Showing posts from 2015

Indo-European Origins

Approximately half of the people on Earth speak an Indo-European language. Some of the expansion of this language has taken place in historic times through European conquests, but most of it occurred before the dawn of history. Most of Europe and much of Asia were speaking IE languages before historic times. J.P. Mallory, in his book In Search of the Indo-Europeans , begins his chapter on the search for the Indo-European homeland by quoting three separate declarations by a single authority, spaced over 47 years, confidently assigning that homeland to Asia, Europe, and Asia Minor respectively. Nonetheless, Mallory remains confident that the IE homeland has already been identified, mainly because essentially every semi-plausible (and many an utterly absurd) potential location has already been claimed by somebody. In the absurd crowd, I would count the North Pole and Iceland. One complicating factor is nationalism and racism. Mallory also devotes a chapter to the Aryan Myth, which

Merry Christmas!

Disposable People

It is a nearly unmentionable scandal of civilized life, or, more generally agricultural life, that it produces more people than the world has room for. It's no secret, of course, since the Rev Malthus prominently discussed it 217 years ago. That influential essay, which inspired Darwin and gave economics its grim nickname - The Dismal Science - hasn't exactly been forgotten, but its hardly mentioned in modern economics. It's fashionable to pretend that progress and capitalism "refuted" Malthus. The truth is that something like the opposite has occurred. Modern technology has permitted birth control, and where it has been aggressively pursued, economic progress has nearly always followed. China is the poster boy. The vast decline in the World's extreme poverty that we have seen in the last thirty years is mostly due to the rapid economic progress of China, and that progress followed the one child policy. What I really want to talk about, though, is the me

I'm So Sick of this Same Old Guv*

Susanna Martinez, our governor and formerly a local prosecutor, was pretty angry when the police showed up in the early morning to break up a loud and drunken party she was attending at a hotel in the Capital. Martinez came to the front desk after three police officers showed up at the hotel. A slurry-sounding Martinez can be heard on the second recording repeatedly pestering Garcia to tell her who had complained -- or at least say what room they were in. “Oh you can tell the police, but they won’t tell you -- you won’t tell me?” Martinez said. “I’ll get it from the cops.” Martinez then gets on the phone with the police dispatcher, who also refuses to identify the people who complained. The third, and funniest recording, has Martinez speaking to an officer on the phone, incredulous that cops had been sent to the hotel. It's unclear at that point whether she is back in her room. “So we’re sitting in there, I’m the governor of the state of New Mexico, and we’re in there with my

The Vegas Clown Show

OK, I could only stand an hour or so of it, but it looked like Cuba was winning. One of the more disturbing parts was some buffoon promising to "punch Putin in the nose." At least two morons wanted to unilaterally establish a no-fly zone and shoot down any Russian planes that violated it. Rand Paul pointed out that this was likely to start WW III, but Christie, Trump and other buffoons were unimpressed. Obviously, these morons have no idea how the First World War started. I have no insight into the peculiar psychosis that constitutes a Republican primary voter, but it seemed to me that the audience kinda liked Rubio and Cruz -- maybe not Trump so much.

Hot Times

GISS (NASA) global temperatures are up. October and November of this year are by far the warmest in the instrumental records, in terms of anomaly from the 1950-1980 base. October, formerly the champion with a 1.04 C anomaly, remains the champ with a revision to 1.06 C. November is just behind at 1.05 C. Each is about 1.3 C warmer than the 1880-1900 average. Is that a lot? In the geological record each 1 C temperature increase corresponds to something like a 5-8 m rise in sea level. Kiss more than a few cities goodbye.

1.5 C

One of the more bizarre aspects of the Paris agreement was the decision to commit to a maximum 1.5 C temperature increase. I strongly suspect that 1.5 C is already baked in the cake - even if emissions went to zero tomorrow. We passed 1.04 C last month. 2 C doesn't seem likely under realistic scenarios.

COP 21

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”..........James Hansen I haven't yet read the agreement, but my first inclination is to agree with Hansen. That's despite the fact that I tend to think Hansen is a bit hysterical. Stoat has links to an assortment views, including his own, communicated in a reasonable facsimile of those parts of the English language that we happen to share.

The Sun's Influence on Climate

Without the Sun, our planet would not have a climate, so the Sun is a natural suspect for any observed climate change. On the longest time scales, the central puzzle is that the Sun does not seem to have had as much effect as we would expect. We have good reason to believe that the Sun of several billion years ago was about 30% fainter than it is now, which, other things being equal, would have frozen the watery planet solid. Mostly, though, the planet of the past was even warmer than the present. The most plausible explanations are that greenhouse gases, especially CO2, made the difference - but CO2 can't be the whole story for the earliest couple of giga-years. The slow warming of the Sun is a consequence of the accumulation of helium "ash" in the core, and it's a process measured in hundreds of millions of years, but what about shorter term variations? The one we know about is the magnetic cycle of the Sun. The solar dynamo is a phenomenon of the convecting

New Year's Resolution 2016

Despite the abject failure of my last set of New Year's Resolutions , I've already made one for the new year. I'm not expecting any better results, but here it is: Stop arguing with crazy people. Not you, dear readers, but a group of climate denialists I frequent. When cornered by fact and logic, they tend to get mean. The relentless irrationality, plus their endless enthusiasm, tends to create cognitive dissonance.

