Monday, June 27, 2016

USE

Lumo offers his usual fair, balanced, and dispassionate analysis of a new plan to turn the EU into the United State of Europe.

The German foreign minister previously said that he didn't want a deeper integration anymore. However, the Polish TV TVP, Sputnik, TheNews.PL, The Express, and numerous others have pointed out a remarkable 10-page document penned by the German and French foreign ministers whose goal is to complete the project that Germany didn't quite complete around 1942.

OK, Now it's Personal

Or at least business.

Those darn limeys are hitting my personal portfolio. Who should we bomb?

Have we got a drone over Boris Johnson's place?

About Immigration?

Was Brexit about immigration? Tyler Cowen comes down on the side of a nuanced yes.

As I interpret what happened, ultimately the vote was about preserving the English nation, and yes I use those last two italicized words deliberately; reread Fintan O’Toole. Go back and read English history. For centuries, England has been filled with English people, plus some others from nearby regions. Go visit Norfolk and also stop in Great Yarmouth, once described by Charles Dickens as “…the finest place in the universe,” and which, for whatever decline it may have experienced, still looks and feels like England. London does not.

As Zack Beauchamp notes (in a piece which is mostly an example of what I am criticizing): “…the number of foreign-born people living in the UK has gone from 2.3 million in 1993 (when Britain joined the EU) to 8.2 million in 2014.”

In terms of distribution and influence, the impact of those numbers is much larger yet. London, the cultural center, business center, and political capital of England for many centuries, is now essential a global and indeed foreign city. I spent almost two weeks in London in 1979, and while I clearly prefer the new version the difference is glaringly obvious to me, as I am sure it is all the more to most English people. (And that contrast is clearest to the older English of course, and that helps explain one of the most pronounced demographic features of how people voted; it is inappropriate how many Remain supporters are cursing the arguably better informed preferences of the elderly.)

Similar tensions exist in almost all the countries that have allowed extensive immigration, even nations of immigrants like the US. This is especially true in the case of immigrants who, for numerical or cultural reasons, resist assimilation. Multiculturalism has always been more of aim than an achievement.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Arts in Decline?

Leading arts professors keep saying so. Pinker has a theory why:

The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship. And they’re surprised that people are staying away in droves?

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 416). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

One trouble, he says, is that their art is based on a discredited theory of human perception, based on - you may have already guessed - the idea of the mind as a blank slate, instead of one with lots of built in categories including detectors for pretentious bullshit. OK, he didn't actually say the very last bit, but I think he at least hinted at it.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Can the EU be Saved?

Thursday was a bad day for those who thought the EU was a good idea, even if it was badly implemented. George Soros thinks that its disintegration is now all but irreversible, and he is hardly alone in that opinion. What would need to be done to fix it? I have no idea, but as usual I won't let that stop me:

A simple federal constitution in which citizens rights are outlined and federal governmental powers specified and delimited, with no special privileges. It should be short enough for any citizen to read it twenty minutes.

A democratically elected government with real powers - possibly a two chambered parliament modeled after the US.

Unified defense, trade, and finance.

Does that sound a lot like a United States of Europe? Well, duh, but one could initially make the central state weak enough permit a lot of local autonomy. You want to be able to avoid situations like the Portugal, Ireland, Greece etc. crisis where in effect Germany made decisions for everybody and the highest priority was protection of the bad loans of German bankers.

Who to Blame?

I mean aside from the usual idiots: Cameron, Johnson, British geezers..., etc. Kevin Drum takes a look at a long list of suspects.

Here he is on Angela Merkel:

For all the praise she gets, Angela Merkel has been one of the most disastrous European leaders in my lifetime. She's as responsible for Brexit as anyone I can think of, thanks to two catastrophic decisions she made.

The first was her insistence on punishing Greece following its collapse after the Great Recession. There's plenty of blame to go around on all sides for the Greece debacle, but as the continent's economic leader Germany held most of the high cards during negotiations over Greece's fate. Merkel had a choice: (a) punish Greece for running up unsustainable debts and lying about them, or (b) accept that Germany bore much of the blame itself for the crisis and that Greece had no way of rescuing itself thanks to the straitjacket of the common currency. The former was a crowd pleaser. The latter was unpopular and would have required sustained, iron-spined leadership. In the event, Merkel chose to play to the crowds, and Greece has been a basket case ever since—with no end in sight. It hardly went unnoticed in Britain how Europe treated a country that was too entangled with the EU to either fight back or exit, and it made Britain's decision to forego the common currency look prescient. And if that had been a good choice, maybe all the rest of "ever closer union" wasn't such a great idea either.

