Showing posts from November, 2013

Wars of Conquest are Out of Fashion

Professor Harari's latest is filled with those insights that I love and some of my critics disdain. Its subject is the remarkable decline in wars that we have seen in the last several decades and its causes and prospects. Wars of conquest have become remarkably rare, in fact so rare that in many places people cannot even imagine a major war between their country and one of its neighbors. This was essentially unknown in any other period of history. Why has this happened? Harari gives five major reasons. 1. Wars have become much more expensive, due to the vastly increased destructiveness of modern weapons. He especially singles out nuclear weapons, and adds that the physicists who invented it deserve another one of those ultimate Nobel Peace prizes like the one he awarded to Gorbachov. 2. Wars have become much less profitable. For most of history, wealth consisted mostly of material things like mines and control of other resources. I've been translating an article on

Stephen Williamson Baffles Himself With Math

Paul Krugman performs the autopsy. It's a story familiar to anyone who has taught elementary physics - writng down equations doesn't help unless you know what you are applying them to, and how they relate to it. You also might want to read the comments on his original post.

Keynes in China

Matthew Yglesias on Keynes in China : China is an extremely large country with over triple the population of the United States of America. It's also got a moderately corrupt government and a massive surge in infrastructure investment going on. Under the circumstances, there are doubtless dozens of ill-conceived projects under way on any given day. But I am astounded by the regularity with which things I see western observers denounce as examples of excess end up looking quite sensible. There is more, of course.

Freshwater Bath

The Freshwater (anti-Keynesian) economics school has been batting in the low oughts ssince the start of the Great Recession. Now it seems that the Minneapolis Fed has shown a couple of them the door. Of course the bigs remain protected by tenure and Norwegian hardware. Details here.

State Power and Violence

The theme of my latest Harari lecture was the remarkable decrease in violence the world has seen in the last several decades. People today are more likely to die by suicide or in car accidents than from interpersonal or state violence. Several hundred years ago, about 400 of every 100,000 people would die by violence at the hands of others every year. Even in Detroit, the US murder capital, the figure today is about 50/100,000 and in Western Europe, Japan, and Australia it is only 1/100,000. The global average is 9/100,000 but most of those deaths are concentrated in a few violent regions. The huge decline has occurred in two categories: interpersonal violence and interstate violence (wars). The decline in interpersonal violence has come about as a result of increased state power. Large and well-equipped police forces suppress both violence and many of its provocations. Harari attributes the decrease in interstate violence largely to the historically unusually peaceful fall of

Is Higher Ed Crumbling?

It's easier than ever for a bright and motivated student to get a good education - without ever setting foot in a traditional bricks and mortar school. College may be getting less attractive for the students who don't meet those criteria. If so, that might explain why higher ed shows signs of crumbling, at least in the down market portion. Maybe And here Tyler Cowen: It is no surprise for many of these changes to start at the lower end of the market, just as the financial crisis started with subprime. Here is more, and for the pointer I thank Carrie Conko. - See more at:

Daniel Gross and Pope Frank

Gross has a few riffs on the Pope's Apostolic Exhortation. Selected excerpts: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” I guess Pope Francis doesn’t watch Bloomberg TV. ... As I read this, I imagined a fresco depicting the economic section of the document. In the central panel, Sen. Elizabeth Warren whispers into the ear of the Pope as Mitt Romney and hedge fund managers are flayed. To one side, a group of union organizers rip up a copy of the Republican Party’s 2012 platform. In one corner, a pile of Apple iPads and Google glasses are torched in a bonfire. In another, makers, personified by the small, suited figure of Paul Ryan beg forgiveness from a gallery of takers, which include bedraggled peasants with the faces of Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, and Che Guevara. And Alan Greenspan, clutching a copy of Atlas Shrugged, boils in a bath of molten gold. That last image...

Sacralized Workings

I'm not usually a big fan of Popery, and I am usually a fan of free markets, but I like this from Pope Francis: In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. It's probably evidence of an inborn human need for religion that even atheists often seem to have a desperate need for something spiritual, even if it's only atheism itself. For many, free market worship fills that role. Like any religious fanatics, they won't be discouraged by having the fact of this sacralization pointed out - but the rest of us really should take note.


For WB: Anonymity in a box. Tor, a privacy tool used by activists, criminals, and U.S. intelligence to obscure traces of their online activities, is being repackaged for the mass market. A $49 device launched today and targeted at consumers makes it relatively easy to route a home Internet connection through the Tor network. The Safeplug, as the device is called, can also block most online ads.

