Showing posts from 2014

Krugman and Klein on the Future

Ezra Klein interviews Paul Krugman on prospects for the future. It seems PK and EK are both SF fans, so they take a prophetic look. Topic addressed include global pandemics, artificial intelligence, and economic inequality. I find them least convincing on the subject of AI. Ezra Klein: A fear I hear about a lot lately is the idea that we’ll build a self-improving artificial intelligence that will ultimately destroy us. Paul Krugman: The history of artificial intelligence is that it's always ten years ahead, and that's been true for about 50 years. Ezra Klein: But let’s assume it does emerge. A lot of smart people right now seem terrified by it. You've got Elon Musk tweeting, "Hope we're not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable." Google's Larry Page is reading Nick Bostrom’s new book Superintelligence. I wonder, reading this stuff, whether people are overestimating the value of

Steppe Warriors

The mounted horsemen of steppe played crucial parts in global history, perhaps especially between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Fifteenth Century, conquering Central Asia, China, Eastern Europe, and much of India and the Middle East at one time or another. The empires they created were seldom durable, usually perishing within a few generations of the founder. Tamerlane was perhaps the last of the breed of these nomadic, mostly illiterate, warrior tribesmen to conquer the agricultural world. After his time, the rise of gunpowder armies and modern state institutions sapped the power of the mounted bowmen. In a short period the small, formerly weak state of Muscovy swept them aside and conquered most of northern Asia. ... Despite the drama of this steppe imperialism, it would be unwise to exaggerate its immediate significance. There was no treasure trove of minerals to finance the building of a great imperial superstructure, although Moscow merchants (and the Muscovy st

Damn! I *Knew* he Had to be a Slytherin!

In 1604, he started to observe SN 1604, a supernova also known as Kepler's star, in the constellation Serpentarius, the 13th sign of the zodiac in which your humble correspondent was born... Lumo Extracted from Lubosh's very nice article on the occasion of Kepler's 543rd birthday: Johannes Kepler: an anniversary Kepler was a pivotal figure in launching the scientific revolution that mathematicized physics.

Putin's Racket

Max Fisher writes in Vox about Mark Galeotti's theory of Russia's political strategy. What in the hell is Vladimir Putin up to? It's perhaps one of the most important and salient questions of 2014. Russia-watchers and Russians have spent much of the year debating what's behind Putin's adventurism in Ukraine, his meddling in eastern Europe's Baltic states, his support for anti-American dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, and the headaches he is generally causing Western leaders. Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russia, suggested an answer: Putin is remaking Russia from a former world power into a geopolitical racketeer. Galeotti is not the first person to suggest this theory, which is gaining traction even among Russia experts who tend to be more sympathetic to Moscow, but he put it awfully succinctly in a great interview with the Swiss-based International Relations and Security Network. G

Is Economics a Deeply Corrupt Profession?

I have suspected for a long time that a big chunk of the economics professoriate has, in effect, sold out to the high bidders. Unlike physicists, biologists, and anthropologists, economists powerfully influence government policies which directly affect wealth. A vast array of "think tanks," policy institutes, and other devices exist to put money into the pockets of economists who sing the tune of the ultra rich funders of the same. I read Paul Krugman's latest post as essentially confirming this diagnosis. Robert Waldmann is shocked, shocked, to find conservative economists not doing their homework: Even now, I am shocked that economists didn’t bother to look up the data on FRED before making nonsensical claims of fact. I’m shocked that he’s shocked. Waldmann’s issue is the relationship between government spending and growth in recent years, which everyone on the right knows has been negative, but is actually positive. Why, he asks, didn’t they look up the data —

Who Were The Indo-Europeans?

The Indo-European languages spread over most of Europe and large chunks of Asia at some point in pre-history. The discovery of relationship between European languages and Sanskrit was a major catalyst for the development of the science of linguistics. Most of what we know about historical linguistics suggests that this kind of language relationship could only have come through something like conquest and replacement of other speakers. The most popular scholarly hypothesis is the Kurgan hypothesis - that the original Indo-Europeans were nomads of the Pontic steppes, now Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia, who domesticated the horse and conquered much of the world. There is a fair amount of archeological evidence to back up this idea, but some crucial uncertainties remain. One problem is getting the inferred dates to line up. Another is that it's hard to trace the gene flow that accompanied the putative expansion. India, with its intricate and complex genetic history, prese

