Sunday, June 25, 2017

Otto Warmbier

Unfortunately it's not at all uncommon for college students, usually young men, to engage in dumb stunts or pranks that get themselves or others killed. Of course it wasn't smart for Otto Warmbier to decide to swipe a propaganda poster in North Korea, of all places. That offence, which likely would have earned a wrist slap in a civilized country, got him murdered in North Korea. His death, after being returned brain dead from North Korea, provoked a flurry of hysteria from certain right wing sites, alleging that liberals celebrated his punishment and murder.

Exhibit A was a Larry Wilmore nightly show in which Warmbier was lambasted for his folly. I looked at it, and it was the most tasteless and nasty thing I've seen from Wilmore, even granting that it was done long before anybody knew Warmbier would die for his offence. To imply that this was some common liberal propaganda effort strikes me as ridiculous though, even if Wilmore happens to be a liberal comic. Wilmore's offence was cruelty and tastelessness, not liberalism. In any case, Wilmore and his show are gone.

Similarly, the idiot adjunct professor who got fired for saying that Warmbier got what he deserved was guilty of being an asshole, not a liberal.

Yes, there are liberal assholes (not to mention conservatives of the same inclination), but it's ridiculous to indict a whole group for the offences of a few jerks.


I don't watch a whole lot of television, but there are three sitcoms I usually catch, and this being Summer, they aren't available, except as stale reruns. That tends to leave my television cupboard a bit bare for those evenings when, exhausted by a hard day of retirement*, I collapse on the couch. That's especially tough in the Summer when there are no sports on television.

I've never watched wrestling, especially not women's wrestling, so I'm not exactly sure why I started watching GLOW, the new NETFLIX series fictionalized version of the story the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, a syndicated series that ran in the 1980s.

My wife and I love it. It's great partly because Alison Brie and Marc Maron, the lead characters, are great, but mostly because the writing is great. The large ensemble of other wrestlers and a few others is also excellent. As in the real GLOW, the "wrestlers" were recruited from wanna be actresses, stunt women, and dancers. The principal actresses, especially Brie and her principal opponent, do most of their own stunts and claim to have had a ball learning and practicing their wrestling moves.

Comedy and drama - plus wrestling - a lot more entertaining than I expected.

*As my (also retired) neighbor pointed out to me, the tough thing about retirement is that you never get a day off.

Artificial Intelligence: The Threat

Kai-Fu Lee, writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, writes about what he calls The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it. Imagine how much money a company like Uber would make if it used only robot drivers. Imagine the profits if Apple could manufacture its products without human labor. Imagine the gains to a loan company that could issue 30 million loans a year with virtually no human involvement. (As it happens, my venture capital firm has invested in just such a loan company.)

We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?

The author argues that while retraining can save some jobs, others will be harder. How many cashiers or fry cooks can be retrained to be AI programmers? How many chatty bartenders does a country need?

He argues that strongly Keynesian policies plus heavy taxation of those who profit heavily is the only way to save jobs. This will involve massive transfers of wealth.

He further adds that essentially all the profits of the AI revolution will go to the US and China, as the only two countries with enough expertise to and data to succeed. This may be arguable, but certainly only a few countries are in the chase.

So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.

One way or another, we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

I think he leaves out that a number on the have-nots list will have missiles and thermonuclear weapons, and with them the capacity to destroy the big two.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Libertarians Have a Nice Slogan

Naturally it hides a morally bankrupt core. Right now, the wealthy libertarians who own the Republican Party in the US are engaged in the destruction of Medicaid.

Another score for libertarians was the Grenfell Tower catastrophe in Britain. From The New York Times:

Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.

Of course, after the disaster, the same libertarians who cheered removing regulations in the name of "cutting red tape" cited the disaster as evidence of the failure of government regulation, and always quick to add insult to injury, blamed the victims for choosing to live in a firetrap.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Sun: Book Review

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb Aug 6, 1996 by Richard Rhodes, is a great book, but probably not for the faint hearted. If you have labored under the delusion that humans are rational animals, forget about it. We are sometimes an intellectual species, but a very irrational one, driven by vanity, paranoia and other prehistoric emotions, quite unsuited to life in a world with thermonuclear weapons.

The penultimate chapter tells the story of the Cuban missile crisis, and it's pretty terrifying how close some pretty smart people came to utterly destroying the world. This was at a point when both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization many times over.

We had gotten to that point thanks to the paranoia and other frailties of some of the smartest guys around, including Curtis LeMay, Edward Teller, John Wheeler, and John von Neumann. Only the cool heads of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy narrowly saved the day more than once.

It's terrifying to think what might have happened if an idiot like Trump, or even a dimwit like W, had been in charge.

I recommend the book highly. There are no equations, but if you are a physicist with a few tens of billions of dollars and access to certain critical materials and technologies, there is enough detail to build your own bomb.

I've written a lot more about it here.

I know that WB has read it and would be particularly interested in his comments.

Local Warming

107 F here today (about 42 C), and it's predicted to get a bit hotter. I'm glad I don't still live in Phoenix - 118 yesterday.

Meanwhile, the high Arctic has been just a shade cool for the past 3 months. I wonder if that will impact this year's melt season.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Entropic Principle

That book you spent some time searching for in the dusty boxes in the garage (on the hottest day of the year) isn't there either.

Corollary 1: That book you were thinking of buying - don't - you already own it.

Corollary 2: See above.

Upside: You know all those ridiculous Greiner-Mueller books you bought but never read? The one on thermo actually has a good explanation of the very point you were mystified about. My apologies Prof's G and M.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Trump still firmly in control in the South.

Democrats are getting demoralized.

Dance, Dance, Dance

Well I've done it again - inhaled a 400 page Murakami novel in less that 24 hours. Why can't I read physics books like that?

Dance, Dance, Dance concerns the further adventures of the narrator of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, and A Wild Sheep Chase.

Here he sets off to find the long vanished girlfriend from Sheep Chase and curious characters enter the picture, including an old acquaintance who has become a famous actor, a thirteen year-old clairvoyant with famous and wealthy but incompetent parents, The Sheepman from Chase, a host of call girls and others who disappear or turn up dead. Because this is Murakami, paranormal stuff happens.

Murakami is a terrific writer, and I loved this book despite the fact that I normally have no patience for paranormal goings on. Murakami's formidable erudition on music, culture, and much else combined with his eagle eye for character and setting make this joy, as do his vivid and witty descriptions.

Incidentally, his characters, aside from setting and minor differences in diet, are almost entirely indistinguishable from Americans.

Monday, June 19, 2017


During the 1950s, SAC commander Curtis LeMay and the US Air Force became absorbed in the idea of a preventive war against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had specifically rejected the idea, but LeMay engaged in tactics that some considered designed to provoke such a war, in particular, repeated overflights of Russia with various US spy planes. Such flights apparently cost at least 20 planes and the lives of about 100 aviators - some of whom went to the Gulag.

One of LeMay’s US reconnaissance crews remembered flying a B-47 deep into the USSR on May 8, 1954, and taking damage from a MiG-17. The mission made it back to England leaking fuel. LeMay ordered the crew to the US, the pilot, Hal Austin, recalled many years later:

[LeMay] said, “I tried to get you guys a Silver Star,” but he said “you gotta explain that to Congress and everybody else in Washington . . . so here’s a couple of [Distinguished Flying Crosses] we’ll give you for that mission.” There wasn’t anybody in the room except the wing commander and us three guys, General LeMay and his intelligence officer. . . . Then General LeMay said, “Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”

I think that was just a loose comment for his staff guys, because General Tommy Power, his hatchet man in those days, chuckled and he never laughed very much. So I always figured that was a joke between them. But we thought maybe that was serious.2549

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 565-566). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Plasma Physics

Since I've been studying astrophysics, I've noticed that I don't know anything about plasma physics. This prompted me to buy a book on plasma physics, namely: Introduction to Plasma Physics: With Space, Laboratory and Astrophysical Applications by Donald A. Gurnett (Author), Amitava Bhattacharjee (Author).