Cartels: The NCAA

If you have exclusive control of a valuable asset you can charge big rents. The nice thing about free markets is that it's hard to maintain exclusive control if other people can just compete with you. That's where governments come in. The big famous cartels, like OPEC, are mostly creatures of governments. Less famous ones include the National College Athletic Association, or NCAA. They have this really sweet deal where they get all sorts of government subsidy, sell a valuable product, and don't have to pay their most important employees, the players. They can do this, since they collude to punish any school that they catch paying a player. Most of the member schools are part of the government, and the government helps ensure that players are not allowed to sell their services to the highest bidder. Physicians have another cartel, and again it works through the government, fundamentally by controlling the number of residencies and hence the supply of physicians. Yet

So you want to work for Goldman-Sachs

Steve Hsu has some stuff from Michael Lewis. Vanity Fair: ... Serge knew nothing about Wall Street. The headhunter sent him a bunch of books about writing software on Wall Street, plus a primer on how to make it through a Wall Street job interview, and told him he could make a lot more than the $220,000 a year he was making at the telecom. Serge felt flattered, and liked the headhunter, but he read the books and decided Wall Street wasn’t for him. He enjoyed the technical challenges at the giant telecom and didn’t really feel the need to earn more money. A year later the headhunter called him again. By 2007, IDT was in financial trouble. His wife, Elina, was carrying their third child, and they would need to buy a bigger house. Serge agreed to interview with the Wall Street firm that especially wanted to meet him: Goldman Sachs. There is also some bits about the IQ tests Goldman gave him. And If the incarceration experience doesn’t break your spirit, it changes you in a way that you


An example of the struggle between family and individualism?

Single Payer In America

The camel gets its nose into the tent. From Willinois: Did you notice? Did you see what happened when everyone was complaining about a website? Single-payer got started in America. Vermont is using authority granted under the Affordable Care Act to start a single-payer system. Most Americans still don't know what the phrase "single-payer" even means. It had little support in Congress in 2009 and Senate "Democrats" like Nelson and Lieberman even killed the public option. But, ACA had this sweet little provision that allowed states to set up a single-payer system and now people will see it in action. You know what that means. As Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) opines, "The quickest route toward a national health care program will be when individual states go forward and demonstrate that universal and non-profit health care works, and that it is the cost-effective and moral thing to do.” Let me just save Faux Snoose and the Repubs some time: Socialism! Co

The Iran Deal

Good deal, I think, for us and Iran. Israel reserves the right to take unilateral action, but I wouldn't bet on it. The Israel lobby looks unhappy, but they don't seem to be panicking - yet anyway.

The Champ

Magnus Carlsen is the newest world chess champion, after beating long time champion Viswanathan Anand. At 22, Carlsen is probably the youngest champion of all time. Steve Hsu has a three-year old interview with him in which he says he doesn't know his IQ and doesn't want to. He thinks English grandmaster John Nunn never became world champion because he was too smart - and filled his head with all sorts of useless algebraic topology stuff. SPIEGEL: Mr Carlsen, what is your IQ? Carlsen: I have no idea. I wouldn’t want to know it anyway. It might turn out to be a nasty surprise. SPIEGEL: Why? You are 19 years old and ranked the number one chess player in the world. You must be incredibly clever. Carlsen: And that’s precisely what would be terrible. Of course it is important for a chess player to be able to concentrate well, but being too intelligent can also be a burden. It can get in your way. I am convinced that the reason the Englishman John Nunn never became world champ

Collapse of the Family and Intimate Community

Another Harari summary From earliest times, it seems, people lived in family groups and communities were related by family ties. The agricultural revolution did not break those ties, they glued the smaller groups into clans and tribes. Families took care of you in sickness or in old age. In societies like these, neighbors and friends took care of each other and the communities supported each other by ties of mutual obligation. Relatively little was bought or sold in markets - usually less than 10% of people's needs. Kings, emperors and the like could do larger scale public works like road building, war fighting, and perhaps major irrigation works. There were insufficient surpluses in the economy to maintain schools, hospitals, or large police forces. Most justice was administered by clan and family. Governments had the quality of a Mafia style protection racket - if you pay up they won't kill you and will protect you from the king of the protection racket next door. Th

For the Irony Challenged.

Paul Krugman explains what most find obvious. I have my own theory that I will explain after the quote. No, John Maynard Keynes didn’t think that burying bottles full of cash in coalmines was the best way to end the Great Depression. No, I am not actually proposing that we fake an alien invasion. No, Larry Summers isn’t suggesting that we create lots of bubbles. (Nor, by the way, was I actually calling for a housing bubble in 2002. I was, instead, trying to highlight the problems of getting monetary traction in an economy that “wants” a negative interest rate — which is exactly what everyone is talking about now.) I’m always amazed at how many people doing economics — or lots of other things — are so rigid and humorless that they apparently can’t grasp the point or usefulness of slightly whimsical thought experiments. Of course some people, probably the same set of people who take Fox News seriously, really do lack the irony sensor. Others, I think, are so heavily emotionally in

American Doctors: Overworked, Overpaid, and that's the way they like it.

