Thursday, October 31, 2013


Some aspects of human behavior appear to be hardwired. That frequent claim is probably more controversial than it should be, but it looks like neuroscientists have the goods for fear of snakes. They have actually identified the neurons responsible.

This week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists examines one particularly long-lasting source of fear: snakes. The researchers found that certain neurons in the brain only respond to these legless reptiles. These snake-dedicated neurons, they argue, are a legacy of our distant primate past, when the animals posed one of the greatest threats to our survival.

The new study builds on years of experiments by psychologists. They found that the widespread fear of snakes stems from a perceptual bias: people recognize snakes faster than other objects.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Science and Empire

The latest week of Prof Harari's lectures are devoted to what he calls the Marriage of Science and Empire. The theme is the mutually beneficial influences that had on each other. Science, he claims, provided not just the material tools to construct the empire, but also some of the rationale for their justification, especially through the sort of racist theories popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

He makes a big deal about the fact that the European imperialists, unlike the earlier empires of the world, always included scientists. Geographers first, to catalog and classify the world, but then geologists, biologists, archeologists, anthropologists, historians and linguists. Nobody, he says, had been able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics since perhaps the first century AD until Napoleon's troops found the Rosetta stone. His expedition contained scientists who recognized its importance at once. It was an important enough piece of war booty that the British demanded it when they won Egypt from the French.

European scientists, investigating Native American folk medicine, found quinine, and it became the key tool for european conquest of Africa and other malarial climes which had always decimated European expeditions before.

European scientists also discovered and excavated the ancient Indus valley civilization, long since forgotten in its home territory - though that last claim might be a bit controversial in India.

Lastly, he says, the European empires made the world we have today. Of course a statement like that is at best an exaggeration, but they certainly had a huge influence on almost every aspect of modern culture.

Is Humanism The New World Religion?

Harari certainly argues so. Of course the different varieties of humanism (liberal, socialist, and evolutionary) in his version don't exactly agree with each other. They also come into frequent conflict with some of the older religions, those most versions don't reject any of them. Christianity and Islam claim their legitamcy from Holy Books. So do a few others.

The classic conflict between liberal humanism and some of the biggest older religions comes over the question of human rights. Many religions and traditions have fairly detailed codes of behavior and roles for various people in society. Liberal humanism rejects many of these in the name of freedom - freedom to marry whom you want, for example. Traditional notions of filial obedience and respect are undermined in the same name. These kinds of changes are upsetting everywhere and most of all in traditional societies with roles that form the bedrock of economic relations.

Rent Rent Rent Rent

Paul Krugman squares off against Bond King Bill Gross.

Bill Gross is at it again, coming up with yet another reason for the Fed to tighten despite a still-depressed economy and inflation falling well below target. He is, of course, not alone — it has actually been amazing how wide a variety of reasons people in or close to the financial industry have come up for tight money in an economy that seems to need to opposite. Many of the people making these arguments started with dire warnings about runaway inflation; but when inflation failed to materialize, they didn’t change their policy views, they came up with new rationales for doing exactly the same thing.

The thing is, the rentiers just want to collect their rent.

So add the rentiers’ sense of entitlement to the reasons we have made such a botch of macroeconomic policy.

Who Uses IQ Tests?

The IQ test is more than a century old, about 113 years. Nobody knows what it measures in any fundamental sense. It has been and continues to be used for all sorts of practical purposes, some utterly frivolous reasons (membership in Mensa and similar deliberately exclusive clubs, and others dubious for yet other reasons. It's advantages are that it's cheap to administer and score as well as fairly strongly predictive.

The original purpose was classifying the mentally retarded, for purposes of planning their education. In one sense, that might be still the main use, to the extent that we are all retarded compared to somebody. The big breakthrough of IQ testing came when the Army adopted it for attempting to classify the hordes of WWI draftees. Because of the time and money the testing and evaluation required (in the pre-computer age), the Army wanted to know what it was getting for its money. Extensive evaluation yielded two important kinds of results: that higher scores were correlated with better performance in virtually every military occupation specialty, and that cetain minimums were required for acceptable performance in other skills. In many cases the Army spends a year or more training certain high skill specialties and there is a huge cost if the trainee can't due the work. Thus, if you got a high score, say 125, you might be trained to be an electronics technician, but if you got a 90, well the infantry always needs men.

Big employers test for exactly the reason. They want to make sure that you have a good chance of being able to do the job they are going to train you for. We know something about IQs in the NFL, for example. Certain positions, like quarterback and offensive tackle, require a lot of learning. You don't need a Charlie Johnson type IQ to be an NFL quarterback, but if you can't crack 110 your stock will go down. For cornerbacks, though, speed trumps IQ almost every time.

The SAT no longer allows itself to be considered an IQ test, but it mostly is. Exclusive schools tend to use this and similar tests to raise the prestige of their brands, though of course they might argue that they really just want to make sure students can handle their demanding course loads. This might even be true for a few schools like Caltech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd.

One of the more dubious purposes, I think, is admission to public school gifted programs. They are, I think, a required component of special education. Few parents, upon hearing that their kids had hit the magic qualification standard (IQ 130, two years ahead in reading or math in our local schools way back when) can resist the magical annointment as a wizard. These students get (or got) special counselors, lots of extr paperwork, an sometimes, the opportunity to take more advanced classes. I admit being among the guilty parents. This is mostly ridiculous. elementary school being a marathon not a sprint. Why not get rid of the counselors and use the money to hire teachers for advanced classes that any student could try?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Always The Gentleman

Brad DeLong calls (one of) this year's Nobel memorial economists, Eugene Fama, a dumbass.

Why can't we all just get along?

Dangerous Knowledge

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Knowledge is a dangerous commodity. It erodes institutions, power structures, and world views. That's why the fiercest battles of anti-science are fought on behalf of churches, industries and other power structures. Smaller scale interests have their own territories to defend though, and scientists are not immune to the temptation to cast some studies into disrepute because they don't approve of the consequences that they fear might flow from them. We usually find, though, that the head in the sand approach is mostly just disadvantageous for those who choose blindness.

Many kinds of cultural analyses have been targeted by the advocates of the "blank slate" view of human nature, but none more so than IQ studies. IQ tests were originally designed to classify degrees of mental retardation, but they have continued to proliferate in use because they are one of the most powerful predictors of achievement in an enormous range of employments from science and high finance to professional football. Unfortunately, they also have been put to use by racists and eugenicists of various stripes. Thanks to the attacks of various blank slaters, led perhaps by the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, IQ studes became so disreputable that they were mostly left to cranks and racists.

One trouble with intelligence (and hence IQ, which purports to measure it) is that it's bound up so closely with our self image. We call ourselves H. sapiens after all.

Like the (perhaps apocryphal) bishop who refused to look through Galileo's telescope for fear that he might see something that would damage his faith, the IQ denialists prefer to choose blindness. The main Satan they fear to find there is racism, and there is some hazard of that, because most comparative IQ studies do show racial correlations. Of course, in the absence of systematic study, all we have is vague hints as to either the reality or permanance of the causes.

That's ultimately a shame, because suppression of research has merely prevented us from learning the causes of IQ differences. The knowledge of racial differences in IQ has hardly been suppressed, but the widespread refusal to consider it has done more to feed conspiracy theories and racism than to prevent it. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that both environment and heredity contribute to IQ, but how and in what way is nearly entirely unknown.

This particular Terra Incognita is likely going to be understood sometime, by somebody. Suppose we do find that higher IQ is closely associated with certain genotypes. What then? The most likely thing in the future is not some kind of genocidal murder program, but rational therapy, based on genetic medicine. Echoes of Brave New World? Yes, but it's coming, and we ought to prepare to deal with it.

We have some experience with societies that choose denial over reality. Reality has it's way of asserting itself.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sorry, Not Interested

When news of the discovery of a new continent or two reached Asia, the dominant reaction was so what? At that point, the big empires of the East had more than enough technology and wealth to compete for the exploration of the World and exploitation of the resources of the new lands, but none of them did. No Chinese, Ottoman, or other expeditions set out to grab a piece of the action or master the new age of exploration. The Europeans wound up having three hundred years to master the technologies of global navigation and conquest before Asia woke up, and by then, it was too late. It was a fatal mistake.

Europe had grown wealthy and powerful with it's conquests and scientific progress.


World maps, says Prof Harari, tended to be filled in before 1500. Columbus, in insisting that he had reached Asia, was a man of the Middle Ages. Americo Vespucci, he says, was the first modern man to say that had a new continent, unknown to the ancients. This discovery was the founding event of the scientific revolution. It taught Europeans that there were many things in the world still unknown.

Of course some may dispute that.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Hopping Down The Bunny Trail

The one that runs down to that river in Egypt.

Eli has a nice post comparing climate science denial with relativity denial in the early Twentieth Century. The parallels are surprisingly numerous and deep. I loved these Einstein quotes:

This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.


