Monday, December 29, 2014

Krugman and Klein on the Future

Ezra Klein interviews Paul Krugman on prospects for the future. It seems PK and EK are both SF fans, so they take a prophetic look. Topic addressed include global pandemics, artificial intelligence, and economic inequality.

I find them least convincing on the subject of AI.

Ezra Klein: A fear I hear about a lot lately is the idea that we’ll build a self-improving artificial intelligence that will ultimately destroy us.

Paul Krugman: The history of artificial intelligence is that it's always ten years ahead, and that's been true for about 50 years.

Ezra Klein: But let’s assume it does emerge. A lot of smart people right now seem terrified by it. You've got Elon Musk tweeting, "Hope we're not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable." Google's Larry Page is reading Nick Bostrom’s new book Superintelligence. I wonder, reading this stuff, whether people are overestimating the value of analytical intelligence. It’s just never been my experience that the higher you go up the IQ scale, the better people are at achieving their goals.

Our intelligence is really lashed to a lot of things that aren’t about intelligence, like endless generations of social competition in the evolutionary fight for the best mates. I don’t even know how to think about what a genuinely new, artifical intelligence would believe is important and what it would find interesting. It often seems to me that one of the reasons people get so afraid of AI is you have people who themselves are really bought into intelligence as being the most important of all traits and they underestimate importance of other motivations and aptitudes. But it seems as likely as not that a superintelligence would be completely hopeless at anything beyond the analysis of really abstract intellectual problems.

Paul Krugman: Yeah, or one thing we might find out if we produce something that is vastly analytically superior is it ends up going all solipsistic and spending all its time solving extremely difficult and pointless math problems. We just don't know. I feel like I was suckered again into getting all excited about self-driving cars, and so on, and now I hear it's actually a lot further from really happening that we thought. Producing artificial intelligence that can cope with the real world is still a much harder problem than people realize.

The problem is that you don't need to produce an AI smarter than Terry Tao for it to be dangerous. Even now, our robot developers are producing semi-autonomous devices which have intelligence roughly equivalent to some of the less clever insects. How likely do you think it is that humans could compete in an evolutionary sense with truck sized insect creatures with jet engines, brains that think a million times faster than ours (and those of insects), and loaded with modern weaponry? Such things are already here or nearly so, and our main control over them right now is that we still manage their reproduction.

It's also true that their smarter and more sedentary cousins have already proven better at many tasks formerly done by highly trained professionals than humans. Robots won't need to bother navigating our complex social rules if they simple replace us.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Steppe Warriors

The mounted horsemen of steppe played crucial parts in global history, perhaps especially between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Fifteenth Century, conquering Central Asia, China, Eastern Europe, and much of India and the Middle East at one time or another. The empires they created were seldom durable, usually perishing within a few generations of the founder. Tamerlane was perhaps the last of the breed of these nomadic, mostly illiterate, warrior tribesmen to conquer the agricultural world.

After his time, the rise of gunpowder armies and modern state institutions sapped the power of the mounted bowmen. In a short period the small, formerly weak state of Muscovy swept them aside and conquered most of northern Asia.

... Despite the drama of this steppe imperialism, it would be unwise to exaggerate its immediate significance. There was no treasure trove of minerals to finance the building of a great imperial superstructure, although Moscow merchants (and the Muscovy state) may have profited from easier access to trade with Iran and Central Asia.47 The Volga lands were opened up to Russian peasant colonization. But beyond the river corridor Russian control was unsure, and the Volga remained a violent frontier region.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 71). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Escape from nomadic depredations came at a cost, at least for some.

In a poor agricultural economy, the burden of taxation and service to sustain Muscovy’s military effort could be borne only if the landed class enjoyed close control over peasant communities hitherto mobile, free and often rebellious.50 The counterpart to the fixing of boyar loyalty was the bonding of peasant labour through the institution of serfdom, enforced by a ruthless combination of state authority, noble power and Church influence. As the eastern vanguard of European expansion (rather than a weak buffer state between Poland and the steppe), Russia became a Eurasian Sparta, deploying an army of over 100,000 men by the end of the century.51 But threatened to the west by wealthier European states, and harried to the south by its still open steppe frontier, Muscovy’s transformation into ‘Russia’ or ‘Rossiya’ (‘Greater Russia’) was painful and traumatic. Its course was marked by internal terrorism (Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichnina) and the ‘Time of Troubles’ (the anarchy preceding the Romanov accession to the tsardom in 1613). Moscow was overrun by Polish armies in 1605 and again in 1610.52

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 72). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Damn! I *Knew* he Had to be a Slytherin!

