Archive for January, 2017

Protesting Trump’s assault on American values

January 29, 2017

This morning I heard on the news that there’d be a protest vigil, at the Albany Airport, against Trump’s Muslim travel ban. I told my wife; we quickly found the details; it was starting at 10 AM. We decided to go.

img_20170129_114053I’m not normally an activist demonstrator. But in all my 53 years of political involvement and observation, never before have I experienced such a depth of feeling as my horror at Trump’s un-American actions. We both felt a responsibility to stand up against this.

I whipped up a sign saying, “Trump Disgraces America.” My wife’s said, “I see something, so I’m saying something.” She attached to it an actual copy of the constitution.

As we drove up to the Airport, there was a checkpoint, with a sheriff’s car, and deputy. Wow; never saw that before! I imagined hearing something like, “Only ticketed passengers allowed,” so I got ready to say, “This is still America, you can’t stop us from free speech in a public place!”

The officer pleasantly bade us good morning and asked why we’d come.

My wife pleasantly said, “We’re here for the vigil.”

And the officer pleasantly said, “Excellent. Go right this way to park.”

Well, they were getting a lot of extra parking revenue out of this.

I was surprised at the size of the crowd – which soon grew to several hundred, despite the short notice and ad hoc situation. Many of the signs were better than mine. One, for example, said, “U.S. Visa denied,” with a picture of Anne Frank. Some resembled the lawn sign I’d put up on November 10.

Some participants were mounting a bench to address the gathering. I decided to take a turn. Before I started, a woman shouted something about how even Republicans should oppose what Trump did. I said, in toto:

“I am a Republican – an enrolled Republican. My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, is working, in Iraq, for a refugee relief agency. Yesterday she wrote this on her blog: Trump’s ‘America First’ actually ‘puts America last – last in humanity, last in compassion, last in lifting up the tired, the poor, the huddled masses – which is what made America first, in so many ways, to begin with.’”

Trump’s order bars not only all Muslim refugees, but even people with valid green cards; even people who’ve resided legally in the U.S. for years, who were travelling from designated countries. It’s insane and criminal. Courts have already ordered this stopped, but Trump, and much of our immigration gestapo, so far refuse to obey.

This is a nation of laws, with its independent judiciary a crucial bulwark against tyranny. If the regime can defy courts with impunity, then we are in really deep trouble.

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America’s Shame

January 28, 2017

President Trump’s Muslim travel restrictions are a sickening betrayal of what America stands for. Or used to stand for.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

unknownMy mother came through that golden door in 1938 as a refugee from persecution and violence. But most German Jews were not so lucky. America’s WWII refusal to do more for them remains a stain on our national honor. Today we add a new stain by slamming the golden door against victims of the monstrous horror in Syria, and other Muslim victims.

Another thing this nation used to stand for was religious openness. images-1George Washington wrote that Jews are not merely tolerated in America, they are Americans. Non-discrimination among religions was a bedrock principle on which this nation was built. Yet Trump’s order exempts Christians from the travel ban.

His action caters to the basest, dumbest prejudices of his followers. Make us safe from terrorism? While these people have an insane love affair with guns, that kill hundreds of times more Americans than terrorism? Where is the common sense? The San Bernardino and Orlando shooters killed far fewer people than die every week through gun accidents. But anyhow they were U.S. citizens who would not have been affected by Trump’s stupid action.

Meantime, he has singled out seven Muslim nations for his travel ban. None of the 9/11 terrorists came from those seven. They all came from four nations not on Trump’s list. But those four (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and UAE) are all countries for which a ban would be politically problematic. So instead Trump picks other ones.

But even if the countries were the right ones, this would still be an exceptionally silly action. As if would-be terrorists would go through the vetting process. As if people willing to massacre others, even to blow themselves up, could not find ways to sneak in. images-2Trump’s despicable action will hurt tens of thousands of desperate, suffering people, while inconveniencing bad guys not at all. (How hard is it to masquerade as “Christian?”)

George W. Bush, in launching the war on terror, took great pains to make clear that it was not a war on Muslims. He understood how catastrophic it would be to antagonize all of Islam. Trump does not; he is doing exactly what Bush took pains to avoid. This will only increase conflict and terrorism.

The action is ostensibly temporary, a “pause.” But when, pray tell, do you suppose Trump will feel able to lift the travel ban without enraging the assholes who love it?

images-3The raw truth is that some people just don’t like people who are different from themselves. That’s what this is really all about, at rock bottom.

