Showing posts from December, 2013


Matt Yglesias dares to wander into Tolkien territory and quickly shows his Nube status. By that standard, the most relevant J.R.R. Tolkien passage comes from Appendix A of the Return of the King: There were three unions of the Eldar and the Edain: Lúthien and Beren; Idril and Tuor; Arwen and Aragorn. By the last the long-sundered branches of the Half-elven were reunited and their line was restored. It helps to recall here that Eldar is another word for elf and Edain is another word for human. Tolkien is saying here that there were two human-elf pairings in the backstory to the Lord of the Rings. One between Lúthien and Beren and another between Idril and Tuor. Both Arwen and Aragorn are descendants of one of these pairings. So when they get together in the course of the series, they reunite the half-elven lines. What a nube. Eldar is not just another word for Elf. The Eldar are the high elven who have lived in the land of the Valar. And Edain is not just another word for human.

Biting the Hand

A couple of prominent string theorists were ungracious enough to use the acknowledgments section of their paper to complain about their summer salaries. Peter Woit has the story . Physics, and particle physics in particular, has long enjoyed the privilege of rather generous, albeit declining, public support. It's worth remembering why that happened. It's because science, and especially physics, won World War II. Radar and the bomb made for good publicity. For decades, physicists could get up and say you need to support us or we will fall behind in this crucial technology of war. I'm not quite sure when that stopped being true, but could anybody believe it today? Is there any reason to believe that string theory, holography, and ADS/CFT are likely to be any more relevant to the average taxpayer than the study of Byzantine erotica? Yes, there are many questions about the Universe that it might be nice to answer, but do any of them have significant technological or mili

Strangeness in the Proportion

One of the most mysterious things about the Universe is its apparent comprehensibility. After a few millenia, or a few hundred millenia of tinkering, we seem to have come up with a cosmogony and a theory of almost everything that explains a whole lot of the Universe and how it works. Twenty-five years ago we might have said everything. It would not have surprised our ancestors of a few centuries back if other planets, stars and galaxies had turned out to be made of utterly different stuff than us. But they aren't. Or at least the parts we see aren't. Even black holes turned out to be predicted by the theory of a guy who thought in terms of trains and elevators. The stars in those newborn galaxies of ten billion years ago turn out to be made of the same stuff that we are - the same quarks and electrons, the same chemical elements, that exist here and now. The first clear hint of stranger stuff came just about the time - 70 years ago - when the human race had pinned down a

Economics Prof Analyzes Bitcoin Fate

Tyler Cowen applies economic theory and tells us: How and why Bitcoin will plummet in price I think that there may be more things under the Sun than are dreamt in his theory...


They say Ted Cruz is preparing to renounce his Canadian citizenship. I assume that means he's keeping his Cuban citizenship warm. That will still leave him one place he can go for government health care.

Sue the B******s

Chris Huhne thinks that the victims of climate change could sue the perpetrators ( It won't be long before the victims of climate change make the west pay ). He makes a case that starvation and war in the Sahel are the fault of climate change. While climate change may play some role in recent droughts in the Sahel, and hence his claim isn't precisely utter nonsense, it's so close to being utter nonsense that it really ought to offend any thinking person. Huhne is peddling a sort of dim-witted moralism that hurts his cause more than it helps it. In the first place, the Sahel has been tough forever. In the second, starvation probably has a lot more to do with population growth -- due largely to that other evil Western invention, modern medicine -- than with climate change. He has the following paragraph: The science also opens up the possibility that the victims of climate change could begin to take international legal action against the countries responsible, particularly

"An Unforgivable Insult to Our National Honor"

Arun has been writing about an incident in which some Indian diplomatic official was arrested and strip searched as part of an investigation of alleged human trafficking. I haven't bothered to learn the details of the case, mainly because I'm pretty sure that it would turn out to be some combination of a couple of very familiar themes: cops behaving badly and/or diplomats behaving badly. Whether or no, it seems to have become a cause celebre in India, where it is perceived as either a deliberate insult to their national honor, or, perhaps worse, an abuse out of negligent contempt. I tend to go with more of an "American Hustle" type of theory - overzealous police with big game in sight and an itchy trigger finger. For my purposes here, neither the details nor even the facts really matter, however. Once a real or perceived slight has occurred, it can become an excuse to rally the citizenry for war or maybe just somebody or other's political campaign. Once up

