About Me

My Photo
One time several years ago in graduate school, I simply could not remember the word "syrup", so I called it "pancake gravy". That title was already taken(!), so I added "cane" because when I was a child in the Panhandle of Florida (aka Lower Alabama), my family grew sugar cane and made our own cane syrup.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Fox News and Positive Barbarism

There is another idea in human arrangements so fundamental as to be forgotten; but now for the first time denied. It may be called the idea of reciprocity; or, in better English, of give and take. The Prussian appears to be quite intellectually incapable of this thought. He cannot, I think, conceive the idea that is the foundation of all comedy; that, in the eyes of the other man, he is only the other man. -- G.K. Chesterton, The Barbarism of Berlin
This passage comes to mind when I see a story on Fox News under the banner, "IRAN'S JOKE JUSTICE:  Cartoonist faces prison for her depiction of Parliament," and contrast that with another expression of Fox outrage (do they have any other kind of story?), "OUTRAGEOUS VIDEO:  Female Vet Tackled, Arrested for Trying to Stop Flag Protest."  In the Fox Weltanschauung, symbols of our form of government are sacred, and we are not only within our rights to protect them by law, we are lax in our duty if we fail to afford them such protection.  Such is only the case, though, for the USA and perhaps a few of our very best friends (Israel and the UK in particular, but not really anyone else).  The same rules most definitely due not apply to Iran.

Anyone who has the painful habit of personal thought will perceive here at once the non-reciprocal principle again. Boiled down to its bones of logic, it means simply this: "I am a German and you are a Chinaman. Therefore I, being a German, have a right to be a Chinaman. But you have no right to be a Chinaman; because you are only a Chinaman."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

More Thoughts on Interstellar

I don't watch many movies, which is why I seem to think about the ones I do watch more than most people do -- and, usually, more than the movie itself warrants.  I've been doing that lately for the movie "Interstellar".  "Interstellar" was apparently intended to be a vehicle to both celebrate science and educate the public about science, so I had high hopes of being able to make use of it in the classroom.

Sadly, it came off more like "The Core", which also combined a threat of human extinction, an uncritical enthusiasm for science and technology, serious scientific problems, and reliance on deus ex machina.  In "The Core", the deus ex machina is money:  any problem in science or technology can apparently be solved in a matter of months if unlimited government funds are provided. "Interstellar" has two main dei ex machina:  "bulk fields", and the inevitable flow of progress (or evolution through rose-colored glasses).  The difference is that the problems with "The Core" were obvious from the trailers; we knew going in that this was going to be ridiculous, so there were no high hopes to be dashed, just the expectation of silliness.

Anyhow, let me get off my chest a few more specific problems with "Interstellar", then I'll let it rest.  In case you haven't guessed, SPOILER ALERT.

1.  Blight is some sort of global biological pathogen that seems to attack all plants.  In the book, Thorne suggests it attacks chloroplasts; he doesn't even try to justify the line in the movie about it breathing nitrogen (but that's not my main complaint).  Presumably it is carried on the wind, and the massive dust storms would make sure every place is exposed.  The problem, then, is not to get away from the Earth; the problem is to get away from blight.  It would be a huge problem to try to evacuate whatever remained of the human species, together with the food plants they needed, without bringing this pathogen along as well.  In fact, if it was easy enough to do that, why not just build giant decontaminated greenhouses and move people into them?  Why would the greenhouses need to be in outer space instead?

Building greenhouses on Earth would save many, many problems -- or at least defer them for a significant period of time.  There would be no need to spin them for artificial gravity; the Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field would shield the greenhouses from cosmic radiation; it would be much easier to access raw materials; it would be easier to maintain pressure; it would be easier to control the temperature.  Thorne writes in his book that there would be plenty of oxygen still in the atmosphere for decades to come, but enough carbon dioxide to begin making the air poisonous; that is an easy problem to deal with.  However, the air would be full of blight spores, the greenhouse would need to be hermetically sealed, with only occasional (probably emergency) access to treated outside air.  The level of CO2 would steadily increase in the absence of photosynthesis, probably leading to a Venus-like runaway greenhouse effect in the geological blink of an eye, but by locating greenhouses on the south-facing slopes of hills near the oceans (to moderate temperatures) in the high latitudes, the situation could be kept bearable for some time -- perhaps long enough to develop algae and plants that can withstand blight and bring the atmosphere back under control.  Earth would still be a hostile planet, but much less hostile than the one Cooper elects to move to.  Mankind would already have something of a substantial head start in terraforming the Earth!

