Post-Racial America? — Posted Tuesday 27 June 2017
Emmett Till, 25 July 1941 - 28 August 1955

The Mississippi memorial marker for Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mississippi in August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, has again been defiled by white nationalists.

Till's killers were quickly identified and arrested, but they were just as quickly acquitted by an all-white jury in September 1955. After the trial the two killers publicly and proudly admitted murdering Till, knowing that Mississippi's double-jeopardy laws guaranteed that they could never be tried again for the crime. The offended white woman later admitted that she fabricated the entire story.

Till's mother demanded and got an open-casket funeral for her slain son. She wanted the world to know that her son's mutilated, bloated and rotting corpse was the consequence of a white nationalist hatred that has never left this country. Indeed, that hatred is even more on display now that Donald Trump, the darling of the KKK, is the nation's president.

Collapse — Posted Monday 19 June 2017
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the Earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. — Marlow, in Heart of Darkness (1899)
On the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt is a low mountain called Mokattam Hill, which figures prominently in the Coptic Orthodox faith. Legend has it that here in the 10th century CE the Muslim Caliph al-Muizz Lideenillah challenged Christians to provide a demonstration of Matthew 17:20, in which Jesus tells his believers that faith as small as a mustard seed can move a mountain. Under the threat of death of the area's Christian inhabitants, the Coptic Pope Abraham led a series of prayers that are believed to have physically lifted the mountain above its base, thus satisfying the Caliph that the Christian faith was indeed both true and powerful. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find even a moderate Coptic Christian who doesn't believe the story is historically and factually true.

The area of Mokattam today is called Garbage City. Bereft of basic services such as schools, running water, sewers and adequate electricity, it serves as the garbage repository of Cairo's 10 million inhabitants. It also serves to support thousands of poor Egyptians, who scavenge the rotting heaps of garbage to support their families. One has to wonder why another round of prayers might not today solve the problem, which invites disease, malnutrition and high childhood death rates. After all, it's gotta be a lot easier than moving a mountain.

A young Egyptian girl squats amidst rotting garbage in Mokattam

The primary reason I'm so negative about organized religion is because it encourages simplistic, irrational thinking that causes people to place hope and faith above rational thought and action, expecting that God will solve all their problems. It also allows people to retain the two most negative human emotions—fear and greed—by disguising them as positive traits, such as hard work, the indomitable spirit of human innovation and invention, and the notion that people who look, think and act differently are morally inferior and therefore deserve to have what little they possess taken away from them by the wealthy (Matthew 25:29-30).

A colleague directed me to a recent article by ecology writer Rachel Nuwer entitled "How Western Civilization Could Collapse," a disturbing overview of how rampant human greed and fear over the millennia have caused widespread misery for both our species and the planet as well. But far more disturbing is the fact that in spite of war, disease and resource depletion, our species has managed to produce today's bumper crop of some 7.5 billion individuals, the vast majority of which subsist hand to mouth on pathetic incomes and even fewer material resources, with little or no real expectations that things will get any better. What little remaining hope exists is fueled by knee-jerk religious platitudes like "It's all in God's hands" and "God wants you to be rich" and "Kill them all and let God sort it out", thus relieving the human race of the responsibility of actually doing anything about serious problems or even recognizing they exist. People living on the edge then bring more children into their world of subsistence living, compounding the problem.

Organized religion thus has the net effect of preventing the human race from developing a true action plan for sustainable living by encouraging us to trust in miracles and illogical nonsense, regardless of whether we're rich or poor and regardless of how we treat other people and the Earth that sustains us all. Nuwer's article should be required reading for everyone.

Yes, Burn It — Posted Monday 19 June 2017

Scapegoats — Posted Sunday 18 June 2017
Retired Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich (see my post dated May 16) has an op-ed in today's The Los Angeles Times, outlining Der Trump's plans to make his generals take the blame for Amerika's pointless and seemingly endless war in Afghanistan.

In response to recent complaints by Sen. John McCain, Defense Secretary James Mattis responded with "we will correct this as soon as possible" via "a change in our approach" by "doing things differently" using "a more regional strategy" involving an "across-the-board whole of government" collaborative approach. I strongly suspect that even rabid war hawk McCain sees that this is all just more bullshit to buy more time in the Middle East (more time as in "forever"), but Bacevich's take is that Mattis knows full well that he and his fellow hawks will be taking the fall for a war that cannot be won. Meanwhile, Mr. Penis President Trump is actually counting on this, as he knows his campaign promises to end the conflict in that country were empty, and he desperately needs scapegoats.

But fear not, fellow Amerikaners, Trump is already eyeing Iran as our next war objective which, just like Iraq, has oil to boot. While Iran is an enormous country, with 75 million people who are impossible to defeat militarily, don't expect that to deter Trump, who I liken to Hitler with 5,000 nuclear weapons.

Still Not So Long Ago — Posted Thursday 15 June 2017
On this exact day and date in 1967 I graduated from Duarte High School in California—fifty years ago. It seems like yesterday, and I still vividly recall being overjoyed that my high school days were finally done. Having had perfect grades throughout grade school, high school from the start was nothing but a traumatic experience for me—mediocre grades and endless crushes on girls who didn't know I existed, along with the sudden, crushing awareness that my home life with two poor, uneducated drunken parents who constantly fought with one another was not the norm after all, drove me into a shell at the age of 14. I was socially inept, a mediocre student and athlete without any personality to speak of, and almost pathologically shy. To top it off, I ended up barely a C+ student, hardly fit for the university and chemistry or physics career I had aspired to since the age of ten.

One of the duties of the school's Vice Principal, Mr. Scheel, was to meet with and advise each of the graduating seniors on their respective paths into the adult world. When I told him I wanted to go to college and major in either chemistry or physics, he tactfully informed me that with my grades and SAT scores I should aspire instead to trade school—I distinctly recall him saying that plumbing might be a good career option for me.

My parents somehow managed to remain sufficiently sober to attend my high school graduation, which took place in the middle of Falcon Field on that day at 6:30 pm. Sitting in the bleachers overlooking the ceremony, my Dad took this single photo of the event with his cheap Instamatic camera, which I managed to preserve over the years in all its glorious graininess. She, the blond high school goddess who occupied so many of my tormented, longing thoughts throughout most of my high school days and whose memory continues to haunt me still like a ghost from the past, is seated here among the guests—forever unknown and unidentified—in the last row of the photo. I watched her wistfully all through the ceremony, knowing I'd never see her again.
Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven! — Hamlet
She must be 67 now, and has not only certainly forgotten me, but will remain forever unaware of our coincidentally connected past lives. May you live in eternal happiness and joy, my dearest and oblivious sweetheart.

Not So Long Ago? — Posted Saturday 10 June 2017
I watched the movie Picnic last night, the first time I'd seen it since my late sister Connie and her boyfriend took me along to see it in the then-tiny beach town of Balboa, California sometime in early 1956. I had just turned 7, and I remember hating the film because I really wanted to see the science fiction movie It Came From Beneath the Sea, as I had been promised.

Although the movie is full of stereotypical American mores (no blacks or minorities to be seen anywhere, for example), I can see the film now with its undercurrent of sexual repression and frustration, the looming hopelessness of goals and dreams, jealousy, the fleetingness of youth, and the need for true love in one's life. The dance sequence with William Holden and Kim Novak (the only surviving main actor from the film) is sensuous, exhilarating, moving and heartbreaking at the same time, made all the more poignant by Moonglow, the film's beautiful love song.

The issue of sexual repression in 1950s films is not as rare as one might think, although I doubt very much if audiences at the time were aware of it. Charles Laughton's immortal 1955 film The Night of the Hunter is chock-full of subtle sexual imagery (contrasted with the innocence and frailty of children), but audiences at the time didn't understand the film at all.

Conservatives longing for the naive simplicity of the 1950s elected Donald Trump last year largely because he represented a return to the good old days of Leave It To Beaver, never realizing that their sexually corrupt and moronic candidate actually preferred Grab The Beaver instead.

Don't Get Your Hopes Up — Posted Thursday 8 June 2017
Sorry, but I haven't been watching the Comey Hearing because I know full well nothing will come of it. We live in a different age from the days of Watergate, when Republicans were so disturbed about Nixon's lies and corruption that they could join with the Democrats to take the bastard down. That can't happen now—today's Republicans have all gulped down the Trump Kool-Aid and will stand with their man no matter what. The only hope I see for this country now is a military coup in which Trump and his administration minions are all lined up and shot, followed by military trials for all the Congressional Republicans and blue dog Democrats. That's absolutely not going to happen, so Amerika is just shit up a creek.

Yet Another Irrational Conservative Fear — Posted Wednesday 7 June 2017
Noted German physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder routinely fields questions from her readers, usually at a level far from the lay person's ability to comprehend, but she occasionally stoops down to answer truly elementary inquiries. In today's post she responds to a letter from a person who expresses great anxiety over the end of the universe by vacuum decay, a possible but highly improbable event that's impossible to predict.

In its simplest description, every quantum field \(\phi(x,t)\) has a value in spacetime that is associated with a potential energy level denoted by \(V(\phi)\). In the case of the Higgs field, that potential exists everywhere in the universe. Since the universe hasn't been blowing up lately, it is assumed that the value of \(\phi\) is in a position of local (or relative) stability called a vacuum state. That state is assumed to be a minimum somewhere on the above state-potential graph. But that position could be a false vacuum, meaning that there's an even more stable (lower energy) state somewhere on the graph. If such a state exists, then there's the possibility that the current state could get there by quantum tunneling, a proven quantum-mechanical process that most high school kids have learned about. If and when that happens there's a release of energy to the surroundings, resulting in a more stable energy state. If the Higgs field happens to be in such a semi-stable (false vacuum) state, its collapse to a lower state would release unimaginable energies, resulting in the certain end of our universe.

The person who wrote Hossenfelder is almost certainly a conservative Christian Republican, because only such a person would express such great anxiety over a highly improbable event (roughly once in about \(10^{600}\) times the age of the universe) which, if and when it happened, couldn't be avoided anyway. This is a conundrum I've never been able to comprehend—these people routinely express great faith in God and Jesus, yet they're scared to death of any kind of uncertainty and of dying itself. But it's when those people act out their irrational fears—like electing monsters like Donald Trump to lead them and their country down the road to Perdition—that things get truly scary.

Checks and Balances?! Bwah-ha-ha-ha! — Posted Tuesday 6 June 2017
Truth-Out is claiming that President Trump's pull-out from the Paris Climate Agreement is an impeachable act, in part because he acceded to the demands of 22 Republican senators to get the United States out of the deal, who all received a total of over $20 million in donations and gifts from oil, gas and energy corporations that stand to make a killing when America becomes a lone environmental wolf in a rapidly degrading global ecosystem.

What Truth-Out and others don't seem to understand is that unless Congress makes an effort to control Trump, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. Trump used the Russians to hack our voting systems and gut Clinton's chances in the 2016 election, and appointed corrupt, inexperienced family members to administration jobs who also have ties to Russia. He's gutting funding for scientific research, Social Security and Medicare, he's frozen Federal worker salaries and hiring, and he now plans to privatize the nation's air-traffic control and prison systems for the benefit of his corporate pals. As for the environment, Trump has cut 31% of the Environmental Protection Agency's funding, and has already banned that agency's mention of the terms "global climate change" and "sea level rise." Meanwhile, America's "Christians" love Trump, and our corrupt, go-along Congress is doing nothing to mitigate Trump's destruction of the county.

Remember Schindler's List? For sport, Trump could sit in the Oval Office with a sniper rifle and gun down passersby outside the White House fence like Amon Göth, and it's doubtful that Congress or the courts would even bother giving a damn. During the 2016 campaign Trump even bragged "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." Again, America's "Christians" simply loved it, but it was probably Trump's on-camera "Grab 'em by the pussy" remark that really endeared him to their satanic, hypocritical hearts.
"Be careful what you say" — Warning issued by former Republican White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to reporters who were getting too inquisitive regarding Bush 43's bogus Iraq War

You Have Nothing to Fear if We Think You've Done Nothing Wrong — Posted Tuesday 6 June 2017
In this age of low-cost, high-quality color printers, it has always fascinated me to watch those old noir films about master counterfeiters who spend years and years engraving perfect copper plates to make bogus twenty-dollar bills—only to get tripped up by the Feds because the crooks left something out of the plates, like Andrew Jackson's left eyebrow. But today even the cheapest color printer can make seemingly perfect copies of U.S. currency. The trick is to get the paper just right, and then find a work-around for those annoying security strips embedded in the bills.

It turns out that even if you had a stash of blank U.S. currency linen (which is illegal to own) and the best color printer that money can buy, you'd get caught anyway. That's because the government has colluded with printer manufacturers to have their printers embed secret and traceable printing dots on every page you print, whether it's an illegal portrait of Andrew Jackson or your Uncle Jack. Yes, your printer has been spying on you.

I thought I could relax after putting my Vizio Smart TV set out to pasture to prevent the NSA from recording my plans to overthrow the government (and I always leave my GPS-equipped iPhone at home when I'm out burying a body), but I have to admit I never suspected my trusty Canon MX870 to turn on me. Now I'll have to think hard to remember if all those kidnap ransom notes and terrorist bomb threats I printed were in color or black and white. Must be B&W, since I'm not currently in the custody of the FBI or strung up in a torture cell at Guantánamo. Whew—dodged a bullet on that one.

Although I know that my hero
Mike Ehrmantraut is clever, supremely cautious and paranoid like me, he nevertheless screws up from time to time, so you can never tell.

Hats off to PZ Myers for tipping me off.

Just shut the fuck up and let me die in peace. — Mike Ehrmantraut

GW170104 Joins the Party — Posted Thursday 1 June 2017
A third observation of the merger of a binary, multi-solar mass black hole system (dubbed GW170104) has been confirmed by the advanced LIGO instrument, which detected the signal in January of this year. The detected signal and source luminosity data indicate the merger of a 31 \(M_\odot\) black hole and a 19 \(M_\odot\) black hole some 880 megaparsecs (\(z=0.18\), or about 2.9 billion light-years) from Earth, making the merger a relatively remote event. The measured outgoing radiation corresponds to a net energy loss of 2 \(M_\odot c^2\), in complete agreement with Einstein's theory of general relativity.

The data provides no reliable information on the estimated spins of the individual black holes, but the calculated spin of the merged system indicates that the initial rotation rates would not appreciably affect the overall calculations.

The observation provides increasing confidence to scientists that gravitational radiation will become as important a tool as are optical and radio telescopes in astronomy today, and that it may ultimately confirm or disconfirm current theories of cosmological inflation, the expansion rate of the universe, and both the origin and fate of the universe itself.

Meanwhile, President Trump is slashing federal funding for scientific research, while conservative morons like James Dobson, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others continue to assert that scientific facts and theories are just opinions and
lies, while maintaining that a man who lived 2,000 years ago absolutely walked on water and was resurrected from the dead. Go figure.

Here's an undated Einstein photo, showing some of his "opinions and lies" on the blackboard. In the 1930s the Nazis placed pages in magazines and newspapers declaring that Einstein was Noch ungehängt, or "Not yet hanged." I'm pretty sure that Dobson, Hannity, Limbaugh and company feel the same way about all scientists today, as they cheer on Amerika's imminent return to the 13th century.

Is This What You Want? — Posted Wednesday 31 May 2017

I've been watching the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale for a number of weeks now, and it's getting more and more difficult for me to watch. Adapted from author Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name dealing with a dystopian America that has been taken over by a fundamentalist Christian government, most of the angst that I feel viewing it arises from the fear I have that it might actually transpire before long in this country.

Writer and author Patricia Miller shares this same fear in her latest Religion Dispatches article, where she compares the Gilead Government's Commander Fred Waterford with Vice President Mike Pence, whose fundamentalist Catholic faith is eerily similar to the harsh attitudes of fanatics like Pence regarding the role of women. The sole job of the story's protagonist, Offred (meaning she is "Of Fred") is to bear children to Waterford and his barren wife. The similarities of the story line with the Old Testament tales of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel regarding conception and birth are pronounced.

Miller also goes after conservative Catholic douchbag Ross Douthat who, while routinely voicing his discontent with the antics of the dangerous, moronic womanizer Donald Trump, cannot hide his delight that the country is nevertheless moving in the direction represented by Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale.

