Monday, December 29, 2014

Krugman and Klein on the Future

Ezra Klein interviews Paul Krugman on prospects for the future. It seems PK and EK are both SF fans, so they take a prophetic look. Topic addressed include global pandemics, artificial intelligence, and economic inequality.

I find them least convincing on the subject of AI.

Ezra Klein: A fear I hear about a lot lately is the idea that we’ll build a self-improving artificial intelligence that will ultimately destroy us.

Paul Krugman: The history of artificial intelligence is that it's always ten years ahead, and that's been true for about 50 years.

Ezra Klein: But let’s assume it does emerge. A lot of smart people right now seem terrified by it. You've got Elon Musk tweeting, "Hope we're not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable." Google's Larry Page is reading Nick Bostrom’s new book Superintelligence. I wonder, reading this stuff, whether people are overestimating the value of analytical intelligence. It’s just never been my experience that the higher you go up the IQ scale, the better people are at achieving their goals.

Our intelligence is really lashed to a lot of things that aren’t about intelligence, like endless generations of social competition in the evolutionary fight for the best mates. I don’t even know how to think about what a genuinely new, artifical intelligence would believe is important and what it would find interesting. It often seems to me that one of the reasons people get so afraid of AI is you have people who themselves are really bought into intelligence as being the most important of all traits and they underestimate importance of other motivations and aptitudes. But it seems as likely as not that a superintelligence would be completely hopeless at anything beyond the analysis of really abstract intellectual problems.

Paul Krugman: Yeah, or one thing we might find out if we produce something that is vastly analytically superior is it ends up going all solipsistic and spending all its time solving extremely difficult and pointless math problems. We just don't know. I feel like I was suckered again into getting all excited about self-driving cars, and so on, and now I hear it's actually a lot further from really happening that we thought. Producing artificial intelligence that can cope with the real world is still a much harder problem than people realize.

The problem is that you don't need to produce an AI smarter than Terry Tao for it to be dangerous. Even now, our robot developers are producing semi-autonomous devices which have intelligence roughly equivalent to some of the less clever insects. How likely do you think it is that humans could compete in an evolutionary sense with truck sized insect creatures with jet engines, brains that think a million times faster than ours (and those of insects), and loaded with modern weaponry? Such things are already here or nearly so, and our main control over them right now is that we still manage their reproduction.

It's also true that their smarter and more sedentary cousins have already proven better at many tasks formerly done by highly trained professionals than humans. Robots won't need to bother navigating our complex social rules if they simple replace us.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Steppe Warriors

The mounted horsemen of steppe played crucial parts in global history, perhaps especially between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Fifteenth Century, conquering Central Asia, China, Eastern Europe, and much of India and the Middle East at one time or another. The empires they created were seldom durable, usually perishing within a few generations of the founder. Tamerlane was perhaps the last of the breed of these nomadic, mostly illiterate, warrior tribesmen to conquer the agricultural world.

After his time, the rise of gunpowder armies and modern state institutions sapped the power of the mounted bowmen. In a short period the small, formerly weak state of Muscovy swept them aside and conquered most of northern Asia.

... Despite the drama of this steppe imperialism, it would be unwise to exaggerate its immediate significance. There was no treasure trove of minerals to finance the building of a great imperial superstructure, although Moscow merchants (and the Muscovy state) may have profited from easier access to trade with Iran and Central Asia.47 The Volga lands were opened up to Russian peasant colonization. But beyond the river corridor Russian control was unsure, and the Volga remained a violent frontier region.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 71). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Escape from nomadic depredations came at a cost, at least for some.

In a poor agricultural economy, the burden of taxation and service to sustain Muscovy’s military effort could be borne only if the landed class enjoyed close control over peasant communities hitherto mobile, free and often rebellious.50 The counterpart to the fixing of boyar loyalty was the bonding of peasant labour through the institution of serfdom, enforced by a ruthless combination of state authority, noble power and Church influence. As the eastern vanguard of European expansion (rather than a weak buffer state between Poland and the steppe), Russia became a Eurasian Sparta, deploying an army of over 100,000 men by the end of the century.51 But threatened to the west by wealthier European states, and harried to the south by its still open steppe frontier, Muscovy’s transformation into ‘Russia’ or ‘Rossiya’ (‘Greater Russia’) was painful and traumatic. Its course was marked by internal terrorism (Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichnina) and the ‘Time of Troubles’ (the anarchy preceding the Romanov accession to the tsardom in 1613). Moscow was overrun by Polish armies in 1605 and again in 1610.52

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 72). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Damn! I *Knew* he Had to be a Slytherin!

In 1604, he started to observe SN 1604, a supernova also known as Kepler's star, in the constellation Serpentarius, the 13th sign of the zodiac in which your humble correspondent was born... Lumo

Extracted from Lubosh's very nice article on the occasion of Kepler's 543rd birthday: Johannes Kepler: an anniversary

Kepler was a pivotal figure in launching the scientific revolution that mathematicized physics.