The Green Monster

Envy, one of our least admired but most universal emotions, is often pictured as green, for some reason. I suspect it of being part of the fundamental glue of egalitarian societies. Via Brad DeLong, Jim Sleeper takes a look at conservative "Thought Leader"and New York Times columnist David Brooks , assembling a persuasive self portrait of the pundit from fragments of his own writings. If one finds oneself on the outside enviously looking in, there are a couple of plausible counter strategies - attempt to ingratiate oneself with the perceived superiors or rail against them - Brooks has tried a bit of each. Some Yale students who took David Brooks' faintly self-serving course on "Humility" last year are buzzing about his New York Times column today, which skewers a certain type of elite college student's ambition to become a "Thought Leader." "The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler," Brooks

Solution Looking for a Problem

Paul Krugman posts a nice analysis of Bitcoin from his old college roommate: It occurs to me that part of the disconnect is that Bitcoin solved a major technical problem, one that people had been thinking about for about 20 years, and we nerds just can’t believe that it doesn’t also solve an economic problem. The technical problem is double spending–if I have some digital money, it’s easy enough to verify cryptographically that it’s real, but if I give it to you, how can you tell that I haven’t also given it to someone else? Until Bitcoin, the answer was to have a bank that knew which coins were valid, so you’d present my coin to the bank, which would check its database and if it’s valid, cancel it and give you a new one. Bitcoin has its decentralized blockchain which is a very clever recasting of the problem so that the state of the “bank” is whatever the majority of bitcoin miners agree that it is. Getting enough of the miners to agree is known as the Byzantine Generals problem, and

Magnificent Delusions

A new and highly praised book on the history of US/Pakistan relations and misunderstandings, by former Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani. ...Instead of basing international relations on facts, Pakistanis have become accustomed to seeing the world through the prism of an Islamo-nationalist ideology. Even well-traveled, erudite, and articulate Pakistani officials echo this ideology without realizing that holding tight to these self-defeating ideas makes little impact on the rest of the world; the gap is widening between how Pakistanis and the rest of the world view Pakistan. Haqqani, Husain (2013-11-05). Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (Kindle Locations 127-130). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

The NYT Dialect Test and Map

Puts my origin in Wichita, Albuquerque, or Denver but also is pretty warm (it's a heat map) in my actual place of origin in Kalispell, Montana. My Wife's scores put her in places thousands of miles from any place she has actually lived, but was also fairly warm in the places she spent her youth. Try it here. It might be fun even if you weren't born in the US.

Bitcoin Defender

Timothy B. Lee disses Krugman for dissing Bitcoin. Unfortunately I don't really follow his reasoning, which argues that: There's just one problem: Mining isn't just a process by which new bitcoins are created. Those newly created bitcoins are a clever mechanism for rewarding miners for participating in the mining process. The point of the mining process is to process Bitcoin transactions. Without it, the Bitcoin network wouldn't function at all. By neglecting to mention this fact, Krugman misleads readers more than he informs them. Unfortunately, that's par for the course in public discussions of Bitcoin. Bitcoin has a dual character as a currency and a payment network. The latter is what makes Bitcoin useful and potentially important. Yet the former is what has gotten all the media attention. That's interesting but doesn't really supply enough info for me to understand it. Why does it take such vast computing power to process transactions, given that t

Merry Christmas!

And Joy on whatever other holidays you may choose to celebrate.