Merkel's second bad decision was more recent. Here is David Frum: "If any one person drove the United Kingdom out of the European Union, it was Angela Merkel, and her impulsive solo decision in the summer of 2015 to throw open Germany—and then all Europe—to 1.1 million Middle Eastern and North African migrants, with uncountable millions more to come." It's hard to fault Merkel for this on a humanitarian basis, but on a political basis it was a disaster. The barely-controlled wave of refugees Merkel encouraged has caused resentment and more all over Europe, and it unquestionably played a big role in the immigrant backlash in Britain that powered the Leave vote.

Why I'm Such a Hairy Guy

It started in the Carboniferous. Hair, scales and feathers all have a common ancestor back then or before, according to this NYT story by Nicholas St. Fleur.

Reptiles have scales. Birds have feathers. Mammals have hair. How did we get them?

For a long time scientists thought the spikes, plumage and fur characteristic of these groups originated independently of each other. But a study published Friday suggests that they all evolved from a common ancestor some 320 million years ago.

This ancient reptilian creature — which gave rise to dinosaurs, birds and mammals — is thought to have been covered in scale-like structures. What that creature looked like is not exactly known, but the scales on its skin developed from structures called placodes — tiny bumps of thick tissue found on the surface of developing embryos.

Once again we learn that theories of independent evolution fall victims to the facts. It seems that evolution is pretty conservative: when it comes up with a good idea, it tends to stick with it.

Leviathans

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short........Hobbes, Leviathan

Hobbes had a jaundiced view of human nature, a view that has plenty of supporting evidence. The rise of the modern state has clearly greatly reduced internal carnage. If individuals can't be trusted, though, how much less can states? Again history offers a harsh verdict. War and pillage make their bloody path through its every page.

The exceptional cases almost always involve a large scale leviathan - The Roman Empire, for example, and today, the US hegemony. Periods of peace have always tended to lull people into believing that peace is the natural state of things, and such illusions frequently lead them to be enslaved by the more bloody minded.

The European Union was conceived as a beneficent leviathan to quell the incessant wars that have troubled Europe for millennia. It was always a flabby leviathan, but, together with NATO, it has more or less worked for the last half century plus. It has long needed serious reform, but now the stupid stupid British have decided to demolish it. The young of Britain aren't happy, but the young have always paid the price for the folly of the old.

Europe is now a miscellaneous collection of tiny, weak states, almost none of which have any substantial capability for self-defense. Except for the US, and NATO, these vain little statelets would be gobbled up by somebody hungry.

The US, too, is turning inward, and Europe is likely to be left more to its own devices. There is essentially no sign that European states, individually or collectively, are willing to face or solve their problems. I don't think Europe can avoid dissolution without forming "a more perfect union," and I see no sign of that.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Now What?

The real question in my mind is can the EU survive this amputation? It's not very functional and appears incapable of reforming itself. It's most serious problems, I think, are lack of unifying political and economic institutions. With nationalist sentiment running high, any chance for reform seems remote. The whole shaky contraption could easily come apart.

I suspect England will wake up with a major hangover, but I guess that it is unlikely to be of much strategic or economic importance in the future.

D*I*V*O*R*C*E

I predict that the divorce will be nasty, with major fights over child custody and support.

Nikkei currently down 1335 points, Japanese seem to be taking it hard.

Pound down 16 cents.

Predicted Brussels response: "And the horse you rode in on."

Mad Dogs, Englishmen - Is There a Difference?

From the NYT:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

ANSWER VOTES PCT.

Remain 12,021,165 48%

Leave 12,814,092 52

306 out of 382 counting areas

11:40 PM ET

Looks like it might be over. Pound is down $0.13 on the dollar.

Asian markets and pound crashing.

Behavioral Genetics

Pinker starts his chapter on children with the so-called three laws of behavioral genetics:

The First Law: All human behavioral traits are heritable.

The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.

The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families. The laws are about what make us what

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 373). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The pillar of the Second Law is the evidence showing that siblings reared in the same family are at most only slightly more similar than siblings raised apart. He concludes from this that parenting choices have very small effects on children's development.

It seems to me that he is leaving out a very crucial aspect of the unique environment of a child reared with a sibling. There is only so much social/emotional ecospace in a family, and that fact induces siblings to choose different paths. If the first child is a hell-raiser, the second may become more docile to fill the empty spot in the family ecosystem, and vice-versa. Similar effects can occur for the math whiz, sports star, science geek, etc. If this difference in environment is as large as the effects of different parents it helps explain the fairly large Third Law effect and tends to discredit Pinker's version of the Second Law.