Occupying ISIS Land

Obama has very good reasons not to like the idea of an occupation. The Iraq and Afghanistan occupation have been disasters. At least part of the reason is that those occupations were monumentally stupid. By contrast, the occupation of Japan and Germany after WW II were big successes. Bush's failure to plan for an occupation was one of his biggest blunders. The US started planning for the occupation of Germany and Japan right after Pearl Harbor. Of course Bush also made many other specific blunders, like disbanding the Iraqi army but allowing them to keep their weapons, producing a vast band the armed and unemployed. If Obama, or some future President, does decide to destroy ISIS, he needs to start planning now, and study the lessons of World War II and the American Civil War.

Half Measures

Obama's speech is not going to please much of anybody. Taking guns away from those on the terror watch list is a good idea, but unlikely to either happen or have much effect. He is going to ask Congress for some kind of endorsement short of a declaration of war, but such a declaration would be very clarifying. More bombing is unlikely to work.

The City Formerly Known as Madras

Among movies that I have never actually seen, the 1955 The Rains of Ranchipur , sticks near the top of my memory. As I said, I didn't see it, but somehow the preview made a big impression on my preteen brain. It had Richard Burton, Lana Turner, and Fred McMurray and a bunch of other actors in brownface doing something or other in one heck of a rainstorm in India. It seems that the city of Chennai has lately been experiencing that sort of thing for reals. Chennai, a city of 4.4 million, received 34 times its normal rainfall on Wednesday alone—so disruptive that its daily newspaper was not published for the first time since 1878 because its staff could not reach the press. The rains are expected to continue throughout early December. India’s chief meteorologist has said the recent extreme weather events “fit the larger picture of climate change.” And a furry fellow reports that the UK is pretty wet too. With some nice pictures and charts.

Immigrants and Terror

In response to the Paris attacks, the Republicans have proposed a number of laws to limit Muslim immigrants. The revelation that San Bernadino murderess Malik Tafsheen pledged to ISIS seems certain to reinforce such calls. Even though only a tiny number of Muslim immigrants resolve on terror, the threat cannot be dismissed. Of course strict gun laws would be even more effective in deterring terrorism, increased scrutiny seems well justified.

The Grim Evolutionary Logic of Group Punishment

Donald Trump always lets his reptilian brain do the talking, and that's probably the key to his appeal. He appeals to the baser instincts, and everybody has them. Group punishment - the punishment of a whole group for the actions of a member - are officially a war crime, which is ironic, since war is itself a group punishment. Humans became the animal world's master cooperators partly to cooperate against other groups of humans, and one factor that welds us into groups is the idea that we as individuals can be punished for the actions of one of our members. The gangsters who executed 9 year-old Tyshawn Lee were extracting revenge for another murder committed by the gang his father was in. The terrorists who go on murder rampages probably imagine that they are revenging some slights or offenses by members of the groups attacked. Many of them imagine that they are furthering some larger cause - the advancement of their religion, the protection of the unborn, or whatever. I

Anti-Muslim Hysteria

It seems all but certain that we will see a new round of anti-Muslim hysteria in the wake of San Bernadino. Naturally, the already nativist Republicans will feast on it. It's almost certainly going to be a bad month for democracy and tolerance. Trump is already saying that it's not enough to kill terrorists, we have to kill their families too: And the other thing is with the terrorists: You have to take out their families,” he said. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives — don’t kid yourself. … They say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.

NRA a Criminal/Terrorist Organization?

Not technically, I suppose, but the NRA has consistently supported policies that make it easy for criminals, the insane, and yes, terrorists to get the weapons that they use. They have given the US by far the highest murder rate of any developed country, and enabled and abetted most of domestic terrorist acts by consistently opposing measures to keep weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people in the country. It's time to say no. The second amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." If that's the point of the second amendment, then require all gun owners to belong to the militia, and regulate it well - weekly drills and regular deployments would be a good idea. That means no crazies or criminals. Strict discipline would insure that unsuitable militia members be expelled and deprived of their weapons.

Hotbed of Religious Terrorism

William Saletan traces a bunch of domestic terrorism to the fanatical mosques churches of North Carolina. On Friday, a gunman killed three people and wounded nine more at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. The suspect is white American Robert Lewis Dear. When police apprehended Dear, he uttered one telltale phrase: “no more baby parts.” People who have known or met Dear say he wasn’t a regular churchgoer. But they also report that he believed devoutly in the Bible and that he claimed to have read it “cover to cover.” In an online forum, Dear apparently spoke of Jesus and the “end times.” He painted or posted crosses on at least three of his homes. Dear moved to Colorado last year from North Carolina, where he had been living. For two decades, the Tar Heel State has been a hotbed of religious extremism, fueled by clerics who preach holy war. The result is a stream of interstate terrorism. It began with Eric Rudolph, a Holocaust denier who grew up in the Christian Identity mov

International Terrorism in the US

Alex Tabarrok reports on foreign linked terrorism in the United States. The RAND data base of international terrorism counts 567 acts of international terrorism in the US between 1968 and 2009. 140 of these, or about 25%, were committed by anti-Castro Cubans. The second worst offender, with about 10% of the total, was the Jewish Defense League. Both these groups flew a bit under the radar, both because they weren't interested in producing mass casualties among the American public and because they have politically powerful protectors.

Original Refugees

Obama and others have likened the Syrian refugees to the Pilgrims. Do they realize that this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for open immigration? They do know how that one played out, right?

Nothing Can Go Wrong

When I pointed out the danger of East-West escalation in Russia's decide to intervene militarily in Syria, more than one correspondent assured me that that couldn't happen. Now Turkey has shot down a Russian jet , and, apparently, killed the pilots.

