Wednesday, July 1, 2015 02:22
Venus and Jupiter at Dusk
Tuesday, June 30, 2015 23:38
Reading List: Alas, Babylon
Sunday, June 28, 2015 22:37
Reading List: Redshirts
Friday, May 29, 2015 22:04
Reading List: A Short History of Man
Wednesday, May 20, 2015 15:38
Wednesday, July 1, 2015 02:22
, alarm clock!
Tuesday, June 30, 2015 23:38
Look toward the west a little after sunset today to see a spectacle in the sky: a close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.
Brilliant Venus is at the bottom and bright, but less dazzling, Jupiter is above. This picture was taken with a 50 mm normal lens and approximates the visual appearance. Tonight the planets are separated by only 0.3°, less than the width of the full Moon. To illustrate this, the following is a composite of an image of the conjunction and tonight's near-full Moon, which was rising as the planets were setting. I photographed both at the same scale and overlaid the images.
If you miss the closest conjunction tonight, the planets will remain strikingly close together in the sky for the next few days.
The juxtaposition of the two planets is only apparent. Venus is about 90 million kilometres from the Earth while Jupiter is 890 million kilometres away. Venus is so much brighter than Jupiter (which is more than ten times its size) because it is closer to the Sun and the Earth.
On July 1st, 2015, the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter has widened to around 0.6°, just a bit more than the mean apparent diameter of the full Moon (it varies
, due to the Moon's elliptical orbit), but it is still a spectacular sight in the western sky after sunset. Tonight I decided to see if I could take a picture which showed the two planets as they'd appear in a modest telescope. This is somewhat challenging, since Venus is presently 11.5 times brighter (on a linear scale) than Jupiter, and any exposure which shows Jupiter well will hopelessly overexpose Venus. So, I did what any self-respecting astrophotographer would do: cheat. I took two exposures, one best suited for Venus and one for Jupiter, and composited them. This is the result.
You can easily see that Venus is a fat crescent, while Jupiter's disc is fully illuminated. The apparent angular diameter of two two planets is almost identical (because enormously larger Jupiter is so much more distant). This was still in late twilight, and I wasn't able to pop out the Galilean satellites. Jupiter would have set before those 4th magnitude objects became accessible.
Both images were taken with a Nikon D600 camera and 25 year old Nikkor 300 mm f/4.5 prime (non-zoom) lens. The image of Venus was taken at f/8 with ISO 1250 sensitivity and 1/1600 second exposure. (Why such high ISO and short exposure? The lens is sharper stopped down to f/8, and the short exposure minimises the chance of vibration or movement of the planet on the sky blurring the image.) The venerable lens has a substantial amount of chromatic aberration
, which causes a red fringe around the bright image of Venus. I eliminated this by decomposing the image into its three colour components and using only the green channel, where the lens is sharpest. Since there is no apparent colour visible on Venus, this lost no information.
The Jupiter image was taken with the same camera, lens, aperture, and ISO setting, but at 1/400 second. I clipped the colour image of Jupiter from it and pasted it over the dim smudge which was Jupiter in the Venus image, preserving the relative position of the two planets.
All exposures were made from a fixed (non-guided) tripod in the Fourmilab driveway. (2015-07-01 21:42 UTC)
Sunday, June 28, 2015 22:37
- Frank, Pat [Harry Hart Frank].
New York: Harper Perennial,  2005.
This novel, originally published in 1959, was one the first realistic
fictional depictions of an all-out nuclear war and its aftermath.
While there are some well-crafted thriller scenes about the origins
and catastrophic events of a one day spasm war between the Soviet
Union and the United States (the precise origins of which are
not described in detail; the reader is led to conclude that it
was an accident waiting to happen, much like the outbreak of
World War I), the story is mostly set in Fort Repose, a small
community on a river in the middle of Florida, in an epoch when
Florida was still, despite some arrivals from the frozen north,
very much part of the deep south.
Randy Bragg lives in the house built by his ancestors on
River Road, with neighbours including long-time Floridians
and recent arrivals. some of which were scandalised to
discover one of their neighbours, the Henry family, were
descended from slaves to whom Randy's grandfather had sold
their land long before the first great Florida boom, when
land was valued only by the citrus it could grow. Randy,
nominally a lawyer, mostly lived on proceeds from his
orchards, a trust established by his father, and occasional
legal work, and was single, largely idle, and seemingly
without direction. Then came The Day.