Real Trannies

Naturally Nietzsche was there first:

As quoted by Steve Hsu:

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end. -- Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Of course I found Nietzsche's Superman rather revolting - to the extent I understood it. But now we are faced with the prospect of really trans-human creations, either as genetically enhanced humans (not very likely, I think) or some sort of cyborg (still not likely) or robotic (likely) replacements. If such replacements deserve their place, though, I like to think that they will see their predecessors as perhaps pathetic but still heroic.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Not About Sex?

One gender feminist idea that has gained a lot of credence even among those who ought to know better is the claim that "rape is not about sex." Instead, claimed Susan Brownmiller, the apparent originator of this theory:

From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function . . . it is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 361). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This notion may be transparently silly, but the corollary that "rape is not about sex" has achieved rather wide currency, despite the fact that it is perfectly analogous to the equally ridiculous "bank robbery is not about the money." Instead, I guess, it's part of a hundred thousand year plot to keep bankers in their place. Here is Brownmiller in its defense:

BROWNMILLER ASKED A revealing rhetorical question:

Does one need scientific methodology in order to conclude that the anti-female propaganda that permeates our nation’s cultural output promotes a climate in which acts of sexual hostility directed against women are not only tolerated but ideologically encouraged?

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 364). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[Equity feminist Wendy] McElroy responded: “The answer is a clear and simple ‘yes.’ One needs scientific methodology to verify any empirical claim.”

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 364). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If you are selling nonsense, though, the last thing you want is the scientific method.

The Cernette

Lumo is not giving up. He isn't claiming that the 750 GeV bump is still there, but he says that his sources are not yet saying that it has disappeared.

I figure that he is still pretty plugged in.

So, don't give up, yet anyway.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Things that Go Bump in the Night

Might not include 750 GeV diphoton excesses.

Sigh!

The World's Smartest Man Weighs In

From Terry Tao:

It ought to be common knowledge that Donald Trump is not fit for the presidency of the United States of America

Leviathan

Pinker:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8: 00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11: 20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. 99 This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 331). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Welfare

I run a modest welfare program for birds. That is, I have a couple of bird feeders that I keep stocked with seed. Like any good conservative, I worry a bit about encouraging a culture of dependency as well as bankrupting the payer (namely, me).

Bird experts, or maybe just birdseed salesman pretending to be experts, tell me there is no danger of that kind of dependency, but who knows, really?

I have learned a couple of things, like how to identify lesser goldfinches and some of their cousins, and not to buy forty pound sacks of birdseed - back injuries are much more expensive than birdseed.

One welfare idea with some currency today is the guaranteed income. I don't like it, and neither do most other taxpayers. A much better idea is some kind of guaranteed job. People need the work almost as much as they need the money.

If, as seems likely, computers do most of the real work of the economy in the near or immediate future, the current shortage of jobs in the world will only get worse. In which case we either starve billions or find some kinds of socially useful methods of redistribution.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Cool and Cloudy

At the end of May, Arctic sea ice extent was nearly 1 million km^2 less than in the record low year of 2012, and some Chicken Littles began prophesying the end of Arctic ice this summer. Cooler heads noted that it was still early, and that weather still had to be heard from. May and June seem to be crucial to setting up a big Arctic melt, as the formation of melt ponds decreases albedo and increases absorption of the big time insolation in June and July.

Despite the big lead in ice extent, May ended with only modest melt ponding, and June has proved cool and cloudy in the Arctic. The cloud cover blocks the Sun just when it's highest in the sky, and instead of insolation the Arctic gets insulation. Unsurprisingly, the big lead 2016 had in ice extent and ice area (disappearance) has largely vanished, even briefly turning negative, but for the last week or so 2016 has kept a small lead.

So what about that ice vanishing thing? It's the probability of an ice free Arctic this Summer that appears to be vanishing. A new record low could still happen, but its prospects don't look great either, since the cool and cloudy weather is expected to last into July. A couple of wild cards are the ice volume (thought to be greater than 2012 but somewhat uncertain) and sea surface temperatures, which are known to be very warm.

See Arctic Sea Ice Forum, for lots of data, pictures, opinions, etc.

