Showing posts from January, 2019


There is every reason to believe that for the first couple of hundred thousand years of human existence all people lived in mobile hunter-gatherer bands.  There is considerable evidence that all, or nearly all, such bands encountered in historic times practiced some sort of redistribution, usually by sharing large kills.  There is indirect but persuasive evidence that this practice is of great antiquity (large kills show evidence of being butchered by a single individual).  This kind of sharing produced highly egalitarian societies. When people settled down, either because of concentrated local food resources or agriculture, this changed.  Societies became stratified and unequal.  Nobles, princes and social classes rapidly become entrenched.  The transformation seems to have been triggered by the invention of property.  In a mobile HG band, property is what you can carry, and nobody has enough to be jealous of, or if you are jealous of it, you probably won't be able to carry it. 

Millions Die in Aussie Heatwave

Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice..................Robert Frost Fortunately for the humans of Oz, most of the victims were horses, camels, bats, and fish. The (human) citizens of Phoenix, Arizona are also doing poorly: More than 155 people died from heat-related causes in the Phoenix area last year, a new record in a place where the number of such deaths has been on the rise. Former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton deemed it a public health crisis, and the city has launched an overhaul of how it prepares for and deals with extreme heat. ... Already,  more people die  from heat-related causes in the U.S. than from all other extreme weather events. And as with other disasters, the most vulnerable are the elderly, the sick and the poor.

Russian Roulette

Yet more evidence that humans are too stupid to survive comes from this news story of two police officers playing Russian Roulette. According to the story: Alix was off duty at the time of the shooting, police said. Hendren and his partner were on duty. All three were in Hendren's apartment shortly before 1 a.m. Hendren took all the bullets out of a revolver and then put one back in, police said in a probable cause statement. He spun the cylinder, pointed it away and pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. Alix then took the gun, pointed it at Hendren and pulled the trigger without discharging a bullet, police said. Hendren’s partner told Hendren and Alix “that they shouldn’t be playing with guns and that they were police officers,” police said in the statement. “He felt uncomfortable with them playing with guns and didn’t want to have any part of it and started to leave." Hendren took the gun back and pulled the trigger. “As [Hendren's partner] left the roo

Wealth Taxes and Luxury Taxes

Elizabeth Warren has proposed a wealth tax on the super wealthy (more than $50 million, 2% tax) and ultra wealthy (more than $1 billion, 3% tax), though there is some chance that such taxes may be unconstitutional. I like the goal - reducing inequality while delivering important services like health care and education - but have some qualms about the methodology. A big tax on, say, Jeff Bezos's wealth would quickly dilute his control of Amazon, and detaching a company from its guiding force might be counterproductive. On the other hand, I have absolutely no problem with taxing the hell out of luxuries like private jets, yachts, football teams, and residential property worth more than, say, ten times the US median home price.

Philosophy: Taking Out the Trash

If we are to take GRE scores as indicative, philosophy attracts some of the best and brightest graduate students. They top the scores in verbal ability and analytical writing. They aren't even especially low in mathematical scoring. Why so? It's probably not the big bucks. As one of the standard jokes goes "What's the difference between a philosophy grad and a large pepperoni pizza?" "The pizza can feed a family of four." There is, I suppose, the hope that philosophy will let you understand the world and your fellow humans. Unfortunately, it's really not very good at either. I recently took a class in ancient philosophy, and it drove me nuts. Why so? In science, when an idea is overcome by facts, we throw it out. Philosophy doesn't seem to operate that way. Thales thought everything was made of water. Not a bad guess, given the info available at the time, but wrong, wrong, wrong. Consign the idea to the dustbin of history - of mer

Hot Stuff

The Sun has a mass slightly less than 2 e+30 kg, and radiates a bit less than 4 e+26 Watts (Joules/sec). That amounts to about 2/10,000 of a Watt per kilogram. For comparison, a 60 kg human (132 lbs) produces about 100 Watts. On a Watt per kilogram basis, a human is thus producing about 10000 times as much heat as the Sun. So why is the Sun so much hotter and brighter that you are? One way of looking at it is that the Sun has far less surface area per kilogram than you do - something like a billion times less, so the amount of heat leaving it per unit area is about 100,000 times more. Another thing to think about is the reaction rate. Conversion of Hydrogen to Helium is quite slow in the Sun - an average Hydrogen nucleus (proton) may bump around for ten billion years or so before it (and three friends) get converted to Helium. A molecule of ATP in a human cell only lasts a couple of seconds.

