Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nano Aggressions

When strangers meet in the jungle, some ethnographer wrote, they start by asking each other about their families and other affiliations, looking, said the ethnographer, "for some excuse not to have to kill each other." Modern encounters are usually less fraught, but we retain the curiosity about each others origins.

I recall reading an editorial by some guy with a South Asian name complaining about the micro-aggression of being asked where he was from, especially when the interlocutor wasn't satisfied with "Portland." Clearly, the questioner wanted some information about ethnicity but was reluctant to be so blunt.

I have reached the age when I have almost as many doctors as I have surviving high school classmates, and a large percentage of them are either Hispanic or South Asian, mainly, I suppose, because a lot of Indians become doctors and we live in a largely Hispanic area. Many years ago my primary care physician was a woman from India, but she created one of those giant mega-practices and sloughed off her most annoying patients, like me, to her new associates. Many of them are also Indian, and many of them don't stay long, so I have gone through a few in recent years.

I recently met my latest. She was young, efficient, relatively hot and had what sounded like an Indian name to me. Of course I wasn't micro-aggressive enough to ask where she was from - which would probably have been pointless, since she spoke completely unaccented American English and probably was born in Portland - but I was nano-aggressive enough to try to decode the clues. Nothing in the speech, little or nothing in physical appearance.

She gave me a sheet of blood tests to have done, so as I left I happened to notice that the prescription had one of those hyphenated names and the one after the hyphen was Hispanic. Probably. I suppose that means that she was either Hispanic who married an Indian (or maybe an Irishman, since it turned out that the Indian sounding name could have been either Tamil, Irish, or maybe even Korean).

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Is Trump About to Slump?

Hard to guess, but he looks to be in trouble in Wisconsin, and has also seen some erosion in other polls. Sanders also looks to be gaining, but the hour is late. New York and California may tell the tale.

I'm not looking forward to Cruz vs Sanders.

I Beg to Differ

Tyler Cowen links to a study that concludes that diversity on a board or committee is a poor predictor of opinion diversity expressed.

A robust finding is that a subject’s lack of ability predicts both a true propensity to accept others’ judgment (informational social influence) and a propensity to agree despite private doubt (normative social influence). Thus, as an antidote to conformity in our experiments, high individual ability seems more effective than group diversity.

- See more at:

I have no knowledge or opinion of the design or merits of the study, but it does have a certain plausibility - the guy who has always been the smartest kid in the room has more confidence in his opinion than the slower students. On the other hand, those smartest kids on the block are probably more likely to make the mistakes of hubris.

Algebra Too

Algebra seems to have had it's earliest roots in ancient Babylon, though many important ideas were contributed by Indian, Greek and other civilizations. The word itself is Arabic, from a word meaning "reunion of broken parts," and the subject was extensively developed by Arab mathematicians at the beginning of the second millennium. Most of us encountered some of the basic ideas, like solution of linear and quadratic equations in elementary school or (for old guys in benighted climes like me) high school. The most critical early contribution of the West was the invention of analytic geometry by Descartes and contemporaries. This unified the ancient streams of geometry and algebra, and was critical to the further development of nearly every area of mathematics. We got some of that in high school too.

Methods for solving linear and quadratic equations were known to the ancients, but early Western mathematicians* also found closed form solutions to cubic (powers to x^3) and quartic (powers to x^4) equations. The quintic (x^5) and higher powers stubbornly defied solution. The era of modern algebra really began when Abel and Galois proved that quintics and higher power equations could not in general be solved in terms of radicals (roots). In doing so they essentially invented the main subjects of what was called "Modern Algebra" in my college days: Groups, Rings, and Fields. Nowadays, books on such subjects are usually just called "Algebra" or "Abstract Algebra," not only because the work of a century and more ago hardly seems "Modern" anymore, but also because newer ideas now join the fray.

Anyway, when I found that I needed to learn a bit about rings I looked through my bookshelfs. The books I studied from long ago had either moved on to that great library in the sky, or, more likely, been tucked away in boxes somewhere. I found a few, including Contemporary Abstract Algebra by Joseph A. Gallian. I had a used copy, the early parts of which showed the dark marks of dust and skin oils, so somebody must have studied it. It was a third edition, another promising sign. I checked it out on Amazon and the current edition was the ninth, a sure sign of both success and author/publisher greed, as was the $200 asking price. The $8 I paid was clearly a bargain, and I only found one new chapter in edition 9, though even it was available in a much cheaper used 7th edition.

Abstract Algebra at Gallian's (elementary) level is studied by every undergraduate math major, a few confused physicists who think that they will learn the group theory needed for quantum mechanics (not bloody likely), a computer science major or two, and almost no one else. Looks like Gallian might have a good chunk of that market.

