Monday, December 30, 2013


Matt Yglesias dares to wander into Tolkien territory and quickly shows his Nube status.

By that standard, the most relevant J.R.R. Tolkien passage comes from Appendix A of the Return of the King:

There were three unions of the Eldar and the Edain: Lúthien and Beren; Idril and Tuor; Arwen and Aragorn. By the last the long-sundered branches of the Half-elven were reunited and their line was restored.

It helps to recall here that Eldar is another word for elf and Edain is another word for human. Tolkien is saying here that there were two human-elf pairings in the backstory to the Lord of the Rings. One between Lúthien and Beren and another between Idril and Tuor. Both Arwen and Aragorn are descendants of one of these pairings. So when they get together in the course of the series, they reunite the half-elven lines.

What a nube. Eldar is not just another word for Elf. The Eldar are the high elven who have lived in the land of the Valar. And Edain is not just another word for human. Only those of the three houses of men (and their descendants) who joined the Elves of Beleriand against Morgoth are counted among Edain.

What interbreeding the lesser exemplars of the respective species engaged in is unknown.

Biting the Hand

A couple of prominent string theorists were ungracious enough to use the acknowledgments section of their paper to complain about their summer salaries. Peter Woit has the story.

Physics, and particle physics in particular, has long enjoyed the privilege of rather generous, albeit declining, public support. It's worth remembering why that happened. It's because science, and especially physics, won World War II. Radar and the bomb made for good publicity. For decades, physicists could get up and say you need to support us or we will fall behind in this crucial technology of war. I'm not quite sure when that stopped being true, but could anybody believe it today?

Is there any reason to believe that string theory, holography, and ADS/CFT are likely to be any more relevant to the average taxpayer than the study of Byzantine erotica? Yes, there are many questions about the Universe that it might be nice to answer, but do any of them have significant technological or military implications?

Meanwhile, there are all sorts of questions in biology, robot technology and social science that have urgent relevance for the human race - not that we are likely to listen.

Strangeness in the Proportion

One of the most mysterious things about the Universe is its apparent comprehensibility. After a few millenia, or a few hundred millenia of tinkering, we seem to have come up with a cosmogony and a theory of almost everything that explains a whole lot of the Universe and how it works. Twenty-five years ago we might have said everything.

It would not have surprised our ancestors of a few centuries back if other planets, stars and galaxies had turned out to be made of utterly different stuff than us. But they aren't. Or at least the parts we see aren't. Even black holes turned out to be predicted by the theory of a guy who thought in terms of trains and elevators. The stars in those newborn galaxies of ten billion years ago turn out to be made of the same stuff that we are - the same quarks and electrons, the same chemical elements, that exist here and now.

The first clear hint of stranger stuff came just about the time - 70 years ago - when the human race had pinned down a lot of the workings of the ordinary stuff we are made of. Fritz Zwicky had started measuring velocities and material contents in the Virgo galaxy cluster and found that they didn't add up, some additional "dark matter" was needed. Forty years later, we started getting evidence yet stranger stuff - dark energy. At approximately the same time, Evalyn Gates was getting her PhD in theoretical particle physics.

Her book, Einstein's Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe is about the those strange newly recognized components of our universe, and more especially about gravitational lensing, probably the most important tool for probing those new components. She starts with a popular introduction to modern cosmology and the topics that underlie our understanding of the subject.

Of course a book on just what we know about dark energy and dark matter would be very short.

Economics Prof Analyzes Bitcoin Fate

Tyler Cowen applies economic theory and tells us: How and why Bitcoin will plummet in price

I think that there may be more things under the Sun than are dreamt in his theory...

Sunday, December 29, 2013


They say Ted Cruz is preparing to renounce his Canadian citizenship.

I assume that means he's keeping his Cuban citizenship warm. That will still leave him one place he can go for government health care.

Sue the B******s

Chris Huhne thinks that the victims of climate change could sue the perpetrators (It won't be long before the victims of climate change make the west pay). He makes a case that starvation and war in the Sahel are the fault of climate change.

While climate change may play some role in recent droughts in the Sahel, and hence his claim isn't precisely utter nonsense, it's so close to being utter nonsense that it really ought to offend any thinking person. Huhne is peddling a sort of dim-witted moralism that hurts his cause more than it helps it. In the first place, the Sahel has been tough forever. In the second, starvation probably has a lot more to do with population growth -- due largely to that other evil Western invention, modern medicine -- than with climate change.

He has the following paragraph:

The science also opens up the possibility that the victims of climate change could begin to take international legal action against the countries responsible, particularly the early industrialisers, such as Britain, Belgium and Germany, whose carbon continues to warm the planet a century after it was emitted. Legal action is not a substitute for politics, but it could highlight the evidence in an uncomfortable way.

He wants to target the original polluters - The US, Britain, Europe, but it would actually make way more sense to target those big and rapidly growing polluters in Asia - India and China, rather than the slowly decreasing carbon polluters of the US and the EU. Nobody is about to pay for their past misdeeds if they can get away with not paying, and since all of the above are precisely the people in the world who have most of the power, they won't. They also all have their own problems with climate change, and if that won't motivate them, a bunch of junk lawsuits from micro-powers won't either.

I think that the world needs to come up with a sensible approach to limiting human caused climate change, but I see little sensible thinking on the subject. Many people are obsessed with meaningless micro-battles that will achieve nothing, or even be counterproductive (like the Keystone pipeline). One of the few things that actually might help are carbon taxes, some portion of the proceeds of which ought to be dedicated to amelioration of some of the worst effects of climate change.

I'm not optimistic.

"An Unforgivable Insult to Our National Honor"

Arun has been writing about an incident in which some Indian diplomatic official was arrested and strip searched as part of an investigation of alleged human trafficking. I haven't bothered to learn the details of the case, mainly because I'm pretty sure that it would turn out to be some combination of a couple of very familiar themes: cops behaving badly and/or diplomats behaving badly. Whether or no, it seems to have become a cause celebre in India, where it is perceived as either a deliberate insult to their national honor, or, perhaps worse, an abuse out of negligent contempt.

