Showing posts from October, 2014


We used to turn out the lights and bring in the Pumpkin a bit after 8:00 PM, but this year I kept the operation going until 9:00. We had too much candy, I'm afraid. Oops, just got three more. We've noticed a lot of changes from twenty-some years or so ago when our kids were in the demographic. Fewer local elementary school age kids, for example - probably because the neighborhood has aged. Many more older kids, 11-16, who wouldn't have been caught dead trick or treating back when. Our neighborhood has always gotten a sort of late surge, hordes of kids coming in vans, ten or twelve at a time, not sure from where. It's gotten smaller lately, and less concentrated - a van with five to seven kids instead of ten. Maybe the big vans, whom I sort of facetiously imagined being dispatched from candy stores in Juarez, have moved on to more lucrative neighborhoods. Or families and vans have just gotten smaller. The costumes were pretty good this year. Several kids said

Seventies Presidents: Minus the Marble Togas

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein - some views from a reader at sea in the text. I bought an electronic copy of Rick Perlstein's book, the third of his trilogy on Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan because I thought I could use a fast easy read or two to spell the relatively dense astrophysics textbooks I was working my way through. If it had occurred to me to check the hardcover page count (880 pages) I might have rethought the fast and easy part. Perlstein is not mainly interested in telling a tale of competing ideologies, much less one of horse races, but rather of drawing a fully fleshed picture of the country, as the blurb puts it: a dazzling portrait of America on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the tumultuous political and economic times of the 1970s. Of course I was there in those years, present as an adult voting citizen, or at least as a graduate student who happened to be a military veteran. Military friends of mine wer

Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Stupidity

Tesla CEO and famous technology innovator Elon Musk has repeatedly warned about AI threats. In June, he said on CNBC that he had invested in AI research because “I like to just keep an eye on what's going on with artificial intelligence. I think there is a potential dangerous outcome there.” He went on to invoke The Terminator. In August, he tweeted that “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” And at a recent MIT symposium, Musk dubbed AI an “existential threat” to the human race and a “demon” that foolish scientists and technologists are “summoning.” Musk likened the idea of control over such a force to the delusions of “guy[s] with a pentagram and holy water” who are sure they can control a supernatural force—until it devours them...... Adam Elkus in Slate . Elkus devotes his article to a lame brained attack on Musk's fears. I say lame because Elkus fails to engage Musk on substance or even seem to grasp the nature of the perceived thr

The LA Ghetto

The liberal arts, or education appropriate to a free person, originally consisted of the Trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. As knowledge and universities became more specialized, the liberal arts continued at first to encompass much of the curriculum, including science and mathematics. Various forces seem to have propelled more and more studies into science, engineering, business, fine arts and other distinct colleges, while what was left of the traditional liberal arts became ghettoized into a Humanities college, a mini-university of people who counted on their fingers, often with only history, literature, philosophy, and some fragments of language studies as their subject matter, or sometimes lumped a bit uncomfortably with social sciences like anthropology and psychology. Naturally this loss of centrality has the liberal arts professoriate angry, disoriented and perhaps dazed and confused. At a time when stu

Losing It

The fifties, sixties, and early seventies were years of sky high top bracket income taxes, strong economic growth, and rapid improvement in median American incomes. They were also the last years of Democratic Party political dominance. Sometime between then and now, the Democrats lost the confidence of the American working class, especially working class men. How so? Well, of course, it's complicated. Wars, race, oil shocks, terrorism all played their parts. Political parties tend to be dominated by elites. The great depression and it's economic questions, and the struggle against Fascism and Communism had dominated the Democratic Party and its elites for a generation, but by the sixties and seventies social issues had come to the fore. Social issues have dominated the mind of the party elite every since: civil rights, feminism, abortion, immigration, gay rights. Enormous progress has been made on many of these issues, in the law and in public opinion, but these wars w

