Monday, December 28, 2015

Indo-European Origins

Approximately half of the people on Earth speak an Indo-European language. Some of the expansion of this language has taken place in historic times through European conquests, but most of it occurred before the dawn of history. Most of Europe and much of Asia were speaking IE languages before historic times.

J.P. Mallory, in his book In Search of the Indo-Europeans, begins his chapter on the search for the Indo-European homeland by quoting three separate declarations by a single authority, spaced over 47 years, confidently assigning that homeland to Asia, Europe, and Asia Minor respectively. Nonetheless, Mallory remains confident that the IE homeland has already been identified, mainly because essentially every semi-plausible (and many an utterly absurd) potential location has already been claimed by somebody. In the absurd crowd, I would count the North Pole and Iceland.

One complicating factor is nationalism and racism. Mallory also devotes a chapter to the Aryan Myth, which reached it's moral nadir in Nazi Germany but flourished for many decades earlier. One component insisted that the original IE speakers, or Aryans, had to be blue-eyed blonds from Northern Europe. This hypothesis, I guess, was popular among blue-eyed blond Northern Europeans. A more modern, and slightly better founded notion is the out of India hypothesis, which in one form, claims that the IEs were from the Harrapan civilization of the Indus valley. A crucial defect of this theory is that the Indo-Europeans were very horse-centric, and the Indus Valley Civilization seems to have been nearly without horses.

Motivation for such out of the main stream ideas comes at least partially from the desire of cultures to claim autochthony, the notion that their culture is uncontaminated by foreign ideas, or, at least, that it can be purified of such foreign notions and be better for it. This impulse to claim autochthony was strong in Germany of the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and it is at the center of modern Hindu nationalism as well as Muslim extremism, not to mention our own Christian fundamentalism.

I mentioned this to an archaeologist friend and his reaction was "There is no such thing as an autochthonous civilization." Ironically, the claim seems to have its strongest appeal to those for whom the claim is most tenuous, like the long divided and frequently conquered Germans, Indians, and Arabs. There is no doubt that such myths have immense power, though, and many of the most successful conquerors, like the Romans, were eager to attach themselves to a more ancient parentage, which the Romans found in Troy.

So, about those Indo-Europeans? Will we ever sort out from whence they came? Until recent times, this was purely a domain of archaeology and linguistics, but in recent decades the plummeting cost of DNA analysis has made archaeogenomics the principal player. The most plausible model still seems to be the notion that the ancestral homeland was in central Asia, but those people may themselves have emigrated from somewhere else, including perhaps Anatolia or even the Indus valley.

The clearest signals appear to come from Europe, where ancient DNA has occasionally been preserved. There is evidence of at least three genetically distinct waves of settlement, first, hunter-gatherers, next, neolithic farmers, and finally, peoples related to cultures of the steppe, who quite plausibly might be the Indo-Europeans.

India remains murky, partly because of the genetic complexity of the subcontinent, which has been a way station for nearly every migration since we left Africa, but also because the climate does not favor the preservation of ancient DNA.

TBD - or, maybe, not.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Disposable People

It is a nearly unmentionable scandal of civilized life, or, more generally agricultural life, that it produces more people than the world has room for. It's no secret, of course, since the Rev Malthus prominently discussed it 217 years ago. That influential essay, which inspired Darwin and gave economics its grim nickname - The Dismal Science - hasn't exactly been forgotten, but its hardly mentioned in modern economics. It's fashionable to pretend that progress and capitalism "refuted" Malthus.

The truth is that something like the opposite has occurred. Modern technology has permitted birth control, and where it has been aggressively pursued, economic progress has nearly always followed. China is the poster boy. The vast decline in the World's extreme poverty that we have seen in the last thirty years is mostly due to the rapid economic progress of China, and that progress followed the one child policy.

