Showing posts from April, 2017

It's Your Damn Fault Barry!

Donald Trump didn't attend this year's White House Correspondent's Dinner, but he was there in 2011. Marlow Stern in the Daily Beast: That year, then-President Barack Obama and host Seth Meyers lit a fire under Donald Trump with a deliciously inventive panoply of insults, teeing off on everything from his New Yawk accent and elaborate coif to his time hosting The Celebrity Apprentice. Trump, a real estate tycoon who’d recently made a name for himself spearheading the racist birther movement against the first black president, was there as a guest of The Washington Post, and with each stinging barb, the camera trained on the stone-faced mogul, seething with anger. He later called Meyers’s remarks “nasty” and “out of order.” “I saw him a couple of nights afterward at an event in New York, and I walked over to thank him for being a good sport and he really impressed on me then that I had taken it too far,” Meyers told THR. “He did not accept my offer of good sport.” “Tha

Reason: Book Preview

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? ..................W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2. The Prince of Denmark had his qualms about the paragon and his noble and infinite faculty. The authors of The Enigma of Reason bring evolutionary psychology to task of explication and analysis of the faculty in question. In particular, they are interested in how it evolved and what its evolutionary value has been. Animals, humans are animals! Ah, but humans, and humans alone, are endowed with reason. Reason sets them apart, high above other creatures— or so Western philosophers have claimed. Mercier, Hugo (2017-04-17). The Enigma of Reason (Kindle Locations 82-83). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. A starting point: How should succe

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

I was beginning to be oppressed by the thousands of pages of serious reading I had on my table. Sometimes it just seems hard. What to do about it? How about some non-serious reading, like an old fashioned space opera? Leviathan Wakes , by James S. A. Corey, looked like a plausible prospect. I didn't know it when I bought it, but it's also kind of a plus that Corey is actually the pseudonym of two Albuquerque based writers. I mean homeboys, close enough. Leviathan is set a few hundred years in the future, when humankind has colonized the Moon, Mars, many of the the moons of the outer planets and numberless asteroids. The protagonists are a Ceres based detective in the noir mode and the executive officer of an ice hauling freighter who gets involved in a response to a mayday call from a crippled ship. This is not hard science fiction, but it does try to stay within the bounds of physics. It has elements of mystery and horror as well as space faring adventure. It is per

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea... be sung to the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune... The alternatives seem to be letting North Korea develop the capability to launch nuclear attacks on US cities or engaging in a preemptive war of quite possibly catastrophic proportions. I expect that Kim Jong Un is thinking that "you can have my nukes when you pry them from my hot radioactively glowing hand." I doubt that Trump's people have any better idea how to solve this dilemma than Bush or Obama - but he might be more precipitate.

Marching to Pretoria

...or around in circles. Marching is a time honored means of trying to produce solidarity, probably discovered a few thousand years ago. It's why soldiers still drill in marching. I get that walking around with a bunch of like minded individuals can help persuade one that one is part of a movement that might actually succeed. I've never cared for it. To me, the idea of marching for science is more than a little ridiculous, but more power to those who did it. I sympathize with the cause, even if I doubt the efficacy of the method, but unless you actually have plans for storming the Bastille, its also a confession of helplessness.

To Buy or Not to Buy

Whether it is nobler in the mind to buy a second edition of a book that I already have custody of the first, or to await the third, perchance to die (first). It's a rapidly moving field. But it's an expensive book. The author projects a 2022 publication date. Actuarial tables suggest a slightly better than even chance of still being alive by then, but a significantly larger chance of being too senile to comprehend it.

Still NEW

John Horgan has a new (or should I say NEW) interview with Peter Woit here. Sample: Woit: No one thinks that the subtle "demarcation problem" of deciding what is science and what isn't can simply be dealt with by invoking falsifiability. Carroll's critique of naive ideas about falsifiability should be seen in context: he's trying to justify multiverse research programs whose models fail naive criteria of direct testability (since you can't see other universes). This is however a straw man argument: the problem with such research programs isn't that of direct testability, but that there is no indirect evidence for them, nor any plausible way of getting any. Carroll and others with similar interests have a serious problem on their hands: they appear to be making empty claims and engaging in pseudo-science, with "the multiverse did it" no more of a testable explanation than "the Jolly Green Giant did it". To convince people this is s

Red, The Dawn That Is To Come

Kevin Drum: From the Associated Press: A man accustomed to wealth and its trappings, Trump has embraced life in the Executive Mansion, often regaling guests with trivia about the historic decor. With the push of a red button placed on the Resolute Desk that presidents have used for decades, a White House butler soon arrived with a Coke for the president. I just thought you'd all like to know. I hope he doesn't get his buttons mixed up.

