Saturday, February 27, 2016

Deep Time: Take Two

It's hard to fully comprehend the depth of time past. The universe came into existence some 13.8 billion years ago (BYA). The earth was formed around 4.5 BYA. The first signs of life – simple microbes – appear about 3.5 BYA. But as presented in a wonderful book about just how complex and essential they are – Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable by Paul Falkowski – microbes are anything but simple. Microbes – bacteria and archaea – are prokaryotes, single cell life without a nucleus or organelles. Everything else – single cell or multi-cell plants and animals – are eukaryotes: cells containing a nucleus and organelles such as mitochondria. The prokaryotes developed the ability to extract energy from the chemical environment and, eventually, from the sun. It took another two billion years for them to evolve into complex cells: the eukaryotes.

Two billion years is a long time. Why did it take that long to go from bacteria and archaea to the first eukaryotes? The machinery to convert chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide or ammonia, and then the much harder task of using sunlight, to fuel life would have taken a long time to develop. But not just that. Extracting energy from the environment meant a complex process of freeing electrons from chemical bonds, transferring those electrons around within the cell and using them ultimately to create other chemicals that would store those electrons (i.e., serve as “food”) to provide energy for cellular processes. Photosynthesis is an even more complex process that uses sunlight to crack electrons from water and combine them – through intermediate steps – with carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and, as a waste product, oxygen. This complex machinery had to evolve step by step through the repeated random changes in DNA and RNA as winnowed through natural selection. (A good part of the first billion years after the formation of earth would have been used for the construction of the RNA/DNA mechanism itself.) As Falkowski argues, the processes for producing and consuming biologic energy work as tightly as a complex and precise system of interlocking gears: one out of place and the whole won't work. All the parts of the machinery had to come on line more or less at once or it would not function. Somehow, the machinery evolved anyway, implying that a lot of time was required for vastly more failures – in which the resulting organism from random mutation simply died – than successes.

That the machinery was there to be evolved – that the givens of the universe allowed such a thing to come into existence – is also worth pondering. As is the fact that we would not be here otherwise.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Broken Symmetry – An Interlude on Potholders and the Big Bang

Was working on finishing a potholder recently – on one of those old-fashioned hand looms – and ran out of the colors I needed to finish it in my preferred manner. I usually like to do symmetrical color schemes where warp and woof mirror each other. But this time, though I thought I planned it out properly, I came up short on a key color. I thought of trying to hide the misalignment by using a near match but that didn't seem right. I eventually decided to just break the symmetry in a way that suggested a kind of purpose. It later occurred to me that this might have been at work at the Big Bang as well.

When the energy released by the Big Bang cooled enough to allow the appearance of charged particles, an equal amount of matter and anti-matter should have been created. But if that had been the case, the two would have combined in mutual annihilation. This obviously didn't happen since we are here. For some reason, the symmetry broke. So far, every measurement seems to confirm that particles of matter and their anti-matter counterparts are identical except for charge. So how did matter baryons come to outnumber anti-mater baryons and thus survive annihilation to form the observable universe? Now maybe – and here come the potholder point – there was simply not enough of something. Perhaps the very singularity that expanded into the Big Bang was already imprinted with some characteristic that meant less of one flavor of charged particle than the other, just as it seems different particles were imprinted with varying degrees of stickiness in the Higgs field?

The search for the physics determining the basic constituents and constants of the universe may simply have reached the point of having to think about these matters in a different way

                                                       The potholder in question

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Gravity Waves, Relativity and Quantum Physics: Part I

The recent finding of gravity waves produced by the merger of two distant black holes has been taken as yet another confirmation of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. There have been various such confirming measurements, including the gravitational redshift and lensing of light and non-Newtonian, changes in the orbit of Mercury. But the deeper significance of this latest discovery lies in what it may say about the rival grand theory, quantum physics. The Standard Model of modern physics has proven remarkably good at accounting for the known elementary particles (fermions, hadrons and bosons). The measurement of the Higgs boson in 2012 was an astounding confirmation of our most basic understanding of the origin of mass. Despite the “spookiness” of some of the predictions of quantum physics – such as quantum entanglement – many of its strangest have been verified.

Indeed, the Standard Model is rather too perfect. It seems to account for most of the basic parameters of matter and energy including three of the four fundamental forces: —electromagnetic and the weak nuclear (unified as electro-weak) and the strong nuclear interaction (which holds together the atomic nucleus). But it cannot explain gravity, dark matter or dark energy (thus leaveing out 95% of what we believe to be the universe). In trying to extend its reach – to achieve a grand unified theory to include gravity –- physicists have so far failed to find the new phenomenon that would hint at new physics in the form of supersymmetry or string theory. The Standard Model explains what it does so perfectly that those seeking to take it further cannot seem to find any of the discrepancies that might point the way to a Grand Unified Theory of Everything.

