Showing posts from 2017

The Socratic Method

It looks to me like the Socratic Method consists of Socrates slip sliding words around, especially those slipperiest and slidiest of all words, good and bad, until his interlocutor agrees to something utterly absurd, at which point he applies the logical theorem that says that a false premise implies anything and everything. Call me disappointed.

Soc it to Me

SOCRATES: Ask me now what craft I think pastry baking is. POLUS: All right, I will. What craft is pastry baking? SOCRATES: It isn’t one at all, Polus. Now say, “What is it then?” POLUS: All right. SOCRATES: It’s a knack. Say, “A knack for what?” POLUS: All right. CIPas: WTF do you mean by craft vs. knack? Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle (p. 132). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


After reading Plato's account of a dialog between Protagoras and Socrates, I've got to say I've lost a lot of respect for all concerned. The question under debate is whether wisdom and virtue can be learned, with Protagoras initially taking the affirmative. Socrates then chases him around the rhetorical map with what seem to me to be pointless word games, getting P to concede that this and that have similarities or similar opposites. A better Protagoras, I think, would just have said: "Socrates, Socrates, hang up your word games. Let's just say that different words have different meanings, and that even the same word can have different meanings in different contexts." P, in Plato's telling, never points out some of the ridiculous weaknesses in the argument of Socrates, like the absurd chain by which Socrates gets Protagoras to equate courage with knowledge. Frankly, I consider it unlikely that the minds who created Greek geometry could have bought in

Subject No Object

A quick look at Amazon reveals that there are lots of books on Astrobiology. Cambridge has a series on the subject. We even read that NASA is pivoting to astrobiology. The only thing missing to make the subject more vital is an object of study. To date, we have zero evidence of extraterrestrial life of any sort. Given the tantalizing prospect, though, textbooks are being written, and they are firmly grounded in the life the only place we know of it. That's a good idea, I suppose, and based on the notion that any life that we do discover will look a lot like that on Earth. Is that reasonable? The more we learn about life, the less plausible substantially different living systems look. The unique virtues of the carbon based system seem hard to emulate in any other chemistry. Of course, we may just lack imagination. If we do discover signs of living extraterrestrials, it would certainly be one of the most consequential discoveries of all time, but it seems a bit early to

Not a Libertarian

Socrates, I mean. In Plato's Crito , Socrates imagining the Laws of Athens speaking to him: ...Or are you so wise that it has escaped your notice that your fatherland is more worthy of honor than your mother [b] and father and all your other ancestors; that it is more to be revered and more sacred and is held in greater esteem both {112} among the gods and among those human beings who have any sense; that you must treat your fatherland with piety, submitting to it and placating it more than you would your own father when it is angry; that you must either persuade it or else do whatever it commands; that you must mind your behavior and undergo whatever treatment it prescribes for you, whether a beating or imprisonment; that if it leads you to war to be wounded or killed, that’s what you must do, and that’s what is just—not to give way or retreat or leave where you were stationed, but, on the contrary, in war and law courts, and everywhere else, to do whatever your city or [c] fath

Book Preview: Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy

I've been thinking about what classes to take next semester, and one prospect is Ancient Greek Philosophy. So I've started Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle by S. Marc Cohen and Patricia Curd . So far I've read the Presocratics and the first part of Plato, concerning the trial and execution of Socrates. The Presocratics survive only in fragments and testimonia - accounts of their writings by later writers. My uncharitable conclusion is that they were mostly tedious and pointless. Most of them could have clarified their thought if they had studied the words of the great Twentieth Century Sophist, W. J. Clinton, who noted that: "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." The exceptions are Democritus and the Pythagoreans, who actually had some ideas of enduring worth (atomism and number in physics). I give the others an "E" for effort, in that they actually tried to analyze the world in terms of fundamental co

Welfare State 2040

Most who have looked carefully believe that many or even most of today's jobs could be obsolete by 2030 or so. Truck and cab drivers, warehouse workers, radiologists, fast food workers, translators, restaurant cooks and bartenders to name a few. As robots and AI become ever more capable, fewer and fewer jobs that require a direct human presence will be available. The global unemployment crisis is likely to get much worse. The profits of the robot revolution will likely go to the owners of capital in the businesses in which humans have been replaced. This implies that already great economic inequality will continue to rapidly increase, even without such monstrosities as the new American tax law. So should we look forward to a world where the rich use their armies of military robots to suppress or exterminate the starving poor? The only obvious alternative is a greatly expanded welfare state. One proposal (that I really don't care for) is the guaranteed basic income - pay

The Navier-Stokes Equation

Describes the evolution of a fluid. Quanta magazine has a nice article on mathematicians' attempts to probe the limits of the equation, and more importantly, for me, a lovely video of a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability evolving under the equation. Mathematicians have long suspected that there might be something dodgy about the equation, and there is big money, a Millenium Prize, riding on the conjecture that the equation doesn't always have consistent solutions. Quanta notes that these potential problems don't bother physicists, but doesn't bother to say why. The more fundamental reason is that physicists know that the N-S is not a faithful description of nature. If you look at a fluid in close detail, it becomes a seething mass of individual particles, not infinitely divisible fluid elements. There is also another fact: because the NS has chaotic solutions, their predictivity is always limited in practice, whether it is in theory or not.

