Showing posts from 2020

More's a Poppering: Psychohistory and Psychologism

  ‘It is not the consciousness of man that determines his existence—rather, it is his social existence that determines his consciousness.’ Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  I am back to Popper after a long literary diversion.  By contrast with his disdain for Hegel, Popper clearly feels some affinity for Marx, whom he seems to regard as a good scientist brought down by the unfortunate disease of historicism - the belief that history unfolded by ineluctable laws as inevitable as the motions of the planets.  One thing he likes about Marx is his insistence on the autonomy of sociology as in the epigram quoted above.  He contrasts this with J. S. Mill's notion that society is a product of human nature and psychology - psychologism to Popper. For Popper, Mill too is a victim to "historicism" in Popper's view. Popper devotes a chapter to the conflict, but to me it is bogus one.  Ir seems o


Notes from Caste , by Isabel Wilkerson After Obama's victory in 2012, optimists predicted a new era of post-racialism in the US.  That turned out to be wishful thinking.  When Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's, he predicted that Democrats had lost the South for a generation.  Well, it is two and a half generations and counting.  Not since Lyndon Johnson has any Democratic Presidential Candidate received a majority of the white vote. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War outlawed slavery and granted the vote to Black American men, but the end of Reconstruction and the return to power of Southern whites brought Jim Crow and American Caste system, analogous in its principles and effects to the caste system of India in systematically creating rigid barriers between black and white, depriving Blacks of the vote, and consigning them to menial and poorly paid jobs. Wilkerson argues that little in the US, and almost nothin

No New Worlds to Discover?

 Alexander at 30 something grieved that there were no more world's to conquer.  Robbert Dijkgraaf writing in Quanta, asks whether physics has reached that sad state.  While he concludes in the negative, his denial sounds more like "hey, we can still add a few decimal points here and there." Lubos Motl and Peter Woit both have commentaries up today, and Lubos is predictably outraged at his one time coauthor, and Peter is more measured. The Universe still has some puzzles for us of course, but it is not clear that their understanding will have the same kinds of revolutionary import that the discoveries of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein and the quantum theorists have had.  In particular, the Cosmos is starting to feel a bit cramped.  Of course it is indeed large beyond our imaginings, but there don't seem to be dragons out there, or at least not dragons that we don't already know about.  Black holes, quasars, gamma ray bursters all seem to fit pretty neatly under known la

Psychohistory the creation of Isaac Asimov and the central element in his Foundation series.  I'm not much of a fan, but it seems that he was anticipated both by J. S. Mill and (negatively) by Marx.  Popper calls Mill's notion that sociology can be reduced to psychology "psychologism," and seems generally approving of Marx's rejection of it in favor of independent foundations for sociology, though of course rejecting Marx for the even greater crime of "historicism," the notion that the historical future is baked into the past, and determined by ineluctable laws of historical development. Marx apparently made it his project to discover those laws, but like many another philosopher discovered mostly those laws that he wanted to believe. I wish I could remember who said "prediction is hard, especially of the future.*" *Well of course it was Niels Bohr.  Google remembers all.

Good Intentions

 But bad results. The collectivists … have the zest for progress, the sympathy for the poor, the burning sense of wrong, the impulse for great deeds, which have been lacking in latter-day liberalism. But their science is founded on a profound misunderstanding …, and their actions, therefore, are deeply destructive and reactionary. So men’s hearts are torn, their minds divided, they are offered impossible choices. WALTER LIPPMANN. Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  Popper, like Lippman, gives Marx credit for good intentions, but attributes his failures to the fundamental error of his analysis.  Like Plato and Hegel, Marx was a "historicist" who was convinced that history was deterministic and headed inevitably in the direction that he predicted.  Marx, says Popper, was influenced by the determinism of Laplace and the physicists of his time, a notion neither justified by theory and law or even by

Hegel by Popper

Popper's Hegel is the most loathsome of philosophers.  He was the court philosopher of Fredrick Wilhelm III of Prussia and as such, his primary impulse was to justify the monarch's absolutism in a world turning against it.  Many diseases of German politics and history can be traced to him - the fascism, the racism, the bellicosity that plunged the world into two global wars and shattered the German empires. An obscurantist and a charlatan, he poisoned generations of German philosophy.  Not least of his crimes, I imagine, is his role in inspiring Marx, but I haven't gotten that far in the book yet. 

