Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pike O'Blisco

The Summit of Pike O'Blisco with Bowfell in the background.
Pike O'Blisco, in the English Lake District -  the first mountain I ever climbed. Alfred Wainwright wrote: "the man has no blood in his veins who does not respond eagerly to its fine-sounding, swashbuckling name".  My Dad took me and Nigel up it when we were 6. We were in thick fog, and saw nothing, and he tied us all together with a rope, though I don't know why really: probably just to keep us close to him. But I LOVED it, and a couple of days later we climbed Bowfell as well, this time in sunshine, and I was blown away (not literally of course; that would have been terrible). Thus was a lifelong hobby seeded......

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Fun at UTK



Over the last few days the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has been dragged into a debate concerning a web post from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion trying to instruct us on how to hold festive parties at Christmas-time. The post tried to encourage inclusivity by suggesting the removal of Christmas themes from holiday parties, leading to calls for the resignation of the UTK Chancellor, Jimmy Cheek.

I'm from Europe, and so my views may be colored by my prior experience there. But here's my tuppence:

In Europe we would simply say, "What's the Fuss?" Europeans hold their Christmas Parties and everyone is invited, whatever their beliefs.  One reason this does not create a problem is that Christmas parties are not particularly religious, in themselves. For many, Christmas trees and Santa Claus have long been decoupled from religious belief, but allow us to celebrate in a traditional way.

Now, in my past I have been invited to plenty of events stemming from beliefs that have not formed part of my upbringing:  Hindu, Shinto, Muslim, Buddhist, Hopi etc. Each time I felt honored to be invited, and did not feel excluded,  fully partaking in any ceremonies that I was asked to. So why should non-Christians feel excluded when they are invited to a Christmas party? Exclusion comes from NOT being invited to an event because of what you believe, or, conversely, not attending one when you are invited. So, personally, while, of course, US campuses need to be 'inclusive' and 'diverse',  the recent web-site entry from the Office of Diversity seems ridiculous, supercilious arrogance to me. Leave our parties alone! Don't tell us how to have fun!

HOWEVER,  though,  some words for those local politicians who wish to remove the Chancellor for this, including, as I have read,  John J. Duncan, Dolores Gresham and John Bell.  It's sad that  your primary concern for UT appears to be fighting occasional manifestations of overboard political correctness. You clearly have no interest in judging Jimmy Cheek on his overall contribution to  UTK.  Instead of spending your time  trying to impose your own narrow views on what should be a citadel of free, creative thought, why don't you take an interest in helping us reach the Top 25 Public Universities, or take a lesson from your Governor, and do something to help those kids trapped in terrible poverty, on your door-steps in the Appalachians, get an educational lifeline?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Arsenal's 14-minute flight




Photo: Damian Martinez: Twitter

So Arsenal took a 14-minute flight from London to come and play Norwich City yesterday. 14 minutes! The poor little darlings  couldn't face the thought of a 2-hour train ride.  Come on! I mean, they're footballers, not bloody Royalty. It's a pity that Norwich's notorious instantaneous fog didn't appear and get the plane diverted to Manchester.

Plane Stupid spokesperson Ella Gilbert said that she was a lifelong Arsenal supporter but preferred the team to wait until after the kick-off before humiliating their supporters. Well, Arsenal managed to do both. A few minutes into the game their defender, Koscielny came off with a bad back - presumably from being cooped up on that long flight.  Then Norwich pummeled the poor jet-lagged Gunners. It ended 1-1, but only because Arsenal got lucky.

I plan to go the other way, from Norwich to London, on Dec 26th to watch City play Spurs. Hmm....I wonder if that Embraer is for hire?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

How to Achieve World Peace (and Destroy ISIS, Save Refugees and Staunch Terrorism etc)

Here's my 2 cents, for what it's worth.

ISIS: The terrorist acts in Paris have galvanized desires for another multi-trillion-dollar war in the Middle East, but that is barking up the wrong tree. The main source of Islamic terrorism is young, disaffected kids in the West and their radical clerics, not ISIS. Moreover, a large NATO invasion over there is unlikely to achieve much. If successful, a ground war would eliminate all ISIS territory, but it would not reduce terrorism  in the West unless it were followed by stability in Iraq or Syria, for which there is currently no mechanism. So I think that, for the time being, the present strategy of military containment and diplomacy is the right one. In the end stability will have to come from within Syria and Iraq and from neighboring forces, with our strong encouragement. As for Assad, we may wish for his departure, but a stable society in Syria must be the initial and primary goal.

