Showing posts from 2021

Banning Robotic Weapons

Autonomous killer robots aren't just science fiction anymore, and a lot of people would like to ban them. A recent major conference in Geneva failed to agree though. I don't think that the prospects are very good, at least partially because it's a ban that would be very hard to enforce.  Killer robots don't need a vast industrial base like nuclear weapons.  They can be built in modest warehouses using cell-phone brains and other widely available components.  Those that proved decisive in the recent war over Nagorno-karabakh were built by Israel and Turkey, and lots of others are in on building them, notably the US, China, and Russia.  Another obvious reason for skepticism is that they appear to be a military game changer, probably as big a one as the tank and the machine gun.  Nagorno-karabakh proved that they can be devastating against tanks and entrenched troops, as well as logistics.  Because they are sma

Review – Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

  Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by  Steven Pinker   The ideals of the Enlightenment, says Pinker, are reason, science, and humanism, and their pursuit has led to remarkable improvements in the human condition.   A blurb by Bill Gates calls it “My new favorite book of all time.”   I am a bit less enthusiastic. He has a beef with those who don’t agree.   Religion gets a brief dismissal, but his true scorn is reserved for some of his liberal intellectual colleagues, especially those of the left.   Marxism and some related religions of the left get their juice from the real and imaginary diseases of capitalism, and especially from Marx’s conviction that the internal contradictions of capitalism would lead to a fatal pass.   Pinker makes the case that that apocalyptic hope is a mirage. The book is listed at 556 pages, but it seems longer, even though the last 100 pages consist of notes and index.   I found the repetitious style and interminabl

Future Trouble

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,... Yeats What kind of bad stuff is likely to trouble the world to come?  Prediction is hard, said Bohr, but especially of the future.  Some bad stuff to come, maybe. 1) Global Warming - I called these maybes, but this one is a all but a cinch.  It is pretty obvious that the world is not about to take any firm action to avoid a substantial increase in temperature.  Summits will be held, half measures will be promised but not taken, and CO2 will accumulate.  Hands will be wrung, seas will rise, desertification will proceed, and, quite likely, hundreds of millions will starve. Americans would rather starve, be flooded or cooked out than pay more for gasoline. 2) At least two revanchist powers with global spanning nuclear missiles are making menacing noises.  What happens when Russia marches into Ukraine and China invades Taiwan?

Book Review: Spitfire Pilot by David Crook

  This very short, fascinating book is the war diary of a Spitfire pilot who fought through the Battle of Britain in Squadron 609, one of the most celebrated units in Fighter Command. There was a steep learning curve in air combat in World War II and casualty rates were enormous, especially among inexperienced pilots.   Crooks’ squadron lost about half its pilots over Dunkirk, and it many more days of fighting before they were winning more than they were losing. Despite the danger and the continual loss of friends and squadron mates, it is clear that the pilots loved flying and aerial combat.   It was the happiest time of his life was frequently said at a pilot’s funeral. By all accounts, the Spitfire was an exhilarating machine to fly, and the life or death struggle was a matchless thrill.   The author gives a good account of the tactics and strategy of the struggle. Typically, German bombers flew at relatively low altitudes while the ME 109 German fighters flew far above.   S

Review: The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History; May-October 1940 Kindle Edition, by James Holland

  Mr. Holland’s book covers the crucial period between Hitler’s attack on France, Holland, and Belgium and the defeat of his attempt to destroy the British Fighter Command.   The attack on France was an immense success, mostly due to the incompetence of French planning, leadership, and communications.   France had spent much of its military budget on the fortifications of the Maginot Line and had anticipated the German push through the low countries, but utterly failed to appreciate the main thrust through the Ardennes.   Even when this was reported, the high command refused to believe it, and thanks in part to poor communications, failed utterly to respond aggressively. The tragedy was that France had plenty of tanks, soldiers and aircraft to respond but poor leadership, communications, and morale meant that they could not respond effectively to Guderian’s panzer thrust to the coast.   As a consequence, much of the French Army, and the British Expeditionary Force was cutoff and trap