Well, some Americans at least are still working to uphold true American values. My daughter is employed in Iraq, with the Danish Refugee Council. After I drafted this, I saw that she had written something on her own blog more eloquent. Please read it here.

But let me quote her: Trump’s “America First” actually “puts America last — last in humanity, last in compassion, last in lifting up the tired, the poor, the huddled masses — which is what made America first, in so many ways, to begin with.”

UPDATE: Today two Syrian families arrived in Philadelphia, with valid visas and green cards, having worked for years to get them. They were sent back.

The Voter Fraud Fraud

January 26, 2017

images-1So now a federal investigation of voter fraud. Which every credible, reliable source has found nonexistent. Trump is not a sore loser but a sore winner — he just cannot stand it that even though he’s now president, Clinton got 3 million more popular votes. He wants that fact to somehow go away; replaced with “alternate facts.”

During the campaign, one of the fake news tropes was that President Obama had encouraged non-citizens to vote. He didn’t, and they don’t. Non-citizens cannot vote, period, and there is no evidence any of them ever try. Yet supposed non-citizen voting, we’re told, gave Clinton her margin. As if millions of non-citizens somehow managed to register and vote and somehow nobody noticed before.

True, voter rolls are filled with people who have died or moved away. But how many try to vote? Or vote using their names? The answer, again well documented, is just about zero.

unknownYet Republicans have for years used lies about non-existent voter fraud as a pretext for restrictions making it harder to vote. To deny ballots to poor, elderly, and minority voters — who tend to vote Democrat. But for these shameful restrictions, Clinton’s margin would have been even larger.

In the last election, the single documented case of attempted voter fraud was someone who tried to vote twice . . . for Trump.

But truth and reality are a different country from Trumpland. This voter fraud investigation nonsense is just one more Trump con to bedazzle those still foolish enough support him. images-2No doubt comments on this blog will back him on this issue. Like Pavlov, he rings a bell, and his dogs duly salivate.

Meantime, of course, there was chicanery in the last election. By the Russians. It seems likely Russian meddling harmed Clinton just enough to produce razor-thin Trump margins in three crucial states. But that’s a reality he doesn’t want to hear about.

Another of his false tropes is the autism/vaccination garbage. Every serious scientific authority says it’s absolute bunk, and very harmful, in reducing vaccination rates, causing resurgences of nasty diseases that had almost been wiped out. Now Trump appears ready to establish a federal commission on this issue, to be headed by Robert Kennedy Junior — a non-scientist and notorious promoter of the fraud that vaccination causes autism.

We’ve elected a stinking piece of crap. Never mind voter fraud. How about voter malpractice?

President versus press

January 23, 2017

Let me start by saying my own experience with the press has not been great. I was an administrative law judge, presiding over a politically explosive case (Shoreham nuclear power plant), when a reporter insisted on publishing an injudicious comment I’d begged him to treat as off-the-record.* The subsequent repercussions made newspaper headlines. I survived, but this was not fun.

images-1President Trump made war on the press throughout his campaign. It continues. On Saturday, his press spokesman, Sean Spicer, in the White House press room, launched an angry tirade against the media for reporting (correctly) that inaugural attendance was lower than Obama’s; and Trump himself marred an event honoring fallen CIA officers by declaring journalists “are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

This from the man who falsely insisted New Jerseyites cheered 9/11; that he couldn’t release his tax returns because they’re under audit; that he’d discussed his wall idea while meeting Mexico’s president; that his election was “the greatest single victory in the history of politics;” that he never committed any of the sexual assaults against women that he’d bragged about; that all the women were lying; who spearheaded false “birtherism” and then lied that he was the one who ended it; and so on, and on, and on, and sickeningly on.

unknownThe administration has now even coined a neologism: “alternative facts.” So when Spicer falsely stated “this was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration — period,”** that was just an “alternative fact.” In an alternative universe. Where everybody is a liar — except Trump and his stooges, of course.

unknownIn the Trump universe, the media is out to get him. Well, you know what? They are. And why? Because they see the truth — that he’s a scumbag con man, the most brazen liar ever to pollute American public life. They tried to tell us before the election, but voters — enough of them, anyway — refused to hear it. So now we have a disgraceful administration for which falsification is actually policy, and exposure of it is vilified.

