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Showing posts from 2018

Senator Lindseed

... was deeply disappointed by Saudi Crown Prince MBS (AKA, Mr. Bone Saw). He says he feels betrayed. It's a hard lesson Linz, but here's the deal: a whore just can't always count on it being true love.

Teaching Corporate Ethics

Kara Swisher, writing in the NYT, ponders whether ethics officers for tech companies could make them better citizens. Swisher ponders all the Saudi and Chinese money propping up tech stocks, but I have what I call a market based theory. I say send a CEO or three to the slammer. The others are mostly pretty bright - I bet they will get the hint. I'll guess three to six months would serve to clarify many a mind. After Britain suffered a major defeat in one of its wars, it hanged an admiral. I believe it was Pepys who noted that it did serve to get the attention of the other admirals.

Choosing Your Identity

Trump's administration has apparently defined the "transgender" identity out of existence by saying people are stuck with the sex indicated by their chromosomes. There are lots of other possible arguments about identity. Elizabeth Warren has been pilloried both by Trump and Native Americans for mentioning and proving that she has Native American ancestry. Another woman was drummed out of a leadership position by apparently falsely claiming to be black. So which categories are up for choice? We mostly agree that Americans are allowed to choose their political party, religious affiliation, and what sports teams they cheer for - though some religions don't allow that kind of choice. Ethnic identity seems to me a lot more socially determined than biological gender, so why is that off the table or delegated to some bureaucracy? We know the reason. It's because some privileges or opportunities are reserved by ethnic identity. It's possible to argue that the…

Indian Country

Evidently Elizabeth Warren became so tired of Trump's gauche "Pocahontas" taunts that she got a DNA test. If she had been a bit more cunning she would have waited to spring this on Trump in a debate, but she did spill the beans. Naturally Trump promptly welshed on his bet (that he would give a million dollars to the charity of her choice if she proved to have Indian ancestry). She also managed to annoy a number of Native American activists. Why exactly? Well, Native American tribes are jealous of their ability to control their own membership. This has emotional and social roots but is also based on the bones Congress has thrown to the tribes in scanty recompense for having stolen their Continent - a very limited sovereignty and some affirmative action competitive advantages in certain economic ventures. In particular they don't want tribal membership expanded by DNA test. I'm pretty sure that Warren has not claimed tribal membership in any economically or…

The Long Con

Ever since Ronald Reagan, running large deficits has been part of the the Republican strategy. So why should their plutocratic masters want large deficits? It has never been a secret. These guys hate Social Security and Medicare more than anything, except perhaps the thought that some non-rich person might breathe an untroubled breath. If the deficits become large enough, the strategy goes, they can target these hated "socialist" programs. That's why Reagan financed his star wars program with increases in Social Security taxes and debt. That's why W. financed his Iraq adventure with the biggest deficits ever, and why W's Mega Recession was as much a feature as a defect. HW got the boot for quailing at going along with the program. As I say, it's not like it's a secret - you can find it right wing think tank stuff from way back. Still, I was a bit surprised to see Mitch McConnell brazenly proclaim his plans *just before* the midterms. I thought t…

Murder Most Foul

The apparent murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Security forces was one of the most cold blooded and blatant assassinations of recent times. Israelis and Russians usually attempt to at least conceal or disguise their murders. The Saudis carry it out in their own consulate, and come prepared with their most senior forensic physician, armed with a bone saw, to dismember the body. Nothing is more startling than the flagrancy with which the murder was committed. Evidently the Saudis believe that the financial grip they have on Kushner and Trump gives them impunity, and it seems likely that once again they are right - the Trump family is already pushing the coverup. Right now, even Republican Senators are making noise about doing something, maybe because their constituents are no big fans of Saudis and Muslims more generally, but I suspect that they will fall into line when Trump whistles. Of course many are terrified that punishing the Saudis will trigger …

Entitled Rich Kids Stick Together

The late Michael Kelly cast some justifiably famous shade on liberalism. From Bret Stephens: [he] once wrote that the “animating impulse” of modern liberalism was to “marginalize itself and then enjoy its own company. And to make itself as unattractive to as many as possible.” “If it were a person,” he added, “it would pierce its tongue.” Pretty funny, even if one thinks that it was itself animated by some ugly prejudices against liberal support for then unpopular causes like gay rights. Kelly himself was killed in the idiotic Iraq invasion that he helped promote, but Bret Stephens liked his joke enough to make a whole column based on it.So what are the ways that Democrats ("liberals" in Stephens' parlance) are piercing their tongues these days? Opposing his fellow entitled rich kid and fellow Brett, Kavanaugh? Daring to actually question BK about the crimes he accused of. Daring to suspect him of transparent perjuries. Responding with measured anger to the vic…

Stupid

One other damned thing about getting old: I am increasingly impatient with stupidity.

Especially my own.

The Supreme Court

I think that even Libertarians would concede that courts are an indispensable function of government.  In the case of the United States, where the Supreme Court is not only the ultimate interpreter of the laws but has also appropriated the right to judge laws against the template of the Constitution and strike down those it finds wanting, that function is exceptionally powerful, since the Constitution is concise, sometimes imprecise, and very difficult to amend.

