Monday, March 29, 2004

Seasonal WIMP variation?

OK, this story from BBC is just silly. The Damo experiment in Gran Sasso is looking for WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) and finding a seasonal variation. Somebody (not clear from the article) proposed that this was due to the Earth moving in and out of a filament of WIMPs and other particles pulled from the Sagittarius galaxy (orbiting our own).

Except that the stream would have to be incredibly narrow: on the order of a hundred million km. How is a stream of stuff, pulled from a source about 8 E20 meters away, wind up only about 1 E11 meters wide here at our solar system? That's a cone size of about 1/100 of a microradian. Laser beam spreads are usually measured in milliradians...

OK, error on my part. I forgot how cocked our orbit is wrt the galactic plane, and I was using different numbers for the WIMP speeds (much higher). With speeds this slow, and with the Earth's orbit cocked with respect to the putative WIMP flow, you could see a seasonal effect. I still suspect they're seeing changes in the quality of the electric power they get as a function of consumer demand.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

East and West

the Experience of Islam in an expanding Europe

I've got a job, and can only take a little time off, so when the Center for European Studies hosted this (25-27 March) I only had time for one session. Wish I'd heard about the keynote address in time to go ("Religious Revivalism among European Muslims: Middle East Import or Indigenous").

I went to the "Islam and the Politics of State" panel on Friday.

It was the second panel of the day. Luckily I'd brought some work to do in case things started late--which they did, of course. I suppose it is gratifying to see that physicists are not the only ones who have trouble with speakers running overtime, or with talks with grand titles and lightweight content.

The first fellow, Sam Cherribi, was a Dutch Member of Parliament, member of the Council of Europe, and in fact is currently running for office. His talk would have perhaps been the most interesting of the bunch: "Europe's 'Muslim Problem': What Political Elites Think." A pity somebody had put the fear of the clock into him--he ran through his slides so fast I couldn't read half of them. After the Seville summit he collared a number of officials from all over Europe. He found that left and right agreed that the MidEast problems were transnational, that illegal immigration was a key problem, and that Muslim immigrants must respect European democracy. In June 2001, the "Muslim problem" was not seen as dangerous, but people worried that they were importing the problems of the Middle East.

The leftist politicians tended to see poverty and inequality as driving the illegal immigration problems, while the right tended to see inadequate laws or enforcement as the issue--and each looked for solutions accordingly. Not exactly earth-shattering news, but I suppose you have to do a systematic check.

The second speaker was a French expert in immigration in general, though not necessarily Islam in particular. Catherine Wihtol de Wenden spoke to "The Institutionalization of Islam in Europe." I had a little trouble following her at first, and so I missed some of the details of a very interesting assertion: that her group found poor correlation between immigration and Islamism and hooliganism, but strong correlation between Islamism and prison. I presume that means that the more vicious forms of Islamism recruit better in prisons than in the general population.

She said there were 15 million non-Europeans in Europe, with about 12 million "Muslim." 60% of the Muslims had been there more than 20 years, and the rest were mostly refugees. Reactions to refugees differ--radical Islamists are accepted in UK and Germany, but not France, while Algerian refugees are more welcome in France. Of the 3 or 4 nationalities that dominate the Muslim groups, 2 are "diaspora-like:" the Turks (mostly Germany) and Moroccans (?accent? and Spain), with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (UK) as the next largest groups.

France thinks it has about 4 million Muslims, but can't be sure because the census is now legally forbidden to ask about religion. Most of these Muslims are poor. Both France and Belgium have Muslim political parties, and both countries created central councils to address questions of conflict (marriage law, sacrificial customs, etc). Elsewhere in Europe these are usually local level discussions. People are still arguing about what it means to be a citizen of the Europe. It isn't clear if any of these great debates are getting anywhere.

Practicing Muslims she alleges to be rather rare--presumably as rare as practicing Christians. It isn't always clear what "Islam as used" (her phrase) means--many Muslims are becoming very national-minded.