Things Fall Apart*

OK, I always wanted a post with a title stolen from Yeats "The Second Coming" but the punchline here is that when they do, they fall apart into roughly cubical shapes (on average).  Such, at any rate, is the claim of a geologist and a mathematician.  The core insight comes from pure mathematics.  If you slice any large scale object up with random plane slices, you tend to wind up with pieces with six faces and eight vertices. Oddly enough, this result seems to have been anticipated by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus , where he assigned each of his essences (earth, air, water, fire, and a fifth, cosmic essence) to one of the Platonic solids.  Earth got cubes.  So far as I know, there is no cosmic link with the dodecahedron. Some details here:

Girl Fight

 False advertising.  Really just Schopenhauer on Hegel. Schopenhauer, who had the pleasure of knowing Hegel personally and who suggested13 the use of Shakespeare’s words, ‘such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not’, as the motto of Hegel’s philosophy, drew the following excellent picture of the master: ‘Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of a whole generation.’ Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (P

The Most Hated President

 It is said that Biden does not want Trump investigated: I predict that if Biden does some kind of Gerald Ford pardon he will instantly become the most hated President in history - Republicans will still hate him but not nearly as much as Democrats will.  His Presidency will instantly lose all credibility. Let the law do its work.  If Trump is guilty, let him be convicted.

On to Hegel

 Having spent most of 9 chapters relentlessly bashing Plato, Popper now turns to praising his originality and profundity.  Mostly this praise does not delve too deeply into what is being praised, but a few remarks caught my eye, especially the claim that Euclid was not so much a textbook of geometry as the Platonic schools attempt to provide a foundation for Plato's geometric cosmology, expounded in Timaeus.  Since I mainly recall Timaeus as as absurd and naive, I was a bit befuddled by the remark, but one can hardly doubt that even Kepler was long under the spell of Timaeus .   I mostly remembered the dialogue for the central role played by the five Platonic solids, but Wikipedia has a nice summary:'_account , which includes some nicely animated rotating images of those solids. Next, Popper begins Hegel with a chapter on Aristotle, whom he regards as Hegel's source and inspiration.  Popper is not a fan


Chapter 10 of The Open Society and its Enemies, also titled TOSAIE, is a reward for some of the past labor.  Popper is both eloquent and expansive here, clearly describing his vision of the open society, and giving much needed background on Athens in the 5th Century BCE.  He introduces a pantheon of heroes of the open society: Protagoras, Democritus, and, above all, Pericles and Socrates. Given that much of what we know of Socrates comes to us from Plato, it is a little curious that he seems to ultimately be the most fundamental betrayer of Socrates and his philosophic thought.  It seems clear that the "Socrates" of The Republic and other late dialogues is so at odds with the Socrates we see in more personal dialogues thought to be early. Popper tries to analyze this betrayal, and comes up some interesting ideas, including some supposed signs of guilty regret, but I won't pretend to evaluate them.  It is his final chapter devoted to Plato, and I have to say that he closes

Some Popperian Equivalence Classes

I am frequently confused by some of the terms Popper uses in TOSAIE, so I constructed a short list of terms he considers equivalent or at least closely related. The Open Society: Democratic, liberal, humanitarian, universalist, dynamic, open, having faith in reason, freedom, and the brotherhood of man. Totalitarian Society: Tribal, conservative, reactionary, backword looking, aristocratic or oligarchic,  repressive, anti-intellectual, particularist. I find the "tribal" a bit incongruous, but I can deal with it. Needless to say, I'm on the side of his good guys, 

Oligarchs vs. Democrats

 2500 years ago. The next passages quoted, written as a general reflection on the Corcyraean Revolution of 427 B.C., are interesting, first as an excellent picture of the class situation; secondly, as an illustration of the strong words Thucydides could find when he wanted to describe analogous tendencies on the side of the democrats of Corcyra. (In order to judge his lack of impartiality we must remember that in the beginning of the war Corcyra had been one of Athens’ democratic allies, and that the revolt had been started by the oligarchs.) Moreover, the passage is an excellent expression of the feeling of a general social breakdown: ‘Nearly the whole Hellenic world’, writes Thucydides, ‘was in commotion. In every city, the leaders of the democratic and of the oligarchic parties were trying hard, the one to bring in the Athenians, the other the Lacedaemonians … The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood … The leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professi

Bad Medicine

 A familiar saying is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.  That advice is particularly hard to take for the committed ideologue.  One of the besetting problems of American society is the existence of large gaps in educational achievement, much of it correlated with race. This problem has attracted a lot of would be solutions, including, prominently, the Head Start program, and Affirmative Action. If we accept that achievement differences are due to discrimination or existing economic and social discrepancies, interventions like Head Start sound reasonable.  In fact, they have nearly always been a failure.  The heart of this ideology is what has been called the "Blank Slate" - the notion that the brain is a blank slate upon which anything can be written.  Evidence that this is not the case is derided as biased or worse.  Not only that, but research into the biological underpinning of intelligence has been condemned as immoral - not for its practices or methods b

Magical, Tribal, Collectivist

 Plato, says Popper, is hankering back to an earlier Greek Tribal Society.  Popper equates tribalism, magic, and collectivist societies with out much trouble about justification.  I think this is  both bizarre and improbable anthropology.  In the first place, every known society has magical and collectivist elements.  Not only that, but it is now clear that societies originally called "tribal" are very diverse and few of them resembled the bronze age conquerors of Greece. I don't see his point here.

