Friday, November 28, 2014


Kip Thorne has written a book on the science of the movie: The Science of Interstellar. But I still have some scientific quibbles. For example:

If NASA could produce the ranger and lander craft that navigate through big gravitational fields and land on and return from planets with gravitational field comparable to Earth, how come it took years and a three stage rocket to get out of Earth into orbit?

Also, maybe instead of spending all their special effects budget on making black holes realistic enough for Kip, they could have made their planets slightly less cheesy than the Star Trekie ones they used.

Libertarian Fable Meets Human History

There is a certain libertarian fable, invented or popularized by Bryan Caplan, that goes like so:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can't produce any food at all.

Much of human prehistory resembles this situation in several critical respects. When hunters started killing large game, one or a few hunters out of a larger group might, on any given day, produce many more calories of available food than the whole rest of the group combined. Out of the ten or so adult male hunters in a typical band, one may be consistently quite a bit better than the others - almost an Able Able. Given the accidents of existence, there may also be a Hapless Harry in the group.

Caplan goes on to ask some questions:

1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

I think it's interesting to note how human hunter-gather groups have dealt with their (imperfectly analogous but realistic) situations.

Question 1 gets answered with an empathetic yes for large kills. Smaller scale food collection belongs to the collector. Fruits of cooperative activities are shared. Major cheating is punished drastically.

Question 2. Depending on the severity and permanence of Harry's haplessness, he will be either supported by the group he may be abandoned, humanely eliminated, or supported. If Able chooses to be stingy with Harry he will be punished but not likely executed or banished, but should he become injured, his stinginess will not be forgotten.

Q 3. The answer of history: hell yes for Hunter gatherers. Farmers, not so much.

Q 4. No for HGs. But farming led to slavery.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

For Shame

Man is the Only Animal that blushes. Or needs to.......................Mark Twain, Following the Equator.

Mark Twain's witticism poses a fundamental question for evolutionary biology: What was the circumstance that impelled and produced this unique adaptation? Darwin himself thought deeply about it, and wrote letters to naturalists around the world to ask if people everywhere did in fact blush - they do.

Humans are also unique in their extra-familial generosity, or altruism. Christopher Boehm draws a straight line between these behaviors, and believes that they connect directly with our ability to cooperate in large groups. The evolutionary pressure against altruistic behavior, whether it involves giving money to support some child in a different country or going to war to defend your country, are huge. Free riders: cheaters, draft dodgers, etc.,(the Dick Cheneys, George W. Bushes, et. al.) get a big advantage out their free ride. Without active suppression of free riding, large scale cooperation does not seem possible.

Boehm speculates that active suppression of free riders, who at first were probably just bullies, arose with hunting of large game, something a lone human with crude weapons can hardly accomplish. Such suppression was probably violent, just as it has been in recent hunter-gatherers, and favored those who could internalize society's rules. That internalization software and hardware became the "conscience" - the basis of our sense of shame.

Of course some people lack that sense of shame - the Nietzschean and Randian "Supermen" - perhaps better described as Superchimps, since they are really just slightly upgraded chimpanzees, lacking in some of the critical faculties that made us human. Usually, though, we just call them sociopaths.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Easterner: Part II (Repost)

Guagina made her way elegantly across the hardwood floor. Even with her thong and pasties covered with the fawn and blue track suit, she was impressive, 5' 11" in bare feet, plus three inch heels topped by a cloud of flame red hair. She was on a delicate diplomatic mission.

The bar was empty, except for her, Lefty the one-armed barkeep, and Les. A few days in the humid atmosphere of the bar had allowed the cowpies to absorb water, beer, spit, and tobacco juice, and they were beginning to support ecosystems of their own. Lefty was losing his shirt, but at the moment was more concerned about his remaining limbs. Gaugina wasn't making any tips either.

"Hey Les, what's up with Britt?"

"She's still in El Paso. She's got the money to bail her Mom out, but Grandma wants to wait while Marjean detoxes a bit."

OK, Killer hadn't bitten her head off. She delicately broached the subject of Super-Conformal field theories. Les responded immediately, almost eagerly. He was bored as hell and he thought Guagina might provide some ammo for use against the Easterner.

Guagina had spent eight months as a postdoc in the MIT theory group before deciding to seek a more financially and culturally rewarding career.

Les had more questions than usual, and even seemed to be on the verge of comprehending the connection between space-time and worldsheet supersymmetry, so she shifted right to the point.

"That goddamn cowshit is stinking up the place and driving off all the customers. It's not even good for throwing anymore - it's lost its structural integrity."

Les glowered a bit, then: "Lefty, get this goddamn cowshit out of here. And clean up the f****** pool table. Get some more, and stack it outside this time, in the Sun."


Dusty had been in town for more than a week, and had yet to make a move.

In fact, he had hardly moved at all. The journey had been brutally hard, especially that last 800 miles through the howling sandstorm. He had been sand-blasted, wind-blasted, sun-blasted, gypsum-blasted, and hailstoned. He had been hit by tumbleweeds, windlofted goatheads, and even a couple of beer cans thrown by pickup truck passengers. Large chunks of flesh had been slashed by dried flying mesquite branches. A lesser man would have quit. A better bicyclist would have beaten the sandstorm.

Something might have snapped in Dusty when he passed that "Welcome to Las Cruces" sign. He was exhausted, dehydrated, starved, and largely deracinated. Somewhere inside, a "Mission Accomplished" banner had been slapped up, and he couldn't even remember what the mission had been.

We can only speculate as to what his fate might have been had he not been taken in by a kindly family of evangelical gun rights advocates. Among them, and among the congregation of the Natural Rights of Americans (or NRA) Church he thought, at least for a while, that he had found ideological soulmates. Together, they prayed for President Cheney, Presidential Cheerleader Bush, and the unmoved mover (Exxon Mobile).

The NRA church encouraged audience participation, and Dusty soon became a popular figure with his fiery sermons against Communism, socialism, liberalism, climate doomsayers and Loop Quantum Gravity. OK, maybe nobody had any idea what the hell he was talking about most of the time, but he said what he said with God intoxicated passion.


