## Archive for the 'Rants' Category

### Do You Have My Back?

This tweet by @johnroderick is funny but also something I find to be antagonistic, especially when taken in the context of several tweets along the same lines. (Could be it’s the wrong time of day, I need food, or my caffeine levels are wrong, or just that the snark is strong in this one, but…)

Look, nerds, I appreciate you like Star Wars and everything, but WE STILL DON’T KNOW WHAT GRAVITY IS! #GoBackToDoingScience

Or maybe it’s really just the time of the season, what with all of the politics in the air, and most of it smelling rather foul to me, because of the anti-science taint to it. Science just doesn’t seem to sit well with those on the far right, but this rejection of science is without much thought or true conviction. If one were to really distrust science, one would not be using GPS, which relies on relativity. Or go get a flu shot, as the recurring danger from the flu is a product of evolution. Or get any prescription medications and its oh-so-sciency double-blind testing. Or take advantage a whole host of other improvements that science has afforded us. (The fact that @johnroderick is interested in the nature of gravity probably mean he’s not in that group, but still … Sending us nerds of to do science for him?)

So this whole “get back to doing science” kind of hits me where I live. I’ve seen budgetary fallout from recent events, and I know I’m not alone in that regard. But I also know that a tweet is not a substitute for actual action or activism. I’m a scientist. So I want to know: Do you have my back?

Are you going to fund me? That is, do you recognize the value of research so that you won’t complain that some fraction of a penny from your tax dollar goes to funding science? And that scientists — not politicians, nor religious leaders, nor fat, lying and/or bald pundits, nor even the general public — decide what constitutes good science? You won’t sulk if the results aren’t what you or your ideology want them to be? You won’t pout when the bulk of basic research doesn’t pan out, because investigating the unknown means you — by definition — don’t know what you will find?

If you really want nerds to get back to doing science, provide us with the atmosphere for doing science. Throw those bums who make it unduly difficult to do science out of office. The ones who raise decidedly non-scientific (or unscientific) objections to science. Who wouldn’t know science if it bit them on the ass and said, “I’m science!” The ones in the pocket of anti-science industries. The ones that muffle scientists whose results are inconvenient. Throw them out.

If you want us nerds to do science, you have to let us do science. Otherwise, go do it yourself.

### Aftermath

Really it’s afterquake; I’m not sure how much math will be here. But anyway, a few more comments on what happened, just because.

An event such as this allows for an evaluation of systems and protocols that you have in place. You can do simulations, but quite often you aren’t willing to invite any real risk in an exercise — the stress on the system isn’t real. So sure, you can time how long it takes for a response to happen in a test or know that a backup system is present, but under real conditions things fall apart quickly. You have different traffic patterns because of fallen trees and traffic lights that are out of commission. That backup system didn’t engage because of an overlooked problem, and you never actually tried it out because you didn’t want any downtime. At best you can find things that worked but would work even better or be useful in that situation, but never noticed because you weren’t in that situation. Hey, you know what? We need an emergency light here! Or, this system status data would really be useful to have in real-time. So there are flaws and potential improvements that only come to light under actual stress.

It took me more than an hour to get home, when it usually takes me less than 30 minutes. The district DOT people closed off Rock Creek Parkway to southbound traffic, which they normally do at 3:45 PM, but they did it at 2:30 and forced a bunch of Virginia-bound drivers into the downtown area to find another bridge. Bad call, IMO. Surprises are bad — I think you want to keep routines as constant as possible. Disruptions to routine usually makes things worse. Crossing the Potomac requires a bridge or tunnel, and shutting off a main route to one of them is one reason traffic was so heavy. There are more options for getting into Maryland.

I’m not at liberty to discuss the operations response at work, but I’ll put it this way: I’m sure the press would not have been shy about pointing out problems had they arisen. If I had not been caught up in the response, I probably would have appreciated this more in real-time: I work with a bunch of professionals. People who do what they need to do, without being told — checking on systems, making sure a backup has kicked in if there’s a problem with the primary, and then diagnosing what that problem is when they find one. And I cannot fathom why there are those in elected positions who think it’s worthwhile to put pressure on these people, essentially inviting them to leave government service, by under-compensating them so that they would have to be replaced by less capable people. This attitude filters down either by diffusion or by direct pressure. If you continue along that path you’ll be left with people who are senior enough that staying is still worthwhile since they are heavily vested in the retirement program and marginally competent junior people who can’t get better jobs in the private sector. When the senior people retire, the system will crumble. Maybe that’s what people are looking for, as an excuse to privatize or disband more of government, but I think it’s a bad idea.

