25 October 2016

Get Scientific American for November

 I don't often urge people to dash out and buy a magazine, but just looking over the November issue of
Scientific American's
Table of Contents, I'd like to suggest if you have any interest in a scientific perspective, that you get a hold of a copy or take a look in the library. A really stellar collection of articles this month.

1. Fascinating article on how quantum entanglement may play a role on a large scale as well as a micro scale (hence the pic on the cover of entangled black holes). See also interesting new book by Musser on the same topic, taking a snark of Einstein's as a title, "
Spooky Action at a Distance

The Fusion Underground,
about physicists working on new ideas for fusion energy, which someday somehow will be the energy of our civilization (it's what powers stars, after all).

Things We Know to be True (but keep forgetting).

Get Clean or Die Trying
about medically controversial use of illegal and potentially dangerous anti-addiction drug ibogaine.

Language in a New Key,
critiquing Noam Chomsky's innate language facility theory.

Our home Supercluster

Everyone knows their street address, the name of their town, their state or province (or County, or whatever), the nation they live in; that they live on Earth, a planet. Most people understand that the Earth, where they live, is in a star system (system of planets orbiting a star, a common entity in the universe), called the Solar System. That the sun and its planets are in something (maybe they're not too clear on what that something IS), called the Milky Way (or sometimes just the Galaxy, which is derived from a Greek word that means the same thing). (It's a larger-than-average barred spiral galaxy (lower-case 'g'), with something on the order of 300 billion stars, most of them a good deal smaller than the Sun, in case you are one of those not too clear).

The more astronomically oriented may know that the Milky Way is the second largest member of a smallish group of galaxies (the largest is M31, the Andromeda Galaxy), called the "Local Group" (how poetic). And maybe even that it's at the tail end of a medium size cluster of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster, which is centered on the Giant Elliptical Galaxy known as M87.

But few know we live in a particular Supercluster of Galaxies, which is one of the type of the largest gravitationally bound unit of matter defined, Superclusters. It's called (drumroll please), Laniakea. ("Immense Heaven" in Hawaiaan). This is a grouping of approximately 100,000 galaxies, and it really is a thing. Has been for billions of years. Probably other beings living in it have all kinds of other names for it, but we humans of Earth have named it Laniakea. Please remember that.

Here's what's in it: 

  • Virgo Cluster (formerly called Virgo Supercluster), the part in which the Milky Way resides (in the wispy tail end still called the Local Group).
  • Hydra-Centaurus (formerly called) Supercluster
    ​ ​
  • the Great Attractor, the Laniakea central gravitational point near Norma
    Antlia Wall, still referred to as the Hydra Supercluster (OK the terms are a little indefinite)
  • Centaurus Cluster (formerly Supercluster)
  • Pavo-Indus Cluser (formerly Supercluster)
  • Southern Cluster (Supercluster), including Fornax Cluster (S373), Dorado and Eridanus clouds

(Does not include the Coma Supercluster, which is beyond Virgo in a direction away from the Great Attractor).

​ Laniakea Supercluster 

​ ​

15 October 2016

Attending a lecture by Richard Tarnas

The following is a slight revision of some comments I wrote to a friend about attending a lecture by Richard Tarnas at the local C.G. Jung society. Tarnas is the author of Cosmos and Psyche. If you're not familiar with him, he is a Jungian, but more particularly, he has a whole theory of history based on his own particular interpretations of astrology. The lecture was interesting, but not impressive, at least not to me, as a basis for any reasonable basis to adopt his "world view."

Tarnas subtitles his book "Intimation of a New World View," which is an example of a Jungian "synchronicity," (coincidence), because I just read Sean Carroll's rather less flamboyant book, The Big Picture, with the same aim, albeit from an entirely different perspective. I'm pretty sure Tarnas would say that Carroll's is really just the "old world view," but I don't actually think so. Just one example. Tarnas played a clip during his lecture in which John Cleese satirized a white coated scientist and he pointed to a model and said something like "we have just discovered the gene... just here (pointing)... which causes people like me to believe that the world is completely susceptible to measurement and mechanistic explanations, even though Quantum Physics proved in the 1920s that that is impossible." It was funny; typical Fawlty Towers Cleese mode. 

But, in all seriousness, as you'd know from reading Carroll, that's not really accurate. There is nothing in quantum physics that affects an empirical analysis of the world. Quantum physics is entirely consistent with a scientific worldview, that treats truth claims as testable propositions which must undergo and survive rigorous attempts at falsification before they can be accepted as working versions of "truth." It is, in fact, precisely the refusal to accept predetermined thinking that led scientists to accept that, however counterintuitive and strange the world appears to be on the micro level, experiments and the rigorous logic of the theory than predicts their results compel the conclusion that it really is that strange (although some of the details, especially of the sort of "meta theory," as opposed to the math and experimental demonstrations, remain controversial, even among those very few in the world who are capable of understanding the issues in depth). 