Collateral Damage: Refugee Backlash

The backlash against Syrian refugees after Paris was as predictable as the tsunami after a magnitude 8.0 quake. Naturally, the nativist right-wing, here and elsewhere, is running with it. No, it's not entirely rationale, and the refugees are overwhelmingly innocent victims of forces they had no part in generating, but that's life: harsh, unforgiving, and random. Part of the problem, I think, is that the West continues to look helpless against ISIS. This not only fuels the refugee crisis but increases suspicion of governments who want to accommodate refugees. An unfortunate side effect, especially of the rising tide of anti-Muslim propaganda, is likely to be increasing alienation of the Muslim population. Assholes like Trump and Rubio feed the beast, but the rest of us will reap the consequences. My advice to Obama - do something or get the heck off the beach.

Astro FOTD: Lonely Planets

Our galaxy, The Milky Way, appears to have a couple of hundred billion "rogue" planets without any stars to call their own. Some of them were kicked out of their systems of formation early in their history (it is suspected that our own system lost one or more planets in this fashion) and some probably formed on their own, in a process analogous to star formation in giant molecular clouds. See, e.g.,

Not so Crazy

Some French Artists of 115 years or so ago imagined the year 2000. They got a lot of ideas right even if the details look oddly primitive.


October 2015 was the hottest October in the satellite temperature record. It will likely also be the hottest in the surface measurement record. Since the satellite record is a talisman of the denialist crowd (it can be construed to show less recent warming than the surface record), I decided to surf some of the flat-Earther commentary. Responses ranged from "I don't believe it" to "OK, but it doesn't matter" to "the pyramids were built to store grain." The doesn't matter answer was by far the most prominent.

To Be or Not to Be

Or, rather, as Hamlet eventually admits, to do, or not to do. It turns out that these decisions are mediated by different neurotransmitters, and that the inhibitory ("not to do") processing i the brain develops slowly through adolescence. Yet another reason why teenagers are batshit crazy. A popular instrument used by researchers to test inhibition is the Go/ No-Go task in which subjects are told to press a button (the “Go” response) when a certain letter or picture appears, and not to press it (the “No-Go” response) when the letter X appears. Several studies have shown that children and adolescents generally have the same accuracy, but the reaction times, the speed at which a subject successfully inhibits a response, dramatically decrease with age in subjects age eight to twenty. In other words, it takes longer for adolescents to figure out when not to do something. Jensen, Frances E.; Nutt, Amy Ellis (2015-01-06). The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival G


NPR's Fresh air has an interview with a veteran student of France and terror that suggest that the radically secular policies of France are a major provocation to its Muslim population. The terrorism and the resulting strengthening of the extreme right are likely to increase the provocation.

Josh Marshall on ISIS

Josh Marshall is no right winger, but he too seems to think it is time to end ISIS. A couple of excerpts: I don't know what the precise best policies here are. But I do have a clear idea of several of the building blocks. The first recalls something I said a few weeks ago, which is that it is folly to be actively engaged against both sides in a civil war, which is effectively what we are now doing. Such a policy may have a cynical logic when you have two hostile entities which you want to see wear each other down and pulverize each other - much as we did during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980s. That is not the current situation. The Assad regime, while bloody, does not in any way pose an immediate threat to the United States. We need to redefine our Syria policy around the goal of the physical elimination of ISIS as a territorial entity and the physical elimination of its top leaders. If that means accepting the continuance of Assad family rule in at least rump Syria than we need to

End the ISIS Caliphate?

The existence of a so-called Islamic State dedicated to terror has proved to be a rallying cry for terrorists around the world, as well as a source for terrorists, terrorism propaganda, and instruction. So the debate has begun over whether it's time to erase that state. There are many reasons why the US and Europe have hesitated, including the cost, especially in soldiers lives, and the manifest failure of regime change projects in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In addition, such a move would further upset the already disrupted Sunni-Shiite balance. Despite the risks, there is a growing feeling that some kind of strike back is needed, some way to show would be terrorists that their tactics are hurting their cause. Christopher Dickey has an article entitled After Paris, Is It Time to Roll on Raqqa, the ISIS Capital? It includes this quote: Thus a CIA veteran with long experience hunting Osama bin Laden and trying to outmaneuver ISIS, speaking privately, tells The Daily Beast, “Every

"This is an Attack on All Humanity"

Obama to world. I like Obama, but I really hate that kind of bullshit rhetoric. It wasn't an attack on "all humanity" it was an attack on France, intended to punish it for real or imagined deeds against Islam. One of the things wrong with Bush's idiotic wars was that they were waged under false pretenses - one of them being that we were trying to bring the blessings of liberty to Iraq and Afghanistan. Incoherent rationales lead to incoherent strategies which lead to disastrous results. As a result, Bush let the perpetrators (bin Laden and Saudi Arabia) escape while wading into the idiotic Sunni vs Shiite conflict with both feet. It appears that the Paris attacks were done in the name of ISIS, for actions against ISIS, and if so, the appropriate action is revenge against ISIS. We probably can't destroy it, but we could erase its geographic presence. If terrorist get the message that terror hurts their cause, they might hesitate. They will only be encouraged

Terror and Repression

How far should France and the World go to repress the kind of terror we saw tonight? Would cutting off the head of ISIS, by destroying its territory utterly, help? Internally, how much civil liberty does one need to sacrifice? Of course we don't know any details yet, but allowing ISIS to exist and occupy territory may not be an option the world can still afford. Destroying the so-called Caliphate may take boots on the ground, and once that is done, then what? Recent history is not encouraging. What about purely internal measures? Again, the details of who the attackers were are crucial. The worst case might be that they were radicalized French citizens. Reputedly there are thousands of radicalized French Muslims already under surveillance. If the attackers are among them, or closely linked, mass roundups of suspicious characters might occur. If French Muslims cannot manage to control their most radical elements, then they are likely to suffer a more general repression.

