Friday, November 28, 2014


Kip Thorne has written a book on the science of the movie: The Science of Interstellar. But I still have some scientific quibbles. For example:

If NASA could produce the ranger and lander craft that navigate through big gravitational fields and land on and return from planets with gravitational field comparable to Earth, how come it took years and a three stage rocket to get out of Earth into orbit?

Also, maybe instead of spending all their special effects budget on making black holes realistic enough for Kip, they could have made their planets slightly less cheesy than the Star Trekie ones they used.

Libertarian Fable Meets Human History

There is a certain libertarian fable, invented or popularized by Bryan Caplan, that goes like so:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can't produce any food at all.

Much of human prehistory resembles this situation in several critical respects. When hunters started killing large game, one or a few hunters out of a larger group might, on any given day, produce many more calories of available food than the whole rest of the group combined. Out of the ten or so adult male hunters in a typical band, one may be consistently quite a bit better than the others - almost an Able Able. Given the accidents of existence, there may also be a Hapless Harry in the group.

Caplan goes on to ask some questions:

1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

I think it's interesting to note how human hunter-gather groups have dealt with their (imperfectly analogous but realistic) situations.

Question 1 gets answered with an empathetic yes for large kills. Smaller scale food collection belongs to the collector. Fruits of cooperative activities are shared. Major cheating is punished drastically.

Question 2. Depending on the severity and permanence of Harry's haplessness, he will be either supported by the group he may be abandoned, humanely eliminated, or supported. If Able chooses to be stingy with Harry he will be punished but not likely executed or banished, but should he become injured, his stinginess will not be forgotten.

Q 3. The answer of history: hell yes for Hunter gatherers. Farmers, not so much.

Q 4. No for HGs. But farming led to slavery.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

For Shame

Man is the Only Animal that blushes. Or needs to.......................Mark Twain, Following the Equator.

Mark Twain's witticism poses a fundamental question for evolutionary biology: What was the circumstance that impelled and produced this unique adaptation? Darwin himself thought deeply about it, and wrote letters to naturalists around the world to ask if people everywhere did in fact blush - they do.

Humans are also unique in their extra-familial generosity, or altruism. Christopher Boehm draws a straight line between these behaviors, and believes that they connect directly with our ability to cooperate in large groups. The evolutionary pressure against altruistic behavior, whether it involves giving money to support some child in a different country or going to war to defend your country, are huge. Free riders: cheaters, draft dodgers, etc.,(the Dick Cheneys, George W. Bushes, et. al.) get a big advantage out their free ride. Without active suppression of free riding, large scale cooperation does not seem possible.

Boehm speculates that active suppression of free riders, who at first were probably just bullies, arose with hunting of large game, something a lone human with crude weapons can hardly accomplish. Such suppression was probably violent, just as it has been in recent hunter-gatherers, and favored those who could internalize society's rules. That internalization software and hardware became the "conscience" - the basis of our sense of shame.

Of course some people lack that sense of shame - the Nietzschean and Randian "Supermen" - perhaps better described as Superchimps, since they are really just slightly upgraded chimpanzees, lacking in some of the critical faculties that made us human. Usually, though, we just call them sociopaths.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Easterner: Part II (Repost)

Guagina made her way elegantly across the hardwood floor. Even with her thong and pasties covered with the fawn and blue track suit, she was impressive, 5' 11" in bare feet, plus three inch heels topped by a cloud of flame red hair. She was on a delicate diplomatic mission.

The bar was empty, except for her, Lefty the one-armed barkeep, and Les. A few days in the humid atmosphere of the bar had allowed the cowpies to absorb water, beer, spit, and tobacco juice, and they were beginning to support ecosystems of their own. Lefty was losing his shirt, but at the moment was more concerned about his remaining limbs. Gaugina wasn't making any tips either.

"Hey Les, what's up with Britt?"

"She's still in El Paso. She's got the money to bail her Mom out, but Grandma wants to wait while Marjean detoxes a bit."

OK, Killer hadn't bitten her head off. She delicately broached the subject of Super-Conformal field theories. Les responded immediately, almost eagerly. He was bored as hell and he thought Guagina might provide some ammo for use against the Easterner.

Guagina had spent eight months as a postdoc in the MIT theory group before deciding to seek a more financially and culturally rewarding career.

Les had more questions than usual, and even seemed to be on the verge of comprehending the connection between space-time and worldsheet supersymmetry, so she shifted right to the point.

"That goddamn cowshit is stinking up the place and driving off all the customers. It's not even good for throwing anymore - it's lost its structural integrity."

Les glowered a bit, then: "Lefty, get this goddamn cowshit out of here. And clean up the f****** pool table. Get some more, and stack it outside this time, in the Sun."


Dusty had been in town for more than a week, and had yet to make a move.

In fact, he had hardly moved at all. The journey had been brutally hard, especially that last 800 miles through the howling sandstorm. He had been sand-blasted, wind-blasted, sun-blasted, gypsum-blasted, and hailstoned. He had been hit by tumbleweeds, windlofted goatheads, and even a couple of beer cans thrown by pickup truck passengers. Large chunks of flesh had been slashed by dried flying mesquite branches. A lesser man would have quit. A better bicyclist would have beaten the sandstorm.

Something might have snapped in Dusty when he passed that "Welcome to Las Cruces" sign. He was exhausted, dehydrated, starved, and largely deracinated. Somewhere inside, a "Mission Accomplished" banner had been slapped up, and he couldn't even remember what the mission had been.

