used for other commercial purposes.

There are estimated to be less than 2,500 Bengal tigers in the world. Ohio apparently has the dubious distinction of having the most lax, some would say even non-existent, state regulations in the country. How is it possible that we allow a single individual to acquire and keep 18 of them legally? Because of that, laxity about 1% of the world's population of Bengal tigers have been killed in a single day.

I am not a fan of publicly owned zoos because they keep animals confined away from their normal habitat. The big animals especially never look happy. But at least a case can be made that zoos raise awareness of the need to protect and preserve species and perhaps even help in conservation efforts. But I cannot see any reason why private individuals should be allowed to keep rare, exotic, dangerous, and endangered animals as pets. The practice should be banned.

Relativity-7: What could be other reasons for the CERN-Gran Sasso results?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The reactions to the reports of the CERN-Gran Sasso discovery of possibly faster-than-light neutrinos open a window into how science operates, and the differences in the way that the scientific community and the media and the general public react whenever a result emerges that contradicts the firmly held conclusions of a major theory.

The initial reaction within the scientific community is almost always one of skepticism, that some hitherto unknown and undetected effect has skewed the results, while the media and public are much more likely to think that a major revolution has occurred. There are sound reasons for this skepticism. Science would not have been able to advance as much if the community veered off in a new direction every time an unusual event was reported.

What usually happens is that most of the community goes on as before as if nothing had occurred while a relatively small number who are experts in that area examine the new results closely. Some will try to identify possible sources of systematic errors that the original experimenters did not consider. The experimenters who reported the possibility of faster-than-light neutrinos are reportedly careful people and if any errors occurred, we can be sure that they are not trivial ones that will be uncovered easily or quickly. Others will examine if any of the side effects that would accompany faster than light travel are also seen. If those two efforts fail to turn up any problems, other groups will try to repeat the basic experiment with different experimental set-ups, measuring the time and distance using different techniques so that the likelihood of systematic biases pushing the results in the same direction is reduced. The last option is very expensive and time-consuming, since these experiments are very difficult to do, which is why it is usually the last resort. During this period, there will often be claims and counter-claims and some confusion until the dust settles and a consensus emerges. But it is this painstaking investigation seeking replicability and consistency that characterizes science and enables it to be confident that once a consensus emerges, that it has produced reliable knowledge.

In this case, recall that the original experiment (which has the acronym OPERA) that aroused such interest involved sending neutrinos over a distance of 730 km and measuring their speed, where the distance and time measurements used GPS satellite technology. Assuming that 730 km was the exact distance, if the neutrinos travelled at exactly the speed of light, it should take them 2.435 milliseconds to make the trip. What was observed was that the neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds earlier than expected, thus violating Einstein causality, though not overthrowing the theory of relativity. This effect would go away if there were a 60 nanosecond error in the time measurement and/or an 18 meter error in the distance measurement of the journey, and searching for hitherto unconsidered factors that could produce effects of that size has been the initial focus.

There have already been some developments. When it comes to looking at sources of systematic errors, Lubos Motl has a long discussion on possible errors and has compiled a partial list of potential sources that need to be examined closely.

  • inconsistencies in the whole GPS methodology of measuring space and time coordinates
  • inconsistencies of units (meters, second) used at various places: the errors would have to be huge, indeed, so this is unlikely
  • subtle old-fashioned physics issues neglected by GPS measurements: the index of refraction of the troposphere and (even more importantly) ionosphere that slows down and distorts the path of GPS signals; confusing spherical Earth and geoid; neglecting gravitational effects of the Alps; neglecting magnetic fields at CERN that distort things; and so on
  • forgetting that 2 milliseconds isn't zero and things change (e.g. satellites move) during this short period, too
  • subtle special relativistic effects neglected in the GPS calculations
  • subtle general relativistic effects neglected in the GPS calculations
  • wrong model of where and when the neutrinos are actually created on the Swiss side
    more radical: wrong model of the wave equation for the neutrinos (regardless of oscillations etc., neutrinos should never move information faster than light in the vacuum, but maybe we're doing some mistake about the group vs phase velocity and entanglement of the two places: recall that the difference between the phase and group velocity for these neutrinos should be negligible, around 10

Notice that a lot of the suggested errors focus on the GPS or the Global Positioning System. This currently consists of 31 orbiting satellites that are continuously emitting signals that include the time the signal was sent as well as the orbital information of the satellite. Receivers on the ground (such as in your car) take that information and calculate the position of the receivers. The OPERA experiment used such signals to pinpoint the locations of the detectors at CERN and Grand Sasso and the time of travel. Most everyday situations do not require very high levels of accuracy. But since time interval errors of just 60 nanoseconds or distance errors of 18 meters could nullify the results, people have been looking into the possible sources of subtle errors, especially those associated with Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Next: General relativity effects.

October 20, 2011

How the oligarchy looted people's pensions

Jon Stewart interviews Ellen Schultz, an editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of Retirement Heist, who explains how corporations, with the connivance of the government that was willing to provide them with the necessary loopholes, looted the pension funds of 44 million of its workers to enrich their top executives, thus transforming pension fund surpluses of $250 billion into deficits.

The behavior of the oligarchy and their total lack of scruples in destroying the lives of ordinary hard-working people go well beyond greed. They are sociopaths.

Oligarchy to Democrats: Show us some love or else!

The strategy of the Democratic party has been to preach a populist message while serving the interests of the oligarchy, mollifying their supporters with support for social policies that the oligarchy does not care about. They have managed to play game successfully for some time but the Occupy Wall Street movement threatens to unmask that strategy and expose the harsh reality of politics.

The OWS movement has attracted wide popular support and the Democrats risk alienating their base if they go against it and so they have gingerly supported it. As this report says: "President Barack Obama and other top Democrats are parroting the anti-corporate rhetoric running through the Occupy Wall Street protests, trying to tap into the movement's energy but keep the protesters at arms' length."

But even this tepid support has enraged the oligarchy, who do not take kindly to the people they view as their servants getting all uppity and criticizing them, They are demanding that the Democratic party disassociate themselves from the movement or face the cut-off of contributions.

After the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a recent email urging supporters to sign a petition backing the wave of Occupy Wall Street protests, phones at the party committee started ringing.

Banking executives personally called the offices of DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and DCCC Finance Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) last week demanding answers, three financial services lobbyists told POLITICO.

"They were livid," said one Democratic lobbyist with banking clients.

The execs asked the lawmakers: "What are you doing? Do you even understand some of the things that they've called for?" said another lobbyist with financial services clients who is a former Democratic Senate aide.

Democrats' friends on Wall Street have a message for them: you can't have it both ways.

It will be interesting to see how the Democratic party tries to walk that tightrope. I predict they will try to cobble together some cosmetic changes that will appease the protestors while leaving oligarchic interests largely intact.

Obama has secret evidence of Iranian plot

There has been widespread scoffing at the claims by the Obama administration that they had uncovered an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US. Justin Raimondo rounds up some of the views of analysts who find the story, in which the key plotter turns out to be a bumbling, alcoholic, used-car salesman, quite incredible. Much of the skepticism centers around the fact that the alleged mastermind seems to be hardly competent to get through a normal day, let alone plan and execute a complex operation. Juan Cole thinks that he may well be clinically insane.

Julian Borger of The Guardian raises many unanswered questions about the allegations, of which one is key:

The key evidence that the alleged plot was serious was the $100,000 wire transfer. It came from a foreign bank account, but that cannot be an Iranian account because such transfers are impossible under US law. The money must have come from a third country, but which? And how can the US authorities be so sure the foreign accounts were under the control of the Quds force?

In a blog post, the editorial page editor of the LA Times asks a question that is rarely asked in the corporate media:

But wait a minute. Two weeks ago, the United States assassinated one of its enemies in Yemen, on Yemeni soil. If the U.S. believes it has the right to assassinate enemies like Anwar Awlaki anywhere in the world in the name of a "war on terror" that has no geographical limitation, how can it then argue that other nations don't have a similar right to track down their enemies and kill them wherever they're found?

It's true that the assassination of Awlaki was carried out with the cooperation of the government of Yemen. That makes a difference. But would the U.S. have hesitated to kill him if Yemen had not approved? Remember: There was no cooperation from the Pakistani government when Osama bin Laden was killed in May.

It's also true that there's a big difference between an Al Qaeda operative who, according to U.S. officials, had been deeply involved in planning terrorist activities, and a duly credited ambassador of a sovereign country. Still, the fact remains that all nations ought to think long and hard before gunning down their enemies in other countries.

As the United States continues down the path of state-sponsored assassination far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, all sorts of tricky moral questions are likely to arise. But this much is clear: The world is unlikely to accept that the United States has a right to behave as it wishes without accountability all around the globe and that other nations do not.

Glenn Greenwald reminds us that it is extremely rare that anyone in the mainstream media points out the obvious double standards that are at play in US foreign policy.

So if the plot turns out to be yet another case of the US government using money and arms to lure some loser into agreeing to a plot that would be unmasked with great fanfare, what is the point? What is the goal of publicizing this? Stephen Walt is puzzled. Patrick Cockburn suggests a 'wag the dog' strategy now that Obama is seeking to rally support for his re-election campaign.

The most likely motive for the Obama administration's vigorously expressed belief in the plot is that it is preparing the ground for the 2012 presidential election. Mr Obama's economic and social policies are failing and his only undiluted successes have been the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. By dramatising how he frustrated the fiendish plots of the Iranians, Mr Obama can present himself as the president who kept America safe, or at least protect his national security political flank from criticism by the Republicans.

Many of the mysteries of American foreign policy make perfect sense when related to the overriding need of those in power in Washington to get re-elected.

But all these skeptics need not worry! Obama says that he can prove that it is all true and is pushing ahead with plans to plans for more sanctions against Iran, if not outright war. But, of course, the evidence must be kept secret and we simply have to take his word for it. Now that he has taken upon himself the right to order the murder of anyone he deems to be a terrorist, this seems like a small thing to ask, no?

October 19, 2011

What percent are you?

The Wall Street Journal has a handy calculator that lets you know.

The median household income is $43,000 while the top 1% consists of those earning over $506,600.

What was that outfit?

Bachmann.jpgI usually avoid commenting on the looks, clothing, and general appearance of politicians but I must say that I was startled to see photos this morning of Michele Bachmann's outfit at yesterday's debate. What with the gold buttons, Nehru jacket collar, and epaulets, she looked like she was auditioning to be the commander of the spaceship in the next film in the Star Trek series.

I am curious if people who are knowledgeable about such matters think it was a good choice for a presidential debate.

Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan under fire

This chart from the Tax Policy Center shows that Herman Cain's much publicized 9-9-9 plan will raise taxes on those earning less than $200,000 per year while lowering taxes for those above, with a huge windfall for the millionaire class. Matt Yglesias puts the numbers into a chart that show how incredibly regressive it is.

Cain's plan got him attention because of its catchy title. But because it is his only concrete proposal, it is going to hurt badly as the reality of its impact sinks in. He can stave off the inevitable for a while by claiming that all his critics are wrong or have misunderstood it or by weirdly repeating the phrase 'apples and oranges', but when even rabid anti-tax nutcases like Rick Santorum says that this plan will raise taxes on 84% of the people, he is in trouble. There is no way that this turkey is going to fly.

I was amused by Cain in yesterday's debate urging people to ignore all the analysts and do the math themselves. He must be depending on the poor math skills of the general public to save his plan.

Update: jpmeyer in the comments gives an even better graph by Jared Bernstein of the impact of Herman Cain's plan.

Relativity-6: Measuring time and space more precisely

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I said that Einstein's claim that the speed of light must be the same when measured by all observers irrespective of how they were moving led to the conclusion that the rate at which time elapsed must depend on the state of motion of the observer. But if time is not an invariant entity, then we need to be more precise about how we measure it for observers in relative motion to one another so that we can better determine how their measurements are related.

What we now postulate is that associated with each observer is a grid of rulers that spreads out into all space in all directions. At each point in space are also a clock and a recorder. It is assumed that all the rulers and clocks of all the observers are constructed to be identical to each other, the clocks are properly synchronized, and the recorders never make errors. When an event occurs anywhere at any time, the location and time of that event are those noted by that recorder who happens to be exactly at the location of the event and who notes the ruler and clock readings located at the place at the instant when the event occurred. This rules out the need to make corrections for the time that elapses for the light to travel from the location of the event to the recorder.

If there is another observer who is moving with respect to the first, that person too will have her own set of rulers and clocks and recorders spread out through all space, and the location and time of an event will be that noted by her recorder using her rulers and clocks at the location where the event occurs. This set up seems rather extravagant in its requirement of infinite numbers of rulers and clocks and recorders but of course all these rulers and clocks and recorders are merely hypothetical except for the ones we actually need in any given experiment. The key point to bear in mind is that the location and time of an event for any observer is now unambiguously defined to be that given by that observer's ruler and clock readings at the location of the event, as noted by the observer's recorder located right there.

What 'Einstein causality' says is that if event A causes event B, then event A must have occurred before event B and this must be true for all observers. If one observer said that one event caused another and thus the two events had a particular ordering in time, all observers would agree on that ordering. Thus causality was assumed to be a universal property.

What we mean by 'causes' is that event B occurs because of some signal sent by A that reaches B. So when the person at B is shot by the person at A, the signal that caused the event is the bullet that traveled from A to B. Hence the clock reading at event A must be earlier than the clock reading at event B, and this muust be true for every observer's clocks, irrespective of how that observer is moving, as long as (according to Einsteinian relativity) the observer is moving at a speed less than that of light. The magnitude of the time difference between the two events will vary according to the state of motion of the observer, but the sign will never be reversed. In other words, it will never be the case that any observer's clocks will say that event B occurred at a clock reading that is earlier than the clock reading of event A.

But according to Einstein's theory of relativity, this holds only if the signal that causally connects event A to B travels at speeds less than that of light. If event B is caused by a signal that is sent from A at a speed V that is greater than that of light c (as was claimed to be the case with the neutrinos in the CERN-Gran Sasso experiment) then it can be shown (though I will not do so here) that an observer traveling at a speed of c2/V or greater (but still less than the speed of light) will find that the clock reading of when the signal reached B would actually be earlier than the clock reading of when the signal left A. This would be a true case of the effect preceding the cause. The idea that different observers would not be able to agree on the temporal ordering of events that some observers see as causally connected would violate Einstein causality and this is what the faster-than-light neutrino reports, if confirmed, would imply.

Note that this violation of Einstein causality occurs even though the observer is moving at speeds less than that of light. All it requires is that the signal that was sent from A to B to be traveling faster than light.

(If the observer herself can travel faster than the speed of light (which is far less likely to occur in reality than having an elementary particle like a neutrino doing so), then one can have other odd results. For example, if the speed of light is 1 m/s and I could travel at 2 m/s, then one can imagine the following scenario. I could (say) dance for five seconds. The light signals from the beginning of my dance would have traveled 5 meters away by the time my dance ended. If at the end of my five-second dance, I traveled at 2 m/s for 5 seconds, then I would reach a point 10 meters away at the same time as the light that was emitted at the beginning of my dance. So if I look back to where I came from, I could see me doing my own dance as the light from it reaches me. So I would be observing my own past in real time. This would be weird, no doubt, but in some sense would not be that much different from watching home movies of something I did before. It would not be, by itself, a violation of Einstein causality since there is no sense in which the time ordering of causal events has been reversed.)

So the violation of Einstein causality, not the theory of relativity itself, is really what is at stake in the claims that neutrinos traveling at speeds faster than light have been observed. This is still undoubtedly a major development, which is why the community is abuzz and somewhat wary of immediately accepting it is true.

Next: What could be other reasons for the CERN-Gran Sasso results?

October 18, 2011

Throwable panoramic ball camera

A ball containing 36 cameras is programmed to take simultaneous photos when it reaches the highest point in its trajectory, providing an instantaneous panoramic view. This not only looks like it would be fun to use, it could have many practical uses, such as seeing over high barriers.

(Via Boing Boing.)

Scientific responsibility

Science has a unique role in the growing recognition that it is the source of authoritative and reliable knowledge. But that carries with it a great burden to make sure that the public's trust is not abused. Via Machines Like Us, I learned about the General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU) issuing a statement last month on "The Principle of Universality (freedom and responsibility) of Science" that spelled out what the responsibilities of scientists are.

The free and responsible practice of science is fundamental to scientific advancement and human and environmental well-being. Such practice, in all its aspects, requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information, and other resources for research. It requires responsibility at all levels to carry out and communicate scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, and transparency, recognising its benefits and possible harms.

This followed up on the second World Conference on Research Integrity held in Singapore in July 2010 that issued a statement that "emphasizes the need for honesty in all aspects of research, accountability in the conduct of scientific research, professional courtesy and fairness in working with others, and good stewardship of research on behalf of others."

Scientists have to be vigilant in maintaining these standards.

What Occupy Wall Street has achieved

There are those who criticize the Occupy Wall Street movement, complaining that they don't have concrete demands and have not proposed any solutions to the problems. I disagree with that criticism. It seems to me a bit much to expect an unorganized group of people scattered over the globe to come up with solutions to big problems at a time when the US government is so dysfunctional, when it lurches from one crisis to another and is not even able to carry out its minimal function of passing a budget, and when the global economy seems to be so shaky that world leaders seem to be at a loss as to what to do.

What is important is that the movement has highlighted the fact that the problem is with the system itself, not with specific policies that the system creates. As Glenn Greenwald says:

Anyone who expressed difficulty seeing or understanding what motivates these protests revealed many things about themselves. None is flattering. The only thing that’s surprising is that these protests didn’t happen sooner and that they’re not more widespread and intense. I think it’s become increasingly clear that that is likely to change, and soon. Like the Arab Spring, the rapid growth of these protests should be a permanent antidote against defeatism. It’s unclear what these protests will accomplish — that still depends on how many people join them and what they cause it to be — but, already, they prove that the possibility always exists for subverting even the most seemingly invulnerable power factions. That hasn’t happened yet, but the possibility that these protests are only in their incipient stages is one of the more exciting and positive political developments in some time. It’s been clear for quite awhile that unrest and disruptions — and the fear which they alone can put in the hearts and minds of those responsible for widespread ills — are absolute prerequisites for meaningful reform (our fundamentally corrupted electoral process certainly can’t and won’t accomplish that). These protests at least reflect the possibility, the template, for that to happen. And anyone expressing confusion about why these protests are erupting is almost certainly someone invested in keeping things exactly the way they are.

What I am surprised at is how much the movement has achieved. It has spread across the country and the globe. The Guardian has an interactive map of the 951 protests in 82 cities. It has galvanized people who had thought things were hopeless. From being largely ignored or viewed with scorn and derision, it is now being taken seriously by the ruling elites. It is dominating the news with even the corporate media being forced to give respectful coverage. It has changed the conversation, with the focus now aimed squarely at the income and wealth gaps between the oligarchy and the rest of us, and the excessive power of the global financial elites. The slogan "We are the 99%" has caught on and brought scrutiny to bear on the 1%.

The movement has also forced politicians to tread gingerly, to avoid being seen as on the wrong side. President Obama and the Democratic party leadership, although friends and protectors of the oligarchy, have taken pains to try and act as if they sympathize with the movement. Even Eric Cantor, the Republican party leader who initially condemned the movement as a 'mob', now says he can understand their frustration. The bankers on Wall Street are complaining that the politicians that they bought are not publicly siding with them against the protestors. But even they have been forced to grumble privately because to attack the protestors publicly is too hot politically.


(Cartoonist is Drew Sheneman. See also Tom Tomorrow.)

The general public is also warming up to the movement with significant majorities agreeing with the main points being made. Even Karl Denninger, one of the founders of the Tea Party, expresses sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement and says that the strategy of having a permanent occupation and avoiding calls for a single set of demands is a good one. "The problem with protests and the political process is that it is very easy, no matter how big the protests is, for the politicians to simply wait for the people to go home. Then they can ignore you…. One of the things that the Occupy movement seems to have going for it is it has not turned around and issued a set of formal demands. This is a good thing, not a bad thing."

As Matt Taibbi points out, the Occupy Wall Street movement transcends the tired left-right, liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican narrative that the oligarchy and its media like because once you do that, partisans respond to the bugle call and line up accordingly and fight with each other. They do not like to see a critique of the system as fundamentally corrupt because that is a unifying message that will work against them.

All this must be causing some concern to the oligarchy. Will the political allies of the oligarchy try and disperse the movement by force? There have been attempts at this but the use of seemingly excessive force by some NYPD officers has backfired and now there are investigations of two senior officers. Nowadays almost everyone has mobile recording devices and I am surprised that the police seem oblivious that the days are gone when they could randomly attack peaceful demonstrators and escape repercussions because they could not be identified.

It is only when the oligarchy is fearful that they have overplayed their hand and are losing control of the discussion that any meaningful change will occur. The Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to create that fear. That is why it must be supported.

October 17, 2011

Disgusting behavior by religious people

Some time ago I wrote about ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel raining big gobs of spit on a reporter because she was using a tape recorder on the Sabbath and thus violating one of the numerous rules prohibiting work on that day.

