Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mousetrapping Castro

Americans generally don't appreciate how advantageous it is to have a President who is actually smart. From Politico:

HAVANA — In Cuba, just having a news conference is news. President Barack Obama jokes that he likes news conferences and wants to do more of them, and let them go on longer. That tends to be less the case at the White House than abroad, when Obama’s trying to make a point about a repressive regime by turning to the news media.

He did it in China in 2013 by giving a New York Times reporter a question to President Xi Jinping right after the government in Beijing had kicked out a reporter from the newspaper. He did it in Ethiopia last year, when he forced the journalist-jailing prime minister to stand next to him for a long news conference during which Obama talked about the country’s record on human rights and held forth on American politics.

Monday afternoon here in Havana, he did it to Raúl Castro, right in the Revolutionary Palace, letting him be pressed with questions for the first time — ever — and joining in himself. And not just that: He had to answer for the political prisoners whom the government rounds up almost daily — yet denies even exist.

Cubans watching on state television, which broadcast the whole thing live and in full, had never seen anything like this. Neither has the White House press corps. Or anyone who works at the White House.

Read more: Follow us: @politico on Twitter | Politico on Facebook

Allies and Enemies

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”..................Lord Palmerston

On the other hand, he also said:

I hold that the real policy of England... is to be the champion of justice and right, pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and whenever she thinks that wrong has been done.

Of course Palmerston is probably not totally reliable guru for foreign policy, but these two pithy quotes do supply some food for thought for every strategic champion of justice. The first is a fact of life that every successful US President has mastered. It means that in foreign policy it is often necessary to not only let bygones be bygones but also to sometimes sup with the devil and even go to baseball games with him.

Commenter (or perhaps commentator) Fernando has been abusing Obama and me lately for Obama's policies toward Cuba. Obama is practicing Palmerston's first principle toward Cuba, and I tend to think that he has chosen an opportune moment. The Castros are very old men, and regime change, one way or the other, is likely soon. US power to facilitate changes we approve of will be much greater if we come to the event not as enemies.

Fernando, so he says, is a Cuban emigre who became an American Citizen, is evidently quite successful, but doesn't live in the US. He has a bitter, personal, and probably well-justified hatred of the Castros and their regime. His enmity is personal and perpetual, and he is outraged that the US is abandoning his jihad - outraged enough to make thinly veiled threats involving suicide vests.

I think he lacks necessary critical distance.

Applied Mathematics

I've been looking at new cars. I thought I should apply algebraic mathematical reasoning to the task, so here is a short glossary for mathematicians:

Automorphism: The process of exchanging your old car and bank account for a new one.

Inner Automorphism: The process of turning oneself inside out in order to get into the new car.

Group: The collection of people you wish to transport.

Subgroup: The subset of the group that will actually fit into the car.

Cyclic subgroup: Those who didn't fit in the car and so must peddle.

Ideal: The car you could have bought for a lot more money.

Abelian Group: Those who need a car because they commute.

Left Coset: Where the commanding officer/driver sets in the US.

Right Coset: Analogous location in UK & a few other benighted realms.

Isomorphism: The car that's just as good as the old car except for costing a lot more.

Homomorphism: This term is deprecated as possibly offensive to some.

Lagrange's Theorem: A notorious mountain in France often featured in the Tour de France. Cannot be climbed by the numerically weak.

Representation Theory: The lies used by the car salesman in order to suck you in.

Finite Dimensional Representation: The sticker price.

Infinite Dimensional Representation: How much you will actually pay.

Galois Theory: Explains why the mechanic cannot get to the root of your car's mechanical problems even by resorting to radical measures.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

No More Negroes or Orientals

From The Hill:

President Obama has signed legislation striking outdated racial terms such as “Oriental” and “Negro” from federal laws. Obama signed the bill without fanfare on Friday along with six other pieces of legislation, the White House said.


Thanks to the new law, references to the term “Oriental” will be replaced with “Asian American” and the word “Negro” will be changed to “African American.”

The new terms are apparently considered less potentially offensive.

On the other hand, the old terms are also more generic, since they don't single out American citizenship.

Google offers:

Ne·gro ˈnēɡrō/ dated offensive noun 1. a member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to Africa south of the Sahara.


o·ri·en·tal ˌôrēˈen(t)l/ adjective 1. of, from, or characteristic of East Asia. "oriental rugs" synonyms: eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Asiatic; literaryorient "oriental cooking" 2. (of a pearl or other jewel) orient.

But Merriam-Webster finds that it, too, is sometimes offensive. Perhaps the new terms will similarly be deprecated and need to be replaced in a couple of decades.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Meaning my back yard is covered with an inch or so of frozen water - hail. Of course snow doesn't really happen very often at Christmas in Las Cruces, but neither do big thunderstorms in May.