While trying to decide where to shelve it, I noticed that I already had a couple of books mainly about plasma physics, if by "a couple" you mean 6 or 7.

This suggests a disturbing possibility to me: It may be that owning a book does not mean you know anything about the contents. Who could have imagined?

More Oppenheimer

The downfall of Oppenheimer has the flavor of a Greek tragedy, but his persecutors were Americans, some naturalized and some born here. From The New York Review of Books:

The man who provided the argument and the occasion was William Liscum Borden, a single-minded young zealot who thought he knew why Oppenheimer resisted Air Force demands for hydrogen bombs—“more probably than not,” Borden wrote the head of the FBI in November 1953, “J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”

But neither could have managed Oppenheimer’s destruction without the help of the obsessed H-bomb promoter Edward Teller, who had never forgiven Oppenheimer for choosing another man to run the theoretical division at Los Alamos, who dreamed of replacing Oppenheimer as the protean man of the hour, and who nursed matters forward as he methodically planted seeds of suspicion in the minds of Borden, Strauss, and Air Force generals that Oppenheimer’s “faulty judgment” could be traced to hidden loyalties from his Red period.

Borden wrote a letter which repeated many well-known and thoroughly investigated facts about Oppenheimer's links to some Communists, except that he included in each paragraph the claim that the probable explanation for those facts was that Oppenheimer was a Communist agent. Eisenhower was shown the letter, and he immediately recognized the total absence of any new or persuasive evidence, but he was also feeling the heat from Joseph McCarthy, so didn't dare object.

Interestingly, Borden had played a key role in the loss of a document containing the only real secret of the US H-bomb at that point, the radiation implosion mechanism. He had mailed a copy to John Archibald Wheeler (another H-bomb hysteric), who promptly lost it. Wheeler thought that he had left it on a train, but even partial disassembly of the Pullman car involved failed to reveal it.

The review of several Oppenheimer related books linked here and above, btw, is a great short read on the whole business.

Nuclear Hysteria

The nuclear hysteria of the fifties was pumped up by some of the smartest US physicists, especially Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and John Wheeler. Of course lots of others, even smarter, saw through it, including Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Rabi. So did Eisenhower, at least to a degree. Unfortunately, logic and reason have a hard time competing with hysteria, especially when politicians on the make, like Symington and McCarthy join the chorus.


This would be a deterrent—but if the contest to maintain this relative position should have to continue indefinitely, the cost would either drive us to war—or into some form of dictatorial government.

Such intense anxiety demanded alleviation. Conveniently, there was a scapegoat at hand to slaughter.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 529). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That scapegoat was Oppenheimer. Teller's hysteria with regard to Oppenheimer was due in part to humiliation. Oppenheimer had mocked him when some of his calculations had left off some huge factors, and Oppenheimer, an arrogant and sarcastic fellow who was also quicker than anyone, was well positioned to puncture Teller's own arrogant but fragile ego.

Oppenheimer's most dangerous enemy, though, was Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower's new head of the AEC. Strauss was a brilliant business man, but also stubborn and arrogant, and had likely also suffered at the hands of Opie's condescension. One of his colleagues described as a man who would consider you a fool if you disagreed with him once, and a traitor if you persisted. Strauss was also a prude: he was scandalized by the fact that Oppenheimer had begun sleeping with his wife Kitty while she was still married to another man. Moreover, he was a conservative and very religious Jew, while Oppenheimer was a liberal and totally irreligious Jew.

Of course his suspicions of Oppenheimer were not totally without foundation. Oppenheimer had described himself as not a Communist but said that he had probably been a member of many of the Communist front organizations on the West Coast. Ultimately though, the evidence adduced against Oppenheimer had far more to do with hysteria than logic.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pitch Perfect

This week's Nature:

Only 1 in 10,000 neurotypical people in the West have AP — the ability to effortlessly, without context, name the note sounded by a violin or a vacuum cleaner (“That's an F-sharp!”). Among those on the autism spectrum, the number rises to 8%, roughly 1 in 13. For people born blind or who lost their sight early in infancy, it is 45%. AP, Ockelford argues, enables children to sound out and tinker with familiar tunes; that experimentation leads to a deep grasp of musical structure.

Those are quite extraordinary differences.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, children whose first language is tonal (Vietnamese or Mandarin) in this study, and who start studying music at an early age, are much more likely to develop perfect pitch. So absolute pitch is an acquired skill, but one which requires training at a very early age. Four is problematic and eight seems to be definitely too old.

Pit Bull

A friend of mine had a pet pit bull who stepped on an ants' nest and got stung. He then proceeded to bite and claw at the nest until the stings either killed or incapacitated him. Donald Trump seems a lot like that. It's no surprise that he's now being investigated for obstruction of justice. Whatever real or imaginary crimes prompted the deceptions of Flynn et. al., Trump's ham-handed attempts to quash the investigations have now put him squarely in the prosecutorial sights. Many have suggested that he wouldn't have taken such a chance unless he had something big to hide. I'm not so sure. It's possible that his aggressive instincts just lead him from one dumb choice to another.

Personally, I hope that's not true. I'd like to think that he had a good reason, however evil, for putting the country through all this.

Second Amendment

Some idiot decided to take Republican talk of second amendment solutions seriously. It apparently turned out to be a Bernie Sanders fan. Naturally and fortunately, he doesn't seem to have been a very good shot.

What a moron. Hasn't he read Julius Caesar?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How Low Can He Go?

Gallup has Trump approval at 36% today, tying his low so far. His weekly average is 37%, a new low. Disapproval, at 60%, is also a record. I figure that if disapproval/approval reaches 2 to 1, Republican politicians are going to start heading for the hills, or at least hiding in the bushes. Actual impeachment might require 3 to 1

Trump's Farce of a Cabinet Meeting

Clearly, Donald Trump has been sent to humiliate this nation in every way possible. From the NYT:

Usually presidents mark their first cabinet meetings with a couple of words and a group grin for the cameras. But President Trump turned the first meeting of his full cabinet, on Monday, into a tribute to himself.

Mr. Trump called himself history’s most successful president “with few exceptions,” saying, “We’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at a just about record-setting pace,” though he has yet to move any major legislation through Congress. On Monday morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the latest court to block his travel ban.

“In just a very short time we are seeing amazing results,” he said. “People are surprised. It’s kicking in very fast.”

After 12 minutes of tooting his own horn, Mr. Trump invited his team to jump in. Maybe he’d call on one or two of them before getting down to work? No — everyone on the team was invited to praise the president in a public display of affection more Pyongyang than Washington, while the dear leader soaked up the love.

Some embraced this task more enthusiastically than others.

Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, has reportedly been given an ultimatum by Mr. Trump: Shake up the beleagured White House staff by July 4, or hit the road. His gratitude to the president was almost prayerful: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people, and we’re continuing to work very hard every day to accomplish those goals.”

Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, spent last week worrying about his job and being maligned on Twitter by Mr. Trump, who ranted about his Justice Department’s handling of the travel ban, and Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Sessions gushed about Mr. Trump’s popularity among law enforcement officers. “It’s an honor to be able to serve you,” he said, and “to set the exact right message, and the response is fabulous around the country.”

Vice President Mike Pence said, “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people...”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Top 20%

Richard V. Reeves, who apparently graduated from Oxford, has an idiotic op-ed in the NYT on class in America, entitled "Stop Pretending You're Not Rich". In it he argues that the top 20% of Americans, with an average family income of $200,000/yr, are a sort of permanent American upper class.

Rather than lying with statistics, he is probably just being stupid, but it's a familiar trick. The top 20% includes all the billionaires, centi-millionaires in the top 1% and top 0.01% and they make that äverage statistic pretty meaningless. In fact, only 7% of American individuals, and 17% 0f households, make more than $100,000 per year. The entry level to that top 20% is a lot less than $200K. The roughly 5.6% of households actually making more than $200K/yr are certainly fairly well off, but it's the top 0.1%, with a minimum net worth of around $20 million, and who own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined, who really count as rich, and even they are pikers compared to the guys who can write $20 million dollar plus checks to finance a favored political candidate or cause.