American doctors are by far the best paid in the world and the US has fewer doctors per capita than almost any other advanced country. Market failure? It's actually a cartel. Kevin Drum has some of the details. The key point is that doctors are the ones controlling the number of doctors in the US and consequently the key people making medical care a scarce and very expensive commodity. American doctors are paid far more than doctors anywhere else in the world, and yet we have fewer doctors per capita than nearly any other rich country. Why is that? One especially misguided tweeter suggested that this was, yet again, the fault of Big Gummint, which controls the number of residency slots for new medical schools grads, and therefore keeps the number of doctors low. There's a certain kernel of truth to this, because the federal government subsidizes residency programs to the tune of $13 billion per year, just as the federal government controls Medicare reimbursement rates via a

New Ways to Dream

Nothing like acute malnutrition to promote dreaming. Matt Yglesias on Paul Ryan, poverty warrior. The Washington Post has an article on Paul Ryan's efforts to rebrand himself as an anti-poverty crusader that lands way up there on the unintentional comedy scale. All of Ryan's ideas to help the poor seem to involve taking money away from low-income people in order to reduce taxes on the rich. But Bishop Shirley Holloway is on hand to explain why this makes sense: “Paul wants people to dream again,” Holloway said of Ryan. “You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”

The Failure Option

Clay Shirky takes a look at the disaster comes up with some familiar suspects: bosses who don't listen to the people who know. The kind of people who think they are saying something smart when they tell those people who know that "failure is not an option." As he points out, they are just quoting some screenwriter who thought it sounded cute. Shirky says "failure is always an option." I put it slightly differently: failure in not an option, it's an outcome. One that becomes probable when the idiots in charge start saying stuff like "failure is not an option." Some Shirky: For the first couple of weeks after the launch, I assumed any difficulties in the Federal insurance market were caused by unexpected early interest, and that once the initial crush ebbed, all would be well. The sinking feeling that all would not be well started with this disillusioning paragraph about what had happened when a staff member at the Centers for Med

Population Control

Today's NYT has an op-ed against China's one-child policy . There is no doubt that it is a very great restriction on human freedom, but in my mind it is also the most successful economic and political policy of all time. The institution of the one-child policy played a key role in the explosive growth of the Chinese economy over the past several decades and turned it from one of the poorest countries in the world into an almost wealthy superpower. It would be ridiculous to argue that there haven't been some bad side effects, but I suspect that it looks a lot like the future. Either people will voluntarily choose to have few children or that choice must be made for them. Probably one of the fairest ways to encourage low population growth is to tax children. Of course in countries with too rapidly falling population, opposite incentives are appropriate.

Blinded by the Light

Tyler Cowen has an interesting and bizarre comment about real negative interest rates, due, apparently, to Arnold Kling: Summers wants to claim that full employment has been achieved in recent years because of asset bubbles. However, in a world of negative real interest rates, there is no such thing as an asset bubble. Real assets have infinite value in such a world. - See more at: At first (and 3rd or higher glance) this is nuts, but I think I know what he means. Real negative interest rates (if you expected them to be insensitive to borrowing) would mean you get paid to borrow money and hence could buy anything for free. Or that's the way it would work in efficient market topia.


Lumo has up one of his anti-Sabine rants. As far as I can tell, he doesn't make any point that she didn't make more clearly and concisely, but for some reason he thought fit to bring in Hagrid, and insult him to boot. That's an outrage, and probably the reason L. now has a little pig tail.

A Culture of Sabotage

Rand Paul's recent gleeful recounting of how he tried to sabotage other medical students in his class by spreading disinformation somehow captures the whole spirit of the modern Republican Party. This is a party so recklessly indifferent to the fate of our country that they willfully sabotage the operation of government, attempts to revive the economy, and efforts to bring health care to our citizens. They are, with negligible exceptions, anti-American saboteurs and anti-patriots.

The Factory

MOOC The factory imposes a regime of clocks, timetables, and schedules. This replacement of the natural rhythms of day, season, and Sun has spread to every aspect of modern life. The first transportation time table seems to date from 1784. A half century later British railroads agreed on Greenwich time and another half century later it was imposed on the whole country by law. Now the planet is synchronized to the microsecond and below. Next: Collapse of the family and intimate community and their replacement by the market and the state.

Wild Animals

MOOC Between sapiens and our domesticated animals, we constitute about 90% of the mass of large scale animals on the planet. Only tiny numbers of most really large animals still remain. A race between human caused destruction of the planet and our ability to manipulate the planet for our benefit. The equivalent of the Cretaceous extinction? Rats and cockroaches are doing fine.

