Friday, March 31, 2017

Putingate

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!

Complicated

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.

And:

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

Bridge

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

Waterloo

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.

Jersey Physics

From CentralJersey.com

The Physics First program could become "Physics Last" at Montgomery High School, if a group of parents have their way.

All Montgomery High School freshmen must take physics, but a petition being circulated by parents is calling on school officials to re-evaluate the high school science program - including abolishing the Physics First program.

The petition, which has been signed by more than 300 parents, states that the Physics First program "creates an undue amount of stress, negativity and decreased confidence for our children."

.....

However, Montgomery Township school district officials said the rationale for requiring physics for freshmen is that it is a "foundational" science. It builds into chemistry, which leads into biology, said Jason Sullivan, the science supervisor at Montgomery High School.

The freshman physics course is offered on three levels - general, college prep and honors, Sullivan said. The freshman course is a conceptual, algebra-based course, but the honors course addresses a few items where basic trigonometry is involved, he said.

.....

Freshman Alexandra Lister told the school board that she knew physics would be challenging, but there was no choice. The result is she feels stressed and confused.

"I am a high achiever and I am self-driven. I don't deserve the burden of physics," Alexandra said. She cannot focus on other courses because she is worried about the physics course, she said.

It's certainly true that physics is foundational - necessary to deeply understand almost all the other sciences, but it's also true that it's the most mathematically demanding science. Most of physics is not really accessible without calculus. I think that I might find it painful to teach a whole year of physics without invoking calculus.

When I went to high school we took a freshman level course in physical science. I don't recall much about it but one can use such a course to introduce concepts like gravity, basic electromagnetic phenomena, energy and heat as well as apply it to astronomy, geology, and engineering.

We were on the layer cake plan: sophomores got biology, juniors chemistry, and seniors physics. My preferred approach would be four years of plain science, integrated with the math curriculum, and carefully building the tools needed for all the sciences. The students would get physics, chemistry, biology and some other sciences each year.

Winning

And the good news is that Trump/Ryancare didn't win.

The bad news is that Trump and Ryan are ideally placed to sabotage Obamacare.

That Way Madness Lies

Sometime about noon yesterday I looked outside and noticed that our mountains were missing, as were any other terrain features more than a couple of miles away. Naturally, I jumped to the conclusion that the simulation we live in had glitched, wiping out all those pixels. Possibly that conclusion was influenced by the fact that I had heard that some of the intelligentsia of my universe (OK, Scott, Bee, and Lubosh) were arguing about the world as a simulation.

Actually I didn't bother to read their stuff, mainly because past experience has indicated to me that such discussions, where predicated on any logic whatsoever, usually are based on assuming that the simulation exists in a universe with laws of physics similar to or even exactly like our own.

Doh! Why would anyone do that? Real simulations, in our universe, aren't like that. Mostly they use simplified physics to try to capture a few elements of reality, or just imagine different physics to see what happens. So if we are a simulation, whatever that means, it's likely in a universe governed by perhaps unimaginably different physical laws.

Anyway, after a while a different explanation occurred to me: perhaps the cold front that just moved in with violent winds had stirred or advected enough of our desert dust to obscure everything further away - it certainly looked dusty out there. Of course my first guess might be more likely, but see title, above.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mathematical Thinking

The Lumonator has a recent post on the importance of mathematical thinking, and of teaching it.

He summarizes some of this in ten points, which I endorse, but I would like to add one more point which he doesn't quite state explicitly: mathematical thinking teaches disciplined methods of thought. I am reminded of the fact that Lincoln taught himself to prove all the theorems of Euclid's first six elements at sight not because he thought they would come up in his legal practice, but because he thought that would sharpen his logical and analytical skills. It also teaches a language for expressing analysis in a disciplined manner.

Losing It

The Democratic defeat in the 2016 election was monumental at virtually every level. Only the Presidential election was close. Why so?

There are, of course, a million theories, but the one I like best is based on the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, which was published a couple of months before the election. She set out to look at Louisiana members of the Tea Party, but many aspects resonate more widely. The last half century has not been kind to the middle class, who have gotten virtually none of profits of economic advance, and have been brutal to the working class, which has lost a lot of ground.

