Sunday, March 31, 2013


For the last three decades, the United States has had an aggressive program to increase inequality among Americans. It has been fabulously successful.

Can we stop now?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Archibald Garrod

One hundred and five years ago, Archibald Garrod reported one of the most consequential results in the history of biology: the link between gene and protein. This is remarkable mostly because enzymes were newly discovered and the nature of the gene was as yet unknown.

The Bissinger Buzz

Well known tough guy sportswriter Buss Bissinger, recently confesses to a $600,000 Gucci habit and reportedly checked into rehab. Now I don't know Mr. Bissinger, having read just enough of his work to be unimpressed, but his tale of Italian excess is ... uh ... peculiar.

It started three years ago. I have never fully revealed it, and am only revealing it now in the hopes that my confession will incite a remission and perhaps help others of similar compulsion. If all I buy is Gucci, I will be fine. It has taken a while to figure out what works and what doesn't work, but Gucci men's clothing best represents who I want to be and have become—rocker, edgy, tight, bad boy, hip, stylish, flamboyant, unafraid, raging against the conformity that submerges us into boredom and blandness and the sexless saggy sackcloths that most men walk around in like zombies without the cinematic excitement of engorging flesh.

I own eighty-one leather jackets, seventy-five pairs of boots, forty-one pairs of leather pants, thirty-two pairs of haute couture jeans, ten evening jackets, and 115 pairs of leather gloves. Those who conclude from this that I have a leather fetish, an extreme leather fetish, get a grand prize of zero. And those who are familiar with my choices will sign affidavits attesting to the fact that I wear leather every day. The self-expression feels glorious, an indispensable part of me. As a stranger said after admiring my look in a Gucci burgundy jacquard velvet jacket and a Burberry black patent leather trench,

"You don't give a fuck."

Read More

Not sure exactly why a sportswriter spending some peoples lifetime earnings on funky Italian style strikes me as odder than Larry Ellison's spending several thousand times as much on a bunch of big boats, but it does. Maybe because I'd actually kind of like to have one of the boats.

Whatever, but I doubt that it is just coincidence that this 6000 word story came out in the April issue of GQ.

Foot Fetish

Pope Francis annoyed traditionalists by including women prisoners in his ceremonial penitential foot washing. Several outraged Cardinals complained that they hadn't changed their socks in weeks just in the hope of being picked themselves.

Meanwhile, Rep Don Young (R - AK), ceremonially washed the backs of several Mexican tomato pickers for his own penance.

Educational Taxonomy: Hard or Fluffy

I tend to consider some subjects fluffy: history, sociology, philosophy, political science ... essentially anything that doesn't sets of intellectually challenging problems. If you have a good memory and are reasonably glib on paper, you can hope to cruise through such a course even if you are hungover when the class meets. I call them HO classes for short. The other kind of class, obviously, is a PS class: especially physics, engineering, computer science, mathematics, and so on. There are others that don't fit those molds, of course: foreign language, music performance/composition, fine arts, theatre, dance ... call them AF classes.

Because computer scientists started the MOOC revolution, computer science classes are the best represented ones, and because those originators were into artificial intelligence, that subject is also very well represented.

On edX, the most serious MOOC platform, MITX is the heavy lifter, with a solid and spectacular offering of courses in Physics, EE, ME, Molecular Biology, and CS. Original partner Harvard has chimed in with a far more effete set of offerings (Cooking, global health...) while Berkeley gets some love from me for solid meat and potatoes stuff in Computer Science and other subjects. UT Austin, lately, has chimed in with an all HO offering.

My guess is that Harvard, UT, and a lot of the others are afraid to give away the good stuff. It's probably a sound idea economically, but I hate it.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Aboot Those Cold and Snowy Winters...

In Europe and the northern US. Eli assembles the evidence that decreased Arctic ice is a major player: dat Wabbett

The evidence comes from models, observations and the way they match. Eli is careful to point out that the case is not yet iron clad, but the ring appears to be closing.

That nasty drought in the Southwest and South Central US is there in the pictures too.

Might get a little hard to sympathize with drought stricken farmers in those states that keep electing climate deniers to Congress. Our special attention, though, ought to be directed to North Carolina, where the State has actually made it illegal to take climate change into account in coastal planning. Next big hurricane - let's not be too quick to bail them out - financially, I mean - I'm not advocating the kind of "let the Democrats drown" approach Rove and Bush took to New Orleans.

A Whiff of Panic: Technological Unemployment in the Academy

Academics are starting to notice the threat posed by the MOOC. See, eg., here, here, here and here.

The fear, I think, is well founded. The response, at this point, much less so. There is a lot of denial, bargaining and anger at this stage of their grief. Jonathan Rees, a history prof at CSU Pueblo, is the original voice here.

Getting back to my original subject, did you ever notice that you never hear anything like this from superprofessors? Just once, I want to hear a superprofessor say (or write):

“My MOOC is a pale imitation of the class I teach on campus.”


"The fact that I have a 90% drop out rate in my MOOC partially reflects the fact that many of my students find me boring.”

Why don’t you hear/read obvious statements like these? Ego, again.

Here is another theory. Maybe they don't believe the first statement. Maybe they didn't intend to teach their on campus course on a MOOC. At least one Prof has noted that his class at Standford had many students who found they preferred the online to the in class version.

As to Prof Rees's second hypothetical confession of a MOOC teacher, maybe they just found that they agreed with the philosophy that since the classes are free, anyone can try them out, and drop out if they find them too hard, too easy, or not suitable for their present needs. What a concept!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Party of Stupid: Part Whatever

It's not too shocking that among scientists, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine to one. After all, Republicans are the party of anti-science: anti-evolution, anti-big bang, and anti-Anthropogenic Global Warming theory. They have also forced big cuts on US science - not that Dems are great on that front either.

