Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sterling Stories

It's somewhat bizarre that Donald Sterling got the death penalty for some racist remarks in a private conversation. It was also pretty inevitable.

Donald Sterling, the longtime owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was barred from the N.B.A. for life and may be forced to sell the team for making racist remarks, the league commissioner, Adam Silver, announced Tuesday. Silver said that Sterling would be barred from any contact with his team and the league and that he would be fined $2.5 million, the maximum allowed by the league’s constitution.

Of course lots of people would be in trouble if their every unguarded remark was recorded and disseminated to the world, but Sterling had a few counts against him, in addition to the rank and disgusting content of the speech itself. One was a long history of racist business practices. More importantly, he owns a NBA franchise, and the players in the NBA are overwhelmingly black. Not only that, but he personally dissed Magic Johnson, basketball icon, major ambassador for the game, and a leading candidate for greatest player ever.

If NBA commissioner Silver had gone easy on Sterling, convulsions in the league would likely severely damaged the league as well as the team.

Sterling has indicated that he will fight the lifetime ban Silver handed down, and, given the fact that Sterling is a lawyer and has almost two gigabucks, the courts will likely be busy for the rest of Sterling's life.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Tim Judah on Ukraine

Via Wolfgang and Lee, this excellent NYRB article on the situation in eastern Ukraine by Tim Judah.


Is Putin behind all this, and if so what is his goal? No one seemed to know for sure. Yuriy Temirov, an analyst at Donetsk’s university, says that he believes some local oligarchs have been financing the rebel organization, though others are clearly supporting Ukraine. Russia certainly has its interests in Ukraine and there is strong, although disputed, evidence suggesting that Russian military and intelligence agents were involved in the takeovers; but Putin’s interests are not the same as those of the oligarchs financing the rebels. “The local bosses don’t want any authority here, either state or Russia,” Temirov told me. But Putin, he believes, has made “efficient” use of the local bosses, who have unwittingly “done the dirty work of the Kremlin.” One of them is widely believed to be Oleksandr Yanukovych, the son of the former president, who had been a dentist and then became fabulously wealthy when his father was in power.

And an ominous final two sentences:

In the early hours of Easter Sunday, a shootout at a rebel checkpoint surrounded by fields at Bylbasovka, near Sloviansk, led to a number of dead, though how many and exactly what had happened was unclear. The phony war teetered on the edge of turning real.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Piketty Punchline

Thomas Piketty states his principal conclusions early in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

What are the major conclusions to which these novel historical sources have led me? The first is that one should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms. In particular, the reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war. Similarly, the resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due largely to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance. The history of inequality is shaped by the way economic, social, and political actors view what is just and what is not, as well as by the relative power of those actors and the collective choices that result. It is the joint product of all relevant actors combined.

The second conclusion, which is the heart of the book, is that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.

Piketty, Thomas (2014-03-10). Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Kindle Locations 453-462). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

On behalf of the world's plutocrats, thanks again Ronnie and Meg.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Three Prophets of Doom

Thomas Piketty begins his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with a look at some prophets of economic doom: Malthus, Ricardo, and Marx. Their points of view were very different: Malthus and Ricardo feared the social upheaval caused by increasing inequality while Marx cheered it on, but there was a common thread - seemingly ineluctable forces in demography and capitalism that immiserated the poor while increasing the concentration of wealth at the top. All of them ultimately proved wrong - at least in the medium run - for somewhat related reasons: the industrial revolution and the rapid progress of technology.

Of course Marx did ultimately get his revolution, only, as Piketty points out it only happened in the most backward nation in Europe, while the advanced countries found other ways to deal with increasing capital accumulation. Piketty makes the point that all three were severely limited by the paucity of good data on what was happening and what had happened. The centerpiece of his own work is the vast store of detailed economic data that he and his colleagues have assembled.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review, Part III

Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, has aroused fierce anger in a great many Hindus, most of whom appear not to have read it. On the other hand, it has also sold very well in India, despite an official ban based on claims of blasphemy - it can still be ordered from abroad or by Kindle. So what exactly are they so pissed off about? That's the question that started me reading the book and the asking of which seemingly cost me all my Hindu friends.

