Sunday, May 15, 2016

Life at 750 GeV - Breakthrough Physics or Another Spurious Signal?

Back at base bugs in the software
flash the message "something's out there"
There is an unusual level of hype around the 2016 run of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe. You're seeing explainers in the mainstream press, deep dives in the technical press, and there have been no less than 350 academic papers written in the last year. Physicists are cautiously breathless, science reporters are forgetting their objectivity, and mainstream journalists are just struggling with the terminology and basic science. Meanwhile, all the cranks are out - from the 'Multiverse' to 'String Theory' to unconserved momentum propulsion systems, the "New Physics" is a new age set of magicks where physical laws are just suggestions and 'Quantum' means something less scientific and more spiritual, all while people are asking physics to offer some kind of meaning to the universe. It's really exciting to see the world getting interested in high energy physics and the coming breakthroughs, but at the same time people have always had a strong tendency to conflate the edge of science with their Woo, and the result is very often incoherent.

Whether this hint of something new and unpredicted turns out to be real or not, it has been invigorating to see the world recognize the amazing discoveries that have been made in the last 50 years of particle physics. We now understand so much about the universe, how it works and what it is, and even better, we know a tremendous amount of things that we still don't know.

So what's all the excitement about?

Last year the Large Hadron Collider restarted after a couple years of shutdown for large scale upgrades. When it restarted, it did so for the first time at it's rated energy - 2 beams of protons at very close to the speed of light - each beam with an energy of 6.5 TeV - colliding head on to produce collisions with a combined energy of 13+ TeV. Last year's run was carefully managed, so the amount of data that was collected - while massive on any real-world scale - was far below the full 'luminosity' speced into the collider.

When that data was analyzed, scientists saw something...odd. There was an excess in photon-photon pairs produced at mass of 750 GeV. (Wait - mass? I though electron volts were energy? Yes - remember E=mc² - energy and mass are the same thing, and can be expressed using either set of terms.) Now, the problem was that there were not a lot of data, and the statistical confidence that the so-called 'diphoton excess' was anything but noise was about 3σ (3 sigma). At that level, it would be ignored as background noise, but what makes this data interesting is the same diphoton excess was detected at the same mass by TWO DIFFERENT EXPERIMENTS. (In collider terms, that's like "The telephone calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!!) Both ATLAS and CMS experiments saw the same data (or noise). THAT'S exciting, even at 3σ.

High energy particle physics, for all it's 'peering into the universe' majesty, is ultimately just a very large exercise in statistics. Some collisions produce particles from the energy released - most don't. Make a LOT of collisions and count the results. There will be anomalous data, noisy data and just plain bad data. But just keep counting and measuring, and eventually you'll notice something that happens more often than it 'should'. If it happens enough - what statisticians call six sigma - then scientists will consider it a real phenomenon and start trying to figure out what's causing it.

Why the excitement?

The standard model was completely described in the 1970s. Since then, particle physics has been a process of confirming its accuracy. That is, detecting the various elementary particles it predicted. And with the confirmation of the Higgs boson, we are now at a point where - at least according to the Standard Model - we know what matter is, how it gets its properties and how it interacts. Of course, we also know there's other stuff out there - dark matter, dark energy - that probably requires an extension/addition to the Standard Model. And of course, we still don't have a complete theory of gravity - the Standard Model includes force carriers for all the other known forces, but if gravity is going to be considered a force like the strong force, and the electroweak interaction, it's going to need a boson to mediate it.

What could it be?

Heavier Higgs?
Physicists were surprised to discover the Higgs boson at the low, low mass of 125Gev. Everything they predicted about the only scalar boson in the standard model would indicate a much more massive particle. The interesting thing is that there is nothing in the model that precludes the existence of multiple Higgs - if this signal is real, the most likely scenario is that it is a more massive Higgs particle.

One fairly popular theory in the 'new physics' community is Super Symmetry or SuSy. The theory postulates that every particle in the standard model has a more massive version - a Super Particle if you will. At the energies the LHC is running at today, some of these SuSy particles may show up, indicating a much expanded standard model is necessary.

