The Long View 2005-01-26: Anonymous, Huis Clos, Alcohol, Acoustic Decavitation

Michael Scheuer still strikes me as a bit of a nut, but the prediction John Reilly heaped scorn on here seems to have been spot on.


Anonymous, Huis Clos, Alcohol, Acoustic Decavitation

 

Michael Scheuer, the former CIA expert on Osama bin Laden, is best known for his book Imperial Hubris. In that critique of the Terror War, he tells us, among other things, that nothing is more certain than the collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan. Here he is on the PBS News Hour of January 24 applying his expertise on west-central Asia to Iraq:

I completely agree...that Zarqawi is a more nationalist oriented person trying to drive the point home that the Sunnis and Sunni Islam should dominate Iraq. But Iraq is really spinning out of control. Iraq has become and will continue to be the Afghanistan of the new century, if you will. There are Jihadists coming from all over the Middle East and from the Far East and from Europe to fight in Afghanistan, or, I'm sorry, in Iraq. And it's being supported [by] money from Saudi Arabia, money from the Gulf, from private donors. So we're really seeing the birth of a modern Mujahideen movement that in ways will transcend the simple question of who rules Iraq.

May I point out that every prediction Michael Scheuer made about Afghanistan has, at least so far, turned out to be wrong? In fact, if Iraq turns into Afghanistan, we will have little to complain of. What we have here is an example of a notion that has become an axiom for most the foreign-policy establishment: the Iraq War is unwinnable. Being unfalsifiable, that axiom will remain true even after the new government consolidates control over the country and Coalition troops withdraw.

* * *

And of course the foreign-policy establishment will have a point, since the final state of things will not be an outcome that they anticipated, or that the American people expected, or perhaps that the Bush Administration expected. At any rate, so said Mark Steyn in the Chicago Sun-Times of January 23:

The Democrats' big phrase is "exit strategy." ...

Next week's election in Iraq will go not perfectly but well enough, and in time the number of U.S. troops needed there will be reduced, and in some more time they'll be reduced more dramatically, and one day there'll be none at all, just a small diplomatic presence that functions a bit like the old British ministers did in the Gulf emirates for centuries: They know everyone and everything, and they keep the Iraqi-American relationship running smoothly enough that Baghdad doesn't start looking for other foreign patrons. In other words: no exit.

And why should this be considered a good thing?

A century ago, American policy in Mexico was all exit and no strategy. That week's President-for-Life gets out of hand? Go in, whack him, exit, and let the locals figure out who gets to be the new bad guy....By contrast, the British went in to India without an "exit strategy," stayed for generations and midwifed the world's most populous democracy and a key U.S. ally in the years ahead...The problem with "exit strategy" fetishization is that these days everywhere's Mexico -- literally, in the sense that four of the 9/11 killers obtained the picture ID they used to board their flights that morning through the support network for "undocumented" workers...

One notes that British influence in India declined somewhat after the British Army withdrew, and also that it is only fairly recently that India stopped looking like a basket case.

Be that as it may, we should remember that the Iraq War has never been about Iraq, but the effect that the intervention would have on the region. That could still turn out to be quite as catastrophic as Michael Scheuer anticipates. The odds are, though, he will be wrong about that, too.

* * *

Should anxiety about these great questions prove unbearable, take heart in the latest scientific news about the most common treatment:

There's new research out on the health effects of alcohol. Studies have connected moderate alcohol consumption with lower risks of heart disease. Now research published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine examines alcohol's effect on memory and mental function in older people, and suggests that moderate drinking may help prevent memory loss and mental decline.

Perhaps the brain and the liver are tradeoffs.

* * *

There is more good news on the cold-fusion front:

Researchers Report Bubble Fusion Results Replicated: Physical Review E has announced the publication of an article by a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Purdue University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the Russian Academy of Science (RAS) stating that they have replicated and extended previous experimental results that indicated the occurrence of nuclear fusion using a novel approach for plasma confinement. [Acoustic Cavitation]...

The research team used a standing ultrasonic wave to help form and then implode the cavitation bubbles of deuterated acetone vapor. The oscillating sound waves caused the bubbles to expand and then violently collapse, creating strong compression shock waves around and inside the bubbles...

According to the new data, the observed neutron emission was several orders of magnitude greater than background and had extremely high statistical accuracy. Tritium, which also is produced during the fusion reactions, was measured and the amount produced was found to be consistent with the observed neutron production rate.

I gather that this approach is no closer to the energy break-even point than is magnetic-containment fusion, but at least you don't have to build a huge machine to do the research.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-12-02: Tepid Fusion; Lies; Toads; Republicans; The UN Again

Cold fusion is a pipe dream of course. I would love to have cheap energy too, but there is nothing there.