Terrorism:  The origin of of  Islamic (and other) terrorism is primarily at 'home', in the radicalized inhabitants of Molenbeek, Saint Denis and other areas of immigrant poverty in the West. It is there that our 'war' needs to be prosecuted. But to succeed it must be be a war of ideas and of policing, with more in common with the failed 'war on drugs' than with any military invasion.

We need to control the radicalization of young Muslims in the West. Easier said than done? Sure, but with more teeth than invading Syria or Iraq could have. Our schools need to effectively educate teenage kids that radical Islam is false and wrong.  But we need tougher stuff as well - I would advocate for an outright ban on Radical Islam in the West, even the non-violent kind. No preaching and no advocating it in any circles, even at home.  A ban on Wahabism and Salafism. A ban on associating political preaching within Islam. Is that hypocritical? Why not ban fundamentalists from other religions too? Well, simply because they are far less likely to become terrorists (although it has happened occasionally, including, recently,  here in Knoxville). Moreover, and here's another controversial step: I would suggest a kind of affirmative action in Muslim communities, offering significant financial and other incentives to people willing to provide names of radicalized individuals and 'cells' in their communities. Its not enough to say 'Muslims should be doing more to root out jihadists from within': they need to be incentivized. Radicals need to be identified with all means possible and, before they have had a chance to think of violence, reeducated. Laws should be passed permitting electronic tagging of identified radicals, and there must be  increased border security, preventing direct or indirect travel of anyone to or from Syria or Iraq until peace is reestablished there. Moreover, greatly increased electronic surveillance and interception will be needed. The downside of what I am thinking of is that it would presumably be hugely unconstitutional here in the USA, trampling all over liberty, free speech and privacy rights. It would involve moving towards a Stasi-esque, police-dominated culture in Western communities in which radicals are found, in which thought is controlled and community  members are encouraged to spy on and shop their own family members and friends. How sad! But it would be effective, I think, for now, and maybe not so draconian in the end. After all, Germany has had laws preventing home-grown Nazism for decades. Later on, when the threat recedes, the grip should be released.

The Refugees:  For a number of reasons I would not advocate the rapid settlement of large numbers refugees in the USA. However, fear of terrorism is not one of these reasons. The primary reason  is that any immigration should be driven by the economic needs of the USA, and another is that I'm generally not in favour of population expansion anywhere as goes against  my vision of what the Earth should look like. But we cannot abandon the refugees. We are not blameless here. We invaded Iraq, alienated Iraqi Sunnis, destabilized Syria etc. and this led in no small part to the present strife and the refugee plight. We need to help them, with immediate large, amounts of aid to them in the countries to which they have already fled, followed by controlled, slow immigration of some of them to the rest of the West. They are indeed our problem and we must not ignore them.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Peer Review - Do Away with It!

The peer review system in science, whereby prior to publication manuscripts are reviewed by anonymous peers, has come under recent criticism in a debate at the Royal Society, at which a case for its abolition was argued.

The concept that a piece of research should not be reviewed by other experts in the field is, of course, ridiculous. But I think doing away with peer review in its present form is feasible. I wrote about this in 2012, and reproduce what my ideas would be here, with some tweaks.

There are two major current problems: the cost of publishing and access, and the inequities of the peer review process. Both could be cured at once.

We need ONLY ONE, publicly-run, open-access scientific publishing domain to which ALL ARTICLES are uploaded for free, in whatever format wished for by the authors and without prior peer review. This domain would subsume all existing primary research publishing. After an initial, publically-funded development phase, the small costs of maintaining this domain could be obtained through discreet advertising revenues. The model thus obviates both the need for  charging huge amounts for access to  journals and the need to charge authors for each publication submitted.

Once an article is uploaded it will easily be able to be found by a keyword search, such as exists in PubMed or Web of Science. Reviewing would not be solicited but would be open and online, in the fashion of "comments" to a blog entry.  Any given article might thus receive many or no reviews. PubPeer goes a step in this direction. However, in my opinion no reviews would be anonymous: only registered reviewers who have revealed their identities would be allowed to post comments. 