From the first detonations of Soviet bombs above cities and
military bases around Fort Repose, the news from outside
dwindled to brief bulletins from Civil Defense and what one of
Randy's neighbours could glean from a short wave radio. As
electrical power failed and batteries were exhausted, little
was known of the fate of the nation and the world. At least,
after The Day, there were no more visible nuclear detonations.
Suddenly Fort Repose found itself effectively in the 19th
century. Gasoline supplies were limited to what people had
in the tanks of their cars, and had to be husbanded for only
the most essential purposes. Knowledge of how to hunt, trap,
fish, and raise crops, chickens, and pigs became much more
important than the fancy specialties of retirees in the area.
Fortunately, by the luck of geography and weather, Fort Repose
was spared serious fallout from the attack, and the very
fact that the large cities surrounding it were directly targeted
(and that it was not on a main highway) meant it would be
spared invasion by the “golden horde” of starving
urban and suburban refugees which figure in many post-apocalyptic
stories. Still, cut off from the outside, “what you have
is all you've got”, and people must face the reality
that medical supplies, their only doctor, food the orchards
cannot supply, and even commodities as fundamental as salt
are limited. But people, especially rural people in the middle
of the 20th century, are resourceful, and before long a barter
market springs up in which honey, coffee, and whiskey prove
much more valuable than gold or silver.
Wherever there are things of value and those who covet them,
predators of the two footed variety will be manifest. While
there is no mass invasion, highwaymen and thieves appear
to prey upon those trying to eke out a living for their families.
Randy Bragg, now responsible for three families living under
his own roof and neighbours provided by his artesian water
well, is forced to grow into a protector of these people and
the community, eventually defending them from those who would
destroy everything they have managed to salvage from the
They learn that all of Florida has been designated as one of
the Contaminated Zones, and hence that no aid can be anticipated
from what remains of the U.S. government. Eventually a cargo
plane flies over and drops leaflets informing residents that
at some time in the future aid may be forthcoming, “It
was proof that the government of the United States still functioned.
It was also useful as toilet paper. Next day, ten leaflets would
buy an egg, and fifty a chicken. It was paper, and it was money.”
This is a tale of the old, weird, stiff-spined, rural America
which could ultimately ride out what Herman Kahn called the
“destruction of the A country” and keep on going.
We hear little of the fate of those in the North, where with
The Day occurring near mid-winter, the outcome for those who
escaped the immediate attack would have been much more calamitous.
Ultimately it is the resourcefulness, fundamental goodness, and
growth of these people under extreme adversity which makes this
tale of catastrophe ultimately one of hope.
The Kindle edition appears to have been
created by scanning a print edition and processing it through an
optical character recognition program. The result of this
seems to have been run through a spelling checker, but not subjected
to detailed copy editing. As a result, there are numerous
scanning errors, some obvious, some humorous, and some real
head scratchers. This classic work, from a major publisher,
Friday, May 29, 2015 22:04
- Scalzi, John.
New York: Tor, 2012.
Ensign Andrew Dahl thought himself extremely fortunate when, just out
of the Academy, he was assigned to Universal Union flagship
Intrepid in the xenobiology lab. Intrepid has
a reputation for undertaking the most demanding missions of
exploration, diplomacy, and, when necessary, enforcement of
order among the multitude of planets in the Union, and it was
the ideal place for an ambitious junior officer to begin his career.
But almost immediately after reporting aboard, Dahl began to discover
there was something distinctly off about life aboard
the ship. Whenever one of the senior officers walked through the
corridors, crewmembers would part ahead of them, disappearing
into side passages or through hatches. When the science
officer visited a lab, experienced crew would vanish before
he appeared and return only after he departed. Crew
would invent clever stratagems to avoid being assigned to a
post on the bridge or to an away mission.
Seemingly, every away mission would result in the death of a
crew member, often in gruesome circumstances involving Longranian
ice sharks, Borgovian land worms, the Merovian plague, or
other horrors. But senior crew: the captain, science officer,
doctor, and chief engineer were never killed, although astrogator
Lieutenant Kerensky, a member of the bridge crew and regular on
away parties, is frequently grievously injured but invariably
makes a near-miraculous and complete recovery.