At the moment, it looks suitable for my purposes: elementary, short chapters, plentiful examples and exercises.

*The Persian Poet/Mathematician Omar Khayyam found a geometric solution to cubics in eleventh or twelfth century.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Math is Hard" - Barbie.

So this crazy old guy decided that he wanted to understand what a scheme was. It turns out that this requires a certain amount of knowledge of rings, a subject the old guy may have been exposed to many decades ago, as well as a whiff of algebraic topology, a subject that subject old guy is entirely innocent of. It turned out that the guy had some algebra books around, all of which talked a bit about commutative rings, and he was able to acquire an "Indian subcontinent only" copy of Munkres Topology, a book probably familiar to anyone who has ever wandered into a math graduate department.

Nobody, or at least not this guy, can learn math without doing problems, which, in higher math, means doing proofs. It was kind of shocking for our subject to learn that he had lost more than a few steps in this skill in the intervening five decades or so.

It's quite a sad story, actually. I really feel quite sorry for him. Maybe he will get better with a little practice.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Check in the Mail: Helicopter Drops

If we accept the increasingly prevalent wisdom that the world has a savings glut and a demand shortfall, can anybody, will anybody, do anything about it? It's now widely accepted that an inflation rate of 2% or slightly more is needed to sustain growth, but central banks flee from it in terror. The austerity madness continues to rule.

Some might say "what about Abenomics? Didn't it fail?" What a joke. Japan pushed inflation above 2% for barely a year and has now retreated to effectively deflationary levels. Martin Wolf says it might be time to bring out Milton Friedman's helicopters.

Martin Wolf: Helicopter drops might not be far away: “The world economy is slowing, both structurally and cyclically…

…How might policy respond? With desperate improvisations, no doubt. Negative interest rates… fiscal expansion. Indeed, this is what the OECD, long an enthusiast for fiscal austerity, recommends…. With fiscal expansion might go direct monetary support, including the most radical policy of all: the ‘helicopter drops’ of money recommended by the late Milton Friedman… the policy foreseen by Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, a hedge fund….

Why might the world be driven to such expedients? The short answer is that the global economy is slowing durably…. Behind this is a simple reality: the global savings glut — the tendency for desired savings to rise more than desired investment — is growing and so the ‘chronic demand deficiency syndrome’ is worsening…. The long-term real interest rate on safe securities has been declining for at least two decades….

It is this background — slowing growth of supply, rising imbalances between desired savings and investment, the end of unsustainable credit booms and, not least, a legacy of huge debt overhangs and weakened financial systems — that explains the current predicament. It explains, too, why economies that cannot generate adequate demand at home are compelled towards beggar-my-neighbour, export-led growth via weakening exchange rates….

The OECD argues, persuasively, that co-ordinated expansion of public investment, combined with appropriate structural reforms, could expand output and even lower the ratio of public debt to gross domestic product. This is particularly plausible nowadays, because the major governments are able to borrow at zero or even negative real interest rates, long term. The austerity obsession, even when borrowing costs are so low, is lunatic (see chart). If the fiscal authorities are unwilling to behave so sensibly — and the signs, alas, are that they are not — central banks are the only players… send money… to every adult citizen. Would this add to demand? Absolutely….

Via Brad DeLong

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Trump as a Boorish Clod

One constant for Trump is his contempt for women. The latest exchange between him and Cruz, where Trump opponents posted pictures of Mrs. Trump's nude magazine spread and Trump responded by calling Cruz's wife ugly, is merely another crude example. Trump has no use for women except as sex objects. He comes by his chauvinism honestly. The Trump fortune was built by Grandpa the brothel owner. The spirit of the pimp lives on in his grandson.

This article provides a few more examples:

Humiliating women by decrying their ugliness is an almost recreational pastime for Trump. When the New York Times columnist Gail Collins described him as a “financially embittered thousandaire,” he sent her a copy of the column with her picture circled. “The Face of a Dog!” he scrawled over her visage. This is the tack he took with Carly Fiorina, when he described her facial appearance as essentially disqualifying her from the presidency. It’s the method he’s used to denounce Cher, Bette Midler, Angelina Jolie, and Rosie O’Donnell—“fat ass,” “slob, “extremely unattractive,” etc.—when they had the temerity to criticize him. The joy he takes in humiliating women is not something he even bothers to disguise. He told the journalist Timothy L. O’Brien, “My favorite part [of the movie Pulp Fiction] is when Sam has his gun out in the diner and he tells the guy to tell his girlfriend to shut up. Tell that bitch to be cool. Say: ‘Bitch be cool.’ I love those lines.” Or as he elegantly summed up his view to New York magazine in the early ’90s, “Women, you have to treat them like shit.”