What fundamentally bothers me about Tarnas's world view is its lack of consistent derivation from nature. There's no fascination, or even mention, of the scientific discoveries of the last half century of what Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune (he hardly mentioned Neptune, wonder why?), Uranus and, just recently, Pluto, actually are, which to me is far more interesting than the seemingly arbitrary "archetypal" associations, which come from human history and culture, that are attached to these planets and their supposed natures. Uranus is a gaseous planetary body that formed naturally about 4.5 billion years ago. 60 years ago we knew hardly anything about it other than its celestial mechanics (orbital data) and that. Now, it is a world. We have images. We know a good deal about its actual nature. Why is this not even relevant to this "new" world view? What about this actual place, that really exists, is a "trickster" (as claimed), and why? These questions aren't even asked; the correlations are claimed but not explained, and the data for them is, well, let's just say, hardly universally accepted. 

Just saying (as he did during the lecture, at least twice), that "there are more things in heaven and earth, [] than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (from Hamlet; Hamlet was chiding the unimaginative Horatio), seems to me just an acknowledgment that science is incomplete (hey, we knew that), rather than a valid or insightful critique of its methods. Nor does it really address or distinguish the things that have found their way into the category of "so well and consistently demonstrated that they can be accepted as elements of truth," which include things like the photoelectric effect, General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and the Standard Model, at least as it pertains the the particular array of politics that make up the ordinary matter and energy that we are made of. The rather nebulous descriptions of synchronicity, archetypal "energies" (a loose use of a word that in science has a very precise, and quantifiable meaning), etc. do not, it seems to me, amount to knowledge of anything; they are, rather, poetry, or metaphor; soundings of the mind into the unknown. We should not draw conclusions from dreams, even though, as limited beings and not gods, we have no choice but to continue to dream them, since there clearly is so much we do not know. Which just brings us back to the "more things in heaven and earth." Sure, that's right. But imagining a system based on creating patterns in the mind and then looking for ways to match those patterns to events is not a methodology that results in valid conclusions. This is, in fact, why traditional civilizations like China and the Central Asian/Arab Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages, while they flourished and produced great accomplishments, failed to develop a true scientific method. Science IS rigorous submission to falsification. That's the essential element that leads to progress in separating the wheat of actual correspondence to what's real from the chaff of spinning stories without being able to ensure that they are grounded in reality. It was not Chinese astrologers who discovered the Cosmic Background Radiation. It was Western science. The fact that traditional views (astrological correlations, traditional cosmologies, traditional explanations for the origin of the Earth), while having interesting cross-cultural consistencies, are not, in fact consistent or independently verifiable, is an indication that their primary value is as culture, and literature, not as a basis for drawing conclusions about nature. 

(For a critique of Tarnas from someone who actually agrees with him about the importance of a new-agey "holistic" relationship between humans and the "cosmos," see this.)

13 October 2016

Probability of Clinton win by states

I would like to point out that all three west coast states come out in Nate Silver's poll projection as over 97% probability that Clinton will carry the state. We on the "left coast" consider ourselves to be almost in a different country than the rest of the nation. Here, sure there are some rednecks and lunatics, but by and large someone like Trump garners almost no support. We just can't conceive of electing someone like that to any office. 

But California stands out.  

Only three other states in the nation rank in at ≥ 99.7% chance of Clinton win: 
New York

(Illinois is 99.2% and Washington is 98%). 

But California, America's largest state by far, is in a special category: 99.9% probability.  

12 October 2016


For those who are trying to tune out the election, please scroll on. 

I can't help but note that Nate Silver is, as of today, giving better than 50/50 odds of a Clinton victory in Arizona (!)  

And Ohio, which was a Trump state 10 days ago, has a 66% chance of going Dem; and Florida, which was also a Trump state less than two weeks ago, is at 73%. These are algorithm results, not poll results (obviously), but Silver's methodology has a quite good track record. Formerly Trump leaning Iowa and Nevada are also now at 58 and 75% respectively (chance of Clinton win).   

This thing really is all but over. There is NO WAY Trump could win without Florida.   

Notable Demographic picture of this strange, transformational political era

Probably the most interesting map on Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com is the one that shows the states proportional to their population. (Scroll down to see it). Not only does it show that more populous recently "red" or "lean red" states, AZ, IA, FL, and OH are now light blue, it's interesting to note that, with the exception of Mississippi, where the large black population skews the trend, it is the more populous Trump states that are weaker for him and closer to tipping. Very low population Southern and Mountain West states are the red meat Trumpsylvania. 