General Relativity, on the other hand, has been confirmed in every case. It provides a coherent theory of the universe as framed by spacetime and the speed of light. It does not explain the Big Bang or the menagerie of fundamental particles. Rather, General Relativity describes how mass interacts with space and across time. Mass deforms spacetime and matter and energy – including gravity waves – travel in straight lines along the bends. Einstein's famous equation – the E=MC2 of Special Relativity – does not explain why mass and energy are interchangeable but provides a way to measure the transformation of one into the other within the limitation imposed by the speed of light (which cannot be exceeded).

Relativity is in essence a top-down theory. It begins with Einstein's grand view of the very nature of spacetime, the basic fabric of the universe. Quantum physics is more bottoms-up, seeking to discover the basic pieces of reality. Relativity is a complete and verified theory within its defined area. The Standard Model of quantum physics is incomplete within its domain. It may be that relativity is somehow the more fruitful way to think about the universe. For Einstein, gravity is not a force, as it was for Newton, but an artifact of mass bending spacetime. Quantum physics again treats gravity as a force and seeks to find its particle, the “graviton.” But what considerations may be drawn from looking at quantum physics in light of relativity, instead of trying to extend it to account for gravity? The key may lie in pondering more deeply mass, light and the role of the observer.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mistakes Were Made II

The US is now in the process of choosing its next president. Everyone – in America and beyond – should insist that all the candidates clearly define their notion of national interest and explain how it addresses limitations as well as possibilities. Then the American people must choose very wisely. The 21st Century appears to be just beginning a wild ride.

Full piece in TransConflict.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Republican Conundrum

A good friend of mine, a Republican former Hill staffer and Bush Administration (W) official, tells me that as of this week he cast his support to Kasich. As he sees it, Trump and Cruz would spell disaster for the party. He believes that while Trump and Cruz together get around 50% of the Republican vote, they can't make much headway into the other half. He would even vote for Bernie rather than them and believes many other Republicans would too. He discounts Bush – whom he believes would have been a better president than his brother – because of dynasty fatigue and distrust from the Bush presidents not keeping their word (on taxes and war). Rubio might be able to recover but Kasich has more experience.

My friend also also believes Bernie may prevail over Hillary because of her negatives. He thinks Sanders would win over either Trump or Cruz but not with enough votes to bring in a Democratic majority in either house. (He would find a divided government, and continued political stalemate, an acceptable outcome.)

This is the Republican conundrum. A significant part of the Republican electorate is deeply distressed about the prospect of either Trump or Cruz winning the nomination. But they don't yet see a clear path for anyone who may be able to stop them. The possibility that the peculiar political circumstances of this year – an electorate wanting something new and aligned along the “extreme” wings of the two parties – could lead to a Trump vs Sanders match-up is startling. But the Fat Lady hasn't sung yet and things may sort out a bit come South Carolina. However, if Trump wins there and the non-Trump/Cruz candidates bunch up without any clear breakout, the Republican Party will be in difficult straits.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Bernie Concedes While it'll be Trump vs Cruz and Bush throwing a "Hail Mary"

Some commentators noted Bernie Sanders' victory speech on Tuesday night, after winning the New Hampshire primary, was a bit too long. This may have been because Senator Sanders gave two different speeches in one. Right off he complimented Hillary Clinton. He then noted that in a few months, the Democrats would have to come together. He then explained that the competition between the two Democratic candidates was injecting energy into the party and bringing the young people in. It would need both to win in November. In the middle of his speech, he again complimented Clinton and at the end he made clear that the purpose of it all was to prevent any of the Republicans from winning the presidency. Seems to me that this part of his speech was in effect a concession that he didn't really count on winning the nomination but that his raising issues that brought in the young people, targeted the 1% and Wall Street and pushed the party to embrace its progressive past would make Hillary a better candidate and the help the Democrats win in November.

Now Bernie could not say any of this outright. He needs to go on to continue the contest in upcoming primaries and continue to “energize” the Democratic base. You don't do that by making it clear you really don't expect to win and are running just to help the cause. So the second part of the speech was more of the standard “when I'm president” type. Along the way, he kept the focus on inequality but also addressed international affairs and race, gender and gay issues.

Bernie may have suspected that this win in New Hampshire might be his one really big chance to address the country. He used it, including a pitch in the middle for donations. Bernie hit all his notes and expanded his message. But his chief objective seemed to be a message to Hillary, take this medicine, it will be good for you, the party and the nation.

