Friday, April 18, 2014


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

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

Why Deny?

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review Part II

Outline of the plot of The Hindus.

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: some critical comments about the book.

The Hindus: Book Review Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old World

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like numbers, OK?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


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

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

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

This sort of thing often ends badly.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Super Prez

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

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

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

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

If employers start taking them seriously...

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Latest Cosmos

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

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

Not Good News: Ukraine

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

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

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

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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

An Aristotelian Straightjacket?

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

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

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

Bibliomania Revisited

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

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

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

Bibliomania - an annoying disease.

Monday, April 07, 2014

A History of Violence

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

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

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

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

India Vote

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

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

Another take from the Guardian.

The Other Shoe ...

... has been dropped by Putin.

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: More detail in this BBC story.