Showing posts from August, 2017

Modern Classical Physics

What's very slightly smaller than a breadbox, weighs about as much as one of those armored Chevy Suburbans favored by the Secret Service, and packed with most known information about relativity, optics, statistical mechanics, fluid and plasma dynamics, and elasticity? If you took the hint and guessed Modern Classical Physics: Optics, Fluids, Plasmas, Elasticity, Relativity, and Statistical Physics by Kip S. Thorne and Roger D. Blandford, you would be right. Yes, my hard copy finally arrived. Fans of Thorne's previous collaboration in the monster truck textbook category ( Gravitation, with Misner and Wheeler ) may be heartened to note that MCP shares the same large page format, has nearly 300 more pages, and weighs a lot more, thanks in part to its hardcover format. The text is based on the course that the authors' taught at Caltech. As to exactly why this was published as a single volume, rather than three, four or even five normal sized textbooks, I can only specula

All Options Are On the Table

Translations: 1) I don't have a clue 2) I got nothin'

Lest We Forget

India, Bangladesh, and Nepal are currently experiencing even more catastrophic flooding. Over 1000 dead. Story and pictures . The world has more than enough catastrophes to go around.

Harvey Relief Bills

Rebuilding Houston will cost tens, or quite possibly, hundreds of billions of dollars. Twenty Texas US Representatives and both Senators voted against the bill to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. One of them at least, Ted Cruz, is busy lying about his vote now. They should be ashamed, and so should their constituents who approved of their behavior, but now is not the time for bitterness or revenge. Northeasterners and liberals should turn the other cheek, and they and all Americans should promptly approve an aggressive package to ameliorate the devastation in Houston and elsewhere by Hurricane Harvey. It's the right thing to do for America and for Texas. If we are lucky, the good example will inspire others. A nation is far stronger when we all see ourselves as being in the same boat.

Dunkirk, Texas Style

Dozens, or perhaps hundreds (or more) of small boats are out there going to stalled vehicles and flooding homes on rescue missions:

Evacuating Houston

And other threatened places. One of the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries, Bangladesh, was able to drastically reduce flooding casualties by erecting simple elevated concrete platforms for elevation above floodwaters. The mayor of Houston and others are getting grief for not ordering evacuations ahead of the predicted flooding. Actual flooding has probably been worse than the predictions, but it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to evacuate a city of six million. A nation as rich as the US can afford a much more elaborate version of the Bangladesh solution. Sturdy, elevated structures should be constructed in all flood prone regions. A portion of the funds could come from eliminating federally subsidized flood insurance, and building codes should strongly discourage building in flood prone regions. The shelter buildings should be multiple use: schools, government buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and community centers should receive subs


Corpus Christi Texas is squarely in the crosshairs of hurricane Harvey. I just saw the mayor on television and he sounds like a total moron. I fear that casualties could be very high.

Rakhigarhi DNA Again

It's now been about a year since we were supposed to have gotten DNA results from the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) site of Rakhighari. The IVC is the oldest civilization in India, and, so far as I know, the first real civilization outside of the Middle East and Iran. It build remarkable cities 5000 years ago, produced wonderful art, and established long distance trade routes. It's also exceptionally mysterious, as its writing system has never been deciphered. In fact, we aren't even sure it is a writing system, since all we have is very brief sequences of symbols. The civilization collapsed around 1500 BC and there followed a period with little in the way of cities, which in turn was followed by a civilization clearly ancestral to the civilization of today - the Vedic culture. The relationship between the peoples who composed the Vedas and the IVC is famously controversial. Western anthropologists proposed that the Vedic peoples were an invading group who brought


Rain is not a big threat on the Las Cruces campus of New Mexico State University, but I often see young women walking around with an umbrella overhead, even on bright sunny days. Of course these might be parasols, designed to protect them from the Sun - not a bad idea in Sun drenched New Mexico. A more plausible reason is the ubiquitous signs around the campus warning of attacks by hawks. It seems that the campus is a popular nesting ground and that hawks are likely to attack when anyone gets too close to the nest. Pretty sure the babies have left the nest by late August, but there are still a lot of umbrellas.