I tend to go with more of an "American Hustle" type of theory - overzealous police with big game in sight and an itchy trigger finger. For my purposes here, neither the details nor even the facts really matter, however. Once a real or perceived slight has occurred, it can become an excuse to rally the citizenry for war or maybe just somebody or other's political campaign. Once upon a time, I expect great powers used such stuff to lure their citizens into actions very likely to get them killed. Great powers today have other methods, but lesser powers still find that sort of thing useful.

The US, for example, is pretty used to being called all sorts of names by both our enemies and many of our supposed friends. We don't like it, but we are also pretty used our diplomats being murdered as well as insulted. We try to punish the culprits.

Smaller powers may have fewer options, especially when the insult comes from a great power. War would be suicidal, so outrage is a default policy. It might get the great power to pay attention and it might help get out the vote.

The Green Monster

Envy, one of our least admired but most universal emotions, is often pictured as green, for some reason. I suspect it of being part of the fundamental glue of egalitarian societies. Via Brad DeLong, Jim Sleeper takes a look at conservative "Thought Leader"and New York Times columnist David Brooks, assembling a persuasive self portrait of the pundit from fragments of his own writings. If one finds oneself on the outside enviously looking in, there are a couple of plausible counter strategies - attempt to ingratiate oneself with the perceived superiors or rail against them - Brooks has tried a bit of each.

Some Yale students who took David Brooks' faintly self-serving course on "Humility" last year are buzzing about his New York Times column today, which skewers a certain type of elite college student's ambition to become a "Thought Leader."

"The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler," Brooks explains, using his best comic-sociology idiom. "Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it's like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts."

Brooks quickly turns some bitter thoughts of his own toward recent college grads -- like those he taught at Yale last year and in 2002 -- who are "networking" desperately to make it as writers but will end up like flies trapped in spider webs of assignments that may earn them some real money but leave them "incapable of thinking outside of consultantese."

But then, suddenly, Brooks seems to turn to writing about himself.

The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity. By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.

Solution Looking for a Problem

Paul Krugman posts a nice analysis of Bitcoin from his old college roommate:

It occurs to me that part of the disconnect is that Bitcoin solved a major technical problem, one that people had been thinking about for about 20 years, and we nerds just can’t believe that it doesn’t also solve an economic problem. The technical problem is double spending–if I have some digital money, it’s easy enough to verify cryptographically that it’s real, but if I give it to you, how can you tell that I haven’t also given it to someone else? Until Bitcoin, the answer was to have a bank that knew which coins were valid, so you’d present my coin to the bank, which would check its database and if it’s valid, cancel it and give you a new one. Bitcoin has its decentralized blockchain which is a very clever recasting of the problem so that the state of the “bank” is whatever the majority of bitcoin miners agree that it is. Getting enough of the miners to agree is known as the Byzantine Generals problem, and has a technical history of its own.


My current guess is that the Bitcoin bubble will collapse when there is some bad news, e.g., a regulator demands registration of Bitcoin wallets, people try and cash out, and find that that while it’s easy to buy bitcoins, it’s much harder to find people willing to buy back nontrivial amounts, very hard to collect the sales proceeds, and completely impossible without revealing exactly who you are.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Magnificent Delusions

A new and highly praised book on the history of US/Pakistan relations and misunderstandings, by former Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani.

...Instead of basing international relations on facts, Pakistanis have become accustomed to seeing the world through the prism of an Islamo-nationalist ideology. Even well-traveled, erudite, and articulate Pakistani officials echo this ideology without realizing that holding tight to these self-defeating ideas makes little impact on the rest of the world; the gap is widening between how Pakistanis and the rest of the world view Pakistan.

Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (Kindle Locations 127-130). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The NYT Dialect Test and Map

Puts my origin in Wichita, Albuquerque, or Denver but also is pretty warm (it's a heat map) in my actual place of origin in Kalispell, Montana. My Wife's scores put her in places thousands of miles from any place she has actually lived, but was also fairly warm in the places she spent her youth.

Try it here.

It might be fun even if you weren't born in the US.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bitcoin Defender

Timothy B. Lee disses Krugman for dissing Bitcoin. Unfortunately I don't really follow his reasoning, which argues that:

There's just one problem: Mining isn't just a process by which new bitcoins are created. Those newly created bitcoins are a clever mechanism for rewarding miners for participating in the mining process. The point of the mining process is to process Bitcoin transactions. Without it, the Bitcoin network wouldn't function at all. By neglecting to mention this fact, Krugman misleads readers more than he informs them.

Unfortunately, that's par for the course in public discussions of Bitcoin. Bitcoin has a dual character as a currency and a payment network. The latter is what makes Bitcoin useful and potentially important. Yet the former is what has gotten all the media attention.

That's interesting but doesn't really supply enough info for me to understand it. Why does it take such vast computing power to process transactions, given that that's a pretty mature and straightforward task humans have been doing since Sumer?

Lee misunderstands Krugman a lot more than Krugman misunderstands Bitcoin. Krugman's column was hardly a full throated attack on Bitcoin (or gold) mining, rather it was an appeal for a more rational fiscal policy.

Merry Christmas!

And Joy on whatever other holidays you may choose to celebrate.

Job Losses

Whose jobs are the bots coming for next? Lydia DePillis of Wonkblog takes her cut here. Excerpts:

6. People who operate farm equipment

The history of agriculture has been one long tale of automation, to the point where almost nobody works on farms in America anymore. The exception was supposed to be people who operated the machines that replaced people who tilled the soil and harvested the crops by hand. But even they're not safe anymore, with the advent of tractors that can be piloted around the fields by computer or even programmed with the right coordinates and set loose, like a gigantic dirt-treading Roomba.

7. The people who make iProducts

After years of close scrutiny for the working conditions in its factories, Foxconn -- which makes most of Apple's computers, phones, and tablets -- decided to swap people out for machines as much as possible. The process hasn't been as quick or as easy as anticipated, but with wages rising in China, Foxconn has little choice but to keep cranking out the one-million-strong army of "Foxbots" it promised back in 2010.