A part of the answer seems to be Doniger's feud with the so-called Hindu fundamentalists, including Hindutva and its political incarnations the BJP and the RSS. Broadly speaking, these groups are nationalistic or chauvinistic, espouse a fundamentalist view of Hinduism and are against Muslims, Christians, Jews and other non-native religions. Doniger has this quote from a leader of the RSS:

. The non-Hindu peoples in Hindustan . . . must not only give up their attitude of intolerance and ungratefulness towards this land . . . but must . . . stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation , claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment— not even citizen’s rights. 1 Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar (1906-1973)

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 687). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

The great Indian patriot Gandhi, who had a much different attitude, was assassinated by an RSS adherent.

Doniger is actively hostile to the BJP and RSS, probably mostly because of their key roles in events like the following 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque, a Sixteenth Century architectural marvel:

... on December 6, 1992, as the police stood by and watched, leaders of the BJP whipped a crowd of two hundred thousand into a frenzy. Shouting, “Death to the Muslims!” the mob attacked Babur’s Mosque with sledgehammers. As the historian William Dalrymple put it, “One after another, as if they were symbols of India’s traditions of tolerance, democracy, and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.” 36 In the riots that followed, more than a thousand people lost their lives, and many more died in reactive riots that broke out elsewhere in India , first in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the mosque, then intermittently, and then very seriously again in 2002.

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 664). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Somewhat like American Christian fundamentalists, the BJP and its allies take a literal approach to the Hindu classics. In the case of the Babri Mosque, it became a target not just because it was Muslim, but because legend had it that it was the birthplace of Rama, the hero of one of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana, and an incarnation of the great god Vishnu. Part of the feud is about Doniger's interpretation of the Ramayana.

To say (as I do) that the Ramayana tells us a great deal about attitudes toward women and tribal peoples in the early centuries CE is a far cry from saying that someone named Rama actually lived in the city now known as Ayodhya and fought a battle on the island now known as Sri Lanka with a bunch of talking monkeys on his side and a ten-headed demon on the other or with a bunch of tribal peoples (represented as monkeys) on his side and a proto-Muslim monster on the other, as some contemporary Hindus have asserted. Rama left no archaeological or inscriptional record. There is no evidence that anyone named Rama did or did not live in Ayodhya; other places too claim him, in South India as well as North India, for the Ramayana was retold many times, in many different Indian languages, with significant variations. There is no second Troy here for a Schliemann to come along and discover. Or, rather, there is a second, and a third, and a nineteenth Troy for anyone to discover.

Placing the Ramayana in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors who lived at various times...

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 662). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Of course these are but fragments of a larger dispute over who gets to analyze or comment on a religion or a culture. As a female, foreigner, and non-Hindu, Doniger is triply suspect. That she would have the temerity to argue that her pluralistic account of Hindu history is more valid than the fundamentalist's narrow, nationalistic (and she argues) bowdlerized and Britishified version is another outrage.

The BJP, by the way, is widely expected to be the big winner in the current round of Indian national elections.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Some Truths About Cats and Dogs

Well, mostly about dogs. It seems that cats are notoriously difficult research subjects.

Dogs, claim animal cognition researchers:

We are living in a golden age of canine cognition. Nearly a dozen laboratories around the world study the dog mind, and in the past decade scientists have published hundreds of articles on the topic. Researchers have shown that Fido can learn hundreds of words, may be capable of abstract thought, and possesses a rudimentary ability to intuit what others are thinking, a so-called theory of mind once thought to be uniquely human. Miklósi himself has written an entire textbook on the canine mind—and he’s a cat person.

Dogs understand the notion of pointing, apparently. Chimps, our high IQ cousins can't understand it. Cats too seem to get it, but they don't seem to be able to count to three, though fish can. Mostly, though, cats would really just rather not participate in your experiment.

Back in the USSR: Chaos in Crimea

Citizens of the newly Russified Crimea are finding some challenges in the transition:

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — After Russia annexed Crimea practically overnight, the Russian bureaucrats handling passports and residence permits inhabited the building of their Ukrainian predecessors, where Roman Nikolayev now waits daily with a seemingly mundane question.

His daughter and granddaughter were newly arrived from Ukraine when they suddenly found themselves in a different country, so he wonders if they can become legal residents. But he cannot get inside to ask because he is No. 4,475 on the waiting list for passports. At most, 200 people are admitted each day from the crowd churning around the tall, rusty iron gate.

Banks are closed, and businesses can't get supplies. Connection and supply with Russia is a ferry.

