Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roads to Serfdom

One of the bibles of Libertarianism is Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. It argues, so I read, that state control of the economy and centralized planning lead to the enslavement of the individual.

I should note that I haven't read it, and don't actually plan to. Most of what I know of it comes from Wikipedia, linked above. At any rate, it seems clear to me that as with any religious document, its fans like to oversimplify and distort its message, usually to suit their own economic benefit. In particular, Hayek recognized an important role for government, especially in matters like protection of the environment, one of the favorite targets of many Libertarians.

Hayek's book had many fans, including John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell, but Orwell, in particular, was careful to point out that there was more than one road to serfdom. From the linked Wikipedia article:

George Orwell responded with both praise and criticism, stating, "in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of." Yet he also warned, "[A] return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state."

The real serfdom, we ought to remember, was not servitude to the state, but to the great landowners, and variations on that kind of serfdom have existed for thousands of years. The modern counterpart is a kind of servitude to the corporation. Of course we aren't bound to the corporation in the same way serfs were bound to the land - or are we? Old institutions like the company store may have faded away, but a potent new one is health insurance, which, in the US, is tightly linked employment in one of the sectors of the economy where providing such insurance is common.

Paul Krugman's May 22 column details many of the ways the policies of the so-called liberty loving Republicans have conspired to make American workers less free:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.

And you can make a strong case that we’re getting less free as time goes by...

At this point, however, almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause. There can’t be that many workers in possession of valuable trade secrets, especially when many of these workers are in relatively low-paying jobs. For example, one prominent case involved Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain, basically trying to ban its former franchisees from working for other sandwich makers.

At this point, in other words, noncompete clauses are in many cases less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs...

You might say, with only a bit of hyperbole, that workers in America, supposedly the land of the free, are actually creeping along the road to serfdom, yoked to corporate employers the way Russian peasants were once tied to their masters’ land. And the people pushing them down that road are the very people who cry “freedom” the loudest.

In case anyone was wondering why I hate Libertarianism. What most Libertarians seem to be looking for is the freedom to enslave others.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Smart's Don't It?

In what the NYT has labelled an "enormous success" a big genome wide association study is reputed to have found a number of gene variants associated with intelligence:

In a significant advance in the study of mental ability, a team of European and American scientists announced on Monday that they had identified 52 genes linked to intelligence in nearly 80,000 people.

These genes do not determine intelligence, however. Their combined influence is minuscule, the researchers said, suggesting that thousands more are likely to be involved and still await discovery. Just as important, intelligence is profoundly shaped by the environment.

Still, the findings could make it possible to begin new experiments into the biological basis of reasoning and problem-solving, experts said. They could even help researchers determine which interventions would be most effective for children struggling to learn.

I'm not too impressed with the story. The second quoted paragraph is misleading - I think it should say that the individual influence of the genes is miniscule (not the combined influence.) I'm also under the impression that the genes are not actually correlated with IQ test results, but with educational attainment, which is taken as a proxy for intelligence.

One of the more interesting bits in the story was this (about height, not intelligence):

But other gene studies have shown that variants in one population can fail to predict what people are like in other populations. Different variants turn out to be important in different groups, and this may well be the case with intelligence.

“If you try to predict height using the genes we’ve identified in Europeans in Africans, you’d predict all Africans are five inches shorter than Europeans, which isn’t true,” Dr. Posthuma said.

It's not obvious to me that much has been learned about the biological roots of differences in intelligence.

Sink Hole

News reports say that a small sinkhole has appeared in front of Mar a Lago, but the one that's going to suck the proprietor down is the one he is making with his own stupidity. The latest revelation is that Trump personally asked intelligence officials to shut down the Russia investigation:

The Washington Post reported, citing unnamed current and former officials, that Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers to publicly deny that any evidence of collusion existed.

He made that request after former FBI Director James Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee that his bureau was conducting an investigation into whether there was any “coordination” between Russian officials and Trump’s associates during the campaign, according to the Washington Post.

Two unnamed current and two unnamed former officials cited in the report said that Coats and Rogers deemed Trump’s request inappropriate and refused to do so.

Trump made the request to Rogers in a phone call, according to the Washington Post, and a senior NSA official documented the conversation in an internal memo written at the time.

It's no longer his corruption that shocks, but his total, moronic, stupidity.

One and A Third

George Marshall:

George Marshall, who replaced Byrnes as Secretary of State in January 1947, told a Pentagon audience some years later, “I remember, when I was Secretary of State, I was being pressed constantly, particularly when in Moscow, by radio message after radio message, to give the Russians hell. . . . When I got back I was getting the same appeal in relation to the Far East and China. At that time, my facilities for giving them hell—and I am a soldier and know something about the ability to give hell—was one and a third divisions over the entire United States.1250 That is quite a proposition when you deal with somebody with over 260 and you have one and a third.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 282). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The drastic US disarmament after World War II left the US at a drastic strategic disadvantage that made professional soldiers very nervous, especially when they looked at Stalin's quite different behavior. Truman probably did this because of his confidence in the nuclear bomb, but in fact, the US nuclear arsenal, and it's means of delivery, were both quite limited at that point.

Air Force General Curtis Lemay:

war. “The same thing happened here as everywhere else,” a disgusted Curtis LeMay would write a friend from Europe the following year. “Everyone dropped their tools and went home when the whistle blew. The property is in terrible shape and we do not have enough people left in the theater to properly take care of it.”

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 281). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That lack of preparation likely led to the Korean War and the US defeats there.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Big I

We have a thoroughly Republican Congress and they would like to impeach the current Republican President almost as much as they would like to suffer the Mongolian fire torture. Nonetheless, I think that it's pretty likely that the President will not complete his term in office - not so much because of the misdeeds already committed as because of those he has yet to commit. This is a guy burning with resentment with next to no impulse control, an ignorant fellow with no self-awareness, who moreover is showing signs of incipient senility. Essentially all his troubles today are of his own making, caused or at least initiated by his lack of impulse control and terrible judgement.

My guess is that sooner rather than later his own terrible judgement, or perhaps his response to external events, will collapse his remaining support and send the Republican Congress heading him for the exits.

Friday, May 19, 2017


I wish I could just enjoy mine at Trump's troubles, but unfortunately he can still destroy the planet, not to mention his capability to harm in a million smaller ways, not least by incompetence.

For actual malice, though, this is a good one (Jordan Weisssman in Slate):

According to Politico, President Trump told his staff this week that he wants to cut off a crucial set of subsidies that are paid to health insurers under Obamacare, a move that could potentially bring about the collapse of the law's coverage marketplaces. ...

Many of Trump's advisor's, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, apparently oppose the plan, because they “worry it will backfire politically if people lose their insurance or see huge premium spikes and blame the White House.” Which is a reasonable fear. Americans tend to blame their president for their personal misfortunes, particularly when they can easily trace them back to the discrete, rash actions of the man in the Oval Office.

Ya think?

On Speed

Seth Myers via the NYT:

“During a press conference this afternoon, President Trump said that his administration is getting things done at a record-setting pace. For example, most presidents take four years to finish a term, and it looks like Trump’s gonna get it done in, like, eight months.” — SETH MEYERS

Derek Hartfield

I learned a lot of what I know about writing from Derek Hartfield. Almost everything, in fact. Unfortunately, as a writer, Hartfield was sterile in the full sense of the word. One has only to read some of his stuff to see that. His prose is mangled, his stories slapdash, his themes juvenile. Yet he was a fighter as few are, a man who used words as weapons. In my opinion, when it comes to sheer combativeness he should be ranked right up there with the giants of his day, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Sadly, however, he could never fully grasp exactly what it was he was fighting against. In the final reckoning, I suppose, that’s what being sterile is all about.

Hartfield waged his fruitless battle for eight years and two months, and then he died. In June 1938, on a sunny Sunday morning, he jumped off the Empire State Building clutching a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his right hand and an open umbrella in his left. Few people noticed, though— he was as ignored in death as he had been in life.