Now some blame this on the explosive growth of the wealth of the super-rich, but for various reasons, including a powerful propaganda apparatus in the hands of those same super-rich, many see the entitlements of those they consider line cutters, all those allegedly disadvantaged who get a leg up thanks to the government or thanks to the government letting foreigners "cut in". White men, especially white men without a college degree, voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and they have a lot of beefs with government and liberal ideology.

Aside from the disappearance of good jobs, like the factory jobs that gave their parents an entry to the middle class, they feel that their economics, honor and prestige has been dissed by the rise of affirmative action, feminism, and identity politics. They have a solid case. When some rise, others fall, even if only relatively.

The economics, though, are more complex. Globalization and automation have done most of the dirty work of taking away well paying jobs and transferring wealth to the super-rich.

2016, I think, was an election ruled by anger. What I don't see from the Republicans is any disposition or idea of how to fix the fundamental problems. Their health care plan is a symptom of their intellectual and moral bankruptcy. They can scapegoat Muslims, Mexicans and Blacks, but that (I hope) will only displace anger, not remove the causes.

Can Democrats, or anybody, transcend these problems to build a better society?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bribery

Daily Beast:Daily Beast:

According to a CNN report, advocacy groups led by Charles and David Koch are promising to create a new fund for Republican reelection races in 2018 for Republicans who vote against the current proposed health care bill. "We want to make certain that lawmakers understand the policy consequences of voting for a law that keeps Obamacare intact," Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips said. "We have a history of following up and holding politicians accountable, but we will also be there to support and thank the champions who stand strong and keep their promise." It is an explicit effort to influence the vote for the American Health Care Act, which is up for a vote in the House on Thursday.

The essence of bribery is a quid pro quo, and this is bribery, pure and simple. Will anybody make the case?

Minimax

The Winter maximum of Arctic sea ice extent this year seems to have been the lowest in modern era, that is, since satellites made possible accurate measurements (starting in 1979). I am a bit bemused by the difficulty headline writers and newsreaders have had reporting the slightly complicated idea of the minimum of a bunch of maxima. The NPR story I heard made it sound like Arctic sea ice was at a minimum during the dead of winter.

Here is the NYT: "Arctic’s Winter Sea Ice Drops to Its Lowest Recorded Level"

Uhh, not exactly. It was lower a couple of weeks ago and will be lower (very likely) in another couple of weeks.

Math is hard - Barbie.

Hidden Figures

I heard a brief interview with Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, on NPR today. She was talking about how Citizens United has made it possible for a few ultra-rich people than hardly any American has ever heard of to dominate American politics, and in particular for Rebekah Mercer to play a pivotal role in Trump's election and policy objectives. How many Americans, I wonder, have heard of this Hedge Fund heiress and boutique cookie baker?

Her father, Robert Mercer, made a few zillion bucks in quantitative trading and writes a lot of the checks, but she seems to be guiding a conservative network that generates propaganda, funds "institutes" selling the party line, and finances candidates. Key among her projects was Breitbart and Steve Bannon, who some have called her Svengali.

Here is an excerpt from a campaign era Politico story:

Rebekah Mercer now sits at the nexus of Trump’s universe. So influential has she become that her conversation with Trump during an August fundraiser in the Hamptons has been widely credited with spurring the rookie candidate to shake up his campaign team by turning its leadership over to two of her closest confidants.

Pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has worked with Mercer on a pro-Cruz super PAC, became campaign manager, while the new job of campaign CEO went to Steve Bannon, a campaign novice who helped run both the Government Accountability Institute — which has received at least $2 million from the Mercer foundation — and Breitbart News, the intensely pro-Trump nationalist website in which the Mercers have invested. This month, Trump rounded out his newly reconfigured campaign leadership by bringing in yet another operative with whom Mercer has worked — David Bossie, who previously ran both an anti-Clinton super PAC that received $2 million from Bob Mercer in July and an anti-Clinton nonprofit called Citizens United that received $3.6 million from the Mercers’ foundation from 2012 through 2014.