Girlsplaining at Slate

I expect that I've complained in the past of the sexism and general incoherence embodied in the term "Mansplaining" and all its variants. That's the origin of this piece's title (It's called irony, for the clueless). That and the Slate article titled "Sexism Mansplained" for Michelle Goldberg's article here. I found it pretty hard to make any logical (I hope that's not a purely mansplainist concept) connection between the Slate title and the article, which seemed to be mainly about some Sanders supporters trying to use Hillary's gender against her.

Book Review: Climate and the Oceans

Climate and the Oceans , by Geoffrey K. Vallis, is the third book of the Princeton Climate Primer series that I am reviewing. Like the others, this is available in economical Kindle and paperback editions. Vallis's book is heavily focused on the dynamics of the ocean, but contains introductory sections on climate, numerous other examples of climate effects, including El Niño. The final chapter is devoted to global warming, and a discussion of the greenhouse effect. He emphasizes the uncertainties that remain both in the ocean dynamics and more generally. Alternative theories of global warming (solar effects, novel cyclical mechanisms, etc.) but emphasizes that there is essentially zero evidence for any of these. Ocean dynamics is fluid dynamics on a rotating, wind blown, unevenly heated sphere, with complicated salinity effects thrown in. In other words, it's complicated as all get out. Vallis takes on the task of explaining the complicated mixture of wind, Coriolis, an

Jennifer Doudna Hasn't Won the Nobel Prize - Yet

But she will. Only a generation or so ago, a Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist could confidently announce that it would never be possible to edit a genome. However, it turns out that the engineering department of molecular biology - bacteria - have been doing it for ages. The discovery of the so-called Crispr Cas9 system has revolutionized gene editing, and is in the process of unleashing a torrent of genetically modified organisms on the world. Jennifer Kahn has a great story about Doudna and Crispr in The New York Times of Nov 9. The tool Doudna ultimately created with her collaborators paired Crispr’s programmable guide RNA with a shortened tracer RNA. Used in combination, the system allowed researchers to target and excise any gene they wanted — or even edit out a single base pair within a gene. (When researchers want to add a gene, they can use Crispr to stitch it between the two cut ends.) Some researchers have compared Crispr to a word processor, capable of effortles


A few questions and remarks re the Republican clown show. What happened to Maria B's face and hair? Only the WSJ guy asked any real questions. The others were pure softball pitches. Didn't matter since hardly anybody bothered to answer the question asked. Trump and Carson got the kid glove treatment. Bush still looked like the mail boy who accidentally walked into the board meeting. Questions by Bartiromo were as deranged as her hair. Nearly all had transparently false premises. Cruz and Rubio looked marginally less clueless than the rest. Can we deport them back to Mexico, now? Magical thinking was prominent in the tax plans of all the candidates. The operating principle: give more money to rich people and enormous growth will rain down from the heavens. This principle, though quite dear to the rich, has zero historic or economic support. Carly Fiorina is a pretty skilled liar. I still think Carson must have removed half of his own brain. Kasich is really annoy


US Soccer has banned heading the ball for kids under ten. This follows increasing evidence that heading the soccer ball causes brain damage, concussions, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Many think the ban should be extended to those four or more years older. Stefan Fatsis looks at the facts and the history , but my favorite excerpt is this prelim: On a turf field at a Washington, D.C., elementary school not long ago, the Jaguars were playing the Thunderbolts in a big fifth-grade boys’ soccer game. The airborne ball struck a Jaguar head. It bounced to a Thunderbolt head. Then another Thunderbolt head. And then a Jaguar head and another Jaguar head and finally to the ground. With each successive header, the parents oohed and cheered—how cute! how cool!—their delight echoing off of the school’s brick walls. The game was part of a daylong school soccer tournament, and I was watching with the all-girls rec team that I coach. I don’t allow my team to head the ball. Naturally,

Stupid Questions for Stupid Candidates

My favorite: would you kill Baby Hitler? We can rest easy. John Ellis "Jeb", "nail-eater", Bush has the guts to do the deed. It's not surprising, I suppose, since brother W was willing to kill lots of Baby Saddams and other Iraqi babies, not to mention a few thousand American soldiers just to get re-elected. Needless to say, I think anybody dumb enough to answer the question, not to mention anybody stupid enough not to point out how stupid the question is, is too stupid to be President. But that's how dumb I am.

