26 August 2018

The Guardian: “The war against Pope Francis”

Last year, one cardinal, backed by a few retired colleagues, raised the possibility of a formal declaration of heresy – the wilful rejection of an established doctrine of the church, a sin punishable by excommunication. Last month, 62 disaffected Catholics, including one retired bishop and a former head of the Vatican bank, published an open letter that accused Francis of seven specific counts of heretical teaching.

To accuse a sitting pope of heresy is the nuclear option in Catholic arguments. Doctrine holds that the pope cannot be wrong when he speaks on the central questions of the faith; so if he is wrong, he can’t be pope. On the other hand, if this pope is right, all his predecessors must have been wrong.

The question is particularly poisonous because it is almost entirely theoretical. In practice, in most of the world, divorced and remarried couples are routinely offered communion. Pope Francis is not proposing a revolution, but the bureaucratic recognition of a system that already exists, and might even be essential to the survival of the church. If the rules were literally applied, no one whose marriage had failed could ever have sex again. This is not a practical way to ensure there are future generations of Catholics.

Andrew Brown

Interesting long read on a subject I haven’t closely followed, but seems relevant for the current struggles of the Catholic Church. To me, Catholicism has always seemed more restrictive than other Christian churches on many subjects, including the right of priests to marry and, as mentioned in the article, divorce, which I find especially strange for a faith that considers itself ‘universal’. By contrast, Orthodox priests are not allowed into office if they are not married – to set the proper example for their parish. The Orthodox Church is more lenient when it comes to divorce as well, defining a fairly narrow list of cases when it’s permitted.

20 August 2018

TechCrunch: “6 million users had installed third-party Twitter clients”

Twitter, apparently, was weighing data and facts, not user sentiment and public perception, when it made this decision. But some things have more value than numbers on a spreadsheet. They are part of a company’s history and culture. Of course, Twitter has every right to blow all that up and move on, but that doesn’t make it the right decision.

To be fair, Twitter is not lying when it says this is a small group. The third-party user base is tiny compared with Twitter’s native app user base. During the same time that six million people were downloading third-party apps, the official Twitter app was installed a whopping 560 million times across iOS and Android. That puts the third-party apps’ share of installs at about 1.1 percent of the total.

Sarah Perez

The outrage de jour on Twitter is over their deprecation of a couple of APIs used in third-party clients. The article above goes out of its way to present Twitter’s decision in a bad light, but the numbers reveal the truth: third-party apps are used by a very small percentage of Twitter’s user base – and download numbers are easily inflated by people trying out multiple apps on multiple devices, so the real percentage may be lower still.

Musings on Markets: “The Privatization of Tesla: Stray Tweet or Game Changing News”

As I look at the list of criteria for a good buyout company, I see nothing that would bring Tesla onto my radar as a potential candidate:

  1. It is a growing company and it needs new capital to not only deliver on its growth promise but to survive for the next few years. If you are more optimistic than I am about Tesla, you may disagree with how much cash the company will have to raise to keep going, but I challenge even the most hardened optimist to tell me how the company will be able to increase production to a million cars or more without investing mind blowing amounts in new capacity.
  2. If markets are punishing Tesla by under pricing the company, they are doing so in a very strange manner, giving it a higher market capitalization than much larger, more profitable automobile companies, ignoring large losses and generally tolerant of Elon Musk’s errant behavior. In fact, if the critique of markets is that they are short term and focused on profits, Tesla would be the perfect counter example.
  3. It is true that there was substantial drama and market volatility around the 5000 cars/week production target, and there may be some in the company who have drawn the lesson that since there will be more production targets to come in the future, the company needs to operate out of market scrutiny. That would be the wrong lesson, since almost all of the drama in this episode, from setting the target (5000 cars/week) to the constant tweets about whether the targets would be met, was generated by Elon Musk, not the market. In fact, a cynic would argue that by focusing the market’s attention on this short term target, Tesla has been able to avoid answering much bigger questions about its operations.
Aswath Damodaran

As usual, Professor Aswath Damodaran has a great follow-up on this story. He’s been critical of Tesla in the past – or, better said, of the nonsensical decisions of its CEO Elon Musk –, but never without reasoned arguments, and this time is no exception.