Job Losses

Whose jobs are the bots coming for next? Lydia DePillis of Wonkblog takes her cut here. Excerpts: 6. People who operate farm equipment The history of agriculture has been one long tale of automation, to the point where almost nobody works on farms in America anymore. The exception was supposed to be people who operated the machines that replaced people who tilled the soil and harvested the crops by hand. But even they're not safe anymore, with the advent of tractors that can be piloted around the fields by computer or even programmed with the right coordinates and set loose, like a gigantic dirt-treading Roomba. 7. The people who make iProducts After years of close scrutiny for the working conditions in its factories, Foxconn -- which makes most of Apple's computers, phones, and tablets -- decided to swap people out for machines as much as possible. The process hasn't been as quick or as easy as anticipated, but with wages rising in China, Foxconn has little choice but


Element number 82 is the heaviest non-radioactive element and constitutes about 14 parts per million in the Earth's crust. It's easily smelted and has been in use for millenia. It's also a potent neurotoxin. Kevin Drum has been championing the view that lead, and in particular its use in paint and gasoline additives is a key factor in explaining some otherwise puzzling crime statistics. See America's Real Criminal Element , and some high praise here . A sample of the former: IN 1994, RICK NEVIN WAS A CONSULTANT working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on the costs and benefits of removing lead paint from old houses. This has been a topic of intense study because of the growing body of research linking lead exposure in small children with a whole raft of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. But as Nevin was working on that assignment, his client suggested they might be mi

Fighting One Alien Invasion

Bitcoin mining has become a large scale industry : Today, all of the machines dedicated to mining Bitcoin have a computing power about 4,500 times the capacity of the United States government’s mightiest supercomputer, the IBM Sequoia, according to calculations done by Michael B. Taylor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. The computing capacity of the Bitcoin network has grown by around 30,000 percent since the beginning of the year. “This whole new kind of machine has come into existence in the last 12 months,” said Professor Taylor, who is studying mining hardware. In the chase for the lucky code that will unlock new Bitcoins, mining computers are also verifying and assigning unique identifying tags to each Bitcoin transaction, acting as accountants for the virtual currency world. Of course it's just the sort of socially useless production that Krugman with his [facetious, for the IC] suggestion of fighting an imaginary alien invasion, modelled on Keynes eq

Fools and Gold

Krugman cites Keynes and Adam Smith on some modern money follies. Regulars will not be not find the theme surprising. The third money pit is hypothetical. Back in 1936 the economist John Maynard Keynes argued that increased government spending was needed to restore full employment. But then, as now, there was strong political resistance to any such proposal. So Keynes whimsically suggested an alternative: have the government bury bottles full of cash in disused coal mines, and let the private sector spend its own money to dig the cash back up. It would be better, he agreed, to have the government build roads, ports and other useful things — but even perfectly useless spending would give the economy a much-needed boost. Clever stuff — but Keynes wasn’t finished. He went on to point out that the real-life activity of gold mining was a lot like his thought experiment. Gold miners were, after all, going to great lengths to dig cash out of the ground, even though unlimited amounts of cash


The competition at DARPA's latest Robot Challenge in Homestead Florida was hot and heavy. It seems that robots are getting more versatile. This year's competition was for rescue robots. For some reason, it's being called a Woodstock for robots - probably not by people who were at (or alive during) the original Woodstock. At least I didn't hear any stories of Robots ODing. From the NYT . An international competition to pave the way for a new generation of rescue robots was dominated by a team of Japanese roboticists who were students in the laboratory of a pioneer in the design of intelligent humanoid machines. Their team, called Schaft, completed the eight required tasks in the challenge almost flawlessly, losing points only because the wind blew a door out of its robot’s grasp and because the robot was not yet able to climb out of the vehicle after it successfully navigated an obstacle course. The trials, held on the infield of the Homestead-Miami Speedway, inc

Non Post Post

later Feel free to post those off topic topics.

Santa's Skin Color

Megyn Kelly, generally considered to be one of the less retarded voices on Fox Snooze, got in a certain amount of trouble by insisting that Jesus and Santa were both White. I'm going to make a wild guess that Snow White and Cinderella were too. OK, maybe not Cinderella - all those cinders probably gave her skin a pretty dusky caste.

Bridge to Nowhereville

Part of Chris Christie's dubious charm is his short temper and brusque manner of dealing with his opponents. A couple of his aides seem to have gotten involved in some overt political retaliation against a mayor who crossed Christie that involved shutting down a bridge and screwing up thousands of commutes. Funny thing about that - it turns out to be illegal - and the aides are lawyering up big time. If this has Christie's fingerprints on it, it could be a big deal for his political hopes. Via Kevin Drum: Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, former executives at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, have sought outside counsel amid an investigation into why traffic lanes leading to the nation's busiest bridge were closed, the documents showed. ...Mr. Wildstein recently hired Alan L. Zegas, a criminal lawyer from Chatham, N.J., to represent him, according to an email sent from Mr. Zegas to the state Legislature Tuesday....Mr. Baroni retained Michael Himmel, of Low

23 and ?

