Showing posts from 2020

The Meaning of Life

One View:
Our contention is that, despite the remarkable complexity of living order, the aggregate function of the biosphere is a simple one: it opens a channel for energy flow through a domain of organic chemistry that would otherwise be inaccessible to planetary processes.
Smith, Eric. The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth (p. 28). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition. 
This has implications for the probability of life occurring on other planets and in the Universe.  The alternate view is that its origin on Earth was something of a freak accident.
The fundamental idea is that free energy flows tend to create complexity, and that life is something of a phase change, or perhaps a series of phase changes.

Origin of Life on Earth

A great mystery is how living matter can be created from nonliving. This puzzle is so deep that many creationists  insist that it could not happen by natural means, and required direct intervention of a creator.  Of course zillions of cells manage the feat every day, without any obvious supernatural assistance, but they do have the benefit of an army of cellular machines which are exquisitely designed for the purpose, machines which are manufactured by the cells themselves, from blueprints stored in their DNA.
So how did the whole intricate process arise? The trick is to get enough of the cellular apparatus in place for something like evolution to take place.
Cellular life requires both metabolism and heredity as a minimum, but together they pose something of a chicken and egg problem.  In modern cells neither can exist without the other, but which came first?
Of course such questions are not yet answerable so they are controversial among researchers.  Also controversial is the crucial q…

A Miracle of Rare Device

Book Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik LarsonOne of the stars of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 was Gustave Eiffel’s marvelous tower.That fair celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.With the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World approaching, the United States wanted to do something to top Paris, showcase the arrival of the US as a world power and center of technological innovation.A fierce competition emerged between US cities to host and build the Fair.To the surprise and consternation of the cities of the East, the upstart Midwest city of Chicago won the competition.The World’s Fair and Columbian Exhibition of 1893 was Chicago’s chance to show that it wasn’t just the dirty, smelly, hog butcher of the world, and they mustered most of the great architects in the US to design it.Daniel Burnham was the lead architect and Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park and Biltmore, designed the grounds and landscape.The fair featured a…

The Second Coming...

...of the coronavirus is here in the USA.  Thanks to a despicably corrupt President and some nitwit governors, we have seen a new peak of infections here.  Where it will end, we don't know, but here is what W. B. Yeats had to say on the subject 100 years ago (very slightly edited):
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion whale body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant …

Mathematics Consists of...

...two mutually unintelligible languages, one spoken by mathematicians...
In his book on Differential Geometry, Loring Tu includes a story about a remark by Physics Nobel winner C. N. Yang.
“Gauge fields are deeply related to some profoundly beautiful ideas of contemporary mathematics, ideas that are the driving forces of part of the mathematics of the last 40 years, . . . , the theory of fiber bundles.” Convinced that gauge fields are related to connections on fiber bundles, he tried to learn the fiber-bundle theory from several mathematical classics on the subject, but “learned nothing. The language of modern mathematics is too cold and abstract for a physicist”
Tu represents that his book is intended to be intelligible to physicists, and prerequisites are just his previous book "Introduction to Manifolds,"  a bit of point set topology, and, evidently, some abstract algebra. Seven chapters into the present book,…


Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...............Yeats, The Second Coming
I watched a bit of Obama's last speech to the Washington Correspondent's Annual dinner.  My reaction was a deep shame that the US could have fallen so far in four years.
How did we go from Obama to the present horrifying incumbent so fast?

US Covid-19

California, Texas, and Florida are the new centers* of US infection.  California has already passed New Jersey, and we can only hope that it won't challenge New York).  Most of the blame goes to the the incoherent and counter productive policies of the Trump administration.  The contrast between countries that handled coronavirus well (New Zealand, Vietnam, Norway and even China) and those run by morons (Brazil, US, UK, Sweden) is stark.
*Earthquakes have epicenters, pandemics do not.

Revolution for the Hell of It

My State made the national news today because yesterday a man was shot in a scuffle between demonstrators trying to tear down a statue of Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque and a group calling themselves the New Mexico Civil Militia..  Oñate was a Spanish explorer, conquistador, and first governor of the Spanish province of Santa Fe.  He is a controversial figure due to his savage response to the murder of a baker's dozen of Spanish settlers by Indians from the Acoma Pueblo.
His response destroyed the Pueblo, killed 800-1000, and enslaved many more.  Surviving men over 25 had their right foot cut off.  Oñate was eventually convicted of excessive force by Spain and temporarily exiled from New Mexico and Mexico City.
His name and statues have long been prominent and controversial.  My sons graduated from Oñate High School here in Las Cruces.  One of his statues had its right foot cut off some years back - a condign punishment if ever there was one.
Interestingly enough, Oñate was married to …

Are Races Real?

