Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Okay, okay, I promise to stop after this one. It's more scary than amusing, in any case. Just imagine: one at Number Ten, the other at Number Eleven. And most of the rest of us out of the country…So here's a pair who are as thick as thieves; well, as thick as something, anyway. For two Eds, as they ought henceforth to say, are worse than none:
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
[Ed Miliband] will draw a distinction between genuine wealth creators like Rolls Royce - which, he will say, should be championed and encouraged - and "asset-stripping predators" such as Southern Cross care homes. (src)He was also being trailed on Today as going to say that we shouldn't be rewarding companies like Southern Cross. As if market participants haven't drawn a distinction between Rolls, which is a going concern, and Southern Cross, which most emphatically is not. As if going bankrupt is a prize to be attained! Moreover, as the chappie from the replacement company pointed out on this morning's Today, not a penny of taxpayer subsidy went into the reorganisation, and the new business model is far more sustainable. I don't think bankruptcy and the loss of your investment is a reward, is it? I'd hate to see failure, if it is.The truth is that every system will experience failures and problems in some component parts. State control, free market, bureaucratic, you name it, problems will emerge. Corruption, business failure, paperwork bloat: to name but three which are distinctive to each respectively. The acid test is how well the system can cope with its problems.We know the answer for market processes: bankruptcy and loss of investment, followed, normally, by a reorganisation of the assets. Again, the norm is that this is done by those "asset-stripping predators" Miliband so hates. They buy the assets at a distressed price and then put them to better use. In the case of care homes, there's not much you could do to change the use, so the acquirer simply tries to run them better than their predecessor.We have seen the market processes in action quite effectively with Southern Cross. I would hazard to say that, in fact, so far from being a black mark against private-sector care, this is a positive sign, showing responsible error-handling by market participants.One is left to wonder how Ed Miliband's preferred system would cope.
Monday, September 26, 2011
The Daily Telegraph reports,
Guidance from the broadcaster’s ethics specialists suggested that the modern phrases “common era” and “before common era” should be considered as potential replacements for Anno Domini and Before Christ. (src)I don't intend to suggest that this is political correctness gone 'differently sane', one Radio Four comic described a another story at the weekend. It's not politically correct at all: in some ways, it is far more 'Christian' than BC and AD. Let me explain.BC and AD come, as we all know, from 'before Christ' and 'anno domini', referring to the period before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and afterwards. The key point about the initials is that their full meaning has been generally forgotten. Anno domini means 'the year of our Lord': the problem is that not everyone would agree with the description of Jesus as their Lord. People may think they know what 'before Christ' means; though it is generally forgotten, I suspect, that 'Christ' isn't Jesus' surname, but rather a claim to a particular religious significance as the Messiah of Israel.Since the meanings have been roughly lost, wider society tends to treat them as meaningless signifiers which allows us to locate events in history by appeal to a single event: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Saying 'AD' does not entail confessing Jesus as Lord, nor does 'BC' require an acknowledgement of him as Israel's Messiah.Is it politically incorrect to do this? No more so for Western culture, deeply influenced by Christianity, than for Arab cultures to date things by Muhammad's hajj, or some Eastern cultures with reference to the Buddha. And it has the advantage over the latter of being a fairly incontrovertibly historical event which is reasonably well-placed in the timeline. Bear in mind that in locating events with respect to Jesus' birth, we do not make any claim about the importance of Jesus for any individual. At most, the claim is that his birth has been important for Western culture. The endurance of Christmas must surely put paid to any denials of that fact.So what of the proposed replacement? The phrases '(Before) Common Era' still locate events with respect to the birth of Jesus: we all know this, even if the 'modernisers' try to deny it. But in replacing the phrases, they add something: his birth now marks the start of the 'Common Era'.They claim that this event is common to all: whatever your creedal or cultural background. Well, good on the ethics unit at the BBC for asserting the universality of the gospel of Jesus Christ for every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. Good on them for asserting that each of us has a share in his birth—I await their similar announcement for his death and resurrection. Good on them for calling Muslims, Jews, agnostics and plain old atheists to acknowledge his importance to their own lives. But if you want to avoid religious or cultural imperialism, you might do better than, in effect, to declare Christ to be of such cosmic significance that he is common to us all.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Tim Worstall sparked an interesting discussion on yesterday's neutrino preprint, canvassing for opinions on whether the special principle of relativity will remain standing (link). The best bit of the discussion has to be the name given to one of the neutrino-capturing processes. (It's genuine. Read the discussion to find out.) The news story itself is fascinating, especially for me as it's well within my broader area of expertise and interest. (I'm a theorist, though, rather than an experimentalist, so I'm not even thinking about picking it over for potential sources of error.) I hope it will be interesting for my students, too: I start teaching our third year quantum mechanics class on Tuesday, so what a week to start out on the topic!Anyway, I thought I'd reproduce here what I wrote (with some edits to explain references to preceding comments). The executive summary is that if I could find the right contract and liquidate my assets in due time, I would put every brass penny I have on the special principle of relativity emerging unscathed. Of course, I don't know how quickly this will happen, but I'm absolutely convinced it will.Thinking about money, there is one other comment I thought I'd make. The difference between the neutrino speed and light speed was six times the estimated standard error : a 'six-sigma' result. The last time I saw a six-sigma result was the transition in the Swissie's exchange rate after the Swiss Central Bank announced it was
price-fixing pegging to the Euro. We live in a world of 'fat tails', where six-sigma events can happen more often than naïve probability theory says they should.
