Showing posts from October, 2015


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.