Andy Ross 2016-10-26
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Professor Emerita Dr. V.



2016 October 26

Folklore in the Digital Age

Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska

From the Foreword by Andy Ross:

Folkloristics is the study of folklore using approaches and insights from science and the humanities. Folklore expresses a people's culture and heritage, and so helps to define our ethnic and cultural identities.

Professor Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska, the author of the essays in this book, has enjoyed a long and successful career as a folklorist. She has worked with various folklore resources, most of them narrative genres, transmitted orally and locally, but also in printed and pictorial form. More recently she has expanded her resource base to include online folklore.

Online and digital cultures are both driving and following a process of globalisation. Global multimedia culture not only endangers traditional folklore but also creates new folklore, often in surprising ways. The miscellany of themes that the author touches upon in this book amply illustrate the range of modern folklore studies. ...

Lodz University Press / Jagiellonian University Press 2016
150 pages

AR I also co-authored Chapter VII.

Global Tech

Jonathan Margolis

Europe has no big internet companies. Sweden has Spotify, the UK has Asos, and Germany Zalando and Rocket Internet, but none is a Google or an Amazon. The three top listed US internet companies are valued at $1.3 trillion, the top in Europe only $20 billion.

The internet giant technology creates unicorns and then the giants eat them. The lions at the top of the food chain are the likes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Even the unicorns are mostly US: of 176 unicorns globally, 101 are in the US and 19 in Europe.

The internet is an almost wholly US environment, and most of its money flows back to the US. VC money and the size of the domestic market are factors. Europe is big but its laws, languages, even mains plugs are different. The US is global in one country.

AR Global corporations will divide and conquer national polities. Politics as we know it will become as irrelevant as the Vatican in the new world of big tech.

2016 October 24

UK Sovereignty


One argument cited for Brexit is that the UK parliament will once again become absolutely sovereign. No longer will it be subject to laws dictated by unelected overseas officials. The argument is buttressed by the assurance that any bad laws imposed by a UK government can be rescinded following a general election that throws out the scoundrels responsible for those laws.

But there are at least five grounds for considering the cited argument to be either naive or disingenuous:

1 Absolute national sovereignty is an illusion in a networked and globalized world
2 The absolute sovereignty desired by many MPs need not be good for UK voters
3 The checks and balances on a sovereign UK parliament are inadequate
4 The electoral system in the UK is less democratic than it might seem
5 British people deserve something better than a sovereign polity

PDF, 2 pages

2016 October 22

Russian Aggression

General Sir Richard Shirreff

Since the formation of NATO in 1949, the defense of Europe and the free world has depended on the absolute certainty that the United States will come to the aid of a NATO member if attacked.

Russian president Vladimir Putin aims to re-establish Russia as one of the global great powers and to dominate the former republics of the Soviet Union. But if Russia puts one soldier across the borders of the Baltic states it means war with NATO.

Russia integrates nuclear weapons into every aspect of its military doctrine. Any form of nuclear release by the Russians would almost certainly precipitate nuclear retaliation by the United States, MAD, and the end of life as we know it.

Requirements for peace in Europe:
Forward basing of a credible military capability in the Baltic states and eastern Poland
Regenerating the military capabilities of Canada and European members of NATO

Vladimir Putin

Rod Liddle

Some British people admire Vladimir Putin for his decisiveness and social conservatism. While the West flounders, Putin acts. But I am not a member of his fan club. He strikes me as amoral and ruthless and belligerent. Yet we provoke and provoke, we distort the facts in order to suit our agenda, we vilify Putin and his country in a belligerent manner.

I hope that Putin's belligerence is just an act. But it may be a misplaced hope. You cannot divest a country of its empire, its political system, its industry, its money, and its prestige in a few years and not expect some sort of rebound. It was a missed opportunity twenty years ago not to have love-bombed Russia and invited it to join NATO.


Michael Brooks

General relativity and quantum mechanics could not be more different from each other. Physicists seek to unite them in a theory of quantum gravity that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Carlo Rovelli likes loop quantum gravity. Most physicists prefer string theory.

AR I like loop quantum gravity too. I really like the theory of causal dynamical triangulation. String theory helps itself to too much metaphysics.

Norwegian Royal Air Force
Russian nuclear battlecruiser Peter the Great and aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov head for the English Channel


The Age of Em
Robin Hanson

AR An em is an AI emulation
made by scanning your brain.
It lives in a simulated reality.
Hanson imagines the rapture
for geeks. Not for me.

ESA/Christophe Carreau
Lightning on Venus

A rock in a hard place
Red: Fortress UK
Light blue: EEA
Royal blue: EU

AR I'm blue


2016 October 21

Decline of the West

Javier Solana, Strobe Talbott

The transatlantic community has set a global example for regional cooperation. That achievement is now in jeopardy as the European Union faces an existential crisis and the United States sours on trade agreements with Europe and Asia.

The EU has been at the vanguard of globalization. But the financial crisis exposed structural flaws. The EZ imposed a common monetary policy and a fixed exchange rate, but without fiscal integration, which hobbled its response to sovereign debt crises and caused unemployment.

The last year has seen one catastrophe after another. A rash of terrorist attacks has heightened security concerns, the UK decision to leave the EU has raised fears of contagion, and an influx of migrants and refugees from the Mideast and Africa has placed burdens on member states.

The US election campaign has revealed a similar malaise. Many Americans are pessimistic about the future and nostalgic for a seemingly better past. As in Europe, there is mistrust of elites and experts, and enthusiasm for populists.

This backlash brings threats of protectionism, isolationism, nativism, and xenophobia. NATO needs beefing up to help prevent the political disintegration of Europe. Western governments must work to cement a new public consensus for globalization.

May in Brussels

Financial Times

Theresa May made a short presentation on Brexit that ran for about five minutes.

Angela Merkel: "Basically it was a repetition of what we have heard so far. Nevertheless, it was important for us to have it repeated in that format. As far as the practical terms are concerned, it is going to be rough going. It will not be that easy."

François Hollande: "I say very firmly: if Mrs May wants a hard Brexit she will get a hard negotiation."

Donald Tusk: "We have to expect the dual reality from now on. It is a fact of life and we have to live with it. It is not our decision, it is not our choice. I would prefer 28 member states, not only for the next months but for the next decades."

AR Brexit is an act of national pride. But pride comes before a fall.

2016 October 20


Stuart Clark

Some 4 Gy from now, the Milky Way will collide with Andromeda to form one big Milkomeda galaxy.

Alignments of satellite galaxies, globular clusters, and trailing streams of stars suggest that the Milky Way and Andromeda interacted in the past. Simulations suggest that galaxies are surrounded by a halo of dark matter. Parts of the halo fragment to form a population of dwarf galaxies scattered around the parent galaxy. The dwarf satellites and other halo objects around the Milky Way and Andromeda form polar disks that are aligned as if the two galaxies had interacted in the past.

Simulations of this process do not yet work as intended and theorists are struggling.

The ExoMars Mission

The Guardian

The joint European-Russian ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is now in orbit around Mars. It will sniff the atmosphere in search of life and is the science package.

The Schiaparelli lander was a technology tester. In a planned 360 s descent from orbit, contact was lost in the last 50 s. The lander jettisoned its parachute about 30 s early and its retrorockets switched on for 3—4 seconds rather than a planned 30 s. Transmissions continued for a further 19 s.

AR Win one, lose one.

2016 October 19

Moon Shots

Barack Obama

In science fiction, what you hear about is generalized AI. Specialized AI is about using algorithms and computers to figure out increasingly complex tasks. If properly harnessed, specialized AI can generate enormous prosperity and opportunity.

The government should add a relatively light touch. But our general commitment as a society to basic research has diminished. The analogy that we still use when it comes to a great technology achievement, even 50 years later, is a moon shot.

I am still a big space guy — I was a sucker for Star Trek when I was a kid. It was really talking about a notion of a common humanity and a confidence in our ability to solve problems. That is what I love most about America.

2016 October 18

British Taboo

Joris Luyendijk

For Brexiteers, the UK is a great country and the EU is a disaster, and the UK needs the EU far less than vice versa so Europeans will give Britain a great deal. For Remainers, the threat in Brussels to back Brexit unless the UK got a better deal for Britain was not blackmail but a demand for concessions, as if UK membership is a favor granted by the UK to the EU.

Brits were unable to accept the most powerful argument for the European pooling of sovereignty: Today Europeans make up 8% of the world population but we will only represent 5% in 2050. By then no single EU country will be among the global top economies. The case for European integration rests on a recognition of diminishing global heft.

This insight remains a national taboo in Britain. Fortress UK isolation will not be splendid.

British Roads

Simon Wolfson

Potholes and daily gridlock — the state of UK roads is a national disgrace.

Nine out of ten journeys in Britain are made by road, but roads get less than half of government transport spending. Road traffic is rising but spending on road maintenance is falling. We all suffer.

Motorists are a cash cow for the Treasury. Receipts from fuel duty and vehicle excise duty brought in £33 billion in 2014, yet only about £9 billion of that went back to roads. This is highway robbery.

The future of roads is the topic for the 2017 Wolfson Economics Prize.

AR British roads — grrrr!

2016 October 17


Hannah Devlin

Venus has a surface hot enough to melt lead and skies darkened by toxic clouds of sulphuric acid. But conditions on the planet were not always so hellish.

A study to be presented at the AAS DPS 48 / EPSC 11 meeting in Pasadena this week suggests that starting about 3 billion years ago and persisting for over 2 billion years Venus may have had a balmy climate and oceans up to 2 km deep.

Venusian climate simulations suggest that 2.9 Gy ago Venus had an average surface temperature of 284 K (11°C) and still only 288 K (15°C) 2.2 Gy later as insolation increased.

NASA GISS team lead Michael Way: "At a low latitude and low elevation the surface temperatures would not have been that different from that of a place in the tropics on Earth [but] you would have mostly overcast skies during the day and precipitation."

JAXA Venus Climate Orbiter mission worker Professor Takehiko Satoh: "Probably Venus once had an ocean and probably the environment of Venus and the Earth might have been similar."

Venus now has a CO2 atmosphere at a pressure of 9 MPa and an average surface temperature of 735 K, thanks to a runaway greenhouse effect.

AR Earth could be next — time to go to Mars.

Hard Brexit

Henrik Müller

The UK government is looking at a hard Brexit. The EU will make it harder.

The EU will send a signal to other Europeans who may be tempted to leave the EU. Insisting on an Article 50 exit forces a decision — in or out. After that free decision, Britain must accept the consequences.

EU trading partners will suffer from decimated trade. But bowing to UK demands would be worse: If other member states could pick cherries too, the EU would fall apart.

Then the UK would get a very hard Brexit.

Costly Brexit

Financial Times

Britain could continue to pay billions to the EU after Brexit to maintain passporting rights for the City of London in Europe. Also, after Brexit, the UK will face a divorce bill from the EU for up to €20 billion. The ONS says the average annual net UK contribution to the EU from 2010 to 2014 was £7.1 billion.

Brexit has made a sterling crisis far more likely because it has triggered:

An adverse supply side shock. The reduction in trade and openness caused by Brexit is likely to reduce UK productivity and output in the long term.

An adverse demand side shock. Economic uncertainty and delayed corporate investment may reduce GDP in the near term.

A rise in the risk premium required to hold sterling. The medium term equilibrium for the exchange rate is down, UK interest rates are down, and investors deem sterling more risky.

With sterling weak, easing fiscal and monetary policy may be a mistake.

Weak Brexports

Deutsche Bank

World trade no longer consists of finished goods bartered for raw materials. Global value chains have led to huge growth in the trade of intermediate and capital goods. Any manufacturing exports today contain a big chunk of value added abroad. Low domestic value added in UK manufacturing means sterling depreciation will hurt exporters as well as help them.

Services make up 45% of UK exports, but demand for services is less sensitive to price than goods, as service providers compete on quality, not price. So the UK will benefit less from devaluation than any other G7 economy and may struggle to offset a loss of Single Market access.

Irish Fear Hard Brexit

The Guardian

Irish leaders warn of economic disaster on both sides of the border without decisive action to confront the effects of Brexit. Incalculable consequences for the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland involve border questions and Irish beef exports to the UK. Some forecasters fear that Ireland could be harder hit than Britain by the tumult.

Scots Want Soft Brexit

The Times

SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson says a second independence referendum will be taken off the table if the UK government secures a soft Brexit.

2016 October 16

Britain After Brexit

Lionel Barber

The vote for Brexit was a popular revolt. We are sailing into uncharted territory.

Prime minister Theresa May wants to begin divorce proceedings in 2017 Q1, putting the UK on course to exit the EU in 2019. Her government is trying to figure out the parameters for a new deal with Europe. Three scenarios:

1 An amicable divorce: All parties make rational choices. The UK obtains some control over EU immigration and continues to access the single market as long as it complies with EU regulations.

2 A quickie divorce: Britain rejects post-exit deals with the EU. Tariffs are imposed on UK manufacturing exports and the UK economy specialises in services and lose manufacturing.

3 A hostile divorce: Negotiations between the UK and EU become acrimonious and the negotiations prove fiendishly complex. Financial markets are spooked and the UK slips into recession.

Brexit offers an opportunity to redefine our role in a new world.

UK Will Lose, EU Will Win

Jay Elwes

Theresa May is heading for a political fight she cannot win.

The EU will yield nothing. The pound has dropped by 14% against the dollar. Nothing has happened on British talks with the EU. No one will talk to us until the government triggers Article 50.

The "all over by Christmas" view of Brexit negotiations is fantasy. When talks begin, Britain will be negotiating with an economic giant. In 2015, UK GDP was $2.8 trillion and EU GDP $16.2 trillion. About 44% of UK exports go to the EU but 16% of EU exports to the UK.

Donald Tusk: "Our task will be to protect the interests of the EU as a whole, to stick unconditionally to the Treaty rules and fundamental values. By this I mean, inter alia, the conditions for access to the single market with all four freedoms. There will be no compromise in this regard."

Theresa May is heading for disaster.

UK Democracy

Stephen Kinnock

Leavers said "take back control" to return parliamentary sovereignty to Westminster. Now the UK executive aims to seize control by imposing hard Brexit upon the British people and parliament.

The prime minister says there will be no votes on the timing of the triggering of Article 50, on the terms for entering negotiations, or on the final terms of Brexit. The Great Repeal Bill will leave 40 years of legislation vulnerable to change by diktat.

There is a mandate for Brexit but not for the final settlement. The people voted to take back control, not to face decline and fall. Leadership is not about bulldozing UK parliamentary democracy.

AR We want a vote on the terms.

Cory Poole
Andromeda and part of the Milky Way, seen from California

Yuval Noah Harari
History began when humans
invented gods, and will end
when humans become gods

AR Response

The Prophet of

My review of Sapiens
and Homo Deus by
Yuval Noah Harari
PDF (10 pages)

Pound hits $1.22
on Brexit worries

AR Emigrate?
Can't afford it.

Let Them In

Vote Leave campaign director
Dominic Cummings says
Theresa May must drop her
pledge to reduce net migration
to the tens of thousands and
give skilled workers the right
to come to Britain. He says
the public are only really
concerned by too many
unskilled immigrants.

AR Free movement
for EU workers!

Bas Lansdorp

Live on Mars in 2027:
The people we send there
are going for the rest
of their lives.

Mars One

"The words my husband
used are unacceptable
and offensive to me."
Melania Trump

"I'd like to punch
him in the face."
Robert De Niro

Fortress UK

Johnny Foreigner
Need Not Apply

The Guardian

Leading foreign academics
acting as expert advisers to
the UK government have been
told they will not be asked to
contribute to any government
work and analysis on Brexit
because they are not
British nationals.

AR Seriously? Is it OK if
they wear yellow stars?


2016 October 15

Human History

John Gray

Yuval Noah Harari says a new religion is emerging to reflect the shift that is occurring in our sense of ourselves. Dataism combines the ­view that organisms are biochemical algorithms and the theory of artificial intelligence to produces a single overarching theory that unifies all the scientific disciplines. But it is hard to envision Dataism having an influence anywhere near comparable with that of traditional religions.

Whereas Dataists believe that humankind is obsolete, the techno-humanists think that technology can be used to fashion a superior human model. Techno-humanists have dif­ferent ideas about what constitutes a superior species, and there is nothing to suggest this process will end in a godlike being that is supreme over all the rest. Any realistically imaginable post-human future will be a continuation of human history by other means.

The chief legacy of monotheistic religion is the belief that humankind is some kind of universal subject, striving throughout history to realise common ends. No such conception can be found in polytheistic faiths, which see people as essentially disparate in their goals and values. The idea that the human species could act as a conscious agent is a relic of monotheism.

AR John and I studied together at Oxford, though we were not friends. Now I prefer my own review of Harari's claims.

2016 October 14

Hard Brexit Or No Brexit

The Guardian

European Council president Donald Tusk: "The only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit, even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility ... The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us. There will be no cakes on the table, for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar."

He said the best deal for the UK would be to remain in the EU.

AR Too many Brits voted for Boaty McBoatface on June 23.

May Buries Thatcherism

Martin Wolf

Theresa May: "The central tenet of my belief is that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest. We form families, communities, towns, cities, counties, and nations. We have a responsibility to one another. And I firmly believe that government has a responsibility, too."

UK prosperity depends heavily on the skills and knowledge of foreigners, as both workers and investors. Given that the UK is far from the economic powerhouse some imagine, this dependence will continue. It is vital that the government does not curtail UK access to such global resources.

AR May — we need free movement.

