Sunday, January 31, 2016

10 Pounds in a 5 Pound Bag

I went to hear a talk by visiting professor (from Mexico) on violence and rights violations in Mexico. He led off by saying that about 150,000 Mexican civilians had been killed or disappeared over a recent ten year span. That was the only quantitative or substantive thing he had to say. The rest of the one hour lecture was devoted to vague and unsubstantiated claims that the violence was the result of US policies, the Mexican establishment, and inherent in the capitalist system. In short, it was the kind of dumb leftist bullshit that gives progressives a bad name.

Mexico has a high murder rate, 18.9/100,000 per year. Compare for example, such moderately violent countries as India (3.5) and the US (3.9), or relatively safe countries like Japan (0.3) or Switzerland (0.6). But even Mexico is hardly extreme compared to Puerto Rico (26.5), Jamaica (39.3) Venezuela (53.7) or our champion, Honduras at 84.3. Nearly all the high murder rate countries are significantly impacted by the drug trade, but our professor mentioned that only by blaming the war on drugs.

Deep Neural Networks and the Renormalization Group

Via Steve Hsu:

Claim: A deep connection between so-called deep neural networks and the renormalization group.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

More Computer Go

One reason the triumph of AlphaGo over its human opponent made such big shock waves is that defeating a professional is a big jump over the best previous computer results. Long after computers had beaten the best humans, strong teenage amateurs could still beat computers while giving them long odds. Fan Hui, the European champion, is a 2 dan professional, much stronger than those amateurs, but still far below Lee Sedol, the strongest human Go player. Lee Sedol is a 9 dan professional.

There is no neat equivalence between go strength levels and chess levels, but roughly speaking a 2-dan professional is something like an International Master in Chess. 9-dans are like the so-called super-Grandmasters, whereas Lee Sedol is the Magnus Carlson of go. There is a pretty big gap between a 2-dan pro and a 9-dan, and a significant gap between a "generic" 9-dan and Lee Sedol. Consequently we can't assume that Lee Sedol is going go down just because Fan Hui did.

Sedol also has at least 5 of AlphaGo's games to study (maybe more) but you may be sure that AlphaGo has assiduously studied every one of Lee Sedol's hundreds or thousands of games. Alex Tabarrok has a short note on the computer victory here. Nature collects reactions of the go community here.


Win or lose, I will bet that Lee Sedol is the last human champion the world will ever know. - See more at:

We will still have human champions of course (we still have human chess champions), it's just unlikely that they will be able to beat the strongest computers.

It took a couple of decades for technology to put the computing power to beat a chess grandmaster on your laptop. I'm going to guess that the it won't take that long to put that go champ on a laptop - the voice and face recognition software looks a lot like the kind of computer that beat Fan Hui.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Go Figure

It's over. Humans had a good run on this planet, but our time is nearly up. Google DeepMind's AlphaGo has just clocked a strong professional Go player 5-0 in a five game match. It will take on Lee Sedol, the World's best human month after next, but even if the human ekes out a win, the handwriting is already on the wall, or maybe I should say, the pixels are already in memory.

It has been about twenty years since computers cracked chess, but the ancient game of Go had been stubbornly resistant. Probably even more interesting than the fact of the accomplishment is the way it was done, not by brute computer power or clever algorithms, but with deep neural networks. Such networks are electronic emulations of the way brains work, and the networked learned, in effect, by distilling a kind of essence of millions of games it studied. Such networks, powered by enormous computing power, are now demolishing artificial intelligence problems that had defied researchers for a couple of generations: face recognition, language translation, spatial navigation.

Very few human intellectual tasks are going to escape the computers increasing mastery in the next decade or two.