Read This!

America's Mistake in Afghanistan. And the linked Wikipedia article.

Fun Sports I Used to Love Unconditionally

When I went to parochial school, our favorite recess and lunchtime sport was one we called tackle - a version of pump, pump pull away where we lined up on two safe sides before attempting to run across to the other safe zone without getting tackled. Since anyone tackled joined the crew of tacklers in the middle, the odds rapidly rose against getting across safely, even for a large, slightly fast guy like me. Our favorite away from school was neighborhood football, sometimes touch but usually tackle. Winter was sometimes hockey but usually pump pump pull away on skates. High school football, on the other hand, wasn't much fun. Mostly it was getting yelled at by coaches and being given boring jobs like offensive and defensive tackle. I took it up again in the Army and in grad school - usually touch. It turns out that football, hockey, and rugby are really bad for your brains. That's probably especially true for kids whose muscles and brains haven't yet matured. I d

Schadenfreude: Linton Edition

Humans seem to be wired to get joy out of seeing an arrogant and privileged snob get hers (or his). This week's winner of the Marie Antoinette Prize is Louise Linton, rich girl, actress, and current wife (#45?) of Treasury Secretary Minutechin. Her chosen method for committing social seppuku was apparently Instagram. (I have no idea what that is, by the way). She evidently posted a picture of herself getting off a government plane and thoughtfully tagged all the expensive clothing and accessories she was wearing/carrying. This led to a snarky comment from a citizen: “Glad we could pay for your little getaway,” the user, identified as Jenni Miller, wrote in the comments section. Linton then went full Marie A on her opponent: “Cute! Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self


Trump's speech on Afghanistan policy was calm, measured and dignified, and he read it right off the teleprompter. It was also essentially content free. A recurring theme for most of the war has been that if we could just teach those Afghan soldiers how to fight, the Taliban could be routed. What nonsense. I am pretty sure that the problem is not technical proficiency, whatever limitations they may have in that regard, but commitment to the cause. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan - why are those soldiers so hard to motivate to fight for the occupying power? Trump failed to explain any details of what he would do to discourage Pakistan from supporting the Taliban. He didn't even mention the weapons and other help that Russia supplies to them. There is no clue as to what he hopes to do about the pervasive corruption that undermines all the military efforts. The "no nation building" battle cry might inspire his fellow idiots, but the fact is that it is a strategy that&


I was thinking about that initial cabinet meeting where all the cabinet members (except General Mattis) abased themselves at Trump's feet while singing his praises. I remembered a case where President Kennedy assembled a bunch of Nobel Prize winners for some kind of White House dinner and remarked that it was possibly the greatest intellectual assemblage ever at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Perhaps something similar could be said of Trump's cabinet meeting - the greatest assemblage of human stupidity ever in the place, except possibly when Trump dines alone.

Staring at the Sun

So did Trump endanger his eyes by glancing at the Sun during the eclipse? I think that it's unlikely that he was any blinder as a result than he was before, and that his retina's weren't likely to have been damaged. Staring at the Sun is not a good idea in general, but pupillary reflexes normally act to minimize the damage by maximum contraction. The real hazard occurs during totality, when it becomes very dark in the visible and the pupils open wide. At that point, despite the near absence of visible light, there is still a lot of UV from the corona, and it's entirely possible to stare at the eclipsed circle and get a retina damaging dose. Since Trump was not on the path of totality, the very bright visible portion of the Sun should have kept his pupils minimally sized and his brief glance was quite likely harmless. I wasn't on the path of totality either, but I put on my eclipse glasses to take a look. I also made a very crude pinhole camera by punching a