Anderson-Higgs Mechanism

Peter Woit has a nice write up on Philip Anderson's upcoming 90th birthday celebration , Anderson's role in the discovery of the mechanism named after Higgs, the great fight over the Super Conducting Super Collider and other things. He has some of those nice human details I wish he would write about more often. Including this from Steve Weinberg: For Weinberg’s point of view on this, see here, where he writes: The claim of elementary-particle physicists to be leading the exploration of the reductionist frontier has at times produced resentment among condensed-matter physicists. (This was not helped by a distinguished particle theorist, who was fond of referring to condensed-matter physics as “squalid state physics”.) This resentment surfaced during the debate over the funding of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). I remember that Phil Anderson and I testified in the same Senate committee hearing on the issue, he against the SSC and I for it. His testimony was so scrupul

Permanent Slump

More Krugman on the permanent slump . But what if the world we’ve been living in for the past five years is the new normal? What if depression-like conditions are on track to persist, not for another year or two, but for decades? ... Why might this be happening? One answer could be slowing population growth. A growing population creates a demand for new houses, new office buildings, and so on; when growth slows, that demand drops off. America’s working-age population rose rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, as baby boomers grew up, and its work force rose even faster, as women moved into the labor market. That’s now all behind us. And you can see the effects: Even at the height of the housing bubble, we weren’t building nearly as many houses as in the 1970s. Another important factor may be persistent trade deficits, which emerged in the 1980s and since then have fluctuated but never gone away. Just maybe, we are bumping up against the limits of growth - not that output capacity is failin

CRISPR: Genetic Engineering Gets Real

Steve Hsu reports on a technique I first heard of in my MOOC course in Molecular Biology from Eric Lander.  It hints at the possibility of molecular manipulation of genes on very fine scale. Professor Dagan Wells, an IVF researcher at Oxford University, said that although there is still a long way to go before CRISPR could even be considered for use on IVF embryos, the technique could overcome many of the objections to permanently altering the germline of families affected by inherited disorders “If the new method is as precise as has been suggested then concerns about inducing inadvertent, detrimental changes to the genome might start to subside. In that case, permanently fixing a lethal genetic defect might not seem so controversial,” Professor Wells said. “However, I'm sure there will be some concern about the possibility that the technology could be used for 'enhancement' rather than repair, veering from medicine towards eugenics,” he warned. ...

Growth, Capitalism and the Steady State

One argument that Prof Harari likes to make is that while capitalism has produced enormous growth, it also requires economic growth, growth that can only be powered by technological advance.  Is that true?  Is steady state capitalism impossible?  What if it were? The basic logic goes like this: borrowing and lending are at the heart of capitalism, but borrowing and lending at interest only make sense when there is an expectation that the investment will lead to net profit.  In a zero sum economy, the average net profit is zero.  Thus, on average, investing becomes a losing strategy or at best, a pure gamble. By contrast, in a growing economy, investment buys a piece of the larger future pie.  Of course most growth inevitably hits limits imposed by resources.  Can our ingenuity continue finding more forever?  I have my doubts.

Reading, Ciphering and Hereditability

Arun has been interested in a study which apparently shows that literacy and numeracy are more hereditable than, g (AKA IQ).  Should that be surprising?  Afterall, literacy and numeracy are learned skills. The answer, I think, is no.  Consider an analog, skill at basketball.  Nobody becomes a really good basketball player without long and intense practice, but after an equal amount of practice different players will have hugely different levels of accomplishment.  Some reasons are obvious - strength, height, jumping ability, agility, and running speed, for example.  Others may be more subtle, like hand size, peripheral vision, muscle precision and so on.  All these are highly variable in the wild population, and strongly dependent on genetics.  Only persons with big constellations of these talents are likely to be able to play at the top level. Having a parent with such a constellation, or two parents with big parts of the constellation will greatly increase one's chances of wi

Two Decades

Disney may be the evil empire, but it could pick talent.  Britney and Justin from way back when.

One Face of the MOOC

Professor Yuval N. Harari's Coursera history course is exactly the kind of MOOC that Historian Jonathan Rees likes to hold up to scorn. Just lectures, mostly from a guy sitting in an armchair. No required outside reading. No writing assignments. No in class discussion. And the tests are easy multiple choice. Well, I still like it a lot. Well prepared lectures have a lot to offer. Sure, I could read the words faster, but the human voice has a compelling quality of its own. Listening to some guy talking is not going to work for all courses. I don't think you can learn much physics that way, especially if you don't do any problem sets. Some professors, maybe most, give boring or badly structured lectures, don't present the material at the appropriate level, or just happen to be annoying to listen to. But I really like this little Israeli guy, with his funky accent and original (to me) take on the big picture of global history.

What is History Good For?

Harari's answer to a student question: to free us from the grip of the past. To help us understand how we got to where we are now and give us more choices about the future.

Rise of the Machines: Death from the Skies

Not just for people any more. Some people are hunting hogs with drones - in Louisiana. Colorado's Parks and Wildlife Commission is expected to begin the process of approving a ban "prohibiting the use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) as an aid in scouting, hunting and taking of wildlife" in a meeting Thursday. The ban was initially suggested to the commission by the coordinator of a local hunting group who was alarmed after stumbling upon YouTube videos posted by a group called "Louisiana Hog Control" who use a drone dubbed the "Dehogaflier" to kill wild pigs.

