Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman vs. Superman - You'll Put Your Eye Out

This is how it's done in the real world
I suppose most of my regular readers by now know my feelings about superheroes in general. I don't like the concept - it's too close to mythology, to magicks, to ancient just-so stories that attempted to describe an observed reality that was beyond their technical understanding. As members of the human species, we spend every day of our lives surrounded by others of our ilk, and yet none on them, not ONE ever exhibits the kind of superpowers we routinely delegate to our comic book heroes. Frankly, I've never been able to grok why it is we need superheroes - they don't tell us anything about our world, and they don't speak to what we are capable of as homo sapiens sapiens.

But now we have a vast drooling American population slackjawed at the release of the latest fantasy blockbuster, Batman v Superman. I suppose the first question that must be asked is why these two caped crimefighters would fight each other. (I'd also like to know what's the deal with the capes, but I'm here to mock them, not shame them for their choices in outfits.) The answer, pathetically, is that for generations sixth grade boys have spent billions of hours collectively arguing on the playground the hypothetical "in a fight between Batman and Superman, who would win?"

Now, this is dumb on a number of levels, even according to the canon. Setting aside that they're supposed to be on the same 'side', Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, a very rich orphan with a lot of training and technology, but no actual superpowers. Superman, on the other hand, is an alien, an immortal, god-like creature that should be able to crush the nominally human Bat in an instant. So anytime these two representatives of their species must fight, the narrative must include a variety of unlikely - wait - I suppose, considering the premise, that nothing in the story should be considered particularly more 'unlikely' than anything else - events, conditions and substances which serve to weaken superman and make the fight more interesting, or at least ensure it will last longer than a microsecond.

If you happen to be a fan of the genre, I suppose the events in Batman v Superman have some dramatic implications, and represent an opportunity for good actors to chew up some theatrical scenery. I'm reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies where Robert de Niro's professional thief and Al Pacino's detective take a few minutes to share a tense, if somehow brotherly cup of coffee. The cinematic tension was high, the dialog was spare and powerful, and the muted colors of the late night coffee shop setting was ultimately noir. I personally doubt you can build that kind of tension between two men in tights, but at least in theory this is precisely the kind of conflict between hardened professionals that leads to both deep, violent animosity and a kind of understanding, perhaps almost kinship, that can serve to point out the ultimate pointlessness of the conflict.

We live in the world - every day of our lives. We KNOW nobody is going to be tossing cars or firing missiles from jet scooters. In the realm of conflict, humans have superpowers when they are well trained and experienced with guns, knives or martial arts. THOSE are the people who have the power to take lives, to destroy buildings, and fight at a very high, very deadly level. Audie Murphy was a superhero. Jim Cirillo was a superhero. Carlos Hathcock was a superhero. And that's what human superheroes have the power to do - they kill. They kill in vast numbers like Murphy, they kill at eyeball range like Cirillo, and they kill at long distances like Hathcock. This is the pinnacle of human superpowers - and to pretend it is anything more romantic or less ugly than that hard, simple truth is to believe in a world where benign alien gods would be unable to instantly destroy a rich human in bat ears.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Large Hadron Collider - Shifting to Glide

When 2 experiments give you the same
anomalous data...
The Large Hadron Collider in Europe follows a strictly defined schedule. They run proton/proton collisions from spring until winter, finish the year with several weeks of heavy ion collisions using lead nuclei and then spend the next three to four months in their YETS - year end technical stop. During this period they do maintenance and inspections, particularly of the cryogenics system and the four primary experiments, ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb. Now it's the end of March. That means college basketball championships, the beginning of the baseball season, and restarting the LHC.

Last year was the beginning of what CERN called LHC Run Number Two. The first several years the collider ran at much lower power, then it was shut down and upgraded to its rated energy of 14TeV - two beams at 7TeV each colliding head on at relativistic velocities. This year will be a full year running the collider at full power. Scientists expect to take at least six times as much data this year as they did last year.

There are a number of specific targets of this research. First there is the Higgs Boson - researchers observed the Higgs last year, but they observed it at a surprisingly low mass - about 125GeV. For the particle that carries the field that gives mass to everything that HAS mass, that was not an expected  result. Furthermore, two different experiments found the same statistical anomaly - an unexpected decay channel of a pair of high energy photons at 750GeV - that may indicate additional Higgs particles at higher masses.

Next is the big question of particle physics - dark matter. When a quarter of the universe is composed of some kind of particle you can neither identify nor describe, that's a question that has to be answered. Essentially, dark matter is composed of some unknown particle that has mass but does not interact with 'regular' baryonic matter. There are a number of proposed explanations - particularly SuperSymmetry, or SUSY, which postulates each particle in the Standard Model has a 'Superpartner' at a higher mass. Physicists hope that at the higher energies and greater luminosity of the LHC this year they'll begin to see some of those higher mass particles.

