Friday, November 21, 2014

The Alpha Male

Christopher Boehm talks about a cave painting from the early Holocene:

What we see in one is a cluster of ten male archers who seem to be rejoicing in something they have just done as they expressively wave their bows in the air. Lying on the ground some yards away is an inert human male figure who looks almost like a porcupine,62 with exactly ten arrows sticking in him.

That’s all we know for sure, but some speculation is possible.

First, ten archers suggests a band of perhaps forty, which would be a bit larger than average today, but well within the central tendencies already discussed. Elsewhere in Spain, two similar depictions show three and six archers, respectively, so the overall average would be about six, which seems to be right at the average for contemporary foragers—even though with such a small sample size, this is merely suggestive. Second, with the killings done unanimously and at short range, this would appear to be an instance of execution within the band, rather than a very lopsided act of killing between bands. We can’t be sure, but the appearance of this event three times suggests that it could have been an execution scene similar to the “communal” one described by Richard Lee for the Bushmen, where a serial killer was “porcupined” by his group.

Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (p. 158). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

H-G don't execute one of their band lightly, so it usually takes a serious offense to provoke it. One crime that will provoke it, if persistent and blatant, is "big man behavior" - acting like an Alpha Male. Rigorous egalitarianism is the rule in mobile HG societies, and violations of this ethos can be fatal. Chimpanzee bands, on the other hand, always have an alpha male.

Social Coherence

A week ago or so Lee asked the following question:

So just for fun, do you care to speculate about what the evolutionary basis for strongly held beliefs in humans may be? Social coherence? It doesn't seem to me that strongly held beliefs need to reflect some sort of underlying reality in order to accomplish whatever their evolutionary role is.

This question has been percolating in my head, and I have communed with Boehm's Moral Origins, and I'm now ready to speculate. Hunter-gatherer communities, the essential proto-human societies spend a lot of time and energy in social talk, talk devoted to discussing and propagating how people are behaving and should behave. This talk performs the central function of defining and enforcing moral communities - the shared systems of belief and behavior that make possible the extraordinary human capabilities for cooperating in large groups. A good case can be made that the existence of these moral communities is the fundamental difference between humans and our animal relatives, and the reason we have gone from being an obscure African ape to dominating the planet.

The most serious crimes in such communities are crimes that undermine social cohesion and the altruistic cooperative behavior that makes it possible. Social cohesion requires a very substantial shared belief system, so anti-social behavior of any sort is highly suspect. A friend of mine, an archaeologist who had lived for some time among so Peruvian Indians, mentioned that he had once asked his best friend among them why after a long time association and working together, many of the Indians still didn't seem to trust him.

"Most people think you are a [certain kind of witch who steals children and turns them into butter]", the friend replied.

How could they think that?

It seems that his habit of taking long walks by himself was the key cause for suspicion. This kind of preference for solitude was so unnatural that it made him highly suspect.

Back to Lee's question. Maybe the evolutionary pressure is not so much for beliefs strongly held, even in the face of evidence, but for consistency of belief. Birds of a feather may flock together, or not, but people have a strong impulse to attach themselves to real and imagined moral communities, and enforce consistent beliefs within them.

It's an essential survival tool for HG bands, but it can be a damn nuisance in an avowed pluralistic society. From another point of view, one might argue that true multiculturalism is impossible magical thinking, and against human nature.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Cosby Show

It surely looks like the cultural icon is a serial rapist. At least I can't see any plausible alternative explanation for the combination of the long string of accusations against him and his response to them.

It disappoints us, but it shouldn't surprise us. The examples of men, and yes, a few women, abusing their power for sexual aggression continue to accumulate: Priests, rabbis, teachers, coaches, entertainers, athletes, executives. At lehree recent US Presidents have been accused of rape, not to mention numerous foreign leaders.

In some ways these victims are victims not just of their predators but of pervasive myths that our society has persuaded itself of - myths that were generated in order to redress some old grievances. Not so many generations ago it was widely assumed that women alone in a world of men were chickens in a fox coop - or goldfish in the piranha tank - and that a woman alone needed a chaperone. Feminists quite rightly complained that such rules were used to oppress women and deny them opportunities, but they also seem to have assumed quite wrongly that complaining about men behaving badly would be an effective deterrent to the sorts of bad behavior that the old system aimed to prevent.

I don't buy the extreme notion that all men are rapists just waiting for an unsuspecting victim, but history and crime statistics show that a very significant percentage are. It's not implausible that men drawn to aggressive and dominant behavior - athletes, soldiers, politicians - are more likely perps, but there are plenty of priests and teachers on the prowl too.