Sean McLoughlin from Leeds addressed "Muslim Leaders, the State and Civil Society: Politics, Representation and the Muslim Council of Britain." The moderator called time on him twice. He discussed the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) which was established in 1997 for "constructive engagement" on a national level. The UK has about 1.6 million muslims, almost all from the Indian subcontinent, and overwhelmingly urban (1/3 are in London alone). The Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are mostly poor (60% of Pakistanis are on the dole, compared to 16% of anglos), but the Muslims from India tend to be middle class or better. Unity wasn't particularly noticeable until the 90's, when the state suggested the Muslims get together into some larger group. {Yes, I know this conflicts with de Wenden's earlier talk.} The MCP replaced an earlier organization, and is currently facing challenges of its own from new groups {types not specified}.

Multicultural policies tend to reinforce ethnicity in the lower class Muslims, but middle and upper class Muslims look to a more cosmopolitan identity.

He circulated a slick magazine put out by those aforementioned upper/middle class Muslims. It resembled Christian general interest magazines put out by conservative Christian denominations, but with Muslim observances rather than Bible study. It even had a "Is the Passion anti-semitic" article. I didn't see any objection to it on Muslim grounds, curiously enough.

The state has begun to publicly criticize things previously protected by "multiculturalism," such as importing imams, contracting transcontinental marriages, and so on.

The MCP is spread thin, with leadership mostly middle class and of Indian background rather than Pakistani, and he said it didn't accommodate the Pakistani "peasants" well. It has a hair-trigger attitude: the slightest hint of a shadow of a thought of prejudice against Muslims evokes letters of complaint. The activists are associated mostly with Reformist Islam {sorry, I don't know what he means by this}. Some seem to have Deobandi background (Sufi tradition, but ultra-conservative) and some Jameli Islam {?didn't hear this?}. The government doesn't think them entirely moderate. {Deobandis are supposed to be moderate?}

Jorgen Nielsen, from the University of Birmingham, telegraphed his notes as quickly as possible in order to meet an engagement to talk on the radio. He was the "comment" man. And so, briefly: Israel/Palestine questions matter more to Arab first generation immigrants (not so much second generation or non-Arab), or at least this was true until the last few years. Italy is questioning whether mosques are political centers as well as religious ones. "In many ways politicians reflect the public as well as lead the public." {Yes, he was dead serious.} There are class distinctions among Muslims. For example, the headscarf is middle/upper class, while the burka is lower class. Religions which are neither Christian nor Muslim are getting annoyed with the focus on Muslims, and the UK government is trying to defocus and talk more generically and inclusively.

I do not vouch for the accuracy of any of their claims; I merely report what I heard.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Laundry Contretemps

This morning while digging through the clean laundry looking for a pair of socks for our youngest, I remarked to my still sleepy wife that I was having trouble telling whose T-shirts were whose these days.

She murmured agreement, so I suggested that we find a way of marking them to tell determine ownership, as we'd done years ago.

She agreed.

I suggested that she devise some kind of collar ID.

She clobbered me with a pillow.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: the story of Paul Erdos and the search for mathematical truth by Paul Hoffman

This is the biography of Paul Erdos, probably the most famous mathematician of the 20'th century. The title is unfair. Erdos comes across as a deeply social man, but one who had no language but math. Perhaps he had Aspergers syndrome.

Erdos is credited with making math a social activity, as opposed to the solitary activity most people think it to be. He got along well with children--possibly because young children like someone who takes them seriously. Most touching are the stories of how he tried to cheer up sick mathematician friends by visiting them and talking about interesting math problems. He knew that sickness and depression (depression seems rather common) could destroy a man's confidence in his own mind, and his cure was to try to interest them in something.

Erdos seems to have had a rare skill for calibrating problems to your skill. Most number theory problems I've worked on have been either trivial or impossible (for me, anyway). He could see problems in between, and find one suited to your abilities.

He lived out of a battered suitcase, and donated the prizes he won to funds to support young mathematicians. He never learned to cook, or do laundry, or drive, or most of the ordinary activities of daily life. He would show up at a mathematician's home and ask what unsolved problems he had. They (and other friends who heard Erdos was there) would talk about the math problems and how to deal with them--and as one fellow would slow down to think though what Erdos had said, Erdos would turn to the next, like a chess grandmaster playing a dozen games simultaneously. Meanwhile he was a nightmare to their wives--washing so thoroughly and carelessly that the bathroom would be 1/4 inch deep in water, or deciding that the best way to open a carton of tomato juice was to stab it in the side with a knife. One day he finally learned how to butter toast, and announced that it wasn't so hard after all.