What I really want to talk about, though, is the means that agricultural and civilized societies have used to get rid of the spare humanity. Of course natural processes, like disease, do some of the work, but my impression is that essentially every such society has developed institutions to do the dirty work. A few such deserve mention: slavery, war, class systems, mass punishments, ostracism, and human sacrifice.

We live in one of the richest societies of history, and a moderately generous one, but we still have our disposable people - the homeless, our enormous criminal class, drug addicts, prostitutes and all those that live on the crumbs that fall from society's table. Our huge prison population is probably the clearest example. Many or most of those in prison are no more dangerous to society than the average tobacco salesman or fake charity scam artist, but we do dispose of them at great expense. Of course their are psychopaths and other genuinely dangerous or destructive people who need to be kept off the streets, but they are far from a large majority.

We know the means to control the sort of population increase that requires this kind of human destruction. Simple education of women is by far the most effective step. Where that doesn't work, mildly coercive measures like taxes on excess children might help.

UPDATE: I think that the commentators may be missing the point. One of the founders of economics, probably Malthus, noted that in his era in Britain, the odds of a poor Irish child surviving to adulthood were some huge factor worse than those for a prosperous English child - in effect only the children of the rich were contributing to future population. That strikes me as a hellish way to run a civilization, and one that is no longer necessary.

In fact, only vestiges of this "disposable people" practice exist today, at least in the most civilized countries.

Friday, December 18, 2015

I'm So Sick of this Same Old Guv*

Susanna Martinez, our governor and formerly a local prosecutor, was pretty angry when the police showed up in the early morning to break up a loud and drunken party she was attending at a hotel in the Capital.

Martinez came to the front desk after three police officers showed up at the hotel. A slurry-sounding Martinez can be heard on the second recording repeatedly pestering Garcia to tell her who had complained -- or at least say what room they were in.

“Oh you can tell the police, but they won’t tell you -- you won’t tell me?” Martinez said. “I’ll get it from the cops.”

Martinez then gets on the phone with the police dispatcher, who also refuses to identify the people who complained.

The third, and funniest recording, has Martinez speaking to an officer on the phone, incredulous that cops had been sent to the hotel. It's unclear at that point whether she is back in her room.

“So we’re sitting in there, I’m the governor of the state of New Mexico, and we’re in there with my sister, who’s disabled, along with about six other people who are having pizza,” Martinez said.

Told by the cop that there were reports of partying guests throwing bottles off the balcony, Martinez gave this creative denial:

“I’m sorry. There’s no one on the balcony and there’s no one throwing bottles off the balcony,” she said. “And if there were, it was about six hours ago.”

Then, still seemingly on the phone, Martinez turns to Sgt. Anthony Tapia, one of the officers at the hotel. “We are eating pizza, and drinking Cokes, and whoever was throwing bottles is not there, hasn’t been there for like six hours,” she tells the sergeant.

*Apologies to Selena Gomez

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Vegas Clown Show

OK, I could only stand an hour or so of it, but it looked like Cuba was winning.

One of the more disturbing parts was some buffoon promising to "punch Putin in the nose." At least two morons wanted to unilaterally establish a no-fly zone and shoot down any Russian planes that violated it. Rand Paul pointed out that this was likely to start WW III, but Christie, Trump and other buffoons were unimpressed. Obviously, these morons have no idea how the First World War started.

I have no insight into the peculiar psychosis that constitutes a Republican primary voter, but it seemed to me that the audience kinda liked Rubio and Cruz -- maybe not Trump so much.

Hot Times

GISS (NASA) global temperatures are up. October and November of this year are by far the warmest in the instrumental records, in terms of anomaly from the 1950-1980 base. October, formerly the champion with a 1.04 C anomaly, remains the champ with a revision to 1.06 C. November is just behind at 1.05 C. Each is about 1.3 C warmer than the 1880-1900 average.

Is that a lot? In the geological record each 1 C temperature increase corresponds to something like a 5-8 m rise in sea level. Kiss more than a few cities goodbye.