No and yes.  Biologically, they are not very real, since the variations we see between so-called races are small compared to those within any of them.  However, as social constructs, they can be very real, strongly influencing the ways people interact with each other and how they view themselves.  
Social constructs (including money, nations, corporations, etc.) have tremendous influence on our lives, but they also are pretty ephemeral compared to biological realities.  Of course there are real differences among people that are correlated with ancestry.  Some time after leaving Africa, most Eurasians developed lighter colored skin, which seems to be adaptive in climates where sunlight is in short supply.  Most of these differences are as superficial as the melanin proportion in our skin cells.
Since those who first developed racial theories were light skinned, it was not coincidental that they picked skin color as a defining characteristic, and their own type as the highest.    Who got …

Unsurprising Story of the Week: Billy Barr was a High School and College Bully

Dana Millbank reports that our Attorney General, like his boss, was a childhood bully:
Apparently he and his three brothers were known as the "bully Barrs."
The story indicates that favorite targets included Jews and students against the Vietnam War.  Barr, like his chief, Cadet Bone Spurs, did not serve and has told conflicting stories about whether he even registered for the draft as he was legally required to.
Many or most childhood bullies outgrow it, but evidently the more morally depraved among them do not.

SAT, ACT, Bye Bye?

If you want to get into university in the US, especially a highly ranked or elite university, you probably need to take either the SAT or ACT exams.  These are slightly different test of your language, mathematical and a few other skills and talents.  They have traditionally been one of the main filters used to select the elect and the damned, college wise.
These exams have been heavily criticised, mostly for the fact that some disadvantaged minorities do poorly on them compared to children of the wealthy and others willing and able to pay for elite high schools and expensive test preparation.  As a result, many elite schools have multiple standards for admission.  If you are a disadvantaged minority or an advantaged legacy (child of graduates) your score is treated as if it were maybe a couple of hundred points higher.  One the other hand, if you are Asian, subtract a hundred points or so.
A few year back, the gigantic California University system was subjected to a new State law that …

Mini Review: The Whistler, by John Grisham

A thriller featuring lawyers, killers, and a corrupt judge, but no (or hardly any) courtroom action.
It must have been exciting, since I blasted through all 474 pages in one day.  My favorite of the last several Grisham's I've read.

Book Review: Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

By Ann Case and Angus Deaton.

The authors start with a puzzle: after many years of declining mortality rates, White Americans in midlife have seen a significant increases in mortality rates in recent decades.  This trend is not seen in other rich countries, though there are bits of it in the UK and especially in Scotland.  A closer look shows that this increase in mortality is almost entirely confined to those without four year college degrees.

The increase in mortality is not the only sign of social dysfunction seen in this group.  Rates of marriage, home ownership, voting and church membership have decreased, while out of wedlock births and damaged families have sharply increased, to name just a few of the many indicators cataloged by the authors.

So what is killing the members of this group?  The major role is played by what the authors call deaths of despair: suicide, drug overdoses, and alcoholism.  The drug overdoses in particular were promoted by a specific set of bad actors, t…

Peaceful Protest

AMENDMENT I [US Constitution]
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The recent days of anger and protest over the murder of George Floyd have shown us plenty of examples of police doing what they seem to do best - beating up peaceful protesters.  Of course the worst examples involve our crypto-fascist President and his chief henchman, William Beria, er, Barr, but is it possible that many of the police just can't recognize a peaceful protester? We do know that when citizens outraged by requirements to be masked illegally occupied a State Capitol building, police were on their best behavior, stepping politely aside.  So what was the difference?  Those protesters proclaimed their peaceful intent by showing up equipped with AK-47s and WalMart flack jacket…

Why I Hate Libertarianism: Part XXIV

I'm a mild mannered man.  OK, that could be an exaggeration.  Let's compromise on a "nonviolent person."  One thing that has long reduced me to incoherent fury is libertarianism.  I remember being outraged by it in high school and college.

So let me try to be slightly more coherent.  I've thought about it a lot, and I think I can finally clearly identify the part I object to.

Man is a social animal.  Not quite as eusocial as an ant or honeybee, but obligately social nonetheless.  The essence of any society is the principle that we are all in this together, and libertarians reject this explicitly.  So, for me, libertarianism is both antisocial and anti-human.

The other part of my anger is watching how libertarianism works in practice.  The US is perhaps the most libertarian society in the advanced world and the result has been a system in which the wealthiest and their corporations loot and pillage the general populace with the support of the government.  Of cours…

Theory and Practice

Some time ago I was flying in an aisle seat when a tiny stewardess was having a tough time closing the overhead compartment directly above me.  I happened to be reading a book on Theory of Vibrations.  The stewardess would grab the compartment door in both hands and do a massive two-handed slam.  From my vantage point directly underneath, I could see that the force of her attempts was generating rather large waves in the compartment door.