The numbers are even more lopsided among geophysicists, while chemists, with something like 1 R to 6 Ds are a virtual bastion of conservatism.

Monday, March 25, 2013


My latest non-fiction is Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book is an exposition of the work that won him a Nobel Memorial Prize, and that work has by now permeated much of psychology, economics and antropology, so the ideas were not especially strange to me. His fundamental argument is that the mind has two systems that work in parallel, the fast part that makes instinctive decisions and a slow part that can do calculations and logical analysis.

This notion is not even slightly surprising to the designer of robots. Robotic control systems (and other complex control systems) are designed in layers. Typically there will be a layer that performs some routine task (like go to a goal) and above it a layer that is called on only when some condition threatens the accomplishment of the goal seeking. The higher layer is responsible for switching to alternate behaviors when called for (avoid obstacle, etc). Still higher layers will perform higher level tasks like route planning.

Even simple animals like insects are more complex than robots, but they incorporate similar mechanisms. Both of the kinds of tasks Kahneman considers are pretty high level, but I don't doubt that many lower level layers exist as well.

One theme Kahneman promises to address is how trusting the wrong layer leads us into mistakes. One tidbit already mentioned (pg 37) is that recognizing other peoples mistakes is easier than recognizing our own - another good reason for arguing, in my opinion.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Demonic Creations

Freecell has got to be up there. That ubiquitous Windows variant on solitaire, originally included, or so it is alleged, to teach mouse skills, has lived on through many generations. Of course workplaces have mostly wised up and excluded it from work computers, but most people can still waste time on it at home. The trick is that while winning is nearly always possible, it can sometime be rather difficult. Still more insidious, but known to hard core addicts, is the fact that some games are in fact impossible.

The original deal, consists of 32,000 odd (OK, 2^15) deals out of which only one is strictly impossible. It's always out there, looming in the mist, for the hard core addict, ready to sieze the unwary. Thus, even if you are a self-imagined Freecell hotshot who has won 1477 straight games, many with ridiculous ease, you can't get too comfortable.

I personally always get a little nervous when a game numbered 11,*** comes up.

Emissions From the Moronosphere

Via Paul Krugman, Jonathan Chait looks at the right-wing outrage that Matt Yglesias, a semi-liberal, actually had the hypocritical nerve to buy a house. Unfortunately, satire is wasted on the fanatic.

Slate economics blogger and frequent Chait blog frenemy Matthew Yglesias — who is left of center but in an often contrarian, Slate-y way — has purchased a condo in Washington. It’s pretty nice, fetching a $1.2 million price. Some of our brightest conservative minds believe that this is hypocrisy, because liberals don’t believe anybody should have anything nice. Or something. I’ll let them explain.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

45 Years

We've now had about 45 years of string theory, and many of the long time practitioners have made big Russian bucks, courtesy of Yuri Milner. What we don't have is what we like to call results. The gold standard in science is prediction - prediction of new and verified physical results. String theory has not been shy about making predictions: supersymmetry, and extra dimensions, for example, but so far neither has made itself known. For now, that leaves String theory in the place where the atomic theory of Democritus sat for 25 centuries or so - tantalyzing but unproven and unprovable.

The LHC was designed to find the Higgs, and it seems to have done that. Nonetheless, many string theorists were convinced that it would produce sparticles - some even bet on it. So far, no go. The LHC is being juiced up a bit, so there is still hope, but the fact is that nobody even has a clue what the energies are at which supersymmetry should be found. Unless that can be remedied, it seems unlikely that a next generation particle machine will even be built.

Particle physics might be over for generations.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pirate Islands

Islands have a long tradition as pirate lairs. Of course modern airpower makes that way of life a bit impractical, so a lot of them have gone into the offshore banking business. The original offshore bank center was that inshore offshore country Switzerland, and it's still the biggest player in the game.

The principal purpose of offshore banks is for the rich, ultra-rich, random despots and (not meaning to be redundant) criminal class generally to hide their money from the tax man, law enforcement, and the revenge of the citizenry. They mostly, but not all, are islands. Cyprus, like Iceland before it, was a big player here - that is to say, much bigger than its gdp player. Their banks, like others before them, made some bad bets and now are unable to pay.

Cyprus tried a number or bad ideas (haircuts for all, theft of the people's pensions funds) before apparently settling on the one PK calls least bad.

Big depositors in Cypriot banks stand to lose circa 40 per cent of their money here, which has drawn plenty of fury and veiled threats from Russia.

But what exactly can the Russians do about this? Sell euros? Tear up double taxation agreements? Murder Cypriot bankers? Medvedev and co could not have played a worse hand during this crisis — and it’s not immediately clear why.

It might be that the legislators are in the worst danger.

Matt Yglesias had a rundown on how we got here.

Maybe the world will wise up and crack down on the pirates - but I doubt it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Globalization 1840: Joe Mendel

The theme of our last lecture in 7.00x was Mendel and his milieu. The introduction of good roads, better ships and other transportation in the nineteenth century lead to an explosion of long distance trade. People became aware of new crops and breed of animals and their was intense interest in developing varieties to local conditions. With this impetus, the citizens of Brno, then near the epicenter of the textile trade, embarked on a program to study just how inheritance worked. They recruited a young physics student, a student of Doppler, to carry out the research in the local monastery.

That student was Johan Mendel, who took the name Gregor when he entered the monastery.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Why Can't A Repub, Be More Like A Dem?

The Republican Party has looked deep into its soul, or at least the electoral math of today and tomorrow, and decided that hating on women, gays, Hispanics, Blacks, and young people might not be a long term winning strategy.

A smug, uncaring, ideologically rigid national Republican Party is turning off the majority of American voters, with stale policies that have changed little in 30 years and an image that alienates minorities and the young, according to an internal GOP study...