In 1604, he started to observe SN 1604, a supernova also known as Kepler's star, in the constellation Serpentarius, the 13th sign of the zodiac in which your humble correspondent was born... Lumo

Extracted from Lubosh's very nice article on the occasion of Kepler's 543rd birthday: Johannes Kepler: an anniversary

Kepler was a pivotal figure in launching the scientific revolution that mathematicized physics.

Putin's Racket

Max Fisher writes in Vox about Mark Galeotti's theory of Russia's political strategy.

What in the hell is Vladimir Putin up to? It's perhaps one of the most important and salient questions of 2014. Russia-watchers and Russians have spent much of the year debating what's behind Putin's adventurism in Ukraine, his meddling in eastern Europe's Baltic states, his support for anti-American dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, and the headaches he is generally causing Western leaders.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russia, suggested an answer: Putin is remaking Russia from a former world power into a geopolitical racketeer. Galeotti is not the first person to suggest this theory, which is gaining traction even among Russia experts who tend to be more sympathetic to Moscow, but he put it awfully succinctly in a great interview with the Swiss-based International Relations and Security Network.

Galeotti made his point when asked how Russia's role as an international actor had evolved since the end of the Cold War (I've added line breaks and bold for emphasis):

Russia is now regarded not as ineffective but as toxic; it has shown that it can act, but above all as a spoiler.

Its main tactic in eastern Ukraine, in Syria, and elsewhere is not to fix problems, nor even to build coalitions, but to create problems in the hope that this grinds down the will of the other party or parties until they decide that making some kind of deal with Moscow is the least-worse option.

These are, in the short term, effective tactics, but this is the geopolitics of the protection racketeer and it wins no friends, earns no soft power. It has empowered those who say this current regime in the Kremlin is dangerous and can only be contained or, ultimately, confronted.

Of course running a racket can be useful. It's essentially the strategy Portugal used to become a world power five and a half centuries ago. It lacked the power to dominate the trade across the Indian Ocean, but the military effectiveness of its caravels allowed it to run a very profitable protection racket there. English piracy, preying on Spain, proved crucial to it's emergence as a great sea power. It's ultimately a question of whether the rest of the world has the will to resist the predations of the racketeers. Certainly there were powers in India in 1500 that could have built a great fleet to sack and burn Lisbon in the early Sixteenth century. But they were preoccupied with local concerns.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Is Economics a Deeply Corrupt Profession?

I have suspected for a long time that a big chunk of the economics professoriate has, in effect, sold out to the high bidders. Unlike physicists, biologists, and anthropologists, economists powerfully influence government policies which directly affect wealth. A vast array of "think tanks," policy institutes, and other devices exist to put money into the pockets of economists who sing the tune of the ultra rich funders of the same.

I read Paul Krugman's latest post as essentially confirming this diagnosis.

Robert Waldmann is shocked, shocked, to find conservative economists not doing their homework:

Even now, I am shocked that economists didn’t bother to look up the data on FRED before making nonsensical claims of fact.

I’m shocked that he’s shocked.

Waldmann’s issue is the relationship between government spending and growth in recent years, which everyone on the right knows has been negative, but is actually positive. Why, he asks, didn’t they look up the data — which takes only a few seconds on FRED — before making their claims?

But this is typical; it applies to issues across the board. The same people know that growth has been much faster since financial deregulation and the Reagan tax cuts, except that it hasn’t; they know that Reagan was the only president to oversee the creation of millions of jobs, because there never was a Clinton boom; they know that there has been unprecedented growth in government spending under Obama, when the reality is the opposite. At this point you shouldn’t be surprised.

Wherefore this willful disregard of easily available data? Laziness? Stupidity? Blind faith in ideas that are refuted by nasty facts?

Maybe, but I'm more inclined to suspect more venal motives. And Krugman hints as much.