Oddly enough, some women seem to like this - well enough to vote to make him President.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


When I picked up my copy of the cheapo paperback edition of a certain mathematical classic probably known to every math grad student, I happened to notice a fairly bold notice in the upper left hand corner of the cover:

Circulation of this edition outside the Indian Subcontinent is UNAUTHORIZED.

I had a momentary picture of jackbooted Indian Army thugs breaking down my door to seize the UNAUTHORIZED property. Then I realized that India probably didn't give a crap. The jackbooted thugs would likely represent some more domestic publishing organization, like the one that charges six or eight times as much for its US edition. It's hardly a pirated copy, since the publisher name is the Indian branch of the same corporation. Also, I purchased the book from a famous mail order house which shares its name with a big South American river.

In any case, it makes me wonder about the exact legal status of such cheap editions intended for, say, the Indian subcontinent. Is it legal to import them? To sell them in the US? Anybody know?

UPDATE: The NYT has the Story: Excerpts:

Vikas Rajkumar, an engineering student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., has found a way to save up to $1,000 a year on textbooks. He buys them in India when he visits his home there, or has relatives ship them to him...

There are no penalties for students who import books for their own use, under a 1998 Supreme Court decision that ruled that manufacturers who sell goods more cheaply overseas than in the United States have no protection against having their products sold back to the American market. But businesses or individuals who buy books for resale outside India could face prosecution for copyright infringement.


Mr. Chittranshi said one of the first signs of the trend was the mushrooming in India of Web sites devoted to textbook sales, even though few Indian students buy books online. A quick Internet search reveals many sites selling books, many labeled "Special Indian Edition" at big discounts. For instance, one electrical engineering book, "Analog Signal Processing," was found for under $8, compared with $140 on

President Trump will fix this "problem" by getting India to pay for a high wall - or maybe by carpet bombing Indian printers

Time to Crush ISIS

Roger Cohen, writing in the NYT, thinks Obama's slow-motion war on ISIS is not working. Obama clearly believes that the dangers of a more all out attack on ISIS outweigh the advantages, but can this idea be sustained while the casualties in Europe and potentially, the US, pile up? I doubt it.

Even if Obama is right, I doubt that the public will sit still for years more of terror while the Islamic State still exists.


BARCELONA, SPAIN — It is not working. President Obama’s slow-but-steady strategy to defeat the Islamic State is clawing back a little territory in Syria and Iraq but is doing nothing to dent the charismatic appeal of the militant group, disrupt its propaganda or prevent it from killing Europeans...

The dangerous thing about this territory, which the group calls a caliphate, is not so much its oil revenue, or training facilities, or proximity to the West, or control over several million people — it is its magnetic assertion of Sunni jihadi power. The United States and Europe would not have accepted its existence in 2001. They would not have accepted that terrorists in a sanctuary close to a NATO border in Turkey could shut down a European city, as they did again today. But the years since 9/11, with their toll in blood and treasure, have been wearing.

Since the Paris attack, Obama has insisted that an anti-Islamic State coalition with European and other allies is getting the job done. More than 20 percent of the group’s territory has been recaptured. The president has suggested that more radical military action to crush the militants — essentially the deployment of infantry — would drag the United States into another Middle Eastern war and increase the appeal of the Islamic State. His argument has been: Defeating the Islamic State is militarily feasible, but then what?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

What a Dope!

Higher mathematics is a young man's game. So why do I have a new book on Algebraic Geometry? (My third, I think.) Because I got this stupid idea that I should understand what a scheme was. What an idiot!

By Any Means Necessary

Obama should call Congress back to Washington and ask for a declaration of war against ISIS, and authorization to destroy it by any means necessary.

"This is War"

Declared Senator Ted Cruz, as he hurried back to Washington to introduce a declaration of war in Congress. OK, he didn't really do that latter stuff, he just spouted some inflammatory but otherwise meaningless rhetoric. He wants police patrols of "Muslim neighborhoods" in the US to make sure that they get radicalized. What a dumb-ass. And he's only the second scariest guy running for President.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, where there already are lots of radicalized Muslims, they are forced to ponder the consequences. When Ulysses Grant was President, at one point the Ku Klux Klan had become such a grave threat (in his opinion) that he suspended habeas corpus, one of the key legal rights of Americans. That and other firm tactics rapidly destroyed the Klan and it didn't rise again until D.W. Griffith's propaganda masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation resuscitated it many decades later.

