Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Totems of the Tribe

Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, has attracted a lot of hostility for refusing to stand during the National Anthem. He is, he says, protesting police brutality against blacks. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the great former UCLA and Lakers center, has defended his right to protest in an editorial.

Of course Kareem is right. There are no laws, so far as I know, dictating homage to the flag or National anthem. This isn't like North Korea, where a deputy premier can be shot (with an anti-aircraft gun) for falling asleep while the Dear Leader is talking.

I'm interested in why this makes people so mad, and, being the opinionated character that I am, I have a theory. Football is a highly tribal activity. The flag and anthem are tribal totems - that's why they play the anthem at sporting events. By disrespecting the tribal totems, Kaepernick is disrespecting the tribe, and the members of the tribe feel betrayed.

So I agree that Kaepernick has a right to protest. But the fans, who ultimately pay his salary, also have a right to be angry. I personally doubt that his type of protest is likely to be effective, but he has a right to do it. His right to be an NFL quarterback is likely to have far more to do with his completion percentage than his protest.

UPDATE: Maybe it's worse for him than I thought. Worse than murder for some NFL execs, they say. From Josh Levin:

We’ve heard enough from players and coaches to know Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem is not super-duper popular in the NFL. A new story from Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman suggests that the league’s front-office types basically think Kaepernick murdered someone.

Freeman spoke to seven team executives, none of whom is identified by name. We don’t know, then, whether any of these folks are in position to wield the axes they’re grinding. What we do know is that all seven really, really hate Colin Kaepernick. “Each executive said he believes Kaepernick will likely get released by the 49ers—and never play in the NFL again,” Freeman writes. One exec calls the 49ers quarterback “a traitor.” Another says, “F--k that guy.” (Dashes in the original story.) Here are words of wisdom from a third:

One executive said he hasn't seen this much collective dislike among front office members regarding a player since Rae Carruth. Remember Rae Carruth? He's still in prison for the plot to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

NFL execs seem to be a patriotic bunch.

Two Cultures

Ever since C P Snow pondered the question of how the scientific and liberal arts cultures came to separate, various people have fussed about it, regretted it, and tried to devise cures - like forcing Caltech students to take a potful of "Hum" courses. After reading a dozen or so reviews of Tom Wolfe's new book, The Kingdom of Speech, all of them apparently by literary types, and only one of which displayed any grasp of the subject, the following crude explanation bubbled up from my subconscious: the literary types are just too fucking dumb to be worth talking to.

Bad pig! That was unworthy of me. But really, if a famous literary and journalistic figure decides to write on the history and content of the theory of evolution, couldn't Time, Kirkus, NPR, the NYT and numerous others find somebody who knows something about the subject to write about it? Apparently not. One such idiot wrote that the book was "sure to provoke a lively debate."

Maybe among the ignorant. Among those understand the subject, it just provokes anger that some famous ignoramus has chosen to pollute the language with his stupidities.

UPDATE: Finally, a major news source gets somebody qualified to review and demolish Tom Wolfe's ridiculous attack on evolution. Jerry Coyne, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolution takes out the trash in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the NYT has given us reviews by two people who have no idea what they are talking about, the second (by Caitlin Flanagan) even more idiotic than the first. Countless other supposed purveyors of news have done the same, supplying idiotic reviews of dangerous nonsense by people who have zero qualifications to judge.


But in fact Wolfe doesn’t even understand the theory he so despises. Evolution, he argues, isn’t a “scientific hypothesis” because nobody’s seen it happen, there’s no observation that could falsify it, it yields no predictions and it doesn’t “illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science.” Wrong — four times over. We’ve seen evolution via real-time observations and ordered series of fossils; evolution could be falsified by finding fossils out of place, such as that of a rabbit in 400 million-year-old sediments; and evolution certainly makes predictions (Darwin predicted, correctly, that human ancestors evolved in Africa). As for evolution’s supposed failure to solve biological puzzles, Wolfe might revisit Darwin’s description of how evolution not only unlocks enigmas about embryology and vestigial organs, but clarifies some perplexing geographic ranges of animals and plants. Or he could rouse himself to read recent biology journals, which describe multitudes of evolutionary riddles being solved.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

More Wrong Stuff from Tom Wolfe

An excerpt from Wolfe's book appears in the Daily Beast. His starting point is a paper by a few students of Speech (including Chomsky). My take is that he both misunderstands and sensationalizes the paper. Also, he has no clue as to how science works.