(Human) Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

The ancients took it for granted that the fate of nations was to fight for supremacy and crush and exterminate others. In the wake of the World Wars of the Twentieth Century, and under the shadow of thermonuclear extinction, attempts were made to introduce morality into relations between nations and ban wars. Needless to say, it hasn't happened. The industrial revolution and capitalism temporarily allowed much of the world to grow faster than population, leading some naive persons to believe that Malthus and Darwin might have been repealed - but they haven't. The precipitous decline in birth rates in wealthy countries has allowed many of them to create societies in which almost everyone can have a decent standard of living, but that has also had the effect of making them a nearly irresistible draw for the rest of the world. So why are those other countries so poor? Of course there are lots of reasons: a history of exploitation, bad governance, corruption, unsound econom


Talking Points Memo has a very good interview with Harvard Economist George Borjas by John Judis . Borjas, himself an immigrant from Cuba, has studied immigration for years. The interview predictably aroused the ire of TPM's liberal readership, mainly because Borjas has concluded that immigration is by no means an unmixed blessing. He even has some (rather faint) praise for Trump's wall, as a "useful symbol" but points out that most illegal immigrants come by legal visas and simply overstay. Some other useful points: most immigrants are low-skill and low-education, those who benefit are the employers who can hire them for wages Americans don't want to work for, those who are hurt by immigration are low-skilled Americans. A particular target is the family preference system which can allow the cousin of the spouse of son of a legal immigrant to themselves become legal immigrants. Judis: But Democrats and liberals would be wise not to dismiss as nativism the


I've seen a UFO or three in my life, though most of them were ultimately identified, at least tentatively: high-altitude research balloons, Iridium flashes, and some really scary insects. They are back in the news because of a recently revealed Pentagon program to study them, funded, apparently, because of the interest of a powerful Senator from (naturally) Nevada. I'm as interested in space aliens as the next skeptical but romantic scientist, but I'm kind of dubious of reports of aliens zooming around in our atmosphere. If aliens who could cross the space between the stars really wanted to unobtrusively study us, why wouldn't they just park a few million miles away and listen in on our TV and talk radio? If they needed a closer look, how about sending robotic cockroaches and butterflies? Of course the reports of alien abductions and returns could just be the alien version of catch and release sport fishing.

Net Neutrality

Ever since the FCC repealed net neutrality my internet speeds have declined to glacial rates - sometimes too slow to even run an internet speed test. Coincidence? Maybe. But these are paranoid times.

Are Blockchains Vulnerable

Lumo is talking about the possibility of something called a 51% attack on blockchains. I don't know enough to have an opinion, but I would be interested in the opinions of those who do.

Alabama Does The Right Thing

Dems are celebrating a big win in the Alabama Senate race, but it's way too early to start patting themselves on the back. It took an exceptional alignment of the stars for Doug Jones to win and such circumstances are unlikely to repeat: the sexual predator accusations, the fact that Moore was already unpopular in Alabama, and the hostility of the mainstream Republican party. The old line Repubs are celebrating another ding in Steve Bannon, but there is plenty of evidence that Trump and Bannon still speak for a big chunk of the electorate. I think Dems will need to further erode that support if they are going to get to majority status in Congress.

Forming Planets

In the current universe, stars form in large molecular clouds, usually having masses thousands of times that of the Sun. Consequently, they usually form in clusters of hundreds or thousands of stars. The discovery of thousands of extra-solar planets in the last couple of decades has demonstrated that many of these stars have planets. So how do these planets form? The molecular clouds out of which stars form are turbulent, and consequently the blobs that condense to form stars have angular momentum - quite a bit more angular momentum than a star, and more, in fact, than a typical stellar system with planets. One way to deal with the angular momentum is to form a binary or multi-star system, two or more stars orbiting each other, and this is extremely common. Another way is to produce a planetary system, and for our solar system, most of the angular momentum is in the planets - mostly in Jupiter. When a overdense "core" region of a cloud stars contracting under gravity,

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

First they came, for Checkers, but I was silent, because I played chess. Then they came for chess, so I might have been a bit less silent, but hey, I still played Go. I whined when Go went down, but now, goldarn it, Alpha Zero has bested the strongest computer programs in Chess, Shogi, and Go, starting from scratch in each case (just the rules) and training itself solely by self-play, making zzero use of all the information humans have assembled over thousands of years of play. Even more annoyingly, it took only a few days to do it. Via Steve Hsu. It's somewhat analogous to giving a five year old a chess set, explaining the rules to him, and coming back a few days later to find he was far better than the best player in the world. Clearly the best neural networks can now learn far more rapidly, and understand more deeply, than any human, at least in narrow domains. All these games are narrowly constrained by definite rules and very specific outcomes. In most human activiti

Once More Into the Breach...

A few years ago, scientists managed to extract some DNA from 5000 year old bones at an ancient burial site at Rakhigarhi, now a village in India, but formerly one of the great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), an ancient and mysterious civilization. One reason the civilization is so mysterious is that its writings, which consist only of a few short inscriptions, have never been deciphered, nor is it known if they even are actually writings. That DNA is very interesting to students of India's demographic history, because it could shed light on a famous controversy over the origins of the Indo-European (IE) languages of India, and consequently on the history of Indian culture, religion and its great literature. Modern Hinduism is thought to have its origins in the Vedas, which were carefully preserved in an elaborate oral tradition for at least hundreds of years and only written down around the First Century BCE. The language of the Vedas is Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-

Winter Comes... Las Cruces, but it's having a lot of trouble getting here. It's snowing right now to the North, West, and East of us. It's even snowing South of us, in El Paso and Mexico. But here, the Sun is shining. I mean if it's going to be cold anyway, could we at least get some snow?