2. Wormholes inherently involve strongly curved space, which is equivalent to strong gravitational fields. For a small wormhole, like the one found (in the movie) in orbit around Saturn, the tidal forces would rip apart any space ship traversing it.  Unless, of course -- bulk fields!

3. If the "five-dimensional beings" are invisible to us except for gravity, we are also invisible to them except for gravity.  Seriously:  they would only be able to see through light if they absorb light, which would make them visible.  Yet, through the magic of "progress", they are able to locate specific places, times, and people on Earth, and they are able to construct a virtual reality for Cooper that both interacts with the past and even gets the colors right.  A movie that is supposed to be strong in science should not make the science look like pure magic.  

I know that many people love Arthur C. Clarke's statement, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  Maybe, in some sense, that is true, but it is not true that anything you can imagine being done by magic can be done by a sufficiently advanced technology.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Well, I've finally gotten around to watching the movie "Interstellar", as well as reading most of the book The Science of Interstellar.  On the whole, I found it disappointing, in no small part because I had had such high expectations for it.  Here are a few of the things in the movie that disappointed me most.  Needless to say -- SPOILER ALERT!

1.  It may well be the case that those involved in writing and producing the movie have no religion, but the fact that they completely left religion out of the film is a serious indication that they don't understand humanity at all.  Some people in fact never pray; some never tell jokes; some never sing; some never explore or investigate out of pure curiosity.  Normal people do all of these these things, the first no less than the fourth.  Now I believe that there is one religion that is in fact true, but that is not the point.  Maybe in the face of starvation and possible extinction people would worship Anubis or the Aztec corn god, but you can bet there would be some sort of religious boom. 

2.  For a movie that so noticeably lacks religion, it is particularly frustrating to see characters become prophets of the writers.  Cooper's unsubstantiated speculations while in Gargantua really do represent the intentions of the writers, but if we are really to take the serious scientific viewpoint that Kip Thorne thinks this movie promotes, they are still just groundless speculations.

3.  Kip Thorne should not have let them treat an equation in physics the same way Walt Disney treated "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" -- as a magical invocation that automatically creates the desired practical effect.  Let's face it:  even if the Professor had a complete understanding of how gravity is united with the strong nuclear force and the electroweak force, with only bamboo, vines, and coconuts he would still be no closer to getting off Gilligan's Island.  Perhaps more seriously, we have known for decades how nuclear fusion occurs in the sun, and that the deuterium in the oceans represents an essentially unlimited supply of cheap energy, but we have yet to engineer a practical fusion energy plant.

4.  If we take Cooper's unsupported speculations as gospel truth, it is still meaningless to talk about humans "evolving" into 5-dimensional beings with bodies made of something other than normal matter.  Evolution is not magic.  For that matter, it is not at all clear in what sense such beings, even if they were created by our descendants, could really be our descendants, and they certainly would no more be "us" than amoebas are "us".

5.  If we take Cooper's unsupported speculations as gospel truth, there is a closed causal loop in our descendants preventing the extinction of the human species that gave rise to them.  Those are always unsettling, but they are not obviously impossible.  (It is doubtful, though, that they are consistent with Free Will, which is a strong argument against them.)  Maybe the ugliness of a closed causal loop is the "explanation" as to why our distant descendants, who are clearly messing very seriously with their own past, used such an indirect and inefficient way to communicate the quantum data to Murph Cooper.  Maybe.  If not, that's something that needs an explanation. 