On The Beach

"Après moi, le déluge" ...............Attributed to Louis XV or Madame de Pompadour. Miami Beach is building like crazy: WP MIAMI BEACH – Argentine developer Alan Faena recently listed the most expensive condo in this city’s history at $55 million. The Mid Beach penthouse features a private elevator, an infinity pool, an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic. The catch: The tower stands on what scientists call one of America’s most vulnerable floodplains. But Miami Beach needs this penthouse — and many more like it. The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate. The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of Sou

Israel's Choices

Another Israeli election - now what? Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times , looks at the options. Two excerpts: JERUSALEM — Uneasiness inhabits Israel, a shadow beneath the polished surface. In a violent Middle Eastern neighborhood of fracturing states, that is perhaps inevitable, but Israelis are questioning their nation and its future with a particular insistence. As the campaign for March elections begins, this disquiet looks like the precursor of political change. The status quo, with its bloody and inconclusive interludes, has become less bearable. More of the same has a name: Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his third term as prime minister. The alternative, although less clear, is no longer unthinkable. “There is a growing uneasiness, social, political, economic,” Amos Oz, the novelist, told me in an interview. “There is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when t

Long Read on Russian Economy

Via Marginal Revolution , The Guardian has an excellent long read on the state of the Russian economy in a time of falling oil prices: You know that the reporters did their research in depth because of details like this: Inflation is hitting all areas of society. Brothels in the Arctic port of Murmansk have hiked their prices by 30-40%, and may in future even peg their services to the dollar. Public sector employees account for more than 25% of Russia’s workforce, and are Putin’s core electorate. When the Russian president returned to the office in 2012, he promised hefty pay increases for public sector workers (in some cases doubling salaries). The government is now attempting to back peddle and bring these increases in line with inflation. Despite a relatively austere budget, Russia’s budget also foresees a 20% increase in military spending, which together with law enforcement, and state security sectors makes up about a third of the federal budget. President Putin remains rema

Flacks Fault Flacco Fumble

It is perhaps emblematic of the intellectual and moral poverty of American journalism that nothing in Obama's press conference got so much attention as his mispronunciation of an actor's name .

More Krugman on Putin/Ruble/Russia

The Ruble has recovered a lot of lost ground since Tuesday: Bloomberg It's still worth only about half as much as last year, though, and the future is unclear. Paul Krugman offers his perspective in the NYT: If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation. But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime. For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few

Krugman on Russian Debt

One area where Paul Krugman is a genuine expert is currency crises - he claims with some justification to have invented the field of study in economics. Here he takes a look at the Russian debt situation. He recalls the textbook responses: At this point the approved move is either (a) go to the IMF or (b) invade the Malvinas. Somehow, (a) doesn’t seem likely — and Putin did (b) in advance.

Cuba Si, Ted Cruz No!

For fifty years, the fanatics of the Cuban exile community told us that Castroism in Cuba was on the brink of collapse, and that if we just kept punishing the Cuban people a bit longer, the whole mess would collapse, allowing them to restore Batista or whomever. Well, it never worked, and Obama finally managed to bring the whole farce to a halt. Yes, Cuba is still a repressive, undemocratic Communist regime. We have long had diplomatic relations with lots of similar places, and on the whole, such relations have worked to reform those places - usually accompanied by the disappearance of Communism.

Goodbye Ruble Tuesday?

Well, it did briefly look like it. Nonetheless, Russia has a bunch of foreign currency and all that oil and gas, so it does have resources to defend the currency. Will it be enough? TBD. Bloomberg Ruble vs Dollar .

The Man On Horseback

Yeah, that's him, the guy who forgot to put his shirt on. Putin, of course, is an old KGB Commie whose dearest wish is to restore the evil empire. So why are assorted allegedly right-wing nut jobs so drawn to him? See Lumo here and his commenters for examples . It's the horse, of course. The inner fascist just can't resist the man on horseback - real or virtual. Though a commenter on Stoat pointed out that Putin's concerns right now line up pretty well with those of our own Oiligarchy. Right now falling oil prices, with a boost from Western sanctions, have got El Puto in a tight spot. Like Gorbachev's Soviet Union of 1989, Russia is highly dependent on oil. Vlad has a bunch of cash stockpiled, but the Ruble is looking really ugly right now and the central bank had to push up interest rates to recession producing levels - with no guarantee that that will work to stem the flight from the Ruble. Putin's oligarchical friends must be getting a bit nervous,

