Friday, April 29, 2016

Oh Donna Oh

Donna, the sixteen-year old virgin of Hair, became eligible for Medicare and full Social Security benefits this year.


Albedo (fraction of incident light reflected) is one of the largest feedbacks in the climate system. Snow and ice have high albedo, land and water low. Snow in Alaska and western Canada is predicted to be decimated over the next week. That should tend to warm the Beaufort and Chuckchi sea ice, which is already looking a bit fragile. A good chunk of Siberia is also seeing the snow go. So far, Arctic ice looks really vulnerable. Ice extent is already at record lows for the date, and volume is as low as it was in the record melt year of 2012 - but weather still is going to be the arbiter. TBD

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Father of the Man

The revealing last sentences of Dark Money:

As a child, he [Charles Koch] used to tell an unfunny joke. When called upon to split a treat with others, he would say with a wise-guy grin, “I just want my fair share— which is all of it.”

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 7202-7203). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Killing Baby Hitler Revisited

Among John "Jeb" Bush's many stupid boasts was his claim that he would have the necessary lack of scruple to kill Hitler as a cute baby. As it turned out, he couldn't even scratch, much less kill, the not at all cute 69 year-old baby Hitler winning the Republican nomination.

Winter is Coming ...

... (Still) to western Europe and parts of the northern US. Meanwhile, it's toasty back in Winter's home, in the Arctic. This is not a entirely a coincidence. A ridge of high pressure that normally forms over the US and western Europe finds it more convenient to park elsewhere this April.

Dark Money: Book Review

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer is a superbly written and extensively documented book that tells a sickening story. It tells how a tiny group of the super wealthy, not from the 1% but from the top 1/100th of a percent, adopted the tactics of Lenin and Hitler to seize control of much of the American government and poison the minds of Americans against their own country. They combine immense wealth with low tactics like the big lie, character assassination, and intimidation with a long range strategic plan based on control of strategic opinion makers, a vast network of propaganda organizations loosely disguised as think tanks, and aggressive buying of influence in everything to from local legislative races to the oval office. Many of them have skirted the law or flouted it, their vast wealth enabling them to escape with fines and other wrist slaps.

Their aims are radical: dismantling every aspect of the modern progressive state except for protection of their own wealth. Environmental laws, worker safety and protection, public education, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, anti-trust laws, income and inheritance taxes, and child labor laws are targets. Their success has been immense. Their representative were invited into the new Republican Speaker of the House's office before he was even sworn in, and they wrote his budget. The result has been a huge transfer of wealth from the ordinary citizens of the United States to them and their fellow members of the super rich. They have literally spent billions to hire a vast army of lawyers, talk show hosts, professors, PR men, politicians, and phony experts, but the rewards they have reaped are probably in the trillion dollar category.

There are perhaps a few dozen individuals who contribute most of the money for this radical action plan, but the Koch brothers, Charles and David, with a joint fortune of nearly 100 billion dollars, are very near the center of all the action. Charles Koch is the intellectual leader and chief architect of their strategy, and a principal funder of most of their actions.

It sickened me to read this book. I could only read a little bit at a time without falling into a depression of rage and despair. If one looks at the history of the republican form of government one sees a discouraging pattern of democratic rule transitioning to oligarchy and dictatorship. The wealthy use their wealth to control the government, and their control of the government to extract more and more of the society's wealth. The US is well on the way.

I have written several other comments on portions of the book and related matters here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Building a Negative Greenhouse: Antarctica

Fernando wanted me to look at this paper: How increasing CO2 leads to an increased negative greenhouse effect in Antarctica from Geophysical Research Letters. I glanced through it, and the argument seemed not crazy, so I decided to see if I could work out a model from first principles to see whether it could plausibly work. Think of it as a three reservoir problem in thermodynamics. Space is a nice cold reservoir, the central Antarctic plateau is also pretty cold (temperature Ta), and sometimes colder than the stratosphere (Ts). There is a greenhouse gas atmosphere lying between the stratosphere and the ground. Suppose the GHG concentration increases. In that case, radiative heat flow from the stratosphere to the surface will decrease. If the opacity increase is the same for downwelling stratospheric radiation and upwelling surface radiation, then the ordinary greenhouse effect will obtain. Suppose, though, that the GHG layer is more transparent to upwelling radiation than downwelling radiation. In that case we can have a reverse greenhouse.

But all the radiation involved is long wave, so how could that work? If the stratosphere emitted in somewhat narrow bands (little pressure broadening) and the GHG layer only absorbed in the CO2 bands (since hardly any H2O at super cold temps), then it might work, since the ice/snow are pretty infrared black and will emit broadband.

Note that this could only work for very special conditions.

It might be nice if somebody would check my work here. Rabett? Stoat?

Genomics FOTD

The average human has a genome that differs from the human reference genome at about 3-4 million sites (out of 3.2 billion).