Protest at the University

University students and protest go together like beer and Pizza. A relatively privileged group with lots of time* and freedom, it's natural for students to find something get upset about and organize against it. Universities are used to this and usually take it in stride, though every once in a while a nutjob like Reagan will call out the air force to bomb the students into submission. The shocking thing about the University of Missouri protests is how quickly they brought about the University's abject surrender, with President and Chancellor resigning. This happened because and only because the football team made itself the core of the protest. The team's threatened strike brought the U to its knees. The American University is in many ways a slave to its football program, and to the financial benefits it accrues by virtue of having the free labor of its athletes. It would be surprising if football players don't take the obvious lesson from this and realize their

Book Review: Quantum Mechanics

Leonard Susskind has published a couple of books based on his Theoretical Minimum lectures, one on classical mechanics and this one on Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum , written with Art Friedman. I suppose I have a hundred or so books on various aspects of quantum mechanics, and I originally intended to just read through it like a novel, but guess what? It seems that I have forgotten quite a bit in the nearly half-century since I last studied QM. Anyway, I decided to read it carefully, going through every derivation and solving every problem, just like I was going to teach the book. The textbooks I learned from long ago (Gottfried, Merzbacher, Pauling and Wilson) were fairly substantial volumes, but not like the massive tomes of Cohen-Tannouji and or even Shankar. Susskind has gone to the opposite extreme, just 364 pages, with large print and a spare selection of topics. The concept is to teach just the fundamentals, and teach them in as simple and clear a fashion as p

Socially Approved Superstitions

Ben Carson has been collecting a few liberal sneers for claiming that the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain (for the seven lean years, I guess), but Tyler Cowen and others have noted that this belief is really more consistent with the laws of physics than some of the Christian and Jewish superstitions that virtually every presidential candidate has signed up for in some way or another. I have to say, well, sort of, but there is a significant difference. Using the pyramids to store grain doesn't violate any laws of physics, but it does violate common sense. The pyramids still exist, and people can examine them and check their suitability for grain storage. The miracles of the Bible are hidden behind the veil of time, and that's true even of the far more recent miracles like Joseph Smith's golden tablets. There aren't any physical artifacts to check. Moreover, they are all explicitly miracles, which means they are supposed to violate the laws of physics

Book Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

I reviewed the movie made of The Diary of a Teenage Girl a couple of weeks ago. It packed enough of an emotional wallop that I immediately ordered and read the book. I have to say, good as the movie was, the book is a more substantial work of art. It's more harrowing than the movie, and the book is more gritty than the gritty movie. In my opinion, Minnie, the central character, is one of those magical characters of fiction, like Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, who is more vivid than the people you know in real life. The book is based on author Phoebe Gloeckner's actual teenage diary, though Gloeckner has always insisted that it is a novel, rather than a memoir or autobiography. Her daughters offer a contrary view: "No, that's you, Mom." I've become a slightly obsessive Gloeckner fan. Whatever the extent of the parallels with her protagonist, and they are extensive, the author is clearly an highly original character herself. Not that it&#

Ben Carson

Carson, the leading Republican candidate for President, was formerly a famous neurosurgeon. I seemingly recall that he was once reported to have removed half of someone's brain. I wonder if it could have been his own. I always thought that a certain minimum amount of general intelligence and world knowledge was required to become a physician, but Carson presents a rather sharp challenge to that idea. In a Republican field notable for its know nothing character, Carson is a real standout displaying a breadth of ignorance of politics and government that would be surprising in a high school dropout. One of his latest bloopers is repeatedly expressed opinion that the pyramids were build to store grain. I guess they just forgot to make them hollow. Kevin Drum reports on another Carsonism. “I recently had a discussion with a well-known physicist. He was talking about the Big Bang Theory and how all this obviously culminated into this wonderful, extraordinarily organized solar s

The Existential Angst of English Professors

... casts a large shadow of gloom over modern literary fiction, but isn't one of my more pressing concerns. That's one reason that I don't read much literary fiction, but not a very good one, I expect, since there is plenty of good literature being written on other subjects. Mostly, I suppose, is the fact that there is so much of it, and I really don't want to spend that much time on it. Still, I do try to read some such every now and then. Anyway, my latest is My Brilliant Friend , by Elena Ferrante, the first book in her Neapolitan quartet. Ferrante is sometimes described as Italy's best known and least known author, with the first adjective attesting to the popularity of her works and the second to her personal reclusiveness, carried to an extreme that one reviewer said made Salinger look like a publicity hound. It's the story of the friendship of two bright girls growing up in a tough neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s and early 1960s, daughters, re

Buffalo, Beefalo, Bison

Arun, remember him, has an interesting bit on the extermination of the Bison in the American West. He argues rather credibly that it was not an accident of capitalism but part of a deliberated strategy of depriving the Native Americans of economic sustenance. Here is the money quote: But the real reason was no civilizational altruism but aim for political subjugation as US Representative James Throckmorton would reveal in 1876: There is no question that, so long as there are millions of buffaloes in the West, the Indians cannot be controlled, even by the strong arm of the Government. I believe it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence. You don't have to share Arun's anti-Western viewpoint to see the logic.

Astro FOTD

Pluto has ice mountains 3500 meters high. On Earth, once our ice reaches a depth of 30 meters or so, it begins deform continuously by plastic flow - that's why glaciers flow and why there are no tall ice mountains here. Pluto has much weaker gravity, only about 1/12 th of that of Earth, but that's not nearly sufficient to explain the ice mountains - only enough to take them to about 1/10 th their actual height. The big factor is temperature. The tensile strength of ice increases with decreasing temperature, as fewer and fewer of the hydrogen bonds are disrupted by thermal motion, and at Pluto's -230 C, water ice is a pretty hard rock. Phil Plait has a nice picture at:


I listened to a little of the Republican debate, but overwhelming oppressiveness of the constant lying and stupidity drove me nuts. It's enough to make one despair of the human race.

Sexual Politics Ia: Evolutionary Psychology

Feminists hate the patriarchy and blame men. Fair enough, but even fairer, if less satisfying, would be blaming evolution. In most of our close evolutionary relatives, care for infants is almost exclusively a female task. It's a precarious business, and their limited ecospace has now almost disappeared. Humans haven't been like that. For a male, the evolutionary bargain involved in supporting one's children depends on them actually being one's children and not somebody else's, a problem that doesn't arise for females. Solving that problem apparently required domination of the female and leashing her sexuality. Of course the world today is not the world in which our instincts and behaviors evolved, but those instincts and behaviors remain powerful, which is why the great cultural struggle in the world today is less about religion than it is about educating and otherwise empowering women.