Now we have another disgusting story of Ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing eggs and feces at young girls on their way to and from their school, accusing them of sluttishness. What makes this even more noteworthy is that the targets of this abuse, the girls and their families, are themselves Orthodox Jews but they are considered not conservative enough for these god-fearing people.

I am sure that the people indulging in this appalling behavior are convinced that they are doing the will of god. This is what religious devotion can lead to. Deeply religious people can act like jerks or criminals or thugs or even murderers and actually feel virtuous about doing so, because they think that god commanded them to act in this way.

No atheists allowed

Richard Dawkins was due to speak at a function hosted by the Center for Inquiry that was to be held at the Wyndgate Country Club in the Detroit area. But some official of the club saw Dawkins interviewed by Bill O'Reilly and decided that he/she did not want to have an atheist soiling their premises so the club canceled the event at the last minute forcing the organizers to find an alternative venue for the sold-out event. The CFI is considering suing the country club for its actions.

Of course, what the country club achieved is to give a huge amount of publicity to an event that otherwise only CFI members and supporters would have known about.

Relativity-5: Galilean and Einsteinian relativity

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I posed the situation where, seated in my office, I observe two events on the sidewalk outside my window and measure the locations and time of two events and deduce the distance between them and the time interval according to the rules for using my own ruler and watch. Now suppose another person is moving with respect to me (say in a train that passes right by where the two events occur) and sees the same two events as I do and measures the locations and times of the two events and deduces the distance and time interval between them using her ruler and watch. Will her measurements agree with mine?

When it comes to location and distance measurements, it is not hard to see that the two results will be different. When I take ruler readings of the two events, the ruler is not moving compared to the two events. But because the person in the moving train's ruler will be moving along with her in the train, the ruler readings of where the two events occurred will be affected by her motion. After the person in the train takes the reading on her ruler at the location where event A occurred, by the time the later event B occurs, she and her ruler would have moved along with her train and so the ruler reading for event B would be different from what would have been obtained if the ruler had been stationary. So the locations and the measured distance between the two events based on her two ruler readings will be different from those based on my two ruler readings.

What about the time interval between events A and B? It used to be thought that even though the two observers used different clocks and they were moving relative to each other, as long as the clocks were identical and synchronized properly, the two observers would at least agree on this because it seemed so commonsensical that time was some sort of universal property, independent of the observer measuring them or her state of motion. Time measurements were said to be invariants.

These relationships between the location and time measurements made by observers moving with respect to one another were first postulated by Galileo. It is now known as 'Galilean relativity'. Galileo used these relations to show why, even though the Earth was moving quite fast through space (a seemingly absurd idea at that time), a ball thrown vertically upwards would fall back down to the same point from where it was thrown, and not be displaced because the Earth had moved during the time that elapsed. This everyday observation had previously been used to argue that the Earth must be stationary but Galileo turned it around to show that it was consistent with the Earth moving.

But one consequence of the assumption that time is an invariant is that if you measure the speed of light (by taking two events, one consisting of light being emitted at one point and the other of it being detected at another point and dividing the difference in ruler readings between the two events by the time interval between the events), you would get different values for two observers in relative motion to each other, since the distances traveled (i.e., the differences in the ruler readings) would be different for the two observers but the time interval would be the same. In other words, the measured speed of light was not an invariant but depended on the speed with which the observer was moving.

What Einstein postulated (based on several reasons that I will not get into here) was that the speed of light was the same for all observers. In other words, it is the measured speed of light that is an invariant, the same for all observers irrespective of how they are moving. One important consequence of this is that the elapsed time between two events is no longer an invariant, and depends on the observer. Time is no longer a universal property but depends on who is measuring it. The difference in measured times is tiny for the normal speeds we encounter in everyday life, which is why we don't perceive it. But it does leads to things like the celebrated 'twin paradox' where if you have a pair of identical twins, one remaining on Earth and the other going in a rocket at high speed to a distant star and returning, the traveling twin would have aged much less than the one who stayed home.

Needless to say, this caused some consternation and it took some time for people to be persuaded that this seemingly bizarre result was correct. What Einstein did was force us to be more precise about how we measure the location and time at which events occur, so that we can meaningfully compare the results of different observers viewing the same events.

Next: Measuring time and space more precisely.

October 16, 2011

A magazine is an iPad that does not work

Or so this baby seems to think.

Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan

Herman Cain has been getting a lot of mileage about his 'simple' 9-9-9 tax plan. Jared Bernstein says that it will result in a big tax increase on the middle class and a huge tax cut for the very wealthy. I have seen similar conclusions reached by other analysts.

While this is a goal of the oligarchy, they would like to achieve their goal in more subtle ways. The very transparency of Cain's scheme is likely to be the thing that pricks his bubble and sends him back into the ranks of the stragglers for the Republican nomination.

October 15, 2011

How to choose passwords

All of us who are heavy users of computers and the internet know that we get drowned in the number of passwords we need and that it is hard to keep track of them.

James Fallows describes what he learned after his wife's Gmail account was hacked and gives a list of suggestions for passwords.

The science, psychology, and sociology of creating strong passwords is a surprisingly well-chronicled and fascinating field. On The Atlantic's Web site, we will describe some of the main strategies and the reasoning behind them. Even security professionals recognize the contradiction: the stronger the password, the less likely you are to remember it. Thus the Post-it notes with passwords, on monitor screens or in desk drawers.

But there is a middle ground, of passwords strong enough to create problems for hackers and still simple enough to be manageable. There are more details on our site, but strategies include:

  • Choose a long, familiar-to-you sequence of ordinary words, with spaces between them as in an ordinary sentence, which more and more sites now allow. "Lake Winnebago is deep and chilly," for instance. Or "my favorite packer is not brett favre." You could remember a phrase like that, but a hacker's computer, which couldn't tell spaces from characters, would see only one forbiddingly long password sequence.
  • Choose a shorter sequence of words that are not "real" English words. I once lived in a Ghanaian village called Assin Fosu. I can remember its name easily, but it would be hard to guess. Even harder if I added numbers or characters.
  • Choose a truly obscure, gibberish password—"V*!amYEg5M5!3R" is one I generated just now with the LastPass system, and you're welcome to it—and then find a way to store it. Having it written down in your wallet is one, though the paper it's on shouldn't say "Passwords" at the top. The approach I prefer, and use for some passwords, is to entrust them to online managers like LastPass or RoboForm. Even if their corporate sites were hacked, that wouldn't reveal all your passwords, since the programs work by storing part of the encoding information in the cloud and part on your own machine.

At a minimum, any step up from "password," "123456," or your own birthday is worthwhile.

Finally, use different passwords. Not hundreds of different ones, for the hundreds of different places that require logins of some kind. The guide should be: any site that matters needs its own password—one you don't currently use for any other site, and that you have never used anywhere else.

"Using an important password anywhere else is just like mailing your house key to anyone who might be making a delivery," Michael Jones of Google said. "If you use your password in two places, it is not a valid password."

I asked my experts how many passwords they personally used. The highest I heard was "about a dozen." The lowest was four, and the norm was five or six. They all stressed that they managed their passwords and sites in different categories. In my own case, there are five sites whose security really matters to me: my main e‑mail account, two credit-card sites, a banking account, and an investment firm. Each has its own, good password, never used anywhere else. Next are the sites I'd just as soon not have compromised: airline-mileage accounts, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, various message boards and memberships. I have two or three semi-strong passwords I use among all of them. If you hacked one of them you might hack the others, but I don't really care. Then there is everything else, the thicket of annoying little logins we all deal with. I have one or two passwords for them too. By making it easy to deal with unimportant accounts, I can concentrate on protecting the ones that matter.

Seems like good advice.

Dogs Decoded

The PBS series Nova has a wonderful program about dogs with the above title that looks at the amazing things we are learning about them. It was broadcast on October 12 and will be available for free viewing online for only a week after that. Don't miss it, especially if you are fond of dogs.

I particularly enjoyed it because there were lots of scenes in which they showed dogs that were exactly like Baxter, the Wonder Dog.


October 14, 2011

Five signs that Americans are moving away from religion

Tana Ganeva points to various data that support this idea.

  1. American religious belief is becoming more fractured.
  2. Non-belief -- and acceptance of non-belief -- on the rise
  3. Growing numbers of young people who do not identify as religious
  4. Hate group that exploited religion to bash gays hemorrhaging funds
  5. Getting married by friends

What the last item refers to is that more and more people are not getting married with the trappings of religion, choosing instead more informal, secular wedding ceremonies.

To vote or not to vote

Recently at a dinner someone made a comment that one hears often, that those who do not vote in elections have no right to then complain about the government's actions or the way society is run. The speaker was implying that voting is the admission price one pays for the privilege of entering the public debate.

I disagree with this sentiment, for many reasons. For one thing, one can have principled non-voting. If one thinks the system is rigged, and that elections are merely a façade designed to give legitimacy to a corrupt political system, then not voting can be a very principled and political act. In such cases, not voting is akin to a boycott, or voting with one's feet. There is a reason that almost all totalitarian societies still feel obliged to hold fraudulent elections in which the ruler gets an overwhelming majority, because elections tend to confer at least some legitimacy on the winner, even if it is rigged, as long as participation is reasonably high. This is why in many autocratic countries people are forced to vote or the ballot boxes are stuffed with counterfeits, while opponents of the regime urge people to boycott them.

Those who say that one must vote in order to have a public voice in policy debates tend to be of the opinion that elections in the US still provide us with real choices and thus not voting must mean that people are too lazy or indifferent to bother to register and vote, and thus are not deserving of a voice. Even if it were true that people are too apathetic to vote, why should such people not be entitled to have a say in public debates? When people have been beaten down and see no hope, while they may not actively boycott elections, they may simply disengage from a political system that is perceived as merely a game of musical chairs. Yet they may well have valid concerns and deserve to be heard.

The election system in the US is partially rigged, not in the sense of pre-determining which individuals will be the winners but in that the nominees of the major parties are in the pockets of the oligarchy and their eventual nominees will be servants of the oligarchy. Thus the only choices we have are those involving social issues that do not affect oligarchic interests. But one cannot totally dismiss the value of even that limited choice. At least on the margins, it could matter who wins office, since the holders of elective positions can affect the lives of real people. Who gets appointed to judiciary and regulatory bodies and how much money is allocated to serve the needs of the underprivileged can have a major impact on the lives of some of the neediest people.