On the Republican side, the big news was the expected – but necessary to renew his self-declared “winner” image – big win by Donald Trump and the second place by heretofore quasi-unknown Ohio Governor John Kasich. But the real story is the cards falling today, the day after with Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina both dropping out. This leaves Cruz, Jeb Bush and maybe RoboRubio to contend for the job of knocking down Trump. Kasich spent a lot of time in New Hampshire and probably can't replicate his success in the southern primaries coming up. Bush has tons of money and may be able to keep in the race long enough to become, by default, the only “moderate” establishment Republican left standing. In the upcoming South Carolina primary, it will in effect be Trump vs Cruz while Bush tries to pull away from the rest of the pack.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Africa by 2100?

Talked recently with a young man originally from Ethiopia but now living in the US. He keeps up with his native land and was just back from a visit. I asked him how things were. He said: “It's Africa, you know what that means, corruption and conflict.” He spoke of the 2005 election and the resulting denial and repression of those he termed the “winners” and lamented the current situation in which, as he put it, the third largest ethnic group rules over the rest of the “80 tribes” that live in Ethiopia.

It is easy to see why someone might see Africa – mired in poverty, corruption and violence – as a land without much of a future. It's hard to name one functioning multi-ethnic democracy on the continent. Some countries have elections but these serve either to anoint those already in control and holding all the advantages of state power – official and otherwise – or to simply provide a patina of legitimacy for autocratic, tribally based rulers and cliques. African countries remain on the periphery of the global economy. As such they must earn their living in an environment where rapid technological change and the built-in advantages of the already developed core leave them little room for much more than the export of raw materials and the importation of finished goods. This may produce some wealth but it runs into the hands of those with the local monopoly. At best, it may feature as a form of primitive capital accumulation but even then the trickle down cannot keep up with rising populations and expectations. It would take an extraordinary amount of good governance, popular support and patience for even gradual economic development to lift these countries to the level of societal well-being basic to sustaining democratic norms, procedures and results.

History dealt Africa two cruel blows. The first was the slave traffic. Slavery certainly existed before the outsiders – European and Arab – brought it to the continent. But the tremendous demand created especially by the traffic to the New World magnified the level of violence already existing among the many native groupings. Slavery also was the entry point of European expansion into Africa, followed by the exploitation of natural resources and colonization. This was the second blow, the carving up of Africa into territorial units that took no regard of existing tribal patterns and political arrangements. There had been empires and nascent states before colonization but these were based on local realities with their own ebb and flow. Once this was super-ceded by the state boundaries drawn up by the Europeans, disparate peoples found themselves lumped together inside arbitrarily chosen fences. After independence – with almost no experience of political participation or democracy – they were left in the hands of those willing and able to use identity politics and violence to seize and hold power. Corruption, poverty and repression within the framework of tribally-based competition for space – economic and political – became the norm.

Some see democracy as the way to move forward. But democracy requires a level of economic development and political maturity (especially a willingness to see someone not like yourself win power). In a context of scarce resources, winner-take-all, tribal politics democracy is likely either to fail or simply produce further conflict between winners and losers. It would be nice if some model of power-sharing might work within federal or confederal arrangements. But such mechanisms also require an extraordinary degree of tolerance and political experience to function in a sustained fashion, especially in the context of economic underdevelopment.

In the history of Europe, stable states grew from heterogeneous tribes only through the growth of centralized states imposing a “national” culture and language. For the future of Africa, it may be necessary for the West to temper efforts to export “democracy” with an understanding of its own history. Acting against genocide or gross human rights abuse is an international responsibility. But it will also be necessary to recognize that over the next decades that African states will have to find their own way of constructing nations within the confines of the colonial fences left them.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Krypton Discovered?

Science News reports the discovery of a second mega earth. This is an apparently rocky planet many times more massive than our own. Could this then be a Krypton-type planet with greater gravity where if two-legged folk evolved, and they could somehow get to earth, they could jump further than mere earth people and travel faster than a speeding bullet?

Sixteen times as heavy as earth, massive BD+20594b should be a gas giant like Neptune or Uranus. But instead it's 100% rock. The planet orbits its star in 42 days. A little online research indicates the star itself is very slightly smaller and cooler than the sun and also about one billion years younger. This makes it a yellow star as is our sun, i.e., not red.

Judging from the planet's orbital period, it is even closer to its sun than is Mercury to ours. This probably means it's too hot for life as we know it. It also seems too massive for plate tectonics to exist. Scientists suggest that plate tectonics is key to the circulation of carbon which is the basis for life on earth. Without moving continents and circulation between core, mantle and crust, everything remains locked in place.

