Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Climate Change Then and Now

Climate change in the past is more the rule than the exception. Earth and life have survived many changes in climate. Human civilization developed in a highly special period though - the last ten thousand years has been a period of exceptionally stable and (for humans) benign climate. Modern humans first emerged between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene, a period of turbulent and frequently hostile climate. It's rapid and drastic climate changes may well have prevented our ancestors from developing agriculture. These climate changes have been far from benificent from the standpoint of existing species. Large scale reductions in territory and mass extinctions have been common. It's highly plausible that several of our brother species of humans met their ends in this way.

The most recent ten thousand years, the Holocene, hasn't been like that. Stability and very gradual change have been the rule.

Until the last 100 years. The rapid and unprecedented consumption of fossil fuels has provoked significant climate change that seems certain to continue and intensify. That change probably won't end civilization - at least not without a lot of further help from us - but it is sure to cause plenty of problems.

MKS vs. Gaussian

According to the tale, a famous ship captain was noted for keeping a small chest, always carefully locked, in which he kept a small, secret notebook. Each day he would carefully scrutinize the notebook, replace in the chest, and carefully lock it. The key never left his person.

Because the captain was so successful in every endeavor, many wondered about the contents of the secret notebook, but he declined all efforts to get him to share.

When he died, full of honors and at a ripe old age, his first mate was quick to grab the key and open the chest. With pounding heart he opened chest and notebook. There he read: "left is port, right is starboard."

MKS electromagnetic units are an abomination in the sight of the universe.

That is all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Physics Problem

Kevin Drum posts the following:

Over the past couple of weeks, I've noticed that my distance vision is a little fuzzy. Time for new glasses, you say, and you're probably right. But here's the odd thing. I keep all my old glasses, and last night I tried them all on just to see if an older prescription worked better than my current glasses. What I discovered was a little strange.

Right under my TV I happen to have two LED clocks. One uses red LEDs and the other uses blue LEDs. With my current glasses, the blue LEDs are sharp and the red LEDs are fuzzy. But when I put on glasses that are a few years old, it changes. The red LEDs are sharp and the blue LEDs are fuzzy. The difference is quite noticeable, not a subtle thing at all.

Anyone know what this is all about?

Naturally some of his commenters got the correct answer, but you should try to solve it without looking (zillions got wrong answers, of course). Hint: there are two parts to the answer, one involving physics, the other involving physiology.

UPDATE/Solution: OK, since only one person ventured this, and not really successfully. The eye is not an achromatic lens. Red and blue focus at different distances. Young people don't notice this since their eyes automatically adjust by slightly changing the focus of the lens of the eye. Old people, with stiff, inflexible lenses, can't do this.

Defensive Alliances: 1900

After its crushing defeat of France in 1870, the newly united nation of Germany became the most important European power. It's long rival France, was now smaller, weaker and less economically dynamic and was not only beaten but profoundly isolated due to the long enmity with Britain and Russia, and Bismark made it his business to keep France weak and isolated. The other power, the Austro Hungarian Empire, was ally.

Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Bismark, and made Alfred Tirpitz head of his navy. Together they embarked on an ambitious ship building program designed to be able to confront Britain on the high seas. This, together with some other slights and rivalries deeply angered the British, who countered with their own ship building program. Meanwhile, the Kaiser's new Chancellor let the old treaty with Russia expire.

France exploited the moment to settle its differences with both Russia and Britain, forming the so-called Entente Cordial.

[British Prime Minister] Lloyd George recalled in his war memoirs that he went to visit the Liberal elder statesman Lord Rosebery on the day the Entente was announced. “His first greeting to me was: ‘Well, I suppose you are just as pleased as the rest of them with this French agreement?’ I assured him that I was delighted that our snarling and scratching relations with France had come to an end at last. He replied: ‘You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end!’ ”

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 3398-3402). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

*Redacted Redacted*

Florida's pinhead governor apparently issued a "secret" order that State officials not mention the words "cl****e ch***e" or "gl***l wa****g". This despite, or perhaps because no State is more threatened by rising sea levels. From Steve Benen's story:

Everyone had a good laugh the other day when an official from Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) administration tried to get through a legislative hearing on emergency preparedness without using the words “climate change.” But before the story fades from view, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the substantive question behind the humor.

At issue is a FEMA requirement that states develop a “climate-change plan” in order to receive preparedness dollars. This became literally laughable in the Florida example – Scott’s chief of emergency management said the state will eventually have a hazard-mitigation plan with “language to that effect.”

So why would someone purportedly elected to safeguard the interests of the citizens of the State purposefully, albeit somewhat comically, attempt to suppress the mention of a major threat to those interests? I have a theory. Some of those citizens, or at least some of those interests, have different interests than the general populace and a lot more money. Miami, for example, is undergoing a frenzy of sea side condo building. Enthusiasm for these condos might be figuratively dampened by publicity about the fact that their foundations are about to be literally dampened by encroaching sea water.

Imperial Appetites

Where today the international community sees failed or failing states as a problem, in the age of imperialism the powers saw them as an opportunity. China, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, all were weak, divided, and apparently ready to be carved up. So was Morocco, which was becoming increasingly anarchic by 1900. The death of the strong and capable Sultan Hassan I in 1894 had left it in the hands of a teenager, Abdelaziz. “He is not bad looking, but podgy and puffy; good features and good clear eyes,” said Arthur Nicolson, stationed there as a British diplomat. “He didn’t look unhealthy, but like a boy who ate too much.” 50 Abdelaziz proved unable to keep control of his subjects. While his administration grew increasingly corrupt, powerful regional leaders asserted their independence, pirates attacked merchants along the coasts and bandits raided caravans in the interior and kidnapped the rich for ransom. Late in 1902 a rebellion threatened to topple the whole rickety regime.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 3290-3297). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Whole Lot of Stupid

There is a whole lot of stupid in the world, and local density enhancements exist, but some still struggle against the tide. James J. Krupa talks about teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky.