(to be continued?)


Recently there has been a spate of articles and other interest in the fact that Asians need a lot higher SAT scores, on average, to get into Harvard than whites. In effect, there seems to be a quota, about 15%, for Asian students. This is reminiscent of similar quotas for Jews a half century ago. If one looks at the population of students with the highest academic performance and test scores, there are a lot more Asians and Jews than their proportions in the US population.

Caltech, perhaps the only US university in this class that practices race blind admissions, has a student population that is about 40% Asian. Harvard claims 20% Asian for 2013, 12% African-American, and 13% Hispanic. Hillel, the Jewish student organization, says that 25% of the Harvard undergrads are Jewish. If we take all these statistics at face value, that leaves 30% for others, most of whom must be non-Hispanic, non-Jewish whites, who are consequently drastically under-represented compared to their proportion of the population.

One view of the problem is that the distribution of high achieving students is a lot different than the distribution of the overall population, with Asian and Jewish students being highly over-represented, whites somewhat under-represented and Hispanics and Blacks even more under-represented. If Harvard admitted purely on the basis of academic credentials, it would be mostly Asian and Jewish, with a large minority of non-Hispanic, non-Jewish whites, and hardly any Hispanics or Blacks.

Whether that is desirable is a question for Harvard, and perhaps the larger populace, to consider, but the point is that you can't be purely meritocratic and racially balanced.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Easterner: Repost

I noticed recently that Lumo had me blacklisted from his blog, so I thought I might repost this legend from our mutual past:

The slight, exhausted man steps off his bicycle on a dusty Las Cruces street.

His bike tires are flat and encrusted with goatheads. So is his hair. He looks like he has ridden the last 800 miles through a duststorm.

He has.

No matter. He is on a mission of vengence.

He speaks to the first man he meets: "I'm looking for a pig."

"No hablo Ingles."

He tries again on the next guy, a wiry guy in a Stetson and cowboy boots.

"Sorry, this is cattle country. Cattle and goats."

"A Capitalist Pig."

Stetson: "We don't hold much with Communists here boy. You sound like one of them European Commies. Just what is your business here anyway, and do you have a green card? What's your name anyway? The avenger tells him.

Boots and Stetson: "Shit! I can't pronounce that, much less spell it. How 'bout if I just call you Dusty. I think I know who you are looking for - a kinda tall, mean, lean customer? We usually just call him killer - not to his face of course. His real name is Leslie, but we don't call him that either. You might want to call him Les, or maybe just CIP - unless you're looking for a fight, that is."

Meanwhile, a couple of miles away in Mesilla, Leslie was sitting on a barstool at the Brass Balls Bistro and Tattoo Parlor. A small stack of empty rock glasses sat in front of him. He was pissed. He had been waiting for the Easterner for weeks. Didn't they know about airplanes in Cambridge? The bartender had run out of Marashino Cherries and was running low on Sasparilla.

Reflexively, he checked his backup weapons: .22 caliber shirtsleeve Derringer, check; shoulder holster, .40 caliber Glock 22, check; revolver, .357 Ruger 100, check; sniper rifle, Steyr-Mannlicher .50 caliber with armor penetrating incendiary rounds, check; automatic shotgun, Berreta AL 391 Urika Gold, check; automatic weapon, M249 SAW, check. The heavy weapons were in the Hummer.

The primary weapon was here, too, piled high on the nearby pool table. 12 dozen field-aged cow patties, neatly stacked and uniformly sized.

Britta, the pole dancer, comes over and starts to massage his muscular shoulders: "Killer Baby, you seem tense. You want to get some re - LAX - ation? Wanta show me your new tatoos?

"Not tonight honey. I must face a man who hates me, or lie a coward, a craven coward, in my grave."

"Whoa - is that from The Virginian?"

"Naw. I think it was High Noon."

Britta and Les had been students in the same film studies class.

(to be continued)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Downtown: Astro FOTD

The center of our galaxy is a happening place - besides the resident kinda-sorta Super Massive Black Hole (3 million solar masses or so, but a piker compared to those in the big elliptical galaxies) - there is a very high density of stars, rampant recent star birth, and dusty clouds of gas. We can't see this stuff in the visible, as only about one visible photon in a trillion makes it way through the dust to us, but other wavelengths penetrate better.

It's a starry starry night there, as stellar density is a million times greater than in our neighborhood. On a dark night, a person of good eyesight on Earth can see about 7000 stars - if you were in the galactic nucleus, you could see millions.

A nice place to visit, perhaps, but you wouldn't want to live there. O supergiants are bound to go supernova soon, and the radiation from the BH and other hot stuff would make the place pretty uninhabitable.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Alpha Male

Christopher Boehm talks about a cave painting from the early Holocene:

What we see in one is a cluster of ten male archers who seem to be rejoicing in something they have just done as they expressively wave their bows in the air. Lying on the ground some yards away is an inert human male figure who looks almost like a porcupine,62 with exactly ten arrows sticking in him.

That’s all we know for sure, but some speculation is possible.

First, ten archers suggests a band of perhaps forty, which would be a bit larger than average today, but well within the central tendencies already discussed. Elsewhere in Spain, two similar depictions show three and six archers, respectively, so the overall average would be about six, which seems to be right at the average for contemporary foragers—even though with such a small sample size, this is merely suggestive. Second, with the killings done unanimously and at short range, this would appear to be an instance of execution within the band, rather than a very lopsided act of killing between bands. We can’t be sure, but the appearance of this event three times suggests that it could have been an execution scene similar to the “communal” one described by Richard Lee for the Bushmen, where a serial killer was “porcupined” by his group.

Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (p. 158). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

H-G don't execute one of their band lightly, so it usually takes a serious offense to provoke it. One crime that will provoke it, if persistent and blatant, is "big man behavior" - acting like an Alpha Male. Rigorous egalitarianism is the rule in mobile HG societies, and violations of this ethos can be fatal. Chimpanzee bands, on the other hand, always have an alpha male.