It became apparent that there are government people working in fairly critical positions whose primary means of communication is a cell phone. The cell phone system froze for a period of time after the quake, isolating these people. This is where the argument about how “the market” will provide a solution just fails. Even with whatever FCC requirements exist, the system collapsed. It wasn’t a matter of one carrier reaching saturation, to be fixed by switching providers. What if this had been more serious? Would the rationale that lives were lost because the market does not value the extra capacity really hold up? Government regulations are an absolute requirement in cases where the players cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. The mantra that less regulation is always better is sheer idiocy. We already have too many wingnuts thinking that e.g. the EPA should be emasculated. As a citizen I don’t see the upside of more air, water and land pollution. Ultimately it’s cheaper to prevent it than clean it up. We don’t need fewer people inspecting our food or maintaining our roads. We don’t need softer building codes.

One more thing, about the mockery from the west-coasters: payback is a bitch. Yes, many people overreacted, because they are not used to earthquakes, and you stay calm because you go through it. But because they are common, you build for them. There are a lot of old buildings — i.e. structurally questionable — in DC. Not so much in LA, or especially San Francisco, because all of the really old buildings burned down, fell over and then sank into the swamp during some previous earthquake. How much of SF construction dates back before 1906? A 5.9 earthquake here is not to be compared to a 5.9 there. Here, it’s the biggest earthquake we’ve had in more than 100 years. You want a real comparison? What would be the LA reaction to a hard freeze? The city has only seen a temperature as low as 29ºF in the last 80 years — that’s the record low. Do you think maybe you’d scurry about in a bit of a panic if that were to happen again, worrying about bursting pipes and dead plants, because you aren’t built for that sort of thing? DC may not handle snow very well (not many really big cities do), but we get freezing weather quite a bit. It’s not a problem. I’ll keep a snarkball in the freezer, ready to throw at you, in case this ever happens.

### Obama’s Goodfellas Moment

(Sorry, foul-mouthed politics spleen-vent time. No physics here)

There’s a scene in Goodfellas where Sonny, the sniveling restaurant owner, partners up with Paul Cicero, the mob boss, to give him leverage to deal with Tommy, one of Paulie’s underlings. Sonny thinks his troubles are over. Henry, in a voiceover, explains how this is really an asymmetric arrangement:

Now the guy’s got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with the bill? He can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy’s gotta come up with Paulie’s money every week, no matter what. Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me.

So obviously Obama is Sonny here, having negotiated his way into a bad deal, right? No. What I hope for — what I want — is that Obama is Paulie. For some time the GOP has been maintaining that what’s been standing in between us and prosperity are low taxes for people with large incomes and the removal of “uncertainty” from the business world: Don’t raise taxes on the job creators! Give us a visit from the confidence fairy! Well, the deals have been made. Obama can now ask, “Where are my jobs?”

S&P downgrades us? Fuck you, pay me.

Stock market tanks? Fuck you, pay me.

Repubs try any kind of distraction? Fuck you, pay me.

Other excuses? Fuck you, pay me.

That’s what I want. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. Anyone paying attention to recent events will know that the democrats absolutely suck ass at controlling the message and explaining what they’re doing and intend to do. Nobody believes them anyway. There is little history to indicate that anyone is going to grow a spine and start calling the republicans out for boning 98% of us.

Several people have done a careful analysis of the debt deal and shown it’s not as horrible as the media have reported it. That Hillary would not have been treated any better and because the tea party was willing to trash the economy even worse. That Obama got about the best deal he could have because he was the only adult in the room. There’s faint hope that this is some rope-a-dope and he’ll eventually come out swinging. None of that matters. Politics is perception, and as long as the message is that Obama caved and the dems lost, that what people will come to know. The media are complicit, because they will not challenge lies and spin from the right and force people to deal in facts. The dems have to control the message, loudly and forcefully, and they aren’t doing it.

If there’s a strategy being employed, I don’t see it. Cooperating when your opponent continually stabs you in the back is a losing proposition from basic game theory. If the democrats are going to rely on voters knowing that the republicans are the worse alternative, then they have already forgotten the lesson of 2010: there is an option to not voting republican, and that is to stay home. It’s a horrible option, but it’s what happens when the leaders don’t step up and lead. The left didn’t do nearly enough to energize the voters that elected them in 2008; Obama had accomplishments before the midterm, but the democrats were too meek in proclaiming them. By not controlling the message, voters were allowed to focus on what didn’t happen, got disheartened and too many switched or stayed home on election day.