Wealth is more important than income for deciding who is actually rich, and the top 1%, with a minimum net worth of about $8 million, count as rich to me. The minimum net worth to make it into the top 20% is around $400K.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Theoretical Minimum

Landau's theoretical minimum was a test so rigorous that only a few ever passed it. Presumably it tested something like the contents of the famous Landau and Lifshitz series on theoretical physics. Leonard Susskind has been working on his own "Theoretical Minimum" series, and while it is at most an extremely simplified "Theoretical Minimum for Dummies", your humble dummy correspondent found the Quantum Mechanics volume very nice. I probably never used quantum mechanics once during a long career doing mostly atmospheric physics, so I had forgotten a lot. There's an awful lot of quantum mechanics you won't learn from it, but it's very good in presenting the fundamentals in a mathematically sound way.

Anyway, he and his coauthor have a new volume coming out on Special Relativity and Classical Field Theory so I decided to order it.


Stan Ulam and Edward Teller invented the approach to making an thermonuclear bomb that turned out to work. Ulam's idea was using the hydrodynamic shock produced by a fission bomb to compress the fusion materials. Teller improved that idea by using the radiation pressure (rather than hydrodynamic pressure) to do the compression. Teller, who had been the tireless advocate of the H-bomb and spent many years on an idea that didn't work, didn't want to share credit.

Edward Teller seems to have found it intolerable that someone might share credit for the historic invention on which he had been working single-mindedly for almost ten years; he moved immediately to take over the technical breakthrough and make it his own. After he and Ulam issued their joint report, Françoise Ulam observes, “my impression is that from then on Teller pushed Stan aside and refused to deal with him any longer. He never met or talked with Stan meaningfully ever again. Stan was, I felt, more wounded than he knew by this unfriendly reception, although I never heard him express ill feelings toward Teller. (He rather pitied him instead.) Secure in his own mind that his input had been useful, he withdrew.”2187 (Carson Mark confirms Françoise Ulam’s impression: “Ulam felt that he invented the new approach to the hydrogen bomb. Teller didn’t wish to recognize that. He couldn’t bring himself to recognize it. He’s taken occasion, almost every occasion he could, not every one, to deny that Ulam contributed anything. I think I know exactly what happened in the interaction of those two.2188 Edward would violently disagree with what I would say. It would be much closer to Ulam’s view of how it happened.”)

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 471). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

More ammo for the Teller was a giant jerk view of history.

Whistling in the Dark

Trump and fellow idiots have been blasting Comey for "leaking" the contents of the memos he wrote.

Dana Gold, writing in Slate:

Trump kept up this attack on Friday, taking to his favorite medium to say, “WOW, Comey is a leaker!”

Meanwhile, NSA contractor Reality Winner is facing up to 10 years in jail because she allegedly mailed a classified document to the Intercept with evidence of an attack by Russian military intelligence operatives on the U.S. election system. What’s been missing from both of these conversations is a greater focus on what was being revealed, which should greatly influence how we think of and describe those making the revelations.

The shared NSA documents revealed that Russia had hacked a voting software supplier just days before the election. Comey’s memo, meanwhile, revealed an allegation that the president attempted to interfere in an ongoing FBI investigation—a charge the president now denies—potentially to the point of obstruction of justice. The media makes a mistake when it buys into the administration’s labeling of both these figures as leakers.

Leaking has become the default term for almost all unauthorized disclosures of information, classified or not, provided anonymously by employees to journalists. But not all leaked information has the same value. A more accurate description of both Comey’s and Winner’s disclosures is not leaking, but rather anonymous whistleblowing. The distinction matters.

More Teller

As calculations by Ulam, Everett and Fermi made it increasingly clear that Teller's design for the thermonuclear bomb (the so-called 'classical super') would not work, Teller became bitterly critical of Los Alamos, and campaigned for his own lab.

In fact the failure was Teller’s, Hans Bethe observes, not the laboratory’s: That Ulam’s calculations had to be done at all was proof that the H-bomb project was not ready for a “crash” program when Teller first advocated such a program in the fall of 1949. Nobody will blame Teller because the calculations of 1946 were wrong, especially because adequate computing machines were not then available. But he was blamed at Los Alamos for leading the Laboratory, and indeed the whole country, into an adventurous program on the basis of calculations which he himself must have known to have been very incomplete.2138

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 461). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Kim Il Sung's Invasion of South Korea

Kim’s Soviet advisers had proposed the day and time; it matched Hitler’s invasion of the USSR on the morning of Sunday, June 22, 1941.2021 US Ambassador to South Korea John Muccio, tired from a late night playing strip poker with several of the embassy secretaries, cabled the news to the State Department.2022

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 436). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Kim's idea - Stalin and Mao were not that eager.

The Suspect

Once master atom bomb spy Klaus Fuchs had been revealed the FBI started looking hard for the "other" spy they had reason to believe was at Los Alamos. Suspicion fell upon uber hawk Edward Teller.

Teller was a “close associate of . . . Fuchs at Los Alamos.” Mici Teller had traveled to Mexico City with Fuchs and Rudolf and Genia Peierls “in the latter part of 1945.” “The Tellers had Fuchs at their home for dinner when Fuchs returned to this country in 1947.” “Dr. Teller had considerable contact with Fuchs in England in the summer of 1949.” Besides his affiliation with Fuchs, Teller also had recommended for postwar graduate study at the University of Chicago a man with whom he had worked at Los Alamos who “has been identified as a Soviet espionage agent while at Los Alamos.” Teller’s name had appeared on a list of possible espionage recruits that the man had compiled.1983 Teller had traveled to New York during the time periods bracketed in the NKVD cable decode and “made frequent trips away from the Los Alamos Project and could have furnished information to the Russians on a regular basis.” And, oddly, “Dr. Teller is outspoken against furnishing atomic energy information to Russia, which appears strange in view of the fact that his parents and other relatives are in Hungary under Communist domination.”

Had its agents investigated further, the FBI could have learned much more about Edward Teller that might have appeared suspicious. Teller had refused to work on important implosion calculations at Los Alamos in the spring and summer of 1944 and his refusal had led directly to the decision to bring British scientists, including Klaus Fuchs, to Los Alamos. Teller had left Los Alamos to return to private life in 1946 even though he was the leading theoretician responsible for thermonuclear work; his departure had undoubtedly delayed the progress of that work. Teller had insisted on the development of a particular design of thermonuclear weapon, the Super, which had not been determined to be feasible on basic physical principles, when another design, his Alarm Clock, was unquestionably feasible on basic physical principles. The Super design Teller had insisted upon Los Alamos pursuing had recently been shown to be almost certainly inadequate. He had continued to insist on its development, and had encouraged a major commitment of people and funds which the President himself had endorsed, even though the Super was at best a marginal design and even though its development would deprive the country of a large number of atomic bombs which might otherwise be produced. Adding hypothetical charges such as these to the evidence it had already assembled of Teller’s associations with Fuchs, the FBI might have built a powerful case that the brooding, volatile Hungarian-born physicist was a Soviet spy.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 429-430). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Rhodes adds:

Teller and like-minded patriots such as Lewis Strauss and William Borden would not hesitate to compile similarly hypothetical charges against Robert Oppenheimer in the years to come.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 430). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

And that's about as close as Rhodes comes to dissing any of the atom scientists.

That Imp Word

Post Comey testimony, Slate has its Impeach-O-Meter at 45%. My personal guess, based mainly on a long life of poor guesses about political outcomes, is more like 65%. Republicans would rather be roasted on a slow fire than impeach, but they are starting to hedge their bets.