Climate Doomsaying

Eli links to an Aaron Sorkin bit of laconic climate doomsaying. Even though I largely agree with the climate scientist characters's matter of fact predictions of bad stuff to come, I have to say that I doubt its effectiveness. People are bombarded almost daily with predictions of doom of one sort or another, by preachers, cable news, random nut jobs, and politicians - hope that's not redundant. More to the point, we all know that our own personal doom is not that far in the future. All these things make it hard to get to worked up about sea levels being 80 feet higher in the next millenium. For most people, thinking about the future means dealing with the next hour, the next day, and if they are really well off, maybe the next decade or two. Our species evolved in the Pleistocene, a time of climate hazards considerably more tumultuous than today. Catastrophes wiping out big chunks of the species were a regular occurrence. That might have kept us from evolving the kind

Astro FOTD: M 15

Messier 15 , or M 15 among friends, is a globular cluster located 10 kiloparsecs or so from us, one of the 150 or so globular cluster associate with the Milky Way galaxy. In addition to being very pretty, it's very old, about 12 billion years, nearly as old as the Universe itself (13.6 billion, or so). All the 100,000 stars in it are thought to have formed at about the same time from a single large gas cloud. Blue stars, you may recall, are all very young - they burn themselves out quickly. So how does M 15 have some blues? It's thought that they may have formed from collisions or mergers of smaller stars, perhaps those that formed as close binaries. M 15 is also thought to harbor an intermediate mass black hole (IMBH), a black hole larger than those formed in Supernovae of a few solar masses, but smaller than the million and billion solar mass monster than inhabit the center of galaxies - perhaps a few thousand solar masses. It also has a planetary nebula, the blue pa

Dark Matter Detected?

Er, maybe: . 7.1 keV sterile neutrino, anyone?

Astro FOTD: Parker Instability

M 51 in infrared. Notice how the bright clumps of star formation are strung like beads along the dusty lanes of the spiral arms and other spider web like features. It is thought that much of the clumpyness is due to Parker Instability. According to Choudhuri in Astrophysics for Physicists , magnetic pressure causes regions of stronger field to be less dense than nearby region of lesser field strength, giving rise to magnetic buoyancy. In the disc the local gravitational field has a component toward the plane of the disc, so that regions of slightly lesser field rise out of it like magnetic bubbles. The plasma in these bubbles, however, can stream down the magnetic field lines towards the disc, amplifying any small initial mass concentrations. The resulting mass concentrations can become dense enough to promote star formation. The same buoyancy instability is involved in sunspots and solar flares.

Walter Lewin

From Scott Aaronson's blog: Yesterday I heard the sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online. I don’t know anything about what happened beyond the terse public announcements, but those who do know tell me that the charges were extremely serious, and that “this wasn’t a borderline case.” I’m someone who feels that sexual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else. But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are. I know others differ, but I think the need of the world to see that justice w

IQ Upgrade?

Remember Daniel Keyes fabulous short story/novel/play/movie Flowers for Algernon? The title character was a mouse with surgically enhanced intelligence. It seems that this part of the future has already arrived. What would Stuart Little make of it? Mice have been created whose brains are half human. As a result, the animals are smarter than their siblings. ... Goldman's team extracted immature glial cells from donated human fetuses. They injected them into mouse pups where they developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell. Within a year, the mouse glial cells had been completely usurped by the human interlopers. The 300,000 human cells each mouse received multiplied until they numbered 12 million, displacing the native cells. "We could see the human cells taking over the whole space," says Goldman. "It seemed like the mouse counterparts were fleeing to the margins." Astrocytes are vital for conscious thought, because they help to stre

Orion and SLS - Space Shuttle II?

Phil Plait looks at the Orion capsule and NASA's Space Launch System, SLS , and finds them a bad idea. They have the potential to be spectacular monuments to crapitude like the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. I won’t go into the necessity of space exploration; I have argued for it over and again, and in my mind the case is made. We need to break the bonds of Earth. The question is, how are we going to do it? NASA wants to use Orion, and they want to launch it on the SLS. I have some problems with this. The problem is that these monsters always draw congressional pork barreling like flies to ... They wind up over budget and behind schedule, and compromises are made that sap the program. Worse, they wind up sucking up all of NASA's science money to make up the shortfalls. Private industry is quite busy developing launch vehicles, and they are very likely to do a much better job of it than the government. NASA should concentrate on the scientific and t

RFK, jr.

