Showing posts from August, 2016

The Totems of the Tribe

Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, has attracted a lot of hostility for refusing to stand during the National Anthem. He is, he says, protesting police brutality against blacks. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the great former UCLA and Lakers center, has defended his right to protest in an editorial. Of course Kareem is right. There are no laws, so far as I know, dictating homage to the flag or National anthem. This isn't like North Korea, where a deputy premier can be shot (with an anti-aircraft gun) for falling asleep while the Dear Leader is talking. I'm interested in why this makes people so mad, and, being the opinionated character that I am, I have a theory. Football is a highly tribal activity. The flag and anthem are tribal totems - that's why they play the anthem at sporting events. By disrespecting the tribal totems, Kaepernick is disrespecting the tribe, and the members of the tribe feel betrayed. So I agree that Kaepernick has a right

Two Cultures

Ever since C P Snow pondered the question of how the scientific and liberal arts cultures came to separate, various people have fussed about it, regretted it, and tried to devise cures - like forcing Caltech students to take a potful of "Hum" courses. After reading a dozen or so reviews of Tom Wolfe's new book, The Kingdom of Speech, all of them apparently by literary types, and only one of which displayed any grasp of the subject, the following crude explanation bubbled up from my subconscious: the literary types are just too fucking dumb to be worth talking to. Bad pig! That was unworthy of me. But really, if a famous literary and journalistic figure decides to write on the history and content of the theory of evolution, couldn't Time, Kirkus, NPR, the NYT and numerous others find somebody who knows something about the subject to write about it? Apparently not. One such idiot wrote that the book was "sure to provoke a lively debate." Maybe among t

More Wrong Stuff from Tom Wolfe

An excerpt from Wolfe's book appears in the Daily Beast . His starting point is a paper by a few students of Speech (including Chomsky). My take is that he both misunderstands and sensationalizes the paper. Also, he has no clue as to how science works. One bright night in the year 2016, my face aglow with godknows how many MilliGAUSS of x-radiation from the computer screen in front of me, I was surfing the net when I moused upon a web node reading: THE MYSTERY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION.1 It seems that eight heavyweight Evolutionists2—linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists—had published an article announcing they were giving up, throwing in the towel, folding, crapping out when it came to the question of where speech—language—comes from and how it works. “The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever,” they concluded. Not only that, they sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever find

Everybody Gets Senile Sometime?

If they live long enough. Tom Wolfe is 85, and has just published a book attacking Darwin and Chomsky. Darwin is the ultimate hard target, and Chomsky is more than a bit softer, but if this NYT review is a guide, Wolfe is equally off base against him. Secondarily [besides dissing Chuck D], this book is a rebuke of the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, whom Mr. Wolfe refers to as “Noam Charisma.” Rebuke is actually too frivolous a word for the contumely Mr. Wolfe looses in his direction. More precisely, he tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff. Mr. Wolfe does not complain about evolution on religious grounds; in fact, he is an atheist. He begins by declaring the notion of the big bang to be vaguely ridiculous, and likens it to a mythopoetic bedtime story. Everything came from nothing? Most essentially, Mr. Wolfe employs new research from the controversial anthropologist Daniel Everett to argue that the

Student Unions

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate teaching assistants may unionize. About time. College athletes should be next. Here is what the College Athletes Players Association wants: Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players. Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury. Reduce contact in practices like the NFL and Pop Warner have done, place independent concussion experts on the sidelines, and establish uniform return to play protocols. Improving graduation rates. Establish an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degree and reward those who graduate on time. Consistent with evolving NCAA regulations or future legal mandates, increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships. Securing due process rights. Players should not be punished simply because they are accused of a rule violation, and any punishments levied should be

Theory 0; Observation 1

Spouse - I could hear the band practicing this morning. Theorist - That's probably because the morning inversion caused the sound waves to refract downwards. Spouse - I think it's because I drove by the high school practice field with my window open.

Trump's Leninist?

