Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Limits of Physics and Time Out for Humanity

In reaction to a paper by Igor Markov published in Nature, John Timmer at Ars Technica asks,

Let's assume for a moment that the answer is "yes" (because it is). This simply begs the more important question,

"So What?"

I don't ask this facetiously. We've recently been through a period of technological upheaval, and I've been privileged that the bulk of it happened in my own lifetime. We are so used to constant change that we now feel that this is the normal state of affairs.

Well, it isn't. Before the Industrial Revolution, the world continued on pretty much unchanged for thousands of years. Horses and oxen pulled carts. People walked. They ploughed. Fashions changed a bit, but all in all, change was gradual, and slow, and people expected this to continue as surely as we expect change. Look at a timeline of humanity and highlight the periods of rapid technological change vs. those of stagnation, and you'll find that most of the time... the vast majority of all of history... we maintain a status quo. But don't get the idea that all of history until modern times was a gradual incline, with a graph of "progress" looking like a hockey stick. That's not true either.

6,000 years and still going
This isn't the first age of upheaval and rapid change. Humans were hunter-gatherers for millennia before they became farmers. Almost the very moment they became farmers, the concept of a "city" was born. Specialization happened almost literally overnight. Industry was invented, albeit the manual sort of industry performed by carpenters, masons, bakers, tailors, farriers, and the like. All this happened in the blink of an eye, not unlike the rate of change in our own information age.

Afterward, there was a plateau, and occasionally a decline when the reason for a technology dissipated, as with megalithic works. This has happened at several times and places in history. In Western culture, an indication of this is in our names. Surnames are treated as being quite abstract today, but once there was a time when you met a man named Cooper, you expected him to be able to make a barrel, which he'd likely sell to a man named Brewer who used it to make beer. And a man named Farrier would shoe the horse that transported the beer on Mr. Carter's wagon. And so on. These became family names because the stability of the culture was such that these talents and tasks were passed on from one generation to another within a family business. And the perfectly logical and reasonable naming convention of that lost time survives as an anachronism long after the stability that birthed it became a memory.

I see no reason to expect that we will not reach another technological plateau in the relatively near future, and nearer than you might think. The expectation that "smaller and faster" can continue indefinitely seems to me to be completely unwarranted and logically unsupportable. Nevertheless, we in the "developed world" are already so accustomed to constant change that the mere thought of a year without "advancement" is trauma-inducing... so much so that people delude themselves into believing that a white iPhone is an improvement over a black one. It is now enough to simply have change for the sake of change, which has nothing whatsoever to do with substantive technological improvements. The physical limits of technology, coupled with this irrational desire for change for change's sake, leading to an acceptance of the mere appearance of change, will eventually and paradoxically lead to the impending plateau.

Certainly we still have some breakthroughs to make... for instance, as continued miniaturization is stymied by the laws of physics, computers will nevertheless continue to grow in power through networking, becoming in function (if not form) the giant behemoths of Asimov's imagination... but this isn't an advancement of technology; rather, a continued application of existing tech. But if people even now get excited over a mere change of color, it won't be long (as ages are measured) before they're excited over nothing at all. To be clear, I think the biggest changes 500 years from now... 1,000 years from now... will not be technologies that are incomprehensible to us. However, the uses to which those technologies put may be mind-bogglingly bizarre, as social change is shaped by psychology and not by physics. I challenge you to find any pundit of even 50 years past who could have predicted that, once humanity was given ubiquitous access to instantaneous face-to-face conversations, millions of people would voluntarily eschew it in favor of tiny telegrams they type with their thumbs.

Yes, I know... "limits of human imagination", yadda, yadda, yadda. Once, thousands of years ago, our ancestors invented stories in which they could climb a high mountain and meet the gods. Today they invent stories about using warp drive to meet aliens. Is one any more naive than the other?  Not really, though if you're like most people, it almost certainly irks you that someone is awake enough to say it outright.

To be perfectly frank, humanity needs a breather now and then. We haven't yet perfected the use of those cities that were invented way back in the Agricultural Revolution thousands of years ago. We are enslaved and weakened by technologies that were intended to free and empower us. We've allowed that tech to be used to confuse us to the point where we wouldn't know true freedom and power if it bit us in the ass. We've thrown tech on top of tech, very little of which we've demonstrated that we have the competence to use. Thus far the most prevalent product of the Information Age is a generation of cat-video-watching couch potatoes who play at loving science without even knowing what science is.

