Saturday, July 22, 2017

Making of the news

ChicagoBoyz referred readers to a story about the next stage up from press releases: story generators for hire.
On Wednesday, three major news organization published variations of the same story—about the line of succession to the Saudi throne. It seems that in June the son of King Salman, Mohammed Bin Salman, muscled his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef out of the way to become the Crown Prince and next in line.

It’s a juicy narrative with lots of insider-y details about Saudi power politics, drug addiction, and the ambitions of a large and very wealthy family, but the most salient fact is that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Reuters published what was essentially the same story, with minor variations, on the same day—not a breaking news story, but an investigative feature.

In other words, these media organizations were used as part of an information campaign targeting Riyadh, for as yet unknown reasons.

...

On Wednesday, the Times reported that Gen. Abdulaziz al-Huwairini had been put under house arrest by a faction loyal to Mohammed Bin Salman. On Thursday, the Times reported that he was in fact named head of a government body overseeing domestic security and counterterrorism issues.

We've known for years that some reporters simply regurgitate press releases, and that said press releases are often heavily spun ("I say it's spinnage, and I say the hell with it!"). This sounds like a simple expansion of the process.

I've no reason to doubt that there are still plenty of investigators out there--though not nearly as many professionals as there used to be. Unfortunately there's not always an easy way to tell an amateur investigator from a spinner, or worse, a fabricator. And not always an easy way to tell whether the professionals are on the mark either--except by waiting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Crime stories and otherwise

Naked Manitowoc man catches fire after being tased. OK, it was just his beard and chest hair: the taser hit a lighter he was carrying.

Man Who Pushed Stranger in Path of Train Acquitted of Murder. Sounds pretty dreadful, on the face of it: one man pushed another off the platform and then ran, while people stood around and took movies of them both (a tabloid journalist claimed he was using his flash to warn the oncoming train--and a Nigerian prince wants me to handle his finances). Those people taking movies were the reason Davis was acquitted: the movies proved he pushed Han in self defense. Han was drunk and belligerent--I'd guess nobody helped him out because nobody wanted him attacking them and dragging them onto the tracks with him. With a train coming, you aren't going to get much enthusiasm for collecting a group to join him down there and lift him out.

Funny how much stories can differ from the headlines when you get more of the facts.

Have you seen this warning?

Proposition 65 WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

I remember buying some textured paint and discovering that sand was supposed to cause cancer. I assume they meant if I sanded the dry paint off without using a breathing mask then maybe some of the silica would find its way into my lungs along with all the other paint crud.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Order

You can't pin down where an electron is around an atom. You can say where it probably is, but no more. But it is a predictable "chaos:" random but reliable.

In a cloud of molecules some collide, and perhaps interact. Their trajectories are impossible to calculate, and you can't say which oxygen will combine with which hydrogen. It may take a lot of bouncing around to get all the bits combined. But looking at the bigger picture, you can say the oxygen and hydrogen reliably burn to form water.

There are so many molecules in a single cc of air that all the computers on Earth can't predict the trajectories in detail. It looks wild and chaotic on the microscopic scale, but on our scale PV=nRT is a very simple and useful equation.

Inside an amoeba complicated molecules move this way and that with no obvious pattern, but widen the view a bit and you see them breaking down the lump the amoeba engulfed. Widen the view some more and you see an active creature moving about and eating and reproducing.

The plant scatters seeds randomly, and hundreds of other plants compete for the same space. A cow mashes some into the mud. A falling tree obliterates another region. But the big picture shows a green meadow--with its own kind of order. And it's a robust order--or antifragile, if you prefer.

Economies seem to work similarly: disorder at one level, smoothed out to much more orderly at larger scales.

Sometimes my life seems to consist of reacting to one chaotic crisis after another, but at the end of the year it has had a flavor different from somebody else's reacting to chaotic crises.

A crystal is very orderly. Kind of limited, though. Chaos--the building material for order?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Names In Memoriam

Sometimes a place gets a name because of something that happened there, or that used to be there.

We haven't heard the spring frogs since Nature's Preserve Office Park was built, and it looks like they cut down the trees and scraped off the topsoil to build the Wood Farm development.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Venus atmosphere

"The measurements showed that the temperature near the surface was hot compared to the temperature at an altitude of seven kilometers," Schubert said. "The atmosphere shouldn't have been in that state; it was highly unstable. Whenever you have very hot material underlying a layer of fluid, the fluid tends to turn over." If you have access, the paper is here.