Tepid Fusion; Lies; Toads; Republicans; The UN Again

 

The other shoe has dropped on the cold fusion issue, it seems:

Evidence on Cold Fusion Remains Inconclusive, New Review Finds

This is the long-awaited Department of Energy review, and in a way it's a vindication. "There are legitimate questions still to be answered" is better than "This is a delusion on which not a further cent of public money should be spent." Unfortunately, we seem no closer to usable energy.

* * *

This seems to have been everybody's favorite science story in the past few days:

WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Brain scans show that the brains of people who are lying look very different from those of people who are telling the truth, U.S. researchers said on Monday...."We found a total of seven areas of activation in the deception (group)," [said Dr. Scott Faro, director of the Functional Brain Imaging Center at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia]. "We found four areas of activity in the truth-telling arm."...Overall, it seemed to take more brain effort to tell the lie than to tell the truth, Faro found.

This implies, at least to me, that there is a link between mendacity and creativity. I am reminded of Ursula LeGuin's insufficiently appreciated novel, City of Illusion, in which one of the Shing invaders of Earth justifies the basis of his culture:

In the Yahweh Canon, it says that, in the beginning, the universe was dark. But then God lied, and there was light.

I quote from memory.

* * *

Negative reviews of a book or a movie are much more fun to read, and to write, than a favorable review; so much so that both readers and reviewers should limit their indulgence in this matter. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is usually circumspect in this regard, but he did let himself go for Vishnu Naipaul's new novel, Magic Seeds:

The people Willie meets in London are every bit as loathsome as the revolutionaries he met in India. They are all narcissistic snobs, obsessed with status and class, and their own agendas of revenge and oneupsmanship.

In fact ugly, contemptuous remarks pop out of the mouths - like small, poisonous toads - of all of the characters in this book.

I liked that image so much, I searched for an picture of a small, poisonous toad. Look.

* * *

And now that the Red half of the nation has finished gloating over the results of the last election, Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online reminds us that the Republican Party won, not because it is the party of conservatism, but because, just for now, it is The Party of Order:

Imagine you're an umbrella salesman during the early rainfall that led to Noah's flood. You might think these are the best of times because business is so good...Forget conservative and liberal for a moment. Think order and disorder. Disorderly times are good for orderly parties. Orderly times are good for disorderly parties, largely because mankind can always be counted on to cure its boredom by mucking things up...Conservatives are the chief defenders of a capitalist, free-market system, and the capitalist, free-market system is perhaps the most profoundly unconservative social force in human history.

Again, I don't see much of a future for either major party in anything like their current forms.

* * *

Speaking of things with little future in their current forms, a set of proposals for reform of the United Nations has just been issued. Among other things, the draft makes some circumspect provision for preemptive military action:

It said that if the arguments for "anticipatory self-defense" in such cases were good ones, they should be put to the Security Council, which would have the power to authorize military action under guidelines including the seriousness of the threat, the proportionality of the response, the exhaustion of all alternatives and the balance of consequences.

Apparently in anticipation of objections from Washington over that requirement, the report said, "For those impatient with such a response, the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of nonintervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all."

No reform is going to work unless it links control over the use force with the willingness to provide it. I have no institutional structure to recommend for this purpose, but nothing less will do.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-11-21: Shaken Faith

This is finally an interesting political post, a reminder that increased turnout in 2002 and 2004 helped elect Republican candidates, which runs counter to what both parties and most pollsters think then and now. Of course, we've also had twelve more years of demographic change, but much like cold fusion, the permanent flip of the electorate seems to just be a few years away.


Shaken Faith

 

Remember that Winona Ryder/Christian Slater movie, Heathers (1989)? It starts with a student poll that asks the question, "If you won the lottery, but then space aliens announced that the world would be destroyed in five days, what would you do?" When I first heard that, my reaction was that the two parts of the question cancelled each other out: if the world were about to end, your money would be no good; only sometime later did I realize the question was supposed to ask what you would do if you had the resources to do anything, and you could do it without consequences. In any case, that hilarious example of Gen-X adolescent nihilism came to mind when I saw this recent exercise in applied eschatology:

LONDON (AFP) - A British schoolteacher, attempting to motivate her pupils into making the most of each day, told them a meteorite was about to smash into the Earth and that they should all return home to say goodbye to their families, a report said...Saying she had bad news, the teacher announced that a meteor would strike the Earth in 10 days' time, and that they should return home and say their "final farewells" to their parents.

After the crowd of 13- and 14-year-olds looked on in horror, and many burst into tears, the teacher swiftly explained that she was only trying to encourage them to "seize the day".

Youth today lacks the apocalyptic spirit, I fear.