8. The people who do low-level lab work

In North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, a company called LabCorp is hard at work developing machines to sort and split blood samples, which is just one of hundreds of thousands of menial laboratory jobs that pay decent money but could more efficiently be done by robots.

She has five other categories, of which I think fast food workers, retail salespeople, and warehouse workers look the most endangered.

Most of these workers are poorly paid and need little training. Automation may be taking a bigger bite out of the poor next time.


Element number 82 is the heaviest non-radioactive element and constitutes about 14 parts per million in the Earth's crust. It's easily smelted and has been in use for millenia. It's also a potent neurotoxin.

Kevin Drum has been championing the view that lead, and in particular its use in paint and gasoline additives is a key factor in explaining some otherwise puzzling crime statistics. See America's Real Criminal Element, and some high praise here.

A sample of the former:

IN 1994, RICK NEVIN WAS A CONSULTANT working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on the costs and benefits of removing lead paint from old houses. This has been a topic of intense study because of the growing body of research linking lead exposure in small children with a whole raft of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.

But as Nevin was working on that assignment, his client suggested they might be missing something. A recent study had suggested a link between childhood lead exposure and juvenile delinquency later on. Maybe reducing lead exposure had an effect on violent crime too?

That tip took Nevin in a different direction. The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn't paint. It was leaded gasoline. And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.

The web of evidence tightens.

Twenty years ago that kind of detective work took a lot of luck and ingenuity. In the age of big data, these kinds of correlations are probably all over the place.

The moralistically inclined tend to be skeptical, because if crime is caused by biological damage to the developing brain, it gets a lot harder to blame it on Satan, television, and your political opponent - unless that opponent opposed plans to eliminate lead additives.

Fighting One Alien Invasion

Bitcoin mining has become a large scale industry:

Today, all of the machines dedicated to mining Bitcoin have a computing power about 4,500 times the capacity of the United States government’s mightiest supercomputer, the IBM Sequoia, according to calculations done by Michael B. Taylor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. The computing capacity of the Bitcoin network has grown by around 30,000 percent since the beginning of the year.

“This whole new kind of machine has come into existence in the last 12 months,” said Professor Taylor, who is studying mining hardware. In the chase for the lucky code that will unlock new Bitcoins, mining computers are also verifying and assigning unique identifying tags to each Bitcoin transaction, acting as accountants for the virtual currency world.

Of course it's just the sort of socially useless production that Krugman with his [facetious, for the IC] suggestion of fighting an imaginary alien invasion, modelled on Keynes equally facetious suggestion that the government bury wads of currency. Maybe private industry really can do this job. Or maybe the resources should just be spent on something useful.

Fools and Gold

Krugman cites Keynes and Adam Smith on some modern money follies. Regulars will not be not find the theme surprising.

The third money pit is hypothetical. Back in 1936 the economist John Maynard Keynes argued that increased government spending was needed to restore full employment. But then, as now, there was strong political resistance to any such proposal. So Keynes whimsically suggested an alternative: have the government bury bottles full of cash in disused coal mines, and let the private sector spend its own money to dig the cash back up. It would be better, he agreed, to have the government build roads, ports and other useful things — but even perfectly useless spending would give the economy a much-needed boost.

Clever stuff — but Keynes wasn’t finished. He went on to point out that the real-life activity of gold mining was a lot like his thought experiment. Gold miners were, after all, going to great lengths to dig cash out of the ground, even though unlimited amounts of cash could be created at essentially no cost with the printing press. And no sooner was gold dug up than much of it was buried again, in places like the gold vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where hundreds of thousands of gold bars sit, doing nothing in particular.

Figuring out the other two money pits is left at the link - or as an exercise for the student.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


The competition at DARPA's latest Robot Challenge in Homestead Florida was hot and heavy. It seems that robots are getting more versatile. This year's competition was for rescue robots. For some reason, it's being called a Woodstock for robots - probably not by people who were at (or alive during) the original Woodstock. At least I didn't hear any stories of Robots ODing. From the NYT.

An international competition to pave the way for a new generation of rescue robots was dominated by a team of Japanese roboticists who were students in the laboratory of a pioneer in the design of intelligent humanoid machines.

Their team, called Schaft, completed the eight required tasks in the challenge almost flawlessly, losing points only because the wind blew a door out of its robot’s grasp and because the robot was not yet able to climb out of the vehicle after it successfully navigated an obstacle course.

The trials, held on the infield of the Homestead-Miami Speedway, included 16 teams that competed for a chance at the $2 million prize next year, and eight were selected to move on. The eight are now eligible for $1 million in support to help them prepare for the final event.

The company started by the winning team has just been bought by Google.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Non Post Post


Feel free to post those off topic topics.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Santa's Skin Color

Megyn Kelly, generally considered to be one of the less retarded voices on Fox Snooze, got in a certain amount of trouble by insisting that Jesus and Santa were both White. I'm going to make a wild guess that Snow White and Cinderella were too. OK, maybe not Cinderella - all those cinders probably gave her skin a pretty dusky caste.

Bridge to Nowhereville

Part of Chris Christie's dubious charm is his short temper and brusque manner of dealing with his opponents. A couple of his aides seem to have gotten involved in some overt political retaliation against a mayor who crossed Christie that involved shutting down a bridge and screwing up thousands of commutes. Funny thing about that - it turns out to be illegal - and the aides are lawyering up big time. If this has Christie's fingerprints on it, it could be a big deal for his political hopes.

Via Kevin Drum:

Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, former executives at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, have sought outside counsel amid an investigation into why traffic lanes leading to the nation's busiest bridge were closed, the documents showed.

...Mr. Wildstein recently hired Alan L. Zegas, a criminal lawyer from Chatham, N.J., to represent him, according to an email sent from Mr. Zegas to the state Legislature Tuesday....Mr. Baroni retained Michael Himmel, of Lowenstein Sandler LLP. Mr. Himmel works at the firm's New York City and Roseland, N.J. offices, and specializes in white collar crime, according to his biography.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

23 and ?

