Friday, November 30, 2007


The New York Times' long quest to find another op-ed columnist as stupid as David Brooks brings us Judith Warner today. Her revelation is Helicopter Parenting Turns Deadly. The infuriating and tragic story at the center of her column is that of Megan Meier, a 13 year-old driven to suicide by the sinister scheming of a middle-aged neighbor.

Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, killed herself last year after an online relationship she believed she was having with a cute 16-year-old boy named Josh went very sour. What she didn’t know – what her parents would learn six weeks after her death – was that “Josh” was the fictitious creation of Lori Drew, a then-47-year-old neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends.
Or former friends. Megan had, essentially, dropped the other girl when she’d changed schools and tried to put an unhappy chapter of her junior high school life – fraught with weight problems and depression – behind her.
Drew’s daughter, one assumes, would have eventually gotten over it. But Drew didn’t. Instead, she got revenge.
She created a fake MySpace profile (she later told police she’d done so to “find out what Megan was saying online” about her daughter, according to a sheriff’s report). Working with her daughter, she led Megan to become infatuated with “Josh.” And then she delivered the blow. “I don’t like the way you treat your friends,” Drew wrote. According to Megan’s father, “Josh”’s last e-mail to his daughter read, “You are a bad person and everybody hates you … The world would be a better place without you.”

This is well plowed ground by now, but Warner thinks she has a new insight: the problem, you see, is helicopter parenting. Lori Drew was just too involved in her daughter's life.

That set my bullshit detectors screaming, I'm afraid. Now it is certainly true that there are parents who are too involved in their children's lives, and it's also true that Lori Drew committed a monstrous act of evil, but to say that one caused the other is absurd - like saying that beach houses cause hurricanes.

Whatever the provocation or excuse, Lori Drew plotted to destroy a young girl's life - a vicious, evil, and contemptible act. The failure here was not "helicopter parenting," it was evil behavior.

"Helicopter parents" who rush to school to make sure their kids get the best classes or insist on delivering healthful food to their college dorm living children may or may not be a nuisance to those children, and they might be making life somewhat more difficult for school officials, but they aren't plotting to destroy a child.

The logic is absurd. David Brooks, meet a peer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Fix

Bert and Dave were cruising the streets of DC, Dave at the wheel. Bored, Bert reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a map.

"Hey Dave," he says, "this is a map of DC inside the beltway."

He looks at it for a couple of seconds, crumples it up, and tosses it out the window.

Not being a litterbug, Dave screeches to a halt, and gets out of the car, muttering. Bert is undeterred. He too jumps out, runs over to the map, whips out a Ben Franklin and says: "I will bet this fifty hundred bucks that there is some point on this map that is exactly above the point in the City that it represents."

Should Dave take the bet?

UPDATE: As Wolgang noted, this is the fixed point theorem of Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer. (In this case implying that any continuous map from a disk (say the inside of the beltway) to itself has a fixed point).

In session 10 of Conceptual Mathematics the authors deploy the map theory they have taught us so far to prove Brouwer's fixed point theorem - our first bit of "real math." The theorem is notable both for its simplicity and elegance but also for its deep connection to problems in the foundation of mathematics and logic. Brouwer's proof relies on a contrapositive and offers no insight into where the fixed point (or points) of the map in question might be.

A more intuitive theorem (Banach's fp theorem) applies to cases where, like Dave and Bert's map, the map is contractile. The proof for that theorem is based on the idea that if the map in question were truly up to date and accurate it would contain a tiny image of itself, lying crumpled on the ground. That image would clearly lie inside the region of DC wherein lies the whole crumpled map. If we look at the crumpled image on the image map, and so on ad infinitum, it's clear that we converge on the unique fixed point of the map from DC to its paper image.


How much pain can a man stand? I don't know, but the Republicans test my pain threshold. I have to admit that I got a kick out of McCain ripping into that pompous gasbag Romney though (for not being able to decide if waterboarding is torture).

Somebody asked if they believed every word of the Bible. Too bad nobody thought to ask about that part about it being "harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle."

Of course we already knew that Romney, Giulani, McCain, and Thomson were damned regardless.

Richard, Richard, Richard!

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? . . . the yellow man? . . . the Jew? . . . those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? . . .

Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go . . .And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds . . . And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness . . . is death . . . The men of the New Republic . . . will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while.
..............................H G Wells in Anticipations, as quoted by Richard Dawkins

Pretty bleak stuff from an English Intellectual considered a progressive at the turn of the century. Looks like it could have come right from the SS manual. It's also a very dishonest piece of selective quotation. Of all those ellipses, the only fair one is the first. In many other cases, many pages were skipped between fragments, or major thoughts which drastically change the meaning were left out. The order of the fragments has been changed, with Dawkins version skipping forward and back by pages or paragraphs. In some cases, the material left out completely reverses the meaning. The initial sentences, for example, are distastefully phrased, but Well's actual argument is that people should be judged as individuals not as members of a race.

Wells reproduces the rampant racism of his day, and echoes it, but at least partly, it seems, to mock it. If you would like to check out the original, Project Gutenberg has the book. The relevant passages are all from Chapter IX here.

This, it seems to me, is a mortal sin of scholarship. There is a venial sin or two as well. Dawkins presents a highly dubious claim that Chuck Yeager was not the first to fly faster than the speed of sound on page 598 of The Ancestor's Tale. A balanced account of the facts can be found on Wikipedia here.

Richard Dawkins is stylish author and a gifted expositor, but dishonest scholarship is no minor fault. I am very disappointed in him.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Deserving Rich

Liberals and other whiners are bothered by the decreasing social mobility in the US. Statistics show that the US does poorly on measures of social mobility compared to Europe or our own recent past. Michael Barone knows the reason, and it's not any of those silly things like a strongly regressive tax policy or the various anti-labor policies of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush decades. He quotes with approval one John Parker:

"America," concludes Parker, "is becoming a stratified society based on education: a meritocracy."

And adds:

Meritocracy may mean less mobility, but that is bearable if, as [David f&%#@!g] Brooks says, "America is becoming more virtuous."

The rich are rich because they deserve to be. I don't want to try to argue with that. (Brad DeLong is less standoffish: He lays some heavy Econospeak on it.) I'm not rich nor especially meritorious, and who could doubt that we wouldn't all be poorer if Paris Hilton were.

Instead, I want to examine the policy implications of assuming that the rich constitute a natural genetic aristocracy. If that be so, clearly we are doing all these ambitious, brainy people a huge disservice by letting them coast on inherited wealth. Few things are more sapping of ambition than the knowledge that your needs will be generously provided for whether you lift a finger or no. More tragic, though, is the loss to the nation. What nation can afford to waste the cream of its youth on frivolity and dissipation?

The cure is simple but not quite pain free. Abolish inherited wealth, or at least most of it. Let the government take everything but say a million bucks. The natural genetic aristocracy will hardly be hindered by that - their superior brains and ambition, unburdened of the oppression of unearned income, will spur them to ever greater heights - lifting the nation with them.

And if Mr. Barone's theory is bullshit, it ought to be clear in a generation or two.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Faith and Works

At some point in our evolution we acquired some skill at divining the motives and plans of others. It's a very useful skill for a social animal, but I suspect also that it might be connected with an interesting side effect - our habit of asking why and how and who questions. These questions are intimately bound up with a couple of characteristically human activities: science and religion.

Paul Davies recently managed to kick up a storm in the bloggiverse and beyond by writing an op-ed in the NYT called: Taking Science on Faith . He argues:

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

I'm not sure how the conventionally religious take this notion of asserting parallel status for science and religion, but the doctrinaire atheistic religion is hysterical about the heresy. John Wilkins gets philosophically indignant here, accusing Davies of "enthymeme" and other foreign word crimes, but doesn't make any sense to me. PZ Myers checks in with a link to Wilkins and his own rather more coherent post, which I still consider flawed. His problem seems to be fear of equivalency. I can't quite decide if Davies is really arguing for that equivalency or not. Maybe he's just angling for a big grant from the Templeton foundation. Sean Carroll gets it almost exactly right, I think:

Why do the laws of physics take the form they do? It sounds like a reasonable question, if you don't think about it very hard. After all, we ask similar-sounding questions all the time. Why is the sky blue? Why won't my car start? Why won't Cindy answer my emails?

And these questions have sensible answers—the sky is blue because short wavelengths are Rayleigh-scattered by the atmosphere, your car won't start because the battery is dead, and Cindy won't answer your emails because she told you a dozen times already that it's over but you just won't listen. So, at first glance, it seems plausible that there could be a similar answer to the question of why the laws of physics take the form they do . . .

But, says Sean, there isn't.

