7 October 2007

Philosophers and religious sages tell us in absolute terms that war is an abomination. Political realists tell us that war is sometimes necessary. In this case, it is the philosophers who are being realistic, while the realists’ rhetoric grows from an unspoken philosophic casuistry. There is always an implicit appeal to ideals of freedom, independence, or justice that is either disingenuous or profoundly mistaken. It is these political realists on both sides of a conflict who will manipulate the public into condoning warfare. The people are suspicious of such appeals.

It was not necessary to fight the American Revolution in order for the United States to gain independence from Great Britain. Canada amply demonstrates this. Without the Civil War, slavery might have been eradicated more slowly perhaps but more thoroughly, without the enduring legacy of racial bitterness. Nelson Mandela has shown us how. And Hitler might have been defeated in time through economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, and covert support for internal dissent, just as the Cold War was won forty years later. This diplomatic and economic path was never even tried before World War II, and, in fact, some of the largest corporations and wealthiest banks in America were profitably supporting the Nazis right through The War.

Nations that eschew warfare prosper, as they focus their resources on development, research and infrastructure instead of weapons. Over time, this creates a decisive competitive advantage for countries like Switzerland, Sweden and post-war Japan.

War is built on lies. The propaganda invoked to justify a war effort subverts public discourse and undermines the credibility of the State. In the long run, it may be that the cost to society from the subversion of truth exceeds even the loss of life and limb.

War demands unthinking obedience. A population that is educated to follow its leaders blindly into war becomes, paradoxically, an easier prey for domination by a foreign conqueror. A population accustomed to vigorous independence will prove ungovernable by foreign demagogues.  It is difficult to conquer a democracy by force; and on the other side, the closer a government hews to the will of its people, the less likely it is to engage in a war of aggression.

With the rise of democracies worldwide in the last century, war is even less worthwhile, more difficult to justify pragmatically than ever before in history. Despots and demagogues may profit from war, but never their subjects. Political leaders invoke the myth of the ‘good war’ in the past, then lead their people down a slippery slope to a tragically unnecessary war in the present.

Every war is an abomination.

– Josh Mitteldorf

6 October 2007

TThe environmental movement has been working on driving up the price of polluting as a way to steer whole economies away from oil and especially coal.  What if we set our sights instead on driving down the cost of photovoltaics?  Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write about a new strategy for environmentalism, fully integrated with a progressive political movement for national security, jobs and health care. 

The price of solar cells was dropping exponentially until 2001.  Solar energy was on its way to becoming cost competitive with dirty technologies.  For several years after that, demand outstripped supply, because factories had not been built with this vast new customer base in mind.  Shellenberger and Nordhaus propose a $300 billion dollar government investment to create predictable new demand for solar cells, which will drive the price low enough to make tradeoffs between ‘jobs and the environment’ obsolete.

Imagining a Solar UK/a>
KKQED radio interview with Shellenberger and Nordhaus
Exercepts from the book The Death of Environmentalism

Price drop of solar panels stalled due to regressive government policies

5 October 2007/P>

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.  It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

Vaclav Havel born this day in 1936

4 October 2007

The experience of terror can be exhilarating and cathartic.  Admittedly, this works better when the experience is suffered voluntarily, but we are all free to decide in each moment to embrace our experience.  Jeffrey Hoffman recalls his first ride in the Space Shuttle:

 I always figured that launch day was not the time to be thinking about whether I really wanted to do this. That decision was made when I joined the astronaut corps years before...Suddenly we feel a huge kick in the pants, or more precisely, a sudden thump on our backs as the boosters ignite. Looking out the window, we see the ground falling away.  The noise and vibration are overpowering.  One astronaut described the feeling as ‘driving over railroad tracks in a car with no shock absorbers’.  There is not much we can do to control our flight at this point. I  find myself thinking, ‘I hope it all holds together!’  We can feel the shuttle rotate in a roll manoeuvre as soon as we clear the launch tower, to point towards our desired orbit.

