Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Not Brain Surgery

Among the concepts that have taken a lot of damage this election cycle is the notion that brain surgery is a uniquely challenging intellectual task. Thanks for that, Dr. Carson. I don't think that there is much doubt that surgery on the brain is tough test of hand and eye as well as requiring a lot of knowledge about the complexities of neuroanatomy, but if Carson is any kind of exemplar, its pretty clear that that kind of intellectual accomplishment is pretty well compartmentalized from understanding the rest of reality.

The idiot savant is a standard caricature in popular art and also a pretty familiar figure in science departments everywhere. The kind of narrow focus that may help one master the esoterica of a demanding field often seems to leave no energy or interest for the rest of the intellectual universe.

Michael Burry, the real-life neurosurgeon turned hedge fund manager who is one of the central characters of the The Big Short, despite his thorough medical training did not recognize his own place on the autism spectrum until his son received the Asperger's diagnosis in school. Only at that point did he realize that his son, very like himself, fit the diagnostic criteria almost precisely.

Is Carson another autism spectrum character? I have no idea, but he sure does seem to have a brain that deviates from the standard issue.

Saturday, February 06, 2016


The Republicans had more of a debate tonight. Not sure if Rubio's robotic performance will hurt him or not. Though I was less bothered by his robotic repetitions than by the fact that he appeared to be insane.

I detest them all. Except possibly Kasich.

Just Not That Into Her?

Based on relevant experience, Hillary Clinton is one of the best qualified Presidential Candidates of all time, just a bit behind George H. W. Bush. Of course that comparison isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. Experience isn't necessarily the crucial trait in Presidents.

Her problem as a candidate seems to be that people just don't like her much. Some of that is Bill's fault - she get burned for his sins - and some of it is hers. She doesn't seem to have a very relate-able public personality. Very important, though, is the fact that she has long been target one for the vast right-wing conspiracy. She pushes all their anti-feminist and anti-progressive buttons. They have waged relentless war on her for decades with their idiot mantra of Whitewater, Vincent Foster and Benghazi.

For whatever reasons, I'm not a big fan on a personal level either, but she seems by far the least dangerous Presidential candidate in the race. I can't stomach semi-fascist Trump, crazy pretty boy Rubio, or his even crazier ugly boy counterpart Cruz. Half-brain Carson and whoever remain of the other seven dwarfs don't look so hot either.

Woo Hoo?

Lumo reports on an email by somebody who says "I know a guy who said he saw..."

So has LIGO really seen a black hole merger? Next Thursday, February 11, is supposed to be the day for the big reveal - 36 and 29 solar mass black holes merging while radiating away 3 solar masses of gravitational waves. If true, this is really big - probably the biggest thing since the discovery of the positron.

We shall see.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Feeling The Bern

Listened to a little of Bernie Sanders last night, and I thought he did a good job of articulating a lot of the country's problems: overpriced, inefficient medical care, the death grip of wealthy interests on the political process, and college debt. Sanders is quite a bit further left than I am, but that doesn't bother me much - I don't think that there is much risk of him turning us into Venezuela or Cuba. I am afraid, though, that if nominated he won't be able to win, and if elected, he won't be able to govern. The immense power of vast financial interests are a gigantic ice sheet sitting on the nation's chest, and it won't melt fast if at all.

Learnin' USA

Alex Tabarrok:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering and math and statistics.

If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying?

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

- See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/02/the-new-college-degrees.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+marginalrevolution%2Ffeed+%28Marginal+Revolution%29#sthash.XXEGPbJD.dpuf

The nation still does need waiters, but is that really the ideal training? And we almost certainly don't need waiters who start their careers with $100,000 of educational debt.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Portents of the Apocalypse


Well, in my pre-Iowa notes I called the Republican primary right:

I know what will happen on the Republican side: someone horrifying will come in first, and someone horrifying will come in second.

Let me add that someone horrifying also came in third. Marco Rubio may seem less radical than Cruz or Trump, but his substantive policy positions are for incredibly hawkish foreign policy, wildly regressive tax policy, kicking tens of millions of people off health insurance, and destroying the environment. Other than that, he’s a moderate.

I would add that the Democratic first and second placers are on the verge of doddering into senility.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Star Warts

OK, I finally saw the new Star Wars. It was long, loud, and boring - not as bad as the worst episodes, but pretty much utterly lacking in any redeeming artistic quality - unless you count Daisy Ridley, who is pretty cute. Abrams faithfully recycled nearly every now well-worn Star Wars cliche, and there he stopped. No hint of imagination or originality crept in at any point. If one were to write a textbook about how to make an utterly derivative movie, you could seek no better model. Even the cliches were executed with ham-handed ineptitude.

Did Science Nerds Kill a Tween Girl?