Hammer of the Heretic

Lumo has a new heretic to persecute: Berkeley physicist Richard Muller. Muller is a contrarian sort who attacked climate scientists for what he thought were dubious statistical methods and other crimes, and used that attack to scarf up some denialist money to conduct his own study. Which turned out to confirm the climate scientist's conclusions in almost every significant particular. No doubt that annoyed the Lumonator. What seems to have pushed Lubos over the edge - and it never take much - though, is the fact Muller has declared that he doesn't believe the Milankovitch theory of ice ages. I suspect that this conclusion is due to nothing more rational than Muller's orneriness, but it was a serious insult to the Czech patriot. I also tentatively infer that Muller, after an unsuccessful colloquy with Lubos, may have told him to engage in an improbable self sex act. The result is this tirade , which as a minor aside, includes an anti-semitic threat against another scie

Open Clusters: Three Body Problems

All stars seem to form from large molecular clouds, and each such formation event seems to produce many stars - hundreds or thousands. Many of these clusters of stars quickly disperse, but so-called open clusters can endure for billions of years. They do exhibit a peculiar behavior though. Instead of the expected behavior, called dynamical relaxation, in which the heaviest stars sink gradually toward the center while the lighter ones expand they seem to show a very gradual uniform expansion. It appears that this is due to interactions of other stars with binaries pairs of stars. (A SciAm article by Steven W. Stahler) What drives the uniform expansion of open clusters? Converse and I demonstrated that the key is binary stars: pairs of close, orbiting companions that are quite common in stellar groups. Simulations performed by Douglas Heggie, now at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, showed in the mid-1970s that when a third star approaches such a pair, the three engage in a

Amazon Knows My Taste

Wherever I go on the Web, Amazon ads follow me. And not random adverts. Ones carefully tailored to my taste. As proven by the fact that I have already bought those books. From Amazon. How dumb do they think I am? Or do they actually know?


In my gender and skin color. Let me rephrase that: I'm perfectly happy being male and having the skin color I have, despite its probable contribution to my skin cancers. What I'm unhappy with is that small majorities of both whites and males still approve Trump more than they disapprove him. So, at least, says a new Washington Post CNN poll. I had sort of reconciled to being a member of the mentally weaker sex, but skin color too? I mean, fellow males and pale skins, WTF is the matter with us? This is not a hard question. Hope you wake up before this idiot gets us all killed.

Gunning for the Win

You really can't afford to be anti-gun in Montana. How the candidates for Montana's open Congressional seat show their arms: Since then, Quist has vowed to protect Second Amendment rights. In his gun ad, he uses his family’s rifle to shoot a TV playing an attack ad. Gianforte countered that with an ad of his own, claiming that Quist wants to create a national gun registry that would store personal information on a “big government computer.” The ad then shows Gianforte using a firearm to shatter a computer screen. Gravitas.

History's Lessons

...are many but highly ambiguous. Some historians would even deny their existence. History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes.............attributed to, but quite possibly not actually said by, Mark Twain. One lesson I'm pretty confident of, however, is that humans have a strong tendency to assemble themselves in rival groups and kill each other. My confidence is considerably increased by the collaborating evidence from anthropology, archaeology, biology, and psychology. That tendency has always been a source of endless grief, but since the advent of nuclear weapons, has become an extinction level threat. Historically, the best remedy for interpersonal violence has been a state with a monopoly on violence. Only a global state, or something like it, could work when every two-bit state gets nuclear weapons. Such a state is unnatural to human instincts, and anathema to nationalists of every stripe, so highly unlikely to happen. Unless our robot overlords decide that it&#


World War II shattered every great power except the US and Russia. When Germany surrendered, the Soviets had overwhelming military superiority in Europe. Had Stalin chosen that moment to try to overrun the rest of Europe, could he have been stopped? It's hard to imagine how. The much smaller US Army in Europe would have been hard pressed to stop them. Stalin already knew, though, that the US was close to a nuclear bomb - the Trinity test was only two months away, and after Hiroshima, it was clear that that option was impossible. I seem to recall that Bertrand Russell suggested that it would be a good idea for the US and Britain to use their nuclear superiority at that point to force Russia to surrender and give up it's plans for a bomb. Many of the scientists at Los Alamos foresaw the world of today, where all sorts of countries would have nukes and the means to deliver them, and thought that the only viable alternative was global control. Today we are on the brink of

Le Pen vs. Macron

With about 1/3 of the vote counted. That's not the worst possible outcome.

Navel Gazing

My curiosity was aroused when I noticed that a couple of so called referring URLs were from the Rational Wiki's Luboš Motl Page . I couldn't find any reference to my blog on the page, so I'm a bit curious as to how I could have been referred from it. It's true that I'm a long time student of the Lumonator, and that I have been known to refer to him as "the blogfather," since he is really my inspiration (or provocation) for blogging, but that's not much help. UPDATE: Never mind. My reading skills obviously are lacking. Also, I noticed that someone, (Lumo?) had "edited" the title of my blog. I thought that I might try to edit it, but the signing up puzzle defeated my senile intellect.

Eve of Destruction

Richard Feynman, who had driven his roommate Klaus Fuchs’s old Buick down to Albuquerque the previous June, in the midst of the final effort to finish the bombs, to keep vigil with his young wife Arlene while she died of tuberculosis, found himself lost between worlds. Before he left Los Alamos he had thought about what the bomb meant and had made some notes. He had calculated that Little Boys in mass production would cost about as much as B-29s. “No monopoly,” he had written.863 “No defense.” And: “No security until we have control on a world level. . . . Other peoples are not being hindered in the development of the bomb by any secrets we are keeping. . . . Soon they will be able to do to Columbus, Ohio, and hundreds of cities like it what we did to Hiroshima. And we scientists are clever—too clever—are you not satisfied? Is four square miles in one bomb not enough? Men are still thinking. Just tell us how big you want it!” The twenty-six-year-old widower may have seen too much of de

Oh Dear!

