Sunday, June 30, 2013

Do da, do da day

Writing in today's NYT, Tim Requarth and Megan Meehan report on an intriguing finding about the development of speech in human babies - and clues that were found from the study of birdsong.

Babies learn to speak months after they begin to understand language. As they are learning to talk, they babble, repeating the same syllable (“da-da-da”) or combining syllables into a string (“da-do-da-do”).

But when babies babble, what are they actually doing? And why does it take them so long to begin speaking?

Insights into these mysteries of human language acquisition are now coming from a surprising source: songbirds.

It seems that sound transitions are hard, and learning them takes a lot of practice.

The study also reveals a lot about the intricate genetic program that orchestrates the development of speech and language, and it's deep evolutionary roots. The evolution of birds and people separated 200 million years or so ago, but we still share some vocalization genes.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Economist Steven Landsburg has a predeliction for using his daughter as a foil for espousing some of his crackpot theories. He imagines, for example, that she was amazingly precocious because she, as a five year-old, could echo his disapprobation of the income tax. In his book Fair Play (pg 8), for example, he cites her as some sort of primal authority for finding forced sharing unnatural and morally repugnant. Income taxes, of course, are an example of that kind of forced sharing.

Landsburg is probably too unself-aware, or otherwise clueless, to realize that there has probably never been a human society in which some sort of forced sharing has not existed. The highly egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, for example, make some kinds of compulsory sharing a cornerstone of their social order. Successful hunters tend not to be any more enthusiastic about dividing up their large animal kills with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the band than we are about paying taxes, but they learn early to be humble and comply, or pay the penalty. The return they get is indirect - the share they get when somebody else makes a big score. Those who can't, or won't pay the penalty of shame or ultimately expulsion from the band or worse.

In more hierarchical societies, workers are forced to share the fruits of their labors with rent-seeking officials, property "owners" or others. Of course Landsburg would probably approve any such compulsions originating in some concept of contract or ownership, but I see little difference.

It won't be news to regular readers that I consider Landsburg to be the most clueless type of libertarian idiot, but if he doesn't like the rules, he should leave. Maybe he could join Galt in his mountain fastness.

Curable Birth Defects

Many conditions that cause infant deafness are now curable through technology. For deaf parents of deaf children this can present a quandry. If they cure their child's deafness, they will remove her from their culture and possibly from their language. Writing in Slate, Mark Joseph Stern reports that in one case at least, scientists have a persuasive circumstantial case for the biological origins of male homosexuality.

Some of the strongest current evidence that some people are born gay is based on a phenomenon called the fraternal birth order effect. Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that men with older biological brothers are likelier to be gay than men with older sisters or no older siblings. The likelihood of being gay increases by about 33 percent with each additional older brother. From these statistics, researchers calculate that about 15 to 30 percent of gay men have the fraternal birth order effect to thank for their homosexuality.

There is also a speculative theory as to why this should be the case: the notion that women who have had sons develop an increasing immune response to some of the factors that promote development of the "normal" male brain. If this theory should be confirmed, it suggests that at least some male homosexuality might be a preventable birth "defect." Given the fairly strong evidence that homosexuality is always (or almost always) biological, it also suggests that it might also be preventable or at least avoidable. These notions undercut the religious notion that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, or a moral aberration, but they reinforce the notion that it is a biological aberration.

It seems likely that most parents, even proud members of PFLAG, would prefer that their children not be born homosexual, and, given the chance, would take measures to suppress the hypothesized immune reactions that lead to the birth order effect. For Mr. Stern, foreseeing the eventual end of his community, this is tragic.

We might not yet understand the exact biological mechanisms underlying sexual orientation, but we will one day soon. And if, at that point, homosexuality is seen as a disorder, the next step will be a search for a cure. That would be a tragedy—for society and for science. There’s nothing wrong with being gay: You know it; I know it; the Supreme Court knows it. But so long as large swaths of the country believe otherwise—places where homophobic families still ostracize their gay sons and brothers—any research into its biological origins is fraught with peril for the cause of gay rights.

I sympathize with his feelings, but vehemently reject his conclusion that we need to stop studying biology and biological causation.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Fear The MOOC!

Universities are jumping into the MOOC pool with different degrees of enthusiasm.  A key tell here is the certificate.  Most MOOC courses offer some sort of certification for successful completion.  Given that these certificates are hardly useful for anything, that would seem a bit of a modest risk for issuer.  So far as I can tell, all edX courses seem to offer potential certification whereas Coursera courses are all over the map, from those linked to degree programs, to there so-called "Signature" line, to the hard line approach of Duke and Yale which is basically "if anybody asks, we never heard of you."

The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School goes one step further in their Financial Accounting course by pointedly noting:

However, no certificate will be given from Wharton / Penn and successful completion of this course does not make you a Wharton / Penn alumnus.

All I can say is that in the unlikely event that I took their course, I would make a point of claiming to be a Wharton / Penn student.

Yours sincerely,

A former Ga Tech, Berkeley, MIT student

Ice, Ice, Baby

We are more or less at the very peak of the melt season in the Arctic, even though melt will continue for another two and a half months.  Now I don't know how to read the inner clues of the ice pack, but so far, this season is a bit backward.  Last year was a record breaker - record shatterer, really - and each of the previous five years featured lower minimum extents than any of the years before 2007.  At the moment, this year's melt is a bit behind even the slowest of those six immediately previous seasons.

Will it catch up?  Or is this a rebuilding year?  Any expert (or other) opinions?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Morality MOOC

If you have been interested in the recent morality bloggin threads, you might be intered to know that Paul Bloom of Yale is offering a course next January through Coursera:

It doesn't start till next year, but he does have a suggested reading list out already.  Not sure how he comes down vs. Boehm, but his list includes Pinker and Haidt.

Public Intellectuals

Tyler Cowen is asking "Who is the most influential public intellectual of the last twenty-five years?"  I think he likes Milton Friedman and Andrew Sullivan.  In my darker moods I'm pretty sure that it might be Ayn Rand and the 700 Club guy.  Anyway, I can tell you who influenced me the most:

Sticks and Stones

Evidence suggest that humans learned to throw pretty early, perhaps 1.8 million years ago or so.  It seems unlikely that Homo Erectus could throw as well as modern man - shoulders too narrow - but they do show other anatomical changes supporting a good throw.  The question then becomes, why?

I'm not very confident that even modern fireballing pitchers could drive a group of hyenas or lions off their kill with nothing but rocks and sharp sticks.  Neither is it likely that such weapons would be very good at killing any kind of big game like a zebra or large antelope.

Bird, rabbits and other small prey look like plausible targets though.  Anything much smaller than 20 kilograms is probably pretty vulnerable to a hard thrown rock.

Playing Catch

Commenter AWS speculated on the relationship between our  trajectory calculating abilities and math and physics.  I'm not sure that I agree on the details, but it's pretty clear that the trajectory calculation is crucial to our throwing abilities.  A lot of the games humans play are versions of what might be called "playing catch."  We play catch with baseballs and footballs.  In soccer we exchange throwing for kicking, but the same sorts of skills come into play.  Ditto tennis, badminton, golf and so on.  Any sport played with balls, darts, horsehoes or other projectiles involves trajectory calculations.