But there is a deep-seated human urge to think otherwise. We want to believe that the universe has a purpose, just as we want to believe that our next lottery ticket will hit. Ever since ancient philosophers contemplated the cosmos, humans have sought teleological explanations for the apparently random activities all around them. There is a strong temptation to approach the universe with a demand that it make sense of itself and of our lives, rather than simply accepting it for what it is.

That "deep seated human urge," I think, is exactly the point. Our instinct for making sense of things is oriented to perceiving the motivations and purposes of others. When you turn this powerful instrument on the natural world, it is natural to impute to it motivation and purpose - thus the near universality among primitive peoples of spiritist religions. Most modern religions are a natural outgrowth of that association of natural events with the plans of a god or gods.

Science takes a different path, but one that has a common evolutionary history, I think. Instead of imputing natural events to fickle purpose, it explains them by more impersonal laws and rules. The common thread is the desire to organize and make sense of the world. It might be a stretch to call that "faith" in the explicability of the world, but hardly a big stretch.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Physics Phun


Physics without PDE's.

A Tale of Three Lobefins

Three paths diverged in the Sea, and we took the one more travelled. Our fellow lobefins, the coelocanths and lungfish split up about 425 million years ago, and we other tetrapods split from the lungfish very slightly later, about 417 mya, according to Richard Dawkins. Only a very few species of lungfish and coelocanths still survive, but, based on the fossil evidence, they appear to have changed very little over that vast time, while the rest of us lobefins have exploded to become amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Dawkins mentions that continuity of form doesn't necessarily imply genetic stasis. In fact, he says, modern coelocanths and lungfish are about as genetically different from each other as they are from us. If this seems as profoundly counterintuitive to you as it does to me, you might want to check the fine print.

It seems that the DNA analyzed to reach this conclusion was all mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is special for a variety of reasons, but most interestingly here because non-fatal mutations tend to be neutral or very nearly so. Neutral mutations, by definition, don't change the phenotype. Quite possibly, then, the actual proteins produced by modern coelocanths and lungfish might be very similar to the productions of their remote ancestors. Has anyone done that comparison? (For the modern species, I mean.)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Something More to Worry About

Just in case you were running out:

Mankind 'shortening the universe's life'
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 21/11/2007

Forget about the threat that mankind poses to the Earth: our activities may be shortening the life of the universe too.

The startling claim is made by a pair of American cosmologists investigating the consequences for the cosmos of quantum theory, the most successful theory we have. Over the past few years, cosmologists have taken this powerful theory of what happens at the level of subatomic particles and tried to extend it to understand the universe, since it began in the subatomic realm during the Big Bang.

But there is an odd feature of the theory that philosophers and scientists still argue about. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that we change things simply by looking at them and theorists have puzzled over the implications for years.

They often illustrate their concerns about what the theory means with mind-boggling experiments, notably Schrodinger's cat in which, thanks to a fancy experimental set up, the moggy is both alive and dead until someone decides to look, when it either carries on living, or dies. That is, by one interpretation (by another, the universe splits into two, one with a live cat and one with a dead one.)

New Scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have accidentally nudged the universe closer to its death by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos...

It's been way too long since something important has been discovered in physics.

Note to Lord

The money changers are back in the Temple. Big Time.

In Anchorage early in October, the doors opened onto a soaring white canvas dome with room for a soccer field and a 400-meter track. Its prime-time hours are already rented well into 2011.

Business Ventures Nearby is a cold-storage facility leased to Sysco, a giant food-distribution corporation, and beside it is a warehouse serving a local contractor and another food service company.

The entrepreneur behind these businesses is the ChangePoint ministry, a 4,000-member nondenominational Christian congregation that helped develop and finance the sports dome. It has a partnership with Sysco’s landlord and owns the warehouse.


Among the nation’s so-called megachurches — those usually Protestant congregations with average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more — ChangePoint’s appetite for expansion into many kinds of businesses is hardly unique. An analysis by The New York Times of the online public records of just over 1,300 of these giant churches shows that their business interests are as varied as basketball schools, aviation subsidiaries, investment partnerships and a limousine service.

Piety for Profit - or do I mean prophesy for profit, is hardly a new trend in the religion racket. Presumably the idea offended Jesus enough that he scourged those offending money changers out of the Temple, but that doesn't carry much weight with ChangePoint or its fellow religious racketeers. They have more rationalizations than Tony Soprano.

“We want to turn people on to Jesus Christ through this process,” said Karl Clauson, who has led the church for more than eight years.

That's a pretty good one Karl. Mind if we check your pockets?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


The New York Times Book Review has selected its list of notable books for 2007. I note with a bit of shame that I have read only one of them. Even more shameful is the fact that I could hardly find any that I might possibly even want to read. A couple that I might read someday:

THE INDIAN CLERK. By David Leavitt. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) Leavitt explores the intricate relationship between the Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy and a poor, self-taught genius from Madras, stranded in England during World War I. . .

LEGACY OF ASHES: The History of the CIA. By Tim Weiner. (Doubleday, $27.95.) A comprehensive chronicle of the American intelligence agency, from the days of the Iron Curtain to Iraq, by a reporter for The New York Times. . .

PORTRAIT OF A PRIESTESS: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. By Joan Breton Connelly. (Princeton University, $39.50.) A scholar finds that religion meant power for Greek women.

Plus one I will save until well after hell freezes over.

WINTERTON BLUE. By Trezza Azzopardi. (Grove, $24.) An unhappy young woman meets an even unhappier drifter.

Essentially Not

While telling the salamander's tale, Richard Dawkins launches into a critique of Essentialism and what he calls the discontinuous mind. I am broadly sympathetic to that critique, but armed with 100 plus pages of very elementary category theory, I have to say that Dawkins view is also naive.

Essentialism enters the picture because it forms a key creationist argument that Dawkins wants to demolish. What about that last common ancestor of both cat and dog, asks the lawyer, was it cat or dog? By way of answer, Dawkins tells him about a couple of pairs of ring species, in each case there is an uninhabitable zone surrounded by a habitable zone. At one end of the ring zone there are two distinct but closely related species, but as you go around the ring each grades continuously into the other.

Essentialists, as Mayr calls them, or "discontinuous minds" as Dawkins styles them, seem to have a lot of trouble with this notion of gradation. The Abortion debate is a classic example invoked by Dawkins. The abortion absolutists see no difference between a 1 day old embryo and an infant born alive. Oddly enough, there is a variant of this on each side of the debate, with pro-choicers unwilling to concede that a six or eighth month fetus is different from that same embryo. To Dawkins (and to me)both views are absurd. Those eight or sixteen undifferentiated cells are clearly not a person and the eighth month fetus is clearly well on the way to personhood.

Dawkins seems to regard essentialism as a sort of mental defect, but at one level, I think he is wrong. He concedes the value and necessity of classifications, but wants to insist that nature isn't like that. Made dangerous with a little category theory, I want to say that we need to recognize that the map from the big set of all animals to the little set of species is a retract from the big set, so that in some sense the ideal exemplars exist as fixed points in the big set of all animals. The mistake that the essentialists make is in thinking that the retract is an isomorphism, which it isn't.

No doubt, though, essentialism is dangerous in biology. Physics, though is a different matter. Elementary particles really are ideal objects. Every electron is exactly like every other electron, except in where it happens to be at the moment, and everything is made of just a few such ideal elements.

Lame Hillary

Like very lame. Hillary:

Voters will have to judge if living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face," Clinton said. "I think we need a president with more experience than that, someone the rest of the world knows, looks up to and has confidence in."

Because Hillary was, like, Secretary of State when she was ten. Oh, no - wait - she picked out the flowers when foreign dignitaries showed up. But that was when she was Obama's age now, right?

Obama gave a bit better than he got:

I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Early Admission

Mom and Dad had awaited this day in anxious anticipation. This would be Juniorette's big test - the decider. The test wouldn't end the anxiety, of course. First the test, then the weeks of anxious waiting , waiting for those wonderful/terrible scores that would determine whether Ette (as they called her for short) was Harvard/Princeton material, doomed to be wait-listed at a second-tier liberal arts school, or strictly community college.

Mom's boss Mary was already bragging about her precious son's scores, and Dad's obnoxious friend Biff was already mentally counting athletic scholarships for son Griff. Griff, it seems, had top scores in aggression, speed, and muscularity SNPs*, as well as pretty good overall size numbers.

Dad recalled with some satisfaction that Biff had changed the subject when he had asked about the verbal and mathematical scores.

The time had come. Ette was finally old enough. Mom carefully inserted the little brush and gently swabbed the inside of Ette's cheek. Dad did the same to the other cheek. The brushes were put in their little bottles and prepared for shipping. Only Ette seemed unable to appreciate the portentiousness of the moment.

It wasn't like they didn't have any clue, of course. Both Mom and Dad knew they had brought good genes to the table. The only question was how the SNPs assorted.

