Saturday, June 25, 2016

Leviathans

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short........Hobbes, Leviathan

Hobbes had a jaundiced view of human nature, a view that has plenty of supporting evidence. The rise of the modern state has clearly greatly reduced internal carnage. If individuals can't be trusted, though, how much less can states? Again history offers a harsh verdict. War and pillage make their bloody path through its every page.

The exceptional cases almost always involve a large scale leviathan - The Roman Empire, for example, and today, the US hegemony. Periods of peace have always tended to lull people into believing that peace is the natural state of things, and such illusions frequently lead them to be enslaved by the more bloody minded.

The European Union was conceived as a beneficent leviathan to quell the incessant wars that have troubled Europe for millennia. It was always a flabby leviathan, but, together with NATO, it has more or less worked for the last half century plus. It has long needed serious reform, but now the stupid stupid British have decided to demolish it. The young of Britain aren't happy, but the young have always paid the price for the folly of the old.

Europe is now a miscellaneous collection of tiny, weak states, almost none of which have any substantial capability for self-defense. Except for the US, and NATO, these vain little statelets would be gobbled up by somebody hungry.

The US, too, is turning inward, and Europe is likely to be left more to its own devices. There is essentially no sign that European states, individually or collectively, are willing to face or solve their problems. I don't think Europe can avoid dissolution without forming "a more perfect union," and I see no sign of that.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Now What?

The real question in my mind is can the EU survive this amputation? It's not very functional and appears incapable of reforming itself. It's most serious problems, I think, are lack of unifying political and economic institutions. With nationalist sentiment running high, any chance for reform seems remote. The whole shaky contraption could easily come apart.

I suspect England will wake up with a major hangover, but I guess that it is unlikely to be of much strategic or economic importance in the future.

D*I*V*O*R*C*E

I predict that the divorce will be nasty, with major fights over child custody and support.

Nikkei currently down 1335 points, Japanese seem to be taking it hard.

Pound down 16 cents.

Predicted Brussels response: "And the horse you rode in on."

Mad Dogs, Englishmen - Is There a Difference?

From the NYT:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

ANSWER VOTES PCT.

Remain 12,021,165 48%

Leave 12,814,092 52

306 out of 382 counting areas

11:40 PM ET

Looks like it might be over. Pound is down $0.13 on the dollar.

Asian markets and pound crashing.

Behavioral Genetics

Pinker starts his chapter on children with the so-called three laws of behavioral genetics:

The First Law: All human behavioral traits are heritable.

The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.

The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families. The laws are about what make us what

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 373). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The pillar of the Second Law is the evidence showing that siblings reared in the same family are at most only slightly more similar than siblings raised apart. He concludes from this that parenting choices have very small effects on children's development.

It seems to me that he is leaving out a very crucial aspect of the unique environment of a child reared with a sibling. There is only so much social/emotional ecospace in a family, and that fact induces siblings to choose different paths. If the first child is a hell-raiser, the second may become more docile to fill the empty spot in the family ecosystem, and vice-versa. Similar effects can occur for the math whiz, sports star, science geek, etc. If this difference in environment is as large as the effects of different parents it helps explain the fairly large Third Law effect and tends to discredit Pinker's version of the Second Law.

Real Trannies

Naturally Nietzsche was there first:

As quoted by Steve Hsu:

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end. -- Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Of course I found Nietzsche's Superman rather revolting - to the extent I understood it. But now we are faced with the prospect of really trans-human creations, either as genetically enhanced humans (not very likely, I think) or some sort of cyborg (still not likely) or robotic (likely) replacements. If such replacements deserve their place, though, I like to think that they will see their predecessors as perhaps pathetic but still heroic.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Not About Sex?