Bee explains that physicists haven't really created negative mass. Next she'll probably be claiming that various athletic feats don't actually defy the laws of physics. Is nothing sacred?

Defection: Canadian Style

Shortly after the war, a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Canada who had decided to defect, gathered up documents demonstrating the extent and details of Soviet spying and went to a newspaper. He was ignored. Attempts to go to the government were equally unpromising: Finally the Minister of Justice sent out word that they should go back to the Soviet Embassy and return the documents. The Gouzenkos assumed that Soviet agents within the government must have made so stupid and deadly a decision. In fact, it came directly from the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, who seems to have been terrified that he might stir up trouble with the Soviet Union. Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 184). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Grouchy Review

Veep is a much honored show that has been running on HBO since the Devonian. Having recently acquired access, I caught about one and one half episodes before concluding that it was a)really dumb, b)not funny. Of course if I get bored enough to watch any more I might change my mind. Anybody got a contrary?

Secrets and Spies

Several early chapters of Dark Sun are devoted to Soviet spies in the US Manhattan project and their influence on the Russian bomb effort. It was immense. During the war the US shipped thousands of tanks, aircraft, ships, and even whole factories to Russia to support the war effort against Germany. They also shipped thousands of sealed suitcases, which contained tens of thousands of documents, many of them top secret. A flood of Soviet agents made the trip in the opposite direction, spreading out over the country. They had broad access to American technology and American industry. Evidently, someone important thought it was important enough to the war effort to allow that. Air Force Major General Follette Bradley, who pioneered the Alsib Pipeline [the air route from Montana to Alaska to Siberia], would tell the New York Times: Of my own personal knowledge I know that beginning early in 1942 Russian civilian and military agents were in our country in huge numbers. They were fre

Finding ET

Actually, extra-solar planets, and just maybe, life out there. Chris Jones portrait of Sara Seager in the New York Times Magazine. A facinating human portrait of an astrophysicist bent on a cosmic quest. Like many astrophysicists, Sara Seager sometimes has a problem with her perception of scale. Knowing that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and that each might contain hundreds of billions of stars, can make the lives of astrophysicists and even those closest to them seem insignificant. Their work can also, paradoxically, bolster their sense of themselves. Believing that you alone might answer the question “Are we alone?” requires considerable ego. Astrophysicists are forever toggling between feelings of bigness and smallness, of hubris and humility, depending on whether they’re looking out or within. One perfect blue-sky fall day, Seager boarded a train in Concord, Mass., on her way to her office at M.I.T. and realized she didn’t have her phone. She couldn’t seem to dec

Bits and Pieces

Among the many joys of Richard Rhodes Dark Sun are the biographical bits: Once the magnitude of the disaster sank in, says Stalin biographer and General of the Soviet Army Dmitri Volkogonov, the dictator “simply lost control of himself and went into deep psychological shock.97 Between 28 and 30 June, according to eyewitnesses, Stalin was so depressed and shaken that he ceased to be a leader. On 29 June, as he was leaving the defense commissariat with Molotov, [Kliment] Voroshilov, [Andrei] Zhdanov and Beria, he burst out loudly, ‘Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up!’ ” Stalin retreated to his dacha at Kuntsevo; it took a visit from the Politburo, led by Molotov, to mobilize him. “We got to Stalin’s dacha,” Anastas Mikoyan recalled in his memoirs. “We found him in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, ‘What have you come for?’ He had the strangest look on his face. Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb

Venezuela on the Brink

Is Maduro finished? NICHOLAS CASEY and PATRICIA TORRES in today's NYT: BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protesters demanding elections and a return to democratic rule jammed the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities on Wednesday. National Guard troops and government-aligned militias beat crowds back with tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons, and at least two people were killed, according to human rights groups and local news reports. President Nicolás Maduro defied international calls, including a plea from the American State Department, to allow peaceful assemblies and ordered his forces in to the streets. Some demonstrators, wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas, fought back with firebombs. TBD

The One and Only Real Secret

I've started reading Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes' award winning history of the development of the fusion (H) bomb. (Hat Tip, Fernando). I've barely started, but I have to say that Rhodes is a compelling writer. One thing that caught my eye was that key Russian scientists were aware of the possibility of a uranium bomb in 1939, and some were already advocating a strong program to try to build it. Two fundamental problems prevented it: the uncertainty as to whether a bomb would actually work, and the enormous expense required to find out. In the end it was decided that the necessary resources could be more usefully spent preparing for the coming war with Germany. The government did not trust the scientists enough to go for broke, and the scientists, with intimate knowledge of Stalin's terror, did not trust the government enough to go all out. Rhodes sums it up: Trust would not be a defining issue later, after the secret, the one and only secret—that the weapon worked—

Rise of the Cyborgs

Human's aren't quite surrendering to the robots yet. Maybe we will merge with them. Or just leave a few traces in their 'DNA' like the Neandertal did with us. Kristen V. Brown, Gizmodo: At Facebook’s annual developer conference, F8, on Wednesday, the group unveiled what may be Facebook’s most ambitious—and creepiest—proposal yet. Facebook wants to build its own “brain-to-computer interface” that would allow us to send thoughts straight to a computer. What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan, the head of the company’s secretive hardware R&D division, Building 8, asked from the stage. Dugan then proceeded to show a video demo of a woman typing eight words per minute directly from the stage. In a few years, she said, the team hopes to demonstrate a real-time silent speech system capable of delivering a hundred words per minute. “That’s five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, and it’s straight from your brain,” she said. “You

Bribery, American Style

Inaugural Fund Raising.