And, of course, there's always the possibility of something totally unexpected. This years run is a little like walking into a vast dark warehouse for the first time with a flashlight. These energies and these collision rates will take our species to a place that hasn't even existed in almost 14 billion years. What will be observed will be nothing more than what nature has always incorporated, perhaps things that other species have observed before, but we will be seeing them for the very first time. Confirming and validating existing theories is great, and necessary scientific work, but everyone greatly prefers seeing data that forces them to tear up the old theories and start over. THAT'S when this gets truly exciting.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Russia in Syria - Learning the Lessons

It was a good deal for both of them
Russian President Vladimir Putin somewhat surprisingly ordered the drawdown of its forces in Syria this week. But it's very important to understand why they would do that, and why they would do it now. When they originally intervened with their own military in September, Assad was in the process of losing the war. He was short on troops, short on weapons, and in a slow, drawn-out retreat west toward the sea. Putin ordered his forces in to relieve the military pressure on the regime, stop the rebel westward advance and push them back out of Latakia Province. Putin doesn't care about Syria - in this he is coldly rational. He wanted to keep a friendly government in Damascus, a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean and a platform from which he could influence middle eastern affairs.

One of the odd characteristics of Western military interventions is that, once we are engaged, we find it very difficult to disengage. In many cases, arguments are made for staying longer and investing more - Afghanistan is the prime example. It seems that Putin doesn't see it that way - you get in, accomplish what you can accomplish and get out again. No long quagmire, no open-ended commitment. It's interesting to remember that this is precisely what the foul and odious GW Bush promised us in 2003. An invasion, a road march to Baghdad, a quick regime change and the American troops would be home in the Summer. Whether that was ever a sincere promise is an open question, but it ultimately doesn't matter. It's not something Americans seem capable of actually doing.

For the Russians, the mission truly is accomplished. The Assad regime is stabilized, and his government is deeply indebted to Moscow for their continued power - indeed, their continued existence. Iran is seen as Syria's lesser ally, and NATO is weakened by the ongoing Turkish war with the Kurds. Russia can claim to be the driving force behind peace talks, and if Syria ends up de facto partitioned into regime, rebel, and Kurdish areas with limited combat it would absolutely be a win for Putin. Eventually, the Russian diplomats force Assad out, replace him with someone of their choosing, and work for some kind of federalized system of governance that cements the status quo.

There are so many valuable lessons to be learned here, the most important of which is that nations need to always act first and foremost in their own interest. Second, military intervention is a very specific tool - it only solves problems that can be solved by breaking things and hurting people, and once that is done the presence of combat troops becomes a costly hindrance to longer term solutions. Third, many of these conflicts have more than two factions involved - no intervention can be effective unless it chooses one side and backs that side only. As soon as there is a lack of clarity over what the intervention is supposed to accomplish, the intervention will never end, and it can never 'succeed'.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Great Unraveling Continues Apace

“If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
--18 U.S.C. § 2384

In the light of the Super Tuesday Primary Election results, we can begin to think in concrete terms about how this election year might ultimately play out. While we still face a number of possible surprises, and anything may yet happen, the overwhelmingly most likely scenario is a Trump vs Clinton general election. I believe, as do other astute observers, that Donald Trump faces a hard cap on the level of electoral support he will enjoy. I would be very surprised if he could count on as many as 60 million votes. As always, the bizarre electoral college process could render this meaningless, but it's hard to imagine Trump garnering more than 170 electoral votes.

And that will be that. In the America at the end of the second decade of the twenty first century, the tribal divide will be complete, the utter inability of the federal government to govern will on rampant display, and a number of states will begin to experiment with de facto secession. Some percentage of those 60 million Trump voters will participate in acts of civil disobedience, takeovers of federal land as in Burns Oregon, and even acts of terrorism. The overriding question at this point is the balance between a comfortable American lifestyle of barbecue and beer and football on the flatscreen on Sunday and a revolutionary's willingness to fight and die for a cause. If enough angry, frightened, deluded white men decide that this is their moment, there is no lack of weapons. It's almost like everything in the last fifty years has been carefully calibrated to bring us to this point. The guns, the diversification of American society, the rise of women in the workforce and in culture, the growth of extreme religious beliefs, the ubiquitous power of digital media - everything has brought us to a 'perfect storm', where the deeply loathed Hillary Clinton takes presidential power from the equally hated Barack Obama and the conclusion is there's no future for these true American patriots.

What if a state - say Alabama - offers sanctuary for domestic terrorists from federal arrest and prosecution? What if their judiciary orders the arrest of federal law enforcement personnel? What if President Clinton activates the Alabama National Guard and the Governor orders them to stand down? Will the administration cut off funds? Enforce economic sanctions? Blockade the state? What will other deep red states do? What will the Republicans in congress do?

The problem is that conservatives, and their political arm, the Republican Party, have always been loathe to legitimize a Democratic President. They hated Bill Clinton, and even tried to impeach him. They hated Obama, and never stopped trying to make him powerless. These extreme political behaviors have hardened over the years as the population coalesced around two specific sets of ideologies, forming tribes that hated, feared and demonized each other. In this toxic witch's brew of anger and distrust it would not take much of a flashpoint to change the future of America in a single spasm of violence.

Of course, this is all speculation. None of it will necessarily happen. But when you consider the pent-up hatred, anger and frustration of not just losing, but losing to CLINTON will engender, it's hard to see the next four years as a peaceful time in America.