Suppose Belgium is prepared to take similarly draconian measures, suspending many civil rights in an attempt to control its terrorism problem. Would that help? Would mass expulsions do the trick? One critical problem is that most half-way measures exacerbate the problem. Brutal repression would likely change hundreds or thousands of radicalized Muslims into tens or hundreds of thousands.

One obvious measure which would likely have few of these side effects is for Europe and the US to unite to crush the Islamic State. I really can't comprehend why we suffer it to continue to exist.

Carrot and Stick: Cuba

For half a century, the US attempted to destroy the Communist regime in Cuba with brutal sanctions which inflicted terrible suffering on the Cuban people but hardly any at all on Cuba's Communist leaders. During that time, most of the other Communist countries in the world moved sharply away from Communism and many of its brutal repressions. Why? Not because of sanctions or punishments, but because they could not resist participating in the benefits of market economies.

It's been obvious for many years that our sanctions against Cuba were counterproductive, not damaging the Castro regime but propping it up. We persisted in those policies because of the disproportionate power of a fanatical anti-Castro lobby of Cuban Americans. That generation is now dying off, and younger Cuban Americans have been paying attention to what worked with China, Vietnam, and other formerly hard-line Communist states.

That change made it possible for Obama to open the path to Cuba. Should we expect a rapid transformation? That's hardly likely. The old policy failed miserably for two and a half generations. The new is likely to take at least one. Is success guaranteed? Hardly, but five decades of abject failure mean that it's past time to try something else. There may be some slow movement while the Castros are still alive, but more likely real change will await a new generation.

Monday, March 21, 2016


Some recent headlines that are all too non-literal:

Krugman Eviscerates Republican Establishment: You Made Trump!

Krugman Throttles GOP Elite for Their Dishonesty About Trump

Oh well. One can dream.

Collectivism and Property

If there is one thing worshiped by the propertied rich, it is property. If property is their God, collectivism is their Satan. Ultimately though, property is a collective notion. For our hunter-gatherer forbears, property consisted only of stuff one could carry on one's person. Something like the modern notion of property only came into existence with agriculture, with land and domestic animals to defend. The thing is, an individual by himself is nearly as helpless to defend a patch of agricultural land as Charles Koch would be to defend his far flung empire without the collective apparatus of the state and it's appendages. The state originated and grew in response to that need.

In the libertarian fantasy, the state exists for no other purpose. But the essence of a state is its collective nature - it can only exist as some kind of a bargain among its participants. In particular, a state is a concentration of power, and those who control the power wield it for their own purposes. The American plutocracy, or at any rate the most politically active part of it, the network of right wing foundations, institutions, universities, and the billionaires who control them have managed nearly total control of one of the American political party apparatuses only to find that there is still one part that they can't manage full mind control for - the voters. The voters they have roused with racism, jingoism, and hatred of the government aren't quite ready to march lockstep into Marco Rubio style robotic allegiance to the Koch machine.

Instead their would be pawns, the plebes, seem to be embracing that demon the founders feared, the man on horseback, except that this time he rides on his private jet. Of course Trump is one of them, so why should they fear him? After all, Trump is hardly likely to go for Bernie Sanders style confiscatory taxes. What they quite reasonably fear is that he will use the powers of the government to make himself the king of the oligarchs, Putin style. The little rich, a Reagans, a Nixon, the Bushes and their like, the super rich can tolerate, knowing that they will be happy with the larger of the crumbs that fall from their tables. A fellow oligarch is a real threat.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Creating Trump

Paul Krugman has been prominent in pointing out that Donald Trump is the creation of the Republican elites with their persistent Conservative bait and switch tactics: fomenting working class fear and anger and delivering nothing but tax cuts for the rich. Those tactics their had modern American origin in the John Birch society (which copied them from the Communist Party), one of whose eleven founding members was Fred Koch, father of Charles and David Koch, the immensely wealthy brothers whose annual strategy sessions attract a who's who of the American right wing mega rich as well as camp followers like the late Antonin Scalia and fellow Supreme Court Justice Thomas. The brothers, also early Birch Society members, later went their own way, but kept the tactics. After the Republican defeat in 2008, it was at the 2009 Koch conclave that the Republican strategy of total resistance to Obama and demonization of him was adopted.

Josh Marshall has a particularly clear analysis of how this led to Trump:

If you look around over the last week there are a number of highly sophisticated Republican voices arguing that Donald Trump is the sort of demagogue and potential strongman our political system was designed to prevent from gaining power in our country. They are portentous and ominous words and true in many respects. But they would be far more credible if so many Republicans - not necessarily the same writers, but countless formal and informal spokespersons including numerous high-ranking elected officials - hadn't spent the last seven years ranting that the temperamentally cautious and cerebral Barack Obama was a 'dictator' who was trampling the constitution.