Which I suppose is why a group of American oligarchs, featuring some familiar figures like the Koch brothers and the Mercer family have poured millions into the so-called Federalist Society, an institution dedicated to getting its choices onto the Supreme Court.  To that end they have promoted partisan figures like the current conservative bloc on the Court by systematically recruiting them early in their careers and greasing the skids to get them appointed.

The exceptional success of this project has now produced a US judicia…

Sorry Alexa

Amazon is flacking a new voice controlled microwave.  Because punching in 2:00 minutes or pushing the popcorn button is really difficult I guess.

I like the idea of robotic food prep, but I want my robochef to take the stuff out of the fridge (or better, do my shopping), peel and chop the onions, and follow the recipe.

Come on back when you've got something useful.

The Big Defeat

It would be silly to think that the Kavanaugh appointment to the Supreme Court is anything but a giant defeat for worker rights, voting rights, health care and reproductive choice.  Kavanaugh made it clear in his "goes around, comes around" remarks that revenge on his real and imaginary enemies is high on his priority list.

Democrats' talk of reinvestigating him if they get a house majority is just a good way to ensure that they don't.  The whole struggle, well intentioned and necessary as it was, has probably torpedoed Dems chances of taking the Senate.  Don't ask me how Americans could be so stupid, but polls suggest that they are.

Personally, I'm starting to look forward to the robot takeover.

Tribal Triumph

Once again we see the triumph of tribe in American politics.  Perhaps not since the Civil War have we seen a more odious tribe than the Tribe of Trump, but there it is.

Once again we have seen Susan Collins do her Hamlet act, and once again she collapses with the vapors when faced with the question.  Not for her to strike out against a sea of troubles - rather the choice of the coward, but I'm really getting a bit tired of watching her work through her thousand deaths on national television.

I suppose this conclusion was evident as soon as we saw that the FBI "investigation" was to be a fake, a little phony cover for all the Republican Hamlets.

Apparently Kavanaugh's sterling demonstration of character and judicial temperament went over well with Republican women, who seem to have been energized by the spectacle.

Galaxies: Books

The study of galaxies has radically transformed our ideas of the universe, but there is also the fact that they are gorgeous photographic and romantic subjects.  We rely on a few textbooks in the graduate galaxies class I'm taking, so this has capsule reviews of the main ones.  Roughly in order of  how technically demanding they are.

BOB - The famous Big Orange Book, An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics by Carroll and Ostlie.  1359 pages of reading fun on all aspects of Astrophysics.  Aimed at undergraduates and demands some calculus level physics and math.  Fear of this monster was one reason I decided to start my astrophysical study at the graduate level, but it is a great book.  Develops your mind and your biceps.

Galaxies in the Universe: An Introduction by Sparke and Gallagher (2007).  Aimed at Junior and Senior undergrads in physics.  Easy to read with lots of good problems.

Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology, by Schneider.  Aimed at the sophisticated advanced physics und…

Cover Up

The so-called FBI investigation is looking a lot like a cover up whose only purpose was to give protection to a few GOP Senators who wanted to look open minded.  Not only did the FBI only interview only a few witnesses, they apparently ignored numerous individuals who attempted to come forward with directly relevant testimony.  Did they even interview Blasey Ford?  Not at last report.  Meanwhile, Grassley and company keep circulating anonymous and uncorrelated smears against Kavanaugh's accusers.  What scum!

I hope I'm proved wrong, but from here it sure looks like another Trump special.

The Junk Drawer

The New York Times advises that if you hate leaving random stuff around the house, you need a junk drawer - a drawer reserved for all that random stuff that doesn't fit anywhere else.

I have one.  I call it "the garage."

Now if I only had a place to put my cars.

Republican Senators Know They Are Sending A likely Rapist To The Court

The evidence, from Phillip Bump of the Washington Post:

Grassley's abrupt adjournment, the dismissal of designated questioner Rachel Mitchell, and Lindsey Graham's ugly little tirade directly followed Mitchell's questioning of Kavanaugh about the July 1 entry on his calendar.  That entry turns out to point to his attendance at a party very like the one described by Blasey Ford.  Even more interesting is the fact that it implicitly contradicts a central element of Kavanaugh's narrative - that he and Blasey Ford did not run in the same social circles, because said party included "Squi," whom (as Mitchell's questioning revealed) was then dating Blasey Ford.

It's clear that Grassley and or Graham realized that Mitchell's questions pointed clearly to some easy ways to check out Blasey Ford's story, and decided to terminate that line of questioning immediately.

