Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Excellent Reading! PHYSICS ON THE FRINGE by Margaret Wertheim

Remember when you were a junior in High School and the senior kid who was a science and math whiz and a bit smarmy would announce that we were nothing but bags of bouncing atoms and molecules? You knew the guy was smart but deep down you knew he didn't have all the answers. Things have gotten a lot more complicated since the days of that smarmy kid.

When I first saw Margaret Wertheim's book at the library, I thought it was another book on some of the latest breakthroughs in Physics that don't always make their way into magazines like Scientific American. To be honest, I've been enjoying watching physicists scratch their heads a lot more frequently in the last twenty years. Dark energy, dark matter, and a universe expanding faster than anyone expected have rattled the certainty wagon of the physics world. Look, the accomplishments of physics and other areas of science are quite real. And I love science, I love reading about the latest hunt to understand things, but I freely admit that I find myself rooting for faster than light neutrinos to be confirmed (I know, they probably won't, but.... Ah, the but is everything).

As it turned out, Wertheim's book, Physics on the Fringe, is about another fringe in physics: the outsiders who dabble in physics and who sometimes say very interesting things while constructing their own version of the universe....or just something about ordinary physics, as they see it. Briefly, I considered putting the book down, but it got interesting fast. Among other characters, the main outsider Wertheim chronicles is a guy named Jim Carter, who has thought up several theories of physics by actually doing experiments and modeling. The guy is never far off. He has a Periodic Table of the elements that's done his way and it actually makes a bit of sense.

Wertheim isn't necessarily buying Jim Carter's theories but she's clearly sympathetic. He's a bright man, self-taught, with lots of ideas and experiences. His books, experiments, and illustrations are works of art. By the end, thanks to Wertheim's careful attention to what Carter is doing is doing and saying, you actually learn a few things from the man: there really is more than one way to look at the universe.

To drive home the point, Wertheim notes that 'legitmate' string theorists in high level research institutes are actually, one could argue, getting even more theoretical and speculative than science outsiders like Carter (hey at least Carter does experiments and has a useful invention or two under his belt). I've heard about this aspect of string theory but haven't encountered a detail that Wertheim provides: that string theorists are contemplating a very, very large number of possible universes that may exist according to the hyperflexible and complex math of string theory. The number of possible universes that string theory apparently says could exist is something like 10 to the 500th power, more possible theories of everything, in one sense, than there are atoms in our entire universe.

Wertheim's obserservations are consistent with some observations I've had. For one thing, some older physicists who have doubts about the enthusiasm of the string theorists grudgingly admit that things are getting more complicated, but they find themselves wondering if philosophers—real hard-nosed philosophers of science perhaps—are now needed to help clarify what it is physics should be trying to accomplish going forward. The issues are becoming increasingly philosophical or, at least if I'm reading Wertheim correctly, aesthetic.

But I would add another possibility. Perhaps mathematics is becoming so flexible that it can 'explain' anything without actually, at a certain point, being testable or even practical beyond much of the physics that is already established. By all means, the physics we know explains a great deal, but perhaps it's a delusion that it can explain everything. Or, perhaps as Wertheim seems to suggest, we need more explanations than what the theorists can provide.

I highly recommend Wertheim's smart and readable book. She respects both mainstream physicists and the outsider natural philosophers. She also reminds us of that sense of curiosity and wonder that led us all to science in the first place.

Labels: ,

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Night Poetry: Pushkin

Aleksandr Pushkin was a Russian poet from the early 19th century. In Russia, even in the time of the Tsars, a poet always had to be a little careful. But in this poem, Puskin was young.


Blessed is he who in secluded leisure,
Far from an idiot's brazen ways,
Between hard work and lazy pleasure—
old thoughts and new hopes—divides his days—
And whose friends by gentle fate were chosen
So as to rescue him, lucky pup,
Both from that character who sends you dozing,
And from that character who wakes you up.

—Aleksandr Pushkin

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Republican Party and the Beast It Serves

Big business owns the Republican Party. The people on Wall Street who caused the economic meltdown are donating hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party. For many years, Republicans have been good at changing the subject and stirring up anger. They have not been good at taking an honest look at the world that now exists and what we need to do about it.

In truth, the leadership of the Republican Party has little idea of what it's doing and how to solve any of America's problems. No one exemplifies this more than Rep. Michele Bachmann. Here's a few words concerning an interview with the astonishing Bachmann from by a site that closely watches Republican right wingers:
Despite the fact that she generally has no idea what she is talking about, Rep. Michele Bachmann is planning on holding weekly classes on the Constitution for new members in the next Congress.