My feeling is that Trump would have to be an idiot to have done so much stupid stuff to conceal the smoke if there wasn't some fire, but on the other hand, Trump does seem to be an idiot, so who knows.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Republican Senators

The Republican National Committee had reportedly asked the Republican Senators to rough up James Comey in the hearing today, but they didn't do anything like that. They tried to offer a bit of cover for Trump, especially as far as making the most generous possible interpretations of his reported conversations, but they were mostly both polite and even deferential - Senatorial, you might say. Either they are determined to make a serious investigation or just haven't figured out yet which way they should jump.

John McCain, though, seemed both unclear and out of touch. Some wonder if the 80 year old is all right.

UK Election

The Brits probably can't make as stupid a choice of their next leader as Americans did, but it won't be for lack of trying. Results, I hear, are only hours away, but speculation is rife that May's attempt to increase her parliamentary majority may fail, and that she might be lucky to wobble weakly back to power.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Comey's testimony not only demonstrated why Trump should be impeached but also touched on Hillary's successful self-sabotage, with a clear assist from Bill.

What a bunch of dumbasses.

HIGHLY PREMATURE UPDATE: Labour - 6 181, Conservatives - 2 166: So far, Labour gets a net gain mostly at the expense of SNP. WC can breathe easy though - the LibDems have already picked up 2 seats and have a firm grip on 5.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Another Fine Mess

Trump seems to have blundered into some kind of showdown between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Iran and Turkey taking sides with Qatar. Will he blunder away our military base in the Gulf?

What a dumbass.


As we read a preview of Comey's testimony, nothing is more striking than the depths of Trump's stupidity and self destructiveness. He might just as well as have had baseball caps printed up saying "Impeach Me."

Hair Between Their Eyes

Steve Hsu leads us to a new paper which finds evidence of recent selection for the polygenic traits height, educational attainment, and "self reported unibrow." Steve is particularly interested in the evidence for selection for genes associated (with educational attainment in Europeans) in East Asians. That selection appears to have occurred during the past 10,000 years.

Although the paper is about 84 pages, most of that is figures and tables, with only about 19 pages of exposition. I found it more understandable than Steve's very brief summary.

It's probably obvious that selection is important for polygenic traits, since most significant differences are polygenic, but data to date has been sparse.

From the abstract:

An open question in human evolution is the importance of polygenic adaptation: adaptive changes in the mean of a multifactorial trait due to shifts in allele frequencies across many loci. In recent years, several methods have been developed to detect polygenic adaptation using loci identified in genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Though powerful, these methods suffer from limited interpretability: they can detect which sets of populations have evidence for polygenic adaptation, but are unable to reveal where in the history of multiple populations these processes occurred. To address this, we created a method to detect polygenic adaptation in an admixture graph, which is a representation of the historical divergences and admixture events relating different populations through time.

Note From an Unperson

1984 all over again.

Eric Trump declares Democrats "not even people."

Monday, June 05, 2017

Neutron Stars: Astro FOTD

Fun Fact: The mass of a neutron star is about 20% less than the mass of the neutrons and other nucleons that compose it.

The difference is gravitational binding energy.

CNN Wants to Know

I found this on my Google News page:

Ahead of the British election, we want to know: What do you think the UK's place in the world should be? Call us and leave a message:

I'm not the sort to call, but it happens that this is an issue I feel strongly about. I believe that the UK's place in the world should be astride the Greenwich Meridian, West of France and East of the Atlantic Ocean. Almost anyplace else would be deeply confusing, though somewhere between Australia and New Zealand might be OK too.

Congratulations! Your Safety School is Now in Afghanistan

There is something satisfying about seeing the privileged get taken down by their own arrogance, even if they are a bunch of smart/smart alecky high school students.

Seppuku, Facebook style:

They posted memes about rape and dead children and the Holocaust. They joked that hanging a Mexican child should be called "pinata time." And now Harvard has decided it doesn't want them anymore.

According to the Harvard Crimson, the Ivy League university has rescinded offers of acceptance to at least 10 incoming freshman for the class of 2021, following an investigation into the messages they posted in a private Facebook group:

A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December, according to two incoming freshmen.

In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.

It's probably not a good idea to play "Words Against Humanity" online.

Saturday, June 03, 2017


In 1948, people in the AEC starting thinking that we ought to have a way to detect nuclear tests by other powers. Of the three possible methods of detection discussed (radioactive dust in the atmosphere, acoustic, and seismic) only the first could be quickly implemented, and Oppenheimer was convinced that it couldn't work. He and others at that time didn't believe air bursts would leave dust, the radioactive elements having been reduced to atoms. The Air Force had been given the job of doing it, and found a private company, Tracer Labs, eager to take up the challenge. Oppenheimer was shown to be wrong.

Shortly after the Soviets exploded their first nuclear bomb near Semipalatinsk in September of 1949, the Air Force and Tracer Labs detected the signal, and followed it across the ocean, the US and the UK. Tracer labs was able to pin down the day and nearly the hour of the explosion. Despite independent evidence from intelligence, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and later Truman were skeptical.

... Truman was skeptical of the Soviet achievement; he told a senator later that he could not believe “those asiatics” could build so complicated a weapon as an atomic bomb.1706

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 373). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Ignorant prejudice - it's not just for breakfast.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Sequestering Carbon

That's actually almost the only good reason I have figured out for buying Statistical Physics: Theory of the Condensed State (Course of Theoretical Physics Vol. 9, aside from the fact that it seems to be the only volume of L&L that I don't own. I mean Landau isn't even listed as an author, and it's almost 40 years old.

Of course there are a couple of other volumes that I only have in German, a language that I can't actually read.


Thursday, June 01, 2017

Another One for President Stupid

Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate accord is a great victory for the libertarian Republicans - AKA the Koch brothers.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hayek vs. the Libertarians

After saying that there is no reason that a rich society should not provide a minimum of economic security to all its citizens, Hayek adds:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance— where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks—the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supercede it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state’s providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom. To the same category belongs also the increase of security through the state’s rendering assistance to the victims of such “acts of God” as earthquakes and floods. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

Hayek, F. A.. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) (Kindle Locations 3603-3613). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

The American libertarians, and their Republican allies, are flatly against all of the above, and that fact is at the center of my beef with libertarianism, despite the fact that the US today is far richer than 1940s UK. Hayek's style of libertarianism is far more palatable for me.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Finally Something Interesting

Hayek claims that fascism and National Socialism arose partly due to the envy of the poor and educated for the more favorable positions of the unionized workers - the beneficiaries, in his view, of socialism's successes.

They were quite ready to take over the methods of the older socialism but intended to employ them in the service of a different class. The movement was able to attract all those who, while they agreed on the desirability of the state controlling all economic activity, disagreed with the ends for which the aristocracy of the industrial workers used their political strength.

Hayek, F. A.. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) (Kindle Locations 3514-3517). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Interestingly, the founders or at least principal sponsors of US libertarianism made the same choice - to imitate Leninist tactics and methods.

For The Stoat

So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people—nobody is tied to any one property owner except by the fact that he may offer better terms than anybody else.

Hayek, F. A.. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) (Kindle Locations 3303-3306). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Perhaps you recall that it was precisely the issue of particular people being tied to any one property owner that exercised Paul Krugman and brought on your denigration. I added a few other instances of laws and contract structures having this effect. I'm sure you learned somewhere that actual serfdom was precisely the condition of workers being tied to one property owner.

In the US today, it's common for students to graduate from university, or worse, fail to graduate from university, with $50,000 to $100,000 in debt, even students with degrees in education or art history or similarly unremunerative occupations. (For MD's, think $500,000). This debt is an enormous limitation on their economic freedom - but one that libertarians presumably would approve of. My guess is that debt created a lot more slaves and serfs than socialism ever has.

Hayek Blah Blah Blah

I seem to recall having heard that Hayek published a Reader's Digest version of his Road. I should have looked for it. So far, he has expended about 25,000 words on saying (1)Government direction of the whole economy doesn't work, (2)Will restrict individual's freedom, and (3)Socialism is bad. Concision is not in his wheelhouse.