Yes, both major parties care mostly about protecting the interests of the oligarchy but the supporters of Republicans tend to be more callous and ruthless about the poor than the supporters of Democrats. Countering that is the fact that Democratic party can more easily get away with hurting the poor because of the perception that they care about them.

And this is what poses the quandary. Should we not vote to show our displeasure with an oligarchic system? Or should we vote so that we can influence policy on at least social issues? Those of us who see the election system as rigged to present us largely with choices between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, both controlled by the oligarchy, always face a wrenching decision at election time. It would be nice if the system in the US made it easier for third parties to form to give us more choices. In the UK and Canada, they now effectively have three-party systems. It is true that third parties have not resulted in fundamental changes in those countries as yet, but it does provide more choice and opportunities for a break from oligarchic control.

I have on occasion broken free of the two-party trap. In 2000 I voted for Ralph Nader because there really was little difference between the stands that Al Gore and George W. Bush took on the issues of that election. I have to admit that after the Bush-Cheney regime unleashed its mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, I felt some guilt about possibly being complicit in helping them come to power, even though no one could have foreseen the events of 9/11 that provided the opening for those actions. But now that Barack Obama, who promised even more change than Gore, has been elected and has turned out to be terrible on issues of civil liberties and war, I suspect that Gore would have likely been as bad as Bush if he had been president after 9/11. The oligarchy keeps a tight leash on those who it allows to hold high office.

It is also not clear that third parties are good agents of change. Maybe true change comes about through pressure politics, by actions in the street that can really frighten the elected officials, whoever they are, that they are losing control. The Arab spring was a model, as is the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Because of all these reasons, I feel conflicted every time elections come around and there is no candidate that I feel strongly positive about. I come from a tradition that inculcated in me a sense that it is one's duty to vote and I have a long history of voting whenever the occasion comes around. I feel strongly the tug to the polling place that I find hard to resist. And yet I often feel almost dirty after doing so, that by voting I am simply perpetuating a bad system by participating in it and voting for the least worst candidate. This is why I refuse to wear the "I voted" stickers that they hand out at polling places. I do not necessarily see it as a badge of honor or a sign of civic virtue.

I personally feel much better about voting on issues, where one can take a definite stand. In elections in Ohio on November 8th, I will enthusiastically vote NO on Issue 2, the referendum that seeks to repeal the law that the Republican-controlled legislature and governor passed removing collective bargaining rights for state employees, and another NO on Issue 3 that seeks to pass a constitutional amendment that effectively nullifies the health care reforms that were passed.

October 13, 2011

When turkeys attack

Who're you gonna call? The USPS, of course.

That is one aggressive turkey. (Via Boing Boing)

Watch out for the tumbrils


Bipartisanship in the service of the oligarchy

If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed that yesterday Congress, which is supposed to be locked in partisan gridlock that has paralyzed it, managed in a bipartisan manner to pass quite easily and with little fanfare major free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. The House passed the South Korea agreement by a vote of 278 to 151, Panama by 300 to 129 and Colombia by 262-167. In the Senate, the South Korean plan passed by a vote of 83 to 15, Panama by 77 to 22 and Colombia by 66 to 33.

Whether one thinks such agreements are good for everyone or not, the oligarchy definitely favors them because anything that enables them to move goods, money, and manufacturing capacity more easily and cheaply across borders enables them to make more money.

These agreements had been negotiated by George W. Bush but had stalled in Congress because of opposition from the labor movement that they would cost jobs here. This time they passed easily, thanks to the support of president Obama, which illustrates once again that the oligarchy can sometimes get more of what it wants under a Democratic administration than under a Republican one. It also illustrates once again how noisy partisan gridlock only comes into play when it comes to doing things that benefit ordinary people, and miraculously melts away when the oligarchy's interests are involved.

Relativity-4: Measuring time and space

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

To get a better grip on what is involved in the theory of relativity, we need to think in terms of 'events', things that occur instantaneously at a point in space and which every observer will agree happened and is unique. An example of an event might be me clapping my hands once. That occurs at one place in space (where my hands meet) at one moment in time (the instant they make contact) and all observers will agree that I did indeed clap my hands. Of course, actual events will be spread out over a region of space (my hands are quite big objects) and over a small but extended interval of time (the period during which my hands are in contact while clapping) but we can imagine idealized events as things that occur at a single point in space at a single instant in time. Specifying an event also uniquely specifies a location and a time since only one event can occur at any point in space at a particular time.

Suppose we have one event A that takes place at one place at one time (say a neutrino created by a nuclear reaction at CERN) and another event B that takes place at another place at another time (say the detection of the arrival of that same neutrino at the Grand Sasso laboratory). Einstein causality says that since event A caused event B, event A must take place before event B. Even if the neutrino were to travel at a speed greater than the speed of light, all that would do is reduce the time difference between the two events, not reverse their order, as was noted in the example given in the first post in this series. So why is this event seen as such a sensational development?

The answer lies in the fact that Einstein causality is believed to hold true for every observer who sees the same two events, irrespective of the state of motion of the observer. And the existence of faster than light neutrinos means that even though we on Earth will continue to see event A before event B, there are observers who are moving relative to us who will see the neutrino being detected at Gran Sasso before it was created at CERN or, more bizarrely in the case of the shooting example, that the bullet will emerge from person B and seem to travel back into the gun of person A. And unlike in that earlier example, this will not be due to an illusion due to the accident of where the observer happened to be located.

To understand how this can happen, we need to go more deeply into the question of how we measure the location and the time of events and how they differ for observers moving with respect to one another. Location and distance measurements seem pretty straightforward and we do it all the time when we measure the length of something. We simply hold a ruler along the line joining the two events, take the ruler readings at the locations of each of the two events, subtract the smaller reading from the larger, and the resulting number gives us the distance between the two events.

As for the time interval between two events, we can look at our watch when we see event A occurring and note the reading, then look again when we see event B occurring and note the reading, and once again subtract the smaller reading from the larger. The resulting number gives us the time that lapsed between the two events. There is a slight complication here in that it takes time for light to travel from one place to another so the actual time at which event A occurred would be a little earlier than when we see it. But since we know the speed of light, we can take that into account. All we have to do is measure the distance between where we are and the location of event A and divide that by the speed of light to get the time taken for the light to reach us. We then subtract that time from our watch reading to get the 'true' time at which the event A occurs. We can do the same thing for event B.

For example, in the earlier example, if you were standing next to the victim at B, you would have seen the bullet at the 2 meter mark 9 seconds after the gun fires. If you had been standing next to the shooter at A, you would have seen it 3 seconds after the gun fired. If you correct for the time of travel for the light to reach you from the bullet at the 2 meter mark, the bullet would be said to be at that point one second after the gun was fired, irrespective of where you were standing. So the time of an event can be specified uniquely in the case of different observers who are not moving with respect to the events.

What if the observer is moving, though? The question that Einstein pondered is the following. Suppose I, seated in my office, observe two events on the sidewalk outside my window and measure the distance between them and the time interval according to the above methods using my own ruler and watch. Now suppose another person is moving with respect to me (say passing by in a train) and sees the same two events as I do and measures the distance and time interval between them using her ruler and watch. Will that person's measurements of the distance and time intervals agree with mine?

It is the answer to this question that determines whether we live in a world in which Galilean relativity rules or one in which Einsteinian relativity rules.

Next: Galilean and Einsteinian relativity

October 12, 2011

Rising Cain

I must admit that the rise of Herman Cain to becoming a major player in the Republican primaries took me by surprise. According to the latest PPP poll, he leads nationally with 30%, followed by Romney with 22%. "If the race came down to a two way match between Cain and Romney, Cain leads 48-36. Cain would pick up Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum's supporters. Romney would get Huntsman and Paul's. Cain would absolutely crush Perry in a head to head, 55-27. He would win over the supporters of every other candidate, including Romney's by a 56-24 margin."

Since I had not given much credence to the idea that Cain would win the nomination or the presidency, I had not really taken the time to examine too closely his stands on the issues or ponder what kind of president he might make.

But even if Cain is a truly awful person to lead the nation, the fact that there is a possibility that the two parties' nominees for the next presidential election could both be people of color signals that the nation has come a long way in its acceptance of minorities in leadership positions.

Both Obama and Cain are obliging servants of the oligarchy, no doubt, but that is a given the way that the election system is currently set up. That particular hurdle will be harder to overcome than even electing a gay, non-Christian, minority woman as president.

The latest scary terror plot

So I turn on the radio this morning and hear Tom Gjelten of NPR regale me with a sensational story of how the US government had busted a plot by the Iranian government to collude with a hit man associated with the Mexican drug cartels to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in a restaurant in the US, along with hundreds of bystanders. As always, faithful government stenographer that he is, Gjelten (in his case NPR stands for National Pentagon Radio) excitedly passes on uncritically what he hears from the US government.

But I no longer believe what the US government says (unless it provides credible evidence, which it almost never does) because they have proven themselves to be serial liars. It does not seem to give Gjelten pause that all the other breathless revelations of plots against Americans in the US turned out to be cases in which the perpetrators were lured by US government agents who then unmasked the plots with great fanfare.

Glenn Greenwald (The "very scary" Iranian Terror plot) and Justin Raimondo (Iranian Terror Plot: Fake, Fake, Fake) share my skepticism.

Here's Greenwald:

To begin with, this episode continues the FBI's record-setting undefeated streak of heroically saving us from the plots they enable. From all appearances, this is, at best, yet another spectacular "plot" hatched by some halpess loser with delusions of grandeur but without any means to put it into action except with the able assistance of the FBI, which yet again provided it through its own (paid, criminal) sources posing as Terrorist enablers. The Terrorist Mastermind at the center of the plot is a failed used car salesman in Texas with a history of pedestrian money problems. Dive under your bed. "For the entire operation, the government's confidential sources were monitored and guided by federal law enforcement agents," explained U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and "no explosives were actually ever placed anywhere and no one was actually in ever in any danger.'"

But no matter. The U.S. Government and its mindless followers in the pundit and think-tank "expert" class have seized on this ludicrous plot with astonishing speed to all but turn it into a hysterical declaration of war against Evil, Hitlerian Iran.

Then there's the War on Terror irony: our Hated Enemy here (Iran) is a country which had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. Meanwhile, our close ally, the victim on whose behalf we are so outraged (Saudi Arabia), is not only one of the most tyrannical and aggressive regimes on the planet, but produced 15 of the 19 hijackers and had extensive and still-unknown involvement in that attack. If the U.S. is so deeply offended by the involvement of a foreign government in an attack on U.S. soil, it would be looking first to its close friend Saudi Arabia, where "elements of the government" were likely involved in an actual plot rather than a joke of a plot.