Humanity is better than that.

We could use a long time out.

History being my guide, I think we're going to get it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hamas is responsible for their own war crimes.

I'm doing a no-no. I stuck my nose into some friends' conversation, and now I'm posting those thoughts here. I'll keep it as generic as I can here.

One friend re-posted a graphic regarding Israel, expressing, among other things, that you don't dictate how your allies fight a war. A second friend took exception to that, saying (paraphrased slightly) "So friends don't haul their friends off of people that they are kicking the sh*t out of and say "Okay, okay-they've had enough?"

To be sure, while sovereign countries are sovereign, I personally think you certainly do have a say in whether an ally remains your ally based on their behavior.But I also think that the specific situation in Israel is grossly misrepresented in my second friend's statement. Nor do I think that's his fault. So I responded as follows... and this is edited a bit for format and clarity:

Friends know when to discard metaphors that have been stretched beyond their bounds.

Hamas has not "had enough". If they had, then they would not be the first to fire missiles at the end of every ceasefire. They would accept peace.

The "had enough" metaphor simply doesn't work, nor can it, ever. Here's why:

Hamas will never have "had enough". We know because they say so in their charter as well as in their actions. From Article 11 of their charter (the Hamas Covenant): "Those who are on the land, are there only to benefit from its fruit. This Waqf remains as long as earth and heaven remain. Any procedure in contradiction to Islamic Sharia, where Palestine is concerned, is null and void."

What does that mean? Hamas claim that the Israelis profit from the land in violation of an Islamic waqf. In Islamic law a "waqf" is something akin to a charitable trust, in which ownership remains with the original owner (and survives his death), but from which no individual profit may be derived. All profit is reserved for the beneficiaries. In this specific case the beneficiaries are "all Muslims for all time" (and only Muslims). There are some restrictions, such as it cannot violate Islamic principles, and those declaring the waqf must actually own the items being used to found the waqf. The claim by Hamas is that Muhammad himself, upon occupying the lands of Syria and Iraq, declared them to be a waqf. That is, "set aside for the Muslim generations until Judgement Day". 

There is no contract, no agreement, no discussion, no negotiation, no settlement, no mediation, no anything whatsoever that can possibly supercede this waqf --ever-- in the minds of Hamas. Everything else is null and void. You can talk all day without changing the fact -- and they will do that, completely devoid of any feelings of guilt caused by their deception, because they know every assurance they utter on the subject to be as void as if it never existed. No loss of life will ever dissuade them, either. Article 8 of the Hamas Covenant, in full, says of Hamas: "Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Qur'an its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes."

The cited authorities for the claim of waqf are hadiths (traditions about Muhammad), as the story does not appear in the Qur'an. The hadith is necessary to lay the claim that the waqf was established while Muhammad was in direct possession of the land. (ISIS appears to be using the same argument when they claimed authority over all of Syria and Iraq as an Islamic caliphate.)

Defenders of Hamas point to Article 31 of the Hamas Covenant, which declares how Hamas is a "humanistic movement" guided by tolerance in which Islam, Christianity, and Judaism may coexist in peace. They fail to note the 30 preceding articles which in aggregate explain that this is ONLY the case "under the wing of Islam", a necessary condition of which is that Israel, as a state, be destroyed. We furthermore note the extent to which their stated ideal is practiced by the events occurring in Western Iraq even as we speak; and by the continued use of human shields in Gaza. Death for the sake of Allah. That ideal is not practiced at all, nor will it be until the whole is "under the wing of Islam".

Here's an English translation of the Charter. No commentary, no interpretation:

At around this point my second friend responded with "That would all be well and good... if it was only Hamas they were attacking. It is not." I'm going to need a little room, so I'm moving my response out here to my blog.

I want you to keep in mind that my criticisms here apply to Hamas, and to ISIS and like-minded Jihadist groups. There are plenty of Muslims who view these radical organizations with the same disgust and disdain that a Christian reserves for the Westboro Baptist Church. The difference here is that where a Christian will denounce and shout down the WBC, Most peaceful Muslims make only feeble protests against Jihadists. In part it is because these people will kill you.