One gender feminist idea that has gained a lot of credence even among those who ought to know better is the claim that "rape is not about sex." Instead, claimed Susan Brownmiller, the apparent originator of this theory:

From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function . . . it is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 361). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This notion may be transparently silly, but the corollary that "rape is not about sex" has achieved rather wide currency, despite the fact that it is perfectly analogous to the equally ridiculous "bank robbery is not about the money." Instead, I guess, it's part of a hundred thousand year plot to keep bankers in their place. Here is Brownmiller in its defense:

BROWNMILLER ASKED A revealing rhetorical question:

Does one need scientific methodology in order to conclude that the anti-female propaganda that permeates our nation’s cultural output promotes a climate in which acts of sexual hostility directed against women are not only tolerated but ideologically encouraged?

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 364). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[Equity feminist Wendy] McElroy responded: “The answer is a clear and simple ‘yes.’ One needs scientific methodology to verify any empirical claim.”

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 364). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If you are selling nonsense, though, the last thing you want is the scientific method.

The Cernette

Lumo is not giving up. He isn't claiming that the 750 GeV bump is still there, but he says that his sources are not yet saying that it has disappeared.

I figure that he is still pretty plugged in.

So, don't give up, yet anyway.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Things that Go Bump in the Night

Might not include 750 GeV diphoton excesses.

Sigh!

The World's Smartest Man Weighs In

From Terry Tao:

It ought to be common knowledge that Donald Trump is not fit for the presidency of the United States of America

Leviathan

Pinker:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8: 00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11: 20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. 99 This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 331). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Welfare

I run a modest welfare program for birds. That is, I have a couple of bird feeders that I keep stocked with seed. Like any good conservative, I worry a bit about encouraging a culture of dependency as well as bankrupting the payer (namely, me).

Bird experts, or maybe just birdseed salesman pretending to be experts, tell me there is no danger of that kind of dependency, but who knows, really?

I have learned a couple of things, like how to identify lesser goldfinches and some of their cousins, and not to buy forty pound sacks of birdseed - back injuries are much more expensive than birdseed.

One welfare idea with some currency today is the guaranteed income. I don't like it, and neither do most other taxpayers. A much better idea is some kind of guaranteed job. People need the work almost as much as they need the money.

If, as seems likely, computers do most of the real work of the economy in the near or immediate future, the current shortage of jobs in the world will only get worse. In which case we either starve billions or find some kinds of socially useful methods of redistribution.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Cool and Cloudy

At the end of May, Arctic sea ice extent was nearly 1 million km^2 less than in the record low year of 2012, and some Chicken Littles began prophesying the end of Arctic ice this summer. Cooler heads noted that it was still early, and that weather still had to be heard from. May and June seem to be crucial to setting up a big Arctic melt, as the formation of melt ponds decreases albedo and increases absorption of the big time insolation in June and July.

Despite the big lead in ice extent, May ended with only modest melt ponding, and June has proved cool and cloudy in the Arctic. The cloud cover blocks the Sun just when it's highest in the sky, and instead of insolation the Arctic gets insulation. Unsurprisingly, the big lead 2016 had in ice extent and ice area (disappearance) has largely vanished, even briefly turning negative, but for the last week or so 2016 has kept a small lead.

So what about that ice vanishing thing? It's the probability of an ice free Arctic this Summer that appears to be vanishing. A new record low could still happen, but its prospects don't look great either, since the cool and cloudy weather is expected to last into July. A couple of wild cards are the ice volume (thought to be greater than 2012 but somewhat uncertain) and sea surface temperatures, which are known to be very warm.

See Arctic Sea Ice Forum, for lots of data, pictures, opinions, etc.

TBD

The Blank Slate BS is Not Dead

Pinker's 2016 afterword to The Blank Slate sees some progress in acknowledgement of biological reality in the social sciences and society more generally, but a lot of BS survives. He discusses a number of more recent examples, including the feminist lynch mob that helped bring down Larry Summers at Harvard. Here is another observation likely to raise feminist hackles.