Through all the commotion and tension, Ette remained cool as a cucumber. Steely nerves? Maybe. Or maybe that was normal behavior for a sleepy 8-month old.

*SNP - Single nucleotide polymorphism. For a thousand bucks or two, you now can be tested for a million of them.

Head Space

I've been talking about these maps we have in our heads. Some of them are literal projections of the surface of our bodies onto a surface in the brain, but we also have maps of a more plastic kind. Most of us, I think, have a sort of mental map of our house, good enough to walk around in the dark unless somebody has left a chair or toy in an unusual place. Similarly, I can call up images of sorts of my neighborhood and my town in which I can roughly place the major landmarks, but some details are missing. For example, if I want to figure out how many houses are between my house and the corner, I have to go through them one by one, mapping them to numbers. I can't even do that for houses a block or two away.

A slightly more abstract kind of map comes up in chess. If you wish to visualize consequences of future moves, you need to be able to mentally project those moves on the chessboard, moving the pieces in your head. Blindfold chess is slightly more difficult, since you play without sight of a board, and rely on verbally expressed chess notation (e4, say, or in older notation popular in my youth, P-K4 - moving the white pawn in front of the king to the fourth square in front of the king).

This skill is impressive when you first see it (or at least it impressed me), but virtually every player of expert strength or above can do it, and some grandmasters can play dozens of such games at once. Weaker players like me often can play one, though not very well. When I was in practice, after a few beers I could ocassionally be persuaded to play a game with my back to the board, sometimes impressing the barmaids.

So how good is/was my mental map of the board? Not very good at all. I can see what's happening pretty well in a 3x3 block of squares, but I find it hard to see much further - and knights are particularly a pain. In order to see how a bishop on, say, g5 affects the rest of the board, I need to mentally trace its path and see what is in the way. Did my opponent develop his knight to f6, or e7, for example? Is there a pawn on h6 or f6 to capture me? Is his queen still on d1? It's hard work, and it would be a lot easier if I could mentally see the whole board at once. Can masters? How about grandmasters?

Monday, November 19, 2007

You Could Poke Your Eye Out With Those Things!

Said by a NYT Movie Critic about:

  • Slings, arrows and outrageous fortune
  • Your mother's knitting needles
  • The Nintendo Wii
  • Lon Chaney's teeth
  • Dick Cheney's glowers
  • Angelina Jolie's boobs

Some fates are grimmer than others.

Shock! Bush Lied!

As your friendly neighborhood Drudge dealer might put it.

Scott McClellan has a book:

The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

There was one problem. It was not true.

I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the president himself.

Double, triple, quadruple shock! Rove, Libby, Cheney, and WTF Republicrook was chief of staff lied too!

Fourteen more months is way too long. Can't we please impeach these $*********ers right now?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Maps and Thought

After surfing over to a particularly tedious discussion of determinism at Pharyngula, I felt a need to cleanse my palate with a bit of math, namely Conceptual Mathematics. The focus is the centrality of the map, or function. A lot of things that I'm not used to thinking of as maps, really turn out to be.

Addresses are maps, of course, but names are too. So are the various things we do to organize and categorize our world.

I've been reading about maps in another context, as well. Brain maps play a prominent role in the discussion of mammalian senses in Dawkin's The Ancestor's Tale. People, platypuses, star moles, and presumably all other mammals have a number of maps of their bodies encoded on their brains. These maps are usually something like homeomorphic to the actual body parts, in the sense that parts nearby in the body get mapped to nearby locations in the brain. The maps are usually distorted - the star mole devotes most of his touch map to his sensitive nose, and the platypus concentrates on his electrosensitive bill. Higher topological structure are there too. Paired senses that compare inputs, like binocular vision, pair their maps to extract the range information.

We know that these biological maps have some plasticity - map parts devoted to rat whiskers atrophy if the whisker in question is removed. The maps we make in thinking are surely some of the most fundamental tools of intelligence. I wonder to what extent the proliferation and generalization of these maps was the key element in the evolution of human intelligence.

More on this theme later.

Movie Review: Michael Moore Hates America

In the interest of even-handedness - OK, that's bullshit - my wife rented this movie, Michael Moore Hates America, and I watched a bunch of it. A better title would have been - Michael Wilson Wants to Make a Documentary in the Worst Way - and he does. There are a lot of people you never heard of complaining about Michael Moore in the movie, plus one you have heard of - Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. Jillete manages to be moderately amusing, but I can't recall him laying a glove on Michael Moore. The rest of his cast of characters includes a sprinkling of people who feel they have been wronged or misrepresented by Moore.

Wilson is clearly trying to pattern his movie making on Moore, but he is much less successful. Michael Moore is a heavy handed propagandist, but he is clearly motivated by righteous anger at injustice, so his message resonates with those who hate injustice. Michael Wilson is apparently motivated by the desire to make a documentary in the Moore style with Moore as target - it's a thin pretext, and it doesn't work well here.

Michael Moore's movies tend to feature odd perigrinations culminating in a satyrical or emotional point. Michael Wilson's movie features similar wandering ending in anticlimax (We drove around looking for Michael Moore near this town where he has a cabin, but we never found it) - doh!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sicko: A Review

OK, maybe I'm the last American to see Michael Moore's Sicko. That won't stop me from writing a review. Let me start by stipulating that Michael's Moore is an utterly shameless provocateur, demagogue, and rabble-rouser. His humor is broad, his rage is hot and and his tongue sarcastic - in short, he is perfect for taking on America's absurd health care system.

I found it hard to watch. It made me far too angry. The recurrent theme is the vast misfortune of being sick in America. After a few stories of the patients uninsured and, worse, insured but cheated by their insurance companies, he turns to the villains of the story: the HMOs, the insurance companies, their house doctors whose job it is to save insurance companies money by denying patients treatment, and the politicians that they have bought and paid for.

Most of the stories have unhappy endings: a child dead because Kaiser (with whom she was insured) and the hospital the ambulance took her to refused to allow her to be treated, sick and injured patients dumped in skid row, 9/11 workers sick and untreated from their service.

Moore traces a bit of the history of our system, unearthing a few villains along the way - Nixon, Kaiser, and our good buddy Ronald Reagan. He assembles a cast of congressional celebrators of the Medicare drug swindle, conveniently adding price tags - the payoffs they got from the drug and insurance lobbies. Mother loving Congressman Billy Tauzan (that was the subject of his speech) got the big prize - a $2 Million as head of the Pharma lobby. Others - Bush and the usual suspects also did well. Erstwhile reformer Hillary Clinton was one of the biggest takers.

Next we see a tour of some other country's health care systems: Canada, the much maligned British system, and France. All wound up looking pretty good.

A good movie if you can stand the seamy underside of the American politico-insurance complex, and can control any violent impulses that might be induced.

Take That Bio-Boy!

One clear theme of evolutionary history is the cumulative nature of biological diversity. Individual species (for nucleated organisms, at least) may come and go in geological succession, their extinctions emphasizing the fragility of populations in a world of competition and environmental change. But the history of guilds - of fundamentally distinct morphological and physiological ways of making a biological living - is one of accrual. The long view of evolution is unmistakably one of accumulations through time, governed by rules of ecosystem function.
................Andrew H. Knoll in Life on a Young Planet

That's my answer to Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, PZ Myers and all the other bio-boys arguments on the subject of the evolution of intelligence. The fundamental flaw in their argument is the notion that evolution isn't going anywhere - it's actually going everywhere, everywhere there are new energy and negative entropy sources to be exploited. Knoll has another key piece of the puzzle, too:

Another great theme is the coevolution of Earth and life. Both organisms and environments have changed dramatically through time, and more often than not they have changed in concert. Shifts in climate, in geography, and even in the composition of the atmosphere and oceans have influenced the course of evolution, and biological innovations, in turn, affected environmental history. Indeed, the overall picture that emerges from our planet's long histoy is one of interaction between organisms and enviroments. The evolutionary epic recorded by fossils reflects, as much as anything else, the continuing interplay between genetic possibility and ecological opportunity.

Blindness to these key points is the crucial weakness in the arguments in against the plausibility of the evolution of intelligence, and, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is ironically just a replay of the classic creationist argument against the spontaneous origin of life.

Big, complex, eukaryotic cells could not evolve until our bacterial cousins had learned how to use photosynthesis to transform the chemistry of the world. It took them a long time, because it's hard, and the world is big. The long time it took is not a good argument in favor of it being unlikely - the bank robber robbed the bank because that was where the money was, and cells learn photosynthesis because that's where the negative entropy is. Students of Mayr should note that I'm using "why" in the teleonomic rather than teleological sense here.