6.  While Cooper was in his tesseract, he was able to "see" Murph's room and "push" the books.  Both of these involve electromagnetic interactions, except that when the books in Murph's room actually move, it is supposedly due to gravity, and Cooper was never visible to anyone in the room.  This pretty strongly implies that he was actually in some sort of virtual reality that only interacted indirectly with the room.  Or, more likely, everything that happens after he crosses the event horizon is his dying delusion, like "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".   Murph, however, in "prophet mode" detected a person behind the strange occurrences in her room.  All this in a movie that has no room for God.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Problems with "Conservative Catholic" Gatekeepers

Two recent disagreements I have had with so-called conservative Catholic blogs (which may or may not have obtained permission from their bishop to use the name "Catholic" in their blog title, as required by Church law) highlight the problem I have with calling myself a conservative.  I am obviously no kind of liberal, but if these self-proclaimed gatekeepers of conservatism tell me I have to toe their line to join their club, well, so much for their club.

The lesser problem came from someone who had a quasi-religious belief that all government regulations are bad.  Well, almost all; I'm 99.999% sure he considers government regulation of immigration not only morally defensible (as do I, even though our immigration system is badly out of whack), but even morally imperative.  Let me be perfectly blunt:  anyone who thinks that "the free market" is sufficient to determine which drugs are safe to take, which kitchens practice adequate hygiene, which aircraft are safe enough to fly, what precautions keep miners adequately safe, and what are safe and appropriate means of disposing of toxic wastes is too stupid to engage in meaningful debate.  Such a person thinks that the only alternatives are his form of "conservatism" and Communism --- a choice I would eagerly put to the public if for some reason I wanted Communism.  Make no mistake about it; we should be cautious in permitting government regulations, and we must avoid the idea that the government can regulate us into some sort of earthly paradise; but some regulation is wise and even necessary, and we must also avoid the idea that the "free market" can create an earthly paradise.

The larger problem came in comments to a blog post that was suggesting that it is a mistake for Catholic charities to ever accept government funds, because inevitably this leads to the government "forcing" the charity to do something contrary to the Faith; the specific example of which is the Church's support for the needs of illegal immigrants, and the ACLU's lawsuit that the Catholic charity involved must make abortion available to the immigrants it serves.  (I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument of the blog post, but it should be entirely clear that just because you don't receive money from the government doesn't mean you are safe from government impositions.)  In this case, the commenter objected that the bishops are "giving aid to lawbreakers" --- not that they are giving aid in law-breaking, nor even that, by making it safer to break immigration laws, they are providing encouragement to break those laws.

This was more than I could take.  I gave a hypothetical:  Suppose someone had been driving faster than the posted speed --- perhaps 70 mph in a 65 mph zone --- lost control, and hit a tree.  He was a lawbreaker, because he had broken the law setting the maximum speed.  Should an ambulance refuse to give aid to the lawbreaker?  Should he be left to die because he broke the law?  In general, should a Catholic hospital never admit anyone who has broken a law at any point in his life?  Or does it matter whether the law in question is one that the commenter has broken himself, or one that he will probably never break?

Now I have often argued that, the personal opinions of ever so many present-day priests and bishops notwithstanding, the consistent Teaching of the Catholic Church does not exclude the possibility of the death penalty, and in fact argues strongly for it.  The mistake made by these well-meaning clerics is easy to understand, though, because although the Church is not opposed to the death penalty, the Church is very strongly opposed to death.  Above all, of course, the Church is opposed to spiritual death --- to sin and to Hell, always and everywhere; yet although is it of secondary importance, the Church is also vigorously opposed to physical death.  Physical death is always to be preferred to spiritual death; it is glorious for martyrs and leads to the Beatific Vision for saints; yet it is also always a physical evil and a punishment imposed on us for our sins and the sin of Adam, in which we have a mysterious participation.  So even though I think there is much good to be had from honestly confronting a criminal with the magnitude of his crimes and the penalty that may be justly levied on him, I am also 100% sympathetic with those who ask, "Is there no way that we can spare this man's life without sin?"  The death penalty should be read out as often as necessary, but it should be carried out as infrequently as possible.