People in news media have their human foibles and political biases. They are imperfect. But by and large they work hard to fulfill their basic mission, to report true facts and inform us about what is actually happening. Which is absolutely indispensable to a democracy’s functioning, with government accountable to voters. This contrasts with countries like Russia with no free media, it’s all government controlled, and the public is told only what the regime pleases, true or not (and often not). Unlike Russia, we still have a free news media that ferrets out the truth and holds politicians to account. But it’s threatened by Trump’s press-bashing and promotion of fake news.

Lying about lying

Lying about lying

In my own Shoreham case, I didn’t like what that reporter did. But he was right. The press did its job, and that was a good thing.

The choice between trusting America’s news media, or the serial compulsive liar in the White House, should be a no-brainer.

*I said I thought one party’s proposal was wrong.

**Today a contrite Spicer walked it back.

The inaugural address: us against them

January 20, 2017

images-1The President had much to say to “forgotten Americans,” who feel full of resentments. Fair enough. But what about the rest of us?

Trump talked of a Washington political elite that prospers at the expense of everyone else. That’s his division between bad and good, victims and victimizers. (A bit strange to cast Washington politicians as the Enemies of the People – when over 90% get re-elected every time.) Perhaps surprisingly Trump did not mention banks, Wall Street, or corporations. No – it’s just the Washington pols against the entire rest of the country, and the entire rest of the country is suffering.

It’s a country mired in “carnage.” Yes, “carnage!” I thought I was transported in a time machine back to 1933, judging from the grim picture of American society and its economy that he portrayed.

As if Washington predation is actually the cause of our economic challenges. It’s absurd. And meantime, in fact, most Americans are doing quite fine, and do not harbor grievances against some malevolent elite that we imagine is screwing us. But we seem invisible to Trump.

imagesSo his theme was us-against-them. His “us” is the 40% who voted for him and still back him. His words about national unity were cynically empty. This was an atrociously divisive speech, setting part of the population against another. I felt like I’m one of the “them.”

Us-against-them is likewise his global stance. For the better part of a century, America has seen its role as being bound into a world community, wherein promotion of our interests is served by promotion of our values. Those values have included democracy, openness, nations solving their problems peaceably, and trading with each other for mutual benefit. America has shouldered the lead and responsibility in building and sustaining this global order. The logic is that we are better off in a world where other countries are democratic and hence do not create causes of war and turmoil, and in which other countries grow more prosperous, and hence more secure, and better able to buy what we produce.

images-2Forget all that, Trump says. His global vision is very different: it’s us against them. Our policy now will simply be America First; and other countries should likewise mind their own self-interest. Nothing about having any interests in common. (He’s even cheered on the unraveling of the European Union.) And we won’t try to “impose” our values on anyone. Values are irrelevant in this dark vision. Trump sees other countries only as “ravaging” us; the world as a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is another’s loss.

This insanity is the whole world’s loss. Our own most of all.

 

My credo

January 18, 2017

 

unknownAs our political transition unfolds, I find myself caught between the Scylla of a Democratic party increasingly romanticizing socialist economics hostile to enterprise and trade, and a Republican Charybdis fallen into a dark hole of nativism romanticizing a past that won’t return and shouldn’t. Today’s real divide is between mindsets of openness and closedness. With irresponsible foolishness of every sort running rampant, trampling sound classically liberal principles, I will not give up on them, but will continue to defend them in the years ahead. Here I recap those core principles.

 

  • Democracy and rule of law, so government is accountable to citizens, its powers over them restricted.

 

  • Freedom of speech, expression, and argument. images-1No idea immune from critical examination – even if that offends or discomfits some. This is not only integral to personal freedom, it is also crucial for society to evaluate ideas and progress thereby.

 

  • Limited government, filling only roles that individuals cannot. People able to choose for themselves how to live and act, with society dictating only when its reasons are compelling; basically, only to protect others from harm.

 

  • Free market economics is the best way to grow the pie so all can prosper. images-2Profit-seeking business is how people’s needs and desires get satisfied. That is best promoted when businesses are forced to compete openly and fairly with each other, none gaining advantage through government intervention. Instead government should function to remove barriers to competition and business enterprise.

 

  • This does not mean businesses unregulated. They too are subject to laws to protect others from harm.

 

  • Inequality is the inevitable result of people striving to better themselves, and is not unjust or an evil. Successful people are not the enemy, nor the cause of want. But a market economy generates enough wealth that we can afford to give everyone a decent living standard, out of simple humanity.