The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

  Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest are usually accounted long books, each logging in at 1000 plus pages, as well as erudite literary works.   Just for comparison, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle at 2685 pages is longer than GR and IJ combined.   The Baroque Cycle is published as three books, but it is really one long novel.   I don’t want to make a pretense of being any literary scholar, so I want to confess right up front that despite reading the whole thing, including all 300 plus endnotes, I found IJ occasionally compelling but frequently tedious and rarely funny.   More grievously, I did not recognize GR as one of the greatest novels of all time, though it too had its compelling moments.   I’m afraid that I found the description of the V2 and its place of manufacture more interesting than most of the characters. The BC lacks the high literary seriousness of these other works, being at heart a swashbuckling tale embedded in an elaborately minute examination of the Seven

Malthus and the Disintegration of Empires.

  Book Pre-Review:  War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires by  Peter Turchin   Peter Turchin styles himself as a latter day Hari Selden – he is looking for theories of Cliodynamics - general principles of history.   Two big principles animate his War and Peace and War.   One is due to the great Arab historian and polymath Ibn Khaldun.   Khaldun identified the crucial role of asabiya – the fundamental social glue that unites a people – in the stability of nations and empires.   The second is the role of Malthusian cycles in the instability of empires. The basic idea of the Malthusian cycle is that peace and prosperity lead to growth in the numbers of the peasant class.   This leads to competition for land, increases in rents, decreases in pay for landless laborers and increased prosperity for the nobles and other rentiers, which, in turn, leads to an expansion of the Noble class.   The peasants and laborers suffer starvation, plague, and the other apocalyptic catastroph

This Movie, Again

  The US spent a trillion dollars fighting the Taliban and equipping a large Afghan government force with modern weapons and training.   The government troops are far more numerous than the Taliban and much better equipped, and they are melting before the Taliban like a July snow.   Why? The great Arab Historian and polymath Ibn Khaldun figured this out eight centuries ago.   He called it asibiyah, the social glue that holds a nation or a fighting force together.   The asibiyah of the Taliban is a fanatic devotion to a religion that promises paradise to martyrs.   The government forces have no equivalent. Bush and his idiot advisors often and proudly announced that they were not into nation building.   When they said that, I thought “then you will surely fail.”   After World War II, the US and allies spent vast sums and many decades in building Germany and Japan into modern democratic nations.   That effort has proved immensely successful. Any similar efforts in the targets of B

Book Review of Critical Theory: A very short introduction.

  Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by  Stephen Eric Bronner   What the heck is Critical Theory?   I was trying to understand Critical Race Theory , this bête noire of modern right-wing hysteria, when it occurred to me that I might want to start with this antecedent.   Of course this led down the rabbit hole to Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche and a whole fight club of similar philosophical scoundrels, but, for the moment, I stopped with the above VSI. Critical Theory originated in the 1920s in the so-called Frankfurt School, a group of young Jewish Marxist academics inspired by the success of the Russian Revolution.   They were especially concerned with alienation and reification . Critical theorists noted with alarm how interpreting modern society was becoming ever more difficult. Alienation and reification were thus analyzed in terms of how they imperiled the exercise of subjectivity, robbed the world of meaning and purpose, and turned the individua

Keynes vs. Hayek: Book Review Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics eBook: Wapshott, Nicholas: Kindle Store by  Nicholas Wapshott I liked this book on two of the most influential economists of the Twentieth Century. Wapshott is an engaging writer who can combine personal portraits with clear explanations of the underlying issues. Keynes was likely the most influential economist of the Century, and his intellectual brilliance intimidated even mega-minds like Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein. He was at the negotiations over the end of the First World War and correctly predicted that its disastrous provisions would lead to another War in his article  The Economic Consequences of Peace.  His role as a Cassandra was further c

Why Did the Mongols So Easily Conquer Russia?