Of course the kind of change needed is anathema to much of the base.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Math is Hard" -- Barbie

Lubos hates it when String theorists are asked impolite questions.

Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to tell us what Brian Greene's answer was.

A Model For the US?

Joe Stiglitz is high on my list of smartest guys around, as well as one of the most prestigious economists in the world, winner of the Nobel Memorial prize and the Clark medal. His editorial in today's NYT (Singapore’s Lessons for an Unequal America) says the US could take some lessons from Singapore in dealing with inequality and promoting prosperity. Excerpt:

First, individuals were compelled to take responsibility for their own needs. For example, through the savings in their provident fund, around 90 percent of Singaporeans became homeowners, compared to about 65 percent in the United States since the housing bubble burst in 2007.

Second, Singaporean leaders realized they had to break the pernicious, self-sustaining cycle of inequality that has characterized so much of the West. Government programs were universal but progressive: while everyone contributed, those who were well off contributed more to help those at the bottom, to make sure that everyone could live a decent life, as defined by what Singaporean society, at each stage of its development, could afford. Not only did those at the top pay their share of the public investments, they were asked to contribute even more to helping the neediest.

Third, the government intervened in the distribution of pretax income — to help those at the bottom, rather than, as in the United States, those at the top. It weighed in, gently, on the bargaining between workers and firms, tilting the balance toward the group with less economic power — in sharp contrast to the United States, where the rules of the game have shifted power away from labor and toward capital, especially during the past three decades.

Fourth, Singapore realized that the key to future success was heavy investment in education — and more recently, scientific research — and that national advancement would mean that all citizens — not just the children of the rich — would need access to the best education for which they were qualified.

The whole article is very worthwhile.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Krugman and WB Agree

Sometimes the stars align:



Will the Eu's latest stunt blow up in it's face? TBD.

But don't miss Matt Yglesias's take.

The real issue here is that your typical middle class Cypriot seems to be getting royally screwed.

The European Union demanded that bank depositors take a haircut here for two reasons. One is simply that Germany would rather spend less money than more money. The second is that a lot of large depositors in Cyrpiot banks are thought to be Russian tax dodgers. That made the politics of a more generous bailout especially unlikely. It's also what specifically made taxing Cypriot bank deposits look attractive rather than some other form of tax. Makes the Russians pay!

So fair enough. That's why you have the 9.9 percent levy on deposits over €100,000. But why the 6.75 percent tax on deposits below €100,000? After all, those are the deposits that had received official FDIC-style insurance. Why break that promise? Most simply, you need the 6.75 percent tax to prevent the levy on large deposits from becoming more confiscatory. But, again, why? The official response seems to be that keeping the tax on large deposits low helps preserve Cyprus' viability as an offshore banking center. As Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades put it in his official statement, this plan will save "8,000 jobs in the banking sector and thousands of others which would be lost as a corollary of not maintaining the operations of banks."

But will it? I'm not an expert in the psychology of Russian money-launderers, but the 9.9 percent tax seems like enough of a pinch to ruin the party. On the other hand, surely not every single large depositor in a Cypriot bank is Russian. Surely some of them are just wealthy Cypriots. Wealthy Cypriots whose interests the government is protecting at the expense of ordinary depositors.


One of the rituals of entering the Marines, or almost any military service, is losing very nearly all one's hair. By that standard, depositors in Cypriot banks are getting just a light trim, but they aren't happy. The problem is that those Cypriot banks made a lot of bad loans - where have we heard this story before? Mostly to Greece. Another problem: there's a lot of money in Cypriot banks from overseas, attracted, I imagine, by the big interest they were getting on those crappy loans.

Let me rephrase the problem: the banks were undercapitalized and lent money not wisely but well...stupidly. The financial powers of the EU (AKA Angela Merkel) decided that the best thing to do would be to divide up the losses among the depositors. According to Matt Yglesias:

A tax of 9.9% on deposits over €100,000 and 6.75% on deposits below that level.

If this were happening in isolation, I would be inclined to say, "good plan." Who better to take the fall than the stockholders and depositors? It's really hard for me to have any sympathy for the international depositors, since they have had plenty of warning that Cyprus was on the financial ropes. I have more sympathy for the locals, but maybe next time they will insist that their government keep a tighter rein on the banks.

Of course this is not happening in isolation, so the real question now becomes what will happen in Spain. Widespread bank runs could kill the Euro dead.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hating on Krugman: the Cassandra Syndrome

Paul Krugman has got to be one of the favorite demons of Republicans, billionaires, right-wingers, Eurocrats, Chicago School economists and no doubt others. Why so? How did this happen to a highly respected economist.

Well there is the fact that he is acerbic, sarcastic, and really good at mockery. Moreover, he is fiercely mocking while managing to keep his critiques substantive, unlike his critics who flail and resort to childisn name-calling - yes, I'm talking about you, John Cochrane and you, Niall Ferguson.

That's probably a minor point though. Another factor is his bully pulpit as an NYT Op-Ed writer..

The real problem, I think, is that he has been so infuriatingly right. He was, as he reminds us, one of the few public figures to call "Bullshit!" on the Bush administration's justification for the Iraq War, and almost certainly the most important single critic. He did so from a newspaper and editorial page dominated by pro-Iraq-war propaganda.

Then there was the great crash of '07. While Chicago whistled Dixie and predicted a quick rebound, Krugman saw the dimensions of the impending disaster. He also prescribed a cure, and the US took about 1/2 of the cure he and others prescribed. The result was our current and continuing half to one-third of a recovery.

Meanwhile, the wise men of Europe declared for austerity. Again he predicted disaster for the weaker Euro zone countries and disaster they have gotten. Nowhere has austerity accomplished what was promised. (The much earlier German experiment with mini-austerity took place in a much different economic climate, and is irrelevant to the response to a huge recession/depression.)