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My response was and is always the same: We didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

It helps to be as ignorant of the Bible as of history.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thinking About Having a Child?

Shouldn't you first have your genome edited for clarity and errors? The CRISPR/Cas system seems to be making that possibility real. CRISPR (and writing out the acronymn likely won't help you understand it) is a prokaryotic immune system that works by editing the genomes of potential virus enemies, but its editing capabilities can be used for other purposes - see discussion in the Wikipedia link given above. In fact they already have been used to edit out a deleterious gene in mice.

People too carry some nasty genetic diseases, and the possibility of editing them out is being aggressively investigated by top genetics laboratories. Of course, if you are going to be editing genes to eliminate congenital blindness or Tay-Sachs disease, maybe you should take the opportunity to stick in some genes for high intelligence, good looks, athletic ability, etc., etc.

The age of gene customization is (nearly) on us, and that means that future humans will have some more powers previously attributed only to gods.

Tyler Cowen writes about CRISPR and its eugenic implications here, with numerous links. Stephen Hsu is here, with, among other things:

... Rumors are rife, presumably from anonymous peer reviewers, that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos and have submitted papers on their results. They have apparently not tried to establish any pregnancies, but the rumors alarm researchers who fear that such papers, published before broad discussions of the risks and benefits of genome editing, could trigger a public backlash that would block legitimate uses of the technology.

I think it is obvious that we are talking about what is potentially one of the most momentous developments in human history.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Parasite Class

I have a finch feeder outside the window where my computer sits. Most of my customers are the Texas lesser goldfinches, which weigh about 10 grams, or roughly the weight of two nickels, which is how much money I have left to rub together after buying their food. They eat little nyjer seeds, which they shell and eat with phenomenal efficiency. They are my personal parasite class, and I feel guilty if I let their feeder sit empty. It's quite amazing how much these tiny creature eat, though.

I'm a member of the parasite class myself, since I don't work for pay, and live off my pension and savings. I tend to think of the rentier class as parasites too, so it annoys the heck out of me when one of their members, like Willard R., inveighs against the people who get Social Security and other government benefits.

Uh Oh

Some of the same people who confidently counted Netanyahu out are predicting that the Ted Cruz Presidential campaign is DOA.

German Thinking Before World War I

The relatively new nation of Germany was eager to take its place among the colonial powers.

What Weltpolitik actually meant in terms of concrete policies was another matter. As Field Marshal Count von Waldersee, who commanded the European forces suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, wrote in his diary when the idea first started to circulate widely: “We are supposed to pursue Weltpolitik. If I only knew what that is supposed to be; for the time being it is nothing but a slogan.” 30 It did seem, though, to imply that Germany acquire its fair share of colonies. [German historian and nationalistic prophet] Treitschke certainly argued so. “All nations in history,” he said in his lectures, “felt the urge to impress the stamp of their authority on barbaric countries while they felt strong enough to do so.” And Germany was now strong enough; its high birth rate was evidence of German vitality. Yet Germany was cutting a poor figure by comparison with Britain and other empires: “It is therefore a vital question for the nation to show colonial drive.” 31

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1882-1891). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thus the notion that a proper great power, like Britain, France, and Russia had vast colonial empires played a key role in the events that led up to the Great War, the war that, ironically, played a key role in the ultimate collapse of the colonial system, and eventually convinced the heretofore colonial powers that in the modern age, colonies would not be worth their cost.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form?

How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form? By Abraham Loeb

This is intended to be a short introduction to the interface between cosmology and astrophysics governing the first galaxies and stars. Allegedly it is aimed at the undergraduate with a science background or the non-specialist scientist, but I found the level of presentation rather uneven. What kind of student, I wondered, would need to have the terms "star" and "galaxy" defined but still be able to decipher "Polarization is produced when free electrons scatter a radiation field with quadrupole anisotropy Q?"

This short book packs a lot of information into it, though I'm not sure that I agree with the title. It's mostly not about those events but rather about the modeling of the growth of cosmological density perturbations which ultimately gave rise to those stars and galaxies. This is a technical book, with lots of equations, but derivations of those equations are mostly absent or extremely cursory. I would guess that the ideal audience for this book is a graduate student in the field who would like a quick review and summary of key concepts and equations.

Nevertheless, a lot can be learned from this book even without trying to understand every equation (I didn't). The plain text does a good job of explaining key ideas.

The figures, unfortunately, are something of a disaster. Most of them are tiny copies of figures from journals, with details and captions in tiny print. They are purely black and white and the quality of reproduction is not high.

This book was published in 2010. The author has subsequently (2013) collaborated on a much thicker and larger book on the same subject. I have only read short excerpts, but it does look more like a proper textbook with real derivations, though much of the material is adapted directly from the present volume. It might be a better bet for those who want a more detailed understanding.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Character of Kaiser Wilhelm II

The manifold blunders that led to World War I have filled many a book, but in Margaret McMillan's version, the Kaiser gets first place. He was apparently intelligent, even intellectual, but he was also a nitwit, utterly lacking in the character of a a good leader. He was lazy and impetuous, and lacked perspective, judgement, and self-restraint.