Laura Helmuth of SLATE is rallying another lynch mob , only this time I have to agree with her. Robert F Kennedy junior really is a dangerous and obsessive nut job. Helmuth: Most paranoid, grandiose, relentless conspiracy theorists can’t call a meeting with a U.S. senator. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A profile of Kennedy in this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine shows that Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders listened politely while Kennedy told them that a vaccine preservative causes autism. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country has evaluated the evidence and concluded that the preservative thimerosal is safe. OK, the last sentence is another bit of Helmuthian hyperbole, but there does seems to be overwhelming evidence that thimerosal is not implicated in autism or much of anything else. Unfortunately, when a crackpot like Kennedy has a famous name, people tend to believe him, even if he has less qualification i

Reply to Lee

Blankety-blank Disqus keeps deleting this comment as spam, so: Well, your conception of what I was writing about is very different than mine. I was writing about what happened to a prominent scientist when he incautiously gave voice to some unpopular views - or more precisely some views unpopular among the self appointed academic thought police. If you care about my always evolving views on IQ, as opposed to my view of the reaction to Watson's ostracism, you could check out some of my many posts on the subject: http://capitalistimperialistpi...

More On Honest Jim

The Guardian has a nice, and I think balanced, account of James Watson's disastrous encounter with Political Correctness. I have to stress than I don't agree with Watson, and think that some of the things he said were indeed very offensive. But does that mean he deserved a virtual public lynching? A couple of quotes from the Guardian article: From Richard Dawkins: 'What is ethically wrong is the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant "thought police", of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, out of the Science Museum, and maybe out of the laboratory that he has devoted much of his life to, building up a world-class reputation,' said Richard Dawkins, who been due to conduct a public interview with Watson this week in Oxford. And from his old foe and E. O. Wilson: Nor is it at all clear that Watson is a racist, a point stressed last week by the Pulitzer-winning biologist E O Wilson, of Harvard University.

Amazon's Scientific E-textbooks Suck

I had high hopes for the e-textbook. I imagined live equations, live links that led to interest external sites, and other interactive features. Having bought a few Cambridge UP and other scientific e-books from Amazon, I have to say that they all suck. The equations are typically reduced to tiny images that don't magnify with the text. Amazon's proprietary text crapware apparently can't render them in magnifiable form. Needless to say, the other desirable features are also missing. I guess real e-textbooks will have to wait for another generation or so.

Police Violence

About 50 cops are shot in the line of duty in the US every year. There are no really good statistics on how many civilians cops kill, but it seems to be a much larger number, about 1000. A spate of recent killings of unarmed black men has drawn public attention, but they aren't the only victims. Cops kill a lot of unarmed civilians of all races, but it seems likely that the victims are disproportionately young and black. My guess is that hardly any cop goes out on the job with the ambition of killing anybody, much less an unarmed civilian. Such killings are tragic and usually avoidable. Victims of police violence want the perpetrators punished, but they rarely are. Grand juries, and especially prosecutors (who have to work with the police), are very reluctant to indict, especially when there is reason to believe the victim was resisting. The first instinct of a policeman when faced with danger is probably to reach for his gun, even though he has less murderous options on


With gas prices reaching good old days levels and our highway system crumbling, this would be a good time to raise federal gas taxes. This is only slightly less likely than kindly space aliens intervening to save us from ourselves.


Astrometry, the measurement of the positions and motions of stars, is at the foundation of much of our knowledge of cosmology and astrophysics, and parallax measurements, the measurement of the apparent motion of the stars due to the motion of the Earth around the Sun, is the most fundamental astrometric technique. These motions are tiny, even for the nearest stars. The parallax of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and consequently the star with the largest parallax is only about 0.78 arc seconds, equivalent to less than 4 mm at a distance of 1 kilometer. Before the development of space based astrometry, the most distant stars whose parallaxes could be measured were about 100 light years away. The new GAIA satellite of the ESA should extend that the center of the Galaxy, some 27000 light years away. GAIA has some other tricks too: finding near Earth asteroids, Quasars, and exoplanets, to name a few.

Physicist to Head Pentagon

Ashton Carter, a former physics prof, is apparently the next SecDef .