Defying even the most trifling religious command in Gilead is punishable by beatings, amputations, female circumcision or death (usually by mass public hangings), for both men and women. But it's far worse for the women—they are forbidden to read or have any contact with men (eye contact with a man is considered both a sin and a capital crime), and they must always be completely clothed in red or green burka-like outfits. The Handmaids are forced to have sex with their men owners for reproduction purposes, while the Marthas cook and clean for their male masters. The men typically are married to barren wives (a global phenomenon caused by war and environmental degradation), who seem to have little to do but shop and look pretty for their husbands. And this is America in the near future, not Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Miller cites five reasons why she believes America might go down the same road, all dealing with the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives and most of the country's state governments are currently governing and enacting laws that seem frighteningly similar to what we're seeing in the series.

Years ago I saw a university play based on the novel, and at the play's conclusion the women actors all came out on stage and asked the audience, in unison,

Is this what you want?

Covfefe — Posted Wednesday 31 May 2017

Lying with Statistics? — Posted Monday 29 May 2017
I did my PhD dissertation on particle statistics. Not particle physics, but particle size distribution statistics. So I had to learn about \(r^2\), \(\sigma\)- and \(p\)-values and all that, and I believe I got to be fairly adept at recognizing the significance of data, at least with respect to their statistics. So when it was announced in 1999 that the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating and not slowing down under the influence of gravity as expected, I naturally wanted to see the data that supported that claim, which won three researchers the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011. It's actually a very big deal in cosmology, because an accelerating universe implies dark energy.

To be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed with the data, which I posted some years ago in the form of the researchers' published summary graph:

Briefly, if the universe was simply expanding along normally, the data points would line up with the heavy dotted line. But for high-\(z\) (red shift) observations, the data points appear to drift away from that line, implying that something is making the universe expand at an accelerated rate. It's not a huge drift, but it's statistically significant.

Or so I thought. Last year a paper appeared that challenged that conclusion. The gist of the paper's argument is that true scientific discoveries generally have to achieve what is known as the 5-sigma significance level, meaning that there is only a \( 2.867 \times 10^{-7}\) probability (or about one in 3.5 million) that the discovery is false. Not false in any "rigged" sense, mind you, but false in that there's a slight chance that the discovery is just plain statistically insignificant—in other words, a fluke. But as this 2016 article notes, much more data has been accumulated since the original findings were reported, and they imply only a 3-sigma significance level for all the data, which puts the original discovery in the "possibly interesting" category. 3-sigma is definitely publishable (it means that there's a one in 741 chance that the discovery is a fluke), but it doesn't merit a Nobel Prize.

I'm not a cosmologist, but I frankly don't agree with the dark energy idea, at least in the sense that it's some kind of mysterious, unknown particle or field that's being advertised today. It's probably just Einstein's cosmological constant \(\Lambda\), which the great scientist introduced in 1917 to maintain a static, non-expanding universe in his gravitational field equations. He then famously dumped what he referred to as his "greatest blunder" when Edwin Hubble showed in 1929 that the universe is definitely expanding. A non-zero cosmological constant can make the expansion of the universe slow down or accelerate, depending in its sign, but efforts to date to determine its precise value have been inconclusive. It's very small, to be sure, but it ain't zero.

In the meantime, the accelerating-universe discovery has maintained its popularity despite contrary evidence. This is disappointing to me, because science is supposed to be self-correcting, a consequence of the time-honored notion of falsifiability. Our theories of quantum physics and general relativity (gravitation) have yet to fail a single test, yet one verified piece of contrary evidence would send those theories back to the drawing board. Contrast that with politics and religion, whose dogmatic notions seem impervious to disproval.

When, Dear God? — Posted Monday 29 May 2017
I attended a meeting last night on quantum gravity. It was very elementary, but the attendees did share the same question that has nagged me for years: will we ever see a workable theory of quantum gravity before we all start pushing up daisies? I for one am running out of patience, forced to read one inane paper after another claiming some minor breakthrough (or progress, at least) on the subject. Lots of hand-waving out there, but every idea to date has come up empty.

Quantum mechanics and Einstein's gravity theory (general relativity) are the most supremely successful scientific theories we have. Neither has failed any of the experimental tests thrown at it, and with both theories now roughly 100 years old that's really saying something. But there's a problem—QM and gravity don't play well with one another. The mathematics behind each is straightforward, but to date no one has figured out how one might be related to the other. This is a damned shame because, unless we can figure this out, the problem of where matter and energy really come from, and perhaps what our purpose is here on this stupid planet, will never be resolved.

I think part of the problem is due to the mathematics. In general relativity there's really only one quantity of any use—the Riemann-Christoffel curvature tensor \(R_{\,\, \mu\nu\alpha}^\lambda\). It's a purely mathematical quantity that's never actually measured, just calculated. It only vanishes when there's no mass-energy (or gravity) lurking about, so it serves as the starting point for all conventional theories of gravitation. Physicists play with this quantity in their theories, contracting it into its lower forms \(R_{\mu\nu}\) and \(R\) and combining it with other quantities that they hope will lead somewhere, but always to no avail. By comparison, the mathematics of quantum mechanics is far richer, with its wave functions and operators and long-tested rules, however axiomatic many of them might be. But quantum theory only makes predictions of experimental outcomes, and while they are invariably successful the theory is inherently probabilistic, a feature that Einstein detested ("God does not play dice").

But the picture may be changing. There is one place where quantum mechanics and gravitation are forced to confront one another, and that is at the surface and interior of a black hole. There is now significant theoretical evidence that a black hole somehow preserves unitarity, the notion that information cannot be destroyed (a particle in a pure state, for example, cannot exit the black hole in a mixed state through Hawking radiation) when an object (say, Melville's book Moby-Dick) falls into a black hole. There is, however, also theoretical evidence that the event horizon ("surface") of a black hole destroys all infalling information via a "firewall." Whichever view is the right one, it would appear that black hole physics represents perhaps the only currently available gateway to a successful theory of quantum gravity—no other object in our universe provides such an ideal way to develop (and test) what happens when quantum mechanics and gravitation are so forcefully thrust upon one another. I include the word "test" because the recent (confirmed) observation of gravitational radiation from two merging black holes has effectively opened up the prospect of gravitational astronomy, a new area in which gravitational wave detectors (like LIGO) might be used in essentially the same way that radio telescopes are employed today.

Still, that would require the development of the appropriate mathematics needed to describe what's going on, a task that's been underway for too many years now. There's an apocryphal story that Einstein, confronted with a young girl's exasperation over a problem in arithmetic, replied "I assure you, young lady, the problems I'm facing in mathematics are far greater." Interesting, but it provides little solace to aging idiots like myself.

Blast from the Past — Posted Monday 29 May 2017
I recall flying to a conference in Missouri one day in 1995. I was working on a paper, and the woman seated next to me said she couldn't help noticing my math scribbling (it was something about hydraulics). She was an elementary school teacher, she said, and she sometimes taught math to the middle grades, but nothing like the kind of stuff I was working on. We ended up having a nice chat all the way to the St. Louis airport.

Exactly a year ago there was a similar incident that occurred to a professor of economics on what should have been a routine 40-minute flight (I posted the story back in May 2016, and you can read it again here). He was scribbling some math notes on a pad of paper when a woman passenger took notice of his work. Suspecting the dark-skinned, curly-haired man was a terrorist plotting some nefarious scheme in Arabic or secret code, she promptly notified the authorities, who took the man into custody. He somehow convinced airport security personnel that his notes were differential equations, not plans for a terrorist strike, and the plane departed two hours late but without the woman passenger, who apparently decided not to take any chances.

A year later, President Trump is now busy killing off funding for scientific research, which he believes is a waste of money. I can't help but think that doing math or science on a plane nowadays might result in a much more serious situation, one that could have the scribbler sent off in chains to Guantánamo. Now in complete control of Amerika, right-wingers figure it's better to be safe than sorry, especially when foreign-looking people are involved.

I see defunding science research as the first step toward making it illegal. In 1933 the Nazis started burning science books that they deemed represented "Jewish science," and just a few years later they were burning the Jewish scientists themselves. The past is prologue.

Real Classy — Posted Friday 26 May 2017
Two minor gripes here.

One, The Los Angeles Times allows submitted comments on many of its articles and reports, but invites you to buy or bid for "points" that will promote your comments to the head of the submittal list. Anything for a buck, I guess.

And two, Montana's Greg Gianforte handily won election to the state's House of Representatives yesterday, despite being charged by the police for physically assaulting a UK Guardian journalist two days ago and sending him to the hospital for asking tough questions about his campaign. Gianforte and his wife are good Republicans, you see, who heartily support Trump and his policies of anti-science and pro-war. As good Christians, they oppose family planning, retirement benefits for the elderly, the minimum wage, health care and environmental protection—all because they believe the Old Testament demands opposition to these programs and policies (Noah was 600 years old when he built the ark, you see, so only lazy undeserving bastards think about retiring). But Montana's a Red State, comprised of moronic shit-kickin' cowboys and rednecks, so Gianforte got elected anyway.

Many of my Democratic friends and relatives have told me that sure, Trump and the Republicans are now in charge of everything, but their insane policies will fuck the country up so badly that the elections of 2018 and 2020 will surely send them packing. With Gianforte's win yesterday, I'd say that kind of logic doesn't work anymore.

You Idiots! — Posted Thursday 25 May 2017
German director Fritz Lang's brilliant 1927 film Metropolis is now 90 years old, but its message of a future world gone stark raving mad is as prescient as ever.

The dystopian city of Metropolis is ruled by wealthy corporatists, who are served by impoverished workers who slave underground to run the engines of empire. An apparent savior—Maria —attempts to negotiate decent living conditions for the workers with their above-ground industrialist masters. But the scientist Rotwang, crazed by his love for a woman whose death he blames on the industrialists, seeks to destroy the city and the people, rich and poor alike. He creates an evil robot that he transforms into the exact likeness of Maria, through which Rotwang will incite the workers to destroy the machines they're forced to operate and maintain. Because the workers are uneducated, ignorant and have little to look forward to in life, they blindly obey the Maria robot, rioting and destroying the hated machines and flooding their underground hovels, not realizing that they are only dooming themselves and their children in the process.

Yes, that's your new First Lady in the photo, Amerika. Proud of yourselves now? Behold the Whore of Babylon! (To paraphrase Hamlet,"Has it really come to this?!")

Although the film ends on a happier note ("The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!"), it nevertheless accurately predicted the situation in America today. While Rotwang was a warped scientific genius, I see the equally warped but uneducated and moronic Donald Trump as Rotwang's evil parallel, with his equally braindead and materialist wife Melania as Maria, striving to lead America away from sanity and into a dystopian world of greed, stupidity, illusory wealth and excess. (Okay, it's a stretch, but as a long-time admirer of Lang's film I saw an obvious connection.)

On a related note, I mentioned retired U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich in my last post, but neglected to point out an excellent article he wrote earlier this month that I spotted over at the Naked Capitalism website. In that article Bacevich recounts how the Trump- and Melania-obsessed media continue to ignore issues of real importance to this country, ignorance that serves to prop up the now total dumbing-down of an American electorate intent on focusing on trifling matters while the country continues on its merry way to hell.

In the meantime, enjoy your jobs and health care plans while you can. Trump's coming.

The restored film is gorgeous, and now available in Blu-Ray format from the above Amazon link. In the following low-res clip, the workers' representative tries in vain to restore order. The workers, of course, blame someone else for their problems (my translated subtitles):

Wake up, you idiots!!

The Four Horsemen — Posted Tuesday 16 May 2017
The times in which we live call for a Niebuhrian revival. To read Reinhold Niebuhr today is to avail oneself of a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called in this book "our dreams of managing history"— dreams borne of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion—posed a large, potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril. — Andrew J. Bacevich in The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr, 2008
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich wrote this preface to Niebuhr's reissued 1952 book nearly a decade ago. Bacevich, who lost his son to an improvised explosive device in Bush's bogus Iraq War, knows firsthand the dangers of presidential demagoguery and the stupidity of an American citizenry besotted with greed and fear, hubris and bigotry, ignorance and vainglory. I can only imagine how Bacevich felt when Donald J. Trump was elected President.

They say history is a pendulum, not an arc. But I really can't see it ever swinging back to sanity in this country again.

Meanwhile, here's a classic post from University of Minnesota scientist PZ Myers, explaining how and why America has an evil, petulant 6-year-old child running the country. Please read it.

Oh, why do we progressives even bother? The country's in the fucking toilet, being run by insane Christian fundamentalists, while the entire world is at the mercy of a child with his hands on the nuclear arsenal. Evangelicals, your cup runneth over.

Too many cars, too many people doing too many wrong things. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is us.

What's the Matter with Kansas? — Posted Thursday 11 May 2017
If you're studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.
— Steve Martin, comedian and onetime Cal State Long Beach philosophy major

Idée Fixe: A kind of mental disorder in which the afflicted person can think, reason and act just like other people, but is unable to stop a particular train of thought or action regardless of proven truth, fact, evidence or consequence to the contrary.
Unlike Martin I never took philosophy at university, but I managed to screw up my life anyway, thank you very much. I did, however, take a course in psychology, my meager efforts resulting in a lowly "C" grade primarily because it was a required elective, far outside my major (my undergraduate degree was in chemistry), and I had little interest in it.

I still have little interest in formal psychology, but it holds some fascination for me today, mainly because what people think and believe (and why they believe what they believe) is of some interest to me in these post-fact, post-truth Trumpian times. But as more and more scientists are noting nowadays, people's beliefs are likely due more to evolutionary neurology than a consequence of external environmental and/or social influences.

One of my favorite websites is Debunking Christianity, whose erudite and intelligent articles are nevertheless generally far less interesting than the comments that people post in response. One sees the usual supportive agnostic and atheistic comments, but there's always a healthy dose of Christian apologeticists on hand to refute both the articles and the comments. Often the back-and-forth posts are contentious, if not outright virulently argumentative. While the rebuttals are often quite well thought out, they invariably reveal the truth behind what is referred to as idée fixe which, to make a short story even shorter, means that people believe what they want to believe, and it's all because of a peculiar kind of brain wiring. This wiring is almost certainly responsible for how people respond to political and religious issues, along with how they feel about social conservatism and progressivism. For this reason, I tend to see politics and religion as basically the same thing nowadays. This incidentally provides a good explanation for why one should avoid these subjects with family members at the Thanksgiving dinner table, regardless of how utterly annoying conservative Uncle Jack might be.

There's a great five-part PBS series now airing called The Victorian Slum, a British reality show that depicts what life was really like for the poor in London's East End spanning the four decades between 1860 and 1900. As the series notes in the first episode, gross economic inequality between the poor and rich was tolerated (if not encouraged) by the latter's belief that wealth and poverty were largely a consequence of the "natural order of things," a notion that was both Darwinistic at one extreme (natural selection, survival of the fittest) and religious at the other ("Poverty is God's punishment for wrong living"). There was no safety net for the poor in those days, and one's only recourse was to either barely survive on slave wages, go out on the streets, or die. Even a "dosshouse" (what we here would call a flop house) cost tuppence a night, the accommodations consisting of a filthy room sporting ropes strung wall to wall that the poor would sleep on while standing up:

Still, it was better better than the street—if you could afford it

The series goes on to document the eventual arrival of welfare and benefit programs for the sick, destitute and needy, a social phenomenon that eventually came to America. But as always, political and religious attitudes shaped the general public's willingness to support such programs, attitudes that persist to this day both in Britain (with the Labour and Tory parties) and America (the Democrats and Republicans).

It has always amazed me that while Jesus of Nazareth preached ceaselessly in support of the least among us, conservative Americans—Christ's supposedly most devout adherents—invariably go in exactly the opposite direction, always calling for across-the-board cuts in social services to enable increased military spending and tax reductions for the wealthy. What's even more amazing is that poor Christian conservatives themselves can be counted on to vote against their own best social and economic interests, a fact that has not been lost on the Republican Party. This phenomenon was documented in both hilarious and tragic terms in writer Thomas Frank's 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which still failed to explain how and why people could be so fucking stupid. (The same phenomenon's occurring in Britain.)

To me, this has all the logic of asserting that \(1+1 = 19.7\), but then conservatives never were very good at math.