Social Coherence

A week ago or so Lee asked the following question:

So just for fun, do you care to speculate about what the evolutionary basis for strongly held beliefs in humans may be? Social coherence? It doesn't seem to me that strongly held beliefs need to reflect some sort of underlying reality in order to accomplish whatever their evolutionary role is.

This question has been percolating in my head, and I have communed with Boehm's Moral Origins, and I'm now ready to speculate. Hunter-gatherer communities, the essential proto-human societies spend a lot of time and energy in social talk, talk devoted to discussing and propagating how people are behaving and should behave. This talk performs the central function of defining and enforcing moral communities - the shared systems of belief and behavior that make possible the extraordinary human capabilities for cooperating in large groups. A good case can be made that the existence of these moral communities is the fundamental difference between humans and our animal relatives, and the reason we have gone from being an obscure African ape to dominating the planet.

The most serious crimes in such communities are crimes that undermine social cohesion and the altruistic cooperative behavior that makes it possible. Social cohesion requires a very substantial shared belief system, so anti-social behavior of any sort is highly suspect. A friend of mine, an archaeologist who had lived for some time among so Peruvian Indians, mentioned that he had once asked his best friend among them why after a long time association and working together, many of the Indians still didn't seem to trust him.

"Most people think you are a [certain kind of witch who steals children and turns them into butter]", the friend replied.

How could they think that?

It seems that his habit of taking long walks by himself was the key cause for suspicion. This kind of preference for solitude was so unnatural that it made him highly suspect.

Back to Lee's question. Maybe the evolutionary pressure is not so much for beliefs strongly held, even in the face of evidence, but for consistency of belief. Birds of a feather may flock together, or not, but people have a strong impulse to attach themselves to real and imagined moral communities, and enforce consistent beliefs within them.

It's an essential survival tool for HG bands, but it can be a damn nuisance in an avowed pluralistic society. From another point of view, one might argue that true multiculturalism is impossible magical thinking, and against human nature.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Cosby Show

It surely looks like the cultural icon is a serial rapist. At least I can't see any plausible alternative explanation for the combination of the long string of accusations against him and his response to them.

It disappoints us, but it shouldn't surprise us. The examples of men, and yes, a few women, abusing their power for sexual aggression continue to accumulate: Priests, rabbis, teachers, coaches, entertainers, athletes, executives. At lehree recent US Presidents have been accused of rape, not to mention numerous foreign leaders.

In some ways these victims are victims not just of their predators but of pervasive myths that our society has persuaded itself of - myths that were generated in order to redress some old grievances. Not so many generations ago it was widely assumed that women alone in a world of men were chickens in a fox coop - or goldfish in the piranha tank - and that a woman alone needed a chaperone. Feminists quite rightly complained that such rules were used to oppress women and deny them opportunities, but they also seem to have assumed quite wrongly that complaining about men behaving badly would be an effective deterrent to the sorts of bad behavior that the old system aimed to prevent.

I don't buy the extreme notion that all men are rapists just waiting for an unsuspecting victim, but history and crime statistics show that a very significant percentage are. It's not implausible that men drawn to aggressive and dominant behavior - athletes, soldiers, politicians - are more likely perps, but there are plenty of priests and teachers on the prowl too.

Women in the military are very likely to be raped or molested. This was a predictable (and predicted) consequence of the extensive integration of women into more forward elements of the military. Once again, these victims are victims not just of their predators but also of magical thinking - the assumption that just because some rearrangement of society looks more just, things can be arranged that way.

I think that the "blank slate" view of human nature is also at fault here - the assumption that people can be molded to behave according to some ideal that someone has. Human nature is powerfully and extensively shaped by our genes. Refusal to acknowledge that has real consequences - though it does give feminists plenty of things to whine about.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Peter Woit Reviews The Imitation Game

And he's not best pleased.

The final high profile production, one promoted at the Silicon Valley ceremony, should be The Imitation Game, a film based on the life of Alan Turing, to be released on November 28th. I had the chance to attend a preview screening last night, featuring a Q and A with the film’s screenwriter. The short version of a review is: go to see this is you like watching Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley perform, but if you want to know anything about Turing, avoid the film and spend your money instead on a copy of the new edition of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

Turing is one of the most important people in the development of computer science and big chunks of mathematics, and a fascinating and tragic figure. His true story is extremely interesting, so it is, as Peter says, a shame that they made a boring and trite fictional story instead of the real and fascinating story.

Rape Camp

Your smart and talented daughter turns eighteen, so it's time for college. Should she go to the Ivy League rape camp that costs a nice Mercedes/yr to attend or the the State U version that can be had for a Ford Fusion/yr?

OK, it's not quite that bad, but Jed Rubenfeld argues in the NYT that US colleges are doing a terrible job at preventing rape and getting worse at it.

How many rapes occur on our campuses is disputed. The best, most carefully controlled study was conducted for the Department of Justice in 2007; it found that about one in 10 undergraduate women had been raped at college.

But because of low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality, and fear they won’t be believed, only a minuscule percentage of college women who are raped — perhaps only 5 percent or less — report the assault to the police. Research suggests that more than 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by a relatively small percentage of college men — possibly as few as 4 percent — who rape repeatedly, averaging six victims each. Yet these serial rapists overwhelmingly remain at large, escaping serious punishment.

Much of his argument has to do with the fact that Universities are lousy at trying rape cases and shouldn't be in that business.

Forced by the federal government, colleges have now gotten into the business of conducting rape trials, but they are not competent to handle this job. They are simultaneously failing to punish rapists adequately and branding students sexual assailants when no sexual assault occurred.

Another target is the so-called affirmative consent notion taking hold on some campuses.

According to an idealized concept of sexual autonomy, which has substantial traction on college campuses today, sex is truly and freely chosen only when an individual unambiguously desires it under conditions free of coercive pressures, intoxication and power imbalances. In the most extreme version of this view, many acts of seemingly consensual sex are actually rape. Catherine A. MacKinnon took this position in 1983 when she argued that rape and ordinary sexual intercourse were “difficult to distinguish” under conditions of “male dominance.”

