Saturday, February 23, 2013

fire and brimstone II: a better fix on the Green Sky threat

Quick summary -- no one knows yet, but the best evidence I can find
suggests that Peter Ward was basically right, that global warming is pushing us closer than
we would think to "fire and brimstone" -- a rerun of the mass extinctions of the past, where H2S poisoning ("brimstone") and radiation from "ozone holes" ("fire") were high enough to kill
every human on earth.


Peter Ward's important classic, Under a Green Sky, presents us with
some important questions: how close are we to the time when emanations
of H2S to the atmosphere
("brimstone") or radiation induced by a new ozone hole ("fire") start
growing to the point where all higher mammals on earth, including
humans, would be killed?  Ward's book (and the paper by Kump which he
cites) proves that these problems have caused mass extinctions many
times in the past, but he doesn't unravel the mechanisms of HOW this
happens well enough to give us any kind of decent early warning. He
argues that a new kind of crossdisciplinary cooperation would be
needed, between people who study the long history of earth and people
who study the relevant types of ocean currents -- "thermohaline
currents" (THC), in order to understand just how bad the problem is
for us today. He does suggest that we are in fact on a road to a new
mass extinction, sooner than we think.

New stuff

I have done a lot of google scholar search and such, to see whether
anyone on earth has made the right connections to analyze this
situation. Failing that -- I have groped to try to make the
connections myself. Just yesterday, I had a chance to study a paper by
Iris Grossman, of the Carnegie Mellon climate change group, which
explains the relevant THC more clearly than any other paper I have
found as yet. The picture is complicated, but here are..


1. There is a very tight coupling between the warming northern Gulf
Stream ("GS") currents and the deep currents ("NDWA"?) which protect
us from a Green Sky event.

2. For the moment, the melting of ice on Greenland reduces the
saltiness (salinity) of water in the North Atlantic, which weakens the
warming current (adding some cold and snow and such to places like
England, France and New England) and the NDWA. However, the AMOUNT of
weakness of these currents is proportional to the RATE of melting of
the Greenland ice; if it keeps melting at the same rate, the cold
storms would not get worse,
and the ocean will not become more stagnant than it is today. It may
even be that this problem peaked at around 1970, when there was a
"Great Saline Anomaly" (low salinity
and a weakening for a few years of the warming GS).

3. Midterm, the situation seems even less threatening. The NDWA seems
to depend on the salinity of the cold North Atlantic and North Pacific
water more than anything else. For now, melting of Greenland ice is a
major factor, but when that is totally gone (just as the Arctic ice is
on path to disappear), this effect goes away. Then we fall back to the
long-term drivers of salinity: rain and evaporation. Thanks to
melting, we know to expect less rain in places like the Himalayas (due
to the "albedo effect"); warming and low albedo should also increase
evaporation. That all should increase saltiness.

4. HOWEVER: this nice NDWA of ours is new. In most of earth's history,
we did not have it at all. In most of earth's history, agricultural
runoff like what we had today, combined with
stagnant flows in the deep ocean, would be enough to cause a "green
sky" effect --
and many times did, killing everyone. What was different about the THC
back then?
The obvious answer: the THC now is very sensitive to effects of
salinity when water is in the very special and unique regime between 0
degrees C and 4 degrees C. (Notice how
little the salinity and temperature at the equator seems to change
this story!) Back then, the poles were warmer. Bottom line: there
probably exists a "tipping point" when temperatures at
the North Pole would get high enough to turn off the NDWA, both in
north Atlantic and north Pacific, quite enough to get us all killed.

BOTTOM LINE: It looks as if the Green Sky problem is current reducing;
however, when things get warm enough in the water in the North Pole
area, that will reverse. We do not yet know the critical temperature
which kills us all, but on the whole, the bottom line feels a lot like
Ward's position, even though the logic behind it is quite different.


Needless to say, this cries out for scientific analysis, and
quantitative analysis, far beyond
anything I have done here.

It doesn't help us that the South Pole is in a different regime.

I find myself thinking back to the old movies, AI and Wall-E.
Thoughts about robots and archaea. But the bottom line here really
cries out for more direct follow-ups.

I also remember the line in the Bible about "next tme wikll be fire and brimstone."

And I think about the friendly NASA xenobiologist who guided me a few years ago, when
I was first exploring these questions... and other issues related to archaea.