Oops, I forgot one - the autobahn was an economic disaster because it wasn't carrying much traffic before the war.

I guess he has also proclaimed - I can't say argued - that the development of Civilization (up to the invention of Socialism, anyway) has been a gradual expansion of individualism and individual rights - what a load of crap. Despite some advances in recent Centuries, the overall development has been almost opposite.

I agree with the first three, but I'm really, really bored. I would at least like him to say something I could argue with, something that would surprise me, or be some kind of revelation, however minor.

Report From Kindle Milepost 2566/6408

We can rely on voluntary agreement to guide the action of the state only so long as it is confined to spheres where agreement exists. But not only when the state undertakes direct control in fields where there is no such agreement is it bound to suppress individual freedom.

Hayek, F. A.. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) (Kindle Locations 2568-2569). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Which of course is the whole point of the State.

Most of Hayek so far has consisted of inveighing against the kind of central planning that nobody still believes in. it may have been an important message 80 years ago, but not so much today. My question is whether he has anything relevant to today.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Individualism and Collectivism

It's pretty clear that all human society, from primitive band to tribe to civilization, is based on collective action. The most fundamental human skill is cooperation. The trouble with cooperation is that it carries evolutionary risk, the risk that something an individual does for the collective benefit will be exploited by cheats, thieves, and free riders. Thus, cooperation only works if those particular individualistic tendencies can be suppressed. In individual hunter-gatherer bands, such suppression is managed by an ethic and by punishment, the ethic being a collective consciousness and the punishments being ridicule, banishment, and execution.

More complex societies evolved more elaborate means of control: myth, hierarchy, religion, and law. Perhaps civilization's greatest contribution in this regard was money, which greatly expanded the capability of cooperation via trade. Civilization also invented new instruments of collective action, like debt.

All of these had the effects limiting individual scope and freedom. Of course they also brought something like more freedom to those on top of the hierarchy.

I'm not really changing the subject, but I was listening to an NPR story about a boatwright. He mentioned that he loved the sea, but gave up commercial fishing, because the battle there was not against the elements as often depicted, but against one's neighbor, the other fisherman. That reminded me of the very central fact that the human competition for existence was always ultimately against other people. Malthus and Darwin are the ultimate economic analysts.

I doubt that either Marx or Hayek properly appreciate this fact.


Hayek's starting point, and slogging through 27% of the much prefaced and introduced edition of The Road to Serfdom I have, has only barely gotten me to that point, is that England and America (in the 1940s) were just arriving at a point that had already transformed Germany, Italy, and Russian into totalitarian states, and that the central agent of that transformation was socialism. Obviously that latter was true in the case of Russia.

My first impression is that Hayek is a very narrow minded fanatic, who is heroically trying to force history into the Procrustean Bed of his own obsession. In particular it would seem to ignore long established authoritarian histories of all three nations as well as their recent social and economic convulsions. But I should wait to hear his argument.

One thing I would note from one of the many prefaces, was that Hayek says:

But, whatever the name, the essential point remains that all I shall have to say is derived from certain ultimate values. I hope I have adequately discharged in the book itself a second and no less important duty: to make it clear beyond doubt what these ultimate values are on which the whole argument depends.

Hayek, F. A.. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) (Kindle Locations 1074-1077). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Of course he has yet to enunciate those values (at this point in the book) so I couldn't say what the are - though he has noted that he is sure that they aren't self-serving.

These two sentences prompted me to wonder a bit about my own disdain for libertarianism. I'm sure that it's very long standing, well over a half-century old. I think it originated for me when I was in high-school, and first crystallized in my arguments with fellow nerds who happened to be of that persuasion. Their arguments always sounded nuts to me, even though I never bothered to read their idiot bible (I think it was Atlas Shrugged, which, many decades later, I did read as a sort of penance.)

I might try to dig deeper into the why at some later point.

Conservative vs. Liberal

A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege. The essence of the liberal position, however, is the denial of all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others.

Hayek, F. A.. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) (Kindle Locations 1230-1234). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Reader

I read a lot, but most of what I read is not literary. From time to time I tackle a book blessed by the literary types, possibly just to try and convince myself I'm not a Philistine. Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest are a couple of bricks I've read but been left more disappointed than impressed. Not that the authors lack talent and skill. I rather liked the books of Delillo and Franzen that I read - again just one of each, but I've never been impressed enough to read another, yet anyway.

Haruki Murakami is often compared to the first three of these, but I'm already reading my fifth Murakami novel - this time, A Wild Sheep Chase, and as always, I'm sucked right in. Murakami is more accessible, I think, and his imaginative power more impressive. Also, his characters, who are all Japanese, feel more real and vivid to me than the Americans who populate the novels of the American writers mentioned above.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Dereliction of Duty

I'm tempted to send a copy of the book the National Security Advisor General McMaster. Think he would get it if I sent it to him at the White House?

Bombing Dayton Ohio

When Curtis LeMay took over the Strategic Air Command (SAC) near the end of 1948, he found a disastrously unprepared force with no experience in realistic training. After some bloody pruning of the staff, he ordered a realistic simulated attack on Dayton Ohio by every aircraft SAC could get in the air. Richard Rhodes:

Since Air Force intelligence could supply only vintage prewar aerial photographs of Soviet cities, LeMay gave his crews 1938 photographs of Dayton. He instructed them to bomb by radar from thirty thousand feet and to aim for industrial and military targets, not radar reflectors.

“Oh, I’ll admit the weather was bad,” he recalled in retirement of the January 1949 mission. “There were a lot of thunderstorms in the area; that certainly was a factor. But on top of this, our crews were not accustomed to flying at altitude. Neither were the airplanes, far as that goes. Most of the pressurization wouldn’t work, and the oxygen wouldn’t work. Nobody seemed to know what life was like upstairs.”1550 Not many crews even found Dayton. For those who did, bombing scores ran from one to two miles off target, distances at which even Nagasaki-yield atomic bombs would do only marginal damage.1551

LeMay called the results of the Dayton exercise “just about the darkest night in American military aviation history. Not one airplane finished that mission as briefed. Not one.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 341). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

If Stalin had chosen that moment to overrun Western Europe, the US could not have responded effectively for months. This, right in the middle of the Berlin airlift (the Soviets having shut off train and road traffic to Berlin), was a big fail for Truman and especially, for his defense team. Truman was relying on almost entirely on a nuclear deterrent that at that point was a paper tiger.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Siberian President

Josh Marshall:

Though I wrote about the particulars yesterday afternoon, the picture only fully crystallized for me this afternoon. President Trump’s visit to Brussels/Europe wasn’t just another grab bag of impulsive aggression and gaffes. It wasn’t scattershot. It was quite clearly focused on destabilizing and perhaps eviscerating the NATO Alliance and somewhat secondarily, but relatedly, the European Union. This has been the strategic goal of Russia and before it the Soviet Union for decades. The sum total of everything that happened on this trip casts the entire Trump/Russia story in a decidedly more ominous light.


Again, let’s go back to Brussels and NATO. Trump now has around him a number of advisors who if they are reasonably criticized on various grounds hold conventional pro-NATO views on Europe. Defense Secretary Mattis appears to be the most important of these. McMaster, Powell and others figure in the mix too. They apparently worked on him closely to make a clear statement of honoring Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – our commitment to come to the defense of any NATO member threatened with external aggression. It was even apprently in the speech he was supposed to give. But Trump nixed it and insisted on these entirely fraudulent entirely fraudulent claims of the Europeans owing the US vast sums of money.

Again, he’s malleable, a veritable changeling on everything but this. This isn’t a decision that’s the President’s to make or a judgement call. It’s a binding treaty commitment every President since Truman has lived under and honored.

