Monday, March 27, 2017

About Those Cyborgs

A few weeks ago Elon Musk announced that Humans will have to become cyborgs to compete with machines.

Billionaire Elon Musk is known for his futuristic ideas and his latest suggestion might just save us from being irrelevant as artificial intelligence (AI) grows more prominent.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said on Monday that humans need to merge with machines to become a sort of cyborg.

"Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence," Musk told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai, where he also launched Tesla in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Musk is not one of those guys who sits around waiting for the future to happen. So he is putting (some of his) money where his mouth is:

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company, which is still in the earliest stages of existence and has no public presence whatsoever, is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices.

Musk has hinted at the existence of Neuralink a few times over the last six months or so. More recently, Musk told a crowd in Dubai, “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.” He added that “it's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output." On Twitter, Musk has responded to inquiring fans about his progress on a so-called “neural lace,” which is sci-fi shorthand for a brain-computer interface humans could use to improve themselves.

We who are about to become (even more) irrelevant salute you!


Paul Krugman:

“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” So declared Donald Trump three weeks before wimping out on his promise to repeal Obamacare. Up next: “Nobody knew that tax reform could be so complicated.” Then, perhaps: “Nobody knew that international trade policy could be so complicated.” And so on.

Actually, though, health care isn’t all that complicated. Basically, you need to induce people who don’t currently need medical treatment to pay the bills for those who do, with the promise that the favor will be returned if necessary.

Unfortunately, Republicans have spent eight years angrily denying that simple proposition. And that refusal to think seriously about how health care works is the fundamental reason Mr. Trump and his allies in Congress now look like such losers.

The trouble is that that conflicts with the Libertarian religion - and billionaire greed.


One important answer would be to spend a bit more money. Obamacare has turned out to be remarkably cheap; the Congressional Budget Office now projects its cost to be about a third lower than it originally expected, around 0.7 percent of G.D.P. In fact, it’s probably too cheap. A report from the nonpartisan Urban Institute argues that the A.C.A. is “essentially underfunded,” and would work much better — in particular, it could offer policies with much lower deductibles — if it provided somewhat more generous subsidies. The report’s recommendations would cost around 0.2 percent of G.D.P.; or to put it another way, would be around half as expensive as the tax cuts for the wealthy Republicans just tried and failed to ram through as part of Trumpcare.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

From the Clown Show

Another bizarro world sighting from Trumpistan:

We all knew that the White House meeting between President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been awkward. But things were even more uncomfortable than we thought. Turns out Trump’s version of diplomacy with one of the country’s most important allies in Europe involves handing over a bill for billions of dollars that the White House believes it owes NATO, according to the Times of London.

One German minister did not hesitate to qualify the invoice as “outrageous,” saying the intent was clear. “The concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the chancellor took it calmly and will not respond to such provocations,” the minister said.

Is this real? With Trump, nothing is to weird to be dismissed.

Harvard Prof Beats Up Teenage Girl

Too bad that headline is as bogus as a Trump tweet. For one thing, Lubosh is an former Harvard prof and his target, who is apparently a Harvard Junior, is likely 20 or 21. The Lumonator did take on Harvard Crimson staff writer Nian Hu for her rather formulaic column entitled: Beware the Male Feminist.

So far as I can tell, her substantive message is "Hey girls, that guy in the pussy hat spouting fem-speak may be using it as a ploy to get into your pants!"

She pads this message with some femi-militancy right out of formulary:

What these male feminists fail to realize is that, as men, they will always be oppressors. ...

On the contrary, feminism is a radical and revolutionary movement that will upheave the status quo and remove men as the monopolizers of power. In general, people don’t like to lose power, especially when they’ve had it for so long. Feminism is not supposed to be palatable to men; it is supposed to be threatening.

OK...but I'd like to concentrate on this bit:

Men, as a class, are culpable for misogyny, and male allies are no different ...