That can’t be allowed to happen again. The republicans have already shown us what their plans are for the country, and it’s ugly. Obama needs to win office again, and because congress has been an obstacle, we need a better one. To get there, this wishy-washy nonsense has got to stop. The republicans aren’t interested in cooperation, so there’s no point in pretending any longer. Denounce the people who are causing the difficulties and tell us how you are going to fix the problems. Cite chapter and verse of how the right has been an obstacle instead of thanking them for superficial cooperation. How they have not proposed any jobs legislation. How their political feet-dragging has encumbered us all. If you have to, fire your speechwriters. The right has been very good at scapegoating and laying blame for everything. They’ve been too successful at it — loudly pretending to hate socialism but loving government subsidies and ending regulation that socializes the cost of clean air and water, pretending to hate the elite while enabling the rich and powerful to have their way with the rest of us. It’s time to pound on the table and say enough is enough.

### “Hi, I’m Randall, and I’m a MAN.”

If you have yet to run across posts on elevatorgate/rebeccapocalypse (over 9,000 Google hits on the former term) then you probably don’t read many science/skeptic blogs. If you have and are sick of it, don’t worry, because I’m not going to add my quanta of coinage. I have come to loathe participating in internet discussions of this ilk — despite the community supposedly being held among the science/skeptic minded, they have a tendency to stray from rationality and civility far too quickly and too much in magnitude for my taste. In many cases, if you don’t present the right answer™ as determined by the owner of the dais, you are quickly dogpiled into oblivion, and that can extend to any kind of criticism. Point out someone has misquoted Evil Protagonist (or note that EP was actually correct in some statement) and all of the sudden you are a staunch supporter of Evil Protagonist in the eyes of some (many?) participants.

However, in case you want more of the same or are otherwise interested in a somewhat related topic, here is a post by xkcd’s Randall Monroe on Google+’s insistence on publicly disclosing your gender, which does not seem to have descended into the usual quagmire, though it does include the predictable “it doesn’t bother me so it shouldn’t bother anybody” responses.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of reasons Google+ would want to ask about your gender. But there’s no good reason to pointedly make it the only thing in your profile that can’t be private—and many reasons not to, starting with basic courtesy. It may be a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s worth getting right.

### Please Take a Math Class

Americans say ‘no’ to electrics despite high gas prices

Nearly six of 10 Americans — 57% — say they won’t buy an all-electric car no matter the price of gas, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

That’s a stiff headwind just as automakers are developing electrics to help meet tighter federal rules that could require their fleets to average as high as 62 miles per gallon in 2025. And President Obama has set a goal of a million electric vehicles in use in the U.S. by 2015.

I’m assuming that journalism school covered metaphorical statements and the author used “stiff headwind” as he meant to.

That statistic presumably means ~40% are open to the idea. The US adult population is more than 200 million people, so in what world is a group of 80 million potential electric car drivers less than the 1 million needed to reach that goal, thus representing that stiff headwind?

Way down at the end, it is noted that

Nissan interprets the poll numbers as a good sign, pointing out that “as many as 40% are considering driving electric vehicles.”

While math is the obvious problem here, I don’t think it’s the larger issue, which is that of spin. The author/headline writer wanted to cast the story in a negative light and so they leveraged the existence of a slim-margin majority to make a statement. People resisting change really isn’t news. I wonder if they had done a poll around 1900 about the enthusiasm for driving an automobile, what kind of results they would have gotten.

### The Anti-Tyson

Is speculation in multiverses as immoral as speculation in subprime mortgages?

Perhaps Anti-Tyson is a little harsh, but soon after I see a great discussion by Neil deGrasse Tyson on science being driven by passion and curiosity, I read some blather from someone who’s basically pissed off that a physicist wrote something other than a physics textbook. Speculating on the metaphysical implications of science isn’t my particular cup of tea, but it’s not up to me to tell others that they can’t engage in it — as long as they don’t think they’re doing science. One never knows what speculation might spark an actual scientific advance, or when one might recognize that there is an actual falsifiable scientific principle embedded in one of those thoughts. (Leo Szilard is said to have come up with the idea of the fission chain reaction by seeing a traffic light change. Who the hell knows where inspiration comes from?)