We Are With Stupid

There is a tiny bit of satisfaction to realize that we aren't the only country run by idiots. Right now, though, the toughest competition seems to be coming from our long time ally and former colonial master, the no longer so very United Kingdom. Brexit is turning out to be a disaster, surprising absolutely no one with a positive IQ. Although I don't know of any evidence that the British leadership is in the pocket of a hostile foreign power, it does seem that the two chief political parties are both dedicated to the same stupid idea. It looks like the Brits are coming face to face with a serious "now what?" moment.

What is IQ?

Most of us have some idea of what we mean by intelligence, but putting it into precise words is not so easy. Arun Gupta, who has seemingly been obsessed with IQ for a while, has collected definitions of intelligence from a thirty odd people who spent much of their careers studying the question. While the definitions have considerable overlap, they are anything but isomorphic. Some of the definitions are peculiar enough than one might reasonably deduce that cockroaches are smarter than people and bacteria are smarter still. Francis Galton seems to have been the first to systematically attempt to measure intelligence, but the tests he devised were failures. Alfred Binet wasn't actually trying to measure intelligence - he called what he measured "mental age" - but the mainly verbal tests he devised to measure educational readiness became the first IQ tests. (See the Wikipedia article: Intelligence Quotient for this and much else. Unlike Galton's attempts, th

Wall Flowers

If we are going to build a wall, can we just do it right? It needs to be tall, at least 20 meters, and there needs to be a road along the top, wide enough for two chariots to pass without slowing down - say ten meters. It should be stylish, continuously decorated with murals extolling the many virtues of the USA. There should be flower beds on the US side, carefully tended by gardeners from down south. It could be paid for with a wealth tax on billionaires only - say 2 % of net worth per year..


Not quite 3 months after being kidnapped by a man who murdered her parents, Jayme Closs managed to escape and go for help. I just watched a press conference where police and FBI congratulated each other on how hard they had worked on the case and were grateful that she had been brought "home." I almost threw up - however hard they worked, they didn't free her, she freed herself. In effect they spent three months ineffectually spinning their wheels. Well, that happens, but it doesn't exactly call for congratulations - an apology might be more appropriate. And the poor kid is hardly home - her parents are dead. Thank goodness she is free of the kidnapper, but recovery will still be very hard.

Teach A Man to Fish

And you are giving him a skill that's probably increasingly obsolete in a world of ocean warming and increasingly oxygen poor waters. Or maybe just making him unfit for more productive activity. In any case, if you then want to teach another guy to fish you need to do the whole rigamarole over again. Other economically valuable skills also take a lot of time and training. To make a radiologist, say, takes 12 to 14 years of postsecondary training, and the radiologist then may have a career of another 30 but likely not more than 40 years. Teach a robot to fish though, or how to read radiological images, and you have (potentially) taught them all. Human to human information transfer is slow and very error prone, but computer to computer transfer is millions or billions of times faster and nearly error free if done properly. I mention this because the AI deniers are at work. The usually acute Sabine Hossenfelder is the latest offender in my mandatory read list. Here is the m

The Speech

I disagree with almost everything the President does, but I have to give him this one one points. He gave a simple,m Presidential sounding speech, and made an emotional case - which probably much more important than a logical one. I think that the emotional case he made was deeply dishonest, but does that even matter any more? The responders are always on the back foot in these things, and I think Pelosi and Schumer did about as well as they could, but I think they lost. They missed their chance to make their own emotional case, and maybe that's just as well. Will it make any difference?