19 August 2018

Peter F. Hamilton – Zeul adormit

in Bucharest, Romania
Peter F. Hamilton - Zeul Adormit

Războiul cu hoardele de posedați nu merge grozav pentru Confederație. Cu antimaterie la dispoziție și sub presiunea constantă a locotenenților săi, Al Capone pornește la atac, cucerind o planetă vecină și hărțuind convoaiele Marinei. Contraofensiva lor este dejucată de informațiile care se scurg inevitabil în lumea de dincolo cu fiecare moarte, de unde toți posedații le pot accesa în schimbul diverselor favoruri. Într-o mișcare disperată, Rubra și Dariat au reușit să mute habitatul Vasilisk într-un alt continuum, lipsind-o pe Kiera de baza ei pentru șoimii-de-iad, în timp ce ea pregătea o asociere cu Capone. Sistemele bogate și industrializate plănuiesc în ascuns să se retragă din Confederație pentru a-și putea concentra forțele armate în propriile colonii. Aliații extratereștrii s-au izolat de mult din conflict, kiinti invocând un principiu intern de non-interferență în ceea ce ei consideră criza de maturizare a oricărei civilizații, tyrathca în schimb furioși și speriați de puterile energistice demonstrate de oameni. Folosindu-se de puterile sale speciale, Quinn Dexter se strecoară prin sistemele defensive ale Pământului pentru a planta semințele distrugerii în căminul umanității, și a-și savura răzbunarea asupra lui Banneth.

Apărătorii rezistă cu dârzenie, dar opțiunile sunt relativ reduse. Laboratoarele Marinei dezvoltă câteva arme capabile de a ține posedații la respect, și una care i-ar putea neutraliza definitiv, dar testarea și aplicarea lor sunt dificile, nu în ultimul rând din considerente morale. Pe Ombey, nou-promovatul General Hiltch lansează o campanie masivă – și extrem de costisitoare – de epurare a peninsulei Monterrey, folosindu-se de soldați produși în masă de edeniști, o asociere privită cu scepticism de proprii săi compatrioți. În sfârșit, o inițiativă cu șanse mici de reușită, dar suficiente pentru niște oameni disperați, faimosul căpitan „Lagrange” Calvert însoțit de Syrinx este trimis într-o călătorie fără precedent în adâncul spațiului controlat de tyrathca, pentru a descoperi lumea lor de origine de mult părăsită și orice indicii s-ar găsi acolo despre coordonatele misteriosului Zeu Adormit.

16 August 2018

Bloomberg: “Elon Musk’s Funding for Tesla wasn’t so Secure”

The thing is that all of Musk’s enemies are imaginary. I mean, they exist, but they don’t matter. There are short sellers who think that Tesla is overvalued, and they short the stock, and they tweet about it. Musk owes them nothing and can ignore their tweets, as virtually every other public-company CEO does. There are Wall Street analysts who ask questions that Musk doesn’t like, but he can ignore their questions, and sometimes, quite rudely, does.

What matters, for a public-company CEO, is what his shareholders think. He is answerable to them. If they care only about short-term results, if they demand immediate profits at the expense of long-term sustainability, if they can be easily swayed to back an activist’s proxy fight or a hostile takeover, then maybe he should go private. All of those are ridiculous things to think about Tesla’s shareholders. The evidence for that is not only their unfailing loyalty to Musk, but also the fact that he wants to go private and bring them along. The shareholders are not the problem with being public, and there are no other problems.

Matt Levine

Just a month ago, Elon Musk was throwing insults on Twitter at a British diver who helped rescue twelve boys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand; this month, his bad Twitter habits may have landed him into a legal investigation over manipulation of the stock market, and forced him to seek funding from a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, thereby giving an oil producer unwanted leverage over his company. Maybe he should just stop tweeting?

Of course, as in Trump’s case, the problem isn’t Twitter, but the man behind the tweets. Elon Musk appears to be caving under pressure in real-time. And with this SEC investigation pending, I fear the fate of Theranos may loom closer in Tesla’s future than anyone dares to believe.

12 August 2018

Peter F. Hamilton – Alchimistul neutronic

in Bucharest, Romania
Peter F. Hamilton - Alchimistul Neutronic

În ciuda blocadei Marinei, colonia Lalonde a căzut complet sub controlul al posedaților, și Confederația se trezește în fața unei crize fără precedent. Oricât de rapid ar sări șoimii‑de‑vid prin găurile lor personale de vierme, veștile nu pot ajunge simultan în toate colțurile spațiului populat de oameni, așa încât carantina generală impusă de Marină sosește prea târziu pentru a împiedica răspândirea flagelului. Posedații fugiseră deja la bordul navelor plecate de pe Lalonde înainte de încercuirea planetei.