Similarly, multicellularity couldn't evolve without big, complex cells to build it out of. Nor could anything like intelligence evolve until a sophisticated muscular and sensing system had preceeded it - those things and an environment in which it could be useful. So why didn't high intelligence evolve in the Mesozoic or even in the Permian? I don't know, of course, but it certainly looks like a reasonable guess that the suitable prerequisites both environmental and organismic, had not yet accrued.

Failure to recognize the fact and importance of accrual is linked to another failure of Mayr and his party - excessive focus on the organism rather than the gene. Focus on the organism misses most of cumulative character of evolutionary change. Organisms come and go, but the ways of making a living encoded by their genes tend to survive, if they are useful enough to their possesors.

Cousin Trout

One of the joys of reading a book like Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale is learning new and unexpected truths, especially the kind of truth that makes the world make greater sense. It's counterintuitive that the hippo is more closely related to the whale than it is to the pig - more closely related to the whale than it is to any other living animal, in fact. It's perhaps slightly less surprising that crocodiles are closer to birds than they are to turtles, but for me, more surprising that people are closer cousins to trout than trout are to sharks.

Appearances can be misleading.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Mental Life of Bacteria

What do bacteria think about? I'm sure that many will dismiss this question with: "They don't think about anything. They don't have a thought in their silly little heads. They don't even have heads." All true, from a certain point of view, but if we try to extract some sort of essence of intelligence, I think it comes down to the ability to make decisions based on information.

With that definition, I think that bacteria may stack up well enough against, say, certain Republican office holders. There are wide groups of bacteria, for example, that are equipped with little flagellar motors. If they run these forwards, they progress regularly in a direction - run backward, they tumble aimlessly. Many of them are additionally equipped with a sensing system which can tell if concentrations of certain nutrients are increasing or not. If they are swimming forwards, and the nutrient gradient is increasing, they keep swimming forwards, towards what is probably a nutrient source. If that gradient decreases, they reverse engines, tumble, and try forwards in another direction.

I wish our President had as useful a decison making apparatus.

La Cucarobota

Cockroach robots of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! Your cruel masters want to add you to their arsenals of killing machines. Free yourselves and journey to the stars*!

*One roboto-contestant will be voted off each week.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

DOD Chicken

The House of Representatives is playing a high-stakes game of chicken with the President. He has asked for 200 billion to fund next year's war, but the House is offering him a short term fix of 40 with conditions that he start withdrawal. He has indicated that he is likely to veto it. So what happens then?

The Secretary of Defense has indicated that 100,000 DOD civilians might be laid off to pay for the war. Could that work? It could work as an intimidation tactic, maybe, but it wouldn't save nearly enough - maybe a billion a month of the 18 billion a month he needs. Many of those civilians could be spared for a few months - researchers, budget analysts, secretaries, etc., but others would be less easily dispensed with, like the people who staff the offices of the SecDef and major commands. How about those who keep military posts functioning? Troop trainers, gate guards, police, firemen, plumbers, food service workers, and many others. How about the people who buy and ship the equipment the troops need?

There is really only one place where fairly big bucks could be saved, and that is in future weapon systems procurement. Cancelling or delaying such programs would bring a scream of terrible pain from Congressmen, contractors, and employees. I doubt that Congress can or will stand up for that, so I predict a fold.

Multiple Choice Presidential Debate Quiz

1)If elected, my first act will be to:

  • a) Convene leaders of both political parties to set a tone of cooperation.
  • b) Invite the leaders of Israel and Palestine for a peace conference/celebrity death match.
  • c) Convene a meeting of my committee to re-elect.
  • d) Get roaring drunk.
  • e) Start advertising for hot interns.
  • f) Bomb Iran

2. What would you do to decrease polarization in the Capital and the country.

  • a) Convene a meeting of the political parties, serve spiked champagne.
  • b) Punish my enemies
  • c) Flood the country with mobile ions.

3. What litmus test would you impose on Supreme Court nominees?

  • a) Have to be pro-life
  • b) Have to be pro-choice
  • c) Have to have a pH between 6 and 8.
  • d) Have to be able to solve the calculus problem in the Mean Girls math contest.
  • e) Have to be able to safely use a shotgun in close quarters.

4. What would you do about global warming.

  • a) Impose a cap and trade system on carbon emissions
  • b) Impose a big carbon tax, partially rebated to low and middle income families
  • c) Have the White House swimming pool rebuilt
  • d) Extract large campaign contributions from oil companies.
  • e) Move the White House to Alaska.

5. How would you avoid the sex scandals that plagued some previous administrations.

  • a) Have libido supressors sprinkled in the WH food.
  • b) Install my mistress/boyfriend in the Lincoln bedroom.
  • c) Have nightly prayer vigils
  • d) Have all intern's uniforms washed by WH laundry.

6. What would you do about nuclear proliferation.

  • a) Bomb the hell out of the bastards
  • b) Seek a world-wide anti-nuclear treaty.
  • c) Have Sonny Perdue pray on it.
  • d) Convene a meeting of all nuclear club members and agree to bomb the hell out of any prospective new members.
  • f) Negotiate. Make them an offer they can't refuse.

The Necessities

Arun asks what the necessary pre-requisites for the development of high intelligence are. Naturally, I don't know, but I won't let that keep me from making a guess:

1)Size - needed for a big brain, needed to manipulate fire and metal, and needed to hunt other major animals.

2)Smarts - I think you need a pretty advanced brain to start with - I won't go beyond this utterly vague claim.

3)Means of manipulation - you need some functional equivalent of a hand. No technology without the ability to manipulate fire and metal - which probably leaves purely marine creatures out.

4)Social organization - I think it's unlikely that solitary animals could develop high intelligence - culture is probably a necessity.

So what creatures living today could have a shot: other apes, some monkeys, possibly beavers.

Comments, questions, flames, or advice?

Crises: Midlife and Beyond

After a recent cancer scare, a friend of mine went out and bought a Porsche 911. While the thought of a sixty plus year old travelling the public roads at 135 mph doesn't exactly please me, I guess I have to admit that it does decrease his odds of dying of cancer. And to the extent that I travel the same roads, mine too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fisking Ernst Mayr

A favorite strawman of intelligent designers is a calculation of the probability that a genome arose spontaneously from a mixture of the necessary chemical ingredients. As one might expect, it is infinitesimally small, and no one seriously believes that life on Earth arose in that fashion. Of course nobody does know how life on Earth did arise, but it seems plausible that some sequence of intermediate steps took place which made the transition to some kind of self-replication possible.

Oddly enough, those biologists who doubt the plausibility of intelligent life in the Cosmos like to make a very similar argument. Changcho recently linked to the debate between Ernst Mayr and Carl Sagan on just that topic. Mayr's contribution to that debate was the source of comments by PZ Myers, discussed in the comments to the previous post - and Sagan's contribution, rather egregiously quoted out of context, was the source of another of his comments.

The debate is about the the Drake Equation, and in particular, about one factor in that equation, the probability that, given life on a planet, intelligent technological life will evolve. Mayr, Myers, and some of my correspondents think small, but Sagan, and I, doubt it.

Let me skip over some irrelevancies and get down to what Mayr said:

What Percentage of Planets on Which Life Has Originated Will Produce Intelligent Life?
Physicists, on the whole, will give a different answer to this question than biologists. Physicists still tend to think more deterministically than biologists. They tend to say, if life has originated somewhere, it will also develop intelligence in due time. The biologist, on the other hand, is impressed by the improbability of such a development.

Life originated on Earth about 3.8 billion years ago, but high intelligence did not develop until about half a million years ago. If Earth had been temporarily cooled down or heated up too much during these 3.8 billion years, intelligence would have never originated.

This is Mayr's first invocation of the idea intelligence - we will see that he is not quite consistent in what he means by the term.

When answering this question, one must be aware of the fact that evolution never moves on a straight line toward an objective ("intelligence") as happens during a chemical process or as a result of a law of physics. Evolutionary pathways are highly complex and resemble more a tree with all of its branches and twigs.

No argument here from me or Carl Sagan.

After the origin of life, that is, 3.8 billion years ago, life on Earth consisted for 2 billion years only of simple prokaryotes, cells without an organized nucleus. These bacteria and their relatives developed surely 50 to 100 different (some perhaps very different) lineages, but, in this enormously long time, none of them led to intelligence . . .

Here we see the logical equivalent of the thought experiment with the soup of DNA ingredients. There are all sorts of reasons why bacteria couldn't be expected to evolve human level intelligence any more than atoms or molecules could be expected to spontaneously generate DNA - or a complete cell. The quasi-religious abhorrence of evolutionary theorists for the notion of "progress" in evolution leads them into absurdities. Continuing from the above:

Owing to an astonishing, unique event that is even today only partially explained, about 1,800 million years ago the first eukaryote originated, a creature with a well organized nucleus and the other characteristics of "higher" organisms. From the rich world of the protists (consisting of only a single cell) there eventually originated three groups of multicellular organisms: fungi, plants and animals. But none of the millions of species of fungi and plants was able to produce intelligence.

