Sunday, January 25, 2015

What's The Matter With Kansas?

Getting Outside the Beltway.

It's a commonplace that people in Washington are out of touch with the real America, middle America. Maybe it's time to move our capital to someplace more "middle American" - specifically to Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the continental United States. Or if you want to include 49 and 50 in the geo-weighting, to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, not so far from the Black Hills and the stony visages of some of our more noted leaders.

This capital moving might be disruptive, it's true, but it would create more jobs than a thousand Keystone pipelines and might shake our government out of its beltway mindset. Spain and Brazil got into the capital moving a bit earlier, not too mention many earlier such ventures, so we could learn from their mistakes. Flyover country would suddenly become flyto country. Congressional commutes would become shorter for the average Senator, not to mention the numerous minions frequently summoned to headquarters.

The need for transition would require a lot of commuting, so the country might finally get the stimulus needed to connect NY, DC and LA to the new capital by ultra high speed train - so why not throw in Chicago, Dallas and Houston too. Location on the prairie would facilitate installation of an up-to-date metro system, which, suitably augmented, could serve as very serviceable bomb shelters connected to the deep underground salt mines. There is also lots of space for some decent airports.

And, ultimately, it would turn Kansas (or South Dakota) blue.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Netanyahu Wedge

In one of their endless attempts to find wedge issues - issues that pit Americans against each other - Congressional Republicans have invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a special session of Congress, and Netanyahu has accepted. The point, it seems, is to embarrass Obama. Many US and Israeli observers think that Netanyahu in particular is playing with fire. Support for Israel has always been a nonpartisan policy in the US, but if Boehner and Netanyahu make it a partisan issue that could all change. American Jews are a tiny minority of the population, about 2%, and have traditionally voted Democratic, so they represent a small but influential voting block. That said, Netanyahu is a polarizing figure among Jews both in Israel and the US, so it's far from obvious that Republicans gain much electorally.

What they do have to gain is the Adelson primary. Sheldon Adelson, the Casino multi-billionaire, has been dumping huge sums into US politics and is a major sponsor of Netanyahu. If a lot of Americans are offended by Israeli interference in US politics, however, Israel stands to be the loser. The Constitution entrusts US foreign policy to the President, and even if Obama can set aside personal pique, if he judges Israel to be an unreliable ally and enemy of US interests in the world, he might feel obliged to act accordingly. In particular, if, as seems likely, Netanyahu is coming here to sabotage US Iran talks and gin up a US attack against Iran, how many Americans are going to stand with him on that?

From The Jewish Daily Forward

The astonishment didn’t stop at Pennsylvania Avenue but moved from there to Capitol Hill. Even Democratic lawmakers who intend to go against the administration and support new sanctions taken aback by the Boehner-Bibi move. “Netanyahu is shooting himself in the foot,” one of them said, “because by turning this into a partisan issue, he may be forcing some Democratic members to choose between Boehner and Obama, which, for them, is no choice at all.” Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, quickly shot down claims coming from both Boehner and Netanyahu that the invitation to address Congress was “bipartisan”. No one consulted with me, Pelosi said, and the invitation is “inappropriate.”

Even the leaders of mainstream Jewish groups who normally and reflexively support Netanyahu were dumbfounded: no one informed them and no one had asked their opinion. “I was literally sick to my stomach when I heard about it,” one of them told me. J-Street criticized the move, of course, but even the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman called on Netanyahu and Boehner to come down from the high tree they had climbed. I support new sanctions, Foxman told Ron Kampeas at JTA, but this is “ill-advised.”

The warnings and protests started pouring into the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, which finally opted to move Netanyahu’s speaking engagement from February 11 to March 3, when it could be linked to the annual AIPAC conference. Of course, if the Prime Minister’s speech had been portrayed from the outset as an outgrowth of his wish to participate at the AIPAC get-together, much of the damage and its resonance could have been avoided. But we have this tendency to try and close the barn doors after the horses have bolted, and to stub a toe or sprain a leg in the process. Accordingly, Israel’s good name was sullied just a little bit more, it became a partisan punching bag and distanced itself further from the Democrats, it wasted far too much of the far too little credit it has left at the White House and it did a disservice to the cause which allegedly motivates Netanyahu in the first place: increasing the pressure on Iran by means of new sanctions legislation.


Netanyahu certainly seems to have forgotten that if he wins the elections and returns as prime minister, it is he who will then have to figure out how to survive for the next two years in the barren landscape and scorched earth that he left behind him this week.

Read more:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

More Edgerry

A disappointingly facile and unimaginative answer to this year's Edge question from a Classical Scholar:

1. "Thinking" is a word we apply with no discipline whatsoever to a huge variety of reported behaviors. "I think I'll go to the store" and "I think it's raining" and "I think therefore I am" and "I think the Yankees will win the World Series" and "I think I am Napoleon" and "I think he said he would be here, but I'm not sure," all use the same word to mean entirely different things. Which of them might a machine do someday? I think that's an important question.

