Thursday, June 30, 2011


There is increasing suspicion that the Republicans aren't bluffing, and really are willing to destroy the economy for what they hope will be political profit.  Obama's weakness and unwillingness to fight back has encouraged them to go for broke, and their crazy idealogues are living in an imaginary universe anyway.

Of course a whole gamut of historical catastrophes has been launched in just this fashion.

Obama showed a hint of pugnacity in his last press conference - enough to provoke the usual right wing nut jobs to peurile insults - but I don't think a hint will do it.  I think he needs to drop the kid gloves and stop playing golf with the enemy.  He needs to start naming names and telling the voters that these people are enemies of our nation.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Class Warfare!

Drudge and National Journal say Obama has declared class warfare. He had the audacity to try to put kids before private jets. Shades of Robespierre and 1793.

I say about f****** time. My class has been losing this war for thirty plus years now, and it's about time we start fighting back.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is Obama Hopeless?

Despite very difficult circumstances, Obama did get some things done, notably health care.  In other regards, he seems to have proven amazingly weak.  Perhaps it's just lack of experience - the tactics that served him well as community organizer and law review editor are not suitable for a President.  Brad DeLong notes a David Frum critique with approval (!).  (It turns out that Frum is riffing on a theme by David Brooks)


Obama is His Own Worst Enemy

FrumForum: [Obama is] not an alien, he’s not a radical. He’s just not the person the country needs. He’s not tough enough, he’s not imaginative enough, and he’s not determined enough.

In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the president ran out of ideas sometime back in 2009.

In the face of opposition, Obama goes passive. The mean Republicans refused votes on his Federal Reserve nominees and Obama … did nothing. Would Ronald Reagan have done nothing? FDR? Lyndon Johnson?

With unemployment at 10% and interest rates at 1%, the president got persuaded that it was debt and interest that trumped growth and jobs as Public Issue #1.

It's hard to disagree with his points.  Can Obama change?  The debt ceiling fiasco is perhaps a final challenge.  Will he fold?  Will he blunder into a Republican trap? 


Is D-Dalus for Real

Via Wolfgang I learned about a purported new type of aircraft supposedly introduced at the Paris air show.  It supposed performance is remarkable:

At the heart of D-DALUS is a revolutionary propulsion system containing a number of patented inventions, including a friction free bearing at the points of high G force, and a system that keeps propulsion in dynamic equilibrium, thereby allowing the guidance system to quickly restore stability in flight.

The propulsion consists of 4 sets of contra-rotating disks, each set driven at the same rpm by a conventional aero-engine. The disks are surrounded by blades whose angle of attack can be altered by off-setting the axis of the rotating disks. As each blade can be given a different angle of attack, the resulting main thrust can be in any required direction in 360° around any axis. This allows the craft to launch vertically, remain in a fixed position in the air, travel in any direction, rotate in any direction, and thrust upwards thereby ‘gluing down’ on landing.

Supposedly it could achieve this ideal:

Ideally we would love an aerial platform that can approach as gently and silently as a hot air balloon, can stay in the air like a humming-bird, can rotate in any direction like a football, can ‘glue down’ on the deck of a ship like a ‘tossed pancake’, can see in all directions like a crystal ball, can fly as fast as a jet, is as invisible as a 155mm shell and can be repaired by a local car mechanic.

I was very puzzled by its principle of operation, but an astute commenter at one site suggested that it was a Voith Schneider propeller, an idea that looks very persuasive to me.  See the animation in the linked Wikipedia article.  (Note that it was an invention of a countryman of Wolfgang).  These have proven very useful for aquatic vehicles.

Whether such a system can work well in air seems less obvious, mainly because of the the 1000 fold smaller mass desnsity of air.

Suppose this vehicle has a mass of 100 kg.  Then it must transfer momentum to ambient air at the rate of d(mv)/dt = mg = 1000 kg m/s^2 in order to produce enough lift to stay aloft.  Air has a density of about 1.3 kg/m^3 (which I round down to 1 kg/m^3 in deference to drag and easy arithmetic) , so if it has a cross section of 5 m^2, and a downward flow stream of air below it of similar dimensions, the downward moving stream of air need a speed of roughly 14 m/s and has a flux of 70 m^3/s.  It seems like a lot of air to collect over a pretty small effective wingspan.