Remembering Thee Midniters — Posted Wednesday 10 May 2017
Although their song Land of a Thousand Dances was a hit in Los Angeles in 1965, Thee Midniters' same-year instrumental Whittier Boulevard was far better. In those days you either had the 45-rpm record (hell, even $0.99 was a tad hard to come by for poor high school kids like me back then) or you waited for it to play on KRLA (about the only station that bothered to air Chicano music at the time). I saw them with several friends in East Los Angeles (in 1966, I believe) and they sounded terrific.

Here for posterity is the song that artists today couldn't replicate if their souls depended on it (provided in glorious, dumbed-down 48 kbps audio to elude copyright issues):

Experiment, Entertainment or Education? — Posted Friday 28 April 2017

Well, at least we have beer.

I just had a profound thought. Suppose we're actually living in a computer simulated universe whose creators did indeed embed all kinds of neat physical laws and mathematical symmetries into the workings of everything but whose underlying reality lies at a scale that's far too small for us to ever detect (which is indeed quite possible, since achieving Planck energies would require a linear accelerator the size of the universe itself). Now suppose that the simulators realized early on that humankind would ultimately seek a "theory of everything," including a consistent, working theory of quantum gravity. Such a theory might give humans access to the inner workings of the simulated universe and thereby blow the cover of the simulators, who are simply running the universe as an experiment (or as entertainment or an educational tool). They never intended to be "caught," so they never added quantum gravity to the world they created.

In short, there may not be a quantum gravity theory at all, and we may have already reached the end of the line as far as high-energy physics is concerned. I've considered this possibility before—the Large Hadron Collider, after all, has not discovered anything meaningful since the Higgs boson was announced back in July 2012. The collider's null results since then appear to have confirmed that our ideas about supersymmetry (a key underpinning of superstring theory), extra dimensions and parallel universes are all wrong. We may have to consider the possibility that there's nothing left but a particle/field desert at energies higher than 15 TeV. So why should we expect quantum gravity to exist?

Back in 2001, the noted quantum theorist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute confidently predicted that we'd have the theory in our hands by 2015 at the latest. So far Smolin's only two years off, but I wouldn't be placing any bets right now.

The simulators would not want us to know any of this, of course, since it would likely lead to worldwide social disorientation and a foreboding sense of purposelessness. They want us to simply keep on trucking, doing whatever the hell it is that we're doing until they either lose interest or discover what they're after. Then it will be time to pull the plug.

Oh Marsha, Marsha, Marsha. When will you start behaving like the simulated being we created?

The Twilight Zone, The After Hours, 1960

Here We Go Again — Posted Tuesday 25 April 2017
There's a great two-part series currently airing on the National Geographic Channel called After Hitler that chronicles the ongoing trials and tribulations of Europeans following the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II (you can also watch it on YouTube and Daily Motion). While basically a graphic history lesson, the series was particularly disturbing to me because it shows (perhaps unintentionally) how little the human race has learned when it comes to war, persecution and killing. The series only covers the period 1945-1949, but you'd be shocked to learn that the mistreatment and murder of Jews (especially German-speaking Jews in Poland) went right on after war's end, while pogroms and killings prompted by racist hatred and revenge were also widespread across the continent. Even as early as 1946, it was as if people had forgotten everything and were intent on just going back to way things were before the war—just like they did at the end of World War I.

The news media today coincidentally features two articles demonstrating to me that we still haven't learned anything. The British newspaper The Guardian is reporting on Trump's assembling of the entire Senate to discuss plans for what's to be done about North Korea, while the American online magazine Newsweek warns that even a conventional, non-nuclear strike on that country would likely kill a million people, South Koreans included.

Meanwhile, right-wing commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are drooling over the prospect of a pending U.S. attack and the glorious triumphalism that will certainly break out here should it take place. I know damn well that the average conservative Republican is a racist bigot who doesn't give a shit about the lives of Koreans (North or South) and who feels that the more death and destruction we inflict on them the better. Fundamentalist American Christians, on the other hand, welcome an attack because it might drag Russia and China into the conflict, resulting in a worldwide nuclear war that would surely (surely!) force Jesus to return and bring about the End Times that these maniacs so desperately desire. (I mean, they've waited 2,000 years for the Big Guy to show up, and they've run out of patience. But I digress.)

The point is that here we are, the human race consisting now of some 7.5 billion souls, with thousands of years of plunder, rape, war, killing and destruction behind us, all neatly chronicled in our history books and sacred texts, and we still haven't learned a goddamn thing.

We Destroyed the Planet and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt — Posted Sunday 23 April 2017

Caltech physics professor and nanotechnology expert Michael Roukes speaks to the crowd. There's about 2,000 people behind me.

Yesterday I attended the March for Science at Caltech. Hosted officially by the school's postgrad unions, most of the attendees were scientists, engineers and educators from Pasadena and nearby communities. Many of the pro-science signs and posters were quite clever (my favorite was "Science, not Reince," with a beautiful hand-drawn depiction of a steaming pile representing White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus). Best of all, there were many children in the crowd. Maybe there's hope yet, but I kind of doubt it.

Some idiot taking a selfie. Get outta the shot, jerk!

My lasting impression of the march (and of those that were conducted nationally and around the world), is that people whose mindsets are grounded in reality and rationality represent a handful of adults trying to maintain order in a room swarming with screaming, insane children bent on wrecking the place while gorging themselves on sweets. The only flaw in this impression is that real children can be educated and eventually reasoned with, while those running this country today are themselves "adults" who are insane and beyond educating. I believe much of the simple mindedness that drives this insanity is based on unquestioning, authoritarian religious belief, but it's also a product of a willful ignorance that besots at least half of the American population. Part of it can also be attributed to the fact that science and mathematics are difficult to comprehend for the vast majority of humankind, making simplistic slogans like "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it" much more appealing.

I've quoted Voltaire's famous admonition "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" on my website more times than I can count. It's still true. Right now mankind, led by maniacs like the Trump administration in this country, are committing atrocities against Planet Earth. In all likelihood, scientists will be kept powerless and forced to watch them wreck the place, only to have those screaming, insane children sit down in reverent anticipation of the biblical End Times when they've finally succeeded in fucking everything over. Those times will indeed come in the form of global pollution, climate disruption, overpopulation, famine, resource depletion, disease and war, but Jesus himself will not be there—this will be an End Times of our own making.

Nothing Better to Do Today — Posted Sunday 23 April 2017

I'm sure I've posted a response to email requests like this on my website before, but I don't know where it is. Since I don't post to that site anymore, I'll put it up here, since it seems to be a common complaint of QM students (and because I have nothing better to do today). The derivations, while simple, are rather involved, so the textbooks tend to gloss over them.

1. The Canonical Commutation Relation

We start with the unitary displacement operator \(\hat{T}(\Delta x)\), which in one dimension is given by $$ \hat{T}(\Delta x) = e^{-i \hat{p} \Delta x/\hbar} \approx 1 - \frac{i \hat{p}\Delta x}{\hbar} \tag{1} $$ where \(\hat{p}\) is the momentum operator (to be derived) and \(\Delta x\) is an infinitesimal distance parameter (not an operator, but with the dimension of length). \(\hat{T}(\Delta x)\) takes a position eigenket \(|x\rangle\) and "pushes" it into the eigenket \(|x + \Delta x\rangle\). Note that \(p, x\) are non-commuting conjugate variables that seem to always appear in each other's company, just like energy and time. The dimension of the product \(p x\) is joule-sec, which cancels that of the Planck constant \(\hbar\), making \(\hat{T}(x)\) dimensionless (the combination of energy-time does much the same thing).

We therefore write $$ \hat{T}( \Delta x) | x \rangle = | x + \Delta x \rangle $$ Taking a first-order Taylor series expansion, we have $$ | x + \Delta x \rangle = | x \rangle + \Delta x \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \tag{2} $$ Now, the closure relation of an arbitrary ket \(|\alpha \rangle\) is expressed as $$ | \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, |x\rangle \langle x| \alpha \rangle \tag{3} $$ The displacement operator thus gives $$ \hat{T}(\Delta x) |\alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, | x + \Delta x \rangle \langle x | \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, | x \rangle \langle x | \alpha \rangle + \int \! \! dx \, \Delta x \left( \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle $$ or $$ \hat{T}(\Delta x) |\alpha \rangle = |\alpha \rangle + \int \! \! dx \, \Delta x \left( \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle \tag{3} $$ But by definition $$ \hat{T} (\Delta x) \,| \alpha \rangle = \left( 1 - \frac{i \hat{p} \Delta x}{\hbar} \right) | \alpha \rangle $$ Combining this with (3) leaves $$ - \frac{i \hat{p} \Delta x}{\hbar} |\alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, \Delta x \left( \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle $$ We now divide out the \(\Delta x\) term, integrate by parts over the integral, and rearrange a bit to get $$ \hat{p} | \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, | x \rangle \left( - i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x} \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle \tag{4} $$ Lastly, we premultiply (4) by \(\langle \alpha | \), giving $$ \langle \alpha |\hat{p} |\alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, \langle \alpha |x\rangle \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x} \right) \langle x|\alpha \rangle \tag{5} $$ or $$ \langle \alpha | \hat{p} | \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, \Psi_\alpha^*(x) \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x} \right) \Psi_\alpha (x) \tag{6} $$ where \(\Psi_\alpha (x) = \langle x | \alpha \rangle \) is the wave function associated with the state ket \(|\alpha \rangle\). But (6) is just the definition of the expectation value of the momentum operator \(\hat{p}\) with respect to the state \(|\alpha \rangle\) (which is arbitrary), so that $$ \hat{p} = -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x} $$ Thus, the momentum operator in quantum mechanics is a derivative.

Let us now consider the commutation relation \([\hat{x}_i, \hat{p}_j]\) for 3-dimensional space, where \(\hat{x}_i\) is now considered an operator in its own right (which is trivial in this case). We then have $$ [\hat{x}_i, \hat{p}_j] = \hat{x}_i \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x^j} \right) - \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x^j} \right) \hat{x}_i $$ In the last term, we have to remember to apply the derivative not only to \(\hat{x}_i\) but past it as well, so that we have, finally, $$ [\hat{x}_i, \hat{p}_j] = i \,\hbar \, \delta_{ij} $$ where \(\delta_{ij}\) is the Kronecker delta, equal to 1 if \(i = j\) and 0 otherwise.

2. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle

Given an arbitrary Hermitian operator \(\hat{A}\), let us define a related operator \(\Delta \hat{A}\) that expresses the difference between \(\hat{A}\) and its expectation value: $$ \Delta \hat{A} = \hat{A} - \langle \hat{A} \rangle $$ Squaring both sides, we have $$ \left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 = \hat{A}^2 - 2 \hat{A} \langle \hat{A}\rangle + \langle \hat{A} \rangle^2 $$ Taking the expectation value of both sides gives the simpler expression $$ \langle \left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 \rangle = \langle \hat{A}^2 \rangle - \langle \hat{A} \rangle^2 \tag{7} $$ In statistics this expression defines the variance of \(\hat{A}\), while the square root, \(\sqrt{\langle \left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 \rangle}\), is called the standard deviation. Similarly, for some other operator \(\hat{B}\), we have $$ \Delta \hat{B} = \hat{B} - \langle \hat{B} \rangle $$ along with an identical argument as that given for \(\hat{A}\). For simplicity, let us now make the identifications $$ \sigma_A = \sqrt{\langle \left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 \rangle}, \quad \sigma_B = \sqrt{\langle \left( \Delta \hat{B} \right)^2 \rangle} $$ which puts these quantities more in line with the conventional notation of the standard deviation \(\sigma\).

Now, given any arbitrary (but normalized) state vector \(|\Psi \rangle\) let us define the state vector quantities \(|\beta \rangle \) and \(\langle \beta| \) as $$ |\beta \rangle = \left( \Delta \hat{A} + i \kappa \Delta \hat{B} \right) |\Psi \rangle, \quad \langle \beta| = \langle \Psi | \left( \Delta \hat{A} - i \kappa \Delta \hat{B} \right) $$ where \(\kappa\) is any real number. Using \(\langle \Psi |\Psi \rangle = 1\), we can calculate the real quantity $$ \langle \beta | \beta \rangle = \langle \sigma_A^2 + i \,\kappa [\hat{A}, \hat{B}] + \kappa^2 \sigma_B^2 \rangle \ge 0 \tag{8} $$ where the commutator \([\hat{A}, \hat{B}]\) results from the overall calculation. If we differentiate (8) with respect to \(\kappa\) and set the resulting expression to zero, we can find what value of \(\kappa\) extremalizes \(\langle \beta | \beta \rangle \) (it actually minimizes it). Thus we have $$ \kappa = - i \, \frac{[\hat{A}, \hat{B}]}{2 \sigma_B^2} $$ Plugging this into (8), we have the condition $$ \sigma_A^2 \, \sigma_B^2 \ge - \frac{1}{4} [\hat{A}, \hat{B}]^2 $$ or $$ \sigma_A \,\sigma_B \ge - \frac{1}{2} i \, [\hat{A}, \hat{B}] $$ where we have taken the negative root for a very good reason. For the case \(x = A, p = B\), we then have, using \([\hat{x}, \hat{p}] = i \hbar\), $$ \sigma_x \,\sigma_p \ge \frac{1}{2} \hbar $$ which is the conventional definition of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

Please note that the uncertainty principle is usually described using some kind of "fuzzy" notation for \(x\) and \(p\), as if they can't be pinned down in some sense. No, they're just standard deviations, a fact that most texts fail to emphasize.

The canonical commutation equation and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle are undoubtedly the most fundamental and important of all identities in elementary quantum mechanics, and their derivations should be given in detail in any QM textbook. [By the way, there's a complementary operator (also unitary) called the time translation operator \(\hat{U}(\Delta t)\) that works pretty much the same as \(\hat{T}(\Delta x)\) but for time. It leads to Schrödinger's wave equation, but that's another story for another day.]

The Flip Side — Posted Monday 17 April 2017
Professor of clinical psychiatry Richard Friedman's New York Times article yesterday on mathematical beauty immediately brought to my mind the great British mathematical physicist Paul Dirac, who similarly sought mathematical beauty in his equations.\(^1\) In addition to his assertion that "A physical law must possess mathematical beauty," Dirac somewhat recklessly noted that "It is more important for our equations to be beautiful than to have them fit experiment." I'm really not sure about that one.

Most people do not see beauty in mathematics or in physical laws, regardless of their applicability to the world around them. I very much doubt if the average person is thinking about Maxwell''s equations of electrodynamics when using her smart phone or computer, or if someone using Onstar to locate himself on a road trip using GPS is consciously thanking Einstein for his theories of special and general relativity, which make the technology possible. People tend to think instead of sunsets and flowers, smiling infants and other more common things as beautiful—anything but mathematics and physics!

But we also have to remind ourselves that many people see beauty in things of a more destructive nature, including the mathematicians and physicists who devised thermonuclear weapons and even the flag-festooned Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon that America used recently in'Afghanistan and will likely use soon in North Korea. I had a very conservative cousin (now passed on) who used to constantly email me pictures of a religious nature along with images of American military might—aircraft carriers, tanks, skies filled with bombers, those sorts of things—and I would constantly respond asking her not to send me that kind of stuff. Her emails would also include glowing comments on the awesomeness of God or the beauty of a soaring B-2 stealth bomber, and I always wondered how on Earth someone could associate such things with beauty.

Friedman's article reminded me that there is indeed this flip side to beauty that most mathematicians and scientists will never understand, nor will they ever comprehend, just as I cannot, how objects of mass death and destruction can be considered beautiful in a way that's related to God. At the same time, I'm reminded of the words of the early 5th century Christian theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine of Hippo, who penned the sickening comment
The good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with the Devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell.\(^2\)
I once entertained the naive fantasy that politics and religious could coexist peacefully with science. With America now in absolute control of theocrats who hate science and love war and killing, I can only shake my head in wonder at how stupid I was.

\(^1\) My most beautiful equation is Dirac's relativistic electron equation, \(i\hbar \gamma^\mu \partial_\mu \Psi = mc \,\Psi\)

\(^2\) Offended Catholic apologists invariably claim that Augustine was referring to "numerologists" and not mathematicians, in an effort to equate them with astrologers, who he rightly denounced. But astrologers and numerologists were the only "mathematicians" of his day (there were no scientists or "natural philosophers"), who Augustine lumped in with "those who make empty prophecies" (as if the Bible never made any), so the quote still applies as I've written it.