Asian, European, and (Native) American population groups (out of 26 population groups total; 10 Asian, 5 Eur, 6 NA, 5 African) went through extreme population bottlenecks 15-20,000 years ago where the effective population sizes of each were reduced to less than 1,500 individuals. The simultaneous African bottlenecks was a good deal less severe with effective population sizes > 4,500. Most rebounded with extreme population growth shortly thereafter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hillary vs. Donald

It looks like we have achieved the curse of interesting times. I was kind of hoping for a convention swindle resulting in a three way race between Cruz, Trump and Clinton, but it doesn't look like that could happen.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Scary - At Least For Hillary Fans

NYT headline: Charles Koch Says He Could Possibly Support Hillary Clinton

Charles G. Koch, the billionaire industrialist, suggested in an interview Sunday that he was open to supporting Hillary Clinton for president and said it was possible she would make a better president than her Republican rivals. It was an unexpected sentiment from Mr. Koch, who has for years deployed his vast wealth to champion conservative causes and Republican candidacies, emerging as a major foe of the Democratic Party. ...

Mr. Koch sounded at times baffled and disappointed by the language and ideas of several Republican presidential candidates in an interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC, which aired on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

He called a plan by Donald J. Trump to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country “monstrous” and dismissed Senator Ted Cruz’s proposal to carpet-bomb territory held by the Islamic State as “frightening” hyperbole.

Mr. Koch spoke somewhat fondly of former President Bill Clinton, suggesting he held down government spending and regulation compared with his successor, President George W. Bush. He called Mr. Bush “a fine person, and tried to do the right thing but was misguided.”

That prompted a question about Mrs. Clinton. Below is a transcript of the ensuing exchange:

You can follow the link above, if you care.

Of course it's possible that Koch is just trying to scare Hillary fans. He is a very clever fellow. Or it's possible, that, having himself summoned the demons from the vasty deep of the American subconscious, he has figured out that he really can't control them.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Uh Oh

Regular readers may have noticed that I'm a big admirer of Jane Mayer's book Dark Money, but there is an unfortunate boo-boo here:

But as Dr. James Baker, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in 2005, “There’s a better scientific consensus on this than on any issue I know— except maybe Newton’s second law of [thermo] dynamics.”

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 3944-3946). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I assume the brackets mean that Baker did not actually use the word "thermo" but that Mayer or some unfortunate editor slipped it in. A little knowledge is still a dangerous thing.

Fossil Energy

No economic factor has been more important to the rise of modern civilization than fossil fuel energy, and this fact has concentrated enormous political and economic power in the hands of those who find, own, and control it. The available wealth attracted the bold, the brilliant and, frequently, the slightly crazy, but public spiritedness was not necessarily a major virtue or character trait among them. The enormously wealthy men, corporations, and countries that control this precious resource were not slow to recognize the threat that public concern over global warming posed to their particular fortunes - the money at stake was clearly in the trillions of dollars. From Dark Money, funding climate denial:

The first peer-reviewed academic study on the topic added further detail. Robert Brulle, a Drexel University professor of sociology and environmental science, discovered that between 2003 and 2010 over half a billion dollars was spent on what he described as a massive “campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change.” The study examined the tax records of more than a hundred nonprofit organizations engaged in challenging the prevailing science on global warming. What it found was, in essence, a corporate lobbying campaign disguised as a tax-exempt, philanthropic endeavor. Some 140 conservative foundations funded the campaign, Brulle found. During the seven-year period he studied, these foundations distributed $ 558 million in the form of 5,299 grants to ninety-one different nonprofit organizations.

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 3887-3893). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In retrospect, climate scientists, environmentalists, and most politicians were absurdly naive to think the owners of trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels would meekly accept a very large fraction of their wealth being locked up in the ground just because the safety and health of billions of people was at stake. They have fought back ferociously, with all the powers that their billions can buy. As has often been the case, the Koch brothers were the first to put up big time money for the fight.

Ten Books for a Desert Island

From time to time the NYT asks various literary figures/micro celebrities what ten books that they would take to a desert island. They aren't going to ask me, but I think my library might be big on books on how to survive on a desert island, and, especially, how to get back to blankety-blank civilization. Assuming that were not an option, I would probably pick books that I hadn't read yet.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Torch Dancing/Melting

A blast of abnormally warm air is expected to push into the snow covered areas of Eastern Siberia and the Barents, Kara and Laptev Seas early next week. Simultaneously Greenland, Alaska, and the Bering and Chukchi Seas will also get toasted. Even the Beaufort Sea, which is currently full of cracked and broken ice, courtesy of a strong Beaufort Gyre, should get some above zero (C) melt time.

If May is anything like April, a big melt might be in the works. From Climate Reanalyzer.

Harriet Tubman

Looks like a good choice for the new twenty.

Harriet Tubman: Wikipedia

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1822[1] – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and, during the American Civil War, a Union spy. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved families and friends,[2] using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era was an active participant in the struggle for women's suffrage.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

That Old Time Feeling: Animal Consciousness

There is no doubt in my mind that higher animals have a consciousness rather similar to our own. But what about honeybees?

James Gorman, writing in the New York Times, takes up the question in Do Honeybees Feel? Scientists Are Entertaining the Idea

Bees find nectar and tell their hive-mates; flies evade the swatter; and cockroaches seem to do whatever they like wherever they like. But who would believe that insects are conscious, that they are aware of what’s going on, not just little biobots?

Neuroscientists and philosophers apparently. As scientists lean increasingly toward recognizing that nonhuman animals are conscious in one way or another, the question becomes: Where does consciousness end?

Andrew B. Barron, a cognitive scientist, and Colin Klein, a philosopher, at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, propose in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that insects have the capacity for consciousness.

This does not mean that a honeybee thinks, “Why am I not the queen?” or even, “Oh, I like that nectar.” But, Dr. Barron and Dr. Klein wrote in a scientific essay, the honeybee has the capacity to feel something.