More fundamentally, the Church exists precisely in order to give aid to lawbreakers.  How any Catholic can fail to understand that is beyond me.  It is not for nothing that on Palm Sunday and Good Friday we are made to cry out with the crowd, "Crucify Him!"  That is the true meaning of each of our sins.  It is to give aid to lawbreakers that the Church has the sacrament of Confession.  It was to give aid to lawbreakers that Jesus laid down His life on the cross and took it up again on the third day, and we are all of us like one of the two lawbreakers who were crucified alongside Him; it is our choice whether we will be more like the Good Thief or the other thief.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

OK, here is my prediction for this year's tournament.  I ran it several times until it produced Kentucky as the final champion, because (1) Kentucky is local here and (2) Kentucky really does seem to be the best team.  This model actually does a pretty good job of fitting several statistics to those produced by real tournaments, but it still looks a little wrong -- there seem to be too many wild upsets.  A high school student is working with me to refine the model.

Based on my current model, the odds of picking the whole tournament correctly are optimized by assuming no upsets, and they are about 1 in 15.445 billion.  This is about 600 million times more likely than the "official rules" of last year's "billion dollar bracket" competition estimated.

In the SOUTH Regional

In the 2nd Round:
16 NFL/RMU  @  1 Duke  -->  1 Duke
15 N. Dak. St.  @  2 Gonzaga  -->  2 Gonzaga
14 UAB  @  3 Iowa St.  -->  3 Iowa St.
13 Eastern Wash.  @  4 Georgetown  -->  4 Georgetown
12 S.F. Austin  @  5 Utah  -->  12 S.F. Austin
11 UCLA  @  6 SMU  -->  11 UCLA
10 Davidson  @  7 Iowa  -->  7 Iowa
9 St. John's  @  8 S. Diego St.  -->  9 St. John's
In the 3rd Round:
9 St. John's  @  1 Duke  -->  9 St. John's
7 Iowa  @  2 Gonzaga  -->  2 Gonzaga
11 UCLA  @  3 Iowa St.  -->  11 UCLA
12 S.F. Austin  @  4 Georgetown  -->  4 Georgetown
In the Sweet 16:
4 Georgetown  @  9 St. John's  -->  9 St. John's
11 UCLA  @  2 Gonzaga  -->  2 Gonzaga
In the Elite 8:
2 Gonzaga  @  9 St. John's  -->  2 Gonzaga
In the WEST Regional

In the 2nd Round:
16 Coastal Car.  @  1 Wisconsin  -->  1 Wisconsin
15 Texas Southern  @  2 Arizona  -->  2 Arizona
14 Georgia St.  @  3 Baylor  -->  3 Baylor
13 Harvard  @  4 N. Carolina  -->  4 N. Carolina
12 Wofford  @  5 Arkansas  -->  12 Wofford
11 BYU/Miss  @  6 Xavier  -->  6 Xavier
10 Ohio St.  @  7 VCU  -->  10 Ohio St.
9 Oklahoma St.  @  8 Oregon  -->  8 Oregon
In the 3rd Round:
8 Oregon  @  1 Wisconsin  -->  1 Wisconsin
10 Ohio St.  @  2 Arizona  -->  10 Ohio St.
6 Xavier  @  3 Baylor  -->  6 Xavier
12 Wofford  @  4 N. Carolina  -->  4 N. Carolina
In the Sweet 16:
4 N. Carolina  @  1 Wisconsin  -->  1 Wisconsin
6 Xavier  @  10 Ohio St.  -->  10 Ohio St.
In the Elite 8:
10 Ohio St.  @  1 Wisconsin  -->  1 Wisconsin
In the EAST Regional