The FDA has suppressed 23&me's supplying of health related genetic data - an outrage in my view - but apparently they can still supply ancestry data. Since that's more interesting to me anyway, I intend to subscribe, but I was pretty annoyed when I found out they could no longer supply the health data.

Scott Aaronson discusses the issues.

If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you may have heard that 23andMe—the company that (until recently) let anyone spit into a capsule, send it away to a DNA lab, and then learn basic information about their ancestry, disease risks, etc.—has suspended much of its service, on orders from the US Food and Drug Administration. As I understand it, on Nov. 25, the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop marketing to new customers (though it can still serve existing customers), and on Dec. 5, the company stopped offering new health-related information to any customers (though you can still access the health information you had before, and ancestry and other non-health information is unaffected).

Of course, the impact of these developments is broader: within a couple weeks, “do-it-yourself genomics” has gone from an industry whose explosive growth lots of commentators took as a given, to one whose future looks severely in doubt (at least in the US).

I tend to see it as one more example of the medical industry fighting to preserve their monopoly.

The Elect

...that singular sensation...

Prof Harari thinks it likely that the future belongs to creatures or things very unlike ourselves - quite possibly much more different from us than we are from Neandertals. Speculation, of course. Prediction remains difficult, especially of the future, as Bohr might have said.

The potential for the creation of superhumans certainly has some plausibility - a socio-cultural singularity where all our familiar notions of human nature become ephemeral.

Prof H. thinks that the most important question for our future is what we want to become.

Suppose the so-called Gilgamesh project, the attempt to overcome disease, old age, and death - potentially eternal life - comes to fruition? Should that happen, who gets the privilege of transcending this human condition? Who will be the elect?

Throughout our post agricultural history some have proclaimed themselves superior, usually by some essentially mythical right of history or descent, but it could become real.

What we have learned in this course is just one possible story of humanity. His purpose was to raise important questions about our past, present and future.

We ought to be a bit more uneasy about all of the above.


Philosophy was invented by the Greeks, I guess, and is a sort of formalization of our urge to try and understand ourselves and the world we live in. It gave birth to the natural sciences. These days, though, most of the action on that quest has moved to the physical and biological sciences. So is there really anything left for philosophy to worry about? Or is it as dead as Astrology? Are the speculations of ancient philosophers obsolete? I'm undecided.

Inequality and Class Warfare.

After a long sojourn in the shadows, inequality has reared its head in the public discourse again, especially in the recent statements of Obama and the Pope. The exact sources of inequality in today's world are a bit hard to trace, but some threads are known. In the first place, greater inequality in the US is partly driven by outsourcing and the rapid economic progress of Asia and parts of the old Communist empire. In that sense, some of American inequality is driven by decreasing inequality between Chinese (say) and Americans. Almost everywhere, though, the disparity between the rich and the rest has increased dramatically.

A lot of this can be traced to the triumph of neo-liberal economic thought - which is pretty much is called paleo-conservative economics in the US. The massive failures of socialist economics led to gigantic opportunities for those who could pick up failing government businesses for a song - usually with the help of political connections and gross skullduggery.

This style of rather anti-capitalistic crony capitalism took root everywhere, even in places where capitalistic economies already existed. After the long defeat of the depression and the Sixties, American plutocrats created a raft of institutions designed to strengthen their grip on the political process, from union busting and Conservative propaganda organs to the Tea Party. At its core, the strategy is thousands of years old - pit the middle class against the poor and scoop up the profits.

The biggest target for those who are against inequality is the long series of tax cuts and policies that benefit mostly or only the very rich. This trend, initiated by Kennedy and greatly strengthened by Reagan and Bush II, has clearly been a factor in our increasing inequality. We have never seen the gains promised for putting more money in the hands of the so-called job creators. Instead we have seen a slowly decreasing demand driven by the fact that fewer and fewer can afford to spend.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Light Bulb

I hear that Glenn Beck has promised to fire anyone who bought a compact fluorescent replacement for any of the incandescent bulbs in any of his enterprises. Not being one of those who chooses to partake in his entertainments, I don't know his motive, but let's just guess that he was the thinking about the fundamental role the humble light bulb played in the development of twentieth century technology, and hated to let that bit of history be buried. LOL

To be sure, I had no real idea about that history until I started translating the Spanish Wikipedia entry on electronic valves myself. (class exercise). Of course I knew about thermionic emission and vacuum tubes, but I hadn't realized that the foundations of the subject rested on Thomas Edison's experiments trying to build a better light bulb. The thermionic valve, vacuum tube or electronic tube revolutionized almost every aspect twentieth century technology. Once it's powers of rectification and amplification were realized, electronics became a technology and created radio, television, audio players and recorders, radar, and the electronic computer, not to mention particle accelerators and other implements of science. Nowadays, it, like its ancestral light bulb, is mostly passe, having been outpaced nearly everywhere by the transistor and related solid state electronic circuit elements. Still, it seems hard to imagine that the transistor would even have been developed but for its counterpart tube.

The Big One

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Or not. Bang scenarios do seem pretty likely too.

From time to time, catastrophic scenarios have occurred that put major dents in our planet's living population. Fortunately enough, none of them seem to have utterly depopulated the planet, at least in the last 3 plus billion years.

There are cosmic scenarios, like a well aimed blast of particles from a suddenly active nearby galaxy nucleus, or a close supernova, solar system variants, like a collision with a Sedna scale planetoid, or purely terrestrial events like super volcanos. The Yellowstone Caldera is a good example of the last.

Supervolcanos are fueled by gigantic magma hotspots that bubble up under the Earth's crust. One such hot spot fuels the Hawaiian Islands, punching up one volcanic island after another as the oceanic crust slides over it. The Yellowstone caldera is a continental variant. Continental variants seem to be more menacing, possibly because the much thicker continental crust allows a lot more energy to accumulates under it. It seems that good old Yellowstone has about 2.5 times as much magma under it as previously thought. When it erupts, it will be disaster on at least a continental and probably global scale. Much of the US would be buried under tens or hundreds of feet of hot ash.