Today’s college sex policies are nowhere near so extreme, but they are motivated by a similar ideal of sexual autonomy. You see this ideal in play when universities tell their female students that if they say yes under the influence of alcohol, it’s still rape. You see it in Duke’s 2009 regulations, under which sex could be deemed coercive if there were “power differentials” between the students, “real or perceived.” You also see it in the new “affirmative” sexual consent standards, like the one recently mandated in California, or in Yale’s new policy, according to which sexual assault includes any sexual contact to which someone has not given “positive,” “specific” and “unambiguous” consent.

It is not the role of colleges, he says, to define, judge, or punish rape, but they should be responsible for preventing it, and he has a number of sensible suggestions to that end. An example:

If colleges are serious about reducing rapes, they need to break the links among alcohol, all-male clubs and campus party life. Ideally, we should lower the drinking age so that staff or security personnel could be present at parties.

In any event, schools need to forcibly channel the alcohol party scene out of all-male clubs and teach students “bystander” prevention — how to intervene when one person appears to be taking sexual advantage of another’s extreme intoxication. At the same time, students need to be told clearly that if they are voluntarily under the influence (but not incapacitated), they remain responsible for their sexual choices.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Moral Communities

Not so long ago, I thought, and likely wrote, that a hunter-gatherer society would be perfect for the libertarian - no laws, no government. Boy was I wrong.

Actually, such communities are governed by very strict moral codes, inculcated by the community, and enforced, if necessary, with the ultimate sanction. A fundamental pillar of these codes is one that would offend every libertarian impulse - mandatory sharing of some crucial goods and resources.

A key fault line in certain moral debates in modern society - for example, gay marriage - is controversy over the impact of changing the rules. Conservatives claim, for example, that gay marriage fundamentally undermines traditional marriage. Progressives mostly consider this claim ridiculous, arguing that it couldn't possibly affect anybody but those involved - namely, gays who would like to marry.

Even though I take the progressive point of view on marriage, I think that the conservatives are fundamentally right as to the effects. Morality is everywhere and always a community concern and highly dependent on a community consensus. Upending community standards on something as fundamental as marriage must inevitably propagate in unpredictable ways through the whole structure of morality.

That doesn't mean that we should cling to every standard of morality we inherited from our grandparents or more distant relatives, or from some old books written a couple of thousand years ago, but it does mean we need to be conscious of the fact that we are tampering with very fundamental underpinnings of society, and we need to be concerned with their implications.

Astro FOTD: Taking Out the Trash

Stars seem to be born in clusters of several hundred or more stars, out of clouds of cool dust and gas with 1000 or so solar masses. This process usually leaves a lot of left over dust and gas, as in the Pleiades cluster:

The Pleiades were born 100 million years or so ago, with the largest stars having recently become blue giants. Notice all the dust reflecting their light.  This is good evidence that the cluster did not produce any stars that have become supernovae - yet anyway.  If it had, they would have swept all that dust (and gas) out.  The largest, brightest stars are about 5 solar masses, probably too small to go super, unless they are part of a binary and go the Type Ia route.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Germans in Fantasy Land

Paul Krugman quoting Wolfgang Munchau:

German economists roughly fall into two groups: those that have not read Keynes, and those that have not understood Keynes.

Krugman adds:

Munchau tells us something I didn’t know, that Ludwig Erhard “once tried to explain the Great Depression in terms of cartels.” In the German economics mindset, there is only microeconomic distortion; macro problems, even in the middle of Europe’s second Great Depression, don’t exist.

How does this end? We have to keep pounding on the issues, and I’m reasonably sure that Draghi and co get it. But with the largest player on the European scene living in a fantasy world, the best guess has to be that nothing much is done until there is complete political crisis, with anti-European nationalists taking over one or more major nations.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Energy, Civilization and the Climate Pessimists

Few things a less rewarding than arguing with people you mostly agree with. Global warming is a good case in point. For those who think it is a major menace, and I'm certainly one of them, urgent action is required. Unfortunately I also believe that many of the Cassandras of AGW have highly unrealistic views of the difficulties and costs involved, views which cause them to advocate for fake solutions that have almost zero chance of working.

The rise of human civilization, the very fact that makes us a profound menace to the planet, is intimately tied to and dependent upon our ability to command more and more energy. The only obvious strategy for combating carbon emissions is to increase the cost of fossil fuel energy relative to alternatives. The easy part, decreasing the cost of some alternatives is only progressing in a few areas, like solar and wind. Others like nuclear are held back mainly by reasonably based but mostly hysterical fear. The hard part, increasing the cost of fossil fuel, is desperately unpopular, and for very good reason.

We have had several examples of rapid rises in fossil fuel prices prompted by wars and geopolitics. Each of these has produced widespread economic devastation: major recessions and inflation in the rich nations, economic collapse and mass catastrophe in poorer nations. This is a purely natural consequence of the direct dependence of economic activity on energy cost and availability.

These costs hit almost every level of society, especially in poor nations without social safety nets or other nations (like the US) with limited safety nets and large built in energy costs. Very significantly, they also affect an extremely influential segment of society, energy rent owners and workers. Those who own fossil resources, ranging from super wealthy individuals to whole nations (Norway, Saudi Arabia, Canada) will bitterly oppose anything that impoverishes them, even slightly. So will the guy who owns a pickup truck.

So I'm a climate pessimist. I think it very likely that very bad things will happen as a result of climate change, but that it's probably going to happen anyway. Though an occasional ray of light like the recent China-US deal makes me hope, for a minute anyway. And technological progress might help too.

Terence Tao on Colbert

Terry Tao was on The Colbert Report the other day - I'm not sure why. Tao is one of the most distinguished living mathematicians as well as a famous prodigy (he scored a 760 on the Math portion of the SAT at age eight). He and Colbert discussed twin primes, cousin primes, and sexy primes though not much light was shed.

At one point during the discussion of primes, after a few twins had been mentioned (5-7, 11-13) Tao said the number twenty-seven, and stopped. He didn't say anything about the number twenty-seven, which of course is not prime, but the mere mention reminded me of the legend of the Grothendieck "prime", fifty-seven. Grothendieck, the story goes, had been teaching a class where he had been talking about "consider a prime" when a student asked for an example. Well, OK, the story goes, Grothendieck picked 57.