Ronald Radosh, writing in the Daily Beast: Why has the Trump campaign taken as its new head a self-described Leninist? I met Steve Bannon—the executive director of who’s now become the chief executive of the Trump campaign, replacing the newly resigned Paul Manafort—at a book party held in his Capitol Hill townhouse in early 2014. We were standing next to a picture of his daughter, a West Point graduate, who at the time was a lieutenant in the 101 Airborne Division serving in Iraq. The picture was notable because she was sitting on what was once Saddam Hussein’s gold throne with a machine gun on her lap. “I’m very proud of her,” Bannon said. Then we had a long talk about his approach to politics. He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed. The Trump saga gets odder and odder.

Why Cuba is Still Communist

Recent years have seen the global collapse of Communism. All of the major Communist nations have abolished many of their Marxist and Leninist features, as have all but a tiny handful of minor Communist nations. Cuba is one of the few exceptions. I'm inclined to think that the US, and in particular, the Cuban exile community, are mostly to blame - after Castro, I mean. How so? Our first mistake was welcoming Cuban exiles. Yes, it was the humane thing, but it also ensured that both those most hostile to the Castro regime and those most ambitious and talented would be out of Cuba and unable to influence its historical trajectory. The second mistake was carrying out an official and totally ineffective campaign to overthrow Castro. This gave Castro a totally convincing way of persuading many of the Cuban people that outside enemies were plotting against them. Nothing unifies a people like an external threat. Moreover, exile types like our correspondent Fernando frequently proc

Book Review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Despite my more or less disastrous encounter with the chapter on Phi, Tononi's theory of consciousness, I think this is a pretty good book. One can learn a lot about what makes consciousness possible and impossible, and the often ingenious techniques used to investigate it. Christof Koch's Consciousness has all that and more: historical and philosophical background of the problem, meditations on his own history and behavior, and some interesting stuff on his mentor and "Sun," Francis Crick. I recommend it to anyone interested in this fundamental concept. Koch is confident that consciousness is not something exclusively human. Chimps, dogs, mice and birds have some version of it. Perhaps even bees and flies have it. Many of the key insights into it have come from investigations of the mouse brain, a key target of the Allen Institute that Koch leads. Koch's studies have led him to a certain amount of respect for our junior partners in consciousness: Then, i

Meteorology vs. Theology

In the Middle Ages, and well into the Eighteenth Century, the dominant theory of lightning was that it was the work of "The Prince of the Power of the Air," AKA, the Devil. It was noticed, of course, that lofty church spires often attracted Satan's attention. Consequently, they were heavily protected by the theological and magical means available: blessings, crosses, statues of angels, the burning of occasional suspicious witches, and especially, by bells and their ringing during storms. These means were not notably successful. Benjamin Franklin's lighting rods were initially regarded as heretical and blasphemous. From A.D. White's 1898 "A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom" In England, the first lightning conductor upon a church was not put up until 1762, ten years after Franklin's discovery. The spire of St. Bride's Church in London was greatly injured by lightning in 1750, and in 1764 a storm so wrecked its ma

The Real Thing

A bit more Koch: turning water into wine is so outlandish that it can be rejected using Occam’s razor. It is far more likely that something else, obeying the laws of physics, was the cause. Maybe the wedding organizers discovered long-forgotten flasks of wine in the basement. Or a guest brought the wine as a gift. Or the story was made up to cement Jesus’ reputation as the true Messiah. Remember Sherlock Holmes’ advice: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Miracles are not in the cards. The fabric of everyday reality is woven too tightly for it to be pulled asunder by extranatural forces. I’m afraid that God is an absentee cosmic landlord. If we want things to happen down here, we had better take care of them ourselves. Nobody else is going to do it for us. Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (pp. 157-158). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition. I dunno. Turning water into wine?

More on Integrated Information Theory (IIT)

The Chapter on IIT in Christof Koch's book, Consciousness, seems to be nearly isomorphic to this Scientific American article that he wrote in 2009. Lubosh doesn't like Scott's take on IIT , mostly, I think, because he doesn't like Scott. He was, I suppose, provoked, since Scott did describe him as a "spiteful human being."


From Scott Aaronson, hat tip to Lee. His objections to Integrated Information Theory, though better informed, line up quite well with mine. I should mention that the author of IIT, which I have more or less attributed to Koch, is really Tononi. Why I Am Not An Integrated Information Theorist (or, The Unconscious Expander) Giulio Tononi and Me: A Phi-nal Exchange

Lochte: Dog ate my Homework

Police: Videotape says dog was sleeping peacefully the whole time.