Nobel Lyrics


Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mick Posey: "As a Pop Culture professor I have to do a fist pump and say YES! Dylan won a Nobel Prize in Lit!"


2016 October 13

Get Real, Brits

Joris Luyendijk

Why is the pound plunging against the euro and not the other way around? Why do we not hear of companies escaping from the EU to "free-trading Britain" while there is almost a traffic jam in the other direction? Why do EU leaders look rather relaxed when Brexit comes up?

Britain is losing itself in delusional grandstanding, talking about itself to itself. While 44% of British exports go to the EU single market, British politicians have gone out of their way to undermine, disparage and insult the parliaments and institutions that now hold so much power over them.

The EU will defend its national and continental interests with as much vigour as Britain will. And, since the EU is more than seven times bigger, it will impose its will. Brexit will mean what the EU decides it means.

Harte Linie gegenüber Briten

Der Spiegel

Die Präsidenten von zwei der größten deutschen Wirtschaftsverbände, des DIHK und des ZDH, befürworten eine harte Haltung der restlichen EU gegenüber Großbritannien. In den anstehenden Brexit-Verhandlungen sollten die anderen 27 EU-Staaten London keinesfalls gestatten, die Zuwanderung aus der EU zu begrenzen und trotzdem Zugang zum gemeinsamen Binnenmarkt zu erhalten.

AR Richtig so: zusammenhalten.


2016 October 12

Human Settlement of Space


Later this week, US innovators will meet at the White House Frontiers Conference to explore how US investments in science and technology will help us settle space, the final frontier.

NASA has worked over the past 6 years to help catalyze a vibrant new sector of the economy by enabling the commercial transportation of cargo and soon crew from US soil to the International Space Station. Americans are working at more than a thousand companies to support commercial space initiatives and a new commercial market in Low Earth Orbit.

Over the next decade, NASA will demonstrate and test technologies in cislunar space. The NASA Asteroid Redirect Mission will send a robotic spacecraft to a nearby asteroid to test out exploration technologies, conduct scientific and planetary defense experiments, and then return a boulder from the asteroid to an orbit around the Moon for astronauts to study.

NASA has asked the private sector how it might use an available docking port on the ISS. A potential use of such a port would be preparation for one or more future commercial stations in LEO, ready to take over from the ISS once its mission ends. NASA will provide companies with an opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the ISS.

The Journey to Mars will be challenging — we are pushing the boundaries.

2016 October 11

To Mars

Barack Obama

The space race we won not only contributed immeasurably important technological and medical advances, but it also inspired a new generation of scientists and engineers with the right stuff to keep America on the cutting edge.

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.

Nobel Prize in Economics 2016

Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences goes to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström for their contributions to contract theory.

Holmström demonstrated how a principal (e.g., a company's shareholders) should design an optimal contract for an agent (the company's CEO), whose action is partly unobserved by the principal. His informativeness principle stated precisely how this contract should link the agent's pay to performance-relevant information.

Hart made fundamental contributions to a theory that deals with incomplete contracts. Because it is impossible for a contract to specify every eventuality, this theory spells out optimal allocations of control rights. His findings on incomplete contracts have shed new light on the ownership and control of businesses.


The Independent

There are social consequences to executive rewards as well as corporate and investment consequences. At a time of rising inequality and insecurity, the pay packages handed to company CEOs are contributing to the anger and unrest that played a role in both the disastrous Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump.

Where Are the Aliens?

Brian Cox

Enrico Fermi, 1950: "Where is everybody?"

One solution to the Fermi paradox is that it is not possible to run a world that has the power to destroy itself and that needs global collaborative solutions to prevent that.

It may be that the growth of science and engineering inevitably outstrips the development of political expertise, leading to disaster. We could be approaching that position.

AR Chilling but logical

2016 October 10

Pulling the Plug

CNN 1704 GMT

House Speaker Paul Ryan told fellow Republicans Monday he will no longer defend Donald Trump and will instead use the next 29 days to focus on preserving the GOP hold on Congress.

Grudge Match


Donald Trump will live to fight another day. It took the nastiest, most bitterly personal presidential debate in recent memory for the Republican nominee to stanch the downward plunge.

Hillary Clinton spoke of her years fighting Republicans on policy but said she never questioned their fitness to serve as president until now: "Donald Trump is different."

American politics changed in the course of one nasty night. The once sacred tradition of a presidential debate exploded into something quite chilling.

No other presidential candidate in history has faced the personal buzzsaw that Trump represented on Sunday night.

Insult Bazaar

Edward Luce

Donald Trump stuck to his motto: "Never explain. Never apologize."

US presidential democracy has nosedived into an insult bazaar last seen in the 19th century. An acutely polarised electorate has only become more divided.

Media observers may see a shameless male bully trying to intimidate his female opponent. Trump fans see an outsider delivering home truths to the consummate insider which no one else dare say.

By the truth standard, Trump was the clear loser.

2016 October 9

The Great Repeal

Jolyon Maugham

The proposed Great Repeal Act says nothing about our future relationship with our EU neighbours. The European Communities Act 1972 would need to be repealed anyway. The Great Repeal Act does nothing until we leave the EU and merely places the repeal in the hands of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister can trigger Article 50, which already amounts to repeal of the 1972 Act. Once Article 50 is triggered, negotiations ensue, we agree terms with our EU partners, our membership of the EU ceases, and MPs repeal the European Communities Act as a final formality. But an Article 50 challenge now in court argues that a Prime Minister cannot repeal an Act of Parliament.

To deliver her Great Repeal Act, Theresa May will have to persuade MPs to support it. The House of Lords cannot withhold consent to a measure promised in an election manifesto, but this Act was not promised, and Lords say it would not pass. An MP could then table a motion to take back control from an unelected Prime Minister and hold a referendum to choose between the relationship we have with the EU and the deal the Three Brexiteers end up proposing.

AR All sounds a bit dicy — the game is still undecided.

The Great Return

Niall Ferguson

Mother Theresa went to Oxford as the daughter of a provincial Anglo-Catholic clergyman. Yet she is more than a high church Christian Democrat. Her conference speech did three things:

1 Aimed for hard Brexit in a clear appeal to UKIP voters
2 Repudiated Thatcherism in a bid for Labour voters
3 Promised a new industrial strategy

She fired off a barrage against the "privileged few ... the rich, the successful and the powerful ... the powerful and the privileged ... the rich and the powerful".

I warned that a vote for Brexit risked returning the UK to the 1970s. I now fear this is what May has in mind — first the industrial strategy, then the sterling crisis.

AR Promised everything to everyone — something must fail.

2016 October 8

Earth 2, 3, ...

Sara Seager

Astronomers did well to discover a planet around the very nearest star to our sun. Proxima Centauri is 40 Pm away, still far out of reach for human space travel. But Proxima Centauri b orbits within the star's Goldilocks zone, where the planet's surface might be just right for life, if the planet has an atmosphere like ours.

Astrophysicists will now look for water vapor in the planet's atmosphere. We would like to find oxygen, which is a sign of life, and ozone, which creates a high atmospheric layer that protects the planet surface from UV radiation. We will aim to make an inventory of other gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, to help us understand the atmosphere.

Our descendants will wish to geoengineer their surroundings even on Earth. On other planets they may first need to terraform the atmosphere and surface. On a cold planet with a thin atmosphere, they could reuse ideas developed for Mars.

They could deploy a big mirror in orbit around the planet to beam starlight down to warm its surface, melting ice caps of frozen carbon dioxide and water. This would create a stable greenhouse atmosphere that builds up the pressure to let liquid water exist. To get oxygen, they could seed the planet with cyanobacteria.

I imagine a more fantastic future. Future generations will surely develop interstellar propulsion and terraforming technology. Our descendants may also do away with human space travel, instead sending raw materials and DNA to create humans on arrival, tailored to their planet.

Proxima b

The Independent

A team at LAM in Marseilles believes planet Proxima b, which was first spotted in August, could be an ocean planet. In Astrophysical Journal Letters they calculate its dimensions, discuss its surface, and say it may be covered by an ocean 200 km deep.

Team lead Bastien Brugger: "Among the thousands of exoplanets we have already discovered, Proxima b is one of the best candidates to sustain life [and] is the closest exoplanet to Earth. It is really exciting to have the possibility that there is life just at the gates of our solar system."

Erstes Hitler Buch

Marc von Lüpke

Thomas Weber behauptet, der spätere Diktator habe bereits 1923 ein Buch mit dem Titel "Adolf Hitler: Sein Leben und seine Reden" verfasst. Als Autor verzeichnet das Werk einen gewissen Baron Adolf-Viktor von Koerber. Weber fand in Koerbers Nachlass Aussagen des angeblichen Buchautors, die Hitler als Schreiber identifizieren.

Weber: "Bislang sahen wir Hitler in diesem Zeitraum eher als eine Art Trommler, eine Art Strohmann ... Dieses Buch beweist, dass Hitler schon sehr früh ein geschickter Manipulator und politischer Strippenzieher gewesen ist und nicht zunächst nur ein Propagandist, der von Hintermännern nach oben bugsiert wurde."

Adolf-Viktor von Koerber, geboren 1891, war ein Adliger und ehemaliger Kampfflieger. Zunächst zählte er zu den frühen Anhängern Hitlers, wandelte sich aber
vor 1933 zu einem Gegner des zunehmend radikaleren NSDAP-Chefs und verbrachte das Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs im KZ.

Wie Adolf Hitler zum Nazi wurde
Thomas Weber

Hitlers Rolle im Ersten Weltkrieg sah ganz anders aus als von seinen Biographen geschildert. Er war am Kriegsende politisch absolut orientierungslos und kam in nur wenigen Jahren vom unpolitischen Nobody zum Führer einer Bewegung, die die Welt veränderte. Anhand neuer Quellenfunde beschreibe ich die Schritte, die Hitler zum fanatischen Nazi machten.

Dancing in Rumi's Footsteps

Andrew Harvey

Discover the wisdom of Sufism and liberate your soul.

Jalaluddin Rumi experienced the full flowering of divinity in human form. He showed us how to touch the tender heart of God. When we read his poems, our hearts thrill to his passionate outpourings of love and devotion.

Rumi shows us how to birth ourselves as divine.

Hurricane Matthew at 03:13 GMT (05:13 CEST) Friday

Nasty Brits

"Arrogant. Nasty to Americans
when we were over there saving
them. Nasty when I visited them
a few years ago — wanted a
whole lot for nothing."
Chuck Yeager

Speech to Conservative
Party Conference 2016

Theresa May

Nobelpriset i fysik 2016
New Scientist

AR Oy, what about
gravity waves?


Comet 67P/Chu-Ger was
sniffed by ESA lander Philae.
Its coma blends H2S, NH3 and HCN, to recall the aroma of
rotten eggs, cat urine, and
bitter almonds.

Another Lost Decade?
Aditya Chakrabortty

Hammond has just admitted
that Britons will soon get much
poorer. He has binned plans for
cutting spending and reducing
debt and has no replacement.
The UK is jumping off a diving
board with no certainty
of water below.

AR The UK future:
Splash or splat!

A country that works
for everyone


New Scientist


2016 October 7

Climate Change

Paul Krugman

The two major US political parties are at odds on climate.

If Hillary Clinton wins, she will move forward with domestic clean energy policies and international negotiation — a one-two punch that offers some hope of reining in greenhouse gas emissions before climate change turns into climate catastrophe.

If Donald Trump wins, the paranoid style in climate politics — the belief that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a vast international conspiracy of scientists — will become official doctrine, and catastrophe will become all but inevitable.

There is no other issue this important.

Divisive Nationalism

The Times

German chancellor Angela Merkel won thunderous applause from hundreds of German business leaders yesterday as she warned that Britain could not retain full access to the EU single market unless it allowed free movement of people.

French housing minister Emmanuelle Cosse described as a catastrophe the British plan to force companies to publish the number of foreign workers they employ.

Italian deputy foreign minister Mario Giro warned that UK political leaders were taking the tone of nationalist parties in Hungary and Poland.

Doing a Brexit

François Hollande

The UK has decided to do a Brexit, I believe even a hard Brexit. Well, then we must go all the way through the UK's willingness to leave the EU. We have to have this firmness.

If not, we would jeopardise the fundamental principles of the EU. Other countries would want to leave the EU to get the supposed advantages without the obligations. There must be a threat, there must be a risk, there must be a price. Otherwise we will be in a negotiation that cannot end well.

Margaret Thatcher wanted to stay in Europe, but she wanted a cheque in return. Now, the UK wants to leave and pay nothing. It's not possible.

Taking a Pounding

Financial Times

The British pound fell more than 6% against the US dollar early on Friday before recovering most of its losses. Sterling was trading below $1.24 and €1.11 Friday afternoon. It has sunk 4.6% since the Sunday conference speech by UK prime minister Theresa May.

2016 October 6

Mother Theresa

Der Spiegel

Theresa May had posed as the hard Brexiteer. Now she speaks to ordinary working class people of fairness and equal opportunity.

May is appealing to the people — a smart but risky move among Conservatives. May sees her chance to emerge as the winner from the British political turmoil in recent months by championing the disadvantaged.

The economic future of the UK is uncertain. May opted for hard Brexit on Sunday and sterling plunged on Monday. Some experts warn of riots if the government does not change course.

May has long tried to give the Conservatives a more social image. Now she is dutifully enacting the popular will.

European Defense

Ursula von der Leyen

My plea to the British is not to block important European developments. It is not good to prevent Europe from organizing itself better. We Europeans want to expand our security and defense policy and work together better.

We need a strong European pillar in NATO. Two decades ago the Americans were not particularly interested in a cohesive Europe in NATO. Today they say Europe must be better organized. Germany has stepped up and done a lot more in NATO.

Germans accept the importance of security. The problems of the Mideast are suddenly in our towns and communities. Germany is still one of the safest countries in the world, but terror has crept into our daily life. And that causes a feeling of insecurity.

A nationalist and racist solution cannot be a solution for us. We would point out that every citizen benefits from a country open to the world. The commitment to NATO is important — that we stand by each other.

2016 October 5

A Fairer Britain

Theresa May

I want to set out my vision for Britain after Brexit. I want to lay out my approach, the things I believe. I want to explain what a country that works for everyone means.

I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics, built on the values of fairness and opportunity, where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person is given the chance to be all they want to be. A vision is nothing without the determination to see it through. And that's what Britain needs today.

The referendum was not just a vote to withdraw from the EU. It was about a sense many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them. It was a call for a change in the way our country works forever. Our society should work for everyone, but if you can't afford to get onto the property ladder, or your child is stuck in a bad school, or your pay has stagnated for years, or if your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn't feel like it's working for you.

We see division and unfairness all around: between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation, between the wealth of London and the rest of the country, and between the rich and powerful and their fellow citizens. We applaud success. But we also value the spirit of citizenship that means you respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work, that means a commitment to the men and women around you, that means you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas, that means you pay your fair share of tax.

Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ or pass in the street. If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you don't understand what citizenship means.

My mission — and the mission of this party — is to build a country that truly works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

AR Excellent keynote speech — well worth watching.


Amber Rudd

The British people sent a clear message in the referendum. Recent levels of immigration motivated a large part of the vote. The Conservative party was elected on a manifesto commitment to reduce net migration to sustainable levels.

Leaving the EU is just one part of the strategy. We have to look at all sources of immigration:
Landlords who rent to people who have no right to be here will be committing a crime.
Immigration checks will be mandatory for those wanting to get a licence to drive a taxi.
Banks will have to do regular checks to ensure they are not serving to illegal migrants.

I want to reduce net migration while continuing to ensure we attract the brightest and the best:

We will examine tightening the test companies have to take before recruiting from abroad.
We will ensure people coming here are not taking jobs British people could do.
We will look at tailoring our student immigration rules.

This Government will not waver in its commitment to put the interests of British people first:

We will make it easier to deport criminals and those who abuse our laws.
We will deport EU nationals that repeatedly commit so-called minor crimes in this country.
We will set up a fund to ease the pressures on public services in areas of high migration.

My primary concern is protecting our way of life, and delivering the security measures we require to ensure this. We have a government committed to putting British interests first, delivering both the security of our borders and control of who comes in.

AR Not reassuring.


The Guardian

The pound was worth $1.55 last October. Now it is heading toward $1.27. A year ago the pound bought €1.34. Today a pound will buy less than €1.12.

AR No EZ life for Brits.

2016 October 4

A Greater Britain

Philip Hammond

We are leaving the European Union. We are ready to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the economy from turbulence. And when the process is over, we are ready to provide support to British businesses as they adjust to life outside the EU.

The decision to leave the EU has introduced new fiscal uncertainty. Last year, the government borrowed £1 in every £10 we spent. The British people elected us on a promise to restore fiscal discipline. But we will no longer target a surplus at the end of this Parliament.

The Conservative commitment is to build a country and an economy that works for everyone. We will do it by making the British economy the most outward-looking, most dynamic, most competitive, high wage, high skilled, low tax economy in the world.

But to deliver that strong, prosperous, economy requires long-term, sustainable growth. And long-term sustainable growth requires us to raise our national productivity. Our national productivity is lower than the US and Germany, lower than France and Italy. Millions of British workers are working longer hours for lower pay than their counterparts in Europe and the US.

The good news is that we do know how to do productivity. Parts of London have the highest productivity in Europe. The bad news is that the productivity gap between our capital and our other cities is greater than in any other major economy in the world. Closing that gap will be key.

The British people have made a bold decision. We will not let them down. Let us resolve to tackle the challenges we face at home with renewed vigour. A bigger, better, Greater Britain!

