Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Homo Deus

I've started reading Yuval Noah Harari's book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He opens with some observations on how radically the world has changed in the last century or so. For most of the history of civilization, famine and plague cut huge swaths through populations.

About 2.8 million French – 15 per cent of the population – starved to death between 1692 and 1694, while the Sun King, Louis XIV, was dallying with his mistresses in Versailles.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This was far from an isolated event. Even higher casualty rates afflicted Finland, Scotland, and Estonia at the time. Dozens of such catastrophic famines killed at similar rates in the much larger populations of China and India.

Plague was equally catastrophic. The Black Death killed 25% of the population of Eurasia. The diseases carried by European explorers killed 90% of the population of the Americas and similar percentages of Polynesian islanders. During World War I, Spanish Flu killed twice as many people as the war, including two of my then young aunts.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Defying the Laws of Physics

My Google News can reliably be expected to provide me with new feats of athletic prowess, engineering, driving skill or other actions claimed to defy the laws of physics. Unsurprisingly, none of them ever do.* I guess the statement "amusingly illustrates the laws of physics" just lacks panache.

*Actually, I can think of an exception: the so called electromagnetic drive. But I'm pretty damn sure that's purely imaginary.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Otto Warmbier

Unfortunately it's not at all uncommon for college students, usually young men, to engage in dumb stunts or pranks that get themselves or others killed. Of course it wasn't smart for Otto Warmbier to decide to swipe a propaganda poster in North Korea, of all places. That offence, which likely would have earned a wrist slap in a civilized country, got him murdered in North Korea. His death, after being returned brain dead from North Korea, provoked a flurry of hysteria from certain right wing sites, alleging that liberals celebrated his punishment and murder.

Exhibit A was a Larry Wilmore nightly show in which Warmbier was lambasted for his folly. I looked at it, and it was the most tasteless and nasty thing I've seen from Wilmore, even granting that it was done long before anybody knew Warmbier would die for his offence. To imply that this was some common liberal propaganda effort strikes me as ridiculous though, even if Wilmore happens to be a liberal comic. Wilmore's offence was cruelty and tastelessness, not liberalism. In any case, Wilmore and his show are gone.

Similarly, the idiot adjunct professor who got fired for saying that Warmbier got what he deserved was guilty of being an asshole, not a liberal.

Yes, there are liberal assholes (not to mention conservatives of the same inclination), but it's ridiculous to indict a whole group for the offences of a few jerks.


I don't watch a whole lot of television, but there are three sitcoms I usually catch, and this being Summer, they aren't available, except as stale reruns. That tends to leave my television cupboard a bit bare for those evenings when, exhausted by a hard day of retirement*, I collapse on the couch. That's especially tough in the Summer when there are no sports on television.

I've never watched wrestling, especially not women's wrestling, so I'm not exactly sure why I started watching GLOW, the new NETFLIX series fictionalized version of the story the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, a syndicated series that ran in the 1980s.

My wife and I love it. It's great partly because Alison Brie and Marc Maron, the lead characters, are great, but mostly because the writing is great. The large ensemble of other wrestlers and a few others is also excellent. As in the real GLOW, the "wrestlers" were recruited from wanna be actresses, stunt women, and dancers. The principal actresses, especially Brie and her principal opponent, do most of their own stunts and claim to have had a ball learning and practicing their wrestling moves.

Comedy and drama - plus wrestling - a lot more entertaining than I expected.

*As my (also retired) neighbor pointed out to me, the tough thing about retirement is that you never get a day off.

Artificial Intelligence: The Threat

Kai-Fu Lee, writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, writes about what he calls The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it. Imagine how much money a company like Uber would make if it used only robot drivers. Imagine the profits if Apple could manufacture its products without human labor. Imagine the gains to a loan company that could issue 30 million loans a year with virtually no human involvement. (As it happens, my venture capital firm has invested in just such a loan company.)

We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?

The author argues that while retraining can save some jobs, others will be harder. How many cashiers or fry cooks can be retrained to be AI programmers? How many chatty bartenders does a country need?

He argues that strongly Keynesian policies plus heavy taxation of those who profit heavily is the only way to save jobs. This will involve massive transfers of wealth.

He further adds that essentially all the profits of the AI revolution will go to the US and China, as the only two countries with enough expertise to and data to succeed. This may be arguable, but certainly only a few countries are in the chase.

So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.