If the Yellowstone supervolcano were to blow today, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Not to worry though, it only erupts every 600,000 to 800,000 years. And it has only been 640,000 years since the last biggy.

UPDATE: Still a piker at 600 km^3 vs. Lake Toba at 2,800 km^3 or so. And it only wiped out most of the human race. Though the last biggie from Yellowstone did apparently blow big chunks (of rock) all the way to Europe.

Math Anxiety

Wolfgang sent me (OK, not me specifically) over to Scott Aaronson's blog, where I immediately contracted a severe case of Math Anxiety. This was mainly due to the fact that people were talking a bunch of math, philosophy, and physics stuff that I didn't understand.

I should probably avoid reading it.

Fortunately, Sheldon, er Lumo, was there for some comic relief.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Bee thinks some people are bad at math just because they don't use it.

“I was always bad at math” is an excuse I have heard many of my colleagues complain about. I’m reluctant to join their complaints. I’ve been living in Sweden for four years now and still don’t speak Swedish. If somebody asks me, I’ll say I was always bad with languages. So who am I to judge people for not wanting to make an effort with math?

People don’t learn math for the same reason I haven’t learned Swedish: They don’t need it. It’s a fact that my complaining colleagues are tiptoeing around but I think we’d better acknowledge it if we ever want to raise mathematic literacy.

I think she is a bit delusional on this point. Math, unlike language, is an unnatural activity in the sense that our remote ancestors almost never needed it.

Our Robot Overlords

It has become a bit clearer who will "own" our robot overlords. Google has bought Boston Dynamics, maker of some of the more sinister robots, like big dog.

NYT here.

Boston Dynamics has also designed robots that can climb walls and trees as well as other two- and four-legged walking robots, a neat match to Mr. Rubin’s notion that “computers are starting to sprout legs and move around in the environment.”

A recent video shows a robot named Cheetah running on a treadmill. This year, the robot was clocked running 29 miles per hour, surpassing the previous legged robot land speed record of 13.1 m.p.h., set in 1999. That’s about one mile per hour faster than Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter dash. But it’s far short of a real cheetah, which can hit 65 m.p.h.

Of course Amazon has been buying robot companies too.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fall of Chang Song-thaek

The political fall and brutal execution of Chang Song-thaek, and its remarkably public character, is imagined by Lubos to be something uniquely characteristic of leftist governments. Of course that's just his poverty of historical knowledge and thinking showing. It's the long term historical pattern of dynastic and other tyranny everywhere and always. Even a slight knowledge of Roman or English history, or an acquaintance with Shakespeare's plays, for example, would have shown lots of similar examples. Of course Henry VIII didn't have machine guns, so more primitive instruments of violence were used.

So what are the implications of this ancient style murder for the modern age? It does show something scary about the character and propensities of this little man who rules North Korea and packs at least a few nuclear weapons, and probably the capability to deliver them.

It's not clear whether the events are the result of a purely internal power struggle in North Korea or have implications for North Korean policy. Like other Communist states, North Korea is a massive economic failure. One theory has it that the late Mr. Chong favored a Chinese style opening to the world. Others are skeptical.

The only thing that seems certain is that North Korea will continue to be a major menace to its neighbors - and of course its own people.


Not a comeback but a return.

For those benighted souls not fans of Sunset Boulevard, Krugman on macro economists waking up in a world looking very Keynesian.

Specifically, when Brad lists five key propositions of New Keynesian macro and declares that prominent Keynesians in the 60s and early 70s by and large didn’t agree with these propositions, he should now note that prominent Keynesians — by which I mean people like Oliver Blanchard, Larry Summers, and Janet Yellen — in late 2013 don’t agree with these propositions either. In important ways our understanding of macro has altered in ways that amount to a counter-counter-counterrevolution (I think I have the right number of counters), giving new legitimacy to what we might call Paleo-Keynesian concerns.

Or to put it another way, James Tobin is looking pretty good right now. (Incidentally, this was the point made by Bloomberg almost five years ago, inducing John Cochrane to demonstrate his ignorance of what had been going on macroeconomics outside his circle.)

Holy Hologram Batman!

Just a news story, not too easy to interpret - I haven't looked at the paper yet - but Maldacena and Susskind seem excited.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

We Are All Cyborgs Now

It's at least possible that the amount of improvement biological techniques can make in humans is rather limited. Maybe we are too close to the biological optimum already. Suppose that genetic engineering will be limited to correcting some of nature's more obvious mistakes, like genetic diseases. That hardly exhausts our self-improvement options.

Another staple of science fiction is the Cyborg. We have been adopting various artificial enhancements for some time - eyeglasses, hearing aids, even shoes and clothing might fit. Once again, though, modern electronics expands the potential enormously. Already Dick Cheney is kept alive by an artificial pump that aids his heart. More dramatically, bionic limbs operated by thought alone have been developed. Perhaps most radically, attempts to create brain-computer interfaces at the cellular level are underway.

What would the world look like if you could interface directly with the internet and the other brains connected to it? Such ideas look less far-fetched than ever before.

Bionic technologies operated by thought alone. Potential for unlimited development. Bionic parts can be replaced and upgraded, can be operated remotely. One monkey has learned to simultaneously control both her biological arms and a remote bionic arm by thought alone.

Such technology could be revolutionary for people with so called locked in syndrome.

One of the most radical technologies is the so-called Blue Brain Project. It's goal is no less than a detailed electronic simulation of the human brain. Apparently the European Union has made it its core scientific goal, and put up a giga Euro of earnest money. If this succeeds fully the potential is gigantic.

One can imagine backing up one's brain to the computer, or transitioning to a purely electronic existence.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Man and Supermouse

More speculations by Yuval Noah Harari. He thinks H. sapiens has only a few decades left.

Flowers for Algernon, written by Daniel Keyes in 1958, was one of the most successful Science Fiction short stories (later, a novel, play and film) of all time. It starts with the title mouse getting a dramatic IQ upgrade. Fifty-five years down the pike, it seems that science has caught up with the fiction. The genius mouse has been engineered.