White Privilege

I caught Jon Stewart's interview with Bill O'Reilly the other day. Jon tried to get O'Reilly to admit that "White Privilege" existed in the US. O'Reilly handed him his head, incidentally demonstrating why Stewart would have been a terrible, awful, no good choice for news show host. Stewart is a wonderful satirist, and a very funny guy when interviewing his show business buds, but in trying to conduct a semi-hostile interview with O'Reilly he wound up looking like the befuddled pot head he described himself as being in his college years, while O'Reilly looked like the skilled debater he is. Part of his problem was that he saddled himself with the dumb formulation: "white privilege", which is a lame and inaccurate way of describing the sorts of obstacles blacks face in America. A privilege, says my online dictionary is: ...a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. That&

Progress in Fusion Energy

Lockheed engineers recently claimed to have a breakthrough idea for a fusion reactor. Cheap, plentiful fusion power is only 20 years away! Cynical observers familiar with the long history of fusion power research contained their enthusiasm. 50 years or so ago, when peaceful fusion power had already frustrated the expectations of its devotees for a while, a prescient wit observed that fusion power was fifty years away - and always would be. If that's been updated to twenty years away - with the same qualification - that might be considered progress of a sort. The possibility of extracting energy from nuclear fusion was first understood in the 1920, and the great astrophysicist Eddington quickly appreciated that such fusion must power the stars. The Wikipedia article cited above notes that the first fusion reactor patent dates to 1948. Getting hydrogen atoms to fuse to form helium is a multi-step process, but the basic idea is simple: get two protons close together and they

Training an Army to Fight ISIS

It will take years, they say. Let me provide a clue: The US has demonstrated again and again that it is absolutely incompetent to train one side of a civil war. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Like all our other proxy armies, they will show up to get they paychecks until they are faced with actual combat, at which point they will flee like mice before a cat. My guess is that the root problem is that we are selling something that they aren't buying, but it probably doesn't matter.

Lumo Confuses Himself About Probability - Again

Unfortunately I must report that the Blogfather has once again gotten himself dizzy while chasing his tail in yet another futile attempt to make his version of Statistical Mechanics make sense. This time he decides that suitable mutilation of the concept of probability will do the trick: But what's important to notice is that the meaning of the probability always refers to the situation a property is unknown/blurred at t=1−ϵ it is well-known/sharp at t=1+ϵ The two signs simply cannot be interchanged. The very meaning i.e. the right interpretation of the wave function or the phase space probability distribution is in terms of probabilities so the time-reversal-breaking quote above is inevitably understood in every and any discussion about probability distributions and wave functions. He is trying to tell us that probability only applies to prediction of the future - though the stuff about wave functions and quantum mechanics is thrown in mostly for obfuscation. Oddly enough,

Zombies and Vampires

Zombies and Vampires are a major infestation in television and even movies. How should we explain the popularity of this sort of ancient pagan mythology in a supposedly scientific age? Aside from being cheap to film, these tribal dramas must tap into our primal psychology somehow. The zombie and the vampire are typically contagious and evil. A suggestion that caught my eye is that the zombies metaphorically represent the poor and the vampires the rich. Each threaten, prey upon, and lust after the human - representing perhaps the middle class. In an age when middle class membership is increasingly fragile, with status heavily dependent upon circumstances seemingly beyond individual control, with poverty an illness or layoff (zombie bite) away, many may crave the vampire bite (lottery ticket?) that offers a way out.

Entering and Leaving - Hong Kong Style

Tyler Cowen looks at elevator and subway leaving protocol in Hong Kong and makes just the kind of (IMHO) spectacularly dumb Libertarian/Coasean analysis I would expect: I’ve noticed in Hong Kong that exiters are not accorded absolute priority. That is, those entering the elevator can push their way through before the leavers have left, without being considered impolite, unlike in the United States. In part, Hong Kongers are in a hurry, but that does not itself explain the difference in customs. After all, exiters are in a hurry too, so why take away their priority rights? Perhaps we should look again to Coase. If some people who wish to enter are in a truly big hurry, they can barge forward. Furthermore, an exiter who is not in a hurry at all can hold back, knowing that someone will rush to fill the void, rather than ending up in the equilibrium of excessive politeness where each defers to the other and all movements are delayed. That is not an equilibrium you see often in dow