TBD

The Blank Slate BS is Not Dead

Pinker's 2016 afterword to The Blank Slate sees some progress in acknowledgement of biological reality in the social sciences and society more generally, but a lot of BS survives. He discusses a number of more recent examples, including the feminist lynch mob that helped bring down Larry Summers at Harvard. Here is another observation likely to raise feminist hackles.

Another recent journalistic obsession has been the incidence of sexual coercion among university students. The only mentionable explanation is that college campuses, like American society in general, have a “rape culture” that glorifies and encourages the crime. Entirely taboo is a far more plausible explanation: since that men, on average, are more eager for impersonal sex than women are, if you throw large numbers of young men and woman together in a “sex-positive” campus culture with plentiful opportunities for private drunken hookups, encounters that verge on and shade into sexual coercion will be among the hazards. Indeed, this bit of common sense is seen as tantamount to accepting, forgiving, or even condoning rape— perhaps the most bizarre among the many blunders in moral reasoning that are still part of the conventional wisdom when it comes to human nature.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 434). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Our Moral Sense

Our moral sense licenses aggression against others as a way to prevent or punish immoral acts. That is fine when the act deemed immoral truly is immoral by any standard, such as rape and murder, and when the aggression is meted out fairly and serves as a deterrent. The point of this chapter is that the human moral sense is not guaranteed to pick out those acts as the targets of its righteous indignation. The moral sense is a gadget, like stereo vision or intuitions about number. It is an assembly of neural circuits cobbled together from older parts of the primate brain and shaped by natural selection to do a job.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 270). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And so that moral sense is a sword with a double edge. On the one hand, it helps maintain a society. On the other, it also licenses the suicide bomber and the assassin of politician you disagree with.

Pig Slapdown

WB has chastised me for blaming bankers (from Gringotts or elsewhere) for the student loan mess. Fair enough, I suppose, as there is plenty of blame to go around. Congress wanted to make college affordable for more people without actually spending any money. Schools wanted to scarf up more money. Bankers, who are, after all, in the business of lending money, didn't want to be cut out of a new business opportunity, and didn't want to wind up on the hook for a bunch of bad loans. Students and their parents wanted educational opportunities. When the resulting politics/sausage making was done, we got the mess we got - a system where a bunch of bad loans were made because lenders weren't really lending their own money.

I happen to think that loans are a bad way to finance education. I recently opened an old book and found a receipt for my term's tuition way back when I was an undergrad - $99.00 Not free, but damn cheap by today's standards, even with inflation thrown in, so the US once had a nearly free college education. We abandoned that policy mostly because of the mania for cutting taxes on the wealthy.

Friday, June 17, 2016

American Exceptionalism

Most Americans are convinced that we are not only the best at everything, but also under the personal protection of God Almighty. This fantasy is encouraged by our military and economic might, large population, and currently dominant role in much of world culture. Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next would be a useful corrective for those who think this way, but is probably unlikely to be seen by them.

Moore, armed with an American flag and camera crew, "invades" Italy, France, Slovenia, Portugal, Finland, Norway, Tunisia, Iceland and Germany and claims some ideas and practices he would like to bring back to the USA. It's possible to be skeptical about just how idyllic these various paradises are and still think that many of these ideas have merit. A short list: more powerful workers unions, more protections and benefits for workers, decriminalizing all drugs, schools focused not on tests but children's happiness, free university educations, humane prisons and actually prosecuting financial criminals. Tunisia was singled out for actually passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women equal rights, unlike the US where such an amendment failed. Interestingly, many of the European countries claimed that the ideas they implemented originated in the US.

I recommend it to any American looking for a wider perspective. It gives us some perspective on what was lost by making the US safe for financial manipulators and predatory oligarchs.

Over*blanking*educated

Once upon a time, somebody, probably one of those evil goblin bankers from Gringotts, thought it would be a good idea for students to finance their education with debt. We know they were evil* because they got the government to (1)guarantee most of the debt and (2)permanently enslave those who could not pay.

This led to a vast proliferation of for profit colleges, and others, like law schools, not officially for profit but rackets nonetheless. The result probably should have been predictable: an army of heavily indebted young people ($1.2 trillion or so) who mostly lack skills in enough demand to allow them to pay back those loans. Consequently, they are poorly positioned to start a family, buy a house, found a business, etc.

Of course many of these students got degrees in subjects that ought to be reserved for the independently wealthy: art, theater, philosophy, classical literature, ethnic studies and so on. Chat up your waiter next time you go to a mid level restaurant. He or she probably has a PhD in French Literature or an MFA in some damn thing.

