Sunday, April 23, 2017

Eve of Destruction

Richard Feynman, who had driven his roommate Klaus Fuchs’s old Buick down to Albuquerque the previous June, in the midst of the final effort to finish the bombs, to keep vigil with his young wife Arlene while she died of tuberculosis, found himself lost between worlds. Before he left Los Alamos he had thought about what the bomb meant and had made some notes. He had calculated that Little Boys in mass production would cost about as much as B-29s. “No monopoly,” he had written.863 “No defense.” And: “No security until we have control on a world level. . . . Other peoples are not being hindered in the development of the bomb by any secrets we are keeping. . . . Soon they will be able to do to Columbus, Ohio, and hundreds of cities like it what we did to Hiroshima. And we scientists are clever—too clever—are you not satisfied? Is four square miles in one bomb not enough? Men are still thinking. Just tell us how big you want it!” The twenty-six-year-old widower may have seen too much of death. He sat in a bar in Manhattan one afternoon in the months after the war looking out the window at all the people going by and shaking his head, thinking how sad it was that they didn’t realize they had only a few years to live.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 202). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The world has avoided nuclear destruction for 70 some years through deterrence. Now it looks like nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them are falling into the hands of religious fanatics and dangerously homicidal dictators. How long can this unstable equilibrium last? Not only that, but the leaders of two of the world's three nuclear superpowers are aggressive and far from intelligent.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Oh Dear!

Bee explains that physicists haven't really created negative mass.

Next she'll probably be claiming that various athletic feats don't actually defy the laws of physics.

Is nothing sacred?

Defection: Canadian Style

Shortly after the war, a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Canada who had decided to defect, gathered up documents demonstrating the extent and details of Soviet spying and went to a newspaper. He was ignored. Attempts to go to the government were equally unpromising:

Finally the Minister of Justice sent out word that they should go back to the Soviet Embassy and return the documents. The Gouzenkos assumed that Soviet agents within the government must have made so stupid and deadly a decision. In fact, it came directly from the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, who seems to have been terrified that he might stir up trouble with the Soviet Union.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 184). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Grouchy Review

Veep is a much honored show that has been running on HBO since the Devonian. Having recently acquired access, I caught about one and one half episodes before concluding that it was a)really dumb, b)not funny.

Of course if I get bored enough to watch any more I might change my mind. Anybody got a contrary?

Secrets and Spies

Several early chapters of Dark Sun are devoted to Soviet spies in the US Manhattan project and their influence on the Russian bomb effort. It was immense. During the war the US shipped thousands of tanks, aircraft, ships, and even whole factories to Russia to support the war effort against Germany. They also shipped thousands of sealed suitcases, which contained tens of thousands of documents, many of them top secret. A flood of Soviet agents made the trip in the opposite direction, spreading out over the country. They had broad access to American technology and American industry. Evidently, someone important thought it was important enough to the war effort to allow that.

Air Force Major General Follette Bradley, who pioneered the Alsib Pipeline [the air route from Montana to Alaska to Siberia], would tell the New York Times:

Of my own personal knowledge I know that beginning early in 1942 Russian civilian and military agents were in our country in huge numbers. They were free to move about without restraint or check and, in order to visit our arsenals, depots, factories and proving grounds, they had only to make known their desires. Their authorized visits to military establishments numbered in the thousands. I also personally know that scores of Russians were permitted to enter American territory in 1942 without visa. I believe that over the war years this number was augmented at least by hundreds.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 100-101). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

For the Manhattan project, the key spies were inside, with Klaus Fuchs being the most important. He was a talented physicist as well as a committed Communist from his teenage years, and he worked at the heart of two crucial efforts: the gaseous diffusion plant to separate fissionable U235 from U238 at Oak Ridge and the design of the explosive lenses that were the essential ingredient of the plutonium bomb.

The information gathered by the various spies was crucial to the Russian efforts, since the relative poverty and weakly developed technology in Russia made it impossible to carry out many of the experiments performed by the US, Britain, and Canada.

Rhodes has a lot of material on the spies, their psychology, and the tactics used to recruit them. Nearly all were motivated mainly by ideology. A common recruiting tactic used on the less committed was the appeal to a common enemy: Russia is our ally, we are just sharing information needed to confront the fascists. Israel has been known to use similar tactic on Americans.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Finding ET

Actually, extra-solar planets, and just maybe, life out there. Chris Jones portrait of Sara Seager in the New York Times Magazine. A facinating human portrait of an astrophysicist bent on a cosmic quest.