Tribal Shibolleths

Astrophysics is encrusted with odd conventions that serve as a monument to history, tradition, and the history of measurement technologies. The magnitude system, for example, is, as one of my Astronomy professors put it, "so irrational that it serves just to keep the physicists out." Of course there is the matter of a couple thousand years of history plus more modern questions of measurement that keep it in place. A related notion is measurement of distances in parsecs (and kiloparsecs and megaparsecs) rather than the much more rational (and covariant minded) light years or even meters. Add to that a vast amount of idiosyncratic notation and convention as well as plenty of necessary purely descriptive knowledge and the physicist wonders if he is dealing with physics or stamp collection, in Rutherford's metaphor. The answer, of course, is both. Astronomy has been and remains more of an observational than experimental science. One of the more peculiar traditions of

Presidential Liars

All presidents, I suspect, need to do a little lying. It's part of the politicians job description. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton famously came acropper on some of their more outrageous lies. Of course telling a lot of lies doesn't necessarily make one a good liar. Nixon had a way of looking like he was lying even when he accidentally told the truth. Clinton's lawyerly evasions were a give away. In the lying department, no President in my memory could touch Ronald Reagan. His twin strengths were the degree to which he was unconstrained by logic or consistency and his apparent ability to believe utterly in his own mythology. As his daughter (Patti Davis) wrote: ...this “the most aggravating aspect of discussing anything with my father. He has this ability to make statements that are so far outside the parameters of logic that they leave you speechless.” Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations

Secret Police

The revelations of the 70's about the lawlessness and incompetence of our somewhat ironically named "intelligence" agencies never seemed to lead to any fixing of the blame - deniability, plausible and implausible being one of the few things they consistently managed. And so, for those few scattered Americans seriously following the intelligence investigations, a fundamental and fundamentally disturbing question lingered: Were our presidents lawless and wicked? Or just bumbling nobodies, Gerald Fords, every last one of them— dumb, ignorant pawns of secret police agencies? To ask the question was to stare into an abyss. So Senator Church papered over the abyss. Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations 10810-10813). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Philosophy and Physics

Sean Carroll scored some kind of a gig at a conference on the philosophy of cosmology in the Canary Islands, and writes about it here . Cosmology and cosmogony are among the oldest questions addressed by philosophy but that doesn't mean that philosophy has anything useful to say to the recently created science of cosmology. Sean comes up with ten questions for this new discipline, but I'm not too impressed. I doubt that the guy whose desk Sean got would be either. Some of the questions probably have answers that physics may be able to answer, e.g., 1. In what sense, if any, is the universe fine-tuned? ... 2. How is the arrow of time related to the special state of the early universe? Others strike me as meaningless or content free - and perhaps thereby suitable subjects for academic philosophy. The Lumonator takes a swing at question 2., thereby revealing yet again his peculiar incomprehension of statistical mechanics.

After Watergate

...Americans tired of scandal and muckraking. Perhaps even more importantly, so did the establishment press. The Washington Post and The New York Times adopted policies of studied indifference or overt hostility towards the Congressional committees that revealed layer after layer of CIA and NSA lawbreaking and incompetence. Glamorous, globe-trotting Henry Kissinger had weathered his own Watergate storm— for bugging reporters and his own staffers— and remained the punditocracy’s beau ideal. He was fresh from his latest triumph in “shuttle diplomacy,” securing a preliminary peace framework between Israel and Egypt, when the indefatigable Otis Pike had the temerity to demand from him a memo by a State Department staffer named Thomas Boyatt that had apparently criticized the CIA’s poor intelligence regarding the crisis in Cyprus, where the U.S. ambassador, Rodger Paul Davies, had been machine-gunned to death the previous August. The Pike Committee’s chief counsel soon received a thunder