The FDA has suppressed 23&me's supplying of health related genetic data - an outrage in my view - but apparently they can still supply ancestry data. Since that's more interesting to me anyway, I intend to subscribe, but I was pretty annoyed when I found out they could no longer supply the health data. Scott Aaronson discusses the issues . If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you may have heard that 23andMe—the company that (until recently) let anyone spit into a capsule, send it away to a DNA lab, and then learn basic information about their ancestry, disease risks, etc.—has suspended much of its service, on orders from the US Food and Drug Administration. As I understand it, on Nov. 25, the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop marketing to new customers (though it can still serve existing customers), and on Dec. 5, the company stopped offering new health-related information to any customers (though you can still access the health information you had before, and a

The Elect

...that singular sensation... Prof Harari thinks it likely that the future belongs to creatures or things very unlike ourselves - quite possibly much more different from us than we are from Neandertals. Speculation, of course. Prediction remains difficult, especially of the future, as Bohr might have said. The potential for the creation of superhumans certainly has some plausibility - a socio-cultural singularity where all our familiar notions of human nature become ephemeral. Prof H. thinks that the most important question for our future is what we want to become. Suppose the so-called Gilgamesh project, the attempt to overcome disease, old age, and death - potentially eternal life - comes to fruition? Should that happen, who gets the privilege of transcending this human condition? Who will be the elect? Throughout our post agricultural history some have proclaimed themselves superior, usually by some essentially mythical right of history or descent, but it could become real. Wha


Philosophy was invented by the Greeks, I guess, and is a sort of formalization of our urge to try and understand ourselves and the world we live in. It gave birth to the natural sciences. These days, though, most of the action on that quest has moved to the physical and biological sciences. So is there really anything left for philosophy to worry about? Or is it as dead as Astrology? Are the speculations of ancient philosophers obsolete? I'm undecided.

Inequality and Class Warfare.

After a long sojourn in the shadows, inequality has reared its head in the public discourse again, especially in the recent statements of Obama and the Pope. The exact sources of inequality in today's world are a bit hard to trace, but some threads are known. In the first place, greater inequality in the US is partly driven by outsourcing and the rapid economic progress of Asia and parts of the old Communist empire. In that sense, some of American inequality is driven by decreasing inequality between Chinese (say) and Americans. Almost everywhere, though, the disparity between the rich and the rest has increased dramatically. A lot of this can be traced to the triumph of neo-liberal economic thought - which is pretty much is called paleo-conservative economics in the US. The massive failures of socialist economics led to gigantic opportunities for those who could pick up failing government businesses for a song - usually with the help of political connections and gross skulldu

Light Bulb

I hear that Glenn Beck has promised to fire anyone who bought a compact fluorescent replacement for any of the incandescent bulbs in any of his enterprises. Not being one of those who chooses to partake in his entertainments, I don't know his motive, but let's just guess that he was the thinking about the fundamental role the humble light bulb played in the development of twentieth century technology, and hated to let that bit of history be buried. LOL To be sure, I had no real idea about that history until I started translating the Spanish Wikipedia entry on electronic valves myself. (class exercise). Of course I knew about thermionic emission and vacuum tubes, but I hadn't realized that the foundations of the subject rested on Thomas Edison's experiments trying to build a better light bulb. The thermionic valve, vacuum tube or electronic tube revolutionized almost every aspect twentieth century technology. Once it's powers of rectification and amplification