Of course, none of this represents anyone else. It's all tentative even for me. Just groping
as best I can to understand stuff. (Am sorry how I once thought temperature gradient
would be more important here. Maybe they will be more important in future to THC,
but not quite yet.)

Best of luck... we all need it...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

protecting yourself from hackers, criminals and big brother

The recent Chinese hacking scandal is a real wakeup call... but how do we wake up?

Some folks would want to bark a lot, like a chihuahua dog, and then go back to sleep.
Or prepare for some kind of war with China.

Some of the Chinese army folks have really been trying to get our goat, that's for sure. "If you guys can use cyberwarfare to try to shut down Khamanei's plan to nuc Israel, why can't we use it to shut down the US economy, here and now?" (I wonder what Xi Jinping thinks about efforts to
shut down one of their biggest markets right now in the middle of a global recession? But the Bo Xlai
guys would love to get rid of Xi Jinping, in a flood of uncontained testosterone. Good old fashioned
warlord types.) What's more... I remember a talk on cybersecurity at the National Defense University in 2009, when they stressed that "it's not just software; folks can use this to kill hardware." In dark moments, I wonder what connections might or might not exist between the crash of my great
Imac at work in November, versus the new flood of viruses and the incessant, stepped-up attacks on ordinary folks at NSF which has become ever more visible over the past few weeks.

 A wake up call. The 1974 oil embargo should have been a wake up call.. and not just about
the price of gasoline then and there. This is not just about the Chinese army, though their willingness to attack right now without holding anything back is part of what we can deal with.

"Waking up" may include remembering an old idea on the back burner: should we seriously consider shifting BOTH from PCs and from Macs to machines with a properly installed SE-Linux kernel
or even Mimix? Should the US consider responding to the Chinese army AND TO THE MANY
OTHER such threats, by pushing hard for all government offices and critical infratsructure companies
to do the same? When my Mac died, should I have immediately shifted to something more secure immediately?

People once said "the Unix-like operating system of the Mac OS X makes it impossible for malware
to cause the same level of problem on a Mac as on a PC." Some grossly uninformed people have even said "Oh, all operating systems are created equal, it's a matter of principle." (So it doesn't matter whether the coder was implementing theorems, or just happened to be drunk and type in random code? Re the latter, I have had friends who got to see the "inner spaghetti" of some systems the world relies on.) But in fact... there is an interesting history of "macontrol" and "flashflake"
this past year. I haven't dared to visit websites like, now that I know
how easily the best macs with the most modern virus protection can be creamed just by clicking on the wrong thing. But it seems that even under Steve Jobs, Mac must have put in "back doors"
(not "phone home" stuff, but real back doors from the manufacturer, to let selected people
get back in), which the hackers found out about. The new Lion version does close one
of the most egregious back doors, but the  vibes out there suggest that the new generation is even more eager to please the folks who want big back doors.

Yes, there are folks who want all computers to have big back doors -- so that selected people
can keep an eye on you, and pursue legitimate goals such as protecting us from terrorists and mafias.
However, some of those folks have a very serious insider problem of their own, in part what I think of as "code name Trajan." Not Trojan, Trajan. And if the cost of backdoors is the ability of more serious folks to just shut us all down completely, are they really worth it? Are they sustainable,
in light of the problems now facing us?

By the way, I can think of technical means to make much safer backdoors, and other ways to
crack what people think cannot be cracked. But I don't see how that kind of technology "fix" would really change things. Technologies like solar power could be a big fix in their area, but in this area, even full-fledged superhuman machine intelligence would just add more players to the game.

Best of luck....

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Global Job Creation: What Do Engineers Say?

IEEE, the world's largest engineering society, is planning to weigh in
on the issue of job creation not only in the US but world wide. Many
nations arrange meetings between the President of IEEE and their
President when he visits. Can you imagine what it is like to win
re-election in a society of more than 400,000 people, most of who are
PhDs who don't trust much of anything you say in words, scattered all
over the planet?

Here is my own response, as a member of some of the IEEE committees,
to the global challenge of job creation:


Jobs and competitiveness certainly are major issues for the entire
world right now. Also, the engineering way of thinking could
contribute a lot to better policy, if
we maintain analytic and mathematical approaches just as intensely as
we do when we know something has to work or we get into deep trouble.
Since about 2009, I have felt some calling myself, on-again off-again,
to address these problems analytically... more or less until the past
few months.

