Friday, August 29, 2014

After Tamerlane: Book Review

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 is John Darwin's account of how a somewhat backward fringe of Eurasian civilization came to dominate the world with global empires and how those empires collapsed. This is big picture history. Those colorful characters who do so much to give human scale and character to history are hardly present, because Darwin is far more interested in global features. It's a major loss, from my point of view.

On the positive side, his mile high view of history makes clear a lot of trends and large scale phenomena that might remain obscured in a finer grained (and more human) history. I was especially interested in two central themes - the notion that European predominance was essentially accidental and the degree to which events, once underway, have their own momentum, beyond the control of any of the actors.

Europe in the Fifteenth Century knew that it was on the outskirts of civilization, and so did the rest of the world, to the extent that it knew of Europe at all. Almost certainly it was not the only part of Eurasian civilization which had the capability to cross the seas and find the New World. Unquestionably China did, and almost certainly the Indian and Arab traders who worked across the Indian Ocean did as well. What the latter lacked was motivation and inclination. Portugal and Spain wanted to get to the Orient. The Orient could hardly have cared less about them.

The purely accidental discovery of the New World, and the naval capabilities developed in getting there and around Africa were critical components in the development of the military power that created empire. Perhaps equally important was the way that these discoveries shattered old world views and opened the European mind.

It's plausible to guess without the fall of the Indian domino, the story would have been very different. Again, India fell into British hands almost by accident. The unlucky combination of external invasion from Central Asia, a crumbling Mughal Empire, and the internal struggle to pick up that empire's pieces made it peculiarly vulnerable. Add in a tax system capable of being co-opted and local interests willing to cooperate, and the conquest of India became self-financing. The loot from the Indian treasure house became the foundation of the greater British empire.

The end of the European empires was more sudden. The great cataclysms of the Twentieth Century struggles among the Europeans weakened them militarily, economically and morally. Meanwhile, anti-colonial resistance had been maturing, especially in India. World War II forced Britain to make a deal to free India after the the end of the war, and after that the end seemed inevitable, even if the colonial system managed to stumble on for another generation or so - at least partly because the Soviet threat induced the mostly anti-colonial US to support Britain and France for a few more decades.

My other notes on the book can be found here.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


If the Nineteenth Century was dominated by the increasing scope and power of Europe's colonial system, The Twentieth saw the destruction of the same.

Decolonization is often equated with the end of colonial rule, but this is much too narrow. It is far more useful to think of it as the demolition of a Europe-centred imperial order in which territorial empire was interlocked with extraterritorial ‘rights’. The bases, enclaves, garrisons, gunboats, treaty ports and unequal treaties (as in Egypt or China) that littered the Afro-Asian world were as much the expression of this European imperialism as were the colonies and protectorates coloured red, blue, yellow or green on the old imperial maps. So was the assumption that intervention was justified by the general failure of non-European states to reach the civilizational standard that European visitors were entitled to expect. This imperial ‘order’ imagined a cultural hierarchy in which the progressive capabilities of North West European (and Euro-American) societies were contrasted with the (sometimes picturesque) ‘stationary state’ in which non-Western cultures were presumed to be stuck. It also expected, and where possible enforced, an economic division of labour in which the capital, manufactures and technical skills of the imperial-industrial world were exchanged for the raw materials and foodstuffs of the non-Western countries.

Most, if not all, of this global ‘regime’ was quickly demolished in the two decades that followed the Second World War...

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 441-442). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

The Soviet empire was enough more durable to last almost four decades after the war.

Putin's Plan?

If the First World War should teach us anything, it's that blundering your way into war is easy, but getting out is not. Of course there are lots more examples in the intervening century. The real question in Ukraine now is whether Putin has nay idea of what he is doing. Does he have a rational plan, or is he just upping the stakes because he doesn't know how to extract himself? From Anna Nemtsova, in Moscow:

MOSCOW, Russia – Where U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have failed to make Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledge his ever-more-overt invasion of Ukraine and think about pulling back, Valentina Melnikova, the head of Russia’s famous Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, might just have a chance.