 I have been reading Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War.  He open's with a look at how the Mongols easily swept through Russia and how Muscovy completely turned the table three centuries later.  One reason his analysis caught my eye is because it resonated with a favorite theme of mine: what is wrong with Libertarianism.  Thirteenth Century Russia was fragmented into tiny principalities and city states.  Even though they knew that cooperation was their best chance against the invasion, they were unable to unite.  Why?  The destruction of the Volga Bulgars in 1236 made it abundantly clear that the Mongols planned a systematic conquest; however, the Russians did not unite. Paradoxically, every principality, when taken individually, behaved in a completely rational manner. Each prince waited for others to unite and defeat the Mongols. Because each prince controlled only a small army, his contribution was not crucial to the common success. His potential costs, on the other hand,

UEFA 2020 - Why Soccer Sucks

 Time for one of my occasional notes on how to reform football, so traditionalists please retire to your fainting couches.  Italy vs. Spain.  Two excellent teams battle for two hours and then the winner is decided by flipping a blankety-blank coin. OK, a virtual coin.   The problem is that there are far too few decent scoring opportunities.  Defensive technique is just too good.  Which reminds me: the penalty shot is an ugly wart on the game.  Most fouls in the penalty error aren't called because the penalty shot is ridiculously disproportionate.  1) For a start, eliminate the penalty shot and replace it with a free kick from a penalty loop about 30 meters from the goal.  Call penalty area fouls aggressively - no tackling or shirt tugging allowed. 2) (This one due to Pele).  Replace throw-ins with kick-ins or punt-ins.  Possibly limit these to the back two thirds of the field (see below). 3) Divide the pitch into equal thirds, with the offside rule only applying in the final third.


 I've developed an enthusiasm for OUP's Very Short Introduction series and accumulated a dozen or so of them, mostly on economics and science.  Also a few from Princeton UP's science essentials series. They are great if you want about 200 pages on Marine Biology or Malthus , written by an expert professional. Anyway, my current attention has focused on economics, starting with Keynes .  Keynes is probably the dominating figure of Twentieth Century economics, a man of such intimidating intellect that even Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein were abashed. Bertrand Russell has written that ‘Keynes’s intellect was the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool.’  Skidelsky, Robert. Keynes: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 4). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.  The fight over his legacy continues 75 years after his death.  The decade

Recent Books 6-19: Mini-Reviews

  The Stand by Stephen King – This bloated monstrosity (1348 pg) starts as a disturbingly contemporary post-apocalyptic novel.  A deadly virus escapes from a lab and kills almost everybody. The few survivors start finding each other, but since this is a Stephen King novel, a bunch of Satanic hocus-pocus quickly becomes the focus.  Aside from the fact that this novel is about 1148 pages too long, it is otherwise forgettable.  Even the devilish villain is pretty boring. The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman – Another good Navaho country mystery by Tony Hillerman.   An historic Navajo rug thought destroyed in a fire shows up in an architecture magazine and retired lawman turned detective turns up dead.   Retired Navajo Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn gets in involve.   Lots of nice scenes from Navaho country. Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The Sun: A Very Short Introduction – Another book in the very short introductions series.   All about the Sun in 184 pages.   I read this for background on severa

Book Review: Premonition: A Pandemic Story, by Michael Lewis

  This was a hard book for me to read, since so much of it is the story of government incompetence and the cowardice of our leaders, and the vast death and suffering those character flaws produced, but it is full of lessons for the future. Michael Lewis is famous for his ability to put human faces on big stories and construct   coherent narratives.   Premonition tells the story of the efforts of a handful of visionary doctors and scientists to prepare for and cope with the great Pandemic of 2020-… The first important politician to appreciate the threat was George W. Bush, maybe the last person I would have suspected.   Bush had read John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History during his summer vacation in 2005 and came back to the White House to ask Congress for money and created an office in the White House Staff.   Some of those recruited would play key roles in the rest of the book. What happened when the Obama team took over exposed one of g

