Sunday, February 18, 2018

Taking on the NRA

Despite the fact that less than 2% of Americans belong to the National Rifle Association, the NRA is one of the most, perhaps the very most, potent political organizations in the US. Only about 25% of Americans own guns, and only 3% of the Americans own half the guns, but no meaningful legislation to limit guns has passed the Congress in recent memory. In contrast, laws to protect the "right" to pack guns everywhere have expanded dramatically, and one of the first laws passed in the Trump era prevented FBI background checks from using mental illness as a grounds for limiting gun ownership.

The strength of the NRA is its ability to mobilize a fanatical minority of single-issue "gun-rights" voters, as well as the financial support of gun manufacturers. Every gun outrage, like the most recent one in Florida, has prompted a storm of anger from citizens, but the NRA knows how to weather these - hunker down and release yet another cloud of bullshit claims that more guns are the only answer.

One difference is that this time students are speaking out and asking their parents to hold legislators accountable. One GOP contributor has pledged not to support any candidate that won't support an assault weapons ban. What the country needs is a large group of voters pledged to vote against any candidate who will not commit to sensible gun regulation, starting with universal and thorough background checks of all gun purchasers, bans on so-called bump-stocks, seizing the weapons of those who make illegal threats, and those on terrorist watch lists.

I would be happy to pay the equivalent of an NRA membership to join such an organization.

Friday, February 16, 2018

First Class

Federal employees, apparently including cabinet secretaries, are expected to endure economy class air travel. According to The Washington Post:

Verbal confrontations with members of the public prompted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to switch to flying first or business class whenever possible, officials said Thursday.

Henry Barnet, who directs EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, said in an interview that the head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale Perrotta, recommended in May that he fly in either first or business class to provide “a buffer” between him and the public. Perrotta’s memo was prompted by an incident that month when a person approached Pruitt “with threatening language” that was “vulgar,” Barnet said.

Heaven forfend that public officials should be forced to listen to public opinions about how they do their jobs. And never mind that some of Pruitt's explanations of why he needed to travel first class seem a bit unsupported by evidence.

Still, I have to say that compared to the travel antics of some of his fellow cabinet members, this is very small potatoes. I think it's pretty reasonable for the top 100 or so national officials to travel first class. I'm guessing that the upper level executives of big corporations managing much smaller organizational entities are not forced to huddle with the plebs in steerage.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Philosophy, Math and Science

It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is...............20th philosopher WJC.

Despite (or maybe, because of, their common origins) there is a fair amount of tension between philosophy and science. I don't know why or precisely how the mutual hostility arose, but I have some guesses. For one thing, it looks to me like Aristotle and especially Plato took some wrong turns that held back science for a couple of millenia. In particular Plato emphasized thought at the expense of experience, and thought that reality could be grasped by thought and argument alone. In this he was following in the footsteps of Parmenides and his pupil Zeno, who made the same argument. Aristotle was far more open to experience, and was a tireless investigator of every kind of phenomena, from physics to writing plays.

Unfortunately, though, his vast and manifold genius seems to have discouraged those who might have thought to go beyond him. Moreover, he, like Plato, gave primacy to thought over experience, which discouraged precisely those kinds of investigation which could go beyond him. I note, though, that even his wrong ideas often show the stamp of genius. He thought, for example, that a vacuum was impossible, since then an object in motion would have no reason to stop.

Breaking free of the Aristotelian straightjacket was essential for Galileo and the other pioneers who invented physics, or reinvented it, I should say. The bitterest critique of the ancients came from the paleontologist and evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson, who wrote:

“The question “What is man?” is probably the most profound that can be asked by man. It has always been central to any system of philosophy or theology…. The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”

1859, of course, was the publication year of Darwin's Origin of Species. Even hard core Darwinists, like myself, tend to find this diagnosis a bit over the top, but I recognize the sentiment. Take that, Plato!

So is philosophy an intellectual dead end? On the whole, I tend to think yes. The intellectually vibrant portions have nearly all been co-opted by science. Exactly what remains, I'm not sure.

Nonetheless, philosophy seems to continue to attract quite a bit of talent. Studies of GRE scores by intended graduate major consistently show that planned philosophy majors are tops in verbal reasoning and analytical writing, and are even slightly above average in quantitative reasoning.

Philosophy has never been afraid to tackle the big questions. It's ability to get good answers has failed to keep up.

Race and IQ - Again

Some high school student has injected himself (or perhaps herself) into the most radioactive issue in social science by doing a science fair project on the subject as above. The hypothesis of the project:

“If the average IQs of blacks, Southeast Asians, and Hispanics are lower than the average IQs of non-Hispanic whites and Northeast Asians, then the racial disproportionality in Humanities and International Studies Program (HISP) [the school program the student is in] is justified.”

Well, kids make bad decisions, perhaps regardless of their own IQs. But I doubt that the student in question has advanced his or her chances of getting into an elite university.