Another recent journalistic obsession has been the incidence of sexual coercion among university students. The only mentionable explanation is that college campuses, like American society in general, have a “rape culture” that glorifies and encourages the crime. Entirely taboo is a far more plausible explanation: since that men, on average, are more eager for impersonal sex than women are, if you throw large numbers of young men and woman together in a “sex-positive” campus culture with plentiful opportunities for private drunken hookups, encounters that verge on and shade into sexual coercion will be among the hazards. Indeed, this bit of common sense is seen as tantamount to accepting, forgiving, or even condoning rape— perhaps the most bizarre among the many blunders in moral reasoning that are still part of the conventional wisdom when it comes to human nature.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 434). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Our Moral Sense

Our moral sense licenses aggression against others as a way to prevent or punish immoral acts. That is fine when the act deemed immoral truly is immoral by any standard, such as rape and murder, and when the aggression is meted out fairly and serves as a deterrent. The point of this chapter is that the human moral sense is not guaranteed to pick out those acts as the targets of its righteous indignation. The moral sense is a gadget, like stereo vision or intuitions about number. It is an assembly of neural circuits cobbled together from older parts of the primate brain and shaped by natural selection to do a job.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 270). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And so that moral sense is a sword with a double edge. On the one hand, it helps maintain a society. On the other, it also licenses the suicide bomber and the assassin of politician you disagree with.

Pig Slapdown

WB has chastised me for blaming bankers (from Gringotts or elsewhere) for the student loan mess. Fair enough, I suppose, as there is plenty of blame to go around. Congress wanted to make college affordable for more people without actually spending any money. Schools wanted to scarf up more money. Bankers, who are, after all, in the business of lending money, didn't want to be cut out of a new business opportunity, and didn't want to wind up on the hook for a bunch of bad loans. Students and their parents wanted educational opportunities. When the resulting politics/sausage making was done, we got the mess we got - a system where a bunch of bad loans were made because lenders weren't really lending their own money.

I happen to think that loans are a bad way to finance education. I recently opened an old book and found a receipt for my term's tuition way back when I was an undergrad - $99.00 Not free, but damn cheap by today's standards, even with inflation thrown in, so the US once had a nearly free college education. We abandoned that policy mostly because of the mania for cutting taxes on the wealthy.

Friday, June 17, 2016

American Exceptionalism

Most Americans are convinced that we are not only the best at everything, but also under the personal protection of God Almighty. This fantasy is encouraged by our military and economic might, large population, and currently dominant role in much of world culture. Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next would be a useful corrective for those who think this way, but is probably unlikely to be seen by them.

Moore, armed with an American flag and camera crew, "invades" Italy, France, Slovenia, Portugal, Finland, Norway, Tunisia, Iceland and Germany and claims some ideas and practices he would like to bring back to the USA. It's possible to be skeptical about just how idyllic these various paradises are and still think that many of these ideas have merit. A short list: more powerful workers unions, more protections and benefits for workers, decriminalizing all drugs, schools focused not on tests but children's happiness, free university educations, humane prisons and actually prosecuting financial criminals. Tunisia was singled out for actually passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women equal rights, unlike the US where such an amendment failed. Interestingly, many of the European countries claimed that the ideas they implemented originated in the US.

I recommend it to any American looking for a wider perspective. It gives us some perspective on what was lost by making the US safe for financial manipulators and predatory oligarchs.

Over*blanking*educated

Once upon a time, somebody, probably one of those evil goblin bankers from Gringotts, thought it would be a good idea for students to finance their education with debt. We know they were evil* because they got the government to (1)guarantee most of the debt and (2)permanently enslave those who could not pay.

This led to a vast proliferation of for profit colleges, and others, like law schools, not officially for profit but rackets nonetheless. The result probably should have been predictable: an army of heavily indebted young people ($1.2 trillion or so) who mostly lack skills in enough demand to allow them to pay back those loans. Consequently, they are poorly positioned to start a family, buy a house, found a business, etc.

Of course many of these students got degrees in subjects that ought to be reserved for the independently wealthy: art, theater, philosophy, classical literature, ethnic studies and so on. Chat up your waiter next time you go to a mid level restaurant. He or she probably has a PhD in French Literature or an MFA in some damn thing.