After three or more tries she stopped to catch her breath or perhaps to contemplate her choice of career, and I reached up, gently pulled down the door, and pushed it shut with one finger.  By this time her antics had attracted the attention of several nearby passengers who burst into laughter.  I gave her a smile, and she said something like "I'll get you," and went back to her duties.

My point here is that our actions and decisions are guided by a theory of the world. Partly because of the book I was reading, I could form the idea tha…

Well that was Lame: John Locke

One of my besetting faults is a tendency to want to begin at the beginning - a tendency sometimes useful but often disastrous.  So it was in my encounter with noted political philosopher John Locke.  The mistake I made was starting with the first of his two treatises on government.  It is, it turns out, intended to be a "confutation" of the work of Sir John Filmer, an extreme defender of the divine right of kings.  The divine right proposition doesn't have that many modern defenders - Donald Trump and William Barr being the only ones I can think of - so I quickly found Locke's argument tedious.

I only got a short way into the book, but it seems that Filmer derived this supreme authority from the primacy of Adam but didn't otherwise  justify it.  So one sentence was all the argument I needed. 

Consequently, in my Encounter with Prominent Philosophers contest, we have:

Locke - |1|

Measure - 0

Quarantine Days: Book Report

Now that classes are over, what intellectual stimulation I get comes from books and jigsaw puzzles.A few books I have been reading.
John Grisham, The Reckoning: A murder/tragedy in three acts.The main character walks into a church and guns down the popular preacher.The central character is a war hero whose travails as soldier, prisoner of war, and guerilla fighter in the Philippines after the Japanese invasion form the core part one.A why done it.
Isaac Asimov, Foundation: I found this science fiction classic pretty boring.The hard science is either magic or overcome by events, character development is nil, and tense standoffs resolved by Deux Ex Machina.
Dan Simmons, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion: Two self-contained volumes of a four volume series.The reference to Keats in the titles of the book is not incidental.Keats and his poetry are prominently mentioned.The first volume is structured as a series of Cantos, pilgrims’ stories modeled after the Canterbury Tales.The pilgrims in t…

Early Openers

Several States in the US have reopened for business despite little or no evidence that they had Covid-19 under control.  Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin and Florida have already seen substantial spikes in infection rates.  Arizona and Wisconsin have had rather modest numbers to date, but Texas and Florida seem poised to become major infection centers.

We can hope that people will display common sense and that big time increases won't happen, but indications to date are not promising.

We should have clear indications by early June.

So what happens if those States are festering masses by then?

Degree of Difference

Mortality figures at all ages have been declining at least since 1900.  This trend is long standing in the advanced countries, but in the US, there has been a break in recent decades in one large demographic group - middle aged non-Hispanic whites.  Among them, we have seen a steady increase in mortality.

Interestingly enough, this increase has occurred almost exclusively among whites without college degrees.  This fact is at the center of a new book by Anne Case and her economics Nobel winning husband Angus Deaton:

The 200 Club

The nations that have suffered more that 200,000 Covid-19 infections are members of a Hall of Shame that right now has only six members: Britain, Italy, Spain and new recruits Brazil and Russia, and of course the US, which has more infections than the next six nations combined.  Comparing these losers to the countries which have had many fewer, like New Zealand and South Korea suggests the role of government incompetence.  An even more disastrous performance is that of Belgium, which at least has the excuse of hardly having any government.

I know a lot about the sorry performance of the Trump regime, and a bit about the mistakes of Britain and Sweden - another unpopulated loser, but not so much about what went wrong elsewhere.  Of course Brazil is ruled by a Trump knockoff bozo, and Russia by Putin, but what about them.

Anybody have any clues?

Quarantine Days: Prophecies of an Unreliable Cassandra

1)After Covid, the economies of the West will be crippled or smashed.

2)The US will probably not be able to maintain strategic dominance.

3)The Dow will be sub 15,000 at Christmas.

4)About half the jobs lost will not come back anytime soon.

5)Many jobs in stores and warehouses will be automated.

6)China will move forcefully to assert number one status.

Biden Sex Problem

Joe Biden has a sexual assault problem, and the dominant impulse in the Democratic Party right now is to sweep it under the rug.  This really sucks and has the makings of a disaster for the Party and country.  Senator Gillibrand, who led the lynch mob against former Senator Al Franken, has signed on in support of Biden.

No, it hardly matters that he is accused of far less than Trump, or less even than Trump has admitted to.  Corroboration for Tara Reade's accusations seems to have reached a critical mass.  The most credible defense of Biden that I have seen is here:

Supposedly, Biden will respond to the accusations on television tomorrow.  If his response is simple denial, he should not even bother.  O…

Quarantine Days: The Dumb Kid

Planetary formation is complicated.  Interstellar dust grains are small, typically a few tenths of a micron, and it takes a lot of them to make an Earth sized planet - about 10^38 of them (a quintillion quintillion or so).  They don't have forever to get the job done, at most a few million years from collapse of the presolar nebula to clearing of the disk by radiation pressure and the stellar wind.