I think it’s worth noting that John Horgan is the author of The End of Science, which I believe is the book (and concept) that Tyson was blasting in the interview as being shortsighted.

Is theorizing about parallel universes as immoral as betting on derivatives based on subprime mortgages? I wouldn’t go that far. Nor do I think all scientists should be seeking cures for cancer, more efficient solar cells or other potential boons to humanity. But scientists should, at the very least, investigate the world in which we live rather than worlds that exist—as far as we will ever know—only in their imaginations.

Now, I haven’t read the book, and I can’t say for sure how it is presented. If it’s being misrepresented as actual physics, then Greene is in error. But that doesn’t seem to be the complaint. Horgan knows its speculation, because he identifies it as such. His objection appears to be that a physicist was doing something that’s not physics! How dare he do that! If a physicist wants to write a book about metaphysics, or poetry, or whatever, who the hell is John Horgan to tell him/her otherwise, or to say what we do with our (free) time?

### Q & A

I mention from time to time that this blog is hosted by Science Forums (dot net), which is a discussion board for science, mainly, and because I don’t teach anymore, I spend a lot of my time answering physics questions or discussing/debunking topics that are posted (or moved) to our “Speculations” forum, where threads on “alternative” science live. The kinds of threads can generally be divided into two categories: those that ask a question, and those that try and tell you the answer. The latter is pretty exclusively the domain of the crackpot; they have “found” the answer to some corner of science, and want to tell the world. They are predictable, even to the point of being able to play bingo with the tenor of their responses. The path they take depends on what flavor of crackpot they happen to be. (For example, to me a crank is the subset of the crackpot species who gets angry at being contradicted. They will yell at you when you tell them they are wrong, and then complain about being persecuted. Just like Galileo was.)

The former — the askers — do share a few characteristics of the crackpot, though, namely a lack of familiarity with the process of science, because most of the people that originate threads fall somewhere on the spectrum of being amateurs or nonscientists. This makes the process is very Gumpian — when a question is posted, you don’t know what you’re gonna get in terms of physics background, and more importantly, you don’t know what you have in terms of scientific literacy (facts, concepts and/or science process). This makes for some interesting dynamics. As I recently observed, the act of correcting someone’s misconception is often considered rude in a social setting (or so I’m told. I’m a geek and have no social skills) but it’s de rigueur as science. There’s no shame attached to blurting out a wrong idea and having it shot down; it’s what we’re trained to do — both the blurting and the shooting. Let as many smart people as you can try and find a flaw, see if you can fix any problems, and what survives is probably worthwhile. But an outsider may not have developed a thick enough skin to be comfortable with this.

Another issue that arises is the lack of appreciation of the history of science, or the appearance of science as dogma. The person who wonders why their wonderful idea for perpetual motion won’t work may not be satisfied with “it violates the first and/or second law of thermodynamics.” If one does not have an awareness of the history and the process, one might not appreciate the enormous weight of the statement. There is no dogma behind the laws, but unless you’ve sat through a semester of thermodynamics, you might not see this. Worse than this, there are sites on the intertubes that propose and support a panoply of wacky —and demonstrably wrong — concepts, and you have people who think that finding a site that agrees with them makes them right. There’s no a priori reason to accept one source over another when you don’t understand the concept. Ignoring Sturgeon’s Law — that 90% of everything is crud — is dangerous when drinking from the internet.

A third issue is the problem of jumping into the deep end, or biting off more than you can chew, or some other metaphor for not having properly learned the basics. A lay person might read about quantum entanglement and want to learn more about it, but as much as one would wish to study it, at the end of the day it’s advanced quantum mechanics. Analogies can only go so far, and quite often the curious one will try and construct a model of what’s going on, and be hampered by the lack of a physics foundation. The model almost instantly fails because some common misconceptions persist, which might have been driven out in a semester or two of classroom instruction, and science discussion boards, like blogs, aren’t the best method of that kind of information transfer — the kind of high-volume, strongly-interacting information transfer that the classroom tends to be (or to which it aspires). It’s like someone showing up one day to some upper-level class without having taken the prerequisite course; not understanding the basics (or the math) is a huge impediment. Sadly, another trait shared by the eager amateur and the crackpot is often a disdain for math.

But one thing I must note is where the amateur differs from the crackpot: while the amateur is simply unaware of the volume of evidence that is behind a brief debunking of their toy model or a seemingly dogmatic statement, the crackpot, by positing that he knows “the truth,” is making a de facto assertion that this evidence either doesn’t exist or is all wrong. That’s a huge difference.

