Monday, March 16, 2015

Hard Science

The curse attributed to the Chinese - “May you live in interesting times”- seems to be especially apt today. Whether it’s the explosion of sexual genders at home -- following the discovery that male and female are insufficient -- or the resurgence of barbaric medieval religions abroad, modern times sure are interesting.

Modern science has also proven to be interesting, and popular. From “The Big Bang Theory” (a TV sitcom) to “The Theory of Everything” (a tragic love story), science has become hip. Indeed, one can imagine overhearing millennials at a cocktail party: “I f***ing love science!!” Here “science” should be in quotes since the old-timers among us would not recognize what today passes for science. Indeed, what many moderns love is scientism, a secular replacement for religion, with its scientist-priests surrounded by a cult of personality (See starman Neil deGrasse Tyson, “the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up nerd culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States.”)

In the real world of the hard sciences, most of the hard work seems to be done. For example, in physics the theories of Newton, Maxwell, Heisenberg, Einstein, Dirac, Feynman et al provide the underpinnings of our modern understanding of the inanimate world and the tools to create new technologies. These scientific theories are important. Since the 1970’s, however, some physicists have turned their attention to the extremes, from the real physical world we live in to the singularities and the multiverse. The results have been disappointing and mostly unimportant.

Fields of Dreams

Let us begin with the very small. The Standard Model of Particle Physics is the combination of quantum electrodynamics (QED), theories of the weak and strong forces and the quark model of the fundamental particles. It has been called the “theory of almost everything” (from the book of the same title by Robert Oerter). In fact, the only part of the Standard Model that has been rigorously tested is QED. Theories of the weak and strong forces were modelled on the exchange of virtual particles borrowed from QED. (“Because physicists have only been able to think of the same damn thing, over and over again.” Feynman, “QED” p149). The quark model was formulated to make some sense of the zoo of fundamental particles being created in the new atom smashers, the “fields of dreams” built for physicists. Every collision produced new ephemeral particles that needed to be measured and categorized. Yet the Standard Model only replaced one zoo-full of particles with another (something like 40 quarks, anti-quarks and gluons) that have strange properties never seen before. In fact nobody has ever observed a single quark, but the theory explains that issue by postulating yet another strange constraint.

Physicist John Baez has a rating scale of potentially revolutionary contributions to physics; he calls it the “crackpot index.” The index gives, for example, 5 points for a thought experiment that contradicts the results of an actual experiment, 10 points for each favorable comparison of oneself to Einstein, and so on. As in golf a high score is bad. I’d like to suggest 20 points for claiming to have the “standard model” and 50 points for a “theory of everything.” Yet physicists from Einstein’s time to the present have been in search of the Holy Grail: a Grand Unified Theory (GUT: 30 points) or “theory of everything.” (50)

Enter String Theory. Underlying all the particles, Superstring Theory (It’s already been upgraded by a second “revolution”) assumes there are more fundamental entities having some properties of strings. The basic “strings” are mighty small, with a length equal to the “Planck length” (about 10-33 cm). Like a violin string under tension, the quantum strings support standing waves, and the fundamental particles of matter are thought to correspond to different vibration frequencies, with masses given by hν/c2. The basic idea is pretty simple, but the theory quickly becomes muy complex and unsettling.

Superstring Theory requires 10 dimensions of space, a major problem since the 10 dimensions must be “compactified” to the physically realizable 4 dimensions, and there appears to be an infinite number of ways to do that. The current thinking is that the theory allows an astronomically large number of physical possibilities (and universes), so it seems impossible to ever test it. Peter Woit has called the theory “Not Even Wrong,” the title of his recent book. Dick Feynman said that “String theorists don’t make predictions, they make excuses.” Normally such criticism would cause one to run for the exits, but string theorists seem to be a hardier lot, not easily frightened.


In the land of the very large, theories of the universe, while beginning on a firm footing, have lately gone off the deep end. The cosmological models based on General Relativity had some successes. To the extent it has been possible to test General Relativity, its predictions have always been borne out by experiment (gravitational light shifts, precession of planets, bending of light, gravitational time dilation effects on GPS, etc, etc.) The existence of Black Holes is consistent with stellar orbits near galactic centers and with the current understanding of quasars. The predicted expansion of space, while non-intuitive, is consistent with the observed cosmological redshifts. The existence of 3 degree background radiation and the primordial amounts of the lightest nuclei (but not Lithium) also support the standard model. So far it’s a reasonable theory.

The problems began when theorists tried to explain details of the model relating to the first femto-atto-wink by invoking new stuff, from “dark matter” and “dark energy” to “inflation” that have no basis in experimental fact. Today much of experimental cosmology has devolved into massive searches for the strange stuff and probes of the horizon. (Astronomer Mike Disney: “Statistical studies of faint objects can keep a career going for ages without the need for a single original thought.”)  On the theoretical side, the cosmologists have joined forces with the particle physicists in trying to invent new ways of explaining the singularity.

It seems that a more productive enterprise would involve questioning and improving the theoretical bases of the standard cosmological model. For example, the assumptions of homogeneity and isotropy that underlie standard cosmology are gross approximations. General Relativity has only been tested in the weak field approximation that is nothing like the early universe as it is theorized. Furthermore, when gravitational forces are strong enough quantum effects must be taken into account. Thus a quantum theory of gravity would be needed.

The current leading contender is Loop Quantum Gravity which tries to quantize space itself, in other words, treat space like it comes in small chunks. LQG takes the smooth fabric of space-time in General Relativity and asks whether, like a normal fabric, it might be made up of smaller, Planck scale fibers woven together into quantized volumes. LQG theory predicts that the speed of light has a small dependence on energy. Photons of higher energy travel slightly slower than low-energy photons. The effect is very small, but it amplifies over long distances. Unfortunately for LQG, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope results released in 2009 refute this prediction. (The prediction was debated on an episode of The Big Bang Theory, where a young couple on both sides of the LQG-String debate argue about how their children will be raised: loopy or stringy.) 