As noted previously, humans are much better at throwing with accuracy than any other animal.  I'm not sure that anybody has taught chimpanzees to bowl or play tennis, but my guess is that if they have, they aren't very good at it.  Can chimps juggle?  (Apparently not).

Throwing and catching are learned skills, but our aptitude for them suggests that we have a lot of supporting mental hardware.  Those who aren't exposed to throwing games in their youths often "throw like a girl" as the saying goes - a weak motion that fails to exploit the energy storing capabilities of shoulder, back and torso, but that actually has nothing to do with gender, except that girls are less likely to play ball games as children.  Girls with brothers usually learn the characteristic powerful human throwing motion without any special instruction, just by fighting back.  Moms who grew up without learning ball skills can pick up some trajectory calculation skills when their children expect them to catch thrown car keys, candy bars, and other items.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bennies

A lot was at stake for married gay couples in today's ruling that DOMA was unconstitutional. Ciara McCarthy and Mariana Zepeda have a list in Slate: Married people can:

  •  Inherit a spouse’s estate without paying taxes. This was the issue at the heart of the DOMA case, Windsor v. United States. Edith Windsor had to pay estate taxes after her wife died, which the Supreme Court judged to be unconstitutional. She’ll get a refund. 
  • File jointly for bankruptcy, eliminating the debt for both spouses. 
  • Qualify to take leave to care for a spouse with a serious medical condition if the job is protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act. 
  • Under spousal testimonial privilege, one spouse can’t be forced to testify against the other in court. 
  • File joint tax returns. In some cases this will increase the couple’s tax bill; in other cases it will decrease it, as Matt Yglesias pointed out this morning. 
  • Get divorced. 
  • Deduct alimony payments from federal income tax. 
  • Qualify for Medicare based on a spouse’s employment. 
  • Qualify for health plans under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program if one spouse is a member of the uniformed services.
And more.

No doubt this will give considerable momentum to State efforts at full legalization.

Throwback: Homo coniectis

Perhaps the decisive step to modern man was development of the ability to throw hard and with accuracy. Our Chimp cousins are much stronger than us, faster, and far more agile. One thing that they can't do, though, is throw hard and with accuracy. Good baseball pitchers can throw at 90 mph and place the ball rather precisely at distance. Chimps can throw at about 20 mph and have trouble hitting the broad side of a barn. That speed difference translates to a kinetic energy difference of a factor of twenty.

Lenny Bernstein reports today in the Washington Post that researchers have identified the anatomical changes that made us such superior performers in throwing:

The reason for the difference is anatomical, the result of critical physical changes in the shoulder, arm and torso of the species Homo erectus that first appeared 2 million years ago, a team of scientists suggested Wednesday in the journal Nature. These adaptations allow the storage and rapid release of the elastic energy that powers the arms of flame-throwing hurlers such as the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg.

The changes, the researchers believe, also might have had far-reaching implications, giving early humans a singular advantage in hunting faster, stronger animals with spears and projectiles. That development might have greatly improved our ancestors’ diet, providing more protein that led to larger bodies, bigger brains and the ability to roam more territory, the study hypothesized.

The ability to hunt big game affects a lot of things, including upright posture and the potential and necessity for group living and cooperation.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Christopher Boehm, in Hierarchy in the Forest, has a cautionary message on egalitarianism, perhaps even a manifesto:

If tendencies to hierarchy are to remain decisively reversed, both hunter-gatherers and people living in modern democracies must consciously create, and carefully enforce, egalitarian plans or blueprints. We so-called moderns may formulate these blueprints via constitutions or bills of rights, while hunter-gatherers or tribesmen may operate more informally, but in either case my theory is that egalitarianism cannot last long without insightful guidance and manipulation.

Eternal Vigilance

Is the price of freedom, says the saying. The same is evidently true of an egalitarian societies. Hunter gatherer bands are more or less universally egalitarian, but this egalitarian structure is not maintained without a struggle. Stronger, smarter, or otherwise advantaged individuals are continually attempting to gain dominance over the others. This tendency is balanced by the ability of the weaker members to form coalitions and deploy the weapons of social coercion against the would be dictator: gossip, other social sanctions, and if truly necessary, banishment or homicide. The intellectual tools we have developed seem to work quite well in suppressing dictators at the level of the band or small tribe.

They don't seem to have been adequate once people became settled agriculturalists and started living in much larger groups. That development set the world on a path of extreme hierarchy and despotism which has dominated our history for the past several thousand years. If, as Christopher Boehm hypothesizes, our long hunter gatherer stage promoted the evolution of behaviors suitable for egalitarian societies, it's hardly implausible that the last 5000 or so have undermined those, possibly at both the cultural and biological level.

Sporadic reassertions of egalitarianism have popped up throughout history, but they have usually been temporary. The last several hundred years have been the largest such fluctuation in history. Can we preserve it?

Defenders of Aristocracy have mostly crawled under rocks these days, but the rise of the modern plutocracy has energized its defenders. Prominent economist Greg Mankiw's Defending the One Percent is a very contemporary example, but hardly isolated, since the virtually complete domination of the media by a few zillionaires gives them broad access to every organ of propaganda. Modern defenders of aristocracy come in a few flavors: psuedo-Nietschean Ayn Rander's, Libertarians, and old-fashioned Romney type robber barrons, to name a few.

One lesson from the study of the evolution of human behavior, I think, is that an egalitarian society is fragile, and that the old weapons of the stone age may no longer be adequate for its maintenance.

Chess and Psychology

I have been playing some chess on a site called chesscube. I'm a fairly weak club type player, but probably a bit above average for the site. Lately I'm on a long winning streak, and my rating is near its historic high. The odd thing is that the higher my rating gets, the more reluctant I am to play. for some reason these otherwise meaningless ratings points make me feel like I am risking a lot more each time I play with an 1800 rating than I was with a 1600 rating.

MOOC Wars, Chapter II

Professors may have been the first to perceive the threat posed by the MOOC to the old ways of doing business, but now it's clear that university administrators have begun to react as well. In particular, they are gearing up to fight the MOOC providers for control of content. Meanwhile the vast commercial education industry is also struggling to get up to speed. I have no idea how this will shake out, but I predict massive changes in the next decade - or less.

Unnatural Selection

We know that human have been practicing deliberately selective breeding of plants and animals for thousands of years. It seems pretty clear that less purposeful selective breeding has been going on from the dawn of agriculture, or perhaps before. Christopher Boehm suggests that one of the earliest targets of our selective breeding could have been our own species.

How could this work? Well we know that many contemporary societies, and essentially all hunter-gatherers deal with anti-social behavior by a whole range of techniques, including gossip, social pressure and ultimately banishment or even homicide. The latter would seem to be rather strongly selective against tendencies towards these kinds of behaviors.

How Can Altruism Exist?