The Anti-MOOC Echo Chamber

Jonathan Rees is a Prof at the University of Colorado at Pueblo who got his 15 minutes when somebody like Matt Yglesias quoted one of his anti-MOOC screeds. I commented there until I, and seemingly all but the true believers, were expelled. Now his comment section consists solely of variations on "Yea, Verily." Anyway, I keep reading as a matter of anthropological interest. If his brand of denialism seems strangely familiar, it's because all the denialists are really singing just one tune: "I know what I want to believe so don't try to confuse me with facts." Honest skeptics are very different. They really do want to hear facts that might contradict their hypotheses, even if those hypotheses are deeply held. Cultural conservatism is not only a fact, it probably is adaptive at some level. A culture that admits innovation is certain to be transformed, sometimes rapidly, so every stable culture has conservative elements built in.

Rise of the Machines

Tyler Cowen, Isaac Asimov, and Our Libertarian Future. Interesting throughout, but FWIW, I don't buy his takeaway. In Asimov’s tale, set in November 2008, democratic elections have become nearly obsolete. A mysterious supercomputer said to be “half a mile long and three stories high,” named Multivac, absorbs most of the current information about economic and political conditions and estimates which candidate is going to win. The machine, however, can’t quite do the job on its own, as there are some ineffable social influences it cannot measure and evaluate. So Multivac picks out one “representative” person from the electorate to ask about the country’s mood (sample query: “What do you think of the price of eggs?”). The answers, when combined with the initial computer diagnosis, suffice to settle the election. No one actually needs to vote. Asimov was on to something: American political campaigns have indeed become extraordinarily sophisticated data-mining operations driven by smar

Animal Industry

Pretty clearly Professor Harari is offended by some of the consequences of capitalism and humanism. One focus is the mechanization of peoples and animals. Capitalism created the Atlantic slave trade, for example. Slavery was not created by malice, but by desire for profit, and subordinating human consideration to profit. Modern factory farming is the principal target of the second lecture on the industrial revolution. It is ironic that just as evolutionary psychology was revealing that animals have emotions, mental lives, and social needs, mechanization of agriculture destroyed what remanents of natural and social lives domestic animals had. On the other hand, it has produced an enormous increase in agricultural productivity. What the evolutionary psychology studies of animals did do was to have some beneficial results for people, though. Above all, such studies drastically changed the prevailing theories of child rearing. In the forties and fifties, the popular theories gave alm

French: 200

I reached the 200 word mark in Duolingo French, but I can't pronounce any of them and only sometimes can distinguish them in one sentence speech. I can recognize many of them in writing. Very slow going, but I read that young children at their rapid language learning stage only learn 10-20 words per week, so I don't feel quite as bad. There are some disadvantages to studying Spanish and French at the same time.

Super Typhoon Haiyan

Since Lubos is busy posting his usual nonsense, let me just say a few words about Haiyan. It was likely the strongest hurricane to make landfall at peak strength, and surely one of the most powerful ever documented. Some supposedly stronger winds have been recorded, but they all seem to be from the era before good measurements were possible. Central pressures were not measured, but are plausibly close to the lowest ever. Some numbers and discussion from Jeff Masters here. It's devastating impact was due to a combination size, extreme strength at landfall, and a vulnerable target with lots of people. Storms of comparable strength are known, but they were mostly fish storms, losing peak intensity before making landfall or not making landfall at all.

Dreaming Brain Not too Smart.

Having given up my alarm clock, I find myself remembering dreams more often. For some reason, in an otherwise science fictiony Metropolis type dream, somebody asked for the two names of the Chinese currency. I believe that I said the Yen and the Reconido - though I wasn't too sure about the latter. The real names, of course are the Yuan and the Renminbi. Partial credit for first initials?

Oh, Oh, The Humanities

The humanities, that ragtag collection of sciences, speculations and ancient intellectual artifacts devoted to the study of humans keeps on taking hits. In a world that prizes relevance, they are often seem disdainful of the test to insiders and failing it to the outsiders. The golden age of the humanities was probably at the end of the age of European conquest, when there was still new worlds to explore and when they were still seen as an enabling technology for that conquest. That age has passed, but they face another headwind. Without new cultures to analyze and digest, their microscopes are turned increasingly on our own, and that examination can be as disconcerting and unpleasant as any other endoscopy. Cultural conservatives in particular are disturbed, but liberals are equally discomfitted by challenges to their orthodoxies.

Replication: Life in the Universe

The magical power of life is self replication. We haven't really yet created machines that can replicate themselves, at least not in a natural environment, but today's robots are probably built nearly as much by robots as by humans directly. At some point, probably not far in the future, that boundary is likely to be crossed. At that point life will be pretty much obsolete.