It isn't easy to study Venus. The hot acid atmosphere dissolves space probes. Only one probe's temperature gauges survived all the way to the surface, and even that probe didn't last long. The article says that the pressure, temperature, and composition of the Venusian atmosphere could make it a supercritical fluid, acting like both a gas and a liquid. I don't know if it could act like either alternately, though that would be cool. Did anybody else read Close to Critical?

A terrestrial measurement at much lower temperatures suggests that the gases in the atmosphere might separate out under those conditions, leaving more of the dense CO2 at the bottom, even if the bottom level is at higher temperature. (The calculation of what sort of temperature distribution Venus should have is hard, and I won't attempt it.) Extrapolating to conditions on Venus is . . . um . . . speculative. As the article says, they've two choices: try another Venus probe or try to reproduce Venus conditions in the lab. The lab is probably cheaper.

Why would this be important enough to sort out? The paper notes that there would be much less nitrogen in the atmosphere of Venus if it were excluded from the lowest, most dense layer. And that could influence how we understand both the formation and evolution of the planet. It could also inform our understanding of a variety of other planets, where gases exist under similarly extreme conditions.

That's the sort of stuff that goes in the grant proposal. What's the real reason for trying to study it? It's weird and cool.

Plus, let's face it—it would be pretty cool to have something so bizarre happening on a planet that could be Earth's twin if it were elsewhere in the Solar System.

Yes, I know it is odd to think of Venus' atmosphere as "cool."

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Gain the whole world and lose his own soul

Does it strike you as odd that solipsism is so popular these days? References to "my truth" or the assertion (usually only implicit) that "How I perceive myself is who I am" turn up with disconcerting frequency.

I wonder if part of this is a reaction to "scientific claims" about human nature. When you're told that you do X because of Y, or think Z because of T, you start to feel like a puppet. If your mind is just rationalizing what you've already chosen, you're kidding yourself, so how can you communicate with anyone else? Or can I even cogito?

If you try to shoehorn human experience and communication inside the universe bounded by sense perception and what can be tangibly measured, there's not much room for a "you," and still less for communion. In a way you "gain the whole world" in terms of what power the approach can give, but you lose your soul. That's not universally popular—even Faust regretted the bargain.

Of course you know better, but the these days default parameters of the debate are Descartes': even if you're not a puppet, you still wind up with an incommunicable reality.

There’s another way, of course—or two, or three. One way says that statements about our nature refer to things that "ought" or "ought not." "Ought" is not something you can derive from science, and if you propose to think only in categories of sense-perception and tangible measurements, you're cut off from that. You may find the oughts inconvenient sometimes (like me), but you are free to do the oughts or not. This leaves room for "you," for communion, and purpose—and a creator.

That last item can be frightening. Suppose my creator has different priorities and different ideas about my nature. Will conforming to my creator lose me myself?

Christianity says "just the opposite," but you can see how the prospect would look to someone who believes their nature is their perception of it, malleable by their choice.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

A History of 50 Years of Independence

The book treats all of Africa, including Arab and Egyptian regions. It’s about a dozen years old now, and things have not gotten better. It is too early to say if the partition of Sudan will help—I hope so. Not every place went to hell, but enough did to show patterns.

Some stories differ dramatically from the others. The history of Algeria makes grim reading. South Africa seemed to show a spot of hope, but the intervening years since the book was published brought little encouragement.

Iron smelting and forging technology spread through Africa long ago, but the various industrial revolutions passed by Sub-Saharan Africa—until the last one, which spread imperial Europe everywhere. (It seems odd, because fairly simple constructions like water mills can send your iron smelting temperatures much higher, to give you more iron at once, and of better quality. Persian windmills ground grain easily—it wouldn’t have been hard to duplicate. There was trade across the Sahara, and across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. A puzzlement. But perhaps the crops in some areas aren’t as suited to grinding. At any rate...)

What happened after independence?

The imperial powers infamously divided everything up with little regard for tribal or language affinities, except insofar as they helped them govern. Since they preferred to concentrate trade and industry in their own hands (and all the good land), at independence there weren’t many paths to success. “Forced labor” shows up repeatedly in the history—and that doesn’t mean desk jobs or entrepreneurs.