Note: The American Bar Association, which endorsed Kavanaugh, is now calling for a delay …

BK Once More

I won't pretend to be a disinterested observer, but Kavanaugh could hardly have done more to discredit himself in my eyes.  Snarling, Snivelling, Sneering, he was the apotheosis of a man lacking judicial temperament.  Dodging, filibustering and evading every significant question, he looked like the most unreliable witness since Donald Trump.  From the Daily Beast:

The 53-year-old nominee shouted through his opening statement like an Applebee’s customer demanding a bloomin’ onion over a waitress explaining that Applebee’s doesn’t sell bloomin’ onions. Kavanaugh vowed to never give up, even though the Democrats were trying hard to stop him (unfortunate phrasing for a man facing sexual assault allegations).
Kavanaugh had difficulty disguising his contempt for the people questioning him for most of the hearing. At one point, he started raising his voice to Rachel Mitchell before apparently remembering that she was the GOP’s ringer, hired to make him look innocent. He responded to Minne…

Elon Musk

looks like he may be finished, what with the SEC charges.  It's a shame, since he was that rarity, an original.

He has seemed increasingly unhinged lately.  I wonder if it was a consequence of his 120 hour weeks trying to save the Tesla.

Kavanaugh: One Crucial Question

I thought one question from Senator Feinstein revealed more than his whole angry, weepy, blustering opening statement.  She pointed out Ford had asked for an FBI investigation to bring out the facts, and asked if he would do the same.

He didn't answer.  He bobbed, he weaved, he obfuscated, and most of all blustered angrily.  He's good at blustering angrily.  I don't think his non answer was the answer of somebody who didn't have something big to hide.

There is one more key question: will he, like Blasey Ford, take a lie detector test?

I also thought that the bullshit about the "Renate Alumnius" was an obvious lie.  He is going with the choirboy defence, and I don't think it holds any water.

Nope, he won't ask for an investigation and he won't take a lie detector test.  And yes, it sure looked like he was lying his ass off wrt drinking, drunkenness, and sexual claims.  Lindsey Graham was an embarrassment - you would think she had passed menopause a…

Toast/Charcoal

Despite the love lavished on Brett Kavanaugh by every right-winger from Sean Hannity to Amy Chua to ..., his nomination to be one of the Supreme's looks to be hanging by a thread.  Unless there is a total collapse of the witnesses against him, I don't think the Judiciary Committee can resist calling for an FBI investigation, and only that has a chance to clear him.  I would be surprised if he is able to keep his present position on the bench.

Of course my record as a prophet is probably better only than that of Star Trek's Mr. Spock, whose precision of predicting probabilities was only exceeded by his consistent inaccuracy.

UPDATE: So far the most obvious result is to demonstrate that Grassley is totally incompetent at even engineering an obvious cover-up.  His ridiculous five minute rule has made his designated prosecutor unable to finish questions or construct a coherent narrative.  If Kavanaugh is not guilty of something, why the frantic effort to hide and obscure his p…

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

The WaPo has a nice picture story featuring an Arctic lake that's leaking methane like crazy. Methane, of course, is a greenhouse gas that's far more potent than CO2 but has a relatively short half life in the atmosphere - over twenty years it is about 85 times as potent as CO2, but most of it is converted to CO2 in less than 100 years.

Melting permafrost is a source of greenhouse gases, but this lake's methane has a chemical signature of carbon that's been buried for a long time, and it's feared that this may be a signature of a major reservoir.  If these turn out to be common, they could be a powerful positive feedback for global warming.

The Farmer and the Cowman Can't be Friends?

Yet another chapter in a five or six thousand year old drama between farmers and herders is playing out in Nigeria today.  From the NYT:
Across parts of Nigeria, conflicts that mirror the 20th Century range wars in the American West have broken out between farmers and herdsmen vying for land, leading to bloody battles. Twentieth Century?  Sure you don't mean largely in the late Nineteenth Century?  Nevermind.  This war started when the early Indo-Europeans overan Europe and Asia.
The core problem, though, is as modern as it is ancient (NYT again): Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Kenya and other areas across the continentwhere populations are rising struggle with the problem as well. Here in Nigeria, where the population has quadrupled in the past 60 years to nearly 200 million, the fighting has been so fierce that the government deployed the military to contain some of the battles. It might be more efficacious to deploy birth control pills and education for women.


Really Stupid Stuff I Read in the New York Times

Sam Tanenhaus on Atlas Shrugged, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and John von Neumann:
The advance guard of Cold War planners, space and weapons theorists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann and James R. Killian, the president of M.I.T., chosen by Eisenhower to oversee the creation of NASA, were administrators rather than doers, unlike the executives at New York Central Railroad and Kaiser Steel whom Rand had interviewed while writing “Atlas Shrugged.” It would be hard to imagine a more monumental mischaracterization of Oppenheimer, and von Neumann, especially.  Not only did von Neumann essentially invent the modern digital computer, but he was also a profoundly creative mathematician.  Tanenhaus not only gets administrator vs. doer completely backwards, he also confuses Galt and Rearden, a couple of the cardboard characters in AS.

Where the Stars Live

If you've ever spent any time under clear dark skies, you've seen the cloudy band of light running across the sky that we call the Milky Way.  Its name comes from the resemblance the ancient Greeks saw to  milk, which gives us our other name for it, the Galaxy.  Galileo was the first to penetrate the nature of this cloudy band of light when he turned his telescope upon it and saw a myriad of stars.