Meanwhile, snow in the Arctic continues under heavy attack.

Damn Strait

One drastic proposal for for saving the Arctic ice is to dam the Bering strait. By limiting the heat and water flow in this would putatively preserve the ice. Besides being a very challenging engineering task, this would have other huge and likely unpredictable consequences. On the positive side, it would permit rail and perhaps road traffic between the US and Russia as well as supporting trans Arctic sale of Russian oil and gas, as well as other trade. The normal annual flow through the Bering strait is about 1 Sverdrup (10^6 m^3/s), or about the combined flow of every river in the world (or so I'm told*). So there could be hydroelectic potential too.

I am in no way condoning or endorsing this idea - it looks pretty damn dangerous.

*For comparison, the number one river, the Amazon, is about 20% of this, and the number 2, the Congo, is 4%. The biggest North American rivers, the Mississippi and the Saint Lawrence, are about 1.6% each.

Hating on the Rich

I don't hate the rich because they have Mercedes S-600's and I don't. Even though the S classes are really comfortable cars for oversized people like me. No, I hate the rich because they have S classes and private jets*. Aside from these unworthy and petty jealousies, though, it really makes me furious when the rich and super rich oppose programs that benefit the poor and middle class.

A significant fraction of the super rich devote large tax free expenditures to trying to undermine and destroy public education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs that benefit the middle class and poor. It is an outrage that they are allowed to do this with tax free dollars, and it's a scandal that they do it at all. The Democrats really need to run people who will confront these problems and commit to attacking them.

JK - I don't really hate people for that, even though I am jealous. I'm serious about the rest of the post though.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Fish have them too, says Jonathan Balcome in the NYT. He makes a good case for some fish being pretty smart, and having stress response similar to our own.

At low tide, frillfins hide in rocky tide pools. If danger lurks — a hungry octopus, say — the goby will jump to a neighboring tide pool, with remarkable accuracy. How do they avoid ending up stranded on the rocks?

A series of captive experiments dating from the 1940s found something remarkable. They memorize the tide pool layout while swimming over it at high tide. They can do it in one try, and remember it 40 days later. So much for a fish’s mythic three-second memory.

And big brained manta rays appear to recognize themselves in mirrors - a feat matched only by the brightest mammals. Some fish even use tools, and others recognize friendly divers and will come over for strokes.

That could spoil my dinner.

Big Picture

Sean Carroll has written a new book, The Big Picture, which has gotten pretty good reviews from a lot of people including Bee - whom I will count as the equivalent of all the Neal DeGrasse Tyson's and others summoned for the Amazon reviews. I used to be a regular reader of his blog, but I thought he was getting a bit stale recently. Anybody else read it? Should I?

UPDATE: Barry Lower's Review in Science (Summary)

The 20th-century philosopher Wilfrid Sellars characterized the aim of philosophy as "to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." This is also physicist Sean Carroll's aim in his new book, The Big Picture. He sets out to show how various phenomena, including thought, choice, conscioussness, and value, hang together with the scientific account of reality that has been developed in physics in the past 100 years. He attempts to do all this without relying on specialized jargon from philosophy and physics, and succeeds spectacularly in achieving both aims.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Possible Flooding in Santa's Workshop

It's getting hard to find any part of the Arctic not scheduled to get torched in the next 7-10 days. First the Beaufort and Chuckchi and then the Barents, Kara, and Laptev seas get the blowtorch treatment. The Central Arctic Basin may also see a bit of melting. Greenland gets torched at the rate of 10-15 C above normal, not enough to get the central highlands melting, but the southern edges should get a light toasting. The Bering and Okhotzk are history. The Canadian Archipelago and Hudson will also get lightly browned.

Cranbrook Ratio

The Cranbrook Ratio*, named for the Fifth Viscount Cranbrook, is the ratio of relevant factual information to strength of opinions held.

*Oddly, but perhaps appropriately, John Phillips-Thomas, Fifth Viscount Cranbrook, discoverer of the Cranbrook Ratio, is no relation to Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, also Fifth Viscount Cranbrook. This is due to the former Lord Cranbrook being a purely fictitious invention, unlike the latter, who not only seems to actually exist but also to be rather accomplished. The resemblance was, and is, purely coincidental.

Corporate Power

Possession of some prime numbers is illegal in the United States:

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Secrets of Educational Success

Choose your parents wisely. That's at least partly because of genetics. A new study of 300,000 individuals reported in this week's Nature found 74 variant loci associated with educational attainment. From the Abstract:

Here we report the results of a genome-wide association study (GWAS) for educational attainment that extends our earlier discovery sample1, 2 of 101,069 individuals to 293,723 individuals, and a replication study in an independent sample of 111,349 individuals from the UK Biobank. We identify 74 genome-wide significant loci associated with the number of years of schooling completed. Single-nucleotide polymorphisms associated with educational attainment are disproportionately found in genomic regions regulating gene expression in the fetal brain. Candidate genes are preferentially expressed in neural tissue, especially during the prenatal period, and enriched for biological pathways involved in neural development. Our findings demonstrate that, even for a behavioural phenotype that is mostly environmentally determined, a well-powered GWAS identifies replicable associated genetic variants that suggest biologically relevant pathways.

