Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Socratic Method

It looks to me like the Socratic Method consists of Socrates slip sliding words around, especially those slipperiest and slidiest of all words, good and bad, until his interlocutor agrees to something utterly absurd, at which point he applies the logical theorem that says that a false premise implies anything and everything.

Call me disappointed.

Soc it to Me

SOCRATES: Ask me now what craft I think pastry baking is.

POLUS: All right, I will. What craft is pastry baking?

SOCRATES: It isn’t one at all, Polus. Now say, “What is it then?”

POLUS: All right.

SOCRATES: It’s a knack. Say, “A knack for what?”

POLUS: All right.

CIPas: WTF do you mean by craft vs. knack?

Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle (p. 132). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


After reading Plato's account of a dialog between Protagoras and Socrates, I've got to say I've lost a lot of respect for all concerned. The question under debate is whether wisdom and virtue can be learned, with Protagoras initially taking the affirmative. Socrates then chases him around the rhetorical map with what seem to me to be pointless word games, getting P to concede that this and that have similarities or similar opposites. A better Protagoras, I think, would just have said: "Socrates, Socrates, hang up your word games. Let's just say that different words have different meanings, and that even the same word can have different meanings in different contexts." P, in Plato's telling, never points out some of the ridiculous weaknesses in the argument of Socrates, like the absurd chain by which Socrates gets Protagoras to equate courage with knowledge.

Frankly, I consider it unlikely that the minds who created Greek geometry could have bought into this weakly argued stuff.

Subject No Object

A quick look at Amazon reveals that there are lots of books on Astrobiology. Cambridge has a series on the subject. We even read that NASA is pivoting to astrobiology. The only thing missing to make the subject more vital is an object of study. To date, we have zero evidence of extraterrestrial life of any sort.

Given the tantalizing prospect, though, textbooks are being written, and they are firmly grounded in the life the only place we know of it. That's a good idea, I suppose, and based on the notion that any life that we do discover will look a lot like that on Earth. Is that reasonable?

The more we learn about life, the less plausible substantially different living systems look. The unique virtues of the carbon based system seem hard to emulate in any other chemistry. Of course, we may just lack imagination.

If we do discover signs of living extraterrestrials, it would certainly be one of the most consequential discoveries of all time, but it seems a bit early to me to get our hopes up. I hope I'm wrong.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Not a Libertarian

Socrates, I mean.

In Plato's Crito, Socrates imagining the Laws of Athens speaking to him:

...Or are you so wise that it has escaped your notice that your fatherland is more worthy of honor than your mother [b] and father and all your other ancestors; that it is more to be revered and more sacred and is held in greater esteem both {112} among the gods and among those human beings who have any sense; that you must treat your fatherland with piety, submitting to it and placating it more than you would your own father when it is angry; that you must either persuade it or else do whatever it commands; that you must mind your behavior and undergo whatever treatment it prescribes for you, whether a beating or imprisonment; that if it leads you to war to be wounded or killed, that’s what you must do, and that’s what is just—not to give way or retreat or leave where you were stationed, but, on the contrary, in war and law courts, and everywhere else, to do whatever your city or [c] fatherland commands or else persuade it as to what is really just; and that while it is impious to violate the will of your mother or father, it is yet less so than to violate that of your fatherland.”

Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle (pp. 111-112). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Book Preview: Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy

I've been thinking about what classes to take next semester, and one prospect is Ancient Greek Philosophy. So I've started Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle by S. Marc Cohen and Patricia Curd. So far I've read the Presocratics and the first part of Plato, concerning the trial and execution of Socrates.

The Presocratics survive only in fragments and testimonia - accounts of their writings by later writers. My uncharitable conclusion is that they were mostly tedious and pointless. Most of them could have clarified their thought if they had studied the words of the great Twentieth Century Sophist, W. J. Clinton, who noted that: "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."

The exceptions are Democritus and the Pythagoreans, who actually had some ideas of enduring worth (atomism and number in physics). I give the others an "E" for effort, in that they actually tried to analyze the world in terms of fundamental concepts.