Honest Jim vs the PC Mafia

James Watson, the famously cranky discoverer of the structure of DNA, is auctioning off his Nobel medal , claiming that he needs the money. He is 86, and probably made a lot of money in his life, between authorship of one of the justifiably most famous popular science books of all time and several very popular textbooks. He got into some trouble a few years back when his habit of speaking his mind ran into the central religious dogmas of our time, when he ventured that he worried that the persistent racial differences on IQ tests might reflect real differences in intellectual capability. My favorite crackpot has mounted a stirring if hardly effective defense of Watson . My first link, above, takes the opposite tack. Laura Helmuth, who apparently is Slate's Science and Health editor, launches a passionately wrongheaded attack on Watson. It's preposterous that someone with such anti-scientific views can be the Science editor of a major publication, but such is the conventio


Kip Thorne has written a book on the science of the movie: The Science of Interstellar. But I still have some scientific quibbles. For example: If NASA could produce the ranger and lander craft that navigate through big gravitational fields and land on and return from planets with gravitational field comparable to Earth, how come it took years and a three stage rocket to get out of Earth into orbit? Also, maybe instead of spending all their special effects budget on making black holes realistic enough for Kip, they could have made their planets slightly less cheesy than the Star Trekie ones they used.

Libertarian Fable Meets Human History

There is a certain libertarian fable, invented or popularized by Bryan Caplan , that goes like so: Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can't produce any food at all. Much of human prehistory resembles this situation in several critical respects. When hunters started killing large game, one or a few hunters out of a larger group might, on any given day, produce many more calories of available food than the whole rest of the group combined. Out of the ten or so adult male hunters in a typical band, one may be consistently quite a bit better than the others - almost an Able Able. Given the accidents of existence, there may also be a Hapless Harry in the group. Capla

For Shame

Man is the Only Animal that blushes. Or needs to.......................Mark Twain, Following the Equator . Mark Twain's witticism poses a fundamental question for evolutionary biology: What was the circumstance that impelled and produced this unique adaptation? Darwin himself thought deeply about it, and wrote letters to naturalists around the world to ask if people everywhere did in fact blush - they do. Humans are also unique in their extra-familial generosity, or altruism. Christopher Boehm draws a straight line between these behaviors, and believes that they connect directly with our ability to cooperate in large groups. The evolutionary pressure against altruistic behavior, whether it involves giving money to support some child in a different country or going to war to defend your country, are huge. Free riders: cheaters, draft dodgers, etc.,(the Dick Cheneys, George W. Bushes, et. al.) get a big advantage out their free ride. Without active suppression of free riding,

The Easterner: Part II (Repost)

Guagina made her way elegantly across the hardwood floor. Even with her thong and pasties covered with the fawn and blue track suit, she was impressive, 5' 11" in bare feet, plus three inch heels topped by a cloud of flame red hair. She was on a delicate diplomatic mission. The bar was empty, except for her, Lefty the one-armed barkeep, and Les. A few days in the humid atmosphere of the bar had allowed the cowpies to absorb water, beer, spit, and tobacco juice, and they were beginning to support ecosystems of their own. Lefty was losing his shirt, but at the moment was more concerned about his remaining limbs. Gaugina wasn't making any tips either. "Hey Les, what's up with Britt?" "She's still in El Paso. She's got the money to bail her Mom out, but Grandma wants to wait while Marjean detoxes a bit." OK, Killer hadn't bitten her head off. She delicately broached the subject of Super-Conformal field theories. Les responded immedia


Recently there has been a spate of articles and other interest in the fact that Asians need a lot higher SAT scores, on average, to get into Harvard than whites. In effect, there seems to be a quota, about 15%, for Asian students. This is reminiscent of similar quotas for Jews a half century ago. If one looks at the population of students with the highest academic performance and test scores, there are a lot more Asians and Jews than their proportions in the US population. Caltech, perhaps the only US university in this class that practices race blind admissions, has a student population that is about 40% Asian. Harvard claims 20% Asian for 2013, 12% African-American, and 13% Hispanic. Hillel, the Jewish student organization, says that 25% of the Harvard undergrads are Jewish. If we take all these statistics at face value, that leaves 30% for others, most of whom must be non-Hispanic, non-Jewish whites, who are consequently drastically under-represented compared to their propor

The Easterner: Repost

I noticed recently that Lumo had me blacklisted from his blog, so I thought I might repost this legend from our mutual past: The slight, exhausted man steps off his bicycle on a dusty Las Cruces street. His bike tires are flat and encrusted with goatheads. So is his hair. He looks like he has ridden the last 800 miles through a duststorm. He has. No matter. He is on a mission of vengence. He speaks to the first man he meets: "I'm looking for a pig." "No hablo Ingles." He tries again on the next guy, a wiry guy in a Stetson and cowboy boots. "Sorry, this is cattle country. Cattle and goats." "A Capitalist Pig." Stetson: "We don't hold much with Communists here boy. You sound like one of them European Commies. Just what is your business here anyway, and do you have a green card? What's your name anyway? The avenger tells him. Boots and Stetson: "Shit! I can't pronounce that, much less spell it. How

