Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Red, The Dawn That Is To Come

Kevin Drum:

From the Associated Press:

A man accustomed to wealth and its trappings, Trump has embraced life in the Executive Mansion, often regaling guests with trivia about the historic decor. With the push of a red button placed on the Resolute Desk that presidents have used for decades, a White House butler soon arrived with a Coke for the president.

I just thought you'd all like to know.

I hope he doesn't get his buttons mixed up.

Hammer of the Heretic

Lumo has a new heretic to persecute: Berkeley physicist Richard Muller. Muller is a contrarian sort who attacked climate scientists for what he thought were dubious statistical methods and other crimes, and used that attack to scarf up some denialist money to conduct his own study. Which turned out to confirm the climate scientist's conclusions in almost every significant particular. No doubt that annoyed the Lumonator.

What seems to have pushed Lubos over the edge - and it never take much - though, is the fact Muller has declared that he doesn't believe the Milankovitch theory of ice ages. I suspect that this conclusion is due to nothing more rational than Muller's orneriness, but it was a serious insult to the Czech patriot. I also tentatively infer that Muller, after an unsuccessful colloquy with Lubos, may have told him to engage in an improbable self sex act.

The result is this tirade, which as a minor aside, includes an anti-semitic threat against another scientist altogether.

Poor Lubosh. He really wasn't cut out for science. He probably should have stuck to religion.

Open Clusters: Three Body Problems

All stars seem to form from large molecular clouds, and each such formation event seems to produce many stars - hundreds or thousands. Many of these clusters of stars quickly disperse, but so-called open clusters can endure for billions of years. They do exhibit a peculiar behavior though. Instead of the expected behavior, called dynamical relaxation, in which the heaviest stars sink gradually toward the center while the lighter ones expand they seem to show a very gradual uniform expansion. It appears that this is due to interactions of other stars with binaries pairs of stars. (A SciAm article by Steven W. Stahler)

What drives the uniform expansion of open clusters? Converse and I demonstrated that the key is binary stars: pairs of close, orbiting companions that are quite common in stellar groups. Simulations performed by Douglas Heggie, now at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, showed in the mid-1970s that when a third star approaches such a pair, the three engage in a complicated dance, after which the lightest of the three is usually ejected at high speed. The ejected star soon encounters other members and shares its energy with them, increasing those stars’ orbital velocities and e!ectively “heating up” the cluster. In our N-body simulations, it was the energy from these binary encounters that caused the open cluster to expand— albeit so slowly that the expansion could easily go unnoticed by astronomers.

The article is interesting throughout, with the usual good Scientific American figures and charts.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Amazon Knows My Taste

Wherever I go on the Web, Amazon ads follow me. And not random adverts. Ones carefully tailored to my taste. As proven by the fact that I have already bought those books. From Amazon.

How dumb do they think I am? Or do they actually know?

Sunday, April 23, 2017


In my gender and skin color. Let me rephrase that: I'm perfectly happy being male and having the skin color I have, despite its probable contribution to my skin cancers. What I'm unhappy with is that small majorities of both whites and males still approve Trump more than they disapprove him. So, at least, says a new Washington Post CNN poll. I had sort of reconciled to being a member of the mentally weaker sex, but skin color too?

I mean, fellow males and pale skins, WTF is the matter with us? This is not a hard question. Hope you wake up before this idiot gets us all killed.

Gunning for the Win

You really can't afford to be anti-gun in Montana. How the candidates for Montana's open Congressional seat show their arms:

Since then, Quist has vowed to protect Second Amendment rights. In his gun ad, he uses his family’s rifle to shoot a TV playing an attack ad.

Gianforte countered that with an ad of his own, claiming that Quist wants to create a national gun registry that would store personal information on a “big government computer.” The ad then shows Gianforte using a firearm to shatter a computer screen.


History's Lessons

...are many but highly ambiguous. Some historians would even deny their existence.

History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes.............attributed to, but quite possibly not actually said by, Mark Twain.

One lesson I'm pretty confident of, however, is that humans have a strong tendency to assemble themselves in rival groups and kill each other. My confidence is considerably increased by the collaborating evidence from anthropology, archaeology, biology, and psychology. That tendency has always been a source of endless grief, but since the advent of nuclear weapons, has become an extinction level threat.

Historically, the best remedy for interpersonal violence has been a state with a monopoly on violence. Only a global state, or something like it, could work when every two-bit state gets nuclear weapons. Such a state is unnatural to human instincts, and anathema to nationalists of every stripe, so highly unlikely to happen. Unless our robot overlords decide that it's necessary.


World War II shattered every great power except the US and Russia. When Germany surrendered, the Soviets had overwhelming military superiority in Europe. Had Stalin chosen that moment to try to overrun the rest of Europe, could he have been stopped? It's hard to imagine how. The much smaller US Army in Europe would have been hard pressed to stop them.

Stalin already knew, though, that the US was close to a nuclear bomb - the Trinity test was only two months away, and after Hiroshima, it was clear that that option was impossible.

I seem to recall that Bertrand Russell suggested that it would be a good idea for the US and Britain to use their nuclear superiority at that point to force Russia to surrender and give up it's plans for a bomb. Many of the scientists at Los Alamos foresaw the world of today, where all sorts of countries would have nukes and the means to deliver them, and thought that the only viable alternative was global control.

Today we are on the brink of a world where dozens* of countries, some led by madmen, have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them globally.

*The list today likely includes the US, Britain, France, Russia, China (the five official nuclear weapons states), India and Israel. Pakistan and North Korea also have bombs, but likely still lack the means to deliver them globally. Iran is probably not far behind. South Africa formerly had the bomb, and today essentially every technologically advanced state could build them rather quickly. It cost the US about 2 billion dollars to make the first bombs (perhaps 20-30 billion in today's dollars), but today it would be far, far cheaper.

Le Pen vs. Macron

With about 1/3 of the vote counted.

That's not the worst possible outcome.

Navel Gazing

My curiosity was aroused when I noticed that a couple of so called referring URLs were from the Rational Wiki's Luboš Motl Page. I couldn't find any reference to my blog on the page, so I'm a bit curious as to how I could have been referred from it. It's true that I'm a long time student of the Lumonator, and that I have been known to refer to him as "the blogfather," since he is really my inspiration (or provocation) for blogging, but that's not much help.

UPDATE: Never mind. My reading skills obviously are lacking. Also, I noticed that someone, (Lumo?) had "edited" the title of my blog. I thought that I might try to edit it, but the signing up puzzle defeated my senile intellect.

Eve of Destruction

Richard Feynman, who had driven his roommate Klaus Fuchs’s old Buick down to Albuquerque the previous June, in the midst of the final effort to finish the bombs, to keep vigil with his young wife Arlene while she died of tuberculosis, found himself lost between worlds. Before he left Los Alamos he had thought about what the bomb meant and had made some notes. He had calculated that Little Boys in mass production would cost about as much as B-29s. “No monopoly,” he had written.863 “No defense.” And: “No security until we have control on a world level. . . . Other peoples are not being hindered in the development of the bomb by any secrets we are keeping. . . . Soon they will be able to do to Columbus, Ohio, and hundreds of cities like it what we did to Hiroshima. And we scientists are clever—too clever—are you not satisfied? Is four square miles in one bomb not enough? Men are still thinking. Just tell us how big you want it!” The twenty-six-year-old widower may have seen too much of death. He sat in a bar in Manhattan one afternoon in the months after the war looking out the window at all the people going by and shaking his head, thinking how sad it was that they didn’t realize they had only a few years to live.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 202). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The world has avoided nuclear destruction for 70 some years through deterrence. Now it looks like nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them are falling into the hands of religious fanatics and dangerously homicidal dictators. How long can this unstable equilibrium last? Not only that, but the leaders of two of the world's three nuclear superpowers are aggressive and far from intelligent.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Oh Dear!

Bee explains that physicists haven't really created negative mass.

Next she'll probably be claiming that various athletic feats don't actually defy the laws of physics.

Is nothing sacred?

Defection: Canadian Style

Shortly after the war, a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Canada who had decided to defect, gathered up documents demonstrating the extent and details of Soviet spying and went to a newspaper. He was ignored. Attempts to go to the government were equally unpromising:

Finally the Minister of Justice sent out word that they should go back to the Soviet Embassy and return the documents. The Gouzenkos assumed that Soviet agents within the government must have made so stupid and deadly a decision. In fact, it came directly from the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, who seems to have been terrified that he might stir up trouble with the Soviet Union.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 184). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Grouchy Review

Veep is a much honored show that has been running on HBO since the Devonian. Having recently acquired access, I caught about one and one half episodes before concluding that it was a)really dumb, b)not funny.