2016 October 3

Conference Quotes

Theresa May

The referendum result was clear. It was legitimate. It was the biggest vote for change this country has ever known.

There will be no unnecessary delays in invoking Article 50. We will invoke it when we are ready. And we will be ready soon. We will invoke Article 50 no later than the end of March next year.

It is not up to the House of Commons to invoke Article 50, and it is not up to the House of Lords. It is up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone.

Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom.

Our laws will be made not in Brussels but in Westminster. The judges interpreting those laws will sit not in Luxembourg but in courts in this country. The authority of EU law in Britain will end.

We are going to be a fully independent, sovereign country — a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts.

We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And we will be free to pass our own laws.

We will seek the best deal possible as we negotiate a new agreement with the European Union.

Global Britain

Boris Johnson

Freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to practice whatever religion you want and to live your life as you please — these freedoms are not inimical to prosperity — they are in fact essential to sustained growth.

Britain incarnates that symmetry. Britain is ranked among the top three most innovative societies on Earth. We should have absolutely no shame or embarrassment in championing our ideals around the world.

Never once have I felt that this country would be in any way disadvantaged by extricating ourselves from the EU treaties. We will remain committed to all kinds of European cooperation. But we will also be able to speak up more powerfully with our own distinctive voice.

Every day I go into an office so vast that you could comfortably fit two squash courts and so dripping with gilt bling that it looks like something from the Kardashians. This was once the nerve centre of an empire that was 7 times the size of the Roman empire at its greatest extent. This country, over the last 200 years, has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries.

It would be a fatal mistake now to underestimate what this country is doing or what it can do. When we give our armed services clear and achievable missions we can still be remarkably effective. We will be the leading military player in western Europe for the foreseeable future.

And our hard power is dwarfed by soft power — the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on Earth.

Free markets and free societies go together. I urge you to look at the successes that these free institutions have helped to engender. Global Britain is a soft power superpower.

AR A glorious load of ripe B—s.

2016 October 2

Great Repeal Bill

The Sunday Times

UK PM Theresa May: "We will introduce, in the next Queen's speech, a Great Repeal Bill that will remove the European Communities Act from the statute book. That was the act that took us into the European Union. This marks the first stage in the UK becoming a sovereign and independent country once again. It will return power and authority to the elected institutions of our country. It means that the authority of EU law in Britain will end."

Mars Is Awfully Cold

Tony Allen-Mills

Elon Musk dreams of colonizing Mars. He plans to send thousands of colonists there to build a city. Musk: "I think probably we'll name the first ship ... Heart of Gold."

Fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams will recall that Heart of Gold is a shoe-shaped spaceship powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive.

Antarctica is a prototype for space environments and is about as like Mars as anywhere on Earth. Scott of the Antarctic: "Great God! This is an awful place."

Dark Galaxies

Joshua Sokol

Dragonfly 44 is a dim galaxy, but in size and mass it rivals the Milky Way. Such ultra-diffuse galaxies (UDGs) have been discovered in several galaxy clusters. The motion of stars in UDGs can test theories of dark matter.

In models of galaxy formation, clumps of dark matter coalesce into haloes. Then gas and fragments of other galaxies, drawn by gravity, collect at the center. They spin out into a disk and collapse into luminous stars to form a galaxy we can see. The formation of UDGs is a mystery.

The Dragonfly 44 galaxy has a total mass of around a trillion suns but there is no evidence that it is spinning. In most galaxies, stars and gas can outweigh dark matter near the center by a ratio of 5 to 1, but at the center of Dragonfly 44, dark matter outweighs the rest by 50 to 1.

2016 October 1


Philip Hammond

Theresa May and I share clear objectives. We should be looking for a good Brexit, not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit. The British people will expect us to negotiate a solution that allows the UK economy to go on growing. Whatever control powers we have over immigration into the UK, we will use them in a way that supports the UK economy.

Green Britain

The Independent

Brexit could means a greener Britain. A radical reform of British farm subsidies could restore the countryside to something of its original health and charm. Rather than protecting agricultural incomes, rural policy could protect the environment and biodiversity.

Britain could buy more food on world markets. One way or another, the British agricultural sector would most likely be reduced in size as the economy adjusts. England will not return to being a gigantic forest, but there is an opportunity here.

Google Assistant

Farhad Manjoo

Google has pumped vast resources into data mining and artificial intelligence systems. Now the company is melding these advances into a new product, the Google Assistant. The ultimate aim is to build something like the talking computer on Star Trek.

Based on your interactions with it over the years, Google would know your habits, your preferences and your budget, plus your friends, family and your colleagues. With access to so much data, and with the computational power to interpret all of it, the Assistant most likely could handle the entire task. If not, it would simply ask you to fill in the gaps, the way a human assistant might.

Google could build a more capable digital assistant than others. Google is also a leader in machine learning. But it may not have the prowess to create the friendliest or most charming assistant.

AR I called such assistants avatars in my 2010 book G.O.D. Is Great.


The Sky's Limit

Rosetta lands:
Final image

SpaceX to Mars

Shimon Peres

AR I saw the great man
up close with Helmut Kohl
at the Heiliggeistkirche
in Heidelberg in
July 1987.

"Donald just criticized me for
preparing for this debate.
And, yes, I did. You know
what else I prepared for?
I prepared to be president."
Hillary Clinton

Punktsieg für Clinton
aber ein K.O-Schag für Trump
was das noch nicht!



Heidegger's Existentialism
Adam Kirsch

Alone we suffer, alone we die,
and alone we must make
meaning out of our fate.
The highest value is
authenticity in the
face of death.

Bob Peak
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan featured Genesis bombs as terraforming devices


Jeremy Corbyn
wins again


2016 September 30

Theresa May

New Statesman

The UK vote to leave the EU was a rebuke to the political and business establishment. Theresa May saw that the result reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Inequalities of wealth and opportunity, regional imbalances, and a distrusted political class all played a part.

In 2013, May saw the need to confront vested interests in the private sector and embrace a more strategic role for the state. She has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the EU. The referendum result makes a national reckoning inevitable.

May seems willing to challenge the orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance, and stricter controls on foreign takeovers. We welcome this.

Britain No World Beater

Martin Wolf

By EU standards, Britain is not an economic success.

Measured at purchasing power parity, the rise in UK GDP per head between 2000 and 2015 was smaller than in Germany, Spain, and France. Over this period, the UK outperformed Italy, but in 2015 its GDP per head was 9th among the 15 oldest EU members.

The UK has the highest income inequality in the EU-15. UK real wages fell by 10% between 2008 and 2014, while German and French real wages rose. In 2015, only London and the Southeast had higher GDP per head than the EU-15 average.

UK workers work longer hours than those in other EU-15 countries. The only EU-15 countries to have lower output per hour than the UK are Greece, Italy, and Portugal. The UK also now runs the largest current account deficit, relative to GDP, in the EU-15.

UK failings: low infrastructure investment, poor education of much of the population and poor numeracy of much of its elite, a grossly distorted housing market, over-centralized government; and a corporate sector whose leaders are motivated more by share price than by the long-term health of the business. Result: mediocre real incomes for most people.

This is no world-beating economy.

Brexit v EU

Anatole Kaletsky

The European Union faces five crises: Brexit, refugee flows, fiscal austerity, geopolitical threats from east and south, and illiberal democracy in central Europe.

Brexit threatens to trigger disintegration of the EU. British voters were told that Britain could have its cake and eat it, and when this expectation is disappointed public opinion will change. The EU should encourage such second thoughts by:

Changing rules on freedom of movement to give more control to national governments
Changing fiscal rules to fund dealing with immigrants by mutually guaranteed EU bonds
Changing EU spending priorities and foreign policy
Reshaping the EU as an inner core and an outer ring

Vive la révolution!

2016 September 29

Musk on Mars

Lynne Everatt

Elon Musk wowed them at the IAC by offering up an alternative to hanging around on Earth waiting for a doomsday event. Recalling the first pioneers to travel to California, Musk sold Mars on its proximity, similarity to Earth, and relatively low gravity.

SpaceX founder Musk estimates it would currently cost about $10 billion to travel to Mars. He wants to bring the price of a ticket to Mars down to $200,000 with reusable spaceships that can be refilled in orbit. He wants to send a million people to Mars, in 10,000 missions of 100 passengers a ship, over a period of between 40 and 100 years.

Musk: "It would be an incredible adventure. It would be the most inspiring thing that I could possibly imagine. Life needs to be more than solving problems every day. You need to wake up every day and be excited about the future, and be inspired, and want to live."


Wired + Wikipedia

The arrow of time emerges from decoherence. When particles in quantum superposition interact with others they decohere. Classical mechanics takes over and gravity becomes important. But gravity might not impose a universal arrow of time.

The Wheeler-DeWitt equation governs decoherence. In LaTeX it is: \hat{H}(x) |\psi\rangle = 0, where \hat{H}(x) is the Hamiltonian constraint in quantized general relativity and |\psi\rangle stands for the wave function of the universe; |\psi\rangle is a functional of field configurations on all of spacetime that contains all the information about the geometry and matter content of the universe; \hat{H} is an operator that acts on the Hilbert space of wave functions.

The equation can be derived from a path integral using the gravitational action in Euclidean quantum gravity. General covariance implies there is no global evolution and time t is just a label. The time evolution becomes a gauge transformation. The Hamiltonian constraint restricts the space of the kinematic states of the universe to that of physical states following gauge orbits. In general, the Hamiltonian vanishes for a theory with general covariance.

Perhaps the arrow of time emerges from observers: The moment we point a telescope at some place, its time flows our way. We set the arrow.

AR Time is like space until we look into it. Like decoherence, the arrow is epistemic. We need time to pop qubits to bits.

2016 September 28

Musk Mars Mission


SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave a keynote speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on Tuesday.

His plan for colonizing Mars uses a fully reusable transportation system. The spaceship is fueled with methane and oxygen in Earth orbit and refueled on Mars after landing there.

Musk sees two possible futures:
1 Humans experience an event that drives them toward extinction.
2 Humans become a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanetary species, starting with Mars.

To steer for 2, we must:
— Make fully reusable spacecraft
— Master refueling in orbit
— Produce propellant on Mars
— Choose the right fuel

SpaceX has started testing its Raptor rocket engine for an interplanetary launch system. Traveling to Mars and building a base there is a big challenge. We have not yet solved the problem of protecting humans from radiation in deep space.

The Sky's Limit

Oil Change International

The Paris Climate goals require a managed decline of fossil fuel production.

Key findings:
Potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in currently operating fields and mines
    would take us beyond 2 K of warming.
The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the
    world beyond 1.5 K.
With the necessary decline in production to meet climate goals, clean energy can be scaled up
    at a corresponding pace.

We recommend:
No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built.
Some fields and mines should be closed before fully exploiting their resources.
Governments and companies should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry.

2016 September 27

Trump Blew It — So What?

Richard Wolffe

In any ordinary election year, by any rational measure, you would say that Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump in their first debate.

Trump Fails the Stamina Test

Ross Douthat

Clinton improved as Trump began to flail. So she won the debate on points and probably won it in the court of public opinion. She didn't goad Trump into a meltdown or knock him out with a devastating attack. She won the night, but he lived to fight another day.

Brexit Boost for Britain?

The Times

Britain will emerge from Brexit stronger and better off than other EU countries within five years, says BILD publisher Axel Springer chief executive Mathias Döpfner: "I very simply think that in the long run continental Europe may suffer more from Brexit than England itself. We should not take this whole Brexit decision as a way to blame the Brits. We should take it like a wake-up call for Europe to refresh its political approach."


New Scientist

The Jovian moon Europa repeatedly spews plumes of water into space. NASA says the Hubble Space Telescope has glimpsed the plumes for a second time, suggesting Europa has an active ocean underneath its ice crust.

STScI astronomer William Sparks: "We may be able to explore that ocean for organic chemicals or even signs of life without having to drill through unknown miles of ice."

In 2014, Sparks and his team watched Europa transit Jupiter and analyzed UV images of the plumes backlit by the planet. The plumes rise some 200 km before raining down again. NASA and ESA will send probes to Europa.


Kevin Laland

Our understanding of biological evolution has taken huge strides. Advances in genetics, epigenetics, and developmental biology challenge us to rethink the relationship between genes, organisms, and the environment. There are ways other than genetic mutations to generate heritable variety.

A given set of genes has the potential to produce a variety of phenotypes, depending on the environment in which the organism develops. This developmental plasticity may play an active role in the evolutionary process. Organisms seem to have evolved the ability to respond flexibly to whatever conditions they experience.

A flexible phenotype allows organisms to survive in the short term, with genetic change following later. Experiments reveal that organisms exposed to new environments develop characteristics that resemble those of closely related species adapted to these same environments. This suggests that adaptations may commonly arise through immediate responses to the environment, with natural selection subsequently cementing them through genetic evolution.

Natural selection is currently portrayed as a process in which external agents sort between random variants according to their suitability. But organisms modify their environment and help to determine which of their characteristics are useful. Organisms play a central role in their own evolution.

2016 September 26


Freeman Dyson

NASA culture is Big Space. Big corporations receive contracts from NASA to produce custom-built hardware and software following NASA procedures at enormous cost. Little Space aims to carry out space operations using hardware and software mass-produced for other purposes by companies in a competitive market at vastly lower cost.

The prospects for future manned space missions conducted within Big Space culture are generally dismal. Any serious risks to the life and health of astronauts would be unacceptable, so few missions are feasible and most of them are unattractive. Risk aversion permeates Big Space culture.

The future of space is a problem of biology rather than of engineering. Rockets solve the easy problem of space travel, to get from here to there. The hard problem is that of biology, to find ways to survive and build communities in space, to adapt the structures of living creatures so they can take root in strange environments.

Biotechnology will advance to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth. A Noah's Ark spacecraft is a baseball-sized object containing living seeds with the genetic instructions for growing millions of species of microbes and plants and animals adapted to live together and support one another in an alien environment. Suitable places to put such arks are planets and moons, and also the more numerous cold dark objects far from the sun, where air is absent, water is frozen into ice, and gravity is weak. Each Noah's Ark will grow into a living world of creatures.

Life can survive anywhere in the universe where there is starlight as a source of energy and a solid surface with ice and minerals as a source of food. Planets and moons are the worst places for life from the point of view of mobility because their gravity is too strong. Life has been stuck here on Earth for three billion years. Our destiny is to be creators of a living universe.

2016 September 25


The New York Times

Hillary Clinton has a record of service and a raft of pragmatic ideas. Donald Trump is the worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history. But the best case for Hillary Clinton is not that she is not Donald Trump.

The next president will take office with bigoted, tribalist movements and their leaders on the march. In the Mideast and across Asia, in Russia and eastern Europe, even in Britain and the United States, war, terrorism, and the pressures of globalization are eroding democratic values, fraying alliances, and challenging the ideals of tolerance and charity.

Hillary Clinton has studied these forces and weighed responses to these problems. Our endorsement is rooted in respect for her intellect, experience, toughness, and courage over a career of almost continuous public service, often as the first or only woman in the arena. Her record shows a determined leader intent on creating opportunity for struggling Americans at a time of economic upheaval and on ensuring that the United States remains a force for good in the world.

Through war and recession, Americans born since 9/11 have had to grow up fast, and they deserve a grown-up president. A lifetime's commitment to solving problems in the real world qualifies Hillary Clinton for this job, and the country should put her to work.

Global Hype

Niall Ferguson

President Barack Obama's farewell address to the UN general assembly: "The global economy ... global integration ... our global economy has made life better for billions of men, women and children ... a global supply chain ... global trade ... global capital ... global marketplace ... global education ... global security."

AR Globall Hyperatlas (1991)

Curiosity Stream

 "Full English Brexit is bad for
Scotland's economic health
and cultural identity."
Alex Salmond

English Monoglots

"We mustn't become isolated
... Language learning in this
country is very low compared
to other countries."
Simon Kemp


University of Oxford first
UK university to top THE
World University Rankings,
knocks former #1 Caltech
to #2 for 2016-2017.

AR So my 3 Oxford degrees
are worth something
at last?



2016 September 24

Listen for ET

Stephen Hawking

Gazing at the stars I always imagined there was someone up there looking back. As I grow older I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone. After a lifetime of wondering, I am helping to lead a new global effort to find out.

The Breakthrough Listen project will scan the nearest million stars for signs of life. One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c, but we should be wary of answering back. If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which did not turn out well for the Native Americans.

In recent years, we have found thousands of planets outside our solar system. Finding intelligent life would be the single greatest discovery in history. We would have to give up the idea that we are unique and start acting with more compassion and humility.

New Times

Vince Cable

The center left faces acute crisis. A Conservative government has just perpetrated the biggest policy disaster in generations, leading to an unplanned Brexit, but is being rewarded with large poll leads. Across Europe, center-left parties are struggling to compete with conservative parties and populist movements.

A crisis of financial capitalism has rebounded politically to the benefit of parties of the right. Labour was at the wheel when the ship hit the rocks. It and other left-wing parties in France, Germany, and Scandinavia have also seemed bereft of credible ideas for post-crisis recovery.

The electoral arithmetic is unforgiving. In 2015, the Conservatives and UKIP attracted roughly half of the vote in the UK. Unless the remaining fragments of the opposition can appeal to people who have voted Conservative, the next generation faces the prospect of one-party rule.

AR Democracy could lead to a one-party police state in Fortress UK.

2016 September 23

A Global Crisis

David Miliband

According to the UNHCR, in 2015 there were over 65 million people throughout the world who had been uprooted from their homes by conflict and persecution. Over 20 million of these people are refugees. On average, 34,000 people were forced to flee their homes every day of 2015.