Now, if the planet might be tidally locked to its star – one side always facing toward and the other away – there might be a transitional zone between -- in perpetual twilight -- where the temperature might be more conducive to life. And in twilight, at sunset, that sun might appear red. Tidal forces might also create enough internal tension to stimulate circulation within the rocky layers. So, perhaps the possibility of finding Superman's home planet cannot be completely discounted.

What is clear is that recent discoveries of exoplanets make a strong case for the existence of a wide range of planet types including ones that might support life. We also should not limit our consideration to forms of life based on carbon or water such as ours.  Might someone be sailing methane seas on Titan?  Is anyone out there?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Return DC to Maryland: A Case for Retrocession

Every week or so I get an email from folks supporting statehood for Washington, DC. As a long-time resident and taxpayer of the District, I understand why they do. As it says on our license plates, it's “taxation without representation.” DC is smaller than any of the 50 states but has a larger population than two of them. Yet we get no vote in the US Senate or House of Representatives. Instead, we get a voteless Delegate to the House like some overseas territory.

The Constitution allowed for the establishment of a federal capital through the “cession” of territory from willing states. Washington, DC was formally established in 1790 on swampy land, straddling the Potomac River, taken from Maryland and Virginia to be a neutral place between North and South. The District of Columbia was a square 10 miles on each side. In 1846, the Congress passed a law allowing for the retrocession of the part of the District in Virginia back to that state if approved by the people affected in a referendum and if accepted by the State of Virginia. This was accomplished in 1847. Through this action, the District shrunk from 100 sq. miles to the present 68.

While one may argue that DC should be a state, politically it remains very unlikely. Given that most would expect statehood to mean two more Democratic senators and one Democratic congressperson, this would never pass muster in any Congress without an overwhelming Democratic majority. Maybe not then either.

So, how about carving out the part of the District outside the federal government core – the White House, Congress and the office buildings around the Mall – and giving the rest back to Maryland? The various wards of the city might become a new Maryland city – Washington City? – or perhaps the various wards might each become their own local jurisdiction. The Congress might agree with this as it would not do anything beyond making Maryland a bit more Democratic without adding actual new seats to the Senate. Maryland would have to agree too but why not?

Washington City, Maryland. Maryland is a nice state, I wouldn't mind living there. And no more “taxation without representation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Post-Iowa: No Real Winners Yet

Lots of ink being split and voices braying on what the Iowa primary results mean. My simple take is that Trump needs to win New Hampshire (NH) big or his patina of invincibility – remember he can shoot someone in the middle of NYC and not lose support? – will wash away. Without that, people will begin to consider more carefully what he actually says. Now, Trump is very smart. He might yet rise to the occasion but he will become a longer shot.

Rubio – billed by some as the “real winner” – is now target #1 of the remaining “moderate” candidates. (Rand Paul – the one Republican of principle – sadly dropped out today.) The “moderates” will try to tear Marco a new one to drag him back down. Rubio seems a lightweight but if he manages to hang on and do well in NH, he may suck the rest of the air from the not-so-crazy-as-Cruz side of the spectrum.

Cruz may think he can survive a loss in NH and go on into the South. Hillary may hope so because if Cruz can win votes there, she'll win more in November from the non-white-extremist majority down that way.

Hillary lost in Iowa despite her technical tenths of a percentage point “win.” She has issues, including apparently the fact that she earns few points for transparency. Once, when I worked in the White House, she served me tea as I was accompanying the visit of the First Lady of Argentina upstairs in the private quarters. Mrs. Clinton was very gracious to include me as if I was also a guest.

I admit to liking Bernie because of his razor-sharp focus on inequality, our number one problem (globally as well as in America). Some say that since Bernie – a “socialist” – cannot possibly win in America, a vote for him is wasted. But if he wins in NH, he just may get enough wind in his sails – and votes from the under-45 – to make it a long race.

Now Jeb, and I won't say poor Jeb. I personally believe he was the Bush – if we had to have one – we should have gotten in 2000. But that is a low bar. He apparently has received too much money to simply bow out just because it's clear he has bombed out. If you walk away from the $150 million plus he's been given, the investors will not be pleased. Bush may hope that Rubio stumbles in NH and he gets a second look. So he may actually have to crash and burn before dropping out. Better for all if this happens in New Hampshire.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Time for the US to take the bull by the hand in Kosovo

Today I posted on TransConflict a piece on the detention of Kosovo Serb political activist Oliver Ivanovic.  I know and respect Oliver through the three 1/2 years I served with the UN in north Kosovo.  It appears that the European Union prosecuted him with the agreement -- if not encouragement -- of the Serbian government in Belgrade.  Seems no one wants a strong, independent leader for the Kosovo Serbs no matter how moderate and pragmatic he may be.  Or maybe I might say, almost no one.  The United States, long the motive force behind carving out of Serbia a majority Albanian state, might see the utility in helping the Serb community in the country become a positive element in a truly democratic, multi-ethnic state. 