Ordered a book from Amazon, but I notice that it's being shipped via Royal Mail. I assume that means that it's coming from the UK (or maybe Canada or Australia - what do they call their post?). Hope that it will be in a language I understand.

Book Review: Homo Evolutus

Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans are venture capitalists and authors with an interest in life sciences. Gullans is a former professor at Harvard Medical school. Their book, or I should say micro-book, Homo Evolutus , seems to be based on a TED talk they gave. The subject is their thesis that the human race is about to "speciate," or give rise to a new species of Homo, thanks to the radical advances being made in biotechnology and genomics. Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to background material on the evolutionary history of the various human species (19 so-far known, by their count) and their biological underpinnings. The rest is a quick catalog of some of the extraordinary goings on at the interface of biology and technology, many of which were unfamiliar to me. A couple of examples: Not only did the two Chinese teams take mouse skin cells, and de-differentiate them back into pluripotent stem cells… They then took these stem cells and allowed them to re-g

Reading a New Minibook

Our average shoe size has increased fourfold in the last century. Meanwhile our brains have shrunk by 10% over last 5,000 years. Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 1552-1555). TED Books. Kindle Edition.


Perhaps some of my readers, distracted by my prolixity and general je ne sais quoi* , don't realize that I make a lot of dumb mistakes. Desafortunadamente , would that this expectation were the case. Being old does tend to reduce the scope of my blunders, but it also seems to have focussed them. I just finished reading a moderately long book, and didn't really know what to do next. So I thought about buying another book. Worse, the book I was thinking of buying was the third edition of a book I already thought I owned. Maybe I should look at first edition to see if that seems like a good idea. * I don't speak French and have no idea what that means.

Hate Reads

Pamela Paul thinks you should read books you hate. She has done her time in book purgatory hell. My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed. “How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns. Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ev

Winning: ROTR*

Yep, and it's not H. sapiens. It is the robots. Claire Cain Miller in the NYT: Who is winning the race for jobs between robots and humans? Last year, two leading economists described a future in which humans come out ahead. But now they’ve declared a different winner: the robots. The industry most affected by automation is manufacturing. For every robot per thousand workers, up to six workers lost their jobs and wages fell by as much as three-fourths of a percent, according to a new paper by the economists, Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University. It appears to be the first study to quantify large, direct, negative effects of robots. The paper is all the more significant because the researchers, whose work is highly regarded in their field, had been more sanguine about the effect of technology on jobs. In a paper last year, they said it was likely that increased automation would create new, better jobs, so employment and wages would eventually retur

Summer Time

The Sun is back and the High Arctic is warming up again. It's now the warmest it's been since - unhh - January and February. Say what?

Sapiens: Book Review

Rutherford supposedly said that there are only two kinds of science: physics and stamp collecting. History is like that too. Most historians concentrate on chronicling a sequence of events in some domain, what Toynbee called "one damn thing after another." Only a few choose the riskier path of seeking grand themes and patterns that unify the whole. It's a risky path, because choosing the grand stage requires more erudition than any single human actually has. Mistakes and oversimplifications are sure to become targets. Toynbee's monumental magnum opus was not the first in this vein, but it might be the first of our own age. Two such works have had a huge impact on my view of human nature, how the world works, and how we got here: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies , and the present work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind , by Noah Yuval Harari. Of the two, the latter is the most ambitious, taking mankind from the status

Speed Demons

Could You Outrun a Soviet Submarine in a Lamborghini? The Fate of the Furious Made Us Wonder. If you can't stand the suspense* skip down to paragraphs seven and eight. *And are a hopeless stick in the mud.

The Neocon is On

From Slate: Many conservative commentators seemed eager for the possibility of open conflict. On Fox News, John Moody argued that Trump was right to pursue a more aggressive posture toward North Korea, writing, “Trump has raised the stakes in this showdown, unlike Barack Obama, who tried to give Kim toothless avuncular advice, or Bill Clinton, who was hornswoggled into a bad nuclear arms deal with Kim’s father, in 1994.” (Apparently, the Bush administration's dealings with North Korea were not worth noting.) Pat Buchanan claimed that that Thursday’s MOAB strike could be interpreted as a message to North Korea, since “they have their tests, their atom bombs deep in tunnels, and I think what it is, is a message to them that we can get down in there and kill your people underground as well as above ground.” Leaning into the prospect of regime change, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, appearing on Breitbart News Daily, said, “I think the only long-term way to deal with the North K

Individualism as a Racket

For countless generations we survived only as members of a family and an intimate community. Prying us loose from that embrace was a difficult enterprise, but the state and the market managed it. Their magic selling point: romantic individualism. Discuss.


Nervously watching the game of chicken playing out between Trump and Kim Jong Un. Pretty hard to see a happy ending here.