Q. If, with a snap of your fingers, you could change anything about America, what would it be?

A. Reduce the federal government to its original size and constitutional limitations and to restore the 9th and 10th amendments.

Of course, the population of the United States back when the government was at its "original size" was just under 4 million - it is now over 310 million.

Forget for a moment what an ignoramus Bachmann is. Like many right wingers, she simply puts together a hodge podge of conservative talking points, random articles, email propaganda (usually in the form of jokes or screaming from the rooftops histrionics about the end of the world for things like fair and honest healthcare reform) and hallucinations by people like Rush Limbaugh. Now and then, these conservatives pick up a smattering of honest facts but have no idea what to do with them or how to put them into context.

So, just what would be the consequences of smaller government? Three things. Bigger businesses with much more clout over our lives. Smaller wages. And the wealth of all Americans concentrated into the hands of fewer and fewer super-wealthy individuals. It is always what happens when the rich and powerful do not have the counterbalance of democratic government. Dear Michele, the rich and powerful men back in old England is what the colonists were fighting against.

Here's another post, this one concerning an observation about business that more and more people have been noticing in the last thirty years of what has been a very conservative era: basic grievance against big companies is that when they screw up they take 6-8 weeks to fix it, usually after multiple phone calls and whatnot, but if I screw up a penalty is immediately levied. This happens on every scale, from billing snafus with $7 fees, to cases of people being foreclosed on even though they had never missed a payment and spent money on lawyers to prove this...

A good example of this type of thing is trying to get medical approval from the bureaucracy that has been created by big business. I'm old enough to remember when a single nurse or maybe a nurse and receptionist were all that was needed to handle prepping, appointments, billing and insurance for a doctor. It's not the government creating all the restrictions, requirements, catch-22s and other nonsense that screws millions of Americans in the health sector alone. It's big business. More important, it's insurance monopolies dedicated to the principle of making themselves filthy rich rather than serving the American people. There was a time when insurance people were proud to serve their clients.

What's changed? It's not that hard to explain. Today, whether it's healthcare, your phone company, the TV cable company, your gas and power company, the various gas stations where you fill up your car, or the many stores and many businesses where you get the things you need, business executives who run these companies have one thing in common: they think of Americans as fat cows to be milked, bled and carved. That is the reality that exists in 2010, and that is the system Republican politicians wholeheartedly do their best to support. Why? Because partly it satisfies their conservative bent, but largely because it's financially lucrative.

Let's be honest about Republican politicians in Washington. Here's a few problems the Republicans refuse to solve.

1. The mortgage crisis is out of control. Republicans make noise but refuse to actually do anything.

2. Healthcare costs are out of sight, but many Republicans are funded by insurance companies who don't want the monopoly in their state disturbed.

3. Most scientists consider global warming to be one of the biggest threats facing civilization. The Republican solution is to pretend the problem doesn't exist.

4. The world is growing faster than our energy resources. The Republican solution is to pretend the problem doesn't exist.

5. We are having to buy more and more oil from foreign countries as our own production slowly continues to decline. The Republican solution is to pretend we can make up for lost production by drilling for oil. In the meantime, major Republican donors are making a fortune buying that foreign oil from others and passing on the oil to the American consumer for a nice fat profit. This perpetual game of buying foreign oil does not create jobs for Americans. Pursuing renewable energy at home as a way to avoid sending our money overseas would create thousands of jobs for every billionaire making a fat profit buying oil from OPEC. That ladies and gentlemen is a fact. Not a single oil job in America that already exists need be affected. It will take two or three decades simply to ramp up alternative energy while doing nothing more than largely replacing foreign oil.

6. More and more jobs are being sent overseas to China or other countries who offer cheap labor. Keep in mind that Republicans despise American workers. The philosophy of wealthy and upper middle class Republicans is to overvalue what they do for the average American and undervalue what the average American does for them. This too is a fact. Republicans are big on national security but more and more things that we need for our defense are being built outside the United States. It is a foolish policy and is asking for trouble down the road. But major Republican donors don't want their China connections disturbed.

The list goes on. And yet, Americans are seriously thinking of sending a majority of Republicans to the House and Senate. All that will do is weaken the United States and make almost everyone poorer, except the rich Republicans who are paying the campaigns bills to get what they want. We are in danger of getting right back to where we were just before the economic meltdown.