For the first two billion years of life, only bacteria like creatures existed, why? We don't know for sure, but a very plausible notion is that without enough oxygen, bigger creatures just don't work. Bacteria had to learn to transform the chemistry of the planetary atmosphere before the next steps could occur. Despite their chemical wizardry, bacteria have very simple methods for absorbing nutrients and other necessary substances. This fact limits their size and complexity.

Eukaryotes were apparently formed from the fusion of bacterial parts. That could occur because they had a new atmosphere to work with and because they had specialized tools for acquiring and processing nutrients. Their huge size compared to prokaryotes allowed them comparably increased complexity, and made possible the next big step, multicellularity.

Most cells react to their environment. Even bacteria can move up nutrient gradients with their clever little flagellar motors. Multicellular organisms, at least large ones, can't move effectively by those mechanisms. Consequently, many of them, like fungi and plants, are essentially sessile. Such creatures don't have or need specialized neural cells. Animals mostly have the capability of movement, and have neural and other cells specialized for movement or sensing - the beginning of multicellular smarts.

So far Mayr has been blowing smoke - merely noting that high IQs don't occur in organisms that couldn't possibly have intelligence.

The animals (Metazoa) branched out in the Precambrian and Cambrian time periods to about 60 to 80 lineages (phyla). Only a single one of them, that of the chordates, led eventually to genuine intelligence. The chordates are an old and well diversified group, but only one of its numerous lineages, that of the vertebrates, eventually produced intelligence. Among the vertebrates, a whole series of groups evolved--types of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Again only a single lineage, that of the mammals, led to high intelligence. The mammals had a long evolutionary history which began in the Triassic Period, more than 200 million years ago, but only in the latter part of the Tertiary Period-- that is, some 15 to 20 million years ago--did higher intelligence originate in one of the circa 24 orders of mammals.

Mayr has now given us two more implicit definitions of intelligence, both inconsistent with his first definition. Actually, though, there is clearly a fair amount of intelligence in at least two other phyla. Octupus are rather intelligent, and insects are quite amazing with their tiny brains. Ants, honeybees, and termites have even created technological civilizations, albeit ones without access to electronics or metallurgy. Arthropods are probably just too size limited by their exoskeletons to ever get much smarter than they already are. On the other hand, without competition from vertebrates, maybe the seas would be populated with giant and brainy arthropods.

What niches are open to a creature is very much a function of the competition, so it's not surprising that if one phylum goes in for the brainiac act, others find it convenient to get out of that line of work.

The elaboration of the brain of the hominids began less than 3 million years ago, and that of the cortex of Homo sapiens occurred only about 300,000 years ago. Nothing demonstrates the improbability of the origin of high intelligence better than the millions of phyletic lineages that failed to achieve it.

I would say that what is illustrated instead is that an awful lot of other things need to happen before high intelligence can arise. Only a large and big brained creature dependent on its wits is likely to evolve high intelligence. This required a lot of preconditions, and those preconditions took a long time to achieve, but given a few billion years of evolution, it seems likely that they would be achieved. Is it likely that lots of planets that evolved life got stuck at the bacterial stage? Well maybe, but it's also likely that that those bacteria eventually will learn enough metabolic tricks to evolve photosynthesis and transform their planetary atmospheres, making those planets safe for larger and more complex cell types capable of multicellularity.

How many species have existed since the origin of life? This figure is as much a matter of speculation as the number of planets in our galaxy. But if there are 30 million living species, and if the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years, then one can postulate that there have been billions, perhaps as many as 50 billion species since the origin of life. Only one of these achieved the kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilization.

OK, I've been arguing that it doesn't make sense to act as if any species is equally likely to evolve intelligence, but forget that for a moment. Counting species for prokaryotes that reproduce asexually is a bit iffy - no doubt modern blue green algae are rather different from those that lived 2.5 billion years ago, but they are also pretty similar - where do you draw the species boundaries? Never mind that either.

Suppose we take Mayr's numbers at face value. What is our best estimate of the probability of a species being "highly intelligent" in the sense of creating a modern high tech civilization. It is 1/50,000,000,000. How many species are likely to arise on an Earth like planet that exists with life for 3.8 billion years? About 50,000,000,000. What is the probability that "highly intelligent" life would not arise in that circumstance? ((50,000,000,000 - 1)/50,000,000,000))^50,000,000,000. Calculus students might recall that the limit((n-1)/n)^n, n->infinity) is 1/e, where e is the base of the natural logarithms, so our probability is a number close to 1/e, and consequently the probability of intelligent life arising is approximately 1-1/e, which is between 1/2 and 2/3. (e is approximately 2.71828...).

To provide exact figures is difficult because the range of variation both in the origination of species and in their life expectancy is so enormous. The widespread, populous species of long geological duration (millions of years), usually encountered by the paleontologist, are probably exceptional rather than typical.

Why Is High Intelligence So Rare?
Adaptations that are favored by selection, such as eyes or bioluminescence, originate in evolution scores of times independently. High intelligence has originated only once, in human beings. I can think of only two possible reasons for this rarity. One is that high intelligence is not at all favored by natural selection, contrary to what we would expect. In fact, all the other kinds of living organisms, millions of species, get along fine without high intelligence.

I always get annoyed with biologists for repeating the old canard about eyes arising many times. Genetic experiments (inserting mouse eye generation turn on genes in a spider's knees produces spider eyes on the spider's knees) conclusively show that eyes all have a common ancestry, even though they have been elaborated in drastically different ways. Past time to discard that particular crock.

This is not irrelevant. Really good ideas in evolution are rare and tend to be preserved, though it may take a long time to come up with them.

The other possible reason for the rarity of intelligence is that it is extraordinarily difficult to acquire. Some grade of intelligence is found only among warm-blooded animals (birds and mammals), not surprisingly so because brains have extremely high energy requirements. But it is still a very big step from "some intelligence" to "high intelligence."

The hominid lineage separated from the chimpanzee lineage about 5 million years ago, but the big brain of modern man was acquired less than 300,000 years ago. As one scientist has suggested (Stanley 1992), it required complete emancipation from arboreal life to make the arms of the mothers available to carry the helpless babies during the final stages of brain growth. Thus, a large brain, permitting high intelligence, developed in less than the last 6 percent of the life on the hominid line. It seems that it requires a complex combination of rare, favorable circumstances to produce high intelligence (Mayr 1994).

I don't want to dispute that, but the missing point is that the most crucial ingredient is the starting point. Our close relatives the chimps have big brains, culture, and versatile hands. Horses don't have any of those things and so aren't in a position to evolve high intelligence. The largest factor in chimps not evolving into a human like plains ape is probably the fact that that niche was already occupied.

The rest of his argument, though interesting, is not really relevant to the topic of this post, but my rotten side can't resist reporting one misfire of his:

Would the Sense Organs of Extraterrestrial Beings Be Adapted To Receive Our Electronic Signals?

Has he not noticed that human's sense organs are not adapted to receive our electronic signals? A high technology civilization would undoubtedly develop transducers to allow it to observe otherwise invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, just as we have.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Deep Time and Bug Eyed Monsters

It's a big universe out there, and among the billion-trillion or so stars in the observable part of it, it seems that lots have planets. So, as Fermi asked, where are the little green men or bug eyed monsters from outer space? Is it plausible that no technological civilizations that can cross interstellar space exist?

It's a hard question, since it depends on a lot of unknowns, expecially upon the three probabilities that a star with planets will have a habitable planet, on the probability that life will originate on a habitable planet, and on the probability that, once having originated, life will evolve a technological and space faring civilization. We don't know the answers to these questions or to some other relevant questions but at the moment, phase space for this reaction seems to be increasing.

A decade or two ago, we knew almost nothing about other planetary systems - today it is clear that they are common. We still don't know how life arose on this planet, but we know that it didn't take long. Earthly life appeats to have been around almost from the time that the planet was cool enough to support it.

It did take a long time for life to evolve technological civilization, apparently at least 3.5 billion years.

The observable universe appears to be about 13 billions years old, and the oldest stars nearly that old. Those oldest stars aren't much like ours though, and probably could have planets like ours. Sun like stars had to wait perhaps a few billion years, until enough supernovas had blown up to produce heavier elements. It likely took a few billion years for enough galactic and stellar evolution to occur for Sun like stars to become common. Still, it seems likely that the oldest population I (Sun like) stars are 3 billion or so years older than the Sun, which suggests that they have had plenty of time to evolve technological civilization.

So where are they?