Dahl sees all of this for himself when he barely escapes with his life
from a rescue mission to a space station afflicted with killer
robots. Four junior crew die and Kerensky is injured once again. Upon
returning to the ship, Dahl and his colleagues vow to get to the
bottom of what is going on. They've heard the legends of, and one may
have even spotted, Jenkins, who disappeared into the bowels of the
ship after his wife, a fellow crew member, died meaninglessly by a
stray shot of an assassin trying to kill a Union ambassador on an away
Dahl undertakes to track down Jenkins, who is rumoured to have a
theory which explains everything that is happening. The theory turns
out to be as bizarre or more so than life on the Intrepid,
but Dahl and his fellow ensigns concede that it does
explain what they're experiencing and that applying it allows them to
make sense of events which are otherwise incomprehensible (I
love “the Box”).
But a theory, however explanatory, does not address the immediate
problem: how to avoid being devoured by Pornathic crabs or the Great
Badger of Tau Ceti on their next away mission. Dahl and his fellow
junior crew must figure out how to turn the nonsensical reality they
inhabit toward their own survival and do so without overtly engaging
in, you know, mutiny, which could, like death, be career limiting.
The story becomes so meta it will make you question the metaness of
This is a pure romp, often laugh-out-loud funny, having a
delightful time immersing itself in the lives of characters
in one of our most beloved and enduring science fiction
universes. We all know the bridge crew and department heads,
but what's it really like below decks, and how does it feel to
experience that sinking feeling when the first officer points
to you and says “You're with me!” when forming
an away team?
The novel has three codas written, respectively, in the first,
second, and third person. The last, even in this very funny book,
will moisten your eyes. Redshirts won the
Award for Best Novel in 2013.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015 15:38
- Hoppe, Hans-Hermann.
A Short History of Man.
Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2015.
The author is one of the most brilliant and original thinkers
and eloquent contemporary expositors
of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and
Educated in Germany, Hoppe came to
the United States to study with
and in 1986 joined Rothbard on the faculty of the University
of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught until his retirement in 2008.
Hoppe's 2001 book,
Democracy: The God That Failed
(June 2002), made the argument that democratic election of
temporary politicians in the modern all-encompassing state
will inevitably result in profligate spending and runaway
debt because elected politicians have every incentive to
buy votes and no stake in the long-term solvency and prosperity of
the society. Whatever the drawbacks (and historical examples of how
things can go wrong), a hereditary monarch has no need to buy votes
and every incentive not to pass on a bankrupt state to his descendants.
This short book (144 pages) collects three essays previously published
elsewhere which, taken together, present a comprehensive picture
of human development from the emergence of modern humans in
Africa to the present day. Subtitled “Progress and Decline”,
the story is of long periods of stasis, two enormous breakthroughs,
with, in parallel, the folly of ever-growing domination of society by
a coercive state which, in its modern incarnation, risks halting or
reversing the gains of the modern era.
Members of the collectivist and politically-correct mainstream in the
fields of economics, anthropology, and sociology who can abide
Prof. Hoppe's adamantine libertarianism will probably have their
skulls explode when they encounter his overview of human economic and
social progress, which is based upon genetic selection for increased
intelligence and low
forced to migrate due to population pressure from the tropics where
the human species originated into more demanding climates north and
south of the Equator, and onward toward the poles. In the tropics,
every day is about the same as the next; seasons don't differ much from
one another; and the variation in the length of the day is not great.
In the temperate zone and beyond, hunter-gatherers must cope with
plant life which varies along with the seasons, prey animals that
migrate, hot summers and cold winters, with the latter requiring the
knowledge and foresight of how to make provisions for the lean season.
Predicting the changes in seasons becomes important, and in this may
have been the genesis of astronomy.
A hunter-gatherer society is essentially parasitic upon the natural
environment—it consumes the plant and animal bounty of nature
but does nothing to replenish it. This means that for a given
territory there is a maximum number (varying due to details of terrain,
climate, etc.) of humans it can support before an increase in population
leads to a decline in the per-capita standard of living of its inhabitants.
This is what the author calls the
at from the other end, a human population which is growing as human
populations tend to do, will inevitably reach the carrying capacity
of the area in which it lives. When this happens, there are only three
options: artificially limit the growth in population to the land's
carrying capacity, split off one or more groups which migrate to new
territory not yet occupied by humans, or conquer new land from adjacent
groups, either killing them off or driving them to migrate. This was
the human condition for more than a hundred millennia, and it is this
population pressure, the author contends, which drove human migration from
tropical Africa into almost every niche on the globe in which humans could
survive, even some of the most marginal.