Short answer: The only target in Gaza is Hamas.

Long answer follows.

Hamas violates international law and commits war crimes by placing themselves among human shields. To be clear, it is illegal to use human shields, and those doing so are committing the crime. They are liable for the casualties among the unwilling victims who are used as shields. To the extent that people voluntarily shield combatant resources, those people are not civilians, but active combatants.

That's not just my opinion. There are more than a few world leaders who should take a little time to actually read the Geneva Conventions. Article 28 states that “the presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”

And this makes common sense as well. The presence of human shields cannot render you immune from loss, as the moment that is allowed to happen, then every infantryman, everywhere has merely to strap a baby to his chest and become invincible. Put a rocket launcher in a schoolyard and Bob's your uncle! Instant victory! I won't join anyone in endorsing that practice or in allowing it, but of course Hamas has no problem with that. Use of civilians is their tactic, There are no Hamas non-combatants, as explained by their own charter (Hamas Covenant, Article 12).

While asserting the right to retaliate, the Israeli Foreign Ministry notes:
"But callous disregard of those who hide behind civilians does not absolve the state seeking to respond to such attacks of the responsibility to avoid or at least minimize injury to civilians and their property in the course of its operations."
So Israel sends warnings first, so that Hamas will remove the citizens. Of course it doesn't happen. And by "warnings, I don't mean that they drop leaflets, as the United States has been known to do. I don't mean a shot across the bow. They actually telephone the target and personally advise the people to evacuate, combatants and non-combatants alike. No other country in the world does this. Not the US, not the UK, not any other civilized nation. Yet the media report that Israel is attacking non-combatants. That is completely wrong. What is correct is that Israel takes extraordinary measures to warn civilians away from a target, to which combatants then gather.

I'm well aware of the arguments of op-ed pieces like this one [link] that argue about the "hypocrisy" of this stance toward human shields, saying that it's a "deliberately and dishonestly confusing" to argue that these are human shields because, they claim, those "shields" just happen to live in neighboring apartments, and are just going about their business. The video to which I linked is from Palestinian television, not Israeli, and even they don't make that astoundingly whitewashed claim. My opinion is what it is because I've looked at what the Palestinians say to each other. It is formed from their news sources, their documents, their statements.

Around the globe, civilized countries have passed laws making it illegal to use human shields... including Israel. Israel's law is very precise compared to most... it has to be, because they are under constant siege by those who would use them, and have been from the day of their founding.

Here's a map. In green I've marked the member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Basically, these are the countries of the world that wouldn't mind seeing Israel wiped off the map. On this same map I've marked Israel in purple:

click to enlarge

No really. It's right there in the middle. You have to squint. So let's zoom in...

click to enlarge

Remember, purple is Israel. Green wants Israel gone. Some of green act upon it.

Now imagine for a moment that you live in Israel. You're cognizant of your environment. Not just Hamas, but ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and your other neighbors want you dead. They don't want peace with you. They don't want to share jack shit with you.They want to step over your rotting, stinking corpse and take over. They say so at every opportunity. They write it down. They broadcast it, they teach it to their children. They will strap bombs to themselves, walk into your restaurants, and detonate themselves to prove their devotion to achieving this goal, and often do. Furthermore, you've tried peace talks. You've tried appeasement. You've tried every diplomatic channel possible. You've agreed to land grants. You've agreed to share your capital city. You've agreed to cease-fire after cease-fire. And they want you dead.

Don't roll your eyes, this has factually happened.

If Israel is hyper-defensive, it's with good reason. Israelis are surrounded by people who want to murder them in cold blood. There are two big reasons that it hasn't happened yet. The first is that Israel cannot afford to show weakness, ever; and in the very literal interests of self-preservation, retaliate against those that attack, wherever they may be. The second is that, contrary to the lofty claims of the Hamas Covenant, Arabs are anything but of one accord. They're kind of busy at the moment kicking the shit out of each other, as they have done for many decades.