One bright night in the year 2016, my face aglow with godknows how many MilliGAUSS of x-radiation from the computer screen in front of me, I was surfing the net when I moused upon a web node reading: THE MYSTERY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION.1 It seems that eight heavyweight Evolutionists2—linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists—had published an article announcing they were giving up, throwing in the towel, folding, crapping out when it came to the question of where speech—language—comes from and how it works.

“The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever,” they concluded. Not only that, they sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever finding the answer. Oh, we’ll keep trying, they said gamely… but we’ll have to start from zero again. One of the eight was the biggest name in the history of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. “In the last 40 years,” he and the other seven were saying, “there has been an explosion of research on this problem,” and all it had produced was a colossal waste of time by some of the greatest minds in academia.

The conclusion, of course, was his own invention. As to the cited paper, I think it would be fairer to say that the research had not answered the questions Chomsky wanted answered - at least not in the way he wanted them answered. They concern the way syntax and grammar are generated in the brain. Of course there are innumerable questions about the brain which cannot yet be answered.

This isn't one of them, but I am surprised that a genius like Wolfe can be so ignorant of the most fundamental facts of civilization.

Everybody Gets Senile Sometime?

If they live long enough. Tom Wolfe is 85, and has just published a book attacking Darwin and Chomsky. Darwin is the ultimate hard target, and Chomsky is more than a bit softer, but if this NYT review is a guide, Wolfe is equally off base against him.

Secondarily [besides dissing Chuck D], this book is a rebuke of the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, whom Mr. Wolfe refers to as “Noam Charisma.” Rebuke is actually too frivolous a word for the contumely Mr. Wolfe looses in his direction. More precisely, he tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff.

Mr. Wolfe does not complain about evolution on religious grounds; in fact, he is an atheist. He begins by declaring the notion of the big bang to be vaguely ridiculous, and likens it to a mythopoetic bedtime story. Everything came from nothing?

Most essentially, Mr. Wolfe employs new research from the controversial anthropologist Daniel Everett to argue that the power of speech — man’s signal attribute — is not the product of evolution at all but rather a tool that man created. “Bango!” Mr. Wolfe writes. “There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal.” He wonders how airtight the theory of evolution can be if it does not account for such a thing. “What is it,” he asks, “that has left endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, utterly baffled when it comes to speech?”

I'm very unlikely to read this book, mostly because I'm confident that there is little likelihood of finding anything of value in it, but also because I find it vaguely disrespectful to delve into the ravings of a genius who has gone nuts.

I'm reminded of a story that I think was told by Sam Trieman, the longtime editor of PRL. He and another physicist attended a lecture by Eddington in which Eddington espoused some of the theories of his old age. Appalled, he turned to the other guy (Ulam?) and asked: "Oh my God, is that going to happen to us?" Ulam replied, "Don't worry Sam. A genius like Eddington may go nuts, but guys like you just get dumber and dumber."

UPDATE: A much more intelligent review of the book is here in the WSJ. The author, Charles C Mann, actually knows enough to point out some of Wolfe's nonsense:

All histories of evolution sing this song, but Mr. Wolfe’s version adds weird notes. Darwin’s “real dream,” he claims, was to show the world that “man was just an animal himself.” This, he writes, was “the central point of his entire theory from the beginning.” What makes humans human? Speech and language, says Mr. Wolfe. Thus “proving that speech evolved from sounds uttered by lower animals became Darwin’s obsession.”

Obsession? By this point, I was scribbling “???” in the margins. Darwin did mull over the place of humankind in general and speech and language in particular. If speech and language, our defining features, were produced by natural selection, how, exactly, was the trick performed? There is an enormous gap between animal sounds—baboons barking and beagles baying—and “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Invoking natural selection to explain the origins of speech can seem like claiming that F-16s evolved from toy balloons by the accumulation of chance variations. But Darwin appears to have been anything but obsessed by the puzzle. His musings about speech occupy fewer than 20 of the more than 1,000 pages of his evolution notebooks, all from the late 1830s, according to an exhaustive study by historian Stephen Alter.

Quickly, and with no evident doubt, Darwin concluded that language and the human brain had probably “coevolved.” The slow development of the one fed the development of the other, and vice versa—a positive feedback loop. But because Darwin didn’t know how to flesh out this intuition, because talking about human evolution risked angering the forces of Christianity, and because, above all, he was most interested in his general ideas on evolution, he left all discussion of speech out of his masterwork, “On the Origin of Species” (1859, the year after Wallace’s letter).