I think feminism goes off the rails when it seeks it's inspiration in Marx and Class Struggle. Men aren't a class - they are a gender, a sex. Classes were a cultural artifact of the agricultural revolution, but genders are a biological construct of a couple of billion years of evolution. Of course I think Marx is nuts too, but confusing feminism with some kind of class struggle is - excuse me - an undergraduate mistake.

Mr. Speaker

Speaker of the House offers only slightly more job security these days than Number Three Man in al Quaeda used to. Paul Ryan is the latest guy in the cross hairs. So far he has deeply angered not only Paul Krugman but the right wing House conservatives, President Trump, and the right wing media. All agree that he should take the fall for Trumpcare. Will high cheekbones, the widow's peak, and devotion to Ayn Rand be enough to save him?

Trump loosed Jeanine Pirro, Fox News host and Trump attack dog, on Ryan yesterday:

Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host, is a longtime friend of President Trump. So when Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Saturday — a day after his crushing defeat in the House on health care — that people should watch her show that night, political observers began guessing what was in store.

What she delivered was a diatribe against the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan.

“Paul Ryan needs to step down as speaker of the House,” Ms. Pirro, a former prosecutor, said at the opening of her show. “The reason? He failed to deliver the votes on his health care bill.”

Of course Trump is trying to pass off his share of the blame for the disaster - it was Trump who promised a "terrific" bill and Trump who signed up for Ryan's disaster.

In Ryan's favor there is the fact that House Republicans are deeply divided (that's why they couldn't pass a bill - any bill) and there is no obvious candidate who is likely to be less divisive.

I am resisting schadenfreude for the moment on the theory that whoever comes next will probably be worse.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I've played a thousand or two hands of bridge lately, almost all of them against robots. I've tentatively decided that I'm not a big fan, at least of playing with robots. Bridge has some good points - it's challenging, complex, and difficult to master, but I have tentatively concluded that it lacks strategic depth. Of course I'm a pretty poor player.

This is mostly because I've failed to master what I consider the most basic skill of bridge, developing a clear mental picture of all the hands. Essentially this means counting all the cards that are played and using that and other information to get an optimal estimate of the remaining tricks. This skill starts with counting trump, and I can do that, at least as declarer, but counting more than one additional suit seems to overflow my registers. Any slight distraction tends to make me lose count.

So I should probably give it up.

Friday, March 24, 2017


David Frum:

Some of the conservatives who voted “no” to the House leadership’s version of repeal may yet imagine that they will have some other opportunity to void the law. They are again deluding themselves. If the Republican Party tripped over its own feet walking across this empty ballroom, it will face only more fearsome difficulties in the months ahead, as mid-term elections draw closer. Too many people benefit from the law—and the Republican alternatives thus far offer too little to compensate for the loss of those benefits.

In that third week in March in 2010, America committed itself for the first time to the principle of universal (or near universal) health-care coverage. That principle has had seven years to work its way into American life and into the public sense of right and wrong. It’s not yet unanimously accepted. But it’s accepted by enough voters—and especially by enough Republican voters—to render impossible the seven-year Republican vision of removing that coverage from those who have gained it under the Affordable Care Act. Paul Ryan still upholds the right of Americans to “choose” to go uninsured if they cannot afford to pay the cost of their insurance on their own. His country no longer agrees.

Jersey Physics


The Physics First program could become "Physics Last" at Montgomery High School, if a group of parents have their way.

All Montgomery High School freshmen must take physics, but a petition being circulated by parents is calling on school officials to re-evaluate the high school science program - including abolishing the Physics First program.

The petition, which has been signed by more than 300 parents, states that the Physics First program "creates an undue amount of stress, negativity and decreased confidence for our children."


However, Montgomery Township school district officials said the rationale for requiring physics for freshmen is that it is a "foundational" science. It builds into chemistry, which leads into biology, said Jason Sullivan, the science supervisor at Montgomery High School.

The freshman physics course is offered on three levels - general, college prep and honors, Sullivan said. The freshman course is a conceptual, algebra-based course, but the honors course addresses a few items where basic trigonometry is involved, he said.


Freshman Alexandra Lister told the school board that she knew physics would be challenging, but there was no choice. The result is she feels stressed and confused.