Anti-relativists were convinced that their opinions were being suppressed. Indeed, many believed that conspiracies were at work that thwarted the promotion of their ideas. The fact that for them relativity was obviously wrong, yet still so very successful...

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Boxing up the Homeless

Tyler Cowen links to this story about putting up the homeless in converted shipping containers. It's really not as creepy as it sounds.

I was sceptical at the outset, but quickly won over. The toilet and shower unit is exactly the same as my daughter had in her student accommodation and she much preferred it to having to share bathrooms and toilets with other students. Who wouldn’t?

What really excites me about this opportunity is that land that might otherwise lie idle for five years will be brought back into life and used to provide much-needed temporary accommodation for 36 men and women in Brighton and Hove.

…Before embarking on this venture, we spoke with our homeless clients about the concept. They loved it. In particular, they loved the fact residents would have their own kitchen, bathroom and front door. They felt that being self-contained is far more desirable than a room in a shared house even though the floor space, at 26 sq m, is roughly the same as they would have if they were sharing.

- See more at:

And if they ever want to make a long sea voyage, they wouldn't even have to pack.

Explore and Conquer

You might recall that the Starship Enterprise of Star Trek had a scientific mission, but it was a military ship. In that respect, it was like the ships of Captain James Cook and Robert Fitzroy (the Captain of Darwin's Beagle). For Harari, these latter exemplify what what he calls The Marriage of Science and Empire. Science tends to be an expensive project, and somebody has to pay for it. For Harari, the twin pillars that pushed science forward in the West were Imperialism and Capitalism. Perhaps that explains my name.

For him, this signaled a change of mindset which saw exploration the terra incognita and conquest of the world and science as a single project, a single assault on ignorance.

The Greeks and Romans (like countless others) built empires and did science, but they didn't really see them as a common project. Julius Caesar, conqueror and polymath, showed little interest in the conquered territories beyond the military necessities.

French and Other Futilities.

Duolingo is a has a somewhat demonic level scheme, designed to cause one to imagine more progress than one has actually made. I am a level Five in French, which would be more impressive if it weren't for the fact that getting from level 1 to 2 only require 40 points, roughly 4 short lessons. Getting to level Six will require an additional 150. I'm a level Twenty-three in Spanish, but getting to level Twenty-four, the penultimate level requires 3500 points.

Railroads: Myth and Organization

One of the central puzzles of global history is how a small, backward, and previously culturally and economically insignificant part of the world over the past 500 years conquered much of the world and largely created the present global culture. As late as 1775, the eve of the American revolution, Asia had 80% of the world GDP.

Railroads are a prime example for Professor Harari. The first commercial railroad appeared in Britain in the 1830s. Thousands of miles of track were laid in Western Europe over the next twenty years. Even 50 years later, railroads had only a tiny foothold in Asia, with most of that track being built by Britain in India.

So why didn't China, Persia, and the Turks build railroads? Did they fail to realize their importance? The technology was well within their reach, they had the money, and Europeans were happy to sell to them or build railroads for them - for a fee. Harari suggests, but has not yet discussed in detail, that the difference was in social organization and cultural mythology.

Global History

Until recently, big picture, or global history was an unfashionable approach. The ambitious grand scale histories mostly fell out of favor in the Twentieth Century. Historians turned new tools instead on the particular, writing books on the smaller scale phenomena of life, down to and including the American refrigeration industry.

My introduction to global history was William H. McNeil's The Rise of the West, widely considered a classic, as well as the inspiration for some later efforts. Global historians try to look at the big picture of human history, and that means seeing common threads across time and cultural boundaries. The second great classic that made a huge impression on me was Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Of course Diamond is geographer and phsyiologist, not a historian, but perhaps that outsider's perspective facilitated his insights. He puts heavy emphasis on geographic factors in the development of civilization.

Yuval Noah Harari is unwilling to place himself in any particular "school of history," but he credits Diamond, and his aforementioned book, with making him a global historian. Global historians are pretty quick to acknowledge that global history would not be possible without the work of the more particularly inclined, and most of them have spent some time in the trenches themselves.

Harari's big theme is the rise of a global civilization, with a global economy, global culture, and global ideologies (or religions, as he prefers to call them) as well as global problems, especially the global environmental problem. The emphasis on the big picture means that kings, nations, and individual cultures rarely make an appearance in his lectures, and then only as examples of larger trends. The many debates on culture and human development get a mention, but he concentrates on articulating his interpretation. His lectures are not beltway style "opinions on the shape of the Earth differ" type of reporting.

I find the big picture he describes insightful and mostly persuasive, but recognize that opinions on the shape of that planet are going to differ, and differ radically. In particular, he challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom on many subjects. Regular readers have already taken exception to some of them.


That was the reaction of Josh Voorhees (and me) to the news that Ted Cruz's favorite moview is The Princess Bride.

It seems a bit like hearing that Osama bin Laden was a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys (which, so far as I know, he wasn't).

Friday, October 25, 2013

Keys to Economic Development

I recently attended a lecture by a former World Bank official who talked about economic development. Afterwards I asked him what he thought were the key variables that differentiated those countries that had done well in the development game and those that hadn't, especially the "basket cases." He picked three variables: education, corruption, and health. Those happen to be three categories where the US has been falling behind lately, but of course we are still pretty well off in those and other measures despite Tea Party efforts to turn us into a third world country.

Tyler Cowen highlights a new paper which argues that nutritional and training factors played a key role in the fact that Britain became the cradle of the industrial revolution. Of course the subject is endlessly controversial, with plenty of theories to go around, but it's an interesting perspective that might deserve more attention.

From the introduction:

Why was Britain the cradle of the Industrial Revolution? The literature on the topic is quite substantial, and very little of a consensus has been reached since the survey in Mokyr (1999). The dominant schools are divided between those who focus on geographic endowments (such as coal), those who focus on politics and institutions (including the Glorious Revolution), and those who stress Empire and Britain’s colonial successes.

In what follows we present an argument that focuses on the quality of the British labor force. While in the past claims for human capital as an explanation of Britain’s leadership have been dismissed because of its mediocre schooling and literacy rates (Mitch, 1998), we argue that this focuses on the wrong variables. Instead, we highlight two very different dimensions of human capital. One is the physical condition of the average British worker. We will argue that better nutrition made British males grew up on average to be healthier and taller than their continental counterparts. Health and height meant both more physical strength and in all likelihood higher cognitive ability, and hence higher labor productivity. As nutrition was costly, better health can be seen as investment by parents in their children’s human capital. The other is that the distribution of ability and dexterity in Britain was more skewed, so that there was a much larger density in the right tail, that is, a relatively large contingent of highly-skilled and capable technical workers. That contingent may have contained a higher endowment of skills, through a more flexible and effective system of training young men in the apprenticeship system, but what counted above all was its highly skilled mechanics and engineers, who may not have been a large proportion of the labor force.

Stanley Druckenmiller, Prophet

Matt Yglesias is not too impressed with Druckenmiller's credentials as a prophet: of the reasons Nolan cites for why we should be impressed by rich hedge fund guy Stanley Druckenmiller wanting to cut Social Security benefits is that Druckenmiller "predicted the last financial crash (the collapse of the housing bubble) years before it happened."

In this era of obsession with bubbles, I think it's important to recognize how fundamentally unimpressive it is to call a financial crash years in advance. If I predict to you today that the stock market is going to crash soon and people are going to lose a lot of money, and then people keep making money for the next 40 months and then the stock market crashes, that would hardly make me a genius financial forecaster. It just shows that the stock market has big crashes every now and again.

Of course we could also take him seriously because he's rich.

If you're rich they think you really know...........Fiddler on the Roof

Thursday, October 24, 2013

I don't think that word means what you think it means...

US allies are pretty damn annoyed at what the NSA has been upt to. From TPM:

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Thursday called a report that the United States has been spying on Italy "inconceivable and unacceptable."

German Chancellor Merkel wasn't happy to hear about her phone being tapped either.

I suspect that Obama is mostly in the position of reaping what was sowed in earlier administrations, and that the National Security State was moving a lot more on its own dynamic than from Presidential push, but we shall (maybe) see.

Not that allies spying on each other is anything new, but tapping one's cell gets pretty personal.

Duolingo French

Hmmm. I made it to the 100 word level in French, still with only the vaguest clues as to how to spell or pronounce or even hear that language.

One disadvantage of Duolingo compared to, say, Pimsleur, is that it does not stress those touristy type things you might want to know if you were to want to visit some place where they only speak the language. As a result, I can make some declarations about what people are eating, but can't say anything about what I would like to eat. Duolingo is focussed rather on turning you into someone who can translate, building up the language one grammatical element at a time. If I ever get to the 300 word level, I might invest in Pimsleur French.

The Cosmological Equation of State

Lumo has an interesting comment on a new measurement of the cosmological equation of state. That equation, we might recall, relates pressure to energy density in the universe considered as a perfect fluid: w = pressure/energy density. The new measurement suggests that w may be less than -1, which apparently argues against the most natural interpretation of dark energy as Einstein's cosmological constant.