Real Physics

An alternative to all this speculation would be to compactify our hubris. Imagine that the “initial state” of the universe was not the Big Bang singularity but rather the photon-dominated stage that we identify in the present model as a few minutes after the singularity. In our initial state, the fundamental forces and particles already exist and are moving at non-relativistic speeds. The matter density is low enough that General Relativity works just fine. A little bit after our new t = 0 the protons plus neutrons begin to form the lighter nuclei. Quantum gravity, inflation and exotic particles are not needed. Nor is Superstring theory. What happened before our new beginning? Who cares; it’s not important.

Thousands of physicists could give up chasing daydreams and return to doing physics that mattered. (If they are qualified. Sheldon Glashow wonders whether physicists whose expertise is limited to string theory will be employable when the “string snaps.”) And for those of us who are skeptics, we can stop wasting time trying to discredit the Big Bang and spend our time working on the unsolved problems in physics. There are so many. Some examples taken from Wikipedia:

1.    What mechanism causes certain materials to exhibit superconductivity at higher temperatures?

2.    What's the momentum of photons in optical media?

3.    Are there non-local phenomena in quantum physics other than entanglement? Are they useful?

4.    Why is gravity so much weaker than electromagnetism?

5.    How can plasmas be confined long enough and at a high enough temperature to create fusion power?

6.    How can turbulence be understood and its effects calculated?

7.    What is the lifetime of the proton and how do we understand it?

8.    Are all the measurable dimensionless parameters that characterize the physical universe calculable in principle?

9.    How do genes govern our body, withstanding different external pressures?

10. Is dark matter responsible for the observed rotational speeds of stars revolving around the center of galaxies, or is it something else?

The last question has been addressed by Feng and Gallo who show that dark matter is not necessary.

Let’s all get back to doing real physics.


A few good books about the crisis in physics are the following:

The End of Science by John Horgan

Bankrupting Physics by Alexander Unzicker and Sheila Jones

Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit

The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin


Monday, August 04, 2014

Don't know much about history

Don’t know much biology.  Don't know much about a science book. Don't know much about the French I took. But I do know that I love you ...

So, what do you know after a public school education? Here is a little quiz.

Consider the following two groups of historical figures and events:

1.    Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, American Revolution

2.    Jean Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Woodrow Wilson, French Revolution

Compare and Contrast (a favorite Common Core instruction) the political philosophy of the two groups.

If you think that Locke was a locksmith and Rousseau a French baker, stop reading and go back to watching “The View.” If you recognize the names but know little about any of these guys, thank your teacher. Sure, it’s unfair to the millennials; on Water’s World they don’t recognize the Vice President and they think that the Cold War was fought in Siberia. Sadly, even the baby boomers have difficulty with this sort of test, reflecting the steep decline in the quality of American education over the last 50 years or so.

I chose the two groups to illustrate the difference between (1) classical liberals and (2) radical liberals (liberalism run amok, which is what prevails today). 

Classical liberals (from the Latin for freedom) stressed the autonomy of the individual. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859)

Classical liberalism gave birth to the “natural rights” of the individual that exist independent of government. Indeed, limited and constrained government was seen as a requirement of a free society, as understood by the American Founders and codified in the Constitution.

Classical liberals embraced reason as a gift from God, raising man above the animals. At the same time they understood the limitations of reason and the wisdom of revelation and traditional knowledge. They believed in natural law, a universal (God-given) understanding of right and wrong.

Radical liberals such as Rousseau and Nietzsche rejected received wisdom and believed that truth and morality must be constructed from the exercise of reason alone. They rejected theology and grounded morality on secular criteria alone, especially the principle of equality. Rousseau believed that culture dictates behavior and that one could reform behavior by transforming culture. “Social Engineering” was born in Rousseau’s writings, especially The Social Contract.

Rousseau postulated the “general will” of society as binding on individuals. He justified coercion to achieve consensus and approved of the “state” as the authoritarian instrument of coercion. All who know of Robespierre’s “despotism of liberty” will understand the danger of radical liberalism that led to the French Revolution and “the Terror.” 

President Wilson attacked the very idea of natural and individual rights. “No doubt a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual” wrote Wilson, taking dead aim at the Declaration of Independence.

Rousseau and his followers also had a profound impact on education, and not for the better. They believed that man once lived in a state of peaceful equality – the “noble savage” - but was corrupted by society and ill-advised innovations such as tool making and property rights. It was necessary, therefore, to discredit those responsible for filling the world with prejudice, superstition (ie. religion) and bad laws.

Transformation – reform - of education would be required. Thus the immediate objective of education was “to erase from one’s mind all the false principles that parents, teachers and preachers had infected one with.” Rousseau’s prescription for education reform was laid out in his novel Emile which “acquired a ‘Dewey-eyed’ following in America because of its wondrous impracticality.” (Roger Scruton, “Rousseau and the Origins of Liberalism.”)

“Let us begin by laying facts aside” and the books that contain them. “I hate books,” Rousseau declared. “They only teach one about what one does not know.” Rousseau also anticipated the modern hostility to memorization: “Emile will never learn anything by heart.”

For Rousseau the task of the educator was not to tell the child what others have discovered, but to induce him to discover things for himself. Thus the labor of discovery would have to be endlessly repeated and each generation would know less than the last. Child-centered discovery learning became all the rage in America, encouraged by John Dewey and his disciples.

And so,

Don’t know much about geography. Don’t know much trigonometry. Don’t know much about algebra. Don’t know what a slide rule is for. But I do know 1 and 1 is 2…  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Scourge of Liberalism

I have spent the last year and more fighting against Common Core, the new national education reform that promises to take a bad situation and make it worse. The driving force behind Common Core and all the previous reforms of the past decades has been Liberalism. In fact, over the past 100 years the character of America has been fundamentally changed by Liberalism and irreparable harm has been done to (..............). You can fill in the space with government at all levels, education, religion, the middle class, the poor and the culture, and more.