Origin of Covid: The Lab Leak Theory

  The Lab Leak Theory On February 19, 2020, The Lancet, among the most respected and influential medical journals in the world, published a statement that roundly rejected the lab-leak hypothesis, effectively casting it as a xenophobic cousin to climate change denialism and anti-vaxxism. Signed by 27 scientists, the statement expressed “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China” … Katherine Eban, writing in Vanity Fair , assembles a persuasive case that the notion that covid-19 originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology should be taken very seriously.   One reason that it hasn’t been was that statement in The Lancet .   A second reason was the fact that the Lab origin theory was being promoted mostly by right-wing allies of Donald Trump.   Eban notes: Thanks to their unprecedented track record of mendacity and race-baiting, Trump and his allies had less than zero credibility. And the practice of funding risky research via cutouts like EcoHealth Alliance

Book Pre-Review: The Mote in God's Eye

 I just started this but I found it a bit hilarious how the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century sea faring novel had been transplanted more or less intact into space, complete with its antique political organization, customs, and moral system.  Apparently space travel had catapulted mankind back into a more primitive era, and the authors had produced a "Hornblower goes to space" rip off.

Squeeze the Rich

 Recent revelations that the richest Americans pay a tiny proportion of their income in taxes, or no taxes at all, reveal a deep rot at the core of American economics.  Bezos, Bloomberg, Buffett, Icahn, and Musk each had years paying zero taxes while their wealth has exploded.  Even their five year average federal income taxes are tiny: It is time to bring this to a stop.  A good start would be to require publication of the tax returns of all Americans with a net worth of over 100 million.  Even better would be making everyone's income and tax public after the manner of Finland.  It's also time for Elizabeth Warren's wealth taxes - something like 1% of everything over 50 million and 2% of everything over 1 billion, annually.  Tax exiles should forfeit a big chunk of any American assets. Proceeds should be dedicated to national health insuran

Recent Books: Micro Reviews

  The Little Book of Cosmology by Lyman Page A very short, cheap, book on Cosmology.   All the big ideas and none of the big equations.   I thought it was quite good for what it was. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo by  Sean B. Carroll   Evo-Devo, the science of evolutionary development is a third piece of the evolutionary picture, deserving of equal footing with Darwin, and the modern synthesis with genetics and DNA.   Evo Devo is mostly the story of the master patterning genes that lay out the structure and future development of an organism from its earliest embryological beginnings.   Those genes, the homeobox genes, are extraordinarily conserved to the extent that the same ones that dictate where an arthropod develops the last segments of its legs are involved in wing development in bat and fingers in man. These deep connections were almost totally unsuspected by the authors of the Modern Synthesis. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions

Herd Immunity

 The US is unlikely to reach herd immunity anytime soon, as vaccine demand is dropping with well less than half the population immunized.  The unimmunized are a threat not just to themselves, but to the general public, since no vaccine is perfect and reservoirs of infection spawn dangerous mutants.  Some public health advocates suggest mandates.  I agree.  Who should be mandated? 1)Health care and elder care workers. 2)First responders and the military. 3)School children and teachers. 4)I think that it also makes sense for retail establishments to hire only the immunized and advertise fully immunized status. I think that positive incentives for getting vaccinated should also be encouraged.  $100 per vaccination would be appropriate and might make a difference.

Book Review: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates

 Bill Gates made an enormous fortune at a young age, and ever since, he and his wife Melinda have given much of it away.  He has solid credentials as both a Cassandra and a doer of good deeds.  More than six years ago, he was warning the World of the dangers of a major pandemic and urging the world leaders to prepare.  He was ignored, and covid-19 has swept away millions of lives and trillions of dollars in economic output.  His foundation’s global health initiatives are distinguished by careful analysis and scientifically targeted actions. He brings the same analytical mindset to the problem of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), namely by asking the fundamental questions: what is the threat, what can be done, what are the obstacles, and how much would it cost.   His book is not the place to find a careful analysis of the scientific basis and understanding of AGW or the evidence for it.   He accepts the testimony of the experts and looks squarely at the practical problems of effecti