In a sense, evolutionary psychology begins with a paradox, first recognized by Darwin. Darwin's theory of natural selection is, in essence, an extremely selfish theory. Any behavior that enhances the chances that someone else's genes will survive over yours will tend to be selected out. It's long been recognized that close relatives are a special case, so for purposes of this discussion we will restrict the word "altruism" to acts which enhance the fitness of an unrelated individual at some cost to one's own fitness. Risking one's life for a stranger is a classic if extreme case.

In a sense, the central problem of evolutionary psychology is "How can altruism exist?" Of course this is only a problem for those who want scientific and naturalistic explanations. Religious hocus-pocus can find as many explanations as you like.

There are plenty of clues around. For one thing, altruism is almost always restricted in scope. We are more generous to those with whom we feel affiliations (same religion, same home town, fans of the same sports team, etc.) For another, we are more generous when there is social encouragement and pressure to be generous. Some are far more generous than others. Empathy and generosity are closely related.

Boehm makes the altruism paradox central to his book Moral Origins, and makes it clear that a definitive answer is still not completely in place. The most persuasive (IMO) approach to explanation is some type of group selection. Group selection itself is a highly controversial topic in evolutionary theory, for reasons i've talked about before (and which are discussed in the Wikipedia article of the same name.) The problem with group selection is that so-called free riders, members who fail to do their part, can sabotage the whole group to their own advantage.

Again, the most plausible way to deal with this is the punishment of free riders. We know that extant hunter gathering societies consistently have developed mechanisms for this, as have all sorts of organizations in civilization. Most of us feel outrage when we see someone else getting an unfair advantage.

More speculatively, one might guess that the task of identifying and dealing with free riders was sufficiently challenging that it was a major driver of the rapid development of the human brain.

Despite their sometimes speculative nature, these kinds of explanation do have a powerfully predictive aspect. By locating the basis of various behaviors at least partially in biology, they predict the existence of an underlying biological substrate. Empathy is a crucial component of our social behaviors, for example, and it's known to have biological substrates. Certain brain abonormalities abolish empathy.


I think it was Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Nobelist for work on citric acid cycle and discovery of vitamin C) who said that the way to tell good theories from bad was to examine their fruits. good theories, he said, lead to discoveries and understanding. Bad theories just lead to more theories to explain the old bad ones.

So how are you doing Real Business Cycle theory? And you, String Theory?

They Can't Help Themselves

It looks like bankers really can't resist the temptation to make wild bets with other people's money. The recent convulsions in world markets seem more prompted by the perceived necessity of punishing some of these wild bettors than anything else. Bernanke whispers, China squeezes, and 4 trillion dollars go poof. See, e.g., Cowen and Bloomberg.

Monday, June 24, 2013


So Dick (NOT Cheney) and me decided to go hunting for some of them feral hogs. Where's Ben?

For Shame

When I wrote about reading Christopher Boehm's Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Lee mentioned that he had read his later book, Moral Origins:The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Well, I couldn't resist and now am reading it also. I have to say that Moral Origins is far more accessible in style, and that it is written with exceptional clarity and elegance. The issues and arguments (so far, I'm a slow reader) are very well presented, as are remaining controversies. Here is a sample I liked a lot:

What Darwin did about this last problem was quite remarkable. He initiated the first systematic research across cultures by writing to colonial administrators and missionaries all over the world to ask them whether indigenous people in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere blushed with shame. Having one’s face “color” for social reasons is unique to humans, and Darwin was interested in knowing whether morally based, shameful blushing was merely something that certain groups did because their local cultures led them in that direction or whether, as he suspected, there might well be a strong hereditary component. What his far-flung anthropological research project told him was that indigenous people everywhere did seem to blush with shame. And on this basis he could assume that, as an important aspect of our conscientious moral sense, human shame reactions surely had to have an innate basis.

This research project stands today as a true landmark in the anthropological science of human nature, and what it suggested more generally was that conscience and morality had to have evolved, in the biological sense of the word. Carrying this line of research forward, I shall show that the human conscience is no mere evolutionary side effect, as Darwin had to imply it was. Rather, it evolved for specific reasons having to do with the Pleistocene environments humans had to cope with prehistorically and, more specifically, with their growing ability to use group punishment to better their own social and subsistence lives and create more socially equalized societies. Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (pp. 14-15). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Great Moments in Liberal Arts Education

From a graduate of U of X: Humanities professors at X knew their place. They were there purely to provide the illusion that students at X were getting a balanced education.

Secrets and Lies

One problem with secrets is that they give rise to lies, like the director of National Intelligence lying to congress in open hearing: here Of course it might have been less humiliating if he didn't have such prominent "tells."

The late Edward Teller, a prominent critic of excessive secrecy, pointed out more serious problems. Secrets may hinder you more than your rivals. That certainly applies to technology secrets. Teller liked to cite the example of the (then) secret trick behind the H-Bomb. When we discovered it, noted the "father of the H-bomb," we knew that it was so cunning and unexpected that nobody else would think of it in a hundred years. A few months later, he noted, the Russians exploded their own thermonuclear device. The lesson was, he said, that what Americans could think of, Russians could too.

Do either of these lessons apply to stuff like the UK and other countries collecting data on who their citizens and others talk to? Maybe not, but as we have seen, the more or less inevitable exposure of such programs has its own bad consequences. One hardly need mention the potential for abuse in the hands of the unscrupulous.

Human Nature: Stuff and Nonsense

Probably every culture has had at least one theory of human nature, but lately two different and competing notions have dominated intellectual discussion. One, described by Stephen Pinker as the "Blank Slate" theory, holds that human nature is so plastic that behavior is specified almost entirely by culture. The principle alternative argues that much of our behavior derives from instincts that have served to promote our surval over the ages of our evolution. The blank slate notion is much beloved of Marxists and other utopians who think that all we need is the right instruction to produce the perfect human. The instinctive basis has ancient roots, but in it's modern incarnaion owes a lot to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which attempt to trace characteristic behaviors to evolutionary advantage, often and controversially when such behaviors seem counterproductive in a modern society.

In practice, almost nobody is a purist. Hardly anybody would deny an instinctive basis for hunger or sex drive, for example. Neither would the hardest core sociobiologist deny the remarkable plasticity of human behavior.

I would argue that this debate is far from purely academic. The twentieth century was littered with the catastrophic failures of socialism, and these failures had much of their root in faulty assumptions about how people would responds to societal design. We also live in an age of massive social experimentation, with new rights and freedoms, with new technologies, and new potential to intervene in the lives of citizens. Should drugs be legalized? Should women serve in the infantry? Should large bottles of sugery drinks be sold? All these questions have something to do with human nature and how it responds to opportunity and risk. More fundamental questions also fit the bill: what should we do or try to do about inequality, if anything? How do we reduce crime rates? How do we promote economic growth? How should we make decisions about what is moral and what is not? what should be legal, and what should not?

I will restate the obvious: I'm firmly in the evolutionary psychology camp. It's a young science and has more questions than answers, but even the kinds of tentative answers it has come up with are of considerable moment.