And of course this final stupidity:

“Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

Student Unions

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate teaching assistants may unionize. About time. College athletes should be next. Here is what the College Athletes Players Association wants:

Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players. Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury.

Reduce contact in practices like the NFL and Pop Warner have done, place independent concussion experts on the sidelines, and establish uniform return to play protocols.

Improving graduation rates. Establish an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degree and reward those who graduate on time.

Consistent with evolving NCAA regulations or future legal mandates, increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.

Securing due process rights. Players should not be punished simply because they are accused of a rule violation, and any punishments levied should be consistent across campuses.

I would actually be happier with an anti-trust ruling that held that the NCAA was an illegal conspiracy in restraint of trade.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Theory 0; Observation 1

Spouse - I could hear the band practicing this morning.

Theorist - That's probably because the morning inversion caused the sound waves to refract downwards.

Spouse - I think it's because I drove by the high school practice field with my window open.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Trump's Leninist?

Ronald Radosh, writing in the Daily Beast:

Why has the Trump campaign taken as its new head a self-described Leninist? I met Steve Bannon—the executive director of who’s now become the chief executive of the Trump campaign, replacing the newly resigned Paul Manafort—at a book party held in his Capitol Hill townhouse in early 2014.

We were standing next to a picture of his daughter, a West Point graduate, who at the time was a lieutenant in the 101 Airborne Division serving in Iraq. The picture was notable because she was sitting on what was once Saddam Hussein’s gold throne with a machine gun on her lap. “I’m very proud of her,” Bannon said.

Then we had a long talk about his approach to politics. He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.

The Trump saga gets odder and odder.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Why Cuba is Still Communist

Recent years have seen the global collapse of Communism. All of the major Communist nations have abolished many of their Marxist and Leninist features, as have all but a tiny handful of minor Communist nations. Cuba is one of the few exceptions. I'm inclined to think that the US, and in particular, the Cuban exile community, are mostly to blame - after Castro, I mean. How so?

Our first mistake was welcoming Cuban exiles. Yes, it was the humane thing, but it also ensured that both those most hostile to the Castro regime and those most ambitious and talented would be out of Cuba and unable to influence its historical trajectory. The second mistake was carrying out an official and totally ineffective campaign to overthrow Castro. This gave Castro a totally convincing way of persuading many of the Cuban people that outside enemies were plotting against them. Nothing unifies a people like an external threat. Moreover, exile types like our correspondent Fernando frequently proclaim their desire to "kill all the Communists." Since Cuba is a one party (Communist) state, this give the entire political elite extra special reason to fear and oppose those outsiders.

The exiles, having never grasped the first principle of hole theory, remain resolutely determined to keep doing the same things that have failed utterly for half a century.

The US had plenty of reason to get rid of Castro. He was a very dangerous and destructive neighbor, a neighbor who nearly forced the US into turning Cuba into a sea of molten radioactive glass. We did manage to contain him, in a compromise that has worked for us for half a century. It was not so hot for the Cuban people - but probably better than being turned into radioactive ash.

Book Review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Despite my more or less disastrous encounter with the chapter on Phi, Tononi's theory of consciousness, I think this is a pretty good book. One can learn a lot about what makes consciousness possible and impossible, and the often ingenious techniques used to investigate it. Christof Koch's Consciousness has all that and more: historical and philosophical background of the problem, meditations on his own history and behavior, and some interesting stuff on his mentor and "Sun," Francis Crick. I recommend it to anyone interested in this fundamental concept.

Koch is confident that consciousness is not something exclusively human. Chimps, dogs, mice and birds have some version of it. Perhaps even bees and flies have it. Many of the key insights into it have come from investigations of the mouse brain, a key target of the Allen Institute that Koch leads.

Koch's studies have led him to a certain amount of respect for our junior partners in consciousness:

Then, in 2004, Susan Blackmore, an intrepid British psychologist with rainbow-colored hair, interviewed me for a book of hers. I had just concluded a riff on mouse consciousness with a plea to not kill mice thoughtlessly, as many researchers who work with them do, when Susan asked me, out of the blue, whether I ate meat. We looked at each other for a while, silently, until I sighed to cover up my embarrassment at having been revealed a hypocrite. This incident really bothered me.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 160). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

He still eats fish.