Before entering comments, the qualifications of the commenter would be verified e.g. PhD in the field of the article. All may comment, even the unqualified, but their qualifications would be public. I would suggest separate comment threads for specialists and non-specialists. Many of the reviews, even from the specialists,  are likely to be incompetent, but the reviews would also be open to review, and ranking, as would the reviews of the reviews etc.. The paper itself would be continuously modifiable by the authors (as in Wikipedia), to add results or respond to criticisms etc.

In the above system there would be no need for a decision to be made a priori as to whether an article is "of sufficient general interest" before publication - this would all be decided by the readers afterwards: a points system could be devised whereby an article gains prominence depending on how many times it is accessed from different computers, cited later on, and on the reviews received. As an article rises in points, so would its visibility in the web domain. Extremely hot articles would be expected to very rapidly gain prominence.

Any objections?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Matt Ridley Gets It Wrong

Matt Ridley's a bright guy, who, apart from leading the bank Northern Rock into disaster and nationalization, has produced some entertaining stuff, none more so than "Genome", one of the best layman books on science I have read.


But now he is screwing up,  expressing opinions that, if they catch on,  could greatly set back the rate of technological progress. Here's what Ridley writes: 


"Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think. When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change.....The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.  " 

Well, with the X-ray statement Ridley has it stunningly wrong. X-ray crystallography has been behind many billions of dollars of  marketed technology, including drug discovery, biotechnology and materials design, but it absolutely was not developed in the wool industry. Leeds was the centre of the textile industry in Britain, and the university did a lot of textile research. I was an undergrad in the Astbury Centre for Biophysics in Leeds University.  The textile connection was important, and W.T. Astbury looked in the 1920s and 1930s at X-ray diffraction from wool and other fibres. And he was a real pioneer, indeed. But Astbury was a university professor, not an industry researcher. And crystallography was not 'developed in the wool industry' but rather earlier in Germany  by Roentgen and von Laue and then in Britain by the Braggs, Perutz, Crick and others. All were working in universities, doing basic research, and not in industry. Theirs was the work that formed the physical basis of modern X-ray crystallography and the 1953 DNA discovery. 


Now, as Ridley stresses, often trial and error does indeed play a large role in discovery. Indeed, we use it ourselves, sometimes, when searching for new drugs. But today's high-tech discovery is  no longer based on  "practical men tinkering around until they have better machines".  Any 'tinkering' these days is based on a solid scientific foundation, developed mostly by government-funded research.





Wednesday, October 28, 2015

JCS versus the People's Car







Well, I have a VW diesel (a Jetta), that was fixed with a defeat device.  Shucks. Class action lawsuits are a result of this, and I have found myself as a 'named plaintiff' representing Tennessee owners in one issued by Hagens Berman, a Seattle law firm. That doesn't mean I would receive any more compensation than any of the other owners, nor that I would actually have to do much (apart from a possible half-day deposition). Moreover, the many anti-VW lawsuits may well be consolidated in the end. But what do I think VW should do for the owners? Hmm. Take our cars back and give us back the money we paid for them, maybe?  Pronto.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

TITAN - Taking Over the World.



Apparently Elon Musk is scared that our ORNL TITAN supercomputer might take over the worldThat might be fun, but as a variant - that us evil scientists use the supercomputer to seize control.

Now, TITAN is already a 20 petaflop machine, whereas the human brain is only 10 petaflops, so we already have the raw power needed to create superintelligence. A tad more programming could lead our little toy to controlled synthetic ultraconsciousness, with a brain the size of a planet, capable of talking the hind legs off an Arcturan megadonkey*. 

But just yapping and a monster brain are not enough - you need arms, legs, weapons etc. So we'd need to hook TITAN up to mindless robots that can see to our physical needs: huge, indestructible machines with infinite strength, precision and balance that never tire and prepare perfect sushi. 

Evilly-laughing, mwaha ha ha ha, we villainous plotters would then finally flip the switch that orders the supercomputer to make the robots kill all the little people and use the fruits of our dystopian Earth to serve us, only us, their masters, in any way we desire. Hmm.....in my case that would require forming two robot soccer teams, one, that I would play in, being slightly better than the other.

