Showing posts from August, 2013

Mark of Cain: One Homo to Rule Them All

There are a lot of species of the Panthera (lions, tigers, panthers, etc.) genus still around. Ditto for dogs. Not so Homo. We call ourselves Homo sapiens (wise man), but our late brother species might refer to us a bit more disparagingly. One hundred thousand years ago, there were at least six human species still extant, including Neandertals, Denisovans, Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, and the hobbit people of the Isla de Flores. And of course, us, the wise guys. Quite likely, there were others, as yet unknown, or perhaps, never to be known. It seems that we are not exactly innocent in the demise of our late bretheren. Such, at least, is the message Yuval Noah Harari, a prof at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the teacher of Coursera's A Brief History of Humankind It's early in the course, but it seems that he's not that impressed with our own prospects either. Compared to erectus, who managed 1.4 million years on the planet, we only have 200 k years in, and h

Guaranteed Income

From time to time Matt Yglesias pushes the idea of a guaranteed basic income as an alternative to minimum wage, welfare and various other programs. For one thing, it would do away with all the bureaucratic nuisances of welfare and minimum wage. It also eliminates the economic distortions caused by the minimum wage. Combine that with universal single payer health care, and one alleviates many of the burdens of poverty, which among other evils, effectively causes lower IQ. Of course there are some potential difficulties, including the fact that the people who work would have to pay for it. The central problem, though, is the free rider problem. How do you avoid creating a dissipated class that won't and can't work and that lives parasitically on the rest of society? Have any rich countries tried this? If automation continues to destroy jobs, tactics like this might become necessary for the stability of society.

Volcanoes Be Complicated: Silicon Rocks!

Like any good science nerd, I made baking soda and vinegar volcanoes as a kid. This seems to have persuaded me that nothing much was going on in volcanic eruptions. Donald Dingwell’s Coursera course on the subject has certainly disabused me of that notion. It turns out that my chemistry is more than a bit short of what’s needed to properly understand the subject, but what I can understand is really interesting. I signed up for the course because the promised workload was small and explosions are cool, thinking that I might watch a bunch of videos of lava, pyroclastic flows, etc. Actually it turns out to be perusing a lot of complicated graphs with multiple axes plotting such things as “speciazation of water in haplogranitic glasses and melts” or “glass transition temperature at a specified sheer viscosity as a function of water weight content”. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely clear why sheer viscosity is an important thing to specify when measuring glass transition temperature, b


It seems our faithful British allies are none too keen on a Syria adventure. Now Obama is really in a box (largely of his own making). At a minimum he probably now needs Congressional approval for anything he undertakes - which is as it should be. Expect Mid East nukes, sometime soon.

WWWWD About Syria?

What Would Walter White do about Syria? I think it might go a bit like this: First, assassinate the infant daughter of a Panda owned by the Canadian Prime Minister. This would lead, by a series of events as inevitable as they would be improbable, to Assad's being blown up while consulting with the the leaders of Russia, China, and Iran.

The Dumb Kid

It had been a while, but I recently found myself being the dumb kid again. This wasn't exactly a new feeling for me, but it had been a while, and I had lost the feeling. It was an edX class, and not a hard one either. For a variety of reasons, including health and other distractions, I found myself making all the dumb mistakes the that the weak students make. Forgetting when the assignments were due, and starting on them only to find that they were already due. Not quite understanding the technique, but jumping to a guess and coming up with the wrong answer as a result. Starting on the final with way too little time to complete it. Staring at a problem and seeing no magic insight come. Finding out that the BS that worked thirty years ago when my brain was more agile wouldn't cut it when crunch time came. None of this will come as a surprise to some of my readers - Lubos, for example. Painful, but life has lots of such lessons. Oh well.

Could Syria Be Like Iraq (And Vietnam)?