Turkey has over 2.7 million refugees from Syria. Lebanon shelters 1 Syrian for every 5 Lebanese citizens. Jordan has nearly 660,000 Syrians known to be on its territory. Pakistan and Iran have, respectively, 1.6 million and 950,000 Afghan refugees. Kenya hosts about 500,000 refugees from Somalia.

Refugees are displaced for an average of 17 years, and those displaced within their own country for an average of 23 years. Humanitarian needs go unaddressed and cause further political disruption. The need to rethink aid policy is overwhelming.

AR Pulling up the drawbridge and raining insults on outsiders is no solution.

A National Crisis

David Miliband

Brexit creates new challenges for the left and reflects the weakness of the left in the UK. Brexit was only possible because Labour shifted from a governing party to the margins of power.

Jeremy Corbyn makes the party unelectable. His half-hearted message about Europe is a betrayal of millions of working people and his equivocation on NATO is dangerous. Domestically, nationalization and cor­porate taxation are not the answer.

Global markets are rewriting the rules. Globalization has created inequalities of income, wealth, and power that challenge the traditional left and it has challenged social norms in a way that breaks the back of the traditional right.

The left needs to ask:
1 Does it put values above doctrine?
2 Does it have policies for wealth creation as well as fair distribution?
3 Does it have an international perspective as well as a national one?

AR So the old left and right are both dead — long live the One Party!

2016 September 22

String Theory

K.C. Cole

String theory began as an elegant promise to solve such fundamental problems as quantum gravity. Simply replace point particles with tiny vibrating loops of string. Even more elegant was the math behind it.

The theory said the strings were too small to be probed by experiment. They lived in up to 11 spatial dimensions that were compactified into complex origami shapes, and surely some configuration would turn out to be right for our world. But the complexities refused to reduce to a single theory.

Juan Maldacena found that a 5D string theory including gravity was equivalent to a 4D quantum field theory (QFT). This anti-de Sitter / conformal field theory (AdS/CFT) duality looked like a way to get a handle on gravity by relating it to QFT.

Researchers dug deeper. QFT unified special relativity and quantum mechanics, but they found a huge number of theories. When physicists years ago struggled with the particle zoo they dug down to more fundamental building blocks, like quarks and gluons. Now they want to do the same with QFT.

The flowering of string theory has been great for mathematics and cosmology. The multiverse idea with the selection effect is a natural story of why our world is as it is.

2016 September 21

The Messenger of Monotheism

Andy Ross

The Prophet Muhammad brought the message of monotheism to the tribes of Arabia some fourteen centuries ago. In doing so, he raised the Arabs from primitive superstition and world-historical insignificance to become the leading agents of a force for progress that dominated the region stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the Atlantic Ocean for a thousand years. This was a colossal, awesome achievement, eclipsed only by the rise of Europe under the impetus of science and the industrial revolution.

AR My 5,000 word review of books by Kader Abdolah — see this as a promissory note for my mooted monograph on monotheism.

Hard Brexit

Martin Wolf

I believe that this UK government will not seek to reverse the result of the referendum vote. Theresa May will depart not only from the EU but also from the customs union and the single market. Both deprive the UK of legislative autonomy.

Parliament is constitutionally entitled to ignore the vote result. But the Conservatives would surely follow Labour into ruin if they tried to reverse the outcome. Their Brexiteers would go berserk.

Some Brexiteers propose that the UK should simply repeal the European Communities Act, rather than go through Article 50. Such egregious treaty breaking would hardly be a helpful precursor to the negotiation of new trade agreements. It is essential to go through the formal process of negotiating a departure.

I would like a government prepared to overturn the referendum. In my view the UK is making a huge economic and strategic blunder. The UK has chosen a largely illusory autonomy over EU membership.

AR Amen.

B-21 Raider

Secretary of the US Air Force Deborah Lee James introduced Lt Col Richard Cole, the co-pilot of Lt Gen James Doolittle,
to name the Northrop Grumman B-21 as the Raider, in recognition of the Doolittle Raiders of 1942.

Slovakian PM Robert Fico
says the EU will make sure
Brexit is "very painful"
for the UK


SPD 21.6%
CDU 17.6%
Linke 15.6%
Grüne 15.2%
AfD 14.2%

AR CDU down,
AfD up, SPD go from
red-black coalition
to red-green-red


AR Duplicating the
US deterrent?

Death Ray Laser Cannon
for British Forces

Sir Michael Fallon says MoD
is finalizing a £30 million
deal with MBDA UK to build
capability demonstrator for a
laser-directed energy weapon
to be delivered by 2019.

AR Relax — MBDA is a
European company.

"The party is divided.
The loonies may split from
the fruitcakes."

"This summer I travelled
all over Germany, and the
main reason was to talk about
Brexit. Every time, in every
place, the biggest round of
applause was when I said:
'The time of cherry-picking
and rebates is over.' That
is how the German people
feel about the situation."
Burkhard Balz MEP

"The political benefits of
the EU — for the stability
of the Continent, and for
the Continent's contribution
to the ascendancy of Western
values and influence in the
global society of states —
have been persistently under-estimated by many in the UK,
not least in Westminster
and Whitehall."
Andrew Tyrie MP

Apartheid Isles or
quarantine zone?

The Ross Blog
Over the last month
it has averaged over
600 visitors a day
(steady for years)

My review
The Silk Roads
Peter Frankopan

Will her 9/11 stumble give
Trump the White House?

State Election Results

CDU 34.4%
SPD 31.2%
Greens 10.9%
AfD 7.8%

UK Forecasts Down
British Chambers
of Commerce

UK GDP growth
forecasts cut to
1.8% for 2016
1.0% for 2017


2016 September 20

Rule Britannia

Baron Hague of Richmond

Hong Kong, June 29, 1997: Prince Charles and other UK dignitaries were gathered aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. An invitation to dine on Britannia was eagerly sought, and lucky guests poured up the gangplank. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher told Latin American ambassadors at dinner about the achievements of Empire: "The trouble with all of you was that you were not colonised by the British."

2016 September 19


Quentin Peel

On September 19, 1946, Sir Winston Churchill delivered a speech in Zurich calling for the creation of a United States of Europe.

Churchill was called the father of Europe. Hugo Young: "But he was also the father of misunderstandings about Britain's part in this Europe. He encouraged Europe to misunderstand Britain, and Britain to misunderstand herself."

Churchill (earlier): "We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not comprised."

The EU referendum campaign was dominated by the debates on immigration and the economy. Foreign, security, and defense policy was discussed only in terms of the costs and benefits to the UK of being a member of the EU.

Since the referendum vote, there has been no indication from UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson or prime minister Theresa May as to how they see the future focus of foreign and security policy. Brexiteers liked the idea of reviving an Anglosphere.

AR Anglocentrism = Xenolinguaphobia


The New York Times

Reeling from terrorist attacks, an influx of refugees from Africa and the Mideast, and persistent high unemployment and low economic growth, millions of Europeans are losing faith the EU. They are turning in increasing numbers to populist movements and nationalist politicians who promise to protect their security by closing national borders.

If the EU is to survive, its leaders must restore popular faith in its ability to address its problems. EU leaders hope that plans to reinforce security through joint military headquarters, cooperation on military procurement, and expanding a readily deployable EU force will convince European voters that they will be more secure in the union.

AR Festung Europa


and I are entangled.

AR This slogan is the key to my goal of unpacking a new psychology that links our modern miph (mathematics—informatics—physics) with Kantian philosophy and monotheism. Roughly, the relation between God and the first-person self is analogous to that between Schrödinger and his cat. The idea came to me this morning — now I just need to write it up in a brief monograph.

2016 September 18

Gaia Star Map

Natalie Wolchover

The ESA Gaia space telescope has produced its first catalog of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The data logs the positions and brightness of some 1.1 billion stars, around 1% of the Milky Way total.

Gaia will eventually map the motions of all the stars in its catalog. The data will sharpen our picture of the structure of our galaxy and show how it formed and evolved, as well as how stars evolve.

Gaia data will be used to test models of dark matter. A model proposed by Lisa Randall spreads this invisible stuff through the galaxy in a thin disk, rather than suffusing it in a spherical halo.

As Gaia continues its stargazing, its data will reveal wobbles in the positions of many of the stars, indicating the tug of orbiting worlds. Exoplanet researchers are making use of the data.

2016 September 17

UK Will Block EU Army

The Times

UK defense secretary Sir Michael Fallon says he will veto measures to build an EU army for as long as the UK remains a member of the EU. Sir Michael: "We have always been concerned about unnecessarily duplicating what we already have in NATO."

France and Germany will present the EU as a beacon of security and defense in a vulnerable world. They have drawn up a timetable to create a common military force that would rival NATO in capability. The timetable commits Brussels to a plan for the establishment of a "single operational headquarters for all EU civilian and military missions to be more efficient and quicker to act" and a defense fund to boost investment in shared military capabilities.

Angela Merkel: "We need more cooperation, particularly in the area of defense, and a lot more needs to be done on the Franco-German plan."

A new EU defense fund will pay for an embryonic European air force and navy through the Brussels budget for drones, cyber-defense, air transport, and naval vessels. It will fund dual-use EU assets that can be deployed for border and coastguard operations as well as military missions.

Sir Michael: "We will go on being committed to the security of the European continent."

UK Forces Inadequate

Financial Times

General Sir Richard Barrons has sent a long memo to UK defense minister Sir Michael Fallon criticizing UK defense policy:

There is no military plan to defend the UK in a conventional conflict.
A Russian air campaign would quickly overwhelm Britain.
Navy ships and RAF planes lack sufficient support. Systems and stocks are deficient.
The army is outgunned by professionals elsewhere and can only fight weak opponents.
Small numbers of expensive pieces of military kit make UK capabilities fragile.
Manpower is squeezed, with only 40 or so pilots who can fly the new F-35 fighter jets.

Sir Richard: "There is a sense that modern conflict is ordained to be only as small and as short term as we want to afford — and that is absurd."

A senior Whitehall official: "So far there is a lot of talk about deterrence across NATO but what really matters is whether it is credible, certainly as far as Russia is concerned."

British armored warfare capabilities have been cut back over the years. The army now fields only about 168 Challenger main battle tanks, all due for an upgrade. New Russian Armata tanks have a bigger gun, in a robot turret, plus an active protection system.

British aerial surveillance assets are stretched. The RAF fleet of 6 AWACS planes is obsolete and too small to sustain 24-hour coverage over a theater of operation.

The Royal Navy surface fleet is too small. With 2 Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers, plus 6 Type 45 destroyers and a planned 8 Type 26 frigates, the Royal Navy will fly just 48 new F-35 jets.

Amphibious assault forces are being cut back. The number of Bay-class logistics ships has fallen from 4 to 3, and there are no plans to replace HMS Ocean.

The fundamental shortfall is one of strategic oversight and planning. The most recent Strategic Defence and Security Review threat analysis simply rules out a direct threat to the UK.

AR There is no direct threat. The UK is all but surrounded by EU states. Russia would only threaten us through eastern Europe, triggering a NATO response.

2016 September 16


The Guardian

Diane James has been elected the new leader of UKIP: "From one grammar school girl to another, stop the faff, stop the fudge and the farce. Get on with it. Invoke article 50."

UKIP demands: "No to soft Brexit. No to single market controls and no to unrestricted freedom of movement into this country. If they come in, they come in on a fair basis."

AR No to UKIP.


Donald Tusk

Brexit challenges us. Today many people think that being part of the EU stands in the way of stability and security. It is therefore crucial to restore the balance between freedom and security, openness and protection.

The migration crisis was the tipping point. The lack of rapid action and of a uniform European strategy have weakened trust. Rebuilding this trust has become an urgent necessity.

Someone must give back to Europeans their sense of security. We should cooperate more closely when it comes to the exchange of information and operations. At external borders we must ensure that everybody is checked.

Our citizens expect the EU to better protect their interests. Free trade and global competition pose challenges. We must reassure our citizens that we are protecting their interests.

Following Brexit, business as usual is not an option. We will not change the European Union into a single state. We need strong political will and imagination.

AR Festung Europa?

2016 September 15

Alexa, Amazon's Ambient Assistant

Financial Times

Amazon unveils Echo, an online speaker and digital assistant for the family home.

Echo is a black or white cylinder with no screen and it blends into the background when not in use. You can ignore it until you ask it to do something, such as play music, find recipes, turn on lights, or shop for stuff. If you ask a factual question, it fetches the answer and replies.

Echo is immobile. You do not pick it up or take it out to use it. It can listen constantly to people around it and respond to them. Alexa is the AI software in the cloud to which Echo appeals when anyone within hearing calls its name. Amazon has built in privacy controls to ensure that Echo does not relay everything you say straight to Alexa. But it is easy. All you have to do is talk.

An ambient computer that converses with people has been a goal since the early days of computing. But the technology for speech recognition and language analysis behind Echo is new. It reflects a leap forward in machine learning during the last decade enabled by faster computers and cloud data.

The trick is to tame the complexity and deliver it simply. Jeff Bezos believes in making things easy. He equates difficulty of use to psychological friction, which reduces the chance of your using a device. His idea is for Amazon to become ambient, blending seamlessly into everyday life.

AR Amazon Alexa may do better than Google Glass.

Big Business Black Boxes

Tim O'Reilly

A black box is a system whose inputs and outputs are known, but the algorithm by which one is transformed to the other is unknown. Algorithms shape shape the stuff we see through Google or Facebook and thus shape the choices we make.

Google and Facebook both know their reputation depends on people finding what they want. Google made search engine optimization easy at first by helping web publishers understand what kinds of things its page rank algorithm valued. Facebook has updated its news feed algorithm to de-emphasize stories with clickbait headlines to create a better user experience.

My four rules for evaluating whether you can trust an algorithm:

1 Its intended outcome is clear to all and easy to check.
2 Success in reaching its outcome is measurable.
3 The goals of its creators and its consumers are aligned.
4 It helps people to make better long term decisions.

Government regulations are also algorithms. But too often they fail my four tests:

1 Some governments have made plain language a priority. But this clarity is rare.

2 Government regulations rarely include any provision for measuring or determining their effect.

3 The goals of regulators and of consumers may be aligned, but often regulations serve the needs of government rather than citizens, or of those with access to the regulatory process.

4 Over time, regulations get out of step with the needs of society. When regulations no longer have the intended effect, they often continue with new regulations simply piled on top of them.

The failure of government to improve its black boxes is one of the major reasons why trust in government is so low.

There is a master algorithm that rules our society: The only obligation of a business is to its shareholders.

AR Shareholders of the world unite!

Crazy, Conceited, Contemptible Crap

Anson Rabinbach

Mein Kampf originally appeared in two volumes in 1925 and in 1926. A 1930 popular edition in one volume ran to a total of 12.4 million copies by 1944. Copyright reverted to the public domain in 2015. The new critical and scholarly edition comprises nearly 2,000 pages with over 3,700 notes in two big volumes. The initial print run of 4,000 copies sold out in days, and sales have reached 14,000, to put it for a time at #2 on the Spiegel bestseller list.

The book was never the bible of National Socialist doctrine. There is little truth in the author's description of himself as an impoverished and unrecognized genius who emerged from a struggle within his soul. The book deals with four basic ideas: space, race, violence, and dictatorship. Passages on racial eugenics and Jews include abundant rhetoric on extermination and elimination. To see the book as a Nazi bible merely affirms its author's claim to have been a prophet.

AR Not for me.

2016 September 14

State of the Union 2016

Jean-Claude Juncker

Our European Union is in an existential crisis: high unemployment and social inequality, mountains of public debt, the huge challenge of integrating refugees, security threats, and even the prospect of a member leaving our ranks. We are not the United States of Europe. Our European Union can only work if we all work together to deliver:

1 A Europe that preserves our way of life

Above all, Europe means peace. Our values are freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Being European also means open trading, the right to privacy, equal pay, protection of our workers and our industries in an increasingly globalized world, and (for some) the euro as a currency that brings huge economic benefits.

2 A Europe that empowers us

We need to reform our European telecommunications markets. We also have to empower our artists and creators and protect their works. Creators of content should be paid fairly for their work. More than anything, we need to invest in our young people.

3 A Europe that defends us

We must defend ourselves against terrorism. We are fighting for our European way of life and our values. We will defend our borders with strict controls. We have to take responsibility for our own defense in complementarity with NATO. The European defense industry needs to innovate.

4 A Europe that takes responsibility

We need the European Union. We can only build it with the member states, never against them. The Commission has to take responsibility by listening to the European Parliament, to all member states, and to the people. It is time we all took responsibility for building a better Europe.

2016 September 13

Colliding Black Holes

Natalie Wolchover

Long ago and far away, two massive black holes spiraled together and merged, making waves in spacetime detected by LIGO. The new data has shaken up astrophysics. Experts met in August to discuss the implications at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara.

The first LIGO event was the merger of a pair of black holes of roughly 30 solar mass (M°) apiece. Massive stars explode as supernovas, and their cores collapse into black holes or neutron stars. Most known massive stars live in binary systems. Binary massive stars dance and kiss and suck each other's gas like vampires, and sometimes shrink down to black holes and merge.

The LIGO detections seem to support two theories of binary black hole formation. A new chemically homogeneous model for their formation vies with the classic common envelope model.

The common envelope story starts with two massive stars in a wide orbit. As the first star runs out of fuel in its core, its outer layers puff up to form a red supergiant. Much of this gas gets sucked away by the second star, and the core of the first star eventually collapses into a black hole. The interaction draws the pair closer, so when the second star puffs up into a supergiant it engulfs the two of them in a common envelope. The companions spiral ever closer as they swim through the gas. The gas is lost to space, the core of the second star collapses too, and the two black holes merge.