Dark Matter?
A quarter of the matter in the universe can not be detected by any means humans have developed. This dark matter doesn't interact with normal, baryonic matter, even though it provides a huge gravitational force distributed about the universe, and seems to be responsible for the large scale structures we observe, including galaxies and clusters of galaxies. If we find a particle that we never even suspected might exist, it would be hard not to consider the possibility that we are observing dark matter for the first time.

What scientists hope for the most is that it will be something utterly unexpected, new and shocking, a launchpad for the breakthrough in physics that will guide us through the next series of discoveries. Back in the 1950s, a similar observation - known as the Tau-Theta puzzle - led to the discoveries around symmetry breaking, electroweak unification and ultimately Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD).


In the end, however, the great likelihood is that by the end of summer we will have much more data, and the anomalous signal will have vanished into the background noise. Despite what everyone hopes it might be, the overwhelming odds are that it is routine experimental noise, and we will go back to working on the problems and questions we started out with.

But for now? For now we can dream, and think about where it might take us!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Art of the Possible

Possible does not include Unicorns and Ponies
In the latter half of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck, perhaps the greatest statesman of his era, famously advised “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”. This has served as both an inspiration and a warning to politicians, activists and demagogues down through the ages. His point was clear - political leaders can only govern by accomplishment - any goal that is out of reach is not in the realm of politics - at least until circumstances place it into the realm of "the possible".  The opposite side of that coin is that leaders who consistently promise or demand the impossible quickly lose credibility and support as their promised policies never seem to actually materialize. The tea party has had to confront this reality in their headlong rush to repeal 'Obamacare'. Despite all their legislative and extra-constitutional manipulations, with a Democratic President in the White House that policy goal was never possible.

Which brings us, once again, the the 2016 Bernie Sanders phenomenon. Now a lot of my distaste for the Sanders campaign is not really Bernie at all, but rather the foul, obnoxious idiocy of many of his supporters. Their refusal to even consider that there might be one single tiny thing wrong with Saint Sanders, along with their willingness to immediately brand anyone who even asks legitimate questions as corrupt tools and closet right wing authoritarians characterizes the same kind of mindless ideological purity as we've been seeing out of the tea party right for ten years.

“Politics is the art of the possible, 

the attainable — the art of the next best”

Probably the most frustrating part of trying to have a rational conversation about Democratic presidential politics in 2016 is the immediate spittle flecked accusation that you are supporting the status quo, and if you'd just support CHANGE we could have all the stuff dreams are made of, from government paid healthcare to free college to the return of good manufacturing jobs to the US. If you're skeptical of these claims of unlimited political possibilities there for the taking, well, you must be benefiting from the status quo in some way or another, and are therefore a corrupt tool of the establishment.

Of course, this is deeply irrational. The status quo is the status quo - it exists for a reason, and that reason is a deeply entrenched political equilibrium. It IS true that if there was a pent-up demand in America for a systemic shift to a Democratic-Socialist political economy, then it would be possible to make that shift. But if that was the case, it would be happening. Instead, Sanders received millions of fewer votes than his more traditional primary opponent - the promised 'revolution' never materialized.

In the end, the facts are simple and obvious, and cannot be obfuscated by name-calling and temper tantrums. America is not a particularly 'liberal' electorate. If you passionately believe in the Sanders message, you are far from a majority in the US - you represent the left wing of the more liberal of the two major political parties. You don't want to hear it, but your views are 'extreme' in the context of American politics, and are entirely offset by a large, extreme far right constituency. The House of Representatives is structured at the level of the congressional district, of which there are many more low-population rural examples than diverse, cosmopolitan urban types, which results in generational Republican majority of that legislative body. Republicans control 31 of 50 statehouses.

These are not problems that can be wished away. This is the political reality in America today. It's interesting that for all the accusations of dishonesty against Clinton, she very clearly ran a more honest campaign than Sanders did. While Sanders was promising a revolution that would sweep away a hundred years of conservative governance and replace it with a far-left Denmark style high-tax/high service system, she was telling the truth about what could be accomplished against an unprecedented, even insane level of political obstruction from the Republicans.

