A Terrible Ontological Proof

Why Does the World Exist? Jim HoltSuppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.

Therefore, there must be something. QED

—Jim Holt
Why Does the World Exist?

Surprising Offspring of the “Reasonable” Republics

Vanity Fair - David Brooks and David Frum

While looking for images for my last article, I came upon this image from an article in Driftglass, Today in False Equivalence. I’m not so much interested in the article itself, because it doesn’t actually address what they’ve done with this image. It’s a takeoff of one or more of those Demi Moore covers that I guess are supposed to say that the magazine is celebrating the beauty of pregnancy, but somehow always come off as a celebration of pregnancy fetishes. But in this case, the point is clear: supposed reasonable conservatives don’t want to take responsibility for the craziness of the conservative movement.

Actually, I don’t know if they care. Based upon his writing, David Brooks seems a little concerned. He is part of the long line of conservatives who are embarrassed by all the coarse things that other conservatives say. Brooks is careful with his language so that when everything that he believes in crumbles and destroys millions of lives, he can say, “I said it might be a good idea to raise taxes on the poor and eliminate taxes on the rich; I didn’t say it would be a good idea!” So it makes more sense to apply the unwanted pregnancy image to him.

I have a special dislike for David Frum. He’s as much of an ideologue as any Tea Party wacko. The only reason people consider him reasonable is because he thinks that having a bit of gun control mightn’t be the worst thing in the world. He’s also recently okay with same sex marriage. For decades he was against it because he thought it would be bad for “the kids.” But now the data are in and that case can’t be made anymore. Fair enough. But the truth is that his original problem with it was not based on evidence. It was based upon bigotry. When evidence becomes overwhelming, Frum will change his mind. But it is always up to the world to convince him that his bigotry is wrong. In other words: he’s just a right wing wacko who is smart enough to know when his arguments are untenable.

What I think totally sums up David Frum is the popular phrase “axis of evil.” He’s the guy who invented it. And it shows that like all conservatives, he has no actual interest in the truth. In World War II, the axis powers were a coalition. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were not a coalition. In as much as they had anything to do with each other, it was to fight. But Frum was more than happy to lump them in together because Frum is an evil little man who doesn’t care about the nation or the world. Just like with Cheney and Bush, Frum cares about power.

The image is perfect in that it shows that the smarter people in the conservative movement would prefer to deny that they are responsible for the state of the modern Republican Party. Those Tea Party people that continue to clog up Congress are an embarrassment. But let’s not kid ourselves. They are an embarrassment because they are vulgar. They are an embarrassment because they aren’t tactical about the long-term goals of the conservative movement. They are an embarrassment because they are ignorant and stupid. But they are right in line with the ideology of David Brooks, David Frum, and all the “respectable” conservatives.

Media Sidetrack Nation From the Truth

Freak OutFor Christmas, Paul Krugman wrote, Tidings of Comfort. He felt that people were kind of glum this holiday season. And the reason is that the media have painted a picture of the world that has indeed been very bleak. There was Ebola that was going to kill us all. Then there was Vladimir Putin and ISIS and North Korea who were going to destroy us because, you know, a democracy could never meet the threat of authoritarians except minor things like World War II that are easy enough to forget about. But perhaps you are like Paul Krugman and you’ve noticed that all of these things are imaginary.

I don’t think any of this is unusual. As a nation, we are always freaking out. We don’t have much in terms of cultural cohesion to hang onto. So we manage our lives by moving from crisis to crisis. We are like adrenaline junkies: we get excited and then we calm down. Wash, rinse, repeat — for the rest of our lives. I don’t much care in a certain way. My interest is in the way that such behavior stops us from dealing with real problems. And I think that our hair-trigger concern that we are, for example, all going to die from Ebola explains why we have the highest levels of teen pregnancy, illiteracy, and income inequality among the advanced economies.

It is hard not to think back to another great American who jumped from freak out to freak out: Ronald Reagan. Remember when he told us, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”? What exactly did he mean by that? I was never really clear what that one problem was. But I feel certain that what he meant was that individuals and the private sector was the solution to our problem. But it is three and a half decades later and it is more clear than ever that individuals don’t have the power to solve that one great problem (largely because of policies Reagan himself enacted) and that the private sector has become, if anything, a far greater problem than the original one great problem.