Putin's Racket

Max Fisher writes in Vox about Mark Galeotti's theory of Russia's political strategy.

What in the hell is Vladimir Putin up to? It's perhaps one of the most important and salient questions of 2014. Russia-watchers and Russians have spent much of the year debating what's behind Putin's adventurism in Ukraine, his meddling in eastern Europe's Baltic states, his support for anti-American dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, and the headaches he is generally causing Western leaders.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russia, suggested an answer: Putin is remaking Russia from a former world power into a geopolitical racketeer. Galeotti is not the first person to suggest this theory, which is gaining traction even among Russia experts who tend to be more sympathetic to Moscow, but he put it awfully succinctly in a great interview with the Swiss-based International Relations and Security Network.

Galeotti made his point when asked how Russia's role as an international actor had evolved since the end of the Cold War (I've added line breaks and bold for emphasis):

Russia is now regarded not as ineffective but as toxic; it has shown that it can act, but above all as a spoiler.

Its main tactic in eastern Ukraine, in Syria, and elsewhere is not to fix problems, nor even to build coalitions, but to create problems in the hope that this grinds down the will of the other party or parties until they decide that making some kind of deal with Moscow is the least-worse option.

These are, in the short term, effective tactics, but this is the geopolitics of the protection racketeer and it wins no friends, earns no soft power. It has empowered those who say this current regime in the Kremlin is dangerous and can only be contained or, ultimately, confronted.

Of course running a racket can be useful. It's essentially the strategy Portugal used to become a world power five and a half centuries ago. It lacked the power to dominate the trade across the Indian Ocean, but the military effectiveness of its caravels allowed it to run a very profitable protection racket there. English piracy, preying on Spain, proved crucial to it's emergence as a great sea power. It's ultimately a question of whether the rest of the world has the will to resist the predations of the racketeers. Certainly there were powers in India in 1500 that could have built a great fleet to sack and burn Lisbon in the early Sixteenth century. But they were preoccupied with local concerns.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Is Economics a Deeply Corrupt Profession?

I have suspected for a long time that a big chunk of the economics professoriate has, in effect, sold out to the high bidders. Unlike physicists, biologists, and anthropologists, economists powerfully influence government policies which directly affect wealth. A vast array of "think tanks," policy institutes, and other devices exist to put money into the pockets of economists who sing the tune of the ultra rich funders of the same.

I read Paul Krugman's latest post as essentially confirming this diagnosis.

Robert Waldmann is shocked, shocked, to find conservative economists not doing their homework:

Even now, I am shocked that economists didn’t bother to look up the data on FRED before making nonsensical claims of fact.

I’m shocked that he’s shocked.

Waldmann’s issue is the relationship between government spending and growth in recent years, which everyone on the right knows has been negative, but is actually positive. Why, he asks, didn’t they look up the data — which takes only a few seconds on FRED — before making their claims?

But this is typical; it applies to issues across the board. The same people know that growth has been much faster since financial deregulation and the Reagan tax cuts, except that it hasn’t; they know that Reagan was the only president to oversee the creation of millions of jobs, because there never was a Clinton boom; they know that there has been unprecedented growth in government spending under Obama, when the reality is the opposite. At this point you shouldn’t be surprised.

Wherefore this willful disregard of easily available data? Laziness? Stupidity? Blind faith in ideas that are refuted by nasty facts?

Maybe, but I'm more inclined to suspect more venal motives. And Krugman hints as much.

...I’ve had conversations in which people belligerently assert “I’m not impressed by your charts — you’ll never convince me that government spending has fallen under Obama.” Don’t bother me with facts!

But why this attitude? Mainly, I suppose, it’s the epistemic closure that comes from serving the interests of big money. There’s a world of think tanks that don’t want too much thinking, partisan media that don’t do fact-checking, and for that matter professional journals that erect high barriers against anything even vaguely Keynesian while uncritically publishing new classical stuff.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Who Were The Indo-Europeans?

The Indo-European languages spread over most of Europe and large chunks of Asia at some point in pre-history. The discovery of relationship between European languages and Sanskrit was a major catalyst for the development of the science of linguistics. Most of what we know about historical linguistics suggests that this kind of language relationship could only have come through something like conquest and replacement of other speakers. The most popular scholarly hypothesis is the Kurgan hypothesis - that the original Indo-Europeans were nomads of the Pontic steppes, now Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia, who domesticated the horse and conquered much of the world.

There is a fair amount of archeological evidence to back up this idea, but some crucial uncertainties remain. One problem is getting the inferred dates to line up. Another is that it's hard to trace the gene flow that accompanied the putative expansion. India, with its intricate and complex genetic history, presents special problems. Many assert that the gene flow history of India is not compatible with a major incursion from the steppes at the time suggested by the archeological evidence. See, e.g., this link by Arun.