Movie Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

From time to time I get dragged to an art house film. Most recently I caught Marielle Heller's movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl , based on Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical, semi-graphic novel of the same name. It has been nominated for four Gotham awards, which may or may not presage something in Oscars. This is not your usual teen movie. Instead it's a stunning, even shocking story of a rather disastrous adolescence. Bel Powley, nominated for best actress, plays the fifteen year-old Minnie Goetze, and the movie, like the book, is the story of her affair with her mother's thirty something boyfriend, somewhat complicated by the usual adolescent problems, including especially her mother, a frequently drunk, drug addled and always inattentive bimbo in mid 1970's San Francisco. Unlike typical teen movie stars, who look like movie stars, Ms. Powley actually looks like a fifteen year-old, though she is actually in her early twenties. The diary of the tit

Extreme Poverty

One of the most encouraging trends in the world (for me) has been the dramatic decline in extreme poverty over the past several decades. Asia has led the way, especially East Asia and more especially China, which had long been among the poorest countries in the world. South Asia is catching up, but still lags behind. Extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $2 (inflation and purchasing power parity factors include) per day, is now most concentrated in sub Saharan Africa and in conflict zones. Poverty statistics are hard to come by for much of the world, but thanks to the work of recent Nobelist Angus Deaton and others, are becoming much better. By many measures, extreme poverty has gone from something more than 30% a few decades ago to less than 10% today. This suggests that eliminating it completely is a realistic goal for the coming decades. So what accounts for this dramatic trend? I think that there are several important factors, including technology, better governan

Words, Words, Words*

Scott Aaronson has continued to offend a certain sector of the social scientists. Scott Aaronson, quoting himself : [W]hy not dispense with the empirically-empty notion of “privilege,” and just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people, or groups of people? If men are doing horrific things to women—for example, lashing them for driving cars, like in Saudi Arabia—then surely we can just say so in plain language. Stipulating that the torturers are “exercising their male privilege” with every lash adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the evil. It’s bad writing. More broadly, it seems to me that the entire apparatus of “privilege,” “delegitimation,” etc. etc. can simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse. This isn’t quantum field theory. Ordinary words will do. Brutish physicist that I am

Annals of Improbable Anatomical Feats

Language has developed some colorful and vulgar, but wonderfully expressive ways of characterizing some human foibles. "Jumping through one's own asshole" is a terrific way of capturing the intellectual lengths that some go to defend improbable points of view or core beliefs. A lot of what most people believe is either highly speculative fabrication or outright nonsense. It is counter intuitive to the evolutionary psychologist in me that such (frequently) nonsensical beliefs could be adaptive in the Darwinian sense, but their prevalence strongly suggests otherwise. For example, some very smart guys, like Richard Dawkins, are convinced that religion is a sort of intellectual disease that has spread through human populations to everyone's detriment. I am pretty sure that they are nuts on this point, even though I'm not religious myself. Benjamin Franklin saw more deeply, I think, when he noted that he was very unhappy with his own behavior during his atheisti

Economics Nobel

From Alex Tabarrok : Angus Deaton of Princeton University wins the Nobel prize. Working with the World Bank, Deaton has played a huge role in expanding data in developing countries. When you read that world poverty has fallen below 10% for the first time ever and you want to know how we know— the answer is Deaton’s work on household surveys, data collection and welfare measurement. I see Deaton’s major contribution as understanding and measuring world poverty. - See more at: That's a small fragment of a much longer and excellent text. Here is another, a quote from Deaton: Here is Deaton on foreign aid: Unfortunately, the world’s rich countries currently are making things worse. Foreign aid – transfers from rich countries to poor countries – has much to its credit, partic

Qualia: A Short Legged View

Our neighbor tells the story of bringing home a new chew toy to replace the one her dachshund had reduced a tattered wreck. When she presented it to him, he didn't take it, but seemed to be bothered. He then ran off, found the once identical mate to the new chew toy and brought it back and placed it on the ground next to the new one. Pretty clearly, he had some notion of similarity of the chew toys and thought it worthy of bringing to the attention of his mistress. The qualia question, we might recall, is whether my experience of green is like your experience of green (for example). My reductionist answer is yes, because your experience of green, like mine, is simply excitation of a label - some neuron or cluster of neurons in your brain. My other reductionist answer is no, because one set of neurons is in my brain and has its set of connections and the other is in yours, with its not entirely parallel set of connections. Wolfgang, who is probably not not quite so reductionis

Saint Reagan

I have been catching up on my Late Shows with Stephen Colbert and caught Elisabeth Warren on the show the from a week or two back. She didn't mention Ronnie, but she did have an interesting statistic. From 1935 to 1980, the US enjoyed tremendous growth and the bottom 90% of the income heap collected 90% of additional income. From 1980 to the present, the overall growth has been a good deal slower, but the top 10% has collected 100% of the additional income. If these figures are even approximately correct, it's easy to see why Ronnie is the patron saint of the rich and the super rich. The Reagan presidency featured several things that strongly stimulated these trends: big income tax cuts, that strongly favored the very wealthy, big social security tax increases, which punished lower and middle income earners, and a relaxation of regulations that strongly favored the Wall Street predator/swindler. These trends continued in the two Bushes, and the relaxation of regulatio

Putin's Excellent Middle East Adventure

So what is El Puto up to in Syria, and how dangerous is it? Some see it in terms comparable to the pushing and shoving that led up to WW I, and other see analogies to Hitler's series of probes that led to WW II. These might be exaggeration, but one thing that is not an exaggeration is that the catastrophe Putin could unleash on the world would dwarf those of the previous two World Wars. There is little doubt that he is now pushing the envelope, seeing how far the US can be pushed without striking back. With some reason, he suspects that Obama is tired of wars and the US military's repeated failure to deliver results. Or maybe he is just so impressed with the success of the Bush family's various escapades in the Middle East that he wants in on the game. In any case, it seems that we can expect an escalating series of provocations. Now what?

