What the Oakland assault tells us

As I feared, the authorities are starting to use force on the Occupy protestors, starting in Oakland. Charles Pierce says that the assault symbolizes the militarization of the police:

Make no mistake about it: The actions of the police department in Oakland last night were a military assault on a legitimate political demonstration. That it was a milder military assault than it could have been, which is to say it wasn’t a massacre, is very much beside the point. There was no possible provocation that warranted this display of force. (Graffiti? Litter? Rodents? Is the Oakland PD now a SWAT team for the city’s health department?) If you are a police department in this country in 2011, this is something you do because you have the power and the technology and the license from society to do it. This is a problem that has been brewing for a long time. It predates the Occupy movement for more than a decade. It even predates the “war on terror,” although that has acted as what the arson squad would call an “accelerant” to the essential dynamic

It’s time for the country to realize that something is dangerously out of control here, and that it’s not a bunch of people in sleeping bags in the public parks. There is a tradition of public protest in this country. Hell, this country is itself an act of public protest. Preserve that, or preserve nothing else, because there’s nothing else worth preserving. Police officers are public servants. They are not soldiers, facing down enemies. This is not a war. This is America.

It may not be a war as yet, but the oligarchy sees this as an uprising that must be quelled in its infancy.

Relativity-9: The importance of corroborating evidence in science

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In my series on the logic of science, I recounted how philosopher of science Pierre Duhem had pointed out as far back as 1906 that the theories of science are all connected to each other and changes in one area will have unavoidable effects on others that should be discernible. In this case, if neutrinos in the OPERA experiment did in fact travel faster than the speed of light, then we should be able to look at some other effects that should occur and see if they are observed.

Cherenkov glow.jpegOne of them is the ‘Cherenkov effect’. This effect says that when something travels faster than the speed of light, it should emit a certain kind of radiation that is analogous to the shock waves that are produced when something travels faster than the speed of sound. This is known as the ‘sonic boom’ that we can hear when jet planes break the speed of sound. It also occurs when bullets are fired at speeds greater than the speed of sound but because bullets are so small the sonic boom is too weak for us to hear it.

The Cherenkov effect is well known and has been studied and confirmed. How can this be if it requires something to travel faster than the speed of light? Recall that the speed of light barrier in Einstein’s theory is that in a vacuum. When light travels through any medium (light, water, atmosphere), it is slowed down by the interactions of the medium with the light particles. Other particles such as electrons are also slowed down by the medium but they may not be to the same extent, in which case it can be possible for some particles in a medium to travel faster than the speed of light in that same medium. If they do so, they should emit the light equivalent of the sonic boom and this is called Cherenkov radiation. The spectrum of light emitted lies mainly in the ultraviolet region and its overlap with the visible spectrum produces a characteristic blue glow. One can see this in the cooling water that surrounds nuclear reactors, as in the image on the right, and in this video of a pulse of radiation being sent into the cooling liquid.

In a paper, Andrew Cohen and Sheldon Glashow calculate that high energy, faster-than-light neutrinos as produced in the OPERA experiment would lose much of their energy due to Cherenkov radiation, mainly by the production of electron-positron pairs, on their way from CERN to Gran Sasso. But that does not seem to have happened, according to a different experiment at Gran Sasso (known as ICARUS) that works with the same neutrino source as the OPERA experiment.

Another concern involving consistency is with the supernova SN1987A that was observed in 1987. It turned out that a cluster of 24 neutrinos were detected in three different detectors on the Earth about three hours before the supernova was observed, i.e. before the light signals reached Earth. That difference was not put down to the neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light but to the fact that the neutrinos, while created at the same time as the light, escaped from the exploding star three hours before the light did due to their low interactivity with matter, and so had a head start on the journey to Earth, even though they traveled in free space at the same speed as light. The measured time difference was consistent with our understanding of the processes involved in a supernova.

If the neutrinos had speeds greater than that of light by even the small amount given by the OPERA experiment, then because of the huge distance of the supernova from Earth (about 168,000 light years), the supernova neutrinos should have reached Earth about 4.7 years before we saw the supernova. If neutrinos in the OPERA experiment had in fact, been traveling faster than the speed of light, why had they not done so in other situations, such as the 1987 supernova?

The working model of science is that things behave in a law-like, repeatable manner and not idiosyncratically. If we observe something in one situation, we expect to see it happening again in similar situations. If a deviation from law-like behavior is observed, we assume that this is due to the existence of another, deeper, hitherto unknown law whose effect only became apparent because of some conditions that had been incorrectly assumed to be unimportant.