*Acknowledgement: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


Friday, September 18, 2015

Poet's Corner

A Scientist’s Lament

Cold cuts of truth. These are
Not scimitars bisecting wholes.
Sharp diamonds flashing by, unseen,
Tangential lances,
Silent glances,
Surpassing snug, benighted souls.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Live at Leeds

The Who, Live at Leeds
In the 1970s, during the day  the Leeds University Union Refectory, my undergrad cafeteria,  used to serve up the most awful garbage: exemplified by the insipid yellow matter custard of the Great British 20th Century Culinary Tradition. But at nights the Refec served us the best of pulsating 70s rock. You see, it was the  biggest concert hall on the thriving British college circuit,  holding over 2000, so we got all the big bands: The Stones, Led Zeppelin, the lot.  But no gig there was more famous there than The Who's Live at Leeds, recorded in 1970 and generally recognized as the best live album of all time. But, alas, that was  before my period of frequenting the Refec.


But we did get some real classics. Andy Kershaw, a fellow student, was the unpaid Entertainments Secretary of the Student Union: he spent all his time booking the bands and thus failed his degree. (Despite this  failure he was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate there, as he subsequently became a famous broadcaster.) He squeezed in some beauties.





In Freshers week in 1978 we had The Ramones and I twisted my ankle pogo-ing to Cretin Hop early on. Ouch! Then came The Stranglers, The Jam, UB40, Joy Division, George Thorogood, The Specials, Ian Dury etc. Surprising we got any work done, really. Kershaw himself  reckons the greatest gig there was The Clash in 1980. I was there too, but bored silly. Musical beauty - in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Whither UT and ORNL?


Here's my (and others) NPR  opinion on what we ought to be doing more of at UT and ORNL.

As the Instapundit would say: Read (or in this case, Read and Listen to) The Whole Thing. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Meadow of Flowers



Nanga Parbat: Rupal Face
Thirty-six years ago, in 1979, we voyaged to Kashmir, to Gulmarg; the Meadow of Flowers. As we climbed the slopes of Mount Apharwat,   the mighty Rupal Face of  Nanga Parbat hove into view - the highest mountain face on Earth, rising  15,000 feet above its base. I remember ridge upon brown ridge, on top of each other, like ascending brush strokes,  culminating in that  crystal peak that Hermann Buhl first summited in 1953, solo, without oxygen, in an insane 40-hour effort,  spending the whole night 'asleep' standing on a narrow ledge, the vast abyss a couple of inches away.  Then later, in 1970, when the greatest, Reinhold Messner, finally conquered the Rupal itself, did he abandon his brother to die on the descent? What motivates the human spirit to these extremes? And, after our voyage, the paradise that is Kashmir slowly sank into chaotic, benighted conflict....

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Desecration of the Isles





Bald Eaglets on Saltspring Island, July 2015

The Gulf Islands, in British Columbia, lying off the Eastern coast of Vancouver Island, are of outstanding natural beauty and ecological importance. Eagles soar above Arbutus and Cedar, and Orca whales fish in the Southern areas.

In 2010 National Geographic Traveler gave these islands top rating for destination stewardship, citing a "Wonderful mix of breathtaking scenery, functioning local communities, and a close-to-the-ground tourism experience.” I'm surprised. What I witnessed in my latest visit there was negligence and decay. 

The islanders are  laid back, smiling  and very pleasant. They think they are protecting the environment, but their demeanors change when you start to suggest they clean up their individual acts a little.  Clear cutting seems to be the norm here - you buy a piece of pristine property (prices seem to have gone down recently), get rid of as many trees as you like to create a waterscape view, sell the wood, then erect or half-erect  anything you like: trailers, piles of refuse, unfinished "building projects".  

Rusting hulks fill the island harbors. 

The rest of BC hardly helps them. Logging masters BC. Pulp mills pollute the air. Anchored tankers grace the sounds. Overfishing depletes Chinook salmon (the Orca staple). 

Canada has become environmentally unconscious, it seems. 
Sad, for such a breathtaking land.





Tuesday, July 21, 2015

True to our Values

OK, who do we back in the Middle East conflicts? I mean, we’ve got to back SOMEONE, haven’t we? We have to remain true to our values, don't we? 