Where Did Plato Go Wrong?

 After eight chapters mostly dedicated to beating up Plato, in Chapter 9, Popper turn to his own theory of how to construct a better state: piecemeal social engineering - not revolution but evolution.  The manifest advantage is the ability to discern effects without nearly so much disruption of society and human life.  His model is based on the way science and engineering work and I agree completely. To me, the advantages are manifest from the standpoint of the Twentieth or Twenty-First Century, but Popper then turns to why Plato went wrong.  He attributes it to aestheticism and perfectionism, but I don't think this is quite right. One of Plato's most important inventions was his Theory of Forms.  He seems to have been led to it by puzzling over the question of common nouns.  Proper nouns, like Plato, or the dog named Pluto, each have their specific referent, but what is the referent for "man" or "dog?" Perhaps overly influenced by geometry, he concluded tha

Slogging Through Popper

 Popper continues to beat Plato mercilessly, and if we take Popper literally, he indeed deserves it.  But does the more or less innocent reader deserve this tiresome tirade? I most say, at this point, how can anyone have ever taken this ridiculous crap seriously?  Perhaps I am missing something. A short catalog of Plato's crimes a)A fascism both extreme and absurd.  Ridiculously unworkable and viciously brutal. b)Dishonest in his arguments and an advocate of dishonesty. c)Putting his most un Socratic ideas in the mouth of Socrates. Did this guy do anything worthwhile?  If he did, I expect that we won't hear it from Popper. Popper's crime: Logorrea both brutal and extreme.

Robot Conquest

 Azerbaijan won a short, bloody war against Armenia this week, and the victory was due mainly to a new technology.  Turkish and Israeli UAVs (AKA, drones) destroyed Armenian soldiers, tanks, vehicles, and air defense sites almost with impunity.  These robot warriors took a giant step towards rendering many long established military technologies obsolete. Drones are dirt cheap compared to a traditional air force and require a far more modest logistical support system.  Because countries are cranking them out and selling them to all comers, they represent a major escalation in military prowess for relatively small and weak nations.  I am not aware of drones that can challenge the immensely expensive manned fighters deployed by superpowers, but there can be no doubt that they are just around the corner. The Washington Post has a major story on the recent war and the role of the drones:

A Democratic Republic

In Chapter Seven of TOSAIE, Popper offers his alternative to Plato's totalitarian state, which is described in his misleadingly titled Republic .  Popper argues for the democratic republic, not because its decision are likely to be perfect, or perfectly reflect the "will of the people," but because it offers a convenient and nonviolent way to remove tyrants and other corrupt rulers.  Those advantages should be in clear focus for Americans today.  For me, this argument is both persuasive and unassailable.  Contrary to Plato's static state, it is inherently dynamic, an absolute necessity in a dynamic world.  Of course the static state was a total illusion even in Plato's time, but he was blinded by his faith in his theory of forms. Of course these ideas do not originate with Popper.  They were explicitly embodied in the US Constitution and many ideas which preceded it and formed its basis.

More Popper: View from Chapter 7

  The wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow. PLATO. Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  Perhaps Plato's most famous dictum.  The problem with Democracy, says Plato, is that the ignorant often choose the foolish or evil to rule, as we in the US have seen.  One trouble with Plato's solution is that not only do all known  totalitarian systems do at least as poorly in "choosing" leaders, they also make it virtually impossible to remove those foolish and evil rulers. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’ (we need not worry about the precise meaning of these terms), and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad go


First, the Democratic Party failed to convince 60 + million Americans of the threat posed by the worst President in American history.  Second, it is a truly sorry comment on the American voter that so many of them remain under the spell of this fascist - not even a fascist who got the trains to run on time, but a fascist who broke everything he touched.  It is a sorry commentary on the state of American politics, and a grim harbinger of evils to come. I doubt that Biden can fix this, and perhaps no one could. A lot depends on how much Mitch McConnell is willing to damage the US for his own purposes.  It is unlikely that serious reform can happen with him running the Senate, and not very probable that he will cooperate enough to stem further disaster.