Lumo is appropriately skeptical, both because of the statistics and because |w| > 1 implies a speed of sound greater than that of light.

Radical Formulation

Arun has another good Feynman quote from his talk "What is Science" that I linked to recently.


As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Taken literally, this statement is nonsense. It's not a definition, for one thing. For another, belief in the ignorance of experts is more commonly just ignorant nonsense (like that of the evolution deniers, global warming denialists, and the physics crackpots who thrive on the fringes of the web). Even so, I think Feynman is expressing an important truth, (A great truth in Bohr's sense), by capturing the essentially radical nature of science. Science doesn't respect conventional wisdom, even though now much of our received wisdom is the product of scientific research. It might be more literally true to say that scientific research starts with a confession of ignorance.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Termination of Pearl Casting

Due to the totally underwhelming enthusiasm of my readers (or at least the two or three still talking to me), I regretfully have decided to terminate my summaries of Prof Harari's lectures. This doesn't mean, however, that I think their negative opinions, mostly uninformed by any direct contact with the subject matter, should influence my own opinions informed by close attention to the same.

In particular, I still think that his rather radical reinterpretation of the big picture of history has lots of valuable insights for those willing to look beyond their own preconceptions.

SECOND THOUGHTS: in the light of some comments, I might reconsider, if I can formulate some of his ideas in ways that I think capture the essence.

The Gilgamesh Project*

Science and technology have put big dents in the ancient scourges of poverty and disease. Is death itself in it's crosshairs?

Maybe. Someday. For the really rich.

Epic of Gilgamesh

* Harari

Our Feathered Friends

Really Big Birds

Within ten years of the discovery of Archeopteryx in 1861, Huxley had proposed a close evolutionary link between the dinosaurs and birds. That notion was devalued in much of the Twentieth Century, but has more recently been decisively confirmed.

Feathered dinosaurs don't seem to have been rare. The ancestor of the Tyranosaur had feathers.

These would have given Jurrasic Park a fluffier aspect.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ignoring Ignorance

Harari's insights into the origins of the scientific revolution are probably not summarizable, but he makes one important point that I will mention here. The major religions, having settled into their roles as guarantors of the social order, started maintaining that all the really important information was contained in their holy books. Now I'm not in a position to defend this for all religions, but it's true for the ones I know the best. Thus, the important subject matter of education was the contents of those books. The revolutionary discovery of 500 years or so ago, he claims, was ignorance, the fact that we were in fact ignorant of the ways planets moved, and how many of the systems of the world behaved; and that much of that knowledge was not to be found in the Torah, the New Testament, the Vedas, or the Koran.

The signal achievement of the new point of view was Newton's laws of motion. Not coincidentally, those laws involved replacing old narratives with three spare equations.

Monday, October 21, 2013


According to Duolingo, I now know 38 words of French. Only 10,000 or so until I'm conversant. Of course I can't pronounce any of those words and have a very hard time telling most of them apart when spoken. Spanish and German seem easy by comparison. Either an awful lot of French letters are silent or too subtle for me to distinguish. I can't tell singulars from plurals - femme vs femmes, for example. Une and un are also hard for me to distinguish.

What is Science?

We sometimes argue about what is and what is not science on this blog. This old but great Feynman lecture on the subject is too good to summarize. You should read it all.

Man and Superman

Humanist religions

The last three hundred years, says Prof Harari, has seen the rise of the humanist religions, religions which put humans at the center of the universe, and in effect, worship Homo sapiens. He sees three main flavors: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism. Liberal humanism puts individual liberty first, which socialist humanism puts the good of society and equality of individuals first. Both of these, he says, are closely related to monotheism, with it's emphasis on the essential selfhood of the soul and the equality of souls before God.

What really interests him, though, is what he calls evolutionary humanism. He singles out the Nazis as exemplars of that doctrine. Nietzsche's name is never mentioned, but Harari's analysis notes the centrality of Nietzschean (plus a dash of Darwinian) ideas to their ideology. At the center of that ideology was the notion of perfecting the human race by elimination of the weak and unfit, thus gradually turning men into supermen. Of course Hitler thought the so-called Aryan race was the superior race, and he worked to eliminate not only inferior races but inferiors like the mentally ill and sickly from that race too.

Of course Hitler's racial ideas have been thoroughly discredited by subsequent scientific research, but Harari points out that they were far less outlandish in their time, a time when it was widely assumed (by White people) that other races were inferior and that mixing with them would pollute the "superior" strain. Such notions were nearly as popular in the scientific literature and government policies at the time as they were among the ignorantly bigoted masses.

Liberal humanism is clearly the dominant notion in the elite world today, but it's foundations look pretty vulnerable. Scientific research has failed to find anything that looks like a soul, and differences between humans and other animals look increasingly ephemeral. Law and society have failed to keep up with science, he thinks. The subject is to be revisited later in the course.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

The software I use to track readership supplies certain information about those who find my site, including the URL, internet provider name, type of computer used, and the search terms (if they found it from a search). Mostly provider names are general enough that one can only narrow down the source to a few tens of millions of people, but a few are much more specific. I happened to notice one of the latter (a prestigious address) so I looked at the details and noticed that the search terms were the first and last names of a somewhat famous person, plus the word "genius."

Not perhaps coincidentally, the person in question is a notable at the address in question. So I'm having fun with the idea that maybe I got a hit from that person in the course of Googling their own name plus the word "genius."

Natural Law Religions: Twilight of the Gods

The fourth category in Prof Harari's taxonomy of religions is what he calls the "natural law religions," including Buddhism, Jainism, Daoism, Stoicism and others. Gods take a back seat in these religions - they aren't excluded, but their importance recedes. Buddhism is the only one he discusses, but he sees the core principle as being a natural law (dhamma) - in his account, that suffering arises from craving.

The last three hundred years, he says, have seen the development of more such natural law religions. Here he singles out Communism as an example. Here as elsewhere, he applies the dual criteria of a superhuman order and norms and values derived from it. He throws in that it has sacred texts, martyrs, priests (aka commissars), and other standard symbols of religions.

For comparison, he notes that the theory of relativity doesn't count as a religion even though it posits a superhuman order to the world since we don't derive human norms and values from it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Monotheism and Dualism

Part Two of Prof Harari's lectures on the history of religion is devoted to monotheism and dualism. The first monotheistic religion that we know about, he says, was invented in Egypt by the Pharoah Akenaton. This practice did not survive him. The general strategy of going to monotheism is the promotion of one of the gods to supreme status and suppression of all the others. The first monotheistic gods were local or tribal gods, like the god of the Jews. One obscure Jewish sect invented a new idea - if our god is the god of everything, maybe he is the god of everybody too.

The impact of this globalization of the God's interest was revolutionary. Soon this obscure sect of an obscure religion (Christianity) had swept the Roman Empire. Under the influence of Paul of Tarsus, it became a missionary religion. The second big monotheist religion, Islam, followed the same blueprint sweeping from an obscure sect in a global backwater from ocean to ocean. Today, most of the world follows one of these monotheist religions, with only South and East Asia as major exceptions.

Monotheism has a big problem, from an explanatory standpoint - the problem of evil. If God is all-powerful, and good, how do we explain evil? One answer to that is dualism - dividing the power between a good god and an evil one. Dualist religions flourished for a while, but were largely exterminated by the monotheists. In the process of eliminating dualism, big chunks of it were incorporated into the monotheistic religions. Thus we have God and Satan, Satan being a junior but still powerful god opposed to the God.

Polytheism proved as difficult to eliminate as dualism. One god is really not enough to look after all the interests of society. Consequently, a whole pantheon of junior gods, or Saints, were admitted. These Saints could tend to special interests - every Christian nation had a patron Saint, for example. Occupations got their Saints too - Saint Matthew, for example, is the patron Saint of tax collectors. In many cases, the Saints were merely repurposed gods from the old pagan pantheon - the popular goddess Brigid, of Ireland, got converted and became Saint Brigette.

One bad consequence of the incorporation of dualistic elements was the notion that God might appreciate human help in dealing with Satan. Of course it's ridiculous to imagine that an omnipotent God is going to need any help in deciding whom should, for example, occupy Jerusalem. Once you admit Satan, it almost makes sense that he might want some help that might tip the balance - and thus we get crusades.

Too Smart?

People differ in talent, including intellectual talent. The reasons for the differences are not known and intensely controversial, but very likely to be at least partially genetic. John Bohannon, writing in wired, has the story of one prodigy's project to study what's different about the genetics of people like himself.

Some people are smarter than others. It seems like a straightforward truth, and one that should lend itself to scientific investigation. But those who try to study intelligence, at least in the West, find themselves lost in a political minefield. To be sure, not all intelligence research is controversial: If you study cognitive development in toddlers, or the mental decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease, “that’s treated as just normal science,” says Douglas Detterman, founding editor of Intelligence, a leading journal in the field. The trouble starts whenever the heritability of intelligence is discussed, or when intelligence is compared between genders, socioeconomic classes, or—most explosively—racial groupings.