So why did the Athenians decide to whack Socrates? Probably not for the reasons in Plato's account of the Apologia, though it does expose Socrates as arrogant and annoying. One count against him was almost certainly the fact that Socrates was the teacher of Critias, the chief of the Thirty Oligarchs who briefly ruled Athens, and the bloody Robespierre of the Oligarchy who slaughtered hundreds of democrats. Nor was Socrates any friend of the democracy.

A couple of the accusers may well have had personal grudges against Socrates, including Anytus, who perhaps resented Socrates for his friendship and possibly sexual relationship with his son.

Of course the main official charge against him was impiety, a crime doubtless at least as vague then as now.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Welfare State 2040

Most who have looked carefully believe that many or even most of today's jobs could be obsolete by 2030 or so. Truck and cab drivers, warehouse workers, radiologists, fast food workers, translators, restaurant cooks and bartenders to name a few. As robots and AI become ever more capable, fewer and fewer jobs that require a direct human presence will be available. The global unemployment crisis is likely to get much worse.

The profits of the robot revolution will likely go to the owners of capital in the businesses in which humans have been replaced. This implies that already great economic inequality will continue to rapidly increase, even without such monstrosities as the new American tax law. So should we look forward to a world where the rich use their armies of military robots to suppress or exterminate the starving poor?

The only obvious alternative is a greatly expanded welfare state. One proposal (that I really don't care for) is the guaranteed basic income - paying people to do nothing. Of course the old saying is that idle hands do the devils work, and that's not a bad analysis. A better idea, I think, is the guaranteed or at least highly subsidized job, preferably employing people to do things that humans like to do, mostly building, handcrafts, and arts. Does your small town have a paid symphony orchestra and ballet company plus a few live theaters? Maybe it should.

Before that time comes, though, there are lots of things that need to be done, like repairing and improving infrastructure, caring for the elderly and infirm, and treating the ill.

Of course it's entirely possible that by 2040 the robots will have already decided that humans are an expense that the planet can't afford.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Navier-Stokes Equation

Describes the evolution of a fluid. Quanta magazine has a nice article on mathematicians' attempts to probe the limits of the equation, and more importantly, for me, a lovely video of a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability evolving under the equation. Mathematicians have long suspected that there might be something dodgy about the equation, and there is big money, a Millenium Prize, riding on the conjecture that the equation doesn't always have consistent solutions.

Quanta notes that these potential problems don't bother physicists, but doesn't bother to say why. The more fundamental reason is that physicists know that the N-S is not a faithful description of nature. If you look at a fluid in close detail, it becomes a seething mass of individual particles, not infinitely divisible fluid elements. There is also another fact: because the NS has chaotic solutions, their predictivity is always limited in practice, whether it is in theory or not.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

(Human) Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

The ancients took it for granted that the fate of nations was to fight for supremacy and crush and exterminate others. In the wake of the World Wars of the Twentieth Century, and under the shadow of thermonuclear extinction, attempts were made to introduce morality into relations between nations and ban wars. Needless to say, it hasn't happened.

The industrial revolution and capitalism temporarily allowed much of the world to grow faster than population, leading some naive persons to believe that Malthus and Darwin might have been repealed - but they haven't. The precipitous decline in birth rates in wealthy countries has allowed many of them to create societies in which almost everyone can have a decent standard of living, but that has also had the effect of making them a nearly irresistible draw for the rest of the world.

So why are those other countries so poor? Of course there are lots of reasons: a history of exploitation, bad governance, corruption, unsound economics, and societies poorly organized for the modern world, to name a few. One almost universal problem, though, is rapid population growth. Having lots of children not only removes women (half the population) from the workforce, but it consumes any economic surpluses that might be generated.

The citizens of the world's wealthy societies are understandably reluctant to let in immigrants that they fear will suck up tax dollars, not contribute much to the economy, and disrupt the delicate social balances evolved over generations in their societies. This is probably especially true in traditionally homogeneous societies, and of course even more so when a tiny minority of immigrants express their dissatisfaction in violence and terror.