More on the book from me at:

Meteorology vs. Theology

In the Middle Ages, and well into the Eighteenth Century, the dominant theory of lightning was that it was the work of "The Prince of the Power of the Air," AKA, the Devil. It was noticed, of course, that lofty church spires often attracted Satan's attention. Consequently, they were heavily protected by the theological and magical means available: blessings, crosses, statues of angels, the burning of occasional suspicious witches, and especially, by bells and their ringing during storms. These means were not notably successful. Benjamin Franklin's lighting rods were initially regarded as heretical and blasphemous. From A.D. White's 1898 "A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom"

In England, the first lightning conductor upon a church was not put up until 1762, ten years after Franklin's discovery. The spire of St. Bride's Church in London was greatly injured by lightning in 1750, and in 1764 a storm so wrecked its masonry that it had to be mainly rebuilt; yet for years after this the authorities refused to attach a lightning-rod. The Protestant Cathedral of St. Paul's, in London, was not protected until sixteen years after Franklin's discovery, and the tower of the great Protestant church at Hamburg not until a year later still. As late as 1783 it was declared in Germany, on excellent authority, that within a space of thirty-three years nearly four hundred towers had been damaged and one hundred and twenty bell-ringers killed.

In Roman Catholic countries a similar prejudice was shown, and its cost at times was heavy. In Austria, the church of Rosenberg, in the mountains of Carinthia, was struck so frequently and with such loss of life that the peasants feared at last to attend service. Three times was the spire rebuilt, and it was not until 1778--twenty-six years after Franklin's discovery--that the authorities permitted a rod to be attached. Then all trouble ceased.

A typical case in Italy was that of the tower of St. Mark's, at Venice. In spite of the angel at its summit and the bells consecrated to ward off the powers of the air, and the relics in the cathedral hard by, and the processions in the adjacent square, the tower was frequently injured and even ruined by lightning. In 1388 it was badly shattered; in 1417, and again in 1489, the wooden spire surmounting it was utterly consumed; it was again greatly injured in 1548, 1565, 1653, and in 1745 was struck so powerfully that the whole tower, which had been rebuilt of stone and brick, was shattered in thirty-seven places. Although the invention of Franklin had been introduced into Italy by the physicist Beccaria, the tower of St. Mark's still went unprotected, and was again badly struck in 1761 and 1762; and not until 1766--fourteen years after Franklin's discovery--was a lightning-rod placed upon it; and it has never been struck since.

So, too, though the beautiful tower of the Cathedral of Siena, protected by all possible theological means, had been struck again and again, much opposition was shown to placing upon it what was generally known as "the heretical rod" "but the tower was at last protected by Franklin's invention, and in 1777, though a very heavy bolt passed down the rod, the church received not the slightest injury. This served to reconcile theology and science, so far as that city was concerned; but the case which did most to convert the Italian theologians to the scientific view was that of the church of San Nazaro, at Brescia. The Republic of Venice had stored in the vaults of this church over two hundred thousand pounds of powder. In 1767, seventeen years after Franklin's discovery, no rod having been placed upon it, it was struck by lightning, the powder in the vaults was exploded, one sixth of the entire city destroyed, and over three thousand lives were lost.

Of course we have not yet transcended this superstition. I seem to recall the governor of Louisiana proposing to protect her State against hurricane Katrina by "praying it down to a category 3." Prayer also featured heavily in the Republican Party's proposals for dealing with gun violence.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Real Thing

A bit more Koch:

turning water into wine is so outlandish that it can be rejected using Occam’s razor. It is far more likely that something else, obeying the laws of physics, was the cause. Maybe the wedding organizers discovered long-forgotten flasks of wine in the basement. Or a guest brought the wine as a gift. Or the story was made up to cement Jesus’ reputation as the true Messiah.

Remember Sherlock Holmes’ advice: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Miracles are not in the cards. The fabric of everyday reality is woven too tightly for it to be pulled asunder by extranatural forces. I’m afraid that God is an absentee cosmic landlord. If we want things to happen down here, we had better take care of them ourselves. Nobody else is going to do it for us.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (pp. 157-158). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I dunno. Turning water into wine? If grapes and yeast can do it, why not a Supreme? Sounds like technology to me.

Friday, August 19, 2016

More on Integrated Information Theory (IIT)

The Chapter on IIT in Christof Koch's book, Consciousness, seems to be nearly isomorphic to this Scientific American article that he wrote in 2009.

Lubosh doesn't like Scott's take on IIT, mostly, I think, because he doesn't like Scott. He was, I suppose, provoked, since Scott did describe him as a "spiteful human being."