So it’s tough to figure out the right response to questions and often the difficulty has little to do with the physics, but I do it because I enjoy it. (Blogging is somewhat different, in that SFN is directed toward interaction, while a blog is somewhat more “preachy,” in the sense that a response is not integral to the process.) The payoff is that sometimes you get asked really good questions, and you are working with people who really want an answer; most of them work at developing an understanding even when the topic is over their head (though occasionally you do uncover the attitude of “this should be easy” and blame you when they don’t instantly understand the intimate details of relativity). The questions that come from those not constrained by what’s been taught in a classroom give me the occasional idea for a post as well.

### Not Clear on the Concept

Got this from the hotel at which I recently stayed:

By completing this survey, you may be contacted by the hotel to help improve the quality of service provided. We sincerely thank you for sharing your opinions as we continue to do our best to make each stay enjoyable.

So, so you send me spam and if I help you out, my reward is that you’re going to bug me more? Could be worse, though. They could be telling me it’ll take 5 freaking business days to remove me from their email list.

### Let the Warm Fuzzies Begin

Money for Scientific Research May Be Scarce With a Republican-Led House

In the Republican platform, Pledge to America, the party vows to cut discretionary nonmilitary spending to 2008 levels. Under that plan, research and development at nonmilitary agencies — including those that sponsor science and health research — would fall 12.3 percent, to $57.8 billion, from the Mr. Obama’s request of$65.9 billion for fiscal year 2011.

’cause what has science ever done for us? (You know, if you squint, the elephant looks like an insane clown posse mask)

This, on top of the continuing resolution that is cramping my style at work. There are only a few things that congress has to do each year, and one of them is pass the budget. Don’t let ‘em leave Washington until it gets done. Wanna go on vacation? No. Wanna campaign? No. Do your effing job first.

(at the request of J)

edit to add, since it’s sort of related: Where Drugs Come From: The Numbers

You cut government research dollars and you reduce university research, which is an important source of new drug treatments, especially novel ones.

### Tunnels and Bridges and Taxes, Oh My!

Krugman’s latest op-ed, The End of the Tunnel, reminds me a lot of a recent series of slacktivist posts, which were part of a continuing series on infrastructure: A bank run in reverse, Water, Sewers and storm drains, Offshore wind farms, The Grid, Bridges (come to think of it, I’ve never seen Krugman talk while Fred Clark is drinking a glass of water)

The American Society of Civil Engineers does a periodic assessment of the state of the infrastructure, and their 2009 report card isn’t pretty. They estimated that it would take 2.2 Trillion dollars over the following five years in order to bring our infrastructure up to “acceptable” levels (e.g. only 15% of our bridges being classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete). The problem is our scheduled spending was/is less than $1 Trillion. Maintenance isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t tend to get you elected. Consequently, it’s been relatively safe, politically, to ignore it, as it often is in many other situations. But, as Krugman points out and is echoed in these other links, not spending money on infrastructure costs us in other ways, but that spending is in the form of taxes, and taxes are perceived as evil. Nobody in the government seem to be making the case that the money is going to be spent anyway, in the form of lost time and billions of gallons of gas wasted while we’re stuck in traffic, or in the other ways shoddy infrastructure will impede us. We’ve been sold on the idea that taxes are bad, and that we can just cut them, and everything will magically take care of itself. And yet there’s still a popular notion that in the US we’re taxed too much, even though our income tax rates are at historical lows and are lower than most developed countries (and we lack a national VAT or sales tax, as well). The easily hidden underspending on infrastructure amplifies this illusion, since we don’t realize that our deficits would be even worse if we were properly funding our roads, bridges, dams, etc., and that we’re going to have to fix the problem sooner or later. Just that later will cost us more, since replacement tends to be more expensive, due to costs incurred while the item in question is broken and can’t be used. NPR recently showed a receipt for a median US filer’s taxes. Of$5400 in federal and fica taxes, $64 goes to federal highways. Wow. A whole buck and a quarter a week. It’s hard to think that I’m being overcharged (even though I make more and pay more than this) when it’s put in these terms. I also look at the$1k paid into social security; one can go to the benefits calculator and see that for someone who works for 45 years and retired at 65 making that amount today (and made less and paid in less in years past) would draw of order \$1k a month. IOW, in less than 4 years, they will have drawn more than they paid in. We simply aren’t paying for what we’re getting, but we’ve been sold the illusion that we’re not getting much for what we’re spending.