One might think that Harari's judgement on our limited future means he is a technological pessimist. This is hardly the case. He doesn't think we are likely to annihilate ourselves. Instead, he thinks it is likely that we will transform ourselves. The genomes of fish and potatoes are being merged to create frost resistant potatoes. Potential artificial organs for humans are being grafted onto mice.

One of the most prescient science fiction writers of my childhood was Arthur C. Clark, who in addition to envisioning communications satellites and smart phones, wrote Childhood's End, an SF novel on the theme of mankind transformed.

Bioengineering is not a new wrench in the human toolbox. Thousands of years ago we were castrating bulls to make more docile oxen, and men to make eunuchs. Grafting a fruiting branch onto a hardier root stock is of similar antiquity. What is new is the power of genetic engineering. The same tools which created the modern day Algernon are being developed at extraordinary speed. The principal obstacles to human application, says Harari, are mainly ethical and legal. It seems likely that at some point crucial breakthroughs will bring benefits too large to be resisted - perhaps some transplants that will defeat Alzheimer's - and I think such experiments are already underway. Would, or should, parents resist genetic modifications to make their children smarter, prettier, happier, or more disease resistant?

Thirty thousand years ago one of our possible ancestors made an ivory figurine of a man with a lion's head. The sorts of things they imagined, and much better and stranger things, are increasingly within our potential grasp. Would it be a bad thing if our descendants were not just randomly assorted genetic copies of ourselves but smarter, healthier, less violence prone, and longer lived - a veritable new species?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Amplitudhedron: I'm Gonna Wash That Gauge Right Outta My Hair

Quantum field theory, in its present incarnation, makes crucial use some gauge degrees of freedom that are ultimately superfluous, in the sense that they wind up getting symmetrized out. Such, at least, is my understanding of the point of view of Arkani-Hamed and Trnka in their new paper on The Amplituhedron. They propose a reformulation which, at least for one toy theory, results in a major simplification.

Via the Lumonator.

I can't quite decide whether reading it will just make me feel stupider or not.

Update: Peter Woit has a nice post on this and related matters, and

Sean Carroll has a guest post from Lance Dixon, one of the pioneers in new methods for calculating amplitudes in QCD.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Farmer and the Cowman can't be Friends.

Jared Diamond's notion that agriculture was a backward step in human well being is a variation on the so-called tragedy of the commons theme. The basic idea is that individuals, each pursuing their own best interest in a rational way, can collectively damage things for all of us. Examples are so common that it hardly seems worthwhile to cite them. One that recently got some play on the idiot box was the numerous scenes of riot as shoppers strove with each other to get the good deals at Walmart.

I think that there is a good case to be made that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was such a step. Some of my cleverest commentators disagree, mostly for reasons I find unpersuasive. Briefly, the evidence is that:

1)HGs lived healthier lives, had a more varied diet, and an easier life.

2)Farming brought disease, war, social stratification and much harder work.

3)The human body is badly designed for the digging, hoeing and many other kinds of farm work, but it is well designed for HG. The proof is in the evidence of degenerative arthritic changes that we see in skeletons of ancient farmers but not their HG counterparts.**

Of course we can't go back, and very few of us would choose to do so if we could. From an evolutionary standpoint, farming was a huge success. And in modern times it has enabled a lifestyle more comfortable than our ancestors could have dreamed. No matter what its disadvantages, agriculture enabled and created civilization. HGs have virtually disappeared and had lost control of all the most productive land many thousands of years ago. All these points are irrelevant to the question of whether our HG ancestors of 12,000 years ago lived "better" lives than our farmer ancestors of 5,000 years ago.

So why does the question interest me? Mostly because I think it has lessons for us today. Increased efficiency has made it possible to exterminate most game animals and many fisheries are exhausted by our powerful fishing techniques. We are polluting and destroying our environment at a terrific rate. We do all these things by individuals making rational choices that benefit them as individuals, at least in the short run.

**Just for fun, some criticisms of Diamond's theory that don't carry much weight with me.

1)Diamond wrote an article on a completely different subject that was based on the tall (and fictitious) tales of one young man.

2)HG's eat bugs - Ick!

3)Malnutrition is good for you.

4)Rousseau wrote this stuff about Noble Savages that could almost be stretched to sound a little like Diamond's thesis if you really hadn't read either author.

5)Some farmers worked fewer annual hours than modern business employees.

Sunday, December 08, 2013


Even though Lee is tired of arguing with me, I have to get in one more comment on the effect of agriculture on the human race. Domesticating plants and animals (or being domesticated by them) had some obvious advantages for the human race. It allowed us to control far more of the planet's total biological productivity and consequently for the population to expand enormously. Even before the industrial revolution, agriculture probably expanded the human population by twenty to fifty-fold. In addition, the surpluses it created permitted the development of cities, writing, and ultimately, science. Arts gained greatly in sophistication and range. For those at the top of the food pyramid, the gains were great.

How about everybody else? There the record is more mixed. Living in close quarters with our garbage and waste spread disease. Living in close quarters with domestic animals allowed their diseases to adapt to us and spread. Most of the epidemic diseases which plagued humans throughout history (measles, smallpox, etc) are actually domestic animal diseases that spread to humans from cattle, pigs, and domesticated fowl. Periodic flu epidemics still follow that route. Our native diseases, like the common cold, are typically milder - a disease that kills its host tends to harm its own future prospects, so they have become less virulent.

Sedentary living permits women to have more children, since they don't have to carry them about, so agricultural populations expand faster and consequently have higher child mortality. Before agriculture, humans lived in roughly egalitarian bands. Agriculture produced owner and peasant classes, with owners perhaps living better than their forbears but peasants worse.

Studies of the recently existing hunter-gatherers show that subsistence tends to take about three to four hours work per day. Farming tends to take endless toil. The HG life, at least since the sapiens developed sophisticated hunting techniques, was the life of a top predator.

One may ask, "if farming is a worse life than hunting and gathering (HG), why did humans adopt it?" One answer is evolution. Evolution doesn't care if our life is hard, it only cares how many offspring reach breeding age. Another answer is that agriculture was advantageous to those who first developed it, but later not. Once farmers had taken over a piece of land, it was no longer available for hunting and gathering. Greater population density meant that farmers could out compete HGs.