The article adds:

The student who prepared the project was of Asian descent and has a history of making racists remarks in class, reports said.

That's the article's entire characterization of the alleged perp. Fair and balanced? I report, you decide.

The article helpfully adds:

The controversial theory that race and intelligence are correlated has persisted for many years, though there has never been scientific evidence to support it.

Whatever IQ has to do with intelligence may be argued, but the correlation of self-reported race and IQ test results is documented extensively. What is controversial is the meaning of those correlations, especially the question of how much of the differences are due to heredity and how much due to environment.

There is vast literature on the subject, much of it due to ideologues with a dog in the fight. I've read a few of the books, mostly those on the liberal side, but I think that this Wikipedia article seems relatively detailed and balanced.

I expect that the whole debate will go away when it becomes clear that robots have become a lot smarter than humans.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Have a Headache?


Then you probably haven't been to the mLab.

PS - If you get the joke, then you probably know too much math to be wasting your time on this blog!

PPS - See here.

PPPS - And here.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Big Books

I suppose that I've always been a bit of a sucker for the big book. War and Peace, Moby Dick, and The Brothers Karamazov made big impressions in my youth. I let myself be talked into buying The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring before heading to a remote Army post in Arizona - but I wasn't about to lay about big bucks to buy the whole series. I quickly devoured those while in the temporary barracks there when another soldier arrived fresh from Vietnam, where he had only had The Two Towers, so a trade was quickly arranged.

I still like the big books, but my tastes have changed a bit. Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, Ulysses, and Atlas Shrugged dimmed my enthusiasm for modern fiction. I have, however, acquired way too many thick physics and astrophysics books.

Gravitation, AKA "The Black Hole", by Misner, Thorne and Wheeler is a familiar heavyweight at 1336 large format pages. Not one to rest on his laurels, Thorne teamed up with Blandford to write the even heftier Modern Classical Physics, at 1552 pages. I haven't totalled up the pages of the twelve or so volumes of Landau and Lifshitz, but I'm pretty sure that they surpass those others handily.

Perhaps you will shocked to learn that I'm far from having read all of the books featured in the previous paragraph. So what's my excuse for having subsequently acquired Theory of Stellar Atmospheres, by Hubeny & Mihalas (994 pages) not to mention all thirteen volumes of Princeton's Physics in a Nutshell series (don't ask)?

It's now fairly clear that I couldn't read all my books even if I had six lifetimes and 30 more IQ points. Bibliomania is a serious disease.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Ancient India

The Washington Post has a story on very ancient stone artifacts from India.

Humanity's origin story has gotten increasingly tangled in recent years: New discoveries suggest that Homo sapiens interacted and interbred with other species and ventured out of Africa in more than one wave. Researchers have compared the ancient world to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth — but instead of hobbits, dwarves and elves, our planet had modern humans in Africa, Neanderthals in Europe, Homo erectus in Asia.

Now, a treasure trove of ancient stone tools suggests that humans' circuitous path to modernity also wound through India.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers described thousands of stone implements uncovered at Attirampakkam, an archaeological site in southern India. The tools span about a million years of history, they say, and illustrate the evolution of big, blunt hand axes into finely sculpted stone points. Starting about 385,000 years ago — long before modern humans are thought to have arrived in India — it appears that an advanced toolmaking culture was developing there.

How did these techniques reach India so early? “That's the multimillion-dollar question,” said archaeologist Shanti Pappu, founder of the Sharma Center for Heritage Education and a co-author of the report.

No remains were found alongside the Indian tools, meaning it's impossible to determine whether the tools were produced by modern humans or one of our hominin cousins. If they were produced by members of our species, it would significantly shift the timeline of human evolution. But that's a big “if,” Pappu acknowledged.

This adds another layer of complexity to a story of human origins that has lately gotten more intricate. A few different human species are known to have been on the planet during the latter period, including some early modern humans and some others with which we subsequently interbred. Were the makers of these tools one of them? It seems unlikely that modern humans could have reached India by then. Was it yet another species that had developed a fairly advanced technology?

TBD. Or not, if we are unlucky.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Back to Plato

I noticed that Lumo posted on a talk by Nima Arkani-Hamed at some group of philosophs.  A-H was talking about the need to replace space time by something - and his idea of the amplituhedron. 

So he outlined the amplituhedron program, the picture that the amplitudes have so many complicated terms because the amplitudes are really volumes of a polytope in an auxiliary space and the polytope is cut to many complicated pieces in some ad hoc ways. This program interprets a scattering process as a generalization of the process where just numerical labels scatter – and their scattering means a permutation.
Polytopes cut into many complicated pieces?  Shades of Plato's Timaeus, where he constructs a cosmology of the regular polytopes he knew - the so-called Platonic solids, and their pieces, taking special note of the fact that all except the dodecahedron can be decomposed into 30-60-90 triangles.

I was going to mention this on his blog, but he has me banned.  My theory is that he's afraid some of his audience of mostly crazies might be converted.