(Which, of course, is 3 x 19.)


Peter Woit reports that Alexander Grothendieck, one of the greatest mathematicians of the Twentieth Century, has died at age 86. He has links to a number of stories about Grothendieck - here is a fragment of a superb one by Grothendieck's friend and colleague Pierre Cartier:

Grothendieck’s journey? A childhood devastated by Nazism and its crimes, a father who was absent in his early years and then disappeared in the storm, a mother who kept him in her orbit and long disturbed his relationships with other women. He compensated for this with a frantic investment in mathematical abstraction until psychosis, kept at bay through this very involvement, caught up with him and swallowed him in morbid anguish.

Grothendieck is difficult to categorize. Like Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, and many other mathematicians, he was obsessed with the notion of space. But his originality lay in deepening of the concept of a geometric point.1 Such research may seem trifling, but the metaphysical stakes are considerable; the philosophical problems it engenders are still far from solved. In its ultimate form, this research, Grothendieck’s proudest, revolved around the concept of a motive, or pattern, viewed as a beacon illuminating all the incarnations of a given object through their various ephemeral cloaks. But this concept also represents the point at which his incomplete work opened to a void. Grothendieck’s idiosyncrasy prompted him fully to accept this flaw. Most scientists are somewhat keener to erase their footprints from the sand, silence their fantasies and dreams, and devote themselves to the statue within, as François Jacob puts it.

Cartier also has an introduction to some of Grothendieck's most important work, including some tantalizing hints of a connection between quantum mechanics and the deepest aspects of Grothendieck's conception of the mathematical point - unfortunately, most of the air up there is too thin for me to breathe. Another excerpt:

...The answer, inspired by Zariski’s work, was simple and elegant: the scheme of an algebraic variety is the collection of local rings of the sub-varieties found inside the rational function field. There is no need for an explicit topology, a point of distinction between Chevalley and Serre, who at roughly the same time introduced his algebraic varieties using Zariski topologies and sheaves. Each of the two approaches had advantages, but also limitations: Serre had an algebraically closed base field; Chevalley had to work only with irreducible varieties. In both cases, the two fundamental problems of products of varieties and base change could only be approached indirectly. All the same, Chevalley’s point of view was better suited to future extensions to arithmetic, as Nagata soon observed.

Évariste Galois was certainly the first to notice the polarity between equations and their solutions. One must distinguish between the domain in which coefficients of the algebraic equation are chosen and the domain in which solutions are sought. Grothendieck created a synthesis out of these ideas, based in essence on the conceptual presentation of Zariski-Chevalley-Nagata. Schemes are thus a way of encoding systems of equations as well as the transformations to which one may subject them.

For those who don't speak the language - and I myself only understand tiny fragments - this may seem like abstract nonsense, but in addition to probing how very real world mathematical problems can be solved, this work also speaks very deeply to ways the human mind can represent reality.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Old King Coal

Eli Rabett has taught me a lot about global warming, so I hate to quibble with his analysis of economics and the climate future, but I do think he has some wrong ideas here: Mostly I think he wants to bash Lomborg and others who say the world can't afford to deal with climate yet - mainly because the poor countries need coal and other ceap fossil fuels for development.


First, climate change underway today mostly hurts the poor. It is clear that any assessment shows that the countries that are going to be most hurt by climate change are the poorest countries. Every attempt at an integrated assessment model, the IPCC reports and more shows this. By opposing immediate action on climate change Lomborg, Pileke (sic) and Ridley are hurting the poorest.

The proposition, I think, does not follow from the premise. The rich nations of the world all developed their economies using cheap energy from coal and later, other fossil fuels. China and several other rapidly developing nations are currently doing the same. The people of Bangla Desh and South Beach are both threatened by rising ocean levels. The South Beachers have much better prospects because the have a lot more money. Wealth brings options.

Almost all agree that the worst effects of climate change are in medium to distant future, as measured in terms of a human lifespan. Forty years of economic progress at the rate China has achieved would give the people of Bangla Desh some important options.

Some more Eli:

Second, fossil fuel as an energy source is characterized by relatively low capital costs and high operational costs. Wind, solar, hydro and nuclear the reverse. If fools like Lomborg and Ridley really wanted to help the poors they would be advocating for donation by the developed world to carry those initial capital costs and increased energy efficiency so the poors were not subject to eternal thralldom under the coal and oil industry.

Eli is a professorial rabett, so presumably he has spent his life in the ivory tower which could explain not being quite up to speed as to how the world works. "[A]dvocating for donation by the developed world to carry initial capital costs..." is a strategy with a history and prospect of success somewhat worse than praying for rain. Extracting the necessary trillions from the personal pockets of Eli, me and many others both more and less fortunate than us is not a program with potential popular appeal. If the world really believed that the initial capital costs could be retrieved in energy efficiency, hard eyed accountants would be telling their investors to rush in - they aren't.

If they could agree among themselves, the world might force the Bangla Deshes to adopt less carbon intensive economy by adopting punitive import taxes. Such taxes would be extremely painful for the present day citizens of Bangla Desh, with the only certain benefit for future citizens therein being that many more of them would fail to survive to adulthood to experience the climate horrors to come.

My larger point is that preventing climate change requires a vast network of enforcement mechanisms which will have big costs for a lot of people - big upfront costs that may or may not ever be recovered. As Eli might just remember from when he paid for the solar power system for his house - assuming that he has done that.

A Forthright Democratic Challenge

A Forthright Democratic Challenge

The Democrats have been strongly and rightly criticized for not having a program to sell in the 2014 elections. The Republicans have been pushing pretty much the same program for the last half-century – government is the problem, and low taxes are the cure. They haven’t been especially consistent in applying these principles, but they have been consistent in advocating them, especially for the past 35 years.

The Democratic Party response has been an uncertain trumpet indeed. Much of the Party has been focused on the claims of special interest groups whose agendas are remote from or inimical to those of many other Americans – Blacks, Gays, immigrants, environmentalists and single urban women. They have been paralyzed by the conflicts between the demands of those groups, who form the base of Party, and their conflicts with the priorities of other Americans. Moreover, the hoped for future of the Party among the young doesn’t vote.