We can only speculate as to what his fate might have been had he not been taken in by a kindly family of evangelical gun rights advocates. Among them, and among the congregation of the Natural Rights of Americans (or NRA) Church he thought, at least for a while, that he had found ideological soulmates. Together, they prayed for President Cheney, Presidential Cheerleader Bush, and the unmoved mover (Exxon Mobile).

The NRA church encouraged audience participation, and Dusty soon became a popular figure with his fiery sermons against Communism, socialism, liberalism, climate doomsayers and Loop Quantum Gravity. OK, maybe nobody had any idea what the hell he was talking about most of the time, but he said what he said with God intoxicated passion.


(to be continued?)


Recently there has been a spate of articles and other interest in the fact that Asians need a lot higher SAT scores, on average, to get into Harvard than whites. In effect, there seems to be a quota, about 15%, for Asian students. This is reminiscent of similar quotas for Jews a half century ago. If one looks at the population of students with the highest academic performance and test scores, there are a lot more Asians and Jews than their proportions in the US population.

Caltech, perhaps the only US university in this class that practices race blind admissions, has a student population that is about 40% Asian. Harvard claims 20% Asian for 2013, 12% African-American, and 13% Hispanic. Hillel, the Jewish student organization, says that 25% of the Harvard undergrads are Jewish. If we take all these statistics at face value, that leaves 30% for others, most of whom must be non-Hispanic, non-Jewish whites, who are consequently drastically under-represented compared to their proportion of the population.

One view of the problem is that the distribution of high achieving students is a lot different than the distribution of the overall population, with Asian and Jewish students being highly over-represented, whites somewhat under-represented and Hispanics and Blacks even more under-represented. If Harvard admitted purely on the basis of academic credentials, it would be mostly Asian and Jewish, with a large minority of non-Hispanic, non-Jewish whites, and hardly any Hispanics or Blacks.

Whether that is desirable is a question for Harvard, and perhaps the larger populace, to consider, but the point is that you can't be purely meritocratic and racially balanced.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Easterner: Repost

I noticed recently that Lumo had me blacklisted from his blog, so I thought I might repost this legend from our mutual past:

The slight, exhausted man steps off his bicycle on a dusty Las Cruces street.

His bike tires are flat and encrusted with goatheads. So is his hair. He looks like he has ridden the last 800 miles through a duststorm.

He has.

No matter. He is on a mission of vengence.

He speaks to the first man he meets: "I'm looking for a pig."

"No hablo Ingles."

He tries again on the next guy, a wiry guy in a Stetson and cowboy boots.

"Sorry, this is cattle country. Cattle and goats."

"A Capitalist Pig."

Stetson: "We don't hold much with Communists here boy. You sound like one of them European Commies. Just what is your business here anyway, and do you have a green card? What's your name anyway? The avenger tells him.

Boots and Stetson: "Shit! I can't pronounce that, much less spell it. How 'bout if I just call you Dusty. I think I know who you are looking for - a kinda tall, mean, lean customer? We usually just call him killer - not to his face of course. His real name is Leslie, but we don't call him that either. You might want to call him Les, or maybe just CIP - unless you're looking for a fight, that is."

Meanwhile, a couple of miles away in Mesilla, Leslie was sitting on a barstool at the Brass Balls Bistro and Tattoo Parlor. A small stack of empty rock glasses sat in front of him. He was pissed. He had been waiting for the Easterner for weeks. Didn't they know about airplanes in Cambridge? The bartender had run out of Marashino Cherries and was running low on Sasparilla.

Reflexively, he checked his backup weapons: .22 caliber shirtsleeve Derringer, check; shoulder holster, .40 caliber Glock 22, check; revolver, .357 Ruger 100, check; sniper rifle, Steyr-Mannlicher .50 caliber with armor penetrating incendiary rounds, check; automatic shotgun, Berreta AL 391 Urika Gold, check; automatic weapon, M249 SAW, check. The heavy weapons were in the Hummer.

The primary weapon was here, too, piled high on the nearby pool table. 12 dozen field-aged cow patties, neatly stacked and uniformly sized.

Britta, the pole dancer, comes over and starts to massage his muscular shoulders: "Killer Baby, you seem tense. You want to get some re - LAX - ation? Wanta show me your new tatoos?

"Not tonight honey. I must face a man who hates me, or lie a coward, a craven coward, in my grave."

"Whoa - is that from The Virginian?"

"Naw. I think it was High Noon."

Britta and Les had been students in the same film studies class.

(to be continued)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Downtown: Astro FOTD

The center of our galaxy is a happening place - besides the resident kinda-sorta Super Massive Black Hole (3 million solar masses or so, but a piker compared to those in the big elliptical galaxies) - there is a very high density of stars, rampant recent star birth, and dusty clouds of gas. We can't see this stuff in the visible, as only about one visible photon in a trillion makes it way through the dust to us, but other wavelengths penetrate better.

It's a starry starry night there, as stellar density is a million times greater than in our neighborhood. On a dark night, a person of good eyesight on Earth can see about 7000 stars - if you were in the galactic nucleus, you could see millions.

A nice place to visit, perhaps, but you wouldn't want to live there. O supergiants are bound to go supernova soon, and the radiation from the BH and other hot stuff would make the place pretty uninhabitable.

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.