Downtown: Astro FOTD

The center of our galaxy is a happening place - besides the resident kinda-sorta Super Massive Black Hole (3 million solar masses or so, but a piker compared to those in the big elliptical galaxies) - there is a very high density of stars, rampant recent star birth, and dusty clouds of gas. We can't see this stuff in the visible, as only about one visible photon in a trillion makes it way through the dust to us, but other wavelengths penetrate better. It's a starry starry night there, as stellar density is a million times greater than in our neighborhood. On a dark night, a person of good eyesight on Earth can see about 7000 stars - if you were in the galactic nucleus, you could see millions. A nice place to visit, perhaps, but you wouldn't want to live there. O supergiants are bound to go supernova soon, and the radiation from the BH and other hot stuff would make the place pretty uninhabitable.

The Alpha Male

Christopher Boehm talks about a cave painting from the early Holocene: What we see in one is a cluster of ten male archers who seem to be rejoicing in something they have just done as they expressively wave their bows in the air. Lying on the ground some yards away is an inert human male figure who looks almost like a porcupine,62 with exactly ten arrows sticking in him. That’s all we know for sure, but some speculation is possible. First, ten archers suggests a band of perhaps forty, which would be a bit larger than average today, but well within the central tendencies already discussed. Elsewhere in Spain, two similar depictions show three and six archers, respectively, so the overall average would be about six, which seems to be right at the average for contemporary foragers—even though with such a small sample size, this is merely suggestive. Second, with the killings done unanimously and at short range, this would appear to be an instance of execution within the band, rather

Social Coherence

A week ago or so Lee asked the following question: So just for fun, do you care to speculate about what the evolutionary basis for strongly held beliefs in humans may be? Social coherence? It doesn't seem to me that strongly held beliefs need to reflect some sort of underlying reality in order to accomplish whatever their evolutionary role is. This question has been percolating in my head, and I have communed with Boehm's Moral Origins , and I'm now ready to speculate. Hunter-gatherer communities, the essential proto-human societies spend a lot of time and energy in social talk, talk devoted to discussing and propagating how people are behaving and should behave. This talk performs the central function of defining and enforcing moral communities - the shared systems of belief and behavior that make possible the extraordinary human capabilities for cooperating in large groups. A good case can be made that the existence of these moral communities is the fundamental diff

The Cosby Show

It surely looks like the cultural icon is a serial rapist. At least I can't see any plausible alternative explanation for the combination of the long string of accusations against him and his response to them. It disappoints us, but it shouldn't surprise us. The examples of men, and yes, a few women, abusing their power for sexual aggression continue to accumulate: Priests, rabbis, teachers, coaches, entertainers, athletes, executives. At lehree recent US Presidents have been accused of rape, not to mention numerous foreign leaders. In some ways these victims are victims not just of their predators but of pervasive myths that our society has persuaded itself of - myths that were generated in order to redress some old grievances. Not so many generations ago it was widely assumed that women alone in a world of men were chickens in a fox coop - or goldfish in the piranha tank - and that a woman alone needed a chaperone. Feminists quite rightly complained that such rules wer

Peter Woit Reviews The Imitation Game

And he's not best pleased. The final high profile production, one promoted at the Silicon Valley ceremony, should be The Imitation Game, a film based on the life of Alan Turing, to be released on November 28th. I had the chance to attend a preview screening last night, featuring a Q and A with the film’s screenwriter. The short version of a review is: go to see this is you like watching Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley perform, but if you want to know anything about Turing, avoid the film and spend your money instead on a copy of the new edition of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. Turing is one of the most important people in the development of computer science and big chunks of mathematics, and a fascinating and tragic figure. His true story is extremely interesting, so it is, as Peter says, a shame that they made a boring and trite fictional story instead of the real and fascinating story.