Combine grandiosity with lack of common sense and many evils promptly follow.

War and Pique

I have been criticized, and indeed mocked, for suggesting that personal pique could play a major role in international affairs - in particular, Netanyahu's repeated disrespecting of the American President.

Margaret MacMillan, in her examination of the causes of World War I, pays some attention to the human factors which led to the gradual deterioration of relations between Britain and Germany, including rude and angry letters between their respective sovereigns, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Queen Victoria (his grandmother). Official quarrels of little import became magnified by annoyed public opinion.

Samoa, for example, was a crisis that need not have happened because no great national interests were at stake. Yet it proved unnecessarily difficult to resolve because of public agitation, especially in Germany. “For even though the great majority of our pothouse politicians did not know whether Samoa was a fish or a fowl or a foreign queen,” said Eckardstein, “they shouted all the more loudly that, whatever else it was, it was German and must remain forever German.” 18 The German press suddenly discovered Samoa to be essential for national prestige and security.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1410-1416). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Kaiser's tendency toward rude and childish practical jokes:

Indeed, the King of Bulgaria, a country which Germany hoped to make an ally of, once left Berlin “white-hot with hatred” after the Kaiser smacked him on the bottom in public.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1500-1502). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Britain and Germany Before the Great War

Winston Churchill:

We have engrossed to ourselves, in a time when other powerful nations were paralysed by barbarism or internal war, an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 1332-1336). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Astro FOTD: Unbound Electrons

Large galaxy clusters are typically embedded in a cloud of ionized gas at a temperature of roughly 100 million K. At these temperatures, many of the electrons are moving at more than escape velocity, so do all the electrons run off?

Some do, of course, leaving the cluster with a net positive charge. But what the combined gravitational force of tens of trillions of solar masses of stars, gas and dark matter cannot do, the combined unbalanced electrical force of a few kilograms of electrons finds easy peasy. Electrons escape until the unbalanced electrical force holds them bound. A similar effect results in a net charge for the Sun.

X-ray emission from Abell 1689. The X-Ray emission comes from the hot (10^8 K or so) plasma that constitutes 1/2 or more of the baryonic mass of the cluster.

Whither Israel Now?

Some, including some Palestinians, think that in light of Netanyahu's racist campaign, international pressure will force the Israelis to negotiate some rights for Palestinians.

IF anyone doubted where Benjamin Netanyahu stood on the question of peace, the Israeli prime minister made himself clear just before Tuesday’s election, proclaiming that there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch. Then he decided to engage in a bit of fear-mongering against Palestinian citizens of Israel in hopes of driving his supporters to the polls. “The right-wing government is in danger,” Mr. Netanyahu announced on Election Day. “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

But Mr. Netanyahu’s victory is actually the best plausible outcome for those seeking to end Israel’s occupation. Indeed, I, as a Palestinian, breathed a sigh of relief when it became clear that his Likud Party had won the largest number of seats in the Knesset.

This might seem counterintuitive, but the political dynamics in Israel and internationally mean that another term with Mr. Netanyahu at the helm could actually hasten the end of Israel’s apartheid policies. The biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel. It can’t and it won’t.

Well I don't think that kind of pressure is coming from the US. Check out Congress's welcoming ovation for Netanyahu's speech. It was vaguely reminiscent of those old style Soviet speeches where listeners would clap until their arms were aching for fear of being seen as unpatriotic. Jon Stewart called it "The longest blow job a Jewish man has ever received." Somehow, I doubt that that greeting was prompted by universal adulation for this man, an intensely controversial figure here and in Israel. Stewart also remarked on Obama's rather craven reaction to this speech by a foreign leader who had come here on the express mission of derailing US foreign policy.

Astro QOTD

Today's quiz: Why are extremely large stars of a million or so solar masses thought to have been possible in the early universe but not today?

Note to Self

Don't try to argue with people who think 95% is a minority, or other crazy people. It will only annoy them and waste your time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Netanyahu defied his optimistic liberal critics (and the last pre-election polls) to score what looks like a major comeback. It's still not clear that he will retain power, but it look much more likely than it did a few days ago.

Netanyahu disavowed the so-called two-state solution to the Palestinian question during his campaign, despite having previously signed up for it. Since that two-state idea is pretty much the only thing the international community has considered, it invites the question, "What now?"

I only see two alternatives: either one-state, with one person, one vote, or apartheid, with the Palestinians remaining a virtually imprisoned people with no say in their future.

I am pretty sure that neither Netanyahu nor most Zionists would accept the implications of a democratic one-state solution. Palestinians might not like it much either.

Are there other alternatives?

White Privilege

I never much liked the phrase "white privilege." Most of the time what we are really talking about is racial discrimination against non-whites. How would one go about curbing "white privilege?" Train police to assault white people? Encourage fraternity morons to sing anti-white songs?

Condemn racism! Punish unjust discrimination. Those actions might accomplish something.

Blathering about privilege mostly just confuses and annoys.

Shout Out to Lumo

I ordered Mathematica via your blog and got a great deal on Mathematica 10.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Astro FOTD

Velocity in km/s is numerically nearly equal to its value in parsecs/megayear. (1 km/s = 1.04 pc/Myr)

Fact is handy for navigation, as well as for things like realizing that a constant Hubble parameter of 70 km/(s Mpc) implies an age of 14 Gyears for the Cosmos. (Hubble parameter isn't really constant, but current value is close to the mean).