Into the Woods

...Or, the Integro-Differential theory of consciousness. Perhaps you would suspect from this that this theory has something to do with the calculus of Leibniz and Newton. So far as I can tell, that's not it at all. Instead, Koch and collaborators have constructed - claim to have constructed - a theory of consciousness that depends on the degree of differentiation and integration of a complex system. A sample: Integrated information theory introduces a precise measure capturing the extent of consciousness called Φ, or phi (and pronounced “fi”). Expressed in bits, Φ quantifies the reduction of uncertainty that occurs in a system, above and beyond the information generated independently by its parts, when that system enters a particular state. (Remember, information is the reduction of uncertainty.) The parts— the modules— of the system account for as much nonintegrated, independent information as possible. Thus, if all of the individual chunks of the brain taken in isolation alr

Sweden vs. Brazil

Wouldn't it have been simpler to skip all the running around and just go directly to penalty kicks?

More Christof Koch: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Richard Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen is a series of four operas centered on the conflict between fate and freedom. Unrestrained by fear or by the mores of society, the hero, Siegfried, kills the dragon, walks through the ring of fire to woo Brünhilde, and shatters the spear of Wotan, precipitating the destruction of the old world order of the gods. Siegfried follows no laws but his inner desires and impulses. He is free, but he acts blindly, without understanding the consequences of his actions. (It is likely that Siegfried had lesions in his amygdala— he did not know fear— and his ventromedial prefrontal cortex, depriving him of decision-making skills. Genetic and developmental factors contributed to his dysfunctional behavior: his parents were siblings; he was raised as an orphan by a sole caretaker, a quarrelsome dwarf obsessed with a hoard of gold; and he grew up isolated in the depth of the German forest. This lack of social skills ultimately led to his murder at

Consciousness as a Conversation

In summary, local properties of the cortex and its satellite structures mediate the specific content of consciousness, whereas global properties are critical for sustaining consciousness per se. For a coherent coalition of neurons to assemble at all— and for awareness to emerge— the cortico-thalamic complex needs to be suffused with neurotransmitters, chemicals released by the long and winding tentacles of neurons in the deeper and older parts of the brain. Both local and global aspects are critical for consciousness. Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 74). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Questions: $50

Another lovely article by Sabine Hossenfelder. Excerpt: It began after I started as a teaching assistant at the department of physics. The first note was a classic – it proved Albert Einstein wrong. The second one solved the problem of quantum mechanics by dividing several equations through zero, a feat that supposedly explained non-determinism. The next correspondent offered a Theory of Everything, and complained that the academic mainstream was ignoring his insights. I work in theoretical physics, specifically quantum gravity. In my field, we all get them: the emails from amateur physicists who are convinced that they have solved a big problem, normally without understanding the problem in the first place. Like many of my colleagues, I would reply with advice, references and lecture notes. And, like my colleagues, I noticed that the effort was futile. The gap was too large; these were people who lacked even the basic knowledge to work in the area they wanted to contribute to. With

Cowardly Soccer

After losing, US goalie Hope Solo apparently accused the Swedish team of playing "cowardly soccer." Of course what they really did was play defensive soccer, the strategy that they correctly thought would give them the best chance of winning. There is nothing illegal, unethical, or unsportsmanlike about this, but it does tend to make for boring soccer, and produced the dreaded penalty shootout, which is always a bit like deciding the game by a coin toss. The biggest problem with soccer has long been its defensive predominance. One can't imagine an American football game remaining competitive if one side had been reduced to ten players, for example. Because the defense has such a strong advantage, there is always the temptation for the weaker team to sit back and tempt the stronger team into over-committing, or just wait for the coin-flip like penalty shootout. I suggest one modest change in the Olympic and World Cup rules which would get rid of the penalty shootout

Ouch! US out.

Sweden wins on penalties, in a game in which both sides got swindled by the refs. The US failure to shoot straight made the difference in a game in which it dominated possessions and shots but couldn't manage to convert. It looks like the era of US dominance in women's soccer is over. Maybe Trump could build a wall...