He had a language all his own: epsilon was a child (Remember epsilon/delta proofs from calculus? No? OK, trust me, it's funny.), spoke of God as having "the Book" in which He kept all the math proofs, and called Him the "Supreme Fascist" for not telling us what the proofs are and making us find them out ourselves. He said "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into proofs," and lived on coffee and amphetamines. (Not recommended, but he lived an active life into his 90's.)

The author tries to make the appeal of math clear to the layman, with examples from Gauss' and Fermat's lives as well. If you never got past algebra you missed the parts of math where mathematicians start having fun. (Yes, fun. Playing around with ideas, and finding out which are true, is fun.) Some very deep problems are very easy to state, and easy to mostly understand--but hard to prove. Go read the book. Have fun!

Saturday, March 13, 2004


I can say nothing that others haven't said better. The injured and families have my prayers, and may the Lord have mercy on the souls of the dead. And may the Lord comfort the helpers, who hear cell phones ringing hopelessly inside the body bags.

Friday, March 12, 2004

French diplomat becomes Georgian minister

The BBC reports that the French ambassador to Georgia, who also served representing France to the US, EU, and Nato and "headed the international department of France's national security general secretariat," is being granted Georgian citizenship and a post as foreign minister for Georgia. She was born in France to Georgian immigrants.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said it had been "his dream" to appoint to the post since he met her in 1996. "She made a brilliant career in France but she stayed a Georgian at heart and a true patriot," he told reporters. Mr Saakashvili said he believed such an appointment was "unprecedented in the history of diplomacy".

"Unprecedented" seems a rather feeble description. Can you say "disloyalty?" Or "espionage?" Or at least: "untrustworthy?"

Saturday, March 06, 2004

An End to Evil How to Win the War on Terror by David Frum and Richard Perle

This book assembles in one place the bulk of the arguments for, and some of the evidence behind, the new American policies for nation-rebuilding in the Middle East. I'm surprised that such a book is necessary, but . . .

The book's points are simple. We are at war, and have been at war for some years, with an enemy whose goal is world domination. Several of our front-line institutions have proven themselves incompetent. The authors assert that the FBI is the worst of the offenders, with the CIA close behind. They point out that the State Department is institutionally ill-designed for the task at hand--and in fact often serves to promote foreign interests to the US rather than the reverse. It is common knowledge that the Saudis are very generous to friendly diplomats when said diplomats retire, and so our Saudi specialists are generally bought and paid for by a foreign power.

The authors argue that terrorists can be partly disabled by suppressing their flow of money and weapons from supportive governments. I think the jury is still out on this one: it is indisputable that terrorists are currently supported by governments now, but it is also true that terrorists establish lucrative organized crime connections (such as in Columbia, or the IRA in Northern Ireland).

They propose that we

  • be serious about the fact that we're at war. Be willing to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.
  • recognize that aliens are not US citizens, and take a little more care with immigration. At the moment many universities (and even cities!) refuse to cooperate with Federal programs for monitoring whether legal aliens actually go to school or work as they claimed they would.
  • institute a national ID system.
  • keep our eye on the ball in North Korea, rejecting any appeasement while redeploying armed forces to reduce vulnerability and preparing for a preemptive strike.
  • support Iranian dissidents
  • squeeze Syria until they quit supporting/enabling terrorist groups, pull out of Lebanon, and start opening their economy and political system. I dunno about Lebanon--they say "If the Lebanese need help patrolling and policing their territory, we can arrange to get it from a less domineering source." Who? The Syrians came in quashing a nasty civil war (which they had a hand in, of course). Are those factions reconciled to each other now? Want to bet an American peace-making force on it?
  • keep up the pressure on Libya. Fortunately this is becoming moot
  • come up with varied plans with varied allies to deal with the many small evil places where terrorists lurk or rule. Contrary to their assertion, we did not step in to keep order in Liberia when civilization collapsed.
  • include all terrorist groups in the bulls-eye, including the fashionable ones like Hezbollah and Hamas.
  • keep our eye on the ball with our deepest enemies: the Saudis.
    • Tell the truth about them. (US News started on this)
    • Punish those Saudi individuals and groups who finance terror
    • Demand that the Saudis stop Wahhabi missionary efforts here and abroad. They won't. They can't. I don't think the authors have a good understanding of the religious dynamics involved here. Nevertheless, we need to strangle Saudi funding of people and literature for all Islamic centers in the US. It is imperative to keep Wahhabi clerics out of our prisons.
    • Warn the Saudis that failure to cooperate can have serious consequences. I think they already got that message. They face a rather dangerous choice: cooperate with the Iranian Shiites in stirring up mischief among the Iraqi Shiites, and risk having rising regional Shiite power stir an echoing Shiite rebellion in Saudi Arabia, or supporting the Sunni mischief-makers in Iraq, and risk having an annoyed Shiite power on their border. I doubt that cooperating with us is on their radar screen.