Early Thursday morning, Melnikova started getting phone calls from Russian army bosses. All of them, from the deputy defense minister to the paratrooper division commanders, wanted to meet with the great matriarch of the Russian military. She had accused the entire high command, along with Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin of invading Ukraine and of committing a crime against Russian citizens by sending Russian soldiers to "the bloody battlefields" without declaring the war, without signing legal papers with the servicemen, without letting Russian mothers know where exactly their drafted sons ended up dying.

The day before, Russian servicemen were fighting shoulder to shoulder with pro-Russian separatists in Novoazovsk, a strategic port city on the Russian border. By taking over Novoazovsk, the separatists cleared the way for more servicemen to pour into Ukraine. “According to our expert analyses,” said Melnikova – and few organizations have better information than hers – “ there are over 10,000 Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine today."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Martian Chronicles: A Book Report

I was an SF fan in my youth, but somehow I don't remember reading Ray Bradbury's rather famous collection of linked short stories. I finished them with mixed feelings. It's a mostly dystopian fantasy book, set, more or less, on Percival Lowell's Mars, a Mars of canals and deserts, populated by an ancient race and mostly stereotypical human invaders. For me, they are mixed in quality. He has a real poetic gift for creation of a numinous place. The places, though, are mostly peopled with stick figures, and the villains are routinely doltish and boring.

He can, however, write a helluva preface. A fragment:

All right, then, what is Chronicles? It is King Tut out of the tomb when I was three, Norse Eddas when I was six, and Roman/ Greek gods that romanced me when I was ten: pure myth.

If it had been practical technologically efficient science fiction, it would have long since fallen to rust by the road. But since it is a self-separating fable, even the most deeply rooted physicists at Cal-Tech accept breathing the fraudulent oxygen atmosphere I have loosed on Mars . Science and machines can kill each other off or be replaced .

Myth, seen in mirrors, incapable of being touched, stays on. If it is not immortal, it almost seems such. Finally: Don’t tell me what I am doing; I don’t want to know!

What a way to live. The only way. For by pretending at ignorance, the intuition, curious at seeming neglect, rears its invisible head and snakes out through your palmprints in mythological forms. And because I wrote myths, perhaps my Mars has a few more years of impossible life. One thing half-assures me: I am still being invited back to the California Institute of Technology.

Bradbury, Ray (2013-05-21). The Martian Chronicles . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I welcome opinions of those who see it differently.

In 1914, John McCain was Running Germany

Or somebody like him.

Achilles heel of Europe’s global primacy was the underdevelopment of the European states system. It was Europe’s sudden expansion on its Balkan doorstep, the brittle structure of its multinational empires, and the chaotic politics of its smallest states that turned a political murder into a general war. The European balance of power was unable to cope with the final collapse of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. To a shrewd insider just before the war, it seemed obvious enough that international peace must depend on the judgement and skill of statesmen and diplomats.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 373). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Holy Hologram, Batman

Fermilab Press Release:

A unique experiment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory called the Holometer has started collecting data that will answer some mind-bending questions about our universe – including whether we live in a hologram.

Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3-D world exists only on a 2-D screen, we could be clueless that our 3-D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions.

Get close enough to your TV screen and you’ll see pixels, small points of data that make a seamless image if you stand back. Scientists think that the universe’s information may be contained in the same way and that the natural “pixel size” of space is roughly 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom, a distance that physicists refer to as the Planck scale.

“We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just like matter is,” said Craig Hogan, director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics and the developer of the holographic noise theory. “If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years.”

Quantum theory suggests that it is impossible to know both the exact location and the exact speed of subatomic particles. If space comes in 2-D bits with limited information about the precise location of objects, then space itself would fall under the same theory of uncertainty. The same way that matter continues to jiggle (as quantum waves) even when cooled to absolute zero, this digitized space should have built-in vibrations even in its lowest energy state.