The Big One

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. Or not. Bang scenarios do seem pretty likely too. From time to time, catastrophic scenarios have occurred that put major dents in our planet's living population. Fortunately enough, none of them seem to have utterly depopulated the planet, at least in the last 3 plus billion years. There are cosmic scenarios, like a well aimed blast of particles from a suddenly active nearby galaxy nucleus, or a close supernova, solar system variants, like a collision with a Sedna scale planetoid, or purely terrestrial events like super volcanos. The Yellowstone Caldera is a good example of the last. Supervolcanos are fueled by gigantic magma hotspots that bubble up under the Earth's crust. One such hot spot fuels the Hawaiian Islands, punching up one volcanic island after another as the oceanic crust slides over it. The Yellowstone caldera is a continental variant. Continental variants seem to be more menacing, possibly becau

Math Anxiety

Wolfgang sent me (OK, not me specifically) over to Scott Aaronson's blog , where I immediately contracted a severe case of Math Anxiety . This was mainly due to the fact that people were talking a bunch of math, philosophy, and physics stuff that I didn't understand. I should probably avoid reading it. Fortunately, Sheldon , er Lumo, was there for some comic relief.


Bee thinks some people are bad at math just because they don't use it . “I was always bad at math” is an excuse I have heard many of my colleagues complain about. I’m reluctant to join their complaints. I’ve been living in Sweden for four years now and still don’t speak Swedish. If somebody asks me, I’ll say I was always bad with languages. So who am I to judge people for not wanting to make an effort with math? People don’t learn math for the same reason I haven’t learned Swedish: They don’t need it. It’s a fact that my complaining colleagues are tiptoeing around but I think we’d better acknowledge it if we ever want to raise mathematic literacy. I think she is a bit delusional on this point. Math, unlike language, is an unnatural activity in the sense that our remote ancestors almost never needed it.

Our Robot Overlords

It has become a bit clearer who will "own" our robot overlords. Google has bought Boston Dynamics, maker of some of the more sinister robots , like big dog . NYT here . Boston Dynamics has also designed robots that can climb walls and trees as well as other two- and four-legged walking robots, a neat match to Mr. Rubin’s notion that “computers are starting to sprout legs and move around in the environment.” A recent video shows a robot named Cheetah running on a treadmill. This year, the robot was clocked running 29 miles per hour, surpassing the previous legged robot land speed record of 13.1 m.p.h., set in 1999. That’s about one mile per hour faster than Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter dash. But it’s far short of a real cheetah, which can hit 65 m.p.h. Of course Amazon has been buying robot companies too.

Fall of Chang Song-thaek

The political fall and brutal execution of Chang Song-thaek , and its remarkably public character, is imagined by Lubos to be something uniquely characteristic of leftist governments. Of course that's just his poverty of historical knowledge and thinking showing. It's the long term historical pattern of dynastic and other tyranny everywhere and always. Even a slight knowledge of Roman or English history, or an acquaintance with Shakespeare's plays, for example, would have shown lots of similar examples. Of course Henry VIII didn't have machine guns, so more primitive instruments of violence were used. So what are the implications of this ancient style murder for the modern age? It does show something scary about the character and propensities of this little man who rules North Korea and packs at least a few nuclear weapons, and probably the capability to deliver them. It's not clear whether the events are the result of a purely internal power struggle in North


Not a comeback but a return . For those benighted souls not fans of Sunset Boulevard, Krugman on macro economists waking up in a world looking very Keynesian. Specifically, when Brad lists five key propositions of New Keynesian macro and declares that prominent Keynesians in the 60s and early 70s by and large didn’t agree with these propositions, he should now note that prominent Keynesians — by which I mean people like Oliver Blanchard, Larry Summers, and Janet Yellen — in late 2013 don’t agree with these propositions either. In important ways our understanding of macro has altered in ways that amount to a counter-counter-counterrevolution (I think I have the right number of counters), giving new legitimacy to what we might call Paleo-Keynesian concerns. Or to put it another way, James Tobin is looking pretty good right now. (Incidentally, this was the point made by Bloomberg almost five years ago, inducing John Cochrane to demonstrate his ignorance of what had been going on macroeco

Holy Hologram Batman!

Just a news story, not too easy to interpret - I haven't looked at the paper yet - but Maldacena and Susskind seem excited.