...I’ve had conversations in which people belligerently assert “I’m not impressed by your charts — you’ll never convince me that government spending has fallen under Obama.” Don’t bother me with facts!

But why this attitude? Mainly, I suppose, it’s the epistemic closure that comes from serving the interests of big money. There’s a world of think tanks that don’t want too much thinking, partisan media that don’t do fact-checking, and for that matter professional journals that erect high barriers against anything even vaguely Keynesian while uncritically publishing new classical stuff.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Who Were The Indo-Europeans?

The Indo-European languages spread over most of Europe and large chunks of Asia at some point in pre-history. The discovery of relationship between European languages and Sanskrit was a major catalyst for the development of the science of linguistics. Most of what we know about historical linguistics suggests that this kind of language relationship could only have come through something like conquest and replacement of other speakers. The most popular scholarly hypothesis is the Kurgan hypothesis - that the original Indo-Europeans were nomads of the Pontic steppes, now Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia, who domesticated the horse and conquered much of the world.

There is a fair amount of archeological evidence to back up this idea, but some crucial uncertainties remain. One problem is getting the inferred dates to line up. Another is that it's hard to trace the gene flow that accompanied the putative expansion. India, with its intricate and complex genetic history, presents special problems. Many assert that the gene flow history of India is not compatible with a major incursion from the steppes at the time suggested by the archeological evidence. See, e.g., this link by Arun.

There are a few alternative theories of I-E origins, discussed in the first link above. One, mostly held by Indian nationalists, is the so-called out of India hypothesis, in which the I-E expansion originated in India. This idea is unpopular because it doesn't seem to fit linguistic or archeological evidence. The horse, for example, is central to I-E, but is not native to India, mostly doesn't thrive there, and does not appear in iconography of the Indus Valley Civilization, the civilization in the Indus valley which probably predates the I-E appearance in India.

The genetic evidence is complex and controversial, but at present mostly is centered on the R1a1a variant of the Y - chromosome (male germ line), see map here. Not sure whether more general genetic evidence has anything to add.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On The Beach

"Après moi, le déluge" ...............Attributed to Louis XV or Madame de Pompadour.

Miami Beach is building like crazy: WP

MIAMI BEACH – Argentine developer Alan Faena recently listed the most expensive condo in this city’s history at $55 million. The Mid Beach penthouse features a private elevator, an infinity pool, an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic.

The catch: The tower stands on what scientists call one of America’s most vulnerable floodplains.

But Miami Beach needs this penthouse — and many more like it. The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes.

Crazy? Well, it depends on your time frame. If you only care about the next ten or twenty years, maybe so. If the US government is silly enough to sell you flood insurance, probably so.

Many buyers come from South America, more concerned by currency instability in their home countries than encroaching saltwater: “They want somewhere safe to park their money,” said Zalewski, whose firm tracks applications. “A lot of buyers here never step foot in the condos. They’ll sell them before the water makes it to the bottom floor of their buildings, anyway.”

Foreign investors fueled nearly one-third of real estate transactions last year in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to a National Association of Realtors report. Eighty-one percent paid cash, the report found, and 72 percent bought a condo or townhouse.

The whole story is interesting.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Israel's Choices

Another Israeli election - now what?

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, looks at the options. Two excerpts:

JERUSALEM — Uneasiness inhabits Israel, a shadow beneath the polished surface. In a violent Middle Eastern neighborhood of fracturing states, that is perhaps inevitable, but Israelis are questioning their nation and its future with a particular insistence. As the campaign for March elections begins, this disquiet looks like the precursor of political change. The status quo, with its bloody and inconclusive interludes, has become less bearable. More of the same has a name: Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his third term as prime minister. The alternative, although less clear, is no longer unthinkable.