Spying On Americans

Many have been disturbed - rightly, I think - by the revelation of the immense amount of spying on Americans by the NSA and other agencies. I don't care for it either, but we should not lose track of the fact that this is nothing new. The hearings of the 1970's on the CIA conducted by Frank Church's Senate committee and Bella Abzug's House Committee had revealed that the NSA had already been monitoring the phone and telegraphic traffic of Americans for forty years. It had also, Abzug revealed, been monitoring both the phone calls and the telegrams of American citizens for decades. President Ford had persuaded Church not to hold hearings on the matter. Abzug proceeded on her own. At first, when she subpoenaed the private-sector executives responsible for going along with the programs, the White House tried to prevent their testimony by claiming that each participating private company was “an agent of the United States.” When they did appear, they admitted their compan

(Slightly) Tall, Smart, and Charming

Thanks to Swedish military conscription tests that measure every eighteen year-old male's height, cognitive ability, and non-cognitive ability, Sweden has a great resource for tracking the correlation of these test scores with later life outcomes. Steve Hsu looks at a study which which does the math for corporate CEO's. It turns out that they are just a bit above average in each category (0.5, 1.0, and 1.5 SD respectively). Evidently, if you want to be a CEO, it might help to be a couple of inches taller than average, have an IQ of about 115, and a NCQ of around 122.5. About that Non Cognitive Ability (Steve's quote): [Non-cognitive ability:] Psychologists use test results and family characteristics in combination with one-on-one semi-structured interviews to assess conscripts’ psychological fitness for the military. Psychologists evaluate each conscript’s social maturity, intensity, psychological energy, and emotional stability and assign a final aptitude score foll

James Has Some Words About Climate Sensitivity.

From James A . Mostly about climate sensitivity, but also I note this: Clearly, the longer the relatively slow warming continues, the lower the estimates will go. And despite what some people might like to think, the slow warming has certainly been a surprise, as anyone who was paying attention at the time of the AR4 writing can attest. I remain deeply unimpressed by the way in which this embarrassment has been handled by the climate science insiders, and IPCC authors in particular. Their seemingly desperate attempts to denigrate anything that undermines their storyline (even though a few years ago the same people were using markedly inferior analyses of this very type to bolster it!) do them no credit. The thing is, there really are substantial remaining uncertainties. My guess is that climate sensitivity is higher over the long run than the current rate of surface temperature increase might suggest. Heat going into the ocean may hide there for a decade or three, but not forever

Degenerate Stars

Not talking Hollywood or Hip Hop here, but those stellar objects where electrons (or in neutron stars, neutrons) are compressed so highly that degeneracy pressures dominate the equation of state. Degeneracy pressure arises from the fact that fermions (particles with half integral spin) obey Fermi-Dirac statistics, which prohibits any two such particles from occupying the same quantum mechanical state. When a star of a certain size has exhausted the hydrogen in its core, that core, unsupported by radiation and gas pressure contracts until the electrons are crowded enough to approach degeneracy and be supported by mainly degeneracy pressure, while hydrogen continues burning in a shell beyond the core, thus releasing more and more helium "ash" to accumulate in the core. Eventually, the temperature rises high enough (about 100 million K) to ignite helium burning in the core. This dumps a bunch of new energy into the core and rapidly heats it up. For a main sequence star, tem

Airline Deregulation

Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines, or at least started the process, and its often considered a great triumph of free market capitalism. Not by me. And not by my knees. Yes, if your are canny or persistent, you can get relatively cheap air fares to lots of places. Yes, more people can travel than ever before. On the downside, all that air travel pumps zillions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and probably messes with the stratosphere in inadequately apprehended ways. More to my own current dismay, it has turned flying from a luxurious adventure into an unhealthy torture, especially for anybody tall. If you can afford to spring for a first class seat, you get upgraded to something more like significantly less discomfort, or, maybe on Emirates, some feeble hint of luxury, but given the choice would one really pick a week confined to an Emirates luxury berth over a similar period in a reasonably nice jail cell? Air travel is rapid, relatively safe, and even pretty affor