We Are All Cyborgs Now

It's at least possible that the amount of improvement biological techniques can make in humans is rather limited. Maybe we are too close to the biological optimum already. Suppose that genetic engineering will be limited to correcting some of nature's more obvious mistakes, like genetic diseases. That hardly exhausts our self-improvement options. Another staple of science fiction is the Cyborg. We have been adopting various artificial enhancements for some time - eyeglasses, hearing aids, even shoes and clothing might fit. Once again, though, modern electronics expands the potential enormously. Already Dick Cheney is kept alive by an artificial pump that aids his heart. More dramatically, bionic limbs operated by thought alone have been developed. Perhaps most radically, attempts to create brain-computer interfaces at the cellular level are underway. What would the world look like if you could interface directly with the internet and the other brains connected to it?

Man and Supermouse

More speculations by Yuval Noah Harari. He thinks H. sapiens has only a few decades left. Flowers for Algernon, written by Daniel Keyes in 1958, was one of the most successful Science Fiction short stories (later, a novel, play and film) of all time. It starts with the title mouse getting a dramatic IQ upgrade. Fifty-five years down the pike, it seems that science has caught up with the fiction. The genius mouse has been engineered. One might think that Harari's judgement on our limited future means he is a technological pessimist. This is hardly the case. He doesn't think we are likely to annihilate ourselves. Instead, he thinks it is likely that we will transform ourselves. The genomes of fish and potatoes are being merged to create frost resistant potatoes. Potential artificial organs for humans are being grafted onto mice. One of the most prescient science fiction writers of my childhood was Arthur C. Clark, who in addition to envisioning communications satell

The Amplitudhedron: I'm Gonna Wash That Gauge Right Outta My Hair

Quantum field theory, in its present incarnation, makes crucial use some gauge degrees of freedom that are ultimately superfluous, in the sense that they wind up getting symmetrized out. Such, at least, is my understanding of the point of view of Arkani-Hamed and Trnka in their new paper on The Amplituhedron. They propose a reformulation which, at least for one toy theory, results in a major simplification. Via the Lumonator. I can't quite decide whether reading it will just make me feel stupider or not. Update : Peter Woit has a nice post on this and related matters , and Sean Carroll has a guest post from Lance Dixon , one of the pioneers in new methods for calculating amplitudes in QCD.

The Farmer and the Cowman can't be Friends.

Jared Diamond's notion that agriculture was a backward step in human well being is a variation on the so-called tragedy of the commons theme. The basic idea is that individuals, each pursuing their own best interest in a rational way, can collectively damage things for all of us. Examples are so common that it hardly seems worthwhile to cite them. One that recently got some play on the idiot box was the numerous scenes of riot as shoppers strove with each other to get the good deals at Walmart. I think that there is a good case to be made that the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was such a step. Some of my cleverest commentators disagree, mostly for reasons I find unpersuasive. Briefly, the evidence is that: 1)HGs lived healthier lives, had a more varied diet, and an easier life. 2)Farming brought disease, war, social stratification and much harder work. 3)The human body is badly designed for the digging, hoeing and many other kinds of farm work, but it i


Even though Lee is tired of arguing with me, I have to get in one more comment on the effect of agriculture on the human race. Domesticating plants and animals (or being domesticated by them) had some obvious advantages for the human race. It allowed us to control far more of the planet's total biological productivity and consequently for the population to expand enormously. Even before the industrial revolution, agriculture probably expanded the human population by twenty to fifty-fold. In addition, the surpluses it created permitted the development of cities, writing, and ultimately, science. Arts gained greatly in sophistication and range. For those at the top of the food pyramid, the gains were great. How about everybody else? There the record is more mixed. Living in close quarters with our garbage and waste spread disease. Living in close quarters with domestic animals allowed their diseases to adapt to us and spread. Most of the epidemic diseases which plagued huma

Happiness Yet Again

Somewhere Tennessee Williams wrote something like the following: When I was young and unknown I was broke, living in lousy conditions, but happy. After the success of my first big play I had fame and money, but I was miserable. It's because man was meant to struggle, and we can't be happy without it. That's not too far from my own view.

Flatlining: A GR Bleg

Our universe is pretty flat. The WMAP tells me so. Or something. That means that the density of matter and energy is very close to the critical density. Presumably the density decreases with time, since ordinary and dark matter become diluted with time. So the question is this: In a universe with a cosmological constant does the density diverge from the critical density with time?