Big Government

When Ronald Reagan first became a movie star and started making big money, he discovered that he had to pay taxes, and a lot of them.  This traumatic experience turned him from a Democrat into a Republican, which made him another type of star on the plutocrat speaking tour and and, later, Governor and President.  He popularized hatred of the government and became its biggest spokesman.  Today, Republicans living on one form or another all over the country think of themselves as anti-government activists. Political theorists have conjured up all matter of reasons why as to why governments were instituted among men, but history suggests that instituting irrigation was a major impetus, and subsequently, protecting crops and people from those who would appropriate them.  For a long time, government was the principal means by which development proceeded.  The development of Capitalism, and its apotheosis at the hands of Adam Smith and others, showed that there was another way.  By establish

Man and Mouse

Things to think about: Mice are rodents, and the rodent and primate lines separated a long time ago, probably on the order of about 75 million years ago. Mice are small-brained; they possess a neocortex but it is much smaller relative to that of primates, and, of course, minuscule in comparison to ours. Yet, comparison of mouse and human genomes reveals that greater than 99 percent of all genes in the human have a mouse counterpart, and vice versa. In fact, 96 percent of all genes in the human are found in the exact same relative order in human chromosomes as in the mouse chromosomes. This is a remarkable degree of similarity. These figures tell us that in the course of 75 million years of mammalian evolution, and at least 55 million years of primate evolution, our genome and that of a rodent contain essentially the same genes in mostly the same organization. Carroll, Sean B.. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo (pp. 269-270). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Ed

Mau-mauing the Meritocracy

 Not being the sort of person who is tuned into such matters, I suppose that the first I heard about meritocracy being controversial was Dr. (DPhil, Oxford) Connolley's review of Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit.   I tend to view his evaluations with skepticism, especially when he cites Hayek, but at least he is more entertaining than his guru.  He didn't like the book, and really, it is hard to dislike merit, though maybe not so much if it is purely priced in market value. I didn't think much about the subject until I noticed The Atlantic running a bunch of stories on the subject.  One of them was by Daniel Markovits , a Yale Law professor, who, among other things seems to have picked up a couple of degrees from Oxford, and is author of The Meritocracy Trap which anticipated Sandel by a year or two.  I haven't read his book either, but I did read his article in The Atlantic:  How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition  Meritocracy prizes achievement abo

Conquering Europe: Book Review

The Making of Europe, by Robert Bartlett. Before Europe conquered the world, Europeans conquered Europe (950-1350).  More precisely, one group the Normans, or Anglo-Normans, after conquering England, went on to conquer and colonize Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Spain, Portugal, much of Italy and Greece, much of the Baltic, and even a lot of the Holy Land.  Besides personal ferocity, they brought important military technology: armored heavy cavalry, the castle, and the crossbow.  Their victims, especially in the British Isles and the around the Baltic mostly lacked these, though they were bloody enough warriors themselves: slavers, pillagers, and cattle rustlers.  Their blades and light armor were no match for a charge of heavy cavalry paired with swarms of archers, and their counterattacks were defeated by the castles built by the conquering Franks, as they came to be called. The Muslims of Iberia, Sicily, and the Middle East had more sophisticated military technology, but at first, anyway

The SAT and the ASEA

The SAT test was invented when James Bryant Conant and a few others decided that smart kids from modest backgrounds should get a chance to attend university.  Lately, though, many top universities have gone to a test optional stance on admissions.  The purported reason for this is that such exams give an advantage to students with the resources to prepare for and do better on such exams. A more honest justification would call such policies the Asian Student Exclusion Act, or ASEA for short.  Elite schools at every level have seen their test qualified classes filling up with students of Asian ancestry, while the number of whites and especially students of color has shrunk. Similar reasoning has changed the admissions policies at our highly selective public high schools.  These schools have famously been incubators for some of our top scientists, mathematicians, and others.  A good question is whether eliminating the highly selective admissions tests will dilute student quality to a poin