Whether Vladimir Putin has something on Donald Trump or somehow has him in his pay hardly matters. If he doesn’t, he apparently doesn’t need to do since Trump insists on doing more or less exactly what Putin would want of him entirely on his own. Does this sound hyperbolic. Yes, it absolutely does. I’m even surprised I’m writing it. But look at the evidence before us. A simple statement on a decades old security commitment is the simplest, most pro-forma thing to do. And yet he refuses. Again and again.

The evidence of something rotten in the Trump-Russia connection continues to pile up. Jared Kushner's apparent attempt to establish a secret channel to the Kremlin through the Russian embassy is just the latest and most bizarre manifestation.

Zuckerberg's Doctorate

Luboš and Mark Zuckerberg are both Harvard dropouts. Zuckerberg dropped out as a Sophomore when he got a zillion dollar idea. Lumo dropped out of the professorate for some other kind of reason. Like many who have actually earned a doctorate, Luboš is none too thrilled when rich guys like Z get one for just being rich. What really annoys him though, is that Zuckerberg said something about climate that conflicted with the Lumonator's climate delusions.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


It looks like my former Montana compatriots are going to put Greg Gianforte in the house. Gianforte is one of those rich guys who puts the thug in Rethuglican, getting his fifteen minutes of national fame for beating up a reporter on election eve. Quite likely many of the voters had already voted before the incident made news, since MT has a lot of early voting, but it's not clear that the assault would have made a difference if it had occurred a week ago.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roads to Serfdom

One of the bibles of Libertarianism is Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. It argues, so I read, that state control of the economy and centralized planning lead to the enslavement of the individual.

I should note that I haven't read it, and don't actually plan to. Most of what I know of it comes from Wikipedia, linked above. At any rate, it seems clear to me that as with any religious document, its fans like to oversimplify and distort its message, usually to suit their own economic benefit. In particular, Hayek recognized an important role for government, especially in matters like protection of the environment, one of the favorite targets of many Libertarians.

Hayek's book had many fans, including John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell, but Orwell, in particular, was careful to point out that there was more than one road to serfdom. From the linked Wikipedia article:

George Orwell responded with both praise and criticism, stating, "in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of." Yet he also warned, "[A] return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state."

The real serfdom, we ought to remember, was not servitude to the state, but to the great landowners, and variations on that kind of serfdom have existed for thousands of years. The modern counterpart is a kind of servitude to the corporation. Of course we aren't bound to the corporation in the same way serfs were bound to the land - or are we? Old institutions like the company store may have faded away, but a potent new one is health insurance, which, in the US, is tightly linked employment in one of the sectors of the economy where providing such insurance is common.

Paul Krugman's May 22 column details many of the ways the policies of the so-called liberty loving Republicans have conspired to make American workers less free:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.

And you can make a strong case that we’re getting less free as time goes by...

At this point, however, almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause. There can’t be that many workers in possession of valuable trade secrets, especially when many of these workers are in relatively low-paying jobs. For example, one prominent case involved Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain, basically trying to ban its former franchisees from working for other sandwich makers.

At this point, in other words, noncompete clauses are in many cases less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs...

You might say, with only a bit of hyperbole, that workers in America, supposedly the land of the free, are actually creeping along the road to serfdom, yoked to corporate employers the way Russian peasants were once tied to their masters’ land. And the people pushing them down that road are the very people who cry “freedom” the loudest.

In case anyone was wondering why I hate Libertarianism. What most Libertarians seem to be looking for is the freedom to enslave others.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Smart's Don't It?

In what the NYT has labelled an "enormous success" a big genome wide association study is reputed to have found a number of gene variants associated with intelligence:

In a significant advance in the study of mental ability, a team of European and American scientists announced on Monday that they had identified 52 genes linked to intelligence in nearly 80,000 people.

These genes do not determine intelligence, however. Their combined influence is minuscule, the researchers said, suggesting that thousands more are likely to be involved and still await discovery. Just as important, intelligence is profoundly shaped by the environment.

Still, the findings could make it possible to begin new experiments into the biological basis of reasoning and problem-solving, experts said. They could even help researchers determine which interventions would be most effective for children struggling to learn.

I'm not too impressed with the story. The second quoted paragraph is misleading - I think it should say that the individual influence of the genes is miniscule (not the combined influence.) I'm also under the impression that the genes are not actually correlated with IQ test results, but with educational attainment, which is taken as a proxy for intelligence.

One of the more interesting bits in the story was this (about height, not intelligence):

But other gene studies have shown that variants in one population can fail to predict what people are like in other populations. Different variants turn out to be important in different groups, and this may well be the case with intelligence.

“If you try to predict height using the genes we’ve identified in Europeans in Africans, you’d predict all Africans are five inches shorter than Europeans, which isn’t true,” Dr. Posthuma said.

It's not obvious to me that much has been learned about the biological roots of differences in intelligence.

Sink Hole

News reports say that a small sinkhole has appeared in front of Mar a Lago, but the one that's going to suck the proprietor down is the one he is making with his own stupidity. The latest revelation is that Trump personally asked intelligence officials to shut down the Russia investigation:

The Washington Post reported, citing unnamed current and former officials, that Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers to publicly deny that any evidence of collusion existed.

He made that request after former FBI Director James Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee that his bureau was conducting an investigation into whether there was any “coordination” between Russian officials and Trump’s associates during the campaign, according to the Washington Post.

Two unnamed current and two unnamed former officials cited in the report said that Coats and Rogers deemed Trump’s request inappropriate and refused to do so.

Trump made the request to Rogers in a phone call, according to the Washington Post, and a senior NSA official documented the conversation in an internal memo written at the time.

It's no longer his corruption that shocks, but his total, moronic, stupidity.

One and A Third

George Marshall:

George Marshall, who replaced Byrnes as Secretary of State in January 1947, told a Pentagon audience some years later, “I remember, when I was Secretary of State, I was being pressed constantly, particularly when in Moscow, by radio message after radio message, to give the Russians hell. . . . When I got back I was getting the same appeal in relation to the Far East and China. At that time, my facilities for giving them hell—and I am a soldier and know something about the ability to give hell—was one and a third divisions over the entire United States.1250 That is quite a proposition when you deal with somebody with over 260 and you have one and a third.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 282). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The drastic US disarmament after World War II left the US at a drastic strategic disadvantage that made professional soldiers very nervous, especially when they looked at Stalin's quite different behavior. Truman probably did this because of his confidence in the nuclear bomb, but in fact, the US nuclear arsenal, and it's means of delivery, were both quite limited at that point.

Air Force General Curtis Lemay:

war. “The same thing happened here as everywhere else,” a disgusted Curtis LeMay would write a friend from Europe the following year. “Everyone dropped their tools and went home when the whistle blew. The property is in terrible shape and we do not have enough people left in the theater to properly take care of it.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 281). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That lack of preparation likely led to the Korean War and the US defeats there.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Big I

We have a thoroughly Republican Congress and they would like to impeach the current Republican President almost as much as they would like to suffer the Mongolian fire torture. Nonetheless, I think that it's pretty likely that the President will not complete his term in office - not so much because of the misdeeds already committed as because of those he has yet to commit. This is a guy burning with resentment with next to no impulse control, an ignorant fellow with no self-awareness, who moreover is showing signs of incipient senility. Essentially all his troubles today are of his own making, caused or at least initiated by his lack of impulse control and terrible judgement.

My guess is that sooner rather than later his own terrible judgement, or perhaps his response to external events, will collapse his remaining support and send the Republican Congress heading him for the exits.

Friday, May 19, 2017


I wish I could just enjoy mine at Trump's troubles, but unfortunately he can still destroy the planet, not to mention his capability to harm in a million smaller ways, not least by incompetence.

For actual malice, though, this is a good one (Jordan Weisssman in Slate):

According to Politico, President Trump told his staff this week that he wants to cut off a crucial set of subsidies that are paid to health insurers under Obamacare, a move that could potentially bring about the collapse of the law's coverage marketplaces. ...