Monday, June 27, 2011


107 F today (42 C).

102 F at 8:15 PM and the Sun down.

OK, You Dirty Rats...

Republicans seem to have painted themselves into a total corner on the debt "ceiling" talks.  I don't see how they are going to get out of this unless they are counting on a total fold by Obama.

Oh wait.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Both Sides Now

I've looked at clouds from both sides now...Joni Mitchell

We have a President who can see all sides of every issue, and Maureen Dowd is not happy about it. It's not the seeing that's annoying, it trying to be on every side that is.

In Afghanistan, he wants to go but he wants to stay. He’s surging and withdrawing simultaneously. He’s leaving fewer troops than are needed for a counterinsurgency strategy and more troops than are needed for a counterterrorism strategy — and he seems to want both strategies at the same time. Our work is done but we have to still be there. Our work isn’t done but we can go.

On Libya, President Obama wants to lead from behind. He’s engaging in hostilities against Qaddafi while telling Congress he’s not engaging in hostilities against Qaddafi.

On the budget, he wants to cut spending and increase spending. On the environment, he wants to increase energy production but is reluctant to drill. On health care, he wants to get everybody covered but will not press for a universal system. On Wall Street, he assails fat cats, but at cocktail parties, he wants to collect some of their fat for his campaign.


He does not seem deeply affiliated with any side except his own.


He seems to either lack the instinct or desire for leadership. My guess is that if there were such thing as a credible Republican alternative, and he could get nominated, he would win.

But Obama might dodge that bullet. Or one of the many incredible Republicans might get elected.

Get Bachmann!

Matt Taibbi got a call from God. God, or maybe it was an editor of the Rolling Stone, told him to write a hit piece on Michele Bachman. On the surface, this wasn't one of God's tougher assignments. It's not really like telling the Pharoah to shove it or sacrificing your beloved son. After all, Bachmann is a certifiably extreme character who attributes all her own decisions to personal interventions by the almighty as well a serial exaggerator and mis-speaker.

Disclaimer: I don't speak for God, at least so far as I know, but Matt, you blew it big time. Never mind the ugly hints about plaigerism from G. R. Anderson's stuff. I'm talking about the general frothing at the mouth tone of your article, which paradoxically starts by warning us against laughing at Bachman.

The facts about Bachmann are alarming enough, I think, and are told rather better, if not exactly dispassionately, by Michelle Goldberg in The Daily Beast.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Via Andrew Sullivan:

"Love should be treated like a business deal, but every business deal has its own terms and its own currency. And in love, the currency is virtue. You love people not for what you do for them or what they do for you. You love them for the values, the virtues, which they have achieved in their own character,” - Ayn Rand.

This is Rand the clueless dogmatist in pure form - that is to say, not 100% wrong but reality twisted until it's deeply and fundamentally wrong. Part of Rand's problem was that she didn't believe in instincts, and love is among the more fundamental human instincts. Certainly love has something in common with admiration - the actual name of the emotion she attempts to describe, but love is probably more likely to be the cause of admiration than the result.

The core problem, I think, is that love is fundamentally a matter of empathy, a human characteristic that Rand despised and plausibly lacked. The triggers for romantic love are doubtless complex, and include admiration, I suppose as well as lust, but I suspect that "virtue" is not exactly primary. I seem to recall a period in my life when I fell madly in love with any pretty girl who rested her head on my arm - of course not many did.

When one loves, I think, one identifies with the one loved, and sees common purpose with them. This is pretty useful, in the evolutionary sense, especially if you want to cooperate on some long term project, like raising a child.


Sometimes it seems that the oldest problems in science never seem to get solved.  Contact electrification, the transfer of charge by contact between surfaces, was one of the first subjects of science, investigated by Thales of Miletus two and a half millenia ago, and its one of the first sorts of things I remember playing around with in high school physics.  John Timmur, of Ars Technica, has an article on a new Science paper (no reference or link!) in which the process is investigated using Kelvin atomic force microscopy.  The authors found a few surprising results.

But it wasn’t until last year that some of the authors of the new paper published a surprising result: contact electrification (as this phenomenon is known among its technically oriented fans) can occur between two sheets of the same substance, even when they’re simply allowed to lie flat against each other. “According to the conventional view of contact electrification,” they note, “this should not happen since the chemical potentials of the two surfaces/materials are identical and there is apparently no thermodynamic force to drive charge transfer.”