“There is a growing uneasiness, social, political, economic,” Amos Oz, the novelist, told me in an interview. “There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel.” The author, widely viewed as the conscience of a liberal and anti-Messianic Israel, continued, “Unless there are two states — Israel next door to Palestine — and soon, there will be one state. If there will be one state, it will be an Arab state. The other option is an Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”


Israel is a remarkable and vibrant democratic society that is facing an impasse. It must decide whether to tough it out on a nationalist road that must lead eventually to annexation of at least wide areas of the West Bank, or whether to return to the ideals of the Zionists who accepted the 1947 United Nations partition of Mandate Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab (the Arabs did not accept the division and embarked on the first of several losing wars aimed at destroying Israel).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Long Read on Russian Economy

Via Marginal Revolution, The Guardian has an excellent long read on the state of the Russian economy in a time of falling oil prices:

You know that the reporters did their research in depth because of details like this:

Inflation is hitting all areas of society. Brothels in the Arctic port of Murmansk have hiked their prices by 30-40%, and may in future even peg their services to the dollar.

Public sector employees account for more than 25% of Russia’s workforce, and are Putin’s core electorate. When the Russian president returned to the office in 2012, he promised hefty pay increases for public sector workers (in some cases doubling salaries). The government is now attempting to back peddle and bring these increases in line with inflation.

Despite a relatively austere budget, Russia’s budget also foresees a 20% increase in military spending, which together with law enforcement, and state security sectors makes up about a third of the federal budget.

President Putin remains remarkably popular, and his grip on the country firm.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Flacks Fault Flacco Fumble

It is perhaps emblematic of the intellectual and moral poverty of American journalism that nothing in Obama's press conference got so much attention as his mispronunciation of an actor's name.

More Krugman on Putin/Ruble/Russia

The Ruble has recovered a lot of lost ground since Tuesday: Bloomberg It's still worth only about half as much as last year, though, and the future is unclear.

Paul Krugman offers his perspective in the NYT:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

Unlike most other currency crisis countries, Russia has regularly run large trade surpluses, and has a big stash of foreign currency reserves. So what could the problem be, aside from the fact that Putin has frightened the West into some probably not very effective financial sanctions?

Krugman again:

... Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

In principle, that money could go back home. But do Russia's oligarchs trust Putin and the country enough to do that?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Krugman on Russian Debt

One area where Paul Krugman is a genuine expert is currency crises - he claims with some justification to have invented the field of study in economics. Here he takes a look at the Russian debt situation.

He recalls the textbook responses:

At this point the approved move is either (a) go to the IMF or (b) invade the Malvinas. Somehow, (a) doesn’t seem likely — and Putin did (b) in advance.

Cuba Si, Ted Cruz No!

For fifty years, the fanatics of the Cuban exile community told us that Castroism in Cuba was on the brink of collapse, and that if we just kept punishing the Cuban people a bit longer, the whole mess would collapse, allowing them to restore Batista or whomever. Well, it never worked, and Obama finally managed to bring the whole farce to a halt.

Yes, Cuba is still a repressive, undemocratic Communist regime. We have long had diplomatic relations with lots of similar places, and on the whole, such relations have worked to reform those places - usually accompanied by the disappearance of Communism.

Goodbye Ruble Tuesday?

Well, it did briefly look like it. Nonetheless, Russia has a bunch of foreign currency and all that oil and gas, so it does have resources to defend the currency. Will it be enough? TBD.

Bloomberg Ruble vs Dollar.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Man On Horseback

Yeah, that's him, the guy who forgot to put his shirt on.

Putin, of course, is an old KGB Commie whose dearest wish is to restore the evil empire. So why are assorted allegedly right-wing nut jobs so drawn to him? See Lumo here and his commenters for examples. It's the horse, of course. The inner fascist just can't resist the man on horseback - real or virtual. Though a commenter on Stoat pointed out that Putin's concerns right now line up pretty well with those of our own Oiligarchy.

Right now falling oil prices, with a boost from Western sanctions, have got El Puto in a tight spot. Like Gorbachev's Soviet Union of 1989, Russia is highly dependent on oil. Vlad has a bunch of cash stockpiled, but the Ruble is looking really ugly right now and the central bank had to push up interest rates to recession producing levels - with no guarantee that that will work to stem the flight from the Ruble. Putin's oligarchical friends must be getting a bit nervous, and that may be why Russia has so far resisted capital controls which might make it harder for them to fly to dollars.

The Russkies, who still drink up nationalistic propaganda like it was vodka, still love him. How long he can get away with that if the economy tanks, big time, is hard to guess.