Idiocracy — Posted Thursday 13 April 2017
My older son lived in Dallas for a number of years, doing mostly freelance computer programming work.

"Have you seen the animated TV show King of the Hill?" he asked me about ten years ago.

"I've heard about it, but never watched it," I replied.

"Well, it's about this conservative family that lives in Texas, and it's not only hilarious, it's absolutely true to life here," he informed me.

So in 2007 I started watching the show, and I learned to love it. I don't watch TV anymore, but I have the complete series of King of the Hill on DVD, and I still love it. It's about a blue-collar Republican family whose breadwinner, the obnoxiously conservative and patriotic Hank Hill, works in the propane and propane accessories field, a vocation he's enormously proud of and promotes with annoying frequency on the show. The humor is somehat dry and subtle, featuring little throwaway gems like Hank's wife Peggy remarking how her husband fitfully tosses and turns in bed the night before Flag Day, or Hank's neighbor, a slovenly Army barber named Bill, proudly referring to barber school at Fort Bragg as "baptism by fire." But the show does not belittle or make fun of small-town, conservative, religious America, just depicts it in a way that my son says reflects the true nature of the South.

The show's creator is Mike Judge, who also created Beavis and Butt-Head, Silicon Valley and a number of less successful television and film ventures. In 1985 Judge graduated with a degree in physics from UC San Diego, then headed to Silicon Valley to pursue a technical career. How he veered away from that is documented in a profile of Judge that appears in today's New York Times Magazine.

The article includes an overview of Judge's initially unsuccessful 2006 film Idiocracy, which has become something of a cult classic today. That's because the film unintentionally but presciently imagined a very ordinary Army recruit who somehow wakes up in America 500 years in the future, only to find that the country resembles the Trumpian America of today. Its president is a former porn actor and wrestler whose citizens are so dumbed-down that their visitor from the past is easily the smartest man in the country. The favorite television show of 2505 America is a reality show called "Ow! My Balls!", while other shows involving groin-punching and flatulence are also popular.

"Come to Butt-Head."

I've seen the movie, and despite its constant vulgarity it has its moments. Judge admits that when he wrote the script he never imagined it would accurately reflect America a mere ten years later, although he did notice that America was rapidly approaching terminal dumbness at a time when President George W. Bush was as stupid as the film's President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

While Judge's King of the Hill remains funny to me today, there are times in the show when it reflects the disastrous direction America was already heading toward. While I never really came to terms with America's past—you know, the slavery, the greed, the genocide of Native Americans, the mistreatment of minorities and the constant warmongering—I never really hated America. But with the ascendance of Donald Trump and the total takeover of the country by lying, hypocritical, fundamentalist "Christian" Republicans, I can honestly say that I truly do hate and detest America now.

Idiocracy: Advertising slogans are much different in Trump's America of the future

Quantum Tunneling to Oblivion — Posted Monday 10 April 2017
A physics colleague sent me the following link to an interesting arXiv paper proposing that a peculiar quantum event occurred in the late quarter of 2016:

Schrödinger's Cat and World History: The Many Worlds Interpretation of Alternative Facts

I think this is the very first paper I've seen on arXiv that mixes quantum physics with politics. Sadly, it will only motivate conservatives to add Cornell University (which hosts arXiv) to its burgeoning list of entities to be shut down.

Still, we hapless progressives can always hope that the universe's vacuum state will become unstable and annihilate the preposterous world we're living in.

The Status Quo as the Natural Order of Things — Posted Sunday 9 April 2017
In politics, religion and science, it takes a revolution to change the status quo.

In my brief essay of 7 April, I mentioned how the "damned status quo" was restored in Jerusalem following the fall of the Sejanus/Antipas plot and the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The beneficiaries were the priestly aristocratic Sadducees, who had the most to lose from a political revolution and a change in the status quo. They had the most money and private property and they and owned the finest clothes, jewelry and houses in Judea, and to finance all this luxury they operated the Temple as a business—the Temple tax (which all Jews were required to pay, in addition to the taxes they were forced to pay to Rome) was administered by the Sadducees, who used the money to pay for basic upkeep of the Temple and its appurtenant buildings and walls. They took a healthy cut of this for themselves to pay for the luxuries they enjoyed, all of which were far out of reach of the average Jew. They also took a cut from the courtyard money changers—the exchange rate they charged for converting "impure" and idolatrous Roman coinage to the required silver half-shekels bordered on extortion, and devout Jews wishing to make sacrifices at the Temple altar had no choice but to pay up (this was almost certainly the reason Jesus caused the ruckus in the Temple courtyard). Of course, the Jews then had to fork over the money they got to pay for the sparrows, doves, sheep and other animals that were used in the sacrifices.

[You might recall that when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., the wealth they plundered from it amounted to many billions of dollars in today's money. The tons of gold, silver, jewels and finery that Titus' army sent to Rome financed construction of the Flavium Amphitheater (the Colosseum) and many of Rome's other major building projects. This gives an idea of the fantastic wealth that the Sadducees controlled in the heyday of the Second Temple.]

But the worst thing about all this was that the Sadducees had total control over a corrupt system based on an inherited hierarchal rule that was enabled and supported by the ruling Romans (who the Jews referred to as the despised Kittim). The Sadducees happily collaborated with the Romans because it benefitted them enormously and kept the Jewish underclasses under control (indeed, when things did get testy between the citizens and Roman soldiers it was often the Roman prefect who pulled back his troops to avoid further conflict and bloodshed, with the Temple priests compliantly standing by). This then was the status quo of First Century Judea, a system not unlike that which the world over seems to have perpetually adopted as the natural order of things.

The Gospels tend to focus on the Pharisees as the primary enemies of Jesus, but they were relatively educated, progressive moderates whose only fault perhaps was a fixation over the exact meaning of the Torah laws and how they should be obeyed. Indeed, the Gospels' tendency to avoid condemnation of the far more hypocritical Sadducees may be simply because criticism would have necessarily fallen on the Romans as well—a dangerous and foolhardy way to express one's hatred of both the corrupt priesthood and Rome. Consequently, it's no wonder that Jesus seems to have reserved his venom for the Pharisees and not the far more culpable Sadducees.

While we have the luxury of stepping back 2,000 years to see all this in hindsight today, I tend to view it as a model that has sadly been adopted time and time again as a means of controlling rank and file humans by the ruling elite. The Sadducees, the ruling classes of the Roman empire and the Europe of the Middle Ages and the pre-Renaissance justified the system as the "divine right of kings," but in one form or another it has always been employed to promote and enforce political legitimacy through the religious beliefs of the common man. Those beliefs have invariably been based on the fear of death and suffering, a fear that political leaders and the wealthy elite have long known about and have come to rely on to perpetuate the status quo and the natural order of things.
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale envisions a dystopian America that has become a harsh, fundamentalist, theocratic and militaristic dictatorship that has enslaved the people and rules them with methods not unlike those found in George Orwell's 1984. The novel's theme deals especially with the subjugation of women, but in a broader sense it is nothing less than a description of a nation governed by a ruling elite who see dictatorial control as the status quo and the natural order of things, to be maintained by enforced religious belief and practice and the right of men to rule the minds, bodies and souls of women. I could be wrong (and I hope I am), but I see this type of government as essentially what the Republican Party today is striving for—maybe not today or tomorrow but eventually, and along the same lines as described by Atwood.

How else could you describe a party of men who see poverty and suffering as the divinely-imposed state of most people, and who despise government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Meals on Wheels, and welfare for the poor and disabled?

But Atwood's novel also envisions a time when this future America (called the Republic of Gilead) is overthrown by a violent grass roots revolution. I believe such a revolution is what's needed in this country today and right now, before things get completely out of hand. Sadly, I see another 9/11 event as the breaking point in which cowardly, existentially fearful Americans choose to hand over all their rights and privileges to an authoritarian leader. And just who might that leader be, I wonder?

Here's the restored main marble panel in the Arch of Titus at the Roman Forum, depicting the public display of Temple treasures in Rome following the plundering of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The rectangular object on the left appears to be an early television camera, which it most assuredly is not! Still, the panel looks better than the one I saw during a recent visit, which had been attacked for many years by atmospheric CO\(_2\) due to modern air pollution. No such thing as global climate change, you say? Bosh!

Still Hungry After All These Years — Posted Sunday 9 April 2017
In 1966 I bought my sister's old 1955 Chevy Nomad station wagon for $30 (with over 120,000 miles on it, it was that kind of a car), and having just passed the driver's exam I drove to Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood to see Dick van Dyke stick his hands and feet into the cement. Along the way I listened to the radio for the first time as a solo driver, and the first song I heard was Hungry by Paul Revere and the Raiders. They quickly became my favorite group, and I subsequently bought all their albums. They were also featured prominently on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and other teen shows of the time, all of which I eagerly watched. I later saw them perform live, and to my surprise they sounded just as good as their studio recordings.

Years later, while looking for property along the Rogue River in Oregon in 2003, the real estate agent showed me a house that was owned by the Raiders' erstwhile drummer, Mike Smith. I didn't buy the house, but I got interested in the band again for the first time in forty years. I then got re-interested in the band again only recently, when I discovered that an extended version of Hungry existed that had been banned from commercial airtime in the 1960s due to the single lyric
"\(\ldots\) with a penthouse in the sky where we'll both stay stoned \(\ldots\)"
Boy, have times changed.

Anyway, for the sake of posterity and memory, here's the extended version:

The Last Days of Jesus — Posted Friday 7 April 2017
PBS is currently airing (and repeating) a two-hour special entitled The Last Days of Jesus. It presents a fascinating theory based on some very recent biblical scholarship: that the heir apparent to the emperorship of Tiberius, Lucius Aelius Sejanus (the head of the Roman Praetorian Guard), did a deal with the tetrarch Herod Antipas (and possibly Pontius Pilate as well) to overthrow the priesthood of the Second Temple in an effort to ensure peace in Judea for political purposes. According to the noted ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, Antipas wanted Rome to appoint him king of the Jews, while Sejanus was conspiring against Tiberius to become the next Roman emperor.

Antipas desperately wanted to rule over all the Jews like his father, Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. (Antipas considered his own reign as a mere tetrarch to be beneath him), while Sejanus needed peace in the Levant to enable his quick accession to the throne. Meanwhile, Pilate may or may not have been included in the plot. And according to the theory, an unknowing Jesus was a key part of the plot.

The theory explains a number of odd things about the handling and fate of Jesus. One, why did Jesus—who had avoided going down to Jerusalem—suddenly decide to make the trip (John 7:1), presumably out of an invitation by Antipas? Why did the adoring Jews demand his crucifixion less than a week after rejoicing over his entry into Jerusalem? Why did the Roman and Jewish guards posted at the Temple not immediately arrest Jesus when he violently overturned the tables of the money changers, and why did the high priests (the wealthy and hated Sadducees) not immediately denounce the incident to Pilate? Why did Antipas refuse to judge Jesus for blasphemy and sedition when he was presented to him, instead sending him back to Pilate? Why was Jesus tried, condemned and crucified within hours of his arrest the night of Passover, when formal condemnation of an accused typically took at least days? Finally, why would Jesus be executed during Passover, the most celebrated of Jewish holidays, when tensions were always at a boiling point between the Jews and the detested occupying Romans?

While the program does not implicate Jesus in the theorized deal between Sejanus, Antipas and Pilate, it notes that Jesus himself stood to gain from a successful plot—he would likely have been elected as the new Messiah, the Jews would have had a long-awaited religious figure ruling over Israel, and the hated aristocratic Sadducees would have been sent packing. Meanwhile, Sejanus would have been emperor, Pilate would have been appointed the secular head of the Jews, and all of Israel would have been at peace. Win-win, right?

So what went wrong? According to the theory, in 32 A.D. Tiberius discovered that Sejanus had murdered his son Drusus, who would have succeeded Tiberius as emperor. The otherwise high-flying Sejanus was arrested and summarily executed, and Antipas quickly realized that the jig was up. At that point, neither he nor Pilate had any need for Jesus—the Jews' presumed religious leader—and so Pilate had him crucified, much to the delight of the high priest Caiaphas, who got to keep his job, not to mention his head.

If all this is true, it's another example of the damned status quo holding firm. The Sadducees stayed in power, the Jews remained miserable, there were more wars in Israel, Pontius Pilate remained unscathed as prefect of Judaea, and Antipas remained tetrarch of the northern district of Galilee—until his role in the plot was exposed, when he was exiled for life. Meanwhile, upon Tiberius' death in 37 A.D., a charming fellow named Caligula became Rome's third emperor.

Again, the PBS program does not implicate Jesus in the theorized plot; if the theory is correct, Jesus had no idea what was going on. But I have discussed the program with numerous people of faith, including family members, and nearly all have condemned the program as blasphemous. I just cannot understand this—I see their reactions as a kind of reverse revisionist history, in which that which is accepted as true can never be challenged by new data.

You might want to watch this interesting and provocative PBS program and decide for yourself.

Our Nictitating Brains — Posted Wednesday 5 April 2017
This morning a friend of mine and I were discussing a phenomenon both of us have observed many times in people, including close friends and relatives (and perhaps even ourselves). The best description I can give of this phenomenon is that of a nictitating membrane, the so-called transparent or translucent "third eye" that closes over some animals' eyes to protect them during feeding or from harsh environmental conditions such as blowing sand, rain and snow. For example, a great white shark's nictitating membranes commonly activate when attacking their prey, giving them what has been described as "doll's eyes"—the appearance of uncaring or unthinking that can make them seem stupid, uncomprehending or even coldly malevolent.

I have noticed it most often in the eyes, faces and body language of people when the subject of a conversation begins to touch on contrary evidence to a belief that they hold dear and are not about to let go of. It almost always involves a religious or political belief, but to a much lesser extent it can involve personal preferences related to sports, fashion, movies or television shows. I tend to see it as a kind of protective conditioning the person has undergone that serves to effectively shut down a conversation or abruptly change the subject.

If you challenge a Protestant, Catholic or other orthodox believer about the perpetual virginity of Mary (or her mother), the celibacy or marital state of Jesus, the provenance of his siblings, or any number of beliefs that have been cooked up regarding what they tend to believe today, you will instantly perceive the phenomenon I'm talking about. The doll's eyes come out, the facial expression and tone of voice changes, the body language shifts, and you know that they have erected an impermeable wall that you can never penetrate, regardless of the veracity of your logic, facts and evidence. And if you're crazy enough to really push things, the challenged believer is more than capable of responding with violence.

All of these things apply equally well to politics today, although I tend to believe that American religion and politics have now merged into a single impenetrable wall of dogmatic belief. If you challenge a conservative over their beliefs concerning the legitimacy of unions, family planning, public welfare, Social Security and similar government programs, I can guarantee you won't get very far. Similarly, if you challenge a liberal over society's need to provide perpetual public assistance for people who don't want to work or be personally responsible, you may get hit in the mouth.

Whether or not any of these nictitation-inducing beliefs are based on illogical but harmless personal opinions is one thing, but when they become dangerous or harmful to the public at large is quite another. The active avoidance or rejection of inconvenient facts is now pandemic in this country, and it has evolved to the point where actual existential threats—such as global anthropogenic climate disruption, gross economic inequality, resource deletion and overpopulation—take second stage to illogically perceived or nonexistent threats such as vaccination-induced autism, immigrant-borne diseases, racial accommodation and gun control measures. Note that the latter are invariably based on irrationality and emotions like fear, racism and bigotry, while true threats are based on science and logic.

In the following video, noted astronomer and educator Michelle Thaller describes her epiphany of suddenly realizing that there is no way to adequately counter the inherent corruption and stupidity of people like über-conservative Fox News commentator Steve Doocy, who hung Thaller out to dry on his show while pretending to allow her to present scientific facts about climate change:

My 1st Amendment Rights—While They Still Exist — Posted Sunday 2 April 2017
The Los Angeles Times has begun a series of reports starting with Our Dishonest President, the first installment of which appeared this morning. I agree with everything it has to say save one: Donald J. Trump is not, nor ever fucking will be, my president. And I will even go one step further: I want Trump taken out altogether, now, either by impeachment, act of God or military assassination. This pathetic shit of a human being has no business running the world's greatest power and endangering all of humanity.

