Showing posts from November, 2018

My Inner Bigot

It seems that psychological studies have revealed that even people who hate bigotry and consider themselves open minded have a lot of implicit biases. They have even developed a test for it. I took it, as you may if you follow the link, and discovered that yes, I do have a lot of implicit biases. This disappointed but did not surprise me. It's not like I didn't have a lot of clues. ESPN or somebody has experimented with letting a woman call football games. I listened and hated it. Why? No clue. If she was bad at it I certainly couldn't identify how. Implicit bias seems like a good guess though. Today while riding the campus shuttle bus a young woman in traditional Muslim head scarf got on, and I felt a small twinge of antipathy - quickly squelched but there, lurking evilly in my subconscious. There is lots of evidence that we all have such prejudices, even if we work to suppress and overcome them. Such, apparently, is human nature.

Good Guy With A Gun

An Alabama mall had a shooter. A citizen with a concealed carry - apparently the proverbial good guy with a gun -drew his gun and tried to lead people away from the shooter. Police showed up and gunned down the good guy, who happened to be black. I have a hard time constructing a scenario where either the citizen with a gun or the police made an egregious mistake. So who should we blame? How about the NRA and idiots who constructed our absurd gun laws. The shooter has not been caught.


Having gotten a cooperation deal with the prosecutor, why would Paul Manafort lie? I can think of a few possibilities. a)Lying is so integral to his nature that he, like Trump, probably can't tell the difference. b)He fears something more than life in prison. The wrath of the oligarchs he cheated? c)He is counting on a pardon from Trump. d)He is so conceited that he thought he could get away with it. My guess is c? Anybody? Former Deputy Attorney General Harry Litman reads the tea leaves. He can't figure it out either. He thinks that a late pardon deal would be perilous for all concerned.

Book Review

Perhaps some might guess that NY 2140 was not my cup of tea - and I don't drink tea. As a thriller it has lots of faults: slow pace, punch of suspense repeatedly pulled, characters not either well developed or interesting and a lot of dry exposition. There are a couple of villains in the book: finance and capitalism. I have my problems with both, but the author, I think, doesn't really understand what he is talking about. So what about the future world he created? It's wetter, sea level having risen 50 feet or so, but somehow, much of the drowned part of New York and other cities continues to be occupied. This is probably more interesting to those intimately familiar with the geography of the city than to me, a fairly infrequent visitor. It's a largely post carbon burning world, but I didn't find that especially interesting either.

NY 2141 WTF?

Scenario - 6-10 cops show up at a finance firm, with a warrant, and demand record. CEO summons security, and cops leave. WTF? That's ridiculous. Even if they were outnumbered 100 to 1 cops would point guns at CEO and summon backup. CEO and security guys would be arrested for obstruction.

NY 2141 Numbers

I think my SF novels should try to get basic numbers right. Without major spoilers I think I can say that two chests of gold coins figure in the plot. Small heavy chests, but still something a couple of people could pick up. The gold allegedly in each of the chests is supposed to be worth about two billion dollars. Right now, a kilogram of gold is worth about $40,000 dollars. At that rate, $2 billion would weigh 50,000 kilograms. I don't think two people could pick that up. Hundred dollar bills pack more buck per kilo. At 1 gram per bill, a million bucks is 10 Kilograms, but a billion is still ten metric tons = tonnes. You will need a super-duty pickup to pull the trailer. A semi for $4 billion, and a small fleet if it's in gold.

Inequality II: Social Capital

What capitalism is good at allocating capital to exploit market opportunities. In particular, it has done a good job at exploiting the technological opportunities opened by the scientific revolutions of the past centuries. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, the big profit center was using the African slave trade to staff the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean, and the cotton plantations of the American South. Europe's taste for sugar and rum was sated, but this was not a rising tide that lifted all boats. Sugar productivity was increased but millions of slaves were worked to death in abysmal conditions. The narrowly economic minded, especially libertarians, think that a productivity increase that distributes 99% to the few and 1% to the many is a good deal all around, but is it? The clearest evidence against that is assessment of the effect on social capital. Wikipedia: Social capital broadly refers to those factors of effectively functioning social gr