This year is the 50th anniversary of little-discussed, but classic example of these values, when the US backed the genocide of about a million “Communist” villagers by the Indonesian military, with the CIA supplying lists of names to the perpetrators. The genocide was celebrated by many over here, and by Time Magazine as “the West’s best news for years in Asia.” 10 years later we went one better, supplying not only political backing but also 90% of the military equipment Suharto needed to massacre another 100-200,000, this time in East Timor.  And it wasn’t just a Cold War anomaly, because Western support for that regime continued well after 1990, into the Clinton years.


Don’t expect our choice of who to back in the Middle East to be influenced by such petty considerations as the potential genocide of those who live there.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

FIFA? What about Britain?


So we're all delighted that FIFA appears to finally be getting its come-uppance for long-established corruption. Now what about Britain? The above book convincingly demonstrates that the country of my upbringing has, over the last 30 years or so, become ruled by an oligarchy of sickening corruption, an unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap sickengly huge profits at the taxpayer's expense. Case after case of multi-billion dollar  thievery from those running  the state-corporate nexus is documented and referenced.   Now, unlike the author, I am no socialist, and do not yearn for the 'good old days' when the unions held the country to ransom. But privatization only works when real and fair competition brings efficiency up and prices down. In Britain, time after time, enormous monopolistic government contracts have been awarded to  companies who simply  raise prices to cream off profits with no investment. Those doing the awarding get their rewards in the revolving door system. 
And the hypocrisy of what's said and done is incessant:

Here's one of my favorites:

Tony Blair, Chicago speech of 1999: "We cannot turn our backs on the violation of human rights within other countries....."

Tony Blair, 2011 onwards: Paid  more than $13M  for advising the dictator of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev (who massacres strikers, bans and attacks by arson any press criticizing him, tortures and kills the opposition etc etc) on how to present his country to the world in a positive light.





Monday, June 22, 2015

Fireflies Beware!

Photinus pyralis.
My favorite time of the year in East Tennessee is June, around dusk, when the male   Photinus pyralis  fireflies execute their J-shaped flight motifs, flashing on the upswing. Females, near the ground, respond  a couple of seconds later.  [Marvellous chemistry that, as somehow the breaking of a chemical bond is transformed into an electronically excited state]. But there is much intrigue, back-stabbing and derring-do going on among the fireflies in my back yard. Photinus beware! The evil femme fatale, Photuris, lurks! The female of this species mimics the flashes of Photinus females, attracting the eager male Photinus. To their doom! Once a male is close enough, the stronger Photuris female pounces on him and devours  him. 
Photuris?
She gets a good meal containing chemicals that protect her from Phidippus jumping spiders. Ok, then, say the male Photinus : we'll approach and land, but cautiously, quite a way away, and we'll very slowly crawl towards her, signaling. The problem with that, though, is that it gives time for one of the other Photinus males to get to her first. 

Sissies! Throw yourselves at her, guys! You may get eaten but it'll all be over quickly and you only live for two weeks, anyway.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Find that Missing Matter !!!


So the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is about to start looking for "dark matter"; that is, apparently, the 85% of the matter in the universe that exists but is, err,  NOWHERE TO BE SEEN. I think that is a very good idea indeed. Moreover, I know 85% is about the right figure because that is about the percentage of the things I have owned that have, over the years, mysteriously disappeared.

So I have sent an e-mail to the LHC guys, asking them to please locate  that pair of spectacles that inexplicably went missing on a flight from Bangalore to Hyderabad a few years ago. I mean, I looked in the seat pocket and under the chair and everywhere, and there they were -  just GONE! After that I am asking the LHC wizards if they could kindly return  the about 20 sweat shirts that have mysteriously disappeared in various trains, buses and restaurants. Then, finally,  there's that lamb chop that was on the dinner plate last week that vanished into thin air when I had to pop out to  answer the phone. I would be so grateful to get it back intact. Grady (our lemon beagle) did happen to be in the room at the time but insists he had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Silent Order of Carthusian Cash



The bucolic view from the summit of Charmant Som in the Chartreuse, to which Didier, Fabienne and I hiked up early this morning. In the red square, nestled in the head of a valley,  is the Grand Chartreuse (Carthusian) Monastery. The monks in there are vowed to silence, "a way of attaining internal solitude" according to Father Dom Benoit. He is one of only two people who know the recipe of Green Chartreuse, that the monks distill, the "elixir of eternal life" that "cures all ills". Accompanying the reclusive monastic silence, then,  is a booze production machine working at full tilt: Chartreuse Diffusion SA; 2013 turnover - 13M Euros. The Carthusian motto is "stat crux dum volvitur orbis", or "the Cross is steady while the world turns". Hopefully, this spinning refers to astrophysical insight rather than  pastoral overindulgence. Chartreuse Verte is supposedly made of 130 herbs. I wonder whether anyone has done any high resolution mass spec on it?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Why do we do it?