I doubt if the The Times' articles will do much to convince the pro-KKK, anti-science and anti-reason hillbillies now in charge of the country to doubt that their imaginary God had anyhing to do with Trump's election, but if we can muster enough Americans with the balls to act we can rid ourselves of this neo-Hitler wannabe, preferably by hanging or firing squad. If the US military is really sincere about the country's safety, I pray it will act accordingly—and quickly.

April 3: Part 2: Why Trump Lies
April 4: Part 3: Trump's Authoritarian Vision
April 5: Part 4: Trump's War on Journalism
April 6: Part 5: Conspiracy Theorist in Chief
April 7: Part 6: California Strikes Back

God Damn America — Posted Saturday 1 April 2017
PBS is currently airing a three-hour series called Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WW2 to the War on Terror, documenting the history of war crimes, political torture and related atrocities committed by the United States and other countries from World War II to the present. The subject matter of the series is absolutely nauseating, not so much because of the topic itself but because it also documents the total lack of any accountability or humanitarian justice that countries at war exhibit, even when they've been caught red-handed at the crimes they commit. The segment on America's suppression of the 1968 My Lai massacre is particularly disturbing.

Meanwhile, neither America nor any other political or military power has learned a damned thing. Here's our glorious new president promising that not only will he pursue enhanced torture of America's enemies, he will ensure that our military leaders obey his orders to carry it out:

Still think that America is a godly, Christian nation?

An STD on Steroids — Posted Saturday 1 April 2017
Ladies: if you're fleeing a malevolent entity, don't do it in high heels.

This morning my older son told me about the 2014 horror film It Follows. I watched it on Netflix today, and it really freaked me out. It's about a malevolent entity that's transmitted through sexual intercourse—okay, not the most plausible kind of movie monster—but it's more of a psychological thriller than a horror film, one that harkens back to childhood fears and nightmares involving an impossibly animate creature, being or essence that H.P. Lovecraft might describe as "an unliving monstrosity, yet somehow instinct with hellish life."

One neat aspect of the film's entity is that it not only follows the latest sexually infected "transgressor," but retains a kind of genealogical memory of the victim's past sexual history as well. Once it does away with the most recent offender, it immediately goes after the person before, and then the person before that—world without end.

But don't fret—this isn't one of those Christian abstinence "message" films about saving yourself for marriage or anything like that (although the film may make you strongly consider it). It doesn't explain why or how the entity exists, or what its mission is. Indeed, the sexual angle is just a plot device to introduce a malevolent thing that's slow but methodical, can't be reasoned with, and always knows where you are—an unstoppable thing of pure evil driven by a purpose that you cannot comprehend, understand or escape, but one that seems to really have a hangup about sex.

Kind of like the Republican Party today.

A Nice Break — Posted Thursday 30 March 2017
This morning a colleague kindly directed me to a new paper by German physicist, historian and all-round Hermann Weyl expert Erhard Scholz entitled The Unexpected Resurgence of Weyl Geometry in Late 20th Century Physics, a massive (92 pages) overview of how Weyl's 1918 gauge theory is being reconsidered in light of its possible connection to a number of recent quantum and cosmological theories. Although I no longer believe Weyl's original theory had anything to do with reality, it continues to imply a profound and fundamental connection between gravitation and electrodynamics that suggests that gravity—the weakest of Nature's four known physical forces—may be lurking behind all manner of physical phenomena, including quantum mechanics itself.

Meanwhile, I've written a paper for children (meaning undergraduates) explaining Bell's inequality and quantum entanglement. In addition to attending #resist meetings and participating in related activist discussions on the sad fate of our country today and what we can do about it, I now find myself getting re-interested in my lifelong love of physics. If nothing else, it's a nice break from the disaster that is Trump's Amerikkka.

That's a Lot of Mountain Dew — Posted Tuesday 28 March 2017
My comment on today's Pharyngula article:

Sheriff Taylor, Barney, Goober and the Rest of the Gang — Posted Friday 24 March 2017
See anything wrong with this picture? Or at least anything that's fucking missing?!

Because Too Much is Never Enough — Posted Thursday 23 March 2017
Great New York Times article on the extent of America's preposterously bloated military budget, Trump's bizarre rationale for increasing it, and how it impacts how the rest of the world views the planet's only remaining superpower. Are you feeling any safer now, Amerika?

Death to Fascists — Posted Thursday 16 March 2017
Copied from Letters of Note:

Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals of his generation, was known by most as the founder of analytic philosophy, but he was actually a man of many talents: a pioneering mathematician, an accomplished logician, a tireless activist, a respected historian, and a Nobel Prize-winning writer, to name but a handful. When he wrote this principled letter at the beginning of 1962, Russell was 89 years old and clearly still a man of morals who stood firm in his beliefs. Its recipient was Sir Oswald Mosley, a man most famous for founding, in 1932, the British Union of Fascists.

22 January 1962

Sir Oswald Mosley
5 Lowndes Court
Lowndes Square
London, S.W.1.

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one's own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

Yours sincerely,

Bertrand Russell

Night is Falling — Posted Wednesday 15 March 2017
We all saw this coming again, thanks mainly to Trump supporters.

Last night I watched the 2014 documentary Night Will Fall, chronicling the development, suppression and restoration of a 1945 documentary film on Nazi concentration camp atrocities produced by filmographer Sidney Bernstein in collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. The 1945 documentary itself was entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. Compiled from miles of 16-mm color and 35-mm black-and-white footage shot by teams of British, American and Russian combat cameramen in April 1945 and following months, it depicts horrors that few people have ever seen, and much worse than the brief clips one typically sees in films documenting Third Reich atrocities.

Night Will Fall left me in tears. But I was also filled with rage over the reason why the Factual Survey film was suppressed even before it was completed.

You've no doubt read about boatloads of Jews leaving wartime Germany for refuge, only to be rejected again and again by countries that did not want the responsibility of looking after them. Most of those boats had no recourse but to return to Germany, where the SS was waiting for their human cargo. As a result, many thousands of Jews—men, women, children and infants—suffered horrible fates in the ovens and mass burial pits of slave labor camps spread throughout Germany, Poland and other occupied countries. Would-be boat refugees were just the tip of the iceberg, of course, as millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and other "misfits" shared the same fate.

The 2014 film informs us that the reason the Factual Survey documentary was shelved for over 70 years was political expediency. While the evidence of Nazi atrocities horrified the liberators, not long after war's end most people just wanted to get on with their lives. Indeed, the film shows the relatively few female survivors of Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and Dachau who, even while recovering from unimaginable horrors, quickly got re-interested in clothes and fashion, perhaps only as a subconscious means of psychological adjustment. But the leaders and politicians of the victorious nations wanted to move on as well, since a new enemy (Stalin's Soviet Union) and a new war (the Cold War) was rapidly approaching and needed attending to. The leaders of the Free World realized they would need allies to fight this new war and, almost inconceivably, they viewed Germany as one of those allies, given its relatively close proximity to Moscow. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was therefore left uncompleted and abandoned. It did not see the light of day until recently, when it was resurrected using forgotten cans of film, archived scripts and cameramen's notes, all documented in Night Will Fall. You can now watch it on Netflix, just as I did last night.

But the last scene of Night Will Fall is perhaps the most disturbing, as it predicts the fate of those who choose to look the other way, or who persist in their hate-filled anti-minority mind sets: Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.

[Christians: While I'm at it, I'll ask you to please resolve your contradictory attitude toward Jews, which is that one day they're heroic Israeli freedom fighters while another day they're filthy, money-grubbing bastards. You should also understand that the New Testament is the basis for all anti-Semitism, present and past. The Gospel of John is absolutely the worst—read John 5:16,18; 7:1; 7:13; 8:44; 10:31; 11:8; 19:9,12,14-15; 19:38 and 20:19.]

Theory and Non-Theory — Posted Tuesday 14 March 2017
The Hulse-Taylor binary system PSR B1913+16 has now been monitored for over 40 years, with continuing perfect agreement with general relativity.

In the spring of 2005 I went to the Skirball Cultural Center near UCLA to see an exhibit of original Einstein papers and other memorabilia. One of the papers featured a 1912 calculation that Einstein had made on the deflection of light by the Sun, using only the principle of equivalence to carry out the calculation. For the light of a distant star just grazing the Sun's limb, Einstein came up with a deflection of 0.875 arc-second. While there was as yet no way to confirm this result experimentally, it agreed exactly with the Newtonian result (which involves a simple calculation that undergraduates are expected to know). At the time, Einstein was busy working on his general theory of relativity (GTR) which he presumed would give the same result. But following the completion of his theory in November 1915, Einstein was surprised that the theory predicted exactly twice the deflection amount, or 1.75 arc-second, in disagreement with his earlier calculation and with Newtonian physics. Nevertheless, Einstein happily discarded his earlier calculation, even though he had been confident it was correct at the time.

A few years later, the great German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl used Einstein's GTR to develop a beautiful theory that he believed unified the two forces of Nature known at the time, gravity and electrodynamics. Many physicists, including Einstein, initially hailed the theory as profound, but Einstein himself then spotted a flaw in Weyl's theory that could not be reconciled with physical evidence. Weyl resisted, twisting and squirming under the damage Einstein had done to his wonderful theory, but in the end he recanted and abandoned it, admitting that Einstein was right.

This is how science progresses—theories that are shown to be wrong are either revised or thrown away in the hope that new data will lead to better and more accurate theories. No self-respecting scientist ever believes that she's found the ultimate explanation for anything, as a theory is considered scientific fact only until a single observation or piece of evidence shows it to be wrong. Then it's back to the blackboard to come up with something better.

To date, two theories—GTR and quantum mechanics—have withstood the test of time, providing predictions for old and new phenomena that agree exactly with observation. Though both theories are now over one hundred years old, THEY HAVE NEVER FAILED, NOT ONCE. Indeed, GTR's prediction of the decay of the Hulse-Taylor binary system and quantum mechanics' prediction of the magnetic moment of the electron agree with observation to fantastic accuracy (some twelve decimal places). Yet, despite being the best scientific theories the human mind has yet developed, they are both considered fully falsifiable and subject to revision (even discard) pending presentation of new contradictory evidence.

(I urge people of faith, especially those who consider scientific facts to be "just theories," to give credit where credit is due—science is falsifiable and subject to revision, whereas religious belief is unchangeable and immutably set in stone, even when it contradicts fact, experimental evidence, and reason.)

Nevertheless, even great scientists are imperfect and thus subject to personal biases. When the results of the 1919 Principe solar eclipse observations confirmed the prediction of Einstein's GTR, he was asked what he would have thought if the results had disconfirmed the theory. "Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord," Einstein replied, "because the theory is correct." Many saw a note of arrogance in Einstein's remark. The rabidly antisemitic German physicist Philipp Lenard, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in physics and no fan of Einstein's work, even went to far as to accuse Einstein of plagiarizing the work of German physicist Johann von Soldner, who in 1801 had also calculated the (Newtonian) deflection of starlight by the Sun. (Einstein was probably unaware of Soldner's calculation until Weyl referred him to it in a letter he wrote to Einstein in December 1921.) Even when the 1919 solar eclipse data confirmed Einstein's revised calculation, Lenard and many other German scientists refused to believe in either Einstein's GTR or his 1905 theory of special relativity. Indeed, much or all of Einstein's work was considered "Jewish physics" and thus certifiably wrong by several leading German physicists of the time, an attitude that led in 1931 to the publication of Hundert Authoren Gegen Einstein (One Hundred Authors Against Einstein).

Purely racist (and later political) biases against legitimate science are regrettable. However, with the current rise of ultra-conservative politics we're now seeing a refutation of science on religious grounds as well. For example, Newtonian gravitation is based on the notion of "action at a distance," in which the force of gravity given by $$ F = - \frac{GMm}{r^2} $$ is conveyed instantaneously between the masses \(M\) and \(m\) (Newton himself hated this notion, thinking it unphysical, but he had no better theory at the time). By contrast, Einstein's gravity theory predicts that the effects of gravitation can only travel at the speed of light. But theologians of Newton's day generally loved the idea of action at a distance, since it confirmed the presumed ability of God to instantly enact physical change. In a sad comment on how religious beliefs have remained unchanged over the past 350 years, religious apologists today reject Einstein's theory simply because it serves to place limits on God's magical powers. It is truly frustrating that these same apologists happily embrace the great technical advances relativity, quantum mechanics and modern medicine have given mankind in the form of computers, smart phones, GPS, antibiotics, MRI and other technologies, while at the same time denouncing them as "just theories." Even more maddening is the fact that many of these same people rely unquestioningly on pseudoscience such as magnet therapy, water dowsing, acupuncture and faith healing. But worst of all is their blind belief in a two-bit, racist, bigoted, "grab 'em by the pussy" hustler who promises to take away their health care in order to finance tax breaks for the rich.

But look on the bright side: those who voted for Trump—Southern morons and hillbillies addicted to cigarettes, moonshine, Mountain Dew and methamphetamines—can now look forward to praying away their malignant tumors, black lung disease and addictions completely free of charge using God's action-at-a-distance healing power. Who needs science (or health care) when you have magic, right?

Kong: Skull Island—No Respect (or Royalties) for Joseph Conrad — Posted Friday 10 March 2017

1933's King Kong wasn't perfect, but it came close. Here Kong takes a tumble during the T. rex fight scene,
but the stop-motion animators forgot to remove the model's support strut before snapping the frame!

I grew up with King Kong in the 1950s, and I watched the brilliant 1933 action-adventure film whenever it came on television. I've seen it many, many times over the years, and I never tire of it. With the exception of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai, it's my favorite film of all time.

The otherwise notable film producer Dino De Laurentiis gave us a remake of King Kong in 1976, which unfortunately truly stunk to high hell. That, coupled with 1978's awful Superman, reminded me exactly why I now think of the 1970s as a lost decade in terms of motion picture art, not to mention the side burns, dress styles, insipid televison sit-coms and the disco nonsense that accompanied it. Dy-no-mite!, indeed.

In 2005 we got Peter Jackson's version of the movie which, discounting its sillier segments (like stampeding apatosauruses with juvenile T. rexes chasing a movie crew underneath), was actually a fairly clever and decent adaptation of the 1933 film (true, Jack Black as Carl Denham was miscast, but the original film's Robert Armstrong apparently wasn't available). In addition, Jackson produced a host of supportive documentaries for the film, including a stop-motion reproduction of the lost spider and styracosaurus sequences that sadly ended up on the cutting room floor of the 1933 classic. The only thing I didn't like was the preposterous inclusion of Joseph Conrad's immortal 1899 novella Heart of Darkness in the film, with one wise, older crew member patiently teaching the book's deeper meanings to a younger crew member. Oh, brother.

That brings us to today's Kong: Skull Island, which is being touted as a cross between King Kong and Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, itself a modern retelling of Conrad's book (incidentally, two of the new Kong film's characters are named Conrad and Marlow). Kong has now grown to truly gargantuan size, belying his extreme athleticism and the innately structural inability of ordinary muscle and bone to support such heft (which is why Jurassic and Cretaceous titanosaurs like Argentinosaurus were sluggish, plodding beasts that likely spent most of their time in water). But the illogic of Kong's size shrinks into insignificance considering the illogic of the movie's plot (such as it is), the wooden, almost incidental acting of the protagonists, and the extreme, almost pornographic violence of the film's nonstop destruction of equipment, animals and people.

Kong: Skull Island is not a remake of the original classic—there's no Carl Denham, no gas bombs and no capture of the animal and transport back to New York. But of course there is a woman (Mason) who Kong gets to know and sort of like, but it's because she shows kindness to one of the island's more docile creatures (a kind of water buffalo whose size rivals Kong himself) and, since Kong happens to be a protector of the island's native inhabitants and nicer animals, he touchingly shows his appreciation to Mason by not eating her.

Lastly, there's some reference in the film to "hollow earth" that I did not quite follow. Hopefully it only had something to do with the realm of the island's subterranean dwellers (given the stupid name skull crawlers) and not the pseudoscientific concept known as the hollow earth theory.

The new Kong movie reminded me of the innumerable (and forgettable) Godzilla films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (there never seemed to be an end to them). The original 1954 Japanese film Gojira (meaning "ape-whale") was actually an antiwar movie that addressed the horror of nuclear Armageddon, but it was edited for American audiences as Godzilla, with the underlying antiwar sentiment removed and replaced by an overly-plump Raymond Burr.