2. Could a machine get confused? Experience cognitive dissonance? Dream? Wonder? Forget the name of that guy over there and at the same time know that it really knows the answer and if it just thinks about something else for a while might remember? Lose track of time? Decide to get a puppy? Have low self-esteem? Have suicidal thoughts? Get bored? Worry? Pray? I think not...

Get yourself out of the 0th Century, man!

Machines that Think

That's you and me bro, says Sean Carroll, responding to this year's Edge question.

Julien de La Mettrie would be classified as a quintessential New Atheist, except for the fact that there’s not much New about him by now. Writing in eighteenth-century France, La Mettrie was brash in his pronouncements, openly disparaging of his opponents, and boisterously assured in his anti-spiritualist convictions. His most influential work, L’homme machine (Man a Machine), derided the idea of a Cartesian non-material soul. A physician by trade, he argued that the workings and diseases of the mind were best understood as features of the body and brain.

As we all know, even today La Mettrie’s ideas aren’t universally accepted, but he was largely on the right track. Modern physics has achieved a complete list of the particles and forces that make up all the matter we directly see around us, both living and non-living, with no room left for extra-physical life forces. Neuroscience, a much more challenging field and correspondingly not nearly as far along as physics, has nevertheless made enormous strides in connecting human thoughts and behaviors with specific actions in our brains. When asked for my thoughts about machines that think, I can’t help but reply: Hey, those are my friends you’re talking about. We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

We pay a lot of attention these days, with good reason, to “artificial” machines and intelligences — ones constructed by human ingenuity. But the “natural” ones that have evolved through natural selection, like you and me, are still around. And one of the most exciting frontiers in technology and cognition is the increasingly permeable boundary between the two categories.

Nothing there that I would find controversial.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Catcalling, MCP Response

Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars.

Irony usually beats earnestness.  See, e.g., the video.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Evolutionary Value of Shyness?

Well, I expect that every shy nerd has noticed that it reduced his reproductive opportunities in high school. In extreme cases it can be a paralyzing illness that isolates to the point where drastic measures are considered. (For the original, see this.)

Apparently, though, shyness is not completely negative for evolutionary success. So, at least, argued Susan Cain in the New York Times Sunday Review (some years ago).

Yet shy and introverted people have been part of our species for a very long time, often in leadership positions. We find them in the Bible (“Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?" asked Moses, whom the Book of Numbers describes as “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.”) We find them in recent history, in figures like Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein, and, in contemporary times: think of Google’s Larry Page, or Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.

In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher’s words: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”

We even find “introverts” in the animal kingdom, where 15 percent to 20 percent of many species are watchful, slow-to-warm-up types who stick to the sidelines (sometimes called “sitters”) while the other 80 percent are “rovers” who sally forth without paying much attention to their surroundings. Sitters and rovers favor different survival strategies, which could be summed up as the sitter’s “Look before you leap” versus the rover’s inclination to “Just do it!” Each strategy reaps different rewards.

Yeah, whatever. Fortunately most of us outgrow it, at least in part.

MSL - Advance Planning Required.

Mean Sea Level seems to have increased by about ten inches (250 mm) since 1870 - 3.5 inches of that in the last thirty years. The rest of the century will probably see something like another 1 to 3 feet of sea level rise, enough to seriously threaten or destroy many low-lying islands and ocean front areas. Endangered cities will cost many billion, or perhaps trillions of dollars to defend or relocate. There is every prospect that sea level rise will continue long after CO2 additions to the atmosphere stop.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

An Intelligence Greater Than Human

The Internet is the Borg. You have been assimilated.

There is an important sense in which an ant colony is "smarter" than any individual ant. It's also true that in many ways a society, in the wide sense (civilization, tribe, corporation, social club or scientific society) is smarter than any of the individual members. These collectives, working together, have information and algorithms that no individual member has, and can solve problems that no one member can. There is a fair amount of evidence that much of the evolutionary development between us and the remote ancestor we shared with chimpanzees was devoted to making us better at cooperating with each other.

From that point of view our first ventures in Artificial Intelligence was the creation of progressively more elaborate societies for sharing information, technology and algorithms.

Once the computer was created, our ability to store, manipulate, and compute was multiplied by an enormous factor. Today the internet links most of the computers and people of the planet. Together, we constitute an enormously greater intelligence than any individual human or pre-computer society.