Consider one example issue. Why does murder happen? If you merely consider it an abberation, you have learned nothing. If you start by examining the historical evidence, though, you see that there are lots of circumstances in which murder is very common, and others in which it isn't. Humans mostly seem to act like we are programmed to murder in some circumstances but not others. Now, if you study the cases, you can see how circumstances can be arranged to make murder less common.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Brief History of Inequality

Various struggles for equal rights have been a prominent feature of our times. So what does history have to say about the subject?

Our closest primate relatives, the three species of great apes of Africa, are notably hierarchical says Christopher Boehm. He notes also that the last 5000 years of human history have been dominated by societies that are highly hierarchical. But hierarchy is far from the universal rule. The last several hundred years have seen powerful anti-hierarchical movements, originating mainly in Western Europe. Moreover, it seems that before 12,000 years ago, all humans lived in hunter-gatherer bands which, like their contemporary counterparts, were quite egalitarian, at least among adult males.

In short, the history of hierarchy among humans is decidedly mixed. It would easy to dismiss the egalitarian episodes as abberations, but the fact that so much of our history appears egalitarian as well as the strong feelings that so often arise in its favor argue for the opposite. Nonetheless, egalitarian societies require some explanation. Fundamentally that is because they require that weaker individuals impose some sorts of limits on the strong. That is not something that happens naturally in animal societies.

Whether you want to accept evolutionary reasons for our egalitarian behaviors or not, there is an evolutionary logic arguing against egalitarianism. Briefly, it goes like this: suppose that you have two groups each with a dominant individual. In one, the dominant individual grabs much more than his share of the resources and reproductive opportunities while in the other, the subordinate individuals cooperate to deprive the dominant individual of an outsized share. Thus, in the first group, most reproduction is done by the dominant, most fit, individual, whereas in the second group it's more widely dispersed, and less fit individuals do more of the reproduction. Hence fitness is accelerated in group one and depressed in group two, and, over time, group two should be bred out of existence. This leaves the question of how egalitarian behaviors could persist, and in fact become dominant in human societies over a hundred thousand years (or longer). The only obvious answer is that the egalitarian behavior could confer a special group evolutionary advantage by facilitating more cooperation than would be possible in a hierarchy.

Students of evolution will recall that there are potent arguments against group selection. Essentially they reduce to the fact that altruistic behavior, except towards very close kin, seems to reduce fitness. It is a fact, however, that the most successful animal groups are highly social species, the so-called Eusocial species, including ants, bees, and human beings. The ants and bees manage the group selection feat by a peculiar sexual system that severely restricts reproduction and ensures that all members of a colony are extremely closely related. Human's don't do that.

The core problem with group selection notions is that evolution rewards defectors, that is, those who don't altruistically support the group. The hymenoptera avoid this problem by making potential defectors infertile and genetically dependent on the queen. For humans, group selection and altruism require some other kind of rationale to avoid being selected out. That mechanism seems to be punishment of defectors. s.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

They're Going to Make a Big Star Out of Him

Lumo reports that Kip Thorne is going to be in a movie. It seems pretty big time, with Christopher (Dark Knight Trilogy) Nolan directing, and Matthew McConaughey, Ann Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine in the cast, along with Thorne, who wrote the script and will play himself.

Thorne, for non-physics geeks, is a co-author of the "black hole," the monumental treatise on Gravitation, AKA MTW, and a big name in black hole physics, as well as the Feynman professor of physics at Caltech. He has also written what I consider the best popular book on General Relativity, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy

A friend of mine who was a classmate of Thorne's at Caltech once told me that Thorne the student achieved a certain amount of notoriety by stumping Feynman with a question in class. Feynman later paid him back by reducing him to tears when he presented a colloquium. He also said that student Thorne had noted that his IQ was "only" 140 but he was well organized.

My favorite Thorne story from Black Holes and Time Warps concerns how he deduced the secret of the hydrogen bomb from astrophysical conversations with Novikov and Colgate (astrophysicists and bomb designers, both, respectively for the USSR and the US.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Another Job for Robots?

Robots may have trouble equalling human ingenuity at some tasks.

India and China

The ancient civilizations of India and China dominated much of the world for a couple of thousand years. They continue to have about a third of the world's population between them. After a bad couple of centuries, they are once again asserting themselves on the world scene. In today's New York times, Nobellist Amartya Sen laments that India is lagging behind China economically, and offers a diagnosis. This lag is something of a rebuke to democracy, since India is democratic and China authoritarian, but Sen says that's not the problem.

The hope that India might overtake China one day in economic growth now seems a distant one. But that comparison is not what should worry Indians most. The far greater gap between India and China is in the provision of essential public services — a failing that depresses living standards and is a persistent drag on growth.

Inequality is high in both countries, but China has done far more than India to raise life expectancy, expand general education and secure health care for its people. India has elite schools of varying degrees of excellence for the privileged, but among all Indians 7 or older, nearly one in every five males and one in every three females are illiterate. And most schools are of low quality; less than half the children can divide 20 by 5, even after four years of schooling.

He also faults India for failure to provide health care for its citizens.

The underlying problem, he says, is India's failure to absorb the lessons of the Asian economics success stories.

India’s underperformance can be traced to a failure to learn from the examples of so-called Asian economic development, in which rapid expansion of human capability is both a goal in itself and an integral element in achieving rapid growth. Japan pioneered that approach, starting after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when it resolved to achieve a fully literate society within a few decades. As Kido Takayoshi, a leader of that reform, explained: “Our people are no different from the Americans or Europeans of today; it is all a matter of education or lack of education.” Through investments in education and health care, Japan simultaneously enhanced living standards and labor productivity — the government collaborating with the market.

Despite the catastrophe of Japan’s war years, the lessons of its development experience remained and were followed, in the postwar period, by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and other economies in East Asia. China, which during the Mao era made advances in land reform and basic education and health care, embarked on market reforms in the early 1980s; its huge success changed the shape of the world economy. India has paid inadequate attention to these lessons.

Of course this is just one perspective. The fact that India is more fragmented in almost every possible way than the other examples is one. India's slightly less catastrophic initiation into the modern world may have left it with more cultural inertia, allowing entrenched rent seekers to gum up the works. In any case, it's a crucial issue for India, and the world.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Egalitarian By Nature?

Christopher Boehm has written a book, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, about his search for the roots of human political behavior. This is another contentious nature vs. nurture question, complicated by the vast range of human behaviors. Our relatives among the higher primates exhibit a wide range on the scale from egalitarian to despotic, with the behavior rather specifically specified by species, but human societies range from far more despotic to more egalitarian than any of them. Moreover, human societies exhibit cooperation on a scale not see in egalitarian monkey or other animal societies.

I haven't gotten far in the book, but Boehm looks like a naturist to me.

Innate or Culturally Acquired?

One of the more contentious issues in anthropology is that of whether certain traits are rooted in biology or culture. This is sometimes called the “nature versus nurture” debate. My experience is that many seemingly irreconcilable differences turn out to be rooted in different definitions of terms. One complication of the nature/nurture debate is that due to the relatively extreme (compared to other animals) plasticity of human behavior, most behaviors clearly have roots in both nature and nurture.