On Facebook at ConcernedPVParents,   I will continue the exposition of the damage Liberalism has done to education. Here I'll discuss the other areas.
Stay tuned.    

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I'm Back

I've been so focused on fighting the scourge of Common Core (1) that I've had little time for the many other threats to our American way of life. I do keep up by reading the (free) New York Times while working out at Equinox. It's the best source of what's wrong with America, and it gets my blood up. 

I've also been away from PalosVerdesBlog. My Education posts focusing on Common Core may be found on Facebook at ConcernedPVParents.

 Today there was an opinion piece by Paul Krugman accusing Republicans of being "enemies of the poor." The GOP is "the party that takes from the poor and gives to the rich." Republicans are "doing all they can to hurt the poor"; and "it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the GOP is hurting the poor as much as it can." Got it?

On the other hand, Democrats like "Krugtron the Invincible" (2) love poor people. In fact, they love poor people so much they want to keep them poor, and have more of them. Star Parker called it "Uncle Sam's Plantation" in the book of the same name.

On the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's "War on Poverty," Robert Rector reported in the Wall Street Journal (1/8/14) that the Federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor Americans. The government spends nearly one Trillion dollars a year on those programs for the roughly 100 million Americans who benefit from them. That sums up to roughly 21 Trillion over the past 50 years "to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities."

The numbers, while astounding, hide an inconvenient truth. Rector calculates that if just one fifth of the Trillion dollars was divided (progressively, of course) among the poor, poverty would be eliminated in America. That's right, only 20% of what we spend on the war on poverty would raise every poor person above the poverty level.

Well, what about the other 80% ($800,000,000,000)? Not all of it is wasted on the Federal bureaucracy that administers the 80 welfare programs. No, most of it goes to the poor in ways that don't count as income, thus raising the poor to levels of prosperity above the working folks who earn just a bit too much to qualify for welfare. Nice trick!

So if you were a working person who could receive a handout from the government if only you worked a bit less, you may be tempted to cut back your hours or, even better, to go on disability. Thus begins "generational poverty."

As Star Parker put is so well: "The liberal establishment are involved in the slave trade, as surely as if they had put the chains on the people themselves. We work the ghettos instead of the field, dutifully putting 'massa' back in the Senate or House of Representatives."

(1) There is a connection to Common Core: Krugman's socialist crap is the sacred text within the academic establishment, especially in the schools of education.  Just wait for it in a K-12 school near you.

(2) Read about "Krugtron the Invincible" in the hilarious series by Niall Ferguson in the Huffington Post.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Creative Destruction

Finishing up my physics doctorate in late 1971, I was considering an offer to join the Xerox Corporate Research Labs in Rochester, NY. I did a summer internship in 1966 and had been working there part time for about a year while completing my thesis. Needing a full time job -- with two children and a stay-at-home wife -- I turned to my Xerox mentors for advice. Bob Gundlach was the top scientist and inventor at Xerox and a good friend. I was totally surprised when he advised against my joining Xerox. Bob said that the company had gotten fat and lazy and was no longer the innovative dynamo he joined two decades earlier. My part-time boss had similar reservations, and he graciously offered to continue my part-time employment while I worked full time as a college physics professor. After more than seventeen years of this arrangement, I did finally join Xerox as a full time research scientist and manager. What changed my mind?

During the 1970-80s Xerox suffered through some tough times, “fumbling the future” on personal computers (to Steve Jobs’ immense satisfaction) and losing copier market share to the Japanese. It took two decades for the management culture to change course, led first by the adoption of Japanese style “Leadership Through Quality” techniques. Product quality and efficiency became pillars of the corporate culture, and by the early 1990’s Xerox became the first American company to win back lost market share from the Japanese. Xerox re-branded itself “The Document Company” and transitioned to the next big things: color printing and software services.  Manufacturing became a much smaller part of its bottom line.

As David Brooks points out, this was a common storyline in corporate America. “Forty years ago, corporate America was bloated, sluggish and losing ground to competitors in Japan and beyond. But then something astonishing happened. Financiers, private equity firms and bare-knuckled corporate executives initiated a series of reforms and transformations. The process was brutal and involved streamlining and layoffs. But, at the end of it, American businesses emerged leaner, quicker and more efficient.” (“How Change Happens.” New York Times, 5/21/12) Companies as diverse as GE, IBM and Apple remade themselves.

The transition has been astounding. Economic output per person is now 20 to 25% higher in the U.S. than in Japan and the major European economies, and America's economy dominates the world in size and prestige. According to The Wall Street Journal, the revenue per employee at S&P 500 companies increased from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2011. And American exports are surging, due to smart machines, the shale oil and gas revolution, and the growth of the global middle class that is dramatically increasing demand for pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, planes and entertainment, all important American products.

But not all is well. As Tyler Cowen reports in The American Interest (“What Export-Oriented America Means”), there are actually two American economies. On the one hand are the companies that have to compete with everybody everywhere. With the sword of foreign competition hanging over them, these companies have become relentlessly dynamic and very efficient. On the other hand, there are large sectors of the economy that do not face this global competition — health care, education and government, and industries that depend too much on government (eg. autos). These segments cling to an economic model that no longer works because the pillars have eroded.

This was the issue discussed in my last piece (“America’s Economic Problem” 5/10/12). While America transitioned from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the productivity gains achieved by the multinational companies have displaced many low-medium skilled workers. Those workers will need to find employment in new enterprises, in fields some of which have not yet been imagined. After all, ten years ago who dreamed of Facebook or Myspace or Hootsuite? Who knew we needed personal trainers, personal shoppers or personal assistants of all types? Who would have imagined the growth of pet services (canine psychologists, for heaven’s sake)? New skills will be required.

The future can be very lucrative for America if only we strive for it. Sadly, there is a sizeable and growing segment of the population that has stopped striving. A bifurcation of American society is occurring before our eyes. Increasingly, our country is becoming segregated into high-income groups with a tendency to pre-1960s social mores, and low-income groups experiencing profound social breakdown. The double whammy of declining economic opportunity and growing dysfunction has created a new lower class in America like nothing we have seen before. That is the subject of my next piece.