Rebekah Mercer did not respond to requests for comment. Conway, Bannon and Bossie either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. And most conservative insiders approached for this story were loath to speak on the record for fear it might jeopardize their chances of receiving funding from Mercer's intensely private family. Mercer, some said, has scolded allies for calling attention to her — even when it’s been positive.

Some personal stuff:

Described almost universally as intelligent and hard-working, Mercer graduated from Stanford in 1996 with a dual degree in biology and mathematics, then received a master’s in operations research from Stanford. She went to work on Wall Street as a trader, before retiring to raise the four children she had with her husband, Sylvain Mirochnikoff, a managing director at Morgan Stanley.

Associates describe the family as close-knit and culturally conservative but also known to spend lavishly on their wide-ranging hobbies.

Bob Mercer has commissioned a $2.7-million model train set and multiple massive yachts, including one with décor inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

Lots more in the Politico story linked above.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trump Tower Tapping

Josh Marshall:

For two years ending in 2013, the FBI had a court-approved warrant to eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money laundering network that operated out of unit 63A in Trump Tower.

The FBI investigation led to a federal grand jury indictment of more than 30 people, including one of the world’s most notorious Russian mafia bosses, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Known as the “Little Taiwanese,” Tokhtakhounov was the only target to slip away, and he remains a fugitive from American justice.

Five months after the April 2013 indictment and after Interpol issued a “red notice” for Tokhtakhounov, the fugitive appeared near Donald Trump in the VIP section of the Moscow Miss Universe pageant. Trump had sold the Russian rights for Miss Universe to a billionaire Russian shopping mall developer.

There have been persistent rumors of Trump's mob ties, foreign and domestic. If there is any substance to them, Trump may have put himself in a place where it's hard to hide.

The Trump High

Sociologist Hochschild completed her book before Trump became President, but she describes the scene at one of his rallies:

His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated. The man who expressed amazement, arms upheld—“to be in the presence of such a man!”—seemed in a state of rapture. As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land. “Collective effervescence,” as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called it in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is a state of emotional excitation felt by those who join with others they take to be fellow members of a moral or biological tribe. They gather to affirm their unity and, united, they feel secure and respected. While Durkheim was studying religious rites among indigenous tribes in Australia and elsewhere, much of what he observed could be applied to the rally at the Lakefront Airport, as well as many others like it. People gather around what Durkheim calls a “totem”—a symbol such as a cross or a flag. Leaders associate themselves with the totem and charismatic leaders can become totems themselves. The function of the totem is to unify worshippers. Seen through Durkheim’s eyes, the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those “cutting ahead in line” are about to become a terrible, strange, new America. The source of the awe and excitement isn’t simply Trump himself; it is the unity of the great crowd of strangers gathered around him. If the rally itself could speak, it would say, “We are a majority!”

Added to that is a potent promise—to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression. The “movement,” as Trump has increasingly called his campaign, acts as a great antidepressant. Like other leaders promising rescue, Trump evokes a moral consciousness. But what he gives participants, emotionally speaking, is an ecstatic high. The costumes, hats, signs, and symbols reaffirm this new sense of unity. To those who attend his rallies, the event itself symbolizes a larger rising tide. As the crowd exited the hangar, fans were saying to one another, “See how many of us there are.” It felt to them that Trump had captured the flag.

One way of reinforcing this “high” of a united brother- and sisterhood of believers is to revile and expel members of out groups. In his speeches, Trump has spoken of “something within Islam which hates Christians,” and of his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the country. He has spoken of expelling all undocumented people of Mexican origin. And only reluctantly and in truculent tones (“I repudiate, okay?”) did he repudiate the notorious Louisiana KKK grand wizard, David Duke, thus signaling blacks as members of an out group. In nearly every rally, Trump points out a protestor, sometimes demonizing them and calling for their expulsion. (One protestor was even falsely depicted by his campaign as a member of ISIS.) Such scapegoating reinforces the joyous unity of the gathering. The act of casting out the “bad one” helps fans unite in a shared sense of being the “good ones,” the majority, no longer strangers in their own land.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (pp. 225-226). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

I think this helps explain the imperviousness of his core support to blunders in office and general clownish behavior. They are still high on their own supply.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fake News?