Let me start with my definition: To be considered innate, a trait needs to be rooted in biology and heredity. To be culturally acquired it needs to be learned by imitation or teaching. Humans (almost always) walk upright, unlike our chimpanzee cousins. We have muscle and bone adaptations to facilitate upright posture and gait. Of course we almost always have the opportunity in childhood to watch upright walking, so there might be a learned component as well.

Like many other human behaviors, walking and talking are not present at birth. There is clearly a learned component. On the other hand, there is every evidence that we are pre-programmed to learn to walk and talk. A whole range of activities in preparation for these activities spontaneously start occurring at more or less predictable stages of an infant's development.

Language is an example that illustrates the full complexity. An isolated human infant will not develop language by itself, though she will go through most of the linguistic preparatory stages. If she misses out on communication at the crucial developmental stages, she won't be able to catch up later – language will be stunted or absent. Almost all of us learn the language we are exposed to as infants. Fascinatingly, however, unlike an isolated individual, groups of children without a common language do develop a common language, and a full-featured grammatically rich language at that. That strongly suggests, or actually insists, that the mental substructure underlying language and core grammatical principles is built into our brains.

When can you be sure that an aspect of behavior is not innate? The obvious answer is when it isn't universal. Speaking Spanish is not innate, because only people exposed to it, or taught it, can. Speaking is innate, since almost everybody can (absent some crippling physical or mental abnormalities). The existence of such abnormalities is another strong piece of evidence for innateness. Is the converse true? Does universality imply innateness? Not quite, but it's extremely strong presumptive evidence. It's at least conceivable that a universal human behavior has been transmitted culturally down the generations. On the other hand, spontaneous appearance of the behavior in the absence of a cultural model (like the creation of languages de novo) are about as strong a form of evidence as one can imagine.

Our most interesting collective human behaviors (morality, religion, politics) are the most complex of all. Here again there is plenty of evidence of innateness but so much plasticity that drawing the lines is difficult.

Kenneth Wilson 1936-2013

Kenneth Wilson, one of the great theoretical physicists of the twentieth century, is dead. Lubos and Peter Woit have posts and links to obits.

His work on renormalization and the renormalization group are central to the modern understanding of quantum field theory.

Game of Thrones

I eighty-sixed my HBO subscription a year or so ago, so I haven't been watching George R R Martin's popular sex, sword, soap, sorcery and sadism extravaganza. I did read the first n or so books of the series, though, before I decided that he had run out of imagination and opted for pointless plot thread proliferation. I can't say I like the country's (world's?) infatuation with the series much.

Martin is a nasty, sadistic writer, and his novels have basically the same type of appeal as the Roman gladiator shows and the Hunger Games of the Collins' novels. It reflects badly on us that we find it so appealing.

Everything is Rent

"Behind every great fortune is a great crime" is a memorable line, but it would be more accurate to to say that behind every great fortune is a great rent. Exclusive control of some valuable resource - land, another means of production, a patent or copyright. One of the oldest and most fundamental businesses of government has always been the guarantee and enforcement of these exclusive controls.
Paul Krugman blogs today that one of the biggest changes in the global economy of recent decades has been

...the much larger role of rents on intangible assets.

He explains:

What do I mean by the role of rents? Consider the changing identity of the most valuable company in America. For a long time, it was GM, then Exxon, then IBM. These were companies with huge visible production activities: GM had more than 400,000 employees, which was amazing when you consider that the overall national work force was much smaller than the one we have today, Exxon had oil refineries. IBM was an information technology company, but it still had many of the attributes of an old-style manufacturing giant, with many factories and a large, well-paid work force. 

But now it’s Apple, which has hardly any employees and does hardly any manufacturing. The company tries, through fairly desperate PR efforts, to claim that it is indirectly responsible for lots of US jobs, but never mind. The reality is that the company is basically built around technology, design, and a brand identity... 

There are a couple of obvious implications from this change in the nature of corporate success. One is that profits are no longer anything remotely resembling a “natural” aspect of the economy; they’re very much an artifact of antitrust policy or the lack thereof, intellectual property policy, etc. Another is that a lot of what we consider output is “produced” at low or zero marginal cost.

Peer Graded Essays

Being somewhat confined to quarters lately, I've had a lot of time on my hands, so I'm sampling an SF and Fantasy MOOC. One new feature for me is peer graded essays.

Having now tried it, I have to say I don't like it. Our essays are tiny - 300 words - and we are expected to critique form and substance. So far my only potentially useful critique has been to note that in one of the five I'm expected to grade, the essayist had mispelled about 10% of the words, including the author's name (three times). Get thee to a spell checker.

US Math Education

Caltech is one of the most selective US universities. They admit a tiny freshman class of only about 200 students, compared to 1000 to 2000 at most other elite private universities, and their 25th percentile SAT's are typically the highest anywhere (75th percentile SAT may be maxed out at a few schools). It's also probably the major university most fanatically devoted to science and engineering, with MIT being the only significant top tier competitor. Arun was a physics grad student there a quarter century ago or so, and reports that the profs then complained that the students they were getting didn't have the preparation of the good old days.

I'm not sure when that golden age of US high school students was, but I don't think it was in my generation - another couple of decades earlier. In those days it was pretty rare for American high school students to learn calculus - I didn't. Now, I think, almost any aspiring Caltecher would have completed at least one year of calculus, and frequently some further math.

I wonder if there are any statistics on the math preparation of the top 1% of US high school students over the years?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Too Many College Graduates?

In yet another sign of diminishing returns for college degrees, the NYT reports that college graduates in China are having trouble finding jobs. The same trend has been seen in Europe and the US. Naturally, prospects are still better for some majors than others.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Chess on the Intertubes

Internet chess seems to bring out the worst in some players. I was playing some guy today who happened to be about 120 points higher rated than me. This guy plays a clever opening and I quickly get seriously behind, but I manage to gin up an attack on his king. He makes a couple of defensive slips and now I have both a material advantage and the king attack. He asks for a take back. Well, I don't ask for takebacks and I don't allow them when we are playing for ratings points. He asks for a draw, repeatedly. I decline. He plays on for a bit and gets some counterplay - he is the higher rated player, after all, but then he drops a piece. Same drill. Next he simply stops moving, so I have to sit there while his clocks very slowly runs down. Childish behavior, yes, but when time finally expires he curses me out and vows never to play me again - a consumation devoutly to be wished.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

I've dipped my toe into the Coursera course of title above. Perhaps I'm not really into the spirit of the thing. Coursera gives one the option of listening to the lectures at normal speed, 0.75 speed, 1.25, 1.5, 1.75 or 2.0. I can't really follow very well at the highest speeds, but I did notice that when the prof was explaining to us that it was crucial to read the stories slowly, I was watching him at 1.5 speed.

Transfer Payments

Libertarians, Republicans, and Rich People all seem to loathe the idea of the transfer payment. If they care about the elderly or others at all, they believe retirement should be funded by savings. This misses a very obvious point. However you structure your society, if the idle are to live, they must be supported by the labor of those who work. Savings or investment are just another means of transfer the product of one person's labor to another person.