Like many astrophysicists, Sara Seager sometimes has a problem with her perception of scale. Knowing that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and that each might contain hundreds of billions of stars, can make the lives of astrophysicists and even those closest to them seem insignificant. Their work can also, paradoxically, bolster their sense of themselves. Believing that you alone might answer the question “Are we alone?” requires considerable ego. Astrophysicists are forever toggling between feelings of bigness and smallness, of hubris and humility, depending on whether they’re looking out or within.

One perfect blue-sky fall day, Seager boarded a train in Concord, Mass., on her way to her office at M.I.T. and realized she didn’t have her phone. She couldn’t seem to decide whether this was or wasn’t a big deal. Not having her phone would make the day tricky in some ways, because her sons, 13-year-old Max and 11-year-old Alex, had a soccer game after school, and she would need to coordinate a ride to watch them. She also wanted to be able to find and sit with her best friend, Melissa, who sometimes takes the same train to work. “She’s my best friend, but I know she has other best friends,” Seager said, wanting to make the nature of their relationship clear. She is an admirer of clarity. She also likes absolutes, wide-open spaces and time to think, but not too much time to think. She took out her laptop to see if she could email Melissa. The train’s Wi-Fi was down. She would have to occupy herself on the commute alone.

Seager’s office is on the 17th floor of M.I.T.’s Green Building, the tallest building in Cambridge, its roof dotted with meteorological and radar equipment. She is a tenured professor of physics and of planetary science, certified a “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation in 2013. Her area of expertise is the relatively new field of exoplanets: planets that orbit stars other than our sun. More particular, she wants to find an Earthlike exoplanet — a rocky planet of reasonable mass that orbits its star within a temperate “Goldilocks zone” that is not too hot or too cold, which would allow water to remain liquid — and determine that there is life on it. That is as simple as her math gets.

Bits and Pieces

Among the many joys of Richard Rhodes Dark Sun are the biographical bits:

Once the magnitude of the disaster sank in, says Stalin biographer and General of the Soviet Army Dmitri Volkogonov, the dictator “simply lost control of himself and went into deep psychological shock.97 Between 28 and 30 June, according to eyewitnesses, Stalin was so depressed and shaken that he ceased to be a leader. On 29 June, as he was leaving the defense commissariat with Molotov, [Kliment] Voroshilov, [Andrei] Zhdanov and Beria, he burst out loudly, ‘Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up!’ ” Stalin retreated to his dacha at Kuntsevo; it took a visit from the Politburo, led by Molotov, to mobilize him. “We got to Stalin’s dacha,” Anastas Mikoyan recalled in his memoirs. “We found him in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, ‘What have you come for?’ He had the strangest look on his face.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 42-43). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Beria's repellent qualities apparently extended to having teenaged girls kidnapped off the streets to be raped in his office.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Venezuela on the Brink

Is Maduro finished? NICHOLAS CASEY and PATRICIA TORRES in today's NYT:

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protesters demanding elections and a return to democratic rule jammed the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities on Wednesday. National Guard troops and government-aligned militias beat crowds back with tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons, and at least two people were killed, according to human rights groups and local news reports.

President Nicolás Maduro defied international calls, including a plea from the American State Department, to allow peaceful assemblies and ordered his forces in

to the streets. Some demonstrators, wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas, fought back with firebombs.


The One and Only Real Secret

I've started reading Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes' award winning history of the development of the fusion (H) bomb. (Hat Tip, Fernando). I've barely started, but I have to say that Rhodes is a compelling writer.

One thing that caught my eye was that key Russian scientists were aware of the possibility of a uranium bomb in 1939, and some were already advocating a strong program to try to build it. Two fundamental problems prevented it: the uncertainty as to whether a bomb would actually work, and the enormous expense required to find out. In the end it was decided that the necessary resources could be more usefully spent preparing for the coming war with Germany. The government did not trust the scientists enough to go for broke, and the scientists, with intimate knowledge of Stalin's terror, did not trust the government enough to go all out.

Rhodes sums it up:

Trust would not be a defining issue later, after the secret, the one and only secret—that the weapon worked—became known.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 42). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Rise of the Cyborgs

Human's aren't quite surrendering to the robots yet. Maybe we will merge with them. Or just leave a few traces in their 'DNA' like the Neandertal did with us.

Kristen V. Brown, Gizmodo:

At Facebook’s annual developer conference, F8, on Wednesday, the group unveiled what may be Facebook’s most ambitious—and creepiest—proposal yet. Facebook wants to build its own “brain-to-computer interface” that would allow us to send thoughts straight to a computer.