I didn't see anything here that hadn't occurred to me, but it was interesting that at least some main stream science is coming around to a rejection of Cartesian dualism on the question.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Speed Reading

The NYT has a recent op-ed announcing that speed reading is not possible. Speed skimming can be done - getting a few ideas from an article without reading all the words, but speed reading, no. The trouble is partly in the limitations of the human eye, but mostly in the speed with which the brain can decode language. I don't think this is a shock to any serious reader of nonfiction. Some sample reads.


OUR favorite Woody Allen joke is the one about taking a speed-reading course. “I read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes,” he says. “It’s about Russia.”

The promise of speed reading — to absorb text several times faster than normal, without any significant loss of comprehension — can indeed seem too good to be true. Nonetheless, it has long been an aspiration for many readers, as well as the entrepreneurs seeking to serve them. And as the production rate for new reading matter has increased, and people read on a growing array of devices, the lure of speed reading has only grown stronger.

From a history book.

THE TREATY OF 1580 RECOGNIZED a stalemate between two empires and two worlds. From this moment, the diagonal frontier that ran the length of the Mediterranean between Istanbul and the Gates of Gibraltar hardened. The competitors turned their backs on each other, the Ottomans to fight the Persians and confront the challenge of Hungary and the Danube once more, Philip to take up the contest in the Atlantic. After the annexation of Portugal he looked west and symbolically moved his court to Lisbon to face a greater sea. He had his own Lepanto still to come— the shipwreck of the Spanish armada off the coast of Britain, yet another consequence of the Spanish habit of sailing too late in the year. In the years after 1580, Islam and Christendom disengaged in the Mediterranean, one gradually to introvert, the other to explore.

Crowley, Roger (2008-07-01). Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World (Kindle Locations 4825-4831). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

From a reading in my genomics class:

A quickening of the direct interaction between hominins and plants is apparent at 100 kya (thousands of years ago), with grass seed consumption by early Homo sapiens in Mozambique (Mercader, 2009). Later evidence comes from Neanderthals up to 50 kya where plant material enshrined in the calculus matrix of teeth shows the consumption of plants later associated with domestication, such as Hordeum, Phoenix, and members of the Faboideae (Henry et al., 2011, 2014). Furthermore, an insight into the sophistication of this plant use is evident from the occurrence of starch granules showing damage that may be consistent with cooking. This ‘early’ starch economy is also apparent from the late Pleistocene (13.7e15.0 kya) of modern humans from dental caries and a broad range of plant materials from the same context, including grasses, oak, legumes, pines, and pistachio (Humphrey et al., 2014).

From Wikipedia

In abstract algebra, a free abelian group or free Z-module is an abelian group with a basis. Being an abelian group means that it is a set together with an associative, commutative, and invertible binary operation. Conventionally, this operation is thought of as addition and its inverse is thought of as subtraction on the group elements. A basis is a subset of the elements such that every group element can be found by adding or subtracting a finite number of basis elements, and such that, for every group element, its expression as a linear combination of basis elements is unique. For instance, the integers under addition form a free abelian group with basis {1}. Addition of integers is commutative, associative, and has subtraction as its inverse operation, each integer can be formed by using addition or subtraction to combine some number of copies of the number 1, and each integer has a unique representation as an integer multiple of the number 1. Integer lattices also form examples of free abelian groups.

Except for the last passage, most of the words encountered are likely being used in familiar ways. Even in the last one, most of the unfamiliar words are defined in the paragraph, but can anybody not expert in the subject matter quickly decode any paragraph except the two of the NYT story?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Hubble Hubbub

New measurements of the local rate of expansion of the universe are creating a stir. The measurements found that the current value does not seem to agree with data from the Cosmic Microwave Background and the so-called Lambda CDM model. The second link, to a Scientific American news story, discusses potential implications in a bit more speculative manner than the paper.

From SA:

The Hubble constant discrepancy, though, suggests that dark energy might actually change over space and time, potentially causing an increasing acceleration of the cosmos instead of a constant outward force. One theory proposing this type of dark energy is called quintessence, which posits that dark energy results not from the vacuum of space but from a field that pervades spacetime and can take on different values at different points.

An alternative explanation for the discrepancy, however, is that the universe contains an additional fundamental particle beyond the ones we know about. In particular, a new species of neutrino—a nearly massless particle that comes in three known varieties so far—could account for the divergence in Hubble constant measurements. If an extra type of neutrino exists, then more of the universe’s total energy would take the form of radiation rather than matter. (Neutrinos, because they have almost no mass, travel near light speed and therefore count as radiation in this calculation). Whereas matter clumps together under gravity, a greater radiation budget would have allowed the universe to expand faster than it would have otherwise.

or maybe there is a flaw in the measurements. TBD


Buying influence, Koch style.

When the EPA attempted to regulate surface ozone (a major byproduct of Koch refineries), a GMU Mercatus center economist came up with the far fetched scenario that such ozone might prevent cancer. The DC circuit court judges embraced this theory. It turns out that they had been beneficiaries of Koch sponsored boondoggles that combined luxurious living with a side of libertarian propaganda.


Their embrace of the Mercatus Center’s novel argument, however, soon proved embarrassing. The Supreme Court overruled their position unanimously, noting that the Clean Air Act’s standards are absolute and not subject to cost-benefit analysis. Although their side lost in the end, the case illustrated that the Kochs’ ideological pipeline was humming.