 What's the point of reading about The Open Society when the American People have just embraced fascism like the three dollar whore she surely is?

The Polls

 As I write this, the US election is still in the balance, but one thing is absolutely clear.  Once again the pre-election polls were completely and utterly wrong.  Why?  I thought these guys had refined their science, but evidently not.

Plato on Oligarchy

Plato was no fan of democracy, but he got this one right.    ‘We must describe’, says Plato, ‘how timocracy changes into oligarchy … Even a blind man must see how it changes … It is the treasure house that ruins this constitution. They’ (the timocrats) ‘begin by creating opportunities for showing off and spending money, and to this end they twist the laws, and they and their wives disobey them …; and they try to outrival one another.’ In this way arises the first class conflict: that between virtue and money, or between the old-established ways of feudal simplicity and the new ways of wealth. The transition to oligarchy is completed when the rich establish a law that ‘disqualifies from public office all those whose means do not reach the stipulated amount. This change is imposed by force of arms, should threats and blackmail not succeed …’ Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  Citizen's United super-cha

Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies: Report from initial contact.

I have the habit of slogging through the front matter of books, and my edition has no fewer than three prefatory essays, not counting the preface and the introduction.  One point I found amusing: it seems his students liked to refer to the book as "The Open Society by One of its Enemies."  This is a reference to the fact that the author of a book on the essential need for open criticism was himself fiercely intolerant of it when the target was his own work.  Such is the nature of man and life. Since I happen to be simultaneously reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy I thought it interesting to compare the chapters each devoted to Heraclitus.  I think that Karl Popper is somewhat limited by his polemical purpose (trying to establish a history of what he calls 'historicism', or seeing ineluctable outcomes in history), but my overall impression is that his prose is leaden, at best workmanlike.  By contrast, Russell is sparkling, sometimes discursiv

Bad Influence?

Once again William Connolley has set me on a path I hadn't really intended to take, in this case reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy.  Well, it seems that it is a really good book, not only entertainingly written but full of fresh insights.  Not long ago I took a course in Ancient Greek Philosophy, and while Pythagoras got some ink, he was definitely consigned to the minor leagues by my prof and the author of my textbook. Russell puts him and his mathematical and mystical notions at or near the center of all subsequent thought, especially Plato, the Christian philosophers, and even Newton.  Russell, unlike my teachers, was a mathematician, and this allows him to see threads of thought hidden from the enumerate. The influence of geometry upon philosophy and scientific method has been profound. Geometry, as established by the Greeks, starts with axioms which are (or are deemed to be) self-evident, and proceeds, by deductive reasoning, to arrive at theorems th

Shrunken Heads

 Bizarre fact department: Perhaps nothing is more unexpected about our brains than that they are much smaller today than they were ten thousand or twelve thousand years ago, and by quite a lot. The average brain has shrunk from 1,500 cubic centimeters then to 1,350 cubic centimeters now. That’s equivalent to scooping out a portion of brain about the size of a tennis ball. That’s not at all easy to explain, because it happened all over the world at the same time, as if we agreed to reduce our brains by treaty. Bryson, Bill. The Body (p. 70). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  That is pretty weird, but is it just coincidence that agriculture was invented and spread the world about that time? The resultant simplification in ways of making a living might have made some brain size reduction an advantageous evolutionary development.  The brain is a very hungry organ, and consumes a whole lot of nutrition. It might also explain Republicans. 

Hating on Liberals

 A core of Donald Trump's support seems to come from those motivated by a visceral hatred of liberals.  Some of this comes from the long campaign of right-wing media, but there must be a more fundamental motivation. The past several decades have been brutal to Americans without college degrees.  As good union jobs in manufacturing and other industries have dried up, they have lost income, lost jobs, and suffered the associated social disintegration documented in Deaths of Despair: divorce, family collapse, drug addiction and suicide.  White Americans without college degrees were not the only or the first victims of this, but they are the core of Trump's support. Liberals used to see themselves as champions of the working class, but they have gone on to more fashionable causes: Blacks, gays, and immigrants.  Immigrants have been used for at least two hundred years to suppress worker wages and destroy unions.  Blacks are rivals for the kinds of jobs the white working class can co

Book Review: A New History of Life, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirshvink

  A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth At the present moment, we are concerned about the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and its disrupting effects on planetary temperature and life.   It is a reasonable fear.   Of the ten or so mass extinctions in our planet’s history, most have involved greenhouse gas events as major perpetrators. In the long run, though, the problem may be in the other direction. The long-term prediction for carbon dioxide is that it will continue in the same trend it has shown over at least the last billion years—a slow but inexorable decrease. The lowering levels are because of both life and plate tectonics: as more and more CO2 is used to make the skeletons of organisms, especially in the oceans, CO2 is consumed. If these skeletons stay in the oceans, the skeletally confined CO2 (now in calcium carbonate) will recycle. But plate tectonics makes the continents ever larger, and an increasing amount of

Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

  To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, By Christopher Paolini This is a space opera in something like the old tradition.   Paolini apparently hit the big time with his young adult Eragon series, which I haven’t read, and this, apparently, is his first adult work.   It features a few varieties of menacing and sometimes interesting aliens, some interesting technology/magic, and a lot of bang-bang action. It held my attention pretty well for the first 400 pages or so, but this is a long book, 878 pages, and I found the climatic long drawn out space battle a bit tedious.   I can see this as a Netflix series.

Nobel Women

 Andrea Ghez became only the fourth woman to win a Nobel in Physics.  All the Physics Nobels this year were for black holes.  Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna won Chemistry for CRISPR gene editing - quite likely the most consequential discovery of the Twenty-First Century, so far.  Congratulation to them and their fellow winners, especially Roger Penrose.

Book Review: The Neuroscience of Intelligence

A popular question on the question site Quora is “how do I increase my IQ/intelligence?”  There are a number of schemes advertised to do just that: exposure to Mozart, memory practice, video games, early childhood interventions, plus various pills, supplements, and nostrums.  Unfortunately, says Richard Haier, writing in his book, The Neuroscience of Intelligence , none of them appear to work. I have long been an IQ skeptic, with the core of my skepticism being based on the lack of identifiable neurobiological correlates of IQ.   Such correlates, based mainly on brain imaging studies that are of relatively recent availability, are the major theme of the book. So what are those neural correlates?   Many of them seem to be connected to communication and connection between the frontal and parietal regions of the brain.   Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain reveals the most active regions of the brain during task performance.   The brains of high IQ persons have

In the Beginning

And the  Lord  God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.  ............... Genesis 2:7, KJV Modern theories of the origin of life, call it clay.  Clay, it happens, can catalyze the formation of strands of RNA up to a few dozen bases long.  It can also catalyze the formation of lipid and protein vesicles which have some of the properties of cells.  Such vesicles can provide convenient reaction chambers for RNA molecules to form longer chains, possibly reproduce, and maybe even serve as templates for linking amino acids into simple proteins. Sound plausible?  Hey, don't blame me, it's Genesis.

Breathing Lessons

Once upon a time, two new animal body plans were invented  - OK, it was during the Triassic, 230 million years or so ago. They were, respectively, the prototypes of the mammals and the dinosaurs.  Because the Triassic was notoriously low on oxygen, with maybe half the concentration of today, breathing was tough, and lots of the less talented perished.  Mammals had an innovation, the diaphragm, which allowed walking and breathing at the same time, an advantage not enjoyed by lizards. Dinosaurs had another, a two cycle lung. The mammalian lung is a cul-de-sac.  Air comes in and leaves by the same path.  The dino lung, though, is a sort of two cycle lung that separates inhaled and exhaled air except at the ultimate intake and exit.  This lung, subsequently inherited by, among others, birds, is more efficient.  At 5000 feet, the bird lung is about twice as efficient as the mammalian version.  Given that during the Triassic and early Jurassic oxygen levels were more like those now found at

Hidden Agendas

I sometimes read a little Scott Aaronson.  He is obviously a bright and, I think, extremely sincere guy, but many of the questions he is interested in don't interest me that much - like a recent discussion of whether rational thinkers (or Bayesian agents with common priors) can honestly disagree.  That particular notion is not very interesting to me since I don't really believe humans can usefully be approximated by either Bayesian agents with common priors (or rational thinkers, for that matter.) Anyway, I wound up reading a post on Robin Hanson .  In it he vehemently argues that Robin Hanson is absolutely not insincere or possessed of a hidden agenda.  I found this amusing since in the same post he discusses a recent book of Hanson's whose theme is that much of human activity is not directed towards its ostensible end but rather consists of "signalling."  Which pretty much by definition is insincere behavior with a hidden agenda.