Oh, and the title? Trust Freddie Mercury to have got there before us. Sort of.
- The media, for once, are accurately reporting a potentially big story as a potentially big story. I’ll go on to explain why I think it won’t be, but they’ve got the potential magnitude about right.
- I would bet heavily on current physics rather than anything new. That, not least because the special principle of relativity has stood up to every single test thus far. The ‘speed limit’ emerges straight from the special principle.
- So what is it, if current physics (probably) still stands? [The extra dimensions idea, which would amount to string theorists smugly saying they'd told us so] is possible, and at the tail end this could be paradigm-shifting; but my prior distribution assigns the bulk of the probability to the dullest of the null hypotheses: systematic error of some sort or another.
- Notwithstanding all of this, the one thing it is not about is frames of reference, pace the idiot editors at the BBC. They promoted to ‘Editors’ Recommended’ some below-the-line nutter who thinks it is to do with whether the speed of light is different when you’re on the earth. Twit. Even the other BTL nutters have given the comment -38 [since, it has declined even further]. Hanging’s too good for the lot of them.
- Science is working, folks. The CERN crowd are doing the right thing by exhibiting scepticism themselves and trying to debunk their own result.
I'm a shooting star leaping through the sky
Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity
I'm a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva
I'm gonna go go go
There's no stopping meI'm burnin' through the sky yeah
Two hundred degrees
That's why they call me Mister Fahrenheit
I'm trav'ling at the speed of light
I wanna make a supersonic man out of you (src; mp3)
Thursday, September 22, 2011
There's shale methane over them thar hills, so they say. But we already knew that Lancashire is full of gas (BBC).It has to be extracted through a fracking process. Why they feel the need to be so rude about it, I don't quite know.It turns out you smash a few rocks and extract the gas that way. It's controversial, with some people saying it could cause problems if we break the wrong rocks. Perhaps, but look on the bright side. If it all goes wrong, it's only Lancashire.On the other hand, if it all goes right, Lancastrians could be rather better off than Yorkshiremen. And that can never do. The only solution is a peacekeeping force from Yorkshire to secure the Western petrochemical supply line. Who's with me?
Friday, September 09, 2011
From The Mysterious Island, ch. 33 (link). Spilett, the journalist, asks Harding, the engineer, whether he thinks industrial progress will be stopped when the coal runs out. Verne, through his hero Harding, gives the answer: fuel cells. Hydrogen and oxygen, separated and then recombined, to power vehicles and machines. Indeed, one might suppose that he comes as close as it was possible for a Victorian author to come to suggesting fusion power: nuclear fusion not yet being known, of course, but he correctly predicts that we will seek to use water as the source of fuel and to generate electricity from its constituent parts. (One shouldn't be too hagiographic. Verne appears to think that separating and then recombining water is going to be an energy-positive process, which is clearly not true. But it's clear that he was very good indeed, even allowing for the errors.)It is amusing that it remains, generalising wildly, journalists and other artsy types who think progress will stop when the fuel runs out, and the engineers, scientists and economists who tend to be optimistic that we will simply find a new, better source of fuel. But enough from me: here's Verne.
It chanced one day that Spilett was led to say, "But now, my dear Cyrus, all this industrial and commercial movement to which you predict a continual advance, does it not run the danger of being sooner or later completely stopped?""Stopped! And by what?""By the want of coal, which may justly be called the most precious of minerals." …"Oh! the veins of coal are still considerable, and the hundred thousand miners who annually extract from them a hundred millions of hundredweights have not nearly exhausted them.""With the increasing consumption of coal," replied Gideon Spilett, "it can be foreseen that the hundred thousand workmen will soon become two hundred thousand, and that the rate of extraction will be doubled.""Doubtless; but after the European mines, which will be soon worked more thoroughly with new machines, the American and Australian mines will for a long time yet provide for the consumption in trade.""For how long a time?" asked the reporter."For at least two hundred and fifty or three hundred years.""That is reassuring for us, but a bad look-out for our great-grandchildren!" observed Pencroft."They will discover something else," said Herbert."It is to be hoped so," answered Spilett, "for without coal there would be no machinery, and without machinery there would be no railways, no steamers, no manufactories, nothing of that which is indispensable to modern civilization!""But what will they find?" asked Pencroft. "Can you guess, captain?""Nearly, my friend.""And what will they burn instead of coal?""Water," replied Harding."Water!" cried Pencroft, "water as fuel for steamers and engines! water to heat water!""Yes, but water decomposed into its primitive elements," replied Cyrus Harding, "and decomposed doubtless, by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force, for all great discoveries, by some inexplicable laws, appear to agree and become complete at the same time. Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable. Some day the coalrooms of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will, instead of coal, be stored with these two condensed gases, which will burn in the furnaces with enormous calorific power. There is, therefore, nothing to fear. As long as the earth is inhabited it will supply the wants of its inhabitants, and there will be no want of either light or heat as long as the productions of the vegetable, mineral or animal kingdoms do not fail us. I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future.""I should like to see that," observed the sailor.As should I. And given the way the research is advancing, I may yet live to.