There are a few alternative theories of I-E origins, discussed in the first link above. One, mostly held by Indian nationalists, is the so-called out of India hypothesis, in which the I-E expansion originated in India. This idea is unpopular because it doesn't seem to fit linguistic or archeological evidence. The horse, for example, is central to I-E, but is not native to India, mostly doesn't thrive there, and does not appear in iconography of the Indus Valley Civilization, the civilization in the Indus valley which probably predates the I-E appearance in India.

The genetic evidence is complex and controversial, but at present mostly is centered on the R1a1a variant of the Y - chromosome (male germ line), see map here. Not sure whether more general genetic evidence has anything to add.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On The Beach

"Après moi, le déluge" ...............Attributed to Louis XV or Madame de Pompadour.

Miami Beach is building like crazy: WP

MIAMI BEACH – Argentine developer Alan Faena recently listed the most expensive condo in this city’s history at $55 million. The Mid Beach penthouse features a private elevator, an infinity pool, an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic.

The catch: The tower stands on what scientists call one of America’s most vulnerable floodplains.

But Miami Beach needs this penthouse — and many more like it. The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes.

Crazy? Well, it depends on your time frame. If you only care about the next ten or twenty years, maybe so. If the US government is silly enough to sell you flood insurance, probably so.

Many buyers come from South America, more concerned by currency instability in their home countries than encroaching saltwater: “They want somewhere safe to park their money,” said Zalewski, whose firm tracks applications. “A lot of buyers here never step foot in the condos. They’ll sell them before the water makes it to the bottom floor of their buildings, anyway.”

Foreign investors fueled nearly one-third of real estate transactions last year in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to a National Association of Realtors report. Eighty-one percent paid cash, the report found, and 72 percent bought a condo or townhouse.

The whole story is interesting.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Israel's Choices

Another Israeli election - now what?

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, looks at the options. Two excerpts:

JERUSALEM — Uneasiness inhabits Israel, a shadow beneath the polished surface. In a violent Middle Eastern neighborhood of fracturing states, that is perhaps inevitable, but Israelis are questioning their nation and its future with a particular insistence. As the campaign for March elections begins, this disquiet looks like the precursor of political change. The status quo, with its bloody and inconclusive interludes, has become less bearable. More of the same has a name: Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his third term as prime minister. The alternative, although less clear, is no longer unthinkable.

“There is a growing uneasiness, social, political, economic,” Amos Oz, the novelist, told me in an interview. “There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.” The author, widely viewed as the conscience of a liberal and anti-Messianic Israel, continued, “Unless there are two states — Israel next door to Palestine — and soon, there will be one state. If there will be one state, it will be an Arab state. The other option is an Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”

...

Israel is a remarkable and vibrant democratic society that is facing an impasse. It must decide whether to tough it out on a nationalist road that must lead eventually to annexation of at least wide areas of the West Bank, or whether to return to the ideals of the Zionists who accepted the 1947 United Nations partition of Mandate Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab (the Arabs did not accept the division and embarked on the first of several losing wars aimed at destroying Israel).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Long Read on Russian Economy

Via Marginal Revolution, The Guardian has an excellent long read on the state of the Russian economy in a time of falling oil prices:

You know that the reporters did their research in depth because of details like this:

Inflation is hitting all areas of society. Brothels in the Arctic port of Murmansk have hiked their prices by 30-40%, and may in future even peg their services to the dollar.

Public sector employees account for more than 25% of Russia’s workforce, and are Putin’s core electorate. When the Russian president returned to the office in 2012, he promised hefty pay increases for public sector workers (in some cases doubling salaries). The government is now attempting to back peddle and bring these increases in line with inflation.

Despite a relatively austere budget, Russia’s budget also foresees a 20% increase in military spending, which together with law enforcement, and state security sectors makes up about a third of the federal budget.

President Putin remains remarkably popular, and his grip on the country firm.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Flacks Fault Flacco Fumble

It is perhaps emblematic of the intellectual and moral poverty of American journalism that nothing in Obama's press conference got so much attention as his mispronunciation of an actor's name.

More Krugman on Putin/Ruble/Russia

The Ruble has recovered a lot of lost ground since Tuesday: Bloomberg It's still worth only about half as much as last year, though, and the future is unclear.

Paul Krugman offers his perspective in the NYT:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

Unlike most other currency crisis countries, Russia has regularly run large trade surpluses, and has a big stash of foreign currency reserves. So what could the problem be, aside from the fact that Putin has frightened the West into some probably not very effective financial sanctions?

Krugman again:

... Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

In principle, that money could go back home. But do Russia's oligarchs trust Putin and the country enough to do that?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Krugman on Russian Debt

One area where Paul Krugman is a genuine expert is currency crises - he claims with some justification to have invented the field of study in economics. Here he takes a look at the Russian debt situation.

He recalls the textbook responses:

At this point the approved move is either (a) go to the IMF or (b) invade the Malvinas. Somehow, (a) doesn’t seem likely — and Putin did (b) in advance.