The whole structure of human society is based on such transfers. That doesn't mean investment is a bad strategy for a society - it's actually essential for progress. I happen to favor incentives (or even compulsions) to save, but I don't think that's a way suitable as the sole funding for retirement. There are a few reasons for that, but one big one is the fact that it's highly pro-cyclical. In a recession, when more spending is needed, investment values tend to decline rapidly, leading to a contraction of spending and more recession. By contrast, government payments are at least cyclically neutral.

The really big transfer payments in our society, by the way, are to the rich and super rich, and they take the form of various exclusive licenses and rights to property that are defined, granted and protected by the government. Bill Gates is fabulously wealthy mainly because the US government gives him exclusive rights to certain intellectual property almost none of which he actually created.

String Wars 2013

It seems that the string wars go on. Bets have been lost, prediction have remained unconfirmed, and the whole question of predictivity has been challenged, but the true believers mostly remain unswayed. It seems that Jim Baggott has written a new book called Farewell to Reality which seems to be rather anti-string, and even had a debate with hyper-stringer Mike Duff. If you follow such matters it won't surprise you that Peter Woit and Lubos Motl have rather different takes on the book and the debate.

I tend to think of myself as a neutral in the string wars, but it probably won't surprise anybody that it seems to me that the most rabid string defenders are blowing a lot of smoke in their claims of a solid foundation and prospects for experimental confirmation. Evidently there is still some phase space for supersymmetric particles to be dicovered at the LHC, but if that fails, it's hard to see where experimental confirmation can happen in the next few decades.

So does string theory predict anything else that might be observed? If so, I have yet to hear about it.

PS - Retrodictions are not predictions.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Redistribution and the Worthwhile Life

Paul Krugman worries about the new Luddites - the masses of highly skilled workers about to be put out, or already being put out of jobs by machines.

In 1786, the cloth workers of Leeds, a wool-industry center in northern England, issued a protest against the growing use of “scribbling” machines, which were taking over a task formerly performed by skilled labor. “How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families?” asked the petitioners. “And what are they to put their children apprentice to?”

Those weren’t foolish questions. Mechanization eventually — that is, after a couple of generations — led to a broad rise in British living standards. But it’s far from clear whether typical workers reaped any benefits during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; many workers were clearly hurt. And often the workers hurt most were those who had, with effort, acquired valuable skills — only to find those skills suddenly devalued.

So are we living in another such era? And, if we are, what are we going to do about it?

That is exactly the kind of question I was trying to discuss with the anti-MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) opponents when I got unceremoniously expelled along with the horse I rode in on. These college professors feel the threat of the MOOC, but are still locked firmly in denial mode, and don't want to hear anything else.

Krugman goes on to note that because the advance of technology first punished less educated workers, education was thought to be the solution, but now even highly educated work is under threat.

Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.

Krugman concludes that education is no longer the remedy for rising inequality. His solution:

So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.

I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?

I am confident that they will (a)ignore the problem, (b)proclaim it doesn't exist, (c)propose doing nothing.

Even though I agree with Krugman, I don't think that really addresses one of the worst aspects of the problem. If hordes of ex-professors, ex-radiologists and ex-lawyers are suddenly on the dole, what happens to their self respect?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

White Out

Population estimates from the Census bureau indicate that last year was the first year on record for which white deaths outnumbered white births. From the WP:

More white people died in the United States last year than were born, a surprising slump coming more than a decade before the Census Bureau says that the ranks of white Americans will likely drop with every passing year.

Population estimates for 2012 released Thursday show what’s known as a natural decrease — a straightforward calculation of births minus deaths — of about 12,400 people among the nation’s 198 million non-Hispanic whites.

This seems to be the result of a couple of trends, the aging of the white population, and declining birth rate among whites plus some Great Recession caused delays in marriage and child bearing. The median ages of Asians (34), Blacks (32), and Hispanics (28) are all much less than those of Whites (42).

Whites will continue to be the majority for a while, but it's easy to see why the farther seeing among Republicans are rethinking some of their more racist ideas.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Banned in Colorado

Fort Collins Colorado is a nice little town, a convenient place to stop for a burger if you are driving from Denver to Calgary, say. It houses Colorado's "other" University - not the one with the football team. Fort Collins Tech, or whatever it's called, is famous mostly for its Veterinary School, whose major research topic I forget, but I think it had something to do with shooting pigs in the name of military wound research.

I mention this because I got into some trouble with a Prof there who took strong exception to my defense of MOOCs. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that those who claim to teach critical thinking draw the line at any criticism of their own thinking. Historiann, as she styles herself, is an Associate Professor of History at that school, whose actual name is Colorado State University. She banned me from her blog.

She and most of her adulatory commentators form a sort of echo chamber holding their hands over their ears and loudly proclaiming that MOOCs won't work, mixing in occasional imprecations against MOOC founders, especially Daphne Koller, the Stanford AI prof who co-founded Coursera.

It's too bad, since I'm a big believer that you can learn a lot from people who disagree with you. Unfortunately, most people can't stand to have their prejudices challenged.

More Arguments with Humanities Professors

I have been reading the blogs of some highly anti-MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) humanities people. Mostly they discuss how bad MOOCs must be (few seem to have completed one)and all the reasons why they can't and shouldn't be allowed to succeed. Some of these reasons are pretty good (personal interactions with the prof and other students can be valuable learning experiences) and some that are pretty bad (Americans won't value an education that's free, MOOCs are nothing but televised lectures).

Humanities people always seem to claim that they teach analytical thinking, but reading their arguments is hardly persuasive. When San Jose State introduced MOOCed courses to their own curriculum, the Philosophy Department issued a widely publicized dissent. Here is a fragment:

“The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary—something out of a dystopian novel...

(1)There is no reason to think that MOOCs will reduce learning to a single course in each subject. Popular subjects already have courses from different universities.

(2)Michael Sandel is reading a hell of a lot less dystopian novels than I am.

Here is another dissent, courtesy once again

of the Stanford Daily,

The one [Stanford] professor who was not interested in the [MOOC] proposition, Professor of Art History Alexander Nemerov, reiterated his opposition to offering his courses online.

“I think that part of the beauty of [giving a lecture] is how ephemeral it is,” he said.

“I feel that the lecture is there for the people who are in the class. That is to say that it’s based on a face-to-face interaction between people all in one room. I don’t know how I feel about taking out the personal quality of it.”

Oh well.

This is Spinal Block

I had a surgery with a spinal block yesterday. The advantage is that you wake up right away without the groggy post general anesthesia feeling - and that brain, heart, and lungs don't get subjected to the insults of anesthesia. The disadvantage was that I was paralyzed from the waist down for about six hours. It's an odd feeling, and not a pleasant one, to see your legs and feet but not be able to move or feel them.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Looks like they are starting to sell the UHD TVs. $25 grand for an 84 inch, but that's a bit small for UHD, the equivalent of a 42 inch HD television. It might be a while before a decent sized (100-120 inch) is in my price range, but should be the first TV that can do a decent job on football, both American and soccer, showing enough of the field to see plays develop.