The fastest moving bodies in the solar system (say a long period comet at the moment of solar impact) travel at about 600 km/s, and the nearest stars are less than 2 parsecs away. At that speed, the trip would take roughly 1/300 of a Myr, or 3300 years.

Hey, it beats driving.


The gift of men, in Tolkien's universe, is death. The better life gets, though, the less welcome the gift becomes. Searching for immortality, through magic or religion, is one of the oldest themes in history. The radical advances in average human lifespan that we have seen in the last 100 years have been achieved mostly through science and sanitation, and so science now looks like the most promising venue for further life extension. I suppose it's natural for the most favored to resent "the gift," and if you have a few hundred million rattling around in your pocket, why not give the alternative a shot.

You will probably want to know that Google is on the case:


Bill Maris has $425 million to invest this year, and the freedom to invest it however he wants. He's looking for companies that will slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life.

The easy technical problems of life extension have been solved, or nearly so. Control disease, avoid catastrophe, replace defective organs with cloned replacements. The tough one, cellular senescence, remains. Our joints, organs muscles and brains get old and creaky because the cells that make them up do. They age and get decrepit from cellular damage or just lose the ability to faithfully reproduce themselves.

One reason reproducing cells lose that ability is because in each reproductive cycle, the telomeres that end chromosomes get shorter, and as they get shorter, there reproductive capacity fades and ends. Well that should be easy, you might say, just tell them to stop that. In fact that happens, and it's a fundamental facet of developing cancer. The telomere shortening, it seems, is partly a cancer preventive. Even more fundamental is the accumulation of cellular damage from insults to the DNA. It's not obvious that either of these problems can be solved, now or in the future.

The ancient Egyptians shot at immortality apparently depended on having the resources to put up a nice pyramid, and it's highly plausible that radical advances in life extension (real and imaginary) might be accessible only to the super rich. That's sure to be annoying to those of us left out, but the alternative is not so hot either. Suppose everybody could live comfortably to 500 or a thousand years old? Where would we put them all? Would reproduction have to be forbidden to all - or at least to those choosing life extension?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Judging Books by Their Covers

And bindings.

Not many publishers turn out good technical books in physics, astrophysics, and mathematics. Until recently, I would have said Cambridge University Press, Princeton U P, and Springer. This was before Springer decided to embrace sucketude and start putting their books in cheap, crappy bindings.

I have quite a few Springer books, and the older ones are well bound and open flat. The newest ones have stiff, cheap, crappy glued bindings, and won't open flat and stay open. I hate that.

Cambridge U P is the gold standard. Lots of good books, mostly affordable prices, and nice bindings that open flat. Princeton is also very good.

Authors would do us a favor by avoiding Springer - at least until they recover their senses.

Based on what I've read elsewhere, Springer seems to be committed to crap all the way. Unfortunately they still publish some important stuff.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Condensed Matter

Reading Wilczek's book, see previous post, with it's extensive analogies to superconductivity, awakened some long slumbering interest in condensed matter physics. I took a couple of courses in solid state physics when I was in graduate school, but I was a lousy student and didn't learn anything, or at least not anything much. I think my teacher was not so hot either. I add this mainly because I remember that he was famous for never answering the question you were trying to ask. At one point he made a long series of lectures prominently featuring some three index symbols that seemed to be some sorts of wave functions - but we, myself and the other grad students could never figure out what the indexes were. A couple of attempts at asking ended in his usual bafflingly obscure non-answers. So we spent the rest of the semester sitting in stunned silence.

Anyway, I ordered Mahan's Condensed Matter in a Nutshell, partly on the odd chance that I might learn something, but mostly because I really like those Princeton Nutshell books. They are well made and pretty economical, and usually written well. I already owned a dozen or so condensed matter books, but they were all old, and probably obsolete, right?

The book, naturally, is full of equations with lots of indices. I sure hope he defines them someplace.

The Lightness of Being: Book Review

The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces by Frank Wilczek.

Wilczek's book is aimed at the public, but it has a lot that I, a physicist whose experience has been distant from particle physics, found revealing and insightful. His themes are the modern version of the ether, which he calls the Grid, the origin of mass, and the unification of physics. At the center of these is the standard model, which he likes to call the Core, and especially Quantum Chromodynamics, or QCD, his contribution to which won him the Nobel Prize.

It's focused squarely on the underlying ideas though there are a small number of those personal anecdotes that enliven many popular accounts of physics. His seem chosen to illustrate physics more than personality. One I liked was his account of how he baited Murray Gell-Mann (the inventor of quarks) by telling him that he was working on improving Feynman's Parton Model, which had been formulated to explain the results of probing nucleon structure using high energy electron beams. This provoked a bit of a tantrum from Gell-Mann, who fulminated against Feynman's "put-ons" and his supposed pollution of the lexicon of physics. Of course they are just quarks, said Gell-Mann.

But Gell-Mann was wrong and Feynman was right. The probing electrons had indeed seen quarks, but they had seen something else as well, the gluons, and that was crucially important, because the gluons were the force carriers of QCD - the glue that held nucleons and mesons together.

Wilczek traces the history of the concept of a space filling ether, and finds that physicists from Descartes, to Newton, to Einstein to Feynman had a turbulent relationship with it, but that the ether finally won. Wilczek prefers to call it the Grid - a multi-layer superconductor seething with virtual particles and. The superconducting he refers to is not ordinary electromagnetic superconducting, but color and weak charge superconduction, screening and anti-screening, and giving mass to many of the particles of the standard model.

I even read the glossary at the end, not because I didn't know what charge or acceleration were, but for the interesting little tidbits of insight that he throws in. I recommend the book, though some parts might be a bit challenging for someone with no physics background.