While the life of a hunter-gatherer band in the tropics is relatively
easy (or so say those who have studied the few remaining populations
who live that way today), the further from the equator the more intelligence,
knowledge, and the ability to transmit it from generation to
generation is required to survive. This creates a selection pressure for
intelligence: individual members of a band of hunter-gatherers who are
better at hunting and gathering will have more offspring which survive to
maturity and bands with greater intelligence produced in this manner
will grow faster and by migration and conquest displace those less endowed.
This phenomenon would cause one to expect that (discounting the effects
of large-scale migrations) the mean intelligence of human populations would
be the lowest near the equator and increase with latitude (north or south).
This, in general terms, and excluding marginal environments, is
precisely what is observed, even today.
After hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers parasitic upon
nature, sometime around 11,000 years ago, probably first in the
in the Middle East, what is now called the
occurred. Humans ceased to wander in search of plants and game, and
settled down into fixed communities which supported themselves by cultivating
plants and raising animals they had domesticated. Both the plants
and animals underwent selection by humans who bred those most adapted to
their purposes. Agriculture was born. Humans who adopted the new means
of production were no longer parasitic upon nature: they produced their
sustenance by their own labour, improving upon that supplied by nature through
their own actions. In order to do this, they had to invent a series of
new technologies (for example, milling grain and fencing pastures) which
did not exist in nature. Agriculture was far more efficient than the
hunter-gatherer lifestyle in that a given amount of land (if suitable
for known crops) could support a much larger human population.
While agriculture allowed a large increase in the human population, it
did not escape the Malthusian trap: it simply increased the population
density at which the carrying capacity of the land would be reached.
Technological innovations such as irrigation and crop rotation could further increase
the capacity of the land, but population increase would eventually surpass
the new limit. As a result of this, from 1000 B.C.
to A.D. 1800, income per capita (largely
measured in terms of food) barely varied: the benefit of each innovation was
quickly negated by population increase. To be sure, in all of this epoch
there were a few wealthy people, but the overwhelming majority of the
population lived near the subsistence level.
But once again, slowly but surely, a selection pressure was being applied
upon humans who adopted the agricultural lifestyle. It is cognitively more
difficult to be a farmer or rancher than to be a member of a
hunter-gatherer band, and success depends strongly upon having a low
time preference—to be willing to forgo immediate consumption for
a greater return in the future. (For example, a farmer who does not reserve and
protect seeds for the next season will fail. Selective breeding of plants
and amimals to improve their characteristics takes years to produce
results.) This creates an evolutionary
pressure in favour of further increases in intelligence and, to the extent that
such might be genetic rather than due to culture, for low
time preference. Once the family
emerged as the principal unit of society rather than the hunter-gatherer band,
selection pressure was amplified since those with the selected-for characteristics
would produce more offspring and the phenomenon of
which exists in communal bands is less likely to occur.
Around the year 1800, initially in Europe and later elsewhere, a startling
change occurred: the
In societies which adopted the emerging industrial means of
production, per capita income, which had been stagnant for almost two millennia,
off like a skyrocket,
while at the same time population began to
grow exponentially, rising from around 900 million in 1800 to 7 billion today.
The Malthusian trap had been escaped; it appeared for the first time that an increase
in population, far from consuming the benefits of innovation, actually contributed
to and accelerated it.
There are some deep mysteries here. Why did it take so long for humans to
invent agriculture? Why, after the invention of agriculture, did it take
so long to invent industrial production? After all, the natural resources
extant at the start of both of these
revolutions were present in all of the preceding period, and there were people
with the leisure to think and invent at all times in history. The author
argues that what differed was the people. Prior to the advent of
agriculture, people were simply not sufficiently intelligent to invent it
(or, to be more precise, since intelligence follows something close to a
there was an insufficient fraction of the population with the requisite
intelligence to discover and implement the idea of agriculture). Similarly,
prior to the Industrial Revolution, the intelligence of the general population
was insufficient for it to occur. Throughout the long fallow periods, however,
natural selection was breeding smarter humans and, eventually, in some place
and time, a sufficient fraction of smart people, the required natural resources, and
a society sufficiently open to permit innovation and moving beyond tradition
would spark the fire. As the author notes, it's much easier to copy a good
idea once you've seen it working than to come up with it in the first place and get
it to work the first time.
Some will argue that Hoppe's hypothesis that human intelligence has
been increasing over time is falsified by the fact that societies much
closer in time to the dawn of agriculture produced works of art,
literature, science, architecture, and engineering which are
comparable to those of modern times. But those works were produced
not by the average person but rather outliers which exist in all times
and places (although in smaller numbers when mean intelligence is
lower). For a general
in society, it is a necessary condition that the bulk of the
population involved have intelligence adequate to work in the new way.