As some readers know, I am a supporter of Norwich City, the football team from where I was born and grew up. Today was a momentous day for City, as they gained promotion back into the English Premier League by beating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the packed National Stadium at Wembley. The match was worth about 200 million dollars to the winner, the richest single game in all of football.

 I actually think we have a better team than when we were  in the Prem last year and so one can look forward to next season with some anticipation. As long as Liverpool don't re-hire Suarez we'll be OK (he scored 11 goals against us in 5 games).

But it was hard to enjoy the playoff final today, and most serious sports fans know what I mean. You see, it was just too important,  with too much riding on it. The result really mattered, and when that's the case it's difficult to relax enough to actually derive the slightest pleasure from viewing. Of course, the opposite; being miserable and depressed when they lose a big game; comes easy to the serious fan. Crazy. You wonder why we do it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Inheriting Merit




As someone from the sceptr'd isle that has suffered over millennia from the divine right of kings, I have a keen aversion to inherited privilege. Escaping that and jumping to the world's great maelstrom of equal opportunity seems as good a reason as any to move to the USA. Except that, according to a recent article in the Economist, the Great American Classless Meritocracy appears to be an illusion.

The USA is still a meritocracy. Indeed, income is tied more than ever to qualifications. But it's an hereditary meritocracy: the children of the rich and powerful become better qualified.  And while parental educational level has always been the best predictor for child success, now money is having an increasing influence. Several factors have led to this. Strangely, American public schools are funded according to the wealth of their catchment area. Also, expensive tuition fees have made parental wealth increasingly important in gaining access to college. Compounding that is favoritism in colleges selecting children of alumni and the non-meritocratic effects of affirmative action, which disfavors poor Caucasians and Asians.

What to do about it? Well, maybe I detect a weakness. Apparently, most of the recent increases in college tuition fees have gone to the country club elements: plush dorms, parking garages, climbing walls, student services etc, and not to  improving the quality of the education itself. Therefore, it makes sense for poorer students to seek colleges without these amenities;  where the costs are solely in providing an education. They'll then be competitive in what counts most for their futures: their qualifications. Anyone know a four-year college like this? That's a strategy for challenging the hereditary meritocracy.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Old Time Jam..


...at the LEAF Festival, Black Mountain NC, May 10th 2015. Yours truly is wearing the yellow tee-shirt.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Killing the Future


A recent article in the Harvard Business review by William Lazonick points out that from 2003 to 2013,  88% of the earnings of those 449 companies in the S&P index that were publicly listed were used for stock buybacks (51%; $2.4 trillion) or dividends (37%).  It's annoying for those of us trying to perform R&D. Pfizer, for example, spent 146% of its profits in those 10 years on buybacks and dividends. In other words, it dipped into its capital reserves to help fund them.

Buybacks drive up share prices artificially, thus lining the pockets of short-term investors and executives. Hence, the enormous recent stock market boom.

But this boom is artificially pumped up, based on thin air; an illusion. Crazy.

Corporations need to stop tying executive compensation to stock prices and stop open-market buybacks. Only when profits are turned into R&D investment will there be a future for the US economy.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Double the NIH Budget?

An article in the New York Times suggests doubling the NIH budget again. Using Alzheimer's and other dementia as an example, Newt Gingrich notes that we are projected to spend $20 trillion in care for these diseases, but only about 1% of that on research.  A cure for Alzheimer's is within reach, so surely that would save us trillions of dollars? Anyone see anything wrong with that argument? I can't. The same goes for other research agencies, as well, such as DOE and NSF, although one can argue about the relative importance to society of the each of the various programs they run.

