Thursday, October 29, 2015

Stupid

I listened to a little of the Republican debate, but overwhelming oppressiveness of the constant lying and stupidity drove me nuts. It's enough to make one despair of the human race.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sexual Politics Ia: Evolutionary Psychology

Feminists hate the patriarchy and blame men. Fair enough, but even fairer, if less satisfying, would be blaming evolution. In most of our close evolutionary relatives, care for infants is almost exclusively a female task. It's a precarious business, and their limited ecospace has now almost disappeared. Humans haven't been like that.

For a male, the evolutionary bargain involved in supporting one's children depends on them actually being one's children and not somebody else's, a problem that doesn't arise for females. Solving that problem apparently required domination of the female and leashing her sexuality.

Of course the world today is not the world in which our instincts and behaviors evolved, but those instincts and behaviors remain powerful, which is why the great cultural struggle in the world today is less about religion than it is about educating and otherwise empowering women.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Movie Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

From time to time I get dragged to an art house film. Most recently I caught Marielle Heller's movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical, semi-graphic novel of the same name. It has been nominated for four Gotham awards, which may or may not presage something in Oscars. This is not your usual teen movie. Instead it's a stunning, even shocking story of a rather disastrous adolescence.

Bel Powley, nominated for best actress, plays the fifteen year-old Minnie Goetze, and the movie, like the book, is the story of her affair with her mother's thirty something boyfriend, somewhat complicated by the usual adolescent problems, including especially her mother, a frequently drunk, drug addled and always inattentive bimbo in mid 1970's San Francisco. Unlike typical teen movie stars, who look like movie stars, Ms. Powley actually looks like a fifteen year-old, though she is actually in her early twenties.

The diary of the title is kept in a book and audio tapes, and its narrative is a principal vehicle of the story, as well as a ticking time bomb waiting to be discovered by mom. Gloeckner and Heller are too artistically honest to portray Minnie as a helpless victim of her much older lover. Instead, she is an active, indeed agressive participant in their mutual seduction. Monroe, her mother's handsome boyfriend is more feckless than sinister.

Minnie is both proud and ashamed of her conquest. She thinks that there should be some adult telling her how to behave, but between her clueless mother, who can't get beyond "it's your life," and a couple of other exploitative psuedo-parental types she gets neither the love she desperately wants nor any sensible guidance.

Once unleashed, her sexuality dominates her life. She pursues and seduces a contemporary who is first drawn to her but ultimately intimidated by the ferocity of her desire. Her life disintegrates as the diary is revealed, Mom and Monroe hatch a crackpot scheme for her to marry Monroe, and she flees to drugs and an even more exploitative lover. The one bright spot is that she has discovered that she loves the art of the graphical novel, and has a talent for it.

The movie ends on a more upbeat note than the book, but for those who can't help but love the heroine, there seems to be an upbeat ending in the author's subsequent life. She gets an education and becomes a professor and successful medical illustrator, and is now likely to get more recognition as an author.

This movie is harrowing, and ought to scare the hell out of any parent of a teenage daughter, but it is relentlessly true and wise. Minnie's story is a compelling one, told with wit and compassion.

Because of the rawness of the subject matter, this movie may well be too hot for Hollywood to like during Oscar season, but actress, director, and writer are all very worthy contenders.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Extreme Poverty

One of the most encouraging trends in the world (for me) has been the dramatic decline in extreme poverty over the past several decades. Asia has led the way, especially East Asia and more especially China, which had long been among the poorest countries in the world. South Asia is catching up, but still lags behind. Extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $2 (inflation and purchasing power parity factors include) per day, is now most concentrated in sub Saharan Africa and in conflict zones.

Poverty statistics are hard to come by for much of the world, but thanks to the work of recent Nobelist Angus Deaton and others, are becoming much better. By many measures, extreme poverty has gone from something more than 30% a few decades ago to less than 10% today. This suggests that eliminating it completely is a realistic goal for the coming decades.

So what accounts for this dramatic trend? I think that there are several important factors, including technology, better governance and especially the adoption of market economics. Important as these are, the central fact in poverty decline seems to be reduction in the birth rated. The largest progress has occurred in nations like China that have most dramatically reduced their fertility rate. The ongoing disasters are most prominent in sub-Saharan Africa and in conflict ridden Islamic countries where fertility has remained high. Dr Malthus has never been more in evidence than in the modern world where fertility can swamp every kind of technological advance.

Reducing the fertility rate well below the replacement rate has its benefits, but it comes at a price. Eventually such countries will have an aging population and a shrinking workforce. Recent history suggests that this is not a bad bargain, because it's a far better deal to be a rich country with slowly declining population than a desperately poor one with a rapidly increasing one.

Of course we shall have to see how this plays out in Japan and Germany, two very rich nations with very old populations already in slow decline, not to mention China, which will face this problem in a decade or two. I like their prospects a lot better than I like Nigeria's.

Words, Words, Words*

Scott Aaronson has continued to offend a certain sector of the social scientists.