I got my PhD (physics) at the height of the 1970's physics boom - that is, shortly after it became clear that there were way too many physicists and anybody with any sense decided to study EE or become a hippie drug dealer. After I graduated, PhD production plummeted for a decade or so, but physics departments eventually figured out that they could replace no longer gullible Americans with foreigners. Thanks to research and teaching assistantships, though, we were mostly debt free.

I and my classmates all eventually got jobs, though hardly any in the one area we were actually trained for, university professorships. It turned out, at least then, that physics PhDs usually had some useful collateral skills.

It seems now, though, that even this century's golden ones, PhDs in computer science, are seeing declining salaries.

Education is no longer a sure fire path to a comfortable life, but it still seems better than most of the alternatives. *If further proof was needed.

Statistics of Pie

Pinker:

But each child should to want the parent to dole out twice as much of the investment to himself or herself as to a sibling, because children share half their genes with each full sibling but share all their genes with themselves. Given a family with two children and one pie, each child should want to split it in a ratio of two-thirds to one-third, while parents should want it to be split fifty-fifty.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 248). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If the reasoning here sounds a bit dubious to you, you aren't alone. Maybe Pinker needs a bit more stat work. Supposing the child in question really really wants to maximize the chance of the largest numbers of his genes surviving, then the computation is bound to be a bit more complicated. The real question is the dependence of each fitness function on the share of pie, and perhaps more importantly, the mutual dependence of the fitness functions of the siblings. In some societys, a boy's chance of survival might be increased by having lots of brothers - but for the son of an Ottoman Sultan, it's the reverse.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Errant Intuition

Humans come pre-equipped with some intuitions about physics, biology, psychology, probability and other things, says Stephen Pinker, as well as natural propensities to learn other things, like how to walk and our language. Those intuitions aren't necessarily correct for a modern society, and some critical skills are not easy to learn naturally. The job of schooling, he says, is to teach those ways in which the modern world doesn't fit our intuition and those skills not included in our natural learning program - like how to read and write. He thinks modern schooling is not exactly very well suited to its task.

The obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education. And this offers priorities for educational policy: to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. The perilous fallacies we have seen in this chapter, for example, would give high priority to economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics in any high school or college curriculum. Unfortunately, most curricula have barely changed since medieval times, and are barely changeable, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics.

But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (pp. 235-236). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That should offend fans of the liberal arts education.

Book Review: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Eric H. Cline's book tells of the thriving civilization of the late Bronze Age Mediterranean and its catastrophic decline. From 1500 BCE to 1200 BCE thriving international trade among the empires created a cosmopolitan civilization with high art, and a vast trading network. The years following 1207 saw empires fall and become depopulated, written records disappear in many places, cities burned and abandoned, and evidence of widespread trade disappear or greatly diminish. It would take another three centuries before comparable conditions returned.

So what happened? There are plenty of theories: earthquakes, invasions, internal collapse, disruption of trade, or even some butterfly flapping catastrophe best explained by complexity theory. Each of these theories has some support. There were earthquakes, and some cities broken by them. Large groups of peoples were on the move, and battles fought and cities destroyed amidst the evidence of war. In some cities, only the elite portions of the city was destroyed, possibly the signature of internal revolt. How, though, can we account for the simultaneous collapse of some many empires over such a large region?

Many experts, and this inexpert reader, find a climatological explanation most convincing. Recent research has uncovered evidence of a long lasting, widespread drought afflicting the whole region, beginning at the onset of the troubles and lasting for perhaps centuries. We have letters among kingdoms at the time complaining of famine and begging for the delivery of food. Such a drought and the resulting widespread crop failure, like somewhat similar conditions affects parts of the Middle East and North Africa today, could set masses of desperate people on the move in search of food and other basics of life. These refugees could constitute the ethnically diverse masses of the "Sea Peoples" who were defeated by Ramses III, and who perhaps sacked many an empire before.

I liked the book, but you won't find answers to all your questions neatly wrapped up. You will find a long list of Kings and rulers of the age. It has several nice maps showing the locations of major kingdoms, and imperial capitals.

My other comments on the book can be found here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In the Name of God

Religiously motivated murder is nothing new, and many or most religions share the guilt. Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and Sikhs as well as Muslims have committed mass slaughter. The reaction to the internecine slaughters of Christianity was a major factor in the modern rise in secularism. Mass Christian versus Muslim violence has flourished for 14 centuries.

