Sunday, November 16, 2008


Troubles for Republicans

Following the election of November 4, Republicans have been thinking out loud - well, at least in print - about the future of the Republican Party. Some of the Party theorists, like Richard Viguerie, argue that the Republicans lost the recent election because they didn't live up to their beliefs while in office. These beliefs include small government and low taxes, fiscal discipline, and respect for and encouragement of individual initiative and responsibility. They argue that while George Bush gave lip service to these ideals he contrarily increased the size of government and embraced perpetual borrowing to pay for the bloated government.

Other thinkers, including several Republican governors, realize that the national Republican Party's problem is at least partly due to the incompetence of the Bush administration. Katrina comes to mind. The Party will have to rebuild its reputation as a competent governing group if it is to regain the trust of enough American voters to regain some of the power it had just a few years ago.

My diagnosis, that of a life-long Democrat, is that the basic message of the Republican Party is out of date. I remember hearing a local Republican business man in my home town tell me about 75 years ago that "government should leave business alone." Other Republicans have said quite often that "government spends too much money." That was one of President Gerald Ford's favorite sayings.

One serious problem for the Republicans is that many middle-class professional and retired persons, like myself, who used to be loyal members of the Party have left it. Many well-to-do persons see the Republican policy of reducing taxes on the rich as simply a hypocritical gimmick to reward some of their election campaign funders. Almost nobody takes seriously the argument that rich folk must be allowed to keep a lot of their money so that they will have money to invest in new enterprises to provide employment, etc., etc., etc., and that taxing them will discourage them from such investment.

As a counter example, consider Microsoft. This was a firm started with a very small investment. All Bill Gates needed was a personal computer with enough capacity to write and store code. His most important investment was to buy an operating system from another engineer who had named it "Quick and Dirty Operating System" or QDOS. Gates changed the name to "Disk Operating System" or DOS. He then had a product that manufacturers of personal computers needed to help sell their machines to a public that knew nothing about machine language programming.

A better counter example is the state of the economy during the Clinton administration. Clinton increased taxes to put the federal government on a pay as you go basis. These "high" tax rates certainly did not stifle the growth in business during the Clinton years. The "low" tax rates of the Bush years don't seem to have had the effect of stimulating the economy. Recent experience does not provide an proof of the Republican theory that letting the Rich keep more of their money will stimulate the economy. The short word is "trickle-down economics." The Republicans promoted it when I was a child and they still promote it today. It's an idea that they should discard.

A huge problem for the Republican Party is that it has allowed a rather small but very dedicated group of Conservative Fundamentalist Christians to dictate many of the policies of the Party and of any Republican administration. Party leaders, such as Nixon and Reagan, cultivated this particular bloc and made them the core constituency of the Party. The class of professional people has tended to leave the Party as a result. The Party is coming apart. What it needs is a new leader who can put together another coalition that will hold together.

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Friday, November 14, 2008


Why Term Limits?

I don't like term limits. That is, I don't like the absolute term limits that California and many other States have adopted. I would be willing to settle for a kind of limit that specifies that a person may not be reelected to a position that he has held for X consecutive terms. Then, after serving X terms, an official would relinquish the position for one election cycle (or more, as he chooses).

Term limits came to California in the late '80's or early 90's. I don't remember the year that the voters enacted them. I know that much of the enthusiam at the time for term limits was that it seemed to be the only way to get rid of Willie Brown, the very powerful Speaker of the Assembly. It was clear that his constituents were never going to vote him out of office. It was also clear that as long as he was a member of the Assembly, he would retain the position of Speaker - that is, as long as the Democrats were the majority party.

The campaign to {oust Willie} establish term limits in California was formed by an alliance of two groups. One group was made up of some idealistic citizens who thought that professional politicians were a bad lot and something had to be done to prevent individuals from making a career of holding elective office. One of their slogans was "let the office holder come back home and live under the laws that he or she has enacted." Another group was made up of realistic citizens who chafed at Speaker Brown and wanted to get rid of him.

At least, that's my opinion.

The success of term limits all over the country is a tribute to the ability of the two groups, the idealists and the realists, to work together even though they differed on many of their goals. The people who wanted to get rid of Speaker Brown were perfectly happy with the concept of professional politician. They just wanted a different Speaker.