Fans, like YHC, of the monumental Princeton Companion to Mathematics, edited by Tim Gowers, might be interested to know that Wilczek is editing a Princeton Companion to Physics, scheduled for 2018 publication.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sheer Effrontery

There was something about the sheer effrontery of how Hillary announced that she had had a minion classify her emails into personal and official, and had the so-called "personals" deleted that really pissed me off. It was so damn Clinton.

If Nixon had done that, he's probably still be President.

I'm moving close to the anyone (er, any Democrat) but Clinton camp.

Schroedinger's Putin

The net has been atwitter recently with rumors that Vladimir Putin is sick, dead, or deposed. These are based on the thinnest of evidence, but nonetheless disquieting.

Rumors are swirling today about the possible illness — or even death — of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mainstream media outlets have reported that he may be sick. Social media jokers used the hashtag #ПутинУмер ("Putin is dead") to speculate that he will be buried topless — a reference to his fondness for posing for bare-chested photos — or that he couldn't possibly die, because "it's not profitable."

Putin is almost certainly going to re-emerge in a few days looking none the worse for wear. But this isn't the first time rumors of this kind have caught on — and the fact that he can't cancel a couple of meetings without causing a frenzy of speculation hints at a deeper truth about Russia, and the state of Putin's regime.

These rumors stem from fear and uncertainty about what happens after Putin. No one knows who would assume power if he died, got sick, or otherwise left office. That instability is a real danger, even if the death rumors are probably false.

Why hasn't Putin been seen since March 5?

The rumors began on Wednesday after Putin cancelled a visit to Kazakhstan this week. An anonymous Kazakh government official told Reuters that "it looks like he has fallen ill." Reuters later reported that Putin had also rescheduled a meeting with officials from Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, which was set to take place on March 11, but has now been postponed to March 18.

Cage Match: Delong vs. Motl

Brad and Lubos are insulting each other. The subject is the sleeping beauty problem, my stripped down version of which goes like this: Sleeping Beauty knows probability, but can't remember being awakened. A fair coin is tossed, and if it comes up heads, SB is awakened only on Monday. If tails, SB is awakened on both Monday and Tuesday. Each time she is asked to say what the probability is that the coin was head. She doesn't know what day it is, so what should she say the probability is that the coin was heads?

To cut to the chase, Brad is right and Lumo wrong. The point is that even though the two branches are equally probable, the tails branch is sampled twice as often as the heads branch. Consequently, two out of three times she is asked, she will be on the tails branch. Heads, 1/3, tails 2/3.

One could make the point a bit starker by reducing the number of awakenings in the heads branch to zero or increasing the number of awakenings in the tails branch to ten. SB is really reporting on the joint probability that (1)heads was thrown and (2)she was awakened. Since P(heads) is 1/2, P(awakening) is in control.

UPDATE: I see that Lumo has now updated to consider sampling, but unfortunately still doesn't seem to get it. Here is another way to think of it. Suppose the experiment is done a large number of times, say N, such that heads has come up approximately N/2 times and tails N/2 times - we will just assume the equality is exact. Then SB will have been awakened N/2 times on the heads branch and N/2 + N/2 = N times on the tails branch. Given that she doesn't know what branch she is on, what's her best estimate that the current awakening occurred on the heads branch? Since 1/3 of the awakenings occur on the heads branch, it's obviously 1/3.

BTW, for those who wonder why we worry about such things, the answer is that it's a purely intellectual matter, forcing us to think deeply about what we mean by probability. Even better, a lot of smart guys, Princeton and Harvard physics profs, get it wrong.

Racism in America

It's not dead, and we have no idea how to kill it. We can, however, suppress a lot of discrimination.

But I want to talk about the Oklahoma U SAE misadventure, where a bunch of frat brothers got caught on tape singing a racist chant. It was offensive, disgusting, and racist, but I don't really think it was much about deeply racist attitudes in the US or even OU. It was mostly about a bunch of boys behaving badly, something bunches of boys are famous for doing, especially if they happen to be SAEs.

It has actually been documented that adolescent stupidity doubles when they are assembled in groups, and male SAEs, in my experience, are self selected for immaturity.

This was not a "hate crime," but abuse of free speech. Many people were offended and some may have been frightened, but the main victims are the perpetrators and especially any innocent frat brothers they may happen to have. Their chapter was closed, they were turned out of their housing, and some have been expelled.

The severe reaction by OU is understandable given the damage to its reputation, but was it just and appropriate? Jamelle Bouie, who writes on race and society for Slate, says no, and I like his argument.

Education would be better. The University of Oklahoma is two hours away from Tulsa, which in 1921 was the site of one of the worst anti-black race riots in American history. More than a thousand whites stormed the black district of Tulsa and razed it to the ground, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless and destitute. Black Tulsa never recovered, but memories of the attack live on among descendants of the victims.

Many or most of these kids are young enough to still be educable. I've seen it happen in my life and to me. This should be a teachable moment for the country.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Written in Our Stars

Many of the debates I have had here with Lee concern the effectiveness of predictions based on ad hoc models. If I understand correctly, Lee always dismisses these, sometimes saying that they are no better than astrology. There are other kinds of models, of course, like Newton's celestial mechanics, that are precisely predictive and well tested, and I'm pretty sure we agree on these.