Friday, May 11, 2012

America's Economic Problem

In my last article I briefly described the monumental economic and social problems that have been so brilliantly discussed, respectively, by Walter Russell Mead in a series of articles for “The American Interest, and by Charles Murray in his groundbreaking book “Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010.” 

Another seminal reference, that predates Mead and Murray by about a year, is the piece called “Keeping America's Edge” by Jim Manzi in “National Affairs” (Winter 2010). “The United States is in a tough spot. As we dig ourselves out from a serious financial crisis and a deep recession, our very efforts to recover are exacerbating much more fundamental problems that our country has let fester for too long.” And what are these festering fundamental problems? On the economic side, there is the creative destruction involved in free-market capitalism and the ever-increasing international competition. And on the social side is “the growing disparity in behavioral norms and social conditions between the upper and lower income strata of American society.” As you see, Manzi raised the very issues that Mead and Murray expound upon.

In this article I will concentrate on the economic issues although, as we will see, these issues are inter-related. Many say that the economy will be fixed when the housing industry recovers from the bubble; or when consumer confidence returns; or when companies stop sitting on piles of cash and start hiring; or when the Federal government begins to seriously invest in the economy and green technology, as though the “stimulus” was way too small. I will not argue any of these points since, at best, such measures could bring a temporary reprieve. Our problems are structural and much more serious.

A few statistics will illustrate the problem. Consider, first, our country's transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Quoting from Manzi: In 1800, America was a nation of farmers: About three-quarters of the labor force worked in agriculture. Since then, this share has been in almost continuous decline. By the eve of the Civil War, it was a little over half; by 1900 it was about one-third. Today, agriculture employs less than 3% of the work force. This has been great for ¬consumers: Farming is now incredibly efficient, and food is cheaper and more plentiful in real terms than ever before in human history. American agriculture today is also a successful industry; in 2007, the U.S. exported more than $75 billion in agricultural products, However, the agriculture industry can no longer provide employment for very many people.

Just imagine the immense upheaval that occurred around the turn off the 20th century, when two thirds of the work force needed to be employed in something other than farming, and industry was not yet able to provide jobs for all the out of work farmers and new immigrants. Eventually American ingenuity prevailed, with Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, George Westinghouse, and many others finding myriad ways to employ millions of eager factory workers.

A lot of pain was endured along the way to this new economic model. “Writing about the onset of the Great Depression, John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that the end had come but was not yet in sight. The past was crumbling under their feet, but people could not imagine how the future would play out. Their social imagination had hit a wall.” (The previous quote and much of what follows has been copied from the marvelous series of ten articles (77 pages) by Walter Russell Mead, that may be found at his blog site “Via Meadia,” 1/24/12 – present)

From the era of the first European settlements in North America up through World War I, the family farm was the key social, economic and even political institution in the country. Unlike the oppressed peasants of Europe most Americans owned and worked their own land. The individual family farm was prosperous and independent and the cornerstone of American democracy. Then the family farm died of abundance; it died of the rapidly rising productivity that meant that fewer and fewer people had to work to produce the food on which humanity depended. The industrial and scientific revolutions of the 19th century made agriculture so much more productive, and brought so many of the world’s hitherto remote and inaccessible lands into productive contact with world centers of population, that old and outmoded methods of production could no longer be sustained.

The same thing is happening today: The 20th century model of the American dream faces the same kind of crisis the 19th century version experienced 100 years ago. International competition and technological advances mean that the American factory worker’s earnings and opportunities are depressed in the way farmers were going to the wall 100 years ago. Our successful manufacturing economy led us to push for free trade; that stimulated other countries to export to U.S. markets and generated the kind of financial flows that undermined the nation-based Keynesian economic model. Just look at the numbers. In 1974, one quarter of the US private sector labor force worked in manufacturing. Today, that share is down to about 11 percent. In parallel with that decline, real hourly wages for private non-supervisory workers have been stagnant for a generation. In 1974, the hourly wage was $4.22; in 2007, before the recession, it was at $4.18 (in 1974 dollars)

Jobs are disappearing in manufacturing and the learned professions for the same reason they disappeared from agriculture 100 years ago: productivity is rising. Fewer hands were needed back then to produce the food we ate; fewer hands are needed today to make all the cars and cell phones the planet’s consumers care to buy. Fewer humans in green eyeshades are needed to do the world’s accounting; fewer typists, stenographers, clerks and managers are needed to get the world’s clerical work done. Automation and outsourcing will combine to limit employment opportunities and income levels for most accountants, lawyers, architects and even some types of medical specialists. (X rays and CAT scans can be read as easily in India as at the local specialist’s office, and given the exponential improvements in software, many other medical processes will become susceptible to outsourcing and automation.)

A century ago, agriculture was in crisis because fewer people were needed to produce the world’s food supply. Today, the middle class is endangered because fewer people are needed to do the world’s routine factory work and information management. In both cases, the economic dislocation and painful change were the side effects of progress rather than the signs of dissolution. The reality last time around was that with fewer hands needed at grow food, more human energy, talent and skill were available to do other things: to produce the goods and services that a more sophisticated and much richer modern industrial society would want and need. This time the emerging economic model will revolve less around “stuff” and more with arrangement, delivery, intelligence, capability and design. And a lot of our economy won’t be about making things at all; it will be about enjoying the freedom that comes when less and less of life revolves around getting the necessities.

Revolutions in manufacturing and, above all, in communications and information technology create the potential for unprecedented abundance and a further liberation of humanity from meaningless and repetitive work. Our problem isn’t that the sources of prosperity have dried up in a long drought; our problem is that we don’t know how to swim.