* * *

As I have had occasion to note before, research into the possibility of cold fusion is almost respectable again. The Washington Post ran an account of a recent meeting between the US Department of Energy and cold-fusion proponents:

For the scientists who had risked ostracism to persist in studying cold fusion, the very fact that the Energy Department was reviewing their work this summer seemed like a breakthrough. True, according to two of the presenters who were there, the meeting began with harsh questions. But at 5 p.m., the presenters were ordered to leave the room, and when they returned, the mood had visibly lifted. At the end, the scientists presenting the idea and those reviewing it all shook hands. The reviewers stayed on to discuss the material. The cold fusionists went to a barbecue, feeling celebratory. No one had told them if the presentation had convinced anyone that cold fusion was real. But it was nice, they said, after so many years, just to be treated with respect.

Still, anyone who reads the whole article is not going to be very encouraged about cold fusion's prospects. During the 1990s, cold fusion entered into the world of "rejected knowledge." Like UFOs, cold fusion research appealed chiefly to marginal people, who said that the powers-that-be were trying to cover the whole thing up. The research never fell entirely into the hands of cranks; the serious researchers in the field now seem to be about to persuade the DOE not to automatically dismiss the field. What the researchers have not done, however, is produce results that suggest the possibility of an energy revolution.

* * *

Of course, just because the experts believe something does not mean it is true. That is one of the lessons we might take from Gerard Alexander's analysis in the Weekly Standard (Nov. 22):

The End of a Left-wing Fantasy
There wasn't a huge untapped pool of Democratic voters.

It's not difficult to detect a level of demoralization among some Democrats that can't be explained by the loss of a single presidential election by three points. One reason may be the death, on November 2, of the myth that has long nourished the hopes of the American Left -- the idea that tens of millions of non-voters (if only they could be turned out) were an ace up their sleeve....Nationwide, voters increased from about 105 million in 2000 to somewhere near 120 million this year. That's a rise in turnout from about 56 percent to around 61 percent of eligible voters.

I think it was as late as 7:00 pm Eastern Time on November 2 that I saw a prominent pollster on television explaining that a turnout of 115 million probably meant a Kerry victory, and 120 million would ensure it. This was not a partisan statement: most Republican analysts thought the same thing.

We should note that, by the standards of some other countries, the turnout on election day was not very high. That does not affect the point of the article, however. The political system is adjusting to the idea that the 39% of potential voters who did not vote may not be very different from the 61% who did. This suggests, to me at least, that the Republicans may become less leery of attempts to make voter registration universal and automatic. Democrats may decide that the real opinions of the reluctant voter may be among the things they don't want to know.

* * *

If you can't refute religion metaphysically, the next best thing is to talk about it with a vocabulary that systematically excludes any reference to what religion is and claims to do. Consider, for instance, this properly skeptical piece by Eduardo Porter in today's New York Times:

Give Them Some of that Free-Market Religion

But over the past 10 years or so a growing group of American sociologists has deployed a novel theory to explain the United States' apparently anomalous behavior [in being persistently and even increasingly religious]: supply-side economics. Americans, they say, are fervently religious because there are so many churches competing for their devotion...Europeans..are fundamentally just as religious as Americans...but suffer from an uncompetitive market --lazy, quasi-monopolistic churches that have been protected by the state...

On the other hand...

Islamic states, for instance, have very strong quasi-state churches and high religious participation...in the United States, the most religious states and counties are those most dominated by a single denomination -- Mormon, Baptist, or Pentacostal -- not those where there is most competition...

Despite the complete uselessness of this economic model, I predict we will see it cited again and again.

* * *

Moving on from economics to epidemiology, here is another hypothesis we can safely ignore:

Devout Catholics 'risk lung cancer': Churchgoers risk lung cancer because of unhealthy air caused by candles and incense, researchers say...The scientists [studying air quality in a church in Holland] found new forms of "free radicals" that could threaten Roman Catholic rituals...Most at risk would be priests and those who work in churches but "worshippers devout enough to spend several hours each day in church could also be affected", the scientists say.

We have had incense and candles in churches for a very long time. If there were a bad health effect, we really would have noticed by now.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-06-02

Parkes 64m Radio TelescopeJohn was interested in Fortean phenomena. While this subject provides plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the credulous, every so often fish and frogs really do rain from the sky. One might also note that the spectacular electrical phenomena known as sprites and blue jets have been observed for over a century by pilots, but such reports were widely dismissed until someone managed to catch one on camera.

Cold fusion and reactionless thrusters keep disappointing everyone, but there is a big enough payoff in these things that federal agencies with no sense of humor keep funding small experiments in the hope of a breakthrough.

I am disinclined to dismiss data out of hand. I am also disinclined to give an n of 1 more weight than it deserves. I think John understood this pretty well.

Science!