Essentially, the experiment probes the limits of the universe’s ability to store information. If there is a set number of bits that tell you where something is, it eventually becomes impossible to find more specific information about the location – even in principle. The instrument testing these limits is Fermilab’s Holometer, or holographic interferometer, the most sensitive device ever created to measure the quantum jitter of space itself.

Now operating at full power, the Holometer uses a pair of interferometers placed close to one another. Each one sends a one-kilowatt laser beam (the equivalent of 200,000 laser pointers) at a beam splitter and down two perpendicular 40-meter arms. The light is then reflected back to the beam splitter where the two beams recombine, creating fluctuations in brightness if there is motion. Researchers analyze these fluctuations in the returning light to see if the beam splitter is moving in a certain way – being carried along on a jitter of space itself

Of course this doesn't say anything about how this tests various holographic conjectures. Some details are here though:


Cogito, ergo sum...............Descartes

Introspection, or examination of one's own thoughts, has been a central focus of art, psychology, and philosophy. It's a primary element of consciousness. What's up with that?

Long time readers, if any, may guess that when I ask a question like that I'm probably looking for a Darwinian answer - what, I mean, is the evolutionary function of introspection? Any complex system that moves needs to have some information about its environment and its internal state, and especially of self and non-self. So far as I know, snakes don't actually make the mistake of swallowing their own tails. In a social species, it makes a lot of sense to have some capability for understanding the thoughts of others, and understanding one's own thoughts provides a useful template. When one's safety depends on successful inhibition of certain instincts, it makes sense to have a watchdog paying attention to instinctive and other responses.

Our introspection has access to only a very limited and often highly processed version of our brain activity - we don't experience the output of individual hair cells in the ear, or photo-sensors in our eyes, but highly processed syntheses of these. We see blue, not differential excitation of different types of cone cells. It could hardly be otherwise. Our consciousness only has room for a highly simplified model of our thought.

Jonathan Haidt compares our conscious, introspective, superego like "supervisor" to a small boy sitting on an elephant, trying to guide it. He has some influence, but most of the work is being done by the elephant.

Prelude to the Collapse of the Colonial Empires

The wolves of European colonialism mainly managed to avoid general war among themselves while extending their empires over the rest of the world. By 1900, they were running out of other peoples' land to steal or otherwise colonize. So they turned, once again, on each other.

The most vital prop of Europe’s primacy in Eurasia, and of the powerful position of the great European states in the Outer World beyond, had been their collective determination not to fight each other. It had been this and the Atlantic peace between Europe and the Americas that had allowed the rapid growth of international trade, the steady extension of European influence and authority, and the ironic achievement of the African partition. The reluctance of European governments to upset their continental balance of power and risk the social and political upheaval that a general war would bring had restrained their pursuit of national and imperial advantage.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 370). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

1914 ended that. Of course there were other, internal strains, economic, ethnic, religious and ideological that were ripping the old order apart. Meanwhile, colonial resistance was crystallizing, and the calamities of the mid-twentieth century weakened the power, prestige, and moral self-confidence of the colonizers, as well as exposing their dependence on the colonies.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Generic Liberalism

After the calamitous wars of late Eighteenth Century the five major powers of Europe, Britain, France, Germany Prussia, Austria and Russia reached a sort of accord in the Treaty of Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. They would cooperate to prevent future continental wars and not have their foreign trade interfered with. Moreover, after 1815, a creeping generic liberalism spread over the continent. Naturally the treaty was not completely successful, and wars continued, but not on the scale of the religious, dynastic and Napoleonic wars of earlier times. Nor was the advance of liberalism especially rapid or steady.