The Redcoats Are Coming!

I've been hanging around the websites of anti-MOOC profs, most of whom seem to be humanities types. I tend to think that they living in a dream world, imagining that the status quo, or some optimized version of it, can be saved. Every wave of automation has swept away whole classes of artisans. In the last decades, we have seen factory workers displaced by robots. It looks to me like the next victims will be members of the professional classes - doctors and professors - not that they won't have plenty of company.

Paul Krugman takes on the subject today:

Nancy Folbre suggests that the golden age of human capital – roughly speaking, the era in which the economy strongly demanded the kinds of skills we teach in liberal-arts colleges and universities – is already behind us. She may well be right: after a long stretch when both technology and trade seemed to be undermining only manual labor, it does look as if many skilled occupations are now under threat by Big Data, Bangalore, or both.

I’d just like to add a sort of footnote, inspired by a conversation I had the other day with a Congressional aide. Has there ever before, he asked, been a time when technology undermined skilled labor, instead of making it more necessary than ever?

And the answer is of course yes, once you realize that there are many kinds of skill, and book learning hasn’t always been the one that mattered.

After discussing Princeton's original role as a trainer of preachers, he notes:

After that, by the way, institutions like Princeton evolved into something more like finishing schools, where the elite acquired manners and connections. (Yes, there’s still more than a bit of that aspect today). The role of higher education as a creator of human capital came along quite late. And maybe, as Nancy Folbre says, this role is already waning.

Anyway, the humanities types I mentioned mostly spend their time casting imprecations at MOOCs and their creators, and telling each other that they will never catch on. They might be right, but I doubt it.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Evolutionary Explanations of Behavior

Some people are pretty hostile to evolutionary explanations of human behavior. So why should we believe them, or not? The most obvious reason to believe that some human behavioral tendencies are written in our genes comes from the fact that we that those of other animals are. There is also the fact that some behaviors are universal or nearly universal and seem to arise spontaneously in groups of people when they aren't provided by the wider culture. It's pretty obvious, though, that the cultural matrix we find ourselves in does have a big influence on human behavior, and that there is a wide range of behaviors among individuals and between cultures. It's clearly not viable to attribute all human behavior to instinct or all differences in behavior to genetic or other biological differences.

One good but surprising example of a behavior that has clear genetic roots is language. We don't all speak the same language, and the language(s) we learn are those we are immersed in as children, so how can I claim that language is an instinct? The best reason is the evidence of some remarkable natural experiments. The one I find most persuasive is the experience of deaf children who were housed together in a school, without access to either external deaf languages nor the language of speech, who showed up at school with only a few primitive and idiosyncratic (not mutually intelligible) gestures learned from their parents and spontaneously constructed a full featured and gramatically sophisticated sign language on their own. Other examples come from the creation of creoles. People of diverse linguistic backgrounds coming together will communicate with each other in primitive pidgins - small vocabularies with hardly any grammatic structure, but their children will make those into a full-featured and grammatical creole - a real language.

The lesson is very clear - if children don't have a language, or lack mutually intelligible languages, they create them from scratch or whastever pieces that are lying around, even if they can't hear. That instinct is clearly very flexible. The languages created will be original creation, differing in every surface detail of sound pattern or gesture and even many grammatical aspects, but they will be powerfully expressive and have a core of deep grammatical stucture. It should be expected that other human social instincts should be similarly flexible and adaptible to circumstance.

So when should a behavior be suspected of being genetic? Universality or widespread commonality is the first clue. Behaviors that we share with our close animal cousins are another hot candidate. When we look at individual as opposed to group behaviors, behaviors that run in families are good candidates t. These are not ironclad guarantees, of course, but then we must consider alternative explanations. Are there any? Do they stand up to scrutiny?

Low Finance

I've been watching Prof Kaul's finance class - I'm still listening as I write. It's a bit embarassing listening to him slowly and painfully explaining compound interest. It's a bit like having stumbled into a kindergarden class by mistake. The problems, however, are not quite trivial (for me). So I'm probably in the right class.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Your Cheatin' Heart

The world of Grandmaster chess has been roiled lately by accusations of cheating.  This is somewhat familiar territory for chess - there have long been accusations of collusion or throwing games, but in the last decade or so, computer programs have become so strong that even world champions cannot compete with them.  The latest accusations focus on a hitherto weak player - weak by grandmaster standards - who suddenly started beating grandmasters.  Not merely beating them, but crushing them with tactically perfect chess.

A third-place finish at a tournament last month by a formerly obscure player was so startling that organizers searched his clothing and took apart his pen looking for evidence that he had outside help. They found nothing.

The most compelling evidence against him was that his moves were not only computer like, but in an exceptionally large number of cases were exactly the moves chosen by the strongest computer program.  Comparative analysis of past world champions reveals that they were much less capable of finding the strongest move than the program or Mr. Ivanov.  In addition, his play was exceptionally uneven.  In some games and tournaments he played like his previous ratings, but at other times, like a super grandmaster.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

In Texas

...It seems to be legal to murder a woman for  not having sex with you.

Texas has a genius for creeping me out..

Hard Core?

Having completed 5 Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), I was starting to think of myself as kind of hard core.  What a deluded putz!  It turns out that more than 900 people have completed ten or more Coursera courses, and 100 more than twenty.  A single mother of teenagers in Amsterdam has done 30 MOOCs, despite having a day job.  None of these people have taken any for credit, but they all find the MOOC addictive, like certain online games after which they were named.  Others are rushing to take as many courses as they can because they are afraid the MOOCs will disappear.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

My Education

Having completed the final in my Biology 700 MITX class, I'm now sampling Gautam Kaul's finance class.  he informs me that if I don't love finance, there is something wrong with me.  Now I find out.

Another student informed us that Chicago is joining Coursera and will offer John Cochrane's advanced finance class.  I happen to know that Cochrane is a ******* idiot, so I'm unlikely to take it, but he does seem to have some prestige in the field.

Concert Tickets and Optimal Economics

From time to time some economist notes that the presence of scalpers proves that event tickets (concerts, sports, etc.) are underpriced.  Is a more optimal system possible?

Sure.  Just auction all the seats off.  If the dirty work were allocated to buyers and sellers computers, even the nuisance factor might be minimized.  That way each seat could be sold for the maximum someone is willing to pay for it.  Airlines are already approaching that kind of allocation system.

I predict it won't happen though.  Mostly because it's likely to really piss everybody off.  Frustrated fans will abandon the system in droves in annoyance.  Artists will be terrified of the prospect of an empty stadium.  People really like to reduce uncertainty in their lives.  If the stakes are high enough, they will play the game.  Otherwise, forget it.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Sexual Assault in the Military

(1)Take a bunch of young men, teach them to violate the most basic norms of humane behavior, to kill, to commit arson, to destroy property.

(2)Remove from them the traditional recourses of soldiers for sexual gratification (prostitutes and camp followers).