The trouble with being a successful prophet is that those you have exposed as fools resent it.

Conservative Minority Outreach

If black people could just be reminded of what a priviledge it was to be a slave...

From TPM:

A CPAC session sponsored by Tea Party Patriots and billed as a primer on teaching activists how to court black voters devolved into a shouting match as some attendees demanded justice for white voters and others shouted down a black woman who reacted in horror.

...things went off the rails. Scott Terry of North Carolina, accompanied by a Confederate-flag-clad attendee, Matthew Heimbach, rose to say he took offense to the event’s take on slavery. (Heimbach founded the White Students Union at Towson University and is described as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

“It seems to be that you’re reaching out to voters at the expense of young white Southern males,” Terry said, adding he “came to love my people and culture” who were “being systematically disenfranchised.”

Smith responded that Douglass forgave his slavemaster.

“For giving him shelter? And food?” Terry said.

The ingratitude.

Not a Religion: Inscrutable East Department

Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago ... (with apologies to Taylor Swift) I stumbled into an argument with Arun, some of his readers and a certain Guru. I say "stumbled into" because I never had any sense that I was contesting a point - rather I thought that I misunderstood something obvious, and merely was confused about a definition. The statement in question: "Hinduism is not a religion." My problem was that I thought that this failed the obvious "quacks like a duck" test.

Arun's latest post has clarified matters in my mind, though he likely won't agree with my interpretation. It seems that in India, as in the US, there is an income tax advantage for charitable contributions, but differently than here, this deduction does not apply to religious contributions. Thus, it is very interesting what a certain tax commission has ruled. Arun quotes from an article in the Economic Times of India:

Hinduism: Tax Tribunal says donations to Nagpur temple trust exempt from tax

MUMBAI: "...Lord Shiva, Hanumanji, Goddess Durga does (sic) not represent any particular religion, they are merely regarded to be the super power of the universe....Technically Hindu is neither a religion nor a community." ...

Understandably, the Devsttan Committee moved the tribunal. Its arguments were simple: the temple is open to everybody irrespective of caste or creed; even those who have no faith in the deities can visit the temple, and it does not belong to any particular religion. ...

Nowhere, the tribunal said, the object clause "talks of advancement, support or propagation of a particular religion, worshipping of Lord Shiva, Hanumanji, Goddess Durga and maintaining of temple, in our opinion, cannot be regarded for the advancement support or propagation of a particular religion".

They felt no evidence was placed by the tax department which may prove that these object relate to a particular religion and Lord Shiva, Hanumanji, Goddess Durga are regarded to be the super power of the universe and do not represent any particular religion.

So it's really just a tax dodge. Hinduism would like to be tax advantaged relative to Islam, Christianity, and so on, so it proclaims itself "not a religion" and its gods as not gods but "superpowers of the universe."

Viewed (by this cynic) through the lens of tax policy and consequences, the mysterious East starts to look a lot more scrutable. One can imagine similar arguments with respect to the Ten Commandments from some court in the US Bible Belt.

If you dwell in the ocean, the water is hardly noticeable.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Course Review: MIT 700x

Introductory Biology, the Secret of Life, taught by Eric Lander of Harvard and MIT, is the best Massive Online Open (MOOC) course I've met yet, and maybe the best course I've ever had. I've now been in a few of these MOOC courses, having finished Spanish at Duolingo (really excellent), and Control of Mobile Robots from Georgia Tech via Coursera (ditto) and currently enrolled in a few other courses from edX, Udacity, and Coursera. Lander's course is demanding, and I'm not sure I will have time to complete it, but I'm learning a lot. Let me mention a few features which I think work very well:

His lectures are taught in front of a classroom full of students, who occasionally ask questions. In his case, at least, this is preferable to the usual talking head in front of a camera. The lectures come in short segments, interupted by frequent mini-quizzes. The problem sets are both challenging and fun. There is a lot of work with software that allows manipulation and visualization of molecules.

I should mention that this introductory biology is not your granddad's (or my) introductory biology, but molecular biology. Ecosystems, organisms, tissues and even cells are out of the picture: the focus is squarely on the molecular basis of life. Lander has both tremendous enthusiasm for his subject and a real gift for presenting the essential features in a lucid fashion. Of course I might have been a little taken aback by the enthusiasm he showed for the cunning of the influenza virus in its infectious technique.

This course really shows the potential of the MOOC course, I think, as well as the soundness of the edX consortium in concentrating on the delivery platform.

Some called last year the year of the MOOC, and it seems likely that the MOOC now has too much momentum to be derailed. The financial underpinnings are still very shaky, of course, but California's ongoing effort to unload introductory courses to the internet looks like the kind of event that will provide a huge push.

It seems that the maintenance of the private jets and super yachts of the hyper rich has sucked too much money out of the system to permit conventional education of any but the children of those rich.

How a Nation Changes Its Mind

It's a cliche that old prejudices die when the prejudiced old do, but it's not quite right. Rob Portman today became the first GOP Senator to come out for gay marriage, an epiphany triggered, ableit belatedly, by his son's revelation that he was himself gay - some two years ago. Matt Yglesias doesn't let that make him happy though.

I'm glad that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has reconsidered his view on gay marriage upon realization that his son is gay, but I also find this particular window into moderation—memorably dubbed Miss America conservatism by Mark Schmitt—to be the most annoying form.

Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn't lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn't have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who's locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn't have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn't have a son who'll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn't care.

Maybe Matt forgot to take Prof Nagy's course on the Greek Hero when he was at Harvard. If he had, he might have realized that the moment at which the hero stubborn self-righteousness is touched is precisely that moment when it affects his "nearest and dearest." That circumstance and public opinion are decisive when a country changes its mind. The changing of the country's mind on gay marriage has been particularly swift, but hardly unprecedented. There was a similar sea change in the case of Civil Rights in my youth, and about slavery long before that.