In that we get lured into a stupid war based on phony intelligence? I don't think so, but it would be foolish to discount the possibility. There are some obvious differences. Iraq was ruled by an evil dictator who was more or less keeping the peace in his own country and not threatening the US. Iraq turned out not to have chemical or nuclear weapons - despite a consensus opinion on the former and his dubious rumors on the latter. Syria too is ruled by an evil dictator and not directly threatening the US, but it clearly has chemical weapons and has used them, killing more than 1000 people. That evil dictator is alos engaged in a war on his own people which has killed hundreds of thousands. Bush wanted war at any cost - Obama clearly doesn't (my opinion, of course). Oh, did I happen to mention some similarities too? Whatever intervention Obama chooses, and I really think he has little choice, a bad outcome is likely. Obama apparently does not want to affect the course of

The Real Issue in Syria

Obama drew a blurred line in the sand for Assad over chemical weapons. Assad tiptoed up to the line and danced over it, and Obama did nothing. Assad drove over the line in his pickup and set up his tent. Now Obama is trapped. The last thing he wanted was another war in Asia. He already let the military persuade him that an unwinnable war in Afghanistan could be won, and he got burned. Between his vague threat and dilatory behavior he really is stuck. Yglesias and others have pointed out that any intervention in Syria is an extremely cost ineffective way to save lives - it's more likely to kill more people than it saves in any case. In my opinion, though, that's not the point. The real point is our other vague threat in the Middle East - the one where we (he) said that we wouldn't permit Iran to get nukes. If Obama folds on Syria, or, more likely, settles for purely symbolic mini-strikes, Assad will see a giant green light, and so will Iran. Of course the worst thi

Speaking About Giving Away Privacy

It seems my kitchen is featured in this newly celebrated video on the inadvisability of chicken washing  And to think that I've washed many a turkey in that very sink.

Drugs and Money

Watching Breaking Bad got me to thinking about the connections of drugs, money, and crime once again. Real high level criminals go to a lot more trouble to protect the links in the chain (than in BB), going to elaborate lengths to prevent lower level people from having knowledge of higher ups, but there is one infallible and reliable link up the chain - the money. The US has printed up a trillion dollars or so in hundred dollar bills. A nearly equal quantity of 500 and 100 Euro notes exists. No legitimate business or individual needs these. They are almost exclusively needed and used by criminal activities. Large bills, and shady banks, make organized crime possible. Governments tend to like them because they provide seigniorage, but this could be dealt with, I think, by monetary operations. Can anybody think of any good reason why large cash bills - or all cash - should not be done away with? In a country where almost everyone has a smart phone, cash is not needed. Those witho

Punishing Innovation

Today I listened to a talk by an archeologist who lived among Peruvian Indians for some years, and discussing the subject later he remarked "Innovation is punished." He added something about the fact that a lot of cultural energy is spent on building fences - fences between us and them. The trouble with innovation, whether it's making changes in the patterns of a traditional art form or allowing gay people to marry each other, is that it tears down those fences. Those breaches in fences alter a culture, usually in ways that cannot be mended. In modern civilized societies we perforce tolerate a whole lot of innovation, so resistance may well be futile, but it seems to be pretty ingrained in human nature. Ellen Barry, writing in today's NYT , reported the assassination of Dr. Narendra Dhoholkar. For nearly three decades, an earnest man named Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world. If a holy man h

Hating On the Actors

Anna Gunn has one of the great all-time show business gigs as Skyler White in Breaking Bad . She is discovering, however, that there is a downside to creating a memorable character that engages people's deepest emotions. In her NYT Op-Ed she discusses the hatred some people have for her character and how it has even led some nut jobs to threaten her, the actress, personally. It's probably not much comfort to her to realize that this is in fact a bizarre tribute to her skill in making her character so vividly real. I recall a couple of occasions when I encountered similar feelings. In one case, I was an audience member watching Mark Medoff's When You Comin' Back Red Rider . The actor playing the central character, the villainous, unbalanced, and explosive Teddy made such a strong impression that I disliked him personally until I was fortunate enough to take a class (a few classes, actually) from him. Later, when I was playing a part in One Flew Over the Cukoo'