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 2951-2953). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It seems that hundreds of judges, including at least two current Supreme Court Justices, have participated in these Koch sponsored (with tax free dollars) junkets.

How GMU Became a Koch Satellite

At one point Jane Mayer told the story of Charles Koch's takeover of key departments at George Mason University. This bit caught my attention:

Charles reportedly demanded better metrics with which to monitor students’ political views. To the dismay of some faculty members, applicants’ essays had to be run through computers in order to count the number of times they mentioned the free-market icons Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Students were tested at the beginning and the end of each week for ideological improvement.

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 2878-2881). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This strategy should appeal to old Stalinists like Lumo. Straight outa Dugashvili.

Penetrating Academe

It took them a while, but the organized American plutocratic Right eventually realized that the Left's big advantage was control of prestigious American universities - Harvard, Princeton, Yale and a few others. It also realized that a frontal assault would not work. Perhaps mostly importantly, they chose their targets carefully.

It's pretty obvious that much of the faculty at those schools are far to the left of the American public. Most of those faculty members are in departments with essentially zero influence on public affairs - humanities, liberal arts, ethnic and similar studies, much of social science and others. Scientists tend to be liberal rather than left, and engineers and doctors tend to be moderately right, so together they don't much affect the balance.

Economics, law, government and history are exceptions, especially the first two. Dangled financial carrots persuaded top law schools that they needed Economics of Law faculty, and strategic funding pushed conservative scholars into influential positions.

The replacement of the old "publish or perish" by "get funded or get lost" provided a perfect entry path for tens of millions from right wing foundations. Those who heard and spread the message found abundant funding and juicy perks - generous fees for speeches and consulting at the right wing "think tanks."

I expect that they believe that leftists still dominate sociology, ethnic studies, humanities and a lot of other "fluff" departments, but, for now, at least, they can be left to stew in their own fantasies.

As Richard Fink, a principal architect explained the plan:

The first phase required an “investment” in intellectuals whose ideas would serve as the “raw products.” The second required an investment in think tanks that would turn the ideas into marketable policies. And the third phase required the subsidization of “citizens” groups that would, along with “special interests,” pressure elected officials to implement the policies. It was in essence a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled, and switched on.

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 2709-2713). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Based on Jane Mayer's Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Saudi Threats

Saudi Arabia is threatening to sell all it's US assets if Congress passes a bill that potentially could hold it accountable for some of 9/11. Obama is fiercely resisting, but Congress is more united about this than nearly anything about. Also involved are the 28 secret pages of the 9/11 report which apparently hint at involvement by some Saudi officials.

I would be surprised if the American public or Congress is intimidated by this threat. It's true that selling $750 billion of assets would cause some market chaos, but it would also create a fire sale where stocks would be dirt cheap and *(as corrected by WB)* interest rates would go up. It might not get 80 cents on the dollar.

They do have a lot of money, but basically they are a pipsqueak country.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


“Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.” ......Gildor to Frodo.

Kasich was apparently asked what he as President would do about the problem of campus rape. After some of the usual bullshit about laws and rape kits, he added this bit of fatherly advice:

I’d also give you one bit of advice,” Kasich went on. “Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol.” The crowd applauded him.

Cristina Cauterucci, writing in Slate, was offended.

Kasich’s viewpoint is a cynical, victim-blaming, finger-wagging perspective. Former Dear Prudence columnist Emily Yoffe once made a similar argument to Kasich’s in the pages of Slate, when she wrote that “the rise of female binge drinking has made campuses a prey-rich environment.” If women didn’t get drunk, the thinking goes, they would be able to resist the advances of men waiting in dark corners, ready to prey on easy, intoxicated targets. And if they just stayed away from men who can’t control their alcohol-amplified sexual impulses, they wouldn’t become the victim of such heinous crimes.

Let us just note that Cauterucci is not one of the wise. She is in fact an idiot. (So is Kasich, only not on this particular subject.) She continues with the following irrelevant twaddle.

It would make just as much, if not more sense to tell men to stop drinking so much so they don’t rape women. But rape and sexual assault are just as much about power and violence as they are about sex, and alcohol is not the root cause of rape. Kasich should blame misogyny, poor sex education, and toxic male behavior, not women, for the scourge of campus sexual assault. Women don’t need paternalistic counsel from politicians—they need men to learn about consent, respect for boundaries, and the swift punishment that awaits them when colleges and courts do their jobs. ...

Kasich had offered some practical advice on how to avoid being raped. Similarly, parents warn their children not to cross the street without looking both ways instead of going on irrelevant rants about careless drivers and insufficient penalties for failure to yield. Yes, the world might be made safer for chinchillas if frogs had fur, and women could get safely drunk at frat parties if men would be re-engineered to feminist specifications. Perhaps that will happen someday when the CRISPR-CAS9 system is perfected, but in the meantime, people are advised to check traffic before crossing streets, to watch their footing when on precarious mountain trails, and to not get so drunk that they can't figure out what is happening to them. And if they do, they bear some moral responsibility, even if no legal responsibility, for what happens to them.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hot Times North

It's been a freakishly warm start to the year - the warmest in the modern record. The last few weeks have been blowtorch times in the Arctic, with unprecedentedly early Greenland melting and breakup of sea ice. It's early, and weather is still the ultimate player, but early signs for Arctic ice are not good. Both Atlantic and Pacific sides have a lot of weak ice, and early snow melt in Alaska threatens to speed things up in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

Of course it doesn't help our clarity that the prime sensor for sea ice, the DMSP F17 37 GHz channel has gone out, but it could be an interesting year.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Tale of the Used Book

I have taken to buying used textbooks, partly on the grounds that I'm too old to invest in new ones. Of course I'm also too old to invest in any advanced math textbook, but that's another problem. In any case, I've become interested in the story these books tell, or at least the story told by the page edges. My latest is a copy of Kreysig's Introductory Functional Analysis, a ridiculous $140 for the crappy paperback version. My hardcover was much cheaper.