Personal Note: two or three decades ago, I trained a neural network to solve a certain kind of integral equation. I noted at the time that the advantage of the neural network was that you didn't need to know much of anything about how it did it. The disadvantage is the same - you don't really wind up understanding how it does its thing. The programmers who beat chess included some strong professional players. I don't know about those who built AlphaGo, but in principle at least, the programmer really doesn't need to know much of anything about the problem being solved - he just feeds the program millions of situations and how they were solved, and the network does the rest. distilling some extremely complex and quite likely humanly incomprehensible rules from all the data.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Indo-European Religion and Society

The Indo-Europeans who spread over most Europe and a big chunk of Asia 4-5000 years ago, left their traces not only in language but in religion and social structure. A cardinal element of social structure seems to have been division into priests, warriors, and farmers, a social structure that existed ancient Greece, Rome, Germany and Ireland, and persisted in attenuated form even into the nineteenth century in Europe. It continues to play an important role even in modern India.

The religions of ancient Europe all had similar elements, with the names and characters of gods, rituals, and legends sharing powerful commonalities.

One common god, especially prominent in Greek and Roman mythology, was the one denoted by the Indo-European for father sky. (dyaus pita in Sanskrit, Ju piter in latin, and presumably *dyeus pəter in Proto-Indo-European). In much of the world the old gods have been chased out by the congenitally jealous Semitic God, but the old traces are not quite gone. The Lord's Prayer opens with "Our father, who art in Heaven..." Sounds like a sky god to me.

The old I-E gods are not forgotten. Versions of most persist in Hindu religion.

From: In Search of the Indo-Europeans, by J P Mallory.

Who Hates You, Baby?

If you are Ted Cruz, mostly everybody who has ever had to live or work with you.

His Princeton roommate blames himself for not smothering him in his sleep.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Teddy, Boy Genius

Ted Cruz, Presidential Candidate, U S Senator, and allegedly brilliant lawyer, a guy with access to all the generous taxpayer subsidized health insurance plans provided to Congress, could not figure out how to get his family health insurance. He blames Obama.

Should be great at running the country.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

One Gallon of Gasoline

I found this claim by David Archer rather incredible:

If we add up the total amount of energy trapped by the CO2 from the gallon of gas over its atmospheric lifetime, we find that our gallon of gasoline ultimately traps one hundred billion (100,000,000,000) kilocalories of useless and unwanted greenhouse heat. The bad energy from burning that gallon ultimately outweighs the good energy by a factor of about 40 million.

Archer, David (2008-10-06). The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate (Science Essentials) (p. 174). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Is it believable? Let's do the math, but let me start by saying that his statement "energy trapped by the CO2 from the gallon of gas [$1.59 at the pump for me yesterday, btw] over its atmospheric lifetime..." is a bit odd. CO2 doesn't really "trap" energy, it just sort of impedes its flow. So let me just assume that he means that the heat content of the climate system will increase by that much, and see where that leads.

So far we have added something like 356 Giga-tonnes of carbon (Gtc) to the atmosphere, and one common estimate is that if we add another 565 we will increase the temperature by 2 C. In the (slightly crude) linear approximation that works out to 1 C/460 Gtc or 2.2 x 10^-3 C/Gtc or 2.2 x 10^-18 C/g. One gallon of gasoline contains about 5700 g of carbon, so (still in our linear approx) it should raise the temperature by 1.3 x 10^-14 C.

To determine how much that is in Joules, I need to know the heat capacity of the climate system. Again I will make an approximation, namely that the heat capacity of the system is the heat capacity of the ocean. The specific heat of water (another approximation, since ocean is not pure water) is 4.17 J/(g C), and the mass of the ocean is about 1.35 x 10^24 g. Change in energy content is then mass x specific heat x dTemperature = 7 x 10^10 Joules, which is a factor of more than 5000 less than Archer's 100 billion kilocalories = 4.18 x 10^13 Joules. I guess that he might have meant 100 billion Joules.

So, the answer seems to be that that 1 gallon of gasoline does indeed translate into a hella lot of extra energy in the climate system - which, by the way, is enough to melt more than 200 tonnes of ice, but not enough to melt the million tonnes of ice implied by Archer's number.

Consider my mind blown. I mean, I can handle melting 200 tonnes of ice to go to the McDonald's, but a million tonnes seems excessive.

If I Could Put Time in a Bottle...

...It would probably be a Klein bottle.