What's really scary, though, is what he might do if he's really trapped like a rat. He still has a big army, and there is a lot of Europe that is poorly prepared to defend itself.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Climate Doomsaying

Eli links to an Aaron Sorkin bit of laconic climate doomsaying. Even though I largely agree with the climate scientist characters's matter of fact predictions of bad stuff to come, I have to say that I doubt its effectiveness. People are bombarded almost daily with predictions of doom of one sort or another, by preachers, cable news, random nut jobs, and politicians - hope that's not redundant.

More to the point, we all know that our own personal doom is not that far in the future. All these things make it hard to get to worked up about sea levels being 80 feet higher in the next millenium. For most people, thinking about the future means dealing with the next hour, the next day, and if they are really well off, maybe the next decade or two.

Our species evolved in the Pleistocene, a time of climate hazards considerably more tumultuous than today. Catastrophes wiping out big chunks of the species were a regular occurrence. That might have kept us from evolving the kind of minds that were comfortable with not planning too far ahead.

Another factor has been the tendency of some climate scientists to blame any bit of bad weather - a bunch of hurricanes striking the US, a major tornado outbreak, a drought in California - on climate change. Even if they ultimately turn out to be sort of right, a decade without a major hurricane strike, a quiet tornado year, or a rash of flooding rains in California makes people forget, or worse, remember and disbelieve.

Call me a pessimist, but my guess is that people in Miami will believe climate change when the water reaches their knees. Oklahoma and Kansas might be harder sells.

In any case, I personally find it hard to get to worked up about our impending collision with the Andromeda galaxy, four billion or so years hence. Though I am a bit sorry than neither I nor our planet will be here to see it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Astro FOTD: M 15

Messier 15, or M 15 among friends, is a globular cluster located 10 kiloparsecs or so from us, one of the 150 or so globular cluster associate with the Milky Way galaxy.

In addition to being very pretty, it's very old, about 12 billion years, nearly as old as the Universe itself (13.6 billion, or so). All the 100,000 stars in it are thought to have formed at about the same time from a single large gas cloud. Blue stars, you may recall, are all very young - they burn themselves out quickly. So how does M 15 have some blues? It's thought that they may have formed from collisions or mergers of smaller stars, perhaps those that formed as close binaries.

M 15 is also thought to harbor an intermediate mass black hole (IMBH), a black hole larger than those formed in Supernovae of a few solar masses, but smaller than the million and billion solar mass monster than inhabit the center of galaxies - perhaps a few thousand solar masses.

It also has a planetary nebula, the blue patch above and to the left of center, the only one known in a globular cluster.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Astro FOTD: Parker Instability

M 51 in infrared. Notice how the bright clumps of star formation are strung like beads along the dusty lanes of the spiral arms and other spider web like features. It is thought that much of the clumpyness is due to Parker Instability. According to Choudhuri in Astrophysics for Physicists, magnetic pressure causes regions of stronger field to be less dense than nearby region of lesser field strength, giving rise to magnetic buoyancy. In the disc the local gravitational field has a component toward the plane of the disc, so that regions of slightly lesser field rise out of it like magnetic bubbles. The plasma in these bubbles, however, can stream down the magnetic field lines towards the disc, amplifying any small initial mass concentrations. The resulting mass concentrations can become dense enough to promote star formation.

The same buoyancy instability is involved in sunspots and solar flares.

Walter Lewin

From Scott Aaronson's blog:

Yesterday I heard the sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online. I don’t know anything about what happened beyond the terse public announcements, but those who do know tell me that the charges were extremely serious, and that “this wasn’t a borderline case.”

I’m someone who feels that sexual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else. But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are. I know others differ, but I think the need of the world to see that justice was done overrides MIT’s internal administrative needs, and even Prof. Lewin’s privacy (the names of any victims could, of course, be kept secret).

More importantly, I wish to register that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare—thereby forcing the tens of thousands of students around the world who were watching these legendary lectures to hunt for ripped copies on BitTorrent. (Imagine that: physics lectures as prized contraband!) By all means, punish Prof. Lewin as harshly as he deserves, but—as students have been pleading on Reddit, in the MIT Tech comments section, and elsewhere—don’t also punish the countless students of both sexes who continue to benefit from his work. (For godsakes, I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.) Doing this sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union.