Cuba Si, Ted Cruz No!

For fifty years, the fanatics of the Cuban exile community told us that Castroism in Cuba was on the brink of collapse, and that if we just kept punishing the Cuban people a bit longer, the whole mess would collapse, allowing them to restore Batista or whomever. Well, it never worked, and Obama finally managed to bring the whole farce to a halt.

Yes, Cuba is still a repressive, undemocratic Communist regime. We have long had diplomatic relations with lots of similar places, and on the whole, such relations have worked to reform those places - usually accompanied by the disappearance of Communism.

Goodbye Ruble Tuesday?

Well, it did briefly look like it. Nonetheless, Russia has a bunch of foreign currency and all that oil and gas, so it does have resources to defend the currency. Will it be enough? TBD.

Bloomberg Ruble vs Dollar.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Man On Horseback

Yeah, that's him, the guy who forgot to put his shirt on.

Putin, of course, is an old KGB Commie whose dearest wish is to restore the evil empire. So why are assorted allegedly right-wing nut jobs so drawn to him? See Lumo here and his commenters for examples. It's the horse, of course. The inner fascist just can't resist the man on horseback - real or virtual. Though a commenter on Stoat pointed out that Putin's concerns right now line up pretty well with those of our own Oiligarchy.

Right now falling oil prices, with a boost from Western sanctions, have got El Puto in a tight spot. Like Gorbachev's Soviet Union of 1989, Russia is highly dependent on oil. Vlad has a bunch of cash stockpiled, but the Ruble is looking really ugly right now and the central bank had to push up interest rates to recession producing levels - with no guarantee that that will work to stem the flight from the Ruble. Putin's oligarchical friends must be getting a bit nervous, and that may be why Russia has so far resisted capital controls which might make it harder for them to fly to dollars.

The Russkies, who still drink up nationalistic propaganda like it was vodka, still love him. How long he can get away with that if the economy tanks, big time, is hard to guess.

What's really scary, though, is what he might do if he's really trapped like a rat. He still has a big army, and there is a lot of Europe that is poorly prepared to defend itself.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Climate Doomsaying

Eli links to an Aaron Sorkin bit of laconic climate doomsaying. Even though I largely agree with the climate scientist characters's matter of fact predictions of bad stuff to come, I have to say that I doubt its effectiveness. People are bombarded almost daily with predictions of doom of one sort or another, by preachers, cable news, random nut jobs, and politicians - hope that's not redundant.

More to the point, we all know that our own personal doom is not that far in the future. All these things make it hard to get to worked up about sea levels being 80 feet higher in the next millenium. For most people, thinking about the future means dealing with the next hour, the next day, and if they are really well off, maybe the next decade or two.

Our species evolved in the Pleistocene, a time of climate hazards considerably more tumultuous than today. Catastrophes wiping out big chunks of the species were a regular occurrence. That might have kept us from evolving the kind of minds that were comfortable with not planning too far ahead.

Another factor has been the tendency of some climate scientists to blame any bit of bad weather - a bunch of hurricanes striking the US, a major tornado outbreak, a drought in California - on climate change. Even if they ultimately turn out to be sort of right, a decade without a major hurricane strike, a quiet tornado year, or a rash of flooding rains in California makes people forget, or worse, remember and disbelieve.

Call me a pessimist, but my guess is that people in Miami will believe climate change when the water reaches their knees. Oklahoma and Kansas might be harder sells.

In any case, I personally find it hard to get to worked up about our impending collision with the Andromeda galaxy, four billion or so years hence. Though I am a bit sorry than neither I nor our planet will be here to see it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Astro FOTD: M 15

Messier 15, or M 15 among friends, is a globular cluster located 10 kiloparsecs or so from us, one of the 150 or so globular cluster associate with the Milky Way galaxy.

In addition to being very pretty, it's very old, about 12 billion years, nearly as old as the Universe itself (13.6 billion, or so). All the 100,000 stars in it are thought to have formed at about the same time from a single large gas cloud. Blue stars, you may recall, are all very young - they burn themselves out quickly. So how does M 15 have some blues? It's thought that they may have formed from collisions or mergers of smaller stars, perhaps those that formed as close binaries.

M 15 is also thought to harbor an intermediate mass black hole (IMBH), a black hole larger than those formed in Supernovae of a few solar masses, but smaller than the million and billion solar mass monster than inhabit the center of galaxies - perhaps a few thousand solar masses.

It also has a planetary nebula, the blue patch above and to the left of center, the only one known in a globular cluster.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Astro FOTD: Parker Instability

M 51 in infrared. Notice how the bright clumps of star formation are strung like beads along the dusty lanes of the spiral arms and other spider web like features. It is thought that much of the clumpyness is due to Parker Instability. According to Choudhuri in Astrophysics for Physicists, magnetic pressure causes regions of stronger field to be less dense than nearby region of lesser field strength, giving rise to magnetic buoyancy. In the disc the local gravitational field has a component toward the plane of the disc, so that regions of slightly lesser field rise out of it like magnetic bubbles. The plasma in these bubbles, however, can stream down the magnetic field lines towards the disc, amplifying any small initial mass concentrations. The resulting mass concentrations can become dense enough to promote star formation.