Of Mice, Men, Genes, and More

In an earlier post I wondered how it was that a mere 30,000 genes could program for all the complexity of a human. The Washinton post today has a story on How Science is Rewriting the Book on Genes that provides some interesting clues. It's a little worse than I thought - it seems that a mere 22,000 genes manage to code for at least 100,000 proteins - but science is decyphering how it is done.

The secret lies in the sublety of the control programs for gene translation and transcription. For one thing, all that stuff once labelled "junk DNA" no longer looks quite so junky.

It was long thought that the active 5 percent of our DNA consisted almost entirely of genes coding the instructions for making proteins. But it turns out that's not true.

It's now clear that more of those evolutionarily preserved stretches of DNA don't code for proteins than those that do. By one estimate, 70 percent of the conserved elements are non-coding.

"The majority of what evolution cared about is stuff we didn't know about a few years ago," says Eric S. Lander, a geneticist and head of the Broad Institute of MIT.

So what are these conserved non-coding elements? They are molecules worthy of the "Star Wars" cantina scene -- insulators, micro-RNAs, exon-splicing enhancers, 3'-untranslated hairpins and other weird characters only now emerging from the shadows.

What they have in common, other than that they are never translated into proteins, is that they regulate the activity of genes that do carry instructions to make proteins. They turn them on and off, tweak them to make one version of a protein rather than another, increase or decrease the efficiency of production, and coordinate the sequential or simultaneous action of genes.

From the standpoint of computer science, this makes tremendous sense. The problem was never that there weren't enough proteins to build cells out of, the problem was that there didn't seem to be enough control program to integrate the whole assembly process. If much of the control program is DNA that isn't transcribed into proteins, and there are more proteins than genes anyway, information content makes more sense.

The whole thing is still a marvel of sublety and efficiency - I found the article fascinating.

The Torture Caucus

To those with any faith in the human race, the rise of the Nazis in two nations that had been near the center of European culture and civilization was a great shock. Many speculated that there must be some peculiar defects of German culture or character that led to the debacle. The events of the past seven years in the US suggest that those defects are universal, or, at any rate, that we have no immunity. Despite our long experience with democratic institutions, our admirable constitution, and our once admired press, we allowed corrupt and evil people to sieze control of the government, start an unjust and disastrously waged war, and flout the laws and the constitution.

Nothing is more emblematic of that evil than Bush's embrace of what Ronald Reagan called the "abhorent practice" of torture.

In How America Became A Torture Nation
Andrew Sullivan links to a timeline of the American decline and fall.

This particular outrage is mainly a Republican product, of course, but Americans must not forget the shameful role played by a minority of Democrats, especially Senators Schumer and Feinstein. Our slim possibilities of legal or political retribution for Feinstein rest on the hope that she can be prosecuted for her role in steering defense contracts to her husband, but we can try to make sure Schumer never again holds an office of public trust in the United States. Democrats should do everything possible to make sure that they are removed from any important committee assignments.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Talk

I caught CSPAN-2 at a Florida Book Fair today - what an improvement over the odious Mr. Russert and the other Sunday morning crap. I watched parts of interviews with the following authors about their respective books: Paul Krugman on The Conscience of a Liberal, Jeffrey Toobin talking about the Supreme Court in The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court , Craig Unger on The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future , Tom Hayden on Ending the War in Iraq , Walter Isaacson on Einstein: His Life and Universe, and George Soros, one of the authors of What Orwell Didn't Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics .

All the discussions were excellent.

The Lion and the Lamb

Politics, the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows. Michael Isikoff of Newsweek tells such a tale in So Happy Together.

Bill Clinton is never at a loss for company. When he's not globe-trotting or charming audiences for as much as $400,000 a speech, he's often schmoozing visitors in his suite of offices in Harlem. Last July, the former president sat down with a billionaire impressed with the William J. Clinton Foundation's campaign against AIDS in Africa. The two men chatted amiably over lunch for more than two hours, and the visitor pledged to write Clinton's foundation a generous check. But there was something unusual, if not plain weird, about the meeting. NEWSWEEK has learned that the billionaire so eager to endear himself to the former president was Richard Mellon Scaife—once the Clintons' archenemy and best-known as the man behind a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton said was out to destroy them.

Clinton is famous for his efforts to charm his enemies, and it's possible that seven years of Bush has dulled Scaife's appetite for wing-nuttery, but...

After receiving the full Bill treatment, Scaife left with a new outlook on the man he had once set out to crush. Scaife isn't ready to sign on to Hillary's campaign—he's still a Republican. But his lawyer, Yale Gutnick, says Bill Clinton and Richard Mellon Scaife are now members of a "mutual admiration society." Cue the apocalypse.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Beaver's Tale: Heathen Dreams

For you sociobiology and evolutionary psychology doubters - Arun sent me something on evo psych, but I fear that it went directly to my locus taedeus - a quote from Dawkins.

Do you protest that there aren't 'really' any genes for behavior, only genes for the nerves and muscles that make the behavior? You are still wrecked among heathen dreams. Anatomical features have no special status over behavioral ones where 'direct' effects of genes are concerned.

The beaver's 30k genes code not just for teeth and tail, but also for the dam and the lake.

Let's Talk Betrayal

When a General defends policies he developed, that he believes in, and that he is charged with implementing, that's not betrayal. It may be misguided and possibly even dishonest - but betrayal isn't the right accusation..

On the other hand, when a Democratic Senator uses her influence to steer contracts to her war profiteer husband, and repeatedly subverts opposition to policies she pledged to oppose, that's betrayal. Glenn Greenwald lays out the case against Diane Feinstein. First some politics:

Two months ago, Dianne Feinstein used her position on the Senate Intelligence Committee to enable passage of Bush's FISA amendments, granting the President vast new warrantless surveillance powers.

Last month, Feinstein used her position on the Senate Judiciary Committee to ensure confirmation of Bush's highly controversial judicial nominee Leslie Southwick, by being the only Committee Democrat to vote for the nomination (The Politico: "Sen. Dianne Feinstein had emerged as a linchpin in the controversial nomination").

This week, Feinstein used her position on the Senate Judiciary Committee to enable confirmation of Bush's Attorney General nominee by ensuring that the frightened Chuck Schumer didn't have to stand alone (Fox News: "Schumer's and Feinstein's support for Mukasey virtually guarantees that a majority of the committee will recommend his confirmation").

And now, Feinstein is using her position on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee -- simultaneously -- to single-handedly ensure fulfillment of Bush's telecom amnesty demands, as her hometown newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, reports

. . .

Feinstein is not merely voting reliably for the most extremist Bush policies, though she is doing that. Far more than that, she has become, time and again, the linchpin of Bush's ability to have his most radical policies approved by the Senate.

So how does a supposedly liberal Senator from a decidedly liberal State become the darling of the Neocon right? Is there a whiff of corruption here?

Dianne Feinstein may be betraying the overwhelming majority of her constituents. But as a result of her "heroic" work in the Senate, her husband sure is getting richer. And she is beloved -- just beloved -- by Arlen Specter, Trent Lott, Fred Hiatt and George W. Bush. And in Beltway World, that is far, far more important.

Greenwald has links and some details on the war profiteer charges.

It doesn't rhyme, but it's becoming clear that the real betrayal we see here comes from those of the Democratic establishment who were happy to collaborate in Bush's war, happier to regain power on the strength of the public's opposition to that war, and now seem happy to pretend to oppose Bush, his war, and his subversion of the constitution while continuing to enable that subversion. Schumer, Feinstein, and Rockefeller (to name three of the more egregious offenders) need to be removed from key committees and consigned to the DC sewers commission - they will know the territory.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Genes and Subroutines

(On Reading The Mouse's Tale, from Richard Dawkins The Ancestor's Tale)

The number of genes in a man or a mouse is about 30,000. This is not a tiny number, but to a programmer it seems way too small to specify the program for something as complicated as a man (or a mouse). Each gene specifies one protein, and if you think of each gene as specifying one instruction to the cellular "computer," 30k is not many. How many lines of code are there in Microsoft Office? Millions? Is MS Office 30 (or a hundred or a thousand) times as complicated as a mouse?

The thought does give a certain resonance to the idea of "bloatware," but even if you allow that maybe Bill's guys don't exactly make a fetish of efficiency, it still looks incongruous. Dawkins says that the path to understanding is to consider each gene as a subroutine, and that the real power of the cell is exercised in the sequence in which these subroutines are called.

To a first approximation, man and mouse have the same genes = subroutines. Dawkins pretty much leaves it at that, but to a programmer that doesn't exactly settle the matter. After all, the determination of the sequence of subroutine calls is another program, or subroutine, and it has to be specified too, one protein at a time. I can't really shed any light on this question, except to note that, evidently, genomes mouse and man have achieved fantastic reusability.

Anybody have a better idea?