Headline from the New York Daily [fake] News:

President Trump's approval rating sinks lower than Obama's

How much lower? Well, if you compare approval-disapproval figures, about 30+ percentage points lower. That's compared to Obama's rating last year. Compared to Obama or other recent Presidents at the same point in their Presidencies, Trump's numbers are even a lot worse.

Popularity

Trump's approval/disapproval ratings are very low for a President so early in his term, but the past week of chaos has coincided with another sharp drop to 37%/58%, which is bad, but still well short of catastrophic. He still has a hard core of 37% or so believers and probably another 10-15% who are persuadable. I suspect though, that he can't afford any big screw ups or other disasters. If his approval/disapproval were to fall much below 30%/65% I think that the Congressional Republicans would start getting really antsy.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Jesus vs. Paul Ryan

I like this Nick Kristof column: And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan ...

Excerpt:

A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years came up behind Jesus and touched his clothes in hope of a cure. Jesus turned to her and said: “Fear not. Because of your faith, you are now healed.”

Then spoke Pious Paul of Ryan: “But teacher, is that wise? When you cure her, she learns dependency. Then the poor won’t take care of themselves, knowing that you’ll always bail them out! You must teach them personal responsibility!”

They were interrupted by 10 lepers who stood at a distance and shouted, “Jesus, have pity on us.”

“NO!” shouted Pious Paul. “Jesus! You don’t have time. We have a cocktail party fund-raiser in the temple. And don’t worry about them — they’ve already got health care access.”

Have I mentioned that Paul Ryan is pond scum?

One Child

China's "One Child" policy has to be the most successful economic experiment at least since the Marshall plan, and maybe since the invention of stock markets. Fifty years ago, China was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP one fifth that of Nigeria, and a comparable fertility rate. Under "One Child" the fertility rate plummeted from 7.5 (children per woman) to 2.3 and then to about 1.5. Meanwhile, the per capita GDP went from $732 to $13,330 (in 2015). Nigeria, like many other African countries, has maintained a birth rate of 6.0 or so and barely nudged forward in per capita GDP.

Dr. Malthus may have died centuries ago, but his insights live on. If you have as many children as the land can sustain, subsistence is about the best you can do.

China's leaders had the immense foresight to see this, and totalitarian political control to implement it. Other nations have achieved similar results with less draconian methods. Of course there is ultimately a penalty of sort to be paid. Many countries have seen their populations age, and a few are already shrinking in population. This slows economic growth and the burden of carrying for the old falls on a shrinking population. Of course if you've seen a ten or twentyfold increase in your per capita income in the meantime, the burden is enormously lightened.

China has relaxed the one child policy, but the Chinese, like their counterparts where low fertility evolved more naturally, are showing little sign of going on a baby making frenzy. Most of South Asia seems close to dropping to the replacement rate or lower. The Middle East lags a bit, but is also getting close.

A few war torn and desperately poor countries (Aghanistan, Syria, Yemen) lag well behind, as does most of Africa. Africa, in particular, needs to learn that it will always be poor unless it can slow or stop its population explosion.

Gapminder

A Bag of Rocks

I've been reading Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild is a highly regarded sociologist who specializes in close up looks at groups of people who might be unfamiliar to many of us. Here she ventures into the heart of Tea Party country in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She prepped for the trip, she tells us, by rereading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which is something of a Bible for the Tea Party founders. That alone tells me that her pain tolerance is a heck of a lot higher than mine.

The area around Lake Charles is densely packed with petrochemical plants and has been devastated by pollution. Some of the nation's most productive rivers and estuaries used to be here, but many of them have now been killed by the deadly flood of chemicals. Hoschschild wanted to get a look into the mind of the Tea Party, and thought the pollution issue, which has devastated many, might be what she calls a "keyhole" into their thinking. Her lead characters include many who have been personally devastated by the polluting industries: friends and relatives crippled or dead of cancer, homes and livelihoods destroyed.