Of course if I get bored enough to watch any more I might change my mind. Anybody got a contrary?

Secrets and Spies

Several early chapters of Dark Sun are devoted to Soviet spies in the US Manhattan project and their influence on the Russian bomb effort. It was immense. During the war the US shipped thousands of tanks, aircraft, ships, and even whole factories to Russia to support the war effort against Germany. They also shipped thousands of sealed suitcases, which contained tens of thousands of documents, many of them top secret. A flood of Soviet agents made the trip in the opposite direction, spreading out over the country. They had broad access to American technology and American industry. Evidently, someone important thought it was important enough to the war effort to allow that.

Air Force Major General Follette Bradley, who pioneered the Alsib Pipeline [the air route from Montana to Alaska to Siberia], would tell the New York Times:

Of my own personal knowledge I know that beginning early in 1942 Russian civilian and military agents were in our country in huge numbers. They were free to move about without restraint or check and, in order to visit our arsenals, depots, factories and proving grounds, they had only to make known their desires. Their authorized visits to military establishments numbered in the thousands. I also personally know that scores of Russians were permitted to enter American territory in 1942 without visa. I believe that over the war years this number was augmented at least by hundreds.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 100-101). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

For the Manhattan project, the key spies were inside, with Klaus Fuchs being the most important. He was a talented physicist as well as a committed Communist from his teenage years, and he worked at the heart of two crucial efforts: the gaseous diffusion plant to separate fissionable U235 from U238 at Oak Ridge and the design of the explosive lenses that were the essential ingredient of the plutonium bomb.

The information gathered by the various spies was crucial to the Russian efforts, since the relative poverty and weakly developed technology in Russia made it impossible to carry out many of the experiments performed by the US, Britain, and Canada.

Rhodes has a lot of material on the spies, their psychology, and the tactics used to recruit them. Nearly all were motivated mainly by ideology. A common recruiting tactic used on the less committed was the appeal to a common enemy: Russia is our ally, we are just sharing information needed to confront the fascists. Israel has been known to use similar tactic on Americans.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Finding ET

Actually, extra-solar planets, and just maybe, life out there. Chris Jones portrait of Sara Seager in the New York Times Magazine. A facinating human portrait of an astrophysicist bent on a cosmic quest.

Like many astrophysicists, Sara Seager sometimes has a problem with her perception of scale. Knowing that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and that each might contain hundreds of billions of stars, can make the lives of astrophysicists and even those closest to them seem insignificant. Their work can also, paradoxically, bolster their sense of themselves. Believing that you alone might answer the question “Are we alone?” requires considerable ego. Astrophysicists are forever toggling between feelings of bigness and smallness, of hubris and humility, depending on whether they’re looking out or within.

One perfect blue-sky fall day, Seager boarded a train in Concord, Mass., on her way to her office at M.I.T. and realized she didn’t have her phone. She couldn’t seem to decide whether this was or wasn’t a big deal. Not having her phone would make the day tricky in some ways, because her sons, 13-year-old Max and 11-year-old Alex, had a soccer game after school, and she would need to coordinate a ride to watch them. She also wanted to be able to find and sit with her best friend, Melissa, who sometimes takes the same train to work. “She’s my best friend, but I know she has other best friends,” Seager said, wanting to make the nature of their relationship clear. She is an admirer of clarity. She also likes absolutes, wide-open spaces and time to think, but not too much time to think. She took out her laptop to see if she could email Melissa. The train’s Wi-Fi was down. She would have to occupy herself on the commute alone.

Seager’s office is on the 17th floor of M.I.T.’s Green Building, the tallest building in Cambridge, its roof dotted with meteorological and radar equipment. She is a tenured professor of physics and of planetary science, certified a “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation in 2013. Her area of expertise is the relatively new field of exoplanets: planets that orbit stars other than our sun. More particular, she wants to find an Earthlike exoplanet — a rocky planet of reasonable mass that orbits its star within a temperate “Goldilocks zone” that is not too hot or too cold, which would allow water to remain liquid — and determine that there is life on it. That is as simple as her math gets.

Bits and Pieces

Among the many joys of Richard Rhodes Dark Sun are the biographical bits:

Once the magnitude of the disaster sank in, says Stalin biographer and General of the Soviet Army Dmitri Volkogonov, the dictator “simply lost control of himself and went into deep psychological shock.97 Between 28 and 30 June, according to eyewitnesses, Stalin was so depressed and shaken that he ceased to be a leader. On 29 June, as he was leaving the defense commissariat with Molotov, [Kliment] Voroshilov, [Andrei] Zhdanov and Beria, he burst out loudly, ‘Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up!’ ” Stalin retreated to his dacha at Kuntsevo; it took a visit from the Politburo, led by Molotov, to mobilize him. “We got to Stalin’s dacha,” Anastas Mikoyan recalled in his memoirs. “We found him in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, ‘What have you come for?’ He had the strangest look on his face.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 42-43). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Beria's repellent qualities apparently extended to having teenaged girls kidnapped off the streets to be raped in his office.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Venezuela on the Brink

Is Maduro finished? NICHOLAS CASEY and PATRICIA TORRES in today's NYT:

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protesters demanding elections and a return to democratic rule jammed the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities on Wednesday. National Guard troops and government-aligned militias beat crowds back with tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons, and at least two people were killed, according to human rights groups and local news reports.

President Nicolás Maduro defied international calls, including a plea from the American State Department, to allow peaceful assemblies and ordered his forces in

to the streets. Some demonstrators, wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas, fought back with firebombs.


The One and Only Real Secret

I've started reading Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes' award winning history of the development of the fusion (H) bomb. (Hat Tip, Fernando). I've barely started, but I have to say that Rhodes is a compelling writer.

One thing that caught my eye was that key Russian scientists were aware of the possibility of a uranium bomb in 1939, and some were already advocating a strong program to try to build it. Two fundamental problems prevented it: the uncertainty as to whether a bomb would actually work, and the enormous expense required to find out. In the end it was decided that the necessary resources could be more usefully spent preparing for the coming war with Germany. The government did not trust the scientists enough to go for broke, and the scientists, with intimate knowledge of Stalin's terror, did not trust the government enough to go all out.

Rhodes sums it up:

Trust would not be a defining issue later, after the secret, the one and only secret—that the weapon worked—became known.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 42). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Rise of the Cyborgs

Human's aren't quite surrendering to the robots yet. Maybe we will merge with them. Or just leave a few traces in their 'DNA' like the Neandertal did with us.

Kristen V. Brown, Gizmodo:

At Facebook’s annual developer conference, F8, on Wednesday, the group unveiled what may be Facebook’s most ambitious—and creepiest—proposal yet. Facebook wants to build its own “brain-to-computer interface” that would allow us to send thoughts straight to a computer.

What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan, the head of the company’s secretive hardware R&D division, Building 8, asked from the stage. Dugan then proceeded to show a video demo of a woman typing eight words per minute directly from the stage. In a few years, she said, the team hopes to demonstrate a real-time silent speech system capable of delivering a hundred words per minute.

“That’s five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, and it’s straight from your brain,” she said. “Your brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like and how it’s spelled; it also contains semantic information of what those words mean.”

I don't know, but I'm guessing they are reading sub vocalizations (or nerve impulses to your vocal apparatus) rather than the thoughts directly.

Bribery, American Style

Inaugural Fund Raising.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Ordered a book from Amazon, but I notice that it's being shipped via Royal Mail. I assume that means that it's coming from the UK (or maybe Canada or Australia - what do they call their post?).

Hope that it will be in a language I understand.

Book Review: Homo Evolutus

Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans are venture capitalists and authors with an interest in life sciences. Gullans is a former professor at Harvard Medical school. Their book, or I should say micro-book, Homo Evolutus, seems to be based on a TED talk they gave. The subject is their thesis that the human race is about to "speciate," or give rise to a new species of Homo, thanks to the radical advances being made in biotechnology and genomics.

Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to background material on the evolutionary history of the various human species (19 so-far known, by their count) and their biological underpinnings. The rest is a quick catalog of some of the extraordinary goings on at the interface of biology and technology, many of which were unfamiliar to me. A couple of examples:

Not only did the two Chinese teams take mouse skin cells, and de-differentiate them back into pluripotent stem cells… They then took these stem cells and allowed them to re-grow, differentiate, and gave birth to live mice. Which then could reproduce normally.

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 1372-1375). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

About a lab where synthetic organs are being grown using such tools as inkjet printers loaded with stem cells:

On a bench top, a freshly printed mouse heart beats away in a box. (Take that Edgar Allan Poe.)

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 946-948). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

There is lots of similar stuff, including the cutsie asides, which I usually found slightly more amusing than annoying.

Homo Evolutus is (so-far) available only as a Kindle Single, and it's a very slender book indeed, only 58 pages, and that length is a great exaggeration due to it's idiosyncratically chatty format. It's more like a long magazine article. It's an hour or two of reading, and it's cheap, $2.99, Amazon only. I found it often interesting, and read about a number of things I had never heard of before. There are lots of endnotes and references for those who would like to check their work.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading a New Minibook

Our average shoe size has increased fourfold in the last century.

Meanwhile our brains have shrunk by 10% over last 5,000 years.

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 1552-1555). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Perhaps some of my readers, distracted by my prolixity and general je ne sais quoi*, don't realize that I make a lot of dumb mistakes.

Desafortunadamente, would that this expectation were the case. Being old does tend to reduce the scope of my blunders, but it also seems to have focussed them. I just finished reading a moderately long book, and didn't really know what to do next. So I thought about buying another book. Worse, the book I was thinking of buying was the third edition of a book I already thought I owned.

Maybe I should look at first edition to see if that seems like a good idea.

* I don't speak French and have no idea what that means.

Hate Reads

Pamela Paul thinks you should read books you hate. She has done her time in book purgatory hell.

My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed.

“How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns.

Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ever been before or since. I finished every wretched page of “The Fountainhead” in alternating states of fury and despair, and when it was finally over, I tried to leave the vague echo of Dominique, stomping around in her evening gowns, behind. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.

Well, me too. But I was already old when I read Rand's even longer dreadful brick, Atlas Shrugged, and I already knew that I would never be a libertarian.

But I'm too old and life is too short. If I read another book I hate it had better be short, and interesting. So forget about it James Joyce - I will never finish Ulysses.

Paul, of course, is a professional critic and editor of the NYT Book Review. So I assume she actually gets paid to read bad books.

Winning: ROTR*

Yep, and it's not H. sapiens. It is the robots. Claire Cain Miller in the NYT:

Who is winning the race for jobs between robots and humans? Last year, two leading economists described a future in which humans come out ahead. But now they’ve declared a different winner: the robots.

The industry most affected by automation is manufacturing. For every robot per thousand workers, up to six workers lost their jobs and wages fell by as much as three-fourths of a percent, according to a new paper by the economists, Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University. It appears to be the first study to quantify large, direct, negative effects of robots.

The paper is all the more significant because the researchers, whose work is highly regarded in their field, had been more sanguine about the effect of technology on jobs. In a paper last year, they said it was likely that increased automation would create new, better jobs, so employment and wages would eventually return to their previous levels. Just as cranes replaced dockworkers but created related jobs for engineers and financiers, the theory goes, new technology has created new jobs for software developers and data analysts.

But that paper was a conceptual exercise. The new one uses real-world data — and suggests a more pessimistic future.

This may come as a shock to economists, but computer and AI people are less surprised. Facts sometimes trump economic mythology.

Don't be shocked that the Trumpettes remain a bastion of denial.

The paper’s evidence of job displacement from technology contrasts with a comment from the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who said at an Axios event last week that artificial intelligence’s displacement of human jobs was “not even on our radar screen,” and “50 to 100 more years” away. (Not all robots use artificial intelligence, but a panel of experts — polled by the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy in reaction to Mr. Mnuchin’s comments — expressed the same broad concern of major job displacement.)

The paper also helps explain a mystery that has been puzzling economists: why, if machines are replacing human workers, productivity hasn’t been increasing. In manufacturing, productivity has been increasing more than elsewhere — and now we see evidence of it in the employment data, too.

The study analyzed the effect of industrial robots in local labor markets in the United States. Robots are to blame for up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, it concluded, and that number will rise because industrial robots are expected to quadruple.

The paper adds to the evidence that automation, more than other factors like trade and offshoring that President Trump campaigned on, has been the bigger long-term threat to blue-collar jobs. The researchers said the findings — “large and robust negative effects of robots on employment and wages” — remained strong even after controlling for imports, offshoring, software that displaces jobs, worker demographics and the type of industry.

*Rise Of The Robots

Summer Time

The Sun is back and the High Arctic is warming up again. It's now the warmest it's been since - unhh - January and February.

Say what?

Sapiens: Book Review

Rutherford supposedly said that there are only two kinds of science: physics and stamp collecting. History is like that too. Most historians concentrate on chronicling a sequence of events in some domain, what Toynbee called "one damn thing after another." Only a few choose the riskier path of seeking grand themes and patterns that unify the whole.

It's a risky path, because choosing the grand stage requires more erudition than any single human actually has. Mistakes and oversimplifications are sure to become targets. Toynbee's monumental magnum opus was not the first in this vein, but it might be the first of our own age. Two such works have had a huge impact on my view of human nature, how the world works, and how we got here: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and the present work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Yuval Harari. Of the two, the latter is the most ambitious, taking mankind from the status of "An Animal of No Significance," the title of his first chapter, to "The Animal that Became a God," the afterword.

Sapiens has been widely praised for its scope, incisiveness, erudition, and style. My favorite blurb comes from Jared Diamond, who is in some ways his mentor and model: “Sapiens tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.”

Sapiens is not a story of kings, heroes, and conquerors. The real characters in the story are the intersubjective realities, the myths, that are the building blocks of cultures and large scale cooperation: tribes, nations, religions, money and others. Harari takes a close look at the fundamental transformations of human society which he identifies as The Cognitive Revolution (circa 70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 ya) and the Scientific Revolution (500 ya).

Many will be offended, I suspect, by his casual lumping of such religions as Christianity, Islam, and Humanism (with branches such as liberalism, socialism, capitalism, and Nazism.) Those with eyes to see, I think, will find them opened and their vision expanded.

This is big picture history. Not history from 10,000 feet, as Harari says, but from an orbiting satellite. The picture he sees is a world where thousands of fragmented and barely interacting cultures have been gradually absorbed and digested by an all encompassing global culture. The primary engines of that destruction and transformation have been money, imperialism, and universal religions.

The book, an online course based on it, a TED talk, and various articles have made Harari, as one reviewer pointed out, a rockstar in history and anthropology - a guy who gets invited to give lectures to the aristocracy of Silicon Valley. Much of this celebrity comes, I think, from the final chapter, entitled "The End of Homo Sapiens," wherein he speculates about the future of our species. For the first time, he says, biological evolution's blind chance has been replaced by an intelligent designer. The potential of genetic engineering has barely been touched by such stunts as a cow's ear in human shape growing on the back of a mouse or a fluorescent green rabbit. Cyborg technologies that allow neural implants to let the blind see, the armless operate prosthetics, and remote control of insects and fish are just the beginning. So too, other experiments like the billion Euro project to emulate a human brain in Silicon foreshadow purely artificial intelligences.

His final words warn that God like powers are not necessarily accompanied by divine judgement. His final question:

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?

I have written a few dozen Harari posts over the years, collected here:

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Speed Demons

Could You Outrun a Soviet Submarine in a Lamborghini? The Fate of the Furious Made Us Wonder.

If you can't stand the suspense* skip down to paragraphs seven and eight.

*And are a hopeless stick in the mud.

The Neocon is On

From Slate:

Many conservative commentators seemed eager for the possibility of open conflict. On Fox News, John Moody argued that Trump was right to pursue a more aggressive posture toward North Korea, writing, “Trump has raised the stakes in this showdown, unlike Barack Obama, who tried to give Kim toothless avuncular advice, or Bill Clinton, who was hornswoggled into a bad nuclear arms deal with Kim’s father, in 1994.” (Apparently, the Bush administration's dealings with North Korea were not worth noting.) Pat Buchanan claimed that that Thursday’s MOAB strike could be interpreted as a message to North Korea, since “they have their tests, their atom bombs deep in tunnels, and I think what it is, is a message to them that we can get down in there and kill your people underground as well as above ground.”