There's nothing wrong with aspirational goals. But if that's all you have, you end up with nothing. It's better to recognize the limitations and obstructions one would confront as a leader, and do the hard work necessary to make change where change is possible. Anything else is irresponsible governance.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Musings on the Evolution of the Left in the Post Bernie Era

Damn you people with your facts and your math
One thing this political cycle has done for me is to crystallize a few thoughts I've been considering around politics in general, and progressive politics in particular. First is the realization that, driven primarily by the internet and social media, progressive/liberal political activists have become infected with the same group-think/motivated reasoning/ideological purity demands that we've seen on the right, especially since the beginning of the tea party movement. Over time, they've moved away from the liberal tradition of thoughtful analysis, allowing the numbers and the models to drive policy solutions, to a point very much like the Republican belief system where the preferred policies are chosen upfront, and then defended with whatever derp-laden 'evidence' and justification they can come up with. This leads to the very aggressive push-back against anyone who asks straightforward questions about the math, or the implementation strategy, or the limits of constitutional authority. When you think about it, if their policies can't stand up under the basic scrutiny of a sympathetic liberal audience, how do they expect to make them into viable public policy they can sell to the nation as a whole?

A very good example of this is the Sanders mantra 'break up the TBTF banks'. Now, virtually all liberals would agree that this is a worthwhile policy goal. But we also point out, that as federal FinReg policy, it's probably not the most effective, and should perhaps be considered as a secondary option in an array of regulatory actions. Breaking up the banks does nothing to deal with the biggest problem, so-called 'shadow banking', and provides some incentives for banks to merely spin off a number of entities that can all grow right up to the designated TBTF threshold. Most economists think hard limits on leverage - significantly greater capital requirements - and a small tax/fee on certain kinds of high speed electronic transactions would protect the economy in a more robust manner, and make for a regulatory system much more difficult for the 'masters of the universe' to game out. But if you make that case, Sanders supporters will just accuse you of being corrupt pro-bankster.

Another trend that seems to keep growing is a kind of an 'ideological purity' conservative analog within the American Political Left. That is, the rise of a significant bloc of liberal activists who reject the slow pace and hard work of everyday real-world politics and demand complete ideological purity around a set of fairly radical policies. The obvious fact that many of these high-cost/high-tax government services and strong anti-capitalist government intervention in the private sector are not only unpopular politically, but actively opposed by a larger and more powerful opposition doesn't seem to matter. They have no answer to address the political realities standing between them and their goals, but they also don't seem to feel they need one. Just as the Tea Party bloc chafes in increasing frustration in the face of their inability to overcome basic constitutional limitations like a Presidential veto, this liberal-hating liberal bloc demands the implementation of the policies THEY prefer in the face of a huge, generational Republican hold on the House of Representatives, a broadly conservative federal judiciary and widespread conservative state-level governance. Again, ask them how they would overcome those roadblocks, the answer is "the people will rise up and sweep them away".

Perhaps this presumption that there is, somewhere, hiding in the nooks and crannies of the American electorate, a huge pent up demand for far left public policies is the greatest delusion of this political bloc. They told us people, particularly young people, would rise up and sweep Bernie Sanders into the White House, but at this point he's received millions of fewer votes than the more traditional Democrat Hillary Clinton, and young people continue to vote in very small numbers - as they always have.

At the end of the day, politics is about thoughtful, incremental change - revolutions are very rare, and they require some kind of triggering factor. Wealthy, safe, comfortable societies are typically not driven to radical political change. I am personally predisposed to technocratic solutions, where the process is as important as the goal. If you choose a tremendously ambitious goal and don't have a realistic, detailed plan for achieving it, you not only will fail, but you will open up the opportunity for the opposition to exploit your failure. Public policy is made by working together with the various factions and stakeholders, compromising to get to incremental progress. A scorched earth refusal to negotiate policy solutions in good faith is a certain path to retaining the status quo.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Trump's Foreign Policy - It's Certainly Incoherent, but is it Wrong?