Here is the accusation which supposedly is bringing down Al Franken: Dupuy said she “saw Al Franken” and asked to take a picture with him because her foster mother was a fan. “We posed for the shot. He immediately put his hand on my waist, grabbing a handful of flesh. I froze. Then he squeezed. At least twice,” Dupuy said.

Men (Still) Behaving Badly

Powerful men continue to fall in the wake of Harvey Weinstein's tumble. I doubt if it is news to many women that there are a lot of predators out there, but it keeps surprising men, including the perps, many of whom seem shocked to learn that their behavior was reprehensible. Of course that could be feigned, but I don't think all of it is. One would hope that the steady demolition of icons would cause predators to change their behavior, but it's probably way too early to tell. I was watching a morning news show in which several women discussed a bunch of highly influential newsmen among the recently fallen, and the role they may have played in Hillary Clinton's defeat. The argument was that their predatory behavior was linked to pervasive disrespect for women, and that disrespect was reflected in the coverage of Clinton. I found their arguments pretty persuasive, but I also have to confess that whenever the camera focussed on the youngest one, my primitive brain c

Interesting Headline:

New York City Has Genetically Distinct ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’ Rats. But then I found out that the story was about rodents.

Defending Al Franken?

There are two accusations against the comedian/senator: first that he forcibly kissed the woman against her will, and second, that he groped her while she was sleeping and was photographed doing it. The trouble with the first accusation is that his accuser admits that she agreed to be in a skit in which he tried to kiss her, and further, that she agreed, however reluctantly, to rehearse the kiss. This is a gigantic hole in her story of being kissed against her will. Her problem was that she just didn't like the kiss. When you sign up for an acting gig, rehearsal is a an expected consequence, and the time to protest is before, not after. She also reports that she angrily pushed him away. That's not an appropriate way to react to a scene not going exactly the way you expected, and Franken was understandably offended, maybe as much as she was. The second charge, groping, or simulated groping, is more serious, especially because it was photographed. Franken's revenge wa

Baruk Khazâd!

Oddly enough, the word axes is reputed to be the only word in English which is the plural of three different English words: ax, axe, and axis. Though I think that it's a stretch to consider ax and axe as different words. Ax and Axis both trace back to Proto-Indo-European words that sounded similar and had their modern meanings, but I'm not sure if they were related. So far as I know, the dwarvish 'Baruk' (Axes) is not related to the Hebrew 'Baruch', בָּרוּךְ, (blessed), which is related to the semitic word knee.

Roy Moore

Moore has denied the allegations against him, and his supporters have attacked his accusers. How about lie detector test all around? I don't have that much faith in them, but willingness to take one is often a good indicator.

Louis C. K.

I've never watched his shows or otherwise been a fan, so the very credible sounding accusations against him didn't surprise and dismay me in the same way learning about Bill Cosby did. It seems that Louis C. K. is connected with practically everybody in comedy, as friend, former writer, or mentor. Is it really possible that none of these people had a clue what was going on? The rumors have been out there for some time, and the victims apparently were telling friends, colleagues, and others long before they were interviewed by the New York Times. I think that Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Aziz Ansari and practically every night time host you ever heard of have some explaining to do. So far nearly all of them have kept their silence or been evasive or worse. Louis C. K. was Stephen Colbert's first boss in comedy and so far has been practically the only male to speak out at all. A lot of these creeps are going to escape without any legal consequences, but at least they

Finally: A Good Election Night for Progressives

Big wins in Virginia, New Jersey, Maine, and locally, here in Las Cruces. Even the overwhelmingly victorious Republican congressional winner in Utah is a moderate replacing a right-winger.

AI Going to Take Your Job?

Kevin Drum opined that real AI is going to take everyone's job, but he thinks real AI is still decades away. Like objects in your mirror, AI that can do your job is closer than most people believe. It may well be that AI with a general intelligence exceeding humans is a few decades away, but the fact is that most jobs in today's world don't really demand that much general intelligence. What they do require is some specialized intelligence, and we already have AI that has proven very good at that sort of thing. Your cab driver, your radiologist, your check out clerk don't actually need to appreciate Shakespeare or the NFL to do their jobs, they just need some knowledge in a specialized area. I think that it's underappreciated that the big thing holding back robots today is not intelligence but sensors and actuators. Humans, and for that matter, ants, are equipped with rich suites of each. Progress in making small sensors has been very rapid, although the speci

Professional Courtesy

Rand Paul, Senator and opthamologist, purportedly was assaulted by a neighbor, also a physician, in their gated community in Bowling Green Kentucky. The alleged assailant is said to be a pain specialist.

The Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram

If you were to understand only one thing about stellar structure and evolution, it ought to be the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. It's a simple idea - a plot of the absolute luminosity (brightness) of stars against their surface temperature (often captured via their color, as measured by their relative brightness in two bands, the blue (B) minus the visual (V).) Below is a version, from the Wikipedia link, due to Richard Powell. The most obvious feature of this diagram is the non-random distribution of the stars, with most of them being concentrated near a slightly curved line from lower right (low luminosity versus red color and low temperature) to upper left (high luminosity versus blue color and high temperature). This line is the main sequence, and consists of stars burning hydrogen in their cores, which is how they spend most of their lives. There is also a more diffuse blob of stars to the right of the main sequence, consisting of bright and cooler stars inhabiting the

Making Fun of Fat People

A Pulitzer Prize winning columnist got in trouble for commenting on Huckleberry Sanders' weight. As a fat person, I suppose I should resent that. I mean there are lots of good reasons to knock her, like her incessant lying, slander, and ridiculous non-sequiturs. Should we really need to go after her fake eyelashes? On the other hand, if we can't make fun of a person's appearance, what are editorial cartoonists to do? And Stephen Colbert's show might have to go to a half-hour format. I'm probably insensitive and spoiled because my acquaintances seem to be polite enough to not knock my appearance to my face.


Another former pro football star, now in declining mental health, has promised to donate his brain to research on CTE. His son was also a victim of football, a quadrapelegic as a result of a neck injury. They, like many other critics, believe that youth football, especially for younger players, should be banned. Meanwhile, as every season, very serious football injuries continue to pile up. One straightforward rule change could probably drastically change injury rates - ban unlimited substitution. Because of unlimited substitution, line positions in football are now dominated by 330 lb. behemoths who are so strong that they routinely injure others and themselves with size and strength. Current rules mean that they play in 12 second bursts for a small fraction of the clock time. If players had to play most of the game, offense and defense, with much shorter breaks, linemen would quickly get 60-70 lb (or more) lighter.

Trick or Treat

Organized candy fests at schools, churches and community centers seem to have depressed Tricker-Treater turnout. Of course my neighborhood is also getting older. By six O'Clock it was apparent that we had way too much candy. Even handing it out by the fistful wasn't enough. In the good old days kids used to show up by the vanful around 8:00 PM - from whence we never knew. Whence ever, they were no shows tonight. After 7:15 we seemed to mainly get tweens and teens.

Corporate Power Today

Let's abandon the libertarian world for a moment to consider the News industry in the US today. The US has two national newspapers (the NY Times and the Washington Post), or perhaps 2 1/2 if you include the Wall Street Journal, which doesn't really have fully national reporting nor editorial content. The WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the NYT is controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family (though the largest shareholder is Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim), and the Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Like other Murdoch news enterprises, the WSJ is predictably right-wing and pro-Trump. The WP and NYT are usually considered liberal and anti-Trump but both work hard at trying to be non-partisan - which is really hard when you are tying to report the truth. There is no significant leftist press in the US. There are also three national News Television networks, Fox, owned by Murdoch, being hard right and pretty much a dedicated Trump propaganda site. MSNBC is

A Brief Segue Into Contestable Markets

Since the Stoat has derided me for my purported ignorance of contestable markets, let me use his own petard* to hoist him above the castle walls: A perfectly contestable market has three main features: No entry or exit barriers No sunk costs Access to the same level of technology (to incumbent firms and new entrants) A perfectly contestable market is not possible in real life. Dr. Connolley thinks that Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have contestable effective monopolies. Did he even read the three "essential features" in his link? None of them comes close to applying to these corporations. In particular, sunk costs are in the tens of billions, technology is protected by a vast patent web, and entry costs are enormous. My free advice: Mr. Connolley should stop reading Tim Worstall and read some actual economists. On second thought, never mind. Economics is heavily populated with dolts and scoundrels with PhDs and professorships. But Tim is an idiot. *I mean Wi

One More Try

I tried asking the question "what do libertarians think should be done about untrammelled corporate power?" Or at least I thought I did. Based on the answers I got, most people seemed to think I was complaining about the quality of service I was getting from Amazon or Google. I was expecting something more along the lines of either "corporate power, what corporate power?" or "the magic of the market and its invisible hand will fix any problems." Let me adduce a few examples of that rampaging corporate power. The most extreme example is probably the British East India Company, a corporate entity with its own army which overthrew dozens of independent nations and killed, directly or indirectly, millions of people. Similar rampaging corporations on a smaller scale were the slave trading companies that terrorized Africa for centuries, the corporate arms of King Leopold of Belgium, and Cecil Rhodes and the Rothschilds, each responsible millions more murde

A Question for Libertarians

I will take a break from my usual pastime of Libertarian bashing to ask a question: Does libertarianism have an answer for the extraordinary power and control of our lives achieved by the giant transnational corporations? I am thinking primarily of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet(Google) and Microsoft. Their resources now dwarf those of many or most nations, and their business means that they possess an extraordinary amount of information about us, likely more than any country.

League of Extraordinary Gropesters.