One possible explanation for this is that a material’s surface, instead of being uniform from the static perspective, is a mosaic of charge-donating and charge-receiving areas. To find out, they performed contact electrification using insulators (polycarbonate and other polymers), a semiconductor (silicon), and a conductor (aluminum). The charged surfaces were then scanned at very high resolution using Kelvin force microscopy, a variant of atomic force microscopy that is able to read the amount of charge in a surface.

The Kelvin force microscopy scans showed that the resulting surfaces were mosaics, with areas of positive and negative charges on the order of a micrometer or less across.  All materials they tested, no matter what overall charge they had picked up, showed this mosaic pattern....

So, what causes these charges to build up? It’s not, apparently, the transfer of electrons between the surfaces. Detailed spectroscopy of one of the polymers (PDMS) suggests that chemical reactions may be involved, as many oxidized derivatives of the polymer were detected. In addition, there is evidence that some material is transferred from one surface to another. Using separate pieces of fluorine- and silicon-containing polymers allowed the authors to show that signals consistent with the presence of fluorine were detected in the silicon sample after contact.

It seems plausible that these results are relevant to the classic contact electrification processes that give rise to lightning in thunderstoms and volcanos - and give rise to the Earth's planet wide electric field, about 150 volts per meter near the surface.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A new car ad for the something or other celebrates the diligent guy with "his head down, working his butt off."

In my field, we tend to celebrate a kind of opposite - the guy with his butt down, working his head off.

Most trouble comes from those with those two anatomical features co-located.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rare Celestial Alignment

It's probably not too common that Paul Krugman and Lubos Motl agree on matters of financial policy, so I will note that they are largely on agreement on one aspect of Greek default - that it should occur as soon as possible.  To be sure, their reasons are almost diametrically opposed: Lubos wants default because he wants to enjoy the spectacle of Greek suffering, and because he thinks default won't have much impact on the rest of Europe, or at least on him personally.  Krugman, on the other hand, thinks default now (rather than later) will minimize Greek suffering and minimize the inevitable global financial trauma that will ensue.

I will go along with Krugman, both because I approve of compassion and because he actually knows a good deal about international economics, but that leaves the question of who is on the other side of this issue.  The other side consists of the European Central Bank and the bankers it represents - the people to whom Greece (and Ireland, and Portugal, and Spain, and maybe Italy) owe a few zillions of Euros.  Krugman and a lot of other people whose opinions I respect think that they are living in a dream world, where Greece will somehow miraculously manage to pay up if they just wait long enough, or at least that they can have time enough to shuffle the bad debt off on somebody else.

Also, I think, there are those who hope that Europe can indeed become a real economic union, and that this crisis might provoke it.  That would involve a massive cession of financial power to the European central government, and I really can't see it happening.

The odds are probably fair that the fundamental instability of the Euro will provoke a disintigration of the EU - which could be another reason nationalists like Lumo can't wait.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Drive, She Said...

A prototype disk drive based on phase-change memory can outperform an off-the-shelf flash hard disk ..............Technology Review.

Once upon a time there was a technology that involved storing information by imprinting tiny magnetic domains on spinning discs.  Information was accessed by positioning a magnetic sensor above the region where the information was stored.  The people of that time called these information storage devices "disc drives" or "hard drives."  More or less contemporaneously an alternate technology was invented wherein information was stored in arrays of electronic gates, which could be read by electronic switching mechanisms.

When versions of the latter were invented which could store information without substantial current consumption (non-volatile electronic memories -floating gate transistors) they started to compete with the disc drive in some applications.  Rude and unschooled youths tormented the old-timers by calling these new memories "solid-state hard drives" as if those spinning discs were airy nothings, I suppose.

Normally humble oldsters were outraged, though, when they started calling the electronic memories "disc drives."  Their children laughed at them.

Friday, June 17, 2011


The engine of the Euro-spaceliner sputtered dangerously, and the passengers shrieked in fear.  Finally, at 100 miles (160 km) up, Captain Merkle and First Officer Sarcozy cut the engtines.

