Showing posts from December, 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