Other changes are more sinister. “Self-defense units,” with no obvious official mandate, swoop down at train stations and other entry points for sudden inspections. Drug addicts, political activists, gays and even Ukrainian priests — all censured by either the government or the Russian Orthodox Church — are among the most obvious groups fearing life under a far less tolerant government.

Russian Special Forces in Ukraine?

Ukraine says yes(CNN).

Slaviansk, Ukraine (CNN) -- Do a series of photos of gun-toting men wearing green uniforms prove Russian forces are operating in eastern Ukraine?

Ukrainian officials point to the pictures in a dossier obtained Monday by CNN, arguing that the images show Russian "sabotage-reconnaissance groups" acting in Ukrainian towns.

The images, Ukrainian officials say, prove organized Russian activity in the region.

CNN cannot independently confirm the photographs, some of which were first published in The New York Times.

The dossier shows what Ukrainian officials say are images of well-equipped gunmen in eastern Ukraine who look similar to photographs of Russian forces taken in Crimea, Russia and during Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Last week, Ukrainian security officials told CNN they had arrested a Russian military officer and a woman Ukrainian officials said is a Russian intelligence agent.

Circumstantial evidence, and abundant past behavior, suggests the answer is yes.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Thermodynamics 001 (for Judy and Lumo)

Judy Curry and Lumo think that the second law of thermodynamics prevents heat deposited in the deeper ocean from warming the surface. They know, I assume, that net heat flow between bodies at different temperature is from warmer (surface) to cooler (deep ocean), but, in yet another example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, they assume that that means that adding a little heat to the deep ocean won't warm the upper ocean. That's not true.

If you put on a jacket on a cold winter day, you will probably be warmer than you were without it, even though the inside of the jacket is colder than your skin. The point is that it's not as much colder than your skin as the outside air is. This is a ubiquitous theme in atmospheric physics - cirrus clouds a lot colder than the ground moderate winter surface temperatures because they are a lot warmer than outer space.

The same principle applies to warming the deep oceans - even though net heat flow will still be downward, it will be less when the subsurface is warmer.

Probably more important, though, is the effect of deep ocean warming on densities and the dynamics that drive ocean circulation.

Another freshman physics error for our dynamic duo, probably more egregious for a supposed atmospheric physicist who really really should know this. String theorists, not used to dealing with anything in the the real world, have a slightly better excuse.

Friday, April 18, 2014

In Memoriam

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo. Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos. El mundo era tan reciente, que muchas cosas carecían de nombre, y para mencionarlas había que señalarlas con el dedo.

Márquez, Gabriel García (2012-03-05). Cien años de soledad (Biblioteca Garcia Marquez) (Spanish Edition) (Kindle Locations 17-21). Random House Mondadori. Kindle Edition.

Why Deny?

Both Stoat and Rabett(or Eli's Brian)have again weighed in on the topic of the motivation of the global warming skeptics. Brian is closer to the mark, I think, but William, not so much. William says it's because they can't understand the science, while Brian ties it to politics and economics. The fact is, the number of people who understand the science in detail is tiny - many of the important details are hidden in models so complex that even those who run them may only understand parts in great detail. Other branches of science have the same problem, but rarely to the same degree.

My exposure to a group of skeptics has convinced me that many of them understand much more than your typical sign carrying climate warrior. Their combination of knowledge and attitude makes them good at seeing through many of the oversimplifications and exaggerations common in the press and even heard sometimes from distinguished climate scientists. They know some crucial truths: that temperature and CO2 have been quite a bit higher in the past, that the connection between storms and AGW is somewhat uncertain, that large uncertainties exist in climate feedbacks and climate cycles.

Of course they also believe many things which are almost certainly false: that the planet hasn't warmed since 1998, that the planet (rather than just Greenland) was 6-8 C warmer in the Eemian, that the lag between CO2 concentrations and temperature during glaciation events proves that CO2 changes are an effect, not cause of warming, some oddities about the temperature structure of Venus and more.

The usual AGW soldier has no clue as to how to deal with either of these types of "information" and that gives the skeptics confidence. Ultimately, though, I think that their opinions, like those of many on the other side of the debate, are ultimately tribal. Their tribe is conservative, often religious, deeply distrustful of anything requiring international cooperation. One consequence of this analysis is that those who deal in insults strengthen them far more than weaken them. Insulting the tribal flag causes the tribe to rally around.