Thursday, August 18, 2016


From Scott Aaronson, hat tip to Lee. His objections to Integrated Information Theory, though better informed, line up quite well with mine. I should mention that the author of IIT, which I have more or less attributed to Koch, is really Tononi.

Why I Am Not An Integrated Information Theorist (or, The Unconscious Expander)

Giulio Tononi and Me: A Phi-nal Exchange

Lochte: Dog ate my Homework

Police: Videotape says dog was sleeping peacefully the whole time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Into the Woods

...Or, the Integro-Differential theory of consciousness. Perhaps you would suspect from this that this theory has something to do with the calculus of Leibniz and Newton. So far as I can tell, that's not it at all. Instead, Koch and collaborators have constructed - claim to have constructed - a theory of consciousness that depends on the degree of differentiation and integration of a complex system. A sample:

Integrated information theory introduces a precise measure capturing the extent of consciousness called Φ, or phi (and pronounced “fi”). Expressed in bits, Φ quantifies the reduction of uncertainty that occurs in a system, above and beyond the information generated independently by its parts, when that system enters a particular state. (Remember, information is the reduction of uncertainty.) The parts— the modules— of the system account for as much nonintegrated, independent information as possible. Thus, if all of the individual chunks of the brain taken in isolation already account for much of the information, little further integration has occurred. Φ measures how much the network, in its current state, is synergistic, the extent to which the system is more than the sum of its parts. Thus, Φ can also be considered to be a measure of the holism of the network.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 127). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I have no idea what the heck that means. My first reaction was that Koch had taken all those Paul Allen $ and invested them in magic mushrooms. Even if I could figure out what the reduction of uncertainty of the system is when I think about Britney Spears or Homer's "wine dark sea," how does that number connect with consciousness?

Koch adds:

Integrated information theory makes a number of predictions. One of the more counterintuitive, and therefore powerful, ones is that integrated information arises from causal interactions within the system. When those interactions can’t take place anymore, even though the actual state of the system remains unchanged, Φ shrinks.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 127). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.


The state of any physical system can be mapped onto a shape in this fantastically multidimensional qualia space. Its surfaces are facets. The technical term for this shape is polytope, but I prefer the more poetic crystal. A nervous network in any one particular state has an associated shape in qualia space; it is made out of informational relationships. If the network transitions to a different state, the crystal changes, reflecting the informational relationships among the parts of the network. Each conscious experience is fully and completely described by its associated crystal, and each state feels different because each crystal is utterly unique. The crystal for seeing red is in some unique geometric way different from the one associated with seeing green. And the topology of color experiences will be different from that for seeing movement or smelling fish.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 130). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I hope you found that at least as illuminating as I did.

Sweden vs. Brazil

Wouldn't it have been simpler to skip all the running around and just go directly to penalty kicks?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

More Christof Koch: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Richard Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen is a series of four operas centered on the conflict between fate and freedom. Unrestrained by fear or by the mores of society, the hero, Siegfried, kills the dragon, walks through the ring of fire to woo Brünhilde, and shatters the spear of Wotan, precipitating the destruction of the old world order of the gods. Siegfried follows no laws but his inner desires and impulses. He is free, but he acts blindly, without understanding the consequences of his actions. (It is likely that Siegfried had lesions in his amygdala— he did not know fear— and his ventromedial prefrontal cortex, depriving him of decision-making skills. Genetic and developmental factors contributed to his dysfunctional behavior: his parents were siblings; he was raised as an orphan by a sole caretaker, a quarrelsome dwarf obsessed with a hoard of gold; and he grew up isolated in the depth of the German forest. This lack of social skills ultimately led to his murder at the hand of Hagen, a trusted friend.)

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (pp. 94-95). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Consciousness as a Conversation

In summary, local properties of the cortex and its satellite structures mediate the specific content of consciousness, whereas global properties are critical for sustaining consciousness per se. For a coherent coalition of neurons to assemble at all— and for awareness to emerge— the cortico-thalamic complex needs to be suffused with neurotransmitters, chemicals released by the long and winding tentacles of neurons in the deeper and older parts of the brain. Both local and global aspects are critical for consciousness.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 74). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Questions: $50

Another lovely article by Sabine Hossenfelder. Excerpt:

It began after I started as a teaching assistant at the department of physics. The first note was a classic – it proved Albert Einstein wrong. The second one solved the problem of quantum mechanics by dividing several equations through zero, a feat that supposedly explained non-determinism. The next correspondent offered a Theory of Everything, and complained that the academic mainstream was ignoring his insights.