The idealists must by now recognize that their reform has not gotten rid of professional politicians. Here in California the pros simply play musical chairs. You get ahead in politics by serving your six years in the Assembly, followed by eight years in the Senate. After that you can run for any of the state-wide offices, such as Attorney General, Treasurer, Controller, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Superintendant of Public Instruction, Insurance Commissioner, and so on.

I think it is time to take a look at the current term limits restrictions and make some realistic modifications. One suggestion is to extend X, the number of terms. My approach is to stipulate X consecutive terms, followed by either sitting out for one election cycle, or running for a different office and later returning to the original office for another X terms.

What do you think?

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Monday, November 10, 2008


Musing about Radioactive Decay, Probability, etc.

The rate of decay of a radioactive substance follows an exponential law:

Decay rate at time t = C Exp(-t/T)

where C is the initial decay rate (at time t = 0) and T is the mean lifetime of the substance. Exp is the exponential function.

What I've just written is something that is very well-known. What I muse about is this: how does an individual atom know when its time to decay has arrived? Radioactive materials such as uranium, thorium, and potassium are created in stars, particularly when they explode. Every radioactive atom has a moment in time when it decays. The probability that an atom will decay during a time interval t is Exp(-t/T). If t is very much less than T, the atom has little probability of decaying. However, some atoms decay almost immediately after they are formed. Others decay a bit later. Some stay as formed for billions of years before they decay.

You can see where I'm going. I imagine that the time of death of each atom is specified in some manner at the moment it is formed in the stellar explosion. The formation process is, in my imagination, analogous to an automobile factory in which seemingly identical automobiles are made in large numbers. These automobiles have a design flaw that leads them to break down at some time after manufacture. In use, the automobiles fail according to an exponential law.

What is the design flaw in an atom of uranium that leads to its eventual demise?

I should know better than to waste my time musing on such questions. When I studied quantum mechanics I was taught that one can not know enough about the workings of an atom or a nucleus to predict when it will decay. In order to learn such information would require one to destroy it. The mathematics we use to describe such processes, such as the simple law of radioactive decay, simply provide the probability of a certain event, or the frequency of such events in a large population. The flaw, if there is one, that causes one uranium atom to decay after one hour, another to decay after a day, and another to decay after five billion years can not be known to us.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Probability, Radioactive Decay, and Metaphysics

As a physics student I learned a long time ago the simple probability and mathematics of radioactive decay. If one has a large number N of radioactive atoms (nuclides) of half-life T, then during the first time interval T one-half of the atoms will decay. During the next interval T, half of those left will decay. And so on and on. The number N is so large that it is impractical to conduct an experiment to determine what happens when N gets to be as small as, say 10. Do exactly 5 of those 10 then decay during T seconds? During the next T seconds is the number that decay 2 1/2? Perhaps 2 or 3? And so on. Eventually there is only one left. Does it then decay during the next T seconds? If we had started with a larger number N it seems that the group of atoms would have lived longer. The last atom to decay would be older than the last atom from the first batch N.

These conjectures are not supported by the simple probability theory of radioactive decay. In fact, probability theory doesn't seem to apply unless the number N is very, very large. What theory or mathematical model applies to the case of a small number of radioactive atoms? Is it possible that the mere presence of other unstable atoms (nuclei) has an effect on the probability that a given atom (nucleus) will decay? If so, would the decay rate be different if the material is in the form of a gas, with a large distance between atoms, from what it is if the material is in compact, solid form. Would crystal structure have an effect?

As far as I know, no one has ever measured the effect, if there is one, of material density on the rate of radioactive decay. Also, I don't know of any studies on the effect of the initial number N of radioactive nuclides on the rate of decay in the limit of small N.

I recall a remark another student once made about probability, especially very, very small values of probability. Let us consider another situation: according to existing probability theory, there is a finite but very small probability that all N atoms will decay at once. For N = 1, the probability is 1. For N = 2, the probability that both atoms will decay during the same time interval T is less than 1 but still finite. As N increases, the probability of all N atoms decaying during the same time interval T becomes very small. For N = 100 the probability is so small that we can neglect the possibility of ever observing such an event during our lifetime. The student made the remark that in such a circumstance, the mathematical model we know is an approximation and the probability of such an event is actually zero, not some small number like a decimal point followed by a hundred zeroes and then a one.

These are just random musings of a retired physicist who's tired of musing about the election.

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