In my by now somewhat regular meetings and debates with my skeptical friends, I try hard to listen and (usually) disagree politely. They give me at least equal courtesy. I don't expect to persuade many or even any, but I find the dialog useful anyway. Contrary to what William found about skeptical blogs, many are willing or eager to talk amelioration and policy.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review Part II

Outline of the plot of The Hindus.

The oldest document of Hinduism is the Rig Veda, first written in the early centuries AD, but probably composed as much as two thousand years earlier. The peoples who composed it and the other Vedas may or may not have affinities with the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization (IVC)(3300-1300 BCE), but their life style, horse riding and nomadic, was certainly different. Unfortunately the IVC left no decipherable records, so we don't know what language they spoke.

The Vedic peoples spoke an Indo European language which left its traces in Sanskrit, the liturgical language of the Vedas and much subsequent Hindu literature as well as in widely spoken Indian languages of today. The Indo-European speakers, who conquered most of Europe and big chunks of Asia, are commonly assumed to have originated in central Asia, but other hypotheses are sometimes entertained, and their diaspora occurred some 5000-6000 years ago or so.

There is a huge later religious literature (Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Sutras, Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and more) that dwarfs the literature of any other religion. This literature, says Doniger, articulates the changing character of Hinduism over the millenia. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of this literature, compared with the Abramaic religions, is the diversity of points of view expressed. Almost every facet of religion and society is subject to intense debate and critique. Unlike, say, Christianity, where dissenting points of view were often punished by murder, most dissent was incorporated into the body of the literature. For Doniger, this is one of the principal virtues of Hinduism.

Hinduism is even more tightly woven into the culture of India than most religions are into theirs, and that fact makes it extremely difficult to separate religion from putatively "secular" aspects of the culture. Widely divergent sects, beliefs, and practices exist simultaneously in Hinduism as a whole and often in the minds of individual Hindus. This is sometimes shocking to the Aristotelian and Cartesian minds of Westerners, but quite compatible with the latest views of modern cognitive science.

Hindu pluralism makes it exceptionally difficult to define as a Western style systematic body of beliefs. Throughout history the Hindus have often responded to new ideas from the outside by adapting and incorporating them. Christian and Muslim saints have been adopted and incorporated into Hindu practice by some groups. Internal critiques of Hinduism which have split sharply with it are tacitly and legally adopted into it, for example Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The Buddha, for example, received a sort of Mormon style posthumous re-baptism back into Hinduism as an Avatar of the great God Vishnu.

Next time: some critical comments about the book.

The Hindus: Book Review Part I

The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, was a complicated and somewhat difficult book for me, but I would like to begin by stating quite categorically that the claim that it is an an attempt to demean, discredit or otherwise disrespect Hinduism is false. That claim, made to me by some Hindus who admit that they haven't read the book, and some that I don't know who do claim to have read it is, in my opinion, quite absurd. When I have tried to find out what offended them, they have responded with circumlocutions, incomprehensible analogies, evasions, and finally, anger. Whatever it is, they either don't know or don't want to tell me.

Perhaps the closest thing to a bill of particulars that I have seen is this quote, via Arun, from emeritus Professor Madan Lal Goel:

Wendy Doniger’s 779-page tome titled, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) is a hurtful book, laced with personal editorials, folksy turn of the phrase and funky wordplays. She has a large repertoire of Hindu mythological stories, and often narrates the most damning story - Vedic, Puranic, folk, oral, vernacular - to demean, damage and disparage Hinduism. After building a caricature, she laments that fundamentalist Hindus (how many and how powerful are they?) are destroying the pluralistic, tolerant Hindu tradition. But, why save such a vile, violent religion, as painted by the eminent professor? There is a contradiction here.

This is such a misguided, even dishonest, analysis that I hardly know where to begin, but I won't quibble with his first sentence, though why he found it hurtful, I can hardly imagine. He claims that she "often narrates the most damning story to demean, damage and disparage Hinduism. Again, I have no clue as to why he finds her choices of stories "damning." On the contrary, I, like Doniger, felt that they illustrated the depth, subtlety and great artistry of authors dealing with the deepest problems of human existence. It is true that Doniger has some critical words for her bitterest foes, the so-called Hindu fundamentalists, Hindutva, and the RSS and BJP.