Women in the military are very likely to be raped or molested. This was a predictable (and predicted) consequence of the extensive integration of women into more forward elements of the military. Once again, these victims are victims not just of their predators but also of magical thinking - the assumption that just because some rearrangement of society looks more just, things can be arranged that way.

I think that the "blank slate" view of human nature is also at fault here - the assumption that people can be molded to behave according to some ideal that someone has. Human nature is powerfully and extensively shaped by our genes. Refusal to acknowledge that has real consequences - though it does give feminists plenty of things to whine about.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Peter Woit Reviews The Imitation Game

And he's not best pleased.

The final high profile production, one promoted at the Silicon Valley ceremony, should be The Imitation Game, a film based on the life of Alan Turing, to be released on November 28th. I had the chance to attend a preview screening last night, featuring a Q and A with the film’s screenwriter. The short version of a review is: go to see this is you like watching Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley perform, but if you want to know anything about Turing, avoid the film and spend your money instead on a copy of the new edition of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

Turing is one of the most important people in the development of computer science and big chunks of mathematics, and a fascinating and tragic figure. His true story is extremely interesting, so it is, as Peter says, a shame that they made a boring and trite fictional story instead of the real and fascinating story.

Rape Camp

Your smart and talented daughter turns eighteen, so it's time for college. Should she go to the Ivy League rape camp that costs a nice Mercedes/yr to attend or the the State U version that can be had for a Ford Fusion/yr?

OK, it's not quite that bad, but Jed Rubenfeld argues in the NYT that US colleges are doing a terrible job at preventing rape and getting worse at it.

How many rapes occur on our campuses is disputed. The best, most carefully controlled study was conducted for the Department of Justice in 2007; it found that about one in 10 undergraduate women had been raped at college.

But because of low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality, and fear they won’t be believed, only a minuscule percentage of college women who are raped — perhaps only 5 percent or less — report the assault to the police. Research suggests that more than 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by a relatively small percentage of college men — possibly as few as 4 percent — who rape repeatedly, averaging six victims each. Yet these serial rapists overwhelmingly remain at large, escaping serious punishment.

Much of his argument has to do with the fact that Universities are lousy at trying rape cases and shouldn't be in that business.

Forced by the federal government, colleges have now gotten into the business of conducting rape trials, but they are not competent to handle this job. They are simultaneously failing to punish rapists adequately and branding students sexual assailants when no sexual assault occurred.

Another target is the so-called affirmative consent notion taking hold on some campuses.

According to an idealized concept of sexual autonomy, which has substantial traction on college campuses today, sex is truly and freely chosen only when an individual unambiguously desires it under conditions free of coercive pressures, intoxication and power imbalances. In the most extreme version of this view, many acts of seemingly consensual sex are actually rape. Catherine A. MacKinnon took this position in 1983 when she argued that rape and ordinary sexual intercourse were “difficult to distinguish” under conditions of “male dominance.”

Today’s college sex policies are nowhere near so extreme, but they are motivated by a similar ideal of sexual autonomy. You see this ideal in play when universities tell their female students that if they say yes under the influence of alcohol, it’s still rape. You see it in Duke’s 2009 regulations, under which sex could be deemed coercive if there were “power differentials” between the students, “real or perceived.” You also see it in the new “affirmative” sexual consent standards, like the one recently mandated in California, or in Yale’s new policy, according to which sexual assault includes any sexual contact to which someone has not given “positive,” “specific” and “unambiguous” consent.

It is not the role of colleges, he says, to define, judge, or punish rape, but they should be responsible for preventing it, and he has a number of sensible suggestions to that end. An example:

If colleges are serious about reducing rapes, they need to break the links among alcohol, all-male clubs and campus party life. Ideally, we should lower the drinking age so that staff or security personnel could be present at parties.

In any event, schools need to forcibly channel the alcohol party scene out of all-male clubs and teach students “bystander” prevention — how to intervene when one person appears to be taking sexual advantage of another’s extreme intoxication. At the same time, students need to be told clearly that if they are voluntarily under the influence (but not incapacitated), they remain responsible for their sexual choices.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Moral Communities

Not so long ago, I thought, and likely wrote, that a hunter-gatherer society would be perfect for the libertarian - no laws, no government. Boy was I wrong.

Actually, such communities are governed by very strict moral codes, inculcated by the community, and enforced, if necessary, with the ultimate sanction. A fundamental pillar of these codes is one that would offend every libertarian impulse - mandatory sharing of some crucial goods and resources.