Asking the right questions,
offering the wrong answers
Virtually all other nations make decisions about international relations, alliances and belligerency based on a pragmatic sense of what is best for them.  They don't have the economic or military luxury to make unnecessary enemies or get involved in foreign conflicts that do not concern them directly, and may be, due to multiple factions and outside proxies, utterly unwinnable. The United States, of course, is different. With a globally dominant military and the largest economy in the world, American foreign policy can be made with a less narrow vision. And I think it's fair to say that, as the dominant world power, the US DOES have a responsibility to take on roles and missions that improve peace and stability throughout the world.

As president, Donald Trump proposes that we more closely examine the assumptions and claims around our foreign policy goals, to make certain that we are acting primarily - or perhaps in his vision exclusively - in our own best interest. Now, he has a very narrow understanding of what constitutes US interest, based substantially on extracting payments from our allies and forcing our adversaries to back down in the face of our belligerent threats, but being willing to consider these policies in terms of costs, benefits, realistic goals and historic understanding of the limits of military intervention is precisely what we should be doing more of.

I am one who believes there is a time and a place for humanitarian military intervention (Rwanda, Srebrinica, Misrata, Goma), and if the rest of the world won't do it then yes, we absolutely should. But other than in those rather unusual cases, American foreign policy and American interests should be at least fairly tightly aligned. ISIS, for example, is a regional problem. They are fighting in the civil war in Syria, and they are fighting a related insurgency in Iraq. They are a product of horrifically bad governance in the regional nations and a centuries-old sectarian dispute. They are a very serious problem in Riyadh, Tehran, Ankara and certainly Damascus, but they really are not a threat or a challenge to Washington. Those nations that have an immediate, local interest in resisting ISIS also have modern, powerful militaries, and are to the region what the US is to the globe. I can see NO reason why the US should be involved in that fight at all - if the Saudis and the Turks and the Iraqis and the Syrians can't be bothered to fight that battle, the US should recognize the hopelessness and pointlessness of her own involvement.

Look. American intervention in the Persian Gulf and North Africa has been an unmitigated disaster for a quarter century at least. Proposing that we change directions, espousing a different approach than Bush, Obama, Clinton, Biden and Sanders to varying degrees have taken since Gulf War I is not automatically wrong. There's certainly a lot of conflicting messages and outright cluelessness in Trump's positions, but this is a conversation we've GOT to start having. WHY are American troops still in Afghanistan? WHY should we escalate into Iraq AGAIN? Should we continue to risk a war with China over some uninhabited rocks in the China sea? Would we REALLY go to war against Russia over Latvia?

A peaceful, prosperous planet is in America's interest. To the extent that regional conflicts threaten that (do they REALLY?) then it's in America's interest to tamp them down, not inflame them. Islamic terrorism IS a problem - but it's almost universally a problem in Muslim nations. It's a series of unwinnable conflicts we don't have to fight - and a very good rule of thumb is that any war that isn't necessary is a war that shouldn't be fought.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Is There an Affirmative Case for a Bernie Sanders Presidency?

The fact that Bernie Sanders has run a poor campaign is clear for anyone to see. From his insistence on using the term 'Socialist' to describe himself to his narrowly focused ideology to his unnecessary willingness to defend firearms manufacturers from lawsuits to his personal demeanor and appearance, he has sacrificed much in order retain the trappings of an obscure liberal northeastern politician. Obviously, no one, including Sanders himself, had any idea that there was going to be a significant constituency for his message, and that he might actually have been a viable contender from the beginning. It's interesting to imagine what the race would look like today if he had spent the previous year or two seriously building the image, message and operation necessary to compete in a major party presidential primary.

Alas, all that is water under the quaint Vermont water wheel. The math is, as they say, the math, and the primary process is structured to protect the lead of the frontrunner. In 2008 Obama led with only about 100 pledged delegates at the end of February, and even with a strong finish - including a win in California - Hillary Clinton was simply mathematically unable to close that gap. So we're left to consider what might have been, and to watch the sad, angry, often ugly recriminations from a populist constituency that never could quite figure out how to 'support' their candidate of choice.