NY 2140

I really hate giving up on a book. This leaves me deeply conflicted when I don't like the book. There are many things to hate in NY 2140, starting with the structure, a series of episodes each starring one of the not very interesting characters. Many of these episodes seem utterly pointless, not advancing the plot nor saying anything interesting. Many seem devoted to the author's theory of finance, a subject I don't think he understands at all well. Others consist of dialog less interesting than anything you might here in the grocery store. A who done it ought to have a plot, and it ought advance at a sprightly pace. Nobody seems to have mentioned this to the author. It's like one of those amateur play productions where you spend more time watching the stage hands move the furniture than watching the action. To be continued. UPDATE: 51%, Story picking up speed, finally.

Inequality I: Net Worth

The great failure of capitalism is enormous inequality. Inequality has been rapidly growing in the US, and has recently reached levels never seen before. The richest man in the US has more than a million times the net worth of the median household. He had about 100,000 times as much as a 90th percentile household (top ten percent). He even has ten thousand times as much as as one of the top 1% households (99th percentile). The curve may steepen. A top 0.1% household (99.9 percentile) only has about 1/3000th of Richie Rich's wealth and even the 99.99th percenter has only 1/1000th as much. The 1% are very rich compared to me and almost everyone I know, but in the grand scheme of things, the poorest slave in ancient Greece was economically closer to its richest man than a 0.1 percenter is to the richest American.

A Star is Born

Caption: the Pillars of Creation, dark cloud remnants of a giant molecular complex backlighted by reflection nebulae illuminated by bright young stars. Some evidence suggests that this complex has already been blasted apart by a supernova still enshrouded in dust. Definitive evidence should reach us in a thousand years or so. So you say you want to be a star. A lot of success in anything is about being in the right place at the right time. In the case of becoming a star, that place is in a galaxy with sufficient dust and gas, and getting down to the nitty gritty, being in a massive molecular cloud complex , in one of the cores of such complexes. Such clouds are the coldest (10-30K) and densest parts (up to 10^6 molecules/cm^3) of the interstellar medium - the gas and dust that occupies the space among the stars. The big ones have masses from thousands to millions of times the mass of our Sun. It seems to be only in these massive, cold, and dense clouds that gravity can


What are the unsolved problems in science today? My list: Origin of life: this is one where we really seem to be closing in. I would be surprised if it's still unsolved twenty years from now. There are still plenty of crucial steps to be filled in. Finding life on another planet would probably help answer a lot of questions. What is dark matter? It's probably some new particle, but all attempts to detect it have failed. No clue as to when or if this one can be solved. And how about dark energy? This one is a real stumper. What is consciousness? I can't decide if this is a real problem or not. And then there are questions which we may never have any answers too: The origin of the universe, the nature of time, and why it is like and unlike space. Anybody got any other good ones?


Socialism seems to be picking up a bit of speed lately. Not Leninist Communism, which has pretty much retreated to a couple of backward redoubts - and I suspect that it's crumbling pretty fast even in Cuba and Venezuela. I'm talking instead about the kind of democratic socialism that flowered in Europe after the war. Leninism only seems to be able to grab power by more or less violent revolution. It's big scores were Russia and China, and in each case succeeded due to the hopeless incompetence of the predecessor states. It's probably worth noting that neither of these revolutions was an utter failure. They were bloody, murderous, and ultimately economically disastrous, but they also destroyed some of the most backward elements of their local cultures. Both Russia and China remain unfree autocratic states, as they were before their revolutions, but neither is still Communist or even socialist. That happened because their leaders realized that the Communist system


Capitalism seems to be a fairly successful economic system when it's tried, in the sense that it seems to be pretty good at producing economic growth. It has a few powerful enemies. As Adam Smith pointed out in his seminal book, nobody hates a free market like the capitalists who have to compete in it, and since successful capitalists get a lot of money and concomitant political power, they work like crazy to shut down competition. Fascism, crony capitalism and oligarchical kleptocracies are a common result. Every once in a while, oligarchies get so inefficient and cumbersome that they trigger a successful revolution. That's the fate that the hysterics on the anti-left would lead us to. Those who see Communists under every bed and in every closet would turn the nation over authoritarian minded would be fascists like Trump.