Winter's Bite

87 effing degrees F. WTF?

This is supposed to be Winter still. In Las Cruces, NM, elevation 4000 feet.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The End of Physics

Every few decades, it seems, there is reason to start fearing that the end of physics has arrived. This might be another one of those times: From Peter Woit:

Earlier this week the Simons Center at Stony Brook hosted another big public event promoting the latest deep-thinking from theoretical physicists. On Monday Andrei Linde gave a talk on “Universe or Multiverse?”. Besides the usual pseudo-science, there were some things I hadn’t seen before. Linde argues that one should replace the “pessimist’s”:
If each part of the multiverse is so large, we will never see its other parts, so it is impossible to prove that we live in the multiverse.
withe the “optimist’s”:
If each part of the multiverse is so large, we will never see its other parts, so it is impossible to disprove that we live in the multiverse.
and goes on to argue that multiverse theory is more basic than universe theory because it is more general. At a more technical talk the next day he showed an implementation of this new way to do science, arguing for a new class of supergravity inflation models where “we can have any desirable values of ns and r”. Somehow also, the ability to get any r you want is great since “A discovery or non-discovery of tensor modes would be a crucial test for string theory and SUSY phenomenology”. I’m not sure how you reconcile measuring r as a “crucial test”, and having a theory that gives any value of r you want, but maybe I’m missing something.

Oh well.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What is Religion?

Here is a view from the edX course I'm taking in The Ancient Greek Hero:

00§12. In the Classical period, an authoritative source goes on record to say that Homer and Hesiod are the foundation for all civilization. That source is the historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE. According to Herodotus (2.53.1-3), Homer and Hesiod are the repository of knowledge that provides the basics of education for all Hellenes. [8] And such basics, as we will see in this book, are conceived primarily in terms of religion, which requires an overall knowledge of the forms and the functions of the gods.

00§13. Here I make two points about the historical realities of ancient Greek religion:

1. When we apply the term religion to such traditional practices as the worship of gods in the classical period of Greek civilization as also in earlier periods, we need to think of such practices in terms of an interaction between myth and ritual. Here is a quick working definition of myth and ritual together. Ritual is doing things and saying things in a way that is considered sacred. Myth is saying things in a way that is also considered sacred. So ritual frames myth.

Perhaps Arun (or anybody else) might critique this from the point of view of "Western Religion" vs. Hinduism.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fitzgerald vs Wallace

The Great Gatsby is my latest read, and it's sort of interesting to contrast it to Infinite Jest. Of course everything about Gatsby is spare and understated, where IJ is vast and bloated. Both these guys can tell a story, but I have the feeling that in Gatsby, every bit of technique is subordinated to the story and almost invisible, whereas in IJ it's the opposite. Wallace wants you to see every bit of his wobbling lens and the heck with the scene.

Just sayin'

Zero Dark Thirty

Have i mentioned lately how much I hate so-called "daylight time?" And getting up an hour before daylight?

Who votes for this abomination anyway?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Jeb Lesson of the Week

If you are planning to publish a book, sometimes you ought to read it first.

Or have a literate political aide read it.

Intrade Closing Stat

Who could have predicted that?


My answer to: Jeb Bush: Is the world ready for a third Bush in the White House?

Why Can't the French Learn to Speak ...(English)

It's seems that the French are not too expert at speaking English. Or any other language. In fact they trail everybody else in Europe. Except the British. I'm going to guess that some outlanders (moi? other Americans?) aren't so hot either.

David Sessions has the sensational story here.

Genetic Engineering

Jennifer Ouellette has a Slate profile of one of the world's most successful genetic engineers, Frances Arnold of Caltech. It's a nice article, though I don't think it really captures how impressive Arnold's work really is.

Cells replicate by dividing in two, but with each replication, small variations creep into the DNA sequence. Rather than waiting for natural mutations, Arnold causes small mistakes to be made when DNA is copied in the test tube. Then she inserts all the mutated copies into living microbes, which translate the genes into proteins. At that point, she combs through the different proteins to find the ones she likes.

Arnold opted for this brute-force approach, running hundreds—even thousands—of experiments with random mutations in the proteins, selecting those with the characteristics she wanted to breed in the second generation and so on over multiple generations. And because microbes reproduce every 20 minutes, it didn’t take billions of years to see the results. “All you have to do is look at antibiotic resistance to understand how quickly biology can adapt,” she says.

She published her first papers on evolutionary protein engineering in the early 1990s in the face of considerable skepticism. A bit of intellectual snobbery may have been in the mix. There is an unspoken hierarchy in academia. It’s a culture that favors curiosity-driven basic research over practical applications, and it draws a fine distinction between science and engineering. “Some people looked down their noses at it,” Arnold admits. “They might say ‘It’s not science’ or that ‘Gentlemen don’t do random muto-genesis.’ But I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a gentleman, so it didn’t bother me at all. I laughed all the way to the bank, because it works.

I was a bit amused by these lines in the story:

... she was one of the only women to apply for a major in mechanical engineering.

Since her chosen major had relatively few requirements, she spent much of her time studying economics, Russian, and Italian—not to mention dalliances with the occasional Italian post-doc.

Because ME is a gut major???

Drones, Spooks and Lawyers

Obama walked into what Daniel Klaidman calls a "public relations debacle" in the events that culminated in Rand Paul's Senate filibuster. Klaidman's article in the Daily Beast lays out the details:

You know it’s not a good day for the Obama administration when a paragon of the Tea Party right is roasting the president and liberal twitter feeds are lighting up in support. But that’s exactly what happened this past week when Kentucky Senator Rand Paul mounted his “talking filibuster” to block the confirmation of CIA nominee John Brennan. Paul kept up the parliamentary maneuver for 13 hours in an effort to extract answers from the administration about its covert drone program, and particularly the question of whether it is legal to target American citizens on U.S. soil.