So what were the tenets of this mid-Nineteenth century liberalism. According to Constant:

Modern societies, he suggested, were too complex to be ruled politically after the fashion of an ancient city state – the model to which many earlier writers (including Rousseau) had appealed. Diversity, pluralism and localism were the secret of stability and freedom. Secondly, the legislators, to whom the executive should answer, should be drawn from those least likely to favour the extension of arbitrary power or to be seduced by a demagogue. Politics should be the preserve of the propertied, who would exert a wholesome (and educated) influence on the ‘labouring poor’. The propertied were the true guardians of the public interest. Thirdly, it was necessary for property rights and other civil freedoms to be protected by well-established rules – an ideal that implied the codification of the law and its machinery.9

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 229-230). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

In the short run, at least, this liberalism was a help rather than a hindrance to European imperialism. The rest of the globe would now be subjugated, not in the name of one or the other of a bunch of religions that didn't impress them, but in the name of giving them the blessings of liberal value.

Unlike previous ideologies espoused by European expansionists – crusading imperialism, mercantilism, dynastic absolutism – generic liberalism proved remarkably attractive to some at least of the colonized. Its values were, or seemed, universal: they appealed to Indian, Chinese, African and Arab elites almost as much as to Europeans. Here was an astonishing and unprecedented third dimension to the expansive powers of the Europeans. It endowed them (that is, the more skilful practitioners of ideological politics) with a flexible new weapon in the search for allies in the non-Western world. It helped to prise open societies closed to all their other threats and blandishments. It was – or later seemed to its embittered foes – the Trojan Horse of European imperialism.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 237). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

In the end, liberalism, or a form of it, would become one of the most powerful weapons of the anti-colonialists. Ultimately liberalism, at least in the modern conception, was not compatible with alien rule of subject peoples. Though hardly the only factor, this liberalism claimed as one of its first accomplishments the gradual abolition of one of the nastiest aspects of European colonialism - the African slave trade.

Power of Ideas

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. ................. J M Keynes The General Theory

Economists, defunct or extant, right and wrong, have rather more power than the dentists to which Keynes suggested they should be equated.

But Krugman doesn't want to take the rap for this one:

The French Government has Collapsed And It's Partly Paul Krugman's Fault.

On Monday morning, the French government collapsed. All the ministers have resigned, and President Francois Hollande will have to appoint new ones. Paul Krugman deserves some of the blame.

The incident that immediately precipitated the resignation of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls' cabinet was an interview given by Arnaud Montebourg, France's economics minister to LeMonde, in which he protested his government's ongoing austerity policies.

As evidence of that policy's failure, Montebourg cited the former Princeton professor and New York Times columnist.

Read more:

Another Malthusian Insight

for our times too.

(‘No great commercial and manufacturing state in modern times . . .’ said Malthus, ‘has yet been known permanently to make higher profits than the average of the rest of Europe.’)1

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 223). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Suicide Bombing the Euro Economy

Via Brad Delong:

Paul de Grauewe: "[European policymakers] are doing everything they can... stop recovery taking off, so they should not be surprised if there is in fact no take-off. It is balanced-budget fundamentalism, and it has become religious. We know from the 1930s that if everybody is trying to pay off debt and the government then deleverages at the same time, the result is a downward spiral. The rigidities in the European economy have been there for ages. They have absolutely nothing to do with the problem we face today...

Is this a purely irrational religion, or is it one of those that has big benefits for some, even if the involved countries and the peninsula suffer? I'll bet on the latter, with the starring role, as usual going to the usual rentier suspects. Inflation erodes assets, especially debt assets. So it's good for debtors and bad for creditors. Creditors being mainly wealthy, and debtors being mainly poor, guess who has the bigger seat at the conference table?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Enemy of my Enemy

... is sometimes really, really my enemy.

Islamic extremists have captured a major government military airport in Raqqa, eastern Syria, completing their takeover of the entire province and dealing a humiliating blow to President Bashar Assad.

The victory is further evidence that the Islamic State is determined to widen its grip on the region. Since it launched its assaults in June, the Islamic State has captured half of Iraq and one-third of Syria and operates an Islamic caliphate armed with US weapons and financed by booty seized during its lightning raids.

Complete with ritual suicide bombings and beheadings.