I work in theoretical physics, specifically quantum gravity. In my field, we all get them: the emails from amateur physicists who are convinced that they have solved a big problem, normally without understanding the problem in the first place. Like many of my colleagues, I would reply with advice, references and lecture notes. And, like my colleagues, I noticed that the effort was futile. The gap was too large; these were people who lacked even the basic knowledge to work in the area they wanted to contribute to. With a feeling of guilt, I stopped replying.

Then they came back into my life. I had graduated and moved to another job, then another. I’d had temporary contracts of between three months and five years. It normally works out somehow, but sometimes there’d be a gap between the end of one contract and the start of the next. This happened again last year. I have kids, and rent to pay, so I tried to think of creative ways to capitalise on 15 years of research experience.

As long as you have funding, quantum gravity is basic research at its finest. If not, it’s pretty much useless knowledge. Who, I wondered, could possibly need someone who knows the ins and outs of attempts to unify the forces and unravel the quantum behaviour of space-time? I thought of all the theories of everything in my inbox. And I put up a note on my blog offering physics consultation, including help with theory development: ‘Talk to a physicist. Call me on Skype. $50 per 20 minutes.’

If you wonder how it turned out, read the article.

Cowardly Soccer

After losing, US goalie Hope Solo apparently accused the Swedish team of playing "cowardly soccer." Of course what they really did was play defensive soccer, the strategy that they correctly thought would give them the best chance of winning. There is nothing illegal, unethical, or unsportsmanlike about this, but it does tend to make for boring soccer, and produced the dreaded penalty shootout, which is always a bit like deciding the game by a coin toss.

The biggest problem with soccer has long been its defensive predominance. One can't imagine an American football game remaining competitive if one side had been reduced to ten players, for example. Because the defense has such a strong advantage, there is always the temptation for the weaker team to sit back and tempt the stronger team into over-committing, or just wait for the coin-flip like penalty shootout.

I suggest one modest change in the Olympic and World Cup rules which would get rid of the penalty shootout and many of the draws: go to Swiss system pairing and scoring (like that used in chess). In this system, there would be no groups but there would be seeding. In the first round, the highest seeded teams would be paired with the weakest, and future round seedings would pair like scores with like. All teams would play the same number of games, with wins scored as 3 points, draws as 1 (or maybe 4/3). The final round would pair the highest scores and first place would go to the highest score. All teams would play the whole Olympics and good teams would still be under pressure to attack, since a win would be worth more than two draws.

Ouch! US out.

Sweden wins on penalties, in a game in which both sides got swindled by the refs. The US failure to shoot straight made the difference in a game in which it dominated possessions and shots but couldn't manage to convert. It looks like the era of US dominance in women's soccer is over.

Maybe Trump could build a wall...

Quale Hunting

Hunting for qualia is Christof Koch's life. His scientific quest is the nature, location, and scientific description of consciousness. He tells the story of that quest in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

Some early excerpts that capture the personal feel of the book:

At this point, I need to introduce qualia, a concept beloved by philosophers of mind. Qualia is the plural of quale. What it feels like to have a particular experience is the quale of that experience: The quale of the color red is what is common to such disparate percepts as seeing a red sunset, the red flag of China, arterial blood, a ruby gemstone, and Homer’s wine-dark sea.


In this book, I highlight stories from the front lines of modern research into the neurobiology of consciousness. Just as light presupposes its absence, darkness, so consciousness presupposes the unconscious. As Sigmund Freud, Pierre Janet, and others realized in the late nineteenth century, much of what goes on in our head is inaccessible to our mind— is not conscious.


I was born in 1956 in Kansas City, Missouri, one year after my brother Michael. Today, you can’t tell my Midwestern origin, as I retain a fairly strong German accent. We left two years later and started a peripatetic existence, staying four years in Amsterdam, where my younger brother, Andreas, was born. Subsequently, our family lived in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany. After elementary public school and two years at a Jesuit Gymnasium, it was time to move back across the Atlantic, to Ottawa.


In a lifetime of teaching, working, and debating with some of the smartest people on the planet, I’ve encountered brilliance and high achievement, but rarely true genius. Francis [Crick] was an intellectual giant, with the clearest and deepest mind I have ever met. He could take the same information as anybody else, read the same papers, yet come up with a totally novel question or inference. The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, a good friend of us both, recollects that the experience of meeting Francis was “a little like sitting next to an intellectual nuclear reactor . . . . I never had a feeling of such incandescence.”