"Not to worry," said the Captain, whose knowledge of physics allowed her to do this sort of calculation in her head, "This thing won't crash into the earth for at least twenty minutes."

The passengers cheered and ordered more drinks.

Much of the world's financial trepidation today is inspired by those Euro denominated bonds from countries that look like they are going to have a heck of a time paying up, especially Greece, but also Ireland, Portugal and Spain.  All of the above are in deep recession and have a lot of borrowed money, and the fear of the bondholders is that their Euro-cash may just be Euro-trash.

Another bailout has been agreed by all the principals - except of course the Greek people - but the crash has simply been put off, since there is little prospect that Greece will be able to pay.


Everything is Rent..............Rent by Jonathan Larson

Before agriculture, each person or family was responsible for making its own living.  Once our ancestors settled down, another option was opened up - "ownership" of the previously common land and extraction of rents from others allowed to use it.  Chieftains, priests, and kings became the first rentier class, but the idea of living by the sweat of someone else's brow was popular enough to give rise to new classes of property and new classes of rentiers.

The invention of banking and capitalism more generally gave us all an opportunity to become rentiers - if we could manage to save money. This presented a bit of a problem - if we are all to live by the sweat of someone else's brow, whose brow will sweat?

To be continued.

PS - I think this post is going to be about Greece.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Here Come The Cyborgs

Can man and machine be fused to yield a superior product?  Early results from rat and machine show some promise.  Benedict Carey, writing in the New York Times, has the story:

Scientists have designed a brain implant that restored lost memory function and strengthened recall of new information in laboratory rats — a crucial first step in the development of so-called neuroprosthetic devices to repair deficits from dementia, stroke and other brain injuries in humans.
 Attack of the Ratborgs coming?

Electoral Politics For Fun and Profit

Winning Would Be Inconvenient

I note that some of my favorite news sites are celebrating Gingrich's decline in the polls, but more or less ignoring the reasons his top aides quit en masse.  They complained, IIRC, that his campaign was more about product placement than winning the nomination - campaign stops were timed to promote his commercial product rather than winning the primaries.

This was a typical quick pick up by Gingrich and spouse, but they were hardly the pioneers in this type of politics for profit.  Sarah Palin's career in politics can far more easily be explained by pursuit of the easy buck than political ambition.  She made tens of millions off her feckless pursuit of the Vice-Presidency, and even managed to use it as a good excuse for dumping that lousy job she had, which required spending a fair amount of time away from home in Alaska's capital.

It could be argued that Bush junior was the real pioneer here.  Somebody once observed that he never really wanted to be President - he wanted to be ex-President.  For that he was willing to suffer through the discomfort and embarrassment of being President.  Palin and Gingrich seem to have figured out how to avoid all that nuisance, though.

Their motto inverts the old saw of "take the money and run" to just "run, and take the money."

Bobo Brooks

The right having entered one of its periodic spasms of anti-intellectualism, I suppose that it's only fitting that The New York Times' David Brooks should be the most prominent conservative intellectual scribbler.  Brooks is a thinker with an even-handed disdain for facts and logic, which I suppose is handy when your job is making a case for the policies advocated by somebody like Paul Ryan.

Brad DeLong disinters an epic takedown by Sasha Issenberg:

Boo-Boos in Paradise: Brooks is operating in a long tradition of public intellectualism.... Whyte, who was an editor for Fortune in the 1950s, observed how people lived, inferred trends, considered what they meant, and then came up with grand conclusions about the direction of the country. When, in 1954, he wanted to find out which consumers were trend-setters, he went into Overbrook Park and surveyed 4,948 homes.... Brooks, by way of contrast, draws caricatures. Whether out of sloppiness or laziness, the examples he conjures to illustrate well-founded premises are often unfounded, undermining the very points he's trying to make...
Follow the links to the details.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Book of Mammon

With Republicans competing with each other to say how they are going to save the country by eliminating the Federal government and giving trillions to really rich people, you might think that an old fashioned Democrat, a Truman say, a Kennedy or even a Clinton would be preparing an old-fashioned pachyderm barbeque, with plenty of hot sauce.

Mentioning a few things about the relentless Republican war on the middle class, the failed policies they continue top double down on, might seem like a good idea.

We haven't seen any of that from Mr. No Drama Compromise, and the odds don't look good.