 

  • When another country can sell us something cheaper than we can produce it ourselves, we benefit as well as they. images-3Impeding such trade only impoverishes both nations. The gains from freer global trade, through lower consumer prices, vastly exceed the costs in any jobs lost.

 

  • America prospers best in a world wherein democracy, free trade, and peaceful development prevail among other countries, making them too more prosperous; so promoting those values must be the core of our foreign policy. Forces in the world threatening those values must be actively combated.

 

  • Government spending and taxation must be brought into a sustainable balance. Heedlessly piling up excessive debt will not end well.

 

  • Truth and facts should be sought objectively, and should shape our beliefs, rather than our beliefs shaping what we think are facts. unknown-1Confirmation bias is the enemy of reason. We acquire truth through science, a method of rational inquiry which progresses by self-correction as more facts become known and understood.

 

  • No religion is better or truer than any other. All are equally false; and that false consciousness can only impede people in grappling with challenges all too real.

 

  • Human beings are natural animals, resulting from Darwinian evolution. Ultimately the only thing that matters in the Universe is the well being of creatures capable of feeling. All people have equal dignity and worth (except for those who imagine their kind is superior, thereby proving they are inferior).

 

  • Over the centuries, the increasing application of all these principles has made for enormous global progress, with ever more people able to live ever better lives. unknown-2Abandoning these principles endangers that progress.

Pussy Grabber’s John Lewis tweet

January 15, 2017

“All talk, no action.”

That was Pussy Grabber’s typical tweet, about John Lewis. Then he adds a word like, “Sad.” He thinks he’s being clever, when in fact it’s him and his fetid tweeting that’s sad.

images-1John Lewis is a Georgia congressman. In the early 1960s he participated in the “Freedom Rides” aiming to integrate bus travel. He knew the danger. His bus was attacked and burned by a raging mob; Lewis and other Freedom Riders were dragged off the bus and beaten. Lucky to have survived, he often saw the inside of southern jails. In 1964, he was an organizer of the “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” to restore black voting rights. Some of those workers were murdered. In 1965, Lewis was a leader of the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Again the danger was clear.  The marchers met with extreme violence. Once again John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life.

“All talk, no action?”

John Lewis is a hero. We can be proud such a man is in Congress.

You may disagree with John Lewis, even criticize him. But you do not insult him. You do not belittle him.

“All talk, no action?” That’s exactly what Pussy Grabber claimed about his own pussy-grabbing comments caught on tape. (Even after a dozen grabbees came forward to say otherwise.)

unknownJohn Lewis is a hero. Donald Trump is a stinking piece of crap.

 

The Russian virus

January 12, 2017

images-1During the Cold War it was perfectly clear the Russians were the bad guys. Only twisted-brain lefties like Noam Chomsky thought we were. When the USSR fell in 1991, there was a window when it looked like Russia would come in from the cold. But then ex-KGB agent Putin took over.

He has mounted a gigantic propaganda offensive. Unlike Soviet Communists, Putin has no pretensions of leading a worldwide ideological movement. Instead, it’s all about strengthening and expanding his raw power. Thus the cynical effort to delegitimize democracy and liberal Western culture as decadent and corrupt in contrast to a Russia that’s strong and moral. Putin knows the USSR fell partly because its inhabitants realized its system stank compared to ours. That’s what he’s trying to combat.

unknownAnd not only are Russians falling for it – many in the West also buy the notion that there’s something more admirable in Putinism than in our own societies. Trump compares the Russian tyrant favorably against Obama. Reportedly, 37% of Republicans now admire Putin. They see him as a “strong leader.” America’s alt-right in particular embraces Putin as a kind of cult hero, the antithesis of our own culture going squishy soft.

This is deeply sick. Putin is a thug who rules by theft, lies, repression, silencing and jailing critics, and, in a lot of cases, murdering them. Russia is not admirable or moral. Putin runs it like Al Capone ran Chicago.

unknown-1His invasion of Ukraine and Crimea – propelled by a huge propaganda blitz of disinformation and lies – was aimed mainly at stoking Russian nationalism, to distract his people from his regime’s criminality and the economic dysfunction resulting therefrom. (Aggravated by Western sanctions.) Putin gambled that guns would trump butter in Russians’ eyes, and seems to be right. But he’d like impunity for his military aggressions, and to that end has been meddling in European and U.S. politics.