Economics Zero

Economics is the science that is, among other things, concerned with the allocation of scarce resources.  Ever since the invention of agriculture and civilization, the most central scarce resource has been  agricultural land.  Such land has always been a scarce resource because of the principle discovered by Dr. Malthus - reproduction will tend to exceed the replacement rate and the Earth isn't making more land.   The dramatic expansion of the feudal system in the centuries just before and after the start of the Second Millennium of the Christian Era owes its dynamism to this fact.  Household knights usually could not marry unless they had a fief of land, and younger sons of a lord also faced the prospect of social status loss.  The solution for such a younger son was to recruit some landless knights and soldiers and set off for a foreign land to rob the local inhabitants.  If such a venture was successful, as in the case of William the Conqueror, the foot soldiers would become kni

Tiny Boltzmann Brains and Big Brains

The potions master starts with a tiny bit of skin and in a carefully calibrated series of steps adds a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little molecular magic, and, presto the former skin cells become  neural stem cells.  Next, a cell or two is placed into tiny wells, and, with a bit more molecular magic, they start growing into a tangled mass of neurons.  Tangles?  Well, not really, because they organize themselves into circuits, and start sending out random pulses which eventually synchronize into something like brain waves.  The experimenter drums his fingers on the table, and the tiny Boltzmann brains, er, neural organoids synchronize with the drumming. These potions masters are not at Hogwarts, but in university labs.  One interesting thing they have discovered in their experiments is that a single switch seems to be mainly responsible from brain size. Organoids from chimp and gorilla brains stop growing much sooner than human brain organoids.  Not coincidentally, hu

Elite Public High Schools

 A number of elite public high schools were founded in the US, mostly in major cities, with the objective of encouraging the most gifted students.  One of these is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia.  These high schools have an excellent track record for producing elite adults, including numerous Nobel Laureates, but they are coming under attack. At TJHSST 66% of the admitted students are Asian, while less than 4% are Black or Hispanic.  Poorer children are highly underrepresented.  A similar picture is seen at other elite schools.  Admission criteria at TJHSST mix grades, preparatory courses, and a crucial exam.  The idea, of course, is to select the students with the greatest talent and preparation. Talent, we suppose, is inborn, but preparation depends both on the student and the environment they live in.  How prepared students are depends on their elementary and middle schools, but probably even more on the resources parents can and do comm

Galileo Under House Arrest

 [Nobel Prize Winner James] Watson attended that initial meeting of the CRISPR group, as he did most meetings at Cold Spring Harbor, and he sat in the front row of the auditorium, underneath a grand oil portrait of himself, to hear Doudna’s talk. It was a reprise of her first visit there as a graduate student in the summer of 1987, when Watson also sat up front as she presented, with youthful nervousness, a paper on how some RNAs could replicate themselves. After Doudna’s CRISPR talk, he came up to say a few words of praise, just as he had done almost thirty years earlier. It was important, he said, to push the science of making gene edits in humans, including enhancing intelligence. For some in attendance, it felt historic. Stanford biology professor David Kingsley took a picture of Watson and Doudna talking.1 But when I show up at the 2019 meeting, Watson is not in his usual seat in the front row. After fifty years, he has been banished from meetings, and the oil portrait of him remo

The Longest War

  …has been waged between bacteria and viruses, probably for billions of years.   Wars we are told, are foci of technological and cultural innovation, and   this one is starting to do its part.   Bacteriophages, the viruses that prey on bacteria, are ubiquitous in astonishing numbers – nearly a billion of them in every milliliter of sea water.   It is a fairly recent realization by our species that bacteria have evolved impressive defense mechanisms, including one that promises to revolutionize human life. This is the story told in Walter Isaacson’s latest biography: Code Breaker , Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. The cover features a stern looking Jennifer Doudna, the heroine of his book and one of the pioneers of the CRISPR technology, which is revolutionizing gene editing.   Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the 2020 Nobel Prize for their work on the science. Among the petty wars of humans are disputes over scientific priority and the conse