Left, Right and Indian

It has been observed that many Americans of Indian descent are leftist with respect to American politics but rightist where Indian politics are concerned. Some find this counterintuitive or even paradoxical, but I don't think so. Americans of Indian descent tend to be highly educated and relatively prosperous but may well feel doubly endangered in the US, firstly by racial and ethnic prejudice, and also by the encroachment of American values on them and their children. Hence they are attracted to values of anti-discrimination and diversity in the American left. In India, though, they are members of a wealthy and English speaking elite. As such, they fear the impact of the challenges to India's traditionally highly stratified society from below. India is one of the world's most unequal societies, and one of the reasons for the inequality is the traditional culture of caste, which is deeply embedded in culture and religion. They see those that challenge it as the grave

Hillbilly Girls

Oak Ridge, the giant industrial city created out of farmland in Tennessee, had one central job: separation of U235 from its less fissionable isotopic counterpart, U238. The first method that worked, electromagnetic separation by giant calutrons, a cousin of the cyclotron and ancestor of the mass spectrometer, by acceleration of ions through a magnetic field, creating separation based on the different radii of circulation of the two ions. That was the job of the Y-12 plant. In those pre-computer days, operating the calutrons meant human control of a bunch of parameters that needed to be carefully controlled: source heating, voltage, ionization..." by operators reading dials and tweaking knobs. In Berkeley, only PhDs had been allowed to operate the panels controlling the electromagnetic separation units. When Tennessee Eastman suggested turning over the operation of Lawrence’s calutrons to a bunch of young women fresh off the farm with nothing more than a public school educatio


Professor Drumph, our new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, seems to think that we can fight terrorism by nuking Venezuela and by deploying a special squad of anti-terr with magic bullets dipped in pig's blood, but what can actually be done in the real world? Our present strategy of treating terrorism as a police problem is not doing very well in Europe.

Tales of the Alt-left in Charlotteville

Dahlia Lithwick collected first person stories from a lot of the people who were on the ground in Charlottesville. They don't exactly fit the Trump-Nazi narrative. Here are a couple: Brandy Daniels Postdoctoral fellow at the Luce Project on Religion and Its Publics at UVA It was basically impossible to miss the antifa for the group of us who were on the steps of Emancipation Park in an effort to block the Nazis and alt-righters from entering. Soon after we got to the steps and linked arms, a group of white supremacists—I’m guessing somewhere between 20-45 of them—came up with their shields and batons and bats and shoved through us. We tried not to break the line, but they got through some of us—it was terrifying, to say the least—shoving forcefully with their shields and knocking a few folks over. We strengthened our resolve and committed to not break the line again. Some of the anarchists and anti-fascist folks came up to us and asked why we let them through and asked what th

Which Side

Washington Post Headline: " Trump puts a fine point on it: He sides with the alt-right in Charlottesville ." I had argued that. It's nice that at least some agree with me. From the story: It was inevitable that President Trump’s brief news conference on Tuesday concerning national infrastructure would, instead, be redirected to a discussion of the violent protest in Charlottesville this past weekend and his delayed criticism of the racist and pro-Nazi groups that were central to it. It did not seem inevitable, though, that Trump’s responses to questions about those protests would cement as correct the general interpretation of his first comments on the matter: He’s sympathetic to the goals of the men who marched Saturday night carrying Confederate and Nazi flags — and even to the “peaceful” torchlight protest on Friday in which marchers chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans. After those protests spiraled into violence on Saturday and after a counterdemonstrator was

Just for Kicks

Leftist demonstrators tore down a statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina today. Aside from the malicion vandalism, this provides perfect fuel for the alt-right and Trump's "plague on both your houses" narrative. I'm guessing that the statue was made of some sort of soft metal, since the legs were somewhat crumpled in the fall. Afterwards, several members of the crowd came up to kick the fallen statue of a handsome and anonymous young soldier. I trust that their feet were suitably rewarded. Perhaps the nation could invest in adequately durable monuments for all the angry people to kick the heck out of - barefeet only please.