Scott Aaronson, quoting himself:

[W]hy not dispense with the empirically-empty notion of “privilege,” and just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people, or groups of people? If men are doing horrific things to women—for example, lashing them for driving cars, like in Saudi Arabia—then surely we can just say so in plain language. Stipulating that the torturers are “exercising their male privilege” with every lash adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the evil. It’s bad writing. More broadly, it seems to me that the entire apparatus of “privilege,” “delegitimation,” etc. etc. can simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse. This isn’t quantum field theory. Ordinary words will do.

Brutish physicist that I am, I say Amen, amen, amen*.

So how respondeth the social scientists:

Prof. Laba derisively commented:

Might as well ask you to explain calculus without using fancy words like “derivative” or “continuous.” Simple number arithmetic will do.

Scott calls bullshit on this, at considerable length, which anybody interested should go to the link to read.

Like Scott, I think lots of cool stuff is being discovered in the social sciences, but I would guess that almost none of it is being discovered by the jargon obsessed.

Scott hints, but doesn't quite say, that the SSers haven't quite gotten over their infatuation with the delusions of Marx and Freud.

*Because most of my brain is song lyrics.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Annals of Improbable Anatomical Feats

Language has developed some colorful and vulgar, but wonderfully expressive ways of characterizing some human foibles. "Jumping through one's own asshole" is a terrific way of capturing the intellectual lengths that some go to defend improbable points of view or core beliefs.

A lot of what most people believe is either highly speculative fabrication or outright nonsense. It is counter intuitive to the evolutionary psychologist in me that such (frequently) nonsensical beliefs could be adaptive in the Darwinian sense, but their prevalence strongly suggests otherwise.

For example, some very smart guys, like Richard Dawkins, are convinced that religion is a sort of intellectual disease that has spread through human populations to everyone's detriment. I am pretty sure that they are nuts on this point, even though I'm not religious myself. Benjamin Franklin saw more deeply, I think, when he noted that he was very unhappy with his own behavior during his atheistic period, and decided that a good religion was a useful inducement to good behavior. Guys like Dawkins have altogether too much respect for human intellect and way too little for the power of a useful myth.

Did I mention that this post is actually about climate science and climate myth? I spend a lot of time talking to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialists and one thing that I've noticed is that many of them are pretty well informed on the issue - not as well informed as the actual climate scientists they scorn, of course, but better informed than most of the general public which takes the scientists seriously. Information, in their case, has not improved their judgement.

Why not? My short answer is that they are pretty good at the intellectual equivalent of the improbable anatomical feat I mentioned in my first paragraph. The secret to believing egregious nonsense is to not insist on logical consistency. Internal consistency is replaced by the necessity to be consistent with some external doctrine. For the AGW denialists of my acquaintance, that external doctrine is almost invariably right wing politics.

So how exactly does a seemingly routine matter of fact become a purely political argument? It has to start, I think, with the fact that an immensely wealthy and powerful interest group poured millions into a campaign to demonize climate science and climate scientists. That probably wouldn't have worked except for an even bigger and longer lived campaign to demonize science and government. It's pretty clear that any realistic action to control AGW will require coordinated global government action, and that is anathema to a whole bunch of the foolish.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Economics Nobel

From Alex Tabarrok:

Angus Deaton of Princeton University wins the Nobel prize. Working with the World Bank, Deaton has played a huge role in expanding data in developing countries. When you read that world poverty has fallen below 10% for the first time ever and you want to know how we know— the answer is Deaton’s work on household surveys, data collection and welfare measurement. I see Deaton’s major contribution as understanding and measuring world poverty. -

See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/10/deaton.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+marginalrevolution%2Ffeed+%28Marginal+Revolution%29#sthash.4GNQJ7ls.dpuf

That's a small fragment of a much longer and excellent text. Here is another, a quote from Deaton:

Here is Deaton on foreign aid:

Unfortunately, the world’s rich countries currently are making things worse. Foreign aid – transfers from rich countries to poor countries – has much to its credit, particularly in terms of health care, with many people alive today who would otherwise be dead. But foreign aid also undermines the development of local state capacity.

This is most obvious in countries – mostly in Africa – where the government receives aid directly and aid flows are large relative to fiscal expenditure (often more than half the total). Such governments need no contract with their citizens, no parliament, and no tax-collection system. If they are accountable to anyone, it is to the donors; but even this fails in practice, because the donors, under pressure from their own citizens (who rightly want to help the poor), need to disburse money just as much as poor-country governments need to receive it, if not more so.

- See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/10/deaton.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+marginalrevolution%2Ffeed+%28Marginal+Revolution%29#sthash.4GNQJ7ls.dpuf

Paul Krugman is equally congratulatory:

Angus Deaton has won the Nobel, which is wonderful — dogged, careful empirical work at the micro level, tracking and making sense of individual households, their choices, and why they matter.

He has a quote from Deaton on Inequality.

[T]here is a danger that the rapid growth of top incomes can become self-reinforcing through the political access that money can bring. Rules are set not in the public interest but in the interest of the rich, who use those rules to become yet richer and more influential.