How to Destroy Your Economy

In one easy step. Venezuela becomes an Ayn Rand caricature. From Tyler Cowen: USA Today: Thousands of Venezuelans lined up outside the country’s equivalent of Best Buy, a chain of electronics stores known as Daka, hoping for a bargain after the socialist government forced the company to charge customers “fair” prices. …Members of Venezuela’s National Guard, some of whom carried assault rifles, kept order at the stores as bargain hunters rushed to get inside. “I want a Sony plasma television for the house,” said Amanda Lisboa, 34, a business administrator, who had waited seven hours already outside one Caracas store. “It’s going to be so cheap!” …The president, who took over from Hugo Chávez in April 2013, appeared on state television Friday calling for the “occupation” of the chain, which employs some 500 staff. “This is for the good of the nation,” Maduro said. “Leave nothing on the shelves, nothing in the warehouses … Let nothing remain in stock!” …Daka’s store managers, according

Room at the Bottom

My latest Coursera course is in Nanotechnology , usually defined as the science of materials with features in the 1 - 100 nanometer scale. For comparison, note that a small bacterium is 2000 nanometers, and a small virus about 20 nanometers, while a single neutral atom can be as small as 0.03 nm. Feature sizes in modern integrated circuits (like CPUs) are roughly in the middle of the nanoscale these days. Some might notice that my title is borrowed from Feynman's famous talk called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom , which is often considered the founding document of nanoscience.

Numerical Magic

I took a casual look at commenter Mr. Dan Pangburn's analysis of climate and sunspots. He has an expression, I think his "time integral" of sunspots as follows. Sum over years the difference between the number of sunspots for that year and the average number of sunspots per year times the fourth power of the ratio of the temperature for that year and the average temperature. Throw in a multiplicative and additive fudge factor and you have his model. The most obvious problem with this model is that it includes the very temperature that he is trying to model in the model. Now it might take some mathematical slight of hand to get temperature out of there, but if you already put it in it sure shouldn't be surprising. For each year you are subtracting the average number of sunspots times a number close to 1 from the number of sunspots.

3-D Printing

Sean Vitka has a meditation on Legos, Lego Mindstorms , and 3-D printing. The specific industry that Lego’s Mindstorms products have most influenced, by my count, isn’t construction or even programming generally. The industry Mindstorms have most influenced is 3D printing. It seems to be a mechanical mecca for the kids who were passionate about their programmable Legos. To many, 3D printing incorporates a wide swath of weird and extreme topics, from printed guns to piracy. But it’s more accurately associated with everything from superhero movies to medicine, if for no other reason than that’s where the industry’s future lies. This month, a father printed a prosthetic hand for his son instead of paying tens of thousands for one from a factory. He borrowed the printer from his son’s school. And he wasn’t the first. In other words, this industry is already making a ton of money and improving lives, right under our noses. 3D printing’s development depends on how well it’s able to reach

The Energy Revolution

Professor Harari's latest lecture is on the industrial revolution. Of course I'm slightly familiar with many of the events and with his overall theme - that the industrial revolution was above all an energy revolution. The industrial revolution wasn't the first time humans made use of energy other than that of muscles, but it really was a huge leap in that. Steam and pumps have been known for thousands of years, but steam powered pump for coalmines marked the first large scale application of energy from fossil fuels for commercial purposes. In a short few decades steam power had been applied to transportation. Steam powered looms, steam powered trains and ships transformed the world, and made Britain the world's major power. The rest of Europe, and of course the US, quickly followed, but not the empires of the East. Science, technology and commercial application made it possible. The centrality of commercial application cannot be neglected. By way of contrast, c

Global Warming

I've been attending, or at least surfing, David Archer's Coursera Global Warming class . It's probably not for the totally innocent, but a good high school level background in chem or physics should let people understand most stuff. It's pretty good, though it took me a bit to get used to his style. Some people I know who think they know a lot could learn a lot from it. Of course those are mostly the people think they know everything. Oh well.

IQ and Heritability

The hereditary component of IQ has a long and controversial history. Arun has a link to some of the story from Cosma Shalizi. Interesting (or not) as that story may be, it starts becoming irrelevant if genes linked to IQ are found. If there aren't any, then the statistical studies showing such heritability must be flawed. If there are, then the question becomes substantive: how and how much? What interventions are possible and are they desireable?

Taking Malthus Seriously

The basic logic of the Malthusian argument is that resources are finite, and that unconstrained, population grows geometrically. There nonetheless remains the to me bizarre notion that Malthus has somehow been refuted by 200 years of rapid economic progress. Perhaps infinite progress is possible, but I doubt it. Moreover, if you look at where economic prosperity is concentrated, these places closely match those where Malthusian strategies of low fertility have been adopted. China was not the first nation to adopt an explicitly Malthusian strategy, but it was the place where it was enforced, and it remains the most successful example. Gapminder charts like these make the correlation pretty darn obvious. Once again, facts and logic concur. The point, by the way, is not whether Malthus correctly anticipated the industrial and scientific revolutions, or birth control, or any specific details of how the present has unfolded. That point is that population growth can potentially consu

Rise of the Machines: The Pod People

Tyler Cowen strikes again: Milton Keynes, a town north of London, has announced that it will be deploying 100 driverless pods (officially known as ULTra PRT transport pods) as a public transportation system. A similar system has been running for two years at Heathrow airport. The plan is to have the system up and running by 2015, with a full rollout by 2017. The move marks the first time that self-driving vehicles will be allowed to run on public roads in that country. - See more at: I have a certain fondness for MK, having once gotten thoroughly lost in roundabout hell in my attempt to get there.