In this case, one could postulate that since the OPERA neutrinos have a thousand times as much energy as the supernova neutrinos, faster-than-light speeds only arise for such high-energy neutrinos. Of course, such a new explanation requires new corroborative evidence and so the discussion will go on as explanations and evidence play out their dialectical relationship until a consensus emerges. That is how science works.

Next: Science and public relations

“Wall Street Isn’t Winning – It’s Cheating”

Matt Taibbi, in a must-read article with the above title says that what drives the Occupy Wall Street protests is not envy of the rich but the fact that the system is corrupt and unfair.

Americans for the most part love the rich, even the obnoxious rich. And in recent years, the harder things got, the more we’ve obsessed over the wealth dream. As unemployment skyrocketed, people tuned in in droves to gawk at Evrémonde-heiresses like Paris Hilton, or watch bullies like Donald Trump fire people on TV.

Success is the national religion, and almost everyone is a believer. Americans love winners. But that’s just the problem. These guys on Wall Street are not winning – they’re cheating. And as much as we love the self-made success story, we hate the cheater that much more.

In this country, we cheer for people who hit their own home runs – not shortcut-chasing juicers like Bonds and McGwire, Blankfein and Dimon.

That’s why it’s so obnoxious when people say the protesters are just sore losers who are jealous of these smart guys in suits who beat them at the game of life. This isn’t disappointment at having lost. It’s anger because those other guys didn’t really win. And people now want the score overturned.

He lists all the swindles that are currently going on in favor of the rich banks and against ordinary banking customers, and ends, “These inequities are what drive the OWS protests. People don’t want handouts. It’s not a class uprising and they don’t want civil war — they want just the opposite. They want everyone to live in the same country, and live by the same rules. It’s amazing that some people think that that’s asking a lot.”

Why US troops are leaving Iraq

Recent news reports have said that the US is making arrangements for a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq by December 31. I said five years ago that I felt that there was bipartisan agreement in the US to keep troops in that country indefinitely as part of its ambitions for global empire, mainly because the US was investing so much money to construct massive, permanent, military bases in addition to the largest embassy in the world. This did not look like the actions of a country that was planning to leave any time soon. So the announcement of a ‘complete withdrawal’ requires some explanation.

The picture has been confused by the White House’s contradictory statements. While they try to pacify their antiwar supporters by acting as they actually wanted this outcome and are fulfilling a campaign promise for withdrawal, they are also trying to counter their Republican critics, who are blasting them for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and demanding that the US continue to keep its troops there, by pointing out that the December 31, 2011 deadline was actually negotiated by George W. Bush with the Iraqi government back in 2008, in something known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that was subsequently endorsed by the Iraqi parliament. It was what allowed the US to continue to keep troops in the country beyond the earlier December 31, 2008 deadline.

The story gets even more complicated. The idea seemed to be that the SOFA would be re-negotiated later to extend that deadline beyond 2011. And in fact, contrary to the idea that this withdrawal outcome was something Obama wanted in order to keep his campaign promise, the Obama administration has been negotiating with the Iraqi government to extend the deadline and the withdrawal announcement was caused by the Iraqis being adamant about not allowing it. In fact, the White House is still negotiating for a continuation, even after the withdrawal announcement.

Why are the Iraqis balking at an extension? The main reason is that the US is insisting that US troops have immunity from the Iraqi government for any actions in that country. But many events involving US troops killing civilians have angered Iraqis, and the idea of giving immunity that might be seen as condoning and even encouraging further such actions was seen as a non-starter by a significant segment of the Iraqi population.

One incident that has caused particular outrage was the release in May of this year by WikiLeaks of a US diplomatic cable of a massacre in 2006 by US troops, as reported by the McClatchy news service. (Warning: Heartbreaking photo of dead young children accompanies the story.)

A U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks provides evidence that U.S. troops executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old infant, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence, during a controversial 2006 incident in the central Iraqi town of Ishaqi.

But Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a communication to American officials dated 12 days after the March 15, 2006, incident that autopsies performed in the Iraqi city of Tikrit showed that all the dead had been handcuffed and shot in the head. Among the dead were four women and five children. The children were all 5 years old or younger.

It is likely that the anger at reports of such incidents, and the natural feeling that people who committed such atrocities must be brought to justice, torpedoed any efforts by the Nouri al-Maliki government to obtain the immunity required by the US.