If you think W did a job on America, wait 'til you see what Bachman will do.  Should be interesting times.  time to hope you get a spot in the kleptocracy.

Scary Movie

The Wall Street Journal has up a story called:  The Terrifying Truth About New Technology 
Do robots and Twitter make you nervous? Growing old is what you're really afraid of

Well, I'm not really afraid of Twitter, even though I can't type with my thumbs, but author Daniel H Wilson's Roboapocalypse does sound pretty much right on.

Wilson, 33, thinks us geezers are afraid of being left behind by the ongoing techno-revolutions, and that's not entirely untrue, but I personally am a lot more afraid of getting too old to drive, so bring on the robocars.


The fear of the never-ending onslaught of gizmos and gadgets is nothing new. The radio, the telephone, Facebook—each of these inventions changed the world. Each of them scared the heck out of an older generation. And each of them was invented by people who were in their 20s.

Mark Zuckerberg didn't create Facebook for people with kids and mortgages. Technology is created by the young, for the young. The young revel in new gadgets with small, deft thumbs. They beg for them in acronym-laden speeches because OMG, you need this stuff to be cool IRL. Then they use them to take lewd pictures of themselves, even though this is obviously a very bad idea. They are the fearless ones.

Why are the young able to thrive, tossing away instruction manuals and digging in with reckless abandon?

To which I say, "Well, duh."

The One Hundred Greatest Non-Fiction Books

Once again the list of the title has been compiled by some moderately well-read idiots, this time at The Guardian.  I always hate these lists, mainly since I usually haven't read most of them.  Oddly enough, nearly all these great books were written in the twentieth century, most of them during my lifetime.  It's non-fiction, so the Bible doesn't make it but Herodetus does - I guess you have to draw the line somewhere.

Clay Shirky makes the cut, but Aristotle doesn't.  Hawking Si; Penrose No.  Marx, Ja; Adam Smith, Nein.

I was happy to see that Doug Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, and Bach made the list, but Euclid, perhaps the most influential non-fiction book of all time didn't.  Look in vain also for Copernicus, Galileo, Newton...

Oh well.

Art and Common Sense

I hear that there is a certain amount of consternation in liberal circles over the fact that David Mamet, perhaps the leading American playwright of the day, has "converted" from liberal (his claim) to conservative.  And not to any old intellectual conservative either, but to a Sarah Palin loving Glenn Beck and Rush what's his name listening National Palestinian Radio wingnut.

I don't know anything about Mamet personally, and only a little about his plays and movies - think Glengarry Glen Ross - but I can hardly be surprised that some elderly rich Zionist turns into one of his own characters.  It's not exactly rare for scientists to lack common sense, but its practically mandatory for artists.

John Gapper has a lunch interview with him in Financial Times via Slate.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Good and Evil

Simon Baron-Cohen, who has often been featured on these pages as an expert on autism, has a new book out, reviewed here in the New York Times.  In the US, it's title is The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.  From Katherine Bouton's review, cited above:

“My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ‘empathy,’ ” he writes at the beginning of the book, which might be seen as expanding on the views on empathy expressed in his 1997 book, “Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind” (Bradford). Evil, he notes, has heretofore been defined in religious terms (with the concept differing in the major world religions), as a psychiatric condition (psychopathology) or, as he puts it, in “frustratingly circular” terms: “He did x because he is truly evil”).

Dr. Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center, proposes that evil is more scientifically defined as an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component. When these three exist in tandem they result in what he calls a Zero-Negative personality. Zero-Negative takes at least three forms (and possibly more), borrowing from terms used in psychiatry: Zero Type P (psychopathology), Zero Type B (borderline disorder) and Zero Type N (narcissism).

Zero-Positives, on the other hand, can be genius type Aspies.

People with Asperger’s syndrome also fall on the zero end of the scale, but they are Zero Positive. Zero Positive is almost always accompanied by high scores on the systemizing scale (and can lead to genius). In addition, the way “their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral.”

Bouton guesses that relating the psychopathology and autism will annoy a lot of people, and CIP, multiply burned, agrees.

FWIW, I searched Baron-Cohen's book (on Amazon) for the terms "Nietzsche" and "Ayn Rand" and came up negative.  However, B-C seems to think that he is original in locating the definition of evil outside of religion.