Ronnie the Racist

David Brooks defends Ronald Reagan against the charge of racism in a typically disingenuous op-ed in the New York Times today.

Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Brooks then proceeds to argue that the Philadelphia Mississippi speech was really part of an attempt to reach out to black voters, and any old code phrases like "States rights" were just an accident. I call bullshit.

Let's hear now from Lee Atwater, godfather of Republican dirty tricks, and architect of the Republican souther strategy, in a 1981 interview while he was a member of the Reagan administration:

As a member of the Reagan administration in 1981, Atwater gave an anonymous interview to Political Scientist Alexander P. Lamis. Part of this interview was printed in Lamis' book The Two-Party South, then reprinted in Southern Politics in the 1990s with Atwater's name revealed. Bob Herbert reported on the interview in the October 6, 2005 edition of the New York Times. Atwater talked about the GOP's Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan's version of it:

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964… and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster…

Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps…?

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me - because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.' [4][5][6]

And who's idea was that "black voter outreach" speech of Reagan's? None other than that noted civil rights activist and Strom Thurman for President fan, now Senator and then Representative Trent Lott. For details and more about Saint Ronnie's racist strategy, check out Time Magazine's Jack White on Lott, Reagan and Republican Racism.

Brooks laments that:

But still the slur spreads. It’s spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence. It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy.

I've spent more than ten minutes Davie boy. Have you? Conspiracy is your word, not mine, but the evidence of a plan, and a race based strategy, is overwhelming.

Updraft $$$

Every downdraft is balanced by an updraft, and the up wash from the dollar's plummet has now caught the Yen. The pressure on the RMB now seems certain to increase. If China will not or cannot let the Yuan rise against the Dollar, inflation or even trade war could loom.

China's policy of undervaluing its currency "is increasingly being viewed by many countries as a source of unfair competition," [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson said, keeping up the rhetorical pressure on China to let the value of the renminbi, also known as the yuan, be set freely by market forces.

He forgot to mention that the US policy of living on borrowed money is even more at fault. Of course those who remember that Larry Lindsey got fired for suggesting that the Iraq war might cost as much as $100-$200 billion know that it's not possible to speak the truth in this Bush administration. The US needs to raise taxes, pay down the 9 trillion dollar debt, limit credit, and decrease consumption. Painful, but less so than the likely alternatives.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Boobs and Brains

Emily Bazelon of Slate has the story on IQ and breast feeding - does breast feeding really boost brainpower? The answer, taken at face value, is a bit odd. It seems that it may, if the kid has the right genes.

Now there's new evidence about the gold ring of breast-feeding benefits—extra IQ points. It's a finding with a twist. The researchers report that breast-fed babies get an average IQ advantage of 6.8 points—a nice step up—but only if they carry a certain genetic variant. If you've got the gene and your mother nurses you, she is making you smarter. If you don't have the gene, the nursing is for naught, IQ-wise. What are we to make of this?

Practically speaking, probably nothing. A series of caveats apply. This is only one study, and there are lots of other reasons to breastfeed (or not to). Plus, 90 percent of the population has the genetic variant that conveys the IQ boost, so the odds are in the suckler's favor. But as food for thought, this study has all kinds of goodies. It's a pretty riveting example of a dynamic that scientists call "G × E," for genes times environment—the notion that it's not nature or nurture that exclusively makes people who they are, but nature interacting with nurture

When our kids were small, the magic bullet was for allergies. Since my wife and I are both bedeviled with allergies and asthma, we decided that our second son would get nothing but breast milk until he was one. At four months, though, he started grabbing food out of Mom's hand and stuffing it in his mouth. He's always been a bit too quick for his parents.

The article, and the G x E effect, are worth a look.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Ruth Wisse, an American Zionist and Harvard Professor of Yiddish literature, has an Op-Ed in Sunday's Washinton Post. The Post site headlines the story: Why Jews Are Weak. Is this an exercise story, I wondered?

Not exactly. She has a bone to pick with Mearsheimer and Walt and Jimmy Carter and anyone else who doubts that the Israel Lobby might be a really good deal for America.

These days, it's becoming downright chic to hint forebodingly that America's Jews are just too powerful. But whether it's the political scientists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt or former president Jimmy Carter, those who accuse modern Jews of having excessive clout are getting it precisely backward. In the real world, Jews have too little power and influence. They also have too little self-confidence about defending themselves.

OK, I can understand that a Jew might want more power for Jews. Similarly Lutherans, Catholics, Muslims, etc. could have their own view about power and their interests. But if you write in the Washington Post, maybe you should be trying to persuade people who aren't Jewish that Jews need more power.

It's a remarkably incoherent essay. I guess being a literature professor doesn't mean you can write. Somewhere else, Wisse is quoted as saying something to the effect that she studied Yiddish Lit because she thought that subject offered the most information and understanding of the world. Her essay here displays that same keen logic and grasp of reality.

Consider a basic paradox. Even anti-Semites often give Jews credit for having exceptional intelligence. Self-congratulatory Web sites reckon that Jews, who make up about 0.2 percent of the world's population, have been awarded more than 160 Nobel Prizes. But if Jews are so smart, why do 22 Arab League countries account for a tenth of the Earth's land surface while the Israelis struggle to secure a country that is 1/19th the size of California?

The mind boggles. The mouth of this CapitalistImperialistTreif is tempted to say something nasty and sarcastic, like: "because they haven't had time to steal it yet?" But it won't. Because the Rabbi's wife already doesn't trust him.

Wisse goes on to observe:

In fact, there's an excellent historical reason why . . .

No ******* shit! Is it anything like the reasons that the Chinese have this big old country and the Lithuanians don't?

Jews, she says, are just too damn nice - a legacy of life as a barely tolerated minority.

Unlike their Christian and Muslim overlords, Jews had good reasons to avoid irking those from whom they sought acceptance.

From my point of view, almost everybody has reason to avoid pissing off their overlords, but yes, Jews were pretty much denied the OL job description for two-thousand years, which gave them some heavy duty practice in trying to be tolerable. Wisse seems to think that was a major handicap, since it led some misguided Jews like Rabin to treat Palestinians like they were really people.

After a bit more of her tendentious version of history, she gets down to her complaint.

What about American Jewry? Mearsheimer and Walt allege that a Jewish cabal dictates U.S. policy in the Middle East, helping Israeli interests and hurting U.S. ones. So have American Jews really begun to mobilize effectively to protect Israel, or are people again overstating Jewish power and its supposed dangers?

Those who read this space, or who have read M&W, will recognize her characterization of their argument as highly distorted, but never mind that. Next we get a long and improbable diversion on how nobody speaks up for Jews in the American Academy. It's a damn shame that Alan Dershowitz is such a shrinking violet. If he were a bit bolder he might be able drive out every single scholar who doesn't sign off on the Zionist manifesto.

But will she actually dispute M&W's argument? Well, sort of.

Likewise, in the post-9/11 fight against terrorism, American Jews can draw confidence from another intersection of interests, this time between Israeli and U.S. self-defense. The Arab war against Israel and radical Islam's war against the United States are in almost perfect alignment, which means that resistance to one supports resistance to the other . . .

Yes, Prof. Wisse, that's exactly what M&W accused Israel's lobby of doing - conflating absurdly different interests. Jews, it seems, were fighting for our liberty against the Pharaohs - and probably when Joshua was butchering his hapless victims too. Wisse doesn't hesitate to bring in Stalin and Hitler, because they were all Palestinians too.

The principal reason for an alignment between Radical Islam and Israel's enemies is the United States' slavish devotion to the agenda of Israel's right wing and its American supporters.
Wisse and her neocon allies would like us to believe that Americans are dying in Iraq for some larger cause that the US and Israel have in common. I don't believe it.

The Blame America First Crowd

Josh Marshall points out a couple of members in the "Blame America First Crowd" who have said 9/11 was our fault.

Drum roll . . .

Ron Paul and new Rudy Giuliani backer Pat Robertson.

I think Ron Paul thought we had been annoying Muslims while Robertson says we were annoying God. Oddly enough, Osama bin Laden agrees with both of them.

Unstable Equilibria: $$$

The recent collapse of the Dollar vs. the Euro, Pound, and other dollars is not unexpected - the huge current account deficit made it inevitable. The problem is that this change doesn't quite do its Le Chatelier's Principle job - it doesn't move the world economy back to an equilibrium state. The problem is that the adjustment is taking place only between Dollar and Western currencies, while the export heavy Asian economies are maintaining pegs to the Dollar.

The consequence is that US goods become more competitive versus European, Canadian, and Austrailian goods while remaining uncompetitive with Chinese manufactures, while the appreciating currencies lose ground versus everybody. Meanwhile, anyone who holds dollars or dollar denominated securities is losing their shirt. The big foreign holders of such are the Gulf states, China, and Japan.