Today, though, Muslims are doing most of the murder and providing most of the victims as well. My local paper the other day had a front page picture of a woman in conservative Islamic dress hugging someone at a local vigil in honor of the victims in Orlando. She was quoted to the effect that she didn't consider the perpetrator a Muslim, just a murderer. I understand the sentiment, but I felt like that wasn't nearly enough.

Muslims, collectively and individually, need to take some responsibility for the crimes done in the name of their religion. They need to face the aspects of their religion that facilitate and promote murder in the name of God and insist that they be dealt with by religious leaders. Merely mouthing pieties about Islam being a "religion of peace" are not sufficient or even honest.

If they can't, or won't, the Donald Trumps and even worse people will make sure that all Muslims are held responsible for the crimes of a few. That would be a tragedy for the US and Muslims generally.

Renting a Camel in Marrakesh

Few interactions inspire a more jaundiced view of capitalism unleashed than buying airplane tickets into a small market airport. I can buy one coach airplane ticket into, say, FCA in Montana for only slightly more than the corresponding first class ticket to significantly more distant the East coast, but if I want three, the per ticket price nearly doubles. This is occurs because models and the computer can gauge rather accurately the marginal value of each unsold seat, and charge accordingly. This is the way efficient markets are supposed to work and it's annoying as hell to the consumer.

I say bring back the old days of regulated airlines with seats that can actually accommodate a human and prices that are predictable. The grief avoided will be worth the slight decline in efficiency.

Smarts, Don't It?

Jacob Silverman, writing in the New York Times Magazine, has a meditation on the onrushing tide of "smart devices" for the home and beyond.

In the land rush to digitize the world, the home is the new frontier. Over the past few years, practically every household item within reach has been technologically upgraded and rendered “smart”: toothbrushes, cutlery, baby monitors, refrigerators, thermostats, slow cookers, sprinkler systems, sex toys, even the locks in doors. Before they achieved enlightenment, they could perform only their rote, mechanical duties; now they can do so while connected to the internet. In the case of the telephone, this has been nothing short of revolutionary, but no other “smart” object has managed to replicate its success. The absurdity of the phenomenon was made unavoidably apparent in May, when a start-up unveiled a “smart tampon,” called my.Flow. If women wear the my.Flow and the sensor that attaches to the tampon by a string (and clips neatly onto your waistband) and use the my.Flow app, they could now, at last, track their periods’ duration and flow.

“Smart” has been slapped onto everything from cups (that analyze what you’re drinking) to surfboards (that let you check your text messages between waves) to clothing (that tracks calorie expenditure). The word is flattering to both the objects and their users, even as it threatens to become a hazy banality.

It has not escaped Mr. Silverman that the current use of "smart" as synonym for "intelligent" is a linguistic johnny-come-lately. Its roots are in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *smerd for pain, and he points out that a home (car, etc.) full of internet connected devices is a nest of commercial spies.

The intelligence given to these devices really serves twin purposes: information collection and control. Smart devices are constantly collecting information, tracking user habits, trying to anticipate and shape their owners’ behaviors and reporting back to the corporate mother ship. Data is our era’s most promising extractive resource, and tech companies have found that connecting more people and devices, collecting information on how they interact with one another and then using that information to sell advertising can be enormously profitable.

And so the makers of smart devices encourage us to make their creations smarter by confessing more to them, by exposing more of ourselves. As we open our lives to increasingly self-­aware, autonomous devices, we are encouraged — particularly in the case of all-­purpose personal assistants like Siri and Alexa — to use them as much as possible, feeding them more useful data that will allow our gadgets to “learn” who we are and what we like, and to make decisions that might anticipate our needs.

Anybody know the PIE for "Uh-Oh?"

Monday, June 13, 2016

Eve of Destruction: 1200 BCE

By the middle of the Second Millennium, BCE, Bronze Age civilizations had developed a "globalized" economy, encompassing the Eastern Mediterranean and other nearby areas. Tin was brought from as far away as Afghanistan to be incorporated into copper to produce the eponymous metal of the age. A vigorous trade in food, textiles, metal and artifacts was conducted by land and sea, and alliances sealed by exchange of royal princesses intermeshed the royal families of Hittites, Egyptians, Cypriots, Babylonians, Trojans and others. Diplomacy and trade relied on Akkadian as a lingua franca.

Shortly after 1200 BCE, nearly all of these city kingdoms were destroyed, often by fire and military force. Exactly who or what was responsible doesn't seem to be well understood, but then I haven't gotten quite that far in the book: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline.