It's not news that sexual assault and sexual harrassment is not confined to Hollywood and Fox News. Four recent US Presidents (Kennedy, H.W. Bush, Clinton and of course Trump) have now been credibly accused. A well known CNBC panelist was just suspended following accusations by five women. It is extremely likely that these cases are only an insubstantial tip of a vast iceberg. We discussed the topic in my history class and every woman in the class reported being a victim. Almost every woman either has been a victim or knows several women who have. We probably can't hope to remove these predators from our society, but making serious examples of the top predators should be a priority. If even half the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are true, he undoubtedly belongs in jail. I don't know the details of the O'Reilly case, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same is true of him. These crimes should be priorities for District Attorneys, especially in view o

Anomalies in Physics Publishing

Several decades ago, as a physics undergrad, I bought Sears and Zemansky's University Physics for $9.95 (the price was on the inside of the front cover). It was already a third edition at that point. The current 14th edition has acquired new authors and lists for 309.80, and for another couple of c-notes you can get the solutions manual and some other aid. I'm going to guess that mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, and optics haven't changed that much, but the book has fattened up to 1600 pages. What a ripoff, but you can get slightly older editions for less than my price for edition 3. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, I found a beautifully bound and printed copy of an 700 plus page advanced textbook/monograph for less than $25 bucks - including shipping from New Delhi, India. Published in the US, printed in the UK, it somehow made its way to India and back (via Germany, and Ohio) to Las Crucesfor a dirt cheap price. Wierd.

Condolence Calls

Such calls are hard, and Donald Trump has zero talent for empathy. I think that it was as inappropriate for the Congresswoman to release his inappropriate comments as it was for Trump to make them. However, General Kelly's strident and seriously inaccurate attack on her was even worse, if possibly excusable on the grounds of his personal experiences with that most awful of condolence calls. Maybe we should all dial it back on this subject.

Spurious Correlations and Spearman's g

Spearman's g, of course, is IQ. When various tests of mental abilities (verbal, mathematical, and geometrical, for example) are given, it is found that scores tend to be positively correlated, so that better performance on one type of test is correlated with better performance on others. Factor analysis is a tool for analyzing such correlations. If we measure a couple of parameters that are strongly correlated, like human height and weight, for example, and display them on a graph, they will tend to cluster in a roughly elliptical region along a line. Factor analysis finds the line of best bit. For poorly correlated variables, like perhaps time of day and height, clustering will be less evident. Factor analysis works in higher dimensions too. The essential idea is to transform the original measurement variables into linear combinations that resolve the highest amount of variance. If one measures a large number of variables, or simulates a large number of random variables, c

Chandra's Birthday

Today's Google doodle celebrates S. Chandrasekhar's 107th birthday, and hooray for that. I have several of his books and his writing was as clear as his thinking. I guess the doodle is trying to illustrate that white dwarfs can be heavy compared to some main sequence stars, but an actual white dwarf has only about one millionth of the volume of its main sequence counterpart.

How the Kochs Got Back in the Driver's Seat

The Koch brothers didn't support Donald Trump and a lot of his rhetoric seemed dangerous to them. A few months down the road, though, the White House is populated with Koch people and the Kochs' Libertarian agenda is running the show, especially where it can do the most damage to the environment and do the most for the Kochs' vast wealth. Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, tells the story. The Key piece of the puzzle turns out to be Vice President Mike Pence, whose public face as Trump's amiable sycophant obscures our view of the long time made guy in the Kochtopus. Excerpt: The Kochs, who are not religious, may have been focussed more on pocketbook issues than on Pence’s faith. According to Scott Peterson, the executive director of the Checks & Balances Project, a watchdog group that monitors attempts to influence environmental policy, Pence was invited to the Koch seminar only after he did the brothers a major political favor. By the spring of 2009, Koch

Evil Genius

The evil geniuses who populate comic books and bad science fiction movies are usually bent on world domination or just messing up everybody else's lives. That type of evil genius, quite fortunately, seems rare or maybe nonexistent. I suppose that we would like our geniuses to be saintly, but that's not very common either, and some geniuses are definitely evil, but their evil seems to be more prosaic than the stereotype. Bill Cosby was definitely a comic genius, if such a thing exists, but he was also apparently a serial rapist. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski also come to mind. Even Harvey Weinstein seems to have had sort of a genius for making movies. Of course many ordinary jerks and "fucking idiots" are also sexual predators, but being wealthy, powerful, or a famous genius provides a lot of extra insulation from the consequences. Power corrupts, in Lord Acton's famous aphorism, and genius is a sort of power. It apparently doesn't take a lot of diff

More Libertarian Work

The Washington Post and the Sixty-Minutes television show collaborated on the story of how deregulation, corporate greed, and a few corrupt Congressmen trigger the American opioid epidemic which has now killed more than three times as many Americans as the Vietnam War. Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets. By then, the opioid war had claimed 200,000 lives, more than three times the number of U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam War. Overdose deaths continue to rise. There is no end in sight. A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to an investigation by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes.” The DEA had opposed the effort for years. T

One of Our Apex Predators is Down

...And his fellows are quickly ripping apart his corpse. Harvey Weinstein, I mean, and the Academy has kicked him out. Even his brother is dissing him. The carnage is possibly prompted by fear that the contagion will spread. I mean that their own crimes will come out. Meanwhile, the predator in chief (or PRIC, for short) remains safely ensconced in his golf resorts. I wonder if the swift fall of Weinstein will prompt his accusers to push forward. Let's hope so.

Violent Relaxation...