I have no idea what this means. Maybe Sean will tell us sometime.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Friday, January 15, 2016

Men Still Behaving Badly

Despite many decades of instruction by feminists, it seems that our sex is still behaving badly, and being smart enough to become an astrophysics professor doesn't mean one is smart enough not to. I wonder if prof Ott tried the no free will defense.

His punishment is interesting:

In what is believed to be a first such action by the university, the researcher has been stripped of his Caltech salary and barred from campus for 1 year, is undergoing personalized coaching to become a better mentor, and will need to prove that he has been rehabilitated before he can resume advising students without supervision. Caltech has not curtailed his research activities. The case surfaces as harassment has become a major flashpoint within the astronomy community and even within Congress.

I guess it's schadenfreude, but sometimes I like to hear that people a lot smarter than I are also dumber.

Smart Stuff

Our kids got us an Amazon echo for Christmas. I figured out how to turn it on today, and it can do some cute stuff. The real payoff, though, seems to be in the control of other internet connected smart stuff. Of course my lights, thermostat, garage doors, television, etc. are all still even dumber than their owner, so that's a potential problem. Even more annoying is the fact that it's less than obvious how one gets everything interfaced.

I have a partially voice controlled Roku, for example, but somehow I still have five or seven remote control buttons near the television. Several of them seem to be needed for most television watching.

The Free Willies

Sabine recently had a post claiming free will doesn't exist. Lumo responded with a couple of his own. I feel only slightly guilty that I didn't bother to read much of either.

I'm pretty sure I've heard it all before, and frankly, the whole subject gives me the willies. I've read a lot of this stuff in the past and it's all about determinism, quantum randomness, etc. All very Laplacian and, in my opinion, beside the point.

My point is that each of us comes equipped with sensors and a decision making machine that takes in data about the world and makes choices about what to do next. As I mentioned before, whether you believe that old decision maker is almost purely deterministic or somewhat affected by quantum randomness is beside the point, because in either case, one datum that affects those choices is belief in whether we can really make such choices. There is every reason to believe that fatalism, or its absence, plays an important role in the choices people actually make. This is one of those self-referential loops that bedevils even math and logic.

Mostly, I think, disbelief in free will is most useful as an excuse for bad behavior or moral or intellectual laziness. In any case, if you find yourself bringing it into the logic of any decision you are making, you are probably just confusing your brain.

Those brains we come equipped with are a kludge of parts originally designed for much smaller brained animals. We still have the same fight or flight, feed and fuck instincts that served our remote ancestors well. The biggest difference we have from them is the over development of the front of the brain, and its main job is to weigh the consequences of following those instincts against desired longer term outcomes. If we feel tempted to invoke "free will doesn't exist" in the course of any decision making, chances are its really just a way of telling you frontal lobes to buzz off.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Oddly Enough

Despite more than seven decades on this planet, I can't recall hearing a single David Bowie song. That's despite the fact that 80% of my mind is song lyrics and the remaining 25% is mostly celebrity gossip. Pretty much anything that happened in music between 1970 and 2010 escaped me, except maybe for an occasional Broadway show tune. My musicological brain has a giant abyss between Jefferson Airplane, or maybe Woodstock (AKA my 26th birthday party), and Taylor Swift.

Go figure.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Headache, Backache, Stomach Ache Too

Fifty-three hundred years ago, more or less, a European man resembling modern Sardinians was shot with an arrow(backache) and subsequently clubbed to death in the Tyrolean Alps. His misfortune was something of a boon for modern archeology, because his frozen body was preserved until the present. Analysis of his DNA showed his genetic affinity for modern Sardinians and probably neolithic European farmers. DNA analysis of his stomach contents has now shown infection with H. pylori, found in half the world's population and a cause of ulcers and stomach cancer.

Humans picked up H. pylori in Africa a hundred thousand years ago, but it has subsequently evolved into different strains prevalent in different parts of the world. It's life cycle makes it a good candidate for tracing origins and migrations. Ötzi, as our protagonist has been nicknamed, was infected with a strain thought to have originated in central Asia, but now found in Europe nearly exclusively in a form highly hybridized with a North African strain. This suggests that he lived in Europe prior to the arrival of major migrations from North Africa.