China doesn't seem troubled by these political inhibitions. 21 year-old Zhao Bowen, prodigy and high school dropout, heads a project to sequence the DNA of thousands of prodigies from China and around the world, with the object of finding just what genetic differences underlie their specific talents. I found the article to be interesting throughout.

The Dark Side

Ted Cruz has made a lot of enemies, but he seems to be one of those who feeds on negative energy and hate - the dark side, if you will. History suggests that such people can be extremely dangerous. From his student days creeping out the girls in his residence hall with his Cruzing in his paisley dressing gown to his present as the tormenter of the GOP establishment he has sought out and sucked up anger and disgust.

The anger feeds more than his personal weirdness - it also feeds his supporters who revel in anything that offends the larger community and the establishment. The fact that he's the catspaw of anonymous zillionaires is lost on most of them.

From such materials, tyrants are sometimes made.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Power Behind the Shutdown

Heritage Action for America is frequently cited as the place where the House of Representatives' shutdown/default strategy was conceived, and they have been very active in promoting it and threatening Republicans who deviate from their party line. So who are they? Sourcewatch takes a look.

Their analysis sees a collection of right-wing foundations, with a little help from some Korean, American, and Taiwanese corporations, though individuals also apparently contribute.

Sounds to me like the usual agents of the oligarchy - or, as Hillary once put it, the Great Right-Wing Conspiracy.

Capitain Imperio Explains: Sexual Selection

The peacock's spectacular tail confounded Darwin. How could something without obvious selective value compete? The answer he came up with, documented again and again, was sexual selection. If one sex prefers some trait, then those with that trait will be preferentially selected for, and over millenia, multiple genes might get involved to produce the elk's antlers, the peacock's tail and so on.

Of course that cannot be the end of the story. Selection of an arbitrary trait would not help fitness. It has to be some trait that is correlated with other less observable traits that do affect fitness. Facial asymmetry in in humans (or animals) is not in itself a direct hindrance to fitness but it tends to indicate that the creature in question does suffer from obvious developmental or nutritional deficits. Unsurprisingly, we overwhelmingly prefer the symmetric.

Men all over the world tend to prefer certain traits in women, and it is not coincidental that those traits are those associated with health and fertility. Similarly, women tend to prefer men with traits that were probably useful to our stone age ancestors - height, evidence of physical strength and athleticism, and verbal dexterity (still pretty useful).

Peahens take a darn good look at the elaborate tails of peacocks, and peacocks go to elaborate lengths to display them. We don't know exactly what the peahens are looking for, but it's clear that they are checking out the details - a study that looks only at size is hopelessly naive - but we can certainly expect that whatever it is, it's correlated with health and fitness.

And scientists are working on it: A peahen's eye view

Facts *Are* Inconvenient

PK notes that facts that contradict preconceptions tend to make people angry.

Now there's a shock.

Global Warming: The Course

I signed up for David Archer's Global Warming course. This was probably a mistake, since I'm already rather overcommitted academically, but I guess I can audit.


Conventional wisdom seems to be that the repeated failure of various House budget plans, torpedoed by the GOP's Taliban wing, is actually a good sign.

Yesterday, John Boehner was playing a completely different game. His game was trying to devise a plan that was acceptable to nearly all Republicans and thus could pass the House despite having zero Democratic support. That was an important game for Boehner personally and for the internal politics of the House GOP caucus. But nothing that's acceptable to the 30-100 most conservative House members will be acceptable to the White House. A deal that's unacceptable to the White House can't become law, and a deal that is acceptable to the White House doesn't need the 30-100 most conservative House members. Yesterday's whole hunt for House votes and a "House plan" was pure kabuki.

Today we're exactly where we've been for weeks. If Republicans are willing to divide their caucus, there are ways out of they've dug. If they aren't, they aren't. Yesterday's collapse of GOP-only dealmaking makes it more likely that they'll be willing to divide their caucus, and a divided caucus is the only way out. This isn't dispositive, but I do think it's telling that financial markets remain calm. Playing this drama out until the 11th hour has been damaging, but that's priced in. The expectation is still that this will end, and the pieces are in place for that to happen.

Hope that's true.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Emily Yoffe States the Obvious

...but politically incorrect thing.

Girls would get raped less if they didn't get drunk so much.

A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, as this survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame. Sometimes the woman is the only one drunk and runs into a particular type of shrewd—and sober—sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole. For these kinds of men, the rise of female binge drinking has made campuses a prey-rich environment. I’ve spoken to three recent college graduates who were the victims of such assailants, and their stories are chilling.

Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice.

That said, it ought to be pointed out that for many highed charged libidos, a drunk woman is like a nice unguarded stash of heroin for a junkie, or a strawberry cheesecake for a starving foodaholic. It's probably genetic.

Why Isn't Football a Religion?

Harari has two crucial chararacteristics in his definition of a religion: belief in a superhuman order, and belief that human norms and values can be derived from it. Football (by which he means soccer) has a lot of rules, norms and values, but hardly anybody believes that FIFA is a supernatural order.

Primitive peoples, he thinks, are mostly animistic, believing that the world is full of supernatural beings with thought and intention. These are usually local to a single culture. More complex societies need a more complicated and hierarchical supernatural to legitimize the societal hierarchy, so typically a whole hierarchy of powerful supernatural beings appears. These gods have powers and interests, but they aren't the last word in the universe (says Harari). Ultimate power belongs to a supremely disinterested entity, called Fate by the Greeks, and the Atman by the Hindus. Nobody makes temples to these ultimate powers because they don't care.

One vast advantage of polytheistic empires is that they are pretty tolerant, relatively speaking. What's one more god, more or less. By his estimate, in three centuries of occasional persecution of Christians, at most a few thousand perished, and they perished not for worshipping their god, but because they failed to pay minimal respect to the gods of the empire, including the emperor. Once the monotheistic Christians took charge, they slaughtered each other by the millions over differences in interpretation of the common faith. Muslims, of course, do the same, even today.

Imperial Endings

Empires are a pretty durable and effective cultural unifiers. Most people on Earth speak the language of one or more empires (English, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, French, German and so on). Many of these languages, like the romance languages, have been processed through multiple empires. But empires, like other products of man, are mortal. Rarely do they perish solely or mainly from revolt of the subjugated. Usually they fall victim to other empires or the internal struggles of the central elite.

It's possible that the current convulsions in Washington signal the end of America's preeminence in the world. there is little doubt that they have done grevious damage to the country. It could turn out that one Cuban/Canadian terrorist and his allies do more damage to America than bin Laden and al Quaeda ever could.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Nobel(ish) Prize

Krugman on the Econ Nobel:

It’s an old jibe against economics that it’s the only field where two people can win the Nobel for saying exactly the opposite thing; even the people making that jibe, however, probably didn’t envisage those two guys sharing the same prize, which is kind of what happened here.

But I am actually fine with the prize. Fama’s work on efficient markets was essential in setting up the benchmark against which alternatives had to be tested; Shiller did more than anyone else to codify the ways the efficient market hypothesis fails in practice. If Fama has said some foolish things in recent years, no matter — he did earn this honor, as did Shiller. As for Hansen, his work involves econometric methods on which I have no expertise at all, but I’ll trust the experts who consider it great work.

So, all good — and you actually have to admire the prize committee for finding a way to give Fama the long-expected honor without seeming as if they are completely out of touch with everything going on around them.

Heck of a Job, Bushy

The recent success of India in apparently preventing massive loss of life from a large and very dangeous tropical cyclone reflects well on that nation. It should also remind us what a truly rotten, stinko, idiot of a President George W Bush was. I will never get out of my mind the image of that idiot playing air guitar at his ranch while New Orleans drowned.

On the other hand, India, despite lacking a religion, continues to lead the world in accidental religious violence.

Blockheads, Chinese Rooms, Zombies, and Internal Mental Life.

See The Mystery of Consciousness and comments for context.

I sometimes play chess against a computer program, Fritz 13, but mostly I just use it to analyze my games. It's a very good chess playing machine, probably stronger than any human player. Its internal mental life presumably consists of algorithms, alpha-beta pruning, and look up tables. I doubt that it has much capability for introspection, though it can be rather sarcastically critical of my play.

We don't really know much about our own internal mental lives, but we can rather justifiably suspect that it is different from that of Fritz. What we do know is that any system capable of highly complex behaviors has some kinds of internal mechanisms that implement the complexity.

Some would argue that there is a bright line between a system like (the hypothetical) Blockhead, which apprently does all its thinking with lookup tables, which are "zombies," and us, who presumably are not. Or are we? In our best models for human cognition, our brains indeed function with something that looks a lot like an elaborate system of lookup tables, that is, tuned strengths of neural connections.

Adjust your neural connection tables to contemplate that.