Rape Camp

Your smart and talented daughter turns eighteen, so it's time for college. Should she go to the Ivy League rape camp that costs a nice Mercedes/yr to attend or the the State U version that can be had for a Ford Fusion/yr? OK, it's not quite that bad, but Jed Rubenfeld argues in the NYT that US colleges are doing a terrible job at preventing rape and getting worse at it. How many rapes occur on our campuses is disputed. The best, most carefully controlled study was conducted for the Department of Justice in 2007; it found that about one in 10 undergraduate women had been raped at college. But because of low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality, and fear they won’t be believed, only a minuscule percentage of college women who are raped — perhaps only 5 percent or less — report the assault to the police. Research suggests that more than 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by a relatively small percentage of college men — possibly as few as 4 percent — who

Moral Communities

Not so long ago, I thought, and likely wrote, that a hunter-gatherer society would be perfect for the libertarian - no laws, no government. Boy was I wrong. Actually, such communities are governed by very strict moral codes, inculcated by the community, and enforced, if necessary, with the ultimate sanction. A fundamental pillar of these codes is one that would offend every libertarian impulse - mandatory sharing of some crucial goods and resources. A key fault line in certain moral debates in modern society - for example, gay marriage - is controversy over the impact of changing the rules. Conservatives claim, for example, that gay marriage fundamentally undermines traditional marriage. Progressives mostly consider this claim ridiculous, arguing that it couldn't possibly affect anybody but those involved - namely, gays who would like to marry. Even though I take the progressive point of view on marriage, I think that the conservatives are fundamentally right as to the effec

Astro FOTD: Taking Out the Trash

Stars seem to be born in clusters of several hundred or more stars, out of clouds of cool dust and gas with 1000 or so solar masses. This process usually leaves a lot of left over dust and gas, as in the Pleiades cluster: The Pleiades were born 100 million years or so ago, with the largest stars having recently become blue giants. Notice all the dust reflecting their light.  This is good evidence that the cluster did not produce any stars that have become supernovae - yet anyway.  If it had, they would have swept all that dust (and gas) out.  The largest, brightest stars are about 5 solar masses, probably too small to go super, unless they are part of a binary and go the Type Ia route.

Germans in Fantasy Land

Paul Krugman quoting Wolfgang Munchau: German economists roughly fall into two groups: those that have not read Keynes, and those that have not understood Keynes. Krugman adds: Munchau tells us something I didn’t know, that Ludwig Erhard “once tried to explain the Great Depression in terms of cartels.” In the German economics mindset, there is only microeconomic distortion; macro problems, even in the middle of Europe’s second Great Depression, don’t exist. How does this end? We have to keep pounding on the issues, and I’m reasonably sure that Draghi and co get it. But with the largest player on the European scene living in a fantasy world, the best guess has to be that nothing much is done until there is complete political crisis, with anti-European nationalists taking over one or more major nations.

Energy, Civilization and the Climate Pessimists

Few things a less rewarding than arguing with people you mostly agree with. Global warming is a good case in point. For those who think it is a major menace, and I'm certainly one of them, urgent action is required. Unfortunately I also believe that many of the Cassandras of AGW have highly unrealistic views of the difficulties and costs involved, views which cause them to advocate for fake solutions that have almost zero chance of working. The rise of human civilization, the very fact that makes us a profound menace to the planet, is intimately tied to and dependent upon our ability to command more and more energy. The only obvious strategy for combating carbon emissions is to increase the cost of fossil fuel energy relative to alternatives. The easy part, decreasing the cost of some alternatives is only progressing in a few areas, like solar and wind. Others like nuclear are held back mainly by reasonably based but mostly hysterical fear. The hard part, increasing the cos

Terence Tao on Colbert

Terry Tao was on The Colbert Report the other day - I'm not sure why. Tao is one of the most distinguished living mathematicians as well as a famous prodigy (he scored a 760 on the Math portion of the SAT at age eight). He and Colbert discussed twin primes, cousin primes, and sexy primes though not much light was shed. At one point during the discussion of primes, after a few twins had been mentioned (5-7, 11-13) Tao said the number twenty-seven, and stopped. He didn't say anything about the number twenty-seven, which of course is not prime, but the mere mention reminded me of the legend of the Grothendieck "prime", fifty-seven. Grothendieck, the story goes, had been teaching a class where he had been talking about "consider a prime" when a student asked for an example. Well, OK, the story goes, Grothendieck picked 57. (Which, of course, is 3 x 19.)