The collapse of the nebular cloud into a disk brings the grains into closer proximity, where they can grow by contact and sticking.  Over a few hundred thousand years they can grow to centimeter size or a bit larger, but after they reach ten centimeters or so, the problems begin.  Probably the worst problem is that these pebbles are still coupled to the much larger mass of gas but not strongly coupled enough to be carried with it.  The gaseous disk, being partially supported by pressure, moves at sub-Keplerian speeds, but the pebbles, which are not held up by pressure, need to move fast…

Quarantine Days: A Sea Change

Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell...........The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2
The economy post coronavirus is likely to look a lot different.  Robotization of the work force  in grocery stores and shipping warehouses is likely to be vastly accelerated.  People are likely to get used to ordering most things online.  I don't think the cruise ship industry is coming back anytime soon.  I wouldn't be surprised to see most trucks become robotic several years sooner than currently expected.  The airline industry will probably be a ghost of its former self.
Forget the handshake.  A bow and a namaste is safer.
Will unemployment persist after coronavirus?  Will the enormous debt undertaken by the US cripple the economy for decades?

Quarantine Days: Washing Songs

In this time of quarantine we are all solemnly entreated to spend twenty seconds washing our hands any time we contact anything that might have been touched by human, pangolin, or bat.  Twenty seconds washing one's hands feels a bit like the last twenty seconds of an NBA game - it can last longer than three beers, so how should we time this?  Suppose one really doesn't fancy singing a few verses of Happy Birthday a couple of hundred times a day, what is an alternate timing scheme.  I've come up with a few.

For the classically minded, there is always Shakespeare.  How about a dozen lines of Hamlet starting with:  What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!...

The part about a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors may be a bit close to the bone right now.

More optimistic, perhaps, would be: Now is the winter of our discontent made glor…


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic............Arthur C. Clarke

Confined to quarters here, I have had time to start reading some Ursula K. Le Guin.  I have deduced a corollary to Clarke's Third Law, cited above:

Any sufficiently described magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Magic, described in detail, is just technology, loses its magical quality.  Tolkien is careful to keep most of  the details of his magic well off stage, and that is a great virtue.

If you zig when the party line zags

The President's Projected Speech

Since I don't expect a lot from Trump's speech, here is my pre-speech summary prediction.

"It's not my fault, blame Obama."

"Hillary's emails."

"Deep State conspired to cause crisis."

"My uncle and I are geniuses."

"Let's cut payroll taxes for people who don't get sick or lose their jobs due to the crisis."

Too Late

Attorney General Barr made a real or feigned attempt to assert his independence in an ABC interview.  Way too late for that.

Barr presented his balls to Trump in his employment application and ever since has served as Trump's faithful toady.  Lying for Trump about the Muller probe, covering up the Ukraine scandal for Trump and in general making himself the crooked lawyer Trump always wanted.

Those balls, Billy boy, were deep fried and served in the White House dining room a long time ago.

Organoids and Boltzmann Brains

One of the more fascinating and creepy events in biology over the past twelve years has been the development of cerebral organoids, sometimes called mini-brains, in a petri dish.  Biologists have learned how to transform regular cells, for example skin cells, into pluripotent stem cells and in turn transform these into neural stem cells and grow them in vitro.  

These clumps of grey matter spontaneously organize themselves into something like mini-brains, developing axons and dendrites, developing neural connections, and sending each other electrical neural signals.  These organoids clearly have the potential to teach a lot about brain development, brain function, and brain disease.

They also pose deep ethical questions.  Nobody thinks that these organoids are conscious - yet - but the potential is there.  Experimenters are already plotting to make them more brain like by providing them with blood supplies and sensory inputs.

Quanta takes a look at the nascent ethical concerns: https:/…

Pants on Fire

The big news from Tuesday's debate was the post-debate confrontation where Elizabeth Warren accused Bernie Sanders of calling her a liar.  So was he lying or she?  I don't know, but my guess is that it was a far more familiar phenomenon, a misunderstanding - she thought he told her a woman couldn't win and he didn't think he told her any such thing.  The fact that this happened a couple of years ago makes it more likely that memories have been reshaped in the meantime.

In any case, I mostly blame Warren.  She is the one who chose to escalate to nuclear weapons, saying Bernie said a "Woman couldn't win."  Pretty clearly, this is an attack that can hardly go unanswered.  If he said it, why is it just coming out now?  If he said it, or some version of it, what was the context?

If you decide to bring a gun to what had previously been a pretty civil conversation, you really shouldn't be surprised if you wind up with a bullet hole.

Advantage Biden.