Excerpt:

The warriors entered the world scene and moved rapidly, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Modern scholars refer to them collectively as the “Sea Peoples,” but the Egyptians who recorded their attack on Egypt never used that term, instead identifying them as separate groups working together: the Peleset, Tjekker, Shekelesh, Shardana, Danuna, and Weshesh— foreign-sounding names for foreign-looking people. 1

We know little about them, beyond what the Egyptian records tell us. We are not certain where the Sea Peoples originated: perhaps in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy, according to one scenario, perhaps in the Aegean or western Anatolia, or possibly even Cyprus or the Eastern Mediterranean. 2 No ancient site has ever been identified as their origin or departure point.

Cline, Eric H.. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History) (p. 1). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Orlando and all the Others every Damn Day

Not that it would help anytime soon, but it's way past time to kick the NRA to the curb.

And why does ISIS still control any territory at all?

Danger Will Robinson!

Many people avoid flying, though car travel is eleven times more dangerous. They fear getting eaten by a shark, though they are four hundred times more likely to drown in their bathtub.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 231). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But how likely am I to be eaten by a shark in my shower?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Waters of the Deep

It seems that there might be a lot water tied up in ringwoodite, deep in the Earth's Mantle. The latest issue of Nature finds some more oxygen and hydrogen tied up with iron. In this case, there is more oxygen than hydrogen, so the area at the core boundary could release free oxygen. The authors speculate that this might be involved in some of our planet's "oxygenation events."

Odblokování

In a moment of moral weakness, I decided to unblock Lumo before I forgot how.

I might be sorry.

The Grifter: Fleecing the Suckers

Casinos, by their nature, are institutions dedicated to fleecing the suckers, so I suppose that there is a certain ironic justice in the fact that Trump's casinos, the source of much of his wealth, made Trump richer by fleecing the people he talked into investing in them. Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli, writing in today's New York Times, tell the story. An excerpt:

But even as his companies did poorly, Mr. Trump did well. He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.

In three interviews with The Times since late April, Mr. Trump acknowledged in general terms that high debt and lagging revenues had plagued his casinos. He did not recall details about some issues, but did not question The Times’s findings. He repeatedly emphasized that what really mattered about his time in Atlantic City was that he had made a lot of money there.

Mr. Trump assembled his casino empire by borrowing money at such high interest rates — after telling regulators he would not — that the businesses had almost no chance to succeed.

Also from the story:

His audacious personality and opulent properties brought attention — and countless players — to Atlantic City as it sought to overtake Las Vegas as the country’s gambling capital.

OK, America, you can become the next Atlantic City! What could possibly go wrong?

Friday, June 10, 2016

Explaining Consciousness

Fernando mentioned that as a child he used to think of himself as residing behind his eyes and issuing commands to his body. I think most of imagine our consciousness in a somewhat similar fashion - a sort of ghost in the machine, getting input from its senses and and issuing commands to its limbs. If we want to imagine a purely physical implementation, though, we seem faced by a kind of circularity. The nerves of the eye seem to project to a sort of television set in the head, or rather to several of them, which invites the question: Who watches it, and how? Many of our questions about consciousness bring in this sort of puzzle.

Descartes imagined a an independent watcher, a soul or a ghost in the machine, but neuroscience wants a more mechanical solution. The Cartesian solution, after all, just transfers the problem to some imagined astral plane.

If I understand correctly, it is puzzles of this sort that motivate the criticisms of Lee, WB and other clever people. I fear that one elderly, not very smart retired physicist will not solve them, but I do think that there is a solution, or at least an approach to a solution, that some clever people have propounded. Two books on the general topic are Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett ($0.44 via Amazon) and The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky.

Imagine a very smart television that could interpret the images it displays. Those images are automatically classified and compared with others in its various data bases, and something like a narrative summary of the highlights is prepared. That seems to be one of the functions of consciousness in humans. Another is keeping track of the self and its relationships to the non-self in the environment.

We have the impression that consciousness and the self are unitary and indivisible, but neurobiology says otherwise, for example in the case of the split brain patients.

Of course these paragraphs aren't pretending to be an explanation consciousness. Dennett's book runs to 500 and some pages, and I doubt that anyone would consider it definitive. Some, of course, denounce it.

Pinker:

We have every reason to believe that consciousness and decision making arise from the electrochemical activity of neural networks in the brain. But how moving molecules should throw off subjective feelings (as opposed to mere intelligent computations) and how they bring about choices that we freely make (as opposed to behavior that is caused) remain deep enigmas to our Pleistocene psyches.