The Mystery of Consciousness

Longtime readers may recall that I mostly regard this alleged mystery as a crock, but for those who feel otherwise, some company.

The problem is that, even if we know what someone is thinking about, or what they are likely to do, we still don’t know what it’s like to be that person. Hemodynamic changes in your prefrontal cortex might tell me that you are looking at a painting of sunflowers, but then, if I thwacked your shin with a hammer, your screams would tell me you were in pain. Neither lets me know what pain or sunflowers feel like for you, or how those feelings come about. In fact, they don’t even tell us whether you really have feelings at all. One can imagine a creature behaving exactly like a human — walking, talking, running away from danger, mating and telling jokes — with absolutely no internal mental life. Such a creature would be, in the philosophical jargon, a zombie.

To which I say, nonsense, except in the sense that one can imagine a round square. Philosophers keep supplying my distain with fresh nutrient media. We know what and how other people are thinking in the same way we know anything else - by constructing models and making deductions. Which is to say, imperfectly, but plenty well enough for many purposes.

Population Replacement

New genetic evidence seems to indicate that in Central Europe, at least, cultural innovations were associated with population replacement. Scientists looked at the DNA of successive occupants of a region of Central Europe over a span of 4000 years, from 7500 ya to 3500 ya.

What they found was that the shift in the frequency of DNA lineages closely matched the changes and appearances of new Central European cultures across time. In other words, the people who lived in Central Europe 7,000 years ago had different DNA lineages than those that lived there 5,000 years ago, and again different to those that lived 3,500 years ago. Central Europe was dynamic place during the Bronze age, and the genetic composition of the people that lived there demonstrates that there was nothing static about European prehistory.

Needless to say, this suggests (but does not gaurantee) the worst about our stone age ancestors - that cultural change was associated with genocide, either by wiping out the previous inhabitants or driving them away. It also aims a pretty big truck at the notion that there might have been a widespread superculture that spoke Proto-Indo-European over a wide range of Europe and Asia 10,000 or more years ago - a favorite fantasy of those who doubt an Indo-European expansion.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

You Want a Flipping Education? Or Not?

One popular notion today is a sort of hybrid of the MOOC and traditional education, called the flipped classroom. The basic idea is that lectures and demonstrations are by video, with the classroom reserved for interative educational activities:

Three years ago, Clintondale High School, just north of Detroit, became a “flipped school” — one where students watch teachers’ lectures at home and do what we’d otherwise call “homework” in class. Teachers record video lessons, which students watch on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in the school’s tech lab. In class, they do projects, exercises or lab experiments in small groups while the teacher circulates.

Clintondale was the first school in the United States to flip completely — all of its classes are now taught this way. Now flipped classrooms are popping up all over. Havana High School outside of Peoria, Ill., is flipping, too, after the school superintendent visited Clintondale. The principal of Clintondale says that some 200 school officials have visited...

The results were dramatic: the failure rate in English dropped from 52 percent to 19 percent; in math, it dropped from 44 percent to 13 percent; in science, from 41 percent to 19 percent; and in social studies, from 28 percent to 9 percent.

The next year, in the fall of 2011, Clintondale flipped completely — every grade, every class. “On average we approximated a 30 percent failure rate,” said Green. “With flipping, it dropped to under 10 percent.” Graduation rates rose dramatically, and are now over 90 percent. College attendance went from 63 percent in 2010 to 80 percent in 2012.

It works in universities too, and the anti-MOOC zealots are alarmed. They fear becoming "glorified teaching assistants."

But education isn't, or shouldn't be, about the professors. The professors aren't the university - they just work there.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


In a characteristic moment of insanity, I signed up for Duolingo French. My first experiences proved what I had already surmised: that French is impossible to pronounce, which is probably why the French don't really bother. I did learn that my usual rule for decoding French, i.e., that the last five letters of every word are usually silent, was at best an oversimplification.

Theory of the Leisure Class

Some federal workers, cheered by the promise of the Republicans that they will get paid eventually for the shutdown time, have formed a Ted Cruz fan club.

Markets Going Gangnambusters

It seems that the success of Psy's Gangnam Style caused a stratospheric rise in the stock of his father's semiconductor corporation. Tyler Cowen has some interesting details.

Doom: Rise of the Machines (Again)

Tyler Cowen has some nice excerpts on how computers are now grading job performance. One story is that so called "Big-Data" now allows companies to evaluate how nuances of worker performance affect bottom line performance, putting to rest dependence on superficial criteria. The panopticon can observe you every milli-second.

To aid that search [for better workers], Juhl this month will begin using an online video game designed to track, record and analyze every millisecond of its players’ behavior. Developed by Knack in Palo Alto, California, Wasabi Waiter places job-seekers in the shoes of a sushi server who must identify the mood of his cartoon customers and bring them the dish labeled with the matching emotion. On a running clock, they must also clear empty dishes into the sink while tending to new customers who take a seat at the bar.

Using about a megabyte of data per candidate, Knack’s software measures a variety of attributes shown in academic studies to relate to job performance, including conscientiousness and the capacity to recognize others’ emotions. Knack’s clients will also see a score estimating each applicant’s likelihood of being a high performer.

- See more at:

Of course simulations are only one evaluation tool. Monitoring real situation performance can be done, slightly more expensively, on the job as well. Computer workers, naturally, are trivial to monitor. The panoptican not only knows how much time you spend surfing, but how your performance compares with that of those who surf more or less.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Good Guys, Bad Guys, and the Global Culture

I can't hope to capture all the ideas in Professor Yuval Noah Harari's lecture 9-3, but let me try to talk about one of them. A major target is the kind of the good guy/bad guy type of anti-colonialism that played a dominant role in much of twentieth century thought. In that schema the good guys were anybody who fought against colonialism and the bad guys were the imperialists. The trouble with this notion is that most of the very tools and ideas the the anti-colonialists wielded were legacies of the empire. He has previously talked about how those who lived in the Roman, Chinese, and Arab empires all became Romanized, made Chinese, or Arab. When the Roman and Arab empires failed, there was no authentic older culture to return to.

A similar thing is happening today, according to Harari. The ruling elite of the world is becoming more similar in its attitudes, lifestyles, and ambitions. At the same time, they are becoming more and more different from their origins and the ordinary peoples of all nations.

The ultimate trouble with the good guy/bad guy approach to history is that we are all the cultural (and often biological) children of the invading rapists and murderers as well as their victims. Few Indians, he argues, would be willing to shed all the cultural legacy of the British conquest. And even if they did, to what would they return? The culture of the various Islamic conquerors that ruled much of India for hundreds of years before the British (and built the Taj Majal)? The India of various other conquerors, the India of warring states? Of course if you go back far enough you find various indigenous empires, including the spectacular Gupta empire, but even they ruled over what were then many rather different cultures and states. This is true for everybody in the world, only it is less obvious if you have already left behind almost all traces of your ancestral cultures - as is the case for most peoples who have been American for two or three generations.

Reality is seldom as comforting as fantasy. But its a better guide to action.

Tropical Cyclone Phailin

An extremely dangerous Category 5 Tropical Cyclone (Hurricane) is making landfall on India. This is a likely catastrophe as large scale property destruction is nearly certain, and avoiding a huge loss of life will be a tough test for the government of India. China and Cuba proved that this sort of event does not have to kill thusands or even hundreds. Bush proved that rule by an idiot can kill thousands even in a country with the resources of the US.

Imperial Visions, Imperial Hypocrisy, Imperial Culture.

The first well documented empire seems to have been the of Sargon, almost 4500 years ago. A couple of thousand years later, Cyrus came up with a radical innovation. Whereas previous empires had been frankly exploitative and xenophobic, Cyrus claimed his conquests to be for the benefit of both conqueror and conquered, bringing them the blessings of higher civilization. It was an innovation subsequently widely adopted, and also invented independently elsewhere.

This was a radical departure from tens of thousands of years or human experience in which we divided ourselves into we, the real people, and they, who weren't really people at all. This new inclusiveness, Prof Haarari points out, was hardly hyprocrisy free, but it had long term consequences in terms of the internal digestion of foreign cultures. Over periods of many centuries, the conqered became one with the conqerors. This is vividly illustrated in the cases of the Roman, Arab, and Chinese empires, where assimilation into the imperial culture eventually became almost complete.

He points out the irony that modern anti-colonialism, which both promoted and grew out of the collapse of the old European empires, has it's roots in doctrines that came from and were promoted by those very empires: human rights, self-determination, socialism, and so on.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Tools of Empire

Empires are built on war, enslavement, and genocide.

Of course we had all those things without empires, too, and empires also gave us high art, science and other kinds of human progress.


If money is one of the most potent digestive juices in the global cultural alimentary system, empires are the teeth. I'm just starting on Harari's empire lectures (Week 9), but he has already noted that these days empires have a really bad press. According to him, this critique is based on two notions: first, that empires don't work and second, that they are evil. He thinks that the first claim is nonsense and the second problematic, and notes that most people in the World have been ruled by empires for the last 2500 years.