The tale of the page edges says that the original owner probably made it through only about 10 pages.

Most physicists are probably familiar with Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics, a major early test for most US physics grad students (though it's junior year fare at Caltech, and probably some other elite schools). I used to work with a truly wizardly physicist turned antenna designer, and I recall that at one point he brought out his copy of Jackson. It would be a severe understatement to state that it appeared to have seen hard use. It had been rebound in leather by the owner, and the edges of the pages looked like they had be used to strain 10,000 mile motor oil.

An Abstract Algebra book I own identifies the previous owner as a diligent student of group theory who didn't go on to study rings and fields (at least not from that book).

The page edges of my own books, however, often look like new fallen snow in Greenland. It's probably because I wash my hands a lot;-)

Arctic Ice

Fans of Cryosphere Today have seen some funky stuff lately, including bizarre spikes in Arctic sea ice right when melting should be getting underway. This has prompted some of the usual idiots/professional climate liars to proclaim a welcome resurgence in sea ice. Of course if they look at the Antarctic sea ice, where an even more startling freezing season plummet of 1.5 million km^2 is shown, they would be less impressed.

What has actually happened, aside from the people at Urbana-Champaign being asleep at the switch, is more in line with the laws of thermodynamics, especially that second one. A key ice sensing channel of the DMSP F17 satellite has failed, and it is sending back bad data. The satellite has been in orbit since 2006, so this is hardly shocking. The F18 is up there, and is currently having its corresponding sensors calibrated, so we should eventually have good data from it. In the meantime, there is some not perfectly corresponding data from other satellites, and the busy guys at Neven's Arctic Sea Ice Forum are keeping us posted.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Foundations of Lies

Tax exempt foundations seem to be a peculiarly or at least mainly American institution. The Rockefeller Foundation was the first. John D. Rockefeller, under pressure from the anti-trust movement and embarrassed by the exposes that had revealed the morally and legally dubious tactic by which his empire had been constructed, set out to donate a big chunk of his wealth to causes benefiting the public good: education, art, science and public health. A number of other public spirited (or intimidated) individuals followed suit. These early foundations faced a good deal of public scrutiny and criticism. Partially as a result of that skepticism, these early foundations were mostly explicitly nonpartisan and science based.

This was not to be the case in the age of what Jane Mayer calls the age of "weaponized philanthropy." They were a creation of the ultra-wealthy who found they could have their ideological cake and eat it too. With the onset of World War II, Sarah Mellon Scaife saw big tax bills approaching, and took advantage of one of those convenient tax loopholes useful only to the ultra-rich. She put a large fortune into a trust with the proviso that all income would go to "charity" for twenty years, after which the balance would pass untaxed to her heirs. The Koch family also exploited this convenient proviso. So what should all those many millions in income go to? She apparently favored the arts, birth control, and education, but after her death her son Richard Mellon Scaife had a better idea. The money should go to promote his right-wing and anti-government political views. This led to The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Marshall Institute, The Cato Institute and many others - ostensibly independent think tanks but in fact bitterly partisan political propagandists who tightly followed the political directions of the wealthy donor/masters.

Scaife's foundations masterminded the war on the Clintons, and he poured many millions in to digging up real and imagined dirt on Bill Clinton's extra-marital affairs, all while leading his own lurid sex life which culminated in a bitter and sensational divorce from wife number three. Scaife was neither brilliant nor consistent, but he was largely responsible for founding the apparatus of what Hillary Clinton called the "vast right-wing conspiracy," though the idea for these propaganda centers seems to have come from the economist von Mises.

Charles Koch is another creature entirely - brilliant, obsessively focused, and, reportedly, ruling his Cato Institute with an iron hand. It was there that the war on Obama was hatched, and Koch seems to have been both the money and the mind behind the Republicans strategy of total obstruction.

It's important to note that Koch, who operates with as much secrecy as he can, is not somebody who wants a few minor or well-studied adjustments in government policy. His targets include almost every aspect of the modern regulatory state: Social Security, Medicare, welfare, income taxes, anti-trust laws, health and safety regulations of all kinds, public education... the list goes on. He is waging a virtual war against the United States as presently constituted. He is well aware that these ideas have been roundly rejected by the public, so he pursues covert policies designed to subvert trust in the government and its leaders. For him, a disfunctional Congress is a feature not a defect.

Based on Jane Mayer's Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

The new, hyper-partisan think tanks had impact far beyond Washington. They introduced doubt into areas of settled academic and scientific scholarship, undermined genuinely unbiased experts, and gave politicians a menu of conflicting statistics and arguments from which to choose. The benefit was a far more pluralistic intellectual climate, beyond liberal orthodoxy. The hazard, however, was that partisan shills would create “balance” based on fraudulent research and deceive the public about pressing issues in which their sponsors had financial interests.