Klaidman puts the blame on "lawyers and spooks" but of course the buck always stops with the President, especially if he defers too much to his subordinates.

The drones mess also reflects Obama’s tortured, Solomonic approach to dealing with difficult national security issues. In seeking to balance transparency and security, Obama has pursued a middle path that, in the end, has satisfied nobody. And in the case of drones, that approach has been at odds with a basic Washington imperative: it is almost always better to be transparent earlier, lest you end up having to disclose even more later. “The word on the street,” says a former administration national security official, “is they’ll end up giving away the farm, all the animals, and the John Deere equipment by the time this is done.”

One thing you can say about Team Obama: there was no lack of internal debate about the need to be more transparent. The discussions began in the aftermath of the September 30, 2011 drone strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American preacher and senior al Qaeda operative. They intensified a few weeks later when Awlaki’s son, also a U.S. citizen, was mistakenly killed in another drone attack in Yemen. “We realized this was going to be a public relations debacle,” recalls a former senior administration who advocated for greater transparency. Sure enough, academics and national security experts began writing more critically about the drone policy as well as the administration’s penchant for secrecy. One particularly stinging op-ed piece, which ran in The Washington Post, was by a former Bush administration State Department official; it appeared u

nder the headline “Will drones strikes become Obama’s Guantanamo?”

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Alas Poor Sheldon

Paul Frampton seems to have a lot in common with the fictional physicist Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Frampton undoubtedly has an IQ in the top 1%, which fact he seems to reflect on frequently, but his common sense intelligence, or CSIQ, is clearly in the bottom 1%. Unlike Dr. Cooper, though, Frampton is not free of lust, either the usual or monetary types. This fact, together with his exceptionally low CSIQ, seems to have done him in.

If the story of his involvement with someone pretending to be a Czech bikini model, and cocaine smuggling in South America has caught your attention, Maxine Swann's long story in the New York Times Magazine has the tale in full.

If Frampton hadn't been a slightly famous physicist who had written 450 papers, it would be just the story of another dope smuggling dope, but it has its moments.

In November 2011, Paul Frampton, a theoretical particle physicist, met Denise Milani, a Czech bikini model, on the online dating site She was gorgeous — dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a supposedly natural DDD breast size. In some photos, she looked tauntingly steamy; in others, she offered a warm smile. Soon, Frampton and Milani were chatting online nearly every day. Frampton would return home from campus — he’d been a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 30 years — and his computer would buzz. “Are you there, honey?” They’d chat on Yahoo Messenger for a while, and then he’d go into the other room to take care of something. A half-hour later, there was the familiar buzz. It was always Milani. “What are you doing now?”

UPDATE: Comment posted from Argentina, by someone claiming to be Paul Frampton, on Peter Woit's NEW:

If I may chime in as the subject of this discussion, I wish to state categorically that I am not, and have never been, an intentional smuggler of illegal substances. When I checked in a bag belonging to somebody else, which admittedly showed bad judgement, at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 23, 2012 I had no knowledge or suspicion whatsoever that the bag contained any illegal material hidden within it.

Hating on the Libertarian

Talking to a leading thinker, I happened to mention our shared hostility to libertarians, and wondered a bit about it's origins. It's a visceral thing, we agreed, and not really much about policy. In my case, anyway, it's not like my feeling that most Republican politicians are dishonest scoundrels. The anti-libertarian feeling is something more primitive.

In some symbolic terms, Cain was the quintessential libertarian. When asked about his late brother, he replied "Am I my brother's keeper?" That's the crucial problem with libertarians - they don't think that they are keepers of their brothers.

Edward O Wilson and others have argued that the key difference between humans and our closely related chimpanzee cousins was the development of what he call Eusociality. Jonathan Haidt had another phrase: humans are 90% chimp and 10% ant. That eusocial 10% made all the difference, and allowed humans to live and work in closely cooperative groups, become top predators, practice agriculture, and develop culture, science and civilization.

The key thing that makes eusociality possible is group selection. As critics like George C Wilson and John Maynard Smith have noted, group selection always tends to be undermined by defectors - those who pursue self interest at the expense of the group. In ants and bees, group selection is enforced by biology via reserving reproductive rights to the queens. Humans depend on cultural means.

Libertarianism is an intellectual critique of the group interest. In primitive hunter-gatherer groups, individuals who too recklessly pursue their individual interests at the expense of the group are dealt with harshly - by expulsion or murder.

So at its core, disapproval of libertarians is based on their failure to incorporate that 10% ant that makes us fully human. So that the critique Ayn Rand's characters always get of failing to "be human" is dead on.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

El Estudiante Perpetuo

I've always had a problem with that reach vs. grasp thingy.

I'm currently signed up for 3 classes from Coursera, 2 from edX, and 2 more from Udacity. I may have to retire to have time for the homework.

Besides, there a couple of more classes I would really like...

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The End: IJ


Further review might follow someday.

Some Assembly Required

I guess I'm a 4-D printer. We all are, from humblest Sequoia to most arrogant bacterium.

The technological world has also recently made this jump. What 4-D printing can do, that conventional 3-D printers can't, is make things continue to self assemble after their manufacture.

The Internet was abuzz last week about a new idea, intriguingly dubbed “4-D printing,” emanating from the TED conference in Long Beach, California. Much of the buzz was probably a response to the sci-fi sounding name, which seems to imply that 3-D printing—itself all the rage right now—has already been supplanted as the technology most likely to take manufacturing to the next level.