This isn't just a 'gotcha' or 'so there' - though frankly that alone would be more than merited. But as I noted a couple weeks ago, they are inextricably connected. Trumpism is the product of many things. But a key one of them, perhaps the key enabling one, is years of originating and pandering to increasingly apocalyptic and hyperbolic conspiracy theories, fantasies and fever dreams which put middle aged white men up against the metaphorical wall with a thug, foreign, black nationalist, anti-colonialist Barack Obama shaking them down for their money, their liberty, their women and even their lawn furniture.

Unfortunately, it's the American people who are cast in the victim's role in this little immorality play.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Another AlphaGo Masterpiece

Lee Se-dol went down again, and again, the computer played amazing go. Lee tried a sharp if desperate invasion with move 125, but when that failed, it was game over. Lee said that the failure was his, not humanities, but that's obvious nonsense. No human would have played better.

For those who want to inspect the wreckage on their own computers, the .sgf file is included in the story here.

Elsewhere, DeepMind leader Demis Hassabis has some not very illuminating comments on where DeepMind might go next, none of them remotely as interesting as my suggestions.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ice, Ice Baby

Arctic ice area and extent have been hovering at or near near record lows, mainly because warm storms have been steered into the Arctic taking temperatures in the East to very warm levels. The next week or more will be colder, giving the ice what is likely a last chance to increase. In April, melting season will begin in earnest. As of now, there is a lot of thin ice and open water in the Eastern Arctic. Will that be important for this year's melt season? TBD.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

New IQ Tests for Smart Computers

Now that computers have knocked off the best human games, how about some more realistic type problems. My suggestions:

(1)Writing a top ten Country or Pop single (words, music, and production).

(2)Given an appropriate budget and the necessary geological and terrain data, design a gorge spanning bridge that passes muster with top civil engineers.

(3)Given an elementary or intermediate physics textbook, use natural language understanding to read it and solve the problems. It's program can include all appropriate background, but not the specific content of the text.

(4)Write a Tony Award winning Broadway Musical.

(5)Devise and implement a program to control and mitigate the adverse effects of humans on the global environment;-)

Suck It, Humans! Go Gone.

The toughest game, the one that emphasized human intuition, seems to be gone. Google's AI machine, AlphaGo crushed the best human again today, and it wasn't even close. Lee Se-dol, the best human player in the world, and plausibly the best human player ever, went down again and this time nobody could find significant mistakes in his play. From the New Scientist:

In the minutes after today’s match ended, Jackson said AlphaGo’s flawless play left him in shock. “Things that looked questionable in hindsight turned out to be correct. That’s its hallmark.”

At yesterday’s post-game press conference, Lee looked shell-shocked. Today he seemed resigned. One reporter asked what AlphaGo’s weaknesses are? Lee laughed: “Well, I guess I lost the game because I wasn’t able to find out.”

This is a huge milestone for artificial intelligence. The methods and techniques which conquered the best humans in chess had proven hopelessly impotent against go. One of the most shocking things is the speed with which AlphaGo seems to be getting better. The program that beat the European champion a few months ago was clearly much weaker than the one that faced Lee on Tuesday, and the one that beat him today seems much stronger than the that one.

The most important component of AlphaGo's artificial intelligence program is its deep neural networks, an old idea based on the brain given extraordinary power by new computer hardware. Far more than the computer algorithms that vanquished chess, the Deep neural net is generalizable to a vast host of tasks. If you have been paying attention, you might have noticed that the voice recognition software at your local pharmacy etc. has taken a gigantic leap in the last year or so. Siri and Amazon Echo are more examples. Almost certainly deep neural networks have done the work there as well.

Because the neural networks learn a lot like the way humans do, only a million times faster, many human intellectual tasks are likely to open up to them soon.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Dark Money: My Book Report I

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.

Does it seem odd to you that one political party is populated exclusively by candidates who advocate tax policies that would generously reward the richest Americans and destroy social programs very popular with the average American? That the US has a health care system that delivers fairly poor quality care, and that only to the well off, but still costs far more than those of other developed countries? Jane Mayer's account of the remarkable institutions that have developed promote this state of affairs is a terrific and, for me, terrifying read. From the Amazon blurb:

Why is America living in an age of profound economic inequality? Why, despite the desperate need to address climate change, have even modest environmental efforts been defeated again and again? Why have protections for employees been decimated? Why do hedge-fund billionaires pay a far lower tax rate than middle-class workers?