Leaning into the prospect of regime change, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, appearing on Breitbart News Daily, said, “I think the only long-term way to deal with the North Korean nuclear weapons program is to end the regime in North Korea.

Individualism as a Racket

For countless generations we survived only as members of a family and an intimate community. Prying us loose from that embrace was a difficult enterprise, but the state and the market managed it. Their magic selling point: romantic individualism.


Friday, April 14, 2017


Nervously watching the game of chicken playing out between Trump and Kim Jong Un. Pretty hard to see a happy ending here.

Grant County, New Mexico

Grant County is a bit less than 4000 square miles (half the size of Wales) of desert, mountains, and spectacular wilderness inhabited by about 30,000 people, roughly 6000 of whom live in the largest town, Silver City. Several smaller towns, mostly former mining towns, dot the area. Silver City is another former mining town, with a small college, a tourist industry, and a hint of artistic post-hippiedom. Out in the wild are more refugees from civilization, including a few actual ranchers.

47% of all deaths of persons between the ages of 15 and 44 in Grant County are caused by drug overdoses. I'm not sure that that is the worst in the US, but if not, it's close.

The national map (by counties) and story at the link are illuminating and depressing. Rural and urban whites are the main victims.

My Favorite Reading: Today

All from the NYT:

Roger Cohen: France in the End of Days. France at the center of Europe's mid-life crisis.

Ana Fels: The Point of Hate. Hate and altruistic punishment as a key social glue.

T. R. Reid: Filing Taxes in Japan Is a Breeze. Why Not Here?

In Japan, you get a postcard in early spring from Kokuzeicho (Japan’s I.R.S.) that says how much you earned last year, how much tax you owed and how much was withheld. If you disagree, you go into the tax office to work it out. For nearly everybody, though, the numbers are correct, so you never have to file a return.

When I told my friend Togo Shigehiko in Tokyo that Americans spend hours or days each spring gathering records and filling out tax forms, he was incredulous. “Why would anybody want to do that?” he asked.

Farhad Manjoo: Uber Wants to Rule the World. First It Must Conquer India.

BANGALORE, India — Nandini Balasubramanya’s office here on the southern edge of India’s technology capital does not look as if it would play a key role in the world’s most valuable start-up’s plans for global conquest.

Review Notes: European Imperialism

A striking and original feature of European Imperialism was that it was a capitalist rather than a royal or government enterprise. Stock companies built and controlled the Dutch, British, and French overseas enterprises. Royal interference and crony capitalism crippled the French empire in the New World and ultimately brought down the monarchy itself. The British East India Company, which conquered India, had a larger army than the British government.

Harari notes that capitalism, imperialism, and science joined together in the imperialist enterprise. One of the keys to its success was the other army of historians, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, geologists, and biologists deployed, with the result that the invaders often knew the country better than the natives.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mixed News From Enceladus

Saturn's small moon Enceladus is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system for extraterrestrial life. Though it's far from the Sun, tidal forces have apparently heated its interior enough to produce an ice covered but liquid ocean, and from time to time it erupts in geysers that spout high above it south pole.

The Cassini mission to Saturn has sampled that geyser and found something interesting: hydrogen, which is interesting since hydrogen could be a fuel for life as it is in deep ocean vents on Earth. There is a good news- bad news aspect to this story.

Kenneth Chang, writing in the NYT, has the story:

Could icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life?

Intriguing new findings from data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft suggest the possibility.

Plumes of gas erupting out of Enceladus — a small moon with an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust — contain hydrogen. Scientists infer a lot from that: that there are hydrothermal chemical reactions similar to those that occur at hot fissures at the ocean bottoms on Earth.

On Earth at least, hydrothermal vents thrive with microbial life, offering up the potential that icy moons far from Earth — called “ocean worlds” by NASA — could be habitable.Could icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life?

Of course we don't see much hydrogen on Earth, since the bacteria scarf it up, so maybe there aren't any to do that job on Enceladus.

Kill Bill III?

While not bloviating from his high post in Fox News, or getting sued for sexual harassment, Bill O'Reilly likes to write about Presidential Assassinations. It seems, though, that the King of Cable News has got some crosshairs on himself lately - not literally, but Fox and O'Reilly's own advertisers are not happy about the revelation in the NYT that they and Bill had paid $13 million to women accusing him of various sexual violations.

Gabriel Sherman in New York Magazine:

Embattled Fox News host Bill O’Reilly announced tonight that he is taking a vacation. O’Reilly’s decision to go off the air in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal and advertiser boycott arguably has the appearance of a suspension, but O’Reilly worked to dispel that notion. He announced that he’d scheduled his trip “last fall” — well before the New York Times reported he paid $13 million to settle harassment claims. A Fox News spokesperson confirmed O’Reilly will return on April 24.

But according to four network sources, there’s talk inside Fox News that tonight’s show could be his last. Lawyers for the law firm Paul, Weiss, hired last summer by 21st Century Fox to investigate Roger Ailes, are currently doing a “deep dive” investigation into O’Reilly’s behavior. They’re focused now on sexual harassment claims by O’Reilly guest Wendy Walsh after she reported her claims via the company’s anonymous hotline.

I would be surprised if he goes. But gratified. Either way, he is not going to miss any meals.

Notes for a Projected Book Review

Today, most scientific research is sponsored either by governments or businesses. They put up these bucks because experience has shown that research can lead to military, economic or other advantage. Harari argues that Western science acquired its distinctive character and began its era of rapid progress only when it linked up with the forces of imperialism and capitalism. In that regard he says the discovery of the New World by Columbus "was the foundational event of Western Science."

He illustrates his thesis with the voyage of Captain James Cook, which had as central objective the observation of the transit of Venus from the South Pacific, in order to determine the distance to the Sun. That voyage also discovered many previously undiscovered lands, and carried a variety of scientists to catalog discoveries. Cook also demonstrated the efficacy of citrus fruit as a preventive and cure for scurvy, a disease which previously had killed roughly half the sailors on long ocean voyages. It also laid the foundation for the colonization of Australia, the destruction of all the native cultures, and the near extermination of the indigenous inhabitants.

Europe's conquest of the world occurred while Asia was sleeping. One hundred years after Columbus, Asia's economy still dwarfed that of all of Europe. Even tiny European countries like Denmark and Scotland sent expeditions to explore the New World, but not one Islamic or Asian power did, until 1942, when Japan conquered two small Alaskan Islands, "capturing ten American soldiers and a dog." Little did Asia suspect that it would be next on the menu.

United Airlines: Our Poor Planning

...may result in us beating the crap out of a passenger.

Lori Arantani, writing in the Washington Post:

The attorney representing the man who was dragged off a United Airlines flight Sunday said it’s likely his client will sue the company.

“Will there be a lawsuit? Yeah, probably,” Thomas Demetrio, one of the attorneys representing David Dao, said at a Thursday morning news conference in Chicago.

Demetrio said “unreasonable force and violence” were used against his client

Dao was discharged from the hospital late Wednesday night and suffered a serious concussion and broken nose, his attorney said. Demetrio said Dao also lost two front teeth and will undergo reconstructive surgery.

The news conference comes one day after United chief Oscar Munoz publicly apologized to for the incident and said he felt “shame” after viewing the video. Asked what he thought of Munoz’s apology, Demetrio said it sounded “staged.” He said neither he nor Dao had heard from anyone at United.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bedtime Stories

John Baez once wrote something to the effect that if one wanted to become a mathematical physicist, one should get the book Analysis, Manifolds and Physics by three French ladies and keep it by one's bedside until you knew everything in it. Gullible naif that I am, I tried it. Unfortunately I always fell asleep somewhere around page 15 and had dreams tormented by having to prove that the epsilon delta definition of continuous functions was exactly equivalent to the image of open sets version.

I still keep books by my bedside, even though I almost never read in bed.

Anyway, I cracked open my new copy of QFT in a Nutshell and started reading the blurbs. One guy talks about his wife being mad at him for staying up all night and the next day reading the first half and somebody else has to go and say it should be kept by one's bedside.

I won't make that mistake again. I'll just put it up on the shelf where books belong. If I could just find a space that isn't already taken. For now I'd better leave it next to my computer, under my coffee cup...

Kevin Drum Scores

Kevin diagnoses the staff convulsions in the White House as

The White House Is Now Officially "West Wing Apprentice"

With the nuclear option as a subplot. No, not that nuclear option. The one with real nukes.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

History's Choices

We cannot explain the choices history makes, but we can say something very important about them: history's choices are not made for the benefit of humans.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 241

Monday, April 10, 2017

Damn! And I just bought two more quantum books!