I agree about the lectures, but see comments on Scott's blog.

Another icon bites the dust through sexual misbehavior. My guess is that we are genetically programmed to have tendencies toward such behaviors. If so, we probably only see the tip of the iceberg of powerful men behaving badly.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

IQ Upgrade?

Remember Daniel Keyes fabulous short story/novel/play/movie Flowers for Algernon? The title character was a mouse with surgically enhanced intelligence.

It seems that this part of the future has already arrived.

What would Stuart Little make of it? Mice have been created whose brains are half human. As a result, the animals are smarter than their siblings.


Goldman's team extracted immature glial cells from donated human fetuses. They injected them into mouse pups where they developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell.

Within a year, the mouse glial cells had been completely usurped by the human interlopers. The 300,000 human cells each mouse received multiplied until they numbered 12 million, displacing the native cells.

"We could see the human cells taking over the whole space," says Goldman. "It seemed like the mouse counterparts were fleeing to the margins."

Astrocytes are vital for conscious thought, because they help to strengthen the connections between neurons, called synapses. Their tendrils (see image) are involved in coordinating the transmission of electrical signals across synapses.

Human astrocytes are 10 to 20 times the size of mouse astrocytes and carry 100 times as many tendrils. This means they can coordinate all the neural signals in an area far more adeptly than mouse astrocytes can. "It's like ramping up the power of your computer," says Goldman.

Intelligence leap

A battery of standard tests for mouse memory and cognition showed that the mice with human astrocytes are much smarter than their mousy peers.

Although creepy, the work has some obvious implications for understanding some kinds of metal retardation, and, conceivably, treatments.

According to the lead investigator, Steve Goldman of Rochester University:

"This does not provide the animals with additional capabilities that could in any way be ascribed or perceived as specifically human," he says. "Rather, the human cells are simply improving the efficiency of the mouse's own neural networks. It's still a mouse."

However, the team decided not to try putting human cells into monkeys. "We briefly considered it but decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues," Goldman says.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Orion and SLS - Space Shuttle II?

Phil Plait looks at the Orion capsule and NASA's Space Launch System, SLS, and finds them a bad idea. They have the potential to be spectacular monuments to crapitude like the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle.

I won’t go into the necessity of space exploration; I have argued for it over and again, and in my mind the case is made. We need to break the bonds of Earth.

The question is, how are we going to do it?

NASA wants to use Orion, and they want to launch it on the SLS. I have some problems with this.

The problem is that these monsters always draw congressional pork barreling like flies to ... They wind up over budget and behind schedule, and compromises are made that sap the program. Worse, they wind up sucking up all of NASA's science money to make up the shortfalls. Private industry is quite busy developing launch vehicles, and they are very likely to do a much better job of it than the government. NASA should concentrate on the scientific and technological frontier. Phil has details.

Right now, for example, SpaceX is doing pretty well with its Falcon 9 rocket. The F9 is capable of getting a decent payload to orbit, and has already had several successful missions to resupply the International Space Station using the SpaceX Dragon space capsule. Elon Musk has revealed plans for the next generation Dragon V2, which is much larger and can carry more astronauts and supplies. SpaceX is also well on its way to building the Falcon Heavy, the next step up from the F9. It will have more lift capability than any rocket currently existing, though to be fair, less than what is proposed for SLS.

That last part seems important. If you want to go to Mars, won’t you need a much more powerful rocket—that is, the SLS? You do if you want to send up huge chunks of hardware all at once. But if you can subdivide, you can send up that same equipment over multiple flights. That sounds like it’s more expensive … except that a Falcon Heavy launch will cost a fraction of what the SLS will. You can launch several Falcon Heavys for the price of one SLS. And Musk has said that SpaceX can build a super heavy launcher that will exceed the payload capability of SLS as well, yet still cost far less.

And that’s just SpaceX. There are other companies at various degrees of development with an eye towards this capability. SpaceX is simply the current leader.

RFK, jr.

Laura Helmuth of SLATE is rallying another lynch mob, only this time I have to agree with her. Robert F Kennedy junior really is a dangerous and obsessive nut job.