These aren't idle speculations. The archeological record makes clear that HGs were healthier than farmers. They were taller, bigger, suffered fewer stress injuries at comparable ages, and were far less likely to die from disease. This is hardly a Rousseau fantasy - it's the record of the bones. They also appear to have been somewhat less likely to have died by interpersonal violence.

Happiness Yet Again

Somewhere Tennessee Williams wrote something like the following:

When I was young and unknown I was broke, living in lousy conditions, but happy. After the success of my first big play I had fame and money, but I was miserable. It's because man was meant to struggle, and we can't be happy without it.

That's not too far from my own view.

Flatlining: A GR Bleg

Our universe is pretty flat. The WMAP tells me so. Or something.

That means that the density of matter and energy is very close to the critical density. Presumably the density decreases with time, since ordinary and dark matter become diluted with time.

So the question is this: In a universe with a cosmological constant does the density diverge from the critical density with time?

Negative Pressure

One of the less intuitive notions in trying to understand dark energy is the idea that negative pressure, or tension, should increase the expansion rate of the universe. Sean Carroll and Lubos Motl have each taken recent (battling) cracks at explaining this. Lumo, at least, takes exception to Sean's explanation.

I won't comment on the debate, but I thought I might pass on this idea (adapted from Wikipedia) on why a cosmological constant implies negative pressure.

Consider a box, or maybe a piston. If ordinary positive pressure exists in the cylinder, and expands the volume by dV, the pressure does work pdV and the energy in the box decreases (by the same amount, in an adiabatic process). Suppose though, that space is filled with a something (dark energy) of constant energy density rho. Now a change in volume of the cylinder will increase the amount of dark energy by rho*dV. If we go back to our W = p*dV we note that the cylinder did work - rho*dV in expanding so that p = -rho.


Happy Happy Joy Joy (Again)

Harari takes a look at Daniel Kahneman's studies of happiness.

His starting point is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World where everybody is drugged to be happy all the time. What's wrong with that, he asks. Most readers do not like that world and find it dystopian.

Kahneman took a virtual microscope to the lives of working women in Texas, and asked each to record what they were doing every few minutes and write down how they felt about it. One striking result was that the most unpleasant parts of their day were spent dealing with their children. On the other hand, when asked in the abstract what gave them the most joy in their lives, they named their children.

There is more than one way to interpret this, but he pays attention mostly to the idea that what really gives us happiness is meaning in our lives. In that way, the much harder life of the medieval peasant might have given him more happiness if he could feel meaning in the pursuit of heaven and other meaningful goals.

Science does not offer much (or any) meaning to life.

He also seems to like Buddhism a lot - but is not too fond of New Age interpretations thereof.

His aim was not to tell us what happiness is, but expose us to a few current theories.

The biggest hole in our understanding of human history is how it affected the people who lived then.

Next: the future.

Saturday, December 07, 2013


More evidence that I am or was dumber than I like to think:

Drawing on the results of the National Child Development Study, which tracked for 50 years all British babies born during one week in March 1958, [evolutionary psychologist Satoshi] Kanazawa found that kids who scored higher on IQ tests grew up to drink larger quantities of alcohol on a more regular basis than their less intelligent peers. He evaluated other factors, including religion, frequency of church attendance, social class, parents’ education and self-reported satisfaction with life, and found that intelligence before age 16 was second only to gender in predicting alcohol consumption at age 23.

To be fair to myself though, at age 23 I was a soldier and hardly immune to the temptations of booze.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Dream Big

And be miserable.

That's one way to interpret what Prof Harari says is the principal result of psychological happiness research. He says that happiness depends more on expectations than on our current situation. If we are better off than we expect, we tend to be more happy. If we are worse off, we tend to be more unhappy.

An eighteen year old ten thousand years ago might have considered himself pretty hot. All he had to compare himself to were the other fifty or so men he knew. In the modern world, he has to compare himself to Hollywood and super models. The modern world tend to make us less happy.

Objectively, Egyptians under Hosni Mubarak were better off than their ancestors in any previous era. But they revolted, because they compared themselves not with their ancestors, but with the people in America or those on television.

Biological research, he says, reaches somewhat similar conclusions from a different approach. Biologists see a biochemical reaction. Winning the lottery does not make us happy, it's the flood of chemicals triggered in our brain in response that makes us happy. Evolution doesn't really want us to be too happy. It likes to keep our happiness level at a point where wanting more happiness will motivate us to do stuff that help us survive and reproduce. He illustrates with examples from sex and other events - we get a temporary jolt, but not enough to keep us from going on to our next item of survival business.

So our happiness system tries to keep us stable - not too happy and not to miserable. Of course we have all somewhat different happiness thermostats.

I think he exaggerates a bit, but the core point is probably valid. Of course the natural conclusion of this logic is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. So why do we find Huxley's vision dystopian? Next lecture: why, and alternative analyses.

Who goes There?

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) has so far come up empty. If anybody else is out there, they don't seem to be talking to us. Of course that's pretty understandable if they happen to be familiar with our history. Some early proponents of SETI, like Shklovsky, became disenchanted, convinced that all advanced civilizations would destroy themselves. That doesn't seem improbable, though the most likely means we see today is probably different than what would have been expected thirty years ago. We do seem pretty determined in destroying the capability of the planet to support human life.

Meanwhile, many of the factors in the famous Drake equation have become better understood and more encouraging. What we still don't know is the probability of life developing on an Earth-like planet (though a good guess is close to one), the probability of life developing advanced technology (almost entirely unconstrained, but the best guess might be that it take 3 billion years or so), or how long such a civilization would survive.

In any case, if those advanced civilizations are out there, they aren't talking to us - or at least to anybody except a few apparent nut cases.

It seems like a pretty pessimistic comment on our future.

State of the Universe

Back in the golden age of fundamental physics, maybe in the fifties, some young physicist was asked about a colloquium he had just attended.

"It was wonderful" he said, "Everything we knew yesterday is wrong!"