Quantum Mechanics Explained in Five Minutes

Persecuting Christians

Harari has a way of annoying people by challenging their prejudices. The list of the potentially offended is long, but here is an example: On 23 August of 1572, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attacked communities of Protestants who highlighted God's love for Humankind. Between 5000 and 10000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than 24 hours.

In that 24 hours, more Christians were murdered by Christians than by polytheistic Rome in the 300 years between the Crucifixion and Constantine's conversion to Christianity.

The Pope celebrated by commissioning a fresco of the massacre in the Vatican (off limits to visitors).

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 216

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Equilibrium? Hmmm?

The current political constellation in that region[the Middle East] - a balance of power among many independent political entities with more or less stable borders - is almost without parallel any time in the last several millenia. The last time the Middle East experienced such a situation was in the eighth century BC - almost 3000 years ago! From the rise of the neo-Assyrian Empire in the eighth century BC until the collapse of the British and French empires in the mid-twentieth century ADm, the Middle East passed from the hands of one empire to another, like a baton in a relay race.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 192

What does that say about the stability of the current situation?

Saturday, April 08, 2017

True or False?

"Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Culture are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change."

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 164

Well, the real laws of physics may be self-consistent, but the social construct we call the laws of physics are not quite there yet.

Who do I Write For?

That's one of those questions that invites a dishonest answer. When I started I convinced myself that I was writing to improve my writing skill. When I look at my stuff over the last ten years, though, I think I'm going downhill.

I think every writer, or at least this one, wants to be taken seriously, by which I mean I would like people to engage with my ideas. In some ways, I think my audience is larger than expected. According to Blogger, I get about 1000 pageviews a day (my other tracker says many fewer), but there are only a sawmill operator's handful of people who often comment. A few more weigh in infrequently.

The articles that get the most pageviews (usually on politics) are often not the ones that get the most comments.

Anyway, comments are usually appreciated, although they often bring out my mean streak.

More Harari: Themes

A couple of broad themes emerge in Harari's book: How did humans develop the capability to cooperate in large groups of strangers? And his answer: the social constructs, which he usually calls myths, that they develop. He exhibits and discusses two, each of far reaching historical and practical importance: The Code of Hammurabi (1776 BC), and the Declaration of Independence (1776).

He exhibits some samples:

(209) If a superior man strikes a woman of superior class and thereby causes her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver ten shekels of silver for her fetus.

(210) If that woman shall die, they shall kill his daughter.

Sound fair?

He has some problems with the Declaration too.

He notes:

'Cooperation' sounds very altruistic, but it is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation. The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labor with a single stroke of his imperial pen.

A subsidiary theme is how human life changed as humans 'progressed'. Agriculture compressed human spatial horizons, often to a single village, field and hut, but expanded his time horizons. Hunter gatherers don't worry much about the future because there isn't anything they can do about it. Farming is the opposite. Seeds need to be planted when they need to be planted and surpluses need to be stored. A hundred eventualities need to be prepared for.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Population Growth Burned Humanity's Boats

Harari calls the agricultural revolution "History's Greatest Fraud." Wheat domesticated humans, and humans, on average, wound up a lot worse off. Hunter gatherers are exposed to the elements and to predation by large carnivores, but they have a lot of compensations. They eat a highly varied diet, and a nutritious one, because it's the diet millions of years of evolution prepared us for. Because they move constantly, they reproduce slowly, which retards population growth. Since they live in small isolated groups, without domestic animals, they are relatively free of disease. For most, a few hours of work each day suffices to provide them with food and other requirements.

Most people in agricultural societies, by contrast, eat a very narrow diet, live in crowded villages, side by side with their own filth, and reproduce rapidly. Agriculture typically requires long hours of literally backbreaking labor - slipped and herniated disc's become common only after the invention of agriculture. The crowded conditions and accumulated waste make disease rampant, and when animals are added to the mix they bring our epidemic diseases.

So why did humans let themselves be enslaved by wheat? Harari's answer, given in far more detail, basically boils down to the same way we make bad decisions today: it seemed like a good idea at the time. A little labor invested in planting some wheat grains rather than just waiting for nature to provide paid dividends at the end of the season. As population exploded, it took more and more labor to produce enough grain to feed all the children. And now returning to an HG lifestyle was impossible, population growth, as Harari put it, had burned Humanity's boats.

Of course agriculture made possible civilization and all it has brought, but for most of 12,000 years it was a very bad deal for the average agriculturist.

He's not fond of the deal animals get from being domesticated either, and devotes a few pages to the cruel methods used then and now.

He offers some alternative scenarios for human domestication by wheat, but I found them less persuasive.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Friday, April 07, 2017

Ancient Ecodestruction

Most people today recognize that we humans are currently responsible for a vast wave of extinctions and ecodestruction. They may be less familiar with our long history in that regard. Africa and Asia have been occupied by humans for a couple of million years, so the large animal inhabitants had a long time to learn to fear and avoid the new maximum predator. This was not true for the new lands Sapiens reached after what Harari calls the cognitive revolution. First on the menu was Australia.

Humans reached it about 45,000 years ago after learning to cross substantial sea barriers. They were the first large terrestrial animal to get there in many millions of years. Within two thousand years of their arrival, nearly all species of large animal had been exterminated. Humans also altered the plant biosphere by setting fire to forests.

This pattern has been repeated with each new land Sapiens has reached, Madagascar, the Americas, New Zealand and Pacific and Arctic islands.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari


Caught a little Fox and CNN today. Fox had a panel where most were ecstatic about the bombing, except for one guy who recalled that this was not what Trump promised his voters.

CNN had Wolf interviewing Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who probably could have been effectively replaced by a wind up doll who said "end this illegal regime change war" in reply to every question. She says she is for peace, but wouldn't allow herself to say anything remotely critical of Assad.

Pretty clearly, that peace can now only come with Assad in control and his enemies dead, but to the extent that Obama encouraged the Syrian civil war, that will go down as a pretty bad deed. Would anything be different better if Obama had proved less dilatory? Beats me. He failed to heed the basic dictum: "if you strike at the king, be sure to kill him." Not that that worked so well in Libya.

Now we shall see how much trouble Trump can get us into.

Imaginary Realities

And as imagination bodies forth. The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name....Midsummer Night's Dream Act V, Scene 1.

A few years ago I took a history of mankind course online from Yuval Noah Harari. His course was closely related to his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which at the time was only available in Hebrew and German.

I recently bought the English version, and have started reading it. Harari is not afraid to challenge popular opinion or dogma. He refers to gods, nations, religions, human rights and corporations as imaginary entities. Not that he thinks there is anything wrong with that. On the contrary, he believes that the "cognitive revolution" that separated us from our neandertal, denisovan, erectus and other brother species of Homo extant 70,000 years ago began with our ability to create such cultural constructs as tribes, tribal totems, and tribal spirits as well as related narratives. These "imaginary realities" allowed sapiens to cooperate in larger groups. Moreover, because of their plasticity, these fictions are able to adjust to changing situations much more rapidly than any genetically based device.

Of course there is ample evidence of such cultural constructs in modern times - he picks Peugeot and the Catholic Church as illustration. It's equally obvious that we don't know much about the basis of cooperation 70,000 years ago but we do know that sapiens had already begun to cooperate in groups larger than the neandertals, so their is at least a plausibility argument that that large group cooperation was what allowed our ancestors to sweep away neandertals and all our our brother species of Homo.

Why Now?

Why Trump chose this moment to get outraged at Syria is a bit of a mystery. After all, it's not like Syria and Russia haven't been engaged in brutal war crimes for a while.

There is a geostrategic narrative as well as a purely domestic political one. The geopolitical story is that Iran, Syria, and North Korea are all engaged in pushing the boundaries. If the other kids start bullying you, maybe the cheapest deterrent is to beat the crap out of the weakest one, or at least bloody his nose. This might give the others pause. North Korea is clearly the most dangerous one right now, but direct action against it is incredibly risky. Of course Syria is Russia's bitch, so there is plenty of risk there too.

Frank Bruni takes a look in today's NYT:

The agony of Donald Trump — well, one of the many agonies — is that there are times when he will actually do the right thing, or at least a defensible thing, and we’ll be left wondering, even more than we did with other presidents, about what his motivations were, whether they fit into any truly considered plan or whether his actions amount to the newest episode of a continuing reality show.