As telescopes and astronomical techniques improved it became clear that the Milky Way, our galaxy, was a sort of island universe in which our star, the Sun, was embedded as one of enormously many stars.  There are a few other cloudy patches of light in the sky, three of which are visible to the keen eyed - Andromeda and, very prominent in the Southern Hemisphere, the Magellanic Clouds.  There are also more temporary cloudy glows, the comets, which were long found more interesting.  Telescopes revealed ever more of these cloudy patches.

It eventually became clear that at least some o…

Kavanaugh and Rape?

According to a letter received by a couple Democratic lawmakers, as a high school student Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape the author while she was in high school.  It's a serious charge, and it deserves careful consideration even it was a long time ago.  It's been a while since Justice Thomas (very likely) lied his way on to the Supreme Court, with plenty of help from good old boys Arlen Specter and Joe Biden, and it looks like Kavanaugh is on his way to a similar feat.

Of course Kavanaugh denies it and his alleged helper claims not to remember.  Say what?  You assisted in so many rapes that you can't be expected to remember every one or what?

Usually sexual abusers don't stop at one, so if BK is guilty, there might be other women out there.  If so, I certainly hope some have the courage to tell their stories.   It's probably too late in recent history to think that highly skilled Jurists are unlikely to be sexual abusers - everything we kno…

Conservative Theory and Conservative Humbug

Those who pass for conservative intellectuals usually have some principles they like to claim as foundational: small government, states rights, that old time religion.  It can't be denied that humans have some tendencies well described by the word "conservative" - the impulse to resist change, especially change that might be personally inconvenient.  My contention, though, is that conservative theory is essentially humbug - an intellectual Potemkin village to distract us from the real objectives of those who claim to be conservatives.

What about the small government claim?  It's true that modern American conservatism wants to shrink some government functions - any such that attempt to protect the citizenry from the depredations of the rich.  Of course they are also quick to attempt to regulate the most fundamental aspects of private life - anti abortion fanaticism is one of the key motors of the current conservative dominance.

Conservatism has two key kinds of suppor…

Taking Offence

At a recent wedding party I happened to be seated next to a teen-aged girl.  She asked me what my ethnicity was.  I replied that I was some kind of Northern European stew.  23 and Me says English, Irish, German, French and Scandinavian with a dash of Central European.  She said that she was Chinese and Japanese.

I mention this because it has become fashionable in some circles to claim that any questions about ethnicity are micro-aggressions.  I'm pretty sure that this young lady was either just curious or just wanted an excuse to talk about herself.  We did then have an ordinary conversation which wasn't about ethnicity.

Shortly after, I heard the story of a professor lecturing her anthropology class happened to use the word "Oriental" in describing people from the Orient.  The whole class then got up and left the room in protest.  No doubt they were all deeply offended - especially the Caucasians.  The fact that the Professor herself was of Japanese extraction appar…

Unaccompanied

I live about half a block from an elementary school.  Every day a long procession of cars appears on the surrounding streets as parents of kids more than a couple of blocks away drop off their kids.  Of course kids that live more than a few blocks away are picked up and delivered by school bus.  Often as not, those children on the block are walked to school by a parent.

This didn't surprise me too much of this since I sometimes walked my own five year old to school, clinging and protesting, only to see him greeted by the other students like a minor rock star (girls flirting, boys high-fiving).  Of course when I asked him about this, he quite logically replied "I just hate giving up my freedom."

Of course, like others of my generation, I walked to school a mile or so myself.

Anyway, I didn't think much about the modern system until I read this WaPo story by a mother who sent her son to school in Japan:

All Japanese children go to school on their own. My son attended a …

Rosy Fingered Dawn

... is one of the famous Homeric epithets.  I happened to be up early today and noticed the pink fingers of dawn quite prominent in the morning sky.  A closer look revealed that the pink fingers were in fact jet contrails illuminated by red morning light filtered through a dusty atmosphere.

So what were they in Homer's day?


The Conservative Position

...you are too deficient too know, or (it would appear) even to care, what "conservatives" think.......William Connolley, addressing your (no doubt insufficiently) humble correspondent.

Well, yes, Mr. , er, Dr., Connolley has managed to irk me.  Fair enough, I suppose, since I suppose I have done the same by abusing some of his sacred bovines.  A couple of his changes of subject later, he further accuses me of ignorance of the conservative position.  Of course that was never the subject of my post - I was talking about mutual opinions of conservatives and liberals, and, more importantly, their neural substrates.  However, WC is rarely guilty of either that foolish consistency that Emerson called the hobgoblin of little minds or any other kind of logical consistency.

Of course it's true that I don't know what conservatives think, though I think the functional MRI brain studies provide some strong hints.  So, I imagine, are the actual words of those selfsame conservat…

Of Mice and Men

If you bite into rancid food, the insula activates, just as in every other mammal. You wrinkle your nose, raise your upper lip, narrow your eyes, all to protect mouth, eyes, and nasal cavities. Your heart slows. You reflexively spit out the food, gag, perhaps even vomit.  Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 713). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
Man and mouse activate the same or at least analogous neural circuits in these reactions.  Humans do the same if they witness or think of something they find morally or esthetically disgusting.  Mice, probably not.