"I am a high achiever and I am self-driven. I don't deserve the burden of physics," Alexandra said. She cannot focus on other courses because she is worried about the physics course, she said.

It's certainly true that physics is foundational - necessary to deeply understand almost all the other sciences, but it's also true that it's the most mathematically demanding science. Most of physics is not really accessible without calculus. I think that I might find it painful to teach a whole year of physics without invoking calculus.

When I went to high school we took a freshman level course in physical science. I don't recall much about it but one can use such a course to introduce concepts like gravity, basic electromagnetic phenomena, energy and heat as well as apply it to astronomy, geology, and engineering.

We were on the layer cake plan: sophomores got biology, juniors chemistry, and seniors physics. My preferred approach would be four years of plain science, integrated with the math curriculum, and carefully building the tools needed for all the sciences. The students would get physics, chemistry, biology and some other sciences each year.


And the good news is that Trump/Ryancare didn't win.

The bad news is that Trump and Ryan are ideally placed to sabotage Obamacare.

That Way Madness Lies

Sometime about noon yesterday I looked outside and noticed that our mountains were missing, as were any other terrain features more than a couple of miles away. Naturally, I jumped to the conclusion that the simulation we live in had glitched, wiping out all those pixels. Possibly that conclusion was influenced by the fact that I had heard that some of the intelligentsia of my universe (OK, Scott, Bee, and Lubosh) were arguing about the world as a simulation.

Actually I didn't bother to read their stuff, mainly because past experience has indicated to me that such discussions, where predicated on any logic whatsoever, usually are based on assuming that the simulation exists in a universe with laws of physics similar to or even exactly like our own.

Doh! Why would anyone do that? Real simulations, in our universe, aren't like that. Mostly they use simplified physics to try to capture a few elements of reality, or just imagine different physics to see what happens. So if we are a simulation, whatever that means, it's likely in a universe governed by perhaps unimaginably different physical laws.

Anyway, after a while a different explanation occurred to me: perhaps the cold front that just moved in with violent winds had stirred or advected enough of our desert dust to obscure everything further away - it certainly looked dusty out there. Of course my first guess might be more likely, but see title, above.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mathematical Thinking

The Lumonator has a recent post on the importance of mathematical thinking, and of teaching it.

He summarizes some of this in ten points, which I endorse, but I would like to add one more point which he doesn't quite state explicitly: mathematical thinking teaches disciplined methods of thought. I am reminded of the fact that Lincoln taught himself to prove all the theorems of Euclid's first six elements at sight not because he thought they would come up in his legal practice, but because he thought that would sharpen his logical and analytical skills. It also teaches a language for expressing analysis in a disciplined manner.

Losing It

The Democratic defeat in the 2016 election was monumental at virtually every level. Only the Presidential election was close. Why so?

There are, of course, a million theories, but the one I like best is based on the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, which was published a couple of months before the election. She set out to look at Louisiana members of the Tea Party, but many aspects resonate more widely. The last half century has not been kind to the middle class, who have gotten virtually none of profits of economic advance, and have been brutal to the working class, which has lost a lot of ground.

Now some blame this on the explosive growth of the wealth of the super-rich, but for various reasons, including a powerful propaganda apparatus in the hands of those same super-rich, many see the entitlements of those they consider line cutters, all those allegedly disadvantaged who get a leg up thanks to the government or thanks to the government letting foreigners "cut in". White men, especially white men without a college degree, voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and they have a lot of beefs with government and liberal ideology.

Aside from the disappearance of good jobs, like the factory jobs that gave their parents an entry to the middle class, they feel that their economics, honor and prestige has been dissed by the rise of affirmative action, feminism, and identity politics. They have a solid case. When some rise, others fall, even if only relatively.

The economics, though, are more complex. Globalization and automation have done most of the dirty work of taking away well paying jobs and transferring wealth to the super-rich.

2016, I think, was an election ruled by anger. What I don't see from the Republicans is any disposition or idea of how to fix the fundamental problems. Their health care plan is a symptom of their intellectual and moral bankruptcy. They can scapegoat Muslims, Mexicans and Blacks, but that (I hope) will only displace anger, not remove the causes.