In fact, the new technique still uses 3-D printing, or depositing materials layer by layer to build a custom 3-D structure. 4-D just involves using materials that help the new structure continue to assemble after it’s been printed. ... [article has a video]

I spoke to Skylar Tibbits, a member of MIT’s architecture faculty and the brains behind the video and the concept of 4-D printing, and he explained what’s going on. The small white sections, Tibbits says, are made of a proprietary material developed by Stratasys, a leading manufacturer of 3-D printers. The material, which expands to 150 times its volume when placed in water, can allow a structure to self-assemble, to some degree, after printing. It is now part of a diverse arsenal of materials printable by a line of Stratasys machines called Objet Connex. The black material is rigid, serving to constrain the shape of the object, and could be substituted for a range of different substances, from hard plastic to soft rubber. Tibbits and colleagues used newly developed software from Autodesk to determine the exact ratio and orientation of the two materials that would “program” the system to fold into a precise arrangement when placed in water. The proof-of-concept, says Tibbits, represents “a new paradigm for the way we make things.”

In principle these things don’t necessarily have to be water-activated, says Tibbits. “I’m hoping that in the future, with Stratasys, we could develop a whole line of these materials,” which could be activated by heat, water, sound, light, or pressure. I spoke to Skylar Tibbits, a member of MIT’s architecture faculty and the brains behind the video and the concept of 4-D printing, and he explained what’s going on. The small white sections, Tibbits says, are made of a proprietary material developed by Stratasys, a leading manufacturer of 3-D printers. The material, which expands to 150 times its volume when placed in water, can allow a structure to self-assemble, to some degree, after printing. It is now part of a diverse arsenal of materials printable by a line of Stratasys machines called Objet Connex. The black material is rigid, serving to constrain the shape of the object, and could be substituted for a range of different substances, from hard plastic to soft rubber.

If this sort of think seems familiar, it's because that's pretty much the way cells and other biological systems are assembled.

Meanwhile, good old 3-D printing has moved down to the 30 nanometer scale.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

IJ: Endtimes

I must be near the end, even though I'm only on page 957, since I am on the very last page of the endnotes (#382/388).

It is by now pretty clear that this is going to be a shaggy dog story - there being not nearly enough time to wrap up the many plot lines.

Oh well.

Right Wing Ethics

The Heritage Foundation is one of the premier right-wing think tanks, or rather propaganda arms. Their loyalties, however, seem to be price conscious. Paul Krugman points us to a convenient example.

For years, the Heritage Foundation sharply criticized the autocratic rule of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, denouncing his anti-Semitism, his jailing of political opponents and his “anti-free market currency controls.”

Then, late in the summer of 2001, the conservative nonprofit Washington think tank began to change its assessment …

Heritage’s new, pro-Malaysian outlook emerged at the same time a Hong Kong consulting firm co-founded by Edwin J. Feulner, Heritage’s president, began representing Malaysian business interests. The for-profit firm, called Belle Haven Consultants, retains Feulner’s wife, Linda Feulner, as a “senior adviser.” And Belle Haven’s chief operating officer, Ken Sheffer, is the former head of Heritage’s Asia office and is still on Heritage’s payroll as a $75,000-a-year consultant.


It seems that some years ago Malaysia’s ruling party took a good look at leading pundits and policy intellectuals in the conservative movement, reached a judgment about their personal and intellectual integrity or lack thereof, and acted in accordance with that judgment.

Funny how Malaysia gets who these people are and what motivates them — while our own press corps doesn’t.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

IJ: Endnote 321

I think you probably need to blame the publisher for this one: (d/dx)x^n given as nx + x^(n-1) I suspect author really wanted the correct n times x^(n-1)

IJ: Dialog

David Foster Wallace makes a big point of Dialog where two characters talk past each other. This is annoying in real life and really annoying in fiction. Does he have some point here?

‘Hey Hal?’

‘Booboo, I dreamed I was losing my teeth. I dreamed that my teeth dry-rotted somehow into shale and splintered when I ate or spoke, and I was jettisoning fragments all over the place, and there was a long scene where I was pricing dentures.’

‘All night last night people were coming up going where is Hal, have you seen Hal, what happened with CT and the urine doctor and Hal’s urine. Moms asked me where’s Hal, and I was surprised at that because of how she makes it a big point never to check up.’

‘Then, without any sort of dream-segue, I’m sitting in a cold room, naked as a jaybird, in a flame-retardant chair, and I keep receiving bills in the mail for teeth. A mail carrier keeps knocking on the door and coming in without being invited and presenting me with various bills for teeth.’

‘She wants you to know she trusts you at all times and you’re too trustworthy to worry about or check up on.’

‘Only not for any teeth of mine, Boo. The bills are for somebody else’s teeth, not my teeth, and I can’t seem to get the mail carrier to acknowledge this, that they’re not for my teeth.’

‘I promised LaMont Chu I’d tell him whatever information you told me, he was so concerned.’

‘The bills are in little envelopes with plasticized windows that show the addressee part of the bills. I put them in my lap until the stack gets so big they start to slip off the top and fall to the floor.’

‘LaMont and me had a whole dialogue about his concerns. I like LaMont a lot.’

‘Booboo, do you happen to remember S. Johnson?’

‘S. Johnson used to be the Moms’s dog. That passed away.’

‘And you remember how he died, then.’

‘Hey Hal, you remember a period in time back in Weston when we were little that the Moms wouldn’t go anywhere without S. Johnson? She took him with her to work, and had that unique car seat for him when she had the Volvo, before Himself had the accident in the Volvo. The seat was from the Fisher-Price Company. We went to Himself’s opening of Kinds of Light at the Hayden 320 that wouldn’t let in cigarettes or dogs and the Moms brought S. Johnson in a blind dog’s harness-collar that went all the way around his chest with the square bar on the leash thing and the Moms wore those sunglasses and looked up and to the right the whole time so it looked like she was legally blind so they’d let S.J. into the Hayden with us, because he had to be there. And how Himself just thought it was a good one on the Hayden, he said.’