...sounds like a new form of extreme sports for the overly energetic, but it's actually a process of some importance in galaxy formation. The virial theorem relates the time average of the kinetic energy of a system of gravitationally bound particles to its potential energy: Tav = -(1/2)V. A system in which this kinetic energy is close to this average is called relaxed. Suppose one starts with an arrangement of, say 100, mass particles with random velocities and turns on gravity. Initially, there is no particular relation between the total kinetic energy and the potential energy (except they should be bound, so T +V < 0). After a few particle crossing times (the time for a typical particle to cross the distribution under influence of other particles gravity) one should find that the ratio approaches the virial average. Such a system is said to be relaxed. One process that leads to relaxation is gravitational encounters between pairs of individual particles , which tends

Why Do We Still Suck at Soccer?

For the first time since 1986, the US failed to qualify for the World Cup - and failed in truly humiliating fashion. Why? Brian Phillips blame leadership. The problem seems to be that American players just aren't very good - though I thought they played credibly in Brazil. At least a few factors probably play a role. The level of youth teaching is generally quite poor. Soccer is a second class sport, played mostly by suburban kids whose parents have too much sense to let them play football. The suburban dominance probably also means that many top athletes don't get the chance to play or just prefer the bigger rewards in football and basketball. Arun suggested, no doubt sarcastically, that genetics might play a role. As in other sports where foot speed and agility are at a premium, this makes sense, and indeed many of the top players all over the world have Afro-European ancestry. Of course the US also has plenty of athletes of such ancestry, but maybe they just play

Why Do Powerful Men Sexually Exploit Women?

Oh wait - I know the answer to this one! Because they can! And because they can get away with it. The recent ignominious fall of Harvey Weinstein is just the latest blip in a story older than the casting couch, older, in fact, than history. Of course now that he is down, even a few old buddies are having a kick at his still squirming body, but before the fall he managed to intimidate numerous famous actresses, the New York DA, NBC and other prominent media outfits into silence. This story is getting monotonous: Ailes, O'Reilly, Cosby; Kennedy, Clinton, and Trump. Some who have fallen and plenty of others still on the loose. One might think that Hollywood is something of a worst case scenario. Immense power, and plenty of young women willing to use their bodies to take a step up - easy for a powerful man to imagine that it's all there for them, whether the women are willing or not. The Lewinsky case suggests that it's not much different for politicians.


Ross Doughhat has a column entitled "The Pigs of Liberalism" featuring his older look alike, Harvey Weinstein. Ross starts off his improbable tirade with: If you are surprised by the news that Harvey Weinstein of Miramax fame, a man well known for profane tirades and physical altercations and scrounging M&Ms off movie theater floors, is also the sort of charmer who loafs around semi-nude while asking subordinates for “back” massages, then you can be surprised by just about anything: the sun rising in the east, the fact that movie stars employ plastic surgeons, the news that “The Artist” didn’t actually deserve to win Best Picture. Doubtless Ross would be surprised to hear that 95% of Americans think Harvey Weinstein might be a dentist. Among the 5% who have noticed his name in the credits of some excellent movies, I would guess that less than 1 in a thousand has any clue to his sexual habits or proclivities. Obviously, Mr. Douthat was in that select group, which mak

Test these Suckers!

Donald Trump, perhaps offended by being called a "fucking moron" by his own Secretary of State, challenged Tillerson to an IQ comparison. Given that both men are well into the age of IQ decline, any past scores are irrelevant, so a new test is clearly called for. MENSA, a society of misfits dedicated to celebrating their own IQs, purportedly in the top 2%, has offered to host a test for both. Personally, I suspect that an IQ test aimed at the top 2 % might be too tough for both, and Trump has a busy golf schedule, so perhaps something like the Wonderlic might be more appropriate. Personally, my money is on Tillerson to score in the offensive-tackle to quarterback range, while I've got Trump out there with the cornerbacks. Actually, I'd like to see IQ tests made mandatory for all candidates for public office. If you need an IQ test to play linebacker in the NFL, why not one to serve in Congress, or as President?

Inspired by Pence Clown Show*...

... Alexandra Petri imagines a few more protests for the Vice President. After briefly refusing to dignify a football game with his absence, Vice President Pence jetted to California for a previously scheduled event, and I guess President Trump thought this was how protests ought to go. Below are a few more ideas for protests that Pence doubtless has planned. Take Secret Service detail 80 miles out of the way to glower at a yard sign that says “No Matter Where You’re From, I’m Glad You’re My Neighbor.” Pointedly refuse a piece of toast because it appears to contain an image of the Virgin Mary and his wife is not present to guard his virtue. *Pence flew to Indianapolis and went to the Colts vs. 49ers game just to watch the opening ceremony and walk out when some of the players knelt for the anthem. Good use for taxpayer bucks. Good use for the second dumbest guy in DC.

Ethics, Economics, and Climate

The Stoat has a nearly impenetrably referential post on the subject as above. As usual, reading the post left me pretty much entirely clueless about what he was talking about, but because I had more important work that I wanted to avoid, I read a couple of the links. I discovered that a few years ago he seemed to be able to express himself more clearly, though even then he wasn't willing to give his stuff a descriptive title. His point, then and now, as I understand it was: So I’ll be more explicit, here, and argue for solving GHG emissions as a matter of economics, to be handled by taxation, rather than as a matter of morality, to be handled… somehow. Context: Eli wants to handle it as ethics. And a fair amount of the comments on Can global emissions really be reduced? are about this. Oddly enough, I agree with this, but I think that posing potential solutions as economics versus ethics is profoundly misleading, mostly because they are inextricably intertwined. Ethics i

Jews, What Jews?