Astrology is an interesting case. It has a definite model, with lots of history and data, and it's based on celestial mechanics - sort of. It holds that our fates are written in the stars, or rather, in the positions of the planets among those stars. It has a couple of flaws, the first being that it is based on an obsolete conception of the planets as gods in the Indo-European pantheon, when in fact they are just balls of rock and gas. The second and quite fatal flaw is that it is utterly refuted by the data. Our fates have an utterly negligible correlation with the positions of the planets at our birth.

My interest in more ad hoc models is based on my experience that they are frequently but hardly invariably quite effective, and my belief that prediction from such models is exactly what the human brain was evolved for, and more importantly, that one can predict something about the how effective such models are likely to be based on their ingredients. Moreover, such predictions are the basis of all our planning, personal, business, national and global.

That's why I'm impatient with critiques of predictions that are simply dismissive. I don't find that very interesting. More interesting is asking why von Neumann, for example, was wrong about some important developments in the future of computing (though right about many more) while Gordon Moore was so right about the future of electronics. The answer, I think is clear, and it has nothing to do with their relative IQs. It's that Moore knew about the integrated circuit - the key enabling technology for ubiquitous electronics and computing.

Any prediction about the future can be invalidated by a drastic change in circumstances. That kind of disruptive change happens, but usually not too often. Moreover, in technology it seems to happen in only one direction, in that technology is far more likely to open new opportunities for us than foreclose old ones. Thus negative predictions (like von Neumann allegedly thinking computers would always cost many millions, or Monod thinking we would never be able to manipulate the genome are far more likely to be invalidated than positive predictions.

Of course positive predictions (We will all fly around in rocket cars by the year 2000) are worthless unless they are based on sound physics, economics, etc.

Monday, March 09, 2015

The Mystery of Consciousness

Sean Carroll (the cosmologist SC, not the biologist) talks about the big mysteries:

...the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of consciousness.

He includes a short clip of Ed Witten discussing the mystery of consciousness. He thinks it's a tough one, but this was the first time I had heard him speak, and that was pretty interesting in and of itself. He definitely doesn't sound like the guy next door.

It might be that I'm just too dumb to appreciate how mysterious consciousness is, but I don't share the kind of mystical feeling about it that guys like Witten, Scott Aaronson, and Roger Penrose have. For one thing, I doubt that human consciousness is very different from animal consciousness.

I used to have a baby turtle that needed to eat live food, and I fed it meal worms that had been kept in the refrigerator. For the most part they went softly into that good night, but sometimes they managed to escape and warm up, sometimes turning into beetles that flew away, but other times encountering the turtle in a warmed up and wide awake state. I found it pretty easy to map their reactions and frantic efforts to escape into my own "oh shit" moments.

I found it pretty disquieting.

Terence Tao

Stephanie Wood interviews Terry Tao:

Terry Tao is one of the world's greatest mathematicians and many peoples candidate for smartest man in the world. Some excerpts:

One of the world's greatest minds is playing with a toy pony. He presses a plastic stethoscope into the soft toy's body, feigns a pony cough. "Is he sick or is he well?" he asks. "You don't know? Want a second opinion?"

Terence Tao - Terry, as he's mostly known - is sitting on a leather sofa in his Los Angeles living room, thin, bare-footed and bespectacled, talking to his three-year-old daughter, Madeleine, just home from a birthday party. It's hard to be intimidated by a man playing with a toy pony.

Tao was a famous prodigy.

When he was nine, Tao commenced part-time studies in mathematics at Flinders University. By the time he was 16, he'd finished his science degree. He got his masters when he was 17 and his PhD at Princeton University at 20.

His two brothers, one of whom is autistic, are also prodigiously accomplished.

Things could have been different for Terry Tao. He might have used his brain with evil intent. "Okay, I don't think it would count as evil, but a lot of my PhDs, they go into the finance industry, Wall Street, and typically they earn ridiculous salaries. In fact, I don't even know exactly how much they earn. It's probably good for my health not to know." He is now absent-mindedly stroking the family's fluffy tortoiseshell cat, which has jumped onto his lap. Tao himself was once head-hunted by a hedge fund. "But I don't know, these things never sort of really interested me."

He's done some consultancy work for the US intelligence bureau, the National Security Agency. "It's not as glamorous as it sounds. You spend a year going through security clearance and then you work on some problems which you don't know where they came from, they don't tell you that much," he says, and then corrects himself. "No, it's interesting work; it's kind of fun actually..."

MOOC Matters

Kevin Carey writes about the future of the MOOC in the NYT:

Over the course of a few months in early 2012, leading scientists from Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. started three companies to provide Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. The courses were free. Millions of students signed up. Pundits called it a revolution.

But today, enrollment in traditional colleges remains robust, and undergraduates are paying higher tuition and taking out larger loans than ever before. Universities do not seem poised to join travel agents and video stores on the ash heap of history — at least, not yet.

The failure of MOOCs to disrupt higher education has nothing to do with the quality of the courses themselves, many of which are quite good and getting better. Colleges are holding technology at bay because the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job. And that, it turns out, is mostly what college students are paying for.

Now information technology is poised to transform college degrees. When that happens, the economic foundations beneath the academy will truly begin to tremble.

Traditional college degrees represent several different kinds of information. Elite universities run admissions tournaments as a way of identifying the best and the brightest. That, in itself, is valuable data. It’s why “Harvard dropout” and “Harvard graduate” tell the job market almost exactly the same thing: “This person was good enough to get into Harvard.”