Origins of Indian Endogamy

One of India's most characteristic institutions is its division into endogamous clans, or jatis - somewhat misleading referred to as the caste system. A group of genetics researchers from Hyderabad and Boston now claim to have evidence that the endogamic system originated , or at least took shape, about 1900 years ago. Indian ancestry is complex, but there are two major strands, the so-called Ancestral North Indians, who are related to central Asians, Middle Easterners, and Europeans one the one hand and Ancestral South Indians, who don't appear to be closely related to any outside groups. The claim is that the genetic evidence indicates that mixing between the groups began about 4200 years ago - plausibly at the time Indo-European languages arrived in India - and stopped 1900 years ago, when the Jati system took hold. Naturally I would be interested in Arun's opinion, fortified as it is by his vast knowledge of Indian history and deep skepticism about conventional inte

Aliens: Isn't It Ironic

The irony challenged have tended to get hysterical about Krugman's famous suggestion that the economy could be healed by a fake Alien invasion. He explains the context (a riff on an similarly ironic commentary of Keynes) once again here. DeLong finds Cochrane being irony challenged (or as Krugman puts it, perhaps uncharitably, "remarkably dense"). It's unlikely to help though. The problem with the ironically challenged seems to be that they really don't - and can't - get it. Which is another reason why irony ought to be used a bit sparingly.

The Surveillance State: 1984 Comes a Bit Late

The latest stupid heavy handedness in the Snowden affair comes courtesy of the Brits. Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Guardian , has been the main reporter of the Snowden leaks, and the Brits detained and interrogated his partner David Miranda, for a day in a London Airport, confiscating his laptop, phone etc. In this story , Alan Rusbridger recounts the bizarre story story of how government agents destroyed laptops and hard drives in the Guardian's basement. The heavy-handedness and clumsy ineffectuality of both incidents suggest either gross incompetence or an effort at intimidation, or both. It's hard to know what the hell Cameron and Obama think they are doing here, but they sure aren't covering themselves with glory or credibility.

Birthers: Anti-Revolutionary Foreign Born Cuban Colonialist Version

It seems that US Senator and Tea Party darling Rafael "Ted" Cruz is a Canadian as well as a US Citizen, and may be a Cuban Citizen as well. He has announced plans to renounce his Canadian citizenship, thereby forfeiting his chance to become Premier, I suppose. Oddly enough, this story reminds me of the unfortunately challenged coyote who chewed off three legs and was still stuck.

Perfectly Normal, Statistically Speaking.

Who, exactly, is normal. Bee has a meditation on this point and concludes that everybody is above average, in some respect at least. If you consider a few hundred parameters, nearly everybody is going to be an outlier in some respect. But is that the right metric? Shouldn't the real question be whether some total deviation from the mean is significantly larger than the deviation expected on the basis of chance? The classic (but totally arbitrary) test for statistical significance is a result which would be expected purely by chance less than 5% of the time. Suppose that you have a couple of independent, random, normally distributed variables. Then almost 10% of the time (1-(.95)^2), at least one of them will be in the 5% zone. Similarly, with ten such variables, 40 % of the time at least one is in the zone, and for 100 variables, more than 99% of the time. So if you were to assemble a bunch of the relevant variables (height, weight, strength, agility, vision, leaping ability

The Optimist

Lumo is an optimist - the kind of a guy who would get on a flight if expert opinion thought there was only a 95% chance that it would crash. Well, it did always work for Captain Kirk.

Scientific Medicine

Arun has lately been posting on Richard Lewontin's reflections on scientific medicine. Here is a quote that exemplifies my objection to Lewontin's argument: The causes of the tremendous decline of mortality from infectious diseases in the last 100 years are not certain. All that is certain is that “scientific medicine” played no significant part. Evaluating his argument depends on exactly how one defines "scientific medicine," but I'm going to argue that scientific medicine began with the statistical evaluation of treatment effectiveness. Alan Taylor: In 1809, on a battlefield in Portugal, the first recognisable medical trial evaluated bloodletting on a sample of 366 soldiers allocated into treatment and control groups. The cure was shown to be bogus. It was the beginning of the end of pre-modern medicine. Here is another Lewontin Fragment: In 1828, when causes of death were first systematically recorded in Britain, the death rate from tuberculosis was ne


This marvellous map has a dot for each American, and each dot is colored blue, red, green, orange or brown for race, respectively White, Asian, Black, Hispanic, or other, including Native American, as per the US census. I live in very mixed town in a rather mixed State, but I was surprised at how segregated even my own town (Las Cruces, NM) is. My own neighborhood is mainly orange, with a strong blue presence, but some areas of the town are almost all orange and the wealthier neighborhoods mostly blue with a good dusting of orange and a dash of red. Our greens - yes, we have a few - are harder to find than Waldo. I was pretty shocked, nonetheless, when I looked at a few American cities. They seem as ghettoized as if the Tsar had drawn the lines himself.