‘I keep thinking about Orin and how he stood there and lied to her about S. Johnson’s map getting eliminated.’

‘She was sad.’

‘I’ve been thinking compulsively about Orin ever since C.T. called us all in. When you think about Orin what do you think, Boo?’

‘The best was remember when she had to fly and wouldn’t put him in a cagey box and they wouldn’t even let a blind dog on the plane, so she’d leave S. Johnson and leave him out tied to the Volvo and she’d make Orin put a phone out there with its antenna up during the day out by where S. Johnson was tied to the Volvo and she’d call on the phone and let it ring next to S. Johnson because she said how S. Johnson knew her unique personal ring on the phone and would hear the ring and know that he was thought about and cared about from afar, she said?’

‘She was unbent where that dog was concerned, I remember. She bought some kind of esoteric food for it. Remember how often she bathed it?


‘What was it with her and that dog, Boo?’

‘And the day we were out rolling balls in the driveway and Orin and Marlon were there and S. Johnson was there lying there on the driveway tied to the bumper with the phone right there and it rang and rang and Orin picked it up and barked into it like a dog and hung it up and turned it off?’


‘So she’d think it was S. Johnson? The joke that Orin thought was such a good one?’

‘Jesus, Boo, I don’t remember any of that.’

‘And he said we’d get Indian Rub-Burns down both arms if we didn’t pretend how we didn’t know what she was talking about if and when she asked us about the bark on the phone when she got home?

‘The Indian Rub-Burns I remember far too well.’

‘We were supposed to shrug and look at her like she was minus cards from her deck, or else?’

‘Orin lied with a really pathological intensity, growing up, is what I’ve been remembering.’

‘He made us laugh really hard a lot of times, though. I miss him.’

‘I don’t know whether I miss him or not...

Wallace, David Foster (2009-04-03). Infinite Jest: 0 (pp. 770-771). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

Mark Twain once wrote that he wanted to dig up Jane Austen and bash her head with her own femur.

IJ: Milestone 740

The first hint I can recognize of something like character analysis. The subject is the central character of the novel, already deceased, bizarrely so, at the time of all its action: James Incandenza, AKA Himself and The Mad Stork, scientist, engineer, filmmaker and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy, the scene of much of the action. The analyst, Joelle van D., possibly recovering crack addict and formerly Prettiest Girl Of All Time.

She might have known from the Work. The man’s Work was amateurish, she’d seen, when Orin had had his brother— the unretarded one— lend them some of The Mad Stork’s Read-Only copies. Was amateurish the right word? More like the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous, the Work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness— no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience. Like conversing with a prisoner through that plastic screen using phones, the upperclassman Molly Notkin had said of Incandenza’s early oeuvre. Joelle thought them more like a very smart person conversing with himself. She thought of the significance of the moniker ‘Himself.’ Cold. Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell— mordant, sophisticated, campy, hip, cynical, technically mind-bending; but cold, amateurish, hidden: no risk of empathy with the Job-like protagonist, whom she felt like the audience was induced to regard like somebody sitting atop a dunk-tank. The lampoons of ‘inverted’ genres: archly funny and sometimes insightful but with something provisional about them, like the finger-exercises of someone promising who refused to really sit down and play something to test that promise. Even as an undergrad Joelle’d been convinced that parodists were no better than camp-followers in ironic masks, satires usually the work of people with nothing new themselves to say. 306 ‘The Medusa v. the Odalisque’— cold, allusive, inbent, hostile: the only feeling for the audience one of contempt, the meta-audience in the film’s theater presented as objects long before they turn to blind stone.

Wallace, David Foster (2009-04-03). Infinite Jest: 0 (p. 740). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

It's pretty easy to read this as the author's uncomfortable self-assessment.

What's In a Name?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously asked the question, and Anthony Paletta has a nice so-entitled meditation on their literary import.

Dickens paid exquisite care to the problem, preferring to fix a name before he wrote about a character. Before settling on Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens went through Sweezlebach, Cottletoe, Sweetletoe, Pottletoe, Spottletoe, Chuzzletoe, Chuzzlebog, Chubblewig, and Chuzzlewig. And to Fowler, Oliver Twist is about as bountifully evocative as four syllables can get:
In the slang of the underworld he would soon enter, “twist” meant “appetite” and “hang by the neck.” So when the pangs of “twist” (hunger) make Oliver ask for more, Mr. Limkins predicts “that boy will be hung” (will “twist”). To underline the point, Noah Claypole “announced his intention of coming to see him hung.” As for his first name, Oliver, it meant “sky-lantern,” moonlight as a hindrance to crime. And sure enough, when the alarm is raised at the Maylies’, what should Oliver do but drop his eponymous lantern, fatally hindering the burglary.
- See more at:

One puzzle an author ought to solve is how to make his or her characters memorable and distinct. Dickens and Twain are masters of that skill, and I would argue that Jo Rowling is another. David Foster Wallace - not so much.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Beastly Milepost: IJ

Page 666. Wallace is capable of writing a compelling tale, or at least a few short tales, but they are embedded in a vast matrix of horrific dreck. He likes to chop up his stories and feed them to you in little bits, interspersing them among each other. They are, we can see from here, converging.

The overwhelming theme is deformity and depression: psychological, social, physical and societal. This is his best prose, actually. Not surprising from someone who committed suicide due to his own depression - psychotic depression, in his term.

The book has lots of fans. I still have very little idea why. Much of it is like a parody of every vice of pompous literary pretension - an absurd vocabulary, most of which is not found in my Kindle's dictionary, warped and crooked run on sentences, and preposterous dialog. Character's are distinguishable almost entirely by their particular physical deformities or outrageous costumes. Nowhere is there much hint of ability to sketch and define actual characters. The cast is more like a collection of wax museum dummies complete with giant sandwich boards declaiming their particular deformities.