The punchline is that digital credentials are coming, and they will probably be much more detailed and specific than your traditional college transcript.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Kahnemann and Harari on the Future

Prediction is difficult, especially of the future, as Neils Bohr or Yogi Berra may have said. Via Lee, who pointed me to a blog post by Arun, which mentioned but didn't link to his source, apparently this column by Ross Douthat, which links to this Edge conversation between Nobelist Daniel Kahnemann and Historian Yuval Noah Harari.

I recommend that you skip the commentary (including this one) and go right to the original. Arun attempts to debunk Harari, or at least some excerpts he found in Douthat, but I wasn't persuaded. Douthat was more impressed but mainly seemed afraid of the threat to his religion.

Despite having already told you to read the original, and not rely on summaries by people (like myself) less bright than Harari and Kahnemann, I will now summarize what I think are Harari's main points:

(1)The changes we will see in the next 50-100 years are much more revolutionary than those of the last 100 years, mainly due to intelligent but not necessarily conscious machines and our rapidly increasing ability to manipulate the biological world, especially our own organs, genomes, etc.

(2)These changes will make most people economically useless. Compared to machines, they won't be capable of economic competition.

(3)The prospect for personal immortality is already catching the imagination of the wealthy and super-wealthy, and dramatic progress on that front may be here in fifty years.

There is much else. Kahnemann is one of our deepest thinkers, I believe, and the fact that he is very impressed with Harari should say something even to those who won't bother to study his thought.

One Harari via Douthat point that Arun took exception to is the following:

But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it's done, it's over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

A modern military can inflict tens of thousands of casualties while taking minimal casualties itself, thanks to the multiplicative factor of ever more capable machines. Robotic systems are quickly taking over warfare. We have seen a real revolution in the last ten years.

Blog Wars

Annoying whine deleted.


The relatively quick arrests in the Nemtsov killing would appear, at least at first glance, to argue against Kremlin involvement. TBD.

MOSCOW — Russian news agencies said Sunday one of the suspects in the killing of leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov has admitted involvement in the crime.

Judge Nataliya Mushnikova said that Zaur Dadaev made a statement confirming his guilt, according to the reports. They did not specify his alleged actions.

Dadaev is among five suspects detained in the Feb. 27 killing, when Nemtsov was shot while walking on a bridge near the Kremlin.

Another man, Anzor Gubashev, was charged in the killing, and a hearing for three other unnamed suspects was under way, court spokeswoman Anna Fadeeva said earlier Sunday.

Far Horizons

You know that cute galaxy you saw in the NASA travel posters? Out at z = 1.8 redshift? (A few billion light years away). Were you planning to visit?

Well you can forget it. It's already gone. Over the the cosmic horizon. Already separating from us at more than the speed of light - so you can't send a message either. Oh, we will still get light from it for a while, but none of that light will come from its cosmic (co-moving) now. All the light (or anything else) we will ever get from it has already been emitted.

Of course that assumes that the dark energy really is an effective cosmic constant, and that the universe will continue (has continued) to accelerate its expansion. That galaxy, and all the others except for our local group will gradually fade out to infinite red shift over the horizon. But it's still not too late to book a trip to more or less anywhere in the local super cluster.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Never Mind

I was slow to pick this up, but I finally figured out that Wolfgang's reason for leaving was not the post I cited in the comments, but this one: Scott Aaronson and Andrew Sullivan on Gaza. If I may recapitulate the bidding, Cynthia asserted that the strength of the Israel Lobby in the US was due to the large number of Jewish Billionires, Wolfgang called her a Nazi, I chided him for preferring insult to fact and noted that the Israel Lobby had a large fundamentalist Christian component after which Wolfgang bailed.

Apparently he thinks any discussion of the existence of an Israel lobby is proof of Nazi sympathy.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Eugenics II

Over the past few years technologies have been developed that make editing the human germ line a real possibility. The designer baby is clearly in our headlights. Stephen Hsu has a highly relevant story. A few excerpts from the MIT Technology Review article:

Scientists are developing ways to edit the DNA of tomorrow’s children. Should they stop before it’s too late?


When I visited the lab last June, Church proposed that I speak to a young postdoctoral scientist named Luhan Yang, a Harvard recruit from Beijing who’d been a key player in developing a new, powerful technology for editing DNA called CRISPR-Cas9. With Church, Yang had founded a small company to engineer the genomes of pigs and cattle, sliding in beneficial genes and editing away bad ones.

As I listened to Yang, I waited for a chance to ask my real questions: Can any of this be done to human beings? Can we improve the human gene pool? The position of much of mainstream science has been that such meddling would be unsafe, irresponsible, and even impossible. But Yang didn’t hesitate. Yes, of course, she said. In fact, the Harvard laboratory had a project to determine how it could be achieved. She flipped open her laptop to a PowerPoint slide titled “Germline Editing Meeting.”

One problem is that perfectly defensible strategies like editing out fatal recessive genes coexist with the possibility of engineering superior football players, soldiers, and scientists.

The human race is rapidly acquiring godlike powers in this area as in others. The challenge is to use such powers wisely.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Alternatives? Please!

I think I've made it pretty clear that I don't like any of the prominent Republican Presidential candidates, and there are some that I actively despise. So I've spent a lot of energy trying to convince myself that Hillary would be a good President, and I'm not doing that well. Aside from the fact that she is too old, too greedy and too Clinton, there is that Clinton knack for unforced errors.

Frank Bruni, a pretty reliable liberal and feminist, has a more in sorrow than anger meditation on her latest misadventure, the private emails she relied on as Secretary of State.

They know what the caricature of them is and they play right into it. They’re familiar with the rap against them and generously feed it. And they tune out their critics, at least the ones they’re not savaging.