This model is expected to yield pairs of black holes with mass around 10 M°. The second LIGO event, from merging black holes of 8 M° and 14 M°, fits it. Common envelopes can produce mergers of 30 M° black holes if the progenitor stars weigh around 90 M° and contain almost no metal (elements above H and He). Such systems may be rare.

The chemically homogeneous model begins with two massive stars rotating around each other very rapidly and so closely that they become tidally locked like tango dancers. This stirs the stars and heats them, triggering fusion throughout their interiors until they run out of fuel. Each star then collapses into a massive black hole. They dance on for a few billion years and then merge.

LIGO data suggests that black hole mergers are frequent events.

AR See my blog entries for 2016-06-15 and 2016-02-11.

2016 September 12

Hard Brexit

Ben Chu

Consequences of Hard Brexit policy choices:

1 Leaving the single market would likely end UK-based service company rights to sell into EU markets without discrimination or local regulatory barriers. Financial firms based in London would lose their passport to sell services across the EU. Many would move their European HQ out of London. The euro-denominated derivatives clearing trade would also move.

2 Quitting the EU customs union would mean costly customs checks on all British goods entering the single market. Dublin would need to impose customs checks on goods entering its territory from Northern Ireland.

3 Exiting the EU with no negotiations would leave British exporters with no idea of the potential future costs of trade with the EU. The UK would instantly cease to be covered by the 60 or so free trade agreements between the EU and the rest of the world.

4 Lifting all UK tariff barriers and exporting under WTO rules would instantly face British car exporters to Europe with a 10% import tariff on motor vehicles. UK manufacturing firms would be engulfed in a tidal wave of cheap imports from the developing world.

The consequences would be devastating.

Germany 2017

Wolfgang Münchau

German elections are due in fall 2017. If she runs, Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to win, with the same grand coalition. A new poll puts the AfD at 15% of the vote nationwide, with the CDU coalition down to a bare majority.

The new Bundestag is unlikely to press for a soft Brexit. The SPD does not want it, nor do the Greens or the AfD. It is also unlikely to agree to a Greek debt restructuring or to push for further integration in Europe.

Global Trade

Christopher Booker

This century has seen a revolution in global trade. To improve its speed and security, the World Customs Organisation lets Authorised Economic Operators (AEOs) file all their documentation electronically in advance. Mutual recognition between customs authorities allows goods to be waved through at their destinations.

As a member of the EU, the UK is part of this global system. Negotiating separate AEO status for Britain would take far too long. Remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA) and keeping its AEO status gives the UK both continued access to the single market and a unilateral right to exercise some limited control over immigration from the rest of the EU.

Dropping out of the EEA would be devastating.

Copyright Lynn Preston
© Lynn Preston

"We have become too lazy and
too fat on our successes in
previous generations."
Liam Fox

AR Brexiteer bites
the budgeteers.

Economists for Brexit
aims to combat the efforts
of the defeated Remain
campaign to draw the UK
into a fudged settlement
and aims to explain the
economic arguments
in favour of Brexit.

AR Caution:
Contains nuts

"Unser Land darf sich nicht
verändern, Deutschland muss
Deutschland bleiben.
Horst Seehofer

AR Jawohl!

EU army plans will go
forward after Brexit


Top Universities

Stanford U, US
Harvard U, US
Cambridge U, UK
Caltech, US
Oxford U, UK

AR In 1987 I turned down
an offered place at

Less than a month before the
end of the mission, Rosetta's
high-resolution camera has
revealed the Philae lander
wedged into a dark crack on
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Arms Bazaar

Britain is the second biggest
arms dealer in the world, after
the United States. Two-thirds
of UK arms exports since 2010
have been to Mideast states.
New UK government report:
"The UK is one of the world's
most successful defence
exporters, averaging second
place in the global rankings on
a rolling ten-year basis, making
it Europe's leading defence
exporter in the period."

AR Shame

The Great Fire of London
raged over some 200 hectares
of the city center 350 years
ago this week in 1666.

May in China

JIRAM mosaic of Jupiter's
southern aurora, about
4 hours after perijove

Joseph Chamberlain


2016 September 11

Global Vision

Henrik Müller

Germany chairs the G20 from December 1. The G20 is supposed to govern the world. It includes democrats and autocrats, kings and communists, as well as the EU, the most important international institutions and organizations, and thousands of experts.

The EU must refashion itself after the Brexit shock into an effective federal state. Without a united Europe, an international order is hard to imagine, certainly not a free one. We must uphold a vision for the world.

New Religion

Yuval Noah Harari

God is dead. Both Christianity and Communism were created by human beings and are defined by their social functions. Religion is anything that legitimizes human norms and values by arguing that they reflect some superhuman order.

Technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious vision. Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. The faithful may believe that their religion is eternal and unchanging, but religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism change.

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. Religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. Hundreds of millions may go on believing in Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism, but numbers alone count for little in history.

Marx and Lenin established the first techno religion in history. Communism came with electricity, railroads, and radio. After Marx, questions of technology and economic production became far more divisive and important than questions about the soul and the afterlife.

Socialism failed to keep up with new technology. Christianity and Islam have turned into largely reactive forces. In the coming decades new techno religions are likely to take over the world.

AR Look out for mine — see my next book.

2016 September 10

UK Schools

Theresa May

I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit, not privilege. For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have. We need a school system with the capacity and capability to respond to what they need. Four proposals:

1 Universities should actively strengthen state school attainment. There are not enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from ordinary families fulfilling their potential with the grades to get into the best universities. I want our universities to do more to help us to improve the quality of schools so that more students of all backgrounds have the grades, the subjects, and the confidence, to apply to top universities and to be successful.

2 Faith schools and the role they play in a diverse school system should be promoted. We should also ensure that faith schools are properly inclusive and make sure their pupils mix with children of other faiths and backgrounds. I believe it is right to encourage faith communities to play their full part in building the capacity of our schools.

3 Independent schools should face a tougher test on the amount of public benefit required to maintain charitable status. Independent schools that cannot take on full sponsorship of a local state school will be asked to provide more limited help. I want independent schools to to play a major role in creating more good school places for children from ordinary working families.

4 Selective schools should be reintroduced. They are hugely popular with parents and good for the pupils that attend them. They reduce the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils to almost zero. We should stretch the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence. We already have selection in specialist disciplines like music and sport. I believe we should take the same approach to support the most academically gifted too.

Every child should have access to a good school place.

AR Good move — grab the center ground, ignite public controversy, force an election, get a bigger majority, becalm the Brexiteers.


Der Spiegel

German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble expects Brexit to increase the financial burden on Germany. The German share of EU GDP will rise to 25% from 21% today, increasing the German share of the EU budget by around €4.5 billion for 2019 and 2020 — unless, say, the UK pays for access to the single market or the EU cuts its budget.

AR German taxpayers will be cursing Brits.

2016 September 9

Hard Brexit

Peter Foster

Theresa May is clear that voters want control over EU immigration. Options:

1 Requiring all EU citizens to have jobs before they come to the UK is unlikely to reduce the numbers of EU workers entering Britain. Businesses would get around it by offering work on demand.

2 A cap on EU migration in return for limited access to the single market would put a hard ceiling on the numbers. The EU shows no sign of agreeing to such a "have cake and eat it" deal.

3 Work permits for EU workers would let EU citizens come to Britain for holidays and business without a visa, but to seek work they would need to apply for a permit, with a quota for EU nationals.

The EU will reciprocate. Whitehall officials expect the City to lose its passporting rights and its euro clearing facilities. Companies based in Britain will almost certainly have to live with burdensome customs clearing and regulatory certifications.

May is much more interested in the politics of immigration than in the details of the economy. The signs point to a hard Brexit.

AR Hard as in crash and burn?

2016 September 8

EU Reform Push

The Times

An EU bloc known as the Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia) will lobby at the Bratislava summit next week to put national governments back in control of the EU.

The summit will gather all EU-27 leaders to forge a new vision of Europe. It is expected to expose the rift between newer member states in the east and western countries committed to a European project based on open borders and markets.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán:

"Brexit is a fantastic opportunity for us. We are at a historic cultural moment. There is a possibility of a cultural counter-revolution right now ... People don't change, national and religious identities still have their place. There's no European identity that could replace them."

"Economic patriotism is a valid topic to discuss. People say that money doesn't smell but the owner of the money does. Only those nations that have their historic, religious and national identity will survive and be strong."

AR This is the kind of nativist revolt against globalism that powered the Nazis.

Aryans v Arabs

The Times

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the "cursed, evil" Saudi monarchy to be stripped of its role as guardians of Islam's holiest sites. On Monday he accused them of being "puny Satans" in thrall to the US "great Satan" and claimed that Saudi officials had "murdered" injured Iranian pilgrims caught in a stampede during the 2015 hajj.

Saudi Arabia's most senior Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh: "These are not Muslims, they are children of magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one,” he said in a reference to Zoroastrianism.

Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: "Indeed; no resemblance between Islam of Iranians & most Muslims & bigoted extremism that Wahhabi top cleric & Saudi terror masters preach."

AR Brace for war in the Gulf.

2016 September 7

EU Referendum Rules

David Lammy

We do not know what Brexit means in reality. The country is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Whatever the forthcoming Brexit plan looks like, it should be put to the people in a referendum, or it should be debated and voted on in Parliament, or there should be a general election on the issue.

If we exit the European Union, this House is about to be consumed with legislation that will probably be with us for more than a decade. The task ahead for the nation is gargantuan. We are talking about the sort of effort involved in reconstruction after the war, or the birth or the loss of empire.

Uncertainty is bad for business and our economy. If Whitehall is focused on trying to work out Brexit and then on trying to deliver it, where will the capacity be to tackle many other urgent issues that the country faces? A decision of such significance must be debated and approved by Parliament.

When we voted on the referendum it was described as advisory and non-binding. There was no two-thirds threshold as is required in other nations to validate a major constitutional change of this nature. There was no quadruple lock to ensure that the majority in each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom agreed with the change.

I cannot see a way out of this other than for the Government to present their plan for Brexit to Parliament so Members can approve or reject it on behalf of their constituents, or to present their plan to the people so they can have their say in either a second vote or in a general election.

AR This is the meat of an excellent speech by Lammy in a House of Commons debate on Monday on a petition questioning the rules for the referendum on June 23.

Killer Robots

Heather M. Roff, Peter W. Singer

In 2012, the Obama administration created a Department of Defense directive setting policy on how the Pentagon handles the questions of autonomous weapons systems (AWS). The directive has a 5-year limit, so Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will need to decide what the US policy on killer robots will be within the first year of their term.

Robots in combat but outside of direct human control is where the technology is headed. The US military is working on at least 21 different projects to increase the autonomous capacities of weapons systems in war. American efforts are being paralleled by research and deployments of increasingly capable systems from nations around the world.

The present US policy does not sufficiently identify what sorts of actions are permissible for various weapons systems. It limits actions with AWS but allows semi-autonomous weapons systems, yet is ambiguous regarding the difference. The directive says it is crucial for "commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force" but no more.

Learning systems are the future of AWS. They will do everything from navigation to target recognition. By learning how to deal with new kinds of targets, they will keep up with the decoys or deceptions that an adversary is likely to try to use. But by definition they might not act predictably. There should be policy guidance on these systems.

The US will gain valuable leverage if it can be the first nation with a robust policy on armed robotics. It would be a bad thing for overall global peace and stability if the US did so alone. The next president will decide US policy on all this.

AR A movie scenario: Imagine a million-strong Chinese army of AWS tanks advancing westward across Asia on a broad front, like locusts, not stopping until they reach the Atlantic Ocean. The tanks might be called massively offensive new-generation off-road (Mongor) vehicles, and the advance the Mongor invasion.

2016 September 6

Statement On Brexit

David Davis

Britain is leaving the European Union. There will be no attempt to stay in the EU by the back door. The people have spoken.

Brexit will mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe, but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade in goods and services.

Brexit is about seizing the huge and exciting opportunities that will flow from a new place for Britain in the world. There will be new freedoms, new opportunities, new horizons.

We can get the right trade policy for the UK. We can create a more dynamic economy. We can encourage the brightest and the best to come to this country.

My new Department for Exiting the European Union will require significant expertise and a consistent approach. Negotiating with the EU will have to be got right. We are going to take the time needed to get it right.

We will be guided by some clear principles:

1 We wish to build a national consensus around our position.
2 While always putting the national interest first, we will always act in good faith towards our
    European partners.
3 Wherever possible we will try to minimise any uncertainty that change can inevitably bring.
4 We will put the sovereignty and supremacy of this Parliament beyond doubt.

We will leave the European Union, but we will not turn our back on Europe.

AR So shall I leave the UK to seek new freedoms, new opportunities, new horizons, but not turn my back on the British Isles? I think this would mean I regarded the UK establishment as beyond reform. Davis seems to think the EU is beyond reform and fit only for scrap.

Merkel and Germany

Sebastian Fischer

The state election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern gives the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) a big boost and challenges Chancellor Angela Merkel. The vote was essentially a referendum on Merkel and her policies. Her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won 19% of the vote, down 4% from 2011. The AfD went from zero to almost 21% — the party didn't even exist five years ago.

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is home to Merkel's own parliamentary constituency, so the AfD has staged a revolution in her backyard. The election became a single-issue vote on her refugee policies. The CDU is now the third-strongest party in the state, behind the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the AfD. For Merkel, it is a political debacle.

Emotions seem to have triumphed over reason. Merkel has always staked her political success on clear arguments based on facts and figures. Now she will have to do more explaining and take a few hints from the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), which has been sharply critical of her stance on the refugee issue.

The AfD will not disappear soon. The right-wing populists are on the rise. The problem is one for all of Germany.

AR With its population of 1.6 million, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is one of the smaller German states. It lies on the Baltic coast between Hamburg to the west and Szczecin, Poland, to the east. AfD strength there is concentrated in the eastern polling districts near the Polish border. The overall state results for the AfD was just under 21%, but local results ranged from around 12% in the west around Rostock and Schwerin to around 32% in the eastern Greifswald districts, which had been CDU strongholds. Some of the AfD voters had previously voted CDU but many had not voted before.


Gary Saul Morson

The Russian Revolution of 1917 let 10,000 Bolsheviks take control of an empire. They made up for their small numbers with outsized violence. Bolsheviks invented totalitarianism.

No form of government had ever been so brutal to those it regarded as its own people. Soviet Russia was cruel. Conservative estimates of executions under Lenin and Stalin range around 20 million from 1917 to 1953.

Scholars have documented how many people Marxist-Leninists killed. They have asked whether the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians or the murderous deportation of all Chechens to central Asia qualify as genocide. They estimate 20 million deaths in the USSR, 65 million in China, 2 million each in Cambodia and North Korea, 1.7 million in African countries, and so on, for a total of about 100 million.

Toasting the 1937 anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, Stalin declared: "We will destroy each and every enemy, even if he was an old Bolshevik; we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts — yes, his thoughts! — threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!"

AR I can see why Germans 80 years ago wanted robust measures to tackle the Red menace.

2016 September 5

US Defense

Financial Times

For decades, the synergy between the private sector and the Department of Defense made great tech. Together the Pentagon and the Valley came up with the internet and with global positioning, imaging, and sensor technology. But the relationship is ailing.

US defense secretary Ashton Carter: "I am committed to building and rebuilding the bridges between our national security endeavors at the Pentagon and innovators throughout the nation from the tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley."

DoD National Security Technology Accelerator director Adam Jay Harrison: "The Department of Defense is the world leader in funding high-risk, high-pay-off technology, but too many high-tech businesses and start-ups are turning their backs on us. We are no longer inventing the future."

DoD no longer has the deepest pockets. During the Reagan years, the US government accounted for nearly 50 cents of every research dollar globally. Today the amount is less than 5c per $.

The Pentagon invested nearly $72 billion last year in R&D, more than double Apple, Intel and Google spending on R&D combined, but only $12.5 billion of the DoD spend was in science and technology to support work in DoD labs and engineering centers.

US government work has lost its allure. Splinternet author Scott Malcomson: "For Silicon Valley, it is a disadvantage to be seen as a tool of the US government."

Umbral Moonshine

Miranda Cheng

Intro — Mathematicians dismissed as moonshine the fact that the first important coefficient of a certain j-function is 196,884, the sum of 1 and 196,883, the first two dimensions in which the monster group can be represented. But researchers traced this fact to string theory. The j-function describes string oscillations in a string theory model, and the monster group captures the symmetries of the spacetime these strings inhabit. In K3 string theory, evidence emerged of 23 new moonshine structures connecting symmetry groups with mock modular forms (which include the j-function). The Umbral Moonshine Conjecture that these 23 moonshines exist was proved last year. — Ed

String theory says there are 10 spacetime dimensions. Since we only perceive 4, the other 6 must be compactified. There are something like 10^500 possible ways to compactify them. The search for a toy model leads to a K3 compactification, which captures the key properties of Calabi-Yau manifolds and how string theory behaves on them. You can think of K3 as a flat torus you can fold. The result of smoothing a folded flat torus is a K3 surface.

I explored how black holes behave in this theory. If the K3 dimensions are Calabi-Yau manifolds, black holes can form. Trying to understand string theory in K3 and the black holes that arise in that compactification should also shed light on other problems.