Stop worrying about when AI will exceed human intelligence - it already happened. The only question is how long the meat part of this intelligence will remain necessary.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Hating on English

Katy Waldman has a nice piece on Minae Mizumura and her screed against the English language, just recently translated into English: The Fall of Language in the Age of English. Minura moved to New York with her parents at age 12, and though educated in English, still resents it.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by the Japanese novelist and scholar Minae Mizumura, has all the ingredients of a rage-read. Indeed, when it was published in Japan in 2008, it infuriated commentators, who dismissed Mizumura as “reactionary,” “jingoistic,” or “elitist” and swarmed across Amazon deleting positive reviews. More than 65,000 copies have sold since then—which suggests the slender work’s declinist soothsaying continues to touch a nerve. The book appears this month in English (enemy territory!), where—if we Yanks could be trusted to read something first penned in a non-Western tongue—it would likely inspire more umbrage, more name-calling, more amorphous unease. The book’s basic premise, developed in a sinuous line through seven chapters, is that every language creates and nourishes untranslatable truths. Dominant languages infuse their verities into the wider world, crowding out alternative visions from more minor tongues. Linguistic asymmetry isn’t new—over the past two centuries, Latin, classical Chinese, and French each took a turn in the sun—but never has one language so completely eclipsed the rest, Mizumura says, as today, in the age of the Internet, with English.

And have you heard? English is a tuneless, careless juggernaut! English has a tendency to favor science over art, sound over image, market value over intrinsic cultural worth. (For Chrissake, English spawned Harry Potter, which Mizumura clearly wants to assign to everlasting torment in its own circle of hell.) Her disdain—mostly implied, but sometimes explicit, as when she describes Americans as “grown tall and stout on too many hamburgers and French fries”—might lose Mizumura some Anglophone readers. But it shouldn’t. Every writer need not love English, or English speakers. And we might benefit from attending to the critiques of someone who refuses to kiss the ring.

You can find reasons to jump on the angry bandwagon: Mizumura’s tone can sound disagreeably peevish, bitter, or despairing; she doesn’t bother disguising her scorn for the United States; nor does she shrink from dismissing the entire contemporary fiction scene in Japan as “just juvenile.” (That last is what set off the initial batch of protests.) But these critiques come to feel superficial in the face of the book’s lucidity, erudition, and force.

No doubt Mizumura's complaint will find plenty of sympathy from others whose first language is not English. English remains the cutting edge of Euro-American cultural imperialism, threatening to sweep all other cultures away before it. Of course monolingual Anglophones, like your humble correspondent, will disagree, but do please read Katy's take on it.

Toleration vs. Terror

Given that religion has frequently been the rationale for war, toleration has always been something of a delicate flower. Toleration of religious differences in Christian Europe and the Americas was hard won, but has become something of a central principle. The idea of separation of church and state was central to that, and overall it has been an amazing success, permitting the growth of a vibrant and largely tolerant society in the US and seemingly bringing the end - or nearly the end - of the long series of intra European wars.

Most large scale civilizations have managed to achieve a degree of toleration of diversity of belief, but given that the two big religions of the world, Islam and Christianity, both have a lot of built in intolerance, that has usually been at the expense of a tolerated but disadvantaged minority, as for example, has often been the case of Jews and Christians in Muslim society.

So how does a tolerated but intolerant minority survive in an alien culture with limited tolerance? Very carefully. Violence, proselytization, and other actions deemed threatening to the dominant religion have typically been harshly repressed, often by drastic collective punishments.

Islamic terror presents a tough challenge for any tolerant society. The historically traditional responses to something like the massacres in Paris would have been mob violence, with the slaughter of hundreds of the members of the religious group from which the terrorists came. The tradition of tolerance, we can hope, is now strongly enough established that that won't happen, but some sort of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim reaction, including the possible triumph Le Pen's anti-immigrant and fascist tinged party is all too possible.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Climate Change, Natural and Un

Climate change is natural and constantly occurring.

That statement, or something like it, is frequently heard from the mouths of various proponents of the drill-baby-drill school. It has the merit of being at least partially true. It may also create the illusion that climate change, being natural, is relatively harmless.

Humans first occupied the land that is now England at least 800,000 years ago. More than once since then, climate change has completely scoured that country of humans. Such catastrophes were common and widespread during the Pleistocene. The last 12,000 years or so, the Holocene, has been much more beneficent, with a great moderation of the rapid and drastic changes that dominated the early days of our species.

It's quite plausible that it was this moderation which permitted the development of agriculture and civilization. The Holocene, until recently, has been characterized by relative stability in the second most important regulator (after insolation) of climate, the CO2 content of the atmosphere. At the end of the Pleistocene, the atmospheric CO2 rose from about 200 ppm to 280 ppm and stayed close to that until the industrial revolution and widespread fossil fuel burning started increasing it. That increase was slow at first, reaching 300 ppm about 80 years ago, but has accelerated, and now has breached the 400 ppm level.

Current CO2 levels have not been seen in several million years - a time when the climate was much different than today - and, at present rates, seem likely to have doubled the Holocene levels by mid-century.