Hot Flashes

Over the next week, the Pacific side of the Arctic Ocean is projected to see temperatures 10 C (18 F) warmer than normal, with widespread melting. Meanwhile, Alaska, the coast of the Yukon and Northwest Territory and Western Siberia will all see temperatures up to 15 C (27 F) warmer than normal. Snow cover will be decimated. Both surface melting and the disappearance of snow decrease albedo, resulting in more absorption of solar energy. Barring a major change in the weather, we are primed for a major Arctic melt - but it is still pretty early.

Our Illustrious Ancestors

A nation isn't just land and laws, it also requires a mythology. To be glued together as one, people need excuses as to why they are exceptional. Consequently, it's customary to trace one's ancestry to others who can be imagined to be more glorious. Thus the Romans traced themselves back to Troy, Spanish aristocracy traced itself to the Visigoths, and the Nazis to the conquering Aryans, whom they imagined to look a lot like themselves.

The word Aryan was the name the Vedic peoples of India gave themselves, and was also used by Persians as an autonym, whence the modern word Iran. Its European roots date to the discovery that Persian and Sanskrit were closely related to most of the modern languages of Europe. Originally a linguistic term for the languages we now call Indo-European, it took on a racial implication under the influence of white people's desire to convince themselves that they were superior to everyone else (the inconvenient fact that those original Aryans didn't seem to be quite white was explained as a side effect of racial mixing.) The consequent racist bullshit, widespread among whites, and culminating in the Nazi outrages, poisoned the term, so now we mostly use the more descriptive "Indo-European."

Six thousand years ago, approximately, the original speakers of proto-Indo-European (those so-called Aryans) probably constituted a few thousand pastoralists in Central Asia. Since then, their languages have spread across the globe, and are official languages in much of the territory of every continent, spoken by nearly half of all persons. They were illiterate and itinerant. We don't see their languages in the historical record until they encounter more civilized and literate peoples. Which invites the question of how they swept so many other languages away.

Despite their illiteracy, they could manufacture bronze, and, most importantly, had domesticated the horse, giving them tremendous mobility. Our first example of the languages of India, for example, comes from the Middle East, in a book on chariot warfare written by an instructor imported from India.

So how does a language come to replace all it's competitors? We can only guess at much of the history, but we have genomic evidence that the invaders of Europe displaced many of the previous peoples, but ultimately (a thousand years later) mixed with them. In the case of the Americas, wholesale extermination played a big role, especially in the North. In other cases, economic factors seem to predominate. Pastoral societies usually have more social flexibility, so a person who wants to get ahead learns the language of opportunity. We see an analogous process today, where English is the language of science and commerce, so that it pays a young Japanese, Chinese, Indian and others to learn English.

Except for genomic part, the above is adapted mainly from In Search of the Indo-Europeans, by J. P. Mallory.

Antarctic Temperatures

There is no doubt that Antarctica is not warming as fast as the rest of the globe. It's not entirely clear whether it is warming at all. The small or nonexistent warming in Antarctica is consistent with most global warming models. Some parts of the continent are clearly warming, while others are not, or not warming as much. Wikipedia has a good summary of the state of scientific opinion:

Changes in the average temperature of the Antarctic continent has been the subject of various measurements. The trend differs at different locations on the continent.[3] These trends have been labelled as "contradictory" in some accounts.[4][5][6] Observations unambiguously show the Antarctic Peninsula to be warming. Some trends elsewhere on the continent have shown cooling,[7][8][9] while others show show warming over the entire continent,[10] but overall trends are smaller and dependent on season and the timespan over which the trend is computed. Climate models predict that temperature trends due to global warming will be much smaller in Antarctica than in the Arctic,[11] mainly because heat uptake by the Southern Ocean acts to moderate the radiative forcing by greenhouse gases.

The apparent contradiction in the observed cooling behavior of Antarctica between 1966 to 2000 became part of the public debate in the global warming controversy, particularly between advocacy groups of both sides in the public arena, as well as the popular media. In his novel State of Fear, Michael Crichton asserted that the Antarctic data contradict global warming.[12] The few scientists who have commented on the supposed controversy state that there is no contradiction,[13] while the author of the paper whose work inspired Crichton's remarks has said that Crichton "misused" his results.[14] There is no similar controversy within the scientific community, as the small observed changes in Antarctica are consistent with the small changes predicted by climate models, and because the overall trend since comprehensive observations began is now known to be one of warming. At the South Pole, where some of the strongest cooling trends were observed between the 1950s and 1990s, the mean trend is flat from 1957 through 2013.