More Adventures on that River in Egypt

In a series of email exchanges, denialist Mr. X. challenged me with a number of aggressive questions, responded to me with some links to essentially irrelevant data (claiming, for example, that CO2 levels in the atmosphere had plateaued on the basis of the fluctuations of the rate of increase of CO2), took exception to my pointing out that in fact CO2 had increased every year since the Mauna Loa measurements began, and did not appreciate my pointing out that he had confused first and second derivatives or that he needed to understand some physics to comprehend how CO2 warms the surface.

He got offended and pronounced that he didn't want to hear any more of my lectures.

Darn! And he was such a promising student!

Well, he did ask.

The Robots Are Coming

...for your job.

Or maybe not.

Brad DeLong links to some various opinions:

Most utopian: “How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work.” — Hal Varian, chief economist at Google

Most dystopian: “We’re going to have to come to grips with a long-term employment crisis and the fact that — strictly from an economic point of view, not a moral point of view — there are more and more ‘surplus humans.'”— Karl Fogel, partner at Open Tech Strategies, an open-source technology firm

Most hopeful: “Advances in A.I. [artificial intelligence] and robotics allow people to cognitively offload repetitive tasks and invest their attention and energy in things where humans can make a difference. We already have cars that talk to us, a phone we can talk to, robots that lift the elderly out of bed and apps that remind us to call Mom. An app can dial Mom’s number and even send flowers, but an app can’t do that most human of all things: emotionally connect with her.” — Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit

Most grim: “The degree of integration of A.I. into daily life will depend very much, as it does now, on wealth. The people whose personal digital devices are day-trading for them, and doing the grocery shopping and sending greeting cards on their behalf, are people who are living a different life than those who are worried about missing a day at one of their three jobs due to being sick, and losing the job and being unable to feed their children.” — Bill Woodcock, executive director for the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit research institute on Internet traffic

Most frightening to Americans: “Globally, more jobs will be created by manufacturing of robots, but in developed countries like the U.S. and Europe jobs will be displaced by manufacturing by robots.” — Mike Liebhold, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group

Most frightening to parents: “Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told to them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.” — Howard Rheingold, tech writer and analyst

In the medium term robots will create wealth. The question is how that will distribute. Will a few owners of capital get it all? Or will some of it be transferred to the rest of humanaity?

Steppe Warriors

I had never fully appreciated the role of the warriors of the steppe in Eurasian history. While they were a recurring bad dream for the cultures they ravaged, they also created or destroyed many of the great empires of history. In the Sixteenth Century, for example, they ruled China (the Manchus), India (the Mughal empire), and the Ottoman empire. The founders of the Persian (Safanid) empire also seem to have some elements of Turkic roots. The Russian empire grew out of a vassal state of the Golden Horde.

These frequently loose confederations of pastoral nomads were exceptionally capable at warfare, and vulnerable civilizations, Ming, Roman and other collapsed before them.

The empires they built were not without their merits. Under the Mughals, Indian culture and economy flourished - at the cost of frequently brutal taxation. When their empire disintegrated, claims John Darwin:

...Humiliated by the Marathas, unable to staunch the haemorrhage of power to their provincial governors or subahdars, and challenged by the rise of Sikhism in the Punjab, Mughal prestige was finally shattered by the invasion of Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran. Indeed, Nadir’s victory in 1739 was the starting gun for chaos. Maratha, Rohilla (Afghan) and Pindari (mercenary) armies, and those of lesser warlords, ravaged North India. In this predatory climate, trade and agriculture declined together. Economic failure echoed political disintegration. Small wonder, then, that Mughal India was the first of the great Eurasian states to fall under European domination after 1750.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 146). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Darwin seems to be of the opinion that stable empires are generally a good deal. Probably not an entirely popular point of view. Somewhat confusingly, he then adds:

In recent years, this simplistic ‘black’ version of India’s pre-colonial history has been largely rewritten. The late Mughal period no longer makes sense as the chaotic prologue to colonial rule. India’s conquest was a more complex affair than the foredoomed collapse of an overstretched empire and the pacification of its warring fragments by European rulers with superior political skill. A realistic account of the half-century that ended at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (the opening salvo of Britain’s colonial conquest) would stress the part played by Indians in building new networks of trade and new regional states. It was this that helped to set off the crises that overwhelmed them unexpectedly in the 1750s.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 146). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

His whole book is full of this sort of confusing mix. My guess is that he endorses the first view, but wants to show his open mindedness. Or maybe I have it backwards.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Sounds like something Bart Simpson might have said, once upon a time, but it's an Icelandic volcano which might disrupt European air travel with its ash cloud.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland's Bardarbunga volcano began erupting Saturday under the country's largest glacier after a week of seismic activity rattled the area with thousands of earthquakes, the country's Meteorological Office said.

The eruption prompted Iceland to raise its aviation alert level to red — the highest level on a five-point scale — indicating the threat of "significant emission of ash into the atmosphere."

Seismic data indicates that magma from the volcano is melting ice beneath the Dyngjujokull icecap on the Vatnajokull glacier, Met Office vulcanologist Melissa Pfeffer said.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Indian Territory

Despite the trouble I get into when I venture there, I continue to be fascinated by the remarkable history of India. Although Indian civilization is one of the oldest and most creative in the world, its very wealth, combined with its proximity to central Asia, have made it a repeated target for conquerors. Despite living under foreign and culturally alien invaders for most of the last 1100 years, it has managed remarkably well at preserving an independent, vibrant and exceptionally resilient civilization. I doubt that this can be said of any other nation.

John Darwin considers the subject in his book After Tamerlane. One of the successor conquerors was Akbar, grandson of Babur. Here is one number that amazed me.

Akbar’s ministers were able to apply their revenue system – collecting in cash perhaps one-half of the value of agricultural production86 – with remarkable uniformity across his territories.87 This great revenue stream was the real foundation of Mughal imperial power.

It paid for the army as well as a cultural programme that drew on the practice of Timurid Samarkand.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 85). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

It seems astounding that a government could extract that much wealth from a pre-industrial agricultural economy without starving all the subjects to death.

Socialism and Morality

Am I my brother's keeper? ............... Genesis 4:9

Socialism has been a big failure as a modern economic system. From a Darwinian point of view, the reason is obvious: free riding. Without the discipline of the marketplace, the system is entirely too vulnerable to those who would take without contributing. Perhaps even more important is the non-Darwinian fact that socialism does not seem to create incentives for innovation and efficiency. In fact only capitalism seems to be good at that.

Despite these facts, certain socialistic notions are very appealing to the human psyche, and most modern governments, including those of the most successful states, incorporate a lot of socialized elements. As the epigraph from Genesis suggests, such elements are fundamental to a number of religions. Christopher Boehm suggests that a socialized sharing of large kills developed early in human culture, probably between 250,000 BP and 45,000 BP, and that that practice was responsible for the development of the human moral sense.

The behavior of modern hunter-gatherers, as well as indirect prehistoric evidence, suggests that bullying and other forms of free riding are strongly suppressed in such societies by concerted social action, up to and including capital punishment. Modern socialist experiments also include important elements of compulsion, and the most socialistic societies have been oppressively totalitarian - another good reason they are suspect.

So far as I no modern government, and probably no society of any sort, lacks socialistic elements. Given that fact, the real question can never be socialism or not. Instead, as with many other things, the question we have to ask is how much is optimal? And that means trade-offs.

The Murder of James Foley

We are rightly outraged, I think, at the cold-blooded murder of American Journalist James Foley by ISIS militants. Beheading seems like a barbaric former of murder, and it is, but is it really worse than other methods? Would we have been less outraged if he had been murdered in an Arizona type hour long calamity of botched lethal injections?

I'm not try to equate murder of a journalist with execution of a murderer, but I would note that our good buddies in Saudi Arabia have executed at least 19 people by beheading in the last 17 days, eight of them for nonviolent offenses according to this Human Rights Watch report:

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has executed at least 19 people since August 4, 2014. Local news reports indicate that eight of those executed were convicted of nonviolent offenses, seven for drug smuggling and one for sorcery.