Science fiction was a big part of my youth, from age ten until at least the end of my teens. Much of what I loved was already classical, from Jules Verne to Edgar Rice Burroughs to the golden age of SF in the 1930s-1950s. Lately, I've turned back to SF in a small way, but mostly been disappointed. Currently I'm reading New York 2140 , a fairly highly praised book by Kim Stanley Robinson. The hard SF of my youth was filled with astonishing predictions: nuclear power, space travel, robots, communication satellites, smartphones. There were some others that didn't work out: time travel, psychokinesis, and that staple of Popular Science, flying cars, but overall, guys like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein were amazingly prescient as well as entertaining. The central conceit of New York, 2140 is that sea levels have risen 50 feet due to global warming, but that Manhattan underwater is still thriving, and many major buildings of today, suitably reinforced

Sauron Happy With "Almost" All The Nazgul


Buck Sawbuck for President

The Campaign Video (Buck, standing in a field of short grass. He is wearing a black Stetson, alligator cowboy boots, faded blue jeans, and the kind of shirt real cowboys might wear to a dance. He is carrying a Remington Versa Max semi-automatic shotgun. The background is a hilly pasture with real longhorn cattle in the distance.) BUCK: In these threatening times a man isn't judged by what he's for so much as what he is against. (Camera moves right until Buck is seen in front of small billboard proclaiming: GUN CONTROL NOW!) BUCK: I'm against gun control. (Raises gun and fires twice. Billboard shatters. When debris clears, two partially clad and slightly bloody young people stumble out, pieces of billboard stuck in strategic places.) BUCK: Get a damn motel! I'm against the Democrat Party, RINOs and WINOs - that's women in name only for the unwoke. (Fires into the sky. Large bird plummets to ground.) BUCK: I don't care much for Dinos either. I'

Useless People

The New York Times has a profile on Yuval Noah Harari and the infatuation of Silicon Valley's elite with him. The opening line of the story: The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so? I first became acquainted with his work through his online class based on his book Sapiens and one thing I immediately noticed was that he sat so still during his lectures that I thought he might be paralyzed from the neck down, but no, he is just that quiet. The story is great and I heartily recommend it. When Mr. Harari toured the Bay Area this fall to promote his latest book, the reception was incongruously joyful. Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, threw him a dinner party. The leaders of X, Alphabet’s secretive research division, invited Mr. Harari over. Bill Gates reviewed the book (“Fascinating” and “such a stimulating writer”) in The New York Times. “I’m interested in how Sili

School Days

You are probably not having the real grad school experience until several major and complicated homeworks are due and you suddenly realize that that pleasant seeming professor is actually Satan or maybe Voldemort in disguise.

Trump Moves to Shut Down Mueller

Firing Sessions and appointing an anti-Mueller lackey to supervise him is an obvious prequel to shutting down the probe. Only Congress has any power to prevent this, and Congress will be one hundred percent controlled by Republicans for more than two more months. With Republicans in Congress and the Senate more dependent on Trump than ever, will they act to shut down this obvious obstruction of justice? It seems improbable.

Trump +1, Pollsters -1

Either pollsters can't find Trump voters, or they won't tell pollsters the truth.

Book Preview: 21 Lesson for the 21st Century

Some readers may recall that I'm a fan of Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian making waves with his analyses of the human past and future. I just started reading his latest book, and I'm quite enthusiastic about the first chapter, about the current global disillusionment with liberalism. Some excerpts: Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths. But during the twentieth century the global elites in New York, London, Berlin, and Moscow formulated three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. The Second World War knocked out the fascist story, and from the late 1940s to the late 1980s the world became a battleground between just two stories: communism and liberalism. Then the communist story collapsed, and the liberal story re

Worst Case and Best: Elections

From my point of view, the worst case election scenario is Republicans retaining control of House and Senate, while the best case is Democrats winning both. FiveThirtyEight, the stat masters, think the worst case is slightly more probably than my best, but that the intermediate case is distinctly more probable, with House and Senate going Dem and Pub respectively. Their stats predict that none of the three cases is very improbable, with odds of about 1 in 7 for the two extremes, that is to say more likely than a terrible NFL team beating a very good one. So how bad could an abrupt slide into fascism be? Pretty damned bad.