Quale Hunting

Hunting for qualia is Christof Koch's life. His scientific quest is the nature, location, and scientific description of consciousness. He tells the story of that quest in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Some early excerpts that capture the personal feel of the book: At this point, I need to introduce qualia, a concept beloved by philosophers of mind. Qualia is the plural of quale. What it feels like to have a particular experience is the quale of that experience: The quale of the color red is what is common to such disparate percepts as seeing a red sunset, the red flag of China, arterial blood, a ruby gemstone, and Homer’s wine-dark sea. ... In this book, I highlight stories from the front lines of modern research into the neurobiology of consciousness. Just as light presupposes its absence, darkness, so consciousness presupposes the unconscious. As Sigmund Freud, Pierre Janet, and others realized in the late nineteenth century, much of what

About Consciousness

I'm reading Christof Koch ( Consciousness: confessions of a romantic reductionist ) and James Joyce ( Ulysses ) right now and once again pondering the nature of consciousness. Joyce tries to reveal his characters more fully by means of his "stream of consciousness" method. I'm skeptical. If you have ever tried to turn the power of introspection onto your consciousness by asking "What am I thinking about right now?" I suspect that the answer you got was "What am I thinking about right now?" At least that's what I always get. Trying to remember what you were thinking about recently might be more fruitful, but, at least in my case, not by much. For me, at least, only a little of what comes to my attention seems to be words. The other stuff, sensory experiences, memories, and connections, needs to be translated into words to be described. Joyce is trying to transcend the limitations of the narrative description by translating these other f

Trump Hints That Supporters Should Shoot Hillary

As quoted in Slate and elsewhere: Trump said this about Hillary Clinton and her ability to pick liberal Supreme Court judges if she wins this November: “By the way and if she gets to pick—if she gets to pick her judges—nothing you can do folks. Although, the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.” Time to lock him up.

The Opium of the People

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, writing in the NYT Sunday Review , looks at what Americans are anxious about, and where Americans are most anxious. His research is based on google searches for such anxiety loaded terms as "panic attack." Over the past eight years, Google search rates for anxiety have more than doubled. They are higher this year than they have been in any year since Google searches were first tracked in 2004. So far, 2016 has been tops for searches for driving anxiety, travel anxiety, separation anxiety, anxiety at work, anxiety at school and anxiety at home. Americans have also become increasingly terrified of the morning. Searches for “anxiety in the morning” have risen threefold over the past decade. But this is nothing compared with the fear of night. Searches for “anxiety at night” have risen ninefold. Anxiety is higher where people are less educated, but anxiety searches don't appear to be correlated with terrorism, Donald Trump, or Trump's fear

Unwitting Dupe

Former CIA director Michael J. Morell on Trump: In sharp contrast to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump has no experience on national security. Even more important, the character traits he has exhibited during the primary season suggest he would be a poor, even dangerous, commander in chief. These traits include his obvious need for self-aggrandizement, his overreaction to perceived slights, his tendency to make decisions based on intuition, his refusal to change his views based on new information, his routine carelessness with the facts, his unwillingness to listen to others and his lack of respect for the rule of law. The dangers that flow from Mr. Trump’s character are not just risks that would emerge if he became president. It is already damaging our national security. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon M


I started reading Ulysses again. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. James Joyce knew seventeen languages. Parts of Ulysses are written in several of them. Joyce pioneered the use of the stream of consciousness style that heavily influenced later writers, most of whom, fortunately, knew fewer than seventeen languages. Like many a bad idea, it continues to be popular.

I Thought Trump Was Scary

...Until I looked at these videos of hate spewing crowds from his rallies. A couple of choice epithets: "fuck that nigger!" (about the President) and "kill her!" (about Clinton). If this isn't fascism, I don't know what is. I never thought it would thrive in the USA, but it seems to be doing pretty well.

The Party of Stupid

Max Boot, military historian and adviser to several Republican Presidential candidates, takes a look at how the Republicans became the party of stupid. In his theory, it started out as a pose. Stupidity is not an accusation that could be hurled against such prominent early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower — a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower — “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.” The John F. Kennedy presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the thinking men and women of America. Rather tha

Fire Dance

After the day's festivities at the Juggler's Association, a fire show was presented on the plaza at the El Paso Convention Center, and after the fire show, they held an open fire dance, where the public (mostly jugglers) was invited to come up and play with fire under relatively controlled conditions. I tried to record a bit of the latter on my phone.  It will be fairly obvious that I have never done this before.