The conventional answer is that a popular uprising against “big government” led to the ascendancy of a broad-based conservative movement. But as Jane Mayer shows in this powerful, meticulously reported history, a network of exceedingly wealthy people with extreme libertarian views bankrolled a systematic, step-by-step plan to fundamentally alter the American political system.

The network has brought together some of the richest people on the planet. Their core beliefs—that taxes are a form of tyranny; that government oversight of business is an assault on freedom—are sincerely held. But these beliefs also advance their personal and corporate interests: Many of their companies have run afoul of federal pollution, worker safety, securities, and tax laws.

The chief figures in the network are Charles and David Koch, whose father made his fortune in part by building oil refineries in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. The patriarch later was a founding member of the John Birch Society, whose politics were so radical it believed Dwight Eisenhower was a communist. The brothers were schooled in a political philosophy that asserted the only role of government is to provide security and to enforce property rights.

When libertarian ideas proved decidedly unpopular with voters, the Koch brothers and their allies chose another path. If they pooled their vast resources, they could fund an interlocking array of organizations that could work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses, Congress, and, they hoped, the presidency. Richard Mellon Scaife, the mercurial heir to banking and oil fortunes, had the brilliant insight that most of their political activities could be written off as tax-deductible “philanthropy.”

These organizations were given innocuous names such as Americans for Prosperity. Funding sources were hidden whenever possible. This process reached its apotheosis with the allegedly populist Tea Party movement, abetted mightily by the Citizens United decision—a case conceived of by legal advocates funded by the network.

The political operatives the network employs are disciplined, smart, and at times ruthless. Mayer documents instances in which people affiliated with these groups hired private detectives to impugn whistle-blowers, journalists, and even government investigators. And their efforts have been remarkably successful. Libertarian views on taxes and regulation, once far outside the mainstream and still rejected by most Americans, are ascendant in the majority of state governments, the Supreme Court, and Congress. Meaningful environmental, labor, finance, and tax reforms have been stymied.

Starting with the John Birch Society, the Kochs and their like minded allies patterned their tactics and strategems on the Communist Party, and later, on aspects of the Nazi youth groups: secrecy, deception, capture of influence makers and allies in government (Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Thomas attended some of their strategy meetings). Their enemy is the government itself, or at least those parts of it not devoted to protecting their own property. They aim to destroy anything compromising their own power: unions, environmental laws, labor laws including child labor laws, civil rights laws (a key original target), and above all, income taxes. Some extremists among them even favor a return of slavery.

Alpha Go Wins First

Alpha Go won the first game in it's match against the world's best human player, Lee Se-dol. Go is probably the deepest game humans play, much more dependent on intuition than chess. It doesn't look good for that old wetware computer.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Fruitless Schemes

Alexander Grothendieck was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and his central achievement, so I hear, was the notion of scheme. What the hell is that, you might ask, or at least I did, and in a moment of moral weakness, I thought I might try to find out. Wikipedia, sad to say, was little help:

To be technically precise, a scheme is a topological space together with commutative rings for all of its open sets, which arises from gluing together spectra (spaces of prime ideals) of commutative rings along their open subsets.

That didn't help me much, even though I sort of know what a commutative ring and a topological space are. However, the further reading had this article: Can one explain schemes to biologists?, an obituary for Grothendieck that attempted to do just that. I'm not sure how biologists did, but I flunked.

His best known work is his attack on the geometry of schemes and varieties by finding ways to compute their most important topological invariant, their cohomology.

There is the respect that makes makes calamity...

The trouble is that I don't understand even the simplest examples of cohomology. If the biologists do, they understand more algebraic topology than I do - of course I don't understand much at all.

PS - I think that a scheme is sort of a generalization of a variety, which, again, I think, is the solution set of a set of polynomial equations. Don't hold me to that.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

School Daze: The Human Genome

I went back to school this semester. Thanks to the generosity of the citizens of NM and the misplaced priorities of the State Legislature, it is very cheap for old geezers (like your humble correspondent) to take university classes. One course I am taking is Human Genomics (AKA, BIOL 550), which is fundamentally a reading course wherein we read a lot genomics papers, mostly from the last 2-5 years. The amount of progress in this area recently has been phenomenal, driven mostly by the rapid fall in the cost of sequencing genetic data but also by the development of powerful statistical algorithms that permit analysis of the enormous quantities of data.

The human genome, like those of all* the other life on Earth, is encoded in DNA molecules, enormously long chains of four different nucleotides. The human genome, for example, consists of about three billion of these, each of which is paired with a complementary nucleotide in a complementary chain. Together, these chains form the famous double helix. The most famous and central property of these chains is that they include long sections of code, with each three base pair set encoding for an amino acid of a protein product.