I’ve written a few articles this last week about Darrell Issa. And the main thing that I’ve had to say is that Issa has won in all of his fake scandal mongering. It doesn’t matter in the least that nothing came of those scandals — that there was literally nothing untoward going on. What matters is that he was allowed to go to media outlets all over the nation and push the idea that something was amiss. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” So he got people to think exactly the opposite of what was true and what was in their best interests, “The government is bad; the government can’t be trusted; the government is out to get you.” Imagine that you tell someone a hundred times that the White House is targeting its enemies. And then on the 101st time, you say, “Oops! I was wrong; the White House didn’t do anything wrong.” What are they going to remember? Or more to the point: what are they going to remember when the media don’t even cover that 101st statement?

I have little use for wimps on the left that don’t seem to stand for anything other than maybe technocratic competence. I have no use for the demagogues on the right who will do anything to keep themselves in power and enrich their friends. But there is a very special level of hell that I reserve for our media system that allows disinformation to be reported as fact in the name of balance. It can be very hard to get to the truth of any matter. But our media have given up on it. It’s hard, so they just report what the two powerful sides of the debate claim. And usually, the truth is far from both.

Physics, Math, and Life

Hockey PuckYesterday, Will sent me over a curious article, Hockey Puck Math. It’s one of those Yahoo! answers pages. Apparently, someone had some physics homework and they decided just to ask online, “A hockey puck is hit on a frozen lake and starts moving with a speed of 13.7 m/s. Five seconds later, its speed is 6.80 m/s. What is its average acceleration? What is the average value of the coefficient of kinetic friction between puck and ice? How far does the puck travel during the 5.00 s interval?” You can click over to the link if you want the solution.

What struck me was that the approach to the problem was all wrong. It looked at the problem the way students normally look at this kind of problem: by seeing what equations are around and then plugging them in. Of course, given the question, this is exactly what the student was expected to do. I mean, who would care what the average acceleration was? It’s such an incredibly boring way of looking at the problem.

The nature of the problem is energy balance. There are two kinds of energy: the kinetic energy of the puck and the heat energy of the friction. When I used to work with graduate students, I would throw in potential energy as well and have them do the problem with energy and force and show that they were the same. The point of such problems should be to understand the nature of physical phenomena, so math shouldn’t be of much concern.

When I taught undergraduate physics, I would often hear from my students that they understood the physics but were just having trouble with the math. Well, that wasn’t true. In fact, they were very often doing just fine with the math and it was the physics where they were hopeless. But it did make me see that surprisingly little physics was being taught in physics classes. And I worked to take as much math out of my classes as possible. Math should generally be the thing the student introduces late into the process of solving problems — not at the beginning.

Let’s look at our problem here. The essence of the problem is this:

ke0 = ke1 + heat

In this “ke” is the kinetic energy (½m×v2) of the puck at the beginning and the end. And “heat” the energy lost to friction that happens to be equal to μ×m×g×x. I would give 80% credit for that much because the concept we are dealing with is the conservation of energy. But the whole solution requires understand how objects move under constant acceleration. It’s just that it isn’t all that important.

Sadly, most teachers would not grade this problem in this way. They know that it is a conservation of energy problem, but in grading it, they get lost in the details of the problem’s solution. And you see this in questions. There is not even any mention of energy or force. This is why people leave physics courses thinking that the subject has no relevance to their regular lives. I can’t wait at a bus stop without doing a little physics to find the best place to stand. Physics is life. And most physics teachers do not help people to see that.

F W Murnau

F W MurnauOn this day in 1888, the great German filmmaker F W Murnau was born. He started in film right around the time when it had come into its all as an artistic medium. And his films are always quite beautiful to look at. He had a great eye. But he is best known for the mood of his work — he is one of major figures in German Expressionistic cinema. And like others in that movement, he was very interested in horror. This first film was based upon The Picture of Dorian Gray. He later did adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Faust.

He is best know, however, for his horror classic, Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror — one of the first true horror films. Of course, like all of his films, he never got the rights to make the film. And in this case, it brought legal action from Bram Stoker’s widow. As a result, the film never had the chance to be commercially successful. But it is considered a classic today. All prints of the film were supposed to be destroyed. Luckily, one was saved.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of many of Murnau’s films. His first six films have been lost except for some minor fragments. And three of his later films are lost. This includes one he made in Hollywood, 4 Devils — which is thought by film historians to have been one of his best works. In all, he directed 21 films and nine of them are lost — almost half! That’s shocking for a major filmmaker of such a late date. And these are all feature films — 50 minutes and longer.

Still, you can find many of his films on the internet: Nosferatu, Faust, Tabu. And that’s a lot more than you can say for a lot of people. There are many whose films exist but no one cares enough to release them or put them online. I especially recommend checking out Tabu, because it shows a different side of Murnau than we normally see and you get a good feel for his keen visual sense.

Happy birthday F W Murnau!