Fundamentally though, countries and their citizens need to find their own ways to prosperity. The world has a number of institutions that try, or supposedly try, to help them, but their track record is not great. In many cases, I think, the fundamental social institutions of the countries are a major impediment, especially to birth control and the education of women. There are many encouraging signs, especially the decline in birth rate and increase in the education of women in the Arab world, but there are also plenty of disasters.


Talking Points Memo has a very good interview with Harvard Economist George Borjas by John Judis. Borjas, himself an immigrant from Cuba, has studied immigration for years. The interview predictably aroused the ire of TPM's liberal readership, mainly because Borjas has concluded that immigration is by no means an unmixed blessing. He even has some (rather faint) praise for Trump's wall, as a "useful symbol" but points out that most illegal immigrants come by legal visas and simply overstay.

Some other useful points: most immigrants are low-skill and low-education, those who benefit are the employers who can hire them for wages Americans don't want to work for, those who are hurt by immigration are low-skilled Americans. A particular target is the family preference system which can allow the cousin of the spouse of son of a legal immigrant to themselves become legal immigrants.


But Democrats and liberals would be wise not to dismiss as nativism the concern that many voters have with the huge influx of illegal immigrants and of unskilled legal immigrants into the the country over the last 50 years. There is a real question about whether our immigration policy has has contributed to wage stagnation and inequality. Democrats’ failure to address this question – except to insist that everyone benefits – has contributed to the party’s isolation from voters who used to be part of their majority.


Since 1965, we have admitted a lot of low-skilled immigrants, and one way to view that policy is that we were running basically the largest anti-poverty program in the world. That is actually not a bad thing at all. Except someone is going to have to pay the cost for that.

This is the question that most progressives don’t want to face up to. They really want to believe that immigrants are manna from heaven. That everybody is really better off and that everybody is happy forever after. What they refuse to confront is the reality that nothing in the world is like manna from heaven. In any policy change, some people benefit a lot and some people don’t. And this point also applies to immigration, which has created the dynamics of where we are now.

I found the interview interesting throughout. Most TPM commenters were outraged, but their anger, in my opinion, was not matched by coherent argument, facts, and logic.

Borjas points out that there is a humanitarian argument for low-skilled immigration, but also invites the question of how humanitarian can a program be that is mainly at the expense of the poorest Americans?

Borjas also demolishes the argument immigrants just take jobs that Americans don't do:

Borjas: You hear that argument all the time. This summer, the newspapers were reporting that in Cape Cod, because of a shortage of immigrants, employers had to go out and offer higher wages. This real-world response is worth thinking about. The argument isn’t that natives won’t take jobs that immigrants will. The argument is really that there are jobs that natives won’t take at the going wage. That’s a very different argument. In the absence of immigrants, employers will respond. And the usual response is to make a more attractive job offer. If you and I go to Cape Cod and demand a hamburger, believe me, somebody will provide it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017


I've seen a UFO or three in my life, though most of them were ultimately identified, at least tentatively: high-altitude research balloons, Iridium flashes, and some really scary insects. They are back in the news because of a recently revealed Pentagon program to study them, funded, apparently, because of the interest of a powerful Senator from (naturally) Nevada.

I'm as interested in space aliens as the next skeptical but romantic scientist, but I'm kind of dubious of reports of aliens zooming around in our atmosphere. If aliens who could cross the space between the stars really wanted to unobtrusively study us, why wouldn't they just park a few million miles away and listen in on our TV and talk radio? If they needed a closer look, how about sending robotic cockroaches and butterflies?

Of course the reports of alien abductions and returns could just be the alien version of catch and release sport fishing.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Net Neutrality

Ever since the FCC repealed net neutrality my internet speeds have declined to glacial rates - sometimes too slow to even run an internet speed test.

Coincidence? Maybe. But these are paranoid times.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Are Blockchains Vulnerable

Lumo is talking about the possibility of something called a 51% attack on blockchains. I don't know enough to have an opinion, but I would be interested in the opinions of those who do.

Alabama Does The Right Thing

Dems are celebrating a big win in the Alabama Senate race, but it's way too early to start patting themselves on the back. It took an exceptional alignment of the stars for Doug Jones to win and such circumstances are unlikely to repeat: the sexual predator accusations, the fact that Moore was already unpopular in Alabama, and the hostility of the mainstream Republican party.