The way forward is solving our problems, not playing word games. It is what a majority of Democrats are trying to do, but they're not getting much help.

Labels: , ,

Monday, September 27, 2010

Karl Rove Once Again Backed by the Super-Wealthy

He's back. Karl Rove, who helped elect one of our nation's worst presidents not once but twice is back to his old tricks. This is the guy who scared the nation with those phony aluminum tubes back in 2002 and helped throw our nation into a war we did not need, while President Bush let Osama bin Laden get away.

Let's be clear about this. George W. Bush is responsible for the economic meltdown. He did nothing to stop the wild real estate speculation. He did nothing to help homeowners once the mortgage debacle began to unfold. He did nothing to enforce the law when it comes to bank and Wall Street. In 2002, he signed a business reform bill and stuck the legislation in his desk without any intention of enforcing the law. Who got Bush elected? Karl Rove. Who got Bush elected a second time? Karl Rove. Who's allied to the most conservative and incompetent elements of the Republican Party? Karl Rove.

Here's an article I found in the Los Angeles Times about one of the slipperiest political operators the Republicans have working for them:
The office is marked only by a sign reading "American Crossroads" and "American Action Network." But behind the nondescript entrance is the headquarters of a new political power: a fundraising operation that has pulled in more than $32 million this year, as well as sophisticated marketing, research and advertising operations — all aimed at getting Republicans elected to the House and Senate.


American Crossroads and its affiliates are the offspring of George W. Bush administration strategist Karl Rove and other senior GOP leaders who once worked within the regular party structure, especially the Republican National Committee and its tradition-encrusted headquarters near the Capitol.


Many of the new groups were formed after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision last year, which made it easier for corporations and unions to spend directly on political causes. New groups formed on the left and right, but the dramatic growth has been on the right.

There's a lot more money going to Karl than that $32 million. He's a slick coordinator who know how to hide money from contributors. Karl Rove and his friends are taking a ton of money from right-wing billionaires, exactly the same clowns who supported George W. Bush, and exactly the same clowns who supported the legislation and policies of Republicans that sent our economy into the tank. If you're out of work, if you're worried about your home, or you're wondering when the economy will recover, Karl Rove and his friends are responsible. Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich have been telling Republicans to block every effort by President Obama to get the economy moving. Obama has moved in the right direction, but if it had not be for the Republicans, the economy would be in much better shape today. And yet the Republicans have the gall to ask for your vote.

The New York Times
has details on some of the planning by Karl Rove and other Republicans who were part of the Bush Administration or closely associated to it:
...the Republican fund-raiser Fred Malek, the onetime lobbyist and Bush White House counselor Ed Gillespie, and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary Cheney, among others — agreed on plans for an ambitious new political machine that would marshal the resources of disparate business, nonprofit and interest groups to bring Republicans back to power this fall.


[Karl Rove] has had a major hand in helping to summon the old coalition of millionaires and billionaires who supported Mr. Bush and have huge financial stakes in regulatory and tax policy...

Folks, this is what you call business as usual politics. Karl Rove and his friends are not smart enough or honest enough to keep the economy from going into the ditch, but they're smart enough to help their wealthy friends, exactly the kind of people who created the economic mess in the first place. Think of all the money they fed to friends like Halliburton. Think of all the money they fed to their rich cronies during Hurricane Katrina without actually accomplishing anything. This is a slick crowd: they know how to talk and how to raise money from conservative billionaires, but they're a danger to every working American, retired seniors and the future of every child. These are guys who live for today with no regard for the jobs being sent overseas and no regard for millions of Americans looking for a decent way forward in tough times.

Now Rove and his friends are a bit smarter, however, than the Tea Party Mad Hatters, but nevertheless, they are willing to work with them (or roll them?) in order to win the election. There should be no mistake about who's going to be in charge if the Republicans take the House and Senate: the old Bush crowd. The Democrats still have work to do but if Republicans are back in power, watch out. With Republicans controlling the agenda, it won't take much time for the economy to go right back into the ditch, right where George W. Bush and Karl Rove put us in the first place.

Labels: , ,

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Night Poetry: A Basho Haiku

Shambhala, a not so small press, put out The Essential Basho in 1999. Basho's poems are translated by Sam Hamill, founder of the Copper Canyon Press and a fine poet in his own right.

For those who don't know, Basho was a Buddhist poet who lived from 1644 to 1694.

Lord Yoshitomo's
heart must closely resemble
this cold autumn wind.