The same buoyancy instability is involved in sunspots and solar flares.

Walter Lewin

From Scott Aaronson's blog:

Yesterday I heard the sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online. I don’t know anything about what happened beyond the terse public announcements, but those who do know tell me that the charges were extremely serious, and that “this wasn’t a borderline case.”

I’m someone who feels that sexual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else. But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are. I know others differ, but I think the need of the world to see that justice was done overrides MIT’s internal administrative needs, and even Prof. Lewin’s privacy (the names of any victims could, of course, be kept secret).

More importantly, I wish to register that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare—thereby forcing the tens of thousands of students around the world who were watching these legendary lectures to hunt for ripped copies on BitTorrent. (Imagine that: physics lectures as prized contraband!) By all means, punish Prof. Lewin as harshly as he deserves, but—as students have been pleading on Reddit, in the MIT Tech comments section, and elsewhere—don’t also punish the countless students of both sexes who continue to benefit from his work. (For godsakes, I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.) Doing this sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union.

I agree about the lectures, but see comments on Scott's blog.

Another icon bites the dust through sexual misbehavior. My guess is that we are genetically programmed to have tendencies toward such behaviors. If so, we probably only see the tip of the iceberg of powerful men behaving badly.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

IQ Upgrade?

Remember Daniel Keyes fabulous short story/novel/play/movie Flowers for Algernon? The title character was a mouse with surgically enhanced intelligence.

It seems that this part of the future has already arrived.

What would Stuart Little make of it? Mice have been created whose brains are half human. As a result, the animals are smarter than their siblings.

...

Goldman's team extracted immature glial cells from donated human fetuses. They injected them into mouse pups where they developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell.

Within a year, the mouse glial cells had been completely usurped by the human interlopers. The 300,000 human cells each mouse received multiplied until they numbered 12 million, displacing the native cells.

"We could see the human cells taking over the whole space," says Goldman. "It seemed like the mouse counterparts were fleeing to the margins."

Astrocytes are vital for conscious thought, because they help to strengthen the connections between neurons, called synapses. Their tendrils (see image) are involved in coordinating the transmission of electrical signals across synapses.

Human astrocytes are 10 to 20 times the size of mouse astrocytes and carry 100 times as many tendrils. This means they can coordinate all the neural signals in an area far more adeptly than mouse astrocytes can. "It's like ramping up the power of your computer," says Goldman.

Intelligence leap

A battery of standard tests for mouse memory and cognition showed that the mice with human astrocytes are much smarter than their mousy peers.

Although creepy, the work has some obvious implications for understanding some kinds of metal retardation, and, conceivably, treatments.

According to the lead investigator, Steve Goldman of Rochester University:

"This does not provide the animals with additional capabilities that could in any way be ascribed or perceived as specifically human," he says. "Rather, the human cells are simply improving the efficiency of the mouse's own neural networks. It's still a mouse."

However, the team decided not to try putting human cells into monkeys. "We briefly considered it but decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues," Goldman says.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Orion and SLS - Space Shuttle II?

Phil Plait looks at the Orion capsule and NASA's Space Launch System, SLS, and finds them a bad idea. They have the potential to be spectacular monuments to crapitude like the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle.

I won’t go into the necessity of space exploration; I have argued for it over and again, and in my mind the case is made. We need to break the bonds of Earth.

The question is, how are we going to do it?

NASA wants to use Orion, and they want to launch it on the SLS. I have some problems with this.

The problem is that these monsters always draw congressional pork barreling like flies to ... They wind up over budget and behind schedule, and compromises are made that sap the program. Worse, they wind up sucking up all of NASA's science money to make up the shortfalls. Private industry is quite busy developing launch vehicles, and they are very likely to do a much better job of it than the government. NASA should concentrate on the scientific and technological frontier. Phil has details.

Right now, for example, SpaceX is doing pretty well with its Falcon 9 rocket. The F9 is capable of getting a decent payload to orbit, and has already had several successful missions to resupply the International Space Station using the SpaceX Dragon space capsule. Elon Musk has revealed plans for the next generation Dragon V2, which is much larger and can carry more astronauts and supplies. SpaceX is also well on its way to building the Falcon Heavy, the next step up from the F9. It will have more lift capability than any rocket currently existing, though to be fair, less than what is proposed for SLS.