But several questions have discouraged me somewhat. First, is there
any community support out there for analytic thinking, from people who
carry a shingle saying "engineer"? (Back in the days of Norbert Wiener
and Bernard Shaw maybe there was, but what of Stakeholder Washington?)
Second -- can IEEE marshall
the intellectual resources and integrity in this specific area to be
anything other than another stakeholder pleading emotionally for its
own special interests? (Not that Congress would be offended or
surprised by that these days -- or all that respectful.)
Perhaps there are other places where it might work better.

I mention all this, not to throw water on the the idea, but because we
can't really rise to the challenge unless we face up to it first. I
would make an analogy to the issue of access to space, recently
discussed in the transportation and aerospace committee, where a
position paper approved at the committee level reminded us that we
still really have to rise to the challenge of lower cost access before
any of the great dreams can become attainable in the real world.

There are many many connections between the kind of mathematics we
study in the Computational Intelligence Society, and the economics
they taught me in the two degrees in economics I have from Harvard and
the London School of Economics
(and a course or two as part of the crossdisciplinary PhD in applied
But these are nontrivial subjects. A unified perspective on economics
and intelligent systems is rarely taught  (though folks have me
working on a video course right now which addresses some of the
basics, more microeconomics than macroeconomics, though important
links exist to both.)


OK, getting to jobs.....

In 2009, working for Specter's office in the Senate, the independent
thinking Specter was appalled by the wild claims both for and against
"Green jobs." Lots of people spent lots of time writing propaganda
saying that climate bills would create lots of jobs -- and equally,
that they would be job killers. A lot of folks became numb to such
claims, or chose to believe whatever was best for what they wanted for
other reasons. (That's what IEEE would be playing into in Congress...
a jaded field that expects empty propaganda, and assumes that any
stakeholder is one more part of that.) Elmendorf of the Congressional
Budget Office strived hard to offer a more objevtive bipartisan
analysis; thus CBO did an analytical piece on climate bills
and job creation/destruction, citing all the best econometric studies
and quantitative eocnomic analysis they could find. Later, I was asked
to give a briefing in the Capitol building on the true story,
analyzing the analysis, posted as the November 2009 item at Elmendorf was in attendance,
and folks were listening back then... but not really since I returned to NSF.

My bottom line: some climate bills would be job creators, and others
job killers. It deepnds on the details -- and if we don't get into the
details, we don't help. I do owe
thanks to EPC, and to Harold Adams in particular -- hearing realities
of the power industry was crucial to me in getting the formal analysis
correlated with reality. The same would be true for all the kinds of
"job creation" ideas IEEE might advocate.

Another part of the conclusion: the econometric models available then
were frankly much less capable than the models we had in the 1980s
(when I build econometric models at DOE) for addressing these kinds of
questions. That's especially true when the world economy is in a kind
of disequilibrium state, where some sectors
(like health care) are overstressed and inflated, while others (like
construction) are depressed. The old Wharton Annual Model could
capture such effects, to some degree, but the Financial Times has
recently described how uncorrelated  today's models have been to
flkuctuations of the past few years, let alone the more complex task
of figuring out what things like climate bills do to the economy. In
my view, the Federal Reserve has been more competent in analyzing
these things than just about anyone else I keep track of (though IMF
shows insight too) -- due not only to Bernanke's PhD work, but perhaps
also due to the fact that the last manager/developer of the Wharton
Annual Model moved to the Federal Reserve when Wharton econometrics
was scaled back.

On to substance --

The real problem with jobs is that it's not just jobs. Even for a
crude first order analysis of what works best for the world economy,
we need to think in terms of multiobjective optimization. At least
four crucial measures of performance --
jobs, debt, growth and sustainability. If the world keeps oscillating
in manic-depressive ways between debt and jobs (often losing sight of
the other two),
we have little hope of moving ahead. Thus we face a mathematical problem,
even at teh crudest level -- how to achieve a Pareto optimum between
jobs, debt, growth and sustainability, and also between at least the
three main economies (US, EU and China, with perhaps Brazil on-again
off-again as a kind of surrogate for other patterns). (As engineers,
we know that listing 1,000 variables doesn't always give us a
manageable "warm start" to a complex optimization problem. Focus is a
key start to managing this kind of complexity.)