The real political division in American today is between those who think the old days can come back if only government does the right things (tax rich people; pump enough money into state and local government, health care and the higher education industry; raise tariffs high enough and sprinkle enough subsidies on enough industries to protect and rebuild the manufacturing sector) and those who realize that the past is gone and we must now create a new future. In a very real sense, liberals have become reactionary traditionalists while conservatives have become the new progressives.

But America is good at change. We absorb immigrants better than most. We like new things and like to try them out. We have an optimistic streak in our nature; we believe that change is basically good and that being open to new things will make us happier and better off. Our religious sensibility is future-oriented and believes that God is working through the chaos and uncertainties of life.

Roland Bainton, church historian (1894-1984), used to speak beautifully about the way people learned to open themselves to the changes God had in mind for them, and about the special kind of courage they needed to do that. He would encourage his students to think about something Martin Luther once said: “Christ is my bee. He comes not to sting me; he comes to bring me honey.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What is wrong with America?

Everyone seems to have an opinion, but one thing is agreed: America is in a bad way. The economy is in the dumper. Over 15% of the work force is either unemployed or working part time while searching for a full time job. Housing prices are depressed and home foreclosures continue at historic rates. Strong majorities say that the country is heading in the wrong direction. The approval rating of congress is in the single digits. And, from our political leaders, all we receive is cognitive dissonance. The president says jobs are “job one,” yet he stops construction of the Keystone oil pipeline, thereby killing thousands of good new jobs.

Yet, the expensive restaurants are busy. The stock market is flirting with 13,000. Gold is at an all time high. At the movie theater last week, we saw a woman with three kids at the candy counter; her bill was $65! What’s up with that?

Social issues are becoming more serious. Have you checked out the sorry state of public education? Hint: underfunding is not the cause. Last week the Federal Departments of Education (Arne Duncan) and Justice (Eric Holder) released a report showing that black males at ghetto schools are disciplined at a higher rate than other children. Duncan and Holder use this “fact” of discrimination to explain the poorer performance of blacks at those schools. Is this just ignorance or more cognitive dissonance? Thomas Sowell (a black man) has the answer: “Among the many serious problems of ghetto schools is the legal difficulty of getting rid of disruptive hoodlums, a mere handful of whom can be enough to destroy the education of a far larger number of other black students — and with it destroy their chances for a better life. Make no mistake about it - the black students who go to school to get an education are the main victims of the classroom disrupters whom Duncan and Holder are trying to protect.”

On the family front, for the first time ever, the number of children born out-of-wedlock to women of all races in their prime childbearing years exceeds 50%. Think about that – over half of these children have no father in the house. Most will struggle to avoid lives of poverty and ignorance. Yet on the morning TV talk shows (like The View) women make excuses, some even holding up the unwed mothers as positive examples of sexual freedom.

When asked what’s wrong, my conservative friends generally say it’s obvious: the controlling political Party wants to make Americans more dependent on government -- and less free. I think they get it about half right – recall prescription drug coverage and NCLB. It seems to be just a matter of degree. Furthermore, I believe that these economic and political problems are merely symptoms of more serious underlying issues that threaten the American way of life.

I think that there are two existential problems for the American experiment, one generally economic and the other social and moral. These problems are sometimes interrelated and sometimes cause and effect. Marxists, Social Darwinists, hard-core secularists -- materialists of every stripe -- would have us think that economics determines everything. If people steal, it is because they are poor. Poverty, to their way of thinking, is the primary cause of social decay. Religious believers, on the other hand, hold that the poor can be just as righteous as the rich; it depends on your beliefs and how well you follow them. Whatever the cause and effect may be, these economic and social issues, taken together, are causing a crisis of confidence in American institutions.

It is our good fortune that these issues have been studied by two eminent scholars who have recently published their observations. In a penetrating series of articles for “The American Interest,” Walter Russell Mead addresses the economic crisis. Mead believes that the crisis is the natural consequence of the liberal and progressive economic system we enjoy. The root cause of the crisis is a paradigm shift in employment, from factory work to whatever will take its place.

Just over a century ago, there was a similar crisis caused by the decline of the family farm. The second agricultural revolution – the boom in productivity due to new farming technologies – meant that far fewer farm workers were needed. But industry was not yet ready to employ the millions of former farmers who were then unemployed. After some hard years, the factory system grew to employ all of the surplus farmers, and more, including millions of immigrants. The new economic model based on industrialization provided a much better living for ever more Americans.

That so called “Fordist” economy fostered American prosperity for most of the twentieth century. But American innovation in factory automation, computers and “killer apps” grew productivity to the point where far fewer workers were required to produce the goods we needed and sold. Manufacturing jobs slumped, even while manufacturing output grew. Foreign competition from low wage countries exacerbated the job loss here in the US. Most of those jobs are gone forever. What will we do next?

The social/moral crisis has been investigated in a remarkable new book by Charles Murray. In “Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010”, Murray addresses the disintegration of the family in the economic bottom third of the white population. Murray chronicles the inexorable breakdown since the 1960s of America’s founding virtues – marriage, industry, honesty and religiosity – within the blue-collar class, and the personal and communal wreckage that has ensued. We’re seeing the “collapse of the central cultural institution in one particular part of America” – meaning the collapse of marriage among the working class.

It is hard to tie this cultural breakdown to economic conditions. During the Great Depression, the poor were more numerous and far poorer than today, yet economic stress did not undermine the family in those terribly hard times. Moreover, social breakdown began in the 1960s, a time of unprecedented prosperity. So what went wrong?

One cause was the radicalism of the feminist movement. While demanding equal rights for women, radicals also concluded that the nuclear family was antiquated -- a man in the home was superfluous. Feminine studies programs grew up in the universities preaching the virtues of single motherhood. The Federal government Great Society programs enabled people to avoid work and gave young women an incentive to have children without marrying. Sexual liberation was a great thing, especially for single men.

Fortunately for them, the upper class generally recognized how destructive this behavior was and gradually returned to their more conservative ways. The lower class whites never made the right turn and the statistics tell a sad story. For example, only 48 percent of working class whites aged 30-49 were married in 2010 compared to 83 percent in the white upper class.