There is no particular mystery about how you build and weld together coalitions of diverse interests – you have to appeal to their common interests. If there is one overwhelming issue that unites most of the Democratic base with the rest of America, it is the economy. Yes, it still is the stupid economy. So how does one at once advance a popular agenda and differentiate oneself from the Republicans? Step one, you need to forthrightly attack the Republican agenda, and figure out how to blame them for all the things wrong with the economy – most of which they really are to blame for, though Dems certainly collaborated on some of them. The big Republican claim was that cutting back government would put more money in the hands of the “job creators,” supposedly benefitting all. In fact, the money saved did go overwhelmingly to rich people and corporations, but the jobs they created were mostly in China and other low wage countries or else in European yacht shipyards. The US economy has grown, and the very rich have gotten very much richer, but almost nobody else in the US has done well.

The government cutbacks have meant that US roads, railways, telecommunications, education, and healthcare have lost a great deal of ground compared to our overseas rivals. Our best universities are still the World’s best, but the rest of higher education has suffered greatly from financial cutbacks. Meanwhile, the new cheaper government has produced a generation of graduates with mountainous debts that prevent them from forming families or starting businesses. Similar stories exist in crumbling highways, dilapidated schools, unsafe bridges and railroad crossings and our increasingly archaic internet access – a despicable shame here where the internet was invented.

The vast economic progress of the fifties, sixties, and seventies was built, in part, on government investment in people and infrastructure – the GI bill, the Interstate Highway System, and more – and at that, while top bracket income taxes were above 90%. A world class economic infrastructure is needed to compete in today’s world, including a highly educated and healthy workforce as well as good highways, harbors and airports; telecommunications networks, and a vigorous national research program. Where industry cannot or will not invest in critical needs, the government must. These principles have been at the center of US economic development for a century and a half, and Republican lies to the contrary can’t be allowed to go unchallenged.

The American people’s continuing faith in Social Security, Medicare, and Public Schools and numerous other public institutions amply demonstrates that they don’t believe the big lie that the “government is always the problem, not the solution.” This lie needs to be aggressively challenged.

A program that would build our human and technological capital, while at the same time aggressively working to reduce impediments to entrepreneurship needs to be articulated as a coherent whole, not a patchwork of rewards for special interests.

Friday, November 07, 2014


One disadvantage of retirement is that I no longer get holidays off.

The Store

I stopped at my local Big Box to pick up some peanut butter and paper towels.

Cost me about $200.00

I might have gotten some gas - cheap today - and a few other things that weren't on my list.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Those Good Old Days

Were politics more civil in the good old days? Rick Perlstein on the Republican Convention of of 1976 (Ford vs. Reagan):

The vice president of the United States had spotted a Mormon preacher from Utah who’d invaded the space of the New York delegation and was bearing a “Reagan Country” sign. “With an adolescent grin on his face,” said Texas Monthly, Rockefeller snatched the offending sign from the minister’s hands.


The Utah Reagan leader, Douglas Bischoff, chased after Rockefeller to retrieve his placard. He and New York GOP chairman Rosie Rosenbaum scuffled. Rockefeller claimed to have overheard someone say “if he didn’t get that sign back he was going to rip out the phone”— and, presently, the white phone connecting the New York delegation to the Ford command trailer in the parking lot was indeed ripped out while the chairman held the receiver to his ear , surrounded by a crush of reporters attempting to overhear him.

“I want that man arrested!” Rosenbaum yelled as Bischoff attempted unsuccessfully to scuttle down an aisle ahead of the Secret Service agents, who apprehended him for questioning beneath the stands. “He ripped my phone out. That’s what Reagan people are like.”

Rockefeller held up the severed phone for the cameras , sweat breaking through his dress shirt. He then gave the sign back to a Reagan delegate— after ripping it in half.

The American flag on the stage fell over.

Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations 15739-15753). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The Student: Galaxies

My current book in my Astrophysics self-study is Galaxies in the Universe by Sparke and Gallager, 2nd edition. It's aimed at advanced undergrads, so probably appropriate for a aging physicist who worked on atmospheric problems for 30 years. It's a pretty good book, I think, but occasionally frustrating for the autodidact.

The big problem is a certain carelessness about numbers and a few other details, especially in the problems. An unfortunately not atypical example can be found in problem 1.19, where one is asked to compute some effects of neutron lifetime on Helium abundance. A crucial intermediate step is computing the time at which the radiation is cool enough for deuterium to survive. The problem helpfully adds that the value one gets should be 365 s (after big bang). If one uses the equations found in the book, one gets a bit less than 349 s - not a big difference, but way to large for using equations without any error bars. It's small enough, and large enough, to make me think that perhaps I left out some small but perhaps crucial detail.

The intertubes were little help. It seems that estimates of this time (using slightly different methodologies) vary quite a bit. Finally I thought to look for an online errata. OK, they said, the time should be 350 s, not 365s. Umm, not quite. It was really a bit less than 349. Can't they even get the errata right to 3 significant figures?

Unfortunately, this type of error is rife. What the hell. Don't they have grad students - or at least undergrads who use the book?

It's Complicated

Ideas in science are often pretty simple. The details of the facts supporting these ideas rarely are.

Like ancient civilizations, religions, and primitive cultures, modern science has constructed an elaborate cosmology. Modern cosmology, for example, has constructed a detailed picture of what was happening in the universe 13 billion plus years ago, when it was less than a millisecond old. Why should we take this cosmology, or any science, more seriously than the various myths aforementioned?

The answer of science is that the scientific cosmology is supported by an intricate web of measurements, predictions, retrodictions, and interrelationships which are remarkably consistent, not only with each other but with the whole structure of modern physics, from thermodynamics to quantum field theory. That web is complicated, and nobody can comprehend it without extensive and detailed study.

It's probably worth noting that perfect consistency is an ideal that is never perfectly achieved, at least not until there are no scientific questions left to be answered. None of these points ever seem to be understood by the various critics of evolution, cosmology, or climate science who think that they have achieved a scientific triumph when they find some fact or argument which seem to contradict their (usually confused) notion of what that criticized theory says.