There’s also a notion that we can’t tax businesses, either. The idea that if they had more cash they’d expand and hire people has been neatly disproved in this recent economic crisis. And yet this unpaid-for, crumbling infrastructure is used by corporations to move goods around, and to allow customers to go shopping, but nobody wants to pay for it. In good old-fashioned capitalism the private sector would take care of this, but we went down the path of letting the government do it. Gosh, that sounds like … socialism. Since that’s bad, maybe we should send them a bill for services rendered, since that’s how capitalism works, and show them an EULA that tells them that by using the roads they agreed to pay, since that’s how they tend to do business these days.

We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.

### Mailing It In

I ordered something online, and expected it to be delivered at the end of this past week. I thought that it was going to ship via the postal service, but then got a tracking number from FedEx. Here’s why.

That’s right. (Pardon my use of the vernacular, but) FedEx got the package and then fucking mailed it. Apparently this is a new “service” called SmartPost, and if you Google on that term, you will find complaints all over the place. The skinny is that the SmartPost service waits until they have a critical mass of deliveries, and then they turn them over to the Post office, so “at the Postal Facility” might not be the truth. If it is, then they’ve been hanging on to my package for 4 days, not the 1 or 2 advertised. And based on the complaints I’ve read, if it actually gets delivered on Tuesday, I will be getting off easy. There are horror stories of deliveries taking weeks and packages just disappearing.

### Politics and the Star Trek Effect

There are a couple of episodes of Star Trek that I can recall having some fundamental physics failures, which would lead one to believe that in the Star Trek universe, one cannot do an integral over time. The episodes that come to mind (and it’s been a while, so I may have some details wrong) are The Paradise Syndrome from ToS, and Déjà Q fom TNG. In both episodes, the Enterprise needs to transfer some energy and momentum to an object, and in each episode, they go for the Big Effort™ and lose.

In The Paradise Syndrome, Spock tries to deflect a large asteroid and fails to budge it, so he goes for broke and zaps it so hard he burns out a whole bunch of circuitry — the sci-fi equivalent of overexerting one’s self and pulling a muscle — and can subsequently only match the speed of the asteroid. It’s after this that we learn that the asteroid is two months away from the planet; a force exerted continuously for two months would transfer half a million times more momentum than their ten-second attempt, so they could have even tried a smaller force for that duration and deflected the asteroid. But that makes for boring TV. (And they could have increased their speed my throwing junk out of the rear shuttle bay, with bonus points if the projectile hit the asteroid, since the collision would slow it down. This would have been slightly more exciting than two months of pushing, but still not very much excitement) Similarly, the attempts to restore a moon’s orbit is made in fits and starts in Déjà Q, though in the plot there is at least an excuse for interruptions to their attempts, from some attacking Calamarains, but that’s after they gave up a few times. Forces cause accelerations and change momentum of an object. With the exception of the static frictional force on a surface, these don’t turn on and off only when a threshold is reached*.

$p = \int F dt$

For a constant force this is just p = Ft. Linear in force, but also linear in time.

What’s the connection to politics? The US government seems to approach solutions to problems like the Star Trek folks do. Wait until the problem is a crisis and then try and exert a huge force to correct it, when a much gentler push would have sufficed if you had simply started earlier. We have been seeing this with Social Security for decades now — we know the system is going to go broke, and yet nothing is being done to fix it. Had we started when I first started paying into the system, the adjustments could have been relatively small. But like the transfer of momentum, the longer we wait, the force needed to achieve the desired result gets larger. The occasional nudge does only a little; it needs to be sustained.

Similarly for global warming. Our government hems and haws and does very little to actually address the problem. Even those politicians who are still doubtful (or whose palms are being greased so that they act doubtful) should be able to recognize that there is value in weaning our country from foreign energy sources, and that the kind of technology adoption involved takes decades to realize.

Of course, getting them to do something would be asking them to do their job, and we can’t have that, can we? Star Trek ignored physics because slow-and-steady makes for little drama, and TV, like sex, is all about having a climactic ending. Our elected officials have no such excuse. They are distracted by the manufactured controversy du jour, and are more concerned with not upsetting their benefactors and voter base than doing the business that’s in the best long-term interest of the country.

*which really isn’t how the frictional force behaves, but it’s a reasonable first-order approximation for its highly nonlinear behavior