The Rich

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me................  F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Rich Boy.
Hemingway heard and borrowed critic Mary Colum's rejoinder to the effect that the only difference was that they had more money.  Robert Sapolsky takes a look at the data and the neurobiology.  It seems that the answer is both no and yes.

 ...when it comes to empathy and compassion, rich people tend to suck. This has been explored at length in a series of studies by Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, on the average, the wealthier people are, the less empathy they report for people in distress and the less compassionately they act. Moreover, wealthier people are less adept at recognizing other people’s emotions and in experimental settings are greedier and more likely to cheat or steal. Two of the findings were picked up by the media as irresistible: (a) wealthier people (as assessed by the cost of the car they were driving) ar…

The Rational Animal

Plato and Aristotle get credit for propagating the notion than man is "the rational animal."  The main problem with this idea is that detailed psychological studies show that it is a myth.  It's true that people, or at least some of them, exhibit rational thought on many occasions, but aside from problem solving, our rational thought is more commonly used for constructing post hoc rationalizations for what our instincts told us to do than in actually deciding.

Most human behavior arises out of our instinctive or emotional responses.  We don't save rational thought for solving algebra problems or crossword puzzles, though.  We also use it in our moral and social reasoning, but it's implicit in our neural design that the logical elements of such thinking are literally an afterthought.  Initial processing of such decisions comes from the evolutionarily older emotional and instinctive parts of the brain, with the higher level logical thinking parts of the prefrontal …

Right and Wrong

...make a liberal tired, hungry, rushed, distracted, or disgusted, and they become more conservative. Make a conservative more detached about something viscerally disturbing, and they become more liberal.   Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 569). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A lot of research and pontification has been expended on what makes a person conservative or liberal.  One broad conclusion that is not particularly controversial is that liberal and conservative tendencies tend to apply broadly - those liberal on some subjects tends to be liberal on most.  Similarly for conservatives.  Both conservatives and liberals are convinced that their opposites are morally deficient.  Liberals find conservatives deficient in compassion and tolerance and conservatives find liberals deficient in some other stuff.

Some studies seem to confirm the liberal suspicion that conservatives, at least those of the so-called right wing authoritar…

NYT, Reaching for Greatness

Newspapers have pages to fill up, even when the real news is either too inconsequential or depressing to print, so a lot of really stupid stuff gets printed.  My nominee for today comes from the New York Times: 60 times Madonna Changed Our Culture.  I guess the former pop star just turned sixty.  I would be more sympathetic if I wasn't so much older.

I was never much of a fan, though I did appreciate some of her music once it made it into its Weird Al version.  Anyway, it seems that every reporter, copy boy and kiosk tender in the NYT stable got to submit some way in which Madonna "changed the culture."  Some of them might even be real, but the top few give a hint of the intellectual gravity of the enterprise:

1.SHE IS FIGHTING THE PERNICIOUS IDEA THAT OLDER WOMEN DON’T MATTER.  - yeah, we all fight that notion that old people don't matter, but we always lose.

2.  SHE TURNED HER CONFIDENCE AND STYLE INTO MOVIE STARDOM. - omg, that's got to be the first time anybody…

Westworld

Westworld is the story of a theme park in which rich tourists can inflict their most depraved fantasies on extremely humanoid robots.  In an age when sexbots and virtual reality glasses are about to be mainstreamed, this is a prescient topic.  My old news review is based on Season 1, the only one I've seen.

What's good: rather sophisticated meditations on the nature of consciousness and the implications of artificial intelligence, gorgeous scenery at all scales, excellent music, lots of apt and penetrating Shakespearean quotations delivered by talented actors, and those talented actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and others that I did not recognize.  This series can suck you in.

What's not good:  A bloated and barely coherent plot that relies entirely too much on ugly Deus ex Machina.  For example, Harris plays a monstrously bloody sociopath in the early episodes, but the effort to give him meaningful motivation and backstory collapses into the ludicrous.  The g…

Portrait of the Artist as a ?

There is ample evidence that being a great artist is no innoculation against being a rotten human being.  Wagner and Picasso come to mind.  The recent death of Nobel Prize winning author V. S. Naipaul has provoked a flood of both praise and condemnation: praise for his work and a more mixed reaction to his life and character.  A child of the Indian diaspora, he was born in Trinidad in 1932 (on my birthday, though not my birth year).

I've only (so far) read one of his books, A Bend in the River.  Clearly a great book, it nevertheless left me with a distrust of the author's character, a distrust inherited, I expect, from my feelings about the narrator.  It fits neatly in my mind between two other great Africa books: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Part of the anger against Naipaul is personal, based on his misanthropy, misogyny, and treatment of the women in his life, including physical and psychological abuse.  The rest of it see…

Abrahamic Religions

Stated most straightforwardly, most of earth’s humans have inherited their beliefs about the nature of birth and death and everything in between and thereafter from preliterate Middle Eastern pastoralists.  Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 417). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  An exaggeration, of course, since those religions only got critical mass after people started writing stuff down - the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran.