 

Apropos of nothing in particular, here are some science stories I have been following. They are not quite fringe science. All they have in common is that, if they have substance, the world will never be the same again.

Talking to Extraterrestrials: I have my own, rather convoluted ideas about the likelihood of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescopes. The fact is, though, this is one of those questions about which almost all speculation is equally ill-founded. The matter is bound up with fashions in evolutionary theory and often driven by bad metaphysics. There really is no way to settle these issues other than by experiment; that is, to just search.

Let us assume that signals are detected, and the source is near enough for an exchange of messages. This leaves us with the problem of communicating with a non-human intelligence. The difficulties in this connection may have been underestimated. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to say that, if a lion spoke, we could not understand it. The idea is that understanding language is as dependent on the nature of the hearer as on the structure and use of the language. Even creatures as closely related as a human being and a lion experience the world so differently that they could not be expected to devise a common code.

Scientists often skip over this problem by asserting that "mathematics is a universal language." This position is known as Mathematical Platonism. It is one of the perennials of philosophy, but so is the position that mathematics is just another arbitrary language. John Barrow, in his wonderful book Pi in the Sky, considered whether and to what degree mathematics is culturally conditioned. He even considered the possibility that we might contact extraterrestrials who have no concept of a "theorem." He came down, grudgingly, on the side of Platonism, though he admitted he had no answer for the old objection that there is no obvious way to connect the Platonic world to this one.

I write about this now because I recently came across some research from Yale that might cast light on the matter. The study concerned the way that autistic people watch movies. Both the autistic subjects and the normal control group were highly intelligent and verbal. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the two groups watched movie dialogue differently. The normals watched the eyes of the characters, while the autistic people watched the mouths.

As with so much else about autism, probably we are just seeing an extreme manifestation of ordinary behavior. If you watch a film in a language you do not know well, for instance, you might find yourself looking at the mouths, too. In any case, what seemed to be happening was that the normals assembled what they saw on the screen into the integral Gestalt we call a person. The autistic people were processing information, without integrating the behaviors they saw into persons. Autistic people can do that, of course, but it takes work.

This could be the kind of problem we might have with extraterrestrials, and they with us. We might be able to mirror signals that refer to the same physical events, but we would not see what the events meant, or indeed that they meant anything. At least initially, the flow of data would not suggest mind or consciousness. We would be lucky to spot the flow as artificial. At that point, we might do well to send for special education teachers.

Black Light: I fell for Cold Fusion from the time when the claims to have produced it first surfaced in 1989. There were so many other wonders in that year; the discovery of a perpetual source of virtually free power seemed to be natural. I was inclined to attribute the early skepticism about the discovery to malice and jealousy on the part of the skeptics. The subject still makes me grumpy.

I still think that, if I wait long enough, some table-top physics will come along to change life as we know it. The best contender at the moment is "black light," ultraviolet radiation produced by an excited plasma. Black Light Power, a New Jersey company, has already built some interesting batteries and generators using proprietary Black Light technology. Even more interesting, NASA has invested some money to pursue Black Light. The technology's proponents say they can make a hydrogen plasma rocket engine that will work in the atmosphere.

The problem is that the technology may require ripping up 20th-century physics. The Black Light people say they have found classical solutions for quantum phenomena. They say they are getting energy from hydrogen atoms below the ground state. They have peer-reviewed articles documenting some novel effects. I don't understand the claims well enough to say whether the hair-raising physics has to be correct for the technology to work.

As we say in New Jersey, it's nice work if you can get it.

Lost Civilizations: When people claim to have found a lost civilization, they are usually either (1) lying; (2) failing to recognize the remains of some known culture; or (3) mistaking natural formations for artificial ones. I was thus somewhat surprised that last year's reports about submerged megalithic structures off western Cuba's Guanahacabibes Peninsula have not gone away. The observations were made by a Cuban-Canadian partnership looking for sunken treasure ships. What they found, using sonar and robot submersibles, looks like an extensive area of roads, walls, and pyramids. A sunken city is not by itself so remarkable. The problem is that this one is 2,000 feet down.

Even in the geologically unstable Caribbean, there is no obvious way this could have happened. The region in question probably once connected Cuba with Central America, but that was on the order of 50,000 years ago. At that time, there were no civilizations. There were some barely human hominids in the eastern hemisphere, but no one in the west.

The odds are still strong that the find will turn out to be natural structures after all. If they are not, then no doubt special explanations will be found to fit the subsidence into known history. Huge, submarine landslides are not unheard of: a ridge might have slid into the sea just a few thousand years ago, raising a great tsunami in the process. To discover that such a thing had happened would be wonder enough.

The alternative is too disconcerting to be wonderful. We would not be talking about Atlantis anymore, but of a city out of Lovecraft.


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