Some insiders, like Steve Clemons, a political analyst who worked for the Nixon Center among other think tanks, described the new think tanks as “a Faustian bargain.” He worried that the money corrupted the research. “Funders increasingly expect policy achievements that contribute to their bottom line,” he admitted in a confessional essay. “We’ve become money launderers for monies that have real specific policy agendas behind them. No one is willing to say anything about it; it’s one of the big taboo subjects.”

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 1554-1561). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Football Kills Your Brain

Yet another study shows that a large fraction of retired professional football players have sign of traumatic brain injury. Most previous studies had relied on diagnoses that could only be made postmortem, but this one use an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging. Other studies (the postmortem type) appear to show that any level of participation, high school, college or professional produces brain injury.

These results apply to American Football, but other studies show significant risks from rugby and soccer. In soccer, the principle risk appears to be related to heading the ball, which tends to produce not only hard collisions with the ball but also with other player's heads and elbows.

Children, at least, should probably never head the ball. This kind of rule is unlikely to compromise their development as players much, since head skills are relatively simple compared to foot skills.

Live Long - If You Prosper

Or if you live in the right place.

It's not surprising that the rich live longer, because that's always been true. It's a little surprising how large the discrepancy is in the US - 15 years for men between the richest and the poorest 1%. Where you live matters too. My hometown (83 yrs) or even better, Glenwood Springs, CO (83.4 yrs) versus about 10 years less in Gary Indiana or Detroit.

NEIL IRWIN and QUOCTRUNG BUI have the story and an interactive map in The NYT.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

If I Had a Nickel...

...for every bird that has fed at one of my bird feeders today...

I'd probably have enough to pay for my next order of bird seed.

I'm looking out my window right now at eight lesser Texas goldfinches, who weigh about as much as two nickels each, each busily shelling and eating nyjer seeds that run 1/100,000 of a pound each, and they go through a pound or two per day.

A Bunch of Dumb* Guys Arguing About IQ

Lubosh has joined the fray. And PZ Myers has another rejoinder to Steve.

Myers's latest is such a confused mishmash of dubious assertions, irrelevancies, and physicist baiting that it hurts me to say that he's mostly right, but he is. He claims, with no real evidence, that human IQ hasn't increased in the last 100,000 years. He makes a big deal of the fact that race horse speed hasn't increased in 50 or more years. This is true, but it ignores the fact that the effective breeding size of the race horse population is tiny - about 31 ancestors, and that artificial rules prohibit any kind of genetic engineering not known to the ancient Egyptians. He makes a big deal of the fact that super high IQs may not have been adaptive in the past, and that there are ethical and practical reasons why experimenting with genetic engineering of smarts might not to be a good idea.

Lumo makes the point that this latter fact is irrelevant - for the moment we are talking about possibility not practicality.

As I said, though, I'm pretty sure that Myers is mostly right, and moreover, that genetic tweaking of IQ is probably a dead end, except maybe for the purpose of preventing severe retardation. For one thing, we know little about what IQ or differences in IQ mean in terms of brain structure and organization. What would a person with an IQ 200 be able to do that lesser mortals can't, for example, aside from really crushing the Raven progressive matrices?

We know one key fact about the changes associated with human advances in cognition over the past several million years: size matters. Brain size tripled over this period, and brain size differences in current populations are correlated with some measures of IQ. So how did this work? Nobody really knows. On the other hand, size isn't everything. Neandertals had bigger brains than us but they were culturally more primitive and we exterminated them.

My guess is that the engineers at AlphaGo could whip out an AI system that would really, really, crush Raven's progressive matrices. Would that mean that that systems had an IQ a lot higher than humans? Technically, yes, but practically, hardly. The most obvious limitation of the human brain is its very slow cycling/processing speed, which is measured in milliseconds. Silicon based processors are a million times faster, and if we care about higher IQs, that's likely to be the way it could happen.

*Steve and Lubosh probably have IQs higher than mine, but that hasn't prevented them from being wrong about this.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Water is Coming

"Après nous le déluge"

NASA is mostly on the water. John Schwartz, writing in The NYT, takes a look at the coming flood. Physics and safety like launching space vehicles over the ocean and from southerly locations. Transport of large rockets is more feasible by sea than on land. Consequently, much of NASA's infrastructure is situated in areas very vulnerable to rising sea levels.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The concrete block perches absurdly atop a piling, elevated about 10 feet above the beach sand. Is it art? A bulky milepost?

Carlton Hall pointed to the puzzling object and explained that it was once a tie-down block for securing structures like antenna towers. Dr. Hall, the chief scientist for the space center’s ecological program, said that when he started working here a few decades ago, the block had been buried. Now the sand that enveloped it is gone, swept away by the forces of coastal erosion and storms.

He gestured toward the waves rolling in nearby and said, “The beach used to be at least 50 yards out.”

On the other side of the dunes, a quarter mile away, sit two artificial hills some 50 feet high. Those are NASA’s two biggest launchpads. And to the south sit several smaller ones.

NASA is just the tip of the multi-trillion dollar iceberg, of course.

Water is Coming. Winter? For a while, anyway.

Retirement Age

The Constitution specifies minimum ages for persons to be elected to the House, Senate, and Presidency. It's a well documented fact that the human mind and body decay with age, so doesn't it make even more sense to specify maximum ages for the most critical national occupations? How about a mandatory retirement age of 72 for judges, and a maximum age at inauguration of 65 for Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates?

