Friday, December 2, 2016

Good Start

Major League Baseball's new labor agreement removes one of Bud Selig's dumb innovations -- giving the league which wins the All-Star game the home-field advantage in the World Series. But rather than go back to the old alternating American League-National League patterns, home-field will be awarded to the pennant winning team with the best regular season record.

Granted, the frequency of interleague play has removed a lot of the spectacle of the All-Star game. And since players  may play for four or five different teams in their careers, the matchups of seeing the best stars of the game take on the other best stars of the game isn't as unprecedented as it has been before.

But tying home-field to the mid-season break winner was a panic-button move brought on by Selig after he ignored a basic law of professional baseball -- no ties, ever -- and allowed the 2002 All-Star game to end just that way. So its demise is no great loss.

Now if they could just close the Hellmouth under Yankee Stadium...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sharpen That Razor

This article at The Federalist suggests that different views about the possibility of extraterrestrial life can imply several things about a person's worldview. Specifically, the willingness of some of today's more aggressive atheists to invoke them and their actions as a solution to the Fermi paradox suggests how these thinkers wind up invoking an unprovable solution with no more empirical evidence for it than for some kind of deity.

Now, the writer seems to me to have an overly-simplified understanding of the Fermi paradox (which asks, if there's life on other worlds, why haven't we heard from some of them yet) and probably does the same to the views of some of these more energetic atheistic persons. But that's beside the point. He suggests that the use of William of Occam's guide to answering a question produces an answer which makes these other folks reach for their silly solutions.

This guide, often called "Occam's Razor," says that the simplest solution which covers all the bases is usually the right one, and warns against needlessly complicated answers. So when Fermi's paradox asks where are those other life forms and someone answers, well, maybe we humans are the first species to have developed the ability to look around for our neighbors? Or someone else answers, well, maybe the other aliens are more evolved than we are and are waiting for us to catch up before talking? Those are needlessly complicated (and his dismissal of them needlessly snippy)! Occam's Razor means that the simplest answer to Fermi's question "Where are the aliens" is "There are none!"

From there we proceed to several more snippy paragraphs targeting folks like Richard Dawkins who have themselves not slouched in sniding religious believers. Although it goes against my grain to rein in someone who's knocking Dawkins' statements from pillar to post, I think this piece ignores a fundamental flaw in its eagerness to get its licks in.

I don't question the use of Occam's Razor in answering the Fermi Paradox -- but I think the writer here doesn't apply it properly. He says that ol' Will's maxim answers Fermi's question with, "There are none," because that's the simplest possible solution. That's the error. There is another solution, which you might consider equally uncomplicated or perhaps even less complicated: Where are the aliens?

We don't know.

But "we don't know" makes a poor rhetorical weapon. Though it's definitely accurate, it offers no sharp edges for cutting remarks and no weight to bash straw opponents. All it's got is humility and honesty. Which don't seem to be needed in this discussion, at least according to one of the statements being made in it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


The "Trail of Tears" was the name given to a forced relocation of Native Americans living in the Southeastern United States. Different nations -- primarily the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole -- were required to leave their lands so they could be settled by Europeans. Uprooted and sent to modern-day Oklahoma, many perished on the journey as well as after their arrival. Although these nations had a significant urban presence in the southeastern US, their recovery after the relocation was not swift. They maintain significant presences in their resettled lands today, but the entire story offers a good example of just how poorly Native Americans have been treated by the United States government.

And still are, Naomi Schaefer Riley says in her 2016 book The New Trail of Tears. Riley sketches a host of social and economic ills faced by modern Native Americans that continue to produce misery for them today, long after active efforts to exterminate them via soldiers and rifles have ceased. She lays the blame for many of these on outmoded government policies that prevent Native Americans from using their own land the way every other citizen of the United States can and which deprive them of access to the same court and legal system every other citizen can access. Those policies provide a lot of bureaucracies with reasons to exist and bureaucrats with paychecks, but may or may not actually help Native American people or allow them to help themselves.

Riley paints a picture about as bleak as the northern plains winter scene on the cover. The centerpiece points of her proposed solutions -- allow tribal members some measure of private property rights over the land they live on and increase tribal members' access to redress through non-tribal court systems while overhauling and reforming the tribal ones -- might very well help but would require the kind of paradigm shift usually unavailable to the bureaucratic mind. The ancestors of today's Native people were forced to leave their lands in order to satisfy the interests of wealthy and powerful people; today they are being forced to remain behind in a system that serves those wealthy and powerful folks and notes them only incidentally, if at all.
Often students from inner-city or less well-off schools don't move towards work in the hard-science world of things like physics. It has less to do with whether or not they are smart than with whether or not they even believe they can succeed in fields where few share their forming experiences. And additional layer of work comes when we focus on minority students from those same schools. Stephon Alexander has been one of those students who's worked to try to nudge the door open behind him for other talented students who may not think they can measure up. The Brown University physicist has also published papers on several theories in modern cosmology and physics that are often cited by others in the field.