How Much Freedom of Action Does a President Have?

My guess is that it's not nearly as much as partisans think. Congress makes the laws, and a President who ignores them is very likely to be impeached - and should be. That's true even though Congress is easily stampeded into making stupid laws. Consider Guantanamo. It's a black mark on the country and Obama promised to close it. Why didn't he? Because Congress went to a lot of trouble to expressly forbid it. Wars are another problem of the same sort. It's very hard to get out of a war even if you were elected by promising to end it. Even unpopular wars have powerful constituencies, and anybody who pulls out before the bitter end is sure to be assailed as one who has stabbed the country in the back and betrayed the sacrifice of those who have already died, been wounded, or even served. Consider the problem of terrorism. The US has relatively small but numerically large number of Muslim citizens, who overwhelmingly are law abiding and apparently as patrioti

The GOP, Breaking Bad

One odd aspect of the human condition might be called the "berserker mode." It's a desperate, nihilistic tactic, driven by panic or madness that is willing to risk anything. Perhaps the suicide attacker is the ultimate expression of this mode, but it's far more widespread than that. The psychopath gets his effectiveness from his reckless lack of fear, of consequences or the disapproval of others. The character "Heisenberg" of Breaking Bad learns he is dying of cancer and is transformed from meek high school chemistry teacher into a murderous drug lord. Something similar happens to whole nations. Germany and Austria at the dawn of World War II. It can happen to political parties too. The desperate nihilism of today's Republican Party has a huge component of that. People seeing the old verities of racism, that old time religion, and good union jobs collapse are the motor that powers the anti-government, anti-Obama, anti-science, anti-modern Repub

Scientism: Pinker vs. Douthat

"Scientism" is a charge frequently aimed at those who choose a reductionist view of human nature. Stepnen Pinker thinks it's an accusation without substance - a "boo" word as he calls it. His essay in the New Republic is a forthright defense of most of the evolutionary, reductionist, and scientific ideas usually attacked as "Scientism" and a agressive rejection of notions that reliable guides to ethical behavior can be found in conventional spiritualistic notions. Among some material quoted by Douthat: ...We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things,

All the News...

...that five or six mega-plutocrats see fit to print (or broadcast). Jeff Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post is another step in the complete control of all media by a few plutocrats. I don't have any idea whether Bezos is what I would call a good plutocrat or a bad (Koch) style one, but the trend is ominous.


It's clear that the Republican Party is betting heavily that they will be able to sabotage the economy until 2014 and not suffer the obvious electoral consequences. This maybe in part because Obama, the dreamer of compromise and accomodation, lacks the confidence to forthrightly challenge them. When they themselves have been in charge, they usually show themselves to be both spenders and Keynesians. Meanwhile Obama will continue to propose modest job promoting policies and good naturedly complain about the failure of "Congress" to pass his programs. How about showing just a little spunk and FDR, Mr. President? Name names and be specific. Talk about just how many jobs have been cost by the Congressional Republican's sabotage - and call it by it's name.

Physics Under The Dome

I got hooked on the new CBS TV serial, Under the Dome (Monday Nights). The suspense led to the Stephen King novel on which it is based. In the afterword, King makes a big point of noting his medical advisors, who ensured, I suppose, that he got the gruesome details right on the countless catstrophes he inflicted on his characters. But we won't worry about that here, or about the literary merits of the novel as a whole - what we care about is the physics. Not the physics of the Dome - we don't learn anything about that - the physics of life under the dome. ************************************* SPOILER ALERT (FOR NOVEL) ********************************************************** ** ** ** ** ** The climactic catastrophe of the book is based on a monstrous explosion producing a giant fireball that spreads over most of the dome with terrible carnage, leaving the few survivors with no oxygen to breathe. Do the numbers add up? In the book, the town of