Though Africa has had large kingdoms and even empires before, recent history was all about the European nation-state model—and each new country needed its own government. Participation in which would represent one of the very few paths to success. Moslems often talk about the Ummah and deprecate nations, but in practice they like running the local show themselves just as much as the infidels do. So, the areas had themselves nation-states.

The imperial/global economy defined success and wealth in terms of consumption of Western goods, and offered tantalizing stuff to consume. More temptation, that you need a revenue stream to participate in.

Despite an initial bonding of “us against the imperials” a man’s loyalty was not to a country but to his family, tribe, and hangers-on. And you cannot rely on the support of your tribe if you are stingy.

What followed from this was: mismanagement from the get-go thanks to a lack of managers; concentration of power and ambition in the central government—universal control nominally to have disparate tribes work together for a common goal but in practice for rent-seeking; pretty much universal corruption; “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—just from a neighboring black tribe instead of a white one. Making a nation a “democracy” merely changed the emphases, and didn’t generally have any effect on the “my tribe in power” corruption.

Some leaders took the European ideologies of socialism and Marxism seriously, as opposed to as bargaining chips in getting aid. Their subjects generally paid dearly for the experiments.

A lot of the details in The Fate of Africa weren’t covered in the news of the day: sometimes out of fear, sometimes because of entrenched lies (e.g. Rwanda genocide), and sometimes because Western news teams couldn’t be bothered. Quite a few people look very different (some worse, quite a few better) than they were originally reported. Lots of heroes had feet of clay, and unfortunately circumstances often brought out the flaws in a big way.

Read the book if you’ve any interest in Africa.

Because there is rarely a sense of nationhood, the obvious path to organic development and to reducing friction would seem to be through a different model of government, with federated statelets based on tribal affiliation, with a relatively weak central government. (Sort of Swiss style) Unfortunately this tends to leave you at the mercy of neighbors that cultivate a large army (African leaders are no more moral than those anywhere else when it comes to a neighbor’s easily stolen stuff). The only way to guarantee the integrity of such federations, at least at first, is for external parties to guarantee them. France has a record of this, and it usually works OK, though there’s a price to pay and they sometimes misfire very badly (e.g. Rwanda).

But—how do you get there from here? You don’t. The local powers-that-be aren’t going to give up their power and iron rice bowls, and (e.g.) European powers have no great interest in enforcing somebody else’s borders for no benefit to themselves.

What could help? The author suggests that industrial countries could cut back on farm supports, and let African exporters sell renewable crops and not just raw materials. That seems reasonable, though politically complicated. The Cold War is mostly over, and the proxy conflicts are done--that helps too.

I’d suggest learning a little more about the full situation before we try to throw food aid at a famine—often that makes the long-term situation worse as it ruins local farmers who tried to produce a surplus, and famines tend to be political creations anyway. And funding tiny projects, not big tempting cash cows (though lots of tiny projects get to be very expensive, since you need more people on the ground to investigate). The expectation is that if you get a degree you deserve to get a government job—that expectation has to change. Define educational objectives and focus on those, with the goal that the farmer will be a citizen farmer, the clerk a citizen clerk, and that education will not be a job training program.

All easier to say than do... The book does not depict Africans as puppets, but as their own agents, working with the environment they found themselves in, or which they helped create. The important changes have to come from the African groups; they can't be imposed. And some will turn out better than others.

Roman cement

Why modern mortar crumbles, but Roman concrete lasts millennia:
Al-tobermorite, long known to give Roman concrete its strength, can be made in the lab, but it’s very difficult to incorporate it in concrete. But the researchers found that when seawater percolates through a cement matrix, it reacts with volcanic ash and crystals to form Al-tobermorite and a porous mineral called phillipsite, they write today in American Mineralogist. So will you be seeing stronger piers and breakwaters anytime soon? Because both minerals take centuries to strengthen concrete, modern scientists are still working on recreating a modern version of Roman cement.

An older view article said:

It's the reaction that occurs between the lime and the volcanic material that produces the stronger concrete, the researchers found. As the concrete hardened, str├Ątlingite crystals formed in spaces around the sand and the volcanic gravel, making the structure stronger.

Can we do the same? Apparently some varieties of fly ash have similar composition to volcanic ash. Maybe the Three Gorges Dam will luck out.