Ötzi is thought to precede the arrival of Indo-Europeans in Europe, which suggests that the Central Asian strain known as AE1 may have been widespread at an earlier time. A close relative of AE1, also presumed to be derived from the Central Asian strain is now found almost exclusively in Northern India. It's not obvious that it's dissemination to India accompanied or preceded the arrival of the Indo-Europeans.

Ted Cruz is Evil

So says David Brooks, The NYT psuedo-Conservative columnist. Hey, he didn't need to persuade me, but I'm glad he said it anyway.

In 1997, Michael Wayne Haley was arrested after stealing a calculator from Walmart. This was a crime that merited a maximum two-year prison term. But prosecutors incorrectly applied a habitual offender law. Neither the judge nor the defense lawyer caught the error and Haley was sentenced to 16 years.

Eventually, the mistake came to light and Haley tried to fix it. Ted Cruz was solicitor general of Texas at the time. Instead of just letting Haley go for time served, Cruz took the case to the Supreme Court to keep Haley in prison for the full 16 years.

Some justices were skeptical. “Is there some rule that you can’t confess error in your state?” Justice Anthony Kennedy asked. The court system did finally let Haley out of prison, after six years.

The case reveals something interesting about Cruz’s character. Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. Cruz’s behavior in the Haley case is almost the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.

Cruz and Trump seem to be the nastiest pieces of work in the unappetizing GOP field, and I would like them to be dumped by any means possible - which is why I devoutly hope that Cruz's mother turns out to have forfeited her American citizenship - but there is no doubt that they are tapping into a dominant fascist themed ethos in the Republican voter. The strength of that theme owes a lot to the decades long struggle of a few greedy billionaires to control the country, but it also owes something to the capture of the Democratic party by some of its clients.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Nanny State

I believe that most people need a nanny. Me included. Or maybe especially. Humans were designed to live in groups which would significantly regulate our behavior.

So put me down for the nanny state.

Friday, January 08, 2016

President of Canada

Ted Cruz is not my favorite Presidential Candidate, and he has occasionally attracted some birther criticism because he was (a)born in Canada to a (b) Canadian father. This shouldn't matter, since his mother was supposedly an American citizen. (But try telling that to the "Obama born in Kenya" birthers.)

Now for something odd: it seems that Cruz's mother was on the voting rolls of Calgara, Alberta (Ted's birthplace) as a Canadian citizen. Curiouser and Curiouser. If so, it's hardly even clear that Cruz is an American citizen of any kind, let alone a "natural born citizen. If it turns out that he isn't, it isn't even clear where we can deport him to given that he has renounced his Canadian citizenship. Cuba, maybe?

Killing Baby Hitler

Sometimes even the silliest hypothetical can be illuminating. "Would you kill a cute baby Hitler?" is one of the silliest, but it has deep resonances in legend and story. For Pharaoh in the story of Moses, for Herod in that of Jesus, and, of course for Voldemort himself, the answer was as easy as it was for one of the slow witted dolts running for the Republican Presidential nomination. The problem, of course, is that nobody is clearly Hitler (or Moses, or Jesus, or Harry Potter) when they are a baby.

So the follow up question to "Would you kill Baby Hitler?" has to be, what if you could narrow future Hitler down to just three babies? Would you kill them all? Let the future unfold with millions slaughtered? How about if you could narrow it down to just 1000 babies? How about a whole nation?

If you answer the first question yes, you are Jeb Bush. The second, and you are also Lord Voldemort, and the third would make you Pharaoh, Herod, or the avenging angel invoked by Moses. If the final answer is yes, then you are Hitler.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Is Global Capitalism Currently Unstable?

Recent trouble in Big China is making everybody pretty jittery:

The market turmoil in China spread around the world, as global investors grew more anxious about the country’s currency and the health of its economy.

Chinese stocks plunged on Thursday, by more than 7 percent, forcing officials for the second time this week to halt trading for the day — in this case, after just 29 minutes.

Krugman warned the Fed not to raise rates: Discuss and deride.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

What The H?