In the final two sentences of this paragraph he attacks a dragon that exists only in his own mind. The notion that Hinduism is painted as "vile and violent" by Doniger is false. She thinks, rather, that it is a noble and subtle religion of a people, that, like the rest of us, live in a world that is frequently violent and occasionally vile.

Goel doesn't elaborate on any of the accusations he makes in this first paragraph. Instead he devotes most of the rest of his critique to her discussion of interactions between India and various Muslim invaders. He is mainly upset that she doesn't say bad enough things about the Muslims, and has the temerity to point out that Muslim thought had some impact Hindu thought.

I started reading this book because I wondered why it was making so many Hindus so angry, but my thoughts on that will have to wait.

The Old World

It's not your grandmother's Germany anymore. Though if you live in Germany, you probably are a grandmother - or would be if your children had ever gotten around to reproduction. The median age in Germany is 46.1 years, an age at which many people used to be grandparents. It's tied by Japan in that regard, and only exceeded by the comic opera state of Monaco, with a median age of 51.1. The 43 countries in the over 40 category are mostly in Europe and mostly the long industrialized countries.

The slightly less superannuated countries in the 35-40 median age category include most of the rest of Europe and advanced nations: the US (37.6), China (36.7), Australia (38.3), to name a few.

The middle-aged 30-35 category includes a few tiny Muslim enclaves in Europe, Brazil, and a sprinkling of nations from all over.

The 25-30 category includes India (27.0), Mexico (27.3), Iran (28.3), and Israel (29.9), as well as other big chunks of Latin America and Asia, North Africa, and South Africa.

Under 25 is the realm of the not quite yet developed: Bangladesh (24.2), Philippines (23.5), Laos (22.2), Ghana (20.8) and under 20 is mostly basket case countries: Yemen (18.6), South Sudan (16.8), Niger (15.1).

The world's median age is 29.4. It's surprising how much this one statistic captures about countries.

I like numbers, OK?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Putin's seizure of eastern Ukraine appears to be going smoothly, unlike Kiev's efforts to resist. Troops sent by Kiev have been disarmed by so-called peoples' militias - apparently composed of or at least stiffened by Russian special forces. Polls appear to show that most locals would prefer to be part of Ukraine, but they don't object enough to Russia to resist.

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — A highly publicized Ukrainian Army operation to retake control of Slovyansk and other eastern cities from pro-Russia insurgents appeared to falter badly on Wednesday, with one column of armored vehicles abandoned to militant separatists and another ground to a halt by unarmed protesters blocking its path.

The setbacks appeared to reflect new indecision and dysfunction by the interim authorities in Kiev, the capital, who have been vowing for days to end the insurrections in the restive east that they say have been instigated by Russia. The Kremlin has massed thousands of troops near Ukraine’s eastern border, raising fears that it intends to seize more Ukrainian territory, beyond its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the south last month.

This sort of thing often ends badly.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Super Prez

Jonathan Rees, a history prof somewhere in Colorado, has gotten rather more than his 15 minutes as an anti-MOOC blogger. He apparently coined the phrase "super professor" for those who taught MOOC courses, evidently considering the term derogatory. He has been predicting the demise of the MOOC for a couple of years now, but they roll on, despite considerable uncertainty about exactly how they are going to be monetized.

The NYT has an interview with Richard C. Levin, former president of Yale and the new CEO of Coursera, the biggest of the MOOCs, a for profit enterprise. He steps gingerly around the issue, but the holy grail of the MOOC enterprise is credit for MOOC courses. Currently, Coursera offers something called "Signature Track certificates."

Q. You’re an economist. How do you get from here to there?

A. Right now courses are free and we’re charging for certification. We think that as the idea of using Coursera courses for professional advancement grows, the numbers seeking certificates will grow. And the price we charge probably can grow, too. A move from $50 or $60 for Signature Track to $100 is certainly imaginable. At $100 a pop, if you had two or three, or five million people. ...

If employers start taking them seriously...

There is a hint that he is putting his money where his mouth is.

Q. When you were at Yale your base pay was in excess of $1 million a year. Are you taking a pay cut to come to Coursera?

A. I don’t want to talk about my personal package. It’s a startup.

I interpret that as saying he has a piece of the action...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Latest Cosmos

The ridiculously metaphorical chloroplast (a factory with gears, conveyor belts, scoops, etc) was a real embarrassment.