Here's Raimondo:

This story is very scary – not because it's credible, or believable, because it is neither. However, it's the most frightening story I've heard in quite a while because it shows that the US government is bound and determined to go to war with Iran, no matter what the consequences. Throwing caution to the winds, our rulers have decided to go all out against Tehran – all the better to mask our current economic malaise under the damage done by the tripling and quadrupling of oil prices. This way, Obama can blame our crashing economy on Tehran, rather than his own discredited policies – and sideline the Republicans, who have been criticizing him for being "soft" on Iran.

The making of American foreign policy is all about domestic politics. By preparing the country for war with Iran, Obama will not only defang the GOP, but also appease the all-important Israel lobby, which has been beating the war drums for years.

What Obama and his gang are hoping is that the American people are too tired, too beaten down, and too broke to care enough about this latest exercise in war propaganda to question it. Certainly the "mainstream" media, which is Obama's loudest cheering section, isn't about to question it.

Will the public buy this story uncritically? Or have they wised up enough to demand, "Show us the evidence"?

Relativity-3: The elusive neutrino

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Neutrinos are very elusive particles that are produced in nuclear reactions. They interact hardly at all with anything, which enables them to penetrate anything easily. In any given second, tens of billions of neutrinos are coming from the Sun and passing though each square centimeter of our bodies and the Earth without doing anything, and heading off into the vast empty reaches of space on the other side. As a result of its extremely low interactivity with matter, it is hard to measure their properties, even basic ones like mass, because measurement involves getting the measured object to interact with the detector so that we know something about it. The existence of neutrinos was first postulated in 1930 as a theoretical device to explain missing energy in certain nuclear reactions but its elusive nature meant that it took until 1956 for direct experimental detection of their existence.

While the fact that neutrinos interact hardly at all with matter makes them hard to detect and discern their properties, this same elusiveness make them attractive candidates for measuring speed. This is because once produced they ignore everything in their path and travel in a straight line with constant speed so that measuring the distance traveled and the time taken does give you the speed. Even light is not as good for this purpose because both its speed and its trajectory are affected by the matter it passes through, as we all experience when we see how distorted things look when seen through glass prisms or bowls of water. Even slight changes in the density of the atmosphere can affect the path of light, which is the reason why we see mirages. So if you use light, the path taken by it in going from one point to another may not correspond to the straight geometric line distance connecting the two points that can be calculated once we know the coordinates of the two points, and so calculating the distance traveled by the light is not simple. But in the case of neutrinos, the path taken is dead straight and thus the geometric straight-line distance between two points will be the actual distance traveled by the neutrinos.

Another advantage is that the speed of neutrinos, unlike that of light, is unaffected by the medium it travels through. When light passes through glass or water, its speed is reduced which is the cause of the distortions we observe. As another example, take the light coming from the Sun. This light is produced as a result of nuclear reactions that produce both photons (particles of light) and neutrinos, among other things. But because the Sun is such a dense gas, it slows down light considerably and the photons produced at the core of the Sun can take as much as tens of thousands of years merely to reach the surface of the Sun, a distance of roughly 700,000 kilometers. Once there, it can travel freely in the vacuum of space to cover the remaining150 million kilometers to the Earth (over 200 times the radius of the Sun) in just over eight minutes. Neutrinos that are also produced in the core, however, travel almost as fast within the Sun as they do in the vacuum in space because matter is almost invisible to them. So if a neutrino and a light photon are produced in the same reaction in the core of the Sun, the neutrino will reach us long before the photon does.

Supposing the CERN-Gran Sasso experimental result holds up and the neutrinos are in fact traveling faster than the speed of light. Does this mean that Einstein's theory of relativity is completely overthrown? No. Einstein's theory does not rule out particles traveling faster than the speed of light. Such particles, known as tachyons, have always been allowed by the theory but we have never confirmed their existence so far. There have, however, been various false alarms in the past, which is part of the reason for the skepticism about the present claim.

What Einstein's theory says is that if a particle has zero mass, then it travels at exactly the speed of light but if it has non-zero mass, then its speed can approach the speed of light but cannot attain it. Particles can approach the speed of light 'from below' (these are the normal particles we have experience with that always have speeds less than that of light,) or 'from above' (they always have speeds greater than that of light, and these are called tachyons that we have never shown to definitively exist), but neither can cross the barrier of the speed of light to the other side. So the existence of faster-than-light particles would not overturn Einstein's theory of relativity completely since that theory always allowed for their existence, but would still be a momentous discovery because it would be a completely new phenomenon.

So does this mean that the existence of tachyons can be easily absorbed into existing knowledge? Not quite. The problem with the existence of tachyons is what it does to something known as 'Einstein causality', which is something that is connected to the theory of relativity, but is in addition to it. What this says is that if two events are causally connected, (i.e., one event causes another) then the cause must precede the effect. Going back to the commonly used bloodthirsty example, if person A fires a gun and the bullet enters person B, Einstein causality says that the firing of the gun by A must occur before the bullet enters person B because one caused the other. This seems eminently reasonable but we have to bear in mind that it is an assumption that is based on experience and, like all such assumptions, is subject to empirical scrutiny. If faster-than-light particles exist, the theory of relativity says that Einstein causality can be violated. i.e., effects can precede causes. It is this possibility, sometimes referred to as 'going backwards in time', that boggles the mind.

So how does the existence of tachyons violate Einstein causality? In the first post in this series, I gave an example where there seemed to be a situation of going backwards in time but said that this was not really so, because that was an illusion that arose due to the fact that we were dependent on when light from an event reached the observer.

To better understand what constitutes violations of Einstein causality, we have to get into the subtleties of what we mean by measuring distance and time, and this lies at the heart of the theory of special relativity. What Einstein did was make our understanding of how to measure distances and time more precise and operational, and in doing so altered our fundamental understanding of those two seemingly mundane concepts.

Next: Measuring time and space

October 11, 2011

"Why the elites are in trouble"

Chris Hedges has been doing some powerful writing on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is an excerpt from his latest essay with the above title.

Even now, three weeks later, elites, and their mouthpieces in the press, continue to puzzle over what people like Ketchup want. Where is the list of demands? Why don't they present us with specific goals? Why can't they articulate an agenda?

The goal to people like Ketchup is very, very clear. It can be articulated in one word—REBELLION. These protesters have not come to work within the system. They are not pleading with Congress for electoral reform. They know electoral politics is a farce and have found another way to be heard and exercise power. They have no faith, nor should they, in the political system or the two major political parties. They know the press will not amplify their voices, and so they created a press of their own. They know the economy serves the oligarchs, so they formed their own communal system. This movement is an effort to take our country back.

This is a goal the power elite cannot comprehend. They cannot envision a day when they will not be in charge of our lives. The elites believe, and seek to make us believe, that globalization and unfettered capitalism are natural law, some kind of permanent and eternal dynamic that can never be altered. What the elites fail to realize is that rebellion will not stop until the corporate state is extinguished. It will not stop until there is an end to the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our imperial wars and tortured in our black sites. It will not stop until foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops, and our relationships with each other and the planet are radically reconfigured. And that is why the elites, and the rotted and degenerate system of corporate power they sustain, are in trouble. That is why they keep asking what the demands are. They don't understand what is happening. They are deaf, dumb and blind.

Phasing out small shampoo bottles

Those tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner that hotels provide would last me about two weeks but I usually stay just one or two days and I suspect that the rest will be thrown away, which seems awfully wasteful of both shampoo and plastic. Do hotels expect you to leave the remnants behind or are you doing them a favor by taking the partially used bottles with you, saving them the trouble of throwing them away? It seems vaguely wrong to take them home with me without being given explicit permission and I have personally vacillated between taking them and leaving them. It would be nice if hotels left a little note telling guests like me who worry about such trivialities what to do.

But now apparently some hotels are going to be providing full-size bottles that are refillable, so that the ambiguity is removed.

That's a welcome development. Now if they could do something about the waste of the remnants of those little bars of soap …

Relativity-2: The CERN-Gran Sasso experiment

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The nice feature about the experiments involved in the recent reports of faster than light neutrinos is that the basic ideas are so simple that anyone can understand them. It involved producing neutrinos at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland and detecting them at the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy. By measuring the distance between the two locations and the time taken for the trip, one could calculate the speed of the neutrinos by dividing the distance by the time.

The measured distance was about 730 km so if we take that as the exact value, and if the neutrinos were traveling at exactly the speed of light (299,792 km/s), the time taken would be 2.435022 milliseconds (where a millisecond is one-thousandth of a second) or equivalently 2,435,022 nanoseconds (where a nanosecond is one-billionth of a second). What the experimenters found was that the actual time taken was 60 nanoseconds less than this time, which seemed to require the neutrinos to be traveling slightly faster than the speed of light. Since the existence of faster than light particles has never been confirmed before, this would be a major discovery and so the search is now underway to see if this conclusion holds up under close scrutiny.

If the experimental results are at fault and the effect is spurious, this must arise from errors in the distance measurement and/or the time measurement. Although the time difference that produced the effect is very small (60 nanoseconds out of a total travel time of over 2 million nanoseconds constitutes only about 0.0025% of the total time), the experimenters say their time measurements are accurate up to 10 nanoseconds, much less than the size of the error needed to resolve the discrepancy, thus ruling that out as the source of error. Similarly, if the actual distance were less than the measured distance by just 18 meters, the effect would again go away. The experimenters used GPS technology to measure the space and time coordinates of the events and say that their experiment can measure distances up to an accuracy of just 0.2 meters, making that too an unlikely source of any error. As for the possibility of some kind of random statistical fluctuations causing the effect, the number of neutrino measurements they have taken over the past two years exceed 16,000, which makes that highly unlikely as the source of error.

So why is there still skepticism? It is because the very feature of neutrinos that makes this experiment so conceptually simple is also what makes it so difficult to rule out what are called systematic errors. These are artifices of the experimental setup that can bias the results consistently in one particular direction, unlike random errors that can go either way and can be reduced by repeating the experiment a large number of times, as was done in this case. Unearthing systematic errors is difficult and time consuming because it depends on the esoteric details of the experimental set-up. What some other groups will now try and do is identify possible sources of systematic errors that the original experimenters did not consider, while others will repeat the experiment with different experimental set-ups, measuring the time and distance using different techniques so that the likelihood of systematic biases pushing the results in the same direction is reduced. Yet other groups will examine if any of the side effects that would automatically accompany faster than light travel are also seen. It is this kind of investigation for replicability and consistency that characterizes science.