North Korea claims fusion bomb test. That would be bad.

UPDATE: Informed opinion doubts it, but might it have been a failed fusion bomb test? Or a partial success with limited fusion?

Devil Sugar

Most modern dietary advice regards sugar as the devil, undesirable for health reasons. The Nineteenth Century had a better reason. The Atlantic slave trade began in the Sixteenth Century, but, as this animation shows, didn't pick up much speed until 1620 or so. By the Eighteenth Century, it had become a huge torrent, with hundreds of slave ships crossing the Atlantic every year.

Americans are most familiar with the slavery in the colonies and (mainly) in the southern States, but the overwhelming majority of slaves were destined for the Caribbean and Brazil to work the sugar plantations. The horrific conditions on these consumed human lives at such a rate that constant resupply from Africa was needed. The world's ravenous appetite for sugar had an enormous cost in blood and lives. By 1800, efforts at suppression of the slave trade had begun. It was banned in the US by 1807, and other nations passed laws which were fitfully enforced. By 1831 Brazil had outlawed the trade, and by 1850 started serious enforcement, expelling Portuguese slave traders. By 1820, the US had declared trans-Atlantic slave trading a capital offence, though only one man was ever executed for it: Nathaniel Gordon in 1862. Lincoln's refusal to commute his sentence apparently played a role in the Civil war.

The slave trade was a huge financial success for the nascent capitalist system, and a sober reminder that it workings are fundamentally amoral.


I ran into an old friend in the WalMart a bit ago. He was accompanied by a probably teenage girl whom he introduced as his niece. She quickly corrected him to "granddaughter." He agreed and explained that he had momentarily been confused by the similarity between the Spanish "nieta" = "granddaughter" and the English word "niece". And interesting fact, which I didn't know it at the time, is that the English word "niece" comes from the Old French where it had the dual meaning of niece or granddaughter.

This was apparently a common pattern in Proto-Indo-European (PIE), where maternal uncle and grandfather shared a common designation and similarly nephews, nieces and grandchildren.

J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo Europeans.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Rise of the Robots: The Wars Begin

I was doing some laundry this morning, when my Roomba awoke to begin her daily chore. She started buzzing around, trying to vacuum up my feet and nearly tripping me, so I addressed her with a mild imprecation and a shove with my foot. Afterwards, I thought about comparing myself to the guy in Ex Machina who routinely abuses his robot servant/mistress.

First they get inside our heads.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Islamic Militia Invades Federal Installation?

How should we respond to armed militants invading, seizing, and vowing to hold a Federal installation? They are apparently all or mostly Americans, so this is treason rather than a foreign invasion.

Oh, I guess I was wrong about them being Islamic. They seem to be some other flavor of nutjob militants. Should that make any difference in our response?

A group of armed protesters took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as part of a protest to support two ranchers who have been sentenced to jail for arson. Leading the pack of militiamen is Ammon Bundy. If that name sounds familiar is because he’s the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who is known for his 2014 standoff with the federal government.

Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan Bundy told the Oregonian they don’t want to hurt anyone but don’t rule out violence if law enforcement tried to remove them. They’re also not planning to go anywhere anytime soon. "We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely," Ammon Bundy said. "This is not a decision we've made at the last minute." The two men refused to detail how many militiamen were taking part in the occupation but militia members claim there are as many as 150 people at the refuge.

Ammon Bundy told CNN the group was armed but wanted to be seen more as concerned citizens than a militia. “We are not terrorists,” Ammon Bundy said. "We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children." When a Guardian reporter tried to enter the federal land shortly after the occupation began he was blocked from doing so by a man armed with an “AR-15-style rifle” who said the land belonged to the people. “This public land belongs to ‘we the people,’” he said. “We’ll be here enjoying the snow and the scenery.”

I say give them 15 minutes to surrender and be taken into custody, and, if they refuse, use all necessary force to quash the rebellion.


When Native Americans occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, the response was 50 US Marshals; fifteen armored personnel carriers; grenade launchers; 133,000 rounds of ammunition; government snipers; and National Guard troops from five states.