He also notes that the scale of empires has changed drastically over the millenia, with the Athenian Empire ruling over a small part of modern Greece and the largest empire of modern times, the British, ruling big chunks of 5 continents. This is due mostly to the disintegration and disappearance of smaller cultures.

Gold, Silver, Money

Gold and silver have their uses in modern technology, but for the ancients, they were largely useless. They are much too soft to make good tools. Whence came they to have their value premium? Precisely because of their use in money, says Prof Harari.

Our first clear evidence for money is the barley money of Sumer. Standardized bowls were made to measure it. Barley has the advantages and disadvantages of being intrinsically useful. It also has some unique disadvantages: it's hard to store, bulky, and rats and mice like to eat it. Durable, useless, money came later in the form of the cowrie shells of Asia and the silver shekel of Mesopotamia (to give a couple of examples). Cowrie shells and silver have the crucial advantage of being relatively rare as well as durable. If your money is in barley, a good harvest will make you poorer and a plague of rodents might eat up your profits. Silver has two crucial problems. It has to be weighed, instead of just counted, and it's subject to adulteration or alloying.

The invention of the coin, of a weight and purity attested by a King or government, seeks to address both these problems. It's subject to counterfeit, but counterfeit is treated as an offense against the king, like treason, and harshly punished everywhere. Even though the gold and silver in coins had little metallurgical value, they acquired prestige from their presence in the coins, and also happen to be relatively easy to incorporate into ornementation. This presented two problem temptations: one the one hand, to melt down the coin for the ornamental value of its contents and on the other, the temptation for the issuer to respond by decreasing the gold and silver content.

Thus, the coin backed by the power of the government and intrinsic rarity was vulnerable to having itself undermined by competition between the two bases for value. The Chinese may have been the first to take the next logical step by making bronze coins. Bronze is not rare enough for it to be useful to melt down for its metal content, so now the authority of the government becomes the sole basis for value. The also invented paper money.


One of the ways hunter-gatherers and the rest of us keep the our fellows from becoming too conceited is by making fun of them. It can be thought of as a way to maintain an egalitarian society. One form that takes in modern society is picking on the smart kids in school. Of course picking on the mighty, lèse-majesté if you please, is anathema in a hierarchical society and punished severely.

One way to think of The Big Bang Theory television show is that it's about making fun of the smart kids - a milder form of pantsing them in the school hallway. A show about four relentlessly superior individuals, handsome, socially adept, athletic geniuses would be relentlessly boring, so all the characters are seriously flawed. The redeeming quality of the show is that they are human - likeable and sympathetic.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Another Branch of That River in Egypt

MOOC critics seem to like an echo chamber - they only want to listen to those who agree with them. Most of them would consider themselves liberals or leftists, and they frequently invoke the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the labor left, but their actual orientation here is purely reactionary. A recent article proclaimed that:

The findings of a recent Gallup survey have rained on the MOOC parade by suggesting that few college and university presidents consider massively open online courses, or MOOCs, as an effective strategy for improving student learning or addressing the fiscal crisis facing many institutions.

This is roughly as surprising as finding out that rabbits don't like coyotes. MOOCs pose a threat to the traditional university, its executives, faculty, and staff. It doesn't say anything about whether MOOCs are liked by students, and the enrollment numbers say they are, or are effective in educating students - TBD.

My personal best guess right now is that the MOOC will not replace the traditional university, but nevertheless radically transform it. Professors may become more like Oxbridge style tutors - or something else competely. But the present professorate mostly doesn't want to hear about it. I have a hint though: closing your eyes and putting your fingers in your ears may keep you from seeing what's happening, but it's still going to happen.

I believe you believe

Money and the global village.

Money is one of our most purely constructed imagined realities. It's value depends almost entirely on the fact that other people find it valuable. Coins were invented in Lydia 2700 years ago, but their usefullness was soon apparent. India started accepting the Roman Denarius, and when they started making their own coins, copied the Roman coin down to the image of Augustus on the face.

Yuval Noah Harari calls money the most universal and undiscriminating product of culture. People all over the world would accept Roman coins whether they hated Rome or loved it, and similarly the American dollar today.

So why should cultures who disagree on every other value put their faith in money? Mostly it's a matter of knowing that other people trust it, that plus supply and demand. Of course money also depends on the fact, or imagined fact, of a powerful government dedicated to protecting its value.

Too bad the Republican congress won't take Harari's course. Not that they are smart enough to understand the point that screwing with people's trust in money is an enormous calamity. Either that, or they are Galtian millenialists trying to end the world as we know it so that even the dumb high school nerds can rule it.

In Our Stars

Default, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our selves.

Tyler Cowen, no liberal, constructs a scenario for default.

Interest rates skyrocket and there are numerous collateral calls from clearinghouses and thus a squeeze on Treasuries. Everyone is scrambling after Treasuries and suddenly T-Bill liquidity is quite scarce. (Here is one FT post on collateral crunch.) The next morning retail runs on money market funds commence and most redemptions cannot be made (another FT post here). Those funds are shuttered and new commercial paper issues are put on hold.

By mid-morning of the 17th the payments system has shut down entirely. The Fed tries everything possible, but even with a flood of monetary liquidity, T-Bills are “not what they used to be” and no flow of reserves can make up for this. The monetary authority cannot become the fiscal authority in the span of an hour or a day, especially when it doesn’t have a fully credible fiscal authority behind it. The payments system remains gridlocked. Elsewhere, the Italian 10-year rate shoots over eleven percent, so the ECB has to invoke Outright Monetary Transactions, but the Germans get nervous and don’t go whole hog with this program. A lot of European credit markets shut down too. A major clearinghouse is nationalized.

- See more at:

Of course that's the optimistic view. Money market funds disappear. Banks go bankrupt. The FDIC is broke. Checks and credit cards stop working. Transportation networks fail. The Dollar plumets to 100 to the Yen.

Lorde - Royals


I found this online version of Raven's Progressive Matrices IQ test. I made the mistake of taking it. I'm sure that my score (very modestly above average) would give a lot of comfort to my critics. Needless to say, it didn't do much for my ego. I tried to come up with some good excuses for the difference between my inflated self-estimate and my actual score.

Supposedly such tests measure fluid intelligence, the ability to reason quickly. I'm now old enough that such abilities are in significant decline. Maybe it's normed against the population of internet IQ test takers, who might be smarter than the average bear? On the other hand, spatial reasoning has always been a weak area for me. Maybe I'm just not that bright.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

IQ Again (Frivolous)

I notice that Lumo has claimed a Sheldonian IQ of 187 lately. Of course such an IQ is meaningless, since there arent enough people in the world to norm a score that high (a few quadrillion would need to take the exam). Practically speaking, IQ tests max out at about four standard deviations (IQ 160), but there is plenty of reason to suspect that any score above 140 or so is measuring much different kinds of things than lower scores, like skills in some specialized intellectual tasks.

UPDATE: See comments below for Lumo correction of my faulty arithmetic. I somehow got 187 = 7.8 std. dev. instead of the correct 5.8

I thought I remembered him reporting a more plausible 3 standard deviation score once upon a time.

T for Terror

Rates are spiking in the 90 day T-bill market. Roughly a 1000% increase (in the last eight days) in those maturing on Oct 17. Default is starting to looke more real.

Dumb and Getting Dumber

Despite having a large portion of our population extensively educated in terms of years and certificates, the United States lags in educational achievement. This is especially true among younger Americans. Such, at any rate, is the conclusion of a new study, some of the results of which are discussed in this NYT article.

In the United States, young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy.

More surprisingly, even middle-aged Americans — who, on paper, are among the best-educated people of their generation anywhere in the world — are barely better than middle of the pack in skills...

In all three fields, Japan ranked first and Finland second in average scores, with the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway near the top. Spain, Italy and France were at or near the bottom in literacy and numeracy, and were not included in the technology assessment.

The United States ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom in skill with numbers and technology. In number skills, just 9 percent of Americans scored in the top two of five proficiency levels, compared with a 23-country average of 12 percent, and 19 percent in Finland, Japan and Sweden.

We also exhibited a wide disparity between our most and least educated citizens.

Of course this was cooked up by the OECD, most of whom are a bunch of Euro-Commies anyway, so if you live in Oklahoma, Texas, or some other place that knows that evolution, global warming, math, and physics are just lefty plots, sleep soundly.

Conspiracy Theory Physics

George Musser interviews Gerard `t Hooft on Superdeterminism - a relatively new idea for exorcism of "quantum weirdness." My instinct doesn't much care for it, partly because it looks to me a bit like one more untestable theory, but mostly just because. The basic notion is that the Bell's Theorem restrictions don't apply because of correlations baked into the universe from the start. One Bell's Theorem/Einstein Podolsky Rosen test, you might recall, is that you send out a couple of quantum mechanically entangled particles but the observers don't choose what measurements to make until the particles are already on the way. Thus our particles seemingly need to communicate how their correlations are expressed via faster than the speed of light "spooky action at a distance." Never mind, say the Superderterminists, the universe has already decided what choices the experimenters are going to make because of correlations going back to the big bang, so no superluminal commo is required.