Physics isn't like that anymore. Paleo-anthropology yes, physics no.

Thirty years ago we had a comprehensive theory of matter, with a few sort of minor loose threads, and the universe looked big, but notable deficient in dragons or other big unknowns. Today our theory of matter looks just about the same, most of those loose threads having been since picked up. The big theoretical hope of those days, String Theory, is still around, but starting to look a bit long in the tooth. It's proving remarkably resistant to providing any new insights into how the world works.

The universe, on the other hand, is a bit more mysterious. It seems that that matter that we understand so well, only makes up about 5% of it. Dark matter - 25% or so - doesn't fit neatly into our Standard Model. Dark energy, the other 70%, is even more mysterious.

The most frustrating aspect of the mysterious 95% is that there are very few things that we can do to learn more about them. Roughly a century or so ago, physicists invented a wonderful hammer, the particle accelerator. Since then we keep whacking things with this wonderful hammer and marveling at what comes out. We have reached the point where new and improved hammers cost the GDP of a small country and there is little obvious hope that the next generation will discover anything really new. It looks like the best hope for new physics may lie with the astronomers, as they tease out a few more clues about dark energy.

Monday, December 02, 2013


Capitalism is hardly a new invention, even though the we think of the age of capitalism being just the last couple of hundred years or so. The central principle of capitalism is the free market, and markets go back approximately as far as civilization, or possibly farther. Even hunter-gatherers are known to do a bit of trading, but since they don't and can't own much, not too much. Once property gets to be substantial it needs protection, and markets need regulation.

The usual pattern of history seems to be that once a wealthy class establishes itself, it choses to become a hereditary aristocracy, and that means using its control of markets to shut down competition. Rome and Florence offer interesting examples. The Roman dictator Sulla, for example, got a lot of support out of handing out previously public enterprises to crony capitalists, who made it big. Not too different Reagan and the Bushies.

Guaranteed Income?

Switzerland has apparently been contemplating a guaranteed income for every citizen. Such proposals, in various forms, would create a sort of an ultimate welfare state. Oddly enough, some of these proposals seem to come from the left as well as the right. It might be an interesting experiment for some small rich country to actually try this. The obvious fear, of course, is that a lot of people would just stop working, and coast on their freebie. With no job, they would make trouble and produce more troubled and unproductive children.

It might be an incentive for employers to offer more attractive wages or working conditions, or, on the other hand, free people up to work on low paying jobs that they find rewarding in other ways.

If we think about the increasingly plausible world in which robots do almost all the work the question of how to restructure society becomes a challenging one.

Droning On

Will our future ears be filled with the droning sound of Jeff Bezoz's fleet of robot octo-copters delivering books, pills and pizzas to our neighbor's doorsteps or picnic tables? That's the vision Bezos outlined in a CBS Sixty Minutes interview. I'm a big fan of robocopters, but I have my doubts.

But during our visit to Amazon’s campus in Seattle, Bezos kept telling us that he did have a big surprise, something he wanted to unveil for the first time…

Jeff Bezos: Let me show you something.

Charlie Rose: Oh, man…Oh, my God!

Jeff Bezos: This…

Charlie Rose: This is?

Jeff Bezos:…is…these are octocopters.

Charlie Rose: Yeah?

Jeff Bezos: These are effectively drones but there’s no reason that they can’t be used as delivery vehicles. Take a look up here so I can show you how it works.

Charlie Rose: All right. We’re talking about delivery here?

Jeff Bezos: We’re talking about delivery. There’s an item going into the vehicle. I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not.

Charlie Rose: Wow!

Jeff Bezos: This is early. This is still…years away. It drops the package.

Charlie Rose: And there’s the package.

Jeff Bezos: You come and get your package. And we can do half hour delivery.

Reality or hype? Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Job Creators

A favorite notion of the rich (and their Republican mouthpieces) is that the rich are job creators. That that notion is almost entirely fantasy is demonstrated by the fact that three decades of reducing taxes on the rich has failed to produce many or many good jobs. It also doesn't make sense logically. Whatever the cleverness of a new product or invention, it won't create jobs unless there are people who can afford to buy it. This old article by Nick Hanauer makes the point in some detail:

In a November 2011 op-ed for Bloomberg View, I argued that rich people in general -- and business-people in particular -- are not job creators. When the economy is understood in 21st-century terms, as an ecosystem, it becomes obvious that jobs don't squirt out of business-people like jelly from doughnuts. Rather, jobs are the consequence of the feedback loop between customers and businesses. For this reason, it is middle-class consumers and the demand they create that are our true job creators, not rich business-people.

Given this, it is counter-productive to build a tax system that asymmetrically benefits the people at the very top. We all are better off -- business-people and consumers, rich and poor -- if the burden of taxes is placed at the top and not the middle, enabling middle class citizens to consume, and starting the positive feedback loop of job creation again.


The crony capitalism that we have allowed to infect the U.S. economic system shares weaknesses with communism. A tax system that amplifies compounding advantages for business-people and corporations the higher up the food chain they go and compounds disadvantages for people at the bottom is bad for business. It slows the rate at which ideas are generated and problems are solved. The healthiest ecosystem or economy is one with the most diverse, able competitors, not one overrun with one or two dominant species.

This is another way of saying that the economy has a demand side problem.

In a related vein, Paul Krugman has a chart on the rather dramatic decline of real wages of retail workers over the past five decades.

Happy Happy Joy Joy?

Are we happier than our remote ancestors? Were the citizens of ancient Babylon happier than the hunter gatherers who lived there twenty thousand years ago? There is no doubt, says Professor Harari, that we live in an era of unprecedented material prosperity and collective power to control our environment. Historians rarely ask questions like these, but The Prof thinks them important.

There are, of course, lots of theories, and people come down on all sorts of sides. A related question is whether our present prosperity is a transitory phase doomed by our relentless destruction of the natural environment. Have we produced a mechanistic world that makes us miserable in spite of relative material prosperity? He intends to discuss the various notions in more detail in the current segment of lectures, entitled: And they all lived happily ever after.