Family members of another man, Hajras bin Saleh al-Qurey, told Human Rights Watch on August 17 that they fear his execution is imminent. The Public Court of Najran, in southern Saudi Arabia, sentenced al-Qurey to death by beheading on January 16, 2013 for allegedly smuggling drugs and attacking a police officer during his arrest.

“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “There is simply no excuse for Saudi Arabia’s continued use of the death penalty, especially for these types of crimes.”

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the Saudi government news agency, on August 18, authorities executed four Saudi men in Najran province. A court had previously convicted the men – identified as Hadi al-Mutlaq, Awadh al-Mutlaq, Mufreh al-Yami, and Ali al-Yami – of attempting to smuggle hashish into the country.

Why the Long Pause...?

As the bartender asked of the polar bear...

The apparent slowdown in global surface warming since 2000 is both a treasured talking point of the climate skeptocracy and a persistent puzzle for climate scientists. Suspicion has focused on the ocean heat content, mostly the Pacific, but according to this article in The Economist, the Atlantic now looks more like the culprit.

The most likely explanation is that it is hiding in the oceans, which store nine times as much of the sun’s heat as do the atmosphere and land combined. But until this week, descriptions of how the sea might do this have largely come from computer models. Now, thanks to a study published in Science by Chen Xianyao of the Ocean University of China, Qingdao, and Ka-Kit Tung of the University of Washington, Seattle, there are data.

Dr Chen and Dr Tung have shown where exactly in the sea the missing heat is lurking. As the left-hand chart below shows, over the past decade and a bit the ocean depths have been warming faster than the surface. This period corresponds perfectly with the pause, and contrasts with the last two decades of the 20th century, when the surface was warming faster than the deep. The authors calculate that, between 1999 and 2012, 69 zettajoules of heat (that is, 69 x 1021 joules—a huge amount of energy) have been sequestered in the oceans between 300 metres and 1,500 metres down. If it had not been so sequestered, they think, there would have been no pause in warming at the surface.

Hidden depths

The two researchers draw this conclusion from observations collected by 3,000 floats launched by Argo, an international scientific collaboration.

This sort of heat storage is probably part of a multi-decadal cycle, suggesting that when warming returns, it will return with a vengance.

UPDATE: More details in this Climatewire story.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The (Not so Fresh-Faced) Student

Not sure why, but I seem to have decided to study astrophysics. I took a number of MOOC courses, and they were fun, but I wasn't really getting much depth. So I started working my way through a couple of books (and buying a bunch more). I quickly found that I really couldn't learn much unless I pretty much did everything - read every word, wrote down the equations and their derivations, and did the problem sets.

I didn't do that when I was a real student, but maybe I was smarter then.

Or not.

Trouble on the Planet of the Apes

Some of the most fascinating experiments in primatology have been the attempts to teach apes human languages. Jane C Hu takes a look and finds some troubling details. One of the problems is that the people crazy enough to dedicate their lives to an ape for decades can't really be trusted to be objective observers.

Last week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the two laughing and tickling one another. At one point, Koko lifts up Williams’ shirt to touch his bare chest. In another scene, Koko steals Williams’ glasses and wears them around her trailer.

But how seriously should we take claims that Koko understood? Hu looks behind the curtain and sees some reasons for doubt.

The world Hu looks at is infested with backbiting, obsessive secrecy, and dubious claims about the ape's actual cognitive abilities. There have always been skeptics about the claims made by the researcher/foster parents of the apes, and the pervasive non-disclosure agreements required of those who work with the apes do absolutely nothing to quell those doubts, but the disclosure of Hu's informants seem mostly to be concerned with whether or not the apes are being properly fed and cared for.

The experiments have taught us a lot about ape cognition, and its limitations, but we are left with doubts about many of the claims as well as about the ethics of such experiments.