But here's Hamas, in Gaza, throwing rockets at Israel, and literally daring them to shoot back at the schools and mosques and hospitals from which they've illegally placed their launchers and command posts. It is Hamas and not Israel that converted these from protected areas to combat targets. Don't take my word for it, read the Geneva Conventions yourself.

The reason Hamas does this is YOU.

At this moment they are not fighting to win a war, and they are most certainly not fighting for their survival. For that, all they have to do is peacefully go about their business. They are fighting to win YOU. They actually believe that you and millions just like you are gullible enough that you will believe the outrageous lie that Israel is the aggressor here. Israel, who unilaterally gave them the Gaza Strip. Israel, who violated none of the cease fire agreements. Israel, who is acting in accordance with the Geneva Conventions while Hamas deliberately hides their soldiers behind women and children.

Hamas do this because they have lost in the past and they believe that staging this lie will cost Israel her allies. And the sad part is that they are right. There are millions of people exactly that gullible. But that's not the only reason. They do it because despite their disregard for their own lives, they know that the Israelis are morally disinclined to attack through a crowd.

There is a principle in Islam called taqiyya. There are 2.5 million Muslims in the US, and many of them have no idea what that is. Not so with the jihadists. It is the principle of religious guile, and while it's intended to mean that a person can conceal his identity as a Muslim in order to escape persecution, it's interpreted by jihadists to mean that it's ok to lie to your enemies. Let's look at some practical examples. I don't want you to pay any attention to what the commentators say. Just the Muslims. The part I want you to see starts at around 2:46.

While many Muslims are honest and forthright, you can trust nothing of what a jihadist says to you regarding Israel. You can only trust what he says to another jihadist, in private.

Every Jew, every Christian, every non-Muslim is "kafir" (plural "kuffar"). In case you missed it, go back and watch at 4:55. You are like a cow: on Muslim land you may be captured, sold, or killed without a second thought. That is not mainstream Islam, that is these radicals that would have you take up the defense of poor, poor Hamas. But it is mainstream among Hamas, and ISIS, and al-Qaeda; and left unchecked it will be mainstream Islam.

Israel understands their neighbors. Hamas will give no quarter. Hamas quite literally pray that every rock and tree the Jews shelter behind will give them up so they can be murdered. (Hamas Covenant, Article 7). A few rockets, poorly aimed, are merely to goad Israel into attacking. And should their human shields die, then it is willingly. When Hamas' attacks are unanswered then the rockets will not stop. It will simply embolden them to fire more, with tighter aim. And we can even test this... Just yesterday (as I write this) Hamas once again violated the latest cease-fire with a launch of two rockets, to which Israel did not respond. I say they're not the last. Do you want to bet against me?

If Hamas cares about the lives of their people they have only to stop firing. There would be lasting, permanent peace starting right now. They launched two more rockets just hours before the ceasefire expired. One can only conclude that they do not care.


Addendum. It stands to reason that this shouldn't have to be spelled out, but apparently it does. Hamas, it doesn't matter who owns the school you're using for military purposes. You're still war criminals. You could paint "UN" directly on the babies you hide behind. You're still war criminals.