Can Democrats, or anybody, transcend these problems to build a better society?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Daily Beast:Daily Beast:

According to a CNN report, advocacy groups led by Charles and David Koch are promising to create a new fund for Republican reelection races in 2018 for Republicans who vote against the current proposed health care bill. "We want to make certain that lawmakers understand the policy consequences of voting for a law that keeps Obamacare intact," Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips said. "We have a history of following up and holding politicians accountable, but we will also be there to support and thank the champions who stand strong and keep their promise." It is an explicit effort to influence the vote for the American Health Care Act, which is up for a vote in the House on Thursday.

The essence of bribery is a quid pro quo, and this is bribery, pure and simple. Will anybody make the case?


The Winter maximum of Arctic sea ice extent this year seems to have been the lowest in modern era, that is, since satellites made possible accurate measurements (starting in 1979). I am a bit bemused by the difficulty headline writers and newsreaders have had reporting the slightly complicated idea of the minimum of a bunch of maxima. The NPR story I heard made it sound like Arctic sea ice was at a minimum during the dead of winter.

Here is the NYT: "Arctic’s Winter Sea Ice Drops to Its Lowest Recorded Level"

Uhh, not exactly. It was lower a couple of weeks ago and will be lower (very likely) in another couple of weeks.

Math is hard - Barbie.

Hidden Figures

I heard a brief interview with Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, on NPR today. She was talking about how Citizens United has made it possible for a few ultra-rich people than hardly any American has ever heard of to dominate American politics, and in particular for Rebekah Mercer to play a pivotal role in Trump's election and policy objectives. How many Americans, I wonder, have heard of this Hedge Fund heiress and boutique cookie baker?

Her father, Robert Mercer, made a few zillion bucks in quantitative trading and writes a lot of the checks, but she seems to be guiding a conservative network that generates propaganda, funds "institutes" selling the party line, and finances candidates. Key among her projects was Breitbart and Steve Bannon, who some have called her Svengali.

Here is an excerpt from a campaign era Politico story:

Rebekah Mercer now sits at the nexus of Trump’s universe. So influential has she become that her conversation with Trump during an August fundraiser in the Hamptons has been widely credited with spurring the rookie candidate to shake up his campaign team by turning its leadership over to two of her closest confidants.

Pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has worked with Mercer on a pro-Cruz super PAC, became campaign manager, while the new job of campaign CEO went to Steve Bannon, a campaign novice who helped run both the Government Accountability Institute — which has received at least $2 million from the Mercer foundation — and Breitbart News, the intensely pro-Trump nationalist website in which the Mercers have invested. This month, Trump rounded out his newly reconfigured campaign leadership by bringing in yet another operative with whom Mercer has worked — David Bossie, who previously ran both an anti-Clinton super PAC that received $2 million from Bob Mercer in July and an anti-Clinton nonprofit called Citizens United that received $3.6 million from the Mercers’ foundation from 2012 through 2014.

Rebekah Mercer did not respond to requests for comment. Conway, Bannon and Bossie either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. And most conservative insiders approached for this story were loath to speak on the record for fear it might jeopardize their chances of receiving funding from Mercer's intensely private family. Mercer, some said, has scolded allies for calling attention to her — even when it’s been positive.

Some personal stuff:

Described almost universally as intelligent and hard-working, Mercer graduated from Stanford in 1996 with a dual degree in biology and mathematics, then received a master’s in operations research from Stanford. She went to work on Wall Street as a trader, before retiring to raise the four children she had with her husband, Sylvain Mirochnikoff, a managing director at Morgan Stanley.

Associates describe the family as close-knit and culturally conservative but also known to spend lavishly on their wide-ranging hobbies.

Bob Mercer has commissioned a $2.7-million model train set and multiple massive yachts, including one with décor inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

Lots more in the Politico story linked above.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trump Tower Tapping

Josh Marshall:

For two years ending in 2013, the FBI had a court-approved warrant to eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money laundering network that operated out of unit 63A in Trump Tower.