Hmm, even Buddhist priests can't help thinking about politicians from time to time. We seem to have a few Lord Yoshitomos in our time too. Across centuries and oceans, things often remain the same.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Social Security and the Relabeling of George W. Bush

Republicans have a bad product but they can't sell it. They believe the product is just a matter of labeling and that labeling for eight years was George W. Bush. Without a doubt, George W. Bush is one of the worst presidents in our nation's history. Bush is responsible for two wars, the fiasco at Katrina and the economic meltdown that began in 2007 and became increasingly dramatic in the late summer of 2008. Republicans, seeing disaster in the 2008 elections, did their best to distance themselves from George W. Bush. Never mind that they voted for everything Bush wanted and blocked every effort by Democrats for more responsible legislation. They think they can sell the same bad product simply by removing "George W. Bush" from the label.

It should be understood that the economic meltdown of 2008 was the proof that Republicans don't know much these days about economics. They think cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, hiring crooked corporations like Halliburton to build things in Iraq, privatizing the military and FEMA, giving their friends sweetheart no-bid contracts, killing corporate reform (while pretending to pass reform), sending jobs overseas, buying fossil fuels from OPEC and fueling an essentially crooked real estate boom as far as the eye could see was somehow going to be good for America.

When it all came crashing down, the Republicans in Congress denied they had anything to do with the mess. In fact, they're now selling the same garbage that got us into trouble by pretending that because George W. Bush is no longer president, that changes everything. Except that the Republicans are still peddling the same nonsense. It just no longer has George W. Bush's name attached to the same agenda.

An example is Social Security. Republicans are still pushing the privatization of Social Security, just as George W. Bush pushed the same nonsense. Oh, they like to change the name in one breath, deny it's privatization in the next breath, and sweet talk conservative brokers into making huge campaign contributions so they can dig into all that potential privatization money in the final breath.

I can't put it more plainly than this: privatization is privatization is privatization, no matter what you call it. If you like privatization, you must think crooked corporations like Halliburton are the best thing that's ever happened to America.

What gives the Republicans away is that instead of saying that Social Security will go bankrupt in twenty years (which it won't), they now claim Social Security will be broke in 2010, 2012, or 2016 (which is ludicruous). Everything, so Republicans say, has to be fixed in a hurry and by golly they got just the deal for you. So you hear scary language followed by the same scam that George W. Bush tried to peddle. Republican politicians aren't talking about Social Security because they care about the American people—they're talking about Social Security so they can reap all those campaign contributions (and potential sweetheart deals) from the stock brokers (many of whom are the same folks who almost brought down the economy in 2008).

Here's what President Obama had to say on Saturday (via The Washington Monthly):
After noting the privatization debate of 2005, the president said, "I'd have thought that debate would've been put to rest once and for all by the financial crisis we've just experienced. I'd have thought, after being reminded how quickly the stock market can tumble, after seeing the wealth people worked a lifetime to earn wiped out in a matter of days, that no one would want to place bets with Social Security on Wall Street; that everyone would understand why we need to be prudent about investing the retirement money of tens of millions of Americans.

"But some Republican leaders in Congress don't seem to have learned any lessons from the past few years. They're pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall. It's right up there on their to-do list with repealing some of the Medicare benefits and reforms that are adding at least a dozen years to the fiscal health of Medicare -- the single longest extension in history.

"That agenda is wrong for seniors, it's wrong for America, and I won't let it happen. Not while I'm President. I'll fight with everything I've got to stop those who would gamble your Social Security on Wall Street."

Let's hope Obama comes out fighting in the next week or two, and fights all the way to November. For eight years, Republicans were a disaster for America. We're still paying the price, particularly homeowners and laid-off workers from coast to coast, from Corpus Christi to Portland, Maine. Ever since pragmatism went awol in the Republican Party, a large majority of Americans have been paying the price. Until the Republicans reform their party and shed themselves of the lunatic fringe, what makes anyone think they'll do better the next time?

Labels: ,

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Night Poetry: Classical Poetry

Here's a poem from classical times. I can't find decent information on Lucilius but he lived at least a couple of thousand years ago. His poem sounds like Falstaff or modern slapstick.

The Timid Veteran

Calpurnius, our favorite miles gloriosus,
Strayed into an art gallery, and there
Ran into a mural of the Trojan War.

He goggled, swooned, crying I yield

O comrade Trojans, belov'd of the War-God!

We brought him to.
He asked where he was wounded,
And insisted on paying ransom to the wall.