Although they’ve long been derided for a surrender of principle when they’re on the hunt for donations, their foundation has raked in money in a manner that opens them up to fresh, predictable accusations of that.

Although they’ve long been cast as greedy — remember the china, flatware and furniture carted out of the White House? — they hit the speaking circuit in a way that only strengthened that impression. Audiences of Wall Street bankers, fees in the hundreds of thousands, extra coddling: They have demanded, received and inevitably been blasted for all of that.

And now, from Michael Schmidt’s story in The Times, we learn that Hillary’s response to her reputation for flouting rules and operating in secrecy was to put what could be construed as a cloak over her communications as secretary of state by using only a private email account.

The Real Imperialist Pigs

Via Marginal Revolution:

Ms Schneider reckons that more than half of the world’s feed crops will soon be eaten by Chinese pigs.

- See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/03/ms-schneiders-china-estimate-of-the-day.html#sthash.lePDQVZ9.dpuf

My Idiotic Stance on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

For Lee, who came up with the description.

My stance, such as it is, is that the two should stop killing each other and make peace. I don't have any better ideas as to how this can be accomplished than anyone else, but the alternatives look pretty grim to me.

Lee suggested that it was "my stance" that enraged Wolfgang, but if you check the record here: Our Israel Problem you will see that the statement that he called "delusional" was the well documented fact/claim that Israel has taken a lot of Palestinian land by force and fear. He could have either justified those seizures or tried to deny them, but he chose to insult and run - what Lee called a "rational response."

However, I do have a lot of guilt about chasing Wolfgang off. That guilt is based on feeling I have that what really angered him was my saying that the people most responsible for Israel were both Austrians, Hitler and Herzl. That was a nasty, nationalist comment and I regret it.

As a kid I learned that "Germans and Austrians" had murdered a bunch of my relatives and millions of Jews and others. Of course neither Wolfgang nor any significant fraction of his countrymen were even born them, so pretending to hold them responsible is despicable and irrational, and I sincerely apologize for this lapse into unreasonable prejudice. Anger brings these evil demons to the fore.

Oh well.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Send in the Clowns

I'm thinking of Larry Kudlow, Stephen Moore, and Art Laffer. They are the reliable mouthpieces of what former President George H W Bush called "Voodoo economics," and their popularity is undiminished by a record of confident predictions that turned out to be absurdly wrong. The important point is that their economics is narrowly tailored to the convenience of the super rich zillionaires who finance the right-wing propaganda institutes.

Paul Krugman gives them a few swats here.

Jonathan Chait does insults better than almost anyone; in his recent note on Larry Kudlow, he declares that

The interesting thing about Kudlow’s continuing influence over conservative thought is that he has elevated flamboyant wrongness to a kind of performance art.

And Chait doesn’t even mention LK’s greatest hits — his sneers at “bubbleheads” who thought something was amiss with housing prices, his warnings about runaway inflation in 2009-10, his declaration that a high stock market is a vote of confidence for the president — but only, apparently, if said president is Republican.

Immunity to fact and logic is very important cultural value for the American conservative.


I don’t think it’s an accident that Kudlow still dresses like Gordon Gekko after all these years.

Celebrity Science

Generally speaking, scientists are only slightly more likely to become celebrities than plumbers and electricians. The most obscure movie actor is usually celebrated a good deal more than the most famous scientist. Bee has an blog post entitled Are pop star scientists bad for science? I don't think it's at all up to her usual high standard, mostly because she doesn't consider how scientists become celebrities, and wastes a lot of words on silly fantasies, like imagining that deGrasse Tyson commented on a paper of hers.

The scientists she mentions, Einstein, Sagan, Feynman, Hawking, and deGrasse Tyson are interesting but rather diverse examples. Einstein, the transcendent genius of his age, became famous because his theories revolutionized our understanding of time. Like Newton, he was a legend in his own lifetime almost solely because of his work.

Sagan, Feynman and Hawking were and are very important scientific contributors, but like deGrasse Tyson are famous not for their work but for their popularization of science and scientific life. Feynman was a legend in physics long before he became a more general celebrity. That legend was composed of roughly equal parts of his accomplishment, his larger than life personality, and his gift for subtle self-promotion as a raconteur.

My point is that some almost freakish concatenation of circumstances is necessary for a scientist to become a celebrity, and skill at explaining science to the public is usually a key component. Unless you think that the general public should be kept ignorant of science it's foolish to criticize "celebrity science".

Sunday, March 01, 2015

More of the Same

Political murder is a hallmark of the Putin era. Balazs Penz has a rundown for Bloomberg.

One of Our Robots is Missing

It's Rumelia, of course. Rumelia is our Roomba vacuuming robot. She is maddeningly inefficient in her vacuuming patterns, but she does love those places I never vacuumed before I had a robot - under the couch, under desks, under any heavy piece of furniture.

That's where we will probably find her - out of juice and asleep.

More Nemtsov

Lumo points out that Nemtsov was a physicist before politics.

Michael Birnbaum, writing in The Washington Post, notes that the location of the assassination, Red Square, is always blanketed with a heavy security presence. How could the murder have taken place and escaped the notice at the doorstep of the Kremlin?

Authorities announced they were investigating a slew of possibilities, none of which included what Putin critics said was a primary suspect: the Kremlin itself. Many in the opposition reasoned that, at minimum, the security services that blanket Red Square must have had advance warning of Nemtsov’s fate.

One can at least imagine that a highly placed security official plotted the crime just to discredit Putin - but the near certainty of being caught would be a big deterrent.