This is Depressing

Ultra-conservative Ken Cuccinelli has a big early lead in Virginia.

End Times: Too Smart?

Anybody who thinks about the prospects of other intelligent life in the galaxy eventually runs into Fermi's famous question: "Where are they?" If other technological civilizations have developed, why haven't any of them showed up here? One possibility is that technological civilizations rarely develop. Another is that they develop but destroy themselves quickly. That latter possibility seems very plausible. There seems to be an increasing number of ways that we could manage that fate for ourselves, and it looks increasingly unlikely that we can manage to avoid some of them. One probably effective way would be a CO2 catastrophe. The biggest mass extinction event for which we have information was the end Permian extinction. The details of causation are unclear, but it seems to have deeply involved a big increase in CO2 concentration. One somewhat plausible scenario is that the Siberian traps volcanism set fire to massive coal beds and released massive amounts of

Zetta Bytes

An article on a new helium filled hard drive that can store six terabytes of data mentions that data storage shipments are approaching a zettabyte per year. Of course storing data is not the same as comprehending it, but total data is now far beyond human comprehensibility.

Rise of the Machines....Again

Tyler Cowen asks What are humans still good for? computers got better at chess than the best humans some years ago, but the human (grandmaster level)- computer team is still stronger than computers alone. If the time control is slow enough. At faster time controls the human simply adds noise. Insofar as the above RybkaForum thread has a consensus, it is that most of these advantages have not gone away. But the “human plus computer” needs time to improve on the computer alone, and at sufficiently fast time controls the human attempts to improve on the computer may simply amount to noise or may even be harmful, given the possibility of human error. Some commentators suggest that at ninety minutes per game the humans are no longer adding value to the human-computer team, whereas they do add value when the time frame is say one day per move (“correspondence chess,” as it is called in this context.) Circa 2008, at ninety minutes per game, the best human-computer teams were better tha

We Used to be Big

Our fellow synapsids, that is . Before the dinosaurs and their fellow diapsids took over the planet, before the great CO2 catastrophe at the end of the Permian, early synapsids, some of them ancestral to mammals, were the boss, ecologically speaking. The great dying at the end of the Permian, likely caused by a CO2 greenhouse catastrophe, wiped out the big guys, and nearly all of the synapsids, as well as nearly all marine life. It took ten years for life to acquire major diversity again, after which the diapsids (dinosaurs and others had their day.

End of the World as we Know it.

Higgs vacuum transition edition. The excellent Denis Overbye has a nice article in the NYT on where physics (and the universe) might go from here. As Joseph Lykken, a theorist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Maria Spiropulu, of the California Institute of Technology, put it in a new paper reviewing the history and future of the Higgs boson: “Taken at face value, the result implies that eventually (in 10^100 years or so) an unlucky quantum fluctuation will produce a bubble of a different vacuum, which will then expand at the speed of light, destroying everything.” The idea is that the Higgs field could someday twitch and drop to a lower energy state, like water freezing into ice, thereby obliterating the workings of reality as we know it. Naturally, we would have no warning. Just blink and it’s over. End times are part of a science reporter’s stock in trade, of course. The death of the sun, dark energy sucking galaxies, greenhouse gas catastrophes, comets and aster

Billions and Billions: Intelligent Life in the Galaxy

One prominent number in the Drake equation seems to have been filled in. I looks like there might be several billion potentially habitable planets in our galaxy. Of course the last three variables are still pretty unconstrained (probability of life becoming intelligent, fraction developing appropriate technology, working lifetime of such a civilization), and we only have plausibility arguments for the fourth from last (probability of life developing on a potentially habitable planet). Still, if we last long enough, there might be interesting planets out there.

Capitalism and Slavery

So much for capitalism's good deed. Now Prof Harari looks at the downsides of completely free markets. Another segment hard to summarize, but some examples may help. By the end of the middle ages, slavery had nearly disappeared in Europe. The mines and plantations of the Americas and elsewhere needed labor, and the Atlantic Slave trade was created to supply that. Slave trading companies were traded on the European stock exchanges and were highly profitable. The Atlantic slave trade was a capitalist creation. Another crime of equal scale was the Great Bengal famine of 1770. This famine killed ten million Bengalis and was largely the creation of the British East India company and its disastrously greedy policies. These events illustrate a key problem with unregulated free markets: money has no conscience or morality. The more powerful actors in markets have great power to oppress the less powerful. Capitalists, says Harari, have two answers to that: First, mistakes were mad

