The Occupy Wall Street movement gains allies

The Occupy Wall Street movement is broadening its base and gaining more allies every day. Now a group called Occupy Writers has joined in that contains such famous names as Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Lemony Snicket, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, and Ann Patchett, some of whom have contributed original writings, such as the thirteen observations by Lemony Snicket, a few of which are given here:

  • People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.

  • There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.
  • Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

Meanwhile Saturday Night Live broadcasts a press conference by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Siri and the Turing test

I don’t have an iPhone of any kind but was intrigued by the reports of the latest one that had the voice recognition software known as Siri that seems to have a conversational ability reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as can be seen from this compilation of a conversation.

I am not sure if this is a hoax but the person who put up the video assures skeptics that this is real and says that anyone can test it by getting hold of a Siri-enabled iPhone. I am curious if any blog reader who has it can confirm.

As an aside, I am a bit bothered by Siri referring to the user as ‘Master’. I know it is not a real person but the feudal overtone is jarring.

Taking his claims at face, it seems as if Siri is able to pass at least a low-level Turing test.

The case against circumcision

PZ Myers makes the strong argument that this practice is nothing but ritualized child abuse.

It is quite amazing how we accept as normal long-standing practices that, if they were not covered by the protective umbrella of old religions, we would reject with horror otherwise as the actions of cults or barbarians.

The Daily Show has more on the bizarre things that religious people believe and do.

What’s the one after 9-0-9?

Herman Cain took a beating for the fact that his 9-9-9 tax plan would raise taxes on low and middle income people while giving rich people a huge tax break.

So he has tweaked it and now says that for the poor it will be a 9-0-9 plan. You can be sure that such ad-hoc lurches due to pressure has produced another half-baked plan that will also be roundly attacked. So what’s next?

This gives me an excuse to cue up the Beatles.

Five bank behemoths that hold the political system hostage

Sarah Jaffe and Joshua Holland list them (Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs) and explain why they are so bad and how they get their way.

Currently, Bank of America is engaged in yet another effort to swindle the taxpayers. When it took over Merrill Lynch it also acquired all the toxic derivatives the latter owned. Bank of America is an FDIC-insured institution, which means that its deposits are taxpayer-insured, while Merrill Lynch is not. Now Bank of America is apparently trying to quietly shift the Merrill Lynch liabilities over to Bank of America so that the taxpayers will bear whatever loss occurs,

Of course the Federal Reserve, which has already used enormous amounts of taxpayer funds to bail out the banks, supports the move but the FDIC is balking, fearing getting stuck with a huge bill.

When did humans arrive in the Americas?

It used to be thought that they came 13,000 years ago across the then-existing land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska, during what is known as the ‘Clovis’ period.

A paper published today in the journal Science has measured with high precision (with new techniques) the age of a mastodon fossil bone with a weapon point embedded in it that was found in 1970. It found that it is 13,800 years ago, with an uncertainty of only 20 years, suggesting that humans were here earlier than thought, supporting other evidence that there was human hunter activity here as early as 15,000-16,000 years ago.

A large number of mammals (mastodons, woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, giant sloths, camels) disappeared rapidly around 12,700 years ago and it was thought that this must have been due to rapid climate change as the Ice Age ended, since Clovis hunters were not thought to have been around for that long.

But the new earlier date for humans in the Americas suggests that mammal extinction may have been accelerated by humans hunting them with weapons.

Tragic death of exotic animals

The big story in Ohio has been the tragic one of a private owner of a large menagerie of exotic animals in a rural area of central Ohio who reportedly released all of them before killing himself. The authorities, confronted with dangerous animals roaming wild in populated areas, shot and killed almost all the animals.

I was stunned to learn of the scale of the carnage. 48 animals were killed, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, and eight bears. The photo of the corpses of these magnificent animals was heartbreaking.

I was also furious that it is even possible for private individuals to obtain and keep these animals in poor conditions but apparently the laws allow it. According to the news report:

Since 2004, Thompson had been charged by local authorities with cruelty to animals, allowing his animals to run free and improperly disposing of dead animals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also received two complaints about the farm in 2008 and 2009, involving such things as pens that may have been unsafe, animals that were too skinny and dead animals on the property, said Dave Sacks, a USDA spokesman. But the agency decided it had no authority to act.

Federal officials said the government had no jurisdiction over the farm under either the Animal Welfare Act or the Endangered Species Act, since the animals were held as private property and were not exhibited or being used for other commercial purposes.

There are estimated to be less than 2,500 Bengal tigers in the world. Ohio apparently has the dubious distinction of having the most lax, some would say even non-existent, state regulations in the country. How is it possible that we allow a single individual to acquire and keep 18 of them legally? Because of that, laxity about 1% of the world’s population of Bengal tigers have been killed in a single day.

I am not a fan of publicly owned zoos because they keep animals confined away from their normal habitat. The big animals especially never look happy. But at least a case can be made that zoos raise awareness of the need to protect and preserve species and perhaps even help in conservation efforts. But I cannot see any reason why private individuals should be allowed to keep rare, exotic, dangerous, and endangered animals as pets. The practice should be banned.

Relativity-7: What could be other reasons for the CERN-Gran Sasso results?

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

The reactions to the reports of the CERN-Gran Sasso discovery of possibly faster-than-light neutrinos open a window into how science operates, and the differences in the way that the scientific community and the media and the general public react whenever a result emerges that contradicts the firmly held conclusions of a major theory.

The initial reaction within the scientific community is almost always one of skepticism, that some hitherto unknown and undetected effect has skewed the results, while the media and public are much more likely to think that a major revolution has occurred. There are sound reasons for this skepticism. Science would not have been able to advance as much if the community veered off in a new direction every time an unusual event was reported.