Heat Death

 The Permian-Triassic extinction was the granddaddy of all post Cambrian mass extinctions.  While the cause has been contentious, evidence has piled up in favor of Death by Greenhouse - a tremendous increase in global temperatures caused by very high levels of carbon dioxide, coupled with low levels of oxygen.  Plants and animals do not do well at high temperature, and high ocean temperatures can limit marine oxygen. Seen from our vantage point so long after, the Permian extinction was a repeat of what happened at the end of the Devonian, itself the first of what we now call greenhouse extinctions. Many more were destined to come at the end of the Triassic, multiple times in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, and ending with the last-known greenhouse extinction at the end of the Paleocene epoch, some 60 million years ago. But none were ever to be so great as the Permian event, or to unleash a more diverse assemblage of animals in the aftermath of extinction. Ward, Peter. A New History of Lif

Fascist Party, USA

The Republican Party has been jumping thru its a*****e to please Trump so long now that it never even noticed that it had become the fascist, or maybe, monarchist party of the US.  The constant barrage of obvious lies, the obsequious fawning, the failure to even present any platform beyond fidelity to the glorious leader, the interminable Castro-like ranting speech, the open flouting of the Hatch Act, the contempt for the tradition in pimping the people's house as another vulgar Trump palace are all signs of a party bent on destroying democracy in the US. I feel what any decent people in Germany must have felt in 1933.

Minor Crimes Against Nature

 Trying to whistle the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute .  Me.

Tractatus Philosophicus

Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, but the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.  What did the second wisest man in Athens know? Descartes concluded that he existed because he thought.   What did he think? Schopenhauer believed that the World consisted of Will and Idea.   Who was Will? Bertrand Russell concocted a fundamental challenge to set theory based on the old puzzle that in a certain town the barber shaved only those who did not shave themselves.   Who shaved Bertrand Russell? Thales is considered the first Greek philosopher.   He believed everything in the World consisted of water.   How many times did Thales have to get up to pee every night? Saint Thomas Aquinas found seventeen proofs that God existed.   How many proofs do we have that Aquinas existed? Baruch Spinoza identified God and Nature.   Did he pick them out of a lineup, or what?   Was either one ever convicted? Karl Marx invented Dialectical Materialism.   He is mostly famous for his really g

For a smart guy, you don't sweat much

Actually that may have it backwards.  Humans have about twice as many sweat glands as chimps, why? According to Bill Bryson's The Body: A Guide for Occupants , the reason may be that we needed a more potent cooling system for our big brains. No doubt it also helps for running in the Sun.

Review: Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

In  The Devil in the White City,  author Erik Larson interleaved the story of Chicago's Columbian Exposition with that of a particularly depraved serial killer operating nearby at the same time.  Similarly, his also nonfiction Thunderstruck  tells the story of Marconi's development of radio and another sensational crime.  I bought the book because I was interested in the early development of radio. While the crime at the center of the book has many peculiar and suspenseful aspects, I was quite disappointed in the history of Marconi.  Larson has unearthed many stories of his fanatical dedication, and his struggles with rivals and competitors, the book, and I expect the author, is almost entirely innocent of any discussion of the actual technical difficulties encountered and overcome. There is much about giant towers and antennas, their destruction by weather, giant sparks illuminating the darkness and shattering the silence with their thunderous booms, their is almost nothing ab

A Reach

  A man's reach should exceed his grasp...............Robert Browning Yeah, thanks for the bad advice, Bob. In my case, the exceeding now consists mostly of still buying math and physics books.  This despite shelves, real and digital, groaning with books yet unread.  Probably more to the point, I'm too damn old to ever finish them, and, in fact, probably much too dumb to absorb much math anymore anyway. Oh well.

Review: The City We Became, by N. K. Jemison

I had read another trilogy by this author, and quite liked it, but I can’t say the same about this book.  The peculiar notion than propels it is that cities can reach a certain stage where they are born, and it is New York’s time.  There are malign powers that oppose this, and some humans become atavars of the city to facilitate the birth.  They constitute the principal characters in the book. They are chosen, given certain magical powers which they need to learn how to use, and need to fight the malign power or powers.  Although this is allegedly science fiction, it is really just magic, occasionally embellished by more or less silly references to many-worlds, muons, quanta and even, at one point, including the Navier-Stokes equation. The most tedious elements of the book are frequent disquisitions on various hocus pocus stuff that feels like a bad nightmare combining New Age BS with primitive folk legends and poorly digested multi-universe speculations. “The problem,” the Wom