One View of Modern India

The present century has seen the rise of democratically elected authoritarian leaders in many nations: Trump in the US, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and others. In many case inter-ethnic tensions are a factor. From a Slate interview with Ramachandra Guha: I would like to slice up the story of modern India into four sectors. There’s politics, which is multiparty competition, elections, charismatic, strong authoritarian leaders, etc. Then there is economics, which you’ve talked about, which is a move from a command economy toward market liberalization. Then there’s society, which is the turning of social relations. I think that’s very important and should not be ignored, because India is a deeply hierarchical society. The French anthropologist Louis Dumont famously called us Hindus “Homo Hierarchicus” because the caste system is, without question, the most sophisticated and diabolical form of social exclusion ever invented by humans. Then of course you have gen

Trump and the Neo-Nazis

Josh Marshall: The problem with the continued begging, ‘why won’t he denounce, why won’t he denounce’ is that at some point, maybe later today, President Trump will go before a podium and read off through gritted teeth a pro-forma denunciation of Nazis and it will seem to a lot of people like it means something when it doesn’t. He’s already made crystal clear where he stands here. The question is how we individually and as a country are going to deal with that fact, not how many more mulligans we’re going to give him. His neo-nazi supporters are truly over the moon that he’s steadfastly refusing to criticize them, even in the face of withering criticism and derision. They get the message. They’re ecstatic. Everyone who doesn’t see this, see that it is intentional, is getting played for chumps. I'm far less sure that Trump will ever concede, but Josh has a point. UPDATE: Should never have doubted you Josh.

True Confession

It's time for me to admit a major personal failing. Despite being born and raised in Montana, and the son, grandson, sibling and various other degrees of kinship of foresters, wilderness guides, and other mountain men, I can't do a really decent job of sharpening a knife. I have accumulated oil stones, water stones, diamond stones and an electric sharpener, as well as a rouge infused leather strop but the best I seem to be able to achieve is the 'cuts sheet of paper' degree of sharpness. My knives are utter failures getting shaving sharp and they are not that hot at thinly slicing a bell pepper either. Suggestions?

Eugenics 101

As the geneticist James Crow put it, the greatest mutational health hazard in the population is fertile old men. Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (p. 231). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. Because in men, unlike women, gametes continue to be produced throughout life, while mutations continue to accumulate.

Giant Screw-Up by Virginia Police

Many are injured and at least one person is dead as police in Charlottesville sat on their hands while violence escalated. Police should have moved aggressively to separate the sides and especially after violence broke out. Meanwhile, the disgusting human who occupies the White House barely managed to interrupt patting himself on the back long enough to condemn violence by "both sides" - a message the Nazi's and KKK rightly interpreted as tacit approval. You are either against the Neo-Nazis and KKK or you are with them. Trump has chosen his side.

Maybe They Should Google It?

One of the oddities about the Damore memo was that the substance was preceded by "TL;DR." That acronym, as used by everybody not working for Google, stands for "Too Long; Didn't Read," which makes it a pretty stupid thing to precede the text you are trying to communicate. I assumed that Damore just wasn't "woke" enough to understand that. Then I read the memo by Google CEO cancelling the all hands meeting he had scheduled to discuss the matter. He too did the same damn thing. WTF? Doesn't anybody there know how to use Google? Or is that some sort of ironic in-house joke?


Two blowhards are busy threatening each other with nuclear weapons. How likely is it that something goes terribly wrong? My guess: pretty likely if Kim Jong Un actually fires a bunch of missiles near Guam. Damn likely if one of those missiles actually hits Guam or lands in Japan. Kim really can't afford to look weak and Trump may badly need a distraction from the Russia investigation, which may be closing in on either Trump or some of those close to him. With apologies to Kipling - If you can keep your head when all those about you are losing theirs, you probably just don't appreciate the gravity of the situation.