Grant County, New Mexico

Grant County is a bit less than 4000 square miles (half the size of Wales) of desert, mountains, and spectacular wilderness inhabited by about 30,000 people, roughly 6000 of whom live in the largest town, Silver City. Several smaller towns, mostly former mining towns, dot the area. Silver City is another former mining town, with a small college, a tourist industry, and a hint of artistic post-hippiedom. Out in the wild are more refugees from civilization, including a few actual ranchers. 47% of all deaths of persons between the ages of 15 and 44 in Grant County are caused by drug overdoses. I'm not sure that that is the worst in the US, but if not, it's close. The national map (by counties) and story at the link are illuminating and depressing. Rural and urban whites are the main victims.

My Favorite Reading: Today

All from the NYT: Roger Cohen: France in the End of Days. France at the center of Europe's mid-life crisis. Ana Fels: The Point of Hate. Hate and altruistic punishment as a key social glue. T. R. Reid: Filing Taxes in Japan Is a Breeze. Why Not Here? In Japan, you get a postcard in early spring from Kokuzeicho (Japan’s I.R.S.) that says how much you earned last year, how much tax you owed and how much was withheld. If you disagree, you go into the tax office to work it out. For nearly everybody, though, the numbers are correct, so you never have to file a return. When I told my friend Togo Shigehiko in Tokyo that Americans spend hours or days each spring gathering records and filling out tax forms, he was incredulous. “Why would anybody want to do that?” he asked. Farhad Manjoo: Uber Wants to Rule the World. First It Must Conquer India. BANGALORE, India — Nandini Balasubramanya’s office here on the southern edge of India’s technology capital does not look as if it wou

Review Notes: European Imperialism

A striking and original feature of European Imperialism was that it was a capitalist rather than a royal or government enterprise. Stock companies built and controlled the Dutch, British, and French overseas enterprises. Royal interference and crony capitalism crippled the French empire in the New World and ultimately brought down the monarchy itself. The British East India Company, which conquered India, had a larger army than the British government. Harari notes that capitalism, imperialism, and science joined together in the imperialist enterprise. One of the keys to its success was the other army of historians, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, geologists, and biologists deployed, with the result that the invaders often knew the country better than the natives.

Mixed News From Enceladus

Saturn's small moon Enceladus is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system for extraterrestrial life. Though it's far from the Sun, tidal forces have apparently heated its interior enough to produce an ice covered but liquid ocean, and from time to time it erupts in geysers that spout high above it south pole. The Cassini mission to Saturn has sampled that geyser and found something interesting: hydrogen, which is interesting since hydrogen could be a fuel for life as it is in deep ocean vents on Earth. There is a good news- bad news aspect to this story. Kenneth Chang, writing in the NYT, has the story: Could icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life? Intriguing new findings from data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft suggest the possibility. Plumes of gas erupting out of Enceladus — a small moon with an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust — contain hydrogen. Scienti

Kill Bill III?

While not bloviating from his high post in Fox News, or getting sued for sexual harassment, Bill O'Reilly likes to write about Presidential Assassinations. It seems, though, that the King of Cable News has got some crosshairs on himself lately - not literally, but Fox and O'Reilly's own advertisers are not happy about the revelation in the NYT that they and Bill had paid $13 million to women accusing him of various sexual violations. Gabriel Sherman in New York Magazine: Embattled Fox News host Bill O’Reilly announced tonight that he is taking a vacation. O’Reilly’s decision to go off the air in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal and advertiser boycott arguably has the appearance of a suspension, but O’Reilly worked to dispel that notion. He announced that he’d scheduled his trip “last fall” — well before the New York Times reported he paid $13 million to settle harassment claims. A Fox News spokesperson confirmed O’Reilly will return on April 24. But according to

Notes for a Projected Book Review

Today, most scientific research is sponsored either by governments or businesses. They put up these bucks because experience has shown that research can lead to military, economic or other advantage. Harari argues that Western science acquired its distinctive character and began its era of rapid progress only when it linked up with the forces of imperialism and capitalism. In that regard he says the discovery of the New World by Columbus "was the foundational event of Western Science." He illustrates his thesis with the voyage of Captain James Cook, which had as central objective the observation of the transit of Venus from the South Pacific, in order to determine the distance to the Sun. That voyage also discovered many previously undiscovered lands, and carried a variety of scientists to catalog discoveries. Cook also demonstrated the efficacy of citrus fruit as a preventive and cure for scurvy, a disease which previously had killed roughly half the sailors on long oc

United Airlines: Our Poor Planning

...may result in us beating the crap out of a passenger. Lori Arantani, writing in the Washington Post: The attorney representing the man who was dragged off a United Airlines flight Sunday said it’s likely his client will sue the company. “Will there be a lawsuit? Yeah, probably,” Thomas Demetrio, one of the attorneys representing David Dao, said at a Thursday morning news conference in Chicago. Demetrio said “unreasonable force and violence” were used against his client Dao was discharged from the hospital late Wednesday night and suffered a serious concussion and broken nose, his attorney said. Demetrio said Dao also lost two front teeth and will undergo reconstructive surgery. The news conference comes one day after United chief Oscar Munoz publicly apologized to for the incident and said he felt “shame” after viewing the video. Asked what he thought of Munoz’s apology, Demetrio said it sounded “staged.” He said neither he nor Dao had heard from anyone at United.