If anyone is interested -- perhaps in a separate discussion thread on jobs --
there is a whole lot more to be said, but let me start with a crude model for
what the US and the Japan economies are facing. So far as I know, the
economists in the "White House" of Japan are the only ones who have
gotten so far as a decent first-order analysis of the jobs versus
federal dbet dilemma.

Just to get a Pareto optimum of jobs and federal debt... we can think
of it as looking for policies that get the most jobs possible SUBJECT
to a constraint on how much debt one takes on. Thus if X dollars of
government spending or X dollars of tax breaks/reductions/incentives
yield Y jobs... the key issue is the ratio of Y to X over different
posisble activities. The Japanese in 2009 simply estimated as
objectively as possible the Y/X ratios. In a period of unnatural
unemployment (not a trivial concept, but we are certainly there
today), the Pareto optimum comes from deploying activities with a high
Y/X ratio, and cutting back those with low Y/X.
But we need flexibility and automatic stabilizers to shift back somehow when
things become too inflated. (Yes, a few economists have considered the
relevance of feedback control here, and some have been smart enough to
realize you need nonlinear models to capture the cruicial diminishing
returns effects - no H infinity linear robust control here.)

But... we end up trampling on "religion."

It is crystal clear that ordinary government spending and ordinary
cross-the-board tex reductions have Y/X ratios which are reasonably
close to each other.
Devotees of the Laffer curve have often stated that all tax breaks
reduce debt, because of their magical long-term effects, but the
Economist and the Financial Times have often published more serious
reviews finding that it is hard to justify even a 20% "rebound effect"
over ten years, let alone immediately. And so, for ordinary stuff, at
the 300,000 foot level,  jobs/debt really doesn't say much, one way or
another, to the gross debate between government spending and lower
taxes playing out in DC today.

However -- economists have long known that that windfall revenue
doesn't get spent as much as normal revenue. Studies of corporate tax
breaks suggest that they often (but not always) get "banked" -- that
they are so unpredictable that companies are ot so willing to change a
lot for their sake. (Please forgive the oversimplification... so far.)
Thus as the President has noted, special tax breaks for the rich and
unusual loopholes for cretain corporations, especialy oil, have
unusually low Y/X. The idea
of reforming corporate taxes to maintian the same overall level of
revenue, or maybe even a little higher UNTIL WE GET RECOVERY, by
getting rid of the "banked"  special loopholes  to pay for lower
overall rates, is one avenue.  To the extent that a predictable future
carbon tax (like a nice flat $30/ton of CO2) generates revenue
AND stimulates private investment in carbon capture and reuse technology
(an alternative to just shutting down coal plants), the private sector
stimulation effect "juices up" the Y/X ratio to make it better than
the usual government spending;
in other words, a carbon tax would be one way to offset spending or
tax breaks in other areas.

In the Japan analysis, where they really estimated Y/X carefully and
numerically from real data, they found they could get a Y/X THREE
times higher from one specific stimulus activity versus all the other
best stimulus measures people
advocated (and did fund!) in Japan. (I have messages from the Japan
White House economists in my email... but my old IMAC crashed, the
hard drive is being replaced, and I didn't get  it all off the old
hard drive, which I get back next week...)

The super-Y/X activity was "three pillars of eco-economy" - a set of incentives
for greater energy efficiency and flexibility in cars, appliances and
One of the data points was the high Y/X observed for "cash for clunkers" --
a program where, in effect, one dollar of government incentive would
be matched by
two doillars of private investment, genertaing the job-creating effect
which would normally require three dollars of government spending.

Germany's EEG program to encourage renewable energy has had much the
same effect, massively helping the German economy -- BUT BECAUSE IT
REALLY EXTENDED TO THE WHOLE EU, Germany is now being dragged down
by events in other parts of the EU. Perhaps the EU grid buildout would
be crucial
to making EU-wide EEG really possible... so that jobs could be created in
Greece, Spain and Italy to build solar farms in areas of reliable sun,
to supply electricity to Germany at prices lower than what Germany
pays for renewables today, drawing on private sector capital (of which
there is no shortage these days)
to make the job-creating investment.