In every campaign, particularly since the rise of cable news and digital media, it's important to separate the official campaign's messaging from that of its most passionate supporters. People frequently support a particular candidate for narrow or even ambiguous reasons, and often they are far too uninformed and politically naive to make a genuinely compelling argument in favor of that candidate. But it's impossible to pretend that the impressions and understanding of the supporters and fans aren't the direct result of the campaign itself. And while the Sanders campaign kept repeating its single tune about 'Wall Street Money' and income inequality - important issues, certainly, but not all by themselves the basis for a presidential campaign - his supporters were unable to find anything they could get their hands and heads around, any narrative they could weave that described why Sanders should be elected President.

If they couldn't make an argument in favor of Bernie Sanders, they were left looking for another approach. Ultimately, the Sanders constituency settled on a dual message: The media was biased against him and the Right Wing had been right all along about Hillary Clinton. She was horrible, toxic, corrupt, dishonest, a tool of banks and corporations and represented everything that was wrong with American governance. The media bias message is particularly incoherent - in a way it's similar to the more common conspiracy theories. The story is that the media is keeping the Sanders message from getting out, and in some cases even intentionally favoring Clinton in their coverage. How do they know this? Why, they can SEE it of course. It's just all those other people - presumably the people who favor Hillary Clinton - who are blind sheep who can't see that the media is fooling them. This is a classic closed-loop self-serving narrative, where the conspiracy is obvious but inexplicably only people who believe in the conspiracy can see it.

This approach has, necessarily, extended to attacking and smearing any pundit who even asked basic questions about the campaign's messaging. Even - or perhaps especially - iconic liberal voices have been repeatedly accused of corruption and self-interest. Paul Krugman is one of the popular liberal pundits that has come under vicious fire from Sanders supporters. One of the things I admire about him is his willingness to carefully examine his own beliefs and conclusions to make certain he's not arriving at them because they are things he truly would like to believe, but rather that they are borne out by the facts and models, and that they pass empirical as well as intuitive tests. So when he - as a Nobel Prize winning economist and author of the number one college economics textbook - asked specific questions about the Sanders economic plan, he was immediately smeared as a corporate tool (!!) and accused of angling for a job in the Clinton cabinet. They find it simply inconceivable that an economist might question the economic assumptions of a Presidential candidate.

Now, many of these attacks by Sanders supporters have been offensive, vile smears often descending into rank misogyny. But more annoying than that is their arrogant certainty - the absolute refusal to consider that someone might actually be offering principled support for Clinton, support based on something other than blatant corruption or outright evil. The belief that they are right, and all others are not just wrong, but intentionally wrong with malicious intent. When you couple that with their irrational belief that the majority of Americans would support extremely liberal economic and political policies, in spite of a century of evidence to the contrary - and the fact that Clinton has received almost three million MORE primary and caucus votes than Sanders at this point in the process - you find a deluded, irrational, angry, reactionary rabble. What you cannot find, sadly, is a single argument IN FAVOR of a Sanders presidency.

Friday, April 8, 2016

On the Constitutional Legitimacy of the Primary Process

This is Party business. We're not doing
democracy here.
Despite the nature of the endless, breathless coverage, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz are not participating in an 'election'. What we're seeing unfold over all these months is merely the latest iteration of the political parties' nominating process. The fact that in recent years there have been efforts to better democratize that process - people go to their neighborhood polling places and cast official government-issued ballots under a process that feels identical to the election - that effort notwithstanding, people are struggling to understand that there is no constitutional or electoral underpinnings for the nominating process. The parties are unconstrained by constitutional provisions or even basic democratic norms, free to define the process and make the rules that leads, ultimately, to choosing their nominee in the general election. No amount of complaining about 'superdelegates', caucuses, proportional delegate allocation or obscure provisions governing the convention will change anything, because it is the party, not the constitutional or the judiciary that defines the functional nuts and bolts of the process.