1.5 C

One of the more bizarre aspects of the Paris agreement was the decision to commit to a maximum 1.5 C temperature increase.

I strongly suspect that 1.5 C is already baked in the cake - even if emissions went to zero tomorrow. We passed 1.04 C last month. 2 C doesn't seem likely under realistic scenarios.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

COP 21

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”..........James Hansen

I haven't yet read the agreement, but my first inclination is to agree with Hansen. That's despite the fact that I tend to think Hansen is a bit hysterical.

Stoat has links to an assortment views, including his own, communicated in a reasonable facsimile of those parts of the English language that we happen to share.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Sun's Influence on Climate

Without the Sun, our planet would not have a climate, so the Sun is a natural suspect for any observed climate change. On the longest time scales, the central puzzle is that the Sun does not seem to have had as much effect as we would expect. We have good reason to believe that the Sun of several billion years ago was about 30% fainter than it is now, which, other things being equal, would have frozen the watery planet solid. Mostly, though, the planet of the past was even warmer than the present. The most plausible explanations are that greenhouse gases, especially CO2, made the difference - but CO2 can't be the whole story for the earliest couple of giga-years.

The slow warming of the Sun is a consequence of the accumulation of helium "ash" in the core, and it's a process measured in hundreds of millions of years, but what about shorter term variations? The one we know about is the magnetic cycle of the Sun. The solar dynamo is a phenomenon of the convecting region of the Sun outside the fusion core, and has approximately 11 year cycles of reversals superposed on longer scale variations. The 11 year cycles have a small effect on the total solar radiation received from the Sun, about 0.1 %. This number is too small to produce much direct effect on Earth's climate, but there is considerable evidence of a real effect, not only of the 11 year cycle, but of somewhat larger longer term cycles of so-called Grand Solar Minima.

Interestingly enough, these effects appear to be more regional than global, and this is the number one clue as to their yet to be fully understood mechanism. The solar cycle has a very small effect on total solar insolation, but a considerably larger effect on UV emission. Even though this represents a small percentage of total solar radiation, it has a significant effect on the stratosphere where it is absorbed. One of the most plausible ideas for explanation of the solar cycle effect, justified by some climate models, is that these changes in the stratosphere affect the propagation of atmospheric waves with consequences for the lower atmosphere. In addition, the solar cycle is correlated with emission of energetic particles from the Sun, which affect the polar stratosphere, and anti-correlated with the galactic cosmic ray flux, which have their own conceivable side effect via the formation of cloud condensation nuclei and the global electrical circuit.

Loosely based on: The Sun's Influence on Climate (Princeton Primers in Climate) Kindle Edition by Joanna D. Haigh (Author), Peter Cargill

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

New Year's Resolution 2016

Despite the abject failure of my last set of New Year's Resolutions, I've already made one for the new year. I'm not expecting any better results, but here it is:

Stop arguing with crazy people. Not you, dear readers, but a group of climate denialists I frequent. When cornered by fact and logic, they tend to get mean. The relentless irrationality, plus their endless enthusiasm, tends to create cognitive dissonance.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Occupying ISIS Land

Obama has very good reasons not to like the idea of an occupation. The Iraq and Afghanistan occupation have been disasters. At least part of the reason is that those occupations were monumentally stupid. By contrast, the occupation of Japan and Germany after WW II were big successes. Bush's failure to plan for an occupation was one of his biggest blunders. The US started planning for the occupation of Germany and Japan right after Pearl Harbor.

Of course Bush also made many other specific blunders, like disbanding the Iraqi army but allowing them to keep their weapons, producing a vast band the armed and unemployed. If Obama, or some future President, does decide to destroy ISIS, he needs to start planning now, and study the lessons of World War II and the American Civil War.