Most paranoid, grandiose, relentless conspiracy theorists can’t call a meeting with a U.S. senator. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A profile of Kennedy in this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine shows that Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders listened politely while Kennedy told them that a vaccine preservative causes autism.

It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country has evaluated the evidence and concluded that the preservative thimerosal is safe.

OK, the last sentence is another bit of Helmuthian hyperbole, but there does seems to be overwhelming evidence that thimerosal is not implicated in autism or much of anything else. Unfortunately, when a crackpot like Kennedy has a famous name, people tend to believe him, even if he has less qualification in his judgement than say, Jenny McCarthy - another vaccine denialist.

More from Helmuth:

Thimerosal, out of an abundance of caution, was removed from childhood vaccines 13 years ago, although it is used in some flu vaccines. And yet Kennedy, perhaps more than any other anti-vaccine zealot, has confused parents into worrying that vaccines, which have saved more lives than almost any other public health practice in history, could harm their children.

Mikulski and Sanders, to their credit, both politely blew Kennedy off. That’s a sign of great progress: Not that many years ago, Rep. Dan Burton held congressional hearings on the entirely made-up dangers of vaccines. I’m especially proud of Sanders, who represents Vermont, a state with one of the highest rates of vaccine denial and misinformation.

But the more people dismiss Kennedy, unfortunately, the more obsessive and slanderous he becomes. Keith Kloor describes some of Kennedy’s recent outrageous claims in the Post profile:

The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.

Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”

There seem to have been a lot of seriously flawed human beings in the Kennedy clan, but I doubt that thimerosal was the culprit.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Reply to Lee

Blankety-blank Disqus keeps deleting this comment as spam, so: Well, your conception of what I was writing about is very different than mine. I was writing about what happened to a prominent scientist when he incautiously gave voice to some unpopular views - or more precisely some views unpopular among the self appointed academic thought police. If you care about my always evolving views on IQ, as opposed to my view of the reaction to Watson's ostracism, you could check out some of my many posts on the subject: http://capitalistimperialistpi...

More On Honest Jim

The Guardian has a nice, and I think balanced, account of James Watson's disastrous encounter with Political Correctness. I have to stress than I don't agree with Watson, and think that some of the things he said were indeed very offensive. But does that mean he deserved a virtual public lynching? A couple of quotes from the Guardian article:

From Richard Dawkins:

'What is ethically wrong is the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant "thought police", of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, out of the Science Museum, and maybe out of the laboratory that he has devoted much of his life to, building up a world-class reputation,' said Richard Dawkins, who been due to conduct a public interview with Watson this week in Oxford.

And from his old foe and E. O. Wilson:

Nor is it at all clear that Watson is a racist, a point stressed last week by the Pulitzer-winning biologist E O Wilson, of Harvard University. In his autobiography, Naturalist, Wilson originally described Watson, fresh from his Nobel success, arriving at Harvard's biology department and 'radiating contempt' for the rest of the staff. He was 'the most unpleasant human being I had ever met,' Wilson recalled. 'Having risen to fame at an early age, [he] became the Caligula of biology. He was given licence to say anything that came into his mind and expected to be taken seriously. And unfortunately he did so, with casual and brutal offhandedness.'

That is a fairly grim description, to say the least. However, there is a twist. There has been a rapprochement. 'We have become firm friends,' Wilson told The Observer last week. 'Today we are the two grand old men of biology in America and get on really well. I certainly don't see him as a Caligula figure any more. I have come to see him as a very intelligent, straight, honest individual. Of course, he would never get a job as a diplomat in the State Department. He is just too outspoken. But one thing I am absolutely sure of is that he is not a racist. I am shocked at what has happened to him.'

Friday, December 05, 2014

Amazon's Scientific E-textbooks Suck

I had high hopes for the e-textbook. I imagined live equations, live links that led to interest external sites, and other interactive features. Having bought a few Cambridge UP and other scientific e-books from Amazon, I have to say that they all suck. The equations are typically reduced to tiny images that don't magnify with the text. Amazon's proprietary text crapware apparently can't render them in magnifiable form. Needless to say, the other desirable features are also missing.

I guess real e-textbooks will have to wait for another generation or so.