Agricultural Blunder

Agriculture enabled civilization*, but what else bad can be said about it?  Sapolsky is another member of the not completely a fan club: Which brings us to agriculture. I won’t pull any punches— I think that its invention was one of the all-time human blunders, up there with, say, the New Coke debacle and the Edsel. Agriculture makes people dependent on a few domesticated crops and animals instead of hundreds of wild food sources, creating vulnerability to droughts and blights and zoonotic diseases. Agriculture makes for sedentary living, leading humans to do something that no primate with a concern for hygiene and public health would ever do, namely living in close proximity to their feces. Agriculture makes for surplus and thus almost inevitably the unequal distribution of surplus, generating socioeconomic status differences that dwarf anything that other primates cook up with their hierarchies. And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump until we’ve got Mr. McGregor persecuti…

Unequal/Air Rage

There is a substantial body of observations that show that societies that are more unequal are more violent, have more crime, and dramatically less healthy.  Sometimes this exhibits itself in small but vivid ways.  Sapolsky has an example: The frequency of “air rage”— a passenger majorly, disruptively, dangerously losing it over something on a flight— has been increasing. Turns out there’s a substantial predictor of it: if the plane has a first-class section, there’s almost a fourfold increase in the odds of a coach passenger having air rage. Force coach passengers to walk through first class when boarding, and you more than double the chances further. Nothing like starting a flight by being reminded of where you fit into the class hierarchy. And completing the parallel with violent crime, when air rage is boosted in coach by reminders of inequality, the result is not a crazed coach passenger sprinting into first class to shout Marxist slogans. It’s the guy being awful to the old wom…

Busted!

"A shlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup, a shlemazl is the person the soup lands on."..................................Somewhere on the internet. Scott Aaronson, an apparently mild mannered computer science prof at MIT, somewhat improbably managed to get himself arrested in the Philly airport.    His crime seems to have been the ultimate absent-minded professor case of accidental theft - but if you want the details, you'll have to go to his linked version of the story.  It's a bizarre one, demonstrating an almost unbelievable amount of cluelessness from a truly brilliant guy.

I sometimes think of Aaronson as the kid who walked around the school with the "kick me" sign taped to his back.  For some reason, despite his evident but naive sincerity and often painfully  earnest rationality, he seems to attract the attention of small bore internet thugs like Amanda Marcotte and Arthur Chu (whoever the heck he is).

I often find myself wanting to say to hi…

Discounting the Future

The ability to plan ahead is one of the human race's prized abilities, but it has pretty clear limitations.  When we are three, it can be hard to forego that marshmallow for 15 minutes to win a promised extra one.  No doubt evolution has had good reasons for us to discount future events, especially if they happen to be fairly far in the future.  That's doubly, triply true when that future depends on a whole lot of others cooperating too.
The New York Times Magazine has a long article, supposedly the longest it has ever published, on the history of global warming during the decade 1979-1989 arguing that we missed our chance to deal with global warming back then and thereby committed our planet to at least moderately catastrophic results.

I have to admit that I was a bit put off by the melodramatic and even hysterical title (Losing Earth) and introduction.  The basic argument is that we blew it by not signing a supposedly binding agreement to limit carbon emissions thirty years…

Childhood Adversity and Brain Development

Stress in early childhood produces a flood of glucocorticoids that permanently damages brain development, resulting in impaired cognition and emotional regulation.
Thus, childhood adversity can atrophy and blunt the functioning of the hippocampus and frontal cortex. But it’s the opposite in the amygdala— lots of adversity and the amygdala becomes larger and hyperreactive. One consequence is increased risk of anxiety disorders; when coupled with the poor frontocortical development, it explains problems with emotion and behavior regulation, especially impulse control.  Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 251). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  The worst stressor seems to be an abusive mother, or being separated from the mother at an early age, but all sorts of other adversity (poverty, lead poisoning, etc.) seem to have similar results.

Big Brains

Humans have relatively big brains - even modern humans with our brains 25% smaller than that of a Neandertal.  Our eighty-six billion or so neurons sounds impressive compared to a fruit fly's 250,000, but maybe not so much so compared to the honeybee's roughly 1 million.  After all, we weigh about a million times as much as a honeybee, but our neuron count is less than 100,000 times larger.  So who's the real brainiac?  On an absolute size scale, our brains and neuron count are dwarfed by the brains of elephants and whales.  Numerous birds best us on the brain size to body size scale, as do many primates.

So why are we driving all them and perhaps ourselves to extinction, instead of vice-versa?  The answer probably lies in our exceptional capabilities to cooperate and in our technology.  Of course ants and bees are at least equally good at cooperation, but they are too small to control fire.  Fire is not available to whales either.