Many of Trump's advisor's, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, apparently oppose the plan, because they “worry it will backfire politically if people lose their insurance or see huge premium spikes and blame the White House.” Which is a reasonable fear. Americans tend to blame their president for their personal misfortunes, particularly when they can easily trace them back to the discrete, rash actions of the man in the Oval Office.

Ya think?

On Speed

Seth Myers via the NYT:

“During a press conference this afternoon, President Trump said that his administration is getting things done at a record-setting pace. For example, most presidents take four years to finish a term, and it looks like Trump’s gonna get it done in, like, eight months.” — SETH MEYERS

Derek Hartfield

I learned a lot of what I know about writing from Derek Hartfield. Almost everything, in fact. Unfortunately, as a writer, Hartfield was sterile in the full sense of the word. One has only to read some of his stuff to see that. His prose is mangled, his stories slapdash, his themes juvenile. Yet he was a fighter as few are, a man who used words as weapons. In my opinion, when it comes to sheer combativeness he should be ranked right up there with the giants of his day, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Sadly, however, he could never fully grasp exactly what it was he was fighting against. In the final reckoning, I suppose, that’s what being sterile is all about.

Hartfield waged his fruitless battle for eight years and two months, and then he died. In June 1938, on a sunny Sunday morning, he jumped off the Empire State Building clutching a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his right hand and an open umbrella in his left. Few people noticed, though— he was as ignored in death as he had been in life.

Murakami, Haruki. Wind/Pinball: Two novels (pp. 4-5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Classic Murakami, from his first novel.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Brad DeLong sees a Machiavellian Mike Pence maneuvering to make himself President:

A Persian Dialogue About Mike Pence and Donald Trump...

Artemisia: I am now on Team Bannon?

Atossa: Why are you now on Team Bannon?

Artemisia: Because Steve Bannon warned Donald Trump that firing James Comey would be big trouble. Also Rince Priebus.

Atossa: But Trump listens to the last people he talked to. Why did he fire Comey then?

Artemisia: Because Jared Kushner and Mike Pence told him it would be no problem.

Atossa: And they got to him later.

Artemisia: But why would Jared Kushner say firing Comey wouldn't be a big problem?

Atossa: Because it was what Trump clearly wanted to hear. And Jared Kushner hasn't spent any time in Washington—he doesn't know much about how politics works.

Artemisia: But Mike Pence knows a lot about how politics works!

Atossa: Yup!

Artemisia: Mike Pence knew it would be big trouble!

Atossa: Yup!

Artemisia: Why would Mike Pence do something like that?

Atossa: What happens if Trump falls?

Artemisia: You mean?

Atossa: Yup! Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


I did not have sexual financial relations with that man, Mr. Putin.

Depending on what the meaning of is is.

Or something like that.

I notice that Sean Spicer has taken to phrasing his denials in the form "The President denies..."

Another Cheery Thought

Shepard Smith on Fox News observed that the last time Trump got a bump in the polls was when he bombed Syria.


From the Washington Post, the comments by Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy from not quite a year ago:

KIEV —A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016 exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.

Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the U.S. Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.

News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.

Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”

Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks...This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

The remarks remained secret for nearly a year.

There is no new factual material about Trump's links to Russia here, but the fact that this conversation has come to light now sure looks like a sign that the rats are looking for a way to bail from a sinking ship. Republicans have bitten their tongues about the dark suspicions they have had of Trump, but they seem to be loosening up now. Either that, or somebody has planted a hoax that fooled the WaPo.

Reign of Trump

Trump is pretty miserable as President. He hates the press, he dislikes his staff, and he feels like everybody hates him. But he does like the red button on his desk that summons a Diet Coke. Our dreams of impeachment no longer look quite as idle as they did a month ago.

Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon. I'm mean on a time scale where Trump's probability density for destroying the planet integrates to values greater than 1/2. So, is there any chance that he might quit?

I can dream, can't I.

Not that Pence would be much of an improvement.


Obligatory ABBA link:

Harari argues that money, because of its role in cooperative behavior, is probably the most important human invention since language.  The first money we know of, Mesopotamian barley money from 5000 years ago, is only a relatively small abstraction from pure barter, but it was a giant step in the promotion of commerce.  If you are a scythe maker and need a pair of boots, it can be a huge pain to find a bootmaker who needs a scythe, but once money exists, you only need find anyone with money who wants a scythe and then trade the money to someone who makes boots.  Not for the first time in human history, the symbol became more important than its realization.

Barley money had a number of disadvantages: it is bulky, it rots, and rats eat it.  Another major step to purely symbolic money was silver.  Silver, at least in the Mesopotamian world, had essentially no intrinsic value.  It's too soft to be useful in construction or weapons, so it is only decorative.  But it doesn't rot, rats don't eat it, and it is also somewhat rare.  Silver, gold and other metal coins were probably the first money that had purely symbolic value, and governments increasingly took charge of supervising it.

It's characteristic of the power of myth in human affairs that humans soon convinced themselves of the intrinsic value of gold and silver, and that wars and murders by the hundreds of millions followed.
Gold and silver are useful for money partly because their distinctive appearance, hardness, weight and rarity make them hard to counterfeit, but counterfeiting none the less occurred and rulers took to stamping their images on the genuine articles and visiting gruesome consequences on the perpetrators.

The next step in symbolization was the invention of credit money - agreements to pay between individuals, or between individuals and rulers, usually documented in writing, or today, in electronic records.  Nearly all the money today is credit money including currency, bank accounts, bonds and so forth.  Stocks in corporations are at once a slightly more concrete form of money (because they represent a claim on a specific entity) and a more abstract one (because the corporation itself is an abstraction).

The value of all this money rest entirely in our belief in it, and in the institutions that create it and preserve it's value.  The world still contains lots of nuts who consider this an abomination, and that many of our problems would disappear if we just went back to good old gold, but they are deluded.

The latest type of money is the cryptocurrency.  Like other money, its value depends on what people believe it is - faith in an algorithm, and scarcity based on that algorithm requiring a lot of computation.

I happen to consider the crypto-currencies the most meretricious addition to the monetary stock since shrunken head money.  Aside from giving cover to all sorts of criminal activity, they are very wasteful of resources.  Imagine a sort of Rumpelstiltskin world in which people could manufacture gold by endlessly playing Candy Crush - such that a skilled player could produce say 0.5 grams/hr, equivalent to $20/hr.  Soon the world would be full people playing Candy Crush and getting carpal tunnel syndrome.  Eventually the value of gold would decline due to increasing supply and  people would stop.  Would the world be any better off?

Bitcoin is like that.  Millions of hours of computer time and megawatt hours of electricity are being expended to manufacture this worthless crap.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Trump Tapes

Trump strongly hinted that there were tapes of his dinner conversation with Comey where he allegedly asked for a loyalty pledge. We know that the oval office has taping facilities, so it's at least plausible that the conversation where Comey claims Trump asked him to kill the Flynn investigation was taped. Congress has made it clear that it wants the Comey memos. They should also promptly ask for any relevant tapes.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I bought this book yesterday and just finished all 608 pages of it, so I guess one might call it a page turner. Murakami is masterful at sucking one in.

Toru Okada is an ordinary sort of thirty year old guy, a sort of legal assistant who quits his job at a law firm because it doesn't seem like something he wants to stick with. That's when his troubles start, when first his cat and then his wife go missing. If you've read Murakami before, you probably won't be surprised that this is the start of some strange adventures, not all of them strictly of this world. He soon finds himself involved in the affairs of a number of rather strange women.

The real world is always present in Murakami's version of magical realism, perhaps most grittily in the reminiscences of a couple of characters from the war in Manchuria and the subsequent captivity in a Siberian mining camp of a side character.

There is no doubt in my mind that Murakami is one of the greatest living novelists. He is equally the master of wit, suspense and deep characterization.

Bits and Pieces

The Daily Beast:

White House and administration officials are reeling at reports that President Donald Trump reportedly shared classified information with Russia’s top diplomats during an Oval Office meeting last week.