Most of the information on a genome is in the form of the sequence of these base pairs, so that if you know the order of all three billion bases on the DNA strands, you know almost everything about the genetics of the organism (there is also some so-called epigenetic stuff, but I won't get into that). So how do you go about determining the sequence of three billion molecules in these tiny chains? It's complicated, but it usually involves several steps, including multiplying the DNA, cutting up into more manageable sized pieces, sequencing the pieces, and figuring out how to virtually glue all the now sequenced pieces back together. The details are managed by micro-machines, designed by people, and nano-machines, designed by bacteria and adapted by humans.

Sequencing the first human genome cost a billion dollars or so, but since then the cost has plummeted by roughly six orders of magnitude. We have gradually acquired sequences for several thousand modern humans from all over the world as well as sequence data for many of our relatives close (chimps, gorillas, monkeys) and distant (yeasts and bacteria). For the student of human prehistory, it is even more interesting that DNA from some ancient dead has also been sequenced, including some Neandertals and a Denisovan, which split from modern humans perhaps half a million years ago.

All this new data is telling us a dramatic tale of repeated migrations and admixture events. The people who occupy a location now are rarely those who got their first. The story is probably known best for Europeans, who seem to have left Africa about 50 thousand years ago, separated from modern East Asians 10 or 15 thousand years later, and mixed slightly with the pre-existing Neandertal population before replacing them. These Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were mixed with and largely replaced by Neolithic farmers from the Middle East some 7-9 thousand years ago. A couple of thousand years later, the Yamnaya culture with horses, chariots and bronze showed up, sweeping away most of the previous population and probably bring the Indo-Eropean languages.

Walls and Tariffs

Great Caesar dead and turned to clay, could stop a hole to keep the wind away......WS, Hamlet.

UPDATE: The following is a repost of something I wrote a few years ago. I thinks it's appropriate to the question of the utility of tariffs, which form a sort of wall against the outside, which is why political entities have nearly always liked them, to the distress of economists who like Ricardo's arguments. The real purpose of such walls, whether stone walls of farms and castles or tariff barriers, is to facilitate internal integration and external competition - to fight entropy.

SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall.........................Robert Frost, Mending Wall

Physicists call it entropy. But there are also lots of things that do love walls, including neighbors, cells, cultures, nations and firms. Which is to say, all those things that like to live in a state of relatively low entropy. We build fences to keep order in and disorder out.

Matthew Yglesias, my second favorite economics writer, writes about economist Ronald Coase and the theory of the firm:

Ronald Coase, one of the most distinguished economists in the world, died yesterday at the age of 102. He's well-known both for the depth of his insights and for the relatively accessible nature of his two major papers on "The Nature of the Firm" and "The Problem of Social Cost." I feel that the social cost paper gets discussed more frequently among the educated public because it seems to have important political implications, but it's also not always clear what those implications are (Kevin Bryan has a good discussion here) but the "Nature of the Firm" more tickles my fancy...

So why does that happen? If markets are so great, what's with all the bosses and colleagues and meetings and internal office politics?

Coase says that basically we have firms for the same reason that big-time law firms are so expensive to hire. It turns out that writing comprehensive enforceable contracts is really hard. To actually specify what will happen in every conceivable situation would be an enormous drag on resources. To cope with the real-time complexities of the business world, you need two things that markets and contracts can't provide. One is leadership. You need people who can survey a situation, think a minute, and then issue some directions that everyone carries out. Ideally those leaders will make the right call. But typically even picking a sub-optimal strategy will be better than doing nothing at all as you have additional rounds of discussion and bargaining. The other—related—thing that you need is teamwork and team spirit. A workplace where everyone is obsessed all the time with the exact parameters of their job rather than being willing to pitch in and solve problems is going to be a dysfunctional one.

Which is to say that even in a market economy, the most successful practitioners aren't going to be organized along market principles. Instead they're little islands of central planning.

I like the whole article, but principle is extremely deep. Markets are really good at allocating resources among competitors but not so hot at fostering cooperation. This is a huge blind spot even for many who love Coase.

Some have pointed to Microsoft's employee rating system as the reason Microsoft has seemed so slow and uncertain of foot in recent years. Because emplyees are being constantly rated against other members of their work groups, they are competitors more than cooperators. My own emplyer has a similar system, and completely aside from any effects on morale and cooperation, it sucks up a huge fraction of management time every year.

I'm not sure that good fences make good neighbors, but they do seem to be necessary for lots of purposes.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Repub Debate

I don't know about the rest of you, but I know I slept better having been assured that DT's dick was longer than his fingers.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Protecting Protectionism and Other Economic Inefficiencies

My job needs protection and so do I.............................Apologies to Neil Young.