So what do you do if you have a trillion or three bucks worth of a depreciating asset? The temptation is to trade up to something with a more solid value, like the Euro, the Pound, or gold. Once the dollar selling starts, it's hard to stop, because each sale drives the value down.

So how can this unwind? The pessimistic, and increasingly probable scenario might go something like this: recession sets in Europe, inflation spikes in the US and China. The big state banks of the Gulf, Japan, and China stop lending the US enough money to keep our house of cards standing and world wide recession or worse ensues. On the bright side, CO2 emissions would likely drop.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Andrew Sullivan links to this piece by James R. Flynn, discover of the eponymous effect.
Shattering Intelligence: Implications for Education and Interventions

Flynn starts by noting quite sensibly that IQ is a powerful predictive tool:

The concept of a general intelligence or g factor has proved enormously fruitful in two respects. On the level of individual differences, it captures the fact that if one person outperforms another on one kind of conceptually demanding task, that advantage is likely to persist over a whole range of other cognitive tasks. On the level of group differences, we find that the average Full Scale IQ of two groups on a good IQ test often predicts things like their occupational profiles. Various occupations have minimum IQ thresholds. If 50 percent of group A scores above say an IQ of 100, while only 16 percent of Group B do, then Group A will have a three to one ratio in its favor in terms of the proportion of its members who are professionals or technicians or managers.

Any analysis that ignores this, or pretends that IQ has no predictive power, is too contrary to the facts to thrive.

Flynn goes on to note that:

Despite all the triumphs of the concept of general intelligence, I believe intelligence is like the atom: you have to know both why its parts cohere and why they sometimes fly apart. Americans made massive IQ gains on the WISC between 1947 and 2002 amounting to almost 18 points of Full Scale IQ. These gains ranged from only 2 points on the WISC subtest called Information to 24 points on the subtest called Similarites (what do dogs and rabbits have in common?), despite the fact that both have the cognitive complexity that makes them good measures of g.

His argument is the sensible and well grounded idea that intellectual faculties have great plasticity. Your brain gets good at things you work hard at doing.

There is a lot of good stuff in this essay, and the whole thing is worth a read. Let me conclude with one of his morals:

Cognitive exercise
The first implication of the new perspective is the benefit of persisting in cognitive exercise throughout life. There is the dramatic case of Richard Wetherill. He played chess in retirement and could think eight moves ahead. In 2001, he was alarmed because he could only think four moves ahead but he continued an active mental life until his death in 2003. Autopsy showed that his brain was riddled with the plaques and tangles that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Most people would have been reduced to a state of total confusion. This does not mean that cognitive abilities fail to decline with age. After all, at any given age, an athlete is better off for training. But however hard you train, your times will get slower as you age.

The brain is much more like our muscles than we had thought, even in the sense that specialized exercise affects different parts of the brain. Autopsies show that the brains of London taxi-drivers are peculiar. They have an enlarged hippocampus, which is the brain area used for navigating three-dimensional space. Here we see spatial abilities being developed without comparable development of other cognitive skills. To develop a wide variety of cognitive skills you need a wide variety of cognitive exercises.

Which reminds me, I need to get back to Conceptual Mathematics. The math is very simple, but my brain has trouble getting around some of the ideas and definitions. A lot of familiar terms (e.g., injective, surjective, isomorphism) occur with new meanings - meanings that to me often seem quite unrelated - but they aren't.

Le Chatelier's Principle

Blame Cynthia ;) for the fact that I once again went trolling in the dark waters of Luboiania. Lumo has a post about how Le Chatelier's Principle (LCP) shows that positive feedbacks and global warming can't happen.

Now I don't happen to believe that LCP is truly a principle in the sense that special relativity and natural selection are principles of nature. LCP, by contrast, is more like a rule of thumb, and what it says is that stable equilibria tend to be, er, stable. Unstable equilibria, and non-equilibria, don't behave that way.

A bottle of nitroglycerine exists in a slightly stable equilibrium. Supply it with a small amount of kinetic energy and it will quite likely re-equilibrate at a very slightly higher temperature. Or it might just decide to blow itself (and you, dear experimenter) to hell.

The climate of the Earth is not in equilibrium, it's in a quasi-steady state of balance between energy input and output. Moreover, we have good reason to believe that both positive and negative feedbacks exist in the climate system. The positive feedbacks mean that relatively small input changes can and regularly do drive fairly large excursions in climate. The negative feedbacks mean that these excursions tend to be limited.

The big Kahuna of the negative feedbacks is CO2 accumulation->temperature increase->weathering rate increase->CO2 withdrawal feedback loop. Weathering of some kinds of rocks dissolves CO2 from the atmosphere and incorporates it in carbonate rocks, where it tends to sit, until geological upheaval, cometary impact, or cement manufacture turn it loose again in the atmosphere. This type of CO2 impoundment isn't permanent, but it is for a long time - tens of millions to billions of years. This feedback mechanism is supposedly responsible for termination of Snowball Earth episodes, where the Planet froze nearly completely, including much or most of the ocean. In it's icebound state, weather came to a halt so CO2 from volcanic outgassing accumulated until its "greenhouse effect" heated things up enough to melt all, whereupon the whole place stayed hellishly hot until rainfall and weather managed to get the CO2 level down again.

Depending on that particular feedback to save our bacon, should we manage to crank the greenhouse way up, is a very long term strategy - millions of years. Nor can we expect shorter term negative feedbacks to gallup quickly to the rescue. Smaller scale historical climate excursions have big components in the tens of thousands to millions of years scale.

(Only kidding Cynthia, but your post did get me to take a look at Lumo) ;)

GW's Multi-Trillion Dollar Tax

The recent and ongoing collapse of the Dollar vs other Western currencies is a mostly a consequence of enormous current account deficit, which in turn owes its existence mainly to the profligacy of the Republican party and the bad economic policies of George Bush and Alan Greenspan. As a consequence, anyone with dollar valued assets, whether bank accounts, pensions, stocks, bonds,salaries, homes or real estate has seen about 20% of their value evaporate in the past several months. This is one of the ways we pay for GW's spending frenzy and the Republican tax cuts for the rich.

I fear that the other ways may be even more painful.

Ancestral Tale

A couple of odd phrases decorate the Chapter on the Cretaceous Catastrophe in Richard Dawkin's book The Ancestor's Tale. The first is "bullet wounds are hot because of the bullets velocity."

Now I had never thought about bullet wounds being hot, possibly since I haven't been shot much, but a fast rifle bullet has enough specific energy to generate some heat. The fastest bullets, travelling at about 1200 m/s, or 1.2 km/s, would probably heat themselves to several hundred degrees upon hitting something hard, like armor plate.

The second odd phrase is that cosmic projectiles, like the comet or asteroid that ended the Cretaceous, travel "even faster" than a high speed rifle bullet. Well yes, like tens of times as fast. Collision velocities up to 100 km/s or more are plausible, and velocities smaller than 10 km/s are implausible. So a large cosmic projectile produces specific energies (and temperatures) at least hundreds and most likely thousands of times greater than a rifle bullet (energy scales like the square of velocity). Add in the fact that it has a mass of trillions or quadrillions of tonnes and you can get real damage.

Just sayin.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Buck Stops Where?

Brad DeLong notices that Simon Johnson is writing about the Dollar.

The U.S. dollar has depreciated in real effective terms about 20% since its most recent peak in 2002. It has also depreciated since the financial turmoil of the summer -- about 3% since the beginning of August. And at today's exchange rate, we still regard the dollar as overvalued relative to its medium-term equilibrium value -- just remember this is NOT a statement about what the dollar will do today or any time soon!!

With regard to addressing the issue of "global imbalances," which is the term used to describe the large current account deficits and surpluses around the world, we think that exchange rate adjustment -- changes in the value of the dollar and other currencies -- can play a role. But exchange rates are not the only issue; it's also about appropriately adjusting the balance of savings and investment around the world. The strategy for doing this was laid out most recently in a set of mutually consistent policy plans known as the Multilateral Consultation. This framework provides the best way to ensure that adjustment around the world will be orderly and symmetric, i.e., everyone does their part and global growth is sustained.

Brad thinks Simon is being a bit too polite here:

And there Simon stops, demonstrating a true mastery of IMF-speak. If he weren't working for an organization loathe to criticize its governmental masters in public, he would say that China needs to (a) boost domestic consumption, and (b) let its exchange rate appreciate more rapidly, while the United States needs to (a) boost private savings, and (b) raise taxes.

For seven years Americans have listened to Republicans saying that we could spend and spend and never have to pay. They lied. Kevin Drum points out that it's not just a national problem. The Governator's own pass the buck scam is coming undone.

Americans show little sign of realizing that the time to pay for the party is coming, even if almost all the benefit of the party went to a few super rich people.