Fugget About It

In addition to remembering stuff, our brains are busy forgetting about other stuff.  It turns out that forgetting is not a purely accidental process, its an active process, pruning the memory collection.  Memories deemed useless, obsolete or significantly redundant are actively suppressed.  Interestingly enough, these processes seem to be essentially the same in the 250,000 neuron fruit-fly brain and our own with roughly 86 billion neurons.

This process is discussed in Spolsky's Behave, a book I've been reading and writing about lately, but some new research is featured in Quanta here.
One form of active forgetting that scientists formally identified in 2017is called intrinsic forgetting. It involves a certain subset of cells in the brain — which Ronald Davis and Yi Zhong, who wrote the paper that introduced the idea, casually call “forgetting cells” — that degrade the engrams in memory cells. There are others.  It seems that at least initially, memories are merely suppressed r…

Choosing

Steve Hsu has been considering correlations between a polygenic index and college completion rate.  It appears that the genes are rather predictive of college completion.  Steve constructs this scenario:
You are an IVF physician advising parents who have exactly 2 viable embryos, ready for implantation. The parents want to implant only one embryo.  All genetic and morphological information about the embryos suggest that they are both viable, healthy, and free of elevated disease risk.

However, embryo A has polygenic score (as in figure above) in the lowest quintile (elevated risk of struggling in school) while embryo B has polygenic score in the highest quintile (less than average risk of struggling in school). We could sharpen the question by assuming, e.g., that embryo A has score in the bottom 1% while embryo B is in the top 1%.

You have no other statistical or medical information to differentiate between the two embryos.

What do you tell the parents? Do you inform them about the polyg…

Neural Adolescence

Humans have achieved 85% of adult brain volume by age two, but the brain is not fully "wired" until the mid-twenties, long after sexual and other physical maturity.  This has important consequences. Think about this— adolescence and early adulthood are the times when someone is most likely to kill, be killed, leave home forever, invent an art form, help overthrow a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, devote themselves to the needy, become addicted, marry outside their group, transform physics, have hideous fashion taste, break their neck recreationally, commit their life to God, mug an old lady, or be convinced that all of history has converged to make this moment the most consequential, the most fraught with peril and promise, the most demanding that they get involved and make a difference. In other words, it’s the time of life of maximal risk taking, novelty seeking, and affiliation with peers. All because of that immature frontal cortex. Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: …

Slow Burn

While temperatures around the world are setting record highs, wildfires, and killing vulnerable people, the Arctic is having a relatively slow melt year.  No doubt this will be seized on by the usual suspects to "prove" that the long promised "recovery" is here, all the larger melts (at this point) are from the last eleven years, so it surely looks a lot more like a fluctuation.

ET - Where Are You?

The second most famous idea in extraterrestrial biology is the Drake Equation.  The idea of the Drake Equation is to express the probability of finding ETs as a product of presumably independent factors (fraction of stars with planet, fraction of planets suitable for life, probability of life arising on a suitable planet, etc.)  When the equation was first written down, none of these factors were known.  We now know that planets are common - there are many billions in our galaxy and perhaps trillions.  We can't be sure yet, but it looks like something like a billion ought to be broadly suitable for life.

The fact that life arose nearly as soon as it possibly could have on Earth suggests but doesn't prove that life is likely to arise on suitable planets.  Experimental biophysics and biochemistry seem to be converging on an explanation of how life arose one Earth, but large - enormous - uncertainties remain.  Much of this uncertainty could be removed if we were to find other lif…

Are The Robots Still Coming?

Today's US economy is robust by almost any standard.  Unemployment is very low and help wanted signs are plentiful.  So is concern about robots taking everybody's job overblown?  Well, maybe, so far.

On the other hand, wages are barely rising, which is nice for employers but not so much for workers.  This is surprising in a red hot economy.  So what is going on?

There are a few possibilities.  The great recession of 2007-2010 left a huge pool of discouraged workers who were not even trying to find work and who are just now entering the labor pool.  International competition continues to put downward pressure on jobs.  Also, automation of many traditionally high-pay factory jobs means that increased production doesn't automatically boost average pay.  Jared Bernstein, writing in the NYT, finds another reason: 40 years of Republican and corporatist suppression of organized labor.

Unsurprisingly, traditionally low paying jobs like food service have been slower to automate.  I…

Bend it Like Ronaldo

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Fernando has asserted that Ronaldo wasn't good at bending balls over opponents, and in fact usually shot under jumping opponents.  Nope.  I've looked at all 60 Ronaldo free kick goals.  Most are over.  Many are around or through or off deflections.  Maybe five could be considered under, but make your own count: here they are.


Why Cops Shoot Unarmed Black People

It's a tragically familiar scenario: a policeman stops a black person, they reach for wallet and driver's licence, or for their cell phone, and get shot to death.  Why does that happen, and what can we do about it?