It did not help the US that since Bush signed the agreement, party members representing cleric Muqtada al Sadr have gained significant strength in the Iraqi parliament, winning 40 seats in the 2010 elections and gaining eight seats in the cabinet. al Sadr has close ties with Iran and is adamantly opposed to any extension for US troops.

Even after the withdrawal, the US will still have a major military presence in Iraq, consisting of a small army of private military contractors working for the State Department. They have similar military capabilities to the US army and their role will be to protect US interests, including the massive embassy and five consulate-like outposts spread around the country. The State Department is keeping secret its plans for this private army and denying the usual government oversight committees any jurisdiction. This is not a good sign because these private armies lack the discipline and accountability of the regular military and the State Department has little experience with overseeing such a quasi-military operation. It was private contractors that were responsible for the 2007 event when Blackwater security personnel killed 17 civilians in a rampage at a crowded traffic circle in Baghdad. The company renamed itself Xe Services after that event.

It seems likely that the US will continue its negotiations for an extension right down to the wire.

(See Glenn Greenwald for more here and here.)

Is Herman Cain stupid?

Clearly the panel on Bill Maher’s show think that Cain could give Sarah Palin a run for the title of the most ignorant and confused high-profile politician in recent times.

One thing that panelist Joshua Green said shed a lot of light and that is that although Cain is described as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, that was from a long time ago. What he has been doing for the last fifteen years is touring as a motivational speaker. People who do that can get used to blathering self-help messages tailored to get a rousing response from the audience right in front of them without bothering about whether it makes sense or contradicts what they said to another audience at another time and place.

Cain’s latest campaign ad also has to make you wonder at his judgment. Look at what happens at the 40-second mark. Can you imagine any other candidate letting that pass?

Climate change skeptic changes mind

Global-warming deniers eagerly embrace anyone who supports their cause, however much of a crank that person may be. So any respectable scientist who expresses skepticism about global warming or who criticizes the work of those scientists who have warned us about it is makes them delirious with joy.

They were particularly pleased when Richard Muller did so because he is a physicist at the University of California-Berkeley and thus comes with good credentials. Based on preliminary work he had done, Muller had said that he thought the previous studies that said global warming was happening were wrong. Republicans invited him to testify to Congress and in 2010 many right wing groups, including the Koch brothers, were willing to fund his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, which aimed to do a new and independent study as a check on all the other global warming studies, no doubt expecting him to contradict them.

But things didn’t go quite according to plan. In a press release announcing the first set of four papers that they have submitted to journals, Muller says, “Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK.” In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons for doubt, until now, Muller reinforced that message, adding:

When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.

Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.

One has to be a bit concerned that Muller announced his results in a press release and in a newspaper op-ed and not after the papers had undergone peer review. Bypassing the normal processes of science and going straight to the public tends not to have good results.

The problem for climate change skeptics when they try to co-opt real scientists to their cause is that real scientists deal with the data they have and not the data they wish they had. Whatever the private beliefs of scientists, they cannot go outside the bounds allowed them by the data, unless they are dishonest and suppress or fabricate them.

As Kevin Drum comments:

The BEST report is purely an estimate of planetary warming, and it makes no estimate of how much this warming is due to human activity. So in one sense, its impact is limited since the smarter skeptics have already abandoned the idea that warming is a hoax and now focus their fire solely on the contention that it’s man-made. (And the even smarter ones have given up on that, too, and now merely argue that it’s economically pointless to try to stop it.) Still, the fact that climate scientists turned out to be careful and thorough in their basic estimates of temperature rise surely enhances their credibility in general. Climategate was always a ridiculous sideshow, and this is just one more nail in its coffin. Climate scientists got the basic data right, and they’ve almost certainly gotten the human causes right too.

Those deniers, like James M. Taylor of the Heartland Institute who had earlier embraced Muller as one of them are now disowning him, calling these new results “meaningless” and attacking his credibility, saying that he might be having the “intent of deceiving casual observers about the true nature of the global warming debate.” Other deniers are also edging away from their earlier embrace of Muller.

Global warming deniers will probably still give a platform to people like the Briton Lord Monckton, who has made quite a name for himself talking about this subject even though he has no expertise whatsoever in this area and makes outrageous statements such as calling an Australian government climate adviser a Nazi. The Australian comedy show The Chasers interviews Monckton and he clearly has no suspicions until the very end that his leg is being pulled and that he is being made to look a fool.