A moonshine relates representations of a finite symmetry group to a function with special symmetries. Underlying this relationship in the case of monstrous moonshine is a string theory. String theory has two geometries. One is the worldsheet geometry of a string moving in time to define a cylinder. If you roll the cylinder and connect the two ends, you get a torus that gives you the symmetry of the j-function. The other geometry in string theory is spacetime, and its symmetry gives you the monster group.

To have a moonshine is to have an algebraic structure. If you look at a theory and ask what kind of particles you have at a certain energy level, this question is infinite, because you can go to higher and higher energies. In monstrous moonshine, this means that if you look at the j-function, there are infinitely many terms that basically capture the energy of the particles. Umbral moonshine says there should be a structure like this.

AR Years ago I used to relish struggling with this stuff.

2016 September 4

G20 Warnings

The Guardian

The G20 summit in Hangzhou started badly for UK prime minister Theresa May with warnings from the United States and Japan.

US president Barack Obama warned that the US wanted to focus on trade negotiations with the EU and a bloc of Pacific nations before considering a deal with the UK: "I've committed to Theresa that we will consult closely with her as she and her government move forward on Brexit negotiations ... But ... the first task is figuring out what Brexit means with respect to to Europe. And our first task is making sure we go forward on TTIP negotiations ..."

Japan issued a 15-page warning that concludes: "Japanese businesses with their European headquarters in the UK may decide to transfer their head-office function to continental Europe if EU laws cease to be applicable in the UK after its withdrawal ... In light of the fact that a number of Japanese businesses, invited by the government in some cases, have invested actively to the UK, which was seen to be a gateway to Europe, and have established value-chains across Europe, we strongly request that the UK will consider this fact seriously and respond in a responsible manner to minimise any harmful effects on these businesses."

May: "I won't pretend it is all going to be plain sailing. There will be some difficult times ahead."

2016 September 3

Brexit: A Russian View

Arkady Dvorkovich

The British decision to leave the European Union made Europe a little bit weaker. The whole process of getting away from Europe is a difficult one and creates more uncertainties.

For Russia, it is important that Europe is strong. We don't need weak partners. We need strong partners to go forward and provide a better future for Russian and European peoples.

Strong politics makes Europe a big player in the international landscape. Individual countries cannot affect international politics in the same way that a united Europe can do.


Stuart Clark

Tim Maudlin says physics is about what exists and what it does: "If you answer both of those questions, then I think you have answered the question what is reality."

Quantum theory is our best description of material reality, yet it seems to imply all possible states of a quantum object are equally real until a measurement forces a single state to exist. Why is one state real, and what determines which one? What happens to the other versions — do they simply cease to exist, or do all persist in parallel versions of reality? The mathematics of quantum theory is silent on these questions.

If the mathematical description is precise but the physical interpretation is messy, might mathematics be the only real thing? Are the most fundamental things bits of information?

Jan Westerhoff: "What we perceive as the physical world is a kind of crystallization of abstract mathematical structures."

Any true understanding of reality may require understanding consciousness.

AR I have grappled with these questions for decades. My theory: a primordial qubit buds endlessly into a quangled omnium that crystallizes in the eternal now from future flux onto my local past pile.


Lori Brotto

Asexuality is common. It reflects one of the normal variations in sexual attraction. In almost all cases it is not due to a choice, or a wish, or celibacy, or trauma, or psychological dysfunction or disability.

Researchers are learning more about the neural underpinnings of attractions and the diversity of attractions. We know sexual orientation extends beyond the conventional categories of same sex-attracted, opposite sex-attracted, or attracted to both. The fact that an individual can be asexual shakes up our thinking.

Asexuality by Lori A. Brotto and Morag Yule


years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany.

AR In that war Germans played the baddies.
      In the next war — Brits?

2016 September 2

UK Universities

Martin Wolf

Conservatives esteem the existence and autonomy of institutions that have stood the test of time. UK universities are such institutions. The UK comes second only to the US in higher education, with 4 of the 10 top-rated universities in the world and 10 of the top 50.

Universities generate and impart understanding from generation to generation. Yet proposed new legislation aims to turn the UK higher education system into a competitive market. A new Office for Students (OfS) will regulate and control university teaching.

The OfS will have the power to abolish the ability of universities like Oxford and Cambridge to grant degrees. This is a government takeover of the UK university sector. The government fails to understand the value of independent and enduring universities.

2016 September 1

Brexit Means Brexit

The Times

Curbing migration from the EU will be a red line in Brexit negotiations. The UK will not accept a deal like those between the EU and Norway or Switzerland.

Theresa May: "This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services."

AR No squaring the circle: This means strife on passports, trade terms, everything.

May Muse

Giles Wilkes

Theresa May gave the one substantial speech of her campaign for the leadership of the Conservative party in Birmingham. It is the home town of her adviser Nick Timothy and was the political base of Victorian titan Joseph Chamberlain. Timothy wrote a biography of Chamberlain.

There is much to admire in Chamberlain: "Our Joe" left a mark on Birmingham that can still be seen today. In 1884 he said: "My aim in life is to make life pleasanter for this great majority; I do not care if it becomes in the process less pleasant for the well-to-do minority."

Chamberlain's big ideas were backward looking and utterly unsuited to our age. He wanted barriers to keep out global competition and he decried mass immigration. Imperial preference was a divisive part of the dance that drew the world to war.


Anil Ananthaswamy

Thomas Metzinger says each of us has a robust experience that "I exist". But given that humans might soon create virtual beings inside computers, we may never find out whether or not we are simulations ourselves.

Our brain generates the feeling of existence. It is continually hit by signals from the body and its environment, and it predicts their causes by creating internal models of the body and the environment. Metzinger: "The brain is a system that is continually trying to prove its own existence."

All of this certainty and doubting could still be part of a simulation. Metzinger: "What I'd want to know is, what the heck is the hardware that the simulation is running on? Is it God's brain or the Devil's?"

AR Both at once: All is one in the cosmos.


Juno view of Jupiter's north pole, about 2 hours before perijove

Message from aliens?


"Brexit is ... a huge problem
politically ... If we organize
Brexit in the wrong way, then
we'll be in deep trouble, so
now we need to make sure
that we don't allow Britain to
keep the nice things, so to
speak, related to Europe while
taking no responsibility."
Sigmar Gabriel

"I think everyone should
be comfortable being
naked because everyone's
body is beautiful."
Cara Delevingne

AR Everyone's?

Juno makes its closest pass
of Jupiter at 12.51 UTC today.
The close encounter will be the
first time the $1.1 billion probe
has its full set of cameras and
instruments on and facing the
planet as it flies 4 Mm over
the clouds. We hope for
spectacular images.


AR My 1996 novel aimed to
replace humanism with unifed
planetary consciousness and
sketch a path to the Lifeball.
The novel accelerated things
with a Googly god coded by
a hyperconscious neutron
star — my muse for all
this was Carl Sagan.

Poles in UK
Jakub Krupa

In 2015, there were 831,000
Polish people in the UK — the
biggest foreign-born population
in Britain. Polish migrants living
in the UK have gained confidence
in their value, built their social
skills, and developed fluency
in English. Now 92% of Polish
migrants are in employment or
education, the highest level
among all nationalities,
including the British.

Alpha Centauri (left),
Beta Centauri (right),
Proxima Centauri
(in red ring)

RAF V-bombers, L to R:
Vulcan (first flew 1952),
Valiant (1951), Victor (1952).
In 1964 the RAF flew 70 Vulcans,
50 Valiants and 39 Victors.

When Britain Ruled the Skies

AR Boyhood dreams

Aheda Zanetti
"When I invented the burkini
in early 2004, it was to give
women freedom, not
to take it away."
Aheda Zanetti

Current net worth of
Bill Gates (60)


2016 August 31

Planet of the Apps

John Thornhill

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

For about 2 Gs, Homo sapiens has been the smartest algorithm on the planet. But soon that will cease as techno algorithms outstrip our old and slow biochemical models. Computers will know us better than we know ourselves. Harari: "Looking back, humanity will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic data flow."

Harari says we can aim for immortality, happiness and divinity: "We will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus."

We will be able to merge with robots and computers and create new forms of life: "After 4 billion years of wandering inside the kingdom of organic compounds, life will break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, and will take shapes that we cannot envision even in our wildest dreams."

It might all go horribly wrong. Homo sapiens emerged as omnipotent because language and cooperation enabled us to process data more efficiently than all other animals, and now our technology promises spectacular breakthroughs, but our societies are totally unprepared to grapple with such big issues. Playing God is a dangerous game.

Capitalism and Democracy

Martin Wolf

Under both liberal democracy and capitalism, people make their own choices and exercise agency. Humans are viewed as ends, not as means.

Democracy is egalitarian and capitalism is inegalitarian. In a limping economy the majority might choose authoritarianism, and in a booming one the rich might exercise plutocracy. Growing inequality and slowing productivity growth endanger both democracy and capitalism.

Dani Rodrik says democracy, national sovereignty, and global economic integration are mutually incompatible. We can have any two of them but not all three. National regulations reduce freedom to buy and sell across frontiers; removing barriers and harmonizing regulations put limits on state autonomy; and free capital movement constrains national freedom on taxes and regulations.

Movement across borders is divisive. Either people are allowed to come and go as they like or citizens control citizenship as a collective property right. Migration forces choices between individual liberty and democratic sovereignty, between national democracy and global economic opportunity.

A global plutocracy might replace national democracies. Or controlled national capitalism might replace global capitalism.

AR The Kantian moral order requires that we see people as ends, not as means, and that we promote equality of opportunity in the global noosphere. National borders are an anachronism in Globorg.

2016 August 30

Apple Tax

Financial Times

Brussels has hit Apple with a tax penalty of up to €13 billion after finding the US tech group enjoyed a quarter of a century of illegal state support from Ireland that distorted competition in Europe. The bill sets the stage for a big fight over the taxation of US multinationals and EU reach into national tax policy. EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager: "Fair taxation is a global issue."

AR This is not only a hard ruling but also a marginally legal one, since it applies retrospectively, yet it is surely a decent one. Big companies are sitting on multibillion cash piles while governments struggle to provide basic services. Global corporations must not only obey the letter of the law but also be seen to be happy to act in the manifest public interest.

The Irish model of massive tax breaks for global companies was an attempt to run rings around taxpayers across Europe and an invitation to other nations to participate in a race to the bottom. Britain after Brexit is flirting with the same business model and invites a similarly draconian EU reaction. Let us not seek to beggar our neighbors in our enthusiasm to get rich quick.

2016 August 29

Scruton On Wagner

Jonathan Gaisman

Sir Roger Scruton is one of the finest philosopher-musicians since Schopenhauer.

Scruton: "Wagner's works ... are revelations ... Wagner ... makes available to an age without religious belief the core religious experience."

Wagner: "It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them."

The Ring cycle presents a crepuscular hunter-gatherer world on the edge of a more organized society, in which the exercise of power rests on arrogation. Love and sacrifice emerge as the only means of opposing this power and as the sole path to redemption.

Scruton focuses attention on the two most sacred episodes in the cycle:

1 In Act 3 of Die Walküre, Wotan consigns to sleep and kisses away the godhead of his daughter Brünnhilde, who has followed the way of love forbidden to the immortals. This is a moment of incarnation, in which a god chooses humanity with the intention of saving it.

2 In Act 3 of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde releases her father from the existential anxiety that has haunted his noble spirit, and puts him finally and definitively to rest. This is nothing less than the end of religion.

Scruton exposes how Wagner uses music to make dramatic and philosophical assertions.

AR The cult of the Ring is like the cults of Star Trek or The Lord of the Rings.

2016 August 28


Christopher Booker

The European Union faces existential problems. The euro is a slow-motion catastrophe, the flood of refugees is unending, terrorism is a deadly plague, and an energy crunch is approaching. Amid growing mistrust across Europe for all the EU stands for, it is now faced with the vote of one of its largest members to leave it altogether.

The venue chosen for last week's meeting of the leaders of Germany, France and Italy, was the little island of Ventotene off Naples. There, in 1941, a prisoner of Mussolini's had written the visionary manifesto that looked forward to building a United States of Europe. Altiero Spinelli proposed that the future government of Europe be quietly assembled over many years, and then when all its pieces were in place a convention would draw up a Constitution for Europe.

When Spinelli was elected as a Communist MEP in 1979, he became the second most influential person, after Jean Monnet, in shaping Europe as we know it today. The headquarters of the European Parliament in Brussels is called the Altiero Spinelli Building. The project has always aimed to promote a supranational government for Europe.

AR Booker is in bad company: Anders Breivik too was incensed by the communist prehistory of the EU. But its problems are hardly existential. The euro can work in a federal Europe, the refugee flood and terrorism are harder issues to tackle without the EU, and our response to the energy crunch is best coordinated on a continental scale.

There is an equally plausible counter-narrative to that of widespread mistrust in the EU. It goes like this: Brexit was hatched by a gang of renegade nationalists and rapacious capitalists who aimed to profit from a captive population duped by rabid rabble rousers into voting away (1) their market rights and protections, (2) their freedom to come and go as they please, and (3) their hopes for a better world in which queen and country no longer dominate the outlook.

Workers of the world might choose to unite to put down the nationalist rebellion on the British Isles. They might see a tax haven economy in an anachronistic polity that prizes carpetbagger billionaires over the downtrodden masses as an intolerable blemish on the map of Europe. Harken to their alliterative war-cry: Blackball Brexit Britain!

2016 August 27


Yuval Noah Harari

For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then humanists gradually shifted authority from deities to people. Our own feelings and desires became the ultimate source of meaning.

Now, a fresh shift is taking place. High-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data — Dataism.

Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the dataflow. As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning. Dataists believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans better than we understand ourselves.

Humanists have seen the human heart as the supreme source of authority. In politics, we believe that authority depends on the free choices of ordinary voters. Humanist education teaches us to think for ourselves and humanist ethics tells us if it feels good, do it.

Yet the idea of free will is under threat. Scientific insights into the way our brains and bodies work suggest that our feelings are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use to make decisions by calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction. Feelings are evolutionary rationality made flesh.

Until now humanism made good practical sense. There was nothing magical about our feelings, but they were the best way we had to make decisions. Even if the church or the state spied on me all the time, they lacked the facts and the logic to calculate the biochemical processes shaping my will.

But Google and Facebook are gaining the edge. Biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body and brain and computer scientists are giving us unprecedented logic power. Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms.

Devices such as Kindle can collect data on their users while they are reading books. If Kindle were upgraded with face recognition software and biometric sensors, it would know how each sentence influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. Such data should eventually enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision, to know who you are and how to press your emotional buttons.

Medical doctors increasingly base decisions about your life on the calculations of computers that know you better than you know yourself. Eventually people may give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions in their lives, such as whom to marry. Google will likely do better on average than me.

Dataism offers a single overarching theory that unifies all the scientific disciplines. Your favorite music, a stock exchange bubble, and the flu virus are just three patterns of dataflow that can be analyzed using the same basic concepts and tools. Dataism may conquer the world.

AR The world is a nail for a man with a hammer.


Paul Taylor

The challenge in machine learning is to find a rule that classifies data correctly and is likely to work for future examples. An algorithm might project two datasets into an n-dimensional feature space and find a simple separation by a process of iterative searching.

Such classification algorithms are known as support vector machines. They identify the hyperplane that optimally separates points in an n-dimensional space. SVMs have the property, not shared by neural networks, that if the computation converges on a solution, it is optimal.

Until recently, most research in machine learning was focused on such techniques. As computers became more powerful and datasets larger, it became practical to leave the computers to figure out the right feature space to use. It seemed as if the computer had learned concepts.

Google built a huge artificial neural network called Inception to analyze still images selected at random from ten million YouTube videos. The tall stack of layers in this network enabled it to recognise human or cat faces. Inception distilled the concept of a cat face out of the data by itself.

A recurrent neural network uses weighted links not just between nodes but between instances of the same node at successive steps in the computation. Recurrent networks are ideally suited to analyzing sequential data, such as speech or language. They can predict the next word in a sentence to create a point in a feature space for each word.

Google uses a recurrent neural network approach for machine translation. Their network creates mappings between the feature representations of words in different languages. The Google network may soon seem to be using language as humans do.

AR When Google speaks, we shall bow down and worship.

2016 August 26

Liberal Islam Is No Answer

Zaheer Kazmi

The problem of Islamist terrorism and extremism cannot be solved by reforming Islam. Four problems blight attempts at liberal reform:

1 Liberal Islam is based on a mostly imagined account of Islamic history. Rationalizing history to serve present purposes makes only a marriage of convenience.

2 Liberal Muslims see Islam through values stemming from a western heritage reaching back to antiquity for legitimation. A liberal caliphate is an oxymoron.

3 Liberal Muslims seek to define a true Islam to exclude extremists and say most Muslims are moderate. Such exclusion conflates extremism with heresy.

4 Liberal Islam lacks transcendent content and aims only for a polity consistent with sharia. Its focus on management rather than mysticism confuses sharia with spiritualism.

Muslim liberals have yet to offer a clear alternative to Islamist militancy or western secularism.

Cooperative Evolution

Ian Johnston

Not all species struggle to keep up with competitors. Two species can start working together. For years scientists thought mutualists evolved more slowly. But new research suggests that mutualists can evolve faster than separatists.

Researchers sequenced the genomes of ants evolved to protect plants that provide them with food and nesting chambers. These ants were aggressive, patrolling and attacking herbivores and invaders. The researchers compared their evolution with other ants who live in the same place but have different behavior.

Benjamin Rubin: "We originally set out to uncover the genetic basis of mutualistic behavior in ants. So we sequenced the genomes of three mutualistic species of plant-ants and four of their closely related, non-mutualistic relatives. We were surprised to learn that the mutualists actually had a higher rate of evolution across their genomes than the generalists."