The FBI investigation led to a federal grand jury indictment of more than 30 people, including one of the world’s most notorious Russian mafia bosses, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Known as the “Little Taiwanese,” Tokhtakhounov was the only target to slip away, and he remains a fugitive from American justice.

Five months after the April 2013 indictment and after Interpol issued a “red notice” for Tokhtakhounov, the fugitive appeared near Donald Trump in the VIP section of the Moscow Miss Universe pageant. Trump had sold the Russian rights for Miss Universe to a billionaire Russian shopping mall developer.

There have been persistent rumors of Trump's mob ties, foreign and domestic. If there is any substance to them, Trump may have put himself in a place where it's hard to hide.

The Trump High

Sociologist Hochschild completed her book before Trump became President, but she describes the scene at one of his rallies:

His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life. Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated. The man who expressed amazement, arms upheld—“to be in the presence of such a man!”—seemed in a state of rapture. As if magically lifted, they are no longer strangers in their own land. “Collective effervescence,” as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called it in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is a state of emotional excitation felt by those who join with others they take to be fellow members of a moral or biological tribe. They gather to affirm their unity and, united, they feel secure and respected. While Durkheim was studying religious rites among indigenous tribes in Australia and elsewhere, much of what he observed could be applied to the rally at the Lakefront Airport, as well as many others like it. People gather around what Durkheim calls a “totem”—a symbol such as a cross or a flag. Leaders associate themselves with the totem and charismatic leaders can become totems themselves. The function of the totem is to unify worshippers. Seen through Durkheim’s eyes, the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those “cutting ahead in line” are about to become a terrible, strange, new America. The source of the awe and excitement isn’t simply Trump himself; it is the unity of the great crowd of strangers gathered around him. If the rally itself could speak, it would say, “We are a majority!”

Added to that is a potent promise—to be lifted up from bitterness, despair, depression. The “movement,” as Trump has increasingly called his campaign, acts as a great antidepressant. Like other leaders promising rescue, Trump evokes a moral consciousness. But what he gives participants, emotionally speaking, is an ecstatic high. The costumes, hats, signs, and symbols reaffirm this new sense of unity. To those who attend his rallies, the event itself symbolizes a larger rising tide. As the crowd exited the hangar, fans were saying to one another, “See how many of us there are.” It felt to them that Trump had captured the flag.

One way of reinforcing this “high” of a united brother- and sisterhood of believers is to revile and expel members of out groups. In his speeches, Trump has spoken of “something within Islam which hates Christians,” and of his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the country. He has spoken of expelling all undocumented people of Mexican origin. And only reluctantly and in truculent tones (“I repudiate, okay?”) did he repudiate the notorious Louisiana KKK grand wizard, David Duke, thus signaling blacks as members of an out group. In nearly every rally, Trump points out a protestor, sometimes demonizing them and calling for their expulsion. (One protestor was even falsely depicted by his campaign as a member of ISIS.) Such scapegoating reinforces the joyous unity of the gathering. The act of casting out the “bad one” helps fans unite in a shared sense of being the “good ones,” the majority, no longer strangers in their own land.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (pp. 225-226). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

I think this helps explain the imperviousness of his core support to blunders in office and general clownish behavior. They are still high on their own supply.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fake News?

Headline from the New York Daily [fake] News:

President Trump's approval rating sinks lower than Obama's

How much lower? Well, if you compare approval-disapproval figures, about 30+ percentage points lower. That's compared to Obama's rating last year. Compared to Obama or other recent Presidents at the same point in their Presidencies, Trump's numbers are even a lot worse.


Trump's approval/disapproval ratings are very low for a President so early in his term, but the past week of chaos has coincided with another sharp drop to 37%/58%, which is bad, but still well short of catastrophic. He still has a hard core of 37% or so believers and probably another 10-15% who are persuadable. I suspect though, that he can't afford any big screw ups or other disasters. If his approval/disapproval were to fall much below 30%/65% I think that the Congressional Republicans would start getting really antsy.