But, sadly, the benefits of the latter depend a lot on specific
technology for low-cost solar energy. Some of that is doing OK these
days, but there are huge unmet opportunities -- for example, lower
cost solar thermal and some quantum breakthroughs -- which would
ultimately be worth trillions of dollars, if onlhy we could
get our act together, somewhere on earth, for the required RD&D.
As with batteries, we get into a situation where "for want of a nail,
the kingdom was lost." (IN other words, engineering reality is crucial to providing certain really important investment


I apologize for the length of this email... and, equally, for the
important things
left out of it. But this is serious stuff. If we remember the
1930's... the fate of the world economy is not a small matter for
anything we want to do, and the world
is certainly not out of the woods yet.

Best of luck,


life with Mac -- why I use it and lessons on how

Back in 2008, using a PC, I was more organized than anyone else I knew. My ability to maintain networks all across different fields of science and different nations of the earth was based in part on things I learned my brain, but having a good email organization was also crucial to keep it all straight,
current and reliable. But that all depended on using a very special email package, Eudora 7,
which has mostly vanished from the earth. Out from Eden... from Camelot. (Also vanished were great scanners, capable of state of the art image compression from scanned multipage documents. So many documents may be lost as well.)

In 2009, working for the Senate, I had to use Microsoft Outlook (for the PC) for email -- except for webmail, so I tried yahoo mail and then google mail to supplement that package, which was barely adequate for one year of work in just one stream of existence. In 2010, when I returned to work at NSF, I explored and tested things with great intensity... and ended up concluding that I had to switch to Mac. Mainly, I switched to an Imac available in my Division of NSF, because Apple Mail
was hugely superior to Outlook, even when I bought a special add-on ("Neo") said to address
many of the deficiencies of Outlook. Outlook may be great for people who use email like Twitter, keeping the last ten messages they received and deleting everything else, but it is hopeless for folks
who need to stay on top of a hundred areas of science and universities in fifty states and so on,
in areas of advanced science where papers written ten years ago or more may suddenly emerge to be of enormous current importance. (Or where certain types of lawyers "lose" records and put you in jail if you don't have your own records.) 

I discussed the PC versus Mac situation with Luda this morning. It's true that many people go
with Mac as a way of being independent of Microsoft, or even -- in the age of Ipad -- as a kind
of fashion statement. "Of course," I said,"that has nothing to do with why I switched. Fashion statements are so irrelevant."

But then, I thought twice about it. In fact, the beautiful layout of the email listings in AppleMail,
and of the file listings, as I copied files, really is pertinent. In keeping on top of one's email, the ability to  SEE everything is one of the important factors. Seeing my old Imac again yesterday,
in the repair shop, brought back the memory of just how great that aspect was. The search engine and the access to mailboxes (and ability to create new ones) is not as fast and clean as it was in Eudora 7, but the sheer layout makes up for that somewhat, and it rates higher than Outlook in any case.
Email and security were the two things which made me feel I absolutely had to switch to Mac, despite other disadvantages. (Most other folks at work being on PC, and PCs being available for a lower cost for use at home.)

But... in December 2012, my Imac died, and that was an important learning experience.
First, of course, I wish I had backed things up. My regular "my work" folder I created
I was mostly able to save -- but it would have been so easy to copy the "mail" folder in
my "library folder"! Why didn't I? (By the way, they say Apple now makes that harder to do, perhaps because they want more people to experience the disasters I have over the past few months,
to punish all sinners like me? But the web has advice for users of the new operating system, Lion,
to find and copy what they need to back up.)

Even more -- when the system started to  become suspiciously slow, much slower than before,
I wish I had reacted immediately by immediate complete backup. It seems that hard drive failures
(in my case, when the Imac was four years old) are very typical for Imacs. "That's how we generally lose them," said the helpdesk at work.   

With a failing drive, things become a bit... stochastic, I would say. It sounds weird to think that a computer would get tired after to much use, or overheating or stress (like RAM heavy demands,
especially from folks wanting it to multiprocess more than it wants to), but it does work that way.
I wish I had really focused on extracting the data I needed "when it was in a good mood" and I could.

The help desk at work said, "It's dead now, you can just forget that data, unless you want to ship it to
a special data extraction company and pay $1000, and get unpredictable results. It can't
even start any more... or rather, when we boot it up from an external drive, you can't even see the hard disk. After multiple tests, we are quite sure that the hard drive is physically, irreparably dead."