Murakami, Haruki. Wind/Pinball: Two novels (pp. 4-5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Classic Murakami, from his first novel.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Brad DeLong sees a Machiavellian Mike Pence maneuvering to make himself President:

A Persian Dialogue About Mike Pence and Donald Trump...

Artemisia: I am now on Team Bannon?

Atossa: Why are you now on Team Bannon?

Artemisia: Because Steve Bannon warned Donald Trump that firing James Comey would be big trouble. Also Rince Priebus.

Atossa: But Trump listens to the last people he talked to. Why did he fire Comey then?

Artemisia: Because Jared Kushner and Mike Pence told him it would be no problem.

Atossa: And they got to him later.

Artemisia: But why would Jared Kushner say firing Comey wouldn't be a big problem?

Atossa: Because it was what Trump clearly wanted to hear. And Jared Kushner hasn't spent any time in Washington—he doesn't know much about how politics works.

Artemisia: But Mike Pence knows a lot about how politics works!

Atossa: Yup!

Artemisia: Mike Pence knew it would be big trouble!

Atossa: Yup!

Artemisia: Why would Mike Pence do something like that?

Atossa: What happens if Trump falls?

Artemisia: You mean?

Atossa: Yup! Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


I did not have sexual financial relations with that man, Mr. Putin.

Depending on what the meaning of is is.

Or something like that.

I notice that Sean Spicer has taken to phrasing his denials in the form "The President denies..."

Another Cheery Thought

Shepard Smith on Fox News observed that the last time Trump got a bump in the polls was when he bombed Syria.


From the Washington Post, the comments by Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy from not quite a year ago:

KIEV —A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016 exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.

Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the U.S. Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.

News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.

Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”

Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks...This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

The remarks remained secret for nearly a year.

There is no new factual material about Trump's links to Russia here, but the fact that this conversation has come to light now sure looks like a sign that the rats are looking for a way to bail from a sinking ship. Republicans have bitten their tongues about the dark suspicions they have had of Trump, but they seem to be loosening up now. Either that, or somebody has planted a hoax that fooled the WaPo.

Reign of Trump

Trump is pretty miserable as President. He hates the press, he dislikes his staff, and he feels like everybody hates him. But he does like the red button on his desk that summons a Diet Coke. Our dreams of impeachment no longer look quite as idle as they did a month ago.

Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon. I'm mean on a time scale where Trump's probability density for destroying the planet integrates to values greater than 1/2. So, is there any chance that he might quit?

I can dream, can't I.

Not that Pence would be much of an improvement.


Obligatory ABBA link:

Harari argues that money, because of its role in cooperative behavior, is probably the most important human invention since language.  The first money we know of, Mesopotamian barley money from 5000 years ago, is only a relatively small abstraction from pure barter, but it was a giant step in the promotion of commerce.  If you are a scythe maker and need a pair of boots, it can be a huge pain to find a bootmaker who needs a scythe, but once money exists, you only need find anyone with money who wants a scythe and then trade the money to someone who makes boots.  Not for the first time in human history, the symbol became more important than its realization.

Barley money had a number of disadvantages: it is bulky, it rots, and rats eat it.  Another major step to purely symbolic money was silver.  Silver, at least in the Mesopotamian world, had essentially no intrinsic value.  It's too soft to be useful in construction or weapons, so it is only decorative.  But it doesn't rot, rats don't eat it, and it is also somewhat rare.  Silver, gold and other metal coins were probably the first money that had purely symbolic value, and governments increasingly took charge of supervising it.

It's characteristic of the power of myth in human affairs that humans soon convinced themselves of the intrinsic value of gold and silver, and that wars and murders by the hundreds of millions followed.
Gold and silver are useful for money partly because their distinctive appearance, hardness, weight and rarity make them hard to counterfeit, but counterfeiting none the less occurred and rulers took to stamping their images on the genuine articles and visiting gruesome consequences on the perpetrators.

The next step in symbolization was the invention of credit money - agreements to pay between individuals, or between individuals and rulers, usually documented in writing, or today, in electronic records.  Nearly all the money today is credit money including currency, bank accounts, bonds and so forth.  Stocks in corporations are at once a slightly more concrete form of money (because they represent a claim on a specific entity) and a more abstract one (because the corporation itself is an abstraction).

The value of all this money rest entirely in our belief in it, and in the institutions that create it and preserve it's value.  The world still contains lots of nuts who consider this an abomination, and that many of our problems would disappear if we just went back to good old gold, but they are deluded.

The latest type of money is the cryptocurrency.  Like other money, its value depends on what people believe it is - faith in an algorithm, and scarcity based on that algorithm requiring a lot of computation.

I happen to consider the crypto-currencies the most meretricious addition to the monetary stock since shrunken head money.  Aside from giving cover to all sorts of criminal activity, they are very wasteful of resources.  Imagine a sort of Rumpelstiltskin world in which people could manufacture gold by endlessly playing Candy Crush - such that a skilled player could produce say 0.5 grams/hr, equivalent to $20/hr.  Soon the world would be full people playing Candy Crush and getting carpal tunnel syndrome.  Eventually the value of gold would decline due to increasing supply and  people would stop.  Would the world be any better off?

Bitcoin is like that.  Millions of hours of computer time and megawatt hours of electricity are being expended to manufacture this worthless crap.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Trump Tapes

Trump strongly hinted that there were tapes of his dinner conversation with Comey where he allegedly asked for a loyalty pledge. We know that the oval office has taping facilities, so it's at least plausible that the conversation where Comey claims Trump asked him to kill the Flynn investigation was taped. Congress has made it clear that it wants the Comey memos. They should also promptly ask for any relevant tapes.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I bought this book yesterday and just finished all 608 pages of it, so I guess one might call it a page turner. Murakami is masterful at sucking one in.

Toru Okada is an ordinary sort of thirty year old guy, a sort of legal assistant who quits his job at a law firm because it doesn't seem like something he wants to stick with. That's when his troubles start, when first his cat and then his wife go missing. If you've read Murakami before, you probably won't be surprised that this is the start of some strange adventures, not all of them strictly of this world. He soon finds himself involved in the affairs of a number of rather strange women.

The real world is always present in Murakami's version of magical realism, perhaps most grittily in the reminiscences of a couple of characters from the war in Manchuria and the subsequent captivity in a Siberian mining camp of a side character.

There is no doubt in my mind that Murakami is one of the greatest living novelists. He is equally the master of wit, suspense and deep characterization.

Bits and Pieces

The Daily Beast:

White House and administration officials are reeling at reports that President Donald Trump reportedly shared classified information with Russia’s top diplomats during an Oval Office meeting last week.


“I doubt he did it to collude [with the Russians]. I think he’s dumb and doesn’t know the difference,” a former FBI official who worked aspects of the Russia investigation told The Daily Beast. “He thinks he’s arranging some business deal except that he’s not.”

“I don’t think he shared the classified intelligence to collude. I think he shared because he thinks he’s playing chess when he’s actually playing checkers. International affairs is not like buying a golf course,” added a second former FBI official.

When asked if the Russians could use the information Trump provided in way that harms the U.S., this official said, “of course.”

The Russians, the source added, “like [Trump’s] mental instability and stupidity. They don’t like his unpredictability.”

Candidate Trump was vehement in his condemnations of the mishandling of classified information, chiefly by Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Her use of a private email server to handle such information was a frequent Trump talking point—and the subject of her own FBI investigation. That probe was led by James Comey, the man Trump fired on Tuesday due, administration officials claimed before Trump publicly contradicted them, to his handling of the Clinton investigation.

Credibility Acid

Donald Trump has a kind of universal credibility acid which dissolves the credibility of anybody associated with him. Tillerson and McMaster were supposed to be the adults in the room who would restrain Trump's worst impulses, but both found themselves releasing lawyerly statement denying that Trump discussed "sources and methods" with the Russians, and claiming that that demonstrated that the stories in the Washington Post and elsewhere were therefore false. Today, their credibility lies in tatters, since those stories made no such claim. Instead, they reported that the details released, in the opinion of intelligence professionals, allowed the deduction of sources and methods, implying major clues to the identity of inside informants.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sources and Methods

The Washington Post is reporting today that Trump disclosed highly sensitive intelligence to the Russians in his recent meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.