From the NYT : The architecture of Canada’s new National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa is both symbolic and haunting, with six concrete triangles depicting the stars that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, and that marked millions of them for extermination during World War II. But while the structure’s design embodies Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, a plaque placed outside it failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism, an omission that has drawn furious criticism. There were Jewish victims of the Holocaust? Who knew? Not Donald Trump, of course, but apparently he wasn't alone.

Weiss, Thorne, and Barish

Win Physics Nobel, surprising exactly nobody. Discovery of gravitational waves, 100 years after they were first predicted, is clearly the biggest physics discovery of the twenty-first century (so far). The only surprise was that GR waves didn't win last year.

Taking a Knee

Apparently Colin Kaepernick came up with the taking a knee during the anthem gesture after long discussions with a Green Beret who argued that taking a knee was both respectful of the flag and distinctive enough to be recognized as a protest. Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word Baruch and its Arabic cognates Barak and Mubarak, each meaning blessed, seem to be derived from words meaning "knee" or "to kneel." FWIW

Helicopter Time

General Russel Honore, who led the relief effort to New Orleans after Katrina, didn't exactly mince words when reacting to Trump's pussyfooting on the question of suspension of the Jones Act for relief to Puerto Rico (he did suspend it for Texas and Florida). Honore said: "That SOB who rides around in Air Force One doesn't give a damn about poor people or people of color." I don't think he was talking about the pilot or the chief steward. Honore also said that what was really needed was an infusion of cash for an economy where credit cards no longer work and almost everybody is now jobless. Hell yes, and as Honore says, hire the unemployed to clean up and rebuild.


So what is known about the genetics of speed? In the cases of horses and dogs, quite a lot. For humans, maybe not as much, since we don't deliberately breed people for speed. Still, there is quite a lot that is known. One big factor is limb conformation, specifically the lever arm of the attached muscles. This has to do with the relative lengths of the limbs and where exactly the muscles are attached. These things are mostly controlled by genetics and completely immune to training. The strength and composition of the muscles involved is also important, and in particular the types of muscle fibers composing the muscles. Muscle fiber type is specified by genetics, while training has the ability to strengthen muscles, but can't change the type. Recruitment, the degree and ease with which fibers are neurally activated is partially genetic but can be increased by training. Muscle training essentially works by increasing the size of individual fibers and improving their rec

More on Genes

Arun Gupta: Americans of the stupid variety keep trying to justify the way things are by genetics. But the fact is that culture (learned behavior) is far stronger . I have pretty good reason to suspect that the "American of the stupid variety" he has is mind is your humble correspondent. But let's consider the merits of the claim. It seems to me that claiming that culture is much more important than genetics is a bit like claiming that the brain is more important than the lungs. Both are essential, but the relative importance of the two depends on context. In this case, the crucial qualities under consideration are running speed and what the football scouts refer to as athleticism - essentially acceleration in changing one's state of motion. These are matters of details of body mechanics like limb proportions and the relative size of the achilles tendon. Training can affect muscle strength and reaction times, but the above mentioned critical matters are det

Insults: Advantage Kim

I think Kim Jong Un is currently leading the insult contest with "Deranged Dotard" crushing "Rocket Man." I mean, come on. Rocket Man sounds more like a compliment than an insult, so it lacks sting. "Deranged Dotard" is not only clearly insulting but it seems appropriately descriptive.

Sue the Bastards: Football Kills Your Brain

Ken Belson in the NYT: Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who committed suicide in April while serving a life sentence for murder, was found to have a severe form of C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma that has been found in more than 100 former N.F.L. players. Researchers who examined the brain determined it was “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age,” said a lawyer for Hernandez in announcing the result at a news conference on Thursday. Hernandez was 27. C.T.E., or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, can be diagnosed only posthumously. Hernandez is the latest former N.F.L. player to have committed suicide and then been found to have C.T.E., joining Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, Andre Waters, Ray Easterling and Jovan Belcher, among others. Seau and Duerson shot themselves in the chest, apparently so that researchers would be able to examine their brain. Hernandez was found hanging in his prison cell.

Genetic Differences

I think I read that Jimmy the Greek got fired from his sports job for saying that blacks dominate American sports because they have more talent. It's probably more complicated than that but the science of human genetic differences is controversial mainly because of its potential implications for the subject of racial differences. What with White Supremacists and Nazis making a comeback, it's hardly possible to dispassionately discuss such matters. The standard line on the left, I think, is that race is a social construct. Well, of course, but that doesn't mean that it isn't related to biological history. I think that the left - and I'm slightly left myself - overplays its hand when it insists that noticing differences correlated with race is evidence of racism or other dastardly crimes against propriety. If you publicly insist on a claim that anyone can see is false you discredit yourself more than anyone else. I would guess that anyone who follows sports in