(3)Compound with the intense stress of multiple deployments and combat.

(4)Mix young women in all or most of their units.

(5)Experience sexual assaults.

(6)Act surprised.

Degrees of Merit

Right now the most valuable asset of a lot of colleges is the right to issue accredited degrees.  Of course faculty, campus, and facilities count for a lot too.  The former property has been eroded by the proliferation of online diploma mills, but maybe not too much, since their degrees might not be taken very seriously.  They have been a big enough threat so that a lot of traditional schools, especially but not exclusively the lower end starving step children of academia, have pushed their way into online learning.

The Massive Online Open Course, the free courses offered by Coursera, edX, Udacity, and a couple of others, are a big monkey wrench in this trend.   First they carry the names of big name universities, and are taught by prestigious teachers from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley and others nearly as distinguished.  And right now, they are free.  Arizona State, the source of a couple of my degrees, made itself a big player in online ed and was in the business of selling online courses and degrees for just as much tutition as an on campus degree.

Right now, I don't see any course sequence from Coursera or edX that looks like a degree, but Udacity seems to be aiming that direction.  If the other big time corporate education players (e.g. Randy Bates and his MOOC2Degree) move in that direction, the true MOOCs may need to too.

Monday, June 03, 2013

IQ and National Wealth

Ron Unz, writing in the American Conservative (of all places) has a long article on IQ and national wealth (via Arun Gupta).

The take away: the overwhelming evidence indicates that wealth differences cause national IQ differences rather than vice-versa.  This is consistent with the notion that economic and cultural differences dominate doucmented group vs. group IQ differences.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Debtor's Prison

Ross Douthat writes about the troubles of the EU in today's NYT. He call's the suffering South of Europe German's prisoners. I don't want to be caught defending Germany's role in the mess, but that's an exaggeration. What they are is prisoners of their debts and their expectations. My cartoon history of the European debt crisis goes a bit like this: German banks lent a lot of money to a bunch of people who couldn't afford to pay, actually mostly to banks who in turn lent it to those who couldn't afford to pay. If the banks, German and others, were to write off all the bad debt, they would go broke and the continent would be screwed.

The "solution" adopted, having the bad debt of borrowers and banks transferred to countries, combined with crippling austerity for the "borrowing" countries is brutalizing a lot of European countries. The circumstance that nobody wants to face is that the people who lent money don't want to lose it and they don't care how much damage this does to the countries where the money was borrowed.

This is one of the most toxic byproducts of excessive consumer debt. The death grip of the moneyed on thier wallets is strangling everybody else. We know how this ends (see, e.g., Cyprus, Greece, Argentina, etc.) The lenders lose a bunch of their money. The real question is how much damage they do before they figure that out. Douthat:

But you have to wonder whether the center can hold permanently, if unemployment remains so extraordinarily high. How must liberal democracy and mixed-economy capitalism look to young people in the south of Europe right now? How stable is a political and ideological settlement that requires the rising generation to go without jobs, homes and children because the European project supposedly depends on it? And for that matter, how well is the Continent’s difficult integration of Muslim immigrants likely to proceed in a world where neither natives nor immigrants can find work?

Already, the Greek electorate has been flirting with empowering a crypto-communist “coalition of the radical left,” even as a straightforwardly fascist party gains in the polls as well. Hungary’s conservative government has tiptoed toward authoritarianism. Spain has seen huge street protests whose organizers aspire to imitate the Arab Spring. And lately, Sweden, outside the euro zone but not immune to its youth unemployment problems, has been coping with unsettling, highly un-Scandinavian riots in immigrant neighborhoods.

His solution: don't try to fix it up, tear it up.

For now, there simply aren’t enough responsible people ready to unwind what should never have been knitted together in the first place. But with every increase in the unemployment rate, the odds get better that irresponsible and illiberal figures will end up unwinding it instead.

It's fairly likely to come to that, but there is a better way. Ken Rogoff favors explicit write downs of the bad loans - a good idea. Paul Krugman thinks that write down by inflationary expansion in the center would be better, and I tend to agree. German and other workers would at least get a pay raise out of that, and it would stimulate the economies more. Neither is likely to happen, because the wealthy really won't get the point until the peasantry show up at their doors with torches and pitchforks.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Origin of the Genetic Code

The deepest mystery in biology, and in science generally, is the origin of life and the genetic code. Life as we know it cannot exist without DNA and the information it stores. But DNA and the genetic code cannot have come before life because it takes a vast and intricate system of molecular machines just to reproduce DNA and translate it into the proteins that do the actual business of metabolism and constitute the machinery of life, including all the machinery to turn DNA into protein. It's the chicken and egg problem in it's sharpest molecular form.

DNA is not translated directly into protein. First it must be transcribed into messenger RNA, which in turn is translated into protein by a complex apparatus that consists of proteins and other kinds of RNA molecules. This fact is probably one element that suggested that maybe RNA was the molecule that came before gene and protein. Proteins are the most versatile components of our molecular machinery, acting as structural elements and tiny molecular machines of the most versatile sort, but their really big role is chemical catalysis - promoting chemical reactions. It turns out, however, that RNA can also do some catalytic trickery.

The basic notion of RNA world is that before modern life (like bacteria) evolved 3 billion years or so ago, there must have been an RNA world where RNA molecules somehow collaborated to catalyze their own replication and other simple chemical reactions which could have powered them. Nobody (so far as I know) can yet explain in any detail how this could have worked, but the hypothesis has gained credibility from recent discoveries that show that RNA has many more functions in the modern cell than were hinted at in textbooks not so long ago. Much of the DNA in cells is not, in fact, translated into protein, but into RNA, only some of the functions of which we understand. In any case, it's clear that it's still busy in crucial catalytic functions.

So maybe the real ancient ones aren't DNA molecules, but RNA molecules, which a few billion years ago invented DNA to propagate themselves, in the process destroying most fossil evidence of the world that came before.


Probably no intellectual tool is more powerful than that of abstraction - the ability to see analogies and the development of general rules that apply to diverse and apparently different situations. Our most powerful tool for abstraction is language - itself a peculiarly potent abstraction from reality, creating a deep analogy between sound patterns and the events and objects of the world.
Language, though, is itself kind of an analogy with some mostly pre-existing representations of the world that exist in our minds. This strongly implies that humans didn't invent abstraction or analogy. The most fundamental abstraction we know of seems to be the genetic code. Patterns of nucleotides in DNA are translated through a vast and complicated apparatus into proteins and all the mechanisms that support life.

Going Late for a Tall One

Newsweek reports that children of older mothers are much taller and thinner.

By a significant margin, children born of older mothers were the clear winners: they were much taller and thinner than those whose mothers were younger. The difference wasn’t because the older parents were themselves taller and thinner; in fact, the researchers weren’t sure how to explain the findings, which are in line with observations made a few times in the past. Perhaps, they suggested, the hormonal mix produced during pregnancy by an older woman differs from that made by her younger counterpart.

Not sure how they decided that that was an unalloyed good thing. Maybe Kent Sepkowitz, the author, is a basketball fan.