Investment for the future. Get the best and brightest here and get them doing what they are good at.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Barking Mad



Today, Easter Sunday,  I was at Frozen Head State Park; one of my favorite hiking haunts. I reflected on James Earl Ray, the guy who murdered MLK, and was a prisoner nearby, at Brushy Mountain. He  escaped in 1977 and ran 8 miles in 55 hours. Gary Cantrell heard that, and said to himself "I could do at least 100 miles in that time",  and thus were the insane "Barkley Marathons" born. Runners must complete 100 miles in Frozen Head in 60 hours, including 54,200 feet of climb.  Only 15 runners out of 800 have completed it. Totally tonto. Barking Mad. This ultramarathon "eats its young". "You don't come here to be victorious; you come here to be humiliated." This year, a week ago, all 40 failed.

I struggled up 1500 feet, rested in the sun with my dog, and returned with a gammy knee.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Excellent Sheep





William Deresiewicz’s book, "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite", has generated much discussion over the last few months. Deresiewicz chiefly targets the Ivy League and their equivalents. An elite education should spark creative drive, above all feeding and motivating student curiosity. Instead, Ivy League students are ‘excellent sheep’, cultivating identical resumes from prep school onwards, conveyed  via uniform college A grades into the sterility of finance and consulting.

My own biases tap nicely into parts of his description. Deresiewicz encourages high-schoolers to look beyond the elite institutions and to populate public universities and those liberal arts colleges that have stayed true to their mission. But lesser-raking colleges have similar ills. Almost without exception, universities have become almost pure money making machines. The professors, who used to be recruited on their academic brilliance and reputations, are now valued more on their, admittedly related, ability to bring in money. In science, a rapid drive towards group-think has led to individuals being evaluated less on their ability to perform or directly supervise research, and more for their ability to lubricate efforts federating dozens or even hundreds of scientists in competitions for multi-million dollar contracts. In a recent discussion I had with a Vice President of a midwestern college the only subject that seemed to interest him was the setting up of a lucrative company based on the university's research assets.


Tension between the acquisition of creative knowledge and the acquisition of wealth is not new, but a truly intelligently designed system recognizes their equivalence. Wither the Ivy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rage Against The Machine

"Zone Three please board." We present our boarding passes at CLT.
"You have fallen out of the computer system. You cannot board." says Rayna, unapologetically.
"Magically fallen out of the system, huh?" I say, in a soft voice.
"If you intimidate me I will have you arrested", and she exits, slamming the door.

 Jessica puts us first in line on standby for the next flight, at which we are treated to:
"Your standby boarding cards are invalid. You are not in the system" as seven other standby passengers board before the door slams again.

Ah, well, at least they will pay the hotel overnight.
"Which hotel would you like, sir?"
"We don't care as long as it has a restaurant where we can eat"
 and, of course, Jessica puts us in a hotel with no restaurant.

US Airways and American: "working hard to become the greatest airline in the world".

Monday, February 16, 2015

West Country Wassail

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson - from Norfolk.
Through Southern England on the train from London  to Plymouth on a cold, sunny Winter’s day. The train passes Aldermaston, the atomic weapons establishment, the British Y-12, where  Bertrand Russell and others vented their spleens, founding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. In an equine interlude we nip past Newbury racecourse, which was a German POW camp in World War II, and onto the Bronze Age Uffington White Horse on the Berkshire Downs.  Past Stonehenge then through some curiously-named places: Littleton Panell, Marston Magna, Nunney, Potterne, Urchfont. Next is Glastonbury (the world’s largest rock festival), Taunton and Exeter. My train, arrives at Plymouth, where my daughter, Serena meets me.


We’re in the West Country now, and the people are somewhat annoying.  First and foremost, there’s no decent football team here for hundreds of miles. Then, some of the locals claim their accent to be at the origin of Americanese.  But I know that the dialect of Norfolk, where I come from, has the closest ties to that of Eastern New England; I don’t care whether Plymouth, MA came before Norwich, CT. What’s even more galling, though, is that they claim to have had Britain’s greatest sea-dog, Francis Drake. Now, we from Norwich had the brilliant Nelson (above), who single-handedly thrashed Napoleon. This guy Drake, supposedly a Vice Admiral (but really a pirate) was (or wasn’t) playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe in 1588 when informed of the approaching Spanish Armada. He (maybe) said there was plenty of time to finish the game before sailing out to singe the beard of the King of Spain, or whatever….Peasant!