A lot of human behavior is not economically efficient. I would argue that much of that behavior has sound logical roots in a science more fundamental than economics, biology. Recently, a certain ferocious Mustelid took on India's failed attempt to protect its incipient solar panel industry. Success, he argued, would only have ensured that Indian purchasers of solar stuff would pay more than they otherwise might. That's very sound and Smith/Ricardo, but history suggests that there is more to the story.

When the dark satanic mills of Manchester were cranking up, they benefited from trade laws that protected them from competition with Indian weavers and later, when their efficiency was sufficient, free trade at the point of a gun allowed those same mills to turn whole villages of Indian weavers into boneyards, and protectionist schemes protected them against competition from the Colonies. Later, protectionism allowed the US, Japan, China and others to build domestic industry behind walls that kept the competition out.

Economists will show you their "theorems" which demonstrate that everyone would have been better off with a more Ricardo efficient allocation of labor, but this ignores a couple of key facts: 1)nations are usually run not for the benefit of everyone, but for the benefit of elites, and 2)in a Darwinian competition, the individual (nation or person) might benefit more by damaging a rival, even at the cost of accepting damage himself rather than by gaining a benefit himself while giving a larger benefit to a rival.

As long as Darwin and Malthus are calling the shots - and, to a significant extent, they still are - doing the best for your country might not be the most economically efficient for the moment. Of course protecting failing industries is a bad idea, the pain you take in the present will just lead to more in the future. In the particular case of solar, it's hard to tell if that's an industry in which India's low cost labor has a future or not, but I'm going to guess that India doesn't really need to compete in most solar power sectors.


Among my many faults is a tendency to want to be in every intellectual fight I see. When The Weasel writes some nineteenth century denunciation of economic protectionism, I want to point out some useful counterexamples and the intellectual bankruptcy of the underlying theory. When Wolfgang writes about qualia or Nietzsche, I'd like to offer a contrasting view. When Arun writes about Y-DNA and the AIT or about about how Western scholars have no right to write about the Mahabharata, I have an opinion on those things too. Naturally things as fraught as climate and politics are catnip for the pugnacious mind. Could the Oscar Robertson of old have guarded Steph Curry? I've got an opinion on that too.

I'm not quite dumb enough to think I or anyone can have an intelligent opinion on all these things, but I have found argument a very potent learning tool. If you have an idea, test it in intellectual debate. It's the Socratic method, and it still works. If everybody is willing to play.

Most of the human race is not. For many people, questioning their fundamental assumptions is like kicking their dog or calling their kid ugly - a deeply offensive insult.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The Big Bank Theory

Guess who was sitting in Sheldon's spot. (Via the Lumonator)

Bargain Days

Daily Beast Headline: Trump’s Latest Acquisition: Christie’s Soul

Hope he didn't overpay.

Premature Pivot?

Trump made a few "pivoting toward the center" moves in his victory speech last night. Is it too soon? Probably not, but if his fans get disillusioned it could all tumble down in Florida and the Midwest.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Supa Tu

The wins for Cruz and Rubio aren't bad news for Trump, since each now has a rationale for remaining in the race for a while, thus dividing the anti-Trump vote. They will probably both stick around for at least the next two weeks.


I watched parts of three victory speeches tonight: Clinton, Rubio, and Trump. Rubio's was definitely the best. I guess he must have won big.

New CDS Slogan/Talking Point

You might recall that the satellite record is the "gold standard" for the CDS/Global Warming Skeptic community.

Feb 2016 Satellite Temperatures.

About that new slogan: It has been zero years and zero months since a temperature increase.

Preliminary surface temps also show a big record for 2/2016.

Even if human CO2 release went to zero tomorrow, there is still lots of warming already baked into the cake.

Behind Every Great Fortune a great crime*.

Fred Koch, according to Jane Mayer's Dark Money, made his big bucks building refineries for Stalin and Hitler. Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society, came to regret his association with Stalin, but he liked Nazi Germany enough to hire a Hitler loving German nanny for his children. He also showed a fondness for pre-WWII Italy and Japan. The refinery he built for Hitler was the prime source for the high octane aviation gas used by the Luftwaffe, and the destruction of the refinery cost the lives of hundreds of allied airmen and tens of thousands of Germans on the ground.

Gramps Trump made his fortune another old fashioned way. According to Wikipedia:

Trump made his first fortune operating boom-town hotels, restaurants and brothels[1] in the northwestern United States and western Canada.[2]

The apple doesn't fall ...

*Balzac via The Godfather.