I believe that qualia are properties of the natural world. They do not have a divine or supernatural origin. Rather, they are the consequences of unknown laws that I would like to uncover.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 28). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

The substance, embodied in specific experiments and observations, is tougher to capture in a brief excerpt, but here is one:

You are lying inside a cramped cylinder [an MRI scanner], desperately trying to keep still, to not even bat an eyelid, as any movement causes the signals to wash out. Through a mirror, you stare at a computer monitor displaying the ace of hearts from a deck of cards while the machine monitors blood flow in your brain. Neuroscientists are not good at sleight of hand, so they manipulate what you see by projecting a precisely timed second image into your eyes. If done well, this misdirection works as well as the magician’s— you won’t see the ace of hearts. The second image masks the first one, rendering the ace invisible. You look, but don’t see, inverting Yogi Berra’s famous witticism “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This technique was perfected by my then-graduate student Naotsugu Tsuchiya who called it continuous flash suppression. It works by projecting the image of the playing card into one of your eyes while continuously flashing a multitude of brightly colored, overlapping rectangles— like those of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian— into the other eye. If you wink with this eye, the ace of hearts becomes visible, but if you keep both eyes open, the ace remains hidden for minutes on end, camouflaged by the ever-changing display of colored rectangles that distracts you.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (pp. 45-46). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

It can be shown that many portions of the brain receive the signal of the hidden card, but not the seat of consciousness. This in turn is related to the pattern of neuronal connnections between the visual processing centers of the brain and the absence of direct connections all the way to the prefrontal cortex.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

About Consciousness

I'm reading Christof Koch (Consciousness: confessions of a romantic reductionist) and James Joyce (Ulysses) right now and once again pondering the nature of consciousness.

Joyce tries to reveal his characters more fully by means of his "stream of consciousness" method. I'm skeptical. If you have ever tried to turn the power of introspection onto your consciousness by asking "What am I thinking about right now?" I suspect that the answer you got was "What am I thinking about right now?" At least that's what I always get. Trying to remember what you were thinking about recently might be more fruitful, but, at least in my case, not by much.

For me, at least, only a little of what comes to my attention seems to be words. The other stuff, sensory experiences, memories, and connections, needs to be translated into words to be described. Joyce is trying to transcend the limitations of the narrative description by translating these other fragments into word fragments, but that seems to be something of a fool's errand to me. Evolution has provided us with the narrative form for the purpose of describing events, real and imagined, and also with the capability for decoding that narrative form.

If I understand correctly, Joyce's attempt to give us a more direct look at his character's thought produces a broken, spastic narrative. My guess is that he probably started with a more conventional narrative and constructed his prose to fit his notion of what it felt like in stream of consciousness. To understand it, the reader (this one, anyway) is forced to translate it back into a more conventional narrative. I liken it to writing a novel in English, having a really incompetent translator turn it into Chinese, and then forcing a reader with a poor grasp of Chinese to figure it out. This exercise has provided endless fun for generations of English lit majors, but I am less amused.

If I'm lucky, some bright literary type will explain to me just how and why I am so so wrong about this - preferably in clear declarative prose.

More later about Koch, who uses a much different method to tackle similar questions.

More grousing: the only clause that so far sticks with me is "Full fathom five thy father lies."

Of course that is Shakespeare, from the Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell. ” — William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Sc. II

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Trump Hints That Supporters Should Shoot Hillary

As quoted in Slate and elsewhere:

Trump said this about Hillary Clinton and her ability to pick liberal Supreme Court judges if she wins this November: “By the way and if she gets to pick—if she gets to pick her judges—nothing you can do folks. Although, the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.”

Time to lock him up.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Opium of the People

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, writing in the NYT Sunday Review, looks at what Americans are anxious about, and where Americans are most anxious. His research is based on google searches for such anxiety loaded terms as "panic attack."

Over the past eight years, Google search rates for anxiety have more than doubled. They are higher this year than they have been in any year since Google searches were first tracked in 2004.

So far, 2016 has been tops for searches for driving anxiety, travel anxiety, separation anxiety, anxiety at work, anxiety at school and anxiety at home.

Americans have also become increasingly terrified of the morning. Searches for “anxiety in the morning” have risen threefold over the past decade. But this is nothing compared with the fear of night. Searches for “anxiety at night” have risen ninefold.