They Claim the Cows Like It

Robotic dairies have reached the colonies. Cows prefer it, they say, since they can come in whenever they are ready and the robots have a better udder side manner. The end is nigh!

Nerds vs. Geeks

Nerd is frequently used as a derogatory term, but has rather aggressively been reclaimed by self proclaimed nerds, among them Mayim Bialik, who plays the supremely nerdish Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory , who just happens to have a real-life PhD in neurobiology, and who proudly proclaimed herself a nerd in high school (when she had already been a TV star). Dr. Seuss seems to have been the first to use the word in print, but it had no obvious referent except as one of the exotic creatures Gerald McGrew intended to collect for his zoo. It thereafter seems to have acquired its sense among teenagers as a socially awkward person, especially one of an intellectual bent. Nerd reclamation turned the insult into a compliment as a synonym for intelligent or intellectual, although the connotation of social awkwardness has never disappeared. Today, if you have a degree or occupation in a STEM field you are more or less a nerd by default. Geek, another insult that has been partially

Damore or Daless

Kevin Drum has suggested that James Damore deliberately plotted to get himself fired. I thought that idea was dubious, but Kevin now points out that Damore has given a couple of interviews to alt-right publications, which tends to support his idea. It was clear that Damore is somewhere on the right from the beginning, but could the whole imbroglio be some sort of deep plot to split the "new" academic left of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and safe spaces from the more traditional left of free speech, scientific results, and intellectual honesty? That ship sailed a while ago, but frankly, I thought that these new lefty ideas (I will call them alt-left) were pretty much confined to university diversity studies departments, but the Google affair reveals that they are somewhat more pervasive. Frankly, I think the idea that university students, or Google employees, need to be protected from ideas that might challenge their preconceptions is as comical as it is ridiculous.


WB and Lee* point out this nice commentary by Scott Alexander on male and female differences. The subject is an article by Adam Grant claiming that Differences Between Men And Women Are Vastly Exaggerated. Grant: Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” A recent addition to that list is leadership, where men feel more confident but women are rated as more competent. Alexander: Suppose I wanted to convince you that men and women had physically identical bodies. I run studies on things like number of arms, number of kidneys, size of the pancreas, caliber of the aorta, whether the brain is in the head or the chest, et cetera. 90% of these come back identical – in fact, the only ones that don’t are a few outliers like “breast size” or “number of penises”. I conclude that men and women are mostly physically similar. I can even make a statistic like “men and women are physically the same in 78% of traits”. Then I go back t

The Damore Affair

James Damore was a Google engineer who wrote an internal memo criticizing his employer's "ideological echo chamber," mainly on the subject of diversity, and got fired for it. This has become a celebrated cause for both the far left and the far right. A number of people I often agree with have written stuff on the matter that I consider nuts (Eli, Arun, and Kevin Drum). Here is a link to the controversial memo. I really wonder if those who are so hysterical about it have actually read it. Of course Damore showed spectacularly bad political judgement in choosing a moment when Google was already under fire for its gender imbalances to publish his memo, unless his real goal was to get fired and become a cause, but his views are not unusual and his claims are mostly well documented in the literature. Google's cited reason for firing Damore was that he was guilty of “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” Well he did claim, truthfully, I believe, that, on average, the

Diversity Wars

You may have heard about the Google engineer who got fired for writing a memo challenging some of the conventional wisdom about diversity. He had the bad luck or bad judgement to issue this memo just when Google has gotten into some trouble for alleged discrimination against women. If you want a calm, dispassionate analysis of the issues involved, you could (LOL!) check out the Lumonator's take. I'm not going to discuss it though, since I didn't really read the memo and know zero about Google's corporate culture. I was more interested in this pearl of wisdom from some former Google engineer named Yonatan Zunger: Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. Who da thunk that? Not me, to be sure, but then I'm not an engineer. Of course I might have suspected that some of those qualities might be useful to at least some engineers as well as humans more generally, but I sure wouldn&