These puzzles have an infuriatingly holistic quality to them. Consciousness and free will seem to suffuse the neurobiological phenomena at every level, and cannot be pinpointed to any combination or interaction among parts. The best analyses from our combinatorial intellects provide no hooks on which we can hang these strange entities, and thinkers seem condemned either to denying their existence or to wallowing in mysticism. For better or worse, our world might always contain a wisp of mystery, and our descendants might endlessly ponder the age-old conundrums of religion and philosophy, which ultimately hinge on concepts of matter and mind. 61

Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary contains the following entry:

Mind, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (p. 240). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brooks on Trump

I don't think David Brooks has reconciled himself to The Donald yet:

Some conservatives believe they can educate, convert or civilize Trump. This belief is a sign both of intellectual arrogance and psychological naïveté.

The man who just crushed them is in no mood to submit to them. Furthermore, Trump’s personality is pathological. It is driven by deep inner compulsions that defy friendly advice, political interest and common sense.

It’s useful to go back and read the Trump profiles in Vanity Fair and other places from the 1980s and 1990s. He has always behaved exactly as he does now: the constant flow of insults, the endless bragging, the casual cruelty, the need to destroy allies and hog the spotlight. “Donald was the child who would throw the cake at the birthday parties,” his brother Robert once said.

It's an odd fact of human nature that a lot of people seem attracted to this behavior. Beats the heck out of me why.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Blank Slating

I'm slogging through Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate, and it is a bit of a slog - a couple of my relatives have pronounced it long-winded. This book is now about 13 years old, and I'm not sure how much the present is like the situation back then, but he is fighting what he believes is a deeply misguided attack on Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology, mainly (but not only) from the academic left.

So far, his heaviest fire is aimed at scientists who really should know better: Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, Stephen Jay Gould, and Leon Kamin. Lewontin and Rose, in particular, are doctrinaire Marxists and derive their opposition from Marxian pipe dreams of human perfectability. The core of their opposition is derived from the belief that a genetic human nature can be used to justify racism, sexism, genocide and other evils. Pinker's response has three points: the facts show that there is a genetic human nature, that doesn't justify any of the aforementioned evils, and finally, that most of the greatest crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of Marxist and other totalitarian efforts to force humans into one Procrustean bed or another.

I remember reading Gould and Rose on the subject many years ago, and recall thinking that their arguments fell well short of logical rigor, but Pinker is a detailed and devastating critic.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Consciousness

I don't know if Descartes started the era of magical thinking about consciousness (Cogito,ergo sum.) or not, but he surely deserves at least some of the blame. Scott Aaronson reports here on a debate of sorts he had with Roger Penrose on whether computers could develop consciousness. There is some jibber-jabber about Gödel, quantum amplification in microtubules (Penrose) and quantum non-cloning (Scott) but I did not get much out of it.

I suppose that this is because I don't share the magical significance of consciousness theory. For one thing, I think that a lot of animals are conscious - certainly apes, monkeys, dogs and even fish and maybe even bees. Not that any of them know how to discuss the subject in Latin. I even think that certain robots have a kind of primitive consciousness. I admit that none of them can intelligently discuss Descartes or Nietzsche, but then how many humans can, either?

Ultimately, consciousness is just awareness of self. If you look at the development of a human infant, you can see that awareness develop as a child gradually learns (at three or four months) that her two hands can touch and affect each other. I suspect that even Searle's Chinese room could hardly do a good job of translation without some knowledge of itself.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Normal

Societies and cultures regulate themselves by adopting norms - rules embedded in religion, tradition, law and superstition. Western culture, by which I mean most of the human race, is in the process of adopting and sometimes furiously resisting tectonic scale changes in our social norms, especially those relating to gender roles. Most of this struggle involves political and economic power, but a not entirely minor sidelight involves the definition of appropriate sexual behaviors. Many practices which were severely criminalized everywhere are now officially sanctioned or even protected by law in many places while still being punishable by death in others.

I don't think that one can doubt that both the racial civil rights and homosexual rights movements grew organically out of feminism and the struggle for the female franchise. That it turn grew out of the earlier democratization of the vote. At one point it was quite acceptable in polite company to complain that giving the women the vote was unnatural. Being homosexual or transgender is certainly not "unnatural" but it is unusual, and that was a good enough excuse for many societies to punish them furiously.

Not every change is toward more tolerance. Some once standard behaviors are now forbidden. An Idaho man was sent to jail for taking his 14 old daughter across State lines to marry the man who got her pregnant.