  • recognize that violent Islamism is on the rise around the world, and try to encourage democratic ideals. How?
  • go all out to make sure that Iraq can even partially succeed in creating a free country. The power of that example in the Middle East can be huge.
  • encourage as much foreign trade as we can, thus giving larger numbers of Pakistanis or Jordanians a stake in peace. A small effect, but helpful
  • focus on women's rights, by encouraging women's education.
  • avoid getting involved in creating/enforcing the peace in a Palestinian state. "The Arab-Israeli quarrel is not a cause of Islamic extremism; the unwillingness of Arabs to end the quarrel is a manifestation of the underlying cultural malaise from which Islamic extremism emerges."
  • split counter-terrorism from crime fighting in the FBI--and let people talk to each other. "Non citizen terrors suspects are not members of the American national community, and they have no proper claim on the rights Americans accord one another."
  • relax rules about recruiting sources with criminal backgrounds
  • change the culture of the CIA: take more care recruiting foreign agents, use less ideology in interpreting results, recruit/train more hard-language experts, be very careful using information supplied by foreign intelligence services
  • put a "brilliant visionary" in charge of the CIA, to get a top-down cultural change.
  • split off the "attack" operations from intelligence gathering, and merge this with Defense Special Forces.
  • keep domestic and foreign intelligence gathering separate for safety's sake, and keep the DIA and NSA separate for the sake of having a good second opinion.
  • reform the Pentagon, looking for more ways to use capital equipment instead of soldiers. I am deeply nervous about this focus on machines rather than eyes. The book uses an illustration from Afghanistan of a high-tech attack, but the news today has a counter-illustration of US failure due to a lack of people on the ground talking to the natives.
  • eliminate the regional bureaus in the State Department, thereby streamlining it and cutting back on the tendency of regional staff to start thinking of the affairs of their area as more important than the affairs of the US. I'll take the authors' word that this is a serious problem. I'd think that losing regional bureaus might cut down on the number of knowledgeable people in the long term--we might have to re-instate these after a few years.
  • increase the number of political appointees in the State Department, to make it more responsive to the needs of the country and less to its own bureaucratic imperatives. Pendulum time. The bureaucrats are too entrenched and disruptive, based on my own observations as an outsider, and the authors confirm this from insider knowledge. So you have to shake it up. Several years from now there'll be too many amateurs, and you'll have to reduce the number of political appointees. Such is life.
  • reform the spirit. Recognize that the world is hard, laws are only useful when enforceable, and have the confidence to recognize that we can fight and win and keep our souls. My phrasing, not theirs.
  • recognize that allies in one battle may not be allies in another, and that we cannot count on any country or organization (and certainly not the UN) to keep with us through all battles.
  • recognize that the EU is being shaped into an opponent, and engage the various parties involved in shaping the EU. Try to enlarge the EU and NATO to dilute French influence.
  • help keep Britain militarily independent of the EU. They've been a friendly ally, and if they lose control of their military we lose their support.
  • be direct with China. Establish a defense partnership with Japan, Australia, and other countries.
  • offer a credible military guarantee to Taiwan.
  • Make South Korea responsible for its own defense
  • exercise non-military power in the India-Pakistan area
    • drop the nuclear weapons sanctions we imposed as useless
    • broaden military-military relationships with all the countries, with special emphasis on humane counter-terrorism and controls to keep nuclear weapons out of the wrong hands
    • increase US aid to the subcontinent, focusing on a "providing a more appealing education than the local Islamic colleges offer." Really tough! School districts like control over the curriculum. "Trusting the holy Saudi imam to teach the Koran uninspected is one thing, but what are these infidels going to do?" The news this week included a girl's school burnt in Pakistan . . .
    • promote subcontinental economic integration by offering "a comprehensive free trade agreement with the United States--provided they sign the same agreement with one another. I like it. I wonder if it would fly.