Reading in the Time of Quarantine - John Grisham

Has John Grisham sold more books than there are atoms in the Milky Way?  Not quite, but close.  He is my go-to author for page turning suspense, and fortunately, he has written a lot of books.  I have bought 12 so far this quarantine, and have read ten.  A commentary and some capsule reviews below. I expect that Grisham is fabulously wealthy by now, with hundreds of millions of books sold and a potful of highly successful movies adaptations, but he started out as a street lawyer, defending the little guys and fighting the big guys, and his sympathies as an author are clearly with the little guys. His villains tend to be the evil rich corporations, and the many inequities and iniquities of the legal system and his sympathies with the people it can grind up.  He is a southerner, and race is another frequent theme.  His bad guys tend to be very bad and his good guys more nuanced. A Time to Kill: Grisham’s first novel, and it failed to sell well – until his second novel became a zil


 I remember being surprised as a student when I learned that a solid body, rotating on other than its principal axis, could suddenly shift to start rotating about another axis.  It turns our that this phenomenon can occur even with planets, and when it happens, it is called True Polar Wander, or TPW.   It turns out the Earth has experienced a  few of these events, where the axis of rotation changes by sixty degrees or so.  As you might expect, these tend to be rather catastrophic events.  Imagine, say, New York winding up at the North Pole.  Typically these result in mass extinctions. So what could produce such a thing?  Perhaps a major volcanic eruptive event or mountain building episode might place a major mass in an unbalanced position with respect to the axis.

Racism USA

 In an earlier comment, William Connolley wrote that he thought the US was "wealthist but not racist."  I want to assure him that he is quite wrong.  The history of racism in the US started with slavery but continued with Jim Crow.  The cardinal principle of Jim Crow was denying blacks the right to vote.  This policy was ensured by law and violence, with widespread lynching being the go to sanction.  The passage of the voting rights act during the 1960's was the first solid hole in this policy, and it turned the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. Ever since, the Republican Party has depended on racist support for it core voters.  The scumbags of the Republican Supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and ever since the Republican Party has made a career of suppressing the black vote.  Techniques today are a bit more subtle than in the hay day of the KKK - burdensome voter registration rules, placing voting sites far from predominantly Black neighborho

Men are from Mars...

...and women and bacteria too. Early Earth had some disadvantages as a place for life to start.  For one thing, there was little if any land - perhaps a few volcanoes poking up here and there, and water does not like nucleic acids like RNA. Mars, on the other hand, had several things Earth lacked, as well as things Earth had, like water.  In particular it had deserts and ice caps, both of which Earth lacked.  For that reason, there is a significant number of origin of life partisans who think that life started on Mars and then got transferred to Earth. It turns out that Earth does have a lot of stuff we got from Mars - a billion tons or so.  Asteroid impacts on Mars blast a bunch of Mars out into the solar system, and some of it makes its way to Earth.  Simulations show that bacterial spores could potentially survive the trip. These considerations are one reason that the search for traces of ancient life on Mars are taken seriously.

Critical Structure Corruption

I got the blue screen of death on my old computer today, together with the title error message.  Microsoft immediately began its repairs. It occurred to me that the same things was exactly what was wrong with my country: Critical Structure Corruption. Too bad I can't just push the resent button to flush all that corruption into the sewer.  Of course there wll be a chance in November, but Windows 10 is a lot quicker.

Distraction in his aspect

How to distract myself from horrors being done to my country has become a problem.  Some reading helps, but my latest John Grisham novel turns out to have a theme similar to much of the chaos Trump has unleashed: police overreach and out of control police violence.  That is just too topical. Jigsaw puzzles are good, but hard on my elderly eyesight. I've tried science fiction, but it isn't really doing it for me.  The old classics of the golden age I have mostly read and others are just a little too overcome by events.  The cyber punk themed stuff I find a bit tiresome - though I did like Neuromancer.  I keep searching for a writer I can really like.  If an author starts out with his own 500 word invented vocabulary, I usually give up in disgust. So what about the hard stuff? I have been looking into a few origin of life books, but I may need more chemistry.  The one I'm reading now is painfully slow at getting to any point.  The authors use the phrase "We will argue...

Things Fall Apart

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind...Proverbs 11:29 Tens of thousands of Americans are dying, and millions sickened, due to malice, incompetence, and stupidity of one man, with the acquiescence of  his corrupt and cowardly party.  That is bad, it is true, but I'm more upset about the roughly 40% of Americans who still applaud his fascist path of destruction through America. Why so?   For a few, I imagine, it is greed.  Trump has been good to the stock market and especially to the big hedge fund player who manipulate it.  He was lucky enough to catch three years of the boom that started under Obama. For most, I think, it is anger.  Anger is lifeblood of fascism, though somewhat ironically, Trump and friends are the embodiment of the self dealing and corruption that is one of the things that they are angry about.  Of course a lot of that anger originates in racism.  Americans who have not completed college have had a rough three decades, and every demagogue knows