The old line Repubs are celebrating another ding in Steve Bannon, but there is plenty of evidence that Trump and Bannon still speak for a big chunk of the electorate. I think Dems will need to further erode that support if they are going to get to majority status in Congress.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Forming Planets

In the current universe, stars form in large molecular clouds, usually having masses thousands of times that of the Sun. Consequently, they usually form in clusters of hundreds or thousands of stars. The discovery of thousands of extra-solar planets in the last couple of decades has demonstrated that many of these stars have planets. So how do these planets form?

The molecular clouds out of which stars form are turbulent, and consequently the blobs that condense to form stars have angular momentum - quite a bit more angular momentum than a star, and more, in fact, than a typical stellar system with planets. One way to deal with the angular momentum is to form a binary or multi-star system, two or more stars orbiting each other, and this is extremely common. Another way is to produce a planetary system, and for our solar system, most of the angular momentum is in the planets - mostly in Jupiter.

When a overdense "core" region of a cloud stars contracting under gravity, the angular momentum means that a significant fraction of the mass will form a disk perpendicular to the angular momentum vector (or, if you prefer, in the plane of the angular momentum bi-vector). This disk is flattened by gravity and viscosity, and its angular momentum resists being sucked into the star.

Our solar system seems kind of neat and simple. The planets close to the Sun are either metallic like Mercury or stony and metallic like Venus, Earth, and Mars, while out beyond the "snow line" where ices could condense, we have the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn and the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. Everything in its place so to speak.

The discovery of exoplanets revealed that the Universe is not that simple. There are hot Jupiters and Neptunes orbiting their stars far closer than Mercury, where they couldn't possibly have formed. Unravelling puzzles like this is one reason planetary formation science is now one of the hottest topics in Astrophysics. It's a good subject for generalists, requiring a mix of dynamics, thermodynamics and radiative transport, geology, chemistry, and stellar physics.

Friday, December 08, 2017

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

First they came, for Checkers, but I was silent, because I played chess. Then they came for chess, so I might have been a bit less silent, but hey, I still played Go. I whined when Go went down, but now, goldarn it, Alpha Zero has bested the strongest computer programs in Chess, Shogi, and Go, starting from scratch in each case (just the rules) and training itself solely by self-play, making zzero use of all the information humans have assembled over thousands of years of play. Even more annoyingly, it took only a few days to do it. Via Steve Hsu.

It's somewhat analogous to giving a five year old a chess set, explaining the rules to him, and coming back a few days later to find he was far better than the best player in the world. Clearly the best neural networks can now learn far more rapidly, and understand more deeply, than any human, at least in narrow domains.

All these games are narrowly constrained by definite rules and very specific outcomes. In most human activities we either have no definite rules or don't know the rules, so the strategies of Alpha Zero are not directly applicable. One domain where the rules are pretty definite is math. There have been a few situations where computers have been able to prove specific theorems of interest to humans, but I wonder if anybody has given a neural network like Alpha Zero the very simple axioms of say, group theory, and asked it to prove all the interesting theorems. An even better trick would be to get it to discover the interesting theorems.

Once More Into the Breach...

A few years ago, scientists managed to extract some DNA from 5000 year old bones at an ancient burial site at Rakhigarhi, now a village in India, but formerly one of the great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), an ancient and mysterious civilization. One reason the civilization is so mysterious is that its writings, which consist only of a few short inscriptions, have never been deciphered, nor is it known if they even are actually writings.

That DNA is very interesting to students of India's demographic history, because it could shed light on a famous controversy over the origins of the Indo-European (IE) languages of India, and consequently on the history of Indian culture, religion and its great literature. Modern Hinduism is thought to have its origins in the Vedas, which were carefully preserved in an elaborate oral tradition for at least hundreds of years and only written down around the First Century BCE. The language of the Vedas is Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-European language.