Such is the case with the strike against Syria, which is too big a risk in too complicated a place to be used for distraction, for diversion, for the pose he needs in the narrative du jour.

There’s justification for it, absolutely. President Obama had advisers who wished he’d done something similar, and there were Democrats aplenty — Hillary Clinton apparently among them — who found his restraint when it came to Syria and the regime of Bashar al-Assad to be infuriating, a surrender of America’s role and moral authority in the world.

But Trump’s military action makes little sense in the context of most of what he said in the years before he was elected and much of what he has done as president so far. Let me get this straight: Obama wasn’t supposed to draw or be drawn across a red line, not even when the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but when the regime did that on Trump’s watch, it crossed “many, many lines,” in his words, and compelled an American response?

Well maybe it does. One of the things he rebuked Obama for was drawing a red line and then backing down. He's determined not to make that same mistake.

Bruni again:

The readiest answers unsettle me. It’s impossible to ignore the degree to which the military strike pushes a slew of unflattering stories about the Trump administration — its failed attempt to undo Obamacare, the feuding within its ranks and, above all, the probes into possible collusion between Trump’s associates and the Russian government — to the side of the page. Nothing drowns out scandal like the fire and fury of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The notion that military action salvages a president on the defensive, boldly underscoring his role as commander in chief, is nothing new. But there’s a fresh wrinkle in this case, because those bombs put Trump at particular odds with Russia at a moment when there’s enormous advantage in that.

There's more.

Thursday, April 06, 2017


Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian airfield will probably serve to distract us from the Russia story for a while. With luck he didn't kill any Russians.

Now what?


There are twelve volumes in Princeton University press's Physics in a Nutshell. For some reason I have eleven of them, not including Gerald Mahan's Quantum Mechanics in a Nutshell. I have no idea why I have so many, except that they look nice lined up on my bookshelf with their matching covers - except for the one I have in e-book version and my first edition of Zee's Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, which is different.

Mostly they are pretty good books, but they aren't Landau and Lifshitz or anything. On the other hand, they've got to be better than the endless Walter Greiner series I have tucked away in boxes. Of course, so is much of L&L.

So many books, so little shelf space.

Not only that, but I'm at an age when I need to be getting rid of crap rather than accumulating it.

From time to time I start collecting a few volumes to take down to the used book store. Too, too often though, I keep finding reasons why I need to hang on to this one or that. That out of date molecular biology book? Well, I could get rid of it if only I had the newest edition. Oops.

At some level, I suppose, we cling to things because letting them go means facing our mortality.

Memento homo...

Tuesday, April 04, 2017


About eleven hundred years ago a famous philosophical debate took place between the two greatest minds of the age: Ibn Sina and Biruni. Both were amazingly accomplished polymaths. Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine became "The" medical book for six or more centuries for both East and West (where he is known as Avicenna) and became a major influence on Thomas Aquinas by his work on reconciling Aristotle with religion. Both were accomplished natural scientists and poets.

The debate consisted of a series of written questions posed by Biruni to Ibn Sina and Ibn Sina's answers. The quality of the dialog, though initially high, deteriorated, mostly because Ibn Sina was an arrogant asshole:

The one great shortcoming of Ibn Sina’s education was in the area of character. The death of the Amir Nuh in 997 had left Ibn Sina’s father without a patron, but the court stepped in with various gifts and grants to his talented son. This left Ibn Sina, now eighteen, on top of the world. Pampered and flattered since childhood, he fell prey to what proved to be a lifelong arrogance. Who but Ibn Sina would dictate a self-congratulatory autobiography at the age of thirty-seven and use it to settle scores dating back to his childhood?107 Later in life he would quote the following verse, indicating that over time he had gained in perspective but not in modesty:

When I became great, no country could hold me: When my price went up, I lacked a buyer.108

Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (pp. 258-259). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


were fundamental and hence irreconcilable, each of the young polemicists chose to ridicule the arguments of the other. What started as an earnest intellectual exchange quickly descended to a vulgar quarrel. The tone of Ibn Sina’s responses from the outset was arrogant and condescending. At one point he charged that “there is nothing more absurd” than Biruni’s questions, and at another he waived off Biruni’s objections by saying “it is inappropriate for you to pursue what your intelligence prevents you from pursuing” and “you have a poor command of logic.”

Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (p. 263). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Unfortunately, this is not a rare defect of precocious, as I have noted myself.

A consummation/Devoutly to be wished*

But not the one The Prince of Denmark had in mind.

Josh Marshall, quoting from CNN:

REP JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX): I guess I would say this, that my impression is after all of this is said and done that some people end up in jail.

WOLF BLITZER: Really? And how high does that go and in your suspicion? That's all we can call it right now.

CASTRO: Well, that's yet to be determined.

*Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1.

I'd Like to Say a Word for

David Brooks, or at least his latest column. I'm almost never a fan but he gets this right:

If we lived in a normal country the Trump White House would launch a major initiative to combat opiate addiction. There are roughly two and a half million Americans addicted to opioids. Between 1999 and 2015, the number of those who died rose from 8,200 annually to 33,000. That means that over two years more Americans died of opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War.

As Christopher Caldwell pointed out in a powerful essay called “American Carnage” in First Things, the opioid crisis is killing at a higher rate than crack or any other recent plague. At the peak of the crack epidemic there were about two deaths per 100,000 Americans. Today, the opioid epidemic is killing 10.3 per 100,000.

The national spotlight has been put on this crisis, but the situation is getting worse, not better. The Washington Post reported that in Stark County, Ohio, for example, the number of opioid-related deaths has increased by 20 percent in the past year. The county just asked the state to send over a cold storage trailer because the morgue is already full.

Of course there is a big portion of his party that just thinks this is goodbye and good riddance, but this is an issue Trump promised action on, and I think it would have a lot of bipartisan support.


... Trump could propose legislation fully funding the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.

When that was passed, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in 2016, the price tag was put at $1 billion. But only a portion of that has actually been appropriated.

Special focus could be put on adding treatment centers. According to a 2014 federal study, about 90 percent of those who met the criteria for a drug abuse disorder didn’t get treatment. Some live in counties where there are zero facilities.

If you care about this issue, I recommend the whole article.

Brexit I

Nicholas Wade, writing in the NYT, has the story of the big Brexit 430,000 years ago.

That was the catastrophic destruction of the land bridge that for 10 million years had joined Britain physically to the Continent.

The bridge was a rock formation, about 20 miles wide, that ran from Dover to Calais and protruded several hundred miles into France and Britain. It was made of chalk, as can be seen in the cross-section where it has been ripped away at the white cliffs of Dover.


In the last ice age, sea levels rose and fell as water was locked up in ice sheets during cold periods and released to the oceans in warm ones. At high sea levels, water would nearly encircle Britain but never surmounted the land bridge, which stood 100 to 300 feet above the waves.

That was until a cold period that began 450,000 years ago. A vast glacier that covered all but the southern parts of Britain edged out across the North Sea and joined up with the glacier covering Norway. With the North Sea dammed, the rivers that then drained into it, including the Rhine and the Thames, started to form a large lake, also swollen with meltwaters from the glacier.

As the level of the glacial lake rose, its waters started to cascade over the Dover-Calais land bridge that formed its southwestern wall. Laden with abrasive pieces of flint dissolved from the chalk, the waterfalls scoured out vast holes in the bedrock beneath, some 450 feet deep and several miles in length.

Eventually the land bridge collapsed though it didn't disappear until subsequent flooding episodes much later. When the sea level was low during ice ages, though, you could still walk across the channel.


One of the more depressing facts of human existence is the need of groups for enemies. Now that Republicans and conservatives dominate practically every facet of American government, we see them turning on each other. This is not a new trend.

Fredrick S. Starr, writing about Shia vs Sunni in the Muslim world and Central Asia in particular, in the Tenth Century, CE:

Strange to say, this growing fractiousness among Muslims arose just as Islam was becoming the majority faith throughout the region. Many adherents of other religions in territories conquered by the Arabs had converted or emigrated. Others had been successfully marginalized, while still others had made their peace with the Muslim order.

Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (p. 242). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Actually it's not strange at all, if you think about the theory of evolution. Competition for survival of individuals promotes the formation of groups and competition among them.

When Does Life Begin?