After investigating human progress on the grand scale over long periods of time,
the author turns to the phenomenon which may cause this progress to cease and
turn into decline: the growth of the coercive state. Hunter-gatherers had little
need for anything which today would be called governments. With bands on the
order of 100 people sharing resources in common, many sources of dispute would not
occur and those which did could be resolved by trusted elders or, failing that,
combat. When humans adopted agriculture and began to live in settled
communities, and families owned and exchanged property with one another,
a whole new source of problems appeared. Who has the right to use this land?
Who stole my prize animal? How are the proceeds of a joint effort to be
distributed among the participants? As communities grew and trade among them
flourished, complexity increased apace. Hoppe traces how the resolution of these
conflicts has evolved over time. First, the parties to the dispute would turn to
a member of an aristocracy, a member of the community respected because of their
intelligence, wisdom, courage, or reputation for fairness, to settle the matter.
(We often think of an aristocracy as hereditary but, although many aristocracies
evolved into systems of hereditary nobility, the word originally meant “rule by
the best”, and that is how the institution began.)
With growing complexity, aristocrats (or nobles) needed a way to
resolve disputes among themselves, and this led to the emergence of
kings. But like the nobles, the king was seen to apply a law which
was part of nature (or, in the English common law tradition,
discovered through the experience of precedents). It was with the
emergence of absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, and finally
democracy that things began to go seriously awry. In time, law became
seen not as something which those given authority apply, but
rather something those in power create. We have largely
legislation is not law,
and that rights are not granted
to us by those in power, but inhere in us and are taken away and/or
constrained by those willing to initiate force against others to work
their will upon them.
The modern welfare state risks undoing a thousand centuries of human
progress by removing the selection pressure for intelligence and low
time preference. Indeed, the welfare state punishes (taxes) the
productive, who tend to have these characteristics, and subsidises
those who do not, increasing their fraction within the population.
Evolution works slowly, but inexorably. But the effects of shifting
incentives can manifest themselves long before biology has its way.
When a population is told “You've made enough”, “You
didn't build that”, or sees working harder to earn more as
simply a way to spend more of their lives supporting those who don't
(along with those who have gamed the system to extract resources
confiscated by the state), that glorious exponential curve which took
off in 1800 may begin to bend down toward the horizontal and perhaps
eventually turn downward.
I don't usually include lengthy quotes, but the following passage from
the third essay, “From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy”,
is so brilliant and illustrative of what you'll find herein
I can't resist.
Assume now a group of people aware of the reality of interpersonal
conflicts and in search of a way out of this predicament. And assume
that I then propose the following as a solution: In every case of
conflict, including conflicts in which I myself am involved, I will
have the last and final word. I will be the ultimate judge as to who
owns what and when and who is accordingly right or wrong in any
dispute regarding scarce resources. This way, all conflicts can be
avoided or smoothly resolved.
What would be my chances of finding your or anyone else's
agreement to this proposal?
My guess is that my chances would be virtually zero, nil. In fact, you
and most people will think of this proposal as ridiculous and likely
consider me crazy, a case for psychiatric treatment. For you will
immediately realize that under this proposal you must literally fear
for your life and property. Because this solution would allow me to
cause or provoke a conflict with you and then decide this conflict in
my own favor. Indeed, under this proposal you would essentially give
up your right to life and property or even any pretense to such a
right. You have a right to life and property only insofar as I grant
you such a right, i.e., as long as I decide to let you live and keep
whatever you consider yours. Ultimately, only I have a right to life
and I am the owner of all goods.
And yet—and here is the puzzle—this obviously crazy solution
is the reality. Wherever you look, it has been put into effect in the
form of the institution of a State. The State is the ultimate judge in
every case of conflict. There is no appeal beyond its verdicts. If you
get into conflicts with the State, with its agents, it is the State
and its agents who decide who is right and who is wrong. The State has
the right to tax you. Thereby, it is the State that makes the decision
how much of your property you are allowed to keep—that is, your
property is only “fiat” property. And the State can make
laws, legislate—that is, your entire life is at the mercy of the
State. It can even order that you be killed—not in defense of
your own life and property but in the defense of the State or whatever
the State considers “defense” of its
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons
International License and may be redistributed pursuant to the
terms of that license. In addition to the paperback and
Kindle editions available from Amazon
The book may be downloaded for free from the
Library of the Mises Institute
formats, or read on-line in an