About 45 seconds after lift-off, still climbing almost vertically, we break the sound barrier and the aerodynamic pressure on the vehicle reaches a maximum - ‘max Q’.  In order to minimise the stress on the vehicle, our engines throttle down to 65 per cent, and the acceleration decreases slightly, but the vibration gets much stronger as sonic shock waves play all over the outside of the vehicle.  It is hard to believe that we can shake harder than at lift-off, but we do, so much so that during my first flight I wondered if the wings were going to fall off.  I reassured myself that 15 shuttle flights had already survived lift-off with their wings intact.

Max Q is over about a minute after lift-off, the engines return to full power and we feel a surge of acceleration. At this point, the shuttle is travelling more horizontally than vertically and is flying inverted, but the sensation of forward acceleration dominates that of gravity, so I never had the feeling of being suspended upside down.

As our fuel gets used up, our mass decreases and the acceleration increases to around 2.5 g (2.5 times normal gravity). We are all waiting for the boosters to finish their job, and it is a good feeling just before 2 minutes into the flight to feel the acceleration taper off as the solid fuel is exhausted and then hear a boom as explosive bolts fire to release the boosters. The boosters fire small rockets to ensure they move clear of the shuttle, and for several seconds the cockpit is engulfed in flame, which is particularly spectacular if the launch is at night...

As our liquid fuel load dwindles, our acceleration once again increases until we reach 3 g, a tolerable if somewhat uncomfortable rate, right at the shuttle’s design limit. My triply heavy helmet makes it hard to move my head, but I strain to look out the window and see that we have left the blue sky of Earth far behind, and are now surrounded by the blackness of space, the blackest black I have ever experienced.

We watch the velocity gauge creep up to the cut-off line and then, suddenly, the acceleration ceases.  I feel myself falling forward into my seat straps, which I quickly undo.  A slight push with one finger sends me floating over to the window, where I see the Earth below, far away and moving past very quickly.

article in New Scientist last month

Fifty years today, the first Sputnik was launched.

3 October 2007

“...social movements can create change with surprising speed. History shows us that, while efforts to change can seem ponderous (and maddeningly slow), once a critical mass is reached, large positive, even revolutionary changes can be made with startling rapidity. What is scoffed at as fringe and radical one moment, can be embraced by the mainstream as within the bounds of “rational debate” the next...

“Perhaps the best censored news is a theme that runs through every issues of YES! Magazine The big secret is that, throughout the world, there are millions of people actively engaged in moving toward the formation of just and peaceful societies. Yes, there are extremists in every country who will take advantage of desperate and bitter situations (and that includes every country)...

“But increasingly (and encouragingly), people are rediscovering their power and right to live in dignity, and taking on the urgent questions of our time—how to end poverty, how to build peaceful and just societies, how to live within the carrying capacities of our environment. While our most powerful leaders are at a loss in the face of these historic challenges—or are too corrupted by corporate money and bankrupt policies to provide real leadership—social movements, grassroots leaders, organizations at every level from the local to the global, are moving ahead with solutions. And they are joining forces.”

– from a YES! introduction to the Project Censored list of ten hopeful, progressive global trends that are not getting notice in the press.

2 October 2007

Superluminal siblings
22 September 2007
From New Scientist Print Edition.
Nick Webb, London, UK

     Robbie and Fred are twins who live together. Wearing identical suits, they leave their house at the same time heading in opposite directions. One twin carries a hidden green wallet; the other has a red one. The wallets are not visible.
     Unfortunately, Robbie is mugged and the redness of his wallet is revealed. In quantum terms he is measured and forced to take a value.
     An observer can now deduce that Fred’s wallet is green, and if put to the test this will prove to be the case no matter where or when Fred is interrogated.
    There is no need for faster-than-light communication or spooky interaction at distance - just knowledge of the initial conditions. I can’t see anything wrong with this analogy. Am I missing something?