One interesting tidbit comes from a study that was commissioned of the best places to situate a noxious pollution source. It concludes that it should be a community of "least resistant personality types," which it concluded were:

•​Longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest

•​High school educated only

•​Catholic

•​Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism

•​Involved in mining, farming, ranching (what Cerrell called “nature exploitative occupations”)

•​Conservative

•​Republican

•​Advocates of the free market

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (p. 81). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

This fits the local profile almost perfectly. On the other hand, her characters (as she notes) are nothing like Rand's soulless creeps. They are warm, kind, and deeply frustrated by their situation. Still, it's hard for me to understand how they can keep voting for a gang of crooked Bible thumpers who are in the pockets of the oil companies (and devoted to emptying the taypayer's money into oil company coffers). Maybe the rest of the book will give me a clue.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

School Days

I'm taking a couple of graduate level classes this term, one in the History of Central Asia, and another in Stellar Dynamics and Hydrodynamics. I'm taking the history class with another old guy, a retired Archaeology prof that I've taken a couple of other classes with. The history students are friendly but rather reticent when it comes to asking questions, and as a result the two old guys without enough sense to keep their mouths shut wind up with an excessive share of comments and questions, and as a result the profs sometime shush us to get the "real graduate students" to participate more.

The Astronomy grad students, on the other hand, practically seem to have taken vows of silence. Dragging a conversational fragment out of them hard work. The Astro prof doesn't find it easy to get much out of them either. He was asking the class some rather elementary questions about tidal forces and nobody would answer except me, so he made me shut up and concentrated on the real students. After a little math, he asked them produce a Taylor Series expansion of 1/(1-r/R)^2. Now I'm sure that given a minute, everybody in the class could do that, but they froze under pressure. He was pretty unhappy, and said it was fifth grade algebra. I helpfully added that it was probably eighth grade algebra in the US (he is a Russian).

Of course I have to admit that your deservedly humble servant had a few moments of uncertainty about the sign of the linear term. (1 + 2(r/R) - ...) Fortunately he had already shut me up;-)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Another Method

Jeff Sessions, Inc., has not yet figured out how Obama was tapping Trump's wires. Kellyanne thought it might be his microwave oven. But there are yet more nefarious ways.

Stella!

The Northeastern US is in the grip of winter storm Stella today. It's a bit of a shock, since it is a little late and there were already signs of Spring all about. Can we blame it on global warming?

Best answer: nobody knows. Weather happens and weather varies. Global warming does affect the jet stream and storm tracks, so it's a possibility that it could make late winter nor'easters more probable, but the evidence isn't there. The opposite conclusion, that late winter storms are evidence against global warming, is even more ridiculous, and based on a complete misunderstanding of the term.

Say What?

Kevin Drum sees the hand of Bannon in the Trumpcare/Ryancare crackup:

Today Breitbart News published an audio recording of Paul Ryan disowning Donald Trump during the campaign:

In the Oct. 10, 2016 call, from right after the Access Hollywood tape of Trump was leaked in the weeks leading up to the election, Ryan does not specify that he will never defend Trump on just the Access Hollywood tape—he says clearly he is done with Trump altogether.

“I am not going to defend Donald Trump—not now, not in the future,” Ryan says in the audio, obtained by Breitbart News and published here for the first time ever.

This isn't really big news. We pretty much knew this was what Ryan said back when he said it. But apparently Breitbart has been holding onto this recording until the time came when they could get the maximum mileage from giving Ryan's remarks another news cycle. That turned out to be today, right after CBO had released a devastating report on Ryan's health care bill.

Then, a few hours later, someone in the White House leaked an internal analysis that says Ryan's bill is even worse than CBO says it is—quite a feat, given that CBO trashed the bill pretty comprehensively.

...