What usually happens is that most of the community goes on as before as if nothing had occurred while a relatively small number who are experts in that area examine the new results closely. Some will try to identify possible sources of systematic errors that the original experimenters did not consider. The experimenters who reported the possibility of faster-than-light neutrinos are reportedly careful people and if any errors occurred, we can be sure that they are not trivial ones that will be uncovered easily or quickly. Others will examine if any of the side effects that would accompany faster than light travel are also seen. If those two efforts fail to turn up any problems, other groups will try to repeat the basic experiment with different experimental set-ups, measuring the time and distance using different techniques so that the likelihood of systematic biases pushing the results in the same direction is reduced. The last option is very expensive and time-consuming, since these experiments are very difficult to do, which is why it is usually the last resort. During this period, there will often be claims and counter-claims and some confusion until the dust settles and a consensus emerges. But it is this painstaking investigation seeking replicability and consistency that characterizes science and enables it to be confident that once a consensus emerges, that it has produced reliable knowledge.

In this case, recall that the original experiment (which has the acronym OPERA) that aroused such interest involved sending neutrinos over a distance of 730 km and measuring their speed, where the distance and time measurements used GPS satellite technology. Assuming that 730 km was the exact distance, if the neutrinos travelled at exactly the speed of light, it should take them 2.435 milliseconds to make the trip. What was observed was that the neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds earlier than expected, thus violating Einstein causality, though not overthrowing the theory of relativity. This effect would go away if there were a 60 nanosecond error in the time measurement and/or an 18 meter error in the distance measurement of the journey, and searching for hitherto unconsidered factors that could produce effects of that size has been the initial focus.

There have already been some developments. When it comes to looking at sources of systematic errors, Lubos Motl has a long discussion on possible errors and has compiled a partial list of potential sources that need to be examined closely.

  • inconsistencies in the whole GPS methodology of measuring space and time coordinates

  • inconsistencies of units (meters, second) used at various places: the errors would have to be huge, indeed, so this is unlikely
  • subtle old-fashioned physics issues neglected by GPS measurements: the index of refraction of the troposphere and (even more importantly) ionosphere that slows down and distorts the path of GPS signals; confusing spherical Earth and geoid; neglecting gravitational effects of the Alps; neglecting magnetic fields at CERN that distort things; and so on
  • forgetting that 2 milliseconds isn’t zero and things change (e.g. satellites move) during this short period, too
  • subtle special relativistic effects neglected in the GPS calculations
  • subtle general relativistic effects neglected in the GPS calculations
  • wrong model of where and when the neutrinos are actually created on the Swiss side
    more radical: wrong model of the wave equation for the neutrinos (regardless of oscillations etc., neutrinos should never move information faster than light in the vacuum, but maybe we’re doing some mistake about the group vs phase velocity and entanglement of the two places: recall that the difference between the phase and group velocity for these neutrinos should be negligible, around 10

Notice that a lot of the suggested errors focus on the GPS or the Global Positioning System. This currently consists of 31 orbiting satellites that are continuously emitting signals that include the time the signal was sent as well as the orbital information of the satellite. Receivers on the ground (such as in your car) take that information and calculate the position of the receivers. The OPERA experiment used such signals to pinpoint the locations of the detectors at CERN and Grand Sasso and the time of travel. Most everyday situations do not require very high levels of accuracy. But since time interval errors of just 60 nanoseconds or distance errors of 18 meters could nullify the results, people have been looking into the possible sources of subtle errors, especially those associated with Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Next: General relativity effects.

How the oligarchy looted people’s pensions

Jon Stewart interviews Ellen Schultz, an editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of Retirement Heist, who explains how corporations, with the connivance of the government that was willing to provide them with the necessary loopholes, looted the pension funds of 44 million of its workers to enrich their top executives, thus transforming pension fund surpluses of $250 billion into deficits.

The behavior of the oligarchy and their total lack of scruples in destroying the lives of ordinary hard-working people go well beyond greed. They are sociopaths.

Oligarchy to Democrats: Show us some love or else!

The strategy of the Democratic party has been to preach a populist message while serving the interests of the oligarchy, mollifying their supporters with support for social policies that the oligarchy does not care about. They have managed to play game successfully for some time but the Occupy Wall Street movement threatens to unmask that strategy and expose the harsh reality of politics.

The OWS movement has attracted wide popular support and the Democrats risk alienating their base if they go against it and so they have gingerly supported it. As this report says: “President Barack Obama and other top Democrats are parroting the anti-corporate rhetoric running through the Occupy Wall Street protests, trying to tap into the movement’s energy but keep the protesters at arms’ length.”

But even this tepid support has enraged the oligarchy, who do not take kindly to the people they view as their servants getting all uppity and criticizing them, They are demanding that the Democratic party disassociate themselves from the movement or face the cut-off of contributions.

After the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a recent email urging supporters to sign a petition backing the wave of Occupy Wall Street protests, phones at the party committee started ringing.

Banking executives personally called the offices of DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and DCCC Finance Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) last week demanding answers, three financial services lobbyists told POLITICO.

“They were livid,” said one Democratic lobbyist with banking clients.

The execs asked the lawmakers: “What are you doing? Do you even understand some of the things that they’ve called for?” said another lobbyist with financial services clients who is a former Democratic Senate aide.

Democrats’ friends on Wall Street have a message for them: you can’t have it both ways.

It will be interesting to see how the Democratic party tries to walk that tightrope. I predict they will try to cobble together some cosmetic changes that will appease the protestors while leaving oligarchic interests largely intact.