Clown Car Posse: Tillerson

There is no doubt that Trump has staffed his cabinet with a lot of incompetent toadies and bozos, but Rex Tillerson wasn't supposed to be one of them. Unfortunately, though, his performance at the State Department is not getting very good reviews. Several times a week the State Department sends a greeting to a foreign country on the occasion of its national day. By tradition, the salutations have been written by low-level diplomats and routinely approved by their superiors. But not anymore. Now the messages go through Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s office, where his top assistants insist on vetting them, and where they often sit for weeks before coming back with extensive editing changes, according to several department officials. To these officials, it is a classic case of micromanagement — and emblematic of the way Mr. Tillerson has approached running the State Department. Introduced by President Trump as a “world-class player” when he nominated him, Mr. Tillerson ha


General Kelly seems to have made Washington significantly more boring, at least for one week, what with an apparent shutdown of leak-o-mania. With the Prez full-time on the golf course, and the Congress also out of town, we are forced to contemplate matters of actual policy, in particular, a proposed new immigration policy. The proposal purports to cut the number of immigrants by half and replace the current family based preferences with preferences based on the estimated economic value the immigrants might provide, or at least preferences based on education, knowledge of English and similar criteria. I don't have any particular opinion on the question of numbers except to note that it's obvious that, in a world full of the poor and persecuted, the US can't accept everyone who would like to come here. I do have trouble with the outrage many of my progressive friends are directing toward the idea of a shift towards merit based immigration. The ideals of the Emma Lazarus

RoR and the Decline of the American Work Force

Chico Harlan has a great story in today's Washington Post on robots showing up at a small Wisconsin factory. The falling price of robots, combined with the increasing difficulty of hiring reliable workers at not so great wages mean that it's not just giant corporations getting into using robots anymore: The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.” "We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said. They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor. The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and ear plugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at t

Eden: 4 Billion BCE

After taking a few whacks at some of the older theories for the original biogenesis, Nick Lane presents his best guess at a candidate. After pointing out some crucial flaws in the primordial soup and black smoker theories, he picks Mike Russell's alkaline vent theory. What you need, he says, is a flow through reaction chamber with appropriate chemistry and catalysts that concentrates crucial reaction products and flushes wastes. Alkaline hydrothermal vents provide exactly the conditions required for the origin of life: a high flux of carbon and energy that is physically channelled over inorganic catalysts, and constrained in a way that permits the accumulation of high concentrations of organics. The hydrothermal fluids are rich in dissolved hydrogen, with lesser quantities of other reduced gases including methane, ammonia and sulphide. Lost City and other known alkaline vents are microporous – there is no central chimney, but the rock itself is like a mineralised sponge, with th

Book Preview: The Vital Question

Lee turned me on to Nick Lane's book The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life . I'm only about a tenth of the way through it, but as is my want, I can't help commenting. It's a terrific book. I took a senior level course in Evolution only a semester ago, so I thought I was sort of up to date on the subject, but Lane's book made it clear that my textbook was already at least a decade out of date even though it's copyright is 2013, at least on the question of the earliest cells. Naturally I haven't gotten to the core of Lane's argument yet, but several points are obvious: he believes that the key event in the rise of complex cells (the eukaryotes) which constitute humans, plants, fungi, and several very diverse groups of unicellular creatures was the incorporation of the bacterial endosymbionts which became mitochondria into our ancestral archaebacterial cells. Moreover, this occurred only once (or, at any rate, only des

Grand Jury

Mueller's grand jury has got to be giving Trump the willies.  Those dumpy White House walls might be closing in. Is it the beginning of the end?  The end of the beginning? I prefer to think of it as the beginning of the middle.  If there is a grand jury, somebody, or somebodies, are likely to get indicted.  If I had to make a wild guess, I would say Kushner - but that's a pretty wild guess indeed. TBD.