Corporate Empires

If capitalism was such a profitable idea, why didn't the Indians, Chinese, and Ottomans think of it? The answer, of course, is that they did. Individual entrepreneurs in all the great empires of the East were busy practitioners of capitalist ideas, but in those empires the imperial, kingly, and noble authorities were careful to keep the commercial classes in check. The empires they built were based on taxation and plunder. In Western Europe, it might have been the very weakness of the states that made things turn out differently. In Holland, Britain, and France exploration and conquest were financed by stock markets and run as commercial companies. Companies set up intially for trade found it useful to protect themselves against pirates, defend themselves against local rulers, and eventually to conquer their Eastern trading partners. At its apex the British East India Company had a much bigger army than Britain. In the Nineteenth Century, when the big Dutch and British imper

The Capitalist Religion

Trying to distill Prof Harari's insights into capitalism and its intimate link to science is a challenge that I will doubtless flunk, but let me mention a few ideas I found striking: Capitalism depends on growth. It makes little sense in a zero sum world. Capitalism depends on credit and credit depends on faith in a more prosperous future. Growth comes ultimately from scientific progress, which explains the intimate link between capitalism and science. Industry and governments fund science to promote growth. The sacred law of capitalism is that profits of production must be reinvested in more production. Capital and wealth are not the same thing. Capital must be invested in production. Wealth can be frittered away in conspicuous consumption. If growth stops, the edifice collapses. This last is hardly obvious to me, and I think at least arguable. I suspect that future arguments may hinge on this.

Capitalism: Credit, Growth, and The Future

Since 1500, the world's total economic production has increased by a factor of about 240. Per capita production has increased by a factor of roughly 16. Capitalism, says Prof Harari, was the key ingredient in this growth, and in particular credit. Availability of credit made possible the vast economic expansion in the past six centuries. Loaning money is not a new invention, though - it goes back at least to Sumer, 5000 years ago. Such credit, he argues, was short term and high interest. So what was the special ingredient that made longer term, lower interest credit available? Faith in the future. Faith that the future would be more prosperous than today. Traditional societies, he said, tended to believe either in a static world or a golden age in the past. If one thinks that the world is a zero sum game, loaning money is just a gamble. On the other hand, if you believe that that money can produce new additional prosperity it makes excellent sense to invest.

Keystone Again

Eli has an analysis of the economics of the Keystone pipline that suggests that fighting it makes sense. Commenter miguelito has a detailed rebuttal. I vote with miguelito. Fighting Keystone is a distraction and a losing strategy, a tiny attack on the capillary system of carbon burning. Carbon taxes and investment in carbon alternatives are the probably the only promising strategies against global warming.

Plausible Futures?

Speculations on a future in which there is little work left for humans to do are nothing new, but the rapidly increasing powers of robots make it seem a lot more plausible. What then? One possibility is that some sort of radically free enterprise system just starves everyone except the capitalists who own the robots and their preferred toadies. Another possibility is a sort of global socialism that provides a living to more or less everybody whether they work or not. Such a system would probalbly require significant loss of freedom for almost everyone. Personally, I suspect the robots might just cut that Gordian knot by dispensing with us entirely.

Fear The MOOC!

Perhaps yet another reason professors, especially humanities profs, fear the MOOC. Was it just coincidence that a very mild crack about professors and their impressionable students got me banned from Jonathan Rees's blog? Colleen Flaherty has a story in Slate: Wanted: Adoring Female Students Some excerpts: The intellectual and physical seduction of young female students by older, male professors—usually in the humanities, and in the throes of midlife crises—is so common in movies and books that it’s become a cliché. And her excerpts from a twitter thread: @hallleloujah: “had one who called everything sexy in a weirdly drawn out, British way. Also started a rumor he was undercover for CIA (he wasn't).” @kitalita: “one kept conveniently ‘forgetting’ my graded assignments in his office and specifically told me he was divorced (he wasn't).” @AmyRosary: “Let's talk about the English department chair I got fired for harassing EACH AND EVERY female English major. He li

Genes and Intelligence: A Big Taboo

From Erika Check Hayden's Nature News feature. Growing up in the college town of Ames, Iowa, during the 1970s, Stephen Hsu was surrounded by the precocious sons and daughters of professors. Around 2010, after years of work as a theoretical physicist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Hsu thought that DNA-sequencing technology might finally have advanced enough to help to explain what made those kids so smart. He was hardly the first to consider the genetics of intelligence, but with the help of the Chinese sequencing powerhouse BGI in Shenzhen, he planned one of the largest studies of its kind, aiming to sequence DNA from 2,000 people, most of whom had IQs of more than 150. He hadn't really considered how negative the public reaction might be until one of the study's participants, New York University psychologist Geoffrey Miller, made some inflammatory remarks to the press. Miller predicted that once the project turned up intelligence genes, the Chinese might begin te