But getting back to the original experiment, the reason that neutrinos are good for measuring velocities that may exceed the speed of light is that they usually travel at speeds close to or at the speed of light. If a particle has zero mass (as is the case with 'photons', the name given to particles of light), then according to Einstein's theory of relativity, it must travel exactly at the speed of light. If it has a mass, however small, it can approach the speed of light but never attain it because to do so would require an infinite amount of energy. But it takes less energy to accelerate lighter particles to high speeds than it does heavier particles.

In the case of neutrinos, we have not been able to directly detect them having any non-zero mass as yet. All we have been able to do so far is put a small upper limit on the amount of mass it can have, which is 2 eV/c2 which is about 3.5x10-33 kg. (By comparison, the particle with the smallest mass we know, the electron, has a relatively huge mass of 511,000 eV/c2.) It had long been assumed that the mass of the neutrino was exactly zero. But it turns out that there are three kinds of neutrinos and that they may oscillate from one kind to another as they travel through space, and the postulated mechanism for such oscillations require that they have non-zero mass. The purpose of the CERN-Gran Sasso experiment was to actually look for such oscillations, and it just so happened that it turned up the evidence that neutrinos may be traveling faster than light, completely shifting the focus of attention. Such accidental discoveries when looking for something else are not uncommon in science, the discovery of X-rays being one of the more famous examples.

Next: The elusive neutrino

October 10, 2011

The oligarchy exposed

Critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement have asserted that their goals are not clear and they don't have solutions, although it is pretty obvious (as this Tom Tomorrow cartoon says) that economic injustice is their main grievance. But Paul Krugman points out that the hysterical response to the Occupy Wall Street movement is a telling indicator of the fact that the protestors have achieved one major goal: they have put the role of the financial oligarchy in causing the nation's problems in the spotlight and they are squirming and want to shut down the discussion. They much prefer to do their work in the shadows.

The answer, surely, is that Wall Street's Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They're not John Galt; they're not even Steve Jobs. They're people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.

Yet they have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees — basically, they're still in a game of heads they win, tails taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower rates than middle-class families.

This special treatment can't bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny.

Peter Singer's review of Steven Pinker's new book

The always readable Steven Pinker has a new book out titled THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined arguing that there has been a steady drop in violence over time. The equally readable Peter Singer has a very positive review of the book, of which the following is an excerpt.

Against the background of Europe's relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Since 1945, we have seen a new phenomenon known as the "long peace": for 66 years now, the great powers, and developed nations in general, have not fought wars against one another. More recently, since the end of the cold war, a broader "new peace" appears to have taken hold. It is not, of course, an absolute peace, but there has been a decline in all kinds of organized conflicts, including civil wars, genocides, repression and terrorism. Pinker admits that followers of our news media will have particular difficulty in believing this, but as always, he produces statistics to back up his assertions.

The final trend Pinker discusses is the "rights revolution," the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this "the worst thing I have ever done." In 1975 it wasn't uncommon.)

Relativity-1: Going backwards in time

Part of the reason that recent reports of the detection of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light aroused such excitement is because of claims that such a discovery would overthrow Einstein's venerable theory of relativity and that if you could send a signal faster than the speed of light, you could go backwards in time. Are these claims true or simply overheated? If true, what exactly was overthrown? And what does it mean to 'go backwards in time' anyway?

My initial reaction to the faster-than-light neutrino report was one of skepticism, saying that I would wait and see if the result held up but was not hopeful that it would. I did not give my reasons for this pessimism and reflecting later, I thought I should because understanding what was claimed (and why) serves as a good vehicle to understand the elements of the theory of special relativity as well as how science works., so the next series of posts will deal with these questions. (I was overdue for a series of posts on a single topic anyway.)

Let's look first at the 'backwards in time' claim. There is a simple (but wrong) way of interpreting this and a more subtle (but correct) way.

To see the simple way in which something traveling faster than the speed of light can cause things to appear to go backwards in time, think of a situation in which a man fires a gun at another man but with the bullet traveling faster than the speed of light. Nothing requires the shooting of people to understand this phenomenon but this is the customary example that is used, perhaps because a bullet is the fastest object that most people can think of (although it is still much slower than the speed of light) combined with the fact shooting someone is so dramatic and final that reversing the process seems impossible, kind of like Jesus rising from the dead.

Suppose the shooter is at point A and the person hit is at point B 10 meters away. Suppose you are standing right next to the person at B. If the bullet travels faster than the speed of light, what will you see? Remember that we 'see' something only when the light from that event enters our eyes. Since the speed of light (at 299,792 km/s) is beyond anything we are familiar with from our everyday experiences, let's greatly slow things down by assuming that it travels at (say) 1 m/s and that the bullet travels at (say) 2 m/s.

You will see the gun at A firing 10 seconds after it fires because the light from that instant will take that much time to travel the 10 meters to reach you. But one second after the gun is fired, the bullet will have traveled two meters towards B (and you), and light emitted by the bullet at that point will take only 8 more seconds to reach you. In other words, you will see the bullet at the 2 meter point 9 seconds after the gun is fired, which is one second before you see the gun firing. Similarly you will see the bullet at the 4 meter mark 8 seconds after the gun fires, at the 6 meter mark 7 seconds after the gun fires, at the 8 meter mark 6 seconds after the gun fires, and the bullet entering the person at B 5 seconds after the gun fires. Put it all together and what you see first is the person at B being hit (five seconds after the gun fires) and then in the next five seconds will see the bullet emerging from the victim and traveling back and entering the gun.

This no doubt looks like is going backwards in time. But this example is not what is meant by going backwards in time according to the theory of reelativity. After all, the victim was in fact hit five seconds after the gun was fired so there is no actual reversal of the ordering of the events. What you saw is more like watching a film run backwards, which is not really going backwards in time. This effect is an illusion, an artifice caused by the fact that light takes time to travel and your special location next to the victim. Had you observed the whole sequence of events while standing next to the shooter at A, you would not have noticed anything unusual because you would have seen the gun fire right at the beginning, the bullet at the 2 meter mark after 3 seconds, at the 4 meter mark after 6 seconds, at the 6 meter mark after 9 seconds, at the 8 meter mark after 12 seconds and hitting the person at B after 15 seconds. Everything would have seemed normal.

What this example does illustrate is that specifying the time at which an event occurs by the time noted by an observer is not satisfactory because it depends on where the observer is situated relative to the events. (For example, the bullet was observed at the 2 meter mark at 3 or 9 seconds after the gun was fired depending on where you were standing.) We will also see later that in addition to the location, the state of motion of the observer (if you were observing the events from a moving train, for example) also affects the time at which they see events.

It is in trying to unambiguously pin down exactly when something happens that we arrive at a deeper understanding of Einstein's theory of relativity and what we really mean by going backwards in time.

Next: The CERN-Gran Sasso experiment

October 09, 2011

Penn and Teller on the Indian rope trick

Dexter the atheist

Via Pharyngula, I learn about another popular TV show in which the main character seems to be an atheist. When ratings conscious TV executives think that it is safe to have a prominent atheist character, that is another sign of the spread of such views.

October 08, 2011

Too big to fail

This timeline shows how we arrived at the situation where we now have just a few big banks controlling almost the entire financial sector.


(Via Balloon Juice.)

Ted Rall on RT America

Political cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall is one of the people indefinitely occupying Freedom Square in Washington DC as part of the October 2011 movement. He talks about what they are hoping to achieve, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the state of US politics. Well worth listening to.

October 07, 2011

The Daily Show on the response to Occupy Wall Street

There really are death panels

Unlike the ones that exists only in the fevered imagination of opponents of health care reform who labor under the delusion that these panels exist to decide who should get medical treatment and who should be left to die, these death panels are real and consist of people who decide in secret which Americans deserve to be killed by the president, using the entire military apparatus at his disposal.

This report confirms what was reported as far back as in February 2010 when Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, said in a Congressional hearing that the intelligence community had the right to kill Americans abroad who have been deemed to be a threat.

So our government thinks it has the right to send roving gangs of assassins anywhere in the world to murder anyone whom the president has decided must die. It is astonishing to me that people are not outraged.

Glenn Greenwald has more. As usual, political cartoonist Ted Rall nails it.

Sexism, atheism, and the volatility of internet discourse

My post on the topic of sexism in the atheist movement generated a lot of comments. As is often the case with heated discussions, a lot of different issues quickly got added into the mix and so it might be good to step back a bit and look at the big picture.

My original question was whether the atheist community had a problem with sexist attitudes towards women as evidenced by the response that Rebecca Watson received when she reported on her blog about an incident in an elevator at an atheist gathering.

But soon other issues entered the discussion, such as whether:

  1. what she experienced in the elevator was indeed a proposition;
  2. her own behavior might have encouraged it;
  3. she herself has clean hands, in that she supposedly reacts angrily to others when she is criticized; and
  4. she over-reacted to something minor by publicizing it.

I have to admit that when it comes to the first two items, I am hopelessly out of my depth and will not even try to venture a judgment, since the world of singles dating is completely foreign to me. For the third point, one commenter made the case that Watson and her supporters also dish it out as much as they get. As to the last point, whatever led up to the incident, I think (hope?) we can agree that Watson had every right to talk about it on her blog. Even if one thinks that it was hopelessly trivial and she was hypersensitive, the fact remains that she was talking about her own feelings on her own blog, and surely she has the right to do that? (After all, there are people who are known to use their blog to even complain about film trailers, an undoubtedly petty topic of no consequence whatsoever.) Similarly, people have a right to respond to her post. This is part of the robust nature of internet discourse.

But I am not sure if any of the above points are germane to the issue at hand. What I feel should be focused on is whether the nature of the responses to her post (irrespective of her personal qualities or even the incident itself) reveals anything about sexism among atheists. And I would venture that it at least raises the prima facie case that a problem exists (which may or may not be greater than the level of sexism in general) and that we would do well to address it.

As an aside, I want to comment on the robust nature of internet communication and how easily people seem to get angry on the web. I am always somewhat taken aback by the flame wars that erupt on the internet, where tempers flare and angry accusations can spring up about minor things.

My first experience with such anonymous anger arose in the very early days of the internet. This was in the good old days of dial-up connections using modems transmitting data at 1200 baud rates. I was part of a statewide movement funded by the National Science Foundation to improve math and science education in Ohio. The movement was a network of mostly middle school teachers sprinkled with a few college faculty like me. Since I had slightly greater familiarity with the internet than most of the other people, like the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I was designated as a moderator for the listserv that was set up for communication. My moderation role was not in the sense of having to give prior approval to people's postings but to provide general guidance on the use of the listserv and address any technical questions that might arise.