Yes, I realize that that would disallow Clinton, Sanders, and Trump. And no, I don't want Cruz or Kasich either.

If I Only Had a Brain

A slightly better one, that is. Steve Hsu's pursuit of IQ 1000 reminds me of a few, mostly quite modest, improvements that I would like for my current wetware.

a)More durable memory. Steve reports that after reading a book, John von Neumann could recall every word. That would be useful.

b)Faster learning. Why should endless repetition be needed to learn a new skill, like math, piano or Spanish?

c)More alacrity at puzzle and problem solving.

d)Faster neural cycling times. Milliseconds drag on. I wouldn't even need anything like the full million fold speedup to silicon based times - a modest factor of 1000 would be cool. Heck, even a factor of ten might be nice.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

IQ 1000 versus "They've Gone About as Far as They Can Go?"

Steve Hsu and PZ Myers are apparently engaged in a bit of mutual trash talk. The subject is whether the human IQ can be significantly enhanced by genetic manipulation, with Steve, naturally, saying yea and a nay from PZ. I'm far from being a fan of Myers - he's way too dogmatic for my taste - but I would definitely give him this one on points. Myers:

Stephen Hsu thinks super intelligent humans are coming. He thinks this because he’s very impressed with genetic engineering (he’s a physicist), and believes that the way to make people more intelligent is to adjust their genes, and therefore, more gene tweaking will lead to more intelligent people, inevitably. And not just intelligent, but super-intelligent, with IQs about 1000, even though he has no idea what that means, or for that matter, even though no one really knows what an IQ of 100 means. We’re going to figure out all the genes that are involved in intelligence, and then we’ll just turn the knob on each one of them up to their maximum, and boom, super-humans.


But here’s the thing: those early modern humans were pretty much indistinguishable from us today. They were about the same size, looked about the same, had the same capabilities we do now. If we used a time machine to go back and kidnap a Cro Magnon baby, bring her to our time and raise her in an ordinary American home, she’d probably grow up to play video games, shop at the mall, get a college degree, and land a job at an investment bank, and do just fine. Most of the evolving humanity has done since seems to be focused on their immune system and adaptations to agriculture and urban living.

One has to wonder, if IQ is such a great boon to humanity, why hasn’t the biological basis for it shown much improvement in the last 100,000 years? Evolution is far better at tinkering than humans are, and has been tweaking our species for a long, long time, but super-brains haven’t emerged yet. Somehow, genetic engineering is going to find amazing new solutions to intelligence, a quality of the brain that we don’t even understand yet, and cause a great leap upward? Unlikely.

Read more:

There is a whole lot of unproven BS in that second paragraph, and I wasn't too impressed by three, either, but YMMV.

Myers makes the highly dubious claim that most differences in IQ are due to environment, but he makes the far more credible claim that tweaking all the 10,000 genes Hsu thinks influence IQ to maximize IQ would have a hella lot of unplanned side effects. Let me mention a clear example.

There is a gene known as SRGAP2 that's highly conserved in our lineage. Mice have a copy, and so do gorillas. Modern humans have four copies. Inhibiting the action of the mouse ortholog promotes some kinds of brain growth. The extra copies acquired in the human lineage seem to have been sequentially acquired just when the human brain size took it's big jumps from Chimp size to human size.

There is a punch line in the mechanism of action. The extra copies are incomplete, and seem to act only or mainly by inhibition of the original SRGAP2 A protein. Physiologically, this looks like a blunt instrument.

Steve has replied to the critique on his blog. His strongest argument seems to be that there really have been some super smart people. Would this be a great world if everybody was as smart as John von Neumann or Terry Tao? Beats the hell out of me. Would the world be any better if we could all be like Mike (Michael Jordan) or Lebron James? The extraordinary are always in some sense freaks of nature. Maybe our world needs more of one variety or another, but evolution suggests that for much of our history it wasn't so.

Books I am Currently Reading

Or, in some cases, trying to read.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. This book is a monster, almost 1200 pages in its paperback edition, but I listened to the 48 hour audible edition. We picked it up for a long drive, but we didn't drive nearly that long. Murakami is clearly a master, probably the best modern novelist that I have read. He is a Japanese writer, writing in Japanese, but his characters would hardly be out of place in London or New York. Murakami knows English well, and has been a prolific translator of American novels into Japanese, and oversaw the translation into English. The genre is a sort of magical realism - a realistic world into which strange events start intruding.

Carver, Chandler, Salinger, and Theroux are just a small sample of the authors he has translated, and the influence of the detective yarn is strong in 1Q84. He claims to have been influenced by Shakespeare, Kafka and Stephen King.

I mentally compared Murakami with a couple of notably long books by recent American authors: Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Wallace's Infinite Jest. Murakami and his characters have a similarly formidable erudition, but are far more carefully drawn. Wallace's characters never take much shape, and exist only as cardboard grotesques. Pynchon's have a ghostly incandescence but never quite emerge into reality. Murakami's assassin, weird detective, and eerily efficient bodyguard may have an improbable command of classical music, literature and Jung, but they remain firmly and realistically human.

A second work of fiction I'm reading for the first time is Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte is one scary lady - a very dark vision, indeed.