This plays out within states, too. California, by county, is true blue along the coast (even San Diego and Orange Counties now vote Democratic much of the time (Romney did carry Orange Co. in 2012). But the Central Valley and remote Northeast is as red as Alabama. 

Here in Oregon, it's much the same. The Willamette Valley, which includes Salem, Portland, and Eugene, has a disproportionate share of the state's population, and is reliably not only Democratic, but Progressive Democratic. But much of the rest of the state is Trump territory. 

This divide was not always so apparent, and I'm not really sure where it will lead us. If a mostly urban, Center/Progressive majority obtains a demographic lock on the presidency, and ultimately the Congress as well, as would seem likely given this trend, will the states that no longer ever elect a Democratic senator or governor, and the regions of "blue states" that always vote counter to the majority in their states, become permanently disenchanted with the workings of our small-r republican system? 

Or, will there be some tectonic shift? The implosion of the Republican party and emergence of a split on issues that leads to a new division, one which may not be so geographically polarized? I submit no one really knows the answers to these questions, but one thing is for sure: we are living through times that will transform politics in America. 

Hopefully just in time so that our politics can start addressing the policy issues that are suffering from unsustainable neglect as a result of our current polarization and paralysis. 

11 October 2016

Trump and narcissistic alexithymia

David Brooks wrote an article for the Times today, in which he goes beyond the commonplace observation that Trump displays narcissistic personality disorder to say, specifically, that he displays narcissistic alexithymia (a condition where the person is incapable of recognizing, identifying, or describing emotions in himself, and often has physical responses in place of emotional reactions). I'd never heard the term. 

In Buddhism, even its most secular form, it is a fundamental practice to meditate on lovingkindness (metta or maitri) and compassion (karuna) towards not only people (or other beings) we like or feel love for but also towards "difficult" people or even enemies. This is a very important and liberating practice, which need not be in any way supernatural. I point this out only by way of saying, well and good to feel sympathy towards Trump, as a fellow human being who apparently is indeed mentally ill. But we have to recognize another element of wisdom, which is equanimity. (Upekkha). This is recognition that we cannot generally control the actions of others, but must act in ways that reduce harm. Here we have a mentally ill man who has aggressively put himself forward as a candidate for a job where he could do almost immeasurable harm to our nation and the world. We, as conscientious citizens, whatever our philosophy or religion, owe it to our compatriots and fellow citizens of the world to stop this menace cold. 

Which, fortunately, appears to be what is happening. 

07 October 2016

Musing on epistemology

I was watching the 2 hour Nova episode about how humanity spread "out of Africa" throughout the globe, starting about 100,000 years ago, and I got to thinking about something. We behold a vast panoply of cultural wealth and sound reasons to marvel at the diversity and ingenuity of the human race in all of its various manifestations. We accept the beliefs of others as reflecting their perspective, and if we're smart, we recognize that our own cultural biases, and vested interests, sometimes blind us to realities that others have perceived better.

But having said that, I think it's important to recognize, even to celebrate the fact that there actually is a long arc of increased knowledge about the World ("universe"), and increased understanding of how to make human life, and even the life of other beings with whom we share our planet, easier, more fruitful, less violent, more productive.

So when people make truth claims based on ancient books or the cultural traditions of other cultures that simply contradict the results of long, and difficult examination of reality through the proven empirical methods of scientific investigation, I say, they should be politely, but firmly, told that they are full of shit. The world was not created in six days 6000 years ago. It's just not true. Aliens did not build the pyramids. The Great Spirit did not create the world. Native Americans have not "always been here" in America. These things are just not true, and the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that.

Respect for others, celebration of the richness and beauty of our cultural heritage, yes. But reliance on stories as a basis for our understanding of the way the world really is… no. 


04 October 2016

Trump's Taxes

This contrast should say all you need to know about Trump's taxes. He's a real estate mogul, so he can write of tens of millions of dollars he lost in scammy business schemes, money mostly owed to other people which through various shenanigans he didn't have to pay back but didn't have to report as income later either (like everyone else). Who, because of special provisions just for real estate moguls, can write off the damage and depreciation to millions and millions of dollars of property while ordinary middle class property owners trying to make a few bucks off a rental property, say, are strictly limited in what they can deduct. While ordinary middle class people struggling to pay back massive student loan debt can write off no more than a measly $2500 a year in interest payments; they have to just cough up the rest. The tax system is extractive and efficient against ordinary people but is RIGGED in favor of people like Trump.

But what is his "fix?" To LOWER taxes for himself and his ilk and cut government services for everyone else. Everyone who pays for it, in other words.

There's a word for people who fall for cons like this (and it's pretty much the same con as all Republicans are working on us):