Peter Woit reports that Alexander Grothendieck, one of the greatest mathematicians of the Twentieth Century, has died at age 86. He has links to a number of stories about Grothendieck - here is a fragment of a superb one by Grothendieck's friend and colleague Pierre Cartier: Grothendieck’s journey? A childhood devastated by Nazism and its crimes, a father who was absent in his early years and then disappeared in the storm, a mother who kept him in her orbit and long disturbed his relationships with other women. He compensated for this with a frantic investment in mathematical abstraction until psychosis, kept at bay through this very involvement, caught up with him and swallowed him in morbid anguish. Grothendieck is difficult to categorize. Like Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, and many other mathematicians, he was obsessed with the notion of space. But his originality lay in deepening of the concept of a geometric point.1 Such research may seem trifling, but the meta

Old King Coal

Eli Rabett has taught me a lot about global warming, so I hate to quibble with his analysis of economics and the climate future, but I do think he has some wrong ideas here: Mostly I think he wants to bash Lomborg and others who say the world can't afford to deal with climate yet - mainly because the poor countries need coal and other ceap fossil fuels for development. Eli: First, climate change underway today mostly hurts the poor. It is clear that any assessment shows that the countries that are going to be most hurt by climate change are the poorest countries. Every attempt at an integrated assessment model, the IPCC reports and more shows this. By opposing immediate action on climate change Lomborg, Pileke (sic) and Ridley are hurting the poorest. The proposition, I think, does not follow from the premise. The rich nations of the world all developed their economies using cheap energy from coal and later, other

A Forthright Democratic Challenge

A Forthright Democratic Challenge The Democrats have been strongly and rightly criticized for not having a program to sell in the 2014 elections. The Republicans have been pushing pretty much the same program for the last half-century – government is the problem, and low taxes are the cure. They haven’t been especially consistent in applying these principles, but they have been consistent in advocating them, especially for the past 35 years. The Democratic Party response has been an uncertain trumpet indeed. Much of the Party has been focused on the claims of special interest groups whose agendas are remote from or inimical to those of many other Americans – Blacks, Gays, immigrants, environmentalists and single urban women. They have been paralyzed by the conflicts between the demands of those groups, who form the base of Party, and their conflicts with the priorities of other Americans. Moreover, the hoped for future of the Party among the young doesn’t vote. There is no part


One disadvantage of retirement is that I no longer get holidays off.

The Store

I stopped at my local Big Box to pick up some peanut butter and paper towels. Cost me about $200.00 I might have gotten some gas - cheap today - and a few other things that weren't on my list.

Those Good Old Days

Were politics more civil in the good old days? Rick Perlstein on the Republican Convention of of 1976 (Ford vs. Reagan): The vice president of the United States had spotted a Mormon preacher from Utah who’d invaded the space of the New York delegation and was bearing a “Reagan Country” sign. “With an adolescent grin on his face,” said Texas Monthly, Rockefeller snatched the offending sign from the minister’s hands. ... The Utah Reagan leader, Douglas Bischoff, chased after Rockefeller to retrieve his placard. He and New York GOP chairman Rosie Rosenbaum scuffled. Rockefeller claimed to have overheard someone say “if he didn’t get that sign back he was going to rip out the phone”— and, presently, the white phone connecting the New York delegation to the Ford command trailer in the parking lot was indeed ripped out while the chairman held the receiver to his ear , surrounded by a crush of reporters attempting to overhear him. “I want that man arrested!” Rosenbaum yelled as Bischof

The Student: Galaxies

My current book in my Astrophysics self-study is Galaxies in the Universe by Sparke and Gallager, 2nd edition. It's aimed at advanced undergrads, so probably appropriate for a aging physicist who worked on atmospheric problems for 30 years. It's a pretty good book, I think, but occasionally frustrating for the autodidact. The big problem is a certain carelessness about numbers and a few other details, especially in the problems. An unfortunately not atypical example can be found in problem 1.19, where one is asked to compute some effects of neutron lifetime on Helium abundance. A crucial intermediate step is computing the time at which the radiation is cool enough for deuterium to survive. The problem helpfully adds that the value one gets should be 365 s (after big bang). If one uses the equations found in the book, one gets a bit less than 349 s - not a big difference, but way to large for using equations without any error bars. It's small enough, and large enoug

It's Complicated

Ideas in science are often pretty simple. The details of the facts supporting these ideas rarely are. Like ancient civilizations, religions, and primitive cultures, modern science has constructed an elaborate cosmology. Modern cosmology, for example, has constructed a detailed picture of what was happening in the universe 13 billion plus years ago, when it was less than a millisecond old. Why should we take this cosmology, or any science, more seriously than the various myths aforementioned? The answer of science is that the scientific cosmology is supported by an intricate web of measurements, predictions, retrodictions, and interrelationships which are remarkably consistent, not only with each other but with the whole structure of modern physics, from thermodynamics to quantum field theory. That web is complicated, and nobody can comprehend it without extensive and detailed study. It's probably worth noting that perfect consistency is an ideal that is never perfectly achieve