Trump has made noises about removing sanctions, and getting along better with Russia, which really means going along with Russia. And more broadly, the Kremlin would prefer a blundering ignoramus leading its chief adversary nation. Plenty of reasons why Putin sought a Trump victory.

Now we see yet another one. While the Kremlin tried to smear Hillary Clinton, it was never credible to imagine they had no dirt on Trump who is, after all, orders of magnitude filthier. That they were holding it back makes perfect sense – not only because they wanted him to win, but also to blackmail him afterwards. Trump’s denials are about as credible as his denial that he was ever a pussy grabber. His bashing intelligence agencies for leaking this new information is also phony, because in fact it was leaked by private organizations, not any intelligence services. Meanwhile, some authoritative analysts are saying the details are totally consistent with the way the Russians operate.

images-2Putin’s meddling to help Trump may actually have been the most successful such covert scheme in history. For all his ludicrous talk of an “historic landslide,” Trump won only thanks to razor-thin margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s hardly far-fetched to think the Russians harmed Clinton’s campaign at least enough to flip those three. The most serious attack upon our democracy ever.

The Russians have used disinformation for a long time. Our healthy body politic had an immune system that resisted the virus. images-4This time that immune system didn’t kick in – our immune system against not only Kremlin foul play but against every other bad thing Pussy Grabber embodies. That we elected such a vile creep, exactly as Russia wanted – and most Americans just shrug their shoulders – shows that America today is one sick puppy.

Jobs of the future and Idiocracy

January 9, 2017

The Economist magazine recently tried to identify where America’s job growth will come from. Of course, pessimists are always seeing the opposite, afraid that advancing technology will put people out of work – starting with the 19th century Luddites, who campaigned against factory automation – and could not have foreseen the explosion of new jobs that technologies like railways, telegraphy, and electrification would soon bring.scan-2

So using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Economist presented the job categories that should see the highest growth rates in the years ahead, to 2024. Now, America, judging from current politics, is fixated upon old-time factory jobs (like Carrier’s). But here’s what struck me from that Economist article. It’s not just that such factory jobs aren’t in it. Of course not. However, I asked myself whether the kinds of people who did such factory jobs can switch into these other professions. I don’t think so.

Well, maybe for one or two of the 16 shown, like “ambulance drivers.” Though even that may overlook the advance of self-driving technology.

images-1The top job growth category is “wind turbine service technicians,” reflecting increasing emphasis on alternative energy technologies. But most of the list reflects a different trend: ageing populations, and the panoply of services they’ll require. And, as The Economist notes, “[t]hese are all tasks that require empathy and social skills.”

Again – not the métier of America’s army of less educated assembly line jockeys. They’re yesterday’s men.

The Economist’s writer also points out that the analysis doesn’t take into account job categories that don’t exist yet. Some will be related to technologies that are just emerging, like virtual reality and drones. unknownHe notes that his 16-year-old daughter wants to be a robopsychologist (who figures out why robots are misbehaving). Such jobs don’t exist now, but probably will soon. And then there are all the future jobs we can’t even conceive of today.

A lifeline for all those yesterday men? Not a chance. Yet we’re still producing such people. Our educational system still spits out a sizeable cohort of folks without even a high school diploma. Some can do those remnants of low skill jobs that aren’t automated away. Many though have to be supported by the productive population, in one way or another; the “disability” system covers a lot of people whose “disability” is really just being useless.

unknown-1The movie Idiocracy (one of those dystopian-future flicks) began by contrasting two families. A highly educated, brainy couple agonize over having even a single child. While a bunch of doofuses pops them out right and left. Result, after multiple generations: a nation of doofuses. Apparently everyone is supported somehow because technology dispenses with a need for human work. Not very realistic.

The fact is that, to support all our yesterday’s men (and women) we’ll need a lot of tomorrow people, capable of doing the tomorrow jobs that the former cannot. And Idiocracy wasn’t entirely cuckoo in highlighting that advanced modern populations are not reproducing themselves. So where will we get the tomorrow people we need? Immigration.

Indeed, a key reason why America’s economy has been more dynamic than Europe’s is our greater ability to assimilate immigrants. They fill the gaps our own natives cannot. Our schools don’t produce enough Americans to do all the high tech and skilled service jobs; a lot of them are done by immigrants (especially from Asia).

unknown-2The idea that other countries send us losers and scroungers is stupid. People willing to uproot themselves and start fresh in a new and unfamiliar environment are, to the contrary, full of the kind of enterprise and drive we need.