But we took it home, let it rest, and put it in a warm sunny place. At one point, Luda said..
"Don't come near it, it's a bit scared of you... come on, kitten, it's OK." It actually did
brighten up, and she was able to download the most crucial parts of my "My Work."
Including the "Library" folder which was supposed to have all my email of 20 years.
I felt so much happier after that, even when it got tired and had troubles booting again.

Then we took it to the nearest Apple Store in Clarendon. More precisely, we went to the Apple web site, and located the web page we had to use to make a (free) appointment at the "Genius bar"
at that store. (A friend told me that Clarendon is not only close but very friendly.) There, they pulled out a colorful plastic box, just like the one our helpdesk showed me, about the six of a thick paperback book, but rounded. They said: "The data really is corrupted on this hard drive...
but we here have disk repair utilities." They were quite friendly, repaired the disk, and said:
"It was the data which was corrupted, not the physical disk. And with our apple utilities, we have repaired the disk, and you are good to go -- as good as new."

I was even happier at that point.

We brought the Imac back to the sunny room again, and it booted up quite nicely.

I didn't put any theories on paper, with formal conviction, but I did have a strong impression about what was going on. It seemed as if Apple had saved me, and the helpdesk was wrong.
It seemed as if the problem was at the data or software level, not the hardware problem. In fact,
just a month before that, they told us that all the Macs would undergo major changes, as they studied how to get them under new security arrangements (easy enough for PCs). There is lots of enterprise security and monitoring stuff  which uses lots of memory, and causes lots of thrashing in older Macs with less RAM, and that -- or viruses, which can get to Macs in some situations -- seemed like the probable cause. Didn't the helpdesk, working with IT to enforce the new controls on everyone,
have vested interest in downplaying the software aspects?

My suspicions about that were reinforced by various other bits of past experience. Long ago,
the late 1970's were my "Camelot for mainframe computing," the lost golden era of using
(and even contributing to) the Honeywell Multics operating system, which was unbreakable, because
of details of its ring brackets protection scheme. The great grandpa of Unix systems. People told me
that Snow Leapord also had a solid ring bracket structure, making viruses and such "impossible"
to a significant degree -- but also limiting the ability of enterprise managers to watch over me.
I did some real probing of the security situation with new versions of Windows -- and it seemed
clear that it was much more secure than older systems in preventing users from trying to take over their own computers (e.g. deleting junk and barnacles from the startup list), but much more definite in allowing BOTH enterprise managers and hackers from abroad to take over. Advice from a friend at NSA was a factor in my switching to Imac. ("We used to rule that Windows is a security risk, and we wouldn't let it in the building. But then came pressure form Big Stakeholder politics and stuff like that, so under certain restrictions....") Their Orange Book, inherited in great part from the Multics adventure, is a key part of the legacy... but soon after the death of Steve Jobs, Apple told
the Enterprise Managers that "we too can compete for what you want," Lion acquired the necessary hooks... and IT is much happier. (Some varieties of SE-Linux also advertize compatability with modern enterprise management, so I don't know what to make of that. If they had a competitive email
package, I would have looked seriously into SE-Linux as replacement for my Mac.)

BUT... neither my "happy ending" nor the more extreme suspicions were the end of the story.
As Bayesians would say, "I had to convolve my probability distributions again."

First... when I smiled and looked at the Library file downloaded before the first visit to the Apple Store... the regular "copy" routine in Snow Leapord apparently got to a hangup, and just did no more copying after that. I had nothing. This is not like windows, where you they warn you and ask whether to keep copying and such. (Though I haven't tried it on a failing hard drive.) After the first visit to the Apple Store, I proceeded as if everything were normal -- and that was such a mistake! I should
have gone through carefully checking and downloading all the email I could.

It died and would not restart at all, even with special keystroke tricks we learned.

Yesterday at Pentagon City Apple Store they explained... it's not always easy to know there are hardware problems. The disk repair program can work even when a disk is failing, before it becomes irreparable. It became irreparable right then and there yesterday. Most of my old email is gone,
and it would cost at least $1000 to go a company that specializes in data retrieval. I wish I had copied more right then and there, where they could boot it up from a special slim external hard drive, imaged with Snbow Leapord and Lion and disk repair kit. But at one point, after a few hours, I made the mistake of turning on the same disk repair that had worked before... and even worse, pausing it
at one point... and that was the last I could even SEE my old hard drive, even when the computer worked fine from their special disk. I think the copy in Lion worked better, but am not sure.

