Monday, January 30, 2017

The Enemy Trump Needs

Via Arun, this WaPo story from a Venezuelan Chavez victim:

How to let a populist beat you, over and over again.

By Andrés Miguel Rondón January 27 Andrés Miguel Rondón is an economist living in Madrid. He is a Venezuelan citizen who was born and raised there.

Hugo Chavez was a populist, too. His opponents never figured out how to beat him. (AP Photo/Jorge Santo) Donald Trump is an avowed capitalist; Hugo Chávez was a socialist with communist dreams. One builds skyscrapers, the other expropriated them. But politics is only one-half policy: The other, darker half is rhetoric. Sometimes the rhetoric takes over. Such has been our lot in Venezuela for the past two decades — and such is yours now, Americans. Because in one regard, Trump and Chávez are identical. They are both masters of populism.

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple.

The problem is you.


Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.

What makes you the enemy? It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.

Arun has an excellent summary of his advice.

A sample:

Show no contempt.

Don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind.

Don’t try to force him out.

Attempting to force Trump out, rather than digging in to fight his agenda, would just distract the public from whatever failed policies the administration is making. In Venezuela, the opposition focused on trying to reject the dictator by any means possible — when we should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving.

His advice is both hard and somewhat unnatural. For one thing, it says that the mockery of comedians may be profitable for them but it also plays into Trump's hands. I recommend the story, even though I'm not sure that I agree with his prescriptions, I'm sure there is an element of truth in them.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump's Antisemites

The failure to mention Jews, or any other group targeted by the Nazis, was not accidental according to the Administration.

Josh Marshall writes:

It is true that millions died under the Nazis who were not Jews. They included targeted ethnic groups like Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, left-wing dissidents, people with disabilities, etc. But it has long been a trope of Holocaust deniers and white nationalists to insist that Jews were only incidentally targeted.

In any case, there are no word limits in presidential statements. A more logical and worthwhile approach would be to note the various groups who were victimized. This isn't accidental. The new administration is riddled with anti-Semites and those who want to cater to anti-Semites.

Marshall blames alt-right godfather Steve Bannon.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Early Voter Fraud Suspects?

While being registered to vote in two states is not illegal, voting in both probably is:

Reports: Bannon, Kushner, Tiffany Trump Registered to Vote in Two States


A top Russian FSB agent has been arrested and charged with treason, accused of being a US asset. He was high in the chain of command of those accused of running the hacking operation against the US. Is there anything odd about this happening just after Trump and his top aides, some with deep Russian links, got the classified briefing on the details of how the Russian hacking operation was revealed?

Josh Marshall:

From the Moscow Times ...

A top cybersecurity specialist in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) was arrested on Wednesday reportedly on suspicion of leaking information to the U.S. intelligence community — a bombshell accusation that, if true, would mean Washington had a spy in the heart of Russia’s national defense infrastructure.

Here's the additional detail ...

According to the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the FSB believes Sergei Mikhailov tipped off U.S. officials to information about Vladimir Fomenko and his server rental company “King Servers,” which the American cybersecurity company ThreatConnect identified last September as “an information nexus” that was used by hackers suspected of working for Russian state security in cyberattacks.

But this immediately poses the question: if Mikhailov was a US asset, how was he compromised? Did the information put out by US intelligence somehow lead to his exposure? Without putting too fine a point on it, a number of close advisors to President Trump are being scrutinized for ties to Russia. Some of them participated in the intelligence briefings the President receives.

Do we have a very big problem?

If Trump or his guys compromised this agent, that's treason.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Trump has apparently ordered silence from government employees on climate and other matters.

George Orwell's 1984 is climbing the best seller lists.

Not Lying?

When Trump, speaking to lawmakers, again repeated the falsehood that he had lost the popular vote due to "millions of illegals" voting, the NYT had had enough - it called the lie a lie. However, that suggested a scarier possibility to me. The man is actually, clinically, delusional. He really believes that millions of illegals voted against him, and that the "real" unemployment rate is 42%.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Modi's Experiment: Month Three

India's experiment in taking cash out of the economy is having the bad effects that some, or perhaps many, predicted. The supposed anti-corruption measure is hurting the poor badly. Much of the damage appears to stem from the failure of the government to prepare by printing enough of the new currency. Geeta Anand and Hari Kumar report in the NYT:

NEW DELHI — First, Yashpal Singh Rathore’s marriage was delayed by his future in-laws, who, like most Indians, ran short of cash after Prime Minister Narendra Modi banned the country’s largest currency notes in November.

Then the 29-year-old lost his job when the ensuing cash crunch hit demand for motorcycles and scooters sold by the company where he worked, Hero MotoCorp Ltd. After that, the prospective in-laws refused to let the wedding go forward until he found another job.

“So I lost my job and I lost my marriage,” he said in an interview at a protest, where he shouted slogans with more than 100 red-flag-waving workers let go by Hero.

Mr. Rathore is one among a large number of Indians — the precise number is not known — who have lost their jobs since Nov. 8, when Mr. Modi abruptly banned 86 percent of the country’s currency in a bid to eliminate “black money,” currency on which taxes had not been paid.

For the sake of secrecy, the government largely avoided printing replacement notes in advance. So there has been an acute and protracted shortage of cash as the government struggles to catch up. That, in turn, has proved economically damaging.

Nothing fails like incompetence.

UPDATE: Arun Gupta has a much more comprehensive look at demonetization in India here.


Any performer will tell you that nothing kills a live show like an audience that sits stony faced through your best lines. That's why many or most studio audience shows have paid audiences, people paid a few bucks to laugh and cheer - a claque, to use the term borrowed from French.

A TV pro like Donald Trump knows this, which is why he paid actors to cheer at some of his campaign speeches, and why, apparently, he brought a few dozen of his guys to pack the front rows for his speech to the CIA.

The CIA wasn't amused, which is probably why this story is in the press today.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Back Off?

Trump has gotten off to a pretty bad start to his presidency, but I'm not sure further protest is appropriate now. It's probably not good to provoke him to policies motivated purely by spite. I suggest that it may be appropriate to see what he is actually planning to do and then pick our battles judiciously.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Both Pathetic and Frightening

Presidential inaugurations draw big crowds.  Donald Trump's was no exception.  If one looks at time matched photos, though, it's pretty clear that there is a bunch of empty space at Trump's that was filled for Obama's.  See, e.g.,

It was a cold rainy day, so that doesn't prove much, but Trump's reaction was bizarre.  He goes over to talk with the CIA, and spends most of the time complaining about the media faking pictures of his "biggest crowd to ever attend" an inaugural.  Then he sends his press secretary out to yell at the press for not reporting an obvious falsehood.

As somebody put it, this is a man at war, not with the media, but with the truth.  Unfortunately we have seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well.

Josh Marshall:

5:46 PM: Verbatim quote: "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe." 
On the one hand it is chilling, bizarre, un-American to see the President's spokesman begin the term excoriating and threatening the press, telling demonstrable lies, speaking with a palpable rage in his voice. On the other, the President and his toadies are on the second day almost vanishingly small. They are embarrassing themselves. They look silly. They look ridiculous. It is hard to be intimidated by ridiculousness. I suspect this will be the abiding duality of the Trump presidency.
Marshall has the video.

I have a difference of opinion from Marshall though.  I find it easy to be intimidated by a ridiculous megalomaniac with his finger on thousands of nuclear weapons.


Vintage Feynman:


The New York Times collected reactions from here and abroad to Trump's speech. A common theme of writers from third world dictatorships was that he reminded them of home. Here is Mohammed Hanif:

KARACHI, Pakistan — Did President Donald J. Trump just say “America First”? It’s kind of worrying that American presidents have to steal slogans from third-world dictators.

In Pakistan, we had a military ruler named Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He made lots of friends in Washington, D.C., after taking over in a bloodless coup in 1999. On his return from his first visit to Washington, he proclaimed “Pakistan First.” He was such a great buddy of President George W. Bush that he got the latter to endorse his book on television. These buddies started new wars, rekindled old ones. Lots of people died, lots more fell into new depths of poverty.

When you say America first or Pakistan first — or whatever unlucky country it is that allows a pampered old man to say those things — it always means me first. My family first. My friends first. My friends’ friends are going to be O.K. I’ll decide what’s best for this country. In fact, I have already decided what’s best for this country: me. The bargain will work out like this: At the end of this, there will be lots more dead people, but we’ll have even more money than we did before.

And Mona Eltahawy:

CAIRO — “He sounds just like one of our despots,” said a friend after we watched Donald J. Trump speak at his inauguration. It was an address worthy of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, our general turned president.

It was stunning to watch Mr. Trump try to mold the United States in the shape of Egypt, where the military has ruled us, in one form or another, for over six decades.

No wonder Mr. Trump called Mr. Sisi “a fantastic guy” when they met in New York last year.

All his buddies seem to be dictators and thugs.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Trump to World: FU

A speech as redolent of grievance as it was devoid of detail.

The Horror, The Horror

And I'm not talking about Trump's inauguration yet. Well, maybe that's part of it. My actual subject is my reaction when I saw the first homework assignment in my Astronomy class in Dynamics and Hydrodynamics. Of course it wasn't based on the class material, since there wasn't any yet. Instead it was more of a basic math pretest: Differential equations, analyzing the behavior of integrals and deriving vector identities - stuff I hadn't done, for the most part, in fifty years. I panicked when I couldn't see how to get the inhomogeneous solution to the very elementary first differential equation. It reminded me of the feeling I had when I first saw the problem set on my PhD comprehensive and realized that there was not a single problem on it that I knew how to solve.

However, just as on that long ago comprehensive, once I pondered the problems a bit I gradually realized that I did have the tools, in this case rusted, dull, and buried deep, for solving the problems. In fact there was a lot of joy in finding out the pleasure of doing math.

Of course I'm still pretty horrified at the other first day assignment, writing a parallelizable program to analyze the interactions of hundreds of thousands of stars or planetoids interacting under gravity. It's been a long, long time since I wrote code, and I never used modern parallelization stuff.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Lessons of History

People argue all the time about what, if anything, can be learned from the study of history, but I have reached one pretty definite conclusion:

People, including or perhaps especially leaders, make a hell of alot of catastrophic mistakes.

By catastrophic, I mean mistakes that get them personally and frequently entire populations, slaughtered.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Posse Comitatus*

Every self-respecting rapper, so I hear, has his posse of friends or hangers on. Taylor Swift too. Central Eurasian bigshots took the concept further:

In the early form of the Central Eurasian Culture Complex, the highly trained warrior members of a lord’s comitatus— a guard corps loyal not to the government but to the lord personally— took an oath to defend him to the death. The core members of the comitatus, his sworn friends, committed suicide, or were ritually executed, in order to be buried with him if he happened to predecease them. The peripheral cultures’ historical sources explicitly say so, time and again, as Ibn Faḍlân remarks about the Vikings on the Volga, who were known as Rus:

One of the customs of the king of the Rus is that with him in his palace he has four hundred men from among his most valiant and trusted men. They die when he dies and are killed for his sake.

Beckwith, Christopher I.. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (p. 16). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

* The term has a somewhat different meaning in English Common Law.

Haaretz: Apocalypse Tomorrow

Sasha Abramsky, writing in El Haaretz:

The United States, that most grand of human political experiments, is, in early 2017, hurtling toward a catastrophe.

Trumpism is ascendant, and Trump, narcissist, bigot, totalitarian thug, stands triumphant, the entire American political and military apparatus at his disposal. It is, by any measure, a revolutionary moment. And, like all revolutions, it privileges extreme personalities over more mundane, middle-of-the-road, technocrats.

In the year 2017, the American Republic – founded by Washington, Jefferson and other Enlightenment luminaries, saved by Lincoln, brought to its modern pre-eminence by Roosevelt – is being handed over to an unholy alliance-of-convenience made up of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Islamophobes, Russophiles, supporters of the ultranationalist wing of Israeli politics, billionaire plutocrats and conspiracists.

They use social media to bully and to intimidate, and they threaten violence, with increasing frequency, against their opponents – whom they view not as partners in a democratic discourse but as “enemies.”  

Trump’s right-hand man in the White House will be Steve Bannon – who, while in charge of the Breitbart website, peddled a vast array of racially and religiously inflammatory ideas and shamelessly blurred the lines between real and fake news in pursuit of his political agenda. Breitbart has been instrumental in “normalizing” the so-called alt-right, all the way down to the Sieg Heiling neo-Nazi hoodlums who met for a triumphal post-election get-together in Washington D.C.; as well as the white nationalists in Whitefish, Montana who recently published the names and addresses of all Jews living in their vicinity, in the hope of ginning up a social media trolling war against them.

read more: 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Genomics of Spain

Provoked by Luboš Motl, AKA, Lumo, the Lumonator, I have been digging into the genomic history of Spain. I found this very nice article.

Two excerpts:

A wide range of peoples have settled in Iberia since the end of the last Ice Age. Phoenicians, Celts, Greeks, Jews, Romans, Goths, Suebi, Franks, Arabs and Berbers. All have left their genetic print on the populations of the regions where they settled. This page attempts to identify their genetic markers through the use of Y-chromosomal (Y-DNA) haplogroups, which are passed on nearly unaltered from father to son, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited only from one's mother, and genome-wide studies.

The modern Iberian gene pool is overwhelmingly Mediterranean, and yet the sequencing of a 7,000 year-old hunter-gatherer from La Braña in Asturias, revealed that Mesolithic Iberian shared much closer genetic affinities to modern Northeast Europeans (apart from having dark skin). This shows just how much the genetic landscape of the peninsula has changed in the course of a few eventful millennia. Yet, a single Mesolithic genome is not enough to get an unbiased picture of what all Iberian people were like at the time. It is cannot be excluded yet that North Africans hunter-gatherers may have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on boats and colonised the Iberian peninsula from the south, while northern and central European foragers occupied northern Sp


And this on the Celtic component:

It is perhaps the wealth of Megalithic people that attracted, through the Beaker network, the Indo-European speakers from central Europe, and caused them to invade western Europe and destroy the Megalithic cultures that had lasted for several millennia. Equipped with bronze weapons and horses, these Indo-Europeans were not cereal farmers but cattle herders from the Pontic Steppe, north of the Black Sea. They had already conquered the Balkans, the Carpathians, Poland, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries between 4,000 and 2,800 BCE, causing the collapse of all the Chalcolithic and Neolithic cultures in those areas. The southern R1b branch had advanced from the Hungarian plain to Bohemia and Germany by 2500 BCE (presence of R1b confirmed by Lee at al. 2012), and continued its migration until the Atlantic coast, reaching Britain and western France by 2,200 BCE and Ireland by 2,000 BCE. These R1b men were the Proto-Celts and their Y-DNA is now found in over half of Spanish and Portuguese men.

This was a mainly male invasion, as much less maternal DNA has the Proto-Celtic signature.


One thing - possibly the only thing - I learned in my long ago course in Philosophy of Science, is that it's fruitless to argue about definitions. Nonetheless, it is useful to see how various people use a word. Here are the ways some people define the word "Hispanic:"


The term Hispanic (Spanish: hispano or hispánico, Galician: hispánico, Asturian: hispanu, Basque: hispaniar, Catalan: hispà,[1][2] hispàno[3]) broadly refers to the people, nations, and cultures that have a historical link to Spain. It commonly applies to countries once colonized by the Spanish Empire in the Americas (see Spanish colonization of the Americas) and Asia, particularly the countries of Latin America and the Philippines. It could be argued that the term should apply to all Spanish-speaking cultures or countries, as the historical roots of the word specifically pertain to the Iberian region. It is difficult to label a nation or culture with one term, such as Hispanic, as the ethnicities, customs, traditions, and art forms (music, literature, dress, architecture, cuisine, and others) vary greatly by country and region. The Spanish language and Spanish culture are the main traditions.[4][5]

Hispanic originally referred to the people of ancient Roman Hispania, which roughly comprised the Iberian Peninsula, including the contemporary states of Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar.[6][7][8]


Today, organizations in the United States use the term as a broad catchall to refer to persons with a historical and cultural relationship with Spain, regardless of race and ethnicity.[4][5] The U.S. Census Bureau defines the ethnonym Hispanic or Latino to refer to "a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race"[34] and states that Hispanics or Latinos can be of any race, any ancestry, any ethnicity.[35] Generically, this limits the definition of Hispanic or Latino to people from the Caribbean, Central and South America, or other Hispanic (Spanish or Portuguese) culture or origin, regardless of race. Latino can refer to males or females, while Latina refers to only females.

US Census:

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requires federal agencies to use a minimum of two ethnicities in collecting and reporting data: Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino. OMB defines "Hispanic or Latino" as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.

People who identify with the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” are those who classify themselves in one of the specific Hispanic or Latino categories listed on the decennial census questionnaire and various Census Bureau survey questionnaires – “Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano” or ”Puerto Rican” or “Cuban” – as well as those who indicate that they are “another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.”

The 2010 Census question on Hispanic origin included five separate response categories and one area where respondents could write in a specific Hispanic origin group. The first response category was intended for respondents who do not identify as Hispanic. The remaining response categories (“Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano”; “Puerto Rican”; “Cuban”; and “another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin”) and write-in answers can be combined to create the OMB category of Hispanic.


Definition of Hispanic

1 : of or relating to the people, speech, or culture of Spain or of Spain and Portugal

2 : of, relating to, or being a person of Latin American descent living in the U.S.; especially : one of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin

Anyone wishing to discuss in these pages who is or is not Hispanic should cite one of these or else provide their own definition from a credible standard source.

Genetics of Europe

This post is provoked by a steady stream of genetic nonsense coming from a couple of prolific commentators. As it happens, this is an area I have recently studied and I have a modest familiarity with the literature. Modern Europeans derive most of their ancestry from at least three waves of settlement, ultimately from Africa, via the Middle East. The first wave or waves consisted of hunter gatherers who interbred with Neandertals. They were pushed back into a few refugia (Spain, Italy, Greece) during the peak of the last ice age, but spread out again after the ice retreated 11,000 years or so ago. About eight millennia ago, a second wave, neolithic farmers from the Middle East, spread through Europe, and mixed with remnants of the hunter-gatherer populations. The Basques of Spain seem to retain relatively unmixed genetics from these farmers. A three or four millennia later, Central Asian pastoralists speaking Indo-European invaded and mixed to various extents with the preceding populations. Their languages, including Celtic, dominate nearly all of Europe today.

Celtic is a language grouping which at one time dominated much of Europe. Descendants of Celtic speakers are genetically diverse. Many of the languages of pre-Carthaginian Spain appear to have been Celtic. See Wikipedia:

Genetics of the Iberian Peninsula

Spanish genetics are complex, due to repeated waves of immigration and colonization. Aside from the Basques, who are largely unmixed with the later waves of immigration, the Spanish incorporate genes mostly from the pastoralists together with those of Greek, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Visigoth and Arab conquerors. Consequently, modern Spanish populations includes a lot of genes from all these areas including North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Trump Blackmail Report

Paul Wood of the BBC reports on the sources of the story. There seem to be four of them, but its not clear that they are independent. H/T Kevin Drum:

Claims about a Russian blackmail tape were made in one of a series of reports written by a former British intelligence agent. As a member of MI6, he had been posted to the UK's embassy in Moscow and now runs a consultancy giving advice on doing business in Russia. He spoke to a number of his old contacts in the FSB, the successor to the KGB, paying some of them for information.

....The former MI6 agent is not the only source for the claim about Russian kompromat on the president-elect. Back in August, a retired spy told me he had been informed of its existence by "the head of an East European intelligence agency".

Later, I used an intermediary to pass some questions to active duty CIA officers dealing with the case file — they would not speak to me directly. I got a message back that there was "more than one tape", "audio and video", on "more than one date", in "more than one place" — in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and also in St Petersburg — and that the material was "of a sexual nature". The claims of Russian kompromat on Mr Trump were "credible", the CIA believed.

....Last April, the CIA director was shown intelligence that worried him. It was — allegedly — a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.

It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counter-intelligence taskforce was created....A lawyer — outside the Department of Justice but familiar with the case — told me that three of Mr Trump's associates were the subject of the inquiry. "But it's clear this is about Trump," he said.

Trump has shown no inclination to show his tax returns. They might shed light on the truth or falsity of the allegations.

A History of Central Asia

(1)By (Insert date)____________ the (insert tribal name) ________ had settled in the valley of the (insert name)____________ and developed agriculture and cities like __________. The ruler _____________, who styled himself (pick one: Khan, QaKhan, Emir, King, Ataliq, Beg, other) endowed glorious (pick one: Madrassas, Mosques, Churches, Buddhist Temples) and the culture thrived. At that point, they were invaded and conquered by steppe warriors who were (Turks, Mongols, Others) of the (insert name)___________ tribal confederation organized by the great leader (insert name)____________. After his death he was succeeded by his (pick one or more: son, nephew, brother, brother-in-law, general) (insert name)____________ who was subsequently murdered by his (see previous list, pick one or more). (2)Return to (1), rinse, repeat.

Las Cruces

H/T to Lumo, who sent me to the Wikipedia page for Las Cruces:

Census 2010 data[edit]

As of the 2010 census Las Cruces had a population of 97,618.[2] The ethnic and racial makeup of the population was:[14] 34.3% White American 2.4% African American or Black 1.7% Native Americans 1.6% Asian 0.1% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 3.5% Two or more races 56.8% Hispanic and Latino Americans (Hispanics may be of any race)

As of the census of 2000, there were 74,267 people, 29,184 households, and 18,123 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,425.7 people per square mile (550.5/km²). There were 31,682 housing units at an average density of 608.2 per square mile (234.8/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 69.01% White, 2.34% African American, 1.74% Native American, 1.16% Asian, 0.07% Pacific Islander, 21.59% from other races, and 4.10% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 51.73% of the population.

From this one might suspect that Las Cruces has seen a dramatic decline in "White" population. That's certainly not the case. If anything, the opposite, as our city is flooded with (nearly all white) immigrants from California and the cold regions. What is probably changing is the percentage of Hispanics identifying (also) as White. Virtually all local Hispanics are of mixed European and Native American ancestry. There are old Hispanic families here with names like Singh and Johanson as well as old, predominantly anglophone families that trace their ancestry back to the first Spanish explorers and settlers. The rate of intermarriage between Hispanics and anglophones is very substantial.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer... Richard III, Act I, Scene 1

OK, maybe not quite, but it is 68 F (16 C) right now and a lot of confused trees are budding and sprouting leaves, and those clouds that lour'd on our house have gone somewhere else.

Compromising Info

Apparently the intelligence services unearthed stories about the Russians having compromising information on Trump, including a possible sex tape. I have no idea about the veracity of this, but I think it's far more likely (and serious) that any compromising information they have is financial - he has a number of financial links with Russia. Naturally, the sensational sex rumors get most of the attention, but why would Trump go to Russia just to get pissed on? Lots of people here would do it for free.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


History is one damn thing after another.......Arnold Toynbee.

I signed up for a history course this term, and I have to say that one of the textbooks occasionally exhibits that trait in mind numbing detail:

The founder of one of these dynasties was Ahmad Khwajagi Kasani, also known as "Makhdum-i Azam" ("The Great Master"; 1461-1542). As his nisba suggests, he hailed from Kasan, a town in northern Fergana near present-day Chust. He left it for Tashkent, presumably in order to become a murid of Muhammad Qazi Burhan al-Din (d. 1515), one of Khwaja Ubaydallah Ahrar's khalifas.

Svat Soucek. A History of Inner Asia (Kindle Locations 2219-2221). Kindle Edition.

The shrine, which came to be known as Char Bakr, grew into a complex that included a khangah, a mosque, a madrasa, and the endowments supporting it dramatically increased after the Janibegid victory in 1557. The Juyharis too increased their wealth by becoming involved in commerce, manufacturing, and agriculture, and sent their agents as far as Moscow on trade missions. On the third side of this special triangle, these Nagshbandi pirs and wealthy entrepreneurs came to occupy the post of shavkhulislam in Bukhara, an honor and function also attained, as we have seen, by the Ahrari pir in Samarkand. What is more, this post, which in Central Asia tended to be hereditary was held by the Juyharis through the nineteenth century.

Svat Soucek. A History of Inner Asia (Kindle Locations 2229-2233). Kindle Edition.


I don't recall having previously heard of Kevin D. Williamson, and I have precisely one reason for thinking he is a scumbag. It is the first two sentences of his recent column:

It has long been rumored that Paul Krugman does not write the New York Times column that appears under his name. I have no reason to believe that that is true, but I hope it is.

Read more at:

I can't think of any honest reason to repeat a scurrilous "rumor" that you don't believe is true. Can you?

In any case, the rumor seems absurd, since Krugman is a prolific and indeed almost compulsive writer. Also, Google doesn't seem to have heard of it.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Ice: More and Less

It's not even remotely plausible that Arctic sea ice has reached a winter maximum, but it is odd that it has decreased for the past several days. There should still be one month of rapid growth and at least another of slow growth.


Besides providing us with means necessary to pay for our survival, jobs provide us satisfaction and a sense of purpose in life. Much of the angst in the US that led to the election of DT seems to be associated with the disappearance of good paying factory jobs, and the feeling that those jobs went abroad or to immigrants willing to work cheap. I wouldn't be surprised if similar factors are at work in the rise of right-wing and neo-fascist parties in Europe as well.

Of course many of those jobs went not abroad but to machines. Many domestic industries (like coal mining) produce just as much as they did twenty years ago, but with a small fraction of the number of workers. Many smart people, and dumber people like myself, have been thinking about what happens over the next decade and a half when a huge fraction of jobs still requiring humans disappears.

Our new Secretary of Labor designate is on record as opposing any minimum wage, mainly, I suppose, because it would squeeze his profits as a fast food magnate, but he justifies it by saying that if there is a higher minimum wage, fast food workers will just be replaced by robots. That's true of course, and is going to happen whether the minimum wage is $15/hr or just being allowed to eat the day old french fries. The minimum wage might affect the time table in a small way.

Low skill, low education, and poorly educated workers may be worst affected, but lawyers have already been hit hard by computerization of their jobs. Many types of doctors will soon be on the obsolete list as well. Work like that of Kahneman and Tversky showed that many types of human expertise are illusory - people are not good at sifting many types of complex evidence. Not only that, but even in fields where human expertise is genuine and unmistakable, at least compared to non expert humans, like chess and go, computers have demonstrated that they can do better.

So what happens when tens of millions of drivers, fast food workers and other are thrown out of work over a short time period? Ironically, this will have happened because society has become more productive. A long time narrative of the oligarchy is that just making sure all the profits go to the rich and super rich will be good for society. The "job creators", as they style the super wealthy, will create more jobs. Funny thing though - the last 35 years has seen an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich, but that job creating magic just hasn't seemed to happen.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Ice, Ice, Baby

Speaking of gone: Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extents are each at historic lows for the date - still.

Gone, Gone, Gone

From Steve Hsu: and the WSJ:

WSJ: A mysterious character named “Master” has swept through China, defeating many of the world’s top players in the ancient strategy game of Go.

Master played with inhuman speed, barely pausing to think. With a wide-eyed cartoon fox as an avatar, Master made moves that seemed foolish but inevitably led to victory this week over the world’s reigning Go champion, Ke Jie of China. ...

Master revealed itself Wednesday as an updated version of AlphaGo, an artificial-intelligence program designed by the DeepMind unit of Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

AlphaGo made history in March by beating South Korea’s top Go player in four of five games in Seoul. Now, under the guise of a friendly fox, it has defeated the world champion.

It was dramatic theater, and the latest sign that artificial intelligence is peerless in solving complex but defined problems. AI scientists predict computers will increasingly be able to search through thickets of alternatives to find patterns and solutions that elude the human mind.

Master’s arrival has shaken China’s human Go players.

“After humanity spent thousands of years improving our tactics, computers tell us that humans are completely wrong,” Mr. Ke, 19, wrote on Chinese social media platform Weibo after his defeat. “I would go as far as to say not a single human has touched the edge of the truth of Go.” ...

We are witness to the psychological shock of a species encountering, for the first time, an alien and superior intelligence.

This is different and more catastrophic for human intelligence that the triumph of computers over chess players not quite two decades ago. Computers beat humans by being better accountants than humans - they don't miss moves that humans do. In go, it seems, the computers have rejected our strategic thinking developed over millenia wholesale. Very possibly, Alphachess, if ever deployed, will do something similar for chess.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Book Review: The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis is one of our finest non-fiction writers, and any book of his is well worth reading. His subjects are drawn from areas one might not suspect of being of general interest - markets and sports. He has the ability to find the telling human detail and combine that with deep insight into general phenomena. Three of his books have been made into successful movies: Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short. Not bad for books ostensibly about, respectively, baseball statistics, the importance of offensive left tackles in football, and the great crash of 2007.

Lewis's latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, was inspired, he says, by a review of Moneyball by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, two University of Chicago colleagues of President Obama who led the introduction into economics and law of the ideas originating from two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

He begins with a story about basketball and the kinds of biases that inevitably creep into the crucial decisions about hiring talent.

The mere fact that a player physically resembled some currently successful player could be misleading. A decade ago a six-foot-two-inch, light-skinned, mixed-race guy who had gone unnoticed by major colleges in high school and so played for some obscure tiny college, and whose main talent was long-range shooting, would have had no obvious appeal. The type didn’t exist in the NBA— at least not as a raging success. Then Stephen Curry came along and set the NBA on fire, led the Golden State Warriors to an NBA championship, and was everyone’s most valuable player. Suddenly— just like that— all these sharp-shooting mixed-race guards were turning up for NBA job interviews and claiming that their game was a lot like Stephen Curry’s; and they were more likely to get drafted because of the resemblance.

Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (pp. 41-42). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

After a few more example he moves on to his main characters, Kahneman and Tversky. They were both military veterans, like nearly all Israeli men, and psychology professors, but otherwise their lives diverged. Kahneman had narrowly survived the holocaust as a child in Nazi occupied France, while Tversky, was a native born Israeli, or Sabra. Kahneman, or Danny (as Lewis always calls him) was shy, diffident and uncomfortable in social situations. Tversky was the life of every party, a paratrooper who had flown on many a plane before he was on one that actually landed.

They did have one more commonality: they were both brilliant and perceived as such. Once they began collaborating they became inseparable, spending many hours each day locked in an office talking, laughing, and yelling. Their central interest was the ways that human reasoning went awry, especially the reasoning of purported experts. What they discovered turned out to have revolutionary import, not so much for sports as for economics, law, medicine and almost every area of human decision making.

The Israeli military had relied on tests and interviews to determine the roles of draftees in the military. Danny's studies showed that these were all but useless as predictors of performance. His new tests were based on measured correlations with performance and helped turned the Israeli military into the world's most formidable fighting force, pound for pound. Interviews were deprecated as introducing more bias than genuine information.

Perhaps the central finding of Kahneman and Tversky is that human reasoning is not usually based on rational computation, but on shortcuts called heuristics. These heuristics often give computationally cheap answers to complex problems, but ones that, especially in the modern world, are often wrong. Two fields profoundly affected are economics and medicine. Most of economics is based on the notion of efficient markets. Efficient markets might still work if the kinds of errors humans routinely made were random, but, as K&T showed, they are not - they are systematic biases. Recognition of this fact led to understanding of some types of market failures and the new field of behavioral economics.

Systematic biases in medicine are even more directly catastrophic. Medical errors are one of the largest causes of death in advanced economies. Studies originating in the K&T work have shown that many of these are preventable by application of a few data based principles. One of the principle foci of Obamacare was the notion of collecting medical data and analyzing in order to determine and propagate best practices. Medical practitioners despised this, partly because it meant that they had to spend time entering data into electronic records but also because it threatened their exalted status as unanswerable and unquestioned authorities. The Republican Congress demonized the process as "death panels." One can only imagine what will happen to this idea with President Know Nothing in charge.

Despite it's enormous intellectual impact, this collaboration eventually came apart, due mostly, I think, to those intractable human emotions, jealousy and envy.

The book is a fascinating read at both the human and intellectual levels, with many glimpses into aspects of Israeli and academic culture as well as a central problem in human decision making. T&K were often frustrated by an Israeli public that consistently voted for policies certain to lead to more war. Americans today can only gaze in despairing wonder at the folly of our fellow Americans' choices in 2016.

Friday, January 06, 2017

The Russian Campaign for Trump

This NYT story on the declassified version of the intelligence report on Putin's intervention on behalf of Trump doesn't have many new solid details, but here is one that caught my eye:

The role of RT — the Russian English-language news organization that American intelligence says is a Kremlin propaganda operation — in the Kremlin’s effort to influence the election is covered in far more detail by the report than any other aspect of the Russian campaign. An annex in the report on RT, which was first written in 2012 but not previously made public, takes up eight pages of the report’s 14-page main section.

The report’s unequivocal assessment of RT presents an awkward development for Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who is Mr. Trump’s choice to serve as national security adviser. Mr. Flynn has appeared repeatedly on RT’s news programs and in December 2015 was paid by the network to give a speech in Russia and attend its lavish anniversary party, where he sat at the elbow of Mr. Putin. Mr. Flynn has since defended his speech, insisting that RT is no different from CNN or MSNBC.


It seems that GRE takers intending to major in Philosophy have the highest scores in two of the three tested areas verbal reasoning and analytical writing. Of course physics and astronomy majors dominate the mathematical reasoning and also do quite well in the other two, but how do we explain why so many modern philosophers turn out to be dumb asses? I have a theory: the smart ones usually decide to do something more worthwhile while those who go on to tenured positions get frustrated when they figure out that they really aren't equipped to understand anything important.

I found an example in this book about the Nobel prize winning work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on the kinds of mental errors all people commonly make:

At a conference back in the early 1970s, Danny was introduced to a prominent philosopher named Max Black and tried to explain to the great man his work with Amos. “I’m not interested in the psychology of stupid people,” said Black, and walked away. Danny and Amos didn’t think of their work as the psychology of stupid people. Their very first experiments, dramatizing the weakness of people’s statistical intuitions, had been conducted on professional statisticians. For every simple problem that fooled undergraduates, they could come up with a more complicated version to fool professors.

Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (Kindle Locations 4348-4351). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Black was wise to flee, since if he had hung around Tversky would likely have quickly demonstrated that Black, like the others, was in fact one of those stupid people. If you've invested your whole psyche in believing you are smart, it can be cheaper just to be an asshole than face that fact.


Paul Krugman:

In 2015 the city of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, was graced with a new public monument: a giant gold-plated sculpture portraying the country’s president on horseback. This may strike you as a bit excessive. But cults of personality are actually the norm in the “stans,” the Central Asian countries that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, all of which are ruled by strongmen who surround themselves with tiny cliques of wealthy crony capitalists.

Americans used to find the antics of these regimes, with their tinpot dictators, funny. But who’s laughing now?

We are, after all, about to hand over power to a man who has spent his whole adult life trying to build a cult of personality around himself; remember, his “charitable” foundation spent a lot of money buying a six-foot portrait of its founder. Meanwhile, one look at his Twitter account is enough to show that victory has done nothing to slake his thirst for ego gratification. So we can expect lots of self-aggrandizement once he’s in office. I don’t think it will go as far as gold-plated statues, but really, who knows?

Meanwhile, with only a couple of weeks until Inauguration Day, Donald Trump has done nothing substantive to reduce the unprecedented — or, as he famously wrote on Twitter, “unpresidented” — conflicts of interest created by his business empire. Pretty clearly, he never will — in fact, he’s already in effect using political office to enrich himself, with some of the most blatant examples involving foreign governments steering business to Trump hotels.

This means that Mr. Trump will be in violation of the spirit, and arguably the letter, of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars gifts or profits from foreign leaders, the instant he recites the oath of office. But who’s going to hold him accountable? Some prominent Republicans are already suggesting that, rather than enforcing the ethics laws, Congress should simply change them to accommodate the great man.

And the corruption won’t be limited to the very top: The new administration seems set to bring blatant self-dealing into the center of our political system. Abraham Lincoln may have led a team of rivals; Donald Trump seems to be assembling a team of cronies, choosing billionaires with obvious, deep conflicts of interest for many key positions in his administration.

Although many of the stans are now Turkic, the suffix "stan", meaning place, is Indo-European, and cognate to the English word "stand".

History of Welfare

Wang Yang-ti, an emissary of the Sung emperor of China visited the Uighur King at Qocho, in 982. A fragment of his report:

There are no destitute people in the kingdom: those who cannot provide for themselves are cared for by public welfare. Many people reach advanced age.

Svat Soucek. A History of Inner Asia (Kindle Locations 1167-1169). Kindle Edition.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Paper Victory

In the Summer of 751, Chinese and Arabs fought a defining battle for domination of Central Asia.

Kao Hsien-chih marched in with his troops and Qarluq auxiliaries as well as a contingent gent from Fergana. As the two adversaries met in battle at the end of July near Taraz, the Qarluq switched sides. The Chinese were crushed, and Kao Hsien-chih barely escaped. The Arabs' victory had more lasting and far-reaching consequences than this relatively obscure battle seemed to promise, for China never again ventured to claim mastery over territories beyond Sinkiang - with minor exceptions during the rule of the last dynasty to rule China, that of the Ching (Manchus), as we shall relate in due course.

Svat Soucek. A History of Inner Asia (Kindle Locations 1027-1030). Kindle Edition.

Aside from the obvious geopolitical consequences:

The Arab victory of 751 had yet another consequence: the victors captured a certain number of Chinese, some of whom were expert at manufacturing paper, an art practiced in China but unknown in the West. The Arabs were quick to learn from their captives, and paper manufacture spread throughout the Islamic world from where it also reached Christian Europe.

Svat Soucek. A History of Inner Asia (Kindle Locations 1036-1038). Kindle Edition.

If you are reading this (albeit electronically), you might thank Quarlug treachery.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Vera Rubin: Nobel MCPs

Lisa Randall, writing in the NYT, on why Vera Rubin deserved a Nobel Prize. Rubin was not the only deserving woman who was denied the prize. Physics remains one of the most male dominated professions, but there are several other women who seem to have been systematically overlooked. Besides those mentioned by Randall, Lise Meitner and Jocelyn Bell come to mind.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As we look back on 2016, and perhaps fret about 2017, we can take some solace in the remarkable things we know and continue to learn about the universe. In addition to a better understanding of the 5 percent of matter that has been well studied and understood, scientists are unlocking mysteries about the rest — 25 percent of it dark matter, and the remaining 70 percent dark energy.

Dark matter interacts gravitationally the way that ordinary matter does — clumping into galaxies and galaxy clusters, for example — but we call it “dark” because it doesn’t interact, in any perceptible way, with light. So 85 percent of the matter in the universe is not familiar matter. It is not made up of atoms and doesn’t carry an electric charge.

Observations in the 1980s presented convincing evidence of dark matter, opening a vast field of scientific work. Of all the great advances in physics during the 20th century, surely this one should rank near the top, making it well deserving of the world’s pre-eminent award in the field, the Nobel Prize. Yet to this date none has been awarded, and may never be, because the scientist most often attributed with establishing its existence, Vera Rubin, died on Christmas Day.


The elephant in the room is gender. Dr. Rubin was not alone in having been overlooked for the Nobel. Every major discovery in the Standard Model of particle physics, perhaps the crowning achievement of 20th-century physics, was awarded a Nobel, except one. Chien-Shiung Wu, who showed that physical laws distinguish between left and right, was overlooked, even though two of her male colleagues won for developing the theory behind her work and an even more subtle follow-up symmetry violation later won the prize.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Darkness: Bee is Pitching MOND Again

Dark Matter and Dark Energy are inventions intended to solve certain bedevilling problems in cosmology and galaxy dynamics. The experimental evidence for them is somewhat circumstantial, but has generally been considered compelling. Dark matter, in particular particulate dark matter is generally considered to be on somewhat more solid ground, both because there are plausible additions to the standard model that seemingly fit the bill, but also because of its apparently crucial roles in the early universe and galaxy formation. The hypothetical particles that constitute it have remained stubbornly unobserved, however, despite extensive searches. This has led to new interest in so-called Modified Newtonian Dynamics, or MOND. This old idea tinkers with gravity itself, but has not convinced many because it's not so hot at dealing with the early universe, and, IMHO, ugly as a bullfrog flattened by a semi..

Anyway, Sabine of Backreaction has a new post out arguing that a classic bit of evidence adduced for dark matter, the Bullet Cluster, is actually a better argument for MOND. Maybe, but I don't understand the technical details.

One Good Deed

Republican House leaders made a typical scumbag deal by killing the House independent ethics panel in a sneak move. Many called them out, but the deciding factor in getting them to renege was probably the Tweetmaster General.

Good Job!

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Physics Grad School: Theory

Via NEW, a fascinating perspective on grad school in Physics theory:

Have you ever been happy?”

My girlfriend asked me that question, after work over drinks at some shiny Manhattan bar, after another stressful day on the trading floor.

How to answer that? I knew she was talking about work, but how unhappy did she think I was? I took a sip of single malt scotch and scrolled back through time in my mind until I had it.

It was the spring of ’93, 16 years earlier, at the University of Rochester, where I went to graduate school for physics. An afternoon that I can play back like a home movie. It’s a bright sunny day in the wake of one of Rochester, New York’s typically brutal winters. The sky is blue, the clouds are cotton balls, and sunlight shimmers off the deep green leaves of the grass, bushes, and oak trees of campus, all freshly nourished by the recently melted snow. Undergraduates are out in shorts on the quad, some gathered on steps, others tossing Frisbees, all surrounded by ivy-covered halls of red brick and gray stone, including Bausch and Lomb Hall, home of the physics department. I’m in the dining room of the university’s Faculty Club, where the daylight is smothered by heavy velvet drapes. Maroon, I think, bordered by sunlight. Chandeliers sparkle above. There are seven or eight people sitting around the table, which is set with a white cloth and place settings decked out with multiple forks. A bottle of wine is making the rounds. The meal feels like what it is: a celebration.

Spoiler - this is not a story of triumphant victory.