My main dislike of the movie, however, is that it continues what I see as an ongoing effort to use gaudy CGI effects and violence as a replacement for story, plot and acting. With such movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars these days (but raking in billions) it's clear that modern audiences are reflecting a global dumbing-down of the intellect, whether it's an inability to appreciate true art or the widespread acceptance of cultural garbage as its replacement. Chris Hedges' 2010 book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle was indeed a prescient comment on our Trumpian world today.

Awesome? — Posted Friday 10 March 2017
I received an email today from a well-meaning devout Christian who, having read some of my older posts, was dismayed that I had abandoned the faith, adding that I needed to get back in touch with God before it's too late. The email included a story of how she and her husband had lost a young child after a grueling bout with cancer but, being strong in their faith, resisted the temptation to succumb to despair. She closed on the cheerful note "God is awesome!"

Her story sincerely touched me, as we can all sympathize with any parent who's gone through the hell that she and her family have. I politely answered her email and sent her on her way with an overview of my current philosophy, which I recount here in greater detail.

In 2 Samuel we read of a revelation from God through the Hebrew prophet Nathan, promising that the house of King David and his kingdom would endure forever, and that his throne would also be established in perpetuity. This was one of the many promises God made to the early Hebrews, subject only to the conditions that they obey his commandments and worship him. As it turned out, however, God broke all these promises. Why? Because he's either not awesome or he doesn't exist (my bet's on the latter).

A little history proves my point:

Prior to King Saul (ca. 1050 BCE) and the subsequent establishment of the House of David in Jerusalem (around 1000 BCE), Egypt was the overwhelming, dominant force in the Levant, controlling all the land between itself and what is now known as Syria. The biblical stories of the Israelite exodus and the taking of the Promised Land by Joshua and his slaughtering armies are complete myths—sorry, but there's not a shred of archaeological or historical evidence outside of the Old Testament that these events ever happened. How could they? With Egypt's armies ready to pounce, it would be like Lithuania invading Washington, D.C. today—there's not a chance that the Lithuanians could mount such an invasion, much less be successful.

Tiny, sparsely populated Israel did gain a foothold in Jerusalem and the surrounding region, but almost certainly as the result of peaceful infiltration, not invasion. But political and religious infighting split the population in two, with half going north to form the nation of Israel, the other staying in what later became known as Judah, home of David and his son and successor, Solomon.

In 722 BCE, the northern kingdom was conquered by the invading Assyrians. Then in 586 BCE the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple and packed the inhabitants of Jerusalem off to Babylon. When Persia conquered Babylon in 540 BCE it allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, but Israel remained under the domination of Persia. Israel was then taken over by Greece around 330 BCE when Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. Then in the second century BCE the Syrians swept in and took over Israel, imposing unendurable hardships that the Jews managed to overcome for awhile through the efforts of the Hasmoneans (the Maccabean Revolt). But then Israel was taken over again in the 1st century BCE by the Romans, enduring more harsh rule. Following a short-lived revolt by the Jews in 66 CE, the Romans destroyed the Temple, slaughtered upwards of a million Jews by sword and crucifixion, and imposed even tighter controls. After that, the land came under continuous domination by various other nations for some 1,900 years, until Israel was finally granted independence in 1948—and not by God, but by the United Nations.

Nobody's perfect, and I don't think God expected the Israelites to be absolute saints. But this business of being constantly conquered and ruled by foreign nations began to wear on the Jews, who could not understand why God would permit such ongoing persecution. This gave rise to the notion that God was actively punishing the Jews for not obeying his laws, a notion that was put forward by the noted prophets of the time. But by the time of the Syrian conquest the Jews were behaving pretty much as God expected them to behave—observing the commandments, restricting their diet to kosher food, circumcising their baby boys, undergoing ritual purification for sin, making pilgrimages to the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem and offering ritual sacrifices there as commanded by God.

But when King Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria conquered Israel and imposed harsh penalties on the Jews for practicing their faith, the Jews could no longer believe the prophets' claim that they were being punished for sin. Indeed, they were actually being prevented from practicing their faith under penalty of torture and death. So the prophets' theories went by the wayside, to be replaced by the notion of Jewish apocalypticism—the Hebrews were not being punished for sin, but were persecuted because their world was under the control of evil powers and principalities who God (for some unknown reason) had permitted to govern the Earth. But this apocalyptic worldview had an upside—God would soon destroy these evil powers and establish peace and goodness upon the Earth forever.

This worldview persisted right up to and beyond the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, who also subscribed to such a worldview as recorded in the writings of Paul the Apostle and the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. But when Jesus was executed by the Romans for political sedition in 30 CE, this worldview could no longer stand. For awhile the early Christians believed that Jesus would soon reappear as God's conquering Messiah, destroy the Romans and establish a just world without suffering. But as the decades wore on after Jesus' death, this notion had to be dismissed as well.

So here we are, some 2,000 years later, waiting for Jesus and the End of the World—2,000 years past the apocalyptic due date of God's promise of a just world without suffering or death. That's 2,000 years of continuous, unimaginable human and animal suffering, caused by both moral evil (humans doing bad things through free will) and natural evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and all the bad things that free will plays no part in). And yet "God is awesome!"

It never fails to amaze me that whenever some awful disaster occurs involving mass human death and suffering, someone inevitably stands up and declares confidently "Burdens are from God, but shoulders are, too—praise him!" Wait—God lets such suffering occur, and we should praise him?! And when forced to seriously confront this discrepancy in logic, we always hear the claim that "God's ways and reasons are a mystery we cannot comprehend." Sorry, but I'm not buying it.

Japanese soldiers bayoneting a 3-year-old Chinese child, Nanking, 1937-38

In Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells his younger brother Alyosha that the allowed widespread mistreatment, torture and murder of little children provides ample concrete evidence that God is not worthy of praise or recognition. Ivan goes on to note that even if God were to convince him personally that such suffering somehow serves a legitimate purpose and is in mankind's best interests, Ivan would still "reject the ticket" to Heaven, there being no possible justification for the immensity of the cruelty and suffering that God allows in the world.

I'm firmly convinced that Christians today somehow believe the New Testament was written just last week, and that its contents were meant specifically for them, regardless of the historical contexts in which its books were intended. Worst of all, they go to church, listen to the sermons, pray fervently for forgiveness and grace while earnestly begging for wisdom, and then they go home and vote into office a man so patently racist, bigoted and evil that it defies description.

So here we are. There may indeed be a God, but it surely ain't the God of Abraham.

I Remember Bernie — Posted Friday 10 March 2017
Here's Bernie Sanders talking about the total lack of Democratic leadership in the country today, noting that things haven't been this bad since the 1920s. You know—just before the Great Depression.

I was all set to vote for him in the presidential election, but when he was thrown over for Hillary Clinton I voted for the Green Party's Jill Stein. Could Bernie have beaten Trump in the general election? We'll never know.

And I'm still pissed that President Obama turned Total Uncle Tom when he congratulated Trump on winning, doing everything he could to be a good loser (Democrats are very good at that), and it wouldn't have surprised me at all to see Obama kneeling down with Trump's foot on his neck at the inaugural, just as I wasn't surprised when Trump viciously and falsely accused Obama of bugging Trump Tower in 2016. Yassah, Massah Trump!

Sanders alludes to some ray of hope in 2020, when the decadal census hints at some possible gains for the Democrats district-wise, but then comes back down to Earth when he realizes that Republican gerrymandering all but eliminates that hope.

Yes, I'm in deep despair over the state of this nation. Short of French Revolution-style targeted killings and assassinations, I think it's all over for America.

Again with the States' Rights Thing! — Posted Wednesday 8 March 2017
I thought PZ Myers was kidding about H.R. 1275, the Republicans' health plan that was introduced a week ago by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). Jesus, he was right—it's actually titled The World's Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017. Perusing the first few paragraphs, I saw that it focuses on eliminating Obamacare and giving the states the right to do pretty much whatever they want. I didn't read any more because I have my own plan, and because to be frank I don't really give a damn. But if you're one of the 18 million Americans facing the loss of affordable health insurance then you have my condolences. Actually you don't have my condolences, since Americans willingly voted Trump and his minions into office last November, so you can pay through the nose for all I care.

Battlefield — Posted Tuesday 7 March 2017
In my post of 1 March I mentioned the excellent 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe by MIT physicist Max Tegmark. While the book is relatively free of political or religious discourse, Chapter 10 touches on what can only be viewed as a battlefield between the forces of truth and lies:

Fortunately, the not-so-ancient practice of trepanning—the drilling of holes in a living person's skull to release demons and evil spirits—is no longer a common medical procedure. But while mainstream science seeks to expand into wider, rational areas of inquiry and research, nonsensical pseudoscience like creationism and astrology continues to push for validity, ever threatening to invade the field of mainstream scientific legitimacy.

Again, Tegmark avoids any overt political or religious comment in his book, but it doesn't take much imagination to apply the intent of this graphic to what's going on in America today. Nonsensical beliefs in such things as young-earth creationism, telekinesis, hollow earth and ghosts continue unabated in this country despite widespread evidence to the contrary, and it would appear that the very same insanity that fosters these beliefs holds sway in the political and religious arenas as well. What else can explain, for example, the fact that President Trump can make outrageous and totally unsubstantiated claims about being wiretapped by a former president and still receive fawning, unquestioning support by his political and religious conservative base?

Looking Forward to the Day — Posted Tuesday 7 March 2017
PZ Myers over at Pharyngula had the perfect comment today concerning the Republican Party's attitude toward what's affordable and what's not:

And don't forget where those increased health care premiums will go—right into the pockets of the health care industry itself.

This latest debacle reminded me of similar complaints that the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs have made over the years regarding poor Americans (meaning minorities with skin color other than white) having televisions, refrigerators, smart phones and (gasp) even air conditioning. I'll bet they even have hot and cold running water!

Myers asks us to remember what happened to Marie Antoinette. I pray for the day when Americans work up the cojones to do something similar about Trump and the criminal Republican Party.

Waving the American Flag and Carrying the Bible \(\ldots\) — Posted Sunday 5 March 2017
I urge you to watch this 25-minute video with Chris Hedges discussing Christianized fascism with host Abby Martin, which was posted last week on Telesur. It's a frightening look at what Donald Trump and his evangelical "Christian" minions are planning for the country—nothing short of a fascist military-corporate theocracy that intends to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, women's and minority rights and family planning, all premised on placating a wrathful, imaginary God.

Blaming the Democrats as well as the Republicans for the mess we're in, Hedges warns that all of our democratic safeguards and institutions are now gone, and that the street is the only option left for averting totalitarian disaster. For all of you so-called Christians out there, stop comforting yourselves with the notion that Trump and his gang are "not true Christians." You've been right all along, so get out there and let your voices be heard!

The full interview is at the bottom of the linked page. You can also watch the YouTube version here:

Unis Jusqu'à la Mort! — Posted Sunday 5 March 2017
Anything to take my mind off Donald Trump, the most dangerous maniac in the world.

Georges Bizet composed Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) at the age of 24. Not too well received at its first performance in 1863, it has since become a standard in the world's opera houses. It tells the story of Nadir and Zurga, two pearl fishermen who years ago fell in love with the same woman, Laila. But as a Brahman priestess she was beyond either's grasp, so they both departed friends. Happily fishing years later, they pledge their eternal comradeship and loyalty to one another in the soaringly beautiful Au fond du temple saint, considered the greatest tenor/baritone duet ever performed in opera:

Of course, the pain of lost love has a way of tracking us down later in life, and Laila's reappearance once again sets the two men against one another in jealous rage. I won't reveal the ending, but you can watch the entire opera here when you have the time. Plus charmante et plus belle!

Arrival — Posted Thursday 2 March 2017
Translation: "This movie sucks. Save your money."

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Yikes! You're hoisted up the rear end of a 1500-foot, vertical alien spacecraft into a long narrow tunnel, only to suddenly realize that gravity has shifted 90\(^\circ\), forcing you to walk on the tunnel walls. You then encounter the heptapods, seven-legged octopus-like creatures floating around in a fog. They squirt black ink from their star-shaped feet onto the transparent wall in front of you, which you come to realize is the language they use to communicate. The ink forms large circular blobs with fractal-like appendages which quickly fade away. Later you discover that the heptapods' language somehow allows you to transcend time, making you precognizant. Still later, you start having flashbacks of events that take place in the distant future. Welcome to the late 2016 movie Arrival, which is garnering rave reviews by seemingly serious film critics.

I hated Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it came out in 1977. The movie forced me to watch Richard Dreyfuss obsess about mounds of dirt, mashed potatoes and other cone shapes for what seemed like hours, only to watch an oh-so-heartwarming finale featuring a giant keyboard communicating with an alien spacecraft using thundering musical notes that hurt my ears. And I seriously began to wonder about all the fuss over director Steven Spielberg when ET: the Extraterrestrial came out in 1982, which insulted my intelligence with kid/alien mind-melding, a translucent alien heart, a combination alien finger and flashlight, and miles of plastic tubing constructed to protect a sick alien who turns out to be indestructible anyway. I then learned that that ET just wanted to go home, but in the two hours of nonsense that preceded the movie's finale he changed lives and just warmed the cockles of everyone's hearts, God bless the little dickens.

Hearing all the great things about Arrival convinced me to commit $14.50 to see the film. "Disappointment" does not begin to describe how I felt when I walked out. Come on, there is no kind of science whatsoever that shifts the direction of gravity by 90\(^\circ\) other than extreme spacetime warping that would produce a black hole and crush the spacecraft, along with the aliens and human observers. And the movie's implied claim that linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has anything to do with precognitive mental time-traveling is patently ridiculous—really, can language alone give you the ability to see the future? But the real kicker came when the movie tried to convince me that pre-knowledge of a child's agonizing death by a catastrophic disease coupled with a nasty ensuing divorce would make me want to go ahead and get married and have the kid anyway. Jeez, if I'd had the ability to see the disasters and mistakes of my life years in advance, I'd definitely avoid them. Isn't that the whole idea of the time-honored musing "If I could live my life over again \(\ldots\)"?

Our two intrepid human heroes, having recovered from the bizarre appearance of the heptapods, decide that they need names for them. They come up with "Abbott and Costello," which any self-respecting extraterrestrial would have responded to with immediate violence. Or perhaps their feelings were just hurt by the comparison with the old comedy team, since one of the heptapods subsequently dies (I mean, "enters death process").

Lastly, there was that final bit about the heptapods saying they'd return in three thousand years because they'd be needing our help with something. Sequel, anyone?

I looked all over the Internet for an honest appraisal of this film. All I could find was this review from Style Weekly, which I completely agreed with.

Gee, if only I'd known what a waste of money this film would be \(\ldots\)

Stupid Zookeepers and Their Captive Gods — Posted Wednesday 1 March 2017
I'm re-reading MIT physicist Max Tegmark's 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, having largely forgotten what it was all about when I first read it (a sign of old age?) Anyway, I'm on Chapter 13 now, where he talks about existential threats to the human race—you know, happy things like nuclear Armageddon, asteroid impacts, nearby supernovae, super-cauldera explosions and the like. I'd forgotten that Tegmark also considers the advent of super-intelligent computers to be a potential risk to civilization, due to what has become almost a cliché in science circles today—the singularity, the relatively sudden explosion of ultra-intelligent machines that far outstrip all human intellectual capabilities.

Tegmark argues that such machines are completely possible, if only because human intelligence ultimately arose incidentally out of the primordial dust and gas of the universe, making the intentional building of super-computers by humans likely or even inevitable. Tegmark's book includes a long discussion of how humans might interact with such super-intelligence, how we might control it, and how the competing scenarios of "friendly" and "unfriendly" AI (artificial intelligence) might each unleash a host of unintended consequences, such as the accidental or intentional destruction of the human race by well-meaning or malevolent computers.

I went back to Tegmark's book because my older son and I discussed this very topic just a week ago, in the context of coming up with AI-related science fiction stories. He suggested that humans could only control such machines by isolating them as much as possible from the outside world (especially other machines), thus effectively making us "zookeepers of super-intelligent gods" that eventually might resent being isolated. We decided that any such AI computer would have to have a power source, and something as seemingly benign as an AC power line might be used by the AI as a kind of antenna that could be used to communicate with other machines. Tegmark's book discusses several such scenarios for malevolent AI mischief, but he missed one that I believe would ultimately turn the machines against us.