My title is the front page link at The Daily Beast to this story in which the principal suspects are two Virginia Tech students who are respectively a freshman and a sophomore engineering major. Suppose the suspects had turned out to be black, or gay, would our headline writer have written "Did Niggers/Queers Kill a Tween Girl?"

The lesser offense is using a patently offensive stereotype, but the real offense is that the stereotyping effectively imputes the crime to a whole class of people. The fact that the apparently clueless headline writer confuses scientists and engineers is a minor annoyance.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

10 Pounds in a 5 Pound Bag

I went to hear a talk by visiting professor (from Mexico) on violence and rights violations in Mexico. He led off by saying that about 150,000 Mexican civilians had been killed or disappeared over a recent ten year span. That was the only quantitative or substantive thing he had to say. The rest of the one hour lecture was devoted to vague and unsubstantiated claims that the violence was the result of US policies, the Mexican establishment, and inherent in the capitalist system. In short, it was the kind of dumb leftist bullshit that gives progressives a bad name.

Mexico has a high murder rate, 18.9/100,000 per year. Compare for example, such moderately violent countries as India (3.5) and the US (3.9), or relatively safe countries like Japan (0.3) or Switzerland (0.6). But even Mexico is hardly extreme compared to Puerto Rico (26.5), Jamaica (39.3) Venezuela (53.7) or our champion, Honduras at 84.3. Nearly all the high murder rate countries are significantly impacted by the drug trade, but our professor mentioned that only by blaming the war on drugs.

Deep Neural Networks and the Renormalization Group

Via Steve Hsu: arxiv.org/pdf/1410.3831v1.pdf

Claim: A deep connection between so-called deep neural networks and the renormalization group.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

More Computer Go

One reason the triumph of AlphaGo over its human opponent made such big shock waves is that defeating a professional is a big jump over the best previous computer results. Long after computers had beaten the best humans, strong teenage amateurs could still beat computers while giving them long odds. Fan Hui, the European champion, is a 2 dan professional, much stronger than those amateurs, but still far below Lee Sedol, the strongest human Go player. Lee Sedol is a 9 dan professional.

There is no neat equivalence between go strength levels and chess levels, but roughly speaking a 2-dan professional is something like an International Master in Chess. 9-dans are like the so-called super-Grandmasters, whereas Lee Sedol is the Magnus Carlson of go. There is a pretty big gap between a 2-dan pro and a 9-dan, and a significant gap between a "generic" 9-dan and Lee Sedol. Consequently we can't assume that Lee Sedol is going go down just because Fan Hui did.

Sedol also has at least 5 of AlphaGo's games to study (maybe more) but you may be sure that AlphaGo has assiduously studied every one of Lee Sedol's hundreds or thousands of games. Alex Tabarrok has a short note on the computer victory here. Nature collects reactions of the go community here.


Win or lose, I will bet that Lee Sedol is the last human champion the world will ever know. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/01/go-has-been-broken.html#sthash.C2hokLBG.dpuf

We will still have human champions of course (we still have human chess champions), it's just unlikely that they will be able to beat the strongest computers.

It took a couple of decades for technology to put the computing power to beat a chess grandmaster on your laptop. I'm going to guess that the it won't take that long to put that go champ on a laptop - the voice and face recognition software looks a lot like the kind of computer that beat Fan Hui.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Go Figure

It's over. Humans had a good run on this planet, but our time is nearly up. Google DeepMind's AlphaGo has just clocked a strong professional Go player 5-0 in a five game match. It will take on Lee Sedol, the World's best human month after next, but even if the human ekes out a win, the handwriting is already on the wall, or maybe I should say, the pixels are already in memory.

It has been about twenty years since computers cracked chess, but the ancient game of Go had been stubbornly resistant. Probably even more interesting than the fact of the accomplishment is the way it was done, not by brute computer power or clever algorithms, but with deep neural networks. Such networks are electronic emulations of the way brains work, and the networked learned, in effect, by distilling a kind of essence of millions of games it studied. Such networks, powered by enormous computing power, are now demolishing artificial intelligence problems that had defied researchers for a couple of generations: face recognition, language translation, spatial navigation.

Very few human intellectual tasks are going to escape the computers increasing mastery in the next decade or two.

Personal Note: two or three decades ago, I trained a neural network to solve a certain kind of integral equation. I noted at the time that the advantage of the neural network was that you didn't need to know much of anything about how it did it. The disadvantage is the same - you don't really wind up understanding how it does its thing. The programmers who beat chess included some strong professional players. I don't know about those who built AlphaGo, but in principle at least, the programmer really doesn't need to know much of anything about the problem being solved - he just feeds the program millions of situations and how they were solved, and the network does the rest. distilling some extremely complex and quite likely humanly incomprehensible rules from all the data.