When does life begin questions are a staple of the abortion debate but annoy the heck out of me. Life began 3.4 billion years ago or so, and everything living today is descended in unbroken living chain from cells living then. Life doesn't begin at conception, at detection of fetal heartbeat, at birth or any other simply defined point.

When personhood begins is not a question with a biological answer. Deal with it.

Monday, April 03, 2017

IQ One Million

Because why settle for a lousy 60 standard deviations when you can have almost 70,000.

Fans of genetic engineering of the brain (like Lumo and Steve Hsu) think that human brains can be tweaked to produce IQs of 1000, whatever that might mean. Those who have studied biology are more dubious.

One component of IQ is mental processing speed, and that has got to be limited by the physiology of nerves. Fundamental neural processes take milliseconds or longer, and the basic design is not going to permit much speedup. Silicon transistors, on the other hand, are 1 million times faster.

Another component of IQ is memory, short term and long. Given enough disk space, a computer can remember everything it has ever read, heard, or seen. A number of humans have been reported to have eidetic memories, but psychologists who have attempted to study it are highly dubious, though some children have short term eidetic memories. It's physiologically improbable that a person could store all their conscious experience long term.

Guys like Steve Hsu like to make much of John von Neumann's remarkable abilities. One of the abilities attributed to him was remembering everything he read and being able to quote it back verbatim. Without a doubt von Neumann was super smart and amazingly accomplished, but did he really have that kind of recall? One first person account said something more like "he could remember perfectly a page of a book he read fifteen years ago but couldn't remember what he ate for lunch." Remembering a page of a book is far from remembering everything that he had ever read. His memory was no doubt amazing but very likely imperfect like everyone else's, only to a lesser degree. He was also said to have forgotten mathematics that he himself had developed.

Perhaps the most fundamental kind of intelligence tested by IQ tests is the ability to recognize patterns and see how to make predictions from them. This is probably an ability that does relate to the size and interconnectedness of certain brain regions - the depth of the relevant neural networks. Perhaps we can increase those by breeding humans with heads the size of science fiction aliens, but once again the very slow processing speed of the neural substrate is a limiting factor.

Humans may be able to create something with an IQ of 300 or 1000, but it's very unlikely to be human or based on biological neurons. Silicon seems far more promising.

What is IQ?

The short answer is that IQ is what IQ tests measure. That answer is saved from total circularity by the fact that there is a high correlation between results of a bunch of different tests of reasoning. Typical IQ tests have questions designed to test short term memory, general knowledge, ability to follow written or spoken instructions, and ability to reason concretely and abstractly, ability to generalize and analyze relationships as well as speed of mental processing. Early intelligence researchers noticed that there was a strong correlation among the results of rather different tests and the statistician and psychologist Spearman hypothesized that the correlation was due to an underlying g-factor, the g standing for general intelligence.

A century or so later, our knowledge of the underlying biological substrate of IQ has made only limited progress. We know of lots of genetic and environmental factors that limit IQ, but have only vague indications of what things produce higher IQs. For example, our big human brains seem to be necessary for high IQ, and bigger brains are associated with higher IQs among people. Higher IQ children's brains, according to MRI studies, develop a bit differently than those of lower IQ children.

So why should we care about something so little understood? Because IQ tests are ubiquitous and effective predictors of a wide variety of life outcomes. Moreover they are easy and cheap to administer. If you want to work at Walmart or play in the NFL you will probably take the Wonderlic, a short IQ test. This testing is not due to any kind of superstition but by the fact that these organizations have found strong correlations between performance and test scores. NFL IQs, on average, are about equal to the average of the population as a whole, but if you want to play quarterback or offensive line, you better be about 2/3 of a standard deviation above the norm. If you can tackle, cover the pass, and are hella fast, you can probably play cornerback even if you are a standard deviation below.

Some of my past scribblings on IQ.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Book Review: Prime Numbers and the Riemann Hypothesis

Prime Numbers and the Riemann Hypothesis by Barry Mazur and William Stein is a slender (142 pg.) book aimed at a varied audience of the mathematically curious. It is profusely illustrated, mainly with pictures of what the authors call the staircase of primes, a function that starts at zero and goes up by one each time a prime is encountered, though several recarpentried versions of the staircase also make the scene.

The book is divided into 38 very short chapters, organized into four sections, with the first and longest section (chapters 1-24) aimed at readers without a calculus background. The second section demands a bit of calculus (not much!) and the third some Fourier analysis, while the fourth gets to the nitty-gritty of the zeta function.

The figures and many of the calculations were done with Sage, a free mathware package developed by the second author, and made available to the eager experimenter.

The first section has a lot of the lore primes that is accessible at the elementary level, and that is a great deal. How many consecutive primes, for example, are separated by two (3-5, 5-7, 41-43,...)? Nobody knows. How many are separated by an even number less than or equal to 246? That turns out to be known to be infinitely many.

This isn't a textbook, and doesn't have problems, as such, but there are a few "you might try proving" suggestions. Here is the first one, a fairly good test of your basic algebra (or at least mine): A number of primes have the form 2^p - 1. Show that if p is not prime, then 2^p - 1 is composite (not prime). If that's too tough, try this: How many pairs of consecutive primes are separated by an odd number? ;-)

Along the way, we meet several different incarnations of the Riemann Hypothesis, the first one being: For any real number X the number of prime numbers less than X is approximately Li(X) and this approximation is essentially square root accurate. Here Li(X) is the log integral of X = Integral[(1/Log(t))dt, {t,0,X}]. (by Log we mean natural Log)

Sections II and III of the book are devoted building up the apparatus needed to transform this statement into Riemann's form, which looks superficially very different: All the non-trivial zeroes of the zeta function lie on the vertical line in the complex plain consisting of the complex numbers with real part 1/2. These zeroes are (1/2 plus or minus i*theta(i)) where the theta(i) comprise the spectrum of primes talked about in the earlier chapters.

Despite a good deal of verbiage devoted to the subject in the earlier chapters, I was never quite clear on exactly how these values are calculated, though I think that they are the Fourier transform of some version of the staircase of primes. I'd just like an equation that said theta(i) = some expression.

The first author and I share same last name (though spelled differently). Though that name is quite rare, I have no reason to believe that we are related.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

A g-load of Crap

Steve Hsu is a physics prof with degrees from Harvard and Caltech, so he's got to be a smart guy, right? He writes a lot about IQ and it's genetic basis, and is evidently involved in efforts to isolate and cultivate those genetic elements, about which he blogs frequently. He is also, IMHO, a nut-job on the subject of IQ.

He has, for example, expressed the opinion that genetic tinkering could produce humans with an IQ of 1000, something I think is as likely as genetic tinkering being able to produce a human who could run 100 meters in 2.0 seconds flat. Never mind that nobody has a clue as to what it means to have an IQ of 1000, or, for that matter, 210.

His latest is entitled, The brute tyranny of g-loading: Lawrence Krauss and Joe Rogan, by which he implies that explaining gauge symmetry to Joe Rogan is prevented by the fact that Rogan is not smart enough to comprehend it. Now I don't know Rogan from Adam, and have no opinion on his IQ, and Hsu's post is a lot less insulting than his title, but really?

I like to think that I have a modest understanding of gauge symmetry, and have also gathered that even really smart (heavily g-loaded) guys like Tony Zee are not sure exactly what gauge symmetry is really about. I have no doubt that one has to be reasonably bright to understand it, but am pretty damn sure that nobody can deeply understand it based on a twenty minute conversation (Larry Krause spent 20 minutes trying to explain it to Rogan).

Physicists and mathematicians typically spend many years of study before they get deeply into gauge symmetry and nobody, no matter how physically gifted, is going to be a pro level basketball player with twenty minutes of training, regardless of g-load and p-load.

Incidentally, if you want a twenty minute intro to gauge symmetry, I think it would be hard to beat the Wikipedia article I linked in this sentence.

Friday, March 31, 2017


The Trump team's furious efforts to extract themselves from the Russian manipulation scandal look more and more like Watergate everyday. Kevin Drum summarizes the state of play:

Now there are three people involved in revealing classified information to Rep. Devin Nunes:

One of those involved in procuring the documents cited by Nunes has close ties to former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The official, Ezra Cohen, survived a recent attempt to oust him from his White House job by appealing to Trump advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, the officials said....After assembling reports that showed that Trump campaign officials were mentioned or inadvertently monitored by U.S. spy agencies targeting foreign individuals, Cohen took the matter to the top lawyer for the National Security Council, John Eisenberg.