One way or another, we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

I think he leaves out that a number on the have-nots list will have missiles and thermonuclear weapons, and with them the capacity to destroy the big two.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Libertarians Have a Nice Slogan

Naturally it hides a morally bankrupt core. Right now, the wealthy libertarians who own the Republican Party in the US are engaged in the destruction of Medicaid.

Another score for libertarians was the Grenfell Tower catastrophe in Britain. From The New York Times:

Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.

Of course, after the disaster, the same libertarians who cheered removing regulations in the name of "cutting red tape" cited the disaster as evidence of the failure of government regulation, and always quick to add insult to injury, blamed the victims for choosing to live in a firetrap.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Sun: Book Review

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb Aug 6, 1996 by Richard Rhodes, is a great book, but probably not for the faint hearted. If you have labored under the delusion that humans are rational animals, forget about it. We are sometimes an intellectual species, but a very irrational one, driven by vanity, paranoia and other prehistoric emotions, quite unsuited to life in a world with thermonuclear weapons.

The penultimate chapter tells the story of the Cuban missile crisis, and it's pretty terrifying how close some pretty smart people came to utterly destroying the world. This was at a point when both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization many times over.

We had gotten to that point thanks to the paranoia and other frailties of some of the smartest guys around, including Curtis LeMay, Edward Teller, John Wheeler, and John von Neumann. Only the cool heads of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy narrowly saved the day more than once.

It's terrifying to think what might have happened if an idiot like Trump, or even a dimwit like W, had been in charge.

I recommend the book highly. There are no equations, but if you are a physicist with a few tens of billions of dollars and access to certain critical materials and technologies, there is enough detail to build your own bomb.

I've written a lot more about it here.

I know that WB has read it and would be particularly interested in his comments.

Local Warming

107 F here today (about 42 C), and it's predicted to get a bit hotter. I'm glad I don't still live in Phoenix - 118 yesterday.

Meanwhile, the high Arctic has been just a shade cool for the past 3 months. I wonder if that will impact this year's melt season.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Entropic Principle

That book you spent some time searching for in the dusty boxes in the garage (on the hottest day of the year) isn't there either.

Corollary 1: That book you were thinking of buying - don't - you already own it.

Corollary 2: See above.

Upside: You know all those ridiculous Greiner-Mueller books you bought but never read? The one on thermo actually has a good explanation of the very point you were mystified about. My apologies Prof's G and M.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Trump still firmly in control in the South.

Democrats are getting demoralized.

Dance, Dance, Dance

Well I've done it again - inhaled a 400 page Murakami novel in less that 24 hours. Why can't I read physics books like that?

Dance, Dance, Dance concerns the further adventures of the narrator of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, and A Wild Sheep Chase.

Here he sets off to find the long vanished girlfriend from Sheep Chase and curious characters enter the picture, including an old acquaintance who has become a famous actor, a thirteen year-old clairvoyant with famous and wealthy but incompetent parents, The Sheepman from Chase, a host of call girls and others who disappear or turn up dead. Because this is Murakami, paranormal stuff happens.

Murakami is a terrific writer, and I loved this book despite the fact that I normally have no patience for paranormal goings on. Murakami's formidable erudition on music, culture, and much else combined with his eagle eye for character and setting make this joy, as do his vivid and witty descriptions.

Incidentally, his characters, aside from setting and minor differences in diet, are almost entirely indistinguishable from Americans.

Monday, June 19, 2017


During the 1950s, SAC commander Curtis LeMay and the US Air Force became absorbed in the idea of a preventive war against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had specifically rejected the idea, but LeMay engaged in tactics that some considered designed to provoke such a war, in particular, repeated overflights of Russia with various US spy planes. Such flights apparently cost at least 20 planes and the lives of about 100 aviators - some of whom went to the Gulag.

One of LeMay’s US reconnaissance crews remembered flying a B-47 deep into the USSR on May 8, 1954, and taking damage from a MiG-17. The mission made it back to England leaking fuel. LeMay ordered the crew to the US, the pilot, Hal Austin, recalled many years later:

[LeMay] said, “I tried to get you guys a Silver Star,” but he said “you gotta explain that to Congress and everybody else in Washington . . . so here’s a couple of [Distinguished Flying Crosses] we’ll give you for that mission.” There wasn’t anybody in the room except the wing commander and us three guys, General LeMay and his intelligence officer. . . . Then General LeMay said, “Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”

I think that was just a loose comment for his staff guys, because General Tommy Power, his hatchet man in those days, chuckled and he never laughed very much. So I always figured that was a joke between them. But we thought maybe that was serious.2549

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 565-566). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.