Primary elections are mostly a new thing. The first was held in 1912 in Oregon, but it was a rare thing indeed. As late as 1968, only 13 states held primary elections. It was the entire point and purpose of a national party convention to bring the party's delegates together to choose their Presidential nominee. But, of course, we all remember the bloody and chaotic Democratic Party convention in 1968 in Chicago. The assassination of Robert Kennedy splintered the anti-war vote, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, and while he only lost the popular vote by 0.7%, he was crushed in the electoral college by Richard Nixon. After that, the writing was on the wall. Both parties immediately began implementing changes to the selection process that would bring public sentiment into the process, while still retaining the ultimate nominating power within the party structure itself.

After the debacle in Chicago in 1968, where a viciously divided party in chaos ended up nominating a candidate who hadn't entered even a single primary, the party announced the creation of what became know as the McGovern-Fraser Commission. The commission announced a set of guidelines that would govern the nominating process in 1972 - both at the state level and at the national convention. Over the next several cycles, the party leadership became concerned that the commission rules had in essence "over democratized" the nominating process, allowing the voters too much control over what they viewed - properly - as an internal party function. So in the 1984 cycle, the Democratic party created a pool of unpledged so-called 'superdelegates' that could offset what they viewed as particularly tactically egregious voter selections. Over time, the Democrats have also adopted a proportional delegate allocation scheme that makes it incredibly difficult for an upstart challenger to overtake a party favorite.

Are these kinds of party rules undemocratic? Of course they are - the party has an interest in eliminating guesswork or randomness from the nominating process, and making sure they are fielding the candidate they feel gives them the best chance to win. Are they somehow dishonest or unconstitutional? Of course not. Those aren't descriptions that even have applicability to questions about the process. In the end, it is strictly an internal party process, the outcome of which the party leadership has a profound interest in. If you don't like the system, tough. You don't get a vote.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Susan Sarandon, Donald Trump and the Next American Revolution

Wait. What??
Bernie Sanders' entire campaign has been premised on a fundamental change in the American political dialog. In his envisioned 'revolution', the American people would suddenly rise up in huge numbers to embrace a very liberal vision of governance and economics he calls 'democratic socialism'. Instead of a long, grinding, generational fight for big ideas and strongly held ideological beliefs unfolding over decades, politics in Washington DC would suddenly shift on their axis in an unprecedented transformation in beliefs and expectations around tax policy, government services and the redistribution of wealth.

Certainly, this kind of instant gratification politics appeals to anyone who is fed up with the endless status quo, obstruction and the slow pace of progress. The high hopes for this revolution require pretending, however, that there is a vast, pent up demand for liberal political and government solutions - the very idea of which is called into question by the most cursory look at the American electorate, or an afternoon watching our House of Representatives in action. But the people who have embraced the Sanders campaign most passionately have no interest in this kind of analysis - they want a President who believes what THEY believe, and they have succeeded in convincing themselves that a significant plurality - perhaps even a majority - of the American people believe the very same things and that a fervent, passionate leader could implement them in a singe four-year term.

Take, for example, noted liberal actress Susan Sarandon. She went on the Chris Hayes television show and said that if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she'll consider voting for Donald Trump instead. Why? To hasten 'the revolution', she said with a straight face. Left tragically unexplored is what, precisely, she meant by 'revolution'. Does she believe that a Donald Trump that could actually WIN the White House would somehow trigger the kind of outpouring of liberal activism that the candidacy of BERNIE SANDERS could not? Or is she considering something considerably darker - that perhaps a Trump presidency would be so horrible for so many Americans that the people would rise up and violently overthrow his rule?

But that's even sillier. The American people are comfortable, wealthy, employed and entertained. They do not suffer from the poverty, disease, oppression and hopelessness for the future that has driven revolutions and popular revolts for a thousand years. What American has had it so awful for so long that they are willing to risk arrest, imprisonment or violent death to try to overthrow the government? For that matter, as horrible a President as Donald Trump would certainly be, can anyone truly expect that presidency to create an army of desperate, starving hopeless revolutionaries manning the barricades in cities across the country?

The entire basis for some kind of large-scale hope for near term transformative change in American governance that seems to have attached itself to the Sanders candidacy is in every way a fantasy. A Sanders presidency would be very much like a Clinton presidency, and while a Trump presidency would be significantly worse for a variety of constituencies, in the end America would look very much the same as it does today.