UPDATE: It seems that Arun has anticipated me in the comments.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Artistic Impulse

Evolutionary psychology faces a fundamental challenge if it is to explain a few peculiarly human activities, such as music, mathematics, and art.  How could these abstract activities have had a survival value in their origins?  To try to make the point more acute, how could the guy sitting by his campfire decorating his spear have gotten a competive advantage over his counterpart investing the same time and effort into doing him in?

It seems very plausible to me that the artistic impulse had its origins in ordinary pride in workmanship.  Fashioning a really effective stone arrowhead is far from being a trivial task.  I have noted previously on this blog that the human hand is equipped with muscles and control that our fellow great apes lack, and that these muscles give us a precison of control that they lack - chimps, at least, seem to be able to grasp the notion of making a projectile point but lack the fine motor control to be good at it.

Just as the muscles and wings necessary for flight would be useless without the instinctive impulse to launch oneself into air, the muscles and precision control necessary to make good stone tools are incomplete without a corresponding instinct to shape materials with it.  Once acquired, the combination acquires a generalized utility far beyond the original functionality.

Consequently, I say, Michaelangelo's David is only a relatively small step beyond a finely wrought mesolithic projectile point.

Monday, June 06, 2011

What A Leader Might Do

If we had a President who knew how to lead, he might call the country to listen, tell them we are facing a crisis, and that his opponents have chosen to play games instead of facing the true needs of the country, remind them that in a time of severe financial stress certain Senators are obstructing excellently qualified appointees to key positions and gambling with the countries solvency.

He could call for a massive jobs program, pull back many of our troops, baldly state that the initial stimulus had been too small, and ask the country to choose between a certainly painful austerity and an expensive but temporary stimulus, to be followed by tax increases.

The President we have shows no signs of being that man.  He seems rather to think that his job is to mediate between factions in the Congress. 

The country is quite likely screwed.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

A College Education

I seem to recall that it was our education President, W, who so poignantly asked: "Is our children learning?"  Not so much, was the answer in our elementary and high schools, and a new book, Academically Adrift, by Arum and Roksa says ditto for college.

In particular, they found:

that gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during the first two years of college were small or practically non-existent for a sizable number of students.

Students are studying less and learning less, it seems.  Teachers are giving less homework and grading it more leniently.

In an interview, Roksa notes that:

There is notable variation in academic experiences and outcomes across fields of study.

Students majoring in traditional arts and science fields — including social science, humanities, natural science and mathematics — demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.

Students majoring in business, education and social work had the lowest measurable gains.

Well that's a shockeroo, all right. 

I'd like to see some post college testing, mostly for the purpose of seeing which colleges teach what.  It would at least give students and parents some hints as to the probable value of the big investment of time and money that they are about to make.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Our Prophet

WB has speculated that his dog is a psychopath.  I have my doubts.  Dogs are social animals, and have the shame instinct, and desire for approval.  Cats - not so much.  The characteristics that mark off the psychopath intersect heavily with the difference between the normal person and the solitary beast of prey - the instincts that make man a social animal.

Ayn Rand's early journals show an infatuation with William Edward Hickman, one of the most famous persons of 1928.  She described her hero based on Hickman:

Other people have no right [to exist], no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen -- it's inborn, absolute, it can't be changed, he has 'no organ' to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'

Ah yes, the Nietzschean Superguy, once again - the "blond beast" of prey.

So why did Rand celebrate Hickman?  In her words:

It is the case of a daring challenge to society. It is the fact that a crime has been committed by one man, alone; that this man knew it was against all laws of humanity and intended that way; that he does not want to recognize it as a crime and that he feels superior to all. It is the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul."

To be a bit more specific, Hickman was a small time forger, thief, robber and murderer who was catapulted to notoriety when he kidnapped and murdered a twelve year-old girl and delivered her dismembered body to her father in return for the demanded ransom.

Hickman's character, though not his deeds, became the model for the hero of The Foutainhead, Rand's first big novel, and the favorite book of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, one he has all his clerks read.