America’s fixation on manufacturing jobs – and its growing hostility toward immigration – are a double whammy of, well, idiocracy.

 

Chaos, fractals, and the dripping faucet

January 4, 2017

Physicist Arthur Eddington said, “the Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”

Right off the bat are two possibilities: either it always existed, or had a beginning. Either one blows fuses in my brain. (Note: the God idea doesn’t help. The same problem applies to him.)

Mandelbrot

Mandelbrot

Which brings me to chaos.

Religionists imagine God organized creation from primordial chaos; in common parlance that word connotes a state of complete disorganization. But in science its meaning is more subtle, and much more interesting, as famously pioneered by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot starting in the 1960s.

Take the weather. It can’t be forecasted very far because there are so many interacting factors; a tiny change in one cascades into ever bigger changes over time. images-1Thus the proverbial “butterfly effect” – one flapping its wings in Brazil can ultimately cause a storm in Canada.

Mandelbrot posed the seemingly simple question: how long is Britain’s coastline? But it’s not so simple. Measuring it on a map of course can’t account for all the little crenellations. You could take a yardstick and walk the coast, getting a much more accurate answer. unknownBut the coast between two ends of the yardstick is not exactly a straight line, so you’re under-measuring. A foot-ruler would do better, but still won’t capture irregularities within each foot. No matter how finely you measure, the true coastline will always be longer. (Does that mean it’s infinite?)

Coastline irregularities are a kind of seemingly patternless phenomenon found throughout existence. But Mandelbrot’s startling discovery was that there is a pattern. The kind of coastal irregularities you see on a world map are exactly replicated when you focus on a smaller area. No matter how small. unknown-1And this paradigm of like patterns repeating at different scales of examination occurs again and again in nature. The word for this is fractal. It is order hidden within seeming randomness, seeming chaos.

Look at the illustration. No matter the scale, no matter how much you magnify, the pattern persists. If the picture reminds you of a snowflake, it should, because snowflake formation is a good example of the phenomenon.

Environmentalists romanticize a “balance of nature,” an ecosystem in harmonious equilibrium. It turns out no such thing exists. An ecosystem works like the weather, one small perturbation sending it on an unpredictable and quintessentially chaotic path.

Chaos can also affect a system close to your own heart. In fact, it is your heart. Its normally regular beating can sometimes become chaotic in the textbook sense. That calls for attention.

images-3I read James Gleick’s book Chaos hoping for a better understanding. Frankly much of it was way too deep for me. But it described one illuminating experiment, conducted by Robert Shaw at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It involved the most mundane thing: a dripping faucet.

Shaw found that certain flow rates produced chaotic drips, with no regular intervals between them. Then all he did was measure those intervals and plot those numbers on a graph. Actually he used pairs of intervals to produce a graphing in three dimensions. Now, you might expect a truly random distribution, with the dots falling all over, patternlessly. But that’s not what Shaw found. The pattern of dots took on a distinct shape (“resembling loopy trails of smoke left by an out-of-control sky-writing plane”).

Strange attractor

Strange attractor

A shape thusly revealed is called a “strange attractor.” I was puzzled by that term until I realized it’s as though the shape attracts the data points to itself, keeping them from falling elsewhere.

This is extremely weird. While the shape acts like a magnet for data points, of course a magnet is a physical object, but the “strange attractor” is not, it’s just a concept. So what is going on here? What makes the seemingly random, chaotic drip intervals form a certain distinct shape when graphed? unknown-2The hand of God?

Of course not. Surely God wouldn’t bother to carefully regulate the dripping to produce the pattern. Yet it’s as if he did.

But why? That’s what I really wanted to understand. The book doesn’t tell me; Gleick writes as though the question never occurred to him. He even quotes John von Neumann: “The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models . . . [which describe] observed phenomena.” In other words, science reveals what happens, but not why.

With all respect to the great von Neumann, I disagree. Why the Universe exists may be a meaningless question, but why Shaw’s faucet dripped the way it did is not. Another scientist Gleick quotes answered Einstein’s famous line by saying God does play dice with the Universe, and the dice are loaded; “the main objective of physics now is to find out by what rules were they loaded and how can we use them for our own ends.”unknown-3

Science is humanity’s great quest for understanding. Through that understanding we can control our destiny. But that’s almost a mere side effect of the real motivation: we just want to know.