The tardigrades were cute, but how about some info on how they survive, whom they are related to, and so on. This series is a disappointment, so far.

Not Good News: Ukraine

Is Putin preparing his own Anschluss in Ukraine? The omens are not good.

MOSCOW — NATO released satellite photographs on Thursday showing Russian military equipment, including fighter jets and tanks, that it described as part of a deployment of as many as 40,000 troops near the border with Ukraine. The release came the same day that President Vladimir V. Putin reiterated a threat to curtail gas sales to Ukraine.

Meanwhile Russian thugs, possibly with some Russian Special Forces intermixed, continue to take over government buildings in Ukraine.

We did see that the (police) station is taken over, there are barricades out in front and lots of crowds. We're told that there are dozens of unidentified gunmen in green unmarked camouflage uniforms who are moving around there.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

I am always a bit surprised how few of the people who ask that question have thought deeply about the answer. We have known the answer in some detail since Malthus and Darwin, and approximately from time immemorial. To put the tragic answer bluntly: we can't all just get along because resources are finite, and the population increases to exploit any increases in resources, and, finally, because we have evolved to live in a world where those things are true.

We are fabulously lucky to live in an age when we no longer have to continue to reproduce like rabbits, and in many countries, we no longer do. In most countries, we are approaching sustainable reproduction rates. On the other hand, we still do have all those instincts that were developed to deal with the Malthusian world. Also, population will continue to increase for some decades, even if favorable trends in declining fertility continue. Worse news, however, is that ecological damage due to global warming is likely to diminish world food production, possibly by dramatic amounts.

A world where we really can all just get along, or at least stop murdering each other in mass quantities is out there, still lying just beyond our grasp.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

An Aristotelian Straightjacket?

Arun links to an interesting article by A. K. Ramanujan entitled "Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?" It's a subtle article, and I hesitate to try to summarize, but he emphasizes the idea that compared to Western thinking, Indian thinking is more contextual, Western more context free. I don't claim to understand exactly what this means, but some of the examples suggest that this is a difference between saying something like "the governor, speaking to the maid in the bedroom said ..." (contextual) and the context free "the governor said ..." The author also suggests that the Indian mode is more comfortable with simultaneously holding two apparently mutually contradictory views of the same phenomenon - giving as an example, his father, an astronomer, also doing astrology. There is much more, but I recommend the article.

At any rate, I was reminded of the discussion of the role of metaphor in cognition by Lakoff and Johnson. They argue that, at least since Aristotle, the role of metaphor in thought has been systematically devalued and and neglected in philosophical thinking. They point out the the many metaphors, for example, that we use to think about time: time flowing like a river, time as distance, time as a sequence of points, us moving through time, time as a resource, like money, that can be saved, wasted, or lost. These metaphors are by no means completely compatible, and a lot of philosophical confusion has been wasted over this fact. Despite the philosophers, ordinary people have little trouble juggling the metaphors and using them in reasoning when appropriate. Nonetheless our philosophy and much of our thinking considers this kind of incompatible metaphor use unsatisfactory.

Ramanujan quotes Emerson's famous aphorism: "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." There is no doubt that we humans like to construct a consistent picture of our world. In practice, that's rarely possible without some violence to either the facts or the rest of our cognitive apparatus, and in practice we use various metaphors quite opportunistically. Perhaps one difference between Indian thought and Western is that recognition of this opportunistic use of metaphor has been devalued, at least since Aristotle.

Bibliomania Revisited

Reasonable people can agree, I think, that it makes no sense to buy books that you are never going to have time or energy to read.

So why do I feel this strong urge to buy Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model by Schwartz and this book by Andrew Zangwill? I mean they even have similar cover art.

I already have 60 or so QFT books and I've reached the age where stupidity outraces learning.

Bibliomania - an annoying disease.

Monday, April 07, 2014

A History of Violence

I went to a talk tonight by Stephen Pinker, title as above, subject derived from his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. As in the book, he discussed the evidence for and possible explanation for the apparently 6000 year old decline in intraspecies violence, especially war and murder. It was a good talk, marred by excruciatingly bad acoustics.

I have long legs, and many theater seats, like the one I was in, don't really have room for my knees, and my unconscious movements to adjust my position can quite gently nudge the back of the seat in front of me. At any rate, after about 90% of Pinker's talk, the guy in front of me stood, bent down, and said to me: "what kind of person would keep kicking the seat of the person in front of him?" and stalked out of the theater. Naturally I had a pleasantly disarming reply:

"I'm sorry if my long legs accidentally disturbed you, but if I had meant to kick you, you would still be picking the upholstery out of your ass next month."