The policeman's best defense might be "my amygdala made me do it." The brain has at least two circuits for processing threats.  In the first, the information goes to the amygdala, a threat is registered, and sent to the prefrontal cortex for further processing.  There the threat is evaluated and instructions are sent to the motor neurons for a response.  In the second, the alarms that go off in the amygdala are so strong that prefrontal processing is skipped, and the motor neurons are activated immediately, saving roughly 700 milliseconds.  The penalty for speedy evaluation is loss of accuracy: that cell phone or wallet might be evaluated as a gun.  This kind of fatal error probably happens more to blacks because policemen - even black policemen - find…

Whom?

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible.  Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (pp. 70-71). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  Phineas Gage, after having a 13 pound iron tamping rod blown through his skull in a blasting accident.  What is DT's excuse?

The Child Psychopath

Psychopathy seems to manifest itself early in childhood - perhaps as early as two or three, according to this article in The Atlantic by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.  The term of art for these children is "callous and unemotional child," partly because nobody wants to label young children with such a sinister diagnosis and partly because some of them seem to grow out of it or at least become functional adults.  The cause is unknown but there are clear physical and physiological correlates to go along with the behavioral traits.
The first abnormality appears in the limbic system, the set of brain structures involved in, among other things, processing emotions. In a psychopath’s brain, this area contains less gray matter. “It’s like a weaker muscle,” Kiehl says. A psychopath may understand, intellectually, that what he is doing is wrong, but he doesn’t feel it. “Psychopaths know the words but not the music” is how Kiehl describes it. “They just don’t have the same circuitry.” They …

Property and Collectivism

Let me argue a couple of somewhat unpopular propositions.

1)Property is the greatest restriction on commerce ever invented.  Aside from spouses, children, and what a person could carry, property emerged with farming and agriculture.  It was a necessary invention, since without a claim on the produce of farming, no one could be persuaded to undertake the vast labor entailed in planting and tending animals.  It was also the foundation of inequality though, since ownership of land isn't infinitely divisible if farming is to be practical.  One probably can't say that war first occurred with farming, but it, with the increased fecundity it enabled, produced more mouths than could be fed, and made it urgent to get more land by stealing somebody else's.  Like other restrictions on commerce, property probably decreased net (biological) efficiency, but in this case reserved more of it for human consumption.

2)The corporation is one of the most successful collectivist inventions.  O…

Why Not Free Trade?

I previously mentioned the big reason for free trade: economic efficiency.  Let me mention some types of restriction and the reasons for them.  One obvious one is the protection of so-called intellectual property.  In truly free trade, pirated software (movies etc) would pass unrestricted through international barriers, and so would dangerous products like terrorist bombs, banned drugs and weapons, unsafe pharmaceuticals, and technologies crucial for dangerous weaponry.

Another big and important reason for justifying trade restrictions is promotion of domestic industries.  The so-called Asian Tigers, from Japan to China, all built their industrial and technological bases by restricting foreign imports.  So did the United States 200 years ago.  Tariffs can promote local capital accumulation at the cost of local consumption.

Most of these types of restrictions on trade are aimed at promoting the competitive position or safety of the nation and its population.  Economists, who naturally …

Time to Slam the Door on Cryptocurrencies?

The revelation that the GRU used cryptocurrencies to facilitate and hide their hacking into the US 2016 election is one more reason to consider shutting them down.  Cryptocurrencies exist because some clever computer guys figured out how to use cryptographic principles to hide transactions.  Unfortunately, the principle applications are criminal: money laundering, tax evasion, and financing illegal operations like spying, sabotage, and terrorism.

There are a variety of good reasons why governments seized control of money, and we now have some more.  Aside from the previously mentioned benefits, banning them would save hella electricity.

Free Trade

Most economists like free trade for a very simple reason: other things being equal, it leads to production and delivery of the most goods at the lowest cost.  A lot of other people don't like free trade, mostly merchants and manufacturers who would prefer less competition.  They also are pretty good a mobilizing their own workers, who also don't want competition.  Perfect free trade is an ideal, never perfectly achieved, but until Donald Trump took a  wrecking ball to international trade, the world had approximated it probably more closely than ever before.

Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations could be considered the founding document of modern capitalism, and Smith was a strong advocate of free trade, but even he noted some exceptions.  Aside from the parochial interests noted above, there are other objections to completely free trade.  More stuff for everybody is nice, but anyone with a knowledge of history or biology knows that you need more than that to survive.  Smith m…

No Salvation

I recently watched a few episodes of the television show Salvation, a science fiction, disaster thriller with soap opera overtones.  It's a Deep Impact knock-off - MIT grad student discovers asteroid headed for Earth, improbable conspiracies of silence are revealed, beautiful people fall into bed with each other.

I know that appreciating this sort of thing requires a big effort at suspension of disbelief, and I was prepared to ignore to ignore giant plot holes, the grad student's attempts to solve the 3-body problem using "gravimetric data" (WTF?), and the Elon Musk type inventor demanding and getting billions to develop a Newton's Third Law violating EM drive, but they managed to break me anyway.

The last straw was the arrogant and pig-headed government scientist (all the scientists here are dull, arrogant, pig-headed, and spend a lot of time saying "you're insane," mostly to the Elon Musky guy) declaring that they would crash a Jupiter probe into …