But one way or another, it sure seems like a coordinated effort to doom Ryan's bill and wreck his reputation with his own caucus.

This is pretty weird stuff, given that Trump has already publicly signed on to Ryancare. Not that his past words have ever been evidence of his future performance.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Undead Rising

Sarah Palin, remember her, crept out of her crypt to denounce Trumpcare/Ryancare on Breitbart.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Deep State

Attn General Sessions purge of US Attorneys, and similar but more drastic purges in State, the EPA and other places is the Trumpian attempt to eliminate the so-called "deep state", by which they mean anybody not personally loyal to Trump. There is, of course, a sort of deep state, since government employees swear an oath not to the President but to the laws and Constitution of the United States. Naturally, the Trumpkins see this as a threat.

Storing Energy: Elon's Big Battery Bet.

King Coal made the industrial revolution, but now it's in its dotage.

In many places, renewable power from solar and wind is already cheaper than coal. This led to a problem in Australia when an inter-grid connection went down and a big chunk of South Australia found itself without backup for those times when the Sun doesn't shine. Enter Elon Musk with an offer the down under couldn't refuse - 100 MegaWatthours* of energy storage in 100 days or it was free. At a bargain $250 kWhr.

I don't think Trump or anyone can save coal now. I would not be surprised if grid storage increases by a factor of 100 in the next five years.

Phun Phacts: 1 Whr is 3600 Joules, so 100 MWhr is 3.6 x 10^11 J, or roughly the energy in 15 metric tons of coal, which doesn't sound like a whole lot. A big coal burning power plant costs $1 billion plus and can produce a GW (1000 MW) of electricity. Musk's 100 MWhr array would only store about six minutes worth of the output of such a plant. At several points during the crisis, though, prices reached the legal maximum of $14,000 per kWhr. At prices like that, your 100 MWhr grid storage can pay for itself rather quickly.

ROTR*

Jack Hough, writing in Barrons has a story on the rise of the robots. Nothing sensational here, but it looks at the state of play, especially from an international point of view.

As President Donald Trump prevents manufacturers from leaving the U.S., expect them to use robots to keep labor costs down. While this trend is likely to be greeted with alarm by union leaders, the case can be made that using robots actually helps keep whole industries from exiting American shores. Among U.S. car makers, which have been enthusiastic robot buyers in recent years, domestic employment has been not only steady, but rising. A far greater threat to U.S. workers than mechanized colleagues turning up at hometown plants is the warm welcome robots are receiving in China.

Already the world’s largest buyer of robots, China plans to close the gap with developed nations on robot density, or the number of robots in service per human worker. The idea isn’t just to drive down production costs. It’s to improve quality and one day compete more effectively in high-value goods like cars. It’s also to offset the million workers per year that China is expected to lose as its population ages. In the U.S., the demographic challenge is less dire, but present. The working population is growing slowly, at about 0.5% a year.

The US does a lot of robot research, but the big industrial robots are made elsewhere, mainly in Asia. Interestingly enough, one of the primary drivers of robotization is not cost, but quality:

“Historically, the reason China hasn’t been able to export its cars is that the cars are crap, and that’s because they’ve been made using humans, rather than robots,” says Frank Tobe, editor of the Robot Report, an industry newsletter. “Now, China has a strategic long-term plan to deploy more robots, and the U.S. is only giving lip service.”

Like the industrial revolution, this is a game we can't afford not to play. Robots will destroy jobs, but they will also increase production. In principle, that could mean more for everybody - or a lot more for a tiny few, and nothing for everyone else. The original industrial revolution gave us plenty of examples of each. *Rise of the Robots

BS Headline

Headlines are expected to excite, incite and other wise pique our interest, so naturally they incorporate a lot of nonsense. Here is one I saw recently: We Are Conditioned by Mass Media to Choose Up Sides. I didn't see a lot in the story to justify the headline, but it incorporates a familiar, and I think, misleading meme: the notion that our basic attitudes are formed by some kind of conditioning or propaganda.