I have spent some time arguing with various critics of modern climate science and the idea of anthropogenic global warming. Many, despite having achieved degrees in science and engineering, really seem to have no idea how scientific theory is constructed or supported. One guy, a meteorologist with a degree in geology, thought he had disproven the link between CO2 and sea level change because he found a few examples of of places where sea level appeared to be higher in Medieval times than today.

This argument is wrong on so many levels that it becomes complicated in itself. Of course there are many reasons why an individual location may rise or fall relative to sea level. Many such reasons are geologic - volcanism, isostasy, etc. I presented him with examples of ancient cities now drowned (geologic causes). I showed in detail how his favorite example of a once sea side castle having moved inland was due to the fact that the local people had built dikes to wall off the sea and reclaim tidal swampland for farming. He was unmoved and unpersuaded. Certain kinds of deliberate and studied stupidity are invincible in the face of fact and logic.

Of course I had to spend many hours to reconstruct the complicated details of exactly why his argument was wrong. I learned a little about history and a lot more about the futility of trying persuasion on ideological nutjobs.

Last Days of the Roman Republic

For those who miss Clinton and Bush, 2016 promises fulfillment of your fantasies. There is a very plausible prospect of a Clinton (Hillary) vs. Bush (Jeb) election two years hence.

Pessimists could see in this a reprise of those last days of the Roman Republic when the great families of the oligarchy competed to get their clients to Consulship and other positions of power, while the great political families competed to sweep away each other and place themselves in and above the oligarchs.

Even optimists have to find the prospect depressing. As Barbara Bush reputedly said: "Can't any other families take this job?

Some Time Ago

One ten-thousandth of a second after the big bang, to be more precise.

It was hot, but had just cooled down to the point (one trillion degrees K) where photo-production of proton - antiproton pairs stopped happening, so that protons and antiprotons could annihilate faster than new pairs were formed. Oddly, but fortunately from our point of view, there was roughly 1 extra proton for every billion proton-antiproton pairs. We, and everything we see or touch is made out of those lonely extra dancers at the ball.

Things were closer together then - more neighborly, one might say. The Andromeda galaxy was then about as close to us as Mars is now. Mars then was about as close to us as the diameter of the period at the end of this sentence. Of course there was no Mars, or Andromeda galaxy, or any star or planet then - just elementary particles rushing madly to and fro.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Michael Tomasky has a Point

From his Daily Beast article:

People don’t vote against their interests. They vote for their interests as they see them. And right now, working-class and blue-collar whites think the Democratic Party is just implacably against them.

Of course I don’t think it’s true that the Democratic Party is implacably against them. I think they just think the Democratic Party is implacably against them, and part of the reason—not the whole reason, but part of the reason—they think the Democratic Party is implacably against them is that Democratic candidates in red states have no idea how to tell them they’re on their side.

He doesn't discuss the why of this, but the culture wars are surely part of it. It would be easy for a white working or middle class person to conclude (not especially inaccurately) that the modern Democratic party is dominated by an urban elite concerned mainly with advancing the interests of single urban feminists, illegal immigrants, poor blacks, and homosexuals - and almost anybody else, except them. Such is the power of demagoguery, that even the most potent exception is widely reviled, even by those who love the insurance they got thanks to Obamacare but are too deluded to know it.

Blowing It

I was angry with the obtuse campaign the Democrats ran. Goldie Taylor in an aptly named, How the Lame Democrats Blew It, The Daily Beast:

It’s not that the Republicans won the Senate. The Democrats lost it, by being afraid to have a strong message and motivate their voters.

More on the Gender Gap in Colorado

One comment that I heard or read this AM caught my eye - something about Mark Udall, the losing incumbent in Colorado, being criticized for his relentlessly one one campaign. Apparently it was all about abortion rights. But he had no choice, the reporter added, he ran exactly the campaign the numbers said he had too.

If true, what a moron. No wonder he lost and richly deserved to lose.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Guessing Game

With Republicans firmly in control of Congress, will they feel some pressure to do something, or just stick with the do nothing obstruction that has apparently served them so well. I'm guessing that the latter is strongly favored, especially with Obama likely to continue his wimpy approach to everything. Specifics:

Climate action: dead, dead, dead, gone. Big pro-climate action spending failed to move the needle an iota.

Immigration: A lot of Republican voters are going to be mad as hell if anything like immigration reform happens. Most likely result is a bunch of non-reform immigration bills that get vetoed.

Obamacare: probably not repealed but quite possibly crippled - maybe with an assist from the Supremes.

The Wars: If Obama has any sense, he will force Congress to vote on a series of war powers acts. I don't expect it.

The Surveillance State: What surveillance state? Nothing to see here. Nobody here but us chickens. Move right along.

Job creation: More tax cuts for the ultra-rich.

Student loan debt. Highly indebted students will be sold into slavery.

Wall Street shenanigans. Greed again good. Really good.

Your guess is as good as mine. Please submit below. But you will probably not be right.

Gender Gap

The Republicans have won big, and I doubt that that portends anything good for the country, but that is a problem for another day. The gender gap has been big in the news for several elections and this time it was huge. There is an enormous gap between the way men and women voted. In some Senate elections, women went for the Democrat by 10% while men went Republican by twice that percentage.

Democrats are going to have to think long and hard about how they lost men so utterly. It's early, but most are blaming Obama.

If Clinton's musical instrument was the saxophone, and George W's the air guitar he famously played while New Orleans drowned, Obama's has got to be the uncertain trumpet. No drama Obama has been the invisible man in recent months, and his cerebral style looks more and more weak and vascillating. He probably would have been better off rejecting that Nobel Peace Prize that he got so prematurely.

Men Behaving

Badly, of course.*

A woman recently spent a long day walking around New York, accompanied by surreptitious camera and microphone. She got a lot of catcalls, attracting some feminist and other outrage, together with various musings on it all. "It's not about sex, it's about power" is a feminist standard sound bite. Aside from the fact that power is mostly about sex - something like 8% of Asian men are descended from Genghiz Khan or his immediate family, I seem to recall - I really don't think that's correct.