Bee (one of the three people who believe in this, according to George, and herself), has written more extensively here. Lumo, clearly not one of the three, takes exception in some length, including technical discussion of the issues.

I like this quote, apparently from Zeillinger:

[W]e always implicitly assume the freedom of the experimentalist... This fundamental assumption is essential to doing science. If this were not true, then, I suggest, it would make no sense at all to ask nature questions in an experiment, since then nature could determine what our questions are, and that could guide our questions such that we arrive at a false picture of nature.

So, stick that in your Boltzmann Brain, if you must.

Stock Market Chicken

The Dow has now lost about 800 points from it's pre-shutdown peak. This is a hint that it's starting to feel the icy breath of default on it's neck. But why so little? Mostly, I think, because it still believes that this is going to be settled peaceably, and everybody anticipates that when that happens, the market will make a big jump, which nobody wants to miss.

The future dynamics can be guessed, up to a huge "if." If this goes down to the wire, the slow leakage will become a flood, and finally a panic. If default is averted, there will be a big but probably only partial recovery with a trillion or three transferred from the fearful to the brave. If default happens, everybody is probably screwed anyway.

Fruit Fly Guy

The NYT has a nice portrait of Michael Dickinson. I've admired his work ever since I first encountered it. He has devoted much of his career to trying to understand the fruit fly, unravelling a lot of the mysteries of insect flight in the process.

One of the most surprising things he has found is just how richly instrumented these tiny creatures are.

They can taste with their wings,” he adds, as his enthusiasm builds. “No one knows any reason why they have taste cells on their wing. Their bodies are just covered with sensors. This is one of the most studied organisms in the history of science, and we’re still fundamentally ignorant about many features of its basic biology. It’s like having an alien in your lab.

Money, Money, Money

I got a big kick out of prof Harari's lectures on money - one of the prime drivers of the transition to a global culture. Money is one of the purest creations of the human mind, in the sense that its value is almost entirely the product of a shared imagined reality. It's been invented many times in many places, and is essential for any complex economy. Occasionally, but hardly generally, money consists of things of real intrinsic value, like cigarettes, cattle, slave girls, or baskets of wheat. More commonly, especially in modern societies, it consists of things whose intrinsic value is slight, like cowrie shells, coins of gold or silver, banknotes, or entires in an electronic ledger. The value of money lies in our shared expectation that it can be exchanged for all sorts of real goods and services.

What exactly underpins our shared belief that those coins or banknotes will continue to be useful to us? Beyond our shared imaginations, it's often the power of a state. Intrinsically scarce items, like gold or cowrie shells, can have a value that's independent of any particular state, and lately we have learned that even a digital item of manufactured scarcity - the bitcoin - can also function in that role. Such items have their own vulnerabilities. Gold can suffer drastic inflation in value if industrial demand or a fashion for gold jewelry occurs, and drastic deflation if a big new gold mine is dicovered. In any case, there is far too little of it to make it a useful medium of exchange.

Almost all modern money is supported by the apparatus of the state, and most of it exists only in those electronic ledgers. It's important to note that scarcity - natural or manufactured - is a crucially necessary ingredient of money. That's precisely why inflation is perilous. Too much inflation will rob the money of its value as a medium of exchange. Deflation paralyzes an economy and has even more severe effects.

More on money and default sometime.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Republican Jihadis

Paul Krugman has a good look at the origins and delusions of the Great Default Plot. It seems that it was cooked up in Mordor, AKA The Heritage Society, by the usual Koch Machine nuts. He thinks that their problem is not just their radicalism, but their complete lack of realism.

To see what I’m talking about, consider the report in Sunday’s Times about the origins of the current crisis. Early this year, it turns out, some of the usual suspects — the Koch brothers, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation and others — plotted strategy in the wake of Republican electoral defeat. Did they talk about rethinking ideas that voters had soundly rejected? No, they talked extortion, insisting that the threat of a shutdown would induce President Obama to abandon health reform.

This was crazy talk. After all, health reform is Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement. You’d have to be completely clueless to believe that he could be bullied into giving up his entire legacy by a defeated, unpopular G.O.P. — as opposed to responding, as he has, by making resistance to blackmail an issue of principle. But the possibility that their strategy might backfire doesn’t seem to have occurred to the would-be extortionists.

Even more remarkable, in its way, was the response of House Republican leaders, who didn’t tell the activists they were being foolish. All they did was urge that the extortion attempt be made over the debt ceiling rather than a government shutdown. And as recently as last week Eric Cantor, the majority leader, was in effect assuring his colleagues that the president will, in fact, give in to blackmail. As far as anyone can tell, Republican leaders are just beginning to suspect that Mr. Obama really means what he has been saying all along.

More Doom: Don't Cry for Boehner

Josh Marshall sees our current constitutional crisis as the public manifestation of John Boehner's weakness - the weakness of his situation and the weakness of his character.

This weakness has made him unable to control the forces Ted Cruz and the Tea Party (AKA, the Koch Machine), have loosed. Such men are dangerous, especially in times of chaos and incipient catastrophe.

The key though, again, is that Boehner is personally weak and situationally weak. He's afraid of what House Tea Partiers will do to him if he relents. So he's hoping that if he plays for time and takes the country right up to the brink of catastrophe some other option might become available. And yet Boehner is weak. The Tea Party's ability to push him further and further in their direction is testament to that. So at the last moment, does he really assert his power? I think it's very questionable that he has it in him. The forces he's trying to ride are much bigger than he is. There's good chance he simply won't be able to apply the brakes. It's just not in him.

Drumbeat of Doom/Crossing the Streams

Kevin Drum notes the Administration's surprisingly lackadasical approach to warning of the hazards of default. Jack Lew was on MTP yesterday and could hardly be bothered to look worried about default.

It's true that Lew took a pretty low-key approach, despite host Savannah Guthrie's best efforts. "Are you talking catastrophe?" she asked. Lew wouldn't bite, so then she gave him another chance. "It would be calamitous for the economy?" Still no bite! "It would be very bad," was the worst Lew could summon up.

That's pretty soporific, all right. The problem, I assume, is that Lew is in an impossible situation. Breaching the debt ceiling would be pretty calamitous, but Treasury secretaries have an obligation not to panic markets with loose talk. Backbench congressmen, by contrast, can say anything they think might get them a few minutes on the evening news.

Maybe it is time to try to panic the markets a bit. Something is needed to get Boehner off the dime. Maybe something of the order of:

Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light...........Dr. Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters, the real one.

Because they are really going to panic nine days from now.

Blame Canada - MoDo's Thunderdome

MoDo takes a dystopian look at a 2084 where Koch brothers drones patrol the skies of a ruined Capital. She blames that Canadian/Cuban terrorist:

“Well, son, they knew there was something creepy about the ringleader, Ted Cruz,” the man replies. “His face looked pinched, like a puzzle that had not been put together quite right. He was always launching into orations with a weird cadence and self-consciously throwing folksy phrases into his speeches, like ‘Let me tell ya,’ to make himself seem Texan, when he was really a Canadian.”

The boy looks alarmed. “A Canadian destroyed the world, Papa?”

“Once the government shut down, a plague came, because they had closed the Center for Disease Control,” the man says. “Storms, floods and wildfires raged after FEMA was closed down and the National Guard got decimated.

Us Versus Them

It's a well established principle of evolution that members of a species don't just compete against other species but, more importantly, against other members of the same species. At some point, humans managed to transfer much of this competition from individual versus individual to group against group. It's not a peculiarly human invention - Chimpanzees do the same thing. Male Chimps are stuck in the band they were born in. Transfer to the neighboring band is not an option.

Transferring competition from the individual level to the group level requires some kinds of walls to be drawn around the group. In our own culture we see echoes of that in style, uniforms, "colors" and gang signs. In a more primordial setting there are all the marks of culture that distinguish one society from another: language, territory, dress, adornment, family organization and so on.

Human cultures appear to be much more different from each other than purely accidental choices would seem to predict. I think that this is due to the fact that these cultural traits are designed to be walls - walls that keep some in and others out. Endogamy rules are one of the starker realizations of this idea.

About three thousand years ago, says Prof. Harari, a radical development appeared in human culture - the notion of a universal "us." Many factors of technology and culture acted to propagate this new notion, but he gives priority to three: money, empire, and universal religions. I don't think it would be a mistake to add trade and communication, though all these factors are interrelated. Together they act to destroy old cultures and fashion a new one.

Of course walls are hardly useful unless they have some structural strength, so cultural resistance to disintegration can be fierce. The result is a global meta-culture, a sort of mixture of of partially dissolved cultures of all sorts, each trying to preserves some of its identity in an aggressively dissociative universal acid.