I got my PhD (physics) at the height of the 1970's physics boom - that is, shortly after it became clear that there were way too many physicists and anybody with any sense decided to study EE or become a hippie drug dealer. After I graduated, PhD production plummeted for a decade or so, but physics departments eventually figured out that they could replace no longer gullible Americans with foreigners. Thanks to research and teaching assistantships, though, we were mostly debt free.

I and my classmates all eventually got jobs, though hardly any in the one area we were actually trained for, university professorships. It turned out, at least then, that physics PhDs usually had some useful collateral skills.

It seems now, though, that even this century's golden ones, PhDs in computer science, are seeing declining salaries.

Education is no longer a sure fire path to a comfortable life, but it still seems better than most of the alternatives. *If further proof was needed.

Statistics of Pie

Pinker:

But each child should to want the parent to dole out twice as much of the investment to himself or herself as to a sibling, because children share half their genes with each full sibling but share all their genes with themselves. Given a family with two children and one pie, each child should want to split it in a ratio of two-thirds to one-third, while parents should want it to be split fifty-fifty.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 248). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If the reasoning here sounds a bit dubious to you, you aren't alone. Maybe Pinker needs a bit more stat work. Supposing the child in question really really wants to maximize the chance of the largest numbers of his genes surviving, then the computation is bound to be a bit more complicated. The real question is the dependence of each fitness function on the share of pie, and perhaps more importantly, the mutual dependence of the fitness functions of the siblings. In some societys, a boy's chance of survival might be increased by having lots of brothers - but for the son of an Ottoman Sultan, it's the reverse.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Errant Intuition

Humans come pre-equipped with some intuitions about physics, biology, psychology, probability and other things, says Stephen Pinker, as well as natural propensities to learn other things, like how to walk and our language. Those intuitions aren't necessarily correct for a modern society, and some critical skills are not easy to learn naturally. The job of schooling, he says, is to teach those ways in which the modern world doesn't fit our intuition and those skills not included in our natural learning program - like how to read and write. He thinks modern schooling is not exactly very well suited to its task.

The obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education. And this offers priorities for educational policy: to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. The perilous fallacies we have seen in this chapter, for example, would give high priority to economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics in any high school or college curriculum. Unfortunately, most curricula have barely changed since medieval times, and are barely changeable, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics.

But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (pp. 235-236). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That should offend fans of the liberal arts education.

Book Review: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Eric H. Cline's book tells of the thriving civilization of the late Bronze Age Mediterranean and its catastrophic decline. From 1500 BCE to 1200 BCE thriving international trade among the empires created a cosmopolitan civilization with high art, and a vast trading network. The years following 1207 saw empires fall and become depopulated, written records disappear in many places, cities burned and abandoned, and evidence of widespread trade disappear or greatly diminish. It would take another three centuries before comparable conditions returned.

So what happened? There are plenty of theories: earthquakes, invasions, internal collapse, disruption of trade, or even some butterfly flapping catastrophe best explained by complexity theory. Each of these theories has some support. There were earthquakes, and some cities broken by them. Large groups of peoples were on the move, and battles fought and cities destroyed amidst the evidence of war. In some cities, only the elite portions of the city was destroyed, possibly the signature of internal revolt. How, though, can we account for the simultaneous collapse of some many empires over such a large region?

Many experts, and this inexpert reader, find a climatological explanation most convincing. Recent research has uncovered evidence of a long lasting, widespread drought afflicting the whole region, beginning at the onset of the troubles and lasting for perhaps centuries. We have letters among kingdoms at the time complaining of famine and begging for the delivery of food. Such a drought and the resulting widespread crop failure, like somewhat similar conditions affects parts of the Middle East and North Africa today, could set masses of desperate people on the move in search of food and other basics of life. These refugees could constitute the ethnically diverse masses of the "Sea Peoples" who were defeated by Ramses III, and who perhaps sacked many an empire before.

I liked the book, but you won't find answers to all your questions neatly wrapped up. You will find a long list of Kings and rulers of the age. It has several nice maps showing the locations of major kingdoms, and imperial capitals.

My other comments on the book can be found here.