How the Fed secretly bailed out American and foreign banks

Thanks to reader Mark, I came across this report by US Senator Bernie Sanders about a GAO audit of the Federal Reserve that reveals that it secretly loaned out over $16 trillion dollars to American banks and businesses all over the world. The audit also revealed that there were people on the board of the Fed who seemed to be benefiting from the Fed’s actions.

Such audits of the Fed are a new thing this year, thanks to legislation sponsored by Sanders. It is ridiculous that such secrecy has been allowed for so long to institutions that are publicly funded and use public money.

Relativity-8: General relativity

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

To understand the role of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, recall that the original OPERA experiment claimed that they had detected neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. This posed a challenge to what is known as Einstein’s theory of special relativity, proposed in 1905, which said that the relationship between the clock and ruler readings for two observers moving relative to one another would be different from the ones given by the seemingly obvious relationships derived by Galileo centuries earlier. According to Einstein’s theory, it is the speed of light that would be the same for all observers, while clock readings could differ, and that Einstein causality (the temporal ordering of any two events that are causally connected by a signal traveling from one to another) would be preserved for all observers. One inference that followed from Einstein causality is that no causal signal can travel faster than the speed of light, and this was what was seemingly violated by the OPERA experiment.

But Einstein had a later and more general theory that he proposed in 1915, called the general theory of relativity, that included the effects of gravity. He showed that clock readings were not only affected by the speed with which the clock was moving, they were also affected by the size of the gravitational field in which the clock found itself. This is the source of what is referred to as the ‘gravitational red shift’ that enters into cosmology that causes the light emitted by distant stars and galaxies to be shifted towards larger wavelengths as they escape the gravitational field of those objects on their journey to us.

To understand what is going on, recall that when we measure the elapsed time between two events, what we are really doing is measuring the number of clock ticks that occur between the events. According to general relativity, the stronger the gravitational field, the slower the rate at which a clock ticks. The slower the rate at which a clock ticks, the less time that it records as having elapsed between two events.

So, for example, since we know that the Earth’s gravitational field decreases as we go up, this means that if we take two identical clocks, one on the floor and the other on the ceiling, the one on the floor would have fewer ticks between two events than the one on the ceiling, even if both are stationary. So the clock on the floor would ‘run slower’ than the one on the ceiling and hence the time interval measured between two events measured by clocks on the floor will be less than that measured by clocks on the ceiling.

In the OPERA experiment, the time measurements were made using GPS satellites. These are whizzing by at both high speeds (about 4 km/s) and high altitudes (about four Earth radii). Typically, the signals are handed off from one satellite to another as they appear and disappear over the horizon and the transition is almost seamless and produces such small errors that we do not notice it. But the OPERA experiment requires such high precision that they arranged to do the experiment during the transit time of just a single satellite so that even that source of error was eliminated.

Because the rate at which clocks run depends upon the size of the gravitational field, one has to make corrections to allow for the fact that the time readings given by clock readings of the satellites will be different from the time readings given by clocks on the Earth, and so one needs to make extremely subtle corrections to the GPS time stamp to get the correct clock readings on the Earth. This is why much of the attention has focused on this aspect. It is not that the OPERA experimenters overlooked this obvious feature (such general relativistic corrections are routinely made by GPS software in order to make the GPS system function with sufficient accuracy) but whether they have made all the necessary corrections to the extremely high level of precision required by this experiment.

Carlo Contaldi at Imperial College, London has suggested that the clocks at CERN and Gran Sasso were not synchronized properly due to three effects, one of which is the fact that the gravitational field experienced by the satellite is not the same at all points on its path since the Earth is not a perfect sphere. He says that the errors that would be introduced are of the size that could produce the OPERA effect. (You can read Contaldi’s paper here.)

Ronald A. J. van Elburg at the University of Groningen has argued that subtle effects due to the motion of the detectors with respect to the satellite could have shifted the time measurements at each clock on the ground by 32 nanoseconds in the directions required to explain the 60 nanosecond discrepancy. (You can read van Elburg’s paper here and reader Evan sent me a link to a nice explanation of this work.)

The OPERA researchers (and some others) have challenged some of these explanations and said that they will provide a revised paper that explains more clearly all the things they did.

There have been no shortage of ideas and papers pointing out problems and possible alternative explanations for the OPERA results. Sorting and sifting through them all before we arrive at a consensus conclusion will take some time.