To worry about these consequences of extreme inequality has nothing to do with being envious of the rich and everything to do with the fear that rapidly growing top incomes are a threat to the wellbeing of everyone else.

Qualia: A Short Legged View

Our neighbor tells the story of bringing home a new chew toy to replace the one her dachshund had reduced a tattered wreck. When she presented it to him, he didn't take it, but seemed to be bothered. He then ran off, found the once identical mate to the new chew toy and brought it back and placed it on the ground next to the new one.

Pretty clearly, he had some notion of similarity of the chew toys and thought it worthy of bringing to the attention of his mistress.

The qualia question, we might recall, is whether my experience of green is like your experience of green (for example). My reductionist answer is yes, because your experience of green, like mine, is simply excitation of a label - some neuron or cluster of neurons in your brain. My other reductionist answer is no, because one set of neurons is in my brain and has its set of connections and the other is in yours, with its not entirely parallel set of connections.

Wolfgang, who is probably not not quite so reductionist, has stated "I am not my brain," to which I would agree by saying "of course your aren't - you are more like a transient excitation of that brain."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Saint Reagan

I have been catching up on my Late Shows with Stephen Colbert and caught Elisabeth Warren on the show the from a week or two back. She didn't mention Ronnie, but she did have an interesting statistic. From 1935 to 1980, the US enjoyed tremendous growth and the bottom 90% of the income heap collected 90% of additional income. From 1980 to the present, the overall growth has been a good deal slower, but the top 10% has collected 100% of the additional income.

If these figures are even approximately correct, it's easy to see why Ronnie is the patron saint of the rich and the super rich. The Reagan presidency featured several things that strongly stimulated these trends: big income tax cuts, that strongly favored the very wealthy, big social security tax increases, which punished lower and middle income earners, and a relaxation of regulations that strongly favored the Wall Street predator/swindler.

These trends continued in the two Bushes, and the relaxation of regulation continued even in the Clinton Presidency, culminating in the W Bush depression of 2007-.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Putin's Excellent Middle East Adventure

So what is El Puto up to in Syria, and how dangerous is it? Some see it in terms comparable to the pushing and shoving that led up to WW I, and other see analogies to Hitler's series of probes that led to WW II. These might be exaggeration, but one thing that is not an exaggeration is that the catastrophe Putin could unleash on the world would dwarf those of the previous two World Wars.

There is little doubt that he is now pushing the envelope, seeing how far the US can be pushed without striking back. With some reason, he suspects that Obama is tired of wars and the US military's repeated failure to deliver results.

Or maybe he is just so impressed with the success of the Bush family's various escapades in the Middle East that he wants in on the game.

In any case, it seems that we can expect an escalating series of provocations. Now what?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Book Review: The Global Carbon Cycle

The Global Carbon Cycle by David Archer, is one of the excellent series of Princeton Primers in Climate. These are short, economically priced (in the paperback or Kindle editions), slightly technical discussions of aspects of climate.

The carbon cycle is the movement of Earth's stock of carbon among its several reservoirs - the solid earth, the oceans, fossil fuels, the soils, the biosphere, and the atmosphere. The atmosphere is the smallest of these but it is also the one crucial for anthropogenic climate change and climate change more generally. The movements are complex, imperfectly understood, and, again, crucial for our understanding of the effect of carbon on the climate.

Archer's book explains much of what is known, something about how it is known, and discusses those things that aren't known, all in concise fashion. I liked the book and learned a lot, but I still have a number of complaints. The Kindle version is cheap ($19.25) and easy to carry on my phone, but the not very numerous equations are rendered as tiny images which are difficult (or were difficult for me) to magnify. In some cases, the author gives different numbers for the same quantities, like the amount of carbon in natural gas reservoirs, for example. To be sure, estimates vary, but I would prefer that he give a range rather than quote different estimates in different places. I would also prefer a more structured organization scheme, with more chapters and fewer topics in each.

Despite it's generally careful approach to the unknown aspects of the problem, the author occasionally lets his alarm at human caused climate change emphasize, or perhaps overemphasize, the worst case scenarios.

In my many arguments with climate skeptics, I have found that the carbon cycle is one of the things about which they are most deeply confused. Its complexity makes it a convenient dumping ground for all kinds of magical thinking, but they could learn a lot by reading this book. That, however, is something that they are unlikely to do.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Religious Tolerance

Religious tolerance was accomplished in much of the West after centuries of fierce struggle, but is now widely considered to be a pillar of liberal civilization. It's a pillar frequently abused even in its central heartlands, but to much of the world it remains a foreign concept.

Muslims get a lot of bad press for the murderous fanaticism of some of their fellow believers, and a great deal of the religious strife in the world today is fueled by Muslims and Islamic countries. India, like the Muslim nations, is another whose glories lie mostly in the past, but Hindu religious violence seems to be more modern than ancient. The most murderous excesses accompanied the partition of India into modern India and Pakistan, where millions of Muslims and Hindus died, but the disturbing trend is that India is now ruled by a man and party tied to some of the worst recent excesses, a leader and a party that has conspicuously failed to condemn recent religious murders by Hindus.