Negative Pressure

One of the less intuitive notions in trying to understand dark energy is the idea that negative pressure, or tension, should increase the expansion rate of the universe. Sean Carroll and Lubos Motl have each taken recent (battling) cracks at explaining this. Lumo, at least, takes exception to Sean's explanation. I won't comment on the debate, but I thought I might pass on this idea (adapted from Wikipedia) on why a cosmological constant implies negative pressure. Consider a box, or maybe a piston. If ordinary positive pressure exists in the cylinder, and expands the volume by dV, the pressure does work pdV and the energy in the box decreases (by the same amount, in an adiabatic process). Suppose though, that space is filled with a something (dark energy) of constant energy density rho. Now a change in volume of the cylinder will increase the amount of dark energy by rho*dV. If we go back to our W = p*dV we note that the cylinder did work - rho*dV in expanding so that p =

Happy Happy Joy Joy (Again)

Harari takes a look at Daniel Kahneman's studies of happiness. His starting point is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World where everybody is drugged to be happy all the time. What's wrong with that, he asks. Most readers do not like that world and find it dystopian. Kahneman took a virtual microscope to the lives of working women in Texas, and asked each to record what they were doing every few minutes and write down how they felt about it. One striking result was that the most unpleasant parts of their day were spent dealing with their children. On the other hand, when asked in the abstract what gave them the most joy in their lives, they named their children. There is more than one way to interpret this, but he pays attention mostly to the idea that what really gives us happiness is meaning in our lives. In that way, the much harder life of the medieval peasant might have given him more happiness if he could feel meaning in the pursuit of heaven and other meaningful goal


More evidence that I am or was dumber than I like to think: Drawing on the results of the National Child Development Study, which tracked for 50 years all British babies born during one week in March 1958, [evolutionary psychologist Satoshi] Kanazawa found that kids who scored higher on IQ tests grew up to drink larger quantities of alcohol on a more regular basis than their less intelligent peers. He evaluated other factors, including religion, frequency of church attendance, social class, parents’ education and self-reported satisfaction with life, and found that intelligence before age 16 was second only to gender in predicting alcohol consumption at age 23. To be fair to myself though, at age 23 I was a soldier and hardly immune to the temptations of booze.

Dream Big

And be miserable. That's one way to interpret what Prof Harari says is the principal result of psychological happiness research. He says that happiness depends more on expectations than on our current situation. If we are better off than we expect, we tend to be more happy. If we are worse off, we tend to be more unhappy. An eighteen year old ten thousand years ago might have considered himself pretty hot. All he had to compare himself to were the other fifty or so men he knew. In the modern world, he has to compare himself to Hollywood and super models. The modern world tend to make us less happy. Objectively, Egyptians under Hosni Mubarak were better off than their ancestors in any previous era. But they revolted, because they compared themselves not with their ancestors, but with the people in America or those on television. Biological research, he says, reaches somewhat similar conclusions from a different approach. Biologists see a biochemical reaction. Winning the lo

Who goes There?

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) has so far come up empty. If anybody else is out there, they don't seem to be talking to us. Of course that's pretty understandable if they happen to be familiar with our history. Some early proponents of SETI, like Shklovsky , became disenchanted, convinced that all advanced civilizations would destroy themselves. That doesn't seem improbable, though the most likely means we see today is probably different than what would have been expected thirty years ago. We do seem pretty determined in destroying the capability of the planet to support human life. Meanwhile, many of the factors in the famous Drake equation have become better understood and more encouraging. What we still don't know is the probability of life developing on an Earth-like planet (though a good guess is close to one), the probability of life developing advanced technology (almost entirely unconstrained, but the best guess might be that it take

State of the Universe

Back in the golden age of fundamental physics, maybe in the fifties, some young physicist was asked about a colloquium he had just attended. "It was wonderful" he said, "Everything we knew yesterday is wrong!" Physics isn't like that anymore. Paleo-anthropology yes, physics no. Thirty years ago we had a comprehensive theory of matter, with a few sort of minor loose threads, and the universe looked big, but notable deficient in dragons or other big unknowns. Today our theory of matter looks just about the same, most of those loose threads having been since picked up. The big theoretical hope of those days, String Theory, is still around, but starting to look a bit long in the tooth. It's proving remarkably resistant to providing any new insights into how the world works. The universe, on the other hand, is a bit more mysterious. It seems that that matter that we understand so well, only makes up about 5% of it. Dark matter - 25% or so - doesn't fit