“I doubt he did it to collude [with the Russians]. I think he’s dumb and doesn’t know the difference,” a former FBI official who worked aspects of the Russia investigation told The Daily Beast. “He thinks he’s arranging some business deal except that he’s not.”

“I don’t think he shared the classified intelligence to collude. I think he shared because he thinks he’s playing chess when he’s actually playing checkers. International affairs is not like buying a golf course,” added a second former FBI official.

When asked if the Russians could use the information Trump provided in way that harms the U.S., this official said, “of course.”

The Russians, the source added, “like [Trump’s] mental instability and stupidity. They don’t like his unpredictability.”

Candidate Trump was vehement in his condemnations of the mishandling of classified information, chiefly by Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Her use of a private email server to handle such information was a frequent Trump talking point—and the subject of her own FBI investigation. That probe was led by James Comey, the man Trump fired on Tuesday due, administration officials claimed before Trump publicly contradicted them, to his handling of the Clinton investigation.

Credibility Acid

Donald Trump has a kind of universal credibility acid which dissolves the credibility of anybody associated with him. Tillerson and McMaster were supposed to be the adults in the room who would restrain Trump's worst impulses, but both found themselves releasing lawyerly statement denying that Trump discussed "sources and methods" with the Russians, and claiming that that demonstrated that the stories in the Washington Post and elsewhere were therefore false. Today, their credibility lies in tatters, since those stories made no such claim. Instead, they reported that the details released, in the opinion of intelligence professionals, allowed the deduction of sources and methods, implying major clues to the identity of inside informants.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sources and Methods

The Washington Post is reporting today that Trump disclosed highly sensitive intelligence to the Russians in his recent meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.

The president’s disclosures to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in their Oval Office meeting last week jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State — an information-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, current and former U.S. officials said. Trump appeared to be boasting of the “great intel” he receives when he described a looming terror threat, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.

This data is so sensitive that it isn;t shared even with some close allies. McMaster and Tillerson are claiming that not sources and methods were disclosed, but intelligence professionals are disagreeing, saying that the revelations are likely to get sources killed.

If that is true, then McMaster and Tillerson have to go, and I predict that Trump will be removed from office before his first year is over.

I Don't Understand

...why ransomware attacks like WannaCry are so hard to trace. They are asking for money, so the money should be traceable, at least by the banks carrying out the transfers. Of course some banks may have an interest in facilitating this kind of crime. How about just nuking them, virtually or actually? The virtual nuke would be just freezing them out of the international banking system and seizing any external assets of the banks and their principals.

I get it that a lot of tax evaders, drug dealers, corrupt officials and the banks that serve them would wanna cry, but is there any actual reason this would be a bad idea?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Political Necrophilia

Fareed Zakaria had a couple of Venezuela experts looking at the catastrophe that is modern Venezuela. One diagnosis particularly caught my eye: "political necrophilia," referring to attachment to long discredited political and economic ideas, in this case Marxism. Not that that is Venezuela's only problem. Rampant corruption and related disregard for law not only siphons off money but makes productive enterprise all but impossible.

Unfortunately, it's hard to see any easy fix. Getting rid of Maduro will neither be easy nor sufficient. He and the Chavistas have made Venezuela a one industry town, and that not currently a healthy one.

Russia Investigation

Clinton Watts, former FBI agent, offers a bit of information on the progress and direction of the FBI's investigation into Russia's interference in the US Presidential election. He thinks one needs to "follow the trail of dead Russians." It not exactly news that people deemed dangerous to Putin have a way of turning up dead.

RON WYDEN: There is a stack of documents - a voluminous stack of documents that points to various financial relationships between people who are close to the president, part of his world and the Russians. And for me, one of the key questions in doing an investigation is to always follow the money. In fact, Clint Watts, the former FBI man, came to our committee and said, Senator, you're right, you ought to follow the money, but you also ought to follow the trail of the dead bodies.

MARTIN: We are joined now by Clinton Watts, who offered up that advice to the committee back in March. He's a former FBI special agent, and he joins us on the line from New York. Mr. Watts, thanks for being here.

CLINTON WATTS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: That's a provocative statement that you gave the committee. What did you mean when you advised senators to, quote, "follow the trail of dead Russians"?

WATTS: From the Russian context, if they were meddling in the U.S. election and it was through financial relationships, maybe inducements that they wanted to push, they would try to close those off. And if you look over the past year, really year and a half, you've seen a string of senior Russian officials that have died, some of them obviously of natural causes but some of them under suspicious circumstances.

And so when I would be looking at this, that's where I would focus is why are these people dying strangely? And which one of those might've had financial connections?

Less sensational than the headline, but suggestive. Some details would be nice.

Call Me Mister

Professor Molly Worthen has written a defense of old school formality in an NYT op-ed.

After one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step. I began attaching a page on etiquette to every syllabus: basic rules for how to address teachers and write polite, grammatically correct emails.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.

Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

His webpage covers matters ranging from appropriate email addresses (if you’re still using “,” then “it’s time to retire that address”) to how to be gracious when making a request (“do not make demands”).

My own habits were formed decades ago, and I nearly always address my teachers with the title "Professor" unless they signal otherwise, but I was reminded of my own experience that such titles are not always hazardless. In my own research organization, first names were the rule but our administrative assistants usually called us "Doctor".

So anyway, I was in the delivery room while my wife was giving birth to my son when our admin assistant called and apparently asked for "Doctor Measure." They sent me to the phone, and I dealt with whatever crisis could have waited until next week, but when I left the phone I noticed that the nurses suddenly started paying entirely unwarranted attention to what I said. It took me awhile to deduce what must have happened. If the admin assistant had asked for "Mr. Measure" the nurses would quite likely have told her to bug off. Instead, they wrongly deduced that I must be a physician and that my opinions on childbirth ought to be respected.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Straight Outta London

For reason quite mysterious to me, two of my most popular recent posts (as measured by pageviews) concern the travels of a book that I ordered from Amazon. The cheapest price was from a bookshop in London, even though the book was written, published and printed in the US. Anyway, here is one more.

Anyway, I ordered a couple more books, and again the best deals were in that old town astride the Thames. I won't get them for a bit yet, but both have made it back to the US, one to Compton, CA and the other to Secaucus, NJ. International trade is weird.

However, an anthropologist friend assures me that a slave girl captured in Sweden 1800 years ago might have had a similarly convoluted and doubtless much longer trip to the slave markets of Aleppo.

Prediction is Hard

...especially of the future.

It's an aphorism attributed to Niels Bohr, but it seems to apply to science fiction these days. Once upon a time SF writers were mighty in the art of prediction. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the communication satellite and the smart phone, for example. So how are they doing now. If the SF series I'm reading now is typical, not so hot.

The setting is several hundred years in the future, when man has colonized much of the solar system, but aside from fusion powered space ships, the technology is mostly off the shelf 2015. Battle are fought with bullet shooting guns pretty much like those that have been around for hundreds of years, or fists, (or in one case, a can of chicken.) Biology is pretty much lab standard the present, though modest progress seems to have been made against cancer.

I wonder if it has become too difficult to imagine anything not already almost in technologies grasp.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Josh Dawsey at Politico:

President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn't call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters.

He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

Trump's firing of the high-profile FBI director on the 110th day since the president took office marked another sudden turn for an administration that has fired its acting attorney general, national security adviser and now its FBI director, whom Trump had praised until recent weeks and had even blew a kiss to during a January appearance.

This stuff all screams guilty!

The Reason Why

The circumstantial case that Trump fired Comey for investigating his ties to Russian interference in the election is starting to look ironclad. MATTHEW ROSENBERG and MATT APUZZO in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.

Mr. Comey asked for the resources during a meeting last week with Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who wrote the Justice Department’s memo that was used to justify the firing of the F.B.I. director this week.

Mr. Comey then briefed members of Congress on the meeting in recent days.

So far, the Republican Party looks determined to ride the Trump train wherever it goes, and the options are looking decidedly unpalatable.