Bedtime Stories

John Baez once wrote something to the effect that if one wanted to become a mathematical physicist, one should get the book Analysis, Manifolds and Physics by three French ladies and keep it by one's bedside until you knew everything in it. Gullible naif that I am, I tried it. Unfortunately I always fell asleep somewhere around page 15 and had dreams tormented by having to prove that the epsilon delta definition of continuous functions was exactly equivalent to the image of open sets version. I still keep books by my bedside, even though I almost never read in bed. Anyway, I cracked open my new copy of QFT in a Nutshell and started reading the blurbs. One guy talks about his wife being mad at him for staying up all night and the next day reading the first half and somebody else has to go and say it should be kept by one's bedside. I won't make that mistake again. I'll just put it up on the shelf where books belong. If I could just find a space that isn't a

Kevin Drum Scores

Kevin diagnoses the staff convulsions in the White House as The White House Is Now Officially "West Wing Apprentice" With the nuclear option as a subplot. No, not that nuclear option. The one with real nukes.

History's Choices

We cannot explain the choices history makes, but we can say something very important about them: history's choices are not made for the benefit of humans. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 241

Damn! And I just bought two more quantum books!

Quantum Mechanics Explained in Five Minutes

Persecuting Christians

Harari has a way of annoying people by challenging their prejudices. The list of the potentially offended is long, but here is an example: On 23 August of 1572, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attacked communities of Protestants who highlighted God's love for Humankind. Between 5000 and 10000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than 24 hours. In that 24 hours, more Christians were murdered by Christians than by polytheistic Rome in the 300 years between the Crucifixion and Constantine's conversion to Christianity. The Pope celebrated by commissioning a fresco of the massacre in the Vatican (off limits to visitors). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 216

Equilibrium? Hmmm?

The current political constellation in that region[the Middle East] - a balance of power among many independent political entities with more or less stable borders - is almost without parallel any time in the last several millenia. The last time the Middle East experienced such a situation was in the eighth century BC - almost 3000 years ago! From the rise of the neo-Assyrian Empire in the eighth century BC until the collapse of the British and French empires in the mid-twentieth century ADm, the Middle East passed from the hands of one empire to another, like a baton in a relay race. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 192 What does that say about the stability of the current situation?

True or False?

"Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Culture are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change." Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, pg. 164 Well, the real laws of physics may be self-consistent, but the social construct we call the laws of physics are not quite there yet.

Who do I Write For?

That's one of those questions that invites a dishonest answer. When I started I convinced myself that I was writing to improve my writing skill. When I look at my stuff over the last ten years, though, I think I'm going downhill. I think every writer, or at least this one, wants to be taken seriously, by which I mean I would like people to engage with my ideas. In some ways, I think my audience is larger than expected. According to Blogger, I get about 1000 pageviews a day (my other tracker says many fewer), but there are only a sawmill operator's handful of people who often comment. A few more weigh in infrequently. The articles that get the most pageviews (usually on politics) are often not the ones that get the most comments. Anyway, comments are usually appreciated, although they often bring out my mean streak.

More Harari: Themes

A couple of broad themes emerge in Harari's book: How did humans develop the capability to cooperate in large groups of strangers? And his answer: the social constructs, which he usually calls myths, that they develop. He exhibits and discusses two, each of far reaching historical and practical importance: The Code of Hammurabi (1776 BC), and the Declaration of Independence (1776). He exhibits some samples: (209) If a superior man strikes a woman of superior class and thereby causes her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver ten shekels of silver for her fetus. (210) If that woman shall die, they shall kill his daughter. Sound fair? He has some problems with the Declaration too. He notes: 'Cooperation' sounds very altruistic, but it is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation. The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food

Population Growth Burned Humanity's Boats

Harari calls the agricultural revolution "History's Greatest Fraud." Wheat domesticated humans, and humans, on average, wound up a lot worse off. Hunter gatherers are exposed to the elements and to predation by large carnivores, but they have a lot of compensations. They eat a highly varied diet, and a nutritious one, because it's the diet millions of years of evolution prepared us for. Because they move constantly, they reproduce slowly, which retards population growth. Since they live in small isolated groups, without domestic animals, they are relatively free of disease. For most, a few hours of work each day suffices to provide them with food and other requirements. Most people in agricultural societies, by contrast, eat a very narrow diet, live in crowded villages, side by side with their own filth, and reproduce rapidly. Agriculture typically requires long hours of literally backbreaking labor - slipped and herniated disc's become common only after t

Ancient Ecodestruction

Most people today recognize that we humans are currently responsible for a vast wave of extinctions and ecodestruction. They may be less familiar with our long history in that regard. Africa and Asia have been occupied by humans for a couple of million years, so the large animal inhabitants had a long time to learn to fear and avoid the new maximum predator. This was not true for the new lands Sapiens reached after what Harari calls the cognitive revolution. First on the menu was Australia. Humans reached it about 45,000 years ago after learning to cross substantial sea barriers. They were the first large terrestrial animal to get there in many millions of years. Within two thousand years of their arrival, nearly all species of large animal had been exterminated. Humans also altered the plant biosphere by setting fire to forests. This pattern has been repeated with each new land Sapiens has reached, Madagascar, the Americas, New Zealand and Pacific and Arctic islands. Sapien