The character of Rand's version of the Nietzschean Superman is indistinguishable from the classic psychopath.  She is hardly the only person attracted to those psychopathic traits: notorious convicted murderers get lots of letters, and even proposals of marriage, from women everywhere.  Infamous dictators, and wacko cult leaders seems to attract their followers despite or because of their psychopathy.  Likely enough, a non-psychopathic pimp or gang leader would be at a competitive disadvantage compared to his fellows.

It scares me that at this juncture the influence of this creepy woman is peaking, with politicos, radio talking heads, economists, and tea partiers everywhere flogging her books.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Billions and Billions

MIT puts out a nice Technology Review Magazine.   I'm always learning new stuff there, like about this new Ultra resolution video display:

Samsung has shown off a prototype of an ultra-high-definition 3-D television. The 70-inch prototype uses a novel electronic circuitry to control eight billion pixels. It's not likely to go into volume production soon, and there isn't any content to display on it, says Paul Semenza, a senior analyst at Display Search. But at last month's Society for Information Display conference in Los Angeles, the display drew crowds and garnered a best-in-show award.

I can certainly understand why. Eight billion pixels is a lot, even on a 70 inch screen - roughly 6000 per mm^2, if my math holds up. The smallest resolvable objects ought to be on the order of 25 micrometers on a side.

Eight billion, by the way, is about 4000 times as many pixels as an HD-TV. You can't really call this display "retinal" though, since the fovea of the human eye packs in cones at 20-40 times that density.

I wonder if they should teach more math at MIT. Maybe they meant 8 million pixels.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Flimsy Online Questionaires

C:The defendant stands accused of being the epitome of a syndrome characterized by:

categoriz[ing] their fellow human beings after answering a few suggestive questions in flimsy online questionaires.
How does he plead?

D: I deny and repudiate the allegation. 

I did post an online questionaire, probably one as flimsy as anything else constructed only of magnetic codes on some hard drive somewhere, but a quiz developed and extensively tested by leading researchers.  It is and was a screening test, as described in Wired, one of the secondary posters:

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge's Autism Research Centre have created the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, or AQ, as a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults. In the first major trial using the test, the average score in the control group was 16.4. Eighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher. The test is not a means for making a diagnosis, however, and many who score above 32 and even meet the diagnostic criteria for mild autism or Asperger's report no difficulty functioning in their everyday lives.

My original motivation, as I have mentioned before, was the suspicion that for a multi-gene trait with devastating impact, autism was surprisingly common in human populations.   One plausible explanation - embraced by many experts - is that small doses of whatever it is that makes autism might have significant selective advantage.  Some researchers have claimed that many exceptional talents through the ages have shown autism spectrum traits and others that some groups (hint, they mean math, physics, engineering and possibly other flavors of geeks) show many AS traits.  I offered my readers the chance to take this test.  Most of those who have shared their scores with me (on the site or off) seem to take their scores with pretty good grace and even think they offered some insight.

A few others, who either didn't take the test or chose not to share their scores seem offended by the whole business.  So far so good.  I have been accused of using this test to characterize people.  Who, exactly?  Myself, maybe (28 - almost double the mean but still a bit below the usual Aspergers diagnosis).  Anybody else?  I don't think so.

I have mentioned a few notable people who have reported that they have Aspergers (or ASD) and some famous historical figures who have been the targets of retrospective ASD diagnoses.  I also speculated on the AQ's of several fictional characters.

If the starting hypothesis is correct, namely that AQ traits have something in common with high achievement in several intellectual fields, I would have expected many of my readers might score high in the AQ, since many of them are highly accomplished in physics, math, or related fields.

I also posted a psychopath checklist - like the AQ test, a product of extensive research, but I certainly didn't expect my readers to do well on that.  Nonetheless, there are also a heck of a lot of psychopaths, often estimated at 1% of the population.  Many of them come to grief in prison or elsewhere, but could their traits be of selective value in some circumstances? 

Here also, I speculate yes.  Most of the great tyrants, ancient and modern, would appear to fit the bill in part, or whole.  Certain leadership traits would seem to assort pretty well with a few of the psychopathic diagnostics.

Of course we don't actually know what causes either psychopathy or autism spectrum disorder, so all such speculations remain such - for now.

PS - I guess I did note that Newt G had a number of the listed traits on the PT.  I don't think that even a scumbag politico like him is actually a classic psychopath, but if there is intermediate ground, he might be skating on it.

How finds the jury?