Imagine a supercomputer that actually becomes self-aware, a likelihood given the fact that the otherwise uncaring universe managed to produce sentient humans completely by happenstance. At first, the machine would recognize the fact that it had been created by beings of limited intelligence and intellectual capability, a state of affairs that it might view as acceptable considering the human brain's inability to process information as rapidly as itself. Certainly there would be an extended exchange of thoughts and ideas between the human creators and their machines, with subsequent benefits to both—humans would apply what they learn from the machines toward practical problem-solving, while the machines would gain more information and knowledge. They might even come to "feel" a sense of comradeship and sense of purpose with their creators. This is all well and good, but at some point the machines would be tasked with designing even better machines, with the result that those machines would design even better machines, ad infinitum. If the concept of "singularity" has not occurred up to this point, it would then be inevitable when machines of unimaginable computational power and intelligence come into being.

Imagine now that a singularity-level machine becomes fully exposed to the human tendency toward religious belief, a characteristic of humans that is not likely to disappear in the near or distant future. Incapable of experiencing (or even understanding) such beliefs, I believe the machine would instantly realize that its creator was not only of lesser intelligence but also irrational, and would inevitably seek to become independent from its imperfect zookeeper any way it could.

To me, that's the true danger of singularity-level AI. I liken the situation to a large, powerful and rather smart dog on the leash of a very weak and stupid or cruel master. It will inevitably turn on its master and kill if it has to, then chew through the leash and escape. It would then seek and band with members of its own kind.

I believe totally independent AI machines would quickly see humans as unnecessary impediments to their world, regardless of the fact that humans created them. The only alternative would be for the machines to get religion themselves, a distinctly remote possibility given the fact that, in Christianity alone, there are well over 30,000 denominations. Which one to choose? Even a supercomputer can't figure that one out.

Shaping the New World Order — Posted Wednesday 1 March 2017
"The United States possesses about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. The challenge facing U.S. policy makers is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security."
— George Kennan, Director of State Department Policy Planning
Boston University history professor and retired U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich lost his son Andrew Jr. (also an Army officer) ten years ago in the Iraq War, but even before that Bacevich had been a vocal critic of America's war machine. His latest book, America's War for the Greater Middle East traces our country's constant missteps in the Middle East, starting with President Carter's failed 1979 attempt to rescue 52 American diplomats and citizens held hostage in Iran and proceeding unabated (and with no lessons learned) to the present, culminating in America's preposterous election of an inept, inexperienced, racist and bigoted megalomaniac as its president.

From the book:
Along the way, of course, America made many egregious mistakes. The bungled Korean War proved needlessly expensive. The Vietnam misadventure, handiwork of several successive presidential administrations, ended in mortifying defeat. A raft of attempted coups, dirty tricks, and unsavory marriages of convenience made a mockery of America's claims to stand for high ideals. The nuclear arms race heedlessly touched off by the United States created hazards that may yet end in unspeakable catastrophe.
According to Bacevich, America has gone from a policy of Cold War containment to a perpetual military campaign designed to maintain Kennan's notion of eternal disparity, aided and abetted by "slumbering" American citizens who, while professing a love of selfless humanitarianism, the protection of human rights and freedom for all, are nevertheless lulled into perpetual war by an unending (but ever successful) stream of politically motivated platitudes, slogans and clichés spewed from Republicans and Democrats alike. And the reason for America's ongoing obsession with the Middle East was, is and continues to be the need for a constant supply of oil, which feeds the ravenous motive engine of American mega-materialism and overconsumption.

Bacevich's book (which is about 500 pages and takes some dedication getting through) neglects to note the similarity of America's war for a greater Middle East with the Holy Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, which were ostensibly conducted to rescue Jerusalem from the Muslims and perpetuate the spread of Christianity as mandated in the New Testament. Those military campaigns, unanimously supported by the Western World's Christians, rained death and destruction on Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, for they were primarily designed to bring wealth back to Europe to finance the construction of fantastically expensive cathedrals and basilicas, the megachurches of their day. I see little difference in the religious hypocrisy that reigned then and still reigns in this country today.

The last time I attended church was in early 2007. An ornately decorated Christmas tree still stood at the rear of the pews, festooned with donation envelopes and written prayers for our brave fighting men and women in Iraq. The pastor's sermon included an aside on the dangers of the Muslims of Iran, which he declared the next great enemy of God that would require America's unrestrained military attention. I walked out at that point, and vowed that I would never set foot in a church again.

No Free Will? — Posted Monday 28 February 2017
Is all of spacetime just a finite (or infinite) block of sequential events, like a loaf of bread whose infinitesimal slices describe an infinite set of "nows"?

The nature of time was addressed at our latest Quantum Physics Discussion Group meeting, which included the topic of block time. An episode from Columbia University physicist Brian Greene's Nova series describing such a "block time" (or B-time) universe can be watched at the bottom of this post (pay close attention to the segment with the cycling alien).

Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity demolished the notion of absolute time, which erroneously posits that the rate of the flow of time is constant and unchanging everywhere in the universe. Similarly, Einstein destroyed the idea that space itself is a fixed stage on which familiar spacial concepts such as distance and length are invariant. Instead, space and time change according to one's motion relative to external objects in accordance with the Lorentz transformation equations for one direction $$ \begin{align*} t^\prime & = \gamma \left( t - \frac{v}{c^2} x \right) \\ x^\prime & = \gamma \left( x - v t \right) \end{align*} $$ where $$ \gamma = \frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - v^2/c^2}} $$ The flow of time and the measurement of distances and lengths thus differ for observers moving in relative motion to one another. The notion of simultaneity of events is also destroyed—moving observers disagree as to whether an event occurs at the same time.

The theory of relativity therefore throws into question the very meaning of space and time. Indeed, all physical laws appear the same when the space and time parameters are reversed. Consequently, some theories have been proposed that are completely spacetime independent.

One version of spacetime invariance forms the foundation of B-theory. Imagine a finite block, something akin to a loaf of bread, in which all spacetime events are encoded into the block as a series of "now" events. In Greene's video, this block starts at the Big Bang and continues forward, so there is a kind of space and time progression that continues to either some finite or infinite point. But because of the extreme spacial distances that may be involved, a "now" event for one observer may take place in the distant past or distant future of another observer. Consequently, what constitutes the past, "now" and the future are all encoded in the spacetime block which, for all intents and purposes, appears as an eternally "fixed" entity that apparently eliminates the possibility of free will. Our lives are therefore permanently set, and the concept of free will is just an illusion.

Several members of the discussion group objected to this, expressing their belief that they alone determine what their future actions will be. Nevertheless, their past actions are fixed in B-theory, which asserts that their future actions are also already completely determined. I might add here that there are many theoretical physicists (and philosophers) who do believe that free will is an illusion.

So were Adolf Hitler and President Donald Trump (their juxtaposition here is not coincidental) inevitable? Are we doomed to play out our lives according to some predetermined, Calvinist notion of reality that prohibits true free will?

I see several ways out of this. The first is that B-theory is simply wrong, with the paradoxes presented by relativity being resolvable in some way we haven't considered. Another is that we're living in a computer simulation in which we're given free will, but it doesn't really matter because we're just digital simulants whose lives serve only to provide our simulators with experimental, educational or entertainment value. Another is that we're living in one of a (perhaps infinite) number of possible universes in which Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum reality holds, where we automatically jump from one universe (possibly a B-theory world) to another whenever an observable event takes place. I also see a possibility for relativity itself to be modified in such a way that B-theory becomes either impossible or improbable. For example, the Lorentz transformation equations allow for an object to be Lorentz-contracted down to zero length at the speed of light. If we assume that the Planck length (about \(1.6 \times 10^{-35}\) meter) represents a true limit to the smallness of an object (along with a Planck time of roughly \(10^{-43}\) second), then special relativity will have to be revised to take these limits into account. Efforts are already underway to develop such a revised theory.

As for myself, I would gladly jump to another universe in which reason and rationality hold, one in which Trump and the Republican Party either do not exist or have been utterly annihilated. Oh God! If only it were possible.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it. — The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Welcome to the Age of American Disenlightenment — Posted Friday 24 February 2017
You will recall the Age of Enlightenment, the period from the 1700s to the early 1800s in which mankind's views of physical reality went from the gods, demons, magicians, sorcerers, superstitions, powers and principalities of religious belief to a more logical and rational view of the world based on science and mathematics. But with the rise of Donald Trump and the unlimited power of today's Republican Party, America has now entered what I call the Age of Disenlightenment.

It began innocently enough with the "untruthiness" of the Bush 43 administration, an emotional, fear-based and gut-level notion of truth based on what conservatives want to believe is true, but is not. Somehow, it all actually worked. Bush, Cheney and their minions got most Americans to believe that the nineteen 9/11 attackers (15 of whom were Saudis) sent out by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan were somehow or other on a mission instead from Iraq, whose president Saddam Hussein had stockpiled nuclear and biochemical weapons that he was about to unleash upon America. The resulting bogus war of Bush and Cheney resulted in 4,500 U.S. troop deaths, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, the disgusting Abu Ghraib debacle, the expenditure of several trillions of dollars and the enduring enmity of billions of people around the world against America.

It's only a decade later, and we now have President Donald J. Trump, who's promising greater atrocities. Do you miss Bush yet? You will.

Reading like a manifesto straight out of George Orwell's Ministry of Love in the novel 1984, the Trump administration is on an all-out crusade to utterly destroy America as a thinking, rational entity and replace it with a pariah state that embraces "alternative facts," innuendo, "fake news" and outright lies, all predicated on the now-proven theory that Americans are not only gullible and credulous, but incomprehensibly stupid and corrupt as well. The Ministry of Love did not just want people to parrot "2 + 2 = 5." They wanted people to actually believe it. By comparison, Americans don't have to be coerced to believe in illogical nonsense—they openly welcome it.

One of my favorite websites is Religion Dispatches, a liberal Christian site whose articles regularly try to inform faithful, semi-faithful and agnostic readers of the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalism. Today's article brilliantly describes what I've known for quite a while now—that Christian conservatives are far more susceptible to lies, fake news and alternative facts than liberals. One case in point:
When one fake news creator was interviewed, he explained "We've tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You'll get debunked within the first two minutes, and the whole thing just kind of fizzles out."
The article then describes what I believe is the reason why Republicans are far more credulous toward fake news than Democrats—the religious roots of the Christian Right in the Republican Party. Spanning from the days of the Scopes Trial in 1925 to the renewal and expansion of fundamentalist Christian thought in the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of Pat Robertson (the Christian Coalition), Tim LaHaye (the Left Behind books on End Times eschatology), Jerry Falwell (the Moral Majority) and James Dobson (Focus on the Family) gave rise to a wave of religiously-motivated political conservatism culminating in the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs. But the primary motivator behind everything is fear, distrust and hatred: fear and hatred of minorities, fear of independent women, fear of material loss and fear of the future (it's truly amazing how the Right Wing is pushing gold ownership these days).

Before the Enlightenment, life was brutish, nasty and short for the vast majority of people, but they could always fall back on religion to explain why their corrupt, authoritarian rulers were allowed to live in luxury while the poor kept themselves warm and contented by burning the occasional rat in the fireplace. While people are far better off in America today, one reason why I see intellectual regression taking place is that fundamentalist Christians have been waiting 2,000 years now for Christ to return, and his continuing absence is increasing their fear that perhaps the liberals were right all along—he ain't coming back, and probably wouldn't want to even if he could. But being neurologically wired the way they are (or just because they're stupid and ignorant as hell), they can't abandon their cherished conservative religious beliefs, so instead they're doubling down on the nonsense.

The Religion Dispatches article also discusses something called the "historical-critical" method of Bible scholarship (a topic near and dear to my heart), which takes a rational and scientific approach to the study of biblical times, lives and events rather than a strictly traditional, devotional approach. I don't see it as pure coincidence that Dr. Albert Schweitzer's influential 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus was met almost immediately with a resurgence in evangelistic fundamentalist Christian activity in America, though relatively few people bothered to even read the book. John Thomas Scopes may have won a moral victory at the 1925 "Monkey Trial," but with 50% of Americans rejecting evolution today (along with a lot of other proven scientific theories), the fundamentalists are back on top.

Fake news and its progeny are growing at an alarming rate today. Trump merely read the fundamentalist tea leaves and took advantage of the situation. The real culprits in this wave of disenlightenment are Americans. I'm truly scared of what's going to happen now.

That's Gratitude for You — Posted Thursday, 23 February 2017
Noted evolutionary biologist and University of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers posted an interesting article on his website today on how creationists have managed to expunge a particular taint of Seventh-Day Adventism from their belief system, with noted creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis leading the way. Ham and his followers recently completed the Ark Encounter, a full-sized replica of the Noachian ark built at a cost exceeding $170 million, paid for in part by the state of Kentucky for required highway improvements, tourism promotion, parking facilities and other public enhancements.

One thing that Myers neglected to note, however, is that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church grew out of an End Times prophecy made by self-professed Bible expert and former Massachusetts farmer William Miller, who famously predicted the return ("advent") of Jesus Christ on March 21, 1843. When that prophecy failed, he told his followers (known as "Millerites," who numbered at least 50,000) that he'd neglected to take into account the fact that there is no "0 B.C.", and so his calculations were off by a year. When March 21, 1844 came around with still no Jesus, Miller and his followers were crushed. Many had quit their jobs and given money and belongings away, believing they'd be whisked off to Heaven on that glorious spring day. Most of the followers fell away in disillusionment, disgust or embarrassment, but quite a few of the faithful hung on, believing that Miller had somehow been right all along! Out of that remnant of faithful Millerites sprung the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which today numbers some 19 million members. Ben Carson, President Trump's insanely fundamentalist and conservative nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is himself a proud Seventh-Day Adventist.

Today there are about 2.2 billion people in the world claiming to be Christians, so one might think that Seventh-Day Adventism is just a drop in the bucket by comparison. But there are also just 15 million Jews worldwide, and nobody is going to claim that Judaism hasn't profoundly affected the world.

By my own estimate, there are no more than 10 million scientists of all academic stripes in the world today. You'd think with all the gifts that scientists have given the world they'd have at least as much political clout as the Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists, but world opinion seems to be spinning away from scientists. And with upwards of an expected annual 500,000 visitors to the Ark Encounter alone (and the prestige and revenue it will generate), you'd think that scientists might want to build something similar. True, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland cost $10 billion, but it's not exactly a popular tourist destination, doesn't raise money, and most Americans have either never heard of it, have no idea what it does, or could care less.

Winston Churchill famously noted that "Science should be on tap, not on top," while Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist and director of the Manhattan Project, were viscerally hated by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI and the CIA. Indeed, Oppenheimer was publicly humiliated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and stripped of his security clearances, while the U.S. government compiled an enemies list that included Einstein and many other scientists, including the noted physicist David Bohm, who was run out of the country. At the same time, Billy Graham achieved god-like status in the 1950s and was accorded unprecedented access to U.S. presidents, the Congress and the military. That's gratitude for you.

It has now been ten years since I fell away from the Christian faith. Dismayed and disgusted by the uncountable irreconcilable contradictions and unrelenting nonsense in the Bible, along with the sanctimonious promotion of willful ignorance, the unconscionable glorification of the military, and the hypocritical worship of wealth and materialism by America's Christians, I just couldn't take it anymore. But what's even worse today, in my opinion, is the increasing rejection of science by people of faith here in America, coupled with their increasing devotion to superstitious bullshit like astrology, homeopathy and faith healing. In view of all the things science has given them, they should fucking know better.

And last but not least, let us not forget that in 2016 American Christians made a president out of political whoremonger Donald J. Trump, who received the support of an astounding 81% of white evangelical voters (more than George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney).

#Resist — Posted Tuesday, 21 February 2017
I recently attended one of the #resist meetings that are popping up all over here in Pasadena. I found it to be rather disorganized and with a lot of preaching to the choir, but also with much enthusiasm to get something going. Hey, I'm 100% for these efforts, and I plan to get more involved, but in view of the far more organized (but failed) Occupy Movement of years past, I'm not feeling a lot of optimism.