A key fault line in certain moral debates in modern society - for example, gay marriage - is controversy over the impact of changing the rules. Conservatives claim, for example, that gay marriage fundamentally undermines traditional marriage. Progressives mostly consider this claim ridiculous, arguing that it couldn't possibly affect anybody but those involved - namely, gays who would like to marry.

Even though I take the progressive point of view on marriage, I think that the conservatives are fundamentally right as to the effects. Morality is everywhere and always a community concern and highly dependent on a community consensus. Upending community standards on something as fundamental as marriage must inevitably propagate in unpredictable ways through the whole structure of morality.

That doesn't mean that we should cling to every standard of morality we inherited from our grandparents or more distant relatives, or from some old books written a couple of thousand years ago, but it does mean we need to be conscious of the fact that we are tampering with very fundamental underpinnings of society, and we need to be concerned with their implications.

Astro FOTD: Taking Out the Trash

Stars seem to be born in clusters of several hundred or more stars, out of clouds of cool dust and gas with 1000 or so solar masses. This process usually leaves a lot of left over dust and gas, as in the Pleiades cluster:

The Pleiades were born 100 million years or so ago, with the largest stars having recently become blue giants. Notice all the dust reflecting their light.  This is good evidence that the cluster did not produce any stars that have become supernovae - yet anyway.  If it had, they would have swept all that dust (and gas) out.  The largest, brightest stars are about 5 solar masses, probably too small to go super, unless they are part of a binary and go the Type Ia route.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Germans in Fantasy Land

Paul Krugman quoting Wolfgang Munchau:

German economists roughly fall into two groups: those that have not read Keynes, and those that have not understood Keynes.

Krugman adds:

Munchau tells us something I didn’t know, that Ludwig Erhard “once tried to explain the Great Depression in terms of cartels.” In the German economics mindset, there is only microeconomic distortion; macro problems, even in the middle of Europe’s second Great Depression, don’t exist.

How does this end? We have to keep pounding on the issues, and I’m reasonably sure that Draghi and co get it. But with the largest player on the European scene living in a fantasy world, the best guess has to be that nothing much is done until there is complete political crisis, with anti-European nationalists taking over one or more major nations.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Energy, Civilization and the Climate Pessimists

Few things a less rewarding than arguing with people you mostly agree with. Global warming is a good case in point. For those who think it is a major menace, and I'm certainly one of them, urgent action is required. Unfortunately I also believe that many of the Cassandras of AGW have highly unrealistic views of the difficulties and costs involved, views which cause them to advocate for fake solutions that have almost zero chance of working.

The rise of human civilization, the very fact that makes us a profound menace to the planet, is intimately tied to and dependent upon our ability to command more and more energy. The only obvious strategy for combating carbon emissions is to increase the cost of fossil fuel energy relative to alternatives. The easy part, decreasing the cost of some alternatives is only progressing in a few areas, like solar and wind. Others like nuclear are held back mainly by reasonably based but mostly hysterical fear. The hard part, increasing the cost of fossil fuel, is desperately unpopular, and for very good reason.

We have had several examples of rapid rises in fossil fuel prices prompted by wars and geopolitics. Each of these has produced widespread economic devastation: major recessions and inflation in the rich nations, economic collapse and mass catastrophe in poorer nations. This is a purely natural consequence of the direct dependence of economic activity on energy cost and availability.

These costs hit almost every level of society, especially in poor nations without social safety nets or other nations (like the US) with limited safety nets and large built in energy costs. Very significantly, they also affect an extremely influential segment of society, energy rent owners and workers. Those who own fossil resources, ranging from super wealthy individuals to whole nations (Norway, Saudi Arabia, Canada) will bitterly oppose anything that impoverishes them, even slightly. So will the guy who owns a pickup truck.

So I'm a climate pessimist. I think it very likely that very bad things will happen as a result of climate change, but that it's probably going to happen anyway. Though an occasional ray of light like the recent China-US deal makes me hope, for a minute anyway. And technological progress might help too.

Terence Tao on Colbert

Terry Tao was on The Colbert Report the other day - I'm not sure why. Tao is one of the most distinguished living mathematicians as well as a famous prodigy (he scored a 760 on the Math portion of the SAT at age eight). He and Colbert discussed twin primes, cousin primes, and sexy primes though not much light was shed.