They also told me that the special disk they were using is not for sale at any price. So of course,
our helpdesk did not have one, and could not be faulted for not having one.

So that's the end of one era. I will get a new Imac at work, using Lion, and will make sure to
do more backup. I will replace the hard drive in the old one, on my personal nickel, and reinitialize the old machine, still on Snow Leapord, to operate in the less demanding world at home
accessing work through the web but not through more demanding software. And I will wonder what to do with that old hard drive when it comes back, next week they say. (For two months, I have done my job on a laptop outside the core network, causing delays in more than a few things.)

Will we ever get back to Camelot? Oh, well... For many people, one day it's a hard drive,
and another day it's a body organ... sooner or later...

Friday, February 8, 2013

Deep snow versus fire and brimstone

As three feet of snow come to Boston, and people in tents in Staten Island
face a foot of snow there (after a storm which may have broken all records for
damage in current dollars in US history), I find myself thinking about
global warming.

My first thought is a kind of joke:"The power of faith." Folks in Boston believe
in global warming; people in Oklahoma don't. More or less. So is it poetic
justice that Boston gets another three feet of snow, not so many
months after farms in Oklahoma were practically burned out by record
temperatures and drought in their area?

But my immediate next reaction: our dialogue and understanding of climate change
has been ever so degraded by the folks forcing it into a narrow
"warming versus not warming" channel. The possibility of "Green Sky"
in the coming century is certainly a lot less likely than substantial
global warming, but the consequences are far more severe, and it is
foolhardy in my view not to try to understand the serious risks more
clearly. I wish I could point to a serious scientific analysis of just
how much we are at risk of poisoning and radiation damage enough to
kill us -- but utterly unreliable as they are, my own ruminations are
the best I seem to have to work with lately.

I am not really worried about a re-run of the Permian-Triassic mass
death, the main theme
of Peter Ward's book. But the anoxia and poisoning from the North Atlantic
at the end of the ... paleocene in the recent (cenozoic) era... was
bad enough. Enough
to kill off most species of mammals, all big ones like us. (Again, see
Ward's book.)
A fall-off in the warming current of the northerly branch of the Gulf
Stream would be the main thing to worry about, since it is the mirror
image of the currents which have brought oxygen to the deep ocean over
the past few million years.

Another consequence of such a change in ocean currents would be...
more ice and snow in Boston, New York, England and France. So of
course I am reminded of that this past month.

But how real is the danger? Even if bad stuff will start to grow in
the dark in the winter...
won't the currents in the summer flush it out and save us? Certainly
we don't seem to
have frigid summers in those areas lately. But... how do these
currents really work?

As I try to get a rough handle on this, I see at least one extremely important
paper, which has far more depth than most people may have noticed
(as with Ward's book itself):

I suppose a lot of folks said "oh yeah, that global warming stuff is
there, all right."
(As many did with Ward's book.) BUT THERE IS A LOT MORE GOING ON THAN THAT.
I suppose, if I were trying to get a really serious evaluation of the
Green Sky risk,
that this paper would be just as important as Ward's book
(and the paper by Kump which he cites) to get a handle on it. So far,
on a first read, it does seem
to leave me about where I was... worried still, but utterly uncertain
about how the various
complex variables ultimately work out.

This kind of uncertainty is not a justfication for just ignoring things...

Best of luck,


Monday, February 4, 2013

How to decode relativistic PDE

 In several papers, including one under submission, I have proposed new PDE systems to study,
which would try to answer, for example, the question "what is an electron?" One of the PDE systems in the new paper is the most credible well-specified option I know of as yet to model the universe.
    Mathematicians who know about PDE have a huge amount to contribute, to enrich our understanding of this family of models. Even the more familiar BPS model of physics could benefit from some more formal, rigorous analysis -- and the new models are more complicated, as is necessary to fit with empirical reality, and to get closer to the standard model of physics.
   However -- knowing a lot about PDE mathematics and dynamical systems does not always make it easy to confidently decode classic papers like those of 'tHooft and Prasad and Sommerfield, let alone the new Lagrangians and the standard model of physics. Thus yesterday I wrote up a kind of
"cheat sheet," a very brief condensed paper, for the benefit of mathematicians interesting in decoding
this literature (including relativistic Lagrangian field theory in general):