Caught a little Fox and CNN today. Fox had a panel where most were ecstatic about the bombing, except for one guy who recalled that this was not what Trump promised his voters. CNN had Wolf interviewing Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who probably could have been effectively replaced by a wind up doll who said "end this illegal regime change war" in reply to every question. She says she is for peace, but wouldn't allow herself to say anything remotely critical of Assad. Pretty clearly, that peace can now only come with Assad in control and his enemies dead, but to the extent that Obama encouraged the Syrian civil war, that will go down as a pretty bad deed. Would anything be different better if Obama had proved less dilatory? Beats me. He failed to heed the basic dictum: "if you strike at the king, be sure to kill him." Not that that worked so well in Libya. Now we shall see how much trouble Trump can get us into.

Imaginary Realities

And as imagination bodies forth. The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name....Midsummer Night's Dream Act V, Scene 1. A few years ago I took a history of mankind course online from Yuval Noah Harari. His course was closely related to his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which at the time was only available in Hebrew and German. I recently bought the English version, and have started reading it. Harari is not afraid to challenge popular opinion or dogma. He refers to gods, nations, religions, human rights and corporations as imaginary entities. Not that he thinks there is anything wrong with that. On the contrary, he believes that the "cognitive revolution" that separated us from our neandertal, denisovan, erectus and other brother species of Homo extant 70,000 years ago began with our ability to create such cultural constructs as tribes, tribal totems, and tribal spirit

Why Now?

Why Trump chose this moment to get outraged at Syria is a bit of a mystery. After all, it's not like Syria and Russia haven't been engaged in brutal war crimes for a while. There is a geostrategic narrative as well as a purely domestic political one. The geopolitical story is that Iran, Syria, and North Korea are all engaged in pushing the boundaries. If the other kids start bullying you, maybe the cheapest deterrent is to beat the crap out of the weakest one, or at least bloody his nose. This might give the others pause. North Korea is clearly the most dangerous one right now, but direct action against it is incredibly risky. Of course Syria is Russia's bitch, so there is plenty of risk there too. Frank Bruni takes a look in today's NYT: The agony of Donald Trump — well, one of the many agonies — is that there are times when he will actually do the right thing, or at least a defensible thing, and we’ll be left wondering, even more than we did with other presi


Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian airfield will probably serve to distract us from the Russia story for a while. With luck he didn't kill any Russians. Now what?


There are twelve volumes in Princeton University press's Physics in a Nutshell. For some reason I have eleven of them, not including Gerald Mahan's Quantum Mechanics in a Nutshell . I have no idea why I have so many, except that they look nice lined up on my bookshelf with their matching covers - except for the one I have in e-book version and my first edition of Zee's Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell , which is different. Mostly they are pretty good books, but they aren't Landau and Lifshitz or anything. On the other hand, they've got to be better than the endless Walter Greiner series I have tucked away in boxes. Of course, so is much of L&L. So many books, so little shelf space. Not only that, but I'm at an age when I need to be getting rid of crap rather than accumulating it. From time to time I start collecting a few volumes to take down to the used book store. Too, too often though, I keep finding reasons why I need to hang on to this one or


About eleven hundred years ago a famous philosophical debate took place between the two greatest minds of the age: Ibn Sina and Biruni. Both were amazingly accomplished polymaths. Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine became "The" medical book for six or more centuries for both East and West (where he is known as Avicenna) and became a major influence on Thomas Aquinas by his work on reconciling Aristotle with religion. Both were accomplished natural scientists and poets. The debate consisted of a series of written questions posed by Biruni to Ibn Sina and Ibn Sina's answers. The quality of the dialog, though initially high, deteriorated, mostly because Ibn Sina was an arrogant asshole: The one great shortcoming of Ibn Sina’s education was in the area of character. The death of the Amir Nuh in 997 had left Ibn Sina’s father without a patron, but the court stepped in with various gifts and grants to his talented son. This left Ibn Sina, now eighteen, on top of the world.

A consummation/Devoutly to be wished*

But not the one The Prince of Denmark had in mind. Josh Marshall, quoting from CNN: REP JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX): I guess I would say this, that my impression is after all of this is said and done that some people end up in jail. WOLF BLITZER: Really? And how high does that go and in your suspicion? That's all we can call it right now. CASTRO: Well, that's yet to be determined. *Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1.