If you really want to know what catcalling is about I suggest you contemplate the Lily of the Field, arrayed in all it's glory, or, for a phylogenetically closer example, the Peacock, prancing with his magnificent tail. Flower, tail and catcall are all forms of sexual display, designed to attract attention.

Of course humans have a bit more behavioral flexibility than Lily or Peacock, so the forms of such sexual display vary. If you've got the cash, cruising your yacht or pimped out car may serve the function. If you happen to be drop dead handsome, a smile and perhaps a subtle wink will serve nicely. On the other hand, should you happen to be poor, lower class, and perhaps a disadvantaged minority, you still have the same instincts for sexual display, but far fewer means are available. Ergo, the catcall.

* [The evolutionary psychologist explains it all]

Monday, November 03, 2014

Jon Stewart: Republican Secret Agent Man

I very much doubt if Jon Stewart, in his personal self, is Republican or conservative. But I suspect that his show has made him a sort of secret weapon for Republicans in the South. Stewart loves to make fun of those quaint and silly Southernisms of guys like Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell. I figure that every time he does that, he gets them about a 2% uptick in their vote.

A lot of the Southern vote has always hinged on famously wounded Southern pride, and hearing that sort of thing from a liberal New York Jew has got to sting. It's not really that funny either, and Graham and McConnell offer lots of more substantive satirical targets - targets that don't rely on cheap ethnic humor.

The Slammer

Jon Stewart had a guest discussion the US incarceration rate. Our vast prison industrial gulag is unrivaled in scale in the world. Even police states put fewer people in prison. This situation is relatively recent - US prison population has exploded by a factor of roughly eight since 1973. Stewart and his guest mentioned the superpredator and three strikes hysteria, but mainly focused pm the racial. Disproportionate imprisonment rates for blacks are a significant fact, but racism was not invented in the 1970s or 80s in the US.

One non-negligible factor has been the rise of the private prison. Despite housing a relatively small proportion of total inmates, their very existence creates a potent political lobby to keep incarceration rates high. The state institutions have some similar incentives.

Many inmates, including many serving life sentences, have been convicted of relatively minor crimes, including drug possession and petty theft. The cost of this vast prison state within a state is large, not even counting the trail of ruined lives it leaves - perhaps 100 billion dollars per year or more.

It's time for the US to move beyond this infantile hysteria and study the examples of countries who have shown how to do it better - producing lower crime rates, lower incarceration rates, and better societies.

The Vote

It doesn't look good for the Democratic party and it probably is even worse for the country.

Well, I voted a few days ago. It hurt me, but I voted for two Republicans. They appeared to be slightly less crooked than their Democratic counterparts. Lesser of two weevils.

Otherwise, I went Democratic Party. Unfortunately, in a couple of the most important races the Republican is likely to win. Susanna Martinez, our governor, has the advantages of incumbency, support from Sarah Palin and the likes of the Koch Machine, and her Hispanic heritage and name. Her opponent lacks notable electoral virtues, except for the name he shares with his father, a popular former governor.

Our US Representative is the execrable Steve Pearce, a made guy in the Republican right wing, thoroughly dishonest guy, and advocate of every idiotic policy of the Oil Oligarchy. His opponent is little known, underfunded, and a less than brilliant campaigner. So that’s another vote of mine that is unlikely to do much good.

More interesting was the vote for State Representative. These small scale local races are usually conducted at pretty low intensity. This year’s election featured a rematch between the Republican who won by 8 votes (on the second recount) last time and a Democratic candidate who got off to an excellent start. She looked to be doing pretty well until Dark Money unleashed a massive negative media campaign against her, complete with television spots and a full page newspaper add – a campaign at many times the financial scale that these local races usually attract.

It sure looks like control of the New Mexico State Legislature is really important to some big Republican players out there – Koch Machine or similar operations, I would guess, with their actual identities carefully concealed thanks to the right wing hacks of the John Robert’s Supreme Court.

Sky is Falling - Ho Hum

The UN panel has come out with another prophecy of climate doom. In the US, at least, it has been met with a giant yawn, when it has been noticed at all.

There are a few reasons for this, one of which can be attributed to human nature - we aren't designed to worry about the long term future, especially when we need to worry about more pressing matters like how to pay next month's rent. Another is the disinformation campaign conducted at considerable expense by the fossil fuel industry and its political pawns, who in the US now include the entire Republican Party and many of the Democrats. Finally, and not insignificantly, the blame goes to Jim Hansen and many other climate warriors who did so much to reveal the climate change problem but then called "Wolf" too early and often. Twenty years ago we were bombarded with with warnings of dramatic and rapid changes in global temperature, as well as associated changes like more and worse tropical storms.

These things mostly have not happened. Instead of a rapid increase of global temperature, we have seen a dramatic slowing in the rate of temperature increase. The US has seen a big decrease in the rate of tropical storm landfall. The gradual retreat of glaciers is invisible to everyone but the tiny minority of citizens who see them on a regular basis. Drought is severe in some places, but has been a familiar phenomenon forever. Add in the fact that one year of big snow makes a more dramatic impression than a barely statistically significant uptick in global temps and it's easy to see why few are paying attention.

Overall, climate models have proven to be rather poor in prognostic mode.

None of this, by the way, is evidence that climate change isn't happening or isn't very likely to become far more serious. It is a fact, though, that many put far too much faith in the prognostic capabilities of climate models squandered their credibility with rash predictions. It's not a new phenomenon that Cassandra is never believed until its too late. Homer was revealing fundamental truths about human nature way back when.

I have become convinced that chances for serious action to limit carbon burning are very poor until and unless pretty catastrophic consequences are seen. Of the big players in carbon consumption, the US is nearly unified against any action that would increase energy prices, China shows no signs of curbing its vast appetite, and India votes for magical thinking. Only Europe occasionally shows signs of climate seriousness - and it's probably too small a player to count.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Well, That Was a Dumb Shaggy Dog Story

I saw Gone Girl.

At least that saves me the trouble of reading an idiotic book.