Police Violence

About 50 cops are shot in the line of duty in the US every year. There are no really good statistics on how many civilians cops kill, but it seems to be a much larger number, about 1000. A spate of recent killings of unarmed black men has drawn public attention, but they aren't the only victims. Cops kill a lot of unarmed civilians of all races, but it seems likely that the victims are disproportionately young and black.

My guess is that hardly any cop goes out on the job with the ambition of killing anybody, much less an unarmed civilian. Such killings are tragic and usually avoidable. Victims of police violence want the perpetrators punished, but they rarely are. Grand juries, and especially prosecutors (who have to work with the police), are very reluctant to indict, especially when there is reason to believe the victim was resisting.

The first instinct of a policeman when faced with danger is probably to reach for his gun, even though he has less murderous options on his belt. Why? Mainly because he doesn't want to be the guy who brought a billy club to a gun fight. We live in a society where any idiot can own a gun, and many can carry concealed quite legally. As long as the NRA runs the country, cops are probably going to be quick on the trigger.

The prosecutor handling the grand jury that failed to indict Eric Garner's killer apparently did not give the grand jury opportunity to consider some lesser charges which may have been more appropriate. And, of course, it's Staten Island, where:

It is a place where its lone congressional representative, Michael Grimm, faces a 20-count indictment, threatened to throw a television reporter off a balcony, and still won re-election by ever larger numbers.

Thursday, December 04, 2014


With gas prices reaching good old days levels and our highway system crumbling, this would be a good time to raise federal gas taxes. This is only slightly less likely than kindly space aliens intervening to save us from ourselves.


Astrometry, the measurement of the positions and motions of stars, is at the foundation of much of our knowledge of cosmology and astrophysics, and parallax measurements, the measurement of the apparent motion of the stars due to the motion of the Earth around the Sun, is the most fundamental astrometric technique. These motions are tiny, even for the nearest stars. The parallax of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and consequently the star with the largest parallax is only about 0.78 arc seconds, equivalent to less than 4 mm at a distance of 1 kilometer. Before the development of space based astrometry, the most distant stars whose parallaxes could be measured were about 100 light years away. The new GAIA satellite of the ESA should extend that the center of the Galaxy, some 27000 light years away.

GAIA has some other tricks too: finding near Earth asteroids, Quasars, and exoplanets, to name a few.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Monday, December 01, 2014

Honest Jim vs the PC Mafia

James Watson, the famously cranky discoverer of the structure of DNA, is auctioning off his Nobel medal, claiming that he needs the money. He is 86, and probably made a lot of money in his life, between authorship of one of the justifiably most famous popular science books of all time and several very popular textbooks. He got into some trouble a few years back when his habit of speaking his mind ran into the central religious dogmas of our time, when he ventured that he worried that the persistent racial differences on IQ tests might reflect real differences in intellectual capability.

My favorite crackpot has mounted a stirring if hardly effective defense of Watson. My first link, above, takes the opposite tack. Laura Helmuth, who apparently is Slate's Science and Health editor, launches a passionately wrongheaded attack on Watson. It's preposterous that someone with such anti-scientific views can be the Science editor of a major publication, but such is the conventional religion (PC, unreformed) of our times.

She has a long list of Watson's crimes, which include dissing Rosalyn Franklin (the key investigator whose crucial x-ray diffraction pictures led Watson and Crick to the structure of DNA, but who died before Nobels were handed out), Ed Wilson, women, and fat people. Watson is and has been opinionated and rude, but his capital crime, in Helmuth's analysis, was believing that the measurements which consistently show racial differences might be real. Helmuth:

And, of course, Watson fundamentally misunderstands research on race, genes, and intelligence. Scientists have been debunking ideas like his since well before The Bell Curve made a mockery of statistical analysis.

Of course it is Helmuth who misunderstands. It is true that the subject remains highly controversial, but no one has ever "debunked" the data. One may, possibly, explain or rationalize it away, but those explanations and rationalizations remain unproven at present, while the data remains.

I'm not trying to argue that Watson is right here - I suspect that he may not be. I'm saying that what he says is perfectly scientifically defensible, even if it is socially very inconvenient.

So Watson's crime, which Helmuth apparently regards as worthy of eternal damnation, is being rude and obnoxious and speaking what may well be an inconvenient truth.