These foundational problems, one economic and one social, have solutions. You may be surprised to find that one is progressive while the other is conservative. I’ll describe these problems and solutions in more detail in the following two posts.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Passion of Miss Sandra Fluke

Just who is Sandra Fluke and why does she matter? The third year law student at Georgetown, a Jesuit university, testified last week before Nancy Pelosi’s House committee in support of the Obamacare mandate to provide free contraceptive products to one and all. The 30 yr old Miss Fluke was no neophyte to this cause. At Georgetown, she has served as president of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, as vice president of the Women’s Legal Alliance, and as editor of the Journal of Gender and the Law. Today she is the re-born Joan of Arc, having testified, in essence, that “Congress should gut the First Amendment because it economically inconveniences the nation’s elite law students.” (Ben Johnson,

The fact that Georgetown Law does not cover contraception for students, Fluke testified, created “untenable burdens that impede our academic success” and proved Georgetown does not “live up to the Jesuit creed.” Contraception, she said, “can cost a woman over $3,000 a year during law school…that’s practically an entire summer’s salary.” She neglects to mention that $3,000 is enough to buy condoms for “protected sex” eight times a day. How’s that for sexual freedom?

As part of a Democrat effort to change the discussion from defending religious liberty against ObamaCare to one about the “subjugation of women,” Dems will attempt to make Fluke a feminist martyr. She and others who believe that institutions ought to be compelled to fund free birth control are, in effect, demanding a subsidy for having sex. No one is trying to prevent Sandra Fluke or anyone else from doing whatever they want in the privacy of their own bedrooms. “But what Fluke and President Obama are trying to do is to force religious institutions to pay for conduct their faith opposes.” The sovereign “assumes the right to insert himself into every aspect of daily life, including the provisions a Catholic college president makes for his secretary’s IUD.” (Mark Steyn, National Review, 3/5/12)

Those who care about life – including the life of a baby in the womb or out – within the benevolent embrace of Obamacare, need to remember how abortion became a Constitutional protected “right.” It started with a totally manufactured fight over contraceptives chosen to be a precursor to the abortion rights campaign. In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court found a right to contraceptives in the Constitution under the heading of “privacy” which Justice Douglas discovered in the Bill of Rights (that) have “penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” In other words, there is no right to privacy in the Constitution so Bill Douglas invented one. Step one in the abortion campaign accomplished. Roe v. Wade completed the fraud, when Justice Blackmun found that the right to privacy, wherever it comes from, includes the right to abortion.

Now we’ve “progressed” to partial birth abortion and even post birth abortion. Then–State Senator Obama opposed -- in 2001, 2002, and 2003 -- successive versions of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, an Illinois bill that was meant to provide protection for babies born alive after attempted abortions. The bill gave the infants protection as legal persons and required physicians to provide them with care. Infanticide was fine with Sen. Obama, as long as NARAL and NOW approved.

President Obama and his court want us to be more like the enlightened Europeans. An article recently published in the Oxford Journal of Medical Ethics says that newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life.” The article entitled “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” argued that “To bring up such (Downs) children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care.”

Welcome to Obamacare, and the brave new world of sexual freedom.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

His Majesty, the King

“…this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

How very far we have come since that day long ago when the English king Canute had a throne placed on the seashore, sat in it, ordered the tide to go back, and duly got his feet wet. Canute, being a down-to-earth man, was annoyed by fawning courtiers who tried to tell him that he was all-powerful, and the tide stunt was to demonstrate that he was not.

When Barack Obama was crowned (I mean inaugurated), there was a widespread sense that the messiah had arrived. One news anchor said he "felt this thrill going up my leg” while Evan Thomas, the Newsweek editor, noted:"In a way Obama is standing above the country, above the world. He's sort of GOD.” President Obama was called the “Son of promise, child of hope, our American prayer” and even the “Platonic philosopher king we’ve been awaiting for the past 2,400 years.” Michelle Obama said she was proud of America for the first time in her life.

Is there any wonder that the new president felt he had a mandate to remake America to his liking? Indeed, he cheerfully proclaimed that he intended to “fundamentally change America.”

Now progressives had been fundamentally changing American culture for several decades, and the European culture wars (the “Kulturkampf) go back to the time of von Bismark. The origin traces to the anti-Catholic “May laws” that intended to “suppress it (the Church), to destroy it, to crush it with violence,” since it was seen as standing in the way of German nationalism and progress. With the Nazis the anti-Catholic sentiment morphed into opposition to all religion. In 1935 school prayer was abolished and by 1938 Christmas carols and Nativity plays were banned. A Hitler youth song rang out:

We are the happy Hitler Youth, We have no need for Christian virtues ,….

Meanwhile, Hitler purchased popularity with lavish social welfare programs, national healthcare, environmentalism, and a fixation on organic foods and obesity (“Food is not a private matter.”)

The American Kulturkampf began with the 1960’s effort to eliminate prayer in public schools and state aid to parochial schools. Abortion was legalized on the basis that religiously informed morality had no place in public affairs. Roe v Wade merely extended the “right to privacy” found in an “emanation to the penumbra to the Constitution” that had been used to legalize contraception. In 1987 the Supreme Court ruled that moments of silence at the beginning of a school day constituted a government endorsement of prayer. How far we have come!

Now we have Obamacare. Charles Krauthammer enumerated its constitutional wreckage. (Daily Breeze 2/19/12)

Obamacare forces religious institutions to provide medical insurance that guarantees free birth control, tubal ligation and morning-after abortifacients, supposedly free of charge through the generosity of the religious institution's insurance company. On what authority can the president unilaterally order a private company to provide a service at no cost to certain select beneficiaries? This is government by presidential fiat. In Venezuela, that's done all the time.