Anxiety is higher where people are less educated, but anxiety searches don't appear to be correlated with terrorism, Donald Trump, or Trump's fear mongering. They are related to the state of the economy.

I did find two factors that cause anxiety. The first — and this is hardly a surprise — is a major recession. States that were more deeply affected by the Great Recession saw bigger increases in anxiety during and after the recession. I estimate that each percentage point increase in unemployment is associated with a 1.4 percent increase in anxiety.

The second was not something I had thought about, so let me explain how I even stumbled upon the possibility. Google Correlate is a service that makes data available to researchers so that they can test which searches are most frequently made in the weeks a particular search is made. For example, at certain times of year, when people are searching a lot for “sweaters,” Google Correlate tells us they are also searching for “scarves,” “fleece pajama pants” and “hot cocoa.”

A few weeks ago, I put “panic attack” in Google Correlate, and one of the highest correlated search queries was “opiate withdrawal.” Panic attacks are a known symptom of opiate withdrawal, although looking at the striking correlations here, I wonder if they may be an even more common symptom than we had realized.

The places with high opiate prescription rates — and high search rates for opiate withdrawal — are among the places with the highest search rates for panic attacks. These areas include Appalachia and the South.

During years in which many people complained of opiate withdrawal, many people also complained about panic attacks. Interestingly, searches for opiate withdrawal and panic attack have continued to rise over the past few years, even as opiate prescription rates have finally fallen.

So it appears that opium is still the opium of the people - and it's not really working.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Unwitting Dupe

Former CIA director Michael J. Morell on Trump:

In sharp contrast to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump has no experience on national security. Even more important, the character traits he has exhibited during the primary season suggest he would be a poor, even dangerous, commander in chief.

These traits include his obvious need for self-aggrandizement, his overreaction to perceived slights, his tendency to make decisions based on intuition, his refusal to change his views based on new information, his routine carelessness with the facts, his unwillingness to listen to others and his lack of respect for the rule of law.

The dangers that flow from Mr. Trump’s character are not just risks that would emerge if he became president. It is already damaging our national security.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.

Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

Thursday, August 04, 2016


I started reading Ulysses again. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.

James Joyce knew seventeen languages. Parts of Ulysses are written in several of them.

Joyce pioneered the use of the stream of consciousness style that heavily influenced later writers, most of whom, fortunately, knew fewer than seventeen languages. Like many a bad idea, it continues to be popular.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

I Thought Trump Was Scary

...Until I looked at these videos of hate spewing crowds from his rallies. A couple of choice epithets: "fuck that nigger!" (about the President) and "kill her!" (about Clinton).

If this isn't fascism, I don't know what is. I never thought it would thrive in the USA, but it seems to be doing pretty well.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Party of Stupid

Max Boot, military historian and adviser to several Republican Presidential candidates, takes a look at how the Republicans became the party of stupid. In his theory, it started out as a pose.

Stupidity is not an accusation that could be hurled against such prominent early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower — a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower — “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.” The John F. Kennedy presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the thinking men and women of America.

Rather than run away from the anti-intellectual label, Republicans embraced it for their own political purposes. In his “time for choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan said that the issue in the 1964 election was “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant Capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Richard M. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and the “hard hats,” while his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, issued slashing attacks on an “effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

But one tends to become what one pretends to be.

In recent years, however, the Republicans’ relationship to the realm of ideas has become more and more attenuated as talk-radio hosts and television personalities have taken over the role of defining the conservative movement that once belonged to thinkers like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and George F. Will. The Tea Party represented a populist revolt against what its activists saw as out-of-touch Republican elites in Washington.

The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be.

Mr. Trump doesn’t know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds. He can’t identify the nuclear triad, the American strategic nuclear arsenal’s delivery system. He had never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote. He thinks the Constitution has 12 Articles rather than seven. He uses the vocabulary of a fifth grader. Most damning of all, he traffics in off-the-wall conspiracy theories by insinuating that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It is hardly surprising to read Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Mr. Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal,” say, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”

I'm pretty far from Max Boot in ideology, but I think that he's got the "Party of stupid" part right.

Fire Dance

After the day's festivities at the Juggler's Association, a fire show was presented on the plaza at the El Paso Convention Center, and after the fire show, they held an open fire dance, where the public (mostly jugglers) was invited to come up and play with fire under relatively controlled conditions.

I tried to record a bit of the latter on my phone.  It will be fairly obvious that I have never done this before.