There are a few theories of the origin of the IE languages, the most prominent being that it arose in horse domesticating, cart riding pastoralists of the Eurasian steppe near the Black Sea. There is ample genetic and linguistic evidence that these peoples swept across the steppe and across Europe, conquering and wiping out nearly all previous languages. A corollary is that they also invaded India, either at or shortly after the collapse of the IVC.

Hindu nationalists as well as some scholars prefer an Out of India theory of IE origins. The Hindu nationalist semi-official mythology believes that Vedic culture survives from the IVC and therefore that Hindu Civilization is autochthonous, and are offended by the idea that Vedic culture might be due to invaders. Contemporary genetic evidence indicates that most current Indians are mixtures of two genetic strains, the so-called Ancestral South Indians (ASI) who have no close links with any other genetic group except Andaman Islanders and Ancestral North Indians, who are closely related to Northern Eurasians and ancient Iranian farmers.

The Aryan Invasion Theory, and its slightly more PC version, the Aryan Migration Theory, posit that the IE languages (and consequently, parts of the Vedic culture) were brought to India by invaders (or migrants) to India after the decline of the IVC. Consequently, the DNA from Rakhigarhi might provide crucial evidence. If that DNA looks just like modern Indian DNA, then the origin of Vedic culture in the IVC gains a lot of credibility. On the other hand, if it looks either like ASI DNA, or a mixture of ASI and ancient Iranian farmer DNA, the Aryan incursion theories look more plausible.

Now to the chase: we have been promised the results for well over a year now, but none have been produced. The non-Indian experts who did the analysis have said that the results are in the hands of their Indian co-author. From him, silence.

If you have any bit of paranoia you should now be convinced that (a) the results are not favorable to the Hindu Nationalist mythology and (b) are being suppressed for political reasons.

Note that political reasons may not be bad reasons. Hindu Nationalists have displayed a nasty violent streak, and those who fail to toe the line may be persecuted or even lynched, often on the basis of unconfirmed or baseless rumors.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Winter Comes... Las Cruces, but it's having a lot of trouble getting here. It's snowing right now to the North, West, and East of us. It's even snowing South of us, in El Paso and Mexico. But here, the Sun is shining.

I mean if it's going to be cold anyway, could we at least get some snow?


Here is the accusation which supposedly is bringing down Al Franken:

Dupuy said she “saw Al Franken” and asked to take a picture with him because her foster mother was a fan. “We posed for the shot. He immediately put his hand on my waist, grabbing a handful of flesh. I froze. Then he squeezed. At least twice,” Dupuy said.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Men (Still) Behaving Badly

Powerful men continue to fall in the wake of Harvey Weinstein's tumble. I doubt if it is news to many women that there are a lot of predators out there, but it keeps surprising men, including the perps, many of whom seem shocked to learn that their behavior was reprehensible. Of course that could be feigned, but I don't think all of it is. One would hope that the steady demolition of icons would cause predators to change their behavior, but it's probably way too early to tell.

I was watching a morning news show in which several women discussed a bunch of highly influential newsmen among the recently fallen, and the role they may have played in Hillary Clinton's defeat. The argument was that their predatory behavior was linked to pervasive disrespect for women, and that disrespect was reflected in the coverage of Clinton. I found their arguments pretty persuasive, but I also have to confess that whenever the camera focussed on the youngest one, my primitive brain could not resist announcing to me that "Damn, she's hot!"

So what's the cure, or is there a cure? Most cultures have considered the issue and concluded that men are inherently so dangerous that women need to be kept locked up, one way or another. Oddly enough, many women don't like this idea. An idea popular with the panelists was that more women in power would discourage male predatory behavior, and I think that that sounds reasonable, but I also guess that the predatory instinct is deeply embedded.

I recall somebody, perhaps Jared Diamond, writing about young chimpanzees but with an eye to their cousins, that the males competed obsessively for status, first dominating younger conspecifics, then females, and finally other adult males. It's not a purely male problem, as among humans, as well as our hairier relatives, females are attracted to those dominating males.

White women in Alabama are mostly planning to vote for Moore.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Interesting Headline:

New York City Has Genetically Distinct ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’ Rats.

But then I found out that the story was about rodents.