The president’s disclosures to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in their Oval Office meeting last week jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State — an information-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, current and former U.S. officials said. Trump appeared to be boasting of the “great intel” he receives when he described a looming terror threat, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange.

This data is so sensitive that it isn;t shared even with some close allies. McMaster and Tillerson are claiming that not sources and methods were disclosed, but intelligence professionals are disagreeing, saying that the revelations are likely to get sources killed.

If that is true, then McMaster and Tillerson have to go, and I predict that Trump will be removed from office before his first year is over.

I Don't Understand

...why ransomware attacks like WannaCry are so hard to trace. They are asking for money, so the money should be traceable, at least by the banks carrying out the transfers. Of course some banks may have an interest in facilitating this kind of crime. How about just nuking them, virtually or actually? The virtual nuke would be just freezing them out of the international banking system and seizing any external assets of the banks and their principals.

I get it that a lot of tax evaders, drug dealers, corrupt officials and the banks that serve them would wanna cry, but is there any actual reason this would be a bad idea?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Political Necrophilia

Fareed Zakaria had a couple of Venezuela experts looking at the catastrophe that is modern Venezuela. One diagnosis particularly caught my eye: "political necrophilia," referring to attachment to long discredited political and economic ideas, in this case Marxism. Not that that is Venezuela's only problem. Rampant corruption and related disregard for law not only siphons off money but makes productive enterprise all but impossible.

Unfortunately, it's hard to see any easy fix. Getting rid of Maduro will neither be easy nor sufficient. He and the Chavistas have made Venezuela a one industry town, and that not currently a healthy one.

Russia Investigation

Clinton Watts, former FBI agent, offers a bit of information on the progress and direction of the FBI's investigation into Russia's interference in the US Presidential election. He thinks one needs to "follow the trail of dead Russians." It not exactly news that people deemed dangerous to Putin have a way of turning up dead.

RON WYDEN: There is a stack of documents - a voluminous stack of documents that points to various financial relationships between people who are close to the president, part of his world and the Russians. And for me, one of the key questions in doing an investigation is to always follow the money. In fact, Clint Watts, the former FBI man, came to our committee and said, Senator, you're right, you ought to follow the money, but you also ought to follow the trail of the dead bodies.

MARTIN: We are joined now by Clinton Watts, who offered up that advice to the committee back in March. He's a former FBI special agent, and he joins us on the line from New York. Mr. Watts, thanks for being here.

CLINTON WATTS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: That's a provocative statement that you gave the committee. What did you mean when you advised senators to, quote, "follow the trail of dead Russians"?

WATTS: From the Russian context, if they were meddling in the U.S. election and it was through financial relationships, maybe inducements that they wanted to push, they would try to close those off. And if you look over the past year, really year and a half, you've seen a string of senior Russian officials that have died, some of them obviously of natural causes but some of them under suspicious circumstances.

And so when I would be looking at this, that's where I would focus is why are these people dying strangely? And which one of those might've had financial connections?

Less sensational than the headline, but suggestive. Some details would be nice.

Call Me Mister

Professor Molly Worthen has written a defense of old school formality in an NYT op-ed.

After one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step. I began attaching a page on etiquette to every syllabus: basic rules for how to address teachers and write polite, grammatically correct emails.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.

Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

His webpage covers matters ranging from appropriate email addresses (if you’re still using “cutie_pie_98@hotmail.com,” then “it’s time to retire that address”) to how to be gracious when making a request (“do not make demands”).

My own habits were formed decades ago, and I nearly always address my teachers with the title "Professor" unless they signal otherwise, but I was reminded of my own experience that such titles are not always hazardless. In my own research organization, first names were the rule but our administrative assistants usually called us "Doctor".

So anyway, I was in the delivery room while my wife was giving birth to my son when our admin assistant called and apparently asked for "Doctor Measure." They sent me to the phone, and I dealt with whatever crisis could have waited until next week, but when I left the phone I noticed that the nurses suddenly started paying entirely unwarranted attention to what I said. It took me awhile to deduce what must have happened. If the admin assistant had asked for "Mr. Measure" the nurses would quite likely have told her to bug off. Instead, they wrongly deduced that I must be a physician and that my opinions on childbirth ought to be respected.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Straight Outta London

For reason quite mysterious to me, two of my most popular recent posts (as measured by pageviews) concern the travels of a book that I ordered from Amazon. The cheapest price was from a bookshop in London, even though the book was written, published and printed in the US. Anyway, here is one more.

Anyway, I ordered a couple more books, and again the best deals were in that old town astride the Thames. I won't get them for a bit yet, but both have made it back to the US, one to Compton, CA and the other to Secaucus, NJ. International trade is weird.

However, an anthropologist friend assures me that a slave girl captured in Sweden 1800 years ago might have had a similarly convoluted and doubtless much longer trip to the slave markets of Aleppo.

Prediction is Hard

...especially of the future.

It's an aphorism attributed to Niels Bohr, but it seems to apply to science fiction these days. Once upon a time SF writers were mighty in the art of prediction. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the communication satellite and the smart phone, for example. So how are they doing now. If the SF series I'm reading now is typical, not so hot.

The setting is several hundred years in the future, when man has colonized much of the solar system, but aside from fusion powered space ships, the technology is mostly off the shelf 2015. Battle are fought with bullet shooting guns pretty much like those that have been around for hundreds of years, or fists, (or in one case, a can of chicken.) Biology is pretty much lab standard the present, though modest progress seems to have been made against cancer.

I wonder if it has become too difficult to imagine anything not already almost in technologies grasp.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Josh Dawsey at Politico:

President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn't call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters.

He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

Trump's firing of the high-profile FBI director on the 110th day since the president took office marked another sudden turn for an administration that has fired its acting attorney general, national security adviser and now its FBI director, whom Trump had praised until recent weeks and had even blew a kiss to during a January appearance.

This stuff all screams guilty!

The Reason Why

The circumstantial case that Trump fired Comey for investigating his ties to Russian interference in the election is starting to look ironclad. MATTHEW ROSENBERG and MATT APUZZO in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.

Mr. Comey asked for the resources during a meeting last week with Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who wrote the Justice Department’s memo that was used to justify the firing of the F.B.I. director this week.

Mr. Comey then briefed members of Congress on the meeting in recent days.

So far, the Republican Party looks determined to ride the Trump train wherever it goes, and the options are looking decidedly unpalatable.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

From Josh Marshall

The Comey firing is a scary moment for American democracy. There is no proof, but it sure as hell looks like Trump is desperate to hide something big, and perhaps fatal. Josh Marshall:

There is only one reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the decision to fire Comey: that there is grave wrongdoing at the center of the Russia scandal and that it implicates the President. As I write this, I have a difficult time believing that last sentence myself. But sometimes you have to step back from your assumptions and simply look at what the available evidence is telling you. It’s speaking clearly: the only reasonable explanation is that the President has something immense to hide and needs someone in charge of the FBI who he believes is loyal. Like Jeff Sessions. Like Rod Rosenstein.

This is a very dark and perilous moment.

Fascism Train a Rollin'

Comey was a screwup, but I can't believe that's why Trump fired him. Look at the people he keeps. Was the FBI closing in on the Russia connection? Some other Trump crime?

Committee to De-elect

Getting people to support a candidate is hard, partly because every candidate has flaws. I'm not the type to run for office, but there are some people that I would really like to throw out of office. So how hard is it to set up a fundraising site just to defeat a hated Congressman or local official? One that specifies the incumbent's crimes against the electorate and promises to spend all its money on defeating him/her?

So many books...

...so little shelf space.

Actually I have a fair amount of shelf space, but most of it seems to be taken up with books. Also, my wife insists that a bunch of it be occupied with junk like dishes, cooking implements and other impedimenta.

I suppose I should get rid of a lot of them. But it would be like parting with my children. Of course I didn't want them to leave either, but they insisted.