There was one teacher who seemed to have the 'caps lock' setting in the 'on' position all the time so that the entire message was always in upper case. After receiving a few such postings, I sent out a message to the list saying that internet protocol used upper case purely for emphasis and usually limited it for single words or a phrase and that a message entirely in upper case meant the author was angry and seen as yelling. I suggested that people might want to unlock the caps setting so that others might not misinterpret their messages as having been written in anger. My whole message was in the tone of being gently helpful, or at least so I thought.

Well, before you knew what, I received a furious message from the perpetrator, sent to everyone on the list (and in upper case of course) asking who the hell I thought I was to try and tell him what he could and could not do and that he had a perfect right to use all caps if he wanted to and by golly he would. I was surprised at this hostile reaction to say the least, since this was not the tone that he would have taken during any face-to-face meetings of the statewide group of which we were both a part. But there was something about the distancing afforded by even our fairly small list that seemed to eliminate the decorum that was the norm.

I let his message go without any response, because once people get into such a stiff defensive posture, there is really no reasoning with them, and it is better just to walk away. In addition, the person who usually gets harmed by such displays of anger is not the recipient of the message but the sender, since almost everyone else wonders why they are being petty and getting so angry about something so relatively minor.

So I am no longer surprised by this phenomenon. But I still do not quite understand it. What is it about internet communication that seems to foster anger and rudeness? Or maybe it doesn't foster it at all but that such impulses were always there but in the pre-internet days it took time to convey those emotions because we had to wait until we met the person or it took time to write a letter or to make a phone call, and by that time we had calmed down. Maybe what the internet does is allow us to act on our impulses immediately without time intervening to cool us off.

October 06, 2011

No salvation for Klingons

Via reader G. I received this report of a paper that was presented at a DARPA conference on whether, if extra-terrestrial life exists, Jesus would have gone and tried to save them too. The answer seems to be no, partly because it would require multiple incarnations of god and that might be awkward, apparently.

Mind you, this was discussed at a conference sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense.

It is good to know that the US government is keeping up with important theological issues.

Police beat and pepper-spray the Occupy Wall Street protestors

It looks like the trouble with the police that I feared has already begun.

Occupy Wall Street Arrests; Fox 5 Crew and Protesters Hit by Mace, Batons:

The Guardian covered the march and also the clash with police, with more video.

How will the oligarchy respond to Occupy Wall Street?

As long as the Occupy Wall Street movement remains fairly small and contained, the oligarchy can treat it with condescension, in the expectation that it will dissipate with time. The reaction of the political leadership has been cautious with few venturing comments. Mitt Romney, as unoriginal as ever, has called it (sigh) 'class warfare' and that it was 'dangerous' but dangerous for whom he did not specify. Herman Cain reached new levels of the smugness that afflicts so many rich people, saying, "Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!" Some people at the Chicago Board of Trade seem to think that mocking the movement is a good idea and, like the champagne swillers in New York, display a sense of ignorance to the legend of Marie Antoinette. These people have no idea of the rising level of anger in the country.

The movement has latched on to succinct slogans that capture the essence of the problem, like "We are the 99%" and the chant "Q: How do we end this deficit? A: End the wars, tax the rich." These are dangerous messages for the oligarchy because they are simple and right on target. As a result, the movement is gaining public support nationwide and growing, and even linking to global protest movements. Nearly a 1000 people turned up in Philadelphia on Tuesday night merely to organize the occupation in that city on October 6th.

The movement is also gaining mainstream acceptability. Even chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke (Ben Bernanke!) said in Congressional testimony that there was "some justification" for the protests and that "At some level I can't blame them. Nine percent unemployment and slow growth is not a good situation." Editorial cartoonists are also spreading the message about the revolt against the 1% epitomized by Wall Street.



Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! interviewed Kevin Zeese and Dr. Margaret Flowers, two key organizers of the October 2011 movement that was planned six months ago for an indefinite occupation of Washington DC starting today, and that has coincided in a symbiotic way with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

As the movement grows and expands, I fully expect at some point in the near future that the repressive apparatus of the state will be brought in to quash it. I am certain that right now there are high-level discussions amongst members of the oligarchy on how to derail the protests. It will be difficult to forcibly disperse the peaceful occupiers since the initial protestors were mostly educated, white, middle-class, young people (though yesterday's march was much more diverse in terms of age and color) and baton-charging, tear-gassing, and arresting them in large numbers would not look good on TV. The usual method of dealing with such situations is to dispatch some provocateurs to mix in with the protestors and then create divisions and destruction and confrontations. The purpose will be two-fold: to lower public sympathy for the movement by associating it with violence and to provide an excuse for harsh measures to 'restore law and order'. I hope the organizers are prepared to combat this tactic

The rising tensions surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement reminds me of the mood in the classic 1967 song For What It's Worth written by Buffalo Springfield band member Stephen Stills in the wake of an assault by the Los Angeles Police department on young people during that turbulent period.

October 05, 2011

Stephen Colbert on the Occupy Wall Street movement

To his credit, Stephen Colbert covered the Wall Street protests early on. On September 21, he sent someone to speak with the demonstrators and, rather than being some stoned, hippy-dippy, counter-culture goofballs, found an earnest set of young people who were able to clearly articulate what the problem was with America today and why they were protesting.

The Occupy Wall Street movement spreads

Movements in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement are springing up in 184 cities and growing rapidly.

Locally, tomorrow (Thursday, October 6th) Occupy Cleveland begins its action at noon at the Free Stamp sculpture site at Willard Park at East 9th and Lakeside. On Saturday the 8th there will be an Occupy Cleveland General Assembly in Public Square from 3:00-6:00 pm. More details are here. As one might expect with a fast-moving, all-volunteer spontaneous movement, things are somewhat chaotic.

Graphic artists have donated downloadable posters for people to use.

Today is National Student Walk-out Day, where college students around the nation are encouraged to walk out of their classes at noon to protest rising tuition and debt.

Meanwhile, read the moving testimonies of people from all walks of life who explain why they are the 99%.

"We Are the 99%"

wearethe99.jpegThe idea that increased unemployment and a vast and growing gap between a rampaging oligarchy and the rest of the population could lead to riots and other forms of trouble in the US is something that some of us have been warning about for some time. But it was still startling to hear someone in the oligarchy like the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg say the same thing. He suggested that the popular uprisings that happened in Egypt and Spain could happen here too. Of course, he thinks that this would be a bad thing, but the fact that a member of the oligarchy saw the potential of such a thing happening here is significant.

He said this just before the Occupy Wall Street movement began on September 17 to create a permanent protest site to block off Wall Street. Initially they were stopped by the police but they managed to overcome that obstacle and have now set up permanent camp. Glenn Greenwald says there are signs that the oligarchy is getting nervous and they are, as usual, using their lackeys in the establishment media to try and belittle and undermine the protests.

Mass movements rarely have very targeted goals, at least at the beginning. They tend to have overlapping areas of concern that coalesce around one or two ideas that everyone can identify with. In Egypt for example, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the cost of living, unemployment, corruption, censorship, repression, etc. that coalesced around the goal of getting rid of Mubarak. Even the American Declaration of Independence consisted of a long list of complaints, many of them quite esoteric that hardly anyone remembers anymore. But all agreed on the need to eliminate rule by the king of England.

The current unrest in the US is qualitatively different from those that took place in the 1960s. Those were fueled by the Vietnam war and racial tensions due to the civil rights movements. While those were also dominated by young people, the current unrest seems to encompass a wider group that is more diffuse and less focused on specific issues and consisting more of an inchoate sense that somehow the system is completely rigged to benefit the very few at the expense of the many and needs to be changed. But the central focus that the rule by the 1% oligarchy located largely within the confines Wall Street is bad and must go is a message that is catching on. The slogan "We are the 99%" is ingenious in the way it highlights the essential problem. More and more attention is being focused on the 1% problem in the US.

Just like the people in the Arab spring, it is young people who have seized the initiative to actually get out and do something about a problem that old fogeys like me have been merely complaining about. Journalist Chris Hedges visited the scene and described what he saw as a ray of hope. Hedges writes that the young people camping out there represent the best among us because they have identified the enemy and are taking a stand and now the rest of us have to choose where we stand.

There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history. Either you obstruct, in the only form left to us, which is civil disobedience, the plundering by the criminal class on Wall Street and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil. Either you taste, feel and smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt or sink into the miasma of despair and apathy. Either you are a rebel or a slave.

Choose. But choose fast. The state and corporate forces are determined to crush this. They are not going to wait for you. They are terrified this will spread. They have their long phalanxes of police on motorcycles, their rows of white paddy wagons, their foot soldiers hunting for you on the streets with pepper spray and orange plastic nets.

Those on the streets around Wall Street are the physical embodiment of hope. They know that hope has a cost, that it is not easy or comfortable, that it requires self-sacrifice and discomfort and finally faith. They sleep on concrete every night. Their clothes are soiled. They have eaten more bagels and peanut butter than they ever thought possible. They have tasted fear, been beaten, gone to jail, been blinded by pepper spray, cried, hugged each other, laughed, sung, talked too long in general assemblies, seen their chants drift upward to the office towers above them, wondered if it is worth it, if anyone cares, if they will win. But as long as they remain steadfast they point the way out of the corporate labyrinth. This is what it means to be alive. They are the best among us.

The choice of which side we should be on is not that hard. After all, we are the 99%.

October 04, 2011

The Chris Christie boomlet gets squashed (again)

The New Jersey governor has announced for the umpteenth time that he is not going to run for the Republican nomination for president, despite desperate pleas from some sectors. So who is going to be the great new hope? We can look back at this earlier clip from The Daily Show.

So how's 'the most transparent White House in history' faring?

In yesterday's post I wrote about an anonymous government official who said that the justice department had prepared a secret memo saying that Obama's order to murder Anwar al-Awlaki was legal but they refused to release it or reveal the reasoning.

David Shipler and Conor Friedersdorf pose the obvious question: Why is this document secret?

The usual arguments for secrecy, that it will put some people in harm's way or impinge on their privacy rights or reveal some critical government information that would be harmful to the country's national interests clearly do not apply in this case. This is presumably a legal document that would be of interest mainly to scholars. So why not tell us how the government arrived at the important conclusion that Obama can order the death of any US citizen without any oversight by any body?

The only answer that I can think of is that the government is afraid that legal scholars will rip their argument to shreds and that it will be seen to have no merit. Much better for them to keep it secret, using the "If we reveal this information, the terrorists will have won" mantra that seems to inexplicably satisfy so many people.

During his 2008 presidential campaign Obama promised that his administration would "run the most transparent White House in history" and some commentators even wondered if such excessive transparency might be a bad thing. It is clear that that worry is unfounded because that promise has turned out to be a joke. Obama is making even the Bush White House seem like a glass house.