The question that prompted this addendum pains me to the core, seriously. I really thought I'd let it go, but I just can't. It was a rhetorical question as to whether children in a UN school are innocent. I can't let it go because it communicates one or more of several things:
  1. It tells me that the questioner did not read this post before attempting to rebut. The very fact that children are innocent is precisely why using them as human shields is a war crime.
  2. It indicates that the questioner believes that somehow I might have not bothered to consider it. "Wait a minute... don't schools have innocent children!!?" "Well by golly, I never thought about that when I wrote a bloody monograph claiming that Hamas are war criminals for putting those children in the line of fire!"
  3. Let's be clear, by "building" we mean "school", and the question implies that there's something worse about shelling a UN school than another, There's not. I don't care if it's a UN building or a one-room schoolhouse on the frontier. I refuse to get pulled into a discussion of "which kid is worth more?" 
  4. It assumes that children are targets. Wrong. Military targets are the targets. The children are on them thanks to Hamas. There are rules by which all sides are expected to conduct themselves... these are the Geneva conventions. They are intended to minimize the loss of innocent lives, and if one side refuses to abide by them, then the resultant loss of life on their side is their own damned fault.. even the lives of innocents.. I posted video examples of Palestinians running to areas where they knew maximum damage would certainly occur. So whose fault are the casualties? The Palestinians'. When the Palestinians use a UN school as a weapons depot it turns the building into a legitimate target. Who did that? The Palestinians! 
Also, it communicates a profound lack of understanding of the purpose of warfare. Warfare -- even modern warfare -- is not a fucking video-game. It is nothing fair about it. It is not romantic. It is not bloodless. It is not sanitary. It does not have a level playing field. It is not won by a scorecard tally of rockets fired into desolate areas to no effect, but by inflicting damage on your enemy. It is not about having some mythical equity in the number of casualties. There is no "casualty quota" in war. you don't stop so your enemy can catch up. It is not your enemies' job to safeguard your citizens, it is yours. Your enemies will avoid certain safe zones, but you are responsible for ensuring that those conform to the conventions. You are asking those who would rain death upon you to spare your people. It is an astonishingly generous concession for which you are tasked only to keep them out of the way. It's not too much to ask. In war, as many people die as stand between you and the goal, which is to destroy your enemies' ability to make war upon you. In many situations it would preferentially mean to take out the enemies' desire to make war upon you, but as those who read the above post know, in the case of Israel vs. jihadists this is not an option.

The Palestinians do have that option. To remove the Israelis desire to make war, all that Hamas have to do is cease fire and don't start firing again. Done. Peace at last!

In contrast, Israel has one and only one viable option regarding jihadists: remove their enemies' ability to make war temporarily, until they come back for more. Then do it again, and again, until Judgement Day. And to remove that ability even temporarily they absolutely must destroy military targets, wherever they may be, no matter how distasteful Hamas makes the task. Israel pre-announces its targets because it is not targeting innocents. The location of those targets and the number of people on them are entirely up to Hamas.


Addendum 2: In response to another off-line comment:  This is not heartless; it is heartbreaking.


Addendum 3: In response to another emailed comment: No, Hamas is not justified in firing upon Israel because of the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. For one thing, Egypt is participating in that same blockade. And whereas Egypt's reasons for maintaining a blockade on land and sea are admittedly political, Israel's participation in that blockade is clearly for defense purposes only, to block weapons. and the blockade began long after Israel evacuated Gaza and Hamas began hostilities. Nevertheless, thousands of trucks carrying food, medicine, and other goods have entered and continue to enter Gaza from Israel, even as Egypt turns back aid, and even as Hamas continues to hurl their rockets. The Israeli MOD keeps track, and even publishes weekly reports [PDF]. The plain fact is that if Hamas was the cause of the blockade in the first place (both the defensive blockade by Israel and the political blockade by Egypt) and if Hamas wants the blockade to end they have it within their power... today... merely by ending their bad behavior. So, nice try, but as usual, pro-Hamas propaganda has nothing whatsoever to do with reality.


Please read the following by Sam Harris: Why Don't I Criticize Israel?

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Vacuum Propellers and Junk Science

A little while back NASA "confirmed" a revolutionary space engine design known as the EmDrive. It was the sort of thing that some people call a "quantum propeller" and I like to call a "vacuum propeller", and it's a pretty obvious engineering question once you've learned of the concept of "virtual particles". It's where the mind immediately goes when you ask yourself the question "how can I make this work for me?"

The thing is that even if real, this is such a fleeting and small phenomenon that it's not the sort of thing you're likely to leverage with a glorified boat screw or a pair of oars. It's so close to a violation of the accepted laws of physics that extraordinary evidence is required.

While I'd LOVE to say that I posted a wonderful take-down of this subject, I did not. Ethan Siegel at did, in a cogent and well-authored piece that you should definitely read.

Here's the link:

Yes. Sometimes even NASA does bad science.


Addendum: So you noticed that there's a big difference in length and tone between this "Junk Science" post and some others that I've done? Good... now know why... it's because this is how science works. When people make mistakes, other people point them out. Then the ones who make the mistake blush a little, but then say "my bad" and move on. They don't defend the mistake and attack the people who pointed it out. That's behavior reserved for pseudo-science. Real science is self-correcting, and real scientists know and accept that.