In a study released in 2009, historical weather station data was combined with satellite measurements to deduce past temperatures over large regions of the continent, and these temperatures indicate an overall warming trend. One of the paper's authors, Eric J. Steig of the University of Washington, stated "We now see warming is taking place on all seven of the earth’s continents in accord with what models predict as a response to greenhouse gases."[15] A follow-up study by O'Donnell and others that strongly criticized the Steig et al. work nevertheless found significant warming in West Antarctica. O'Donnell et al. also confirmed that Antarctica overall has been warming since the 1950s, but disagreed with Steig et al. about the strength of that warming. Subsequent measurements of temperatures in a borehole at the center of the West Antarctic ice sheet, by Orsi and others,[16] found even larger positive trends than Steig et al.

I would add that some authors have seen a long period North-South oscillation which might currently be amplifying NH warming and diminishing SH warming.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Is Your Politics in Your Genes?

Not entirely, of course, but there is a certain amount of evidence of genetic predisposition to political outlook, especially liberalism vs conservatism. Some of the latest such evidence comes from Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS). Such studies are useful when you have large sample sizes and traits that are believed for other reasons to be hereditary but controlled by a large number of genes. Height is the classic example. Our adult heights are closely related to those of our parents, but no single gene, nor even small group of genes, can explain the relationship.

The genes we inherit are a mix of those of from our parents, but our inheritance is not randomly assorted, gene by gene. Instead, we inherit chromosomes, each containing thousands of genes, which consist of at most a few chunks from father and a few from mother, so that genes that started out close together on a chromosome are very likely to stay together. GWAS look for variant sections of DNA whose inheritance correlates with inherited traits. For example, if height correlates more with one parent, the GWAS would look for variant sections inherited from that parent. If a trait is governed by many genes, very large sample sizes are necessary for this kind of correlation to have any statistical power. By tradition, an association is considered significant if the odds of it being produces by chance are less than 1/1000 (so-called LOD >= 3), while associations are considered suggestive if LOD >= 2.5. (1/10^2.5 = 1/316).

The disadvantage of such a study is that it can't pinpoint an individual gene, only a region on a chromosome, which may contain dozens or even hundreds of genes, not to mention many more regulatory sequences. Determing how the gene influenced political perspective would be much more difficult.

The news to date is that a GWAS of 13,000 individuals did find regions that reach significance and suggestiveness. The genes can't be determined, but the regions do seem to be rich in genes regulating certain neurotransmitters as well as the sense of smell.

One identifying feature of conservatives is that they don't cope well with new information or environments, so it is at least plausible that this involves some of the neurotransmitters that mediate brain plasticity.


The snow in the north-west Arctic, that is. A big blast of warm air, a blow torch in Arctic parlance, is projected to ravage the snow cover in Alaska and north west Canada this week, and it won't stop at the ocean front, which should also get a good dose of melting. So far this year has been a bad year for the Arctic ice, but, as always, weather will have the final say. Prospects for a record melt look good (or bad, if you happen to be a polar bear), though.


And yesterday:

UPDATE 2: another 99,000 km^2 lost today (5/9)

Friday, May 06, 2016

First They Came for the Economists

Alex Tabbarok reports the latest in unAmerican activities: An economist doing algebra.

Flight from Philly to Syracuse goes out on the tarmac, ready to take off. The passenger sitting next to me calls the stewardess, passes her a note. The stewardess comes back asks her if she is comfortable taking off, or she is too sick. We wait more. We go back to the gate. The passenger exits. We wait more. The pilot comes to me and asks me out of the plane. There I am met by some FBI looking man-in-black. They ask me about my neighbor. I tell them I noticed nothing strange. They tell me she thought I was a terrorist because I was writing strange things on a pad of paper. I laugh. I bring them back to the plane. I showed them my math.

It’s a bit funny. It’s a bit worrisome. The lady just looked at me, looked at my writing of mysterious formulae, and concluded I was up to no good. Because of that an entire flight was delayed by 1.5 hours.

Trump’s America is already here. It’s not yet in power though. Personally, I will fight back.

- See more at:

Baby Hitler

Now that Baby Berlusconi, AKA Baby Hitler, AKA Donald Trump, seems certain to be the Republican nominee, I am getting worried that he could be elected. Hillary is a weak candidate, and I have spoken to a lot of people who really should know better who plan to vote for Trump. Perhaps no presidential candidate in history, or at least in recent history, has displayed such colossal ignorance of and utter contempt for the Constitution. Many of these people are college graduates. You would think that they might know something about history, but they clearly don't.