Half Measures

Obama's speech is not going to please much of anybody. Taking guns away from those on the terror watch list is a good idea, but unlikely to either happen or have much effect. He is going to ask Congress for some kind of endorsement short of a declaration of war, but such a declaration would be very clarifying. More bombing is unlikely to work.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

The City Formerly Known as Madras

Among movies that I have never actually seen, the 1955 The Rains of Ranchipur, sticks near the top of my memory. As I said, I didn't see it, but somehow the preview made a big impression on my preteen brain. It had Richard Burton, Lana Turner, and Fred McMurray and a bunch of other actors in brownface doing something or other in one heck of a rainstorm in India.

It seems that the city of Chennai has lately been experiencing that sort of thing for reals.

Chennai, a city of 4.4 million, received 34 times its normal rainfall on Wednesday alone—so disruptive that its daily newspaper was not published for the first time since 1878 because its staff could not reach the press. The rains are expected to continue throughout early December. India’s chief meteorologist has said the recent extreme weather events “fit the larger picture of climate change.”

And a furry fellow reports that the UK is pretty wet too. With some nice pictures and charts.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Immigrants and Terror

In response to the Paris attacks, the Republicans have proposed a number of laws to limit Muslim immigrants. The revelation that San Bernadino murderess Malik Tafsheen pledged to ISIS seems certain to reinforce such calls. Even though only a tiny number of Muslim immigrants resolve on terror, the threat cannot be dismissed.

Of course strict gun laws would be even more effective in deterring terrorism, increased scrutiny seems well justified.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Grim Evolutionary Logic of Group Punishment

Donald Trump always lets his reptilian brain do the talking, and that's probably the key to his appeal. He appeals to the baser instincts, and everybody has them. Group punishment - the punishment of a whole group for the actions of a member - are officially a war crime, which is ironic, since war is itself a group punishment. Humans became the animal world's master cooperators partly to cooperate against other groups of humans, and one factor that welds us into groups is the idea that we as individuals can be punished for the actions of one of our members.

The gangsters who executed 9 year-old Tyshawn Lee were extracting revenge for another murder committed by the gang his father was in. The terrorists who go on murder rampages probably imagine that they are revenging some slights or offenses by members of the groups attacked. Many of them imagine that they are furthering some larger cause - the advancement of their religion, the protection of the unborn, or whatever.

In a world of small groups of hunter-gatherers, destroying or intimidating a rival group can enhance one's own group's chances of survival, and allowing members of ones group to be killed without retribution diminishes the group's chances. The same logic applies to larger groups like clans, tribes, nations, religions and empires.

That's the grim logic behind terrorism - punishing random members of a group for the offenses of its members, and it's also the logic behind Donald Trump's call to kill not just the terrorists, but their families. The couple that shot 32 people in San Bernadino left their infant child with paternal grandmother. By Trump's logic, that child, the parents and siblings ought to be killed in revenge, and maybe some uncles and cousins too. Would that deter future perps? I have no idea, but something like that logic does seem to be in our genes.

Anti-Muslim Hysteria

It seems all but certain that we will see a new round of anti-Muslim hysteria in the wake of San Bernadino. Naturally, the already nativist Republicans will feast on it. It's almost certainly going to be a bad month for democracy and tolerance. Trump is already saying that it's not enough to kill terrorists, we have to kill their families too:

And the other thing is with the terrorists: You have to take out their families,” he said. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives — don’t kid yourself. … They say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

NRA a Criminal/Terrorist Organization?

Not technically, I suppose, but the NRA has consistently supported policies that make it easy for criminals, the insane, and yes, terrorists to get the weapons that they use. They have given the US by far the highest murder rate of any developed country, and enabled and abetted most of domestic terrorist acts by consistently opposing measures to keep weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people in the country.

It's time to say no.

The second amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

If that's the point of the second amendment, then require all gun owners to belong to the militia, and regulate it well - weekly drills and regular deployments would be a good idea. That means no crazies or criminals. Strict discipline would insure that unsuitable militia members be expelled and deprived of their weapons.