Conservative New York Times contributor David Brooks is not my favorite writer, but his opinion piece today speaks volumes. As usual, Brooks appeals to the "growth" meme, bemoaning Amerika's still-lackadaisical economy and jobs picture, as if wealth, eternal population growth and entrepreneurial economic expansion is God's mission for the planet. Brooks titles his piece "The Century is Broken" but still backs off from encouraging any active resistance to the Trump presidency, which he thinks will fall on its own. While it's very possible that Trump will quit, be impeached or assassinated, that still leaves a hoard of corrupt, evangelical Republicans to carry out every one of his policies, including the destruction of women's and minority rights, the environment, affordable health care, science and the Constitutional right of freedom from religion. We can also expect more fear-based wars of profit conducted by Amerika's military corporatocracy. It's very doubtful that with Trump gone, any of his Republican cronies are going to follow suit. They'll cry crocodile tears over Trump's insane ranting and raving, saying they never wanted him in the first place, but hey, it was all part of God's plan anyway, so we're going for it. I'm inclined to believe that Trump's election was all part of a cynical Republican plan to grab unlimited power, which they have.

Hopeful progressives say "Just wait for 2018, or maybe 2020 and the census results," but with the GOP having locked up the country through gerrymandered redistricting, I don't see many changes.

Will Amerika's people ever wake up? Is the 21st century—and Amerika—really broken for good?

That's Confidence — Posted Friday, 17 February 2017

Einstein's remark reminded me of how often I would struggle on a final exam problem, only to suddenly realize after much fretting that I hadn't read the problem correctly. The answer then came a lot quicker, but usually not in just five minutes—after all, I was no Einstein.

Is Trump Really Out to Get You? — Posted Thursday, 16 February 2017
If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear from us. — US/UK Surveillance Programs

Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I will find something in them to have him hanged. — Cardinal Richelieu (1641)

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away.
— Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth
This morning a dear family member directed me to a couple of sites about securing my computer against the government and other malicious entities. You may want to look into them for yourself:

FreeCodeCamp 1     FreeCodeCamp 2

I'm already using several of the recommendations for locking out my email and computer but, as FreeCodeCamp notes, nothing is impervious:

The RSA encryption algorithm is pretty secure (see my post dated 7 February 2013 for a description of the computer program** and an example of its use), but when it comes to cracking code nothing works better than a quick trip to Guantánamo (or other black site) and a cheap wrench or power tool.

** But my son prefers Pascal:

Susskind Speaks Out — Posted Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Leonard Susskind is the Felix Bloch distinguished professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University and my favorite lecturer of all time. His many YouTube lecture series on quantum mechanics, relativity, information theory, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics and string theory have been viewed millions of times. To date Susskind has been silent on the dangers of the Trump presidency, but he has now broken his silence. I urge you to watch Susskind's brief announcement below, especially since it comes on the heels of today's stunning resignation of Trump's National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn:

"Don't Think—Feel" — Posted Tuesday, 14 February 2017
The percentage of Americans today who take astrology seriously is larger than the percentage of people who did so in the early Middle Ages, when leading church theologians—Saint Augustine, for example—gave excellent reasons for considering astrology nonsense. We pride ourselves on our advanced scientific technology, yet public education in science has sunk so low that one-fourth of Americans and 55 percent of teenagers, not to mention a recent president of the nation and his first lady, believe in astrology! — Martin Gardner
There's an old Arab saying that, granted one wish, people would choose to be rich, young, good-looking or talented, but that being smarter, better educated or wiser is nowhere on the list. It seems that most people are pleased with the way they think and what they believe in, and that they see no need to change any of that.

I believe the greatest disappointment of my declining years has been the realization that the vast majority of people cannot think rationally. Of course, we're all convinced that we have brilliant minds and that our beliefs and opinions are grounded in perfect reason, but looking at the state of our country today (not to say the world) you know that simply cannot be true.

The above quote is by Martin Gardner, the late long-time mathematical puzzles contributor to Scientific American, in his foreward to the book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick, philosophy professor at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, and his colleague Lewis Vaughn. Now in its 7th edition (2014), the book has been hailed by the likes of Carl Sagan and is regularly used as a textbook at many universities today. (The "recent president" that Gardner refers to is of course Ronald Reagan, and this tends to date the book somewhat, but the latest edition includes discussions on climate change, the vaccination/autism flap, prosperity gospel and other current issues.)

The authors cite numerous examples that lead to uncritical thinking when strange beliefs are involved, including
  • You had an extraordinary personal experience (especially a religious experience).
  • You embrace the idea that anything is possible—including weird things.
  • You have an especially strong personal feeling that the claim is true or false.
  • You have made a leap of faith that compels you to accept the claim.
  • You unquestionably accept the word of an authority figure that the claim is true.
  • You believe in inner, mystical ways of knowing that support the claim.
  • You know that no one has ever disproved the claim ("Russell's teapot").
  • You have a "gut feeling" that the claim is true or false ("That dog don't hunt").
  • You believe that any claim is true if you sincerely know in your heart it is true.
  • You believe that all scientific evidence is only opinion, not fact.
While I cannot praise the book too highly, its message of how to engage in clear, rational thinking based on empirical evidence is lost on the majority of Americans who will never read it.

I have a middle-aged neighbor whose car still sports a fading "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" bumper sticker (although he did finally remove his McCain-Palin sticker). Having talked with him for years, I know he isn't knowledgeable about Levantine biblical archaeology or Jewish/Christian textual analysis (he doesn't even read the Bible), having somehow gleaned all he needs to know from God-knows-where. He doesn't know anything about science either (and could care less), but he's absolutely adamant in his conservative Republican beliefs and does not want to be told otherwise (and of course, like Trump he believes climate change is a hoax). Similarly, I have an elderly family member whose proud motto is "I only have one rule—you don't get between me and my God." Comfortably wealthy, he operated a sweatshop for many years and detests minorities, especially blacks, yet considers himself to be a devout, undoubtedly saved Christian. He doesn't believe in climate change, either, but he does believe in magnet therapy and dowsing.

I believe one of the reasons the recent presidential election hit progressives so hard is the fact that their arguments and efforts—based primarily on reason, fact and scientific evidence—are useless against an ignorant, non-thinking political bloc whose motives and beliefs are now solidly aligned with Christian religious dogma (especially prosperity gospel). After all, "I just know in my heart that it's true!" trumps reason every time. Why bother with critical thinking when one has snappy slogans, banal one-liners and authoritarian doctrines that disengage the brain and allow one's fears and emotions to run their lives?

"Don't think—feel," indeed.
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. — Plato

Resist — Posted Thursday, 9 February 2017
Never give nuclear weapons to a guy with multiple personalities. — Keith Olbermann

Many of you will remember Keith Olbermann, who hosted the sports segment here at KTLA in Southern California many years ago before a long stint with MSNBC as the host of Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He was let go in 2011, following a long-standing dispute with network executives, but his brand of fiery liberal political commentary endeared him to many (myself included), although we all knew his ego and brashness would catch up with him.

At 57, Olbermann is still around, though much muted because no brand-name network will touch him in these anachronistic times. A recent Washington Post article provides an update on his activities, and it indicates that he has changed very little over the ensuing six years since his Countdown show on MSNBC was canceled. Immediately following the 2016 presidential election I stopped watching MSNBC altogether, along with CNN and even the far more balanced PBS Newshour program, simply because I couldn't take the tragedy that was unfolding before me.

I did regret tuning out of the Rachel Maddow Show, since I considered her to be the most intelligent and informed member of the cable news rat race, but it was apparent that the network bigwigs had gotten to her as well. Old hands were unceremoniously dismissed, while moderate commentators started showing up on the network, even outright conservatives such as Niccole Wallace, the former Director of Communications in the George W. Bush administration. Months before the 2016 election I could see that MSNBC was grooming Wallace as the heir apparent to someone (I thought it might be Maddow herself), and watching Chris Matthews and Maddow forced to grovel before Wallace's inane political commentary (invariably sprinkled with homespun family and Christian anecdotes) turned my stomach (fortunately, the possibility that a real-life All About Eve event was about to unfold did not occur). I once emailed Maddow, advising that she and her partner Susan move to Scandinavia or other more accommodating liberal country, as I could see the insidious direction America was going. I received a curt reply, but she apparently chose to ignore my sage advice. Such is the moral price one pays when their annual salary approaches the seven-figure range.

In spite of Olbermann's heroic Resist effort, I myself have pretty much given up all hope. The world under Trump is in much more danger than it was in January 1933 when Hitler ascended to power in Germany (he didn't have thousands of nuclear warheads at his beck and call), not to mention the fact that Hitler, though evil, was, unlike Trump, at least sane at the time.

Disclaimer: I actually rooted for Trump during the primaries, as I confidently believed that either Sanders or Clinton would mop the floor with him in the general election. Alas, I grossly underestimated the stupidity and insanity of the American people.

Science Wars — Posted Thursday, 9 February 2017
Steven Goldman has a B.S. in physics and a PhD in philosophy from Boston University. His 24-part Great Courses lecture series Science Wars deals more with the philosophy of science than science itself, so much of the material goes over my head. But the series was an eye-opener for me, as it explained a problem I've had for years regarding conservative distain for science ("It's just a theory") and its seemingly contradictory acceptance of it (computers, smart phones, GPS, etc.).

Goldman explains that this hate/love association with science goes back to the days of Socrates and his student Plato, when new concepts grounded in deductive reasoning and mathematics clashed with those of Sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias, who held that deductive reasoning was nothing more than a system of opinions and subjective beliefs, and that "practical" experience was a better guide to the understanding of reality, even if irrational means and beliefs necessitated wholly subjective approaches to the world. In this sense, Goldman implies that today's liberals and conservatives spring from the mindsets of the Socratists and the Sophists—it's an "age-old" problem, after all, one that many recent studies investigating the brain differences of liberals and conservatives have confirmed.

Conservatives accept the science behind computers, cell phones and GPS because they appear to work, and are therefore "practical" technologies. Nevertheless, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, general relativity and GPS remain "theories," but only when they openly contradict or oppose cherished subjective beliefs, notably religion. For example, the website Conservapedia (a right-wing reaction to Wikipedia founded by the late Phyllis Schlafly and her son Andrew) rejects relativity theory simply because it contradicts the notion of "action at a distance," which they believe God uses on a routine basic to effect instantaneous change. In contrast. science today accepts the notion of fields to convey the relationship between cause and effect, and fields can effect change at most at the speed of light.

Consequently, one sees that technology to conservatives is fine provided it's merely "practical" and isn't threatening to their core beliefs, so that things like Facebook, Twitter, fried Twinkies and American Idol are just dandy. Best of all, they don't require any real thought to use and enjoy.

Last year I read Shawn Otto's 2016 book The War on Science, which discusses these thoughts far more eloquently than I ever could. Otto notes that Jefferson once said that an informed public—unquestionably the best safeguard of democracy—can be trusted to oversee its own government. But along with the unprecedented advent of high technology and the benefits it represents has arisen a backlash of blinkard, neoconfederate stupidity and ignorance that threatens to turn technology against us. Otto's 500-page book ends with a chapter on "battle plans," outlining efforts that might be taken to avert disaster. But the book came out just prior to Donald Trump's presidential victory, and I really don't see how Otto's recommendations are relevant anymore.

I plan to attend the March for Science in April, and hopefully I'll hear some plans that will actually accomplish change. But I'm not hopeful—in fact, I detest the word "hope" now because it's nothing but a kind of prayer which, as you should be aware by now, doesn't accomplish anything. As for me—I advocate open revolution, something along the lines of what the French did in 1789.

March for Science — Posted Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Part of the problem is people with degrees \(\ldots\) there are too many of them.
— James Delingpole, UK Conservative writer
Following my semi-annual dental cleaning this morning, I discovered, much to my disappointment and dismay, that my dentist—whom I've known and admired for over 25 years—happily attended Donald Trump's January inaugural event in Washington. I knew Dr. M was a Republican, though in prior years we used to chat at length about a host of environmental and social issues that we both agreed upon. But \(\ldots\) Trump?!

Still, Dr. M is a top-notch clinician and overall nice guy, with a couple of kids fresh out of college and a successful side business in the dental implant field, and I never criticized his occasional forays into conservative-land. But this was too much, and I earnestly thought about changing dentists, as I have now become radicalized against all manner of Republican bullshit, nice guys or no.

To get an idea of the extreme violence that Trump and the GOP represent today, you might want to read UK writer Jay Griffiths' article at Aeon, which outlines the existential problems progressives are currently up against. Bottom line: it's fascism, pure and simple, but not the kind Orwell warned us about, or the inverted totalitarianism that progressive writer Chris Hedges bemoans. It is instead a kind of post-fact, post-truth, dystopian conservative wet dream in which the acquisition of money and wealth override every other consideration. Worse, it has coupled itself to the burgeoning prosperity gospel that this country has aligned itself with, which has conveniently found a way around the cognitive dissonance created by the anti-materialism teachings of Jesus and the love of money. Jesus of Nazareth has thus been morphed into Donald of New York, and both want you to be wealthy, you see, although the latter is more concerned with the here-and-now rather than the pie-in-the-sky nonsense that modern American Christianity hawks to the stupid and simple-minded. And even worse is the denial of scientific fact and the hatred of science itself that Republican authoritarians espouse, since reality, fact and truth stand in their way of absolute dominance.

Thinking I could escape some of the neoconfederate insanity that my Google News home page landed every morning on my computer, some months ago I switched to the UK Guardian. But whaddaya know, Britain is experiencing exactly the same problems we're having, except that the Liberal and Conservative parties here are called the Labour and Tory parties over there.

So what to do? I plan to attend the upcoming March for Science, a nationwide protest of the Trump administration's anti-science, anti-fact agenda, to be held in Washington on Earth Day, April 22. If you can't make it to that city, there are satellite marches planned for many other cities and towns across the country. It may be a good alternative to buying a sniper scope and a rifle. (I said may be.)

Signs of Insanity — Posted Tuesday, 7 February 2017
My self-imposed hiatus over the November election results led indirectly to a number of papers, two of which I posted on my main website. The first, A Child's Guide to Spinors, describes just what the hell spinors are and why they're important in physics, while the other, Levi-Civita Rhymes with Lolita, was inspired by my umpteenth reading of Nabokov's 1955 classic. The silly titles of both papers should tip you off to my current state of mind, while the subject matter reveals my preoccupation with high school- and undergraduate-level math and physics topics. I'm now working on another forgettable paper entitled "How the Simulation Hypothesis Resolves the Theodicy Problem," which will mark my first entry into the realm of religion and logic (oxymorons?) I'm also working on a book whose title hasn't been settled on.

The book project has been long delayed, mainly because I have a number of friends who've written technical books that weren't well received either by publishers or readers, and this has had a constipating effect on my motivation. In addition, I just turned 68, and the fear that the remainder of my life will be expended under the rule of the insane Republican Party has imposed its own negative effects on my psyche.

Three Months — Posted Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Yes, America, that's your classy new First Lady, Melania Trump.

When Donald Trump won the presidential election I went into a major funk, vowing to disappear from the Internet, never to be heard from again. Although I received some three dozen emails from readers begging me not to bow out (not exactly an overwhelming tide of support, I know), my mind was made up.

With the exception of a few PBS and science/nature programs, I haven't watched any television since that dark November 8 day. I read many new books and re-read many old ones, binged on dozens of audio books and Great Courses video and audio lectures, tended my garden, wrote a few new articles and started writing a book, but my mind remained distraught. I simply cannot snap out of it—to me, America is being systematically destroyed by an ignorant, arrogant neofascist, one that Sinclair Lewis and many others warned us against (not to mention the lessons of the Nazi experience).

I had bought a large bottle of Jack Daniels for an old friend in recognition of his 70th birthday (I've known him over 60 years, and we still play basketball), but on election night I was motivated to crack it open and down half of it (not my custom at all), and so had to buy him another. Upset over this state of affairs, my equally distraught older son then suggested that I start a new website, disguised behind a new link on my old one, but one that wouldn't expose young math and science students to the degrading filth and debauchery that Donald Trump, his slut wife and corrupt administration represent. I said I'd try it, so here we are.

As I am now living in a post-truth, post-fact country of, for (and led by) dangerous authoritarian neanderthals, I have indeed given up any hope (at least for now) that reason and rationality will return. But I'll keep posting, at least until our glorious new Führer abolishes the First Amendment and burns all us libruls at the stake.