Old Yeller - and the state of rhetoric

Joe Biden yelled at me for a while today.  I think he was talking about the economy, but it was hard to listen what with him yelling all the time. Joe has been a professional politician since Demosthenes was in a short toga, so it is a little surprising that he never learned how to give a speech, or at least modulate his voice a little.  A loud voice of constant intensity is almost as soporific as its quiet counterpart, and lots more annoying.  Obama might have allowed one to get cat naps in the long pauses between words, but at least he displayed some animation and variety. No doubt Biden wants to counter Trump's claims that he is "sleepy" but, Joe, Joe, this is not the way to do it. Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as

Minimum Wage

Economic theory says that in a competitive economy for workers, an increase in the minimum wage should cause job losses.  Experience of minimum wage increases in various US States and in the UK shows that this has not been the case. Why not?  The most reasonable explanation is monopsony, the   equivalent of monopoly power in employment opportunities.  Much other data shows that this indeed the case.  Anne Case and Angus Deaton discuss the details and implications in their book Deaths of Despair. When labor markets are competitive, a government-imposed minimum wage that is higher than the going wage will cause employers to lay off workers. This is what the economics textbooks commonly say. There have been many studies that have looked for such outcomes. Although the federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009, many states have raised their state minimum wage since then, providing many opportunities for studying the effects. The most comprehensive and persuasive study to date, by t

The Meaning of Life

One View: Our contention is that, despite the remarkable complexity of living order, the aggregate function of the biosphere is a simple one: it opens a channel for energy flow through a domain of organic chemistry that would otherwise be inaccessible to planetary processes. Smith, Eric. The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth (p. 28). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.  This has implications for the probability of life occurring on other planets and in the Universe.  The alternate view is that its origin on Earth was something of a freak accident. The fundamental idea is that free energy flows tend to create complexity, and that life is something of a phase change, or perhaps a series of phase changes. 

Origin of Life on Earth

A great mystery is how living matter can be created from nonliving. This puzzle is so deep that many creationists  insist that it could not happen by natural means, and required direct intervention of a creator.  Of course zillions of cells manage the feat every day, without any obvious supernatural assistance, but they do have the benefit of an army of cellular machines which are exquisitely designed for the purpose, machines which are manufactured by the cells themselves, from blueprints stored in their DNA. So how did the whole intricate process arise? The trick is to get enough of the cellular apparatus in place for something like evolution to take place. Cellular life requires both metabolism and heredity as a minimum, but together they pose something of a chicken and egg problem.  In modern cells neither can exist without the other, but which came first? Of course such questions are not yet answerable so they are controversial among researchers.  Also controversial is the crucial

A Miracle of Rare Device

Book Review: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson One of the stars of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 was Gustave Eiffel’s marvelous tower.   That fair celebrated the 100 th anniversary of the French Revolution.   With the 400 th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World approaching, the United States wanted to do something to top Paris, showcase the arrival of the US as a world power and center of technological innovation.   A fierce competition emerged between US cities to host and build the Fair.   To the surprise and consternation of the cities of the East, the upstart Midwest city of Chicago won the competition. The World’s Fair and Columbian Exhibition of 1893 was Chicago’s chance to show that it wasn’t just the dirty, smelly, hog butcher of the world, and they mustered most of the great architects in the US to design it.   Daniel Burnham was the lead architect and Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park and Biltmore, designed the grounds and lands

The Second Coming...

...of the coronavirus is here in the USA.  Thanks to a despicably corrupt President and some nitwit governors, we have seen a new peak of infections here.  Where it will end, we don't know, but here is what W. B. Yeats had to say on the subject 100 years ago (very slightly edited): Turning and turning in the widening gyre    The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere    The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst    Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out    When a vast image out of  Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert    A shape with lion  whale body and the head of a man,    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it    Reel shadows

Mathematics Consists of...

...two mutually unintelligible languages, one spoken by mathematicians... In his book on Differential Geometry, Loring Tu includes a story about a remark by Physics Nobel winner C. N. Yang. “Gauge fields are deeply related to some profoundly beautiful ideas of contemporary mathematics, ideas that are the driving forces of part of the mathematics of the last 40 years, . . . , the theory of fiber bundles.” Convinced that gauge fields are related to connections on fiber bundles, he tried to learn the fiber-bundle theory from several mathematical classics on the subject, but “learned nothing. The language of modern mathematics is too cold and abstract for a physicist” Tu represents that his book is intended to be intelligible to physicists, and prerequisites are just his previous book "Introduction to Manifolds,"  a bit of point set topology, and, evidently, some abstract algebra. Seven chapters into the present book,