That last part seems important. If you want to go to Mars, won’t you need a much more powerful rocket—that is, the SLS? You do if you want to send up huge chunks of hardware all at once. But if you can subdivide, you can send up that same equipment over multiple flights. That sounds like it’s more expensive … except that a Falcon Heavy launch will cost a fraction of what the SLS will. You can launch several Falcon Heavys for the price of one SLS. And Musk has said that SpaceX can build a super heavy launcher that will exceed the payload capability of SLS as well, yet still cost far less.

And that’s just SpaceX. There are other companies at various degrees of development with an eye towards this capability. SpaceX is simply the current leader.

RFK, jr.

Laura Helmuth of SLATE is rallying another lynch mob, only this time I have to agree with her. Robert F Kennedy junior really is a dangerous and obsessive nut job.

Helmuth:

Most paranoid, grandiose, relentless conspiracy theorists can’t call a meeting with a U.S. senator. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A profile of Kennedy in this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine shows that Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders listened politely while Kennedy told them that a vaccine preservative causes autism.

It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country has evaluated the evidence and concluded that the preservative thimerosal is safe.

OK, the last sentence is another bit of Helmuthian hyperbole, but there does seems to be overwhelming evidence that thimerosal is not implicated in autism or much of anything else. Unfortunately, when a crackpot like Kennedy has a famous name, people tend to believe him, even if he has less qualification in his judgement than say, Jenny McCarthy - another vaccine denialist.

More from Helmuth:

Thimerosal, out of an abundance of caution, was removed from childhood vaccines 13 years ago, although it is used in some flu vaccines. And yet Kennedy, perhaps more than any other anti-vaccine zealot, has confused parents into worrying that vaccines, which have saved more lives than almost any other public health practice in history, could harm their children.

Mikulski and Sanders, to their credit, both politely blew Kennedy off. That’s a sign of great progress: Not that many years ago, Rep. Dan Burton held congressional hearings on the entirely made-up dangers of vaccines. I’m especially proud of Sanders, who represents Vermont, a state with one of the highest rates of vaccine denial and misinformation.

But the more people dismiss Kennedy, unfortunately, the more obsessive and slanderous he becomes. Keith Kloor describes some of Kennedy’s recent outrageous claims in the Post profile:

The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.

Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”

There seem to have been a lot of seriously flawed human beings in the Kennedy clan, but I doubt that thimerosal was the culprit.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Reply to Lee

Blankety-blank Disqus keeps deleting this comment as spam, so: Well, your conception of what I was writing about is very different than mine. I was writing about what happened to a prominent scientist when he incautiously gave voice to some unpopular views - or more precisely some views unpopular among the self appointed academic thought police. If you care about my always evolving views on IQ, as opposed to my view of the reaction to Watson's ostracism, you could check out some of my many posts on the subject: http://capitalistimperialistpi...

More On Honest Jim

The Guardian has a nice, and I think balanced, account of James Watson's disastrous encounter with Political Correctness. I have to stress than I don't agree with Watson, and think that some of the things he said were indeed very offensive. But does that mean he deserved a virtual public lynching? A couple of quotes from the Guardian article:

From Richard Dawkins:

'What is ethically wrong is the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant "thought police", of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, out of the Science Museum, and maybe out of the laboratory that he has devoted much of his life to, building up a world-class reputation,' said Richard Dawkins, who been due to conduct a public interview with Watson this week in Oxford.

And from his old foe and E. O. Wilson:

Nor is it at all clear that Watson is a racist, a point stressed last week by the Pulitzer-winning biologist E O Wilson, of Harvard University. In his autobiography, Naturalist, Wilson originally described Watson, fresh from his Nobel success, arriving at Harvard's biology department and 'radiating contempt' for the rest of the staff. He was 'the most unpleasant human being I had ever met,' Wilson recalled. 'Having risen to fame at an early age, [he] became the Caligula of biology. He was given licence to say anything that came into his mind and expected to be taken seriously. And unfortunately he did so, with casual and brutal offhandedness.'

That is a fairly grim description, to say the least. However, there is a twist. There has been a rapprochement. 'We have become firm friends,' Wilson told The Observer last week. 'Today we are the two grand old men of biology in America and get on really well. I certainly don't see him as a Caligula figure any more. I have come to see him as a very intelligent, straight, honest individual. Of course, he would never get a job as a diplomat in the State Department. He is just too outspoken. But one thing I am absolutely sure of is that he is not a racist. I am shocked at what has happened to him.'

Friday, December 05, 2014

Amazon's Scientific E-textbooks Suck

I had high hopes for the e-textbook. I imagined live equations, live links that led to interest external sites, and other interactive features. Having bought a few Cambridge UP and other scientific e-books from Amazon, I have to say that they all suck. The equations are typically reduced to tiny images that don't magnify with the text. Amazon's proprietary text crapware apparently can't render them in magnifiable form. Needless to say, the other desirable features are also missing.

I guess real e-textbooks will have to wait for another generation or so.