For a long time, I was critical of the unilateral move to Kosovo independence outside the ambit of the UN Security Council resolution (1244) which entered into force after the NATO bombing of Milosevic' Serbia.  But the fact is there is nothing wrong with Kosovo independence and given the treatment of Kosovo Albanians by Milosevic, it certainly is understandable why they would not want to risk that again.  Perhaps more to the point, there is nothing about current day Serbia that suggests it would be better for Kosovo to have remained part of it.  Both Kosovo and Serbia have problems -- corruption, low growth, tardy economic reform and dysfunctional politics.  Nothing could possibly be gained by bringing the two together in one failed state.   Indeed, much would be gained for both if Serbia recognized Kosovo independence.  Serbia could move ahead on EU membership before the door is nailed shut and Kosova could start to face its real problems.

The US had hoped that the Europeans would handle Kosovo, move it steadily to something the internationals could declare a success and leave behind.  That hasn't happened.  The US Embassy in Pristina must still play an out-sized role in keeping the lid on political conflict among the Albanians and the US still has troops in Kosovo.  Bringing a unified, pragmatic Serb community into the mix would not change things fundamentally in Kosovo.  But it could be an important step in bringing some light into a smoke-filled room.

The US should do whatever is necessary to end the political persecution of Oliver Ivanovic.  And along the way, end its affair with Hashim Thaci and bow to reality by finding a way to bring Ramush Haradinaj into the mix.  The future of Kosovo should not be left in the hands of EU mandarins or ghosts of the past.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Killer Species: Us vs Them

The human species has a long record of Us vs Them conflict. Indeed, our species of Homo sapiens is the only surviving one from a long period in which various other kinds of humans shared the evolutionary record. For whatever reason, we emerged the sole survivor. We had various advantages. Deprived of in-built weapons such as claws and saber teeth, we evolved as especially inventive and effective tool-using killers. Our social organization – depending very much on our ability to use symbols and language to reaffirm in-group bonds and work effectively in coordinated activities – plus our advancing toolset made us formidable hunters and gatherers. While some of these advantages may have characterized the other members of the Homo genus, we did them better. Even our closest relative, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, may not have had our full capacity for the advanced suite. After coexisting with us for some 160,000 years, the Neanderthals joined the long list of the extinct other humans.

Since our arriving on the scene some 200 thousand years ago, we have succeeded in eliminating, replacing and enslaving Them. Recent discoveries have pushed back the known origins of warfare within our own species to 10,000 years ago. The University of Cambridge anthropologist who discovered the evidence suggested that “lethal raids by competing groups were part of life for hunter-gatherer communities at the time.” A recent excavation in France of 6000 year old remains provides signs of violence including against women and children and perhaps ritual dismemberment. But it would be surprising if we were not already – and since the beginning – omni-predators of anything not Us.

We have come up with various reasons and motives for using violence against others. We want their food, water, land, gold, women, men. But these have often been overlaid or supplemented by the simple desire to rid ourselves of Them. We tend, all too frequently, to establish who we are by defining who we are not. Attacking Them reaffirms our identity. In the Hobbesian state of nature, nothing prevents the war of all against all. Within a society, a stable governing order – the Leviathan – can regularize this war. (Regularize, not end. Witness the current political conflict between Red and Blue in America or the current wave of xenophobia sweeping through the EU.) Between societies in conflict, or when internal order breaks down, the simplest way to distinguish the enemy is to focus on Them.

The conflicts of the last 100 years have been mainly of this Us vs Them kind, primarily over identity: ethnic, tribal or religious. They have spun from control when the regimes that ruled over multi-ethnic states have fallen or been seized or overthrown. Once identity conflicts begin, they quickly turn zero-sum. Violence begets violence and the possibility of achieving a political solution recedes beyond the horizon. In the globalized and technologically complex 21st Century, these conflicts tend to produce regional and global insecurity.

It should seem obvious that international relations requires a version of the Leviathan, an internationally acceptable way to manage conflict between and within states and address the tensions that allow conflict to emerge along identity lines. The UN provides a mechanism to do both. Seems that our choice may be to use it better and act more multi-laterally or perhaps see that we have all become the universal Them on the way to our own demise.