More Navel Gazing

I have an unusually large number of page views today, most of them from Russia. It's probably unlikely that I have quite suddenly acquired a large Russian fan base, so what's going on? Just a routine sweep by some new robot? A sinister plot by hackers? Or has Putin discovered that I am secretly, secretly, head of the CIA?

Monday, May 08, 2017

Book Review: Principles of Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics

I used this book by Cathie Clarke and Bob Carswell to study for the fluid dynamics portions of my Astrophysical Dynamics and Fluid Dynamics course, and found it very useful. The authors base the book on lectures they have given to third year students at Cambridge. For me, the level was about right. It assumes no fluid dynamics but expects reasonable proficiency in vector analysis. Nearly all physics equations are carefully derived, usually with no missing steps that were too difficult for me to fill in.

Most of the book is devoted to inviscid compressible fluids, with a strong focus on astrophysical applications, although the last three chapters (which I haven't studied) treat viscous astrophysical fluids and plasmas. I worked my way through much of the book, usually deriving every equation, and it's pretty amusing if you like that sort of thing. There is always a payoff in physical insight.

Convection, hydrostatic equilibrium, sound waves, supersonic flow, shock waves, blast waves, fluid instabilities and accretion flows are among the topics treated. It's a short book, only a bit over 220 pages, but it has a lot of content. More advanced books treating similar topics include Astrophysical Flows by Pringle and King and Gas Dynamics (The Physics of Astrophysics) by Frank Shu. There are a few others but I haven't looked at them.

My only real gripe with the book is that the font is a bit small, and inline equations are in such a tiny font that it's almost impossible to tell a "p" for pressure from a "rho" for density. Needless to say, both are ubiquitous.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

International Trade

A few weeks ago I ordered a brick from Amazon. Actually, it was a book, but it would make a pretty good brick, at least in heft (4.4 lbs). A couple of weeks ago I wrote about its peregrinations here. Having now received that selfsame brick, I wanted to document its itinerary.

It was written by an American author and published and printed in the United States. Somehow it made its way to a bookstore in London, UK. I ordered it from Amazon, taking the cheapest price for a new book. From London, after a decent interval, it flew to Compton, California, perhaps for the purpose of enjoying a bit of West Coast rap. Straight Outta Compton, it flew over me to a location near Dallas, in Texas. From there, it made its way the thousand or so miles back to me in Las Cruces by US mail, arriving yesterday. It looks lovely, and not a bit worse for the wear due to its 13,000 or so miles of travel.

It is interesting to me that such a roundabout route could provide the cheapest price. Comments?

Left Wing Paper?

The New York Times is widely considered a left wing paper. This is mostly because the American right wing, which has been driven increasingly to the right by it's plutocratic sponsors, keeps saying so. In fact, the NYT is yet another paper owned by plutocrats, operating in a mainly liberal town, and steering a rather middle of the road course. Many readers are outraged by the fact that its op-ed pages have added a racist, anti-feminist, climate denialist to its stable of right wing columnists, an op-ed page that includes zero comparably left wing columnists.

Jim Naureckas, writing in the arguably left-wing FAIR, takes a look at, among other things, the history:

To understand this anomaly—and the real reason that the New York Times would rather have a climate-denying bigot on its staff than a single-payer advocate—it helps to go back to the beginning of the Times dynasty, as Times veteran John L. Hess (Extra!, 1/00) did in his review of The Trust: The Powerful and Private Family Behind the New York Times, by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones (not that Alex Jones):

How did [Adolph] Ochs, a virtual bankrupt from Chattanooga, persuade Wall Street to set him up with the moribund New York Times? Answer: The financiers were anxious to keep the paper alive as a Democratic voice against the populist Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, who was stirring the masses with that speech about the Cross of Gold. Ochs bought a fine new suit, set up a fake bank account as reference, and persuaded J.P. Morgan and others to bankroll the purchase. His paper promptly pilloried Bryan, and Ochs marched with his staff in a businessmen’s parade against him.

Much has changed since 1896, but in 2017, the Times still defends establishment, business-oriented liberalism against the populist left. In part it does this by attacking the left directly—see the columns of Paul Krugman during the 2016 Democratic primaries—but the more meaningful sustenance they give to the liberal elite is to validate them as the left-most pole of respectable discourse.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Not My Amazon Book Review

... of Dave Goldberg's The Standard Model in a Nutshell.

Not long after I buy something from Amazon, that leviathan solicits a review. Thus it was with TSMIAN. However, since I haven't actually read it yet, my review may lack in acuity what it gains in pith.

It looks good on my bookshelf. It also has a nice feel in the hand, and the cover picture has a starwarzee feel to it. I did try the page 67 test, and that page seems admirably clear intellectually as well as visually (being printed in a font that I can read without eye strain.)

All in all, call it promising.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Truman's Greatest Blunder?

After the war, Oppenheimer, Acheson and others were tasked with the problem of how to control the nuclear Genii they had loosed on the world. They came up with a plan, but Bernard Baruch torpedoed it. This fragment of dialog between Truman and Oppenheimer is a good illustration of the kinds of errors of judgement even a smart President can make:

“When will the Russians be able to build the bomb?” asked Truman.

“I don’t know,” said Oppenheimer.

“I know.”



At some level, for Harry Truman, US monopoly mooted the issue of international control.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 241-242). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

It's Your Damn Fault Barry!

Donald Trump didn't attend this year's White House Correspondent's Dinner, but he was there in 2011. Marlow Stern in the Daily Beast:

That year, then-President Barack Obama and host Seth Meyers lit a fire under Donald Trump with a deliciously inventive panoply of insults, teeing off on everything from his New Yawk accent and elaborate coif to his time hosting The Celebrity Apprentice.

Trump, a real estate tycoon who’d recently made a name for himself spearheading the racist birther movement against the first black president, was there as a guest of The Washington Post, and with each stinging barb, the camera trained on the stone-faced mogul, seething with anger. He later called Meyers’s remarks “nasty” and “out of order.”

“I saw him a couple of nights afterward at an event in New York, and I walked over to thank him for being a good sport and he really impressed on me then that I had taken it too far,” Meyers told THR. “He did not accept my offer of good sport.”

“That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world,” wrote the New York Times.

And so President Trump, still nursing a bruised ego from that memorable evening, decided to opt out of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner in favor of a safer space: a rally for his fans in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Of course he had it coming, especially from Obama, and maybe he would have become president anyway, but talk about unintended consequences.

Reason: Book Preview

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? ..................W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.

The Prince of Denmark had his qualms about the paragon and his noble and infinite faculty. The authors of The Enigma of Reason bring evolutionary psychology to task of explication and analysis of the faculty in question. In particular, they are interested in how it evolved and what its evolutionary value has been.

Animals, humans are animals! Ah, but humans, and humans alone, are endowed with reason. Reason sets them apart, high above other creatures— or so Western philosophers have claimed.

Mercier, Hugo (2017-04-17). The Enigma of Reason (Kindle Locations 82-83). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

A starting point:

How should success or failure in reasoning be assessed? What are the mechanisms responsible? In spite of their often bitter disagreements, parties to these polemics have failed to question a basic dogma. All have taken for granted that the job of reasoning is to help individuals achieve greater knowledge and make better decisions.

If you accept the dogma, then, yes, it is quite puzzling that reason should fall short of being impartial, objective, and logical. It is paradoxical that, quite commonly, reasoning should fail to bring people to agree and, even worse, that it should often exacerbate their differences. But why accept the dogma in the first place? Well, there is the weight of tradition … And, you might ask, what else could possibly be the function of reasoning?

Mercier, Hugo (2017-04-17). The Enigma of Reason (Kindle Locations 137-142). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

In particular, the authors argue that the analysis of Kahneman and Tversky, which casts a lot of doubt on the efficacy of reason, is not wrong but fundamentally incomplete, with many of the faulty reasoning cases they adduce being consequent to asking people to apply reasoning techniques outside their useful (and usual domain).

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

I was beginning to be oppressed by the thousands of pages of serious reading I had on my table. Sometimes it just seems hard. What to do about it? How about some non-serious reading, like an old fashioned space opera? Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey, looked like a plausible prospect. I didn't know it when I bought it, but it's also kind of a plus that Corey is actually the pseudonym of two Albuquerque based writers. I mean homeboys, close enough.

Leviathan is set a few hundred years in the future, when humankind has colonized the Moon, Mars, many of the the moons of the outer planets and numberless asteroids. The protagonists are a Ceres based detective in the noir mode and the executive officer of an ice hauling freighter who gets involved in a response to a mayday call from a crippled ship. This is not hard science fiction, but it does try to stay within the bounds of physics. It has elements of mystery and horror as well as space faring adventure.

It is perhaps not great literature, but I blew through the 583 pages in a couple of days of hard reading, so, from my point of view, it is a real page turner. It's also been an NYT bestseller with 1493 Amazon reviews averaging 4.5 stars. While the novel is complete in itself, it does seem to be part of a multi-volume series.

Friday, April 28, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea...

...to be sung to the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune...

The alternatives seem to be letting North Korea develop the capability to launch nuclear attacks on US cities or engaging in a preemptive war of quite possibly catastrophic proportions. I expect that Kim Jong Un is thinking that "you can have my nukes when you pry them from my hot radioactively glowing hand."

I doubt that Trump's people have any better idea how to solve this dilemma than Bush or Obama - but he might be more precipitate.

Marching to Pretoria

...or around in circles.

Marching is a time honored means of trying to produce solidarity, probably discovered a few thousand years ago. It's why soldiers still drill in marching. I get that walking around with a bunch of like minded individuals can help persuade one that one is part of a movement that might actually succeed.

I've never cared for it. To me, the idea of marching for science is more than a little ridiculous, but more power to those who did it. I sympathize with the cause, even if I doubt the efficacy of the method, but unless you actually have plans for storming the Bastille, its also a confession of helplessness.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

To Buy or Not to Buy

Whether it is nobler in the mind to buy a second edition of a book that I already have custody of the first, or to await the third, perchance to die (first).

It's a rapidly moving field. But it's an expensive book. The author projects a 2022 publication date. Actuarial tables suggest a slightly better than even chance of still being alive by then, but a significantly larger chance of being too senile to comprehend it.

Still NEW

John Horgan has a new (or should I say NEW) interview with Peter Woit here. Sample:

Woit: No one thinks that the subtle "demarcation problem" of deciding what is science and what isn't can simply be dealt with by invoking falsifiability. Carroll's critique of naive ideas about falsifiability should be seen in context: he's trying to justify multiverse research programs whose models fail naive criteria of direct testability (since you can't see other universes). This is however a straw man argument: the problem with such research programs isn't that of direct testability, but that there is no indirect evidence for them, nor any plausible way of getting any. Carroll and others with similar interests have a serious problem on their hands: they appear to be making empty claims and engaging in pseudo-science, with "the multiverse did it" no more of a testable explanation than "the Jolly Green Giant did it". To convince people this is science they need to start showing that such claims have non-empty testable consequences, and I don't see that happening.

Clear-eyed and to the point.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Red, The Dawn That Is To Come

Kevin Drum:

From the Associated Press:

A man accustomed to wealth and its trappings, Trump has embraced life in the Executive Mansion, often regaling guests with trivia about the historic decor. With the push of a red button placed on the Resolute Desk that presidents have used for decades, a White House butler soon arrived with a Coke for the president.

I just thought you'd all like to know.

I hope he doesn't get his buttons mixed up.

Hammer of the Heretic

Lumo has a new heretic to persecute: Berkeley physicist Richard Muller. Muller is a contrarian sort who attacked climate scientists for what he thought were dubious statistical methods and other crimes, and used that attack to scarf up some denialist money to conduct his own study. Which turned out to confirm the climate scientist's conclusions in almost every significant particular. No doubt that annoyed the Lumonator.

What seems to have pushed Lubos over the edge - and it never take much - though, is the fact Muller has declared that he doesn't believe the Milankovitch theory of ice ages. I suspect that this conclusion is due to nothing more rational than Muller's orneriness, but it was a serious insult to the Czech patriot. I also tentatively infer that Muller, after an unsuccessful colloquy with Lubos, may have told him to engage in an improbable self sex act.

The result is this tirade, which as a minor aside, includes an anti-semitic threat against another scientist altogether.

Poor Lubosh. He really wasn't cut out for science. He probably should have stuck to religion.

Open Clusters: Three Body Problems

All stars seem to form from large molecular clouds, and each such formation event seems to produce many stars - hundreds or thousands. Many of these clusters of stars quickly disperse, but so-called open clusters can endure for billions of years. They do exhibit a peculiar behavior though. Instead of the expected behavior, called dynamical relaxation, in which the heaviest stars sink gradually toward the center while the lighter ones expand they seem to show a very gradual uniform expansion. It appears that this is due to interactions of other stars with binaries pairs of stars. (A SciAm article by Steven W. Stahler)

What drives the uniform expansion of open clusters? Converse and I demonstrated that the key is binary stars: pairs of close, orbiting companions that are quite common in stellar groups. Simulations performed by Douglas Heggie, now at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, showed in the mid-1970s that when a third star approaches such a pair, the three engage in a complicated dance, after which the lightest of the three is usually ejected at high speed. The ejected star soon encounters other members and shares its energy with them, increasing those stars’ orbital velocities and e!ectively “heating up” the cluster. In our N-body simulations, it was the energy from these binary encounters that caused the open cluster to expand— albeit so slowly that the expansion could easily go unnoticed by astronomers.

The article is interesting throughout, with the usual good Scientific American figures and charts.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Amazon Knows My Taste

Wherever I go on the Web, Amazon ads follow me. And not random adverts. Ones carefully tailored to my taste. As proven by the fact that I have already bought those books. From Amazon.

How dumb do they think I am? Or do they actually know?

Sunday, April 23, 2017


In my gender and skin color. Let me rephrase that: I'm perfectly happy being male and having the skin color I have, despite its probable contribution to my skin cancers. What I'm unhappy with is that small majorities of both whites and males still approve Trump more than they disapprove him. So, at least, says a new Washington Post CNN poll. I had sort of reconciled to being a member of the mentally weaker sex, but skin color too?

I mean, fellow males and pale skins, WTF is the matter with us? This is not a hard question. Hope you wake up before this idiot gets us all killed.

Gunning for the Win

You really can't afford to be anti-gun in Montana. How the candidates for Montana's open Congressional seat show their arms:

Since then, Quist has vowed to protect Second Amendment rights. In his gun ad, he uses his family’s rifle to shoot a TV playing an attack ad.

Gianforte countered that with an ad of his own, claiming that Quist wants to create a national gun registry that would store personal information on a “big government computer.” The ad then shows Gianforte using a firearm to shatter a computer screen.


History's Lessons

...are many but highly ambiguous. Some historians would even deny their existence.

History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes.............attributed to, but quite possibly not actually said by, Mark Twain.

One lesson I'm pretty confident of, however, is that humans have a strong tendency to assemble themselves in rival groups and kill each other. My confidence is considerably increased by the collaborating evidence from anthropology, archaeology, biology, and psychology. That tendency has always been a source of endless grief, but since the advent of nuclear weapons, has become an extinction level threat.

Historically, the best remedy for interpersonal violence has been a state with a monopoly on violence. Only a global state, or something like it, could work when every two-bit state gets nuclear weapons. Such a state is unnatural to human instincts, and anathema to nationalists of every stripe, so highly unlikely to happen. Unless our robot overlords decide that it's necessary.


World War II shattered every great power except the US and Russia. When Germany surrendered, the Soviets had overwhelming military superiority in Europe. Had Stalin chosen that moment to try to overrun the rest of Europe, could he have been stopped? It's hard to imagine how. The much smaller US Army in Europe would have been hard pressed to stop them.

Stalin already knew, though, that the US was close to a nuclear bomb - the Trinity test was only two months away, and after Hiroshima, it was clear that that option was impossible.

I seem to recall that Bertrand Russell suggested that it would be a good idea for the US and Britain to use their nuclear superiority at that point to force Russia to surrender and give up it's plans for a bomb. Many of the scientists at Los Alamos foresaw the world of today, where all sorts of countries would have nukes and the means to deliver them, and thought that the only viable alternative was global control.

Today we are on the brink of a world where dozens* of countries, some led by madmen, have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them globally.

*The list today likely includes the US, Britain, France, Russia, China (the five official nuclear weapons states), India and Israel. Pakistan and North Korea also have bombs, but likely still lack the means to deliver them globally. Iran is probably not far behind. South Africa formerly had the bomb, and today essentially every technologically advanced state could build them rather quickly. It cost the US about 2 billion dollars to make the first bombs (perhaps 20-30 billion in today's dollars), but today it would be far, far cheaper.

Le Pen vs. Macron

With about 1/3 of the vote counted.

That's not the worst possible outcome.

Navel Gazing

My curiosity was aroused when I noticed that a couple of so called referring URLs were from the Rational Wiki's Luboš Motl Page. I couldn't find any reference to my blog on the page, so I'm a bit curious as to how I could have been referred from it. It's true that I'm a long time student of the Lumonator, and that I have been known to refer to him as "the blogfather," since he is really my inspiration (or provocation) for blogging, but that's not much help.

UPDATE: Never mind. My reading skills obviously are lacking. Also, I noticed that someone, (Lumo?) had "edited" the title of my blog. I thought that I might try to edit it, but the signing up puzzle defeated my senile intellect.

Eve of Destruction

Richard Feynman, who had driven his roommate Klaus Fuchs’s old Buick down to Albuquerque the previous June, in the midst of the final effort to finish the bombs, to keep vigil with his young wife Arlene while she died of tuberculosis, found himself lost between worlds. Before he left Los Alamos he had thought about what the bomb meant and had made some notes. He had calculated that Little Boys in mass production would cost about as much as B-29s. “No monopoly,” he had written.863 “No defense.” And: “No security until we have control on a world level. . . . Other peoples are not being hindered in the development of the bomb by any secrets we are keeping. . . . Soon they will be able to do to Columbus, Ohio, and hundreds of cities like it what we did to Hiroshima. And we scientists are clever—too clever—are you not satisfied? Is four square miles in one bomb not enough? Men are still thinking. Just tell us how big you want it!” The twenty-six-year-old widower may have seen too much of death. He sat in a bar in Manhattan one afternoon in the months after the war looking out the window at all the people going by and shaking his head, thinking how sad it was that they didn’t realize they had only a few years to live.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 202). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The world has avoided nuclear destruction for 70 some years through deterrence. Now it looks like nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them are falling into the hands of religious fanatics and dangerously homicidal dictators. How long can this unstable equilibrium last? Not only that, but the leaders of two of the world's three nuclear superpowers are aggressive and far from intelligent.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Oh Dear!

Bee explains that physicists haven't really created negative mass.

Next she'll probably be claiming that various athletic feats don't actually defy the laws of physics.

Is nothing sacred?

Defection: Canadian Style

Shortly after the war, a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Canada who had decided to defect, gathered up documents demonstrating the extent and details of Soviet spying and went to a newspaper. He was ignored. Attempts to go to the government were equally unpromising:

Finally the Minister of Justice sent out word that they should go back to the Soviet Embassy and return the documents. The Gouzenkos assumed that Soviet agents within the government must have made so stupid and deadly a decision. In fact, it came directly from the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, who seems to have been terrified that he might stir up trouble with the Soviet Union.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 184). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Grouchy Review

Veep is a much honored show that has been running on HBO since the Devonian. Having recently acquired access, I caught about one and one half episodes before concluding that it was a)really dumb, b)not funny.

Of course if I get bored enough to watch any more I might change my mind. Anybody got a contrary?

Secrets and Spies

Several early chapters of Dark Sun are devoted to Soviet spies in the US Manhattan project and their influence on the Russian bomb effort. It was immense. During the war the US shipped thousands of tanks, aircraft, ships, and even whole factories to Russia to support the war effort against Germany. They also shipped thousands of sealed suitcases, which contained tens of thousands of documents, many of them top secret. A flood of Soviet agents made the trip in the opposite direction, spreading out over the country. They had broad access to American technology and American industry. Evidently, someone important thought it was important enough to the war effort to allow that.

Air Force Major General Follette Bradley, who pioneered the Alsib Pipeline [the air route from Montana to Alaska to Siberia], would tell the New York Times:

Of my own personal knowledge I know that beginning early in 1942 Russian civilian and military agents were in our country in huge numbers. They were free to move about without restraint or check and, in order to visit our arsenals, depots, factories and proving grounds, they had only to make known their desires. Their authorized visits to military establishments numbered in the thousands. I also personally know that scores of Russians were permitted to enter American territory in 1942 without visa. I believe that over the war years this number was augmented at least by hundreds.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 100-101). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

For the Manhattan project, the key spies were inside, with Klaus Fuchs being the most important. He was a talented physicist as well as a committed Communist from his teenage years, and he worked at the heart of two crucial efforts: the gaseous diffusion plant to separate fissionable U235 from U238 at Oak Ridge and the design of the explosive lenses that were the essential ingredient of the plutonium bomb.

The information gathered by the various spies was crucial to the Russian efforts, since the relative poverty and weakly developed technology in Russia made it impossible to carry out many of the experiments performed by the US, Britain, and Canada.

Rhodes has a lot of material on the spies, their psychology, and the tactics used to recruit them. Nearly all were motivated mainly by ideology. A common recruiting tactic used on the less committed was the appeal to a common enemy: Russia is our ally, we are just sharing information needed to confront the fascists. Israel has been known to use similar tactic on Americans.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Finding ET

Actually, extra-solar planets, and just maybe, life out there. Chris Jones portrait of Sara Seager in the New York Times Magazine. A facinating human portrait of an astrophysicist bent on a cosmic quest.

Like many astrophysicists, Sara Seager sometimes has a problem with her perception of scale. Knowing that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and that each might contain hundreds of billions of stars, can make the lives of astrophysicists and even those closest to them seem insignificant. Their work can also, paradoxically, bolster their sense of themselves. Believing that you alone might answer the question “Are we alone?” requires considerable ego. Astrophysicists are forever toggling between feelings of bigness and smallness, of hubris and humility, depending on whether they’re looking out or within.

One perfect blue-sky fall day, Seager boarded a train in Concord, Mass., on her way to her office at M.I.T. and realized she didn’t have her phone. She couldn’t seem to decide whether this was or wasn’t a big deal. Not having her phone would make the day tricky in some ways, because her sons, 13-year-old Max and 11-year-old Alex, had a soccer game after school, and she would need to coordinate a ride to watch them. She also wanted to be able to find and sit with her best friend, Melissa, who sometimes takes the same train to work. “She’s my best friend, but I know she has other best friends,” Seager said, wanting to make the nature of their relationship clear. She is an admirer of clarity. She also likes absolutes, wide-open spaces and time to think, but not too much time to think. She took out her laptop to see if she could email Melissa. The train’s Wi-Fi was down. She would have to occupy herself on the commute alone.

Seager’s office is on the 17th floor of M.I.T.’s Green Building, the tallest building in Cambridge, its roof dotted with meteorological and radar equipment. She is a tenured professor of physics and of planetary science, certified a “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation in 2013. Her area of expertise is the relatively new field of exoplanets: planets that orbit stars other than our sun. More particular, she wants to find an Earthlike exoplanet — a rocky planet of reasonable mass that orbits its star within a temperate “Goldilocks zone” that is not too hot or too cold, which would allow water to remain liquid — and determine that there is life on it. That is as simple as her math gets.

Bits and Pieces

Among the many joys of Richard Rhodes Dark Sun are the biographical bits:

Once the magnitude of the disaster sank in, says Stalin biographer and General of the Soviet Army Dmitri Volkogonov, the dictator “simply lost control of himself and went into deep psychological shock.97 Between 28 and 30 June, according to eyewitnesses, Stalin was so depressed and shaken that he ceased to be a leader. On 29 June, as he was leaving the defense commissariat with Molotov, [Kliment] Voroshilov, [Andrei] Zhdanov and Beria, he burst out loudly, ‘Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up!’ ” Stalin retreated to his dacha at Kuntsevo; it took a visit from the Politburo, led by Molotov, to mobilize him. “We got to Stalin’s dacha,” Anastas Mikoyan recalled in his memoirs. “We found him in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, ‘What have you come for?’ He had the strangest look on his face.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 42-43). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Beria's repellent qualities apparently extended to having teenaged girls kidnapped off the streets to be raped in his office.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Venezuela on the Brink

Is Maduro finished? NICHOLAS CASEY and PATRICIA TORRES in today's NYT:

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protesters demanding elections and a return to democratic rule jammed the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities on Wednesday. National Guard troops and government-aligned militias beat crowds back with tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons, and at least two people were killed, according to human rights groups and local news reports.

President Nicolás Maduro defied international calls, including a plea from the American State Department, to allow peaceful assemblies and ordered his forces in

to the streets. Some demonstrators, wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas, fought back with firebombs.


The One and Only Real Secret

I've started reading Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes' award winning history of the development of the fusion (H) bomb. (Hat Tip, Fernando). I've barely started, but I have to say that Rhodes is a compelling writer.

One thing that caught my eye was that key Russian scientists were aware of the possibility of a uranium bomb in 1939, and some were already advocating a strong program to try to build it. Two fundamental problems prevented it: the uncertainty as to whether a bomb would actually work, and the enormous expense required to find out. In the end it was decided that the necessary resources could be more usefully spent preparing for the coming war with Germany. The government did not trust the scientists enough to go for broke, and the scientists, with intimate knowledge of Stalin's terror, did not trust the government enough to go all out.

Rhodes sums it up:

Trust would not be a defining issue later, after the secret, the one and only secret—that the weapon worked—became known.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 42). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Rise of the Cyborgs

Human's aren't quite surrendering to the robots yet. Maybe we will merge with them. Or just leave a few traces in their 'DNA' like the Neandertal did with us.

Kristen V. Brown, Gizmodo:

At Facebook’s annual developer conference, F8, on Wednesday, the group unveiled what may be Facebook’s most ambitious—and creepiest—proposal yet. Facebook wants to build its own “brain-to-computer interface” that would allow us to send thoughts straight to a computer.

What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan, the head of the company’s secretive hardware R&D division, Building 8, asked from the stage. Dugan then proceeded to show a video demo of a woman typing eight words per minute directly from the stage. In a few years, she said, the team hopes to demonstrate a real-time silent speech system capable of delivering a hundred words per minute.

“That’s five times faster than you can type on your smartphone, and it’s straight from your brain,” she said. “Your brain activity contains more information than what a word sounds like and how it’s spelled; it also contains semantic information of what those words mean.”

I don't know, but I'm guessing they are reading sub vocalizations (or nerve impulses to your vocal apparatus) rather than the thoughts directly.

Bribery, American Style

Inaugural Fund Raising.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Ordered a book from Amazon, but I notice that it's being shipped via Royal Mail. I assume that means that it's coming from the UK (or maybe Canada or Australia - what do they call their post?).

Hope that it will be in a language I understand.

Book Review: Homo Evolutus

Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans are venture capitalists and authors with an interest in life sciences. Gullans is a former professor at Harvard Medical school. Their book, or I should say micro-book, Homo Evolutus, seems to be based on a TED talk they gave. The subject is their thesis that the human race is about to "speciate," or give rise to a new species of Homo, thanks to the radical advances being made in biotechnology and genomics.

Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to background material on the evolutionary history of the various human species (19 so-far known, by their count) and their biological underpinnings. The rest is a quick catalog of some of the extraordinary goings on at the interface of biology and technology, many of which were unfamiliar to me. A couple of examples:

Not only did the two Chinese teams take mouse skin cells, and de-differentiate them back into pluripotent stem cells… They then took these stem cells and allowed them to re-grow, differentiate, and gave birth to live mice. Which then could reproduce normally.

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 1372-1375). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

About a lab where synthetic organs are being grown using such tools as inkjet printers loaded with stem cells:

On a bench top, a freshly printed mouse heart beats away in a box. (Take that Edgar Allan Poe.)

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 946-948). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

There is lots of similar stuff, including the cutsie asides, which I usually found slightly more amusing than annoying.

Homo Evolutus is (so-far) available only as a Kindle Single, and it's a very slender book indeed, only 58 pages, and that length is a great exaggeration due to it's idiosyncratically chatty format. It's more like a long magazine article. It's an hour or two of reading, and it's cheap, $2.99, Amazon only. I found it often interesting, and read about a number of things I had never heard of before. There are lots of endnotes and references for those who would like to check their work.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading a New Minibook

Our average shoe size has increased fourfold in the last century.

Meanwhile our brains have shrunk by 10% over last 5,000 years.

Enriquez, Juan. Homo Evolutis (Kindle Single) (TED Books) (Kindle Locations 1552-1555). TED Books. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Perhaps some of my readers, distracted by my prolixity and general je ne sais quoi*, don't realize that I make a lot of dumb mistakes.

Desafortunadamente, would that this expectation were the case. Being old does tend to reduce the scope of my blunders, but it also seems to have focussed them. I just finished reading a moderately long book, and didn't really know what to do next. So I thought about buying another book. Worse, the book I was thinking of buying was the third edition of a book I already thought I owned.

Maybe I should look at first edition to see if that seems like a good idea.

* I don't speak French and have no idea what that means.

Hate Reads

Pamela Paul thinks you should read books you hate. She has done her time in book purgatory hell.

My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed.

“How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns.

Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ever been before or since. I finished every wretched page of “The Fountainhead” in alternating states of fury and despair, and when it was finally over, I tried to leave the vague echo of Dominique, stomping around in her evening gowns, behind. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.

Well, me too. But I was already old when I read Rand's even longer dreadful brick, Atlas Shrugged, and I already knew that I would never be a libertarian.

But I'm too old and life is too short. If I read another book I hate it had better be short, and interesting. So forget about it James Joyce - I will never finish Ulysses.

Paul, of course, is a professional critic and editor of the NYT Book Review. So I assume she actually gets paid to read bad books.

Winning: ROTR*

Yep, and it's not H. sapiens. It is the robots. Claire Cain Miller in the NYT:

Who is winning the race for jobs between robots and humans? Last year, two leading economists described a future in which humans come out ahead. But now they’ve declared a different winner: the robots.

The industry most affected by automation is manufacturing. For every robot per thousand workers, up to six workers lost their jobs and wages fell by as much as three-fourths of a percent, according to a new paper by the economists, Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University. It appears to be the first study to quantify large, direct, negative effects of robots.

The paper is all the more significant because the researchers, whose work is highly regarded in their field, had been more sanguine about the effect of technology on jobs. In a paper last year, they said it was likely that increased automation would create new, better jobs, so employment and wages would eventually return to their previous levels. Just as cranes replaced dockworkers but created related jobs for engineers and financiers, the theory goes, new technology has created new jobs for software developers and data analysts.

But that paper was a conceptual exercise. The new one uses real-world data — and suggests a more pessimistic future.

This may come as a shock to economists, but computer and AI people are less surprised. Facts sometimes trump economic mythology.

Don't be shocked that the Trumpettes remain a bastion of denial.

The paper’s evidence of job displacement from technology contrasts with a comment from the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who said at an Axios event last week that artificial intelligence’s displacement of human jobs was “not even on our radar screen,” and “50 to 100 more years” away. (Not all robots use artificial intelligence, but a panel of experts — polled by the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy in reaction to Mr. Mnuchin’s comments — expressed the same broad concern of major job displacement.)

The paper also helps explain a mystery that has been puzzling economists: why, if machines are replacing human workers, productivity hasn’t been increasing. In manufacturing, productivity has been increasing more than elsewhere — and now we see evidence of it in the employment data, too.

The study analyzed the effect of industrial robots in local labor markets in the United States. Robots are to blame for up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, it concluded, and that number will rise because industrial robots are expected to quadruple.

The paper adds to the evidence that automation, more than other factors like trade and offshoring that President Trump campaigned on, has been the bigger long-term threat to blue-collar jobs. The researchers said the findings — “large and robust negative effects of robots on employment and wages” — remained strong even after controlling for imports, offshoring, software that displaces jobs, worker demographics and the type of industry.

*Rise Of The Robots

Summer Time

The Sun is back and the High Arctic is warming up again. It's now the warmest it's been since - unhh - January and February.

Say what?

Sapiens: Book Review

Rutherford supposedly said that there are only two kinds of science: physics and stamp collecting. History is like that too. Most historians concentrate on chronicling a sequence of events in some domain, what Toynbee called "one damn thing after another." Only a few choose the riskier path of seeking grand themes and patterns that unify the whole.

It's a risky path, because choosing the grand stage requires more erudition than any single human actually has. Mistakes and oversimplifications are sure to become targets. Toynbee's monumental magnum opus was not the first in this vein, but it might be the first of our own age. Two such works have had a huge impact on my view of human nature, how the world works, and how we got here: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and the present work, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Yuval Harari. Of the two, the latter is the most ambitious, taking mankind from the status of "An Animal of No Significance," the title of his first chapter, to "The Animal that Became a God," the afterword.

Sapiens has been widely praised for its scope, incisiveness, erudition, and style. My favorite blurb comes from Jared Diamond, who is in some ways his mentor and model: “Sapiens tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.”

Sapiens is not a story of kings, heroes, and conquerors. The real characters in the story are the intersubjective realities, the myths, that are the building blocks of cultures and large scale cooperation: tribes, nations, religions, money and others. Harari takes a close look at the fundamental transformations of human society which he identifies as The Cognitive Revolution (circa 70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 ya) and the Scientific Revolution (500 ya).

Many will be offended, I suspect, by his casual lumping of such religions as Christianity, Islam, and Humanism (with branches such as liberalism, socialism, capitalism, and Nazism.) Those with eyes to see, I think, will find them opened and their vision expanded.

This is big picture history. Not history from 10,000 feet, as Harari says, but from an orbiting satellite. The picture he sees is a world where thousands of fragmented and barely interacting cultures have been gradually absorbed and digested by an all encompassing global culture. The primary engines of that destruction and transformation have been money, imperialism, and universal religions.

The book, an online course based on it, a TED talk, and various articles have made Harari, as one reviewer pointed out, a rockstar in history and anthropology - a guy who gets invited to give lectures to the aristocracy of Silicon Valley. Much of this celebrity comes, I think, from the final chapter, entitled "The End of Homo Sapiens," wherein he speculates about the future of our species. For the first time, he says, biological evolution's blind chance has been replaced by an intelligent designer. The potential of genetic engineering has barely been touched by such stunts as a cow's ear in human shape growing on the back of a mouse or a fluorescent green rabbit. Cyborg technologies that allow neural implants to let the blind see, the armless operate prosthetics, and remote control of insects and fish are just the beginning. So too, other experiments like the billion Euro project to emulate a human brain in Silicon foreshadow purely artificial intelligences.

His final words warn that God like powers are not necessarily accompanied by divine judgement. His final question:

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?

I have written a few dozen Harari posts over the years, collected here:

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Speed Demons

Could You Outrun a Soviet Submarine in a Lamborghini? The Fate of the Furious Made Us Wonder.

If you can't stand the suspense* skip down to paragraphs seven and eight.

*And are a hopeless stick in the mud.

The Neocon is On

From Slate:

Many conservative commentators seemed eager for the possibility of open conflict. On Fox News, John Moody argued that Trump was right to pursue a more aggressive posture toward North Korea, writing, “Trump has raised the stakes in this showdown, unlike Barack Obama, who tried to give Kim toothless avuncular advice, or Bill Clinton, who was hornswoggled into a bad nuclear arms deal with Kim’s father, in 1994.” (Apparently, the Bush administration's dealings with North Korea were not worth noting.) Pat Buchanan claimed that that Thursday’s MOAB strike could be interpreted as a message to North Korea, since “they have their tests, their atom bombs deep in tunnels, and I think what it is, is a message to them that we can get down in there and kill your people underground as well as above ground.”

Leaning into the prospect of regime change, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, appearing on Breitbart News Daily, said, “I think the only long-term way to deal with the North Korean nuclear weapons program is to end the regime in North Korea.

Individualism as a Racket

For countless generations we survived only as members of a family and an intimate community. Prying us loose from that embrace was a difficult enterprise, but the state and the market managed it. Their magic selling point: romantic individualism.


Friday, April 14, 2017


Nervously watching the game of chicken playing out between Trump and Kim Jong Un. Pretty hard to see a happy ending here.

Grant County, New Mexico

Grant County is a bit less than 4000 square miles (half the size of Wales) of desert, mountains, and spectacular wilderness inhabited by about 30,000 people, roughly 6000 of whom live in the largest town, Silver City. Several smaller towns, mostly former mining towns, dot the area. Silver City is another former mining town, with a small college, a tourist industry, and a hint of artistic post-hippiedom. Out in the wild are more refugees from civilization, including a few actual ranchers.

47% of all deaths of persons between the ages of 15 and 44 in Grant County are caused by drug overdoses. I'm not sure that that is the worst in the US, but if not, it's close.

The national map (by counties) and story at the link are illuminating and depressing. Rural and urban whites are the main victims.

My Favorite Reading: Today

All from the NYT:

Roger Cohen: France in the End of Days. France at the center of Europe's mid-life crisis.

Ana Fels: The Point of Hate. Hate and altruistic punishment as a key social glue.

T. R. Reid: Filing Taxes in Japan Is a Breeze. Why Not Here?

In Japan, you get a postcard in early spring from Kokuzeicho (Japan’s I.R.S.) that says how much you earned last year, how much tax you owed and how much was withheld. If you disagree, you go into the tax office to work it out. For nearly everybody, though, the numbers are correct, so you never have to file a return.

When I told my friend Togo Shigehiko in Tokyo that Americans spend hours or days each spring gathering records and filling out tax forms, he was incredulous. “Why would anybody want to do that?” he asked.

Farhad Manjoo: Uber Wants to Rule the World. First It Must Conquer India.

BANGALORE, India — Nandini Balasubramanya’s office here on the southern edge of India’s technology capital does not look as if it would play a key role in the world’s most valuable start-up’s plans for global conquest.

Review Notes: European Imperialism

A striking and original feature of European Imperialism was that it was a capitalist rather than a royal or government enterprise. Stock companies built and controlled the Dutch, British, and French overseas enterprises. Royal interference and crony capitalism crippled the French empire in the New World and ultimately brought down the monarchy itself. The British East India Company, which conquered India, had a larger army than the British government.

Harari notes that capitalism, imperialism, and science joined together in the imperialist enterprise. One of the keys to its success was the other army of historians, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, geologists, and biologists deployed, with the result that the invaders often knew the country better than the natives.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mixed News From Enceladus

Saturn's small moon Enceladus is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system for extraterrestrial life. Though it's far from the Sun, tidal forces have apparently heated its interior enough to produce an ice covered but liquid ocean, and from time to time it erupts in geysers that spout high above it south pole.

The Cassini mission to Saturn has sampled that geyser and found something interesting: hydrogen, which is interesting since hydrogen could be a fuel for life as it is in deep ocean vents on Earth. There is a good news- bad news aspect to this story.

Kenneth Chang, writing in the NYT, has the story:

Could icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life?

Intriguing new findings from data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft suggest the possibility.

Plumes of gas erupting out of Enceladus — a small moon with an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust — contain hydrogen. Scientists infer a lot from that: that there are hydrothermal chemical reactions similar to those that occur at hot fissures at the ocean bottoms on Earth.

On Earth at least, hydrothermal vents thrive with microbial life, offering up the potential that icy moons far from Earth — called “ocean worlds” by NASA — could be habitable.Could icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life?

Of course we don't see much hydrogen on Earth, since the bacteria scarf it up, so maybe there aren't any to do that job on Enceladus.