Police Violence

About 50 cops are shot in the line of duty in the US every year. There are no really good statistics on how many civilians cops kill, but it seems to be a much larger number, about 1000. A spate of recent killings of unarmed black men has drawn public attention, but they aren't the only victims. Cops kill a lot of unarmed civilians of all races, but it seems likely that the victims are disproportionately young and black.

My guess is that hardly any cop goes out on the job with the ambition of killing anybody, much less an unarmed civilian. Such killings are tragic and usually avoidable. Victims of police violence want the perpetrators punished, but they rarely are. Grand juries, and especially prosecutors (who have to work with the police), are very reluctant to indict, especially when there is reason to believe the victim was resisting.

The first instinct of a policeman when faced with danger is probably to reach for his gun, even though he has less murderous options on his belt. Why? Mainly because he doesn't want to be the guy who brought a billy club to a gun fight. We live in a society where any idiot can own a gun, and many can carry concealed quite legally. As long as the NRA runs the country, cops are probably going to be quick on the trigger.

The prosecutor handling the grand jury that failed to indict Eric Garner's killer apparently did not give the grand jury opportunity to consider some lesser charges which may have been more appropriate. And, of course, it's Staten Island, where:

It is a place where its lone congressional representative, Michael Grimm, faces a 20-count indictment, threatened to throw a television reporter off a balcony, and still won re-election by ever larger numbers.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Gasoline

With gas prices reaching good old days levels and our highway system crumbling, this would be a good time to raise federal gas taxes. This is only slightly less likely than kindly space aliens intervening to save us from ourselves.

Astro FOTD: GAIA

Astrometry, the measurement of the positions and motions of stars, is at the foundation of much of our knowledge of cosmology and astrophysics, and parallax measurements, the measurement of the apparent motion of the stars due to the motion of the Earth around the Sun, is the most fundamental astrometric technique. These motions are tiny, even for the nearest stars. The parallax of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and consequently the star with the largest parallax is only about 0.78 arc seconds, equivalent to less than 4 mm at a distance of 1 kilometer. Before the development of space based astrometry, the most distant stars whose parallaxes could be measured were about 100 light years away. The new GAIA satellite of the ESA should extend that the center of the Galaxy, some 27000 light years away.

GAIA has some other tricks too: finding near Earth asteroids, Quasars, and exoplanets, to name a few.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Monday, December 01, 2014

Honest Jim vs the PC Mafia

James Watson, the famously cranky discoverer of the structure of DNA, is auctioning off his Nobel medal, claiming that he needs the money. He is 86, and probably made a lot of money in his life, between authorship of one of the justifiably most famous popular science books of all time and several very popular textbooks. He got into some trouble a few years back when his habit of speaking his mind ran into the central religious dogmas of our time, when he ventured that he worried that the persistent racial differences on IQ tests might reflect real differences in intellectual capability.

My favorite crackpot has mounted a stirring if hardly effective defense of Watson. My first link, above, takes the opposite tack. Laura Helmuth, who apparently is Slate's Science and Health editor, launches a passionately wrongheaded attack on Watson. It's preposterous that someone with such anti-scientific views can be the Science editor of a major publication, but such is the conventional religion (PC, unreformed) of our times.

She has a long list of Watson's crimes, which include dissing Rosalyn Franklin (the key investigator whose crucial x-ray diffraction pictures led Watson and Crick to the structure of DNA, but who died before Nobels were handed out), Ed Wilson, women, and fat people. Watson is and has been opinionated and rude, but his capital crime, in Helmuth's analysis, was believing that the measurements which consistently show racial differences might be real. Helmuth:

And, of course, Watson fundamentally misunderstands research on race, genes, and intelligence. Scientists have been debunking ideas like his since well before The Bell Curve made a mockery of statistical analysis.

Of course it is Helmuth who misunderstands. It is true that the subject remains highly controversial, but no one has ever "debunked" the data. One may, possibly, explain or rationalize it away, but those explanations and rationalizations remain unproven at present, while the data remains.

I'm not trying to argue that Watson is right here - I suspect that he may not be. I'm saying that what he says is perfectly scientifically defensible, even if it is socially very inconvenient.

So Watson's crime, which Helmuth apparently regards as worthy of eternal damnation, is being rude and obnoxious and speaking what may well be an inconvenient truth.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Interstellar

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?)

Under-represented

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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Moral Communities

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

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

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

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

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

Astro FOTD: Taking Out the Trash

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


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

Monday, November 17, 2014

Germans in Fantasy Land

Paul Krugman quoting Wolfgang Munchau:

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

Krugman adds:

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Energy, Civilization and the Climate Pessimists

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

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

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

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

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

Terence Tao on Colbert

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

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

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

Grothendieck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Old King Coal

Eli Rabett has taught me a lot about global warming, so I hate to quibble with his analysis of economics and the climate future, but I do think he has some wrong ideas here: http://rabett.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-montreal-solution.html Mostly I think he wants to bash Lomborg and others who say the world can't afford to deal with climate yet - mainly because the poor countries need coal and other ceap fossil fuels for development.