In the 2nd Round:
16 Lafayette  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova
15 Belmont  @  2 Virginia  -->  2 Virginia
14 Albany  @  3 Oklahoma  -->  3 Oklahoma
13 UC Irvine  @  4 Louisville  -->  13 UC Irvine
12 Wyoming  @  5 Northern Iowa  -->  5 Northern Iowa
11 BoSt/Dayt  @  6 Providence  -->  11 BoSt/Dayt
10 Georgia  @  7 Michigan St.  -->  7 Michigan St.
9 LSU  @  8 N.C. State  -->  9 LSU
In the 3rd Round:
9 LSU  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova
7 Michigan St.  @  2 Virginia  -->  7 Michigan St.
11 BoSt/Dayt  @  3 Oklahoma  -->  11 BoSt/Dayt
5 Northern Iowa  @  13 UC Irvine  -->  5 Northern Iowa
In the Sweet 16:
5 Northern Iowa  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova
11 BoSt/Dayt  @  7 Michigan St.  -->  7 Michigan St.
In the Elite 8:
7 Michigan St.  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Villanova
In the MIDWEST Regional

In the 2nd Round:
16 Manh/Ham  @  1 Kentucky  -->  1 Kentucky
15 N. Mex. St.  @  2 Kansas  -->  2 Kansas
14 Northeastern  @  3 Notre Dame  -->  3 Notre Dame
13 Valparaiso  @  4 Maryland  -->  4 Maryland
12 Buffalo  @  5 West Virginia  -->  5 West Virginia
11 Texas  @  6 Butler  -->  11 Texas
10 Indiana  @  7 Wichita St.  -->  10 Indiana
9 Purdue  @  8 Cincinnati  -->  9 Purdue
In the 3rd Round:
9 Purdue  @  1 Kentucky  -->  1 Kentucky
10 Indiana  @  2 Kansas  -->  2 Kansas
11 Texas  @  3 Notre Dame  -->  3 Notre Dame
5 West Virginia  @  4 Maryland  -->  4 Maryland
In the Sweet 16:
4 Maryland  @  1 Kentucky  -->  1 Kentucky
3 Notre Dame  @  2 Kansas  -->  2 Kansas
In the Elite 8:
2 Kansas  @  1 Kentucky  -->  1 Kentucky
1 Villanova  @  2 Gonzaga  -->  1 Villanova
1 Kentucky  @  1 Wisconsin  -->  1 Kentucky
1 Kentucky  @  1 Villanova  -->  1 Kentucky 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Joint Editorial on the Death Penalty

I'm glad to see I'm not alone in insisting that something important is lost if the death penalty is not, at least in principle, a possibility.  There doesn't seem to be much more that needs to be said in addition to what I have already said and what is in those two links.  On the other hand, I feel very disappointed in the National Catholic Register, which has, at least in some of its blogs and columns, been rightly critical in the past of what is called "chronological snobbery" and "consequentialism", yet here the Register is guilty of both faults.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Biased Thinking

One of the current political conflicts is over immigration and Obama's executive orders regarding immigration.  The immigration policies of both parties, to the extent they are sufficiently coherent to be said to exist, are deeply flawed, but that is not my subject now.  Obama's executive orders, like his recess appointments and many other actions, are an attempt to circumvent the Separation of Powers; other presidents, Republican and Democratic, have done the same thing; but that is also not my topic.  My topic is the reaction to the attempt by the Republican Congress to reverse those orders by attaching legislation to that effect to the bill funding the Department of Homeland Security.

The Democrats, attempting to defend Obama, have accused the Republicans of putting their immigration policy over homeland security, and this accusation has been duly reported.  Fair enough.  What is not mentioned -- ever -- is that Obama, by threatening to veto the bill funding the Department of Homeland Security if it violates his immigration policy, is doing exactly the same thing.  This does not seem to be just an omission in the reporting; the Republicans themselves seem to share this blind spot.  Nor is this merely an example of the press favoring the Democrats; there has been the same bias in the past favoring Republican presidents.

This is like a game of chicken.  It's stupid to say that a collision is the fault of the blue car driver, because he didn't pull off, and is not at all the responsibility of the red car driver, because he had said he would not pull off.

In this case, once again it is the Republicans who have chickened out.