Obamacare is an assault on the free exercise of religion since church schools, hospitals and charities will be forced into doctrinal violations commanded by the state. It is an assault on free enterprise since the state treats private insurers the way it does government-regulated utilities, determining everything of importance including risk ratios (for age, gender, smoking, etc.) and what is to be included in the basic policy (abortions will be next). It is an assault on individual autonomy since every citizen without insurance is ordered to buy it, again under penalty of law.

Many thought it was merely political hyperbole when Obama promised to stop the seas from rising. Others saw him as “the product of the all-knowing quantum field of intelligence” and “not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh.” I think Obama meant it when he said he would fundamentally change America. The Platonic philosopher king has spoken.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chadwick Boy Comes Home

He walked into the room to the chorus of 300 kazoos playing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Michael Reagan is truly loved in these parts. The Republican Women luncheon was sold out, and we were not disappointed. Michael shared some of his childhood experiences here on the Hill. -- He attended Chadwick School because Ron and Jane did not want their adopted son to be exposed to the temptations of Beverly Hills High (and they wanted him out of the house).

He told heartwarming stories about his dad, who was a bit of a cheap skate.

Michael walked into his father’s hospital room --

Michael: How are you doing dad?

Ronald: Well, you know son, I was shot yesterday. (in that soft, slow Reagan tone)

Michael: I know that dad; I just wanted to know how you are feeling.

Ronald: Well, Michael, I’m feeling OK. But I have some advice for you.

Michael: What’s that dad?

Ronald: If you’re going to get shot, don’t wear your new suit.

Michael: I see it dad, the blue suit all cut up lying in the corner.

Ronald: Yes, they had to cut it off me. I was hoping they would try to save the suit. After all, I am the President.

Michael: I know dad.

Ronald: Michael, the boy who shot me; his name is Hinkley. Do you think his parents have money?

Michael: They are oil people, dad.

Ronald: Well, do you think they’d buy me a new suit?

And so it went, one endearing story after another, for over an hour, without a single note.

But there were serious moments as well. Like when he spoke about how we just have to beat Obama before he destroys our country. Michael would vote for any of the Republican candidates (even Ron Paul) and he wishes they would stop taking pot shots at each other and concentrate on Obama. Republicans are sometimes their own worst enemies.

Democrats, being ideologically pure, have no problem with any Democrat candidate (even Barbara Boxer), while Republicans are a more diverse bunch. I thought about what I believe, as a conservative Republican, and contrasted it to mainline Democrat ideology.

Republican vs. Democrat

Rights bestowed by God vs. Rights granted by the State

Individual liberty vs. Government control of our lives
The Constitution vs. A living constitution
Individual responsibility vs. Cradle-to-grave welfare
Life vs. “Choice” (ie a woman’s right to kill)
American is exceptional vs. Just like Greece is exceptional, or China, or..
Right to bear arms vs. Gun control
Legal immigration vs. Open borders
Right to work vs. Unions

Democrats are congenitally wedded to their beliefs, in some cases with a religious fervor (eg. the sacred right of a woman to reproductive freedom). By contrast, Republicans are renegades: Goldwater was pro choice, Reagan granted amnesty to illegal aliens, Bush gave us prescription drugs at government expense, and, did you know, William F. Buckley supported legalizing pot.

Michael told the story about his dad appointing Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court in order to keep a promise to his daughter, Maureen, who in return gave up campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Several times Michael reminded us to be more like Democrats – to get into the game. Write letters to the editor, knock on doors, don’t just send money like we always do.

Now we need to nominate a ticket and get behind it. For my money the best would be Mitt Romney as the presidential nominee with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for VP. It’s a WASP-free ticket -- a Mormon and a Roman Catholic -- How diverse is that!!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Car Wars

Imagine your teenage son and his cheerleader girlfriend hopping into his brand new jazzy sports scar for its maiden spin. OK, I know this merely reinforces the Palos Verdes stereotype of indulgent parents and spoiled kids. But, hey, the kid is an honor student who will be attending Stanford U. in the fall. Anyway, the car enters the 405 freeway and carefully moves across toward the HOV speed lane. Suddenly the unimaginable happens: the throttle opens wide, the engine revs into the red zone, the brakes cease to function and the steering wheel locks tight. A disaster is imminent.

This is merely the opening scene of Chris Malburg’s new techno-thriller, “Car Wars: A Novel of Industrial Terrorism.” (Get it at or at My friend and PVE neighbor, Chris is a noted business writer who is trying his hand at fiction. And his new book is a fun read, especially on a Kindle at RAT Beach. Without giving away the plot, let me just say that there are plenty of villains in the book, among them Yonggan Zhanshi, ruthless industrialist in control of a devastating weapon of mass destruction, the head of the Chinese National Bank and the honorable President of the PRC.

In a memorable scene the Chinese President reads the riot act to the American president. Here is an excerpt:

...The Chinese President frowned at his American counterpart. “America is bankrupt,” he began. “Morally as well as economically. I can do nothing about the former, but I can do something about your economics. I am your banker. I am now calling in the money I have lent to you. From this moment on, you work for me.” The Chinese President paused for a few seconds to let the shock of what he had just said fully sink in.

“America’s Social Security, its Medicare and Medicaid and its unfunded pension liabilities created by the powerful labor unions now comes to 93 percent of your gross domestic product. There is no more money left to pay for anything else. And so you rely on China, Japan and the UK to buy your Treasury debt to fund your cash needs. No more!
“Your baby-boom generation is now retired. This large portion of your former workforce no longer pays taxes, but they do suck down your government’s benefits like hogs on a teet. Had you raised taxes to pay for all this years ago and reduced spending, things might have been different--”

“I have been in consultation with my fellow holders of US debt. The IMF is calling the temporary line of credit it granted the United States. You have 30 days to repay the $100 billion you borrowed. Additionally, China demands that the US immediately repay $500 billion in Treasury securities coming due in the next 60 days. Not only will China not lend you the $300 billion you have come here to borrow, but my country will no longer be in attendance at your Treasury auctions.”