Book Review: The Global Carbon Cycle

The Global Carbon Cycle by David Archer, is one of the excellent series of Princeton Primers in Climate. These are short, economically priced (in the paperback or Kindle editions), slightly technical discussions of aspects of climate. The carbon cycle is the movement of Earth's stock of carbon among its several reservoirs - the solid earth, the oceans, fossil fuels, the soils, the biosphere, and the atmosphere. The atmosphere is the smallest of these but it is also the one crucial for anthropogenic climate change and climate change more generally. The movements are complex, imperfectly understood, and, again, crucial for our understanding of the effect of carbon on the climate. Archer's book explains much of what is known, something about how it is known, and discusses those things that aren't known, all in concise fashion. I liked the book and learned a lot, but I still have a number of complaints. The Kindle version is cheap ($19.25) and easy to carry on my phone,

Religious Tolerance

Religious tolerance was accomplished in much of the West after centuries of fierce struggle, but is now widely considered to be a pillar of liberal civilization. It's a pillar frequently abused even in its central heartlands, but to much of the world it remains a foreign concept. Muslims get a lot of bad press for the murderous fanaticism of some of their fellow believers, and a great deal of the religious strife in the world today is fueled by Muslims and Islamic countries. India, like the Muslim nations, is another whose glories lie mostly in the past, but Hindu religious violence seems to be more modern than ancient. The most murderous excesses accompanied the partition of India into modern India and Pakistan, where millions of Muslims and Hindus died, but the disturbing trend is that India is now ruled by a man and party tied to some of the worst recent excesses, a leader and a party that has conspicuously failed to condemn recent religious murders by Hindus.

Ten Men on a Dead Man's Chest

A favorite libertarian fairy tale concerns some guys on a desert island, one of who is so productive that he produces more than all the others combined. In my version, I speculate on how this could happen. The one guy may have happened to find a marvelously productive pool, teeming with fish, crabs and other food, while the others are forced to forage in the mean desert landscape. The question of the fairy tale is about the ethics of the others ganging up to tax Mr. Productivity. I won't bother with that nonsense, but I'm pretty sure that I know how primitive hunter gatherers would deal with it. They would ask him to share, and if he refused, conclude he was a psychopath and kill him. Of course things get more complicated in civilized society, so that option for dealing with the pool squatter's modern counterpart, Martin Shrkeli, is neither useful nor permissable. His squatter rights derive from laws that were intended to promote competition to provide generic drugs

Sex, Drugs and Rock'n Roll

It's probably some kind of commentary on human nature that a fair number of great songs have been written about drugs. They range from cautionary tales like Ed Sheerin's The A-Team , to frank love songs like this classic Grace Slick/Jefferson Airplane performance at my 26th birthday party. A recent chart topper is The Weekend's paean to cocaine, I can't feel my face. I hate drugs, but I love the music.  I feel the same way about Wagner.


It seems that our brains are not our only body parts with a clock. In fact they are ubiquitous at the cellular level. Evidently circadian rhythms developed pretty early in evolution and were strongly conserved. We know something about this partly from studies of caffeine . From Rachel E. Gross's story in Slate: Caffeine was already known to alter the circadian clock in red bread mold, green algae, fruit flies, and sea snails. But humans were liable to be a little different. For the first half of the study, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder measured how caffeine influenced the circadian rhythms of five human caffeine consumers over 49 days. Perhaps you already expected that there would be an effect on humans, and if so, you weren't wrong. It also seems possible that the various clocks in the body might get out of sync after multi-time zone travel. The way caffeine works on cells in the body might be

Big Climate Knob

The climate of the Earth has exhibited both dramatic changes and implausible stability over the last several billion years. We have good reason to think that the Sun was a lot dimmer 4 billion years ago, but we had liquid water even then. We have had icy periods like the ice ages and relatively cool periods like today and much warmer periods too, but we have stayed in that liquid water, life supporting range. So what factors have controlled and varied that climate while keeping it in the habitable range? It's clear that there are several such factors, but in his 2009 Bjerknes Prize lecture to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Richard Alley argued that the paleoclimate record overwhelmingly supports the notion that atmospheric CO2 is the big knob in that control system. He supports his argument with extensive data and logic. No one has yet figured out how to explain the climate of the planet without invoking the importance of the CO2 greenhouse. More recently, A Lacis, et.