I'd Like to Say a Word for

David Brooks, or at least his latest column. I'm almost never a fan but he gets this right: If we lived in a normal country the Trump White House would launch a major initiative to combat opiate addiction. There are roughly two and a half million Americans addicted to opioids. Between 1999 and 2015, the number of those who died rose from 8,200 annually to 33,000. That means that over two years more Americans died of opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War. As Christopher Caldwell pointed out in a powerful essay called “American Carnage” in First Things, the opioid crisis is killing at a higher rate than crack or any other recent plague. At the peak of the crack epidemic there were about two deaths per 100,000 Americans. Today, the opioid epidemic is killing 10.3 per 100,000. The national spotlight has been put on this crisis, but the situation is getting worse, not better. The Washington Post reported that in Stark County, Ohio, for example, the number of opioid-r

Brexit I

Nicholas Wade, writing in the NYT, has the story of the big Brexit 430,000 years ago. That was the catastrophic destruction of the land bridge that for 10 million years had joined Britain physically to the Continent. The bridge was a rock formation, about 20 miles wide, that ran from Dover to Calais and protruded several hundred miles into France and Britain. It was made of chalk, as can be seen in the cross-section where it has been ripped away at the white cliffs of Dover. ... In the last ice age, sea levels rose and fell as water was locked up in ice sheets during cold periods and released to the oceans in warm ones. At high sea levels, water would nearly encircle Britain but never surmounted the land bridge, which stood 100 to 300 feet above the waves. That was until a cold period that began 450,000 years ago. A vast glacier that covered all but the southern parts of Britain edged out across the North Sea and joined up with the glacier covering Norway. With the North Sea damm


One of the more depressing facts of human existence is the need of groups for enemies. Now that Republicans and conservatives dominate practically every facet of American government, we see them turning on each other. This is not a new trend. Fredrick S. Starr, writing about Shia vs Sunni in the Muslim world and Central Asia in particular, in the Tenth Century, CE: Strange to say, this growing fractiousness among Muslims arose just as Islam was becoming the majority faith throughout the region. Many adherents of other religions in territories conquered by the Arabs had converted or emigrated. Others had been successfully marginalized, while still others had made their peace with the Muslim order. Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (p. 242). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. Actually it's not strange at all, if you think about the theory of evolution. Competition for survival of individuals pro

When Does Life Begin?

When does life begin questions are a staple of the abortion debate but annoy the heck out of me. Life began 3.4 billion years ago or so, and everything living today is descended in unbroken living chain from cells living then. Life doesn't begin at conception, at detection of fetal heartbeat, at birth or any other simply defined point. When personhood begins is not a question with a biological answer. Deal with it.

IQ One Million

Because why settle for a lousy 60 standard deviations when you can have almost 70,000. Fans of genetic engineering of the brain (like Lumo and Steve Hsu) think that human brains can be tweaked to produce IQs of 1000, whatever that might mean. Those who have studied biology are more dubious. One component of IQ is mental processing speed, and that has got to be limited by the physiology of nerves. Fundamental neural processes take milliseconds or longer, and the basic design is not going to permit much speedup. Silicon transistors, on the other hand, are 1 million times faster. Another component of IQ is memory, short term and long. Given enough disk space, a computer can remember everything it has ever read, heard, or seen. A number of humans have been reported to have eidetic memories , but psychologists who have attempted to study it are highly dubious, though some children have short term eidetic memories. It's physiologically improbable that a person could store all th

What is IQ?

The short answer is that IQ is what IQ tests measure. That answer is saved from total circularity by the fact that there is a high correlation between results of a bunch of different tests of reasoning. Typical IQ tests have questions designed to test short term memory, general knowledge, ability to follow written or spoken instructions, and ability to reason concretely and abstractly, ability to generalize and analyze relationships as well as speed of mental processing. Early intelligence researchers noticed that there was a strong correlation among the results of rather different tests and the statistician and psychologist Spearman hypothesized that the correlation was due to an underlying g-factor, the g standing for general intelligence. A century or so later, our knowledge of the underlying biological substrate of IQ has made only limited progress. We know of lots of genetic and environmental factors that limit IQ, but have only vague indications of what things produce higher

Book Review: Prime Numbers and the Riemann Hypothesis

Prime Numbers and the Riemann Hypothesis by Barry Mazur and William Stein is a slender (142 pg.) book aimed at a varied audience of the mathematically curious. It is profusely illustrated, mainly with pictures of what the authors call the staircase of primes, a function that starts at zero and goes up by one each time a prime is encountered, though several recarpentried versions of the staircase also make the scene. The book is divided into 38 very short chapters, organized into four sections, with the first and longest section (chapters 1-24) aimed at readers without a calculus background. The second section demands a bit of calculus (not much!) and the third some Fourier analysis, while the fourth gets to the nitty-gritty of the zeta function. The figures and many of the calculations were done with Sage, a free mathware package developed by the second author, and made available to the eager experimenter. The first section has a lot of the lore primes that is accessible at the e

A g-load of Crap

Steve Hsu is a physics prof with degrees from Harvard and Caltech, so he's got to be a smart guy, right? He writes a lot about IQ and it's genetic basis, and is evidently involved in efforts to isolate and cultivate those genetic elements, about which he blogs frequently . He is also, IMHO, a nut-job on the subject of IQ. He has, for example, expressed the opinion that genetic tinkering could produce humans with an IQ of 1000, something I think is as likely as genetic tinkering being able to produce a human who could run 100 meters in 2.0 seconds flat. Never mind that nobody has a clue as to what it means to have an IQ of 1000, or, for that matter, 210. His latest is entitled, The brute tyranny of g-loading: Lawrence Krauss and Joe Rogan, by which he implies that explaining gauge symmetry to Joe Rogan is prevented by the fact that Rogan is not smart enough to comprehend it. Now I don't know Rogan from Adam, and have no opinion on his IQ, and Hsu's post is a lot