UPDATE: Scott Horton rips apart the Obama hypocrisy on this issue. The exchange between Jake Tapper and White House press secretary is quite incredible.

The 'Occupy Wall Street' movement

I must admit that the Occupy Wall Street movement took me by surprise. Back in June, I had written that one of the lessons of the Arab spring was that one needed sustained protests and demonstrations and occupations, day in and day out, to bring about major changes and that the US practice of one-day demonstrations, usually on a holiday, was ineffective however large the turnout. I pointed to the October 6 movement to create a permanent protest site in Washington DC in the vicinity of the White House and Congress, as a sign of such a movement emerging.

When I first heard reports of groups of young people occupying Wall Street to protest the corporate takeover of the US government, I thought it would be ephemeral, that these idealists would be there for a short while and then it would fizzle out. I also worried that it might shift the focus away from the October 6th movement and thus harm it. But I was wrong. What started out as a seemingly spontaneous occupation and protest movement that was greeted with condescending snickering of the "Oh, these kids today, what will they think of next?" has grown into something quite big. They have used their own website to publicize their message, and there is even a newspaper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal, with a starting print run of 50,000, that has been published.

These protests were initially treated with some disdain by the media, portraying the protestors as young and clueless with no clearly defined goals and agenda. We even had the sight of well-dressed people, possibly Wall Street executives, drinking champagne and laughing at the protestors from the balcony of a tony restaurant, as if they had never heard of the legend of Marie Antoinette. Even some liberal commentators treated them with disdain. But the message of the young people is quite clear and correct. They have identified the business interests symbolized by Wall Street as a maleficent force in American politics and are using the occupation to demonstrate it. What they are doing is inspiring people to get off the couches, leave their keyboards behind, and take direct action.

What is interesting is that it is also ceasing to be purely a young people's movement. The protests seem to be catching on and spreading with trade unions and community groups joining in. Pilots in uniform also showed up. The protests are now spreading to other cities including major ones like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and smaller ones.

As a result, after some initial silence, the media have been forced to pay attention. Although the protests began on September 17, up until September 26 NPR had scorned the protests as not worth covering with its executive editor for news saying that it was because "The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective", although it covered small groups of Tea Partiers with great gusto. But after NPR was shamed by media commentator Jay Rosen pointing out their neglect, they have now started giving coverage on a regular basis. Another journalist got arrested along with many others and wrote about his experience. Some 'prominent people' like Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore have dropped by, which should make NPR happy that its news standards had been met.

As the occupation and protests have grown, so has the repressive police tactics being employed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is clear that the occupation has stopped becoming a laughing matter for the oligarchy as the police have started to use considerable force to disrupt the protests. In this scene, it looks like mace or pepper spray was used on some women who had been penned in by plastic mesh and did not seem to have done anything threatening that could have warranted it. Then last Sunday the police seemed to have first encouraged the protestors to march across the Brooklyn bridge and when they were halfway through, penned them in using plastic netting (a process known as 'kettling') and arrested over 700 of them. You can watch a video of the event.

What do the demonstrators want? Given that it is a loose and spontaneous coalition of young people, it is too much to expect a coherent single platform. Bloomberg has tried to deflect attention from the real targets of the protests, the oligarchy centered on Wall Street of which he is a member and protector, by saying that the protests are targeting the middle class, which is patent nonsense.

The movement has in fact issued a manifesto that lists their demands. But the specific demands are, in some sense, less important than the general goal. What these young people have done is placed their collective finger unerringly on the problem: 1% of the population in the US has become a monster that is devouring the other 99% and the heart of that beast lies is in the financial sector in Wall Street.

Their slogan "We are the 99%" has increasingly resonated with the public because in their bones people know that it is true, which is why the movement seems to be growing.

October 03, 2011

Amazing goal

A soccer player scores a goal with a header from inside his own half.

What is surprising is why the goalkeeper was so far out of position. You can see him in lime green right at the beginning near the opponent's goal and could not get back in time to guard his own goal.

People who don't think carefully are more likely to believe in a god

I came across this interesting report of a study that says that people who 'go by their gut' when solving a problem are more likely to believe in god than people who reason their way to a conclusion.

They correlated religious belief with the way people approached simple problems like: "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" People who go with their gut tend to say (erroneously) that it costs 10 cents while those who think it through arrive at the correct answer. The former type was more likely to believe in god than the latter.

One could conclude that this suggests that belief in god depends on people not thinking things through, which is not really surprising. But the authors of the study downplayed this aspect and instead went out of their way to make the results palatable to religious believers, calling the gut-thinkers 'intuitive' and saying that intuition and reflection are equally important.

Intuition is undoubtedly important. But it is not the same thing as not thinking things through.

A lawless nation

There were some responses to my post on the topic of state-sanctioned murder, with defenders of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki saying the usual things, that the US is at war with al Qaeda and since al-Awlaki was supposedly a leading member of that organization, Obama was justified in ordering his killing. It is now being reported that another US citizen was killed in the attack but since he was in the same car as al-Awlaki he was presumably a Very Bad Person Who Also Deserved to Die, since the bar for killing anyone has become so low.

It should be pointed out that all the claims of al-Awlaki's importance, his supposed links to various actions, have come almost entirely from anonymous government sources in leaks to the media, with little or no evidence provided in support. There has been no attempt whatsoever to follow the normal procedures of even starting the process of establishing guilt, including the most minimal ones like issuing an indictment. But of course those things are now seen as the quaint obsessions of pedants, to be readily discarded in our lust for the blood for whoever happens to be the current Enemy of the People.

Of course, foreigners have long been considered entirely expendable in the Great War on Terror, in which hundreds and thousands now lie dead. We have already decided that the president can pick up people anywhere in the world, hold them indefinitely without access to family or lawyers, torture them, and create kangaroo courts with guaranteed convictions for those occasions when we want to create a facade that we still have some sort of legal system operating. What al-Awlaki's killing has done is crossed a boundary that says that Americans overseas can also be summarily killed. That is progress of a macabre kind, that no nationality exceptions exist.

The only boundary that has not been crossed is the president's right to murder US citizens within the US itself. But this is a mere technicality. It looks like all Obama has to do to cross even that line is churn out massive amounts of propaganda to convince the public that some person is a public enemy and then the entire military machine of the US, plus the FBI and the police, will be put into operation to carry out his execution orders. And the people will cheer when the execution is carried out because they will have been repeatedly told (by the president of course) that a Very Bad Man Who Wanted to Harm Us 'has received justice' and that our glorious and benevolent leader has saved us from that fate without wasting tax-payer money with frivolous concerns about legality and morality.

Is all this legal? Who cares? Laws and due process and the constitutional guarantees of protections of life and liberty are the concerns of wimps who don't understand that We Are At War With a Mighty Enemy Who Seeks to Destroy Us, even though estimates of their number are pitifully small and they are scattered about the globe and poorly armed. We must fear them because those people are Evil Incarnate and are devious enough to find a way to take over the entire US and enslave us all.

But for those who have some niggling qualms about whether we are acting within the rule of law, don't worry. Of course it is legal! Why, the president's own justice department has issued a ruling saying it is legal, so that's all right then. Actually it did not actually issue such a ruling. What it did was anonymously leak a story to reporters that such a ruling existed somewhere.

The Justice Department wrote a secret memorandum authorizing the lethal targeting of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born radical cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike Friday, according to administration officials.

The document was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the administration. There was no dissent about the legality of killing Aulaqi, the officials said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. The administration officials refused to disclose the exact legal analysis used to authorize targeting Aulaqi, or how they considered any Fifth Amendment right to due process.

But hey, these days, that's all we need, right? We have got used to being informed by those infallible, authoritative, and impartial sources, the anonymous government official, that things are being done in our name according to secret policies that we cannot be told about but that we must have faith in our great and benevolent leader that he always acts in our best interests. That's the new democracy, folks!

Let's look at the state of play. We have now reached the stage where the president has the sole power to (1) decide when we are at war; (2) decide with whom we are at war; (3) decide where the battlefield is (the whole world, apparently); (4) decide who is deserving of summary death; (5) use the entire police and military apparatus to carry out the murder; (6) judge whether his own actions are legal; and (7) keep everything secret.

Woe unto anyone who has the temerity to cross this mighty ruler. He can find himself declared to be an Enemy of the People and crushed like an ant or blasted out of existence by a drone, along with any other unfortunate persons who happen to be in the vicinity. And the people will cheer. The despots of the past could only dream of having such powers.

My question to those who think that all this is perfectly fine and morally justified is whether they think, now that they have abandoned the constraints of the constitution, that there exist any limits whatsoever on the president's power. Is there anything that he cannot legally do in the War on Terror?

October 02, 2011

We're #1 …

… when it comes to imprisoning people. More than 1% of Americans are in jail. The US has 4.25% of the world's population and but 25% of all prisoners.

Even I was surprised at some of the statistics about the use of cheap prison labor in the US. According to Stephen Fry, American prisons produce "100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet proof vests, ID tags and other items of uniforms, 93% of domestically used paints, 36% of home appliances, 21% of office furniture, which allows the United States to compete with factories in Mexico… You get solitary confinement if you refuse to work!"

(Via Boing Boing.)

October 01, 2011

Carl Sagan

I never met Carl Sagan but in addition to being a good scientist, prolific writer, great popularizer and advocate for science, he had the reputation of being a really nice person, which is probably why so many of us mean and nasty new atheists are urged to be more like him.

Neil deGrasse Tyson relates an anecdote that reinforces that last characteristic.

The true character of a person is revealed in the way they treat people who, by the usual standards of society, are of no importance to them whatsoever.

Religious vetoes

A town clerk won't sign same-sex marriage licenses because such marriages violate her religious beliefs.

I can understand people trying to get laws passed that enshrine their religious beliefs. But it is strange to me that people think that their religious beliefs let them pick and choose which laws to follow. If you allow a personal religious exemption, then you have to allow every individual's personal religious exemptions. Are they willing to extend that right to any religious beliefs at all?

The danger of allowing that should be obvious to anyone who thinks it through. Would you allow an employee to not follow a law because it contradicts (say) Sharia law or Wiccan beliefs? Where would that end? Can a Muslim or Jewish employee in a cafeteria refuse to give a ham sandwich to a customer? Can a Catholic checkout clerk in a supermarket or drug store refuse to process the sale of condoms?

I strongly doubt that people would want to open up that mess. The people who ask for these exemptions are effectively requesting the right to nullify beliefs based only on the religion that they belong to.

Parenthetically, I found this pie chart from Balloon Juice to be amusing.