Fortunately I didn't think of it until he was well away and up the aisle, thereby perhaps avoiding a very unfortunate homicidal interruption of Pinker's talk.

India Vote

The world's biggest democracy is having an election, starting today, and it's widely expected to be a highly consequential one. From the NYT:

This vote is widely seen as historic as it comes at a time of massive social change that has put the Indian National Congress-led government on the defensive after leading the country for 10 years. Opinion polls have shown that voters are leaning toward the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., as a growing middle-class electorate expresses disappointment with lackluster government services and corruption; voters are mobilizing on social media en masse for the first time; and the B.J.P. has connected to crucial voting demographics — including rural and young voters — by harnessing a popular demand for change.

Another take from the Guardian.

The Other Shoe ...

... has been dropped by Putin.

MOSCOW — Several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators who have seized government buildings in the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, urged President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday to send troops to the region as a peacekeeping force, and they demanded a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.

The renewed unrest in eastern Ukraine, which flared on Sunday with coordinated demonstrations by thousands of pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, reignited fears in Kiev and the West about Russian military action a little more than a month after Russian forces occupied Crimea. The Kremlin annexed Crimea after a referendum there last month.

The events in the east were unfolding just hours after a Ukrainian military officer was shot and killed in Crimea in a confrontation with Russian troops.

It sure looks like Vlad is readying things for another bite.

UPDATE: More detail in this BBC story.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Metaphor as Map

If a metaphor is a mapping from one conceptual domain to another, what are its properties?  In mathematics, the most interesting mappings are those in which preserve some structure, for example algebraic or differential structure.  Lakoff and Johnson haven't discussed this sort of mathematical notion - yet in the book anyway - but I suspect similar notions underlie our use of metaphor.

Conceptual understanding is clearly a critical element of thought, and not surprisingly, it is tightly wrapped with metaphor.  One metaphor is seeing is understanding.  We often use the verbs interchangeably.  Here we are mapping the conceptual domain into the physical sense of sight.  Some properties of sight are faithfully replicated in the metaphor: seeing clearly, for example, means being able to distinguish and identify the parts of an image, and conceptual understanding is strongly analogous.  Other related visual metaphors abound - a "foggy memory" for example.  Clearly the mapping is not one to one - some visual concepts are rarely found relevant, like color.

Of course the very word "understand" is itself a metaphor, with the root meaning of "standing in the midst of" (rather than physically under).  Another synonym is "grasp" a mapping on to the physical acting of holding something in one's hand.  Here again, the sensory-motor associations are clear.  Add the word "comprehend" to the list.  One of its original Latin meanings (hold tightly) has been lost, but the other one that we use survives.

Death to the Aristotelian Metaphor

Lakoff and Johnson have a bone to pick with the traditional view of metaphor, much of which they attribute to Aristotle. Here is how they describe that traditional view:

1. Metaphor is a matter of words, not thought. Metaphor occurs when a word is applied not to what it normally designates, but to something else.

2. Metaphorical language is not part of ordinary conventional language. Instead, it is novel and typically arises in poetry, rhetorical attempts at persuasion, and scientific discovery.

3. Metaphorical language is deviant. In metaphor, words are not used in their proper senses.

4. Conventional metaphorical expressions in ordinary everyday language are "dead metaphors," that is, expressions that once were metaphorical, but have become frozen into literal expressions.

5. Metaphors express similarities. That is, there are preexisting similarities between what words normally designate and what they designate when they are used metaphorically. This is not an accidental list. This theory is deeply rooted in the Western philosophical

George Lakoff. Philosophy In The Flesh (Kindle Locations 1503-1508). Kindle Edition.

For Lakoff and Johnson, on the contrary, metaphor is a central mechanism of thought - a mapping between conceptual domains - rather than merely a rhetorical device. For me, this is the key insight of the work they describe. It may not be coincidence that a closely related notion appeared in mathematics before it made it into cognitive science. In category theory, maps (or functions) take pride of place over sets and other fundamental notions. It seems to me that this is closely related the notion of metaphor as mapping and mechanism of thought.

So is it just coincidence that my title is a metaphor?