At one point during the discussion of primes, after a few twins had been mentioned (5-7, 11-13) Tao said the number twenty-seven, and stopped. He didn't say anything about the number twenty-seven, which of course is not prime, but the mere mention reminded me of the legend of the Grothendieck "prime", fifty-seven. Grothendieck, the story goes, had been teaching a class where he had been talking about "consider a prime" when a student asked for an example. Well, OK, the story goes, Grothendieck picked 57.

(Which, of course, is 3 x 19.)


Peter Woit reports that Alexander Grothendieck, one of the greatest mathematicians of the Twentieth Century, has died at age 86. He has links to a number of stories about Grothendieck - here is a fragment of a superb one by Grothendieck's friend and colleague Pierre Cartier:

Grothendieck’s journey? A childhood devastated by Nazism and its crimes, a father who was absent in his early years and then disappeared in the storm, a mother who kept him in her orbit and long disturbed his relationships with other women. He compensated for this with a frantic investment in mathematical abstraction until psychosis, kept at bay through this very involvement, caught up with him and swallowed him in morbid anguish.

Grothendieck is difficult to categorize. Like Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, and many other mathematicians, he was obsessed with the notion of space. But his originality lay in deepening of the concept of a geometric point.1 Such research may seem trifling, but the metaphysical stakes are considerable; the philosophical problems it engenders are still far from solved. In its ultimate form, this research, Grothendieck’s proudest, revolved around the concept of a motive, or pattern, viewed as a beacon illuminating all the incarnations of a given object through their various ephemeral cloaks. But this concept also represents the point at which his incomplete work opened to a void. Grothendieck’s idiosyncrasy prompted him fully to accept this flaw. Most scientists are somewhat keener to erase their footprints from the sand, silence their fantasies and dreams, and devote themselves to the statue within, as François Jacob puts it.

Cartier also has an introduction to some of Grothendieck's most important work, including some tantalizing hints of a connection between quantum mechanics and the deepest aspects of Grothendieck's conception of the mathematical point - unfortunately, most of the air up there is too thin for me to breathe. Another excerpt:

...The answer, inspired by Zariski’s work, was simple and elegant: the scheme of an algebraic variety is the collection of local rings of the sub-varieties found inside the rational function field. There is no need for an explicit topology, a point of distinction between Chevalley and Serre, who at roughly the same time introduced his algebraic varieties using Zariski topologies and sheaves. Each of the two approaches had advantages, but also limitations: Serre had an algebraically closed base field; Chevalley had to work only with irreducible varieties. In both cases, the two fundamental problems of products of varieties and base change could only be approached indirectly. All the same, Chevalley’s point of view was better suited to future extensions to arithmetic, as Nagata soon observed.

Évariste Galois was certainly the first to notice the polarity between equations and their solutions. One must distinguish between the domain in which coefficients of the algebraic equation are chosen and the domain in which solutions are sought. Grothendieck created a synthesis out of these ideas, based in essence on the conceptual presentation of Zariski-Chevalley-Nagata. Schemes are thus a way of encoding systems of equations as well as the transformations to which one may subject them.

For those who don't speak the language - and I myself only understand tiny fragments - this may seem like abstract nonsense, but in addition to probing how very real world mathematical problems can be solved, this work also speaks very deeply to ways the human mind can represent reality.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Old King Coal

Eli Rabett has taught me a lot about global warming, so I hate to quibble with his analysis of economics and the climate future, but I do think he has some wrong ideas here: Mostly I think he wants to bash Lomborg and others who say the world can't afford to deal with climate yet - mainly because the poor countries need coal and other ceap fossil fuels for development.


First, climate change underway today mostly hurts the poor. It is clear that any assessment shows that the countries that are going to be most hurt by climate change are the poorest countries. Every attempt at an integrated assessment model, the IPCC reports and more shows this. By opposing immediate action on climate change Lomborg, Pileke (sic) and Ridley are hurting the poorest.

The proposition, I think, does not follow from the premise. The rich nations of the world all developed their economies using cheap energy from coal and later, other fossil fuels. China and several other rapidly developing nations are currently doing the same. The people of Bangla Desh and South Beach are both threatened by rising ocean levels. The South Beachers have much better prospects because the have a lot more money. Wealth brings options.

Almost all agree that the worst effects of climate change are in medium to distant future, as measured in terms of a human lifespan. Forty years of economic progress at the rate China has achieved would give the people of Bangla Desh some important options.

Some more Eli:

Second, fossil fuel as an energy source is characterized by relatively low capital costs and high operational costs. Wind, solar, hydro and nuclear the reverse. If fools like Lomborg and Ridley really wanted to help the poors they would be advocating for donation by the developed world to carry those initial capital costs and increased energy efficiency so the poors were not subject to eternal thralldom under the coal and oil industry.