Populism v Democracy

A.C. Grayling

Populism can be toxic. A state run through populist referendums on every issue would be chaotic and would crush civil liberties and minorities. Representative democracy has evolved to manage its crudities.

Instead of mass referendums we have an elected legislature. Its representatives have plenipotentiary powers. They act on behalf of their constituents rather than carrying out the will of those who voted for them.

In the June 23 referendum, less than a third of the population voted for Brexit. But 76% of MPs saw remaining in the EU as in the best interests of the UK. MPs who fail to do what they think is right for the UK are failing in their job.

AR Professor Grayling and I shared much the same Oxford education in political philosophy and taught for a while at the same Oxford college, so I naturally agree with him.

2016 August 25

Proxima b

Philip Ball

Nature announces that astronomers have found an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
(see blog 2016-08-19).

On the basis of planet surveys to date, we now believe that around 1 in 5 of Sun-like stars has a planet of similar size and composition to Earth within their temperate zone, not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist.

Earlier this year, billionaire entrepreneur Yuri Milner announced a $100 million project called Starshot to develop a probe to fly to Proxima Centauri in just 20 years (see blog 2016-04-13).

Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, with 12% of the Sun's mass and 0.15% of its brightness. Its temperate zone is correspondingly closer to the star. Its planet Proxima b has an estimated mass of 1.3 times that of Earth, and it orbits the star once every 11 (terrestrial) days or so.

For dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri, orbiting planets can be detected by a wobble in the parent star, seen as a Doppler shift in the wavelength of light emitted from the stellar atmosphere. Periodic red and blue shifts reveal the duration of the planet's orbit, from which we can calculate its orbital distance.

Liquid water and rocky ingredients on Proxima b make life more likely. But a magnetic field to fend off solar wind is essential too because its star is more unstable than our Sun. Powerful solar flares spray the planet with intense bursts of particles and radiation, including 400 times the dose of X-rays that the Earth receives from the Sun.

If Proxima b passes in front of its star from our perspective, we might read the composition of its atmosphere from a spectral analysis. But the chances of such a transit are very low. We are a long way from finding neighbors out there.

AR This could form the basis of a great sci-fi novel/movie about visiting the planet. I'd set it a century or so in the future and imagine a robot ship offering telepresence for Earthbound humans. The big challenge would be to set up a plausible starshot-capable society on Earth — contact with an extremely alien lifeform would be the cherry on top from an authorial point of view.

Brexit Costs

Rupert Pennant-Rea

On June 23, the day of the referendum, sterling reached a high of $1.50 and €1.31 shortly after polls closed. It then plummeted, and has since averaged at about $1.30 and €1.18. In trade-weighted terms, the pound is down more than 15% from its level a year ago.

The foreign exchanges are backed by many billions of dollars from in and outside the UK. They are saying that everything in the UK has been marked down against the rest of the world. Imports make up roughly 30% of UK GDP, and if their cost goes up because of the vote to leave the EU, in time everybody will be poorer.

The mechanism is that prices rise more than wages. A real-wage cut cements the effects of a cheaper pound. In the past, each devaluation of the pound produced a temporary fall in the real exchange rate, until domestic costs started rising faster than the costs of UK trading partners, when the advantage eroded.

A devaluation-powered improvement in UK trade will be harder to achieve if Brexit reduces access to the EU single market and too few new export markets open up. The British are poorer than they were before the votes were counted on June 23. That reality will be clear to see soon enough.

AR This cycle of greed for pay and perks followed by devaluation has been the tragic fate of Greece, Italy, and other European countries. It destroys stability and confidence. The strongest holdout against such boom-and-bust thinking has been Germany, and now EZ countries are painfully learning the lesson that budget discipline is better. The Brexit vote showed that UK voters are ready to bet on boom and bust again. I see only folly.

2016 August 24

EU Defense

The Times

Czech Republic prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka: "In the face of uncontrolled mass migration, even states in the center of Europe have realized that internal borders must be better controlled. Aside from better coordinated foreign and security policy, I also believe that in the long term we will be unable to do without a joint European army."

Security and defense are on the agenda as the EU prepares to relaunch itself at the 70th anniversary celebrations in Rome next March. EU leaders see a good starting point in the mutual defense clause introduced by the Lisbon treaty of 2009. Like NATO Article 5, it commits all members to come to the defense of any member under attack.

Federalists see huge cost savings from streamlining the overlapping defense plans of EU member states. A June review of EU defense and military aims envisaged multinational military headquarters, combined procurement, and deployments in times of existential crisis. America and NATO are wary of any talk of EU military integration.

AR Good plan to integrate EU defense: I just wish the UK were participating.

EZ Going

Financial Times

The latest data suggests the eurozone has shrugged off the Brexit vote. Purchasing manager indexes for the single currency area, a reasonably reliable indicator of future growth, showed a composite measure of confidence holding up well in August, consistent with the economy turning in another solid performance in the third quarter.

Big Banks Blockchain

Financial Times

Four big banks — UBS, Deutsche Bank, Santander, and BNY Mellon — will develop a new form of digital cash as an industry standard to clear and settle financial trades over blockchain technology. Their utility settlement coin will let financial institutions pay for securities without waiting for traditional money transfers to clear. The digital coins are directly convertible into cash at central banks and stored using blockchain distributed ledger technology. Launch target is early 2018.

AR Mathematics in action, improving life as we know it.

2016 August 23

EU Leaders Stay Firm

Financial Times

The leaders of Germany, France, and Italy will not let Brexit reverse EU integration:

1 They pledge to reinforce European defense, solve the refugee crisis, and spur economic growth.
2 They will seek an EU agreement to improve intelligence sharing against Islamist terrorism.
3 They plan to boost industrial cooperation among European defense companies.

Angela Merkel: "Faced with terrorism and the civil war in Syria, we must do more for our internal and external security. Defense cooperation must be strengthened and the exchange of intelligence information must be intensified."

François Hollande: "If there is one wish we have to share it is to say that Europe must assure its own defense, and France will take its part."

The three leaders resolved to to prolong a €315 billion EU investment plan by two years to 2019 and discussed an enlargement of the plan.

EU-27 leaders are preparing for a summit next month in Bratislava.

UK Islamists

Melanie Phillips

A UK government review of Islamist extremism in prisons proposes segregating a small number of the most dangerous Islamist prisoners to prevent them from radicalizing other inmates.

British jails have become universities of jihad. Islamists threaten prison staff and other inmates, aggressively promote conversion to Islam, and pressure staff to leave the prayer room during periods of unsupervised collective worship.

The Deobandi sect, to which over two-thirds of prison imams belong, is hardline fundamentalist and gave rise to the Taliban. Mainstream Deobandi thinking in the UK denounces integration, demonizes Christians and Jews, and supports terrorism abroad. Deobandis control almost half of British mosques and nearly all UK-based training of Islamic scholars.

The steady penetration of Islamist extremism in Britain is a reality. Many Muslims interpret any attempt to thwart it as an attack on their whole community. Refusal to acknowledge this reality is the road to defeat.

My Math


Progressed from level 2 to level 3 in classical mechanics.

2016 August 22

UK Infrastructure Spending Spree Needed

Financial Times

The value of UK infrastructure contracts for July dropped to £1.5 billion. This is a fall of 20% against the previous month and 23% lower than a year ago. It seems investors are putting projects on hold as the result of uncertainty surrounding UK withdrawal from the EU.

UK prime minister Theresa May has put infrastructure at the heart of plans to rebuild the economy. Net public sector investment, which includes infrastructure investment, fell from £51.5 billion in 2009 (3.4% of GDP) to £33.2 billion (1.8% of GDP) in 2015-16. The WEF ranks the UK 24th in the world for the quality of its infrastructure.

AR Fix UK roads!

The Silk Roads

Peter Frankopan

AR I have started reading this book at bedtime and am already gaining new insights. Frankopan goes against the Eurocentric tradition of beginning his history of the world with the ancient Greeks and begins instead with the Persians in a history turning on the heartlands of central Asia.

Starting in about the second century of the Common Era, Persia suffered an epidemic of Christian and Buddhist missionary activity. The authorities reacted by deliberately encouraging the old Zoroastrian beliefs (focused on purity and fire) to maintain the martial vigor of the population. The religion of Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) first appeared in about the sixth century BCE.

It occurs to me that Friedrich Nietzsche saw his Also sprach Zarathustra as attempt to do the same thing for Germans, whom he diagnosed as having gone soft through centuries of Christianity. His Zarathustra preached racial purity and the incendiary virtues of strife. As a professor of classical philology, Nietzsche would have been well aware of the precedent.

Corin Messer
Red Arrows, BAF day 4

Corin Messer
RAF Eurofighter Typhoon
BAF day 4

Mo Farah
Mo Farah
4 golds in 2 Olympics

Michael Phelps
23 golds in 4 Olympics

Russian tanks, Ilovaisk, Ukraine

British Jews upset by
Brexit look to Germany

The New York Times

London-based Jewish News
editor Richard Ferrer says
Germany has done all in its
power to right its past wrongs:
"I'm very pro-German and I'm
very happy with Germany."

Blackbox Film & Medienproduktion
Brunhilde Pomsel, 105



2016 August 21

Bournemouth Air Festival 2016

Day 4

AR Better weather today, so the show was better. The start was much the same, but continued into aerobatics by Gerald Cooper in his Xtreme Air XA41, fly-pasts of WW2 American B-25 Mitchell and
B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, wing-walking on a pair of AeroSuperBatics biplanes, a parachute team jumping from an Antonov An-2, a BAC Strikemaster jet, a WW2 Spitfire Mk 2 — an original Battle of Britain veteran, with a patched hole in the wing from a Messerschmitt cannon shell (but the wounded Polish pilot nursed his hit Spit back to base), flying in the colours of an ace who scored 26 kills, accompanied by music from the Battle of Britain movie blared out over the festival PA speakers — followed by the Red Arrows and at last the mighty Typhoon, making a thunderous noise from its twin ten-ton-thrust turbojets as it climbed vertically into the clouds on full reheat. The Great War biplane dogfight and the Lancaster bomber flyby were canceled because the wind was too gusty. The crowd contained a large proportion of people with visibly Muslim or subtropical heritage, for whom all this was rather strange. British culture is shrinking into a museum format, and its remains are morphing into awkwardly curated parts of a new global culture.

Olympic Cheer

Bryan Appleyard

Britain is taking the ideal of the Olympics seriously. In Sydney in 2000, we won 28 medals; in London in 2012, 65; and so far in Rio in 2016, 66, including 27 gold, second only to the United States. Suddenly we are Team GB.

Our boys and girls wrap themselves in union jacks and the nation feels a warm patriotic glow. Football remains overwhelmingly our national sport. But for the brief quadrennial convulsion of the Olympics, it is, in terms of money, audiences, and emotion, the only game that matters.

National pride can be a reason for sport. Sports and the arts are performed by specialists for specialists and yet we think they are of wider importance. Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, called the Olympics a quadrennial celebration of the springtime of humanity.

Team GB
The Sunday Times

Team GB have done it again. A grateful nation cannot but rejoice in our incredible tally of gold, silver and bronze — enough for us to vie for second place with China, behind only America. Not for a century has Britain finished second in the gold medals table. Team GB has as many gold medals as Germany and France put together.

AR The breathessly patriotic BBC coverage gave us no coherent idea of which competitors other than Team GB won which medals for which sports.

2016 August 20

Bournemouth Air Festival 2016

Day 3

AR Saturday was not much of a day for flying — fierce westerly wind, high waves, low billowing clouds — but there was still some flying over the pier this afternoon. I watched three helicopters (a Merlin and two Wildcats) and two Hawk jets fly around as a big navy frigate pushed through the waves to support a simulated marines landing on the beach. Then the Red Arrows did their customary choreographed routine with red, white and blue smoke over the bay. All this action was good for the armed forces recruiting stands along the seafront, who were encouraging boys to get involved. I guess there will be no shortage of eager recruits to ensure that Britain punches above its weight when the EU army invasion barges come crashing onto our shores.


Paul Johnson

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond will make his autumn statement in a fog of uncertainty. After six years of austerity, spending on public services has been squeezed more than at any time since WW2. Keeping to current plans will involve cuts of 30% from 2010 levels for many items.

Forecasts have to be made without knowing how Britain will settle with the rest of the EU. The UK economy will be much smaller by 2030 if we end up trading with the EU on standard WTO terms than if we retain full membership of the single market. The forecasts will be worse than before the vote.

Brexit worsens our economic prospects. If we leave the single market and lose much of the financial services industry of if we restrict immigration of citizens from the EU, the rest of us will have to pay more taxes or suffer worse public services. An end to austerity will merely postpone the bad news.

AR The math is clear: Brexit is a bust.

My Math


Progressed from level 3 to level 4 in geometry.

2016 August 19

Proxima Centauri

Der Spiegel

European astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, just 40 Pm away.

Because the star is dim and sometimes produces apocalyptic eruptions of plasma, any plants on the planet would be black to use all the light for photosynthesis. Any animals would have to be tough enough to survive hellish conditions.

European Southern Observatory (ESO) astrophysicist: "It was hard work finding the tiny celestial body. We were at the limits of what is technologically possible when it comes to measurements."

The ESO team used a specialized reflector telescope on la Silla, a mountain in the Atacama Desert in Chile. They looked at Proxima Centauri for months and detected a tiny regular wobble in its position caused by an unseen companion tugging at it. The planet has an Earth-like mass and moves so close to its sun that liquid water could exist on its surface.

New propulsion concepts would allow a nanotech probe to fly to the new planet within half a century by accelerating to 0.1c.

AR I worked on an ESO stellar atlas at Springer in 1987. I have the book in front of me now.

2016 August 18

EU Question

Richard Thaler

The Brexit vote has created an environment of great uncertainty. No one can predict with any confidence what will happen for at least the next three years, but economists are in unusual agreement that if Brexit occurs it will be bad for the UK and bad for the EU.

The more complicated the decision, the less desirable a referendum. It is hard to think of a more complex choice than Europe to put to voters. Given the ambiguity of Article 50, voters had no way of knowing what outcomes would come from a vote to Remain or Leave.

A majority of 4% in a referendum should not be considered a mandate to hastily invoke Article 50. The vote was a straw poll of voter sentiments. Voters should be given the opportunity to change their mind, either via a vote in parliament or in a second referendum.

EZ Answer

Joseph Stiglitz

The euro was supposed to bring prosperity and enhance European solidarity. It has done just the opposite. Without adjustable interest or exchange rates and with a central bank focused on inflation, the EZ raised unemployment and reduced GDP. Changes are needed:

A common banking union and deposit insurance, trade surplus rules, and eurobonds
Monetary policy to focus more on employment, growth and stability, not just inflation
Industrial and other policies aimed at helping laggard countries catch up to the leaders
A move away from austerity toward growth-oriented fiscal policies

A single currency is neither necessary nor sufficient for close economic and political cooperation. A smooth transition might move to a flexible euro system: strong neuro in the NEZ, softer seuro in the SEZ. To deal with legacy debt, redenominate euro debts as seuro debts.

My Math


Progressed from level 3 to level 4 in algebra.

2016 August 17

Conflict in Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

Preparations for conventional conflict between Russia and Ukraine are accelerating. Russia has positioned military units with thousands of troops in Bryansk, near Rostov, in Crimea, and in Transnistria. Russia has also deployed an air defence regiment in Donbass.

AR Russia can beat us in Ukraine.

UK in Europe

Rafael Behr

Theresa May needs a broader agenda to discuss what the UK has to offer as a strategic partner to the European project. Her pitch must include promises to engage with the big continental challenges. The question is not whether we can cobble together a thin facsimile of EU membership but how the UK can be an upstanding friend and neighbor to the EU.

Leaving the EU will involve diplomacy as pro-European as that required for joining in the first place. In the intervening years we have spent a lot of energy arguing about what Europe means to Britain. It is time to consider what the rest of Europe might see in us.

AR The UK has scored an own goal with the Brexit vote.

My Math


Progressed from level 3 to level 4 in number theory.

2016 August 16

Vita Activa

Stephanie DeGooyer

Ada Ushpiz's documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (2016) seeks to convey the complexity and idiosyncrasy of the philosopher's thinking. Arendt used the phrase Vita Activa to denote the fundamental categories — labor, work, action — of an active life.

A problem with making a film about Arendt is that philosophers are not supposed to have lives. Martin Heidegger once was asked: "What was the life of Aristotle?" His answer was that Aristotle was a philosopher: "He was born, he thought, and he died." All the rest is pure anecdote. Arendt would have agreed with him.

Documentaries about Heidegger avoid his relationship to Arendt and other women. In Vita Activa, Heidegger's granddaughter Gertrud Heidegger suggests that Heidegger took "spiritual comfort" in many young academic women, Arendt among them. But films about Arendt place her association with him at the heart of her life.

During an interview with Arendt's former assistant about Heidegger's ties to the Nazi party, Ushpiz asks whether Heidegger, like Adolf Eichmann, failed to think what he was doing. The assistant laughs nervously in response. Arendt did not openly engage with Heidegger's Nazism, but an assessment of his failure to think is unavoidable.

2016 August 15

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel

Joseph Goebbels would walk up the steps from his little palace near the Brandenburg Gate, on to which his huge propaganda ministry was attached. He'd trip up the steps like a little duke, through his library into his beautiful office on Unter den Linden.