I suspect that in this, and much else, there is a more fundamental principle at work: evolution. Humans are social animals, and we spend a whole lot of effort in building and maintaining coalitions. Failure to be a member of a coalition, or being a member of the wrong coalition, has a long history of fatal effects. This fact is all one needs to understand why people tend to "choose up sides," as is well documented in both psychological studies and in history.

Clueless

Some demonstrations are so trivial that it's almost insulting to bring them up, but is it some kind of record that Trump and company never noticed that his pick for Nation Security Adviser was a foreign agent? Actually, it seems that they had been told, but chose to ignore the fact.

Maui

Polynesian Argonauts discovered Hawaii between 1500 and 2000 years ago, likely making the multi-thousand kilometer journey from somewhere in French Polynesia in their famous outrigger canoes. The land they found was less than ideal for agriculture, as nearly every more or less horizontal piece of land was covered with golf courses and resort hotels, nearly economically useless, since neither golf nor tourism had yet been invented. Despite these handicaps, they created a complex and vibrant society.

The islands themselves had been there for a while, but not a terribly long while, geologically speaking. From volcanic birth to death is only a matter of a few millions of years for these creations of an oceanic hotspot. The hotspot itself has endured for at least tens of millions of years, but the oceanic lithosphere above it moves on, and without a fresh source of lava, the islands cool, and gradually sink into the sea, leaving behind coral atolls and the chain of subsurface bumps called sea mounts. The Emperor Seamounts, the remains of Hawaiian Islands passed, extend all the way to Alaska, and probably had a prehistory under land in Siberia.

I was in Maui last week. It was the first time I had been there (not counting being aboard a plane that landed there some fifty years or so ago) and I was very impressed. Maui is roughly the shape of a figure eight, and was formed by the merger of two volcanic islands with the younger and larger eastern end consisting of the Haleakala volcano, which is not quite dead, having last erupted a couple of hundred years ago. At 750,000 years, Haleakala is senior only to The Big Island of Hawaii, itself only about 300,000 years of age. The Pacific plate is sliding West and North, so new volcanoes appear in the East and South. Even now, the next island, Loihi, is building east of Hawaii and on track to emerge in another 50,000 years or so.

One geological fact that impressed the heck out of me was the steepness of the mountains, especially on their seaward sides. This is partially due to the fact that they are situated in very deep ocean and the margins are eroded by wave action and collapse into the ocean from time to time, giving rise to enormous undersea landslides and multi-thousand foot high tsunamis. Portions of Haleakala receive several hundred inches of rain per year, which also tends to produce vigorous erosion.

If surfing, snorkel, and even golf are not really your thing, Maui offers some spectacular drives. The first one I tried was up to the summit of Haleakala. The drive from sea level to a bit more than 10,000 feet takes one through several climate zones and a heck of a lot of switchbacks, but the views are terrific. After seven thousand feet, I noticed that a lot of clouds were below me, but some new ones enveloped us on the summit, so the views from their were fleeting. Haleakala doesn't really have a visible crater, but erosion has carved out a steep walled valley which offer views of some small eruptive cones in the bottom.

The hairiest drive I took was around the northwest end of the island. If I had done my homework I would have skipped it, but I was lured into it by a nice road that gradually got narrower and more perilous, with several miles of it consisting of single lane track clinging to steep mountainside without shoulder or guardrail, with either the sea or bottomless valley below. When one met an oncoming vehicle one of you would have to back up to one of the infrequent wide spots where two vehicles might creep by each other while barely sharing paint jobs. The Ford Explorer rental I was driving was far from ideal for such a spot, and one case where I slipped by with only inches between my outside tires and the partially crumbled asphalt above the precipice will remain with me for a while. I probably should have gone parasailing.

My final driving adventure was the road to Hana, at the east end of the island. This is another narrow road with an uncountable number of switchbacks and one lane bridges, but there are guard rails most places and quite a few wide spots where vehicles can pass, as well as stretches of actual two lane road. The north side of Haleakala is a spectacular rain forest of waterfalls, pools and ocean vistas. The ocean near here seems to be more or less a whale throughway, with numerous sites offering ample views.