Sonic Warfare in Cuba

For sometime American and then Canadian diplomats and their families in Cuba seem to have been subjected to some kinds of weird sonic attacks, which have caused hearing loss and even brain injury. Aa central oddity is that the Cuban government would seem to have no obvious motive for such attacks. As reported by Josh Lederman, Michael Weissenstein, and Rob Gillies on TPM: The Cuban president sent for the top American envoy in the country to address grave concerns about a spate of U.S. diplomats harmed in Havana. There was talk of futuristic “sonic attacks” and the subtle threat of repercussions by the United States, until recently Cuba’s sworn enemy. The way Castro responded surprised Washington, several U.S. officials familiar with the exchange told The Associated Press. In a rare face-to-face conversation, Castro told U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis that he was equally befuddled, and concerned. Predictably, Castro denied any responsibility. But U.S. officials were caught off g

Nuclear Targeting Strategy

Every President from Eisenhower to Reagan had looked at our nuclear war plans and been appalled. Several, including Kennedy and Carter had resolved to do something about a hair trigger plan that promised to destroy civilization and perhaps all human life. All were defeated by what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, which had the US Strategic Air Command close to its heart. ON JANUARY 25, 1991, General George Lee Butler became the head of the Strategic Air Command. During his first week on the job, Butler asked the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff to give him a copy of the SIOP[The US Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war]. General Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had made clear that the United States needed to change its targeting policy, now that the Cold War was over. As part of that administrative process, Butler decided to look at every single target in the SIOP, and for weeks he carefully scrutinized the thousands of desired gr

The Mark of Cain

Recent hurricanes, the incredible shrinking airline coach seat, and, especially the recent Equifax data breach, have reminded me of how important I believe government regulation to be. Which gives me yet another excuse to bash libertarianism. I believe that I first encountered libertarians in high school, and I reacted with an instant hostility which has neither evaporated nor abated in the succeeding sixty years, though reading Ayn Rand certainly refreshed my immune reaction. I have sometimes tried to comprehend the deep roots of this distaste, with only modest success. I consider myself a liberal, more classical than modern, so I share some values with the libertarians, but certainly not all. In the Bible, after Cain had whacked his brother Abel, God asked him, perhaps rhetorically, "where is your brother?" Cain replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" That question, or rather its answer, is the central difference between liberals and libertarians. To put

Evacuations and Uncertainty

Irma spent the night slow dancing with Cuba. Very bad for Cuba but probably spared Miami and the East coast of Florida the worst effects of the hurricane. If so, those who evacuated Miami at considerable cost and trouble may be outraged. The thing always is that prediction of hurricane path and especially intensity, though drastically improved, is not, and is not likely to become, an exact science. On the other hand, if evacuations had not happened, and the quite likely event of a direct hit on the East coast had happened, the casualties could have been immense. All of which invites the question: is there a better way? I think there is. It's not cheap, but I think it would save lives and money over the long run. I've mentioned the basic idea before. Build large, well-equipped, durable, and multi-use shelters near as many flood prone regions of high density population as possible. This should be accompanied with two other policy changes: phase out flood insurance and d

Category Six

Weather Underground has an extremely popular weather blog that used to be called Category Six. (I think that the new name is Weather Underground Category Six). Anyway, the name led some noobs to think that Hurricane Irma was in fact a category six hurricane. There isn't any such, but should there be? Maggie Astor, writing in the NYT, mentions some of the arguments while saying that its not going to happen: As Irma churned west with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour on Tuesday, making it among the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, some armchair meteorologists suggested that there should be. On the surface, that makes some sense: The difference between successive categories on the existing scale ranges from 14 to 26 miles per hour, and Irma’s winds were 28 miles per hour past the Category 5 threshold. In the years ahead, hurricanes are quite likely to become stronger, and the strongest ones more frequent. But Category 6 still is not going to happen. Why not?


Hurricane Irma is now a true beast, with 180 mile per hour sustained winds and gusts up to 220 mph. Very few structures can sustain such winds, and it will cause terrible devastation wherever it strikes. Worst case scenarios devastate all of Florida and much of the Atlantic seaboard. Best case scenarios are mostly still pretty bad for somebody.

NK Fusion Bomb

The bomb tested by North Korea had a yield 10-15 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb, so was it a true fusion bomb? We don't know yet, but it seems likely. 120 Kilotons, while on the small side for a fusion bomb, is really big for a fission bomb. One possibility is that it was Sakharov's First Idea type layer cake bomb, a simpler fusion assisted type of bomb which probably can't get either really big yields or fit on a reasonable sized missile. Ulam-Teller type designs, used by all the other thermonuclear powers are able to be both compact and extremely powerful. In any case, a 120 kiloton bomb can devastate a large city.

Harvey and Climate Change

I have a message for Nick Kristof and everybody else who thinks that Harvey's devastation is a perfect occasion for discussion of climate change. STFU! It's not that I don't care about climate change, but there is something much more urgent to deal with. The Houston catastrophe may have been exacerbated by climate change (or not) but much of the disaster can be traced directly to failure to plan for an almost entirely predictable flood event. Houston and the Texas coast grew recklessly and essentially planlessly and its citizens paid the price for their governments' failure to plan. Houston and other coastal cities will rebuild, but decisions made in the next year or so can profoundly affect what happens the next time a big hurricane comes ashore in the US, and there will be many such next times, starting as soon as next week. By contrast, what we do about climate change won't do anything to protect our coastal cities anytime in the next several decades. Davi