Eli:

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

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

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

Some more Eli:

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

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

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

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

A Forthright Democratic Challenge

A Forthright Democratic Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 07, 2014

Retirement

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

The Store

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

Cost me about $200.00

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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Those Good Old Days

Were politics more civil in the good old days? Rick Perlstein on the Republican Convention of of 1976 (Ford vs. Reagan):

The vice president of the United States had spotted a Mormon preacher from Utah who’d invaded the space of the New York delegation and was bearing a “Reagan Country” sign. “With an adolescent grin on his face,” said Texas Monthly, Rockefeller snatched the offending sign from the minister’s hands.

...

The Utah Reagan leader, Douglas Bischoff, chased after Rockefeller to retrieve his placard. He and New York GOP chairman Rosie Rosenbaum scuffled. Rockefeller claimed to have overheard someone say “if he didn’t get that sign back he was going to rip out the phone”— and, presently, the white phone connecting the New York delegation to the Ford command trailer in the parking lot was indeed ripped out while the chairman held the receiver to his ear , surrounded by a crush of reporters attempting to overhear him.

“I want that man arrested!” Rosenbaum yelled as Bischoff attempted unsuccessfully to scuttle down an aisle ahead of the Secret Service agents, who apprehended him for questioning beneath the stands. “He ripped my phone out. That’s what Reagan people are like.”

Rockefeller held up the severed phone for the cameras , sweat breaking through his dress shirt. He then gave the sign back to a Reagan delegate— after ripping it in half.

The American flag on the stage fell over.

Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations 15739-15753). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The Student: Galaxies

My current book in my Astrophysics self-study is Galaxies in the Universe by Sparke and Gallager, 2nd edition. It's aimed at advanced undergrads, so probably appropriate for a aging physicist who worked on atmospheric problems for 30 years. It's a pretty good book, I think, but occasionally frustrating for the autodidact.

The big problem is a certain carelessness about numbers and a few other details, especially in the problems. An unfortunately not atypical example can be found in problem 1.19, where one is asked to compute some effects of neutron lifetime on Helium abundance. A crucial intermediate step is computing the time at which the radiation is cool enough for deuterium to survive. The problem helpfully adds that the value one gets should be 365 s (after big bang). If one uses the equations found in the book, one gets a bit less than 349 s - not a big difference, but way to large for using equations without any error bars. It's small enough, and large enough, to make me think that perhaps I left out some small but perhaps crucial detail.

The intertubes were little help. It seems that estimates of this time (using slightly different methodologies) vary quite a bit. Finally I thought to look for an online errata. OK, they said, the time should be 350 s, not 365s. Umm, not quite. It was really a bit less than 349. Can't they even get the errata right to 3 significant figures?

Unfortunately, this type of error is rife. What the hell. Don't they have grad students - or at least undergrads who use the book?

It's Complicated

Ideas in science are often pretty simple. The details of the facts supporting these ideas rarely are.

Like ancient civilizations, religions, and primitive cultures, modern science has constructed an elaborate cosmology. Modern cosmology, for example, has constructed a detailed picture of what was happening in the universe 13 billion plus years ago, when it was less than a millisecond old. Why should we take this cosmology, or any science, more seriously than the various myths aforementioned?

The answer of science is that the scientific cosmology is supported by an intricate web of measurements, predictions, retrodictions, and interrelationships which are remarkably consistent, not only with each other but with the whole structure of modern physics, from thermodynamics to quantum field theory. That web is complicated, and nobody can comprehend it without extensive and detailed study.

It's probably worth noting that perfect consistency is an ideal that is never perfectly achieved, at least not until there are no scientific questions left to be answered. None of these points ever seem to be understood by the various critics of evolution, cosmology, or climate science who think that they have achieved a scientific triumph when they find some fact or argument which seem to contradict their (usually confused) notion of what that criticized theory says.

I have spent some time arguing with various critics of modern climate science and the idea of anthropogenic global warming. Many, despite having achieved degrees in science and engineering, really seem to have no idea how scientific theory is constructed or supported. One guy, a meteorologist with a degree in geology, thought he had disproven the link between CO2 and sea level change because he found a few examples of of places where sea level appeared to be higher in Medieval times than today.

This argument is wrong on so many levels that it becomes complicated in itself. Of course there are many reasons why an individual location may rise or fall relative to sea level. Many such reasons are geologic - volcanism, isostasy, etc. I presented him with examples of ancient cities now drowned (geologic causes). I showed in detail how his favorite example of a once sea side castle having moved inland was due to the fact that the local people had built dikes to wall off the sea and reclaim tidal swampland for farming. He was unmoved and unpersuaded. Certain kinds of deliberate and studied stupidity are invincible in the face of fact and logic.

Of course I had to spend many hours to reconstruct the complicated details of exactly why his argument was wrong. I learned a little about history and a lot more about the futility of trying persuasion on ideological nutjobs.