The third White House official involved was identified as Michael Ellis, a lawyer who previously worked with Nunes on the House Intelligence Committee but joined the Trump administration as an attorney who reports to Eisenberg.

This is an amazingly far-reaching conspiracy considering that the documents don't actually seem to have contained anything very interesting. You'd think that at some point one of these guys would have the common sense to call off this Keystone Cops affair.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stone Cold

Stoning is an ancient and cruel form of execution, and I don't even believe in the death penalty.

So why do I want to pick up a rock every time I listen to Sean Spicer?

Is Trump Senile?

One of the lamer claims about Trump is that he is "intelligent." He's obviously a skilled huckster and television performer, but any evidence of intelligence relevant to governance is completely absent. He's incoherent and unprepared on seemingly every issue, couldn't bother to learn enough to understand his own health care plan, and comes across as ignorant in his discussions with foreign leaders. He has the attention span of a gnat and the self-discipline of a five-year old.

So is this encroaching senility, or just a deformed personality in over his head?

Seventy is a little early for real senility, but it might fit with the cocaine theory.

The subhead:

Drug use had biggest impact on the prefrontal and temporal cortex, which are associated with attention, decision making and self regulation

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2134414/Cocaine-rots-brain-Using-Class-A-drug-doubles-ageing-process-grey-matter.html#ixzz4ceV0Z11y

Monday, March 27, 2017

About Those Cyborgs

A few weeks ago Elon Musk announced that Humans will have to become cyborgs to compete with machines.

Billionaire Elon Musk is known for his futuristic ideas and his latest suggestion might just save us from being irrelevant as artificial intelligence (AI) grows more prominent.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said on Monday that humans need to merge with machines to become a sort of cyborg.

"Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence," Musk told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai, where he also launched Tesla in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Musk is not one of those guys who sits around waiting for the future to happen. So he is putting (some of his) money where his mouth is:

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company, which is still in the earliest stages of existence and has no public presence whatsoever, is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices.

Musk has hinted at the existence of Neuralink a few times over the last six months or so. More recently, Musk told a crowd in Dubai, “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.” He added that “it's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output." On Twitter, Musk has responded to inquiring fans about his progress on a so-called “neural lace,” which is sci-fi shorthand for a brain-computer interface humans could use to improve themselves.

We who are about to become (even more) irrelevant salute you!


Paul Krugman:

“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” So declared Donald Trump three weeks before wimping out on his promise to repeal Obamacare. Up next: “Nobody knew that tax reform could be so complicated.” Then, perhaps: “Nobody knew that international trade policy could be so complicated.” And so on.

Actually, though, health care isn’t all that complicated. Basically, you need to induce people who don’t currently need medical treatment to pay the bills for those who do, with the promise that the favor will be returned if necessary.

Unfortunately, Republicans have spent eight years angrily denying that simple proposition. And that refusal to think seriously about how health care works is the fundamental reason Mr. Trump and his allies in Congress now look like such losers.

The trouble is that that conflicts with the Libertarian religion - and billionaire greed.


One important answer would be to spend a bit more money. Obamacare has turned out to be remarkably cheap; the Congressional Budget Office now projects its cost to be about a third lower than it originally expected, around 0.7 percent of G.D.P. In fact, it’s probably too cheap. A report from the nonpartisan Urban Institute argues that the A.C.A. is “essentially underfunded,” and would work much better — in particular, it could offer policies with much lower deductibles — if it provided somewhat more generous subsidies. The report’s recommendations would cost around 0.2 percent of G.D.P.; or to put it another way, would be around half as expensive as the tax cuts for the wealthy Republicans just tried and failed to ram through as part of Trumpcare.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

From the Clown Show

Another bizarro world sighting from Trumpistan:

We all knew that the White House meeting between President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been awkward. But things were even more uncomfortable than we thought. Turns out Trump’s version of diplomacy with one of the country’s most important allies in Europe involves handing over a bill for billions of dollars that the White House believes it owes NATO, according to the Times of London.

One German minister did not hesitate to qualify the invoice as “outrageous,” saying the intent was clear. “The concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the chancellor took it calmly and will not respond to such provocations,” the minister said.

Is this real? With Trump, nothing is to weird to be dismissed.

Harvard Prof Beats Up Teenage Girl

Too bad that headline is as bogus as a Trump tweet. For one thing, Lubosh is an former Harvard prof and his target, who is apparently a Harvard Junior, is likely 20 or 21. The Lumonator did take on Harvard Crimson staff writer Nian Hu for her rather formulaic column entitled: Beware the Male Feminist.

So far as I can tell, her substantive message is "Hey girls, that guy in the pussy hat spouting fem-speak may be using it as a ploy to get into your pants!"

She pads this message with some femi-militancy right out of formulary:

What these male feminists fail to realize is that, as men, they will always be oppressors. ...

On the contrary, feminism is a radical and revolutionary movement that will upheave the status quo and remove men as the monopolizers of power. In general, people don’t like to lose power, especially when they’ve had it for so long. Feminism is not supposed to be palatable to men; it is supposed to be threatening.

OK...but I'd like to concentrate on this bit:

Men, as a class, are culpable for misogyny, and male allies are no different ...

I think feminism goes off the rails when it seeks it's inspiration in Marx and Class Struggle. Men aren't a class - they are a gender, a sex. Classes were a cultural artifact of the agricultural revolution, but genders are a biological construct of a couple of billion years of evolution. Of course I think Marx is nuts too, but confusing feminism with some kind of class struggle is - excuse me - an undergraduate mistake.

Mr. Speaker

Speaker of the House offers only slightly more job security these days than Number Three Man in al Quaeda used to. Paul Ryan is the latest guy in the cross hairs. So far he has deeply angered not only Paul Krugman but the right wing House conservatives, President Trump, and the right wing media. All agree that he should take the fall for Trumpcare. Will high cheekbones, the widow's peak, and devotion to Ayn Rand be enough to save him?

Trump loosed Jeanine Pirro, Fox News host and Trump attack dog, on Ryan yesterday:

Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host, is a longtime friend of President Trump. So when Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Saturday — a day after his crushing defeat in the House on health care — that people should watch her show that night, political observers began guessing what was in store.

What she delivered was a diatribe against the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan.

“Paul Ryan needs to step down as speaker of the House,” Ms. Pirro, a former prosecutor, said at the opening of her show. “The reason? He failed to deliver the votes on his health care bill.”

Of course Trump is trying to pass off his share of the blame for the disaster - it was Trump who promised a "terrific" bill and Trump who signed up for Ryan's disaster.

In Ryan's favor there is the fact that House Republicans are deeply divided (that's why they couldn't pass a bill - any bill) and there is no obvious candidate who is likely to be less divisive.

I am resisting schadenfreude for the moment on the theory that whoever comes next will probably be worse.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I've played a thousand or two hands of bridge lately, almost all of them against robots. I've tentatively decided that I'm not a big fan, at least of playing with robots. Bridge has some good points - it's challenging, complex, and difficult to master, but I have tentatively concluded that it lacks strategic depth. Of course I'm a pretty poor player.

This is mostly because I've failed to master what I consider the most basic skill of bridge, developing a clear mental picture of all the hands. Essentially this means counting all the cards that are played and using that and other information to get an optimal estimate of the remaining tricks. This skill starts with counting trump, and I can do that, at least as declarer, but counting more than one additional suit seems to overflow my registers. Any slight distraction tends to make me lose count.

So I should probably give it up.

Friday, March 24, 2017


David Frum:

Some of the conservatives who voted “no” to the House leadership’s version of repeal may yet imagine that they will have some other opportunity to void the law. They are again deluding themselves. If the Republican Party tripped over its own feet walking across this empty ballroom, it will face only more fearsome difficulties in the months ahead, as mid-term elections draw closer. Too many people benefit from the law—and the Republican alternatives thus far offer too little to compensate for the loss of those benefits.

In that third week in March in 2010, America committed itself for the first time to the principle of universal (or near universal) health-care coverage. That principle has had seven years to work its way into American life and into the public sense of right and wrong. It’s not yet unanimously accepted. But it’s accepted by enough voters—and especially by enough Republican voters—to render impossible the seven-year Republican vision of removing that coverage from those who have gained it under the Affordable Care Act. Paul Ryan still upholds the right of Americans to “choose” to go uninsured if they cannot afford to pay the cost of their insurance on their own. His country no longer agrees.