What is Liberalism?

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty and equality....... Wikipedia . Liberalism has been under attack in the US and around the world, so I thought I'd take a brief look at the history. The idea grew out of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason as the basis life and policy. It's enemies were hereditary privilege, state religions, and absolute monarchy, but it also became associated with individual rights, representative democracy, free trade and free enterprise. Initially, of course, those rights were reserved for the elite - wealthy white men in a few advanced countries. The internal logic of freedom and equality was biased in favor of expansion of those rights, though, and gradually, ponderously and against ferocious resistance it was expanded to end slavery, enfranchise women, and largely end colonialism. Revolutions in England, the US, and France announced liberalism to the world, but absolute monarchy didn't end until after Worl

What is a Galaxy?

It's pretty hard not to have sometime seen pictures of the beautiful island universes, or galaxies, in which all stars are apparently born and most live out their lives. So what makes a galaxy, and what is their history? Unlike stars, there don't seem to be any young galaxies. They all seem to have been born shortly after the big bang. There are, however, galaxies with lots of young stars and galaxies consisting almost entirely of old stars, but so far as I know, there aren't any galaxies with *no* old stars. I mentioned that some stars no longer live in galaxies, but they are thought to have been expelled by various cosmic accidents, the most important of which are collisions between galaxies. Many or perhaps most of all existing large galaxies are the product of multiple mergers of smaller galaxies. Our own Milky Way galaxy, for example, is currently in the process of gobbling up several smaller neighbors, and almost certainly has dined on many more in the past.

The Greatest

We Hominids are fond of ranking stuff. Sometimes that's easy, like picking the greatest rock drummer. Most of the time it's more disputable, like naming or ordering the best ten or one hundred books. Connolley mentioned and knocked one such list in his review of Heart of Darkness . In particular he was offended that The Great Gatsby got a much higher rank than Conrad's work. That of course is the fun of such lists. HoD does a bit better (#23 vs. #57) on the metalist compiled from 119 other lists here , and Gatsby does a bit worse (#4 vs. #2), but still beats the Conrad book handily. I'm very fond of both books and would not like to compare them. Joyce's Ulysses gets headed by Proust (ISOLT) and Cervantes (DQ) here, which suits me, but I would put War and Peace ahead of them all. What I like about these lists is the potentially great reads I haven't met yet. Numbers 12 and 22 look like candidates.

The Problem With Calling Trump a Fascist

This is a guy who long kept a book of Hitler's speeches at his bedside - perhaps this was before he discovered twitter. He has been quick to dip into the fascist playbook, demonizing opponents and minorities, he worships at the feet of the Big Lie. The problem is not that the man lacks fascist inclinations, indeed, he revels in them. The problem is that the word is worn out. For a few generations there have been college students proclaim fascism every time somebody takes french fries off the lunch menu. Others think meter readers are jack-booted thugs. The other problem is that the world, having perhaps forgotten what Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and their ilk wrought, seems to have developed a lot more tolerance of intolerance and thuggish leaders. I want to look at that in a future post.

Two Murdered Saudi Sisters?

In a bizarre development, two Saudi sisters were found dead in the Hudson River , their bodies duct taped together facing each other, one day after their mother says the family was ordered home by the Saudi government because the sisters had requested asylum. This seems especially sinister after the murder of a Washington Post columnist by a Saudi hit team in Istanbul. There are many questions here, including the cause of death, how the Saudis found out about the asylum request (it's protected information), and, of course, was this yet another Saudi hit? If so, we should have no choice but to terminate all relations Saudi Arabia, and give Saudi Arabia the choice of surrendering the perpetrators, including the homicidal prince, or facing war. Of course given that our first family is in the pocket of said prince, that might be difficult. There is a popular impression that the US is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia. This is almost entirely a myth, since the US is almost entirel