What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan, the head of the company’s secretive hardware R&D division, Building 8, asked from the stage. Dugan then proceeded to show a video demo of a woman typing eight words per minute directly from the stage. In a few years, she said, the team hopes to demonstrate a real-time silent speech system capable of delivering a hundred words per minute.

“That’s five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, and it’s straight from your brain,” she said. “Your brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like and how it’s spelled; it also contains semantic information of what those words mean.”

I don't know, but I'm guessing they are reading sub vocalizations (or nerve impulses to your vocal apparatus) rather than the thoughts directly.

Bribery, American Style

Inaugural Fund Raising.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Ordered a book from Amazon, but I notice that it's being shipped via Royal Mail. I assume that means that it's coming from the UK (or maybe Canada or Australia - what do they call their post?).

Hope that it will be in a language I understand.

Book Review: Homo Evolutus

Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans are venture capitalists and authors with an interest in life sciences. Gullans is a former professor at Harvard Medical school. Their book, or I should say micro-book, Homo Evolutus, seems to be based on a TED talk they gave. The subject is their thesis that the human race is about to "speciate," or give rise to a new species of Homo, thanks to the radical advances being made in biotechnology and genomics.

Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to background material on the evolutionary history of the various human species (19 so-far known, by their count) and their biological underpinnings. The rest is a quick catalog of some of the extraordinary goings on at the interface of biology and technology, many of which were unfamiliar to me. A couple of examples:

Not only did the two Chinese teams take mouse skin cells, and de-differentiate them back into pluripotent stem cells… They then took these stem cells and allowed them to re-grow, differentiate, and gave birth to live mice. Which then could reproduce normally.

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 1372-1375). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

About a lab where synthetic organs are being grown using such tools as inkjet printers loaded with stem cells:

On a bench top, a freshly printed mouse heart beats away in a box. (Take that Edgar Allan Poe.)

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 946-948). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

There is lots of similar stuff, including the cutsie asides, which I usually found slightly more amusing than annoying.

Homo Evolutus is (so-far) available only as a Kindle Single, and it's a very slender book indeed, only 58 pages, and that length is a great exaggeration due to it's idiosyncratically chatty format. It's more like a long magazine article. It's an hour or two of reading, and it's cheap, $2.99, Amazon only. I found it often interesting, and read about a number of things I had never heard of before. There are lots of endnotes and references for those who would like to check their work.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading a New Minibook

Our average shoe size has increased fourfold in the last century.

Meanwhile our brains have shrunk by 10% over last 5,000 years.

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 1552-1555). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Perhaps some of my readers, distracted by my prolixity and general je ne sais quoi*, don't realize that I make a lot of dumb mistakes.

Desafortunadamente, would that this expectation were the case. Being old does tend to reduce the scope of my blunders, but it also seems to have focussed them. I just finished reading a moderately long book, and didn't really know what to do next. So I thought about buying another book. Worse, the book I was thinking of buying was the third edition of a book I already thought I owned.

Maybe I should look at first edition to see if that seems like a good idea.

* I don't speak French and have no idea what that means.

Hate Reads

Pamela Paul thinks you should read books you hate. She has done her time in book purgatory hell.

My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed.

“How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns.

Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ever been before or since. I finished every wretched page of “The Fountainhead” in alternating states of fury and despair, and when it was finally over, I tried to leave the vague echo of Dominique, stomping around in her evening gowns, behind. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.

Well, me too. But I was already old when I read Rand's even longer dreadful brick, Atlas Shrugged, and I already knew that I would never be a libertarian.

But I'm too old and life is too short. If I read another book I hate it had better be short, and interesting. So forget about it James Joyce - I will never finish Ulysses.

Paul, of course, is a professional critic and editor of the NYT Book Review. So I assume she actually gets paid to read bad books.

Winning: ROTR*

Yep, and it's not H. sapiens. It is the robots. Claire Cain Miller in the NYT:

Who is winning the race for jobs between robots and humans? Last year, two leading economists described a future in which humans come out ahead. But now they’ve declared a different winner: the robots.

The industry most affected by automation is manufacturing. For every robot per thousand workers, up to six workers lost their jobs and wages fell by as much as three-fourths of a percent, according to a new paper by the economists, Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University. It appears to be the first study to quantify large, direct, negative effects of robots.