Deep Impacts

I've been surfing through Raymond Pierrehumbert's great book, Principles of Planetary Climate , especially Chapter 8 on the evolution of planetary climates. It turns out that getting smacked by big rocks can knock the heck out of an atmosphere. Impactors which hit the Earth are moving so much faster than the speed of sound that the air in front of them literally has no time to get out of the way, and all piles up in front of them until enough momentum is transferred to that lump of compressed air to slow down the impactor. For Earth and its atmosphere, if the radius of meteorite is larger than a few meters, that won't happen before the impactor hits the ground, though slightly larger ones may explode in midair due to the pressure of the compression. Substantially larger impactors are scarcely slowed down at all before impact, and they blow a cone of atmosphere out into interplanetary space. Larger masses expand the angle of the cone. When the mass is large enough (th

Soaking the Rich

Nobody gets the right wing nutosphere frothing at the mouth like new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They seem to be as terrified of her dancing as they are of her speech. What really scares them, though, is one of her policy proposals: raising the tax rate on the very rich to 60% or 70%. Communism, Socialism, economy destroying etc. they proclaim. Paul Krugman, who previously occupied a similar position in nutospheric pandemonia, has a new column endorsing AOCs tax proposals. As usual, he brings some economic logic and data to the fight. The core of his point is that the US did, in fact, have similar tax rates for the rich for three and one half decades after WWII, and that period coincided with unprecedented economic growth and increases in prosperity for the middle class. So AOC, far from showing her craziness, is fully in line with serious economic research. (I hear that she’s been talking to some very good economists.) Her critics, on the other hand, do indeed have


Stupidest 100 minutes of television ever. The director should be strapped into a chair and forced to watch all 4000 episodes of Friends.

The Wealth of Corporations/The Powers of the World

There are about 30 countries in the world that have net wealth greater than the market valuations of the richest corporations. The net wealth of the UK, the fifth richest nation, is about 15 times the market valuation of Apple or Amazon. The richest nation, the US, has a multiple of about 100. India, number 45 Peru, #44, on the country list, has a net wealth somewhat less than Tencent, Facebook or Berkshire Hathaway (each recently #5 on the corporate list). Wikipedia lists India twice, once at #45 and once at #12 - I think the latter, at 6-7 multiples of the largest corporations, is more likely, In terms technical expertise, no national government is competitive with these corporations, and in terms of data and information - the oil and steel of the modern age - there might be something like parity between the very most powerful states and the great information corporations, except that the corporations surely have it better organized. I was pretty shocked by these facts, but it

Big Government

Big Government vs. Small is an argument with a long history. One of the oldest known debates on that theme was the dispute between Confucians and Legalists in ancient China. The focus of their debate was the government monopoly on salt and iron, which generated most governmental revenue. This debate continued for a couple of millennia, with periodic triumph's of the Legalists (who used the monopoly and its effective tax to fund the great wall and it's defense) and the Confucians who dropped the tax only to see barbarians overrun the country. Adapted from Mark Kurlansky's wonderful book Salt: A World History .

Earning One's Bread

I'm a fairly hard core Lord of the Ring s fan, and, having found a listener, I've been reading it aloud recently. I'm not the critical type, but have I found a plot hole? Elves always seem to be well provisioned, not to say damn wealthy, but has anyone ever seen one do a lick of work? OK, maybe Galadriel and her maidens do a bit of magic cloak weaving, but it's not like you can buy those on the market. This leads me to a theory. There are secret elvish farms and mines, worked by, guess who, enslaved orcs. This would help explain the abiding and otherwise hard to explain hatred orcs have for them. Am I right, or what?

Public Choice

The Stoat has reviewed his 2018 posts , and picked his favorite: The left has no theory of the behavior of government. I'm not surprised that he was proud of it because I found it really annoying, mostly because it took me forever to figure out what he was talking about. What he was talking about was so-called Public Choice Theory, and it's not actually a theory the behavior of governments but a theory of government behaving badly. It's also an example of a well known phenomenon in political science and economics called the Principal-Agent (PA) problem. The problem occurs when the Agent, who is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the Principal, has interests that conflict with those of said Principal. Libertarian types have seized on Public Choice theory because they, like Mr. Connolley, think that "Acceptance of this theory, of course, leads you to conclude that government should be minimised." I, and many professional students of Public choice theory