Un grup de doar trei posedați aterizează pe Ombey, în Regatul Kulu, reușind să preia controlul întregii peninsule Mortonridge în ciuda măsurilor drastice adoptate la sfatul lui Ralph Hiltch. Norfolk, cu societatea ei deliberat agrară, nu are nici o șansă; posedații o copleșesc repede, devenind următoarea planetă scoasă din univers. Pe Noua Californie, un cuib îl aduce din morți pe Al Capone, care își regăsește rapid flerul criminal și preia întreaga planetă în Organizația lui de stil mafiot. În habitatul Vasilisk, o altă celulă încearcă să preia controlul de la personalitatea Rubra, folosindu‑se de ura urmașului său, Dariat. Mai mult, profitând de criza care zguduie Confederația, dr. Alkad Mzu evadează din arestul ei lung de trei decenii în Seninătate, pentru a‑și finaliza planurile de răzbunare împotriva celor care i‑au anihilat planeta natală.

După cum am scris mai demult, nu am fost impresionat în mod special de prima parte a acestei trilogii masive. În mod surprinzător însă, al doilea roman mi‑a plăcut ceva mai mult, deși nu cred că i‑aș da o notă mai mare pe ansamblu. Odată ce autorul a stabilit cadrul general al evenimentelor în primul roman, al doilea are acțiune ceva mai multă și considerabil mai variată. Fiecare dintre celulele izolate de posedați își desfășoară propriile strategii și tactici, în funcție de personalitatea liderului. Pentru majoritatea, scopul final este asimilarea populației existente, asigurând astfel o masă critică pentru a se izola de univers. Asta obligă de exemplu grupul de pe Vasilisk, care nu are suficientă populație pentru a se susține la nesfârșit, să înceapă o campanie înșelătoare de propagandă, invitând nemulțumiții din toate colțurile Confederației pe Vasilisk cu promisiunea libertății și a unei vieți mai bune. Al Capone în schimb are alte planuri pentru noul său regat, și anume să se păstreze la conducere. Pentru asta se străduiește să păstreze un echilibru precar între posedați și normali și o societate relativ funcțională, căci odată relocați în alt univers nimeni n‑ar avea nevoie de ordinele lui.

11 August 2018

The Atlantic: “How America lost Its Mind”

A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police’, the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, Hey, that’s not a word! Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart… Face it, folks, we are a divided nation… divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart… Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.

Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes. For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.

Kurt Andersen

Exceptional account of the gradual, yet inexorable, slide of American society into the rejection of science and reason, and the embrace of fantasy and ‘personal truth’.

I have my own theory regarding this, possibly too simplistic to explain everything. It has to do with the protestant roots of American culture: back in Europe, Protestantism was born as a counter-movement to the centralized Truth imposed by the Catholic Church. After coming to the New World, the tradition of Protestantism has taken another form: as rationalism replaced of Christian Doctrine as the central tenet of society, so too the protestant spirit has turned to fighting… science and objective truth! Just as many before have rejected the interpretation of the Bible through priests and theologians, now Americans are rejecting the advice of experts and demand the right to their own (often naïve) interpretation of the world around them.

05 August 2018

ESO: “First Successful Test of Einstein’s General Relativity Near Supermassive Black Hole”

The team compared the position and velocity measurements from GRAVITY and SINFONI respectively, along with previous observations of S2 using other instruments, with the predictions of Newtonian gravity, general relativity and other theories of gravity. The new results are inconsistent with Newtonian predictions and in excellent agreement with the predictions of general relativity.

The new measurements clearly reveal an effect called gravitational redshift. Light from the star is stretched to longer wavelengths by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole. And the change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with that predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This is the first time that this deviation from the predictions of the simpler Newtonian theory of gravity has been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole.

eso1825 — Science Release

It’s remarkable how well Einstein’s theory of general relativity has withstood every test and experiment it has been subjected to for the past century. But I find it somewhat odd that none of the articles I’ve read about this research mention how predictions from alternative theories of gravity fit with these measurements. No serious physicist would expect Newtonian gravity to pass this test, but what about string theory, MOND or loop quantum gravity? It makes me think that none of these theories can match the predictive success of general relativity, let alone improve upon it. And that suggests physics is very far from surpassing Einstein and unlocking the elusive final unification of forces.