2 October 2007
Josh Mitteldorf, Philadelphia PA USA

Nick Webb writes to New Scientist about Bell’s theorem and the conclusion that information has been transmitted faster than light (indeed, backward in time).   He describes identical twins Robbie and Fred carrying different colored wallets as they travel in opposite directions.

Concerning what is at stake, Mr Webb has understood it clearly, and he has it exactly right.  But concerning the strange nature of our world, Mr Webb has it exactly wrong.  In fact, what the theorem of J.S. Bell (1965) demonstrates is simply that the world Mr Webb describes is not the world in which we live.  The most comprehensible and straightforward version of Bell’s theorem was created by Nick Herbert and published by New Scientist (1986).  (Herbert’s proof can be read at http://quantumtantra.com/bell2.html.)

In Mr Webb’s reasoning about red and green wallets, the wallet color represents the spin of an electron – whether that spin points up or down.   But we live in a three-dimensional world, and the spin of the electron must have three components corresponding to the x, y and z directions in space.  Dr Herbert makes a straightforward argument about what would happen if each ‘twin’ (electron) started life with three separate ‘wallet colors’ (spins) corresponding to the x, y and z directions.  He follows the reasoning for a hypothetical Ms A who has turned two spin detectors along the directions x and y.  Herbert goes on to describe the way the world looks to Mr B, who happens to use spin detectors that are 30o rotated from Ms A’s detectors in the xy plane.  From this simple scenario, Herbert proves that Ms A and Mr B cannot both experience a world in which ‘wallet colors’ were fixed at the moment the twins separated.  

The scenario as described by Mr Webb is called by physicists ‘local realism’.  What Bell’s Theorem demonstrates is precisely that local realism is inconsistent with quantum mechanics.  Experiments (Aspect 1981) have shown that the world we live in is the quantum world, and not a world that is ‘locally real’.

Our intuition runs deep: objects have separate, independent existence, and the past causes the future but not vice versa.  It seems to us that this is logic, not physics, and that the world cannot possibly be any other way.  But indeed the laws that govern our world are neither causal nor separable.  It is exactly this insight that prompted Richard Feynman’s remark, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”
J. S. Bell, 1965, Physics 1, 195
N. Herbert, 1986, New Sci 111, 41
A. Aspect, P. Grangier, and R. Gerard, 1981, Phys Rev Let 47(7):460-463

1 October 2007

Sonnets to Orpheus, by Rainer Maria Rilke


Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen, fühle
wie dein Atem noch den Raum vermehrt.
Im Gebalk der finstern Glockenstühle
laß dich läuten. Das, was an dir zehrt,

wird ein Starkes über dieser Nahrung.
Geh in der Verwandlung aus und ein.
Was ist deine leidenste Erfahrung?
Ist dir Trinken bitter, werde Wein.

Sei in dieser Nacht aus Übermaß
Zauberkraft am Kreuzweg deiner Sinne,
ihrer seltsamen Begegnung Sinn.

Und wenn dich das Irdische vergaß,
zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne.
Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich: Ich bin.

  Rainer Maria Rilke

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath still multiplies space.
In the dark of the belfry’s lofty beams,
let yourself ring. Consume a thousand insults

and grow strong on their nourishment.
Move in and out of transformation.
What is your most painful experience?
If the drink be bitter, turn to wine.

Be in this night of grand excess
a power at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning of their singular encounter.

And when the earth has forgotten you,
say to the quiet land: I flow.
And to the rushing waters speak: I am.

   tr. Cliff Crego, w/ liberties by Josh Mitteldorf
History is a mysterious approach.  Every spiral of its way leads us both into profounder perversion and more fundamental turning.  But the event that from the side of the world is called turning is called from God’s side redemption.”

– from I and Thou, by Martin Buber (tr Ronald Gregor Smith)