Oliver Twist is also a new one for me. I made a good start on it but then I started seeing a bit too far ahead. Poor Oliver. I suppose that I will eventually get back to him.

The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two by Elena Ferrante is the second book of Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet. if it's as good as the first, it will be great. A huge cast of characters, focused on two bright girls who grew up in the same neighborhood.

J P Mallory's In Search of the Indo-Europeans is non-fiction, and a lot denser than I anticipated. It is a 1991 book, so it is innocent of modern discoveries in ancient genomics, but the story he constructs based on archaeology and linguistics only looks more and more solid. The Indo-Europeans who invaded Europe around 3000 BC were chariot driving, cattle herding warriors originating north and east of the Black Sea. In Europe they largely displaced the remaining hunter-gatherers and the preceding wave of neolithic farmers. It is very likely that they also invaded Anatolia, India, and parts of China, but absolutely definitive evidence of their ultimate origin remains to uncovered. The Indo-Europeans were illiterate, so we only have evidence of their language when they came into contact with literate peoples, originally in the Middle East.

It would be a considerable exaggeration to say that I am reading Ocean Dynamics and the Carbon Cycle by Williams and Follows. I've read a bit here and there, but my enthusiasm for studying climate science sort of evaporated when I decided that the climate deniers I had been arguing with were too dense to follow a scientific argument. Or maybe it just reached its sell-by date.

I also seemed to have reached an impasse on the Astrophysics front. After plowing through a few chapters of Galaxies in the Universe: An Introduction, by Linda S. Sparke, John S. Gallagher III I ran out of enthusiasm. The problems were a bit boring.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer is a profoundly scary and deeply disheartening book, which is probably why I haven't finished it. There is only so much depression a person can take. I have long been deeply suspicious of the power and motives of the new American oligarchs, but I had underestimated how radically anti-democratic and anti-American they were, as well as how deeply they had penetrated chosen sectors of the press and academia. I like this line by a guy originally hired by the Kochs to write a history of the company:

Charles [Koch] “was not going to be satisfied with being the Engels or even the Marx of the libertarian revolution. He wanted to be the Lenin.”

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 1025-1026). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

There are also a number of math books I am wrestling with, but maybe I will write about them later.

Hot Times North

The Arctic, and particularly Greenland, have been toasty lately, relatively speaking anyway. Over the next week, unusually warm air is expected to park over Greenland. Air up to 20 C warmer than normal. Of course that air is still below freezing: -10 C to - 20 C instead of the usual -30 C or so for this time of year, so it's not obvious to me that this will have a significant affect on the melt season.

The Arctic sea ice is at record lows for this time of year, but once again it's not clear that this will have a big effect on the melt season. Most of the melt is in the Atlantic east, while the Pacific side, except for the Sea of Okhotsk, is still intact. Currently, the sea ice area is nearly a million km^2 less than that of 2012 (the record low season), but, as the saying goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Could be interesting though.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Gene, Gene, Gene...

A genomics paper from last year documents a correlation between copy number of a gene and measures of cognitive ability: "DUF1220 copy number is linearly associated with increased cognitive function as measured by total IQ and mathematical aptitude scores" by Davis et al Human Genetics (2015) 134:67

When I read it, I joked that the copy number correlated with IQ and anti-correlated with chances of getting a date for the Prom.

Not, perhaps, a bad guess, since this paper from 2014 shows that the same copy number correlates with Autism Spectrum Disorder symptoms.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Hopeless Dilettante

I have six genomics papers to analyze and a play to write this weekend, not to mention such more mundane matters as bills and taxes.

Which probably explains why I am currently reading about Algebraic Topology.

Mathematics and Music

The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted.................Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much: such men are dangerous......Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act I, Scene 2.

For me, mathematics and music are two of the most enigmatic and interesting human creations. Neither one has an obvious connection to the business of survival in a Darwinian world. Language is probably the connecting thread. Music and math each have their intricate vocabularies and grammars. Of course appreciation of music is a lot more common than regard for the more austere beauties of mathematics.

And Cassius probably wasn't thinking about mathematics.

Friday, April 01, 2016


We now have clear evidence that the Indo-European languages spread to Europe in a wave of pastoral conquest 4000 - 5000 years ago. Those of European extraction (like myself) are descended from a mixture of these people with the earlier hunter-gatherer peoples and farmers. These conquerors originated in the Yamanya culture to the North and East of the Black Sea. The Indo-European languages also spread to India, Anatolia, and parts of China. Scholars have argued for a century or more about the ultimate homeland of the I-E peoples, with every semi-plausible theory and numerous silly ones being embraced somewhere, by someone.

Most today would pick the Yamnaya culture and its location, but there is a significant minority who argue for an Out-Of-India (OOI) origin. In my opinion this argument is driven more by nationalistic fervor than evidence or logic, but truly conclusive evidence is so far lacking. For Europe, the evidence came in the form of DNA from ancient skeletons which allowed genetics to trace the movements of the relevant peoples.

The favored origin of the OOI theory is the Indus Valley Civilization which thrived at roughly the same time as the Yamnaya. For the first time, a systematic investigation of skeletal remains at Rakhighari, one of the large cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, seems to being yielding human DNA. This could conclusively settle the question of whether or not this civilization was genetically similar to the Indo-Europeans.

Stay tuned. Rumor has it that results will be presented at the Eighth World Archaeological Conference, 28 Aug to 2 Sep 2016, in Kyoto.