The Chinese President stopped his pacing in front of his counterpart, turned and looked him in the eye. “This financial hiatus China is taking from America does not have to be permanent. If the US puts its financial house in order and affords China one other courtesy, I may elect to resume doing business on a limited scale.”

The American President sat very still in his chair. He rejoiced that there might yet be a way out of this financial morass. “Yes, Mr. President? What kinds of house cleaning tasks do you have in mind?”

The Chinese President’s knife-edged hand slashed the air, making his first point. “America will limit the coverage of Medicare and Medicaid--no more expensive treatments. Either your people will pay for them on their own or they will do without.” The hand slashed the air a second time, “Next, no health insurance subsidies. You will explain to your greedy, unemployed nation of welfare recipients that healthcare is not a right of citizenship but instead, a personal responsibility.”

“Next,” continued the Chinese President, “You will eliminate all nonessential governmental expenses. You will begin with farming subsidies, ethanol production, public broadcasting, energy conservation and trade promotion.” The knife-edged hand slashed the air yet a third time, “You will go to a flat tax system where everyone--every single American citizen--pays taxes equivalent to 18 percent on the income they earn. You will eliminate all deductions and tax credits. You will also increase the gasoline tax to $2 a gallon. You will balance your federal budget.”

The US President raised his hand for permission to speak. “That’s a lot to take in. Are you finished, Mr. President?”

“I will tell you when I am finished...

Good stuff that. I had no idea that the PRC President was a Republican. In fact some of his action items could be taken straight from Newt Gingrich’s new 21st Century Contract with America.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Faster than Light

"We don't serve faster than light neutrinos in here" said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

The cognoscenti were abuzz -- Einstein was wrong! Relativity was debunked! European scientists at CERN in Switzerland and Gran Sasso in Italy had shown that the speed of light is not really the limit. Physicists, on the other hand, were mildly amused, one, even,
who promised to eat his shorts if the experimental result was correct. The great majority of physicists, a clear consensus, were skeptical of the results, thinking that there must be an experimental error.

Interestingly, no one in the physics establishment mentioned the consensus. No one accused the experimenters of being Relativity-deniers. No one tried to stop publication of the seminal paper in a prestigious journal. And no one claimed that the CERN-Sasso scientists were bigots – after all, Einstein was a Jew. In short, the physics community reacted not at all like the global warming community when confronted with contrary evidence.

So what was all the excitement about? The experiment, code named OPERA, was built to detect neutrinos, ghostly subatomic particles, which are produced at CERN and aimed towards Gran Sasso, 700kms away. There are several types of neutrinos and two of the species are called mu neutrinos (mu-nu) and tau neutrinos (tau-nu). The primary purpose of the experiment was to determine if any of the mu-nus from CERN had converted into tau-nus along the way. If so, this would help establish the idea that neutrinos have a finite (really tiny) mass that might account for the much-sought-after “Dark Matter” hidden in the universe. A sidelight was to measure the time of flight of the neutrinos and compare it to the time light would take to travel the same distance. Surprise! The neutrinos took less time, 60 nanoseconds less.

OPERA chief scientist Antonio Ereditato explained that “we are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result - because it is crazy. And of course the consequences can be very serious.” Indeed, much of modern physics - as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his Special Theory of Relativity - depends on the idea that nothing can exceed the speed of light (in vacuum).

Faster-than-light particles, so-called tachyons, have long been contemplated by theoretical physicists. If they did exist they could be used to send signals into one's own past, a clear paradox of causality -- and an explanation of the backwards joke at the beginning of this note. In fact, the most famous quip about “faster than light” has by now attained a venerable age (Reginald Buller in Punch, 12/19/23):

There was a young lady named Bright,

Whose speed was far faster than light;
She started one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

The upheaval of known physics resulting from the discovery of tachyons would be momentous. A few astounding effects are discussed briefly in the Appendix.

In a related development, the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics has been granted for an experimental error! It was 1997 and Adam Riess was sure he'd spotted a blatant error in his results -- measurements of exploding stars implied that the universe was expanding at a faster and faster rate, instead of slowing down, as everyone expected. Indeed, astrophysicists believed that the rate of expansion of the universe -- set in motion by the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago -- would be slowing down due to the influence of gravity. The goal was to figure out how rapid the deceleration was. What the scientists found, instead, was that the expansion of the universe was accelerating -- an observation that could be explained by the existence of a mysterious “Dark Energy” that acts like anti-gravity. Further experiments supported this finding and, even though no one knows what the Dark Energy is, the experimenters were awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize.

In breaking news (10/5/11): The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Dan Shechtman, an Israeli scientist, for his discovery of quasi-crystals, a form of matter that was not thought to exist. Shechtman faced skepticism, even expulsion from his research team, before his discovery won widespread acceptance as a fundamental breakthrough. “The main lesson that I have learned over time is that a good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he read in the textbooks,” Shechtman, 70, told a news conference in Haifa, Israel.

These cases illustrate the way real science should work. It is not politically motivated, and is not right just because it is believed, no matter the consensus.


In classical physics, mass is independent of speed. In Relativity, however, Einstein showed that the mass of a particle is related to its velocity, v:

M = M0/sqrt(1- v2/c2)

where M0 is the particle’s rest mass (mass at zero speed), c is the light speed and sqrt(…..) signifies the square root of the quantity in brackets. As one tries to accelerate a particle, and its velocity increases, so does its mass because of the v in the denominator of the equation. That makes it harder to speed up the particle. The result is that for all normal particles (we might call the tardyons) the speed has an upper limit of c, the speed of light.

Note that for tachyons, if they exist, the term v/c exceeds one, and the term in the brackets is negative. Since the square root of a negative number is imaginary, the mass of a tachyon is a strange thing indeed.

Another curious effect is that, unlike ordinary particles, the speed of a tachyon increases as its energy decreases. In particular, energy approaches zero when v approaches infinity. Therefore, just as tardyons are forbidden to break the light-speed barrier, so too are tachyons forbidden from slowing down to below c, because infinite energy is required to reach the barrier from either above or below.