Eli is a professorial rabett, so presumably he has spent his life in the ivory tower which could explain not being quite up to speed as to how the world works. "[A]dvocating for donation by the developed world to carry initial capital costs..." is a strategy with a history and prospect of success somewhat worse than praying for rain. Extracting the necessary trillions from the personal pockets of Eli, me and many others both more and less fortunate than us is not a program with potential popular appeal. If the world really believed that the initial capital costs could be retrieved in energy efficiency, hard eyed accountants would be telling their investors to rush in - they aren't.

If they could agree among themselves, the world might force the Bangla Deshes to adopt less carbon intensive economy by adopting punitive import taxes. Such taxes would be extremely painful for the present day citizens of Bangla Desh, with the only certain benefit for future citizens therein being that many more of them would fail to survive to adulthood to experience the climate horrors to come.

My larger point is that preventing climate change requires a vast network of enforcement mechanisms which will have big costs for a lot of people - big upfront costs that may or may not ever be recovered. As Eli might just remember from when he paid for the solar power system for his house - assuming that he has done that.

A Forthright Democratic Challenge

A Forthright Democratic Challenge

The Democrats have been strongly and rightly criticized for not having a program to sell in the 2014 elections. The Republicans have been pushing pretty much the same program for the last half-century – government is the problem, and low taxes are the cure. They haven’t been especially consistent in applying these principles, but they have been consistent in advocating them, especially for the past 35 years.

The Democratic Party response has been an uncertain trumpet indeed. Much of the Party has been focused on the claims of special interest groups whose agendas are remote from or inimical to those of many other Americans – Blacks, Gays, immigrants, environmentalists and single urban women. They have been paralyzed by the conflicts between the demands of those groups, who form the base of Party, and their conflicts with the priorities of other Americans. Moreover, the hoped for future of the Party among the young doesn’t vote.

There is no particular mystery about how you build and weld together coalitions of diverse interests – you have to appeal to their common interests. If there is one overwhelming issue that unites most of the Democratic base with the rest of America, it is the economy. Yes, it still is the stupid economy. So how does one at once advance a popular agenda and differentiate oneself from the Republicans? Step one, you need to forthrightly attack the Republican agenda, and figure out how to blame them for all the things wrong with the economy – most of which they really are to blame for, though Dems certainly collaborated on some of them. The big Republican claim was that cutting back government would put more money in the hands of the “job creators,” supposedly benefitting all. In fact, the money saved did go overwhelmingly to rich people and corporations, but the jobs they created were mostly in China and other low wage countries or else in European yacht shipyards. The US economy has grown, and the very rich have gotten very much richer, but almost nobody else in the US has done well.

The government cutbacks have meant that US roads, railways, telecommunications, education, and healthcare have lost a great deal of ground compared to our overseas rivals. Our best universities are still the World’s best, but the rest of higher education has suffered greatly from financial cutbacks. Meanwhile, the new cheaper government has produced a generation of graduates with mountainous debts that prevent them from forming families or starting businesses. Similar stories exist in crumbling highways, dilapidated schools, unsafe bridges and railroad crossings and our increasingly archaic internet access – a despicable shame here where the internet was invented.

The vast economic progress of the fifties, sixties, and seventies was built, in part, on government investment in people and infrastructure – the GI bill, the Interstate Highway System, and more – and at that, while top bracket income taxes were above 90%. A world class economic infrastructure is needed to compete in today’s world, including a highly educated and healthy workforce as well as good highways, harbors and airports; telecommunications networks, and a vigorous national research program. Where industry cannot or will not invest in critical needs, the government must. These principles have been at the center of US economic development for a century and a half, and Republican lies to the contrary can’t be allowed to go unchallenged.

The American people’s continuing faith in Social Security, Medicare, and Public Schools and numerous other public institutions amply demonstrates that they don’t believe the big lie that the “government is always the problem, not the solution.” This lie needs to be aggressively challenged.

A program that would build our human and technological capital, while at the same time aggressively working to reduce impediments to entrepreneurship needs to be articulated as a coherent whole, not a patchwork of rewards for special interests.

Friday, November 07, 2014


One disadvantage of retirement is that I no longer get holidays off.

The Store

I stopped at my local Big Box to pick up some peanut butter and paper towels.

Cost me about $200.00

I might have gotten some gas - cheap today - and a few other things that weren't on my list.