The paper is all the more significant because the researchers, whose work is highly regarded in their field, had been more sanguine about the effect of technology on jobs. In a paper last year, they said it was likely that increased automation would create new, better jobs, so employment and wages would eventually return to their previous levels. Just as cranes replaced dockworkers but created related jobs for engineers and financiers, the theory goes, new technology has created new jobs for software developers and data analysts.

But that paper was a conceptual exercise. The new one uses real-world data — and suggests a more pessimistic future.

This may come as a shock to economists, but computer and AI people are less surprised. Facts sometimes trump economic mythology.

Don't be shocked that the Trumpettes remain a bastion of denial.

The paper’s evidence of job displacement from technology contrasts with a comment from the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who said at an Axios event last week that artificial intelligence’s displacement of human jobs was “not even on our radar screen,” and “50 to 100 more years” away. (Not all robots use artificial intelligence, but a panel of experts — polled by the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy in reaction to Mr. Mnuchin’s comments — expressed the same broad concern of major job displacement.)

The paper also helps explain a mystery that has been puzzling economists: why, if machines are replacing human workers, productivity hasn’t been increasing. In manufacturing, productivity has been increasing more than elsewhere — and now we see evidence of it in the employment data, too.

The study analyzed the effect of industrial robots in local labor markets in the United States. Robots are to blame for up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, it concluded, and that number will rise because industrial robots are expected to quadruple.

The paper adds to the evidence that automation, more than other factors like trade and offshoring that President Trump campaigned on, has been the bigger long-term threat to blue-collar jobs. The researchers said the findings — “large and robust negative effects of robots on employment and wages” — remained strong even after controlling for imports, offshoring, software that displaces jobs, worker demographics and the type of industry.

*Rise Of The Robots

Summer Time

The Sun is back and the High Arctic is warming up again. It's now the warmest it's been since - unhh - January and February.

Say what?

Sapiens: Book Review

Rutherford supposedly said that there are only two kinds of science: physics and stamp collecting. History is like that too. Most historians concentrate on chronicling a sequence of events in some domain, what Toynbee called "one damn thing after another." Only a few choose the riskier path of seeking grand themes and patterns that unify the whole.

It's a risky path, because choosing the grand stage requires more erudition than any single human actually has. Mistakes and oversimplifications are sure to become targets. Toynbee's monumental magnum opus was not the first in this vein, but it might be the first of our own age. Two such works have had a huge impact on my view of human nature, how the world works, and how we got here: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and the present work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Yuval Harari. Of the two, the latter is the most ambitious, taking mankind from the status of "An Animal of No Significance," the title of his first chapter, to "The Animal that Became a God," the afterword.

Sapiens has been widely praised for its scope, incisiveness, erudition, and style. My favorite blurb comes from Jared Diamond, who is in some ways his mentor and model: “Sapiens tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.”

Sapiens is not a story of kings, heroes, and conquerors. The real characters in the story are the intersubjective realities, the myths, that are the building blocks of cultures and large scale cooperation: tribes, nations, religions, money and others. Harari takes a close look at the fundamental transformations of human society which he identifies as The Cognitive Revolution (circa 70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 ya) and the Scientific Revolution (500 ya).

Many will be offended, I suspect, by his casual lumping of such religions as Christianity, Islam, and Humanism (with branches such as liberalism, socialism, capitalism, and Nazism.) Those with eyes to see, I think, will find them opened and their vision expanded.

This is big picture history. Not history from 10,000 feet, as Harari says, but from an orbiting satellite. The picture he sees is a world where thousands of fragmented and barely interacting cultures have been gradually absorbed and digested by an all encompassing global culture. The primary engines of that destruction and transformation have been money, imperialism, and universal religions.

The book, an online course based on it, a TED talk, and various articles have made Harari, as one reviewer pointed out, a rockstar in history and anthropology - a guy who gets invited to give lectures to the aristocracy of Silicon Valley. Much of this celebrity comes, I think, from the final chapter, entitled "The End of Homo Sapiens," wherein he speculates about the future of our species. For the first time, he says, biological evolution's blind chance has been replaced by an intelligent designer. The potential of genetic engineering has barely been touched by such stunts as a cow's ear in human shape growing on the back of a mouse or a fluorescent green rabbit. Cyborg technologies that allow neural implants to let the blind see, the armless operate prosthetics, and remote control of insects and fish are just the beginning. So too, other experiments like the billion Euro project to emulate a human brain in Silicon foreshadow purely artificial intelligences.

His final words warn that God like powers are not necessarily accompanied by divine judgement. His final question:

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?

I have written a few dozen Harari posts over the years, collected here: