Sunday, April 23, 2017


You've probably heard of Caldwell's review of Christophe Guilluy's work trying to explain what caused the fissures in French society. A crude summary is that globalization and the "information economy" left the working class un/under-employed and made the centers so expensive that they were pushed out to the "periphery," often literally. (Periphery in particular means distance from the active economy, but high housing prices mean that this is "away from Paris" as well.) The housing built for the working class now houses immigrants and second generations of immigrants, who work cheaper, but are often hostile. The successful class is essentially oblivious--everyone they know is doing fine, and they enjoy life just fine.
While rich Parisians may not miss the presence of the middle class, they do need people to bus tables, trim shrubbery, watch babies, and change bedpans. Immigrants—not native French workers—do most of these jobs. Why this should be so is an economic controversy. Perhaps migrants will do certain tasks that French people will not—at least not at the prevailing wage. Perhaps employers don’t relish paying €10 an hour to a native Frenchman who, ten years earlier, was making €20 in his old position and has resentments to match. Perhaps the current situation is an example of the economic law named after the eighteenth-century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say: a huge supply of menial labor from the developing world has created its own demand.


Upwardly mobile urbanites, observes Guilluy, call Paris “the land of possibilities,” the “ideapolis.” One is reminded of Richard Florida and other extollers of the “Creative Class.” The good fortune of Creative Class members appears (to them) to have nothing to do with any kind of capitalist struggle. Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them.

That may sound somewhat familiar, and the article makes the connections, but the focus is on France and its unique situation.

One line struck me: "French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency."

I hear an echo of another famous delusion current a century ago: elan, "offensive รก l'outrance." I hope the consequences of this delusion are not so deadly.

Both the new and old attitude seem essentially religious, both with the volk as the god. "We are too pious and good for bad things to happen to us." Of course "common decency" can be made into an extremely low bar.

I work in one of those elite groups: an international collaboration at a world-class university: knowledge-based and cosmopolitan. The folks here are smart and honest, and by and large extremely nice people. "Nice" is not the same as "good," but from inside the bubble it is easy to make that mistake.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


A Russian does Spike Jones one better with an innovative variation on a glockenspiel.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Hunting the wild

Scott Van Zyl was hunting crocodiles by the Limpopo, and apparently they found him first. Three were killed, and DNA testing verified that one at least contained Van Zyl.

I'm sorry for him and his family. Closure is a good thing, but I wish they hadn't killed the crocs.

Not that I have any fondness for the creatures. If the last tiger on Earth were killing people in my neighborhood, I'd join the posse to go kill it. But Scott's case is a little different.

I want no wild threats to my home, and will be as thorough as I need to be to make sure of that.

A farmer who wants to harvest a steer or three wants as little fuss as possible.

A subsistence hunter needs food. If there's something dangerous out there, he would prefer that it either be elsewhere or be made incapable of harming him and his tribe. Man-eating bears interfere with the hunting he needs to do to keep his family alive.

A deer hunter wants the challenge of outwitting a deer on its native ground. He's not looking for danger, just the venison and the challenge. Similarly with geese, turkey, etc. If a pack of wolves started stalking hunters instead of just spooking deer, I think most of us would go along with relocating them--either far away or to the tanner's. Man-eating wolves would interfere with the sport.

But a crocodile hunter is hunting it precisely because it is dangerous. Likewise a lion hunter, or a grizzly hunter--only a jerk would go to a lion farm to shoot a quasi-tame lion. If the hunter has a very bad encounter with something wild, that just emphasizes the wildness and danger for the next hunter. Killing the dangerous animals to make it safe again interferes with the sport.

I wonder what Scott would have thought about it. I'm pretty sure his wife and kids wanted closure.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The peaceful sea

Some varieties of sea urchins, when disturbed, turn loose some of their stinging appendages (pedicellariae) to float around like little mines--mines that bite instead of explode. Bee-sting like.
Many people are familiar with the spiny appearance of sea urchins, but most have probably never noticed the pedicellariae that grow between the spines. Each one is less than a millimeter across, and they come in several different types, some of which are more suited to cleaning away algae than fighting off predators. Collector urchins have a particularly fearsome variety of pedicellariae consisting of stalks topped with biting jaws. The three sections of the jaws open outward like flower petals, each one ending in a venomous fang. A dense forest of these structures covers the collector urchin's shell, waving and snapping in response to touch, chemical signals and looming shadows.


Four of the urchin species kept their pedicellariae, but the collector sea urchins released a continuous stream of the biting appendages. In the original experiments, collector urchins released tens of pedicellariae per trial, but in subsequent tests, which have not yet been written up and published, they spewed hundreds over the course of 30 seconds

Apparently fighter drones aren't a new invention.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Restricting traffic is an old idea, and everything old is new again. After a container-truck accident killed a popular performer, there are calls to restrict the trucks to night-time operation in Monrovia. The article includes plenty of insinuations that the trucks are not road-worthy--an accusation I'd cheerfully believe--but includes no claims that the drivers are careless; a curious oversight. I sort of doubt the truck drivers would be better drivers at night, with mediocre street lighting and pedestrians even harder to see.

I found this hilarious: "“Has the LNP put any speed bumps to prevent unnecessary over-speeding and death at the road where the young musician Quincy B met his fate?” a young man asked." On most roads they're not necessary, and I thought one of the jobs they wanted Ellen to oversee was to fix the infrastructure.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Peter had a confusing career. He told Jesus to go away, because he (Peter) was a sinful man. Jesus called him anyway. A little later Jesus called him Satan. When Peter swung a sword to come to His defense, Jesus rebuked him. Peter, along with the others, swore he'd never deny Jesus, and then he lied like mad when his poor spy scheme was uncovered. He had a decided tendency to fall asleep when praying (Gethsemane, Joppa): one man called napping "The Prayer of St. Peter." After the Resurrection, the angel said "Tell His disciples, and Peter." Ouch. Though maybe he already felt like an outsider. Even after the Resurrection, Peter thought the best thing to do was go fishing. And then Jesus grilled him.

He was clearly not the head honcho at Jerusalem; James was. Paul had to call him on the carpet at one point.

I'm not at all persuaded that he was appointed head of the church, but I think one might do worse than appoint a klutz who's been through the fire a time or three--somebody who's had to learn a bit of humility.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Problems and solutions

But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.

they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him.

Our church has decided to try to help address the problem of "the achievement gap" in Madison. There's a problem there, true. And perhaps there is something we can do to help, though I seriously doubt that we'll have any grand solutions. Even a few lives are worth a lot, though.

I don't know the history of the decision, but I wonder how it evolved. It sometimes seems as though we see a problem and glom onto it, work up a plan and advertise for volunteers.

Do we wind up in a different place if, instead of looking at problems, we ask "What solutions do we have? What skills and enthusiasms do our people have?"(*) One fellow in our church wasn't very bright, and his skill set was pretty limited, but he put together a list of people to call, and when he heard that someone in church was moving, he called people on the list to assemble a team to help. That's not the sort of thing I usually hear when the church says they need people to help. (Typically they're short of child care workers.)

I tried to rouse interest in a "What I can do" list at our last church: a list of things people say they're willing to volunteer for. Ideally this would be pooled by local churches, since one church may not have a critical mass of people able to address a problem that needs a team. In practice I couldn't get ours interested. Possibly this had to do with liability issues, possibly the concept has serious flaws, and possibly I'm not very good at salesmanship.

I finished Organic Community tonight, which is about how much better the results are from collaboration and encouraging people to develop their own activities than from "cooperation" (aka do it my way) and central planning. The last time I checked a body needs both flexible flesh and solid skeletons. Still, quite a lot of the appropriate work of a church goes on through informal or almost informal networks of friends. The liturgy, whether high or low, is only part of the work.

(*) I do not mean those spiritual gift questionnaires.

Sunday, April 09, 2017


WHO Report: Over One Million Liberians Suffering From Depression.

I hope this isn't true. I expect millions are stressed and very unhappy, and that's a very big deal, but depression is more than just that.

Saturday, April 08, 2017


I gather the makeup artists for horror movies work hard to make people look suitably gruesome, without going that extra inch that makes them look silly.

Hollywood is missing a bet. They could simply hire DMV photographers.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Days of Rage by Bryan Burrough

I will find it difficult to write a more interesting description than David did. You should definitely go read that.

It was rather disconcerting to think how close some of this was when I was in Chicago. I had read the news, but forgotten most of it, just like everyone else. This is a good reminder of what madness can lie just around the corner.

The year Several years before I first arrived at college, student riots had burned down Old Main. The main computing facility was in a limited access building that permitted defense in depth. (They opened a new and more open facility while I was there.) Iranian students did some demonstrating, but there was very little drama otherwise--a big crowd assembled on the rumor that a sorority had scheduled a streak, and the student government was dominated by a party which ran on the platform that they would bring the Grateful Dead to perform. I think there must have been a bit of a reaction against politics.

Chicago Circle had more diversity of weirdness. I had a few letters to the editor published under the pseudonym of Ho Lee, Chairman of Reeducation Committee, and cosigned by Korean War Veterans Against Admitting Hawaii as a State and others of that ilk. To give some flavor of the dialog on campus: I overheard people who thought the letters were real. Nothing was too crazy.

Some of those crazies stayed crazy.

You should read the book. A couple of things jumped out at me: the Law tended to only catch the bombers by accident, and the revolution runs on money. Friendly lawyers, ECUSA, or bank robbery--somehow revolutionaries had to get the bucks. And one other thing--no matter how weird things are, they can get worse.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017


The story read Who sold embassy in Spain for $1m? "Liberian officials say “a crook” in Spain has sold Liberia’s embassy there at over US$1m, but Spanish government have already seized proceeds of the sale and were trying to return the buyer’s money and give back Liberia its foreign mission property."

I just had to follow up on that kind of story, and found a new story from a few hours later: Govt to close embassy in Spain? In that we learn that the illegal sale was in Sweden, not Spain, and that both buildings are in such derelict condition that the Liberian government wants to sell the Spanish one in order to pay for repairs in the Swedish one.

I wonder what tomorrow's story will tell, and what the Spanish think of this type of triage. Neither story said who bought the place.

FWIW, when I wanted a visa I went to a Liberian Consulate on the south side of Chicago--and just barely caught the officer before he went out on a long lunch. The address turned out to be a back room in a rug store. It has since been closed.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

What makes you angry?

I ran across the "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize" line attributed to Voltaire. Since Voltaire made a fairly successful career doing just that, it didn’t sound quite his style--and apparently the line is of fairly recent coinage, and is attributed to a fellow who doesn’t like Jews.

The first time I ran across it, it seemed a little extravagant but mildly plausible—but I remembered reading about complaints in the army, and the principle started to seem less than universally accurate: more of a matter of "who are the favored ones" than "who rules." They aren’t the same people. In academia there most certainly are people who, if you criticize them, you risk your career. Mentioning some topics will kill it dead. Anybody remember Lawrence Summers?

To say it more accurately: "To find out who the favored ones are, find out who you aren’t allowed to criticize or make fun of." Zzzzz.

Still, the idea of probing the structure of something with humor or criticism might have some potential.

Who do you really worship? I know a number of people who, if you mock God, will have a very mild response. If you mock their president (current or previous, depending on their tribe) they go ape. I get it that we have an obligation to protect the honor of family and friends, and think it reasonable to rise to their defense. But realistically, the president is only your friend in abstract. Maybe you met him once, but you don't know him. If, on the other hand, he is the one you put your trust in, the symbol of all you hold dear, perhaps you are putting him in a role only another can fill.

Screwtape wrote of "God And" as a tool to pry people away from God. Do my reactions tell of my God or my And?

I often hear of some Muslims going ape when someone disses Muhammad or the Koran, but rarely hear of them getting angry when someone complains about God. (It does sometimes happen.)

Some of us get bent out of shape by lies. We often get more bent out of shape by lies about us or our tribe, of course, but insofar as we try to be even-handed this seems like a love of truth and a good thing. But when you jump to oppose some lies and not others, perhaps you've let your "And" rule.

I feel a strong urge to jump in when somebody starts munging(*) up something about physics or astronomy, but it generally doesn’t make me angry. On the other hand, when somebody starts claiming that the moon landings were faked, I find that I start with some invidious (and usually accurate) assumptions about his willingness to review evidence. It doesn’t mean that I think the moon landings are more holy than F=ma. So my reaction doesn’t map neatly onto deeply held beliefs; it’s a mix of my gut reaction to the issue and my reaction to you.

When I mentioned in one circle the rather obvious fact that Hillary was a bad candidate (**) the others assumed that I meant that I disliked her character and her politics. That is true, but not what I was talking about--their reaction was also to an assumption, that I was announcing membership in a different tribe.

So I think this probe is most useful in self-examination. It is too easy to make mistakes applying it to other people. Though one is sometimes tempted to draw conclusions from obvious cases...

(*) Mung: recursive acronym for Mung Until No Good

(**) Just count the signs up for her in Madison vs those for Obama 4 years earlier, and compare with the number for the senate candidate. Reliably Democratic Madison wasn’t very enthusiastic at all. Not a good candidate...

More tame foxes

From the fact that PBS did a story on them, I gather that interest has not subsided, and from the low price ($9000)(*) I gather that the supply end is doing OK.

The changes in behavior have been remarkably rapid--less than 60 years to effective domestication. Andrew Wagner warns that there may still be some residual issues.

"[You can be] sitting there drinking your cup of coffee and turning your head for a second, and then taking a swig and realizing, ‘Yeah, Boris came up here and peed in my coffee cup,’" said Amy Bassett, the Canid Conservation Center’s founder. "You can easily train and manage behavioral problems in dogs, but there are a lot of behaviors in foxes, regardless of if they’re Russian or U.S., that you will never be able to manage."

"Never" is a long time.

(*) That doesn't seem too crazy for an exotic. Some rare dog breeds are up there too: e.g. a saluki for $2500.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Private security firms

Richard Fernandez is an interesting and thoughtful writer. When I read the title of his latest, Nation Building by Reduction, my first thought was that this would be about creating new nations by subdividing the failed nation states into units that can think of themselves as a unit and actually function that way.

Instead he discusses the effects of private security firms taking the place of police and military forces in countries or sections of countries where the government is unable or unwilling to provide protection. Sometimes the cops or soldiers are inept, sometimes they're the problem. Since the first purpose of government is to protect its people, when it consistently fails the people are entitled to do what they can to fill the gap.

An article he links to in African Business Magazine is worth reading--sometimes the firms are effective and sometimes, such as with those Shell hires in Nigeria, you wonder. The South Africans, citing national security issues, want to make all security firms at least 51% local ownership. (That won't help a bit--it will just change the potential threat from one of external intervention to one of civil war.) A number of shipping firms have given up on local navies and hired their own protection. And so on.

Fernandez didn't deal with this part, unfortunately. Even if you have one firm supplying forces to everybody, you'll get empire-building internally, and that will eventually turn external. In other words, over time, the West Nigeria unit of Blackwater will go native, and so will the Benin unit.

When you have multiple groups, sooner or later they will conflict.

The end stage would be the division of failed/incompetent states into new "nations" defined by their security team. Does that sound familiar?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On reflection

I put up a short post about Chinese music and hinted at the difficulty I was having with understanding it. If you followed the link, you probably noticed this:
A melody may be developed in several ways, through
  • repetition
    • the repetition of a melodic phrase or
    • of a rhythmic pattern
  • changing the beginning of the phrase

  • changing the ending of a phrase

  • repeating a snatch of a motif

  • ornamentation

  • piling on “jia duo”

  • “jia sui”

  • continuation/passing on
    • “jie zi” beginning of second phrase uses the ending note of the first phrase
    • “jie yin” using material from first phrase to develop second phrase
  • having certain motif that repeats throughout “guan chuan”

  • sequence

  • others

A couple of days later when I turned on the car radio, a complicated jazz piece came on, and it occurred to me that jazz uses some of those same techniques. And lo and behold: Shidaiqu.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

I don't know how it is at your home

But there's been some truth to this at ours. Except that we're usually reading or on computers instead of watching TV.

Friday, March 24, 2017

If it sounds good

Just for the fun of it I tried listening to some old Chinese music the other night (Youtube), and was a bit disconcerted that I typically couldn't make out anything like a melodic line. There'd be a phrase or two that seemed promising, and then everything got upended as far as my ear was concerned. I expect some rhythm or melodic logic to carry me along, but the phrasing didn't usually seem regular and I couldn't follow the logic.

Apparently the irregularity is built into the music theory. E.g. "Related to this concept, the idea of accents on regular beats of a bar is not as important as accents occurring on appropriate parts of the phrase. Accents are also influenced by note length."

So much for the universal language. Peter Schickele liked to end his show with Duke Ellington's "If it sounds good, it is good." But if you can't follow it, it may not sound good.

I read in an account of an expedition up the Amazon that the explorers brought along a phonograph with which to entertain themselves, and demonstrated it to various tribesmen--who allegedly far preferred Mozart to Beethoven. I wonder what it was in Mozart that they liked (understood?) better. I wonder if that preference is still true, given the exposure pretty much everybody has had to pop.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

An obituary

What the deceased may well have taken the most joy in.
David Rockefeller was in at the conception of many other things — Manhattan property deals including the sites for the United Nations, and the former Twin Towers; the foundation of the Trilateral Commission, and so forth. It’s all in the obituaries somewhere. But these were mere flexings of money and power. The discovery and entrapment of a new beetle throws all such accomplishments into the shade, and makes the life of a plutocrat worth living.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Did you ever wonder why you can't seem to balance things on your head the way so many Africans can? This article claims that as they grew up carrying burdens that way, their skeletons adapted to carry the weight directly. If I try, my neck muscles wind up handling a lot of the effort, and it hurts. The story seems plausible to me. Ouch.

Never mind exoskeleton stuff.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book learning

One little problem with growing up in a white-collar family, and holding a white-collar job, is that when something needs fixing and the budget won't stretch to have a pro do it, you have to rely on the do-it-yourself manuals. (These days Youtube is a wonderful help!) I bless my father for having me work in the Ricks maintenance shop one summer, but there were a lot of things left to learn.

It turns out the Chinese had a proverb that describes the situation nicely: "It is when you are using what you have learned from books that you wish you had read more."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Necronomicon, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray

I tend to get a bit rebellious when books are forbidden, and this one is treated like Mein Kampf in the circles I work in. (I don’t need to read that; he spelled out in blood what he meant.) And in light of the recent attack at Middlebury this seems timely.

Their Chapter 22 (A Place for All) overlaps a bit with things I’ve been worrying about, and most of their suggestions seem reasonable—though their idea that government aid for children be cut is a deserved non-starter.

Start at the beginning. (I skipped the appendices, btw.) They say society is becoming more stratified and the castes are becoming more and more isolated from each other, mediated only by pop culture which is dominated by one of the castes. This seems clear and true enough.

Then they go on to give an exposition of which social issues are and which are not highly correlated with IQ. Here I want to tear my hair. They show beautiful curves displaying how IQ correlates better with income or crime than does parental socio-economic status or education. But there are no error bars or scatter plots (like this) and I have no way of evaluating the comparisons—especially since sometimes the tails on each side have smaller statistics and are less well measured.

But let’s stipulate that the results are largely accurate (for the time being—I have 2 other books to read that are intended to refute this book).

They take a little time to worry about "dysgenics"—that with IQ (or "g", hereafter g/IQ) being strongly hereditary, when the smarter have fewer children, the overall average intelligence will drop, and the rate of really brilliant folk will drop even more. I’d think this one of the controversial sections. I think their model of society is a bit simplistic—the machine we built relies invisibly on qualities other than technological expertise—courage in battle, for example. And it relies on virtue, which I've never found to be correlated with intelligence one way or another. And I’ve often read the complaint that the engineers with the brainpower work for companies run by the guys who majored in beer and blondes--and networking.

Then H&M go into differences in g/IQ between populations. I notice that many people are unable to distinguish between statements about populations and about individuals. H&M do, and try to emphasize that point. They try.

They claim that the average measured g/IQ of Americans of African ancestry is substantially (1 standard deviation) lower than that of those of European ancestry, which in turn is lower than the average for Japanese and Han Chinese. If IQ is the measure of human worth, this is a really big deal—but I don’t believe that and H&M claim not to believe it either. Let me repeat that: human worth and dignity have nothing to do with intelligence or education or family background.

The proper first question about such a difference is not “Is this insulting” or “Will this lead to evil” but “Is this true?”

H&M cite plenty of statistics, and if I do a back of the envelope calculation using statistics from my field, I get similar numbers (restricting my sample to Americans—there was a brilliant Nigerian in our group for a while).

If this is correct, it destroys the iron rice bowl of the “disparate impact” industry. They’ve fought tooth and nail against the idea, as have a generation or 3 of education fadsters.

But it isn’t enough to have the right enemies.

H&M go on to review what has been tried, and what the results have been. Poor nutrition or early disease can stunt the brain, and great progress has already been made in dealing with these—though they think, and common sense suggests, that we hit diminishing returns long ago in this country. (Except possibly for pre-natal nutrition.) Head Start, as implemented, is worthless. (I examined Head Start’s report back in 2013 and came to the same conclusion--by grade 3 there was no effect.)

One thing that helped seriously at-risk children was adoption at birth—but this was not tested for less at-risk children, and as a policy this falls under the category of Like Hell You Will.

Some education seems to have an effect, but H&M didn’t say whether these studies were successfully replicated.

Me talking: One thing that nagged at me was the description of backwoods whites in Kingdom of Cotton. This was a seriously pathological society—feckless, uneducated, and to all appearances dull-witted. A century and a half later things didn’t look nearly so bad in that population, though drugs and lack of jobs have apparently started to make a mess of them since then.

Me talking: How g/IQ gets expressed is going to be a function of good luck (disease and environment, for example) and discipline. And if the very notion of being paper-tested is alien, you may do less well than you would with some practice (e.g. the moderate but limited increase in SAT scores with practice). And perhaps education needs to be differently structured for those at the left side, or those with chaotic families.

Me talking: Other inborn skills aren’t easy to paper-test for: musical, athletic, being able to sense what another person is feeling (as opposed to Asperger’s), and so on. Some of these matter a lot.

At any rate, they go on to worry about an increasingly stratified future in which a cognitive elite try to put the rest “on reservations”, so to speak. The Last Psychiatrist opined that prescription drugs were effectively if not intentionally used to zone out many of the underclass. Be that as it may, a “reservation” society won’t work—the inhabitants will burn it down and whatever else they can reach.

The final chapter has policy suggestions.

Chuck disparate impact but keep other parts of affirmative action; chuck civil union benefits (if you won’t commit why should we?); re-evaluate education structure; decentralize regulation so that more is decided locally—and more simply, so interactions aren't too complicated for the slower (Have you read the 1040 instructions?); simplify what you can in law and regulation; and don’t offer benefits for extra children.

The last point won’t fly, and shouldn't.

Decentralization of authority starkly opposes the principles of 1 ½ of our 2 political parties. The affirmative action industry wants to grow, not shrink, and claims that traditional morality is good are met with howls of hatred.

I can see why it raises a stir.

BTW, one of the things that complicates the field is the Flynn effect--that g/IQ scores have been rising since tests were introduced. That makes calibration difficult. Are they rising because education actually improves raw intelligence, or because people are just getting used to tests and therefore getting better at it (e.g. like practice for the SAT)?

Now for a rebuttal.

The Bell Curve Wars edited by Fraser, is a collection of essays arguing with the Bell Curve. I list the authors below.

  • Steven Gould: His description of "factor analysis" seems interesting, but his claim that the spike in g vanishes and turns into spikes in other "intelligences" if you rotate the parameter space, and that therefore the spike isn’t important, sounds backwards. He gripes about the lack of scatter plots.
  • Howard Garder: Often disingenuous—or maybe he didn’t read thoroughly.
  • Richard Nisbett: Cites lots of studies challenging the black white g/IQ gap. Hurray for Nisbett! He actually addresses some of their research!
  • Rosen and Lane: Ad hominem from the get-go. Rubbish.
  • Ramos: Addresses a few points
  • Sowell: Addresses issues of testing among white groups, questions its reliability
  • Jones: Ad hominem from the get-go and –oh look, slavery! Rubbish
  • Gates: Ad hominem, but mercifully short.
  • Andrew Hacker: Claims that tests are biased and points out the ranges in white g/IQ by ethnicity, and then indulges in mind-reading.
  • Wolfe: Questions the claim that America is developing a cognitive elite class.
  • Judis: Attacks H&M dysgenic claims
  • Kaus: Argues about the genetic vs environment, but is also disingenuous—if racial differences are prenatal, changing that would require massive and intrusive intervention.
  • Glozer: Asserts that H&M shortchange environmental effects, challenges their “utopia.”
  • Peretz: Why don’t we all get along.
  • Wiesaltier: Ad hominem, seems almost proud of his ignorance.
  • Pearson: Blacks have had it bad, and H&M will discourage them.
  • Lind: “Right wing” political history—recognizes role of religion in supporting human equality, but thinks it “ironic.”
  • Kennedy: Bell Curve is bad; people who read it are bad.
  • Patterson: H&M put in references to material which challenges their direction, and draw the reader’s attention to it—therefore the work has “self-contradictions.” His genetic argument doesn’t sound correct—he implies that intelligence is selected-for and then offers an example where propensity for violence is. If both can be, then his formula is wrong.

A few essays do deserve some followup. I’ll not spend the time myself—there are others who address this sort of detail, and I don't intend to spend what few years I have left trying to become an expert in this field. I think I'll skip the third book.

In any event, one of the thrusts of the book is barely dealt with. How to close the gap may be disputed, but the existence of the gap seems not to be. Given that gap, and given that we’re all in this together, what can we do to make sure there is a dignified role for everyone right now?

Maybe some combination of education and encouragement and pre-natal nutrition and whatever may raise the average black achievement—but if that only helps those who are children now, it doesn’t tell us how to structure things for today's adults. And Hacker points out that gaps exist among white ethnicities too—it isn’t a strictly racial divide.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Unintended consequences

AKA The Dog in the Manger

September 20, 2016 : The University of California, Berkeley, has announced that it may eliminate free online content rather than comply with a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the content accessible to those with disabilities.

And today I read that:

Today, the University of California at Berkeley has deleted 20,000 college lectures from its YouTube channel. Berkeley removed the videos because of a lawsuit brought by two students from another university under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We copied all 20,000 and are making them permanently available for free via LBRY.

I don't think this was the intent of the ADA. Not that it matters anymore. Seriously--retrofit 20000 videos so they're suitable for the blind or the deaf? Not remotely feasible. Even the best transcription software still has (last I heard) 5% error rates, and I know no way to turn blackboard sketches of Feynman diagrams into something tactile.


When I was in high school I learned a little about Soviet education, and heard of "socialist science." That struck me as an utter obscenity--and still does. "Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason."

It is surely true that technology should serve good ends, but the first end it must serve is to be real. A free energy machine would do wonders for the impoverished of the world and so would a magic elixir that cured all diseases. The first end science and mathematics must work toward is to be true--not to be socially relevant or uplifting.

I get it that some statements may be true, but not good to say, because they mislead the careless--especially when taken in isolation. We've all heard lies told using nothing but true statements. But that doesn't change the fundamental question--is the statement true? (A statement may need clarification: it's a basic rule in science that you don't have a measurement if all you have is a number. You need the contents and the uncertainty too.)

The more dramatic stories make the news because they're not normal, but you don't have to look far to find plenty of similar attacks. Solipsistic claims that logical analysis is "oppressive" or "a tool of the patriarchy" or enabled by "white privilege" suggest a hunger for madness, and tell of an obscene idolatry of the tribe.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


God doesn't seem to want to be associated with magic. There's a command about not taking His name in vain, and rules about avoiding divination. Anything that goes "Do X and get a miracle" seems to be off the table. Jesus said that whatever we asked in His name would be given, but it must have been obvious from pretty nearly day 1 that that didn't mean just tagging on "in Jesus' name." (Though we do that anyway.)

Jesus healed in a number of different ways, and when Moses got peeved with the Israelite's complaining and said very free translation "Don't you nitwits remember how we got water for you last time?" and hit the rock again instead of speaking to it, God called Moses on the carpet about it. That seems like a small matter to us, but God thought it was a big deal. I suspect doing things the same way over and over is an invitation to try to use the procedure magically--with us in control rather than God. We like simple patterns and procedures: "Want water, hit the rock with Moses' staff." Actually being in a relationship with God is more complicated.

I remember the scheduled "Revival" services. Many weeks in advance we'd be told a revival preacher was coming, and we needed to invite people and be ready for revival. It sounds a little like magic, doesn't it? Crank up the volume and get the kids rocking, and you'll have the Holy Spirit inspiring the youth. Magic. Have 24-hour prayer services and the Lord will work. And He probably will, somehow, but sometimes the response takes a very long time. If I have the numbers right, Monica prayed for Augustine for about 17 years.

It's so tempting to feel in control.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.


”If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?”

In recent years the West has grown very rich and productive by leveraging technology and analytical skills. You can boast of Chinese or Indian or Hellenist or Roman civilizations (and the more we learn the grander their accomplishments look)—but nothing on Earth had the scope and power and inclusion of the modern West. It would not have risen so high without the others (including the forgotten plant breeders in South America and Asia), but although other civilizations had the same opportunity none produced and distributed so much wealth and knowledge.

I don’t hear the horrid phrase “information economy” as much as I used to, but I see no shortage of people who still think it would be a good thing. And no shortage of people who have no clear idea of where food comes from, or why education costs money, and so on.

We’ve shaped a lot of our attitudes and procedures to honor and reward those analytical skills and production. A little history shows this wasn’t always so—sometimes the tradesman is despised; often warriors are the most highly honored. You can argue that we’re rich because we honor service, and I think that is part of the story (Rodney Stark’s Why the West Won has another take on it).

Is this a stable way to organize society? Can we keep growing like this forever? No and no.

First, there doesn’t seem to be any stable way to organize people. Second, Darwin has a word or two for us. The birth rate has dropped through the floor among those clever and productive people. After a while there aren’t going to be very many of us.

This latter problem is masked by immigration. But if our culture succeeded in spreading throughout the world, and everyone was part of the rich West, there’d be no place to immigrate from.

And in the meantime, it has not escaped notice that not all immigrants value the same things as us Westerners. Everybody loves the trappings and the productivity, but what makes it go is the reward for service and analytical skill here. It is not hard to find places deficient in both—even in the West. You have no reason to expect that the Western culture will stay the same, and therefore no reason to expect that the preconditions for continued growth in productivity and wealth will still be there. So no—this will not grow forever and ever into the stars.

I’ve read but not been able to verify that typically through history the richer have had more children than the poorer. Perhaps when wealth reaches a high enough level this reverses—Octavius tried all sorts of things to encourage Romans to have children, and the Swedes and Spanish wound up in the news for their proposals along those lines.

We’ve built an amazing machine that is feeding and clothing and sometimes healing at a wonderful rate. If we focus on the machine, its inputs and operations and output, we necessarily focus on things and rules, not people. Things and rules risk becoming the most important things, especially when we start believing our own advertising. We want the machine to grow, so everybody eligible needs to be a part of it. “Don’t stay at home, go work in the machine!”

You’ll notice that more religious people are, other things being equal, both more generous and more fertile. They are encouraged to focus on things besides stuff and procedures. If I read correctly, the ancient Chinese, with their emphasis on filial piety, similarly reproduced themselves at all economic levels. But my source may not have been answering that exact question, so I’m not sure.

Without children we’re rich in stuff but don’t have much of a future. Herbert Spencer would say our society isn’t “fit.” Darwin didn’t coin that phrase.(*)

But it gets worse. If you’re reading this you are one of the elite. You read well enough to read for pleasure and instruction, and you seek out that instruction. I can readily point you to people who don’t read for pleasure, and some who read only with difficulty. My wife works with some illiterate people. No amount of job training will put one of those people in the job I do at work. None. Just because these folks aren’t part of your circle doesn’t mean they aren’t there—and there’s not that much for them to do.

In other society with clear roles and expectations they can almost all marry and raise children. We don’t supply much of those. We have little work for them, and what there is gets almost no respect. We joke about "burger flippers" as though that were demeaning. We supply the unemployed with food and clothing and shelter, but not with anything useful to do.

The devil finds work for idle hands to do—and has.

Some dream of a world where robots do all the work and people pursue arts and philosophy. I work with some of these dreamers. Those folks live in their own bubble. For most of us that sort of life will never be an option--we need some other ways of participating in communal life.

The pleasure palace is so tempting—entertainment and interesting work to do—but only some of us can work there, and those who do tend to get caught up in it and leave no heirs. I can look around at work and see examples. We had 2 children when I got my PhD, but that’s not so common—the special high intensity training you endure excludes a lot of time for family, so people often have kids later. Screwtape’s point applies: the behavior that an “information economy” likes isn’t the behavior that will preserve it.

Parenthetically, monks and nuns don’t have kids either, but generally the rest made up for it.

Making room for lower skilled people in the machine would probably make the machine slower and more expensive. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the unemployed/currently unemployable were physically better off on the dole than in a land with more expensive food and stuff. I, unlike the Unabomber, claim no answers and no plans. I notice that, as expected, raising the minimum wage increased the amount of automation and reduced the number of low-skill jobs. On the other hand, without something like that, those without rare skills can wind up in a race to the bottom in wages.

Paul’s question suggests that a different way of looking at things might help. Of the people I’ve worked with over the past few decades, typically only the oldest had done any military service, and quite a few of the younger folks disdain it. War is destructive, and they want to be part of a constructive and learning machine. It turns out that doesn’t make wars impossible (funny that).

We have to honor non-“machine” skills too. It isn’t hard to honor things like military or firefighter service—it’s been done lots of times, and with a little coaxing almost anybody can say nice things about them. It’s a little harder to honor chimney-sweeps and baggers, but it’s worth a try. Making sure there’s economic room for them to thrive is harder.

(*) Please never use the phrase about an individual. I'm talking about the society as a whole, not particular people. Some people can't marry, some can't raise children, some are ill, some can't conceive children, some are called to celibacy--I know examples of all of these.

Mirror, mirror

Doug Aitken's Mirage house is part of an art exhibition, and presumably will be dismantled long before dried raindrops blur the sides and birds and squirrels leave their marks. Though there's not much rain, and probably not many birds and squirrels, so it might stay pristine for quite a while.

The interior is mirror-lined too, which I suppose gives the feeling of extra space if the mirrors are properly aligned. Or you might feel alone among multitudes--pick one.

Setting aside issue of fragility and keeping it clean, it's an interesting idea. In the desert sun it might help keep you cooler. (Although once the house does get hot it may not radiate heat away very well.)

Indoor mirrors I'm not so keen on--I get distracted by motion in my field of view, and if each automatic scratch-my-head turns into a head-swivel I'll have trouble concentrating on the problem.

When I try to imagine how it would look from various directions--most of the time it doesn't "blend into the background." It would stand out rather dramatically, especially at sunset.

Imagine trying to play hide-and-seek in a neighborhood of such houses. For that matter, imagine driving through the neighborhood at night!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cellphone and laptops

A breathless story suggests that new phone company unlimited plans may make WiFi obsolete, and mean that coffee-shops may quit offering WiFi to customers. You've seen people turning a table into an office--will that be no more?

(If the headline is a question, the answer is no.) But never mind that, what are the tools used for?

When I look at what people around me are doing, the laptops are often used for "productivity:" emails, composing documents, looking at spreadsheets. Most of the phones and tablets are used for reading emails/facebook, playing games, and taking pictures/movies. It isn't easy to use the tiny screen to type on, and there's not much screen real estate for side-by-side comparison or cut and paste.

I've seen people watching movies on laptops (done it myself) and reading books on laptops (done it myself) and gotten work-related emails from somebody's cellphone, so there are plenty of exceptions, but by and large it looks like laptops in the coffee-shop are for production and cell phones are for consumption.

I suspect that there will still be enough people wanting to do something more than just read emails to keep the laptop and WiFi businesses afloat.

At least until somebody comes up with a robust folding screen and keyboard, and starts selling pocket-sized phones that unfold to give laptop-size screens.

Fire came down

The fire came down and he saw what a fool he’d been. With eyes fixed on the burning altar, he wrenched the emblem from his neck and slung it to the ground. He should have known—he knew—that crude statue beside him was no god. He pushed through the others, ran to the trench, and threw himself down full length before it, holding his polluted hands up away from holy ground. The heat blistered his shaved scalp and inflamed his bleeding arms and sides, but he did not move. Better die for presumption than live with such a lie. He wished the fire would burn away his past.

Caleb heard the prophet command "Take them all—let not one escape" and stride down the slope.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017


Now and then I think back on high school. The school I graduated from was small, not cheap, and very multinational. It is hard, in retrospect, to say I was top of the class--the skills of the other candidates weren't in quite the same directions--but in any case, as far as intellectual horsepower went, I had it. I wasn't rich or athletic or well-connected, and a bit shy to be a good entertainer. But I was sharp, and I played it for all the honor I could.

Wisdom, though... High-schoolers rarely overflow with wisdom. But even in that crowd,I was decidedly mediocre.

Since then I've learned to know I was often a fool, which is something, anyway. I don't know about the rest of that group. A few I see on Facebook, but that isn't designed to showcase wisdom, so I have no idea.

Which leads in turn to the question: What would be different if we honored wisdom as much as smarts?

I don't mean that everybody would be wise (though wanting to be is a step down that road). I mean things like less automatic enthusiasm for the ideas of the "new blood." Maybe the intern has some ground-breaking new ideas, and the old geezers can get stuck in a rut. But typically the intern isn't the second coming of Einstein. College students are subject to some of the silliest fads--some of them quite old--but they don't know any better yet.

Maybe one other difference would be more silence. There'd still be plenty of advertising nonsense--love of money is a big deal in all societies--but perhaps the click-bait would be different.

Politicians would be little better than they are now. I think their pretenses would be different.

You might hope that there'd be a little shift in how wisely people behaved when others were watching. How many will root for adjusting our values a little, if it gets rid of celebrity selfies?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Some of the loudest voices

on politics and how we ought to live our lives themselves live so far from the mundane crowd (e.g. Zuckerberg) and so detached from everyone else's everyday concerns, that I wonder if they know anybody at all outside their circle.

We dearly love our abstractions, don't we? "dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good"

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The sun came out

Trees are lined with light, looking like frozen fireworks. Stars sing on every branch and carelessly twinkle across the ground. Silver armor has its price: The trees groan instead of whisper, and pelt me with clear-ambered buds.

The sun hides behind a cloud, and in the afternoon's warm air the trees will throw down their spears of ice, but for a while there was a rare glory in the meadow.

Saturday, February 25, 2017


Lately science reports have been making me grumpy, in between click-bait headlines and replication problems.

As long as I'm gloomy, maybe I should try a different topic.

The Malaysians say Kim Jong Nam was murdered with VX. Given that the lethal dose is supposed to be about 30mg for inhalation or 10mg for skin absorption, I wonder how in the world they were able to detect that. And how they did the autopsy... "Doctor, we have someone who apparently was poisoned by a minuscule dose of unknown poison that we think might be nerve gas. Would you like to do the honors?"

I suppose they had help figuring out what it was.

Ordinarily I'd think that VX was overkill--why not just have one of the ladies poison his drink? Or somebody could have caught him alone and killed him quietly. They have the resources.

But Kim Jong Un seems to have a taste for grotesque and dramatic killing: anti-aircraft guns, mortars... (the starving dogs story may be from a satire). So as a dramatic murder and a dramatic statement about the capabilities of "Sea of Fire" Kim, it kind of fits.

I gather one of the two ladies headed off to wash her hands right away, and became quite ill. If it was administered as a binary, the second assailant was in considerable danger. I'm told even the composite chemicals are pretty toxic, so maybe both were. The risk of losing the assassins before they have a chance to strike would seem to rule out using VX straight.

If the toxicology report is correct, I think this is a warning shot: "Our nukes may be squibs but we have other WMDs and means to use them." Duly noted, Mr. Un.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Smallpox history

The Smithsonian posted an article about smallpox variation, citing a study that purports to show that the modern variety (up until what we hope was extinction a few decades ago) was a mutation from the late 1500's to early 1600's. "Looking at the DNA mutations in all those variola virus strains, and assuming a steady mutation rate, the researchers worked backward to create a variola family tree and calculate the age of the strain that gave rise to all the others, including the one in 17th-century Vilnius."
If variola virus didn’t cause deadly outbreaks until about 500 years ago, what was behind the earlier plagues attributed to smallpox? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Poinar says. One possibility, researchers say, is another virus with similar symptoms, like chickenpox or measles.

Another puzzle: If smallpox virus wasn’t around until the late 1500s or so, how did epidemics of smallpox or a similar disease strike indigenous people in the Americas before then? Researchers think those outbreaks might have been triggered by a less virulent ancestor of variola that Europeans had become immune to before they carried it to the New World, where people were susceptible to it. Meanwhile, in Europe, the virus mutated into something more lethal, causing terrible outbreaks, one of which took the life of that Lithuanian child.

It is possible that the family of such virus strains intermittently grows a lethal strain, and that they all have pretty similar effects when they do--as the article suggests. It seems quite a coincidence, though. There's a simpler explanation. Either the researchers' model or their procedure is screwed up.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


The article Physicists Uncover Geometric ‘Theory Space’ in Quanta magazine isn't quite clear to me. Partly it's because I don't understand anti-DeSitter spaces, and partly because it isn't clear that the writer knows either.

And little things slipped by the editor, like "By 2016, Poland and Simmons-Duffin had calculated the two main critical exponents of the theory out to their millionth decimal places." That seemed completely crazy--and yep, the linked paper showed 1 part in a million, not a million decimal places. SMBC gets that right.

You may want to take some advice from Peanuts: WRT The Brothers Karamazov--Charlie Brown says, "But don't you get confused by all those long Russian names?" Linus says, "Oh, when I come to one I can't pronounce, I just bleep over it."

Researchers are pushing in all directions. Some are applying the bootstrap to get a handle on an especially symmetric “superconformal” field theory known as the (2,0) theory, which plays a role in string theory and is conjectured to exist in six dimensions. But Simmons-Duffin explained that the effort to explore CFTs will take physicists beyond these special theories. More general quantum field theories like quantum chromodynamics can be derived by starting with a CFT and “flowing” its properties using a mathematical procedure called the renormalization group. “CFTs are kind of like signposts in the landscape of quantum field theories, and renormalization-group flows are like the roads,” Simmons-Duffin said. “So you’ve got to first understand the signposts, and then you can try to describe the roads between them, and in that way you can kind of make a map of the space of theories.”

That's a bit of jargon to go wading through, but can you see what's wrong here? Take this: "the (2,0) theory, which plays a role in string theory and is conjectured to exist in six dimensions" This sounds like a theory in search of an application. (I've tried my hand at that myself--it wound up looking more complicated that what it was supposed to explain.)

String theory, for all its attractive foundation, hasn't produced anything substantial yet, and you know you're really at sea when a theory is just "conjectured" to exist in six dimensions. That doesn't mean this (2,0) research isn't interesting--it probably is--just that the connection to the physical world is likely to be tenuous. At best.

The renormalization theories were developed to handle equations that gave infinities (what is ∞ - ∞ ?). When your equations behave like that it seems like a clear sign that this isn't the optimal way of expressing the problem. Maybe this bootstrapping paradigm can be a way of re-expressing problems--though Simmons-Duffin seems to think renormalization is still going to be there.

One particular physics problem looked as though it lay on a "corner" of the boundary of the space of possible configurations of one kind of bootstrap transformations. That's certainly odd, and worth exploring. But when the amplituhedron gets pulled in as a possible connection, it doesn't exactly increase my enthusiasm for the project. That beast is a highly speculative model that hasn't shown any solid connection to real "electron hits pion" physics. Like another theory mentioned above.

UPDATE: FWIW, Motls likes the ideas. He's a string theorist, and has a little different idea about how well string theory has been doing.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

An independent opinion

I posted about "Sensitivity Readers" a few days ago. I don't think this is "sensitivity," exactly, but perhaps the people who created this garden object might have run the prototype past a bigger selection of people. I saw this in Jungs yesterday. The titling is in English and French: Retro/Nostalgie. It purports to be a flowerpot holder. It looks like--well, nostalgia isn't high on the list of connotations.

Perhaps I just don't think of things the right way: I thought the PT Cruiser looked like a cross between a VW Beetle and a hearse, but a couple of friends were startled that I didn't love the design.

Friday, February 17, 2017

From a posthumously published autobiography

"Then, confound you! Sir, you kept me up till three o'clock this morning. But what are you doing here in a wig and gown--what are you doing here?"

Very soon I found cause to echo the question and to answer it in the words, "No good." The British solicitor, and indeed the British client, cannot be induced to put confidence in anyone who has become well known as an author. If he has confined his attention to the writing of law-books, he may be tolerated, though hardly, but if his efforts have been on the imaginative side of literature, then for that man they have no use. That such a person should combine gifts of imagination with forensic aptitude and sound legal knowledge is to them a thing past all belief.

A page or so back I said that my experience might possibly be of use to others, and already the suggestion seems in the way of proof. If what I write should prevent even one young barrister who hopes to make a mark in his profession, from being beguiled into the fatal paths of authorship, I shall not have laboured in vain.

Did you guess from the style?

There has always been a tradition in my family that we sprang from a certain Sir Andrew Ogard, or Agard, or Haggard (I believe his name is spelt in all three ways in a single contemporaneous document), a Danish gentleman of the famous Guildenstjerne family whose seat was at Aagaard in Jutland.


This Sir Andrew was a very remarkable man. He appears to have come from Denmark with nothing and to have died possessed of manors in eleven English counties, besides much money and the Danish estate which he seems to have inherited. ...

I regret to have to add that there is at present no actual proof of the descent of my family from this Sir Andrew.

Sensitivity readers?

The Chicago Tribune's new article is trying to gin up interest in a new editing job: Sensitivity Reader. You advertise your specialty, and somebody trying to write a book that involves characters in your category pays you to read it over and decide if they're being sensitive and accurate. Or maybe an editor pays you instead of the writer.

If this is for research, it kind of makes a bit of sense. As they point out, Rowlings got some egg on her face with her most recent book that didn't portray American Indian magic creatures accurately. Inaccuracy of this sort is no crime--often it's an artistic necessity--but in general it's good to try not to dynamite willing suspension of disbelief. I have trouble reading the old Skylark science fiction books: science and technology just don't work that fast. You can't reverse engineer an entire new spaceship propulsion paradigm in a week. Ben Franklin was smart, but put him in a helicopter and see how far he flies. Or like stout Cortez Balboa when with eagle eyes He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

But I have a suspicion this isn't the focus.

Still, some sensitivity readers feel they are in part contributing to the problem. Clayton said she's unsettled by the idea that she's being paid for her expertise, but also is helping white authors write black characters for books from which they reap profit and praise.

"It feels like I'm supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery," Clayton said. "Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don't understand it?"

Hmm. Think Dan Brown would be interested in paying a Jesuit to review his books for accuracy? Or maybe John Boorman should have hired a redneck or two for the Deliverance script? (Or did he? No idea.) Think of all the cultural appropriation being done by people writing about other people. Maybe the only safe thing to do is to write a monologue.

Reporting on math

I followed a link to the Quanta article on "the fight to fix symplectic geometry. I didn't know what symplectic geometry was, but the link said this was about the foundations of one field of mathematics. So did the article itself:
The field continued to grow, even as the errors went largely unaddressed. Symplectic geometers simply tried to cordon off the errors and prove what they could without addressing the foundational flaws. Yet the situation eventually became untenable. This was partly because symplectic geometry began to run out of problems that could be solved independently of the foundational issues, but also because, in 2012, a pair of researchers — Dusa McDuff, a prominent symplectic geometer at Barnard College and author of a pair of canonical textbooks in the field, and Katrin Wehrheim, a mathematician now at the University of California, Berkeley — began publishing papers that called attention to the problems, including some in McDuff’s own previous work. Most notably, they raised pointed questions about the accuracy of a difficult, important paper by Kenji Fukaya, a mathematician now at Stony Brook University, and his co-author, Kaoru Ono of Kyoto University, that was first posted in 1996.

If, however, you go on to read the rest of the article, you find (executive summary) that they thought Fukaya's original paper hadn't quite proved what he set out to prove. After some back and forth, and 300 pages of explanation and elaboration by Fukaya, everybody thinks it's OK now.

Not foundational, except that a lot of people were using the techniques Fukaya said were OK. Nor errors, exactly. His proof wasn't complete, but the result looks like it was OK.

I guess writers have to try to make every story exciting. I was going to write more about this, but Lubos Motl already savaged the article, twice. Of course, he tries to make stories exciting in his own way. (If you want a less polemical essay by Motl, try one on Churchill as astrophysicist.)

Every now and then a story really is big news, but the constant overhype wears on me after a while. And that's just in the science section.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Isaiah wrote of the potter, shaping, reshaping, starting over.

Sometimes it seems as though a different sort of craftsman is at work.

At re-enactment sites or fairs, one booth never seems to lack visitors--including me. The blacksmith's work is fascinating and familiar. Whether is is a scrap iron bar being made into a grass cutter or a bit of rod stock into a pot hook, the cycle is the same--heat, then hammer and bend.

It isn't precisely parallel to our lives. Sometimes the fire is trouble and sometimes what softens us is a coal-bed of love (hotter now than the wild flames we started with). Sometimes the hammer is a crisis, and sometimes the bending comes from day by day little changes.

I'm not what I was, nor remotely who I ought to be. Maybe if I loved more it would go faster. And probably go harder, too.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Anybody remember the "Spiritual Gift" sessions? Everybody was encouraged to take the survey, or the class, or whatever, and find out what their spiritual gift was.

I saw this several times. The first time I was pretty young, and thought it was a nice idea, but I already had a pretty fair idea of what I was good at and what my role in church was shaping up to be.

The second time it came around, I pointed out that the program seemed to be just encouraging people to run around saying "Hey, look at my hammer!"

The next few times I had to wax the driveway those nights.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.

Maybe we're pushing a rope. What effects do we want, what service will produce those effects, and what gifts are needed in those services?

If God sends another Billy Graham, that seems like a good signal that the church needs a new evangelism program. If somebody has some obviously remarkable gifts that seem to require new modes of service, that's great, but I think most of the time things are less obvious.

Where did the time go?

If you want to spend time on youtube...

"Smarter Every Day" is a fun series of videos about science and engineering and cool stuff (e.g.Tesla coil gun. Does the arrow fly farther when you hold the draw for a moment first? What does a Prince Rupert's Drop look like as it shatters, and why?

I ran across Lindybeige: a reinactor talking about medieval arms and armor and other topics. He speaks both from research and experience with reinacted battles. He's interesting and plausible, though when he leaves his field of expertise and starts talking about (e.g.) holographic tank optics, you get nonsense. His experience is in reinacting battles, and not in urban combat and enforcement. A couple of weapons he deprecated look like they'd be more useful in narrow alleys with nobody beside you than in battle array with buddies around.

And, of course, auto repair videos. I've been watching a bunch of them lately. I'm still not quite sure how they got one piece to come loose so easily; I can't get it to budge.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Scots Irish

I read Born Fighting recently. I didn't post about it right away, because I wanted to think about a question I had. The Scots-Irish were intensely violent not that long ago. They are still one of the more violent white ethnic groups, but their rate has gone down, and other groups are now much more violent. What led to the decline, and are there lessons we can apply elsewhere?

I haven't found out yet if this has been studied, or if we just have the usual "jobs and education" claims without evidence of causality. Olmstead's book suggests that neither was an attractive option.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Music by subtraction

I'd been curious whether one could play all the notes except those for the melody, and still recognize the music. My experiments along those lines were dismal failures, and as AVI reminded me in the last post, you can recognize quite a few songs simply from the rhythm, without notes.

I think I need to find the music for some melodies I don't know, and use a computer to synthesize the "reverse" notes, and try listening to those. One problem is, how do I know that I don't know it unless I listen to it? Maybe I could translate them into one-note pieces, and listen to those, and if I recognize one chuck it and experiment with the rest.

Seems like a good rainy-day exercise.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Music memory

I'm puzzling again about how memory works.

Something about songs makes them easier to remember. Maybe it’s the combination of sound and word; maybe the effective narrative holds it together.

Some ear worms are just fragments of songs playing in loop, so the memory of a song can be chopped up somehow into segments handy for the brain. And I find that sometimes chunks of different verses mingle.

For example, I remembered part of a famous hymn as “Thou Who almighty art, mildly ordainest judgments unsearchable, famine and sword. Bid not Thy wrath in its terror o’ertake us...”

I looked it up. Oops. “God the Omnipotent.” “Thou Who almighty art” looks like an import from a different song, which just happened to have the same rhythm . “Wisely” turned into “mildly:” I’ve no idea why. The “bid not Thy wrath” section is from a different verse. So I assembled this version from a phrase with the same meaning and rhythm, a single-word shift, and chunks of two different verses.

This suggests that I store some songs in the form of chunks and a set of links, and link the chunks together on demand. It looks like both rhythm and words serve as keys. Meaning may not be a reliable key, but it does get used.

The instrumental music playing in Urgent Care(*) included a song I’d not heard since the 70’s, and I realized I couldn’t recall more than a few lines. The melody I could reconstruct easily. (I don’t usually mix melodies together—in contrast to lyrics--though now and then I do.)

When we got home I went to look for the song--and kept coming up blank.

Executive summary: the tune was the Airport love theme, which is almost entirely instrumental, with only a couple of lines sung at the beginning and end about the winds of chance. My brain expected the rest of the words to be there, and did its best (modulo substituting “restless winds” for “gentle winds”). Missing part was especially irritating.

(*) It turns out a Mansfield bar doesn’t protect car tops when the trailer jackknifes. She had no apparent injuries, fortunately.

Somebody's been reading classics?

"Severities should be dealt out all at once, so that their suddenness may give less offense; benefits should be conferred gradually, and in that way they will taste better."

Niccolo Machiavelli

Saturday, January 28, 2017

LHC robots

Symmetry has an article about the robots of the LCH.
As you might expect, the subterranean tunnel which houses the LHC is not always the friendliest place for human visitors.

“The LHC contains 120 tons of liquid helium kept at 1.9 Kelvin,” says Ron Suykerbuyk, an LHC operator. “This cooling system is used to keep the electromagnets in super conducting state capable of carrying up to 13,000 Amps of current through its wires. Even with all the safety systems we have in place, we prefer to limit our underground access when the cryogenic systems are on”.

Unfriendly is a bit of an understatement. When the magnet quenched the resulting explosion shoved a 35 t dipole magnet into its neighbor, and the escaping liquid helium allegedly condensed the air.

Near the collision points the radiation levels are pretty doggone high. I'm not sure robots would survive in the collision halls--for that matter I don't know if they can go in. And you have to worry about little things like the fringe of the magnetic field for CMS--high enough to mean that power supplies have to be kept far away from the electronic devices they power--which costs some DC power loss.

So, meet TIM. Except the picture at the top of the article isn't of TIM ("the Train Inspection Monorail. TIM is a chain of wagons, sensors and cameras that snake along a track bolted to the LHC tunnel’s ceiling"). The video is, though.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


David Warren posted this link to a translation of a short work by a Colombian I'd never heard of before, on the subject of The Authentic Reactionary. "If the progressive casts himself into the future, and the conservative into the past, the reactionary does not measure his anxieties with the history of yesterday or with the history of tomorrow."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Political postings

In the run-up to the elections in 2008, I came to the conclusion that commenting on politics was bad for my soul. The temptation to despise seemed overwhelming. During the past 8 years I've more or less held to my resolution to back off. And when all's said and done, much that's said never changes any minds anyway--sometimes the values and presuppositions are too different.

Is liberty valuable, and if so what is its scope? For that matter, what is it? Not a question people like to discuss, but an illuminating one...

The tribe that believes that people are perfectible doesn't generally value liberty very highly--probably for the same sort of reasons that kings punished heretics. Monarchs owed it to their subjects to protect them from those who could mislead them into hell--or, these days, from being perfected subjects with all traces of evil ideas scrubbed away.

Naturally that protection requires more and more centralization, and more and more micromanaging, and more and more careful parsing of anything that might smack of subtle evil ideas (an analysis that apparently only certain people are capable of--and as with The Force, they must trust their feelings).

No, an essay on "why you should deliberate carefully when trying to overhaul the health care system for a nation" is not going to change any minds across that kind of divide. Nor are those impatient to undo the damage going to listen to an essay about "why there needs to be some bandaging to let things grow back."

I'm probably not going to be commenting much during this administration either.

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Pulsars are neutron stars whose EM radiation (light, radio waves, gamma rays) seem to blink or pulse. This is related to how they rotate (and their rotation can be measured to be slowing down). Because the magnetic poles don't usually line up with the axis of rotation, sometimes the pole is pointed more in our direction, sometimes less so--and it seems to pulse.

But what they radiate seems to be all over the map. Sometimes they radiate gammas but not radio, sometimes radio but not gammas, sometimes both. Why? Maybe it has to do with which way the star is pointed relative to us.

based on these observations, Geminga’s magnetic poles appear to be oriented at the top and bottom of the neutron star from our point of view, which also align with its spin poles. Because these areas are where a pulsar’s radio emission should originate, it makes sense that no radio waves are detected. The pulsar’s gamma rays, however, are created over a larger area at higher altitudes, causing them to sweep out over a larger area of the sky and making them detectable from Earth.

It makes sense. Verifying that would be kind of hard--we'd have to have a clear idea of how far from the rotational axis the magnetic poles point, and then try to correlate that with the ratio of gamma to radio. But I've no idea how to measure that angle. You could get some notion of the direction of the axis of rotation from the jets of stuff shot away from it (you'd measure the doppler shifts of each of the two lobes to try to pin down their speed and direction), but measuring the magnetic field direction sounds hard. Polarization of light would be going this way and that with the moving field, and I'm not sure you could tell that from randomness.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Pick one:
NASA has approved a mission to explore 16 Psyche, an iron-rich asteroid whose contents are said to be worth over 100-thousand times the value of the entire world economy.

"Psyche is almost certainly an iron-nickel alloy asteroid, possibly formed after a larger body, like a dwarf planet, had its mantle stripped away from a violent collision with another asteroid. So, Psyche is probably the exposed core of a small planet," Bercovici said.

Do you want to pull your hair out when you see "gee wow" reporting like this? "Psyche is an asteroid with a diameter in excess of 125 miles, about the same size of the state of Massachusetts, and is almost entirely composed of iron and nickel. The abundance of these metals gives the asteroid's contents an estimated worth of a staggering $10 quintillion — that is a one, followed by 19 zeros. Comparatively speaking, the world economy is estimated to be worth just under $74 trillion. Psyche's contents are worth approximately 130,000 times as much as every single human industry put together." Transportation costs aside, supply and demand considerations make complete nonsense of this sort of calculation. You're supposed to get excited about big numbers, even when they don't make any sense.

If Psyche is indeed the remains of a much bigger object, that's more exciting. The problem is, I don't know if explorations would tell us much about a long-gone planetary crash. So it may just be exciting in a T-Rex skeleton sort of way. (The Field Museum's Sue exhibit has a case with some extra "belly bones" and the confession that nobody knows where they fit.)

Maybe the composition and structure can tell us about how planetary cores form--though the details of the composition will surely have been different from Earth's. Unfortunately the probe is supposed to launch in 2023 and arrive in 2030. A bit of a wait.

Paris streets

I saw a report today from the Mirror saying that French told not to fear wolves roaming Paris streets as 'they only eat four-legged animals'.

That sort of encouragement doesn't comfort. Even if Parisians were OK with wolves that only ate pets, wolves still threaten everybody.

But who else is on the streets? I don't think wolves stand a chance. People can be very thorough when dealing with threats.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Merging black holes

We all remember the LIGO discovery: a pair of black holes merging to produce a beautiful gravity wave signal. It was followed shortly thereafter by a smaller pair producing not-so-nice a signal, but good enough.

LIGO didn't take data very long, but got 2 signals in only a few months. (They're starting up again.)

From that rate, Ioka et al estimated how many mergers there have been in our galaxy so far (mostly much smaller ones, and obviously we weren't looking at the time--weren't here for most of that time). (Basically they figure that if LIGO detected really big ones at the range they did, it would have missed the many more smaller ones in the same volume, because it wasn't sensitive enough.)

When two orbiting bodies like that merge, the result has fantastic angular momentum. If you spin a bicycle wheel and grab it, you know that it "doesn't like" being stopped. Imagine if the bicycle wheel were made of lead, and spinning that fast. You might break your hand trying to stop it. Now spin it up faster, and faster. There's a lot of energy in that thing now. There's unimaginably more in the black hole you get from merging two others.

The first direct detections of gravitational waves (GWs) from black hole (BH) mergers, GW150914, GW151226 and LVT151012, give a robust lower limit ∼70000 on the number of merged, highly-spinning BHs in our Galaxy. The total spin energy is comparable to all the kinetic energy of supernovae that ever happened in our Galaxy.

They go on to estimate what kind of activity you can get from interstellar gas falling into these things, which is of interest to people trying to study cosmic rays (like IceCube).

Let me emphasize that most of these black holes aren't very big--only a few solar masses. Still, 70,000 merged black holes in our galaxy--wow.

Of course there are some assumptions that go into that--like assuming that the rate of black hole merger is essentially constant in time. I'm not sure that's realistic. And they may have the distribution of the rate of production of different size black holes wrong. But nobody found any showstopper problems with it at the meeting today.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


I've never been confident in the claim that the appendix is a useless vestigial organ. Everything else is doing something, sometimes many somethings at once. Why waste energy growing something useless? Maybe it is a bacteria reservoir?
They discovered that the appendix has evolved independently in several mammal lineages, over 30 separate times, and almost never disappears from a lineage once it has appeared. This suggests that the appendix likely serves an adaptive purpose.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Dust never sleeps

Or, when it does, the ultraviolet wakes it up.

On the Moon, and presumably any airless body, UV-stimulated emission and re-capture of electrons in the cavities left between dust grains can charge the dust, and the negatively charged particles can be levitated by electrostatic repulsion.

We have recorded micron-sized insulating dust particles jumping to several centimeters high with an initial speed of ~0.6 m/s under ultraviolet illumination or exposure to plasmas, resulting in an equivalent height of ~0.11 m on the lunar surface that is comparable to the height of the so-called lunar horizon glow.

Since there's no reason it should jump straight up, a particle will fall down again some distance from its original location. So dust will spread.

This is only significant in airless regions, so don't blame the state of the bookcase on UV light.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Mark your calendars

Molnar et al are predicting that a binary star system will merge and explode in 2022. If true, Cygnus will look a little funny for a couple of years.

The eclipses of one star by the other are coming faster and faster, and if V1309 is anything to go by the pair should spiral in and merge in a moderately dramatic way in about 5 years.

If this event is anything like the 2008 explosion, it’ll take about six months to rise to its full brightness — 10,000 times greater than the brightness of the original. When it comes to space phenomena, it can sometimes be hard to tell what big numbers are actually as impressive as they sound and which are not actually big at all relative to, you know, the scale of the universe. This is the former. It will mean a noticeable change in the brightness of the night sky.

And if it takes 6 months to grow, the weather shouldn't get in the way, as it tends to with things like solar eclipses and comets and auroras.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Pithy wisdom and slogans

Back in 2013 I wrote about proverbs that "I don't hear these much, though perhaps I don't travel in the right circles, and I suspect we suffer for it." Since then I've been looking for places where old proverbs, or what used-to-be familiar scripture would fit in.

I'm surprised that I didn't hear anyone cite "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't" about the last presidential election. It was certainly one of the major themes.

You hear plenty of slogans and phrases encapsulating some political or social ideas, but that's not quite the same thing. The slogans anticipate, while the proverbs react to, classes of situations. For example "The people united will never be defeated" is an aspirational slogan (and piano composition): history is chock-a-block with counterexamples and compromises that only vaguely resemble victory. "He who slaughters a beast does not hesitate about skinning it," on the other hand, warns the wishful thinkers in every age. We hear "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," or "no justice, no peace"--both aspirational (since the latter implies that there will be peace once there is justice). But "A camel never sees its own hump." You know people like that.

I like this one. Albanian: "Fire, water and government know nothing of mercy." And this "A benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself to keep his friends in countenance."