Some of my correspondents claim that the physical manifestations of cultural identity are a lot less important than certain differences of attitude and mental state. I have asked for (but haven't received) short lists of unshared attitudes and mental states, but even granting that there are such, it's hard for me to accept that these, so variable among individuals and even in the same individual, trump the concrete realizations of individuals attitudes. The work one does, the kinds of clothes one wears, the foods one eats, the way one chooses ones mate all reflect very fundamental aspects of our attitudes and identities.

The Man in the Dynamite Waistcoat

If you walk into a bank wearing a bunch of explosives, your strategy for making a large unauthorized withdrawal depends on convincing the bank that you really are nuts enough to blow yourself up. Thus we have Republican Congressman Ted Yoho of Florida.

Annie Lowrey ✔ @AnnieLowrey Ted Yoho (R-FL) on breaching the debt ceiling: “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets.” …

Josh Marshall:

There many roots of this crisis. Demographic, ideological, regional, some parts tied to accidents of history (the existence of the debt ceiling itself), others to the structure of our government. But I think most people, as crazy as this looks, are underestimating the scope of the crisis we're in the midst of. The pieces are in place to resolve the matter quickly, in the narrow sense of the votes. But the House Tea Party (and it really does look more like a distinct party or faction at this point) is forcing the matter, despite having well under a hundred seats in the House. Behind them they have an aggrieved GOP base and sustaining them the vast tranches of money provided by the Kochs and other top GOP mega-funders. John Boehner, not structurally in the sense of his office or position but personally, is simply too weak a figure to avert what's coming. Get ready.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Republican Air Superiority

Watched John Boehner lie his ass off on ABC's This Morning. What the hell is wrong with Obama that he didn't have people out there doing a point by point refutation? Do the networks just automatically schedule Republicans or is Obama really just not paying attention? Speaking of not paying attention, why are the health care exchanges functioning so poorly? Who did they contract with to implement them? Charles and David Koch?

What's a Superpower to Do?

Suppose that you've been spending more on your military for twenty years than your ten or twenty possible rivals combined, most of whom are your allies or at least not actively hostile. This is the problem Rome faced around the start of the first millenium BC, and the US faces today. Rome concentrated its energies on tearing itself apart as rival oligarchs fought for power.

Being the world's policeman turns out to be very expensive. Forcible reshaping of the world in your image is also pretty difficult. We've tried both, with limited, but hardly zero success. An extremely expensive war and reconstruction turned Germany and Japan into functioning democracies hard to tell from their older counterparts in the West. Another costly effort worked in South Korea.

Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all notable but hardly total failures - though in Vietnam we had to lose badly to get an approximation of what we wanted all along. Attempts to intervene in Libya and serve as a cheerleader in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria have been miserable failures.

Syria is practically a poster boy for all the ways that meddling can go wrong. Faced with a purely indigenous popular revolt against a vicious tyrant, it's hard not to sympathize with rebels. Unfortunately, the man behind the curtain, AKA Israel, was fairly happy with the tyrant, and even happier with a Syria tearing itself apart. We chose, I think, one of the worst options, publically siding with the rebels but giving them only token and ineffective aid. Naturally this angered everybody involved and probably multiplied the bloodshed.

Suppose we had intervened decisively and early to crush Assad. What would we wind up owning, besides the satisfaction of sending one more jerk to oblivion? That was the puzzle nobody could give a happy answer to. More civil war, rule by Shiites sympathetic to Iran, or yet another failed state?

From the 1000 mile high perspective, the turmoil in the Islamic world is just part of the collision of that world with modernity. In the meantime, the people there, and the rest of us, will continue to live in interesting times.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Looking Weak

Watched an argument over Syria between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly. I'm surprised to admit it, but Bill was right. O'Reilly's point was that Obama's red line and his shilly-shallying after it was breached made him look weak. Stewart said he didn't care how it looked, as long as we avoided conflict. He couldn't seem to grasp the point that looking weak has costs. The Republicans tried their shutdown stunt because Obama looked weak in past confrontations at home and abroad. Syria probably dared to use chemical weapons because the US - and Obama - looked weak.

Stewart said something like "is this high school?"

Well duh, Jon. Political and international conflict are like high-school, or better, like The Godfather, because there aren't any teacherss to enforce discipline. Study some history. See how the world works.

It's a bit odd that Obama has this weak streak. One of the most memorable things in his book, Dreams from My Father, was the story of how his stepfather told him that the worst thing a man could be was weak. I'm pretty sure he is extremely mentally tough internally, but sometimes it can be even more important how you appear.

Scary Smart Blankety-Blank

The CW on Ted may be changing a bit. Never mind that second modifier.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

My Current Guru

I have taken some flack for arguing that the direction of history is to unification of culture. Like many arguments, a lot of this comes to definition of terms. I have been accused of a simple-minded Americanism in this attitude. Perhaps, but what I'm trying to communicate is the vision of an Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, the teacher of the A Brief History of Humankind MOOC. If my critics wish to understand the power of his arguments, they should probably just view the lectures.

The central argument of the current lectures is that the world has essentially been unified. Ten thousand years ago there were tens of thousands of essentially autonomous cultures. Today there are none. 500 years ago there was one big meta-culture, Afro-Asia, and four medium sized ones, (Andean, Meso-American, Pacific, and Australian), and hundreds of very small and isolated cultures.

He likes cuisine as an example. 515 years ago there were no chili peppers in Indian Cusisine, no tomatoes in Italian cooking, no chocolate in Switzerland, and no potatoes in Ireland. A thousand years ago, there was little notion of the nation state, but now everybody lives in one.

What produced this change? Technology is obviously one factor, but he selects three: money, empire, and universal religions (especially Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam).

One point he makes is that the scale on which unification is best observed is millenia, not centuries. It's obvious that local differences in culture still exist of course, but they seem minor to me, and I think to him. Other cultural unity examples exist in economics, medicine, and technology.

Tora! Tora! Tora!

We heard today that a woman driving a black Infiniti rammed security barriers approaching the White House, fled, and was shot to death by Capitol police. She had a one year-old child in the car.

I wonder what the odds are that she made a wrong turn, then panicked and fled when a bunch of cops started running at her with drawn guns, hitting a security barrier and a cop as she tried to flee.

Absent a motive, we might never know.

UPDATE: Given her history of mental illness, and some new details, the scenario above looks unlikely.

Job Opportunity

Were you a high achieving STEM student in a top ten school (No Sons of Eli please)? Did you really love the college dorm experience? Do you miss it like crazy? Facebook might have a place for you.


The Dread Pirate Roberts was apparently captured in the science fiction section of a San Francisco library.

To me that's a lot more satisfying ending to a tale of modern Drug Lordery than the improbably and excessively satisfying ending of Breaking Bad. The trouble with Walter White's redemption was that the suddenly compassionate and introspective WW of "Felina" doesn't accord well with the incredibly cold-bloodedly sadistic guy who poisoned Brock and let Jane die. Of course the McGiver stuff was still cute. Thanks to his tip, though, Lydia ought to survive with the help of modern medicine and antidotes: ingested ricin is a lot less poisonous than it is when injected or inhaled.

DPR, the bitcoin master of the Silk Road should be fodder for some kind of a story. Though he doesn't seem to have killed anybody personally, he apparently did try to put a hit on a blackmailer.

What is Culture?

Culture is one of those pluripotent words with a hundred meanings, but mostly I talk about culture in the anthropological sense - that is, the collection of shared behaviors and beliefs that unify a society and promote its survival. If we want to understand an animal's behavior, we need to start with very fundamental questions: how does it make its living, choose its mates, raise its young. The same questions apply to people, but whereas for other animals of the same species there is pretty much a one size fits all answer for all the animals of the species, that's not the case for humans. There are no tigers that farm, or make a living as accountants, or practicing law.

Chimpanzee societies all look pretty much alike, ditto societies of wolves. Cultural elements, or learned behaviors peculiar to one or another such society are not common nor particularly important. The opposite is true of human societies. Ways of making a living, choosing mates, and even raising young vary greatly. Wolf and Chimpanzee calls are limited and apparently more or less universal, but H. sapiens has a plethora of rich and complicated languages. Shared and learned behaviors are central to the business of being a human.

The emphasis on learned behaviors is so great in human societies that culture is an enormous and intricate structure. For me, the most important elements are those fundamental ones: how people make thier living, choose their mates, rasise their young. Hunter gatherer societies disintegrate when they stop hunting and gathering and start taking jobs doing something else, and buying food at the trading post or grocery. Agricultural societies transform when most of the population stops farming. Sophisticated civilizations are a more complex case, since they already are typified by a wide variety of ways of making a living and other types of diversity - they can tolerate and incorporate a fair amount of change.

In China, Mao and the Communists set out to destroy the old civilization and culture and replace it by one that existed only in the imaginations of Marx and Lenin. The former goal was achieved, but only in part, and the latter failed utterly. A new order eventually took shape, but it is a curious hybrid, mostly of Western style industrialism with some unique elements that are either inherited or invented.