And he's a jazz saxophonist who had the privilege of working a little with legend Ornette Coleman. His 2016 book The Jazz of Physics offers some reflections from these two fields and interests in his life and how they might intersect.

Jazz is structured as a semi-memoir of Alexander's own developing interest in both jazz and physics. Interest in the one helped fuel thought and interest in the other, he found, as he progressed through his schooling. The improvisational nature of jazz seemed a nice fit for the theoretical and largely mathematical work being done on the cutting edges of cosmology and physics. A saxophonist could improvise through a solo only if he or she knew how the different notes would sound together and which combinations and riffs worked and which didn't. Exotic ideas such as string theory or the multiverse -- which might never be proven experimentally -- can only be acceptable if they agree with things that can be verified, like the formulas used to express them.

Alexander is poorly served by his publisher with his book's subtitle: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. He really doesn't ever offer anything like that, nor does he pretend he's going to. Some discussion of how waves in the universe immediately after the Big Bang could be seen as sound waves is interesting, but it's in no way the centerpiece of the book. Jazz is an interesting read even in its memoir guise, because Alexander thinks about interesting things. The book can prompt a reader to do so as well, but it never really makes a good case for why it should be a standalone book instead of an extended essay in a journal or magazine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

You Said It, Mister

Tomorrow is the birthday of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, the man who as Prime Minister of England during World War II might have had one of the largest roles in saving Western civilization from Nazi overthrow.

Churchill was born in 1874. His speeches during the war, especially in the dark days of constant German air raids when it seemed like Great Britain alone was left to fight off Nazi power, are credited with giving the people encouragement to continue to fight and hold out. Churchill apparently believed that the United States would enter the war sooner or later, but whether he ever actually said it would have been better if it had been sooner no one really knows.

His 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster University in Missouri sounded an alarm that totalitarian despots didn't all vanish when Hitler was vanquished, and that a wartime ally had become a Cold War enemy.

Churchill himself didn't like all of the praise given him for his wartime role, believing that his countrymen and women were the true heroes of the hour. From a speech he gave on his 80th birthday:
I have never accepted what many people have kindly said - namely, that I inspired the nation... It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion's heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar. I also hope that I sometimes suggested to the lion the right place to use his claws.
I have the mad respect for Winnie, but I have to disagree with him slightly. It's tough to read the following and think that it didn't offer at least a little of the heart behind the roar:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
I mean, it's no "Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it," but it did well enough for its time, right? No, here I'm going to go with the assessment of Edward R. Murrow -- himself no slouch with the wordsmithery:
He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Calculated Risk

Some writers at Science 2.0 helpfully weigh the different risk factors involved in running the bulls at Pamplona, Spain.

They suggest that while the goal of most of the people who stage athletic events is a zero-risk event -- safer surfaces in track events, big pillows underneath the pole vaults, etc. -- that option is not available in the Pamplona runs because the race itself is the risk, and the risk is part of the point of running the race. Therefore the risk cannot be non-zero.

While I am sure these people are all smarter than me, I have to disagree with their conclusion. My risk of being gored or stomped by a bull in Pamplona is exactly zero, because never in life am I going to run down the street in front of multiple tons of horned beef. Should one of the bulls of Pamplona desire my departure from this mortal coil, he'll need to get himself slaughtered and cooked on a grill someplace where I eat and thus place his deadly red meat into my system. That's not only his best shot, it's his only shot, so he'll have to figure out in his dim bovine mind just how much he hates me, someone he has never met.

It just ain't worth it, Ferdinand.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Being as I am a fan of baseball, I've always been a little perturbed at the legend that the late and unlamented vicious dictator Fidel Castro may have been scouted and offered a contract by the New York Giants (sometimes the offer is from the Washington Senators). He supposedly turned them down.

It's a pleasure, then, to read Today I Found Out and learned that this is a false story -- that while major league scouts may have taken a look at Castro, they saw nothing they wanted. He apparently had high-school level stuff and as a pitcher, he made a great murderous despot.

He also, upon attaining power, banned professional pay-for-play baseball in Cuba. Perhaps he thought that if he couldn't make money playing baseball, then no one else in Cuba should either. It is, after all, what he did to the rest of his nation's economy.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Unusual Day

That I disagree with President Obama regarding a matter of foreign policy is not in any way new or noteworthy. He completely misses the boat in commenting on the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, ignoring the massive amount of human suffering brought about by the man and his policies.

But that I agree with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is...unexpected. Nevertheless, Rep. Pelosi's statement on the dictator's not-soon-enough demise notes both the oppression in which Castro engaged and the fact that his little brother hasn't done squat to end it. Kudos, Madam Minority Leader. This one you got right.