Capitalism is hardly a new invention, even though the we think of the age of capitalism being just the last couple of hundred years or so. The central principle of capitalism is the free market, and markets go back approximately as far as civilization, or possibly farther. Even hunter-gatherers are known to do a bit of trading, but since they don't and can't own much, not too much. Once property gets to be substantial it needs protection, and markets need regulation. The usual pattern of history seems to be that once a wealthy class establishes itself, it choses to become a hereditary aristocracy, and that means using its control of markets to shut down competition. Rome and Florence offer interesting examples. The Roman dictator Sulla, for example, got a lot of support out of handing out previously public enterprises to crony capitalists, who made it big. Not too different Reagan and the Bushies.

Guaranteed Income?

Switzerland has apparently been contemplating a guaranteed income for every citizen. Such proposals, in various forms, would create a sort of an ultimate welfare state. Oddly enough, some of these proposals seem to come from the left as well as the right. It might be an interesting experiment for some small rich country to actually try this. The obvious fear, of course, is that a lot of people would just stop working, and coast on their freebie. With no job, they would make trouble and produce more troubled and unproductive children. It might be an incentive for employers to offer more attractive wages or working conditions, or, on the other hand, free people up to work on low paying jobs that they find rewarding in other ways. If we think about the increasingly plausible world in which robots do almost all the work the question of how to restructure society becomes a challenging one.

Droning On

Will our future ears be filled with the droning sound of Jeff Bezoz's fleet of robot octo-copters delivering books, pills and pizzas to our neighbor's doorsteps or picnic tables? That's the vision Bezos outlined in a CBS Sixty Minutes interview. I'm a big fan of robocopters, but I have my doubts. But during our visit to Amazon’s campus in Seattle, Bezos kept telling us that he did have a big surprise, something he wanted to unveil for the first time… Jeff Bezos: Let me show you something. Charlie Rose: Oh, man…Oh, my God! Jeff Bezos: This… Charlie Rose: This is? Jeff Bezos:…is…these are octocopters. Charlie Rose: Yeah? Jeff Bezos: These are effectively drones but there’s no reason that they can’t be used as delivery vehicles. Take a look up here so I can show you how it works. Charlie Rose: All right. We’re talking about delivery here? Jeff Bezos: We’re talking about delivery. There’s an item going into the vehicle. I know this looks like science fiction. I

Job Creators

A favorite notion of the rich (and their Republican mouthpieces) is that the rich are job creators. That that notion is almost entirely fantasy is demonstrated by the fact that three decades of reducing taxes on the rich has failed to produce many or many good jobs. It also doesn't make sense logically. Whatever the cleverness of a new product or invention, it won't create jobs unless there are people who can afford to buy it. This old article by Nick Hanauer makes the point in some detail: In a November 2011 op-ed for Bloomberg View, I argued that rich people in general -- and business-people in particular -- are not job creators. When the economy is understood in 21st-century terms, as an ecosystem, it becomes obvious that jobs don't squirt out of business-people like jelly from doughnuts. Rather, jobs are the consequence of the feedback loop between customers and businesses. For this reason, it is middle-class consumers and the demand they create that are our true j

Happy Happy Joy Joy?

Are we happier than our remote ancestors? Were the citizens of ancient Babylon happier than the hunter gatherers who lived there twenty thousand years ago? There is no doubt, says Professor Harari , that we live in an era of unprecedented material prosperity and collective power to control our environment. Historians rarely ask questions like these, but The Prof thinks them important. There are, of course, lots of theories, and people come down on all sorts of sides. A related question is whether our present prosperity is a transitory phase doomed by our relentless destruction of the natural environment. Have we produced a mechanistic world that makes us miserable in spite of relative material prosperity? He intends to discuss the various notions in more detail in the current segment of lectures, entitled: And they all lived happily ever after.