New Year's Resolutions

I know it's early, but I'm an old guy and you never know what the future will bring. For the same reason, I don't think there is much point in making resolutions for 2016, so I'll make some for a year that could make a difference in my life: 1959, my junior year of high school. (a)Leisure activities: stop reading all those crappy science fiction novels and concentrate on something important: chasing girls. (b)Sports: Don't play football again this year unless they let me have a glamour position like quarterback. Defensive lineman doesn't cut it. Basketball - continue basketball but shoot more and pass less. Work on my mid range jumper. Track - Do you know what girls are doing in the Spring? It's not watching track, especially field events like shotput, javelin, and discus. Lifeguard training might be good. (c)School activities: Science club - no, they can find a new VP; Chess club - puulleeeze!; Drama might be a good choice, lots of girls there. Sp

The Way Things Seem To Us

From Wikipedia In philosophy, qualia (/ˈkwɑːliə/ or /ˈkweɪliə/; singular form: quale) are individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term "qualia" derives from the Latin neuter plural form (qualia) of the Latin adjective quālis (Latin pronunciation: [ˈkwaːlis]) meaning "of what sort" or "of what kind"). Examples of qualia include the pain of a headache, the taste of wine, or the perceived redness of an evening sky. Daniel Dennett (b. 1942), American philosopher and cognitive scientist, regards qualia as "an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us".[1] Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961), the famous physicist, had this counter-materialist take: The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist's objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous

El Niño

After a down blip last month, the current El Niño has strengthened again and at 2.37 standard deviations is the third strongest on record, after the Super El Niños of 1983 and 1997, each of which topped 3.0 SD. We should have El Niño conditions continuing into (Northern Hemisphere) winter, at what level we shall have to see.

Borders and Refugees

I don't have any better ideas for solving the refugee problem than anybody else, but I think that it does reflect some fundamental aspects of human nature and the human condition. Borders are designed to keep others out, and they reflect conditions that existed long before nations or formal borders existed. The history of the human race is the history of cooperation in groups to compete against other groups, and that history has left us with instincts to help and instincts to exclude. Groups and cultures resist dilution and replacement with other cultures. Those without any power to resist vanished long ago. Many Europeans, quite understandably, fear that the flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa will not only be a drain on their resources but disruptive to their culture. Other Europeans, moved by the human tragedy the refugees face, are eager to help. Most, I would guess, have both these feelings in varying degrees. Most of the refugees are fleeing war and civi

The Law is a Blunt Instrument

Some Heritage Foundation guy* has an NYT op-ed today entitled: We Don't Need Kim Davis to be in Jail. KIM DAVIS, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., went to jail last week, and there was no good reason for her to be there. Americans can expect more conflicts over religious conscience and same-sex marriage if we don’t find a way to coexist peacefully. Ms. Davis has become a symbol of what happens when we don’t. Some on the left say that you must do every aspect of your job, despite your beliefs, or resign. But this has never been the practice in the United States. We have a rich history of accommodating conscientious objectors in a variety of settings, including government employees. Do we really want to say that an otherwise competent employee must quit or go to jail if there is another alternative? Kim Davis isn't in jail for doing her job badly, she's in jail for defying the law. It's probably true that putting her in jail is a pretty crude way to ensure that peopl


China and the US are the world's largest carbon dioxide producers. The 28 nations of the EU combined produce somewhat less than the US and a good deal more than India, the third place nation. China has at least promised to reduce carbon emissions, as has the US. India, despite it's rather small total emissions, is an interesting case since it has ambitious plans to double its coal production and because its plans for reducing emissions is even more committed to magical realism than the plans of the US and China. India and other developing countries argue somewhat reasonably that they should not have to bear the full price of cleaning up emissions since they played such a small role in creating the problem to date. They argue that they are consequently owed reparations. The history of reparations suggests that this is a poor strategy. Reparations are nearly invariably payed by losers to the winners, and that's pretty much regardless of any abstract notion of justice.

Arizona's Immigrant Problem

It appears that a local news anchor in Arizona has drawn some criticism from the local yokels for pronouncing Spanish words in the way that they are usually pronounced in Spanish. PHOENIX — An Arizona news anchor defended her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts, saying she delivers them the way the language is intended to be spoken. In a broadcast on Monday, Vanessa Ruiz, who works for 12 News here, waded into the running debate over the use of Spanish that has divided Americans in different ways for years, and has been percolating on the campaign trail. Ms. Ruiz, who was raised in a bilingual household, said some viewers had questioned her way of pronouncing Spanish words. Sandra Kotzambasis, the station’s news director, said viewers were asking why Ms. Ruiz “rolled her Rs.” I lived in Arizona for eleven years in the sixties and seventies and can't remember any of this crap from those days. I blame it on a bunch of uneducated immigrants - immigrants fro

Would You Want Marlow Stern in Your Corner?

Marlow Stern sets out to prove that Kim Kardashian is not a slut. Now his case could well have some merit, but I think he might lose a bit of the crowd with this line: First, it’s wrong to consider any woman who works in porn a “ho,” period. On the plus side he offers this endorsement: This is a woman, after all, who’s never been arrested or spoken ill of anyone publicly (which is kind of a miracle these days), has promoted body positivity for women, helped bring visibility to the LGBTQ community via Caitlyn Jenner, spoken out against racism and for gun control, and has tirelessly supported recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Well I know I'm impressed by anyone who has never spoken ill of anyone publicly, especially if they have as public a platform as Kardashian. She could be a saint.

Standing With Kim Davis

It seems that Kim Davis, the County clerk who refused to comply with the court's orders to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, will go to jail. Ted Cruz, Republican Presidential aspirant, has said that he stands with her. I can only hope that he will also sit with her in the clink. As an official of the US government he has sworn to uphold the laws of the country, but instead has chosen to openly defy them. So maybe he too is in contempt. It might be just the thing to revive his flagging campaign.