  • tell the truth about Russia and its atrocities in Chechnya
  • recognize that Russia is neither an ally nor a partner, except on a transaction by transaction basis.
  • use symbolic punishment on Russia for its deals with Iran--disinviting them to the summits of the seven industrial powers, for example. I'm not sure this is sensible. The authors claim our sanctions against India and Pakistan were useless, and this seems cut off the same cloth.
  • require that the UN Article 51 be amended or interpreted to include supporting terrorists fighting a country as an act of aggression. This is also tricky. We've persistently turned a blind eye to IRA fund raising in the US, and I suspect a lot of LURD's support came from the US as well.

The books ends with a reminder that sometimes democracy needs support from outside.

The authors have to make some important points, and so they neglect some others. The BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN et al will gleefully magnify our faults and failings, so Frum and Perle don't need to. I wish they showed a tad more humility, though. The title itself: An End to Evil, is excessively grandiose. Even if every Islamist dropped dead tomorrow, there'd still be more than enough evil in the world to guarantee constant wars.

I appreciate the insider's view of how the FBI/CIA/State work. I'm glad to see all this info in one place. I recommend the book: but I don't think the authors show a clear understanding of the religious dimensions of this war.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Volvo's new concept car, ... designed by women for women.

The 'Your Concept Car' (YCC), on display for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show, was designed by a team of women keen to change the way most cars are designed with male drivers in mind.

And what does this have that makes it special? Besides gull-wing doors.

  • Removable seat pads attached with magnets for easy cleaning or color coordinating with your outfit. Be still, my beating heart!
  • Back seats which point up like theater seats until someone sits in them. This gives more storage space behind the front seat. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate theater seats? I hope these things still have the option of folding the back down so you can stuff really large objects into the car across the seats. This, my dear, is for women who have bought more groceries than the capacity of the trunk/ hatch/ other storage space. Remember the monthly megaload? #1 son eats like the Narnian centaurs: he has the capacity of a horse stomach and a man stomach, "which is why it is a serious business indeed to have a centaur come for the week-end." #1 daughter can knock off a gallon of milk a day by herself. #3 daughter would bring home fifty bags of junk food, which is why I don't bring her to the grocery store. #2 son would buy 50 lbs of sausage, which is why I don't bring him to the store either.

    I prefer to have grocery bags propped up on the floor of the back seat. In the old Nova, a jug of milk slid off the seat when I braked, and cracked. The Nova reeked of sour milk until the floor under the spill rusted out (the Nova had seen too many over-salted Chicago streets).

  • Special umbrella, coin, and key compartments inside the bodywork. This is new? Well, maybe umbrellas--what size, by the way? Anything for Snapple bottles, pop cans, magazines, and other kid paraphernalia?
  • The windshield washer fluid port is by the gas port. The hood is molded unremoveably into the front of the car. The car is programmed to figure out any problems, and send you and the garage a message about what's wrong. Only the garage mechanic can remove the hood. Yikes! I don't like to think how many times I have to get under the hood--oil, belts, cleaning the battery terminals, radiator work, etc. Volvo's concept sounds cute if you trust the car's diagnostic computer to always warn you and if you have oceans of bucks for the garage bills, and if the car never starts wearing out. (One of our cars has over 190000 miles, the other over 125000. {over 300000 km and 200000 km} Ask me if things wear out . . .) Amen. John the mechanic has made a career out of keeping our heaps on the road. Much as I appreciate John's efficiency, I don't fancy driving to the shop every time I need to add a quart of oil.
  • A "body scanning system" "to automatically adjust seats, mirrors, steering wheels, and pedals." I shudder at the horrifying number of things that will go wrong with a system like this... Especially since James is 6' even; I'm 5'6, #1 daughter is 5'4, and #2 daughter is 5'2 and professes not to be able to see out the big white Behemoth her dad drives. James can't get into the car at all after #2 daughter has driven it before.

    Does this car come with an automatic radio retuner that keeps Nirvana, Eminem, baseball game beer commercials, and other losers off the family airwaves?

  • A split in the headrest to accept a ponytail. I thought most recent headrests had a hole in the middle these days.

Ok, it is just a concept car, not a production model. Comes equipped with your selection of stereotypes . . .