I worked as a shorthand typist in his office. We always knew once he had arrived, but we didn't normally see him until he left his office, coming through a door that led directly into our room. He was short but well groomed and had a gentlemanly air. He wore suits of the best cloth and always had a light tan. He had well-groomed hands — there was really nothing to criticize about him. I felt sorry for him because of his limp, which he made up for by being a bit arrogant.

I was terrified to see him on stage at the Berliner Sportpalast delivering his "total war" speech in February 1943. I had a seat behind Magda Goebbels. In the office he had a kind of noble elegance, and then to see him there like a raging midget — you just can't imagine a greater contrast.

In the Führerbunker during the last days of the war, it felt as if something inside me had died. We tried to make sure we didn't run out of alcohol. That was urgently needed to stay numb.

When the Holocaust memorial was unveiled in 2005, I took a trip to see it for myself. I went into the information center and told them I myself was missing someone, an Eva Löwenthal. The list of names on the machine we used just kept on rolling nonstop down the screen.

2016 August 14

Brexit Update

The Sunday Times

UK PM Theresa May may be forced to delay enactment of article 50 to late 2017 because her new Brexit and international trade departments will not be ready. French and German elections are also being cited as a cause for delay. Britain might not invoke article 50 until France has voted next May or even until after the German poll in September. The new departments are being set up from scratch and the situation is chaotic, say sources.

Fox—Johnson Feud
The Telegraph

UK international trade secretary Liam Fox and foreign secretary Boris Johnson are feuding over who controls key parts of UK foreign policy. Fox wrote to Johnson suggesting British trade with other countries would not flourish if responsibility for policy remained with the Foreign Office. He cited economic statistics in support and suggested the FO should focus on diplomacy and security.

Hard Brexit
Anatole Kaletsky

The prospect of a Hard Brexit has a bonus. The economic damage will soon become so obvious that the UK government will face a backlash. As the economy sinks deeper into recession and difficulties proliferate, plans for Brexit may start to crumble.

EU leaders should insist on a binary choice. The UK must either disengage completely from the EU remain an EU member. At the same time, they should begin to reform the EU.

After Hard Brexit, UK trade with Europe would be subject to WTO rules. These require all members to be treated equally unless they are parties to a specific FTA. The UK and the EU would have to impose the same tariffs and restrictions on each other as they do to other WTO members.

British financial and service businesses would also face WTO rules. But EU regulations could easily be altered to ensure that most European financial activity was conducted on EU territory under EU law. The idea that London would remain the financial center of the EU is totally implausible.

Hard Brexit presents the entire EU project with an existential threat. Mainstream politicians across Europe would have to admit that disintegration of the EU or the EZ is possible. Already they face 34 separate demands for exit referendums in 18 other EU member states.

The EU will break up if it continues to resist change. An EU offer to start serious talks on reform would be hugely popular in Europe. If EU leaders listen to voters and learn to respond, British voters might be happy to remain in the union.

Mathematics Update


With a few days of work I raised my scores to level 3 in:

Number theory

Next — level 4.

Poole Bay, looking west from Canford Cliffs, 8.15 am Saturday


NASA plans to launch a mission
to Jupiter moon Europa in 2022.
A spacecraft will orbit Jupiter
and do close flybys of Europa,
which likely has a deep ocean
beneath its icy crust that
could host life.


F-22 Raptor
RIAT 2016

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Hieronymus Bosch
The Wayfarer

The Messenger

Standard Model

Natasha Rostov
played by Lily James

War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy

AR The new BBC production
spurred me to reread the
book in the 2006 translation
by Anthony Briggs. Finished
late evening — excellent!

Half novel (one of the best
ever written) and half treatise
on the philosophy of history
(as interesting as Hegel and
much clearer), this book is
a landmark in human


2016 August 13

Is God Transgender?

Mark Sameth

I'm a rabbi, and so I'm particularly saddened whenever religious arguments are brought in to defend social prejudices — as they often are in the discussion about transgender rights.

The Israelite tetragrammaton YHWH was probably not pronounced Jehovah or Yahweh but in reverse as Hu/Hi — in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for "He/She". The God of Israel was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.

AR A useful corrective to a sexist tradition.

2016 August 11

UK Government: New Policy

Financial Times

Theresa May has made big changes to the cabinet in the wake of the EU referendum. She has also outlined a new direction for policy, adopting a more confrontational stance on Chinese investment and executive pay and signaling an enthusiasm for industrial policy.

May is building on the achievements of the coalition, which bore down on high executive pay and focused on building capacity in sectors where the UK has a competitive advantage. She seems to want to stick to the center ground. This is wise, given her slim majority in the Commons.

May needs to rebalance a now-fragile economy and recalibrate the UK relationship with Europe. She may be tempted to seek an explicit mandate from the British people, but now is not the time. She should govern in the interests of the whole nation.

UK Science: New Uncertainty

New Scientist

Following the Brexit vote, Theresa May must decide what she wants from the divorce settlement with the EU. The Royal Society and other UK national academies have issued science priorities. They want the government to commit to filling any gap in research funding left by Brexit and to keep EU regulations in areas such as clinical trials and data protection.

Researchers also need to remain free to cross borders to work and to collaborate as freely as they do now. The best research requires collaboration and free movement. In July, May wrote to the Royal Society: "I would like to reassure you about the government's commitment to ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as we exit the European Union."

2016 August 10

Mathematics Test


Several hours of clicking thru some fun online tests bagged the following:

Algebra (3)
Classical mechanics (2)
Discrete mathematics (2)
Electricity and magnetism (2)
Geometry (2)
Logic (2)
Number theory (2)

Levels in parentheses: Must raise them.

2016 August 9

A Brexit Chance: Diversify Europe

Leonhard Fischer

I suspect that the euro, rather than Brexit, poses the biggest risk to the EU. There is no real confidence in the future of the euro but the EU is in denial. The Brexit vote merely reflects this.

For the EZ to survive, a banking union and EZ guarantees are required at least. Germany will agree to this if EZ members relinquish aspects of their fiscal autonomy. The EZ must integrate further.

The EU needs to offer diverse models for its members. The single market can link these models. It is wrong to use the single market to enforce uniformity when the EU is about peace and prosperity.

The EZ must offer growth so that EU nations want to join it. EU nations that stay out of the EZ would adopt a minimum of EU standards and retain maximum national sovereignty.

Pound Worst Currency

CNN Money

Down about 12% since the start of the year and trading at its lowest level since 1985, the pound is doing worse so far this year than any other major currency. It has plunged 14% against the US dollar since the Brexit vote on June 23. Analysts expect it will drop further from current levels around $1.29.

AR Join the EZ and help reform the euro.

2016 August 8


Der Spiegel

At first glance, the European mood looks good: 80% of citizens in the 28 member states and 89% of Germans are satisfied with their lives. Personally too, most Europeans are satisfied: an EU average of two-thirds say their financial situation is good (Germans 82%) and 58% are satisfied with their job (Germans 68%). Many hope to do better next year.

Europeans seem happy but many are pessimistic about the big picture. Most say things in their home country and in the EU are going in the wrong direction. They are unhappy with the state of the economy and the labor market, and expect things to get worse.

In Britain a majority voted for Brexit. Individually the British are among the most satisfied Europeans. But overall they are so pessimistic that they want to move on — anywhere — just out.

In France the satisfaction level is near the EU average. But 90% are unhappy with the labor market, 85% say the economy in poor shape, and 76% think France is going in the wrong direction. The Front National might win the spring 2017 presidential elections.

In Germany most people are happy both personally and with the national economy. But most expect the labor market to get worse in future: 46% see Germany and 60% the EU as on the wrong course. This is bad news for the fall 2017 general election.

Altogether the European economy is stagnant, with the euro crisis far from over and Britain sinking into recession. In many countries, immigration and terrorism are the main reasons for pessimism about the economy. Populist politicians paint a gloomy picture and tell a persuasive story, whether it reflects reality or not.

Moving On Out

Charles Grant

Brexit will require at least six interlocking sets of negotiations:

1 Announcement: The EU-27 will want UK exit from the EU, as prescribed by Article 50, before the June 2019 European elections and will not extend the 2-year deadline.

2 An FTA on future economic ties with the EU along the lines of the CETA deal is likely. Britain would gain only limited access to the single market for services and London financial firms would lose their EU passport.

3 Interim cover for the UK before then: To repeal EU laws and shun European Court of Justice rulings, to limit free movement only to those with job offers, or to stop paying into the EU budget, the UK needs agreement from the EU-27.

4 Accession to the WTO: Britain is currently only a member of the WTO via the EU. The UK must agree with the EU-27 on the schedules, and then all 162 WTO members must agree. Any member could block UK membership.

5 Deals to replace the 53 FTAs that bind the EU and other countries. Those countries will not want to negotiate an FTA with the UK until they know what the EU-UK relationship looks like or until it is an WTO member.

6 Agreement: UK-EU ties in foreign and defense policy, police and judicial cooperation, and counter-terrorism will be easier as here the UK has more bargaining power.

The longer British ministers take to complete these negotiations, the worse the uncertainty for the British economy.

AR A series of fudges and failures awaits a UK poorly equipped and quite unprepared to go it alone. The British establishment has shot its bolt on this one. I say go back to square one and reconsider.

2016 August 7


Stephen Hawking

British people must learn to live outside the EU. We need to understand why they made the choice that they did. I believe that wealth, the way we understand it and the way we share it, played a crucial role in their decision.

Money can set individuals free, just as poverty can trap them. But a shift in behaviour is inspiring some groundbreaking new enterprises and ideas. Cathedral projects are being started by one generation with the hope that a future generation will take up the challenges.

We live in perilous times. Our planet and the human race face multiple challenges. These challenges are global and serious — climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans.

If we fail, then the forces that led to Brexit will strengthen. If that were to happen, I would not be optimistic about the outlook for our species. We must broaden our definition of wealth and learn to share it more fairly.

Free Will Revisited

Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett
(podcast, 1 h 45 m)

AR Good review of what started years back as an ill-tempered exchange. Sam yearns for absolute truth in the jungle of neuroscientific causation whereas Dan appreciates the pragmatic value of robust solutions for life as we know it. Since neuroscience deconstructs me but I exist, Dan is right for me. Sam wants a more purist explanation of the first person — he just lacks a way to get it.

2016 August 6

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Roger Scruton

Richard Wagner situates the Viking gods in a German landscape, along with Siegfried, hero of the Nibelungenlied. The Ring Cycle is a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.

Its theme is the death of the gods. The gods let us know and long for the sacred. Wagner implies that we must recognise sacred moments to live as free beings and to endow human life with significance.

Wagner came to believe that there could be no political salvation from the ills of civilization. Like Nietzsche, he saw resentment as the default position of human communities, and believed that each of us must achieve redemption for himself, through our capacity for love. The Ring cycle attempts to show that real love involves freedom, personality and sacrifice, with only momentary beauty and often a tragic end.

The power of the gods comes from our belief in them, and this belief must be naive, unquestioning and strong. Wagner distinguishes the consensual order, ruled by law, from the coercive order, ruled by treachery and violence. And caught between these two orders lies the narrow sphere of personal love.

Wagner says stop looking to politics for salvation. And stop expecting from love anything more than it demands, which is sacrifice. It is a harsh moral, but a true one.

2016 August 5

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Sue Prideaux

Richard Wagner understood that loss of faith in the divine demanded another route to meaning. He found it in ancient Germanic texts and used them to shape a new post-Christian cosmology. He chopped his epic poem The Ring of the Nibelung into four operas (16 hours of music) to tell the story of civilization from the beginning to modern times through his hero Siegfried, who fights for freedom and redemption.

The Ring took 26 years to complete, during which Wagner changed from Schopenhauer-driven atheist to mystically besotted husband of the hyper-religious Cosima, from anti-capitalist utopian to artist-prince financed by mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. Three kings and the Kaiser attended the premiere.

Wagner hammered his blockbuster allegory of the downfall of civilization brought about by the evils of capitalism and industrialization poisoning and polluting the natural world. Like Nietzsche, Wagner saw in the death of the old gods both unparalleled catastrophe and unparalleled opportunity to build a better society. Wagner believed that only art could redeem modern life.

The Ring of Truth
Roger Scruton

AR Amazon delivered my copy of Sir Roger's new book yesterday, along with the Solti recording of the Ring (16 CDs, Decca).

2016 August 4

Weak Gravity

New Scientist

To explain why the known particle masses are low enough to account for the weakness of gravity, Nima Arkani-Hamed and team suggest a new particle, the reheaton. After its birth, the universe inflated until it was cold and flat, and all the energy was locked up in reheatons. These decayed into the particles we know.

In the Standard Model, the Higgs has the lowest possible nonzero mass. Take N copies of this model, each with a slightly different mass for its Higgs boson. Varying the Higgs mass leads to big differences in the effects of gravity. In a universe with very massive or massless Higgs bosons, gravity is too strong or too weak for atoms to form. Only one Higgs mass is right for us.

For families with a Higgs mass just above zero, the reheatons decay into one Higgs boson and another particle for the remaining energy. For families with high Higgs boson masses, the reheatons decay into two smaller entities (instead of a Higgs) plus the remainder particle. Particles prefer to decay into fewer entities, so most energy goes into light-Higgs families, and very little to the others.

To account for weak gravity, fine-tune the equation for gravity by adjusting the number N. It seems N ~ 10^16 does the trick.

Nima Arkani-Hamed et al.

We present a new mechanism to stabilize the electroweak hierarchy. We introduce N copies of the Standard Model with varying values of the Higgs mass parameter. Ensuring that reheating deposits most of its energy into the lightest copy requires a modified cosmology.

AR Intriguing, but work in progress, I'd say.

2016 August 3

The Messenger

Kader Abdolah

AR Reading it today — to the end. The best account of the life of the Prophet I've read — highly recommended. Now I'm reading the author's translation of the Qur'an.

2016 August 2

May Error

Melanie Phillips

While she was home secretary, Theresa May set up an independent inquiry into the operation of Islamic law in the UK as administered by Sharia councils. May: "Some Sharia councils may be working in a discriminatory and unacceptable way ... contrary to the teachings of Islam."

The error is to think such harm is caused by anything other than Islamic law itself. Sharia holds that a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man; condones marital rape, forced marriage, and honour-based violence; and puts women into burqas. Sharia rulings on marriage, divorce, children, property, and inheritance violate fundamental human rights and equality for women. Sharia orders the harshest possible punishments for apostates, blasphemers, and homosexuals.

May suggested Sharia was one of various religious codes and practices that she said benefited British people of different faiths. In fact, Sharia entraps and enslaves many British people. Many British Muslims are anxious to live under the legal protection of human rights.

May Troika

Financial Times

Theresa May has deferred a decision on the £18 billion Hinkley Point power station to reconsider whether the French-Chinese financed project is in British national interests. May works on problems with her co-chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who worked with her at the Home Office. A minister said it was just the prime minister and two other people running the country.

May Staffer

Henry Mance

Theresa May's new joint chief of staff Nick Timothy criticized Chinese involvement in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. In his recent writings, he

— supported Brexit: "If the country votes to leave, it would almost certainly be the British Government's policy to seek access to the Single Market ..."

— criticized China: "We do not have to accept dumping by the Chinese steel industry, in which state subsidies finance overcapacity and lead to prices lower than the real cost of production."

— criticized social liberalism and green taxes that are "far removed from — and sometimes run directly against — the interests of ordinary families"

— says recipients of tax credits "are not feckless benefits cheats, but millions of low-paid, hard-working people who are trying to do the right thing"

— wants an end to regime-changing military interventions. In Syria, he would come "to terms with unsavoury leaders including Assad, or at least members of his regime"

— likes stability instead of radical institutional shake-ups, and prefers improving management by rooting out incompetence in the police and poor governance in faith schools.

May Conservatism

Paul Goodman

One Nation Conservatism, attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, holds that Conservatives should govern the UK in the interests of the whole country, rich and poor.

Theresa May's new government will
— be more serious about One Nation
— seek to align foreign aid with the national interest
— tackle social justice issues
— seek to boost social mobility
— push for serious social reform
— build more homes
— promote apprenticeships and vocational training
— oppose more quantitative easing

2016 August 1

Asteroid Mission


OSIRIS-REx will travel to a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu and bring a small sample back to Earth for study. The mission is scheduled to launch September 8, 2016. As planned, the spacecraft will reach its asteroid target in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.

Economic Growth

William D. Nordhaus

For most of human history, economic progress moved at a crawl. From the stone age, to the earliest cities ten thousand years ago, through the Middle Ages, to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800, living standards doubled. Another doubling took place over the subsequent period to 1870. Then the world economy took off.

Conventional measures of economic growth omit some of the largest gains in living standards and underestimate economic progress. The standard measures do not include gains in health and life expectancy. Nor do they include the impact of technological revolutions such as the introduction of electricity or telephones or automobiles.

The century of progress in the United States after 1870 was economic. A rapid growth of output in the century to 1970 was followed by decades of slower growth. Productivity growth slowed sharply due to rising energy prices, growing regulatory burdens, a structural shift to lower productivity sectors, and a decline in major inventions.

Economists understate improvements in living standards. The growth of real income is understated because of flawed price indexes, and GDP omits aspects of economic activity not captured in market transactions. Also, including health status increases sharply the improvement in living standards over the last century.

AR We see a big global step change, from pre-industrial to post-digital lifestyles, still replacing traditional social forms worldwide. Some call it capitalism in action — I call it the arithmetization of value. I see this as part of a wider evolution of DNA life on Earth into MIR life. This evolution of a Lifeball is in turn part of a cosmic process by which mathematically determinate form crystalizes out of the primal flux.


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